Hi everyone! I'm really sorry for the long absence and for making you wait a year. I've received so many wonderful, encouraging messages and reviews from everyone - some of you taking the time to write me realy detailed messages and I just want you to know that I've read every single one of them several times over! Thank you so very, very much. It's cheered me up to no end.
I don't really have a good reason for staying out of touch for so long - even my beta hadn't heard from me. I am so sorry - we moved to the other side of the planet, New Zealand and it took a lot of sorting and money and time (visa, flights, moving, packing, unpacking, job searching etc.) Thank you all for all your support and love.
I somehow had this brilliant idea to upload a new chapter for my birthday on the 4th. But really, this chapter is dedicated to all my faithful readers and reviewers, to all the wonderful people who kept messaging me and leaving reviews, asking for an update - here you go! And, of course, to the best-est, cleverest-est and all around brilliant beta reader (and author) PurseMonger!
Dedicated to you all:
The Keeper of Worlds
Thank you - I hope you enjoy this new chapter!
Eyes wide, Akane instinctively ducked beneath the two arms that tried to reach for her. The crushing sound behind her let her know that whatever object they had managed to get a hold of, had not enjoyed the experience - or survived it -for that matter.
What had possessed her? I mean, seriously! What use was this foreknowledge if all she did, was allow herself to be caught in exactly the same situations, causing the same amount of damage?
If the situation wasn't so serious, the navy haired girl vaguely thought she might be tempted to laugh at the sheer, utterly disastrous yet comical nature of it; but at the moment Akane didn't feel like laughing. Tensing her calf muscles she easily leapt further up into the skies and across the obstacles, hoping to somehow dissuade her rather persistent pursuer. Yeah, as if that was bloody likely!
How had it come to this again? Oh, yes…the way it always started. With Ranma.
Exhausted, Akane collapsed on the cushion beside her fiancé. The unexpectedness of not only her condition but also her less than perfect exterior with classes only half an hour away, made even Ranma pause with the chopsticks only inches from his mouth, a small frown creasing his eyebrows. His blue eyes quickly scanned and re-scanned her lithe form, looking for serious injuries or other damage before his shoulders relaxed almost automatically when he found nothing aside from the usual scrapes, bruises, and cuts.
Ranma's hand continued its path to his mouth now that his fears were assuaged but there was still the slightest inkling of curiousity remaining, mixed with a rather large amount of humour and satisfaction. For once it wasn't him who looked like something the cat dragged in.
A wordless moan escaped his fiancée's lips though her head never left the table. Giving in, Ranma smirked broadly, needling her as he had done so often in the past; really, to him that was just the way they communicated. Besides, it was rather satisfying given how often she made comments about his appearance. Turn about was just fair play, especially with her now having a training partner that forced her to get up at godforsaken hours in the morning.
"What? Can't handle it? Too much for you?"
Brown eyes snapped open, glaring at him mildly but then her eyes closed again, exhaustion taking over. To his surprise, Ranma found himself relaxing at the familiarity of this taunting game. Though unlike some of the previous times, he was quite aware this time of how much he was pushing his fiancée. Mischievous smirk on his face, he set on goading her further.
"Phh! So what? Can be neither feminine nor a martial artist?" he shrugged, deliberately leaning down further into her field of vision, "have to say, I didn't think you'd give up this quickly though. Guess you just can't handle it, huh?"
Aaaand there it was. Clenched hands, gritted teeth and brown eyes alit with fire. The rest of the family had reacted automatically - grabbing their plates and securing them away from the table which had so often become collateral damage in their fights - though beyond that they remained largely unaffected and simply continued eating, unperturbed by the pending disaster.
Akane herself was sitting ramrod straight across from him, glare firmly fixed on her face, body fairly humming with repressed energy born from sheer force of will and anger.
"You and me in the garden and I'll show you how much I can't handle it!"
Grinning, he provoked her further, "Pah, like you could take me in a fi-"
Whatever the pigtailed boy was about to say was interrupted by the quick, decisive movements of the middle Tendo as she firmly placed down her bowl on the now obviously safe table.
"I'm off to school. Akane and I will be home late today."
His fiancée's eyes widened and he watched her head crank around at impossible speeds to look at the family clock before she frantically scrambled upstairs in an effort to get ready in time.
Mere seconds later she was back down and off to the bathroom.
"Why didn't you tell me Ranma? Urgh! What am I thinking! Why would you care if we're late?!"
Ranma blinked slightly as his fiancée once again disappeared in a whirlwind, only her endless litany of words telling him where she was.
Well… looking around himself, Ranma finally shrugged. No one was disturbed in the slightest. Soun was hidden behind his newspaper. Though there was a marked change in his behaviour that stemmed from yesterday's excursion to his late wife's grave; every now and then he would look up and smile at his family or make a casual remark. It seemed he was actually taking part in their activities rather than leaving the duties of the family head up to the eldest daughter. Kasumi and Ranma's dad hadn't changed one iota though - the moment it became clear that Akane wasn't going to be eating her breakfast, Genma had made a dash for it.
In that split second Ranma wondered if he should really do what he was about to; if he really should - with a resigned sigh he reached out and grabbed Akane's food from his pa's greedy hands. She had better be really grateful for this. With an almost bored expression, he found himself facing off against his dad to give his fiancée the nutrition she'd be desperately craving. Because, unless he'd really missed his mark, she had been off doing some rather vigorous training this morning and would need the food to replace the energy she'd expended.
For a moment he drifted off, thinking it would all be worth it as long as she gave him one of those bright smiles that no one knew he craved. And, day dreaming, he missed his father's fist until it was too late. He was sent flying towards the pond in record time and barely had time to groan at the inevitability of activating his curse.
Stupid Akane and her stupid smiles! Fuming, the redhead popped out of the water, glaring at her pop.
"Now what'd you do that for?"
As usual, his father was basking in his glory and Ranma used his forward momentum and the increase he had in speed as a female to escape the dreaded pond and succeeded in taking his father by surprise. Moments later another big splash followed and a large panda climbed out of the pond.
Just another morning at the Tendo's.
Another bruise. Ouch. She was going to kill Genma for this later - and yes, by later she meant when she was finally a match for that bastard! Not only was she well and truly exhausted, but she hadn't even had a chance to have any breakfast. Her stomach growled and with a deep sigh, she found her steps turning lackluster and her gaze fell to the floor. Now she had to make it to school and all the way through lunchtime before she could have some food. And, on top of all that, she'd forgotten her Bento. Maybe Nabiki had been kind enough to take it with her and she'd only have to give her sister her firstborn to have some lunch.
Okay, so maybe that was a bit melodramatic, Akane admitted to herself. Suddenly her field of vision was invaded by a badly wrapped bento. The smell emanating from it was heavenly to her growling stomach and only when it was already in her hands did she realise it was this morning's breakfast.
Surprised, she looked over to Ranma only to see him staying determinedly two steps ahead of her, the tips of his ears flushed red with embarrassment. Her heart swelled with affection; it was such a simple gesture yet Ranma, who had spent most of his childhood fighting his dad for food and frequently finishing of her own portions, had not only saved her breakfast, he'd also tried to wrap it up for her. Yes, it was clumsy and looked more like her own first attempts than she cared to admit, but he'd thought of her and shown her he cared in the only way he knew how.
Carefully balancing herself, Akane forced her legs into compliance and jumped onto the fence in front of her fiancé. He stared at her, flush having faded by now, expression an interesting mix of dread, curiousity and a tinge of embarrassment.
"Thank you, Ranma."
She pitched her voice low and soft, allowing her feelings to carry into her voice. Ever so slowly she reached out for him, giving him plenty of time to deny the show of affection, balancing precariously on the fence. It would take time, she knew, before he'd feel truly comfortable not only accepting her hugs but also simply reaching for her out of his own volition without fear of rejection. But she missed it - him - and wanted to have a more casual show of affection between them, wanted him more comfortable with her hugging him, kissing him on the cheek, and showing him that she loved him without words.
Ever aware of her fiancé's discomfort with physical affection, she allowed a gap between their bodies, allowed her arms to remain lax rather than tightening. Akane made sure to giveRanma plenty of signs that it was not a show of force, not a matter of her subduing him to force him to enjoy her hugs. N Rather it was a matter of choice; his choice. He could step out of her arms at any given moment, he could refuse, or end the hug at any time he wished to do so. It was rather important she treated him like a scared animal that might flee at any given moment, because- oh…
She hadn't expected that.
Ranma's arms had tentatively closed around her waist, returning the hug hesitantly. She could feel the warmth from his face burn against her own, knowing without seeing that he was blushing as much as she was. Finally allowing the control she'd exerted over her body to remain distant while still hugging - a surprisingly difficult endeavor - to seep out, she relaxed against him, eliminating the gap she'd kept between their bodies, leaning her face on his shoulders and relishing the knowledge that for once, he didn't step back, didn't start a fight to hide his embarrassment. No, for once, he too relaxed against her body and she could feel her heartbeat finally slowing down beneath his calm hands. She had missed this, missed it more than words could say. Hugs from her family just lacked the comfort she had always felt from Ranma's arms; the instant feeling of safety, of love.
Smiling warmly, she gently disentangled herself from her fiancé, giving him the brightest smile she could muster as she stepped back gently, feeling as if she could replace the sun with the sheer amount of happiness glowing inside her, barely mindful of the small width of the fence they were both on.
She knew she was blushing as she jumped off the fence, embarrassed by the warmth and love she'd experienced - and no doubt displayed to anyone watching. Carefully, Akane opened her bento and started to eat while still keeping pace on their usual way to school. In spite of her fears, there didn't appear to be any need to run. They wouldn't be early by any means, but at least she wouldn't have to give up on her breakfast and run all the way.
Ranma was now following her, two steps behind her on the fence, no doubt studying her to find out more about her suddenly affectionate nature. Well, let him study, she thought. No chance in hell of him ever even guessing the real reason. He'd just have to live with the occasional hugs from now on. Especially now that she knew he'd accept them. Hers - not Shampoo's or Ukyo's. Her hugs.
Grinning mischievously, an extra skip to her steps, Akane quickened her pace.
Well, to be fair, he'd lasted longer than she had originally expected. She thought he would have ditched in the first place, but he'd made it past attendance and now, in Maths class - taught, of course, by the most attentive teacher in the entire school since Ranma didn't do anything by half-measures - he was attempting to sneak out. To be fair, he hadn't done too badly, crawling on the ground over to the open window at the back of the room, he'd gone largely unnoticed.
If this were anyone else, the other pupils would've surely caught the teacher's attention by now as their focus would've shifted to the stray student; except this was Ranma, so no one really focused on his antics until a fight was well and truly on its way.
Luckily for him. Except, she could see the teacher starting to frown, the obvious knowledge that something wasn't right, clearly displayed on his face. Akane sighed to herself. Was she really going to…?
But then the answer was clear before she'd ever asked the question. Of course she would. Especially after Ranma's actions from this morning.
It wasn't hard to guess what the easiest way to cause the most commotion would be. With a quick flick of her wrist her pencils flew over the heads of two rows of students in a gentle arc, landing with a loud clatter as they hit the ground next to the Teacher's table at the front. Standing up abruptly, chair wobbling precariously behind her from her sudden actions, she forced herself to blush as if embarrassed by the attention of the entire class now on her.
"Oh gosh, Sensei, I'm so sorry. I have no idea how that could've happened!"
Yuka send her a sharp look that clearly said 'What the hell?'. She would've smiled if it it wouldn't give the game away. Instead she shot both her friends a quick look before glancing over at Ranma - who'd paused to watch the spectacle. She almost groaned to herself.
Phase two then.
In a show of exaggerated clumsiness, she allowed her movements to tip her chair backwards. Seemingly surprised she whirled around, the movement fully launching the chair to the ground while at the same time causing her table to tilt precariously. Of course she failed to catch her chair, the loud noise as the wood hit the floor causing the assembled students to flinch in unison and the teacher to focus fully on her.
"Tendo-san, what is the-"
She made a mad scramble for her desk - the one thing she really didn't want to fall over, as all her work was on it - and barely caught it, before she stepped out from between the mess of her paperwork and her chair on the floor.
Brown eyes focused on the floor, allowing her hair to fall down and hide her face as she bowed and apologized to the teacher. The next move was purely manipulative, something she'd learned, surprisingly, from Ranma's female form's methods of persuasion.
Slowly lifting her head, eyes glittering with unshed tears, cheeks flushed with embarrassment, she knew the moment she made eye contact that she'd won. Keeping up the litany of apologies, the teacher now embarrassed at almost having scolded her for what was clearly an accident focused entirely on her as he tried to stop her from crying, she sent a helpless glance at the male students.
And...hook, line, and sinker!
From then on it was a mad scramble as the students practically launched themselves at the teacher to help her collect her precious pens strewn out on the floor near him. The teacher, now fully occupied in trying to restore discipline while being shoved aside by twenty overly helpful males, failed to see the smirk and wink Akane gave the astonished Yuka and Sayuri. Glancing over to the window she somehow wasn't surprised to see Ranma still there, watching her with a mixture of bemusement and awe. Giving him an unmistakable hand gesture, she watched in satisfaction as he made his way out the window, giving her a last glance before allowing himself to drop to the ground.
The navy haired girl quickly schooled her face so as to not betray her scheme, sinking to the floor as she collected some of her papers that had landed on the floor. Only moments later the boys assembled around her desk, proudly handing her back her pens and papers. Brushing her hair behind her ears, she turned and gave them all a wide, happy smile that had the boys flushing simultaneously with stars in their eyes.
"Thank you all so much. I am so sorry for all the disruption I have caused, Sensei."
Her teacher was very close to sending her out but finally grumbled that she couldn't have known what would happen and continued with the lesson.
Breathing a sigh of relief at not being sent off, Akane sank back down to her seat, surprised at not being asked to stand outside the door with water buckets. She'd expected some repercussions at the very least. And clearly neither Yuka nor Sayuri knew what to make of her rescuing Ranma.
Oh well, it didn't matter. Ranma was off on his own escapade - she really wasn't sure how the whole Ryoga-date-invitation had come about as she'd never bothered to ask Ranma about it - but at least he would only appear as missing after lunchtime. No one would have to know he snuck out; the teachers were surprisingly lenient when they thought her fiancé had been dragged off into another fight.
Ranma sent another glance back at the school. Akane was being a lot more affectionate; she'd even rescued him just now. He really didn't know what to make of it. The problem was, it wasn't as if her behaviour had changed overall. She still behaved the same largely; training, arguing, pouting at being removed from the kitchen by Kasumi - for health and safety reasons, which had only resulted in another grumble and a stack of bricks meeting their end. Yet she was more … open. Hugging him - he blushed at the mere memory of the feeling of Akane's body leaning gently into his own - avoiding certain insults, and she was even being nicer to Nabiki. She had changed, that much was for certain, but it hadn't resulted in a total turnaround of her character, hadn't stopped her from behaving in a way he attributed to her natural character.
No, rather it seemed as though she was trying to change herself. It was puzzling; not that he minded. For the first time that he could remember he had actually received a hug and felt comfortable relaxing into it and closing his eyes. He couldn't remember the last time - if ever - that he'd closed his eyes, trusting the other person wouldn't attack him the next moment, that if he closed his eyes, he wouldn't be betrayed. And yet he had, unconsciously, with her, without even thinking about it.
Akane's hesitance, her open offer for him to reject her advances, for him to push her away was the very thing that had made his arms move to encircle her before he'd even given it conscious thought. Had made him pull her closer, reciprocate the warm hug she'd offered him in thanks for saving her some food.
And for the first time he could understand why people wanted hugs, why people needed them. He couldn't wait for the next time that Akane would hug him. Shampoo, Ukyo or, god forbid, his Dad's hugs had certainly never had that effect on him.
Sometimes, he wondered if- hold on, was that Ryoga? He'd actually managed to be surprisingly close to school. Thoughts derailed, he focused solely on his rival with the cure to his curse. That idiot was meant to be in the Healthy Leisure Land! What was he doing here?
"AKANE! I'M COMING!"
Huh, if that Ryoga thought he'd be allowed to come near Akane, he really must've hit his head harder than he thought. As if! Akane was his!
Wait, where had that come from?
Shaking his head, Ranma drew his rival's attention to himself by speaking up, focusing on the no doubt impending fight and feeling only relief as all other thoughts finally fell away, allowing him to zero in on his opponent. He needed him at the Leisure Land's baths; that would hopefully provide the perfect opportunity to steal the soap.
Akane sighed. Maybe she should've avoided coming here today - Shampoo, that disastrous date with Ryoga and the jealousy between her and Ranma… the only reason she was here was because she couldn't afford to change any of the main events without fear of it affecting later events negatively.
She smiled at her sister when Nabiki gave her yet another concerned glance; she hadn't meant to ignore her sisters questions, but she had been very distracted.
"So what, I'll just sit at the edge of the swimming pool. I don't need to be able to swim for that."
"Fine," Nabiki gave her a small smirk, "but if you fall in, you'll have to pay me to rescue you."
Akane grinned against her will at the familiar bantering that had somehow grown malicious with Ranma's arrival and had finally started to return to the gentle teasing from before.
"Well, in keeping with family tradition, I'll promise you one of my future children."
Nabiki laughed out loud at that.
"Yeah, better make sure they know martial arts; with those suitors they wouldn't otherwise survive!"
The navy haired girl rolled her eyes. "With me and Ranma, anything else is rather unlikely anyw-..."
Eyes wide, Akane unsuccessfully attempted to subdue the blush spreading across her face, arms gesticulating in an attempt to somehow turn those fatalistic words into something else.
"I mean- I mean-"
Nabiki burst into a fresh round of laughter.
"And that, my dear sister, is what is commonly known as a Freudian slip. Shame, I was making such good money on you too. Once it becomes known that you are actually intending to honor the engagement, one of my main sources of income will be gone."
Unable to help herself, the youngest sister gaped. She'd expected a lot of things, but this casual acceptance was not one of them.
"I- I mean, I don't-"
"Oh, don't worry. I won't tell - that would give me less money, not more. Nah, let Ranma sweat for a bit and work his way into your esteem. You shouldn't just give in, you know, especially if he's still dangling all his other fiancées in your face."
Akane had expected a lot of things from Nabiki, but to receive encouragement, support, and advice had certainly not been chief among them.
"Oh, speak of the devil."
Still feeling faint from shock and unable to articulate her feelings to her sister - she wasn't entirely sure what it was she was feeling right now anyway - she allowed her eyes to run over the surprisingly small crowd at the swimming pool. She needn't have bothered; Ranma would always be wherever the main commotion was happening.
That scream from earlier made a lot more sense now; seeing him, dressed in a woman's kimono, surface from the water, gasping for breath, Shampoo clinging tightly to his back, Akane couldn't help but feel both sheer anger at Shampoo's presence but also a bit of pride; Ranma had hugged her, not Shampoo.
Still the edges of her vision were tinged with red. Shampoo, so close to her fiancé, to Ranma, the man she'd lost to that woman. Yet Akane also knew that another attack on the Amazon would not be tolerated with the same impassiveness that her previous one had been allowed.
His eyes turned unerringly towards her, struggles momentarily forgotten. She smiled to herself when she saw the very, very quick movement of his eyes as he took her in, dressed in only a swimsuit, obviously not wanting to be accused of being a pervert. Now she desperately wished she didn't have the bruises from her training yesterday and this morning displayed on her skin, rather than unmarred, soft skin. It was one of the rare times she felt actually embarrassed.
"What are you doing?"
To make her meaning clear - so he didn't think she was mad about the glance at her - she gave a fleeting look to all the other females in the bath and saw the understanding - and impending doom - dawn in his eyes. Then his eyes were drawn back to her, a frown on his face.
"Akane, what are YOU doing here?"
With a slight huff, she sank down to the edge of the pool so her feet were gently drifting in the water yet leaving her body unimpeded by the water should Shampoo launch an attack. Despite her eyes on Ranma, her peripheral vision and entire being was concentrated on the Amazon. She knew that her fiancé could easily read the tension in her body and he'd know in an instant that she was expecting a fight. She had attacked him too often for him not to be familiar with her body language.
Shampoo, on the other hand, only seemed to see the tension as having Ranma in the woman's bath - which was Akane's intention. She needed the Amazon as oblivious to her being a potential danger as possible.
Smirking at her fiancé, letting him know without words that she would not start a fight - this time - she retorted, "That's my line."
His next words caused her tensions to escalate.
"A word of warning first."
She focused, her entire body preparing for the fight he was undoubtedly cautioning her about. Ranma's expression was serious and his eyes were surprisingly concerned. This could not be good… She gave him a minute nod, letting him know she was ready for whatever was to come.
"Don't go into the men's bath!"
Her tension evaporated mostly as she gawped at the pigtailed man, outraged.
"And why would I want to?"
The lout! He was lucky to be alive! If Shampoo wasn't so close by she'd give into the urge to hit him. Seriously! Her in the men's bath! Did he forget who was currently invading the bath of the opposite gender?
Finally his eyes widened and it seemed to dawn on him what he'd just suggested.
"Let's be perfectly clear, here, Ranma dear."
She knew her tone was cold and hard, but she couldn't help it. He'd always been impressively good at riling her up, intended or not.
"There is no way I would go to the men's bath. I have no interest in seeing any of the boys there naked. So I will ask you to kindly refrain from accusing me of wanting to sneak into the men's bath when you, yourself, are at this moment in the women's bath!"
"Hey! That's only because-"
Ranma paused, staring at her intently until finally Akane's face drew into an even deeper frown.
"I dunno. Just… that's usually the moment you interrupt me. I normally don't get to explain why."
The navy haired girl blushed and admitted silently that he was right. She wouldn't have listened to him normally. The problem was, Ranma usually had perfectly rational explanations for the things he did or said, even when they appeared ludicrous at first sight. Okay, maybe hugging Nabiki as revenge had been rather ludicrous still even in hindsight, but it was the exception. And while she hadn't necessarily wanted to be angry with him, she also hadn't wanted for it to be perfectly reasonable for Ranma to have a girl in his bed, naked in his room or whatever other situation he was in that time.
"Well," Akane shrugged slightly, a small smile tugging at her lips as she looked at the handsome pigtailed boy, "I'm listening now."
She saw the small amount of surprise and wonder before an answering grin overtook his face.
"Can you wait till tonight? There's something I want to take care of first. I'll tell you all about it later. That okay?"
He honestly looked worried. Akane smiled warmly.
"Of course. I'll talk to you later."
He grinned and quickly made his way out of the women's bath, and presumably, to the men's one, Shampoo hot on his heels. Except the Amazon suddenly did a turnabout and returned, headed directly towards the youngest Tendo.
Nabiki had, cautious as ever, placed herself near the walls to the men's bath when she'd seen the Amazon turn around, anticipating the need to call Ranma back soon.
Akane swiftly hopped to her feet and slid into a defensive position, eyes quickly surveying the floor for convenient water patches so she wouldn't slip but could potentially trip her opponent up. With the promise of a fight in the near future, all thoughts of her bruises and all the pain had disappeared, her system rushing with adrenaline, knowing her opponent was, currently, superior to her.
Instead of fists - or weapons - however, the Amazon revealed her true intent.
"I proposal have for violent girl. You go on date with pi- Ryoga-boy and I all forget about fight in bath."
Akane stared. This had definitely not happened last time. But as that was the outcome anyway, what harm could it to…? She sighed, took a deep breath before nodding acquiescently.
"I'll go on a date with Ryoga and in return my attack on you in the bath will be forgiven. That seems fair. Okay, I'll do it."
The other girl gave her a sharp glare but then finally nodded harshly. And then, anti-climatically, the Amazon strode away, headed in the same direction as Ranma had moments before.
A blushing Ryoga was standing in front of her, fumbling out a thank you for inviting him out. Akane very nearly rolled her eyes. Ryoga was a sweet boy, but he was going to get on her last nerves today with this chaos around her, his fumbling nervousness and just… yeah.
"You're quite welcome, Ryoga. I thought with how often you are over at our house, it was time we got to know one another better. As friends, of course. What do you think?"
She took one look at his face and sighed. He'd obviously shut down after hearing "getting to know better". How tiresome. Then, to her surprise, Ryoga was suddenly squirted with black ink. She could barely blink before both Shampoo and a female Ranma - disguised as god-knows-what - dragged her poor date over to the water fountain.
A smirk tugged at her lips at their antics; now, knowing the truth, it did seem somewhat amusing. She clicked her tongue slightly, grin widening, knowing what effect her next words would have.
"RANMA! SHAMPOO! What are you doing to poor Ryoga here?"
Predictably an angered boy rose from the water fountain, face still black from the ink. She watched, amused, as they had their usual spat; but she was less than amused when Shampoo imitated her own voice - and poorly - from behind her.
"Ryoga. Kiss me, you fool. You close eyes, yes?!"
She gaped, angered, down at the Amazon cowering behind her on the floor before staring at the poor and rather foolish boy in front of her, following her instructions.
Akane gave another inaudible sigh. She felt for Ryoga, she really, really did. He had to be so incredibly starved of affection - in a way, he was incredibly similar to Ranma. But she really couldn't tolerate his mild acquiescence, his desperate foolish belief in his dreams. Ryoga still believed in some ways that the world revolved around him. He still thought that Akane would have to make a decision between him and his rival; it never occurred to him that she could go for any of the other numerous men that proposed to her. Ryoga liked to twist reality to fit into his worldview. For example, Ranma must have stood him up - it couldn't possibly be his fault that he was too late. That was what really rubbed her the wrong way about him. Well, that and the fact that he pretended to be an innocent piglet crawling into her bed at night.
Bastard. Okay, maybe he deserved everything coming to him on this date.
Akane surveyed the area, watching impassively as Ranma clobbered Ryoga over the head before he could kiss her. And then she sighed, giving in. She couldn't just be that cruel, and besides, she'd promised Shampoo.
"Akane, what are you doing here?"
The navy haired girl found herself shrugging from her position kneeling next to Ryoga's prone body.
"Apparently, I'm going out on a date with this idiot here."
This time, at least, she had the satisfaction of making Ranma gape at her incredulously.
"As friends," she added, watching in satisfaction as Shampoo never got her chance to confuse the message between her Ranma this time around.
"A deal I made with Shampoo, I'll tell you more about it later as I am, apparently, currently on a date."
To her satisfaction, Ranma chuckled at that comment, watching as she gave Ryoga another half-hearted look and then proceeded to drag him up the stairs. She hoped he'd feel every step. It was the least he could do for what was about to happen.
Ryoga still hadn't listened to a word she said. She was about to clobber him herself. Akane hated - hated with every fibre of her being - ghosts. And where, on this gloriously wonderful date he'd dragged her on, was she, but the haunted house?
If Ranma didn't turn up and rescue her soon, she was going to either cower in a corner and cry, or hit Ryoga until he was a bleeding, unconscious mess. What was wrong with that man? How hard could it be to take two seconds and listen to what she had to say? She listened to his stupid comments!
Luckily - or unluckily - at that moment a door swung open, revealing a skeleton pinned to it with knives. She couldn't help the scream out of pure fear that escaped her, heart racing at unbelievable speeds and hands shaking. The next moment a warm hand was clamped over her mouth and she was pulled against a strong, masculine chest.
Her muscles were tensed to fight until she realised that the man holding her was her fiancé. Relaxing in his grip she leaned back against his chest, watching as his entire focus was on the conversation taking place just outside their hiding place.
Akane grinned to herself - if she ever told anyone that Ranma had, in the middle of a date in a haunted house, dragged her into an abandoned closet, she could very well guess what their assumptions would be. And yet she knew that it wouldn't even have occurred to him.
Grinning mischievously she waited until his focus finally shifted back to her.
"Ranma, what are you doing here?"
He obviously missed the teasing lilt in her voice, as his response was more offended than bantering.
"Gee, excuse me! Sorry to interfere with your fun date!"
Akane laughed gently, shaking her head.
"No, no you misunderstood me. I really do appreciate the rescue."
Then, unable to help herself, she vented her frustrations to him.
"I mean, what sort of an idiot is he? He doesn't listen to a single thing I say and just drags me off on a gallivant around the park! Well, he'd better be really happy it's still in Nerima or he wouldn't have survived. As it is, I hope you are intending to have a… well, what do you call it when it's such an uneven fight? Anyway, a spar with him? I'm sick and tired of this. It's farcical! That's not what I'd call a date!"
Ranma grinned at her, amused in spite of himself. Here they were, crammed together in a tiny closet with his fiancée ranting about the boy she was on a date with.
"Got it. Listening, no gallivanting and no haunted house for a date. Duly noted!"
It was only moments after he'd said the words that he flushed at the implication.
"I mean- I didn't mean that-"
His breath stopped. There was Akane, disheveled, eyes slightly reddened from her earlier tears at the sight of the skeleton, smiling so widely at him that he couldn't help but smile back.
"Thanks, Ranma. That is really sweet of you. I didn't know if I could stand one more second out there, but you really saved me."
What happened next short-circuited his brain for a few, precious seconds. His infamous speed, his martial arts skill for anticipating his opponents next moves… it always seemed to leave him when he was around her.
He watched as she leaned ever closer until he could feel her sweet breath mingle with his own. The pigtailed martial artist remained frozen, still as a statue, unsure of what his fiancée was doing but also knowing that he wanted to find out - god help him, he did. She'd given him every opportunity to back away, every opportunity to start blabbering in nervousness… and yet he didn't.
He waited with baited breath, watching as her cheeks flushed with that delicious cherry colour, felt her hands shaking slightly as her left caressed his right cheek and her right hand slid over the back of his neck, causing him to shiver - not in response to the vulnerability of that spot, as he'd expected, but rather one of anticipation and arousal. Then her soft, glistening lips came closer and closer and he watched her doe eyes meet his own, an unnamable emotion rising to the surface, hanging almost tangibly in the air between them.
And then her lips met his cheek, the barest whisper of soft warmth caressing his face before she withdrew with an almost disappointed sigh.
He couldn't help but feel the same - a curious mixture of disappointment, elation and affection. Part of him wondered when he'd regain the ability to form coherent thoughts as he found himself mindlessly staring at his beautifully navy-haired fiancée, who was flushed with embarrassment, eyes shyly darting up to him to gauge his reaction.
Akane flushed. She'd intended to give him a friendly kiss on the cheek - honest, she had. She couldn't quite account for how it had turned into such a … well, the opposite, really. Her nervousness, her hesitance, everything she had done had all but screamed romantic.
She could only hope and pray that this hadn't set their relationship back by eons, as she half feared it would've. Sure, she'd given him the chance to back out, but she doubted he'd expected anything but a brief, friendly - emphasis on friendly - hug not her god-damned nearly mauling him.
What had she done? She felt miserable. You couldn't rush a lasting relationship. It had taken her and Ranma years last time around to build what they had - what was she thinking rushing this?
Biting her lip to suppress the tears at the thought of having scared her fiancé off, she quickly stepped past him and opened the door.
"Well, I had better go back to this farce of a date."
With that she left the still stunned boy behind, fears forgotten as she simply grabbed the lost boy and made her way to where she hoped the exit lay.
Simply feeling the sunlight again was enough to make her mood soar. Stretching gently she allowed herself another moment to bask in the light, before turning back to her date.
"So, where do you want to go, Ryoga?"
It was only fair, after all, if she at least made this a pleasant experience for him; after all, this was probably his first date. All those nice thoughts evaporated when she took a good look at him; once again, he was clearly off into his own fairytale. She really didn't want to know what his perfect version of her was like; probably very acquiescent and encouraging and…not at all like her.
At this point, having been dragged off into the local rent-a-bike shop, Akane could barely muster a sigh anymore at Ryoga's boundless enthusiasm. To the Ocean, really? And him mistaking an indoor pool for an ocean was really, really annoying. With all his travels he really should've had more experience.
The interruption courtesy of Ranma and Shampoo was more than welcome rather than the intrusion it should've been. For some reason, she had really thought she could chat to him and be friendly - while making sure he understood that this was all it was; friends. Except it had seemed so much easier in her head; for one it had involved the other part actually listening to her.
More than amused she watched the spectacle unfold, feeling her lips twitch when a female Ranma ran around wildly, arms spinning uselessly at his side as the transformed Shampoo clung to him with her claws.
"Shall we go, Akane?"
Maybe this time he'd tell her, maybe she could get him to tell her, to stop all the future madness about the pig in her bed.
"Um… Ryoga? Can I ask you something, as your friend? Can you tell me why do you have that soap?"
Biting her bottom lip, she directed an earnest look at him, hoping that maybe they could finally become friends the way they would be in future, that maybe- and obviously Ranma just had to interfere right then and there, didn't he?
"Because he's really P-"
And with that, Ryoga used the distraction to once again to try and drag her off to who-knows-where for his 'perfect' date. Needless to say, instead they were cycling in circles around the carousel. Akane had long since given up pedaling on her own; her contributions were useless with the mad way that boy was pedaling.
Suddenly he stopped them and she found herself nearly flung forwards as the momentum abruptly left her.
Ryoga's strong yet desperate voice recalled her to reality and she watched on, bemused, as his left hand went to her lower back, pulling her closer to him. It was almost painful to watch when he tried so hard to, presumably, confess his love for her, stuttering, conviction in his eyes but failing to utter the words.
Ranma's foot in his face stopped any further attempts.
"No more games, Ryoga."
The confidence was back in the lost boy, now that it came to fighting rather than emotions.
"Heh. Fool. This is my date with Akane… Leave her ALONE!"
To her amusement, Ranma actually blushed and then send her a quick, measuring glance, obviously remembering her earlier words about her viewing Ryoga only as a friend.
"What…? Listen, you…," another glance at her, before he gathered his resolve, blush receding, "All I want is that soap!"
It was surprising that she'd forgotten this entire byplay, especially with Ryoga's next exclamation; though she still wasn't quite sure why he was now angry at her fiancé for not wanting her first, when moments before that had been all he'd been trying to avoid.
"Then you're saying… that that soap is more important to you than Akane! I will not have it!"
Ranma only had a moment before Ryoga's attack but he did give her a quick, apologetic look before launching himself into the fight; which, as expected, ended up with both boys running off into the depths of the amusement park.
She felt it, the aura, the danger and the quick rush of emotions; emotions she only held towards two people on the planet.
Out of the corner of the eyes she could just make out the narrowing of the Amazon's eyes as she'd expected to remain entirely unnoticed by her before blackness descended. Her reflexes were still too slow, far too slow; she'd barely managed to move her head sideways and attempt to duck… Shampoo was too quick by far and took control with her use of the remote control acupressure.
When she next came to, Ryoga was curled up in a little ball of happiness on the floor and all she could do was sigh, watching Ranma and Shampoo leave them behind.
Oh yeah, what a date.
And, knowing her fiancé, he'd be taking this as a competition now and would be looking for another way to embarrass all three of them; probably going back to his favourite of pretending to be Ryoga's girlfriend, wife or something similar.
Dragging the useless heap that was Ryoga onto the bike, she took over the front seat and went off into the direction that Shampoo and Ranma had disappeared off to. In keeping with her expectation, she found them surprisingly quickly and her fiancé was, indeed, currently powdering his face. If she wasn't already in such a precarious situation, she would've been amused to note that his make up skills actually superseded her own.
"Oh, grow up, Ranma," for the first time since coming back she actually felt genuinely exasperated by the continued childish behaviour, "this whole date was your doing in the first place."
Really, a grown man dressing up as a woman to prove… well, what exactly? But, she guessed, that was the point. Ranma wasn't a grown man yet. He was still a boy, still so impulsive and quick to rise to challenges.
"Oh, so I made you hug Ryoga like your one true love?"
Akane blinked - when had he…? Just a moment ago he'd been wearing makeup and a dress! How did he change? And- hold on. Hugging Ryoga?
"What are are you…? When did I…?"
She hadn't hugged Ryoga; she wouldn't. Why would- Oh, the acupressure. Of course! Realization setting in, she turned, intending to share with Ranma, but instead her still-kind-of date surprised her by standing far too intimately close to her and, only moments later, lifting her into his arms.
"Oh Akane… Thank you… Your passionate embrace squeezed the fear from my timid heart… forever. From this on… I am a man!"
Eyes wide, arms in mid-air and immediately disliking the strong sensation of falling, she barely managed to make a noise of displeasure at his treatment. When Ranma had lifted her, both in past and future, she'd never felt this unsafe, the need to protect yourself in case you fell, heart racing not from love or affection but rather in fear.
Feeling distinctly unnerved she was just about to fight Ryoga seriously when Ranma's declaration of, "I'm happy for them," drew her to a standstill. It was only when Ryoga's punch sent him flying after her fiancé had told them that they looked lovely together, that Akane realised she'd missed her chance to escape when pig-boy - and she really should stop calling him that - carried her off to god-knows-where.
The ease with which he carried her up the aqua obstacle should've been impressive but it only served to frighten her, the memory of what would/had occurred her, frighteningly clear in her mind.
"At last.. up here… we are alone!" arms spread widely he reached out to hug her, only her instinctive ducking spared her from being crushed; the wooden pillar behind her, however, was not so lucky. Horrified she watched as the wood splintered and then finally broke in half, wondering if she really was going to get as lucky as last time and survive this.
And so here she was, in a situation eerily similar to last time around, except she'd managed to run that little bit faster, escape a bit further - though in the end, all it had bought her was a little more time. Once again, he'd managed to corner her and, she thanked her lucky stars, that this time around he'd once again managed to break and topple over the two pillars behind her rather than hugging her, sending them both off towards the waters below.
Pure, unadulterated fear flooded her when Ryoga's face suddenly appeared before hers with his loving declaration of, "oh, Akane!". She was a good martial artist, but the problem was that he didn't even realise he was scaring her, that his strength was horrifying to her and that it wasn't happiness or girly squeals of excitement, rather it was actual, honest terror she felt when she saw him.
To her relief, Ranma's food catapulted Ryoga off even as he jumped and rescued her. With startling ease he jumped over the water and safely deposited her back on land. She couldn't have been more grateful for his usual last-minute-rescue.
"Ryoga… was a fool."
Hands shaking slightly from the rush of emotions she'd been subjected to, she looked up at her fiancé with shimmering eyes, arms hesitantly at her side, urging her to hug him. For just a moment she needed to feel safe - safe, as only Ranma could make her feel. Biting her lip, she considered her options and, instead of him making a stupid remark, she could actually see his hand tentatively reaching out towards her, having read her intentions in spite of her inactions.
Unfortunately, Shampoo interrupted before she could find out if he really would have hugged her of his own volition.
"Done make up lie, Akane! Under Shampoo's acupressure, you big-hug Ryoga in front of whole world!"
It was funny how, even if it betrayed their schemes, they simply couldn't stop bragging about it.
"Acupressure?" Ranma repeated, finally understanding her earlier actions.
"Now if only Ranma barf up soap, is happy ending!"
Hands clenched into fists, she reminded herself that no, cold water on Shampoo would not help the situation, rather it would exacerbate it. The Amazon had promised the bathhouse incident would be forgotten in exchange for this date but any actions Akane took against her here, would definitely not be.
Ranma, luckily, was well versed in reading her bad moods and quickly ran off, leading Shampoo away from her - and thereby stopping her from having to resist the temptation.
Happy ending, indeed. That was the phrase the old Shampoo had used, too. Staring after the purple-haired girl, she couldn't help but remember how the Amazon had been so fixated on her happy ending, on Ranma being her perfect match, that she had ruined all those lives. Her lips quivered when she remembered sitting in that café all those years ago, when she remembered that odd sensation she'd had for days, that sensation that her fiancé was fighting someone and then, finally, when she'd felt the final blows that killed him. Sinking to her knees, a muted sob broke out as the memories overwhelmed her.
Ranma and her had never really gotten a chance, never had their happy ending. A few years, perfect for their very imperfections - countless fights and arguments, hassle, stress and yet filled with passion, love, support and unquestioning loyalty - gone by too quickly.
Suddenly a wave formed and Ryoga burst out into the open from the water - not in pig form, but rather still as a human; and still just as dangerous. Tears forgotten, she leapt to her feet, adrenaline rushing through her system. And then she was running, running for her life from what should've been a friend.
And no matter how many obstacles she launched at him, no matter how fast or quick she moved, he was always only a few inches behind her. Even Ranma's interference only held him up for nary a second before Ryoga sent him flying.
Even using all her strength - and a weapon - he barely seemed to feel her attacks. That, more than anything, told her just how outclassed she still was when it came to Ranma's enemies; but at least it had bought her a few, precious seconds - enough to have Ranma sidle up next to her as she ran.
"Scary what happens to a lonely guy when he gets a taste of affection, ain't it?"
"Do something, Ranma!" the look she gave him was pure panic; and, more than that, he must have seen the desperation written in her expression and the tears still pooled in her eyes, as he quickly grew serious, "or I'm going to get killed before I can tell him the truth!"
Her fiancé gave her a sharp nod, his hand reaching for her more due to the fact that he could pull her along faster than she could run on her own, but the action in itself was soothing to her. He'd save her, he always did.
In no time they were both safely hidden in a cupboard, hearing Ryoga's footsteps pounding past them.
"Right, I've got a plan," smiling warmly at those words, she looked up to Ranma. He always had a plan, a way of getting them out. "You need to give me your clothes."
Agape, she stared at him; he hadn't really just said that, had he? She chanced another look around, but changing rooms didn't magically materialize themselves.
In spite of her anger, she kept her voice to a low hiss, "you better have a really, really good explanation for that."
Finally she saw the beginnings of a blush on his face; obviously it had finally dawned on him just how this must look.
"No- No! That's not what I meant!"
Akane raised her eyebrow sardonically, staring at him mutely, awaiting his explanation.
"I'm gonna be you and then… well, I'll work it out as I go along. Anyway, it should give you enough time to get home."
Oh, that was just great. Another master plan then with no obvious flaws - at all. Heaving a deep sigh, she took another look around the dark room. No convenient piece of cloth to hide behind and just a really tiny, cramped room with no one but the two of them.
"Maybe he's already off to China by now?", she suggested quietly, voice hesitant, knowing they were never that lucky. Sure enough, moments later Ryoga's voice had her pressing herself against Ranma's back, attempting to hide even though their door hadn't even been opened.
"We're running out of time," her fiancé's voice was calm and factual, something she couldn't be more grateful for at this point, where everything was grating on her very thing nerves.
"Right. Turn 'round, Ranma. You get my clothes, I get yours. I think there's enough cold water in that bucket over there."
He grimaced, shooting a dark look at the grimy water, but to his credit, he didn't actually say anything. Despite cowering in the corner, she still felt splashes of the water hitting her and scowled slightly, before giving in with a sigh.
"So… this is not at all uncomfortable."
What had she been thinking, wearing this tight a skirt? And tights - god, this was going to take ages. And Ranma was probably already nak- no, bad thought! Bad thought!
Her fiancé chuckled and for one discomforting moment she'd thought that somehow she had spoken her thoughts aloud, before she realised it was in relation to her earlier, nervous comment. To hopefully make it easier for both of them - and to drown out the sound of cloth sliding against skin - she kept up her monologue.
"I mean, you're a girl, I'm a girl. Nothing odd about it, right? We're just changing clothes. Done that loads of times with Sayuri and Yuka… Nothing odd about that at all…"
Except it really, really was. And it was very awkward.
Ranma grunted in dissatisfaction.
"'m not a girl."
Akane snorted, giggling helplessly at the comment.
"Yeah, thanks, great. I feel so much more comfortable now."
Despite her sarcastic comment, his chuckle and interaction had actually helped soothe the anxiety somewhat. She really was being childish. It wasn't like she was giving him her underwear… hold on… he wouldn't expect her to do that, right?
"…Ranma…?" her fiancé made an affirmative noise, obviously waiting for her actual question, "we're not going to… I mean,… there's no way I'm exchanging underwear!" she finally hissed. In the end, her indignation had been enough to give her the courage to finally voice what was bothering her.
Her fiancé choked before laughing quietly.
"Just what do you think we're doing here, Akane?" she blushed at the teasing tone in his voice. After a moment, he continued. "Nah, just need your outer clothes to look enough like you to get Ryoga to follow me 'stead of you."
Finally she'd managed to take off all her clothes. A part of her wondered for just how long Ranma had been waiting for her - and just how similar his thoughts had been to hers… Had he, too, listened out for the rustle of clothes, shivered when he heard or dropped yet another item of clothing, imagined the feeling of clothing sliding over skin…?
Then, her clothes in a pile in front of her, the new dilemma finally dawned on her.
"Ranma…? What do we do now?"
She could practically hear the confusion in his voice.
"What do you mean? We swap clothes," then, teasing, he added "after all, that's what all this was for, remember?"
Harrumphing, Akane stuck her tongue out at the wall. Very funny.
"Yeah, great plan. How do we do that?"
A sigh from behind her.
"Just kick 'em over to me. Mine should be just on the floor beside you… I think."
Akane grumbled slightly but obediently did as asked; except that her feet slipped on the puddle of water she hadn't anticipated being behind her. A small shriek escaped her when she lost balance and fell backwards against her fiancé, who had turned in the nick of time and wrapped his arms around her waist, holding her securely. Though his eyes were now securely fastened on the ceiling, she knew he'd have been forced to look earlier so he'd know where to grab her.
She could hear the rapid heartbeat in his chest, the situation incredibly intimate now that she was pressed against his half-naked body with her own. At first she'd reached out for his shoulder to regain balance but then retracted her hand with lightning speed when she'd only encountered bare skin. Neither of them knew where to look or where to touch safely. Finally her shiver - though not from the cold, as Ranma thought - forced them to act.
"Erm... Is it alright if I use both arms to stabilise you?"
Akane nodded, knowing he'd feel the movement pressed together as closely as they were. It was a small consolation to know that Ranma was as nervous as she was. She could see his blush from her vantage point all to clearly and, before he moved, she could hear his shakiness in his breath. Nonetheless, his arms around her were steady and safe as he manoeuvred her carefully, making sure to never injure her - or touch her inappropriately.
Within moments she was back on her own two feet and, after muttering a quiet thanks to him, she took a step away to put some distance. Great, this was even worse now.
"D'you think we're cursed?"
Akane blinked slightly. They had both turned their backs to each other again having reached a mutual, unspoken decision of pretending the previous event hadn't ever actually taken place. Except that, obviously, it wasn't quite as mutual as she'd thought.
"What do you mean?"
Ranma's clothing really were very comfortable; she should really get herself a set of these. Loose enough to obscure muscles tensing and movement that would give away a move to an opponent but also fitted well enough to never hinder one's manoeuvrability. Brilliant, really. She picked up his shirt and was about to put it on, when Ranma's reply had her freezing in place.
"I mean, seriously, just how much of this can be a coincidence? Once, okay. Twice, fine - but now it's happened so often! You catch me in the worst possible moments and I do the same to you. And if you were going to fall, why at that precise moment? Doesn't that seem odd to you?"
~ "I didn't know you two were bonded..."
~ Her right hand clutched at her chest as a pulse of pain shot through her, as if she'd been stabbed in the back.
~ "I felt it, you know..."
It had to be- It had to be a coincidence. She couldn't allow herself to think otherwise. If she did, then... then she and Ranma weren't meant to be together, then the life she'd imagined would never happen.
"No," her voice was harsh and cold, pushing away memories, forbidding the thoughts from rising to the forefront of her mind, "it's just an unfortunate accident. You really shouldn't jump to such conclusions."
After her outburst, the air was heavy between them, partly due to the unspoken questions Ranma no doubt had and partly due to the unexpected coldness that she had never really shown him before.
Mutely, refusing to engage in any further conversation, they both finished getting dressed and she only barely stopped him from exiting.
"Listen, Ranma... I'm sorry. I just... I don't like the thought of anything being predestined. I prefer to think that we forge our own way in the world, that our life is what we make of it, that anything can happen at any point. Destiny would mean that certain people were meant to die and that-... That's something I can't accept, will never accept."
Akane knew that he'd take her statement to mean her mum, never knowing she meant him.
"And, in case I forget later, thank you both for saving me from Ryoga and for what happened earlier."
In the small room she only needed to lean slightly closer to be able to give him another kiss on the cheek. Stepping back, she gave Ranma a moment to stare at her in confusion before shaking his head and leaving to draw Ryoga's attention away from her.
After another few moments, making sure she'd given her fiancé enough time to divert pig-boy's attention - she sat down by the entrance, waiting for the others. If she turned up at home in Ranma's clothing, there'd be no end to the celebrations.
"Huh? Akane?" Nabiki's voice reached her only moments after she'd sat down. Confused she turned her head and found her sister only just leaving the baths; she'd honestly expected her to be long gone by now.
"What're you doin' in Ranma's clothes?"
Sighing to herself, the navy haired girl nervously tucked her hands in, trying to sit as modestly as possible in a vain attempt to cover the fact that she was wearing a man's clothes.
"It's a long story," she finally allowed, knowing Nabiki would have the whole story - or most of it, anyway - before the day was out. Her older sister just shrugged and nonchalantly made her way home, though Akane doubted she'd wait that long to phone all her contacts for information.
Finally, Ranma and Shampoo found their way to her, sulking about the temporary nature of the soap, P-Chan securely held in his hands. The reverse process of changing their clothes back again was relatively painless now that they had a choice of rooms.
That evening, Akane found herself in another training session with Genma and even though she was exhausted enough to begin with, she didn't complain. After all, she would desperately need the training in the days to come.
I'd love to have some more reviews, though I realise that's a very cheeky request :) Your thoughts are always appreciated, and, again, I'm so sorry for dropping off the face of the planet!