He says he loves my daughter.
I think so too; for never gazed the moon
Upon the water as he'll stand and read
As 'twere my daughter's eyes.
And, to be plain,
I think there is not half a kiss to choose
Who loves another best.
-The Winter's Tale
Act IV, Scene IV
Half a Kiss
by Richard Lawson
Ranma stood on the porch, staring at the pond as the early-morning sun shone off of it. It looked pretty, the ripples seeming to be made of gold. Ranma lost himself in the patterns, watching them mix and reform.
Someone came up beside him. Someone whose presence he felt like fire on his skin. He swallowed and without turning his head said, "Yo."
"Good morning. How are you feeling?"
It was a very good question. Waking up had been very disorienting, and he was only now getting back to a state of relative equilibrium. "Fine, I guess."
"You guess?" A gentle admonition.
Ranma shrugged. "It's funny. I just don't feel like myself. I mean, this is me, the real me, this is what I wanted for so long. But... I mean, part of me, it really was starting to accept what I was like before, and now it's freaking out a little." He patted his chest almost unconsciously.
Silence for a minute. "You'll adjust, though. Faster than it took you to adjust to... to what you were like before."
"Yeah, probably." Ranma sighed. "Just that right now, I feel odd."
More silence. Then his hand was gently clasped, a smaller hand fitting inside his. That too felt strange, he expected the hand to be larger. Almost awkwardly he held on, trying to draw a degree of comfort from the contact.
"Akane. Ranma." The voice was as gentle and warm as ever. "Breakfast is ready."
Ranma turned his head and nodded at Kasumi. She smiled back at him and withdrew back towards the dining room. Ranma followed, Akane beside him, and he was suddenly overwhelmed with nostalgia. Although he had only lived here for a couple of years, it was the first place that had ever felt like home, and it was wonderful to return. He was Ranma, a man, and beside him was a woman, his fiancée, and he felt moved almost to tears by how comfortable that felt.
The dining room was crowded again, snapping Ranma back to the present. His father and mother sat on the far side of the table, next to Akane's father. Tofu sat next to where Kasumi was carefully lowering herself. Nabiki, looking mildly grumpy, had a wide space next to her, the place reserved for Ranma and Akane.
Ranma took his hand back from Akane and sat at the table. Food was passed around and Ranma took his fair share, somewhat surprised that his appetite wasn't affected. He began to eat with his usual enthusiasm, although with far more manners than he'd had at sixteen. He couldn't help but smile at the memory.
"Damn, Ranma." Nabiki looked at him appraisingly. "It's so good to see you like this."
Ranma swallowed and nodded. "Feels good."
"I want to set a date as soon as possible." His mother beamed at him from across the table. "Perhaps Midsummer's Day."
"Three weeks?" Akane sounded mildly panicked. "That's not enough time, Saotome-san. I've got friends, plans to make, I've-"
"Mother," Ranma interrupted. "Please, I need some time. A lot's happened, I need to... to internalize it all. I don't want to rush into anything. I mean, rushing headfirst into situations is what started this all in the first place."
Father looked up and met his eyes. Ranma winced; that hadn't come out the way he'd wanted. Just as quickly Father looked back down at his food. Damn, talking without thinking, he truly was reverting back to form.
"Ranma." Mother was clearly trying to be as calm and reasonable as possible. "The sooner you and Akane get married, the better everyone will feel, including yourself."
He couldn't help the words. "Not everyone."
Mother thinned her lips but made a visible effort not to respond angrily. "Many... unfortunate things have happened. I desperately wish I could undo what had happened. But you must accept-"
"You wish you could undo?" Ranma matched glares with his mother. "I'm curious. What is it that you wish you could undo, exactly?"
Mother seemed to deflate slightly. "I wish I had stayed with your father. I wish I hadn't let him take you away. You needed... guidance, of a kind your father could never give. I... I was weak. Your father wanted to take you away to train, he wanted it very badly. And I was... not unwilling... to see your father leave. If I could undo one moment in my life, it would be the moment I told your father he could take you. I would have insisted that you - and he - stay with me. Always. That... would have been better for all of us."
Ranma dropped his gaze, feeling his face burn slightly. Here he'd been passing judgment on his mother, and he barely knew her. He should be more understanding. Ranma now had his own glimpse of what it was like to be left behind, of the hurt and anger and longing that accompanied that sensation. He also knew what it was like to have regrets.
Putting down his chopsticks, Ranma stood. "Excuse me, please." He left the table and wandered back outside.
The pond was no longer gold-tipped, the sun having risen, leaving it looking plain. Ranma amused himself with analogies. He wondered if that was because of all his college courses, forcing him to overanalyze every single thing he saw. Inwardly he determined to start forgetting things as quickly as possible. Life would be much simpler that way.
"Ranma." The presence was there, again. Being quiet and solicitous, in a way so different from all those years ago. "What's wrong?"
"C'mon, I just met you again a couple of weeks ago, and we're supposed to be married in less than a month? Stuff just doesn't happen that fast. No matter what, I need time. And neither you nor my mom is going to pressure me into anything sooner."
"We all know that." This was a completely different voice, a surprising one. Ranma turned to see Nabiki leaning against the side of the house, her arms folded. "But you're not answering the question. What's wrong? Really?"
Ranma looked back and forth between Nabiki and Akane. Then because he couldn't stand the soft sympathy of their gazes he turned to face the yard again. "I... I just... can't figure out... why he left." Just saying that - saying "he" - almost made him gag.
"Well... I mean, it was too much for him." Akane was speaking quietly but forcefully; Ranma wasn't sure if he was just imagining the hint of vindication in her voice. "He saw you for who you really were and he couldn't handle it. He got out of there as quickly as he could because he couldn't stand the sight of you."
"You know, though," Nabiki said thoughtfully, "that doesn't sound like him. He fought for Ranma - fought hard. Hell, we ganged up on him and he stood up to it for a week before he left. He just doesn't seem the type to... to give up like that."
"Then how do you explain it?" Ranma found his voice unexpectedly filled with both bitterness and hope.
"I don't know. I can't. Maybe it was too much too soon; after all, we had been giving his psyche a good beating. Maybe the reality that you could become a guy just caused him to blow a circuit. Maybe he'll give you a call once he's calmed down."
Maybe. Ranma had found himself jumping at the sound of every phone call to the house. But it had been two days now, and nothing. Kentaro was not the kind of man to simmer. He would get mad on occasion, but then almost instantly cool down. Ranma just couldn't conceive of him taking this long to recover, no matter how severe the shock.
And why the hell should he care, anyway? Kentaro had left him. At what should have been one of the high points in Ranma's existence, one person who had helped him survive to reach it had abandoned him. Over a stupid, silly thing. Maybe all the things Ranma had... liked... in Kentaro - the unflappability, the steadfastness, the ability to take the worst things in stride - had simply been a facade. A sham that crumbled at the first sign of true adversity.
The thought that he could have been so wrong about Kentaro frightened Ranma considerably. If his judgment was that far off, how could he trust any decision?
Ranma thought briefly of Akane - warm, desirable Akane - and suddenly felt chilled. The shudder wanted to come again but he fought it down. Instead, he walked towards the dojo. "Gonna work out for a bit. By myself, please."
"Of course." Akane didn't sound disappointed; she was really playing this role well. "If you ever want to talk, I'm here."
"I know." He paused, looked over his shoulder, smiled briefly. "Thanks."
Akane's face lit up and she bowed back slightly, her eyes not leaving his.
Ranma turned back and entered the dojo, prepared to beat the bad mood out of himself.
Akane drew in a deep breath, then let it loose slowly. Not quite a sigh, but very close. Dealing with Ranma was an emotionally draining task. But the end reward would be worth it, if she could just find a way to guide him where he truly wanted to go.
"Poor guy," Nabiki commented. "Sometimes I wonder if we really did him a favor finding that kettle."
"Oh come on." Akane turned to face her sister. "You saw how much he wanted it, how excited he was when he found it. He wants this, he's wanted it for years. He just has to let go of the past and he'll be fine."
"Yeah, well, letting go isn't an easy thing, is it? He spent years trying to let go of you, and just when he was succeeding suddenly here you are and he's got to let go of Kentaro."
"Oh, that will be easy." Akane looked back at the dojo. "I mean, it was so unnatural, he was fighting himself the whole time. Now that he doesn't have to, he'll come around. It was such a hell for him but he was finding a way through it, because that's the kind of man he is. Strong and stubborn and willful. Now he's back home and cured, and he doesn't need to fight any more. He's where he belongs."
"God, Akane." Nabiki sounded close to disgust. "Sometimes you make me sick. Are you really so incapable of seeing anything except in terms of how it affects you?"
Akane's head snapped back as if she'd been slapped. "Excuse me? This from the woman who had to switch colleges because everyone hated her so much?"
Nabiki's eyes flashed. "You don't know anything about that."
"And you don't know anything about what's happening between me and Ranma. So back off."
"What, and leave you two miserable? I wouldn't be much of a sister if I did that."
"We won't be miserable! We'll be happy!"
"Even if it kills you?" Nabiki gestured towards the dojo. "Or him?"
Akane clenched her fists. "Look, just don't talk to me, okay? You've always been on Kentaro's side anyway." She spun away.
"Akane!" Nabiki's voice contained just enough of older-sister command to force Akane to stay still rather than stomp away. "Look, I'm not on Kentaro's side or your side. If I'm on anyone's side, I'm on Ranma's side. The guy is miserable right now, and if you force him into a relationship he doesn't really want, then his misery will spread to you and neither of you will end up happy. If you truly want a chance of happiness with him, then help him. And I mean really help, just don't sit there assuming everything will work itself out."
Nabiki sighed. "If and when Ranma has been able to cope with what happened up on that mountain - two days ago and six years ago - then I'll support whatever relationship you guys end up having. But until then, I'm not going to let you bull through this like you've bulled through so many other problems in your life. Because unless I'm mistaken, that approach hasn't been too successful for you so far."
Silence descended. Akane felt Nabiki's words echoing through her head, and they filled her with anger and despair in equal amounts. Was everyone so blind? Could no one see how right this was for Ranma?
And yet, Akane remembered herself on the rooftop - how much she'd hated herself for the way she'd been acting, towards Kentaro, towards Ranma. Akane had made some resolutions then, and now they were coming back to haunt her. Just maybe there was a grain of truth in what Nabiki said.
"All right," she found herself saying in a surprisingly calm voice. "I'll do what I can. Just... please, don't be an obstacle."
Another minute went by before Nabiki finally responded. "All right. You're correct about one thing: this is between you and Ranma. Some mistakes need to be personally made, so I'll let the both of you make them. And who knows, I could be wrong about lots of things, it's happened before."
Akane couldn't help a smile. "Not possible, I thought."
"Entirely possible. Otherwise I'd be a billionaire already. That was my plan at sixteen, anyway." The amusement left Nabiki's voice. "Strange how things change."
"Yeah." Akane walked back into the house. She still had a lot to think about, and already her plans for the day were ruined.
Still, new plans and opportunities would present themselves. Ranma needed her, and this time, no matter what, Akane was not going to leave him behind.
Ranma eyed the shirt uncertainly. Short-sleeved, blue, with a collar. It made him look older, somehow. He wasn't certain he wanted to be older.
Akane was already holding another shirt against his chest, critically eyeing his reflection in the mirror. She had suggested a shopping trip to complement his wardrobe. Most of his clothes were a little small for him now, and some were not entirely appropriate. Ranma had agreed reluctantly, certain that the trip would be accomplished quickly so that he could go back to brooding.
He hadn't accounted for Akane. She had taken to the task with a will. Ranma tended to grab the first thing that was cheap and didn't look ugly. Akane had lots to say about color, texture, and fabric. Ranma hadn't quite bought into her enthusiasm, but he had to admit that the shirts that passed her exacting scrutiny did, in fact, look nice and feel comfortable.
"All right, change out of that one and we'll get the gray instead." Akane tilted her head as she continued to look at his reflection. "Ever consider wearing ties again? That bowtie you used to wear was so cute."
"And it kept falling off during my fights," Ranma replied blandly.
"Ah yes, I remember now. And you managed to get into quite a few." Her eyes crinkled with humor. "Hurry up and we can get lunch now while it's not too busy."
Ranma nodded and headed back into the dressing room. He carefully took off the blue shirt and changed back into a soft red one - not his Chinese shirt, which he had stopped wearing after it had finally worn out, but a simple cotton long sleeve that had served him well. His sleeves ended a bit far from his wrists, but it really wasn't too bad.
Ranma left the dressing room and handed the shirt back to the attendant, who looked up at him and smiled warmly. Ranma nodded back at her, not returning the smile but trying to be polite. It felt odd to be looking down at some people again. In almost every situation at college he had been the smallest adult present.
Leaving the dressing room, Ranma spied Akane already at the register, being handed a bag. Ranma quickly walked up to her. "Hey, I'm supposed to pay."
"You've spent enough. Let this be my gift. Besides, I'm the one who forced all this shopping on you." She smiled and handed him the bag. "That's why lunch will be on me as well. Come."
She led the way out of the store. Ranma followed her onto the sidewalk and down the street, drawing even with her. Her hand brushed his, which was holding on to four shopping bags. His other hand was free and he could have switched the bags over, but he didn't.
Akane chose a small diner. They went inside and were quickly seated. The server hurried up with two menus and two glasses of water. In her rush, she very nearly spilled the water and was saved by a quick grab of one of the glasses by Ranma. The server apologized profusely before quickly moving to another table. Ranma set the glass of water down and stared at it.
Akane followed his thought. "I guess you have to start all over again, don't you? Worrying about rain and old women cleaning the sidewalk."
Ranma chuckled at the memory. "Yeah. It was kinda nice not to have to worry when it started raining. By the end, I mean. In the beginning, I hated the rain because it didn't matter any more. It reminded me..." Ranma trailed off, still staring at the glass.
"Tell me. How bad was it?"
Ranma looked up, and suddenly the words were flowing. "Every bath was a nightmare. It was hot water, and it was supposed to cure everything, except it didn't. And whenever I saw someone drinking tea or coffee, I wanted to grab the cup and dump it over myself. And those thoughts were so irrational I hated myself for thinking them."
Akane looked down at the water, glanced around the diner, seeing all the people drinking hot beverages, looked back at Ranma. "Did... how did you get over that?"
"Well, you know, I think I did the right thing by going to college. Eventually I got so busy I stopped worrying about it."
"As easy as that?" Akane sounded skeptical.
"Well... no." Ranma took a sip of the water. "It took a lot of time. But you know, I still remember the first time I entered the shower and didn't expect to change. It was a shock that I had forgotten to remember."
"A shock that you were adjusting? Accepting it, even?"
"Yeah. And I hated myself for accepting it. I didn't want to be... her."
"But her was you."
"Yeah. Vicious cycle, wasn't it?"
"So..." Akane seemed almost not to want to ask the question. "How'd you break out of it?"
Ranma smiled slightly. "You're expecting me to say Kentaro, right?"
Akane thinned her lips but nodded.
"Well, he was part of it. You were, too, when you told me you had a boyfriend. That pretty firmly closed the door on our relationship."
"I..." Akane looked down, back up again. "I wish I hadn't... done it like that."
"I don't see how else you could've. I was being pretty obtuse. Deliberately so. I needed a good slap in the face. You were always good at knocking sense into me when I needed it."
"Maybe." Akane didn't return the smile. "But I also didn't... try to stay with you. I mean, even if we couldn't date, I should have tried to keep you as my friend."
Ranma felt his own smile fade. "Yeah. I think you should have. But I also told you to go away. I should have kept in touch, let you know when I was recovering, all that. I... regret that."
"So many regrets." Akane leaned forward. "What's important is how we respond to each other now. I'm not going away no matter what, Ranma. Even if you don't want to get married right away, if it takes you months or years to readjust, if you fall in love with Nabiki and want to marry her, I don't care. I will help you no matter what."
Ranma couldn't help smiling. "Nabiki?"
Akane lifted a corner of her mouth. "Should I have said Kasumi?"
"God no, that would be like dating my mother." He reached out to cover one of her hands with his. "Thanks."
Her eyes lit up again, which was beautiful to see. Ranma tried to feel good in return, but somehow the emptiness in the center of his chest didn't get any smaller, and after a few seconds he withdrew his hand.
The server came back and after a hurried consultation of the menu they ordered. When she was away Akane considered Ranma again. "So at the beginning it was terrible. Tell me what it was like at the end. Before... before I showed up."
"The end... wasn't so bad." Ranma started playing with his chopsticks. "I belonged. I was captain of the gymnastics team, I had a class of martial arts students that let me instruct them, I was doing well in my classes, I got along with my dormmates... it was great. I mean, I hadn't really been that much a part of something, anything. Even at Furinkan. The only thing that came close to that was when I was with you guys, when Pop and I were eating one of Kasumi's dinners with everyone. It was like that, except all the time."
Akane nodded. "And?"
"And." Ranma twirled the chopsticks furiously, pretty certain he knew what Akane was fishing for. "And there was... this..."
"Yeah." Ranma felt his chest tighten, his heart on the verge of bursting. "He was... nice. I liked being with him. I didn't like that he was a guy, but that was beginning to matter less and less. He was going to go to medical school, and I was... I had plans to start a dojo if I could get the money, and it was going to be... near him."
"Were you going to live with him?"
Ranma felt his face beginning to burn. "I was... ready to hear him offer it. I was prepared to be convinced by him that it wouldn't be a bad idea."
Akane shifted in her seat, spoke very softly. "Did you love him?"
Ranma suddenly gripped the chopsticks tightly. "You gonna make me answer that?"
"Yes. I need to hear it. I think you do, too."
Ranma looked at Akane, saw the earnest, concerned expression on her lovely face. "Then yeah. At that time, at that place, under those circumstances... yes, I did."
Akane didn't respond, silently digesting the response. In the meantime their food arrived. Neither of them spared a glance at it. Finally Akane spoke gently. "So it really hurt when he ran away."
"Hell yes." The image flashed into his mind again, of Kentaro running back down the mountain, not looking at Ranma, not responding to his voice. "Like the three years we'd known each other meant nothing. That just because I could become a guy, I'd become too repellent to bear."
Akane grimaced. "And I chose that exact moment to kiss you."
Shakily, Ranma smiled. "Not the best sense of timing you've ever had."
"It was damn thoughtless of me. And now I understand your reaction a little better." Akane sighed heavily. "Ranma, for that, I'm sorry. Really sorry."
"Thanks." Ranma braved a smile, then mechanically began working on placing food into his mouth.
Akane picked up her own chopsticks but seemed more interested in pushing her food about the plate. "We never did enough of this. I mean talk like this, really try to understand one another."
Ranma swallowed his latest shovelful. "When I was sixteen I thought I knew everything I needed to know. When I was eighteen, I thought I had become such a tragic figure that I had accumulated the wisdom of the ages. Now I know that all along I knew nothing, and that I still don't know nothing about anything."
The food was tasteless and Ranma had no appetite, so he dropped the chopsticks and pushed the plate away. "I guess what I'm saying is that I'm prepared to begin learning all over again. And if you wanna learn with me, that's all right."
Akane nodded noncommittally, a little to Ranma's surprise. He thought she'd be a lot happier about the admission. Instead, she too pushed her plate away. "Ranma, I need to know. You said that at that time and at that place, you loved Kentaro. What about here and now? Do you still love him?"
"Damn, you don't know when to let up, do you?"
Akane didn't even blink. "I think it's the core of everything you have to decide from this point on. You won't be able to make any decisions until you first answer that question. And that includes anything you might decide about me."
Ranma leaned back in his chair, staring at Akane. She met his gaze head on, not backing down at all. After a timeless moment, he looked away. "I don't know. I really don't. I'm a guy and it's disgusting to be in love with another guy. I needed his support on the mountain and he ran away. He could have sucked it up, tried to stay with me until I made up my mind, but no, it got too tough and he ran and I hate him for that."
"Maybe... maybe you should call him. Talk to him."
"No." Ranma was slightly surprised by the force of that word. "He can't take it, then screw him. I'm not about to beg him for support."
Akane chewed her lip. "But... you need to find out if you're still in love with him."
"Well, he made the choice that whatever decision I made would be without his input."
"That almost sounds like an answer itself."
"I know, but..." Ranma shook his head. "It's hard. To just let go. God, it sounds weak to say that."
"It's better to admit that than pretend you know an answer you don't feel." Akane cupped her chin with one hand. "I think you know that by now."
"Maybe." Ranma stood up. "Let's go."
Akane nodded. She left some money on the table and they left to go back home.
This time Ranma found the handed closest to Akane's was free. So he took her hand in his, and this time it didn't feel wrong.
Ranma leaned back in his chair and stretched. As always, it felt both wonderful and strange that an uncontrollable mass on his chest didn't shift when he did this.
With a yawn, Ranma looked back down at the column of figures he had been playing with. Trying to calculate how much money he'd need to open his own dojo. Of course Akane's father had made it clear that the Tendo Dojo was his if he married Akane, and that would certainly make things very easy. Still, Ranma felt a need to see how expensive it would be to do things completely on his own. The numbers were discouraging - he'd need quite a sum on money, and he'd have to find someone willing to lend it to him when he had no collateral. Maybe his former college advisor would know someone.
Of course, if Ranma walked into his office, he wouldn't be recognized. Ranma looked out the window into the darkened back yard. The pond could be easily made out in the light of the moon. In the month since returning from the mountain, Ranma had yet to get doused with cold water and had even forgone the ritual of pouring cold water over himself before getting into the bath. At first it had been simply out of the joy of being male again. Now it was a kind of test, to see how long he could go, to see if he would start craving a return to his other form, to see if he could overcome any such cravings.
Tonight, for the first time, he felt something stirring, a desire to resume his college form. Almost as if his female self had been the norm, and he had simply been taking a well-deserved vacation. Eventually the desire to return home grew greater than any enjoyment of an exotic locale.
Ranma sighed and walked over to his closet. He changed into his pajamas - it was well past his normal bedtime - and found his eyes resting on a small barrel stuffed in the back. His thoughts grew morose, and he wondered if he'd ever have the courage to use it.
Firmly Ranma slid the closet door closed. He walked back over to his desk and just as he was about to turn off the lamp, a gentle knocking came from the hallway.
Ranma froze, if only for a second. Then he walked over to the hallway door and opened it. Akane, dressed in slightly oversized flannel pajamas, stood looking at him. "May I come in?" she said in a near whisper.
Ranma felt his pulse quicken. "Sure." He stepped back and Akane walked inside. She went straight to his futon and sat cross-legged on it as Ranma closed the door.
Her face was quiet and composed. Her face was also beautiful, her best feature by far. Ranma walked back over to the desk, turned off the lamp. Akane made no comment and waited until he was sitting next to him.
Ranma sat there, his heart pounding and his mind numb. This past week had been full of time spent talking with Akane, about everything but the subjects of their discussion in the diner. They had gone out to movies and such, and more often than not he had held her hand, and more often than not had enjoyed it. But nothing more physical than that, nothing even hinted at until Akane presented herself at the door and put herself in his bed.
Neither of them spoke. Akane was just sitting patiently, waiting, occasionally shifting position but never touching him. The message was clear; Ranma would have to initiate everything. She had come this far, he would have to do the rest.
In a way it made Ranma angry and reminded him vaguely of Kentaro's worst trait, that of pushing Ranma at times when Ranma needed to work things out himself. Akane clearly had grown impatient and was forcing something Ranma wasn't sure he was prepared to do.
But she smelled good and looked so beautiful and felt so warm sitting so close to him. And this more than anything else had been what he'd wanted the past six years: a woman he could love. Make love to.
Ranma turned his head, and Akane stopped straightening the crease of her pajama bottoms and returned his look. He leaned forward and she cocked her head to one side and leaned forward as well. Their lips touch and instantly she parted her lips and they began tasting each other.
Ranma closed his eyes. This was it, a man and a woman kissing. Almost instinctively his mind began disassociating, detaching itself from his body. And then he remembered that he was the male in this exchange. That there was nothing to be embarrassed about. And that in fact instead of waiting for his partner's hands to begin to wander to his chest, his own hands should reach out, begin to feel his partner's body.
Akane grabbed the back of his head and began to pull Ranma down to the futon. Ranma broke off the kiss and turned his head away, remaining seated upright. Akane sat back up and took his hand. "What's wrong?"
"I don't... it doesn't feel right."
"Because... because you only did this as a woman and it feels strange to do it as a man?"
Ranma looked down at his chest, seeing how flat it was. "I guess. I don't know. I never really kissed a girl before. A woman."
"And that feels wrong?"
"Hell no. You have no idea how long I wanted to kiss... kiss a woman. I used to hate every man I saw kissing a woman because it wasn't me." Ranma shook his head. "I want to be a guy, but... but I still need time. I need some more time. I can't figure out what the hell is wrong with me."
"Then let's figure it out together," Akane gently prompted. "Why don't you feel good kissing a woman?"
"I... I do feel good, I mean, it doesn't feel... it's not that... it's right for a man to be kissing a woman, I got no problem with that."
"Oh." Akane sounded slightly afraid. "Then... if the problem isn't that you're kissing a woman, is it that you're kissing me?"
Ranma snapped his head up, stared at Akane. She looked back at him steadily, her face full of emotions he couldn't quite trace.
"You left me," he found himself saying. "When I was at the worst point in my life, you left me."
"I... wanted to stay, wanted to be friends."
"But not my fiancée. Not... you weren't going to... give me what I needed."
Akane looked down. "God, Ranma, if only I'd known. I... the reasons I broke up with you, we've been over them a thousand times."
"I know. I know. We agreed, logically it made sense." Ranma forced himself to hold her gaze. "But I'm not entirely a logical kind of guy. It hurt that you left when I wanted you so badly. I spent years getting over that. Now that it's all magically back the way it was, I... can't forget that."
Ranma finally could bear it no longer. He looked down into his lap. "I'm sorry, Akane."
There was an extended, painful silence. Then Akane stood up and walked over to the door. There she stopped and turned to face him. When she spoke, she sounded close to tears. "Ranma. I can't excuse what I did, the choices I made. All I can do is make you this promise. I will never leave you again. No matter what happens, I will always, always be here for you."
"All right." Ranma looked back up at her. "Thanks. That will help. Just give me a little more time. Maybe... I don't know. Maybe I'll come back around. Just give me room to breathe."
"F-fair enough." Akane wiped her eyes. "Good night, Ranma."
"Good night, Akane."
After the door closed, Ranma stood up and looked back out into the yard, staring at a certain point until clouds covered the moon and the rain began, covering the yard in wet blackness.
Akane beat fiercely on the post. She hadn't worked out this much since leaving for college and her hands hurt, but Akane embraced the pain and kept punching.
"So who will run the dojo if Ranma leaves?"
Akane kept punching. "I don't know. Don't ask me those questions. Dad can keep doing it for a while."
"He wants an heir, you know. It won't be Kasumi and it damn well won't be me."
"I said don't ask me that!" Akane finally relented, shaking out her fists and glaring at Nabiki. "There's like a thousand questions to be answered before that. Ask me again in a week."
"Will it be a week?" Nabiki took a sip of the tea she held in a cup in her hands while sitting on the porch. "I mean, it's been a month already and I don't see that you guys have made a lot of progress."
Akane massaged her hands. "He needs more time. And I'm not about to go apply a lot of pressure. There are some things he needs to work out on his own. I've told him where I stand."
"And where do you stand?"
"I..." Akane drew a breath. "I want to say I love him. If he gives me the slightest indication, I will."
Nabiki's voice was uncharacteristically tentative. "And if he doesn't?"
Akane leaned wearily against the post. "Then I'll be his friend. Whatever happens, I won't abandon him. I promised him and I promised myself."
"I see." Nabiki took another long sip of her tea. "I want to tell you something. Something that I think may explain a lot to Ranma and help him figure out what to do. But that something may not be... favorable to your cause. You asked me not to interfere, so I won't. But if you want to know something that will help Ranma, I'm prepared to tell you."
Blankly, Akane considered Nabiki. Her sister wasn't returning her gaze, instead looking out into the yard, her tea cupped in front of her face. This was so totally unlike Nabiki that it frightened Akane a little.
Which meant that whatever Nabiki had to share, it couldn't be good news. Akane looked down at her feet, thrust suddenly upon a decision she herself had been putting off. If Ranma didn't want her, was she truly going to try and be his friend? Really, truly help him through his problems? Akane wanted him so badly, wanted to resume what they had lost all those years ago. And now, suddenly, there was a real possibility that it wouldn't happen. That Ranma as a boyfriend, fiancé, and husband would be lost to her forever. If she couldn't have Ranma like that, could she stand to be with him at all?
An image came back to her, of Ranma sitting in a diner, look small and miserable, such pain on her face that Akane's heart ached. Yet it had been a relief to walk away, to leave that all behind. But, as it had turned out, she hadn't really left it behind. It had stayed with her, haunting her for years. If she would truly be a woman with honor, she would have to see her promise through. Only then could she have a clear conscience. Even if that was all she ended up with.
Reluctantly, Akane raised her head and looked at Nabiki. "Tell me."
Nabiki finally looked at her. "You sure?"
"All right." Nabiki looked down into her cup. "I've been going through everything we said about the kettle after Ranma rejoined us. We talked endlessly about the kettle being a cure for Ranma, and how excited we all were about the possibility of Ranma becoming a man again. And I think that's all Kentaro heard. That the kettle would cure Ranma."
Nabiki moved her mouth from side to side. "The thing is, we never really said what the cure was supposed to be. We all knew that the kettle would just allow Ranma to be a man when doused with hot water and a woman when doused with cold water. But I don't think Kentaro knew that. All he saw was Ranma curing himself with the kettle and becoming a man. I think Kentaro thought that was permanent. I think that's why he ran."
Akane felt something crumbling inside of her. All along she had taken such comfort from the fact that Kentaro had run. To have that taken away from her... "Are you sure?"
"No." Nabiki met her eyes. "But I think it's worth finding out."
"Oh God." Akane slumped to the ground, her back to the post. "And I have to tell him, don't I?"
"That's a question only you can answer." Nabiki set down the teacup and stood up. She walked over to Akane, knelt, and hugged her. Akane hugged her back, clinging to her, thankful that she had a sister like Nabiki.
After a moment, Nabiki disengaged herself and stood up. "You'll be okay. No matter what happens, you'll get through it. You always were stronger than me."
Akane chuckled once. "Like hell."
"You'd be surprised." Nabiki smiled sadly, then went back to the porch, picked up her teacup, and left the yard.
Akane sat for a while longer. The yard was peaceful and she didn't want to disturb its serenity. But she couldn't sit still forever, so eventually she moved, no matter that it broke her heart.
The door was plain, unadorned. No cute nameplate, nothing personal. Akane considered it for a while. A barrier of monumental proportions that she somehow had to overcome. Gathering her courage, she knocked.
Akane entered the room to see Ranma pacing frenetically. He was antsy, unable to sit still, flitting about the room like an overactive moth. Akane knew enough of Ranma's habits to realize what this all meant: he was close to deciding something.
Walking over to the desk, Akane sat down and watched Ranma impassively. He shot her a grin but continued pacing. His lack of curiosity about her motives was another indication that his mind was fully engaged in coming to a decision. Akane decided to wait him out, idly wondering how long it would take.
Not long, evidently. Scarcely a minute later Ranma walked to his closet, pulled out a duffel bag, and began stuffing clothing into it.
Akane finally spoke. "Going somewhere?"
"Going to find Kentaro." Ranma finished his packing and turned to face her, practically quivering with pent-up energy. "I think he's in Okinawa for another week. If not, they'll know where to find him."
"Oh." Akane looked at him uncertainly. "Are... you going back to him?"
"Am I?" Ranma stopped short, his momentum suddenly blunted. "No. I mean, that's not the reason I'm going to find him. I just want to face him one more time. I want him to see me now, as a man, and I want to see how he reacts to that. Then I want to hear him explain why he left."
The words were coming in a rush and Ranma made a visible effort to slow down. "I want to face him one last time, say goodbye, and then get him the hell out of my life. Then I'll be... then I can figure out what else to do." Ranma grinned. "It'll be easy after that. I know it."
"I see." Akane felt her lower lip on the verge of trembling and tried to control it. "So do you think you still love him?"
"I... I did once." Ranma seemed to mull that over. "I guess I can say that without feeling too weird."
"And... and you're going back to him so that he can explain what happened? So he can give you a chance to... to go back to the way things were before?"
"Hell no. He had his chance. He blew it. And I'm not about to go giving... giving any man a second chance."
"I think you are." Akane spoke probingly, quiet but forceful, needing to know. "I think the very fact that you're seeking him out means that you're giving him another chance. You want him to apologize, to work things out between you, to make the relationship possible again."
Ranma thought that over for a minute, but eventually shook his head. "No. I mean, I can't deny that the fantasy is there, but the reality is too much. He ran away, and I don't think I'm prepared to forgive him for that."
Akane couldn't help herself any more. She began crying, looking down to avoid meeting Ranma's eyes. Ranma rushed over, knelt in front of the chair, grabbed her hands. She clutched them tightly and the tears began cascading down her face.
"What's wrong?" Ranma sounded fearfully distressed.
"Sh-shut up. Just let me do this." Akane barely got the words out, determined not to sob, keeping her voice silent, but still crying, crying for what had been done to Ranma over the past six years, for the way she had treated him, for the enormous pressure she and her family had put on him, for the loneliness he must have felt. But mostly she cried for the love he had found that she was no part of. And she cried because of what she had to do right here, right now.
This took a few minutes, with Ranma looking on in a mild state of panic. When the tears had slowed, when she had control once again, when she had at last found a quiet, calm place within herself, she looked up at Ranma. "I need to tell you something."
"All right." He squeezed her hands reassuringly.
Akane squeezed back. "Kentaro loves you. I saw that right away. And the more I saw him the deeper I realized his love is. So I can say this with confidence, Ranma. He would never, ever leave you-"
"Whaddya mean!" Ranma's expression turned dark. "He sure had no problem leaving me when-"
"Unless," Akane interrupted, "he thought you had left him first."
Ranma stared at her quizzically. Then, almost comically, his eyes widened and lost focus. "Oh my."
Akane waited, willing understanding into him. The fact that he seemed to have stopped breathing, though, was a good sign that he had made the connection himself.
"Oh my," he said again. Finally his eyes focused back on Akane. "He didn't know."
"That's what Nabiki thinks. And it makes sense to me."
"Hell yes, it does." Ranma was quivering slightly. "It explains everything. Everything. Oh my."
The words made Akane lift a corner of her mouth. "You're beginning to sound like Kasumi."
Ranma stared at her, then barked a laugh. "Yeah. Maybe." Ranma released her hands, stood up, and began pacing again. "I gotta think. I gotta think. I gotta start all over again. Oh my."
Akane wiped her face dry as much as she could. "I know. But... I think you know where you want to end up. If it makes it any easier, I know you couldn't possibly marry me. You don't love me."
Ranma came to an abrupt halt and stared at Akane, a stricken expression on his face.
With more strength than she thought she possessed, Akane smiled. "I'll be fine. In time, I'll be fine. But I made a promise to you, to help you no matter what you decide. I am going to keep that promise. Now that we know that we're not going to get married, we can... talk more clearly about your future."
Ranma didn't seem to know what to say. Ashen, he said, "Akane, I'm sorry."
It helped to hear him say that. And hurt. "Thank you, Ranma. Right now, let's figure out what to tell our parents."
The wince that crossed Ranma's face was a clear indication that he hadn't thought about that at all. "Okay. Thanks."
From her newfound wellspring of serenity, Akane began a calm discussion with Ranma about a future that did not involve her. Idly, she wondered when and if she would find the time and place to scream again.
Ranma read over the papers a second time, just a quick skimming to make certain he hadn't missed a paragraph anywhere. Then he nodded. "All right. This looks good. Mom? Dad?"
His father had only glanced at the papers, but his mother was thoroughly reading the contract. She lifted one finger to indicate she was not yet done. Ranma met his father's gaze, to see nothing but his usual inscrutable expression. More than anyone, this had to hurt the old man, and Ranma truly felt bad because of that. His father had raised no objections and had deferred to his wife in all matters. Ranma wondered what that meant, and what penance he was paying and when he would be done with it.
Ranma's musing was interrupted by his mother setting the contract down. "I find the terms acceptable."
"Good." Akane's father nodded firmly, radiating an aura of satisfaction. "All you need to do is sign, then."
Feeling a little surreal, Ranma picked up the pen and signed his name. For the last time. He shook his head, then handed the contract to Nabiki. She studied his signature, then applied a seal and signed it herself. She passed it back to her father, who studied the signatures, then broke into a wide smile. "Welcome to the family, Ranma."
"Thank you." Ranma bowed from where he was sitting. Then he turned and bowed to his parents, a bit more deeply than he had to Soun. "Thank you for allowing this. I hope you guys know... I mean, you're my parents no matter what, that always come first."
"I know, Son." Mother smiled. "But thank you. You have restored honor that had all but vanished from our line."
Ranma flicked his gaze back over to his father, who continued to sit stone-faced. Damnation. There were deep undercurrents, things he simply did not understand about his parents and probably never would. Ranma felt the edge of sadness, a deep chasm that would be easy to fall into. He wanted his parents to be happy but was uncertain that would ever come to pass.
"So, Ranma," Soun said in an awkward attempt at intervention. "When will you begin instructing your classes here?"
"Um, I don't know." Ranma looked out into the yard, at the dojo next to the pond. "I, uh, need to get some things settled, y'know."
"If you need help getting the business side of things set up, let me know," Nabiki interjected. "I can give you access to the family accounts or you can set up new ones, whichever you want. It might be easiest to keep things separate, once we've set you up with a stake."
The words almost automatically set his mind into motion, plans that had been sitting in his head half-formed all throughout college, of how his dojo would be run. With an effort, Ranma stopped the wheels from turning. Later, not now. "Thanks, Nabiki."
"Anything for the family." Nabiki grinned mischievously. "It's time I got out of here and back to business. I'll be leaving in the morning, but my office is only five minutes away, so call any time."
"Sure thing." Ranma grinned back, surprisingly feeling comforted to know that Nabiki was a member of his new extended family.
"So, Ranma-kun," Kasumi said from where she sat next to Soun, "will we be seeing more of Kentaro-san now?"
Dammit. Ranma looked around, at Akane sitting next to him, at his father staring rigidly into face, and at his mother whose face had hardened slightly and whose gaze on him was laser-keen. Ranma finally decided Kasumi's slightly vacant expression was the safest place to look. "I don't know. I, I'm going to go talk to him."
"Remember, Son," his mother said with all the warmth of an icicle, "you have agreed to become a Tendo and to remain a Tendo."
"I know." Ranma felt his stomach lurch. "I'll live up to the agreements."
"Then you'll give up this ridiculous... relationship with this man?"
"He doesn't have to change his name, you know." Akane's voice was extremely deferential but with a touch of defiance. "No matter who he ends up married to, his name can remain the same. He will always be a part of this family."
Mom shifted her steely gaze to Akane and Ranma rushed to regain its focus. "I haven't decided on anything yet. But I've done what you've asked me to do, I have a name and a dojo. What I do now... that's my business. No more arranged marriages, nothing. I choose my own way from this point on."
His mother's eyes almost bulged with outrage. She opened her mouth only to keep it opened as a deep voice said, "Nodoka, leave off. It's the boy's life, not yours."
Ranma's mother snapped her mouth closed. "You cannot condone this, husband."
"I do not. But neither do I condone my offspring being forced to give up true love to marry someone else out of a misplaced sense of honor. Because that will surely lead to a life of misery."
The blood drained from Mother's face. Ranma blinked, surprised at the reaction. She looked shocked, almost afraid. Ranma looked back and forth between his parents, and once again wondered at what he did not know about them.
Ranma found himself meeting his father's eyes, the expression not changing the least bit but something still being communicated. Almost begrudgingly, a new kind of respect for his father took seed. The old man had gone through his own version of hell these past few years, and maybe Ranma had been a bit too self-absorbed to notice.
With that observation came a new resolve. "Look, Mom, I don't want to make things hard on you and Dad, really. But if you're going to trust me with running the Tendo Dojo, you gotta trust me with running the rest of my life, too. No matter what, I want to... to be with you guys, be like a family and everything."
"I... would also like that." Mother was recovering some color but still sounded subdued. "I will... do what I can to... accept the choices you make. I really do want you to be happy, Ranma. I think... that I can find happiness in your happiness."
"Thank you." Ranma bowed again, held it for a while, then stood up. "May I be excused?"
Mother nodded. Ranma looked around the table and, finding no objections, left the room.
He made his way across the yard. He stopped outside the dojo - his dojo - and decided that he wasn't quite ready. Instead he stepped over to the pond and sat on a rock on the edge, looking intently at the fish swimming inside.
"Thinking of taking a dip?"
Ranma looked up at Akane and smiled slightly. "Not really. Just thinking."
Akane settled herself on a nearby rock. "It's been so long. It would be good to see you as a woman again."
"Yes." Akane looked down into the pool herself. "The woman I saw at her graduation - she was confident, excited, and mature in a way I had never seen before. Since you got cured, I haven't seen her again. The closest is when you were packing, getting ready to see Kentaro again. Your eyes shone. I, I hadn't seen you like that since before Herb."
"Yeah, well... I was finally taking care of stuff. I had finally begun working stuff out."
"Do you want me to leave you alone? Let you work stuff out for yourself?"
Ranma thought that over. "No, keep talking. By myself I tend to go around in circles. It's been too long, and now I feel so close. I can finally make a decision now that the ancillary issues have been taken care of."
"Ancillary." Akane smiled. "College sure has changed you. I can't imagine you using words like that during high school."
Ranma chuckled. "Maybe. I don't use 'em a lot, I sometimes get annoyed when Kentaro talks too fancy. But sometimes it's nice to know words that describe things good."
"Describe things good?" Akane laughed. "You did that on purpose, didn't you?"
"Maybe." Ranma grinned.
"So, underneath all the college courses, you're still the same Ranma." Akane shrugged. "Maybe there's an analogy there. No matter what's been done to you, you're still Ranma."
"Well..." Ranma tried to organize his response, finding fleeting amusement that college had managed to teach him a thing or two. "I don't think the analogy quite holds. Acquiring a bit of an education and deciding what gender to live my life as are kinda two separate things."
"Well, let's address that." Akane cupped her chin in her hand. "Why is it a question of what gender you live life as? I mean, if you decide to... to give Kentaro another chance, why can't it be as both genders? During that time when water could change you, you went back and forth all the time and it didn't seem to particularly bother you."
Ranma watched Akane closely. "Did it bother you? I was your fiancé, after all."
Akane's eyes lost focus slightly. "Not... not really. I guess I just knew that you were really a boy, and that no matter what, that's who you would be. So seeing you as a woman, even flirting with Kuno or whomever... I knew it was just a face you put on. You were still the boy I saw that one day." Her eyes focused on him again. "I think it would be the same way with Kentaro. He knows you as a woman. Even if you became a man, he'd always know the woman he loved wouldn't be far away. And it would still be you."
"It's not that simple, though." Ranma idly trailed his hand in the pond. "That was high school, I didn't care how people saw me, it was all just a big game. Now, dammit, I'm a grown-up. I have to run a dojo, and Kentaro will eventually be a doctor. I can't just run around calling myself Ranma being whatever gender I feel like. I have to present one face to the world. And whatever that face is, I'll have to... keep that face up almost all the time. So really, I can't be pusillanimous- um, I can't be wishy-washy about this. I gotta decide."
Akane nodded. "All right. So, let's narrow the focus a bit. Why would you choose to become female all the time? Would it only be because of Kentaro?"
"Yes!" Ranma paused, frowned at himself, then repeated, "Yes. There were things I liked about being female but really, almost all the time it was a struggle. Sometimes I wanted to scream and attack everyone nearby."
"We all feel that way sometimes." Akane smiled. "Remember when everyone who wanted to ask me out on a date would attack me every morning? In a way, that was a refreshing change from the more polite but equally annoying attempts to go out with me. I think that no matter what gender you are, you're going to have moments like that. Let me ask you, though. By the end, by your last semester in college, how often did you have those urges?"
Ranma grunted. "Not often. You're right, I had adjusted to it mostly. But still, there was always that undercurrent. I wanted to be a guy again so I could escape it all."
"So you can. Lucky you, whenever you want you can be male. With that release... do you think being female would be bearable?"
His chest tightened. "Damn you. That's the question I don't want to answer."
"Why?" Akane leaned forward. "Because you're afraid the answer is yes and that you'll think yourself as weaker because of it?"
"I... I don't know."
Akane stood up, came up close to him, hands on her hips. "Do you think I'm weak because I'm a girl?"
"No!" Ranma looked up at her, feeling a tinge of panic. "No, I never thought-"
"Or Nabiki? Or even Kasumi? You think any of us would be stronger and better at what we do if we were men?"
"I... I don't think that's the point here."
"I think it's entirely the point." Akane grabbed his shoulders, staring at him intensely. "You think that a female Ranma would be a weaker Ranma. That's the fear that's lurking in the bottom of your panda-trained brain. What I want you to understand - really, really understand - is that no matter what gender you are, you're still Ranma. If it helps, think of your female self as a combination of me, Nabiki, and Kasumi." Akane paused. "Okay, maybe not Kasumi so much. But whatever, just realize that you are not weak. No matter what temperature the water is that has been dumped on your head lately, it doesn't change you. When you can truly accept that, then the decision will be easy."
Ranma studied her eyes, her intensity, her determination. "That's... an impressive demonstration. But believe it or not, it's not so much how I view myself. It's how others view me. No one ever doubted me when I was a guy. But in college, I had to prove myself over and over again, and that gets tiring. I'd hate to have to live my whole life like that."
"Oh." Akane released his shoulders. "Well... no one said life is fair. You're right, you're going in circles, we're right back to where we started. Let's list it out. One, you dislike being female because of the way people treat you sometimes. Two, the only reason you would chose to become predominantly female would be because of Kentaro. So the question is: Would what you gain by being with Kentaro be worth more than the adjustments you would have to make?"
Ranma sighed. "But those adjustments... Akane, I'd have to start thinking of myself as a woman."
"You were doing that before."
"Because I had to. Now I don't."
"You don't have to, but maybe you could choose to because of Kentaro."
"You have no idea." Ranma rubbed the heels of his hands into his eyes. "I had to let Kentaro... touch me, in ways... it was so hard. It was a struggle every single time. It would be such a relief to... to be with someone and not have to force myself to enjoy it."
"Ranma, listen to me." Akane pulled his hands away from his eyes. "You said it yourself when we talked on the roof. It will get better when it happens because you had a choice. Hell, I practically threw myself at you, and you chose not to 'be' with me even when you wouldn't have to force yourself."
Her hands began to grip Ranma's hands very tightly. "Now, I want you to stop putting stupid objections in the way. I want you to stop trying to come up with excuses and rationalizations. Anything can be dealt with. But none of it means anything until you answer this one question: do you love Kentaro."
Ranma began to lower his gazes but an almost-crushing squeeze of his hands forced him to stay focused on Akane. As her beautiful brown eyes bored into his, her words kept ringing in his ears. Did he love Kentaro? But Kentaro was a man. A guy, for crying out loud. An intelligent, compassionate guy, someone who was easy to talk to, quick to understand, and usually knew how to respond well. Someone who had anchored Ranma's sanity during some of the worst times in his life.
Someone who thought Ranma had abandoned him, who had now gone over a month without seeing Ranma, convinced that their relationship was over, once and for all. The thought of Kentaro in that much pain squeezed Ranma's heart. And just like that, the desire was there, the overwhelming need to see Kentaro, to just be in his physical presence. It was very similar to the desire he'd had, right at the beginning, to become male again.
Except this time, he could do something about it. If he'd let himself.
The years loomed in front of him, of willingly adopting a role, a face, a persona he had discovered in college and had grown to rather enjoy. It came with a price, but also a reward. And that was love.
His mind shattered. There was no other way to really describe it; something broke loose and much that it had been supporting came crashing down. It was very painful, but left something behind. Something very good, something that almost made the pain worthwhile.
"Dammit," Ranma murmured. "I do l-love him."
Akane ground bones together in his hands. "Not good enough. Try again."
"I..." Ranma stopped, gathered himself, let it lose. "I love him."
"Better." She relaxed her grip marginally and shifted her stance. "Now, do you think you could stand be female again?"
"Yes." The answer was natural, easy, almost an afterthought.
"Good. Let's start now."
Akane pulled on his arms, using the leverage she had established. Ranma, however, had deduced what the shifting of her stance had meant, and added his own energy to the throw. He flipped completely over Akane, grabbed her forearms, and hauled her into the pond. She landed with a shriek and a splash, which Ranma managed to avoid.
Akane surfaced, spluttering. "Damn you!"
Ranma laughed. "C'mon, you gotta do better than that. My students could have set up a better throw."
"I wasn't expecting you to resist!" Akane pulled herself out of the pond, glaring at Ranma but at the same time trying to fight off a smile. "I guess I should have known better than to try to catch you off guard. You always were the best."
"Not always." Ranma's smile dimmed. "But I'm not gonna let random water accidents happen any more. If I... become a woman, it'll be my choice, not anyone else's."
"Fair enough." Akane bowed slightly. "Sorry."
His smile returned full force. "No need. One thing you always knew best about me, and that was when I deserved to get hit over the head with something large and unsubtle."
Akane laughed. Ranma joined her, feeling strangely dizzy. In a good way, he hoped.
Together they entered the house again.
Ranma woke. Carefully and deliberately, because she was certain what she was going to find and she wanted to be prepared for it.
As expected, she was naked. It was the first time she'd been female since being cured, and the sensation was familiar and, oddly, comforting. She'd adapted much more than she'd ever realized; this form no longer felt exotic or alien. It was just her, just who she was, and she had no problems being this way.
When the internal self-assessment was done, she allowed herself to take stock of the immediate environment. This included a thin cloth sheet covering her on the futon. Lying next to her was a man. A naked man, she was certain, although only the upper part of his body was visible. When they'd fallen asleep they'd had their arms more-or-less around each other but somewhere during the night they'd separated.
Ranma studied him. His eyes were closed, which was a shame because that was about the only feature of his she found attractive. Not that he was ugly, and she found his form aesthetically pleasing. Experimentally she reached over and traced the defined form of his pectoral. Firm and well-formed, the kind you'd see on movie stars. Soft and smooth, his body almost hairless. But, dammit, not attractive. Nothing she could get excited about. Nor could she ever conceive of herself doing so.
Sighing, Ranma rolled to the opposite side of the futon and stood up. She eyed her clothes strewn about, and silently gathered them together. Ranma looked around, uncertain what to do with them, uncertain if Kentaro had a laundry system worked out. Ranma compromised by dumping the clothes in the corner of the one closet he had. She eyed the closet, wondering where she could put her stuff. She could work it out with him later, she decided. There was plenty of room as long as they organized.
A definitely domestic thought. Ranma found herself staring around the closet for a long moment. Making these kind of long-term decisions was frightening and exciting. Disturbing and exhilarating. She wished she could settle on one emotion but her subconscious stubbornly refused.
Ranma turned back to her duffle bag and pulled out the few toiletries she'd brought along. Hopefully Kentaro had some of the basics already, like soap and shampoo. Ranma pulled out the one towel she had borrowed from the Tendo household and flung it over one shoulder.
A rustle from the futon caught her attention. Kentaro was still asleep but was moving towards wakefulness. The animation held her attention - she might not find his body attractive, but to see it move and know that it was his mind, his persona, moving the body around seemed to make all the difference in the world. Knowing that his eyes would soon open and that he would soon speak to her made Ranma feel very good.
Smiling, Ranma padded over to the bathroom. She wanted to get an early start - it was a long train ride back to the Tendo home, and she needed to start working out the logistics of living with Kentaro and teaching at the Tendo Dojo. She would almost certainly have to spend at least one or two nights at the Tendo home, depending on how many students she attracted. She wondered how many of her college students would sign up for classes, especially considering how much more she would be charging them. At the very least she hoped they would spread good news about her dojo.
She found herself standing in the middle of the bathroom musing, and forced herself to focus on the details. Kentaro had a small but adequate tub, although Ranma decided she couldn't afford the luxury of a bath this morning. There was a shower area with a stool, and Ranma was pleased to note that there was both soap and shampoo. She hung her towel up on a towel rack, sat on the stool, picked up the hand-held shower nozzle, and twisted the water knob.
The hot water hit Ranma squarely in the face and chest. He gasped and quickly got through the business of wetting himself thoroughly. Washing his hair and body was done relatively quickly, but he spent longer than usual rinsing himself off. The water running over his body felt good, and his mind drifted, thinking again of the future he had chosen for himself.
An indrawn breath made Ranma open his eyes and look up. Kentaro stood in the doorway, his face curiously blank. Nevertheless Ranma found himself smiling widely. "Yo."
"Good morning. Ranma." Kentaro's smile was slightly forced.
Ranma put two and two together and found himself chuckling. "Did you come in here expecting to join me in a romantic little shower? Or soak in the tub?"
Kentaro reddened slightly but his smile relaxed into self-deprecation. "I guess I haven't quite... adjusted to the reality of your curse."
Turning off the shower, Ranma stood up. He was still shorter than Kentaro, but not by much. "Well, get used to it. I plan to keep myself well-cleansed, y'know."
"I know." Kentaro, Ranma was amused to notice, was keeping his eyes rigidly locked on Ranma's face. "It's just... well..."
"Enough." Ranma smiled wickedly. "Come here and give me a hug."
Kentaro hesitated briefly. Then he walked over, somewhat mechanically, raising his arms to embrace Ranma.
Ranma stiff-armed him, keeping his hand on the center of Kentaro's chest. "Okay, you pass the test. I was teasing you because I find this awkward, too. I think it'll make things easier on both of us if we... refrain from being this way too often."
"Which way?" Kentaro sounded relieved and amused. "Two naked men touching each other?"
"Yeah." Ranma snatched his hand away, suppressing a shudder.
Kentaro chuckled. "All right. I have to admit, I'm not eager to repeat that experience."
"Good." Ranma turned around, turned on the shower again, not twisting the knob too far. The water was cold and, bracing himself, Ranma doused himself quickly. Gasping, Ranma quickly turned off the shower, reached behind Kentaro, grabbed her towel and began drying herself off.
Kentaro, she noticed, now had no problem with roving eyes. She smiled up at him. "Okay, all yours. I'm gonna get ready to leave, there's a train leaving in fifteen minutes."
"All right." Kentaro reached out with his arms again and this time Ranma allowed him to embrace her. They kissed, and Ranma found her passion matched his. It was good like this. She could stay here forever, like this, with him.
Ranma forced him off of her. "Knock it off, I gotta get going."
"I know." Kentaro's smiled faded slightly. "And... please, can we stop with the tests? I think I've passed enough already."
"Maybe you have." Ranma sighed. "I'm sorry. Right now I'm just trying to figure out what the limits are. I don't know, so I was testing myself as much as you."
"I understand. This isn't a situation you come across every day." Kentaro smiled, reached out to stroke her cheek. "But we have time, now. The whole rest of our lives. We'll find those limits together."
Ranma, almost despite herself, found herself rather enjoying the feeling of his fingers on her face and the corny statements of love. Kentaro was good with these little intimacies, when she would allow them. And with that thought came another, almost frightening in its clarity, that she would never forbid him those intimacies again.
Ranma reached up, cupped his cheek briefly, then turned away. Even as she left the bathroom she could still feel his presence, his look, his feelings.
Quickly she got dressed. She really did need to hurry if she was going to catch the early train. Ranma patted her pockets, grabbed her mostly-empty backpack, and ran out the door. She didn't quite go at a dead run but was still there in plenty of time. A crowd of people were waiting on the platform, and Ranma found a spot to wait and recover from the light exercise.
As she did, she felt eyes staring at her. A man, about six feet away, was looking at her quite frankly. Ranma looked back at him. She had almost forgotten about the roving eyes of strangers, eyes that didn't look twice at her when she was male. One blessed relief of resuming her male form had been the absence of ogling. Now that she was traveling about in public, she would have to subject herself to this again.
And yet, Ranma thought as she and the man continued to look at each other, she didn't have to. She could have just stayed male for the ride over.
Perhaps because that was true, though, the ogling wasn't bothering her as much. Ranma watched the increasing interest in the man's face and realized that what had surprised her the most was that it wasn't nearly as irritating as it had been. Perhaps because such ogling had been a painful reminder of what she'd once had and lost. Now, knowing that she could put such stuff behind her, she didn't need to.
But it still did bother her a little. The train arrived and Ranma waited until the man, with great reluctance, entered a car, then she got into a different car. She found a seat and sighed heavily. No matter how much she tried to work things out there would always be things she still needed to deal with, externally and internally. Ranma spent a few minutes in deep melancholy, wondering when if ever she would find a safe and contented point in her life.
Three-hour solo train rides were every bit as boring as she'd expected. Ranma watched the people around her, most of whom were reading manga or newspapers or books. Reading had never been high on Ranma's list of leisure activities but it might be necessary. There was little else to do. She could do some very basic martial arts exercises but that would draw attention and not really be helpful.
Ranma looked inside her backpack for things to do. All it contained was her wallet and the train schedule. Not even a notebook. Now that she was no longer in college, the number of things she carried around had dropped significantly. She should probably get a notebook to write in. Or a computer. Ranma smiled fleetingly; that would cost a lot more money than she could afford right now.
Money. Separate the accounts, Nabiki's suggestion a good idea. Ranma wished she could talk to her. Cell phone, she would definitely need to get a cell phone. They were expensive but if she was going to be constantly commuting she'd need a way to keep in touch.
The time went surprisingly quickly as Ranma thought over the details of setting up the business side of the dojo. Still, she was quite relieved when the Nerima stop pulled into view. Ranma almost ran off the train, eager to get back to the Tendo home.
She pulled open the gate and ran into the house. Ranma kicked off her shoes and walked quickly down the hallway towards the phone, looking for Nabiki.
She skidded to a half halfway down. Her mother had heard her enter and was looking into the hallway from the kitchen. Her expression was closed, a good impression of the old man, actually. Ranma suddenly felt embarrassed and guilty, her female form suddenly feeling wrong. Swallowing, Ranma forced out an unsteady, "Hello, Mother."
"Greetings, Son." Mother looked Ranma up and down, then went back into the kitchen without saying anything else.
With as much trepidation as she'd felt approaching Kentaro's apartment, Ranma forced herself down the hall. All her plans flew out of her head, as she realized that she'd conceived of them all in an effort to avoid thinking about the real reason why she'd needed to come here: to tell her mother what she had decided.
Ranma entered the kitchen slowly. It looked as if lunch had just been eaten and her mother was cleaning up afterwards. The sink was full of soapy water and soaking dishes. Mother was currently rinsing off a plate. Ranma, feeling extremely awkward, looked around until she saw a clean towel, grabbed it and took the plate from her mother. She dried it off and put it away. This wasn't the most efficient way of doing things but Mother seemed to be taking an inordinate amount of time washing each dish.
"So," Mother finally said after spending ten minutes washing three plates, "I suppose this means you've given up your manliness."
Ranma clenched her jaw. She wiped the plate dry viciously, then put it on the counter. "I can still be a guy whenever I want. I'll still be as 'manly' as ever."
"But you will not live as a man."
"I'm gonna live as me. And this is who I am as much as anything else." Ranma grabbed a clean teacup her mother was endlessly rinsing and attacked it with gusto.
Mother just stood there, her hands surrounding the stream of water pouring from the faucet. "It is not who you were born to be. It is not what your father and I wished for you. I have tried to explain how much we've sacrificed to make you the man you became. Can you not make this one sacrifice in return?"
Ranma finished drying the cup, then put it and the plate away. When Mother still failed to wash any more dishes, Ranma leaned with her back to the counter, her arms folded, one hand still clutching a towel. "I don't think you're in much of a position to ask this of me. You let Dad take me away and had nothing to do with whatever man I became. And then suddenly you come crashing back into my life and talking about family obligations. It don't wash, Mom."
"Trust me, Son." Mother's voice was strained. "Your life would not have been very pleasant in a household both your father and I shared. When I sent you away, I did it because it was... I thought it was the best thing for you."
Ranma quailed slightly but stood her ground. "So are you saying that leaving the person I love is the best thing for me?"
"I'm saying that it's time you gave something back to the family," Mother snapped. "Live life as the man your father and I dreamed of. You can find happiness in that kind of life, too, I know you can."
Ranma grimaced; they were going around in circles. Again. "Y'know, Akane told me something interesting that first day when she came to take me back here. She told me that she dated guys for years but couldn't find anyone that satisfied her. Then there's you and Dad, whose marriage was so horrible that you sent me away to keep me from being exposed to it. It makes me think that finding someone you really love is kind of rare, and that if you do find someone you should hang on to them. So I think that's what I'm gonna do."
"Love is... nice." Mother cupped her hands under the water, letting it overflow and spill around them. "I want you to have love, Son. I just... don't think this will be your only opportunity."
"Maybe. But Mom... this isn't a numbers game. I don't want do dump him on the statistical chance I'll find someone else."
"Even for me?" Mother bent down, looked more closely at the water in her hands. "Even for your mother?"
It was the single most powerful thing she could have asked. Ranma felt her heart shriveling up even as she spoke the words. "I love him, Mom."
The words fell flat, the sound of water splashing filling the air. Mother sighed and uncupped her hands, the water in them draining away. "All right, Son. I see that I will not be able to change your mind. I hope you understand the consequences."
Ranma cringed inwardly. "I... uh, tell me."
"That, I think, is something you will have to figure out for yourself. In a way, I pray you never do." Mother left the rest of the dishes in the sink and began walking out of the kitchen.
"Mom!" Ranma was surprised at the urgency in her voice, and tried to calm herself. "I was thinking that Saturday we could have dinner at your house. You and Dad and me and Kentaro."
Mother stopped in the doorway. "Are you trying to break me? You keep pushing and pushing."
"Only fair, considering how much all of you have been trying to push me." Ranma snapped her mouth closed to keep it from saying anything else mean. When the irritation passed, she continued, "I want us to be friends, Mom. Twenty years of having no mother, that wasn't... I mean... I always wanted to have one. I want to have one now. I love you, Mom."
Her mother stood in the door, her back still towards Ranma. "You barely know me, I've apparently made your life miserable these past few weeks, and somehow you love me? Even though I'm a stranger?"
"Yeah," Ranma said musingly. "Family's funny that way, huh?"
"Yes. I suppose it is." Mother left the kitchen, leaving behind her the echoes of, "I love you too, Son."
Ranma massaged her face with the heels of her hands. Somehow, that had been even more difficult than she'd imagined. And yet, it hadn't ended quite as badly as she'd feared. There was hope, something to build on. Ranma fervently hoped whatever budding family ties they had established would be allowed to grow stronger.
With effort, Ranma focused on some more immediate tasks. The phone in the hallway beckoned, but first she went to the sink to finish what her mother had started.
The train pulling up to the station was a mild surprise. Ranma glanced around, making certain that this was indeed her stop. She glanced down at her newly-purchased notebook which contained the vaguest outlines of lesson plans. It was almost against her nature to plan things in such details - Ranma specialized in making up lessons on the spot - but if she was going to be teaching multiple classes of varying skill levels, she'd need some way to keep track of their progress. This very basic change in her approach to teaching martial arts had led to another bout of melancholy, where she stared out the window and thought - again - about everything that had happened to her.
Quickly she shoved the notebook into her backpack and stepped out of the train. She began the walk to Kentaro's apartment, suddenly glad that it was located very close to the station.
Kentaro's apartment. She wondered if she would ever think of it as her apartment, too. If she'd ever think of it as home.
Ranma walked up to the door and realized that one thing she had completely forgotten about was getting a key from Kentaro. She hesitated to knock because it was quite late and she didn't want to disturb him if he was sleeping. Ranma tried the door and to her surprise it opened. Either he was careless or he had left it open just for her. Ranma smiled slightly to herself, pretty certain it was the latter.
She entered quietly. The living room was dark but she could see light coming from the open bedroom door. Her smile widened slightly and she stepped out of her shoes and set the backpack next to them. The bathroom connected both living room and bedroom and she stopped there first, noting that Kentaro had laid out the tank top and boxer shorts she normally wore to bed. Ranma shook her head, still smiling, wondering how long he would be this solicitous. It would be interesting to find out.
A few minutes later Ranma entered the bedroom. Kentaro looked over from where he sat propped up in the bed, a textbook in front of him. Ranma laughed again. "Poor guy. I'm so glad I don't have to study any more."
Kentaro smiled back. "While unpacking your things, I came across a couple of your college textbooks that you felt necessary to bring with you."
"I said I don't have to. If I choose to do it, well, that's another thing."
"Choice." Kentaro sighed. "That's what this whole thing has been about from the first day I met you. About letting you choose."
"Well, yeah." Ranma walked over to the bed, searching herself for signs of trepidation and, thankfully, not finding any. "Another way to put it is that this has been all about dealing with the choices that were forced upon me."
Kentaro had the sense not to reply. Ranma climbed underneath the sheets and found herself reaching out and hugging Kentaro fiercely. To hell with the fact that it might make her look weak, she needed this right now.
Awkwardly Kentaro closed the textbook and set it on the crate that was substituting for a bedside table. He put his arms around her, gently holding her. "That bad?"
"I don't know. I really don't want to think about it, I'm too exhausted. Right now I just want to relax."
"All right. You know I'm here if you ever need to talk about it." He reached up one hand and turned off the lamp, plunging the room into a gloom that was lit only by the lights of the city streaming through the window.
Ranma let her mind unwind, finding that being here, with Kentaro, was about the best feeling she had ever had. It almost made all the struggles she'd gone through to get here worthwhile. Almost.
A small sigh escaped her lips. Kentaro stirred slightly in response. "What is it?" he asked softly.
Ranma shrugged. "I'm just... wondering when it will all end. When will I finally be at peace with... with what's happened to me and what I've decided."
"I don't know. But I rather suspect it won't happen in your lifetime."
Ranma frowned. "Is that a joke?"
"No." Kentaro squeezed her for a moment. "I just don't think anyone is ever truly at peace. There is always something. Happily ever after is a fairy tale; real life has a nasty habit of continuing to throw problems your way and having them linger beyond all reasonable limits. Your problems are more... unique than most people's. But the fact that you have problems that won't neatly resolve themselves doesn't make you especially different."
While the insight wasn't extraordinary, it did make Ranma think. Mother was having to make some significant adjustments, including reacquainting herself with her husband and child. Akane had built a fantasy for herself of a perfect life with a perfect husband and would now have to reassess her immediate goals. Dad had lost his heir and had to deal with the fact that the Saotome name would die with him.
Her frown did not diminish. "Seems to me the only one who came out a big winner in this whole mess is you. What lingering problems do you have?"
"Well, how about a potential mother-in-law that despises me. Your entire family is made uncomfortable by my mere presence. My mother is quite unhappy that I elected not to come back to Okinawa for medical school and will be even more unhappy to learn that I will not be moving there permanently. Plus..."
Kentaro squirmed for a moment before continuing. "All along I have thought of you as a woman with a strange fixation. To find that you were truly born a man... I discovered that I, too, have a kind of homophobia. When I walked in on you while you were taking a shower, I felt suddenly nauseous. I haven't quite... gotten my mind wrapped around the concept that you are a man who has chosen to take the form of a woman. That shouldn't bother me, but it does."
Well, talk about asking questions you didn't want to know the answer to. Ranma fought a sudden urge to fling him away. "So... you find it difficult... being with me?"
"God, Ranma, no." He moved one hand until it was lightly stroking her hair. "I love you. A lot. A frightening amount, actually. If you must know, the worst problem I still am dealing with is the fear that I'll never be what you need. I know the struggles you go through just to be with me. I live every day deathly afraid that I'll say or do one wrong thing and you'll be forever lost to me."
"Dammit, Kentaro-" Ranma cut herself short, remembering the teasing test she had given him in the bathroom this morning. Maybe he had some basis for this particular fear. "Listen, think of it this way. I have gone to hell and back to be with you. I'm not about to toss you aside over some little thing. I wouldn't have bothered if you'd meant that little to me."
"I know. Intellectually, I know. But I don't quite feel that yet. That's why I was waiting up for you. For a while, I just need to be with you as much as possible."
"I... feel the same." Ranma swallowed as raw emotion washed over her. "I need this, too. Just us, together."
They held each other in silence for a while. Then Kentaro moved his head, getting it into a position where if she turned her head a little they would be face to face. She knew what he was doing, what he wanted. She wondered if she'd ever want to, too. Another thing that she hadn't quite worked out yet.
But it was something they did together, something they each took pleasure in, and that alone made it worthwhile.
Ranma turned her head and started kissing Kentaro. He responded, and soon she found herself reveling in the joy of loving someone and knowing that she would keep on loving him for a long time to come.
Akane stared out the window of her old bedroom. Tomorrow she'd finally move out and back to her apartment. She'd done what she could, for her family and for Ranma, and now it was time to pick up the threads of her own life and begin again. Tonight, though, she allowed herself one last wallowing into depression. What she'd done, what she'd lost, the squandered opportunities of years past, the painful acceptance of certain current realities. There were plenty of things to think about to keep herself awake and miserable.
For tonight. Tonight only, then tomorrow put it all behind her. And she was pretty certain she could do that, because while she was feeling bad right now, it wasn't a deep, sharp pain. It was more of a general dull ache that was easily endured. So it was with dry eyes and an expressionless face that she stared down at the pond in the yard.
A movement caught her eye. A woman was moving towards the pond. She stopped at the edge, looking down at it.
On an impulse, Akane left her room and walked downstairs and outside. She walked up next to the figure, and said in a quiet voice, "Good evening, Saotome-san."
"Akane." Nodoka's voice was flat but not really unfriendly.
The water was as dark as the night. Akane looked into it. "Strange to think how active this pond was. Ranma seemed to fall into it every day. It seemed to be one of the primary goals of his morning battles with his father: who would be able to throw the other into the pond first. After Herb, it all stopped."
"I wish I had been there. I wish I had... seen what Ranma was like when he was happy as a man." Nodoka reached over, rested her hand on Akane's shoulder without turning her gaze from the pond. "I would have liked to have seen the two of you together."
Akane chuckled. "It wasn't necessarily pleasant. We fought a lot. We made each other so angry. Looking back, it's easy to see it as just us resisting what we both really wanted because we were being forced into it."
"Forced." Nodoka said the word slowly, thoughtfully. "And Ranma didn't like being forced."
"No. If we can take any comfort from everything that's happened this past couple of months, we at least know that Ranma will never be pressured into doing anything he doesn't want to do. He's a strong, independent person."
"Ah." Nodoka clasped her hands in front of her. "I don't know if you can really understand this, Akane. But the way I was raised, those were not admirable traits. Duty to one's family was always the most important thing, other than duty to the emperor of course. To even consider doing anything besides what the family wished was considered abhorrent, unthinkable."
Akane turned her head to look at Nodoka. A woman who always wore kimonos, who always spoke in a formal, reserved manner, who carried a sword strapped to her back to enforce matters of honor. She was the very image of a samurai wife. Akane just now began to realize what exactly that meant.
"Does that mean," Akane found herself saying, "that even if it made you feel miserable for the rest of your life, you did what the family required?"
"Yes," Nodoka said softly. "It meant exactly that. Duty and honor above all else."
"Is..." The audacity of the question temporarily choked Akane, but she still managed to get the question out. "Is that why you're so unhappy?"
Nodoka did not reply. Akane bowed her head, feeling ashamed for pressing this matter. She wasn't even sure why she was doing it.
"I was... required to marry into a family that could trace its lineage back a thousand years, that had a proud samurai name." Nodoka's voice was very quiet and Akane had to strain to make it out. "The man I married had little interest himself in women or marriage. Martial arts was the focus of his entire existence. After the marriage I did some research into the Saotome heritage and found that quite a lot of it was fictitious, and I was unable to verify anything beyond five generations. But it was my family, my name, and now it was my duty to see that it continued to survive."
Nodoka looked over at Akane. "That was why I was quite relieved when your father made the arrangement with my husband. The Tendo name may not have a thousand-year heritage but it is honorable. I very much wanted there to be honor again in the family."
Akane felt herself feeling, for the first time, that perhaps Nodoka had lost much more than Akane had. "If it helps, I believe Ranma will continue the Tendo heritage with honor. And Kentaro seems quite honorable himself. I think they will set a fine example for the family."
"That is the only reason I have... allowed this to happen." Nodoka looked down at the pond again. "If the only way I can restore honor to the family is to have my son be adopted into another family and marry a... person who also exhibits honorable traits, then I will allow it to happen. The alternatives are even less desirable."
"I... I think I know what you mean. I feel it myself. I had a lot of unpleasant choices and the only way where Ranma and I could remain friends is if I gave up ever having his love." Akane winced slightly, the pain becoming momentarily sharp. "Something that has comforted me and might help you. Ranma has found a way to maintain honor and at the same time be happy. That's a wonderful thing, and I feel happy for him. Being honorable doesn't have to mean being miserable, too."
"Doesn't it." It was not a question.
Akane had no answer to that, and instead just stared down into the pond.
Finally Nodoka stirred. "If it means anything, I would have enjoyed having you as a daughter-in-law."
Akane bowed slightly. "Thank you, Saotome-san."
Nodoka sat quickly and easily on her haunches, bringing herself closer to the water. "If I were to fall in, would I change?"
"Change?" Akane smiled slightly. "Not unless you've visited Jusenkyo."
"Perhaps I should go visit," Nodoka said softly. "Perhaps then I could change into someone who would not feel so... unsettled by the choices her child has made."
Akane squatted next to Nodoka, also looking into the pond. "Maybe we should learn from Ranma. Maybe he, alone of anyone else who's a student of the School of Indiscriminate Grappling, has finally come to understand the core precept. And that is to change himself. To fully and completely adapt to any situation he finds himself in. To alter very fundamental things about himself while still retaining everything he is. To become someone different in a way that has nothing whatsoever to do with Jusenkyo."
Nodoka trailed her hand in the water, scooping some of it up and letting it splash down. "An interesting point. I shall have to discuss some more of the school's teachings with my husband. Perhaps I can find greater understanding there."
She stood and turned away from the pond. Akane found herself saying, "And maybe some acceptance as well?"
"Acceptance," Nodoka breathed. "If only it could be so simple."
"It could be." Akane rose as well. "If only you'll allow yourself to change."
"If only." Nodoka bowed her head, then walked away.
Akane looked back down at the pool. If only. Those two words had defined her world recently as well. But she could have a future that went beyond that if she could only follow the advice she'd just given to a woman twenty years her senior.
Just fall in and change.
Grinning, Akane pinched her nose shut, closed her eyes, and jumped, waiting for the change.
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