Interlude in Pale Green
After his long and tiring trip to Okayama, and an excellent night's sleep, Ranma didn't wake as early as he'd been doing recently. But that was still early enough to be in the kitchen sipping tea when Akane stopped in for hers. "Good morning, Ranma," she said. "How did things go with Kuno yesterday?"
"Surprisin'ly well," he smiled. "But there may be side effects. Mind if I come along on yer run? We can talk about it then."
Akane was thunderstruck, but eventually managed a shy smile. She still wasn't sure what Ranma was up to, but so far it was easier to get along with. She finished her tea, and they headed out the door.
Behind them Kasumi smiled as she picked up the cups. The wa of the Tendo compound had improved since Ranma's return. She'd had enough time to see some of the reasons herself all week Ranma had been rising early, and spending quality kitchen time with her. He was obviously taking time to think before speaking, and had been getting along more smoothly with Akane in consequence. Uncle Saotome had been gone, and her father was behaving more normally. (She'd definitely started seeing Genma as a bad influence now that she'd had some time away from him.) There were no fights in the yard, so she hadn't had to do as much work there. And grandfather Happosai was staying away too, which helped Akane's temper no end.
She was Neriman. She didn't even think about how well things were going that would be asking for trouble. But she went to the household shrine, and silently thanked her mother. And, she thought, if Bjorn-sensei does show up, he is going to get a very good meal.
By this time, Ranma and Akane were several kilometers into their jog and entering a park. "I like the pathways here," she huffed. Ranma could tell she wasn't winded her heartbeat was still too slow for that but her breathing was disciplined for exercise, not speech.
Ranma smiled. "I like nature too," he said. "Let's go 'round the park a few times, then we can rest and talk." He was careful to let the depth of his breathing come out in his speech. Akane might have thought he was humoring her if he hadn't.
Eventually they plopped down onto a park bench. "I shoulda taken this run with you long ago," Ranma said. "You have a gentler focus when you run than you do in the dojo."
Again, Akane didn't quite know what to say. Was this a compliment to now, or an insult to then? So she held her tongue and her temper, and focused on her breathing. A little silence wouldn't hurt.
After they'd listened to the birdsong for a while, Ranma began to speak. "Kuno found a swordmaster-priest he trusted, down Okayama way. We talked, with the priest as a witness. An' for a wonder, Kuno listened."
Akane made a gentle noise of inquiry.
"Told Kuno I had three curses I knew of, an' he shared the worst one. We were both raised by idiot fathers, without a mother to help hold the idiocy down."
Akane thought of pineapples, haircuts and the neko-ken, and solemnly nodded agreement. "Even Kuno couldn't argue against that."
"An' that left us kinda socially inept."
"An' here's the part ya might not like. 'Cause I said you suffered from the same curse. Oh, not as bad as we did - your dad wasn't as bad as Kuno's or mine, and you had sisters to help, but still ."
Akane went rigid for a long moment. Her heartbeat jumped, she stopped breathing, and her aura flickered. There was an acrid smell of electricity and adrenaline. But then she sighed. "I don't like it, but it's fair."
They sat for a while more, each aware of the other. Ranma was realizing that silence was a second important lesson he'd learned from his time in the Northwoods. This wasn't martial arts he didn't need to react immediately. He liked just being with Akane, no talking. But eventually he broke the silence. "He's lonely, you know."
"He? Kuno? Lonesome?"
"We haven't been good for him, Akane. He was rich, and his father was Principal. He could get away with anything. That wuzn't real, and deep down, he knew it. So he clawed his way to the top of the Kendo heap. He was team captain, and got some real respect for it. 'Nen he was foolish enough to make that challenge. An' you wiped the field with him and made him a laughingstock."
"Not gunna argue. But you made the kendo team a joke, too. Their strongest fighter getting' creamed by a younger girl, with her bare hands? They didn't like him much for that. 'Nen I came along and made it worse."
"You make him sound almost reasonable. If I hadn't been there, I might believe you."
"We don't haveta believe. But that's the way he sees it. An' if we can see his mind, maybe he'll try ta see ours. I already got him partway there."
"You're asking a lot."
"I know. But I wuz with him all yesterday, and we'd sworn not to fight. After he ran through his big talk, he got down to small talk. He ain't near as bad once he's done with the Shakespeare and the haiku."
"But what could the two of you talk about?"
"Our mutual curse. Martial arts. Kuno and me are the best male fighters in Furinkan, after all."
A breeze came up and the trees released their store of morning dew, plus a bit extra from a midnight shower. Ranma brushed the water from her face while Akane snickered. "And you and me and Ukyou are the best female fighters. We got lots to talk about. an' not just fightin'. Kuno's a lunatic, I'm a sex-shifting braggart, and Ukyou's a crossdresser livin' with another crossdresser. Lotsa interesting things. And you fit right in, bein' a tomboy and all "
The mallet flashed into existence and Ranma leaped off. And they had another hour's invigorating run before they came, panting and laughing, into the Tendo compound.
After they'd washed up, Akane went out for ice cream with Sayuri and Yuka. Ranma and Nabiki were sitting on the sofa practicing conversational English when the door slid gently open and a tiny, tentative face peered in at them. Ranma looked over with a neutral expression. "Hello, jiji."
"Ranma, my boy! May I come in?"
"Sure, jiji. Just be careful not to scamper that sets off the Cat. And" (Happosai's ki senses could see a tail lazily swaying back and forth) "you're the bessssst play-toy. You lasssst. It'sss funn to chassssse you."
"Don't sscurrrry, don't pissssss me offf, and 'sssspessshally don't wake me ssssssuddenly, and you ssshould be all rrrright."
Happosai looked downcast. "I suppose that means I can't have your panties when you're my sweet Ranma-chan?"
"Well, jiji, at the airrrrport the other day I noticed you werrrren't cirrrcumcissssed ."
That pretty well killed the conversation. Happosai went quietly to his room while Nabiki struggled to keep from laughing her head off. She did have an image to maintain. When Kasumi looked disapprovingly at them, Nabiki noted that "Happosai never steals your panties. We look at it differently."
"What she said," Ranma added.
Ranma and Nabiki looked at one another, then back to Kasumi. "If you're feeling left out, we could arrange it," they chorused. Kasumi blushed terribly and went back in the kitchen, while Ranma and Nabiki gave each other high-fives. It wasn't often they could feel righteous about embarrassing Kasumi, but this was one of those times.
On Monday, Ranma and Akane walked through the gates of Furinkan to be confronted by Kuno Tatewaki, with his bokken resting on his shoulder. "Hey, stickboy-kun, how's it going?" Ranma said.
"Well, sorcerer-kun, I have had days when my path stood more clear before me."
"Me too. We gotta do something about that." Ranma bowed respectfully to Kuno. "Sempai, we three did not get off to the best of starts. Can we begin again?"
Kuno returned the bow, to both Ranma and Akane. "It is the custom to give one's own name first, is it not? I am upperclassman Kuno Tatewaki, captain of the Kendo club, sometimes known as the Blue Thunder of Furinkan High."
Ranma bowed back, thinking it both a bit silly, and more than a little worthwhile. "I am Saotome Ranma, heir to the Musabetsu Kakuto Saotome-Ryu. My companion is Tendo Akane, heir to the Musabetsu Kakuto Tendo-Ryu." Akane bowed.
"You know the tree where we eat lunch," Ranma said. "Would you join us there at noon, to discuss paths taken, and paths to be taken?"
"I shall," Kuno replied. "Until, lunch, then." All three bowed, then headed together for the school entrance. Inside they parted company. Above, Nabiki checked over the bets and smiled. Nobody had bet on this. She got to keep all the money. Except (and her smile got a bit one-sided) for Ranma's share. At least the boy was letting her take it off his debts, instead of demanding cash. And she sighed. Every silver lining has a cloud, she thought.
Akane and Ranma made it to class several respectable minutes before the late bell, but Ukyo's desk was still empty by the time Ninomiya-sensei called the roll. Everybody was looking over at Ranma and Akane what had happened with Kuno? but the two of them looked resolutely innocent and disinterested. There were going to be rumors, all kinds of rumors, but they were not going to give the rumor mill anything. It would have to do all the work itself.
Akane sat in math class, distracted by the slight buzzing noise from Ranma's direction. She knew what he was doing. He'd been surprisingly alert during English and history, but he was napping now. And he'd learned to do it with his eyes half-open, so he wasn't being persecuted for it.
Ranma's sleep patterns had changed since he'd returned. Oh, he still slept in the same classes (except for English), but he was napping more during the evening. If she sat down for TV, Ranma would be there, curled up purring and dozing at her feet. Or if Ranma were female she'd curl up on the sofa beside her. Onna-Ranma was small enough to fit without crowding. And the kami help anyone who woke her when she was sound asleep.
One night Akane had been wakeful, and she'd looked out her window. By the light of the waning moon she'd seen Ranma moving about the yard on all fours, sniffing things and investigating them. He'd gone behind the dojo, she'd seen a flicker of motion over the wall, and nothing had happened for the rest of the hour she'd watched. What was he doing in the middle of the night?
He was saying more with his body, less with his mouth. She wasn't sure if this was good or bad. It was wonderful to go for days without hearing "uncute", but Ranma was starting to act like he had the right to hold her hand or curl up near her. It warmed Akane's heart, but disturbed her at the same time. And she was starting to feel guilty at the way he flinched and grew colder whenever she said "pervert". But how could she punish him for that? It wasn't the same when he didn't insult her back.
And besides, she'd started stroking his shoulder, and even running her hand through her hair when she was cat-napping beside her on the sofa. Could she help it if she'd always gotten along with the Cat? She blushed, just the tiniest bit. Ranma's nostrils twitched.
Now there was this lunch with Kuno. It was only twenty minutes away. What was she going to do, going to say? There was more than a year's accumulated bad karma to deal with!
The bell rang. She got her bento and headed out the door, Ranma with her. As they reached their customary tree, Kuno Tatewaki joined them. Silently they sat, unwrapped their bentos, spread the cloths on the ground, opened the boxes. Ranma and Akane had bentos by Kasumi. Akane wasn't sure where Kuno's came from, but it looked splendid.
They began to eat. After several mouthfuls Ranma smiled broadly. "This sushi is even more wonderful than Kasumi's usual!" he said. He took it up in his chopsticks, and used the claw of his forefinger to slice a good piece off onto Kuno's rice (that being neutral ground). "Try it, sempai!"
Kuno chewed thoughtfully. "Piquant indeed," he said. "The two of you are fortunate to have her cooking for you." He took his chopsticks and put one battered shrimp on Ranma's bento, and another on Akane's. "Our cook is skilled, but she spends more effort on presentation than taste. You might enjoy her shrimp, however."
Despite Kuno's protestations, the shrimp was tasty indeed. And so the meal passed in small talk and quiet enjoyment of good food. But soon enough the food was gone, and they were left with tea and one another's company.
Akane was unsure what to say, and Ranma had been more quiet of late, so it fell to Kuno to break the silence. "There's much history among us," he said. "Let's not speak of it now. For if we did, 'twould be a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. We have a future to discuss, instead."
Akane loved Shakespeare herself, and this made her smile. "You can't know how glad I am to hear you quote the Bard," she said. "Ranma has been behaving differently since he returned. And since your talk with him over the weekend, you have been, too. I was starting to feel surrounded by pod people."
They all had a good chuckle over that. Akane had never seen Kuno laughing quite so genuinely. "We may or may not be idiots ourselves," he said, "but we were surely raised by idiots. Good William said it better than we could: it makes a wild tale, but you can't expect meaning from it. Now, 'tis time for us to leave our idiocies behind."
Despite her long history with Kuno, Akane was charmed. Suddenly she could understand how Ranma had spent a day with him and emerged unscathed.
Ranma spoke. "We gotta talk about Akane, Sempai." She felt a sudden rush of anger. "More important, we gotta listen to her." And she calmed again.
"Sempai," Akane said, "please stop the challenges. I'm not a prize to be offered up to the winner of a fight. It's hurt my opinion of men, and of yourself."
"Really improved your ability to fight multiple opponents, though."
Akane whirled on Ranma. "What was that?!"
"Anything goes, Akane. You may not have enjoyed it. You may have hated it. But you gotta admit, it was educational. I'm better with a single opponent. Make it a dozen, an' you can probably take care of yours as fast as I could handle mine. 'Specially now I gotta be careful not to damage people."
Akane glowered at Ranma. "Are you saying I should be grateful?"
"Nope. Just sayin' that awful as it was, some good came of it. Sorta like me an' the Neko-ken."
Kuno was watching the two go back and forth. When Ranma mentioned the Neko-ken, he shuddered. He'd just a few days ago learned the true horror Ranma had been subjected to, and now Ranma was comparing his Kuno Tatewaki's behavior to that?
And while Akane was undergoing a delayed reaction to Ranma's words he had, after all, said she was as good as he was, with a dozen opponents Ranma turned to Kuno. "Sempai, people can learn. People can move beyond their past. You're lucky you're not my father he didn't. An' worse for him, the Cat hasn't had time to move beyond its past. So Oyaji is hidin' from the Cat. We may have to find some other way to demonstrate my third curse."
Kuno waved that aside. "We can worry about that later." He turned to Akane. "Akane-san, please accept my deepest apologies. In my delusion, in my confusion, I had no idea that what I was doing was so offensive to you. Though misguided, it was sincerely meant as praise for your warrior spirit."
He looked back and forth between Ranma and Akane with a quirked smile. "Beside, I wasn't thinking at my best. I kept getting hit on the head." The two blushed.
"We're sorry about that," Akane said as Ranma nodded. "By the time I was through fighting all those other people, I had so much adrenaline going you didn't have even the faintest prayer of my acting reasonably."
Ranma added, "And I had other issues. I'll tell ya after we talk over my third curse."
Kuno smiled. "Well, then! Tendo Akane, I would date with you."
Kuno continued. "But last weekend, Ranma-kun explained the engagement dilemma the two of you have. It seems your romantic life is complicated enough already. And so, until you find a resolution Tendo Akane, will you allow me to occasionally keep you company?"
Akane was flabbergasted, but after a moment she began to smile. "That is quite acceptable, sempai," she said. "But I will take it amiss if you suddenly leave me to chase after the pig-tailed goddess."
"But I must have you both!"
Ranma and Akane beat him about the head and shoulders with their bento boxes, without doing significant damage. Kuno attacked, using kendo moves with his chopsticks; but Ranma defended with Seven Lucky Gods chopstick technique. And they all had a good laugh, but on Akane's part it was nervous. What had she gotten herself in for? Obviously, Kuno wasn't as insane as he'd seemed in the past but was he as sane as he seemed today?
The mock-fighting had put Ranma into a somber mood even Akane and Kuno (neither of them noted for perceptiveness) could see that. "What is it, Ranma-kun?" Kuno asked.
"I love the Art," Ranma said. "But with claws, I can't even spar safely. It'd be like you sparring with katana instead of shinai." Ranma looked back and forth between Kuno and Akane. "You're both fighters. Tell me what does a fighter do, when he doesn't dare fight?"
Akane cast her eyes down. She was starting to see more of what was behind Ranma's new behavior. Part of it was euphoria from making peace with his Cat, of fearing cats no more. But part was depression, from no longer being able to enjoy a good fight. She squeezed her eyelids shut, and her heart clenched in sympathy. Damn, she thought. It's all very well for this new Ranma to make Kuno think. But now he's starting to make me think.
Kuno, bless him, had something useful to say. "There are times when shinai or bokken will not do. Times when I simply need sharp metal in my hand, and something to cut. Recently I have begun to study American-style teppanyaki cooking. Though I'm still a novice, it's immensely satisfying to deliver a thousand cuts in a hundred seconds, and end up with a work of art."
Ranma and Akane looked at him with enormous eyes.
"That's it!" Ranma said.
"Wow!" Akane said.
Ranma grasped their shoulders, an enormous smile upon his face. "When I was studying with Bjorn-sensei, he had me enter a woodcarving contest. Everybody else used chainsaws, but I used my claws. It was so satisfying! Yes! There is more than one Art!" He looked around the schoolyard. "Hiroshi! He sculpts in clay! He's in the Art Club. I'm gonna haveta talk with him!" He made to get up, but then sat down again.
"Teppanyaki," Akane said with stars in her eyes. "Do you think you could come over some evening and show Kasumi and me how to do it?"
Ranma shuddered quietly, but concealed it. Things were going far too well for him to risk upsetting Akane or Kuno. The class bell rang.
They all rose, gathering up their bentos and heading back to school for the afternoon. But Akane was extremely happy. I'll have to make a special dinner for Ranma to celebrate, she thought.
Ranma had stayed for the after-school meeting of the club, which had lasted over an hour, and he was swinging happily home. Hiroshi had been struck silent in amazement, but the club's advisor, Kinomoto-sensei, was vocally overjoyed to get another sculptor. There was going to be an inter-school competition later in the fall, and Furinkan hadn't had anybody who worked in wood or stone. Now they did, and could enter yet another category. Yatta! One day along, and he was already in a competition!
But a block from the dojo, Ranma's smile slipped. He could tell: Akane was cooking.
I don't like the ssssmell of thisssss the Cat thought.
It ain't no worse than that dead fish you ate before I could stop you.
I was hungrrry. And we didn't get ssssick from the fissssshh.
We won't get sick from this either, Ranma thought. I have an idea. And he told the Cat.
That'ssss crrruel. I llike it!
Then we'd better hurry, Ranma thought. We have to block the door so nobody can escape. And he got there just in time to forestall Nabiki's "sudden errand".
Nabiki and Soun begin insisting he eat the meal his fiancιe had prepared specially for him. Soun employed his patented waterworks, while Nabiki used her well-practiced scorn. If Ranma was going to make her stay, by golly, she was going to make sure he ate the first serving!
Ranma sat down, looking surprisingly cheerful for a condemned man. Akane brought the dishes in, put the meal on the table, and began ladling it out. Ranma took an extra-large serving. "Itadakimasu! he said, and his chopsticks begin flying between his food and his mouth. Soon his plate was empty. He patted his tummy with a smile, and belched inelegantly.
Everybody but Ranma and Kasumi began to look sick. There was a sudden stampede for the bathroom. Kasumi looked at Ranma. "What? Anyway, the Cat made me do it. It ain't what it looks like!"
Kasumi said "It looks like you happily ate Akane's cooking."
"Right, it ain't what it looks like." Ranma took Kasumi's hand and headed for the kitchen. "I gotta get something to eat while they're busy, so they won't notice me bein' hungry."
"They looked like they'd be occupied for some time. Now what happened, and why didn't it happen to you and me?"
"Well, I didn't want to eat the food, and you didn't try to make me eat it. We were the innocents here. To defend myself that is one of the things the martial arts are for I broke out the gourmet de foie gras move.
"Wasn't that how you defeated that creepy Picolette Chardin?"
"No way I could eat as fast or as much as he could. But I still emptied my plate first. Is it my fault most of my food ended up in his mouth instead of mine?"
"Oh my, but that wasn't a very nice thing to do to Akane!"
"Kasumi, how often have we told her to taste the food before she feeds it to us? I just enforced that a bit. And I am more than tired of Nabiki and your father pushing me to eat it. So I gave them all what they were asking for, and my share of it as well.
"Notice I didn't get hit with a mallet? In fact Akane was pretty happy, until she started throwing up. Do this a couple more times, and we all may live through dinner. You won't warn them, and spoil the lesson?
"Now, we've got a kitchen to clean up. You scrape out the pots, and I'll kill the food if it gives us any trouble, and then we can both wash the dishes."
Which they did, chatting quietly to the counterpoint of distant retching in three-part harmony.