A Ranma 1/2 Fanfic
All Ranma 1/2 characters copyright Rumiko Takahashi
and are used without permission.

 CAST A LONG SHADOW
 by Mark MacKinnon
 

Part one: Lapses of Judgement

     My hand was beginning to cramp from holding the branch too
tightly.  I shifted my weight and tried to ignore the fact that my stomach
was one big ball of misery.  I knew I'd be able to see her soon.  That
fact kept me hiding there in the tree when all my instincts screamed at
me to leave.  I'd be able to see her again, and at the moment that was
all I could think about.
     Akane.
     It was late spring, and the weather was mild.  I could see
Kasumi setting the table for breakfast through the open door.  I
couldn't hear her, but I knew she'd be humming some pleasant little
tune as she worked.  My grip on the branch tightened again as she
glanced up, and I cursed myself for reacting.  I'd chosen my position
because it would allow me to see into the house without being seen
myself.
     Which was just the way I wanted it.
     Someone came from the dim shadows to sit at the table, and
for a moment I couldn't breathe.  Then she sat down and I saw that it
was only Nabiki.  I let out a shaky breath and watched in amazement
as my free hand trembled.  I needed to get hold of myself.  I needed ...
     I needed to leave.  It was stupid, what I was doing, stupid and
pointless, and the only smart thing to do would be to leave.
     But I didn't.  I *couldn't*.  Not without at least seeing her, just
once ...
     Someone else came to the table, but I could see right away that
it was only Mr. Tendou.  I switched hands and began flexing my fingers
in a futile attempt to convince my muscles to relax.  Suddenly, I sensed
rather than heard the thrumming of footfalls, someone heavy moving
very fast.  I knew what this had to be.
     A large panda bounded into the backyard from out of my line
of sight, leaping high into the air.  A red blur streaked in from nowhere
and collided with the bear, resolving itself into a redheaded girl in a red
Chinese shirt and black loose-fitting pants.  Her feet were presently
planted in the panda's face, and as she pushed off it flew into the
previously tranquil carp pool.  The girl threw a taunt over her shoulder
and landed easily beside the pool.
     Damn.  Damn damn damn DAMN!  I hadn't been able to
admit to myself how much I'd hoped, I'd PRAYED that he wouldn't
be here.  But then, I'd been doing a lot of hoping and praying lately,
but apparently the kami weren't listening.
  Of course he'd be here.  Of course he would.  And ...
     And so was she.  Kasumi called something to the odd pair in
the backyard as someone else came out to sit at the table.  The girl and
the panda scrambled for the breakfast table as Kasumi started setting
out the bowls, momentarily blocking my view.  Then I could see her
again, and my stomach knotted up even tighter, which I hadn't thought
possible.
     Akane.  All through breakfast I watched her.  I watched the
way she tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear when she leaned
forward to pick up her bowl.  I watched the way she cocked her head
slightly as she smiled at something Kasumi said, watched her smile die
as the redhead said something to her, watched her fire back an angry
retort.  The branch creaked under my grip and I gritted my teeth
angrily.  Why did he have to do that?  Why did he have to make her
smile go away?  Why?
     Too soon, breakfast was over.  Akane looked at her watch,
leapt to her feet, and went running into the house.  The redhead took a
yellow kettle from a smiling Kasumi and upended the steaming contents
over herself, turning into a boy.  Then he too ran into the house.
     I leaned back against the trunk of the tree, feeling the rough
bark through my shirt.  I tried to draw strength from it's solidness, it's
realness.  I badly needed that strength.
     After all, I knew where she was going now.  She was going to
school, and it would be very easy to follow her.  I'd told myself that I
only wanted a chance to see her, that I'd hide in the tree and watch her
and be satisfied, but that had been a lie.  I wasn't satisfied.  I needed
more.
     "Just to see her," I told myself.  "Just to watch her and hear her
voice, maybe hear her laugh.  There's nothing wrong with that.  After
all, its not like I'm gonna *do* anything ..."
     I convinced myself, as I'd known I would.  Even if I would
never have admitted it to anyone, I could admit to myself that I wasn't
ready to leave Akane alone.
     Even though I knew it was the right choice.  The only choice.
     Lightly, I jumped from my tree and headed off to shadow
Akane.
 

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Ranma shot a cautious glance at Akane from the corner of his
eye as he ran along the top of the fence.  She still looked mad.  He
groaned to himself.  Why did she always have to make such a big deal
out of everything he said, anyway?  He hadn't meant anything by it,
after all.  And he'd been telling the truth ...
     "Hey, Akane," he called down, "you're, uh, not still mad about
what I said, are you?"
     "Of course not," she said stiffly.  "Now hurry up or we'll be
late for school."  Her tone made it obvious that she *was* still mad,
and Ranma found his hackles rising in response.
     "Oh, come on, Akane.  You know, if you'd just learn to cook, I
wouldn't have to be afraid to eat your meals!"
     "Why don't you just shut up, you jerk!  Why would I want to
cook for you, anyway?"
     "Oh, you are soooo uncute!"
     "Baaaa-KA!"
     "Tomboy!"
     The sparring continued as they ran towards Furinkan High's
main gate.  Unfortunately, they both knew which buttons to push and
both were in a foul temper as they burst onto the school grounds.
     "Akane Tendou!  Your beauty is as the urgkkh!"  Kunou's
welcome speech met the business end of Akane's book bag as she
stormed by him without slowing.  He flailed for balance, then snapped
his head back and  whipped out his bokken, pointing it at Ranma.
     "Saotome, what have you done to my ackhh!"  Ranma leapt
easily over Kunou's bokken and planted a kick on the side of his head.
     "I ain't done nothin' to your "ackhh", Kunou," he growled.
"Buzz off."  With that he ran on towards the school, leaving a dazed
Kunou lying spread-eagled on the grass.  A figure in a boy's uniform
with a large spatula slung over her back walked up to him, gazing
longingly at Ranma's retreating back.
     "Morning, Kunou," Ukyou said cheerfully, bending down so
that her long ponytail slipped over her shoulder.  "Listen, did you
happen to notice someone following Ranma and Akane when they first
got here?"  Ukyou had been sure she'd caught a glimpse of someone
behind the bickering pair, but the figure had vanished before she could
get a good look.
     "Certainly not," Kunou said with wounded dignity from where
he lay.  "I was blinded by Akane Tendou's great beauty."
     Blinded by repeated blows to the head, more like it, Ukyou
thought with a sigh.  She thanked the prone upper-classman and
stood up gracefully.  It certainly wouldn't be unheard of for someone to
be following Ranma around, and trouble was sure to follow.  Then she
grinned.  Now she had an excuse to follow Ran-chan around.  She
could keep an eye out for his shadow, and if anything did happen,
she'd be right there to help her Ran-chan out.
     Her day was looking brighter all the time.  She began to whistle
a jaunty tune as she headed into the school, stepping over Kunou's
prone form without a second glance.  After a moment, he levered
himself up painfully.
     "At least she didn't step on me," he sighed as he headed
to class.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     "Baka, baka, baka," I chanted softly to myself from where I hid
crouched in the bushes.  I'd gotten too close when that lunatic Kunou'd
popped up, and Ukyou had almost seen me.  She threw another glance
toward my hiding spot as she walked away.  She didn't look sure
about what she'd seen.  I'd gotten lucky.  This time.  But if I kept
following Akane around, my luck was bound to run out.
     But I couldn't stop.  Not yet.  Just a little longer.  I'd see her at
lunch, she'd eat outside of course, and then ... then I'd follow her home,
and that would be it.  That would be the end of it.  I'd follow her home,
and then I'd ... I'd ...
     I dropped to my knees and slammed my fist into the ground,
savouring the feel of the impact as it travelled up my forearm.  It felt so
good that I did it again, and again, and then I couldn't stop.  I
hammered away at the unfeeling ground, squeezing my eyes shut in
a futile attempt to stop my hot tears from escaping.  As if I could deny
my pain if those tears never fell ...
     Finally the muscles of my arm were on fire and my abraded
knuckles bled freely.  I slumped forward until my forehead rested on
the cool shaded grass and wrapped my arms tightly around myself, as if
I could physically hold the pain inside.  I panted like I'd just run ten
miles and rocked slightly back and forth, feeling my ragged breaths
forcing themselves through a tightening throat.
     "Please," I whispered hoarsely into the ground, "I don't know
what to do.  What should I do?"
     My plea wasn't answered, but then, I'd known it wouldn't be.
I'd finally come to realize that there was nobody I could turn to for help.
     I was all alone.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------
 
     Ranma was in a pretty good mood as he left school that
afternoon.  Any day where he didn't get turned into a girl at school was
off to a good start in his book.  His good mood soured somewhat as he
saw Akane walking ahead of him, nose in the air, ignoring him.  She
hadn't forgiven him yet.  He sighed at her stiff back and hurried to catch
up to her.
     Why'd she have to be so hard to get along with all the time,
anyway?

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Ukyou trailed along after Ranma as he left school.  She was
worried at first that he might spot her and get the wrong idea; after all,
she was just trying to find out who was following him.  Really.  Then
she spotted Akane stomping along ahead of him, and she knew she
didn't have to worry about him noticing *her* in the near future.
     Ukyou felt a sour tightening in her chest as he watched them
walk together.  Ranma was strolling next to Akane, one hand behind his
head, trying hard to look nonchalant.  Akane was ignoring him.  He
tried to start up a conversation.  She snapped back a reply.  His
posture became rigid and defensive.  Ukyou shook her head angrily.
     "Why her?" she wondered bitterly.  "Why not me?  I'd never
make Ran-chan unhappy like that."  She supposed she should have
been glad that Ranma and Akane were fighting, but it never seemed to
change anything between them.  Ranma came to her restaurant often
after their squabbles for free food and a sympathetic ear, but he always
went back to the dojo and Akane.  Sometimes Ukyou needed him with
an intensity that almost made her ill, but he never seemed to notice.  He
never understood.  He never tried to understand.
     He never *stayed* with her.
     "This is stupid," she muttered to herself suddenly.  She had
better things to do than to follow some guy around on a flimsy pretext
like ... like ...
     Like a love-sick schoolgirl.
     She shook her head angrily.  She should be back at the
restaurant slinging okonomiyaki.  Even if someone was following
Ranma, he'd be able to handle it.  He always did.  He didn't need her
help.
     She should just go.  But ... she'd come this far already.  Maybe
she'd just follow them the rest of the way home.  Sure, otherwise the
time she'd already spent tailing them would be wasted.
     She decided.  Just to the dojo, and then back to her place for
the supper crowd.  Her decision made, she looked up to find she'd
fallen a bit farther behind than she'd wanted.  Ranma and Akane were
approaching a construction site, their argument heating up.  Ukyou
sighed, then froze as she caught a sudden movement out of the corner
of her eye.  A figure bounded over the dingy plywood fence
surrounding the construction site and pointed something at Ranma.
     So someone had been following him!  Then Ukyou saw who it
was and groaned softly.
     "Ryouga."

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     "Raaaaanmaaaaa!" Ryouga bellowed, his umbrella levelled at
the unfortunate target of his rage.  Ranma blinked, cutting off his insult
to Akane in mid-sentence.
     "Oh, hey, Ryouga.  Long time no see.  Finally made it back to
civilization, huh?"  Ranma finally noticed the enraged expression on
Ryouga's face and frowned.  "Oh, what now?"
     "Ranma," Ryouga growled, his breath coming in short, harsh
gulps, "how could you say such things to Akane?"  His glare would
have been enough to knock down a lesser man, but Ranma didn't
appear to notice.
     "What things?" he asked innocently.
     "What things?" Ryouga bellowed, outraged.  "Uncute!  A tomboy!
A bad cook!"
     "You forgot violent," Ranma pointed out, just before Akane's
bookbag slammed into the back of his head.
     "Hey!" he grimaced, rubbing the rapidly forming lump.
     "Yes, by all means, let's not forget violent," Akane gritted.
Ranma opened his mouth to reply, only to be distracted by a shout of
rage.  He turned back just in time to leap up and land on Ryouga's
outstretched umbrella.
     "Hey!" he objected.  "Butt out, P-chan!"  He poked Ryouga in
the forehead and vaulted up over his head, spinning neatly in mid-air to
land with balletic grace back near the fence.  Ryouga wheeled around
and heaved his metal umbrella at his opponent as if it were made of rice
paper.
     "I told you not to call me that!  Die, Ranma!" he yelled.  Ranma
dodged easily and the umbrella sheared through the flimsy fence,
disappearing into the busy site beyond.  Ranma stuck his tongue out.
     "Byuuu!  Is that the best you can do?  You're getting slow, man!"
Ryouga glared at his tormentor, teeth gritted and eyes narrowed.
     "You want to laugh, Ranma?  Laugh at this! BAKUSAI
TENKETSU!!"  Ryouga drove his index finger into the roadway,
sending a large crack snaking towards Ranma.  Ranma leapt easily out
of it's path, however, closing with Ryouga and engaging him
hand-to-hand.  Akane, her already foul mood not at all improved by
the display of machismo she was witnessing, circled around toward the
shelter of the fence as punches and kicks flew with reckless abandon.
     "Will you two knock it off?" she shouted.  They ignored her.
"Honestly!"  She turned sharply on her heel.  "Just once it would be nice
if you two could actually hold a conversation without trying to pulverize
each other!"
     None of them noticed that Ryouga's Bakusai Tenketsu crack hadn't
stopped at the fence.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

    It all happened so fast.
     Ukyou watched Ranma's taunts drive Ryouga to attack.
Ryouga seemed even more angry than usual for some reason, and
within seconds the two were going at it hammer-and-tongs in the
middle of the street.  Luckily there was no traffic.  As Ukyou was
sighing and reaching back for her spatula, she saw something out of the
corner of her eye.  And froze.
     A large crane in the construction site was hoisting a bundle of
metal girders to the top of the unfinished structure.  What had caught
her attention was the crane lurching suddenly, causing the load to swing
out toward the roadway.
     She knew instantly what must have happened.  The crack
Ryouga had made had reached all the way to one of the crane's
supports, causing it to tilt ...
     There was slack in the cable as it swung toward the roadway.
When the cable jerked taut, it snapped, releasing it's load of girders ...
     Right above an oblivious Akane.
     None of them had seen it.  The world slowed down for Ukyou
as she followed the cable to it's breaking point, unable to believe what
was happening, her mind numb with disbelief.  She was frozen in place.
     The cable had snapped.
     She stood rooted in place.  This couldn't be happening.  It
couldn't.  Akane would be crushed, she'd be ...
     And none of them had seen it.
     No more Akane.  She saw it clearly, the funeral, then afterwards,
after a decent interval, Ranma needing comfort, coming to her ...
     "If she was gone, you could have him," a little voice crooned.  "Who
could blame you, after all?  What could you do?  You're soooo far
away ..."
     And the girders hung motionless in the air for one gravity
defying, heart stopping moment.
     An accident.  Without Akane, Ranma *would* come to her.  She
knew it.  She'd be happy. *They* would be happy.  She could have
the life she always wanted.  The life she deserved.  If only Akane was
... if only ... Akane ... was ...
     And the jackstraw tangle of girders began to fall.
     Ukyou jerked like a woman waking from a nightmare.  She
seemed unable to hear anything but a high-pitched whine and her blood
hammered through her body like liquid ice as she opened her mouth.
     And screamed.
     "AKANE!  LOOK OUT!!"  The world came back to normal
speed like an elastic band snapping, Ukyou trying to push her numb
body into motion, knowing that her hesitation, a moment that had
seemed like hours, had cost her, seeing all three of them turn and look
at her instead of looking up, frozen by the terror in her voice.
     She tried to point up, screaming at her brain to work, knowing
that there wasn't enough time.  Not enough time.
     It was all happening ...
 
 

     ... too fast.  When Ryouga sprang out at Ranma, I'd used the
diversion to creep closer, perched on the wall opposite the construction
site.  The leaves of a low-hanging branch hid me from view, and
anyway, I told my already bruised conscience, those two wouldn't
notice anything else once they started fighting.
     I ignored the fight.  It was Akane I wanted to see.  She circled
away from the combatants, weary disgust plain on her face.  Her hands
were clasped primly on the handle of her school bag which she bumped
idly with one thigh.  I was entranced.  Just the chance to be so close to
her, to maybe hear her voice ...
     I almost missed the crane.  Some instinct caused me to look up
when the crane shifted.  I realized then what I would have realized
sooner if I hadn't been so caught up in spying on Akane.  Ryouga's
Bakusai Tenketsu-generated crack must have travelled under the fence
and caused the crane to shift at just the wrong time.  The ground
seemed to fall away beneath me as I watched the girders breaking
loose.
     None of them had noticed.  They weren't going to, not in time.
I knew I couldn't act.  I knew I couldn't reveal myself to them.  I
couldn't.
     But I did.  My muscles uncoiled and I sprang off the top of the
wall, hitting the roadway just as all three were distracted by a shrill
scream.
     "AKANE!  LOOK OUT!!"  It was Ukyou, but she was too
far away to help.  She was pointing up and as I closed on Akane I saw
her following Ukyou's panicked gesture, moving so slowly, her
expression changing from puzzled to horrified as she saw that she was
about to be crushed.
     I felt like I was in one of those dreams where you run and run
but never get anywhere, but this was no dream.  And I *was* moving,
getting closer as the girders plunged like a hard metal stain.  I just didn't
know if I'd be in time.
     No.  I wasn't going to let anything happen to Akane.  I wasn't
going to let her die.
     Not this time.  Not again.
     I saw her instinctively throw her arms over her head, as if that
would protect her from the plunging girders.  A useless instinct, but
having her freeze up allowed me to grab her easily as I barrelled
through, barely slowing as I scooped her up in my arms.  I rebounded
off the fence and bounded clear as the mass of steel hit the road where
we had been only a split-second before with a sound like the end of the
world.  Dust rose in a choking cloud as several of the girders buried
themselves in the roadbed, actually quivering like an arrow in a tree.
As the noise died away and the dust began to settle, I tried to bring my
breathing back under control.  A tendril of icy sweat snaked down my
back, and I shivered involuntarily.
     Close.  Oh, man.  Way, WAY too close.
     I looked down at the tight bundle curled up against my chest.  I
could feel the warmth of her body through my shirt, feel the triphammer
beating of her heart against me.  Her eyes were still squeezed shut, her
whole body clenched, as if still waiting for the impact that was now
never going to come.  I shivered again, but this time not from the cold
sweat.
     "Akane."  I didn't realize I'd whispered her name until she
opened her eyes and slowly looked up to my face.  She smiled
hesitantly, and I smiled back, the first time I'd smiled in what felt like a
long while.  My heart seemed to swell under the warmth of that smile.  I
didn't want to let her go, but I reluctantly set her on her feet, still holding
her shoulders gently.
     "Are you okay?" I asked tightly.
     "I ... think so," she breathed.
     And then reality stepped in.
     "Hey!  HEY!  WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?"
Akane started in my arms, recognizing the outraged voice.  She turned,
slowly, to see Ranma shouting, a pale Ryouga looking dazed behind
him.  She turned slowly back to me, her warm brown eyes suddenly
filled with confusion.
     "R-Ranma?"
     I could only think of one thing to say.
     "I'm sorry, Akane," I whispered.
     Then I ran.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     He wasn't going to make it.  The girders were going to fall on
Akane and he didn't have time to do anything about it.  There wasn't
time for anything but disbelief.  Not Akane, not after all they'd been
through, not this way ...
     Then there was a blur of motion and the girders slammed into
the road.  Ranma stood frozen, all the warmth and life draining from
his body, staring at the dust stirred up by the impact.
     "She can't be," he thought numbly.  "No.  She can't be gone.  She
just can't."  He thought it over and over until everything around him
began to seem unreal.
     Then the dust began to settle and he saw a figure standing
beyond the twisted steel beams.  And Akane was in his arms, safe.
Relief flooded through him, and he remembered to breathe again.  He
took a step forward.
     Then the dust cleared some more and he got a good look at
who had rescued her.
     He was tall, well built, and wearing a red, sleeveless Chinese
shirt and dark pants.  His dark hair was pulled back into a pigtail.
Ranma blinked, looked closer as the man set Akane gently on her feet.
     He was looking at himself.  No doubt about it, he had rescued
Akane.  But he was standing over here, wasn't he?  The feeling of
unreality washed over him again, leaving him disoriented.  If he was
here, and he was, then who was ... what ... who ...
     "Hey!  HEY!  WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?"
he bellowed.  The shout seemed to break the spell that had settled in
the wake of the accident.  Shouts rose up from the construction site.
Akane turned at the sound of his voice, and he saw her expression
change as she saw him, standing next to Ryouga.  She turned back to
her rescuer, pulling back slightly.
     Then the other Ranma turned and ran, leaping easily over the
fence and disappearing into the chaos of the construction site.  That
snapped Ranma out of his shocked paralysis and he ran towards the
fence, only to stop when he reached Akane.  Her face was pale, her
eyes glazed.  She was swaying slightly, and he grabbed her arm to keep
her from falling.  She jerked around sharply, tensing like she expected
him to hit her.  Then she relaxed slightly and whispered, "Ranma?  It ...
is you, isn't it?"  He guided her gently toward the sidewalk.
     "Yeah, of course it is," he assured her, helping her sit in the
shade.  There was no way he could leave her to chase the imposter, not
while she was in this state.  He hovered over her, looking for any signs
of injury.
     "Is she all right?" someone asked.  The site foreman stood
behind them, his yellow hard hat pushed back on his head.  Ukyou
came up to stand beside him, a horrified look on her face.  Ranma just
nodded and turned back to Akane.
     "Yeah, I think so.  She's shaken up pretty bad, though."
     "I'm so sorry, I don't know how it could have happened!" the
foreman babbled.  "Somehow, the ground gave way under one of the
crane supports, but that shouldn't have happened, we haven't done any
excavation over in that area ..."  He trailed off helplessly.
     A low, keening noise rose above the shouts, causing Ranma to
look up.  He quickly found the source.
     "Ryouga," he growled.  Ryouga had clearly heard what the
foreman had said, and was staring at Akane helplessly.  His lips pulled
back from his teeth in a grimace as his moan turned into a full fledged
wail; then, turning suddenly, he charged back across the road and
blasted his way through the wall there with his forefinger.  When the
debris had cleared, Ryouga was gone.
     "Good riddance," Ranma muttered under his breath, but he
knew that he bore a share of the responsibility for what had happened
as well.  He suppressed those thoughts sharply as the foreman took
something from one of his men and handed it down to him.  Ranma saw
that it was a paper cup full of water, and accepted it gratefully.  He got
Akane to drink a little, then took a handkerchief from Ukyou and
dipped it in the cool water, mopping Akane's forehead.
     "Ranma," she murmured, "I don't feel very good."
     "I'll take you home, Akane, and we'll call Dr. Tofu to come
take a look at you, okay?"  She nodded timidly and Ranma scooped
her up easily.  Then he asked Ukyou to grab his and Akane's bags and
headed for home, his mind a screaming mass of confusion.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     The cheery spring sun made a futile attempt to warm my skin.  I
barely noticed.  I was too busy trying to ignore the tiny, nagging voice
of my conscience.
     Are you happy now? the voice wanted to know.  You got what
you wanted, after all.
     "That's not true," I whispered.
     Oh, really?  You weren't hoping for a chance to see her again?
An excuse, any excuse to hear her voice, to talk to her, to touch her ...
     "No."  Louder now, angrier.
     You followed them, followed *her*, because you wanted
something to happen, a doorway into their lives to open up, because
you're not strong enough to do the right thing and walk away forever ...
     "No!  That's not it!"
     Weak.  And when the door opened, just a crack, you kicked it
open and strolled right in ...
     "It wasn't like that!" I cried out.  "She would have died!"  In
the sudden silence I looked around.  Luckily, the park was almost
deserted this close to suppertime, but the few people clustered around
the sandbox were all looking at me warily.
     Great.  Now people were going to think I was crazy.  Hell, I
*was* arguing with myself, after all.  Maybe they were right.  Maybe I
was crazy.
     Its not like I didn't have good reason to be.
     I stood up, turning away from the curious stares, feeling the
urge to get away.  I took exactly one step before I stopped again.
     I was in Nerima, the place that had become my home.  All around
me were my friends, the dojo, my school, Uc-chan's place and the
Nekohanten.  These streets and buildings and people formed the
landscape of my life.
     And there was absolutely nowhere that I could go.
     I stood there, shaking my head like a fighter shaking off a hard
shot, vaguely aware of the last stragglers abandoning the park with
suspicious glances thrown my way.  I tried to lift my foot again but it
wouldn't move.  It wanted to know where we were going first, and I
had no clue.  I just stood there, empty and alone, a starving man
surrounded by steaming platters of food that I could never touch.
     You've seen her, the little voice in my head said accusingly,
apparently not done with me yet.  You've seen her, and you had no
plan past that, did you?  So what now, Saotome?  Time to lay down
and die yet?  Huh?
     This time I didn't answer out loud.  I just looked around
helplessly, wishing with all my might for some clue, some sign as to
what to do next.  For once, to my surprise, my wishes were answered
as I saw a familiar figure blundering through the trees at the edge of the
park.
     Ryouga.
     The emptiness inside me was flooded with an instant, white-hot
rage, making me feel alive again.  I saw the crack in the roadway
spreading, saw the girders plunging toward an oblivious Akane, and
then I could move again.  I tore off in Ryouga's direction, bounding
over a slide and dodging some forlorn chain and canvas swings.  He
didn't even look up, not once, as I closed on him.  I fought down a
battle-cry as I charged in, grabbing the front of his tunic and swinging
him around in a savage arc to slam him up against a nearby tree.  He
soaked up the impact with barely a blink, starting guiltily when he saw
my face.  Whatever he saw there scared him.
     It should have.
     "Ranma."  It was a tortured sound, full of pain and guilt.  "I ..."
     "You damned idiot."  I barely recognized my own voice, low
and charged with menace.  The anger felt so good, better than the
emptiness I'd been struggling with ...  "You could've killed her,
Ryouga.  You almost did.  And now you're gonna pay."  He couldn't
meet my gaze any longer, shifted his eyes to the side, turning his head
slightly.
     "Do what you want, Ranma.  I won't stop you."  I clenched
one fist in the fabric of his tunic, pulling him up to his tiptoes, and
cocked the other fist back behind my head.  I looked at his eyes ...

     (I'm looking at Ryouga's eyes from where I lie sprawled on the
hard ground, and can't recognize the look I see there.  Or don't want
to.
     "Ryouga ..."  I say, breathless.  A sad little smile tugs at his mouth
but doesn't touch the peaceful look in his eyes.
     "If I let anything happen to you, she'd never forgive me.  She'd
hate me forever, and I couldn't bear that."  He takes a step back and
salutes with that damned umbrella.
     "Go to her," he says, then wheels and charges into the dark,
hurling razor-sharp bandannas ahead of him as the shadows rise up,
howling.  As insistent hands pull at me from behind I reach out to the
dark, trying to pull him back.
     "Ryouga, no ... don't ...")

     "Don't," I whispered, and the anger was gone as quickly as it
came.  My fist hung uselessly in the air beside my head.  Ryouga
showed no sign that he'd heard me.  I took a deep breath and let it out
slowly, easing Ryouga back down.  Looking at him, really looking, I
could see how sick with guilt he was in the drawn lines of his face, his
unfocused eyes.  He loved Akane too, and he'd sooner die than hurt
her.
     I, of all people, should have remembered that.
     I struggled to find something to say, still loosely gripping
Ryouga's tunic front.  I'd never been very good at putting my thoughts
into words, something that had caused me no end of trouble in my life.
Right now, though, I knew it was important that I find just the right thing
to say to Ryouga, before he stumbled off and got so lost that he was
beyond finding.  I took another deep breath.
     "Ryouga."  He didn't look up.  "RYOUGA."  I shook him
gently.  He finally focused on my face.
     "What."
     "How far are you gonna run, man?"  He looked at me,
uncomprehending.  "How far?" I repeated.  He shook his head.
     "I don't ..."
     "How far do you have to run to escape your guilt?  Where can
you go where you won't feel shame over what happened?"  He looked
away and I shook him again, harder this time, until he looked back.
"Listen to me," I said gently.  "I've run farther than you ever could, and
I'm telling you it doesn't help.  You can't run away from yourself,
Ryouga.  The guilt is just gonna eat away at you, twisting your guts, until
there's nothing left.  The only thing for you to do is to go to the Tendou
dojo, look Akane in the eye, and apologize.  And let her forgive you."
     Some of the life came back into his gaze at that.
     "But what ... what if she doesn't?" he asked in a very small
voice.  I smiled.
     "Ryouga, what happened was stupid and reckless, but it
happened and nothing you do can change that.  You didn't mean for it
to happen, and she'll know that.  Do you want to wander off leaving
things like this?  Leaving her wondering why you never apologized?
Why you never even tried to explain?  Why you never came by to
make sure she was all right?"
     That got him.  I could see it in his eyes as he decided.
     "You're right, Ranma.  Its the right thing to do."  He
straightened up, threw his shoulders back, drew in a deep breath, and
smiled weakly.  I let go of his shirt and nodded.
     "Thanks, Ranma.  I know what I have to do now."  So saying,
he turned and set off.
     In the wrong direction.
     "Ryouga!"  He looked back at me, puzzled.  "The dojo's
*that* way!"  He gave me a sheepish grin, and I groaned.  How could I
have forgotten about Ryouga's terrible sense of direction?
     "Well, I guess I can just go back with you," he said sheepishly.  I
blinked.  With me?
     Oh, holy shit.  Of course.  He thought I was the *other* Ranma!
Considering his state of mind after the accident, he might not even have
noticed that there *were* two Ranmas.  I had no intention of returning
to the dojo, but how could I tell him that?  And if someone didn't take
him there, he'd get lost for sure, then all my good advice would be for
nothing.
     I decided.  I'd take him there and leave him at the front door.
That way, I could make sure he didn't lose his nerve.
     After all, it wasn't like I had anything else to do.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Akane was in a bad mood.  Ranma decided that had to mean
she was feeling better.
     "I'm okay, really," she protested for what had to be the
thousandth time.  "I feel much better."  Dr. Tofu straightened up from
where he'd been bent over her bed and smiled at her.
     "You look better, Akane.  Your colour is good and there's no sign
of any injury.  Still, shock can be very tricky and I want you to take it
easy for the rest of the evening, okay?  Nothing strenuous, no working
out, no martial arts and," he smiled mischievously, "no beating up
Ranma.  All right?"  Akane scowled.
     "Well, okay, if it's only for one night," she muttered.  Tofu
glanced at the wall where Ranma was leaning, staring at the floor.
     "No excitement, right, Ranma?"  He looked up and smiled
weakly.
     "Sure thing, doc.  I understand."  Tofu turned to the doorway,
only to be met by Kasumi entering with a dinner tray.
     "Oh, doctor, I brought Akane some supper.  I hope that's all
right."  She smiled sweetly and Ranma grimaced as Tofu flushed a
bright pink.
     "Ah, ah, Kasumi, of course, yes, it's ah, fine ..."  He looked
totally flustered, completely unlike the calm professional of just
moments before.
     "Kasumi, you didn't have to do that!" Akane protested.  "I'm not an
invalid!  I keep telling everyone that I'm fine!"  Kasumi just smiled
sweetly and placed the tray over Akane's lap.
     "Oh, Ranma, your parents asked if you would come downstairs
and talk to them," she added.  Ranma just nodded and pushed off the
wall.  He'd known this was coming.  He walked to the door.
     "Ranma."  He turned back to see Akane looking at him,
concerned.  He gave her a tiny smile.
     "Eat your dinner, Akane.  It's time to face the music."  He
closed the door softly on his way out.  Inside, he heard Kasumi say
something to Dr. Tofu, and heard him stammer a nervous reply.  He
lingered by the door a moment, wishing he could just go back inside,
then sighed.  No sense in putting it off.
     The look on his mother's face told him he was in for a rough
time.  His father sat beside her, intently studying the surface of the table.
And Ukyou was there.  He blinked.  He'd forgotten all about her.
She'd come home with them, carrying the bags.  He wondered why she
was still there.
     "Have a seat, Ranma," his mother said cooly.  He sat down
opposite his parents, beside Ukyou.  Ukyou glanced up but didn't say
anything.  The silence dragged on for long seconds while Nodoka
studied her son, then finally she spoke.
     "Ranma, I'm very disappointed."  If her tone had been cool
before, it was downright *icy* now.  "For you to have placed Akane in
danger the way you did was stupid and unforgivably reckless.  Your
thoughtless actions could have killed your fiancé, and as I understand it
very nearly did."  Ukyou flinched at the word "fiancé".  Ranma took no
notice.
     "Mom ..."
     "Be quiet."  She didn't raise her voice.  She didn't have to.  It
carried a cold tempered edge that would not tolerate disobedience.  He
shut up.  After a moment, she continued.  "You and your friend Ryouga
between you have mastered some powerful and potentially lethal
martial arts techniques.  And yet, you don't seem to have mastered a
simple but vital facet of martial arts.  Discipline."  She shot a withering
look at Genma, who was still conducting his survey of the table top.  "I
suppose we all know who is to blame for that lapse in your training.  I
am very disappointed.  This is not the type of behaviour I expect from
my son, who was supposed to be raised to be a true man, a man
amongst men."  Ranma and his father both blanched at that, Ranma's
gaze falling on the cloth-wrapped katana at his mother's side.  His
mother had managed to accept their curses, given time, but Ranma
didn't particularly want to push his luck when it came to his parent's
"agreement" about his upbringing.
     "I suppose your obvious concern for Akane's well-being is a
mitigating factor, however," she continued, "as well as the fact that you
did save her life."
     "What?" Ranma asked, surprised.  His mother frowned.
     "Your friend Ukyou told me how you saved Akane ..."  Ukyou
cleared her throat, looking distinctly uncomfortable.
     "Well, that's not exactly what I said," Ukyou muttered.  "I said
that Ranma saved Akane ..."  Nodoka frowned.
     "That's what I said, dear."  Ukyou turned to Ranma helplessly.
     "I didn't know what to ..."  Ranma held up his hand in a
soothing gesture.
     "Its all right, Uc-chan.  I'll try to explain."
     "Yes," Nodoka said, her voice approaching absolute zero.
"Please do."
     "The guy who saved Akane looked like me.  I mean, he was
dressed like me, he looked like me, sounded like me, he even moved
like me!  Not too many people would have been fast enough to grab
Akane and get clear of those girders.  It was like ... well, I don't have
any twin brothers I don't know about, do I?"
     "Don't be ridiculous, son!" his father snapped, looking up for
the first time.  Ranma scowled.
     "Well, I've had plenty of *fiancés* that I never knew about!"
he shot back.
     "What happened to this ... other Ranma?" his mother
interrupted, frowning.  Ranma shrugged.
     "He saved Akane, then he took off."
     "What?  Didn't you try to follow him?" his father asked,
outraged.
     "Hey, I couldn't just leave Akane like that!"
     "Quite right, dear," Nodoka said reproachfully, "I hope you're
not suggesting he should have run off on his fiancé to chase this
person."  Genma shut his mouth with an audible snap and went back to
studying the table.  Nodoka shifted her attention back to Ranma and
Ukyou, looking grim, but before she could continue they heard voices
in the hall.
     "I'm sorry to interrupt, but Ranma's friend Ryouga is here to
see Akane and I thought Ranma might like to know."
     "Um, Kasumi, he already knows," a voice came from the
hallway.  Then Ryouga walked into the room and stopped dead.
     "So, Ryouga, decided to come crawling back, eh?" Ranma
growled.  By the expression on Ryouga's face, he thought Ranma was
going to kill him.  Well good, Ranma thought, let him sweat.
     "Young Ryouga Hibiki," Nodoka said, dropping the
temperature in the room yet another few degrees.  "We were just
discussing something that involves you.  Please sit down."  He didn't.
He raised one shaking hand and pointed at Ranma.
     "You ... but ... how ..."  Ranma sighed.
     "Ryouga, I ain't gonna touch you, okay?"  At least not yet, he
added silently.  "Sit down."  Then he frowned.  Ryouga's mouth was
moving, but nothing was coming out.
     "Ryouga, sugar, what is it?" Ukyou asked.
     "Didn't ... didn't you just walk here with me from the park?" he
managed finally.  It only took Ranma a split-second to make the
connection.
     "Its HIM!" he yelped, jumping to his feet.  He shoved past a
startled Ryouga and pounded down the hallway, bursting out the front
door looking three ways at once.  He raced out the gate, saw nothing
unusual, then leapt to the top of the wall hoping for a glimpse of a red
shirt or a black pig-tail.
     Nothing.
     He turned back to see his parents, Ryouga, Kasumi and Ukyou
standing behind him.  He shook his head.
     "No sign," he reported glumly.  He jumped back down, landing
lightly beside Ryouga.
     "Ranma, what's going on?" Ryouga asked.  "Are you saying
that I wasn't talking to you?"
     "Ryouga, you really believed this guy was me?  He was that
convincing?"  Ryouga frowned.
     "Come to think of it, he did talk to me instead of hitting me, and
he actually gave me some pretty good advice."  Ryouga glared at
Ranma.  "I should have guessed he wasn't really you."
     "Ryouga," Ranma scowled, "who saved Akane when we were
fighting?"  Ryouga looked surprised.
     "I, uh ... didn't get a good look at him actually.  I was too
worried about ..."  His eyes widened as the implication sunk in.  "You
mean ...?"  Ranma nodded.
     "The mystery man himself.  The question is ..."
     "Ranma.  Ryouga.  I'm so glad to see both of you."  Soun
Tendou stood on the front porch, his eyes bloodshot, a sickly smile on
his face.  He didn't *look* glad to see them.  "Come over here for a
moment, boys, I want to ... talk."  Ryouga shrank behind a cringing
Ranma, grabbing his shirt in a death-grip.  Ranma shuddered at the
look in Akane's father's eyes.
     "Oh, man," he moaned.  "We're dead."
     "Father, why don't you come back inside," Kasumi said
soothingly, "I'll get you a drink and rub your feet.  Wouldn't that be
nice?"
     "Not just now, dear," he said cheerfully.  "Oh, boys, what are
you waiting for?"  His teeth were clenched together in the least sincere
smile Ranma had ever seen.  He tried to move away but Ryouga had
latched on to him and was frozen in place.
     "Tendou," Genma said heartily, "we've been talking to the boys
about what happened ..."
     "But they still look so healthy, Saotome," he gritted.  "Let ME talk
to them for a while."  He took a step towards the cowering pair.
     "Daddy!"  Everyone turned to see an angry Akane standing in
the doorway.  "What are you doing?"
     "Akane, you shouldn't be out of bed!  The doctor ..."
     "The doctor said I'd be fine, daddy, as long as I didn't exert
myself."
     "The doctor also said no excitement, and he meant it," Tofu
said solemnly, following Akane out the door.  "I think everyone should
just calm down."  He fixed Soun with a stare and added, "Doctor's
orders."  Soun reluctantly unclenched his fists, although he continued to
stare daggers at Ranma and Ryouga.  "Good.  Now, there's no harm
done, so maybe we could all just try to ensure another such close call
doesn't occur, hmmm?  And Akane, I don't think you should be
standing outside in your pajamas."  Akane blushed and nodded.
Kasumi thanked the doctor, who immediately began stammering and
then walked off, his feet barely seeming to touch the ground.
     Ryouga had just begun to relax his grip on Ranma's shirt when
Nodoka said, "Now then, boys, I think we should continue our
conversation.  And I'd like to hear all about this mysterious *other*
Ranma."  Ryouga began to freeze up again and Ranma had to twist
around and pry his fingers loose.
     "Come on, man.  Time to face the music."  He led an
unenthusiastic Ryouga back into the house.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Akane reclined in her bed and sighed heavily.  The day's events
had worn her out, and even though it was early, she was considering
just going to sleep.
     Ryouga had practically gotten down on his knees to apologize
to her about what had happened.  One look at the stricken expression
on his face had convinced her that he was as shaken up by the whole
thing as she had been, maybe more so.  She'd forgiven him after asking
that he try not to fight with Ranma anymore.  She had no idea how long
that promise would last, but it had been worth a try.
     And then there was Ukyou.  She hadn't been able to look Akane in
the eye for some reason, and left soon after Dr. Tofu.  Akane was
puzzled by her behaviour.  Of them all, she was the only one who had
nothing to feel guilty about.
     She sighed again, listening to her neck pop as she rolled it around,
loosening the tense muscles.  P-chan had showed up soon after Ryouga
left and was huddled next to her on the bed.  She reached down to
scratch behind his ears.  There was , of course, one other matter that
puzzled her a lot more than Ukyou's behaviour.
     Someone knocked on her door.
     "Come in."  The door opened and Ranma stuck his head inside.
     "Um, you got a second, Akane?" he asked cautiously.  She
nodded and he came into the room.  He'd been walking gingerly
around her ever since the accident, which was annoying her almost as
much as the way he'd been fighting with her before it happened.  She
saw him tense as he saw P-chan, and she frowned.
     "Leave P-chan alone, Ranma.  For some reason he's very
skittish tonight."  Ranma looked like he was about to say something,
then just nodded.  He came over to the bed and plopped down in
Akane's chair.
     "So, uh ... I'm sorry."  She blinked.
     "What?"
     "I'm sorry," he repeated, looking her in the eye.  "Me and
Ryouga should have been more careful, and we could have ... really
hurt you."  She could tell he'd meant to say something else, and she
could guess what it had been.  "Anyways, I'm glad that you weren't
hurt, that's all."  He ran down and looked at the floor, a slight flush
colouring his cheekbones.  Akane was impressed.  Ranma was very
proud and very stubborn.  It took a lot for him to admit he was wrong.
She reached out to place her hand lightly on his arm.  He smiled at that,
then looked up at her again.
     "Um, there's something else I wanted to talk to you about," he said
quietly.  Her smile died quietly.
     "You mean him."  It didn't take a genius to figure out what was on in
his mind.
     "Yeah.  Him.  He saved you, he brought Ryouga back here, I ...
who the hell is he, anyway?  You were right up close to him, Akane.
Could you tell the difference?"  Akane, shocked by the hurt tone in
Ranma's voice, thought about it for a moment.  The look in Ranma's
eyes pleaded with her to say that she hadn't been fooled, that there was
only one Ranma and always would be.
     But she couldn't.  She'd neither seen nor felt any differences at
the time.  In fact, the look of concern in the other Ranma's eyes had
mirrored almost exactly the look in her Ranma's eyes while he carried
her back to the dojo.  She recalled a tender, gentle look that she
wished she could bring to his face more often.  She'd enjoyed the
feeling of being in his arms ... *their* arms ... more than she'd ever
admit to anyone.
     "I don't know, I was pretty shaken up, Ranma, but I have to admit I
thought it was you," she finally admitted, feeling a bit guilty as his face
fell..  "Everything about him seemed the same. Ranma, who could he
be?  Where did he come from?  Could this have something to do with
your curse?"
     "I was wondering that myself.  I don't know who this guy really is,
Akane, but I intend to find out."
     "How?"
     "Everyone who's seen him says he's just like me.  Well, I
intend to put that little theory to the test."  He stood and headed for the
door.  Akane sat up, alarmed.
     "Ranma!"  He turned.  "Be careful, okay?"
     "Hey, Akane," he said with a trace of his usual brashness, "you
know me."  He winked and walked out the door.
     "Yes," she whispered, "that's why I told you to be careful.
Baka."  She hugged a whimpering P-chan to her chest and tried to
convince herself that there was nothing to worry about.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     I sat with my back against a tree trunk and watched the sun go
down.  The evening breeze had cooled somewhat, but I didn't think the
night would be intolerably cold.  And if it was, well, I'd just deal with it.
I'd been through rough conditions before, training with my father.
There was very little I couldn't handle.
     I clenched my fingers idly into the soft grass of the riverbank.
The river turned here, and this little grove of trees was a perfect place
to look down the gentle slope and watch the current flowing by, or to
look out over the skyline of the city and watch the sun set.  It was my
own private place, a place I came to when I needed to get away from
everybody and everything.  I'd never told anyone about it.
     So I was surprised when I heard a soft rustle behind me, but
only for a second.  After all, I supposed that I should have known.  It
did make a strange kind of sense.  I spoke without turning around.
     "Hello, Ranma," I said.
 
 
 

End part one.
01/04/97
revised July 23/97
Comments, criticisms, etc. welcome.
Send to emmack@ibm.net