Author's Note 8/17/17: I have no excuse for taking so long getting this last, final chapter up. I'm so sorry to everyone who has messaged me and I neglected to get back to, and to everyone whose hearts I hurt by taking so long! I have no excuse, I have reasons that it took so long, but they're not excuses. I sincerely hope you can all forgive me, and that this final 15,000+ word chapter (which I poured myself into to perfect) soothes the pain and makes it all worth it. Please enjoy the finale!


Close to Death
AliasAlien
August 2017

Chapter 10: Light a Love to Burn a Curse

Ranma's body ached with the effort of running.

Nights of bad sleep and days of overwhelming stress had taken their toll on the martial artist, and were exacerbated further by the beatings over the last few days. While it wasn't unusual for Ranma to be sore and bruised, the normally laid-back boy was feeling the additional damaging effects of constant worry and stress on his mind and muscles. But he had no time to focus on the burning of his legs and sore joints. The sun was setting behind him as he ran, the growing darkness reminding him of the little time he had left.

Of all the things, a candle? he thought bitterly, skimming over a peaked roof. A candle she already has in her room? It was distressing to realize the cure had been sitting innocuously inside a Christmas present for the last few days. Intense fury rose up in him when he thought of all the painful events that could have been avoided had they known the cure sooner. Damn Shampoo!

Why would Akane get me something like that in the first place? Ranma bit his lip until he felt pain. How can she be so hopeful... after everything I've done... after all the things I've said? Not to mention all the things he hadn't said. For God's sake, Akane, he prayed desperately, please still have it. Please wait for me. He was only about five minutes away now, and despite the cold burning his overworked lungs, he refused to slow down.

But as he leapt toward the next rooftop between a pair of houses that would shave some time off his sprint home, something wound around his ankle and tightened, pulling him down.

"What the—?!"

Ranma barely had the reach he needed to grab the shingling of the second roof, and it was only by the strength of his fingers that he scrambled safely over the edge. Cursing, he looked down at his feet and saw a jet-black ribbon wound around his ankle. Dread filled him as he recognized it, and with a muttered curse his fingers began to attempt to tear it off. Suddenly, a laugh filled the night air.

"OH HOH HOH HOH," Kodachi Kuno slid down from her perch on a roof above him, and landed gracefully next to the hunched over Ranma. She was barely visible in the growing night, clothed from the neck down in a black wedding dress, but her maniacal laugh gave her identity away immediately.

"Kodachi—" Black rose petals drifted down around him, and with one sniff Ranma slammed a hand against his nose and mouth. Paralysis powder! It was a scent that often accompanied the teenage girl, and one that he was regrettably familiar with. He tore at the ribbon with his other hand, his body quickly begging for oxygen. He knew better than to risk another breath however – the first had already sent a numb feeling down his arms and into his fingers, adding another level of difficulty to removing the gymnastic ribbon from his ankle.

"Oh hoh hoh, just breathe in deeply the scent of our love, Ranma dear!" Kodachi cackled. More black roses were wound together into a bouquet in her hands. Her characteristic side ponytail swung as she laughed, the back of her hand coming up to cover her mouth. "I know you wanted to keep it a surprise, but I've heard the news and I'm here for you! Now we won't have that little nuisance of a girl between us anymore! We will be free," Kodachi blushed happily, "to complete our union." Her eyes glinted dangerously. "At last."

What shit timing. Kodachi was as unrelenting as she was ruthless. She was a qualified gymnast and martial artist, but regardless Ranma had never really had a full, anything-goes battle with her. Normally he avoided her weapon-based attacks or used his charm to get what he needed from her (usually whatever piece of blackmail she had on him at the moment), but tonight he was in too much of a rush to wait out a battle of wits with the raven-haired girl.

Finally, the ribbon ripped away beneath his fingers and he was released. Ranma leapt up and away from the petals and the crazy love-struck teenage girl who was keeping her own distance from the gas they exuded. "You're crazy!" Ranma screamed at her, once he caught his breath. "I don't have time for this!"

"Crazy in love, I admit! But you're speaking nonsense dear Ranma," Kodachi cooed, pulling out another ribbon wand from inside her bouquet. "We have plenty of time – the rest of our lives, in fact." As she lashed out with the ribbon, Ranma held his hands up defensively in front of his face, catching the very end of the ribbon in his fist. He wound it around his hand quickly, gripping it tightly so that she couldn't wrench it away. While this would tie up one of his hands for fending her off, it kept her from utilizing one more weapon. She probably has plenty more, Ranma realized bitterly.

"I'm serious Kodachi," Ranma snarled, "I don't have the time – or the patience – for you right now." He pulled on the ribbon, trying to wrench it from her hands. Kodachi just skipped a half step forward instead. "Besides, how did you hear anythin' about me and Akane?!" As he asked it, he glanced to the side, planning a getaway as soon as he could.

"SAOTOME!"

The loud cry rang out from behind him. Ranma turned with a start, keeping one eye on Kodachi. "Oh, ya gotta be kidding me...!"

"Do not flatter yourself Saotome," Tatewaki Kuno growled, stepping forward into a shaft of light cast by a newly lit streetlamp. "That would require me telling you a joke. I do not 'kid' with the likes of you."

"Kuno, get the hell out of here," Ranma snapped, tugging on Kodachi's ribbon again as she giggled and hopped forward another step.

"Oh, I don't plan on staying," Kuno raised an eyebrow, his expression smug. "I actually came to thank you." Kuno laughed as Ranma frowned. "There is never a more perfect time to woo a woman than when her heart is broken and vulnerable. Now is the moment where I swoop in and take the poor girl into my arms. The sweet and supple Akane will now be mine, thanks to your carelessness." Kuno winked, waving with one hand. "Enjoy your new life with my sister. She will... keep you occupied for a good while, I am sure."

Ranma growled, "Don't you dare go near her!" but Kuno had already turned his back and was gone over the edge of the rooftop. "Shit," Ranma swore, turning more to go after him, forgetting about Kodachi. Kodachi, however, did not forget about him.

A second ribbon snaked around his legs like it was alive, expertly winding around his ankles and then tightening with a tug to make him fall over onto his side. Kodachi laughed again, and Ranma paused. He sighed, tilting his head back into the roof with a grunt and closing his eyes momentarily in exhaustion.

Great. He took a deep breath. It's never easy, is it?

"Akane," he whispered to himself, opening his eyes, pushing himself up, "wait just a little more."


The second hand of the clock was the only thing in her room that moved. It continued monotonously – tik, tok, tik, tok – each second pointing out her feckless attempts to move and reminding her of her cowardice to let go of the boy who had still held her heart.

A frustrated sigh finally escaped her and momentarily eclipsed the sounds of the clock. How long had she been trying to convince herself to open her door?

Akane stood in the middle of her room, her feet planted unnaturally far apart. She had spent at least the last 20 minutes trying to coax her feet to move forward. She groaned aloud in frustration, staring at the candle in her hand. Just go. Go to him. Shinnosuke. She gradually noticed her hands were shaking.

...I can't do it, she realized in frustration. Akane tilted her head back to stare at the ceiling, pushing air out of pursed lips. That stupid, stupid, stupid boy! Why was she still letting Ranma hold her back? He certainly wasn't thinking of her – his thoughts were likely preoccupied with Ukyo.

Akane looked forward again, stamping her feet in motivation. Go, go do it. Shinnosuke is a great person. And much nicer than a certain pig-tailed moron. Akane lifted her shoulders and dropped them again. I can do this. She just needed to go to his room, knock on the door, and ask him to use the candle with her. It would be quick, painless, and she wouldn't need or think about Ranma ever again. Which is all she wanted at this moment.

Still, her feet wouldn't move.

"Arrrggggh," Akane stifled a scream into a fist, staring the candle down like it was an enemy on a battlefield. "Who am I kidding?" she sighed aloud, second guessing her plan. I can't do this, not to Shinnosuke, and not to myself. What if the candle really did work and they would be together forever? Was she prepared to make someone love her? Was that even how it worked? No, he needed to already love her…

But he does love me, I know that, he said so himself, before. Akane looked at the candle with gentler eyes, softening at the thought of someone loving her like he did. It was very tempting. "But is making him do this – this stupid superstition, am I forcing him to do something he doesn't want to?" He can always say no. "Shinnosuke's too polite to decline if I ask him though..." Well, he'd still be making the decision for himself.

"Great," Akane said sarcastically, "now I'm talking to myself. Just, great. Just perfect." She was a mess. She realized that Ranma's abandonment had left her more rattled than she cared to admit to herself but her body couldn't lie – she felt sick to her stomach all the time, her limbs felt numb and disconnected from her body, and the world had felt a little darker and colder since he left.

"It's true... I never agreed to anything."

Akane didn't think she wouldn't ever forget those words. The way he said them. The wind that blew across her and froze her heart in her chest. His face as he dismissed everything they had built together. It had been a messy love, one woven together with anger and misunderstandings, but it had always survived the doubts and challenges it had faced before. And it had been theirs. Their own kind of love.

And she was already thinking about it in the past tense.

Akane took three quick steps forward, and grasped the door handle tightly. She paused. The clock once more became the only sound in the room. Her knuckles started to turn white, but she wasn't able to open the door. Finally, she released it.

Swiping a sleeve across her wet eyes, Akane shook her head. This was no way to move on, to forget about him. To drag Shinnosuke in when she was at her worst, it was cruel. And Akane has faced too much cruelty recently to be able to enact it on someone else.

Akane was just about to turn away from the door and throw the candle in the trash, when she heard a commotion downstairs. Voices rose and fell, and a maniacal laugh broke out. "AKANEEEEEE!"

Was that... "Kuno?" Her door clicked open as Akane peeked out of her door, her head going into the hallway to hear better.

"Akane, my love, it is I, here to sweep you off your feet!" It was definitely Kuno. His voice was floating up from downstairs, loud and obnoxious, but also strained like he was struggling against something, his voice clipping with the effort of shouting. "I'm – I'm coming, as soon as this is out of my way-" She heard the clear sounds of furniture being knocked aside. The rented tables and chairs for the party had been stacked in one of the rooms downstairs, and Kuno had obviously taken the wrong entrance into the house.

"A-Akane," he continued shouting, "I've heard of your heartbreak, and I am here – your beloved – to help you, ugh, heal!"

"What is the meaning of this?" This voice belonged to Shinnosuke. He sounded confused but also angry. "Who are you?"

"I am Tatewaki Kuno, the Blue Thunder of Furikan High, here to claim fair Akane's broken heart and heal it back together! Who are you?"

"I'm Shinnos-"

"I do not care. Move!"

There was the sound of a scuffle, the screeching of a chair, a yelped 'unhand me!' and a shout of 'no you don't!', and then a disheveled Kuno was at the bottom of the stairs, jumping two at a time toward Akane's room. Fast on his heels was Shinnosuke, looking equally out of sorts, pulling a lampshade off his head - Kuno had played dirty.

"Akaneeee!" he screamed, running and leaping toward her door, his arms outstretched.

Akane shrieked, and slammed her door shut just as Kuno came into the doorway. She heard the crash as his body collided with the solid wooden door, and the following thud as he landed on the floor.

"A-Akane," he slurred, "my dear, you accidentally locked me outside." She heard a huff of air and shuffling, and next thing she knew he was trying the doorknob, and banging on her door.

"Let me in! Akane, now is our chance at love now that the cad Saotome is gone!"

She heard the lock snap, and the door started to fly open, giving Akane no other choice than to throw herself against it with another shout. "No!" She screamed. "Kuno, go away!"

"Do – not – be – shy – my – love!" Each word was punctuated with an effort to body slam her door down. Fortunately, Akane had her back to the door and had planted her feet solidly, and now she was like a brick wall with her brute strength. 'Brute'... Guess Ranma was right when he called me that. Right now, she couldn't complain about her lack of traditional feminine qualities, as her powerful muscles were the only thing keeping the door shut.

"Get away from Akane," she heard Shinnosuke yelling, and momentarily the door stopped shaking on its hinges as Kuno and Shinnosuke grappled. She heard their grunts of effort, and Shinnosuke yelling in confusion, "Who are you?" and Kuno yelling back, "Swine, I already told you!"

A thud, and then the knocking returned, and this time it was Shinnosuke who yelled through to her, "Akane, open the door! I'll come inside and help you hold him off!"

Suddenly, there were two sets of fists banging on her door. "Yes, open the door my love so that I may embrace you and set this fool straight!"

"Don't be afraid, I'll keep you safe!"

"No, I will keep you safe!"

"Augh!" Akane yelled, "Both of you – go away!" But her voice was drowned out by their arguing, and the banging of the door in the door frame. Akane was quickly losing strength. The effort of both boys trying to break in was becoming too much to hold for much longer. Her right foot started to slip, sliding along the carpet, and she cursed. Her back was starting to really ache.

Goddamn Ranma, she thought bitterly but also with a stab of pain, if it wasn't for you I wouldn't be stuck in this situation. Stupid, stupid, stupid reckless Ranma! And now, when I actually might need you, you're gone!

A gust of wind blew across her face, a cold slap to her cheeks. She looked up in confusion, sure she had latched her window closed, and her breath caught in her throat.

For a moment she wasn't sure if it really was him. After all, just earlier this afternoon she had seen him in her window like this. Was he here to sweep her off her feet and push her off the roof again? But the pain of the door digging into her back rooted her to reality, and she felt her stomach flip as she realized it was really him. It was Ranma, crouched and framed by the windowsill, the light spilling out of her room illuminating his confused and worried expression. His breath came in short puffs of clouds as he caught his breath and spoke.

"Akane."

Akane closed her mouth once she realized it had fallen open. Ranma was supposed to be gone forever. He had left a note promising just that last night. He was supposed to be done with her, not here looking guilty and ashamed, his fingers on the clasp to her window.

He wasn't supposed to be saying her name anymore.

A wave of sorrow rose up in her chest, and Akane looked away from him, her expression darkening. "What do you want? Did you forget something when you left?"

Ranma swallowed hard, suddenly nervous. You, was the first thought that came to mind, but he pushed it down. He would have to go about this conversation more delicately than normal, considering what their last interaction had been. Her feelings were bound to be hurt after that exchange, where he told her he didn't want to be her fiancé anymore. He would have to tread lightly.

Ranma grimaced, wishing he had more time to explain. But as it was, he had barely fended off Kodachi and she was only a few minutes behind him. He had eventually gotten the best of her and tied her up with one of her own ribbons – something she playfully cooed at him as being foreplay she could get behind – before tossing her off somewhere in the dark and coming straight here. It wouldn't take long for her to unbind herself, and even less to figure out where he had gone.

"Uh, no, I," he cleared his throat awkwardly, trying to figure out what to say. It was only then he processed the scene in front of him: Akane, her back against the bedroom door, both arms flung out to the side, feet sliding on the carpet, and outside Kuno and Shinnosuke yelling and pounding on her door.

Ranma paused, then slid all the way into the room hesitantly. So Kuno had beat him here. "What, uh, what's going on? Do you need any help?"

"If I did," Akane struggled to speak out between her teeth more from emotion than the physical effort, "it wouldn't be from you. Don't you have - fiancées to check up on?" Her cheeks burned as she stumbled over the word, having almost said 'other fiancées' before she remembered she was technically no longer promised to him in any way.

"No, actually," Ranma said quietly. Akane finally looked up at him. He cleared his throat, opening his mouth slowly, looking for how to begin, when his eyes fell on her right hand. It was there, clenched between her fingers – Akane had even forgotten she was holding it.

"Is that it?" he asked, his voice low, his eyes trained on the candle. He took a step closer. "Is that the...?"

Akane glanced at her hand and cried out in embarrassment. He can't see this! He can't know this was going to be for him! Without thinking, Akane curled her arms in protectively, holding it to her chest. "No – don't look at it—"

The door gave a shuttering heave which sent Akane stumbling forward a few steps. She slammed herself hard back against it as Ranma moved forward quickly, placing the palms of his hands on the door above her head, halfway sandwiching her up against him. Their combined weight pushed the two bodies of Kuno and Shinnosuke back into the hallway with a thump and a few murmured curse words from the hall. Within seconds they were back at the door, arguing, but with Ranma's new weight added against the door the combined fists on the other side did not have as much of an effect, and the thumps grew quieter in the room.

Akane glanced up, realizing how close Ranma was to her, and shrunk away from him. She wanted to hide, but as the door rocked dangerously she was forced to straighten and throw an arm out to steady it. However, she still clutched the candle to her chest with one hand. Damnit. She was trapped, practically up against Ranma's chest. The last person I want to be stuck with right now...

Ranma was still staring at the candle, his mind working fast. She still had it. There was still a chance! It took everything he had to keep from grinning and grabbing her and spinning her around. Luckily his arms were preoccupied and kept him focused.

"D-Don't look at," Akane mumbled, trying to hide it in her hand. "It's nothing, it's not important, it's stupid—"

"It's perfect," Ranma replied.

Akane looked up at him in confusion. "What? What are you talking about?" Her face reddened. "Do you know what this is?!" By the look that crossed his face, she figured he must know exactly what it was. Oh, god, she was so embarrassed. "How?!"

"Errr," Ranma had the decency to look embarrassed himself. "Listen, uh, there's something... Something that you need to know. It's about… what's been going on, lately. With you. And, uh, I guess with me too? It's... just a lot. A lot to say. And a lot that... that you need to know." Ranma looked at her, his face painfully twisted as he searched for the words. "Y'know?"

Akane stared blankly at him. "What the hell are you trying to say, Ranma?"

Well, this is going just swell, Ranma thought sarcastically.

"Ranma?!" Kuno shrieked hearing his name, "Is that scoundrel in there with you?! I won't allow it!"

"Is Ranma in there with you, Akane?" Shinnosuke sounded concerned, and perhaps even angry. "Akane, let me in!"

The pounding on the door increased, and both Ranma and Akane yelped, repositioning their feet for a better hold. Crap, Ranma thought, glancing around the room. I can't tell her like this...

"What were you saying?" Akane asked warily and expectantly.

"Uh," Ranma cleared his throat again. "Listen, there's a lot we need to talk about, and I don't think this is the best place to discuss it. Especially since I left Kodachi, she's coming too and –"

"Oh, honestly," Akane snorted, shaking her head in disbelief. "I can't believe you, Ranma!" Akane struck him in the chest with the fist holding the candle. "Kodachi?! What, Ukyo wasn't enough for you? Now you're here to brag to me about another girl as well? Just trying to shove all these girls in my face?! I can't understand you!"

"Wha—Akane—" Ranma tried to interrupt her tirade, the door swaying dangerously again as Akane got distracted. He leaned against it more heavily, digging his shoes into the floor. "Come on – Kodachi? You know me better than that!"

"I don't know you at all, Ranma!" Akane shouted, tears springing up at the corners of her eyes. "Get out of here! Go away! I told you I never want to see you again and I meant it!"

"Well I didn't mean it!" Ranma snapped, and Akane fell silent. He sighed, seeing that they weren't going to get anywhere unless he told her something. "Look, will you –" shut up?! No, be more gentle, "let me explain a li'l?"

Akane just nodded slowly, her eyes untrusting, but her mouth closed.

He sighed, grateful to finally have her attention, but starting to worry about what to do with it. It's finally time to tell the truth. I owe her that. "Okay," he started with a deep breath. "Do you remember, back at school, when you almost jumped off the roof?"

Akane nodded again, growing suspicious. The door continued to thump behind her, but all she was focused on was Ranma's voice.

"Well, you said afterwards, that you were worried you were going crazy. And, uh, then the night that you almost froze," he swallowed hard, remembering his fear that night, "Shampoo came by. And she said... some pretty confusing things, about you. And it all started making sense. And I made her tell me the truth. And..." Ranma paused, letting the banging of fists and bodies on the door fill the silence.

"Ranma…?" Akane asked quietly, her eyes searching his face, frowning slightly. "What are you saying?"

"I was trying to protect you. But I should have told you sooner. I should've told you right away. I'm..." He looked down at his feet, growing nervous. Now he was rambling. Crap. "I'm sorry."

"Ranma!" Akane's warning tone made him look at her in confusion, his eyebrows coming together as he realized she wasn't looking at him, but past him.

"Sorry to interrupt," a voice said silkily from the window. "But I believe it's over between you two, and I've come for my man."

Kodachi! Ranma looked over his shoulder as Kodachi, still in the black wedding dress, sprang from the windowsill, spreading her arms out wide, weapons at the ready.

Ranma thought fast. "We're leaving," he grunted, and suddenly seized Akane by the waist, turning on his heel to the side with her as his other hand threw open the door.

Kodachi acted like a human bowling ball, diving through the door and hurtling into a surprised Kuno. The brother and sister toppled into the hallway with a chorus of shouts and confusion. Shinnosuke was farther off to the side and managed to avoid the hurtling girl. Instead he jumped over them and into the room, quickly spotting Ranma and Akane.

"Akane," Shinnosuke said gently, his eyes growing hard. He was watching Ranma, and quickly noticed the arm he had holding Akane to him. "Come here," he held out a hand to her. "I'll protect you."

Akane muttered something weakly, but Ranma glared at him. "Don't come near her," he said in a low, dangerous voice. "She's mine, and I'll be the one keeping her safe from now on."

In a quick movement, Ranma turned and pulled Akane even tighter against him, mumbling, "Hang on tight." His eyes caught sight of her jacket on the bed. He scooped it up as he moved forward and, ignoring Shinnosuke's shouts as he figured out what was happening, quickly jumped out the window, a gasping Akane at his side.


Nabiki frowned.

She watched Tatewaki and Kodachi struggle to get their footing, arguing. Nabiki shook her head. "Well, so much for my last-ditch effort," she mumbled to herself. She should have known better than to place any trust in the dysfunctional siblings.

She had called the Kuno siblings only a short time ago, and sold the information about Ranma and Akane's break up to the rich pair. While they had come through in cash, it looked like her hopes of them being enough of a distraction to keep Ranma and Akane away from each other had been dashed as they collapsed in the hallway of the Tendo house. Still, they were tenacious – she watched from her bedroom across the hall as they disappeared behind Shinnosuke into the night after Ranma and Akane.

Nabiki sighed, crossing her arms as she walked across the hall. She stood in Akane's doorway, glancing around her room. Wood splinters from her door were scattered around the entrance, and an opened Christmas present box was squashed and kicked onto the floor. Nabiki walked over to it, picking up the label.

"'To Ranma, Love Akane', huh?" Nabiki chuckled to herself, shaking her head. "You bastard." She looked at the open window, breathing in the night air. "You better feel the same way," Nabiki said quietly to herself, "or I'll make your life hell."

Slowly, she crossed the room and leaned against the windowsill, looking out at Nerima at night, hearing the distant cries the Kuno siblings disappear into the night. She sighed, rolling her eyes. "Good luck, my idiot sister. And come back alive." She paused. "And happy."


The cold air froze ice on Akane's hair as they ran, Ranma leading her away from her house, shouts following them in the night. He had given her enough time to get her footing on the frost covered roof, pull her jacket on and stash the candle in a pocket, before he grabbed her hand with an apology and started pulling her in a sprint through the night. He still had his backpack on, bumping on his back as they ran.

"Ranma, tell me what's going on!" Akane demanded after several minutes of nonstop running and jumping through town from roof to roof.

"Can we, y'know, get to a better spot first?" Ranma mumbled distractedly.

"No." Akane planted her feet, making Ranma stumble backwards as he was forced to a sudden stop.

"Hey!" Ranma said, gesturing behind them. "Don't you realize we kind of have to keep going? They're right behind us!"

He was right. They could hear the voices of Kuno and Kodachi overlapping in manic promises of love, and Shinnosuke calling out Akane's name.

Akane crossed her arms. "Then you better explain quick."

Ranma stared at her, his mouth falling open. "What? No, we have to go—"

"Ranma!" Akane yelled, her frustration finally overflowing. "You may know what the hell is going on, but I don't! The last thing I know you're breaking off our engagement, and leaving with Ukyo, and then you write this note and you say you're leaving Japan, then you come back, and now you're talking about something with Shampoo, and I'm just-" Akane threw up her hands, groaning with frustration, "-tired. I'm so tired of it all." She sighed, her face pleading with him. "Please. I need to know what's going on. No more avoiding me. No more secrets."

Ranma ran a hand through his bangs, holding them up off his forehead, staring at her. He watched her silently, and Akane shuffled her feet, listening to the sounds of their pursuers getting closer. Maybe she really should have waited until they were alone, and not being chased by crazy people. Finally, Ranma sighed and stepped forward, grasping her shoulders with his hands. "Okay. Okay. I get it. You're right." He glanced in the direction where the voices were coming from. We'll just deal with them when they come.

Akane smiled weakly, grateful. "Thank you. Now tell me what the hell you did."

Ranma couldn't help but grin back at her small jab. At least she wasn't defeated yet – she still had some of her spunk. "What makes you think I did anything? Well," he paused, "maybe indirectly. Yeah, definitely indirectly." Akane raised an eyebrow, and he felt his grin grow, then slowly fade as he considered his next words. "It was what it always was: someone hurting you to get to me. To be with me. It was her, Shampoo. She—"

"SHAMPOOOOO!"

A voice howled out in pain. Ranma and Akane jumped in surprise, and Ranma released her shoulders, throwing them up to defend against a blunt weapon attached to a chain that slid out of the darkness. Ranma threw it to the side, his eyes searching for the voice that had just rang out. Really?! Don't we have enough problems right now?!

Mousse appeared in front of them, his glasses glinting dangerously. He stood impressively in front of them with his white robes bulging, moonlight shining off the otherwise hidden pieces of metal poking out of his sleeves, making it clear what he had hidden in his robes.

"I feel like I should thank you, Ranma," he said dangerously, and it was a shock for Ranma and Akane to hear such unbridled rage in his voice. "After all, Shampoo has decided to return to China." Mousse took a step toward them, and a roof tile snapped into pieces under his footfall. "But she's broken. Something changed in the last few hours. She left the restaurant, still clinging to some hope, but she just returned to the shop. She's broken. I don't know what happened, I don't know what you did, but I know it was you. And like I said, I feel like I should thank you because she has now completely given up on you, but," Mousse lifted his arms above his head, his right foot sliding up his calf to rest on the side of his knee, "instead, all I want to do is kill you."

Mousse threw his arms down in front of him, and a dozen chains whipped out, six from each sleeve. Each weapon glinted dangerously, propelled forward at Ranma and Akane. Ranma grabbed Akane and pulled her to the ground with him as he rolled under the majority of the weapons and kicked away the remaining ones.

"Change of plans," Ranma hissed as he jumped back to his feet, pulling Akane up behind him. "You run, and I'll find you. Just go to the—"

"No!" Akane's fingers wound around Ranma's forearm, tugging at him. "No. We are having this conversation right now Ranma!"

Ranma balked as another weapon shot out at him, this time a sharp hook that he grabbed ahold of, trying to tug Mousse off balance. "What, seriously?!"

"Ranma!" Akane scolded, kicking back another weapon Mousse sent their way. "You know how this goes! We start having a serious conversation, and something gets in the way. Something, or someone, always gets in the way. So we're just going to have to adapt," she grunted, jumping over a rogue spiked ball that bounced her way, "and learn to fight and talk at the same time!"

Ranma slid up against her, dodging a smoke bomb that bounced off the roof to the street below. "No! You need to get out of here! Are you crazy?!"

Akane scoffed, "I think you were about to tell me the answer to that." She grimaced, bending her knees as Mousse prepared for another onslaught of weapons. "Fight and talk, Ranma. What did Shampoo do?"

"DO NOT SAY HER NAME!" Mousse wailed, and his blind rage made him set his sights on Akane. As he leapt in the air, a metal staff slid out of his sleeve, and he gripped it tightly. With a yell he raised it above his head, and brought it down toward Akane. The long metal rod lengthened as he forced it down through the air, growing longer seemingly by magic. It sped up as it got closer to her, and Akane yelped at the speed of it, throwing up her arms defensively.

But Ranma was there before the weapon could strike her. He slid in front of her with his trademark inhuman speed, and his hands came up to catch the rod just inches from his own head.

Ranma grunted. Akane was right. There was no more time left. He had to tell her.

Now or never.

Without looking at her, Ranma let out a slow, steady breath, centering himself. "Shampoo cursed you."

Akane stared at the back of his head. "'C-Cursed'?" Akane almost forgot the danger they were in, stumbling backward slightly. Her mind turned this over like a rock in her hands. A curse? Could that really be true? Hope and anger flashed inside of her: hope, that maybe she wasn't actually crazy, and anger at the idea that all the stress of the past week and a half was because of Shampoo. She opened her mouth to ask more, when something struck her in the side.

As Ranma grappled against Mousse's metal staff, he heard Akane cry out from behind him. He turned his head slightly, yelling her name, and saw her slid across the roof, a gymnast's juggling pin rolling away from her. Akane recovered quickly but winced, her hand going to where it had hit her in the side. "Kodachi," she grumbled, getting to her feet. If I hadn't been so distracted I would have seen that coming... She clenched her teeth, putting up her fists in front of her. Maybe talking and fighting isn't the best idea... But she had to know.

"Akane," Ranma struggled under Mousse's strength as he attempted to wrench the rod out of Ranma's hands, "please, go, I'll explain later-"

"What does this curse do?" Akane spoke, deliberately cutting him off, her eyes scanning for Kodachi. Another juggling pin came flying toward her and the maniacal laughter followed shortly after. Akane caught it, and quickly threw it into the darkness, and Kodachi was forced out into the light as she dodged it.

"Oh ho ho ho ho," Kodachi cackled, pulling a hula hoop out from behind her back. As she raised it above her head, she clicked a button on the side, and spikes popped out from the otherwise smooth plastic. "You've gotten in my way for the last time girl!" Akane grimaced. Why are you even here?!

"Seriously-" Ranma started again, but Akane shouted his name in frustration. He sighed and rolled his eyes. Ranma thrust Mousse back by using the rod to toss him off the side, then jumped backwards toward Akane, sliding up against her. They both took defensive stances, Akane facing Kodachi, Ranma facing Mousse in the opposite direction. "I have a better idea." He glanced sideways at her determined face, her eyes on Kodachi. "We fight and talk, and run!"

"Die, Saotome!" Mousse roared.

"Die, meddlesome girl!" Kodachi screamed.

As Kodachi and Mousse both moved in to attack, Ranma and Akane ducked in unison, and Ranma swept her up in his arms. Using the icy roof, he slid effortlessly along the edge of the roof and dropped down onto the concrete below. Ranma helped Akane find her footing then grabbed her hand and led her down the street. From behind them they could hear the chaos of Mousse and Kodachi colliding, as well as Shinnosuke and Kuno, who had just caught up.

As their confused yells and sounds of fighting started to fade as they ran, Akane spoke up. "So - again - what does - this curse - do?" she panted.

"Uh, r-right," Ranma stammered. He glanced over her head behind them, and then took a sudden turn down an alleyway sandwiched between two close buildings. Ranma pulled Akane in behind him and glanced down the street they had been coming down, making sure no one was following them.

Hey, Akane thought slowly, looking around them. This looks familiar. Isn't this where I...? It clicked abruptly. They were back in the alley where Ranma had pulled her when he saved her from the truck. It was hardly over a week ago, but the memory seemed a distant one. Akane shivered thinking about it, and Ranma caught the motion out of the corner of his eye.

"Sorry," he said quietly, "are you cold?" He slipped the backpack off his shoulders, and bent over it, rummaging around.

"No, I'm okay," Akane started to say, but Ranma stood up and quickly wrapped a scarf around her neck. He messed with the front of it, tying it on carefully, and his warm breath tickled her nose.

"There. Better?" Ranma looked at her, and realized how close he had gotten to her face. Her brown eyes were only inches in front of his blue ones, and from this close distance he could see faint ice crystals forming on her eyelashes. "S-Sorry," he stammered, nervous but rooted to the spot, "I shouldn't have brought you out into the cold."

"You didn't have much of a choice," Akane said with a small smile. Her fingers gently adjusted the scarf, tucking more of her neck under its warmth. "Thanks." She glanced down, noticing a small, brown package sticking out of his backpack. "Hey, what is that?"

Ranma looked at what she was pointing at. "Oh. Uh," he bent down, picking it up. "Uh, here."

Akane stared the brown paper, taking it hesitantly. "What.. is...?" She gasped slightly, reading the messy handwriting. 'Merry Christmas Akane.' She glanced up at him, trying to quell the happy butterflies that were flapping around inside her stomach. "Is this...?"

"Y-Yeah," Ranma, suddenly embarrassed, had a hard time looking at her. "It's your Christmas present. After everything that happened, I didn't really find a good time to give it to you. Not that now is much better, but-"

"Can I open it?" Akane interrupted his rambling, looking at him hopefully.

"I... Yeah, of course."

Smiling, Akane tore carefully at the wrapping paper, and blinked at the book that fell out into her hands.

It was a cook book. "'Cooking Basics'," Akane read the title slowly.

Ranma started rambling again, trying to explain, "I-I know you like to practice cooking, and this one was really recommended for beginners, not that I'm trying to say you're a beginner, but I thought, if you wanted to learn from the ground up, this might, well, yunno-"

"Thank you, Ranma." Akane pulled the book close to her, and looked up admiringly at him. "Really, this means a lot. Thank you. I love it."

Ranma swallowed hard. "Um... Akane, I... have to tell you..." The words were right on his lips. Akane, I love...

Akane's breath caught suddenly, catching the look in Ranma's eyes. Why did he look so gentle? What was he about to say? And why did she suddenly feel...

Hope turned to horror as Ranma saw a faraway look come to Akane's eyes. Her face relaxed, and her fingers moved robotically to the scarf around her neck. Her cook book dropped from her arms as she deftly pulled the scarf tight, and her breath stopped in her throat.

"No! Shit!" Ranma swore, scrabbling carefully at her hands. He did his best not to hurt her as he tugged at her hands desperately. "Jeeze, you're strong!" Ranma grit his teeth, struggling to free Akane from her own grasp. "Hey! Hey, Akane! Come back to me!"

He grappled momentarily with her fingers, trying to save Akane from herself. As he eased her hands back inch by inch, Akane let in a rattling breath.

"Ra...n...ma?" Akane's voice was quiet.

"Yes, yes," Ranma said quickly, pulling more on her fingers, "it's me! The real me!"

"Why...?" Slowly, the focus returned to Akane's eyes, but she still looked distant. "Why... is this happening...?"

"This is it," Ranma said, surprised at the strain and pain his own voice. He swallowed, blinking back frustrated tears he could feel forming. "This is what the curse does to you. This is what I should have told you! Please, Akane... Try to fight it."

"Nn…" A look of concentration crossed her face, and slowly, Ranma felt her fingers relax under his, and her breathing steadied. After a few slow breaths, her eyes clicked up to look him straight in the face. "Ranma," the tears started to well up in her eyes, "what is happening to me?"

Ranma couldn't bear to look at her, so he wrapped his arms around her in a hug. He tucked her head against his shoulder. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry..."

"D-Don't apologize." Akane felt herself shaking, but not from the cold. "J-Just tell me."

Ranma took a few deep breaths himself, and pulled back enough so that they were face to face. He kept his arms around her, however. "It's the Curse of Almost Death, the Curse of Scorned Love, whatever you want to call it." Ranma tucked a loose strand of hair off of Akane's face as he frowned. "It's an old Chinese curse that Shampoo got her hands on. It's the reason you keep... you keep getting hurt. It's supposed to hurt you when you think of... me." He spat the last word, disgusted with himself. "It tries to make you want to leave me, to save yourself from pain. And if you stay with me..." Ranma shook his head. "I shouldn't have kept this from you, I should have told you. I was trying to protect you, but a hellavu job I did..."

Akane watched his anguished face, trying to make sense of what she was hearing. "It makes me... hurt myself?"

"Yeah," Ranma said. He struggled to find the words. "That's why all these things kept happening... But that's not all." Ranma paused, terrified of telling her the true pain caused by the curse. But Akane was barely listening.

It all made sense. The weird visions, the compromising situations, why it only happened when Ranma was around... Well, at least I'm not crazy, Akane thought hopefully. But that meant the false Ranma that praised her and kissed her, and at the same time wanted her dead, was all just created by the curse. There was no truth in any of it at all. I should feel relieved but... Why did that thought make her so lonely?

"Why Scorned Love?" Akane said suddenly. "What does that mean?"

"Uh, well," Ranma said slowly, growing awkward. "The curse was created originally to punish people for cheating on the person they l-loved."

Akane looked confused. She thought for a moment, then said, "But I never cheated on you." She caught Ranma stiffening slightly, and realized the implications of her words – the lack of denial. "N-Not that—I mean—it's not like I—"

Ranma coughed awkwardly. "The curse only works if you're... in love with me."

"'In love'?!" Akane repeated, shocked, her cheeks lighting up in a blush. "I—I—"

Ranma shook his head sadly. "That's not the worst of it. The curse does not want us to be together, at any cost. It does it's best to make you stop. And if you still love me-"

"-love you-" Akane choked out.

"-by the time the curse runs out, you lose the chance to fall in love ever again."

"-ever again?" Akane repeated, dumbfounded and embarrassed. "Y-You're making a lot of assumptions!"

Ranma frowned. "Akane. It wouldn't work if you didn't."

So that was it. Surely, after everything they had been through, he had to have been able to guess how she felt about him, but while she could have sworn he told her how he felt at Jusenkyo, she had never said anything similar. Akane's mouth flapped weakly, lost for words. How embarrassing! She was mortified. That Ranma knew for the last few days... how she felt about him... A sudden memory popped up in her head.

"You knew!" She yelled suddenly. "When we were in the dojo! And you- you pretended—" she remembered the look in his eyes when he bent in close, looking like he was about to kiss her – was that a lie?! "—when that beam fell! You were testing me!" Akane punched Ranma in the chest suddenly, and he grunted, wincing. The bruise from Shampoo was still bothering him. He stepped back, his arms falling away from her.

"I ... I was." Ranma hung his head. "Like I said, I'm so sorry. I should have told you."

"Damn right you should have!" Now the tears were starting to fall. But instead of sadness, they were born from anger and mistrust. "You played me! You knew how I felt... how I felt about..." She gasped, and covered her mouth with the scarf, closing her eyes in embarrassment. All this time! He got know how I felt...! And he didn't even tell me! "I'm such a fool," she sobbed once.

"No, no, Akane," Ranma said quickly, trying to hold her again, but she pushed him off. "Please..."

"Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if this curse had its way!"

"Hey. Do not say that." Ranma stepped up, grabbing her by the shoulders. "I didn't work so hard to find a cure just to have you give up."

"A-A cure?" Akane sniffed, looking at him uncertainly.

Ranma nodded. "Shampoo said you had to fall out of love with me, or you'd never love again. But I found a cure." He smiled a little, his eyebrow coming up. "And you already had it."

Akane stared at him blankly for a few seconds, then gasped. Her hand unconsciously went to her pocket where she felt a solid lump. "The candle?" she asked breathlessly.

Ranma nodded, then scratched his cheek, looking embarrassed himself. "Yeah. It's the only thing that's worked before."

Akane turned even more pink. "But that means we would have to use the candle. You... surely you know what it does?" She felt the shape of it uncertainly through her coat pocket. Buying it in vague hopes was one thing, but actually planning to use it was something else entirely. "We... We'd be together. Forever."

Ranma cleared his throat. He bent down, and picked up the cook book. He tucked it in the backpack, and stood back up. "Listen, it's that or you never get to be with anyone else, ever. So... So." He crossed his arms, avoiding her hopeful gaze. "Y-You've still got a decision in this. I-It's me or... nothing." Sounds lame when I say it like that.

Slowly, Akane smiled. "Hmm…" She pretended to think. "That's a tough decision. Let me think about it."

His head turned quickly. "Wha—Really—?!" He frowned as he saw Akane grin. "Hey now, you...!"

"Well you can't blame me for teasing you," Akane said with a dismissive shrug, wiping away the remnant of her tears. "Considering how long you've kept this from me."

Ranma opened his mouth to respond, when a loud BANG erupted in the street next to them. Instinctively, Ranma threw himself in front of Akane, watching the entrance of the alleyway. Fuck, they caught up. "Akane," he said in warning, and heard her respond quietly behind him.

Grabbing her hand and then his backpack, Ranma ran, leading her down the alley,


"R-Ranma," Akane stammered, out of breath. "We've been running f-for almost an h-hour!"

The moon was fully up in the sky, the chilly night devoid of all clouds. Ranma and Akane had wound their way around Nerima for the last hour, leading a tangle of Mousse, Kodachi, Kuno, and Shinnosuke around behind them. They had hoped that after enough time their pursuers would give up, but somehow, they seemed even more emboldened. Ranma and Akane had had to stop several times for short scuffles, but still they were being followed. And time was running out.

"Shit," Ranma breathed, his already tired body threatening to give out. He jumped down to the roof below them, and heard Akane's feet land behind him. He turned to face her, looking determined. "Akane."

"Yes?" she asked, the scarf he had given her skewed slightly from all the running.

"Listen," he started, "I can fight them, you run, and I'll find you. We can't keep running, I don't even know how late it is, but we've got to shake them, and there's no way I can keep you safe while fighting them, I mean Mousse alone is acting like a mad man—"

"Ranma, you're rambling." Akane put her hands on her hips, and raised an eyebrow. "Besides, why do you have to keep me safe? I can take care of myself!"

"Damnit, Akane, please, let me do this—"

A voice spoke from the shadows.

"How about you let me do this?"

Akane and Ranma looked up as a young man stepped out into the moonlight. Akane gasped.

"Ryoga!"

The fang-toothed martial artist looked at the both of them, a weird look on his face. Part of him looked proud, the other part sick.

Oh, my dear Akane, he thought soulfully. He pulled a bandana down from his head, flicking it to make it solid. We can never be together. Your heart has spoken.

"I'll take care of this," Ryoga said stoically, standing up straight. "You two, go."

Akane put her hand on her mouth. Even Ryoga knew?! How embarrassing!

"Ryoga." Ranma clapped a hand on his shoulder, his eyes shining. The two boys looked at each other, trying to read each other's expression. "Ryoga," he said again. "I appreciate this."

"Of course, Ranma." His chest swelled with pride, proud of himself for being so selfless. "You take good care of her—"

"But there's no way an idiot like you can do this on your own."

"Hey!" Ryoga shouted and frowned. "What makes you think you can do it on your own, but I can't?"

"Because I'm me and you're you," Ranma shrugged simply. "Mouse is acting like something I've never seen. He's enraged. I'm telling you, there's no way you can do this on your own—"

"Then I'll help."

Ranma, Ryoga, and Akane turned.

A young woman stepped out onto the roof, a large spatula held at the ready. Ukyo looked at them critically, her eyes lingering on Ranma.

"Ukyo," Akane started slowly, but Ukyo shook her head.

"Sorry, Akane. I shouldn't have tried to use this curse to get closer to Ranma." Her gaze shifted to the pigtailed boy, who looked ashamed. "Ranma made me realize that."

The last day had been extremely difficult for Ukyo. Even cooking hadn't lifted her mood. As she made meal after meal for her customers, all she could see in her mind was Ranma's face as he dismissed her. It had taken time, and tears, and some soul searching, to realize that she couldn't settle herself. She would never settle for someone who wouldn't put her first. Even if it was Ranma, Ukyo had standards. I'll just become a great chef and an even greater fighter, and Ranma will regret he didn't pick me.

Her heart ached, but Ukyo smiled through it. "Ryoga and I got this." She jerked her head to the side and winked. "Go."

Akane hid her face. Ukyo knew, too?! "Honestly...!" she whispered to herself, mortified.

"Ukyo," Ranma said, walking over to her. His eyes searched her face. "Ukyo, I'm sorry for what I said. About all of this..."

"Ranma," she looked at him for a moment longer, her eyes threatening to tear up, but she refused to let them fall. She smiled painfully and shook her head, resolved. "You owe me a goddamn great okonomiyaki cart."

Ranma met her pained expression with his own. "You got it, Ucchan."

"Alright, get out of here!" Ryoga yelled as Mousse appeared, disheveled, from the darkness.

Akane grabbed Ranma's hand, and looked at Ryoga and Ukyo nervously. "They can't fight all four of them. We'll still be followed."

Ranma frowned and turned away from Akane, thinking. Maybe I should still stay, we can fight them off together... Suddenly, something pushed him hard from behind, sending him stumbling forward. He heard Akane gasp.

Ranma got his bearings and spun quickly, and saw Shinnosuke standing between them, his arms out protectively over Akane. How did he get here?!

"You," Shinnosuke said slowly. "I don't know what you are to Akane, but I know that I have a bad feeling about you. You need to leave her alone. If you don't," he slid into an offensive position, his hands balled into fists in front of him, "I will make you."

Ranma growled, but before he could say more than "Hey now-" he heard the rustling sound of an enemy to his right, and barely turned in time to duck out of the way of Kuno's sword. "Fuck!"

"Prepare to feel defeat at the hands of The Blue Thunder of Furikan High!" Kuno swung again, making Ranma bend backwards to avoid another hit. "Saotome, you will no longer be in the way of mine and Akane's true love!"

Ranma jumped over another swipe from Kuno's sword, and yelped as another weapon from Mousse extended out of the darkness. He narrowly avoided the additional attack, even as Ryoga shouted at Mousse. Ukyo had engaged with Kodachi, and the two girls were staring each other down. Ukyo was smiling slightly, glad to have someone to take her rage out on.

As Ranma struggled to fight off Kuno, Shinnosuke and Akane watched from the side. Shinnosuke quietly asked, "Is this Blue Thunder really a great fighter?"

"Not so much," Akane replied dryly. "Hey, Shinnosuke." She tugged on his sleeve, getting his attention. "Listen, we need to talk…"

"Yes," Shinnosuke said, his attention suddenly completely on her. He took her hands in his softly, looking at her tenderly. "Yes, we do."

"Shinnosuke," Akane said slowly, shaking her head. "I'm sorry, but Ranma and me..."

"You love him?" Shinnosuke asked quietly.

Akane blushed quickly, opening her mouth reflexively, shouting, "N—" She hesitated. She glanced over at Ranma as he swung himself up and over Kuno, making the older boy smack himself in the head with his own wooden sword.

"Yes," Akane whispered, her eyes meeting Shinnosuke's. "I do."

Shinnosuke brought a hand gently up to her face, and slid a thumb over her cheek. "Alright." He smiled at her sadly, pain in his eyes – pain that made her regret the last few hours and days, guilty that she had been too kind to him when she knew how he felt.

"Shinnosuke, I'm so sor—"

"Don't." He smiled, and brushed his thumb over her face one more time. "Akane, I don't remember much in my life. But I can remember you. And I remember the way you look at him," he jerked his head toward Ranma. "The way you smile at him, and the way you look when you miss him. I may think you've chosen poorly, but I know you've chosen the way you must."

Akane smiled sadly, feeling her heart beat painfully. "Shinnosuke, thank you. I... will always treasure you."

Shinnosuke smiled sadly. "Now," he said, pulling his wooden broom off his back, "you need to leave. With him." He winked, turning his back on her, his eyes searching for Kuno. "Go. I'll keep them back."

Ranma was panting heavily, bent over, catching his breath. Damn this tired body... A hand landed on his shoulder and he jumped, ready to attack, but it was Akane who was staring at him through the moonlight. "Ranma. Let's go."

Confused, Ranma looked up, and saw Shinnosuke and Kuno going head-to-head. Ryoga had Mousse occupied, and Kodachi was getting smacked around by Ukyo's spatula.

Ranma stared at the scene in front of him. What the hell is going on...

"Ranma," Akane urged again quietly, and Ranma looked down at her.

"Right," he said slowly. He swallowed hard, realizing the toughest part was yet to come. "Alright, let's go find somewhere to... talk." Gingerly, he took her hand in his, and led her silently off the roof and onto the walkway below.


They dragged their feet through snow. The buildings were less dense in this part of town and with no one living nearby to shovel the snow, it lay in thick snowdrifts on the ground. Ranma had insisted they get as far away from buildings and homes as possible, tired of running around on them the whole night.

"Wh-where are we going?" Akane whispered, the night and the snow smothering all the sound so that it was silent except for the noises of them trudging through the night.

"There's another old shrine 'round here," Ranma mumbled. "There's a roof, but no door, so it'll offer some protection..." He was still nervous that someone would break away and interrupt them, so he wanted to be as hidden as possible.

Akane looked up, blinking through the darkness. The candle felt so heavy in her pocket, so ominous. She felt warmth fill her cheeks as she thought for the hundredth time what was about to happen between her and Ranma. This is it... Our last chance to be together...

As they had walked, Akane had asked Ranma more questions about the curse – what he knew about it, how other people found out. Several times she'd sworn at him, and he'd taken it guiltily. Ranma had told her about most of the curse while they had been running, so the majority of their walk through the snow had been quiet. Ranma, searching for a quiet spot and panicking about what he was about to say; Akane, thinking quietly about the last week and a half, and connecting the dots about what had been going on with her.

The curse had certainly done its job. Her irrational fear of Ranma had reared its head several times over the last week: when she had thrown her clock at him, and screaming at him after falling into the pond. It was embarrassing to realize that so many people knew, and none of them she wanted to. Least of all, Ranma himself... Akane glanced up at the back of Ranma's head. He knew the whole time... How I felt about him...

Ranma, sick of the silence, cleared his throat. "Hopefully no one else decides to fight us tonight," he mumbled. "Why do we have so many enemies?"

Akane, still nursing her wounded pride, grumbled back, "I'd like to point out only one of the people following us hates me, the rest are after you."

"Yeah well," Ranma said grumpily, "whose fault do you think that is?"

"Yours!" Akane shout-whispered. "You burn bridges just fine on your own! Don't try to blame me!"

"Oh, is that so?" Ranma glared dryly at her over his shoulder. "What about Shinnosuke? He's after me just for me, huh?"

"Maybe!" Akane retorted. "After all, you've been nothing but rude to him since he showed up!"

"Well, maybe I had to balance out all your 'kindness' that looked an awful lot like flirting to me!"

"I can't believe you!" Akane stopped walking, glaring at him. "If you really think I was flirting, then maybe I should just-" she stuck her hand in her pocket, and pulled out the candle, holding it up, "-use this with Shinnosuke! I'm sure he wouldn't mind!"

Ranma's jaw dropped. "You wouldn't!"

"Oh?" Akane raised an eyebrow. "Well he hasn't ever been afraid of telling me how he feels. And he didn't keep a secret from me!"

"Uuugh," Ranma threw his arms up. "Like Shinnosuke could even remember a secret long enough to keep it from you! And I said I was sorry, but what choice did I have?"

"What choice did you have? What choice did I have?!" Akane stomped her foot, the sound dampened by the snow. "You could have come to me a week ago and told me about this! We could have figured it out together, but instead you let me embarrass myself for days because – because - because why? Why didn't you tell me? To protect me? Telling me would have protected me best of all! Instead you found out how I feel and just strung me along!"

"That's not it!" Ranma snapped. "Did it ever cross your mind that maybe I wasn't ready to tell you how I feel about you?!"

His words echoed in the dark night, the fear in his voice evident even to himself. Akane stared at him, her lips parted in a silent gasp, her eyes wide. Her eyes were begging him – and how do you feel about me?

Ranma, sulking, turned his head to the side, trying to think of what to say now, when he saw a small light. "There," he said, clearing his throat and pointing. "The shrine is there." Roughly, he stepped forward, and took her hand without looking at her, and pulled the silent girl after him.

An old electric light, caked over with ice, marked the doorway to an open-air shrine that was a little more than a flat bench inside three walls, a peaked roof on top weighed down with snow. It was old and rundown, but the roof had an overhang large enough to keep the snow off of the raised stone floor. Ranma led Akane inside carefully, and released her hand once they were both inside. The walls kept the moonlight and the wind out, but did little else to keep them warm.

Ranma straddled the bench and sat, a leg on each side. Akane sat down as well, but kept both her legs on one side. She twisted to face him, the small bench only allowing a foot a space between them on the old slates of wood.

Akane blinked at Ranma quietly, as he looked at her defiantly. Finally, he spoke again. "Well... Take the candle out." He had intended to sound tough, but his nervousness came out.

Slowly, carefully, Akane reached into her pocket, and gently placed it between them. They stared at it, the ugly little brown thing looking innocuous, and hesitated.

Is this really the right candle? Ranma thought with trepidation. Will it really work?

"So... How does it work?" Ranma asked, refusing to look up as Akane lifted her head to look at him.

"Don't you know?"

"Well, yeah, but..." He cleared his throat. "I mean, you musta bought it because you knew, too."

"Uh, yeah, I know how to use it..."

They both trailed off into silence.

Ranma was painfully reminded of that incident in the dojo back when he barely knew Akane, and he threatened to kiss her. She had dared him to, and then... nothing. They had only looked at each other, embarrassed, until her family had interrupted. Late bloomers indeed, Ranma thought bitterly.

He took a deep breath, refusing to be afraid anymore. "Alright, then, Akane...!"

Akane looked to him, hopeful.

"...Uh, you go first."

Akane rolled her eyes and crossed her arms. Why you...! She scoffed. "Don't we all know how I feel now? Doesn't all of Nerima know?"

"Well," Ranma said, frowning, "you still have to say it. Yunno, to him." He pointed at the candle.

"It's not a him, it's—oh whatever." Akane tightened her arms, glancing around at the walls around them, before looking resolutely at Ranma.

"This is the only way to cure me?"

"Yes. Unless you want to be alone forever."

Akane sighed. Compared to how embarrassed she felt now, being alone forever didn't seem like a bad alternative.

"Oh, fine," she sighed at last. "Ranma, I..."

Ranma looked at her, sudden panic filling him. Was he ready for this?! After all this time, was he ready to hear her say how she felt? Was he ready to say it back? His self-preservation instincts kicked in, and he opened his mouth, unsure of what he was going to say, his mind screaming to tell her to stop-

"I love you, Ranma." As she said it, a single tear fell, tracing a line down her cheek.

Ranma gulped his mouth closed, his heart doing summersaults. He wanted to ask her to say it again, and again, and again – to say it until he had every bit of her memorized, so that he could revisit this moment again and again. But instead he asked, "Why are you crying?"

Akane swiped it away forcefully with her palm, her heart beating hard in her chest – she was anxious, and fearful, her body reacting as the curse had conditioned her. It frustrated her. "Because normally when I say that to you, you try to kill me afterwards."

"Oh." Ranma looked down, hating this damn curse more than ever. "Oh, is that... right?"

Akane sniffled. Ranma shuffled his feet. They both knew what had to happen next.

But Akane saw a weird look cross his face. "What?"

"Oh," Ranma said, startled. He traced her face with his eyes, and his face reddened. "It's just... cool to hear you say it. Like..." he grew awkward. "Thanks," he said lamely.

Akane's eyes narrowed and she scoffed. "Well, I wouldn't know how that felt. In all those weird... curse-induced visions, you never said it back to me. And you still haven't!" She said it to try to encourage him to speak up, but she couldn't hide the resentment in her voice. After all, he clearly knew how she felt, and had for a while, and yet she was still the only one speaking her mind!

"Hey," Ranma started, getting defensive. "That wasn't actually me. You know that. And besides, why would I be here if I didn't – if I wasn't prepared to – I mean," Ranma looked at his hands, twirling his fingers around each other. "...I have to say it, don't I?"

Akane bristled like an angry cat. "You HAVE to?!"

Ranma was astonished by the anger in her voice. "Y-Yeah, because otherwise the curse will—"

"Oh don't put this on the curse, Ranma!" Akane yelled, standing up. She was furious. "I would much rather live my life alone than with someone who doesn't feel the same way about me!"

Ranma was abruptly reminded of the thing Akane said, just days ago, when he had been hanging outside her window. When she had sadly sighed and mumbled to her friends, "I don't think I could love someone who doesn't love me."

Ranma jumped to his feet, breathing hard. "You idiot!"

"S-So what if I am!" Akane yelled back.

"No, listen to me! You're an idiot!"

Akane, startled, took a step back. Was he really doing this? "Are you... are you really trying to make me hate you? Because if that's what you're going for—"

"Akane, you're an idiot!" Ranma was yelling, his hands balled into fists. Adrenaline pumped in his veins. "An idiot for loving me, and an idiot for doubting me right now! You're impatient and stubborn, and you never listen to me! You never let me, or anyone else, tell you what to do! You put your all into everything, and you care so much, and you never give up! Not even on me! You still rely on me when I've let you down so many times before, and you make me want to be better – to be the person you seem to think I am!"

Now Akane was bewildered. Her mouth dropped open. Was he insulting her or praising her? She really couldn't tell.

Ranma grimaced, but didn't stop. He couldn't stop. "This isn't how I wanted this to go down! I wanted to be nice, and say it meaningfully, and I wanted to hold your hand, but you're so – grrraah – you're so frustrating! You make me so confused, and overwhelmingly happy, and so I can never say what I want to because I don't want to say it wrong so I say nothing at all! And I hate that it took a curse from Shampoo to put me on the spot like this, and Ukyo making me try to imagine life without you to make me realize I would do anything for you! Because while I never signed up to fall in love with an idiot like you, now here I am," he spread his arms dramatically, "trying to prove it to you, because apparently, I haven't done a good enough job yet!"

Akane's eyes darted between both of Ranma's. She looked shocked.

Ranma stared her down, huffing and puffing, his cheeks bright red. "So that's why you're an idiot. A beautiful, fucking idiot. And that's why I love you."

Akane stared at him, open-mouthed. A numbness spread through her limbs that she struggled to fight off.

Fuck you, Ryoga, Ranma thought, embarrassed at his own outburst. You knew this would happen, didn't you? Even though you told me not to, I don't know any other way to say this. I just can't say it calmly like you!

Slowly, Akane closed her mouth. She bent her knees and sat back down, still silent. She looked pale.

Ranma gulped, and sat back down as well. What is she thinking? Is she mad?

Akane took several slow, deep breaths. As Ranma had shouted those last few words – That's why I love you! – a double-image of Ranma had appeared. Like a ghost, the second Ranma had held his hand out to her, mouthing the words the real Ranma said, but with a gentle smile on his face. Come to me, he had said, smiling, whispering, promising more...

And for the first time since the curse started, Akane had refused his hand.

It had taken all of her willpower, but as she rejected him, the double vision of Ranma had disappeared just as quickly as he'd appeared. She felt proud of herself, but something still tugged at her mind. The curse was still there, threatening to pull her in if she thought too deeply about what Ranma had just said.

A thick silence filled the air as Akane finally did mull over Ranma's words. She glanced up at him through her eyelashes, and watched him fume at the wall. Slowly, she smiled.

"Thanks."

Ranma turned his head toward her so fast he felt a stab of pain in his neck. "Th-thanks?! That's all you have to say?!"

Akane tilted her head, her smile growing playful. "Well that's what you said to me."

"Er," Ranma scratched his face, ashamed, his eyes on her. "Oops. Right."

Akane laughed, and it was a beautiful sound. "We're a mess."

Slowly, he smiled back. "M-mhm."

"Well," Akane took a deep breath, "if that wasn't a confession, I don't know what is." Now she was beaming at him, but still something was at the back of her mind. Something wasn't quite right... but what was it... Could it be...?

Ranma smiled, and then blinked. "Wait, so that means—the candle!" Together, they looked down in unison.

The candle remained still and cold between them.

"What... It's not working," Ranma said numbly. "Why isn't it working?"

Akane looked to him, growing fearful. "What does it mean?"

GONG!

Both teenagers jumped and looked to the side as a loud clang rang out. It was the bell tower. Even out here, at the edge of town, it was visible, lit up in the dark night like a beacon. Both hands on the clock face stood straight up, marking the hour. It was midnight.

...I can't believe it. "I-It's too late," Akane whispered, breathless. The candle had not lit. Their time was up.

Her hair brushed her shoulders as she swung her head to look at Ranma, wide-eyed and pale. "It must not be the right candle," she guessed, hesitating. Or...

Ranma could only look at her, his breath coming in fast, short gasps. This wasn't how it was supposed to happen. I was supposed to save her. Save us. His heart started racing. "Akane," he started, at a loss. "I-I'm so sorry." I failed.

The bell rang out again, and tears sprang to Akane's eyes. "So, this is it?" She let out a weak, bitter laugh. "We – we what? We finally figure out how we feel, and – and it's just going to end like this?" Her sardonic laugh at the end of the sentence was cut off by a sob. Ranma grit his teeth, feeling his own eyes well up. His left hand curled up into a fist.

Each bell toll ringing out sounded ominous, cutting their last seconds together – truly together – shorter with each gong. How many was that? Seven? No, eight.

Ranma fought to make each second last, his eyes traveling over her face, taking in her big brown eyes framed by long eyelashes, her heart-shaped face, her dark hair.

Akane was talking before he realized it, "Maybe we can still— there might be a way—"

"Akane," Ranma silenced her with a shake of his head. Her tears were falling down her face in thin streams. Suddenly, being embarrassed didn't matter anymore. All the words he wanted to say to her, he had to say now or he would never have the chance.

The ninth gong rang out, and Ranma started speaking quickly. "I-I won't leave you. Even if you never, never love me again. Even if you hate me." The tenth gong burnt his ears. "I can't have anyone but you. I won't love anyone else. I'll stay with you, no matter what." His hands reached out, seeking her. He clasped the back of her head, pulling her face toward him as he leaned in to meet her to the sound of the eleventh bell toll. "I'll love only you forever."

Their lips connected with force – Ranma jumping to beat the twelfth gong, to not regret wasting his last second with her. The sound of the last toll was lost alone in the night as the sound of blood rushing past his ears drowned out the cruel noise. Akane's nose was cold with the weather, but her lips were surprisingly warm against his. She tasted like salty tears but there was a sweet, seductive undertone that tugged at his heart, made him want him more, and made his blood run with regret that he would never taste it like this again.

It was this thought that kept him pressed against her for so long. His own eyes were burning with bitter tears, and he refused to let go as long as he could. He wanted her. He wanted her. But this was the last he was going to have of her.

The panic and dread was too much; he let his instincts take over for him. He let the world fall away like an old jacket, and all that was left was him and Akane, connected. He was moving against her, working into a deeper kiss, and on some level it registered that she was moving as well. Despite his desperation, he kissed her slowly, savoring the new sensation of Akane against him. He was hungry in a way he had never experienced before, and this was the only way to satisfy this part of him. His palms were rounded against her cheeks, his fingers entwined in her hair. The warmth of her mouth burned him, the taste of her as his tongue brushed over her lips was devastatingly wonderful. He wanted nothing more than to live in this moment forever.

But even as he wished for it, he felt small fingers wrap around his wrist, tugging at him gently, asking for him to let go.

With a last, longing taste, the kiss ended. Ranma was reluctant to pull away, and refused to do so entirely. His mouth left hers with a small, frustrated grunt, but he kept his forehead pressed against hers, his hands still firmly holding her face. He kept his eyes shut tight, as he heard her breathe heavy, hot short gasps into the winter air.

He sat down, still holding his forehead against hers, unsure when he had raised up onto his feet in the first place, and opened his eyes.

A tiny, pink flame danced below him. The candle was still between them, but now it was alight, giving off surprising warmth for such a small flame. He watched it silently for a few seconds, his own panting making it dance back and forth. So it was the right one, he thought numbly. A shit load of good it did them now, lighting after midnight. Too late little candle... You were too late. So was I.

"Ranma?"

With great unwillingness, Ranma forced himself to release her. He let go of his hand on her face first before pulling his head back. He kept his eyes down, until his breathing slowed. Then he looked up into wide, confused eyes before him, steeling his heart.

Akane was regarding him with an expression he couldn't make out. She had three fingertips pressed to her lips. Though it made no sense how, the candle was casting a faint pink light over her, coloring her face and clothes in the light hue.

It was the hardest thing he had ever done, keeping eye contact with her. It was so hard not to shout in anger, or cry in frustration, or kiss her again. He let out a shaky breath, his heart beating painfully against his ribs. "S-So," he mumbled at last, "what now? You, um," he cleared his throat, "are probably pretty pissed I just did that, right? Right. Sorry."

Akane said nothing. She was just staring at him, and it made him want to run and hide. "Well," he started again, "I understand if you don't want to see me for a little while. It is my fault that you can't, now, you know, that you can't... That is..."

"Love," Akane said abruptly.

Shit, Ranma groaned internally, she has every right to be mad. "Y-Yeah, that. Listen, I am so sorry. I promise, I'm going to do whatever it takes to undo this. I'll go to China if I have to. I'll do research. I'll find some way to help you, I will. I'll even..."

Ranma was blabbering, desperate, confused, heart-broken. Akane could do nothing but just stare at him as he waved his hands, shook his head, looked away and then glanced back at her with sadness in his eyes. He was bathed in the same pink light that she was.

"B-But please," he finished, "don't tell me you hate me now." His voice sounded pathetic to even him. "I don't think I could handle it if—"

Akane moved the hand from her lips, planting the fingers firmly against Ranma's mouth instead, to shut him up. She stared at him, her eyes wide, her face blank. "I don't hate you." Ranma's eyes softened in relief. "I love you." The words came so naturally it surprised her.

Blue eyes stared into her brown ones. Moments passed in complete silence, as they sat, just looking at each other.

"What?" Ranma said, his lips brushing her fingertip. He didn't want to risk believing it. "That's impossible. We were too late. I was too late. Are you sure?"

Akane was almost unwilling to believe it herself, for fear that she was wrong. But looking at him now, and remembering that kiss, made her shiver. She pulled her hand back, clenching it together with her other hand in her lap. "Uh, pretty sure."

Ranma looked bewildered, then his face broke out in a goofy grin, then quickly resumed looking bewildered. "How? What happened? What changed?"

"I... don't know," Akane said slowly. But she thought she knew.

She had believed him when he told her that he loved her. She knew he meant it. But despite that, she didn't believe that his love for her was exclusive. Just hearing him say Shampoo and Ukyo's names tonight made her falter. Too many times she had seen him with his other fiancées and other women to believe fully that even if he loved her that it meant she was only one he loved. It was possible to love more than one person, and it had always been a concern for her when she saw how he treated Ukyo and Shampoo. It had only been just before the kiss, as he said that she was one he loved, the only one, that she had noticed a small pink light fill the air, just a moment before his lips found hers, and felt confidence and happiness surge through her.

Ranma, meanwhile, was looking at his hands. He lifted his fingers one-by-one, as if he were counting. "Oh." He looked up at her, holding up nine fingers. "We may have missed midnight, but it didn't matter. I counted wrong - there was still another day left. We still had another 24 hours to break the curse. My bad."

Akane punched him in the shoulder.

"Ow," Ranma said with a cheeky grin. "Oops."

"Honestly!" Akane sighed, rolling her eyes. "Making us panic about running out of time like that!"

Ranma looked at her, his eyes sweeping over her. "Well," he said slowly, "I guess we have all the time in the world now."

Blushing, Akane could only hold his gaze for a few seconds before she had to look away. She could still feel Ranma's lips on hers, and unconsciously licked her lips. "M-Mm... I guess so..."

Ranma noticed the motion of her tongue flicking over lips, and he swallowed hard. He'd just kissed those lips. Akane. He just kissed Akane. He just kissed Akane?! The reality of what he'd just done hit him in a sudden burst of emotions.

Ranma jumped to his feet, trying to distract himself. "U-Uh, in that case, I-I mean, i-it's late, we should get home!?"

"Oh yes!" Akane gasped, standing up herself. "Jeeze – the way we left, my family probably has so many questions. What are we going to tell them? And Shinnosuke was supposed to leave tonight too. I wonder if he did already..."

Akane trailed off. Ranma was looking at the candle, obviously working something over in his mind. "What are you thinking about?"

Ranma glanced up at her. "Well," he said slowly, "do you... feel any different?" He nodded toward the candle, the innocent little flame still emitting a pink light that somehow filled the small shrine. "It's, uh, supposed to tie us together forever, isn't it? So shouldn't we feel... different?"

"Hm..." Akane said thoughtfully. "I don't think I feel anything new? Maybe... mm, no."

"What?" Ranma asked.

"Mm..." Akane hesitated. "Maybe, we've already been tied together for a while. We just... couldn't admit it."

Ranma blushed, then frowned. "And, wait, if there's still a day left, how do we know for sure you're cured?"

Akane thought for a second, then leaned toward him. Ranma stiffened, surprised at their closeness. "Ah—"

"Tell me you love me," Akane said quietly, unsmiling, her brown eyes boring into his.

A blush swept up Ranma's neck, through his cheeks, and up to his hair. Eep, she's so cute. "I-I-I-I," he stammered, "I-I l-l-l-love y-y-y-you...!"

Akane blinked, glancing around the shrine, then grinned at him and winked. "We're good." Joy filled her – not only at hearing Ranma confess to her, again!, but that there was no other Ranma standing next to him. She felt in control of her own body for the first time in days.

Ranma flapped his mouth, confused, and slightly disappointed that she hadn't been about to kiss him like he thought she was. Instead he frowned, and stood up straight and opened his mouth to say something, when she suddenly piped up, "I love you too."

Glowing with another blush, Ranma scratched his nose. "M-Mm, good." He glanced at her, then looked away, embarrassed.

Akane, laughing, picked up the candle, and carefully blew it out.


"Sooo, Akane… How are you and Ranma doing?"

Akane sighed, a small smile creeping onto her face.

To give her friends credit, Yuka and Sayuri had waited until they were about to leave to ask her about her love life. Akane rolled her eyes, but knew better than to brush the question off like she always had before. "We're... good." She said quietly, simply.

Yuka and Sayuri squealed, teasing her. "Good? You two must be better than that!"

"After all," Sayuri pointed out, "we haven't heard from Shampoo and Mousse since they left."

"Yeah," Yuka piped up, "and Ukyo left town with her new okonomiyaki cart a week ago!"

"I'll miss her," Sayuri said, "her food was so tasty."

"Yeah well, she said she'll be back soon, she's just going to travel a bit..."

As Yuka and Sayuri chatted, Akane watched her two friends fondly. It had been a month since the cold night where her and Ranma had confessed to each other. Since then, more information had come out: Nabiki let slip that she was the reason that not only Ukyo found out, but that she led to the Kuno siblings showing up that night. Nabiki's apology was almost nonexistent, but she did contribute to Ukyo's new okonomiyaki cart, which was suspiciously out of character for her – until she mentioned to Ranma he'd have to pay her back someday, with interest.

With her new cart, Ukyo had left Nerima with the promise to return with 'a better boyfriend than even Ranma!' She still liked to tease him, and gave Genma a hard time about the past, but she had pulled Akane aside on the day she left. "You take good care of him - I better not come back to find out you blew it and he's single again!" Akane had stammered through Ukyo's bold declaration, and her clear admittance of defeat, and Ukyo had laughed it off as a joke. "But actually, watch out," she added just before leaving. "I might end up following that Shinnosuke guy - he was cute!" Shinnosuke had left the same night the curse had been broken. He apologized to Ranma for their "disagreements" - he claimed he barely remembered Ranma and was confused why he was so mad, but Akane caught him glaring when he thought no one was looking -, and left a long standing offer that Akane and Ranma could visit him whenever they pleased.

Meanwhile, Shampoo and Mousse had disappeared overnight. They hadn't spoken again with Ranma or Akane before leaving Japan, but Akane heard from Ukyo that Shampoo and Mousse seemed suspiciously close, and Mousse suspiciously happy. Akane wished them the best even though right now the idea of seeing Shampoo again someday made her cringe. But Akane knew that time was a powerful thing, especially when it came to healing. She had no doubt she'd see the purple haired girl again, she just hoped she'd be ready to forgive her when she did. Ranma swore up and down that he would never speak to her again, but Akane wondered if time wouldn't change him, too. After all, if not for the curse, she wasn't sure her and Ranma would ever have had the courage to face each other so openly. In a weird way, she had Shampoo to thank for them finally admitting their feelings for one another, but Akane found it difficult to think that way.

Akane had also finally shared all the details with her two friends about the curse that had affected her. She was carefully to speak about the visions only when she was sure Ranma was nowhere nearby to listen in – she would've been mortified to have him know what she'd imagined the two of them doing together, curse or no curse! After all, even though they had confessed to each other, and even though they were confident in their attachment to each other, they were still... late bloomers. Kisses were few and far between, and left both of them breathless and embarrassed whenever it happened. The idea of kissing the way they had in her visions seemed a long way off.

But still, Akane was happy. And she was pretty sure Ranma was, too. He had wilted under new pressure from their fathers to pursue marriage, but after Akane subtly pointed out that both Shampoo and Ukyo were out of the picture, Soun and Genma had quieted down and Ranma had perked back up.

"Alriiight, Akane," they said a sing-song voices, breaking her free from her thoughts. "We'll see you tomorrow at school!"

Akane walked her friends to the door, shrugging off their teasing, and giggling with them about inside jokes. She waved to them from the gate, then went back inside and got ready for bed, her mind wandering between different thoughts of school, Ranma, and the approaching spring. As she left the bathroom, tooth brush in hand and her mind on the classwork due tomorrow, she was surprised to turn the corner and come face-to-face with Ranma.

"Ah," he said suddenly, blinking. "H-Hey."

"Hey," Akane said, smiling. Ranma was still jumpier than he had been before they had shared their feelings, but Akane found his nervousness sweet. It seemed to frustrate him, though, that she tended to be the calm one.

Ranma glanced around the hallway, rolling back and forth on his feet. "You had fun with your friends?"

"Yeah." Akane narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "You weren't listening, were you?"

"Me? No!" Ranma pretended to act shocked, and Akane laughed. He grinned, raising an eyebrow. "Glad to hear we're 'good,' though."

Akane tsked, stamping her foot as she reddened. "Honestly! Don't eavesdrop on me!"

Ranma shrugged. "I didn't mean to. I was just checkin' in, making sure you were... yunno."

Akane glanced down and shuffled her feet. Ranma, it seemed, still carried a lot of fear in the aftermath of the curse. Sometimes he'd appear out of nowhere around the house, or at school, and look around until he saw her. He always made excuses as to why he was there, but there was an unspoken understanding between them that he was checking in on her. He liked to make sure there were no lasting effects from the curse. Luckily though, Akane was pleased that there didn't seem to be anything lingering. But she liked seeing him so frequently, so she pretended to be ignorant, and didn't bother to tell him to stop.

"Alright, well," Ranma said slowly. "See you tomorrow."

"Sounds good," Akane said, moving past him. "And don't you dare eavesdrop on me again, or I swear—"

As Akane slid past him, Ranma deftly bent down, stealing a quick kiss.

Akane stopped short, gasping quietly. She touched her lips in disbelief, feeling the warmth of her cheeks on her fingers. She looked up at him, shocked.

Ranma searched her face, grinning. While he was still getting used to his new closeness with Akane, there was a few fun surprises he was discovering with their new relationship. Like whenever I kiss her, she stops being mad. This was quickly becoming his new favorite trick. "G'night," he said with a wink, then continued on down the hall, whistling.

Akane stood silently in the hall for a long time, staring after him, before weakly padding off down the hall to bed.

Things in Nerima had certainly calmed down lately, but they both knew it wouldn't last. As long as Ranma was around, things would never stay quiet for long.


T-H-E - E-N-D


Ending Note, 8/17/17: Here we are - the end!I can't believe this took me so long, but it has truly been a labor of love since I first had the idea in October of 2015. Thank you to everyone for reading! I hope you enjoyed it. I feel the weight of the cliche ending, with so many characters finding their solutions and their ends, but I feel like a couple like Ranma and Akane deserve that packaged end. Besides, we never know what the future may hold for them, so at least we can solve some of their problems now before more inevitably appear.

The scene of Akane and Ranma kissing over the candle was what led to the whole story, so I've been pursuing this ending scene for so long, it feels good to finally get it out. Please let me know if there's any loose ends you feel I didn't wrap up, and I'll do my best to answer any questions you may still have. Thank you to everyone for reading! Next time I release a story (which I hope I get a chance to) I plan on writing the whole thing and releasing it as a finished story. No more chapter-by-chapter nonsense. So if you enjoyed this story, I hope you'll keep an eye out for more from me in the future. Cheers! - AliasAlien