Ranma 1/2: Catalyst
Part Three: Friendships
The characters in this story were not created by me and do not belong to me in any way, shape or form. They are the creations of the one and only Rumiko Takahashi. All hail!
Nabiki strode through the corridors of Furinkan College and drew all her courage around her. She knew she'd need it. Head high and back straight, she walked. And then they began.
"There she goes again, look at everyone tremble."
"She _enjoys_ the fear."
The whispers, as always. The voices that you could hear around you but never pin down the owners of. Nabiki had learned to ignore them, but today her lessons of the past failed, and for the first time in a long time, she listened.
"Look at her, thinks she's so special."
"No one would cross her. She could really get you."
"Damn tyrant. You know she had Yaegashi in tears last week."
"I know. And then she charged Hikaru 14,000 yen for naked pictures of this girl he liked."
*Not true,* thought Nabiki. *It was 6,000. And the girl was in a bikini.*
"Oh my gosh... how can she call herself a woman? Hasn't she ever been in love?"
"Are you kidding, her heart shrivelled up years ago."
*Wish it had, then it wouldn't be hurting so much right now.*
"Who'd want her anyway? Even tapeworms have standards."
"Yeah... _and_ morals. Hahahahahahahahahahahaha!!!"
*And now the laughter. The laughter's the worst part.* Nabiki strode on, face expressionless.
Kuno paused just inside the threshold as the sound of tears reached him. Who on earth would be crying in the kendo dojo? All the other team members should be in class right now. He shrugged and reached for his bokken. None of his business.
Kuno put the bokken back and looked around for the source. That had been a feminine sob. It was now officially his business. Kuno disliked the tears of women. It was dishonourable to cause them and unchivalrous to ignore them. He resolved to find the source of these tears, discover their cause and, if required, beat the living snot out of whoever had made this woman cry in HIS domain! He peeked behind a changing screen and was shocked at who he saw sitting on a rolled up mat.
"Nabiki Tendo?" he said incredulously.
"Ah!" Nabiki wiped her face. "Kuno baby, you shouldn't sneak up on people like that!" Her face crumpled and she wiped it furiously. "What's up?"
"I was just about to ask you that self-same question," said Kuno. "What upsets you?"
"Oh nothing... nothing..." Nabiki waved his query away airily, sniffing furiously. Kuno paused, looked around and joined her on the mat. She smiled nastily at him.
"Don't want to be seen with me huh?"
"No... No it's not like that!"
Nabiki laughed harshly. "Can't say as I blame you really, who'd want to be seen with Nabiki, the Bitch HellQueen of Furinkan College?"
"Who said that about thee? I shall smite them!" Kuno said, startled.
"Right. Thanks Kuno. Remind me to give you a discount on your next purchase," Nabiki turned away.
"That's... not why I said it." said Kuno.
"I know I know," Nabiki sighed. "Thank you. Your offer is appreciated, but not neccessary."
Kuno paused. His eyes narrowed. "Of course not, after all, if you really wanted someone pounded, you could go to your sister Akane, or even... Ranma Saotome. Why bother with Tatewaki Kuno, the wannabe champion of Furinkan College?"
"Hey wha?" Nabiki turned and stared at him. "I've never heard you admit to that!"
Kuno's mouth twisted sourly.
She blushed bright red.
He sighed. "Oh I've heard the voices. 'Oh look, there's Kuno the thick-skulled.' 'Watch out, here comes bonehead Kuno'. 'Even Kuno could have answered that question.' 'Hey, let's watch Kuno get beaten up by Ranma again.'"
Nabiki winced; some of those quotes had been hers.
"Oh I don't mind _you_ saying them Nabiki. You've always said them to my face. Not whispered them across the courtyard like a coward. Or behind my back, as though that made you a hero."
"You get the whispers too?" Nabiki asked. "I didn't know!"
Kuno leant against the changing screen. "Oh yes, over the years I've learned to tune them out. But sometimes..." he sighed. "It is... disquietening."
"I always acted deaf," said Nabiki. "But today..."
Kuno nodded sympathetically. "I have always acted as though my family name could shield me from the insults. Why let those cowardly insects get to me? If they had any courage or honour they would face me in battle. Or stand up to me as you do. Instead they hide, and sneer at my attempts to be better than they are."
A hand on his arm. "You do a good job of it Kuno," said Nabiki.
Kuno sniffed arrogantly, "I will admit to you Nabiki Tendo that I am not overburdened with intelligence."
Nabiki restrained the strong urge to nod in agreement.
"But I have always tried to act with honour." He continued. "Perhaps that _is_ an outmoded concept, but I would not let it die lightly."
"No... I guess you wouldn't." said Nabiki. She patted his arm. "Wanna go get some lunch with me?"
"It's only 9.30."
"So we'll make it an early lunch."
Kuno looked like he wanted to be convinced. "I have to go to math class," he said reluctantly.
"Kuno, in all honesty, you'll never pass that class in a million years."
"Thank you Nabiki," he said sarcastically. "I knew I could count on you to prop up my self-image and provide me comfort in my hour of need."
Nabiki laughed. "Hey you know me, I'll do _anything_ to get what I want!" She pulled him to his feet. "Come on, let's go."
"I don't have any money on me."
"That's okay," said Nabiki.
"Really?" asked Kuno in surprise.
"You can pay me back later."
Laughing, they left.
Back at the Nekohanten:
"Ryoga's son?" asked Cologne. "What a shock that is. But it would explain the training," she watched as Tenjou ran to fetch a mah jong piece that Mumu-chan had knocked off the table. "And I see he doesn't suffer from the Hibiki family curse."
Akane nodded. "He's quite normal - except for the fact that he doesn't talk."
"Personally, I find that rather appealing," said Cologne. "It's nice to be able to finish a sentence."
"Strange to think that lost boy has child," said Shampoo.
"If you had just gotten son-in-law to propose when you first arrived here you would already have several children," Cologne snapped. "I'm beginning to wonder if there's even going to _be_ a next generation of Amazon warriors."
Shampoo looked surprised, then resolute. "Soon Shampoo get Ranma to admit his love for her, then they get married and have lots and lots of children, even cuter than lost boy's son!" she proclaimed confidently.
"QUACK!" objected Mumu-chan.
"Huh," said Cologne. "Perhaps you'd better speed up your timetable if you want to come up with some rivals for young master Hibiki here."
"Yeah, right," said Akane under her breath. "Speaking of which, I should take him back home. Ryoga gets really jumpy when Tenjou's not around."
"And Ryoga's not the most stable of personalities," agreed Cologne. "Perhaps you should get going then. Now remember what I taught you child," she said to Tenjou. "Practice that kick over and over till you've got it right!"
Tenjou nodded and then bowed formally to her. Akane smiled and held out her hand, which he took. She walked to the door, paused, turned and bowed to the group.
"Thanks for the ramen Mousse!" she said. "And for looking after Tenjou, Cologne. Have a nice day!"
Then smiling, she headed off again.
Cologne watched her go, then switched her gaze to Tenjou. Shampoo watched her, and noticed the longing glance she gave the boy.
*I WILL get Ranma to marry me, and all of OUR children will be much MUCH stronger and much MUCH cuter than Tenjou. Except they'll be girls, of course.*
Back at the dojo, Ryoga was indeed fretting. "They've been gone _hours_!" he wailed.
"One hour and a half," said Ranma. "_Will_ you calm down?"
"An hour and a half is all it takes!" Ryoga wailed. "I'll never see my son again! He's probably been kidnapped to be raised as a girl! Or hit by a car! Or the curse has kicked in and he'll be lost forever! Or sold into slavery, dropped into the pools at Jusenkyo, eaten by giant man-eating octopi... Drugged! Kidnapped! Murdered! ENGAGED!"
"ENOUGH!!!" yelled Ranma. "Enough already! Stop panicking damn you, you're starting to freak ME out! Look, I've been doing stuff like that all my life and MY pop never worried."
Ryoga shot Ranma a look that was more eloquent than words.
"You have a point," Ranma admitted. "Come on, let's go spar before you start hyperventilating again."
"I don't want to," growled Ryoga.
"Piggy piggy piggy."
"That's NOT going to work Ranma!"
"Oh come on," said Ranma. "Please?"
Ryoga hesitated. "Oh alright," he said grumpily. "But if they're not back in another hour..."
"We'll tear up the entire town looking for them, I promise," said Ranma. "Now, follow me. No Ryoga, I'm walking THIS way."
In the dojo, Ranma pulled back from one of Ryoga's punches and jumped away. He stared at the man he'd always privately considered his only _real_ rival. *Hmmm, his strength is the same, his toughness too - he hasn't practiced in a long time though, and I've learnt a lot of new tricks. But... he's really _thinking_ about what he's doing. Strategising and stuff. And more, he's...*
Ranma launched into a flurry of blows, including a vicious nasty punch aimed at Ryoga's groin. Ryoga either took, blocked or avoided the punches and pulled back. Ranma stopped and looked at him hard. *I'm not feeling any...*
"You sick or something?" he asked. "I'm not getting any battle aura off you at _all_."
"I'm fine," said Ryoga. "Come on, you wanted to do this." He attacked again. Ranma dodged easily.
"No seriously," he said. "You're not putting yourself into this. If this is what married life does to a person I think I'm well out of it."
Ryoga dropped out of fighting stance and glared at him. "Now there's an attitude that says everything about you," he said.
Ranma frowned, "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Everything requires a price if you want the rewards." said Ryoga. "Maybe I'm not as good a fighter as I used to be. But I'd give up all my martial arts skills and be a weakling like Gosunkugi in a second if I could go back to being a married man instead of..." he controlled himself.
*And that was what was wrong,* Ranma realised. *I was spot on the other night - he's controlled now, TOO controlled. Every time his battle aura starts up he squashes it down again - internalises it. The old Ryoga never bothered reining in his emotions - ever! It was part of his strength! Part of all our strengths. But now he handicaps himself everytime he throws a punch because he's... he's...
And with that realisation, Ranma felt real fear for his friend.
Nabiki sipped carefully from the steaming hot mug of coffee. Ucchan's and the Nekohanten were all very well for food and tea, but when what you wanted was a decent cup of _coffee_ nobody but NOBODY beat Kohei-Coffee.
Kuno stirred his cup of hot chocolate. "So..." he felt at a loss. He didn't normally engage in small talk with Nabiki. Or anyone else for that matter. Usually he just talked about, well, himself. He tried to remember some of the polite rules about chatting. "How is everything at the Tendo household?"
"Oh, pretty much the same as usual," said Nabiki. "Chaos incarnate, money running out the door like water, constant arguing.... It's a case of 'Fighting and mallets and cooking - oh my!'."
Kuno laughed involuntarily. "Sounds like life at Chateau Kuno," he said. "Except no mallets."
Nabiki grinned. "But more poison."
"Ack," Kuno made a face. "Please don't remind me. I won't eat ANYTHING now unless Kodachi eats some first." He sighed. "As head of the Kuno clan, my role in life sometimes weighs heavily upon me."
"Wait a second, what about your father? Isn't _he_ the head of the family?"
"Surely thou dost jest. Allow coconut trees into the ancient family home? I think not!"
Nabiki surprised both of them by giggling. "Actually, things haven't been that bad at home for the last day or two," she said, stirring her coffee. "I think we're all in shock after the revelation that Ryoga has a son."
"That would make things WHAT????!!!!!" Kuno stood up abruptly, his chair falling backward. Hot chocolate slopped all over the table and began to spill over the edge.
"HEY!" Nabiki yelled as hot chocolate dripped onto her skirt. She mopped at it feebly until Kuno grabbed her shoulders.
"That... that insolent Hibiki whelp has a child??!!!" He shouted. "How... why... WHO???!!!"
"Uh, with his wife..." said Nabiki.
"WIFE!!!! This cad dares sully the honour of a married... oh wait, they were married?"
"YES!" said Nabiki. "If you'd just listen..."
"How dare he recklessly abandon his wife like..."
"And we're off..." said Nabiki as Kuno began to rant again. Her hands clenched as something in her stomach twisted and coiled. *Dammitall to hell!*
Kuno shut up and stared at her. Nabiki lowered her voice and hissed at him.
"Now you listen to me you moronic imbecile. Ryoga has been away for six years..."
"Has it really been..."
"YES IT HAS!!!!!" she took a deep breath. "During his time away, he got married and fathered a child. Shortly afterward his wife was killed in a car accident. He and Tenjou are now wandering around together and we are _trying_ to convince them to settle down in Nerima. Now will you PLEASE stop over-reacting!"
Kuno nodded, righted his chair and sat down slowly. "Very well. I'm sorry. I didn't realise you felt so strongly about this."
"Neither did I," Nabiki muttered, dabbing at her skirt again. "Dammit, this stain'll never come out!" Her eyes began to blur. "This is a new skirt! It was quite expensive." Tears began to roll down her face.
"Dammit dammit dammit!" She gave up on the skirt and grabbed her coffee mug.
"Umm..." Kuno felt helpless as he watched Nabiki's face crumple. He'd known Nabiki a long time. They'd gone through the school system together - from kindergarten to primary school through junior and senior high and now college. Until they had picked different majors he'd never been in a class without her, and he had to admit it felt strange not to have someone making sarcastic remarks to him all day long. He'd been so relieved when he heard that she'd decided to stay on an extra year for higher studies after he'd failed all his courses last time round. Almost twenty years they'd known each other. And in all that time, he'd never seen her so... emotional.
He carefully leant forward and covered her hands with his.
"I'm... sorry about your skirt." he said. "I'll buy you a new one - no, _two_ new ones!" He took a deep breath and followed a guess. "And don't worry about all those gutless wonders at college. You're better than they are. You don't need them!"
Nabiki sobbed a bit longer and then sniffed once. She looked up at Kuno and smiled feebly. "Thanks Kuno-baby," she said. "I... appreciate you saying that."
*Phew.* Kuno breathed out.
Nabiki sniffed again, and he released her hands so that she could dry her eyes.
"I'm really sorry about falling apart like that," she apologised as she fished around in her purse for a tissue. "I guess I'm a little off-balance today. It's just... just..."
Kuno began to panic as the tears started up again.
"Oh," Nabiki sobbed. "He's the sweetest little boy I've ever seen. Whenever I see him I melt, and it's not just me, every other female near him goes ga-ga too, thank goodness, or I'd be so humiliated. And I just think, maybe it would be nice to have one of my own. And then I hear everyone at school saying how horrible I am, and I think I'll grow up to be some horrible old crone, all alone with noone at all, in some big empty house with noone to talk to... and... and..."
She collapsed into tears again. Kuno tried to talk her out of it but nothing seemed to be working.
*Hysterical,* he thought as he dragged her out of the cafe, everyone staring at them. *Got to get her away from other people, calm her down.* He pulled her into an alley.
"Hey buddy, making your girl cry? Maybe she needs a real man," snickered a voice behind him. Kuno turned and reduced the slimeball standing behind him to a cowering puddle with one razor-sharp glare.
"Get lost creep!" he ordered, kicking the man away. "Go crawl into the hole that spawned you!"
Nabiki started to scream.
"No... I wasn't talking to you... Nabiki... Nabiki you have to snap out of it!" Kuno shook her. "NABIKI!!!!"
He kissed her.
Nabiki's eyes flew open in surprise as Kuno clutched her to him. She struggled but he'd already clasped his arms around her and was not letting go. Eventually her eyes closed again, until finally he broke the kiss.
"Kuno..." she breathed.
"Ummm... ummm... are you alright?" he asked. "You were hysterical." Kuno looked down at her. Nabiki rested her head against his chest and hiccuped, tears still dripping down her face.
"I... uh..." Kuno's face turned scarlet. "I..."
"I know," said Nabiki. "It's okay. I won't read anything into this. And though I appreciate it, you _could_ have slapped me."
"It's just that... I didn't want to... hit a girl," said Kuno.
Nabiki sniffled. "Thanks." she said.
At the Tendo Dojo:
After another attempt to continue the sparring, both Ryoga and Ranma agreed to stop for a while. Ranma watched his friend pick up a towel and decided it was now or never. But he had to be...
What was that word again? Dammit, it was on the tip of his tongue... Oh yeah.
"So," he said easily. "Tell me about married life."
"Not much to tell," said Ryoga warily.
"Well, tell me about your wife then," said Ranma, noting the way Ryoga's shoulders bunched up when he said that. "Or how about Tenjou as a child?"
After being bored almost to death by stories about wriggling toes and picking out the perfect baby carriage, Ranma tried again.
"Does he take after his mother much? What was her name again? Kyoko?"
"Keiko! Keiko Asagira!"
"Yeah, Keiko. So, did you love her?"
Ryoga paused. His face softened. "I think so. When we were married, I was happy because I had a home to go to, a normal family life I'd never thought could be mine. We grew to know each other, to care for each other. I called her dear, she called me honey. I worked hard, tried as hard as I ever have not to get lost for too long, and I always wrote when I was lost. I liked her. And after Tenjou was born I worshipped her, because she had given me the greatest gift ever. Children are a gift Ranma. I hope that someday you and... and whoever have many." Ryoga paused. "I think that that's a kind of love."
"And... when the accident." Ranma probed gently.
"When the accident happened I was so sad. Sad that her life had been cut short. Sad that I never really got the chance to tell her how much I cared for her and sad that she would never see her son grow up. But mostly I was grieving for my son, who would never know his mother. We were both devastated." Ryoga took a deep breath. "And that's when it happened."
"What?" Ranma was surprised, and a little uncomfortable.
Ryoga looked at him with tears in his eyes. "That's when I committed murder." A familiar green glow surrounded him.
Ranma breathed in, and then let the breath out very slowly. "The Shi-Shi-Hokodan."
Ryoga nodded. "I was half-mad with pain, grief, fear... and _anger_. I wanted the bastard who took my wife and my life and my son's mother away from me DEAD! So I... so I killed him. The blast took out his car. I saw his eyes as it was coming." A vein throbbed in his forehead. "He didn't know what was happening, but he knew what it meant."
Ryoga put his head in his hands. Ranma stared at him.
"The authorities said it was the fuel tank catching fire that caused the car to explode like that. They told me I was lucky to survive. LUCKY!!!" He took a deep, shuddering breath. "How often have I said I would kill someone? How often have I sworn I'd kill _you_?" His body racked with sobs. "All the times we fought... if you had been any less good a martial artist..."
"BULL&*(~!" said Ranma. Ryoga looked at him in shock. Ranma was on his feet standing over him, fists clenched.
"How often have _I_ said I'd kill _you_? How many times have we battled and hurt each other? A hundred? A thousand? AND WHEN HAVE WE EVER DONE MORE THAN BRUISE EACH OTHER?!!!" Ranma grabbed Ryoga's shoulders and dragged him to his feet, staring deeply into his eyes.
"Do you remember when I was weak from the moxibustion attack by Happosai? How all the other guys attacked me? And how _you_ saved me. You took on Mousse, Kuno, AND Principal Kuno to save my life. That was not the act of a murderer! And what about the time you got that invincible tattoo stuck on you, and how I helped you? We fought a lot Ryoga. We fought because we were young, because we were arrogant, because we both wanted the same thing and finally because we were both in love with the same woman... we fought for _life_ Ryoga. We never EVER fought for death."
Ranma threw both his arms around one of his oldest friends and hugged him as hard as he could. "And THAT is why you are not a murderer. You were hurt, in body and in spirit. Grief-stricken because of what had happened and desperately afraid for your son. You struck out unconciously. It was NOT your fault." He hugged his friend tightly whilst Ryoga sobbed into his shoulder. "It's okay, you're among friends now," he soothed. "You're back with your family, where you belong."
End of Part Three
Go ON to Part Four
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