A Ranma 1/2 Fanfic
All Ranma 1/2 characters copyright Rumiko Takahashi

CAST A LONG SHADOW
by Mark MacKinnon

Part 2: Ranmas 1/2
 

     "You know," I said as casually as I could, "I like to come here
sometimes to be alone.  Just to get away from the craziness of the
dojo."
     "Yeah.  In fact, I'm the only person that knows about this
place.  Or I was."  His voice was calm, but I knew I had to handle this
carefully.  I ... he ... hell, *we* had a problem with our temper
sometimes.  I turned slowly to face my other self.
     "Hell, I don't blame Ryouga for not knowing the difference," he
said at last.  "I can't even tell.  You look just like me."
     "In a way, I am you."
     "Stop that!"  His voice sharpened suddenly, and I tensed as I
watched his feet slide slightly, widening his stance.  Yeah, his cool act
was just that.  Damn, I hate being right sometimes.  "So what's the
story, huh?  Magic mirrors, spells, potions, what?  Whatever you came
here for, let's just get on with it,  cause this town don't need two
Ranma Saotomes."  He blinked then as I started to chuckle.  "Hey,
what's so funny?"
     "Well, I was just thinking that it's natural for you to assume I'm
here because of you.  After all, anytime something happens around
here, you're right in the middle of it."
     "Stop talking like you know me!"
     "Look, the point is that I didn't come here to cause you any
trouble, okay?  I swear.  Hey, don't I have an honest face?"  He just
stared at me, expressionless.
     "Then why did you come here?"  I sighed.
     "It's a long story.  Basically, I'm on the run from somebody.  I
didn't mean to come here, to get involved in your life.  If there had been
another way ..." I trailed off, watching him.  I could tell he was
remembering that I'd saved Akane, that if I hadn't come she'd
probably be dead now.  His posture eased a little.
     "Running, huh?" he asked finally.  "Why?"  Why.  The million
dollar question.  Because.  Because I was being chased.  Because I
had nowhere to go.
     Because I was scared.  I didn't think he'd like any of those
answers, especially the last one.  A few weeks before, I'd have felt like
he did about running from a fight, about being afraid, but a lot had
changed for me since then.
     "I'm in trouble, and somebody's after me.  I think he's got
friends, too.  So far, I haven't had a chance to figure out what to do
about this."
     "If he's after you," Ranma said carefully, "does that mean he's
after me too?  I mean, how would he tell us apart?"  I gaped.
     "Dammit, I'm such an idiot!" I blurted.  "It never even occurred
to me!"  I wasn't sure if he could tell us apart, wasn't sure if it would
matter if he could.  After all, he said he'd been told to bring me back,
and one Ranma might be as good as the other to them.  And he knew
all about me, where I might go, where I hung out.
     Where I lived.
     "What?" Ranma asked, alarmed by whatever he saw on my
face.
     "He might settle for you if he can't get me," I gritted.  "And he
knows where you live.  I can't believe I was so stupid ..." I broke off
as I realized that I was talking to myself.  My counterpart was tearing
off in the direction of the dojo.
     I stood rooted, undecided.  What the hell should I do now?
I'd already gotten too involved in their lives.  I had to get away from
them, from everything I'd left behind.
     But I couldn't.  If a dark shadow was going to fall over their
lives, well, I was the cause of it.  I didn't want the pain I'd suffered to
infect anyone else.  I had to try to make things right, even if it meant
giving myself up.  I wouldn't let any harm come to these people
because of me.  I forced my weary body to run after my counterpart's
disappearing form.
     As I ran towards the nearby streetlights, I realized Ranma
hadn't gotten the answers he'd been looking for.  Soon enough, he'd
realize it, too, and even though he deserved some answers, I had
absolutely no idea what I'd tell him.
     All I knew was the truth, and there was no way I wanted to tell
him that.

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

     "Okay, Scooter, try it now!"
     "Sorry, Jack.  Nada."  Jack cursed and wormed around in the
cramped crawlspace.  He shifted his light and reached up for another
access panel.
     "Then it must be ..." he muttered to himself.  He tugged at the
cover plate, which promptly fell off and bounced off his forehead.
     "Gaaaah!"
     "How you doing down there, boss?"  Scooter's disembodied
voice drifted down to where Jack held his head, groaning.
     "Swell.  Just adding another bruise to the collection."  Jack
brushed the offending cover aside and shone the light up at the space it
had been concealing.
     "Boss?"
     "Hmmm?"
     "He's been loose over 18 hours now."  Jack sighed.  Not this
again.
     "I know, Scooter."
     "Regulations say ..."
     "I've got some latitude here, Scooter."
     "Not that much.  You should fix the radio now so you can call
for back-up."  Jack poked idly inside the panel and cursed distantly.
     "No back-up," he said finally.  "This is my case and I'll handle
it my way.  End of story."
     "Ops won't see it that way," Scooter replied doubtfully.  "They
want this guy bad."
     "Screw Ops," Jack drawled.  "They'll get him when I'm good
and ready."
     "Jack."  Admonishing, warning.  Jack sighed and let his arms
fall to his side.  Sweat trickled freely off his face.  Working over your
head in an enclosed space was tiring and not conducive to a good
mood.
     "Look, I don't want those yahoos from Ops screwing up my
extraction.  He's my assignment and I'll deal with him.  I'm not going to
try to pick him up until I've got some way to hold him."  He fingered
the ugly purplish bruise under his left eye.  "I don't want a repeat of this
morning."
     "Jack, this is a very delicate situation.  What if he decides to go
meet himself?"
     "He wouldn't be that stupid.  Not after what I told him."
     "And if he was?"
     "Then I'd do what had to be done."  Pause.  "Okay, how about
now?"
     "Still nada."
     "DAMMIT!"

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

     Ranma eased out the kitchen window, dropping soundlessly to the
ground while precariously balancing several items in his left hand.  He
padded silently around the corner and headed toward the dojo at the
far side of the house.  Checking to see that he was unseen, he eased the
door open and slipped inside.
     The sun had fully set, and the inside of the dojo was a
patchwork of shadow, relieved only by the faint illumination of the
streetlights filtering through the windows.  Ranma frowned as his senses
quested for any sign of movement.  Where was he?  Had he taken off
after all?  Then Ranma heard a soft sound and whirled, dropping
automatically into a defensive posture.
     The sound came again.  A snore.  Ranma relaxed, sighing, and
walked over to the patch of shadow where the sound had come from.
Bending down, he could see the other Ranma dimly, slumped against
the wall, chin on his chest, dead asleep.
     "Well, damn," Ranma sighed.  He leaned a little closer.  "Hey.
Wake up."  Nothing.  He tried again, a little louder.  Still nothing.
"Geez, when people say I'm hard to wake up, they ain't kidding," he
muttered at last.  He set the bowls he'd been carrying down on the
floor and dropped to one knee, holding his hands shoulder width apart.
Then he clapped them together in front of the other Ranma's nose while
shouting, "HEY!"
     Suddenly he was flying through the air backwards.  He tucked
his arms and legs in tight, spun neatly, and landed in a crouch.
     "What the hell?  I didn't even see him move!" he thought,
shaking off the punch that had caught him almost completely off-guard.
He could see that the other Ranma had jumped to his feet and was
looking around dazedly.
     "Who's there?  Show yourself!" he shouted.  Ranma was
surprised to hear what sounded like fear in that voice.  What the hell
was the matter with him?
     "Hey, man, its just me," he said, straightening slowly.  The other
Ranma jerked at the sound of his voice, then turned to face him,
looking like he wasn't quite sure where he was.  "You okay?"
     "Um ... yeah.  Sure."  He shook his head groggily.  "I guess I
was more tired than I thought."
     "I brought you some food.  Watch where you step, its down by
your right foot."  He nodded and bent down, settling back against the
wall.  He began tearing into the leftovers Ranma had snuck out of the
kitchen with a gusto that put even Ranma's usual table manners to
shame.  Ranma sat back, watching curiously.  A survey of the grounds
and surrounding area hadn't turned up anyone lurking around.  That
was fine for now, but Ranma wasn't willing to relax just yet.
     His double had finished wolfing down the food, and leaned
back with a sigh.  It was obvious he hadn't eaten in some time.  He
closed his eyes and slumped bonelessly against the wall. Ranma
watched his head bob in the dim light, lower and lower until his chin
was resting on his chest.  He sighed.
     "Hey.  HEY!"  The other Ranma jerked awake blearily.
     "Huh?  Oh, sorry."  He yawned hugely.  "I'm beat.  By the
way, thanks for the food, man."  He yawned again, longer this time.
Ranma found himself yawning back.  "So what now?"
     "Geez.  Now I'd like to hear your story, but I'm not sure you
can stay awake that long."  Ranma looked at the other, his own face
looking back, clouded by fatigue and some unspoken worry.
Strangely, Ranma instinctively trusted him.  He wondered if it was just
seeing *himself*, on the run, all alone, with nowhere to go and nobody
to turn to.  He dismissed the idea.  That might be part of it, but there
was something else.  A martial artist had to learn to trust his instincts,
and whatever else Ranma was, he was a superb martial artist.  He was
sure that this other Ranma, whoever he was, didn't mean any harm to
the inhabitants of the Tendou dojo.
     The fact that he'd saved Akane's life didn't hurt, either.
     "Look, I've got an idea.  Why don't you stay here tonight?"
     "What?"
     "Well, it ain't like you've got somewhere else to go, right?"  He
saw his double try and fail to come up with a good reason to refuse.
     "But ... where'll I sleep?"  Ranma pointed.
     "There's a little storage room at the back of the dojo.  You can
crash in there tonight.  And tomorrow, you'll be here while me'n Akane
are at school.  Just in case.  Then I get an explanation, okay?"  The
other Ranma still looked like he was thinking of refusing.
     "Look, man, this place is a magnet for weirdos," he continued.
"They all end up here sooner or later.  I'd feel better if you were here
tomorrow, in case this guy does show up."
     "You trust me that far?" the other Ranma asked.  There was an
expression on his face that Ranma couldn't read.
     "You saved Akane, you helped Ryouga and you knew about
my secret place.  You give me your word you'll be here tomorrow
afternoon with answers to my questions, and that'll be good enough for
me."  Ranma looked into his double's shadowed face, swallowing his
own doubts.  "Deal?"
     "Deal," the other muttered at last.  "If you're sure you want to
do this."
     "Hey, no problem.  After all," Ranma said dryly, "you've got an
honest face."
     He helped the other guy to his feet, hoping like hell he wasn't
making a huge mistake.

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

     The hour had grown late, and the house was quiet.  Ranma
closed the door quietly behind him and eased up the stairs.  His mother
had been pretty angry earlier, which almost certainly meant he would
once again be sharing the guest room with his father.
      He sighed.  Some days he wondered why his parents were still
together.  Some days he wondered why they'd gotten married in the
first place.  They were so different.  Of course, the fact that they hardly
ever saw one another until recently might have extended the life of their
marriage somewhat.  He felt uncomfortable wondering about his
parents' relationship, but most days it seemed like they had nothing in
common except for him, and he didn't like the feeling that gave him.
Instead of a normal childhood, he felt like he'd been a pawn in some
strange game his parents had been playing.  Now he needed someone
to talk to about what was going on, but he didn't feel comfortable going
to either of them.
     He wondered again about what his mother had said as he climbed
the stairs.  He and Ryouga had been reckless, and there'd been a lot of
people on that construction site.  He hadn't given any thought to their
safety before mixing it up with Ryouga right there on a public street.  He
could've at least lead Ryouga to some place more isolated first.  She
was right; the techniques that they'd learned were dangerous,
potentially lethal, and should be treated that way.  Ranma hated feeling
guilty, but he was beginning to seriously question his lack of discipline.
     If his double hadn't been there, Akane might be dead.  No.  He
had to admit it, if only to himself.  She *would* be dead.  There
wouldn't have been time for any of them to react.  He felt a shiver, like
someone walking over his grave.
     "Man, what a lousy day," he whispered.  Then he jumped as
Akane's door opened and a hand reached out to pull him inside.
     "Ranma!" Akane hissed.  "Where have you been?  I was
worried!"  Ranma blinked.
     "Geez, Akane, why're you still up?"
     "I was waiting for you, you baka!  Did you find anything?"
Ranma bit back his frayed temper, feeling the entire day bottling up
behind his eyes for one dizzying moment.
     "No, I didn't," he lied.  Lying to Akane made him uncomfortable,
but he didn't want anyone else finding out about their uninvited guest
until he had a handle on the situation.  If things really turned out to be
dangerous, he didn't want Akane involved.  She rubbed her arms and
turned to look out the window.
     "Who *is* he, Ranma?  Where did he come from?  Why does
he look like you?"  Ranma could see P-chan sitting on the bed,
watching him intently.
     "Look, Akane, don't worry.  The guy's obviously a martial
artist, right?  Any martial artist who shows up in town has to hunt me
down and challenge me to some stupid duel or contest or something.
Its like there's a rule.  Heck, I figure by this time tomorrow I'll know
more about this guy than I want to."  Akane glared at him.
     "This isn't funny, Ranma."  She seemed irritated that he wasn't
taking things more seriously.
     "Relax, Akane.  I'll see you in the morning."  Ignoring her whispered
protests, he slipped out the door and headed for his room.  He didn't
want Akane to get upset, but since he had decided not to tell her what
was going on, he guessed he'd have to deal with it.
     "Man," he thought, trudging wearily to bed, "at least tomorrow's got
to be a better day than today."
     He didn't want to think about what his day would be like if it were
worse.

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

          Ranma set his empty bowl down with a sigh.  There was
absolutely nothing like a good breakfast to start the day, especially
when Kasumi was cooking.  Or Ukyou.  Or even Shampoo.  Heck,
just about anybody but Akane was okay with him.  He hadn't slept
well, wondering about his double out in the dojo.  He found himself
second-guessing his decision every few minutes, and the indecision was
driving him crazy.  He'd finally decided to just stick with his original
plan and had drifted off into an uneasy slumber.
     He sneaked a quick look at Akane out of the corner of his eye,
half expecting her to pick up on the mere thought of his criticising her
cooking.  Instead, he saw her finishing her breakfast at a more sedate
pace.  The morning had been quiet so far, but it was a strained,
uncomfortable peace.  Kasumi had managed to calm her father the
previous night to the point where it was unlikely he would do anything
rash, but Ranma still didn't like the hostile looks he was getting.  Under
such close scrutiny, he refrained from needling Akane, which made him
irritable.  Usually, how Akane responded to his taunts was a good
barometer of how the day was going to go.  His father was
uncommunicative, largely because he was presently a panda.  Nabiki
looked bored with no interplay between the arguing fiancés.  Only
Kasumi seemed immune to the pall.
     Ranma checked the time and realized they would have to leave
soon for school.  He had hoped to find some time to slip out to the dojo
with some food for his double, but it looked like he wasn't going to get
a chance.  He hoped the other Ranma would be smart enough to stay in
hiding and out of trouble until he got home.
     He and Akane finally grabbed their bags and headed for the front
door.  As they were slipping on their shoes, Soun came up the hallway.
     "Akane, are you sure you should go to school today?" he asked
plaintively.  She made a sound halfway between a sigh and a growl.
     "Dad, I'm fine.  I wish everyone would stop making such a big
deal out of this.  I was only scared, I wasn't even scratched.  I'll be
okay."  Soun turned to glare at Ranma.
     "I trust you will ensure that nothing happens to my little girl,
Ranma," he growled in a tone quite unlike the one he'd used with his
daughter.
     "Of course.  Don't worry, Mr. Tendou, I'll watch out for her."
Ranma assured him cheerfully.  He missed the expression that crossed
Akane's face when she heard that.  Akane stormed out the door,
catching Ranma off-guard.  He hurried to catch up as Soun continued
to watch them from the doorway.
     Ranma tagged along after Akane, forsaking his usual path on
the fence to stay close to her.  He slung his bag back over his shoulder
and studied her stiff back.  Her mood seemed to have deteriorated
since the previous night.  In fact, she seemed downright angry.  He
sighed and tried to think of what he could have done this time.
     "This sure seems familiar," Ranma thought glumly.  He tried to
think of something to say to break the tense silence, but in her present
mood, he was worried that Akane would find some way to
misinterpret anything he said.  At least silence was better than fighting,
he reasoned.
     Incorrectly, as it turned out.
     "Ranma!"  Akane snapped finally, wheeling around to face him.
"Just WHAT do you think you're DOING!?"
     "Hey take it easy, Akane, I just ..."
     "Stop following me like that, you're making me nervous!  I
don't need a bodyguard to walk to school, you know!  I'm not a
helpless child!  I can take care of myself!"  Ranma felt his face warming
under her glare, and instinctively shot back a reply.
     "Geez, that's what I get for trying to be nice!"
     "Nice?  What's nice about following me around with that goofy
look on your face?"
     "Fine!  I don't know why anyone would be worried about an
uncute tomboy like you anyway!"
     "There won't be any reason to worry about me if you and
Ryouga aren't ..."  Akane broke off suddenly, realizing what she'd
been about to say.  Ranma's face turned expressionless, and he
brushed by her brusquely, his jaw set.
     "Fine."  Akane watched him walking away helplessly.
     "Ranma, I ... I didn't ..."  He wasn't listening.  As usual.
Akane gritted her teeth in frustration.
     "Arrrrrgh!  Why does he always have to be so impossible?"
Then the anger drained out of her as quickly as it had come, leaving her
feeling confused.  Why couldn't they just talk for once?  She just
wanted him to stop acting so *guilty*.  That made her feel guilty in
return.  And anyway, he should know she hated people fussing over
her.
     Her expression softened as she remembered looking up into his
face as he carried her back to the dojo, seeing worry in his face.
"Baka," she said softly.  Then she began running after him.
 
------------------------------------------------------------------------

     I sat in the dark, cramped storage room and brooded.  I knew
that was the last thing I needed to do, but unfortunately I had no other
options.  Even if I slipped out unnoticed, I had nowhere to go.  And
anyway, I'd promised Ranma that I'd answer his questions today.
Now I just had to figure out how much to tell him.
     I sighed and settled back against a cloth-covered vaulting
horse.  Why did the Tendous have a stupid thing like that in the dojo,
anyway?  Didn't they ever clean out this stupid room?
     I stiffened as I heard the door to the dojo open, then close.
For one heart-stopping second I thought someone had heard my
thoughts and decided to come clear out my hiding place. *That* would
have been just my luck.  But after a few agonizingly long minutes, I
realized that whoever had come into the dojo was just standing there
silently.  I held still, wondering who it could be.  Had the other Ranma
decided to skip school and confront me now?  He had to be burning to
know who I was.  I eased forward and cracked the door open silently.
Putting my eye to the narrow space, I could see an empty slice of the
inside of the dojo.  I cursed to myself.  I couldn't risk opening the door
any further, and whoever had come in showed no inclination to walk
into my field of view.
     A sudden rush of icy adrenaline caused every hair on my body
to stand on end.  Could it be him?  Had he found me so soon?  I
started to ease back from the door, wondering what to do.  A meal
and a good night's sleep had cleared my mind enough so that I was
starting to wonder again if this was such a good idea.  Then I started as
I heard a voice inside the dojo.
     "Akane."
     What the hell?  Ryouga?  I slid forward again.  I still couldn't
see him, but I could hear him perfectly.  What was he doing here?
     "Akane," he repeated.  I heard him draw a deep breath.
"Through my thoughtlessness and lack of discipline I placed you in
danger.  Even though you forgave me, I cannot forgive myself.  Not so
easily.  Akane, I make this promise now: I will train hard, and hone my
control over my skills so that I never again place an innocent person in
danger.  I swear to become a man, a man who will never disgrace his
family name.  I'll become a man worthy ..."  His voice became tight,
and he hesitated for a moment.  "Worthy of your respect ... and love."
This last was almost a whisper, yet I could hear it in the silent dojo like
a shout.  I closed my eyes and sighed quietly.
     Oh, Ryouga.  So damned stubborn.  It wasn't in him to quit on
anything, no matter how badly it hurt.  That had allowed him to master
the Bakusai Tenketsu technique, but I knew it was never going to win
him Akane's heart.  Deep down, I thought he knew it too, but still he
wouldn't stop trying.
     "Ryouga," I thought sadly.  "Love really does makes fools of us
all, pal."
     "That was a brave speech, Ryouga."  I heard Ryouga's gasp at
the new voice, loud enough that it masked my own.  I turned to the
door again, suppressing a tremble.  I knew that voice.
     My mother.
     *His* mother, I reminded myself angrily.  Not yours.  Your
mother is ... is ...
     Dead.  My mother was dead.  If I couldn't even *think* the
word, how was I ever supposed to accept it?
     And why should you accept it, a stealthy voice asked from
some dark corner, when she's standing right inside that dojo?
     I had no answer to that.
     "M-Mrs. Saotome," Ryouga stammered.  He had to be
wondering if she'd heard the end of his speech.  I knew I was.
     "I'm very glad to see that you have taken the seriousness of
yesterday's events to heart," she said warmly.  I heard her walking into
the dojo from the doorway, and pressed anxiously against the narrow
space hoping to catch a glimpse of her, just one look.
     Like you just wanted to see *Akane* once? My battered
conscience asked archly.  I ignored it.
     "Mrs. Saotome, I'm really sorry.  I didn't mean for it to
happen."  Ryouga said.
     "I know, Ryouga," she replied, "but what's more important is that
you are taking steps to make sure that it never happens again.  That is
worth a thousand apologies.  It is the act of a man."  I could hear them
more clearly now.  They were moving closer!
     "Th-thank-you," Ryouga stammered.
     "It is simply the truth, Ryouga.  You have taken responsibility
for your actions, and that is very admirable.  I trust you will remember
just how dangerous the techniques you have mastered are in the future."
     "I will."
     "Good."  Then they stepped into view and my heart froze.  My
mother stood with her hand on Ryouga's shoulder, stopping him right
where I could see them.
     "Ryouga Hibiki," she continued gently, "I was young once.  I
remember how youthful hearts often act with reckless passion.  I know
how words can hurt and impulses can boil the blood.  You and my son
are more alike than I suspect either of you would admit.  Proud.
Stubborn.  Fierce.  And quick to come to the defence of those you
care for."  Ryouga's cheeks flushed bright red.  "I believe you are a
man of your word, Ryouga Hibiki.  So we need speak no more of this
matter."  He nodded silently, face still red.  He didn't take praise well.
     "I am curious to know why you aren't in school," she said,
changing the subject.  Ryouga started guiltily.
     "I, uh ... haven't been to school lately.  I've been having some
... problems."  Yeah, problems *finding* the school, I thought giddily.
Mother just nodded.
     "And what do your parents say about this?"
     "I don't see them much," he mumbled, staring at the floor.  She
opened her mouth, then obviously thought better of interfering in what
appeared to be a family matter, instead beginning to walk out of my
field of view again.
     "Tell me, does Soun Tendou know you are in his dojo?"  I saw
Ryouga's face pale as he followed her.
     "N-no, ma'am, I just thought I'd practice while I waited for Akane
and Ranma to get home. It seemed like a good idea to stay away from
him for a little while," he said sheepishly.
     "Yes, I think it would be wise to avoid him for the time being, at
least until he has had a chance to calm down.  He is very protective
of his daughters, you know, and didn't take news of the incident well.
Still, I think he will come to forgive you."  I heard her chuckle.
"Eventually.  I will leave you to your practice, Ryouga.  Work hard."
Her footsteps receded to the door, and I heard her leave.
     I slumped back against the wall as I heard Ryouga begin
moving around the floor, warming up.  My eyes were burning and I felt
hot moisture gather itself and plunge down my face.  I reached up
slowly, catching a tear on my index finger and bringing it up where I
could look at it, as if by seeing it I could reduce it to a mere drop of
water, instead of a sign of weakness.
     Ryouga getting advice from my ... from Ranma's mother.  That
was something that I'd longed for many times during my training,
something I'd been denied.  I'd hated my father for that, even though I
understood why he did it.  I'd missed out on scenes of calm, motherly
advice and comfort.  My mother had never spoken to me the way she
had just spoken to Ryouga during all the times when I'd needed her,
and now she never would.
     Never ...

     (The house where I grew up hasn't been spared.  I stare at it
numbly, not wanting to go into the wreckage.  If I don't find her body,
then there's still hope.  If I don't look, I can go on believing that she
might have escaped, even though I know that's not how it happened.
I've come this far, and I have to know it all.  I can't end it until I'm
sure.  I take a step forward, then another.  I step over the broken
remains of the front door, and something gleams in the debris.  I step
closer and see a katana, it's blade darkened with some awful, clotted
liquid ...
     "MOMMAAAAAAA!!")

     I leaned my head on my knees and clasped my hands behind
my head tightly.  I could feel a scream building in the back of my throat
and I fought it, fought with all my strength.  I couldn't let any of it out,
and not because Ryouga was in the next room.  No, if I started
screaming now, I'd never stop.  It would break me, and I wasn't going
to let that happen.  I fought to even out my breathing, fought to stop
shaking like a frightened child.  I fought the grief and the madness, and I
won.
     I won.
     My breathing slowly came under control, and I realized my
teeth hurt from clenching them so tightly.  Suddenly, the little room
seemed to be not a sanctuary, but a prison.  I slowly unclasped my
hands and let my arms fall loosely to my sides.
     "Hurry home, Ranma," I whispered.  "Please.  I don't know
how much more I can take."

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

     Akane gazed up at the sky and sighed in frustration.  "Ranma,"
she thought with equal parts annoyance and concern.
     She'd wanted to apologize for what she'd said earlier, but the
baka had avoided her all day.  Sort of the exact opposite of the
previous day, now that she thought of it.
     "I wonder if that means *Ranma's* going to almost get killed
today?" she thought, and instantly regretted it.  That other Ranma was
still out there somewhere.  Something was wrong.  Even the air felt
strange, charged with foreboding.
     She shook herself angrily and told herself she was just being
stupid.  Word of yesterday's incident had circulated, and Akane's
mood hadn't been improved by having people hover over her all day.
Neither, apparently, had Ranma's.
     She saw a familiar face leaving the grounds and waved.  "Hey,
Ukyou!"  Ukyou started and waved back unenthusiastically.  Akane
frowned.  Ukyou had been acting strange ever since the incident, now
that she thought of it.  She had no idea why, and no time to try to find
out.
     "Hey, have you seen Ranma?" she asked breathlessly, running
up to the waiting girl.  Ukyou tugged at the collar of her boy's uniform
nervously, and Akane wondered, not for the first time, why Ukyou still
dressed like a boy so much of the time.
     "Uh, no, Akane.  I thought he'd be with you."
     "He's been avoiding me all day, and now it looks like he's gone
home without me."
     "Oh.  Had another fight, huh?"  Ukyou glanced around, not meeting
Akane's gaze.
     "So what else is new?"
     "Well, I've gotta go.  Hope you find him."  Ukyou trotted off,
leaving a puzzled Akane standing outside the school gates.
     "Yeah.  Sure."  Something was *definitely* up with that girl.
Akane sighed and looked around one more time for Ranma.  She
wondered if he was really that mad at her.  The prospect made her
stomach feel like it was full of crazed butterflies for some reason.  She
finally gave up on him and headed for home, not sure whether to be
mad or worried.
     This had turned into one really weird week.

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

     Ranma-chan wandered idly along the top of a fence, idly
wringing water from her shirt.  She thought wistfully of the days before
the Jusenkyo curse, when she never seemed to get wet for no reason.
She didn't dwell on the situation long, however, since experience had
inured her to it somewhat.  Her mind kept returning to the guest waiting
back at the dojo, and the answers that were waiting with him.
     She'd considered not going to school that morning, but even
though she'd never admit it to anyone, she'd been worried about
Akane, and hadn't wanted to let her out of her sight.
     And just look what that had got her.
     "Stupid tomboy.  If she thinks she'll be safer without me, then
fine."  Ranma sulked along the fence, ignoring the looks she was getting
from passers by.  Then she jumped nimbly to the ground and sighed.
Akane's accusation wouldn't have bothered her so much if she wasn't
wondering if it might be true.  Was Akane safer when she wasn't
around?  She'd been brooding on it for most of the day, when she
wasn't wondering what her double would have to say for himself .  She
hadn't been able to concentrate at all.  Finally, she'd rushed out right
after class so she could avoid Akane.  She couldn't take the waiting
anymore, and she didn't want any distractions.  She was going to go
straight back to the dojo and solve at least one of her outstanding
problems.
     When she got home, she slipped around the side of the house
and peered in the kitchen window.  Seeing it empty, she slipped in
through the window and pillaged the fridge.  The Ranma in the dojo had
almost certainly missed lunch, and Ranma wanted no distractions while
they were having their little talk.  Balancing her booty easily in one
hand, she slipped back out the window, easing it shut behind her.
     She darted around the front of the house, headed for the dojo,
anticipating the conversation she was about to have.
     She didn't hear the strange humming noise that had started
inside the house.

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

     I looked up as the door opened quietly.  An apprehensive,
red-headed girl poked her head in, then grinned as she saw me.
     "So.  You're still here," she said.  She set some bowls and a
cup on the floor.
     "Where else would I be?" I asked bitterly.  Ranma-chan
looked at me curiously.
     "You okay?"
     "Bad day," I mumbled.  She nodded.
     "Well, I brought you something to eat.  Figured you must be
starved."  I looked at the food and grimaced.
     "I'm not hungry," I said tightly.  My stomach chose that
moment to rumble loudly, making a liar out of me.
     "Uh huh," Ranma-chan said.  I sighed and took the food,
nodding my thanks.  I began to scoop cold rice into my mouth with a
pair of chopsticks.
     "So, let's start with the obvious question," Ranma-chan said,
watching me eat.  "Who ..."
     The air was shattered by a shrill scream.  I dropped the bowl
as Ranma jumped.
     "AKANE!" we shouted together.  We tore out of the dojo,
pounding towards the garden.  I could hear shouts and a commotion,
and I knew that it had to be him.  He'd come after me, and now the
Tendous were in trouble.  If he hurt them, I swore to myself that he'd
pay.  I'd kill him with my bare hands.
     Akane ...
     We rounded the corner and pulled up short.  I could see
mother, her wrapped katana in one hand, standing behind an angry
panda.  Mr. Tendou and Ryouga were shielding Kasumi and Nabiki
with their bodies, their postures rigid and angry.
     Everyone was watching Akane.  She was standing still, her
wide eyes locked on the barrel of the gun in the stranger's hand.
     It was him.  He was a tall westerner, wearing a long black coat.
Behind him, a perfectly ordinary looking door hung unsupported in the
air.  The dark-haired stranger was too far away for any of us to reach
him before he could shoot Akane.  I felt Ranma tense beside me and
reached out my hand to hold him back.
     "Just tell me where he is and there won't be any trouble," he
was saying in a reasonable tone.  Mr. Tendou looked like he was about
to explode, and the panda growled menacingly.
     "He's right here," I said loudly.  The stranger shifted slightly so
his field of vision took in everybody.  I could see the ugly bruise under
his left eye, and felt a sudden surge of vicious joy.  This guy could be
beat.  I was proof of that.  He narrowed his eyes as he stared at me.
     "Saotome.  You moron, what have you done?  Why did you
come here?  Didn't you listen to what I told you?"  I could feel the
shock in the air as everyone realized there were two Ranmas present,
one boy and one girl.  I wasn't sure if Jack knew about the curse.  Hell,
what was I thinking?  He *had* to know about it.  He knew about
everything.  He'd proven that to me already.
     "Let Akane go, Jack.  It's me you want, remember?  You
couldn't even be bothered with her before.  With *any* of them."
Something flickered in his eyes at that.  I hoped it was guilt.
     "Saotome, I don't think you realize just how serious this
situation is," he gritted.
     "I don't think you realize what's gonna happen to you if you
hurt Akane," Ranma-chan shot back.  I shot her a warning glance.  I
wasn't sure just how far Jack would go, and I didn't want to push too
hard.
Not while Akane was under the gun.
     "Saotome," he said, ignoring Ranma, "what are you going to do
here?  Huh?  This isn't your home.  These people aren't your family,
your friends, no matter how much alike they seem.  You can't stay
here.  It won't work.  You have to come with me, it's the only way.
Don't make this any harder than it already is."  He stared at me
steadily, acting like a reasonable man making a simple request.  If you
ignored the fact that he was holding Akane at gunpoint, that is.  I
opened my mouth to tell him that I'd go with him if he'd just let Akane
go.
     "Coward."  The word was delivered sheathed in glacial ice.  I
turned to see mother, the hilt of her katana now unwrapped, awaiting
her hand.  I could hardly believe that this was the same woman who'd
spoken so warmly to Ryouga in the dojo earlier.  Jack shifted his gaze
to her.
     "Excuse me?"
     "You are a coward.  Holding a young girl hostage, making
demands, acting like a big man."  She reached up with deliberate
slowness and grasped the hilt of her katana.
     "Look, lady ..."
     "My name is Nodoka Saotome.  Ranma is my son.  Akane is
his fiancé.  I will not let you hurt my family."  The panda shifted to put
more of mother behind him and growled menacingly, his thick fur
bristling.  Ryouga cracked his knuckles loudly, Mr. Tendou glowered
and Ranma shifted, causing Jack to shift his gaze back to us.
     This was bad.  There were too many of us, too spread out,
dividing his attention.  The longer this went on, the greater chance that
somebody would try something.  And if that happened, someone was
going to get hurt.  I had to stop this now.  I had to surrender.
     Then I heard Ranma draw in a sharp breath, and saw what he
was looking at.
     Aw, GEEZ.  Akane had apparently gotten over her shock.
Her battle aura was beginning to glow, a faint blue.  Her hands, still held
at her sides, were clenched into fists.  The muscles of her cheek were
twitching spasmodically.
     Akane was pissed.  Gun or no gun, she was going to lose her
temper.
     "Akane, no!" I shouted.  Jack had noticed the glow and took a
step back, eyes widening.  I knew he was remembering my chi attack.
Maybe he thought Akane could perform one too.  He took another
step, placing him directly in front of the floating door, gun still levelled at
Akane.
     "Forty-eight hours, Saotome.  Then I'll be back, and you'd
better be ready to leave with me."  The door swung open.  Akane had
begun to growl, and glared at the retreating man.
     "Youuuu ..." she breathed.  The glow intensified.  He spun and
leapt through the door, which slammed shut.  Everybody started
moving at once, but Akane was closest.  I saw her cock her fist back
as she sprang toward the door.
     "BASTARD!"  She unleashed a terrific punch with all her
strength.  Unfortunately, the door chose that moment to vanish with a
low hum.  She stumbled and fell flat on her face.  In seconds, she was
surrounded by anxious people.
     "Akane!"
     "Are you ..."
     "You okay, sis?"
     "MY BABY!"
     "Dear ..."  Akane sat up, looking disgusted.
     "Arrrrrrrgh!  He got away!  That ... that ..."  She was shaking;
with anger, delayed shock, excess adrenaline, or all of the above, I
wasn't sure which.  But she was unhurt.  That was all that really
mattered.  I grinned at her in relief and she smiled back.  Then her smile
faltered, and she looked at the red-headed girl beside me.  I realized
that nobody was talking anymore.  They were all looking at me.
     "Ranma?" Akane asked in a very small voice.  Mother cleared
her throat.
     "I don't believe we've been properly introduced," she said
softly.  I looked at her, at all of them, Jack's words echoing through my
mind.
     (This isn't your home.  These people aren't your family, your
friends, no matter how much alike they seem.  You can't stay here.)
     He was right, of course, but I'd brought trouble into their lives,
and the least I owed them was an explanation.
     "I'm, uh, Ranma Saotome," I finally said, scratching the back of
my head sheepishly.  "Sorry about this."
 

End part two.
Revised July 27/97
Comments and criticisms: send to emmack@ibm.net