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The Wind and the Rain

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Ranma stared at the ceiling of his room, trying to let himself fall asleep. The muffled snores of his father and Mr. Tendo drifted in from the next room, where they lay passed out drunk over their gameboard. Other than that, all he could hear was the sound of the cold March breeze outside, and the voice in his own head telling him things he didn’t want to hear.

Pervert.

He rolled over and pulled his pillow over his head, as if that would silence it.

Pervert. Sicko!

He shivered as a draft from outside touched him. He wasn’t a pervert. He knew what a pervert was. The old man Happosai, the Kuno siblings, Ryoga for the way he acted in his pig-form, those were perverts. He was just a…

Scoundrel!

The voice was different this time, but no less recognizable. He cringed, and prayed for death.

Scoundrel!

A third voice echoed, and soon more joined in.

Dirty, rotten-

Crossdressing!

Bastard!

Their words bounced around inside his head, and all over his body he felt the dull phantom ache of the blows that had accompanied them earlier that day. Anger welled up inside him, as it so often did when he remembered past humiliations, and he felt as if he needed to lash out at something or he would explode. He tensed his arms and kicked his leg out against his blankets, as if that would satisfy him, and then felt even more ridiculous for it.

It was stupid. It was all so stupid, and always the same. He’d been in Nerima almost a year now, and not a week had gone by without a day like today. Somebody would come after him wanting something he couldn’t give, and before he knew it it was a fight. And nobody was ever in his corner. Oh sure, maybe Akane would cheer for him at first, but only until she remember what she really thought of him. Pervert.

They all thought he actually wanted this, for things to be this way. He scoffed. What was wrong with these people? He was Ranma Saotome, man among men! He didn’t have to take this abuse day in and day out!

Throwing his covers aside, he leapt to his feet. A midnight run would help him clear his head of all this garbage. From now on, he told himself, things would be different. Starting tomorrow, he was done putting up with this shit. Forcing a grin, he leapt out the window and into the night.

_

 

Akane awoke suddenly to a soft, pitiful sound drifting down to her room from the rooftop. Her face fell as she realized what it was. Quietly, she got out of bed and crept over to her window, and slowly pulled herself up and out.

“Ra-” She started, but by the time her head peaked out from the side of the roof, the source of the sobbing had vanished. She dropped back through her window into a sitting position against the wall, and rested her face in her hands, berating herself for once again breaking her vow to be nicer to him. They had never mentioned it during the day, but this was the third time she’d caught him crying this month.

Things needed to change. She needed to change. She just didn’t know how.

 

Chapter 1

 

Ranma’s eyelids drooped and a bit of drool at the side of his mouth threatened to spill out onto his desk. Math was so boooooring. Behind him, Daisuke and Hiroshi snickered as Daisuke carefully reached out and hung a post-it note on Ranma’s ponytail, adding to the many that already plastered the back of his shirt.

Daisuke shot his friend a smug look. That was worth fifty points. Hiroshi swallowed. He would need to match that to make a comeback. Slowly, ever so slowly, he pulled another note from his stack, and reached a shaky hand across the gap towards the dozing boy. He was less than a centimeter away when their teacher’s voice rang out,

MIS- ter Saotome!”

At the sound of the old woman’s shrill voice, Ranma stood bolt-upright at attention, sending a flurry of post-it notes down his back. It was the best the rest of the class could do to keep from bursting into laughter.

“Would you be so kind as to come up to the board and solve for y?” She held out a piece of chalk.

“Oh lord,” Akane muttered, rubbing the bridge of her nose. Dimly, still only partially awake, Ranma stumbled up to the board, leaving a trail of little yellow squares behind him. This was too much for the students, and several of them broke out laughing, Daisuke and Hiroshi among them.

“What-” Their teacher started before noticing the notes herself. “Oh, very funny Mister Saotome!” She hissed, snatching her hand away before he could take the chalk, “I must admit, I don’t quite understand the joke myself, but whatever it is, you have once again succeeded in disrupting my classroom! Go stand in the hall, and come see me after class!”

Ranma scratched his head dumbly, not bothering to try and understand what was going on, and did as he was told. In the back, Hiroshi whispered to Daisuke,

“That’s just Ranma’s luck, isn’t it?”

His friend snickered in agreement.

“And don’t think I don’t believe you two had a hand in this!” The old woman said, turning on them, “Out with you! Take your buckets with you!”

The two boys groaned and followed Ranma out of the classroom. Akane rested her cheek on her fist and tried to focus on her work.

“Hey, sorry about that Ranma,” Daisuke said outside, “we didn’t think she’d call you up like that.”

Ranma just yawned and nodded. If he cared at all about being ejected from the classroom, it was only because out here he didn’t have to listen to his teacher drone on about sines and cosines. He held his buckets of water out with straight arms as if they were weightless, and fell asleep on the spot. His friends shook their heads in disbelief and started talking about baseball.

When the bell rung, Ranma automatically started moving for the exit, but the sound of his teacher clearing her throat behind him stopped him in his tracks. While she tore into him for sleeping in class, Ranma tried to mentally calculate the route home that would give him the least chance of running into Kuno or Shampoo. They’d both be looking for him after yesterday. Ryoga too, but he was harder to predict. Best just to try to lose him if it came to it. Taking to the other side of the canal was always an easy option, as Kuno would never show his face in that part of town, but crossing the water twice meant an accident was almost certain. Then again, as far as Ranma could tell, there wasn’t a place in this city where cold water couldn’t find him, so maybe it didn’t matter anyway. If he stuck to rooftops, he found that Happosai and Shampoo encounters went way up, so he’d have to avoid that, too. He thought, as he had many times before, that if he were to just invest in some kind of hang-glider then-

“Are you even listening to me?” His teacher snapped, drawing him back to the real world, “I asked you, what do you plan to do with your life??”

“My life…?” He asked, looking taken aback. After a moment, his face settled into a smirk and he replied coolly, “Well, I’m going to be a great martial artist.”

“Oh?” She replied, not missing a beat, “And how do you plan to live off that?”

“Well, uh, I’ll…” He trailed off, thinking about his supposed ‘inheritance’ and his sham engagement. The old woman pursed her lips.

“No plan. just as I thought. Listen, young man, I’ve seen your type before. You have talent, and you’re dedicated. Maybe not to your schoolwork, but to something, and that’s commendable. But what good is ambition without forethought? You children get so caught up in your daily problems that they become your whole life, and then you’re never able to make the big changes necessary to banish them completely! So I’ll ask you again, what do you plan to do with your life, so that you’re not coming into my class every day half asleep and getting into brawls on the front lawn every afternoon?” She looked at him expectantly.

Ranma opened his mouth to respond, but no words came. After several seconds, the confusion on his face turned to annoyance. What does this old hag know about my problems?

“You wouldn’t understand,” he muttered, shoving his hands in his pockets. The old teacher sighed as he turned to go, but only called out after him,

“Read pages 127 and 128 for tomorrow, and do problems 3-10!”

Stupid old lady. Ranma shook his head as he stepped out the door, only to jump in surprise at finding Akane waiting for him in the hallway.

“Oh, uh, hey ‘Kane.” He said, scratching the back of his head. They hadn’t spoken since yesterday, and was worried about what she’d say. She must have heard what he was doing on the roof last night. Crybaby , he heard her say in his mind, and then shook his head at how juvenile the insult sounded from her. That’s not how she’d say it.

“Do you, um… wanna walk home?” She asked, embarrassed that she had so clearly been waiting for him. He nodded, silently relieved, and they started off down the hall.

They walked together in silence most of the way. Akane understood their need to avoid certain routes as well as Ranma did, and they followed each other without having to communicate. When they were most of the way home, Akane asked,

“So what did Ms. Maegawa say to you in there?”

“Ah, just the normal stuff,” Ranma said, putting his arms behind his head, “ Don’t do this, don’t do that, plan your future, wash behind your ears, blah blah blah…”

Akane snorted at his impression. Ranma smirked.

“She’s really not so bad, you know. I’m pretty sure she wrote the letter of recommendation that got Kasumi into college.”

“Ok, if I ever want to get into college, I’ll let her know.” He said it like it was the most ridiculous idea in the world, and Akane didn’t speak up to disagree. On her family’s budget, it might make sense to send Nabiki to college, but not her, and she couldn’t imagine Genma ever coughing up that much money for Ranma, even if he did like school.

Ranma yawned loudly. He still wasn’t totally awake, and he planned on collapsing into bed the moment they got home. Thankfully, they were almost there, and it seemed as if they weren’t going to be-

“Stop right there, scoundrel!”

Both teens groaned at the sound of the voice. Kuno. He must have been waiting near the house. Ranma sighed. He knew this would happen, either today or tomorrow. Well, Kuno was in for a surprise, because today, Ranma wasn’t holding back.

Without hesitation, Ranma whipped around and shot off down the street toward the older boy. Shit , Akane thought as she watched him go. She so didn’t need this again today.

“Ah, eager, are we?” Kuno said, sidestepping Ranma’s first blow, “After a thrashing like you had yesterday, is it not customary for one such as yourself to take some time to lick your wou- OOF” Kuno’s monologue was cut short by a hard punch to the gut. The boy’s already bruised face turned to bewilderment as Ranma reeled a leg back, and then sent it rocketing up into his opponent’s jaw. It was over faster than any fight between them before, as Kuno went flying over the nearest buildings and into the distance, landing long seconds later with a distant crash.

Ranma wiped his hands of the fight as he walked back toward a shellshocked Akane.

“Wow Ranma, you don’t think you hit him too hard, do you?”

“Nah, Kuno can take more of a beating than he can dish out. He’ll be fine, but I won’t be going easy on him from now on.” Ranma frowned. It didn’t feel good beating a guy like that, but it was Kuno, so he couldn’t feel too bad. Akane shrugged, and they turned to continue back to the house, when out of nowhere, a small but powerful hand shot out and slapped Ranma to the ground.

“That is for yesterday, Ranma!” Shampoo said, indignantly.

You attacked him yesterday!” Akane said, jumping between them.

“You were not there at the start!” She replied, looking for a way past, “You didn’t hear what he was saying! The… perverted things he was doing with sword-boy and pig-boy!”

What?!” Ranma cried, holding his puffy cheek, “I didn’t do nuffin’!”

Akane growled under her breath, and her face twitched. She knew Shampoo was lying. Yes, she had reacted badly yesterday too, but Ranma wasn’t like that. He couldn’t be.

“Look Shampoo,” Ranma said, getting to his feet and falling into a fighting stance, “If it’s a fight you want, you’ve got it, but just know I’m not gonna go easy on ya this time.”

“Oh, is that so Ranma?” a voice said from above, “Attacking women now, you rat?” They all looked up to see Ryoga standing atop a building, silhouetted against the falling, late-winter sun. Ranma felt like screaming.

The boy dropped from his rooftop perch, landing in front of them, and pointed his umbrella reproachfully.

“Ranma Saotome, today is the day you fall at my-!”

God, Shut up Ryoga! ” Again, without giving his opponents time to react, Ranma grabbed the umbrella and used it to pull the other boy down and forward into a punch to the face. Then, using the surprise to his advantage, he wrenched the weapon from his grasp, and swung it around like the world’s heaviest baseball bat into Shampoo’s gut, knocking her back several meters. Next he aimed a kick at Ryoga, but he managed to roll out of the way in time and hopped back to his feet.

“Just when I thought you couldn’t get any more dishonorable, Ranma!” Ryoga said, spitting at his feet, “A real man waits for the fight to start before attacking!”

“Pig-boy is right!” Shampoo chimed in, throwing the umbrella to the side and trying to regain her breath.

That’s rich coming from you, Ranma thought, growling.

“I’ll fight with you, Ranma.” Akane said, facing Ryoga and assuming a stance of her own.

“Oh, like I need your help!” Ranma said sarcastically, doing a jumping kick at Shampoo’s head, which she deflected, “As if I’ve forgotten who’s side you took yesterday!”

Akane’s face turned beet-red, and she growled back at him,

“I didn’t understand the situation then!”

“Yeah, funny how that always seems to be the case when I’m in trouble!” Ranma said, grunting as he blocked punches, “It’s ALMOST like you never understand anything! Like you’re some kind of idiot or something!” He didn’t mean it, but he also kind of did. He knew how this story went.

Akane shook with anger. How could he be so infuriating?!

“Forget it then! If you don’t need my help, you won’t get it!”

“How dare you insult Akane like that Ranma! You’ll pay for this!” Ryoga launched himself at Ranma, but halfway there Akane’s fist caught him in the face, and he went face-first into the dirt. Ranma and Shampoo paused in surprise at that. It was easy to forget how strong Akane really was.

“I’m going home,” she said, wiping her hands on her pants, “come back when you’re done. Or don’t.” With that, she turned and left. Ranma watched her go with a mix of emotions, none of them positive. He almost called out to her, but just then Shampoo took the opportunity for an upper-cut, and the fighting resumed.

 

-

 

Ranma stumbled up to the Tendo house at around 10, more bruised and battered than he had been in a while. It would have been earlier if Mousse hadn’t shown up. In the end, they all lost to exhaustion. Shampoo and Mousse made up some excuse about being needed back at the restaurant, and Ryoga just said some over-dramatic nonsense and wandered off to god knows where. And somehow, after all that fighting, Ranma was the only one who’d gotten transformed. It was humiliating. These assholes ganged up on him, called him names, made him fight, turned him into… this , then kept on fighting him and would never admit that he had won. Sighing, he opened the door to the house and stepped inside.

“Alright, what the hell did you say to my sister this time, ya little creep?” Nabiki pressed her hand down above his shoulder the second the door was closed and glared at him expectantly.

“What?” Ranma asked, recoiling from her gaze, “I didn’t… she’s upset?”

Nabiki sat back on her heels and stared at him in disbelief, arms crossed.

“...You know, if I didn’t know better, I’d think this level of emotional stuntedness could only be an act.” She pursed her lips at him. “She’s been in her room since she got home. She looked pissed when she came in, and she didn’t come down for dinner. Clearly you screwed up.” She looked him up and down, appraising his wounds, then twitched her head in the direction of the stairs. The meaning was clear.

Ranma exhaled at length and started up towards Akane’s room. He and Akane had issues that didn’t often mesh well, and a lot of the time he genuinely didn’t understand why he upset her. This wasn’t one of those times. He’d been an jerk, and he needed to apologize.

But… she’d seen him crying last night, he knew she had. And now, showing up looking like he did and apologizing ? What would she think of him? Even as he thought it, he knew it was stupid, he knew that insecurity made him weaker than anything else, but still…

He looked back down at Nabiki, and she urged him onward. He sighed and forced himself the rest of the way to her door. He was actually having a bit of trouble walking on one of his legs, so it really was difficult. He knocked.

No one answered.

“‘K...kane?” He called weakly through the door. After a second, he heard some rustling, and finally the door swung open to reveal Akane in a t-shirt and pajama pants. If she had been crying, it hadn’t been for a while. Still, she looked angry.

“Yeah?” She asked.

“I, uh…” he was suddenly hyper-conscious of his female form, and the fact that it was a few inches shorter than Akane. He looked around, trying to avoid eye-contact. “I uh… umm…” She was looking right at him, he knew it. Even without looking at her face, he could feel her disdain for him. His cheeks flushed red hot. He felt so weak. “I… won... the fight?” Finally, he looked up and met her gaze. She rubbed her forehead and looked away.

“Is that seriously what you wanted to say?” she asked, defeat in her voice. He didn’t respond at first. He bit his lip, and she thought he was going to cry. She wished he would. Then he swallowed, and grimaced.

“Yeah.”

She shut the door in his face. After a moment, he limped back downstairs. Nabiki gave him a look as he passed that he tried not to interpret. He didn’t want to talk to anyone at the moment. He just wanted to collapse onto his bedroll and pass out. Unfortunately, there was one more person between him and there.

“Heeyy, boy!” Genma slurred, sloshing a glass of sake in Ranma’s direction, “What’re, whatthe hell’re you doin’ walkin’ around like that?” Ranma looked down at himself.

“Like what ?” he asked tiredly.

“Like a… like a fuckin’...” he looked around for help, but Soun had already blacked out on the table. This seemed to be becoming more and more common. “Like a you-know-what?”

Ranma was too tired for this. He just shook his head and shrugged. As he walked past, he heard Genma mutter,

“Fuckin’ little queer…”

Ranma fell onto his blankets with no regard for the pain throughout his body, and though he had no trouble falling asleep, his dreams were haunted by a thousand little voices, telling him things he didn’t want to hear.

Chapter Text

Akane flopped down onto her bed face-first and groaned into her pillow. She didn’t feel like crying. This kind of stuff happened every day. She was just… frustrated. With herself most of all. She wasn’t any better than he was. She knew Ranma wasn’t a perv. There was a time when she genuinely thought he was- he was a guy, after all, and his father was the physical manifestation of everything she’d always hated about men. But for some reason, Ranma wasn’t like that.

He was a jerk, to be sure. Half the time, she wanted nothing to do with him. But in their time together, she’d never once gotten the impression that he’d do anything to take advantage of her, or any other girl for that matter. He just wasn’t interested. Of course, there were also those times when she was sure she caught glimpses of him enjoying his girl form, but she still wasn’t sure if that in and of itself made him a pervert.

Most of the reason she still said it to him was just that, well, up until recently, she didn’t realize how much it bothered him. It was easier to call him a pervert than to tell him how she resented all the chaos he brought into her life, and if she was honest with herself, Ranma wasn’t to blame for most of that anyway. Life around here had always been a whirlwind, what with characters like Kuno and Nabiki, plus the inherent chaos that came with living in a dojo. She had probably brought as much craziness into his life as he had hers! Well, almost.

God, there was no reason for it to be like this. If they could just manage to be mutually not mad at each other for more than a couple hours at a time, maybe they could talk things out and finally be real friends. But that was just it! No matter what she did, Ranma would never let her in! Because if there was one thing A Man Among Men never did, it was talk about his feelings.

Sometimes she wondered if anyone really did live up to all those ridiculous ideals Ranma aspired to. He certainly didn’t, thank god.

Ugh, she needed to think about something else. She reached into her school bag and pulled out the book she had been assigned for English class, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and started reading.

_

 

The next few days were not a marked improvement. Kuno was out of commision for the moment, though the principal made it clear during morning announcements that his son was merely on vacation, and that he would be back within the week to “kick Ranma Saotome’s butt”, for reasons which he did not get into. In the meantime, despite Ranma’s resolution to deal with his attackers in a more permanent way, he ended up getting into three more fights with Shampoo, Mousse, and Ryoga, none of which ended as decisively as he would have liked.

After the sixth straight day of fighting, Ranma was forced (by Kasumi) to stop by Dr. Tofu’s office. Normally he just let his injuries heal on their own, but he was genuinely starting to fear something in his legs might give out if he kept this up.

“You were definitely right to come to me when you did,” the young physician said, adjusting his glasses as he examined Ranma’s injuries, “You have to stop pushing yourself like this or you’re liable to cause irreparable damage!”

Ranma shifted uncomfortably on the examining table. It annoyed him to have to strip down to his underwear to be poked and prodded at like this.

“Do you think you can fix me up for now though?”

Tofu looked him up and down and frowned.

“I’ll do what I can to get you back on your feet, but you need to promise me you won’t go back to fighting right away, alright? Wait at least another week or two.” Ranma stifled a humorless laugh as he nodded. As if they’d lay off him a whole week. The doctor nodded slowly, still looking him over, then said, “Alright, lie down on your back, I’ll see what I can do.”

Ranma did as he was told, trying not to feel self conscious at the older man’s touch. After a few moments of having his pressure points poked at, Ranma decided suddenly to ask the doctor something he had been wondering about.

“Hey, uh, Doc?” He asked, wincing as something in his leg seemed to shift.

“Does something hurt?”

“Oh, no, nah, that’s alright. I was just, uh, wonderin’, you used to be a martial artist too, right?”

“Once a martial artist, always a martial artist,” He replied, not looking up from his work, “But yes, you know that. Why do you ask?”

“Right, right, sorry, I didn’t mean, uh... it’s just… when you were still practicing with the more, like, martial side of the art, did you ever make any sort of… enemies?”

Tofu seemed to consider this, sitting up straight.

“Well, I don’t think I’d go so far as to call any of them ‘enemies’. More like, ‘friends I didn’t know were friends yet’.” He smiled to himself at that.

“OK, but you wound up in a lot of fights, right?”

“Oh yes, I should say so! Why, I was quite the young rabble-rouser when I was your age!” He laughed, sounding more like a grandpa than someone young enough to be Ranma’s older brother.

“Right, so I guess what I’m wondering is, um, how did you…” Tofu stared at him, expectantly. When Ranma didn’t continue, he guessed,

“How did I get out of it?”

Ranma nodded emphatically, relieved that he understood. Tofu sat back, thoughtfully.

“Well, I guess I never really did. As I got older, all my friends just got tired of fighting all the time.”

Ranma frowned. He didn’t see his ‘friends’ doing that anytime soon. Tofu grinned.

“Sorry, I guess that wasn’t the answer you were looking for, huh? But, do you know why I think it was that we all got tired of fighting in the first place?” Ranma looked at him curiously. “I think that was around the time we all started to figure out who we really were as people. When you’re a kid, straightforward things like fighting can seem like a way of life, but as you get older, and you start to discover what you’re really about, maybe it stops being so much fun?” He paused, staring at the wall for a few seconds, apparently lost in pleasant memories. Then he shrugged and said,

“Oh, you should be good, by the way. Sit up and try moving your legs.”

Ranma did so, and was unsurprised to find that 99% of his pain was gone. He smiled at the doctor, his first smile in days.

“Thanks Doc,” He said, hopping to his feet, “I owe you one,”

“Alright then, remember, no fighting for at least a week. And if you ever feel like you need someone to talk to, you know where to find me.” Tofu’s smile was warm and friendly. Ranma recoiled inwardly a little bit at such a casual display of friendliness, but it also warmed him a little. He liked Tofu. He wasn’t sure he totally understood all he’d said, and didn’t think he liked the implication that he would one day outgrow martial arts, but he’d try to give it all some thought anyway. He was always more inclined to listen to adults if they were martial artists, and of the martial artists Ranma knew, Tofu was the only one who really seemed like a competent adult.

They said their goodbyes, and as Ranma walked out the door, Tofu called out after him,

“And hey! If you’ve been hitting your friends half as hard as they’ve been hitting you, be sure to send them my way!” This got a laugh from Ranma, and Tofu grinned and shook his head as he watched him leave.

“Nice kid,” He said, turning to look at the medical skeleton he was addressing.

“little crazy though.”

_

 

Ranma was still considering Dr. Tofu’s advice when he got home that day. As he hung up his coat on the rack, he heard some kind of commotion coming from the living room, and he walked up to see what was going on, only to jump back behind the wall at the last second in a futile attempt not to be seen.

“Ah, Ranma m’boy!” Happosai cried, standing in the center of the dining table, “Just who I wanted to see!”

Shit. Happosai had been gone for weeks on some kind of training trip. Ranma had just begun to hope he’d never come back. He needed to get out-

“Come along boy, say hello to the master!” Genma called out. Ranma growled and turned the corner, hands stuff in his pockets.

“Hey Happosai,” he muttered, unenthusiastically.

“That’s master Happosai, boy!” Genma hissed throwing his spoon at Ranma. Ranma caught it, rolling his eyes. His father’s reverence for this old creep would never cease to amaze him.

“Hmph! That’s right!” The ancient man chimed in, indignantly, “And you’d do well not to forget it, kid! Watch yer mouth, or I might decide to take my revenge while we’re on the road!” He crossed his arms and closed his eyes, but then opened one to see what Ranma’s reaction would be to that.

“Wh- on the road? What the hell does that mean?”

“Aha,” Mr. Tendo laughed nervously, “it means , Master Happosai has graciously invited us to accompany him on his next training trip!”

Ranma looked stunned. He shook his head.

“Well, you guys have fun with that,” he said, walking away.

“Ah-ah-ah, no ya don’t, whippersnapper!” Happosai said, leaping into his path, “This trip will be instrumental to your training!”

That flipped a switch somewhere deep in Ranma’s mind. If there was one thing he could never pass up, it was a training opportunity. He met Happosai’s eye, wearily.

“...What kind of training?”

Genma and Soun high-fived.

“Ha! Now you’re talkin’ like a Saotome Man, boy!” his father said from the table, “I knew you’d see reason!” Ranma rolled his eyes, and tried not to feel good about the praise. Happosai had offered up some genuinely good training in the past, but there was also a mountain of reasons to be suspicious.

“Only the most advanced training I have to offer, m’boy,” Happosai replied. He was putting on his best innocent face, but Ranma knew he was dealing with the devil himself. He looked around the room.

“Dr. Tofu told me to take it easy on my leg for a week.”

Happosai scoffed.

“And miss out on the training of a lifetime? Your leg’ll be fine, c’mon, who are you going to listen to? Some whippersnapper quack, or your own dear old master?” He gave him his best puppy-dog eyes. Ranma felt like throwing up. The worst thing about dealing with Happosai was that you could never tell when he was just being ridiculous and when he was planning something genuinely dangerous/disgusting/horrific. Best just to avoid him completely. Ranma shook his head.

“No thanks.” Ranma stepped over him. Behind him, Happosai’s face hardened.

“Then you leave me no choice!” Moving with incredible speed, Happosai grabbed a glass of water off the table and hurled its contents at Ranma while he still had his back turned. Ranma froze up momentarily at the feeling of cold water on his back, and Happosai took the opportunity to yell, “Now! Get ’im boys!”

“Sorry about this, boy!” Soun and Genma yelled in unison as they tackled him.

“Hey, what the hell are yo-MMPH! MMMPH! ” He was cut off as one of the men shoved some kind of rag over his mouth.

“Sorry Ranma, but you’re comin’ whether you like it or not!” Genma said, struggling to keep him down. Even in his girl form, Ranma was at least as strong as any one of them. As he screamed into the rag, he wondered where Akane, Nabiki, and Kasumi were. He didn’t have much time to wonder though, as soon the edges of his vision began to grow dark, and after a moment more, he blacked out.

_

The next time Ranma opened his eyes, he was in a car. Beyond that, he couldn’t tell. He didn’t feel like he could move, but he wasn’t sure whether it was because he was tied up or whether his body was just too exhausted. His eyes soon closed again. He drifted in and out of consciousness for what could have been a minute, an hour, or several. When he finally had enough energy to keep his eyes open and move his head, he found that he was indeed tied and gagged, lying lengthwise across the back-seat of a car. Looking around, he found that Happosai was sitting at the other end of the seat, looking oddly glum. With a mixture of disgust and relief, he realized it must be because he was somehow back in his guy form. His rotten, useless excuse for a father must have found a line even he wouldn’t cross. Speaking of which, looking up at the front seat, it was clear who must have been driving the vehicle. Wait, where’d they get a car?

“Ah, Ranma, you’re up!” Soun Tendo said, sounding genuinely pleased. Unbuckling himself, he leaned over the passenger seat and helped Ranma into a sitting position, but stopped just short of moving to untie him. Probably a good move, as Ranma was planning to throw himself out the door of the car the second he got the chance, “Now, this probably seems worse than it is, but I promise you, this was just our way of getting you in the car. I mean, would you have come with us otherwise?”

MMPH! MMMMPHMMPH!”

“Now, now, alright, point taken, but trust me, once we get where we’re going, this will be a totally normal training trip.”

“Ha!” Happosai piped in, “If you anything about this is abnormal now , you’ve got another thing comin’ once we get to the training ground! I’m gonna show you training like you’ve never even dreamed!”

Ranma shot Mr. Tendo a withering look, then went back to screaming and trying to chew through his gag.

They drove for what felt like several hours. At first, Genma didn’t talk very much, while Soun and Happosai fought to raise and lower Ranma’s spirits, respectively. After a while though, Genma seemed to get used to the idea of what they were doing, and by the time the sun went down, he was talking and laughing along with the others. Eventually, after Ranma had taken to yelling into his gag again, Genma said,

“Aw, take that damn thing out of his mouth, maybe then he’ll stop being such a drama queen.”

Soun shrugged and carefully untied the gag, while Ranma stared bullets into his skull. He had the good sense to yank his hands back before Ranma could go for a bite. Failing that, Ranma took instead to yelling,

“What the FUCK?!

“Hey!” Genma snapped, eyeing him in the rearview mirror, “...language.”

All three men burst out laughing at Ranma’s incredulous expression.

“Ah, lighten up son!” Genma said, “This is going to be great! You and me, me and Soun, all of us and Master Happosai, all together on a training trip! It’ll be just like the good old days!”

The way he said it, Ranma could almost have believed him, except that he could remember no good old days involving any of these people. He decided not to waste his energy yelling or struggling too much. Eventually they’d have to let him go, and the second they did, he’d be gone. He hoped that would happen sooner rather than later.

_

“Daddy, we’re home!” Akane called, kicking her shoes off at the door. She didn’t think anything of it when no answer came. Carrying five big bags of groceries in each hand, she waddled in the kitchen and set them all down with a sigh. Nabiki came in after her, carrying a single 2 liter bottle of soda, which she carried right past the kitchen and up to her room.

“Thank you Akane,” Kasumi said, setting down her own bags, “I don’t know what I’d do without you. Goodness knows, Nabiki is no help !” She said the last sentence loudly, with her hand cupped around her mouth so that Nabiki would hear it upstairs, then grinned at her sister.

“Yeah well, you know,” Akane said, dropping her voice into an eerily perfect imitation of Nabiki, “She, like, makes the money, so she can she can, like, do what she wants.” She pretended to be loudly chewing gum as she sashayed out of the kitchen, which sent Kasumi into a fit of giggles.

“Dad?” Akane asked, smiling as she walked into the living room. Nobody there.

“Mr. Saotome?” She said, poking her head into his and Ranma’s bedroom. Still no answer.

“Kasumi, do you know where the guys are?”

“They’re not here?” she asked. Akane shook her head. “That’s odd. Daddy said Mister Happosai was coming to take them on a training trip. I didn’t think he meant tonight!” Akane frowned.

“You think they went on a trip? And Ranma went with them?” Kasumi shrugged. Akane’s frown turned to a scowl. They went without her. Typical. Well, at least if Ranma was away, there wouldn’t be any more fights for a while. She could use some peace and quiet.

Chapter Text

They drove late into the night. Giant trees rose up all around them, taller and darker than Ranma had ever seen in Japan before.

“Where the hell are we?” he muttered, staring out the window.

“Not Tokyo, that’s for sure!” Genma laughed, “You’ve been goin’ soft, boy. We needed to get you outta that damn city, get back to the wilderness. Toughen ya up!”

Ranma growled.

“We end up fighting in the woods all the time! And before last year, I’d never even been to a city!”

“And so it’s amazing how quickly you’ve forgotten your fundamentals!” Genma said, looking at him in the mirror.

“And that’s why you had to use my curse and gang up on me to get me in the car, huh?”

Genma just rolled his eyes at that, as if it were somehow a silly thing to say.

“Ranma, we’re three old men. You’re supposed to be in your prime, but you let yourself get captured.”

“You drugged me!”

“What part of ‘anything goes’ martial arts don’t you understand, kid?” Happosai said, mockingly, “A drug is a weapon like any other. The fact is, you let your guard down!”

“A year and a half ago, you would have seen a trick like that coming from a mile away,” Genma insisted, “That city’s dulled one of your most important tools as a martial artist- your survival instinct. A real martial artist doesn’t have everything handed to him on a silver platter, y’know.”

Ranma tried to sputter a response, but none came to mind. He hated this. They were twisting things, like they always did.

But at the end of the day... wasn’t the core of what they were saying correct? He had let his guard down, and left it down long enough for them to get him pinned for whole minutes. Wasn’t that a problem? What good was any of his strength or skill if three men many times his age could do that to him on a moment’s notice?

Was that all this was? Another training exercise? It wasn’t like his father had never knocked him out before- it had happened many times while they were travelling, and Ranma had never thought of it as anything more his way of teaching. It had made him the man he was today.

Could they be right? Had the city really warped his outlook so much?

“Now, I’m sorry you feel we tricked you somehow. That’s my fault, I’ve clearly been neglecting your training somewhat recently. But be honest, would you have come willingly if we hadn’t done what we did? You’re at that age, Ranma. You won’t listen to your old man anymore. I know I won’t have much control over your training or your life for much longer, and I accept that, but let me teach you what I still can in the meantime, will ya?”

In the front seat, Soun wiped a single tear from his eye at this beautiful sentiment. Ranma was flummoxed. Did his dad really feel that way? Genma was a jerk, but he still cared about his child, right? Of course he does, Ranma scolded himself. What kind of kid thought that way about their own dad?

“Master, would you please untie my son now?” Genma asked politely. Happosai eyed Ranma up and down suspiciously, then shrugged and pulled a line from a knot on his back, allowing all the ropes around him to fall loose at once. Ranma stretched painfully, but was extremely grateful to finally be out of those things.

“You know Ranma, you’re lucky to have such a father,” Soun said, blowing his nose, “My own father never took such an interest in my life.”

“Nor mine.” Happosai agreed, nodding sagely. Ranma looked around the car, as if in a daze. He still felt he had been wronged, and he knew from experience that the men around him were fools, but he also felt… guilty? Maybe he wasn’t being fair to his father. This is how he had always done things, after all. Why was Ranma suddenly expecting him to change?

Still angry and confused, Ranma hunkered down in his seat and stared out the window as the trees rolled past. He didn’t ride in cars very often. It was nice. He tried to focus on that.

 

Not long after, the car rolled to a stop. Ranma looked around, confused. There was no parking lot, just a packed dirt clearing on the side of the road. The other men started to get out of the car.

“What are we doing here?” Ranma asked, a tinge of nervousness in his voice.

“Well, we can’t very well take the car into the woods, can we?” Happosai asked, pulling things out of the trunk. He threw something to Ranma.

A grappling hook?

“Ok, but what are we doing here?” Ranma asked, walking around to see what else Happosai had.

“Simple M’boy!” The tiny man said, tossing an array of ropes and metal clips to his three students, then pointing somewhere above and behind him. Ranma looked where he was pointing, and inhaled sharply when he saw it. Not far from where they were standing, a single tree rose high, high above the rest of the pine forest, so high that Ranma couldn’t see its top.

“We’re here to climb that!”

 

_

Akane was working out in the dojo, when she noticed something off.

“Huh, that’s weird.” She vaulted out of her handstand and landed gracefully on the other side of the room, standing in front of a small backpack leaning against the wall. It was Ranma’s. He never left on a training trip without it, it had all his supplies. Wiping her sweat off on her sleeve, she picked up the bag and carried it into the house.

“Hey, look at this,” she said once inside. Nabiki was sitting at the table reading a magazine while Kasumi played solitaire. They both looked up. “It’s Ranma’s bag. I’ve never seen him leave home for long without it.”

Nabiki raised an eyebrow.

“I never knew the little monkey had any ‘stuff’ to begin with,” she said, looking mildly interested.

Akane set the bag on the table and sat down across from them.

“Just water bottles and camping supplies. It’s weird that he’d leave it here though, it’s not like him to forget that kind of thing.”

“Are you worried about him?” Kasumi asked, looking concerned. Akane made a face.

“What? No,” she replied, waving the thought away, “I’m just wondering where they could have gone that he wouldn’t need it.”

Kasumi nodded, sympathetically.

“You wish they’d asked you to come along.”

“What? N… well, okay, maybe, kind of, but mostly I just-”

“Whoa!” Nabiki exclaimed suddenly. Akane and Kasumi looked around, to find her grinning as she rifled around in Ranma’s bag.

“Nabiki!” Kasumi said, “Don’t go through Ranma’s things without his permission!”

“Well, it’s not all Ranma’s things in here!” Nabiki shot back, and then lifted something out in both hands, grinning evilly. A sports bra. “This one of yours, sis?”

Akane’s face turned beet red.

“What the hell?!” She said, snatching the garment out of her sister’s hands and examining it.

“What have you two been getting up to in that dojo, huh?” Nabiki asked, waggling her eyebrows.

“This isn’t mine!” Akane insisted.

“Yeah, yeah, sure ‘Kane. It’s OK, I mean we all knew it was gonna happen-”

“No, seriously!” Akane said, “The brand and size are different!” Akane seemed honestly confused. Nabiki looked taken aback.

“Then whose...” Nabiki trailed off, staring at the mystery bra. Another thought struck her.

“Wait. You don’t think…?” She and Akane locked eyes. They were having the same thought.

“I-I mean... I’ve never s-seen him…” Akane trailed off as well, her blush deepening. Kasumi looked between the two of them, watching the gears in their heads turn.

“...You think it’s Ranma’s bra.” She said finally, with as little intrigue as she would have asked someone to take out the garbage.

“Yeah, you don’t?” Nabiki asked.

“No, I think you’re probably right. It makes sense. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be using one, I’m just surprised we’ve never seen him wearing it. It would be obvious if he was.”

For a couple seconds, no one said anything. Akane looked shocked. Then, Nabiki went back to looking through the bag.

“Nabiki!” Kasumi said again, “That’s quite enough! You’ve already gone through his personal belongings and revealed something he obviously didn’t want us to see. You need to put that bra and the bag back where they were right now!”

“Aw, c’mon Kasumi, lighten up,” Nabiki replied, still looking, “Haven’t you ever wondered what goes on inside that head of his?”

“When I wonder what goes on in other people’s heads, I ask! I don’t pillage their things behind their backs! Akane, don’t you have anything to say about this?”

Akane, who had been staring at the bag wide eyed, as if in a trance, just said,

“Oh. Uh? I-”

“I FUCKING KNEW IT!” Nabiki cried out suddenly, startling the other two as she held something aloft, triumphantly.

“What is it?” Akane asked immediately, forgetting whatever she had been about to say.

Purple. Eyeliner. ” Nabiki replied, giddily. Her sisters’ eyes widened. After a second, Akane smacked herself on the side of the head.

“I always thought that was just part of the transformation…”

“RIGHT??” Nabiki said, incredulously. Then, after a second of looking at the little tube, asked, “Why do you suppose he only does purple?” The other two thought about it. Kasumi shrugged.

“It does look good on him.”

Akane nodded absently. She couldn’t quite process this. It felt so removed from the person that she knew. The idea of Ranma applying eyeliner, voluntarily ? For what reason? How could it have started? She had the sudden mental image of him in his male form doing his makeup in the bathroom mirror. It scared her, and she didn’t know why.

“Alright,” Kasumi said finally, clapping her hands together, “Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to put those things back where we found them, and we’re going to pretend none of this ever happened. Nothing that we found was a big deal, and all of it is Ranma’s personal business. Alright?”

Akane nodded some more. Nabiki didn’t respond. She was staring into the bag.

“Nabiki?” Kasumi asked, nervously, “we’re putting the bag back now, alright?”

Nabiki mouthed something they couldn’t make out.

“What was that Nabiki?”

She said it again, still too low to hear.

“I’m sorry dear, you need to speak-” All at once, Nabiki’s hands plunged back into the bag and ripped something out of its depths, before slamming it down on the table.

“Tampons.”

The three girls stared at the small box on the table for a full ten seconds.

“Oh my…” Kasumi whispered.

Nabiki’s cheeks puffed out, and it was clear she was about to burst out laughing. Before she could though, Akane shot to her feet, her face red and her eyes watery, and with lightning speed put all of Ranma’s things back in his bag, then rushed out of the house with them, slamming the sliding door behind her.

Nabiki, her laugh stifled, looked to her older sister. The look Kasumi gave her back could have melted steel. Nabiki swallowed.

“I’ll go talk to her.”

“Good idea.”

Nabiki rushed out the door.

_

 

Ranma wished he had his bra. It had started raining, so not only was he in girl-form, but his clothes were drenched. Trudging through the woods in early march in a rainstorm wasn’t a fun experience even without feeling like his lower back was about to snap in half.

As it had turned out, the road they had been on wasn’t nearly as close as it looked to the giant tree. They had had to make camp near the car, and only started walking at around 7 that morning. It was almost noon now, and the tree still looked miles away.

“Hey gramps, how much further is this thing?” Ranma called out irritably.

“You can see it can’t you?” Happosai spat back, just as irritably, “How should I know any better than you?”

“Haven’t you been here before?”

“Yeah, but I didn’t time the damn hike!!”

Ranma rolled his eyes at the old man’s huffing. He should have stayed at the car. If not because he’d been kidnapped, then at least because he wouldn’t have had to spend time with Happosai.

Another hour later, the tree’s trunk was finally starting to grow wider, and it quickly became apparent just how big it actually was. It had to be thirty meters in diameter, and the lowest branch was at least a quarter kilometer up.

“How the hell are we gonna climb this thing?” Ranma asked incredulously as they approached, “ Why the hell are we gonna climb this thing??”

Soun and Panda Genma looked like they were having similar thoughts.

“We’re going to climb it because it because it’ll be the best training of your life, fool!” Happosai said. “And as for the how-” the old man reached behind him and pulled two large icepicks off his back, then screamed as he launched himself at the tree, “ANYTHING GOES!!”

He hit about 20 meters up, and quickly began to scurry upwards as fast as he could. They watched him go for a few seconds, before reluctantly pulling out their own climbing equipment and following suit.

Getting to the first branch wasn’t too tough, but looking up once they were there and still not knowing if there was any end to this thing was a little worrying.

“Master,” Soun said, craning his neck, “you have … been to the top of this before, right?”

“What, me personally?” Happosai asked. “Oh, uh, yeah, of course!”

They all looked at him skeptically. Ranma sighed. This might be good training after all, but he failed to see what it had to do with his “survival instincts”.

Chapter Text

It was raining as Akane walked to school that morning. With no one to talk to, she became lost in thought, and consequently didn’t notice who it was she was stepping around.

“A-hem,” A familiar voice said from behind her, snapping her out of her reverie. She paused only for a moment, then steeled herself and kept walking. A second later, he appeared in front of her again.

“Aha, has it been so long since the beautiful Akane Tendo has seen my face that she has forgotten its features?” Kuno grinned in that way he always did. She wondered if he thought it made him look good-natured. She held her bag tighter and tried to pass him again. He blocked her. “Now hold on- could it be that the foul cur Saotome has finally allowed my fair Akane to walk to school freely?” Kuno asked, looking around to make sure Ranma wasn’t about to jump out at him. “Has the worm finally left the flower to bloom, at long last?”

“Ranma’s not here, but I can still kick your ass Kuno,” Akane said, refusing to make eye-contact. The threat did not have the desired effect.

“Ha-ha! Finally, the fire in m’lady’s heart is returned to her! After so many months of of darkness, I can once again see its light!” Without further hesitation, he drew his bokken and attacked. Akane rolled her eyes.
“I could have taken you down any time, Kuno,” She said, dodging his strikes, “it’s just that you only attack Ranma when we’re together!” Kuno grinned at this, and she knew he had taken it the wrong way.

“You’re right as always my darling!” He said, parrying a punch with his sword, “I have been neglectful of you! From now on you shall have my full attention!”

Akane cringed.

“What?? I’m just saying it’s dumb that you always fight him, since if you ever won I’d just kick your ass on my own!” She managed to grab his sword while simultaneously kicking him to the ground, “Not that this is news, but it’s sexist.”

For a second, sprawled on the ground, Kuno seemed to lose his composure.

“I apologize for trying to be chivalrous , my sweet,” he said through gritted teeth, reaching for his sword, “but I suppose maidens these days just don’t recognize that kind of thing!” He grabbed his weapon, and with impressive speed launched himself at her straight out of a sitting position. Had he connected, it could have meant the end of the fight, but his foot happened to slide on a patch of fresh mud as he jumped. He was still on course, but slightly off center, and less balanced than he should have been as he flew through the air. Akane saw all of this as if in slow motion, and ducked down and to the left in time to deliver a devastating punch to the diaphragm as he sailed past, sending him tumbling through the air and straight into the brick wall of the building. He groaned as his body peeled away from the wall, and fell with a dull thud in the bushes below.

Akane raised her eyebrows, startled. That was probably her most decisive victory over him to date. It was always hard to judge with as few sparring partners as she had, but she must have improved pretty significantly since the last time they’d fought. She looked down at her hand, clenching it and unclenching it, and smiled.

Her enjoyment of her win was rudely interrupted by the snickering of a student couple walking past. They were whispering to each other and sneaking looks at her, then laughing. It was hard to make out what they were saying, but Akane was pretty sure she heard the word “dyke” in there. Her smile vanished.

Suddenly, she felt pretty stupid, standing out in the rain without an umbrella. She rushed over to where she had dropped hers when Kuno attacked, picked it up, and ran into the school with her head down.

_

There was no end to this tree. It was infinitely tall, Ranma was sure of it. At first he figured it would get thinner and thinner and they’d be able to tell when they were getting close that way, but after the first couple kilometers, the thinning seemed to have stopped. Now they were in the cloud layer, unable to see the next branch above them and freezing their butts off to boot.

Still, Ranma climbed, hand over hand, foot over foot. He told himself they had to be closer to the top than to the bottom. Things could only be so tall before they went into space, right? And trees couldn’t grow in space... right? He told himself that over and over, trying to silence the increasing urge to let go and drift around in the clouds for a while. The wind constantly trying to whip him off wasn’t helping with that. Plus, and this may have just been his imagination, but it felt like it was getting harder to breath up here.

“Gramps,” Ranma panted at one point to Happosai, who was climbing just below him, “Is this all the training there’s gonna be? Couldn’t we just have climbed a bunch’a smaller trees?”

“Shut it, boy!” Happosai panted back, “There’ll be plenty to do at the top, now be quiet and get out of my way!” With a sudden burst of angry speed, Happosai raced past him, then slowed down again, breathing even harder than before. At least he can’t stare at my butt from up there, Ranma thought bitterly.

They climbed for unknown hours, and when they finally burst through the top of the clouds, the moon was high in the sky. Up here, the sky was clear, and there were as many stars as Ranma had ever seen. It was almost pretty enough to counteract the exhaustion, nausea, and cold sweat that covered his body. Worst of all, the pain in his leg had started up again.

They rested on a branch and all silently wondered how much more they could take. They had only brought a single serving of food each, as Happosai said it would just be a hindrance to carry anything more substantial. Ranma’s had, of course, disappeared off his back at some point, presumably into the stomach of a certain panda. “Survival training”, he supposed. In all honesty, it probably didn’t matter much, as Ranma wanted to throw up much more than he wanted to eat. Still, he knew they couldn’t go forever on willpower alone. He still had no idea what Happosai meant when he said there would be training at the top of the tree, but he hoped that also meant there was something vaguely edible up there, because otherwise he couldn’t imagine how they were going to make it back down.

They decided to sleep out the night on a large branch, itself at least as wide as the Tendos’ house. Their only bedding was their own clothes, and none of them was willing to huddle up with the others for warmth, except for Happosai, who took it as an opportunity to remind everyone of his only character trait by offering to sleep with Ranma. Needless to say, they all slept alone.

 

_

 

“That game-point was incredible, though.”

“Oh my god yes. Morishige right?”

“Yessss, with that half-field assist from Takahagi! Freaking incredible.” Yuka sat back in her seat with a dreamy look on her face as if her mind was being blown by the play all over again. Sayuri looked over at Akane.

“What’s up Akane? Did you miss the game?”

“Hm?” Akane looked up from fiddling with her food for the first time all lunch. “Oh, uh, yeah, I listened to it. That three point shot. Crazy.”

Yuka and Sayuri exchanged a look.

“Akane, we were talking about the football game. What’s up with you today?”

Akane looked at them for a few seconds, then frowned and pushed her rice around, deciding whether or not she really wanted to ask about this or not. They’re your friends, a voice in her head told her. They’ll understand.

She sighed. Her two classmates were staring at her quizzically.

“Do you guys…” She started, then faltered, “Do people think I’m… a dyke?

Both girls looked taken aback.

“Uhh,” Sayuri said.

“Uhh,” Yuka echoed. They shared a look. Akane looked back and forth between them.

“What is it?” she asked nervously, “Tell me!”

“Wellll…” Yuka said, drumming her fingers together.

“You have beaten up every boy who ever liked you,” Sayuri said, hesitantly.

“And your fiance does turn into a girl,” Yuka added

“And maybe you do fit a certain number of stereotypes…” Sayuri continued.

“Plus, I mean, you hang out with us,” Yuka concluded. Akane looked stunned for a second, then shook her head in confusion.

“Wait, what does hanging out with you guys have to do with being a dyke?”

Both their eyebrows went up simultaneously, and they shared another look.

“...Nnnnnothing.” Sayuri said.

“Nothing at all,” Yuka said, shaking her head vigorously. Akane stared at them, uncomprehendingly, then shook her head and went back to playing with her food. Yuka and Sayuri breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

“Why are you suddenly worried what people think of you though?” Yuka asked. Akane explained to them her encounter earlier.

“I just…” She said, resting her head on her hand, “I don’t have anything against, like, those people, I just don’t want people to think I’m weirder than I actually am, y’know?”

Yuka grinned, deciding to focus on the positives in her statement, and said,

“Oh honey, I don’t think that’s possible.”

Sayuri kicked her under the table, also stifling a grin.

“Aw, come on, ‘Kane,” Sayuri said, scootching over and patting her on the back, “Who cares what these kids think? They’re mostly just jealous cuz they think your life is some kind of crazy kung-fu movie.”

“Which it totally is, so they’re right to be jealous,” Yuka chimed in. Akane snorted into her arm.

“You guys don’t know the half of it,” she groaned.

“What, you got new stories to tell?” Yuka asked. Akane shrugged. She didn’t tend to think of her life in terms of ‘stories’.

“Well hey,” Sayuri said, “tomorrow’s Saturday, why don’t we all go out then so you can tell us?”

This perked Akane up somewhat. She hadn’t gotten to go out with her friends in a while, what with studying for exams and having to sneak around avoiding fights all the time. She looked up, and Yuka nodded enthusiastically at her.

“Okay, yeah, totally!” She said, grinning for real now. “You guys are the best.” She rested her head on Sayuri’s shoulder, and Sayuri and Yuka shared a smile.

 

_

 

They resumed climbing early the next day. They had managed, after about an hour of trying, to build a small fire using dry outer pieces of bark that they peeled off the tree. Luckily, they found that the actual wood of the giant tree wasn’t flammable enough to catch fire, so they weren’t worried about burning the whole thing down. Using a tin of beans, they were able to heat enough water to finally turn Ranma and Genma back to normal. Happosai assured them (though no one knew if he could be believed), that the climb today would be much shorter.

After four hours of climbing more with no end in sight, Ranma figured he was full of crap. He was angry with the men for dragging him along on this journey, but angrier still with himself for being led along. Every part of him ached, but his leg hurt worst of all, and being experienced with the normal aches and pains of training, he recognized this as something more than healthy muscle fatigue.

But then, the sound of his father bellowing in excitement from somewhere above drifted down to him. In a second, Happosai shot past, and Ranma did his best to scramble after him.

They found Genma and Soun waiting for them on another branch. At first, Ranma didn’t see what was so special about it, until he realized what they were gathered around.

“Whoa,” Ranma said, stepping up beside them, “Is that…?”

“The door ,” Happosai said, rubbing his hands together, his voice dripping with greed.

And indeed it was. Embedded in the bark of the tree above the branch was the clear shape of a large, simple door, rounded at the top. Ranma looked up. They still weren’t anywhere near the top of the tree, as far as he could tell.

“Alright, what’s the deal?” Ranma said, turning on Happosai, “What the hell is this crazy tree? Why are we up here? Why is there a door , on a tree, a million feet in the air?”

“All will be made clear soon, m’boy, very soon…” Happosai said, apparently savoring the moment.

“How do we get it open?” Genma asked as he and Soun examined it.

“No doorknob,” Soun said, twisting his hand in the place where one might have been. In fact, upon closer inspection, the wood of the door looked like it was made of the same continuous piece of bark that surrounded it. There were no seams anywhere.

“Well, in my experience, there are essentially two ways of getting a locked door to open,” Happosai said, sagely, “First, you knock.”

He knocked. No answer came.

“And failing that…” He grabbed one of his picks off his back and slammed it into the door at full force. The wood splintered with a loud crack , but the door didn’t give way. “Gimme a hand, would ya boys?” Genma and Soun complied, pulling out their own picks and going to work on the door. Ranma hung back.

He wasn’t about to stop them after all they’d been through to get here, but something about this felt wrong. Not necessarily morally, just sort of generally... wrong.

Before he could really give form to this idea though, the others had reduced most of the door to splinters, and revealed a dark, open space beyond. Happosai and Soun were already through, and Genma had one leg in when he noticed his son hesitating.

“Oh come on, Ranma, don’t be a pansy. You’ve been in stranger places than this.” Waving him forward, Genma stepped through and started walking into the darkness. Ranma wasn’t so sure, but he shook off his misgivings and continued anyway.

Inside was a dark, dank passageway, the only light source being the hole they had just opened. From what little Ranma could see of the walls, it seemed almost like this tunnel had somehow grown naturally, or been made to grow into this shape, rather than being cut into it. They weren’t far in when they could no longer see at all, and had to rely upon groping along the tunnel wall to move forward. Occasionally, a drop of water would fall from the ceiling onto the damp floor, making it slick to the touch. Ranma and Genma had to be careful to avoid as many drops as possible. It was impossible to know how much would be enough to activate the curse.

It probably made sense that a tunnel inside a live tree would be like this, but it made Ranma feel like he was inside the intestine of some giant creature. This effect was heightened as the the tunnel started to twist and turn around on itself on an upward incline. Soon, the tunnel got so steep that the men had to get their picks out again to keep their footing. Eventually, they were just climbing another vertical wall, and Ranma wondered why they had come inside in the first place. Then, Happosai hit his head.

“Ouch!” He said, rubbing the spot he had hit.

“What is it Master? The end of the tunnel?” Genma asked.

“Do you need us to help you break it open?” Soun asked.

“Hmm,” Happosai said, feeling around the new blockade, “No need, gentlemen, no need.” With that, he pulled some kind of latch open, and tossed the door upwards. Pale yellow light cascaded down into the tunnel, temporarily blinding them, but Happosai didn’t let that stop him. He leapt up into this new space without hesitation. The others soon followed.

Ranma squinted as his eyes adjusted. The first thing he could make out was that this chamber had four distinct walls, all white. And also… chandeliers? Gold trim? Wait, what the…

He whirled around taking in the room in its entirety. Ornate red carpets lined the floor, enormous tapestries hung from the walls, there was luxurious looking furniture everywhere, and at the far end of the room, a large desk sat built into the floor, matching the decor of the rest of the room. And at the desk sat… a giant monkey, wearing clothes and reading a magazine.

Suddenly, the monkey looked up at them in surprise, making them all jump.

“Whoa!” It said, looking more shocked than they felt, “Are you guys, uh… guests?”

_

 

Akane sat bolt upright in bed, her eyes wide with realization.

Yuka and Sayuri are lesbians!!!

 

Chapter Text

Akane was curled up tightly on her bed, trying to read her book and not look at the clock. They were supposed to pick her up at 2. It was already 11:30. Was it too late to call and cancel? She was sure it was. Maybe when they got here she could pretend she was too sick to go and couldn’t have called? That seemed possible in her head, but then she thought back to all the times she’d tried to fake sick to get out of school and her sisters had seen right through it. She must have been pretty bad at it.

She fell down on her side, stiffly, letting the book fall out of her hands. She felt so stupid and naive for not seeing it before. They were always together, holding hands, whispering to each other. Touching each other’s hair. Sometimes, she had been jealous of how close they were. Not anymore. She wrinkled her nose. It was embarrassing how they flaunted it, really. She hadn’t seen it because she was too close, but it must have been annoying everyone else for months.

How long had this been going on? And why hadn’t they told her? Didn’t she deserve to know that her friends were… like that?

It was so unfair. First all that stuff with Ranma, now this? Why was she always surrounded by… perverts? She shoved her head in her pillow as tears started to roll down her cheeks.

When they were in their second year of middle school, a rumor had gone around that a boy named Takeshi had kissed another boy over the summer. Soon, other rumors had started. He dressed in his mom’s clothes, he stole other kids’ underwear, he masturbated in the school bathrooms. At one point, people even believed he was attracted to animals. Even at the time, it had been clear that none of it was true, except maybe for the first part, but that didn’t really matter. The fact that everyone was saying it just confirmed that there was something off about him. The way he talked, the way he walked, the kinds of clothes he wore, the fact that he seemed to talk more to girls than boys- these were not so much reasons to suspect him of some wrongdoing, as they were a wrongdoing in and of themselves. Akane didn’t know where this knowledge of right and wrong came from, only that every kid seemed to have it. At the end of the year, Takeshi had moved away. Or maybe just transferred to another school. Either way, she hadn’t seen him since.

She couldn’t be Takeshi. Despite how often she had felt sorry for him in the years since and how she regretted her willing participation in his exile, she could not allow herself to be on his side of that conflict.

And yet, she knew it might already have been too late.

She saw it clearly now- in the same way that Takeshi had been a fairy, she was a dyke. Whether or not it was based on even a single grain of truth, it was all too obvious in the minds of the other students. She could do all the typically girly things she wanted, wear dresses, bows, makeup; none of it mattered. She was still the stocky, violent, clumsy girl who chased boys away with a stick. Who cut her hair short and wanted to inherit her family business. Who hung out with lesbians and boys who wore bras and purple eyeliner.

She could see how it once might have gone a different way; if she had just given in to some harmless boy before Kuno was the only one still interested. If she had given up the art after her father stopped training her. If Ranma’s secret had never gotten out.

If if if.

It wasn’t fair. None of it made sense. It was all based on some stupid feeling everyone had that she didn’t even know where it came from. It made her angry, it made her want to lash out at someone. But it also made her want her friends. She wanted to talk to Sayuri and Yuka and even Ranma about how ridiculous it all was. How everyone would be better off if they just stopped caring so much. And that was what scared her most of all.  Was she so far gone that she could only find solace with the other freaks?

All she wanted was to be normal. Apparently it wasn’t up to her.

 

There was a knock at her door, startling her out of her self pity. Was it them? She checked the clock. Five minutes had passed since she’d last checked.

“Akane?” Kasumi’s voice called from outside, “Are you alright?”

“U-um, yeah, everything’s fine,” She called back, her voice trembling a little. Kasumi paused for a moment.

“Can I come in?”

Akane knew that if she said no Kasumi would leave her be, but it wouldn’t stop her from worrying. Instead, She pulled her covers halfway over her head and turned her back to the door.

“C-come in,” She said after a moment. Kasumi opened the door.

“Are you feeling alright?” Akane heard her ask.

“I’m… sick,” She said, cursing herself for not coming up with something better.

“Ah,” Kasumi said, “Have you called your friends yet to tell them you can’t go out tonight?”

Shit. She saw right through it.

“Umm… no,” Akane replied, still not turning over to look at her. Kasumi sighed and sat down on the edge of the bed.

“Akane, what’s really going on? Please, you can talk to me,” She placed a gentle hand on her sister’s shoulder, and felt it tense, then relax. Still, she remained silent. “Does it have to do with Ranma’s… with Ranma?”

“You wouldn’t understand,” Akane whispered, shrugging her blankets up higher over herself.

“Try me,” Kasumi said, sitting back. “Please.”

Akane furrowed her brow. Then she exhaled, and started talking. She told her everything that had happened yesterday, from her fight with Kuno to her realization about her friends. When she revealed their secret, Kasumi’s eyebrows went up, but Akane couldn’t tell what she was thinking. When she was done, Kasumi asked,

“Was that your first time being called that?”

“First time I heard it,” she replied, sinking back into her covers.

“But you’ve thought about it before, haven’t you?” Kasumi asked softly. Akane shifted uncomfortably under her covers and didn’t respond.

Kasumi stared at the wall, her forehead creased.

“Akane,” she said after a while, “I’m not sure what I should say to you.”

Akane looked up at her, surprised. That was a first. She couldn’t remember a time when Kasumi hadn’t known the right thing to say. It scared her.

“W-what do you mean?”

“I mean, I think there are a few different ways this could be addressed, depending on certain unknown variables, and I think for me to pry and try to figure out those variables might do more immediate harm than good.” She rubbed her youngest sister’s leg, comfortingly. She looked sad that she was unable to help more. Akane had no idea what she was talking about.

“That’s, uh… alright, Kasumi. Like I said, there’s no reason for you to understand. I’ll figure this stuff out on my own.”

Kasumi shook her head at that.

“No. I want you to go out with your friends tonight.” She said it definitively. Akane stared.

“What? I can’t-”

“You can, Akane.” She said, surprisingly stern, “They’re your friends. Nothing about them has changed. And you’re going to have to see them eventually anyway. There’s no use in hiding.”

“But what if they-”

“What if they what, Akane?” She said, cutting her off sharply. “What do you think they’re going to do to you?”

Akane had never seen Kasumi look so disappointed in her. It made her want to shrivel up and die.

Kasumi’s face softened, and she pulled her sister into an unexpected hug. “Everything’s going to be okay, Akane. Talk to your friends. Try not to say anything offensive. Sayuri and Yuka are nice girls. They’ll help you figure things out.”

Akane didn’t know what to say or feel. Instead, she hugged her sister back, and cried into her arms. Kasumi patted her on the back, smiling softly. Eventually, Kasumi broke off the hug, wiping a tear from her own eye.

“You haven’t eaten today, right? I’ll go get you some breakfast, you take a shower and get ready to go out.” Akane nodded, still unsure of this plan but deciding to put her faith in her sister. As Kasumi was about to walk out the door, Akane had a thought.

“Wait, Kasumi?” She called out. Kasumi turned around. “Did you already know about Yuka and Sayuri?”

Kasumi looked taken aback, then smiled sheepishly.

“Honestly, I kind of assumed you knew.” With that, she disappeared down the hall, leaving Akane blushing bright red, nodding to herself. Right. Of course.

_

Sayuri knocked on the Tendos’ door. A second later, it opened to reveal Nabiki, Akane’s scary older sister.

“Oh, hi Nabiki!” Sayuri said nervously. Nabiki crossed her arms.

“Shouldn’t there be a ‘senpai’ in there somewhere?”

Sayuri froze, then giggled, thinking it was a joke, then froze again, terrified. They stared at each other for a second. Nabiki smirked, and stepped aside.

“She’s upstairs,” She said, “Careful, she’s been having a rough couple of days.” Sayuri thanked the older girl, then ran up the stairs, wondering what she had meant by that.

“Akane?” She asked, stepping halfway into her friend’s room, but stopping short.

Akane was standing in front of a full-length mirror, examining herself as she put in her earrings. She was wearing a long black corduroy skirt that went down to her ankles, a sleeveless red blouse, and mary jane shoes with a small heel. She looked really… grown-up. Sayuri looked down at herself. She was wearing jeans and a sweater.

Hearing the door open, Akane looked up, and smiled when she saw Sayuri. When Sayuri saw her do that, she blushed and had to look away. What’s the point of a straight girl bein’ that pretty?, she asked the gods.

“Sorry- am I overdressed?” She asked, looking down at herself.

“No! No, you look awesome!” Sayuri assured her, grinning. Akane blushed as well. “Come on, let’s get going, we need to pick up Yuka first.” Akane looked surprised at that.

“You didn’t get her first?”

“Of course not, you live closer, silly,” She replied, grinning lopsidedly. Akane nodded, clearly thinking about something. She threw on a jacket that matched her skirt, and they went on their way.

They walked to Yuka’s apartment, which was a fair distance away, and collected her. The three of them walked down the street towards the mall side by side. It was a beautiful day, especially compared to the previous one. For the most part, it had been an unseasonably warm march, and the first signs of spring had already begun to show. People, as they do at this time of year, were taking full advantage of the opportunity to go outside, and the streets were lined with other happy pedestrians. Across the street, an old woman dumped a bucket of water out a window, and Akane smiled to herself. She could almost believe nothing strange at all was going on today. She watched her friends as they laughed and bantered, and saw that it was the same as it had always been. They made fun of each other and anything else that crossed their minds in just the way Akane thought good friends should, and she found that she didn’t feel excluded at all. What had been wrong with her this morning? Kasumi was right. These were her friends, and nothing was going to change that.

They spent a few hours at the mall, trying everything but buying only food. Yuka ended up having to be pulled away from the demo display of a new game system that she couldn’t afford, and they went over to the arcade to try to help her get over it. Akane had never really played video games before, and the ones there didn’t strike her as anything special, but she did enjoy watching the small crowd that gathered to watch Yuka play Pac-man.

Once they’d hit all their usual spots at the mall, they took a walk in the park and talked idly about school and sports. Akane tried to teach them how to do a knifehand strike, but they both ended up hurting their hands on tree branches, much to Akane’s amusement. All the while, Akane filled them in on what had been happening in her and Ranma’s lives recently, (excluding the parts about the things Nabiki had found).

“Wow, so you just, like, don’t know where they are?” Yuka asked, when she told them about the training trip. Akane shook her head. “Doesn’t that worry you?”

She shrugged.

“I think there’s a good chance of them getting into some kind of danger, but with all of them there, I’m sure they’ll find a way out of it.” She had trouble keeping the bitterness out of her voice.

“You wish you’d gone with them, huh?” Sayuri asked. Akane shook her head, irritably.

“What is it with everyone and psycho-analyzing me recently?” She asked, throwing her hands in the air. “And no, for your information, I’d much rather be out here with you jerks than on a stupid training trip with those jerks!”

Sayuri and Yuka smiled at that.

The sun was starting to set by then, and most of the teenage girls in the city were probably headed home. Luckily, that was one of the perks of being friends with Akane Tendo.

“Where do you guys wanna go for dinner?” Yuka asked, walking backwards in front of them.

“What about Ukyo’s place?” Sayuri suggested, and only realized her mistake when Yuka gave her a look and gestured to Akane. “Oh!” She exclaimed, embarrassed, “Right, sorry, not that, not that.”

Akane looked between the two of them.

“What?” She asked, “We can go to Ukyo’s if you want. I’d love some okonomiyaki, actually.” Her friends seemed surprised.

“You... don’t mind?” Yuka asked, tentatively, “Isn’t it, like, weird between you two?” Akane waved the thought away.

“I mean yeah, it’s kind of weird, but Ukyo’s mostly alright. I’ve been there before. The food is good and she’s always professional about it.”

Sayuri and Yuka looked at each other and shrugged, and they all started making their way towards Okonomiyaki Ucchan’s.

When they got there, the restaurant was as packed as they’d ever seen it. Despite the larger than average crowd, Ukyo saw them at the entrance almost immediately.

“Hey!” She called out, waving and smiling, “Yuka! Sayuri! Akane! Come on over, tell me what ya want!” The three girls grinned and made their way through the crowded restaurant. Ukyo let them skip the line, which must have meant she was in high spirits.

“What’s going on, Ucchan?” Sayuri asked, sitting down at the bar, “How come this place is so full tonight?”

“We got a karaoke machine!” She replied, “It was Konatsu’s idea. We’re doing it every weekend now, people seem to love it!”

As if on cue, someone at the other end of the restaurant started singing along (badly) to some old song, and a few of the other patrons joined in.

“Wow, this is a real hotspot now,” Yuka said, laughing, “We might have to stop coming, now that it’s so mainstream.”

Ukyo waved her hand at her, dismissively.

“You’ll stop comin’ when I stop making such great food. Now what can I get for ya?” They each ended up ordering doubles, so they’d have an excuse to stay longer (and eat more), and they sat down at a booth. They talked and laughed with each other, as they had been all day, but after a while, Akane started to fall silent. Sayuri noticed.

“Akane, is something wrong?” She asked, “Are you thinking about what happened yesterday again?” Akane jumped at the mention of that, and suddenly looked kind of nervous.

“No, n-not exactly,” She said, keeping her eyes on her lap, “it’s just…”

She wanted them to know that she knew about them, and that she wasn’t going to be a jerk about it, but this place was just so crowded. Could they really talk about it here? She sighed and collected herself. It would be fine. Just to be safe though, she leaned in, and encouraged them to do the same.

“Y-you guys…” She murmured, so low that they could hardly hear her over the karaoke, “you guys are... l-l-lesbians… right?”

They stared at her for a second, eyes wide. Then they looked at each other. For one horrible moment, Akane thought she had made a terrible mistake, and they weren’t lesbians, or else they were horrified that she would bring it up, or that- but no. They burst out laughing. Akane turned beet red. When they saw that, they just laughed harder.

“Guys!” Akane pouted, “It’s not funny! I’m being serious here!”

“That’s what makes it so funny!” Yuka said, howling.

After a few moments their laughing began to calm down, until they were just chuckling and wiping tears from their eyes. Then, suddenly both deathly serious:

“Yes.”

“Definitely.”

Akane breathed a massive sigh of relief. Sayuri marveled at her.

“Who told you?” She asked. Akane looked offended.

“Nobody told me! I figured it out on my own!”

“Yeah, after two years of everybody in school dropping hints to try to get you to break up with us,” Yuka said, still laughing.

“Two years? ” Akane asked incredulously, “How come you guys never told me??” She looked genuinely hurt.

“Aww, honey,” Sayuri said, taking on a more serious tone, “It’s just… it’s hard to know how people will take this stuff. Even loved ones sometimes react badly.”

“Plus, we were, like, 60% sure you already knew, and were just too embarrassed to say anything,” Yuka said, “up until yesterday, that is.” That made Akane look even more down.

“You know what the worst part is?” she asked, putting her face in her hands. “I can’t even say you were wrong. I did react badly. I was totally freaking out this morning, until Kasumi talked me down. I’m sorry for being so dumb, you guys.”

Sayuri put her hands over her chest and looked like she was about to cry.

“Akane,” Yuka said, grinning stupidly and avoiding eye contact, as she was on the verge of tears as well, “You’re an awesome friend. I’m really glad you finally know.”

“Me too,” Sayuri said, almost blubbering now. Just then, a thought seemed to strike her, and she grabbed her girlfriend by the sides of the face and pulled her into a kiss. Yuka, surprised at first, adapted admirably.

Akane looked on in shock and awe. Her heart skipped a beat, then started racing. When they finally broke it off, they were panting. Akane blinked twice. What was… why did that look so… so right?

“I always wanted to do that,” Sayuri said, smiling. That smile started to fade when she noticed Akane’s stunned look. “...’Kane?”

She didn’t quite get her attention, but a dreamy smile did start to grow on Akane’s face. Yuka snorted and shook her head, turning her attention back to her Okonomiyaki. Akane had come a long way fast, but she still had a ways to go.

 

An hour of karaoke later and Ukyo had to close the restaurant because she had run out of too many ingredients. As some repayment for their special treatment, the three girls stayed behind and helped her and Konatsu close up.

Akane still wasn’t totally comfortable around Konatsu, and she tried to avoid them as best she could, even though that was probably rude. Sayuri and Yuka, on the other hand, appeared to already be great friends with the waitress, and traded jokes while they swept.

“So, uh,” Ukyo said casually while they wiped down the counter, “Ran-chan’s on a training trip right now?”

“Mmhmm,” Akane nodded, just as casually. She really wished they could talk about something else.

“How come you didn’t go along?”

Akane looked at her suspiciously, but there didn’t seem to be any ill-will behind the question.

“Actually,” She sighed, letting her frustration seep into her voice, “they left without even telling me. It was weird- we came home from grocery shopping the other day and everybody was just poof , gone. Ranma even left his stuff behind, like they left in a big hurry or something.” Ukyo gave her a funny look.

“Isn’t that… worrying?” She asked. It was the third time Akane had been asked that question, but the first time she gave it any real thought. She frowned.

“You know, when I lay it all out like that, it is pretty weird,” She said, nodding slowly, “But what could have happened?”

Ukyo considered it for a moment, then shrugged. They both went back to scrubbing, thoughtful looks on their faces. When they were done, they all stood at the doorway.

“Thanks you guys so much, you were a huge help tonight,” Ukyo said, shaking each of their hands.

“Ah, don’t sweat it,” Yuka said, “We’ll help out any time if it means special treatment at the hottest spot in Nerima.” Ukyo smirked, giving her a hug.

They said their goodbyes, and the three girls walked out the door, grinning. It felt like the perfect end to a perfect day.

Just then, there was a thunderous CRACK as a hole in space-time about a foot in diameter ripped open in front of them, and Ranma, in female form, stuck his head out.

“Akane! You need to find the Tree of the Monkey People! Ask Cologne for help! I don’t have much time, If you don’t get here soon they’re gonna- AHH!

Before he could finish the sentence, the hole began to shimmer and bend, then twisted around on itself and popped out of existence, taking Ranma’s head with it.

“What happened?!” Ukyo demanded, bursting out of the restaurant, battle-spatula in hand, Konatsu at her side. Akane was on the ground breathing heavily, and her friends weren’t faring much better. Using all of her breath, Akane managed to say,

“What the FUCK!”

Chapter Text

“Are you guys, uh… guests?”

The travelling party was too stunned to respond. Upon closer examination, they weren’t so much a giant monkey as they were a normal sized monkey-person. They stood straight-backed, their legs only slightly bowed and their arms only a little too long. They seemed to be covered in hair, except for their chest, and they had a tail, but their face had a distinctly human quality to it. In fact, it was almost kind of beautiful, in Ranma’s opinion. They were also wearing what looked like a fancy white and gold hotel bellhop uniform, which was adorable.

The monkey cleared its throat, uncomfortably. Finally, the spell over Happosai seemed to break.

“Are you the monkey queen??” He blurted out, pointing rudely. The monkey’s eyebrows (or the monkey equivalent of eyebrows) went up, and then it burst out laughing, a funny sort of hooting laugh, which showed off its long pointy teeth. Ranma recoiled.

“Haha, yeah!” The monkey said, “That’s me! Queen Ooru of the Monkeys!” They struck up an over-the-top regal pose, and then broke down into giggles again. Happosai deflated a little.

“Nah man, I’m just like, a greeter or something,” They said, flapping their hand at him, “Oh, speaking of which, can I, um… get your bags?”

The humans looked around. Hesitantly, Soun, Genma, and Happosai handed the monkey their packs. Having taken the bags, the monkey seemed at a loss for what to do next. They dropped them on the floor.

“Alright, that’s done I guess. Y’know, I’ll just be honest, this is my first time getting actual visitors, so I’m not totally clear on what I’m supposed to do with you.”

“How long have you worked here?” Soun asked.

“Like…” They scratched their head, “ten years?”

Ranma rubbed his forehead.

“OK, wait,” he said, stepping forward, “What the hell is this place? Where are we? Who are you? Why are we here??”

“Whoa, kid, big questions,” The monkey said, taking a step back. “Alright, so uh, first- it’s a tree. Second; kind of the same question, but I guess a better answer would be like, ‘the City of the Monkey Gods’, which is in a tree. I’m Ooru! And fourth… wait, I don’t know that one. Why are you guys here?”

Ranma turned to Happosai, expectantly.

“How many times do I have to tell you, boy, we’re here for training!”

“What kind of training though? Are we gonna fight this guy??” He asked, gesturing to the schlubby monkey person before them, who was currently scratching their exposed belly.

“Hey, whoa, wait, you guys are martial artists?” They asked, growing excited, “Aw man, that’s so cool. I mean, I guess I should have known, how else would humans make it up here?”

“That’s enough outta you!” Happosai snapped, surprising Ooru, “Now take us to the rest of your people, we’ve got things to do!”

“Alright, yeesh,” they said, holding up their hands defensively, “No need to get hostile. Come on, the city’s right upstairs.” They motioned for the humans to follow, then threw open the giant doors behind their desk. Behind was a marble staircase leading upward. They followed them up. Light even brighter than that in the room before shone down from above, and it wasn’t until they reached the top of the stairs that Ranma realized it was sunlight. That was, of course, the least of the surprises waiting for them outside.

Still shielding their eyes, they stumbled out onto… a street. Ranma looked around in wonder at the world surrounding them. They were in a city, there was no disputing that fact, but it was a city as Ranma had never seen. All around, buildings rose high up into the sky, like they might have in the center of Tokyo, but instead of concrete and steel, these buildings were all made of wood. No, not made of wood, Ranma corrected himself. Grown . These buildings, or perhaps branches, for that’s what they were, had all grown directly out of the tree itself, requiring no construction. There were other differences as well. Instead of sidewalks and cars for getting around, there was a complex system of… well, there was no other word for it, monkey bars , growing between buildings, and from them swung dozens, if not hundreds, of monkey people.

“Whoa,” Ranma whispered to himself.

“What… what is this?” Genma asked, just as awed.

“City of monkeys, dude!” Their newfound guide said, happily. They were clearly enthused to finally get to do their job, even if they weren’t exactly sure what that entailed.

Ranma had so many questions, he didn’t know where to start. How had he never heard about this tree before? Why did Happosai know about it, and yet still seemed surprised at every turn? Who was this “Monkey Queen” they had mentioned? He felt like he had stepped into an alien world.

“Is this a jusenkyo thing?” He asked finally, thinking of the phoenix people.

“Oh please, not everything revolves around you and your problems, Ranma,” Happosai said. Ranma crossed his arms, frustrated.

“Uh, to your left, you’ll see the wall of the basin that contains our fair city,” Ooru said, suddenly playing the part of a tour-guide. What they said was true. They were currently at the bottom of what appeared to be a giant wooden bowl, possibly several kilometers in diameter at its widest. “And uh, on your right, that’s, well that’s where I went to middle school. I think it’s like a gym now or something.”

“Like a dojo?” Soun asked, hopefully.

“Nah, more like sort of an aerobics kind of place, like for old people I think.”

“Oh,” Soun said, trying not to show his disappointment.

“Uh, master?” Genma muttered to Happosai, “Where are we supposed to be going? For the ‘training’?”

“Oh, uh… the palace? That seems like the place to start,” He said, sounding unsure.

“There is a palace, right?” he asked the monkey.

“Yeah, totally! You wanna go there?” Ooru asked, relieved to finally have some direction.

“Is that where the queen lives?” Happosai asked.

“Yup!” Ooru replied, apparently not having a problem sharing this information with outsiders.

“Well then, lead the way!” Happosai said, seemingly gaining more confidence.

At this point, Ranma was positive Happosai was after something other than training, he just didn’t know what. He eyed the old man wearily as he marched down the street behind their monkey guide, humming a merry tune to himself. Whatever he wanted, he must have thought he was close to getting it.

Ranma decided to ignore that for now, as he jogged up beside Ooru to ask about something else that had been bothering him.

“Hey,” he said, “I’m Ranma, by the way.”

“Nice to meet you, Ranma!” They replied, shaking his hand and smiling that unnervingly toothy smile.

“Yeah. Hey, you’re like… a guy, right?”

“Huh?” they asked, looking confused.

“Well, y’know, I’ve never really seen a monkey person before, so it’s kind of hard to tell,” he replied.

“Tell what?”

“You know, like, whether you’re a guy or a girl. Your gender, right?” Ranma was embarrassed to be asking, and he was like 60% sure this was a boy monkey, but he figured it might be a problem if he couldn’t figure out a way to tell definitively. Ooru, however, looked more confused than ever.

“I don’t…? My what?”

Ranma smacked his forehead.

“You know, like, what you have down…” He waved his hands ambiguously around his waist section. “Y’know?”

Ooru was looking at him very strangely now. He blushed, realizing that that was probably the most embarrassing way to say what he meant, but how else was he supposed to communicate it?

“So this is, like, some kind of human thing?” Ooru asked, clearly wanting to understand.

“No! Monkeys totally have, like… look, you said you had a queen, right?” He asked. Ooru nodded slowly, “Right, so you could have a queen, who’s a woman, or you could have a king, who’s a man!” He was sure he had it this time, but Ooru shook their head.

“Sorry, you lost me after ‘queen’” They said, shrugging helplessly, “I guess this is just some kind of weird cultural difference,”

Ranma scratched his head, perplexed. He’d never really thought of gender as a ‘cultural’ thing before, but he guessed that made sense. As he looked around, he realized he couldn’t recognize any of the monkey people on the street’s genders. He also realized their out of place group was attracting a lot of interested stares.

He fell back, thinking about this as the rest of them marvelled at the magical city they were in. Eventually, they rounded a corner, and came face to face with a building which, although only a few storeys tall, stood out as the only one in the city not made entirely of wood. The palace was somewhere between a pyramid and a castle, with the pyramidal base being made up of shining white marble and gold trim, and the wide array of towers being limbs of the tree. As far as Ranma could tell, it was in the exact center of the city, the walls of the basin now seeming an equal distance away on all sides.

They climbed the front stairs to the grand building until they reached the front door, where two guards waited for them, their spears crossed.

“Halt! Who goes there?” One of them asked. Ooru started.

“Keiko, it’s me. Ooru? Your cousin?”

The one called Keiko shifted uncomfortably.

“I know who you are,” they hissed, “who are they??”

Ooru looked back at the humans.

“They’re visitors,” They said simply.

“Well obviously!” Keiko said frantically, “Why did you bring them here??” Ooru looked around.

“You don’t think the queen would want to see human visitors?”

“I don’t know!” They said, “But you should ask Them before bringing random outsiders to Their door! What if they’re martial artists?”

Ooru grimaced involuntarily. Keiko groaned.

“Tell me you didn’t.” they said.

“Didn’t what??” Ooru said defensively, “Bring the first human visitors in 200 years to the queen, who loves humans?”

“They hate humans, dummy!”

“What? They totally-”

“Uh, you guys?” The other guard cut them off. “Why don’t we just go ask the queen if they want to see them?”

They looked at them, then at each other, then nodded.

“Alright, I’ll go ask them,” Keiko said, “You guys stay here! I’ll be back in a minute. Don’t be too disappointed when they say-”

“Just go!” Ooru said, irritably. Keiko bared their teeth angrily at their cousin before disappearing through the door. Ooru rolled their eyes.

A few moments went by. The martial artists stood around awkwardly with the two monkey people. The guard nodded amicably at Soun. He nodded back, stiffly. Finally, Keiko poked their head back out.

“...They want to see you.”

Ooru pumped their fist, and waved for the others to go inside.

The inside of the palace was even more grand than the outside had been. Though the building was short by the rest of the city’s standards, it was plenty tall enough to provide the highest ceilings Ranma had ever seen. They stood in a massive entranceway, decorated in much the same way Ooru’s little lobby had been, except much moreso. The walls hung heavy with tapestries, and the floor was covered in a long, thick red carpet. Of course, there were also monkey bars sticking out of the walls, leading up to openings in the ceiling, which presumably led to the towers above. One only had a few seconds to take all of this in however, as the room’s centerpiece quickly drew everyone’s attention. At the far end of the hall, a massive throne sat against the wall. The throne itself was probably pretty elaborate and fanciful, but it was immediately overshadowed by its inhabitant: The Queen of the Monkeys.

The first thing Ranma noticed: they were very very big. Probably three meters tall or more. Second thing: they were beautiful. Not in the way the sort of unearthly, inhuman, indescribable way the other people here were beautiful, but in a real, very obvious human kind of way. Their face looked like that of an oldt timey movie heroine, and they wore long elegant robes that seemed straight out of an ancient painting. Except for the size and all the hair, they looked basically like an unbelievably beautiful human woman. Hot, even. Ranma cringed at thinking that way about someone twice his height and with a tail, but it was true. Happosai, on the other hand, had no such qualms about showing his desire on his face.

Suddenly, realization struck Ranma. Was this why they were here?? He groaned aloud, despite himself.

“Ah,” Said the queen, as if noticing them for the first time, “Human visitors. A rare treat indeed. To what do I owe the pleasure?” their voice boomed throughout the room, but there was a pleasant musical quality to it. Genma, Soun, and Ranma all turned to Happosai, expectantly. For once, he seemed prepared. He dropped to one knee and held out his arms dramatically.

O Great Queen of this Land! ” he cried dramatically, almost singing, “We come before you today as but humble travellers. Humans often tell tales of her Highness, the great and beautiful Queen of the Monkey People, but few have ever been to see her in person. It has been our simple goal to be in your presence, and we have worked tirelessly to make that dream a reality. By granting us this audience today, you have shown us kindness such as we have never known! Thank you, O Queen, thank you!” With this, the tiny man fell to his knees and began to pray, fat tears slipping down his face. Stunned, Genma and Soun looked at each other, then fell down behind him, praying as well.

The queen raised an eyebrow. Ranma assumed it was because of Happosai’s subtle misgendering. Had he really not noticed?

“Get down here, boy!” Genma hissed at Ranma out of the corner of his mouth, and kicked his son’s legs out from under him. Ranma quickly righted himself into a prayer position as well, grumbling. When he dared to glance up at the queen, he was startled to see them looking straight back at him, smirking.

“And,” They said, turning their attention back to Happosai, “I suppose you wish to be rewarded for your efforts? Gold, perhaps?” Ranma thought he heard an audible cash register noise when Genma and Soun heard that, but Happosai surprised them.

“Nothing so vulgar as that, m’lady,” He said, getting back to his knees and wiping away his crocodile tears, “All we wish is to stay within your holy city a day or two longer, so that we might be allowed to train with some of your legendary warriors. We are martial artists, you see.”

The Queen inhaled sharply at that.

“Martial artists, you say…” They seemed to consider that for a moment. Then they made up their mind. “You three, would you be so kind as to give me a moment alone with your master? I would have words with him.”

They looked around, not sure what to do, but Happosai waved them away behind his back.

Go! Go!” he hissed, in a way he must have thought was discreet. Hesitantly, Ranma, Genma, and Soun stood up and left the way they had come. The doors shut behind them.

“Well?” Ooru asked, eagerly, “How’d it go?”

Ranma shrugged.

“We dunno yet,” He said, scratching the back of his head.

Long minutes passed, but finally Happosai opened the door. He looked tired, but no worse for wear. He turned to Ranma. “She’s gonna let us stay, but she wants to talk to you now, for some reason,” he said with disgust. Suddenly, he leapt up and grabbed Ranma by the collar, whispering in his ear, “Don’t screw this up, boy. Remember, we’re on a training mission, got it?”

Ranma shook him off. If it hadn’t been clear already, that confirmed it; they were not here on a training mission. He stepped back through the doors.

_

 

“You wanted to see me, your majesty?” He said, trying to stand in a respectful kind of way, but not knowing how.

“Yes, I did,” To Ranma’s great surprise, they stood up from their throne, and he realized he’d been conservative in his estimate of their height. They walked slowly and gracefully toward the side of the room, and stared at one of the tapestries. It occurred to Ranma that the pattern on the tapestry seemed to match the one on their robes, although he didn’t know what that meant. All he could make out was a bunch of little black figures and plant-limbs on a sea of red.

“Why are you really here?” They asked, still not looking at him. “Tell me, if you know. I shall not like it if you lie to me.”

Ranma opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. He exhaled and steeled himself.

“I don’t know,” He said finally, “But it’s not training. For a second there, I actually believed the old lech actually came all this way just to get a look at you, but maybe that’s not it.”

The monkey queen’s lips twitched up at that. They turned around and glided back to their throne, resuming their position.

“Would he really come all this way for something like that?” They asked, amused. Ranma shrugged.

“Maybe, if he thought he had a shot with ya.”

The queen actually giggled, and Ranma had to smirk. The sound of a 4 meter tall monkey queen giggling was actually kind of cute.

“What is your name, little human?” They asked.

“Oh, it’s um… it’s Ranma.”

“Ranma…” They said, thoughtfully, letting the name roll off their tongue, “A fine name, for one such as yourself. Tell me Ranma, what do you think of my city?”

Ranma was taken off guard. He hadn’t expected a deeper line of questions. He thought about it.

“Well,” He said, “It’s nice. The tree is nice. The people seem like… people.”

They raised an eyebrow.

“As opposed to what?”

“I don’t know,” He said, trying not just to say ‘monkeys’. “Characters, I guess.” Ranma really wasn’t what he meant, but the monkey queen thought for a moment, then nodded.

“Interesting,” They said, “Is that how you feel about the people where come from? Characters?”

Ranma shifted uncomfortably. This was getting weirdly personal. What even was this? They looked at him, waiting.

“Not- not all of them,” He said, rubbing his left arm with his right, “Maybe… some of the ones I know, anyway.” The queen nodded, knowingly.

“That will happen from time to time- when we find ourselves shoehorned into roles we don’t fit, and we see that those closest to us are in the same situation. The world begins to feel like… a story.”

“Like one you’ve heard before,” Ranma agreed, without thinking. They smiled softly.

“You’re quite astute for such a young human, Ranma,” They said, “Tell me, how was it you wound up among those fools out there?”

Again, he opened his mouth to speak, but then closed it, his brow furrowed.

“Actually, they kind of…” He paused, realizing how this sounded, “...kidnapped me.”

The queen’s expression darkened at that. They stood up, and started making their way towards the door.

“W-what are you doing?” Ranma asked, suddenly helpless.

“I’m going to show those men what our city does to kidnappers,” They said, moving past him in a few short strides.

“N-no!” Ranma said, and suddenly, he was standing in front of them, blocking their path, “Ya can’t! I won’t let you!”

The queen looked startled at the speed with which he moved. Then, their face softened as they looked into his wide eyes.

“Alright,” They said, nodding. “I apologize. I should not act so rashly when it comes to such sensitive matters.

Ranma breathed a sigh of relief, and walked with them back to the throne.

“Ranma, it troubles me to release a child into the care of such men,” they said, once they were sitting back down. Ranma shook his head.

“They’re not that… well, I mean, I can handle myself.” He said it as confidently as he could. The queen looked unconvinced, but let it slide.

“In any case,” they said after a moment, “is there anything I can do to help you? I spoke facetiously earlier, but it really is customary to reward those who have come all this way just to see me.”

Ranma thought about it.

“Maybe I could just ask you some stuff?” he said nervously, “About this place? A-and about you?”

The monkey queen opened their arms wide in anticipation.

“Ask away.”

“Alright,” he said, trying to figure out how to word his question, “Well… how come nobody here knows what, like, girls and boys are? But you do?” The queen gave him an intrigued look. For a second, he was scared it had been a suspicious thing to ask, but then they nodded.

“I have spent time among your people,” They said, “I know their ways. They are not our ways.”

“But…” Ranma struggled, “how can that be? Your people seem so much like my people, how can they be so different?”

“Are they?” the queen shot back, “the only difference I see is a few words. Biologically, they are similar. Only the ideas are different.”

Ranma frowned, trying to wrap his head around that.

“But those words aren’t nothing!” he insisted, finding what he wanted to say as he said it, “the ideas aren’t just nonsense, right?”

The queen raised their hands to calm him, smiling.

“You are right, of course. The words, the ideas, they represent categories. They may not be inherent, but they exist nonetheless because they are said to. And categories aren’t necessarily bad, or unnatural. Just as they divide people, they bring people together, and that is something we all need. But do not assume that because my people lack that particular social framework, that they are devoid of identity. They group themselves into their separate camps just as humans do, and to just as great effect.” They paused, thinking if they had anything else to say on the matter. Satisfied, they said, “Does that answer your question?”

Ranma sat back on his heels, the gears in his brain turning. He didn’t quite understand that, but he would remember it. He’d think about it more later. For right now, he was mostly just happy that they’d understood it was important to him, even if he didn’t know why himself. He nodded.

“Good. I assume you have other questions?”

Not able to come up with anything particularly good or profound, but deeply wanting to keep talking to this person, Ranma said,

“What’s going on on all these tapestries? And your robe?”

The queen nodded, closing their eyes.

“You are again perceptive, child,” they said, “That is the story of how this tree and its city first came to be. If you wish to hear it, I will tell it once and only once, so listen closely. I was very young when it happened, perhaps even as young as you are now. How old are you, by the way?”

“17.”

“Ok, not that young.”

Keeping their eyes closed, they began to recount the tale as they remembered it to Ranma. They told him how the monkey people had once lived on land with the humans. There had been many of them then, too many for a single culture to contain. When they were young, they and their parents, being a particularly wealthy family, had travelled. They had met monkey people all over, and had known them all to be friends. Then, a war came, between two groups of the monkey people, each trying to inflict their way of living upon the other. At first it was only those two isolated groups, but as time went on and each group gained allies, the war spread. Soon, all the monkey people in the world were involved. They fought bitterly, and whole communities died because of it, both of monkey people and of humans. It all came to a head at a massive battle, where many thousands died. That battle ended in a fight between two monkey warriors, and a human who ran between them to stop their fighting. In the end, they all died.

But the force of their will lived on. As their blood pooled around a small pine sapling, supposedly, a miracle happened. The sapling began to grow at an incredible rate. Later, when monkey people scouts came to tally the damage, they found that a new tree had grown in the middle of the battlefield over night. Moreover, they felt the tree’s will. It wanted them to stop fighting, and to come live among its branches in peace. It did not force them, but the vision of the future that the tree showed them was so much brighter than the one they had envisioned for themselves in the past few years, that no monkey person remaining in the world turned down its invitation. There they stayed, living in harmony with the tree for all time, never to war amongst themselves again.

As the queen finished their story, they wiped tears from their eyes.

“It’s been a long time since I last told that story,” They said, wistfully. Ranma stared at the tapestries, imagining the battles the portrayed. He had never seen a real war, and he hoped he never would.

“I still don’t get it,” He said after a moment, more to himself than to the queen, “why’d we come here? What’s the old man’s game?”

The old queen shrugged, seeming entirely too calm to Ranma.

“Probably to steal something,” They said, looking slightly amused, “There are many treasures in this city. Too many to be able to guess which he’s after.”

Ranma frowned.

“If you knew he was up to somethin’, why’d you tell him we could stay here?”

“It’s been a long time since we had visitors here, Ranma,” They said, “I wanted to make sure that my judgement was not clouded by too many decades of isolation. If I were to become the kind of ruler who kicked out everyone who came to my door because of half-baked suspicions, then I believe I would be of no more use to my people.”

He nodded. That all made sense.

“Are you still gonna let us stay, now that you know for sure we’re no good?”

They thought about this, stroking the hair under their chin. Ranma stifled a giggle.

“I’m not sure what I know,” They said eventually, “and I’m still not sure I have any right to force those men out based only on what you’ve told me. It’s been a long time since the people here have seen a human, I doubt they’ll appreciate me throwing you out on the first day. I think the best question for now is, would you like to stay here? I can have a room made up for you and another for the others, if so.”

Ranma was about to jump at that offer, but he paused.

“I…” he said, suddenly struggling again, “I think maybe it would be better if it was just one room?” The queen gave him another concerned look, and he clarified, “I just think if I had my own room, they might think...”

He didn’t have to finish, they nodded.

“I’ll see that it’s done,” They said, “In the meantime, why don’t you go out and see the rest of the city? There’s lots more here than just me.”

Ranma nodded, gratefully, but hesitated before leaving.

“Could we talk some more, at some point? I know you’re probably pretty busy, what with running this place and all, but this was really, uh…”

The queen smiled.

“I would love that,” They said, “We’ll have a feast tonight to celebrate your arrival. We can talk then.”

Ranma nodded, grinning.

“Alright, see ya then!” he said, eager to see the rest of the city.

“See you,” They replied, waving as he ran out. Once they were alone, they smiled to themself. It wasn’t often one met such an interesting child, human or otherwise.

Chapter Text

Ranma sighed as he fell backwards onto his mattress. Well, it wasn’t really a mattress. More like a big round pillow, sort of like a dog bed. It was great. Everything here was great.

They’d just gotten back from the queen’s feast. That had been really great. At first, Ranma had bemoaned the lack of meat at the table, but quickly discovered that the vegetable and fruit dishes they cooked there were as good as or better than anything he’d ever eaten. As they ate, the queen explained to him how the tree brought up water and nutrients all the way from the ground, enough to grow all the food they needed. Ranma had never been one to be impressed by biology, agriculture, sociology, science, or really just complex thought in general, but even he figured that was pretty neat.

The other men had eaten in relative silence, despite the monkey people’s repeated attempts to glean stories about the outside world. Genma had at one point begun to brag about his many escapades, but Happosai had kicked him under the table. He probably thinks pops is gonna tell everyone how shady they are, Ranma thought to himself, smirking.

Before the dinner, they’d spent the day walking around town with Ooru and Keiko, who had followed along to make sure they didn’t try anything suspicious. This time around, Ooru had made sure people knew it was okay to come up and talk to them. Ranma hadn’t been crazy about all the attention- it reminded him of when he’d first started going to Furinkan, and people had found out he was a martial artist. The monkey people were much more respectful than the students had been though, and he soon found himself talking and laughing with them. They all had great senses of humor, and would often throw their head back and laugh the same hooting laughs as Ooru, which Ranma was finding less and less unsettling. Genma, Soun, and Happosai had stayed quiet for most of this as well.

They had never actually gotten around to training, which didn’t surprise Ranma, but Happosai assured him it would happen in good time. Now, as he lay there, he felt he didn’t care if they ever trained again. He just wanted to stay here for as long as he could. He wanted his dad and Mr. Tendo and Happosai to go home and leave him in this place where he didn’t have to worry what people thought of him. He wished Akane could be here as well. She would have… would she have liked it here? There were no men here, she would have liked that. Maybe she would have made friends here. She would have liked the queen, he was sure. But for some reason, Ranma couldn’t imagine her living here amongst these people. Not as he could imagine himself.

Maybe it had something to do with that thing the queen had said. “People need categories to bring them together”. Maybe the monkey folk just weren’t Akane’s people.

So why did he feel like they were his?

As these thoughts swirled around in his head, he began to feel drowsy. He hadn’t had a good sleep in a bed in over four days. Soon, he was dreaming about the days to come in Monkey City.

On the other side of the room, the three older men lay still in their beds. They made no conspicuous movements, but they were all fully awake and alert. They waited until Ranma was snoring, then waited longer. Finally, after several hours, Happosai lifted his head, listened for a moment, then nodded. Genma and Soun sat up. They would need to work fast.

Moving silently, Soun and Happosai positioned themselves on either side of the door. They mouthed a countdown, 3, 2, 1, and Genma flung the door outward. Before the two monkey-guards outside had time to react, Happosai and Soun shot out in either direction, knocking them both out cold. Once that was done, Happosai jerked his head to the side, and they all bounded off down the hall, stealthy as thieves.

Genma regretted having to leave Ranma behind on this one, but it was clear he couldn’t be trusted right now. The master need him and Soun to make this part of the plan go off without a hitch. Ranma would have his role later. If this went well, they’d never need to work a day for the rest of their lives.

They worked their way down the tower they were in, avoiding anyone they could, taking out anyone who saw them. Finally, they arrived at the bottom, and Genma poked his head through the hole in the floor, down into the palace entrance hall below. There were still several guards stationed around the room. He tsked. They must have put these precautions in place just for them, because Genma couldn’t imagine what else there was to defend against in this pansy city. Anyway, it wouldn’t matter. He pulled out his blowgun and loaded a poisoned dart. He aimed it expertly, and caught one of the guards in the neck. Before that one had time to fall over, he got another. When the rest ran over to see what had happened, he got them too. Amateurs, he thought, grinning. Like we’d ever train with them.

The three martial artists swung down across the bars in the room as easily as any monkey person could have, and landed on the floor without a sound. Happosai was nearly salivating as he made his way over to the empty throne. He couldn’t believe they’d actually made it here. A week ago, all he’d known was that there was a tree, a monkey queen, and a throne- and underneath that throne, his ultimate prize. After tonight, no one would be able to stop him. No one would be able to say no to him. He rubbed his hands together gleefully, and motioned for his students to help him.

Knowing what to do, they all positioned themselves against one side of the chair, and began to push. At first, it didn’t budge, but as the three men piled more and more of their immense combined strength onto it, it began to slide forward with the sound of stone grinding against stone. Underneath was a large square hole. They quickly dropped into it, not wasting a minute.

They landed a few meters below in a dark humid chamber. If Happosai’s information was correct, and thus far it had been, this is where they would find it.

Suddenly, the three men froze. The splashing of the puddle they had landed in had obscured it for a moment, but now there was no mistaking it. The sound of breathing. They were not alone.

They fell into fighting stances, their backs toward each other, being careful to stay within the range of the ambient light from the hall above. Their trained senses told them how the creature in the dark moved, and how big it was. There was only one possible candidate.

Suddenly, the creature charged, and Soun had just enough time to whip out a tiny flashlight and shine it at its face. This startled it, enough to make it pause for a second. It also confirmed their suspicions; it was the Queen. In this setting, their strange form seemed less like a beautiful, natural conclusion of the monkey people species, and more like an uncanny amalgam of human and animal features. Their face, once delicate, now seemed pale, and grotesque, its eyes full of an animal fury.

Recovering quickly, one of their long hairy arms came swinging out of the darkness at the men. Soun flicked off his light, and they all leapt backwards, avoiding the swipe.

The battle that ensued was fought entirely in the dark, with both parties using the faint splashing of their opponents to guide them. The men quickly found this to be unlike the guards they had faced. For one, Genma shot several poison darts, which he was sure connected, to no apparent effect. For another, the queen was clearly a trained fighter. Among them, only the ancient Happosai recognized their technique and was able to counter it. The battle quickly became a series of short confrontations between the two oldest combatants, which Genma and Soun used as opportunities to attack from behind. The queen held their ground expertly, not letting the humans move past a certain point in the room. Eventually though, the balance of the battle began to tip. The men consistently did heavy damage, while it was the best the queen could do to simply keep track of them. In the end, it was no contest.  Happosai ducked under their arms and swiped across their torso with a dagger, digging in as deep as he could. The queen’s lips peeled back, revealing their razor sharp teeth, and they let loose an inhuman screech that seemed to shake the palace

Somewhere high above, Ranma’s eyes shot open.

The queen collapsed into the water, making pitiful noises and rolling around, covering their front with their arms. The men wasted no more time. Soun flipped his light back on, and shined it at the side of the chamber they hadn’t been allowed to reach. There, in the beam of their light, they saw it at last.

This chamber was, of course, a tunnel into the tree itself, like the one they had come to the city through, and out of the living wood on the other side grew what looked like a average-sized tree. It was unlike any tree the men had ever seen before, for it was unique in all the world. And on this tree grew dozens of fat, red fruits, which were shaped like pears but covered in dull spikes. Happosai was grinning maniacally as he ran towards them.

“Mine, all mine!” He said gleefully as he leapt towards the tree and grabbed onto a fruit. It was almost as big as he was, and it took some wiggling to get it to come loose. Once it did, he fell to the ground, hugging his prize lovingly.

“How does it work, Master?” Soun asked, gazing at the strange fruit. Suddenly, a clattering could be heard from above. Happosai grinned evilly.

“Why, I’ll show you!” Before they could react, Happosai turned the small end of the fruit at Soun, and squeezed. Juice sprayed out over him, and in an instant his horrified expression turned to perfect complacency.

“Master!” Genma cried, running over to his friend, “We agreed, we’d share the fruits and-”

“Oh shut it you little twerp, as if you weren’t planning to do the same thing to me the second you got the chance!” He aimed the fruit at Genma, who snarled and launched himself at the tree in a desperate attempt to grab one of his own. He was too late, and Happosai used the fruit again. Genma ended up on the ground in a heap, his face perfectly calm. Happosai cackled.

“Now go, my minions!” he cried, pointing a tiny shrivelled finger at the hole in the ceiling, “take the fruits of the tree and bring the people of this city under our will!”

Genma and Soun obeyed without acknowledgement, each grabbing a fruit from the tree and dashing off. Happosai, giggling at his own brilliance, commenced plucking the rest of the fruits from the tree and loading them into a sack. As he was about to run off himself, he heard a frail voice from the other side of the room.

“You foolish man,” The queen rasped, “ The world will never bend to your will.”

Happosai considered them for only a second. Then he stuck up his chin, indignantly.

“That’s what you say, monkey-girl! We’ll see what the rest of your people think about it!” With that, he bounded out of the chamber, being sure to step on their head on his way.

Outside, Happosai was delighted to find a whole battalion of monkey-soldiers now under his control, captured by his two students. He was in the process of handing out a few fruits for them to use, when a voice echoed through the chamber,

“Hey! Old man! What the hell’re you doin’?!” He looked up to see Ranma, perched high on one of the monkey bars, looking down at him, arms crossed.

“Ah, Ranma m’boy! It’s about time you showed up! Come on down here, I’ll explain everything!”

“I don’t think so gramps,” Ranma replied, “I think I can hear you just fine from right here! So get explaining!”

Happosai crossed his arms.

“Fine, I just wanted to stop yelling, but I guess this is fine too! I’m using the fruits of this magical tree to put everyone here under my mind control! Once I’ve done that, I plan to do the same with the rest of the world!” He said it proudly, relieved to finally be able to rub the little brat’s face in his brilliance.

“You WHAT?” Ranma bellowed, jumping gracefully down the bars to the floor. He immediately fell into a fighting stance. Happosai shrugged. He hadn’t expected Ranma to ever be on his side willingly, he had just wanted to get him within range.

“Sorry kid, no time for banter today!” he said, and immediately squashed the fruit in his hands, spraying juice in Ranma’s direction. Ranma, understanding just enough of what was going on, hand-springed out of the way of the blast. Unfortunately, just as he did, all the monkey soldiers in the room turned towards him and started shooting as well. He moved as quickly as he could, but it was ultimately down to luck that none of them hit.

“Y’know boy, I bet that juice counts as cold water!” Happosai called out, watching the chase with joy, “I wouldn’t mind at all if it was girl Ranma I had under my control!”

Ranma cringed at that thought as he ducked and weaved.

“Well, sorry to juice and run, but I’ve got a city to capture!” Happosai called, being carried out by a small platoon of soldiers, “Have fun, Ranma!”

He growled as he continued to dodge, having no idea where to go from here. He supposed he could wait it out until they ran out of fruits, but the whole room would still be covered in the stuff and they’d probably just come after him physically.

That’s when he spied the hole in the floor. It being the first possibility for escape to come into his sight, he leapt at it, grabbing the ledge and one of the legs of the throne and pulling as hard as he could, screaming from the exertion. He was just fast enough, and the stone slab the throne sat on fell into place as he dropped down. Unfortunately, he wasn’t wearing shoes, and when his feet touched the water at the bottom of the chamber, he transformed instantly. He didn’t even bother bemoaning it, he just breathed heavily and listened to the sound of the monkey people above trying to move the throne.

Suddenly, he realized he wasn’t alone. Shaky breathing was coming from somewhere in the dark nearby. Whoever it was sounded big. It took him a second to put it together.

“Queen?” he gasped, stumbling forward in the dark. They didn’t respond as he knelt down beside them and cradled their massive head in his arms, “Queen, I-I mean, Your Highness, are you alright?”

Their breathing quieted slightly, and they groaned.

“R-ranma?” They asked quietly.

“Yeah, it’s me,” he said, stroking their hair, “How did you know?” He was sure they didn’t know about his female form.

“You’re very recognizable,” they said, and then coughed, violently.

“We need to get you somewhere else,” he said, realizing the extent of their injuries, “Do you have doctors? Where should I take you?”

“If that man has the fruit of heaven,” they said weakly, “then nowhere is safe. Its juice will bend anyone to do its bidding. The magic of this tree is that of willpower, and nowhere is it more concentrated than in those fruits. You must go, get to the bottom of the tree. There is a way to kill it. We shall all die in the fall, but it is the only way to stop-” They didn’t finish, breaking off into a fit of coughing. Ranma grimaced.

“I don’t get what you’re talkin’ about, but nobody’s gonna die!” he insisted, “Now tell me where I can take you to get you fixed up!”

The monkey queen laid their head back, a pained expression on their face. They didn’t have the will to argue.

“Take me to that side of the room,” they said, nodding towards the side away from the fruit tree, “The tree will create a path for us.” Ranma nodded, and scooped them up almost effortlessly. He ran to the end of the hall, and sure enough, the wood of the tree somehow began to recede before them, just as quickly as he could run after it. Either the queen was somehow guiding it or the tree had a route of its own in mind, because the path they followed was full of twists and turns. Finally, after about five minutes of running, the pathway turned suddenly upwards, and Ranma burst out of the tunnel into a dark room.

“Where are we??” Ranma asked, looking around in confusion. Just then, a match was lit somewhere in the room, and used to light a lantern, which in turn illuminated a small monkey person sitting upright in bed, wearing pajamas and a nightcap.

“Who on earth-” They started angrily, but then squinted, and realized who had just appeared in their room.

“Q-queen Oda!” The person cried, leaping out of bed and rushing to their side, “What is- oh my lord, what happened??” They gasped at the sight of their queen’s injuries.

“No time… to explain, Tetsu…” The queen said, falteringly, “I... need help.” Instantly, the monkey person’s face went from horrified to professional.

“Of course. Lay them down on the bed.”

They commanded it without questioning who Ranma was, and he didn’t object. He laid them down. The monkey person rushed over to a large desk at one end of the room, and quickly came up with a small wooden box, which they opened on the bed to reveal a set of surgical tools.

“You, get me that jar up there, would you?” They said, pointing to a large jar full of green stuff on a high shelf. Ranma grabbed it and handed it to them. Working quickly, they spooned out several handfuls of what looked like dry herbs directly into the queen’s open wounds. They recoiled from pain, but didn’t seem to have the energy to object too strongly. Afterwards, they examined the wounds from every angle for a few moments before carefully removing as much of the herb as possible. The queen’s breathing had become more regular, and Ranma assumed it must have been some kind of anesthetic. After that, they opened a smaller jar full of a clear gel, which immediately smelled of alcohol, and spread that liberally on the wounds. Finally, they pulled a curved needle and thread from their box and began expertly stitching the wound closed. The queen seemed to be almost asleep at this point, and offered no response.

When the gash was fully sutured, the monkey surgeon wiped the surrounding area down with a wet cloth, and then set to work on the lesser wounds covering the queen’s arms and back. They and Ranma worked all night and into the morning getting them fixed up, but by the end of it they were still unconscious. Having no other direction in his fight against Happosai, Ranma was forced to stay cooped up in Tetsu’s house for almost the whole day while he waited for the queen. By the time their eyes fluttered open, it was night once again.

“R-ranma?” They said, more steadily than they had spoken earlier, but still quiet.

“Yeah?” He asked, rushing to their side.

“By now… that man will have taken over most of the rest of the town. It’s a miracle he hasn’t found us yet. He will eventually, so I need you to do something.”

“What is it?” Ranma asked, desperate to be of use.

“There is an object,” They said, “A magical object. In my room in the palace. It will allow you to talk to anyone in the world. Use it to call for help.”

“Help?” Ranma asked. “Queen Oda, I can do this on my own. I’ve beaten Happosai plenty of times, all I need to do is catch him when he doesn’t have any fruit on him and-” The queen was shaking their head.

“No Ranma,” they said, a pained expression on their face, “He is foolish, but he is also clever. He will be waiting for you to attack, and when you do, it will be you against the entire city. Do not overestimate yourself. You are a great warrior, I know it, but no one can do everything alone. That is what he is trying to do, and it will be his downfall, but it will not be yours. You are a martial artist- call another martial artist. Get them to come, with friends. Only then will we stand a chance.” They nodded to themself, having said all they had to say. Ranma sat back, frustrated.

“Even if someone finds their way here, it could take them days to make it up the tree!” Ranma insisted, “By then it’ll be too late!” Again, the queen shook their head.

“The tree will open up for them at the bottom and take them here quickly. Please Ranma, you must hurry. The object I speak of looks like a small round mirror, it sits on a desk in my room, at the top of the tallest tower. All you need to do is stick your head through and you will have a few seconds to talk to any person you want. Go, now. Happosai won’t be expecting you back so soon, but be careful.” With that, they placed a giant hand on his chest and pushed gently, telling him to get moving. Ranma grabbed their fingers and stared into their eyes, silent for a moment.

“I’ll be back,” He said, his voice full of determination, before jumping to his feet and shooting out the door.

He ran as fast as he could through the streets of the city, straight past dozens of Happosai-controlled monkey-people who barely had time to react. He didn’t know where he was in the city, but he knew where the palace was, and he headed towards it. He got to the gates and ran up the marble stairs ten at a time, bowling over guards as he went. He paused outside just long enough to recognize which of the many towers was the tallest before bursting through the giant double-doors.

“Ranma?!” Happosai said, startled. He was sitting on the throne, having monkey people feed him grapes and fan him. Before the fruit-bearing guards in the room could come after him, Ranma leapt up to the closest set of monkey bars and ran up them like steps towards the hole he thought would lead to the right tower. Happosai, recovered from his shock, screamed, “After him!”

Monkey guards from all around the room swarmed the bars, swinging gracefully up towards him. Happosai followed suit, leaping from bar to bar just as Ranma was. Ranma made it to the hole first, and disappeared up it… into a hallway full of more monkey guards. He sighed in frustration and made a break for the stairs. Luckily, none of these guards had fruits, so all they could do was grab at him. Fruitlessly.

He dashed up several flights on the spiral staircase, before seeing out a window that the tallest tower was actually the next one over. Growling, he hopped up on the window sill and made a mad leap for a branch coming out of the wooden tower. He caught it, and silently thanked the gods for his girl form’s heightened agility. Swinging upward like an acrobat, he caught onto another windowsill and pulled himself into another stairway. Behind him, he saw Happosai arrive at the window he had just leapt from. Not giving him any time to catch up, he hurried up the remaining few flights and pulled open the intricate door he assumed belonged to the queen. He threw the bar over the door and looked around. It took him a second before spotting the mirror on the desk. He ran over to it. Behind him, he heard Happosai and some monkey guards arrive at the door. He didn’t have much time. Smothering his misgivings, he looked himself in the face and plunged his head forward.

Chapter Text

 

“What the FUCK!”

Akane was staring wide eyed at the place where Ranma’s head had been, a mix of bewilderment and anger on her face. She looked around at her friends in confusion.

“What the fuck??” she repeated, helplessly. Ukyo and Konatsu rushed to her side to help her back to her feet. She didn’t seem to notice.

“What happened?” Ukyo repeated, since no one seemed to have heard the first time.

“R-ranma, he…” Sayuri said, obviously trying to wrap her own mind around it, “h-his head…”

“Ranma’s head?” Ukyo asked, alarmed.

“He was, I mean, it was here, for a second,” Yuka replied, “I mean just like,” she pantomimed cutting her head off, a vacant look on her face.

“He said something,” Akane said, her brow furrowed, “‘The tree of the monkey people’? ‘Ask Cologne for help’??” Ukyo screwed up her face.

“Ran-chan said that?”

“I know!” Akane said. They all stood there for a moment, at a loss for words.

“He must be in really bad trouble to ask for help like that,” Ukyo said. Akane nodded.

“So what are you going to do?” Konatsu asked. Akane shook her head and shrugged.

“I guess go ask Cologne,” She said finally.

“I’ll come too,” Ukyo said, leaving no room for debate. Akane didn’t give any.

“If Ukyo is going, I’m going,” Konatsu chimed in. Akane bit her lip.

“Actually, Konatsu,” she said to them after a moment's thought, “Do you think, uh, maybe you could help Sayuri and Yuka get home? They shouldn’t be walking around the city this late at night, and I’ve gotta do this.”

Konatsu looked to Ukyo for confirmation. She nodded, and they submitted.

“Well,” Sayuri said, clearing her throat awkwardly, “It was a really great day despite… that.”

“Yeah, like, see you on monday I guess,” Yuka said, grinning despite herself, “Tell us how it goes with the monkey people and everything.”

“You bet,” Akane said, hugging both of them tightly. She waved as they took off with Konatsu, then turned to Ukyo. They nodded, and ran off together in the direction of the Amazons’ Cat Cafe.

_

“Hmmm,” Cologne hummed, rocking back and forth in her chair, “Very troubling indeed.”

“So you know what he was talking about?” Ukyo asked, “this monkey tree thing?”

“I believe I do,” She said. “It’s been many decades since I’ve heard of such a thing, but I seem to recall reading about an ancient forest in the north of Japan that contained the final home of the Monkey Folk. Give me a moment girls, I’ll see if I can’t find it.” She jumped up on her staff and hopped away into a back room to look for the book. Akane and Ukyo sat back in their seats. They were in the dining room of the Cat Cafe, sitting at one of the tables. Shampoo and Mousse stood behind the counter in their pajamas. Apparently the cafe had already been closed a few hours now, but Shampoo insisted on hearing it if Ranma was in danger.

“That is all you know?” She demanded, once her grandmother was out of the room. Akane made a face at her.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You live in the same house!” Shampoo said, “How can you not know where your own fiancee is??” Akane rolled her eyes.

“What do you care all of a sudden? You’re probably the one he was running away from in the first place!”

Shampoo’s face turned red at that, and for a second she looked like she was about to pounce at them, but then she just crossed her arms and kicked something across the floor, muttering in mandarin. Akane shook her head. She didn’t understand that girl. What had Ranma ever done for her to make her care that much?

When Cologne hopped back in, she was carrying a massive tome under one arm. She slapped it down on the table with a loud thud and a cloud of dust. Ukyo and Akane coughed.

“Here we are, it should be…” She said, flipping through thousands of pages, “Ah yes, right here.” She spun the book around so they could see. Sure enough, on one page was an ancient-looking hand drawn map of the north of Japan, and on the next was a landscape painting of a pine forest, centered around a single tree that stretched high up into the clouds.

This is in Japan?” Ukyo asked, incredulously. “Impossible. We’d have heard about it.”

“It says here that only those with control over their ki will be able to perceive the tree,” Cologne said, shrugging, “I suppose martial artists don’t end up around there very often.”

“Does it say anything else about these ‘monkey people’?” Ukyo asked.

“Well, let me check,” Cologne said, taking the book back. Her eyes scanned the pages in front of her, then turned to the next and stopped, “That’s strange…” She said, flipping back and forth.

“What is it?” Akane asked, trying to see what she was looking at.

“A page is missing,” She said, thoughtfully. After a moment, she shrugged and said, “In any case, I believe that must be where son in law is.”

“Not just Ranma,” Akane said, “Both our dads as well, plus Happosai.”

“Great-grandmother,” Shampoo whispered, appearing at her side, “Why are you helping these girls? I could get there first and save Ranma myself!”

“Foolish child!” Cologne chided, bopping her lightly with her staff, “If son in law is asking for help, then it is not a job any of you should be handling alone! In this instance, your best chance is to work together.”

“Hey, whoa, wait, I’m not sure about-” Akane started, but was cut short by a surprisingly scornful look from Cologne. Despite herself, Akane blushed.

“Honestly, you young people,” Cologne said, shaking her head, “I know you have your fights, many of which I have, admittedly, facilitated, but if you’re just going to let your pride get in the way of saving the life of the one you’re fighting over, then what’s even the point of any of this??”

Akane didn’t like the implication that she had ever participated in the fighting over Ranma, but she did have a point. Shampoo might be dangerous to bring along, but it would probably be even more dangerous without her. Of the three of them, she was undoubtedly the strongest. Regardless, both girls crossed their arms and refused to look at each other.

“Now, are you going to go tonight?” Cologne asked. The girls looked at each other.

“I guess we’d better,” Ukyo said, and the others nodded.

“Good, I’ll get the car,” Cologne said, naturally assuming leadership, “you three, go get ready and meet up back here in an hour.”

“I’m coming too!” Mousse said, speaking up for the first time.

“No, boy,” Cologne said, “one amazon wandering into an unknown foreign nation looking for a fight is too much for me already. I’ll drive them there, but you and I will sit this one out.” Her word was final, and Mousse didn’t dare argue, although he looked like he really wanted to.

Following instructions, Ukyo and Akane ran back to their houses.

“Akane?” Kasumi called out as she came through the door, “How did it go today?”

“It went great, but I’ve gotta go back out!” She said, running upstairs.

“Back out?” Kasumi called up to her, setting her book down, “Akane it’s 11 o’clock! You can’t go out now!”

A second later, she came running back downstairs, two bags over her shoulder, wearing her fighting gi.

“Sorry Kasumi, I can’t explain, but Ranma and Dad might be in trouble. I’ll call the first chance I get, ok?” Not pausing, she kissed her bewildered older sister on the cheek before dashing back out the door.

“Are you-” Kasumi started, before realizing she was already gone, “...alright?” The eldest Tendo sister fell back into her chair, frustrated and concerned. She hoped the day when things like this would no longer happen would come sooner than later.

When Akane got back to the Cafe, Ukyo and Konatsu were already standing out front.

“You girls are fast,” Cologne’s voice said from around the corner of the building. “Don’t worry, I have the car with me.”

Before anyone could ask what she meant by that, the old woman hopped out into the open, carrying a tiny, rusted, three wheeled vehicle out above her head. The assembled teenagers groaned.

“What?” Cologne replied, indignantly, “It will get us where we need to go!”

“Grandma, no offense, but I could run faster than that thing,” Ukyo said.

“Maybe for a short while, but not for the whole trip,” Cologne said, practically, “Now hurry up and get in the truck bed, Shampoo, you ride up front with me.” Grumbling, the kids complied, and soon they were puttering their way north at a steady pace.

“You all try to get some shut-eye!” Cologne yelled back to them, “you’ll want to be rested for what’s to come!”

Akane flinched as they hit a tiny bump in the road, and the whole “car” shuddered. That was easy for her to say.

_

They arrived early the next morning. Konatsu gasped as they saw the tree, and kicked their travelling companions awake.

“Whoa…” Ukyo said, craning her neck to see the top of it, and finding that she couldn’t, despite there not being a cloud in the sky, “How the hell are we gonna get up there?”

Akane looked as well, doubt seeping into her mind. Could she really do this? She knew she was nowhere near as strong as the rest of these people- maybe she wouldn’t be much help to them in a fight. But she could at least make it to the battlefield, couldn’t she?

Up front, Cologne was also having concerns.

“For some reason, I thought there would be more branches than that. We didn’t bring any climbing gear.”

Spirits continued to drop as they drew closer, and the great tree loomed ever taller and wider. Finally, they arrived at the end of the nearest road, and were surprised to find another car already sitting there. As they came to a stop, Akane leapt of the truck and ran over to the car, hoping to find some evidence of the Anything Goes training party. Instead, all she could see was a jumbled pile of ropes, tape, and a crumpled bandana sitting in the backseat. She wasn’t sure what that meant.

“Is this your family’s car, Akane?” Ukyo asked, appearing beside her.

“No, we’ve never had a car,” she replied, looking bemused. The guys must have taken one, though. How else would they have gotten here so quickly?

After a quick search of the car provided no further clues, the party decided to continue on foot. Cologne came along, though she made it clear she had no intention of attempting to climb with them.

As they hiked, Akane eventually ended up walking beside Konatsu, and decided to ask them something she had been wondering about.

“Hey, um, Konatsu?” Akane said. The young ninja looked up at her, surprise crossing their features.

“Oh, um. Yes?”

Akane hesitated, trying to figure out how to word this.

“I know you said you were here to protect Ukyo,” she said, “but doesn’t it bother you what we’re here to do? Don’t you kind of… hate Ranma?”

Konatsu looked away, blushing slightly.

“…Hate... is a strong word,” they said, avoiding eye contact, “I guess I used to but… Ranma doesn’t seem like a bad person. Most of the time he seems like a pretty good one, even if he can be kind of a macho jerk.” Akane snickered at that, which made Konatsu smile. The young ninja looked up at the sky, wistfully. “Mostly I just want Ukyo to be happy.”

“Even if it’s Ranma she’s happy with?” Akane asked. Konatsu smirked.

“I haven’t been worried about that for a while. The way I see it with Ranma, it’s either gonna be you, or Ryoga.” Akane stopped in her tracks at that, looking like she’d been slapped in the face. Konatsu grinned and kept walking.

What did that mean?????

 

When they were finally approaching the tree, their hope was almost completely lost. There wasn’t a single easily climbable spot on the tree for hundreds of meters. Akane didn’t know whether they could make it to the first branch , let alone the top. Tears were welling up in her eyes as she realized they’d come all this way for nothing, when a loud crunching noise made them all stop.

“What was-” Shampoo said, stepping forward, only to make it immediately obvious what it had been. The moment she moved, the tree’s bark closest to where they were started to crunch inward. Exchanging a look, they all kept walking forward. The tree continued to open up for them, until they were standing at mouth of a wide hole, several meters deep.

“Uh,” Akane said, unsure of what to do next.

“Should we…?” Ukyo asked, uncertain as well. Cologne squinted.

“It seems to me the tree is welcoming you in,” she said, “Perhaps you won’t have to climb after all.”

Experimentally, the old woman took a step backwards out of the hole, and nodded at the tree. Without warning, the mouth of the little cave snapped shut behind the kids, separating them from Cologne and plunging them into darkness.

“Great grandmother!” Shampoo cried out, leaping at the wall where the hole had been, winding up a punch to try and break down the barrier. Before she could though, they felt the ground underneath them shift, and suddenly they were all plastered to the floor by g-forces.

“What’s happening??” Konatsu cried out in alarm.

“I think we’re going up!” Akane yelled back, excitement flooding her chest. They were going to make it after all.

For how fast they must have been going, it still took an impressively long time. They eventually managed to sit up against the walls of the little chamber, despite the force pushing them down.

“What do you think we’re going to see up there?” Ukyo asked.

“Monkey people, I guess,” Akane replied. Shampoo thought about that.

“This is going to be very cute, no?” She was smiling at the thought of a monkey person.

“Either that or horrifying,” Ukyo concluded.

They sat there in silence for long minutes. Finally, they felt the force pushing against them begin to lessen as they slowed down. Eventually, it seemed to go away completely, and they were able to stand again. Then, just as suddenly as they had appeared, the walls around them vanished, disappearing from the top down, as they were lifted into a larger chamber. Unlike in the elevator, there was some lantern light here, and Akane squinted to make out its source as her eyes adjusted. When she saw what was there, she gasped.

“Ah, Ranma’s friends, I presume,” a deep, feminine voice said, “You’re here early.”

_

“And so, I sent him to the palace to call for help. Apparently, he called you,” The queen finished explaining. Shampoo, Ukyo, and Konatsu reacted with awe to the tale, and to its teller. Akane, on the other hand, was trembling with rage. She couldn’t believe her father had participated in this madness. It had to be a lie… didn’t it?

“But where are we now?” Ukyo asked.

“Right now we are beneath the city, close to the palace. The tree has created a place for us to hide out for the time being, while we waited for help and formulated a plan.”

“Who’s ‘we’? Is Ranma here?” Ukyo asked, looking around eagerly. The queen opened their mouth, then closed it, and shook their head.

“No, I’m afraid I was referring to Tetsu, one of my subjects. They are out right now, gathering food under the guise of being one of Happosai’s minions. I… Ranma hasn’t been back since he left last night.” The queen’s face was riddled with guilt. That was too much for Akane.

“Then why should we believe anything you say?” She asked, shooting to her feet, startling the others, “If Ranma’s not here, why should we believe a giant monkey woman sitting in the dark surrounded by lanterns?! It’s not exactly the picture of trustworthiness, you know!!”

The queen set their jaw and looked her in the eye.

“You must be Akane.” They said. Akane looked at them suspiciously.

“How’d you know that?”

“Ranma spoke about you at dinner. He pointed out your father to me,” They said, maintaining eye contact. Akane ground her teeth. “I am telling the truth, as I know it to be. If you don’t believe me, fine, go above and look inside one of the palace windows. You’ll find it all to be true. And I’m sorry that it is the way it is- but be careful. Don’t be spotted.” With that, the monkey queen raised a giant hand towards the wall, and the tree shaped itself into a staircase. Akane looked at it and swallowed. Slowly, she walked up into the sunlight beyond. Once her eyes adjusted, she saw that she was in some kind of courtyard. Presumably, the enormous pyramidal building in front of her was the palace.

The first windows were a few meters up the flat incline, embedded in the marble. She climbed up, looking around every few seconds to make sure she wasn’t spotted, and looked in the window on the terrible scene inside.

Inside the palace’s great hall, Happosai sat, looking extra tiny on his already oversized throne, laughing hysterically at the monkey people performing circus tricks for him. That wasn’t the worst part though; to either side of the throne stood her and Ranma’s fathers, standing at attention with their guts sucked in, their faces completely blank- and at the foot of the chair, curled up and docile, face expressionless, was Ranma, in his female form. The last thing Akane saw before she dropped back down was Happosai reaching down to rub her friend’s head. As if Ranma was his pet.

Nothing made her angrier than that.

Chapter Text

The first part of their plan was simple. They needed fruit of their own, and to get it, they needed to get in and out of the chamber with the fruit tree unnoticed. That job fell to Konatsu. Having the tree transport them over the fruit chamber, they simply dropped down on a wire and snatched one off the branch, catching the monkey guards in the room completely unaware.

The next part would be more difficult. They would need to find (or engineer) a situation in which Happosai would be without his monkey guards and without any fruit. They couldn’t risk underestimating him. Normally, the routine for dealing with Happosai was just to show him something he’d find sexy, then hit him a bunch. This time though, Happosai had guards who would protect him if he got distracted. Without that loophole, it was hard to see where his weaknesses lay. Could any of them beat him in a real fight? Could all of them together?

Probably not, Akane figured. That meant their plan would have to be even simpler; they’d have to watch and wait for him to slip up. They decided to take shifts tailing him, trying to figure out when the best time attack would be.

First up was Shampoo. She hid in the rafters of the great hall while he ate his dinner, gorging himself alone at a table made for twenty, while Ranma and the two other men stood guard.

Disgusting man, she thought, wishing she could drop down and fight him herself. Instead, she was forced one again to take the underhanded approach. This was not the Amazon way, but it seemed more and more often that she could find no other option.

However, this wasn’t like trying to trick Ranma. This would be easy. All she had to do was wait for the stupid old lecher to get so engaged in his food that he wouldn’t notice her dripping some juice down onto it from above. When he started in on a giant corn cob, she thought she saw her opportunity. She positioned herself carefully above a bowl of rice, and squeezed a tiny drop of juice out of the fruit she was holding. She expected it would take more than that, but she had to test her aim first. If it hit she would-

Happosai’s head snapped up when the drop was halfway to the table, and Shampoo barely had time to hide behind one of the rafters. When it had landed, he looked straight at the bowl of rice and slowly, suspiciously, pushed it away from himself. Then he turned his gaze back to the ceiling, eyes narrow, and continued eating, not looking away. Luckily, when he was moving the bowl, Shampoo had leapt up into one of the towers, and was now breathing heavily.

How had he known? Could he really always be so on guard? As stealthily as she could, Shampoo retreated out one of the windows and back to their base outside the palace. This was going to be harder than anticipated.

Konatsu didn’t fare much better. Being the stealthiest of them, they were given the post with the most chance of success- while he was asleep. They snuck in after dark, over the heads of the solid throng of monkey guards stationed outside his door. Once inside though, they found that they couldn’t move towards him from the corners of the room without making him stir. He was asleep, Konatsu was sure of it, but somehow he remained aware of everything within a 5 meter radius. They wondered if this man had ever trained as a ninja.

None of this would have been a problem, except for what the old man was cradling as he slept; a large water-gun, presumably full of mind control juice. Where the hell did he get that? In the end, Konatsu waited all night for their chance to strike, and returned to the base empty handed.

Ukyo spent the rest of the morning stalking him as he walked around town. At first she wasn’t sure what he was doing, but when he broke down the door to someone’s house and started rifling through their things, it became clear. Well that explains why he’s still up here , she thought wryly, watching him loot. She had probably had less encounters with Happosai than most of the other girls in Nerima, but she still thought he must have been the most despicable creature she’d ever laid eyes upon. The fact that he was a master made her want to quit martial arts. If that’s what it had to offer, she wanted no part of it.

He ended up searching the whole street for valuables, handing off whatever he wanted to keep to his troupe of monkey people. At one point, she was watching him ransack some kind of historical exhibit inside a library, when she slipped and knocked a small stack of books off a shelf. She ducked and rolled to cover, but Happosai whirled around, wide-eyed.

“...Search the building,” He muttered to his guards, and they scattered and started looking. Ukyo, having nowhere to go, hunkered down under a closed off desk. The monkey people walked right by her, but she could see Happosai’s legs moving ever closer. Realizing she was probably about to be caught, she scrambled to get her fruit off her back. Even if she couldn’t get him by surprise, at least using it would ward him off, right?

She readied herself to shoot as she watched his legs come within range, but then he stopped, and turned towards the door.

“Ah, Ranma m’boy!” He said, “Glad you could make it! Y’know, I’m pretty sure somebody’s hiding in here. Find ‘em for me, wouldja?”

Ranma? Ukyo thought, trying to get a look at him through the gap between the desk and the floor. She still hadn’t gotten to see him since before he left on this trip. She heard a sound that she assumed was Happosai patting him on the back, and then the sound of the door swinging open and closed. Ranma started walking around.

She wasn’t sure what to do. Here she was, alone in a room with the guy she’d come all this way to rescue, and she was hiding from him? That didn’t seem right. Still, she stayed put as he walked robotically around the room, scanning his head back and forth. She wondered what was going on inside his mind, if anything. Was the Ranma she knew still in there, or was it just Happosai? Or nothing at all?

She inhaled sharply, but silently, as he stopped a few meters away from her desk. A bead of sweat rolled down her face as he bent over, but she was perplexed to see him pick something up off the ground. She shifted to get a better look. A small piece of paper. He stood there, staring at it, wide-eyed. Then, to Ukyo’s surprise, a small smile started to grow on his face- one unlike any she’d ever seen from him before. It was creepy. He looked almost… hungry? Almost like the old lech, Ukyo thought. She shivered.

After a few seconds more of staring, Happosai’s instructions seemed to take back the reigns, and he let the paper flutter to the floor before continuing on his way. Soon, he followed Happosai’s other minions up the stairs.

Once the coast was clear, Ukyo rolled out of her hiding spot and quickly made her way over to the mysterious paper. She picked it up and gasped at what she saw. It was a polaroid of… well, of Ranma. In his girl form. Naked. She blushed and almost crumpled the picture on the spot. What the fuck? What the fuck?

She started to wonder how it had gotten there, but no sooner had the question formed in her mind than she realized its answer: Happosai. Always Happosai. He must have forced Ranma to-

Except no. This clearly wasn’t taken in Monkey City. It was in a modern bathroom. Maybe the Tendos’ house? It looked like he was about to get in the bath. This had Akane’s older sister written all over it. Not the nice one, the scary one. Does she really sell this stuff to Happosai? Ukyo wondered. That’s sick!

This time she really did crumple it up, but shoved it in her back pocket as well. She was going to have to talk to Akane about whatever the fuck was going on in their house. In the meantime, why did Ranma smile at it like that?? She couldn’t make heads or tails of that. Shaking her head, she made her escape out a window.

 

“Interesting,” The queen said, pensively.

“That’s all you’ve got to say??” Ukyo asked. She had told the group about what they’d seen, and she and Akane, who now sat hugging her legs, her face permanently red, had succeeded in freaking each other out about its possible ramifications, “Ranma’s perving on pictures of himself and that’s ‘ interesting’ ??”

“Now now,” The queen said, a little scornfully, “From the sound of it, you’re not sure what you saw. However, I’d be willing to bet the reaction you witnessed was not actually Ranma’s at all.”

Ukyo cocked her head at that.

“What do you mean?”

“The power of the fruit of Heaven is that of willpower,” They explained, tapping their chin thoughtfully, “It projects the will of the user onto others. Happosai has made it his will to take control of the city, and so the people have done so. But if what Ranma and the rest of you have told me is correct, the man has other, even stronger wills within him. Perhaps they too have taken root in his victims?”

Ukyo and Akane sat back, their jaws slack. That made good sense. But if it was true…

“Are you saying,” Akane replied, “that this entire city has Happosai’s…”

“Proclivities?” The queen offered, helpfully. Akane stared at them.

“That’s… sick!”

Ukyo nodded in agreement. Sometimes she thought Akane could be a bit of a prude, but putting up with guys like this Happosai, she couldn’t blame her. The monkey queen shrugged.

“I can’t imagine what effect it will have on my people. I can only hope they aren’t behaving that way towards one another, but I imagine that’s not the direction their desires will go. I assume Happosai would only have eyes for those he can identify as women, and so it should be the same for them.”

The teens nodded. The queen had already explained the difference in their cultures to them. Then, Akane gasped.

“Then that means…”

“Ranma,” Ukyo finished mournfully, realizing the same thing. Happosai was keeping him in female form. Akane looked at the ground, distressed. She had to hope Ranma wasn’t conscious of what was going on. He was so self-conscious about this kind of thing, she couldn’t imagine what it would be doing to him to receive that kind of attention.

Actually, on second thought, she could. She knew exactly what that was like.

Shampoo looked between them, puzzled.

“Why are you sad?” She asked, getting to her feet, “Isn’t this what we were wanting?”

“What??” Akane asked, a disgusted look on her face.

“This means we can use old man’s weakness against him after all!” She said, punching the air above her head, “We act sexy, then BAM!” She slammed her fist in her palm, “No more old man.”

Ukyo raised an eyebrow.

“What are you gonna do, seduce the whole city?”

Shampoo smirked and shrugged, coyly. Ukyo laughed, despite herself.

“Would that really work, Queen Oda?” Konatsu asked. The queen looked uncomfortable.

“I… suppose it might… but I don’t think I can allow you children to act on such a plan. Especially not facing my people. Ranma being put in that situation is already more than I can bear.”

They looked terribly troubled. Akane frowned. Was this how adults were supposed to act? She’d almost forgotten.

“It’s alright, your highness,” She said, “we’ve… we’ve done this before. We’ll be fine.”

“But isn’t that just giving your enemy what he wants?” The queen argued, surprising Akane with their forcefulness, “I mean, maybe he wants something else at the moment, and maybe you take the opportunity to defeat him in battle, but in the end are you not just appeasing him?”

Shampoo and Ukyo looked confused, but Akane understood. She looked down in shame, though there had been no rebuke in the queen’s words, only concern. She knew they were right. This is why she’d always hated the way Ranma and Nabiki dealt with Happosai. No matter what happened, he walked away satisfied, his perversions attended to. No matter what they did, she always felt they were just playing into some sick greater fantasy of his. The little plans meant nothing, as long as he had some new material to occupy his warped old brain.

But… this wasn’t the time for clever new plans. The longer they waited, the closer Happosai got to moving back down to the surface, and becoming truly unstoppable. And besides, he had Ranma. They had to act fast.

“It’s our only option,” She said finally, “If we don’t move soon, it’ll be too late.” The other kids nodded.

The queen could see that their minds were made up. They sighed and looked away.

“You know,” they said after a moment, “when I was young, and we still lived amongst the humans on earth, many human men mistook me for... a woman. A beautiful one, some said. Of course, the monkey people have no such concept, but I indulged in their affections all the same. In that time, I met many men who I would call friends. Lovers. I also met many men who were like your Happosai. Who could not conceive of anyone beyond themselves, who saw no equals among those who were different. To them, I was a tool of gratification, a one-of-a-kind plaything. When I realized that, it hurt me. It took me a long time to start hating those men because, at first, I didn’t realize they were wrong. I thought they really were as good as they said they were.

I must admit, in some strange way, it is satisfying to see this Happosai as he is. To know that I was right all along. These men are so much less than the people they belittle. They have so much less to drive them. So little going on inside. Simultaneously, it breaks my heart to know that such men still exist; that fine young people like yourselves must still endure them.

For that reason, I cannot allow you to go through with this plan yourselves. You have all already been hurt, I can see that. Ranma as well. I regret that I can’t solve the problem of men like this back on earth for you, but I do promise this; this is the last time the fool Happosai will bring you grief.” They said it with such an air of finality, that the humans actually found themselves believing it.

Shampoo furrowed her brow. She was reminded of how her great grandmother had spoken to her of men, before they had chased Ranma to Japan. Akane, meanwhile, was reminded of Kasumi. And her mother. When they told her they would protect her, she believed them.

“But… how?” She asked, her voice almost breaking.

“Simple,” They replied, “I’ll do it myself.”

 

_

“Are you sure about this, your highness?” Tetsu asked nervously.

“It’s the only way,” The queen replied, shakily. In truth, they were not sure at all. This was going to be very, very strange.

They stood at the door to Tetsu’s house at dusk, watching as their brainwashed friends and family patrolled the street outside. It’s for them, Oda thought to themself. They need you.

They grimaced, then nodded. They stepped outside. Immediately, all the heads on the street turned in their direction. For the first time in centuries, they felt exposed. Normally, monkey people could walk the streets wearing nothing at all. What they were wearing now, a two-piece wrap made from some of Tetsu’s bedsheets, would usually have been nothing more than conservative summer-wear. Now, hugging their body so as to suggest what humans would have called a “feminine” shape, they became much more than that.

Akane watched the proceedings from the other side of the street, also grimacing. She saw how uncomfortable the kindly old queen was, and how unnatural this must have seemed to them. To her, the monkey people’s reactions were depressingly familiar. They stood frozen for only a second, the instructions in their brains to capture their queen fighting for dominance with Happosai’s urges, before the whole group started hooting and hollering like cartoon characters. They rushed their gigantic queen, jostling and trying to touch them. Akane saw the confusion on their face, but when they looked up to meet her eye, their gaze was strong. Nodding at her, they turned and started off down the street, pushing the smaller monkey people out of the way.

The further they walked, the larger the crowd got. Eventually, it was large enough to fill the whole street, and people not already part of the group became less and less common. Finally, once the flow of newcomers seemed to have halted, the queen stopped, and looked around, sadly. The people were becoming more rambunctious with their approaches, but they couldn’t really do much to perturb a queen who stood more than twice as tall as any of them. Satisfied that they had gathered all they could without disturbing Happosai, the queen closed their eyes and outstretched their arms above the heads of their subjects. They winced at the pain of moving their arms, but kept them steady. Slowly, just outside the edges of the crowd, wooden walls began to rise up out of the street, creaking and crunching as they grew.  It would have been impossible to coordinate a trap like this had the monkey people not all been in one place, but the tree could just about handle growing four large, featureless walls at once. Finally, the walls reached a height that the queen was satisfied with, and they let their arms fall to their sides and limped away through the mob.

“I’ll be back soon,” they assured their frantic subjects soothingly, “I just need to do something, and then everything will be alright.” No one seemed to understand, but Oda felt calmer just by saying it. They quickly made a hole in the wall and stepped through. The human kids were waiting for them on the other side.

“Well that seemed to work,” Ukyo said. The queen nodded.

“We need to move fast. You four stick to the rooftops, let’s head towards the palace.”  The four nodded, and dispersed.

Akane had a little more trouble than the others getting up to and using the monkey bars, and she had to work hard to keep up, but at least she was able to. Being around so many incredible martial artists all the time, she had to keep reminding herself that she was making progress too. Looking around, bounding across the skyline of a city at the top of a magical tree, it was hard to deny.

She shook her head. She needed to focus. She and Ukyo would enter the main hall through the windows, while Shampoo and Konatsu came in from above. They had to have their timing exactly perfect if they were going to pull this off. There was no telling if Happosai himself would be as drawn in by the queen as the monkey people had been. He was stupid, but was he really that stupid? Akane honestly didn’t know. However, she had a sneaking suspicion that the other men might not be. They had to attack in the first instant of distraction, or else they would face retaliation.

By the time they reached the palace, the queen had attracted another small crowd, which they quickly encased in another set of walls. Already, Akane could see they were tiring. They had only just started recovering from their substantial injuries, and they were pushing themself to the limit just by walking around.

They all exchanged a look to make sure they were ready. Shampoo and Konatsu nodded, then took off for the towers. Akane and Ukyo made their ways around to the courtyards on the sides of the building, pulling fruits from their backs.

The queen exhaled, staring up at the doors of their palace. They made their way up the stairs. It was now or never. They threw the doors open.

There was no one there. A fraction of a second later, Ukyo came bursting through one of the windows, poised for a fight. At the same time, Shampoo and Konatsu’s heads popped out of holes in the ceiling.

“Where is old man?” Shampoo asked. The queen looked around in concern. The room was empty, Happosai and his goons nowhere to be seen. Had they somehow known they were coming? Did Happosai have some awareness of what was happening to the people under his will?

Akane still had not broken through her window. Realizing there must have been something wrong, they all rushed over to see what was the matter. The scene outside made them gasp. Akane, the side of her face bloodied, stood with her fists raised against an opponent who stood head-and-shoulders tall her: Soun Tendo.

Chapter Text

Akane’s breath came ragged as she stared her father down. She hadn’t heard him drop down on her, and his kick to the side of her head had been just enough warning for her to roll out of the way before he crushed a fruit over her. Now, she raised her fists shakily in a defensive position, knowing she was already fighting a losing battle. Nimbleness was not her form’s strong-suit, and she was sure she couldn’t dodge her father’s attacks for long.

Soun didn’t bother falling into an offensive position. He stood with his arms at his sides, his feet spread apart. The breeze pulled at his hair, and if Akane hadn’t known him better, she might have thought the expression on his face looked serene. As it was, she thought he looked… cold. It was a face she didn’t recognize. Her father wasn’t there.

Without warning, he launched himself at her, and the only dodge she could manage was to drop to the ground under him, leaving herself wide open. The hypnotized Soun didn’t miss the opportunity, and squeezed out more fruit juice even as he passed over her. Akane watched helplessly as it fell, her eyes wide, but a fraction of a second before it made contact, a kunai knife came whizzing through the air inches above her face, spraying the juice harmlessly away from her. She and Soun’s heads snapped over in unison in the direction the knife had come, only to find Konatsu crouched in the window frame Akane had been supposed to enter through, their arm outstretched. Soun didn’t have time to react to this new opponent before Ukyo and Shampoo came sliding around the corner of the building and rushed him. Akane took the opening to roll to her feet, and leapt to attack as well.

They had wanted to avoid an outright fight if at all possible, but there would be no easy losing of Soun now that he had attacked. Their only choice was to fight, regardless of the risk. Luckily, whether due to his current state or his own personality, Soun was a much more straightforward fighter than Happosai, and met them head-on. Less luckily, even with all three of them attacking at once, he blocked every one of their blows, keeping the fruit on his belt well out of their reach. It was a good thing then that they had brought their own.

The moment Shampoo pulled hers out, Soun became evasive, vaulting out of their confrontation and landing in a defensive position several meters away. The other girls quickly armed themselves as well, moving to surround him. It was unusual for Akane, fighting as a team against such a serious opponent, but as her martial instincts took over she found that most of her impulses meshed with those of her comrades. The fight still wasn’t easy, but surprisingly, working together kind of was.

Despite his placid expression, Soun was cornered, and his body language reflected that. His movements were twitchy, trying to gauge his opponents reactions. The girls didn’t give him a chance to find their weak link. With lightning speed, Ukyo swiped her spatula like an axe at his legs, forcing him into the air. While he couldn’t control his movement, Akane leapt at his back and grabbed him in a full nelson. Surprise crossing his features for the first time, he was unable to dodge as Shampoo lowered her fruit at him.

Akane dropped him to the floor on his back, hard. He lay there sputtering for a few seconds until his eyes started to refocus, and he saw the three girls standing over him. Realization dawned on his face, and he turned his eyes to his youngest daughter. Her face was caught between anger and concern, and when their eyes met, hers darted away immediately. Suddenly, Soun was on his knees, hugging her legs and sobbing loudly, much to everyone’s surprise.

I’M S-SO SORRY AKANEEEEE!!!” He wailed, burying his face in her gi. Akane looked down at him in shock. She shut her eyes and her face drooped.

“It… it’s ok, dad,” She said, rubbing the back of his head comfortingly, “I’m here now, we’re all going to get out of here.”

She glanced up at the others. Their expressions were unreadable. Her face flushed. Her father was the reason they were here. He’d brought this entirely upon himself, and upon the rest of them in the process. Why was she comforting him? She wanted to push him away in disgust.

But she didn’t. She couldn’t. All she could do was stop rubbing his head, and try to look away.

After a moment longer, he pulled his face away from her leg, and wiped his nose on his sleeve, sniffling. He looked up at her, and cupped her bruised cheek in his hand, tenderly.

“H-had I known what the master planned to do, I promise you I would have-”

“I know dad,” She cut him off, still avoiding eye contact, “I know.”

“We’ll have time to talk about all that later,” Ukyo said, stepping forward, “Right now, we gotta know where the old man’s taken Ran-chan and his dad. Do you remember?”

Soun closed his eyes and nodded slowly, the last of his tears slipping out.

“Yes. Yes, I remember.”

“Good,” She said, “Where are they? Can you take us there?” Soun nodded again, getting to his feet, his jaw clenched.

“He’s trying to escape,” he said through gritted teeth. Akane snapped out of her reverie.

“What?” She asked, “Already?”

“He realized you were here this morning,” Soun said, “When you started capturing the city, he left with Genma and Ranma and a group of monkeys to climb back down the tree. He left me here to collect you, Akane. The master isn’t a monster , after all, he wouldn’t have left you behind, but believe me, when I get my hands on him I’m going to give him a piece of my mind!”

“You hear me Master Happosai?” He called out dramatically, startling them, “You won’t get away with this!”

Ukyo shot Akane a bemused look, which Akane ignored, her cheeks burning.

“Yes, alright daddy, but where are they?” She asked, pulling on his shoulder.

“Oh, yes, well, I suppose they’d be back at the door by now,” He said, stroking his chin. Akane was about to asked ‘what door?’, when the queen’s voice cut in,

“Not there,” They said, “I sealed that entrance off days ago.”

The humans looked over for the first time to see the enormous form of the monkey queen leaning against the side of their palace, a pained look on their face.

“Then where?” Shampoo asked, as Konatsu rushed to the queen’s side to see if they were okay.

“There’s only one other exit,” They said, gratefully accepting Konatsu’s help into a sitting position. They raised a pointing finger to the sky, and the humans’ gaze followed it. “The Rim.”

“How do we get up there?” Akane asked, staring at it.

“You’ll just have to climb,” They replied, “And you’d better be quick about it. Who knows how far that snake of a man will have made it already.”

There was bitterness in their voice. Akane’s face creased.

“Are you going to be alright if we leave you here?” She asked.

“Don’t worry about that,” They said, holding their injured stomach, “Despite how you children have impressed me, it will not be the greatest pain of my life to see you go.”

Despite the shortness of their time together, Akane recognized the queen’s dry sense of humor at work. She had the sudden urge to rush over and hug them, but restrained herself.

“You remind me of Ranma,” she said suddenly, realising the thought only as it came out. Ukyo and Shampoo looked at her in surprise. They had not gotten the same impression. The queen smiled, but their pain made it come out more like a grimace.

“Get going,” They said, waving their hand at them, almost imperceptibly, “I’ll be fine. Save my kingdom, and your friend. I regret not being of more help to you, but at least we cleared the city for the moment. The time for strategizing is past. All that’s left now is to fight. Please, you must go.”

Recognizing the urgency in their voice, all the humans except Soun nodded, and without another word, took off towards the edge of the city. Soun hung back for just a second, looking at the queen with a mix of emotions on his face.

“Don’t you hurt them,” The queen said quietly, staring him in the eye. Soun swallowed. He turned his back and ran after the kids.

_

 

Happosai looked down over the edge at the cloud layer below, the freezing winds whipping at his thin tufts of hair. It appeared the bowl of the tree protected the city below from the forceful winds that came with this altitude. He also thought, and he wasn’t sure why this would be, that there was much less air out here than there was in the city. It was unpleasant here, to say the least. Plus, it was dark out now, and though the stars were out above, one could only see so far below them.

Still, he couldn’t feel too bad. Behind him, an army of monkey soldiers hauled bag after bag of loot up onto the rim, and he’d even managed to escape with two of his students still under his control. Ranma and Genma stood to his either side, motionless as statues, their faces completely blank, fully ready to attack or sacrifice themselves at a moment’s notice. He could no longer feel Soun’s presence in the city, which he assumed meant they’d managed to turn him back to his old self, but that was no matter. Happosai was sure he’d seek him out below, and he’d just take him back again then. Akane and his other daughters, as well. Happosai rubbed his hands together gleefully at the thought.

As the monkeys pulled the last of the goods up, Happosai pondered once again how he was going to get it all down. It seemed that if he gave his servants general directions, they were somehow able to coordinate their tasks on their own. That’s how they’d gotten it all up here, anyway. The way down seemed more treacherous though, and he worried they wouldn’t be able handle it with heavy loads on their backs. Maybe he could go down first and catch whatever they dropped when they fell…

Suddenly, a monkey person on the inner side of the rim started screeching. He perked up. Were there more goodies after all? He rushed over to where the monkeys were hopping around and pointing down into the city, expecting to see more of his cronies climbing up laden with bags. When he poked his head over the side, though, that wasn’t who he saw.

“You?!” He said incredulously, before being slapped upward by a giant spatula. He was stunned for only a fraction of a second, before regaining his composure mid air and flipping around to land across from where Ukyo now stood on the rim.

He growled, rubbing his chin. He recognized her as one of Ranma’s fiancees. The least pretty of the three. Four? Gods, that kid had all the luck.

He started reaching for his juice-gun, when Akane and two other kids flipped up behind her, followed a moment later by Soun. Happosai sighed dramatically.

“Give it up Happosai!” Ukyo yelled over the whipping of the wind, her spatula levelled at him, “We’re not letting you leave this tree!”

Happosai rolled his eyes.

“Oh, like you can stop me!”

Immediately, the group of humans was set upon by monkey guards wielding fruits. Before the monkey people could fire, though, the small group of rebels whipped out their own fruits and began spraying, dodging out of the way. Several monkey guards fell to their knees, disoriented.

“How could you have done this, Master?” Soun called out, hurt in his voice, “I know I haven’t always been the most loyal of students, but I never thought you’d do something like this!”

“Shut up, boy!” Happosai yelled, siccing Genma on him while he dodged an attack from Shampoo, “You knew exactly what the deal was, you were just too chicken-shit to consider doing something about it! I expect more from my students!”

Years ago, Happosai might have worried he was being too direct with his intentions, but he had long since learned it didn’t matter what he said- as long as a dog knew its place, it would eventually fall back in line. The same was true of students.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Akane grit her teeth. She dodged past a monkey person on her way towards him, fruit at the ready, when suddenly Ranma appeared between them. Happosai grinned to himself as he watched her startled expression in his periphery. He still had Ranma in his female form as he hadn’t been anticipating a fight, but he figured it wouldn’t be too much of a problem. It was only Akane, after all.

Happosai noticed the knife flying towards him at the last possible second, thrown by that kunoichi crossdresser kid, and just barely managed to jump over it. The old man growled. That boy wasn’t nearly as convincing as Ranma’s girl form. He might have done in a pinch, but the sight of his made-up face still irritated Happosai.

“You little trickster!” He yelled, “If you want a fight, come over here and face me like a man!”

Konatsu sneered, but didn’t take the bait, turning their attention back to the monkey folk they were fighting.

Happosai frowned. This was a risky situation, no matter how he sliced it. He hadn’t been expecting so many of Ranma’s little friends. In a normal fight, he was sure he could win, but they didn’t even really need to beat him. If he couldn’t dodge every one of their attacks, it would be over in a second. He needed to deal with them quickly.

The sound of a scuffle made him turn his head back towards Ranma and Akane, and he was shocked to see them actually grappling one another. Ranma seemed to have thrown Akane’s fruit aside, but Akane was now holding him by the wrists, trying to force her way past. Despite his unnaturally calm face, Ranma seemed to be having trouble holding her back. His fruit hung at his belt, and she wouldn’t let him reach it. Happosai’s eyes darted between them and the rest of the fighters. Somehow, Akane was now the closest to him. She would need to be dealt with first.

For just a moment, he turned his full attention to Ranma, and made him use all of his strength to push Akane back. He smiled as Akane screamed at the strain, but that smile vanished as she began to push back, her face red. He tried to pour more strength on, but found that there was none to spare. Ranma was pushing as hard as he could.

What’s the matter with you, boy?” Happosai hissed under his breath, willing his best student forward with all his might, “ You’ve gotta be stronger than HER at least!”

Even as he said it, Ranma’s foot slipped backwards an inch, and suddenly Akane was leaning over him, using her slight height advantage for leverage. Happosai couldn’t risk it any longer. Giving up the battle of wills, he leapt at them himself. His foot collided with the back of Ranma’s head, which itself shot upwards and knocked into Akane’s with a painful thwack.

The girl loosened her grip in shock and stumbled backwards towards the edge of the tree. Happosai watched with a surprising sense of relief as her foot dropped behind her into the open air. She stood there, wobbling for a second, a look of surprise on her face, before she lost her balance and went tumbling off.

Happosai exhaled a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, and moved to turn his attention back to the real fight. He realized only a second too late that Ranma was stumbling as well. Apparently, the fruit’s mind control didn’t extend to the inner-ear. He dove forward to catch the boy as he fell face first towards the edge, and his hand missed the mark by mere centimeters.

As he watched Ranma’s limp form disappear into the clouds below, he snapped his fingers dejectedly.

“Rats,” he muttered, momentarily forgetting the battle raging behind him, “I had such great plans for those two.”

 

_

 

Akane felt like all her muscles were tearing apart as she pushed against Ranma. But she couldn’t give in. It wasn’t just that she wanted to prove herself, and it wasn’t just that she needed to defeat Happosai. More than anything, it was the feeling that she couldn’t allow Ranma to be the tool of his own demise. She couldn’t let Happosai use him to defeat himself. It was just the kind of thing that was always happening around them, and she was sick of it. She’d refuse to give into that irony even if it meant her whole body would be destroyed in the effort.

Surprisingly though, it seemed that wasn’t going to be necessary. Ranma was giving way. As she pushed him back, she stared into his eyes, searching for any sign of emotion or thought, wondering if he was in there somewhere fighting Happosai as well. If he was, she couldn’t see it. All she saw were those wide, placid eyes staring back at her- and above them, the tiniest hint of faded purple eyeliner.

She almost laughed. When had he found the time to do that? Maybe on that night the queen had described, when he’d spent hours at their bedside, waiting for them to wake up? And did that mean he’d brought a tube with him, despite leaving his bag behind?  It all seemed so unlike him, and yet, maybe she just didn't know him as well as she'd thought. Maybe they both had things to hide.

Akane was sure she had him now. He was leaning unsustainably far back, and she was about to push over and make a break for Happosai when she heard the telltale whistling of something flying through the air. Only her eyes had time to move before Ranma’s head jerked up suddenly, and their foreheads slammed together. Akane fell back, dazed, the cold air chilling her sweaty palms where they had just been pressing against Ranma’s. The world spun around her, and she struggled to find her footing. Had her mind been more on the fight, she might have had the spatial awareness to realize where she was headed. As it was, she felt every organ in her body drop at once as she experienced the worst possible version of the “thought there was one more stair” phenomenon. She teetered on the edge for only a second, before plummeting into the endless void beyond.

 

On her first flip backwards, she saw the moon rising over the horizon, almost full. Then the cloud layer below, racing up to meet her, and then the tree, which seemed to recede away as the bowl of the city thinned out. Finally, she was looking at the sky again, and suddenly all she could see was a tiny splotch of red, silhouetted against the stars. Ranma.

She needed to reach him. She thought desperately about how skydivers in movies could always seem to control their descent by moving their bodies, but all she managed to do was roll over a few times as she fell.

This was it. After all that talk, after all they had been through- not just on this trip but in their whole lives- it all ended with her letting Happosai kick them off a tree. She didn’t feel sad or angry. She didn’t have time. She just felt sick to her stomach, and though plummeting to one’s death will do that on a physical level, Akane’s brain knew instinctively that it was herself she was sick with. She had failed, and that was all there was to it.

She shut her eyes tight, clenched her fists, and waited for impact.

 

Something hit her hard on the shoulder, and she gasped as she spun off to the side, before colliding with something else, which bent under her weight and sloughed her off. She fell for a few seconds longer, things all around and under her scratching and snapping, slowing her fall, until she finally crashed down on her back on something solid. She grunted as she hit, then let out a strangled cry at the pain, before beginning to cough uncontrollably, tears streaming down her face. Her whole body was in agony, especially her head and back. On top of that, the world was still spinning out of control. Eventually, darkness began to close in around the edges of her vision, and she blacked out.

When the world swam back into view, her head was pounding with a pain worse than any she’d ever felt. She groaned, and tried to lift her arm to rub her forehead, but found with a wince that that wasn’t a good idea. Her other arm seemed fine, so she used that instead.

As the memory of what had happened came back to her, she slowly turned her head to the side and found that she was lying on a giant branch. She groaned and looked back up to see the canopy of smaller branches she’d fallen through on her way down.

She was starting to consider trying to sit up, when she heard a soft sound from somewhere near her. It sounded like… crying?

Not letting herself hesitate, she used her good arm to push herself quickly upright. Her whole body complained, but nothing except her left arm seemed to be seriously damaged. She looked around, wearily, and started when she realized the source of the noise.

“Ranma!” She said, the normalcy of her own voice surprising her. He was a ways down the branch from her, hanging upside down by his leg from a branch, slowly twisting back and forth. It was clear from his expression he was still under Happosai’s influence, but at the same time, tears streamed from his wide eyes, and were quickly wicked away by the cold wind. He whimpered quietly to himself.

She stared at the odd sight for several seconds, before noticing the fruit still dangling from his belt. Forcing herself to her knees, she shuffled along the branch towards him. He looked her in the eyes as she approached, and she could see his arms trying to move as if to stop her. She ignored them, and quickly plucked the fruit away from him. Willing him to be free of Happosai’s control, she sprayed it in his face. For a second, nothing happened. Then, his features contorted in an emotion Akane couldn’t name, and he blacked out from the pain.

Akane stared at his delicate features for a few seconds longer before realizing she should probably get him down. Rather awkwardly, but with no other way to proceed, she sat with her legs out under him and tugged on the front of his shirt repeatedly until his legs came loose from the branches and he collapsed in a heap in her lap.

She sighed, lying back down, stroking his hair absentmindedly. She’d gotten Ranma back. That would have to be enough for now.

Chapter Text

When Akane woke up, she found that she was now the one being held. Not by Ranma, though. This person was much hairier than him, and much, much larger.

“Shh,” The queen said softly, before she could even speak, “It’s alright. Everything is alright.”

Their voice had such a tenderness to it, Akane couldn’t help but believe them. They were somewhere dark and warm. Far from the wind and the bottomless void outside. Far from Happosai. Safe with the queen. That was more than enough for Akane.

After a few minutes, they emerged from the dark space, and only then did Akane realize they had been in an elevator.  Now, the queen stood on a city street, cradling Akane in one arm and Ranma, still asleep, in the other. It was still dark out, but Akane assumed it must have been much later- the most obvious reason being the mob of monkey people that swarmed them the moment they appeared. Akane flinched, expecting them to attack. They all stopped in their tracks. The queen smiled wanly.

“It’s okay, Akane. Everyone’s back to normal.”

They nodded encouragingly at their subjects. Several of the monkey people waved at them, bashfully. Akane knit her eyebrows together.

“But… how?” She asked.

“I guess your friends didn’t like seeing you get thrown overboard like that,” they replied simply.

The queen carried the two young humans through the streets of the city, a small crowd of monkey people gathering around them. It was eerily reminiscent of the scene that had taken place only a few hours before, in the same streets, except that now the monkey people were gentle with their advances, and they spoke in hushed voices to one another. At one point, two monkey people, one dressed as a guard and the other as some kind of hotel employee, pushed their way through the crowd and ran up to see Ranma. To Akane’s surprise, the queen allowed them, smiling as they fawned over him.

“Do they look kind of… different?” The guard one asked, squinting at Ranma’s sleeping form.

“Well you would too, if you’d been through what they have!” The other said, defensively. They bickered quietly while they walked.

Soon, they arrived outside a building Akane recognized as Tetsu’s house. The queen ducked through the door, which was being held open by a smiling Tetsu. They softly shooed the remaining crowd away, assuring them that they would be out to talk in a little while. The monkey people didn’t mind.

Tetsu shut the door as the queen carefully laid Ranma and Akane down on two sleeping pads they had set out for them. Relieved of their burden, the over-sized queen sat back against a wall and breathed heavily. Akane felt a pang of guilt as she realized how difficult it must have been for them to carry them there.

“Do you know which one of you is doing worse?” Tetsu asked, pulling on a pair of gloves.

“He is,” Akane replied immediately. Tetsu nodded and moved to Ranma’s side, examining him. Ranma grimaced in his sleep as they pressed on his leg.

“I shouldn’t have let you move them without me,” Tetsu said to the queen, concern creasing their inhuman features, “This one’s leg should have been set before anything else.”

Quickly, they set about gathering the necessary materials, constructing a splint around the leg in question. After that, they started opening up Ranma’s shirt, and Akane looked away. She wasn’t sure why. They rubbed some kind of balm on his larger bruises, and Ranma’s face seemed to relax somewhat.

Suddenly, Akane had a thought.

“Do you have any hot water?” She asked. Tetsu looked up at her.

“I can heat some up,” They said, “but why?”

“He…” she said, thinking about how to say this.,“He’d just like to have some, I think. Before he wakes up.”

Tetsu stared at her for a moment, questioningly, then shrugged and went to get some. Queen Oda nodded, smiling to themself knowingly.

“I thought that might be the case,” they said, “Jusenkyo, right?”

“Is there anything you don’t know?” Akane asked, her voice still weak, but a smile on her face. The queen bowed their head.

“The aristocracy of our people have always been interested in magic, since long before the time of the tree. I never got to see the springs myself, but I have always wanted to.”

“You wanted to go there?” Akane asked, surprised, “Why?”

The queen shrugged.

“The opportunity to make yourself whatever you want to be? To make your outsides match your insides? To gain a new perspective on life? Who on earth wouldn’t want that?”

Akane opened her mouth to respond, then closed it again.

“That’s not how it is for Ranma,” she said finally. The queen stared at her, something like skepticism on their face.

“...Are you sure?”

They stared at each other for a moment. Akane couldn’t guess what they meant by that, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to.

Luckily, she was saved from this awkwardness when the door burst open.

“AKANE!” Soun yelled, tears streaming down his face as he rushed to her side.

“Dad!?” She croaked, sounding more surprised than excited as he scooped her up in a hug. She winced as her arm moved, but didn’t push him away.

A second later, Ukyo and Shampoo appeared at the door as well. Their eyes went first to Ranma, then turned to Akane and her father, before going back to Ranma. They ran to his side.

“He is alive?” Shampoo asked, her eyes wide.

“Last I checked,” Akane replied, gently pushing her father away. “Guys, what happened?? Did you beat Happosai?”

“Well, yeah,” Ukyo said, scratching the back of her head. “It was mostly your dad, though. And Ranma’s, once we got him back on our side.”

Akane turned back to her sobbing father, shock on her face.

“Is that true, dad?” She asked, “You beat Happosai?”

“Oh yes,” Soun said, nodding through his tears, “After what he did to you and Ranma, we could no longer forgive him. Oh Akane, I thought you were dead! ” He collapsed back over her, sobbing again. This time, she returned his hug, gingerly.

“So where is he now?” She asked, patting her father’s back.

“In prison, where he belongs,” the queen replied. “He has committed unforgivable crimes against this city and its people, and he will be punished accordingly.”

Akane nodded vacantly over Soun’s shoulder. She had absolutely no problem with that, but the queen was still frowning. They were looking at Soun, lost in thought. Akane swallowed. She knew exactly what they were thinking, because she was thinking it too. She stared at the monkey queen’s wounds. Despite his change of heart, her father was more than just an accomplice in this mess.

“Oh Akane,” he whimpered into her shirt, “I’m so sorry. I’m so so sorry…”

She squeezed him tight, muttering that it was ok in his ear, though she didn’t feel that it was at all. Happosai was defeated. They could go home. Everything could be like it had been before that horrible little man had ever stepped into their lives. And yet…

“Where is he?? A breathless voice came from the doorway. Akane looked up in surprise, just in time to see its owner appear. “Where’s my son??”

 

_

 

The first thing Ranma saw when his eyes fluttered open was Shampoo.

AH!” he cried, startling everyone in the room.

“Ranma!” Shampoo exclaimed, reaching out in delight, “I thought you would never wake up!”

“Stay away from me, you crazy-” He started, trying to scramble backwards, smacking his braced leg on the floor painfully in the process. “Ow! What the hell?”

“Ranma!” Akane scolded, “Shampoo came all this way to help save you, and that’s the thanks you give her?”

She was sitting up on her bed mat, a cup of tea in her hand. Her left arm was in a sling.

“Save me?” Ranma asked, reaching under his blanket to feel what was on his leg, “What are you-”

Suddenly, everything that had happened in the past few days came rushing back to him. He remembered it all, every last humiliating moment Happosai had put him through. He remembered the girls coming to rescue them. He had noticed them long before Happosai had, but whatever had been piloting his body apparently hadn’t been privy to the knowledge. It had been like being a prisoner in his own head. Then there was that final battle, when he had been forced to fight Akane, and he had…

Oh god.

“I…” He started, his face turning beet red as he looked around at everyone’s questioning stares, “I didn’t…”

He trailed off, feeling like his insides were crumbling. They had all seen him. They knew it hadn’t been him , but they had all still seen him being like that . He could feel their eyes boring into him. Searching. Suspecting. It was just like with the neko-ken, or that time he’d had amnesia, but so much worse because this time he remembered. He would never be able to sweep this under the rug, pretend to himself that it hadn’t happened, that it didn’t bother him. It was like getting kissed by that jerk Mikado all over again.

“It’s ok, Ran-chan,” Ukyo said, reassuringly, “You’ve had a hard few days. We get it. We can give you some space if you want.”

At this kindness, Ranma blushed even harder, turning his head. Shampoo, looking a little hurt, got up and moved over to the other side of the room, sitting next to Ukyo. The 5% of Ranma’s brain that wasn’t focused on being humiliated wondered when those two had gotten so close.

“Did somebody say-” Genma asked, poking his head in from the kitchen, until his eyes landed on his child. “Ranma!”

The old man ran in from the next room and practically tackled him into a bear hug. Ranma could only grunt in surprise.

“Don’t scare me like that, kid!” Genma laughed, jostling him, “I thought you were a goner!”

If Ranma hadn’t known better, he might have thought his father was on the verge of tears. It took him a moment to remember what was wrong with this picture.

“Hey- hey, get the fuck-” he struggled to get his arms between them, shoving his father roughly away. Genma stared at him from the ground for a second.

“What the hell was that for?” He asked incredulously.

“What was it for?!” Ranma said, his voice rising, “What the hell do you think it was for?”

“Saving your sorry life, I suppose!” Genma replied.

“Saving my- in what universe did you save my life?!”

“What, didn’t you hear?” Genma replied indignantly, “After you fell off the tree, me and Tendo defeated master Happosai!”

This took Ranma by surprise, and he looked around the room for confirmation. Akane’s face told him all he needed to know.

“...Yeah, well,” Ranma said, slightly deflated but not ready to admit defeat, “what’s that got to do with saving my life? Akane and Queen Oda saved my life, not you.”

Genma scoffed.

“And I suppose you think the master would have just let you be after all that, huh?”

I think you getting rid of Happosai is just you dealing with a problem you created in the first place, you wrinkly old-” Ranma broke off, preparing to block as Genma wound up a punch. He was ready. This was all the old man’s fault anyway, he needed to get what was coming to-

“Stop!” A voice cut in, surprising them both. It didn’t come from where Ranma would have expected. Soun stood between them, his arms extended in a gesture of peace.

“You’ve both had more than enough fighting for now,” he said, his voice as serious as Ranma had ever heard it. “We all have, in fact. If you can’t talk to each other without fighting, then just don’t talk.”

“Tendo,” Genma growled.

Saotome,” Soun shot back, venomously. Genma stared at him for a few seconds, then spun around and sat facing the other wall, huffing. Soun exhaled, and resumed his spot beside Akane, sipping tea.

Ranma looked around the room in bewilderment. Shampoo and Ukyo were breathing a sigh of relief. Akane was looking up at her father, a tiny spark of respect in her eyes. He even thought the queen looked a little impressed. As if Soun was suddenly the reasonable one of the three.

What was wrong with everyone? Those two were the ones who had caused all of this! Why was no one taking Ranma’s side? He wasn’t just looking for a fight for no reason! He wasn’t Genma!

Frustrated, confused, and hurt both mentally and physically, Ranma squeezed his eyes shut and rolled over to face the wall. He couldn’t talk right now. It was all too much.

After a while, Tetsu told everyone to go and get some rest, and to let Akane and Ranma do the same. As they all left the room, the queen looked back at the two children, pursing their lips regretfully. There was more going on there than they could parse, and it was difficult to know what exactly they wanted, let alone what was best for them. They knew they wouldn’t be able to solve all their problems. All they could hope to do was set them on the right path, and trust that they could handle it themselves.

 

_

 

Akane and Ranma spent most of the rest of the day in bed, sleeping on and off. They didn’t talk much. Ranma still wasn’t ready to talk to anyone. Besides, neither knew what to say. They both felt like they should apologize to the other, but what for? Because their dads were both assholes?

In lieu of talking to her, Ranma mostly spent the time regretting that any of this had happened. He had wanted so badly only a few days ago for Akane to be with him to see this weird, crazy, beautiful place he had found, and now he wanted nothing more than to be back home. Only no, because all his problems would be there as well. They would be wherever he went. What he really wanted was to be nowhere at all. Least of all stuck in bed in this stupid body of his.

Akane, for her part, was even more directionless in her thinking. She kept switching between dreading having to face her father, worrying that Happosai couldn’t truly have been defeated, and being kind of mad that this adventure seemed to have been swept out from under her. It was petty, but whenever Ranma saved her, he got to have some really dramatic climactic fight. All she got was thrown off a tree.

Eventually, Ukyo came back in, carrying a deck of cards, and asked if they wanted to play. Tetsu had instructed them not to get out of bed for the day, so their entertainment options were limited. Still, Ranma pretended to be asleep. Akane rolled her eyes, and told Ukyo she’d love to, but she only knew Go Fish. Ranma and Ukyo both cringed inwardly at that, but Ukyo smiled and said go fish would be alright.

An hour later, Akane hadn’t won a single game.

“I don’t get it,” she grumbled, staring at her cards, “How can you possibly be good at go fish?”

“Just lucky I guess,” Ukyo said, yawning as she discreetly slipped another card out of her sleeve and into her palm. She had intended her cheating to be obvious to give them a laugh, but Akane still hadn’t picked up on it. Now it was just getting boring. She slapped the rest of her cards down. “I win again. Wanna learn poker?”

Akane had already turned this offer down multiple times, and was about to do so again, when the door swung open. Ukyo and Akane looked up to see Shampoo and Konatsu, laughing together and holding several large bags in each hand.

“Where have you guys been?” Ukyo asked, putting a hand on her hip.

“Shopping!” Shampoo replied gleefully, holding her bags above her head.

“They have stores here??” Akane asked, surprised. Konatsu shook their head.

“No, not shopping really,” They said, sitting down, “Ooru, that nice monkey person who knew Ranma took us to see some of the workshops in town. They don’t really have money here, so I guess they usually just barter, but since we’re visitors they gave us a bunch of stuff for free!”

Their interests piqued, Akane and Ukyo gathered around to see what they had.

“The styles here are so interesting!” Shampoo exclaimed, pulling a long dress out of one of her bags and admiring it. It was silky and brightly colored, almost overly so, but still ornately beautiful. Akane thought it looked like something out of a Chinese ballet.

“I haven’t seen anything like this out on the streets,” Ukyo said, pulling out a similar dress, this one lined with long feathers.

“Maybe they only wear clothes for special occasions,” Akane speculated, smiling as she imagined herself twirling around in one of the dresses, “They’re probably not too good for swinging around in.”

Konatsu lowered their dress and peered over at Ranma.

“Is he still asleep?” They asked quietly. Akane made a face.

“No, he just doesn’t want to talk to us.” She turned around and stuck her tongue out at his back. Ukyo snickered.

“Oh,” Konatsu said, disappointed, “I thought he might want to see some of this stuff.”

Akane raised an eyebrow, skeptically.

“Yeah, I don’t think so,” She turned her attention back to the bags, trying to forget about her depressed roommate. Konatsu frowned. On the other side of the room, Ranma shifted uncomfortably. Konatsu stared at him. They thought they understood why Ranma was moping.

“Y’know,” They said, a little too loudly, “a lot of these clothes are supposed to be for martial artists.”

Every ear in the room perked up, Ranma’s included.

“Really?” Akane asked, examining the garment in her hands with new eyes, “How?” Konatsu smiled, slyly.

“Well, they’re ceremonial, like you said,” they said, rifling through their bag and pulling out a shorter tunic and pants. “Like uniforms. The queen’s guard used to wear them. They say you can move even better in them than you can naked.”

Akane and Ukyo, intrigued, moved in to get a closer look, and Ranma, unable to stand not knowing, quietly rolled over to see what they were talking about. Only Konatsu noticed, and their smile as they looked away was enough to make Ranma blush, but not turn back over.

“It’s amazing!” Akane exclaimed as she felt the fabric in her hand, “It feels like it doesn’t weigh anything at all!”

“And it’s cute, too!” Ukyo added, grinning as she held the tunic up in front of her.

“Uh,” Konatsu cut in, awkwardly, “but in kind of a neutral, unisex kind of way that would look good on anyone, right?” The girls gave them a funny look. In the background, Ranma grimaced, his face obscured by his blankets. His eyes took on a look of pointed disinterest. Konatsu scowled. This did not have to be so difficult. Whatever, everyone here was so oblivious that there was no need to be gentle anyway.

“Hey Ranma!” They said, much too loudly, and with an enthusiasm that wasn’t even remotely reflected in their face, “Wanna come over here and look at these rugged manly clothes with us? These clothes for Fighting? To make your Fighting better?”

They stared bullets at him, and the other girls turned to look as well. Ranma’s face flushed, but he recognized the challenge in their voice. He told himself that’s what drove him to get up and shuffle on his knees to where they were sitting.

“What.” He said flatly, avoiding eye contact. Konatsu sighed, wearily. It would have to do.

“You know, I think this would look really good on you,” they said, holding a blue tunic up in front of him. “Don’t you guys think?”

Ukyo stared at it for a moment before something clicked in her brain.

“Oh!” She said, beginning to catch on, “Yeah, that would look really…” She trailed off, caught between appealing to Ranma’s macho side and paying a genuine compliment, “...really good.”

Konatsu shot her a look, and she shrugged helplessly. Ranma was staring at the garment.

“Y-you think so?” He asked quietly. Konatsu and Ukyo nodded enthusiastically. Akane screwed up her face.

“I dunno,” she said, wondering what they were doing, “isn’t it a little g-”

“Great!” Shampoo cut in, clapping her hands together, “It would look great on you, Ranma!”

Ukyo and Konatsu held their breath, and wondered whether Shampoo had caught on as well or if she just liked the thought of dressing Ranma up.

Ranma stared for a second longer, then shrugged and pulled the tunic on over his shirt. A small smile crept onto his face as he looked down at himself.

“Yeah, I guess it is pretty cool.”

Konatsu grinned. Akane frowned. It really did look nice on him, and not that much more feminine than the silk shirts he usually wore, but it was a change of pace to see him actually enjoying altering his own appearance. She was suddenly reminded again of the tube of eyeliner sitting in the bag she’d brought from home, and the fact that she still hadn’t given it to him. She fell silent, thinking while Shampoo and Konatsu dumped out the rest of their haul and started matching outfits to friends. Ranma, of course, wouldn’t go near any of the dresses, and no one pressed him to.

While they looked at the clothes, Shampoo told them all about the various workshops they’d seen that day.

“It’s beautiful here,” she said finally, sitting back with a look on her face that none of them had ever seen before, “It’s like how I thought Tokyo would be when great-grandmother and I first left Nyucheizu.”

“You thought Tokyo would be at the top of a tree?” Ukyo asked, giggling. Shampoo punched her, lightly.

“No, stupid, I thought it would be beautiful,” she said, pouting. She sighed. “And that the people would be nice, like they are here.”

“People in Tokyo are nice!” Akane protested. The rest of the teens, all of whom had lived outside of Tokyo, shook their heads in unison. Akane made a face, and they all burst out laughing.

“Y’know, Shampoo’s right,” Ukyo said as the laughter died down, “I’ve never been to a city where people were this nice to each other. Can you imagine someone in Tokyo or Kyoto helping us this much after everything that’s happened?”

“Maybe monkey people are just better than us,” Konatsu suggested, hugging a dress to themself, “I’ve only really been here for a day, and I already don’t wanna leave.”

“I don’t think that’s it,” Akane said, thoughtfully, “We’ve all been much nicer to each other since coming here too.”

She worried as she said it that admitting it would make things awkward, but the others just nodded in agreement. All except Ranma, who had fallen silent.

He thought he knew why they all liked it here so much. The queen had told him why in no uncertain terms on his first day in the city, and he had come to understand what they had meant all too well in the following days. Between the difference in culture and the actual physical distance from the world below, it felt as if the normal rules of earth just couldn’t reach them up here. Here, Amazon law wasn’t constantly pushing Shampoo to chase Ranma, and neither was Ukyo’s family honor. Akane could be a real martial artist, and no one questioned the way Konatsu dressed. To Ranma, it felt like suddenly being free of a cage he hadn’t known he was in.

And that was precisely why Happosai and the other men’s intrusion felt so especially wrong. It wasn’t just that they hurt innocent people; they did that all the time. It was because they had ruined Ranma’s little paradise. After only a day, the dream of escaping his troubles had been dashed, and he had been plunged into a nightmare. Now that he was awake again, he saw that the way he had been thinking about this place had been unfair. He might be able to avoid his problems here, but that didn’t mean problems didn’t exist.

It wasn’t paradise. People weren’t actually that much friendlier here- sure, it didn’t have the modern hustle and bustle of Nerima, but that wasn’t what made what made it so nice. It was just another city, far enough removed that they could pretend it was a different world. But it wasn’t home, and the longer they stayed, the less the illusion would work.

But Ranma didn’t know if the other knew that, or if they’d think he was weird for saying it, so he kept quiet.

“I wanna see all of this before we have to go,” Akane said hugging her knees, “but I feel like we’ve already overstayed our welcome. We should probably leave tomorrow, if Tetsu will let us.”

The others nodded, a regretful silence filling the air. They probably didn’t feel it as acutely as Ranma did, but none of them were in a hurry to get back to Nerima. Knowing their luck, Ryoga or the Kunos or, god forbid, some new asshole was waiting there right now to spring an attack on them the moment they got back, and once it happened, they’d all be at each other’s throats again. It was amazing how easy it was to be friends here, but back there, there was just too much standing in the way. The quicker they ripped that band-aid off, the better.

They sat there with glum looks on their faces. After a minute, Ukyo’s turned into a frown.

“Hang on a sec,” she said, getting to her feet, “I’m gonna go find Tetsu, be right back.”

She walked out of the room, leaving the others to wonder what she wanted them for. A moment later, she came back in, pulling the elder monkey person by the hand.

“Alright, alright, slow down,” they said, removing their spectacles and polishing them, “I’ll take a look. No promises, though.” They looked down at Akane and Ranma, their hands on their hips.

“I believe I told you two to stay in bed,” They said, looking down their nose at them. The two teens looked away, mumbling apologies. Tetsu rolled their eyes and knelt down beside Ranma. “Hmm,” they hummed, examining his leg for a moment before moving over to Akane. “Yes, the swelling does seem to have improved. Still, it doesn’t seem prudent to allow you out just yet.”

“Aw c’mon, please Tetsu?” Ukyo begged, “They won’t have to put any pressure on them, it’ll be just like they were still here!”

Tetsu looked at her, then back at their patients, and gave a long-suffering sigh.

“Well…” they said, “I suppose if it’s your last day here I might as well make an exception. But you must not strain yourselves, especially you Ranma! We still don’t know how much damage your muscles have retained, and if your bones don’t heal properly you may never recover! And Akane, no sudden movements. Your concussion is only mild, but it may worsen easily.”

Akane and Ranma looked around in confusion.

“Whaddaya mean, doc?” Ranma asked, “How are we supposed get around without walking?”

 

Twenty minutes later, they were sitting in a rickshaw, rolling slowly down the smooth wooden streets of the monkey city. When Ukyo had asked Ooru if they had one, they had been all too happy to resume their role as tour guide. They walked at a leisurely pace, towing Akane and Ranma behind them, and chattered on about the buildings and people they passed. The queen must have told their subjects at some point not to crowd their visitors, because everyone kept a respectful distance, restraining themselves to smiling and waving.

Akane had worried slightly that there wouldn’t be enough room in the cart for everyone, but Ukyo and Shampoo had surprised her by not even trying to take one of the seats. They walked amiably along next to Ooru, apparently more interested in the history of the city than they were in Ranma (a fact for which Ranma silently thanked the gods). Akane smiled as she watched them. It would have felt like a weird set up, Ranma and Akane getting taxied around like royalty while everyone else walked or swung from the branches above, were it not for the fact that their carriage was covered in dirt from the root vegetables it usually transported. As it was, she was happy to feel like part of a group again. Thinking about it, she found that hanging out with these people didn’t feel all that different from hanging out with Yuka and Sayuri after all. As many bad memories as she had with them (Shampoo especially), they also had plenty of… well, if not entirely good memories, then at least fun ones.

She rested her head against the blanket they had laid across the back of the cart and closed her eyes. Without Happosai, Cologne, the fathers, or any of the other nuisances around, she could almost pretend they were a normal group of friends on vacation together. Almost.

Ranma stared at her face for a moment. He felt like she must have been feeling more peaceful than he was. Though he could slowly feel the weight of the horror of the last few days being lifted off his shoulders, his mind was still swirling with worries, the greatest of which right now was that he still hadn’t thanked her for coming to his rescue. He wanted to, but every time he built up the courage and thought he was about to speak, his heart beat the wrong way and it all flowed out of him. He told himself it was just the wrong time. The other guys might hear him if he said it now.

Instead of following the outer ring of the city, which Ooru said was mostly residential, they drove into the denser inner circles . Ooru took them to the street where they lived, in an apartment above a dance studio.

“Yeah, this part of town’s pretty boho, y’know?” They said, leaning casually against the cart, “Very chill, very progressive. My dads didn’t want me living here, but I was like pshh, whatever dude. I’m pretty much like a huge rebel.” They said the last part looking at Konatsu, grinning cockily, and the kunoichi giggled into their hand. Ukyo looked back and forth between the two of them, confused.

Soon, they arrived in front of a large garden on the side of the road, where a small group of monkey people were gathered around what appeared to be a grill. They were smiling and laughing while one of them wearing a chef’s hat and apron flipped vegetables with a spatula.

“Hey! It’s Keiko!” Ooru said excitedly, “Hey! Keiko, over here!”

The monkey chef looked up in surprise, then drooped slightly when they saw their cousin waving.

“Oh lord,” Keiko muttered to themself. They almost yelled at Ooru to buzz off, but they were already making their way over, and everyone else at the barbecue seemed eager to meet the humans. They sighed and waved back.

“Mind if we join in?” Ooru asked. Keiko shrugged helplessly.

“It’s a community garden, you can do what you like.”

“Great!” they said, running over to the side of the grill, “What’s cookin’?”

While Keiko tried to shoo them away, Ukyo helped Akane and Ranma out of the cart. He blushed but didn’t protest as she lifted him princess style, then let him down gently on his good leg, one of his arms across her shoulders for support. Akane appeared at his other side, offering another shoulder to lean on. He took it, smiling softly. As embarrassed as he was, he was equally happy to have their help.

The other barbecue-goers made space for them at a picnic table, and they took it gratefully. Ukyo left them there to go talk to Keiko about what they were grilling. They tensed up at the sight of her, but after a few minutes she had them smiling and laughing with tales of her restaurant back home. Not long after, Keiko determined that their platters were sufficiently piled high with grilled veggies, and had Ukyo help them bring it over to the tables.

Ranma, who had spent most of his life on the road relying on the kindness of strangers, was happy to dig in with the rest of the monkey people after only an “itadakimasu”, but Akane felt the need to repeatedly tell Keiko and the rest of them how grateful they were.

“It’s really no trouble,” Keiko said, smiling awkwardly at her over-politeness, “there’s no shortage of food around here. The tree would never allow that.”

“Besides, it’s the least we can do for the heroes who saved the city!” Ooru chimed in, grinning through a mouth full of food.

“Well, I mean, I wouldn’t go that far. They also caused -”

“To the humans!” Ooru said, raising their glass. The rest of the monkey people echoed it, happily. Keiko sighed. Ooru glared at them.

“To the humans, I guess,” they said, and everyone else cheered. The humans in question were blushing fiercely, but the mood never soured, and soon enough they were all back in the party spirit, Keiko included. The food wasn’t nearly as good as that which Ranma had had at the palace, but he still found himself amazed at how good simple fruits and veggies could be. Everyone ate until their stomachs were full.

“Oohhhhh,” Shampoo groaned, rubbing her stomach, “Why do we have to leave? Let’s stay here forever.”

Konatsu and Ukyo voiced their agreement. Akane rolled her eyes, secretly fighting off the same thoughts as she debated whether or not to finish her pineapple. Ranma, for the first time in a while, was content just to enjoy the moment. The sun had just started to go down, and a warm breeze blew through the garden. All around him, people joked and laughed, in a way that Ranma no longer found unsettling or even abnormal. He knew if they stayed here they would eventually no longer be visitors, and the people here would begin to seem more like the people anywhere else, but for now, it was nice just to sit at a table and eat a meal with a bunch of people who were nice to them just because they didn’t know them. Hospitality wasn’t forever, but it was a fun break while it lasted.

As they finished up their meal, and the gathering became more conversation than eating, Akane was about to ask if everyone was ready to go. Tetsu had told them to be back before dark, and they were clearly going to be late already. Just as she started to speak, though, a splash of cold water from beside her made her yelp in surprise. All the color ran out of her face as she turned to see Ranma, drenched, in his female form. She looked up in confusion to find the source of the water, and was grimly unsurprised to find a blind old monkey person leaning out of a window of a building above, shaking a wooden pail. She turned back to Ranma, her heart sinking.

For a moment, none of the humans said a word. Ranma’s head was down, his face dark. It looked as if he was about to burst into tears- or worse. Normally, this would have been a part of his daily routine, but after the trauma of the past couple days, no one could be sure how he’d react.

“Whoa!” Ooru said suddenly, leaning over the table to get a closer look at him, “Ranma! Your hair changed color! How do you do that??”

Akane sucked in her breath, dreading the inevitable outburst. When it came, though, it wasn’t what she had been expecting. Ranma looked up at the monkey person, his expression unreadable. Then, he broke out laughing.

It was genuine laughter, and Akane felt the need to hold back some of her own, both out of relief and amusement at Ooru’s question. Ooru, not sure what was so funny, laughed as well, assuming it was some kind of inside joke. At the same time though, she could tell Ranma was unsure of himself. She saw him glance down, and noted that, as with all his clothes, the supposedly “unisex” tunic he was wearing became decidedly more feminine looking when he was in his female form. She watched as he forced himself to look back up and keep laughing despite that. He knew that none of the monkey people cared about or even really noticed the change. Still, she was surprised to see him taking it so rationally. It was a far-cry from how he’d acted that morning. She found herself feeling… proud?

She wanted to show him she understood, so she reached out her good arm and placed a hand on his shoulder, comfortingly. His head snapped up in her direction, and she was shocked by the fear in his eyes. It faded quickly, and he went back to chuckling nervously, picking at the last bites of food on his plate.

The whole incident after the actual water-dumping went unnoticed by most of the table, and didn’t put any damper on their conversation. Akane shook her head, regaining her bearings.

“Hey Ooru?” she finally said, “Do you think we could head back soon? It’s getting dark.”

“Huh? Oh yeah, totally, totally, whenever you’re ready,” They looked a little disappointed to be leaving the party so early.

“You don’t have to come if you don’t want, Ooru,” Ukyo cut in, “your place is right around the corner, we can pull the cart back ourselves.”

They looked embarrassed to abandon their tour guide duties, but nodded sheepishly all the same, before launching back into their latest argument with Keiko. This got a genuine giggle out of Ranma.

After saying goodbye to their new friends, the group of humans headed back to the cart, and started back towards Tetsu’s house. Shampoo and Ukyo each held one of the rickshaw poles, and they walked and talked unhurriedly. At one point, Ranma jokingly complained about the speed. Shampoo and Ukyo exchanged a look, and what resulted was an all-out dash through the unlit city streets, with much whooping and squealing from Ranma and Akane.

They eventually got there safely, after a short search by their kunoichi scouting party, and left the cart outside. They tried to sneak in as quietly as possible, but the second they were through the door, a chair spun around to reveal Tetsu, in their nightgown and robe, reading a book.

“I thought I told you to be back by sundown,” they said with an air of disinterest.

Sorry Tetsu,” The kids chorused. The old monkey person acknowledged it with a nod.

“Off to bed with you then.”

They stood up and walked out of the room, motioning for Ukyo, Konatsu, and Shampoo to follow, leaving Ranma and Akane to their bedrolls. They laid down, and Akane blew out the lamp.

 

They lay in the dark in silence for a while, neither one really trying to get to sleep. It was very much one of those end-of-the-night sleepover moments where it wasn’t really a question of if an emotional conversation was going to be had, but when.

Ranma was the first to speak up.

“Hey ‘Kane?” he whispered to her, “You awake?”

“Yeah,” she replied quietly. Ranma hesitated for a second, before forcing himself forward.

“I’m… so, so sorry,” he said shakily, “about all of this. It’s all my fault you had come all this way and do all this shit, and I’m so sorry that I didn’t say this sooner, I should have said it this morning or last night and I really don’t know why I didn’t, it’s just sometimes I get so wrapped up in my own head and I forget to tell people what they need them to hear, and then it feels too weird to say it later because it’s like admitting that I feel like I’m not in control of the way I act and-”

“Ranma!” she cut him off, sighing with relief, “It’s okay! You know none of this was your fault! This happened because our dads couldn’t stand up to Happosai, even to protect us. You didn’t do anything wrong, you have to know that.”

“No,” he said, “they couldn’t stand up to Happosai, but I couldn’t stand up to them, even when I knew they were up to something. I’m just like they are.”

His voice was small, and even in the dark Akane could imagine him shutting his eyes to hold back tears. Akane set her jaw, emotions that had been building up this whole trip suddenly boiling over.

“Maybe, but that doesn’t excuse they way they treat you!” She insisted angrily, “The way they treat me! They think they can control us like he controlled them, but they can’t! They don’t want you to ask for help, they want you to think you’re all on your own and that they’re the only people you can rely on, but it’s not true! You called for help, and it saved the city- maybe the whole world!”

She surprised him by grabbing one of his hands in hers and holding it close to her.

“We’re in this together, Ranma. As long as this stuff keeps happening to us, we’ve got to be there for each other. Of course I’m gonna come for you when you’re in trouble.”

Their faces were close enough now that they could see each other through the darkness. She could now see for sure that Ranma’s eyes were swimming. He looked away.

“I thought you wouldn’t,” he said, almost too quietly to hear, “I thought I was gonna be stuck like that forever. I thought Happosai would… he was going to…”

He trailed off, biting his lip. Akane squeezed his hand tighter, and wished she could hug him without hurting her arm.

“Ranma…”

“I felt so weak,” he said with a sniff, “I’ve spent my whole life trying not to feel like that, and it only took Happosai a couple of days. What good is martial arts if it can’t stop that?”

Akane didn’t respond. She didn’t have an answer for him.

“Is this how it is with you and guys?” Ranma asked suddenly. The question took her off guard, and he felt her tense up. “I-I mean, it’s just… I feel like I never really understood before. Being a... being like this never made me feel anything like that before, b-but now… whenever I think about Happosai, or my dad, or your dad, it feels like I’m just gonna...”

“Explode.” Akane finished for him, flatly. Ranma nodded. She met his eye. “Yeah. That’s how I feel.”

Their hands relaxed slightly into each other. Akane could feel her tears in her throat, but not yet in her eyes. She had other things she wanted to say first, but she didn’t know if she should. It might hurt Ranma more than it helped, but it was so rare that they got to have these kinds of conversations. She didn’t want to let the opportunity slip away.

“Ranma,” she said slowly, “Before you guys left, there were a couple of times… that I thought maybe I heard you… crying? A-and I guess I was just wishing I’d asked you what was wrong back then.” She paused to gauge his reaction. It revealed very little. “We don’t have to talk about it, if you don’t want to!” She said quickly.

To her surprise, Ranma shook his head.

“No, it’s alright,” he said, “I knew you knew. It’s just… I don’t really know why, to be honest. I was just sad, I guess. About, like, the way my life has been goin’, recently.”

He trailed off lamely, searching for words that weren’t there.

Akane grit her teeth. She had to ask.  She was sure Ranma wasn’t going to like it. Kasumi had told her just to let it be, but she couldn’t. She had to let him know what she knew. Bullshit secrets weren’t going to help anyone.

She got to her feet, startling Ranma, and strode over to the far side of the room, grabbing a backpack out of the pile of bags they had brought. Ranma didn’t recognize it until she set it down between their bedrolls and laid back down. She looked him in the eye. He paled.

“I was wondering…” she said, unsure, “if it might have had something to do with this.”

Ranma stared at the bag, dread in his eyes. Akane’s cheeks reddened, but she pressed onward.

“So,” she said, “at some point after you left, I noticed you’d left your bag in the dojo. And now obviously that makes total sense that you wouldn’t have been able to grab it, but at the time it seemed weird. So I uh, brought it inside to show Kasumi and Nabiki, and Nabiki… kind of…”

She trailed off, biting her lip. This was harder than she’d thought.

“She looked through it,” Ranma finished. Akane nodded, reluctantly. Ranma exhaled.

“And she found…?”

Akane stared at him for a long moment, trying to decide what to say.

“Nothing that was any of her business,” She said finally, “Or mine, for that matter. And nothing that anyone should be ashamed about.”

He managed to look ashamed anyway. She wanted to grab his hand again and tell him it was alright, but she was afraid he’d recoil from her.

“But if you wanted to talk to someone about it, I’m all ears,” she said, helpfully. He looked at her, and could see how desperate she was to understand. After all this time, he still wasn’t sure if she was the only one who could understand, or the only one who could never.

Sitting up slightly, he pulled the bag over to him and reached inside, wanting to confirm that he knew what was in there before he said anything he would regret. His face sunk further into grim acceptance the longer he felt around.

“Well,” he said finally, “my boobs make my back hurt. Everyone always said you needed support for that, ‘specially if you did sports and stuff, so I went out and got some. You guys even recommended it a couple of times.” He tried to sound matter-of-fact, but the way his voice weakened at the end betrayed him.

Akane nodded enthusiastically, glad he had started with that one.

“Yeah, totally!” she said, “you’re totally, totally right. We were just surprised because we’d never seen you wear it, you know? But that makes total sense.”

Ranma nodded, blushing slightly at the mention of ‘we’.

“I would have worn it. I know you think I don’t have any shame or whatever, but I’m, like, always embarrassed about these... things,” he said, gesturing vaguely at his chest, “It’s just... I feel like it’s even more embarrassing if it looks like I'm trying, somehow. Not doing it seemed… more natural, I guess?” He swallowed a lump in his throat. The more he tried to rationalize these things, the less sense they seemed to make. Akane’s face wasn’t discouraging, though. He found the strength to keep going.

“So, uh,” he said, scratching the back of his head, “I guess you also found the…” he swallowed, and the next word came out as a whisper, “ tampons.”

Akane had been dreading this moment for a while, but now that it was here, she almost laughed. It had been years since she’d been this immature about this subject. Ranma talked about it like a twelve year old. She forced herself to be serious, for his sake. She nodded.

“So uh,” she said, choosing her words carefully, “that... happens to you?”

Ranma frowned, and looked at the floor.

“Once or twice,” he said finally, “It goes, like, monthly, so if I stay in guy form during that week, I can pretty much avoid it.”

“When did you get them?” she asked, trying to avoid more personal questions, “The tampons, I mean.”

“Before we came to Nerima, actually,” he said. Akane’s eyes bugged out.

“They’ve just been sitting in there that whole time??” She asked incredulously. He nodded, not sure what was wrong. She pulled them out and squinted at the label through the dark.

“Ranma, you can’t use these!” she said, “they’re supposed to be good for a couple years, but not if you keep them in a backpack! You could get an infection or something!”

“Oh, I’ve never used ‘em!” Ranma clarified quickly. “I, uh… couldn’t really figure it out. The instructions are in Chinese.”

Akane mouthed a silent ‘oh’, and set them back down, gingerly. For half a second, she entertained the idea of explaining it to him, then shook her head. Too weird. Maybe she could get Kasumi to do it back home.

They sat in silence for a moment, both knowing what was left, but not sure how to broach it. This was different than the other things. It wasn’t a necessity, and so there was no easy explanation for why Ranma would have it. Finally, Akane cleared her throat, and said,

“It uh… it looks cute.”

She had said it so quietly, Ranma wasn’t sure he’d heard her right.

“It...w-what?”

“It looks cute,” she repeated, more clearly. “The eyeliner, I mean.”

They stared at each other for a second, before both blushing and turning away.

“...Did you guys really not know?” Ranma asked after a moment.

“We all assumed it was part of the transformation,” she replied, “...Somehow.”

“That’s what I was hoping,” he said, “I tried it once, really early on, and my dad never seemed to notice, so I kept doing it. Then I was afraid he would notice if I ever stopped, so I just…” He trailed off, shrugging.

“But how do you always get it on after you transform??” She asked. He thought about it for a second.

“Well, I’m pretty quick,” he replied, simply.

Their eyes met, and to both of their surprise, Ranma found himself smiling, lopsidedly. Akane stared for just a second, then snorted. Soon, they were both giggling, then laughing outright. It wasn’t the self-conscious nervous laughter Ranma had done at the barbecue, but real, genuine laughter, full of relief and happiness, such as neither had felt in a while. When they eventually started to come down, they found that their hands had made their way back into the space between them, and were holding each other tightly.

They didn’t say anything else that night. Akane still had plenty of unanswered questions, and both still had things they needed to say, but for once, it didn’t feel like this was the last real conversation they would ever have. There would be plenty of time to talk later. For now, they were content to sleep, and hold hands.

Chapter Text

Leaving the tree was an… emotionally confusing process. On the one hand, they had saved the city. Plus, they were the first human visitors in decades, beloved by most of the city’s people.

On the other hand, it was impossible to separate their group from the horrible ordeal of the past few days. Most of them obviously had nothing to do with that, but that didn’t change the fact that it was humans who had caused this whole mess, and two of the six who were leaving were clearly not free of blame.

Nevertheless, the queen was letting them go, albeit without much fanfare. They seemed hesitant to pardon the fathers, but they couldn’t deny that, in the end, it was them who had ultimately saved the city. Still, they didn’t get off without a long, private conversation with the queen. Ranma and Akane could only imagine what was being said inside the palace as they waited on its front steps. Keiko and the other guard who had been there on Ranma’s first day were back on duty, and the kids were relating to them the whole story as it had happened from their point of view.

“So you’re telling me,” Keiko said, as Shampoo and Ukyo finished explaining the fight on the rim, “that your guys’s parents are the ones who cut the queen all up? And now you’re expecting Them to just... let them go?”

Ranma frowned. He was pretty sure it was Happosai who had done most of the cutting, but he wasn’t going to be the one to speak up on his father’s behalf. He and Akane looked at each other and shrugged. Keiko scowled.

“Well I’m sorry, I think you guys seem pretty alright and all, I do, but I just don’t think that’s gonna happen. The queen’s forgiving, but nobody should be forgiven for everything.”

The kids looked downcast, not because this was too harsh, but because they weren’t even sure they disagreed. The only reason Genma and Soun had turned against Happosai was because he had double-crossed them. Given the chance, would they have done the same as he did? It certainly seemed like that’s what they had come here for.

But then again… maybe they really had been ignorant of Happosai’s plan right up until he turned on them. That was probably what the queen was trying to determine by talking to them. If that was true, then it meant their only crime had been in attacking the queen and their guards. Well, that and being shitty fathers. Could they really go to jail for that when they had also been the ones to defeat Happosai?

Well, yes, in any normal court of law. But this was a monarchy of monkeys at the top of a magical tree. If the queen let them off the hook, that was that.

Finally, after almost an hour of waiting, the doors swung open. Genma and Soun trudged out, looking frustrated and recalcitrant, but ultimately defeated.

“So?” Ranma asked his father, his arms crossed.

“She-”

They ,” Konatsu corrected, immediately. Genma ground his teeth.

They basically took an hour to say ‘don’t do it again’,” he said grumpily, “as if we were misbehaving children or somethin’.”

Ranma shook his head in disbelief.

“Would you rather they treated you like violent criminals?” he asked, earning a deadly glare from his father. Secretly, Ranma’s fight-or-flight instinct kicked into overdrive at that, but he managed to stand his ground.

“I’d rather everyone stop acting like we planned fer all this to happen,” Genma growled, “We didn’t know what the old man was up to any more than you did, Ranma.”

Ranma could have argued further, but he didn’t feel up to it. He didn’t want his father in jail somewhere in the stratosphere. He just wanted to go home and never talk to him again. He hobbled past him on his crutches into the the queen’s throne room, his friends close behind.

“There they are,” The queen said, smiling, their giant hands clapping together softly. Ranma was amazed to hear them sounding so strong, but he supposed that was probably due to the acoustics of the chamber. Everything sounded louder in here. Still, it was heartening how much better they looked already.

“So, getting ready to leave, are we?” they asked, spreading their arms wide, “Was your time here not satisfactory?” This got a nervous chuckle out of the humans, which made the queen’s mischievous grin soften slightly.

“Relax, kids. I know you must be dying to get home by now. I just called you here to tell you that, despite everything, it was a pleasure to meet you all. I hope that we might meet again someday- perhaps, under less... bizarre circumstances.” They all smiled at that, and didn’t bother to correct their assumption that they were all ‘dying’ to get home. “Before you go though, is there anything you’d like to ask of me? It is the tradition for visitors here, after all.”

The kids exchanged a look. None of them could conceive of asking the queen for anything else after all they’d done for them already. Ranma had wondered if Konatsu would want to ask the queen the same questions he had, but they gave all appearances of understanding the situation without needing to ask, which Ranma found slightly annoying.

Akane looked at Ranma, and he nodded back at her.

“Your Majesty?” She asked, stepping forward.

“Yes, child?”

“Me and Ranma- that is, Ranma and I just wanted to apologize for our fathers’ actions. You’ve shown us so much forgiveness and kindness while we’ve been here, and we can’t even begin to really repay the favor. All we can do is offer our humblest apologies, and promise you that we’ll do everything we can to make sure they never do anything like this again.”

With that, both teens dropped silently to their knees, Ranma with some trouble, and lowered their heads to the ground in the deepest bows they could.

The queen look down on them, a small smile on their face, but with no amusement or mockery.

“Children should never have to apologize for the actions of their parents,” The queen said after a moment, “and when it does happen, it speaks volumes to the character of both parties. Thank you two. I shall always feel that I didn’t do enough to help you in your situation, but I will always been secure in the knowledge that you were some of the most capable young people I have ever met. And that goes for all of you.” They said, looking up at the rest of the group.

“It is my firm belief that, so long as you have a few good friends at your side, you will be able to handle anything life throws at you. Remember, the monkey people do not live in this tree to avoid the problems of the world- no matter where one goes, the occasional storm will manage to find them. We live here so that we may weather those storms together, as one.

“You will all have many more obstacles to face before your youths come to an end, I am sure of it. Do not run from them, or try to pretend they don’t bother you. Face them head on, with your friends at your back, and I know you will make it through all right.” They looked back down and realized with a start that Akane and Ranma were still bowing.

“Oh, uh, you may rise,” they said sheepishly. The two got to their feet, grinning.

“Thank you, Queen Oda,” they said, simply bowing their heads this time.

Shampoo was looking impatiently at the door.

“Is something troubling you, Shampoo?” The queen asked.

“Ah,” she said, surprised, “it is just that, my great grandmother, she is still waiting down below at the bottom of the tree, and we have already kept her waiting so long-”

“I understand,” The queen cut her off, “I will not draw out our goodbyes unnecessarily. You have a whole world to get back to, after all. Farewell on your journey home, children. Go, say goodbye to the friends you have made here, then go to the street outside. The tree will take you back down to the ground.”

The group nodded gratefully, and turned to leave. Outside, they found Ooru, Tetsu, and, of course, Keiko waiting for them.

“I can’t believe you guys are leaving already,” Ooru said, “It’s only been like, a week. Don’t you wanna stay longer?”

“Ooru, we almost destroyed the city,” Ranma said, grinning despite himself. Ooru considered that, then nodded to themself.

“Yeah, I guess that’s fair. Still sucks though. I’m gonna miss you humans.” Sniffling, they lumbered towards the group and wrapped them all in a massive monkey-bear-hug, which the humans laughingly accepted.

Once they were released, Tetsu walked up to them and said,

“Now, Akane and Ranma, I want you both to seek medical counsel the moment you arrive back on earth. Your injuries are only just starting to heal, and you will need continued medical attention.”

“Don’t worry Tetsu, we have a good doctor,” Akane said, reassuringly.

“Good. Get those breaks casted up, and lay off the fighting for a while. That shouldn’t be too hard, right?”

Ranma and Akane exchanged a look.

“Right,” they said in unison, somehow keeping a straight face.

“Great. Well, I would say it’s been a pleasure, but to be honest, it’s been a mostly unpleasant experience, and I’ll be glad to put it behind me. Still, you seem like good kids, and I’m glad to have made your acquaintance.” They shook each of the kids’ hands, avoiding the older men, then stood back.

The kids looked up at Keiko, expectantly. The guard nodded exactly once in their direction, then went back to standing at attention. Ranma sighed. He guessed that was the best they could have hoped for. They all walked over to the street.

 

The ride down was slower than the ride up had been for the girl’s group, but astonishingly quick to Genma, Soun, and Ranma.

“You mean we could have just done this?” Genma asked, throwing a fist at the wall of the little chamber in frustration. Ranma rolled his eyes.

“But this wouldn’t have been good ‘training’” he said, putting air quotes around the last word. Genma plopped down on the floor, growling. Ranma looked away, reminding himself not to provoke him for no reason.

After a little while longer, the feeling of descent slowed and then stopped. When the wall of the tree opened up, light poured in, blinding them. Ukyo was the first outside, and she fell to the ground, dramatically.

“Solid ground!” she cried, kissing the dirt. Akane laughed and ran out after her, twirling around in the long grass. The strange beauty of the monkey city had been anything but unpleasant, but it was still a relief to be back in the real world.

“Ah? Hmm? What year is it?” an old voice came from somewhere nearby, and suddenly Cologne’s head popped up out of the grass.

“Great grandmother!” Shampoo cried, running out to hug her.

“Oh!” The old woman said, taken aback, “Back already? How long was I out?”

“Just a few days, grandmother,” Shampoo said happily, nuzzling her.

“You slept out here that whole time?” Ranma asked, stepping out as well.

“Ah, future son in law!” She said, “I’m glad to see you made it out of there alright. And yes, when you get to be as old as me, sleep is perhaps the one thing that comes easily.” She looked around as the rest stepped into the open. She raised an eyebrow.

“So, Happosai is dead, is he?”

“What?” Akane asked in surprise, “No, he’s just in jail in the monkey city.”

“Really?” Cologne asked, “Hmph. I would have killed him. Now he’ll just come back.”

“As if you could kill the master, you old hag,” Genma muttered. Everyone ignored him.

“Grandmother, can we go home now?” Shampoo whined, “I want to sleep in a bed again.”

“Yes, of course, dearie,” She said, getting to her feet and picking up her staff, “Come along now children. You can tell me all about your adventure on the drive back.”

 

No one had wanted to ride with the fathers, so Ranma had been forced to squeeze into the back of Cologne’s three-wheeler, bringing the passenger count up to six. None of them minded, though.

As the little car puttered up into the mountains, they all watched as the great tree receded into the distance, until it was nothing more than a thin line extending up into the clouds. Craning his neck, Ranma wondered what was happening at the top at that instant. What were the queen and their friendly subjects doing right then?

Even after the tree disappeared from sight, his thoughts stayed with it, all the way up until the familiar Tokyo skyline came into view in the distance. Then, reluctantly, his mind turned back to more earthly concerns, and the memory of the city high above the clouds began to fade from immediacy. That was okay. He knew he wouldn’t forget. He just hoped everyone else felt the same way. If that were the case, maybe things in Nerima were finally getting ready to change. He felt he needed that now more than ever.

 

_

 

Earlier that morning, just before dawn and before they had gone to the palace, Akane had snuck off and entreated the queen to allow her into the prison. She needed to see him one more time. There were things that still needed to be said. The queen reluctantly agreed, on the condition that they came along as well.

She found the small prison to be curiously empty of prisoners, except for a few cells near the entrance, which held people who looked like they were recovering from hangovers had only been there overnight. They were led past by a guard, and down a long staircase into the depths of the trunk. There, they found a deeper prison, with only one cell, which Akane suspected had only been constructed to hold its current occupant. The only sign of it was a small rectangular hole, no larger than a mail slot, embedded in the wall. Akane looked to the queen, who nodded encouragingly. She stepped up to the hole.

“Ah, Akane m’girl!” a voice called from inside, “So nice of you to visit! Say, why don’t you come inside and let me loose so we can have a real conversation, eh?”

As Akane’s eyes adjusted to the light of the cell, she saw that Happosai’s tiny form was plastered against the back wall, held fast by a tangled mass of vines and branches. Whenever he tried to move, the mass grew and shifted to keep him still. She shuddered.

“Or is this a conjugal visit?” He asked, a lecherous grin growing on his face, “Why Akane, I was beginning to think you didn’t care!”

Akane was silent for several seconds. He struggled even as he stared her down, the vines writhing to contain him. Finally she spoke.

“I know you’re going to escape,” she said simply, “eventually. I just wanted to tell you that when you do, I’m going to be stronger.”

Happosai raised an eyebrow, and looked like he was about to respond, but she kept going.

“I’m going to be stronger than you, and stronger than my father, and I’m not going to let you get anywhere near us or our lives again, so if that’s the only thing you have to do when you get out, I’d say just stay here.”

She turned before he had a chance to smirk, and walked away.

“He really will escape, you know,” she said to the queen as they walked back up the stairs.

“Oh, I’m sure he will,” they said, not sounding particularly concerned, “we’ve made sure the tree isn’t growing any more fruit for the time being. If it ever comes to it, we can just dump what juice we have left on him and throw him off the the side.”

Akane nodded, grimly satisfied with that answer. Behind her, she heard him yell something after them, a desperate twang in his voice, but she ignored it. She planned on thinking about him as little as possible from now on.

Chapter Text

Akane! Ranma! You’ll be late for school!”

Kasumi lowered her hand from her mouth. A moment later, Akane came stumbling down the stairs, her bag slung over one shoulder.

“Is Ranma up?” Kasumi asked as her sister ran past.

Akane grabbed a piece of toast just as it popped from the toaster, and didn’t stop moving while she hot-potatoed it from hand to hand.

“He already left!” She replied, storing the toast between her teeth while she tried to pull her shoes on without sitting down.

“Already left?” Kasumi asked in surprise, “What, through the window?”

Akane shrugged.

“I don’t think he really wants to hang around the house right now!”

She hopped up and down on one foot to get her shoe on right, then rushed out the door, calling out behind her, “See you later Kasumi!”

Kasumi sighed, and watched her run as the door swung in and out. It had been almost two weeks since they’d gotten home from their “training trip”, and Kasumi hadn’t heard Ranma say more than a sentence in the time since.

_

 

It was the end of the school year, the second to last day before final exams. A wave of nervous energy charged the student body, and even the most time-honored of traditions were forgotten in favor of whatever gave the students the most time at their desks, staring at their textbooks. Neither Akane nor Kuno noticed one another as they walked to school, practically side by side, their eyes squarely on their notes. Akane had been up late last night cramming, as she had every night for the past week. She still wasn’t confident in… well, any subject, but especially chemistry. And no matter how many practice tests she aced, she couldn’t convince herself that trigonometry would actually stay in her head. Kuno, meanwhile, had hardly studied all year, and was now paying for it. His father had told him that unless he passed this year, he would be cut off until the end of next year. He had already been held back a year- graduating two years late and becoming, if only temporarily, a poor, was more humiliation than he thought he could bear.

Not everyone was stressing about exams, though. As far as Akane could tell, Nabiki hadn’t wasted any extra energy studying. Of course, it was unquestioned whether she would graduate- she’d already been accepted into half the universities in Tokyo- but she could have at least acted like it mattered to her. Akane ground her teeth as her eyes flicked across her open notebook pages, absorbing nothing. It wouldn’t be bad having such a smart sister, if she wasn’t so aware of how smart she was as well.

On the other side of the spectrum from Nabiki was Ranma. He’d hardly done anything but study. She had pestered him about it a little earlier in the month since she knew he was behind in all of his classes, but he’d surprised her with how much he’d thrown himself into it. For the first time since she’d known him, he was coming to school early and staying after for extra help. Needless to say, Ms. Maegawa was beyond pleased.

Outside of school was a slightly different story. When he did study, he did it quietly in Akane’s room, but mostly these days he avoided the house all together. Ranma had made it silently clear since the moment they’d gotten home that he wanted nothing more to do with his father and, though he hadn’t said anything specific, Akane suspected that feeling extended to her own father, and possibly Nabiki as well. Every time he was in the room with any of them, she always felt like they were on the verge of a screaming match. In the past, none of them would have held back, but now every time it seemed like it was coming to it, Ranma would just go quiet and leave as quickly as possible. She almost wished they would just have it out like they normally did. This was somehow more nerve-wracking than that had ever been. Somehow, she thought Nabiki and the fathers felt the same way.

It was only Ranma who had changed.

She shook her head as she realized she had flipped through five pages of notes without really reading any of it. She growled and started again. Beside her, Kuno walked straight into the wall beside the school front door without looking up. She didn’t notice.

_

Konatsu tapped a slender finger against their cheek absentmindedly, their eyelids drooping. So much for the “lunch rush”. So much for the “hottest spot in Nerima”. It was 12:30 and the only customer at Okonomiyaki Ucchan’s was old man Saburo, who came in every day to eat a plain okonomiyaki and ogle the waitress. If only Ukyo would let them listen to their walkman while it was like this, the job wouldn’t be so bad. But no, they had to look “professional” at all times. As if that’s what people wanted from a waitress at a karaoke joint. Honestly, sometimes, Ukyo could be such a… a…

Konatsu sighed and smiled, wearily. They couldn’t bring themselves to think something bad of their darling boss, even if it was totally true.

Movement outside caught their eye. They perked up. A customer? No, wait…

“Shampoo?” Konatsu called out. The young woman outside jumped at her name and quickly ducked out of sight. Konatsu knit their eyebrows together, then laughed, and hopped over the counter.

“Shampoo, what are you doing?” They asked, opening the door and looking down at her crouched form. Shampoo looked up at them in alarm.

“I, ah…” She said quickly, “I am… looking for a contact lens!” She quickly started searching the ground at her feet.

“You wear contacts?” Konatsu asked, surprised. They didn’t know contacts could be that big. Shampoo hesitated.

“I… no, silly! They are for… great grandmother!” She resumed searching. After a few seconds, she paused, clearly weighing her options. Then she pretended to grab a piece of empty air. She held it up, smiling. “Ah. Found it.”

She quickly stored the imaginary lens in her back pocket, hoping Konatsu hadn’t gotten a good look at it. The look on their face said they had.

“...Yeah, alright,” they said, deciding they were in a charitable mood, “Hey since you found it already and you’re in the neighborhood, wanna come in for a bite?”

Shampoo hesitated, looking somewhere between a cornered animal and a thief who couldn’t believe they were getting away with a crime. Konatsu pursed their lips suspiciously, but didn’t say anything.

“I, uhm, I-”

“Konatsu!” Ukyo’s voice came from the inside of the restaurant, “What are you doin’ out there?” She asked angrily, walking out of the kitchen, “I told you, just cuz it’s slow doesn’t mean you can-”

She faltered as Shampoo stood up, bringing herself into view. They stared at each other for a second.

“Oh, uh, hey Shampoo,” Ukyo said awkwardly, clearly a little embarrassed about her outburst, “What’re you doing here?”

“I was, ah…” She trailed off, looking around helplessly.

“Contact lens,” Konatsu reminded her.

“Yes!” Shampoo said, “Contact lens. And then… okonomiyaki?” Her mouth formed the long word a little strangely, and Ukyo had to suppress a smile. She looked at Konatsu questioningly. They shrugged.

“Alright, sure,” Ukyo said finally, “come on in.”

Shampoo nodded gratefully and followed her in. Konatsu brought up the rear, eyeing them both funnily. This was odd, even for Shampoo. Or, actually, maybe it was only odd because it was Shampoo. Either way, it was odd.

_

 

Nabiki plonked gracefully down onto her bed and flipped open her PDA, scrolling through her schedule. Exams were always a busy time for her, and the fact that she was graduating in a week was no excuse to slack off. Tomorrow she had ten scheduled meetings with students looking for cheat-sheets and test answers, and would likely meet with countless others who had waited till the last second to come to her. Tsk tsk, she thought, rush-jobs cost extra. She tapped out some quick calculations, which were done in her head before she was even finished typing, and grinned at the results. The first-year class was big and dumb this year. She’d make a killing.

Of course, when one business thrives, another has to suffer. With all the stress of exams, people weren’t buying nearly as many illicit photos, which were normally her main source of income. Happosai alone was a huge blow to her sales. She still didn’t see why they’d had to get rid of him so, like, completely. Couldn’t they at least have left in him in jail somewhere around here , so that she could still sell to him?

She shook her head, an irritated frown pulling at the corner of her mouth. A few weeks ago, after they’d gotten back from their big adventure thing, Akane had actually tried to confront her about her pictures. For real this time, all up in her face like ‘you don’t have any right to use me and ranma like that blah blah blah etc’.

Like, the audacity! Apparently they’d found some picture Happosai’d been carrying around for god knows how long, and Akane and the rest of Ranma’s creepy little harem had decided that it was suddenly too much for them. As if they hadn’t all known what she’d been doing. As if they hadn’t all turned a blind eye to her fucking around with Ranma in the past whenever it suited them. Ridiculous.

She sighed. None of these people understood. She was the only one keeping this household afloat, and none of them ever gave her work any consideration. When she left for college, at least one of them would have to get a job. She chuckled quietly at the thought. Then it would be clear what they really thought of what she did Why, Ranma would probably be eager to pose for pictures after a couple weeks of actually working for his food. He’d be begging for it.

She paused and thought for a second, grimacing. Ok, that was kind of a gross idea. Whatever. They all took things way too seriously. Ranma himself hadn’t even said anything about it. Maybe he’d finally learned not to care.

She furrowed her brow and stared at the her ceiling for a moment, then shrugged and went back organizing tomorrow’s profits.

_

Genma threw his head back and poured the rest of his sake down his throat. Cool and dry. Just like the weather.

He looked out across the yard and thought about how he should retire to a cave somewhere to write poetry. His talents were clearly going to waste here, and he was reaching that time in a martial artist’s life when one’s focus should be on achieving enlightenment, not petty squabbling. To Genma’s way of thinking, it was a sin for men past a certain age to work too hard, pure and simple. That’s what sons were for. Of course, that’s not how Happosai saw it, but then, not everyone could be as long-lived as the Master.

He went to take another sip, when a cold shiver ran down his spine. Master Happosai. Every time Genma got him out of his mind, he found his way back in.

“He’ll be coming for us, you know,” Genma said, his mood souring, “It won’t be like last time. He won’t forgive us this time.”

The sudden change in topics took Soun off guard, but he did his best to force a smile.

“Oh Genma,” He said, taking a sip of his own drink and waving the thought away, “Are you still on about that? You saw their prison as well as I did, nothing could escape that!”

“You’re really going to pretend you believe that?” Genma hissed, sloshing his drink a little over their game board, “If we keep up that mindset we won’t be prepared at all when he returns!”

“It took him twenty years last time!” Soun insisted, “And that was just a cave!”

“A cave we covered with thirty tons of solid rock,” Genma replied sullenly, “And besides, he’s stronger than he was then. I don’t know how, but he is. He keeps getting stronger while we grow weaker, Soun! Someday, he’ll be strong enough to break out of that tree, and if he can find us then-” Genma slammed his cup down dramatically on the table, shattering it and splattering sake everywhere. They both stared at his hand in dazed silence for a moment, while a trickle of blood began to pool at the bottom of his fist. Tears began to form in Soun’s eyes.

“What would you have me do?” he demanded of his friend, “Pack up my family, leave the house? The town? Japan? How can we, after all we’ve done here to preserve the school?”

“Would you rather we were all dead?!” Genma replied, his voice rising, “You’ve seen what he can do! What good is preserving the school if he’s out there waiting to destroy everything we’ve built?! We need to run while we have the chance!”

“You mean everything that I’ve built!” Soun yelled back, “That my wife and I spent years building. You want us to give that up, and for what? To spend the rest of our lives in hiding? From what?!”

He grabbed his old friend by the shoulders and stared him down, his tears flowing freely now.

“What are we so afraid of Genma? He’s a decrepit old man! He can’t…” He trailed off for a moment, sobbing,

“He can’t hurt us anymore!”

Genma stared back at him, rage mixing with a number of other undecipherable emotions on his face. He knew Soun was right. They had beaten Happosai once, they could do it again.

And yet a deeper, and he felt truer, part of him knew it was a lie. They could never really defeat their master. It was a fact of the universe, one that had been beaten into the basest recesses of his mind years before. Happosai would be back, and they would get their punishment.

But it wouldn’t be like before. He had made it clear many times since he’d been back what he would do if they ever betrayed him again. Genma had no reason to doubt him.

“Soun, if you won’t come with me,” he snarled, “I’ll take Ranma and go without you.”

_

 

Ranma listened to the whole argument from the roof. They went on for a while after that, until finally Soun threw the rest of his drink in Genma’s face, ending the discussion by way of panda. It was obvious everyone else in the house had heard as well. He could see Akane and Nabiki in their rooms from here. Both were wearing headphones to drown out the noise.

Ranma hugged his knees and looked up at the sky. He’d done his best not to talk to his father in the past few weeks. As far as he could tell, Genma had only just started to notice now. Ranma struggled to imagine how he would construe it. He was probably just glad his son wasn’t talking back as much anymore. Genma would take anything he could get as a sign of Ranma’s obedience to him.

Somehow, hearing his dad say he was going to take him away didn’t stress Ranma out as much as he thought it should. Not because he wanted to go, but because he couldn’t imagine it ever actually happening. There were a lot of things that his father could do to hurt him. Ranma knew there were things Genma could demand of him that he might never be able to say no to. But at this moment in his life, taking him away from Nerima was a step too far. Nothing the old man could say or do would change that.

Besides, he wasn’t scared of Happosai. Not much, anyway. He was confident in the monkey people’s ability to hold him, for a few years at least, and living that time as they would have if he had never entered their lives sounded way better than running all over the world from his imaginary spectre.

If Pops wants to go, Ranma thought as he leaped to the roof of the next house over, he can go himself.

_

 

Ryoga collapsed on the side of the road, exhausted and relieved. It had taken almost a month, but he was sure of it now. He was back in Nerima. Finally, he would settle the score with Ranma Saotome.

 

Chapter Text

The cosecant…. No, the cotangent, it… squared? How can you square a… whatever a cotangent is? Start over. Cotangent is 1 divided by the tangent. And the tangent is sine over cosine. Sine is opposite over hypotenuse. Cosine is adjacent over hypotenuse. So cotangent is…

 

Ranma stared at his paper. He felt a bead of sweat roll down the side of his face as the words and concepts slipped away from him. He knew the feeling well by now, and he knew there was no use in scrambling to regain his hold on them right away. He collapsed back onto Akane’s bed with a groan, ignoring the various papers and pencils scattered around him. Who could have known all this stuff they’d been doing in math class was so hard?

After a moment of staring at the ceiling, he turned his head and looked at Akane. She was hunched over her desk, staring intently at her own papers. He was a little in awe of her right now. Before this month, he’d never understood how serious she was about school. Sure, she was in a lot of the same classes he was, so she wasn’t exactly an honors student, but she tried harder than anybody else he knew, and compared to him she was practically a genius at this stuff.

He didn’t really know why that was though. She’d told him herself she didn't expect to go to college, and it wasn’t like she was actually that interested in any of it. He knew what it looked like when she worked harder than everybody else at something she genuinely enjoyed, and it involved a lot more kicking and doing pushups.

Then again, it wasn’t as if he had a better reason than her for suddenly taking his studies seriously. Originally he had just needed something to do to keep him out of Genma’s way, but seeing her dedication had made him want to try a little. Now it was almost time for exams, and they were so deep in their studies that Ranma had hardly had time to think about anything else for the past few days. It was actually pretty great. He hadn’t fought anyone in weeks .

He wondered briefly if that was why Akane worked so hard at school, but quickly dismissed the notion. Going to school everyday was what got Akane into fights, not out of them. No, he thought it was more likely that that was just the kind of person she was. Whatever she did, be it martial arts, chemistry, or- he shivered- trigonometry, she gave it her all. Ranma envied that a little. He wasn’t even sure if he was completely devoted to the art anymore, let alone anything else.

“You okay?” Akane asked, startling Ranma out of his thoughts, “You’re staring.”

“Oh, uh, sorry,” He said, his cheeks flushing a little, “I was just... uh...” He looked down at his unfinished math sheet. Akane followed his gaze. She nodded, understandingly.

“Stuck?” She asked, moving to as if to get up to help.

“No, wait, no, I mean, I think I’ve almost-” he squinted at the paper, hoping the letters and numbers would suddenly come together to form a solution of their own accord. They didn’t. “...got it.”

She rolled her eyes and sat down next to him on the bed to talk him through it. It didn’t take long; he really did know what he was doing at this point, he just kept getting lost in the more complex problems. She smiled as she saw the answer dawn on him, and he leapt into action to write it all out.

She grabbed the textbook she’d been reading and sat on the bed with him, cross-legged against the headboard. They studied in silence, Ranma now absorbed with his work, definitions once again fresh in his mind. Every once in awhile, Akane would look up and see him chewing on the metal part of his pencil absentmindedly, and she’d smile.

She’d really enjoyed these past few weeks studying with him, despite the stress of finals, and Ranma’s questionable reasons for studying in the first place. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected to happen after they’d gotten back from their adventure, but it certainly wasn’t this. It was nice. Like hanging out with a friend should be. She’d never had that with Ranma before. Hell, she’d never had it with any boy before.

But this newfound comfort around each other came with old restrictions. Since their conversation that night in monkey city, they hadn’t discussed anything more serious than passing their classes. No talk of feelings, of abuse or engagements, and certainly none of lesbian friends or eyeliner. Even their considerable injuries had been left to heal in silence. At first she had assumed they would pick up naturally where they had left off, once they had both recovered a little, but as weeks passed and nothing came of it, she started to wonder if maybe they hadn’t come as far as she’d thought. She wanted to talk, but maybe Ranma just never would. Not with her, anyway.

That old familiar feeling of waiting patiently for the boy who would never make a move started to creep up on her. It was a story she’d been told by others countless times since Ranma had lived with them. It was so patently obvious that that’s what was going on between them from an outside perspective, even Akane had sometimes found herself believing it. And yet, more and more she knew that wasn’t the whole truth. There were sides to both of them that those people had never seen, that even they were only just beginning to understand. When she looked at herself, she saw nothing of the hopeless lovestruck girl others did, lashing out at men only for fear of being hurt until the day her dashing prince came along to sweep her off her feet. That wasn’t her. That would never happen, just like Ranma would never suddenly have a moment of Manly clarity and confess the feelings he supposedly had for her. Ranma wasn’t an idiot. If he had those feeling at all, he certainly knew what they were, and was simply choosing not to act on them. She understood at least that now, if nothing else.

They both had their reasons for standing still, and they ran deeper than anyone else knew. Maybe someday they would be able to tell each other. For now though, Akane thought, maybe it was best to stick to studying.

_

It was nearly midnight by the time they said their goodnights. They stood for a moment at the door, staring at each other. Akane broke away first, grinning, and muttered a final goodnight before shutting the door on him.

Ranma stood there for a moment longer, smiling to himself, before finally looking off down the hallway. Light still emanated from the staircase. That made him nervous. Genma and Soun had gone out tonight, and Ranma had been hoping to get to sleep before his father got home. If he went downstairs, he risked running into them. On the other hand, he desperately needed a bath. He had been putting it off as long as he could, but by tonight even he could smell it, and he had noticed Akane crinkling her nose several times.

He glanced wearily down at his still-casted leg. He had a crutch, but he’d left it downstairs. Using it around the house always felt a little too showy. He could hobble just fine. Wincing, he made his way to and down the staircase, and breathed a sigh of relief when he found the downstairs empty. Still, he would have to hurry.

Bathing hadn’t been a simple process for Ranma in a while, but having a cast complicated it even further. He wasn’t allowed to get it wet, so he either had to stick to sponging himself down, or position himself awkwardly with one whole leg sticking out of the tub. He chose the former.

One upside to this method was that it made using cold water a lot more tolerable. He pulled his shirt off and lowered himself carefully onto the tiny washing stool. He ran a cloth under a cold stream of water and flinched as it touched his skin, goosebumps popping up all across his body. He hated cold baths. Especially in March. Going back to warm baths had been one of the first concessions he’d made after getting his curse. Being a girl was bad, sure, but being cold was worse.

Ranma smirked. The image of him compromising with his female self over little things like that always gave him a little laugh. He often thought of “her” as some kind of opponent, especially after that incident last year when his yin side was given form, but he liked the idea of them becoming begrudging comrades against their shared enemies. After all, it was only her and him in here. They had to stick together.

He continued to smile softly as he scrubbed himself down. He sometimes wished he could talk to her. He didn’t really know what that would entail, or how she would be any different from him, but he thought it would be nice. He was sure she couldn’t be all bad. After all, she was good at so many things! For instance- he turned the faucet to cold and splashed some water on himself- she could reach that spot on their back that he never could! He giggled as he scrubbed, but faltered when the girlish soprano notes dropped to a teenage baritone as the water from the cloth changed him back. For some reason, hearing that killed the joke slightly, and his laughter trailed off.

He washed in silence for a while. Eventually, he sighed, and set his washcloth down to start struggling out of his pants. His pant leg ended up getting stuck around the ankle of his cast, and he fought for several minutes to get it the rest of the way off before giving up and going back to scrubbing, irritably. This leg thing really was a pain in the ass. And it itched . Sometimes, he wanted to just tear the thing apart and scratch for the rest of his life.

He scrubbed around the top of it angrily, as if punishing his leg for being broken, and was rewarded with a shooting pain when he pressed on the wrong place. He swore, and threw the washcloth across the room in frustration. It went splat against the mirror and fell off into the sink.

He sat fuming for a few second while the pain faded.

You can’t be angry with yourself for getting hurt, Ranma, Dr. Tofu’s voice said in his head, you’ll just end up hurting yourself more.

Ranma mouthed the last few words derisively, refusing to acknowledge how freakishly prescient the advice was. Then he sighed, and pushed himself off the wall to his feet. He waddled over to the sink where the cloth lay, and pursed his lips when he saw his reflection. He still needed to wash his hair. Parts of it were curled and sticky with sweat and grease, while others were flat and dry.

The rest of him didn’t look much better. The few hairs on his chest seemed grossly long and dark against the pale of his skin, and though he’d just washed it, the grease that was usually there had caused a few small pimples to spring up. Looking more closely at his face, he realized for the upteenth time how badly he needed to start shaving regularly. The hair on his neck and under his nose was becoming noticeable, and it made him look… ugh. He wrinkled his nose and looked away. Not tonight. He needed to hurry and get to bed before Genma got home.

He dipped his head below the sink faucet. He almost went with hot water, but changed his mind at the last second, and gasped as the freezing water poured down the back of his neck. He came up looking like a drowned rat, and scowled at his reflection.

 _

A few minutes later, he pulled the bathroom door open and stumbled out into the hallway, still jostling his hair with a towel.

From the sound of it, Genma and Soun still weren’t home. He moved hurriedly towards the stairs, and almost ran right into Nabiki as she rounded a corner.

“Whoa!” She said, almost spilling her bowl of cereal, “chill out speed-racer, what’s the rush?”

Ranma froze for a second. He hadn’t been expecting her. He opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out.

Realizing the state he was in, Nabiki looked him quickly up and down. She smirked.

“Nice hair,” She said with a nod, her voice smiling, and stepped past him on the way to the living room.

Ranma stood rooted to the spot. He closed his mouth, then clenched his jaw. After a moment, he hurried up the stairs, his casted leg clunking on every step.

Chapter Text

The tension of the past few weeks was all but gone the next morning- but only because it had been overridden by pre-exam nervousness. Akane and Ranma sat across from each other at the breakfast table, poring over their notes one last time before school. Genma seized upon Ranma’s distraction to steal food off his plate, but found that with no resistance, the game lost half its fun. He pondered that while he chewed his son’s fish. Nabiki watched in amusement, eating her food as if it were a day like any other. Soun narrowed his eyes at her.

“Nabiki, don’t you have exams today as well?” He asked, “Shouldn’t you be studying?”

Nabiki scoffed.

“Please daddy, exams are a cinch,” she said, dismissively, “And even if I failed somehow, it wouldn’t affect my overall grade enough for colleges to care.” She popped a radish in her mouth, a self satisfied smirk on her face. Akane rested her cheek on her fist, staring a little too fiercely at her notes. Nabiki took notice, and smiled slyly.

“‘Sides,” she said, getting up from the table and stretching, “Don’t you people know cramming the morning of actually makes you do worse on tests?”

Akane’s eyes shot up from her papers.

What?!”

Nabiki nodded.

“It’s true. There’s tons of like, studies and stuff about it.”

Akane looked frantically between her notes and her sister, before turning to Kasumi for confirmation.

“You know, I have heard things like that…” The eldest girl said, tapping her chin thoughtfully. Akane collapsed headfirst into her notes in despair.

“Oh!” Kasumi said quickly, “B-but, I’m sure that’s not true of everyone! I think whatever makes you most comfortable is best, Akane!”

Akane groaned into the table. She wouldn’t be “comfortable” until they got their grades back and she passed every class. After a moment’s deliberation, she snapped her notebooks closed and stuffed them in her backpack.

“We’ve gotta go anyway,” she said, getting to her feet, “C’mon Ranma, let’s get going.”

Ranma looked up in surprise, apparently having missed the exchange.

“Oh, yeah, gimme a sec.” He threw his supplies in his bag, still not noticing his mysteriously empty plate, and pulled his crutch from under the table. With a gracefulness more reminiscent of a pole-vaulter than an injured person, he used his good leg and the crutch to hop upright.

When Tofu had first given him the crutch, Genma had tried to encourage him by saying it could be a good ‘training opportunity’. That almost made Ranma want to reject it straight off, but it was soon obvious that his existing acrobatic skill was more than enough to make moving with the crutch almost as easy as with both legs. Without it, though, he was reduced to hobbling. Well, that or walking on his hands, which he actually did do sometimes.

As they walked to school, Ranma refused to put away his notebook, holding it up to his face with one hand while the other held his crutch. Somehow, he managed to turn corners and cross streets without so much as looking up. Every few seconds, Akane would glance over at him nervously, wondering if she should be studying too. She managed to stick to reciting chemistry vocab words in her head. Nabiki, meanwhile, was busy tapping away at her PDA, deleting old files and spreadsheets that she would no longer need once she graduated.

Thus, none of them noticed the giant, out of place square of leaf-covered ground as they rounded the corner into an alley on their usual route to school. Ranma came closest to reacting in time, hearing the branches crack beneath them and seeing the leaves in his periphery at the same instant. Had he not already been injured, he might have been able to leap into the air just as the floor fell away, but as it was, he only succeeded in lashing out clumsily with his casted leg.

They fell for whole seconds before hitting the floor of the tiger pit. Luckily, Akane had the presence of mind to grab her sister and shield her body from below. She knew she and Ranma could survive a fall like this, but Nabiki?

Ranma managed to keep most of the impact off his leg, but momentum still slammed it into the ground after the rest of his body hit. He screamed in pain, tears filling his eyes. His vision blurred. Akane and Nabiki groaned simultaneously beside him.

“Wh-what... the ffu-” Nabiki started, but was interrupted by a coughing fit.

Ranma squinted, trying to see through the halo cast by the square of light above. Suddenly, a lone silhouetted figure appeared at the edge of the pit. Ranma tried to block the light with his hand as his eyes adjusted, but he needn’t have made the effort. The voice that called down was instantly recognizable.

“Haha, Ranma! I knew you’d fall for that trap!”

Ranma groaned, more from mental exhaustion than from pain.

“Ryoga you idiot,” He yelled up at the other boy, whom he could now see well enough to register his smugness, “what the hell are you doing?!”

“I’m putting an end to this chase, once and for all, Saotome!” Ryoga declared triumphantly, “Every time I track you down, you just run away again, and I end up spending weeks looking for you! It’s insane!”

“And who’s fault is that you obsessive creep?!” Ranma replied, “I stay in one place and never pick fights with you! You’re the one with the issues here!”

“So that’s why I came up with this plan!” Ryoga continued, ignoring him, “Running all over Japan and running into you was always just a matter of luck- but if I found a place I knew you would come to on your own, all I would have to do is sit down and wait! And I figured, while I waited, why not dig a little trap so you can’t run away so easy?”

Ryoga grinned, clearly far too pleased with himself. Ranma sighed. He called this a little trap? This hole had to be 20 meters deep!

“Alright, whatever, you got me,” Ranma said, “Now let us out of here so I can kick your ass! We gotta get to school!”

Ryoga shook his head, smiling.

“Nuh-uh, not this time Ranma. We’ll fight down there, where you can’t run off when you start to lose, and whoever survives can-” He faltered. Something appeared to dawn on him.

“Wait, did you say ‘we’? Who else is down there?”

“We are, asshole!” A voice returned, angrily, “You almost killed Nabiki! What the fuck were you thinking?!”

All the color drained out of Ryoga’s face.

“A-Akane?!” he stuttered, recoiling in surprise, “I-I didn’t think you walked to school with him a-anymore! I thought-”

“As if that’s any excuse!” Akane cut him off, sharply, “Ranma’s already injured, you know! If he had landed wrong, he could have lost the use of his leg! Permanently! Is that how you wanted to beat him?!”

“N-no, I-!”

“I can’t believe you!” She continued, “I honestly thought you were better than this, Ryoga! What were you thinking??

“I-I-” Ryoga sputtered, taking an uneasy step back. As he did so, he momentarily lost his grip on his weighted bamboo umbrella. In recent months, he had increased its weight even further than before. It was now so ludicrously heavy that, when it hit the ground, it sent tremors deep enough that the even the teens in the pit below felt them. Ranma’s eyes widened as large cracks began to appear on the pit’s walls. Ryoga, still shellshocked by the weight of his miscalculation, could only yelp and swing his arms wildly as the packed earth beneath his feet began to crumble and fall into the pit.

 

_

 

By the time the crashing stopped, the air was thick with dust, and there was no light anywhere. Ranma was on his back, fists raised straight above him. He had somehow managed to gather enough confidence to shoot a Moko Takabisha into the falling rocks at the last second. It had scattered the debris so none had hit him, but…

Slowly, he lowered his arms and reached out to his side, not daring to breath or even think about what might have happened. He groped around in the dark for several second before his hand found the back of Akane’s shoulder, and relief washed over him. She was still crouched over Nabiki, hugging her tightly, braced to use her body as a shield. He felt her muscles relax slightly in his hand, and after a moment she sat up as well. Below her, Nabiki broke out coughing again. Akane and Ranma instinctively covered their mouths and noses with their shirts to avoid breathing too much dust.

“What the hell do we do?” Ranma asked quietly. Akane had no answer for him. They were in what must have been a tiny chamber buried underneath at least several meters of dirt, rock, and concrete. The only thing Ranma could think to do was another Moko Takabisha, but that probably wouldn’t do much more than shift the rocks around and make their little cavern collapse. If it were only him, or even him and Akane, they could have just dug out, but with Nabiki here they couldn’t risk it.

In fact, the only one with the skills to get them out of here was the idiot who had made the hole in the first place. Ranma crossed his arms irritably and flopped back down.

It was several minutes longer before they heard the telltale rumbling of rocks being destroyed nearby. Choking through the dust, Ranma and Akane started yelling for him to come in their direction. A sudden rush of wind into their chamber signalled the arrival of their captor-turned-savior. The three gasped hungrily at the relatively fresh air.

“Akane!” Ryoga cried as he burst into the room, “I’m so sorr-!”

Save it.” Akane said icily.

“‘Bout time you showed up,” Ranma grumbled, “Kinda thought you’d gotten embarrassed and left us to suffocate.”

“I would nev-!”

Ryoga,” Akane silenced him again, “Shut up and get us out of here. We’ll talk later.”

Ryoga’s jaw hung slack. He wanted to protest, but how could he? None of this was fair. How had his perfect plan gone so wrong?

Steeling himself, he decided it would be best to go along for now. Scrunching his eyes shut, he tried to focus all of his frustration and confusion into the palms of his hands. Soon the pink glow of his ki lit the chamber. Just as he was about to fling it upwards however, a weak voice stopped him.

“W-wait ,” Nabiki rasped. Everyone looked down at her in surprise. “You’re just gonna try to blast your way back up?”

“Don’t worry sis,” Akane said softly, “Ryoga’s Shishi Hokodan is really strong. There won’t be anything left to collapse on us.”

“Sure, but there are buildings up there!” Nabiki said, her voice growing stronger, “You wanna make a giant sinkhole in the middle of the city??”

The others faltered, and Ryoga’s light dimmed. That wasn’t the kind of stuff they usually considered as martial artists.

“So what can we do then?” Akane asked, hopelessness seeping into her voice.

“What about the subway?” Nabiki suggested after a moment, “If we only tunnel horizontally, we might be able to find a subway tunnel and not cause a sinkhole!”

“Is there one around here?” Ranma asked.

“Yeah, there should be one, like…” She looked around, trying to remember which direction they were facing. She pointed to one wall and said, uncertainly, “west?”

Akane and Ranma exchanged a hesitant look. Akane pursed her lips.

“Alright,” she said finally, “do it Ryoga.”  Ryoga looked around at them, the light of his ki going out completely.

“You sure?” He asked, “The walls are all bedrock. I’ll have to use the Bakusai Tenketsu. It might take a while.”

The others hesitated, all thinking about how late they were going to be to their tests.

“Just go!” Ranma said after a moment, “And go fast!”

Ryoga nodded, and rushed over to a wall. He searched for a few seconds, then drew back and shoved a pointer finger into a notch in the rock. A section of the wall fell away with a crunching sound. A few tense seconds passed while they waited for the world to come crashing down on them. When it didn’t, Ryoga looked over his shoulder.

Akane moved to help Nabiki up. At first the older girl tried to shake her off, but once she was on her feet she groaned and fell into her sister’s arms. Carefully, Akane scooped her up, and when she didn’t complain, she continued after Ryoga. Ranma brought up the rear, silently thankful no one could see how much he was struggling to stay on his feet. His crutch had gotten lost in the cave-in. Without, he had to use the wall for support, and every time his injured leg moved it sent a wave of agony up up into lower back.

It was indeed slow going. Ryoga could take out at most five feet of rock with each use of the Bakusai Tenketsu, and it took him several seconds to find the breaking point each time- plus the fact that he kept getting mixed up and sending the tunnel off in the wrong direction. Not, of course, that they were sure of their direction to begin with.

The whole way, Ryoga tried desperately to think of something to say that would break this unbearable awkwardness. Obviously he hadn’t meant for any of this to happen. He had just wanted to fight Ranma! They hadn’t gotten to fight in weeks, and he’d wanted to do something cool.

He looked behind him again. He couldn’t see anything, but he thought he could feel the angry energy radiating off Akane. He decided to keep his mouth shut and keep digging.

By some kind of miracle, after what felt like forever, the group stumbled out into an empty subway tunnel, and were nearly blinded by the dim lights that lined the walls.

“You were right,” Ryoga said, panting. Nabiki ignored him, fishing around in her pocket. She took out her PDA and squinted at it.

“First period started half an hour ago,” she said, “If we hurry, they might let us retake the first test later and we’ll still be able to do the others today.” She shoved it back in her pocket and appeared to brace herself for Akane to take sprint off with her to school. It didn’t happen.

“Nabiki, I’m taking you to Dr. Tofu’s.”

“What? Nabiki said, incredulous, “No, I’ll be fine, come on we’ve gotta get to school!”

“No way!” Akane replied, “You could be really hurt! You need to see a doctor.”

“I think I can-” she said, struggling to get out of Akane’s grasp, “ sit in a room for a few hours Akane, I’m not some kind of fucking- SHIT!”

The moment she was standing on her own, she cried out and collapsed, holding her lower leg. Akane didn’t hesitate any further. She grabbed her sister up and turned to the boys.

“I’ve gotta take her, can you guys make it back on your own?”

Ranma and Ryoga nodded. Akane briefly turned her attention to Ryoga.

“If you try to attack him while I’m gone, I swear to god I’ll never speak to you again. Got it?”

Ryoga swallowed and kept nodding. Akane looked back at Ranma, glancing worriedly at his leg. He tried to look reassuring. She frowned, but gave him a quick nod and took off down the tunnel at a martial artist’s pace.

Ranma and Ryoga stood alone in the tunnel.

Ranma didn’t waste any time, leaning one arm against the wall and starting to hobble in the direction Akane had gone. In the distance, he could see some kind of maintenance walkway along the side of the tunnel. It had a guardrail, which would make moving for him infinitely easier.

Ryoga walked along awkwardly several feet behind him. He wasn’t exactly sure whether he was supposed to walking with him, or if it would be better to just leave. He thought he knew which one Ranma would prefer, but what if a train came along after he left and he wasn’t able to get out of the way? Ranma definitely couldn’t stop a train, right?

...Right? Maybe, with the Moko Takabisha. Ryoga was pretty confident that, if it were him, he could do it with his strength alone, but if worst came to worst, he could always just find it’s breaking point. But Ranma had a handicap since he was injured, though. He wondered how that would affect the outcome…

Ryoga continued to consider the scenario until a sharp yelp from his travelling companion startled him out of his reverie. Ranma was slumped against the wall now, his face contorted in pain. Ryoga walked up beside him, a puzzled look on his face.

“Are you…” he started hesitantly, but trailed off and started again, “If you can’t walk I could, like, carry y-”

Ranma shot him a murderous look and his mouth snapped shut.

“I’m fine.” Ranma insisted through gritted teeth, beads of sweat on his face. “I’ll just…”

He dropped forward suddenly, to Ryoga’s surprise, but caught himself with his hands and flipped up into a handstand. Ryoga nodded appreciatively at the strategy, but after a few hand-steps, Ranma’s casted leg appeared to lose balance, and swung forward at an unnatural angle. He let out another cry of pain and collapsed in a heap. Ryoga stared at him in bewilderment. He had never seen Ranma this badly injured.

“What even happened?” He asked after a moment, “to your leg, I mean.”

Ranma grunted as he tried to right himself on the ground, eventually giving up and settling down on his back.

“Fell out of a tree,” he said flatly.

Ryoga made a face like he didn’t believe that.

“But when ?” he asked, squatting down beside him, “When I break a bone, it’s usually healed up in like, a week, tops.”

“Yeah, well, maybe if people didn’t keep dropping me into pits, it would be healed by now,” Ranma said irritably. The accusation neither seemed to resolve the issue for Ryoga nor made him appear outwardly guilty. Ranma exhaled.

“It happened on a training trip. A couple weeks ago,” he said after a moment, “except it wasn’t really a training trip, it was some bullshit to go steal some magical thing that my dad tricked me into tagging along for. Except he didn’t really trick me, because he drugged and kidnapped me. Then everybody had to come and rescue me, and I got hurt in the fight.”

He left out the fact that his leg had been hurting before then because he still felt like an idiot for ignoring Dr. Tofu’s orders.

“Everybody?” Ryoga asked, surprised, “Who’s everybody?”

“Uh,” Ranma said, unsure of why he was asking, “Y’know, like, Akane, Shampoo, Ukyo, Konatsu, just... everybody.”

Ryoga made a face that Ranma couldn’t quite read. Or rather, he thought he knew what it was, but couldn’t believe it.

“Are you… offended? ” Ranma asked incredulously. Ryoga looked like he was about to say ‘ of course!’ , but thought better of it, and instead scoffed unconvincingly and made a series of noncommittal gestures that communicated nothing.

When they finally made eye contact again, he looked embarrassed. He looked away.

“Well if you’re that hurt,” he said, “you should just let me help you walk. There’s no point in pretending y’don’t need help, ‘specially when you being down here is my fault in the first place.”

Ranma was taken aback. He hadn’t thought that’s what he was doing, but maybe he was. He looked Ryoga up and down, appraisingly. After a long moment, he said,

“Yeah. Alright.”

Ryoga nodded, and carefully threaded an arm behind Ranma’s shoulders to help him upright. They hobbled together towards the walkway, moving only slightly faster than before, but with far less pain on Ranma’s part.

“Just like…” Ryoga said after they had been walking for a while, “ tell me next time so something like this doesn’t happen.”

Or, you come talk to me before you start digging traps all over the city, ‘next time’” Ranma countered. Ryoga didn’t have a response.

When they got to the walkway, they quickly parted, and Ranma started using the railing as a crutch. Like that, he was able to move as fast as any normal person could run. For the first time all day, Ryoga saw some of his rival's old gracefulness shine through. Discreetly as he could, he lifted one leg and tried to mimic the other boy’s movement. He found that he couldn’t keep up, despite how tired Ranma had seemed before. That just made him want to try harder.

Eventually, the walkway came to an end at a metal door in the wall. Ranma smirked as Ryoga came to a stop behind him, panting. He hopped over to the door and turned the knob. Locked. He looked around to make sure there were no security cameras, then ripped it open, bending the metal and sending a small chunk of the concrete wall flying.

“You don’t wanna stay and see if a train comes by?” Ryoga asked.

“What, so we could get on?” Ranma asked, “I don’t think they stop here.”

“No, I just wanted to see if we could…” He trailed off, thinking about what he had been about to say. “Actually yeah, you’re right, we’d better just go.” He walked past him through the door. Ranma followed, giving him a funny look.

 

A while later, Ryoga helped Ranma onto a bench on a crowded platform in Nerima Station. Ranma mumbled his thanks. Ryoga grunted in response and remained standing, eyes surveying the area, suspiciously. A thought struck Ranma.

“Hey, have you ever tried using the train?” He asked suddenly, “Could make getting around a lot easier.”

Ryoga snorted.

“Train maps are the most confusing kind of map,” he replied, dismissively. Then after a moment, added, “‘sides, the whole point of travelling is to get stronger. How’m I supposed to get stronger on a train?”

Ranma considered that.

“You could do chin-ups on the bar thing.”

He had meant it as a joke, but Ryoga appeared to think about it seriously, which made Ranma grin despite himself. Then, he saw someone walk by wearing a backpack, and the worries of the day came rushing back to him.

Furinkan was only a few blocks from here. Tofu’s was actually farther. On his own though, he wasn’t sure if he could make it to either. Shouldn’t he at least try, though? They had worked so hard studying- he was sure once Nabiki was safe with Dr. Tofu, she would head immediately to the school. Surely he should do the same. But somehow, after the events of the morning, he couldn’t shake the feeling that it just… didn’t matter. It wasn’t like he had any real reason to care about his grades. He was only in school to begin with because his dad didn’t want him hanging around the house all day, and he had only been studying so hard to keep away from the house and his dad.

This- fights and traps and martial arts- was what his life was really about. He couldn’t escape that, and he was no longer in the mood to put in the effort trying.

He sighed and rested his head in his hands. Ryoga took notice

“What’s up?” He asked, “The pain got worse again?”

“Oh, uh, nah,” Ranma replied quickly, “We were just supposed to take our exams at school today. It’s stupid. Guess I’ll just go home.”

Ryoga nodded, understandingly.

“Exams, huh?” He said, almost chuckling, “That’s something I don’t miss about school. But I guess it makes sense that you would want to go. You were always a good student.”

Ranma scoffed.

“Better than you maybe, but that doesn’t make me ‘good’.”

“Yeah, well,” Ryoga said, “I remember you being pretty damn good. When I could never beat you in gym class, I started trying to in other classes, only to find out you were even more of a nerd there!”

“Wh-” Ranma started, “...really?”

That wasn’t how he remembered it at all. He did remember having a lot more fun in middle school, but in his memories he always felt like he was way behind everyone else, struggling to catch up. Maybe it was just that Ryoga was even dumber than he was, and could only see the person just ahead of him? Or maybe… maybe it was because Ranma was so competitive he only paid attention to the people who were better than he was.

He stared at the ground for several seconds, lost in thought, then mumbled,

“I did work really hard studying…”

Ryoga watched him, then shrugged.

“I think you should go,” he said finally. Ranma looked up at him in surprise.

“What?” He asked, “Don’t you think school is stupid?”

Ryoga shrugged again.

“Only if you don’t like it, like me,” he replied, “If you worked hard at it, you might as well go in and show ‘em what you’ve got. You wouldn’t give up a fight just because you thought it didn’t matter, or you thought you’d lose, right?”

Ranma thought about that for a second. Then he said,

“Well... ‘never said I thought I’d lose. I think I could do pretty good, actually.”

“So go!” Ryoga said in exasperation. Ranma shook his head.

“I wouldn’t make it on this leg,” he said, sighing, “Besides, I should probably go to the doctor’s. Pretty sure I’m hurt worse than Nabiki was.”

Ryoga rolled his eyes.

“Aw, you’ll survive. Fucking… I’ll carry you, alright?”

He made a sudden movement forward as if to pick him up.

“Whoa, whoa!” Ranma said, recoiling in shock, “What, you mean, while we’re both… like this? What’ll people think?”

Ryoga wrinkled his nose.

“You mean you’d rather me carry you, like, as a girl?”

Ranma opened his mouth to reply, then closed it again, confused. Then he shook his head and said,

“No, I’d rather you not carry me at all, weirdo!” Ryoga threw his arms in the air.

“Argh, Ranma!” He exclaimed, “It’s my fault you’re not there already! I feel bad, alright? Let me help!”

They stared at each other for a few seconds. Then, reluctantly, Ranma turned his head away, and offered an arm for him to grab. Ryoga wasted no time, gathering the other boy up princess-style in his arms and taking off for the exit.

“Shit, careful, my back’s still sore too,” Ranma said as Ryoga flew up the stairs five at a time.

“Sorry.”

They burst out onto the crowded Tokyo street, and Ranma started shouting directions to the school. It wasn’t exactly a complicated route, but Ryoga needed a lot of help. They did get some funny looks along the way, but that was more because they were moving at 45 km/h than because they were both boys.

Ryoga didn’t stop running until they arrived at the door of the classroom Ranma was supposed to be taking a test, where he promptly knocked before Ranma could stop him. Ranma cursed and struggled to get out of his arms before the door swung open, and revealed a very cross looking old woman.

“Uh…” Ranma said awkwardly, “Hey, uh, Ms. Maegawa… mind if I come in?”

The old woman stared at him, lips a thin line. Finally she stood aside and said,

“Well it’s about time. You had better get to work, Mr. Saotome.”

Chapter Text

SLAM!

Everyone at the dinner table winced at the sound. A few seconds later, Akane trudged into the room and sat down at her plate, rubbing her nose where Nabiki’s door had hit it.

“Still didn’t want to talk, huh?” Ranma asked. Akane grumbled in response and started shovelling food into her face. Didn’t Nabiki get that Akane was a victim in all this too? Hell, even more of one, since she still had another year of high school to get through. Nabiki was home-free!

It was a moot point anyway. They’d managed to get back to school and keep the issue out of Principal Kuno’s earshot, and their teachers had all agreed to let them retake the exams they had missed. Of course, Nabiki hadn’t uttered so much as a ‘thank you’ in her direction since she’d chosen to go to the clinic before the school.

It didn’t make sense! If Nabiki’s grades were so good, why was she being so uptight about this? She’d said it herself- even if she hadn’t shown up at all, she still could have gotten into any school she wanted.

Genma, across the table from Akane, inched to the side uncomfortably, worried her angry glare was meant for him.

“Well,” Soun said after a moment, wanting to lighten the mood, “at least you’ll have another night to study for your chemistry exam!”

Akane’s whole body tensed suddenly as if she had been slapped. Then she collapsed face-first into her food, moaning incoherently while Kasumi and Ranma rushed to her sides to comfort her.

It never ends,” she blubbered quietly.

_

 

Ranma sighed in frustration. He’d come out here to de -stress, but there were two cats fighting across street, and if they came any closer he’d need to move. Just getting out to the front steps had been a pain in the ass already. He should have just gone to bed.

He had gone to Tofu’s after school, and had been told much the same thing he had been several weeks earlier: he needed to stay off his leg, or he wouldn’t have the option of using it much longer. This time though, something about the pain in his leg and the way the doctor said it made it a lot easier for Ranma to believe. He was determined to take the advice to heart. Tomorrow, he would finish his exams, and then he’d come straight home for a few weeks of R&R.

But… being home all that time meant being with his dad. He had managed to avoid him pretty well thus far, and of course he had his innate ability as a teenager in a crowded household to find all the best spots to keep to himself, but there was no getting around the fact that he would be coming face-to-face with the old panda several times a day for at least the next few weeks. The thought of it made him sick to his stomach. Ever since they’d been back in the city, being around Genma had made Ranma feel like he’d fallen into an alternate universe. Soun and the Tendos too, to a lesser extent. It was like none of it had ever happened. Kasumi and Nabiki either didn’t know or didn’t care about the details of their trip, and of course the fathers wanted everything back to normal. Even Akane, who seemed so in agreement with him when they were alone, had fallen back into her normal routine now. Sure, she talked back and rolled her eyes a lot, but she’d always done that.

It was just… he had thought things were going to be different now. And in some ways they were- he did feel closer to Akane somehow, even though they hadn’t talked about anything serious in weeks- but in other ways things were painfully the same. No, even worse; things were the same, but now, for the first time ever, Ranma saw his situation clearly. He hated his father. Hated and resented him, and he always had. Those feelings had long been disguised by respect for him as a martial artist and the vague notion that everyone basically felt that way about their dad, but now that was all gone. He no longer felt any connection to the man in the building behind him, or the future and family that man had picked for him. If it weren’t for Akane, he would never have returned to the Tendo house in the first place.

A sound made his head snap up, afraid the cats had made it into the yard. They hadn’t.

“He~yyy Ran-chan!” Ukyo said playfully, striding up the front walkway, a smile on her face, “What’s goin’ on? I feel like I haven’t seen you around the shop in weeks!” She stopped in front of him, noting his cast. “Still healing? That’s unlike you.”

“Not really still healing so much as healing again ,” Ranma grumbled.

“Aww, what happened?” She asked, sitting down on the steps next to him, a little too close for Ranma’s comfort. He glanced at her warily, then muttered into his hand,

“...Stupid Ryoga dropped me down a hole.” Ukyo laughed out loud at that, and Ranma shot her a dirty look.

“Aw, I’m sorry Ran-chan, but watchin’ your guyses’ fights escalate will never not be funny to me.” She rubbed his back comfortingly. He wished she wouldn’t. He knew the flirting didn’t mean anything, this was how she was with lots of people, but it still annoyed him. Looking all cute and flirty, even in her plain guy clothes. It ticked him off in a way he could never put into words.

“Hey, I have the perfect thing to take your mind off it though!” She pulled a large stack of papers she had been holding onto her lap and handed one to him. He looked it over.

 

COME TO OKONOMIYAKI UCCHAN’S

FOR A BIG END-OF-SCHOOL KARAOKE PARTY!!!

FRIDAY APRIL 1ST

GIRLS DRINK FREE (NO ALCOHOL)

BE THERE!!!

Under the text were two crude drawings of figures that Ranma gathered to be Ukyo and Konatsu, wearing party hats and dancing. He snorted.

“What?” Ukyo asked, feigning ignorance. He held up the flier and pointed at the stick figure that was clearly meant to be her. Its arms were covered in giant lumps, like how a small child would draw muscles.

“Little generous, don’t you think?”

“Shut up, that’s exactly how my arms look.” She flexed to demonstrate and grinned at him cockily. Ranma snickered despite himself.

“So you’ll come, right?”

“Ahh,” he said, “Sorry, I don’t think I can. I’ve, like, really gotta let this leg heal, and if I leave the house, y’know, somethin’ crazy’ll probably happen...”

Ukyo rolled her eyes.

“Ranma, crazy things are going to happen to you whether you stay inside or not. Come on, all the girls’ll be there. We’ll protect you!”

“Gee thanks,” He replied, unconvinced.

Ranma ,” she said, “I’m begging you. You have got to get out and have do something . Look at you! You’re wasting away to nothing!” She gestured to his body.

Ranma looked down at himself. Was that true? Had the weeks of inactivity started to take a toll on his body? It was definitely subtle, but to a trained martial artist it was probably immediately obvious. And he was supposed to do this for three more weeks?

Ukyo saw the gears turning in his head and realized her mistake.

“Waitwaitwait forget I said that, alright? You’re in peak physical condition. You’re fucking Hercules. I meant you’ve just gotta have some fun!” Ranma looked up at her skeptically.

“‘ Fun’ ?”

“Yeah!” She replied enthusiastically, “When was the last time you went out and just had some simple, non-combat based fun with your friends?”

Ranma thought about it. The first thing that came to mind was that last day they’d all spent together in monkey city. He had really enjoyed that day. And wasn’t that kind of exactly what he’d been wanting before all this started? Some normal friendships without all the fighting?

He bit his lip.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Ukyo said, smiling and standing up. “Get a crutch, a wheelchair, whatever, and be there by 8 o’clock on friday. And bring Akane!” She retreated down the front pathway before he could protest and disappeared out the gate, but poked her head back in a second later and called out,

“Oh, and remember; girls drink free!” She winked and made finger guns at him before disappearing again. When Ranma realized what she was implying, his face flushed, and he turned back to the house, huffing. Why did she always do that??

 

_

 

“I did okay on the short answer section, but I know I flunked the essay,” Akane said, growling as she punched the jab bags on Ranma’s hands. “I just don’t get how they expect you to write an essay in one sitting like that! I can’t get all my thoughts organized and come up with the words to express them in that amount of time! Plus they make you do all that structural stuff with the thesis and the body paragraphs and everything, like what’s the point of all that?? Why can’t I just write down my argument like I would say it out loud?”

It was the next day, and they were in the dojo blowing off steam after exams. Well, Akane was, anyway.

“I don’t pay attention to that stuff,” Ranma said shrugging, “I just write what I think. The teachers always say they like that I ‘don’t get restricted by the form’ or whatever, but really I just never learned it.”

Akane groaned in exasperation and collapsed back onto her mat. Ranma smiled. It was kind of fun watching her get worked up. He could see why Nabiki liked it.

“So you still don’t plan on going to college, right?” Ranma asked. The question seemed to take Akane by surprise.

“Uh, well…” She said hesitantly, “Definitely not right after we graduate. But maybe someday. If I ever have the money.”

Ranma nodded. They sat uncomfortably for a few seconds, thinking. Any vision of the future other than the one that had been continually presented to them in the past year and half was now difficult for them to imagine, but not at all unwelcome.

“I want to live in an apartment by myself someday,” Akane said abruptly. “In a good part of Tokyo. And have some kind of, like, high-paying job where I have to dress up fancy every day just to go into work.”

She stared at the ceiling, wistfully. Ranma nodded thoughtfully.

“And you’d have a car,” he said, “a big swanky one. With a CD player right in it.”

“But I’d never drive it,” Akane said, grinning and rolling over to look at him, “‘Cuz everyone in the city just walks.”

“You’d use it for vacations!” he insisted, “Just drive out to the country or the coast and hang out on the top.” He smiled at the thought of that. Akane gave him an odd look.

“Since when are you so into driving?”  

Ranma shrugged.

“Just seems like it would be nice to be able to do.”

“Maybe it wouldn’t even be Tokyo,” Akane said, “Maybe Kyoto, or Nagoya.”

“Or Seoul.” Ranma suggested. Akane snorted.

“Or Sydney!” She said, sarcastically, “Or Paris! Or, or-”

“New York!” They both laughed at the image of Akane as a high powered business woman living on the other side of the world.

In his head though, Ranma figured that picture of the future suited Akane pretty well. Not as well as it suited Nabiki, but a whole hell of a lot better than staying here and being his housewife while he taught martial arts or whatever. Of course, he wouldn’t be here in that scenario either. What would he be doing then? He concentrated as hard as he could, trying to envision himself happy as an adult in a world away from his father and the Tendos, but try as he might, the only thing he could come up with was “fisherman”. And boats made him seasick.

“Hey, you wanna go to that party tonight, right?” Akane asked suddenly.

“Huh?” Ranma said, snapping out of his train of thought, “Oh, yeah, I guess so.”

Akane raised an eyebrow.

“Are you sure? Y’don’t sound very excited.”

“Nah, it’s nothing,” he said, massaging his forehead, “I’ll go if you do. Ukyo was just being weird when she invited me.”

“Weird how?”

“She just…” he pursed his lips and looked at her, thinking for a second.

“...It’s nothin’. Come on, get back to punching, I know you can hit harder than you just were.”

Akane rolled her eyes and hopped to her feet.

“You’re gonna feel these ones through those gloves, tough guy.”

 

A few hours later, Akane stepped out of the dojo, wiping sweat from her forehead with a towel. Ranma rolled out a second later in his new wheelchair.

“I’m gonna go get ready to go,” Akane said, and jogged off toward the house. Ranma nodded silently, looking down at the single step outside the door with a frown. It was frustrating, because he knew he was physically capable of moving around gracefully in this thing, he just had no idea how. He closed his eyes and pushed off, landing with a grunt on the ground. It was amazing how much a one-foot drop could rattle you while you were sitting down. Luckily, the stone step outside the house’s back door was rounded enough that he could roll into it without much problem.

He rolled through the house, to the room he shared with his father, breathing a sigh of relief when he found it empty. He needed a change of shirt, so he pulled open his drawer in the dresser and grabbed one at random. This one happened to be the blue one. He frowned at it, and considered reaching for a different one, but thought better of it. He only had five, and they were all pretty much the same anyway, so it wasn’t like it mattered. He yanked off his old shirt and tossed it on the ground before wriggling into the new one. That concluded his planned preparation for the night.

He was on his way to the kitchen to see if Kasumi was around when he caught sight of himself in the mirror through the open bathroom door and stopped in his tracks, scowling. He looked awful. His bangs were all frizzy and puffed up so you could see his hairline through them. He tried to smooth them down but only made it worse. On top of that, he still hadn’t shaved, and he thought his acne had gotten a little worse. Plus his shirt looked like it hadn’t been washed in weeks, and it kind of smelled like vinegar? Ugh.

He looked around helplessly. He didn’t have time for a bath since Akane would clearly want one too, but he couldn’t go out looking like this! Maybe if he hurried he could at least shave.

He rolled into the bathroom and turned on the hot water. He waited for a few seconds while it warmed up, then splashed some on his face, only to discover he hadn’t waited long enough when he looked up at the mirror. He grimaced and was about to curse, but faltered, looking at his reflection.

Well, he thought, touching a hand to his face, shaving’s not a problem anymore . On top of that, even though his bangs were still frizzy, he found he didn’t mind seeing his forehead so much like this. The acne was still a problem, but...

Looking around to make sure no one was coming, he slid the door closed and pulled open the medicine cabinet. Some of the girls’ makeup was back there. He knew there was something that would… yeah, concealer! He pulled out the darkest one they had and squirted some out onto his fingertip. It was halfway to his face before he caught his own gaze in the mirror and stopped.

What was he doing? He couldn’t just wear makeup out to a party!

But on the other hand...

He pretty much always wore his eyeliner when he was around people in his girl form, and they never seemed to notice. Of course, they all thought that was part of the transformation, but this was concealer! It was meant to be inconspicuous! Plus it would be dark out. Ok, he would put it on, and if it was obvious, he would just take it off.

He rubbed a small circle of it over the line of tiny pimples on his right cheek, and wasn’t sure what emotions to feel when they seemed to vanish completely. He steeled his jaw and made a decision.

He rubbed the rest on his other cheek and quickly whipped his eyeliner out of his pocket. He was an expert with it by now and had it on in seconds. He examined himself when he was done, and deemed it an improvement. When his eyes reached his shirt, though, his face soured. It looked even worse on this form.

He could just switch shirts, but another thought occurred to him. One that had tugged at the back of his mind every time he had switched out one soiled article of clothing for another for the past few weeks. He peeked out the doorway to make sure no one (especially Nabiki) was around, then made a mad dash for his room again. He closed the door quietly behind him and made his way over to his bedroll. Bending down at the waist, uncomfortably, as he had to avoid his elevated leg, he pushed it out of the way and lifted up the loose floorboard beneath, revealing a small space underneath. From it, he pulled out a bra and the tunic Shampoo and Konatsu had gotten him in monkey city. Despite himself, he smiled at them. Then he ripped off the old shirt and tossed it on the floor with the other one before strapping on the bra and wriggling into his tunic.

He looked down at himself. The tunic was a much deeper blue than that of his shirt, and shiny gold patterns snaked across the chest. It was… nice. It was the only nice article of clothing he owned. All his silk shirts had used to be nice, but now they were gross and faded. They all made him feel the same way. But this made him feel… nice.

 

A few minutes later, the door slid open, and Akane appeared.

“Hey Ranma, I’m ready to go if you-” She stopped short, noticing his appearance. She stared at him for a long moment. “You’re, uh… going like that?”

Ranma sat frozen for a moment, staring back at her. He had been pushing his chair back and forth nervously while he waited for her to show up, knowing she wasn’t just gonna let this slide. He’d be lucky if he made it through this exchange without being called a pervert, let alone this evening. He took a deep breath, and noted that her clothes weren’t super casual either, so at least he wouldn’t feel overdressed. That was good.

“Is… that a problem?” He asked, as flatly as he could. Akane’s eyes widened.

“No, no!” She said quickly, “It’s just, I mean- you look really prett- I mean, you look really good!”

Her cheeks reddened, and she looked away, embarrassed.

“...Let’s just go,” she croaked after a few seconds, and hurried off down the hall. Ranma followed a few seconds later, a dazed look on his face.

Chapter Text

 

Konatsu watched people file into the restaurant with a self-satisfied smirk. It was only 8:15 and the place was already packed. The lights were low, and the karaoke machine blared top 40 hits from ten years ago while high school kids took their turns screeching along on stage.

“Told you,” They said to Ukyo, who was busy churning out okonomiyaki at a superhuman speed.

“I never disagreed with you,” She replied without looking up.

“You said we wouldn’t need the extra tables,” They said, bending over backwards to keep her in view while the barstool they were sitting on rotated.

“Would you get out there and serve some people already?” Ukyo said snappily, shooing them away with her spatula.

“Alright, alright!” Konatsu laughed, grabbing their pad and pen off the counter and diving back into the crowd.

It seemed like every teenager in Nerima, or at least Furinkan, had showed up. Konatsu scanned the crowd for familiar faces, and smiled when they saw Sayuri and Yuka sitting at a two seater table.

“Hey!” They called out, waving their notepad above their head. “Yuka-chan, Sayuri-chan!”  The two girls looked up and grinned when they saw them. “What’s up? Can I getcha anything? Free drink?”

“You know, I swear, every time I hear you talk you sound more and more like Ukyo.” Sayuri said, smirking.

“Yeah, but Ukyo talks like Ko-chan too!” Yuka chimed in, “They’re totally rubbing off on each other.”

Sayuri snorted.

“Pfft, yeah,” She said, nudging her girlfriend with her elbow, “I bet they’re ‘rubbing off on each other’”  Both girls burst out laughing. Konatsu raised an eyebrow, unamused.

“So you guys want some food or what?” They asked, a hand on their hip.

“Aw, Ko-chan,” Sayuri said, rubbing their arm consolingly, “I’m sorry, we shouldn’t make fun. You’ll get her someday.”

“Yeah, well,” Konatsu said, bitterness edging into their voice, “When you live with someone and work with them and pretty much confess your love to them every day and nothing ever comes of it, that gets a little hard to believe.” They rubbed their forehead wearily. “Sorry, sorry, that’s a terrible way to think about things. And even worse service! Seriously, what can I get you guys?”

They told them their order, and continued to chat for a moment after. Yuka was in the middle of saying something, when the sound of the door opening drew her attention and she trailed off.

“Whoa,” she said under her breath.

“What?” Sayuri asked, following her gaze to the door, “Oh.”

Konatsu spun around to see what they were looking at, then fell back against the table, grasping their chest dramatically.

“Oh my god they’re so cute.”

Ranma and Akane had just walked in, and they were both looking around, clearly unsure of themselves.

“Is Ranma wearing a dress?” Yuka hissed in disbelief.

“I haven’t seen her- I mean, fuck, him in girl form in weeks!” Sayuri said.

“And now he shows up to a party in a dress ??” Yuka said, dumbfounded. Then she gasped sharply through her nose and started frantically tapping her girlfriend on the shoulder. “You don’t think- are they...? And is Ranma…?” Sayuri’s eyes widened with realization.

Konatsu whipped around and hissed at them,

“It’s not a dress, it’s a ‘ tunic’, and if they come over here, that’s what you’re gonna call it, alright? As for that other stuff... I don’t know yet. But for god’s sake; don’t fucking say anything about it unless they say it first!

The two girls nodded dumbly, and their waitress spun back around and strode off towards the entrance, calling out,

“You guys made it! I was worried you wouldn’t be able to come, Ranma! Love the chair, by the way!”

Ranma looked down, self-consciously, but it was clear from Konatsu’s tone that the compliment was genuine.

“Do you want your own table?” They asked, “Or should I push another two-seater together with Yuka and Sayuri’s? I’m sure they won’t mind.”

Akane and Ranma exchanged a look.

“...With Sayuri and Yuka, I think,” Akane said, nodding. Konatsu nodded and started back towards the table, nudging people out of the way of Ranma’s chair. There were no other tables available, so Konatsu yanked one away from a couple that was about to sit down, ignoring their protests.

“Right, so do you guys want to order now or should I come back in a little bit?” they asked once they were all seated. Ranma and Akane looked at each other.

“We’ll order in a few minutes.” Akane said.

“Alright then, can I get you started with some drinks?” Konatsu asked, “They’re uh... oh well, that is, if you want them to be, tonight, they’re supposed to be-” Sayuri hid her head in her hands as Konatsu fumbled. Luckily, to everyone’s surprise, Ranma cut them off.

“Girls drink free, right? So yeah, we’d like some drinks.”

Every eyebrow at the table shot up. Ranma looked around at them.

“What?” He said defensively, “Why do you think I’m here like this?”

“For... free soda?” Yuka replied skeptically.

“Actually, could I get an iced tea?” Ranma asked Konatsu, who wrote it down obligingly.

“...Right, well,” they said, looking up, a twinge of disappointment in their voice, “I guess that makes sense. Akane, for you?”

“Diet Pepsi?”

They wrote it down, thanked them all for coming, and walked away, shaking their head.

The four remaining teens sat around their table, uncomfortably. Eventually, Yuka cleared her throat, and said,

“So, uh, anybody catch the Pacers game last night?”

Ranma and Akane shook their heads, slowly.

“Tigers game?”

Same response. Yuka, her well of conversational topics run dry, nodded mutely and looked down at the table.
Ranma stared at his lap. They had only just arrived, but he already knew the whole night would be this awkward. But why? Weren’t Sayuri and Yuka the lesbos the boys at school were always talking about? What right did they have to judge him? And what was with Konatsu? Weren’t they supposed to be cool with all this weird stuff?

Not that there was anything particularly weird about him showing up to a party as a girl for free drinks, of course. Obviously that wasn’t the whole reason he was here like this, but nobody else knew that, and the other reasons were hard to explain. But if there was something weird going on with him, shouldn’t they have tried to be supportive of him trying to hide it, if that’s what he wanted?

In actuality, the awkwardness of the situation was mostly in Ranma’s head. Sayuri was looking at the dessert menu, and Yuka was watching a kid she recognized a few tables away. They had band class together, and she knew he had a terrible voice, so she was hoping he would go up for karaoke at some point. Akane was feeling a little awkward, but only because her friends weren’t talking to each other and the only topic she could think of to bridge the gap between them was exams, which was a subject she would really rather avoid.

They were all startled out of their thoughts by a screech of audio feedback from the other side of the room. Dozens of teenagers groaned and covered their ears as they looked up at the source of the noise.

“Sorry!” Shampoo said from the stage, a microphone dangling from a cord in her hand, “Sorry sorry sorry!” She pulled the mic back into her hands and moved to punch something into the karaoke machine. In different parts of the room, Ukyo and Konatsu both paused what they were doing to watch.

“What’s she doing here?” Yuka asked. “I don’t think she even goes to our school. Or any school!”

It took her a minute to figure out the machine, but finally Shampoo stepped back, microphone held in front of her face. Ranma thought she looked nervous, which was a new thing.

When the song started, it took him a few moments to place it. It was an American song that he remembered getting played on the radio a lot when he was a kid. The version he knew had been in english though, and when Shampoo started singing it became clear that this was a japanese translation. It probably wasn’t a very good one, as the lyrics, though pretty, didn’t make much sense. Actually, that might just have been because of Shampoo’s difficulty in reading them off the prompter.

Still, it was pretty. Shampoo’s voice started out shakily, but by the first chorus she had caught her rhythm, and was singing in a voice that sounded shockingly like the one Ranma remembered from the radio. The melody was slow and nostalgic, and many of the kids in the restaurant found themselves bobbing their heads and humming along with the music. When it was over, she got a round of applause from the audience, the first one of the night.

For some reason, Ranma had kind of been expecting her to run straight to their table when she was done and start bothering them. To his surprise, she ran instead to Ukyo at the counter. To his even greater surprise, Ukyo didn’t seem to mind the distraction from cooking, and the two started chatting. After a few seconds, Shampoo got up on her tip-toes and looked around, apparently scanning the crowd for someone. When she couldn’t find them, she shrugged and turned back to Ukyo. That was odd. Were they, like, actual friends now?

“Wow,” Sayuri exclaimed, “She’s really good!”

“It totally felt like the song meant something to her, didn’t it?” Yuka asked, equally impressed. Akane nodded, puzzled

“Yeah,” she said, “I guess so.”

“Do you wanna go up now, babe?” Sayuri asked Yuka.

“Nah, I wouldn’t wanna follow that,” Yuka replied, taking a sip from her soda, “Let’s eat first and wait for someone bad to go.”

“You guys are gonna sing together?”  Akane asked, excitedly.

“Of course!” said Sayuri, “We aren’t just here for the free drinks, after all.”

The other two girls smiled at that. Ranma looked away, his cheeks pink.

“Wait, are you guys not gonna go up?” Yuka asked.

“Oh god no,” Akane said quickly, “I couldn’t, not in front of all those people.”

“Aw, ‘Kane, it’s just a bunch of dumb kids from school,” Yuka said, “Besides, you have such a great voice!”

Yuka couldn’t manage the last sentence without a little snicker. Akane grinned and punched her in the arm.

“Shut up, I’m not doing it.”

“Well, what about you, Ranma?” Sayuri asked, turning to him. Ranma looked up in surprise, then pointed to himself, as if she could have meant someone else.

“Me?”

“Yeah!” Sayuri said, “I’m sure you don’t have stage fright, and I bet your voice is suuuper pretty.”

“Well, I mean, I’m not afraid to-”

“So do it!” Sayuri urged, smiling at him, not unpleasantly.

“But I… I probably don’t even know any of the songs on that thing!” He said finally, “I don’t listen to a lot of music.”

Sayuri frowned and sat back in her chair.

“That would be a problem, I guess…” She trailed off, thinking about it. Ranma breathed a sigh of relief at apparently being off the hook.

A few minutes later, Konatsu showed up again with Yuka and Sayuri’s food and took Akane and Ranma’s orders. As they placed the dishes on the table, they whispered to Yuka,

“Anything new with these two?”

“Nothing yet,” she whispered back, “We’ll keep you updated,” They fist-bumped behind her back and Konatsu moved on like nothing had happened.

After a few more songs from strangers, a pair of familiar faces appeared on stage.

“Oh god,” Ranma said, sinking into his chair and rubbing his forehead, but grinning. It was Hiroshi and Daisuke. They stumbled onstage and Hiroshi grabbed the mic while Daisuke worked on the machine.

“Thh-this one,” Hiroshi slurred, “this one goess outto alllll ‘a you ladiiiesss ou- * urp* o-out there t’night,”

“Are they drunk?” Yuka asked, clearly delighted.

We don’t want it!” A girl called out from somewhere in the room, eliciting cheers and laughter. Hiroshi just waved his hand dismissively at them, apparently taking the audience participation as a sign that things were going well. Daisuke gave his partner a thumbs up from the karaoke machine, then staggered back to the mic as the intro to a 60s soul tune started playing. Hiroshi listened for a second, then pulled the mic right up to his mouth and wailed the first word, off key and out of rhythm, drawing more laughter from the audience.

Of course, even the most spectacularly bad of karaoke acts isn’t that engaging, and after only a few seconds, people started to turn back to their food and conversations. That all changed when they reached the song’s bridge, and Daisuke came in with the back-up vocals. Dozens of heads whipped around in surprise as the drunken boy’s clear, rich, bass-tones rung through the restaurant. Hiroshi grinned goofily, his eyes closed, enjoying what must have sounded to him like a perfect duet.

As the song went on, and the lyrics became more and more emotional, the boys’ voices changed to match. For Daisuke, this meant an impassioned performance that pushed his already powerful voice to its limit, to the point where it began to crack in a way that made him sound much older and more soulful than they all knew him to be. For Hiroshi, it mostly meant that his singing became increasingly like shouting. Unfortunately for the audience, Hiroshi still had a hold on the mic, and would often rip it away completely to do dramatic poses and sing cool solos. Daisuke didn’t really seem to mind.

As the song came to its crescendo, Hiroshi, red in the face and out of breath, leaned back and held the microphone above his head. His final scream was, impressively, his most off-key yet, and lasted several seconds before finally petering out. Daisuke, who had been singing on his own without thinking about the mic, just barely noticed his partner falling over backwards in time to thrust his arms out and catch him. The mic clattered to the ground loudly. Luckily, most of the audience already had their ears covered.

Daisuke stood there for a few seconds, swaying, apparently dazed himself, struggling to keep his unconscious friend upright. Finally, he seemed to remember where he was, and grinned sheepishly at the audience before dragging Hiroshi offstage by the armpits.

There was a scattered round of confused applause, the loudest and most sincere of which came from Yuka and Ranma, who whistled and cheered as Daisuke looked around blearily for a place for him and Hiroshi to sit down.

“Hey yo, guys!” Ranma called out, former awkwardness all but forgotten in the wake of his friends’ spectacle, “Come sit with us!”

Daisuke squinted, searching for the source of the voice. When he saw it was Ranma, his face split into a moony grin, and he started to waddle over, dragging Hiroshi behind him. Akane and Yuka pulled up two more chairs, which the boys gratefully fell into.

“Dude, that was amazing!” Ranma said to Daisuke once they were all sitting, “I had no idea you could sing like that!”

Hiroshi, already passed out on the table, grinned and murmured his thanks for the compliment he assumed was meant for him. Daisuke just giggled, apparently more amused than annoyed by his friend’s delusions.

“Did y-you guys already go up?” Daisuke said to Ranma and Akane, “I didn’t see ya…”

Ranma was about to repeat the excuse he had given Sayuri, but Akane beat him to it.

“No no, we’re just here for the food,” She said. “Besides, neither of us have very good voices. I don’t think anybody wants to hear that.”

Ranma closed his mouth and looked down at his hands in his lap, silently pleased that he and Akane were of the same mind about this, but Daisuke wasn’t having it.

“Aw, c’moon, nobody cares what you sound like,” He said, “It’s just fun!”

“Easy for you to say,” Akane said, just as Ranma thought it. Daisuke rolled his eyes.

“You could just get up there and, and * urp* , and scream for a few minutes, and nobody’d b-bat an eye” Ranma and Akane looked unconvinced, but after a second, Sayuri snapped her fingers.

“Daisuke, you’re a genius!” She said excitedly.

“Huh?” He replied, his last sentence having already slipped his mind.

“Ranma, I know exactly what you’re gonna sing,” She said, standing up and pulling Yuka with her. “We’re gonna go do our song, and while we’re up there I’ll check if they have it, okay? Oh man, this is gonna be great, we’ll be back in a few minutes!” She strode off toward the empty stage, pulling her surprised girlfriend along behind her. Ranma looked shell-shocked. Akane giggled as she sipped her drink through a straw.

“Guess you’re going up after all,” She said, merrily. Ranma shot her a betrayed look.

Daisuke squinted at him, as if trying to figure something out. Suddenly, he stood up and leaned across the table, until his was face inches from Ranma’s.

“What’s… different about you?” He asked, scrutinizing the other boy. Ranma recoiled.

“Wh-what?” He asked, defensively, “Nothing!”

“Nnnnoooo, it’s definitely somethin’...” The tall boy leaned in even closer. Ranma was too tense to think to push him away. Sweat started to shine on his forehead. Could Daisuke see the concealer? Had they all seen it? Oh god, that was why things had been so awkward before? They were all-

“He’s inna wheelchair, dummy,” Hiroshi mumbled into his placemat. Daisuke looked down in surprise and let out a startled “ OoOH!” when he found it to be true.

Ranma!” He breathed, concerned, “ Wh’happened??

Ranma couldn’t help but laugh in surprise and relief.

“My leg’s been broken for weeks, dumbass!” He said, pushing Daisuke back into his seat, “You knew that!”

“Oh…” Daisuke said, his forehead creasing, “Yeah, I guess so… I swear there was somethin’ else tho-”

“Shh!” Akane hissed, waving an arm in his direction, “they’re up!”

All eyes turned back to the stage, where Yuka had taken the mic while Sayuri stood in front of the machine. Realizing she was the center of attention, Yuka smiled winningly and said,

“Hey y’all! How’s everybody doin’ tonight?” Several audience members hooted in response. She nodded acknowledgement.

“Good, good! Now, show of hands, who else is here tonight-” she paused and lowered her voice, “-with a lover?”

A giggle went up through the room, and several people- mostly girls- raised their hands.

“Well, this song is for all you all you couples out there. Especially,” She said, her eyes darting over to the table they had just left, “those of you that aren’t quite couples yet. You’ll get there someday.”

Ranma and Akane’s pointedly avoided eye contact with one another.

Sayuri finished at the machine and returned to her girlfriend’s side. Akane felt her heart race a little as she suppressed the thought that they were being way too open with their affections.

Everybody already knows, she told herself. It’ll help if people can see it in a positive light.

Even with that in mind though, it was hard for her to remain calm as her friends clasped hands onstage and sang a love song in front of half the school.

It was hardly the best performance of the night. Neither of their voices were anything spectacular, and the song was just some no-name corny 70s love ballad- definitely Sayuri’s choosing. But none of that mattered, because the two girls were enjoying themselves as much as anybody ever had singing karaoke. Every few lines, one of them would look up and catch the other’s gaze, and they’d spend a few seconds grinning and staring into each others’ eyes, completely ignoring the mic. This made for spotty audio quality, but it was obvious that, despite what Yuka had told the audience, they were singing only for themselves.

Ranma stared at them, curiously. He, like everyone, had known about this before Akane, but he had never really stopped to consider it much. Sayuri and Yuka had never gotten closer than the periphery of his life- but then, maybe this was why. A girl dating another girl was hardly the weirdest thing he’d encountered, but why invite weirdness at all? Besides, Genma had always told him this kind of thing was no big deal.

Girls’ll do that , he’d said more than once, when there’s no man around.

Ranma had never really questioned that analysis, had never had any reason to, but he found himself wondering now if Yuka and Sayuri might not take offense to it. They were practically adults after all, and from where he was sitting, their romance didn’t look any less serious than any other he had seen. A hell of a lot better than that of some men and women he knew, in fact. Pandas as well.

When the song came to its finale, Yuka snatched the mic and sang the last note herself, in an obvious parody of Hiroshi and Daisuke’s performance. The song ended with both girls falling into a fit of giggles. Then, Sayuri surprised everyone by planting a small peck on her girlfriend’s lips. There was a fair amount of startled noises from the audience, but Akane was shocked by the amount of cheers and applause that accompanied them.

The two girls, grinning widely, took a quick bow before scurrying offstage and back to their table. When they got there, they were uncharacteristically quiet, apparently just as shaken as everyone else by their impromptu coming-out.

“That was…” Yuka said, once they were sitting down.

“Thrilling?” Sayuri suggested.

“Terrifying.” Yuka replied, staring at the scraps of her okonomiyaki. Sayuri bit her lip and touched Yuka’s arm.

“I’m so sorry, I knew you weren’t sure about the kiss, I shouldn’t have pushed it on you like that, I should have waited and made sure-”

“Babe,” Yuka cut her off, smirking, “It was great. I loved it.”

Sayuri smiled, and they kissed again, for longer this time.

“Whoa…” Daisuke said when they broke it off, his mouth hanging slightly open, dazed.

“You got a problem with that?” Akane said immediately, placing her hands on the table as if she were about to stand up.

“No, no!” He said quickly, holding his hands up defensively. “No, no, no, I think it’s totally, uh…” he looked away, then down at his lap, “totally, uh, cool.”

Everyone but Sayuri missed the millisecond glance he gave the unconscious Hiroshi as he said it. A sad thought occurred to her, but she said nothing.

“Well, good,” Akane said, settling back into her seat, “I’d hate for us to have a problem.”

Yuka smirked at her.

“When did you join the Dyke Defense Squad, ‘Kane?”

“The minute I found out about you two!” she replied, before realizing the comment might have been meant derisively and turning red. “Oh. Uh. Shit. Sorry, I didn’t mean-” Yuka snorted.

“S’okay dude, I know what you meant,” She said, patting Akane on the back reassuringly, “Thanks. Seriously.”

Akane nodded and looked at her lap, still blushing.

“I did mean it though,” she said, “If anybody says anything, I’ll-”

Akane.” Sayuri said, placing a hand over her friend’s, “People are gonna talk. We’re… used to it. You can’t possibly stop that.”

Akane looked like she wanted to argue that point, but managed to refrain.

“But I mean,” Yuka added after a moment, “on the off chance that anybody ever tried to get violent, then, y’know. We wouldn’t stop you.”

Sayuri nodded in agreement, and Akane exhaled, calmed by this knowledge. Then, realizing she hadn’t already said it,

“That was so great you guys!”

Yuka and Sayuri beamed, and soon launched into a discussion of 70s pop music. A few minutes later, Konatsu appeared again with Ranma and Akane’s food. As they ate, a few more kids took the stage, with mixed results of of enjoyment and embarrassment. After a while, it seemed as if the night had begun to wind down. Most people who had come for the karaoke had already gone up once or twice, and had now returned to their tables to eat and laugh with their friends. By 9:30, Ranma had begun to relax and join the conversation, thinking maybe Sayuri had forgotten about or lost interest in trying to make him sing.

“Ohhhh my godddd,” Daisuke groaned at one point, “I totally forgot about Higuma! What was with that guy?” Akane groaned as well and Ranma snorted.

“What’s with this school and only hiring weirdos who want to butt into students’ lives??” Akane replied.

“Higuma wasn’t even the worst one!” Ranma laughed, remembering the look on Principal Kuno’s face after taking a rugby ball to it. Akane’s eyebrows shot up.

“Are you forgetting what he did??” She asked incredulously.

“Nah nah, I mean, obviously he was a creep, I’m just saying Kuno and Nimomiya were even worse.”

Daisuke shuddered at the mention of their former english teacher.

“The way she treated the guys in her class was ssoooo fucked up,” He said, “even without all the like, little girl magic shit, y’know?”

“At least she didn’t try to marry your dad .” Akane replied. Daisuke didn’t seem to hear her, his thoughts caught on Miss Hinako. Ranma patted him on the shoulder, sympathetically.

“I swear, you two end up with the worst of everything that happens,” Yuka said to Akane and Ranma. “Like, our year wasn’t normal , but the rest of us didn’t have to deal with half the shit you did.”

“That’s how it goes when you’re cursed,” Ranma groused, pushing the remains of his food around on his plate, “It fucks with everything in your life.”

Sayuri’s lip curled a little at that.

“So is that how you explain everything that goes wrong in your life?” She asked, not harshly, but not softly either. “It’s all just some ~magical curse~ messing with you for no reason?”

Everyone squinted at her.

“What, you think the curse isn’t magical or something?” He asked, irritated. “I mean-” He gestured to his chest, “Seems pretty ~magical~ to me.”

“Seems pretty magical to me too” Yuka said, smirking around a mouthful of food. Sayuri ignored her.

“What I mean is, your curse doesn’t have anything to do with all the bad stuff that happens to you! Or, I mean, it probably does, just not in the way you think, like-” She faltered, struggling to explain what she meant. Everyone stared at her. She sighed.

“Look, in the past, what, one and a half years since you came here? I’ve had pretty good reason to believe in magic. I’m not doubting that stuff. I’m saying, all the crazy stuff that happens to you guys, that’s drawn to you guys, can’t just be because of Ranma’s curse!”

“Why not?” Akane asked. “It’s a curse. It can do whatever it wants.”

“Because that’s never how curses work!” Sayuri insisted. “People don’t just get cursed for no reason ! It’s always to teach them some kind of divine lesson that they need to learn! Besides, weren’t your lives pretty crazy before the curse too?”

Ranma and Akane looked at each other, then back at her, lost.

“I don’t get what you’re trying to say,” Ranma replied. Yuka, on the other hand, appeared to be catching on, and lightly kicked her girlfriend under the table, hissing,

Don’t say anything unless they do first, remember?”

Sayuri ignored her, determined to get at least the basis of her point across.

“Look,” she said, “If this were a story, the purpose in cursing you wouldn’t just be to make you miserable. It would be to teach you something about yourselves. Or the world, or, or... something, at least! And all that chaos and weirdness in your life, it wouldn’t be part of the curse, it would be the thing the curse is trying to teach you to deal with! Like, am I the only one who’s seen Groundhog Day ?? Or any other story with magic in it ever? It’s always some kind of ironic lesson thing!”

“But those are just stories!” Akane replied, “Why should magic work like that in real life?

“Because how else would it work?” Sayuri asked, throwing her hands up, “It’s magic, dude! It’s, like, the tool the gods use to intervene in our lives or whatever!”

Ranma and Akane raised their eyebrows, skeptically. Sayuri crossed her arms and looked away, defeated.

“Forget it,” She said, “Couple of magical fuckin’ atheists over here, I guess.”

Ranma shrugged, helplessly.

“I just don’t really get what yer talkin’ about!” he said, “A god didn’t push me into the spring of drowned girl, my dad did.”

Sayuri wanted to scream, “ and you really don’t see the dramatic irony in that?!” at him, but a look from Yuka kept her silent. She sunk into her seat, muttering in annoyance.

Yuka looked around the table, grimacing slightly. She could feel the mood souring as Ranma and Akane’s minds moved back to their troubles- and Daisuke, who had lost track of the conversation, started to fall asleep. Why couldn’t Sayuri just keep quiet and let them figure their shit out in their own time? They were obviously on the brink of something new, there was no reason to push them over the edge before they were ready.

“Alright,” She said suddenly, “Enough of that. Ranma, you ready?”

Ranma’s head snapped up in her direction.

“Wh-what?” He asked.

“Remember? You said you’d sing karaoke!”

“No, I said I couldn’t cuz I didn’t know any of the songs!”

“Right, and Sayuri and me found a song where that wouldn’t be a problem!”

“What does that mean?” He asked.

“Come up with me and I’ll show you,” She replied. Then, smiling a little, “Unless… you’ve got stagefright…?”

Ranma pursed his lips at her. They all really thought he had some giant red button on his forehead they could press anytime and make him do anything. Well not today.

“Sorry,” he said, crossing his arms, “Karaoke’s just not my thing.”

“Aw, Ranma, come on,” Akane said, “I’ll do it if you do.”

Yuka and Ranma looked at her in surprise.

“I thought you didn’t want to!” Ranma protested, “Why do you want me to now?”

Akane shrugged.

“I wanna see what song they picked out,” she said simply. “Plus, I dunno if I’ve ever heard you really sing before. Which is pretty nuts, when you about it.”

Ranma looked back and forth between the two girls.

“I…” He started, thinking he knew what he was going to say, then biting his lip. Finally, he said, “Only if I get to pick Akane’s song.”

Yuka grinned and pumped her fist in the air.

“It’s a deal!” she said, “Come on, before somebody else gets up!” She grabbed his wrist and pulled him off towards the stage, too fast for him to even get a good hold on his chair’s wheels.

“Hey, wait a minute, I didn’t-” Akane started to protest, but they were already gone. She pointedly ignored Sayuri and Daisuke’s giggling as she watched them go.

Luckily, the short platform serving as a stage had a small ramp, which Ranma suspected might have been added earlier that day with him in mind.

“So what’s this song you think I know the lyrics to?” He asked, rolling up behind Yuka as she pressed buttons on the machine.

“It’s not like that,” she said as she selected the song in question, “See? It’s punk rock! You don’t need to know how it goes, just yell the lyrics as you read ‘em and try to sound like a badass!”

Ranma looked skeptical.

“What’s ‘punk rock’?”

Yuka stared at him for a second, disbelievingly, then shook her head sadly.

“Saotome, your lifestyle disgusts me. Get over to the mic, I’m about to hit play.”

He did so, and for the first time looked out at the audience. It wasn’t as big as it had been earlier, but there were still a lot of kids out there, many of whom he knew. It was hard to tell exactly how many were looking at him, but it felt like a lot. He scowled at them automatically.

He really wasn’t one for stagefright. Large groups of staring people tended to make him annoyed, not scared. In face-to-face interactions he was insecure all the time, constantly imagining what kind of picture the other person was forming of him in their head. He imagined the same thing now, but with so many people, the effect was more like the irritating buzz of insects than discernible voices of judgement. What right did they have to judge him? He was just sitting up here, minding his own business.

The music surprised him when it kicked in, earth-shakingly loud guitar playing over the sound of someone clapping. When the words came up on the screen, he panicked for a second, realizing they were in English, spelled out in kana. He spluttered out the first line embarrassingly weakly, only barely in the direction of the microphone. He imagined people laughed, but couldn’t be sure over the music.

The second line was a marginal improvement, as he remembered Yuka’s advice to yell the lyrics. He still had no idea what he was saying, though, and was probably only pronouncing half the syllables right anyway.

Finally, by the third line, he had the rhythm down and and was determined to go all-in and redeem himself for the first two. He belted it out fast and loud, each syllable falling on a drumbeat.

After that, it was easy. Every word and every beat of the song felt like a punch to a speed-bag at one of those modern city-gyms. The screaming quickly went to his head, and by the start of the second verse, his throat was raw. And it felt good. Powerful.

Adrenaline pushed him quickly to the end of the song, and when he finished the last word, he was shocked by the round of cheers and applause that followed- first because he had forgotten anyone was listening, and second because anyone had enjoyed it.

“Woo!” A boy yelled from somewhere, “Go Ranma!” Ranma could hear laughter in his voice, but somehow didn’t feel like he was being laughed at. A smile crept onto his face, and he waved, before awkwardly setting the mic down on the floor beside him and vacating the stage.

“That was awesome!” Yuka said when she caught up to him, slapping him on the back. Ranma smiled sheepishly and rubbed the back of his neck.

“Sure,” he said skeptically, “A kid in a wheelchair screaming in fake english for three minutes. Sounds awesome.”

“Aw, you can’t fool me with that stuff this time. I know you had fun.”

He rolled his eyes, but kept smiling and didn’t deny it as they made their way back to the table. Halfway there, a realization struck him.

“Oh!” He said, stopping suddenly and slapping a hand to his forehead.

“What?” Yuka asked.

“I totally forgot to pick out a song for Akane!”

Yuka paused and considered it. After a moment, she said,

“I’ve got one. Come on.” She continued back toward the table. Ranma shrugged and followed.

_

 

“I cannot believe you made me do that,” Akane said a few minutes later as she sat back down, displaying very little of the humor you would expect from someone who just performed ‘the chicken dance’ in front of a live audience.

“I can’t believe you actually did it!” Yuka said, still laughing.

“I am so sorry,” Ranma said, unable to keep from smiling. Akane made a rude face at him and he hid face in his arms, giggling uncontrollably.

“Well,” Akane said after a moment, “I guess I can’t come back to this school next year. So that’s good at least.”

“Really?” Sayuri asked, “After everything that’s happened, it’s the chicken dance that makes you leave?”

Just then, two boys walked past, flapping their elbows and clucking to one another, as if in conversation. Akane stared at Sayuri silently as they passed.

“Right,” Sayuri said, nodding, “You can never come back.”

“But where’ll you go??” Hiroshi asked earnestly, his cheek still glued to the table, a faraway look in his eye.

“I dunno,” Akane replied, “Maybe Mozambique, maybe Amsterdam. Just somewhere I can start a new life.”

“You’ll have to change your look,” Ranma said, “To make sure no one recognizes you.”

“Plastic surgery for sure,” Akane agreed, “And I’ll have to be a total recluse. Sunglasses and shawl at all times, never stepping outdoors except to get food for my pets.”

“But you’ll never really escape it,” continued Ranma, “You’ll go years at a time thinking you have, but every once in awhile, some kid’ll walk past and go, ‘look mommy, it’s the chicken lady!’ and you’ll have to move again.”

“Meanwhile I guess you’ll spend the rest of your life worrying about what became of me and regretting your decision to publicly humiliate me?” Akane shot back.

“Nah, I’ll be right there with ya.” He replied. “You kiddin’? Screamy guy and chicken lady have got to stick together.”

Akane snorted, shaking her head.

The four talked and joked amiably a while longer, troubles of the night mostly forgotten. At one point, Hiroshi surprised everyone by standing bolt upright and rushing off towards the bathroom, hand clenched over his mouth. Daisuke hurried after him, telling the others they’d be right back. Nobody saw them again for the rest of the night.

Eventually, Yuka stretched her arms above her head, groaning.

“Ready to go?” Sayuri asked, smirking. Yuka shrugged.

“Wouldn’t mind it,” she replied, “don’t really wanna be the last ones here and end up having the help clean up again.”

Sayuri shook her head as she got out her credit card.

“Yeah, I guess it’s getting kinda late,” Akane said, opening up her own purse.

“Hey hey, don’t worry about it, it’s on me,” Sayuri said quickly.

“Aw, you don’t have to do that,” Akane replied.

“Yeah, but I want to. I feel bad for forcing you guys into karaoke.”

“Don’t feel bad!” Akane replied, “We both had tons of fun tonight, right Ranma?”

Ranma smiled sheepishly and shrugged.

“It wasn’t as bad as I thought,” he admitted.

“I’m still payin’.” Sayuri said firmly. Akane opened her mouth to argue, but then closed it. She knew Sayuri knew about their money troubles, and was just being nice. It was a little embarrassing, but then again, she only barely had enough money left to pay for her and Ranma’s meals, so the help wasn’t exactly unwelcome.

“Thanks,” she said, smiling. Sayuri waved the thanks away as Konatsu appeared to take their plates and her card. For just a second as the waitress bent down, they shot Sayuri a questioning glance, which was met with the tiniest of defeated shrugs.

“Don’t mention it,” Sayuri said once Konatsu was gone, “If this is all it takes to get you two to do something fun, I’ll pay any day.”

Once Sayuri got her card back, they all started getting up to leave. As they went, they called out their thanks to Ukyo for the free drinks, and the night had calmed down enough that she was able to wave and yell back.

Outside, a cool spring breeze blew through the darkened street. Akane looked around.

“Are you guys gonna take the bus?” She asked, “Do you want us to walk you to a station?”

Yuka’s eyes lit up.

“No need!” she declared, running over to a moped parked on the side of the road and leaning on it, proudly. Akane’s eyebrows shot up.

“No way!” She exclaimed, walking over to examine it, “That’s yours? I saw it when we came in!”

“Yeah!” Yuka replied, “Isn’t it awesome?? I just got it yesterday. Now we can go anywhere!”

They started talking excitedly about the scooter’s specs. Apparently they had been considering getting bikes for a while now, and knew lots of relevant words that sounded like nonsense to their respective dates.

“It’s a fucking deathtrap,” Sayuri whispered, leaning towards Ranma. “She says it’s okay but I swear it barely runs.”

As if on cue, Akane said,

“Well what’re you waiting for? Start it up!”

Yuka grinned and swung her leg over the side, turning the key and trying to rev the engine. The scooter made a few loud clicking noises, then nothing. Behind them, Ranma snorted into his hand. Sayuri massaged the bridge of her nose.

“Ahh, it’s just the spark-plug,” Yuka explained, embarrassed. “Can you lift it up so I can get under and fix it, ‘Kane?”

The two got to work, while Sayuri and Ranma watched from a distance.

After a minute, Ranma coughed, and said quietly to Sayuri,

“Hey, uhh… could you tell me, like, what you meant earlier? ‘Bout my... curse and stuff?”

Sayuri cringed and scratched the back of her head, uncomfortably.

“Right, uh... sorry about that,” she said, “I guess I was just… like, I have this really specific idea of what your whole, y’know, deal is, and I guess I was kind of projecting that onto you, which was crappy of me because it’s really not any of my business.”

“What my deal is?” Ranma asked, “What the hell does that mean??”

Sayuri bowed her head, apologetically.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it, I’ve gotta learn to shut up, just forget I said-”

“No, I’m serious!” Ranma said, sounding surprisingly earnest, “I wanna understand what you were trying to say!”

Sayuri looked up and met his wide, searching eyes. She bit her lip. Finally, she said,

“You’re not… happy, right? Like, in general?”

Ranma looked a little taken aback by that, though he knew he shouldn’t have been. After a few seconds, he shook his head.

“Have you ever been?”

He didn’t respond, but his face was confirmation enough.

“So what is it about this curse that makes you unhappy?”

This time, the answer was easy.

“Uh,” he said, “the constant chaos, all the hate I get for it, all the crazy people it attracts... I mean like, isn’t it obvious?”

“And what made you unhappy before the curse?”

Ranma furrowed his brow before replying.

“Mostly... the same stuff, I guess,” he said after a moment. Sayuri nodded enthusiastically.

“Right! So why do you think the curse is the problem at all?”

They stared at each other. Finally, Ranma said,

“I still don’t get it.”

Sayuri sighed.

“Look dude,” she said, “I can’t tell you your business. Obviously only you can know what’s really going on with you. All I can say is, from what I’ve seen, people have weird expectations of you- and you have even weirder expectations of yourself. Maybe your real problem with the curse is that it’s finally showed you how unfair those expectations are.”

Ranma stared at her for a moment, his mouth half open.

Just then, the moped’s engine puttered to life.

“Ha!” Yuki laughed, “Told ya! It works great! Come on Sayuri, quick, before it stops again!”

Sayuri looked back at Ranma and shrugged.

“Sorry. Maybe that’s all just nonsense. Just seems like everybody wants you to be something you’re not, and maybe the universe is giving you a chance to try something different.”

With that, she jogged off and hopped on the back of her girlfriend’s bike.

“Ow, jeez babe, not so tight,” Yuka said as she grabbed onto her.

“Just drive,” Sayuri said through clenched teeth, her cheek pressing tight against Yuka’s back, “The sooner I can get off this thing the better.”

Yuka shrugged.

“See you guys later!” she called, before peeling off down the street.

“See ya!” Akane waved, watching them go, before turning back to Ranma, smiling.

“Ready to go home?” She asked. He nodded slightly. They started off in the direction of the house.

“What were you guys talking about?” Akane asked idly after a moment. Ranma grimaced.

“I’ll tell you when I figure it out.”

_

 

Ranma was still thinking about Sayuri’s words when they got home. He thought he knew what she meant. Sort of. She was saying he liked being a girl. Or that he didn’t like being a boy. Or that he could learn something from being a girl that would make him happier no matter what?

Regardless, it was dumb. That was his official opinion on it. Not because he’d done some deep analysis of himself and found it to be wrong, exactly, but because that wasn’t how feelings worked. They weren’t that complicated. Or maybe they were so complicated that they were impossible to put into words, and there was no way some girl he barely knew could lay his whole life out like that in a couple of sentences.

Even if you said something like that and somehow got some small part of it ‘right’, it wasn’t like you could actually do anything about it. That wasn’t how problems worked in real life. Nobody had enough control over their own life to address all their little underlying issues. He had way too much other stuff going on for that, way too many ways he was already trying to better himself without going back and trying to figure out why he was doing it all in the first place. He should be focusing on building his stamina through cardio, not this… whatever this was!

Of course, it wasn’t like he could actually train much right now. Had no reason to study, either. Maybe… even if what Sayuri was saying- whatever that was- was obviously, clearly, definitely wrong, maybe he should give himself some time to think about it anyway? If only just to figure out why it was wrong?

As they stepped/rolled through the front door of the house, Ranma was about to say something about it to Akane, when they were both struck dead in their tracks by a sound floating in from the living room. A voice.

A woman’s voice.

“Is that-?” Akane started, her voice hushed. Ranma didn’t respond. His gaze was locked in the direction of the sound.

Slowly, so they wouldn’t be heard, the two crept forward to the edge of the wall and peeked around the corner. Just in time to see the glint of steel as sword was drawn from sheath.

“Genma,” Nodoka said, her voice wavering but her blade steady, “If you’re about to suggest that you want to take our Ranma away from me again-”

Her blade whipped forward faster than the eye could see, and came to rest with its point against the sprawling man’s adam’s apple. A single drop of blood slid down his neck, merging with the torrent of sweat that was already there.

“-you had better not be.”




Chapter Text

To Genma’s credit- though he was on the floor with a sword to his neck- he wasn’t completely cowed. Nodoka had been back from her trip to her cousin’s house in hokkaido for all of thirty minutes, and all he could think was that he was surprised it had taken her this long to threaten his life.

“Darling,” He said, his eyes darting between his supposed wife and her sword, “This is only a necessary precaution. We need to get the boy away from here before Master Happosai-”

Master Happosai,” Nodoka mimicked, with a venom that surprised the eavesdropping teenagers, “You know I was never scared of that man.”

“Only because we used to be so careful to keep from making him angry!” Genma replied, his voice rising. “Now he’s angrier than he’s ever been, and there’ll be no stopping him.”
“Weren’t you just saying you’d stopped him already? He’s stopped! You can stop stopping him now!”

Genma sneered at her.

“We got lucky and gave him a small delay, but he’ll never stop. Not within any of our lifetimes.”

“What happened to you?” Nodoka asked, emotion cracking her voice. Her perfect control wavered for a second, and the sword tip slipped a fraction of a centimeter further into Genma’s neck, drawing more blood, “You were never this scared of him when we were young!”

“I was a fool then!” Genma snapped, ignoring the sword, “Now I understand the extent of his power. We need to leave.”

“And by ‘we’ you mean you and Ranma, right?”

Genma blinked, then gritted his teeth.

“Our only hope is in buying enough time for the boy to finish his training,” he said, staring her steadily in the eye, “Only he stands a chance of truly defeating the master. And no one is more committed to the cause of Ranma’s training than you, Nodoka.”

Nodoka’s eyes widened.

“Y...you mean…?”

“Please,” Genma cut her off, “Come with us. I need you. Ranma needs you.”

Nodoka’s face drooped, her thoughts unreadable. Cautiously, the old man lifted a hand and took hold of her blade, exhaling almost imperceptibly in relief as he pushed it away from his neck. Nodoka offered no resistance. Ranma felt his heart drop into his stomach. Then, Nodoka’s eyes narrowed, and the blade whipped back to an offensive position.

“It’s a lie,” she said, “You’ll probably send me off on some errand right before we’re supposed to leave and make off with Ranma while I’m gone. I know your tricks all too well, husband .”

Genma sputtered for about a second, trying to look offended, before giving up and shouting,

“Oh come on, woman! It’s my duty as a father to raise him as I see fit!”

“Ha!” Nodoka laughed, “Because you’ve done such a fine job of that so far!”

“Well having you around would only mess him up more!”

“As if that’s possible!” Nodoka retorted, “After what you’ve turned him into, I don’t see how things could possibly get any worse!”

Genma blustered a response, and it went on like that, but Ranma’s eyes had already glazed over. Akane could see he wasn’t hearing them anymore. She pursed her lips.

“Come on,” she whispered to him, taking the handles of his chair and wheeling him away. He didn’t object, even as she scooped him up and silently carried him up the stairs.

She considered going to the roof, but knew the Saotome’s shouting match would be audible from there. Instead, she went to her bedroom, and set Ranma down on the floor with his back against the bed while she closed the window. When she turned back around, there were tears streaming down his face. After a second’s hesitation, she sat down next to him and wrapped an arm around his shoulder pulling him in close. To her surprise, he rested his head against her shoulder.

After a moment, he whispered through his tears

“Why do they hate me?”

Akane could only hug him tighter in response.

 

They sat like that for a long time, until Ranma’s tears had dried and both their butts had fallen asleep. Finally, feeling the need to say something , Akane whispered,

“I had fun tonight.”

Ranma looked up at her, and an unidentifiable jolt of electricity ran up her spine at the sight of his wide eyes.

“I did too.” He said quietly. Akane nodded, her cheeks pink, and went back to staring at the wall.

After a moment, Ranma said,

“Yuka and Sayuri weren’t at all like I thought.”

Akane snorted softly.

“They do act pretty different in school, huh?”

“Honestly,” He said, “I didn’t even know they had personalities before tonight.”

“Yeah, well,” Akane said, “Maybe things’ll be different for them next year.”

She frowned, trying to decide if she really believed that. Ranma shifted against her, yawning.

“I’m really glad we went.” He said, his eyes closing, “I’m gonna try to remember that about today, and not… that other stuff.”

Akane nodded stiffly. Ranma seemed on the verge of sleep, and she was glad of it, but at the same time…

She glanced down at the top of his head. It felt so light against her shoulder, and the spot above her collar where a few hairs touched her bare skin seemed to tingle with electricity. At the same time, the spot on his arm that her arm was touching was shockingly cool and soft despite the muscles underneath. It was something she’d noticed before- “guy” Ranma was always warm to the touch, “girl” Ranma was always cool.

She didn’t want this. Not like this. She didn’t want to enjoy this as much as she was. She was sure it wasn’t what Ranma wanted- he had just needed a friendly shoulder to cry on. And she was happy to oblige! She wanted to just be friends, wanted desperately to prove their parents wrong about their relationship. And in these past few weeks, without all the interference from family and fiancees, she had finally started to think that could happen! She liked Ranma as a person , and didn’t feel any pressure to like him as anything more.

In all that time, only tonight had she felt this way. And to be honest, she wasn’t even sure what way that was. It wasn’t anything she’d felt often enough to put a name on. All she knew was, right now, she wanted to throw her other arm around him and squeeze, and not let go for a long long time.

And if she had felt that inclination on any other night, she might have finally given in and said to hell with fighting their parents. It would have been so easy. So why did it have to be tonight?

She tried not to put it into words in her head, but the thoughts came anyway. She hadn’t realized it until tonight, but she had been seeing something different in him for weeks- maybe a lot longer. It was as if pieces of the boy she knew had started to fall away, and underneath them was a whole new person. Suddenly everything from his anger to his laughter felt more genuine, and the shell that had been passing as his personality all that time was revealed to be just that- a single block that put a damper on everything he did.

Of course, he wouldn’t have admitted it. He still had at least the pretense of those former walls. But, even this! Crying on her shoulder? The old Ranma would never have done that.

But… none of that had made her feel this way on its own. It was only earlier tonight, when she had first seen him sitting there in that pretty ‘tunic’ of his, waiting for her in his bedroom, his face glowing in the moonlight, that everything had clicked into place. Somehow she knew, this was the face of the Ranma she was coming to know, the one who smiled and laughed and cried and talked with her.

It had become ever more clear as the night went on. While the Ranma of the past few weeks had been, though sweet, slightly sad and unsure of himself, tonight he had been, after a little encouragement, funny and charming and confident, in a way that was never as cocky or show off-y as he had always been in the past. It felt like everything she’d always liked about him, but somehow better.

And in the end, it all made her want to run away and forget any of it had ever happened.  She hated herself for the thoughts she was having, just as she knew Ranma would hate her if she ever voiced them.

She didn’t know what was really going on in his head. It was obvious that she was just projecting her own messed up desires onto him. She was an awful friend.

But knowing that didn’t seem to matter, because in her eyes, the person she had gone out with tonight- the person whose soft breathing was currently making her heart pound out of her chest- was a girl.

 

A snore from beside her startled her out of that treacherous train of thought. She looked down in surprise to see Ranma dozing, his cheek pressed against the side of her shoulder. She sighed, and carefully shifted around to lift him up and place him on her bed. She stared at him lying there for a moment, before grabbing a pillow and blanket and setting up on the floor.

Chapter Text

 

Ranma woke with a start the next morning, and groaned at the bright light streaming through the window. His mouth was dry and his head was pounding. He sat up blearily, trying to figure out where he was and why. When he realized, he started, whipping his head around. Akane’s bed? How had he gotten here? Had she-? Had they-?? He blushed at the thought, before noticing the blanket and pillow on the ground. He breathed a sigh of relief.

He pulled Akane’s blankets off himself and swung his feet over the side of the bed. His eyes closed, he let the events of the previous night flow back into his mind.

His mom was back. Again. He hadn’t seen much of her in the months since the so-called “wedding”, what with her constantly running in and out of town, meeting with various distant relatives and friends for unspecified reasons, but she had made a point of dropping by the Tendo house at random intervals. By now her sudden surprise appearances weren’t so surprising. Just another headache.

But hey, at least she kind of seemed to be on his side of the “running from Happosai” issue. Or, against Genma’s side, anyway. Ranma massaged his forehead, grimacing. Did he really have to go downstairs today?

Unfortunately, Akane had thoughtfully left his wheelchair folded up by the bed, so it looked like he didn’t have any excuse.

After a few more minutes of sitting in bed regretting everything that had ever happened in his life, he slid into the chair and rolled out of the room. Just in time to nearly get run over by Nabiki.

“Watch where you’re going, hotwheels!” She said, stumbling for only a second as she ran down the hallway. Ranma opened his mouth to respond, but she was already down the stairs. He shook his head irritably and rolled after her.

At the bottom of the stairs, he was somehow unsurprised to find yet more chaos. After a few seconds watching, it was clear that every member of the Tendo family, plus Nodoka, was involved in a desperate search for something lost in the house.

“Oh, Ranma, you’re awake!” Kasumi said when she saw him. “Good, you can help us look!”

With that, she returned to ripping up floorboards with a crowbar. Ranma scrunched his eyes shut. Should have stayed in bed.

“Uh, Kasumi?” He asked. She looked up. “What exactly are we looking for?”

“Oh!” She exclaimed, laughing at her mistake. “Silly me! We’re looking for Nabiki’s college file! It’s where she keeps all the important documents related to her college applications, and she desperately needs it for a meeting today, but somehow it’s gone missing, and the meeting’s only two hours away!”

Ranma perked up at that. He was interested in very little more than getting Nabiki off to college and out of the house.

“Alright, what’s it look like?”

Kasumi opened her mouth to answer, but faltered.

“Well, it’s... uh…” She trailed off, tapping a finger on her chin. “Well, it would look... like a file, right? Papers in a folder? That’s what I’ve been looking for. I’m sure we’ll recognize it when we see it.”

She quickly returned to the task at hand, leaving Ranma to search on his own. He rolled past her into the living room and saw the full extent to which the Tendos had already gone to find this thing. The house had been turned upside-down, then torn apart in subsequent searches of the same areas.

“I don’t understand!” Akane exclaimed, letting the hallway bookshelf she had been looking under slam back to the ground, its books already strewn about the floor around it. “We’ve searched everywhere! There’s nowhere else it could... GAH!” she slammed a fist into a wall in frustration, punching a hole clean into the back yard. She stood there seething for a few seconds, her face red as a tomato, before a realization seemed to strike her.

The walls,” she said, turning to the living room where Soun and Nabiki were searching. “We haven’t looked inside the walls!”

Soun and Nabiki shared a look.

“I’ll get my sledgehammer,” Nabiki said, “Daddy, you and Akane keep punching.” Soun nodded without hesitation, and the two ran off in different directions.

Jesus,” Ranma said under his breath. This was getting out of hand. Ranma wondered if he wasn’t the only one who wanted Nabiki out of the house.

“It’s just terrible,” Nodoka said, appearing beside him and nearly making him jump out of his skin, “It’s such a noble dream, wanting one of your children to go to college. That Soun Tendo is an admirable man. But for something like this to happen, and on such an important day?” She looked at the floor, shaking her head. “It just breaks my heart.”

Ranma’s face softened, looking up at hers.

“Ma…” he started to say, reaching out a hand to rub her shoulder. Her eyes opened and she looked over at him, cocking her head to the side.

“Ranma, what is that you’re wearing?” She asked, freezing him in place. “And why are you still in that form? Wait, oh my GOODNESS RANMA WHY ARE YOU IN A WHEELCHAIR?!

He looked down at himself, and nearly had a heart attack as he realized he was still in his girl form AND in his tunic.

“WHAT UH NOTHING GOTTA GO”

He was out the back door in an instant, praying she wouldn’t follow.

Outside, he came face-to-face with the one member of the household who didn’t seem to be searching for Nabiki’s file.

Genma stood serenely in the middle of the pond, balancing on one leg on a rock, seeming at one with the universe. Ranma scowled at him.

“And what’re you doing to help, old man?”

The old panda opened one eye, annoyed at having been disturbed. He held up a sign that said,

“Looks like they’ve got enough help already.”

Ranma shook his head.

“You could at least pretend to give a shit about this family, y’know. It might help put off the inevitable day when they toss you out on your ass.”

“I don’t see you searching, boy.”

“I’m thinking,” Ranma replied. “Somethin’ you wouldn’t recognize.”

The panda snorted.

“Not from you, anyway.”

Ranma growled, and was about to retort, but stopped himself. He took a breath. He didn’t have time for this, and even if he had, he didn’t want to be talking to Genma in the first place.

He stormed off in the direction of the dojo, thinking that was the only place they might not have already looked. Well, there and “in the walls”, but that-

He paused. Something clicked inside his head. Slowly, he spun around. Genma was still on the rock, trying and failing to touch his toes.

“Hey,” Ranma said, rolling back towards his father, “Old man. Where d’you keep all the paper you use for those signs?”

Genma froze, mid-stretch. Ranma stared at him. After a few seconds, the panda met his eyes, then quickly looked away, sweat dripping down the side of his face.

Ranma massaged the bridge of his nose.

_

 

BASTARD! ” Nabiki yelled, gripping the sides of her college file so tightly it looked like the paper was about to tear. “I’ll kill him!”

They were in Ranma and Genma’s bedroom. It had taken only a few moments of searching to find the massive stash of stolen papers hidden underneath the bureau.

“I guess it would start to get expensive, what with how quickly he goes through signs…” Akane said absently, nudging a pile of her own old homework assignments with her foot.

“I’ll fucking kill him!” Nabiki said again, “He lives under our roof, eating all of our food, and he thinks he can just take whatever he wants! I swear to god, if he’s not gone by the time I get back today-”

Ranma snorted quietly. The image of Nabiki trying to scare Genma away was funny to him, no matter which way it turned out. Unfortunately, Nabiki heard him.

“What?” She asked, “You think that’s funny, prettyboy? You think I won’t do it?”

“What?” Ranma replied, startled. What did he care what happened to Genma?

Nabiki approached him suddenly, slamming her hands down on the armrests of his chair.

“You get that you’d go with him, right?” She asked, staring him in the eyes, “You’re not immune just cuz you like my sister. All freeloaders must go.”

For a moment, Ranma was too surprised to react. Then he shook his head.

“Wait, what? I was helping you!”

“Yeah, but I wouldn’t have needed help if you and your idiot dad weren’t around in the first place. None of us would ever need your kind of help if you two weren’t always making problems for us!”

“Aren’t you moving out??” Ranma asked indignantly, “Why do you care so much about this all of a sudden?”

“Because once I’m gone, this family is gonna have even less money to waste on your shit!”

“Aw boo-hoo,” he replied sarcastically, “how are we gonna live without the chips and soda you buy with the money you get from selling naked pictures of us?”

“Ha!” Nabiki laughed cruelly, “As if anybody’s bought a pic of your tranny ass since your secret got out! I couldn’t give that shit away!”

“Nabiki!” Akane said angrily.

Ranma’s face went beet red, his mouth opening and closing. Nabiki crossed her arms, looking self-satisfied. For a second, Akane thought Ranma would hit her. Instead, he reached out and snatched the file out of her hands.

“Hey!” She started, reaching to grab it back, but stopped when she saw the look in his eye. He held it by the top corners, hands steady but knuckles white.

“You wouldn’t dare,” she said slowly.

“Why not?” He challenged. He moved his hands apart slightly, stretching the paper to its limits. Nabiki sucked in a breath. She changed approaches.

“Ranma,” She said, chuckling unconvincingly, eyes still locked on the file, “W-we joke around a lot here, but at the end of the day don’t you think this is going a bit too f-”

A tear about an inch long appeared at the top of the folder.

“Whoops,” Ranma said flatly. Nabiki blanched.

“Ranma!” Akane gasped.

“You vindictive little shit,” she hissed, “I can ruin you. If you rip that thing I will make your life a living-”

The tear got longer.

“You’re just like him!” Nabiki said, her voice rising as she gave up hope of getting the file back in one piece, “You’re just like your fucking dad and you don’t even realize it! You delude yourself into thinking you’re somehow better, but you’re a spineless parasite just like he is! You come into people’s lives and shake things up till they’re too confused to realize you’re the problem, then you mooch off their happiness until there’s nothing left, and then you ditch! Admit it, the minute Akane has any real problem outside your stupid little relationship drama, you’re gonna be out of here like a bullet!”

The two stared at each other. Nabiki was breathing heavily, and Ranma’s face was a mask of frustration. For just a moment, his grip on the file loosened. All the muscles in Nabiki’s body tensed as she prepared to make one final lunge for it, when out of the little yellow folder slipped a single sheet of paper. It landed in Ranma’s lap. He looked down. Nabiki eyes widened and she grabbed for it, but Ranma dodged her without even looking up.

“What’s this?” He asked, picking up the loose piece of paper and squinting at it.

“Don’t touch that!” Nabiki said, grasping for it again, only to be blocked by a single absent-minded elbow.

“Is this, like, your school record or something?” Ranma asked, spinning his chair around so she couldn’t reach.

“Yeah, now give it back!” Nabiki said. Ranma shook his head.

“This ain’t…” He said quietly, before suddenly spinning back around to face her.

“Did you fake these?” He asked, accusatorily.

What?!” Akane exclaimed. She strode over to get a look at the paper, but she needed only to have looked at Nabiki’s face to see the truth.

“Perfect attendance record, no detentions, no suspensions-” Akane looked up at her sister, aghast. “‘ A pleasure to have in class’?! Nabiki, none of this is true!”

“Some of it’s true!” Nabiki protested. Ranma snorted.

“You got busted for re-selling vending machine drinks last week! ” He said, waving the sheet around, “Where’s that on here?”

Nabiki snarled.

“Fuck, whatever, I’m not a saint, ok? Big surprise! But I didn’t fake my own documents!” She paused, and after a few seconds finished, “...I just got Kuno’s dad to give me a break in exchange for info on some students, that’s all.”

Ranma looked infuriatingly amused. Akane looked oddly… betrayed. Nabiki had no idea why.

“This is why you cared so much about your grades on the finals, isn’t it?” Akane asked. “You got into all those colleges by lying, and you knew if you slipped up on something as big as the final, they might start to look into it.”

Nabiki exhaled through her nose. Akane was smarter than she gave her credit for.

“Yeah,” She admitted with a shrug, “Kuno would never agree to up my grades, so I had to do that part on my own. If they hadn’t been perfect, it would have ruined the whole picture.”

She stood with her arms crossed, trying to ignore their different but equally irritating stares.

“Whatever!” She said, throwing her hands up in the air, “I’ve gotta get to my meeting, are you gonna give me my shit or not?”

Without any further argument, Ranma handed her back the file, the loose sheet sitting on top. She snatched it out of his hand and tucked it safely under her arm, breathing a tiny sigh of relief as she did.

“Right,” She said. “Thanks.” She nodded curtly at no one in particular, then strode out of the room without another word.

Once she was gone, Ranma put his hands on top of his head, inhaling sharply.

“Can you believe her?” He asked incredulously. He looked up at Akane, expecting her to commiserate with him, but she had a hand over the top part of her face. He heard the barest hint of a sniffle.

“Ranma...” She said, massaging her temples with her thumb and middle finger, “I don’t think I want to talk to you right now.”

With that, she followed her sister out the door, leaving Ranma to sit alone in the room he shared with his father.

Should have stayed in bed.

_

 

Hours later, Ranma sat with his back against the dojo wall, playing catch with himself by bouncing a tennis ball off the floor and far wall. It was about the only thing he had come up with to do while his leg healed. He had finally gotten back into his male form and out of last night’s clothes, but his headache prevented him from feeling the relief that should have brought.

Bounce, bounce, catch.

Genma still wasn’t back. He’d run away earlier when Ranma had confronted him. Ranma expected he’d be back for dinner, or, failing that, that he’d wander home drunk in the early hours of the morning. He’d heard the sound of the old man collapsing into his bedroll at 4 AM more times than he could remember

Bounce, bounce, catch.

Akane still hadn’t spoken to him, though maybe that was just because he was avoiding her. When he’d come out here, he’d heard her and Kasumi talking in the kitchen about what happened. From the sound of it, Kasumi was as shocked as she was that Nabiki had gone so far as to cheat her way into college, though no one could claim it was out of character. And, of course, no one had stopped her from leaving with Soun to go meet with her prospective school.

Bounce, bounce, catch.

Ranma wondered if she could actually go through with it. Before today he might not have thought it would be a problem. Four years of lying to authority figures? That was nothing for the Ice Queen. But today she’d lost her cool. More so than he’d ever seen before, and it had almost messed everything up. If that could happen, who knew what else?

Bounce, bounce, catch.

He twitched, thinking about what she’d said. ‘ Just like him’. It pissed him off that she seemed to know better than anyone just what to say to get in his head. Where had she learned to be such a manipulative bitch? Surely Akane’s mom hadn’t been like that.

Bounce, bounce, catch.

Worse than how she’d gotten him today though was the fact that he still hadn’t gotten payback for the real stuff she’d done. Those pictures. Happosai.

Bounce, bounce, catch.

It was all he’d been able to think about whenever he saw her for weeks. He wanted to make her pay.

Bounce, bounce, catch.

He wanted to make her hurt .

Bounce, bounce, catch.

Just like him”

Ranma scowled and whipped the ball away as hard as he could. It went straight through the wall and sailed off to god-knows-where.

He grabbed his wheels, as if to start pacing, but instead just shook them violently and let out a frustrated shout. Why was he like this? Why did he always want to be such an asshole? He spent more time worrying about ending up like his dad than he did anything else, but somehow he kept falling backwards into it anyway.

He told himself Genma could never have been like him. Genma wasn’t as complicated as he was, didn’t feel the same breadth of emotion. Just a stupid, violent old panda who did whatever he pleased, regardless of the consequences.

And yet, Ranma saw him in everything he did. Every emotional outburst and every emotionally constipated silence; the way he responded to challenges, to compliments, to criticism- it was all Genma. And every day it seemed to get worse.

Sometimes he thought maybe physically running away from the problem would solve it. If the man wasn’t around to influence him all the time, how could Ranma help but grow apart from him? But then again, what could be more ‘Genma’ than running away from your problems?

It was as if there were some invisible current deep inside him, shaping the course of his life no matter how he fought it, slowly sweeping him downriver toward the image of that simple, stupid, bald, old man .

Fuck Nabiki. He wouldn’t have thought about this today at all if it weren’t for her. He started rolling back and forth, trying to come up with an exercise he could do from his chair to take his mind off things, when a knock at the door made him jump. He hadn’t expected to be disturbed out here.

“C-come in!” He called out. His heart fell when the door slid open to reveal not Akane’s face, but Nodoka’s.

“Ranma?” She asked, “I hope I’m not interrupting your training.”

“O-oh, no, s’alright auntie- I-I mean, mom.”

He blushed. He’d never made that mistake before. Nodoka looked surprised for a second, then smiled softly.

“I’m… sorry, about earlier.” She said, stepping inside. “I know you can’t control your transformations. And no one told me you were in a wheelchair! I was just… surprised.” She looked genuinely apologetic, but also distraught, unable to keep her eyes from lingering on his casted leg. Ranma rubbed the back of his head, self-consciously, and muttered something that may have been an acceptance of her apology. She nodded, and took a seat at the edge of the room. They sat in silence for a few moments.

Ranma started to worry she expected him to train somehow. Maybe… handstand push-ups? He cringed as he thought back to that time in the subway with Ryoga. He was running through a list of training exercises in his head, when Nodoka cleared her throat.

“So, um,” She said, “Would you, ah… be alright telling me what happened to your leg?”

“Oh!” Ranma said, relieved to know what this was really about, “Dad or anybody didn’t tell you?”

“Well, your father told me something last night, but he didn’t mention you getting hurt, no.” she said, irritated, “And I haven’t seen him since he disappeared this morning and... well I wanted to hear it from you.”

“Okay…” Ranma said, reorienting himself to face her, “It’s kind of a long story. D’you want the short version?” Nodoka shook her head.

“Not if there’s a long version.”

Ranma shrugged. After a second’s thought, he started recounting the events of the past month, starting with his visit to Dr. Tofu’s. When he got to the part with Happosai, Nodoka scowled, and that scowl only deepened as he went on. He realized half-way in that he would need to be very explicit in how he framed the time he had spent under Happosai’s mind-control. Finally, he explained his fall from the tree, and how Akane had saved him. When he was done, Nodoka’s eyes were wide and unblinking.

“Oh!” He said as an afterthought, “And then stupid Ryoga dropped me down a hole and made it even worse.”

Nodoka stared at him silently for a moment. Ranma had just started to suspect that she was about to accuse him of being un-manly for some reason, when tears began to fill her eyes.

“Oh Ranma,” She said, wiping her face on her sleeve, “How could I have let this happen?”

Ranma’s eyebrows shot up.

“Whoa, Ma, c’mon, this isn’t your fault!” he protested, “It’s a lot of people’s faults, but not yours!”

Nodoka shook her head.

“No.” She said firmly, “I left you in the care of that man, and even when you came back and I saw everything he had done to you, I still didn’t do anything to stop it.” She hung her head in shame.

“Ranma, you’re already so grown-up… it hurts more than you know to think about how much of your life I’ve missed.”

She met his gaze for a moment, and saw that the look in his eyes She smiled.

“I’m sorry. That was a foolish thing to say. Of course you know how much it hurts. But all that’s going to change, starting now.” To Ranma’s surprise, she got to her feet and hugged him. He was taken too off guard to protest, and after a moment, he returned her embrace.

Then she whispered,

“Come with me, Ranma. I want to take you away from all this insanity.”

It took him a few seconds to register what she had said.

“Wait, what ?”  He pushed her away enough to look her in the eye. “You want to… what?”

“I want you to come with me to live at my cousins’ house in Hokkaido. Our family there has a dojo with no male heir! It could be everything you have here, but without this whole... circus your father has created.”

“Wait,” He said, scrunching his eyes shut, “What about the Tendos? They already have a dojo here!”

Nodoka grimaced slightly.

“Wellllll…” She said, clearly unsure of how to respond. Ranma understood anyway.

“I thought you liked them!” He said, his voice rising, “Just this morning you were talking about how great Soun was!”

“I do like them!” Nodoka insisted, “Soun is a very respectable man with, well, one or two lovely daughters. And if I thought there was a real chance of you and Akane ending up in a happy relationship together, things would be different, but-”

“Oh my god!” Ranma cried, “You too?! What’s wrong with all you people?? Y’can’t just put two people in a room together and expect ‘em to be married by the end of a year!”

“But that’s exactly what I’m saying, Ranma!” Nodoka said, placing a placating hand on one of his upraised arms, “I don’t want to arrange a marriage for you! I’ve seen how that works out. I want to give you the space and time to meet a girl on your own, one whom you actually like.

Ranma met her eye again. His expression softened, but was still clouded by something.

“Unless…” Nodoka said hesitantly, “That’s not what you want anymore? I did notice you spent last night in Akane’s room-”

“No!” Ranma said quickly, “No no no, it’s not… it’s not like that.”

Nodoka looked unconvinced. He blushed slightly.

“Well,” she said, “Whatever you decide on that front, I still think leaving here is what’s best for you. I don’t want to think- I don’t want to think it’s too late for me to be a good mother. To give you something better than... this. For you to grow into the man you deserve to be.”

Ranma was silent for a moment. Then he swallowed.

Then nodded.

“So you’ll come??” Nodoka asked, ecstatic.

“No!” He said, “I mean, I…” He trailed off, biting his lip. Inside, a hurricane of emotions swirled, too quickly for him to get a read on any one in particular.

Finally, he said,

“Lemme… let me think about it, alright?”

Nodoka nodded, relieved.

“Of course,” She said, “Please, take all the time you need.”

She got to her feet.

“I’ll let you get back to your training. If you need me, I’ll be helping Kasumi get ready for supper.” She turned to go. On a sudden impulse, Ranma called after her,

“Wait, mom!”

She spun back around immediately, her face hopeful. Ranma faltered. He desperately wanted to ask her what she had meant by what she’d said the night before, when she had been arguing with Genma. After what you’ve turned him into, I don’t see how things could possibly get any worse.

Unfortunately, he thought he already knew.

“Uhh,” he said instead, “...thanks. For… talking to me?”

Nodoka looked surprised for a second. Then she smiled and nodded.

“Same to you,” She said, “let’s do it again soon.”

She turned and left. Ranma sat in silence, staring blankly at the door.

Chapter Text

Nobody saw Ranma at dinner that night. He wasn’t anywhere in the house or the dojo. Nodoka fretted about it at the table, but no one else seemed to be worried. No one even mentioned the fact that Genma wasn’t around either.

“Oh Mrs. Saotome, I’m sure everything’s fine,” Kasumi reassured her, “he’s probably just off on one of his little adventures.”

“That’s exactly what I’m worried about,” replied Nodoka glumly.

Akane pushed her food around on her plate. She also wondered where Ranma had gotten off to, but she had other things on her mind as well. Today had sucked. She had thought it was gonna be a nice, calm, spring day, but then that stuff with Nabiki, then Nabiki and Ranma, then consoling Kasumi about their delinquent sister, then Nabiki coming home, still weirdly pissed off and confrontational even though the interview had apparently gone well, and then, as if to top it all off, she’d seen little P-chan on the street outside their house, but hadn’t been able to catch him before he’d disappeared down an alleyway.

She resolved right then not to spend the rest of her vacation sitting around the house dealing with other people’s drama, hoping Ranma would be in the mood to hang out with her. After dinner, she’d call Yuka and see if she wanted to come by on her bike tomorrow. If Ranma wanted to be cool and nice again, he was welcome as well.

_

 

Somewhere in an alley several blocks away, Ranma held out a pile of his own clothes, averting his eyes from the shameful display in front of him.

“Just take ‘em already, you’re gonna get us arrested.” he said in disgust, his cheeks red.

“Right, sorry,” Ryoga replied, taking the shirt and pants Ranma had brought him. “You’re a life-saver Ranma, I really owe you one.”

“Yeah yeah,” Ranma replied, looking elsewhere as Ryoga got dressed.

“That was pretty nuts though, huh?” He said, buttoning up the blue silk shirt. “How the water you brought turned me back into a human and you into a girl at the same time? You ever seen that happen before?”

Ranma sighed.

“Nope.”

“Must’ve been the perfect temperature that when it hit me it was hot, and when it hit you it was cold.”

“Yep. Fascinating.”

“Uh, sorry I spilled some on you though.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ranma said through gritted teeth. Ryoga looked at him sideways. He seemed annoyed. More so than one would expect after running a troublesome errand to help a friend in need.

Ranma shook his head and turned to head back to the house. It took him half a block to realize Ryoga was walking along behind him. He spun around on him.

“Wait, where are you going?”

“Oh, uh,” Ryoga said sheepishly, “I… guess I was hoping I could stay with you guys tonight?”

“Don’t you need to find your clothes and umbrella and stuff?”

Ryoga shook his head.

“Nah, I’ll never be able to find those. Just gonna have to get some new ones.”

Ranma rolled his eyes.

“Yeah, well, I’m gonna need my clothes back eventually, so it’d be good if we could get yours tonight.”

Ryoga raised his eyebrows.

“You mean you’re gonna help me?”

“I’m good at searching for stuff,”

“Since when?”

“Since this morning, Pork-Butt. Now what do you remember about where you transformed?”

Ryoga scratched his head.

“I think it was near a river? Don’t you need to get home though? It’s already dark out.”

“Nobody cares when I get home,” Ranma replied. “It was near here though, right? Like, central Tokyo at least?”

Ryoga grimaced.

“It was definitely Tokyo …” he said after a moment. “Or, a city that looked a lot like it?”

He thought Ranma would be annoyed, but he just shook his head, the ghost of a smirk tugging at his lips.

“Every time I find out you’re still alive it’s like a little miracle. C’mon, the Shingasi river’s not too far, lets go look.”

Ranma started heading north. Ryoga followed, bemused.
The shingasi river was several kilometers away, so they had a ways to walk. Ranma was secretly thankful for a reason to stay out of the house, and the weather seemed to be on his side of the issue. It was the warmest it had been all year, and though it had rained a little earlier, the skies now were all but clear, and the resulting heaviness of the air combined with the cool April breeze made it a fine night to be outside. He took a deep breath, and tried to forget the anxieties of the past 24 hours.

Ranma would have been happy to enjoy the walk that way in silence, but Ryoga surprised him by clearing his throat and saying,

“So, uh… sorry, again. About your leg.”

Ranma looked up at him, considering that. Then he closed his eyes and stuck out his chin.

“Apology not accepted.”

He quickly rolled on, leaving Ryoga looking like he’d been slapped in the face.

“Wh- hey!” Ryoga said indignantly, jogging to catch up, “Accept my apology!”

Ranma shook his head.

“Nope. Why should I?”

“Cuz I can’t fight you again ‘till you do!” he said. “I can’t fight somebody I’m indebted to!”

Ranma made a skeptical face.

“You’ve hurt me plenty of times, that’s never stopped you before.”

“Yeah, but it was never like this before!” Ryoga said, gesturing wildly to the chair. Ranma rolled his eyes.

“It’s really not so bad, once you get used to it.” He did a quick wheelie-spin to prove his point. “‘Sides, it’s not like I could fight you right now anyway, so what’s the point of accepting your apology before I’m all healed up?”

Ryoga knit his eyebrows together.

“Well what’s the point of waiting?”

Ranma shrugged, a smile pulling at his lips.

“I dunno, it’s funny?”

Ryoga scowled, shoving his hands in his pockets.

A few minutes later, they came to a large intersection. Ranma looked around for only a few seconds before choosing a crosswalk and hitting the button for the light. When it turned, Ranma rolled into the street, but Ryoga stood rooted to the spot, dazed.

Ranma turned around halfway through crossing, sensing that his travelling partner wasn’t behind him.

“Dude!” He called out, “C’mon!”

Ryoga seemed to snap out of his reverie and hurried across, just as cars started to honk at them.

“What was that?” Ranma asked, once they were safely on the other side of the street.

“Sorry,” Ryoga said, “Just got lost for a sec.”

Ranma stared at him.

“You got lost… while following me?”

“You were going too slow!” Ryoga said, defensively. Ranma stared at him harder.

“You got lost while following me... because I was going too slow?”

Ryoga shrugged, looking irritated.

“It’s hard to explain. Can we just keep going?”

Ranma frowned at him, but did as he requested. After a moment though, he asked,

“Have you ever thought about seeing a, uh... brain… doctor? About your… thing?”

Ranma kicked himself for that wording, but Ryoga just shook his head.

“Nah,” he replied, sticking his hands in his pockets, “I mean, sure, I’ve thought about it, but what would be the point? I know what’s wrong with me, I don’t need some doc tellin’ me the name for it and what part of my brain is the fucked up part.”

Ranma nodded, thinking about that.

“That… actually makes a lot of sense,” he said, “Sorry about kinda making fun of you.”

Ryoga nodded, smiling very slightly.

When they finally arrived at the Shingasi, Ranma asked,

“Alright, does any of this look familiar?”

Ryoga squinted, scanning the area. It was a thin river, perfectly consistent in width and lined by concrete, really more like a canal than a proper river. He shook his head.

“No,” He said, “but that doesn’t really mean anything. Could we look around?”

Ranma nodded, and Ryoga led them down to the pathway along the riverbank. They walked it for a few hundred meters, Ryoga seemingly trying to look every direction at once in search of his clothes. He’d feel like an idiot if he’d made Ranma come all this way for nothing. After a while though, he grimaced.

“This might be hopeless,” he said, apologetically, “Even if it is somewhere around this river, that’s still way too much to search tonight.”

Ranma seemed strangely unbothered by this.

“Well, can you remember anything else about where you transformed?”

Ryoga frowned and shut his eyes tight.

“I think…” he said, “The river was bigger than this one?”

“The Arakawa then,” he said, “It’s literally just a couple streets over, c’mon.”

“Man, how do you remember all this stuff?” Ryoga asked, as he helped Ranma back up to the street, “I mean, even from a not-me perspective, you’ve only lived here, like, a year, right?”

Ranma shrugged.

“Feels like home, though.”

They crossed a large bridge into the small industrial neighborhood that separated the two rivers. There wasn’t much traffic here -probably as little as one could get this far into Tokyo- and the night was quiet.

“I dunno how a place like this could ever feel like home,” Ryoga said, staring up at the tall buildings, “Where are all the trees?”

Ranma laughed.

“Yeah, I miss trees sometimes too,” he said. “The trick is to get back to the forest every once in awhile and have a really bad experience.”

They came to the side of the embankment, and again Ryoga had to help Ranma up. Ranma murmured his thanks. Ryoga didn’t seem to hear him as he looked around. After a second, he smacked his forehead.

“Baseball fields!” He exclaimed, “It was here!”

“Nice!” Ranma said, “Now do you remember... which… uh...” he trailed off. The wide plateau of the embankment was peppered with over two dozen baseball diamonds, and he knew there were even more on the other side of the river. Ryoga gave him a helpless look. Ranma sighed.

“Alright,” he said, “you start over here, I’ll look closer to the river.”

They both nodded, and Ranma rolled away, leaving Ryoga on his own to wonder once again why Ranma was being so helpful.

They combed through the fields one at a time, Ryoga stopping often, trying to recall where he had been, and Ranma stopping to make sure Ryoga hadn’t suddenly disappeared. After a while, Ranma realized he was missing a crucial piece of information. He called out across the fields,

“Hey Ryoga! When you transformed, did you fall in the river or what?”

“No, I got caught in the rain!” Ryoga called back.

“I hate it when that happens!”

“I know, it sucks!”

“You didn’t just use your umbrella?”

Ryoga thought about it for a second.

“I did! I must’ve stepped in a puddle or somethin’!”

“Well why didn’t you just stay with it until the rain let up??”

“I was never gonna get hot water if I just sat there! ‘Sides, some kids showed up and tried to chase me!”

“Awww!”

“Shut up!”

Ranma grinned and went back to searching.

When they met up half an hour later with nothing to show for it, Ryoga was past ready to give it up and head home, but Ranma urged him to check on the other side of the river. He tried to decline, but Ranma went ahead anyway. Reluctantly, Ryoga followed.

After another fifteen minutes of searching, Ranma looked up, about to ask another question, only to find that Ryoga had apparently abandoned the search in favor of lying down on a park bench by the river, eyes closed, arms behind his head. Ranma rolled over to him, irritated.

“What, so now I’m lookin’ for your clothes on my own?”

“Well you’re the one who wanted to look for ‘em in the first place,” Ryoga replied without opening his eyes, “If it were up t’me I’d just replace ‘em tomorrow. I’ve already done it ten times this year.”

“Well that’s no way to-”

“Ranma,” Ryoga cut him off, sitting up to look at him, “I know all the downsides to the way I live, and I’m okay with ‘em. This ain’t about my clothes, we’re out here ‘cause you obviously don’t wanna go home tonight, for whatever reason.”

Ranma opened his mouth to argue, but closed it in the face of Ryoga’s annoyed glare. After a moment, he exhaled.

“Yeah,” he said, “Yeah. Sorry.”

Ryoga stared at him for a second, then shrugged.

“S’okay. I can just sleep here tonight.”

“No, no, no,” Ranma assured him, “We’ll head back, just…”

He stared out across the river, frowning. Ryoga said nothing.

“Thing’s have been… complicated, recently,” Ranma said finally. Ryoga snorted.

“‘Recently’?”

Ranma shrugged.

“You’d be surprised,” He said. Then, after a moment, “My parents both separately want me to move away with them.”

Ryoga raised his eyebrows.

“Wow,” he said, “You gonna do it?”

“Well, I’m definitely not goin’ with my dad,” Ranma replied, then amended, “And I mean, same with my mom! Last time she got me to move in with her it was fucking miserable. And now she wants me to go all the way to Hokkaido, to live in some cousin who I’ve never even met’s house??” He huffed. “As if.”

Ryoga stared at him, expectantly. After a moment, he said,

“...Buuuut…?”

Ranma sighed.

But , things here are always so crazy, and sometimes I feel like it’s never gonna get better, so…” he looked away, rubbing the back of his neck, “I guess I’m... considering it.”

“Things must be pretty crazy here then, to make you wanna ditch like that.”

Ranma nodded. Then, shook his head.

“No, I mean, it’s just, Nabiki’s been bein’ really bitchy lately, I guess cuz she’s stressed out about going off to college, and I kinda got into a big argument with her this morning and made Akane mad at me, which sucks because yesterday we had a really good time together, and I just…”

He rubbed his forehead, looking pained.

“It just sucks going home to a place where everybody kinda hates you. ‘Specially when it’s your own fault.”

They sat in silence for a while, watching the lights from Tokyo center flicker in the distance.

“Y’know,” Ryoga said, “I wasn’t kiddin’ about staying out here tonight. You could just stick around if you wanted.”

“Thanks,” Ranma said. Then, after a moment, he said, “Hey, so like, what’s the deal with you and that girl? A...Anna? No, Akari, right? Doesn’t she mind you runnin’ all over Japan all the time?”

The question caught Ryoga off guard. He grimaced.

“Yeah, she kinda… dumped me, I guess,” he said, glumly. “Said I was ‘more man than pig’ and she didn’t think we should see each other anymore.”

Ranma stared at him, not sure if he was serious. Finally, he said simply,

“That’s... rough, buddy.”

Ryoga nodded, thankful not to have to say any more on the subject.

“Hey dude?” Ranma asked. Ryoga looked over at him. “D’you ever think about… uh…” He trailed off, searching for the words.

“What?” Ryoga asked.

“Well, like, do you ever wonder if, maybe, you got cursed... for a reason?”

Ryoga narrowed his eyes.

I got cursed because you-”

“No, sorry, you’re right, sorry,” Ranma said, wincing, “I just meant, like… I was talkin’ to somebody the other day, and she was saying…” he trailed off again. When he met Ryoga’s eyes, they were staring at him intently.

“Well, she basically said she didn’t think I was being myself.”

Ryoga scrunched up his eyebrows.

“Well… are you?”

“I dunno!” Ranma said, “I mean, I think I’m the way I’ve always been, but maybe there’s another way I could be? And I’m just like, afraid to try?”

Ranma bit his lip, thinking for a moment he had given away too much and Ryoga would catch on. He needn’t have worried.

“So you’re sayin’” Ryoga said, “That there’s somethin’ you wanna do, but yer too scared?”

“Uhh,” Ranma said, “I guess?”

“Well, then... do it.”

Ranma raised his eyebrows.

“What, just like that?”

“Yeah, I mean, don’t be a baby about it,” he said simply. “I’d do it if I were you. Whatever it is.”

Ranma stared at him.

“So you’re saying,” Ranma said, eyes closed, “If I don’t do this thing, that would be like… unmanly ?”

Ryoga considered it for a second, then nodded, shrugging.

“Yeah. I mean that girl you were talking about basically challenged you to do it, right? It’d be pretty embarrassing if you just went along pretendin’ like that never happened, ‘specially now that you basically admitted to me that you want to.”

Ranma stared at him, dumbstruck by the bizarre simplicity of that. Did manhood really come with such loopholes?

He realized Ryoga was giving him a strange look. It took him a moment to figure out it was because he was smiling to himself.

“Sorry, uh,” Ranma said, scratching the back of his head, “It’s just… that’s pretty smart, Ryoga. In a weird kinda way.”

“Great,” said Ryoga, “Still have no fucking clue what we’re talking about.”

“Ha,” Ranma said, still smiling, "yeah, sorry.”

They fell silent. The breeze was cool, and the sounds of the city were distant and soft. For the first time all day, Ranma felt the tide of his many worries beginning to ebb. He wondered if spending time with Ryoga was always like this, when he wasn’t actively trying to kill you. It was actually really… nice.

They sat for a long time, until the last of the day’s rain clouds had rolled away to reveal the moon. In its new light, Ranma’s eyes narrowed, noticing something across the river for the first time.

“Hey,” he said, reaching out and knocking Ryoga on the shoulder, “you see that?”

Ryoga followed his pointing finger to a spot on the embankment opposite them where the grass had seemingly been washed away into the river, leaving a long straight trail of mud. Ryoga squinted at the place where it met the river, noticing what Ranma already had; a thin black handle jutting up above the water’s surface, and below it an occasional flash of red between river-weeds.

Ryoga shot to his feet and high into the air, landing gracefully on the other side of the river a second later. He leaned out over the edge, trying to get a look at it.

“Ha!” He said after a moment, “It’s all here! I must’ve put my clothes in my umbrella after I transformed, and they all slid down the hill in the rain after I left!”

Ranma threw up his fists triumphantly, grinning. He lowered them slightly as he watched Ryoga lean out precariously, trying to reach the umbrella’s handle from where he stood on the bank.

“Be caref-!” Ranma started to call out, only to wince as Ryoga splashed loudly into the river. He popped back up immediately in piggy form, thrashing and squealing. Ranma couldn’t help but burst out laughing, and he didn’t stop until the little piglet had somehow managed to swim all his clothes and drag his two-ton umbrella back to the path by the shore, where he promptly collapsed, exhausted. Ranma wiped his eyes, still giggling, and made his way over to where his friend lay.

“C’mon,” he said once there, grunting as he lifted the umbrella into his lap, “Let’s get you home, dummy.”

 

An hour later, Ranma arrived back at the entrance to the tendo residence, a sleeping Ryoga curled up in his lap. It reminded Ranma of Genma’s propensity to fall asleep in odd places. He wondered if it was actually a result of their animal biologies, or if that was just a convenient excuse. Either way, in this case, he didn’t pay it any mind.

No one seemed to be awake or around as he rolled through the front door. He breathed a sigh of relief, and quickly rolled out to the dojo, placing Ryoga and his stuff gently inside before heading back to the house.

Looking around to make sure no one was coming, he rolled to the phone in the kitchen and took the little student phonebook published by their school from its place on the wall. This was probably a terrible time to do this, but he didn’t know when would be better. He flipped through the pages until he found the name he was looking for: Sayuri.

He took a deep breath through his nose and dialed in the number before he could think about what he was doing. It rang several times, then started to go to voicemail. Ranma was about to hang up, relieved, when the machine was cut off by a voice.

“Who dis?”

“Oh!” Ranma said, startled, “Uh, hi. Sayuri?”

“Yeah?”

“You’re still awake?”

There was a confused pause.

You called me. Were you expecting me to be asleep?

“W-well, it’s past midnight-”

“It’s vacation, dude,” Sayuri said, sounding like she had food in her mouth, “Everybody’s awake.”

Ranma glanced around nervously at that.

“Right, sorry,” he said, a little more quietly than before, “This is Ranma, by the way. Saotome.”

“Yeah, I figured,” she replied, “What’re you doing callin’ me past midnight, Saotome?”

Ranma bit his lip. He had to say it.

“Y’know that… stuff... we were talking about the other night?”

There was another pause.

“...Yeah?”

“Well,” Ranma said, “I’ve been thinkin’ about it, and I’m starting to think that, maybe, you might have been kinda…” he trailed off, searching for appropriately vague words,  “...onto something.”

This time, there was a full blown pregnant silence. Ranma, terrified that he was somehow being judged, forced himself to press onward.

“And, and since it seems like you know a lot about this kinda, uh, stuff, I was hopin’ maybe you could-”

“You wanna talk about it?” Sayuri finished for him, a smile in her voice.

“Yes!” Ranma said, relieved. “Uh, n-not right now, though!”

“Yeah, I got it,” Sayuri assured him. “Hey though, this is actually perfect. I’m in this sorta… group. We meet up every week to talk about stuff, like the kind of stuff you wanna talk about. Hey, we are talking about the same stuff, right? Like, gender stuff?”

Ranma flinched at that, but said, “Yeah. Yes.”

“Ok, cool, just making sure. Anyway, we’re supposed to meet up tomorrow if you wanna come.”

“Uhh,” Ranma said, freezing up. He thought about Ryoga’s advice, and forced himself to say, “Y-yeah. That’d be… great.”

“...Great,” Sayuri said, audibly smirking. “I can come by at around noon and we can walk there together, okay?”

“Sure,” Ranma said, nodding to the empty room. On the other end, Sayuri clapped her hands together excitedly.

“Aah, this is gonna be great! I’m so glad you wanna do this, everybody’ll be so excited to meet you! Oh, Konatsu’ll be there too, if that helps.”

Ranma perked up a little. It did help.

“Oh, and uh… come however you feel most comfortable, alright?”

“...Right,” Ranma said, unsure of how he could ever hope to be ‘comfortable’ in a situation like this.

“Ok, ok, see ya tomorrow. I promise dude, you won’t regret this!”

She hung up before he could ask her anything else, leaving him staring at the kitchen wall, wishing he could believe her.

But then… he had done it. He slumped down to the floor, leaning on the cabinets. A soft laugh escaped his lips. He’d done it.  He’d told someone.

Chapter Text

Akane and Ranma stepped into the downstairs hallway at the same moment the next morning and each stopped in their tracks, staring at the other.  Ranma looked away first.

“Sorry,” he said, examining the floor, “about yesterday, with Nabiki. I didn’t mean to… I got carried away, and I’m… sorry.”

She stared at him, and he felt himself shrink under her gaze. He had thought of better ways to articulate that last night, but now none came to mind.

Akane sighed.

“I didn’t mean for it to seem like…” she said, “I mean, I was mad at both of you, but mostly Nabiki. What she said was horrible, and I get why you reacted the way you did. If she’d said something like that about me, well… yeah. You don’t need to be sorry.”

He looked up at her. Her mouth was quirked to the side, and her forehead was creased in thought. Or maybe just stress. It was good she didn’t think he needed to be sorry towards Nabiki, because he wasn’t, but he was still sorry for giving Akane more to worry about. He told her as much.

“It’s whatever,” she said dismissively, “Anyway, where did you go last night? Everybody was wondering.”

“Oh,” Ranma said, wondering how he could explain his excursion with Ryoga without also explaining his talk with Nodoka, “I was just, uh… oh!” Something seemed to occur to him, and he startled Akane by grabbing her hand and dragging her off toward the back door.

“Wh- ha! Ranma! Where are we-”

“I found a friend of yours last night!”

He didn’t explain further until they reached the front door of the dojo. Ranma took a second to peek in and make sure it’s inhabitant hadn’t transformed into a teenage boy over night, then slid it open the rest of the way. Akane gasped.

“P-chan!” she exclaimed, rushing in to engulf the tiny animal in a bear hug. Ryoga squealed unhappily at the rude awakening, and Ranma realized with a start that he had been curled up in a pile of his human clothes. Akane hadn’t noticed yet.

“Where did you find him??” squeezing him until it looked like his eyes would pop out of his head.

“Oh, well,” Ranma said awkwardly, scratching the back of his head, “Me and uh, Ryoga, saw him run past last night, and we chased him down.”

“Ryoga’s here too?” Akane asked.

“Yeah, he actually slept in here last night,” he said, nodding towards the clothes and umbrella on the floor. “Sorry, I should have asked someone if that was okay.”

“Oh!” Akane said, noticing them for the first time. She looked up at Ranma, making a face. “He has other clothes, right? He’s not just running around naked?”

“I… dunno,” Ranma replied, frowning as he watch the piglet in her arms grow increasingly comfortable. “He’s kind of a weird guy.”

Akane shrugged and went back to coddling her pet. Ranma already regretted bringing her out here. He had thought it would be nice to surprise her, but this “p-chan” thing would never stop being creepy. It felt less and less like he was sparing them all embarrassment, and more like he was part of some gross conspiracy. He’d have to talk about it with Ryoga later.

They cuddled for a while longer. Ranma was just starting to wonder if he should leave when Akane said,

“Oh shit!”

She dropped a startled Ryoga in order to check her watch.

“What?” Ranma asked.

“It’s almost noon. Yuka’ll be here soon,” she said, getting to her feet.

Ranma’s eyebrows shot up.

“Y-yuka?” He asked, worried Sayuri had blabbed about their plans for the day and invited Yuka and Akane.

“Yeah, sorry, I meant to tell you, she’s coming by on her bike soon, we’re gonna spend the day riding around! You’re welcome to come along if you like.”

“Ah,” Ranma replied, “Sorry, I can’t. I kinda already made plans.”

Akane looked taken aback for a second, then nodded understandingly.

“Right, sorry. Guess it’s been a while since you and Ryoga really got to hang out.”

Ranma made a face and opened his mouth to correct her, then closed it again as a gruff voice said from behind him,

“You ladies holdin’ a book-club in here, or are y’gonna get out and let me train?”

Ranma swiveled and rolled his chair backwards to get out of Genma’s way as the old man trudged into the dojo, his face and posture sullen and drooping. He’d gotten home even later than Ranma last night, and though Ranma would have assumed he’d been out drinking, he had also never known his father to be eager to train while nursing a hangover. Despite himself, Ranma said, “What’s got you so down in the dumps, old man?”

The way the tension in the room suddenly changed confirmed that this was no mere hangover. A hungover Genma wouldn’t have the energy to respond to such an innocuous gibe with anything more than a grunt- though an entirely stable Genma probably wouldn’t have been bothered at all. Ranma felt Akane tense up next to him, as if prepared for a fight to break out. The thought of her having to defend him from his father was enough to make him kick himself. Why did he need to instigate like that?

Luckily, the angry ki flooding the room seemed to ebb slightly, just enough to assuage the fear of an imminent outburst.

“Jus’ get out,” He muttered, walking toward the equipment closet. The three teenagers wasted no time in obeying.

“What the fuck was that?,” Akane said after Genma slammed the door behind them.

“He’s still just mad no one wants to run away with him.” Ranma replied quietly. Akane frowned.

“Has he actually even asked you about it yet?”

Ranma’s lips formed a thin line.

“I think he knows what my answer’ll be. Either that or he just doesn’t care. If he really wanted to, he could always just drug me again and do whatever he wanted.”

Akane inhaled sharply, and Ranma looked away. She obviously didn’t like to be reminded of the abuses they had both endured, but it was always in the back of his mind.

They were silent for a moment. Ryoga looked back and forth between them from the ground, confused.

“Alright,” Akane said awkwardly, “I’m gonna go get ready to go. You sure you don’t wanna come?”

Ranma hesitated for a second. Biking around the city with Yuka and Akane did sound more fun than... whatever it was he was doing with Sayuri, but…

“Sorry,” he said, “Other plans, like I said.”

Akane shrugged.

“Okay,” she said, “hope you and Ryoga have a good time together.”

Then she picked up Ryoga and carried him back to the house with her. Ranma shook his head, bemused.

_

 

Yuka and Sayuri appeared at opposite ends of the Tendos’ street at the same moment, and froze when they saw each other.

What are you doing here??” Sayuri hissed loudly.

What??” Yuka hissed back. Sayuri rolled her eyes and stomped forward. Yuka met her in the middle on her moped.

“What?” she repeated.

“Why are you here??”

“I’m meeting up with Akane!” Yuka said defensively, “I was gonna take her around the city on my bike! Why are you here?”

“I’m, uh…” Sayuri said, realizing that her reason was actually the odd one out, “meeting up with Ranma? I convinced him to come to Group with me!”

Yuka groaned.

“What?” Sayuri said.

“Don’t take him to group! Group sucks!”

“It does not!”

“You sit around in a circle in some creepy old dude’s house and-”

“Ichiro is not creepy!”

“-and talk about gay manga for two hours and occasionally somebody says something sad about their life and everybody else pretends to care more than they do. As if we don’t all have enough sad shit to deal with in our own lives.”

Sayuri stared at her blankly for a few seconds.

“Dude.”

Yuka shrugged.

“Sorry. I know it’s not really like that, but it took me a long time to see why you liked it so much. How do you think Ranma’s gonna feel about it?”

“That’s why today’s gotta go smoothly. If he sees you here he might get spooked!”

Yuka looked offended.

“Why would I spook him?”

“I don’t know! He spooks easily! And if Akane knows me and Ranma are hanging out, she’s gonna want to know why, which Ranma wouldn’t want, so she can’t know about that.”

“So, what?” she said, hands on her hips, “One of us goes up and gets our buddy while the other hides?”

“Yeah, exactly,” Sayuri said, nodding seriously, “You first.”

Yuka gave a long-suffering sigh.

“Don’t you think you might be getting too invested in Akane and Ranma’s issues?”

Sayuri considered that for a second, then shrugged.

“If you know a better source of entertainment, I’d love to hear it.”

Despite herself, Yuka smirked, and stood up slightly to kiss her girlfriend on the cheek. Sayuri smiled, little dimples forming at the edges of her mouth, then turned and jogged off to hide behind the corner of the Tendos’ outer wall. She crouched down and gave her girlfriend a solemn thumbs up when she was in position.

Yuka dismounted her bike and went to knock on the door. A few seconds later, she heard footsteps approaching. The door slid open to reveal Akane’s smiling face.

“Hey dude!” Yuka said amiably, “ready to go?”

“Yep!” replied Akane, “I could hardly sleep last night I was so excited!”

“Well, okay, easy now, it’s just a moped,” Yuka said, failing to disguise her happiness at Akane’s enthusiasm. Akane shrugged, still grinning, and stepped past her, eager to get going.

“Whoa! Dude!” Yuka exclaimed, looking her up and down, “Pants! You’re wearing pants!”

Akane turned, looking embarrassed.

“Too tomboyish?”

Yuka groaned in exasperation, her head lolling back on her neck.

“Dude,” she said flatly, “I was just surprised. I mean, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen you wear pants! ‘Cept I guess when you train or when it’s really cold or somethin’.”

Akane rolled her eyes.

That’s an exaggeration.”

“Not as much of one as it should be!” Yuka said, walking over and hopping on the bike.

“Well I wasn’t exactly gonna wear a skirt for this, was I?” Akane argued, getting on behind her, careful not to crowd.

“I dunno,” Yuka said innocently, handing her back a helmet, “You coulda rode side-saddle.”

“Oh shut up,” Akane said, fastening her helmet and getting settled.

Yuka snorted and started the bike, which elicited a yelp of excitement from her passenger. After a few revvs of the tiny engine, they tore off down the street, laughing gleefully.

Sayuri watched them go, wondering idly if she should be worried about Akane stealing her girl.

Well, maybe she’d just take Ranma as a trade.

She stood, whistling as she ambled up to the Tendos’ front door. She knocked twice, and after a moment, the door slid open.

“Aw,” Sayuri said to Ranma in mock-disappointment, “You’re wearing pants.”

Chapter Text

The bike’s top speed was only about 40 kilometers per hour, but to Akane it felt like they were flying. She giggled as they zipped down city streets, dodging cars and accelerating at every opportunity, flouting traffic laws just enough to feel like rebels. Yuka steered them expertly, quickly abandoning the small suburban lanes for larger, more crowded thoroughfares.

“Where are we going?” Akane asked, a little more loudly than she might have needed to.

“Still dunno!” Yuka replied, eyes on the road. “Where do you wanna go?”

Akane thought about it as Yuka crossed onto the sidewalk for a few seconds to avoid traffic, nearly bowling over a couple of men in suits. Akane yelled an apology at them, and one of the men shook his fist in response. Akane couldn’t help but laugh.

She hugged her friend tighter as they re-entered traffic. The drivers here were obviously used to bikers, and no one paid them any mind as they weaved their way into the city proper. In front of them, the buildings were already starting to grow taller and more grand. Just the sight of them filled Akane’s head with visions of far-fetched metropolitan future life, and for a moment she was reminded of the conversation she had had with Ranma a few days before regarding their dreams. She went over it in her head for a few minutes, until suddenly she knew where she wanted to go today.

“The beach!”

“The beach?” Yuka asked, “In April?”

“Yeah!” She said excitedly, “any beach!”

“In Tokyo??”

Akane laughed again.

“There’s beaches!”

“Where?” Yuka asked. “I’ve never seen one around here.”

“They’re around. I’ll tell you where to go. We’ll probably have it all to ourselves at this time of year!”

“Yeah, probably. ” Yuka replied sardonically. Nevertheless, she followed Akane’s instructions with a smile.

This was exhilarating. Sure, they could have gotten anywhere in the city by train or bus, but being in a vehicle all their own was a kind of freedom brand new to Akane- even if it was basically just a bike with an old two stroke motor attached, and even if she wasn’t actually the one driving- somehow, she felt adult. She felt cool. If she wasn’t determined already, she knew for sure now; she needed a bike.

Eventually, they found a street with an actual bike lane, and the ride became less of an adventure and more of a cruise. Akane asked Yuka to slow down a bit so she wouldn’t have to hold on so tight, and Yuka reluctantly did so.

Puttering along at the speed of a normal bike, Akane was able to better take in the sights and sounds of the city. Fashionable people lined the sidewalks, some in business attire, but many who were just dressed up for the sake of dressing up. So many beautiful people. How was it that the people with the nicest clothes also always seemed to be the best looking overall? That wasn’t fair.

Every so often they’d pass a restaurant, and the scent of some exotic cuisine would find its way to their nostrils- Chinese, Indian, French, the occasional upscale sushi place- and both their mouths were soon watering.

“Damn,” Yuka muttered, “You wanna stop for lunch?”

Akane just snorted.

“Do you have 5000 yen to drop on lunch?”

Yuka could only grumble in response.

At one point, while waiting for a red light, Akane caught sight of a little girl trying to get her mother’s attention at the side of the road. She was pointing at them and hopping up and down. For a brief, shameful second, Akane was acutely aware of how close she was sitting to her friend, and thought that must be what the girl was pointing out. Only when the mother looked over at them and smiled, genuinely, did she realize the girl had probably just been looking at the bike. She returned the woman’s smile, and waved to the little girl, who waved back enthusiastically. Akane giggled as the light changed and they rode away, watching the waving girl recede into the distance over her shoulder.

They crossed a bridge over a canal and caught a glimpse of Tokyo Bay through the buildings, and both breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of the sun-speckled water. Spring was here undeniably now, and one could feel it in every breath, even this far into the city. Akane rolled her shoulders and leaned her head back, grinning at the sky.

“Oh!” Yuka exclaimed, quickly veering off the road into a large parking lot, much to Akane’s surprise.

“What?” Akane asked, looking around in alarm.

“Just found us some food!” Yuka replied, zipping across the lot to the spot where a food truck was parked. They dismounted and examined the menu. It was nothing fancy, just gyoza, yakitori, and some prepackaged snacks and sodas- perfect for two broke teenagers on a bike ride around the city. They placed their orders, got their drinks, and took a seat at one of the little plastic tables the old street vendor had out. They were the only ones there, except a pair of stray dogs that kept peeking in and out from under the truck, clearly interested in the smells emanating from it but unsure of how to reach them. Akane watched them weave around the wheels for a few moments, following each other, and smiled wistfully, then snorted with laughter.

“What?” Yuka asked, grinning.

Akane shook her head, smiling.

“Just, uh... do you remember that day trip to Chiba in sixth grade?”

“Uhh,” Yuka said, smirking and shrugging, “Can’t say I do…?”

“Oh god, right, you didn’t move here until seventh grade,” Akane realized, smacking herself in the forehead. “Forget it then.”

“No, what?” Yuka insisted, leaning forward in her chair, “What happened in Chiba?”

Akane opened her mouth to explain,then shook her head.

“No, actually, it’s embarrassing. If you don’t know the story already, you don’t need to hear it.”

“Oh my god! Now you’ve gotta tell me!” Yuka said, “If you don’t tell me then you’ve gotta pay for lunch.”

“What!! Why?”

“Emotional damages.”

Akane laughed, then groaned.

“Uggh, alright, well… y’know how me and Naoko used to be a lot closer?”

Yuka squinted, thinking.

“That girl from class C? No, I had no idea.”

“Well, yeah, I guess this is really when that ended. Anyway, we were on a class trip to some mountain in Chiba, to like, watch these salamanders cross a road?”

“What??”

“Yeah, it was like this migration-y thing, because the pools they’re born in are only there during the springtime, and when they dry up they need to find someplace else to live, and I guess a bunch of them really predictably end up crossing this road at the same time every year.”

“Huh, cool.”

“Not really,” Akane shrugged, “I imagined it was gonna be like this huge wave of salamanders going all at once, but when we got there we basically spent the whole day sitting around and still only saw a few.”

“So what happened?”

“Well, at lunch time, me and Naoko sat down far away from everybody else, and we were both really annoyed about having to come all the way out here to see some dumb salamanders, and it was kinda hot out, and we both really wanted to go home, but then , this dog, this scruffy little terrier guy, comes wandering out of the woods and up to us!”

“No way!” Yuka exclaimed.

“Yeah! And for a minute, everything’s better, we’re petting him and naming him and talking about taking him home with us and then… he grabs Naoko’s sandwich and runs away.”

“Ha!”

“And Naoko immediately starts bawling . So of course, I run after him into the woods, and I guess a couple other kids hear the crying because they run after me, but like, I’m the only one who can really keep up with the dog,”

“Of course,” Yuka said, smiling.

“So after a couple minutes we come to this cliff- not a real cliff, it was probably only like fifteen feet or something, but it felt big at the time- and the dog stops. And I was only just getting into martial arts at the time, but I thought, it’s just a dog, y’know?”

“Oh god.”

“So I tackle it, and of course it drops the sandwich, but now im rolling around on the edge of this cliff wrestling this dog. And like, it was a small dog, but it wasn’t messing around, it fucking wanted that sandwich.”

“Why didn’t you just let him have it??”

“I couldn’t go back to Naoko empty handed! Anyway, we roll back and forth for a minute before the other kids show up, and they start yelling and distract me, and the dog wriggles out of my grip, grabs the sandwich, and leaps off the cliff with it.”

“Oh god!”

“When it hits the bottom it stumbles like it’s hurt, and there’s this awful second where I think it isn’t gonna be able to get back up. But then it does, and it’s, and it runs off into the woods with the sandwich.”

“Oh thank god,” Yuka said, leaning back in her seat with exaggerated relief, “I was totally secretly rooting for the dog the whole time. But wait, how’s that embarrassing?”

“Well,” Akane said, “the other kids run over to help me up and see if I’m ok, but when I get up, they all freeze, looking, like, horrified. So I look down at myself, and- aside from being covered in dirt- I have like, five or six crushed salamanders stuck to my clothes.”

“Augh!” Yuka cried, revulsed, but also laughing. Akane rubbed her forehead, smiling and cringing at the memory.

“And of course, everyone makes fun of me, y’know, ‘chubby tomboy wrestles dog for sandwich, ends up covered in salamander guts’ hahaha, hilarious, and when we get back to the group all the teachers are mad at me for running off, which makes me cry, but by far the worst part was when I got back to Naoko, and she didn’t even want to look at me she found me so disgusting. She didn’t talk to me for the rest of the day, and refused to sit next to me on the bus ride home, and I guess we were never really friends again after that.”

“What a bitch!” Yuka exclaimed, genuinely angry, “You were doing it for her!”

“Yeah well,” Akane said, shrugging, “in retrospect I doubt she would have wanted a sandwich that had been in a dog’s mouth anyway.” She took a sip of her coke. She was smiling slightly, but her eyes looked sad. Yuka pursed her lips, indignantly.

“Akane, if you had brought that sandwich back to me, I would have eaten the whole thing and acted like it was the most delicious sandwich in the world.”

Akane snorted and shook her head.

“Y’know, I believe you would have. But then, you’d probably have chased that dog in the first place.”

“Oh you know I would have. Would’ve jumped off that cliff too. Nobody takes a sandwich from me and gets away with it.”

Akane laughed. Just then, the man in the truck called out to them,

“Food’s ready girls!”

They got up and paid the man, then remounted the bike, Akane holding their styrofoam containers.

“Which way now, cap’n?” Yuka asked.

“Same way as before,” Akane replied, “I’ll tell you when to turn. Uh. Cadet.”

Yuka saluted to no one in particular and took off down the street again.

They wound through the heart of the city, Akane pointing the way.

“You know this area pretty well, huh?” Yuka asked after Akane suggested a shortcut to avoid a congested intersection.

“Kinda, I guess,” Akane replied, “Mom used to take us shopping here sometimes, back when money wasn’t so tight. It was so exciting as a little kid, all big and shiny and metropolitan, I guess the image of it just sort of stayed in my head.”

She led them down several more streets, until suddenly they popped out along the coastline of Tokyo Bay.

“See? Beach!” Akane said, pointing to a spot in the distance. Yuka squinted, then laughed.

“That’s not a beach!” She said, “That’s just some sand they put there so the seagulls don’t shit on the sidewalk!”

“Nuh-uh! People swim there in the summer!”

“Well that’s depressing!” Yuka said, “People wouldn’t do that if they knew what a real beach was like.”

Akane scoffed.

“I’ve been to ‘real’ beaches, Yuka. With you, even!”

“Yeah, but I bet most people in this city haven’t.”

Akane groaned. She did this basically whenever they went outside together. Country-folk could be really stuck up about some really dumb things.

“Yes, they definitely have, they’ve just accepted that living here means making certain sacrifices.”

“Like hanging out on beaches made of guano and swimming in murky trash water,” Yuka muttered as she pulled up to the sidewalk by the little beach. As they dismounted, Akane gave her a long-suffering look.

“Sorry,” Yuka said, looking down as she stifled a smile. Akane rolled her eyes, then hopped over the barrier. She landed effortlessly several meters below, and held her arms out expectantly. Yuka grinned, understanding the gesture, and hopped over after her, landing safely in her arms.

“Thanks Akane~” she said, smiling sweetly, her voice sing-song. The tops of Akane’s cheeks turned pink, but she played it cool, merely cocking an eyebrow at her friend as she let her legs drop.

“Hmm,” Yuka said once she was on her feet again, “‘guess this isn’t so bad.”

She walked forward until she was on the thin strip of beach that wasn’t wet or in the shade of the road above and sat down.

“Yeah. Yeah. Sand. Water. An old guy fishing. It’s got it all!”

Akane smiled and sat down next to her.

“Thank you for humoring me,” She said. Yuka shrugged magnanimously.

“S’what I do.”

She had really only been half-joking though, it actually was kind of nice. Akane handed her her food, and they sat back and watched the water while they ate. Boats of all shapes and sizes moved around the bay at what, from this distance, appeared to be a snail’s pace. A salty sea-breeze blew from the east, and the sound of gulls above competed with the sounds of the city behind. If Yuka closed her eyes, she could almost pretend she was back home in Yamaguchi.

“What made you think of this place, anyway?” Yuka asked after a while.

“Oh, uh,” Akane said, thinking about it, “I guess just ‘cause me and Ranma were talking about the beach the other day.”

“Were you talking about that time you guys went to the beach and-”

No,” Akane cut her off, “not any of those times. We were talking about, like, the future.”

Yuka raised her eyebrows knowingly and mouthed a silent “ oh”.

“Oh shut up,” Akane said, rolling her eyes, “ career futures.”

Yuka sat up, suddenly attentive.

“What, like, college?”

“Yeah,” Akane said, shrugging, “And after that.”

“You’re thinkin’ about that stuff?”

She shrugged again.

“I guess so. I mean, isn’t everyone?”

Yuka grimaced.

“Maybe? I dunno. I guess I was still under the impression we were still supposed to be kids.”

Akane’s eyes widened.

“Dude, we’re about to be third years. Haven’t you thought about it at all?”

“I mean, yeah, sure! I’ll get a job and support Sayuri while she’s in college, and we’ll live in an apartment with both of our dogs, and we’ll own every game system and order in dinner all the time. After college, we’ll both propose to each other at the exact same time by random chance. We get married at sunset on this very beach.”

Akane smiled.

“Okay, that’s actually pretty good. Can I be your maid of honor?”

Yuka quirked her mouth to the side, thoughtfully.

“I dunno, there’s a loooooot of competition for that spot, you might need to up your friend-game.”

“Oh, I see, so like, throwing you in the ocean right now probably wouldn’t help my chances?”

Yuka narrowed her eyes, trying to measure how serious she was. Akane’s took a bite out of her dumpling.

“...You’ve got the job.”

“Good choice.”

“So what’re your future plans?”

Akane opened her mouth, then closed it again.

“Ok this is annoying, but I honestly have no idea.”

“I figured,” Yuka said, nodding.

“It’s just,” Akane said, “I… want to go to school. You know that, right?”

Yuka scrunched up her eyebrows, but nodded.

“Ok, because I feel like nobody else does! It’s not like they don’t care , they just don’t imagine that I could possibly have any ambitions outside of marrying Ranma and inheriting the dojo!”

“I thought you did want to inherit the dojo though?”

“Sure! Maybe! Someday! But there’s tons of stuff I want to do first!”

Yuka opened her mouth to reply, but Akane cut her off,

“Don’t ask what, because I don’t know. But maybe if I go to college and get away from that crazy house, my crazy family, I’ll be able to get some idea. But I can’t! We don’t have the money so I just fucking can’t and if I can’t do that, then…” Akane bit her lower lip, and let her hands, which had been gesticulating wildly as she talked, fall to her sides. “Then I don’t know what I can do.”

Yuka frowned sympathetically, and scootched over so she could wrap her arm around her friend’s shoulder and pull her in close. Akane let her head fall against the shorter girl’s shoulder.

“We’ll run away together,” Yuka said quietly. Akane snorted.

“What??”

“You an’ me. We’ll hop on my bike and ride it down south. We’ll hop on a plane- no, a ship , one that’ll take us to, uhh… Hawaii!”

Akane wrinkled her nose.

“Not Hawaii. Too many bad memories.”

Yuka thought for a moment before launching back into it.

“Ok fine, we’ll just stay on the ship. We’ll eat biscuits and drink lime juice and tie knots and catch fish and have adventures on the high seas!”

“What, like, forever?”

“Forever!” Yuka said, loudly enough to startle the fisherman on the other side of the beach. Akane smirked.

“And where does Sayuri fit into all this?”

“Who needs her! There’ll be plenty of girls wherever we make port. And besides, sailors don’t need girlfriends, they need sails! And knots!

“Five minutes ago you were talking about how great your future was gonna be with her.”

Yuka shrugged.

“I got over it. The sea is my lady now.”

Akane laughed, then let her head loll against Yuka’s shoulder.

“You’re so in love with her.”

Yuka looked like she was about to protest, but quickly gave it up.

“Yeah.”

“I can’t believe I didn’t see it sooner.”

“Don’t beat yourself up over it.”

“I’m not,” Akane said, “it’s just… I don’t understand how I was so blind to it for so long.”

Yuka had a reply to that, but she kept it silent.

For a while, they sat and watched the tiny bay waves rise and splash against the sand. Eventually, the old fisherman packed up his stuff and went home, having not caught anything in all the time they’d been there. Akane wondered if there were even any fish worth catching in the bay to begin with. Maybe he just liked to sit there and pretend?

At some point, Akane took off her shoes and got up to do some kata, just to get her blood moving again. She moved through all the forms she knew while little waves lapped at her feet, Yuka calling out mock-critiques as she went.

“Sloppy footwork Tendo!” She said sharply.

Akane ignored her, focusing on her form.

“Hey can you do that thing like in Dragon Ball?” Yuka asked.

“What?” Akane replied.

“Dragon Ball, it’s a cartoon about, like, martial artists and stuff.”

“I know what Dragon Ball is, I’m asking what thing like in Dragon Ball?”

“Y’know, where they like, punch the waves and make a big tunnel in the water for a second with the shockwave or whatever?”

“They do that?”

“I think so.”

“I don’t think the waves here are big enough.”

“Maybe you could lie down on your belly and do it from that angle?”

“You’re just trying to make me look silly.”

Yuka grinned and shrugged, but said,

“Hey though, if you can actually do it it’ll be incredible.”

Akane thought about it for a moment, then dropped to her stomach, facing the waves. Yuka got up to watch. Akane drew back her arm, waiting for the next wave, and right before it crashed, her fist whipped out, almost too fast to see.

The wave collapsed, unaffected.

“Eh, I guess that makes sense,” Yuka said, only a little disappointed. She went to sit back down.

“Wait,” Akane said, still on the ground. Yuka paused. Akane had her eyes closed and was breathing deeply. Several waves fell while she lay there, and she made no attempt on any of them. Yuka was just about to ask what she was doing, when suddenly her eyes popped open, and her fist lashed out again. To Yuka, it looked very similar to the last punch she had thrown, except this time, when her arm was fully extended, Yuka felt it. The shockwave blew back her hair and made her cheeks flap, as if she had stuck her head out the window of a moving car. It had a similar effect on the water in front of it, blasting a hemispherical hole almost a meter wide in several of the oncoming waves.

Immediately, Akane rolled over, spluttering and swatting at her tongue.

“What, what??” Yuka asked, rushing over to her. Akane spat on the ground, and said,

“Ah gah san in ma mouf”

She spat again.

Yuka stared at her blankly for a second, then burst out laughing.

“That was incredible!!” She said through her laughter, “I didn’t even think that was possible!”

Akane beamed.

“I used my chi!”

You used your chi that’s so fucking cool Akane!!!!!!”

“I know! I’ve never gotten it to do something that big before!” She looked down at her hands, opening and closing them reverently. Yuka collapsed in the sand beside her, holding her face in her hands.

“Dude, you are so…” she started, but trailed off. Akane punched the air several times, testingly, letting out a much smaller burst of wind with each one. Yuka watched her in awe. Finally, she blurted out,

“Do you really hate being a tomboy that much?”

Akane snapped out of her train of thought, looking alarmed.

What??”

Yuka got to her knees and looked Akane in the eye, her face earnest.

“Why do you hate being a tomboy? You’re the best tomboy I’ve ever met!”

“Dude!” Akane exclaimed, looking offended.

“Why is that an insult?” Yuka asked, her voice soft, “You’re incredible at all these amazing things, and you know it, and so much of the time when you’re not forcing yourself to feel bad about it, you’re super confident and unapologetic about it! But then you remember that being you isn’t ‘feminine’, and it’s like you completely disappear into this fake-o ‘girly’ personality and, like, what has it ever gotten you? Other than a million asshole dudes chasin’ you around all the time and the conditional approval of your piece of shit dad?”

Akane spluttered, trying to formulate an answer, but Yuka grabbed her hands before she could and her mouth snapped shut.

“Akane,” Yuka said, trying to get her friend to meet her eye, “You’re like… an inspiration to me. Y’know before, when I said that I would have chased after that dog in the woods like you did? Well, I wouldn’t have. Not in middle school, anyway. Before I moved here and met you and Sayuri, I wasn’t like that. I would’ve cared way more about what the people around thought of me than I did about my friend’s sandwich. But not you! You’re the one who taught me it was okay to be myself!”

“Wh-why are you even saying all this right now?” Akane asked, starting to recover from her initial daze.

“Because nowadays it seems like all you wanna do is be this, like, perfect, pretty little thing that everybody likes! I mean, today alone I heard you call yourself a ‘tomboy’ in a derogatory way twice! And it just… I just…” She trailed off, her hands loosening. “I don’t wanna lose you.”

For a long moment, they were both silent.

“I…” Akane said finally, still not meeting her gaze, “I don’t... really know what you’re talking about, but I think some of that stuff was pretty rude and...” It was clear that she was biting back tears now, but she steeled her jaw and continued, “pretty far out of line.”

“But-”

“And maybe I am going through some stuff right now, but that doesn’t mean you have the right to- to…”

“‘Kane…” Yuka said softly, reaching out slightly toward her. Akane jerked away.

“I think,” she said after a moment, “I’m ready to head home.”

“O-okay, lemme just-”

“I think I’m just gonna take the bus back, if that’s alright.”

“Oh come on Akane, don’t you think that’s a little-”

“Look, I’m not that mad,” she said, sounding mad, “I’d just rather be home right now, alright?” She got to her feet, tried for several seconds to primly wipe off the layer of wet sand that covered most of her front, failed, then turned and walked away in the direction of the stairs that led back to the street. Yuka watched her go, speechless.

Then, in a moment of incredibly bad judgement, Yuka found herself calling after her,

“I was only tellin’ the truth!”

Akane shot her a look that felt like it must have contained enough chi to melt the whole beach into glass. Yuka shrunk. A second later, Akane disappeared from view.

Yuka fell back on her butt in the sand.

Chapter Text

 

Ranma sat with his arms and legs all pressed together at the side of his chair, the butt of his palm propping up his chin. His eyes tracked the passing scenery through the bus window with practiced disinterest, his mouth a thin line. Every once in a while he shifted in his seat, discreetly moving his arms so as to air out some of the stress sweat accumulating in his armpits. At one point, he tapped his foot anxiously, but then stopped, annoyed at himself for being overly dramatic.

Sayuri stood uncomfortably next to him, holding a bar for support.

“It’s not a big deal,” she said eventually. “We just sit and talk.”

Ranma’s only response was to shrug slightly, not taking his eyes off the window.

They rode like that for 40 minutes, the bus taking them out of Nerima into more urban parts of the city. The storefronts there were dingy, and the sidewalks thin. Pedestrians walked with purpose in mind.

Ranma tried not to picture where they were headed. He knew better than to trust his preconceived notions, but ever since Sayuri had brought it up, some part of his mind had been envisioning the worst. He imagined people the likes of which he was still only vaguely aware of- not people like Sayuri, but people whose delusions were like more developed versions of his own, whose physical flaws were so pronounced that one couldn’t hope to ignore them. People without curses. What could he do if he came face to face with people like that? What would they think of him? Of his… condition?

Sayuri startled him by leaning over to pull a yellow cord on the wall. There was a ding, and a few moments later, the bus pulled over and opened its doors.

“Gotta transfer,” Sayuri explained. They got off, Ranma with the help of a cool retractable ramp that he was quietly amazed by, and waited under an awning for the next bus. “It’ll just be a few minutes,” She said, not bothering to check the bus schedule posted behind her. Ryoga had complimented Ranma on his knowledge of the city last night, but Ranma could tell that was nothing compared to what Sayuri had in her head. The city and its means of transportation were a vast mechanical mystery that one could to spend a lifetime learning. When he had the option, Ranma was happy to stick to the rooftops.

As if reading his mind, Sayuri said,

“When I first started coming here, my friend in the group had to take the bus all the way out to Nerima just to lead me back.”

“Wow,” Ranma said, wanting to take the opportunity for smalltalk to signal that he at least didn’t plan on acting like a total asshole today, “You must have been really committed to going.”

“Oh yeah,” Sayuri replied, “I thought if I didn’t go then, I’d probably never get the chance to meet other queer people again.” She laughed. “Now I can see they’re all around me, but I still go to group, ‘cause I have friends there.”

Ranma nodded, as if he understood what she was saying.

“How’d you hear about it in the first place?”

“The internet,” She replied, then amended, “You, uh, know what that is, right?”

Ranma rolled his eyes.

Yes, I know what the Internet is,” he lied.

“Right, right, sorry,” Sayuri said, shaking her head, “Yeah, I met this girl Aoi on a messageboard a long time ago, back in middle school. She was a year older than me and the first self identified gay person I ever knowingly talked to. I wasn’t out at the time- like, even less so than I am now, I guess- but it was pretty obvious, at least to her, just from where I was hanging out online and the stuff I was talking about. We would talk about gay manga, and the girls in our classes, and our stupid parents, y’know, kid stuff.”

“Eventually though, her messages started getting way darker and more depressive. Things were getting worse for her at home. She felt trapped, and nothing I could say could help her. It got to the point where, at times when she wasn’t online, I’d get all frantic, worrying she’d gone and done something drastic. But then, one day, she logged on and she was excited like I’d never seen, and she told me she’d found this place where she could be herself. And, I mean, it’s not like her problems went away after that- honestly, they’ve gotten worse- but since then I’ve never had to worry about her hurting herself.

She smiled, looking down. Ranma could only nod, slowly, in response.

“A while later, when things started getting worse for me, she invited me to come along with her to a meeting. I refused the first few times. I didn’t think anything in the real world could be as nice or helpful as the space we had together online. The thought of adults and boys and god knows who else being there… just, no. But she wanted to help so badly, eventually I just gave in.”

“...And…?” Ranma said, “...It was good?”

Sayuri laughed.

“Yeah, it was great! It totally, like, changed the way I look at the world. Made the world seem like a place I would actually want to live in, even.”

Ranma nodded again.

“I…” he said after a moment, prompting Sayuri to look down at him, “I don’t really get it,” he said apologetically, “but... I want to.”

“I’m glad,” Sayuri said, smiling, and Ranma had to look away, suddenly reminded that he was casually hanging out with a pretty girl.

After a few minutes, the next bus came, and they got on. There was no one else at the stop, so the bus started to pull away, but just as it did, someone started banging on the outside, making Ranma jump.

“Hey!” The person yelled, apparently running alongside the bus as it started moving, “Let me on! Hey!”

Sayuri perked up at the voice.

The bus jerked to a stop and the doors swung open, revealing a winded young boy, his ear-length hair dishevelled, glasses askew.

“Thanks,” he breathed to the bus driver without making eye contact, before turning and catching sight of Ranma and Sayuri.

“Sachihiro!” Sayuri said in surprise.

“Oh!” he said, equally surprised, “Sayuri! What are you doing here?”

“Uh, going to group? You?”

“Oh, um, same,” Sachihiro said. He made his way over, then hesitated before sitting across the aisle, facing them. Up close, Ranma realized he was probably older than he looked.

“This is Ranma. Today’s his first time coming to group,” Sayuri said. Ranma held out a hand. Sachihiro hesitated for a second, glancing over at Sayuri before shaking it.

“Nice to meet you,” he said, “I’m Sachihiro Chiba. I use, uh, he/him pronouns.”

“Nice to meet you too,” Ranma replied, “...Wait, what?”

“Oh!” Sachihiro said, his eyebrows shooting up, “Uh…”

“That just means he’s a boy,” Sayuri clarified.

“Oh,” Ranma said, the gears visibly turning in his head.  He looked back and forth between Sayuri and Sachihiro, then blinked. “Oh! Uh…”

He looked the other boy up and down, searching for… something. When they made eye contact, Sachihiro was blushing.

“Ah,” Ranma said, feeling his own cheeks turn pink, “S-sorry.”

Despite his obvious discomfort, Sachihiro smiled.

“About what?”

When Ranma couldn’t answer, Sachihiro and Sayuri laughed, as if it were a funny joke. Ranma frowned, still not sure if he’d done anything wrong. Sayuri noticed and patted him on the shoulder.

“Sorry, don’t worry, nobody gets it perfect right away. There might be uncomfortable moments at first, but nobody’ll judge you too harshly.”

Ranma only grunted softly in response and turned to look out the window. Sayuri shrugged. Sachihiro eyed Ranma, quietly.

They rode in silence for another ten minutes before the bus pulled to a stop on a street lined by old brick buildings.

“This is it,” Sayuri said. Sachihiro slung his messenger bag over his shoulder, and the three exited the bus. “Do you know who’s gonna be here today?” Sayuri asked Sachihiro as they walked down the street.

“Uh,” Sachihiro said, “I know Kairi will be, probably Yori too. We didn’t talk much this week, but Kairi wanted to take us to a show on saturday so I think we’re gonna meet up today to talk about it.”

“Ok, good,” Sayuri said, “Konatsu will be too, and you, obviously, so at least there’ll be a few trans people there for Ranma to talk to.”

Both boys gave her a funny look at that, though for different reasons. Sachihiro shot Ranma another inquisitive look. Ranma pretended not to notice.

They came to a door. Sayuri hopped up the four steps and pressed a button on the intercom, eliciting a loud buzzer noise that made Ranma jump. A second later, a young-sounding voice said,

“Yo?”

“Hey, it’s Sayuri and Sachihiro, let us in!”

“Yo.”

The door clicked, and Sayuri pulled it open. Sachihiro hesitated.

“What?” Sayuri asked.

“Uh,” he said awkwardly, looking between the front steps and Ranma’s chair. “D’you…?”

Ranma realized what he was thinking.

“Thanks, but I got it,” he said quickly. He spun his chair around and backed up to the first stair, leaning back, and with one hand on a guardrail and the other holding his chair in place, easily pulled himself up until his back wheel hit the second stair. He repeated that process for the other three steps, until he was at the top.

“Wow,” Sachihiro said, his eyes wide, “I didn’t know that was possible!”

Ranma shrugged. He hadn’t either, until he’d called Dr. Tofu about it.

“Ranma’s a martial artist,” Sayuri explained as they entered the building.

“Oh cool!” Sachihiro said, “Me too!”

Ranma looked up at him in surprise, about to respond, but Sayuri cut him off.

“No, dude, I mean, like, Ranma’s a martial artist. Like, a real one.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Sachihiro asked.

Sayuri shrugged, pressing the button for the elevator.

“You’re just on such totally different levels,” she said simply, “Ranma’s like, at least as strong as Konatsu. You, like, take a class at the community center.”

This seemed to give the boy pause.

“Whoa,” he said, boarding the elevator, “As strong as Konatsu?” He looked to Ranma for confirmation.

“Uh, I guess?” Ranma said. He’d never heard anyone talk about Konatsu as, like, a pinnacle of strength before. It struck him as odd.

“Jeez,” Sachihiro said, visibly deflating. “I guess you’re kinda right. I had no idea there were so many people like that around.”

“Be glad you don’t live in Nerima,” Sayuri said wryly. She pressed the button for the sixth floor and the doors closed. Ranma frowned.

After a moment, he leaned over towards Sachihiro.

“What kind of martial arts do you do though?”

Sachihiro looked surprised for a second, then grinned.

“I used to take karate classes, but now I’m just doing taekwondo.”

Ranma nodded enthusiastically, and immediately started talking excitedly about his thoughts on both styles, a topic with which Sachihiro was more than happy to engage. When they reached their floor and the elevator came to a stop, Ranma was telling the story of the brief time he spent studying Taekwondo in Korea after he and his father got swept away in a storm while fishing in a dinghy off the coast of China (Genma’s fault, of course). When the doors opened, though, he trailed off, looking down the hallway. Suddenly, the reasons they were here came rushing back to him.

“...Ranma?” Sachihiro said. When he didn’t respond, Sayuri took notice.

“Ranma?” she echoed, leaning down in front of him, “What’s up?”

“Uhh,” he said, shaking his head, “...sorry.”

Sayuri and Sachihiro exchanged a look.

“Do you still want to go in?”

Ranma opened his mouth to respond, staring down the hallway. It looked old, and dingy, and kind of sad. The carpeting was an ugly shade of faded red, and the wallpaper was yellow with age. The only light came from the dim little ceiling lamps, several of which were flickering intermittently. Had the downstairs been like this? It certainly didn’t seem like the kind of place a bunch of teenagers should be meeting an adult man to talk about… what exactly were they going to talk about again?

“We don’t need to go in if you don’t want to,” Sayuri said, sincerely. Sachihiro nodded.

“The first two times I tried to come to one of these things, I wound up just pacing around outside the building for like half an hour and then going home. It’s totally scary at first.”

Ranma opened and closed his mouth several more times, his brow furrowed. Then he nodded.

“Yeah. Sorry, let’s go in. I was just... thinkin’.”

Sayuri nodded, smiling, and they continued into the hallway. When they reached the door marked 47, Sayuri knocked. As the sound of footsteps on the other side drew near, Ranma braced himself for whoever and whatever might be on the other side. Whoever it was paused at the door, presumably to look out the peephole, before pulling it open.

“Ayy!!” the man behind the door bellowed, grinning. Ranma nearly leapt out of his chair in surprise.

“Ayyy!!!” Sayuri and Sachihiro responded in unison, mimicking his tone and outstretched arms, though in extreme miniature. The man was huge.

He quickly reached out and grabbed Sachihiro around the shoulders, pulling him in, and for a brief moment Ranma went completely into defense mode, anticipating an attack. He relaxed when he saw he was just noogie-ing him.

“Where you been, kid? I haven’t seen you in weeks!”

The man spoke with a broad, southern accent. His frame took up nearly the whole doorway, making Sachihiro look tiny in comparison.

“I’ve been busy!” Sachihiro protested, laughing as he tried to wriggle free, “lemme go and I’ll tell you about it!”

The man did let him go, but not until after a second longer of extra intense noogies. Once he was free, he darted past him into the apartment beyond. The man turned and followed, giving Ranma and Sayuri only a brief nod of acknowledgement.

That’s the Ichiro guy you were talking about??” Ranma whispered, looking highly concerned.

“What??” Sayuri asked, laughing, “No, that’s just Ken. Ichiro’s an adult.”

Ranma looked between her and the hulking form retreating into the apartment in confusion.

“And that guy’s not?!”

Sayuri snorted.

“He’s like a year older than us. He and Sachihiro both just got out of high school.”

She stepped through the door into the apartment’s short entrance hall, and Ranma followed, still recovering from that shock.

They passed a kitchen where three girls were gathered around a pizza, deep in conversation, and then into the main room which, coincidentally, was also much larger than Ranma had been expecting. The space was at least as big as the Tendos’ dojo, and even had the same hardwood floor and high ceilings, though it was also full of fancy, modern looking furniture, and had a massive semi-circular window on the wall to the left of them that flooded the room with light. There were also a lot of gay teenagers, which was something Ranma had definitely never seen in the Tendo dojo.

The furniture seemed to be arranged into three clusters; a rough circle of various chairs and chair-like things floating in the center of the room, a sofa and a loveseat facing a large TV on the wall, and a dining area on a raised part of the floor beneath the main window. There were a few people gathered at each cluster, and each group seemed to have multiple conversations going on at once. There were probably twenty kids scattered around, and everyone in the room was either smiling or in the middle of a heated argument. Ranma didn’t know what he’d been imagining group to be, but this certainly wasn’t it.

“Ah!” came a voice from somewhere in the room. Sayuri and Ranma turned to see an older man- this time, Ranma was sure of it- shuffling towards them from the dining table, where he appeared to be in the middle of some kind of board game with some of the younger kids. “Sayuri!” he said as he approached, “No Yuka today?”

“She couldn’t make it,” Sayuri said, sadly.

“That’s a shame,” he said, “That girl’s a hoot. But where are my manners- you must be Ranma!”

Ranma glanced up at Sayuri, as if expecting her to answer for him, before quickly shaking his head and replying,

“Uh. Yep. That’s me. Ranma Saotome.” He bowed slightly, almost as an afterthought.

“Ichiro Okimoto,” Ichiro said, grinning warmly and returning the bow. “I’m glad you could make it today! When Sayuri called me earlier to ask if she could bring a friend, she didn’t sound at all sure that you’d be coming.”

“Well,” Ranma said, shrugging, “here I am, I guess.”

The old man chuckled, apparently unsure of where to go with that. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, he clapped his hands together and said,

“Well! I’m sure Sayuri is dying to introduce you to her friends, and my little dungeoneering party over there probably wants to get back to their game, so I won’t keep you. Just so you know though, we’ll probably be convening for Group Talk in about, oh, twenty, twenty-five minutes. In the meantime, there’s pizza and soda in the kitchen that you can help yourself to, and if you have any questions, feel free to ask anyone, or come directly to me, alright?”

Ranma nodded dumbly, and Ichiro turned and hobbled back to his game, waving his hands dismissively at the table of fifteen year olds who were yelling at him to hurry up.

“C’mon,” Sayuri said. She strode over to the group in the center of the room, where Sachihiro and Ken had sat down. Ranma followed.

“Ayy, it’s ‘Yuri,” said someone in the group who was sitting on a cushion on the floor. Ranma took them at first to be a boy, from their short hair, backwards baseball cap, and baggy clothes, but as they approached, he recognized them as a girl in boy’s clothing. Or... something like that.

“Ayy, it’s dipshit,” Sayuri replied, taking a seat on some kind of cube, which Ranma rolled up beside. The person didn’t seem to take offense at the name calling, only smirking and taking a bite of their pizza.

Another girl (Ranma assumed (jesus christ, was he going to need to do this with everyone he met for the rest of his life??)) cocked her head to the side and asked,

“Who’s this, though?”

Again, Ranma found himself unable to form coherent words in the face of simple questions. Luckily, Sayuri came to his rescue.

“A friend of mine from school,” she said simply. “Would you guys mind doing, like, names and pronouns before anything else? I imagine he’ll be uncomfortable until you do.”

Ranma almost protested, thinking Sayuri was making fun of him somehow, but there was a collective nod from the group, and the girl who had asked about him said,

“Ok, I’ll start. My name’s Kairi, my pronouns are she/her, and one interesting thing about me is that I’m a fencer.”

“Are we doing interesting things too?” The boy next to her asked.

“I feel weird only doing names and pronouns,” Kairi replied, “like, those aren’t really good conversation starters, y’know?”

“Oh yeah,” the boy said, “Ok, I’m Akio, my pronouns are, uh, he/him, and, uh, one interesting thing about me is, uh…” His brow furrowed, and his eyes began to unfocus. “One thing is, uh… umm….”

They watched the boy think for a few more moments, every so often murmuring an “um” or an “ah” under his breath, before Sayuri cut him off.

“Alright, only do an interesting thing about yourself if you actually have one, ok?”

Akio nodded, embarrassed, and then it was Ken’s turn.

“Hey there, name’s Ken. Pronouns are he/him, I guess. Never really thought about it ‘till recently, t’be honest. Anyway, Sachihiro tells me yer a martial artist! I’m a wrestler m’self, but I did some MMA last summer. If y’don’t mind my sayin’ so, I’d love to see what y’got once that cast comes off. I can already tell yer strong jus’ by lookin at ya.” He grinned a toothy grin, and Ranma couldn’t help but return it. He knew he could probably take this guy down in a single hit, but some animal part of his brain was still excited by the friendly challenge.

Next up was the person Sayuri had called dipshit.

“‘Sup,” they said, “I’m Aoi, pronouns are she, they, whatever. I’ve never done a single interesting thing in my life.” They took another bite of pizza. Sayuri rolled her eyes.

“I’m Sachihiro,” Sachihiro said, “We already met though I guess, so, uh…”

He waved. Ranma waved back.

For a second, Ranma thought that was it, but then a small voice said,

“A-and I’m, um, Yori.”

Ranma turned, and was startled to find another girl sitting next to Sachihiro. Had she been there the whole time?

She cleared her throat and continued,

“My pronouns are sh-she/her, and I, ah… play the clarinet.”

She sounded like she would have preferred not to be talking. Ranma stared at her for a second, trying to figure out why he hadn’t noticed her. It wasn’t as if she were particularly small- though, because of the way her back was hunched, and how she had her legs pressed together and half hidden under her chair, one might not have immediately realized that. In fact, the more Ranma looked at her, the odder she seemed to him. A pit started to form in his stomach as he realized why.

When he met her eye, she quickly looked away, and Ranma realized he’d been doing the same thing he had with Sachihiro before. Asshole, he thought to himself, angrily. Why couldn’t he ever just be nice ?

It took him a moment to realize everyone else in the group was now staring at him, expectantly.

Oh.

“Uh, nice to meet you all,” Ranma said, rubbing the back of his neck, “I’m Ranma, and I… uh…”

He trailed off, thinking desperately about what he wanted to say. He hadn’t had a lot of time to prepare for this. He still wasn’t even sure if he was supposed to be here!

He imagined he could feel the eyes of the other kids boring into him. What would they think of him if he said one thing, only to change his mind later? He looked up at Sayuri for guidance, only to be reminded of how little they actually knew each other.

This is why you came , he told himself. If he wasn’t going to say it now, would he ever?

Fuck it, he was doing it.

“I’m Ranma Saotome, and I-”

“Hey guys! Sorry I’m late, there was soooo much traffic and I missed TWO of my buses and then… I… Ranma?!”

Ranma looked as if he’d been hit over the head with a brick. He twisted slowly in his chair to look over his shoulder.

“Uh… hey... Konatsu...”

Konatsu just stared at him, dumbstruck, their bag lying open on the ground. They looked up at Sayuri. Then back at Ranma.

Ranma?!”

“You guys know each other?” Ken asked, surprised.

“My dad’s master destroyed their step-mother’s business,” Ranma said, as if in a daze, “They swore an oath of revenge on me. Now they work at my childhood best friend’s restaurant. We hang out sometimes.”

“Ranma…” Konatsu said, flopping down into one of the chairs, now seeming dazed as well. They turned their head to look at him.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey…” they said back.

They sat in silence for a few seconds. Then Konatsu said to Sayuri,

“Why didn’t you tell me you were bringing him today??”

“He only asked me to go at, like, one in the morning last night!” Sayuri said, defensively.

“Your dad’s master?” Kairi asked Ranma.

“His martial arts master,” Ranma clarified. “Burned down the whole tea house.”

“He burned it down??” Aoi broke in, suddenly interested. Konatsu nodded, grimly.

“Jesus!” Kairi said, “I hope your dad cut ties with him after that!”

Ranma laughed.

“Nope! That was like, almost a year ago. He didn’t ditch the ol’ letch until last month!”

“And thank fuck he did,” Sayuri said, shivering. “He used to break into the school locker-room and steal our underwear.

“What the fuck?!” exclaimed Yori, suddenly.

“I remember you telling me about that!” Aoi said to Sayuri. “I kinda thought you were making it up at the time!”

“Why would I make something like that up??” she asked, disgusted. Aoi shrugged.

“So, what? Is he in jail now?” Sachihiro asked. Ranma and Konatsu exchanged a look.

“I mean, sort of?” Ranma replied.

“What the hell does that mean, ‘ sort of’?” Aoi asked.

“If you didn’t believe about the locker room, you’re definitely not gonna believe that story,” Konatsu told them.

“I’d believe anything you told me, ‘natsu.”

“Hey!” Sayuri laughed, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Aoi shrugged.

“Means what it means.”

“But what really happened?” Yori asked.

Ranma grimaced, trying to imagine how to explain it to a normal person.

“He… kidnapped me?” He said finally, and nodded to himself at the shocked silence that followed. “Yeah. Actually, him and my dad did it together. Plus my friend’s dad.”

“W...wow,” Aoi said after a moment, “That’s… really messed up. I’m sorry.”

Ranma shrugged.

“Thanks. Obviously it turned out ok, more or less.” He looked down at his cast for a second, then shook his head. “Buuuuut, that wasn’t the unbelievable part.”

Several eyebrows went up. Ranma looked to Konatsu.

“You wanna tell it? I don’t think I’d do a good job.”

Konatsu laughed.

“I’ll try!” They said. “Ok, so, it all started last month. We’d just put in the karaoke machine at Ucchan’s, and business was booming…”

Over the next several minutes, they tried to explain what had happened. When they got to the part where Ranma’s head popped out of a portal, Aoi groaned and put their hand over their face. From there, pretty much every event required Ranma, Konatsu, or Sayuri to spend a few minutes insisting that it actually happened, which was generally accompanied by a lot of laughter, from both sides. Eventually, they had to double back and tell the whole thing from Ranma’s perspective, which only made things more confusing. While they talked, a few other people from around the room drifted over to listen. By the time they explained the magic fruit, everyone was convinced they were just making it up as they went along.

Finally, while Konatsu was in the middle of describing the fight with Mr. Tendo outside the Monkey Palace, Ichiro got to his feet and called out,

“Alright everybody, group-talk time! If you want to participate, circle up!”

There was a chorus of “Aww”s from the group listening to the story.

“We’ll finish telling you later,” Konatsu said, getting up to move their chair into the assembling circle.

“Aw, what?” Kairi said, “Can’t we just move somewhere else and keep going?”

“I feel like Ranma should do group talk,” Sayuri said. Ranma shrugged. He was fine either way.

“Alright, but I wanna hear the rest of that at some point!” Ken said, laughing, a sound which made Ranma think of an earthquake. “You guys are hilarious!”

The group quickly dispersed into the larger circle, and Ranma was surprised all over again at how many people were there. Were there really so many people in Tokyo who were… like that?

Once everyone was in the room and seated, Ichiro surprised Ranma by pulling out a green rubber ball and holding it over his head. For a moment, Ranma thought they were going to play catch, which he felt was a fun choice. Instead, Ichiro said,

“Alright, I know we’ve been doing this a lot recently, but we have a few new people here tonight, so I think we should all go around and do names and pronouns. Who wants to go first?”

Sayuri was the first to raise her hand. Ichiro tossed her the ball, and she caught it before standing up and introducing herself. When she was done, she sat back down and passed it to the person to her left, which Ranma was silently thankful for. That meant he would go last, which meant he had time to think about what the fuck he was going to say to these people.

One by one, the ball made its way around the room, and Ranma noted with mixed feelings that, besides the few people he had already spoken to, everyone’s appearances seemed to match up with their pronouns in the typical way. If that was the case, he wondered why most of them even bothered with pronouns in the first place.

As it drew closer and closer to his turn, he felt his heart rate start to increase. He wanted to run, but knew it was too late. He could always just lie and say he was totally normal, but would anyone believe him? Not likely. If only he could somehow get across the whole situation. He had extenuating circumstances! Sachihiro, Yori, Aoi, Konatsu, they were all nice enough people, but he wasn’t exactly like them, was he?

…He wasn’t so sure. But either way, he suddenly had an idea of what he needed to do. Discreetly, he put his hands on his wheels and pulled himself out of the circle.

“Where are you going??” Sayuri whispered.

“I’ll be back in a sec,” he said, rolling back toward the kitchen.

For a brief moment, Sayuri was worried he was ditching. True to his word though, a moment later he rolled back into the room, and when she saw what he was carrying, she smiled.

He got back to the circle with only a few kids left before him. Sachihiro, who was sitting beside him, gave him an inquisitive glance before standing up himself. And then the ball landed in Ranma’s lap.

He took a deep breath, and looked up at the room full of people.

“Ok,” he said. “Hi, everybody. Um, in order to introduce myself, I’ve gotta do something a little… weird, but don’t… freak out, or anything.”

He held up the glass of water. It wasn’t totally full- people were always using more than they needed to on him, and he didn’t feel like getting his clothes all wet. Around the room people stared at him, some intrigued, most bored. He expected this would change that.

He lifted it over his head and dumped it.

There was a collective gasp from the room. He inhaled.

“My name is Ranma Saotome. And I don’t know what my pronouns are.”

Chapter Text

 

Ranma clenched and unclenched their hands, keeping their eyes on their lap as a small crowd of kids jostled to get a closer look at their new form, all seemingly trying to ask the same thing at once.

“How the hell’d ya do that??” Aoi demanded, leaning in uncomfortable close to inspect them. “Hair dye? Some sorta… water activated hair-dye?”

“I don’t think they sell water activated boobs, dude,” said a boy Ranma didn’t know, who was definitely leaning in too close. They gritted their teeth. Luckily, before they could do anything rash, Sayuri forced her way to the center of the group, holding her arms out protectively.

“Alright, alright, give ‘em some space, assholes!”

The group mostly ignored her, their attention still focused on Ranma. Luckily, Sayuri’s intervention did seem to startle Ichiro out of his daze.

“Everyone!” He said, with surprising force and a clap of his hands that made them all look up in surprise, “Please! Don’t crowd Ranma! That is not how we do things here! If you have questions- as I’m, um, well, sure that we all do- you can wait to ask them in an appropriate and respectful way!”

To Ranma’s surprise and relief, the group reluctantly quieted down, and those who had gotten to their feet started moving back to their chairs. All except Aoi, that is, who planted themself on the floor in front of Ranma and Sayuri and said,

“Okay, but seriously, what the fuck?”

“Aoi, what did I just say??” Ichiro snapped. Aoi threw their hands in the air.

“I’m sorry! But, like,” they turned back to Ranma and said more quietly, “Was that a magic trick or something? You look totally different!”

“I, uh, would also kind of like to know, uh, what the fuck , to be honest,” Sachihiro piped up from his seat next to Ranma.

Around the room, others nodded. Ranma frowned as they scanned the group’s faces, trying to gauge intentions. No one seemed to be laughing, which was a step up from how this normally went, at least. And It wasn’t as if they hadn’t been expecting this. Might as well get it over with. They sighed.

“It’s magic,” They said simply. “Not a trick or anything like that. Whenever I touch cold water, it makes me look like this. Hot water makes me change back.”

“Even your voice…” Kairi said, staring at them, mesmerized.

“Ok, I’m gonna need to see that again,” Aoi said, standing bolt upright and striding towards the kitchen.

“Aoi!” Sayuri said, moving as if to stop them, but Ranma held up a hand.

“It’s ok,” they said, massaging their forehead, “I’m... used to it.”

Aoi reappeared a second later with two more glasses of water, which Ranma noted with some exhaustion were both filled to the brim.

‘’It’s magic’’” They said, in an irritating falsetto imitation of Ranma, “We’ll just see about that. ” 

They stopped directly behind their chair, and before Ranma had time to react, poured a small amount out of one of the glasses onto the top of their head. The room gasped again.

“Hey! ” Ranma gasped, their voice and body changing mid-syllable. “I never said you could do it! Gimme those!” They twisted in their chair and snatched the cups away from Aoi, who was too startled to do anything about it.

“Y… you really did…”

Yeah, I really changed because its really magic, okay?? Look,” They lifted the two cups above their head and transformed several more times in rapid succession, finally landing back on girl form. This time, the reactions were more dumbstruck than excited, which was initially satisfying for Ranma. After a moment, though, they started to become extremely aware that everyone in the room was staring at them. Many of their expressions were hard to read. Eventually, their own eyes turned back to their lap. 

“Uh...sorry,” They murmured, avoiding eye contact. “I didn’t mean… I wasn’t trying to, like… hijack, your whole… maybe I should just, um…”

Their hands moved toward their wheels, but faltered when a pair of gray boat shoes appeared at the edge of their vision. They looked up to find Ichiro crouched in front of them, his expression sympathetic.

“Hey,” he said softly, apparently having finally regained his composure, “You have no reason to be sorry. I’m sorry. Aoi,” he said, looking up at them, “that was way out of line. Please, apologize to Ranma and sit back down.”

“Uhh,” Aoi replied, clearly still stunned, “I-I’m sorry, dude. I, uh… sorry.” They quickly reclaimed their original seat, their mouth welded shut and their cheeks burning. Nodding curtly, Ichiro turned his attention back to Ranma.

“This is meant to be a safe space for you kids, and we all should have been more considerate of your feelings. I imagine that must have taken a lot of courage for you to share with a room full of strangers.”

Ranma stared at him for a few seconds, wide eyed, and was surprised to find themself starting to tear up. They bit their lip and nodded slightly.

“Well, thank you very much for trusting us with it. From here on, I promise, if you decide to stick with us, we’ll all do everything we can to earn that trust. Right, everyone?”

Much of the room nodded vigorously, which made Ranma blush even harder. Ichiro smiled.

“All of us are here looking for acceptance, Ranma,” he continued, “I wouldn’t blame you if you decided not to stay, but if you’re looking for understanding, I can’t think of a better place for you than in this room.”

Ranma stared at him for a second, then shook their head, blinking.

“Um,” they said, looking away, “Yeah. Sorry. I’ll stay. It’s honestly really not a big deal. It... kind of happens all the time, actually.”

Ichiro frowned.

“Do you want to talk about that?”

“I mean… I don’t wanna take up too much of everybody’s time. It’s supposed to be group talk, right?”

“Oh, we are well past that,” Sachihiro blurted out with surprising enthusiasm. “Everybody who wants to hear everything there is to know about Ranma’s magical gender powers , raise your hand!”

Every hand in the room shot up, save Ichiro and Sayuri’s. Ranma cocked their head to the side when they noticed Konatsu’s raised hand.

“You already know about all that stuff,” they said. Konatsu shrugged.

“I’d still like to hear you talk about it,” they replied. “If you want to, that is.”

Ranma deliberated silently for a moment, then exhaled.

“Okay. Um. Well. It’s kind of a weird story. When I was fifteen, my dad took me to this… really weird place...”

They recounted the basic story beats to the room in much the same way they had countless times before- the training ground that wasn’t, the dad who became a panda, a strange, frustrating new body, an all-too-sudden return to Japan- while pointedly avoiding any mention of fiancees, or various other jusenkyo victims. They also talked about the shame it had brought their parents, and how confusing and frightening and sometimes even physically painful it had been to find themself in an entirely different body.  Along the way, though, a few things worked their way into the retelling that never had before; surprising new thoughts and feelings from those early days that they never thought they’d be able to share. How, in moments when the existential horror and mortification of it all subsided, getting stuck in this bizarre, alien form could actually be kind of interesting . How after long years on the road, never being seen by anyone as anything more than the dirty, wandering son of a foreign martial artist, stepping into towns as someone else entirely, someone who could be friendly and likeable and, well, cute, felt… nice .

They also told about how they had immediately stashed those feelings away, stuffed them deep, deep down where they hoped no-one could see, never to be examined or acknowledged again. They hadn’t planned to say all of this- hadn’t even realized they were feeling some of it until they started talking and it all came spilling out, but as they spoke hardly anyone looked at them strangely, or laughed- unless of course something was objectively funny, which Ranma had to admit, a lot of it was. Most of them look either amazed, concerned, sympathetic, or some mixture of the three.

“And so now I just don’t know,” they said finally, after explaining their current living situation as vaguely as they could, “For a long time nothing really changed, but I guess it sort of felt like I was, like, kind of... dying, inside? A little? For a lot of reasons. Then, last month, all this crazy shit happened- I guess I already told some of you about it, but that kind of got me thinking about all this stuff again. And then just a few days ago, I went out to this party with this girl- like, my best friend- and for some reason, out of all nights, I actually decided to go as, y’know, a girl, or whatever, and even though it should have been weird, it was actually, like… really good. And luckily, Sayuri was there with her girlfriend, and we hung out with them all night, which was cool because we go to school together but I feel like we’d never really talked before, and I guess it must have been pretty obvious how I was feelin’ cos she totally called me out on it right in the middle of the restaurant, and at the time i was like, uh, no , but then i started thinkin’ about it and i started to think, well, maybe, so I called her last night, and she invited me here, and so… uh, here we are, uh... I guess...”

They trailed off weakly, suddenly embarrassed by their rambling. They were surprised to feel a hand settle on their shoulder. They looked over to see Sayuri smiling at them.

“I think that was the most I’ve ever heard you talk,” She said softly.

Ranma bit their lip and looked down at their lap.

“I think that might have been the most I’ve ever talked.”

Sayuri laughed, and Ranma couldn’t help but smile as well.

“So this… ‘ curse’,” Aoi cut in, putting heavy air quotes around the last word, “was a total accident. But… now you’re thinking you might actually be trans?”

Ranma grimaced slightly.

“I uh… dunno? I guess I’m still not really clear on... what that means?”

“Trans is just when you don’t feel like you’re the gender that was assigned to you,” Konatsu said. “Uh. I think. I’m still pretty new to this stuff myself, actually.”

“No, that’s right,” Sachihiro said, from Ranma’s other side. “Lots of people feel something like what you’re describing, Ranma. Like, when you said how liberating it was being seen as someone different for the first time? I totally get that.”

“Same here,” Aoi added.

Ranma’s eyebrows scrunched together.

“And, like,” Konatsu chimed in, “you said you felt like your parents were trying to make you be something you weren’t, which is exactly how I used to feel! I’d been kind of wondering if maybe you felt the same way, actually.” They looked at the floor, smiling.

“B-but-” Ranma replied, “what if I’m wrong? I mean, I only really feel this way sometimes! How do I know if I’m, uh, t-trans?”

The others paused for a second, before Sachihiro said,

“Well, you don’t have to know. Just… think about it.”

“But for how long ?”

“Uh…” Sachihiro said, flummoxed.

“Ranma,” Sayuri said, touching their arm. “You don’t have to know , because you get to choose. It’s up to you, and only you, how you identify, and you can take as long as you want to decide.”

“Or not decide!” Aoi said, helpfully, “I never did, and look at me!” they gestured unhelpfully at their body, conveying nothing.

Ranma frowned. That didn’t seem quite right to them, but they didn’t want to say so.

“I…” they said, then trailed off, staring at the floor.

When no one said anything for several seconds, Ichiro cleared his throat and said,

“Ah… maybe we should switch topics for a little while. It seems like this might be turning into a conversation for a slightly more private setting. Plus, I’m sure there are other things people would like to discuss today! Would that be alright with you, Ranma?”

Ranma nodded, gratefully.

“Y-yeah. But, um. Thanks for listenin’, everybody. I’m… glad I came here today. I promise I won’t talk so much next time.”

With that, they passed the speaking ball, which had been lying forgotten in their lap this whole time, back to Ichiro, who asked the room if anyone else had anything they wanted to talk about. After a second, several hands went up, and soon, normal group talk had resumed- though with several people still stealing glances at Ranma whenever they thought they weren’t looking.

The first girl to speak after them was someone whom, embarrassingly, Ranma had already forgotten the name of. She used her time with the ball to tell the group about how, since she had come out to her best friends the week before, things had finally started to improve for her at her school. She was done after only a minute or two, and passed the ball to someone else while the girl next to her patted her on the back, smiling.

The boy she passed it to told them about an article he had read about the recent decriminalization of homosexuality in some place called Bosnia. After him, another boy told them of plans between he and two of the other guys there to spend a day at a theme park in Taito, and extended the invitation to everyone else. Several kids were interested, including Sayuri and Sachihiro, which made Ranma kind of want to go too. After that, a girl talked about her new girlfriend, and how wonderful and cute she was, and how she was going to try to get her to come to next week’s meeting.

As more kids got their turn with the ball, Ranma was honestly surprised at how many different things got talked about. The fact that all these people had been out there all this time, having all these experiences, thoughts and feelings, all of which were so unique and new and yet, in many ways so similar to their own, was kind of mind boggling. Some of the others there were new too, and spoke about their lives for almost as long as Ranma had, spilling their guts like they’d never been given the chance to before. And even though Ranma didn’t really identify with any of the specific groups the others did, hearing them talk about all this stuff- friends, romance, tv shows, politics, family life- was weirdly reassuring. Like, maybe their life wasn’t so weird after all. Well, no, it definitely was, but maybe a little less so than they had previously thought.

Once the last kid who’d had their hand up finished speaking, Ichiro cleared his throat.

“Well, if that’s all for today, then I’d like to-”

“W-wait,” a small voice interrupted. All eyes turned toward its source; a mousy boy, probably one of the youngest there, wearing a wrinkled school uniform, with his hand raised tentatively and his eyes on the floor. 

“I-I had something i wanted to ask, i-if that’s okay…”

“Of course it is Ryozo, sorry about that,” Ichiro replied, tossing him the ball. It bounced off the boy’s fingers, forcing him to get up and awkwardly grab it off the floor. When he got back to his seat, he was looking even more nervous than he had before. A girl to his left patted his shoulder, encouragingly, saying something the rest of the room couldn’t hear. Ryozo bit his lip and nodded, but for several seconds more said nothing. Then, just as Ichiro was opening his mouth to ask if everything was alright, he blurted out,

“My parents kicked me out and I don’t know where I’m going to sleep tonight!”

At this, the few whispered side conversations that had been happening died suddenly, and a hush fell over the room. After a moment’s pause, he continued.

“Wh-when I came home yesterday, m-my parents were... waiting for me in the kitchen. They said that our c-computer had, um, s-some kind of virus, and they decided I m-must have b-been the one who gave it to it, b-because-” He faltered, swallowing, obviously getting choked up. “Because somehow , th-they had a list of all the websites I’d visited, a-and some of th-them were gay , a-and…” he trailed off again, something in his eyes looking… broken . He covered his face with his hands and slumped down into his chair, muttering,

“And I didn’t know they could do that...”

He began to cry silently into his hands. Many of the other kids around the room looked similarly disturbed. It wasn’t hard to guess why. Nearly all of them shared computers with their families.

After a moment, the girl next to him, who had been attempting to comfort him before, and whose arm was now laid across his shoulders, spoke up.

“He stayed at my house last night, but my parents think it was just a regular sleepover. He can probably stay one more night at the most, but we really need to find somewhere else for him to stay. If anyone knows of anything , please let us know!”

When she finished, the room was silent, and for a moment Ranma thought grimly that they had finally reached a topic with which the room of teenagers was unprepared to deal. Then, however, within an instant of each other, several hands shot up at once.

“My house has a guest bedroom!”

“I’m out to my parents, I bet they’d let you stay over if we told them what happened!”

“I volunteer at a youth shelter on the weekends, I could probably get you a spot!”

“If you need money I could get you a job at my family’s shop!”

“I live on my own, you could crash on my couch if you need to!”

More and more hands started to go up, and slowly, Ryozo looked up from his hands, still sniffling.

“Y-you guys…” he said through his tears, before breaking back down into sobs. Immediately, several other kids gathered around to comfort him, more than one of them crying now as well. In a weird moment, Ranma almost went over and hugged the boy themself.

“I’m so sorry this is happening to you, Ryozo,” Ichiro said, his brow furrowed, “It sounds like you have a lot of friends here willing to help, but I want you to know, my door is always open should you ever need a place to stay, or just someone to talk to. I think you already know, I went through something similar a long time ago. I know at least a few others here have as well. You’re not alone, and none of this is your fault.”

Ryozo nodded quietly, biting his lip. The group’s kindness did seem to be helping his mood a little, but it was clear he was still grieving. He must have been holding this in the whole meeting. Suddenly, Ranma felt even worse for taking up so much of the group’s time.

“Th-thanks,” he finally managed to say, “um, I’ll talk to you guys after so we can, um, f-figure something out, if that’s ok?”

The kids who had offered to help all nodded, and with that, Ryozo passed the ball back to Ichiro.

“Well... that’s grouptalk, I suppose,” He said, forcing a half-smile. “No special announcements this week. Feel free to hang out for a little while- especially if you plan on helping clean up- but otherwise, I think that about wraps things up. I hope you all had a fun and productive day, and that you have several more such days before the next time I see you.”

With that, the group began to disperse, many returning to what they had been doing before grouptalk, while others began getting ready to leave. Ranma let out a long breath they didn’t realize they’d been holding in.

“How ya feeling?” Sayuri asked, turning towards them.

“I… dunno,” Ranma replied, seeming dazed, “That was a lot.”

“Yeah,” Sayuri said, snorting slightly, “maybe a little more than usual, thanks to you.”

“Ah… sorry,” Ranma said again, looking at their lap.

“No no, I didn’t mean it like that!” Sayuri said quickly, “You did great! Like, I mean, I know we haven’t been friends for like, super long, but... I’m proud of ya, Saotome.”

She smiled. Ranma looked up at her, grinning sheepishly.

“We’re friends?”

“Heck yeah we are!” She said, punching them in shoulder. “Especially now that you’ve officially come over to the dark side . Us sex perverts hafta stick together, y’know.”

Ranma couldn’t help but laugh at that. After a moment, though, their expression seemed to sadden.

“That poor Ryozo kid,” they said, looking across the room, to where the boy’s friends were still trying to comfort him, “I can’t believe his parents would just drop him like that out of nowhere.”

Sayuri knit her eyebrows.

“It… happens. Not usually, but… more often than you would hope.”

Ranma nodded.

“Nobody acted like it was their first time hearing it.”

“It definitely wasn’t,” she confirmed. “Although it’s been awhile since someone had to come to group with it. I guess… I dunno. I had kind of hoped things were getting better? But I guess it doesn’t happen that fast.”

Ranma bit their lip, thinking about their own parents.

“Hey, uh…” a voice said from in front of them, breaking their silence. They both looked up to see Sachihiro standing there, flanked by Aoi and, a little further back, that girl Yori, the one who was, uh… tall.

 “We were just gonna go get some food, would you guys wanna come along?”

Sayuri looked over at Ranma.

“What do you think?” she asked.

“Uh,” Ranma said, startled, “L-like, what kind of food?”

Ranma mentally kicked themself. As if that matters, just say yes!!

“I dunno, there’s an american diner down the street that’s pretty good,” Sachihiro replied.
“Oh, uh, then yeah, for sure!” they said, quickly.

“Sounds good,” Sayuri said, grinning.

“Cool!” Sachihiro said, smiling, “Let me just say goodbye to Ken and we can get going!”

He walked off, leaving Yori standing alone, looking sheepish with no one to hide behind. Ranma looked up at her, realizing for the first time that she hadn’t been involved at all in the mob scene earlier. That seemed… kinda odd? Before they’d transformed, hers was the reaction they’d been dreading and anticipating the most. After all, of all the people in the room, she was the only one who Ranma could read as being sort of, maybe… like them? They had assumed she’d be, like, excited or something, but from the way she was currently avoiding eye contact, maybe that wasn’t the case.

Realizing they were staring at a girl who was doing everything she could not to look in their direction, Ranma’s cheeks went pink, and they started studying the floorboards instead. 

There. Now both of them weren’t looking at each other. Exactly like normal people.

Aoi and Sayuri watched this sorry display with similar looks of disdain. 

“So, where’s Yuka?” Aoi asked after a moment, turning towards their friend. “Surprised she’d miss this.

“She couldn’t make it,” Sayuri said, shrugging.

“Got a hot date?” Aoi asked, smirking.

“That-” Sayuri started, but faltered. “...uh…hm.”

Aoi’s eyes went wide.

“Wait, really??” they asked, shoving her in the shoulder. “Are you guys doin’ okay?? Or, is this just, y’know, how the kids are doing it these days? And if it’s the second one, can I get in on that too?”

“No, no, no, it’s not really…” she said, waving her arms dismissively,“... okay, I’m like, 95% sure it isn’t like that. And on the off chance it is, I’ll only be mad that she didn’t tell me first.”

“Aww, look at you. So metropolitan!”

“Yeah, yeah, well,” Sayuri said, “if Yuka can convince the girl I’ve been crushing on since third grade that she likes girls, I’m all for it.”

“Wait.” Aoi said, lowering their voice, suddenly serious. “We’re talking about Akane? Your girlfriend is on a date with the Akane ?? Akane whomst you would not shut up about for the first two years I knew you?”

“Probably not a date, but yeah.”

“Doesn’t that girl have, like, a fiancee or something?”

It was Sayuri’s turn to smirk.

“Yup,” she said, nodding turning and discreetly gesturing towards Ranma, who hadn’t noticed what they were discussing, “but they’re out with me today.”

Aoi looked back and forth between her and Ranma, then shook their head.

“Man, and I’m out here still trying to get one girl.”

Sayuri snorted.

“Ok, I’m definitely misrepresenting things. I’ll tell you about it later. In the meantime…”

She pointed. A ways away, they watched as Sachihiro pulled Ken down by the shirt and planted a kiss on his cheek, then spun around and power-walked back in their direction. The taller boy watched him go, grinning and touching his face.

“WOW!” Aoi and Sayuri said in unison as he approached.

“Let’s just go,” he replied, grabbing them each by an arm and dragging them towards the door, his own cheeks burning bright red.

“That’s gay Sachihiro,” said one.

“Sachihiro that was gay,” said the other.

Before he could drag them out the door completely, Sayuri shook him loose and poked her head back into the main room, where Yori and Ranma were still busy avoiding looking at each other.

“Uh, guys? We’re leaving.”

They both looked up in surprise, then looked at each other for a second, before hurriedly following the others out the door. Before doing the same, Sayuri ran back into the living room and nearly tackled Ichiro in a hug from behind.

“Thanks old man!! See you next week!” She said turning to leave again.

“Ah- see you then!” The startled older man called after her. “And tell Ranma they’re welcome back any time!”

She gave a thumbs up around the corner of the wall before slamming the door shut behind her.

 

It wasn’t until they were back outside the building that Ranma realized it was still just mid afternoon. They had only been up there less than two hours, but to them it had felt like much longer. Things were... different, now. At least a little. People knew. A whole room full of people Ranma had only just met suddenly knew not just about their curse, but about the secret feelings surrounding it which they had never shared with anyone . Feelings which, until recently, they had assumed they would either eventually crush into non-existence, or take with them to their grave.

And suddenly… they weren’t a boy anymore. Maybe? That’s what they’d said, anyway- and had been trying desperately to conceptualize it in their head ever since. Truth be told, they were unsure. Maybe he was misunderstanding this whole thing, and soon everyone else would discover him for the stupid, confused guy he actually was. Some part of him saw it as inevitable. Another part of them thought that part should shut up.

But… if not a boy, then what? Were they something like Konatsu? Or Aoi? The Monkey Queen? Both at once? Neither? Somewhere in between? Or…

They looked up at the girl walking down the sidewalk in front of them. Yori. Too tall. Wrong shape. Weird voice. But still, undeniably, a girl.

A girl.

They wanted to ask her… things. How had she done it? Was magic involved? How was she so brave? Where did she get her clothes? Wasn’t she ashamed of herself?  How did she do the makeup that wasn’t eyes or lips? How was she not constantly too ashamed to function? When did she know she was like this? Could they maybe hang out sometime? All the time?

They exhaled a long breath they hadn’t realized they’d been holding. They weren’t going to ask any of this. It was all so much. Too much for one day. Part of them just wanted to go home and sleep right now.

“Hey.” Aoi said, nudging them in the shoulder. “How’s it goin.”

“Uh,” Ranma said, startled out of their train of thought. “It’s… alright?”

Aoi nodded.

“Sorry about dumping water on you earlier. And just like. Being generally rude.”

“Oh,” Ranma said with a shrug, “It’s cool. Kinda happens all the time.”

“Mm. I bet. Sorry anyway.” They walked along in silence for a moment, until Aoi said, “So was that, like, your first time coming out or somethin’?”

“Uh, I… I guess so?” Ranma said, thinking. “I mean, lots of people know about, like, the curse and stuff. Pretty much everyone at my school. And, like, a lot of people kind of assume things I think? But I’ve never actually told anybody that I, uh… y’know…”

“That you like it.”

“It’s not that I like it,” Ranma replied, a little too quickly, wincing at how dumb it was even as they said it.

“That’s cool! That’s cool.” Aoi said, holding up their hands in defense, “...but, I mean, if you did like it, that would be cool too, y’know?”

Ranma looked up at them, their mouth quirked to the side, but said nothing.

“Cuz I mean. If I could do that, I’d fucking love it. You couldn’t stop me transforming. Everytime I passed a sink I’d come back different. Like, isn’t it fun?”

“It... can be,” Ranma admitted. “When you’re in the right mood for it.”

“Right! Right, totally! Like, sometimes, I feel like a guy, and sometimes i feel like a lesbian, and sometimes neither.”

Ranma couldn’t help but smile.

“Are those the choices? A guy or a lesbian?”

“Or neither. See, you get it!” Aoi said, nodding. Despite themself, Ranma laughed.

“Maybe I kind of do?” They said, then turned pink at the grin Aoi was giving them.

“Man, I’m glad Sayuri decided to bring you along today,” Aoi said, “You seem like you’ll fit right in with this group.”

“Yeah,” Ranma replied, “I… I think you might be right. God, I really wasn’t expectin’ that this morning.”

“What,” Aoi said, “that you’d actually end up liking the other queers?”

“Yeah, honestly!” Ranma laughed.

“Ok, yeah, no, actually, that’s totally real!” they replied, “As a kid I always thought anybody else like me would be cringey as fuck to be around. But now im basically a grown up and its so obvious that people like me are cool and nice and it’s the straights who are cringey! I don’t know how I never saw it back then.”

Ranma paused for a moment, mentally tallying up the people in their life who fit into those categories. The results shocked them.

“... Holy shit.”

“Right???”

“Straight people are…”

“The worst!!!”

They looked up at Aoi, their eyes wide with this revelation. The other teen merely cackled and skipped ahead, practically tackling Sayuri from behind.

“Your friend gets it, ‘Yuri!”

Sayuri, recovering admirably from this assault, looked over her shoulder, grinning in Ranma’s direction.

“Well, it’s about time!!”

 

-

 

As they ate their meal at the diner, Aoi and Sachihiro needled Ranma for more details about their ridiculous life story between mouthfuls of food, faces consistently caught between amazement and disbelief. Ranma was more than happy to regale them, if only as a break from all the serious introspection they’d been doing lately. Normally, talking about themself at all felt like a form of torture, but after coming out to a roomful of strangers earlier, telling these two about Pantyhose Taro and rhythmic gymnastic martial arts was a welcome reprieve.

Eventually, the conversation moved to other topics all together, like the concert Sachihiro and Yori were planning on attending next week with that girl Kairi. It was the first time all day Ranma got to see Yori say more than three words at a time about something. She actually seemed pretty into it, discussing animatedly the virtues and failings of the bands that would be playing. Everyone but Ranma seemed decently familiar with the lineup, so they mostly focused on their burger while the others talked. Secretly, they were paying some attention, if only to hear the strange and reedy, though not unpleasant, sound of Yori’s voice. They weren’t sure why they were so fascinated by it, but they couldn’t stop listening.

“Ok, so, wait, what’s this band ‘ Alzheimer’ and why are you guys talking like I should know already?” Aoi asked at one point.

“Oh, that’s just By-Sexual. They renamed after their singer left.” Yori answered.

“Aw man!” Aoi whined, “Can they do that? Just drop the greatest band name of all time for something way shittier? And now no one can ever use it again?”

“Yeah no, it’s dumb,” Sachihiro agreed, absentmindedly squishing a greasy fry between his thumb and forefinger, “They’re supposed to be headlining but I don’t think most people even realize its them. I bet more people will come for the local bands.”

“That’s crazy,” Sayuri said. “Wasn’t it just a couple years ago they were like, the only punk group the radio stations ever played?”

Sachihiro snorted.

“Yeah, if you can call that punk.”

Yori rolled her eyes at him.

“Ok, literally what do you have against post-punk, dude?” She asked.

“Nothing! It’s fine, it’s just not punk and I don’t get why we have to act like it is!”

“It’s so weird that this is the hill you always choose to die on because By-Sex was like, the least-post post-punk ever. They won’t even stand out with these other bands!”

Ranma’s ears had perked up at this point, having recognized the word they were repeating over and over. Wasn’t that what Yuka had called the song she’d picked out for them at karaoke the other night? “ Punk” ?

“Maybe the music itself won’t,” Sachihiro retorted, “but the energy-”

“Wait, so,” Ranma interrupted awkwardly before the bespectacled boy could get any more agitated, “This is a punk concert you’re talking about?” 

Everyone looked up at them in surprise. Yori’s mouth zipped shut, as if she’d forgotten they were there, much to Ranma’s frustration.

“Uh, yeah,” Sachihiro said. “Are you into that stuff, Ranma?”

“Um,” Ranma said, the tops of their cheeks turning pink, already regretting their decision to speak up, “K-kinda? I guess?”

Sayuri smacked her forehead.

“Oh yeah! Yuka totally made you sing that goofy Joan Jett song the other day! I forgot about that!”

Now Ranma’s cheeks were fully red. Thanks, Sayuri.

“She made them sing?” Aoi asked, an evil grin tugging at their face.

“Well, maybe at first. Ranma got pretty into it though! They were actually really good!! Even if it was all in broken English.”

THANKS SAYURI.

Just as Ranma was wishing the floor would swallow them up, though, Yori finally spoke up.

“You like Joan Jett?” She asked, looking them directly in the eye for maybe the second time all day.

“Uh... I guess so?” They replied. “I-I mean, i’ve only heard the one song, and I didn’t even know that was her name until just now but, yeah, I mean, it was cool. It sounded so, uh… angry?”

Urgh god that sounded so dumb why did they say it like that!! Yori was nodding, though.

“Yeah! That’s kind of a big part of punk. It’s all about expressing anger, especially towards unjust power structures. Joan Jett never actually did that much punk on her own, but her old band totally did. They were actually what got me into it in the first place!”

“Uh, oh! Cool!” Ranma replied, desperately wanting to keep the conversation going, “So… are they going to be playing at the show?”

“Ha! I wish! No, they disbanded in, like, 1979 I think? And even if they were still together, they probably wouldn’t be playing in Tokyo, especially not at a show like this.”

Ranma would have gotten embarrassed about that too, but Yori didn’t give them time, launching into a lengthy explanation of the local music scene and its relationship to the more commercial version of the genre, and that scene’s relation in turn to the global punk culture. The diatribe left Ranma’s head spinning as they struggled to keep up, inexplicably trying to commit it all to memory as if they were studying for a test. Sachihiro listened with a similar interest, occasionally jumping in to add something or contest a point. Aoi and Sayuri made a game of stealing fries off his plate when he did, which he never noticed.

Eventually, somehow or another, topics changed again, and again, and again, until suddenly it was dark outside and they’d all had as many drink refills as they could stand. Finally, they paid for their food and filed out the door into the cool spring evening beyond. It was another beautiful night, the dampness from earlier having all but dried up, and the breeze blowing as pleasantly as it could this far into the city. They all made their way over to the nearest bus stop down the street, happily full of greasy food and soda.

Sayuri spent a while trying to explain the map and schedule on the wall of the terminal to Ranma, but they didn’t seem to be getting it. To Ranma it seemed somehow both impossibly complicated and bizarrely over-simplified.

“Sorry, forget it, you’ve learned way more than enough shit today already,” Sayuri said, collapsing onto the metal bench, smiling wearily.

“Ha, yeah, I guess you’re right,” Ranma replied sheepishly.

A few minutes later the bus Ranma, Sayuri, and Yori were taking arrived. As they lowered the chair lift for Ranma, Sachihiro hugged Yori and Sayuri, and then surprised Ranma by asking if he could hug them as well. Without any reason to say no, Ranma assented and awkwardly accepted the boy’s embrace.

“It was really great to meet you today!” he said as he pulled away, smiling so brightly that Ranma felt they needed sunglasses to look him. “You’re a really interesting person, and you seem really cool! I hope you decide to come to more meetings, but if not, let’s hang out again sometime, ok?”

“O-ok,” Ranma said, slightly embarrassed but unable to keep a smile off their own face.

“Ditto” Aoi said, casually holding up a fist for Ranma to bump. “You’re cool Saotome. Let’s do this again soon.”

“Uh, yeah!” Ranma replied, their face turning pink again. God, what was wrong with their face today? Did they need to see a doctor??

They waved some final goodbyes and boarded the bus, which shuddered to life and started winding its way back out of the city center as soon as they paid their fare. The two girls sat down in the seats nearest the wheelchair accessible area. The only other people on the bus were two old women seated near the back, who hadnt seemed to notice them getting on. They rattled along in silence for most of the 40 minute ride, Ranma only staying awake because they needed to transfer. Apparently, Yori lived in Niiza, just beyond Nerima, so she’d be with them until they got to their stops. The next bus took another ten minutes to arrive, and was similarly empty. This time though, a few minutes into the drive, Sayuri leaned over and said to Ranma,

“So how ya feelin’?”

“Exhausted,” Ranma replied automatically. Sayuri laughed.

“Yeah I bet. Coming out’ll do that to ya. Can I ask though, uh... hows the gender looking?”

“Huh?”

“Well, ya said earlier you didn’t know, and again, that’s totally cool, but now you’ve spent some time with some other queer and trans people, I was just wondering if you had any new thoughts?”

“Uhhhhhhhhhhhh…” Ranma groaned, letting their head loll back against the window behind them. They tried to think- about how they’d been trying to consider themself gender neutral all day, and how difficult that was sometimes, and about all the complicated things they had felt interacting with the other trans kids, especially Yori, and how scared they were to be going home, back to their normal life where no one else knew about all this and- 

And it was too much.

 “... ask me again tomorrow,” they said, their eyes closed as if they intended to go to sleep.

 Sayuri smiled.

“That’s the spirit, kiddo.”

She got off at the next stop, but not before hugging Ranma even tighter than Sachihiro had, telling them that everything was going to be alright, then blowing a kiss to Yori. Then she was gone, leaving Ranma and Yori completely alone except for the driver.

The moment she stepped out the door, Ranma felt some of the anxious energy from earlier return. They knew, if they were going to ask any of those questions that had been burning in the back of their mind all day, that now was the time. They wanted to- god they wanted to so bad- but… in retrospect, some of those questions seemed pretty rude? Or maybe all of them? Fuck why was this so hard? You finally meet somebody who might actually understand if you spill your guts to them, but you can’t because it might be rude? Fuck that!!

In a rash moment, Ranma opened their mouth to blurt out something probably extremely stupid, but mercifully, Yori beat them to it.

“Can I give you my number?” 

Ranma looked up at her in surprise. She was holding up a purple sharpie, and biting her lip nervously.

“O-ok” Ranma said, quietly.

Yori held out a hand expectantly, and once they realized what she was intending, Ranma offered up theirs as well. She scribbled out her number in curvy chicken scratch on the inside of their wrist, and Ranma had to hold back a shiver at the feel of her long, slender hand gently cradling their smaller one. When she was done, Ranma looked at it, and bit their own lip.

“Cool.”

“Cool.”

For a second, they made eye-contact, then both looked away. For a while, they were silent.

“I-I think my stop is next,” Ranma said eventually.

“Okay.” Yori replied simply. When the bus started slowing and Ranma put their hands on their wheels however, she blurted out, “Maybe you’d wanna go to a show sometime?”

“Yes!!” Ranma replied, a little too quickly, then amended, trying to sound chill, “I-I mean, uh... that sounds… fun. Yeah.”

“...Yeah.”

They made eye contact one last time. After a second, Ranma’s face split into a wide, beaming grin, which made Yori laugh. The bus came to a stop and the door swung open.

“I’ll call you!” Ranma called out as they rolled towards the door, still grinning.

“Okay! It was really nice to meet you, Ranma-chan!”

“You too Yori-chan!!”

They waved to each other through the window as the bus started back up and drove off down the road, revealing the Tendo house behind it. And a taxi cab parked in front of that. 

Just as Ranma registered it was there, a door on the other side of the car swung shut. A second later, it drove off. 

And there was Akane.

Chapter Text

Akane didn’t know where she was going as she stomped away from the beach, and she didn’t really care. She just needed to put as much distance between herself and Yuka as possible before she started crying for real. It was dumb, she knew it was dumb. They were nearly an hour’s drive from Nerima and Yuka was her ride, and here she was storming off because her friend had said one mean thing.

But like… fuck!! It always had to come back to that, didn’t it? Either she was too girly, or she wasn’t girly enough!!! Which one was it??? Because the answer seemed to change by the hour!

Like, yeah, okay, she cared about how people saw her! Was that so wrong?? And was it any wonder when people wouldn’t stop fucking commenting on it?

And god. That fucking word. Tomboy. As if she didn’t hear it enough from Ranma, now Yuka was throwing it in her face too! She hated it so much, even worse than dyke or any of the other mean names she’d been called. Nothing frustrated her like tomboy.

There was just something about it. Like the implication was that she wanted to be a boy. And worse, that she wanted to be a boy and was somehow failing at it, even as she failed to be a girl! Just the thought of it made her bristle with rage. It made her want to lash out and hit something.

She almost did, just barely restraining herself from letting loose on the streetlamp to her left. It was solid steel, surrounded by a base of thick concrete, but she somehow knew a punch from her right now would be enough to send the whole thing crashing into the street.

She stopped in her tracks, looking down at her hand in surprise. There was chi pooling there, as it had on the beach moments before. But this was… different, somehow. More energetic. It felt like it was bouncing around inside her, swarming like angry bees, wanting to get out. Wanting to destroy something.

And there was so much of it!! It was actually starting to scare her a little- or at least irritate her. Where had all of this come from? Had she opened some kind of floodgate back there? It took all her restraint not to just let it all out. But she couldn’t, not in the middle of the city! She wasn’t Ranma or Ryoga. 

She looked around desperately, panic starting to rise in her chest as the pressure continued to build, searching for something, anything that would let her release this energy. Her eyes caught on the horizon line on the other side of Tokyo bay.

Suddenly, she knew exactly where she needed to go. She started powerwalking down the street to the first bus stop she saw and checked the schedule. Perfect . There was a bus to Chiba arriving in five minutes.

She plonked down on the bench, arms crossed, foot tapping impatiently, her aura burning so hot that even the guy sitting next to her could feel it. He scooched away nervously, suddenly becoming very interested in the design of his walkman. By the time the bus arrived, she was going so strong that she wound up with the whole front half of the vehicle to herself, except for the driver, who was sweating profusely. She took no notice, keeping her eyes laser-focused out the window on the mountains in the far distance. 

The bus puttered and wound its way along the coast much too slowly for Akane’s taste. Luckily, it was an express line, so at least there wasn’t too much stopping and starting. She considered a few times getting out and just running the rest of the way, but instead focused on trying to breath deeply and calm the fuck down. Something was definitely wrong with her right now. Her emotions felt so out of proportion to her actual problems.

The breathing and sitting still were helping her rage subside a little, but it didn’t feel like it was just going away. Instead, it was as if the energy that had previously been bouncing around inside her had now settled in, sticking to her bones, forming a pit in her stomach and making her shoulders sag. Mainly now she just wanted to curl up in a ball and start sobbing. Yuka’s words came back to her; You’re the best tomboy I’ve ever met!

God, she’d said it like she really believed it was a good thing. Like being this embarrassing, in-between failure was somehow admirable to her. As if 99% of the time when she heard that word it wasn’t pointing out something wrong with her- her interests, her style, her weight, her inability to cook a fucking meal without fucking literally everything up and then getting mad at everyone for not eating it!!

Like. It just hurt!! Realizing that everyone, even her closest friends in the world, thought of her in those terms- that no one would ever see her the way she had always pictured herself, the way they saw her sisters, and her mom. It hurt so bad it made her want to tear herself apart. 

She knew she was different, but… couldn’t any of them at least try to pretend otherwise?

She hugged her legs to her chest as the tall buildings of the city proper receded into the distance, replaced with tree-covered hills and relatively smaller towns. Her aura had begun to grow cold and heavy, making the other passengers on the bus shiver. It took nearly two hours before they reached a place close enough to actual woods for Akane’s purposes. 

Finally, the bus came to a stop in front of a relatively secluded bait shop, sitting by the main road directly in front of a thickly forested mountain. Akane deemed it good enough and got off, much to everyone else’s relief.

She wasted little time, hopping the guardrail and stomping off through the underbrush. As she got her legs moving, the energy seemed to start flowing again as well, and soon staying on the ground started to feel too slow. She leapt up into a nearby tree and started swinging and jumping from branch to branch. The trees here were just beginning to bud after the long winter, so it was fairly easy to see her path up the mountain. Somehow, this display of acrobatics felt easier than she knew it normally would have. It was almost as if she was propelling herself along on willpower alone. Was this how it was for Ranma and the others?

After only a few minutes, she came to a small clearing. Not the peak of the mountain, but close enough that she was pretty sure no one would notice her up here. She swung down from a branch and landed on a patch of hard dirt. She looked around one last time, just to make sure, then took a deep breath.

“FUCK!!!!”

She yelled it as loud as she could, trying to pack as much energy into the one word as possible. It came out in a strange, croaky voice that somehow didn’t sound quite like her. It almost seemed disingenuous. Not how someone who really needed to be running to the woods to scream “fuck” would sound. She tried again.

“FUCK!!! FUCK FUCK FUCK!!!!”

That last one was better. A small flock of crows took off from their perches outside the clearing. Still, it didn’t do much to relieve the pressure she felt inside. She kicked impotently at the dirt, then groaned and fell backwards into the tall mountain grass. 

No one was around to see her. She didn’t need to be embarrassed. She took another breath, then started lashing out wildly with both arms, punching at nothing, and then kicking too, and screaming indistinctly, trying desperately all the while not to think about how freakish she would look to observers that didn’t even exist. She rubbed her wrists roughly against the dirt, scratching them up badly, then pounded the backs of her hands against her head repeatedly, dazing herself. She went on like that for minutes, until it stopped helping and she was left crying on the ground, hugging her chest and rocking back and forth.

This was so fucking stupid. She hated acting this way. Normally she could keep it in check when she got angry, but with all this stupid chi storming around inside her she didn’t know what else to do. It was just so frustrating that such a silly, minor fight with a friend could still do this to her. She was practically an adult for god’s sake! Shouldn’t this have stopped by now?

This is how she had always been, though, for as long as she could remember. People just hadn’t seemed to mind as much when she was younger. Yeah, she’d been a little more… aggressive than the other kids, but it was nothing her parents couldn’t handle. They’d even started teaching her martial arts as an outlet for it. One of her earliest memories was of her mom teaching her a series of kata she’d designed specially for Akane, one with lots of kicking and punching and stomping and yelling. And it had worked! She used to do it every day, whenever things got to be too much for her. Then, after her mom died, she’d done it basically non-stop for weeks, until her dad started teaching her other things to distract her. 

Eventually, she’d stopped doing those kata, because she worried doing them would reveal her childish emotions. And yet, the emotions themselves had never left. And she still used martial arts as an outlet for them, but… she wondered...

Slowly, sniffling, her head still light from the beating it had just taken and her forearms splashed pink and red, but with that same energy still burning throughout her body, she got to her feet. Even after all these years, she still remembered the series perfectly, and fell easily into the first stance, left arm held steadily in front of her, feet shoulder width apart in the shape of an L. She stood there for a moment, breathing deeply, before suddenly lashing out with her right arm, shouting “ HA!” as she did. Next came a high kick, then a heavy stomp into a parry position. Punch, kick, stomp, parry, jab, spin, kick, punch. It was an easy routine, both because she knew it so well and because it had been intended for a five year old, but she was shocked as she moved through the forms just how well designed the movements were to fit her specific needs. Every strike, every step, felt like it was channeling that excess energy perfectly, away from her body, and from every part of her equally. It was oddly symmetrical in a way she had never considered before, but which was for some reason deeply satisfying to her. Was it just familiarity? Nostalgia? Or had her mother somehow understood exactly what she needed out of this, even way back then?

As she cycled through the forms, her movements grew faster, more fluid and powerful.  With every step, she felt more of those bad feelings rise to the surface, and she banished them, slamming them into the ground, into the air. She shouted as loud as she could, and though her voice still sounded strange and hoarse, it no longer sounded fake to her. Soon, her chi was coming out in visible bursts, like it had back on the beach, mussing her hair and blowing leaves and grass around the clearing. If she focused, she could even see the distortion of the light passing through it, like the shockwaves of tiny explosions. 

Her kicks shook the ground, and the forest moved as she did, and even though this was the power she’d been training for her entire life, she wasn’t happy, because she knew what people would say if they could see. 

PUNCH KICK STOMP PARRY JAB SPIN KICK PUNCH PUNCH KICK STOMP PARRY JAB SPIN KICK PUNCH PUNCH KICK STOMP PARRY JAB SPIN KICK PUNCH PUNCH KICK STOMP PARRY JAB SPIN KICK PUNCH-

“HAH!”

Akane saw it before she felt it, and was flat on her back before she understood what had happened. She lay there for half a second, dazed, before shooting up to a sitting position and seeing what she had done. She slapped a hand over her mouth.

The treeline, which had previously run around the clearing uninterrupted, now had a massive gap 7 or 8 meters wide punched through it, in the direction of Tokyo. Akane watched in amazement as a few of the trees at the edges of the gap, which had only been grazed, slowly toppled inwards. In the distance, a small circle of faint red light disappeared into the haze over the bay.

Holy shit,” Akane whispered.

A Shishi Hōkōdan. There was no mistaking it. Ryoga’s technique that turned one’s negative emotions into a giant, anime style energy blast. And a powerful version of it, too.

...Oh god. She collapsed back into the grass. Was she that depressed? Trying to concentrate his emotions enough to actually make that dumb attack useful had nearly killed Ryoga, and here she was doing it by accident??

She held her hands above her, examining them. Ever since she’d first taken control of her chi earlier, she’d thought she’d been feeling things more strongly, but maybe that wasn’t quite right? After all, that chi had been inside her all along, locked up somewhere. Maybe the same was true of these feelings?

Fuck!! She’d thought the kata had been helping, but now she felt like crying again.

A cold breeze blew in through the hole she’d made in the landscape, and she shivered, curling up into a ball. 

What if she just never got better? She’d been waiting for it her whole life- the moment when she’d grow out of all this. When she was younger, she’d felt justified in acting this way, because she was small, and the world was big, and it was all so unfair. But she’d always, always thought that once she was an adult, things would be different. When it never happened in middle school, she’d imagined it would in high school, and gave herself an excuse not to worry about it. Eventually, soon, surely, she’d meet a boy she could stand, and stop throwing these temper tantrums, and then she’d be better- like Kasumi, and her mom, and all the other wonderful, amazing women she’d known.

And she’d tried. That was the worst part. It was tempting to think she’d just let this time slip through her fingers, but she knew it wasn’t the case. That first year of high school, she’d really really tried - dating, cooking, staying calm in the face of dating and cooking- but somehow it seemed the harder she tried, the worse the results, and the more people noticed.

And then Ranma came along, and things only got worse. She couldn’t count the number of public humiliations she’d had since she met him, memories that she never thought about, because doing so felt like touching a hot stove. And through it all, she cared about him, loved him even, because on some level, she knew he was trying and failing just as hard as she was.

God. They had almost gotten married hadn’t they? She kept forgetting that had happened. In retrospect, it seemed like little more than a blip on the radar between much grander adventures, but it had only been a few months ago. Of course, it had all been a sham. She’d only been convinced to go through with it on her father and Mrs. Saotome’s promise that Ranma would finally get to use the nannichuan water afterwards. She wasn’t going to ruin that for him. She hadn’t realized until after they’d started that Ranma hadn’t even been informed of the wedding.

But, at the same time, that morning, as Kasumi had helped her into that pretty dress and makeup, hadn’t there been a moment when it had all felt real? When her genuine feelings for Ranma, and the way everyone was treating her, and even her own reflection in the mirror, had all lined up perfectly and seemed just... right? Just the way she’d always imagined they would? She’d been so hopeful. Why couldn’t that moment have turned out to be her reality? Instead of… this. Crying in the dirt on a hilltop, destroying things, feeling like she’d been stabbed in the gut for absolutely no reason.

Akane had never been one for thoughts of suicide. After her mom, the thought of doing that to her family was too unthinkable. But... there were times when she just didn’t want to keep going. 

It was all so tiresome. Like her life was all one big comedy, except that comedies were supposed to have happy endings, and hers just kept going and going, and there was nothing she could do about it, because as empty and stupid as her existence felt to her, it apparently seemed real to other people, and as little as she sometimes cared about herself, she did care about them, and so every once in a while she just had to run away from it all and cry her eyes out and tear at herself and flail around on the ground like a maniac and no one could ever know about it!!

She lay there crying for longer than she should have. By the time her sobbing abated, the sun was hanging low over the city in the distance, and the clearing was completely in shadow except for where she’d broken the treeline.

The excess energy was all but gone now, though she could still feel a little of it buzzing diffusely throughout her body. She wasn’t sure if that would ever go away completely, now that she was aware of it. She rolled over onto her back, face still tear-stained and puffy, and stared up at the sky. She hoped Yuka was having a better end of her day than she was, though she doubted it. She should really call her tonight and apologize, but she would probably end up waiting until at least tomorrow out of embarrassment.

She sat up, groaning at the ache of having laid on the ground for so long. She was a mess. Her clothes were covered in dirt, and the little scrapes on her arms had scabbed over, but the skin around them was still pink and sore. She was thankful, at least, that it was too early in the season for bugs to be out yet, because she was sure she’d be getting swarmed otherwise. She forced herself to her feet and stretched until her stiffness went away. It was getting dark. She wasn’t even sure what the bus schedule was like way out here. This whole thing was so stupid, but she couldn’t muster the energy to be mad at herself about it anymore. She looked around for a second, trying to remember where she’d entered the clearing from, only to realize it was the same direction she’d shot her shishi hōkōdan in. Cool.

Carefully, not trusting herself with anymore acrobatics, she started picking her way through the ruined section of forest. It was surprising just how violent it all looked up close. Some of the trees had been torn apart from the middle, leaving stumps looking like string cheese, while others had been ripped from the ground completely, and now lay in piles further down the hill, leaving large holes in the dirt and a lot of loose rocky debris where they had been. Despite herself, she felt a spark of pride seeing it. It was amazing to think that she had done all this herself, even if it was just a result of her anger and depression. Her mood took a sharp turn when she put her hands on one of the logs to climb over it, only to find its surface slick and gooey. She looked down at her hands in surprise, and recoiled when she found them covered in blood red viscera.

“Eugh!” She cried out, staggering backwards and landing on her butt in a heap of branches. After a moment of staring in horror at the bloody tree, imagining the worst, she scrambled forwards again, looking for any sign of the creature she had presumably crushed, her heart beating out of her chest. What if she hadn’t been as alone on this mountain as she had thought?

She searched all around, and quickly found another similar splotch of red on a nearby tree, and several more on another. Her mind ran wild, trying to picture what kind of gruesome scene would have resulted in this pattern of blood. Luckily, she found her answer a moment later. 

A salamander, its upper half protruding outward from under a smaller tree. Looking around, she found several more of the little carcasses scattered around the ground, in various states of liquification. They must have been travelling down the mountain to the new springtime pools at the bottom. 

She stared at them blankly for a moment longer, then continued on down the mountain, carefully watching where she placed her hands.

 

_

 

By the time she reached the road, the sky was almost completely dark. As she’d thought, the schedule at the stop said the last bus had come through at 5:45, and it was definitely past that. Luckily, the bait shop across the road hadn’t quite closed, and the old man at the counter was more than willing to let the filthy, staggering young woman use his phone to call a taxi. Unfortunately, she didn’t exactly have the cash on hand for that, so she needed to make another call first. The phone rang three times before someone picked up. A bored voice on the other end said,

“Hello, Tendo residence, home of Nabiki Enterprises LLC, what do you want?”

Akane breathed a sigh of relief. At least she wouldn’t have to explain herself to Kasumi or her father.

“Hey, Nabiki.”

“Akane?” Nabiki said, sounding dimly surprised, “What’s up?”

“Ahhhh,” Akane said hesitantly, “I was wondering if you could, maybe… call a taxi for me?”

Akane cringed as Nabiki laughed.

“What, did you run out of bus fare?”

“N-no,” Akane replied, gritting her teeth, “But there are no buses this late where I am.”

“And where are you?”

Akane bit her lip, digging her heel into the rough wood planks of the back room she was in.

“Hello?” Nabiki said, “I can’t call a taxi if I don’t know where ya are, ‘kane.”

“Chiba.”

Chiba??” 

Akane exhaled through her nose.

“Yes.”

“How the fuck did you end up way out there?? Wait, weren’t you out with your friend earlier? Is she with you?”

“Does it matter??” Akane snapped. Nabiki paused for a moment.

“... No, I guess not,” She concluded. “But I am gonna need something more to go on than ‘Chiba’. I doubt the taxi service will be willing to search the whole fucking prefecture for you.”

Akane covered the receiver and leaned out the doorway to ask the old man the address, then relayed it to her sister.

“Jesus Akane, taxis aren’t cheap y’know. That’s a long-ass drive.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“I’ll have to use the credit card.”

“I know.”

“You’re gonna have to owe me.”

“Okay.”

“Ok. I’ll try to find one near you. It might be a while before it gets there though.”

“Alright.”

Akane thought she’d hang up on her then, but Nabiki hesitated.

“...Are you okay?” The older girl asked, a hint of sincerity sneaking into her voice. 

“...No,” Akane replied after a moment, “Not really.”

Nabiki was silent, apparently not having expected this answer. Akane sighed.

“But, thanks anyways.”

“...Uh. Yeah,” Nabiki replied , recovering her speech, “Of course, sis. Listen, we’ll talk when you get home, alright?”

“Right,” Akane lied.

“Ok. Uh… stay safe, alright?”

“I will.”

“Ok. See you in a little while.”

“See you.”

Akane hung up the phone.

The old man was in the middle of cleaning up shop, and he let her sit down in a chair behind the desk while he did. The taxi still hadn’t arrived by the time he finished, but he decided to stick around for a few extra minutes anyway, despite Akane’s assurances that she’d be fine outside.

Finally, the taxi arrived and she thanked the man. He told her that it was no problem and to be more careful hiking in the future, which she supposed was fair. Thankfully, the taxi driver didn’t seem to care or notice how messed up she looked, simply asking where she needed to go and dutifully pulling back into the street.

Nabiki must have found a service pretty close by, because the drive back took much longer than waiting for the taxi had. Akane would have liked to have fallen asleep during the ride, but that distant buzzing in her veins was still there, keeping her awake. She had to settle for closing her eyes and trying not to think about anything.

An hour and a half later, they pulled up to her house. She thanked the driver and got out, just in time to see a bus pulling away from the stop across the street. Cool. Exactly when she didn’t need one. Thanks, buses.

She rubbed her forehead, ready to collapse into bed. The taxi started back up, pulling away and driving off in the same direction the bus had gone.

And then, there was Ranma. Sitting in the middle of the street in girl form, sporting a wide, mooney grin that quickly turned into a look of surprise upon seeing her.

They stared at each other for a few seconds, before Ranma blurted out,

“What the hell happened to you?”

Akane stiffened as he rolled towards her, looking her up and down.

“Uh,” she said, quickly running a hand over her still dishevelled hair in a half-baked effort to straighten it, “N… nothing.”

Ranma gave her a skeptical look.

“Whaddaya mean ‘nothing’, you- Akane, your arms!”

He gaped at her bloodied forearms, which she quickly hid behind herself.

“It’s nothing!” she insisted, wishing she were dead.

“Did you get into a fight or something? Weren’t you just out with Yuka?”

“No! I-” she started, but faltered. Wait, right, Yuka!

“I just fell off the bike!” She said quickly. “I’m fine though, really!”

“Oh,” Ranma said, confused. “But where’s Yuka? Is she okay?”

“Yes, she’s fine, I was the only one who fell! She just couldn’t bring me back because she had to, uh… go on a date with Sayuri!”

Ranma looked taken aback at that.

“Wait, but…” he said, then paused, squinting at her. Her mouth shut tight.

“Are you sure you’re alright?” He asked again.

“Yes!”

“Because your forehead looks a little…”

She slapped a hand to her head, and tried not to wince at the pain of where she’d been hitting herself earlier. Shit, It must have bruised.

“I said I’m fine!” She hissed, then spluttered, “I-I mean, you come home looking way worse than this all the time, and I don’t interrogate you about it!”

“Interrogate? Akane, I-”

“And, and, what about right now?” She asked, “What were you doing out looking like that that’s got you so happy?”

Ranma recoiled slightly.

“Like… like what?” he asked, brow furrowed.

“I mean, y’know!” She said, gesturing vaguely at his body, “That! What, your date with Ryoga go well?”

Ranma’s eyes went wide, and a second too late, Akane’s brain came out of word-association insult mode and realized what she’d just said.

“I- Ryoga? What are you even-” Ranma spluttered, and Akane opened her mouth to apologize, but suddenly his expression hardened. “Fine! Whatever, be that way, ya crazy tomboy! Go out and get yerself killed for all I care!”

This silenced her, and he rolled past her into the house, shaking his head. 

Akane stood alone in the street, looking dumbstruck, trying to understand what had just happened. After a minute or two, she sagged, and stumbled her way into the house after him.

Chapter Text

-Nine days later-

 

Shampoo’s eyes fluttered open just as the first few rays of morning sunshine decorated her bedroom floor. Outside, birds chirped musically, louder than they had in months. It had been warm enough the night before that she’d left her window open a crack, and now the air in the room smelled distinctly of spring. She smiled.

She hopped out of bed with the grace of a trained acrobat/ world class martial artist/ part time cat, which was admittedly more grace than was probably necessary, and quickly ran through her morning stretches. She loved this time of year. Those last few months of winter were so depressing! Especially in Tokyo. But now things were getting warmer, and her mood was doing a 180!

Well, maybe more like a 90 or a 60. She hadn’t been that depressed. Of course, she’d had a nicer than usual March, as well.

Giggling to herself, she flipped into a standing position from a downward-facing dog, scooped up the clothes she’d picked out the night before, and skipped off down the hall to take a shower. Today was going to be a good day.

By the time she had her makeup on and her hair up, her father was already in the kitchen downstairs chopping veggies for the workday. She bounced up behind him and planted a quick kiss on the side of his face before he noticed her.

“Oh!” he exclaimed, smacking himself in the side of the head as she giggled and spun away, “Someone’s up early!”

“It’s a beautiful morning!” She replied in mandarin, taking her own apron of the hook by the doorway and tying it around her waist.

“It often is! That’s never been enough to get my daughter out of bed before!”

“Well, I’ll go back if you don’t want my help!” She said, though she was already pulling out a knife and cutting board and grabbing a bundle of scallions from his pile. He grinned and nudged her with his hip.

“Never. Any time I get to spend with my Shampoo is a gift! Especially when she deigns to help with the prep work.”

Shampoo laughed, tossing the scallions in the air. A second later, they landed in a pile on the cutting board, finely chopped. She held the knife in her hand up to her eye, squinting at the blade. 

“I see why this usually takes you so long!” she tutted, “Don’t you ever sharpen these, daddy?”

Despite this, she tossed four radishes into the air, and they were all just as thinly sliced by the time they landed. Her father shook his head.

I find it helps if you keep them on the cutting board.”

They bickered amiably as they chopped the rest of the vegetables, occasionally flicking pieces at each other. When they were done, they switched to preparing breakfast for the house, poaching some eggs in a pot of broth with some of yesterday’s dumplings and frying up rice with mushrooms and peppers. Mousse and Cologne were still in bed by the time they finished, so they sat down at a two-top table in the lobby and poured themselves some tea, their plates loaded up with food.

“So!” The old man said, slapping his knees as his daughter shovelled food into her mouth, “What’s been going on in the land of teenagers lately? I feel like we haven’t spoken in ages!”

Shampoo rolled her eyes.

“Nothing, daddy,” she said through through a mouthful of youtiao.

“Nothing? I find that hard to believe. No new drama with that little boyfriend of yours?”

Despite herself, Shampoo snorted.

“Hardly. I’ve barely even seen him, since… well, in a while.”

“Ah. He avoiding you again?”

“What? No!” She huffed, “If anything, I’m- w-well, I’m not avoiding him but…”

She trailed off, her cheeks turning slightly pink. Her father continued to eat, watching her intently.

“He just doesn’t seem to want me around!” She said finally. “I mean, great-grandmother and I drove halfway across the stupid country to rescue him. I fought for him, risked my life for him, AGAIN , and does he care?? Does he even say thank you??? Of course not! So-” She crossed her arms and stuck her chin up in the air, “if Ranma wants me, he knows where to find me.”

The old man snorted.

"Ah, young love," he said wistfully, then ducked as a slice of mushroom flew past his left ear.

"I'm serious, daddy!" Shampoo insisted, pouting, "I- I'm starting to wonder if coming here- if pursuing Ranma was even…"

She trailed off, eyes cast down. Her father looked surprised, but his eyes softened.

"Honey," he said, leaning across the table and taking her hands, gently, "you know… I came to this country to support you. And that's what I plan on doing- in whatever you decide to do. Understand?"

Shampoo looked up at him, her eyes wide.

"B-but, but great-grandmother-"

"Yes , granddaughter?" Cologne interrupted as she exited the kitchen, holding a bowl of food, her long hair still wet from showering. Shampoo went stiff, and her father gave her one last sympathetic hand squeeze before letting go and addressing the old woman,

"Ah, grandmother, we were just discussing the business with Chen Gen back in the village."

Cologne's suspicious expression soured at the name.

"Ah, that upstart," she sighed, taking the seat next to Shampoo. "You needn't worry your heads about it. Nothing but a flash-in-the-pan, that one."

They were speaking of Chen Gen, one of the other elders of Joketsuzoku. After his last visit to their homeland, Shampoo's father had returned with word of a newly formed political faction within the village advocating for Cologne's removal as Grand-master, led by Gen. They were apparently using her extended leave of absence and failure to return with the boy who had beaten her granddaughter as evidence that she had gone soft, and was no longer fit to lead. They had already discussed all this at great length, but Cologne seemed willing to believe it was the only thing on their minds this morning.

"It is rather ridiculous, I must admit," the old crone continued, unbidden. "I mean, that girl couldn't lead an ant to sugar. Does no one else remember what a layabout she was in her school days?"

"She is over ninety years old, grandmother," Shampoo's father replied, pouring her a cup of tea.

"Precisely. Hardly out of diapers and she thinks she has what it takes to lead." She sipped her tea, then said, "but please, when discussing things with Shampoo, stick to Japanese. I know it's bothersome, but you both need your practise."

"Yes, Grandmother," they both replied in Japanese. Shampoo ate the rest of her meal quickly, expertly skirting the line of impoliteness without receiving any reprimands for it, then scooped up her dishes and made a break for the kitchen.

"And where are you off to in such a hurry?" Cologne called after her in surprise as she quickly sprayed the dishes down in the dish sink.

"Ah, you know," she said, bouncing back into the room, her usual bubbliness now returned, "people to meet, schemes to hatch, fiances to trick. Very busy!"

"Ha! That's my girl!" Cologne said as Shampoo leaned over to kiss her and her father on the cheek. "You go get 'em, we'll hold down the fort here!"

Her father fixed her with a look of concern, to which she responded with what she hoped was a reassuring wink.

"Be careful out there!" He called after her as her as she made for the backdoor.

"I will!"

"And be back before sundown!"

"Shh! Don't cramp her style, son-in-law!" Cologne hissed, followed by the telltale sound of cane-against-skull, and a yelp from her father. She waved them off, without looking back.

Once outside, Shampoo breathed a sigh of relief, then looked around, and hopped up onto a nearby roof, taking off in the exact opposite direction from the Tendos' house.

 

-

 

When she got there, Okonomiyaki Ucchan's still wasn't open, but she knew from experience the door would be unlocked by now. She walked in, the bell above the entrance signalling her arrival. Ukyo popped up from behind the counter, looking surprised until she realized who it was. She grinned.

"Hey Shampoo. Y'know, I know ya like the food here better than back home, but we're not actually open yet."

"Ha!" Shampoo laughed, striding cockily up to the counter and leaning against it, "Spatula girl wishes she could cook as well as father! No, I come here to relax. So quiet, no customers at all!"

"Again, not open yet, ya big purple fruitloop. But, if it's the atmosphere y'like, I think we got a couple more waitress outfits in back. Dunno if yer resume's up to our standards though."

"Funny you think you can afford me!"

Despite the jabs, both girls smiled genuinely at each other. This was hardly new material from either end, but something in its delivery had changed in recent weeks, ever since Shampoo had started coming by the restaurant. Despite Ukyo's initial suspicion, it was beginning to seem like she really just wanted to… hang out?? And, contrary to all expectations, and over a year of bitter rivalry in romance, martial arts, and business, Ukyo was finding that she really didn't mind the other girl's company. It was strange, but also… nice.

They bantered that way for a little while longer, until all their more acceptable insults were exhausted, leaving only the ones they no longer felt right using. Then, Shampoo looked around.

"Is Konatsu around?" She asked, peeking over Ukyo's shoulder through the doorway to the back-room.

"Sure is," Ukyo replied, then put a hand to their mouth and called, "KONATSU! YER GIRLFRIEND'S HERE!" 

She grinned as Shampoo punched her in the arm. A moment later, Konatsu appeared in the doorway, looking immaculate as ever, a tall stack of dishes in each hand.

"What was that, Ukyo-cha- oh. Hey ShaaAMPOO WATCH THE-"

They screamed as Shampoo tackled them in a hug, forcing them to swing their arms wildly to keep their dish towers from toppling. Ukyo nearly fell off their stool laughing.

"Konatsu-chan you look so cuuuuuute!!" Shampoo squealed, holding the perturbed kunoichi's face in her hands.

"Uh. Tanksh?" they said through squished, flushed cheeks. "Could shoo ledgo for a shec tough?"

Reluctantly, Shampoo did so, allowing Konatsu to set the dishes down on the counter with a sigh of relief.

"I'm sorry," she said, seeming genuinely remorseful, "You just look so cute! I love how you do your makeup."

"Ah, ha, thanks, I, uh, like yours too," they replied, seeming less than enthused. This had been a part of the recently developing pattern of events as well. Shampoo loved to gush over Konatsu, and Konatsu, well… tolerated it. Which seemed odd to Ukyo. Usually, their waitress was all about that kind of attention. Weird. 

"Aren't you here… kinda early?" Konatsu asked, "you know we're not open yet right?"

" Yes, I do know." She replied with an indignance that confused Konatsu. "Actually, I am here so early on purpose!"

"How's that?" Ukyo asked with a smirk.

"I am here to take both of you out to a 'ball game', as they say."

Ukyo suppressed a snort. Something about the way Shampoo was over-enunciating all her Japanese words lately secretly cracked her up, but she felt that was one of those things it wasn't right to make fun of.

"Baseball you mean?" She asked, just to make sure.

"Yes! You like 'baseball', right?" Shampoo asked, looking pleased with herself.

"I do, but…"

"Sorry, Shampoo, we can't today," Konatsu cut in, barely containing their relief. Shampoo visibly sagged.

"Aww! Why not?" She whined, tugging slightly at Ukyo's heartstrings. 

"It's Friday, Shampoo, our busiest day of the week. We can't just shut our doors, 'specially not on such short notice." she explained. This only made Shampoo look sadder.

"O-oh," she replied, "Ok. I-I mean, I'm sorry…"

Her cheeks turned pink, and Ukyo had to fight down the sudden inexplicable urge to get up and hug her.

"I just thought… one of our customers last night… instead of tipping, he asked me if I knew anyone who liked 'baseball', and gave me these…" she reached into her breast pocket and pulled out three tickets. NPB tickets. Professional league. Ukyo's eyes nearly bulged out of her head. "I thought, since I remembered you mentioning it, you might-"

"Holy crap, Shampoo!" Ukyo interrupted, leaning forward in her seat to get a better look. "I didn't think you meant a pro game! It's- it's opening day! It's the Tigers vs the Giants at the Tokyo Dome, I- can I see those??"

Perking up significantly, Shampoo handed over the tickets, which Ukyo stared at, wide-eyed.

"Shampoo, these are great seats!! Ha! You- you-" unable to contain herself, she hopped off her stool suddenly, scooping Shampoo up in a big bear-hug and swinging her around, both laughing with delight. 

"Thank you! I'm sorry I said no before, of course we'll go with you!" she said as she set her down. Shampoo was giggling too hard to reply. Konatsu looked back and forth between them.

"But- but Ukyo! What about the restaurant??"

"Uhh... oh." Ukyo said, seeming to come back down to earth for a minute. "I mean… one day can't hurt, can it?" She grinned at them, hopefully, and Shampoo quickly joined her. Konatsu crossed their arms.

"It definitely can when you're as in the red as we are!" They replied.

"Aw, c'mon Ko-chan, I mean, these tickets are definitely worth more than we'd net in a day anyway! It'd be a waste not to use 'em! And besides, haven't I been lettin' you take those Wednesday afternoons off?"

Konatsu stiffened, both at the invocation of their time off and at the unexpected use of their nickname, which Ukyo knew they were weak to.

"I… th-that's different!" They insisted, their cheeks turning pink again.

"Pleeeeaaasssee Ko-chan?" Ukyo asked, putting her hands together.

"Pleeeeeeaaaaasssseee?" Shampoo mirrored her.

"I… I don't even like baseball!"

"You don't have to come if you don't want. Me and Shampoo could go alone."

At that, Konatsu seemed to freeze for a moment, some debate the others weren't privy to being fought in their mind. Finally, they threw their hands in the air and said,

"Fine. Fine! But I'm bringing your walkman and listening to my book the whole time!"

Ukyo pumped her fist and hi-fived Shampoo as Konatsu trudged back upstairs to get their stuff. 

 

-

 

Ukyo left a sign on the door saying, "Sorry! Out to see the Tigers wreck the Giants! Eat my butt, Tokyo!" while Konatsu wasn't looking.

The Tokyo Dome wasn't too far from Nerima, so they were able to take the bus and were there in only an hour, which meant they still had a few hours to kill before the game started. Luckily, as they stepped off the bus, they realized there would be plenty to do.

"Oh my gosh," Konatsu said, under their breath.

"I had no idea…" Ukyo added.

"Is this… baseball?" Shampoo asked, stars in her eyes.

It wasn't. In front of the stadium was a small amusement park- though to the three leisure-deprived kids in front of it, it may as well have been disneyland. There was a single rollercoaster circling most of the rest of the park, with a ferris wheel standing in the middle, plus a waterslide, a go-kart track, and several other smaller attractions. 

Without another word, Ukyo started striding towards the turnstiles, the other two falling in behind her. As she got there though, she was startled by a bored voice saying,

"Tickets, please."

She looked around, and realized the arch she was walking through had a booth at one side. A middle aged woman stared out at her from behind tinted glass, looking terminally unimpressed.

"Tickets, please." She repeated into a microphone.

"Uhh…" Ukyo said.

"Here," Shampoo said, pulling out their tickets to the game and showing them to the woman. The lady looked down at them, then back up at her, her expression static.

"Those are baseball tickets. You need park tickets." 

Shampoo stared at her uncomprehendingly. She tried to give her the tickets again, but to no effect. She would have kept trying, but Ukyo put a hand on her shoulder and said with an apologetic smile,

"Sorry about that. How much for park tickets?"

"Four thousand yen."

"Oh."

She and the lady stared at each other silently for a moment. 

"Don't you think that's a little steep?"

"Four thousand yen."

Ukyo set her jaw. Then she spun Shampoo around by the shoulders and steered her away.

"Wh- bu- I wanna go in!" Shampoo complained, wriggling in her grasp.

"I know, I know, and we'll get you in. Just not through there."

"Excuse me?" Konatsu asked, catching up to them.

"I said," she said through gritted teeth, "Shampoo very nicely got us free tickets to a ballgame, and now in return, we're going to get her a free ticket into that amusement park."

"And just how are we going to do that?" Konatsu asked. Ukyo looked around, her eyes narrowed.

"There." She said after a moment. They followed her gaze to a line of porta-potties on the sidewalk a ways away, their backs to the park fence. On the other side of the fence was a row of tall, decorative pine trees. Ukyo started towards them, confused friends in tow. She quickly made her way to the last one, and after making sure it was empty, grabbed its front and pulled it a little away from the fence. Then, she walked around behind it and simply pulled the steel bars apart until there was a hole big enough to fit through. She stepped aside and gestured to the hole, bowing slightly, and grinning a lot.

"Smart!" Shampoo chirped, stepping through the hole without any hesitation.

"So dumb!" Konatsu said, throwing their hands up in frustration. "What if they catch us in there? They'll never let you see your baseball game then!"

This seemed to give Shampoo some pause, but Ukyo waved their worries away.

"Psh, c'mon, its just a dumb park for kids. We infiltrated monkey city, remember? How hard can this be? Don't be such a worrywart, Konatsu."

"Yeah, don't be a worrywart!" Shampoo parroted, giggling. Konatsu scowled.

"Fine," they said stepping through, "I guess you're right, but this is still stupid."

"Duly noted," Ukyo said, stepping through after them and bending the bars shut behind her.

They stepped out of the trees together and were all struck again by the wonder of this place.

"Have you ever been anywhere like this before?" Konatsu asked, looking around, eyes wide. Shampoo shook her head vigorously.

"I've been to amusement parks before, but never in the middle of the city like this," Ukyo replied, "Isn't it awesome? What do you guys wanna do first?"

Just then, one of the cars of the rollercoaster roared by over their heads, its passengers screaming. Shampoo simultaneously tried to cover her ears and point straight up.

" We have to do that!!"

 

-

 

The rollercoaster only had two seats per row, so one of them had to sit behind the other two. Konatsu clung close to Ukyo, expecting it to be obvious they would sit together, but Shampoo started acting scared when they got up to the platform.

"It's okay, Shampoo, I'll-" Ukyo started to say, when Konatsu interrupted,

"I'll sit with you, Shampoo!"

Ukyo gave them a funny look, but Shampoo seemed grateful either way, and quickly latched on to Konatsu's arm as they all sat down and the attendant strapped them in.

By the end of the ride, they both had bruises forming on their arms from where they had held onto each other, and Ukyo was laughing her head off at them.

"You screamed so much!" She said, wheezing, "you both jump around on rooftops all the time! This wasn't dangerous at all!"

"But we're in control when we do that!" Konatsu protested.

"Yes! And I never go that fast on my own!" Shampoo backed them up, "and am never that loud either!" She hugged herself and rocked back and forth.

Once Ukyo had finished laughing, she looked around. Then looked back at the coaster.

"...Wanna go again?"

"...Yes."

"Yes."

They ended up riding it twice more, until they'd exhausted all their seating arrangements. After that, Konatsu and Shampoo took their revenge on Ukyo by riding the teacups and spinning them around so fast she threw up in a garbage can (they both did as well, of course, but such is the price of vengeance). Then they did the go-karts (Shampoo won), the rock wall (Konatsu won), and the drop tower (Ukyo spit the farthest).

Finally, giggling amongst themselves, they made their way over to the carousel to chill out for a little while. Most of the others on it were under ten years old, but that didn't bother them.

"How long do we have until the game?" Konatsu asked Ukyo as they got on.

"Uhh," she said, checking her watch, "still another hour and a half, but we should definitely get in and get settled before that, it'll be really crowded in there."

"So, this is going to be an exciting game, yes?" Shampoo asked her as their horses started moving, "Giants fighting tigers, right?"

"Uh, yeah, but…" Ukyo said, not sure how to approach this, "not, uh… not literal giants and tigers. You get that... right?"

Shampoo snorted, then started giggling, making Ukyo's cheeks go pink.

"Yes, I am familiar with the concept of sports teams, Spatula-girl."

To her right, Konatsu snickered, which she ignored.

"...Right. Um. Sorry."

"It's ok. What I meant was, these are good teams? You seem excited."

"Oh! Yeah, I mean, the Tigers are my home-team. My dad used to take me to their games all the time when I was little! Well, maybe not all the time, but as much as he could, I guess." She smiled. "I still try to catch all their games on the radio. But yeah, they're one of the top teams in the league. And the Giants are the home-team here, and they're really good too! I mean, not as good as the Tigers, but I guess we don't really know how this season's gonna go yet, and anyway I'm probably a little biased, so-"

Konatsu had to tune out. They loved Ukyo and generally loved listening to her talk about her interests, even those they didn't share with her, but this was… what was this?

Like, Konatsu wasn't crazy, right? Those two were flirting , and had been all day! Maybe even all month! Or perhaps more accurately, one of them would flirt, and the other would get all flustered and dorky, and then after a while they'd switch and repeat, all while Konatsu looked on in disgusted silence.

Konatsu was no stranger to fending off Ukyo's would-be suitors- she had loads, of every gender- but this had completely blindsided them. They'd seen the moment it started, back in the monkey city, and had been watching it develop ever since, and yet… well, Shampoo ? Really? She just… didn't really seem the type. But then, Konatsu supposed, she had been chasing Ranma as much as anyone else.

But most pressingly; what the fuck was this?? Was this a date? It felt like a date, it looked like a date, but then, why was Konatsu here? They hadn't just forced their way into it, Shampoo had actually come to them with three tickets. What was her game? Was she just trying to rub it in Konatsu's face, that Ukyo was clearly more into her than she was into them? With what they knew about Shampoo, that didn't seem too far outside the realm of possibility. But somehow, it just didn't fit with how she had been acting around them lately. She was too genuine for that.

So what then? Did she just see Konatsu as that little of a threat romantically that she could literally invite them along on dates? That was even worse!

They stewed like this for a while while their friends talked next to them, slowly spinning around in a circle, until something in the distance caught their eye. Was that…? Yeah, definitely the lady from the ticket counter earlier. Looked like she was on her break, sitting down at a bench nearby with a sandwich. Turkey, maybe? They really needed to get some food soon, Konatsu and Ukyo had skipped breakfast. Oh, the lady noticed them looking. That was probably okay, she and Konatsu hadn't actually interacted earlier. But she wasn't actually looking at them. She was looking slightly above them.

Konatsu realized too late that their own horse was on its way downward- which meant the two horses next to it were on their way up. They looked over in dismay to see what the woman was looking at: two heads, one brown, one purple, rising up behind them. By the time they turned their head back, the woman already had a walkie talkie to her lips. She said a few words into it, then set it down and continued eating her sandwich, never breaking eye contact with Konatsu.

"Oh jeez," Konatsu whispered.

"Huh?" Ukyo asked, their train of thought interrupted.

"Run!!" 

Konatsu leapt from their horse just as the first security guard, a big burly guy in a black suit and sunglasses, rounded the corner of a nearby building. Catching on quickly, Ukyo and Shampoo followed right behind, eliciting cries from the crowd of parents gathered around the ride.

"What's happening??" Ukyo asked as Konatsu pulled her and Shampoo by the wrists through the throng of people.

"The ticket lady saw us and called security!" They replied, gently shoving people out of the way, "We have to hide!"

As they burst free of the crowd they broke into a run, away from the guard. As they approached the side of the park's main building, though, three more guards appeared from around the corner, and one pointed in their direction and said something to his comrades.

"We should just get out of here!" Ukyo said as they turned again, this time towards the park gates.

"No!" Konatsu and Shampoo replied in unison, then looked at each other in surprise. Konatsu shook their head and continued, "you wanted to see the game so badly! We can't leave yet!"

"They'll never let us in now though! The park and the stadium are part of the same complex! I had fun here, we should just cut our losses before we start a scene!"

"Too late!" Konatsu said, pointing towards the gates where several more guards had just slid into view, and were running their way. Ukyo smacked herself in the forehead.

"How are there so many??" She asked, "we were just tryin' ta have some fun! Is that such a crime!?"

"Literally yes!" Konatsu replied, "I told you, yes!!"

Shampoo, who had been standing to the side, mouth quirked and stroking her chin, suddenly snapped her fingers and exclaimed,

"Idea!"

Grabbing both her friend's hands, she started running back towards the crowd of adults they had just left. Before she reached them, though, she released her grip and dropped to the ground, sliding gracefully between a middle aged man's legs and out of view. Exchanging a confused look, Ukyo and Konatsu followed suit, pushing their way into the crowd, heads ducked.

" Shampoo?" Konatsu hissed, scanning the area for flashes of purple, "where'd ya go?"

They got their answer a second later when something large was pushed down onto their head, blocking their vision. The reached up, thinking for a moment they were being attacked, but found that it was only a large, floppy, peach colored sun hat

" Disguises ," they heard Shampoo's voice whisper in their ear, and whipped their head around just in time to see a lock of her hair disappear behind a large man. Despite themself, they cracked a small smile. 

Putting all their kunoichi training to use, they slipped through the crowd as inconspicuously as possible, looking for loose, conciliatory articles of clothing- preferably ones that went well with their new hat. They ended up with a long, knitted shawl, a pair of oversized sunglasses, and a cardigan tied around their waist. As they collected the items, they started hunching over, working on an imitation of an old lady's gait. By the time they exited the crowd, no one would have guessed they were a 16 year old on the run from the law. 

They circled the crowd for a few moments until they felt a tap on their shoulder and turned to find a tall, lanky guy wearing cargo shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, and a Tigers baseball cap grinning down at them.

"Hey 'mom'," Ukyo said, clearly trying not to laugh, "try not to wander off, I wouldn't wanna lose ya!" Konatsu swatted her away, but they were giggling as well.

"Have you seen Shampoo?" They asked, glancing around.

"Not since she handed me these shorts," Ukyo replied, "We're gonna have to ditch quickly once she shows, by the way, I don't think I wanna stick around to find out where she got these."

"You're darn right you don't!" A voice said from behind them. They both turned to find Shampoo standing there posing for them, holding up a peace sign and winking with her tongue slightly out. Her outfit was completely different from theirs. She too had found a shawl, but hers was long and gauzy, and she wore it around her waist like a long skirt. She'd also managed to get her hands on a crop-top jean-jacket which she wore over her own t shirt, and a pair of thick rimmed glasses to top it off. It was a shockingly cute outfit, considering she'd swiped it off strangers in the space of about two minutes, except…

Konatsu and Ukyo both buried their heads in their hands.

"What?" Shampoo asked, falling slightly out of her pose.

"Your hair, dumbass!" Konatsu said.

"You don't like it?" She pouted.

"It looks great!" Ukyo said, sarcastically, "you just didn't do anything to it, even though thats obviously what they're gonna be looking for first!"

"Huh?" She asked, seeming genuinely confused, "why would they-?"

"HEY!" a voice called out from somewhere nearby, "THERE SHE IS! THE PURPLE HAIRED GIRL! GET HER!"

They looked over towards the sound of stampeding security guards, and found a group of over a dozen of them charging Shampoo at full-tilt. She yelped something in mandarin that sounded vaguely rude and zipped off in the other direction, leading the herd of men directly past her friends, who stood with their hands on their hips in exasperation. 

After a few moments of watching them chase her around the park, Konatsu said,

"I know we should help her, but wanna get lunch first? I'm starving."

Ukyo hesitated, but her stomach growled, and after a second she said,

"I think I saw a takoyaki stand over by the drop-tower."

 

-

 

Ukyo stared at her watch with a frown. The game was starting in half an hour, and Shampoo still hadn't lost the guards. She felt bad, and would have just called the whole thing off by now, except that every time she tried to get up from the bench she and Konatsu were sitting on, Shampoo shot her a pleading look from wherever she was in the park as if to say , just five more minutes, I'm about to lose them!

She popped the last bite of her food in her mouth and wiped some sauce from the corner of her lip absentmindedly as she watched the show.

"Why d'ya suppose she wants to hang out with us so bad all'a the sudden?" She asked, not taking her eyes off Shampoo. Konatsu looked up at her, eyebrows furrowed, then went back to sipping their drink.

"Maybe she's just lonely," they said after a moment. "Always chasing after someone who doesn't like you back will do that to you."

Ukyo snorted.

"Yer tellin' me," she said, shaking her head.

 She did feel for Shampoo, in that way. Ukyo had spent so long pursuing Ranma, she'd almost forgotten who she was in the process. It was only now that she'd finally begun to accept that he'd never really reciprocate, that she'd started to realize how limiting that had been for her. Maybe Shampoo was starting to realize the same thing? It had to be even worse for her, what with her whole culture telling her she had to be with him. Maybe they could talk about it sometime. Maybe start some kind of support group. Ranma Saotome's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Jeez. Ranma . Why'd it always have to come back to that guy? It was like the whole universe revolved around him. Ranma ranma ranma, every day more-

"Ranma??"

"Huh?" Ukyo said, jumping at Konatsu's apparent reading of her mind. But that wasn't it, they were pointing, off towards the entrance to the rollercoaster. Ukyo squinted, and did a minor double take at the sight of Ranma sitting in his wheelchair off to the side of the line, looking awkward and out of place. Also, in girl form, for whatever reason. 

Without pausing to think about it, she got to her feet and started striding towards him. Konatsu realized what she was doing a second later and had to old-lady power-walk behind her. Ranma didn't notice them until Ukyo was standing over him.

"What are you doing here?" She asked, hands on her hips. He looked up at her.

"Uh…" he said, wrinkling his brow, "Do I... know... wait, Ucchan??" He did a double take, looking her up and down. Then he grinned. "Um. Wow. New look?"

She looked down at herself, remembering she was still in her tourist disguise, and blushed.

"W-well, yeah!" She said, sticking her chin in the air, "the uh, casual look's in this season, y'know."

Ranma laughed, a high, musical laugh that gave Ukyo an annoying warm fuzzy feeling in her chest. Goddamnit. Scrambling for something to say, she continued,

"A-and, well, I could say the same to you! You sure seem to be spending a lot of time in that, uh, form… uh… lately…" she trailed off, realizing how weirdly accusatory that sounded and kicking herself. Ranma looked down at himself, and for a minute she thought he'd be angry, but when he looked back up, he was smiling, lopsidedly.

"Uh, yeah." He said happily, "I kinda have been, huh? Guess... we're both tryin' something new."

Huh. Not angry. And… wait. Had Ranma just said... watashi? Wh-

"Oh, hey Konatsu," Ranma said, as they finally appeared beside Ukyo, who was suddenly looking rather dumbfounded. "Man you guys really are dressed up! Is there some kinda, like, costume party goin' on?"

"Ha, I wish," Konatsu said, "nah, we're on the run from the cops."

Ranma laughed again, but faltered at Konatsu's expression.

"Wait, you're serious?" They asked, looking around. Konatsu nodded gravely. "What happened??"

"I-it's a long story," Ukyo cut in, suddenly regaining her senses.

"Not that long," Konatsu groused.

" Shut it." Ukyo replied.

Ranma shrugged.

"I mean, I've got time. I'm here with Aoi and Sachihiro. Remember at last week's meeting some kids were talking about going to a theme park?"

"Oh my gosh, of course!" Konatsu said. "But wait, where are those guys, then?"

"On the coaster," Ranma replied with a sour expression, "Apparently yer not allowed on if you've got a cast- even though it would totally fit in the car and be perfectly safe!" Ranma yelled this last part over their shoulder with a hand cupped around their mouth. The person operating the coaster gave no sign of noticing. They turned back to Ukyo and Konatsu. "Anyway, I'm stuck down here, so ya might as well tell me what's up."

"Honestly, I'm surprised you haven't noticed already," Konatsu said, "Shampoo's been getting chased around by park security for the past half hour."

"Shampoo's here?" Ranma asked, looking around. Konatsu pointed in the direction of the bathroom buildings, which Shampoo was currently perched on top of, hissing and scratching at a group of guards that were trying to poke her down with broom handles. 

"Huh, lookit that," Ranma said, sounding surprised, but not very. "Guess I was too distracted by the rides to notice. I've never been to place like this before."

"Neither had we," Konatsu replied, "which is why somebody decided to break in when she couldn't afford the tickets." Ranma raised their eyebrows.

"Damn," they said, smiling widely, "I didn't know you'd become such a criminal, Ucchan." 

Ukyo scowled and looked away.

"It was a dumb idea," she grumbled, "shoulda just taken a later bus…"

She kicked at the dirt, her hands in her pockets. Konatsu looked up at her from under their sunhat, smiling slightly.

"Weeellll…" they said thoughtfully, "It was dumb, but… I have been having a lot of fun. And I think Shampoo has, too."

Ranma nodded.

"She uh, seems to really like you guys recently. It's, uh... cool."

Ukyo looked between the two of them, her expression brightening a little.

"Yeah," She said after a second, "yeah, I had fun too! Guess I'm pretty great after all!"

Ranma snorted and Konatsu rolled their eyes.

"The only problem is," Konatsu continued, "the whole reason we came here was to go to a baseball game at the stadium, but now we can't get Shampoo inside."

Ukyo slumped again, apparently just remembering this. Ranma frowned, thinking. After a moment, they said,

"Do they not let cats inside?"

Ukyo and Konatsu stared at them uncomprehendingly for a moment, then both seemed to realize at once.

"Oh my god!" Ukyo said, slapping her forehead.

"We totally forgot she could do that!!" Konatsu said, pulling their hat down around their ears. Ranma burst out laughing.

"Did she forget too??" they asked between laughs. They all looked around the park and spotted her running back and forth around a map kiosk, trying to keep the group of guards on the opposite side.

"Seems like it," Ukyo said with a sigh.

Just then, the rollercoaster let off a group of passengers, and Aoi and Sachihiro came stumbling through the gates.

"Wow Ranma," Sachihiro said, fixing his askew glasses, "I'm so sorry you couldn't ride that today, we're gonna have to come back when you- oh, hey Konatsu!"

"Konatsu?" Aoi said, "I didn't know you were comin' today!"

"O-oh, well, y'know," Konatsu said, suddenly looking nervous. Ukyo looked back and forth between them, confused.

"Wait, how do you guys all know each other again?" She asked. Something seemed to occur to Sachihiro.

"Oh my god, wait, are you Ukyo?" He asked excitedly.

"Uhh," Ukyo replied.

" Ukyo?" Aoi said, grinning mischievously, " The Ukyo? Holy shit, Konatsu's told us so much about you!"

In an instant, Konatsu was standing between them, blushing bright red and pushing Ukyo away.

"ALRIGHT NICE TO SEE YOU GUYS ITS BEEN FUN WE GOTTA GO SAVE OUR FRIEND NOW THOUGH THANKS FOR THE HELP RANMA LOVE THE OUTFIT OKAY BYE"

"Wh- Konatsu!" Ukyo protested as she was bulldozed away, "do you and Ranma have a secret friend group??"

"You'll find out when you're ready!"

"What!!" 

She looked over her shoulder, watching the two stranger kids break down in hysterics at Konatsu's reaction. Ranma caught her eye and waved, smiling slightly. Ukyo waved back.

"They seemed cool," she said, mostly to herself. Ranma had looked away now, and was laughing with their new friends. 

"Ran-chan seems… happy."

 

-

 

"Alright!" The purple haired girl screamed, spinning on her heel to face her pursuers, "I give up! You got me! Congratulation!! Very good job! You ruined my day! Are you happy?? This is my friends' first day off in months and you!! Ruined!! It!!!" 

The men didn't respond, as they were mostly doubled over, panting from exhaustion. After nearly forty five minutes, they'd managed to corner their target in a small alleyway behind the park's main building. They'd scaled walls, jumped off rooftops, employed cutting-edge tactical formations, and sustained several serious injuries in the process, but they finally had her. If there's one single atom of truth in this universe, know that it is this; come hell or high water, the esteemed members of the Tokyo Dome City Amusement Park Division Security Task Force will always get their man. 

...It was kind of funny, though. This girl didn't even seem winded. She even had the energy to be furious. If the men hadn't been so well trained, they might even have been… nervous. And, hypothetically, this feeling would not have been alleviated by the girl cracking her knuckles, which is what she was currently doing.

"This was going to be what made them like me," she said, taking a step forward, and causing several of the men to take an involuntary step back, "they were going to be so grateful. They were going to think ' oh, Shampoo is so good, we should spend more time with her, and tell her that we appreciate the nice things she does,' and it would have been so good but you. Ruined. It." 

Somehow, the men found they were now taking continuous steps backwards, as if trying to get away from the criminal they had previously been trying to catch. Something was very wrong.

"I was trying to be nice, for them," she went on, picking up her pace a little, "but now I am cornered! So, it looks like, I have no choice!"

Finally, something of the men's training kicked back in, a few of them managed to stop in place and stand their ground. The purple haired girl grinned in a way no man present would ever forget.

"Oh?" She said, casually striding up to the one closest to her, "not going to run away?"

This close, the man could feel clearly what had before been just an impression; some kind of intense pressure emanating from the girl, as if she were a massive water-source, and the men but insects in a river. Could this be the power of chi ? He had heard it spoken of often in his training, but had never taken it seriously as a literal concept. But then, what other explanation was there? Just who was this girl??

Somehow though, against the screaming of every instinct in his body, the man managed to shake his head, no. No, no, he would not yield to a perpetrator, even if it meant his own death! Especially then! He was, in his heart, a warrior. He would not give in to his fear.

"Hm," she hummed, smirking as she wound up a punch. "How very… foolish ."

 The men closed their eyes, and braced for impact.



...but it never came.

Slowly, one by one, they opened their eyes, only to see that the girl had… vanished. And that there was a cat now. A small, wet, purple cat. It looked really annoyed.

"Oh my, Mister Fluffikins, you know you mustn't wander off like this!"

All heads turned to see an old woman pushing her way through the group.

"Mrow?" The cat replied, questioningly.

"Yes yes, I know you love to explore, but you really must stay with us! It's a dangerous world out there!" The woman tutted, scooping up what was apparently her cat in one swift motion. Surprisingly, the cat showed no resistance, and immediately snuggled into the the woman's arms, purring loudly.

"Thank you boys for finding her for me, you've been such an enormous help, she's been a very naughty girl, I'll get her out of your way now, have a nice rest of your day!"

She tried to quickly stride out of the alley without another word, but one of the men, the quickest to recover, held out a burly arm and stopped her in her tracks.

"Hold on ma'am," he said gruffly, looking her over with narrowed eyes. Her sun hat was blocking her face from view so it was hard to tell, but something about this woman felt… off.

"Yes, um, son? w-what is it?" She asked quickly. "And please hurry, my husband is waiting for me!"

"Won't be but a moment ma'am. I was just wondering… you just said that this was a girl cat, and yet you call her ' Mister Fluffikins'? That's a little odd , don't you think?"

The woman froze.

"W-well, you see," she said, falteringly. The man's eyes narrowed even further. "That is, well… c...cats…" She paused for a long second to take a breath, as if coming to grips with what she was about to say. "Cats don't have gender!"

The man's face scrunched up in surprise.

"Huh?" He grunted.

"No no, she's right," one of the other men said, placing a hand on his shoulder. "Cats may have sexual dimorphism, but gender is a socially constructed phenomenon, and theres no reason we should expect animals to adhere to it."

The first man's brow furrowed so deeply it looked like it might implode at any moment.

"Th...that's right?" The woman said, now sounding taken aback herself.

"Yeah Takeshi," another guard chimed in, "don't police the gendered language people use for their pets! Oftentimes it can be a small but not insignificant way of rebelling against the rigid gender structures in one's own life!"

"N-now hang on," Takeshi said, "I didn't mean to-" 

"It may seem unlikely," another added, nodding sagely, "but applying these kinds of concepts to animals really affects the way we interact with them, and with each other."

"W-well sure, I guess I see what you mean," Takeshi replied, taking his arm out of the woman's way, "I mean, I'm not made of stone, I've had plenty of misgivings about the patriarchal underpinnings of even our societies most inconsequential social rituals, just like everyone. I would never intentionally reinforce those unjust norms, you guys know that! Listen, ma'am I apologize for- wait, where'd she go?"

 

-

 

The Tigers won the game. It was a great game, according to Ukyo, though Shampoo could only understand about a third of what was going on, and Konatsu didn't even try. Still, they had a lot of fun. Shampoo ended up spending most of it in cat form, sitting on Ukyo's lap, watching intently and listening to her explain everything that was happening. Occasionally she would slink over into Konatsu's lap to steal their French fries and get pet absent-mindedly while they listened to their book on tape. At the seventh inning stretch, Ukyo took her to the bathroom to change back, and they spent the rest of the game doing pro-Tiger chants together. It wasn't a very suspenseful ending, as the Tigers led eight to five going into the last inning, but they chanted anyway.

When the game finally let out, Ukyo continued to ramble on about the players and teams and their various strengths and weaknesses as they made their way out of the stadium. Being as it was an indoor stadium, they didn't see that the sun had gone down until they stepped outside.

"I just don't really get the point! If you can trade all yer players for different ones, what make a team the same team from year to year? Like, sports are s'posed ta be about hometown pride, y'know? So shouldn't all the players be from that town? Otherwise what are we even, uh..." Ukyo said, pausing suddenly in her diatribe as she looked around. "Hey, does… anybody remember where that bus stop was?"

They all looked. They were standing on a sort of causeway leading out of the stadium proper, overlooking the city street below. It was hard to tell what was familiar or not in the low light. Shampoo and Konatsu both shrugged.

"We're-" Ukyo said, furrowing her brow and spinning around, "the park was over- so we should… hang on, you guys stay here, I'm gonna go run around the other side, be right back, 'kay?" 

She took off at a jog down the concrete pathway, leaving her friends standing there as the last of the crowd trickled out of the stadium around them. Konatsu almost protested and followed her, but Shampoo was already wandering off toward the metal guardrail. Konatsu quirked their mouth to the side and followed after her.

"It sure is pretty here at night," Shampoo said, leaning on the railing, gazing out at the tall buildings surrounding them, many of their windows now lit up yellow and white. Konatsu raised an eyebrow.

"You think so?" They asked. It didn't seem like much of a view to them. "I guess this street's ok, but there's definitely better spots to see the city."

"Is that so?" She asked, looking up at them and smiling slyly. "Maybe you'll have to show me one of these days."  

Konatsu's eyes widened slightly, and they quickly looked away, scowling, their cheeks pink. Why was she so… god.

"Shampoo," they blurted out suddenly, turning to face her again, "what was this?"

"Hm?" She asked, surprised, "What was what?"

"This! Today!" Konatsu replied, " I mean, this was a… a date , right?" 

Shampoo stiffened.

"Ah-h, I," she said, suddenly nervous, "N-not if you don't want it to be…"

Konatsu rolled their eyes.

"Ugh, that's not-" they said, "I mean, it's fine! If you and Ukyo want to, I mean… she really seems to like you, so I guess, if that's what makes her happy, I won't-" they faltered and had to look away, their eyes stinging, "... I won't… get in your way."

For a moment, Shampoo looked dumbstruck, but then her expression turned to one of concern.

"Ko-Chan," she said, stepping towards them, "why do you think I wanted you to come today?"

"I," Konatsu said, looking taken aback, "I guess… not to rub your happiness in my face?" They leaned forward on the railing, pouting. "You're way to nice for that, all of a sudden..."

Shampoo laughed at that, genuinely.

"That does sound like me though, doesn't it!"

Konatsu snorted. After a second's thought, they said,

"But... why, then?"

Shampoo smiled.

"I just wanted to see you and Spatula-girl having fun together, stupid! Every time I come by the restaurant, you are always working so hard! You deserved a day off. Together." 

Now it was Konatsu's turn to be dumbstruck.

"Shampoo…" they said, looking stricken. She looked away, sadly.

"I'm sorry if… if all I did was get in your way. I just… I like you both so much! I wanted to be here, with you. Next time, I'll stay out of-"

"No!" Konatsu interrupted, surprising her, "I-I mean… that was really sweet of you. And... listen. I love Ukyo, I really do, but… when we're alone, just me and her, things are still kind of… weird . I think she likes having me around, but I can never be sure! She doesn't show it. It's comfortable, and I like it but… I don't know. But then, when you're around… I dunno, things are just more fun! Ukyo has more fun. It's kind of like when you guys would chase Ranma around, except that I get to be a part of things?" They sighed, watching the cars roll by below. "But I still get so jealous seeing how good you two look together! I just… I'm sorry Shampoo. You're not the problem, I see that now. You're… you're pretty great."

Their gazes met again, and they stared at each other in silence for a moment. Konatsu couldn't help but notice Shampoo's eyes were starting to glisten. She really was very pretty.

"Ko-chan…" Shampoo started.

"Hey guys, I was right, bus stop's on like literally the exact opposite side of the building, I guess we just got turned around somewhere insi- uh," Ukyo faltered, seeing the expressions on her friend's faces. "You guys… ok?"

"Um," Konatsu said, blinking rapidly, "Yeah. We were just, uh, talking about the game. I guess Shampoo got pretty emotionally invested."

"Wh- really?" Ukyo asked. Shampoo nodded, sniffling, catching on.

"Uh-huh," she said, wiping her eyes with the butt of her palm and trying to suppress a smile, "they just… threw that ball so good… it was... beautiful…" 

Ukyo looked shocked for a second, then frowned and put her hands on her hips.

"Nuh-uh, what were you guys really talking about?"

"I dunno what to tell ya," Konatsu replied, shrugging as they started off in the direction of the bus stop, Shampoo in tow. "I'm a convert. The way those guys ran around in the dirt for three hours? Who wouldn't be brought to tears?"

At this, Ukyo rolled her eyes, and ran to catch up with them.

"Ugh, 'Natsu, you just don't get it! Shampoo, you really liked it though, didn't ya?"

"It was very... interesting" Shampoo replied, diplomatically. "I… have to ask though… have you ever tried watching soccer? There's a lot less… standing around."

"What!!" Ukyo replied, "it's not- the standing around's important! It builds suspense! And gives you time to talk!"

" Lots of time to talk," Konatsu added, miming mouth movements with their hand in Shampoo's direction, making her giggle. Ukyo's cheeks puffed out, angrily. This, it turned out, was conversational tinder strong enough to keep her going all the way through the bus ride back to the restaurant. Neither of her travelling companions really minded, though. They liked talking to her, even about nothing important. 

 

By the time they reached the storefront, Ukyo had mostly wound down, and had now gone a little quiet. As they approached the front door, she and Konatsu turned to face Shampoo.

"W-well," Ukyo said, scratching the back of her head, "th-thanks again fer takin' us out, Shampoo. I can't promise we'll be able to do it again anytime soon, but today was really fun. Uh, sorry if I talked too much though."

Shampoo giggled.

"I would tell you if you were talking too much, Spatula-girl."

"R-right," Ukyo replied, her cheeks turning pink, "well, but, I guess what I'm tryin' ta say is… it's nice havin' you around! S-so, y'know, if you'd want to, that is, like, keep comin' around the restaurant sometimes, I, uh, wouldn't be opposed to... that…" 

She trailed off weakly, avoiding eye contact. Shampoo stared at her, eyes wide, before looking over at Konatsu and desperately asking,

" Oh , Ko-Chan, do you mind if I…?" 

Konatsu seemed to understand the implied question immediately, and heaved an overdramatic sigh in response, rolling their eyes.

"If you must, I suppose."

"What're you guys-?" Ukyo started to say, when she was cut off by Shampoo standing up on her tip-toes and planting a quick kiss on her cheek.

"I'll definitely keep coming by," Shampoo said as she stepped back, grinning mischievously. Ukyo could only open and close her mouth in response, gently touching the spot the kiss had touched. Moving quickly now, Shampoo turned to Konatsu and gave them another questioning smile.

"C'mon then," they said, unable to hold back their own grin. She nearly pounced on them, planting a much longer, less chaste kiss on their cheek, before pulling back, grinning like a maniac, leaving Konatsu laughing.

"I'll come back soon!" Shampoo confirmed, backstepping away from them, waving. Konatsu waved back and replied,

"Please do!"

"What was…" Ukyo said quietly, still holding her cheek as she watched the purple haired girl skip away down the moonlit street, "does she…?"

Konatsu looked up at her, unable to keep from smiling.

"Come on, Spatula-girl," they said, taking her by the arm and turning towards the door, "let's go talk about it."

 

Shampoo danced the rest of the way home, unable to contain herself. Most of the stars were hidden from view, but the moon was bright and half-full. Frogs croaked from the canal as crickets sang from their hiding places, and the air felt light and heavy and full of life in a way it hadn't in months. It really was her favorite time of year.

 

Chapter Text

- three days after that-

 

    Kasumi pressed her cheek into the surface of the table, letting it draw some of the heat from her face as she held her book out in front of her. It had been billed to her by a friend as a period romantic comedy, but it had suddenly started to feel a little more… spicy. Which wasn't exactly a problem- she was just glad she had the house mostly to herself. She was pretty sure Nabiki was still upstairs, but it was vacation right now, so she probably wouldn't be leaving her room except to eat today. 

    She smiled, biting her bottom lip as she flipped the page. The heroine, in disguise, was caught between her two would-be lovers in a deliciously absurd love triangle, one of them claiming that she and the heroine were already married, something the leading lady had no memory of, and the other accusing her of having fought a duel against one of the other characters, which she also hadn't done. Of course, Kasumi knew this was all the work of the heroine's foolish long lost twin brother, for whom both her love interests had mistaken her. She was pretty sure that any moment now, probably once the drama was at its peak, the man would burst onto the scene, breaking the tension and resolving the conflicts all at once, freeing the main characters to collapse in on one another in a glorious bisexual threesome, at which point Kasumi might have to move the party to her bedroom, depending on how much detail the book was willing to get into.

She was about to turn another page and see the suitors' reaction to their mutual love's body double, when a sound from behind her made her jump. She whirled around, hiding the silly book behind her, expecting to see Akane or one of the fathers coming in through the backyard, but… there was nothing. She looked around for a few seconds, wondering if it could have been a mouse or something, before slowly turning back to her book. 

She smiled to herself at her own overreaction, leftover from teenage years of trying to hide the much trashier romances she'd been reading at the time. Looking back, it seemed so ridiculous, being so worried about something like that in a house like this.

Still, that didn't keep her from jumping again when the noise happened a second time. She looked up, now realizing it was definitely coming from the ceiling. A second later there was another, and another. They seemed to be moving. Her eyebrows knit together. This was an old house, and it tended to make all kinds of noises, but this didn't sound quite like any she'd ever heard.

Keeping her eyes on the ceiling, she tucked the corner of her current page inward and got to her feet, following the sound as it moved out of the living room and into the hallway.

 

By coincidence, Nabiki happened to have just left her room for the first time that day, on a doritos run to the kitchen. She had her headphones in, listening to an old man on the radio explain in a droning voice how the climate was all about to go to hell and civilization-as-we-know-it probably wouldn't last longer than the next couple decades. Kinda freaky, but it sounded like the science was pretty well nailed down. All the more reason to accrue some power now, she figured- hard to steer a sinking ship, but all the worse if you didn't even try.

She got her chips and a glass of orange juice from the fridge (for nutrients), and was about to make her way back upstairs when she noticed Kasumi out of the corner of her eye.

"Uhh…" she said after a moment of watching her wander back and forth, eyes on the ceiling, "watcha doin, sis?"

"Oh!" Kasumi said, almost tripping over her own feet, "Nabiki! I was just- wait, that wasn't just you walking around upstairs, was it?"

"Um" She said, stepping out into the living room towards where her sister was looking at the ceiling, "was what?"

As if on cue, the noise started up again- a muted, metallic echoing. Nabiki squinted.

"The hell is that?"

"I don't know!" Kasumi replied, hands on her hips, "that's what I was trying to figure out!"

" Sounds like something got in the vents," she said, setting her food down on the table.

"Right, like a squirrel or a bird," Kasumi nodded, "Oh, I hope they're all right! I suppose we should try to help whatever it is out, then."

Nabiki quirked her mouth to the side.

"I dunno. Could be rats or something. Wouldn't want them running all over the house, right? Maybe best to just set some traps."

Kasumi looked conflicted at the idea of a bunch of rats dropping down on them, but also definitely didn't like the idea of traps.

"I wouldn't want to do that. What if it's just little P-Chan up there? He could lose a leg!"

Kasumi snorted.

"It'd serve the little creep right."

Just then, the noise started to migrate back down the hall, towards the bathroom and Ranma and Genma's bedroom. The girls followed it. Nabiki noted with a frown that there were now some other noises being mixed in. They were too quiet to make out, but they sounded suspiciously like… hm.

They rounded the corner into the bedroom and looked up at the vent in the middle of the ceiling, expectantly. The noises were now coming from directly above it, and more rapidly than ever. Nabiki and Kasumi exchanged a look.

"...I'm going to do it." Kasumi said. Nabiki frowned at the vent, then said,

"Hang on."

She ran out of the room, leaving Kasumi standing there anxiously, eyes darting back and forth between the door and the ceiling. Nabiki returned a moment later holding a shovel and the little stool from the bathroom. She held them out to her sister.

"Use these."

Kasumi nodded and placed the stool a few feet from the vent while Nabiki held back in the doorway, watching with interest. She got up on it and, quivering only slightly, tried to wedge the shovel in between the vent's rim and the ceiling to shimmy it out. It took a few fumbling tries, but then she got it and the vent's grate came tumbling to the floor with a crash, followed closely by it's screaming inhabitant- not a squirrel, bird, pig or rat. 

A girl. 

Wait…

" Kodachi??" Nabiki asked incredulously, stepping back into the room.

"Who??" Kasumi asked, brandishing the shovel like a club, still standing on the stepstool.

"Kuno's little sister!" Nabiki said, pointing accusingly at the girl who was now rolling back and forth on the ground, clutching her shin and cursing under her breath.

"Ohhh my gosh, right, of course!" Kasumi said, relaxing her stance slightly, "are you alright, Kuno-San?"

"Who cares!?" Nabiki cried, "what was she doing in our vents?? How do we have person sized vents but no heating system??

Kodachi managed to steady herself enough to hiss at Nabiki, who bared her teeth back at her.

"Gimme the shovel, Kasumi" she growled, holding out a hand, "I'll teach the little home invader."

"Oh, come now, Nabiki," Kasumi scolded, stepping down off the stool and offering the young Kuno a hand, which the girl clung to defensively, as if actually scared of Nabiki.

"Thank you, Tendo-sama," Kodachi said, hiding herself halfway behind Kasumi.

"Yes, well," Kasumi said, gripping the shovel a little tighter, "I wouldn't want you to get hurt , but I suppose I would like to know what you're doing sneaking around in our home. "

"E-eeuh…" Kodachi said, releasing her grip on the elder tendo's sleeve and taking a precautionary step back, "Y-yes, I suppose you would…"

Nabiki narrowed her eyes.

"Start talking, girly," she said, taking a threatening step forward. Kodachi looked affronted, and seemed to change tacts.

"O-or what?" She said, crossing her arms and sticking her chin in the air, "I don't believe either of you have been trained in your family's primitive martial style, so I'm quite sure I could handily defeat you both if it came to it!"

Nabiki stared at her for a moment. Then pulled out her pager and started typing.

"Hey!" Kodachi yelped, "what are you-"

"I'm texting your brother," she replied flatly. Kodachi blanched.

"I-I really don't think that's a good idea-!"

"You gonna talk?" Nabiki asked, not looking up.

"I-I-I-" Kodachi stuttered.

"Oops, too late," Nabiki said, hitting the final key and smoothly shoving the machine back in her pocket, like a cowboy holstering a pistol. "Now, you can either explain, or run away, and when he gets here I'll just-"

Suddenly, a new sound came floating down from the vent, stunning Nabiki into silence.

The beeping of a pager. 

Nabiki stared up at it speechlessly, while Kodachi hid her face in her hands. After a few seconds of noisy fumbling, the pager was silenced, and a moment later, Tatewaki Kuno swung gracefully down from the ceiling, eyes cast down.

"I… apologize." He said, his face a mask of regret, not daring to meet his classmate's gaze.

"Tatewaki-kun!" Kasumi exclaimed, stepping forward and slapping him lightly on the shoulder, "what were you thinking?"

"I-" he started, doing his best impression of a wounded puppy, "I am truly sorry, Kasumi-senpai. I merely wished to visit my fair Akane, but-"

"Your fair Akane?" Nabiki interrupted derisively, regaining her composure, "dude, are you still on that? You just graduated high-school! It was cute a few years ago but you seriously fucking need to let it go! She really doesn't like you!"

"I know!" Tatewaki replied, too loudly, startling everyone, "I… I know. That's precisely why I'm here! I wanted to, to…" he looked away again, steeling his jaw, then continued in a lower voice and without as much of the rich-boy affect, "To say goodbye. And to wish her well. I would have done it before, but with finals and college prep and everything-"

"So you decided to break into our house??" Nabiki asked, fixing him with the kind of glare one might use on a piece of chewed gum found on the bottom of a chair, or maybe a dead pigeon.

"Well, what else could I do??" He replied helplessly, "I haven't seen her around town at all since school let out, and we all know she wouldn't have let me say more than three words if I'd just knocked on the door!"

"God, you are such a loser. I can't believe we used to be friends," Nabiki said, massaging her forehead. Apparently unable to continue looking at him, she turned her attention to the younger Kuno and said, "And what about you? What's your sob story?"

Kodachi scoffed, her arms crossed.

"Nothing so pathetic as that, I assure you," she replied. "I was simply taking advantage of my brother's infiltration scheme as an opportunity in my ongoing romantic seduction of Ranma-sama."

"Ongoing?" Nabiki asked, raising an eyebrow, "weird how it feels like I haven't seen you around him in, like, months."

Kodachi puffed out her cheeks.

"I was…" she replied slowly, "recently forced- against my will - to spend some weeks… visiting family abroad." 

Nabiki grinned evilly.

"Abroad as in… Hawaii?"

Kodachi scowled and refused to answer, much to Nabiki's amusement. Kasumi just looked concerned.

"You two…" she said, looking between the Kunos, "you don't have many friends, do you?" 

Both siblings looked over at her in shock, then at each other, before each starting to ramble about being the Black Rose/Blue Thunder, and how they were therefore the most popular and well loved kids in their school, and how furthermore-

Kasumi shook her head sympathetically. She didn't want to reward such awful behavior, but this display was really pulling at her heartstrings. 

"Well, be that as it may," she interrupted them, finally setting the shovel aside and clasping her hands together, "Neither Akane nor Ranma is actually home right now!"

Both Kunos cursed in frustration.

"Do you know when they'll be back?" Tatewaki asked.

"I'm afraid I can't say," she replied, frowning, "They've both been spending a lot of time out of the house, lately. I'm honestly not sure where. But… maaaybe you'd like to spend some time here, anyway?"

"What??" Nabiki protested immediately, "Kasumi!"

"What?" Kasumi replied innocently, "they're already here, and neither of us were doing anything important, there's no point in kicking them out! Besides, you and Tatewaki used to be such good friends! Remember in elementary school, you'd run around the backyard all day hitting each other with those funny plastic swords-"

" Lightsabers ," Kuno and Nabiki corrected at once, then both looked away in annoyance and embarrassment. 

"And now you're both going off to college! Don't you want to spend some time reminiscing? This should be a nostalgic time for you!" 

Nabiki glanced at him, then glared at her sister, gears turning in her head. Kasumi looked back at her, smiling hopefully.

"Fine," she said eventually, "you're at least right I wasn't doing shit today. But if I ever see this little bitch on the premises again, I'm siccing every martial artist we know on her, got it?"

Kodachi stuck her tongue out at her and Nabiki responded in kind, before saying,

"C'mon, Kuno-baby, we can hang out in my room."

"Now hang on a moment, I never-"

" Now, Kuno."

Tatewaki frowned deeply, but got to his feet and bowed to Kasumi.

"It was, um… a pleasure as always, Tendo-senpai." 

"Likewise." Kasumi said, restraining a giggle. He followed Nabiki dutifully out of the room, and Kasumi turned her attention back to Kodachi, who was looking rather like a cornered animal.

"Now then," she said sweetly, "Would you like some tea?"

 

-

 

Kuno was mentally kicking himself as he followed Nabiki up the stairs. No, actually, that was too charitable, he was mentally inventing a time machine and mentally using it to mentally strange himself a few hours in the past, mentally putting an end to his sorry existence before it could reach this detestable point.

Nabiki opened the door to her room and plonked down on her bed as he stepped inside, looking around.

"Wow," he said, "it has… been a while."

"Since you've been in a girl's room?" She asked, smirking.

"N-no," he replied, then amended, "I mean- well, yes , but, I meant this room, um, specifically." 

"Relax, Kuno" Nabiki replied, "that was obvious. So, does it live up to memory?"

"It's…" he said looking around the room with barely disguised distaste, "...messier… than I had recalled."

It was. There were clothes strewn about the floor, with more than a few snack food bags and wrappers lying around, and even some dirty dishes. The only table surfaces were a computer desk and a large dresser, both of which were covered almost entirely in detritus of makeup, tapes and cd cases, and loose papers, both schoolwork and otherwise.

"Yeah," Nabiki said, looking around with a frown, "I guess it's gotten pretty bad, knowing I'll be out of here in a few months and all."

"I… suppose I can understand that," he said, carefully picking his way through the mess to the chair at her desk and stiffly lowering himself into it, "still, that won't be until fall, right? You might consider picking up a bit before then."

Nabiki made a face at him.

"So is this what you do now? Break into peoples houses and critique their interior decorating?"

"I hardly think a half-eaten can of ravioli qualifies as interior decorating ," he said with a grimace. She stared at him, and for a second he worried he'd crossed yet another line- but then she barked out a laugh.

"Yeah," she said, "That's fair I guess." Despite this, she ripped open the bag of doritos she'd gotten and popped one in her mouth, then offered the open end to her guest. 

"Um. Thank you." He said, picking a single chip out between his forefinger and thumb, feeling he was in no position to refuse, and taking a little nibble from the corner. "Mm. Zesty." 

"So what about you?" She asked, sitting back in her bed against the wall and munching more chips, "Fall semester too?"

"Um, yeah," he said, "University of Tokyo."

" You got into Todai?" She asked, shocked and annoyed- though not more than Kuno himself.

"Of course I did!" He replied, some of his usual bluster returning, "The Blue Thunder of Furinkan High's grades and academic record are among the elite of the elite! He could gain access to any institute of learning he so wished!"

"Oh, I don't doubt that," Nabiki replied sarcastically, "with a little help from daddy, of course." 

Kuno's face went red.

"W-well, who are you to judge!?" He asked, "you're guilty of the exact same thing, only through blackmail instead of family!"

"Hey, at least I did something other than just chasin' girls for three years," she said with a roll of her eyes, popping another chip. "Really though, I'm just surprised you'd even wanna go there."

"And why wouldn't I?" He asked, "it's a very prestigious school- any serious student would be honored to be accepted."

"Yeah, exactly, it is a prestigious school," she replied, "which means lots of work, high expectations, and no fucking larping as a samurai and challenging people to fights. You think you're up to that, Blue Thunder ?"

There was laughter in her voice. Kuno swallowed, looking at his lap.

"I…" he said quietly after a moment, "...it's not... 'larping'"

She snorted.

"Yeah, have fun explaining that to the nouveau riche brat who sues you for assault in  your first two weeks there."

Kuno could only stare at his knees in response. Nabiki leaned her head back against the wall, tilted toward the ceiling, expression unreadable.

"...So…" he said after a few moments, "you're going to a more… common school, then, I take it?" Nabiki looked up at him in surprise.

"Huh?" She asked, "why would I do that?"

"Uh," he said, "if I would be expelled simply for utilizing The Blade, surely you would too for practicing your… set of skills . So, what university are you going to?"

Nabiki stared at him for a moment, then looked away in annoyance.

"...Also University of Tokyo."

"Wh-!" Kuno exclaimed, throwing his hands in the air, "then for what are you chastising me?"

"Oh, whatever, it's still true!" She said, "and you're definitely worse than I am. At least I can turn it off."

"Can you?" He asked, leaning forward, hand on his knee, "I don't recall ever seeing you 'turn it off'"

"Easy, Kuno-baby," she cautioned, giving him a look halfway been a smirk and a sneer, "talk like that might give people the wrong impression. Wouldn't wanna sound unfaithful to your little underage non -girlfriend."

 Eyes flaring, Kuno made as if to stand up and stomp out of the room. Nabiki rolled her eyes and waved a pacifying hand at him as she took a sip from her drink.

"Sit back down," she said, "my sister'll kill us both if we don't at least pretend to make nice for a while longer."

Kuno's face twitched, but after a moment he fell begrudgingly back into his seat, arms crossed.

"I highly doubt that fine woman would or could do anything that might 'kill' either of us," he muttered. Nabiki smiled.

"You'd be surprised," she said, "she's got her own ways. Different from me or 'Kane."

"Different how?" Kuno asked skeptically.

"Smarter. Scarier. Honestly, if I were you, I'd be worried about leaving your sister down there alone with her."

Kuno scoffed.

"I think you'll find my own sister to be rather a tough piece of work as well. I doubt yours will be able to get the better of her, no matter the arena."

At this, Nabiki grinned widely, swinging her legs off the bed and leaning forward to face him.

"Care to bet on that?"

 

-

 

"I'm sorry for before, I do remember you, of course!" Kasumi said as she poured hot water into their teacups, "it's just that it's been a while since you last stayed over! How have you been?"

"Ah," Kodachi said, only just now realizing that she hadn't been immediately recognized earlier, "that… that is okay, Tendo-sama. I have been doing very well as of late, thank you for asking."

"Oh, that's good, I'm glad to hear it!" Kasumi replied, beaming as she sat down opposite her at the table. Kodachi smiled back, with some amount of strain.

This woman made her… uncomfortable. When they'd first met, she'd taken her for something of a simpleton. After a few days living and doing housework with her though, back when she was first courting Ranma, she'd come to realize that wasn't quite true- but it also wasn't what was making her uncomfortable. It was just that she was so damnably genuine all the time. All Kodachi could ever do in response was be as overly polite and formal as possible in an effort to deflect.

"So," Kasumi said, "you're about to be a third year, right? Are you excited? Nervous?"

"Haha, excited, yes," Kodachi replied, groaning internally at this impossibly boring line of adult questioning. "Very excited."

"And you're attending Saint Hebereke's, aren't you?" Kasumi asked, tapping her chin thoughtfully.

"That's… correct, Tendo-sama," she replied, a little surprised that Kasumi had apparently remembered that better than her face. Kasumi smiled.

"I have friends who went there," she explained, "to be honest with you, I never heard very many good things. They seem to have gotten a good education, though!" 

"Ah, well, that's catholic school for you, I suppose," Kodachi said dryly, eliciting a short bout of musical laughter from Kasumi.

"You sound just like them!" She said, making the tips of Kodachi's cheeks go pink for reasons she didn't quite understand. When she was done laughing, Kasumi asked, "but is your family particularly religious? I never got that impression."

"No, not- not exactly," Kodachi replied, wishing she could steer the conversation away from this topic. "Daddy, um… didn't want me to go to his school, so he picked one out he thought would be better for me."

"Why's that?" Kasumi asked, cocking her head to the side, then said with a start, "Oops, wait, hold that thought, just… three... two... one- okay! The tea should be done steeping now, sorry, please continue." She took a sip from her cup, waiting intently for Kodachi's answer. 

Feeling it would be rude to waste Kasumi's apparently very precise timing, Kodachi took a sip as well, and…

"...Ah…" she said after a moment, exhaling deeply, her shoulders falling, "I had forgotten, Tendo-sama. You make the most perfect tea."

Kasumi waved a dismissive hand.

"Don't be silly," she said, smiling from behind her cup, "it's just from the supermarket! All I do is follow the instructions on the label."

Nevertheless, in all her years of stuffy ceremonies, high class parties, and etiquette courses, Kodachi had never tasted its equal; from the temperature, to the depth of flavor and fragrance, even down to the way the taste complimented the mood of the sunny spring day blossoming in the yard behind her- it was perfection. She took another sip, her eyes closed. Kasumi watched her, doing a very good job of hiding her grin.

"Kuno-san?" She asked after an appropriate amount of time, "you were saying?"

"Hm?" Kodachi asked, coming out of her reverie.

"About your father's choice of school?" Kasumi giggled.

"Oh!" Kodachi replied, "Yes, of course! Well… for a long time I believed it was just what he thought was best for me, but… I recently learned, it may have been more a method of disguising his… eccentricities ."

Her gaze fell, wondering why she had brought this up in the first place.

"Ah," Kasumi said, knowingly. "Yes, I remember. Your father is an… interesting man."

Kodachi bit the inside of her cheek, her face reddening. To her great surprise, Kasumi laughed .

"Don't feel bad!" She said, reassuringly, "my father is an interesting man as well! He can be very silly, sometimes!"

"B-but," Kodachi protested, "your father is a member of the town council! And the heir of a very old family! And a martial arts master with his own dojo!"

"He also cries when someone else eats the last pickle in the jar," Kasumi said, leaning across the table conspiratorially. 

"Wh-what??" Kodachi asked, seeming downright scandalized by this information. Kasumi nodded.

"And he cheats at Shogi when he thinks you aren't looking, and then acts like he was kidding when you call him on it! And he tells the same terrible jokes over and over because he forgets he's already told them! And he once engaged Akane to a girl by accident!"

"What!!"

Kasumi gave another dainty laugh and sipped some more of her tea. After a moment's thought, she said,

"I don't know if everyone's father is that way, or if that would even make it okay for them to act so foolishly sometimes, but at the very least, we can't let ourselves feel bad about their faults, can we?"

"I… I suppose not," Kodachi replied, brow furrowed.

They sat quietly for a little while, sipping their tea before it could get cold. Kasumi had opened up the doors to the back patio, and occasionally a cool, soft breeze would blow in, gently rattling wind chimes all over the neighborhood. it was… nice.

After a while, Kasumi said pleasantly,

"This is nice, isn't it?"

"...yes, it is," Kodachi said, unable to keep a flash of genuine smile off her face, "thank you for your hospitality, Tendo-sama."

"You can call me Kasumi, if you like," Kasumi said, "though I supposed I don't really mind 'Tendo-sama', either. I don't get it very often!"

"In that case, I think I will continue using the latter," Kodachi replied, earnestly, "it suits you well."

"I like that about you," Kasumi said with a grin, "so polite and formal. It's refreshing."

"Y… you think so?" Kodachi asked. "Usually people… well, people our age, don't tend to see it that way."

Kasumi quirked her mouth to the side.

"Well, I hope I don't sound too ancient, but, when you have to take care of an entire household, I suppose basic manners do start to feel a little more… valuable ." She took a sip from her cup and finished, more quietly, " especially in a household like this."

Kodachi had to stifle a giggle. Kasumi cocked an eyebrow at her.

"Of course," she continued, " no one can be entirely polite all the time."

"No?" Kodachi asked curiously.

"No," she replied gravely, "sometimes, unfortunately, one finds oneself accidentally breaking into the home of the object of one's affections, out of some strange and twisted concept of romance, and then threatening to 'defeat' its inhabitants because they never learned their family's 'primitive martial style', and then drinking my tea and never apologizing."

Over the course of a few seconds, all the color in Kodachi's face seemed to drain away. Kasumi continued to sip her tea, as if she hadn't just committed a murder.

"I-I-" Kodachi stuttered, trying to remember how letters were supposed to go together to form words, "I… I'm… sorry, T-tendo-sama, I j-just, I didn't think-"

"No, it really seems like you didn't," Kasumi said curtly, setting her cup down, but still not looking Kodachi in the eye, "if you had you might have realized how stupid, improper, undignified, indelicate, shortsighted, selfish, rude, and quite frankly all around unimpressive you were being." Her eyes flicked over to the stairs for a fraction of a second and she amended, "and that goes double for your brother."

Kodachi's eyes were squeezed shut by this point, the back of her throat constricted, wishing she could make herself implode into nothing and be out of this moment.

 The worst part of it all was how off her guard she had been. If Kasumi had just acted mad from the start, that would have been one thing- she was more than used to being reprimanded and belittled by the grown-ups at her school- but having this gentle, friendly woman turn on her so suddenly, it... she was… it was...

"-On the other hand though," Kasumi said, her voice sounding as sweet as ever, "It does sound pretty fun, doesn't it?"

It took her a few seconds, but when Kodachi opened her eyes again, she found Kasumi's smiling face beaming up at her, chin resting cutely on the butt of one of her palms.

"Was it fun crawling around in there? I've always wanted to try. Just like an action movie!"

For a moment Kodachi was too stunned to respond. When she spoke, she did so without thinking about the words.

"Yes I… I felt like… Bruce Willis…"

"Aaa! I knew it!" Kasumi squealed, "The rational part of my brain always said it would just be dirty and cramped but I knew it would be fun!"

"B-but-!" Kodachi spluttered suddenly, "Tendo-sama! Aren't you m-mad at me?"

Kasumi stared at her, then tilted her head to the side, thinking.

"Mmm… yes, I was mad that you broke in. It felt very invasive and… well, all of those things I said before! But, you know, for some reason... I get the feeling you might try to be a little more considerate in the future?" 

Kasumi smiled at her, and Kodachi realized this was probably her cue.

"Y-yes!" She blurted out, "of course! I won't do anything like this ever again!"

"To anyone?"

"To anyone!

"Pinky promise?" Kasumi offered one of her pinkies, which Kodachi took immediately.

"Pinky promise!"

Her serious voice made Kasumi giggle.

"Well, I'm glad to hear it!" She said, "you're very nice girl after all, Kuno-San!"

"I-" Kodachi said, her cheeks filling with color, "thank you Tendo-sama, I feel the same about you!"

Kasumi giggled again, and held up the teapot.

"Would you like a refill? I'd love to keep talking, if you're up for it!"

Kodachi didn't respond verbally, as she was busy choking down a sob of relief, but held her cup straight out, gratefully. 

She was so distracted in fact, that she didn't even notice when Kasumi's eyes flashed towards the front hallway, nor the millisecond wink that followed.

 

-

 

"Woah," Tatewaki said from his place on the stairs, his eyes wide, peaking over the railing at the scene in the living room.

"Yyyyup," Nabiki said, leaning back against the stairs and examining her nails. "She's the devil. That'll be 15 thousand, please."

Kuno scoffed.

"I hardly think that display constitutes a victory , nor does it make your sister anything remotely resembling a devil!"

Nabiki looked almost offended.

"Dude, were you watching? She almost cried."

"So? My sister is in touch with her emotions, as all young maidens should be, and she was genuinely sorry for what she'd done!" 

"So, what," Nabiki said, "if I made you cry, you wouldn't consider that a failure?"

"Of course not! A real man never hesitates to express the contents of his soul! Does crying make you feel like a failure?

Nabiki clicked her tongue.

"Alright, well, gimme the 15 thousand anyway," she said, ignoring his question.

"What?? For what reason!?"

"You broke into my house, you thought your sister's apology was nice, I know you've got the cash, I want fifteen thousand yen, so if you're so sorry, either cry right now or give me fifteen thousand yen!"

She crossed her arms. He set his jaw angrily. Then, scrunched his eyes shut, balled his fists and screwed up his face. Nabiki's eyes widened.

"Oh my god are you actually trying to-"

"Shut up I can't do it if you talk."

She watched in amazement as he stood there for several seconds, subtly vibrating with concentration. 

For a brief moment, Nabiki actually thought he might do it, but then his body went slack, and his expression returned to exasperation.

"Oh for goodness- fine, whatever, have your money," he said, reaching into his back pocket and tossing her his whole wallet, which she gladly snatched as he marched back upstairs.

"So what happened to 'a real man always vents his feelings' or whatever?" She asked, following him back to the bedroom whilst pilfering his wallet.

"I suppose I'm just not feeling sorry enough," he replied sourly.

"Yeah, that tracks."

She fell onto her bed, picking her way through his cards, having already taken all the cash. He sat back down in the chair, looking only slightly annoyed.

Suddenly, Nabiki started, almost dropping the wallet.

"Christ!" She exclaimed.

"Hm? What happ- oh."

They both stared blankly for a moment at the offending articles: a small stack of small photographs which had fallen out of the wallet into Nabiki's lap- each depicting one of two girls.

"Uh," Nabiki said, "...huh. You, uh… kept all these, huh?"

"N-not all of them!" Kuno insisted defensively, though he wasn't sure why, considering to whom he was talking. "I've thrown out all the… less tasteful ones." 

Nabiki nodded, still looking at the pile. It seemed to be true- to an extent. They were both at least wearing some clothes in all of them.

"That's good... I guess…" she said, not sounding entirely convinced of her own words. "Man though, some of these are… really old. Akane couldn't be more than, like, 14 here," she said, looking at a picture of her sister stretching in the dojo. "Have… have we been doing this that long?"

Kuno looked uncomfortable. 

"I… I suppose so," he said, "though, I don't believe any of the ones from that long ago are particularly, um… scandalous."

"Yeah, I didn't start on those till she was 15," Nabiki replied, her forehead creased. "...Are these all you've got left?"

Kuno didn't say anything, but his grimace betrayed him.

"You've got some at home?" She asked.

"A… few," he replied, trying not to think about how many that constituted. Their eyes met, both frowning.

"Maybe… you should get rid of those," she said slowly.

"...All of them?" He asked, "even the ones of Ran- o-of... the Pigtailed Girl?"

"Uhhhh," Nabiki said, apparently thinking hard, "Maybe? I dunno, seeing these old ones," she said brandishing a few pictures in each hand, "... It's kinda skeevin' me out, to be honest? I mean, I haven't taken any new pictures since, like, October. Maybe it's time we both, uh… moved on?"

To her surprise, Kuno scoffed.

"You make it sound like something-" He started, "listen, it's not dirty, alright? I just- they're keepsakes! Lots of people have pictures of their first true loves!" 

Despite herself, Nabiki snorted.

"Oh yeah," she said, holding up a picture of Akane wrapping herself in a towel, taken from a very low angle. "This shit's downright wholesome! Maybe you should start a scrapbook, she'd love that!"

" You're the one who took the picture!" Kuno fumed. Nabiki clenched her teeth.

"Yeah," she said, scowling, "Yeah, I did. And for whatever reason, I didn't feel like it was too weird at the time, but now I do. Sorry."

Kuno seemed to deflate a little bit, looking at her face. They were both silent for a moment, avoiding eye contact. Finally, he said,

"You didn't really answer my question."

"Huh?" 

"Do you want me to get rid of just Akane, or both of them?"

Nabiki stared at him.

"...If I said both of them, would you do it?" She asked. After a few seconds, he shrugged, arms and legs both crossed, still avoiding eye contact. Nabiki sighed. 

"...Just Akane, then." 

As she said it, she ripped the picture she'd been holding in half, then in half again. For a moment it looked like Kuno might protest, but he managed to keep himself in his seat, his mouth shut tight.

"If it helps," she added as she started tearing into the others that were scattered around her, "I've still got a little stash in my closet. I was saving them for a rainy day, but I'll destroy them too. Neither of us get to benefit from this shit."

Kuno drooped, watching the photos he'd treasured for so long turn to confetti before his eyes. After a moment, he hung his head.

"...Thanks, Nabiki," he said, "I… I guess I knew it was wrong for… well, the entire time, but… I probably would have never gotten rid of them on my own."

Nabiki tried not to let her disgust show on her face.

"No problem Kuno," she said, tearing the last of the Akane pics and neatly gathering the Ranma ones to put back in the wallet. "I mean, you're hardly the only guy I sold these to. There's probably hundreds of em still floating around town. Figure this is the least I can do, for 'Kane's sake."

"Right," Kuno said, looking at the floor. Then, more quietly, almost as if he didn't want Nabiki to hear, "so… you're sure she doesn't like me, right?"

"Jesus, Kuno," she replied, massaging the bridge of her nose.

"What??" He asked, "you told me she did!"

"When did I say that?" She asked.

"I don't know, several times! Last year when I first met the, uh, Pig-tailed girl-"

"Oh my god you clearly know she's Ranma give it up man,"

" When I first met the Pig-tailed Girl , you said that if I 'cheated on your sister', you would kill me!"

Nabiki opened her mouth to respond, then closed it again and rubbed her forehead harder.

"Goddammit," she muttered, "okay. Okay. maybe I did say that. I'm sorry. It was mainly so I could keep selling to you."

"...Right," Kuno said, sounding more tired than angry at this point, "of course it was. When is it ever not about trying to sell something with you?"

"In my defense, it's fucking ridiculous that it took you this long to figure it out," she said. "I mean, she was only telling you she hated your guts face-to-face literally every day for two years ,"

"I just thought…" he said, sadly, "that that was how she showed affection… I thought she was being 'tsundere'..."

Something about this sentence seemed to snap something in Nabiki, and she shook her head, as if just waking up.

"Ok," she said, "Wow. Just like that, we suddenly need to talk about literally anything else."

"...I'm not sure if I can…" Kuno said, sounding sadder by the minute.

"No, hey, stay with me Kuno-baby, you can do it," she said, hopping off the bed and grabbing him by one cheek while slapping him lightly on the other, "c'mon, lets…" she said, quickly scanning the room for something to distract them both from this train-wreck of a conversation, "uhh… oh, shit!"

She dashed across the room to her dresser, sliding on her knees and reaching underneath to retrieve a battered old blue cardboard box, which she quickly blew a thick layer of dust off of and spun around to show to Kuno.

"Remember this?" She asked, grinning widely.

 He squinted at it, and she saw recognition spark in his eyes.

"Is that…?"

"The second gundam board game, hell yeah it is!" She said excitedly. "Wanna play?"

"Uhh," Kuno said, "I'm not sure. Didn't rounds of that usually take several hours? I'm not sure I'm up for that."

"Nahhh… well? Actually," Nabiki said, thinking about it harder, "did we actually, like, know how to play it when we were kids? I think we kind of had the basic idea down, but I'm pretty sure we weren't really following the rulebook. Maybe it's completely different to how we remember?"

She was already clearing a space on the floor and opening up the box. Unable to fight his curiosity, Kuno got down on the filthy floor next to her.

"Let me see the rulebook," he said, holding out a hand. She passed it to him as she pulled out the paper game board, unfolding it carefully so as not to tear it anymore than it already was. 

A few moments later, they both paused and looked up at each other, suddenly realizing they'd already set up half the game. They locked eyes.

"...I'll get us more doritos and OJ," Nabiki said.

"Ill set up the rest of the board," Kuno replied, already working on it.

 

-

 

By the time Kasumi and Kodachi had finished their tea, Kasumi had said she needed to start preparing dinner, and Kodachi offered to help.

"It really is quite an interesting story," Kasumi said, chopping radishes as she spoke, "A woman in the guise of a man comes to a new country and finds herself the object of two minor nobles' affections- one a man, the other a woman."

"Uh… wow," Kodachi said, trying to be charitable as she chopped garlic, "sounds… progressive…"

"That's just it, though!" Kasumi replied, "it was written such a long time ago, I'm not entirely sure exactly what the intention was. I mean, technically speaking, in the language of the time it's a 'comedy', though that doesn't mean exactly what it does today. Still, it's clearly a farce, and the characters are very silly, but in some ways…" she paused her chopping for a moment, thinking.

"In some ways it almost feels like it's not so much a parody of them as it is of the systems that surround them? They all just want to love, and to be loved, but the rules of their society force them into this ridiculous dance! It feels like, unless they learn to break those rules, there's no way any of them will ever be happy- and I seriously doubt such an old story would end on that radical of a message! Traditionally, classic comedies like this always end in a marriage- but if it's a marriage that no one will be happy with in the long-run, is it truly a comedy at all?"

By this point, Kasumi was facing away from her cutting board altogether, absent-mindedly propping up her chin on her fist, which still held her knife, in a way that was making Kodachi nervous.

"Um… I'm afraid you may have lost me, Tendo-sama," Kodachi said, staring warily at the blade.

"Hm?" Kasumi said, as if just remembering she wasn't alone in the room, "oh! I'm sorry! I just- I really liked my world literature class in high school, sometimes I slip right into essay writing mode!" she smiled sheepishly. Kodachi smiled back.

"If it helps, it sounds like you know what you're talking about! I think you're probably right about all those things, whatever they were." 

This got a laugh from Kasumi, which made something in Kodachi's chest glow with warmth.

"Do you have a favorite subject, Kuno-San?" She asked as she returned to her work.

"Ah," Kodachi replied, "I… suppose I like my English literature class as well! It's all so pretty and romantic. Buuut… the only thing I really love is gymnastics practice."

"Mm, right, I saw one of your matches once," Kasumi said, "you were very good!"

"Thank you Tendo-sama. It is…" she held up a fist dramatically in front of her face, "my greatest passion." She stood like that silently for a moment, before something seemed to occur to her, and she said, "oh, except for Ranma-sama of course!"

Something in Kasumi's face changed at that, but she was still smiling when she said,

"Of course."

"Speaking of Ranma-sama," Kodachi said, hopefully, "do you know if he'll be home for dinner?"

"It's… hard to say," Kasumi replied, with some hesitation, "he's out with friends, so they might get dinner together."

"Hmph," Kodachi said, turning back to her work. " Friends . He sure seems to have a lot of those."

"That he does," Kasumi said, some fondness slipping into her voice. "Ranma can be very outgoing, when he wants to be."

That only made Kodachi's expression grouchier. 

"Wish he'd 'out go' with me once in a awhile," she grumbled.

"Really? Why is that?" Kasumi asked, making Kodachi jump. She hadn't expected to be heard.

"W-why is what?" Kodachi replied, hwe cheeks turning red.

"You really seem to want to pursue a relationship with Ranma," Kasumi said plainly, "I was just wondering why? You don't have to answer if that's too personal, of course."

"I," Kodachi replied, flummoxed. "Well, I… because… because he's my one true love!"

"Oh," Kasumi replied, still chopping vegetables. "Really?"

"Y-yes, of course!" Kodachi replied, setting her knife down and turning back around, "you knew this! It's why I'm here today!"

"I suppose I did…" She said, "it's just, well… a little hard to believe if I'm being honest."

" Why??" Kodachi asked, her voice cracking a little, fingernails digging into her palms.

"It's just…" Kasumi said, "don't you think you can do better?"

" No I don't thi-" Kodachi started, but faltered, "...w-wait, what?"

"I mean, don't get me wrong, I love Ranma," Kasumi said, smoothly scooping her chopped veggies into a bowl with her knife, "he certainly has some… good qualities…" She didn't sound entirely convinced, "I just think you'd do well to find someone a little more your speed, is all."

"M-my speed?"

"Yes of course!" She replied, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, "Ranma is nice enough, but I'm sure you'll agree he's rather lacking in direction. When you go off to college, or whatever it is you plan on doing after high-school, do you really want a boy like that hanging around your house, refusing to get a job or clean up after himself? Running around with his friends all the time and never paying you the respect or gratitude you deserve?"

"I…" Kodachi replied, "I want to take care of Ranma-sana after high school… to make a home with him…"

Kasumi shrugged.

"That's fine, of course. Taking care of a household can be very rewarding!" She said, turning towards the stove with her bowls in hand, before adding under her breath, "maybe not quite as much where people like Ranma and his father are concerned, but you do you, I guess."

"Wh-" Kodachi said, looking distressed, "Do you really think they're that bad?"

"Oh yes," Kasumi replied, "hand me the garlic, would you?"

Kodachi did so and Kasumi poured it into an oiled pan, letting off a soft sizzle.

"I mean, I know he can be a little rough around the edges," Kodachi continued, "but surely he's a gentleman at heart, right?" 

Kasumi pulled a face and made a 'so-so' gesture with her hand, much to Kodachi's horror.

"He's… a handful. I wouldn't want to marry him, that's for sure. But then, maybe you should give it a few years, I'm sure by then you'll be much better at all this than I am!"

As she said this, she threw several more things into the pan she was holding, then a splash of some alcohol Kodachi didn't know the name of, which produced a large pillar of flame that startled Kodachi, but didn't even seem to faze Kasumi. A second later, a heavenly smell hit Kodachi's nostrils that made her want to fall over and cry. Kasumi turned to her, wearing that trademark oblivious grin of hers, the absolute picture of maternal grace.

"Are you feeling alright, dear?" She asked Kodachi, "you're looking a little pale."

"I…" Kodachi said, wobbling a little, "I'm fine. I think I'll go set the table now though, if that's alright…" 

"That would be lovely, thank you again for all your help, Kuno-San!"

Kodachi nodded blankly and fumbled through the cabinets for a moment before leaving the room to fulfill her task. Once she was gone, Kasumi let out a sigh of relief, then clapped her hands together in front of her face in a prayer position and whispered,

" Sorry about that, Ranma-chan. You'll thank me later!"

 

-

 

Nabiki and Tatewaki never came down for dinner, as they had just entered the really exciting portion of their game by the time Kasumi came up to get them. She brought up some plates loaded with food, which mostly sat next to them getting cold while they played.

(Ranma did show up in time, and had a very uncomfortable meal sitting across from Kodachi, who hardly spoke, but stared at them intensely the whole time. They ended up eating as quickly as they could before retreating to their room, where they were confused to find the grate from the ceiling vent lying in the middle of the floor.)

By the time the sun had set, and Kodachi had already broken down and given Kasumi a hug goodbye, Nabiki and Tatewaki were just reaching their game's final stages.

"Ha!" Kuno exclaimed as Nabiki's fingers left her piece, "you fool, Tendo! You've fallen for another simple trap!" 

He quickly rearranged several of his own pieces into a new formation surrounding some of hers.

" Fuck!" she cursed under breath, "you're good at this! Why are you actually good at this??"

"War is the supreme masculine art," he replied, crossing his arms smugly, "to a mind such as mine, this is not simply a game to be won, but a performance to be experienced! Like kendo, a sublime dance of souls seeking dominance! Your 'mathematics' and 'logic' may be of some use to you in other arenas, Nabiki Tendo, but in the heat of battle, instinct reigns supreme!"

He had his arms raised over his head in celebration of his apparent victory. She stared at him dully.

"You're sitting on one of my bras."

"What? Wah!" 

He jumped about six feet in the air and spun around to see what she was talking about. While he had his back turned, she switched two of their pieces around.

"What are you talking about? I see no brassier!"

"Oh, my mistake, that's just the stain from when Akane threw up in here as a baby."

"Ew," he said, wrinkling his nose, "that's almost as bad." He sat back down, avoiding the stain, and frowned at the board. Containing a smirk, Nabiki made her move. His frown deepened, and for a moment she bit her lip, expecting him to call her on it, but then he moved as well, and she breathed a silent sigh.

Five moves later, the game was over, with Nabiki as the apparent winner, and they both sat back.

"Good game, Kuno," she said, grinning as she held out a hand to shake.

"Hrmm" he grumbled, returning the gesture, "I still don't know how you did it, but it certainly was. I suppose I… underestimated your skills. A little."

"A little," Nabiki agreed, "but... I guess I could say the same to you? I thought I'd be able to predict you, but you made some moves there I never saw coming. Good job, Kuno."

This seemed to improve his mood a bit.

"It's been a long time since we last faced each other on the field of battle," he said. "It seems we've both forgotten things about the other in that time."

"Yeah, guess so," she said, scratching the back of her head, "if I'm honest… I wouldn't mind doing it again sometime, if you're up for it."

"Ha! You think I'd let this end with your victory? Name the time and place, Tendo, I'll be there!"

"Oh god," Nabiki laughed, lying back and rubbing her eyes, "I've unleashed the monster."

"You're damn right!" Kuno declared, brandishing one of the little plastic robot figures as if it were a sword, "this war has only just begun!"

He swept the game-piece back and forth as if fencing with an invisible opponent, to Nabiki's amusement. 

"Ugh," she grunted after a moment, stretching her back, and then pushing herself upright. She frowned down at their half eaten plates of food.

"You gonna eat the rest of that?" She asked.

"Hm?" Kuno asked, distracted from his imaginary duel, "oh, uh, no thank you, it was delicious but it's gone cold now."

"Same. I'm gonna go put them downstairs in the fridge, you clean up the board, okay?"

"Affirmative," he replied, setting his piece down and getting right to it. She smiled, shaking her head at his supid way of speaking as she left the room.

Downstairs, all except the kitchen lights were turned off, which surprised her. She looked at the clock on the oven, and raised her eyebrows when she saw it was already past eleven. 

Shit , she thought, that really is a long game . She'd have to kick Kuno out the minute she got back up there- didn't want him to get any ideas about this being a slumber party.

She dumped their food into plastic containers and went to put them in the fridge. While she was doing so, however, the sound of the front door opening made her jump. 

Who wasn't home yet? She was pretty sure she'd heard her father, Genma, and Ranma talking at dinner, which only left… ah. Shit.

She'd been worried about Akane coming home earlier, but had figured she'd have Kuno out by then. If Kuno knew she was here, he'd definitely still want to talk to her, but…

...Actually…? she touched her chin, thoughtfully. Would that be such a bad thing? He had been acting, sort of, pretty… okay -ish today- at least, relative to how he normally was. Maybe it would be good to have him talk to Akane for a minute, if only to apologize for all the shit he put her through in school. Maybe it could be, like, the first step towards forgiveness, or whatever. Screw it, she was doing it.

She popped out of the kitchen just as Akane was starting up the stairs.

"Hey! 'Kane, wait up!" She said, running up beside her. Akane looked startled for a second, then said,

"Oh, hey Nabiki."

Her voice sounded tired, and Nabiki realized she looked it as well.

"I… jeez, 'Kane what the hell happened?"

Akane looked down at herself, and her cheeks flushed red. She was wearing her training gi, and both it and her face were streaked with dirt- plus a little bit of blood. Her hair was a mess as well, and she generally looked sweaty and worn out. She set her jaw.

"Why does everybody have to ask me that?" She asked irritably, "training, obviously, Nabiki. Sorry it makes me so disgusting."

"Hey, no, I'm sorry," Nabiki replied, holding up her hands defensively, "if it helps, it's not actually that much worse than your usual."

Akane shot her a venomous look, and she kicked herself a little internally for misreading the room.

"I'm goin' to bed," Akane grumbled, continuing up the stairs.

"Woah, hey, slow down," Nabiki said, running up to the top and blocking her path, "I've got somebody here who wants to say something to ya."

"Huh?" Akane asked, her brow furrowed. Nabiki held up a finger.

"Stay right here, I promise this'll only take a minute." 

She rushed off to her room before Akane could protest. She shut the door quickly behind her to find Kuno putting away the last of the game pieces.

"You know," he said, a thoughtful look on his face, "towards the end of that game, there was a moment where I was quite certain-"

"Akane's back."

His head whipped around to look at her, his face suddenly deadly serious.

"Really?"

"Yeah," Nabiki said, "and… agh, fuck, I don't know anymore, but I already told her you wanted to talk to her."

For a moment, Kuno's face lit up, then darkened again.

"Oh," he said, "oh no, I'm not sure I'm ready anymore."

"What??" Nabiki said, "you got here like eight hours ago! What happened??"

"A lot of things!" He replied, nervousness written across his face, "I spent all morning psyching myself up to talk to her, and now i've forgotten everything I was going to say!"

"Just say you're sorry for being such a dipshit and then get the fuck out!" She said, dragging him to his feet and pushing him towards the door. He paused in front of it, heaving a deep breath.

"You're right," he said, "you're right. I just need to say what I feel. And then… never see her again…"

"Exactly, now go!" 

Nabiki shoved him out the door. As they both stumbled out into the hallway, Akane looked up in surprise, which quickly turned to shock, then horror, and finally rage.

"Um…" Kuno said, stiffly holding up a hand in greeting, "Hello… Akane Tendo…"

Akane looked to Nabiki, eyes wide with anger.

" Him??" She demanded, " this is who you wanted me to talk to??"

"Uh…" Nabiki said, "yeah?"

"Why was he in your room?? What's he even doing here? Were you just waiting around to ambush me?"

"Woah, hey, Akane," Nabiki replied, quickly, "listen, I'm not too sure about my decisions either right now but just, like, hear him out, alright? I promise, it can't be that bad."

Akane gave a single, humorless, disbelieving laugh at that, but turned her attention to Kuno nonetheless, arms crossed expectantly.

"Okay! Fine! I'm listening!" She declared, "What do you have to say for yourself?"

"...Um," he said, eyes darting back and forth, feeling about one tenth his usual height under Akane's glare. This was not how he had envisioned this going. "I just… I'm… um... sorry?"

Akane's eyebrows shot up.

"You're… sorry? " She asked, as if she must have misheard.

"Y...yes!" He said, gaining at least some semblance of confidence, "I am! Truly sorry for… um, well… all that… stuff I did…?"

Akane stared at him incredulously. After a few seconds though, she started to giggle. Kuno and Nabiki exchanged a look, both surprised and slightly alarmed at this development.

"Uh," Nabiki said, unsure of herself, "you alright, 'Kane?"

"He," she said between giggles, "he doesn't even know what he's supposed to be sorry for!"

"Th-that's not true!" Kuno insisted, "I know what I've done! I...I've hounded you, for years, relentlessly, when you've shown little-to-no interest in me! I tried to fight you, to physically hurt you, and your friends! I even kidnapped you, on several occasions! I thought… I thought that anything I did would be justified if you saw the way I felt about you in the end but- I've done horrible things to you, Akane! I… I even…"

He swallowed, clenching his fists, tears forming at the edges of his eyes. Nabiki looked down at him, suddenly worried about what he was about to say.

"If I hadn't talked to your sister today, I might still be wronging you, without you even knowing about it!"

"Kuno-" Nabiki started to say, cautiously, but Akane held up a hand to silence her, her giggling having long since stopped.

"What do you mean, Kuno?" She asked steadily, eyes boring holes in his skull. 

"If I hadn't talked to Nabiki, I would still be carrying around all the pictures of you I bought from her!" He cried, wiping tears and snot away on his sleeve, "I would still be using them to, to m-m-"

"Kuno, no!"

"M-Masturbate!!"

He collapsed into heaving sobs on the floor at the word, kneeling a few feet in front of her. Nabiki stared at him wide-eyed for a long, horrible moment, before looking up at her sister. She wore a similar expression..

"Akane, I…" Nabiki said, white hot shame filling her belly. She didn't have any words to follow.

Akane didn't look up at her. Instead, she took a step towards Kuno's prostrated form. Suddenly, she reared her leg back, and Nabiki realized with panic that she was aiming for his head. Her eyes widened, bracing herself, but- no. After a second, Akane lowered her leg to the ground, her face dark . She turned, and walked off in the direction of her room.

"Akane, I-" Nabiki tried again, "I didn't… I didn't know…"

Akane paused in her doorway, and turned her face to the side, so Nabiki could just see the tears in her eyes.

"Yeah, you did. And I did too."

She closed the door behind her, leaving Nabiki standing in the hall, next to the crying form of her worst friend.

After a few seconds, another door opened, and Soun Tendo stepped halfway out, still in his pajamas.

"What, ah…" he said, yawning, "what's going on out here? I thought I heard… something."

"N...nothing, dad," Nabiki said, a pained expression on her face, "just… y'know… teen drama?"

Soun glanced down at the boy sobbing on his floor. 

"You're sure?" He asked.

"Yeah dad," she said, "I can handle it."

"...O...kay…" he said, not looking very sure that it was okay at all, "if you're sure… goodnight, I suppose…"

"Good night, dad."

He shut the door. After a moment, Nabiki sighed, and stepped towards Kuno.

"C'mon, man," she said gently, "let's get you out of here."

She helped him to his feet, down the stairs and out the door. Once they were there, she said to him,

"I… think it would probably be best if you… didn't come back here. Like… ever."

Kuno sniffled and wiped away the last of his tears, cheeks still burning red.

"R-right," he said, nodding. "B-but, we'll hang out at c-college, right?"

Nabiki looked him in the eye, her face drawn, then looked away.

"Yeah," she said, truthfully, "We probably will." She stepped back through the door.

"Good night, Kuno."

"G-good night Nabi-"

She closed the door on him before he could finish. She looked around the darkened house, feeling numb, before stumbling back up the stairs.

She was headed for her bedroom, planning to collapse the moment she got there, when suddenly, another door swung open. Before she could react, a pair of surprisingly strong arms grabbed her by the shoulders and yanked her into a different room.

"If I just heard" Kasumi seethed, pinning her terrified form against the wall, "what I think I heard, then you and I are about to have a long fucking discussion!"