Part II : Felt Yet Unspoken

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Akane sat at her desk, completely ignoring the history book she had propped up in front of her. Her mind was raging. Raging at the same person it was always raging at.

"Idiot," she mumbled to herself. Ranma could be such a loser sometimes. He had pulled off that silly and dangerous stunt with his father this morning. What's worse, he didn't even seem to understand why it was silly and dangerous.

Then, later, she had stepped between him and Tatewaki when the latter seemed bent on beating Ranma to a pulp. She had shouted at Tatewaki to put away his toy sword and leave her and Ranma alone. After Tatewaki had gone away, she'd looked down at Ranma, who had seemed to be pretty shaken up. When she'd asked if he was okay and tried to help him up, he'd pushed her away and ran off. The jerk didn't even care about her.

To her disgust, she had covered up for him with Hinako-sensei, saying that Ranma had fallen unexpectedly sick and had run home. Akane wasn't sure how much Hinkao-sensei believed, but she had not pursued the matter. Still, it made Akane feel strange to cover up for Ranma when he continued to treat her offers for help like insults.

Then, on the way home, Nabiki had filled Akane in on Ranma's stupid comments in the kitchen. His sheer insensitivity had driven Akane into a rage. He was such a moron, he couldn't see beyond the end of his nose.

Akane stared at the words in her history book, seeing Ranma's face in them. Why he drove her to such rages was a mystery to her. Whenever he seemed to be behaving almost decently, he'd open his mouth and stick his foot into it as far as he could.

Yet, sometimes, he could be so nice. She remembered walking through the Higo Forest with Ranma after they had left Shinnosuke. He had, all by himself and without coercion, reached back and taken her hand. She remembered how good that had made her feel. He had a strong grip, too, and a very nice body, muscular without being overbuilt, and eyes that you could drown yourself in....

He also had an ego the size of a small planet. For some reason, he considered admitting his affection for her an act of weakness. She wanted to be nice to him, to admit how much he meant to her. She had given him many opportunities to let his guard down so that they could talk freely about their feelings, and he had botched it every time, often insulting her in the process.

Maybe he didn't like her. She thought he did, but maybe she was hoping too much, projecting too much of what she wanted to see in him.

And yet, there had been the battle at Jusendo, where she had heard Ranma admit that he wanted to say "I love you" to her. But just before their wedding, when she gave him yet another opportunity to open up, he'd backed down, telling her that he hadn't actually said that he loved her. That had hurt her terribly. Maybe, her fears kept whispering to her, Ranma had just been suffering form the effects of a difficult battle with Saffron and the shock of Akane's apparent death. Maybe he had just been over-reacting, saying things he hadn't really meant.

Akane gritted her teeth. She wanted to like him and all he gave her were reasons to hate him. Today had been one example after another of why she should give up on Ranma. He was insensitive, he was self-centered, and most of all, he pushed her away when she wanted to get closer.

Akane had had enough. Just wait until she saw him next. She wasn't sure if this time she intended to scream into his face or beat him into a pulp herself. She figured she would just let the moment play itself out.

Unfortunately, Auntie Saotome was here today. Akane couldn't very well beat on Ranma with his mother present. Auntie seemed very taken with Akane, always encouraging her to further her relationship with Ranma. At the same time, Akane sometimes felt a fleeting coldness from Ranma's mother that belied her friendly smile. Akane wasn't sure where that came from, and it bothered her deeply.

Akane slammed the book closed and threw it on the bed. It was all just too much. Damn Ranma anyway for coming into her life. She'd been much happier before he'd ever set foot in her house. Damn her father and Uncle Saotome for arranging this stupid engagement. She should have been the one to inherit the dojo; she should have been the one that protected the family from danger. Why didn't Ranma go back and live with his mother and leave her and her family alone?

Something tapped against her door. She stood still, listening. After a moment, she heard two slightly harder raps on her door. She could guess who it was. Akane smiled an evil grin; she could beat up on Ranma in the privacy of her room. She turned to face the door, hands on her hips. "Come in."

The door slowly opened and Ranma came in.

The smile disappeared from Akane's face. Ranma looked more wretched and depressed than she had ever seen him. He couldn't even look her in the eye, instead staring morosely at the floor. He closed the door behind him and leaned against it, hands behind his back, the picture of unhappiness.

All of Akane's rage left her in an instant. Something had happened to Ranma. He was hurting and needed help; right now, that was all that mattered to Akane. "Ranma, what's wrong?" she asked, her voice echoing the worry and concern she felt.

Ranma looked up at her, his eyes full of misery. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He closed it and hung his head again.

Akane went over and pulled on his arm. "Come over here." She guided him to her bed and had him sit on it. She pulled up her desk chair and sat directly in front of him, their knees almost touching.

Ranma continued to hang his head. Akane leaned forward and put her head below his, turning it sideways so he could see her eyes. He looked at her for a long moment, then slowly lifted his head. She leaned back at the same time. Their eyes never left each other.

Akane was quivering inside. This was very, very serious. She made the best effort she could to set aside her anger and clear her head. She needed to be very alert and responsive right now, needed to be able to think quickly and well. For once, her martial arts training could be put to good use: she could shut out the rest of the world and focus on the battle before her. Well, not exactly a battle, but it helped her to approach this problem as if it were one. Please, she begged herself, don't lose your concentration now.

She drew a breath, and tried to put some force into her words. "Tell me, Ranma."

Slowly, painfully, Ranma began his tale. It started with stuff Akane already knew, such as the scene in the kitchen and the fight at school. He continued by telling her about the hours he spent sitting in the canal, thinking; his attempt to talk to his father; his mother joining the conversation.

Here he stopped. She could see that he was shaking, the emotional impact of what he was about to say affecting him as Akane had never seen anything else affect him before.

This was the first critical point in the battle. Critical to what, she didn't want to think about right now. All she wanted to do was make Ranma feel better, to encourage him to continue telling her what was afflicting him.

Akane cast about her memories, trying to figure out what to do. Kasumi would know what to do; if only she were here. A memory came to her, a time when she had been very young and had fallen down and hurt her elbow. Kasumi had bandaged it and then bent down to take a hold of Akane's hands, comforting her. Akane remembered that this seemed to help. She reached over and grasped Ranma's hands in hers, not taking her eyes away from his.

Ranma took a deep breath and continued telling her about the day's events. His mother, telling him that he was losing on purpose. Telling him that his father was a child, who became a panda to run away from the world. His mother, telling him to become a good person before it was too late.

Then upstairs with Nabiki, eavesdropping as Ranma discovered bitterness between his parents he never knew existed. His mother calling him immature. His mother talking about how she discovered that Ranma would rather stay in the Tendo house than with her, the hurt of this discovery evident in her voice. The obsession his mother felt, the feeling he got that getting Ranma married was the only way his mother would feel her life had been redeemed.

Ranma stopped for a while, and his eyes began to glisten. And then, the words came out of him as if he couldn't stop. "I'm a bad guy, Akane. I bully people and say bad things about them. I don't give anyone any respect; I'd rather punch them than be nice to them. I call you uncute and make fun of you and fight with you all the time, and I don't care if you get hurt while I'm doing it. I insult my father and make my mother feel unloved. Nothing matters to me other than my stupid martial arts, and what does that get me? Trouble with princes, monsters, and curses." Again, he hung his head. "I don't do nothing but hurt people. My life ain't worth nothing."

Akane's heart pounded in her chest. A feeling came over her, almost overwhelming in its intensity, the sense that what she did here and now, at this exact moment, would affect the rest of her life, and Ranma's too. She needed to say the right thing, or Ranma might never recover. He had, at last, opened himself up to her, something she had fantasized about but had almost given up on actually occurring. He was as vulnerable, emotionally, as he would ever allow himself to be. If she didn't give him the answers he needed, he might never give her another chance. He'd go back to the old, closed up Ranma, and Akane would never forgive herself.

The only problem was that Akane had absolutely no idea what to say. She could break bricks with her bare hands, she could sew (after a fashion) and she could cook (even if no one else thought she could), but nothing she had ever done had prepared her for this moment. She was terrified of letting this chance pass her by, and she could feel herself beginning to panic.

She thought back, trying to recall similar circumstances. The only thing that seemed to compare with Ranma's current suffering was Akane's reaction to her mother's death. She had been very young and had spent the first few months denying that it had happened, that Mother would be coming back from whatever vacation she had decided to take. Kasumi had been patient with her and had worked with her over time, gently forcing her to realize that Mother was never coming back, that it was not good for the rest of the family for Akane to insist that Mother was still alive. And it had finally worked; Akane had finally accepted, deep down, that Mother was gone forever. Fortunately, the rest of the family was still there, and she had drawn strength from them.

Unfortunately, she didn't have months to deal with Ranma's pain; she wasn't sure if she had minutes. She needed something now, and she couldn't give him what Kasumi had given her.

Akane's thoughts froze on that. What had Kasumi given her? Patience, understanding, a gentle but firm guidance through a difficult time.

In short, love.

Akane drew a shuddering breath. She knew, now, what she had to do.

She released Ranma's hands. She reached up to cup her hands under Ranma's jaw and gently lift his head.

She stared into his eyes for a second, her whole being shaking with the force of her emotions, hoping Ranma could see how she felt.

Then she leaned forward and kissed him.

She pressed her lips softly against his, parting her lips slightly, breathing in his fragrance.

She felt Ranma go rigid. She continued kissing him, willing him to relax. Please Ranma, she thought to herself, don't resist your feelings. This once, don't run from yourself. Trust me, trust your mother. This is good, this is right, let it happen.

Slowly, he did. Something drained away from him and left his body limp. He leaned into her, finally kissing her back. She removed her hands from his face and reached around behind him to grasp his shoulders. He put his hands around her waist and held her tightly.

The kiss seemed to go on forever. Akane didn't want it to stop. Here was her whole life, encapsulated in this moment.

Their positioning was awkward, though, and Akane began to feel her back protest about the uncomfortable way it was being bent. Ranma's head was twisted at an awkward angle; he too had to be feeling a strain. So the moment passed, much to her regret. With tremendous reluctance, she began to pull away. Ranma seemed unwilling to let it end also, but he too leaned back. They continued to hold each other. Akane looked up into Ranma's eyes, smiling with him.

She got up out of her chair and sat on the bed next to him. She wrapped her arms around his waist and rested her head on his chest. He put his arm along her back, his hand gripping her waist. She could hear his heart pounding, and wondered if it had beat this fast during his fight with Saffron.

Somehow, she didn't think so.

She sighed, so full of happiness she couldn't contain it. Or terror; she couldn't distinguish between the two right now. She was still shaking a little under the impact of her emotions; Ranma seemed to feel it, and tightened his grip on her waist. Akane closed her eyes, savoring the feel of his body.

"Ranma, don't ever tell me again that you're worth nothing. You're...." She gulped, afraid to say the next words, afraid not to say them. "You're important. To me."

She stopped, trying to figure out what more to say. Her mind was racing so fast that half-completed thoughts fled her consciousness before she could grasp them. She needed to tell him more, needed him to understand more.

"You're not a bully, Ranma. I've never seen you attack anyone who didn't have the ability to defend themselves. Your father forced you to hide from your mother, but you eventually fought through the deception. You wanted to be open and honest with your mother, and she knows that. She saw how much you wanted her to know that you loved her."

Ranma stirred slightly but didn't say anything. Akane took that as a good sign, that her words were penetrating. She plunged on.

"As for martial arts being worth nothing, think of all the people you've helped. When that little girl came all the way from China to ask for your help, you dropped everything to go with her and help rescue her father. You fought for honor and life. You saved my life and, probably, the lives of all those people who live in Jusendo. That is not something a bad person does."

She stopped, hoping he'd accept this. She couldn't see his eyes, but she could almost feel him reject her argument. "I only went because the Nannichuan was threatened. I only cared about getting my curse lifted."

Anger stirred within Akane. Stupid blind idiot! She fought to control it; this was not the time to lash out at Ranma, no matter how tempted she was. Instead, she lifted her head from his chest and put her face in front of his, looking into his eyes. "Answer me truthfully, Ranma. If Plum hadn't been from Jusenkyo, if she had just been a little girl whose father had been kidnapped, would you have gone and helped her?"

Ranma looked at her, his focus moving from one of her eyes to the other and back. Finally, he took a deep breath. "Yes. Yes, I would have helped her."

Akane smiled. "See? You are a good person." Several images flashed through her mind, of Ranma doing various stupid things. "Sometimes" she amended. "You do bad things too, Ranma. So do I. No one's perfect. Not even Kasumi."

Ranma gave her a weak smile at this.

Good, Akane thought. He was listening, it was getting through. "The point is that you have to try to make up for the bad things you do, and look for opportunities to do good things."

He considered this for a moment, then smiled. Their faces were so close, she hoped...

He drew her into him, and Akane made a small sound as their lips found each other again.

They kissed for a long time, the position right this time. Akane began hoping that he would pull her down onto the bed; they would be more comfortable that way.

The thought of where that might lead was enough to snap her back to reality. She hastily pushed Ranma away from her. She put her hands on her lap and looked down at them, blushing furiously.

Ranma sounded irritated. "Whatcha do that for?"

Akane's emotions were in an uproar. She was feeling as much fear as desire; these were strange and scary things she and Ranma were doing. It was easy to convert it all into anger. Anger was never far from the surface in Akane, anyway. She cast about for something to be angry about; there was never a shortage of reasons to be angry at Ranma.

She latched onto the first thing that occurred to her, something she thought a lot about. "What about Shampoo and Ukyo and Kodachi? Are you going to do anything about them? Or are they going to destroy your home and our wedding over and over again until we all die of old age?"

Ranma scowled. "It ain't my fault..."

"It is your fault because you let it go on! When Shampoo discovered that stupid brooch and she didn't seem to like you anymore, did you let her go? No! You went and made sure that she would always be hanging on to you, because it pleases your stupid ego to have girls chasing after you!"

Ranma flinched, and a stricken look came over his face. His obvious guilt caused Akane's anger to cool down to a mild irritation. "Look, Ranma, I know that you don't force people to become infatuated with you. But you don't discourage them, either, at least not very well. I think if you tried hard enough, you could get them to stop coming after you."

Ranma looked confused; he obviously didn't know where to begin. He reached over and took her hand. "Akane, do... do you think you could maybe help me?"

Akane melted inside. Ranma needed her, had asked for her help. This made her feel good inside in a way that made kissing seem a foolish fancy. "Oh, Ranma...." She could feel the tears forming in her eyes. "I will always be here to help."

Ranma smile tenderly and reached over to brush her tears away. They stared at each other for another long moment. Akane knew that a threshold had been crossed here, and hoped that they would never lose the ground they had gained today.

Like Ranma's mother and father had.

That thought caused her to lose her smile. She wondered if Ranma's parents had ever felt this way, and what had happened to make them to fall out of love. She remembered, too, what Ranma had told her about his parent's conversation: if Uncle Saotome could help her and Ranma, then maybe there was hope for him and Auntie Saotome.

That gave her an idea. "Ranma, let's start with your father. Maybe he has some ideas about your other fiancees."

"Pop?" Ranma looked incredulous. "What could he possibly know that would help us at all?"

Akane smiled and put her other hand on his cheek. "Trust me."

Ranma smiled back. "Okay."

They kissed again, this time less desperately, more a reminder of what had happened than anything else. Akane stood up and pulled Ranma to her door, preparing to lead him downstairs to find his father.

There was a tremendous crash from next door in Nabiki's room. Akane and Ranma blinked at each other, then hurried into the hallway.

Nabiki's door was open. Inside could be heard voices: "Saotome-kun, get off me, you've landed on my knee." "I'd do it if you'd unwrap your arm from around my neck, Tendo." "Daddy, you're going to wreck my stereo, be careful." "Genma, Soun-san, if you will let me... lift your leg a little... that's it."

There was the sound of bodies shuffling, then Auntie Saotome backed out of Nabiki's room. She turned and looked at Ranma and Akane. A huge smile appeared on her face. "There you are! I am so happy for you two. When can we set the wedding date?"

Ranma looked embarrassed and angry. "Mom! You were listening, weren't you?"

Akane's father came through the door, tears streaming down his face. "Akane, my little girl, you've made your poor father so happy!" He gripped her shoulders and squeezed them affectionately before dissolving into sobs.

"So you finally found the guts to kiss her, eh, Ranma my boy? That's the spirit!" Ranma's father had a satisfied look on his face. "We'll make a man out of you yet."

Auntie Saotome gave a small laugh, and her eyes flicked over to her husband. "That's not what I meant, Genma," she chided gently, still smiling.

Ranma was getting more and more outraged by the moment. "You all were listening! Nabiki, this is your fault, isn't it! You promised!"

Nabiki had just entered the hallway, a smug look on her face. "I said I wouldn't dream of it, Ranma. The first time I have a dream about eavesdropping on you, you can have my apology."

Ranma seemed to swell, towering over her. "Man oh man, if you weren't a girl I would..."

"Now now, Ranma, don't crowd her like that, it isn't polite."

Ranma's jaw dropped open. "Kasumi?!"

Kasumi stepped daintily out of Nabiki's room, not looking the least bit embarrassed. "It's so good to see you and Akane getting along so well. Don't get too carried away, though, you're not married yet."

Akane knew that something should be happening to her blood pressure. She should be joining Ranma in yelling at everyone. Somehow, though, the fact that their families had overheard her and Ranma made it seem all the more real. It was set into everyone's minds, now, and neither she nor Ranma could pretend that it hadn't happened.

Seeing Ranma gape at Kasumi made Akane laugh. Nabiki started giggling, too, and it wasn't long before a bewildered Ranma was surrounded by laughter. He looked so lost that Akane, still laughing, reached over and took his hand. He looked down at her, blushing slightly at her very public display of affection. After looking into her eyes, though, Akane could see him set his embarrassment aside. He started laughing too, squeezing her hand under the cover of all the commotion.

Akane's spirits rose to new heights. They had a long way to go, she knew, before they got married or anything like that. Yet somehow she had never felt closer to being married, even on the day of their supposed wedding.

This, she supposed, was real love. Somehow they had neglected to say that word to each other.

Akane knew, though, that now it was only a matter of time.

Gripping her fiancee's hand, she smiled at her laughing family.

~*~

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