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A Ranma ½ story
by Brian Randall

Disclaimer: All hail Takahashi-sama, for creating the fine works she has. In that vein of thought, I am using her creations without permission from her, Viz, or anyone else who actually does own the rights to Ranma.

Chapter 1

Akane stared at Ranma dumbly, then shook her head. "I was hit… with a toy fishing rod? So? That doesn't mean anything…" she trailed off, seeing everyone wince, including the seemingly unflappable Kasumi. She swallowed, guessing more, but too afraid to test her memory. "What… did it do?"

Kasumi began, her voice trembling momentarily, but hardening with her resolve quickly, "Well, that's… it didn't do anything, at first…"

Akane yelped, as Ryouga gracefully snatched her out of the air and set her on the ground, the suction cup still struck to her chest. She stared at him in bewilderment, as he flushed, and mumbled an apology, head bowed.

Confused, she yanked the suction cup off, as Kuno dashed around the corner, shouting for her while he skidded to a halt, "Tendo Akane, I would date with—" Kuno cut off suddenly, staring at Ryouga in confusion. Scowling, he drew his bokken, declaring, "What fiend are you who assumes such closeness to the fair blossom of Tendo Akane?"

Ryouga's flush deepened, and he stammered, "Um… friends… we're… just friends."

Akane cocked her head to one side, considering, then shook her head. "Um… Kuno-senpai, I — Gah!" She made a choking noise, as the kendoist attempted to lunge at her and gather her into an embrace.

The lost boy quickly snapped his umbrella to a position at the base of Kuno's throat, growling, "And just what do you think you're doing?"

Flicking his bokken up to deflect Ryouga's umbrella, the two began sparring, but only briefly before Akane settled the problem by simply smashing Kuno with her elbow. She shook her head, feeling an odd tingling spread through her body, and an itch on her chest that she wished she could investigate. She'd have to ask Ryouga about that toy fishing rod later.

Ryouga flushed, grinning idiotically, and mumbled an apology.

Akane smiled brightly at him. He was such a nice boy… and a good friend of Ranma's, too. "Ryouga, would you care to come over for tea?"

Ranma stepped into the house, still mulling over what had happened between him and Akane earlier. It wasn't much compared to most of the trouble that happened between them, lending him some hope that it could be resolved quickly.

He looked up, startled, when Akane announced, "Ranma, you're just in time for tea."

Ranma smiled; glad that Akane wasn't angry with him for the moment. Taking a seat at the table, he noted uncomfortably how close Ryouga was to Akane.

Nabiki nudged him with an elbow, teasing, "Hey, Ranma. Did you see all the gifts that Ryouga brought Akane?"

Ranma shrugged, preferring to focus on the pastries on the table.

Annoyed by his lack of response, Nabiki needled, "I mean, isn't it nice that he comes all this way to date Akane?"

The pigtailed martial artist fought back the urge to yell, and choked down a mouthful of his biscuit. He glared at Nabiki wordlessly, looking away from the couple in reference.

Kasumi frowned thoughtfully, noting how… awkwardly close Akane seemed to be with Ryouga, considering that Ranma was her fiancé. "Oh my," she remarked. "Do you really want to date Akane?" Her tone seemed ambivalent, but to Ranma, appeared to be directed solely at him.

A warning from Kasumi was not to be ignored, so he turned to look at the couple. Ryouga was blushing furiously, and staring at nothing, while Akane batted her eyelashes at the lost boy coyly.

Ranma suddenly found himself not wanting to finish his pastry, as a cold lump settled into the pit of his belly, and began sending out creeping tendrils of worry. He swallowed nervously, watching the pair. Akane's eyes definitely held a certain sparkle in them that they hadn't held from him any time he could recall in recent past…

He turned to Kasumi, whose expression had gone from 'serene damage control' to 'what the hell is this!?' He blinked at that, realizing that he had seen an expression on her face that… expressive… only once before, and that was the first day they had met.

The pigtailed martial artist hung his head, not knowing what to do, as Akane and Ryouga flirted unashamedly. Rather, Akane flirted, while the last boy simply built his blush up higher and higher. Ranma clenched one fist beneath the table, his hand tightening until his tendons made quiet 'snapping' noises, being pulled at taut as they could, then his knuckles whitened as his nails bit into the callused flesh of his palms. Each giggle and word from Akane seemed to drive a dagger into his heart.

He looked at them, then away again quickly. Was this her idea of a joke? Had the argument that Ranma couldn't even remember upset her enough to abandon him? He cast his gaze about the room, desperately seeking an answer in the faces of the other family members.

Nabiki's eyes were wide with mingled shock and confusion, while Kasumi's eyes held worry and doubt. Soun stared incredulously, not believing that his daughter could be this close to someone aside from Ranma. The panda slowed the pace of its pastry consumption, watching in confusion. After Akane began holding Ryouga's hand, the tension got to be too much to bear, and even the panda and Mr. Tendo were staring, slack-jawed.

Ranma slammed his fist against the table, upsetting the teacups, and stood quickly, his battle aura standing just below the visible range, only barely held in check. In a low voice, he commanded, "Ryouga. Come with me." With that, Ranma stalked into the yard, reversed direction, and vaulted towards peak of the roof.

Akane glowered at him, but said nothing at a reassuring smile from Ryouga.

The bandana-clad boy lost his flush, instead claiming a look of smug superiority, as he strode to the backyard, and followed Ranma's leap to the roof.

Ranma stood on the sky-blue tiles in a loose stance, the hint of barely restrained violence trembling though the air around him. Ryouga smirked, crossing his arms over his chest. "So," he said, unable to hide his look of smug satisfaction. "What seems to be the problem, Ranma?"

Not relaxing his stance in the slightest, Ranma snapped, "What the hell did you do to Akane?"

Ryouga's grin widened, displaying his fangs to good effect. "Why, Ranma," he sneered, unable to keep a note of delight and joy out of his voice. "Do I detect a note of jealousy in your voice?"

The pigtailed martial artist bristled with barely restrained rage, but made no move to attack. "Just tell me what you did," he snarled.

Turning away, the lost boy smirked, calling out over his shoulder, "Don't think so, Ranma… You should have been nicer to Akane when you had the chance."

Before Ranma could attack, Ryouga hopped off the roof and disappeared from sight, getting lost immediately after.

Ranma sank to the rooftop in a deep funk, miserable and angry, as the truth of the reality bore down on him. Ryouga won. Ryouga won.

And even worse, Ranma didn't even know he had wanted to win. Unable to stand the situation, Ranma leapt to his feet, grinding his teeth together so roughly that they creaked under the pressure. He trembled, needing to lash out, needing to scream, and needing to yell, to destroy… needing… to cry.

He flung himself off the roof in a fury, diving for the koi pond. Men didn't cry.

Nabiki sullenly walked down the stairs, explaining, "And he spent a lot of time that way, too. Depressed and angry, I mean."

Akane could only stare, as Nabiki sat near Ranma, even while the redhead pointedly ignored the middle Tendo sister. Nabiki scowled, but shook her head. "I want to blame you, Akane… I want to say it's your fault. But…" she trailed off, looking at Ranma.

The redhead sighed, "Nabiki… don't do this to Akane. It's going to be hard enough as it is."

Grumbling, Nabiki acquiesced, "Fine… fine. Akane, it's… I can't blame you, as much as I'd like to. It the rod's fault." Grimacing, she spat, "And more than that, Ryouga."

Akane shook her head, not understanding. "What do you mean… so… I fell in love with Ryouga because of a magic fishing rod?" She was frightened to hear a faint tone of panic in her voice, and nervously bit her tongue before she could say anymore.

Ranma nodded, staring at her hands in silence, slowly clenching and unclenching them.

Nabiki frowned, then resumed, in a calmer tone, "You told Ranma what happened, but… Shampoo had to use the formula 110 on you, to dull your memories until you could come to grips with it, and…" Licking her lips, Nabiki trailed off, looking guilty.

Kasumi picked up the thread of story, setting down her teacup. "You tried to kill yourself. Luckily, Ranma stopped you first. We couldn't have that, so… we're hoping that this helps you a bit."

Nabiki scowled at her younger sister balefully for a heartbeat, then relented, her expression melting into remorse. "I hate… losing… but I don't know if I ever came close to winning-" Shampoo coughed pointedly, staring at nothing. Nabiki bit her tongue, then hung her head, releasing a sigh. "Let me tell you what happened to Ranma before everything comes back to you… it should give you some sense of perspective." After a moment of silence, she shrugged, adding, "It's not like we know much of what happened to you while you were gone anyway."

Akane nodded mutely, tracing a finger across the line on her throat she had seen in the furo, and stunned by Kasumi's casual attitude concerning the apparent attempt at suicide.

Akane disappeared the next day after school, along with Ryouga.

Soun and Genma wasted no time in cornering Ranma, who was already packing his bags. Soun wailed, "Ranma! How could you-"

Ranma's coldly angry voice carried across the room, overriding the Tendo patriarch's shriek despite it's low tone, "Shut up. I'm going."

Genma frowned nervously, then sighed, "I'd better go with you, Boy. No telling what's going to happen."

The boy grunted, throwing Genma's pack to him. Genma had the good grace to look surprised that Ranma had already packed for him, then grumbled, and shouldered the burden. Ranma nodded curtly, fury and betrayal burning in his eyes. Hoisting his own pack, he commented, "I'll need someone to spar against."

Soun blinked, worried at Ranma's attitude, but unable to bring himself to stop them… his daughter was missing, after all. He called out as they departed, "Just… if you can't find her, come back…" It sounded weak, even to him.

Ranma just grunted sourly, and trudged out the door, trailed by his father. If Akane wanted… wanted… if this was what Akane truly wanted… He prayed to whoever would listen that it was a trick, a joke, a cruel mistake, or even some horrid nightmare… anything but the truth.

Two weeks. Two weeks had passed. No sign of Ryouga; he was lost too well, at this point. He hadn't been to his home, though Ranma had actually bothered to check. There wasn't any trace of him that Ranma could find there, or anywhere else Ranma could think to look.

This was bad for the union. Even worse, it was bad for his son. Genma was worried. Ranma fought and trained harder, spending much of his time looking for fights… but that critical spark at the core of Ranma that made him… well… Ranma… had burnt out. He was sometimes little more than a shell of his former self, merely pushing himself as hard as he could, and training to his breaking points.

Genma was beginning to realize that there was a good chance… they weren't going to find Akane. No sign of either Akane _or_ Ryouga… and they were last seen leaving Nerima together.

Looking towards his son, Genma watched the boy trotting forward on the muddy road with steady, even steps. The cold fire that burnt in his eyes told Genma that suggesting they turn back would be unwise. Worried about his son, and his son's fiancée, he turned his eyes back to the path ahead.

Four weeks. And still no sign. Genma gathered himself, placing one hand on Ranma's shoulder. "Bo…"

The syllables died in his throat, and he started again, "Ranma." The pigtailed martial artist turned towards his father, feet bleeding from where his shoe soles had worn out days ago. His eyes seemed… empty, dead, somehow… except for the cold fire in the very depths of his gaze…

Genma swallowed nervously, stuttering, "I think… I think it's time for us to go home."

The pigtailed boy stared at his father, the cold fire guttering… guttering… and failing. Spent, he collapsed into his father's arms, convulsing with the sobs that a man couldn't release. The part-time panda mournfully carried his son back towards the Tendo dojo, wondering at his own blame in the situation.

The Tendo family had assembled to hear Ranma and Genma's explanation of their attempts. And four weeks was an awfully long time for trained martial artists — used to survival in the trackless depths of China — to not find any trace. Ryouga was simply too good at getting lost.

Soun was displeased, as Ranma became increasingly despondent… but could not ignore the fact that Ranma had tried — had really and truly tried — despite his failure.

With no small amount of regret, he explained, "Ranma… I'm terminating your engagement to Akane." The boy flinched at that, then nodded acceptance, realizing his responsibility in the situation. Soun droned on, ignoring Ranma, "Instead, you will be engaged to Nabiki."

Nabiki coughed, spraying her drink across the room. She collected herself quickly, then turned to level a fierce, angry glare at Soun. In a chill tone, she hissed, "What?"

Soun, however, refused to back down. "I stand on my decision. You were engaged to him before, after all."

Kasumi frowned, giving her father a disapproving look. "Father… are you certain that's wise?"

Soun swallowed nervously, saying, "Well… we could ask Ranma if he'd prefer you instead…" He stopped, noting that Ranma had already dismissed the entire situation as being unimportant, and left.

The sisters exchanged a worried glance, trapped in an unexpected and confusing situation. The light stayed on in the dojo until late at night, when Ranma had finally decided that he'd done enough training for the day.

Akane sniffled, fighting back tears at the pain she could see in Ranma. The redhead didn't show it in her face, but Akane could sense it, a palpable, real, tangible force. It was oppressive enough to feel suffocating, as though it was radiating in solid waves from her form. Akane fought down the urge to hug Ranma, wanting them both to feel better… but she had a dark suspicion that Nabiki's retelling of what had happened would yet to turn worse, and was deathly afraid that her attempts would not be appreciated.

The stony faced redhead stared at the ceiling blankly, then spoke, voice thick with emotion, "It was… the beginning of a very bad time for me. I can only imagine what things were like for you… you didn't like to talk about it much after… we found you."

Akane huddled into herself, wishing that Ranma would show her warmth, or even show warmth to one of the other girls… The stoic anger that Ranma displayed seemed… off. Unlike Ranma. It frightened her, and she wondered just how much else had been lost, aside from her memories.

Shampoo toyed with her teacup, seeming to have tensed with each word. Shaking her head, the Amazon relaxed somewhat, saying softly, "It was a hard time… for all of us." Akane caught the look Shampoo gave Ranma, which the redhead seemed oblivious too.

There was a glimmering in Shampoo's eyes that spoke of better days… when things hadn't gone so badly, and… The Amazon shook her head, dispelling Akane's attempt at reading her gaze. Swallowing, Shampoo mumbled, "There's… a lot you missed, Akane."

Nabiki drew in a ragged breath, then said, "Ranma… trained, after you left. He threw himself into the art… Ukyou and I tried to help him through it… but…" She frowned, leveling a particularly unhappy stare at Akane. "You really hurt him… and… Kami, I wish I could blame you-" She clenched her fists together, placing them on the table, while a tear squeezed out from her tightly shut eyes. Sniffling, she said, "You hurt him… so much… but it's not your fault… it's not your fault… It's that… kami forsaken Ryouga…"

She took a deep breath, and opened her eyes, wiping them with a tissue after Kasumi handed it to her. Mumbling a brief thanks, she stated, "I'm still trying to forgive you for what you've done to Ranma."

Akane's eyes widened at the admission, and she reeled. On top of everything else… It somehow seemed too much, a nightmare, or a bad dream, or perhaps… but something nagged at her, worried at her memories, told her that as much as she wanted to deny it… it was real. Not a dream. She released a strangled sob, weakly gasping, "Oh… I understand."

Whatever Ranma had gone through before must have hurt terribly, and Akane had a sinking feeling that she wasn't strong enough, wouldn't be able to take the pain as well as Ranma had… She already bore the scar of an attempt to kill herself, would she bear another, when everything came clear to her? Or would there be no scar, and her next attempt be successful?

Ranma frowned, then shook her head. "It's not like that, Akane. Nabiki, Shampoo, and Ucchan are like sisters to me… they helped me…" She scowled suddenly then started again, "They helped me a lot. I'm… not the one we should be worried about."

Akane nodded somberly, still too off-balance to reply.

Shampoo licked her lips nervously, explaining, "Where Nabiki left off… at that point, Great-grandmother…"

Cologne stared at the scene before her. Ranma had stormed into the restaurant, furious, on the tail of the Musk who had foolishly grabbed Nabiki.

Lime looked over his shoulder confused. He easily out-massed Ranma, probably by several times, but the smaller boy still wanted to fight?

He shifted his feet uneasily, and released the still struggling Nabiki, to turn his attention to the smaller boy who glowered at him.

Lime cracked his knuckles, and gave his best, menacing smile. Ranma gave his own feral grin in response, and Cologne saw something in Ranma's expression that unnerved her, making her wonder what had happened over the weeks that Ranma had disappeared.

Ranma spoke in a low tone, malicious and sinister, "You know… you look a lot like… a cat… don't you?"

Confused, Lime nodded, as the first tremors of worry began to skitter along his spine. Ranma continued speaking, slowly drawing himself into an odd, cat-like stance. The pigtailed boy's voice became a sharp, sibilant hiss against the quiet backdrop of the restaurant. "I… know how cats fight…"

Cologne cautiously stepped away, moving towards the rear of the restaurant. Ranma's hackles were rising in a manner that suggested that he was about to push himself into the neko-ken. The boy's aura radiated enough malice to give her pause, and Nabiki slowly edged away, joined shortly by Mousse and Shampoo. Ranma droned on, drawing himself further into his pose, "Cats… bite and scratch…" Ranma's eye twitched slightly, as he seemed to almost… shift… and become less human, more cat.

Lime took a step back, confused and afraid. Ranma abruptly stood up straight, no longer seeming remotely cat-like. Sneering, he declared in a quiet, violent tone, "Damn punk. Don't mess with friends of Saotome Ranma, unless you want a good ass-kicking."

He turned then, as a form approached from the back of the room. The cloaked figure clapped its hands together slowly, announcing, "Good job there, 'Saotome Ranma.' You put on quite the show… However, the true masters of the Shokei Fist understand the ways of animal forms perhaps… better than you do."

The cloaked figure drew itself up into an offensive stance, and Ranma instantly flowed to a counter-stance, his smile widening in grim anticipation. Cologne shook her head, very worried about the outcome of this battle.

The figure paused, then tossed its cloak off, revealing a boy of about Ranma's age, with oddly colored hair. He sported a blue forelock, with a pair of white stands of hair hanging on either side of his face. He smiled slowly, his golden eyes flaring with a luminous glow. "My name is Herb, 'Saotome Ranma.' Be sure to pass that on to the gate-keepers of hell, after I send you down."

Ranma didn't flinch, simply holding the same stance. "Less talking, more fighting."

Scowling, Herb gestured absently, flinging a bolt of compressed air into Ranma with enough force to slam him down, splintering the floorboards around him and sending up a cloud of dust as the dirt beneath the restaurant bore his weight.

Nabiki scurried to the edge of the hole in the floor quickly, worried about her theoretical fiancé. Ranma's arms were crossed over his face, covering his eyes, but a trickle of blood was present on the part of his mouth that she could see. A pink bit of tongue wiped at the blood briefly, then Ranma's smile widened further, as he leapt back up to the floor, ignoring everyone but Herb. He released a low chuckle, dropping his arms to reveal a glint in his eyes that spoke of unrestrained violence. "Oh, so you like throwing around ki, eh?"

Herb blinked, surprised, as Ranma brought both hands together, focusing himself. There was a sudden inrush of air, as it was condensed into a small sphere between Ranma's hands, seeming to suck slightly at everything in the room. "Let's see how you like this!" Ranma shouted, releasing the super-condensed air towards Herb.

He raised his own arms to block, and the ki bolt slammed into him, then exploded, releasing the compressed air to hurl him back against the wall of the Nekohanten. Cologne's eyes widened significantly, as Herb dazedly climbed to his feet, a tear in his clothing revealing that 'he' was really a 'she.'

Ranma frowned at that, taken aback, as Herb swiftly refastened her shirt. The Musk Prince snarled, "Now you've offended me, Saotome Ranma." Her eyes narrowed in a spiteful glare, as she declared, "I will kill you, slowly and painfully."

The pigtailed martial artist snorted indignantly, and turned his back to Herb, calling over his shoulder, "I don't fight girls."

The Amazon matriarch's eyes widened to their fullest extent after that condemnation, and she scrambled over to the assembled teenagers as Ranma strode towards the door. "Leave now," she hissed towards the trio of Nabiki, Shampoo, and Mousse.

Nabiki needed no further urging, already frightened by Ranma's rather extreme behavior.

Looking over her shoulder, Nabiki faltered in her flight. Mousse swore something briefly, then swept her off her feet and ran down the street with her in his arms. Shampoo paced her great-grandmother, occasionally shooting a glance back towards the Nekohanten.

They came to a halt in Sakura Park, Cologne peering back towards her restaurant fearfully. Nabiki thumped Mousse on the shoulder until he regained the presence of mind to release her. She immediately snapped at Cologne, "What the hell was that!?"

Cologne shuddered, then turned a stern gaze to Nabiki. "That," she stated. "Would appear to be Son-in-law's final, most grievous error."

A flash of light came from the Nekohanten, as the building was reduced to fragments, preceded by a low, rumbling 'Boom!' Cologne swore beneath her breath, "Idiots! Both of them… damnable idiots…"

Nabiki's eyes widened in horror, and she exclaimed, "Ranma! What the hell-" She wheeled back to Cologne, narrowing her eyes in fury. "What's going to happen to Ranma?"

Cologne shook her head sadly, wiping at some moisture in the corner of her eyes. "Son-in — Ranma challenged someone he shouldn't have. Herb is of the Musk dynasty…"

Nabiki's eyes took on a hardened gleam. "By all rights, Ranma should have died there… but he didn't."

Ranma grunted noncommittally still staring at something without seeing.

Shampoo shifted her position, seeming uncomfortable on her cushion. "Ranma… was not killed… but Herb thought he was." She shook her head sadly. "Ranma chased after Herb, I think…" she trailed off, glancing at the redhead.

Ranma stared at the table, then released a heavy sigh, "Yes. I was. I was trying to die. I wanted to die in battle. So I chased after Herb just to fight him." She snorted, "The bastard's got a ki attack that created fire, not just compressed air… he burned me something fierce, but I won in the end."

Nabiki shuddered at a half-remembered image. "He was… pretty badly scarred after that. He wanted to continue chasing Herb into China, but-"

Akane interrupted, confused, "What about Cologne? Why isn't… Why isn't Shampoo acting like she normally does?"

Shampoo winced at that, then heaved a sigh. "Well…" she offered. "Great-grandmother thought that it would be better not to annoy Ranma after… that. She thought that maybe forcing Amazon law would… upset him."

Ranma nodded once, her only contribution to that point of the conversation.

Akane returned her gaze to her feet, confused. In a faltering voice, she asked, "Can… can I go? I think I need… to lie down."

Kasumi nodded warmly, overriding everyone else. Ranma wordlessly rose, and trod off to the dojo. Shampoo and Nabiki stared after him with matching forlorn expressions. Nabiki snapped herself back to the present as Akane stood, and warned her younger sibling, "He may only see me as a sister, but… I do love him, Akane. If you hurt him, so help me…" She left the rest of the message unsaid, trusting that Akane would understand regardless.

Akane shivered, and ran to her room, chased by a look from Shampoo that said the same thing as Nabiki's words.

Once alone, in the safety of her room, she found pajamas laid out on the bed for her. Not thinking, she donned them, only realizing after the fact that they were Ranma's. Feeling somewhat comforted, she curled herself up under the covers of her bed that somehow seemed too large, and sobbed herself to sleep.

Akane woke the next morning to a feeling of nausea again, and dashed to the bathroom to void what little her stomach had in it. Kneeling over the toilet, memories suddenly flooded into her, the conversations from yesterday slamming into place hard enough to cause another bout of retching.

Covering her mouth with both hands, she sobbed quietly, realizing just how much she had lost. And Ranma… Ranma had lost so much, too. Because of her.

The nagging voice in the back of her head told her that there was worse news to come, because she had obviously tried to kill herself before… and this wasn't enough to drive her to that. Not yet.

Once she had regained her composure, she thoughtfully replaced Ranma's pajamas in her bedroom, fearful of loosing what little she had of him still. That done, she made her way to the family room, to see Ranma and Nabiki staring at the table intently.

Akane blinked, seeing nothing more remarkable than the compact Ranma had been toying with the day before. Ranma shifted his gaze across the mirror with a bemused interest, while Nabiki openly glared at it.

Akane stood quietly in the hallway, watching the pair watch the table, until Kasumi entered the room. The eldest sister made a 'tsk'ing noise, and began to place the breakfast settings.

The youngest Tendo's eyes widened in confusion, as Ranma shook his head decisively. Taking the compact in one hand, he retrieved a box and a letter from beneath the table, and put both the compact and the letter within the box.

He bounced the box on his hand twice, smirked to himself, then strode into the backyard. Akane blinked as Ranma disappeared around the corner of the building. Haltingly, she asked, "What… what was that?"

Nabiki scowled, staring after Ranma, but bit back whatever she was going to say. After a moment, she relented, explaining in a single word, "Daddy."

Akane's expression of confusion and incredulity deepened, as she asked, "What?"

The middle Tendo sighed, "Daddy started… acting up… when you came back. Ranma thought that it would be best that he be, ah, put away until you got better. He trapped Daddy in the mirror…"

Ranma re-entered Akane's field of view, sans box, and smiled politely at the sisters. "Done."

Nabiki twitched nervously. "What did you do?"

"He's being sent to Pop and my mother with instructions. They should get him in a day or two."

Kasumi smirked at that, quickly replacing the expression with a placid smile. Akane ate her breakfast, despite the gnawing fear in her belly, and a growing sense of trepidation. Halfway through the meal she sighed, and set her chopsticks down, unable to continue. It tasted like ashes, and sat uncooperatively in her stomach, causing her to feel ill all over again.

Ranma glanced at her, seeming much more animated than he had the day before, which helped relax Akane slightly. Once they were done eating, Kasumi moved to clear the dishes, but Ranma waved her back to her seat, collecting them himself.

Akane watched Ranma depart, then turned to Nabiki. "Big sister? What's… what is going to happen… between us?" she asked, stark concern echoing in her voice.

Nabiki lowered her head, and swore, "Damn it. That's… Ranma…" She lapsed into silence, staring at the table in front of her. Momentarily, she resumed, "You know… it's… I feel sorry for you. You've been through a lot, and… had to deal with a lot of… nasty stuff. Truly… ugly stuff. But at the same time it's so hard not to resent you for what…"

Kasumi placed a hand gently on Nabiki's shoulder, prompting the younger sister to relax, and start over. "What I'm trying to say, Akane," Nabiki explained. "Is that… Ranma's not been this… pleasant to be around since you left. Don't hurt him, or…" she trailed off, giving Akane a pleading stare.

Akane swallowed nervously, then nodded. "I'll…" her voice cracked, and she swallowed again, trying to regain her composure. "I'll do my best."

Kasumi smiled brightly, then chirped, "Wonderful! And Ukyou will be coming over today, too."

Akane frowned slightly at that, mulling over what she had been told before. How would Ukyou treat her, now?

Ranma returned from the kitchen, wiping his hands on a dishtowel that quickly found a home around his neck. "So," he asked. "Where were we?"

Akane dutifully recalled, "You mentioned you were fighting… Herb?"

Ranma scowled, then shook his head. "I'm afraid time is… somewhat short. I'll have to give you the abbreviated explanation."

Nabiki shuddered, and looked away as Ranma pulled off his shirt, baring his back and chest to the room. Akane flinched, seeing the scars more prominently now that Ranma was male, and unmoving. Nabiki edged away, staring at the table in front of her uncomfortably.

Jerking a thumb towards the burn marks across his back, Ranma explained, "Herb." He then placed two fingers at the waistband of his pants, against the long, jagged scar that — by all rights — should have neatly bisected him and intoned, "The Orochi." He trailed his fingers across the line, stopping at his shoulder. Gesturing to the myriad slashes, he said, "Kumon Ryu."

Nabiki cringed when Ranma mentioned the Orochi, staring steadfastly before her, intent on not seeing.

Akane found her voice, "The… Orochi? What… what was that?"

Ranma scowled, then shook his head. "I trained a lot. Hard. You don't need to know the details of my battles… But the Orochi was a dragon. It bit me. Should probably have torn me in half, but Pops got the moss right after, and used it on me… lucky there was enough for Shinnosuke afterwards, too."

Akane blinked at that, but Ranma waved off her question before she could form it. In clipped tones, he said, "Not important at the moment. What is important, is that about two months ago, Nabiki was able to find out where you were. I caught up with you and brought you back here few days ago.

"Nabiki thinks that you should know about what I went through… but I don't. I think you need to focus on what happened to _you_."

The girl licked her lips nervously, fearing to break the barrier in her mind and investigate. At Ranma's encouraging nod, she closed her eyes, and reached back…

…ourse I do. How could I no…urt, but at the same time…didn't know, but…andering aimlessly with her be…uminating his face for a moment, sinister in the mo…ifted his stance, bringing his fist to bear against h…

Her eyes flew wide as she tried to steady herself, assaulted by the stream of images, trying to make sense of the jumbled visions. Gasping, she said, "Ryouga…. Ryouga was…" Her expression shifted to mingled horror and disgust, and her voice shrank to a level that could barely be heard across the table, "P-chan… He was…"

Akane stared down at the piglet in confusion. "P-chan? Where did Ryouga go?"

The pig loosed a soft 'bwee!' as Akane picked it up, concerned. "He was here, just a moment ago…

Summoning what little courage he could, the piglet jumped out of her arms, and knocked over the water kettle that Akane had set up, splashing itself and changing back into Ryouga.

Akane's eyes widened in surprise, as she exclaimed, "Ryouga! There you are! I was worried about you. Wait…" Confused anger washed across her face for a brief moment, before her expression settled back into a smile. "Why didn't you tell me?"

Ryouga stammered nervously, franticly re-dressing himself while he flushed. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I'm so sorry!"

Laughing unconcernedly, Akane waved off Ryouga's fears, "I… didn't know, but why didn't you just tell me?"

Sickened, Akane reeled, not liking the memory of… she shuddered. "I… He was…" She lowered her face into her hands, pleading, "What… why didn't you tell me, Ranma?"

His reply was cut off in a surge of reawakened memories.

"Hmm… Ryouga-chan, why do you suppose that Ranma never told me about your curse?" Akane looked at Ryouga, giving him her best 'cute' look.

Ryouga grinned, as the two wandered hand-in-hand down the road aimlessly. Akane hadn't wanted to give up her home and her family at first… but it was easier this way, really. Much easier than trying to deal with Ranma, and the problems in Nerima… and if she was with Ryouga, then him getting lost wouldn't be a problem. But there was that constant nagging voice at the back of her mind…

He shrugged, replying hesitantly, "Er… he… promised not to… on his honor."

Akane sighed, pulling herself to Ryouga's arm and nuzzling against him. "You silly. Why would a thing like that bother me…"

Akane shuddered curling up on the floor as a wave of revulsion swept through her. She whimpered softly, until Kasumi pulled the smaller girl into her lap and began murmuring to her soothingly, "It's over now, and you’re here again."

Ranma stared pointedly at a blank spot at the wall, the muscles on the sides of his face twitching as he clenched his jaw.

After collecting herself somewhat, Akane climbed to her feet, and staggered to her room.

Ranma sighed, hanging his head. "You know," he commented. "This isn't going to help matters. It's going to be just like before we had Shampoo use the formula 110…"

Nabiki glared at nothing in particular, then slammed a fist against the table, snarling, "Damn it! Why can't…" She softened her demeanor at Kasumi's sharp glance. "I wish we could get this to work…"

Ranma nodded at that. "I agree. Ukyou is going to be here shortly… could you please tell her I'll visit with her some other time? I think I should talk to Akane…"

Nabiki sighed, rubbing a hand across her face. "Yeah… and… Ryu?"

Ranma stood, stating, "I'll be seeing him later. I am not going to miss out on training."

Kasumi frowned, watching Ranma march up the stairs. "Well," she remarked to Nabiki. "At least he's not fighting the mirror clone anymore."

Akane had wrapped herself in the faint comfort of Ranma's old pajamas, and buried herself as deeply under the covers of her bed as she could, still weathering the assault of having her memories returned. Shampoo had placed the memory block well, in that her memories were returning slowly, instead of all at once, but the flood was still overwhelming.

A knock at the door sounded, and she whimpered, "I'm fine… go away."

She heard the door open, a soft footstep, and the door close. She tried to ignore the presence, as a weight settled on one edge of her bed, and a reassuring hand patted her shoulder through the sheets.

Collecting herself, Akane forced herself to be strong, and slowly emerged from the covers, even as another memory of time she hadn't wanted to spend with Ryouga swept through her.

She looked up slowly, flinching away from Ranma. Ranma merely looked at her somberly for a moment before collecting her in a gentle embrace.

Kasumi was a wonderful person, but she couldn't reassure Akane nearly as much as Ranma did at that moment. Bawling, Akane finally released all of her tension, and clung to the boy… or was it man, now? The man who was once her fiancé, who had weathered being bitten by a dragon rather than face life without her. The man… her tears soaked into chest, as he murmured something soothing, and gently stroked Akane's hair.

Finally relaxing, Akane felt the cold knot of tension within her slowly unwind, leaving her weak in its wake, as relief flooded through her like a physical sensation. Heaving a single wavering sigh as the tension passed from her, she gave a violent series of hiccups, before falling asleep in his arms, content for the moment that any problems could be overcome.

Ryouga looked down at Akane, the young couple basking in the glow of the moonlight. "A… Akane… do you love me?"

Akane rolled her eyes, giggling, "Of course I do, Ryouga-chan. How could I not?"

"But… Akane-chan, what do you think— mprh!!" She muffled him with a kiss, long ago having decided that that was the most efficient method of dealing with his awkwardness. She preferred this life, in the end, simply wandering aimlessly with her beloved.

Emboldened by her forwardness, he responded, nervously at first, then more intensely.

Ranma's voice rang out, quietly traveling to reach them, even though they should have been far enough away that it wouldn't be heard from where they were. A soft glow was illuminating his face for a moment, sinister in the moonlight.

His eyes stared directly at Ryouga, as the lost boy dropped Akane's hand, surprised. Ryouga growled, grabbing Akane's hand back tightly. "What do you think you're doing here, Ranma?"

Ranma said nothing, seeming to traverse the distance between them in an instant. He stood a few feet away, the tall grass waving behind him in the night breeze, and untouched by his passage.

Ryouga shifted nervously, even as Akane clung to her lover, scowling at Ranma. The pigtailed boy glowered at the bandana-clad boy before him, snarling, "Hibiki Ryouga! Prepare to fight!"

Akane seized onto Ryouga's arm, shouting crossly, "Ranma! Go away! Why are you trying to come between us?"

Ranma's gaze turned apologetic, as his hand snapped out, flinging a small object towards Ryouga. Akane selflessly threw herself in its path, allowing it to strike her unprotected chest.

Ryouga spun Akane around, looking at Akane wordlessly, but seeing only a single, perfectly inscribed Shinto ward. Akane slapped one hand to her chest, holding the ward to herself and looking around in shock.

Ryouga stared dumbly, then shook his head, looking towards Ranma and sneering, "What do you expect a piece of paper to do to us, Ranma?"

Akane stared forward, then raised her head slowly, mouthing a single word, causing Ryouga to flinch. She mouthed, 'Ranma.'

The pigtailed boy said nothing, as Akane's eyes widened, and she turned around slowly, the color draining from her face. She stumbled towards him, a wild, pleading look in her eyes. She stopped before him, collapsing to her knees, and clutching the ward to herself. She seemed oblivious to the smoke that was rising from the paper held in her hand, as the edges slowly seemed to darken and burn. Whimpering, she stared at Ranma, "Please… I… please…"

Ranma's hand shot out again, blurring towards Akane's neck for only a moment, before blackness overtook her.

Shifting groggily, Akane wondered at the dream, before curling back around Ranma and settling back into restfulness. Something was missing still, and the nagging voice insisted that she would learn it soon.

Her dream was fuzzy, unconnected… somehow unreal.

A look of tenderness. A soft touch… things escalated, in the natural progression of things.

It was clumsy, and awkward, and it hurt, but at the same time, it was—

Akane jerked awake, enveloped in a cold sweat as she realized what she had done. The memories flooded through her — not once, but several times. Ranma sat on the bed, a short distance away, back in his 'stoic-angst' pose. Akane climbed to her feet, disentangling herself from her sheets, and tottered to the bathroom to retch again.

Then the memories washed through her again, leaving her feeling unclean and impure. She shuddered, remembering that she had asked for it. She had enjoyed it… She had…

Choking, she curled up on the cold tiles, sobbing, and ignoring the line of drool and bile that worked its way down her chin to pool on the floor beneath her.

A soft sigh sounded, and Akane felt gentle hands propping her up, dabbing at her face, wiping away the mess. "Hey, there, sugar. Long time no see."

Akane clamped down on her depression, not wanting to expose more people to the pain she'd already showered them with. Voice quavering slightly, she managed, "Hello… Ukyou…"

Ukyou rocked back on her heels and shook her head. "Oy… poor girl. How are you holding up?"

Akane shrugged, trying to look as relaxed as she didn't feel. "Fine… how about you? How… what did…" she trailed off nervously, considering. "Why did you give up on Ranma?"

Class was boring. You could sugar coat it as much as you wanted, you could say that the teachers were just doing their job, you could say that is was a necessary step towards building your future… but when you got right down to it… class was boring. Plain and simple.

Which left Hiroshi and Daisuke wondering why Ranma stared at the board listlessly instead of sleeping, like he normally did.

They approached him as the lunch bell rang, worried about his absence — and the fact that he had returned without Akane. Daisuke jostled Ranma in a companionable manner, forced cheer in his voice, "Hey! What's up, Ranma? Haven't seen you around much!"

Ranma turned, aiming his dull gaze at the Average Pair. Frowning slightly, he muttered, "Not much," and turned to stare listlessly at the board again.

From across the classroom, Ukyou studied Ranma carefully, deep in her own thoughts. She hadn't been able to be… close… to Ranma since the incident with the ten-year secret sauce — or the reversal jewel — and there was a worrisome feeling that she probably wouldn't get another chance at him. Something in his demeanor spoke frighteningly little of the boy she loved.

She considered, for once, very carefully. Then she rose, and left the classroom. Whatever the problem was, approaching it uninformed wouldn't help matters at all. Nabiki had a fairly steady stream of people asking questions, which could be answered for a price. Usually. Today, however, she was sulking, and the students who normally frequented her services found themselves shying away.

Ukyou considered again. Very carefully. Akane was gone… had been gone, for four weeks. Her Ranchan had been missing that same length of time, and he had returned… like that. Something was wrong, obviously, but to put the typically impervious Nabiki at odds?

Dreading the answer, she made her way across the schoolyard to Nabiki. Clearing her throat nervously, she asked, "Nabiki… what's up with Ranchan?"

The middle Tendo sister looked up sharply, then lessened her scowl upon seeing who it was. Face falling, he sighed, and gestured vaguely towards the school building. "You know. Stuff."

Ukyou flinched at that. Under normal circumstances Nabiki would simply give her trademark grin and…

These were obviously not normal circumstances. Ukyou swallowed nervously, and sat down heavily next to Nabiki. Staring at the ground between the two, the okonomiyaki chef mumbled, "This isn't gonna be good, is it?"

Nabiki raked a hand through her hair, looking as frazzled as she probably felt, then sighed. "No… This is what happened…"

Ukyou stumbled back towards her classroom in confusion. Whatever had happened to Ranma… the trouble he was having with — no, over — Akane had obviously affected him deeply. She reflected briefly, realizing that his sullen attitude was a reflection of the depth of his feeling for Akane.

He had reacted when Shampoo was wearing the reversal jewel, but not nearly that badly.

Things began to click into perspective for the okonomiyaki chef, as she realized that — admitted or not — Ranma cared about Akane. He obviously cared for Shampoo, in some way. But whatever it was, was not nearly as strong as his feelings for Akane, for them to have… destroyed him like this. And Ukyou knew that Ranma cared about her, too… but not nearly as much as Akane.

It was at this point that Ranma's feelings became clear to her. Ranma said that she was his friend.

Belatedly, Ukyou noticed that she was sitting on the floor of the hall, halfway to her class.

Dragging herself to her feet, she stumbled back the opposite direction, towards the exit. She was going to have to think about this a lot.

It was much later, after nearly a full day of contemplation. Ukyou paced behind the counter nervously, then turned to the phone, a seldom-used device. She needed to get an answer… one-way or another.

Taking a deep, calming breath, she steadied herself, and made a phone call.

Nabiki's voice sounded on the other end of the line, seemingly disinterested. "Tendo family."

Voice nearly cracking, Ukyou announced herself, "Um… this… this is Ukyou. Is…" She trailed off lamely, unsure of what more to say.

There was a moment of silence, broken by a muted burst of static, then Nabiki's voice came back, "I'll… ask him to talk to you. Don't… push him, okay?"

Ukyou nodded several times before remembering that the gesture wouldn't be seen over the phone. "Um… that'd be great, actually. I… have to ask him."

This time Nabiki's response came quickly. "I understand. I'll talk to him now."

"Thanks… goodbye."

"No problem." There was a firm click, and Ukyou hung up the phone nervously, wondering at the deserted state of her restaurant.

She paced again worriedly. Tonight, then… she'd put everything on the table. She'd make the final call, either way. She would ask him who he would choose, and then… if he chose her, there was nothing to worry about.

And when — if he didn't choose her… what then?

It had been a topic she'd always ignored, and hoped to never have to deal with… but it was a possibility, and considering Ranma's attitude at the present… a very strong possibility.

There was a subtle knock at the door, causing her to jump, and look at the clock in alarm. How long had it been? She shivered, not remembering, and opened the door for Ranma.

He stepped in, wearing a solemn expression. "Yeah, Ucchan?"

She stepped away, studying him closely. "Um… thanks for coming, Ranchan."

Nodding, his gaze shot about the room for the briefest instant before coming to rest on her again. She swallowed at the barely concealed rage she could feel radiating from him. "Um… Ranchan… I… don't want to push you… I really don't… but I have to know, Ranchan do you-"

He raised a hand, silencing her. "I'm sorry, Ucchan. You're my friend." He raked a hand through his hair, then heaved a sigh. "Probably you're my best friend, Ucchan… but…" he trailed off, saying nothing more.

The answer that she had feared, then. Ranma saw her as a friend, and nothing more.

There was a stabbing pain in her heart, a feeling of betrayal… but at the same time, a feeling of relief. It hurt, but she knew that this was for the better. Ranma had never seen her as more than a friend; Akane had captured his heart long before she arrived, and… taken it with her when she left. Chasing after him further wouldn't help either of them.

Feeling suddenly very alone, Ukyou realized that she could use a good friend. Someone who knew what it was like to suddenly learn that the one you loved… didn't love you back the same way. Someone like… Ranma, perhaps.

She stared at him, tears welling up. Choking back a sob, she nodded. "I see."

Hesitantly, after a moment, he approached, giving her a tentative hug. She whimpered into his chest, holding him tight for a moment, and wishing — wishing with every part of her being — that it could have been more. His rumbling voice fell to her ears, "Is this… goodbye, then?"

Ukyou shook her head, pushing Ranma away. "This is… I guess, Ranchan. But we're still friends."

He nodded, then released Ukyou and began to walk away. She fell to her knees, watching him leave. Whispering, she managed, "I love you, Ranchan…"

Ukyou flinched, and looked away. Her reply was soft, as she explained, "I… could tell that I had a choice, Akane. I knew I couldn't get Ranchan… not… like I wanted him." She wiped a tear away absently. "I could see that I had two real choices, when you get right down to it. Either chase him, and make him angry… or let him go and be his friend." Her eyed hardened, as she looked directly into Akane's own. "I love Ranchan… I'll take him anyway I can get. If 'friend' is the best I can get… then it's what I'll take… "

Her expression softened slightly as she murmured, "It took a lot longer than I thought it would have… but I'm glad he's my friend, now. You have no idea how lucky you are, to be the one that Ranchan cares about…"

Akane flinched, staring at the tile near her.

Ukyou sighed, "Oh, dear. What's wrong, Akane?"

She sniffled, unsure, then hung her head. "I… I'm not good enough for Ranma… I… I'm not clean anymore."

Ukyou blinked at this, startled, then snapped, "What?"

Akane swallowed, then mumbled something softly.

There was a long moment of silence before Ukyou said, "Oh… shit. I did not hear that. I know I did not hear that just now."

Akane whimpered, then shook her head and snarled, her voice filled with self-loathing, "You heard me right, Ukyou. I fucked Ryouga. I'm not clean enough for Ranma anymore…"


To be continued.

Chapter 2
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