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Obligations: Chapter 4

 

Ryoga tossed another pebble into the pond. And watched the ripples. The girls were all inside the house, doing various things. He visualized Akane at her desk, chewing on her pen as she flipped the pages in her book. Ryoga sighed. It was a sight he'd spent many hours watching – as P-chan. He gripped the rock in his hand and let the dust fall out. 'I thought you'd noticed – he's Earth.' 'Earth would smother her.' Ryoga drew his knees to his chest and rested his chin on them, still staring at the pond. 'Earth smothers Fire.' 'Akane is Fire.' 'You are Earth.' 'Earth smothers Fire.' Smothers… A memory surfaced of when Shampoo had tricked them with the water-proof soap. 'What's the matter, Akane? What am I doing wrong?' "Earth smothers Fire." He lifted his head and looked at Akane's window. "Akane-san…"

Ranma came out of the house, a towel around his shoulders. "Hey, Ryoga. Should you be here? Out of form, I mean," he added hastily.

Ryoga looked up at him, "Air." He looked back at the water where his reflection was barely discernable between the ripples caused by the koi, "Earth."

"Oh yeah! Hey, that was really interesting stuff, wasn't it? She sure knows a lot." Ranma sat down next to him, "I never thought about it before, but when you think 'bout it, the old crone did teach you the 'breaking point,' and me the 'chestnut fists.' I mean you can't get any more Elemental than that! Talk about Earth and Air."

'Air will nurture Fire.' Ryoga turned to Ranma, "I hate you." The statement lacked his usual strength of feeling, but his attack didn't.

"Hey!" Ranma rolled back, avoiding the punches that were tearing up the ground. "All right, you!" He hadn't had a real fight for days, and grinned as he met Ryoga blow for blow.

 

Miyuki dropped the book she was reading as the voices and sounds of a fight came through the room. Nabiki stopped her leg exercises, "Don't they ever get tired of fighting?" Miyuki jumped up and hurried out the door. Nabiki quickly rolled off the bed and followed her, "It's okay, Miyuki – it's just a friend of Ranma's." Miyuki was half-way down the stairs and Nabiki shrugged. Akane walked out of her room, "What's up?" Nabiki gestured outside, "The fighting upset Miyuki." "Oh, honestly! Those two," Akane hefted a large mallet in her hand. She and Nabiki went down the stairs after Miyuki. Kasumi met them as they passed the kitchen on the way to the patio. There, they finally caught up with Miyuki. She was watching the boys, a hand raised to her mouth, eyes wide -- like a startled deer's.

Nabiki tried again, "It's okay, Miyuki – they're good friends, really. That's just how they play." Akane rolled her eyes. Nabiki shrugged.

Miyuki took her hand away from her mouth. "Ryoga-sama." She didn't speak loudly, but her soft voice carried through the yard on strength of emotion alone. There was joy, and happiness, and astonishment, and longing. All wrapped together in a single name.

The three sisters looked at her in stunned silence.

Not much got through to Ranma when he was fighting, but that voice did. He and Ryoga stopped moving in mid-air, heads swiveling around to see. Then they fell.

"Ahhh!"

Ryoga landed lightly on the rocks. Ranma landed in the middle of the pond. He stood up in girl-form, "I thought you said you didn't know her!"

"I don't." Ryoga was staring in shock at Miyuki, who grinned. She walked towards him, and he stood his ground. She stopped and reached a hand up to his headband, brushing away his hair falling over it. "Hibiki-sama. It is you."

Ranma sat down cross-legged on a rock, "It sure sounds like she knows you. I don't suppose you have a cousin with your same name?"

Ryoga glared at Ranma, "Oh shut up!"

Miyuki laughed, and stepped back. She took her intense focus off Ryoga and he silently breathed a sigh of relief – it had been making him feel… weird. Looking to Ranma, she remarked, "I'm not surpris'sed if he doesn't rem'member. We met for only a f'few hours, s'seven years ago."

"Seven years ago?" Nabiki sounded bored, "Miyuki – you were too young for that then."

Ryoga looked blank for a moment, then his face flushed beet red and he raised a hand to his nose. Miyuki laughed with delight at the sarcasm, "Nabiki!"

She turned back to Ryoga, her face settling into calm – as long as one didn't see her eyes. Ryoga did, and he lowered his hand, staring at the blue-green eyes that held so much emotion. She kept looking at him as she explained to the others, "Hibiki-sama saved my life."

"Uh…" Ryoga still didn't remember anything…

"It was a busy day in Harvest. All the ad'dults were out in the f'fields. Some of the idiot boys d'decided it would be fun to go bear-baiting."

"Bear-baiting?" Akane couldn't help interrupting as she puzzled out that statement.

Ranma was the one to explain, "Go out and find a bear and get it to chase you around."

Miyuki blinked, then looked at him with a grin. "Close enough." She returned her gaze to Ryoga, "In this ccc'ca', situation, they foun'nd a cub away from his m'mother."

"Oh." Ryoga suddenly remembered what she must be talking about. But he still didn't remember her, of all the villagers… There had been only one girl that stood out in that crowd…, and this wasn't her. Miki, with the short hair and gentle ways. His heart gave a familiar tug as he thought of the young girl. I'd thought she might be a friend… But it wasn't to be.

"The id'diots brought the cub back to the village. Momma b'bear wasn't too happy when s'she found her cub missing, and she c'came looking. Nearly all us ch'ch'… kids were gathered near the cub. She came t'tearing in, mad as hell. It was sure th'that at least a few of us would be mauled. Then y'yellow bands of light came whizzing though, driving her back. S'she roared, rearing up to stand over me, paw upraised to st'trike. Hibiki-sama appeared between us, k'knocking her back with such force that she le'eft the ground, to hit with a thud'd that shook the build'dings. But Hibiki-sama realized that it w'wasn't her fault't, to be att'tacking us so. He f'freed the cub, and the two left't the village, never to be s'seen…" Miyuki hesitated and changed her wording, "never to trouble us's again."

Ryoga stared at her, "That wasn't quite how it happened."

Miyuki shrugged, "In all that matt'tt' counts, it was." She grinned, "I didn't s'speak an untrue word."

"Well, no, but…" She didn't. Everything she said, happened. But... I wasn't that good... that heroic... Was I?

"Oh stop whining, Ryoga-kun, and just admit you were a hero," Nabiki leaned against the wall. Akane sat next to her, eyes wide. Kasumi stood behind her, a sigh on her lips.

Grinning, Miyuki added, "They threw a f'feast for him that night."

Ryoga grimaced, "They didn't still hold it, did they?"

"Huh?" Ranma stopped squeezing out his shirt to look at them.

"I told the Eld'ders you had somewh'here else to go."

"Oh Ryoga," Ranma blinked, "You didn't get lost, did you? On the way to your own feast?"

"Shut up, Ranma." But Ryoga sounded more weary than angry. Even after all these years, he was still upset and embarrassed by the incident.

Miyuki tilted her head to one side, looking at him. "When you lef'ft the hillside, after the rain had stttopped, you took the path'th for Tuskinero. I knew you wouldn't leav've unless it was imp'portant."

"Im…?" Ryoga remembered all his rage and frustration, as he'd walked and walked and walked, trying and trying to find his way back, and never getting anywhere close. He'd searched for weeks before he eventually gave up. "It wasn't important -- I got lost, damnit!" Then he blinked, his thoughts derailed by a sudden memory, "Wait a second… When I left… There was only one person on that hill with me." he faltered and fell silent as he looked at her and she looked back at him. "Miki? It can't be you." He took a step forward, and swept her long hair off her shoulders. He held his hands to the side of her face, bunching the hair in an attempt to make it as short as Akane's. The four watchers noticed the slight trembling of her body and the pinkness across her nose, but she didn't move. Ryoga stared at her. Nothing about her resembled the girl he had known. Nothing. Except… "Your eyes are the same." The blue-green eyes that looked at him with adoration and trust. The ones that said they believed. The joy of life that overflowed in them and made them sparkle. He remembered the girl as she stood between him and the bear, crying. He remembered the trembling hands that couldn't hold the key to unlock the cub. He remembered her in the summer rain, flushed with delight, grinning at him. "Miki? You've grown."

The blue-green eyes laughed at him, and he heard again the music. Now he remembered it and wondered how he'd missed remembering all thoughout the day. Miki... Friend... ?

"I c'certainly hope so! After s'seven years."

Her face moved in his hands and he was brought to an abrupt realization of just what he was doing – how close he was standing to her… Ryoga snatched his hands back and jumped back, his whole face turning red.

Miyuki stayed where she was, her grin transmuting to a gentle smile, "You've changed, too."

Yeah, I'm a pig now. Ryoga grimaced and looked away.

Miyuki blinked, "That's n'not—"

Ryoga did what he always did when confronted with an emotional scene: He ran away.

 

"Ryoga!" Ranma jumped up, prepared to follow his friend over the wall. A hand on his arm stopped him.

"Let h'him go." Miyuki smiled ruefully, "I d'did kindof sp'pring that on him." She watched the wall. "After all the'ese years… Hibiki-sama."

Akane was fuming, "That idiot! How dare he leave you like that! Why—"

Kasumi put a hand over Akane's mouth.

Ranma was still tensed to follow. Miyuki kept her hand where it was, "Do you r'really blame him? All h'his life, jus-t as he mak'kes a friend, his karma takes him away." She stared at the wall, her voice soft, "He really wanted a friend…" She looked between Ranma and Akane, "And now he's found two he can actually come back to. Between the Balance and the Flame, he'll al'lways be able to find you." Dropping her hand, she turned and walked back into the house. Kasumi followed her. Nabiki, Akane, and Ranma stood silently, eyes on the wall. And a friend who wasn't there.

 

The light outside the dojo blinked and sputtered. Ranma was used to it. Back in guy-form, he knelt in the middle of the dojo, the lights off, the crickets chirping all around.

The door slide open. "Ranma?"

"Over here, Akane."

Akane made her way though the dark and sat down next to him.

Ranma sighed, "I never thought it made much sense for him to be so mad about the stupid duel. Or the Bread-Feud. It was China. When we were in Junior High, we were friends. And I went off to China, leaving him." Without saying goodbye. "That's why he followed me. It wasn't the stupid duel." And why he looked so stunned when I didn't recognize him. I didn't know… He heard Ryoga's voice in his memory, 'Swarms of mosquitoes – without them, it's lonely.' Ranma shook his head, "Ryoga – even from you, that's depressing." Or maybe that should be, 'especially from you.' With you, it's not a joke.

Akane stirred.

Ranma half-grinned, "What?" Then he suddenly remembered, Uh oh… I just said he'd followed me, didn't I? Ah… Sorry, Ryoga! How do I get out of this one?

"I thought," her voice was hesitant, "you two fought all the time in Junior High."

He breathed a sigh of relief, she missed it, and answered the implied question, "Not… always. But really – how else do I know how to make friends?" With my dad's training… But Ryoga wasn't like him. He had good parents. Nice parents. But not many friends. In Junior High… we were both alone. And now? The picture came into his head of Akane holding P-chan close, and Ranma grimaced. Then frowned, recognizing more to that memory than he normally saw. Ryoga runs away from Akane as a human… and comes back as a pig? Huh. "Ryoga adapts to how people will accept him." Ryoga wants friends, and will adapt to how they need him. And he fights me to be my friend? What does that say about me?

After some moments of silence, Akane sighed and put her head on her knees. Ranma placed his arm around her shoulders. They stayed liked that, in the dark, for a long time.

"Where do you think he went?" Akane lifted her head.

Ranma shrugged, and moved his arm. It had been going numb. "A more appropriate question would be, when will he find his way back again? – The way he comes and goes."

"I do hope he comes back before Miyuki leaves. That would be horrible if she never saw him again." Or him, her… Oh, Ryoga-kun.

"Before she leaves?"

Akane looked around at the shock in Ranma's voice. His expression matched the voice and she grinned lightly, though with sympathy, "She's going to leave, you know. As soon as she finishes her errand with Kuno. Miyuki is not the type to stay in any one place for long." Akane looked at the altar, a dark shape in the dim light, and her voice was wistful, "I envy her the freedom."

Ranma bit back his automatic sarcasm. He returned his thoughts to the young girl who had become so much a part of his life that it was hard to believe he'd just met her the day before. Miyuki leave? She can't. She just can't. Imoto-san…

"It's amazing – she really loves Ryoga."

Akane's voice had so much disbelief in it, that Ranma was diverted, "Why is that so hard to believe?" And then he wished he hadn't asked it.

"Well," Akane turned slightly defensive, "I mean he's a good friend, and he's sweet and kind and usually gentle – always thoughtful… but Ryoga-kun? He's just not a guy one thinks of like that."

Ranma blinked. And blinked again. And decided he'd better take a cue from Ryoga and run away from this situation because it was getting a hell of a lot deeper than he wanted to go. He stood up, "I wonder how Miyuki is doing."

Akane stood up also and they both walked out of the dark dojo, both knowing that neither would talk, even to each other, about all that had been unsaid there. Not yet.

 

"Do over!" Mr. Tendo's voice was desperate.

Ranma and Akane turned the corner and stopped dead, staring at the unusual sight of Mr. Tendo and the panda sitting next to each other on the same side of the tile board. On the other side…

Miyuki shook her head, "This is t'the first g'game I've even'n come close to winning – and you've al'lready had thr'ree 'waits'!!!"

Mr. Tendo hung his head, and studied the board. The panda reached out to a tile – "No, not that one!" Mr. Tendo yelled. He fingered his chin, "If we were to…"

Kasumi walked over, followed by Nabiki, "Here's the hot water you wanted, Miyuki." Miyuki gestured at the panda, who was gesturing wildly at Mr. Tendo and producing signs that were written so badly that no one could read them. Kasumi smiled and poured the water over the panda's head. It took Mr. Saotome a minute to figure out that he was human again, and then he started shouting back at Mr. Tendo, "That's a lousy strategy! If we move there, then she'll just move her tile and get our main lead! It would be better…"

Nabiki shook her head, "Hey, Miyuki-chan. Kasumi said you wanted to see me?"

Miyuki gestured to the spot next to her. Nabiki sat down, but arched an eyebrow. Miyuki just grinned.

The shouting escalated. Then Mr. Tendo launched a blow at Mr. Saotome. Mr. Saotome ducked and returned a kick. Mr. Tendo blocked it and spun to deliver a side-kick, which Mr. Saotome evaded, all the time yelling out a possible strategy. The fight moved out to the courtyard. The three sisters and Ranma just stared at them.

"Good God – they're roughhousing." Akane had never seen her dad spar outside the dojo.

"They're not half-bad," Ranma was forced into admitting, barely able to keep up with the blows the two were trading.

"Ah," Nabiki turned to Miyuki, "So that's why you called me out." She grinned, "Thanks, Sis. This is definitely more amusing than English verb patterns."

Kasumi lowered her hand from her mouth, "Miyuki – you didn't do that deliberately?"

Miyuki shook her head, grinning, "Saw it coming. They're pret't'ty intense 'bout their game."

Taking his attention off the fight, Ranma wandered over to look at the tile board. He studied it for a moment, then moved one of the tiles.

"Damn!!!" Miyuki exclaimed, her eyebrows drawn in a frown, "I was hoping ttthey'd miss that move!" She looked up at Ranma, who was looking quite taken aback, and switched her frown to a grin.

Ranma watched her for a moment, then drew her further into the house, while the sisters were watching their dad. "Miyuki… Are you alright? Ryoga can be a bit of an ass at times."

"I'm fffine," Miyuki smiled at him, "How long have you known Hibiki-sama?"

Thinking he'd never get used to hearing Ryoga's name like that, Ranma didn't answer at first. "We met in Junior High – three years ago. But it's only been the last year that we've spent a lot of time together."

"Since you've sett'ttled with the Tendo's." Miyuki nodded, as if confirming something she'd suspected.

Ranma watched her, "Miyuki…" The smile she wore didn't seem to reach her eyes. And he thought they looked a bit shinier than normal. He reached out and gathered the younger girl in his arms. It took a moment, but Miyuki finally leaned into his embrace, burying her head in his chest, shivering and making little hiccuping sounds. Ranma thought it would be better if she actually cried, but she didn't. He held her close, offering his support in the only way he knew how.

Over on the patio, Kasumi's attention was diverted from the fight as she glanced towards the house, "Oh my," she sighed.

Nabiki looked at her, "What?"

"I guess I better get back to the laundry," Kasumi walked around the outside of the house.

Nabiki wore a skeptical expression on her face, "Humm." She looked around and noted who wasn't there anymore. Then she wandered quietly into the house, Akane following without knowing why. Nabiki halted in the room, looking into the hallway. Akane peered around her. Then both sisters moved back. Akane sighed, "Poor Miyuki. I knew she was more upset then she was letting on."

Nabiki looked at her sister, "Aren't you worried about this?"

"Worried? Well, of course. Miyuki's too young for this kind of disappointment – I could strangle Ryoga for running off that way."

"That's not what I meant."

Akane blinked, "Well… I know Ranma's worried about her – they're very close."

"That's what I meant."

Akane blinked again, "I'm suppose to be worried about Ranma being worried?"

Nabiki stomped her foot, "Imoto-chan, you're being more obtuse than normal – I meant about Ranma and Miyuki as a couple!"

"A couple???" Akane's voice went high, and she quieted herself with an effort. She glanced from the hallway to Nabiki, "You've got to be kidding! That's… That's… That's like…" she shook her head, "I can't even think of a word to describe it."

It was Nabiki's turn to look flabbergasted, "What are you talking about?"

Akane opened her mouth and closed it. Then she gestured Nabiki to follow her back into the hall. They hid on each side of the hall as they watched Ranma and Miyuki.

Miyuki stirred in Ranma's arms, her shivering having finally abated. Ranma moved his hands to her shoulders and looked down at her blue-green eyes, "Better?"

She nodded, "Th'thank you, Onii-san."

Upon hearing the affectionate term for 'brother,' Nabiki's mouth dropped open.

Ranma smiled, and hugged Miyuki, "I'm here if you need me, Mi-chan." They walked back out to the patio, Ranma with his arm around Miyuki's shoulders. Akane and Nabiki flattened themselves in their hiding spots, and Ranma never noticed, but Miyuki's head turned far enough to wink at Akane before they went out.

Nabiki moved over and stared after them, "Well, I'll be…" She turned to Akane, "How did you know?"

Akane shrugged, "It's not like she's his blood sister, but the connection was just there. It was obvious."

"'Obvious', she says." Nabiki wasn't used to having Akane notice something she hadn't. Her eyes narrowed as she regarded her sister. Then she shrugged. "I'm going back to my homework," and climbed the stairs to her room.

 


 
 

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