Title: Fever Dreams
Ryoga knelt down and skinned the two rabbits he’d caught, tossing the offal into the campfire. “Let’s see, stew or stir-fry tonight?” At least he thought they were rabbits. They had longer ears than normal. Some of the rabbit would have to be smoked or dried if he didn’t want to waste it. Unless, of course, somebody joined his campfire. It happened more often than one would think.
“Ow!” Ryoga slapped his arm. “Damn mosquitoes.” He scratched the bite and then decided on stew.
Ranma swung the vegetable bag from his hand, twirling it and pretending it was a bolo.
“Hey, pretty girl! I’ve got some nice—”
Without looking, Ranma kicked a stone in the guy’s direction, hitting him in the stomach and cutting off the rest of his speech. Ranma’d had more than enough this day. Shopping in his girl-form was usually fun for all the freebies he got and the smiles from adults who thought he, ‘she’ was cute, but today it seemed that all the local toughs had nothing better to do than hang out in the marketplace. And he was really tired of the catcalls and the gropes. Come to think of it… it’s Thursday. Usually we don’t get fresh vegetables on Thursday. Kasumi must know about the heckling and that’s why she didn’t want to go to the market today. Ranma had volunteered. Sortof. He and Pop had been fighting and had accidentally knocked all the clean laundry into the pond. Kasumi wasn’t mad. Kasumi never got mad. But… Ranma ended up volunteering to go to the market.
Walking on the wall, Ranma finally left the market area. He looked down… “Hey! Ryoga!”
Ryoga turned, blinking, “Ranma? I was looking for you…” He passed a hand over his eyes, “Ranma! Die!” He launched himself at Ranma who dodged with a grin.
“Been training in the wilds of Japan again, huh?” Ranma made a few feints and dodges as he juggled the vegetable bag, looking for a good place to put it. His comment to Ryoga was because of the extra-ordinary wear on the youth’s clothes and the dirty smudges on his face.
“Geez…” Ranma rolled his eyes. “Over here!” And he ran a little ways down the street before hopping over a wall – he remembered where a vacant lot was. He put the vegetables down in a corner and waited for Ryoga.
The wall exploded in a shower of rocks and Ryoga walked in, “Die!”
Ranma blinked, Ryoga didn’t use a Breaking Point – he just smashed the wall. “Do you think you can use some more original lines, Ryoga? How about ‘You will pay!’? That was always a good one. Or—Yikes!” Ranma reeled back from a blow to his side. For the next couple of moments he was on a pure defensive before regaining his equilibrium. “Ryoga! That hurt!”
“Ranma…?” Ryoga paused for a moment. And in that pause, Ranma’s fist clipped him on the chin and sent him flying back to smash into the rubble. Ryoga got up, “Deceiver!”
“Oops. Sorry,” Ranma grinned apologetically – when Ryoga had stopped that suddenly, it had taken Ranma by surprise and he hadn’t been able to stop the blow.
Ryoga didn’t seem to notice the apology, a grim look of concentration on his face. His blows redoubled in speed and power.
And Ranma was back on the defensive. “Whoa… wait a second here, Ryoga…” This wasn’t one of their normal spars. Ryoga was serious. And most of his moves weren’t telegraphed in advance. Ranma couldn’t read Ryoga’s moves. And Ranma was in trouble. “Ryoga – hold up, man…,” Ryoga wasn’t listening to him… What the hell? A kick to the abdomen had Ranma down on his knees. Ryoga threw a punch out, and Ranma rolled, avoiding it. And then was pinned to the ground as Ryoga jumped down, trapping his legs by sitting on them, grabbing both arms with one strong grip around the wrists, and his other hand cocked up to punch Ranma. And then Ryoga paused, a look of confusion coming over his face.
“Ryoga?” Ranma didn’t try to break free, watching his friend with concern.
The youth looked down at him curiously, “You’re not Ranma. I was looking for Ranma.” He glanced around the lot, “Ranma was just here… I have to ask Ranma… I have to fight Ranma? Why am I looking for Ranma…? I need to find Ranma.”
Ranma blinked. “Ryoga. I’m right here. It’s okay, man. What’s wrong?”
Ryoga looked down again, “Ranma!” He studied him, “No… Ranma’s a guy. You’re a girl.” And then he blinked, looking at Ranma more closely.
Huh? “Ryoga, what is the matter with— umph!” Ranma was too stunned to make more than a reactive jerk as Ryoga’s mouth came down on his. Ryoga! No!!! The mouth stayed pressed to his, a gentle soft pressure. A hand came around to stroke his cheek. No!!! Not Ryoga! Not Ryoga… I thought… Ryoga saw me as me. Not… Not Ryoga… Ranma froze, unable to believe what was happening.
The hand paused on his cheek and the mouth left his. “Tears?” Ryoga’s voice was puzzled as he drew back and looked at his wet hand. “But what…?” He glanced down, “Ranma, why are you crying? Ranma doesn’t cry. Ranma never cries. I cry. Akane cries. But Ranma never cries. I have to find Ranma…” He glanced over at the broken wall.
Ryoga? Ranma stared up. And lifted a hand to Ryoga’s forehead. “Ryoga! Man!” He struggled out of Ryoga’s pin, Ryoga making no effort to help or hinder him. “Ryoga, you are burning up! What’s the matter with you?”
Ryoga looked back at him, “Ranma? Were you crying? But why? You left… Did I hurt you somehow?” Ryoga pressed a hand to his head, “I can’t think.” He shook his head, “I have to find Ranma. Ranma will help. Find Ranma.” A glow lit behind his eyes, “Ranma! Die! Why didn’t you come to the match? Why!? When I find you, Ranma, we’ll fight! Oh yes, we’ll fight then!”
Ranma didn’t move. Ryoga wasn’t moving – just shouting. Ranma studied his friend with worry, noticing the flushed face and the shallow breathing. “Ryoga… you’re sick.”
“And you have to kill me now,” Ryoga nodded. “Just like my puppy. It’s all right. He’ll be happier now. He won’t hurt anymore. There’s this pain in my head… You’re the only one I can trust, Ranma. So I have to find him. Do you know where Ranma is?”
Ranma stood and walked cautiously to his friend. “Ryoga, it’s okay. It’ll all be okay now. Let’s go to Dr. Tofu’s, now…”
Ryoga looked up at him, “Ranma? What are you doing here?” He blinked, “You’re not Ranma. Ranma’s not that cute. Pretty. Adorable blue eyes, soft skin, cuddly body… So pretty. Cute. With such soft lips… Never a curse. So pretty.” Ryoga grinned regretfully, “Nobody that pretty would ever look at me. Not in a million years. Even Akane never looks at me. Only Ranma. She only sees Ranma. Never me. Nobody can see me. I’m not here. I don’t exist.”
“Ryoga…” Ranma whispered his friend’s name, tears starting to fall down his eyes again – this time from pity and fear.
“You’re crying again? Oh. I see it. I see the pity,” Ryoga’s voice hardened and he stood up, “I will not be pitied! Never! I won’t lose to Ranma! I can’t! Ranma is my only friend and I won’t lose him!” His voice turned bewildered again and he swayed where he stood, “Ranma? Why did you leave? I have to find Ranma…” Ryoga’s left leg buckled under him and he fell to the ground and didn’t move.
“Ryoga…” The youth was unconscious. Ranma knelt next to him and put a hand on his forehead again. Ryoga’s skin was burning. Tightening his jaw, Ranma picked up his friend and carried him piggy-back to Dr. Tofu’s.
“He has to go to a hospital,” Dr. Tofu replaced the wet towel on Ryoga’s head, “I can’t do anything more for him. The fever is burning him up and has to be stopped.”
“A hospital? But…” Ranma trailed off. Their group tended to avoid hospitals. The normal doctors just didn’t understand their hurts or their healing. When treating them, Dr. Tofu always took into consideration their energy lines and their level of ability. For him to suggest a hospital… Ranma stared at his unconscious friend. “How bad is it?”
Dr. Tofu shook his head, “I don’t know. Ryoga’s temperature is 107° – that’s serious. He’s got an infection all right, but no wounds that I can find. I don’t know what it is. But it’s Ryoga. That boy has a better immune system than even you. The hospital has antibiotics and medicine.” Dr. Tofu turned away, “I’ll call for an ambulance.”
Ranma stared at the pale face. They hadn’t taken off Ryoga’s headband. Actually, they’d tried. They hadn’t been able to and gave up. Ranma shifted his gaze to the IV drop and the tubing running down to the needles in Ryoga’s arm. Biting his lip, Ranma stood still.
“Ranma,” Dr. Tofu placed a gentle hand on his shoulder, “There’s nothing more we can do here. You might as well go home now. The hospital will call if there are any changes.”
“No.” Ranma found a chair and sat down, “I’m not leaving. His parents weren’t home. They’re never home. Nobody is ever there for him. I’ve got to stay. I’m staying.”
Dr. Tofu sighed. And he looked at the still and silent body on the bed. He hadn’t lied to Ranma, and the hospital thought even less of Ryoga’s chances than he did. But they didn’t know this youth like he did. And with Ranma’s support… Dr. Tofu thought the odds were actually going up in Ryoga’s favor. Ranma was generating some very powerful energy with his concern. “All right. I have to go back to the clinic now. Is there… anything you want me to do?”
“Uh,” Ranma blinked and took his eyes off Ryoga for the first time, “Uh… could you tell Akane…” ‘Akane doesn’t even see me,’ Ranma faltered and fell silent.
“I’ll tell her.”
“Uh… could you also tell Kasumi that I’m sorry but I lost her vegetables.”
Dr. Tofu blinked.
“And… Ah… never mind. That’s it.”
Dr. Tofu nodded and then left after another glance at Ryoga.
Ranma pulled the chair closer to the bed and reached out to the hand that didn’t have all the needles stuck in it. “Ryoga… You’ll get better. You will.”
“Why, good afternoon, Dr. Tofu,” Kasumi smiled sweetly, “How nice of you to come by and visit.”
“Er, ah, um,” Dr. Tofu started gibbering, “Kasumi-san. How nice to see you. You should drop by the clinic more often.”
Kasumi giggled as she smiled at him, “Come and have some tea, Dr. Tofu. I’m sorry, but dinner isn’t quite ready yet.”
“If Ranma will ever get back with the vegetables,” Akane grumped as she raised her teacup to her mouth. Nabiki shrugged, resigned.
“Oh…” Dr. Tofu was shaken slightly out of his daze, “Ranma said to tell you he’s sorry he lost the vegetables.”
“Oh dear,” Kasumi sighed. “I’ll just have to make something else for dinner. You are staying, aren’t you Doctor?” She smiled hopefully at him.
Dr. Tofu started gibbering again.
Akane put down her teacup, “What happened to Ranma?”
“Oh…” Dr. Tofu shook his head and looked away from the napkin he was tearing, “Ranma’s in the hospital. This is a very nice hat, Kasumi-san.” He placed a bowl on his head.
Akane sat bolt upright, “He’s what???”
“That’s a bowl, Dr. Tofu,” Kasumi smiled.
“Doctor – what about Ranma? Why is he in the hospital” Akane’s heart was in her throat, pounding loudly.
Dr. Tofu shook himself again, prying his eyes off of Kasumi, “No, no… Ranma’s not in the hospital – he’s at the hospital. It’s Ryoga who’s in it.” He started to pick up a soy bottle and forced himself to put it down again.
“Ryoga…?” Akane scowled, “Did those two have a fight again?”
“No… Ranma wanted me to drop by and tell you…” Dr. Tofu cleared his throat, suddenly serious. He looked to Kasumi, who stopped smiling and walked to his side. She gently placed a hand on his shoulder, “It’s alright, Tofu-sensei. Just tell us,” Kasumi’s voice was soft and reassuring.
Instead of losing it again, Dr. Tofu seemed to gain strength from Kasumi’s nearness. “Ranma brought Ryoga in… Ryoga apparently has malaria. I took him to the hospital because there wasn’t anything I could do. Ranma stayed. He asked me to tell you, Akane…”
“Oh… I have to go!” Akane stood and then ran up to her room.
Kasumi bit her lip, “Not Ryoga-kun…”
Even Nabiki looked shaken, “Malaria? How bad is it, Doctor?”
Dr. Tofu looked at the upset sisters. “It’s Ryoga. He’ll be all right. It’ll just take a while – and he’s going to need lots of peace and quiet when he gets out of the hospital.”
“Around here?” Nabiki snorted, “Good luck.”
Kasumi’s eyes were shaded, “I’ll get another pallet ready in the boy’s room. Or… A bed might be better. I wonder if we still have that roll-a-way.”
“He’s got a home,” Nabiki remarked tartly.
“But not a family,” Kasumi replied firmly, “He will stay here.”
“I’m off!” Akane flew down the stairs again and out the door.
“You’re here to see Ryoga Hibiki?” The nurse flipped through the charts.
Another one looked up, “That’s the boy with the devoted girlfriend.”
“Oh, that one.” The nurse stopped looking, “Room 305. Please don’t stay too long. We’ve told his girlfriend she could stay – but only because she won’t leave.”
“Ahh…” Akane blinked, “Thank you.” Girlfriend? She walked down the hall.
“Girlfriend?” Akane remarked as she walked through the doors.
“Huh?” Ranma looked up, “Akane!” He put Ryoga’s hand gently down on the bed and then went to Akane, hugging her tightly.
Akane stood still for a moment in surprise, then put her arms around Ranma and hugged him back. She could feel the tension and worry in him. “It’ll be all right, Ranma. It will.” Akane hugged him. And looked over his shoulder to the bed. Her heart did a small flop as she saw the pale stillness of Ryoga’s face. He looks…
Ranma sniffled and then finally let her go. He walked back to the bed, “You can have the chair, if you want,” he offered.
“That’s… okay – I’ll stand for a bit.” Akane studied Ranma as he sat back down, eyes on Ryoga. Ranma was still in girl form. If I didn’t know he was a guy… I see why they thought he was Ryoga’s girlfriend. He’s really worried. “Is it that serious?” Akane walked over and put her hand down to Ryoga’s face.
Ranma watched her. Watched her and watched him. “Akane…”
Akane looked back at Ranma.
“Ryoga…” Ranma looked back down, “Never mind.”
Akane blinked. Oh. She bit her lip, Ryoga will tell me himself. Someday. I hope. Akane took her hand away from Ryoga’s face and put it on Ranma’s shoulder, squeezing lightly.
Am I awake or dead? Only one way to find out. Ryoga opened his eyes. The room came slowly into focus. A white room. Hospital. Did I make it? There was pressure on his hand. Ryoga slowly moved his vision down… He quirked a smile, “Ranma.” The name came out guttural and rough. His throat started spasming and he coughed, sitting up. Hands propped him up and supported him. When his coughs had abated enough, there was a cup of water for him to drink. “Thank—” Ryoga looked up to the person handing the water to him and he lost his grip on the cup, “Akane!”
Ranma caught the cup before it spilled any of the water. Geez, that was close! Ryoga, you moron. He looked up to see Ryoga staring worshipfully at Akane, “You’re here…”
Akane blushed, “I’m glad you’re feeling better, Ryoga-kun.”
Ranma knew he was jealous, but he wasn’t quite sure of which one. Ryoga didn’t sound that happy to see me! “Here,” he gruffly held out the cup.
Again, Ryoga quirked a little smile at him, before reaching out, “Thanks…” He pulled back his hand, but not before Ranma had seen how it was trembling.
“Never mind, I’ll hold it.” Ranma held the cup close enough for Ryoga to get to the straw. Ryoga flushed, embarrassed, but he drank the water.
When he was done, Ryoga lay back on the bed, his eyes fluttering in an effort to keep them open.
At that sign of his friend’s weakness, Ranma bit his lip before asking, “How are you feeling?” You’re better, right?
Ryoga let his eyes close and admitted what he didn’t want to, “Weak.” Then he half-grinned, eyes still shut, “But alive. I guess I finally found you.” The implication in his words was obvious in his voice; that if he hadn’t found Ranma, he’d be dead, but once having found Ranma, of course he was alive.
Oh… Ranma gulped, “Yeah.” He wasn’t surprised to see me… because he expected me to be here. I’m glad I didn’t leave. He’d been on the verge of it, several times. Particularly when Akane had gone home the first time. She’d been worried and it had nearly led to a fight when he stayed. But she brought him food the next day. And then stayed herself. But did she stay for him… or me? Ranma carefully didn’t question it too much.
“Ryoga-kun,” Akane started to say something then stopped as she watched Ryoga.
“He’s asleep again,” Ranma pulled the blanket back up over Ryoga’s chest, which was raising and falling steadily.
Akane put her hand on Ranma’s shoulder. Ranma covered it with his own and squeezed. They both let out relieved sighs as they watched Ryoga sleep. Asleep, and out of the fever.
The ocean, rolling and boiling and heaving and spewing… The trees, folding in down over him, limbs reaching for him, roots tripping… The very ground itself, breaking under his feet, falling… falling… falling… Ryoga opened his eyes with an effort, “What a horrid nightmare.” He blinked in the dim light. Around him, machines glowed. Ryoga looked around, “A hospital? What am I doing in a hospital?” Beside him, something stirred. Ryoga looked down… And saw Ranma curled up in a chair, sound asleep, his head resting on the chair’s arm, his black hair falling over his closed eyes. Ranma? Suddenly, Ryoga had a sudden flashback to traipsing through the desert, Ranma, die… No… to a small woodlands and a campfire… walking… walking and walking. Fever. Chills. Fever. So cold… “I have to find Ranma…” His legs burned. His lungs burned and so did he. The flames rose up around him, licking and streaking, setting his clothes on fire and his skin… Ryoga shook his head, and screamed, “Enough!”
“Huh?” Ranma blinked sleepily, “Izzit morning already?”
Ranma? Ryoga looked around, a bit more clear-headed. “I had a fever…”
“Apparently you caught malaria,” Ranma yawned as he sat up, “Although I’d really like to know how you could have gotten a strain that only has ever been detected in a certain part of Africa.” Ranma shook his head, “Nevermind. Anyway, you made your way here, eventually.”
“To a hospital?”
Ranma yawned again, “No. You found me. Dr. Tofu took you to the hospital. Now can we go back to sleep?”
Ryoga glanced at him. This conversation seemed… familiar. He looked around the room again. His eyes lingered in one empty corner.
“That’s where Akane usually stands when she’s here.” A hand felt at Ryoga’s forehead and then moved away, “You seem a bit more with it than normally.”
“Normally?” Akane comes to visit me? Ryoga’s heart pounded as he stared at the empty corner. Why couldn’t I have woken up while she was here?
Ranma padded across the room and got a glass of warm water and brought it back. “If you’re actually awake this time – the nurses want you drinking more liquid on your own. Better get it down before you fall asleep again.”
Ryoga sipped obediently, looking around again. Suddenly, he remembered parts of previous conversations… “I’ve been here awhile.”
“Finish the water. Yeah.”
Handing the empty glass back to Ranma, Ryoga watched the tremors in his hand curiously. He opened and shut his hand, watching the tendons flex.
Yawning, Ranma settled in the chair again, “I think you actually are awake this time. But then, I thought that the last time too.”
Ryoga looked… “I thought they’d gotten you a cot.”
Ranma sat bolt upright, “You remember something!”
“Uhh…” Ryoga flinched at Ranma's sudden movement.
Ranma settled back again, “Sorry.” He grinned, “Yeah, they’d gotten me a cot. But Akane finally persuaded me to go home for a bit – and take a shower. She stayed while I was gone. When I came back, I forgot and came back as me. The nurses wanted to know where your girlfriend was and they took the cot back.”
“My…” Ryoga blinked.
Ranma grimaced, “I was originally here in girl-form. The nurses got the wrong idea.” He sighed, “They’re a lot nicer to your girlfriend than to your brother.”
“Brother?” A lot of Ryoga’s conversations at the moment seemed to be one-word questions. He opened and shut his hand again, noticing that the tremors had gone away. And suddenly wanted to move. He glanced at the IV stand, “Am I stuck in this bed?”
“You want to try getting up?” Ranma sounded shocked. “Hold on a second…” He got up and walked out the door.
When he came back, a couple of nurses were with him. And then Ryoga was sorry he’d asked. They poked and pried and asked questions and asked more questions… Ryoga felt exhausted when they finally left him in Ranma’s care. Ranma had gotten strict instructions on how to help Ryoga around. Ryoga wasn’t sure if he liked that… Then he snickered.
Ranma looked around, “What?” The tone of voice was suspicious.
“Good thing you changed back to a guy.”
Ranma mock-growled, “Good thing for you, you mean. Otherwise, a male orderly would‘ve come in.”
Ryoga laughed weakly. Then pushed back the covers, “Come-on. Before I change my mind.” Before he got to weak to move. Ryoga could feel his strength draining… He didn’t like it. But in front of Ranma he wouldn’t admit it.
Still, though, Ranma eyed Ryoga in a way that said he could tell how much Ryoga was forcing himself. “Last time you tried…” Ranma shut his mouth, “Never mind. Let’s go.”
Last time, I what? Fell flat on my face? Probably. Ryoga could feel his muscles spasming. He gritted his teeth and swung his legs over the bed. Ranma’s hands helped balance him in a sitting position, then retreated. Ryoga closed his eyes for a long time.
Eventually, Ryoga tried standing up. Ranma helped him as much as he could. When Ryoga got back to the bed, he was trembling from head to toe and he lay shivering as Ranma covered him gently. When Ryoga could breath normally, he said softly, “Arigato, Ranma.” Then he closed his eyes and slept again.
Ranma watched his friend sleep. “And are you going to remember this tomorrow?” He sighed. “Ryoga – please get better. Please. I don’t like seeing you like this.” My strong friend. My partner. My only equal. Get better. Please.
“Thank you, Kasumi-san,” Ryoga accepted the bowl of miso and blew on it gently. “This is so much better than hospital food! Though your food is better than anybody else’s any time.”
Kasumi smiled, “Why, thank you, Ryoga-kun.” She wandered back to the kitchen.
Ryoga let his eyes drift back to the yard where Ranma and his dad were fighting. Ryoga shivered and adjusted the blanket over his shoulders. I used to fight him like that… The hospital had let him go, finally. But Ryoga was still weak. Weak and helpless. He didn’t like that. He liked it in front of others even less. In front of Ranma even less than less. But there was nothing he could do about it. His body had betrayed him. Ryoga closed his eyes and shivered.
“Here’s some more tea, Ryoga-kun.”
“Thank you, Kasumi-san,” Ryoga opened his eyes. And noticed that his miso was cold. He’d been asleep again. Kasumi took the bowl back with her without any comment. Ryoga watched her go. They’re so nice. Why are they so nice to me? Kasumi wouldn’t let him go home. He’d protested a couple of times, not wanting to be a burden – an obvious burden for he couldn’t do anything. Kasumi had brushed it off and kept him here by sheer force of personality. He hadn’t thought before that she had had much personality. Now he knew better.
“Ranma Saotome! Release the pig-tailed girl!”
Ryoga looked up as Kuno jumped into the yard, waving his bokken. Ranma put down the book he was reading and casually backflipped away from Kuno’s blows. The fight was over within minutes and Kuno was spiraling away. Ranma went back to his book, scowling at the pages.
He must be trying to do his homework. Ryoga sighed. He couldn’t even read. After a few minutes of staring at kanji, his eyes started hurting and he had to close them. TV worked… but he’d never gotten much out of it. Idly, he pulled off a headband and swirled it around his hand. He tossed it out into the yard and watched as it cut a leaf off at the stem then hit against the wall and fluttered down to join the other yellow and black clothes laying there. Ryoga pulled off another one and tossed it out. It whirled around the tree and then came back to him. Ryoga watched it as it came back… and reached up and grabbed it. “Ouch.” He dropped the cloth and blew on the line of blood across his palm. That cut across previous lines there.
“Geez, man. You’re not going to have a hand left if you keep that up.”
Ryoga glanced up at Ranma and refrained from glaring. If I can’t fight, I shouldn’t provoke. “I’ll get it. It took me a long time to figure out how to make the headbands sharp in the first place. I just have to figure out how to change it.”
Ranma settled down at the table, “Where did you learn it, anyway? You didn’t used to wear the headbands at school.”
Ryoga blinked. “Yes I… oh. Not the headband. I usually wore a sweatband in school years. Same principle. I learned that the headbands are easier to pull off though, so after… China, I switched over.”
The sweatband wasn’t as comfortable on the pig-form. Ranma interpreted the last part.
“Ranma! You go on date with Shampoo now, yes?”
“Get off of me, you stupid Amazon!”
“Ranma Baka! What do you think you’re doing?!”
Ryoga leaned back and waited until the three youths had run outside chasing each other. And on a normal day, I’d be right in there… ‘Ranma, how dare you do that with Shampoo when you have Akane?!’ The fun the friends had together, teasing each other and playing and fighting... Ryoga sighed. And drank his tea.
“Yo! Ryoga! Wait!”
Ryoga turned, puzzled, his hand on the door. Ranma was hopping over the banister to get to him, a worried look on his face.
“Where do you think you're going?”
Ryoga blinked, “To our room…”
Ranma sighed. And shook his head, “Ryoga – that's the front door.”
“Oh.” Ryoga shrugged, “I'd've been back eventually.”
“Before or after you collapsed in the street?”
Ryoga's eyes blazed, and then he let it go. Ranma was right. Ryoga was worthless like this. He couldn't even defend himself. Let alone others. Completely worthless. “Where's the room?”
“Ryoga…” Ranma bit his lip, “I'm sorry.”
“Where's the room?” Ryoga didn't have to acknowledge it if he didn't want to. The only control he had over his life at the moment. And he really wished Ranma would stop being so anxious. It just made Ryoga so very aware of his weakness. He let Ranma guide him to the guest room and he collapsed on the cot, closing his eyes until Ranma went away. Then he let the tears out. Worthless.
Geez… Ranma stood outside the door and listened to Ryoga's pain. I know how he feels… but really – what can I do? And if Ryoga's sense of direction was going to start leading him outside… Ranma sighed and walked away.
When Ryoga woke up from his nap, there were warm furry bodies all over him… He blinked. And carefully moved, gently shoving the puppy on his chest. The puppy yawned and resettled itself on his legs. Ryoga breathed with expanded lung capacity again. Beside him, a familiar nose shoved itself into his hand and there was a muffled 'woof'.
“Shh – don't wake him.” A soft voice admonished the dog.
Automatically petting the familiar furry head, Ryoga blinked again, “Checkers.” He looked at the puppies all over him and beside him, “Ranma – did you go and get them?”
“Oh, you’re awake.” Ranma emerged from behind Ryoga's cot. Kasumi had set up a chair there a few days ago. Ryoga had noticed how he couldn't actually see anybody in it, but didn't want to object if it made them feel better. “Yeah,” Ranma replied, “Your mom said it was okay while you were here.”
“Mom was home?” Ryoga moved the puppies so he could swing his legs off the cot.
“Uhh… yeah. She was going to come and see you…” Ranma shifted nervously.
“But she got lost on the way,” Ryoga finished. It figured.
“That’s all we need in this house,” Nabiki remarked, flipping the newspaper with one hand, while scratching a puppy in her lap with the other, “a bunch of freeloading dogs.”
Akane looked pointedly at the puppy.
“I didn't say it was a bad thing…” Nabiki gave one of her rare grins and switched to the puppy's other ear.
Three puppies ran behind Kasumi as she walked in and put down the tea. They followed her out again.
In the yard, Ranma played with the fifth puppy, growling and attacking it and then falling back under its vicious paws.
Five… Akane counted the puppies again. “Kasumi – where's Ryoga?” Normally, at least two of the puppies would be with him and Checkers at any given time.
“He's fetching some things for me from the market,” Kasumi calmly replied, walking back in, the puppies still at her feet.
Ranma abruptly stopped playing and came in. Akane stood up, her hands trembling, “Kasumi…”
“Cool it, you two,” Nabiki sipped her tea, “Anybody would think Ryo-chan was an invalid from the way you two treat him.”
“But…” Ranma stood next to Akane, “Somebody should have gone with him…” He placed a hand on Akane's shoulder to keep it from trembling like hers were.
Serene as ever, Kasumi floated out of the room again, remarking as she went, “Checkers is with him.”
Nabiki turned the newspaper again, “Calm down. You're not helping.”
I… know. Ranma bowed his head, then went out in the yard and started a kata.
Akane looked at her sister. Then went to the yard and sat down on the patio to watch Ranma. The puppy he'd been playing with came over and settled on her lap.
Ryoga lay on the dojo floor and slammed a fist into the floor. It didn't even shake the floorboards. The puppies had all ran out when he'd fallen. Now, two of them came back. With Kasumi. She gently mopped his forehead and helped him to sit up. Ryoga's body trembled in his weakness.
As always, her voice was kind and gentle. “Ryoga-kun, you won't get better if you keep pushing yourself like this.”
“I know.” Ryoga held out a hand and watched it tremble. “I can't help it. Every time I start feeling a bit better… I want to be all better.”
Kasumi sighed, “I know.” She made sure he was okay, then left him there.
Ryoga stared at the altar and wondered if he'd ever be strong again.
“Kasumi,” Akane hovered in the kitchen doorway, “Where's Ryoga?”
Kasumi smelled the ladle, “In his room. It's just a relapse. The fever should be down by tomorrow.” But the end of the sentence was told to empty air as Akane ran out.
Walking hesitantly into the room, Akane saw that Ranma was before her. He was sitting by the cot, his head bowed. “Ranma… How is he?”
“Akane! Fiend! Release her!! Ranma – aren't you going to save her? Go! Akane!! You're a Martial Artist too – don't feed Ranma’s ego! Fiend! I'll kill you for hurting her!”
Akane jumped back a foot at the start of the shouts, then hesitantly approached again.
Ranma raised his head tiredly, “More nightmares. He seems to be set off by whatever voice he hears.”
“Ranma! Die!” Ryoga thrashed on the cot, then calmed, “No… That's not… Find Ranma… I have to… Where am I? What is this place? Is Ranma here? Ranma, you ass – why did you go?”
Tiptoeing to Ranma's side, Akane refrained from saying anything else. From the doorway, Nabiki remarked, “Fever Dreams, more like. Combination of nightmares and memories. I don't think you should be listening.”
Ryoga's form stilled, then he started to moan, “I'll beat him… I'll win. I've got to win. I can't lose… I can't lose my friend. I'll win. I'll make him say why…”
Ranma put a fresh towel on Ryoga's forehead. “I've got to stay.”
Nabiki shrugged and walked away. Akane bit her lip, then followed her sister as Ryoga started to cry out again.
Ryoga rolled on the grass, playing with the five puppies that were attacking him. The three sisters and Ranma sat in the family room and watched. The dads played shogi and never seemed to notice. Checkers sat at Ranma’s side and ate his ramen.
“He looks… happy,” Akane said slowly.
Kasumi blinked, “Why shouldn’t he be?”
The other three looked at her and then away.
“Enough!” A giggling laugh told of how the puppies had gotten through Ryoga’s defense. He sat up and brushed them off. They promptly jumped on him again. Ryoga was borne back down to the lawn under their combined attack. He laughed as they all squirmed to lick his face, then they all ran away. Sitting up, Ryoga grinned as he watched the puppies. Grinned until he saw his audience. Then his mouth tightened and he looked away.
“Geez…” Ranma stood up and walked out on the lawn. “Puppies getting boring?”
Ryoga cocked his head to one side, studying Ranma. Then he grinned. And launched himself at Ranma in a flying tackle. Ranma went down, and then instantly both were up again, circling each other… The two youths started a typical fight.
Akane rushed out, “Ryoga! Ranma – stop that!”
“Butt out, Akane!” Ranma yelled.
“Don’t interfere – he has it coming!” Ryoga yelled at the same moment.
Nabiki rolled her eyes, “They’re both idiots.”
Akane hovered anxiously.
“Uhh… Slow it down, Ryoga,” Ranma spun back and blocked a kick.
“I’m trying,” Ryoga gritted his teeth as he dived under Ranma’s blow, “It isn’t that easy.” His next punch shaved hairs off Ranma’s scalp.
Ranma yipped, “Slow down, damnit!”
“Oh forget it!” Ryoga spun away from Ranma and slammed a hand down in a waist block. Then he punched the same invisible opponent in front of him. Ranma moved to one side and slightly in front of him and started doing the same moves at the same time.
Akane sighed in relief.
“What the heck are they doing now?” Nabiki asked curiously. A puppy curled up on her feet as she stood on the porch.
“They switched to katas. Ryoga’s following Ranma’s lead and they’re slowing the moves down so not to wear him out.”
“That doesn’t look very slow to me.”
“Slow for them.”
Ryoga wobbled, “Not that slow, Ranma!”
“Sorry,” Ranma picked up just a bit.
Nabiki studied the two youths. It was hard to tell that Ryoga was following Ranma, the moves were near simultaneous. But Ryoga was watching Ranma carefully… Of course, Ranma was watching Ryoga almost as carefully. Nabiki shook her head and moved the puppy off her foot before going back inside, leaving Akane to watch.
“Pig-tailed girl! My Goddess!” Glomp. Kuno’s arms went around Ranma’s chest.
“Pervert!” Ranma clouted Kuno up into the sky again.
“You can’t entirely blame him.”
“Huh?” Ranma blinked and turned to where Ryoga sat on the steps.
Ryoga was grinning in amusement, “When it got wet, your shirt became see-through.”
“Ack!” Ranma looked down at the t-shirt he was wearing and quickly folded his arms over his girl’s chest. “That does it! Last time I accept a present from Nabiki!!!” He stomped back inside the house to change.
“And I was getting such good pictures, too.” Nabiki came out from around the corner of the house. She eyed Ryoga suspiciously, “I was hoping to get one of you goggling… Maybe a nosebleed…”
Ryoga laughed. “It’s Ranma. You really expect me to react to him?”
Nabiki shrugged, “It was worth a try.” She regarded him oddly, “Why don’t you react? – you usually blush at even a mention of female anatomy, let alone a glimpse – but Ranma’s running around half-naked all the time...” The question lingered as she reached down and picked up a puppy, letting the camera dangle by its strap on her wrist.
“Ahh…” Ryoga was seriously blushing at Nabiki’s frank appraisal of him, “Well, Ranma’s a guy, not a girl.”
“The body is female enough!” Nabiki glanced at him in disbelief.
“Well, yeah, but… Ranma’s Ranma – it’s just obvious when you look at him, either form.” Usually. Ryoga thought about Ranma’s form in the wet tee-shirt and his blood pressure went up a couple of notches as it hadn’t at the time. Quickly, he switched topics, “Nabiki, why do you take the pictures?”
“It gets Ranma’s goat.”
Ryoga grinned, “Worthwhile. But, besides that?” Instinctively, he knew there was more.
Nabiki cuddled the puppy to her and turned to leave. She stopped before she got completely around the corner and turned back, looking Ryoga over. Finally, she said in a low voice, “If he doesn’t learn to take care now, then it will be the worse for him years from now.”
Ryoga blinked. And nodded slowly. He could see that. But… “You don’t think we’ll find a cure.”
Biting her lip, Nabiki left.
A leaf fell down from the tree. Ryoga snatched off a headband and split the leaf in two while it was still falling. And grinned to himself. Kasumi had finally asked him to stop cutting the leaves off while they were still on the tree, but she made no restrictions on after they fell.
And Ryoga remembered the wet tee-shirt... He turned to Ranma, “Why do you let Nabiki do that to you?”
“Huh?” Ranma came down, in his red shirt and in his guy form.
“The pictures, the teasing…”
“Oh,” a blush spread across Ranma’s nose. Ryoga raised an eyebrow and waited. “Ah,” Ranma fidgeted, “Half the time I don’t notice. The others… Well, it makes her money. I found out that Nabiki’s the one who pays for most of the repairs on the house – I don’t actually contribute anything besides more destruction.”
Ryoga tilted his head to one side as he thought about it. And I’m another freeloader. “I should go home.”
“No!” The worry was evident in Ranma’s voice, though he modulated it instantly, “Ryoga, you can’t go…”
Ryoga sighed, “I had the fever last night, didn’t I?” He didn’t remember. That was the worst of it. Not knowing what he said or did…
Ranma was silent.
“I didn’t say anything about the pig in front of Akane, did I?” It was the thing Ryoga worried about most.
“She left when you started talking. She usually does.”
Again, Ryoga sighed, “I thought I was getting better.” I really did. I’ve started to remember some of the dreams at least… Though, I’m not sure if the nightmares are what I want to remember. “Why am I thinking about cockroaches right now?”
“Last night, you were yelling about giant cockroaches attacking…” Ranma offered. Then he shifted stance slightly and looked at Ryoga expectantly.
Grinning, Ryoga got up, “Cockroaches, eh…” and he walked over to spar with his partner and friend.
“You’re doing much better, Ryoga-kun,” Kasumi brought another rock over and placed it down beside Ryoga.
“Thank you, Kasumi-san,” Ryoga picked up the rock and balanced it for a Breaking Point. Then he put the rock down, frowning. He looked to where Kasumi was walking casually back to the house. “Uhh…” he glanced from the rather large boulder to Kasumi and back again. Then Ryoga shrugged, grinned, and went back to his practice.
Ranma and Akane came home from school and found the lights off inside the house. They looked at each other and sighed.
“He over-did it again,” Ranma glanced to where their room was.
Akane nodded. Kasumi had taken to throwing the family out of the house whenever Ryoga had a relapse. She said that the noise wasn’t good for him. Mostly, though, it was an excuse to get Happosai away. The little freak had rejoined them a week ago, and Ryoga’s recovery had rather quickly deteriorated as he kept trying to defend Akane’s honor – and her panties. None of them could persuade Happosai to leave. Except Kasumi. Her solution was that if there was nobody home for Happosai to annoy, there was no reason for him to stay. It worked, most of the time.
The two walked in the house and quietly to the boys’ room. Kasumi met them, “There you are. I’ve arranged for Akane and I to spend the night at -------. Ranma, Happosai thinks you’re with your dad out in the mountains. Dad is visiting a friend. Nabiki’s home, but she’s doing her project report.” Kasumi summed up the family in her quiet way and then glanced back to the room, “Oh dear.”
They could hear Ryoga’s moans. Akane peeked in, “How bad is it this time?”
Kasumi shrugged, “The fever’s normal. Ranma, try not to let him get overexcited. His nightmares are worse than normal tonight.”
“Right…,” Ranma glanced at Akane who looked back at him. They both shrugged. So far, none of them had figured out a way yet to calm Ryoga out of a fever dream. And as he regained his strength, it was harder and harder to keep him down and not hurt himself.
Kasumi left them to go pack an overnight bag. Ranma and Akane walked over and stood next to Ryoga as he thrashed on the bed.
“No, no, no… No!!! I won’t let it happen! I won’t!” Ryoga’s moans died down to whimpers and he was quiet for awhile. Akane sighed and rewet the towel and placed it on his forehead again. Ryoga’s hand came up and held hers in a tight grip, “Akane.” Akane blinked and looked to Ranma, who was looking at Ryoga in surprise. “Akane,” Ryoga’s eyes opened, wide and dark, “I’ve been trying to tell you for the longest time… You’re so beautiful, so sweet, so wonderful, so kind… Akane-san, I—”
Akane squealed, “No! Not when you don’t know what you’re doing… Ryoga! I can’t… Not like this!” She pulled her hand out of Ryoga’s and ran out of the room and out of the house.
Just as the front door slammed, Ryoga cried out, “I love you, Akane!” He started to cry, curled around his empty hand, “I love you… I love you. Akane-san… Why…?”
Ranma glanced from the door to Ryoga. I see now why Nabiki thought we shouldn’t be listening. If Akane had been here… and in front of me… she wouldn’t have been able to pretend to ignore it anymore. It’s not just the pig. It’s his thoughts. Ryoga doesn’t know what he’s saying. Doesn’t know what he’s doing. And he won’t remember it in the morning. So Akane leaves, so Ryoga doesn’t tell her anything she’s not suppose to know. But Ranma had to stay, for Ryoga. He had to stay, because his friend expected it.
“We’re off, Ranma. There’s some dinner for you in the kitchen,” Kasumi came in and brushed Ryoga’s hair back. At her touch, Ryoga stopped crying and lay silently.
Watching them… “Kasumi, why don’t you stay with Ryoga? He trusts you.”
Kasumi shook her head, “It’s too easy for people to depend on me.” She smiled at Ranma and then left.
Ranma stared after her. “That’s… very true.” He moved the chair next to Ryoga and sat down, dislodging a puppy as he did so.
After an hour had gone by and Ranma had finally gotten his dinner, Nabiki came downstairs, “Ranma, I’m off to the library. I’ll probably be there the rest of the night.” She was carrying her laptop and a bag of books.
“Uh…” There was only one library that was open all night. In the downtown district. “By yourself? Nabiki…” Ranma glanced between her and Ryoga.
Nabiki shrugged, “I’ll take Checkers with me if it makes you feel any better.”
“The library allows dogs?”
“They’ll allow Checkers.” Nabiki grinned, “Okay then.” She snapped her fingers and Checkers got up from beside Ryoga’s bed and followed her out.
Leaving Ranma alone. He replaced the towel on Ryoga’s forehead and sighed. Why couldn’t Akane have stayed, at least? He remembered the way she’d run out… Oh yeah. Ranma glanced down at Ryoga, “You moron. Why don’t you get well? Then you can tell her for real.” Of course… Then I’d stop you. Because I don’t want anything to change. But things had changed. With Ryoga’s sickness… It had been over a month since Ranma had first found him. Or that Ryoga had found Ranma. Whichever way that went. And in that time… Ryoga was now very much a part of the family. Kasumi had taken him in, just as she had Ranma and his dad. Taken him in, and kept him there. The usual madness had gone on at school and after school and at home, with Kuno and Kodachi and Shampoo and Mousse… and Ryoga had been here. At their house. Part of the family. But not part of the madness. His weakness had changed him. As time had gone by, his fevers had yelled out ‘die Ranma’ less and less often. There was still the ‘why’ question, but much less violent. And when he was awake… Ryoga was happier then he’d been before. Most of the time.
“Akane… Akane-san. You don’t see me, you never see me.”
Oh, not again…
“You only care for P-chan.”
Ranma fell over in surprise. Then laughed at his expectations and his ego. Though, come to think of it – Akane hasn’t been asking about P-chan lately…
“No!! Get them off me! Get away! You dare! I won’t! I won’t! No!” Ryoga started thrashing around in the bed.
“Whoa!” Ranma leaped to hold him down. Ryoga avoided his grasp and threw out a punch that Ranma dodged. “Ryoga! Calm down! It’s okay! Just a dream!”
Ryoga twisted and shouted. Ranma tried to pin him. They both fell over. And the water pan fell on top of them. Suddenly, Ranma was holding a squealing pig in his hands. He stared for a moment. “Now, why didn’t we ever think of this before? He’s a lot easier to manage this way!”
The pig stopped squealing and lay back, panting. Ranma looked at him, “Ryoga… man, stop wearing yourself out.” He stood up, holding the pig by the bandanna… and then realized how he was holding him. “Oops. Sorry. Reflex.” He bent his arm and balanced the pig carefully, trying to imitate how Akane normally held him. And the pig turned his head into Ranma’s breast and sighed. “Hey!” Ranma pulled him away, “I am not Akane! And you shouldn’t be doing that to her anyway!!” He fumed. And stomped over to his pallet where two of the puppies were curled up. “Here – you guys keep him safe for a bit.” Ranma put the pig down among the puppies, who promptly rearranged to curl up again with the small pig in the middle. Watching, Ranma blinked as he realized that Ryoga… was smaller than the puppies. Admittedly, the puppies weren’t so small anymore. Soon, they wouldn’t be able to call them puppies, but young dogs. But Ryoga looked so small… in his runty black pig form. Ranma sighed. And looked at his girl form. Maybe Ryoga’s right. I don’t even notice when I change. But he… can’t do anything like that.
Shaking his head, Ranma stripped the wet sheets off the bed and left with them and the now empty water pan, trusting the puppies to keep Ryoga calm. In the kitchen he put a kettle on and rinsed out the water pan. His training at the Cat Café enabled him to balance everything he wanted to carry on the way back. After he’d replaced the sheets and the water pan, he watched the pig and the puppies for a long time. “Maybe I shouldn’t change him back. He actually looks comfortable.”
Unfortunately, the serenity didn’t last. The pig started thrashing and squealing… The puppies hurriedly left the room. Ranma sighed and went over and picked up the pig, this time deliberately cuddling him close. If it keeps him quiet… As the pig rested his head on Ranma, he started whimpering in low, mournful sounds. Ranma pulled him back, “Okay, that didn’t work.” He set the pig down on the ground and poured the hot water over him.
Ryoga blinked, and looked at his hands, “I’m not a pig?” He turned his hands over and studied the fingers, “I’m not a pig?”
Oh for… Ranma rolled his eyes. “Okay, maybe leaving you as P-chan isn’t such a good idea if that’s the type of nightmares you’re going to have.”
Ryoga looked up and frowned, “Who’re you?” He blushed and then scrambled for his clothes.
Huh? Ranma stared at his friend. He sounded coherent… But there had been other times that Ryoga had seemed normal and wasn’t. There had been one night that he and Ranma had talked the whole night… and Ryoga hadn’t remembered a word of it in the morning. Reaching over, Ranma put his hand on Ryoga’s forehead. Nope. Burning up. Actually, Ryoga felt hotter than normal. “I hope the change didn’t do something weird.” Ranma chewed on his lip and stared at Ryoga. And abruptly became aware that Ryoga was staring at him. Staring. And not moving.
“Pretty,” Ryoga breathed, wide-eyed, “So pretty…”
Uh oh… Ranma gulped, becoming very aware of his girl’s body. And the look in Ryoga’s eyes… He’s thinking about kissing me. Oh shit. Hurriedly, Ranma pulled his hand back to his side. “Ryoga, it’s okay. You’ve got a fever, Ryoga, and you’re not thinking too clearly right now. You’ll be okay in the morning – just take it easy for now.”
“A fever?” Ryoga passed a hand over his eyes. And leaned back against the cot, eyes closed. “Hot… it’s so hot… The flames, burning…”
That’s better… Ranma sighed in relief. Oh yeah, right, Ranma. It’s better to have your friend in nightmares? He rinsed out the towel and put it over Ryoga’s head. “Lean back so I can get this on your forehead…” Ryoga tilted his head back obediently. And then reached up and held Ranma’s hand that was holding the towel. Without opening his eyes, he traced Ranma’s hand, gently stroking from fingers to wrist. Ranma blinked. And held very, very still. But Ryoga didn’t do anything else. Just… held his hand. And stroked it. This… actually could be interesting… Ranma bit his lip as he thought. He’d experimented a little with his girl’s body – what normal teenage guy wouldn’t? But he’d never taken it very far, scared to be a girl. Actually, he’d had to experiment just to figure out the plumbing. But as far as guys… Ranma was terrified to be mistaken as a girl. But at the same time was curious about them. Akane… Ranma wanted to know what her feelings were. He couldn’t tell. He’d thought he’d’ve had a insight, being in a girl’s body part of the time, but so far not really. Yet, there was no way that Ranma was going to experiment with any of the guys. Be cute at the markets, yes, but anything more? No way. The time Mikado had kissed him still made Ranma wake up with nightmares. That and Kuno’s declaration of love. But I haven’t even thought about when Ryoga kissed me… because it wasn’t real. Ryoga didn’t know it was me. He wouldn’t ever have done it if he’d recognized me. And Ryoga didn’t remember it. Not at all. Ranma watched his friend and chewed his lip. Even if he doesn’t know it’s me… Ryoga is a gentleman. Usually. Ranma remembered the time he’d pretended to be Ryoga’s fiancée and had gotten a bit mauled for his efforts. That had been the only time though – all the other times he’d tricked Ryoga, Ryoga had been so nice. And right now… It actually felt kindof good to have his hand stroked like that. So gently… Shivers were starting to run up his arm, though Ranma wasn’t sure if it wasn’t from trying to keep his hand so still for so long.
Ryoga sighed and his hand released Ranma’s, falling down to his side. His head tilted to one side and his breathing deepened.
Ranma blinked. Then picked Ryoga up and laid him on the bed, covering him gently with the blanket. And watched him sleep. Ryoga, my friend. Please get better. I don’t like seeing you this helpless. And knowing there was nothing he could do. Nothing, except watch and wait. Ryoga had been so strong yesterday – sparring with him at almost a normal level of speed and power. And today… Ranma gathered up Ryoga’s hand and held it, bowing his head, scared. Seeing Ryoga’s weakness like this – Ranma felt a touch of his own morality. They had been equals. If anything, Ryoga was stronger and better. Ranma won their fights, when they had an audience, but only because he had better tactics, not because he was the better Martial Artist. But now…
“Ranma… Are you crying?” Ryoga’s voice was full of concern and puzzlement.
Jerking upright, Ranma gulped. And dashed a quick hand over his eyes. “No. Of course not.”
Ryoga chuckled and pulled a bandanna off to give to Ranma.
Taking the cloth, Ranma looked at his friend suspiciously. Then reached out his hand to touch Ryoga’s forehead. And jerked back. If anything, Ryoga was hotter. “Ryoga – how do you feel?” Damn… he can’t get much hotter without burning something. Should I call Dr. Tofu? I wish Kasumi was here.
“Tired.” Ryoga closed his eyes then opened them again, “But restless.” He shook his head, “Every time I close my eyes I see images… And then everything comes apart.” With a sigh, Ryoga sat up, swaying slightly before leaning back against the wall. “And I’m not even sure this is real. So far, I’ve had conversations with five people who I know don’t even exist. And a few I’m not sure of. At least you really are real, even if the conversation isn’t.”
“Ryoga?” Ranma blinked. Excuse me? Not real?
“So hot…” Ryoga murmured. And closed his eyes. “Ranma, do you hate me?”
“Because I attack you so much.”
“Of course not, Ryoga. You’re my friend.”
Ryoga opened his eyes and glanced at Ranma, “You’ve got weird ideas of friendship.”
“So what about you?” Ranma had a sense of déjà vu. This was very like their other conversation that Ryoga hadn’t remembered. And the ones in the hospital. Should I even be talking to him, knowing he’s not going to remember it later? The things they’d talked about before… It was weird, knowing things about Ryoga and not having Ryoga know that he knew them – and not having Ryoga remember the things Ranma had shared with him. There were things Ranma had told Ryoga that he’d never told anyone else… And Ryoga didn’t remember.
Ryoga chuckled again, “I don’t have friends. Except for you. And I’ve never been quite sure why you were my friend.” He closed his eyes with a sigh.
This time, Ranma stayed silent. It’s like one of those ‘choose your way’ books. Last time, I answered. But what will Ryoga say this time? A different path.
“After you left… I followed you to China. I wanted… I don’t know anymore. Mostly, I wanted to know why you left. Left without a word. I didn’t know you’d actually shown up. But even so, I had thought you’d wait… I thought… we could be friends. I’d never had a friend before. You were the closest I’d ever had. What is a friend, really? If only…” Ryoga raised his hand to his head, grimacing with memories.
Whoa! Back up there… “Without a word???” Ranma blinked, “Ah, Ryoga… What do you mean by that? Didn’t—”
Ryoga was going on, obviously not listening to Ranma. “Jusenkyo. Damn Jusenkyo. Falling and falling… I couldn’t get out. I can’t get out! Where are my hands? What’s happening? I can’t get out!! Help me, somebody!” The fear in his voice screamed out to be heard, desperate and filled with horror. Ryoga stood up as he shouted, his hands reaching up to try and drag himself out of the pond… And then he collapsed back on the cot, shivering, silent, tears falling down his face.
Ranma also sat down, having reflectively stood up when Ryoga did. Ryoga never asks for help… Ranma gulped, realizing for the first time that Ryoga might have drowned there… Drowned like the original pig. All because of Ranma. “Ryoga… I’m sorry. I’m sorry I knocked you into the pond. I didn’t see you. I swear I didn’t.” Although, that in itself was a cause for shame. For a Martial Artist not even to notice the people around him…
“You didn’t…” Ryoga struggled up to a sitting position again, “She didn’t know she knocked me off. The look in that girl’s eyes… She was mad. Flaming mad. And crazy. She didn’t know what was happening around her and didn’t care about anything but revenge on who she was chasing. Such eyes… Cursed Springs of Jusenkyo. But she was so pretty as well. Even taking me unawares, she got through my guard. Such a Martial Artist. She didn’t even know I was there, and took me out so easily… Ranma, your form isn’t a curse. Not like the pig. It has such style and grace. Strong, flexible, powerful. You’re enviably handsome as a guy. And so very pretty as a girl. So pretty… And cuddly. Yet still the supreme Martial Artist. Looking like that, and fighting like that. Such speed. Such grace and strength…”
Ranma blinked. And blushed. Hearing Ryoga talk like that… sounding so normal… yet Ranma knew that his friend was still in the grip of the fever. Ryoga wasn’t even looking at him, his eyes still shut. I wonder… Ranma moved from the chair to the cot, sitting next to Ryoga. He reached a hand up to his head again. Still hot. But a bit better than it had been. More normal for the fevers. At the touch on his forehead, Ryoga’s monologue stopped mid-word and he opened his eyes, staring at Ranma. And Ranma stared back. And bit his lip. Ryoga’s not going to remember it. He’s not. It’s the perfect opportunity… And it won’t go any further than I want it to. Ryoga’s still weak. But inside, Ranma was sure that Ryoga would stop at a word from Ranma without any need for violence. If he even went that far. After all, it was Ryoga. Who was still staring at him.
“Ranma?” Ryoga’s wide brown eyes stared at him, “You’re… a girl? But… This is a dream. Obviously a dream. And a weird one at that. But…”
“Just a dream,” Ranma agreed. And moved 'her' hand down from Ryoga’s forehead to his cheek. “A fever dream. Things get very strange in fever dreams.” He caressed Ryoga’s cheek gently, feeling the strong bones and soft flesh. And fought down a shiver of revulsion. Ryoga’s another guy… Do I want to learn this, or not? Ranma looked at Ryoga and kept ‘her’ hand on his cheek, looking expectantly at Ryoga and forcing his unease down.
For a moment, Ryoga visibly stopped breathing. Then he started again with a gasp. “Ranma… I don’t… Ranma is a guy… My friend. But she’s so pretty. With those brilliant blue eyes… Wet tee-shirt… Damn Nabiki for making me think about it! If Ranma ever found out I was thinking like this… Gods – I don’t want this! Not with Ranma! Now he’s in my nightmares also. Oh geez… so pretty.” The last was full of wistful longing, though there was also shame.
Ranma forced himself to not remark on any of the thoughts directly, though he did bite his lip, What do I think I’m doing? “Ryoga, Ranma is a girl, not a guy, the curse changed him.” No it didn’t! “This is a dream Ryoga – do what you want to. All your secret desires and longings… Ranma’s a girl. A very pretty girl. Very pretty. And she’s so close to you right now… It’s okay. It’s only a fever dream. Ranma will never know.” Ryoga will never remember it. It’s a chance. A chance to learn what it’s like…
There was a long pause as Ryoga looked into Ranma’s eyes. Then he shrugged slightly, “What the hell – I’ve had worse dreams,” Ryoga leaned forward and kissed Ranma.
Ranma sat still, forcing himself to remain motionless as he thought about the feelings. Mostly, he was anxious, and scared. Ranma forced his mind to stop wailing ‘I’m a guy!’ and concentrated on what he could physically feel. Ryoga’s lips were pressed against his with a gentle but firm pressure. Softly moving, but not much. It wasn’t… unpleasant. Exactly. Ryoga’s lips were hot against his own. It was the fever. Just the fever. A hand stroked Ranma’s cheek and he forced himself not to jump in surprise. Gentle. Just like the lips. Gentle, soft… Ranma relaxed a fraction and realized he was pressing his lips tightly together in unconscious rejection of the kiss. He forced himself to relax a bit more and softened his mouth to Ryoga’s touch. And blinked in surprise as his body suddenly relaxed even more. It… did feel nice.
Ryoga’s mouth moved away as he breathed. Ranma belatedly remembered to breathe himself. “So soft…” Ryoga’s voice murmured gently, “I thought they’d be soft…” His finger traced across Ranma’s lips.
And a thrill raced down Ranma’s spine at the touch. Wide-eyed, Ranma stared. I didn’t… just react? Did I? Ryoga moved his mouth back over Ranma’s and Ranma felt his chest tighten. I did! I’m… reacting to Ryoga’s kiss? As a girl??? Well, that was the idea, wasn’t it? Ranma noted the reaction with curiosity. And put his arms around Ryoga’s back.
Ryoga drew back, surprise showing in his eyes.
And Ranma felt… hurt. “Don’t you want me, Ryoga?” It was probably just Ranma’s ego, but all the same… I want him back. Ryoga can’t go until I let him go! “Ryoga…, you’re so handsome and strong… please don’t say no.” Ranma batted his girl’s eyes in a fluttery manner, wide-eyed and bright. Just like he did in his disguises. I’m a damn pretty girl! And Ryoga’s going to know it! It was definitely his ego.
As always, Ryoga fell for it. “I, uhh… Well,…” Ryoga blinked as he looked at the girl holding him. “Who are you? Do I know you?”
“Silly,” Ranma giggled lightly, hoping Ryoga wouldn’t start drifting into thoughts of Akane, “I’m the one who wants you.”
Ryoga’s breath drew in sharply. And his eyes started to sparkle, “You… don’t mean that. You can’t.”
Uh… Ranma reminded himself firmly, He’s not going to remember this. He’s not. “I do. I do mean it. Ryoga – kiss me.”
The wonder and joy in Ryoga’s eyes… Ranma had to close his own as Ryoga leaned in towards him. I don’t want to hurt him. He’s not going to remember it. The hurt in Ryoga's eyes after the fiancée episode was over… But now Ryoga was kissing him. And rather more urgently than he had been before. His arms went around Ranma, holding him, 'her' gently but firmly, pulling 'her' into him. One hand stroked Ranma's back. And Ranma… was rather astounded at the feelings. This is so interesting! Being held in Ryoga's arms… feeling 'her' breasts pressed up against Ryoga's firm chest… They don't hurt like normal when somebody is squeezing me. It doesn't actually feel all that bad. Nice. Warm… Still, though, Ranma nearly jumped through the roof when Ryoga's hand moved from 'her' back to 'her' front. And on the instant Ranma jumped, the hand stopped and went to Ranma's back again. Ranma blinked in surprise at the retreat. I guess I was right about Ryoga. Ryoga's mouth left 'hers' to breathe again. Instead of coming back, Ryoga then kissed Ranma's neck and moved his mouth to 'her' ear.
“Beloved… I have waited all my life for you, the Wondrous Princess of the River. Will you disappear on me like you do all your other lovers? Or can I persuade you to stay… Stay for a little while. River Princess, where is your secret hid? How can I keep you by my side? Do you have a dragon for me to slay? Or shall I tame it instead and present it at your feet? How many lands shall I explore for thee? My Princess of the Air and Water, do not retreat back to thy River so quickly. Bide just a while for me. With me.”
Ryoga's voice was soft and warm in Ranma's ear. Ranma listened to the story in fascination. Is this something he used to read? Or is he making it up on the spot? While Ryoga talked, his hands stroked Ranma's back. Gently. From neck to waist. Straight, and also in circles and patterns. Pulling Ranma gently into him and keeping 'her' there. Ranma rewrapped 'her' arms around Ryoga and sighed, relaxing into him, letting 'her' body lean into his. Just… being held like this is nice. I think… I could do this with Akane. Just sortof put an arm casually around her at some point and hold her. Unfortunately for Ranma's imagination, just what sort of point eluded him.
Suddenly, Ranma was thrust away as Ryoga stood up, his eyes blazing furiously. “You dare…”
As he sat back on the bed, Ranma blinked, he didn't recognize me, did he? But he thinks it's a fever dream…
Ryoga ran out the door.
“Hey!” Ranma sat stunned for a second, then followed.
By the time Ranma reached the door, Ryoga was at Akane's room, “You leave her stuff alone, you pervert!!”
Oh, Shit! Ranma bounded over, not now! Goddamnit! Not now!! He got to the room just in time to see Happosai draw out his pipe and casually toss Ryoga aside. Ryoga slammed into the opposite wall with a thud and fell limply to the floor. “NO!!!!” Ranma stepped inside the room, shaking with fear and anger. Fear for his friend. Ranma stared at Happosai, too angry for words. His hand curled into a fist, and he could feel his battle-aura gathering around him. His battle-aura was not a familiar feeling, but at this moment, he drew it to him like a close friend. His partner. Laying broken on the floor. Thrown there by the freak of nature in front of him. Ranma's fist raised to his chest.
“Eh, you here too, my boy? I thought you were training with your father.” Happosai cheerfully pulled a bra out of Akane's drawer, “I see you've changed already. Come here and try this one on, I think it should about fit. The slight tightness will make them stand out all the more.” He chuckled with delight.
Ranma took a step forward, his aura a deep fierce red.
Happosai looked up and narrowed his eyes, twirling his pipe in his hand, “Do you really think you can take me on? You haven't learned, have y—” The last word was spoken with a surprised 'umph' as his breath came out all on the one word, Ranma's fist in his stomach driving it out and knocking Happosai out the window in an explosion of glass.
Ranma didn't even look at the pipe on the floor as he turned and walked to where Ryoga lay crumpled, not moving. “Ryoga…” Ranma reached out and touched his friend carefully. And blinked in surprise and concern. Ryoga's skin wasn't hot anymore… it was cold. Chilly and clammy. At Ranma's touch, Ryoga moaned, then started shivering violently. Ranma picked Ryoga up and carried him to their room and to the bed. Even after he'd gotten the covers tucked around Ryoga and two extra blankets as well, the shivers didn't stop. Ranma pursed his lips and whistled. All five puppies were in the room in a moment, and hopped up on the bed, draping themselves over their human.
“I don't like this,” Ranma muttered to himself. And went to the phone to call Dr. Tofu.
“You say he had a fever and now a chill?”
“Well, it sounds like a complete relapse of the malaria. You'll have to give him some of the medicine the hospital sent home with you.”
Ranma blinked, “Medicine?”
There was a pause on the other end of the line. “They didn't give you any???”
“No… They told us to come in if his condition changed… But no medicine.”
“Those…” Dr. Tofu said a word Ranma hadn't heard from him before. “I'll go pick some up and be over there as soon as I can. Keep him warm until then.”
“Uhh.. right.” Ranma cradled the phone and walked back into his room, staring at his friend. Ryoga's face was pale and drawn, his lips parted slightly as he breathed in gasping breaths. And I thought the fevers were bad. What the hell? What did Dr. Tofu mean, a total relapse? If this is a relapse… what's been happening to Ryoga all the other times? Ranma checked the puppies covering Ryoga from neck to toe and decided there wasn't much more he could do. Except… He walked back to the landing to call the house Kasumi was staying at. Kasumi… and Akane. He didn't want to worry Akane, but Ryoga needed Kasumi's care. And Ranma needed Akane's support.
The first person to show up at the house was Nabiki. She came in the front door, gasping from the run. She went straight to the room, “Ranma! What's wrong?”
Ranma blinked, “Nabiki? What are you doing back?”
“Checkers,” Nabiki gestured to the dog, who was already by her master's side, whimpering as she nuzzled at the pale face. The puppies whined as they saw their mother, but they didn't move. “But Ranma -- what happened?”
“Happosai came back,” Ranma said tensely.
“Oh!” Nabiki's hand flew to her mouth. “But… couldn't you stop him?”
“Ryoga sensed him before I did -- and was there before I figured out what was happening. I only got to them in time to pound the freak, not in time to save Ryoga.” Ranma glanced curiously at the middle sister, who had always seemed so cold and calculating, but was now kneeling next to the cot, her hand trembling as she petted one of the puppies. “Nabiki…” Ranma bit his lip, “Nevermind.”
But Nabiki figured out the question and her words turned sharp, even as tears leaked out the edges of her eyes, “He's as much our brother as you are, Ranma. Don't be surprised that we care. I've already lost two people in my life that I care about -- I don't want to lose him too.”
“Sorry,” Ranma muttered. Wait a sec… Two? Their mother was obviously one…
The door banged open and Akane and Kasumi came in. Ranma started to repeat the summary, but stopped and started again as Dr. Tofu got there.
Dr. Tofu gave Ryoga the shot of medicine and watched his vital signs. “He should be okay in a bit. The medicine is usually very effective.”
“Then why didn't we have it? Why haven't we used it before?”
The doctor sighed, “Ryoga hasn't had a real relapse up until this point. His fevers… Basically, Ryoga was still fighting off the first infection. Any normal human would have died before he'd gotten to the hospital, but Ryoga being Ryoga… and the fact that you put so much energy into keeping him alive; well, he got better. And probably would have shaken it off altogether if this hadn't happened. Just keep an eye on him. He'll probably have a couple more fevers, but that should be tapering off. Unless he has another relapse. But as long as nothing like this happens again, he shouldn’t.”
“Tofu-chan…” Kasumi's voice was hesitant, and instantly everybody turned to look at her, surprised. Kasumi blushed slightly, but continued, “About the situation…”
“I know,” Dr. Tofu's voice was grim. “I'll take care of Happosai. He won't bother you again until Ryoga is well. This time he's gone too far.”
Ranma and Akane traded wide-eyed looks. They'd always known Dr. Tofu was a Martial Artist as well as a doctor… but they'd never seen it before. Suddenly, the gentle doctor wasn't so gentle. And they knew that he would do as he promised.
Kasumi went to Ryoga’s side, taking over his care with her gentle and calm manner, instantly reassuring everybody. Ranma moved to Akane’s side, and put his arm around her for his own reassurance. Akane turned to Ranma and hugged him tight.
They held each other for several minutes before Ranma realized what he was doing. Hey! This is what I was thinking I could do… And he’d done it automatically. Holding Akane. Just… holding her. Being together. The experience from the night was paying off already. From… With a pang of guilt, Ranma looked over Akane’s shoulder to Ryoga’s still form. I’d almost forgotten about him, caught up in my feelings for Akane. I’m sorry Ryoga… But now that Tofu and Kasumi are here, he’ll be all right, really... Ranma noticed something. Or rather, didn’t notice something, “Uhh… Where’s Dr. Tofu?”
Nabiki brought a cup of tea in for Kasumi, and answered with unreadable emotion in her voice, “He left ages ago. You two were rather out of it.”
Akane squeaked and moved away from Ranma, blushing hotly.
Ranma was rather flushed himself. And I wasn’t even… Ah, heck. “Thhhh’aank…” he stuttered, then clamped his mouth shut and tried again, “Ah… Thanks, Akane. I needed… a friend. Thanks for being here.”
Wide-eyed, Akane looked up at him. Then she smiled, gently, with real joy behind her eyes, “You’re welcome… I needed it too. Thanks…”
Together, they left the room.
“Ryoga!” Akane walked into the dining room and stopped, surprised, “You’re up! How are you feeling?”
Ryoga traded amused glances with Kasumi, “Maybe I should have come in after everybody else – then I could have answered the same question all at once.”
Akane blushed slightly, and looked to Nabiki and Ranma who were sitting at their places for breakfast, also a bit red. Nabiki put down her rice bowl, “So far, even the wording has been near identical. Ryoga feels fine – he says better than he has been for awhile. And he’s eaten two bowls of rice so far.”
It was Ryoga’s turn to get red, even as he grinned in amusement. “I really do feel much better, Akane-san. Thank you for asking.”
“I thought I told you to drop the –san,” Akane retorted gently as Kasumi handed her a bowl, “Thank you, Onii-chan.”
Ryoga blushed. And put down his bowl of miso. “Uhh… Akane…”
Everybody at the table looked at him in surprise. Ryoga hadn’t been that flustered since the first week he’d been with them. Akane remembered what he’d been yelling as she ran out the door and she blushed even redder than he was. He’s not going to… Oh, Ryoga… Are you going to tell me… But I don’t know. I don’t know…
Ranma glanced between his two friends. And was worried. But forced himself to stay still. I can’t interfere again. I can’t. Ryoga’s tried to tell her before how he likes her but I’ve interfered every time. Because I don’t want… Because I do want… Akane… don’t hurt him. Please don’t hurt him. But how can we all be friends still after—
“Akane,” Ryoga took a deep breath then let it out in one rushed sentence, “I’m sorry if you’ve been worried about P-chan but he’s okay you see because he’s me.”
There was dead silence around the table. After a moment, Ranma and Akane face-falled in sheer shock. Kasumi and Nabiki picked up their rice bowls again, calmly.
“Ahhh…” Ryoga stared at the table. “I’m sorry, Akane. I’m sorry I never told you. I didn’t want to see… I’m sorry.” He stood up, “I’ll leave now. Thank you for taking care of me when I was sick.” He paused briefly, “And when I was P-chan.”
“Whoa!” Akane and Ranma both jumped up, “Stop! Don’t you dare go anywhere!” The words were near identical and Akane and Ranma looked at each other before sheepishly sitting down again. “Sit, Ryoga,” Akane said firmly.
Ryoga sat, head still bowed. “I know. You hate me now. I’m sorry. I never meant it to go so long… It was so nice being P-chan around you. I didn’t expect… I’m sorry. I’ll stay out of your way. Just… please don’t… I’m sorry.”
Ranma broke in, “Akane – why aren’t you saying anything?” He’d been eyeing Akane while Ryoga was monologing in his mournful tones, and Akane just didn’t look surprised. Nervous, yes. But not surprised.
“Ahh…” Akane blushed. And didn’t say anything.
The silence was so unexpected that Ryoga looked up. “You don’t hate me?” A note of wistful hope was in his voice.
“Ahh…” Akane nervously looked at the table.
Nabiki grinned, “Ryoga-kun, why now?”
“Huh?” Ryoga blinked and looked to her.
“Why are you telling Akane now?”
“Oh… Well…” Ryoga looked out the door at the pond, silver in the morning’s light. “Last night, I had some really weird dreams.”
Ranma blushed, fidgeting with his chopsticks.
“They were the usual lot of nightmares,” Ryoga paused and then a corner of his mouth twitched up, “And some not so usual…” Shaking his head, Ryoga turned serious again, “I also dreamed about Jusenkyo. The curse.” Ryoga closed his eyes briefly, “And… I dreamed that we found a cure. That we could be normal again. Something I’ve dreamed of since the day I got this damned curse. But… I came back, happy that I could be a man, thinking that I could finally ask you—” Ryoga broke off and blushed scarlet, “Ah, nevermind. Anyway, in the dream… you…” Ryoga closed his eyes again, “You just kept asking where P-chan was. The months went by and you got sadder and sadder wondering where your little P-chan was, was he lost, did he get hurt, didn’t he like you anymore, did he die, did somebody else capture him, did… You cried for P-chan. Because he wasn’t coming back. Ever. And all I could do was stand there silently. Because I’d never told you.” Ryoga put his head down and cried. Between the sobs, he kept saying, “I’m sorry, Akane. I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt you. I’m sorry.”
“Oh my,” Kasumi sighed.
“Well,” Nabiki cleared her throat, “That wasn’t exactly… what we expected.”
Ranma looked away from a still stunned Akane. He narrowed his eyes and glanced between the sisters. And kept silent.
“Ah… Ryoga, it’s okay. You can stop crying. It’s okay.” Akane fidgeted.
Ryoga instantly stopped, “You don’t mind? You don’t… hate me?”
“Ryoga, I could never hate you.” There was sincerity in her voice.
“Really?” he breathed, his expression lightening in happiness and joy and hope, brown eyes sparkling.
And Ranma recognized the expression. He tightened his hands in involuntary jealousy and his chopsticks broke in two, the sound ringing across the room. Everybody’s eyes turned to him and Ranma glanced down at the table, putting the broken pieces down.
Nabiki broke the tension, clearing her throat again, “I’d have to say that was a pretty unselfish reason, wouldn’t you agree, Kasumi?”
“Oh yes!” Kasumi smiled, “Completely unselfish. And it took a lot of courage as well.”
Nabiki nodded. And both sisters turned to Akane.
Akane quailed back, “But it wasn’t the right reason! It wasn’t the one I wanted!!!”
“It was unselfish.”
Two of the sisters nodded in agreement. The third blushed and restlessly fiddled with her rice.
Ranma and Ryoga looked between the sisters and then at each other. And moved so they were sitting next to each other. Ranma asked, “Why do I think we’ve been had?”
Ryoga shook his head, “Because we’re the ones with the thick skulls,” he muttered.
“Oh all right,” Akane muttered, putting her bowl down. She looked at the guys, her face tinged pink. “Ryoga… Uh… Thanks for telling me…” She fell silent.
Ranma raised an eyebrow.
Nabiki rolled her eyes, “Go on, already. Like it didn’t take more from him!”
“Shut up!” Akane yelled, her face getting redder. “Uh… Ryoga… I already knew.”
The guys looked at each other. “She knew,” Ranma stated. Ryoga blushed, “Well, I did wonder sometimes.” “Yeah, sure you did,” Ranma glared at Ryoga, “And you still snuck into her bed!” “Nothing ever happened! I’m a pig, damnit!” “Yeah, you are.” “Oh, shut up.” The guys finished their bickering and looked back at Akane. “You knew?”
“Uhh…” Akane shook her head and decided mad was better, “Well, of course I did! ‘Thick as a brick? Dumb as an ox?’ If you guys wanted to tell the whole world, you couldn’t have done it better! Pig jokes, ‘Stop calling me P-chan,’ no cold water… Geez. That first night, you were pouring hot water over Bess – like I couldn’t figure that one out?”
The guys looked at each other again. “You’ve known that long?”
“Yeah…” Akane looked down at the table, losing her anger, “I kindof thought mina would have told me before now. And then… it had gone on too long. Especially that day you thought you’d rather be a pig forever…” Akane choked back a sob, “Ryoga… don’t ever do that. As much as I like P-chan… Ryoga, Ranma,… why didn’t you tell me?”
Ryoga stayed silent, but cast a glance at Ranma. Ranma shrugged, “Hey, if I had a chance to hide my curse, I would. It’s… not easy, having a curse.” He bit his lip, “And I was responsible for it in the first place, so Ryoga had a right to be mad. That first night – he was getting back at me.” Seeing if I had any honor in me at all… I had nearly killed him. I hadn’t noticed… He could have drowned there and I would have never known. Ranma shivered.
“And then,” Ryoga put his comments in, “well, it was nice being P-chan. I’m sorry it went on. I didn’t mean to. But you were so happy having a pet… And… Ah… It would have been too embarrassing to have said anything.” Ryoga made his way through the awkwardness and then stopped, suddenly struck by a thought. “Hey… It was kindof contemptible of me not to tell you, wasn’t it? Oh geez,” His face burned red with mortification, “Oh geez, I’m sorry. I never looked, honestly. And I never repeated anything you ever said. You gotta believe me. I never looked! If I’d ever have thought…”
“Ryoga, if you had ever thought, you would have realized that I never did anything in front of you!” Akane fumed, “Honestly! Why do you think you always got put in the closet when I changed clothes? I don’t do that with the puppies!”
“You don’t?” Ranma asked. And then looked over at Ryoga, “Now there’s something you never mentioned. You actually let me think…” Ranma stood up, enough was enough. Ryoga was looking more than ready to sink through the floor because of a combination of shame, embarrassment, and relief. It had taken so much for him to tell Akane… Prolonging it wasn’t helping.
Ryoga looked up. And recognized what Ranma was doing. A slight grin played on the corners of his mouth, “You’re the one who tossed me in the locker room! And then came barging in! You’re a fine one to speak.” Ryoga stood up as well. And waited.
“You shut up!” Ranma growled, “Bringing that one up… You could have told her we were after the bloody spring!” He launched himself at Ryoga and the two boys took the fight out to the yard, yelling at each other even as they traded blows.
Akane watched them in exasperation. “He did, Ranma,” she muttered, “I was waiting for you to tell me about the spring. You also could have just gone in after class was over!”
“So…” Nabiki lowered her eyelids, “Just what exactly was the reason from Ryoga that you were waiting for?” She grinned at her sister.
Akane blushed scarlet and left, heading up to her room.
Nabiki looked at Kasumi.
Kasumi sighed, and then smiled, “Oh my. It’s good to have friends.”
“Hibiki Ryoga, you fiend!”
From where he’d been staring into the koy pond, Ryoga looked up, “Huh?”
Kuno glared at him, menacingly pointing his bokken, “You had the utter gall to take both Tendo Akane and the pigtailed girl out on a date last night!!! I will avenge their honor!”
“A date????” Ryoga’s voice went high with shock even as he stood and shifted into guard stance. He recognized perfectly well what Kuno was doing but the accusation still astounded him. A date with Akane…? That… would have been nice.
“A date??” Akane stepped out on the porch, “We were at the movies, Kuno! The movies!”
“And is that not considered a date between youths when their hearts fly high and their need is togetherness?” Kuno retorted as he swung at Ryoga.
Ranma came out of the dojo, his face red, “It was not a date!”
Kuno side-stepped Ryoga’s return punch and took a moment to level his bokken at Ranma, “I will deal with you, vile sorcerer, later! Letting my two goddesses out on the town unescorted… To be accosted by who knows what foul beings!” He brought the wooden sword back around in another swipe at Ryoga.
“Foul being?” Ryoga sputtered, “Okay, that does it!” He spun into a series of kicks and punches, driving the other youth back. It was good to fight with somebody besides Ranma. Ranma… was still being cautious. And Kuno’s style was very different.
Nabiki wandered out onto the porch for a moment to watch then went back in with only one caustic comment, “Can’t any of you ever just ask for a spar? Really, people just watching you would think mina were all enemies or something.”
Akane grinned as her sister went back in, “But this is more fun.” She shared a laughing glance with Ranma as came up to join her, enjoying the togetherness of the teasing. “Ranma, you baka – why did you stay in girl-form last night anyhow?”
Ranma blushed as he watched Ryoga spar with Kuno. And didn’t answer.
“If it was just for the extra tub of popcorn, we could have done fine without it…,” Akane prompted, slightly surprised at his silence. In a lower voice she said, “Easy, Ranma – he’s doing much better. I think he can handle Kuno without any problems.”
Ranma glanced to her, anguish showing in his blue eyes. He whispered back, “But what if he over-extends…?”
A yellow and black headband whizzed through the air and would have sliced Ranma if he hadn’t jumped back at the last moment. “Yow!” Ranma’s eyes were wide as he looked to the apparently intense fight the two youths were having in the yard.
Akane tried to hold in her snickers and finally gave up, laughing at the expression on Ranma’s face, “I think he heard you…” She grinned and turned her attention back to the fight, happy that her friend was feeling better.
Kasumi served the rice and then started eating hers. Everybody at the table stared at her.
The dads exchanged a glance then also started eating theirs without a comment.
The other three had comments aplenty.
“Kasumi, is Ryoga okay?”
“Kasumi, why isn’t Ryoga here? Is it the fever again?”
“Should I take some dinner up to him?”
Kasumi blinked, looking around, “Oh my.”
Akane and Nabiki traded exasperated looks. Their sister, while loving and caring and sweet and wonderful… she could also be the most irritating person on the face of the earth at times. “Okay, Kasumi – give.”
The eldest sister shrugged slightly, “Ryoga-kun is on a trip. He was getting bored.”
Ranma and Akane paled to near-white at the thought of Ryoga alone out there…
Nabiki blinked. And then started grinning, “You mean he’s no longer on house-arrest – that’s great.”
Nabiki’s reaction to the bafflement on Ranma’s face was surprisingly soft, “Ran-chan, how would you feel if you felt perfectly fine and somebody told you to stay here?”
“But…” Ranma thought about it for a brief moment, then shook it off, “But Ryoga’s not fine – he could have another fever at any time. He could get lost… hell, he probably is lost right now. If he over-extends himself, he’ll collapse. He needs us. He needs…”
“He needs to be alone,” Nabiki replied firmly, looking also to Akane. “Really, folks, listening to you two, one would almost think you want him to be sick.”
“That’s not true!” Ranma yelled, “I want him to be better.” I do…
At the same time, Akane protested, “I didn’t say anything!”
Kasumi snorted softly as she sipped her tea.
Akane looked over in shock, then bent her head and started crying.
“Akane!” Ranma scooted over to her side and put an arm around her, whispering reassurances to her.
Even Nabiki raised an eyebrow at her sister. Kasumi’s nose turned red in embarrassment. And then she turned her head an instant before the phone rang. “I’ll answer it…” Kasumi said, trying to recover her smooth serenity. The family watched as she walked out into the hall.
When she came back, she was smiling gently, “Ryoga-kun is in Kobe. He’ll be spending the night there.” Kasumi looked around at the mostly baffled expressions and added, “When he left, he took a cell phone with him.”
Unfinished… I'm working on it, really I am… along with all the others…