= = = =

T E N

A Ranma 1/2 Fanfic

By R. E.
(ranma_e@hotmail.com)

Illustrations by Irka
(irka@ciudad.com.ar)

= = = =

The ground disappeared from beneath
And all that was solid is air
I tumbled end over end into my nature
And darkness appeared from below
Carrying voices of query, voices of theory
Dark voices, near me
All around and reason is drowned
By the sound of clamour
The pound of the hammer
Is confusion, illusion
Plunged into shadows and mist
I catch my breath, frightened
But I will not face death still unenlightened

~ Salva Mea ~
Faithless


CHAPTER ONE
"Birthright"
= = = = = = = =

Concentration. Focus. Control.

Akane's brow furrowed as she wobbled, keeping an unsteady balance on the
bar. The voices of her classmates floated effortlessly past her, seeming
to come from a thousand miles away. Despite the crowd, Akane felt utterly
alone.

"I mustn't fall ... I mustn't fall ...."

She swallowed, trying to ignore the pounding of her heart, which filled her
ears in a deafening rumble. She squinted her eyes, trying to find her
focus amid the emptiness she found around her. A gust of wind raked
across her back, her skin prickling with goosebumps as an involuntary
shudder coursed down her spine.

"I mustn't fall ...."

She was not entirely sure why she was so nervous. All she needed to do was
launch herself into a string of three backflips, then a final somersault to
dismount. Admittedly she wasn't the best gymnast in the school, but the
task at hand was not out of her reach.

Perhaps it was the rows upon rows of fellow Furinkan students watching her
expectantly, waiting for her to make her move. The bar and other gym
equipment were outside rather than in the gym for the exhibition, and she
could feel the whole school waiting for her to move. Whatever the cause,
the nervous sweat that covered her body as a result did not make her feel
any better about staying on the bar.

She struggled, in her desperation, to find something to occupy her mind; to
remember just why she had decided to join the gymnastics team. She would
much rather be at home training with her father. Her father taught her
well about concentration, focus and control. He made her listen carefully
to his lessons on stance and power.

He had often chastised her for her lack of grace and subtlety. Her
approach to the martial arts relied on pure power, he always said to her.
His lectures would invariably end with an exercise in grace and poise.

"Don't sacrifice agility and speed for the sake of strength and power," he
had often said. "You have to keep these things in balance."

Sighing, she closed her eyes and resigned herself to her fate. There was
no turning back. The voices around her fading into silence, she steeled
herself for a moment, and launched herself backwards.

It was an odd sensation that greeted her - opening her eyes, she found
herself hanging weightless, her view one of the bright blue sky. A bird
hung motionless in the air above her, its wings held open in mid-flap. A
strange kind of calm rushed through her body, her muscles relaxing as she
felt herself drifting endlessly through a single moment.

She could do this. All her doubts were washed away in an instant of
revelation. She knew exactly what to do.

The sky rolled away from her, replaced by the horizon. She noticed the
blurred faces of her friends Yuka and Sayuri in the distance, offset
against the bar, which appeared sharply in focus. She felt herself
tilting backwards and extended her hands upward, ready to catch the bar
as it spun toward her head.

It was at that moment that she felt it. She was unsure what it was at
first; it seemed like two hot needles had been jammed into her
shoulderblades. She tried to ignore the feeling, but it burned itself
into her brain and she found herself unable to think of anything else.

She could feel herself ... being watched?

It was as though someone was staring at her, standing right behind her,
catching her in a private, secret moment. She felt her face flush with
embarrassment as a surge of adrenaline coursed through her body. She
could not fathom why, but she felt profoundly unsettled. A dark paranoia
seized her mind, draining away all other thoughts.

A hot flash of fear surged through her and she found herself twisting to
face the unknown threat, to try and catch a glimpse of the eyes behind her
back.

Just as quickly as it had appeared, the feeling vanished, leaving Akane
silently alone for the single moment before her shoulder crashed into
the bar, sending her tumbling down to the mat below.

* * *

Drifting - falling - impact.

Akane awoke slowly, a fuzzy haze hanging over her eyes and seeming
reluctant to leave. Vague memories of grassblades and vomit filled her
mind for a moment then faded, leaving a faint aftertaste of nausea behind.
She tried to sit up, but a searing pain lanced through her shoulder,
forcing her back down. She fell back onto her pillow, swimming in
dizziness and gripped the blanket, trying to stop the ceiling from
spinning quite so fast.

A few moments passed, and the nausea and dizziness faded. Once sure she
was not going to vomit, Akane dared to breathe again.

Great. Just ... great, she thought, staring at the sterile, white
ceiling. She must have made a complete fool of herself, falling off the
bar like she did, in front of the whole school.

How embarrassing.

She turned her head and looked out through the large window near her bed.
It was a sunny day outside, which meant she had not been unconscious for
long. That, or she had been unconscious for the whole night. She wasn't
sure, so she tried to put it out of her mind.

The thought suddenly crossed her mind that she was not in her bedroom. A
cold flash ran through her body as her addled mind tried to calculate the
implications of this fact. If she was not in her own bed, she was probably
in a hospital bed. If she was in a hospital bed, she was probably
seriously hurt.

If she was seriously hurt, she might not be able to compete in the
tournament.

She brought one hand to her forehead and closed her eyes, letting out a
long sigh. She would not get angry. She would not get angry.

Seeking a distraction, she turned her head as far as her angrily protesting
shoulder would allow, and tried to take in her surroundings. There was an
abundance of white - on the walls, the ceilings, the floor - and a faint
pine scent of disinfectant hung in the air. Ever since breaking a leg as a
child, Akane had disliked hospitals. Being in a hospital meant being in
pain, and this time was no exception.

A small table stood beside the bed, with a small lamp on it. A curtain
lay beyond that, pulled back to show the next bed was empty. Faint voices
caught her ears, and everpresent footsteps echoed up and down the hallway
outside her room.

She wondered idly if her father knew she was here. Probably not, she
reasoned, or he would be sitting by the bed already.

Letting out a sigh, she looked back up at the ceiling, and -- there it was
again. Glancing back over at the door nervously, Akane once again felt a
the dark paranoia take her.

The uneasiness filled her to the core; she knew she was being watched.

A darkness appeared, visible in the corner of her eye, and Akane jerked her
head to look at it. Her shoulder protested loudly, but she ignored the
pain, her eyes coming to rest on a person standing in front of the window.

"Who are you?" Akane asked, squinting to make out details. The figure
stepped closer, revealing the face of a young girl. It was a soft face,
despite a long scar that ran down from one eye, across the cheek, and
halfway down the neck. Two blue eyes, piercing in their intensity,
stared back at her from beneath bright red hair.

The girl was shrouded in a thick black cloak that obscured her entire
body. Frigid air seemed to escape from beneath the black fabric and
brought a chill to the room, sending a painful shiver down Akane's spine.
Akane felt the temperature in the room drop sharply, and saw her breath
condense upon the chilled air as she let out a shaky breath.

"Who are you?" she repeated, watching the girl who was staring so intently
at her.

"You've dislocated your shoulder," the girl said at length. "The doctors
have re-set it, but you're still in pain."

"How do you--" Akane began, but stopped as she saw the girl step toward
her. "What are you doing ...?"

The girl raised an arm, a small hand emerging from the cloak and moving
toward Akane's shoulder. It drew near Akane's arm, and Akane felt coldness
spread through her.

Akane felt a tingling in her fingers as her arm went numb. She tried to
move, to stop this girl from doing whatever she was doing, but she found
she could not. Silent and motionless, she had little choice but to watch
the girl take hold of her shoulder and squeeze it.

A wave of tiredness overcame Akane as she felt an incredible pleasure,
a sensual warmth that radiated from her shoulder even as the rest of her
body turned cold. She looked up at the girl, trying to fathom her intent,
but could see only a gentle smile.

Her eyes closed, Akane curled her toes as a whisper of exquisite pleasure
swam through her body, washing away pain and leaving blissful relaxation
in its wake.

"You may feel a little weak," the girl's voice floated into her mind,
muffled as if spoken with a mouth full of cotton wool. "But your pain
is gone. Get some rest.

"After you wake up, your father will arrive to take you home. Don't tell
him about me; I'll find you tonight and answer your questions."

Akane tried to force herself awake, to reach out and grab this girl, to
make her explain what she had done, and who she was, but she could not
will herself to move. Her eyelids stayed closed, as if a great weight
were holding them down.

"You want to know who I am, I know," came the girl's voice, echoing through
Akane's consciousness. "My name is Ranma, and I'm here to protect you.
Get some sleep."

* * *

Little was said by father or daughter as they made their way back from the
hospital.

Akane had awoken a few hours later and, just as Ranma had said, Soun
arrived shortly afterwards. He was worried sick, of course, but Akane's
reassurance that she was fine calmed him down.

What interested Akane was the fact that she wasn't just saying she was fine
for her father's sake - she genuinely felt fine. Better than she had felt
for a while, in fact.

She was not sure whether she had dreamed about her visitor, but the fact
remained that her shoulder did not hurt at all. The doctor had been most
surprised by this fact, apparently, when he checked on her. She could not
explain it to him any more than she could to herself.

All she knew was, she felt great, and that she should not tell her father
about it, as much as she wanted to.

The sun cast a lazy orange hue across the path as they walked, their
shadows stretching out beside them across the path and partway up the wall
on the far side. Its rays infused all they touched with a gentle warmth,
holding off for a few minutes more the chill of the night to come.

"I'll have to make some tea," said Soun as they eventually neared the
Tendo dojo. "I don't know about you, but I'd love a nice warm drink."

"Thanks, Dad," Akane smiled at him as he opened the front door for her.
"I could have done that myself, you know."

"I don't want you straining yourself, Akane. You're still my little girl,
remember."

"I'll be straining myself in the tournament, Dad," Akane noted, smiling. "I
don't think you'll be taking care of that for me, will you?"

"You're still entering?" Soun asked, surprised, as he closed the door
behind them.

"Of course, Daddy. I'm not going to let something like this stop me."

"I just thought, with your injury and all ...."

"I know how much this tournament means to you, Daddy," Akane said, turning
to look at him, "and you know how much it means to me. I'll be there, and
I'll prove how good our dojo really is."

Soun smiled at her, and placed his hand gently on her shoulder. "You make
your father proud, Akane. I -- oh! I'm sorry, your shoulder--"

"It's fine, Daddy," Akane replied. "It doesn't hurt at all."

"You should go and have a bath," Soun suggested. "The heat will be good
for your shoulder."

Akane smiled at Soun and nodded, deciding to cease her protests and let her
father take care of her.

* * *

Akane let out a deep breath as she slowly sank her body into the steaming
water of the bath.

"Ahhhh-ahhhh-ahhhhh ...."

She felt the water rise around her, enveloping her in a soothing warmth
that radiated throughout her body, relaxing her muscles almost immediately.
She closed her eyes as she felt the warmth rise across her chest, slowly
lowering herself until she was at last sitting within the bath, the water
lapping gently at the base of her neck as it rippled from her entry.

Opening her eyes again she looked down at the water. She could see her
own indistinct form refracted by the surface of the water, through the
thin wisps of steam that drifted slowly upwards from it. Clutching her
arms together beneath her breasts, she tried to capture and hold as much
warmth as she could. She'd had enough of the cold for one day.

She took a deep breath of the moist, humid air around her and tried to
relax. The warmth felt good and she was determined to enjoy it. It had
been a long and confusing day.

She was unsure why she had made such a bad mistake during her flip; she
vaguely recalled a dark feeling of panic inside herself, but could not
for the life of her fathom what it was.

She had felt a similar sensation in the hospital, and again she did not
understand it. She knew that second time, however, it was somehow related
to her visitor. Her thoughts wandered back to the girl in black.

Did she really have a visitor, or was it just a dream? She seemed like a
strange person, this cloaked girl, this -- what was her name?

"Ranma," she whispered to herself. "What an unusual name ...."

The more she thought about it, the stranger her memory of the girl became.
This girl, pale within a dark cloak, sharp blue eyes framed by fiery red
hair, but with hands that carried a touch like ice - she seemed unreal,
like some vision from beyond, a dream conjured by a semiconscious mind.

The girl asked not to be mentioned, and Akane had honoured that request.
Why?

Probably so her father would not think her insane, she reasoned. Still,
if this girl really was there, Akane owed her a debt of gratitude.

She reached up and rubbed her shoulder gently. It amazed her still to
feel no pain at all. The pain was like a thousand needles stabbed into
her arm when she was at the hospital -- but now, it was gone. Surely,
that could not have been coincidence.

Thinking back, she remembered the icy chill that Ranma's very presence
had brought to the room. It seemed that the girl sucked the warmth from
the bed and replaced it with a sheet of ice. The hair on Akane's neck
stood up from the memory alone.

Akane blinked, as she realised it was not just the memory; a shiver ran
through her as she became aware of the fact that she was freezing cold.
She ran her hands up and down her arms, fingers sliding against goosebumped
skin as she tried to infuse some warmth into herself.

A small gasp escaped her lips as she saw in front of her, where a moment
ago there had been nothing, the girl from the hospital room. She jumped
to her feet and instinctively covered herself with her arms, her shivering
forgotten.

The girl pushed back the hood of her cloak, revealing her face once more.

"I'm sorry about this, Akane," she spoke softly. "It was the only way to
talk to you alone."

"How did you ...?"

"Get in?" Ranma finished, folding her arms in front of herself. "It's not
hard to hide myself. Sit down, don't be embarrassed."

Akane nodded dumbly, and half sat, half fell back down into the water. She
felt an instinctive urge to defend herself, but somehow realized she did
not need to.

"How do you know my name?"

"I know a lot about you," Ranma answered, looking down at Akane. "You are
Akane Tendo, sole heir to the Tendo school of Anything-Goes Martial Arts.
You are sixteen, an only child. Your mother died twelve years ago, and
your father raised you alone, teaching you the family art so that you
would carry on after he was gone."

Akane swallowed, a nervous sweat forming on her forehead. How on Earth
did this girl know these things?

"That's all true," Akane agreed, eyebrows raised, "but that's not what I
asked."

"No, it's not," Ranma admitted with a sigh. "I have a lot to tell you,
and I don't have a lot of time. In a few moments your father is going
to come in and tell you to go and talk to him, and I don't plan on being
around when that happens. So, I'll try to be brief."

"Okay," said Akane, not bothering to ask how Ranma knew that.

"I've been watching over you for a few days now, Akane," Ranma continued.
"I know what I know from watching you and those around you."

"Why? What do you want from me?"

"I don't want anything from you," Ranma replied with a sigh. She furrowed
her brow, deep in thought. "Damn it, I wish I had more time.

"I owe your family a great deal," she continued after a moment's thought,
"and I have a duty to perform. You're in danger, Akane, and it's my job to
protect you from that danger."

"Danger? What danger?"

"It's a long story, and I don't have time now. There's so much I want to
tell you - but, now I have the chance, I can't think how to begin. I have
to go, but I'll meet you tomorrow, in your dojo. Perhaps it would be
easier to explain if ....

"Yes," Ranma added after a moment. "Bring Soun, too. Tell him I said
hello."

"But--" Akane tried, only to be interrupted as Ranma suddenly vanished.
She blinked in surprise, her eyes flitting from the edge of the bath to the
window and back. The window was still closed, and the door had not opened.
Where did Ranma go?

A thin haze of steam rose up across her view, and Akane realized that
once again, the room was warm. Clenching and unclenching her fists as
sensation returned to her fingers, Akane heard a knocking behind her.

"Akane?" came her father's voice through the door.

"Yes?" Akane replied, her eyes still fixed on the spot Ranma had stood in.
What on Earth was going on? Who was this girl?

"Akane, please come to the table," Soun said, opening the door just enough
to speak through it. "I've made a nice warm drink for you, and I would
like to hear what happened today."

"Okay, I'm on my way," Akane replied.

"Thank you," Soun said, and the door closed.

She stared for several moments, her eyes fixed on that one spot. There
had to be some explanation for all of this.

"Ranma," she whispered, again. "Such an unusual name ...."

* * *

"So," Soun said, as he sipped his second cup of tea. "What do you
remember?"

"Not a lot," admitted Akane. "I was distracted, and I lost my focus."
She sighed softly. Her father was in teaching mode, and obviously thought
a lecture was what she needed.

"And you ended up nearly injuring yourself," Soun added, with a solemn
nod. He fixed his eyes on the top of his teacup, and spoke without
looking up. "You made a very simple mistake. What did you do wrong?"

"I shouldn't have been distracted," Akane answered, staring at her own tea.

"Correct," Soun agreed, nodding. "You cannot afford to lose focus, Akane.
Focus and mental discipline are of the upmost importance."

Akane stared into her tea, letting the lecture her father had begun wash
over her. She had heard these words before, many times, and she probably
would hear them many times more. She felt a flare of anger for a moment;
she would not have lost her focus if it wasn't for ....

"Dad," she spoke suddenly, interrupting him.

He fixed her with an irritated glare. "I did not raise my child to
interrupt her father, or her teacher."

"I'm sorry," Akane apologised, looking up at him. "But I have to tell you.
Something happened while I was on the bar. It was ... I couldn't stop
myself-"

"What was it?" Soun asked, curious.

Akane paused for a moment, choosing her words.

"Does the name 'Ranma' mean anything to you?"

"Ranma?" Soun looked at her, surprise flashing through his eyes for just a
moment.

"Hrmm," he rumbled thoughtfully, taking another sip of his tea. "I see.
She's talked to you, then?"

"Yes," Akane replied, utterly confused. "You know her?"

"Far too well," Soun admitted with a sigh. "Far too well."

"Who is she?"

"An ... acquaintance of the family. If she's here, that means ...."

Akane looked at her father as he trailed off into silence. The look on
his face was a combination of deep thought and concern. She had seen
that look before, whenever he watched her compete in a tournament. He
kept a keen eye on her during her competitions, and she felt herself
stiffen under his gaze.

She waited for him to speak, but he remained silent. Several moments
passed before she opened her mouth again.

"She wants you to come with me to the dojo tomorrow."

He nodded, another thoughtful rumble his only response. He did not look
surprised in the least. His expression seemed haunted.

"What does this all mean? Everyone seems to know what's happening except
me!"

"Akane," Soun sighed, placing his cup on the table. "If Ranma is here,
she can explain everything. It is ... not my place, child."

"I'm not a child, Daddy," Akane replied, growing irritated. "You know
that."

"I do know that," he lamented, nodding glumly. "That, my dear daughter, is
the problem."

"I don't understand ...."

"You will, Akane," Soun replied sadly. "You'll soon understand all too
well. Tomorrow, we will go and talk with Ranma."

"All right," Akane said with a nod, glad to finally be getting somewhere.

"But tonight," Soun continued, reaching over to grasp at Akane's hand,
"you will kiss your Dad goodnight, you will go to bed, and you will get
a good night's sleep."

"But--"

"No buts, Akane," Soun interrupted, looking at her without anger or
irritation. "No buts, tonight."

Akane looked down at her father's hand, then back up at his face.
Wrinkles appeared where before there had been none, and her father
seemed to have aged a decade in a moment. She placed her other hand
atop his.

"All right," she agreed. She leaned over, kissed him on the cheek,
and stood. Waiting until tomorrow would not hurt. Turning, she left the
room and walked up the stairs, leaving her father alone with his thoughts.

"Not my Akane," Soun whispered, a tear running down his cheek. "Please,
not my little girl."

Neither father nor daughter slept very well that night.

* * *


"Wait, Akane," Soun called, pulling his daughter back. "Let me go first."

Akane looked back at her father then nodded, stepping aside to let him
take the lead. He stepped up to the doors of the dojo and stood before
them for a moment, motionless, before eventually sliding them open and
stepping inside.

The dojo was cold inside, far colder than outside, and Soun's breath
changed to mist upon the air. He stepped cautiously, looking left and
right at each step. Akane followed him in, held back by his arm held
across her shoulders.

"Stay behind me," he instructed.

She nodded, silently, her body tensing behind her father. She could tell
he was treading carefully and quietly; she found herself doing the same
instinctively. Years of training with her father had taught her to pay
close attention to his body language.

Pale morning sunlight filtered weakly in through the rice-paper doors on
the other side of the dojo, but they did little to warm the wooden floor
they illuminated. Akane felt as though she were walking on ice.

"It's too cold," Akane commented, looking around herself. Condensation
had formed along the blade of a sword that hung from the wall. Droplets
of water dripped irregularly to the floor, landing in a small puddle
that had formed below. The quiet, watery sound disturbed the silence,
only adding to Akane's nervousness.

"Yes," agreed Soun. He glanced over at the dojo shrine and felt his
resolve firming. He stopped in place, near the centre of the dojo,
and spun around. "Show yourself, Ranma!"

Akane jumped a little at his sudden shout, and whirled around toward the
door they had entered through. Standing before it was Ranma, shrouded
completely in black.

Ranma stepped forward into the dojo, closing the doors behind her. She
turned to face the shrine and bowed.

"You have no right to bow to that shrine!" Soun bellowed, a cloud of
breath floating up from his mouth at his outburst. "You have no right
to be in this dojo!"

Akane stared at her father, shocked at his outburst. She had never, in
her entire life, heard such from her father. She glanced over at Ranma,
to see her reaction.

Ranma, for her part, lowered herself slowly to one knee, and pulled back
the hood of her cloak. Hair spilling down over her face, she looked up
long enough speak, "I'm sorry. I meant no offense."

"It's far too late for that," Soun fumed, watching as Ranma again lowered
her gaze to the floor.

"My life is in your hands; take it if you will," Ranma replied, lowering
her head further to expose her neck.

"Empty words," snorted Soun. "You know as well as I do that they mean
nothing."

"The spirit is willing," said Ranma, softly, "but the flesh is weak."

Silence filled the dojo for a moment as Soun chose his words. Ranma
raised her head to match Soun's stare with her own.

Akane could feel a thousand questions bustling to escape from her throat,
but none dared to escape through her lips. She looked at her father, then
to Ranma, wondering who would end the standoff.

"Why have you returned?" Soun asked, breaking the impasse at last.

"To warn you," Ranma replied.

"Of what?" Soun asked, already knowing the answer. He sighed, and turned
away. "Take off that damn cloak before you answer, it's freezing in here."

"As you wish," Ranma replied, nodding slightly, and reached up to unfasten
the cloak. As she raised herself to stand, it came loose around her neck
and flowed off her body, pooling in a black puddle of fabric near her feet.
Almost immediately, the warmth seemed to return to the room.

Akane watched the cloak with fascination for a moment, before turning her
eyes toward Ranma, for the first time getting a glimpse of what lay
hidden beneath the cloak.

The first thing Akane noticed was a large katana strapped tightly across
Ranma's back. She swallowed, wondering how such a large sword was
concealed so completely beneath the cloak.

Ranma stood a little shorter than Akane. A traditional Chinese shirt of
red silk that seemed several sizes too big was draped over her body, the
sleeves rolled up to the elbows, exposing well-toned forearms. She
reached back and slid the strap holding the sword to her over her head,
and lowered the sword to the ground, resting it upon the cloak.

Akane noticed a long, turquoise dragon tattoo that ran the length of
Ranma's left forearm and for a moment wondered where a girl as young as
Ranma would find a tattoo artist willing to tattoo her. The thought
passed as quickly as it had arrived.

As well as the shirt, Ranma wore simple silk pants but no shoes. Her feet,
like the rest of her body, were pale and delicate in appearance, while at
the same time issuing a feeling of sturdiness.

Akane noticed the stability of Ranma's posture, the quiet grace with which
she moved, and wondered for an instant how well this girl could fight. She
felt a sudden desire to spar with her and find out.

Ranma looked over at Akane, her eyes suggesting that she knew just what
Akane was thinking. A small smile played over her lips, and Akane found
herself matching it.

Atop Ranma's head lay a thick tangle of cherry-red hair that dangled down
to her waist in a thick ponytail. It was matted and dirty, but Akane was
nonetheless stunned by the radiant colour that shone from beneath the
filth.

Ranma was indeed very dirty, covered with dried-on mud and dust. Her eyes,
those vibrant orbs of blue and white, seemed bright compared to the skin of
her face which was caked in dust.

Akane wondered what sort of girl would have so little regard for personal
hygiene. She remembered suddenly that Ranma's eyes were on her, and she
realised Ranma had noticed her staring. She flushed and looked away.

"Well?" Soun prompted.

"Well what?" asked Ranma, her attention being turned away from Akane.

"What did you come to warn us of?"

"Hunters," Ranma answered the question as if it were obvious. "They know
about the Tendo heir, and they are looking for her."

"Hunters?" asked Akane. Her question was ignored.

"How did they find out?" Soun queried, beginning to pace back and forth.
The worry on his face and in his stride was obvious.

Akane looked closely at her father for the first time since Ranma had
appeared and noticed that none of his tension or nervousness had left him.
She swallowed nervously - she had not seen her father looking so
intimidated before. It frightened her somewhat to see her father - the
man who was normally a pillar of strength in her life - looking so
unnerved. She felt herself wanting to help but was unsure of what to do.

"I don't know," Ranma answered. "Their techniques are more sophisticated
these days, I don't understand half of the stuff they use to track me."

"If you know they're tracking you," Soun said, turning to face Ranma again,
"why on Earth did you come here? Are you trying to lead them to Akane?"

"Lead WHO to me?" Akane tried, growing increasingly annoyed at being left
out of a conversation that obviously concerned her.

"I had no choice," Ranma replied. "Even if I stayed away, they would find
her. She stands a far better chance with me than without me."

Soun snorted. "History suggests otherwise."

"WHAT ARE YOU BOTH TALKING ABOUT?!" Akane bellowed, frustration in her
voice. She had had just about enough of being ignored.

Soun sighed. "Tell her who you are."

Ranma turned to face Akane directly and bowed formally.

"I am Ranma Saotome," she said, still bowing, "of the Saotome clan."

"Saotome clan?" Akane asked, bewildered.

"For nearly nine hundred years now, your family and mine have shared a
common enemy. We don't know who they are, but they hunt us without mercy.
I don't know how, but they've found out about you. I must take you from
this place before they find you."

"You have GOT to be kidding," Akane replied, flatly. "Who do you think
you are?"

"I know it sounds strange, Akane," Ranma replied. "We don't have a lot
of time. We must go far from here. You and your family are in danger
as long as you stay here. You will not be able to stand up to these
people."

"I can't leave!" Akane replied, angrily. "I've got a tournament next week,
not to mention school. You think I'm going to drop everything and leave
just because you say I should?"

"My daughter will not be swayed so easily by you," Soun said simply.

"I would expect no less," Ranma countered, "considering her teacher. You
don't have a chance against the hunters, Akane. No matter how well you
think you've been trained, it is NOT good enough!"

"First you try to boss me around, then you insult my father too?" Akane
fumed, throwing her hands into the air. "I don't have time for this, I'm
leaving!

"And don't you worry about me," she added, pointing at Ranma. "I'm a
martial artist, I'm not about to run away from a fight. I can take
care of myself!"

With that, Akane turned on her heel and stomped angrily away, violently
sliding the door closed behind her as she left.

The resounding thud of the door sliding into place echoed briefly inside
the dojo, followed by a moment of silence before Soun turned to face
Ranma again.

"Quite a temper," Ranma observed evenly. "That could be a problem."

"I would have expected even you to have a better grasp of my daughter's
personality," Soun commented dryly. "I don't suppose you've learned that
much at all."

"It would be easier," Ranma countered, tensing her muscles and clenching
her fists, "if you weren't undermining me at every step! Do you want your
daughter to die?"

"Don't you DARE," Soun yelled, stepping quickly up to Ranma. He
caught himself midsentence, and forced down his anger. Taking a
deep breath, he continued in a carefully measured tone.

"I would remind you that you are in my dojo, in my home. After all you
have been responsible for, you WILL show me respect."

"I'm sorry," Ranma replied quietly, relaxing her stance. Her head
drooped a little as a sigh escaped her. "I just want to make up for
what happened, Soun. You know as well as I that what I've said is the
truth. Whether or not Akane believes it isn't relevant."

"You're not the only one who has regrets, Ranma," Soun observed glumly. He
turned away and stepped toward the shrine. "Not a day goes by that I don't
wish for the chance to undo what happened that day. I know my own
stubbornness didn't help at all, but ....

"I can never forgive you for what happened," he continued quietly, more
to himself than to Ranma. "Never."

"I only want to--" Ranma began, but stopped as she saw Soun's shoulders
shaking with his sobbing. She let her mouth close with a sigh.

"I don't want this time to be the same. I have learned from my mistake,"
Soun said through his tears. "I can only pray that you have also learned.
Take care of my girl, Ranma, or I will make you wish you had never heard
the name Tendo."

"I promise," Ranma replied solemnly. "I will do everything in my power to
keep her safe from them. It will be easier if I can be her friend - I need
her to trust me. I beg of you - don't make this any harder for her than
it has to be."

"If only she did not need friends such as you," Soun wished, bringing his
sobbing under control. "She would be much better off if you had not come."

With that, Soun walked slowly away, following his daughter through the far
door. Ranma watched him leave then stood alone for a moment, silent,
before reaching down for her sword and cloak.

Slinging the sword over her shoulder, she tugged at the cloak, which
encircled her arm, then flowed over her shoulder, coiling around her until
it covered her entire body once more.

Once more shrouded in black, the expression of grim determination restored
to her face, she stood for a moment in the once-more frigid air of the dojo
before turning and stepping toward the door behind her.

"I won't fail," she said softly, looking over over her shoulder at the dojo
shrine. "Never again."

* * *

The sun cast a dull orange hue against the Tendo household as it slowly
gave in to the horizon's pull, the gentle warmth slowing people, plants
and animals alike as the hectic pace of the day was reduced toward a
slow, restful night.

However, one person was oblivious to the day's approaching end.

Akane growled angrily as she unleashed a flurry of kicks upon the training
dummy. How dare this Ranma come into her life, demand she drop everything,
and run away from her father?

She had trained for years, following her father down the path of the family
style. When her father died, she would take over, and lead the school. It
was what she had always imagined herself doing, and she would be damned
before she would let some stranger barge into her life and ruin everything.

She let out a cry as she swung a high kick at the dummy's head; a dull
thud answered her as the head broke off and tumbled to the grass below.

Sighing, she kneeled and picked up the broken head. Another dummy broken.
The sounds of students training in the dojo reminded her that she should
not interrupt in order to get another dummy.

Training. That was all she had ever done. Training for what?

Her father seemed so intent upon her learning the family art. She knew he
wanted her to teach the school's classes once he was no longer able to.
Was that the only reason?

Did he know Ranma would come? Had he been trying to prepare her, all these
years?

The regional tournament was coming up in three days. She had been training
hard, harder than usual, for that tournament. Her father wanted her to
win, to show everyone that the Tendo school was the best, so that they
would want to attend it.

That had been her target, her goal. But what beyond that? The next
tournament? The tournament after that?

Did she want to spend her life doing that?

She did not know. She did know, however, that she wanted to stay with her
father. She was driven by a need for strength, to keep and protect her
home.

That was why she trained. Not for tournaments or prestige, but to help
her home.

She thought back to Ranma smiling at her in the dojo. A filthy, mud-ridden
wanderer. Akane wondered if Ranma even had a home to defend, and guessed
that she did not.

Why, then, had Akane seen a fiery determination in those bright blue eyes?

She had felt determination many times in her life. Determination to win
competitions, to be better than her peers. Determination to prove to her
father that she could do all he thought she could, and then more besides.

She could not remember, however, ever feeling the depth and intensity of
will that she had seen for an instant in Ranma's eyes that morning. Never
had she felt as strongly about anything as Ranma obviously did about
the supposed threat that was about to make itself known.

She had always strived to prove herself to her father, but the realisation
dawned on her that she had never really needed to. Her father had never
doubted her; never questioned her ability. He asked something of her and
she did it. If not the first time, then shortly afterwards.

The only time he had ever seemed to be doubtful about her abilities ....

.... was when he was talking to Ranma that morning.

Akane clenched her fist. She had not realised it at the time but it was
the only time in her entire life that her father had not had complete
confidence in her.

The thought both horrified and enthralled her. If her father did not
believe her capable, what did that say about her skills as a martial
artist? But if her father had to question her ability - it meant that, at
last, she had found a _challenge_.

Akane could not resist a challenge for long.

Her mind ran in circles as she considered what Ranma had said that morning.
There were so many unanswered questions about this Ranma, so many things
Akane did not know.

The compulsion to spar with Ranma returned, and Akane looked over her
shoulder toward the dojo, half expecting Ranma to be there as she did. She
sighed. No such luck.

Placing the dummy's head back upon its shoulders, she turned back toward
the house. The anger she had felt only minutes before had been washed away
in a wave of realisation and replaced with a burning curiosity that
lingered over her like a cloud and refused to leave her.

There was something strange, unnatural, about Ranma. Her very presence
sucked the warmth from the room, but at the same time, the very air around
her felt charged, somehow. The hair on the back of Akane's neck stood up
at the memory as a shiver prickled her skin.

Even when she was standing near, Ranma seemed only half-present, as if she
would be gone if one blinked or gazed away for just a moment. She had in
fact demonstrated her knack for that very trick on two occasions.

Akane could not put her finger upon it, but there was something uncanny
about this girl. She needed time to think, to try and fathom the answers
to the many puzzles that had presented themselves to her.

Smiling to herself, she decided a warm bath would give her plenty of time
to do so.

* * *

A gentle dripping sound was Akane's only companion as she relaxed in the
water. She stretched her legs out beneath the water's surface, letting
her head rest back on the side of the bath, her eyes closed as she let the
water envelop her body.

Her mind attempted to work its way through the many new facts that had
been presented to her, but Akane found herself frustrated by an inability
to concentrate.

She found herself daydreaming, thinking back to the tiny smile that Ranma
had offered in the dojo.

"Spar with me," Ranma was saying. "Show me what you can do."

Akane cringed as she watched herself yell and throw a tantrum like a
little child. No warrior would behave in such a way. A sudden sense of
shame brought redness to her cheeks.

Akane shivered, brought from her daydream by the now familiar sharp
sensation of cold that filled her entire body. She opened her eyes and
looked around the steam-filled room.

"You're a hard girl to find on her own," came Ranma's voice. "Bath time
is just about the only time I can get you on your own when you're not
destroying something."

Akane frowned. Her recently-acquired curiosity was for a moment pushed
aside by irritation at the accurate but rude observation.

"Not quite so melodramatic now, are we?" Akane observed, trying and failing
to ignore the barb. "No warnings of death this time?"

"I thought I'd try dropping the formality a bit," Ranma countered. "Your
father appreciates it more than you, I think. I wanted to show you the
real me."

"He didn't seem to appreciate you or your formality earlier," Akane
commented, leaning back against the edge of the bath. "What was that all
about?"

"It's a very, very long story, Akane," Ranma replied with a sigh. "There
will be plenty of time to tell it on the road."

"You seem pretty confident I'll come with you. What makes you think I
can't handle whatever's coming myself? If it's even coming at all, that
is."

"Confidence always was my strength," Ranma admitted, the corner of her
mouth turning upwards in a wry smile. "I'm sorry for being rude before.
I didn't mean to belittle you, and I apologise.

"It's only fair to you that I tell you some more about me, and your
family. I think you'll agree that leaving is, for the moment, the best
idea."

"I'm glad you've finally decided to let me in on the big secret," Akane
noted sourly. "Everyone seems to know what's going on but me."

"Before I do, I want to ask you a very important question."

"What?"

"Mind if I join you in there? I haven't had a good warm bath in years."

Akane blinked, taken off guard by the question. She looked at Ranma's
dirt-covered face and found herself unable to resist a smile.

"I don't mind. There's some soap over there."

* * *

Akane sat in silence as Ranma scrubbed herself, soap suds bubbling all
over as thick layers of built up dirt were thoroughly rubbed away.

Ranma hummed a tune to herself as she worked, taking time to enjoy the
sensation and smell of soap against her body and the shampoo in her hair.
She smiled merrily as she worked and seemed in no hurry to finish.

Akane did not recognise the tune being hummed, but found herself smiling
all the more as she heard it. It seemed happy, almost whimsical in nature,
and was truly a contrast to the stony-faced seriousness Ranma had presented
to her on previous occasions.

Soon the humming changed to whistling that only occasionally wandered off
key. Ranma did not seem to notice any deviations from the tune, and Akane
did not wish to disturb her by pointing out parts that sounded wrong.

Akane was afforded a closer view of Ranma's body as the girl cleaned
herself. Beneath all that dirt, Ranma had smooth, clear skin that was
unfortunately blemished with dozens of scars, so many that Akane lost
count as Ranma shifted about.

In addition to the scars, Ranma's body was decorated with a variety of
tattoos, a mishmash of Japanese and other artistic styles that Akane did
not recognise. Akane felt a pang of jealousy at Ranma's figure, and
a mild irritation at the thought of it being defaced by tattoos.

She recognised a few of the tattoos - dragons, faces, kanji - but others
she did not. Her curiosity grew more and more, until Akane felt fit to
burst from the questions buzzing around inside her.

Ranma took what seemed to Akane to be an eternity cleaning herself, but
was eventually satisfied with the cleaning job she had done, and upended
a bucket of cold water over herself to rinse away the soap and shampoo.

"Brr ... cold!" Ranma exclaimed, shaking her head back and forth. Cold
water went flying everywhere as her lengthy hair whipped back and forth,
some splashing Akane, who was too preoccupied to notice.

Ranma stood and made her way to the bath. Stepping in, she smiled over
at Akane.

"Sorry to keep you waiting."

"You clean up well," responded Akane, with the first string of words that
came to mind.

"Thank you," Ranma responded sincerely. "I don't get many chances to
clean up."

Ranma sank slowly into the water until only her head was above the surface,
her eyes closed and an expression of bliss decorating her face.

She has a very pretty face, Akane thought. The scar running down Ranma's
cheek saddened Akane as it detracted from what was otherwise a lovely face.

Silence filled the room as Ranma stayed still and Akane watched her,
waiting for some comment or sign she should start asking questions.
Eventually, her curiosity got the better of her. She cleared her throat
gently.

Ranma opened one eye and turned it to look back at Akane. "Mm?"

"Umm, you said you were going to tell me about my family?" Akane tried,
tilting her head slightly to the side as she did.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Ranma replied, sitting up straight. "I'd just forgotten
how wonderful this felt. A good, warm bath is good for the soul, don't you
think?"

"I guess ..." Akane replied, unsure. "They're pretty routine for me."

Ranma smiled at her, and Akane flushed, feeling suddenly stupid for
not appreciating something that Ranma very obviously enjoyed a great
deal. The awkward moment passed, however, and Ranma spoke, much to
Akane's relief.

"Well, I can understand you're curious. I know I would be, if I were in
your place.

"There's so much I can tell you, it's hard to know where to begin.
Although," Ranma paused, looking over at Akane, who was still staring, "you
seem more interested in me than your family."

"S-sorry," Akane stammered, taken by surprise. She looked away. "I didn't
mean to stare."

"It's okay," Ranma replied, laughing a little.

"I don't mind. It's not often you see a body as good looking as mine, I
guess," Ranma observed, with a mischevious smile upon her lips. "Although,
it's usually boys who stare, not girls."

"It's not like that!" Akane yelped, splashing Ranma as she sat up in
violent denial.

"I know, I know," Ranma replied, waving a hand to dismiss Akane's protests.
She smiled again, kindly. "I'm just teasing you."

"Honestly," huffed Akane. "I can't believe you said that."

"I'd be pretty curious about all this," Ranma remarked, looking down at
herself, "if I didn't see it every day. Well, where can I begin?

"My father," she said at length, turning to face away from Akane, "is
here."

Ranma pulled her flowing hair over one shoulder, exposing a small face
tattooed just below the back of her neck. She turned back to face Akane.

"He died protecting me, and ever since, he's watched my back."

"He died for you?" Akane asked, stunned by the nobility of it. "What was
his name?"

"Genma," Ranma replied, nonchalantly brushing her hair back over her
shoulder. "He was my best friend and my worst nightmare, all rolled in to
one."

"Your worst nightmare?" Akane asked, wondering how someone who would die
to save their daughter could be bad. She pondered for a moment her father
dying to save her life, and felt a sense of pride as she found it easy
to imagine such an act from him.

"Well, he saved my behind a few times, I'll give him that," Ranma said,
offhandedly. "Truth of the matter is, though, he got me IN to bad
situations far, far more often than he got me out of them."

"You shouldn't disrespect him like that," Akane grumbled. "He saved your
life, you should be grateful."

"Oh, I was, I was," Ranma replied. "Don't get me wrong. I love him, and
I'd give anything to see him again. I'm just not going to disrespect his
memory by forgetting all the stupid things he did. It was a part of who
he was."

Akane blinked, trying to fathom the logic behind that.

Ranma watched her for a moment, smiling at the absurdity of it all. "My
father was a strange man. Very dedicated to the Art. I think he and
your father have a lot in common.

"This," Ranma said, indicating a bright red dragon that spiralled down over
her right shoulder and along her upper arm, "is Garyoutensei. I've carried
him since my father died."

"What do you mean?"

"Garyoutensei," Ranma replied, pointing over her shoulder at the pile of
her belongings near the door, "is my sword. My father gave it to me as
he died, and told me to keep it with me as long as I lived."

"'Adding eyes to a dragon'? Strange name for a sword."

"He told me he got it from a dragon," Ranma explained. "He always did have
a flair for the dramatic."

"He certainly sounds like his daughter's father," Akane noted. Ranma
flashed an appreciative smile at Akane's jab.

"The story he told me was that he made a deal with a dragon spirit. He
asked to be the greatest martial artist in the land, and the spirit
granted his wish. In return, however, the dragon commanded him to take
the sword, and carry it with him always. It was to become a family
heirloom. It seemed like a pretty good deal to him, so he took the sword,
and the deal was sealed."

"That's quite a story," Akane said reverantly, marvelling at the
romanticism of it all. "Your father sounded like quite the warrior."

"I think," Ranma noted, "the truth was probably a bit different. I think
he paid a fortune for it from some merchant while utterly, utterly drunk.
He always did like his alcohol."

Akane looked at Ranma sourly.

"But," Ranma said, holding both hands up in an appeasing gesture, "I wanted
to always remember the story, so I had the dragon spirit tattooed on my
arm.

"And this," Ranma continued, standing so her waist emerged from the water,
"is a mark I was given the last time I told the story of how I was first
given Garyoutensei."

Ranma pointed at her stomach, where a small kanji was tattooed above a
large horizontal scar across her stomach.

"Ten?" Akane asked, looking at the kanji. "Why that kanji?"

"'An undefeatable warrior you shall be!'" Ranma quoted with a flourish,
affecting a strange accent as she did. "I was given that mark quite some
time ago. Apparently, it is supposed to protect me."

"And does it?"

"It itched for a while after I got it, but that didn't seem overly
helpful."

"I'm glad to see you have a sense of humour about it," Akane noted, one
hand rubbing at her right temple.

"It's important to keep a sense of humor," Ranma said, evenly. She lowered
herself back into the water until she was once again sitting. "Far more
important than you might think."

"I guess," Akane admitted, watching the kanji sink below the water's
surface. "You really are a ... a warrior, aren't you?"

"Yes," Ranma nodded, her face becoming serious. "I am."

"What," Akane began, then paused for a moment, considering her question.
"What is it like, being a warrior?"

"My father always used to say," Ranma began, leaning back to look up
at the ceiling, "'The path of a true martial artist is fraught with
peril'. I think that sums it up quite well."

Akane said nothing, gazing down into the water as she mulled over Ranma's
words.

"I know what you want," Ranma continued after a while, looking back
down at Akane, who lifted her face to return the gesture. "You want to be
a warrior. You want to fight, to show to yourself and the world that you
are strong, that you can do anything. You want to travel the path that's
fraught with peril."

"Yes," Akane replied quietly. "I want to show them all what I'm capable
of."

"Come with me," Ranma suggested. She leaned forward, close to Akane,
and brought her mouth to Akane's ear, to whisper as if revealing something
secret. "You will be stronger than you ever thought possible."

Ranma drew her head back and leaned against the edge of the bath, her
eyes not leaving Akane's. A smile crossed her face as she watched
Akane's reaction.

Akane stared, her mouth going dry as she heard Ranma's offer. She
swallowed, and became suddenly aware of her heart pounding loudly in her
chest.

"Why do you want me to come?" she asked. "What is there for you to gain?"

Ranma sighed, all traces of the smiles and laughter long drained from her
face. Her eyes changed, the sparkle disappeared as the pearls of blue
seemed to grow old the moment Akane asked the question.

"It's hot in here. I should get out," Ranma commented.

"Wait," Akane insisted, grasping Ranma's arm. "Tell me. Please. I don't
want to be in the dark about this any more."

Ranma looked at her, a deep and profound sadness etched upon her face. She
said nothing for several long moments before eventually giving in.

"If you don't leave this place, you'll die, Akane."

"How do you know that? What makes you so sure?"

"You aren't strong enough to save yourself," Ranma stated. There was no
doubt in her voice.

"But how do you _know_ that?" Akane insisted, squeezing Ranma's arm more
tightly. "You've told me from the beginning you think I'll die if I stay
but you've never told me _why_!"

"Your mother was just like you," Ranma explained. "She and your father
used to live in Okinawa together. I came to them, just as I've come to
you, and explained that she needed to come with me."

"You knew my mother?" Akane asked, eyes widening. Her hand released its
grip upon Ranma's arm and fell back into the water.

Just how old was this Ranma?

Ranma nodded sadly. "She didn't want to leave; she was proud of her own
strength and thought she could handle anybody who challenged her. She was
wrong.

"They came at night, a swarm," Ranma continued, "and before I knew what was
happening, she was fighting four of them at once. I tried to help her, but
it was too late. She was dead before her body hit the floor.

"I knew I had failed her," Ranma said, her voice tight as she recalled the
painful memory, "so I did the only thing I could to help her; I hid her
young daughter, so they at least wouldn't find her.

"Your father would not even speak to me afterwards, but he did listen to me
when I told him to move away from Okinawa. That, at least, he understood.
That was twelve years ago, and now that young girl has grown into a young
woman.

"Your father hates me for failing to save your mother, but he learned that
day to listen to my warnings. I told him I would be back for you if they
ever found you. He hid you well. I'm lucky to have found you before they
did."

"My mother," Akane whispered, bringing a hand to her open mouth in shock.
She did not remember much of her mother; she was only four years old when
her mother died. She remembered only her face, her smiling face - the face
she imagined twisted in agony as she was murdered.

"She was a beautiful, wonderful woman," Ranma said softly, seeing the grief
take Akane's face. "She was strong, talented, proud. It was her pride
that doomed her, Akane, which is why you need to swallow yours for the
moment."

"You could have saved my mother?" she asked, looking up at Ranma, tears
streaming from red-rimmed eyes.

"If I could give my life so she would live again, I would in an instant,
Akane," Ranma offered, looking into Akane's eyes. "I can't do that, but
I can stop history repeating itself. It's up to you. I can't make the
choice for you."

"I'm a martial artist, I won't just run!"

"There will be opportunities for justice," Ranma said, looking down into
the water. "But you need to learn more about your enemy. If you try to
fight now, you'll just die. A meaningless death like your mother's."

"Teach me about them," Akane said, determination in her voice. It was not
a request.

"Yes, Akane," Ranma replied, taking Akane's hand. "I'll teach you what you
need to know."

Akane bit her lip and squeezed Ranma's hand. So many questions that had
moments ago seemed so important had faded into insignificance, obliterated
by the sheer weight of the truth just revealed.

She did not want to believe what Ranma had told her but she knew in her
heart that it was true. Training be damned. Tournaments be damned. Damn
the dojo, the students, her home. None of that mattered any more.

The people responsible for her mother's death were out there, somewhere,
and Ranma was her only link to them. She would find them, and she would
make them pay. She would repay a thousand times the debt of pain she had
carried for twelve long years.

It was time for Akane to leave home.

= = = =
T E N
= = = =