A Ranma ½ Alternate Universe
By Andrina

Chapter 8

More than two months had passed since Akane had first arrived at the town of Isha.

Time made its passage known; it had been early spring when they had first arrived, but the air was now thick with the headiness of summer. The three of them had spent the first week living in the inn before moving to a creaky old cottage on the edge of town – courtesy of one of their kind contacts, according to Ranma. It was a quiet area, close to the forests and far from the fields the farmers tended. It was here that Ukyo put Akane through strict daily training of the Art. It couldn't have been easy for the ex-Maiden to endure hours of vigorous workout, but Akane had, surprisingly, taken to it like a fish to water.

Once, Ukyo had praised her for her enthusiasm and determination. Akane had shrugged then, wiping perspiration from her brow. "I like it," she had said simply. "When I'm training like this, it helps me relax." It helps me forget, she had wanted to add, but didn't.

In the end, it hadn't mattered, because Ukyo gave her a look that told her she'd already understood. "Come on, hon. Let's go for another round of sparring," she had suggested, and that had been the end of it.

All in all, life had fallen pleasantly into a certain routine.

For Akane, mornings were split between scouring the nearby forests for useful herbs and tending to her stall in the market. Her side project of making healing salves and beauty lotions had taken off with surprising success over the past two months. Today, she claimed a more permanent spot in the town square, having accepted the generous offer of one of the local fruit sellers to share her stall space. Ukyo joined in her search in the forests sometimes, and they spent many mornings chatting amiably as they wandered around the nearby woods. Ranma, on the other hand, disappeared off somewhere as usual.

In the afternoons, Akane trained with Ukyo. Ukyo took her through the basics of the Art. She was a patient teacher but, when it came to the Art, she did not hold back. Akane, sensitive by nature and unused to such discipline, found herself bruised and disheartened at the end of every training session. Only respect for her new friend and sheer stubbornness kept her going. Eventually, she came to realize that Ukyo did not mean to hurt her; she was simply a very strict and critical teacher. Unwilling to back down from a challenge, Akane learnt to hold back her complaints – Ukyo wasn't giving in to her whining anyway – and throw herself into her training with increased fervor. Ukyo had been secretly impressed by her response and subsequent progress. Their work on unarmed combat was going well, and while Akane still had much to learn, she was beginning to wonder if she ought to introduce a weapon to the enthusiastic girl.

In those two months, Akane saw little of Ranma. He was always up at the crack of dawn and back at the oddest hours of the night. It was a bit disconcerting, Akane thought, to see so little of someone even though they were technically living in the same house.

Obviously, Akane was not the most patient of people. After a bit of prying, she soon learnt that Ranma – and sometimes Ukyo, during the hours when she was not with Akane – spent his days meeting up with contacts who lived or were passing through Isha. He made short trips to nearby towns and villages at times, presumably to check up on some of the other rebels. Life as the leader of a revolt that was still in the stages of its infancy wasn't all the easy, it seemed. There were weapon deals to negotiate, informants to meet up with, and not to mention, training operations to be funded. They also had to be constantly on the lookout for new recruits, Ukyo had explained to Akane.

To top it all off, money was something they lacked, so all of them had to find some way to generate income while they lived in Isha. Ranma did odd jobs around the town when he wasn't off running about on some errand, Akane learnt. Ukyo, on the other hand, found work as a bartender in one of the small taverns in town during the evenings. Having grown up on the road, Ukyo had picked up a certain charm and roughness about her. It was this roughness and her easygoing nature (not to mention, her wonderful ability to break any wandering hands from some of the more touchy male customers) made her popular with the patrons and bar owners alike. Akane had protested strongly at her choice of work at first, but Ukyo had laughed and shrugged it off. "Relax, honey," she had assured her. "I can take care of myself, you know. I do this all the time."

As for Akane, her evenings were spent working on her inventory of products. She found herself preparing batches of poultices and salves every night, even running out sometimes to tend to people who were suffering from minor ailments but too poor to afford the town healer. With the days growing longer in summer, Akane had also taken to running evening classes once or twice a week. On such evenings, she found herself surrounded by young women of varying ages. Many had been sent by their mothers, and paid close attention as Akane taught them the basic medicinal properties of the local plants and how they could be used to heal minor ailments.

Medicine was expensive, Akane had explained to Ranma and Ukyo when they had asked why she was willing to spend so much time on something like that. Seeing a doctor was expensive. Though the town healer was a kind man who never charged a poor patient if he couldn't afford treatment, a few conversations with the local townspeople had told Akane that the good healer had his work cut out for him. Poverty bred illness, and even a bustling town of trade like Isha was not entirely spared by the growing suffering that was taking hold of much of the land. Many had lost jobs in recent months as trade fell, and many of these poor patients were embarrassed to keep imposing on the healer.

Enter Akane.

Something had tugged at her when she had learnt of this, and she had begun to hold classes, teaching the womenfolk of the town to treat their own minor ailments with what the forests had provided so freely. Of course, what she knew of healing as a Maiden was horribly limited when compared against the skills of a real Healer. Still, Akane knew what she could put together to treat a common cold or a niggling cough – minor problems that could, however, escalate into more worrying illnesses in a small child or a weak old man if left untreated. She never charged for these lessons, but the gratitude she received – often in the form of food and firewood– was good enough.

Akane's evening classes, met with Ranma's skepticism and Ukyo's hesitance at first, had taken off with huge success.

Akane didn't know it, but the town of Isha was looking a lot shabbier since the last time they had been through, and Ukyo guessed that Isha had to be going through a rough patch. She had to admit that the gratitude that the womenfolk exuded was touching, in a weird way; who knew that people could get so excited over the prospects of free medicine? There had to be a lot of sick people in this town if do-it-yourself poultices could bring about such enthusiasm.

It helped too, Ukyo thought, that Akane seemed to enjoy herself during those classes. The young woman was clearly in her element during those sessions, patiently teaching the townspeople the basics of what she had grown up with all her life. In a way, those short informal classes gave her a chance to hold on to her memories of a past life, and Ukyo understood personally the comfort that it must bring Akane. It was the same comfort that cooking okonomiyaki offered herself, and the Art offered Ranma.

Still… to be honest, Ukyo believed that there was something more than just the prospects of free medicine that made those intimate evening classes so popular. Yes, that was right; this had something to do with Akane herself.

There was something about Akane, Ukyo had come to notice. It was in the way she smiled, her face lighting up and her eyes crinkling delightfully in pleasure. It was in the way she laughed, her shoulders shaking with barely-contained mirth. Heck, it was even in the way she looked at you, her head tilted inquiringly to one side, her gaze honest and strong and entirely feminine. Something about Akane, Ukyo thought with growing certainty, drew people to her. It wasn't that she was incredibly stunning or gorgeous or perfect or anything ridiculous like that – although, to set the record straight, she certainly was very pretty. No, there was just something inexplicably attractive about her – something that compelled those around her to move closer without even realizing it. She had a huge temper and a short fuse – let's not even mention her disastrous attempts in the kitchen – but even this wasn't enough to deter others. Something about Akane, with her bluntness and compassion and realness and warmth, pulled people in. Ukyo herself was caught a long time ago, she had to admit.

Then again, Ukyo thought gleefully. So was Ranma.

It was during one of Akane's evening classes that Ukyo had first been sure of it. She had been given a night off at her usual bartending job and was going to sit in Akane's lesson. She was kind of curious about what exactly went on during those lessons, after all, and it was the first time she had ever seen Akane going about those classes. She had watched as Akane's 'students' filed in chattering and sat themselves around the table where the dark-haired young woman had situated herself. Then, she had taken a seat at the back of the small cottage they were living in and had been intent on watching her friend hold her lesson.

Coincidentally, so had Ranma.

Ukyo had remembered being surprised as he dropped into a chair beside her. "Didn't you say you were going up to meet…" she had started to say, before Ranma had waved her question off.

"He cancelled at the last minute," her childhood friend had interrupted, but there had been an amused glint in his eyes. "Said something about some chick not feeling well."

"A lady?" Ukyo had repeated, startled. Then: "I didn't know he was courting someone!"

Ranma had grinned, clearly pleased. He shrugged, lacing his hands together behind his head as he leaned back in his seat. "Neither did I, but hey, I'm happy for him. It's about time he settled down," he had answered, before he'd turned his attention to the strangers who had entered the cottage they were living in.

It hadn't taken long before Ukyo (and Ranma) had realized that amongst the eager participants crammed into the tiny cottage, there were a few who seemed more interested in the instructor than the lesson, and most decidedly not female.

Ukyo had snorted. True, Akane was a very attractive young woman. But this was getting a little pathetic, she had thought. She had nearly burst into laughter as one of the young men, clearly an admirer of Akane, had edged closer to her. He had beamed winningly up at her then, seemingly oblivious to the tic that was growing in the middle of Akane's brow. If that guy kept annoying her like that, Ukyo had thought mirthfully as she had watched the scene unfolding before her, then he was going to find out soon that his lovely instructor had a pretty mean right hook. She had turned to Ranma then, sniggering under her breath. To her surprise, he had been staring fiercely at the young man, his expression stormy and hard. Before Ukyo could say anything, a commotion at the front of the cottage had caught her attention, and she had glanced over quickly.

Clearly bored and eager to impress, Akane's admirer had decided to make a move. "Miss Akane, let me help you with that!" he had offered loudly. Before the young woman could reply, he had stood up and grabbed her hands boldly. He had stepped up close to her then, pressing himself daringly against her side.

A few knowing murmurs had risen from the crowd of females in the room. Akane had flushed bright red at the idiot's actions, fuming as she attempted to pull her hands away as politely as she could. She had opened her mouth then, a cutting rebuttal no doubt on the tip of her tongue.

Instead, a sharp cough had interrupted her. Ukyo had blinked in surprise at the pigtailed young man beside her, who had his arms folded menacingly by now, his back stiff and his eyes hard. Ranma had given the offending admirer a long and even stare.

The stranger had wilted immediately under the intense gaze, quickly withdrawing his hands.

"If Akane wants your help, she'll ask," Ranma had said shortly. His voice cut through the whispering in the room, silencing everyone as they tried to process what had just happened. He said nothing else then, but he kept his eyes on the petrified young man at Akane's side.

No one had looked more confused than Akane herself. Did Ranma just…?

With a little mental shake, Akane had pulled herself back to the present. For some reason, a warm flush had settled over her cheeks. She studiously ignored Ranma's malevolent glare. There would be time for thinking about this later, she had thought.

With a nasty glare at her overly-enthusiastic male admirer, she had cleared her throat and stepped away primly. Normally, she would have decked him – she'd done it a few times to other males since coming to Isha, after all – but in the case of this guy, she could think of a more fitting punishment."Your mother is going to hear about this," she had warned instead, and had watched in glee as the young man twitched in ill-disguised horror. Twin snorts of laughter had sounded from the back of the room then; Ukyo and Ranma seemed to approve.

"So, as I was saying," Akane had resumed in a voice indicating newfound cheer. "You have to trim the spikes off like this…"

Ukyo had said nothing, but had stolen a thoughtful glance at the still-frowning Ranma sitting beside her. 'Oh, Ran-chan', she had thought then, almost tenderly. 'She's gotten you too, hasn't she?'

Akane tilted her head in bewilderment. "What do you mean, we're not training today?" she asked incredulously. "You said you were going to teach me a new move today!"

Ukyo tried not to laugh at her friend's crestfallen expression. "Jeez, Akane-chan, not so loud," she hushed, trying to appear serious as she headed into the centre of the bustling town. "Are you trying to let everyone know?"

"Sorry," Akane pouted, breaking into a quick jog after Ukyo. Then: "Hey, you didn't answer me!"

Ukyo glanced back. She was just about to answer when she quickly halted her reply upon noticing two village girls run up towards them. The girls came to a stop about a meter away from the pair, panting lightly in the summer heat. They were pretty, waifish things who couldn't have been more than a few years younger than Akane and herself. Yet they beamed so brightly and bowed so reverently that Ukyo found herself blinking in confusion.

"Good afternoon!" they chimed sweetly. Ukyo nodded politely at them. One of the girls then fixed Akane with a hopeful look, tucking wisps of shiny chestnut hair behind her ears shyly.

"Miss Akane," she began, a touch of nervousness in her voice. "Eri and I heard all about those classes you've been giving from my cousin, and we think that it's really nice of you and –oh! Miss Akane I think your cold remedy is really amazing, I mean, I took it for three days and there I was, healthy as an ox! – oh but anyway, what I was meaning to say was, we were so excited when we found out about them classes, and you know, we were wondering if, you know…"

"Naomi!" the other girl broke in impatiently, clearly fed up with her friend's rambling. She rolled her eyes in exasperation. "What Naomi means to say is: could we come along to the next class please?" the other girl asked politely, breaking out into a pleading smile. "My Ma doesn't like me going out at night, but she thinks you're lovely and I really want to learn from you," she continued. The two girls stared anxiously at the older woman. It was almost comical, Ukyo thought, watching as they began twisting their skirts in unison.

Akane's bewildered look gave way to a laugh. "Of course," she answered, smiling warmly at the two young girls. "Just come by tomorrow evening. You know where it's held, right?"

The girls squealed in delight, nearly tripping over themselves as they bowed happily. "Yes, oh yes! Thank you!" the first one cried, cheeks reddening from the pleasure. "Oh, you're so kind, Miss Akane, thank you so much! We'll be there tomorrow!" With yet another bow, they took off into the crowds of the town centre, weaving through the throngs of people until they had disappeared completely.

Ukyo watched them go, still slightly taken aback by the entire exchange. "So, Akane-chan," she began teasingly as they continued on their way. "You didn't tell me about your popularity in Isha. I didn't know that you were so very lovely to the mothers of this town!"

Akane swatted at her in embarrassment. "Oh, shut it," she mock-grumbled. "I can't help it if I'm so wonderful after all," she sighed dramatically, her eyes twinkling.

Ukyo snorted in laughter. "I swear, some of Ran-chan's cockiness is definitely rubbing off you," she sighed, shaking her head as she continued to lead Akane through the town centre.

Akane, on the other hand, made a face at the mention of Ranma. "Don't even bring him up," she muttered, the memory of that morning's little spat still fresh in her mind.

"Sorry to disappoint you then," Ukyo replied, but she wore a strange little smile that left Akane feeling distinctly wary. "We're actually on our way to meet up with him."

They found Ranma waiting by the local chemist. He raised a hand in greeting as they approached him, and Akane felt oddly unsettled as he broke into a friendly teasing grin. "Took you guys long enough," he said when they reached him. "I was beginning to think you wouldn't come."

"Where are we going?" Akane questioned as they began to walk. Her breath caught slightly when Ranma casually touched his hand to the small of her back to steer her gently in the right direction. Immediately she flushed and fumed slightly to herself. A part of herself couldn't understand why she was responding this way, but she chose stubbornly to ignore this part of herself. Instead, she focused on how Ranma was the cause of her reaction. Stupid idiot, was he intentionally trying to make her uncomfortable?

Ranma seemed oblivious though. "Lunch," he announced happily as they turned down a small street. Two months in Isha had brought about some familiarity with the town layout, but Akane had never been down this route before. "There's someone I want you to meet," he continued as they made a right turn down an alley.

A small ginger cat shot out from behind a trash can, startled by them. It darted quickly across their path and took off into the distance. Akane watched it go, distracted. She missed the panicked look that fell across Ranma's face and his shudder of revulsion, as well as Ukyo's responding firm grasp on his forearm. "Who are we meeting?" she asked.

Ranma coughed, catching himself. "You'll see," he replied at last, recovering. They made a few more turns before they reached the end of the crisscross of small alleys and streets, stepping out on a large road. Akane took in their new surroundings, raising a hand to shield her eyes against the strong midday sun. A large distinguished-looking manor stood on a gentle hill some distance away.

"Hey," she said, realizing that they were already at the opposite end of town. "I didn't know there was such a shortcut. Where are we going?"

Ranma gave a long-suffering sigh as he glanced back at her. "Lunch, you dope," he teased, making his way towards the hill. "We're going to have lunch with the governor."

Akane stared at her surroundings, fascinated.

Life in the mountains had not been particularly comfortable. The prayer halls of her now-demolished temple had been impressive, of course – she could recall large domed rooms with stone walls covered in intricate gold carvings, smooth marble floors and tall imposing windows of stained-glass. The living quarters of the Maidens, however, were bare and simple, meant to provide only the most necessary essentials. They believed in being as close as they could to the spirit of nature and the land, so luxury was not encouraged. As a rebel, she had adapted easily to their tight budget and basic living conditions. This was the first time she had been inside any place that could be considered somewhat luxurious.

They were currently being led through the manor by a polite manservant. She didn't know what she had been expecting – something more gaudy, perhaps? Jewels and gold to line the corridors? – but it wasn't quite this. Instead of useless trinkets and ostentatious statues of his likeness, the governor had chosen to fill his home with an odd homely mix of books, art and fresh flowers. Quite a few of those books seemed to be medical texts, she realized. There were family heirlooms and the occasional family portraits, of course, and in the latter Akane caught glimpses of a young man with brown hair and kind eyes. The main hallway had been lined with patterned carpets of deep blues, although, when Akane made to inspect them, they did seem like they had seen better days.

The governor, she decided, was a man of knowledge and taste.

They arrived at last to a small dining hall, where a heavy oak table in the centre of the hall had been set for five. Akane slowed her steps, running her gaze appreciatively at the understated elegance of the room. It was then that she noticed the lone figure at the window across the room.

"Sir," the manservant who had been leading them began respectfully. "Your guests are here."

The man turned then, a warm smile on his handsome face. Akane recognized him immediately as the young man she had spied in the portraits. He looked a bit older now, although the kindness of his smile had not waned. "Ah, Ranma, Ukyo!" the man proclaimed happily as he approached them. "There you are. I was wondering when you'd arrive."

"Yo, doc," Ranma greeted, stepping forward. They shook hands warmly. "Sorry to keep ya waiting."

"Don't worry about it," the governor laughed. He turned to Ukyo, beaming at her. "Ukyo! It's been so long, how have you been? You look beautiful!"

Akane watched as Ukyo laughed delightedly and stepped forward to give the governor a quick affectionate hug. She knew enough about her friend to realize that, from anyone else, the comment would have earned a dismissive snort and/or a painful bop on the head. But the governor had said it with such affection and honesty, and it was clear that Ukyo considered him a valuable friend.

"And you must be Akane," the older man finally said, turning to her. Akane nodded, suddenly feeling a little shy under the penetrating gentle gaze of the governor.

"Hello," she greeted politely. The governor grasped her hand and shook it warmly. For some reason, this pleased her immensely. Not many men would shake a woman's hand – she felt as though he viewed her as an equal, and it touched her.

Ranma stepped forward, looking pleased. "Akane, this is Lord Ono Tofu," he introduced. "He governs the surrounding lands, including the town of Isha."

"Don't bother with the whole 'Lord' business," Tofu waved it off. "I've heard so much about you from Ranma, Akane," he continued, and suddenly there was a slight twinkle in his eyes. He smiled kindly at the girl. "You seem to be a most impressive young lady."

Akane blinked, feeling a little wary. "Um, thanks?" she laughed nervously, failing to notice the sudden flush that had settled over Ranma's cheeks and Ukyo's mirth. What had that idiot been saying about her to the governor?

They exchanged pleasantries for a while longer. Tofu, Akane soon learnt, was an old friend of Ranma and an important ally. Born the only son of a minor lord, he had links into the Court and was vital to getting them the information and contacts needed for some of their operations. A Healer by training, he had once rescued Ranma ("From what?" Akane had piped up, interested in finding out about the invincible Ranma's moment of weakness. Tofu, however, had evaded her question quite artfully.). When Ranma began toying with the idea of overthrowing the king, Tofu had been one of the first who had come on board in support. With Isha's strategic location as a trading port in the southeast of Nerima, Tofu quickly assumed command of rebel operations in the south.

Tofu was a well-mannered conversationalist who easily put his guests at ease. They would have carried on talking for a much longer time, if there hadn't been a soft knock on a door some distance away. The conversation halted, and then Tofu broke into a boyish grin.

"There she is," he murmured. Turning to the rest, he laughed, suddenly looking a little shy and excited. Akane thought it was actually quite charming. "Ah, I know I haven't mentioned this, but I've taken on a houseguest quite recently," Tofu announced, walking towards the closed door. Ranma gave the man a roguish wink and Ukyo grinned in encouragement. Akane held back a snicker at her friends' antics. It didn't take a genius to figure out that Tofu's guest was definitely a female and that, if he had anything to do with it, then her stay in his home was about to become a little more permanent. Blushing slightly, Tofu opened the door.

A woman stepped into the room.

Akane stared, her breath knocked out of her in an instant. The roar of blood in her ears began, drowning out the warm greetings of her friends as they approached the newcomer. She didn't – couldn't – move; she kept her eyes fixed steadily on the woman who had entered.

She was very beautiful, a distant part of her mind noted. Her simple but well-cut blue dress contrasted nicely with her creamy skin and warm brown eyes. She carried a bouquet of freshly-cut wildflowers in her hands, her dark shiny chestnut hair drawn into a womanly plait that lay over her shoulder. The sight of her was so beautiful, so breathtaking, and so achingly familiar that she felt her eyes burn hotly.

She became aware of Ranma calling out to her. There was worry in his voice, for some reason. She ignored him, but when his hands came to gently encircle her wrists, she couldn't help but clutch at his fingers. For a brief fleeting moment, Akane wondered if she had truly gone insane.

But then the woman turned to look at her. There was concern and gentleness in that gaze and it almost undid her. Akane's vision began to blur with tears as she tried her best to hold on to something – anything. In spite of herself, she called out, her voice cracking.


The woman blinked in surprise, looking at the pale stricken girl who was staring at her with such intensity. Concern won out, and she took a step forward. "What's wrong?" she soothed. The poor girl stepped back unconsciously, looking like she had just seen a ghost. Only the firm grip of the pigtailed young man beside her seemed to keep her upright.

Then, curiosity pricked at her. "Please excuse me," Kasumi began slowly. "I don't believe we've been introduced. How do you know my name?"

"Man," Ranma began, scratching the back of his neck. "I didn't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't this."

Tofu chuckled, taking a seat beside Ranma under the shade of the willow tree. "Me too, Ranma," he admitted quietly, staring out at the well-kept gardens that lay in the center of his residence. This was one of his favorite places in the world. "Who could have guessed?"

Lunch had been an awkward affair. Akane had been seated a few places away from Kasumi. It was hard to ignore the bewildered longing looks the dark-haired girl kept directing to the older woman, and the confused glances that were returned.

Kasumi had been under Tofu's care for a while now, they learnt over lunch. She had given the poor maids quite a scare when she appeared quite suddenly one rainy night in – of all places – the pile of coal next to the kitchens. "They call her Cinderella now," Tofu had shared, chuckling, and Kasumi had blushed. The young lord had been alerted. Given that Kasumi had unconscious, feverish and dressed in the somewhat damning robes of a Maiden, he had taken her in and nursed her back to health.

When she awoke though, she had no collection of anything beyond her name. Tofu was a Healer, not a Mage, but he had enough familiarity to figure out what had happened. Since Kasumi didn't seem to have a particularly strong inclination towards magic herself, then it meant that someone else must have tried placing magic on her – he'd bet it was a transportation spell of sorts - but must have messed it up somehow.

At this point, Tofu turned to look at Akane. "Ranma wanted me to meet you, Akane," he said kindly. "He said someone had used magic on you when they found you, and he was hoping I could figure something out." He shook his head. "I didn't tell anyone about Kasumi because I didn't want to put her in danger. She doesn't remember it, but she must have been a Maiden and these aren't safe times for Maidens." He paused, regarding the younger girl carefully. "I never imagined that the same thing would have happened to you."

After lunch, they had moved to Tofu's private gardens. Akane had been uncharacteristically quiet throughout the meal, but she was glad to remove herself from the tension in the dining room and step out into the open. Now that they were in the gardens, she had excused herself at the first opportune moment, slipping away from the group. Ranma watched her go, knowing she needed some time alone to process everything that had happened. He could spot her a distance away, drawn to the plot where Tofu cultivated a wide selection of plants with medicinal properties. Ukyo and Kasumi were talking softly nearby, feeding the fish that filled the pond in the center of the gardens.

Ranma sighed after a moment, drawing his gaze away from the sight of Akane kneeling in the grass. He looked up into the skies idly. "Something's up, doc," he said finally. "This ain't just a coincidence."

The older man was silent, his keen intelligent eyes looking out into the distance. Ranma had a sneaky suspicion that they were trained on the slender form of Kasumi. "You're right, Ranma," Tofu murmured softly after a moment. He removed his glasses slowly, his eyes closing in thought as he pondered the situation. "Someone tried to transport them out of the mountains when the attack happened. A spell like that takes a lot of power." He paused, taking another moment to think intently. "We've already heard news of the women who were captured or killed. If this were going on with more women, then surely we would have heard something by now."

Ranma didn't reply, but he knew what Tofu was suggesting. Someone had tried to transport Kasumi and Akane specifically. But why?

"We'll figure this out, Ranma," Tofu said then, sounding oddly determined.

Ranma gave the governor a sly look. "Did you make that promise to Kasumi?" he asked cheekily, snorting with laughter as Tofu looked stunned at the turn the conversation had taken. Jeez, he was even starting to flush, Ranma thought incredulously.

"Ah, well, y-you know," Tofu stumbled, even as Ranma's grin grew wider. Eventually he gave up, shrugging as he gave a sheepish laugh. "Kasumi has become quite important to me," he admitted softly at last, sobering. "She's the most wonderful and cheerful person I've ever met, but I know it bothers her that she can't remember anything besides her name."

"Yeah," Ranma answered slowly, looking up at the clouds that drifted lazily above them. "Must be pretty shit to lose your whole life and not even remember it." He thought of Akane suddenly, silent and trembling and terrified as he pulled her towards an inn. She had insisted that she had seen her older sister in Isha a few months back, he remembered. Well, what do you know… maybe she had been right all along.

"Hello Akane," Kasumi said gently.

Akane looked up at the woman who was approaching her. "Hi," she returned, smiling nervously at the older woman. She knew this conversation was coming, but it didn't make it any easier.

Kasumi came to a stop beside her, smiling warmly. "So," she began conversationally, looking around at Tofu's gardens. "Apparently, you're my sister."

Akane nodded tightly. It was strange being so uneasy around Kasumi, and despite herself she felt an odd sense of betrayal that Kasumi could not remember her. As soon as this occurred to her, she bit her lip and immediately felt guilty. Poor Kasumi! To be robbed of all her memories. Akane was suddenly filled with an incredible urge to leave a good impression. Kasumi was one of the most important people in the world to her before everything fell apart. What if Kasumi didn't like her? What if she thought Akane was too much of a tomboy? What if she thought Akane was just plain weird?

She was so caught up in her worries that she didn't hear Kasumi calling her name. It wasn't until Kasumi leaned over her, peering anxiously into her face, that she gave a little start. Instinctively, Akane backed away. Unfortunately, her klutziness chose to kick in at that moment. With a startled yelp, she tripped over a rock behind her and tumbled into the grass with a loud 'oof'.

"Oh my!" Kasumi exclaimed, covering her mouth with her hand in concern as she gazed down at the fallen girl. "Are you all right?"

The absurdity of the moment – and the familiarity of Kasumi's reaction – was almost too much for Akane. She let out a loud groan as she propped herself up on the grass. So much for making a good impression on Kasumi. She was about to get up when Kasumi dropped into the grass beside her. Her breath caught when Kasumi laughed and turned a cheerful smile upon her. The smile was infectious – it had always been – and soon Akane found herself grinning at the stranger who was supposed to be her oldest sister.

"Sorry," Akane said at last, still chuckling shyly as she tried to catch her breath. It was as though the ice had suddenly been broken, and words began tumbling out before she could stop herself. "It's just that I haven't seen you in so long – I thought you were dead – and that really tore me up and I was angry and lonely and so – I was just so scared. But suddenly you're not, you're here and you've been so close by all this time and you don't remember anything but you talk the same way and you look exactly the same and you even do that same thing with your hair -" Akane stopped suddenly, turning bright red. "Oh I'm sorry, Kasumi. I'm really rambling, aren't I?" she muttered, shaking her head. She sucked in a deep breath and waved a hand weakly. "Everything – it's just a lot to take in, you know?" she offered weakly.

Kasumi smiled, although it seemed a little helpless. "Yes, it is," she agreed.

"Let's start over," Akane decided. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear – a nervous habit she had developed ever since she cut her hair – and moved to face Kasumi. Looking into the warm familiar eyes of her oldest sister, Akane gave a brave welcoming smile.

"Hello Kasumi," she murmured slowly, watching the older woman's face carefully. "I am Akane, and I'm your sister."

"Akane," breathed Kasumi, looking back at her with wonder. After a long moment of silence, she broke into a small regretful smile. She reached forward and took one of Akane's hands. "I wished I could remember, Akane," she said softly, as though it pained her. She raised her eyes to Akane's, gazing at her intently. Her grip on Akane's fingers tightened, as she drew comforting circles on the back of Akane's hand with her thumb. "But I'm so happy I've found you."

In spite of herself, Akane felt her eyes welling up again at Kasumi's whispered words. Impulsively, she squeezed Kasumi's hand tightly, before bringing it up to press a loving kiss against her fingers. "I thought you were dead, Kasumi," she confessed quietly. Tears spilled hotly down her cheeks as she tried to hold herself together. "I saw you once, but I thought I imagined it. I'm sorry."

"Oh Akane," Kasumi murmured. "I'm sorry. I would have looked for you if I knew." Cool fingers touched Akane's cheeks and began to sooth the tears away gently. Akane squeezed her eyes shut. It was too much – the act was too familiar, and tears began falling faster even as she raised her own hand to rest over her sister's.

"Even if you can't remember me – even if you can't remember any of us – I'm so glad you're here now," she sobbed softly, unable to hold her sister's gaze any longer. Then: "Please, Kasumi, even if you've just met me… May I hug you?"

She needn't have worried. Kasumi spread her arms and drew her in at once, her own eyes bright with tears.

Akane spent the night at Tofu's at his insistence.

Given the turn of events, it would have been cruel to try and separate the sisters so soon after they had been reunited. Akane had looked almost ill when she realized that it was almost time to leave. A guest room was prepared instead, and Tofu had been quite firm that she stay the night at least. He wanted to examine both her and Kasumi, and he hoped her continued presence would help to jolt Kasumi's memories. Ranma and Ukyo were supportive of the idea, and Akane would be lying if she were to say she wasn't relieved by Tofu's suggestion.

Ukyo left just before dusk, saying she had to be at work at the tavern in the evening. "Don't pester poor Kasumi all night – the girl's got to sleep at some point!" she teased, pulling Akane into a tight hug. She took off with a jaunty wave and a cheerful smile, promising to see her the next day.

Ranma, on the other hand, said he would stay the night as well. "Tofu and I have stuff to talk about," he said nonchalantly. Akane had not questioned him, but relief filled her when she realized that he would be around in the evening. She flushed a little, confused by her own reaction to the news, but quickly put it aside in favor of spending more time with Kasumi.

As the men disappeared into Tofu's private study, Akane followed Kasumi into the library. Kasumi was as polite as ever, but Akane could see the growing hunger for answers in the older woman's eyes. She waited patiently by the fireplace as Kasumi walked quickly to the shelves and pulled down several books. She returned to Akane's side a minute later, depositing the books on a small table. Akane read the titles with interest – they were old volumes on Nerima's history and religious affiliations.

"I was very sick when I first arrived here," Kasumi began quietly. "But as soon as I recovered I came to Ono's library to look up information on the Maidens. There wasn't very much available, I'm afraid. It seems like we were quite isolated." Her eyes gazed imploringly at Akane. "Will you tell me more, Akane?"

Akane nodded. She tucked her feet under herself and waited for Kasumi to make herself comfortable in an armchair. "I'll start from the beginning, I guess," she said slowly. "There were three of us: you, Nabiki and myself. You're the oldest, and Nabiki was a year older than me," she paused, watching as Kasumi mouthed Nabiki's name silently. "None of us remember our parents, so we were probably orphans taken in and raised by the Maidens. We grew up in the Temple in the mountains, and none of us had very much interaction with the rest of the world. Nabiki had been down the mountains once, and I think you once accompanied some of the older Maidens on a trip to the south of Nerima." Her brow furrowed as she tried to recall details. "I've never left before."

"What did we do as Maidens?" Kasumi asked, nodding as she tried to absorb the information. "Were we very religious?"

Akane shrugged a little. Out of curiosity, she picked up one of the books Kasumi had pulled from the shelves and thumbed through the pages idly. "No – well, it wasn't really a religion," she answered at last, thinking hard about how she should explain the last eighteen years of her life to Kasumi. "We didn't pray to deities or carry out sacrifices or anything strange like that, but we believe that the land itself has a spirit of its own." Her voice dropped as she turned contemplative. "We listen to the spirit of the land, and the land sustains all forms of life. So the land is our mother, in a way," she explained slowly. She came to a page that Kasumi had marked out previously. Scanning the page with interest, Akane noted the brief outline of the reclusive Maidens that Kasumi had highlighted. "We learned about the earth and the land, and how to use the land to help humankind."

"I see," Kasumi said slowly. "So – a way of life?"

Akane nodded. "Yeah I guess you could say that. People come in from all over Nerima, sent by their villages. Some leave at some point to marry and start families, and bring their knowledge to the rest of the lands. Many stay there their entire lives though." We could have too, she wanted to add, before everything had fallen apart.

Kasumi hummed, thinking to herself. "And what kind of things did we learn and do?" she asked.

"Well… we learned to read and write from quite early on. We learned to harness what was available in nature to heal and protect," Akane told her, smiling. "The Temple was built next to some famous hot springs, and the water comes from the same source that fills the big lakes of Nerima. There's something about the water that helps to heal illnesses. People visit the temple so they could bathe in them. You could say that we served as the guardians of the springs."

What else… Akane paused, thinking about the activities and chores they had to do. "We grew and picked herbs and medicinal plants. We made trips down the mountains to sell these to Healers and give them out to the poor." She laughed then, fond memories coming back. "I was really rubbish at it, most of the time," she admitted, smiling sheepishly. "You were amazing though, Kasumi. You made the best medicines. You used to help me when I couldn't finish my work." A thought occurred to her then; she still had one of her last diagrams with her, and if she remembered correctly Kasumi had helped her with that work. "I'll show you some of your work when I see you next," Akane offered shyly. "I still have some sketches with me."

Kasumi beamed, looking a bit awed. "That would be lovely, Akane," she said sincerely. She paused, looking a little unsure before she finally decided to share something with Akane. "When I first visited Ono's gardens, I couldn't help but feel like I was supposed to know what each different plant was," she said, laughing gently. "I suppose I could have been less forceful – I made him to teach me the names and purpose of every single herb in his garden within a day."

Akane giggled. Something like hope bubbled within her – if Kasumi could feel some sense of familiarity, then maybe her memories weren't completely lost? She filed this thought away, afraid to set herself up for disappointment if she dwelled too long on Kasumi's words. Instead she turned a teasing gaze upon Kasumi. "I'm sure Tofu had no complaints about spending all that time in your company, right?" Akane chuckled, watching with delight as a soft blush bloomed across Kasumi's cheeks. The young lord's affections were quite obvious, and it seemed like Kasumi wasn't quite immune to his charms.

Kasumi waved her hand shyly, clearly keen to change the subject. "Tell me more about the Maidens, Akane."

So Akane did. She told Kasumi about growing up in the mountains with the other Maidens. She recited stories and myths they had learnt as children, and spent a long time describing the other Maidens they had known in vivid detail. She even showed her the odd tiny birthmark she had behind her left ear, knowing that Kasumi had a similar one on her right shoulder. (Nabiki, for that matter, had one too – hers had been on her right ankle.) She watched as Kasumi listened to her with growing fascination, and her heart grew calm and contented as time passed.

They had supper in the library as night fell over Nerima. The library was lit by several bright oil-lamps and candles now, and the topic turned inevitably to the night of the invasion.

Akane found herself choking up as she talked about the last moments she remembered spending with her sisters. Even though Kasumi was alive and right in front of her, the terror that rose up in her as she recounted the attack was an ugly thing. She had forced herself to put aside such horrifying memories for so long that reliving them now took a tremendous amount of effort. It was only with Kasumi's kind smiles and gentle squeezes that reminded Akane that it was over, and they had survived. She told Kasumi of how she had been saved by Ranma and Ukyo. She talked about how she had found herself involved in the rebellion. Kasumi, in turn, talked with her about waking up in a strange place with no memories, and about Tofu's unrelenting kindness as he nursed her back to health.

They lost track of time while talking, and it was not until Tofu appeared in the library that the sisters realized how late it had gotten. "Sorry to interrupt, ladies," Tofu said apologetically as he helped them put away the books. "But I thought I'd let you know that it's almost midnight. Might I suggest you continue tomorrow?"

"Let's do that," Akane agreed, noticing how Kasumi was attempting to hold back a yawn. She watched fondly as Kasumi shyly accepted Tofu's steadying arm as she lifted herself out of the armchair. Gratitude towards Tofu bloomed through her suddenly: she was so glad that Tofu had been the one to rescue Kasumi. She would always be grateful towards Tofu – he had saved her sister's life.

A short while later, Akane found herself in a large spacious bedroom. Tofu had walked her to the guestroom and offered to send up a maid to help her wash up, but Akane had refused that offer immediately. She thanked him instead, assuring him that she could manage. Before he left, she asked if he knew where Ranma were. Tofu had apologized, saying that Ranma had taken off after they had talked. Akane tried to ignore the odd sense of disappointment that filled her. Instead she smiled and bade Tofu goodnight, shutting and locking the door gently behind her.

Now, finally alone, Akane let out a sigh and flopped down onto the bed. What a day.

She rolled over then, reaching out blindly for the book she had brought along with her from the library. It had been at the top of the pile of books Kasumi had retrieved earlier. Akane had taken it with Tofu's permission. She had a feeling sleep would remain elusive for a good part of the evening – the adrenaline from the day's events had not quite worn off yet – so a good book wouldn't hurt, right? With a grunt, Akane pulled the book closer. She glanced at the title: An overview of Nerima's history and political economy. Sure it sounded a little dry, but why not? It even had a foreword by the late King Soun. With a little shrug, Akane flipped the book open and began reading.

It turned out to be a surprisingly good read. Growing up in the mountains, Akane's childhood had not been particularly normal. She had to admit that she knew next to nothing about what the rest of Nerima was really like. Absorbed, she propped herself up on her elbows to read, aided by the warm glow provided by the oil lamps. Silence filled the room, broken only by the rustling of paper as she flipped a page.

"Whatcha reading?"

Akane shrieked, a hand coming up to clutch at her heart as her head snapped up towards the voice. Ranma snickered at her reaction as he lounged on her windowsill, tucking his hands behind his head. With a growl, Akane grabbed one of the pillows on the bed without thinking and flung it in his direction. He caught it, of course.

"Ranma!" she barked angrily, flustered. "Don't do that! How did you get in?!" With a grunt of frustration, Akane rolled over on her back and gazed up at the ceiling, refusing to look in his direction.

"Window," Ranma replied, still laughing at her reaction. "Took you long enough to notice."

She frowned. "I thought you left."

She heard the soft rustling of cloth as Ranma leapt down nimbly from the windowsill. "I said I was gonna stay, didn't I? I had to run an errand," he answered elusively. Soft footsteps sounded as he drew closer to the bed. The pillow she had chucked at him came bouncing back next to her. Akane could feel him hesitating for a moment before the bed dipped slightly under his weight as he sat down on the edge.

"Hey," he said at last. His voice was soft, gentle even. Akane closed her eyes for a moment. "You okay today?"

She couldn't stop the soft smile that spread over her lips. The barely veiled concern in his voice left her feeling a little touched, and suddenly she felt strength drain out of her. It had been a long day, but a good one. "Yeah," she replied at last, her voice just as soft. "I-I'm really happy to have found Kasumi."

There was silence. Then: "I know. I'm glad you found each other."

Her eyes flew open, surprised at how close he sounded. She realized why a split second later – Ranma was leaning over slightly, peering down at her. In the dim glow of the lamp, his eyes were very warm and blue, she thought faintly. Then, satisfied that she wasn't in tears or looking worse for wear, Ranma leaned back, still watching her attentively.

Color flooded Akane's cheeks. She didn't think Ranma realized how close he had gotten. True enough, he was oblivious to her discomfort.

Instead, Ranma looked to be deep in thought. She watched as he fidgeted for a moment, before he cleared his throat and looked away, a furrow between his brows. It took her another few minutes before she realized something was really bothering Ranma.

"What's going on?" she said at last, when the silence stretched on a little longer than was normal between them.

He looked down sheepishly. After a moment, he finally looked away, staring hard at some invisible spot on the wall. Just as she was about to get impatient, he spoke up in a low mutter. "You can leave the organization, you know."

Akane felt as though the air had been knocked out of her. Stunned, she felt herself tense up at once. "Wait, are you kicking me out?" she cried incredulously. She could feel her temper rising almost instinctively. This was ridiculous – she hadn't done anything wrong.

"What? No, you stupid tomboy!" Ranma snapped, looking annoyed by her sharp tone. "But with a temper like that, maybe you should leave!"

Akane pushed herself up on the bed, stung by his words. Anger filled her. "What did you say?!" she shot back at him, her voice rising. "You can't make me, you jerk!" She clenched a fist, betrayed that Ranma would spring this on her so abruptly.

Ranma groaned, seeing how this was descending into a full-blown argument. "Sometimes you really piss me off, you idiot," he growled. Akane looked even more enraged now, and moved towards him before she could even think about what she was doing. Instinctively, Ranma grabbed her by her forearms as she moved closer. She struggled at once, but his grip was firm. "Will you just shut up and listen to what I have to say first?" he yelled, losing his temper.

Akane paused in her struggle, glaring madly at him. He groaned again. This close, there was no mistaking the look of hurt in her eyes. He didn't mean to – ah, what the hell. "Look," Ranma tried once more. He gave her arms a gentle squeeze before holding his palms up in what he hoped was a placating gesture. "I'm not kicking you out."

Akane huffed, disbelieving and suspicious. He noticed that her fists were still clenched and cringed slightly. Ranma did not feel like getting punched tonight.

"All I am saying is that you could leave, if you wanted to." There, he said it. Ranma tried to seem nonchalant about it, but it was hard. When she didn't say anything, he folded his arms stubbornly and looked away. "Look, we'll understand. Me and Ukyo and Ryoga – it's cool with us. You can stay in Isha," he continued, determined not to meet her eyes. His voice was steady but subdued. "You can stay here and rebuild your life with Kasumi."

Akane said nothing. After a moment, he chanced a glance in her direction. He couldn't tell what she was thinking, but she looked a little stunned. The fight had drained out of her still form and she looked like she was struggling to form words. Ranma braced himself for her onslaught – knowing Akane, she would probably misinterpret everything he said and explode like a bomb or something… When she spoke, though, her voice was flat. He looked up, only to be caught in a hard, unwavering gaze.

"Am I really such a liability that you can't wait to leave me behind?" Akane spoke quietly. Her eyes were guarded, her expression shuttered. Ranma felt something twist inside him – she was really upset this time, if she weren't pummeling him already.

"Aw fuck, Akane," Ranma sighed. Perhaps it was because it had been a long day, and he just didn't feel like leaping headfirst into an argument with her like he usually did. He looked at her – really looked at her now, and took in the way she held herself stiffly and pressed her lips into a thin line. He leaned towards her, watching her earnestly. "Stop jumping to conclusions. You know that's not what I mean."

Still, Akane said nothing. He watched as she cocked her head towards him. She was listening to him, at least – which was a good sign, right? "Look," he tried again, hoping he wouldn't stick his foot in his mouth like he usually did around Akane. "I ain't saying you're weak. I mean, come on, have you seen the freakish amount of brute strength you have?"

Oops, Akane was glaring very, very hard at him now. Ranma winced and backtracked hastily. "Ah, I mean-"

"I do want to spend more time with Kasumi," Akane said abruptly. She turned away from him, and her voice was faint when she spoke up again. "I love her and I just got her back."

The longing in her voice was obvious, and suddenly Ranma felt her ache as though it was his own. Not to mention, now that he actually gave it some thought, the very idea of leaving Isha and regrouping with the other factions without Akane's jibes and yells and spirited smiles left an odd gnawing feeling within him. Confused and more than a little bothered by his own reaction, Ranma heaved a long-suffering sigh. He got to his feet and crossed over to the other side of the bed, where Akane sat with her feet dangling off the edge. She ignored his approach, choosing instead to stare stubbornly at the carpet.

"Oi," Ranma said gruffly after a moment of quiet. He dropped into a crouch before Akane and she looked up, slightly startled. Not giving her a chance to react, he gave her a quick childish poke in the knee.

Akane blinked, before she scowled. "Ranmaaa…"

"Oi," he said again, interrupting her. He caught her gaze and held it intently, willing her to listen to him for once. "Look, now that you've found your sister, you don't have a reason to fight," he told her evenly, gazing up at her. "You can stay – no, you should stay with Kasumi and work on getting her memories back. And you still have another sister, right? You gotta look for her; she could be alive too. Tofu will help ya."

His voice dropped then, and he watched Akane's honey eyes soften as she listened to his earnest words. "You should stay," he repeated slowly, but surely. Swallowing, he continued, "You'll be safe here."

He hadn't realized how long he had been staring into her eyes, but now that he stopped speaking he found himself fascinated and unwilling to look away. Akane's eyes were intense and guarded, but they were no longer angry. The tense set of her jaw told him that she was conflicted; the stress around her eyes spoke volumes about some internal struggle she was currently dealing with. When she blinked, Ranma found himself fixated by the thick dark lashes that brushed against her rosy cheeks. Throat suddenly dry, he leaned away a little. Akane closed her eyes to collect her thoughts, and Ranma could do nothing but continue to watch.

"A few months ago," she began quietly. "I said I would follow you until you stopped." Her closed eyes fluttered open and he found himself caught by the fierceness of her liquid gaze. "I made a promise that day," she continued, her voice dropping into a whisper. "And I am going to keep that promise."

Something warm and foreign and utterly overwhelming bloomed in Ranma's chest. He swallowed and when he spoke, his voice was rough. "You know I – we – won't hold you to that, Akane."

"But I'll hold myself to it," Akane protested. Her eyes bore into him now, her voice strong and her jaw set in a way Ranma had come to find familiar. She wouldn't be changing her mind anytime soon. His eyes softened. That was the Akane they had come to know: stubborn and loyal to a fault. "I'm fighting for something I believe in," she continued. "Don't you get it, Ranma? Even if Kasumi is alive after all, so many of the Maidens – these women were my family. They were the only family I've ever known and I can't – it's an injustice – their deaths need to be put right!"

"Things are going to get more dangerous from now on," Ranma replied, still unwilling to back down. It was true. They had been in Isha long enough, and they would have to leave if they wanted to get the rest of the planned operations back on track before winter kicked in. He hadn't told Akane about that, but it would happen soon enough.

Akane scoffed. "Like that's going to scare me off," she retorted. Her eyes were bright, and Ranma remained captivated where he crouched by her feet. "You're not getting rid of me that easily, Ranma Saotome."

Did it even make sense to feel so happy at her words? Ranma shook his head slightly. He needed a serious meditation session to figure out what the hell was wrong with him lately. "What about Kasumi?" he asked at last.

Akane looked pensive. She bit her lower lip as she thought carefully, and Ranma tried to ignore that small action and the odd heat that suddenly settled over him. "Kasumi is still weak," she said at last. "She's happy here, and Tofu will take care of her."

Ranma smirked. It was clear enough to anyone who had eyes that Tofu was head over heels in love with Kasumi. He would definitely take care of her.

"Hey Ranma?"

"Yeah?" he looked up at Akane. Her voice was hesitant and ponderous. Something had just occurred to her.

Akane hummed, looking almost nervous. "You know I have another sister…" she said slowly. "Do you think she could still be alive too?"

"I don't know," Ranma admitted. The thought had occurred to him earlier during the day. "But it's a possibility. Tofu said it was probably a botched transportation spell that sent Kasumi to Isha. Maybe that's what happened to you too, and your other sister if someone tried to transport all of you."

"But how?" Akane looked vexed. "That's a ridiculous amount of magic, Ranma. I don't know anyone who would have the power to attempt to transport even one person, much less all three of us."

Ranma shrugged. He wanted to know as much as she did. "Tofu's gonna take a look at ya tomorrow," he offered. "He'll figure out if you got hit by the same spell Kasumi was under."

Akane nodded slowly, taking Ranma's words in. Then she pressed her palms to her eyes, suddenly exhausted. Ranma noticed the slight tremble that ran over her form.

"Oi," he voiced, poking her in the knee again. Akane started, and he held back a chuckle, gazing up at her warmly. "Just go to bed, Akane. We'll deal with the rest of this shit in the morning." There was concern in his voice, and it soothed her.

"Okay," she agreed, too tired to really argue. Crawling off the bed, she disappeared into an adjoining chamber, where a basin of water and some clean towels had been placed. Ranma straightened from where he had been crouching next to the bed and stretched the kinks out of his shoulders. He heard the splash of water and imagined Akane dipping her hands into the basin. Then her voice came floating out to him, slightly muffled. "What about you, Ranma? Where are you going to spend the night?"

"Don't know," he answered without thinking. "I'll figure something out."

"Didn't you tell Tofu you were staying?" Her voice was surprised.

Ranma scratched his head. "Yeah well, kind of slipped my mind," he admitted. "Doesn't matter."

There was some rustling from next door, then Akane poked her head round the door. She looked unsure, before she gave her head a little shake. "You know what? Just stay here," she muttered shyly. "You can even share the bed; it's big enough." She ducked her head out of sight before he could reply. For that reason, she failed to see Ranma choke at her words.

Did the stupid tomboy even know what she was saying? Ranma growled to himself, before giving himself a shake at the less-than-gentlemanly mental images that had leapt into his mind against his control. "Uh… thanks. I can just sleep on the floor though," he offered tightly after a moment, trying to cool the furious blush that had settled over his cheeks.

Next door, Akane was fighting a deep flush of her own. 'Seriously, Akane, do you ever think before you open your mouth?!' she berated herself in despair. It had been an innocent suggestion – they all slept in the same room back at the cottage anyway, although Ukyo would usually be in the same room. But sharing the bed – really? No unmarried girl with any sense of decency would even dare to voice such a suggestion to a man. Playing it cool, she pressed a damp cloth against her hot face. "It's up to you," she answered casually. "I just thought it might get uncomfortable." It was true; she had only been thinking how spending a night on the floor couldn't be comfortable. Despite whatever insult Ranma liked to toss her way, Akane was, at the core, a very kind person. He knew this.

She emerged from the chamber a while later, only to find Ranma lying on his side on the carpet at the foot of her bed. He had grabbed a couple of pillows with him and seemed comfortable enough. She couldn't see his face since he wasn't facing her, which was probably a good thing as she felt oddly vulnerable and exposed in only the thin linen shift she usually wore under her day gown. He said nothing, so Akane assumed that he was already asleep. With a shrug she moved past him and extinguished the oil lamp, leaving the room in darkness. Taking a moment to adjust her eyes to the pale moonlight which pooled under the window, Akane crawled into bed.

It had been a long and exhausting day. Akane sighed softly, burying herself under the covers. Sleep reached for her almost instantly. Yet she struggled, unwilling to relinquish the day's memories of Kasumi's sweet face and happy laughter. She thought drowsily of the way Kasumi had held her close, the way she always did when they were younger, and smoothed her hair out of her face. The memories filled her with contentment and she hummed softly as she began drifting in and out of consciousness. Then her thoughts shifted subtly and she found herself replaying the memory of Ranma's warm blue eyes as he gazed up at her.

In the midst of her slumber, Akane felt the bed dip silently with the weight of someone else. Unused to the feeling of having another person in bed with her, she blinked awake with a quiet gasp, turning her head at once.

"Go back to sleep," Ranma said in a low tone. Akane had been right; the floor was very uncomfortable. It was not wood or dirt underneath the carpet he had been lying on, but cold stone. Despite the fact that it was a warm summer night, the chill of the hard stone floor could be felt through the carpet.

Ranma's voice had sounded very close. Without thinking, Akane turned on her side to face him. She could see his eyes – the very same blue eyes that had been on her mind just a minute ago – glinting curiously at her in the dark. Warmth flooded her as she realized slowly that he had taken her up on her offer after all. "You can – you should probably put the pillow between us," she slurred sleepily at last, her eyes falling shut once more. It was for the best – she didn't want to wake up in any embarrassing positions. Ranma would never let her live it down.

There was faint rustling as she felt something soft settle between them. Satisfied, Akane snuggled into the pillow under her cheek. Beside her, she could feel Ranma shifting around as he sought a comfortable position.

Silence fell over them. Then: "Ranma?"

"What?" He sounded torn between amusement and annoyance.

Akane ignored him and sighed drowsily, barely conscious of the words that were forming. "Thank you," she mumbled after a long sleepy pause. "For taking me in." Ranma's breath caught but he said nothing. Eventually Akane's breathing evened out as she fell deeper into sleep.

At last, Ranma found the words he wanted to say. "No. Thanks for keeping your word, Akane," he murmured quietly.

But Akane was already asleep. Hesitantly, Ranma raised a hand across the pillow that separated them and gently brushed hair out of her face.

A/N: So… I'm alive! It's been a long time, I know. A lot of happened since my last update – spent a few fantastic years at university and grad school, and am unfortunately now a full-time member of the labor force. I haven't actually been visited this place for a while now. But then I had a random burst of nostalgia and wandered back into this corner of the internet a couple of weeks ago. Ended up cringing very badly at some of the stuff I wrote as a kid, so spent a while editing the previous chapters of Kismet and deleting a couple of painfully awful stories.

Hope you enjoyed the chapter! To make up for the long wait I wrote you a chapter that was longer than my last thesis paper haha.

All comments and critique welcome! Take care, folks.