A Ranma 1/2 Fanfiction
All Ranma 1/2 Characters Copyright Rumiko Takahashi
 

Cast A Long Shadow
by Mark MacKinnon

Part Six :  That Last Innocent Night
 

On The Roof I

     I lay back on the gentle slope of the roof like I had so many
times in my old life, feeling the fading warmth of the day soaking into me
from the tiles against my back.  The breeze was kicking up a little, and
the scudding clouds that now obscured part of the sky spoke of rain,
maybe by tomorrow.
     I closed my eyes and tried to imagine once more that this was
my home, that when I opened them again everything would be back to
the way it had been, me and Akane fighting, me dodging my multiple
fiances, no real or lasting hurt ever being done to anybody.  But that
wasn't the way it was anymore.  Hell, maybe it never really had been
that way.  I was beginning to wonder.  But one thing was for damned
sure.  I couldn't fool myself into thinking that I could just carry on with
my life here.  Not after all that had happened.
     Even with my eyes closed, I could feel the spot where I'd
found my Akane, throbbing like a rotten tooth at the edge of my
awareness.  It was under me and off to the left.  Even though I knew
that if I went down there and looked for a thousand years I'd never find
any trace of blood, I still winced when I passed that spot.  Everything
here, the same yet different.  Enough to drive a strong man insane, I
suspected, given time.  And I wasn't sure how strong I was, not
anymore.
     The darkness surged up behind my closed eyelids suddenly,
causing my throat to tighten, and I clenched my fists reflexively.
     "Not yet," I whispered to the voices, to the shadows that
wanted me.  "Please, not yet.  Soon."  They didn't want to go back
into the tortured depths, but they did.  Reluctantly.  More reluctantly
every time.  I knew the time would come when I could no longer hold
back the pain, and I knew it was very possible it would break me.  But
in less than 24 hours, I would face down Jack, and then I would leave
this place forever.
     Then I would give the voices of the dead their due.  Then there
could be a reckoning, and we'd find out how much the words and
forgiveness I'd received in this place actually meant in my deepest
heart, where it really counted.
     I jerked slightly when I felt rather than heard a soft footfall on
the edge of the roof, then smiled inwardly as I recognized the
movements, the feel of the other person, as if they were my own.
     As, in fact, they more or less were ...
     "Hello, Ranma," I said without opening my eyes.  I heard him
chuckle as he moved up beside me.  I was actually getting used to
saying that, and I no longer minded being called Ranko all that much.
Still, when I left, I intended to take my name back.
     "Boy, what a day, huh?" Ranma sighed, easing down beside
me.  I opened my eyes and turned my head to look at him.
     "Yeah, and how about that dinner?  Just another mealtime at the
Tendou dojo, huh?"
     "Oh, boy.  What a mess!"  We laughed together, remembering
the way the meal had finally dissolved into complete chaos.  It had
taken a half hour just to clean up the garden afterwards.  The group had
gradually broken up, going their separate ways, but I knew that, as long
as I was here, the fiance brigade and various hangers-on would be
making its presence felt even more than usual.
     "Hey, did you notice ..." Ranma began hesitantly.  I raised my
eyebrows.
     "Notice what?"
     "Things seemed, I don't know, stranger than usual."  I had noticed,
in fact, but played dumb.
     "Like what?"
     "Like, Akane kept watching Ryouga.  You don't think she
knows ..." he trailed off suggestively.  I laughed.
     "Are you kidding?  She still hasn't figured out that he's P-chan after
all this time, much less that he's in love with her."
     "*Was* in love with her."
     "Let's be honest.  Still is, at least a little.  He decided to give
her up, but his feelings aren't going to change right away."  Ranma
nodded.
     "I guess.  And how about Mousse?  He hardly payed any
attention to Shampoo at all!  No fits of jealousy, and only the
occasional protest.  And if I didn't know better, I'd think it drove her
crazy!  He kept watching Uc-chan.  And Uc-chan ..."  Ah.  Here it
comes, I thought.
     "And Uc-chan," I prompted him.  He gazed up at the sky, his
expression troubled.
     "I hated seeing her that way," he said finally, still not looking at
me.  "Did you really have to hurt her like that?"
     "Ranma, I didn't want to hurt her, you above all people should
know that!  But Uc-chan is special to me.  She's my oldest friend, and
I owed it to her!"
     "To hurt her?" he asked in disbelief.
     "To let her go!  I don't want her holding out false hopes for the
future when I know, right now, that it will never be.  It hurts now, but in
the long run it's better, *kinder* this way.  She swore she wouldn't give
up, but eventually I think she'll have to understand.  At least it's out in
the open."  The unspoken criticism was that he had never had such a
talk with her.  I was sure it wasn't lost on him.  We lay there in silence
for a time as I waited for him to say what I knew he needed to say.
     "You told her you still love Akane, didn't you."  It wasn't a
question, but I answered anyway, my chest tightening.
     "Yes."  He turned to face me finally, his expression tightly
controlled now.
     "Well, she's right downstairs, you know.  You could just go
down and tell her.  The worst that could happen is that she'd have to
choose between us.  You must have though of that.  I mean, it's no sure
thing that she'd pick me over you, is it?"  We both sat up, staring at
each other, his posture tense and unhappy.  This was a battle he didn't
want to fight, I knew, one he didn't know *how* to fight.  After all that
had happened earlier, he didn't want to cause another rift between us.
And with my decision made, I knew he didn't have to worry.  But the
temptation was there, and just for a second I wondered who she would
have chosen, if it had come down to that.
     Stop it!  Damn you, you know it can't be this way!  You know
it, now tell him.  Tell him.
     "That's not gonna happen, man.  You know that."
     "Do I?"
     "I know how you feel about her.  I wasted my chance, and it's
up to you whether or not you waste yours.  But whatever happens, I'm
not going to interfere."  He scowled angrily, staring at his clenched fists,
then meeting my gaze again, his blue eyes shading to a stormy gray to
match his inner turmoil.
     "I'm sorry, I just find it hard to believe you could just sit and watch
while I try to find some way to tell Akane what she means to me.  You
know how hard it is for me, you know why I'm still ... hesitating.  But
I bet you wouldn't hesitate, not after losing her once.  I bet you could
say the things she wants to hear, couldn't you?  Sooner or later, no
matter what you say now, the temptation would get to be too much."  I
nodded slowly.
     "Oh, yeah, you're absolutely right about that.  It would kill me
to be so close to her but not able to have her.  That's one of the main
reason's I'm leaving."  Ranma blinked.
     "You're ... what?"
     "Listen.  It's like Ryouga said to me, it's insane to make
yourself miserable hanging around and pining for someone you can
never have.  I'd be miserable, and you're right, sooner or later I might
be tempted to do something stupid.  But that's not gonna happen if I'm
not here."
     "So you're leaving because of what I said."  Ranma looked
even more troubled, and I rushed to cut him off before he could start
feeling guilty again.
     "No.  I'd already decided, earlier today.  Look, the situation
with Akane would hurt, but it's not just that.  It's a lot of things.  If I'm
gone, and you do end up with Akane, then Uc-chan and the others will
have to face facts."
     "I wouldn't count on that," Ranma grumbled.  I gave him a
small grin.
     "Hope springs eternal," I said lightly.  Then my grin faded and I
sighed.  "A lot of it has to do with just being here, though."
     "Meaning what?" he asked, puzzled.
     "I've been trying to figure out for a while now whether being
here, with all of you, is a good thing or a bad thing.  I've come to the
conclusion that it's a little of both.  When I was wandering around in
what was left of Nerima, those last couple of days, I'd lost everything.
I thought I might go crazy.  Actually, I might have gone over the edge
for a while there, I don't remember things very clearly.  I'm not sure
how I survived ... when something would attack me, I'd fight back out
of instinct.  I've still got the scars from those encounters.
     "Then, after my "rescue", when I ended up here, it was like
getting a second chance.  Everything I lost was here.  And it helped me
push the dark, the memories of what happened, away.  For a while.
But those feelings are still there, I just haven't really dealt with them yet.
And this place, it's not a second chance really.  It's your home, and
there were never supposed to be two Ranmas here."
     "We could make it work," Ranma said intensely.  "What I said
before, about Akane ..."  I grabbed his shoulder and shook him gently.
     "We can't share her, and we can't share your life.  Listen to me.  It
would be so easy for me to stay here, but it would be wrong.  I need to
find someplace, something that's just mine, not yours and mine, and see
if I can deal with my ghosts.  Maybe, if I can do that, I can come back
here someday and not mess up everyone's lives.  Maybe.  But I have to
get away from all this, because it's too seductive, too easy to pretend
that I could just go on with the way things were, and that would be
wrong, not to mention unfair to everybody."
     "If you go," Ranma said quietly, "you'll be alone.  The way you
were ... the way *we* were before we came here.  You won't even
have Pop along.  I don't like just letting you go off alone.  It doesn't
feel right to me.  You're becoming almost like a brother to me, you
know?  How can I just abandon my brother?  Are you really asking me
to do that?"  He looked at me, pleading.  He knew my reasons were
sound, but his honour wouldn't allow him to let me go so easily.  I
knew I had to make him understand, so he wouldn't beat himself up
over this once I was gone.  That was one reason I'd decided to talk to
him first.
     "You can do it because I'm asking you to," I told him, " and
because you know it's the right thing to do.  If I don't do this, I'll never
be more than your shadow, Ranma.  I have to find my own path.  I
have to lay my ghosts to rest, or I'll never have a moment's peace
again."  He looked at me for a long moment, his face full of uncertainty,
wanting to find a flaw in my argument, even though having me stay
would cause problems for him.  He was trying so hard.  I hoped I'd
have been so honourable, had our positions been reversed.
     "What about tomorrow?"
     "You mean Jack.  He should be here around supper time.  I'll
turn him down again, of course.  I'd never serve those bastards, not
after the way they abandoned everyone who ever mattered to me.  And
I'll make it clear that if they decide to come after me, I won't be
anywhere near this dojo."
     "But where *will* you be?  Where will you go?"
     "Somewhere.  Anywhere.  I'll know when I get there, I
suppose.  I have a feeling the journey will be more important than the
actual destination."  Ranma's shoulders slumped and he sighed.
     "You're really going to do this, aren't you?"
     "I have to.  It's the only way I might be able to make myself
whole again.  I want you to understand that.  I need you to know why
I'm going."  He hung his head wearily, then raised his eyes to mine.
     "I think I understand," he said finally.  "I just wish it didn't have
to be like this.  When will you tell the others?"
     "Tomorrow will be soon enough.  Let's have one last night
together, all of us."  He just stared at me then, as if he could see what I
was thinking.  But he couldn't.  We'd ended up on different paths, and
those paths were growing further and further apart.
     And there was no telling if they would ever come together
again.
     "Hey, you two.  What's with the serious faces?"  We both
looked up to see Akane coming over the top of the roof, looking down
at us curiously.  I felt a sharp pang, knowing that soon, by my own
choice, I wouldn't be seeing her anymore.
     But it was the right choice.  It was.  I just wish being right didn't hurt
so damned much.
     "I thought I might find you up here," she said into the
uncomfortable silence.  "I hope I'm not interrupting anything important."
     "No," I said as lightly as I could manage.  "We were just
talking."
     "Good.  Um, Ranko, I'm sorry to ask, but could I talk to
Ranma alone for awhile?"  She looked at me, something unreadable in
her warm brown eyes, and I resisted the urge to tell her that I'd do
anything she asked, forever.
     "Sure," I said instead.  "I wanted to go take a bath anyway and
it's getting late.  See ya."  With a casual wave to both of them, I trotted
to the edge of the roof and leapt lightly to the ground.  The look on
Akane's face told me that those two were about to have a serious talk.
Maybe *the* serious talk, the one I'd never gotten to have with my
Akane.
     I wanted to wish them luck, but my heart really wasn't in it.

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

On The Roof II

(Ranma)
     Ranma watched warily as Akane settled beside him.  He
definitely didn't like the serious expression she was wearing, nor did he
think the obvious tension in her posture was a good sign.  To someone
who knew her, the warning signs were obvious.  Akane was not happy,
and she was about to share her unhappiness.
     "Uh, is everything all right?" Ranma asked, wincing a little at
how lame his question sounded.  Akane sat very still, her knees pulled
up to her chest and her arms wrapped around her legs, staring up into
the sky.  The breeze blew her short hair into her face and she swept it
back behind her ear absently.
     "I was going to ask you the same thing.  You and Ranko
looked pretty serious.  What were you talking about, anyway?"
     "About, you know, tomorrow.  When that guy Jack comes
back."  Her eyes tightened slightly, and Ranma noticed that her hands
were gripping her knees quite tightly.
     "Ah, yes.  That.  You know, Dad wants me to go with Kasumi,
Nabiki and your mother tomorrow, to stay away from the dojo until it's
all over."
     "That's a good idea."  Ranma knew, as soon as he'd said it,
that it had been exactly the wrong thing to say.  He braced himself for
an explosion of Akane's temper.
     Much to his surprise, it never came.  She just kept staring up at
the sky, as if searching for something.  And her expression, while still
tense and controlled, seemed a little sad too.
     "You think so, huh?"  She dropped her gaze finally, to look
Ranma in the eye.  "I guess I shouldn't be surprised, should I?  That's
the way you always act, after all."  Ranma wanted to tell her that it
wasn't a bad thing, that he just wanted her safe, but as usual the words
seemed to jam up in his throat.
     "A-Akane, what ...?"
     "Shut up!"  He jerked, surprised at the vehemence in her voice.
Her tone had taken on a raw emotional edge, and she blinked rapidly,
as if fighting back tears.  "Damn you, Ranma!  This is my home!
You're my fiance, even if you don't want to be!  I will *not* run and
hide like some frightened schoolgirl, I'm a martial artist!"  She glared at
him now, and he found himself literally speechless in the face of her
urgent rage, somehow different from her usual tantrums.
     "I know I'm not as good as you are, but dammit, almost no one
is!   Ranma, I'm no delicate blossom to be protected.  The man I marry
is going to have to treat me as an equal, a partner.  But then, maybe
you don't care about that.  After all, you've never said you wanted to
marry me, have you?  And that's the whole problem.  No, *we're* the
whole problem."  Ranma's chest felt tight, and he struggled to breathe.
What the hell was this?  What was she saying?
     "Akane, what ... what're you talking about?  Why're you so mad?"
he asked plaintively.  He wanted to get mad in response, but this wasn't
like their usual fights.  This was something different.  Something big.  He
felt like the foundation of his world was shifting.
     "Why am I mad?" she asked quietly.  Some of the tension had
gone out of her now, and she seemed more sad than angry.  "You
really don't know, do you?  All of this, the last few days, it's been like
a warning, a vision of how things might have been.  Look around you,
Ranma.  Almost everyone we know, their lives are on hold waiting for
us to decide if there's anything between us.  Is there?  Will there ever
be?  Or am I too much a tomboy for you, not enough the flower that
needs protection?  Tell me, Ranma.  I need to know."
     Ranma stared at her, noting the way she bit her lower lip, seeing the
moisture of unshed tears in her eyes.  She needed to hear an answer
just then, really needed to.  Her need was so great he imagined that it
would wash over his skin like heat lightning if he reached out to her.
     Then Ranma thought of Uc-chan at dinner, thought of all the
people whose feelings were at stake, of the fragile house of cards that
existed around him.
     And he just couldn't do it.
     Normally, if he wanted to have a serious conversation with
Akane, someone would show up to ruin it.  Shampoo's bike would hit
the roof with a cheery "Nihao!" or his old man would be hanging
around with a video camera, or something equally as intrusive.  But
now, when he desperately wanted to put this conversation off, when he
desperately needed a diversion, there was none to be had.
     So he made one last frantic attempt to hold on to the status
quo.
     "Let's not talk about this now, okay?  Maybe later, after
everything ..."  He trailed off as she stood abruptly, brushing at her
skirt.
     "If not now, then when?  What the hell are we waiting for?"  He
was hurt, confused, by her sudden need.  He didn't know what to say,
so as usual he said the wrong thing.
     "Hey, maybe I don't *want* to talk about this, okay?  Maybe I'm
just tired of pushy women!"
     "I see," she said, and her voice was neutral, dead.  "I understand.
I guess we don't really have anything to say to each other, do we,
Ranma?  Good-bye."  And she started walking to the edge of the roof.
He just sat and watched her go, his eyes wide, his heart hammering in
his throat, cold liquid fear slicing through his veins.  He was suddenly
sure that if he let her go, that would be it, the end for them.  Panic like
he'd never felt, not even around a hundred cats, rose up in a glistening
black tide, threatening to swamp him, to leave him adrift and alone in a
sea of despair.
     Come back, he wanted to say.  I didn't mean it.  I need you.  But
the words wouldn't come.  Just like always, when he needed the
words, they just wouldn't come.  His throat closed in, choking him, and
he couldn't speak.
     And she was LEAVING.
     Then, as she was getting ready to leap down, he saw, with
crystal clarity, Ranko-chan's face again as she talked about losing
Akane, about not being there for her.
     "She was so worried ... the look in her eyes," Ranko-chan had
told him, clutching her emotions tightly.  "That was the closest I ever
came to telling her what she meant to me.  But I didn't.  And now I
never will."
     He remembered the raw pain in Ranko-chan's voice then, and he
knew if he let Akane walk away now, he'd regret it for the rest of his
life.
     He couldn't let that happen.
     So he gritted his teeth.  Gathered his tattered courage.  Cursed
his inability to speak.
     And hurled himself into the unknown.
 

(Akane)
     So that's the way it is, she thought to herself numbly.  I told him how
much I needed to talk about this, how important it was to me.  And
he couldn't be bothered.  He's never going to change, never going to
make up his mind.
     At least now I know.  Now I can just ... just ...
     Frankly, she had no damned idea *what* to do now.  She
looked over the edge of the roof at the warmly lit yard, feeling a single
tear slip down her cheek.  She tensed to jump off.
     And then she was off balance, being pulled back suddenly.
She blinked, surprised.  Something was squeezing her tightly. Arms.
*Ranma's* arms.  She looked down at them stupidly.  She could feel
him behind her, holding her tightly, and for a second she dared to hope.
But he still said nothing, and she swallowed hard, trying not to let her
voice shake.  She'd come this far.  She couldn't let things go on the
way they were.  It wasn't fair, not to her, not to any of them.  She'd
done her part, and he hadn't reciprocated.
     "Ranma, let go."  Nothing.  She took a deep breath, not moving.
"Ranma.  Let.  Go."  For an eternity, nothing.  Then, just as her fragile
control threatened to shatter, he spoke.
     "Don't go.  Please."  She froze, shocked.  His voice was tiny,
pleading.  His face was pressed into her hair and she could feel warm
wetness on the back of her neck.
     Crying?  Ranma was ... crying?
     "R-Ranma ...?"
     "I want to tell you ... I do!  I just don't ... don't know how.  Akane.
Stay.  Please.  Give me just one more chance."  He whispered urgently
and she closed her eyes, feeling his strong body against her, his arms
around her.  The sensation made her dizzy.  She took a deep breath
and tapped his arms lightly.  Slowly, reluctantly, he let her go and she
turned to face him.
     Tears.  His face was wet with them, and every muscle in his
body seemed to scream with tension.  She felt her own tears, barely
leashed until now, escaping in greater numbers, stinging her eyes,
dripping off her chin.
     "What?  Tell me, Ranma."  Her voice was hoarse, unsteady,
and he moved his hands up to her shoulders, resting them there lightly.
She let him.  He guided her down to sit beside him on the gentle slope.
It was full dark now, but the houses and streetlights provided more than
enough light for her to see him struggling to find the words he needed to
say.  Finally he turned to her.  They were sitting so close that their
bodies touched, but for once he didn't pull away.
     "Tell me," she said again, pleading with him, trying to make him
finally understand. "Please, I want you to talk to me.  I need you to."
     "I wasn't trying to hurt you, Akane," he said finally, his voice steadier
now.  "I've just ... I've never had to put this into words before, never
had to explain it.  Not even to myself.  I'm just not sure how ..."  He
trailed off uncertainly.
     "I'm listening, Ranma," she said, touching his arm lightly, trying
to will him to continue.  "I do want to hear this.  Please."  He looked
startled, and blushed a bit at her touch, but nodded.
     "Okay.  Here we go."  He drew a breath, closed his eyes, and
exhaled noisily.  "When I was growing up, you know Pop dragged me
all over the place.  Except for that time with Uc-chan, and all those
fights with Ryouga, I never really had any friends.  I never had anything.
That was how we lived.  We carried our lives on our backs, and never
stayed in any one place too long.
     "And I hated it.  Oh, how I hated it.  It was supposed to be a
great and noble adventure, but secretly, all I really wanted was to have
a real life, with a home and friends ... not that anybody asked me, of
course.  I wasn't supposed to show any weakness or vulnerability, so I
could hardly tell Pop that I was lonely, could I?"
     "Ranma."  Akane studied his face, amazed.  This was so unlike the
Ranma that she knew, exposing his feelings to her.  But she had seen
brief glimpses of this Ranma, she had known he existed.  She reached
out impulsively and squeezed his shoulder.  He glanced at her, smiling
weakly, then  looked down at the roof, elbows resting on his knees,
hands dangling loosely.  His face was red with embarrassment, but he
forced himself to continue.
     And she loved him for it.
     "The point is, I never had anything.  But, I also never had anything to
lose.  And then we came here."  He looked at her out of the corner of
his eye, saw her watching him, and dropped his gaze again.  "This last
year, you've got no idea what it's been like for me.  Even with the curse
and all the problems I've had, I've finally had a home, I've had friends.
I ... found you."  Her heart caught with a sweet pang as he smiled
slightly, still unable to face her.  "For me, it's been like heaven
compared to the years before.  But ..."
     "But what?" she asked softly.  She could sense that now he was
getting close to the heart of the matter, and she resisted the urge to hold
her breath, hoping, wishing ...
     Tell me, Ranma.  Please.
     "But now I *do* have something to lose.  Everything here is so
caught up together, so tightly twisted, so *complicated*!  Don't you
think I know how painful it must be for everyone to have things the way
they are?  I never wanted anyone to get hurt!  But," he stammered,
flailing around for the right words, "I-I just don't know what to do!  I'm
afraid to change things!  I'm scared, you get it?"  He gritted his teeth
and grimaced, as if it was physically painful for him to admit to being
afraid.  As she stared at him, literally speechless, he slowly, painfully,
raised his tearstained eyes to hers, ragged breaths escaping from
between his clenched teeth.
     "I'm afraid that changing things might wreck everything here, might
end up driving us all apart, and I might end up alone again.  Without a
home, without you, with nobody.  It seems like being ungrateful to risk
all this, like tempting fate, to say "I'm happy, but it's not enough.  I want
*more*".  At least the way things were, I felt safe."  He laughed bitterly.
"If you can believe that.  Safe.  And because I didn't want to lose what
I had, I ended up hurting everybody.  And I hurt you."
     She gasped as he reached out suddenly and took her hands in his.
They were so big, they covered hers completely.  And warm.  Her skin
tingled at his touch, and her heart beat like a hummingbird's wings.  She
looked up, slowly, into his eyes.  She could see the truth of his words
there.  He was scared, and uncertain, not at all the brash and cocky
boy she'd come to know.
     "I never wanted to hurt you," he whispered.  "And I never want
to lose you.  You have no idea how hard it is for me to tell you this."
She laughed through her tears.
     "Yes I do," she said, her voice breaking.  "As hard as it's been
for me.  I just wish I knew what you were feeling, all this time ..."
     "I couldn't tell you," he said.  "I didn't know how.  I never had to
talk much growing up, just fight.  But it took me a long time to
understand that there are some problems that no martial arts technique
can solve.  When I thought you were gonna walk away from me just
now, I finally knew that it would be worth anything not to lose you.
Even if I had to decide to change things finally.  Even if I had to risk
everything.  You asked me what I was waiting for, remember?  Well,
now you know.  I was just being a coward."
     "No, Ranma," she whispered earnestly.  "I know you.  You just
don't want to hurt anyone, and I understand that.  That's a noble
impulse, but sooner or later this situation was going to have to change.
You couldn't have four fiances forever.  It's not your fault that someone
has to get hurt."  She squeezed his hands, wanting him to smile, to stop
looking so unhappy.  Talking like this was what she'd wanted, what
she'd needed.  She was glad it had finally happened, and she wanted
him to be glad, too.
     "I never asked for my life to be like this," Ranma told her
quietly.  "Changing into a girl, having all these girls chasing me, I never
asked for any of it.  But because I was afraid of changing things, I
almost let you go."
     "I guess we came pretty close, didn't we?  To throwing away
our chance, I mean," Akane whispered.  Ranma looked down into her
eyes and smiled finally, his expression tender.
     "Yeah, I guess we did.  But everything's gonna be okay now."
     "Is it?" she asked softly.
     "Uh-huh.  You know why?"  He swallowed hard, his blue-gray eyes
holding hers, bottomless and beautiful.
     "Tell me."
     "Because I love you, Akane Tendou."  Just when she thought
she couldn't feel anything more, her heart exploded in a soundless nova
of joy.  She stared at him, feeling the heat rise in her cheeks.  He'd
actually said it.  He had.  She felt light-headed.
     "You do?" she whispered finally.  He nodded solemnly, reaching out
to wipe away her tears, gently brushing her cheeks with his fingertips.
     "Yeah.  For ever and ever."  She began crying again.  He
suddenly looked uncertain.
     "Ranma!" she sobbed, throwing her arms around his neck and
curling up against him.  She felt his arms come around her hesitantly,
holding her gingerly at first, then more firmly as she sobbed against his
shoulder.
     "Hey, what's the matter?" he asked, sounding genuinely
concerned.  She sniffed, burrowing into the comforting solidity of his
body.
     "Oh Ranma," she giggled tearfully, "you don't know a thing about
girls, do you?"  Then she snaked one hand up behind his head, twining
her fingers in his soft hair, and pulled her face up next to his ear.
     "I love you too," she whispered huskily.  She pulled back to see the
relieved grin on his face, the colour high in his cheeks, and knew that
he'd needed to hear the words, just as she had.
     "Really?" he asked.
     "Really," she said solemnly.  "For ever and ever."  They were staring
at each other, the universe reduced to just the two of them on that
rooftop.  Akane looked up into Ranma's face, alight with the
emotions she'd always wanted to see there, and more than anything
she wanted to kiss him right then.
     So she did.  She leaned forward and brushed her lips gently
against Ranma's mouth.  She could feel the tension in him, the surprise,
as she held her mouth against his, carefully parting her lips.  Then,
tenderly, and oh-so-slowly, he kissed her back, his hands sliding slowly
up her back, a sweet white heat building in her heart, burning away all
the problems and squabbles and doubts of that day.  She tasted the salt
of their mingled tears, felt his warm breath on her face as she closed her
eyes and revelled in the sensations of being in his arms.
     She and Ranma had finally taken that tremulous first step.  They
broke the kiss gently and stared at each other, the knowledge that
everything had changed between them burning in both their gazes.
     But they were together, and that was all that counted.
 
------------------------------------------------------------------------

Nabiki and Kasumi

     Just cold numbers.
     Nabiki stared glumly at the open ledger in front of her.  Usually,
figures spoke to her.  Manipulating values was like art, like a dance,
and she could grasp the subtle shifting patterns and make them dance to
her tune.
     But not tonight.  Tonight, they were just cold numbers, and they
refused to dance.  She sighed and snapped the book shut.  Leaning
back in her chair, she clasped her hands behind her head and stretched
languorously.  This was all Ranko's fault, she was sure of it.
     She dropped her arms and sighed.  Ranko.  She hadn't meant
to tell him all that, hadn't meant to open up to him the way she had.  So
why had she?  Why let him see her soft, undefended heart?  She shook
her head and chuckled.  Must've been the legendary Saotome charm,
she told herself wryly.
     But that wasn't it, and she knew she couldn't brush it off that
easily.  Things had been building inside her for some time, and the
incident with Ranko had been the trigger.  Knowing the pain she had
caused him, feeling the pain he had inflicted on her in return, she finally
had to admit that her schemes were hurting people.  Never this badly
before, but how much hurt was it acceptable to deliberately inflict on
those around you?
     She sighed again.  She didn't want to think about all this,
because without her schemes, what did she have?  Nothing, that's
what.  Nothing at all.
     Besides, she *liked* money.  So what was the answer?
     Her increasingly chaotic thoughts were interrupted by a knock
on her door.  At her invitation, Kasumi came in, smiling.  As usual.
     "Hey, sis.  What's up?"
     "Oh, nothing much.  I was just wondering how you were."
Some things, Nabiki thought warmly, you can always count on.
     "I'm fine, Kasumi.  Really."
     "Did Ranko talk to you?"  The question was posed casually,
but Nabiki could tell her older sister was very interested in the answer.
     "Yeah."  She blushed slightly, wondering how much to tell
Kasumi.  Ah, what the hell, she thought.  Go for it, you're not getting
anywhere on this by yourself.
     "Actually," she went on, "we had a pretty interesting discussion.
He was really sorry about what he said.  It was pretty plain it tore him
up, you know, what with his own family having just died.  I know that
he wishes he never said it.  The thing is, I started thinking about what I
did to make him say that, and ... I wasn't proud of myself.  I hurt him
pretty bad, too, and even though things are better between us now, I've
been thinking about ..."
     "About what?"
     "About what I do."  Nabiki sighed noisily.  "I bring in a lot of
money for the household, and I like doing it.  But my means aren't
always pure and lily white, you know?"
     "Shocking," Kasumi said dryly.  It was such an un-Kasumi like
thing to say that Nabiki stopped for a moment, caught off-guard.
Kasumi's smile widened.
     "Um, yeah, well ... I don't want to hurt people, you know, I
don't enjoy that.  I'm not a monster.  But I don't want to stop making
money either.  And the way I've always made money has been by
exploiting people's weaknesses.  I'm really good at it, too.  If I stop,
I'm not sure what else I can do."  Kasumi nodded as if she had been
expecting just this, and sat primly on the bed.
     "You're wondering if you can carry on with business as usual,
knowing what you know about the effects it can have."
     "Something like that."
     "Nabiki, I think you know exactly what to do, you just don't want
to do it."  When Nabiki looked at her nervously, she continued, "You
are a very smart girl when it come to some things, but people are not
one of your strong suits.  Oh, you know how to exploit their
weaknesses all right, but all that does is drive them away from you.  I
have confidence that you can continue to exercise your talent without
causing innocent people pain.  Surely you can do business that way,
can't you?  You can be a business person with a conscience, I'm sure,
and you'll find it easier to live with yourself.  I trust you to make the
right choice.  Having seen the alternative, that is."  Nabiki studied her
older sister for a long moment, considering her response, then clasped
her hands together in front of her chest and wriggled ecstatically, her
eyes big and sparkling with adoration.
     "Oh big sister," she squealed, "you're so WISE!"  Kasumi began
giggling at the spectacle, and Nabiki joined in.  It felt good to laugh.
There had been too much darkness around the dojo lately.
     "Okay, so it won't be easy," Kasumi said at last.  "But you
know you have to try."
     "I know, I know.  Boy, but that felt good," Nabiki responded.
"Dinner was so tense, I thought somebody might explode."  Kasumi
nodded thoughtfully.
     "Yes," she said sadly, "it appears that things aren't going to be
getting any easier for Ranko anytime soon."
     "What do you hear about tomorrow, anyway?"
     "Father will be sending us out early with Auntie Saotome."
Then her face went carefully blank.  "He wants Akane to go with us."
     "Oh my," Nabiki said softly.  "I'll just bet that went over well."
Kasumi nodded.
     "Yes, she was quite upset when she stormed out of the house.
I wonder where she went?"
     "The roof, I think.  I heard some clumping around up there
earlier.  I think she's up there with Ranma.  They're probably fighting
again."  Kasumi sighed gently.
     "I wonder what it will take for those two to finally come
together," she mused.  "Nothing ever seems to go easily for them."
Nabiki swallowed a sudden surge of bitterness, resisting the urge to tell
her sister that maybe the problem was some things came too easily for
the young couple.
     "I think our little sister is somewhat enamoured of young Mr.
Saotome," she said instead, her tone dry.  "I'll bet you any money that
she ends up beside him tomorrow."
     "I know better than to bet against you," Kasumi said primly.
Then her expression sobered, and she added, "Still, don't you think it's
too dangerous for her to stay?"
     "So, what?  You want her to cut and run when things get
tough?  Ranma would stay for her, and she knows it.  She'll stay, and
woe to whoever tries to make her go."  Kasumi nodded glumly.
     "I suppose you're right.  I don't mind telling you, I'm a little
scared about tomorrow.  I have a very bad feeling."  She looked at
Nabiki, as if for reassurance.
     "It's the waiting, the anticipation, it's getting to everyone.  The
sooner it's over with, the better."
     "I hope you're right," Kasumi said nervously.  Nabiki grinned.
     "Sis, this group may not be the most emotionally mature or
stable, but when it comes to fighting there's few better.  It'll be okay.
You'll see."
     Nabiki just wished she felt as confident as she sounded.

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

(Shampoo and Mousse)
     Mousse had felt a multitude of emotions toward Shampoo
during the many years they had known each other.  Most of them were
the kind of emotions which drove poets to write sweet prose of the
agony of the heart, or reverent praise of beauty.  They were the
emotions which inspired songs of love, acts of reckless passion, or
heartfelt quixotic vows.
     The emotion he was feeling now, however, had probably never
inspired anyone to do anything greater than bang their head against a
wall.  Frankly, Shampoo was beginning to irritate the living hell out of
him.
     She slammed the door of the Nekohanten shut and glared at
him, beautiful as always, even in high temper.  And Mousse supposed
he should be glad she was paying any attention to him at all, but frankly
it had been a long and very strange day and his patience was nearing
its limit.
     "Well, what you have to say to that, Mousse?" she asked testily.  He
took a deep breath.
     "I already told you ..." he began, only to be interrupted by the
arrival of Cologne.
     "Well, child, how did it go?  Was the information accurate?"
Shampoo nodded grudgingly, with another venomous glare at Mousse.
     "Yes, great-grandmother.  There another Ranma.  It very long
story."
     "Really?  You'll have to tell me all about it," she said.  Then she
noticed Shampoo's agitated state.  "Did something happen, Shampoo?"
     "Stupid Mousse embarrass Shampoo!  He act all googly-eyed,
flirting with stupid spatula girl!"
     "That's not true!  And she's not stupid!" Mousse returned hotly.  "I
was just worried, that's all!  She wasn't acting like herself!"
     "Worried about another woman?" Cologne asked with great
interest.  Mousse flushed deeply.
     "It's not like that!" he protested.  "This other Ranma, his appearance
is causing all sorts of problems, that's all!"  Cologne continued to look
at him in a way that made him distinctly uncomfortable.
     "Googly-*GOOGLY*-eyes," Shampoo clarified sullenly.  "And he
smoochy smoochy with her too!"  Mousse felt heat rise in his cheeks as
he remembered Ukyou giving him a peck on the cheek.  Cologne
scowled at his expression.
     "Mousse, I do hope you haven't been doing anything to cause
embarrassment to my great-granddaughter," Cologne said in a very
cool tone.
     "Of course not!" he said through clenched teeth.  "I was only ...
ah, what's the use?  Good night!  I'm going to bed!"  Then he wheeled
around and headed through the swinging doors into the back.
     Once through the doors, he slumped against the wall, stewing in his
impotent rage.  It was so unfair!  He had just been wondering why
Ukyou was suddenly so miserable.  It had been nice, talking to her.  It
made him feel good, and seeing her so unhappy bothered him all the
more because of that.  Why should being concerned about someone
embarrass Shampoo?  Was it because Ukyou was competition for
Ranma's heart?  Could she really be that petty?
     "So, Shampoo," he heard Cologne say, "which of them do you
like better?"  There was a startled silence.
     "G-great-grandmother, how can you ask such thing?  Shampoo
marry Ranma!  Ranma beat Shampoo in combat!  Stupid Mousse
never be man that Ranma is, never be good enough ..."
     "Shampoo," Cologne interrupted with a tone of bemused
tolerance.  "Which *Ranma* do you like better?"  Mousse could feel
the heat of the blood that rushed to his face.  Never good enough, huh?
He clenched his fists until his forearms ached, but continued to listen.
     "Oh.  Well, they the same.  But ... new Ranma, they call him
Ranko, he sad deep inside, hurt in his heart.  Bad things happen to him
before he come here."
     "Hmmm.  Technically, you have no claim to this new Ranma.
However, if need be, I could probably change that."  Mousse winced
at the smugness of the elder's tone, his teeth grinding angrily.  "Come.
Tell me all about it."
     That old witch, he thought blackly, pushing away from the wall
and heading for his tiny quarters.  She'd listen to the whole story, then
hatch a scheme to get what she wanted.  No matter who got hurt.  And
Shampoo would go along with the whole thing.
     And him?  Who was he to stand in the way of their grand schemes?
Just some insignificant amazon male, not worth worrying about.  He felt
a grim little smile twitch at his lips then, remembering how much nagging
Shampoo had done on the way home.  So his worrying about Ukyou
had upset her, had it?  Well, fine.
     He unclenched his hands, not noticing the tiny rivulets of blood
that flowed from the cuts his fingernails had made in his palms.  His
protestations of love hadn't gotten him anywhere.  Maybe it was time
to try a new tactic to win Shampoo's heart.
     He thought again of his earlier conversation with Ukyou, and
the smile grew a little wider.
     Yes.  A new tactic indeed.
 
------------------------------------------------------------------------

Ukyou
     She sat on her bed, wearing the same clothes she'd put on for
him earlier.  She leaned back against the wall and paged through her
photo album, page after stiff page filled with memories.
     Memories of him.  There were pictures of Ranma as a boy and
as a girl.  Pictures of him running, standing, talking, and fighting.  Oh,
yeah, quite a few of those fighting pictures.  Most of the pictures had
been purchased from Nabiki, who always seemed to have plenty to
assuage Ukyou's insatiable appetite.  She could just never get enough.
     She scanned the pages, seeing image after captured image of
her true love, and wished they were the real thing.  She was startled
when a teardrop hit the plastic page with a loud spat.
     "I'm not going to cry," she said to the empty room.  "I'm not
going to cry because I'm not going to lose him.  He'll come to me.  He
will."  She closed the heavy album, caressing its cool leather cover
lovingly.  Then she clasped it tightly to her chest and let herself slide
slowly to the bed, drawing her knees up protectively and burying her
face in her pillow.
     "He'll come to me," she whispered urgently.  "He has to.  Because I
love him most of all."  And then, like that night so many years before
when she'd been abandoned that first time, she cried herself to sleep.

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

House Kunou

     Kodachi could barely be contained within the four walls of her
room.  Two Ranmas.  Two.  Let those other simps try to decide which
one to court.  Kodachi was made of more ambitious stuff than that.
     She'd simply have both.  It was meant to be, she could see that
now.  Not just one Ranma, but *two*!  Devoted to her, loving her,
making her life a paradise.  Two.
     She raised her hand daintily to her mouth, palm out, and
laughed her beautiful laugh for the sheer joy of it.  Joy.
     And just like that, she stopped.
     THEY didn't want her to be happy.  THEY never wanted her
to have anything.  And THEY were laughing at her.  Mocking her.
     "Filthy little vermin," she hissed.  "You'll not laugh once
Ranma's heart is mine.  Once they're *both* mine, you'll never dare
laugh at me again!  Do you hear?  Do you?"  Her voice rose to a
piercing shriek.  "DO YOU THINK I DON'T SEE YOU?"  Uncoiling
her ribbon, she began striking at the shadowed corners of her room,
sharp, vicious strikes.
     "THERE!" she screeched.  "AND THERE!  AND THERE!
YOU CAN'T HIDE!"  She struck again and again, her special ribbon
throwing up splinters of wood from the floor where it struck.  She flew
around the room in a frenzy, caught between glee and fury, until the
door slammed open suddenly.
     And she stopped.
     Her brother stood in the doorway, wearing his usual kendo
outfit, bokken gripped tightly in one hand.  He looked at her
impassively as she fought to bring her breathing under control, sweat
beading on her forehead.
     "They were laughing," she said finally.  Matter of factly.  "You
know how I hate that."  He continued to watch her, no expression on
his face.
     "There is no one here, sister," he said finally.  She tittered,
coiling her ribbon easily.
     "Of course there isn't.  There's never anyone here.  And nothing
ever goes missing for no reason.  And Sasuke just got tired of being a
devoted personal guard and quit."  She performed a gentle pirouette,
coming to face him again.  "This is just a normal home full of normal
problems, isn't it?"  He watched her, his face uncharacteristically grave.
     "You cried out last night.  For her."  Kodachi went still
suddenly, absolutely still, in a way that never failed to strike fear into her
opponents.  Her brother, however, was made of sterner stuff.  At least
when it came to her.
     "You would think, with all our family's resources, that we could
afford thicker walls," she said lightly, but the stillness remained.
     "You're not sleeping well."  It was not a question.  Kodachi glided
over to him, stopping uncomfortably close, peering up at her brother
with a heavy-lidded, deceptively lazy expression.
     "I have bad dreams, brother.  Do your precious poets have nothing
to say on the subject of bad dreams?  I would think, by now, you
would be an expert on the subject."  She put a finger to her lips
thoughtfully.
     "Why does it concern you so?  Could it be that you do not share
them this time?"  He watched her impassively, and she smiled, a slow,
sensuous smile.  "Could that be it?"
     "You promised to tell me if they started again."  A fine edge of
emotion had finally crept into his voice.  Anger.  She held his gaze
fearlessly.  His anger held no terror for her.  Few things did, anymore.
     "It doesn't matter," she said softly.  "My darling Ranma is the
light, white-hot and blinding, and you know they cannot abide the light.
And two Ranmas are twin suns, orbiting around me!  I'll bring my loves
here and their light will drive the shadows away and banish the
darkness!  House Kunou will stand in the light again, brother!  Won't
that be grand?"  Her eyes sparkled, and her breath came in short gasps
as she rose on her toes and tried to make him understand.  "Everything
would be all right.  Everything would be like it was again!"  His face
twitched at that.
     "Your obsession blinds you, sister.  I have told you that
Saotome dabbles in black arts.  He is surely a sorcerer.  And his
counterpart is wounded in the soul by his own darkness.  Even if this
burden could be shared with outsiders, even if it were not the obligation
of our clan, those two could not help us."  Kodachi's large,
almond-shaped eyes narrowed in anger and she stepped back.
     "I think you're just afraid, brother *dear*.  Afraid I might
succeed, afraid that love might light my way and leave you behind!  All
you are is talk, after all!  Go pine for your pig-tailed goddess and your
beloved Akane Tendou!" she spat.  "They'll both have plenty of time for
you once both Ranmas have pledged themselves to me!"  He just
stared for a moment, the muscles at the corner of his jaw flexing as he
bit back a reply.  She turned her back on him, giving her head a
haughty toss as she glided over to a desk cluttered with bottles and jars
of all descriptions.  She heard him sigh finally, his clothing rustling softly
as he shifted his weight.
     "The new cook quit," he said finally.  Changing the subject, she
thought triumphantly.  Point for me.
     "How does the saying go?  "If you can't stand the heat, get out
of the kitchen?"  I suppose he took it to heart."  She began rummaging
through her chemicals and herbs, thinking of the potions and powders
she might need to land her Ranmas.  "We do seem to be going through
more servants lately, though.  Why do you suppose that is, brother
dear?"  She asked almost idly, but she was watching him from the
corner of her eye as she spoke.  To her disappointment, he didn't react.
At least not visibly.
     "Sleep well, sister," was all he said as he left, shutting the door
quietly.  She gripped one of the small vials so hard that it cracked,
turning to level a venomous glare at the closed door.
     "Was that supposed to be funny?" she hissed.  Then she looked
down at the clear fluid leaking from the cracked vial and sighed.  She
began looking for something to clean the mess up with, muttering to
herself.
     Tatewaki would never land either that red-headed tart or that
simp, Akane Tendou, she knew, because he didn't understand a
maiden's heart.  Imagine, telling her that Ranma could not help her.
Reading all that poetry, you'd think he would realize that true love
conquered all.  Always.  The arrival of the second Ranma was a sign to
her, of course.  One Ranma could only love her so much; two Ranmas
could bestow upon her the adoration she deserved.
     Humming happily under her breath, she dropped the now
empty vial into the trash and set about concocting some very interesting
surprises for her fiancés.
     Because, after all, the course of true love seldom ran smoothly.

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

Jack

     "I don't believe it.  This kid is incredible."  Jack leaned back
from the screen and rubbed his eyes.  "How many fiances has he had,
anyway?"
     "I told you to read the mission briefing before, didn't I?"
Scooter grumbled.
     "What a bunch.  I've got a feeling our little rendez-vous
tomorrow could get tense.  We got, let's see, deadly flying spatulas,
hidden weapons techniques, chi blasts ..."
     "Second thoughts, Jackie?"
     "You should be so lucky.  If he says no, we'll back out
peacefully and call in the cavalry.  Okay?"
     "Why do I feel like it's not going to be that simple?"
     "Because you're a pessimist.  What's the repair status on major
systems?"
     "All major systems are up and running, with the exception of
communications, which seems to have suffered an intermittent coil
failure ... said failure having been dutifully logged ..."
     "You're the man, Scooter."
     "... and the main sensor web inputs, which are due to be back
on line by 0406 hours local time."
     "Plenty of time," Jack said.
     "Well," Scooter replied hesitantly, "I'm still worried about the
anomalous readings the passive SRS systems are getting.  This is really
freaky, and I'm not sure it's damage caused by Saotome's chi blast."
     "Is there any way to tell what's causing the readings without the
main web?"
     "Uh, no."
     "Well then, quit worrying.  You'll know at 4:06 local time,
right?"
     "And *you"ll* know at 4:07."
     "Listen, you.  I'm gonna have a shower and hit the sack.  If you
wake me up at four in the frigging morning, it had better be for the end
of the world.  Got it?"
     "So noted, for the record.  Good-night, sweet prince."
     "Yeah, yeah."  Jack trudged off the command deck, wishing he
could shake the feeling that his gamble with Saotome was going to
come back and bite him on the ass.

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

The Roof, One Last Time

     Ranma leaned back against the roof, Akane beside him, her
head on his shoulder.  His arm was around her, their fingers twined
loosely, and he shivered deliciously when she absently ran her thumb
over his.  His heart hadn't slowed down yet as they sat, just being
together for once, hardly speaking.  Their breathing seemed to be in
synch, the heat from her body mingled with his intimately, and the scent
of her hair made him lightheaded, like a potent drug.  He'd waited for
these quiet moments, even without realizing it, almost since he'd met
her.  He didn't want this time to ever end.  He especially didn't want to
be the one to end it.
     But he had to.  Finally being able to admit their feelings to each
other had been a big step, but it was hardly the last one.  If anything, it
was going to make their lives more complicated than before.  He'd
imagined from time to time what it would be like to tell Akane what she
really meant to him, but he'd never given much thought to what would
happen between them afterwards.  That first big step always seemed to
overshadow everything else.  He sighed, and Akane stirred, lifting
her head slightly to look him in the eye.
     "What?" she asked gently.  He gave her a rueful grin.
     "I was just thinking.  I'm gonna have to do what Ranko did
today.  Talk to my other "fiances", I mean.  I know I have to, but I just
hate the thought of doing it."  After he'd said it, he tensed, suddenly
realizing that Akane might misinterpret his reluctance.  For once,
though, she didn't get upset, just looking at him warmly.
     "I know you don't want to hurt them, Ranma," she said.  "But
you won't be doing them any favours by putting it off.  This uncertainty
is hard on everybody.  You ... *we* need to end it, soon.  It's never
going to get any easier, you know that."
     "That's easy for you to say," Ranma grumbled.  "You don't
have to break anyone's heart."
     "You mean like Ryouga?" she asked quietly.  Ranma gaped at
her.
     "How the hell ...?"  She gave him a small, enigmatic little smile.
     "Girls always know, Ranma," she said simply.  "And you're
right, I'm lucky.  He decided to give up on me by himself.  But we both
know it won't be anywhere near that simple with Ukyou, Kodachi or
Shampoo.  In fact, there could be trouble."
     "Well, let's save it until after tomorrow," he said, squeezing her
fondly.  "We already have a crisis to deal with, remember?"  Her gaze
darkened and she looked away.
     "*We* have a crisis to deal with?" she asked.  He squeezed
her hand and nudged her.
     "Yes, *we* do.  I won't apologize for wanting to protect you,
Akane.  I care about you, and my instinct is always going to be to keep
anything from happening to you.  But I don't want to hurt you, and I
*was* paying attention to what you said before.  Partners we will be,
no matter what."  He paused, looking into her large brown eyes.  "I
want you beside me.  I don't want to make the mistake Ranko made."
     "What?  What mistake?" she asked.  Ranma realized that she
didn't know about what Ranko had told him by the river.  He
wondered if he should tell her, then decided that it couldn't hurt now.
     "He tried to protect his Akane by leaving her behind, and by
the time he got back she was dead."  Shock, dismay and sorrow
rippled across Akane's features in quick succession.
     "Poor Ranko," she whispered.  "No wonder ... when did he tell
you?"
     "Today, after I said ... you know.  I didn't think he'd forgive
me after that.  I mean, I wouldn't have.  But he was feeling a lot of guilt,
too, and he needed to tell someone the whole story.  He needed me to
understand.  This whole thing is hard for him."
     "But it's going to be even harder for him, seeing us together.  I feel
so guilty, I didn't even think about how *he'd* feel!"  Akane looked at
Ranma beseechingly.  "I mean, if he felt the way about her that you just
said you feel about me ..."
     "He did.  But it's not going to be a problem, because he's
leaving."  Ranma looked away uncomfortably.
     "What?  Leaving?  But ... where'll he go?"  Ranma tried to
explain to her the reasons Ranko had given him for his decision.  She
looked troubled when he finished.
     "I don't like the idea of just letting him go like that, Ranma.
He's so much like you.  And you just finished telling me how much it
would hurt you to be alone after having had a life here.  We can't just
let him go!"
     "I'm not sure we can stop him," Ranma responded.  He looked at
her for a long moment, then sighed.
     "What's wrong?"
     "I can't help wondering ... who would you have chosen if he
had stayed?  If you'd had to choose between us?  He knew what it
meant to lose you, he'd have been able to say all the things I almost
couldn't say."  Akane stared at him, her expression sober, for so long
he began to worry.  Finally she reached up to trace the line of his
cheekbone with one finger, causing him to shiver as she followed the
contours of his face lightly.
     "He's so much like you," she said softly, "and I like him.  Really.  But
he's not you.  After everything we've been through together, everything
that's happened to us, all our shared history, you're the one I want.  The
only one.  To him I never would have been anything but a reflection of
*her*.  But to you ..."
     "To me," he said, his voice thick with emotion, "you're the one.
The only one."  When she opened her mouth to speak, he pulled her
close and looked deeply into her eyes.
     "Akane, enough serious talk.  Let's just be together," he said quietly.
"Soon, we'll have both our families on our backs, not to mention all the
others.  We've got a little while longer before we've got to go in, let's
enjoy it in peace.  Just you, me, and the night.  Okay?"  She smiled and
nodded.  Ranma swallowed nervously and leaned in close.  Akane
looked surprised, but tentatively raised her chin and met him in a gentle
kiss.  Ranma slid his arms around her, holding her tight.
     "I could get used to this," he thought blissfully.  Akane curled up
against him again, and for once, Ranma had no complaints with the
world.  He forgot about his curse, his other fiances, and even Ranko.
Together, they watched the sky, the world of problems seeming, at
least for a little while, very far away.
     On the roof, that last innocent night.
 
 

     Epilogue

     In the shadows behind Furinkan High, a white van was hidden
from view.  The back doors of the van were open, and it was bouncing
on overstressed shocks and springs in an alarming manner.
     More alarming, however, were the noises coming from inside
the van.
     "BAD THINGS, BAD THINGS, BUH BUH BUH
BAAAAAAD THINGS!" something sang horribly.  A pair of gleaming
red eyes appeared in the shadows, seemingly independent of a body,
and glared down at the van.
     "Grinnis," something hissed.  The van stopped bouncing and the
singing was cut off abruptly.  "GRINNIS," the hissing voice repeated,
louder this time.
     "WHUT?"
     "You aren't supposed to be out here," the voice said calmly.  A
bulky figure pulled itself out of the van, towering over it as it stood
erect.
     "GRINNIS HUNGRY," it growled petulantly.
     "There are no more plumbers in the truck, Grinnis," the voice
hissed patiently.  "You must go back inside.  We must not be
discovered before we are ready, before we are strong enough.
Remember?"
     "BUT GRINNIS HUNGRY!  GRINNIS WANTS TO EAT!
GRINNIS WANTS TO PLAY!"
     "Yes, yes, I know.  Soon, Grinnis.  Soon you will be able to do
whatever you like with these human cattle."
     "SOON?" Grinnis asked uncertainly.  A strange light flared not
far away, and something with a lot of tentacles began to slither out of
the light, making an unearthly keening noise.  The eyes laughed, a
merry, mad sound.
     "Oh yes, soon.  Very, very soon."  They glowing eyes laughed
again, and a huge idiot grin spread over Grinnis's hideous face.
     "SOON.  BAD THINGS, BAD THINGS, SOON SOON
BAD THINGS!"
     "Oh, yes, my friend.  Many, many bad things."  Its mad
laughter drifted away on the night breeze, and wherever that breeze
blew, sleepers cried out, animals howled and the dark held sway.
 

End part six.
Revised August 3/97
Feedback always welcomed at:  emmack@ibm.net