Ranma was relieved when Ryouga didn't make an appearance for the next three days. He stopped looking nervously over his shoulder and didn't fly into a paranoid fit whenever he transformed. It seemed Ryouga had finally found the way out of town-- and good riddance.
Akane had noticed his mood improvement, and was secretly grateful for it. The bickering between them for the last few days had been bad, and upset the whole household. But now that Ranma seemed to have gotten out of his funk, they were back to only occassionally sniping at each other.
"I wonder if Ranma can get PMS since he's half girl," Akane wondered silently as she watched the other boy chat with Ukyou in the Okinomiyaki shop.
"Ryouga?" Ukyou pursed her lips in thought as she set out two plates of Okinomiyaki for them. "No, I haven't seen him around for a few days. I remember seeing him run by-- three times in two hours --about four or five days ago, but nothing since then."
And another thing, Akane thought with a twinge of mixed annoyance and curiosity, why had Ranma been so obsessed with Ryouga's whereabouts lately? He'd treated the other boy badly before he'd disappeared; obviously there had been some big fight between the two of them, though he still refused to talk about it. And now that he finally seemed to be in a more agreeable mood, she wasn't about to ask him about it again.
Yes, it was better to get along with him than to fight with him, she decided, and only ended up beaning him upside the head with a cup once for a snide remark.
"Vacation's coming up," Akane noted as they headed home after their lunch. "We usually go to the beach; are you coming?"
"I dunno, I guess," Ranma said with a shrug, hands behind his head as he strolled along the top of the wall. "Nothing better to do."
Akane was about to respond, when they turned into the dojo's yard and she spotted the familiar form waiting for her on the porch. "P-chan!" she exclaimed in delight, running up to him. "Where have you been?"
Behind her, Ranma fell off the wall with a crash and lay twitching.
Akane ignored him and scooped up her pet pig, cuddling him to her chest affectionately. "You sure have been gone a long time, P-chan," she chided. "I wish you'd stick closer to home."
"You've got to be kidding me," Ranma croaked, glaring at the piglet from across the yard as if Akane held a live snake in her arms. "I thought you were supposed to be going somewhere, you idiot!"
"Ranma, don't start picking on P-chan," Akane snapped, glaring at him. "He just got back! Come on, P-chan," she crooned, carrying him inside. "I'll get you a snack and a nice hot bath."
P-chan immediately tried to squirm out of her arms in a panic at the mention of a bath, but Ranma stomped up and snatched him from Akane's grip.
"I'll do it," he growled, giving the petrified piglet a look of death.
"I can do it, Ranma," Akane said irritably, grabbing P-chan away again. "You'll probably only try to torment him anyway."
"I said I'd do it," Ranma interrupted, swiping the squealing piglet once more. "Anyway, I need to take a bath too. It'll save on hot water, won't it?"
Akane hesitated, peering at him suspiciously, before giving in. "Fine. But you'd better not pick on him, Ranma!" She smiled at her quaking pet, petting him fondly between the ears. "I'll go get you something to eat, P-chan." She hurried into the kitchen, and Ranma made a beeline for the bathroom, ignoring the pig's piercing squeals.
"All right, you," Ranma growled, slamming the door and marching over to the tub. "You're going to change and get the hell out of here. I'll take you to the edge of town myself if I have to. But until you get this crap about 'love' outta your system, I don't want you anywhere near me or Akane, you pervert!" And he chucked the screaming pig into the steaming water.
Ryouga erupted from the water an instant later, face livid and fangs bared. "Are you insane?" he snarled. "You want me like this?"
Ranma blinked from where he was crouching at the side of the tub. "Since when do you like being P-chan?" he demanded. "Anyway, all I want is for you to get out of town."
"I tried," Ryouga snapped, stepping out of the tub and stalking over to the showerhead on the far wall. "I keep getting turned around. Besides, I'd rather be P-chan until this shit wears off. You don't have to be afraid of a pig, right?"
Ranma darted across the bathroom and seized Ryouga's wrist to prevent him from turning on the cold water. He glared suspiciously into the other boy's startled eyes. "Hold it. Until what wears off? You mean there's some kinda explanation for the crap you've been pulling lately?"
Ryouga hesitated, face flushed slightly as he stared mutely back.
Belatedly Ranma realized how close they were standing-- and how noticeably lacking in clothes Ryouga was. He released the other boy hastily and stepped back, reclaiming his personal space. He crossed his arms over his chest imperiously and repeated, "Well? Come on, let's have it. Until what wears off?"
Ryouga's lip lifted slightly, revealing a fang in a wince. "...Something I took," he admitted grudgingly after a moment. "It was supposed to be a sort of... pain reliever. But instead it's more like the pills Happosai stole from Cologne's tribe."
"Pills?" Ranma repeated blankly. Then it hit him, and his eyes widened. "Wait-- you mean those damned love pills??"
Ryouga nodded glumly. "It was a mix-up. I took some, and... well, you were... uh.." He averted his eyes, the rest a mumble. "The first girl I saw after I drank it."
"The first... huh?" Ranma cocked his head in confusion-- and then remembered. The hose, the sudden mood change in Ryouga... and that bottle he'd drank right beforehand....
He seized Ryouga by the shoulders and gave him a hard shake. "Are you shitting me??" he shouted. "Which one did you take?? How long's it gonna last?"
Ryouga jerked out of Ranma's grip, glaring back, though the anger was subdued. "It's not like the pills," he snapped. "There aren't different types, it's all in how much you take."
"Well how much did you take?!"
"Not all of it," Ryouga assured him hastily. "There's some left. So the effects should wear off within a few days or weeks."
"Where did you get that crap?" Ranma groaned. "You really are an idiot."
"Shut up," Ryouga growled. "I got it from a witch in the mountains after my training. She thought it was the painkiller, but she made a mistake. You should just be glad I didn't drink the whole damned thing."
Ranma shuddered at the thought. "No kidding." He peered at the other boy warily. "So... all this crap about 'love', and the hugs and stuff, was all 'cause of this potion?"
Ryouga nodded silently.
Ranma heaved a sigh of relief. "OK. For awhile there I thought you'd lost it, man."
Ryouga blinked in surprise. "You're...not angry," he noted hesitantly.
"Well.." Ranma made a face. "You're still an idiot for taking it in the first place from some old bat on a mountain. But at least now I know you can't control what you think you're feeling. But look, you can't stay P-chan for weeks, and I'm not willing to deal with you turning into a guy again and glomping me in front of someone." He rubbed his chin thoughtfully for a moment, then smacked his fist into his palm decisively. "It's vacation; no one will say anything if I take off for a few days."
"Yeah, we've got to find this quack witch doctor or whatever she is and get her to give you an antidote or something," Ranma explained impatiently. "I'd ask if you can remember where she lived, but we'll probably end up in Nigeria or something."
"You'll come with me?" Ryouga asked in surprise.
"Well, yeah." Ranma shrugged. "Otherwise who knows where you'll end up? 'Sides, I'd like to shake some sense into her myself for putting me through this crap. All we gotta do is make sure I don't get wet, and it'll be easy."
Ryouga flinched slightly, eyes darting away, but he didn't respond.
Ranma reached out and twisted the knob; Ryouga gave a yelp that turned into an irate squeal a moment later. Ranma crouched down so he was eye-level with the indignant piglet, poking him in the nose. "I ain't takin' any risks, though. For tonight, you can be P-chan. We'll set out tomorrow morning."
Ranma smuggled P-chan out of the house just before sunrise the next morning.
He dumped a kettle full of hot water over the pig to restore Ryouga to his human shape, and the two of them crept from the dojo and headed out of town.
"All right, lamebrain, any idea at all where those mountains were?" Ranma demanded as they stopped by a convenience store to buy a map.
Ryouga studied the map extensively, even going so far as to turn it upside down, but his frustrated glare was answer enough.
"Oh, geez," Ranma groaned. "This is gonna be even more of a pain in the ass than I thought." He snatched the map away. "Look, do you remember if there were any villages or towns nearby? What were the names of 'em?"
"There was a village at the foot of the mountain," Ryouga recalled. "I passed through it a few times looking for the path up the mountain. I think it was called Igeido-- at least, that's what the villagers kept shouting. 'Igeido, you idiot'."
Ranma rolled his eyes. "You're hopeless," he said firmly, and spread the map out on the nearest park bench. He scanned it quickly, then pointed in triumph. "Here we go. It's not Igeido, it's Egado, and it's right by some mountains. It's gotta be the place. Though it's in the complete opposite direction of the mountains where people go to train. I'm surprised you found any mountains at all." He folded up the map and stuffed it in his backpack. "By the way..." he eyed Ryouga strangely. "Why're you acting so jumpy?"
Ryouga jumped a little and looked at him wildly. "What?"
Ranma looked pointedly at the three foot gap Ryouga had been keeping between them all morning. "I'm not in girl-form, doofus. As long as we're both guys, I don't have to beat the snot out of you to defend myself. Why're you acting like I've got the plague or something?"
"No reason," Ryouga said quickly-- too quickly. Ranma peered at him suspiciously for a moment, then decided it was a waste of time trying to figure out how the lost boy's mind worked. He shrugged indifferently and headed down the street. "C'mon. It should only take a few days to get there. Then that old hag's really gonna--"
Strong arms nearly lifted him off his feet in a bear hug that squeezed the breath from him. "What the-- Ryouga!!" he shouted in shock and outrage. "What do you think you're doing, pervert?!" He slammed his head back and caught the other boy right in the nose. As soon as the grip loosened, he squirmed out of it and dealt a furious kick to Ryouga's chest that sent him flying.
Belatedly he noted a light mist on his face and stared in dawning horror and realization at the sprinkler in a yard that he had just walked past. He-- or rather, she --looked down swiftly at her chest and gave a howl of rage.
"Ranmaaa, wait!" Ryouga called from where he was fighting his way out of the bushes he'd fallen in. Ranma took off running, shouting frantically to all in hearing range, "Somebody get me some hot water, or I'm gonna murder this pervert!"
Half an hour later the two boys were on the main road, Nerima disappearing over the horizon behind them. Ranma was muttering and scowling darkly to himself while Ryouga kept a safe distance behind him, looking sullen and nursing a fresh bruise on his cheek.
It took another hour for Ranma to cool down, and when he did, he typically acted as if nothing had happened. "We can't walk the whole way," he pointed out, squinting at the map as the two boys walked along the side of the road. "It'll take days, and I want this over with. The train station's not too far away; we can at least catch a train part of the way. How much you got on you?"
Ryouga rummaged through his pockets and counted the change in his hand with a wince. "...Five hundred yen. I spent most of what I had on me on food and water when I got lost on the way back to Nerima."
"Typical," Ranma sighed, digging through his own pockets. "Well I've got... about 1000 yen. This all should be enough to get us a couple train tickets." (1)
"Yeah, but how far?" Ryouga grumbled, reaching up to arrange his bamboo umbrella across his shoulders more comfortably.
"Doesn't matter," Ranma said impatiently. "It'll be faster than walking the whole way." He peered at the other boy suspiciously. "Hey, you never told me, exactly-- why did you go to that old quack anyway? You can get a painkiller at the local drugstore. Why risk getting it from some kooky old bat?"
Ryouga scowled at him. "None of your business, Saotome," he snapped.
"Hey, don't give me that." Ranma turned to walk backwards, making a face at the Lost Boy. "Because of your stupidity, we're stuck with this 'love potion' problem. I think I have a right to know."
"Butt out, Saotome," Ryouga growled.
Ranma cocked his head. "Whoa, who dumped lemons in your green tea?" he demanded.
"What are you talking about?" Ryouga muttered irritably, glaring at the road as he marched.
Ranma frowned slightly, but dropped it. He didn't point out the obvious-- that Ryouga was refusing to call him Ranma anymore, and had reverted back to addressing him by his family name. The realization irked him. He'd hoped that with Ryouga's casual use of his name over the past few months, that maybe the other boy also considered him a friend. But evidently now he wanted as much distance between them as possible on a personal level. Ranma couldn't really blame him; after all, he was already getting closer than he wanted to Ranma's female form. He probably needed some distance.
Still, it was annoying.
It took them another hour and a half to get to the train station, and after studying the faded map on the wall a few minutes, Ranma came to the conclusion that they had enough money between the two of them to get a ticket to Sendai, which was the closest city to the village Ryouga had spoken of.
They bought their tickets at the machine and drifted through the wickets to wait by the correct tracks. It was a slow day; most people were at work or school, so there were only three other people waiting for the train. One was a weary-looking mother holding her squirming toddler firmly by the arm, the other was a man in a ragged looking coat crouching against the wall, hood pulled up to hide his face as he dozed.
Ranma leaned against a coke machine to wait, while Ryouga paced restlessly.
The train pulled up a few minutes later, and they followed the man and mother onto the nearly empty train. Ranma seized one of the poles while Ryouga grabbed another one a few feet away. They spent the trip in silence until they reached the next station, where they had to change trains.
The man in the hoody got off with them and waited on the same platform as them. This time there were no other people waiting. Ranma glanced at his watch, ignoring his pacing companion. They had ten minutes until their train would arrive. He dug his remaining change out of his pocket and strode over to the snack machine to get something to take the edge off his hunger. He purchased a bag of chips, and munched on them as he strolled idly down the platform, leaving Ryouga to gnaw impatiently on his lip by the tracks.
Ranma checked his watch again as he crumpled up the empty bag of chips, and decided he had enough time to make a quick bathroom stop before their train arrived. He found the bathrooms, and tugged on the male door with growing impatience. Locked. Someone was using it. He waited for another minute or two before giving up in disgust. Trotting back the way he'd come, he found what he was looking for. Ryouga looked up as he spotted the other boy, watching in confusion as Ranma ducked into the custodian room. A minute later female Ranma emerged, flicking damp bangs from her face before making a beeline for the girls' bathroom. Ryouga took in a sharp breath at the sight of her and hastily averted his eyes. His fingers dug into his palms as he stared blankly at the tracks, heart pounding in his ears and face flushed.
Damn that idiot! Turning into a girl just for convenience when he knew what it did to him! Didn't he ever think??
Ryouga fidgeted nervously, keeping his back to the bathrooms in the hope that Ranma would be smart enough to remember to douse himself with hot water from the sink before reappearing.
Ranma's thoughts, however, must have been more focused on the time than on Ryouga's problem, because when Ryouga turned at a tap on his shoulder, he found himself confronted with the very image of his inner torment.
Ranma wasn't even looking at him; she was nodding towards the hooded figure squatting by the wall. "What's with that guy? Kinda suspicious, huh?"
"Uh.. uhh..." Ryouga poked nervously at the wall, blind to the holes he was punching in it. "I g-guess..." He swallowed hard and protested in a squeak, "Ranma.."
Ranma gave him an impatient look. "Now what?" She blinked at the furious blush on his face and the hopeless look in his eyes, then glanced quickly at the heart the Lost Boy had unconsciously punched into the wall. A sweatdrop nearly eclipsed her head as she scuttled a few feet backwards. "Damn it, Ryouga," she groaned. "Not now!"
"I c-can't help it," Ryouga stuttered, blushing brightly and staring at his feet firmly. "Y-you're the idiot who had to ch-change just to use the bathroom!"
"Jeeeeeez..." Ranma buried her hand in her hair in exasperation, keeping a wary eye on her friend. "Just don't jump me, or I'm gonna knock your ass into next week. Fine, fine, wait here, I'll go change..."
Above them, the bell sounded out, and the faint rumbling on the tracks announced the train's approach. "Damn," Ranma muttered, glancing nervously from Ryouga to the tracks to the bathroom and back. "Look, we don't have time for this. I'll change at the next stop. Just keep your sweaty hands to yourself, got it?"
Ryouga nodded jerkily, eyes still glued to his feet as he fiddled uselessly with the hem of his shirt.
Ranma watched him out of the corner of her eye as the train pulled up in front of them, mildly amused despite herself. Ryouga was a strange one, that was for sure. How he could be a fierce, merciless fighting machine one minute and a flustered, babbling, fidgeting ninny the minute he was confronted with a cute girl was beyond her. It had amused her in the past, and even now, when she was the cause of his nervous fit, she still had to supress a snicker. If she hadn't known what his reaction would undoubtedly be, she would have teased him just to get him more upset.
They stepped onto the train, and the hooded man followed them. The car they were in had only one other person in it-- an old man snoring in a seat. Tired of standing, Ranma slouched in a seat, while Ryouga clung to a pole on the other side of the car, staring out of the window at the dark tunnel they were rushing down, ears still red and shoulders tensed at the effort it took to control himself.
The hooded man had taken hold of a pole just a few feet away from Ranma, and she felt her hair stand on end at the feel of his eyes boring into her. She turned her head to stare insolently back, but he didn't look away.
His face was mostly shadowed from the hoody, but she could tell he was scruffy and older than her by at least ten years. Homeless maybe? Well, he was no threat; probably just some addled old man staring at her red hair. She looked away dismissively and noticed belatedly that from where Ryouga was standing, he could see her in the reflection of the darkened window as they passed through the tunnel. She felt her neck warm up unexplainably. Was the idiot staring at her? It was impossible to tell; he'd ducked his head enough so that his ragged bangs hid his eyes from sight. Well, fine, let him look, she ordered herself huffily. As long as he didn't touch.
The man in the hoody moved, then, and she looked up just as he stepped in front of her, his unshaven face lit by a wide toothy grin. At first she thought he was going to try to say something witty or try to start up a conversation. But his eyes betrayed him. They were dark and eager, and Not Nice. A prickle ran up Ranma's spine, and she felt her eyes narrow. Whatever this man wanted, it wasn't words.
"You got a problem, mac?" she demanded in a hard tone.
The man's smile only widened. He reached out wordlessly with a dirty hand and took her pigtail in between two big fingers, eyes lighting up in dark promise.
(1) For anyone, unsure-- 100 yen is roughly a dollar, give or take depending on the exchange rate
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