Subject: [PMFFML] [FFML-R] [Ranma] Miss/Fortune -- Part Three
From: Brian Randall
Date: 2/26/2001, 8:03 PM
To: FFMLR

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Miss/Fortune

Part III

Disclaimer: Takahashi created the paints, I used my own easel. And maybe
diluted some of the colors...


Sleep with a loved one can be a beautiful thing. Two young lovers lay
loosely coiled about each other, content to wile away the quiet hours of
the night in repose.

Akane woke again, no longer tired, and luxuriated in the sensation of
being held by Ranma. Man or woman, Akane loved Ranma. And apparently
Ranma loved Akane.

Ranma grumbled something in her sleep, and turned her head, pressing her
face into Akane's chest.

Resisting the urge to giggle, Akane stroked Ranma's head. Perhaps all of
her worrying had been for naught. Maybe, everything was going to be
alright, and she could feel... like she was forgetting something.

Frowning, she thought back, trying to fix whatever was missing firmly in
her mind. She sat up suddenly, leaving a drowsy Ranma to slowly sit up
next to her, mumbling, "Wazzat... Mmm..." Ranma's eyes opened, as full
wakefulness settled in, and she looked at Akane, cocking her head to one
side to consider things.

Akane smiled shyly, fully exposed to Ranma, and not caring for the
moment. Ranma's eyes roamed across Akane, finally settling on her face,
as the redhead smiled. "Akane-chan... how are-"

The door to Akane's bedroom burst open, slamming into the wall with
jarring suddenness. Akane shrieked and dove beneath her covers in spite
of herself, while Ranma just groaned.

Heavy footsteps sounded, and Akane heard Nodoka's voice snarling,
"Ranma.... _son_... what is the meaning of this?"

Ranma stretched, seemingly unmindful of her nudity, then vaulted out of
the bed and began gathering clothes and dressing. Fuming, Nodoka waited
until Ranma was dressed, then snapped out, "Well?"

The girl leveled a stern glance at the older woman. "I slept with
Akane-chan. Is there a problem?"

Nodoka's scowl deepened, her serene mask having disappeared long ago.
"Yes," she hissed. "There is a problem, _son_. It is _not_ manly for you
to behave this way. I certainly hope you don't harbor any plans to marry
this girl, surely she must have-" The loud 'smack,' of flesh meeting
flesh cut off any further words from the Saotome matriarch.

Akane poked her head out of the covers, staring in shock as Ranma
absently inspected one palm, and Nodoka clapped a hand to one reddened
check, a look of furious rage and stunned amazement on her face. Nodoka
dropped her free hand to her katana, glowering at Ranma warningly.
"Ranma..." she said, voice trembling with barely restrained anger. "You
are pushing the bounds of my patience."

Ranma shrugged, seemingly uncaring. "You know," she commented. "You're
my mom. I love you dearly, but don't think for one second I'm going to
let that come between me and Akane-chan. I don't care what you say,
she's more important than anything else." Ranma's gaze darkened, and she
returned her mother's glare, giving back every bit of anger and threat
pound-for-pound. "_Anything_ else. And that," she growled. "Is all I
care to speak of on that subject."

Paling, Nodoka tottered away, unsure of how to deal with Ranma in this
kind of mood. Akane did not miss the scowl that Nodoka shot at her
before disappearing into the hall.

Akane stared at her lover, considering. Had she cost Ranma this? Just
when things were beginning to get better, and they were piecing their
lives together...

Ranma calmly closed the door, then returned to sit on the edge of the
bed. Her face was scrunched up, moving closer to the mask of irritation
that Ranma typically wore of late, instead of the warm smiles of the
previous day.

Akane's heart sunk. She was causing this to happen to Ranma. After all
was said and done... did she deserve to call Ranma her lover?

Akane crept out of her bed, and began to dress, worriedly glancing at
Ranma. The pigtailed girl stared impassively for a long moment, then
shook her head, managing a smile for Akane that seemed only slightly
strained. "We'll get through this, Akane-chan."

With those words, the worries that gnawed at her let go, and Akane felt
herself slowly drifting back to a calmed state. Heaving a sigh of
relief, she walked over to her nightstand, and retrieved the box from
two days ago. "Um..." she began, apologetically. "Cologne asked me to
give this to you. I'm sorry, I forgot..."

Ranma quirked an eyebrow, and accepted the small box. Her eyes traced
the construction of the wooden container, and she turned it over,
examining it from every angle before nodding slightly and opening it a
crack. Smiling softly at the contents, she snapped it shot and rose to
her feet, pocketing it. "Excellent. Now all I need to do is talk to
Tofu-sensei about getting another ward..."

Akane frowned, puzzled at Ranma's behavior, and hesitantly asked, "What
is it? And what do you need a ward for?"

Ranma waved a hand dismissively, saying, "The box is nothing to worry
about. I'm going to Tofu-sensei's clinic today. Turns out that
Tofu-sensei actually knows how to make wards for almost any situation...
I have a few on hand, but I want to get more, just in case."

Akane's hand flew instinctively to her breast for a moment, remembering
the mark. "What do you mean 'just in case'?"

The redhead gave Akane a level gaze, all humor gone from her expression.
"Ryouga will show up again, and probably with the Musk. I'm surprised we
haven't seen them or heard from them already, honestly."

Akane paled, realizing. He had tagged her once before with the koi rod,
and he had always kept it with him, saying, 'just in case,' which she
thought was silly. Feeling suddenly unwell, Akane grimaced. "I... don't
feel so good."

Frowning thoughtfully, Ranma studied Akane. After a moment, she shook
her head, saying, "I can't imagine the stress has been good for you.
Well, we could take you to Tofu-sensei then. We're going to see him
anyway, so you can ask him for a check-up."

Relieved, Akane nodded. "That's a good idea. We should probably go,
then."

Ranma scowled and shook her head, frowning grumpily at Akane. "Food.
Eat, then work."

Akane opened her mouth to complain, then reconsidered, and said, "Bath,
then food."

***

Ranma had disappeared by the time Akane exited the furo, though she was
surprised to see Mr. Saotome sitting on the edge of the porch, looking
at the koi pond thoughtfully.

She frowned, wondering how he would treat her now. He turned towards
her, detecting the movement behind him, and smiled softly. "Good
morning, Akane."

Akane looked around worriedly for Nodoka before responding, "Um... Good
morning Saotome-san."

The man's smiled broadened a tad, and he turned to look out at the pond
again. Back turned towards her, he spoke quietly, his voice carrying in
the stillness of the morning. "I trust you're feeling well?"

Walking slowly to sit near the man, Akane nodded, before realizing that
he wouldn't see her gesture. Tremulously, she began, "I'm okay, I
think... though I've had better days..."

The man snorted, still in contemplation of the pond. "'Better days,' she
says. Feh." Akane felt a twinge of pain from her heart, and winced. Mr.
Saotome continued, unperturbed, "You're probably the only woman with the
strength to handle my son." Blinking, the girl slowly digested that,
before realizing that his first statement was a gesture of respect.

"Oh." Akane smiled, feeling better that at least Genma accepted her.
"Um... where is Ranma?"

Genma gestured vaguely towards the dojo. "Off somewhere, probably having
a long and quiet talk with your father. I wouldn't worry about that too
much... Tendo- Sorry. Your father will come around."

Cocking her head to one side, Akane studied her potential
future-father-in-law. "What does that mean?" she asked, confused.

Mr. Saotome turned to look at her, surprised, then smiled again. "Well,"
he began. "I know that... No-chan doesn't approve, but... I _am_ the
clan head, so she's just going to have to learn to deal with it. I
know... this is a tough time. But after seeing my son get bitten by a
dragon... after watching the way he trains, and how hard he fights, and
seeing behind his every action... that you are what he strives _for_...
I can't turn my back on that." Akane blinked, completely stunned. The
man reached out a hand and ruffled Akane's hair, mussing it horribly
before turning his gaze back to the koi pond. "And I've always thought
that you were the best for my son, really."

Akane felt a warm feeling spreading inside her, delighted that she had
found not one, but two Saotome men who accepted her without
reservations. Wiping at her suddenly moist eyes, she managed, "Thank
you."

The Saotome patriarch grumbled something that might have been 'you're
welcome,' but was too quiet to be heard.

Akane grinned at that, away from her fears and worries for the moment.
Sighing contentedly, she asked, "What are you watching?"

He glanced at her for an instant, then smiled again, returning to peer
into the shimmering surface of the pond, as the sun's morning rays
scattered dappled points of light through the cherry tree's softly
swaying branches. "Water. Instrument of change... the Saotome School is
based on water. Able to adapt to a situation... that's why I was able to
realize the full potential of the Umisen-ken... and not make as much of
the Yamasen-ken."

Akane nodded attentively, glad for the opportunity to bond with someone
she had never really gotten to know. Or even realize that he wasn't as
shallow as he appeared. She frowned, realizing something. "You're the
head of the clan?"

He smirked at that. "Of course. If Nodoka was the clan head, I wouldn't
have needed to sign a contract over Ranma's training."

She leaned back, surprised at his sudden depth and... maturity. Frowning
slightly, he admitted, "I'm not a particularly brilliant man when it
comes to anything except martial arts." He turned a warning gaze to her
before she could laugh. "But I do know one thing." Akane nodded, trying
very unsuccessfully to hide a smile. "In the light right, a shallow pond
may seem bottomless. And in the right light, a deep pond may appear to
be shallow."

Akane blinked at that, confused. "I... don't understand..."

The man smirked broadly, and raised a single finger in the manner of one
who knows something, and is about to explain it. "Lighting can change,
but a pond's measure can always be obtained one way."

She frowned, still not completely understanding. "O...kay..."

The man drew in a breath, to explain, then tucked himself in a ball, and
flew towards the pond, aided by a kick from Ranma.

Splashing into the water in a cannonball, the panda managed to soak
Ranma even from the porch, but nothing else. The pigtailed girl pulled
her shirt away from her chest in feigned exasperation, unable to hide a
great smirk.

Sitting in the pond, the panda seemed to laugh, it's eyes glittering
with mirth.

Akane suddenly released a giggle of her own, realizing that whatever
wisdom Ranma's father seemed about to impart, he had intended to be
splashed then. "I think I understand..."

Ranma sighed, sinking to sit near Akane. "Yeah. When you want to know
what the water's going to be like, just looking won't answer any
questions. There's more too it, depending on how you think about it."

Akane shifted her position, so that she was facing Ranma. "What do you
mean?"

The pigtailed girl shrugged, tugging off her shirt to wring it out.
"He's saying he's not as dumb as he acts, but he's not as smart as you
probably think he is."

Sobering at that, Akane considered. "So... it's saying... what people
see in others isn't always the truth?"

Ranma grunted, pulling her shirt back on. "That too. It's saying if you
want to impress people, act below your ability, like a shallow pond.
That way, when they step in, they get a shock at how deep you really
go."

Unable to help herself, Akane laughed out loud. "I bet Jusenkyou looked
really shallow."

Ranma smirked, stating, "Let me just say this about that, Akane-chan.
It's a lot deeper than I thought it was." Rising to her feet, she
offered Akane a hand. "Let's eat."

The meal was spent in silence, as Akane considered her lover's words.
How deep were _they_?

***

Ranma re-entered the living room after clearing the dishes, striding
purposefully towards Akane, and once again male. He dusted his hands
together, then frowned. "I wonder where Kasumi went."

Akane stood, unsubtly moving to be closer him. "I don't know..."

Grumbling, Ranma turned towards his father. "Pop, where's Mother?"

The man raised an eyebrow thoughtfully, then shrugged. "Probably out
shopping with Kasumi."

Sighing, Ranma put on a particularly pained expression, then shook his
head. "Never mind about that now. Let's go see Tofu."

"Ranma," the elder Saotome called out warningly.

Ranma turned in place, halfway to the door. "Yeah, Pop?"

His father's expression became solemn. "The master called us this
morning, looking for you."

Eyes narrowing, Ranma asked, "How soon?"

The response was heavily stressed, "He's not sure, but probably today or
tomorrow."

Ranma ground his teeth for a moment, then nodded. "I wish you told me
earlier. We're going to Tofu's. If you can, get Ryu to meet me without
the girls. I don't want them involved, if we can help it. We'll be
prepared today."

Akane frowned apprehensively, wondering at the instant return of Ranma's
angry demeanor.

Ranma gathered her in his arms wordlessly, and sped down the street.
"Sorry, we've got to hurry. I wasn't expecting them so soon."

Initially alarmed, Akane settled into his embrace. After a heartbeat,
she asked, "Ranma... why can't I remember what happened after you found
Ryouga?"

Ranma's expression darkened, and he shook his head slightly as he slowed
his pace in front of clinic. "Only Kasumi knows that, now."

Stunned, Akane opened her mouth to question Ranma again, but was
interrupted by Tofu, as the doctor rushed out of the clinic. "Ranma?
You're late, I was worried... how is the seal holding?"

Ranma gently set Akane on the ground, then reached into one pocket,
withdrawing a small beaded bracelet. Peering at it intently, he rotated
it around until a slim strip of paper with painstakingly precise writing
came into view, wrapped around one of the beads. Akane leaned close to
examine it, realizing that the cord of the bracelet was crafted from
woven hair.

As the young man began speaking with the doctor, Akane was again
overwhelmed by a surge of memory.

*****************************

She clutched the ward to her chest, sobbing wordlessly, while Ranma
stood to one side, externally impassive.

There were others there, but Ranma was the only important one, and he
was angry... he burned with a cold, consuming anger... but it wasn't
directed at her, she knew, as little as she deserved to be free of his
anger.

Kasumi made a soothing noise. "Now, Akane... hold still. I need to trim
some hair off, okay? Once we do that, you won't have to hang onto the
wards anymore."

Still weeping, Akane nodded once, then held her head still, while Kasumi
carefully trimmed the ends of her hair, and collected the severed
strands in a small paper bag. Once done, Akane maintained her stillness,
trying desperately to ignore the burning pain on her breast, or the slow
singeing of the paper in her hands.

The dull stabbing pain in her heart from her betrayal echoed the burning
sensation. Betrayal of her older sister. Betrayal of her whole family.
Her actions were foolish and had cost her... everything.

Kasumi placed the bag of severed hairs on a large silver tray, which
Ranma accepted and set on the low table in front of him.

Akane gulped for breath, watching Ranma kneel next to the tray, and use
his speed to tie all of the hairs together in long strands. Two hundred
and forty-three strands in all. Then Ranma took a deep breath, flexing
his fingers, and took three long strands, braiding them together in a
single strand, and repeating the process exactly with another group of
three, and another... and another...

When that was done, he was left with another eighty-one braided strands.
He rubbed at his hands, scowling as he massaged the callused palms of
his hands. "Akane." His voice was solemn. "Are you sure you want this?
We could remove the wards... you were happy, weren't you?"

Gibbering, Akane clutched the ward tighter, tears streaming again, as
she shrieked, "No, NO! I need... Please! I don't want to be... Please
get rid of it! Finish the seal!" Collecting herself, she whimpered,
"Don't call me Akane... I don't... deserve that."

Ranma flinched, as though he had been struck. "As you wish, Akane-san."

Kasumi handed Ranma a knife, whispering, "You remember Cologne-san's
instructions, right?" Ranma nodded wordlessly, accepting the knife.
"I'll leave, then. Tofu-sensei should be here soon, but you can do the
next part before he arrives."

Ranma nodded again, not even sparing a glance for Kasumi as she left. He
flipped the knife over in his hand, catching it by the blade before
setting it on the tray. He then collected a small earthen bowl from
beneath the table, and placed it on the tray, near the hairs. After
glancing at Akane, he scowled, and retrieved another ward, handing it to
her.

The girl snatched the ward from Ranma desperately, as Ranma took the old
ward, already blackened at the edges. Frowning, he set it in the bowl,
watching it crumble to ash. Shaking his head, he collected the knife in
his left hand, and made a small incision near the base of his thumb. He
held the wound over the bowl, though it took a moment before the blood
began to seep out.

*****************************

The memory of the bloody ritual faded, and Akane stared at the bracelet
with its clay beads in fascination. "That's..."

Ranma broke off his conversation with Tofu, and nodded. "Looks like the
rest of your memory is coming back, then. Yes... as long as this is
intact, and one of us carries it, you're safe. Tofu's going to replace
the ward, because we can never be too certain." Tofu nodded, and took
the bracelet from Ranma, walking into the back of his clinic.

The young man turned back to Akane, explaining, "The koi rod that Ryouga
found is more powerful than we had expected. We had to do this much...
and it's only going to last for a few months."

Akane's jaw dropped. Just when things were coming together, again there
was trouble. Voice unsteady, and an expression of horror fixed on her
face, she asked, "What... what can we do?"

Ranma patted Akane's shoulder reassuringly. "Don't worry. Cologne says
that all we have to do to break the spell is get the rod, and use it on
you again. If we hit the same spot, we can remove the mark."

Pressing on hand into the spot that had once borne the koi mark, but was
now distorted to a mere discoloration, Akane nodded, still fearful.
"Oh... I... hope we can take care of that, then."

The pigtailed boy nodded absently, as Tofu emerged from the depths of
the clinic. Voice calm and level, Ranma said, "It shouldn't be a
problem. Ryouga's coming to us, one-way or another... I only wish I had
taken it from him earlier."

Akane's frown deepened. "How did that go? All I know is... I guess you
knocked me out?"

Ranma raised an eyebrow, then shook his head, growing pensive again.
"It's not important, really. I had enough time to grab you and leave
before I could do any permanent damage to him... Damn Herb."

Shaking himself out of his funk, Ranma accepted the bracelet from Tofu.
"Anyway, Akane-chan... I'm going to do everything I can to break that
spell on you." His voice carried a promise in it that spoke to Akane's
heart, calming her again.

There was the sensation, not unlike standing near a tree as a breeze
rustled through it, and Ranma glanced sharply over his shoulder, smiling
grimly. "Ryu is here. You won't see us, but we'll be nearby, Akane-chan.
I need to speak with him..."

She opened her mouth to question him, but he produced a bolt of cloth
from his pocket and swirled it around himself as he faded from sight
again. She frowned thoughtfully, watching where he had been, and
remembering.

*****************************

The furo was the ideal location. Kasumi would be the first to wake, and
she would understand. It would make the least mess, and all things
considered, would taint her family's lives the least.

She spent a long moment kneeling on the tiles, and looking at the family
tanto longingly, as it lay on the tile... but she didn't want to sully
the family blade with her filthy blood. Instead, she had retrieved one
of Kasumi's older kitchen knives, the one she would actually be using.
The family blade would be present to tell Kasumi that she had known how
little she deserved.

It took her a long hour of fumbling attempts with a whetstone before she
thought that the old kitchen knife was sharp _enough_... but it would be
done, and then... Ranma... Ranma could get on with his life.

Gasping for breath, she ignored the tears that tracked down her face,
cursing herself, and her weakness for bringing things to this. Ranma
could buy her time, with the seal... but eventually she would fall prey
to the spell again.

Hands trembling unsteadily, she stared into the darkness of the furo,
and brought the pointed tip of the knife to her throat. Taking a deep
breath to steady herself, she tensed her muscles. It would be quick, a
mercy that she felt undeserving of... but why... why wouldn't her hands
co-operate?

She knew, of course. Her body was fighting her, fighting to protect...
She hardened her resolve, and drew the knifepoint away before driving it
towards her throat with all her might.

Gasping, her eyes widened as a hand formed from the darkness, shooting
out to deflect the knife's edge at the last instant, drawing a short,
shallow line across her neck. The hot point of pain then arced sharply
downwards as she lost her grip on the blade, and Ranma coalesced into
visibility, frowning intently. "Akane-san. What are you doing?"

She shook her head, knowing that she could never tell him what Kasumi
had told her that morning; that she could never tell him-

*****************************

Akane winced, as a stabbing pain preceded the memory being cut off.
Whatever that memory was, it was locked away much more solidly than the
others were. Tofu cocked his head to one side, concerned. "Akane? Are
you alright?"

She nodded, still unsteady from the pain. "I... think so. Just something
that's locked away... I can't remember."

The man scowled slightly at hearing those words, then shook his head.
"Yes... that. Kasumi will tell you in due time. I hope." The doctor
seemed uncharacteristically calm -- if not outright upset -- at the
mention of Kasumi.

Akane frowned, nervous curiosity worrying at what she could piece
together. "It's something medical, right?"

Tofu snorted, "I could tell you exactly what it was, Akane, but you
won't remember." After a moment of fuming at nothing, he relaxed
slightly. "Yes. It's medical."

The girl found herself losing her curiosity the harder she tried to
remember it, preceded by sharp pains whenever she came close to
remembering-

She winced again at a particularly painful flash, then shook her head.
"What were we talking about?"

Grumbling, the doctor said, "Your condition. You should be fine..." With
that, he sat at his desk, and began shuffling through some papers.
"Ranma?"

A pair of boys seemed to materialize on either side of Akane, causing
her to instinctively leap to Ranma in surprise. He caught her
effortlessly, a faint smile on his face. "Sorry. Ryu... try to keep the
other girls from finding out. I'm worried about involving them."

Ryu nodded, seeming to flow out the door as he called back over his
shoulder, "I understand, but Ukyou... we'll see."

Ranma sighed, still holding Akane. She flushed slightly, too comforted
in his embrace to let go, and secretly pleased that he wasn't trying to
set her down. He moved to a seat across the desk from Tofu, and sat,
placing Akane gently in his lap. "What was that about Akane-chan's
condition, Tofu-sensei?"

The doctor frowned, then shook his head. "I'm sorry... I gave my word of
honor to Kasumi. Only she can reveal that information. Suffice to say I
don't believe that it's a danger to her life."

Ranma nodded once. "Very well, then. If Kasumi thinks that it's nothing
to worry about. Ryu is at our chosen battle-ground tonight... we'll lead
him there once Ryouga shows up."

Akane shifted slightly, pressing herself into Ranma more firmly. "I want
to be with you."

The man holding her gave her a gentle, reassuring squeeze. "Of course. I
wouldn't dream of abandoning you, Akane-chan -- not for a heartbeat."

She breathed a sigh of relief, closing her eyes and relaxing. Ranma
snorted, jostling her slightly. "I suppose I'll carry you home, then?"

She nodded, face pressed into his chest, and uncaring at the scene they
would present to anyone who saw them on the streets.

***

Nabiki was sitting at the table when they got home, flanked by Ukyou and
Shampoo, all of them wearing decidedly neutral expressions as Ranma
entered with Akane. He set her down carefully, then sighed. "I thought
as much."

Ukyou snorted, then her expression melted into a smirk. "Of course not,
Ranchan. Even if things were different, Ryu-chan's still involved."

Bobbing her head in agreement, Shampoo added, "You're a friend, Ranma.
Friends do not abandon one-another in times of need."

Ranma again sighed softly, shaking his head. Akane merely turned a
questioning gaze on Nabiki, who pulled her shirt up to reveal a large
bandage. One edge nearly crossed near her navel, while the opposite edge
spanned another three inches of flesh. Nabiki gazed down and studied it
for a moment, then sighed. "This is Ryouga's fault." Her eyes met
Akane's briefly, then she looked away from her younger sister, tucking
the cloth back in.

Ukyou and Shampoo exchanged a surprised glance, while Ranma studiously
looked away. Akane found her voice after a moment, "What... did he do to
you?"

Nabiki's only answer was, "He got my little sister with the koi rod."

Akane gazed at Nabiki intently, trying to remember.

*****************************

Akane woke in her room groggily, wondering why she was there.

Her memories returned to her in a flash; Ranma had kidnapped her!
Wait... she wanted Ranma... why on earth had she wanted that? A small
voice in the back of her head complained that she _did_ want it, and
wanted it still.

She climbed out of bed, noting the ashes of some piece of paper marking
her clothing. She made a face and brushed them off, dropping into a
defensive stance as she heard a movement at the door. She relaxed,
seeing that it was her older sister. "Hey, Nabiki... what's going on
here? Where's Ryouga?"

Nabiki scowled, setting a tray on her younger sister's nightstand.
"Ranma will take care of him, don't worry about it."

Akane felt a tremor in her heart. Was this her family's plan of forcing
her together with that... that... jerk? She frowned, shaking her head.
Under her breath, she murmured, "Ranma's always picking on Ryouga."
But... that small voice that she was always working to press down... it
told her that _this_ was what she wanted, not Ryouga. But that was
stupid.

She shifted her attention to Nabiki, as she babbled on about something
while buttering a piece of toast from the tray. "...anyway. Once that's
done with, we're pretty sure that the spell can be broken, and then...
everything's going to be okay."

Nabiki turned to see her younger sister studying her intently. Akane
shook her head, reaching towards the tray and taking a slice of bread.
"How are they planning on breaking the spell?"

The middle Tendo sister frowned, deep in thought. "I'm not sure about
that," she confessed. She shook her head, glancing over her sister
briefly. "Ranma's got a few ideas, though. Until they, we'll just keep
the wards on you..." she trailed off, seeing that Akane wasn't holding a
ward, and leapt, trying to tackle the slightly smaller girl. At the top
her lungs, she shouted, "Ranma!"

Akane was a martial artist, while Nabiki was not. The smaller girl
twisted to one side and lashed out with the knife she had grabbed
earlier, neatly deflecting the larger girl. Staggering, Nabiki kept her
balance with one hand going to the wall to support herself, and the
other going to examine her new wound. The elder sister stared down at
the shallow gash in her stomach, as a flow of red blossomed forth. She
slumped to the floor, off-balance and in shock. Akane raised one hand to
strike again, then hesitated. This was her own sister... but she was
trying to keep her away from Ryouga!

Shaking her head, she dashed towards the door, pocketing the knife
swiftly. Family or no, these people were trying to keep her from Ryouga,
and that was unacceptable. Hurting them should be avoided... but she had
to escape at any cost. She had to be with Ryouga.

Ranma appeared before her, confused, as she windmilled her arms
frantically to stop before she collided with him. He reached out and
grabbed her shoulder, beginning to pull her into an embrace. "Akane,
what's going on?" His tone was concerned, as he looked at her, worried
for her safety.

Repulsed by the man before her, and deeper by the small part of her mind
that begged her to return his embrace, she found her knife and slashed
towards him as fiercely as she could. While swinging the knife, she
unleashed an angry scream, "Don't touch me you _pervert_!"

An angry light flashed in Ranma's eyes, and he sidestepped the strike,
disarming her with no apparent effort. Akane gaped as she felt her arm
go to sleep, and the knife clattered to the floor. He stared at her for
a moment, giving her a chance to realize how hopelessly outclassed she
was before sweeping a hand towards her neck.

*****************************

Akane's eyes widened as she stared at her sister. "Nabiki?" she
breathed, barely more than a squeak. "I did that to you?"

Nabiki's expression darkened, as Ukyou and Shampoo's surprise registered
on their faces. Clearing her throat, the elder sister shook her head. "I
thought so at first... but after thinking about it for a bit... I think
this is Ryouga's doing." She nodded once, expression still dark. "If
Ryouga hadn't cast that spell on you, then this never would have
happened."

Akane shook her head numbly, whimpering, "No... no... no... it was me...
I'm sorry... I'm so sorry..." Then her eyes widened in horror, and she
spun to face Ranma, an expression of shock on her face the reflection of
the deepening betrayal she felt she had done towards him. "I tried to...
Ranma! I'm..."

She was dimly aware of Ranma embracing her, pressing her face into his
shoulder while she sobbed uncontrollably. Again, just when things were
bearable, they worsened further. What more horrid news would taint her
life? Why... why... why couldn't things have been different? Why did
they have to be this way?

For a heartbeat, merely an instant, Akane felt a hot point in her chest,
a spark of anger. If Ranma had been nicer to her before Ryouga... if
Ranma hadn't always been causing so much trouble between them... But the
spark died quickly, as she knew she was just as much at fault as Ranma.
"I'm sorry..." her voice was muffled, as twin points of hot wetness
trickled down her cheeks, soaking the fabric of Ranma's shirt.

Ranma made a soothing noise, and stroked her hair gently, while the
other women looked away uncomfortably. Akane shivered, feeling an odd
combination of desire and revulsion, remembering how she had pressed
herself into Ryouga the same way, and pushed herself away, stomach
churning.

The man before her released the embrace, frowning gravely. "No... I
don't think you should be sorry, Akane-chan.  It wasn't you. It was the
spell. But... we should be going. I wish we had more time, but they
could be here at any moment, assuming that Herb doesn't let Ryouga lead
the way."

The other girls nodded, Nabiki's nod following the other nods by a
moment. "Um... Ranma," she began hesitantly. "I can't run as fast as
you, so-"

Ranma shook his head, waving a hand to forestall her. "No. You're
wounded, and you can't fight as well as us. You should stay here with
Pop."

Nabiki scowled, and opened her mouth again to protest, but Shampoo
interrupted her. "Ranma's right, Nabiki. It's going to be very
dangerous."

Shaking her head in agitation, Nabiki grumbled, "This sucks. Ryouga owes
me too."

Ranma shrugged, patting the bolt of cloth at his side unconsciously. "I
don't think that will be a problem."

Shaking his head, he checked his pockets, producing the small wooden box
Cologne had told Akane to give him, the seal, and the compact that he
had been playing with earlier. He frowned, then pocketed the items again
while giving a decisive nod. "Akane-chan... It's going to be very
dangerous. Are you ready?"

She looked up to him, still unsteady from the constant riptides of
emotion that couldn't decide whether or not to drown her in their
depths, or dash her against their boundaries. Collecting herself, she
managed, "Yes, Ranma..."

He swirled his cloth out once, slinging it over his shoulder, and met
Shampoo and Ukyou's gazes. The girls nodded in unison, not needing to
speak. Ranma released an unsteady sigh, then swirled his cloth out
again, enveloping himself and Akane.

Her world became a dizzy blur, with everything becoming diffuse and
disoriented. Ranma's voice whispered to her, "Close your eyes and relax,
Akane-chan."

She did as she was told, until Ranma set her down. She gasped, seeing
she was on the roof of the house. "How did you do that? I didn't even
feel us moving up!"

He smiled faintly, cloth slung over one shoulder. "Yeah... just a
side-effect." He narrowed his eyes, twitching slightly at the twin
'thud' of Shampoo and Ukyou's respective landings. Ranma grinned
wickedly, seeing something no one else could, and he murmured, "Happi."

Akane looked up at him, her arms still wrapped about his neck. "What do
you mean?" she asked, confused. "Is he actually helping you?"

Ranma nodded, then frowned slightly. "Yes... when you came back he said
something about 'defilement' and agreed to help." He jerked his head
around to stare at Akane suddenly, from his scan of the horizon, and
blushed faintly. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I shouldn't have brought
that up."

Akane shook her head, not meeting Ranma's eyes. "He could tell?" she
asked in a weak voice.

Ranma shifted his feet nervously for a moment before responding. He
sighed brokenly, "I'm sorry."

Akane shivered, hugging him tightly for comfort. "Don't be... just... be
there for me."

He kissed her on the forehead, while Shampoo and Ukyou were scanning the
horizon for Happosai. "Always. I promise." She felt warm inside, as he
set her on her feet, wishing she could kiss him, and hold him, and be
held by him... but now was not the time. "I want to you keep this with
you, okay, Akane-chan?" He withdrew the small wooden box from his
pocket, and held it out to her, cautioning, "Don't open it unless all
else is lost... you'll know what to do with it when the time comes."

Akane accepted the box, confused. "What is it?" she asked, turning it
over without opening it.

Ranma opened his mouth to answer, then grimaced, pointing towards a
nearby building. "There they are. Hide that, Akane-chan."

The girl hurriedly hid the box in her own pocket, turning to see what
Ranma indicated. A small speck was being chased by four figures, the
lead figure glowing with an ominous yellowish aura. Ranma's face twisted
in distaste, as he spat, "Herb."

Ukyou and Shampoo moved to draw their weapons, but Ranma shook his head.
"No. Pop will help Happi out, we're going to lead them away from here...
we want to keep Herb away from the house as much as we can."

Grumbling, they began to drift towards the far edge of the roof, away
from the swiftly approaching attackers. Ranma took a deep breath,
steadying himself, and muttered, "Ryouga..."

Akane trembled and placed a hand against his arm, though she wasn't sure
if it was to calm herself, or Ranma.

Ranma shook himself abruptly, and swept her off her feet. "Come on.
They've seen us. Herb and Ryouga will come after us no matter what...
Pop and Happi can handle the other two, but they'll probably follow."

He charged to the edge of the roof and vaulted off, trailing Shampoo and
Ukyou, as the other fighters glanced backwards occasionally. Akane bit
back a yelp, clinging to Ranma tightly, then asked, "Why did you have
Happosai lead them to the home if you're going to fight them somewhere
else?"

Ranma grunted heavily, as he launched himself skyward again, then
answered, "Happi left before we figured out what we were doing. He
called us when he got Herb's trail, and-" He cut off suddenly, landing,
shifting, and hurtling upwards again. "And then we told him the plan.
It's nothing special, but there's no buildings around to mess up, and we
think this fight might get ugly." Another landing and jump. "No people
around to get hurt, either."

And no witnesses, Akane realized. Was she willing to take things that
far? Hesitantly, she asked between landings, "Ranma... are you going to
kill Ryouga?"

He snorted in midair, "No. As much as he may deserve it."

Akane swallowed, staring at Ranma's suddenly stony visage above her,
with only the background of the endless sky behind him. She felt a great
pressure welling up within her at that moment, causing her to realize
how lucky she truly was. "Ranma..."

He grunted, rebounding again, then coming to rest on the roof of a
moving train. Sighing, he set her down, even as the pursuing forces
tried to catch up. Shampoo and Ukyou collapsed on either side of the
roof ahead of them, gasping for breath.

Ukyou managed to wheeze, "Good timing... from the letch... next time...
I wait... Ryu-chan runs..."

Shampoo moaned something that sounded like agreement, then added, "Or
have Ranma carry Shampoo and Ukyou." She grimaced, still breathing hard,
and corrected herself, "Carry you and I."

Ukyou flopped onto her back, while Ranma gazed after their followers.
Akane blinked, realizing that Ranma was hardly even winded. Shaking her
head, she studied Ranma, recapturing for a moment the sensation of being
carried by him, and an endless moment where it was just her, him, and
the sky.

The feeling flooded through her, melting her heart, and she wiped away a
tear at how strongly the emotion resonated through her. This was the
battle they were heading towards... where Ranma would save her. Ranma
would save her. She was confident about that.

But... Shoving down her apprehension, she managed, "Ranma?"

He instantly turned towards her, giving her his full attention. "Yes,
Akane-chan?"

Hesitantly, against the swaying of the roof, she began to stand. Ranma
quickly helped her to her feet, and she leaned into him, grabbing him as
tightly as she could, trying to crush herself into him. He returned her
embrace, whispering, "Akane-chan? Are you alright?"

Sniffling, she shook her head. "Ranma... I love you. More than anything.
You are my universe."

Ranma seemed to sag at that, an incredulous expression on his face.
"What... I know, but... why are you telling me now?"

She pulled away, and dragged Ranma down into a brutal kiss. When he
dropped to his knees, startled, she sank with him, worried about
slipping off. Looking firmly into his eyes, she said, "If Ryouga... if
something happens, and the seal breaks... I love _you_ Ranma. You are
everything to me. I... I just want you to know that."

Ranma blinked a few times, then nodded, glancing back towards their
pursuers.

Shampoo groaned heavily, muttering, "Too wordy. Seven."

Ukyou sat up slowly, and shook her head, eyeing Akane. "Good duration,
excellent form. Eight."

The pigtailed man before them hung his head, then snapped, "I swear...
this is a battle, not a joke."

The okonomiyaki chef shrugged, looking away. "Okay, maybe humor wasn't
what we needed. But... Akane said something important there. You should
be thinking about it."

Ranma jerked his attention back to Akane. "Oh," he said belatedly.
"Um..." Pausing for a moment to collect his thoughts, he ventured, "I
don't know what I would do without you, Akane. You mean everything to
me. Everything." The intensity in his eyes warmed Akane all over again.

Shampoo snorted, "Men."

Ukyou loosed a guffaw, then calmed herself, saying, "We're there.
Everyone ready?"

Ranma jerked back to his feet, instantly the warrior again, and Akane
found herself in his arms. Her warrior, then. In a terse voice, he
mumbled, "Figures that Ryu told you... Okay, let's go."

The three leapt as one, Akane clinging to Ranma again, off the side of
the train and into dry scrub. Ryu was waiting for them, an apprehensive
look in his face. He schooled his features as the others approached,
slowing slightly.

Congregating for a brief moment, around Ryu, they stood in a
semi-circle. Akane was set down, as Ranma surveyed the area. A flat,
fairly nondescript earth field, with the occasional scrub or brush
poking up. There was a thinly wooded patch to one side, separating the
field from the train tracks, and further away, opposite the tracks, a
low stone wall.

Ranma looked around, then nodded. "They're going to wait a few minutes
to catch their breath, then they'll be coming. Shampoo, Ucchan... be
careful." The pair nodded, and drew their respective weapons. He
frowned, briefly, then shook his head. "The flunkies have probably been
training to, so..." He glanced to Ryu before continuing. "I have the
pocket mirror if things get too dicey, but I'm not sure if it'll hold
Herb. Akane... be very careful, and stay behind Ryu. He's going to take
care of Ryouga."

Akane blinked, as Ranma turned away to study the line of trees again.
She felt something being pressed into her hands and looked up, startled.
Ukyou had a no-nonsense expression, and was handing one of the smaller
throwing spatulas towards her. Akane snatched it after a moment, and hid
it in a pocket thoughtfully. Ukyou gave an approving nod, then peered
ahead to look at Ranma again.

Ranma nodded to himself. "I'll take care of Herb." Shaking his head, he
turned back to the others, "Okay, everyone get ready."

Ranma stepped forward, and Akane moved to follow, but was halted by Ryu.
He shook his head grimly, remarking, "Keep your cool, girl. There's too
much riding on this battle..." Akane shrank back, worried, as Ryu
snapped his cloth around him, like a thick belt. "Just have faith in
Ranma, and keep your cool, okay?"

Shampoo and Ukyou spread out, about twenty feet to either side. The
amazon twirled a bonbori experimentally, then asked, "How close, Ranma?"

Ranma shifted his stance, his cloth flung over one shoulder and blowing
back against him in the breeze. After a moment, he shook his head.
"Right now."

Four figures emerged from the trees simultaneously. Akane's eyes took
them in and tried to assess how much of a threat each one was. There was
a small boy with an odd sword, and wolf-like ears, and a large young man
-- but not quite a man -- to his side, with cat-like eyes, and tufted
tiger's ears. Between those two strode the imperious seeming Prince of
the Musk, in dragon-scale armor. His face was a mask of barely
constrained rage, as he stared at Ranma.

Herb growled low in his throat and it carried -- a deep, grating sound
-- across the field, though it was directed towards the fourth figure.
"Extract what vengeance you can from my leavings, commoner."

Ranma spared a single glance for the fourth figure, then focused on
Herb. "We begin." And with that, the battle was joined. Ranma and Herb
disappeared almost instantly, Ranma with his cloth, and Herb into the
trees, to try and thwart Ranma's techniques.

Ryu studied his opponent, while watching Ukyou out of the corner of his
eyes. Lime and Mint charged towards Akane, only to be intercepted by the
other girls.

But beyond that, the din of battle, the knowledge that Ranma, was...
there... somewhere, fighting Herb... Akane's attention was drawn to him.
Ryouga.

He stood there, looking disheveled, and worn, and he stared at Akane...
with a sense of joy radiating from him, and that smile that she loved.
Akane shuddered violently, and resisted the urge to step away. She did
not love Ryouga. She loved Ranma. But... there was a drawing in Akane's
heart, an urge to be with Ryouga, not... Akane shook her head again,
fighting back the impulse to run to the lost boy. She did not love
him... she did not... not... She loved Ranma. Gasping, she wrapped her
arms around herself. "W... what's going on?"

Ryu's attention darted around, and he responded to a signal that Akane
couldn't discern. Ranma appeared, seeming to fly out of no-where, with
Herb in pursuit. Ranma landed lightly, did a half-cartwheel, and grabbed
Herb's between his ankles.

Herb shouted, and twisted around, flinging Ranma directly towards Ryu.
The fatigue-clad boy threw out a rope, and Ranma caught it, yanking on
it as hard as he could. Ryu flipped into the air, passing inches above
Ranma as the pigtailed martial artist somersaulted to land near Akane.

Ryu picked up where Ranma left off, battling with Herb, while Ranma
removed both the seal and the compact from his pocket. The blood drained
from Akane's face as she saw the seal, which was fraying as she watched,
more and more strands breaking, curling away to fall to the ground.
"Ranma..." she quavered.

Ranma shook his head, and held out the compact. "Akane, look into the
mirror. And... I love you, Akane-chan. I'm sorry."

Akane looked into the mirror, seeing only her reflection, as she
murmured, "I love you Ry... Ranma..."

***

Ryouga approached, looking smug. "I won, Ranma. Give Akane back to me."

Ranma surveyed the surroundings. Herb had been beaten back by his
strength and skill, combined with Ryu's. Mint and Lime would have won,
but Ryu's intervention had saved them. And for all that...

Ranma stared at his hands, marveling at the way the trembled as he held
them up. He had planned... fought... trained... lived... for one thing,
and one thing only. And he had lost it?

There was the koi rod, Ryouga must have had that, but... "What if I
simply break every bone in your body and take the rod back, Ryouga?"

The bandana-clad boy shook his head. "The magic becomes permanent after
a week. You lost, Saotome. Give me back my Akane."

Ranma's eyes dulled, as he considered. Was it merely the rod's presence
that had destroyed the seal, or Ryouga's? He stared at Ryouga,
considering. Ryu was leaning heavily on Ukyou behind him, and Shampoo
was nursing a few wounds of her own... but they couldn't stop Ranma
from... from... anything, really. They probably wouldn't, either.

Ryouga shook his head again, seeming to have already read Ranma's
thoughts. "Then she dies with me, Saotome. I win. I promised I would
destroy your happiness." His grin widened, as he commented, "I never
really thought I'd get to watch you become this strong, and still
destroy you."

***

There was an endless array of mirrors before Akane, surrounding her on
all sides. She could feel her 'self' slipping away, to be replaced with
Ryouga's Akane, slowly... eating away at herself, her emotions... her
control.

And the blocks on her memories.

Her eyes widened in shock, as the final memories became clear.

*****************************

Akane couldn't believe it. It made sense... she had had suspicions...
but she had hoped... somehow...

She swallowed, and looked up at Kasumi, eyes large and vulnerable.
"I'm..."

Kasumi sighed, giving Akane a comforting hug. "Now... come on, Little
Sister. We've gotten this far. We've got a seal on the spell, so you
have control back... this is just a little thing. I don't... I don't
think Ranma will be upset, even."

Akane shook her head numbly, staring at the papers in front of her. Of
course she was suspicious. She had even told Ryouga, before she had the
seal... and the wards. But... she was... "Pregnant."

Her elder sister sighed, enfolding her in an embrace. "Don't worry,
Akane. I'm certain things will work out."

Akane nodded slowly, planning on solving one problem for Ranma. And
herself. And her family's honor.

*****************************

Akane's eyes opened again, as she remembered what Ukyou had given her
before it began. She fumbled in one pocket, already feeling her control
slip. The spatula had a sharp edge... it would be enough.

Ranma deserved that... to be free, at least, and know that it was on her
own terms. Ryouga deserved nothing, and she would leave him with just
that.

Her hand closed around the article, and she pulled it out of the pocket,
the sensation of heaviness in her limbs not unlike the nearness of
sleep.

She had to hurry... time was running short, and it was getting... to
be... so easy... to... let go of her... control...

***

Ranma nodded once. "I'll let Akane-chan out then. And she'll make her
own choice."

Ryouga grinned, showing his fangs. "Of course, Ranma. So give her to
me."

"Akane-chan is not a possession, Ryouga. She is not yours, she is her
own." Ranma's voice carried subtle threats in it that could not be
mistaken. Ryouga shrugged off the glowers from Ranma's allies.

Taking a fatalistic breath, Ranma opened the mirror and tapped it,
invoking the release spell.

In a swirl of light and color, Akane was sitting on the ground, looking
at her surroundings with a stunned expression. She climbed to her feet
slowly, dropping a sharp edged throwing spatula.

She studied Ranma for a moment, while an emotion that may have been
regret washed over her face for a moment, before she smiled sadly and
turned away.

Her choice was made, and she turned to face Ryouga.

---------


--
Haiku of my lament:

Forgive my spelling,
my U.S. education,
is the source of blame.


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