Lifetime Pill
By M. Zephyr

Disclaimer: Ranma 1/2 is a trademark of Rumiko Takahashi and VIZ Communications, and its characters have been borrowed without permission. This story was written for non-commercial purposes only.

Ranma x Akane. Divergence from the love pill arc. Akane swallows the lifetime pill from the bracelet of love pills, but things turn out differently. This story assumes a level of romantic feeling on both Akane's and Ranma's part which most would consider inconsistent with canon at the point in time when these events take place.

Sixteen year old Akane Tendo was sitting on a rocky promontory, a long distance down the shore from the crowded beach where other people were enjoying themselves. She was listening to the surf crash on either side of her, feeling the cool splash of the high flung spray, hearing the occasional screech of a gull. But she couldn't see the waves rolling in with the tide or the plumes of foam arching over the rocks. She couldn't see the birds fighting over scraps of food. The blindfold she wore prevented her from seeing anything at all. That blindfold was a necessity, thanks to a pill she had accidentally swallowed a little less than an hour ago.

According to the ancient Chinese Amazon Cologne, this pill would force Akane to fall hopelessly in love with the first male she laid eyes on within the following twenty-four hour period, but only until the end of that twenty-four hours. Then it would wear off and she'd go back to normal. For most of the boys with whom she was acquainted, this was a thought to make her shudder, even if it was only for twenty-four hours. Less than that now, closer to twenty-three hours.

As she sat listening to the surf, Akane reflected bitterly on the string of coincidences which had led to this point. It had all begun not long after noon. She, her two sisters Kasumi and Nabiki, and their father Soun Tendo, along with her supposed fiancé Ranma Saotome and his father Genma, had all come to the beach for the day. Upon arriving they had found Shampoo and Cologne there before them, having temporarily closed the café they owned in Nerima to sell chilled ramen at the beach. Shampoo was Cologne's great-granddaughter, and the fact that they were in Japan at all was Ranma's fault. Due to an arcane law of her people, Shampoo insisted that Ranma had to be married to herself, and she was here to try to convince the boy to return to China with her. Cologne was her ally in this endeavor.

As if that hadn't been enough to produce a tense situation, shortly after lunch, the ancient and perverted martial arts master Happosai had shown up as well. He had with him a bracelet which, as it turned out, he had stolen from Cologne when they were both young.

This bracelet contained three love pills, of varying durations, disguised as jewels. Ranma had accidentally swallowed one of them, the 'instant' pill, and for a rather frightening minute he had been deeply in love with the elderly Cologne. This experience had left him very shaken, almost comatose. Shampoo had tried to take advantage of his condition to force Ranma to swallow one of the other pills, but it had ended up in Akane's mouth instead.

Luckily, Ranma had been female at that moment due to his curse, and therefore did not trigger the pill's effect. When the fathers discovered what had happened, they tried to change Ranma back to male where Akane could see, while Shampoo did her best to keep him female so Akane would not fall in love with him. The situation was further complicated by Happosai, who attempted to get Akane to look at himself. The struggle had continued for several tense minutes before the three young people managed to get away. In this, at least, they were united. Shampoo did not want Akane to be in love with Ranma at all, and neither Ranma nor Akane wanted her to be forced to love anyone.

Akane and Ranma had followed Shampoo to a small building where Cologne was making more ramen, with Akane securely blindfolded to avoid mishaps. The Amazon elder had examined the bracelet and announced that Akane had swallowed the 'day' pill. Therefore, in a little less than twenty-three hours, she could remove the blindfold without having to worry about falling in love with whatever random male she first saw. Typically, Ranma had then said something to anger her, after which Akane had wandered off, finally ending up at this remote rock sticking out into the ocean.

Akane sighed as she considered her awkward relationship with Ranma Saotome. On that fateful Spring day a few months ago, they had both been informed bare minutes before their initial meeting that they were to be engaged, and predictably enough had not taken it well. The situation had been exacerbated by Ranma's arrogant and insulting behavior, which she had later come to realize was a legacy of the way his father had raised him. Not that this realization made his behavior any less infuriating. Akane also felt forced to admit, at least to herself, that she hadn't helped matters with her own temper and dislike of boys, made greater at the time due to the behavior of the jerks at her school. Then of course there was the icing on the cake for that first meeting, an extremely embarrassing incident involving the bathing room, before she had known of Ranma's curse and the fact that he truly was a boy.

This would have been enough to make things difficult between them, but then there were the other girls who insisted on pursuing Ranma, all martial artists of varying degrees of skill. Shampoo, who claimed Ranma as her husband according to her tribal law. She was extremely dangerous, although Akane had too much pride as a martial artist to admit to any fear openly. Ukyo Kuonji, to whom Ranma had also been engaged by his idiot father, apparently as an excuse to steal her dowry. Kodachi Kuno, who had no formal claim to Ranma at all. Unfortunately, the psychotic girl was not bothered by either her lack of claim or the fact that the boy she called 'Ranma-sama' couldn't stand her.

Akane wrapped her arms more tightly around her knees and thought about how things had changed in the months since Ranma had become part of her life. They still fought and argued all of the time, but there had been a subtle shift; sometimes it was almost as if they were doing it mostly out of habit and expectation. There was no question that Ranma was capable of being a colossal jerk, rude and insulting, but a lot of that was because he literally didn't know any better. He and his father had been on the road, alone together, for the past ten years with no fixed home and no regular income. His education could be described as spotty at best. With only his father as a role model, it was a wonder that Ranma was even as socially acceptable as he was. Further, there were signs that he could learn. There had been several occasions on which Akane had caught glimpses of a softer and sweeter personality, hidden behind his rough exterior.

Before Ranma's arrival, Akane had been convinced that no boy her own age could ever interest her. They were all contemptible little cowards who would attack an unarmed girl in a pack, showing no honor whatsoever. Then Ranma had arrived to live in her home and, despite all of their bickering, she was unable to ignore his presence. While she would rather die than admit it to anyone, on those rare occasions when she wasn't being watched and didn't have to hide her feelings, the sight of him in male form could steal her breath away. She had fought the attraction, denying it to herself and others. At the same time, she was aware that her defenses had begun to crumble beyond repair the day at the ice rink when he had announced in front of everyone that she was his fiancée, and then had risked his life to protect her.

If only she had some real clue as to his feeling about her. If she went only by the things that he said to her, Akane would be forced to conclude that he found her repulsive. But sometimes ... sometimes he acted in ways which allowed her to hope that maybe, just maybe, he felt something for her as well. Such as his disappointment that they had not kissed, for real, in the final scene of the play Romeo and Juliet. Or the way she sometimes caught him looking at her, when he thought no one else could see him. He would always look away again quickly, but she found in it an echo of the way that she secretly looked at him.

But did any of that really matter? Even if he did like her, if only a little, and she liked him, some, ... even if so, Akane had no idea of where to go from here. Any attempt to explore whether they could get along would be doomed so long as their fathers continued pushing them to marry, and the other girls continued to throw themselves at Ranma. Not to mention lunatics such as Kodachi's brother Tatewaki who would cause trouble. It all seemed so hopeless. In the back of her mind was a small regret that their fathers had not succeeded in getting her to see Ranma to trigger the pill. In a way it might have been almost nice to see what it felt like to openly express love for him for the short time before it wore off, when no one would be able to hold her accountable later for her behavior.

Akane hung her head, not knowing what she should do in order to resolve the aching in her heart. She listened to the surf pounding on the rocks, wishing that she could see it also. Well why not? There weren't any boys around at this lonely spot. Her hand reached up for the knot of the blindfold.

Ranma ran along the sand, hoping to find Akane before disaster struck. Almost as soon as the girl had run off, Cologne had smirked and said that she had been mistaken, that it really was the 'lifetime' pill which Akane had swallowed. So long as Akane was under the impression that the effects would wear off after a day, she might not be as cautious as she should be. He had to get to her before she saw anyone, while wondering if an antidote could be found.

Underneath his worry that he might find her too late, a deep anger was festering in Ranma. He was suspicious of Cologne's sudden 'discovery' of her mistake, coming as it did oh so conveniently after Akane had disappeared from sight. He wouldn't put it past the two Amazons, Cologne and Shampoo both, to be plotting more mischief, exploiting Akane's new vulnerability. If they could get Akane to look at some other guy, then she would fall in love with him permanently, removing her as a rival to Shampoo for Ranma's affections. The thought gnawed at his gut like acid.

Although Ranma was quick to complain about the tangle his life had become, he had no desire to reveal what troubled him the most. Neither Ukyo nor Shampoo, and certainly not Kodachi, stimulated any spark of romantic feeling in his breast. But in the deep hours of the night, when the house was quiet and he could think about things without other people constantly telling him what he ought to do, he knew that Akane had come to occupy a special place in his heart. Sure they fought a lot, but sometimes it seemed that Akane was at her best when a strong passion like anger was burning in her. Besides, they didn't fight all the time, and although she had seemed to hate him at first, there had been small signs which lately had caused him to wonder if maybe, just maybe, she might be starting to feel the same way about him that he was for her.

The possibility made him more nervous than happy, since he had no experience in how to handle such feelings, though he still found himself hoping that it might be true. Still, there were reasons to worry as well. If their fathers got any hint that the two of them actually had feelings for one another, then the pair of fools could be counted upon to press very hard for an immediate marriage, which would be guaranteed to squash whatever feelings might exist. Whatever he and Akane might or might not feel for one another, neither one of them was ready for marriage yet. Another worry was that if Shampoo or her great-grandmother Cologne ever guessed how he felt, then Akane's life would truly be in danger. The Joketsuzoku were quite willing to kill anyone they perceived to be an obstacle. The other two girls, Ukyo and Kodachi, would also be angry, although Ranma didn't regard them as such an automatic danger.

Then there were the guys. Ryoga Hibiki and Kodachi's nutty brother Tatewaki both imagined themselves to be in love with Akane. They could be counted upon to express themselves violently at any suggestion of romance between himself and Akane. Hell, they already expressed themselves violently with far less reason.

However, all such worries had suddenly become a minor consideration. If Akane were to look at some other guy, then any chance for the two of them to eventually work things out would be lost forever. He might not be willing to admit his feelings for her, but the fear of losing her was overwhelming his normal concerns. He had to protect her. He had to! Clenching his teeth, he focused on getting even more speed out of his legs.

A few minutes later, Ranma breathed in relief as he caught sight of Akane sitting on a rock up ahead. Then that breath caught in his throat, for moving toward her was none other than Ryoga Hibiki. Trust the directionally challenged 'lost boy' to wander onto this particular beach right now, where his dishonorable and unrequited crush on Akane might have an unanticipated outcome.

In horror, Ranma saw Akane pulling her blindfold off, not knowing the danger she was in. Ryoga caught sight of her and called her name, at which Akane started to turn around. Ranma leaped to the rescue with speed born of desperation. He scooped up a large pail which happened to be lying there on the beach and threw it over Akane's head, effectively blinding her once more, and kicked Ryoga into the ocean. The cold salt water triggered Ryoga's curse, changing him into a pig. The love pill could not cause Akane to fall in love with a pig.

Akane pulled the pail off of her head. The first thing she saw was Ranma in his female form, kneeling in front of her, breathing heavily, looking worried. He had thrown the bucket at her.

Akane shouted angrily, "What did you do that for?"

He grinned sheepishly. "I was afraid of what you might see." He paused, then asked, "Why did you take off your blindfold?" In spite of his best intentions, the question came out sounding querulous and mildly accusatory.

Akane shrugged. "There weren't any boys around, and I wanted to look at the surf. Although I could have sworn I heard someone call me a moment ago. Not you. ... Well, anyway. I was getting kind of tired of the blindfold, and figured that the risk was pretty small. Even if something happens, it'll wear off in less than a day."

Ranma shook his head. "About that. Akane, the pill you swallowed ..." He broke off as his danger sense spiked. He scooped up the pail and rammed it over her head again, just as Tatewaki Kuno came over the rise behind them. The boy was apparently practicing with his bokken, swinging at imaginary foes. What in the devil was he doing at this same beach, today of all days?

Well, whatever the reason, he represented a risk which could not be tolerated. Ranma quickly stood and kicked the would be samurai over the horizon. His voice trailed off as he vanished, "But my pigtailed goddess ..."

Meanwhile, with her head still under the pail, Akane tried to reason out Ranma's behavior. He seemed to be working very hard to keep her from accidentally seeing anyone. A smile spread across her lips. It was clear that the idea of her falling in love with someone else, even temporarily, bothered him a great deal. She pulled the pail off, and looked at his female body standing there, panting and trembling in reaction.

"Deny it all you want, Ranma," Akane said to him in an 'I've got you now' tone of voice. "You really are jealous!"

Ranma spun around to face her, knowing that he needed to make her aware of the danger she was in. "Listen, Akane!" he ground out between clenched teeth. "That pill you swallowed ..."

He stopped, staring, as Akane ran down the beach. Apparently she was feeling in a playful mood, and wanted to tease him about the fact that he didn't want her to fall in love with someone else. The only problem was that she had no idea that it would be permanent.

Akane was enjoying the current situation, with Ranma's efforts adding additional proof that he really did care about her. She knew that the way she was teasing him right now was going a little too far, and that she ought to stop in a few seconds and put the blindfold back on. Then Ranma's shouts finally penetrated.

"Put on your blindfold! Before you look at some strange guy! That wasn't the 'day' pill!"

Akane was suddenly horrified, as she came to an abrupt stop. He had to be wrong! If she had swallowed the 'lifetime' pill, then the next male she looked at ...! What was she going to do? She felt frozen in shock.

Suddenly Ranma heard hoofbeats behind them. He turned quickly and saw Shampoo and Happosai coming down the beach on a horse. Panic rose up in him at ancient man's presence. He shouted, "Akane, don't look! It's Happosai!"

Shampoo was determined to win Ranma this time. When Akane looked at Happosai she would fall in love with him forever, and the old pervert would be more than eager to be loved slavishly by a pretty teenage girl. Shampoo was carrying the 'day' pill to give to Ranma, and a kettle of hot water to change him back to a boy so that he could fall in love with her for a day. She figured that would be quite long enough to confirm their marriage.

Akane squeezed her eyes shut, not knowing which way she could dare to look. The thought that she might be forced to fall in love with Happosai for the rest of her life filled her with mind-numbing terror. Ranma, seeing that she was unable to move, jumped for her to hide her face, knocking them both down into an incoming wave.

Unprepared for this, Akane got salt water in both her mouth and eyes. Trying to keep her from drowning, Ranma forcefully pulled her back up as quickly as he could. When they broke the surface again, Akane was spluttering, rubbing at her eyes, not seeing anything. Happosai bounced off of Ranma's head, calling out that he was going to rescue Akane. Instead, Ranma quickly grabbed the wrinkled old dwarf and used his special speed techniques to dig a hole in the sand and bury the ancient pervert.

Just as he finished this, Shampoo came up to him carrying the kettle and remaining love pill. "Ranma, you turn back to boy-type and fall in love with Shampoo!"

Ranma turned around with an incredulous look, finding it difficult to credit that she could believe he would do any such thing. Then his eyes narrowed, and a fury such as he had never felt before began to boil up within him. This Chinese ... creature ... in front of him had intended to force Akane to fall in love with a worthless waste like Happosai, for the rest of her life, just to eliminate Akane as a rival. He found his teeth clenching and jaw quivering as he longed to reach out and belt her harder than he had ever hit anyone in his entire life - even his pop.

He controlled this impulse, albeit with difficulty. Instead he reached out beside the girl's head, almost tenderly, and pulled on the bow of the long ribbon in her hair. She was still smiling at him as he pulled it free. An instant later, before Shampoo had time to comprehend what was happening, she found herself lying on her stomach with her wrists and ankles tied behind her back with that ribbon. Starting to struggle far too late, the Chinese girl wondered just what her airen was up to. It also began to dawn on her that the silk ribbon was doing an excellent job of resisting her efforts to break free.

With a grim expression, Ranma picked up the 'day' pill and threw it far out to sea, then lifted the kettle and walked over to Akane. She was starting to recover from her dunking, coughing water out of her mouth. His recent actions had forced the boy to admit to himself that he not only cared about Akane a lot, but that he couldn't stand the idea of her life being ruined by being forced to love the next pervert who came along. It would be far too risky to wait and hope for an antidote. He could see only one solution to their dilemma, and he was determined to take it.

Ranma knelt down behind Akane and poured the hot water over his head, transforming once more into his original male body. Luckily he had changed from his girl's swimsuit into shorts and a tank top before the mess with the love pills had begun. He placed a hand gently on Akane's shoulder and called her name. "Akane?"

She started to turn around at the sound of her name, but he quickly placed his hands on both sides of her face, preventing her from doing so. "No. Not ... yet," he said to her. Akane froze, puzzled, wondering where this was going.

Ranma paused, trying to find the right words. "Akane, Cologne ... made a mistake. What you swallowed was the 'lifetime' pill. That means eventually you're going to look at some guy, and you're going to fall in love with him. The best thing that we can do right now is try to control who it is, and make sure it's not some pervert like Happosai or Kuno."

Akane tried to interrupt. "But Ranma ..."

Ranma overrode her interruption. "Let me finish Akane. You can't risk putting it off or you're going to look at someone by accident. That means you've pretty much gotta pick someone you already know. Now I don't pretend to know what guy you'd prefer, though if you tell me, I'll ... I'll go and drag him back here and hold him in place if you want. But ... if there's any chance you might want it to be me, I promise I'll do my best by you from now on."

A short distance away, Shampoo was struggling against the ribbon which held her fast. She was cursing in Mandarin, Mongolian, Korean, Russian and Hindi. Her knowledge of Japanese was too poor to curse effectively in it.

Akane's eyes had gone very wide, still looking out to sea, and her voice was a little breathless as she tried to speak again. "Ranma ..."

Ranma reached around her and put a finger on her lips. "I got a bit more to say, then you can decide. I know I ain't always treated you the best in the past. Hell, we both know what an understatement that is! Sometimes I can be a real jerk. I know we don't get along all that well and a lot of that is my fault. I ... I almost wish it were possible to go back and change how we got started. I really do care about you, Akane. We make a pretty good team when we put aside our problems and work together." He was fighting with his words, struggling to get his meaning across. "Damn it, the truth is that I ... that I ... arggh." He took a deep breath, then another, and finally whispered, "I think I love you."

Akane didn't know what to say or even what to think. Sure she had begun to have suspicions that he might have some feelings for her buried underneath the mask he showed to the world, but to get such an admission from him at this point was something she never would have though possible.

She whispered back, "Ranma, you ... you do? I mean, I had started to notice some things, but ..." She stopped short, suddenly suspicious in spite of her own desire to believe. Or maybe because of it. "You aren't just saying that because of this pill are you?"

For his own sake as much as hers, Ranma felt it was very important to convince her that he meant what he was saying. He lowered his arms and wrapped them around her abdomen, hugging her lightly. He put his mouth near her ear, but not getting so close that their heads would touch. He continued whispering.

"You're right enough that if this mess hadn't happened, I'd never have admitted it. Hell, I doubt that I'd even have admitted it to myself. But right now you're in a bad situation, and it's forcing me to think real hard about exactly how I feel. When I saw what Shampoo almost did to you, and realized how awful I'd feel if you fell in love with someone else ..."

Ranma took another deep breath, trying to calm himself, because he was starting to tremble with tension. "It's up to you now, Akane. If you want to, you can turn around and look at me. If you don't, let's put the blindfold back on and go find the guy you do want."

Akane did not answer immediately. To Ranma, the few minutes she took to consider her response were an eternity. To her, they were barely long enough to consider even a fraction of the ramifications of all she had heard.

All other considerations aside, Ranma's confession had touched her deeply, finding its reflection in her own buried and all but denied feelings for him. She recognized the sacrifice of his pride that he had made and appreciated it greatly. She didn't think that she could have done the same.

She made her voice firm as she told him, "Ranma, I'd like to turn around ..."

Ranma interrupted again, and Akane sighed as she wondered if he was just too nervous to allow her to speak complete thoughts. "Okay, Akane, but I was wondering ... before you do ... could you tell me whether you at least like me? I know I ain't no prize, and nobody in their right mind would want to put up with my curse, so I don't expect you to say anything about love. But I ... I'd feel better if I knew you liked me before the pill forced you to feel something else."

Akane smiled. "Before I answer that, are you going to let me use complete sentences?"

"Uh ... yes?"

She nodded once, sharply. ‹Okay, I can do this,› she told herself. Aloud she spoke haltingly, "Ranma, the truth ... the truth is ... I do, sort of, like you. Well, actually, I like you a lot. I may ... I may even love you, at least a little, maybe more than a little. Maybe if people would just leave us alone, I'd know for sure. So I don't think the pill will make me love you. The only thing it could do is make it more ... definite. Does that answer your question?"

Ranma's voice shook a little. "Yeah, thanks. So, you wanna look now?"

Akane shook her head. "No. Get the blindfold please."

"What?" Bewildered, he demanded, "You have to be the most contrary ... why?"

She reached back and patted his knee. "I do intend to look at you before anyone else, but let's try to be smart about this for once and turn things to our advantage. I want to talk to our fathers first. Think you can lead me to them, without someone like Cologne interfering?"

"Well, I can try." Akane smiled again at the dubious note in Ranma's voice.

Akane sat on the sand with her eyes closed, smiling a little to herself and thinking things through while Ranma tramped back to the rock on which she'd been sitting and looked around for the piece of cloth she'd been using as a blindfold. As soon as it was back in place over her eyes, Ranma took her hand and led her down the beach carefully, smirking as they stepped around the still cursing Shampoo. Her invective reached new heights, or perhaps lows, as she saw all her grand plans come crashing down. P-chan attempted to follow Ranma and Akane but soon became lost, causing Ranma to smile when he saw that the pig was no longer behind them.

As they neared the part of the beach their families had occupied, Ranma spotted Kasumi and waved for her to join them. He then led Akane away from the water and behind a building.

Kasumi soon joined them and asked, "Yes, Ranma-kun? Do you need me for something? Akane, are you doing all right?"

Ranma nervously told her, "Could you go get both of our fathers and lead them back here?"

Akane added, "Without letting anyone else know about it, though. Can you do that?"

"I'll try my best," she told them cheerfully, then walked out of sight once more.

"So what are you planning?" Ranma asked her.

"To get some concessions," Akane replied grimly.

The two fathers soon joined them, along with Kasumi. Genma immediately tried to yank off Akane's blindfold. Ranma had been expecting this however, and kicked the panda in the gut hard enough that he was left lying on his back gasping for air.

"Daddy, Uncle Saotome, please listen carefully," Akane began. "By now we all know that I swallowed the 'lifetime' love pill, and whichever man I look at next I am going to love for the rest of my life. I also know you would like that man to be Ranma. But if it is, it's going to be on my terms. Otherwise I'm going to run off, and find someone else, anyone else, to look at. Do you understand?"

Ranma looked at her, surprised, but then guessed that she was trying to bluff them. At least, he hoped it was a bluff.

"What 'terms' do you want, Akane?" her father asked warily.

She spoke in a hard, businesslike voice. "If this pill makes me fall in love with Ranma, then you know that I will want to marry him. You will not need to worry about me changing my mind. Are you with me so far?"

"Er ... yes."

"Very well, then I want both of you to promise, on your word of honor as martial artists, that you will make no further attempts to talk us into marrying before we have graduated from high school. I'm only sixteen. I don't want to get married yet, and Ranma certainly doesn't want to get married yet. I won't be changing my mind about marrying him. I won't be able to change my mind. So all I'm asking you to do is to wait a little while for it. Can you do that much for me? Or would you rather run the risk of seeing me as Happosai's lover? He's already tried twice, you know. Came pretty close too. And I don't think he exactly has marriage on his mind, either."

Both her father and Genma shuddered massively from head to toe. It was a potent argument. Soun finally grated out, "Very well, I swear on my honor as a martial artist that I will make no attempt to convince you to marry until after you graduate. Saotome?"

The bear glared at his son, while thinking about the possible danger connected with a certain wife if she should find them someday before he had the boy married off to prove his manliness to her. He hesitated long enough for Soun to grab him by the ears and stare him in the eyes. "Saotome, we are not going to risk my baby girl ending up with someone like the master, or even someone who's a total stranger that I don't know. Either swear that oath, or I'm going to go get a tanto and carve off something you will miss deeply."

Genma suddenly decided that between the potential threat of his wife, and the immediate threat that Soun had just made, it was better to risk the former. He rapidly pulled out a sign and wrote, flipping it several times to fit all the words, "I swear on my honor as a martial artist not to try talking you into marrying before you graduate. Satisfied, you ungrateful child?"

Ranma had read the sign out to the blindfolded Akane as it was written. "Thank you," she said simply, then turned around to face her fiancé. "Ranma, there's no one behind you or otherwise in my line of sight, is there?"

Ranma was now feeling extremely nervous, and sweating heavily. He looked around himself. "No, Akane, just me."

"Very well." Akane reached up, and pulled the blindfold off. Her eyes looked directly into his, and he watched as they widened and softened, and a tender smile spread across her mouth.

Chin quivering a little, Ranma asked quietly, "Have ... have you ... fallen for me?"

Akane reached out a hand and laid her fingers gently along Ranma's cheek. "Yes, Ranma. I love you. No one will ever come between us."

Soun and the panda were both weeping with joy. They linked arms and danced around, exclaiming passionately about how their schools were going to be joined. Or at least Soun was making such exclamations, the panda not having the right vocal apparatus. Kasumi was smiling beatifically, feeling so happy that her youngest sister had found true love, and making no effort to question the appropriateness of the adjective 'true.'

Akane slipped her arm through Ranma's, holding him close. "I think we had better go find the others and tell them about us, Ranma. Don't you think?"

Her father stepped in front of her. "Er, Akane, I'm not going to try to talk you into anything, but I'll bet you'd like to marry Ranma right away, wouldn't you?"

Ranma growled. "Tendo-san, you gave your word ..."

"Oh hush, Ranma," Akane giggled, and slapped his chest lightly. She turned to her father and told him, "Now daddy, of course I'd love to marry Ranma right away, if my feelings were the only ones that mattered. But it's even more important to me for him to be happy. I don't think it would make him happy to get married right away, so we won't."

Soun looked disappointed, but followed behind the couple as they walked away, wanting to see what they were planning to do next.

In the small café from which she and her great-granddaughter were running their seaside business, Cologne was thinking happy thoughts about Shampoo's soon-to-be victory. In fact, the young Amazon warrior had probably already succeeded by now. The girl was to pick some likable enough young man along the beach and present him to Akane to fall in love with, then slip the 'day' pill to Ranma to have him fall in love with herself. Before the day was finished, Cologne could use her connections to complete the formalities to have them married by Japanese law in addition to the customs of her people, and they would be on their way back to China. By the time the pill wore off, the marriage would be consummated, and Ranma's own honor would permit him no escape. She permitted herself a brief cackle.

Truthfully, after the previous beach disaster with the full body cat's tongue incident, when Ranma had fought her with the neko-ken, Cologne had felt despair threaten to overwhelm her. It would be madness, sheer lunacy, to bring an adept of the neko-ken back to their village unwillingly. If she even considered it, the other elders would have killed her themselves. Therefore the only choice had been for Shampoo to somehow gain his love, to have him come back with them voluntarily. Unfortunately, it had become clear, to Cologne at least, that the boy did not feel that way about Shampoo.

Then Happosai had shown up at her door here with the bracelet of love pills. Suddenly there was an opportunity to get the boy to come with them of his own choice, allowing them to salvage Shampoo's honor. Yes, this day was looking good indeed.

At that moment Ranma walked through the door and Cologne's eyes nearly bugged out to see his arm linked with that of Akane Tendo. The girl was pressed tightly to his side, and was looking up at him with an adoring gaze which could not be mistaken. The old woman ignored the two fathers trailing behind them, while she felt her heart crawling up into her throat as it became obvious that her heir had failed again. Worse, Ranma's honor was such that he would never consider abandoning Akane now.

Before anyone could speak, Shampoo came bursting through the door. "Airen, why you tie up Shampoo? Aiyah! Please tell you not let violent girl look at you!"

Before anyone could answer her, Kuno opened the door with a crash, exclaiming, "Akane Tendo, my love! I would have spoken with thee earlier, but my pigtailed goddess did wish to demonstrate her prowess, and caused me to fly off a considerable distance. But see, I have returned! Will you not now confess your love for me?"

Before Akane could answer this question, probably violently, the door was smashed off of its hinges, as Ryoga Hibiki entered the small room angrily. "Ranma! How dare you knock me into the ocean and prevent me from speaking to Akane! Prepare to die!"

Before anything else could happen, Cologne stepped forward and tapped both Kuno and Ryoga with her staff. They both fell onto their rumps, backs against the wall, staring at their suddenly lifeless arms and legs. Cologne also glared at Shampoo, as if to suggest that she'd get the same if she didn't behave. The girl pouted but settled back, remaining quiet.

Cologne looked around the room at everyone, dominating the gathering with her presence. Focusing on Ranma, she asked, "So son-in... er, Ranma, it would appear that the first person Akane Tendo looked at was yourself?"

"That's right, old ghoul," he told her defiantly. "I do care for her, whatever I may have said in the past. Besides, I seemed a hell of a lot better a choice than Happosai."

"Than Happo...!" The old woman turned and gave her heir a glare that should have incinerated the girl on the spot. In a carefully controlled voice which everyone there was able to interpret as towering fury, she asked, "Do you mean to say that you attempted to inflict Happosai on someone who would be forced to love him for the rest of her life? Killing her would have been vastly kinder!"

Shampoo nearly whimpered. "But great-grandmother ..."

"Don't great-grandmother me!" With difficulty, Cologne reigned in her open show of emotion, though her words were still clipped. "Young Tendo-san now has no choice but to love Ranma Saotome for the rest of her life. If he is taken away from her, then she will literally die from the loss. This is due to magic created by our people, embodied in a pill which you, Shampoo, threw into her mouth, however accidentally. This particular bond was also made to save her from a fate far worse than death, which you were callously willing to inflict."

Her eyes swept the room. "For these reasons I, elder Cologne of the Joketsuzoku, do hereby void the Kisses of Death and Marriage given by the warrior Shampoo. Shampoo is specifically ordered to leave these two and their families in peace from this day forward, on pain of death, and will return to our land immediately to explain herself to the council and accept whatever punishment they deem appropriate."

Shampoo collapsed to a sitting position on the floor, aghast. Tears glittered in her eyes, but she refused to shed them in front of other people.

Cologne nodded grimly at her reaction, then turned back to Ranma. "The 'day' pill ...?"

"I threw it out to sea," he told her simply. Cologne nodded, feeling relieved that at least it hadn't fallen into anyone else's hands.

Ryoga leaned forward with difficulty, and his words were acid on his tongue. "Do I understand that Akane is in love with Ranma because of some pill that she swallowed?" He started grinding his teeth as Cologne nodded.

The elder added, "Please take note of what I said earlier. You too young Kuno." She rapped the other boy on the head with her staff, causing him to stop grumbling about the foul sorcerer and look at her. "Pay attention to me carefully. This magic was inflicted on Akane Tendo by my great-granddaughter, not by Ranma. It is ... not ... his ... fault. But if he should die, or in any way be taken away from Akane for any prolonged length of time, then she too will die. Do you understand?" Kuno started to mutter a curse about Ranma, and Cologne rapped him over the head again. "I said, do you understand? She ... will ... die."

Choking on the words, Kuno answered her, "I understand. For the sake of my fierce tigress, I must ... must ..." He shuddered, hating the taste of his next words. "I shall stand aside and leave them be."

Ryoga stared at Ranma with hate-filled eyes. "Ranma, you ..." His words came to a halt, not sure which to say of the many foul things he had in mind at that moment.

Akane looked up at Ranma, and gave him a peck on the cheek, then slipped her arm out of his and walked over to Ryoga. She knelt beside the lost boy and took his hand in hers, capturing his attention entirely. "Ryoga, yes, thanks to that pill I now love Ranma absolutely and that will not change. But the pill has not erased my memories of the past. So listen to me, and know that this is the truth. Even before I swallowed the pill, I was starting to think that Ranma was the boy I should be with. Not because of some stupid honor thing our fathers probably dreamed up in a drunken haze some night before we were born but because ... because I was starting to love him already. In a sense, all that happened today was that the process sped up enormously. So try not to blame Ranma or anyone else. Think of it as something that was fated."

Ryoga looked away from her, not wanting her to see the pain in his eyes. In a husky voice he proclaimed, "Ranma you'd better treat Akane well, and I mean a hell of a lot better than you have in the past. Or else! Do you understand me?"

"Yeah, Ryoga," Ranma answered him seriously. "Don't worry. I will." Ryoga's return nod was sharp. Angry. Despairing. Akane walked back and hugged Ranma tightly in front of everyone, then slipped to his side and linked her arm with his again.

"May I ask what you intend to do about the other girls?" Cologne inquired. "Ukyo Kuonji, and this one's sister?" She pointed to Kuno as she said this last.

Ranma shrugged. "Not much I can do except try to tell them the truth. That Akane's stuck this way, and I'm going to marry her no matter what they do. Ukyo's gonna be damn upset, I guess, and she'll probably beat me senseless, but she's reasonable enough that in the end she'll understand there's no other choice. Kodachi ..." He looked uneasily at Kuno, who smirked at Ranma's discomfort. "I expect she won't accept it at first. I won't ever betray Akane though. No matter how stubborn Kodachi is, eventually she'll have to give up."

"Very well, Ranma," Cologne now said, sounding more like her normal self. "I suppose you realize I'm not terribly happy about this outcome. I think we've said everything that needs to be said. I'd appreciate it if you would all leave now, and allow me to further contemplate this failure. Besides, I have a few more words I wish to say in private to Shampoo."

After Akane and Ranma were gone, together with their fathers, Cologne pressed the nerve points to undo the earlier action she had taken against Kuno and Ryoga. Silently and grimly, the two young men climbed to their feet and left the building, each walking under his own dark cloud.

Before Cologne could berate her heir any further, Happosai stumbled across her doorstep, with an octopus wrapped around his body. She stared at the sight, feeling laughter welling up inside despite her current anger and inquired, "What's with your new friend, Happy?"

His voice came out in a moan. "I was trying to retrieve the pill that foolish boy flung into the ocean, but this creature swallowed it first while looking at me. Is there any way to break the spell? Please?" His voice practically became a wail. "Why did it happen, anyway? I'm not an octopus!"

"That's what you say!" snickered Cologne.

For the train ride back to Nerima, Akane and Ranma took seats in a separate coach from the rest of their families, saying they wanted a little privacy to talk about the change in their situation. The others had agreed to this readily enough. Indeed, the way that the couple were holding on to each other, and especially that they were not arguing, felt so profoundly strange that everyone was eager to be out of sight of them for a time.

The train car the two teenagers found themselves in was only lightly occupied, and no one was sitting in any of the seats immediately around them. Akane was holding Ranma's hand tightly, lightly tracing a finger of her other hand along the back of his, until the train pulled out of the station. Then she let go of his hand and sat back, visibly relaxing.

"My God!" Akane whispered heartily. "That has to have been some of the most intense acting that I've ever done in my life!"

"Acting?" Ranma asked, puzzled, and feeling the first hint of worry.

Akane opened her eyes again and smiled at him warmly, then reached her hand out and put it on the back of his hand again, reassuringly. "Sorry. I don't mean it was all an act. What I said to you on the beach was the truth. I do love you, at least a little. Now that I know how you feel about me, and now that we can maybe start to grow up and trust each other a little, that love for you will grow. But, uh, that business with the pill ..."

She put her hand into a pocket, and pulled it out again. She turned her hand over and opened her fist, revealing a small pill in her palm. "I guess it lodged in my throat. When you knocked me into the ocean, and then you squeezed me while pulling me out, it popped back up into my mouth. I tried to tell you, but you wouldn't let me get a word in edgewise."

"So why didn't you tell me afterward? Why let me go on thinking you were in love with me?" He sounded a little hurt.

"Ranma! Look at me. Come on, turn around and look at me." Slowly he turned and faced her. "Listen. When I told you on the beach that I loved you, before I put the blindfold on, I was telling the truth. Understand?" He nodded, slowly.

"So I wasn't 'pretending' to love you. The pretense was one of degree. I was pretending to be madly, adoringly, head over heels in love with you. The reason I did it was because, there on the beach, I suddenly saw an opportunity to put an end to the madness. A way to get daddy and your father to promise to leave us alone. It also seemed to me that Cologne would have to choose between giving up or killing me. Since my love for you was - quote - their fault - unquote - I decided to take the risk that she'd give up."

Akane reached up and touched his cheek. "As for why I didn't tell you before, it's because you can't lie worth a damn. Cologne would have seen through it instantly, and she's the one we really had to convince. Now that you know, my sisters will probably guess the truth, but our fathers are clueless enough that they probably won't, at least not for a long while. Which will give us some peace for a while."

Ranma nodded, not exactly liking the reason, but acknowledging its worth. "What about Ukyo and Kodachi?"

Akane shrugged. "Kodachi's a nut anyway. Tell her the same story as everyone else. Like you said, she's not going to accept it at first anyway. As for Ukyo, it might be better to stick to the truth. Tell her about the pills, that no one was permanently affected, but because of the chaos the two of us ended up confessing our feelings for each other. Her reaction to that will probably be more or less how you told Cologne she would react."

Ranma gave a quirky smile. "I suppose. So, what do we do with that thing." His glance was toward the pill in her hand.

Akane stood up, and took Ranma's hand with hers. She led him to the small restroom at the rear of the car. Looking at him, she held her hand over the toilet, then slowly turned that hand over and let the pill drop. Flushing, she said, "There. I don't think any person is going to be swallowing it now." He answered her with a smile.

Together they walked back to their seat and sat back down. Akane took his hand in hers once more, and then leaned her head against Ranma's shoulder. For the first time since this boy had dropped into her life like a thunderbolt, Akane felt content. As the swaying of the train car gently rocked them to sleep, they were both contemplating the future - a future which, for the first time, the young couple felt they could now look forward to sharing together.