Interlude

Ranma 1/2 copyright Rumiko Takahashi.

Note: SPOILERS for Volume 38 ahoy. This story takes place right after the fight with Saffron but before Ranma and the others go back to Japan.

Just your generic Ranma/Akane WAFF ^_^; Sort of.

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I.

They were hurtling down the sky, so fast Ranma could barely hear the roaring of the wind as they fell. They sped down mountains and cliffs, past even Saffron's half-disintegrating form, but Ranma didn't notice. He felt as if he were falling -- not over the edge of a precipice -- but within the warped space of a terrifying, panic-stricken realization.

Akane's eyes had closed.

'If she closes her eyes, she dies.'

He thought he could hear Ryouga crying out to him, so loudly over the sound of the rushing air and piercing through the desperate, silent vacuum that seemed to surround him and Akane. Ranma forced himself to think beyond the sight of Akane's face, beyond that sad, final smile curving her lips. They were getting closer and closer to the ground. The Gekkaja had hit the Dragon's Head Tap straight on after he'd thrown it. Ryouga would be turning the tap. And, very soon, the water...

'The water, Akane.'

He couldn't wait.

His ki flared. There was still heat all around him, generated by the fight with Saffron and his own final attack.

'If I make a downwards cold-fist here... I can call the water!'

Ranma curled in on himself, willing his body, still half-numb after that last attack on Saffron, to cool further, while concentrating all the heat he could absorb, everything in him -- the sound of his beating heart, his terror at the knowledge that even now the only thing he might have left of her is this small lifeless husk between his hands -- into his clenched fist. It began to glow.

'A strike for life. For your life.'

"Hiryuu Gyouten Ha-a-a!!!"

'Don't die yet, Akane.'

**********

They didn't end up staying in Jusenkyou, after all. The Guide was very apologetic about it, but what with the springs getting mixed up, and all the employees having to repair and reinforce the damaged water systems so that enterprising avian royal clans couldn't tamper with them ever again, and seeing as how the penthouse wasn't really big enough, okyaku-san, so sorry for not telling you sooner...

"Right," Ranma said. "We'll go find that hostel again then. Come on, everyone. We gotta get there before nightfall."

Ryouga stared at him, noting the almost angry and frustrated edge in Ranma's voice. Why did he want to stay in Jusenkyou anyway? Their cure was *gone*. There was no reason for them to stay.

"We can just go on straight home to Japan, Saotome," put in Mousse, warily. "That's what we did after we fought Mint, right?"

"Yeah," said Ryouga. "It's not as if we need to hang around here anymore. Because..." He swallowed past the all too familiar taste of depression and failure building up in his throat.

"Are you idiots or what?" Ranma retorted impatiently. "Of course we ain't going home just yet. Akane has to rest first. She's too weak right now to do any serious traveling."

Akane had been talking to Plum and Shampoo, but she must have been listening to their conversation too, because she looked at Ranma and said, in that tone of voice which was part familiar Akane-stubborness, part exasperation, part something Ryouga didn't want to define even now, especially now, because it was only and had always been meant for Ranma:

"What are you talking about? I'm perfectly all right."

"No, you're not all right, Akane," Ranma snapped. That strange edge in *his* voice again. Akane blinked, seeming to have registered it for the first time. Ryouga found himself instinctively taking a step forward, and then checked the impulse. Perhaps it was the strain of the past couple of days finally catching up on Ranma. First, Kiima and her goons' unexpected attacks in Nerima, then that helter-skelter trip to Jusenkyou, then the first frustrated fight with Saffron and his cohorts, and then discovering that Akane had been kidnapped, and...

"We're staying here in China for a few days and that's final."

Akane opened her mouth to protest further when, to Ryouga's bemused surprise, she yawned instead, tugging absently at her collar, Ranma's shirt collar. Ryouga sighed inwardly.

"See?" Ranma said pointedly. "You're almost asleep on your feet." Akane mumbled something vaguely indignant. Ranma ignored her and turned to Mousse and Ryouga. "If you guys want to go home ahead of us, that's fine with me. Akane and I will stay. And Oyaji, too," he added, glancing at the huge oblivious panda asleep -- sort of -- perched on the Jusenkyou guide's chair like a circus animal balancing on a miniscule beach ball. "Unless you want to tow him across the Sea of Japan looking like that."

"Aiya!" Shampoo put in. "If Ranma stay, Shampoo stay too!"

Mousse sighed. "Then I'll stay as well, Saotome." For once, he didn't look inclined to launch another scathing diatribe at Saotome-enemy-of-women. He merely took off his glasses and wiped them on the sleeve of his robe.

Ryouga *was* tired too, but he wasn't about to admit it to Ranma just yet. Knowing that invoking his own 'Akane-san' logic -- and all its components -- would be pushing it this time, he just shrugged and hefted his umbrella on his shoulder.

"If I try going to Japan by myself, you'll probably arrive there ahead of me even if you stay here a year, anyway," Ryouga muttered. He felt his face redden slightly at making such an admission. He waited for the usual wisecrack by the other boy, hoped for it in fact -- though he would *never* admit * that* -- because it ought to be better than this barely discernible if ever-increasing tension that he was beginning to sense in Ranma the longer he stood there and talked to them and stared at Akane all the while, with the strangest look on his face. Well, perhaps it wasn't so strange, because even Ryouga knew that Ranma always looked at Akane in the same way, whatever he was saying aloud or thinking or feeling inside, but, just this once, there was something different about it.

"Fine," said Ranma. "Let's go. We'd better hurry."

Maybe Akane noticed the difference, too, because she managed to collect herself enough to frown at Ranma again through her very obvious exhaustion. "Are *you* all right, Ranma? You sound weird." Her eyes widened and she looked almost alert. "Don't tell me... Saffron didn't hurt you some place we can't see, did he? Are you being a macho jerk *again*? What--" The sentence ended in a small shriek as Ranma swung her up in his arms.

The rest of them stared. Shampoo made a convulsive movement towards them. Mousse glanced at her. She stopped in her tracks.

"You're delirious, Akane," said Ranma, grunting as she accidentally dug an elbow into his ribs as she struggled. "Now shut up and close your eyes and get some sleep."

"With you carrying me?" Akane demanded.

Ranma glared down at her. "What's wrong with that? You seemed just fine with it when we were in the cave!"

"That was different..."

"It's not different! Stop arguing with me!" He didn't shout but his voice was loud enough to make them start. Akane stared up at him for several long moments, then she subsided against him. She closed her eyes but Ryouga could see that she still held herself a little away from Ranma. Ranma's hold on her tightened fractionally. If he held on any tighter, she'd suffocate. Ryouga clamped his jaw shut against the protest he could feel rising up his throat.

And then Akane sighed, a deep, slightly trembling sigh, and her body relaxed in Ranma's arms. One of her hands went up to curl against his chest. Ryouga looked away.

"We can't spend the night here so we'd better start heading for that other place. Mousse, see if you can wake up Oyaji. Sorry about it, man, but--"

"It's all right," Mousse cut him off.

"Thanks. Ryouga, go check with that Jusenkyou guide dude if he can lend us another cart or something."

Ryouga nodded curtly. "Okay, Ranma." It wasn't until he was turning to leave out of the door that he finally recognized what he had seen on Ranma's face when he was looking at Akane.

It was that same look he had worn when he thought she was dead.

End Part 1

Note: Man. What am I doing? This was supposed to be a fairly straightforward story. And then Ryouga crawled in and... Oh, boy. _ If the story continues to place itself in this context, then this part will probably end up reading extremely dodgy.