They had wanted nude photographs today.

Ranma wasn’t sure how to take this news, so he had hesitated, shot his father a confused look. There were other people in the room, strange men who smelled of smoke, and his father had beaten it into his head that he wasn’t allowed let anyone see him naked unless they paid first; besides, he’d never been photographed before. But his father had glared and, when Ranma didn’t move fast enough, swung a heavy bear-like paw at Ranma’s head and began to roughly strip his son.

If Ranma had still been able to be embarrassed, he would have blushed. As it was, he just shrugged and finished the task his father began, pulling off the cheap cotton clothes quickly until he stood exposed before the strange men.

He thought about Ryoga while they prodded and posed him, and the memory of the bandana-sporting boy that kept Ranma from lashing out. It kept him hard, too, which apparently pleased the men with the cameras; Ranma didn't let himself hear their words, only their voices and the constant clicking of the lenses. He posed for them, coy at times, wanton at others, using all of the tricks his father had taught him: he smiled, frowned, blushed in faux embarrassment. The smoke from their flashes trickled slowly out the one open window and gathered on the ceiling.

Ranma didn't know how long the photographers stayed. More than an hour but less than two--Genma couldn't go without a drink for more than two hours and he never left the room, his cold, empty eyes always on the photographers and his son. At the end of the session, Genma walked the photographers to the door, speaking softly to them in his low, growling voice. Ranma dressed and listened for the clink of coins or the rustle of paper notes but heard neither. He felt a brief flash of surprise, but said nothing when Genma returned, an almost paternal smile on his face.

"Well, my boy, this may be it!" Genma's hand was heavy on Ranma's shoulder. "If he likes those pictures, you could be set for life."

Ranma shrugged the hand off and sidestepped Genma's clumsy attempt to cuff him. "What d'you mean? He who?"

"Some man wants to buy you. Just think, boy! All of our debts could be paid off right now!" Genma's grin didn't slip even though his eyes grew cold and calculating as he watched his son start to protest. "Your mother could come and live with us again."

Ranma shut his mouth, his angry words that he wasn't a thing to be bought and sold dying before they could even be formed. He bit his tongue to keep the bitter rage from spilling forth and found his salty blood more palatable than the hate he had for his father.


It was well past midnight and Ryoga still hadn't come, even though they'd promised to meet tonight. The light of the half-moon was fading and Ranma knew that he should be heading home soon.

He looked up into the rustling petals of the cherry tree instead. The pale scent of cherry blossoms made him feel slow and sleepy and he held his hand up, wove his fingers between the dancing moonlight that snuck through the snow-white flowers. The bark was rough against his back and the ground slightly damp. He held the discomfort fast in his mind, tried to preserve every moment in crystal perfection. How many nights like this would he have when he was another man's property?

The thought depressed him and suddenly the night was no longer a thing to be savored but just cold and empty. Ranma stood, pushing away from the rough trunk and through the weeping branches, heavy with their flowers. He stretched, staring up into the dark, lonely sky, at the distant stars that twinkled even though their fire had died.

Ryoga's hands, when they snuck up and covered Ranma's eyes and blocked out the stars, made him start and swear in that brief moment between their touch and his recognition. Ryoga's hands were large and rough and they reminded him of Genma's for a brief, disorienting moment.

"You're late," Ranma said, and he turned until Ryoga's hands cradled the back of his head. "I have to go home."

"You can stay a little while longer, right?" Ryoga pulled him closer until his breath brushed Ranma's face. It wasn't sweet and delicate like the Sakura blossoms, but Ranma didn't really care.

"No," he said even as he wrapped his arms around Ryoga's waist. He put his head on Ryoga's shoulder and spoke into the rough warmth of his shirt. He wanted to stay here forever. "There's a man. He's. I'm going to go live with him. He. There'll be enough money to pay off the old man's debts."

He felt Ryoga tense, his entire body coiling in on itself and shaking. "Run away with me," he said. "We can go anywhere you want. You don't have to do this."

"I do." And he did because even if his father didn't have honor, Ranma did and Ryoga knew that.

There were days when he hated his honor.

"I won't let you go," Ryouga whispered, clutching Ranma tightly -- painfully -- to him; as if he could make them one person with the strength of his arms. "I'll buy you free. Wait for me when the cherry blossoms bloom."

"I will," Ranma promised, speaking into the rough weave of Ryouga's shirt. "I'll wait for you."


The home of his new 'patron' was obscenely large. Ranma tried not to gape but it was difficult. He tried to ignore the contempt of the servant who showed him to his room, too, but that didn't work very well and he felt himself grow angry. Which, though it removed his discomfort at being surrounded by so much wealth, wasn't exactly helpful because if he pissed off his patron he'd be out on the streets and back in Genma's clutches.

There was clothing laid out for him. Soft, demure clothing and he didn't like it because there weren't enough layers to keep his body hidden away. He put it on anyway and knelt in the center of the room and waited. He thought about how his life might have been different. He didn't think there could be anything worse than this.

"So you're the one Satsuke picked out."

Ranma looked up and he was surprised because the man looking down at him couldn't have been more than a year or two older than him. He was handsome enough, Ranma supposed, in an aristocratic fashion. He stood and bowed respectfully and spoke the empty words that Genma had taught him. "My name is Saotome Ranma. It is an honor to serve you."

"Kuno Tatewaki." Kuno bowed back and he looked as uncomfortable as Ranma felt, which made Ranma think that this arrangement hadn't really been Kuno's idea.

For a long moment, they stood as still and uncomfortable as actors who had lost their scripts, Ranma waiting and Kuno fidgeting and looking away, like a virgin bride on her wedding night. Which Ranma found to be an odd image but there it was, and it was probably true, too. Kuno was too rich to be able to pick up boys on the street, and the sudden realization that he had some control over the situation made Ranma's head spin.

He was tempted to just let Kuno stand there and stammer and flee in abject embarrassment, but that could jeopardize his chances of staying here, and the longer he lived with Kuno, the more money Genma would be paid, which would mean a better life for his mother. So, instead, he undid the ties of his kimono and let it fall to the ground, pooling about his ankles. He stood there, naked and unashamed and he could look Kuno in the eyes because in this he had power. In this -- in selling his body to this rich virgin -- he could set the pace and take control like he couldn't in anything else in his life.

It didn't take much to reach Kuno's side and their first kiss was awkward, Kuno clearly unsure of himself. He touched Ranma's body gently, tentatively, pulling his hands away after no more than a fleeting caress as if they had been burned by the heat of Ranma's skin. Ranma had to grab his hands and teach him out to touch, to feel, to be felt and it's so very different from anything he'd ever been asked to do before. He decided to be selfish and seek his own pleasure, taking delight in the shocked expression on Kuno's face when he came, hot and sticky all over Kuno's hands. The expression--and the accompanying shade of red--when he licked his cum from Kuno's fingers was even better.

Kuno fled, red faced and still perfectly dressed and Ranma thought that perhaps he had gone too far. But he wasn't summarily dismissed and in a couple of days, Kuno came back and Ranma stayed in the house that was too big and wore the clothes that were too soft and reveled in his subtle power. Day after day, month after month, through summer and winter and summer again and he never stopped slipping out in the middle of the night and standing underneath the weeping cherry tree, waiting for Ryoga.

But Ryoga never came.

And, in time, even Kuno left him.

He chose to tell Ranma that he was getting married over tea. Ranma made sure he didn't spill the hot liquid like the words that came tumbling from Kuno's mouth.

"It's an arranged marriage, something my father worked out, and I can't. If she found out about you." Kuno looked ashamed and he wouldn't meet Ranma's eyes, avoiding his gaze just as he had on their first meeting.

Ranma nodded because he knew that this was too good to last; it made sense that Kun had an arranged marriage waiting for him somewhere down the line. His heart wasn't breaking but it did sound loud and strange, his blood pounding in his ears like taiko drums. "When is the wedding?"

"June," Kuno said. "I'll send you back to your father. You can take anything you like."

And now Ranma was afraid because he didn't want to go back to Genma. He never wanted to go back, all he wanted was to sit under cherry trees and wait for the lover who promised to come and never did. If he went back to Genma he'd be put back to work and he didn't want that life -- had never wanted that life. He was suddenly glad that he put the cup of tea down because his hand was trembling and maybe it just meant that he'd gotten soft living with Kuno if he was afraid of going back to who he used to be.

"Please," he said and he was startled to hear the fear and desperation in his voice. "Please, let me stay here until the cherry blossoms have bloomed."

Kuno looked confused, but he nodded.


And now the cherry blossoms had bloomed and fallen, the flowers carpeting the new grass. Ranma sat under the bare branches of Shidarezakura where they'd promised to always meet, and wondered what he was going to do. He stared up at the empty stars like he had that night so long ago and closed his eyes tightly, as if by making stars bloom in the blackness behind his eyelids would somehow make Ryoga appear and make the world a better place.

The cherry blossoms smelled thick and rotten, decaying like the dreams Ranma used to have.

There was one last bloom and it shivered in the wind. The fragile stem that held it to the tree finally broke and it floated, gently, through the air.

Ranma watched it fall.

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