Title: Fiery Dragon
A lot of people say I’m mercenary; cold and heartless without a thought for anybody else. That I’d sell my own sisters if there was a profit in it somewhere.
They’re wrong. I wouldn’t do that.
I’d sell Ranma, though. We’ve all got to eat, and Ranma’s the best margin I’ve ever found.
Hey, it’s a living.
“Come on, Ranma,” Nabiki muttered as she focused the camera, “Just a little lower…” Ranma’s towel slipped off his hips and Nabiki quickly took several shots. “Perfect.”
Ranma reached down and picked up his towel. As he straightened up, his eyes locked onto the paneling across the way and one side of his mouth moved up, though the skin around his eyes didn’t.
Nabiki shivered. Of course Ranma knew she was here, he always had. It was their unspoken agreement that the photos she took were his rent contribution to the household. Well, it was their unspoken agreement after the first time he’d found out about them. He’d been pissed but reasonable about it. Lately, though…
After a final salute at the wall, Ranma left the room.
Staying where she was, Nabiki frowned at her camera.
Perhaps it’s because I’m removed from the action, that I can see it. Or perhaps I’m just being arrogant. But nevertheless, Ranma has changed. When he first came to our household, he was a breath of spring air, delightfully naïve while breaking hearts left and right. He left a swath of suitors laying in the dust and when he noticed them there, he was horrified.
For all his violent ways and rough talk, there was a certain gentleness within him that peeked out and asked only some kindness to grow. He forgave his attackers and couldn’t say no to tears.
Yet… he was still a wild beast, and nobody tamed him. He was a dragon with a set of matches, causing havoc wherever he went. Not always his fault – more the result of those that followed him. But still, fires were set and left to burn unattended.
Fires in people’s hearts in particular. What was it about Ranma that drew everybody to him? Everybody who had a little bit of fire themselves seemed to be drawn to him… and none of them could let go.
As the months went by, the number of Ranma’s suitors grew, and he started to notice them. And at the same time, the rewards for his kindness lessened. What was a simple smile, when he had women and men throwing themselves at his feet every day?
Ranma’s fire is becoming a cold burn. Soul of Ice indeed. He laughs now more than he did when he first came to us… but it’s empty laughter. It’s prideful and it’s hurtful and I don’t think it really exists deep inside him.
When Ranma first came, all it used to take to cool him down was a bucket of water. A switch to his girl form and he was mortified and malleable. He was fun as another sister. We could dress him up and play with him and there were games that never ended. I don’t think he’d ever had a family before. And as a guy, he couldn’t have fun, but as a girl, as long as he protested first, then it was okay.
But after awhile, the girl’s form was just another way to get what he wanted. I’ve grown to hate the girl’s form. “Pigtailed Goddess” was amusing when it started, but now those words are nothing but a mockery. And if I have to see Ryoga go into stammering fits one more time as Ranma puckers up and whispers sweet nothings only to laugh and run off leaving poor Ryoga standing there crushed even further down than he was before… well, I don’t know what I’ll do, but I know that it’s not funny anymore. Ranma’s laughter could drown us all.
Kuno slipped into the seat across from Nabiki, his dark eyes shadowed.
Without the usual chatter, Nabiki slipped him the packet. As he opened it and saw what was inside, Kuno visibly winced.
“Something wrong with the quality?”
Kuno dragged his eyes up to meet hers, “No. They are worth their price, as always.”
Nabiki snorted, “Then there must be something wrong with the subject matter.”
The lines around Kuno’s mouth tightened, “There is nothing wrong with my pigtailed goddess!”
Except that she’s not. Well, goddess of slutsville, maybe… Nabiki didn’t particularly want to look at the photos either, and she was the one who had taken them. The way Ranma had posed in that skinky underwear…
Well, it didn’t really matter. Kuno would still pay for them. And his sister for the others… Ranma in the buff should get some good prices.
“Tendo Nabiki,” Kuno cleared his throat after shoving some bills to her.
He hadn’t opened the packet of photos again. Nabiki remembered a time when he couldn’t stop looking at the first ones she’d brought. “Yeah, Kuno-chan?”
“My sister… is indisposed. She requested that I give you this,” he put another set of bills on the table, “for her order.”
Nabiki narrowed her eyes but took the money. After she gave over the second packet of photos, which Kuno didn’t look at, she shook her head. “Kodachi didn’t really say that.”
For a moment, Kuno kept his aristocratic pose, and then he folded silently, bowing his head and leaning heavily on the table. “No,” he whispered. “She’s back in the institution.”
Jerking back in surprise, Nabiki lost her own pose. “But I thought she was getting better!”
“She was…” Kuno didn’t look up but spoke to the table. “They think that she just needs a few months away…”
“From the madness,” Nabiki finished sarcastically.
Kuno winced but didn’t deny her statement.
She’d planned on saving them, but… “Here.” Nabiki pushed another packet of photos over. “Baker’s dozen.”
After a sharp look at her to try and figure out the angle, Kuno opened the packet; and closed his eyes briefly in pain. Then he took out the photos. He ran a finger over the smiling figure of his pigtailed goddess, taken the first month she came to the neighborhood. With a regretful sigh, he put it back and concentrated on the other. Ranma. Ranma in his formal ice skating outfit with the dragon blazed across his chest, grim and purposeful. “Dark sorcerer…” Kuno whispered as he tucked the picture into a pocket. Then he left.
Staying where she was, Nabiki sipped on her soda thoughtfully and looked at the pile of money.
Kuno-baby, if I could spare anybody the madness, I think I’d want it for you. You’ve been my adversary since we were kids, and you’ve never made fun of my family. Heck, you even had a crush on my poor crazy sister and made it so real that the entire school followed your lead. Spouting the talk of strength you respected. But the picture of her you pasted in your room was of Akane in a long nightshirt cuddling a big bear. It was really the kindness you were after, wasn’t it? The kindness your parents never showed you or your sister. The same kindness that Ranma used to have.
Poor Kuno. Trapped in your own snare. You made it, and you wanted it. But you don’t feel the same heat as when you started. Ranma’s soul is ice, not fire. Yet it still burns…
Kodachi gone. That’s a blow. She was the only one you could really go all out with. The only one who understood your loneliness and felt it just as deep. But now you’re all alone and there’s no one to compete with anymore. No one to share the dream.
I don’t think mercy is within Ranma anymore… but if it is… if there’s anything left of the gentle boy he could have been…
Hell, I can’t even say it in my own thoughts. It doesn’t fit my style. Not good for business, to show you have a heart. If you do, then people will have no respect for you anymore. It’s a cute saying, but really, nice guys don’t finish first – they’re too busy letting everybody else in front of them. It’s the focused, driven, uncaring individuals that will strive to win anything, no matter what it is, just so they can finish first.
Kuno-baby… if your dreams finally come true, I wish… I hope… that when you get there, you’ll find more than just ashes from a burnt-out fire.
Damn you, Ranma Saotome.
“Damn you, Ranma Saotome!”
As the shout faded out, the figure on the hilltop sank to his knees, covering his face with his hands.
A trail of mocking laughter took a few moments more to disappear. The figure that had produced the sounds was long gone.
Nabiki chewed on a fingernail and debated as to what to do.
“Go ahead, you can laugh too.” Ryoga’s voice was treaded through with the tears that were falling on the ground.
“No thanks; not my style.”
With a bitter laugh, Ryoga stood up, dashing a hand across his face. “Why do I never learn? Why does he get me with it every time? Nobody could ever like me as I am, nobody ever will. Why can’t I figure that out and not fall for his stupid tricks?”
“Ranma…” the sound of pain and anger and sorrow and longing. A dark mix that whirled together.
Wiping away the last of the tears, Ryoga picked up his backpack and headed down the hill, his back straight and unbowed despite his words and the tears.
Oh, Ryoga-chan… Staying where she was, Nabiki watched him go and didn’t say a word.
Ryoga, Ryoga… how can you be so strong? As much as you give, it will never be enough. But you never give up.
Mostly. There were some things he gave up on. Like Akane. He rarely rambles on about my dear sister anymore, so caught is he in Ranma’s nets. Though Ryoga doesn’t realize it himself yet. All his early carefully staged fights with Ranma, the excuses for sparring and friends who didn’t know how to be… somehow they’ve turned more real, more internal.
I think it was that moxibustion training that turned the tide. When Ranma forced Ryoga to really burn true fire so he could learn his “soul of ice”… It burned away the last of Ryoga’s barriers. And Ranma didn’t even notice. He was too busy winning his fight.
Poor fellow. I think Ryoga’d be better off if he quit now. But he won’t. He’s given all he’s got, but he’s going to keep going. That’s what he does, and he doesn’t know how to quit. Not like Kuno, who knows only too well, but still keeps on despite the knowledge. Kuno… he’s still going, but you can tell he knows the price. Ryoga… if Ryoga keeps on his path, pretty soon he’s not going to be able to lie, even to himself.
“See you in a week,” Ranma grinned at the group. Almost his old grin – Ranma liked to train, and he liked to be away. But still… Nabiki shivered.
As Ranma and his dad headed up the mountain, Nabiki and her sisters stood by the trees and watched.