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Obligations: Chapter 13

 

Akane came back and sat down, breathing heavily, "That was fun!"

They all glanced out to the rocks were the panda was laying flat on the ground, a mallet resting on his chest as he held up a poorly written sign saying, 'I'm sorry.'

"Fun…" Nabiki went back inside the house, shaking her head.

The panda sat up and walked in, grabbing Ranma by the braid as he passed by.

"Hey, leggo Pop!" Protests had no effect as the two went further into the house, leaving the tile game behind.

"Fun," Ryoga laughed, "You're quite a woman."

Akane blushed scarlet. After Ryoga realized what he'd said, he did too.

"Ummm…" He twiddled his fingers, thumb chasing thumb in a continuous circle that neither would ever win. "I meant that as a… a compl… complim…" He gave up.

"Thank you, Ryoga-kun," Akane said softly, "Your opinion means a lot to me."

Ryoga glanced up, his heart in his eyes, "It does?"

"Of course. You always have my best interests at heart. I know I can trust you. You're my friend."

Friend. Miki's voice sounded in his ear, 'You listen to me and think my advice is worth something.' It says something. It is something – it means that Akane cares too. It gave him hope, and a bit of courage. How was I suppose to do this again? He pulled out his notebook, not noticing the odd look Akane was giving him. Oh, yeah – what I first liked, what she did that captured my heart. 'When you saved my life, you were my hero.' "Akane-san, that first time… you may not have known what P-chan was, but you were nice to him – the first person I'd met who actually thought a pig wasn't a dirty, smelly disgusting little runt that was only fit for a one-course meal. And you protected him against Ranma without even thinking about it."

Akane blinked, what is he on about now? He keeps going back over the old times – and what's with the notebook? But she did remember her first encounter with the little black pig, and she turned her head so he wouldn't see her eyes. Oh, P-chan. You were so cute. I'd never had a pet before, and you were perfect – you listened to me and made me feel wanted. And you made Ranma so mad. When I figured out who you really were – I cried for the loss of my pet. And didn't want to let go. Thinking about Ryoga's shyness around her as a human, she sighed within, I should have. I shouldn't have let you keep on being my pet. I wasn't thinking of you, only me. But it was so easy to just let it be, and still keep my pet. She didn't say anything of what she was thinking outloud. Instead, she said, "But P-chan was so cute, and he was hurt – who wouldn't have taken care of him? And as for that big bully Ranma… Picking on a small animal!"

Ryoga grinned sadly, "You were the only one to ever take care of P-chan." His memory presented him with a different picture as Miki scratched the right spot behind his ears with such gentle fingers… The intense blue-green eyes looked down at him with adoration and admiration. He shook his head, "I'd just found out that Ranma's curse was this perfectly good, even beautiful, human form – he didn't even notice when he changed forms – he could still talk, and fight, and… I still had trouble getting around as a damn pig. Let alone finding all my stuff again. Akane-san – you were the only nice thing in my life at the time. It didn't matter that I was a pig – it felt so good just to be wanted, and cared about. Even standing up to Ranma for this little, insignificant, ugly runt pig… Actually, I think that's what first really caught my attention. You weren't scared of him at all."

Akane's mouth dropped open, scared of Ranma??? The thought was so incredible, she repeated it outloud.

"Well, in my school, nobody challenged Ranma. On anything. Nobody ever talked back to him. Actually, very few people even talked to us in the first place."

"But you two are the gentlest people I know!" Akane had to modify that statement almost immediately, "Aside from Kasumi…"

Ryoga laughed, "Who could match Kasumi?" Perhaps, Miki… Gentle hands, gentle eyes, looking at him in trust and… something. 'You protect Kasumi and never talk down to her.' 'I've heard from Kasumi…' excuse me? Ryoga blinked in the middle of his memories, just what were they saying about me anyhow? Akane was looking at him expectantly. Ryoga hauled his thoughts back to where they'd been. "Well, with me, it was association. I'd grown up with most of them, and years back they'd gotten tired of inviting me to things I'd never show up to. With Ranma… Most of the time, Ranma's pretty mild-tempered. And he always keeps control. But he's used to flaring out at any provocation, at least verbally. And the kids were scared. Ranma would never hurt any of them, but they would flinch back… and avoid him. And that made him defensive… But he had to keep his school record clean, and all that restless energy was just swirling below the surface all the time." Ryoga shook his head, "No, Ranma was not a popular person at school." And just how did we get on the subject of Ranma, anyhow? But thinking about it… He wasn't used to people. He was friendly, but he never made friends – we had an odd relationship: I'd forgotten how to have friends, and he didn't know how to keep them. And then he gets to Furinkin High. And stays with an accepting family. And goes to school with this girl that stands up to him, and bickers with him, will give him back what he dishes out – and she's not afraid. Ryoga sighed to himself, it's no wonder that Ranma loves her too. It was the first time either of us had met a woman with a spirit to match our own. And who wasn't afraid… 'My hero.' Miki's young eyes stared at him from a serious face surrounded by short green hair. Actually… Akane looks a bit like Miki did as a kid. Miki's changed over the years. Everything but the eyes. Is that what my eyes look like when I look at you, Akane-san? My hero? Aphrodite, my Goddess of Lo… "No. Akane-san is Athena. Goddess of Wisdom. Fully as fierce and capable as her brother Aries, but also gentle and caring. The palm tree that fed and sheltered a city. The owl that sees everything. The shield and spear that defends her people."

Akane tilted her head to one side. She'd been thinking her own thoughts – about Ranma – but Ryoga's musings intrigued her… "Really? I always thought Artemis would be a better fit – she's so wild and untamable – violent and fierce. Her brother is the Sun God."

Ryoga blinked, and blushed… oh, gods… I said that outloud??? -- how much of it?? "Aiyyee…"

"But I always did like Athena better – thank you, Ryoga-kun," Akane smiled as she thought of it – Ranma never put it into words, not like Ryoga just did, but he'd made it plain a few times that that was how he looked at her also. Athena. Patroness of Udysseus. A warrior when she wants to be. I wonder if she was a good cook? Somehow, I doubt it.

This is more than I've ever said to her at one time! Ryoga ticked off the points mentally. Let's see, I've told her she's incredible. I told her I care. That she's the only thing nice in my life… Is that enough? Miki's eyes laughed at him as she shook her head, and he grinned slightly. Okay… Not, quite, enough… I have to say it. I do. "Akane-san, P-chan was always your favorite pet. When I was with you as a pig, you made me feel like somebody cared – and to be near you, I thought it would be good to remain a pig forever." Akane put out a hand in horror, but Ryoga didn't see as his mind's eye suddenly presented him with a different picture: Miki's gentle eyes, 'I want to stay by your side forever.' He blinked, and faltered, and found his place again, "But even when I was Ryoga, you've been nothing but nice to me. You accept me," 'You treat me normally,' "You don't think my martial arts and strength is weird and frightening, you never laugh when I get lost…," 'You don't mind my stutter.' "You wait for me when I lose my courage while talking to you – not that I ever find it…," 'You wait for my imperfect sentences.' "You're there whenever I get hurt and…" Ryoga paused, looking at Akane. She appeared nervous and reluctant. She kept clasping and unclasping her hands, shifting where she sat, looking at Ryoga in quick little glances, almost flinching away when their eyes met. She doesn't want to hear it. It grew tight in his chest, and Ryoga could feel his heart of glass start to vibrate. One word from her, and it will shatter. She doesn't want to hear me tell her 'I love you'. Ryoga closed his eyes. 'How do I tell her I love her?' 'Don't.' Miki, you're so right – we're too young for the words. Both of us. And Akane doesn't… He shook his head, cutting off that thought. He couldn't even think it. "I've come this far."

Akane made a small squeaking noise, Oh, Ryoga! Don't say it – please don't. Let us just be friends – the way we've always been. She closed her eyes. She'd known it. She'd known it almost from the same time she realized P-chan was Ryoga. But… it was easier unsaid. Ryoga was too nice for her to hurt. And she had always been afraid that if she said anything, that he would leave. Besides Ranma, Ryoga had been her best friend. She could tell him anything. And P-chan stays by my side… Stayed. Akane bit her lip, maybe I shouldn't have let it go on so long. But she had been so frightened – scared to be alone. And… Admit it, Akane – you used Ryoga. You used him against Ranma. Whenever she wanted to punished Ranma, Ryoga was always there… He's always there because he cares. Akane bit harder down on her lip and felt the blood start to pool. I owe him now. For all that I never said. For all that I can never say. I have to let him say it. And then I have to break his heart. Tears started to well up in the corners of her eyes. She blinked rapidly, trying to dry them. And she waited.

Ryoga had been thinking. Who do I care more about? Myself or Akane? The answer, as always, came out on Akane's side. All right. All right, Akane-san. I love you, and I'm going to have to tell you what I don't even want to tell myself. "The time in the caves, when you turned to me for protection – it meant a lot to me then. After Ranma, you see me. After…" he gulped – it was harder than he'd thought, "When I saw you in the woods with Shinoskae, and you looked at him with concern in your beautiful brown eyes and stayed by his side… My first thought – my very first thought – was that I'd never thought to see you with anybody but Ranma. Anybody."

Akane froze, and then looked wide-eyed at him. Ryoga could see the surprise being replaced by gratitude. And happiness. And he was glad that he'd said it. Though he wasn't sure if his heart was even in his body anymore because he couldn't feel it anymore. He wasn't sure if he could feel anything. But… "Please, just let me get through it. Just this once. I'll never bother you again after this."

"Oh, Ryoga," the tears in Akane's eyes were starting to fall out the sides. "I –"

"Don't," Ryoga reached out a hand and scooped up a falling tear. He looked at it pooled on his finger, if enough tears fall, will I change to P-chan? "Please don't." He glanced out to the stars, now fully out in the heavens. And there is Kengyu, separated by the Milky Way from Shokujo. But the gulf between Akane and I is even wider. 'Earth smothers Fire.' 'What am I doing wrong?' What I was doing wrong… was being me. "Just this once." Ryoga turned to Akane and took her hand in his. He gazed at it for a long moment, studying the slimness, the strength, the fingers that spoke as much of determination as they did of gentleness. Then he looked up to her face. She met his eyes bravely, but in that instant, though he was looking at her, Ryoga wasn't seeing her… Instead, his whole body and martial arts awareness was telling him that Ranma was watching them. Had been watching them. Ryoga tensed slightly, waiting for the blow. It didn't come, and Ryoga risked a quick glance around, bring his gaze back to Akane before she could look away. "Akane-san: You are sweet, kind, and gentle. You are also strong, powerful, and determined. Once a person is your friend, he is your friend for life." Ryoga could feel Ranma's bafflement as he spoke of friendship, and he grinned tightly. In the glimpse he had seen, Ranma had been standing at the patio doorway, arms across his chest, his fists clenched – and a look of agony on his face as he held himself back. Ranma, my friend. Thank you for this moment. I won't waste it – nor will I hurt Akane. "You have the entire school at your feet – the guys for your hand, the girls for your friendship and advice." 'You think my advice is worth taking.' Ryoga blinked, well, of course it is, Miki – you say things worth hearing. He shook his head slightly, "And you let me be your friend – when I'd never had a friend worth the name before." He felt, more than saw, Ranma wince. Internally, he chuckled, sorry Ranma – that wasn't directed at you. And his mind's eye placed a different view in front of him – a hilltop, with the summer rain falling around them… 'You said you'd dance with me – no one had ever said that to me.' Friend… I was going to ask her to be my friend. I never found her again. I can always find Akane. "I can always find you…" That’s getting too close to what she doesn’t want to hear. "You knew I was P-chan," Ryoga grimaced, still uncomfortable with the pig, "and still held P-chan gently in your arms – even though I probably deserved to be slapped upside the head for not telling you." Miyuki pulled P-chan away from her chest, blushing, and set him gently on the ground, running one finger behind his ear before she completely let go. Ryoga frowned, realizing, she thinks of me as a man – even when I'm a pig… Akane opened her mouth to say something, and Ryoga shook his head, finding his place again, "You allow me to Protect you, even though you're perfectly capable on your own," he grinned, "Guys need to be able to do that – thank you for letting us." Having got that much out, he took a deep breath – and couldn't resist another quick glance. Ranma was still standing there, arms across his chest… but his fists weren't clenched, and his forehead was creased with lines. Made you think, did I? "You're smart, and a quick thinker – if a bit impulsive, which isn't a… bad… thing?" 'You're intelligent, and a bit impulsive. I like impulsive – more fun.' But… but that's what I think about Akane… Miki? Ryoga frowned, what the heck is happening to my thoughts? Akane. "You try harder than anyone I know," except Miki, "And can learn anything you want to in three days or less."

Akane finally got a word in, "Except cooking." She wrinkled her nose. And wondered about Ryoga. He wasn't being as direct as he usually tried for – and for some reason, she was a lot calmer now. Hey, I actually like being complimented by him… Her eyes started to pick up some more light as she gazed at Ryoga's earnest face. Oh, Ryoga-kun. Maybe this will work. Maybe… I do like you as a friend – as one of my best friends. And I trust you more than any body else. Oh, Ryoga. Please stay. After you're done. Please stay. I need to tell you the ways I like you; even, even if I love someone else.

Akane's cooking – bittersweet memories. Ryoga grinned in amusement, "Do you really want to learn? Or do you just think you should?" 'You've spent too much time thinking of the pig as useless.' A thought struck him; it is almost the same thing I'm telling her, isn't it? Essentially, don't be negative.

Akane blinked. And blinked again. And finally closed her mouth, apparently deep in thought. Ryoga looked quickly over: Ranma was just as deep in thought – and they'd gained another watcher. Nabiki was hovering behind Ranma's shoulder. Ryoga grimaced, that has to mean the dads are also somewhere here… and Kasumi doesn't need to be present to know what's going on… What does it take for a guy to get a little privacy here? But it had taken more than courage for him to even think about saying something to Akane – a few extra witnesses were nothing compared to Akane herself. To tell Akane… 'How did I get myself into this?' Miki's eyes were half-rueful, but still had that sparkle, 'Ryoga-sama, the first time I saw you…' Uh, wait a second… Ryoga frowned, Miki, you were telling me how to tell Akane— Akane was watching Ryoga again, her eyes now alight with a familiar gentleness and a gleam of interest. Interest in my words, not in me. Well, at least she's not scared of me anymore. The familiarity was reassuring. "Akane, I have respected you from the first day I met you – well, okay, the second time I met you, and I—" 'Understand?' Wait a second… Was she telling me she lo… She was giving me an example. "I lov…" Yeah, a literal one. "I love…" She wasn't. Was she? "I love you?" Ryoga stumbled on the words, frowning as memories swirled around in his mind. 'I could stay by your side forever.' 'You saved my life.' 'You're kind and strong and gentle.' 'Understand?' The long dark hair floated around her face as she shook her head, a spark of laughter lighting the blue-green eyes, 'I'm laughing at myself. Not you.' Ryoga let go of Akane's hands and sat back, attention totally focused on reviewing each and every scrap of that conversation. "She wasn't. Was she?"

Akane sat on the patio, slack-jawed as she watched Ryoga. She heard a footstep behind her and looked up to see Ranma standing beside her, his gaze on Ryoga. Ranma waved a hand in front of Ryoga's face. The baffled, intent look on Ryoga's face never changed as his lips continued to move silently.

"Figures." Ranma snorted. "The first time the moron works up the courage – and he gets distracted." Ranma's own face was puzzled, "I wonder what by?"

"And what about you – Ranma-kun?"

Ranma turned to Nabiki, "Huh?"

Nabiki folded her arms, "Is it courage you lack? Or something else?"

"Hey, what are you implying?" Genma moved forward out of the bushes, "My son is a man!"

The automatic sprinklers went on under Mr. Saotome's feet, and deflected the spray onto the patio, drenching the group before the panda could move. Mr. Tendo looked over his small family, particularly at Ranma's girl-form. "Well, sometimes."

Akane and Nabiki started laughing. Ranma fumed at them both, glared daggers at his dad and Mr. Tendo, and finally picked up P-chan and stomped off to the bath.

Ranma tossed P-chan into the bath before turning the shower on himself. He was still mad at the remark and turned furiously to Ryoga, "And just what the hell—" Ranma stopped mid-sentence. Ryoga was just sitting in the tub, not looking at anything in particular, with that same strange look on his face. "Hey! Ryoga! Wake-up, man."

Ryoga glanced up, puzzlement and wonder chasing themselves across his face, "What the hell was she saying? She didn't mean… – did she?" He shook his head and stood up, "Where are my clothes?"

Ranma's mouth dropped open, "What?"

"Did you leave my clothes on the patio?" Ryoga blinked, "In front of Akane?! Ranma…!"

There was a knock at the door and it slid slightly open, "Ryoga-kun – here's some fresh clothes I got out of your pack – I'm washing the others."

"Probably a good idea," Ryoga admitted, "Thank you, Kasumi-san."

"I'm baking some pork-buns and bread right now. Please stop by the kitchen before you go." The door closed again.

"Go?" Ranma looked over at Ryoga.

Ryoga climbed out of the tub and got dressed, "I have to ask Miki something."

"You have to ask…" He interrupted his declaration of love to Akane – to ask Miyuki… what? "How are you going to find her?"

Ryoga laughed bitterly, "I'll take a trip through the desert." Yasuu's voice echoed through his head as he explained briefly, "Supposedly, if I concentrate on a person, I'll find them. Eventually. That's how I got back here," he grimaced, "after the damned ocean." At Ranma's dubious look, he expanded, "I was talking with my cousin while I was at Shampoo's, and Yasuu said…" Ryoga stopped, "Oh, never mind." It would take forever to explain, and he had other things on his mind.

Ranma was remembering Miyuki's words several days ago, 'He'll always be able to find you…' But what about you, Mi-chan?

When they walked out to the front door, Kasumi was waiting for them. After Ryoga put on his pack, she handed him a bag of food, "Here you are, Ryoga-kun."

"Thank you, Kasumi-san." He gazed at her for a moment, then bowed formally, "Thank you for guest-right, though I never asked for it."

Kasumi smiled gently, "But Ryoga-kun – you're family, not a guest."

Ryoga tilted his head to one side, absorbing the words. Then he turned without another word and walked down the street, his silhouette highlighted by the dim street lights. Ranma and Kasumi watched until they couldn't see him in the night.

Kasumi went back to the kitchen and stood in front of the sink, her attention on the picture in the window. And another one of my family leaves. Kasumi blinked. She hated to see any of her small family leave. But Ryoga-kun always comes back. I just have to keep believing that, and it will always be alright. But since Miyuki had left the house, nothing felt quite… right.

Ranma had followed Kasumi to the kitchen, but after a few moments of the silence he left and went into the family room. Nabiki and Akane immediately latched onto him, "What the hell was that about?" "Where's Ryoga?" "Is he okay?" Ranma looked around – he'd forgotten that he'd have to explain it to them. Explain what? I don't even know what's going on!! "Ryoga left."

"Excuse me?"

"Ranma – what did you do to him?"

Oh come on! Now that wasn't fair! "Nothing! He said he had to go ask Miki… Miyuki something, and he just left."

The two girls glanced at each other, equal bafflement in their eyes. Ranma watched them with some satisfaction, I'm glad I'm not the only one confused!

Akane shook her head, "Well, at least I didn't have to tell him—" she broke off as she looked at Ranma. Biting her lip, she directed her attention away from Ranma, "I'm going to bed. See you tomorrow."

Ranma watched her walk up the stairs, his face reflecting equal parts of tenderness and confusion. Nabiki watched him and didn't comment.

 


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