Time passes as it often does, seasons change and people grow. After the last angel battle, Ranma invited Rei to join in the afternoon training with the other pilots. After all, she was a part of the team. She did everything that she was told and managed to learn the moves fairly quickly, she just had trouble getting her body to do them. The nagging feeling came back to Ranma that she resembled Yui, but he just dismissed it as coincidence again. Shinji and Asuka excelled at their training; Shinji because of the head start that he had on everyone else, and Asuka because of the excellent physical shape she was in before she started training with Ranma. The fact that they both lived with him and were forced to join in his morning training had something to do with it as well.
Asuka and Shinji insisted on wearing the training outfits that Misato had bought them for the dual angel when they trained. Through the innate sense that all kids have, they knew it irritated their parental figure. Besides, the red silk Chinese shirts and black kung-fu pants were excellent for freedom of movement. Ranma still never wore his, but Misato wouldn’t let him throw the outfit away. He got two steps toward the trashcan and she’d guilt trip him with cries of never appreciating what she does for him. He, of course, would grumble, complain, and insult her, but he’d put the clothes back in the closet they shared.
A few days afterward, Ranma took a couple days off work for a short training trip. He left the kids saying it was something he had to take care of on his own. Misato narrowed her eyes at him, but he assuaged her concerns with a promise to tell her all when he returned.
The next evening found him in Tokyo-1, standing on the edge of an office building in the financial district, or what was left of it. He waited for his quarry to appear. He had spent the day tracking her down, and now he had found her. The night had fallen and she was getting off work late. He waited until she was well away from the public eye before moving in.
Tendo Nabiki had just stopped by the bus stop to light a cigarette before heading back to her home. She had been working a hard case of investors that didn’t want their money wasted. It took most of the last month to satisfy them, but tonight she had done it. She was going to relax with this cigarette, which she was going to have to finish before she turned the next corner into the house she shared with her sister, and some heavy drinking, which she would also have to hide form her sister. She took a long drag and let out the smoke with a sigh of relief.
“Hello again, Nabiki.”
“So much for relief…” She thought. She turned to find a pair blue eyes staring at her from the darkness. “Well, well, well. Saotome. I didn’t expect you’d be in the neighborhood…ever. So how’s miss Misato? Is she a missus yet?”
A low growl issued from the shadows. “You’re asking stupid questions. I’m here on serious business.” He stepped out of the shadows and handed her a large envelope. “I need you to do some research. You still do that, don’t you?”
The mercenary smirk came to her face again. “Of course, for a price…” She trailed off.
If it was possible, his face got even harder. “All debts will be paid in time. Right now this is for the salvation of the Earth.”
She took the package and hid it in her briefcase. “Why do I get the feeling that there’s more to this than just asking me to dig up some dirt? Things are never simple around you.”
He nodded his head. “This is also insurance. If I disappear, I want you to go public with this information, and when you deliver me the information I request in these documents, I want you or a courier you trust implicitly to deliver it. This is very sensitive information, and cannot be released until my work is complete…one way or another.”
Nabiki’s eyes hardened, she was all business now, she was at her most dangerous. “I won’t let this fall into the wrong hands, and I’ve been delivering sensitive information for years, I know how to handle my business. You just take care of yours. One more thing, I never want to have to go public with this information, so don’t take any stupid risks.”
The side of Ranma’s mouth quirked up in a grin that didn’t quite make it to his eyes. “Gee, Nabiki. I didn’t know you cared.”
“It’s more than just a couple people depending on you now, Saotome. It’s the whole human race.” She glared into his eyes. “You’ve always come out on top when it’s important. I’m trusting you will now.”
He took a step back into the shadows. “It’s not on my shoulders. It’s a burden the kids have to bear. I’m just doing everything I can to help them carry it.”
“Take care of your kids and yourself Saotome. Don’t let us down.” She lowered her head to take a last drag on her cigarette. When she looked back up, he was gone without a trace. “Typical.” She turned and finished her walk home.
Unbeknownst to both of them, the whole interaction had been observed by a third set of eyes. They showed a mix of emotions, but turned and followed the woman home.
Back in Tokyo-3, more time passed. Two more angels attacked, and twice more they were defeated. The first one fell like an atomic bomb from orbit only to be caught by the combined AT fields of the three fully active Evangelions. The second came like a computer virus and tried to destroy the city by causing the three magi computers to self-destruct. The EVA pilots had been caught inside test fixtures while Ritsuko and Maya fought against time to write a program to convince the angel of the error of its ways.
In the midst of all the excitement, Misato had been promoted to major. A small celebration was held, but the only part she wanted was the end of the night when she and Ranma could be alone for some ‘private celebrating’.
Several days later found Misato shopping in town for a new dress. Another one of her college friends was getting married in two days and she had already worn two of the dresses she owned and the third no longer fit her. She was getting a little irked that she had started to gain some extra weight lately. She was contemplating training with Ranma in the mornings when the source of her thoughts came bounding down the street with the two kids in tow. She smiled and shouted, “RANMA! GET OVER HERE!!!”
He stopped his merry hop and bounded over the street to land in front of her. Shinji and Asuka landed atop a stoplight and watched with smirks on their faces. The two of them could almost have passed for brother and sister with the matched training outfits. At least they could have passed for some sort of couple. Ranma smirked at the major. “What can I do for you?”
Misato put a hand on her hip. “Have you bought that suit yet?”
His eyebrow twitched. “What do I need a suit for?”
“FOR THE WEDDING YOU NUMBSKULL!!” She smoothed some hairs that had stood on end. “You’re coming with me to one of my old friend’s wedding and you are NOT showing up in a uniform. You are going to spend a little money and buy yourself a suit to look nice so I can show you off to all my college friends.”
“So I’m just a display of meat for an old sourpuss.” He chuckled.
She jabbed a finger into his chest. “You got that right, you idiotic jock! And you’re going to pay for that crack.”
“How much?” He smirked.
“Two kisses, and I demand prompt payment.”
He bent down and kissed her three times quickly on the lips. “How’s that? Is the bank satisfied?”
She gave him a quick single kiss. “There’s your change.” She turned her attention to the two kids that looked like they were gagging. “Shinji! Asuka! Make sure he gets a suit before he gets home!”
They both jumped up and answered at once. “Yes, ma’am!”
Asuka paused and jumped down in front of Misato. “Misato, can I borrow some of your Lavender perfume? I’ve got a date on Saturday.”
Misato’s eye twitched. “No, you’re a little young to be wearing that.” Ranma chuckled. “What’s so funny?”
“You calling someone else too young for something.” He smirked.
“Why you!” She threw a half-hearted swing at him that he dodged be leaping up to the top of the light with Shinji.
“Come on, Asuka. Let’s get going.” The three of them turned and left.
As Ranma and the kids turned to resume their training, Misato smiled and shook her head. “He’d better get a suit that shows off his muscles.” She muttered under her breath. “If I’m not going to be married, I at least should show off an impressive boyfriend.” She giggled to herself and turned to go into the next store.
“Excuse me.” Came a soft voice from over her shoulder. Misato turned to see a woman wearing a conservative dress with a long dark hair tied into a ponytail and laying on her shoulder. She bowed briefly and returned to meet Misato’s eyes. “Pardon me, but was that Saotome Ranma you were speaking to?”
Misato’s eyebrow came up. “Yeah, you know him?”
“I knew him a long time ago. We used to be old friends.” The woman answered demurely. “You and he are apparently very close. I would really like to know how he is doing these days.”
The major smirked and pointed a thumb over her shoulder. “Sure, I’d like to learn more about how he used to be. We’ll just trade information while I look for a dress to wear to the wedding.”
“You’re getting married.” The woman sounded scandalized.
“No, just one of my friends. I’m dragging Ranma along for mutual suffering. Come on, I could use an extra set of eyes to pick out a nice dress.”
The two girls talked a while in the midst of the grand tradition of buying clothes. Misato thought the girl was rather nice in an old fashion housewife sort of way. She was very soft spoken, but seemed rather intelligent.
At one point the conversation seemed to stall, the woman asked what sounded like a simple question. “Why do you let him insult you like that?”
Misato just smiled. “Oh, that’s just his way of saying he loves me. The boy wouldn’t admit his feelings unless no one could hear them. You just have to know how to listen to what he says.”
The woman put a hand over her heart briefly. “But how can you know that he likes you?”
Misato smiled and her eyes became slightly vacant. “It’s in the way he says it and the fact that he goes out of his way to protect me and the kids.”
The woman’s hand went to her heart again and her breathing became slightly labored. She regained her equilibrium and continued. “You two have kids?”
“Adopted, but we’re a family despite no marriage and no blood.” Misato laid a dress over her front and looked at herself in the mirror. “I wonder if I can get an uncute out of him if I wear this…” She commented absently.
“That dress may be a little too scandalous.” The woman choked out as she once again put her hand to her heart and sank slightly.
Misato noticed the woman this time, she quickly dropped the dress and rushed to her side. “Are you okay? You need a doctor?” She asked frantically.
“I’m fine. It’s an old ache. It just acts up in certain situations.” She said quietly. She suddenly stood upright. “Is there sometime it would be convenient for me to speak with him?”
Misato was slightly taken aback by the quick recovery, but swiftly adjusted. “Well, we’re going to be pretty busy for the next couple days, but how about Saturday night? I’m sure we’ll be done with the wedding by seven, will that be okay?”
The woman nodded graciously. “That will do nicely.”
Misato gave her the address to the condo she shared with Ranma and the kids and thought how nice it was that one of Ranma’s old friends was coming to visit. She thought about the possibility that this could be one of his old fiancées, but this woman was too nice to be one of them.
The next day found Shinji and Gendou standing in a mass graveyard, standing in front of the marker for Ikari Yui. It was the anniversary of her death and they were both there together to honor her. They placed flowers in front of the marker and were staring at the pale white marker.
Shinji crouched down and arranged the flowers while Gendou stood over him. The older man spoke, “It’s been three years since we were last here.”
Shinji nodded his head. “That’s when I ran away. I haven’t come back here since. I just don’t believe my mom is resting here. I don’t even remember her face.”
Gendou’s expression didn’t change. “Burying memories is man’s way of surviving, but there are some things man should never forget. Yui taught me that one irreplaceable thing. That is the reason I come here, to confirm that commitment.”
“You don’t even have a picture of her.”
“No photographs. Even this grave is an artifice. Nothing remains.”
“It’s like my teacher said, you cast everything away.”
“Everything is kept in my heart. I’m satisfied with that.” A roar of engines was heard as a jet copter landed behind Gendou. “Time’s up Shinji.”
Shinji just nodded, but started slightly when he noticed that Rei was in the vehicle. He just glared at his father’s back as he walked away. The engines throttled up and the craft took off and flew away.
As the craft faded into the distance, Shinji walked back toward the taxi that would take him to the train station. When Shinji cleared the horizon, Ranma faded into view, dropping the cloak of invisibility granted to him by the Umi-Sen-Ken techniques. He walked over and laid another arrangement of flowers on the gravesite. He knelt down on both his knees and stared at the gravestone for a minute before speaking.
“It’s been sixteen years since I saw you last.” He reached out and rubbed his hand along the side of the stone. “The last time I saw you, you were alive and beautiful. I…I should have been there…I…could have done SOMETHING…” His head sank and a single tear ran down his cheek. “I know how you died. I know that Unit One killed you, but if only I had been there. If only…” His voice cut off with a choke.
It was another five minutes before he could speak again. “So much for the man among men, eh? Crying at a piece of rock that doesn’t even have a body under it.” He brought a hand up and cleared his eyes. “Gendou may talk about the irreplaceable thing, but he really doesn’t know what it is. If he really did love you so much, he wouldn’t have sent your son away or let him run away. He treats Shinji like a tool, something to be used and thrown away. How could he love you, and not love the child he had with you?”
He shook his head as if to clear it. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be talking bad about your husband, but he’s always got under my skin. I also know it is mainly because he got to marry you and I didn’t. I’m still mad about that. Maybe if we had married you’d still be alive and Shinji really would be my son.”
Ranma smiled at last. “Shinji really is a fine boy. You’d be proud of him. He’s already saved the city several times. He did have a self-esteem problem when I met him, but being shunned by your father will do that to a kid. I was just happy I could make a real man out of him. He’ll be a great man one day, you’ll see. You’ll be bursting with pride up in heaven.”
He reached up and brushed off the dust on the top of the gravestone. “I’m sorry I took so long to see you, but I never knew what happened to you after second impact. It took me coming to Tokyo-3 and following Shinji and Gendou out here to find you, but don’t worry. I plan to visit more often.” He sat straight up once more. “Don’t worry, I have been moving on. I didn’t run away from my commitments. I’m doing everything I can to resolve them.” The side of his mouth lifted in a smile. “And then there’s Misato. Maybe after all this mess is over I’ll marry her. I’m not really sure if I love her or not, but I know that you’d want me to keep living my life, so I plan on doing just that.”
He stood up and brushed the dust off his pants. “It’s been great talking to you again Yui. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t miss you.” He put two fingers to his mouth and then touched them to the grave marker. “Good-bye, my love.”
A gust of wind blew through, kicking up a cloud of dust. When the dirt had settled, Ranma was gone, and the graveyard was quiet once more.
Saturday came without much fanfare, Asuka went out on her date that Hikari had set up for her and Misato managed to get Ranma dressed in a suit and out the door for the wedding. About an hour later, the older couple was sitting in a reception hall listening to the singers serenade the newly married couple. Misato had been showing Ranma off to all her college friends the entire time. They had just made it to their designated seats where Ritsuko and an empty space where Kaji should be sitting. Ranma plopped down in his seat with a heavy sigh. The Doctor smirked at him. “I see Misato finally let you have a break.”
He picked up his glass of water and downed the entire contents. “Now I know what a show dog feels like.”
“At least I didn’t put a flea collar on you.” Misato chimed in as she drank her wine.
“Maybe it would keep him from itching to leave.” Ritsuko openly smiled at the martial artist.
“Hello everyone, did I miss anything?” Kaji smirked as he strutted in and sat at his seat.
Ritsuko waved her hand in a dismissive gesture. “Oh not much, just Misato showing off her prize stallion. By some of the jealous looks the girls have been giving her, I’d say he gets the blue ribbon.” She looked over where Ranma had blushed furiously. “Or should I make that a red ribbon?”
“Ritsuko!” Misato put an arm around Ranma. “You’re embarrassing him!” She smiled widely at Ranma, but turned and frowned at Kaji. “So where have you been? You’re always late for everything! And you didn’t even shave!”
“He just needs a woman to set him straight.” Ritsuko quipped as she took a drink off her daiquiri.
Kaji moved his chair closer to the blonde and put his arm over her shoulders. “You volunteering?”
Ritsuko choked a bit and, after beating on her chest a couple times, took a drink of the courtesy water. “No thanks. I’d rather not.”
“Yeah, who’d want to marry you?” Misato teased.
The unkempt man leaned back in his chair. “Well not all of us can have three fiancées and various admirers. I’m afraid Ranma may have taken the monopoly on single women. I’ve even heard that Maya has a little crush on him.”
It was Misato’s turn to choke on her drink. Ranma gave her a few helpful pats on the back so she could start breathing again. “You’re kidding.” She managed to sputter out.
“You’re right, I am. I just wanted to see your reaction.” Kaji smirked at the major.
Ranma’s quick reflexes were the only things that kept Misato’s hands off of Kaji’s throat. Not that he cared about the scraggly looking man, but he didn’t want to have to explain the dead body to the newlyweds. The scene was rather comical as Misato flailed and clawed at Kaji while Ranma had one arm under her arm with the hand behind her head in a half nelson and his other arm wrapped around her waist. “Kill you!”, was the only thing intelligible coming out of her mouth.
In the midst of her attempts at homicide, she caught a glimpse of her watch. “We need to get going!” She immediately grabbed her purse with one hand and Ranma with the other and dragged them both toward the doors. She made quick congratulations for the wedding and explanations for their abrupt departure. Ranma just had a lost look on his face.
“Why do we have to leave? I still haven’t hit the buffet yet!” He complained.
“We’ve got company coming. I told them we’d be back by seven. I hope that Shinji got the house cleaned up.” She muttered the last under her breath.
“Company? Who’s coming?”
She turned and gave him a Cheshire grin. “It’s a surprise!”
Ranma’s eyebrow shot up. “Why are the hairs on the back of my neck suddenly standing on end, and why do I get the feeling I should make out a will?”
“Come on, silly!” She hauled him out to her car and they made their way quickly down the road.
Back in the reception hall, Ritsuko and Kaji could only blink-blink at the abruptness that the couple had left. Kaji just shrugged and picked up his drink. “I was hoping that we were all going to hang out afterwards. It’s been a while since we’ve all had a chance to hang out like the old days.” He put on his best roguish grin and looked Ritsuko in the eye. “Would you like to have a few drinks with me after this?”
Ritsuko looked at her watch. “Just a couple. I’ve still got some work to do tonight.”
A couple hours earlier, back at the madhouse affectionately known as Misato’s condo, Shinji had been playing his cello when Asuka barged in and plopped down on one of the floor mats. He didn’t even stop playing. “I see you opened your mouth on the date. You know if you wouldn’t talk you’d probably get a free meal out of it.” He smirked as he continued to play Beethoven.
The auburn haired girl leapt to her feet. “What the HELL is that supposed to mean?!?!”
“Oh nothing.” Shinji gave his most innocent look and gazed out the window. “Just noticing how early you came back.”
“How about I just knock your block off?!” She brandished a clenched fist.
Unfazed, Shinji played on. “Can it wait until I’m done with this movement? I’d really hate to cut a song short. Besides, it’s always easier to handle something sour after you’ve had some sweet.”
Asuka took two more steps toward him and stopped when she saw that he hadn’t reacted in the slightest to her approach. She sighed heavily and dropped her fist. “So what are you doing playing that thing anyway? I didn’t know martial artists were allowed to play musical instruments.”
Still unfazed, Shinji played on. “Ranma said it’s important not to make martial arts the end all, be all of my life. He said it’s important to have something else in your life. Wars don’t last forever, so what do you do when the fighting is done? If all you know how to do is fight, then you’re of no use in peacetime. So I play the cello. It’s something I’ve done most of my life, and it is actually very calming.”
She put her hands on her hips. “So what has the great third child so riled up that he needs to calm down? What’s the matter? Couldn’t take that fact that my sync ratio is still higher?”
“Nothing like that.” Shinji came to a long melody line. “I could care less about how we’re ranked. I’m piloting EVA to protect innocents. Maybe an egotist like you needs to worry about it, but not me.”
You could almost see the steam rising from Asuka’s head. She couldn’t believe how much this boy had got under her skin. “Listen you idiot! I’m piloting EVA for the same reasons!”
“Then why do you care about the ranking?” He asked nonchalantly.
She stomped her foot and went back to the floor mat. She dropped down in a cross-legged position and pouted.
Shinji kept playing. “So why are you home so early?”
Asuka reclined back and kicked off her shoes. “Oh, that pre-med student was bor-ring. So while he was in line for one of the rides I slipped out early.”
“I still think he cut it off early because you opened you mouth around him.”
She growled and leapt back to her feet. “What DO you MEAN by THAT!!!”
He just smiled and kept playing. “Just that you have a knack for saying things about yourself or something else that annoys other people. I don’t see why anyone would want to date you anyway.”
“I’ll have you know that I am a very desirable person! If you weren’t such a little boy you’d know that.” She crossed her arms with a self-satisfied smile on her face.
“Who’s the one who keeps crying for her mommy in her sleep?” He began to hum along as the movement was coming to its climax.
“WHAT?!?!” Asuka demanded.
“We had to sleep in the same room for a while. I heard you every night.”
“Why you…” Her voice trailed off.
The music stopped. Shinji casually put the instrument away and cracked his neck as he turned to face Asuka. He was fixing to let loose another barb when he saw that a tear was rolling down Asuka’s face. He slapped his forehead when he remembered that Asuka’s mom was dead just like his. “I’m sorry, Asuka!” He said quickly. “I shouldn’t have…”
He didn’t complete his sentence because Asuka took that moment to pounce on him, bringing both her hands up to choke him out. Shinji fell back and tried to throw her away amidst a roll. The brunette quickly latched onto his arms and rolled with him. The roll continued until Asuka was flat on her back with Shinji on top. They just froze in that position. Usually in their training, Shinji would at this point twist one of her arms to make her submit, but this time neither one could find the will to move except for their faces, which were slowly coming together.
“What’s happening?” Asuka asked softly with desperation in her voice.
“I don’t know.” Shinji answered in a weak voice.
They closed their eyes as their lips met in kiss that lasted for a little bit and then several smaller ones took its place. The pair rolled to their side and continued until they both simultaneously opened their eyes. As fast as lightning, the kids were six feet apart and sitting facing away from each other.
It was several minutes of extreme tension before Shinji finally spoke in a shaky voice. “I…I’m really sorry about the crack about your mother. I…I just wasn’t thinking. I know you lost your mother like I did. I had no right…”
Asuka cut him off before he could babble further. “Its…its okay. Really. I understand you were upset.”
They sat there in silence for several more minutes before a knock at the door shook them out of the shock they were in. Shinji stood. “I’ll, uh, go get the door.”
Asuka nodded her head and absently put two fingers on her lips as Shinji stood and left the room.
“Oh, hello.” Came Shinji’s voice from the entry hallway. “Can I help you?”
“Is this where Ranma and Misato live?” Came a soft voice in reply.
“Sure. They’re not back, but you can come in and wait if you’d like. They should be back pretty soon.”
“Yes, I’d like that.”
Shinji entered with the same woman that Misato had been talking with that afternoon. She took a seat on the couch and Shinji bowed and introduced himself. “I’m Ikari Shinji, would you like some tea?”
“Yes, thank you.” She replied.
Asuka finally recovered enough to bow and introduce herself. “I’m Soryu Asuka Langley. Who are you?” She asked bluntly.
“I’m an old friend of Ranma’s. I’ve come to have a chat with him. So are both of you living with them?”
Asuka shrugged absently. “Yeah, we’re the kids of the house. Of course sometimes I think I’m the only mature one here the way those two fight.”
The woman looked curious. “So they fight a lot?”
“All the time.”
Shinji came in with the tea, which he handed to the guest. “There you go.”
“Thank you.” The woman accepted it gracefully. She took a sip. “This is very good. Did Misato teach you how to make this?”
“No. Ranma did. Misato can’t make anything but curry, and even that she does badly.”
The woman almost spit out the sip of tea that was in her mouth. She demurely wiped the drop that had escaped from the side of her mouth. “So what does she do with her spare time? Just out of curiosity.”
Shinji looked at Asuka with a confused expression. “What does she do with her spare time?”
Asuka rolled her eyes. “That’s easy. She’s either drinking or in the bedroom with Ranma.”
“Oh my!” The woman put a hand over her mouth. “That doesn’t sound very lady-like.”
“Oh she’s a tomboy if I ever saw one.” Asuka commented idly. “She doesn’t do anything a real woman should. She only has a small selection of clothes. She joined the military of all things, and she’s always a slob!”
The woman put a hand over her heart like she had just received a fatal wound to the chest. She sat the teacup and saucer down and stood to leave. “I’m sorry I disturbed you tonight. I shouldn’t be here…I…I should be leaving.”
Shinji scratched his head. “But they’ll be back pretty soon. You don’t have to leave.”
At that moment, the door of the condo slid open. “…and I don’t see why we have to leave before the free meal!” Ranma’s voice filtered down the hall. “I mean, if you’re going to drag me off to some wedding to show me off like a showpiece, then I should at least get a meal…Akane?” He stopped dead in his tracks as entered the main room and saw the woman standing beside the couch.
Misato put a hand over her mouth upon hearing the name. “Oops.”
Ranma lifted an eyebrow at Misato before turning toward Akane. He opted to keep his hands to his side and remain calm for this confrontation. “It’s been a while. What brings you to Tokyo-3.” His voice was neutral, not giving away any emotions.
Akane’s gaze dropped to the floor. “I came to here to talk with you. I thought that…” Her voice faded out.
He cocked his head as if trying to hear her better. “Yes?”
She turned her head away from him. “Never mind.”
He rolled his eyes and crossed his arms. “What are you doing here? Did Nabiki go back on her word and tell you where I am?”
Akane turned back to face him. “No. I…I went out to meet her the other night. I saw you two talking. I forced your location out of her. She knew I wouldn’t relent until she told. She fought to keep her word, but she never learned to cook so she’d go hungry if she didn’t tell me.”
Ranma rubbed the bridge of his nose and shook his head. “Well, what’s done is done. As long as you’re here we might as well get some business taken care of. Wait right here.” He went back into the room that he and Misato shared. He came back in baring a credit card. He handed it to Akane. “Here.”
She looked down at it. “What is this?”
“This is a debit card from an account that I’ve been saving money in for the past thirteen years. I’ve guessed at how much money I’d have made the dojo and put it in this account. I’m still a little short, but you can use what’s in there in the meantime. I figure in a couple months I’ll have enough.”
“What is this for?” She gave him a stupefied look.
He knelt before her and bowed his head. “This is for the pact between our families. This is to replace me not being there. This won’t bring an heir, but it will keep the dojo afloat until someone can be found to take it. I want this to fulfill the Saotome side of the agreement. As the last member of the Saotome clan I offer this as a gesture for the dissolution of our clan’s agreement.”
Akane took an involuntary step back. “I…I don’t know.”
He tilted his head up and met her eyes. “Please, Akane. Please take this so we can both be free.” He moved his gaze back to the floor.
Misato, Asuka, and Shinji were just standing there agape. They were shocked that the great Saotome Ranma would prostrate himself to anyone. Misato finally managed to recover and shuffle the kids to their rooms. She herself went to her room, but left the door cracked open so she could hear the rest of this play out.
The youngest Tendo just stood there speechless. She looked down at the card. “How much is this?”
“Over ten million American dollars.” The card dropped from her hands and her jaw dropped. Ranma took the card and held it back up. “Please accept this.”
She sank to her knees in front of the martial artist. “I…I don’t know.”
“I know you’ll have to talk to your father…” Ranma started.
“Father’s dead. He…he died two years ago. A year to the date that Kasumi died in her train accident.”
He looked up at her with a shocked look on his face. “Kasumi’s dead?”
Akane nodded her head as she noted that he hadn’t said anything about her father dieing. “She and Tofu died while they were on their way to relief effort. The train had derailed and everyone was killed. Father couldn’t handle losing his wife and eldest daughter for long. He withered away and finally passed on, his dreams unfulfilled.” Tears welled up in her eyes. “And they’re going to always be unfulfilled.” Ranma looked up at her and she nodded her head. “But I don’t want your money.” She reached out and closed his hands over the card. “I just want to know that we can still be friends. The bond between our clans should always exist, even with such a weak link between us.”
Ranma eased back on his haunches and looked down at his hands. “Fair enough.” He looked up and gave her a weak smile. “Just don’t expect me to come over and play shogi for hours on end.”
She returned the smile just as weakly. “Deal. But let’s do it this way.” She stood up and Ranma followed suit. She extended her hand out to him. “My name’s Akane. You want to be friends?”
Ranma nodded his head as he realized the symbolism of a new beginning. He reached out his hand and took hers. “I’d like that.” They released the grip and took a step back. He reached a hand behind his head and scratched his neck. “So, Akane, you have someplace to stay tonight. We have a couch if you need to…”
She raised a hand to forestall any more conversation. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll be fine.” She walked past him and bowed before leaving the room. “It was good seeing you again, Ranma. I hope that we can catch up some time. Don’t worry, I’ll see myself out.”
Before Ranma could say anything else, she was gone. He looked down at the card he held in his hands. Just like that, he was free. The price had been more than the money in the account. The price had been the burden of the knowledge that he had let their fathers die without any fulfillment of their dreams. Two men had died without ever seeing the fruits of their labor.
Ranma flipped the card around and enclosed it in his fist. “I’m free.” He thought. “Is this what freedom feels like? This is how it feels to be clear of obligations? It seems like such a hollow victory.” He looked up and he saw all his roommates standing in the room staring expectantly at him. “No. This is what it feels like to be the master of your own destiny. This is what it feels like to have all the obligations in your life to be made of your own choices. I still have my obligations to these people.” He smiled. “My family.”
An hour later Ritsuko was just leaving Kaji at the bar with some parting words of advice to be careful. He just gave her his usual nonchalant smile and waved her farewell. He turned back to the bartender and ordered another drink. “Another round bartender.”
The burly man behind the bar set another drink in front of him. “So what are we celebrating tonight?”
“Broken hearts.” He took a long pull of the drink.
“Not a smart reason to be drinking, but rather popular tonight.”
Kaji looked up at the man. “How so?”
The bartender thumbed over his shoulder at a woman sitting at the bar with a long ponytail and a conservative dress on. “Take her for example. She’s been here for about half an hour drowning her sorrows. She looks more the type to be condemning bars, not drinking herself away in them.”
Kaji looked at the woman and something started nagging in the back of his mind about her appearance. “Thanks for the info. Maybe I shouldn’t be drinking alone tonight.”
“Just make sure neither one of you drive.”
“No problem.” Kaji stood and walked over beside the woman. “Excuse me, you mind if I sit beside you?”
The woman motioned her arm out indifferently. “Sure, go ahead. No law against it.”
He sat down and looked at her. “This is going to sound like a bad pickup line, but you look familiar.”
She lifted her eyes and looked at him. “Hey buddy, I didn’t come down here just to have some unkempt drunken jerk try to hit on me. So just drink your drink and leave me alone.”
He gave her one of his most winning smiles. “How about a unkempt, drunken, NERV jerk?”
She turned her face back to the bar in front of her. “No better. I still don’t want to talk to you.”
“So what brings a conservative housewife out on a night like this?” He asked casually.
She snorted derisively at the comment. “I wish.” She muttered. She looked down and pulled at the front of the dress. “This isn’t me. I’m not really a housewife. I’m not even married. This was just a mask I convinced myself to wear.”
“So why did you choose it?”
She turned back to him. “Didn’t I tell you I didn’t want to talk?”
He gave her a warm smile. “Too late, we’ve already started a dialog. Would you please tell me why?”
She shook her head in defeat. “It was something I thought that somebody would like.”
“No, a llama. Of course it was a man, you idiot.” She slammed her drink and called to the bartender for another.
“So what was this man like that he could convince you to take on that mask?”
The bartender sat another glass in front of her. She took a drink and consumed half of it. “Only the Man Among Men. The greatest martial artist in the world.” Her voice was becoming slurred as she polished off the rest of the drink.
Something finally connected in Kaji’s mind. “You’re Tendo Akane! I thought you looked familiar. I’ve read about you when I was researching Ranma. What are you doing here?”
She harrumphed as she ordered another drink. “Getting drunk. What does it look like?”
Kaji smiled as he slowly sipped his drink. “Maybe you should slow down a bit. You don’t want to get alcohol poisoning.”
She turned her head toward him and scowled. “What do you care?”
He casually swirled his drink around the glass before taking another sip. “I just don’t want to see the last practitioner of the Tendo School of Anything Goes Martial Arts to die of suicide.”
Her mouth hung open for a second until she finally caught herself and sat the half-filled next round on the bar. “What’s so good about the Tendo School? It’s nothing compared to the Saotome school. Our side could die and the world would never know.”
He reached out and squeezed her shoulder. “The Saotome School may outshine yours, but your both still just two sides to a coin, and if the world doesn’t know, then it’s the world’s loss. You shouldn’t beat yourself up that Ranma is so much better than you. He’s trained hard his entire life. No one is as good as he is. You can’t keep comparing yourself to him.”
She took a slower drink of her glass. “That’s not why I’m beating myself up.”
“So why are you?”
She took a deep breath. “It’s because of the great fool I’ve been for more than fifteen years.” She finished off her glass and her words were starting to slur together, but she could still make herself be understood.
“Why is that?” His hand went back to his glass.
She glared at him again through glassy eyes. “What are you, a psychiatrist? I don’t need a shrink, I just need a drink.” She finished off her glass and ordered yet another.
“I’m just curious about why you feel like you need to do this.”
She slowly drank from the next glass and took a deep breath. “Okay, how about this scenario: The person you love comes storming in one day and is terrible to everyone except for one person and then leaves your life for good. You’d probably think that you’d have to be like that person for them to ever like you again. Now imagine that you finally find them after several years. You’ve done everything you can to be like that one person you thought they liked, but you find them with someone just like you used to be.”
Kaji nodded his head. “Okay, how about this scenario. You’ve been with someone for a long time. You think that you may really love this person. Then one day they leave and tell you there’s someone else in their life. You do some research and see that they was lying at the time, but when you see them again they’re with someone that has a similar personality, but you cannot compete with even remotely. Then imagine you have to see them everyday being a couple, catching them in an elevator naked…”
“I get the point.” Akane finished her drink with a chug. She ordered another, but just stared at it as she swirled it in the glass. After a few minutes she spoke again. “So are you mad at her or him?”
Kaji shook his head. “I’d be mad if I thought that Ranma had stolen Misato from me. The truth is she left me when I couldn’t tell her that I loved her. I took too long to tell her and she ran. Are you mad at either of them?”
Akane took a slow sip of her drink. “Lucky for them, part of being like someone else taught me anger management. Now I’m just depressed and need to drink myself stupid.”
“So what do you plan on doing after that?” Kaji asked as he finished his own drink.
“I don’t know. I really don’t have anything left to live for. Ranma’s gone. The rest of my family is gone except for Nabiki, and she can take care of herself. There isn’t a point to my life anymore.” She throttled the remaining liquid in her glass, but when she motioned for another, Kaji waved the bartender off. “Hey! What’d you do that for?!” She demanded in a slurred voice.
“I think you’ve had enough for one setting. Especially considering I can tell you’re not used to drinking a lot.” Kaji stated matter-of-factly. “Where are you staying tonight? I can walk you home.”
She shook her head. “I’m not staying anywhere. I checked out of my hotel because I was either going to leave tonight or be staying wherever Ranma was. You can take me to the train station.”
“I don’t think that is a good idea.”
She turned on him and growled, “I can take care of myself! I’m leaving!” She stood up and took two steps before listing forward and falling. Kaji leapt just in time to keep her from burying her face in the carpet.
He lifted one of her arms over his shoulders and helped her back to her feet. “Can’t hold your liquor. Come on, I’ve got a spare couch at my apartment. I can’t let you out by yourself like this.”
She blearily looked at his face. “Like what?”
“Depressed and drunk. This way.”
He put his arm around her waist and helped her out the door. A few blocks down, they had to stop to let her puke in an alleyway. After cleaning her up, he had her climb onto his back and ride piggyback. A few blocks down the road Akane finally spoke. “You know I had to carry Ranma like this once.”
“You don’t say.” Kaji gave her a brief look over his shoulder with his roguish grin.
She nodded her head, but set it down on his shoulder to keep it from spinning. “He had hurt his back, and didn’t have the strength to walk. He had to turn into his cursed form before he’d let me carry him. We had only met the day before. I thought he was one of most foolish men on the Earth.”
“So now what do you think?”
She chuckled softly. “I think I was right, but I was the most foolish woman on Earth for falling in love with him.”
Kaji looked up toward the moon. “We’re all fools at one point or another. What keeps us from being complete idiots is that we learn from our mistakes.”
“So who was that girl you were talking to at the bar?” Akane asked as casually as she could. “She your new girlfriend?”
Kaji laughed. “So you did take notice of your surroundings. No, she’s just an old college friend. She, Misato, and I used to go everywhere together. We were the three musketeers for a brave new world. Unfortunately secrets started tearing the group apart.”
“I heard her tell you to be careful.”
“I’m in a very dangerous line of work.”
“What do you do?”
“I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.” He stopped in front of a fairly nice apartment building. “Here we are. Home, sweet, home. Just a few more flights of stairs.”
He carried her up the rest of the way, into his apartment, and sat her down on the bed.
She wearily looked up at him. She suddenly felt very vulnerable. “Please go easy on me. I’m still a virgin.”
Kaji chuckled lightly and covered her with the blanket. “I’m not going to take advantage of a drunk woman. Maybe when your sober enough to make a good decision, but for right now just get some rest. I’ll be in the living area on the couch if you need anything.”
He turned to leave but Akane caught his arm. “Please. I don’t want to be alone tonight.”
He nodded his head and lay down beside her on top of the blanket.
The next morning Kaji was down in the core of Terminal Dogma. He had finally tracked down the new location of Adam and was finally going to see what human instrumentality was about. He gave a quick look up and down the hallways and then swiped the card for access. The door opened to reveal Misato and Ranma staring up at the almost fully-grown Adam with the Lance of Longinus sticking out of his chest.
Ranma turned and regarded him. “What took you so long, slowpoke? We were just trying to decide if we were going to include you in our little discovery.”
Author’s Note: Yes, I know that it’s really Lillith hanging there, but at this point in the series they think it’s Adam. Just had to add this to the chapter after the third email about it.