Fighting Chance
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. At the end of a chase across China, will one person be able to defeat the odds and win her heart's desire?

Note: The story you are about to read, Fighting Chance, starts off with a rather depressing (though not particularly dark) first chapter. This is necessary in order to properly set everything up for the rest of the story. Please trust me that the mood of the remainder of the story will not be so depressing. That being said, the story as a whole is written as drama, not comedy, so you should expect a certain amount of angst and tension, along with some lighter moments.

Chapter 1. Akane Disappears

The final bell rang at Furinkan High School in Nerima, Japan, ending the last day of the first term and simultaneously signaling the start of summer break. Like an overstuffed canvas bag which shreds under the pressure of its contents, students streamed out every door, ready and more than ready to enjoy their vacation. The omens for doing so were excellent. The day was hot but not particularly humid for July and a light breeze caressed smiling faces pleasantly. The multitude departed eagerly, their hearts happy and carefree.

All were so, that is, except for two seniors, walking together beside the canal. Akane Tendo, youngest daughter of Soun Tendo, and Ranma Saotome, only son of Genma Saotome, the heirs to the Anything Goes School of Martial Arts and betrothed by their respective fathers since before they were even conceived. No laughter came from their throats and no smile was seen on their lips. Instead, their mood was serious and they seemed constantly on alert.

Akane watched her putative fiancé out of the corner of her eye as he walked at her side. It had not escaped her attention that ever since their return from China more than four months ago, he had taken to walking sedately beside her, never atop the fence as had previously been his custom. It was such a marked contrast that the young woman could not help but take notice on every such occasion, and the thought never failed to bring a small feeling of warmth to her heart.

It was a pity that other concerns threatened so to overwhelm that warmth, concerns which troubled her gravely. If only their fathers hadn't attempted to push them into marriage immediately upon the return from China. That plan had fallen into disaster as various rivals for the affections of one or the other of the duo had done their best to make their displeasure known, resulting in considerable property damage. In his dismay, Soun had declared that his daughter and future son-in-law must deal with the people in question, clearing the way for their eventual marriage.

Akane had set about that task with a will, although she was willing to concede, at least a little, that it was easier for her. She despised Tatewaki Kuno and was more than happy to blackmail him, threatening to inform people at the college he now attended of his attempt to interfere in a matter of honor between the Tendo and Saotome families. As a young man who liked to see himself as a modern day samurai, the blow to his own honor, to his reputation, would have been severe. In consequence, he had mostly backed off of his declarations of love for her, confining himself to occasional attacks on Ranma.

As for Ryoga Hibiki ... Akane gritted her teeth once more at the thought of his betrayal. She was not completely blind, and had been aware for some time of his crush on her, feelings which she did not return. She had been quite happy when he seemed to accept Akari Unryu as a girlfriend, although worried at the looks he continued to cast her own way. Akane had therefore taken him aside and carefully explained that there could never be anything between them. Her explanation had been interrupted when a child playing outside the yard had thrown a water balloon over the wall by mistake, which burst on Ryoga's head.

It had taken the combined efforts of Ranma and both of their fathers to keep her from killing her former pet. Akane ground her teeth at the memory of Ryoga's cursed pig form escaping over the wall as she struggled to escape the arms which held her.

In contrast, Ranma had seemed to achieve very little toward convincing the other girls to leave him alone. Akane had found herself once again wandering in that bleak wasteland of wondering whether or not he truly cared about her, troubled by the worry that he might prefer to marry one of the others instead. The memory of his declaration to her in China, the long awaited admission of his love, was slowly growing dimmer, helped not at all by his denial of those very words on what should have been the day of their wedding.

It wasn't that he had done absolutely nothing. Akane knew that Ranma had in fact spoken to Ukyo. The okonomiyaki chef hadn't taken it at all well, refusing to believe that Ranma did not want to marry her. She continued to pop up regularly to remind him of their alleged engagement, but the reminders were taking on an increasingly desperate tone. Several times now Akane had caught glimpses of Ukyo staring at Ranma in school, unseen by him, with a deeply unhappy look in her eyes. But Ranma refused to speak to her again, undertook no further effort to make his feelings clear. He refused to budge no matter how many times someone told him that leaving Ukyo in this halfway state was more cruel than forcing her to accept that she could never have him.

Ranma hadn't wanted to speak to Kodachi at all, claiming that it would be useless. Akane still wasn't sure whether he had or not. He had gone off, under protest, when their fathers insisted, but who knew whether he had gone through with it? There was no question that the crazed gymnast still showed up all too frequently, trying to claim Ranma for herself.

Finally there was Shampoo, the Chinese warrior who insisted that the laws of her people required that Ranma marry her. He had flatly refused to say anything to Shampoo to convince her to give up, to go away, saying that it would be too dangerous. The thought made Akane clench her fists. What he meant was that it would be too dangerous to herself, that Shampoo might choose to attack her, to remove the "obstacle." The plain and simple fact was that Ranma did not believe she had sufficient skill to defend herself against such an attack.

The insinuation was infuriating. Akane knew herself to be one of the best martial artists of her generation. Just because Ranma happened to be a lot better than her - galling though it was to admit it - didn't mean she was some incompetent. And okay, so maybe Shampoo was also one of the best. Maybe even, though she'd never say so publicly, a smidgeon better than herself. That didn't mean she should be treated like she was helpless, like she couldn't even defend herself!

Akane sighed, causing Ranma to look over at her curiously. She wished there was some way to show him, some way to prove to him how good she was. The problem was that he himself was so good, that practically everyone else looked second rate beside him. It was hard to convince Ranma to take anyone seriously as a martial artist unless that person was able to give him a good fight, and he had always refused to fight her seriously. Akane had tried several times since China to get Ranma to spar with her, all to no avail.

There was progress on other fronts, though it wasn't what you could call overwhelming. As she had already noted, Ranma always walked beside her now, whenever they went anywhere together, particularly to and from school. While they still argued as much as ever, the more stinging insults had somehow been eliminated from these exchanges, without either of them saying anything about it. Moreover, they had found themselves slowly gaining the ability to argue their way to compromises, at least for the more petty matters. Ever since China they had discovered a new ability to peacefully converse about inconsequential matters, and there had even been a few discussions of more serious nature, on a variety of topics.

The most cherished memories of all were a handful of times, when they had been well and truly alone, and Ranma had dared to take her hand and hold it.

Akane sighed again. It was rather depressing, she thought, that such was the best she could come up with under the heading of "cherished memories." How much longer could she continue waiting, hoping for more, especially when she herself didn't have the courage to tell him that she wanted more?

"Awful lot of sighing going on over there," Ranma commented. "Want to talk about it?"

Akane glanced at him then turned her eyes forward again. "Nothing we haven't talked about before. Argued about. The way that nothing seems to change. Problems are still problems. How much longer we should wait, hoping that things will magically work out."

Ranma frowned, correctly hearing that final "we" as an "I" - how much longer should she wait for him to settle matters, before giving up and moving on with her life? He felt his hidden fear ratchet up another notch, a fear he had been living with ever since China. The fear that Akane would decide that enough was enough, that there was no chance for the two of them. He'd tried, he really had tried to come up with some plan to cut through the tangles of fate which enveloped them, all to no avail.

He said nothing about it, though, allowing silence to fall between them again. He wanted to speak, wanted to eloquently explain his thoughts, his concerns, his worries. But the idea of eloquence emerging from his mouth was a cruel joke. Too many problems in his life owed their existence to foolishly opening his mouth. There was no way he could trust it with something so delicate. He'd only screw it up and make things worse.

The real bitch was that he was sure he could handle almost all of it. Ukyo, painful though that would be. The Kuno's, both Tatewaki and Kodachi. The fathers, Nabiki, even the difficulties caused by the well intentioned prodding of Kasumi and his mother. None of that was insurmountable. Not all of the solutions would be perfect, but he was confident that he could deal with them all sufficiently.

Which left the Joketsuzoku. The Amazons. The people who believed that "obstacles are for killing."

Try as he might, Ranma could find no answer to the problem posed by the Joketsuzoku. Not short of killing them, anyway, and he never wanted to kill someone again. Until he could come up with some solution for the Amazons, his entire strategy consisted of not letting anyone realize that he had made his choice already. Because if Shampoo or Cologne ever guessed the truth, they might decide that they had nothing left to lose, and he couldn't protect Akane from them twenty-four hours a day. For one thing, she would never allow it.

He had tried, just once, to explain this to Akane. The explosion that followed had nearly ended matters between them permanently. Akane had decided that he was insulting her martial arts skills, telling her that she had no chance of defending herself. She'd been unwilling to hear, or he'd been unable to adequately explain, that it didn't matter if she could, somehow, successfully defend herself against the first attack. Or the second. Or the first half dozen, because she wasn't the sort to kill. Which meant Shampoo only had to win once. And if there was one thing Ranma had learned from her near death at Jusendo, it was that he couldn't bear the thought of a life without Akane in it.

It was a pity he couldn't find the courage to simply tell her that last bit.

So they continued down the road toward home in silence. Akane wondering if Ranma would ever show he truly cared for her. Or even whether he did care. Ranma wondering if Akane was slipping away through his fingers. If perhaps it was already too late.

They walked silently, side by side, both conscious of the small distance which separated them. Close, but not touching. Comfortable, yet yearning for more, both unsure if there would ever be more. Ranma wanted to do something, try to give some sign. He looked around nervously. The street was a far more public location than he had dared before, but maybe ...

He slowly reached out his arm. His fingertips brushed the back of Akane's hand, seeking permission. Her eyes flicked over, taking in the cause of the touch, whereupon the corners of her mouth lifted ever so slightly. Akane turned her hand to receive his.

Then the breeze carried a maniacal laugh to their ears, and the two teenagers cringed in unison. A blizzard of black rose petals swept down the sidewalk to envelop them, as a ribbon coiled around Ranma's arm to snare it. Ranma retreated rapidly, trying to keep Kodachi Kuno out of his personal space. She followed after him closely, pressing in.

"Ranma-sama, why do you avoid me?" the gymnast inquired greedily.

With a sigh, Akane started back toward Ranma, fighting down the urge to pummel him, an urge born out of habit. Instead she focused on stopping Kodachi. However, she had taken fewer than half a dozen steps when sunlight glinted off of metal and the ribbon tying Ranma to Kodachi was cut. All eyes turned to the side to see Ukyo Kuonji standing there, brandishing her massive battle spatula.

"Stay away from my Ran-chan, Kodachi," the teenage chef snarled. Her eyes glanced over to Akane. "I don't want to see you snuggling up close to him either. Remember, he's my fiancé."

Kodachi returned haughtily, "You are a fool if you think that my Ranma-sama would prefer your presence over mine. Please return to the commercial establishment from which you came."

Ranma was trying to slip quietly to the side. Unfortunately his attempt was thwarted when a Chinese girl jumped down from a rooftop to land behind the boy, encircling him in a fierce embrace and pressing tightly against him.

"You both wrong. Is my airen. Ranma go on date with Shampoo now, yes?"

Ukyo snarled, "Over my dead body!" She turned toward Shampoo.

"Tritely put, but I must agree with the sentiment," Kodachi declared, pulling out a couple of clubs.

Ukyo swung her weapon at Shampoo, who released Ranma and blocked the attack easily. While Ranma tried to get between them, Kodachi raised a club to strike Ukyo from behind. In the meantime Akane had run up to join the fray and, on seeing this sneak attack, grabbed hold of Kodachi's raised arm. Twisting around, she threw the gymnast across the street.

A couple of men working on the opposite sidewalk had been openly staring at these goings on. Upon seeing the person hurtling through the air toward them they dove to either side. Kodachi, expecting a firm landing on her well balanced foot, tumbled as the foot slid in the wet cement the men had just been smoothing. The teenage girl landed face down in the muck.

Back across the street Ukyo was leaning against a lamppost trying to suck air back into lungs which weren't cooperating, while weakly holding the spatula out in front of herself. Akane stepped in front of Ukyo, fists raised, and a glint shone in Shampoo's eye as she hefted her chui in preparation to attack. But before she could do so, Ranma jumped between them.

"That's enough, Shampoo!" the pigtailed boy told her sternly. "Just stop it."

A smile lit the Chinese girl's face. "Yes, airen. Shampoo much rather do this!" She took a quick step forward and glomped onto Ranma, hugging him like a vise. Her face looking over his shoulder twisted into a smirk as she gazed on Akane and Ukyo behind him.

Trying to look back over his shoulder, Ranma said, "Um, Akane? Maybe you'd better go on home. I'll see you there later."

Akane stared at the back of his head, aghast. Unlike occasions in the past, this time she hadn't blamed him for what the other girls had done, hadn't yelled, hadn't hurled insults. She had tried to help him. She had stepped in to protect Ukyo from Shampoo's attack. Now he was standing there, letting Shampoo hug him, and telling her to go home? To get lost, and leave him alone with that Chinese hussy?

Akane drew back her fist, prepared to knock her fiancé into orbit. Then she paused. What was the use? What would it accomplish?

"Fine, Ranma," she said quietly. "If that's the way you want it. I'll just leave you here with Shampoo." She spun on her heel and stomped off.

Shampoo called after her, "That right. Kitchen-destroyer leave. Shampoo take too too good care of airen."

When Ranma finally got home he didn't even bother going into the house, but went straight around to the dojo. As he expected, Akane was inside dressed in a gi, doing a strenuous workout. He paused for a moment at the door, watching in admiration the gracefulness she exhibited while working through her kata. Whatever he might say, Ranma always thought Akane beautiful. But this is when she truly shone, the right and proper setting for her athletic form.

Ranma thought back over all the times when Akane had wanted to spar with him, both before he had been willing to admit his feelings to himself, and also after. At first he had simply been too self-centered, too caught up with his own importance and unable to acknowledge her own devotion to the art. More recently he had been too scared of upsetting the status quo, too worried over how the Amazons might react if they learned that he was helping Akane to improve. Even so, he had done what he could.

Akane seemed unaware of how their sparring sessions had changed. Ranma still dodged her, but did so in a way to encourage certain moves and counters. Her speed had gradually increased since his arrival in Nerima, as she tried in vain to strike him as he flitted around her, but he had recently focused on pushing her to get even faster. His teasing comments were aimed at helping her to polish her form, eager even in her anger to prove him wrong. No one knew what he was doing, least of all Akane herself.

Yet it appeared that the status quo had shifted anyway, without his noticing. Shampoo had undeniably appeared ready to attack Akane earlier, had even looked eager to do so. Which meant that as a tactic for keeping a lid on the situation, his decision to avoid directly sparring with his fiancée seemed a failure at best. Worst of all, it prevented him from ensuring that she had the skills she might need if such an attack did come.

Well, if he was going to change his mind, there was no time like the present.

Akane had seen her fiancé walk in the door but was studiously ignoring him, still angry over being sent home while he was busy hugging his Amazon bimbo. Nonetheless her eyes were relentlessly drawn to him as he stood there, watching her. She was in fact looking straight at him when he blurred into motion. It took a moment for her brain to catch up with the report from her eyes as Ranma leaped across the space separating them, and when it did she put her arms up over her head and jumped away, pressing her back against the wall.

"What the hell kind of a defense was that?" Ranma demanded bitingly.

Akane stammered hotly in anger over his sarcasm. "I ... I wasn't expecting you to jump at me like that!"

The boy's eyes widened, and he feigned a look of innocent naiveté. "Ooh, well, pardon me! I wasn't aware that you were expecting engraved notices of upcoming attacks from your enemies."

Akane's face flushed dangerously. "You're not an enemy! At least, you're not supposed to be!"

Ranma waved his arm around him. "This is a training hall. What d'you think you're training to do in here? Ballroom dancing? It's martial arts! Attack and defense! Remember what happened earlier on the way home? You got to be ready, anytime, anywhere!"

Akane said nothing, finding no words to say. She just stared. Angry with him. Angry with herself. Angry with the situation.

Ranma beckoned with the fingers of his right hand. "Okay. So you come after me, then. Come on. I ain't gonna dodge."

The young woman's eyes narrowed speculatively, unable to credit what she was hearing. She raised her fists, then leaped away from the wall. He caught her arm and sent her flying across the dojo, where she landed on her feet. Then she just stood there, mind trying to cope with the fact that he had not, in fact, dodged her.

Ranma lifted his eyebrows. "Well? Are we sparring or not?"

Akane's face grew hot again. She wanted him to take her seriously as a martial artist, didn't she? So why was she giving him so many opportunities to question whether she was serious about it? ‹Okay, focus! It's time to show him, once and for all, make him admit I'm a martial artist too!›

The pigtailed boy watched as a fire blossomed in the eyes of the girl facing him, a fire which had little to do with the anger he had seen earlier. Her features firmed and then she was running toward him, obviously focused. Determined. Hungry. At the end of her run they met.

The bout continued for some time, with Akane getting the worse of their exchanges. At one point upon crashing into a wall and bouncing off, Akane reflected on the fact that she had not yet landed a single blow on him which was not blocked. Not that she had expected differently. But each time Ranma got through her defenses, each time she grunted at the impact of a fist or heel, it demonstrated a flaw. Flaws which she began to correct. Not that she was under any illusions of some grand improvement from this one session, but it was a beginning, and the young martial artist's spirit was soaring with exhilaration.

At last Ranma called a halt, and Akane collapsed on one of the benches along the wall. She had left a towel there, which she now picked up and into which she buried her face. She was barely aware as Ranma sat down beside her.

"They all left shortly after you did, you know."

Akane pulled her face out of the towel and glanced his way. "Huh?"

"Shampoo. Ukyo. Kodachi." Ranma sighed. "I don't know if Kodachi was feeling humiliated or just wanted to get cleaned up or what." He smiled reminiscently. "She was quite a sight when she pulled herself up out of that cement. Anyway she took off. Then Ukyo whanged me in the back of the head with her spatula for letting Shampoo hug me, and she stalked off. Then I told Shampoo that my head hurt and I wanted to get home, and I finally pried her off of me."

He glanced her way, then returned his eyes to the hands in his lap. "My point is, they all left or let me go after you took off. That's kinda why I suggested you leave. All three of 'em are worse when you're around. I think they feel threatened by you. And I ain't sure they even realize it."

"Should they feel threatened?" Try though she might, Akane couldn't put much hope into the question.

"I dunno. Should they?" Ranma was aware that his reply was no answer, reluctant as he was to make a vocal commitment which might well ignite open warfare if it became known. Besides, it was easier than facing the fear that Akane might tell him she did not truly have such feelings for him, or that anything she felt once had slipped away. So he grasped vainly at the hope that she might answer, while knowing full well that she would not.

Both teenagers sat there without speaking for several minutes, until the silence became too oppressive for Ranma.

"So, uh, you were doing pretty well out there earlier. Seems like you learn pretty quick. You, uh, wanna keep that up? Regular, I mean?"

Akane turned to stare at him with eyebrows disappearing behind her bangs. "You're kidding, right? After all the times I've asked you to spar with me for real? Of course I do! You're the one who'd never do it before!"

Ranma shrugged, admitting the truth of the accusation. His face remained serious. "We need to keep it secret though. Nobody can find out. Especially not Nabiki, and that means no one else in the family neither."

"Huh? Why?"

He hesitated before answering. The young man just knew this wasn't going to go over well. But on the other hand it was absolutely necessary that it be kept secret. "'Cause if we don't keep it secret then the Amazons will hear about it ..."

"So what?" Akane's voice grew hot again, tired of the way he kept harping on Shampoo. "Who cares if they find out?"

Ranma tried to keep his voice level. "By deciding to do this, I'm upsetting the balance of power. They might decide I'm trying to make sure you can defend yourself against Shampoo. Which I am. And they might decide to do something ... preemptive."

Akane bounced to her feet, spinning around to glare at him, hands clenched into fists at her side. "I am not scared of Shampoo!"

Ranma stood as well. He spoke quietly but forcefully, through clenched teeth. "You should be! Don't you understand? She's willing to kill! Are you? If she comes after you, how're you gonna stop her? And keep her stopped?"

The young woman facing him grew even angrier, but at the same time her chin trembled and her eyes glistened. "So what are you saying? That I should just give up? Let her have her way? Is that what you want?"

"No, dammit!" her fiancé shouted back. "I just wanna try to make sure you can face her when she finds out! And I wanna try to keep her from finding out until you're ready to face her!"

"And how long will that be?" Akane whispered harshly. "Will you ever think I'm ready? Or will you just keep making excuses? How long am I supposed to wait, for you to decide it's time?"

Ranma paused, a lump forming in his throat on hearing her give voice to one of his darker fears. How long would she be willing to wait?

"Don't you understand, 'kane?" he whispered in his own turn, but more softly, less certain. "I ... I'm ready to start ... to try to do something about this mess. That's why I sparred with you today. But I need you to be willing to fight, to fight for what you want. Or what I ... what I hope you want. And by 'fight,' I don't mean charging in with fists blazing. I mean doing whatever it takes to win.

"That means we gotta be smart. We gotta prepare. And we can't let 'em know we're preparing. We gotta be secret, and not let 'em find out until it's too late. And that's gonna be hard. It's gonna take a lot of effort, but ... but we can do it. I'm sure we can."

Akane turned her eyes away. "I don't want to hide from them. I don't want to hide from anybody. Why should I? And I'm still not sure you'll ever believe that I'm ready. Am I supposed to go on hiding forever? I won't live like that. I just won't."

"Not ... forever," he responded hesitantly. "But, don't you see? It's the only way. The only sure way." Ranma hung his head. "I can't see any other way out of the mess. I've been trying to think of something, but I just can't."

Akane gave a deep and heartfelt sigh. After staring at him for a long minute she gave the tiniest nod of her head, not even sure if he'd seen although he appeared to be glancing up through his lashes. She turned and left the dojo without saying anything more.

Several days passed, days in which brief periods of time were stolen here and there for practice. Never enough, or so it seemed to the short-haired young woman. Each session was wonderful while it lasted, and Akane could feel herself improving, but she wanted so much more! Ranma continued to insist on secrecy however, which put severe constraints on the time they could spend together at martial arts.

With every private moment they could scrounge being spent in training, the infrequent times when they used to find themselves alone in the park or elsewhere had vanished. Ranma had not dared to try to hold her hand since that walk home on the last day of school, and Akane became increasingly frustrated with the situation. She couldn't escape the feeling that they had entered a phase which was only superficially different, where once again Ranma would waver uncertainly for an indeterminate time, unwilling to upset the status quo. When she tried to express her concerns, he dismissed them, saying that they were only waiting for the right time.

Then came the fateful evening when they were walking home from the store together, having gone out at Kasumi's request to make some purchases. It had been a bright, sunny day, a day on which it was hard to be anything other than cheerful, and was turning into an equally pleasant night. They were talking animatedly about the moves they had been working on during the session in the dojo before breakfast that morning.

"You know," Ranma spoke thoughtfully. "You've been doing really well. Better than I expected. I been thinking what we ought to do next, what you're ready for. I think we ought to take a training trip. Get you outdoors somewhere where you can really cut loose and get more control over channeling your chi into your punches and kicks."

Akane stopped to look at him wide eyed. "Are you saying I can already channel my chi? Like that?"

Ranma returned her stare, bemused. "You mean you didn't know? Why do you think you can hit so hard? Ordinary people can't normally toss around huge boulders of ice, or kick someone through a roof. Of course, you mostly do it when you're not really thinking about it. Anyway, when you start practicing doing it on purpose, it wouldn't be too smart to be in the dojo."

"Um, yeah," Akane responded distractedly. She smiled. "I think the dojo's taken enough damage in the last couple of years. So we're really going to go off camping somewhere? Together?"

"Yeah." Ranma sighed. "At least, if I can figure some way to get both of us out of town without anyone getting suspicious."

"I'm afraid it's a bit late for that." The voice came from the side, in a deathly hiss. Both teenagers turned to see Ukyo glaring at them, face contorted in rage. Each cheek was adorned with a single thin tear track.

"Ah, crap!" Ranma groaned softly, then more loudly, "Listen, Ucchan ..."

"Don't call me that!" screamed the young chef. She hefted her battle spatula off of her back. "You were supposed to marry me! Your cute fiancée! The one who loves you! Who doesn't feed you poison!"

Akane's face darkened at this last crack. Ranma noticed and shook his head at her. "Go home. Let me talk to her."

"I don't want to talk," Ukyo yelled. She swung her weapon, which Ranma deftly dodged.

Akane appeared to still be contemplating stepping into the middle of things. While continuing to dodge, her fiancé called to her in exasperation. "Look, I ain't hugging her, right? Remember what I told you. If you take off, it'll be a lot easier for me to talk some sense into her!"

Akane scowled, not at all happy to be told to get herself home once again. Dammit, would he leave if she was in a fight? Hell, no. So where did he get off not wanting her around while he was fighting? Ranma probably just wanted her gone so he could tell Ukyo that she had misunderstood, that she was still his fiancée. Why should she expect any different? When had Ranma ever been willing to tell the other girls to give up?

With one last glare for the young man dancing around the street, the original fiancée turned and stomped off. People on the sidewalk quickly got out of her way, parting like the Red Sea.

None of them noticed the figure on a nearby roof, a Chinese girl with purple hair who had a scowl on her own face as she surveyed the scene below and contemplated all she had heard. Shampoo turned her head to look at the girl marching off down the street, gave a decisive nod, then began to run along the rooftops.

With Akane gone, Ranma felt that he could finally take the risk of grabbing Ukyo, which was the only way he could think of to make the girl stop and listen. With one more leaping dodge, he landed behind the chef and wrapped her in a tight embrace, pinning her arms to her sides. He let her struggle for a couple of minutes, uselessly, before she finally subsided.

"You ready to talk now?" the young man asked quietly.

"What's there to talk about?" Ukyo hissed. "I think you made it pretty plain. You're planning to go off to God knows where with no one for company except Akane."

"Dammit! I tried to tell you a few weeks ago! I came right out and told you I just couldn't think of you that way!" Exasperation was clear in his voice.

"What you said," Ukyo pointed out dangerously, "was that you thought of me like a sister, and you just couldn't marry me when that's how you saw me." She paused for a moment, and when she continued her voice was less angry, more bitter. "I thought you were telling me that we had to make some changes in our relationship, that you had to find a way to see me as something other than 'like a sister.' Then we'd get married."

Ranma sighed. "You were fooling yourself." He was silent for a moment or two before going on, unhappy but determined. "I ... I finally figured out what I want. I can't ... Ukyo, I can't live without Akane. I'm sorry. I was ... scared to tell anyone. I'm terrified of what Shampoo might do when she finds out. I know ... I know I've hurt you. But please don't tell anyone. Not until I've got Akane ready to face Shampoo."

"Let go of me Saotome." The words were clipped, quiet, cold.

Since her voice sounded calm, however cold and unhappy, he relaxed his grip and released the girl. She took a step away and turned to face him.

"Don't ever come to my restaurant again." Ukyo's voice continued level and cold, with just a slight tremble of her chin. "I won't tell anyone. I'm not that petty. But I don't want to see your face outside of school again. For that matter, I'll switch to a different homeroom. Or maybe a different school." The tremble of her chin increased, and she took a moment to fight it back under control. "I hope you choke on your decision with every meal that she prepares for you."

Without giving him a chance to respond, Ukyo spun around and marched off down the street. She did not quite walk a straight line, and other pedestrians were forced to jump out of her way.

As he picked up the bag of groceries Kasumi had sent them for, Ranma summed up his feelings with a single word. "Crap."

Akane was about halfway home and in the middle of a shortcut through the grounds of her old elementary school when Shampoo landed lightly a few meters in front of her. The Chinese girl's face was closed, revealing nothing of what was going on behind her eyes. Akane stopped, carefully balancing herself for any possible need to react, and inquired, "Hello, Shampoo. What's up?"

Shampoo was not holding any weapons. Such would not be appropriate to her current purpose. She let her eyes run up and down Akane contemptuously, dismissively. "Shampoo think it time that kitchen destroyer be taught lesson. Learn stay away from airen."

Akane allowed herself to shift into a less subtle stance. "Oh? And just what sort of lesson were you thinking of?"

The Chinese girl smiled, but the smile didn't come anywhere near her eyes. "Shampoo not kill. Airen no like that. But show airen you weak. Pathetic. Not strong warrior like Shampoo."

Akane now openly set herself into an obvious martial arts stance, prepared to defend herself. "I'm not scared of you."

Shampoo continued to smile. Then she leaped in, and there was no time to think. Fists and feet blurred with strike, block and counterattack. Ten seconds passed. Twenty. Then a block was a fraction too slow, and Shampoo's fist drove into Akane's side, sending the short-haired girl flying to crash into the wall of the school.

Shampoo was already closing before Akane could jump back to her feet. The Japanese girl spun to push against the ground while she kicked out with her feet. Not expecting the quick recovery, Shampoo only managed to ride the blow marginally, giving an involuntary grunt as the foot connected. By the time she was able to close again, Akane was standing once more.

No quarter was asked, or given, on either side. Akane collected a gash on her forehead from which blood freely ran, and a blow to her cheek felt like it would leave the right side of her face as one massive bruise. She had several scrapes from repeatedly hitting the wall or ground, and her left leg was barely supporting her.

Shampoo, on the other hand, was surprised that the fight lasted as long as it had. She had taken a hit on her lower right ribs which made it painful to breathe, and another blow to her shoulder was forcing her to favor her right arm. Still, her opponent was slowing down, half blinded by the blood ...

Akane's arm shot out to block the blow she half saw through a curtain of blood. She only had time for one instant of despair when she failed to connect and realized it must have been a feint. Then pain exploded in her chest and she struck the wall again, hitting her head and falling to the ground dazed, her sight dim. She had lost sight of the enemy, and another blow struck her in the side as she tried to get her eyes to work.

Akane cut off a cry of agony as another blow struck her in the chest, and she realized that Shampoo was kicking her while she was down. Giving up on vision, she tried to concentrate on the sounds around her, in order to ride the kicks as they came. She was only half successful, and was humiliated to realize that her eyes were filling with tears.

Shampoo finally stopped, wincing as she looked down at the girl lying crumpled on the ground, whimpering. The Chinese girl felt the first whisper of panic that she had lost control, very much afraid that she might have gone too far. She knew very well that her airen had unusual notions about showing mercy to enemies, and that her chance of winning his love might be imperiled if she violated those ideals too greatly. Still, what was done was done, and one could only go forward.

Watching carefully for any further counterattack, Shampoo bent close near Akane's head. "Remember! Ranma is Shampoo's airen! You keep hands off, or Shampoo do much worse." She waited to see if there would be any response, but none came, and the Amazon warrior grudgingly felt a small measure of respect, for it was clear that the other girl was conscious and had heard every word. Not deigning to press the point, Shampoo stood and walked off. Glancing over her shoulder to see that her departure was not being watched, Shampoo reached her left hand over and cradled her right arm with a wince of pain.

Akane finally realized that Shampoo had left and began pulling herself together. She knew quite well she must look an awful sight, but much worse than the injuries and her appearance was the knowledge that Shampoo had beaten her. Even more, it was clear that if Shampoo had intended something fatal, she would be dead right now.

She pulled herself slowly to her feet, feeling foolishly relieved to note that she was no longer crying, that the tears must only have been a reaction to the immediate pain. The young woman leaned against the wall of the school for several minutes until she was able to stand a little more steadily. She wiped at her eye with her sleeve. Examining the blood, Akane noted how badly the sleeve was torn already, so she simply ripped off a large piece and pressed it to the cut on her forehead. Stumbling drunkenly, Akane slowly began to make her way home.

When she finally arrived, Akane paused on the engawa as she heard voices. Kasumi had apparently just informed Ranma that her younger sister had not yet returned, and he was growing agitated. The teenage girl didn't want her fiancé to see her in her current state, and quickly slipped around the side of the house. She only just made it before he ran outside and jumped over the wall, calling her name.

Akane quickly decided that she didn't want anyone to see her like this. She continued around the house and came in by the back door, slipping into the changing room of the furoba before anyone could spot her. She grabbed a towel and continued on to the bathing room before undressing, not wishing to leave her damaged clothing where Kasumi might come in and find it. Slowly, wincing with every movement, she pulled her clothing off, gazing unhappily at the bruises already forming on her skin.

The bath was accomplished at glacial speed, and the soak in the furo nearly put her to sleep. Akane wearily pulled herself out of the water and slipped on a yukata, then bundled her half ruined clothing up in a ball wrapped in a towel. She felt obscurely reluctant to let anyone know the extent of what had happened. She slipped out of the room, down the hall, and started up the stairs.

"Akane, is that you?" Kasumi's voice. Footsteps emerged from the kitchen to stand below her.

"Yes, oneechan," the girl answered, without turning, keeping her face hidden. "I, uh, had a difference of opinion with another martial artist. But I'm fine! Or I will be, once I've had a good night's sleep. I'm really just very tired, and want to go to bed. I'll see you in the morning. Okay?"

There was a note of worry in the voice behind her. "Well, if you're sure ..."

Akane nodded her head. "Yeah, don't worry. Like I said, I'm fine. Good night." She didn't dawdle to risk further conversation, but finished mounting the stairs and walked quickly down the hall toward her bedroom. She stuffed the bundle of clothes into the back of her wardrobe, on the floor, before pulling off the yukata and slipping into pajamas. Wearily the young martial artist climbed into bed, lying on her stomach and buried her face in her pillow.

Whereupon she finally released the tears.

The following morning Ranma arose to find that Akane had left the house minutes before. He did not worry overmuch, however, when Kasumi told him that Akane had called back as she was leaving that she was going over to Yuka's house and would probably spend the night there. He had already fully recovered from the extremely worried state into which he had worked himself last night, only to return home to find that Akane was safely asleep in her bed. After a leisurely breakfast he went out to the dojo to run through some kata, while he waited for his old man to get out of bed so they could spar.

Meanwhile over in the Nekohanten, Shampoo had finally climbed out of bed about the same time as Ranma and pulled on some clothing, realizing that she couldn't put this moment off any longer. She trudged up to her great-grandmother's door and knocked lightly.

"Come in child."

Shampoo slowly opened the door and walked into the room, stopping before her great-grandmother who was sitting cross-legged in a chair. She didn't speak.

The old voice held a trace of amusement as it asked, "I suppose this is about the fight you had last night?"

Shampoo's head jerked up in surprise, then she looked down at the floor shamefaced. She had no idea why she was surprised - the elderly woman always seemed to be aware of everything that happened, whether you wanted her to know or not. Still ... "How you know?"

She was answered with a chuckle. "I'd have to be blind not to see how you're favoring that arm. Your breathing is a bit off too. Ribs troubling you? And surely you don't think that little dress is hiding the decorative bruises you've picked up? So who was it?"

Shampoo winced. "Akane." She never used the girl's name to her face, but Akane wasn't here at the moment, so there was no need for insults intended to needle her.

Cologne's indrawn breath was audible in the still room. "I ... see. That is a little surprising. I'm not sure whether to hope that you gave better than you got, or not."

Shampoo winced again. "Shampoo did. No serious injury, but ... she not look good."

Cologne joined her in wincing. "Son-in-law is going to be ... unhappy about that. I trust you realize this?"

Shampoo nodded miserably, not bothering to speak.

Cologne looked her great-granddaughter over, weighing her words. "Are you prepared to change your tactics for winning your airen?"

The teenage girl sighed heavily. She had so wanted Ranma to love her by his own choice. But she was a warrior. She had made a mistake, one which was likely to doom her initial plans. If that turned out to be the case, then she would not vainly pursue a fool's hope. She would take a different approach, and victory would still be hers in the end.

Shampoo finally gave her answer. "Yes. If really no hope airen love me."

Cologne nodded. "I'll go out myself and reconnoiter. You'd better stay out of son-in-law's sight for a time, just in case." Her gaze sharpened. "Before I go, would you mind explaining your injuries? I know full well the Tendo girl is better than your insults imply, but I hope you haven't started to believe them yourself. It does not behoove a warrior of the Joketsuzoku to be overconfident, or to forget an enemy's true level of skill."

The young woman flushed darkly, as these biting words were part of why she had dreaded approaching the old woman. "Akane better than expected. Shampoo not just saying so because of bruises. Akane better than was before. But Shampoo admit made mistake. Should not have been overconfident."

"Hmm." Cologne tapped her fingers on the end of the staff she gripped. "I wonder if son-in-law has been giving her some training. If so ... that is additional reason to be alarmed. For if he has, then he has purposely been keeping it secret. Which suggests unfortunate things about what he may be planning."

Shampoo's eyes widened, not having considered such a possibility, or at least not all of the ramifications. And she should have, she told herself sternly, after what she had overheard about Ranma planning to take Akane on a training trip. She said nothing about that however, not wanting to appear even more foolish in front of her great-grandmother.

Cologne sighed. "Well, I have already said that I will go out and learn what I can. I'll just see if I can find out anything about such additional possibilities as well. In the meantime, say nothing of any of this to Mousse. I'd rather he didn't know that the situation may have changed. You and he will have to start preparing to open the restaurant for lunch. I'm not sure how soon I'll return."

At the same time that Cologne left her restaurant, Akane was walking slowly down a residential street in Nerima, on the way to her friend Yuka's house. She wore a wide-brimmed hat pulled low over her face, both to conceal the ugly gash on her forehead as well as to keep her bruised face in shadow. The slowness of her pace was due in large part to the effort she made to keep from limping too noticeably.

She thought once more over what she planned to do. Akane had been careful to arise while everyone else in the house was still asleep, even Kasumi. She had silently filled her pack, and hidden it behind some boxes in the alley outside the back wall. Returning to her room, she had waited until what seemed a reasonable time to "awaken," listening intently to ensure Kasumi was the only other person up. Mustering her courage, she had made her way downstairs quietly and walked steadily to the front door. With a quiet sigh of relief that Kasumi had not yet seen her, she called back that she would be spending the day at Yuka's house, and probably the night as well. Then she was gone, taking time only to retrieve the pack from its hiding place.

So far no one in the family had gotten a good look at her since the fight with Shampoo, and Akane wanted to keep it that way. Ranma was already paranoid about what Shampoo might do, and the young woman had no wish to see her father, her sisters, and possibly even Ranma's parents join in the paranoia. Life would become intolerable. So she had decided to stay away from home for a day or two until the worst of the bruising and soreness faded, and she could make light of what had happened.

Eventually she arrived at her friend's door, and essayed a smile when it opened. The smile become less forced when she saw that Yuka was still in pajamas. Pajamas with little teddy bears all over them.

"Akane! Why didn't you call? You're up awful early - I haven't even had my breakfast yet. Why do you have that pack with you? Oh, come in, come in. So what ... Akane? ... What ... What happened to your face?"

Akane's eyes dropped, tilting the hat down even further.

Yuka lifted her fingers to her mouth. "It wasn't ... Ranma didn't ... Oh, what am I saying? Of course Ranma wouldn't. But who ...?"

Akane sighed. "I am a martial artist, Yuka. Remember? Obviously, I had a fight. Just as obviously, it didn't go as well as I might have wished."

Yuka swallowed heavily. "Um, yeah. Sorry. So, uh, what can I do for you? I assume Ranma's off beating the crap out of whoever you fought with?"

Akane pursed her lips and gave her friend a medium intensity glare. "He doesn't know yet and besides, I can fight my own fights." She sighed again, and glanced toward the kitchen where movements could be heard. "Look, can we talk?"

Her friend followed her glance. "Uh, yeah. Come on outside." She led the way through an open shoji out into the yard, where they sat on a bench near the ornamental pond. Akane removed her hat, holding it in her lap, and Yuka bit her lip.

The teenage martial artist gave a weak chuckle. "Do I really look that bad?"

Yuka shrugged, looking away. "Depends on how you look at it, I guess. Like you said, you are a martial artist. I suppose bruises and ..." Her hands fluttered. "... and that sort of thing come with the territory. I know I've seen Ranma looking worse. Not often, though."

Akane looked down at her fingers playing with the brim of the hat in her lap. "My, um, appearance is part of why I'm here. Ranma's been worrying a lot lately about whether I might be in danger from the other girls. Well, Shampoo mostly. I'm afraid that if he sees me like this, he'll be a hundred times worse, and the rest of the family might join in. I want to get away for a couple of days until I'm looking a little better."

Yuka nodded, thinking she understood. "You're welcome to stay here, of course. I'm sure my parents will be okay with it."

Akane gave her friend a smile, but also a small shake of her head. "Thanks, and that's what I want everyone to believe, but I need to get away for a while." She turned and stared off into the distance, falling silent for a bit.

Just before Yuka decided to break the silence, Akane spoke again. "I need some time to myself to think. I need it desperately. It's impossible to think around here, with Ranma, our fathers, my sisters, all of the crazies in Nerima. I need to make some decisions.

"I need to figure out what I really want. I ... care about Ranma. A lot. Maybe a lot more than a lot." Akane paused, cocking her head as if listening. Very quietly, she added, "I've never admitted that to anyone before."

Yuka nodded, although it was a trifle unclear whether she was indicating that she already realized the depth of Akane's feelings, or was simply agreeing that her friend had never admitted their existence.

Akane continued. "But I'm not sure it's enough. How much does Ranma care about me? He's given me some clues, but ... sometimes I think he's never going to put a stop to this mess. How long am I supposed to wait? And how much risk do I have to live with in the meantime?" Akane looked up suddenly. "You understand? I'm not afraid of the risk. The question is - is it worth it? If I have to face it again, the sort of thing that happened last night, am I doing it so we can be together? Or am I doing it for nothing?"

Akane's gaze fell back to her lap. "I need time to think. I need some peace and quiet, some time to look inside myself and find the answers. I can't do that around here."

Yuka spoke at last. "So, you're taking off somewhere on your own?"

The bruised face nodded. "Yeah. Not far. I'm going to hike out into the suburbs and find a quiet inn or something. Check in for a day or two, while I sort things out. I don't want anyone to know where I've gone. I told Kasumi that I might stay here, at least tonight. Don't tell anyone where I've gone, okay? For that matter, don't tell them that I have gone."

Yuka sighed. "Okay. If that's what you want. But before you go, you're going to listen to me. I'm going to tell you what I think. Ranma would fight his way through hell for you if he needed to. And if you'd just make it clear to him that you wanted him to. You can't bitch about him not taking more definite steps if you're not willing to yourself."

Akane's mouth twisted. "I'll think about it. I will think about it. You can tell Sayuri I've gone if you want, but make sure she knows not to tell anyone else. The last thing I need is to have Ranma smashing down the door of the room I'm staying in, thinking that he's rescuing me." She put her hat on her head, adjusted it carefully, and lifted the pack onto her back once more.

Yuka stood as well. "You're leaving straight from here? And you said you're walking?"

"Yeah. I can't go back home without risking someone seeing me like this. And I don't want to take the bus or train because it would be too easy to trace me. At least on foot it should be a lot harder for anyone to track me down. I shouldn't be gone more than a couple days at most. Just long enough to get my head straightened out."

Yuka escorted her friend to the front door and watched in worry as Akane trudged slowly down the street, limping.

But she wasn't the only one who watched. Up on the roof, a withered old woman leaned on her staff and observed the same girl through wrinkled eyes, contemplating all that she had seen and overheard. Her great-granddaughter really had done a number on the Tendo girl. The injuries weren't that serious, and would be well on their way to healing in a couple of days, but young Akane was sadly mistaken if she thought that would fool the son-in-law for even a second. Ignorant of many things he might be, but his eyes would not fail to instantly and accurately assess her recent injuries as soon as she came once more into his sight.

At that point, things might become ... difficult. Ranma was an easy-going lad who didn't like to hurt people, but he could be dangerous when roused. Far more dangerous than he realized. This was so even if one ignored the neko-ken, and taking that into account ... Cologne shuddered at the memory of her long past battle with the young man, when she realized that she was facing the neko-ken.

The old woman remembered how she had been both amazed and appalled to discover that Genma Saotome had trained his son in the dreaded technique. Appalled that he had put anyone through that torture, let alone his own son. Amazed that the man had survived, the first person in more than five centuries to train someone in that technique and not to end his life as the first victim of the trainee's claws.

It had been at that point that the Amazon elder chose to follow the path of least resistance, and allow her heir to attempt to win the love of young Ranma. It would be by far the safest way of bringing him back to their village and keeping him there. However, the chance of such a plan succeeding now seemed remote, so it was time to consider alternatives. By one means or another, they must attempt to lure Ranma back to their village, where his will could be subdued by methods strong enough that they might, with luck, even bind the neko-ken. In any event, this now seemed their best hope for some means to salvage Shampoo's pride, and her standing in the eyes of the other villagers.

Cologne's eyes narrowed as she gazed once more along the street down which Akane had walked out of sight. A pity that the girl's disappearance would not be permanent, not that the elder was senile enough to take any steps in that direction herself. She could just picture her son-in-law coming after them, heedless, out of control. Cologne paused in her thoughts at that point. Gradually her face lightened. Come to think of it, perhaps the Tendo girl's temporary disappearance could be put to use. If the boy thought ... Yes, that might work indeed.

A brief evil cackle disturbed the nearby residents, as an ancient woman leaped away across the rooftops.

Author's note:

So here it is at last, my latest novel. It's eleven chapters long, and currently stands at a little over one hundred thousand words, although I'm fairly sure the word count will increase some as my pre-reader and I work on the remaining chapters.

Stay tuned for chapter 2, in which Akane thinks things over and Cologne puts her plan into effect.

Related sites on the web: Please visit my profile page for information on upcoming chapters or stories, by clicking on my name at the top of this chapter. My profile also has links to my web site, LiveJournal site and forum. The web site contains the official versions of my stories. The LiveJournal site provides updates on what I am working upon at any given time. The forum is a place to discuss my stories or Ranma 1/2 in general.