A Midsummer Night's Beauty, Part III: Requiem for Youth
by rkOujirou

Author's note: This story is a continuation on the Ranma 1/2 anime, including the OVA's and movies. Therefore, keep in mind that anything exclusive to the manga hasn't happened in this story.

Disclaimer: Ranma 1/2 is not my idea, it was created by a very talented manga artist named Rumiko Takahashi. The only characters I'll claim are my own OC's that I've added into this story. Just so you know.

Chapter 4

Only gloomy looks were to be found inside the hospital room Ranma had been moved to. As relieved as everyone was that he had survived, that relief would be short-lived as his parents, Genma and Nodoka, as well as his childhood friend, Ukyo, were all brought up to speed on what had happened by Ryoga and Meilin.

Genma, whose wife was sobbing into his gi, was as shaken as anyone by the troubling news. "Ryoga, you know Akane. She wouldn't do something like that. Are you sure she isn't just being controlled by this Jusenkyo?"

"No, it's her," Ryoga replied, as much as it pained him to admit so. "I spent enough time with her in China to know the truth. It was Akane. That's all there is to it."

Nodoka, wiping at her eyes, backed away from her husband and hurried for the door. "I'm…I'm sorry. I need a minute."

No one was surprised to see Nodoka getting so emotional over this. She had practically looked upon Akane as her own daughter ever since they had gotten to know each other. To think Akane would do the things Ryoga and Meilin were saying she had done was absolutely crushing to her.

Ukyo didn't so much as budge when Nodoka left the room. All she could do was sit there, back up against the wall, spatula propped up on the floor in front of her. Trying to accept the idea that Akane had become a mass murderer had left her without even the energy to raise her head. Even if she did, though, she knew all she would see was something she had long since grown tired of watching.

At Ranma's bedside, Shampoo was clutching the hand of the man she loved just as tightly as she had since barging into the operating room to see him. After everything she had been through today, she wanted nothing more than to lay her head down on Ranma's bed and take a nap alongside him. The only thing keeping her from doing so was quite simple: she wanted to be awake to greet Ranma when he finally woke up.

A rapping at the door broke the silence in the room. It was one of the hospital's nurses. "Excuse me," she said, stepping in with a clipboard. "I just need to look him over really quick. It won't take long."

The nurse jotted down some numbers from a monitor next to Ranma's bed. She felt his skin to check his body temperature, then inspected his abdomen to see if there were any abnormalities—not that the self-regeneration of the gaping hole that had once been there wasn't abnormal in itself. After not finding anything of concern, she moved on to an examination of Ranma's pupils. She parted his eyelids, checking for signs of alertness.

There was a sudden twitch in Ranma's brow. The nurse stepped back.

Shampoo, who had been fighting off her dreariness, jumped to attention as she felt Ranma's hand tighten around her own. "Ranma?"

Everyone heard a light groan. Then, gradually, Ranma's eyes began to open.

"Ranma!" Shampoo leaned closer to him.

Squinting, Ranma looked to the side. "Sham…poo?" He blinked. "Hey."

So overjoyed was Shampoo that she couldn't contain a whimper passing between her lips. She took Ranma's hand and pressed the back of it up against her forehead, trying as best she could to keep her tears from spilling out.

"How you feeling, boy?" Genma asked.

Ranma adjusted himself to face the other side of the bed. "Pop? Where…am I?"

"A hospital," Ryoga answered.

Down by the foot of his bed, Ranma saw that his father and Shampoo weren't the only ones present. "Ryoga? Meilin?" Perhaps he should have been more surprised to see the two of them considering what he knew of their predicament. Somehow, though, it just felt natural to him that they would be here, and Ranma flashed the pair a strained smile. "Yo. Long time no see."

"Sorry we weren't here sooner," Meilin said. "The military wasn't exactly the most helpful in getting us over here."

Beside Meilin, Ranma spotted the handle of a large spatula sticking up from below his bed. He hadn't seen it in some time, but he could never mistake who it belonged to. "Ucchan, too?"

Ukyo had finally peeked up once Ranma came around. Now, however, she only looked down again, nothing to say.

Even though the nurse had mostly expected it given Ranma's vital signs, she was still astounded to see Ranma awake and conversing as he was. "This is incredible," she said, gawking. "You had such an awful wound, and here you are, alive and well. Tell me, do you have any idea how your body recovered so quickly?"

It was only at the nurse's mention of a wound that Ranma was reminded of what had happened with Akane. The last thing he remembered was the feeling of helplessness that consumed him as he lay dying on the road; he had to close his eyes briefly to try to push it to the back of his mind again. As his nerves settled themselves, he placed a hand over his abdomen, examining it closely. "How 'bout that," he said with a cold chuckle. "They really did fix it."

Abruptly, Ranma shot up from his bed, giving Shampoo quite the scare. "Ranma, you stop! What matter?"

"S-…Sakura!" Ranma exclaimed. "She was there, too. Sakura…she needs help!"

"Sakura?" the nurse said. "Would her name be Sakura Okazaki, by any chance?"

Ranma, putting an end to his resistance, gave the woman his full attention. "You know her?"

"Yes," the nurse replied. "She was brought in shortly after you were. Her life isn't in any danger, but I'm afraid she did sustain a badly-fractured sternum. Our staff has been doing what they can to make her comfortable. She's been rather…feisty, though. For some reason, she seems very insistent about wanting to harm an elderly woman."

With a deep exhale, Ranma laid back against the bed again. "Yeah, that's her." Though he was glad to learn Sakura had gotten the medical attention she needed, Ranma knew that was only one of a number of concerns he had, most of which had yet to be addressed. He turned again to the nurse. "Sorry, but could you give us some time to ourselves?"

"Oh! Y-yes, of course," the nurse obliged. "You seem to be doing fine for now, so I'll come check on you later."

The nurse was soon gone, leaving Ranma free to bring up the giant elephant in the room that he wished he didn't have to discuss. "Guess we got some stuff to talk about, huh?"

"You're damn right we do," Ryoga growled, "and we can start with this." Cracking his knuckles, Ryoga strolled up to the head of Ranma's bed and grabbed the pigtailed boy by his gown, forcefully yanking him upward. "What in the HELL did you do to Akane?"

Before he could get an answer, Ryoga felt someone grab him by the wrist. It was Shampoo. Even without words, the venomous glare she gave off said very clearly not to mess with Ranma.

"You let go," she warned, "or Shampoo rip hand off."

Shampoo was as protective of Ranma as could be after what had already taken place today, but Ryoga wasn't without his reasons for doing this—not after watching Akane fall into darkness as she had. Something had to give, and it eventually would as Meilin intervened, putting herself between the two of them.

"That's enough," she said sternly, looking deep into Ryoga's eyes. "This isn't the time, all right?"

Of course, Ryoga already knew there was a better time and place to air his grievances with Ranma. Thankfully, there was a voice of reason there to remind him of that. Shoving Ranma back down to the bed, he grudgingly backed away.

"Thank you," Meilin said. With that issue diffused for now, she shifted her focus to Ranma. "Akane came after you, didn't she? How did you survive?"

Ranma settled back into his bed. As grateful as he was for the reprieve from trying to explain that night where everything had taken a turn for the worse with Akane what seemed so long ago now, this topic wasn't going to be much easier for him. "I got saved…by the spirits from Yanlou."

"Spirits from Yanlou?" Ryoga asked. He still remembered well the incident from when they had fought at Nekonron, and in particular that sight of the spirit entering Ranma's body after Yanlou had been broken. "From back then?"

"Shampoo think those ones try take over Ranma," Shampoo said, not understanding. "They want help now?"

"No," Ranma replied emphatically. "No, that ain't it. Not even close. Keepin' me alive was just self-preservation for them. Ever since Akane showed up, they've been goin' crazy inside me. Even now, I can feel what they're thinkin'. They don't care about helpin' us. All they want is revenge on Jusenkyo, or…Akane, I guess."

Ranma swallowed hard. He was still having difficulty saying such a thing as if it were truth. "Akane…she's really Jusenkyo, huh?"

"Yeah," Ryoga replied. He didn't like it any more than Ranma did, but he at least had had some time to accept it.

"And the big guy? She called him Zonbi."

"One of her two servants. Once she got the second servant, she put it into Ringo's body."

Hearing that made Ranma's heart sink in his chest. "Ringo?" At that time, he was reminded of something Akane had said to him. "A living body in tune with the power of Jusenkyo. So that's what she meant. Damn! Ringo…"

Ranma placed his hands over his face. Ringo's involvement was yet another aspect of this situation he would live to regret, and a big one at that.

"When Shampoo leave," Shampoo said, "they attack Alysse, too, but Ryoga and Meilin bring Alysse here. Doctor say she okay now, only sore."

Meilin could tell just by looking at Ranma that Alysse's prognosis was only a small consolation for him. "Was it the Amazon elder who entrusted the second servant to you?"

"Yeah," Ranma answered, his voice muffled.

Shampoo looked to Meilin, then back at Ranma. She couldn't help feeling she was missing something here. "What you talking?" she asked. "What Great-Grandmother give Ranma?"

Peeling his hands away, Ranma met the eyes of his girlfriend. All the things he had been hiding from her to keep her safe…they were all for naught now. After everything that had happened, he owed her an explanation.

"Shampoo...I got somethin' to tell ya."

Elsewhere, inside the Tendo compound, Akane's servants were awaiting their master's return.

In her boredom, Yasei had called upon a long, coarse vine that sprouted up beneath the home. The vine broke through the floor with ease, at which point she began using it as a nail file. Zonbi, meanwhile, hadn't moved since earlier, still standing firmly between Yasei and the unconscious Soun, Kasumi, and Nabiki.

While Yasei had tried to enjoy her time-passing activity, she was finding it increasingly difficult. Again and again she would glance over to see Zonbi staring at her, watching to make sure she didn't try anything funny. He wasn't doing anything especially annoying, but just the fact that he refused to cease his surveillance was grating on her nerves.

Blowing on the nail of her ring finger, Yasei looked over again. There was Zonbi, his emotionless eyes locked onto her as always. Of course they were. "Give it a rest already," she griped. "I said I'd leave them alone, you dumb-looking statue."

Despite those assuring words, Zonbi continued to stand before his sister like a brick wall.

"Are you trying to pick a fight with me?" Yasei roared.

With the sound of creaking floorboards nearby, the tension between the servants was quickly tempered. Both of them turned to the room's entrance where Akane now stood, her body completely bare aside from the towel she used to dry her hair.

"You two," Akane addressed them, "come with me."

Unable to restrain her amusement over her master's nudity, a giant smirk spread across Yasei's face. "Well, look at you." She snickered. "Aren't we adventurous."

"Am I not allowed to walk around without clothes?" Akane questioned, a steely look in her eyes. "When I gained Jusenkyo's power, I separated myself from everyone else on this planet. None of the rules or taboos they've created apply to me anymore."

Her point made, Akane started down the hallway. Yasei, snorting, followed alongside Zonbi.

"Where are we going?" Yasei asked impatiently.

"My room," Akane told her.

As they walked, Akane's gaze drifted to a set of doors on her right side. She slowed to a stop, as did her servants. They were outside the room that, last Akane remembered, was being used by Happosai.

It had been overlooked before, but Akane was about to remedy that mistake. She flung the door open and checked inside. The room was dark, yet enough light had come in through the doorway that she could see some of Happosai's collection of stolen bras and panties strewn about the floor. Interestingly, the one thing she didn't see was Happosai himself.

Akane stepped in to get a better look, but there remained no sign of the lecherous martial arts master. By all indications, Happosai was out and about. "Well, if he were here, he would have latched onto me the second he saw me standing here naked."

"Is something wrong, Mistress?" Zonbi asked.

"It's nothing we need to worry about right now," Akane assured him. "Let's go."

The three of them left the room and headed for the stairs leading to the upper floor. The staircase was visible from the home's front entrance, so Akane had already caught a glimpse of it when she first came inside. Now would be the first time she really got a good look at it, though, and it most definitely wasn't in the same shape she remembered it being in. The railing bordering the staircase was almost entirely gone.

Unusual though it was, Akane scaled the stairs without paying the missing railing much mind. As often as crazy things happened around the house when she was there, she was surprised the railing hadn't been wiped out sooner. What awaited her when she reached the top of the stairs, on the other hand…that was more striking.

Akane cocked her head as she walked forward. At the end of the hall, a large hole in the wall of Nabiki's room had been patched up by some plastic covering. If that was the only thing, maybe Akane wouldn't have been so curious about it, but the walls and floor along the way there were also full of small gaps as if something had repeatedly sliced into them.

As Akane came to the hole in the wall, she paused. It was only a trifling tidbit to her in the grand scheme of things, but she did wonder just what had gone on here. Then again, it really didn't matter, she supposed.

Akane had just turned the corner leading to her room when she felt a large hand grab her by the shoulder. She knew it belonged to Zonbi, who she noticed was looking back down the hall. It didn't take long for her to see why.

Somewhere around the middle of the hallway, Yasei had ceased to trail them. She was looking intently at the gashes in the wall, running her fingers over one of them, captivated by the damage. There was something about these marks, something eating away at her, making her feel like she was on the verge of remembering something she had forgotten.

"Yasei," Akane called out to her.

There was no response from her servant.

"Yasei," Akane repeated, more sharply this time.

Finally, Yasei swung her head around. "I heard you." She took a long look at that slash in the wall as she let her hand fall away from it. After that, it was back to business as she went along with the others.

Arriving at her room, Akane turned the knob and pushed the door open. It had been a while, and as such she stood in the doorway for a moment, just to take it all in. "Hasn't changed a bit," she said. "Come in. Shut the door behind you."

Akane tossed her towel onto her bed as Yasei, being the last one in, closed the door. The first move for Akane was to her dresser, where she fished out some modest undergarments for herself. "So, I'll lay it out nice and simple for you two," she said, slipping her underwear on. "As of now, we're starting preparations to retrieve Jusenkyo's Jewel of Eternity."

While Yasei leaned back against the wall, absently watching Akane dress herself, Zonbi spoke up on the matter. "That will take some time, will it not?"

"Exactly," Akane confirmed. "It's going to take me all night to bring it out."

Once Akane had gotten her bra on, the next thing to come out of storage was her martial arts gi. She put on the bottom portion, then eased into the top, tying the belt snugly around her waist after. Something didn't feel quite right to her, though. She looked herself over, eventually zeroing in on her right sleeve. She grabbed hold of it and, in one swift motion, ripped it off. The same was done to the left sleeve, leaving both of her arms with a little extra freedom compared to before.

"That's better," she said, testing out her range of motion. "Tomorrow, the jewel will be mine. But, there's one other piece of business I need to deal with before I leave this place. And just to make sure I won't be interrupted while I'm doing it…"

Akane sat herself down cross-legged on the floor. In an effort to concentrate, she folded her hands and touched them to her forehead. Then, her lips started to move.

Out in the city, unless one had happened to come across the ruins of the Cat Café restaurant, the daily activities of everyone living there had thus far gone on in a normal manner. The evening hours had arrived now, when many people had returned home to eat dinner. Some, though, still wandered the streets for varying reasons, including a young couple on their way home after stopping at an arcade after school.

"That was great!" the girl exclaimed. "Let's go there again next week, okay?"

"Yeah, sure. If I've got money for it," her boyfriend replied.

The boy felt a tug on his shirt. Behind him, he saw his girlfriend, who had stopped him, squinting toward the sky. "What's up?" he asked.

Raising her arm, the girl pointed upward. "What is that?"

The boy took a look. High, high above the Nerima Ward of Tokyo, something was shifting around in the sky. It was transparent, but still dark enough in contrast to everything else that it couldn't go unnoticed.

"That's…what is that?" the boy wondered aloud. "Look, it's getting bigger, isn't it?"

Indeed, whatever the object was, it was expanding, both outward and downward. It didn't grow evenly—more like some thick substance that had been spilled and was sliding down the outside of an overturned bowl—but it was definitely growing, and fast. As the seconds passed, the area it covered became massive, like a huge dome looming over the metropolis. It drew closer and closer to the ground and, as the girl shrieked with fright, it slammed down into the road right in front of them.

The couple stood frozen, not sure what to make of the bizarre object. On the outside where they were, a portion of everything the dome touched—walls, road, even buildings—had roughly an inch missing from it. Oddly enough, the same didn't seem to have happened on the inside edge from what they could see.

"I'm…I'm not just seeing this, right?" the girl inquired, her voice trembling.

The boy shook his head. "No, I see it, all right," he said. "I just don't get what it is. Can we…touch it?"

Interested, the boy stepped up to the towering wall.

"Hey, be careful, okay?" the girl pleaded.

"I know," her boyfriend assured her. "Our houses are both inside of this thing. We gotta see if we can get through and get back home, y'know?"

Slowly, the boy reached out and put his hand to the bizarre mass. All it took was a slight touch and, to the girl's horror, the boy was blown back as if he had been shot out of a cannon.

Around the outside of the dome, similar things had occurred to others who had the misfortune of coming in contact with it as they tried to get inside. One delivery driver saw another vehicle leave the dome, passing through the wall without issue, and thought he would be fine, only to have his truck repelled away, ending up in a crumpled mess with him inside. Two bicyclists had also suffered the same fate, and it wasn't long before panic and confusion started to spread amongst the residents.

Inside Ranma's hospital room, everything had gone quiet after the others allowed him the time to tell Shampoo what he had been hiding from her. Shampoo's emotions were hard to read as she contemplated what she had been told, but Ranma got the impression she wasn't happy with him—a natural assumption when someone wouldn't look directly at you.

Even with the hysteria ensuing around town, everyone was oblivious to the event taking place outside until Genma, thinking something was off, went to the window and peeked through the curtain. "Hmm?" He adjusted his glasses. "I know the sun is going down, but…isn't the sky a little dark?"


At once, everyone heard a voice speak. They all looked around the room, none of them certain who had spoken.

"Hey, who said that?" Ryoga asked. It didn't seem to him as though anyone present was the one who had done it, but he had heard it too clearly to think otherwise.

"Attention, attention," the voice repeated. This time, everyone was sure of it: that voice hadn't come from inside the hospital room. They were hearing it within their own minds, and it was a voice they all recognized.

"Akane?" Ranma said.

For those who had seen Akane recently, it didn't come as so much of a shock that they were hearing her right now. For Ukyo, however, this first real sign of proof that Akane was back left a look of evident surprise on her face. Shampoo, on the other hand, appeared as though her blood were boiling as she grit her teeth at the sound of her old rival.

"Do I have everyone's attention now?" Akane spoke. "I hope you've all enjoyed your filthy lives of mistreating others, because as of now that all comes to an end. Tomorrow, I will become a being that far surpasses the rest of humanity, and all of you will have to answer to me."

"Incidentally, there's a select group of people who I expect will try to stop me. In light of this, I've made the appropriate preparations. A large part of this city is now contained within a repulsion field I've created. If you can hear me, that means you're inside of it."

"Tomorrow, this area will become a battlefield where no one's lives are safe. Luckily for most of you, I really don't want a bunch of obnoxious pests running around during this time, which is why I made the repulsion field one-way only. You're all free to leave it at any time, but know that no one can get back inside once they're out. If you don't want to risk getting caught up in what's going to happen, leave. NOW. This is your only warning."

"And as for that select group who no doubt will stay…I'll be looking forward to seeing you."

It was a message filled with conviction, an announcement of what was in store for not only the area contained within her field, but the entire world. At the Tendo home, Akane, her eyes opening, lowered her hands to her lap. "That should do. Now then…"

Over by the window, Zonbi, who had been looking outside, let out a groan as he faced Akane again. Unlike previous times, there was a tone of concern in that vocal gesture of his. "Mistress, maintaining a field of this size will be greatly taxing on your magical capacity. Are you certain this is wise?"

Akane took a moment before answering. "Sometimes, people need to put the past behind them before they can move on. That field will make sure nobody from the outside keeps me from doing what I need to do." She glanced back at Zonbi. "Stay by my side while I'm summoning the jewel. I can't afford to lose either of you at this point."

She was ready to begin the summoning process right then and there if not for the unexpected interruption that came.

"Hey," Yasei blurted out abruptly.

At the beckoning of her other servant, who had been unusually quiet since entering the room, Akane gave Yasei her attention. "What is it?"

Yasei's head was down, her brow furrowed. She had no words of disrespect ready to throw out there this time. Instead, there was only a simple question for her master. "Who is…Kodachi?"

Akane's eyes narrowed at the girl. "Where did you hear that name?"

"I…didn't," Yasei replied. She was subconsciously tapping her foot against the floor, as if anxious about something. "I just know it. And it makes me…uneasy."

Akane knew she hadn't mentioned Kodachi around Yasei. That being the case, the name only could have come from Ringo's memories, leaving Akane to wonder if Yasei's takeover of Ringo had gone awry to an extent. Even if that were true, however, Yasei was clearly the one in control of the body, and that was all that really mattered.

"Kodachi is nobody," Akane insisted. "Just a harmless gymnast who already got put in her place. She's not even worth thinking about. Stay focused on what we're doing, understand?"

Yasei didn't offer so much as a look to acknowledge she had heard her master.

Eager to get things underway, Akane closed her eyes and took a breath, relaxing her hands atop her legs. "I'm starting. Remember, stay by me."

Only now did Yasei peek over at Akane. After some time had passed, she approached her master and bent down, snapping her fingers before Akane's face. There wasn't even a flinch. Aside from the rising and falling of her chest with every breath, Akane wasn't making even the slightest movement any longer. She had entered a trance. It took that level of concentration to bring Jusenkyo's Jewel of Eternity within reach.

"Perfect," Yasei said. With a mischievous grin, she flipped her hair back. "Now that she's busy, I'm going out for a bit."

Zonbi didn't hesitate to step in front of her, looking once again to keep his rebellious sister in check. "Mistress Akane wishes for us to stay here."

"And I'm supposed to care?" Yasei sneered at him. "Look at this embarrassing getup I'm wearing. Do you know what color this is? It's pink! PINK! I can't take this girl's fashion sense, you hear me? I'm going to find something I like."

With Zonbi blocking the door, Yasei walked over to Akane's desk. Using the chair for a boost, she stepped up onto the sturdy piece of furniture and promptly kicked open the window, letting inside a wave of fresh air.

Yasei could practically feel the negative vibes emanating from Zonbi over her intended actions. "Relax, everyone's probably too busy scrambling to get away from here to cause me any trouble. If you play nice, maybe I'll bring you back something, too. There's no way you like those grungy rags you're wearing, right?"

Zonbi's neck creaked as he looked down to evaluate the attire he had been using for the past couple weeks. A long, drawn-out groan followed.

After being around him enough, Yasei knew how to interpret that response: he didn't disagree with her.

"You just look after your precious Mistress." Yasei smirked. "I'll be back."

Meanwhile, over at the hospital, everyone was still letting Akane's message sink in.

"That was…" Meilin began to say.

Ryoga would finish the thought for her. "A challenge."

In the midst of the quiet that filled the room, Genma removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. "So it really is true. Soun, I can't imagine what you must be feeling right now." Sighing, he turned to the others. "What did Akane mean when she said she would become a being that surpassed humanity?"

"The Jewel of Eternity," Ryoga answered. "The fruit of Jusenkyo's lifetime of work."

"China's military may not have helped our travel here," Meilin chimed in, "but they did give us some useful information their researchers dug up before we left. Although we don't know exactly what effect the jewel would have on Akane, we have to assume she would become far more dangerous than she already is. Now that she has both of Jusenkyo's servants, she's probably summoning it as we speak."

Beside Ranma's bed, the frame of Shampoo's chair was about ready to snap from the vice grip the Amazon girl had on it. "Then we need find Akane before she get jewel, yes?" Shampoo didn't want to sit around talking about it. She wanted to do something, and now.

"There's no point," Ryoga told her. "When both of her servants are alive, their life force combines to create a powerful barrier around their master. We won't even be able to touch Akane as it is. Unless you have some guaranteed plan for taking out one of the servants before Akane and the other one notice, we'd just be rushing to our deaths. And that's if we knew where she was, which we don't."

"Then what we do?" Shampoo snapped at him. "We let Akane have jewel?"

"Of course not," Meilin said, perhaps the most calm and collected of everyone there. "According to Jusenkyo's notes, the unlocking method for the jewel will require Akane and her servants to separate for a time. Get it? That's when we'll have our chance. She won't know what we know about her, and that gives us an opportunity. Akane can't be harmed, but if we can defeat one of the servants, she'll become vulnerable again. We can even stop the jewel from being unlocked altogether. Once we figure out who all among us is fighting, we can start hatching our plan."

Who among us is fighting. Those words brought a sense of guilt to Ranma, who had been silently taking in what everyone was discussing. "Akane," he said, drawing looks from the others, "…she's doin' this 'cause of me. It's my fault for draggin' her along back then, for not doin' things the way I shoulda. That's why I gotta stop her, and I ain't gonna ask anyone else to fight if they don't wanna."

Impassioned and filled with her own sense of duty, Shampoo stood up and grabbed Ranma by his forearm. "Shampoo fight with Ranma!" she declared. "For what she do to Ranma and Great-Grandmother, Shampoo no forgive that one!"

It wasn't surprising to Ranma that Shampoo was so quick to join in—he would have done the same thing if their roles were reversed. Whatever negative feelings she bore over the information he had been withholding from her appeared to be something she was willing to put aside, too. Still, her inclusion didn't come without its worries, for everyone involved. Not only was their enemy more capable than Li and Meilin were, but Akane also bore a personal grudge against them. It went without saying that Shampoo's life would be on the line tomorrow.

And then there was Akane. Even after what Akane had done, Ranma only intended to stop her from bringing harm to anyone else. Shampoo, though…Ranma could see that intense rage in her eyes. If she came face-to-face with Akane, just how far would she take things?

"We're in, too," Ryoga announced, speaking for himself and Meilin. "Not that we really have a choice."

Ryoga gestured to the metal collar around his neck. "These things have a lethal poison in them that our boss in China can have injected into us whenever he wants. If Akane isn't stopped in the next few days, we're as good as dead." A solemn expression came over him. "No, even if we do stop her…"

Ranma was gaping, speechless. "Wh-…why?"

Grasping Ryoga's hand, Meilin leaned up against her man's shoulder. "Our mistake with Akane cost the military a lot. After this is all over, there's a good chance we'll be killed off no matter what the result."

To everyone else in the room, it was staggering how matter-of-fact Ryoga and Meilin were approaching the issue. They stood steady. No fear, no panic. They had accepted that this was how things were, and they were only looking forward.

"Even so," Ryoga said, allowing himself to smile, sad though it was, "we want to stop Akane."

Clenching his fist, Ranma sat up in his bed. "Ryoga, I've got base points for my Shift technique in China. If we make it through this, I can take us all there. We can find this guy and make him take those things off."

As sincere as Ranma was, Ryoga merely scoffed at the offer. "You think I'm going to let you throw your life away for me? Don't you have someone who needs you now?"

"Look, I know it ain't gonna be easy, but-"

"Focus on Akane. If we're still alive, we'll worry about the other stuff later. Idiot."

Ryoga was right, and Ranma knew it. Thinking about anything other than Akane could end up being the death of them all. If he got the chance, he swore to himself he would do something about it when the time came, though. So long as he had blood pulsing through his veins, he wasn't going to just lie down and let someone execute his greatest rival, nor the former partner of the man whose life he was responsible for taking.

Four had committed to the battle, leaving only two to go. One of those two, Genma, stepped forward. "Ranma, I'm going to get your mother away from here. I'll go check on Soun and the girls and make sure they leave, too. After that…"

Ranma could see the perspiration building on his father's face. Genma, torn between honor and duty, was conflicted. And Ranma understood that.

"Pop," he said, "take care of Mom."

His son's words like an arrow to his heart, Genma lowered his head and walked to the door. "I'm sorry, for getting you into this mess," he apologized. "Don't die, boy."

"Got it. See ya, Pop."

With Genma's departure, there remained only one yet to make a choice.

"I have to fight Akane?" Ukyo muttered, snorting at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. "You're kidding, right? There's no way this is really happening."

From Ukyo, Ranma sensed something much different than what he had from his father. Ukyo wasn't conflicted at all—she had no will to fight.

"Ucchan, it's fine," Ranma told her. "Get what you need from your restaurant and get outside the field. We'll handle Akane, all right?"

Ukyo bit down on her lip. There was so much she wanted to say, but she couldn't bring herself to speak any of it aloud. Standing, she dragged both herself and her spatula along the floor to the room's exit. Before she left, she looked to Ranma again.

"We'll see ya once this is all over." Ranma smiled, giving a quick wave of his hand. "Take care, Ucchan."

Ukyo, gripping her spatula so tightly her hand was turning white, finally faced away. With a slide of the door, she was gone.

Ranma, Shampoo, Ryoga, and Meilin. They all glanced around at each other. This was it. The task of sparing the rest of the world from Akane's wrath was on their shoulders.

"Just the four of us, huh?" Meilin remarked, not sounding optimistic.

"We'll have to make it work," Ryoga said.

Ranma looked to his left, where Shampoo already had her eyes on him. Taking hold of Ranma's hand, she interlocked their fingers and squeezed down tightly, and Ranma reciprocated. In victory or in defeat, Shampoo was with him, and he with her.

"All right," Ranma said, "what's our plan?"

End of Chapter 4