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A Ranma ˝ 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 2

Ukyou took a deep breath, then shook her head. Collecting herself, she said, "You know… I don't think that's your fault. Remember, Ryouga is the one that… took advantage of you."

Akane stated at the tile before her, disconsolate. She had betrayed Ranma. And the memories… there was always a small part in the back of her mind that insisted that it wasn't true, wasn't right, wasn't… real… and now that she was in control of herself, she knew that small part was correct. She sighed, staring at the ceiling with moist eyes. She had shed enough tears, and hit rock bottom.

Acting childish about the situation wouldn't help matters. Steeling her resolve, she forced back the urge to crawl away and run from her problems. She regained her composure somewhat, still shaken by her remembered actions, and returned Ukyou's level gaze unsteadily. "I suppose you're right… I… want to train."

Wearing a pensive expression, Ukyou nodded. "Alright. I think you should train with Ranchan, though… he's going to be training with Ryu-chan, later today, so it's going to have to wait… but more about that later."

Despite herself, Akane blinked. Ranma had labeled some of his scars as being from Kumon Ryu… was it the same Ryu? Ukyou caught the question in Akane's gaze, and smiled bleakly. "Yeah, he and Ranchan got into a mutual ass-kicking contest when they met… but they managed to find out that they have a lot of similarities afterwards, and… Well, Ranchan could use another friend."

Akane blinked in spite of herself a second time, then rose to her feet unsteadily. Ukyou frowned at the girl, then clicked her tongue. "I bet you haven't been eating too well recently, have you?"

Akane shook her head slowly, trying to remember the last time she had eaten. "I… don't remember very well."

Ukyou raised an eyebrow. "Haven't been able to keep much down?"

She shook her head, looking up at the other girl as Ukyou stood. "Not… much," she admitted.

The brown-haired girl winked, displaying the friendly smile that had previously seemed to be reserved just for Ranma. "Let's get you fed, then. And get your mind off of… that, for a bit."

Weakly protesting, Akane allowed herself to be dragged to the dining room, where Kasumi had already set up a tray for her. Kasumi hummed to herself, sitting nearby and sewing up the holes in one of Ranma's spare shirts. Akane was nearly overwhelmed by the sense of tranquility, and found herself finishing the meal before she had realized she had started.

Ukyou smirked, patting Akane's shoulder companionably. "Feeling better?"

She nodded, restored to some degree. Staring at her hands, she asked, "Where… what happened to Ryouga?"

All of the softness leaked out of Ukyou's eyes instantly, leaving her to glower at nothing. "Ranma," she enunciated carefully, obviously focusing on keeping her voice in control. "Said that he got away. Apparently Herb's back in Japan, and wants to take Ranma down. Herb saved Ryouga…"

Akane blinked, remembering the story. Shaking her head, she asked, "Why? Didn't Ranma beat Herb, and send him back to China?"

Ukyou winced at that, smiling weakly. "Actually… heh… it turned out that Ranma did a lot more to piss of Herb than you probably thought…"

Akane listened closely, as Ukyou explained, "You see, Herb had this magic ladle that locks Jusenkyou victims in their cursed forms… And Herb accidentally used it on himself, or something. So he was in Japan looking for this kettle, that would cure him…"

Staring at the cup of tea that had appeared before her in dismay, Akane looked over her shoulder towards Kasumi. The eldest sister hadn't seemed to move, but… shaking her head to dismiss the thought, Akane sipped at her tea, noting an odd flavor. She peered back into the teacup for a moment, murmuring, "Ginger…" Pulling her attention away, she looked back at Ukyou, who was staring at the cup in front of her with frank suspicion. "What does that have to do with anything? Ranma's not stuck in his cursed form."

Ukyou smirked at that, briefly. "Well, it turns out that Cologne didn't want Ranma to fight Herb without proper training… so she taught him a few more tricks. He learned the Breaking Point before he faced off with Herb again." Pausing to sip her tea, she sobered. "It's a damn good thing he learned the Breaking Point. He made Cologne take twice as long to teach it to him, just so he could get twice as tough."

Akane flinched at that, remembering Ryouga's own training… while she no longer felt pity for the damage Ryouga had taken, if Ranma had taken worse… "Oh… that must have been painful."

The okonomiyaki chef's expression soured at that. "How else do you think Ranchan managed to live through being bit by the Orochi?" She grimaced, and shook her head. "Sorry. Getting sidetracked. Back to Herb… I was there… almost all of us were. At that point, Ranchan was looking for a fight. He wanted to always be in battle. He seemed to enjoy hurting himself." She shook her head again, in irritation. "But that's not the point… when Ranchan finally caught up with Herb, Shampoo and I were with him… Those Musk warriors are pretty tough, but me an' Shampoo got 'em… Ranchan was having a tough time with Herb, and in the fight, Ranchan used the Breaking Point on Herb's magic kettle."

Groaning, Akane rubbed her head. "That's stupid! Why did Ranma do that!?"

Ukyou chided Akane, "At this point, we all still thought that you had left of your own free will. Nabiki's investigations hadn't turned up anything yet. Ranchan wanted to piss Herb off… At any rate, there was still some magical hot water, which Herb got splashed with before it all poured away. Then Herb had to destroy the ladle, too." Akane frowned, and Ukyou added, "My guess is that he didn't want to run the risk of having the ladle around if the kettle didn't exist to stop it anymore."

Relaxing somewhat, Akane nodded. "I guess that makes sense."

"Anyway… Ranchan won the fight by pulling some kind of reversed hiryuu shouten ha, which smashed into Herb and knocked him out. Ranchan figured it was over at that point, and Herb's flunkies didn't seem like much of a match for him, so they grabbed Herb and ran." Ukyou leveled her gaze at Akane across the teacup as she lifted it for another sip. "Which is why Herb hates Ranchan. "

Akane nodded, asking hesitantly, "Do… do you think that he could train me… so I could fight Ryouga?"

Ukyou bobbed her head vigorously. "Oh, I'm sure he can train you." She smirked, waggling a finger towards the timid girl. "Ranma has an amazing gift, Akane. When he wants to be, he's a better teacher than you would ever imagine possible."

"So what was the Orochi, then? I saw the scar, but… how did that happen?"

Face falling once more, Ukyou began, "It was the hardest thing I've ever had to watch someone do… He… used the breaking point on the teeth that had torn into him."

Akane blanched at that. She had no idea of the scale of the Orochi, but if Ranma had fit in it's mouth, and it had nearly bit him in half…

Genma gawked for a single moment before being galvanized into action. Seeing his son get beat up was one thing, but watching his son get chewed on was another thing entirely.

The girls huddled near Shinnosuke, as he gave another weak spasm. Ignoring them for the moment, Genma grabbed a rock — more like a boulder — and leapt into the fray. The monster blinked at him as he flung, with all of his might, a stone weighing easily twice his own weight, right into the gap that Ranma's weakening grip was maintaining.

The redhead unleashed a feral snarl, one hand gripping the base of a tooth on the upper part of the Orochi's mouth, the other pressed firmly into the gums on the lower part, trying to ignore the pointed tooth goring her. The stone flew true; gagging the monster and making it open its mouth a fraction while it choked.

Wasting no more time, Ranma screamed, "Bakusai tenketsu!" And stabbed into the upper tooth with the hand that had been gripping the tooth previously. At that, the tooth that stabbed into her belly exploded, sending serrated disks of dragon bone ripping through her in a line that should have torn her completely in half.

Falling free of its mouth, she gave a grim smile of victory, as blood from the dragon's own wound spilled out of its howling mouth, spattering on her and the surroundings.

She blacked out before Shampoo caught her, but the intense Breaking Point training gave her enough strength to survive until Genma returned shortly after, with enough moss to heal both her and Shinnosuke.

Ukyou shook her head, continuing, "The scars disappeared from his girl side, but stay on his male side. Oddly enough, his female side doesn't get any new scars, either. Cologne thinks it has something to do with the Orochi's blood…"

Akane blinked at that. "How the heck did you stop that thing, then?"

Ukyou shrugged. "Nabiki said she found a whistle in your room, with an old pamphlet from Ryugenzawa… she blames herself for not showing up sooner… but for whatever reason, there was a whistle that put the thing to sleep, even with one of it's teeth blown up."

"Ranma fought a dragon…" The admiration in Akane's voice was apparent.

"Yep. You ever seen a boy like Ranchan punch a dragon out? It's pretty weird. One of the heads is dozens of times his size, but he just jumps up and — whack! — knocks it out."

Akane managed a giggle at that. "That does sound kind of weird. Is Ranma still here?"

Ukyou rolled her eyes. "I don't see him, so I'm pretty sure he's sparring with Ryu-chan."

Savoring a moment of peace, Akane falteringly said, "Ukyou… I… thank you."

Ukyou smiled warmly. "It's good to have you around. Try and be more cheerful. Konatsu's watching the restaurant for me, so don't worry too much about me missing work." Her expression turned thoughtful for a moment. "Tell you what. Being cooped up in here isn't much fun. Let's go out, do a little shopping, and have some fun, eh?"

Akane nodded hesitantly, already having absorbed too much information to ask who 'Konatsu' was. "O…kay… what if we run into…"

Ukyou waved a hand dismissively, saying, "No-one we run into can give us trouble. If you're worried, we can grab Shampoo on the way. Ranchan and Ryu-chan are nearby, and I'm sure that we can hold anything off until they reach us."

Confused, Akane asked, "How would they know to reach us?"

Ukyou shrugged, and handed a scrap of paper to Akane. "This is Nabiki's cell phone number. If there's a problem, call her."

Akane stared at the paper, not bothering to ask how Nabiki would contact Ranma. "Oh. That's… good… let's go, then."

The weather was slightly chill for spring. Other than that, once she was away from the oppressiveness of home, it might have been the day after she… Ryouga… they… Akane forcibly focused her attention on the building in front of her.

She never would have imagined it, but it was appropriate, somehow. With the restaurant destroyed by Ranma and Herb's battle (gas leak, according to the insurance company), the new building was neater, cleaner… but most notably, it wasn't a restaurant.

Akane resisted the urge to laugh, as Ukyou walked towards the door. "'The Cat Bookstore'?"

Ukyou snorted, "I get more customers, so I'm not going to complain. I guess Cologne wanted a change of pace, or something. Come on. You can ask her, if you want."

Once inside, Akane browsed briefly though the store. There were a number of cozy nooks set aside where a group of three or so could squeeze in, and leaf through their books. The atmosphere was soothing, with the majority of the lighting being dimmed, unless you were sitting down.

Cologne herself sat on a big chair behind a counter near the door, nodding absently as they walked in. Ukyou knocked on the counter to get the old woman's attention. "Hey! Where's Shampoo?"

The old woman looked up from a book, then smiled somewhat when she saw Akane. "Ah. I see you've returned. Shampoo mentioned that." Glancing to Ukyou briefly, she said, "She's in the back." Turning back to Akane, the old woman climbed to her feet, and slid a small box across the counter. "This is something that Ranma requested… if you could give it to him, I'd be grateful." Ukyou disappeared into the back of the store, leaving Akane alone with the old woman.

Akane accepted the box, not much larger than a jewelry case, and slipped it into a pocket without opening it. "Um… thank you. And… Thank you for helping Ranma…"

Cologne sighed, shaking her head. "I wish I could see how little good I was doing earlier." She clicked her tongue suddenly. "Still, there's hope. Ranma has the most potential of any fighter of any generation that I've ever seen…" Smiling softly, she said, "I wish I could have added him to our tribe… it was awfully hard to convince Shampoo to leave him alone. You're a very lucky young lady, you know."

Akane flushed, embarrassed, and momentarily shamed by her memory of betraying him. "I… uh… don't know about that. Um. Ranma… I… he…" she stammered, trailing off and uncertain of what to say.

Cologne raised an eyebrow at the display, then shook her head. "I consider Ranma an ally to our tribe. But all great fighters need something, Akane." She paused and blinked owlishly, peering at Akane intently. "Do you know what they all need?"

Akane shook her head, suspecting, but not knowing.

Leaning back into her chair, the old woman said, "Something to fight for." She nodded once, giving Akane a knowing look. "Or someone."

The feeling of shame returned, leaving Akane to wonder if she was worthy of Ranma. He had done so much… He had fought a dragon with his bare hands, he had mastered a technique that must have caused him horrid, staggering amounts of pain to learn, made a mortal enemy out of the prince of some obscure Chinese tribe… And after all that, his reward was some… girl who had spent the last seven months of her life with another man?

This brought Akane to a worried realization. She was used goods. She didn't even know him that well — at least, what he had become was foreign to her. He was… he was more than she deserved, that was certain. But what could she do? She wasn't good enough for him, and he wouldn't accept anyone who was. He still wanted her… but he didn't know that she had… slept with Ryouga.

Would he still accept her if he knew that? She wasn't certain, but she realized something else that frightened her more. Defying any pretence of logic, or rationality… she loved him. And what did he feel for her?

Even if he loved her… could she burden him with someone like her? Unclean, used… not even a good cook, and a lousy martial artist… hell, she wasn't even cute, and she knew it. Ranma had told her that repeatedly before she left. The only people who told her that she was attractive were Kuno, who she didn't care about, and Ryouga, who she had even less regard for.

Cologne tapped the end of her stick against Akane's head, jarring her out of her reverie. "Something wrong, dear?"

Akane shivered, then shook her head, wondering if the woman could see through her. "No… Nothing wrong…" Changing the subject quickly, she asked, "Why do you have a bookstore now?"

Cologne cackled, shaking her head. "You know," she commented. "Few people understood why I had a restaurant in the first place."

Akane nodded, though she wasn't really surprised. Cologne was Chinese, after all. It was only natural… she cut that line of thought off.

Leaning back in her chair, the old woman explained, "Most Japanese expect us to run a restaurant, or a barber shop, or some simple shop that sells oddities… And I wanted to present a facet of out lives that wouldn't jar with Ranma's own too roughly. In addition, it served mostly as a training facility."

Blinking, Akane stared incredulously. "Training… how?"

Cologne shrugged, drawling on, "Oh, you know. Teaching Shampoo to be a good cook, how to act around men, and how to be attractive to Ranma… we hoped." She shook her head sadly. "Once I saw Ranma gone, I realized that I was grooming Shampoo to be something that had no more purpose… I wasn't going to capture Ranma, and there was no reason to train her to be a sex object. Heh. Ranma never seemed to be lured in by that anyway."

Waving a hand, Cologne indicated her surroundings. "So I changed our image. The restaurant was destroyed anyway. I wanted to present a place where Ranma could come to learn, or be alone with his thoughts… And a place where I could train Shampoo to be a leader. Not a waitress."

Ukyou and Shampoo emerged from the depths of the bookstore, now seeming ominously gloomy instead of cozy. The young Amazon's eyes flickered across Akane only a moment before she picked up her pace — not quite rushing, but certainly moving faster — and led the other girls out of the former restaurant.

Once on the street, Akane resolved that, no matter what, before she made any permanent decisions, she would at least try to pretend to have fun. That was what the other girls wanted, after all.

Her attempts came across as weak, even to her. Ukyou sighed, stepping out of an ice-cream parlor. "This isn't good, you know. What's bothering you, Akane?"

Akane shifted her feet, uncomfortable at being outside, and exposed to so many people, now. "Well… um… I… don't want to talk about it here."

Shampoo frowned worriedly. "I think that maybe we should go watch Ranma. Would that cheer you up?"

How could it? "Yeah, that'd be nice, Shampoo. I have to give something from Cologne to Ranma, anyway." She managed to keep the bitterness out of her voice well enough that the other girls didn't comment. Seeing him… she knew she couldn't possibly deserve him, now.

Ukyou hummed to herself quietly, then began marching towards a nearby temple, on the outskirts of Nerima. "Ranchan and Ryu-chan like to practice up here, since it's got lots of room." Akane wordlessly followed the other girls to the temple, noting a small crowd at the top of the steps.

Shampoo was unsubtle in her method, simply elbowing her way through the small knot of people, but they parted around her, leaving the three girls room to peek in and watch the commotion.

Akane peered around confused, while Ukyou and Shampoo scanned back and forth across the temple grounds repeatedly. There was a noise not unlike a particularly heavy sigh of wind, then two figures revealed themselves, flinging cloths over their shoulders to billow like great capes in the wind.

Her gaze flickered across the newcomer for a moment. He was about Ranma's size, and had a similar build, dressed in American combat fatigues and a tank top, black gloves and close-cropped hair, completing his image as some rough-and-tumble street fighter.

The real point of interest for Akane was Ranma. His Chinese pants a marked contrast to the American fatigues of the other, with his pigtail seeming to mock Ryu's short hair. His features were set in a somehow serenely grim smile, matching the one Ryu leveled at him, his scars prominently showing where his skin was exposed.

Akane felt her knees grow weak, watching him stand there, one hand holding the large cloth over his shoulder as the wind tugged at it playfully. Ranma looked like some anime hero… and Akane was beginning to realize that he was just as far beyond her undeserving reach.

Tensing briefly, both men wrapped their cloaks about themselves, then seemed… to fade… mottled transparent patches swept over them to leave nothing visible to her. She blinked, as Shampoo shook her head in admiration. The Amazon sighed, "Ranma's father created that technique. It's amazing, really."

Akane watched, stunned. The courtyard appeared to be empty, but… at the edges of her perception, something seemed somehow off. Much like her misplaced memories, which were still trickling in. She fought down the urge to choke, as a particularly intense recollection overwhelmed her.

Ryouga's painstaking attention to detail when assembling his portable stove was obvious, even to a casual observer.

Akane was not a casual observer. She watched him intently, drinking in every aspect of him and storing the images away to review later, as he carefully fitted the small pieces together. Smiling at the boy, she studied his hands as he ignited the stove, then smiled brightly, like a child with a new toy.

His smile faded into a look of concentration, as he rummaged around for the small pot of water he had filled earlier. Finding it after a long moment, he set it on the stove, the adjusted the flame higher. Nodding in satisfaction, he turned to face Akane, grinning brightly when he saw her watching him.

Relaxing against a tree, Akane continued observing him, as he prepared a simple meal. She wasn't sure where Ryouga came up with the money to buy the supplies he did, but she enjoyed spending time with him… even if he never let her cook.

Smiling to herself, she decided to thank him again for his kindness later than night.

And yet… there was that odd, nagging voice in the back of her head that insisted that this wasn't right… that it should have been someone else… not Ryouga.

Shuddering, Akane glanced around, as Ranma and Ryu both uncloaked themselves again, then bowed to one another. Ukyou shook her head slowly, sighing, "Ranchan is such a great teacher… he taught Ryu-chan the Umisenken in just a few weeks."

Shampoo turned to study Akane for a moment, before turning back to the pair of fighters, as they trudged towards the crowd side-by-side. "Ranma trains. A lot. He's always sparring against someone, and if they aren't good enough… or don't keep him busy enough… then he will go to fight the mirror clone."

Akane couldn't tear her eyes from Ranma, as his met hers briefly, and he smiled. A warm, gentle smile. It seemed almost foreign on his face, they appeared with such rarity the last few days… "What…" Akane licked her lips, finding them suddenly dry. "What is the mirror clone?"

Ukyou shook her head. "I'll explain in a moment." Ryu stepped in front of Ukyou, and they hugged briefly before she pushed him away and wrinkled her nose, stating, "Bath. Now."

Ryu grinned, and ran a hand through his hair, winking as he responded, "With you? No problem!"

The okonomiyaki chef flushed, swatting Ryu on the shoulder, then handing him a large towel-wrapped bundle. "Go on," she chided. "Get cleaned up, will you?"

The boy walked away, while Ranma snorted, and fell into step beside him, calling over his shoulder, "We'll meet with you at the cafe."

Akane found her tongue, once Ranma and Ryu were moving down the stairs in tandem, seeming almost like brothers. Then she realized. Comrades. Brothers in arms. What was Ranma preparing for that he trained himself that intensely? Trained an ally that closely? Ryouga hadn't gotten much practice, and in her estimation, Ranma could probably tear Ryouga into little pieces with a minimum effort. Whoever Herb was, he must be incredibly strong to push Ranma that far.

Ukyou sighed longingly, watching them depart. Shaking herself back to attention, she turned to Akane. "Anyway… Ranchan was on a training trip when he found a cursed mirror… a copy Ranma came out of the mirror, but it was his girl side. He wasn't amused, but one thing led to another, and he ended up with a copy of his boy side, too. So he agreed to let them stay out of the mirror as long as they would help him train… for a while, at least. They had to go back into the mirror anyway, after a while. We were afraid he was going to keep bringing them back just to spar… but Ryu agreed to train with Ranchan."

Shampoo nodded, moving down the stairs as the crowd began to disperse. "We trained with Ranma, too… Ranma has a powerful enemy, so he needs powerful allies. Great-grandmother taught Ranma a lot of our techniques, to help him. It's a good thing, too… the Orochi would have killed him, otherwise."

Stumbling down the steps, Akane winced. "Ukyou told me about that, actually." She slowed, regaining her footing. "Ranma's expecting to have to fight Herb? What about… Ryouga?"

Ukyou snorted, indignantly. "That worthless… Ranma could probably have killed him, if Herb hadn't shown up. But yeah, Herb's going to come here at some point; it's inevitable. That's why Ryu-chan came back to Nerima… I asked him to stay with me for a while, so Ranma would have allies nearby."

Akane frowned, focusing on that. "So… do you think Ryouga's coming with them?"

Shampoo nodded, scowling. "Yes. And… We're all going to do whatever it takes to keep him from you."

Nabiki wordlessly joined the trio at the bottom of the steps. Shampoo's eyes flickered over the girl for a moment, before returning to her passive scan of their surroundings. Akane shook her head. "Um… where's Mousse? I thought he'd be ecstatic now that you weren't…" she trailed off lamely, giving the Amazon an apologetic smile.

Shampoo's demeanor changed in a heartbeat, and she smirked, obviously holding back laughter. Ukyou giggled, explaining, "Mousse beat up some girl's pig, thinking it was Ranma, and then the girl insisted that he had to marry her. She hauled him off, with Cologne's help. She said that the girl was using Amazon law, and Mousse was an outsider to her culture. Haven't seen him since, but Cologne seems to think that he's probably happy."

The Amazon nodded quick agreement, while Akane fought down the urge to snicker. The totally alien situation was bewildering, and she was torn, not knowing if she should laugh, or cry. Finally giving in, she loosed a giggle, wiping at her eyes. "He beat up a pig? And she wanted to marry him for it?"

Nabiki remarked, "Oh, I've heard of weirder things. Not many, but I have." Shaking her head, she gestured to a small cafe on the side of the road. "Let's have something to eat while we're waiting for the boys to finish cleaning up."

Ukyou shrugged, and flung herself into a chair at a vacant table. She gestured vaguely to the building on the other side of the street. "That's the bathhouse they use." A loud yell rang out from the aforementioned building, followed shortly by several more distressed cries. Ukyou simply rolled her eyes. "Ranchan seems to not pay attention to using cold water in the public bath. I think he gets a kick out of it."

Akane smiled softly, then shook her head, concentrating. The girls at the table knew Ranma better than anyone else, most likely. Time to test the waters… Ukyou knew, so… "Um…" she began, hesitantly. "Do you think that Ranma would accept me after… being… with Ryouga?"

Nabiki stared over Akane's shoulder, towards the bathhouse. "I don't see why he wouldn't… why do you ask?"

Ukyou flinched, remembering Akane's revelation earlier. Clearing her throat, she leveled a stern glare at Nabiki, and spoke concisely, "Not that, Nabiki. After Akane had _been_ with Ryouga." The stress on that word was unmistakable.

Nabiki's composure cracked, and her eyes bulged as she stared at her younger sister. After a few minutes, she smacked herself on the forehead, clenching her eyes shut. "Of course. It was stupid of me to think that it wouldn't have happened," she grumbled. As a waiter meandered in range, she snapped, "Tea. Now," sending him scurrying away to do her bidding. Collecting herself somewhat, she mumbled, "Well. I don't know… and Akane… I don't know that he needs to know, anyway."

Shampoo frowned, looking between Ukyou and Nabiki with suspicion. Pulling her attention to Akane, she opined, "Ranma probably wouldn't care. He might already have guessed. And lying to him would be bad."

Akane flushed, staring at the table in miserable frustration. "I… I should tell him, but…" she trailed off nervously, raising her head to shoot a pleading glance at Ukyou.

Ukyou shook her head, glancing behind Akane to check for Ranma's presence. "I gotta agree with Shampoo on that one, sugar. Not telling him is a bad idea, and we all know that it's Ryouga's fault anyway. I… yeah, it's bad, but I can't see him holding it against you."

Head bowed, Akane managed a slight nod. "Then… I'll… tell him. Do… Am I good enough for him?"

Nabiki flinched visibly, and rested her face in her hands. Voice muffled, she whimpered, "Kami… I'm… Akane, you're my sister. I'm sorry about… how I've been, but this has been a really messy situation for all of us. I… I want Ranma to be happy, more than anything else in the world… and I think it takes you to make him happy. I shouldn't have lashed out at you when you came back. I'm sorry… It's just…" She lowered her hands, ignoring the waiter as he set a tea service on the table and scuttled away again. Unmindful of the public atmosphere, she wiped at her eyes, saying, "Ryouga's gone and fucked up everything… he did a damn good job of screwing up our lives… I can only think that if he hadn't gotten you with his love spell, that everything would be so much better right now."

Shaking her head, she finished, "I want Ranma to be happy, and… It's hard, because it wasn't you hurting us; it was what Ryouga did to you… I want you to be happy, too. If you and Ranma can… get together… then I would be really happy."

Moved, Ukyou released a sniffle, and slipped from her chair to give Nabiki a reassuring hug. Akane choked back a sob at the sight, moved by Nabiki's words, and more that Nabiki, of all people, was reacting this emotional in public. Gathering her confidence, she croaked out, "Thank you, Big Sister."

Nabiki sniffled, smiling, and pushed Ukyou away gently. Ukyou reclaimed her seat, while everyone concentrated on ignoring the stares they were slowly accumulating. Ranma and Ryu arrived then, prompting everyone one in the cafe to find something more interested to study. Ranma had a reputation in the area, and it was best not to be on his bad side.

Ranma took a seat between Akane and Shampoo, while Ryu found a chair and dragged it over between Nabiki and Ukyou. Akane fought back the urge to scoot over the few inches separating her from Ranma. Something to fight for, or someone, Cologne had said. Was she the one for Ranma? Her fears flatly told her 'no way in hell,' while her hopes whispered… 'maybe…'

Would Ranma be upset when he found out? What could she do to make herself worthy of Ranma?

A hand settled on her shoulder in a comforting manner, and she relaxed, noting that it was Ranma, the hardness seeming to disappear from his persona for the moment. She belatedly noted that a waiter was waiting for her to say something, and mumbled, "Um… I'm fine, thanks." The waiter nodded, eyeing Nabiki worriedly as Ranma declined anything aside from tea.

Gathering her courage again, she turned to Ranma, and managed to whisper, "Can you take me home?"

Ranma looked to her, then nodded. "No problem." Turning back to the table, he smiled softly. "Akane and I are going home. We'll see you later, okay?"

There was a general murmur of agreement, broken only by Ukyou's squeal as Ryu goosed her. She glared at Ryu balefully, growling, "Try that again, mister…" She let it trail off there, but everyone could see the smile playing at the corner of her mouth.

Akane hurried a short distance down the street, unsure if the display was for her benefit or not. Ranma exchanged a few words with Ryu, then joined Akane, walking towards the Tendo home.

There was a brief, companionable silence, before Akane asked, "Ah… Ranma?"

He glanced towards her, only a few steps to her side. "Yes?"

"Can you…" She faltered briefly, then restarted. 'Can you… ever bring yourself to forgive me?' "Can you… train me?"

His eyes stayed on her for a moment, seeming to peer deep into her, before he replied, "Yes. I'd be pleased to train you. When would you like to start?"

She swallowed, cursing herself for not saying the words she wanted to. "Whenever… you think I'm ready."

He nodded quickly, patting the bundled length of cloth hanging at his waist. "Then tomorrow, I think. When you wake up, come to join me."

Akane nodded, then something occurred to her. "Ranma?"


"What about school?"

His step faltered momentarily, then resumed. "Well, you've missed the last seven months. I'd imagine that there's going to be a problem with that. I suppose we'll have to find a tutor, or something."

Akane smiled at that. He had said 'we' and that counted for something. It was just a matter of how much it counted, and if that amount was enough.

The rest of the walk was in silence, straining at Akane's willpower. She again battled the constant indecision. Should she run? Should she try and reach out to Ranma? She had to tell him… he needed to know.

Resolving herself, she made the decision. She would tell him.


Again, Akane woke to a feeling of nausea, and fled to the bathroom. Kneeling over the toilet, she gasped a few times, heaving, as her body reluctantly came to grips with the fact that it had nothing to give up.

She whimpered, after cleaning herself off. Was she sick? She didn't feel ill. Chalking it up to waking to another unpleasant memory, she allowed herself a brief soak before seeking Ranma in the dojo.

The redhead was meditating, seemingly calm and unaware of the outside world. Akane knelt on the wooden floor in silent contemplation of the person she would have as her lover, and an answer to one of her questions came to her.

She could do something for Ranma — maybe — that would help restore the balance between them. Maybe it would even be enough to overcome her betrayal of her love… And Ranma was her love, no single part of her mind or heart nagging or doubting otherwise, as it had with Ryouga.

Shuddering, she pushed the thought of Ryouga away, not wanting to deal with it at the moment. She wanted to think about the girl in front of her. Come to think of it, why was Ranma a girl? She opened her mouth to ask, then hesitated, deciding instead to simply enjoy her presence.

Ranma sighed softly, her eyes slowly opening, then stood, leveling a stern gaze at Akane. "Eat. Then train. Come on, Akane."

Akane accepted Ranma's hand to her feet, and obediently followed the smaller girl into the house. Akane's heart threatened to stop, as she saw someone she hadn't seen since… her return. Ranma sat at the table, unconcerned, while Akane tried to decide how best to approach the situation. Finding her voice, she unsteadily warbled, "Ah… hi, Auntie Saotome…"

Nodoka's perfect, serene smile twitched slightly, threatening to slip, before it reasserted itself. "Hello, Akane." Akane. Not Akane-chan. The young girl dimly noted several alarm bells shrieking in the back of her head; shrill warning that things were, once again, going to get worse. "Have a seat, I suspect that we have a lot to talk about."

Ranma's gaze hardened slightly, as she looked at her mother. She said nothing, instead serving a healthy portion of Kasumi's cooking onto a plate, and handing it to Akane.

Swallowing nervously, Akane took a seat, as close to Ranma as she could. "Um… what did you want to talk about, Auntie?"

Nodoka's smile remained, mask-like, as she spoke, "So, where have you been for the last few months? Ranma didn't tell me much."

Akane blinked at that, looking at Ranma for guidance. The redhead squeezed one of Akane's hands beneath the table gently, reassuring her. She faced her mother, seemingly impassive. "Mom, I don't think that we need to have this conversation right now. Akane's recovering. I think that's enough."

Her mask failing her, Nodoka stared at Ranma blankly. "What?"

Ranma said nothing for a long minute, slowly taking a sip from her teacup. After taking a moment to sigh contentedly, she peered over the rim of the cup at her mother, and pointedly stated, "I said, 'we don't need to talk about this now.'"

Nodoka glowered briefly before recovering herself. Setting a small compact on the table, she stood. "I see. Your father promises me that you've become a man… but I'm afraid I don't see that in you right now."

The girl smiled serenely, setting her teacup down. "I'm sorry to hear that. Too bad you've already decided I've fulfilled the contract."

Nodoka's expression darkened in irritation, and she snatched for her katana — which was not there, Akane was relieved to note — before stomping towards the door. Pausing in the doorway briefly, she looked back over her shoulder and shot back, "I expect you to respect your mother more, Ranma."

Ranma snorted in response, serving herself breakfast as Kasumi's voice wafted in, too indistinct to make out. Akane could make out Nodoka's muffled and annoyed responses to Kasumi's voice before the elder Saotome woman began to calm, but not the words of their conversation. Staring at Ranma in confusion, Akane hesitantly asked, "What was that?"

Waving a hand dismissively, Ranma said, "Nothing to worry about right now." She stretched across the table, snatching the compact up and opening it with one hand. Akane watched, confused, as Ranma shook it a few times, then nodded in satisfaction and snapped it shut.

"Um… sorry for repeating myself, but… What was that?"

Ranma smirked, then pocketed the compact and began eating. "Finish your breakfast, and then I'll tell you."

Akane stood in the dojo in a ready stance, while Ranma walked around her in a slow circle. Nodding decisively, he explained, "I don't want to teach you how to fight… we simply don't have enough time for that. No… Your strength is decent, but we can't train your speed up enough." He clicked his tongue, stopping to stand still in front of Akane. "I'll train you properly later, if you'd like. What I'm going to teach you for now is actually pretty simple. How to produce a ki attack."

The young Tendo blinked at that, surprised. Ranma was thinking that it would be easier to teach her that than to teach her how to fight? He thought it was simple? "O…okay," she quavered. "What do I do?"

Ranma walked to Akane's side, and examined her critically. "Well, the first thing we'll need to do is get somewhere were we don't have to worry about structural damage. Come on, we're going for a bit of a walk." Akane obediently walked behind her one-time — and maybe once-again — fiancé, studying the pigtailed martial artist intently.

After they reached a secluded wood, not far outside of Tokyo, Ranma vaulted up to a tree limb at the edge of a small clearing, and peered down at Akane. "First things first. Close your eyes, and concentrate."

Akane nodded, turning to one side, and doing as she was told. "Okay."

"Now," explained Ranma. "Gather your strongest, most driving emotion, think of it as… floating around inside you. You want to gather it all into a single point, and focus in at that point, between your hands. Can you do that?"

Akane concentrated, focusing. Her most driving emotion? What was it? Was there any one emotion that drove her? She searched, confused, then found her answer, and drew on that emotion, gathering it as she was told.

"Okay," Ranma's voice called down to her. "Now concentrate, and squeeze that force into as small a space as you can, then… when you think you're ready, give it a name, and throw it out. It'll probably take a few tries, but let's see how much of it you can get on your first try."

Beads of sweat slowly working down her face, Akane nodded. Give it a name… focus… concentrate, and name…

There. She felt it, tingling on the edge of some inner sense. Her ki. Now, focus… Focus on what? On the emotion that drove her. It crawled through her, flowing like contaminated molasses through her veins. She shuddered in revulsion, and lost her grip on it.

She opened her eyes, and turned a pleading stare on Ranma, who smiled encouragingly at her. "C'mon Akane, you can do it. I know you can."

Gulping nervously, Akane took a deep breath to steady herself, and squared off against a tree, readying herself again. Her hands rose before her cupped around an empty point of space. The feeling came to her with less resistance this time, seeming to seep through her like some congealed taint, which she focused, trying to draw out of herself and push into her hands. She felt it coalesce, like some tangible, filthy substance.

Shuddering, she released her control. Relief flooded through her when the sensation faded, and she looked up to Ranma nervously. His smile had faded somewhat, and he studied her intently, motioning her to try again with one hand.

Reaffirming her resolve, Akane turned back to the tree, and focused again. This time it came easily, though the sensations made her flesh crawl. Holding the feeling in her hands, she focused, concentrating the sensation. She could feel it, but knew, somehow, that for all its intensity, it wasn't enough.

She had to focus harder, reach deeper… fuel the power that seemed to contaminate the space between her hands.


Ryouga and Akane… together. What Ryouga had done to her. Her pathetic, hopeless inability to fight back. Her weakness. She hurt everyone around her, even the ones she loved. And she couldn't even tell Ranma that she loved him, because of her betrayal…

The power and the sensation of uncleanness built, threatening to make her reel and vomit.

She couldn't even handle the simple feat of focusing her strength. She was pathetic…

Gritting her teeth she clutched at her control, trying desperately to contain the force before her, seeming to seep into and taint her skin.

She gave herself to a man she didn't love. And Ranma was still there for her. And she wasn't good enough for him.

A tear trickled across her skin, threatening her concentration as its salty tang touched one corner of her mouth.

She was a failure, and couldn't even get this right. She wasn't even able to tell Ranma the truth.

The building power before her was released suddenly, a cry flying from her lips, seemingly of its own volition, "Shishi houkodan!"

Knocked back by the force from the projectile, Akane dizzily noted Ranma's arms supporting her, as he stared at the tree that had been her target. Blinking, Ranma shook his head slowly. "Well. You picked that up a hell of a lot faster than I would have thought possible." Smiling down at the girl in his arms, he remarked, "I thought we'd have to try for a couple of days before you got it."

Dazedly, Akane pulled herself to her feet, seeing the twisted, splintered remnants of the tree, several shattered chunks of wood laying on the ground about it… and the sense that flooded through her on her success was not joy, or elation, but depression. She had proven herself adept at the most pathetic ki attack she knew of, the one Ryouga, of all people, used…

Lowering her head in shame, Akane pushed herself away from Ranma. "I… I need to go home, Ranma. I'm done for now."

Ranma shook his head once more, eyeing the destruction. "Yes… I suppose that would be a good idea."

Ranma closed the door behind him, glancing over his shoulder as a sudden downpour managed to just miss him. He frowned thoughtfully, listening to the rain, then shook his head and turned to face Akane, a bemused smile playing across his face and replacing the frown. She returned the smile weakly, noting that — for once — Ranma had beat the rain.

Turning again, Akane felt her worries begin to return, and plodded up the stairs to her room, deep in thought.

Akane's room was oddly comfortable to her. Somehow it felt insulated from the rest of the world, and the worries that the rest of the world held. Ranma followed her, watching as Akane sat on her bed slowly. Swallowing, she turned to Ranma, as he hovered in the doorway. "Ranma… there's something you need to know…" She stared at her hands in confusion, wondering idly why they were trembling so violently. Her voice sounded oddly unstable in her own ears, barely louder than the patter of rain against the roof beneath her window. "When… When I was with Ryouga…"

Her voice suddenly disappeared, leaving her too weak to do anything other than wheeze unsteadily. Ranma carefully closed the door, his expression shifting to neutrality again. Sliding across the floor, he sat on the bed next to her, and put a comforting hand on hers.

Swallowing, she found her voice, which was only a high-pitched, unsteady whimper at that point. "I s-s-s-s-slept w-w-with him."

Ranma blinked, seemingly unaffected by the admission. After a long moment of simply staring he stood, releasing Akane, and strode to the center of her room. One hand came up slowly, palm facing the ceiling, and he inspected it closely. "It's funny," he said, voice quavering. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised. He probably didn't even wait long before he took advantage of you, huh?"

Akane curled up into a little ball on her bed, sobbing, "I, g-g-g-gave myself… I'm s-s-s-sorry, Ranma… I'm not… c-c-c-clean."

The man in the room, back still turned to her, seemed to convulse, as though an invisible hand was striking him. Akane's mind dimly noted that he was sobbing himself, and her unsteady hand found its way to her nightstand. "I h-h-h-have some cold water…" she trailed off, hiccupping into another sob.

The glass of water found its way into Ranma's hands, and he quickly splashed himself, before dropping the then-empty container.

Akane found herself wrapped in a firm embrace, the redheaded girl shedding tears enough to match her own. "It's… not your fault, Akane. It's not your fault. I won't let that come between us." She repeated it, soothingly, into Akane's ear, until she calmed slightly, comforted by Ranma's refusal to abandon her.

Clinging desperately to the smaller girl, Akane hiccupped, "Ranma… I l-l-love you."

Ranma's arms tightened around Akane, and the redhead seemed to sag, as the tension holding her together drained. "Akane… Akane-chan. I love you, too. And I'm never going to let something like that come between us. I swear it."

Akane shifted herself until the embrace was more comfortable, with Ranma's chin resting on Akane's shoulder, her mouth near Akane's ear. Whispering, Akane pleaded, "Ranma… I don't ever want to lose you. I don't… I don't even care about your curse anymore… Ranma, would you… will you make love to me?"

Ranma's breath against Akane's ear suddenly stopped, and with it, Akane's heart. Both began a moment later, equally unsteady. The redhead pulled away, looking into Akane's eyes, as she stuttered, "A… Akane-chan… are you sure? I mean… like this? Right now?"

Akane nodded, then leaned in to kiss Ranma's lips, tasting the salt of her shed tears. Ranma kissed back, tentatively at first, then more intensely as Akane encouraged her.

Pausing to consider, Ranma pushed away, and held Akane in her arms, studying the girl before her intently. Akane's eyes stared into her own, pleading desperately, and promising to return every feeling that Ranma had fully, and more. The small, moist tracks on Akane's face shone under the light, giving her an odd, almost ethereal beauty, as Ranma's vision distorted from another tear of her own.

But was this something that was a good idea? And… Like this? But… Akane wanted it; wanted her… and more than that, wanted Ranma to want her.

Ranma balked, wondering what damage would be done by continuing, but then froze, seeing the wild, frightened light in the depths of Akane's eyes. What damage would be done by abandoning her?

Gulping nervously, the last remnants of Ranma's angry mask crumbled away, leaving her to squeak out, "Yeah, sure Akane. If you want it-" Akane leapt into the redhead's arms, silencing any further words with an exuberant kiss.

Breaking away from the kiss for a moment, Akane cursed her fumbling hands, and their inability to remove her clothing fast enough. Her skin burned with a need for Ranma's touch, craving that contact to wash away memories of tainted sex with a purer and truer love. "I… need this, Ranma. I need you."

Ranma nodded, not knowing how her skin seared the unclean feelings from Akane, leaving her to soak in the achingly sweet luxury of Ranma's touch. She whimpered softly, needing more, and touching Ranma back, guiding her hands in a hesitant exploration of this new territory.

An agonizing eternity later, Ranma's top was completely removed and Akane's own shirt was opened, leaving her free to taste of Ranma's lips again, as they fell to the bed in a tangled heap, warm flesh lying against warm flesh. Akane felt the signs of Ranma's arousal press into her own chest, perversely exciting her, and bringing more urgency to their kisses.

She was not able to drink deeply enough of her lover, and they broke apart again, Ranma kneeling next to her, face flushed and eyes shining.

Ranma stared down at the girl — woman, truly — of her dreams. The one she truly loved was offering herself to Ranma, and promising to accept her both as her and as a him. Accepting the curse without reservation, willing to go this far…

She swallowed, seeing the raw, barely restrained passion in her lover's eyes, as Akane's shallow gasping breaths caused her chest to heave. Ranma pulled away from Akane, causing the fire in Akane's gaze to turn to panic briefly.

After a moment of fumbling, Ranma managed to undo the ties of Akane's pants, then slid them down — too slowly for Akane's tastes. The larger girl sat up, kicked off her pants and panties, then pulled Ranma down to her, while the redhead slowly wriggled free of her own last articles of clothing. Once completely unclad, Ranma again lay against Akane, kissing away the salty remnants of her tears of worry.

As the two loved one another, Akane felt something deep inside her — nothing as base as a sexual orgasm, but something deeper, fuller… more meaningful. It welled up, seeming to fill her to capacity. She arched her back, pressing herself into Ranma as completely as she could. Her body's memories rebelled, as the unclean, dirty part of her mind was busy indicating that this was wrong and that she already knew the right way to do it.

She reveled in replacing those memories with her current actions. And it was lovemaking, not anything shallow, like mere physical pleasure. It was love.

After a time that seemed without end… it was over. Exhausted, and wholly sated, they collapsed into each other's arms, and slept blissfully, listening to the rain.

Akane woke, this time not to a feeling of nausea, but a feeling of contentment. The redhead draped across her muttered something in her sleep, and reflexively pulled Akane into a tighter embrace before she fell back asleep.


To be continued.

Chapter 3
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Old Gray Wolf