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.

Cologne and Shampoo trick Ranma into following Akane to China, but Akane is fast on the trail. When the Amazons choose to fight for Ranma, will Akane be able to defeat overwhelming odds to save him? Will Akane or Shampoo be the one to win her happy ending?

Chapter 12. Life Goes On

Akane woke slowly, caught up in a familiar dream, the one in which she and Ranma were together and not fighting. Quite the opposite of fighting, in fact. It was one of the most vivid of its kind to date. She could still feel his arms around her, still smell the scent of him - warm, male, with just the hint of good, clean sweat. She could even hear the faint susurration of breath which was not quite snoring, feel it tickling the hairs on top of her head.

Opening her eyes slowly, she was momentarily confused to find the dream made real, but then the memories from yesterday rushed back in to calm her. She lay on her side with her nose tucked into his neck, his chin on top of her head, his arms around her, her own hands ...

Akane became aware that one of her hands was tucked under Ranma's shoulder, while the other was gripping the silk of his pajamas. She nearly choked a moment later on realizing that it wasn't his pajama top her hand was holding, and that her fingers were gripping more than cloth. Akane instantly released her hold and moved her shaking hand up to Ranma's chest.

Early morning sunlight was streaming in through the window, filling the room with light. It came to the young woman with a sense of her own foolishness that her ploy with the light bulb last night was doomed to failure, that she could not possibly hide herself from Ranma's sight this morning. Not that she really wanted to, despite a lingering mortification over how very undressed this outfit made her feel.

Pulling her head back carefully, Akane looked up into Ranma's peacefully sleeping face, framed by long hair draped across the pillow. With a tender smile she traced a fingertip along the back edge of his ear, while wondering in what state he would awake. She knew from long experience that Ranma wasn't always the easiest person to wake up in the morning, and it might be amusing if he was initially disoriented and worked himself into a screaming panic over finding himself in bed with her. On the whole, though, she would prefer that he awaken remembering that they were married.

Her new husband stirred under her arm. He snorted, batting a hand at his ear. Opening his eyes, he blinked a couple of times, then closed them again. He inhaled deeply, breathing in the scent of her. His arms tightened on her a little, he leaned closer. "Mmm, Akane, I ..." He kissed her forehead softly. "... love ..." He gave her a peck on the tip of her nose. "... you." Ranma pressed his lips firmly to hers.

When he broke the kiss, Ranma moved back a little so that she could see his face again, his eyes still closed and looking wonderfully at ease. He continued speaking quietly. "Last night was ... no, wait." His cheeks reddened. "That was a dream. Uh, hang on, I'll get this right." Ignoring her raised eyebrows, he kissed her again. "Okay, I remember last night now. And it was wonderful. You're wonderful, and I love being married to you. And one morning that's not going to just be a dream."

"You ..." Akane kissed him. "... had better be happy I'm in such a good mood this morning. Now come on, let's get up."

"Don't wanna," he told her drowsily, lingering sleep making him drawl the words. "I like it fine right where I am." In illustration of the point, he tightened his arms around her.

Akane slapped his chest lightly with her palm. "Well I'm sorry, but I have to get up. Now come on, be a good boy."

Ranma groaned but rolled over and up to a sitting position at the side of the bed, his feet on the floor. Akane did likewise, then stood awkwardly, her arms draped across herself to hide what she could.

"Hang on a sec," Ranma said. He quickly unbuttoned his pajama top, shrugged it off and handed it to her. As she took it from him, he noted her raised eyebrow. "You looked uncomfortable," he told her.

Akane smiled. "Thanks." She quickly slipped her hands through the sleeves and wrapped it around herself, saying, "I just wish they hadn't taken all my clothes." With that, Akane stepped out into the hall and then into the bathroom.

Ranma sighed, running a hand through his hair. He stood up and padded out of the bedroom as well. Stopping outside the bathroom door, he said loudly, "I'm gonna step outside and see what I can do about our clothes. If you wanna take a bath, I should have found something by the time you're done."

"Okay," came the disembodied voice. "Thanks."

No sooner had Ranma stepped outside the door than someone hailed him. It was Konatsu, and she approached carrying a couple of packs, which she held out toward him once she was close enough. "Your father packed your things last night, and I packed for Akane-sama. Elder Lotion said we could leave whenever you wish so long as it's this morning, and your father wants to get on the road as soon as possible. Will you be very long? He seems most anxious."

Ranma smiled. "Just ignore the old man when he gets pushy. I mostly do. Akane's taking a bath right now, and I'd like one too. Then I'd like some breakfast. After that we can say our good-byes and get on our way."

Konatsu returned the smile. "Would you like me to see if I can find you some breakfast? I've not eaten yet either."

"If you don't mind, thanks. In fact, why don't you join us for breakfast? We should be dressed by then." Hefting the packs, Ranma turned and reentered the house.

As he carried the packs back toward the bedroom, Ranma heard a splash while passing the bathroom door. He knocked and said, "I've got our packs. They'll be in the bedroom."

Akane's voice called out, "Could you get out some clothes and bring them to me?"

The young man stared at the door, gulping, as sweat broke out on his forehead. "You want me to go through your clothes? I mean, I'd need to get you underwear and everything!"

There was a loud thump from inside the bathroom. Ranma pressed his hands flat against the door, his face close to it, as if he could psychically determine what had just happened. "Hey! Are you okay?!"

"Um, yeah," came the embarrassed response. "I, uh, slipped and fell. But I'm all right. Didn't hit my head or anything."

"Don't scare me like that!" Ranma complained.

"Yeah, well ..." There was no further sound for a long pause, then Akane said, "Just so we're clear, you are not to go through my pack and get my clothes. Understand? I, uh, don't know what I was thinking just then. But could you, maybe, slide my pack in through the door?"

"You sure?" Ranma queried, his voice sounding just a little high pitched to his ears.

There was a sigh from inside. "Yes, I'm sure. I would like to get dressed. I've got a towel wrapped around me in case you have one of your usual accidents ... but you better not."

Ranma opened the door partway, trying not to peek. Holding the knob to keep it from opening any further, he tried to push the pack through. He opened the door a little further, and still there wasn't room to get the pack between the door and the wall, and past the pipe under the sink. Struggling to make it work, his hand slipped off the knob, the pressure from the pack shoved the door all of the way open, and Ranma fell full length across the pack.

The young man groaned quietly and lay there, awaiting his doom. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a pair of bare feet pad over quietly, to stand beside him. Expecting to be sent flying through the roof, he was surprised to be grabbed by his collar and hauled up to his feet. There he found himself face to face with Akane, a tilted smile on her face, her head shaking slowly from side to side. One corner of his mind noted that she looked quite fetching wearing only a towel.

"Baka!" Akane declared, and rapped him sharply over the head. Ranma bowed his head down under the ineffective blow, belatedly closing his eyes. He heard Akane sigh again, then she said, "I suppose we are married now, but ... try to be more careful, huh?" A kiss was planted on the top of his head where he had been struck. "Now get out and let me get dressed."

Not sure how to handle this unexpected turn, Ranma backed out of the room, bumping into the door on his way out. When he shut it he turned around and leaned his back against the door, letting out a heavy breath. "Damn," was all that he could find to say.

Konatsu showed up with breakfast for three while Ranma was in the bathroom. The latter could hear Akane and Konatsu laughing in the other room, but this was the last bath he'd likely get for several days, so he wasn't going to rush it. Then Genma showed up shortly after Ranma joined the other two, angry at having been kept waiting. He began complaining about how they should have already been on their way, all the while greedily stuffing his face with his son's breakfast.

After the table was cleared, Genma hefted his pack onto his back, obviously expecting that they were finally to be on their way. He was thus even more incensed to learn that Akane and Ranma both planned to find some people and say good-bye to them. The couple ignored his spluttering outrage as they took off, suggesting that he carry their packs over to the challenge log, and they'd meet him there when they were done.

It didn't really take them all that long though. They hunted down Lotion first, at her own house, and both of them thanked her for everything that she'd done for them. The elder scathingly told them that she'd done it for herself, and her people, and that the sooner Ranma was out of the village the happier she'd be. Nobody mentioned the way she refused to meet their eyes while saying this.

They had a few quick words with Jade and her husband, then the other guards. Prince Herb was quite surprised when they looked him up at the guest house which had been lent for the use of him and his retinue. The leave-taking between Herb and Ranma was gruff but both managed to avoid antagonizing the other. They ran into Meifen on the lane to Mousse's house. She exchanged a quick good-bye then turned aside, as if suddenly remembering someplace else she was supposed to be going.

The final conversation with Mousse was strained, as he and Ranma had hardly ever been friends, despite the Chinese boy's mostly silent participation in the wedding the day before. Nonetheless Akane in particular wanted to thank Mousse for all of his help on the way to the village, and to express her wish that things would work out for him. In the end, Ranma and Mousse exchanged stiff but sincere bows, then Akane and Ranma turned and headed back up the lane toward the fairground where they were to rendezvous with Genma and Konatsu.

As they hefted the packs onto their backs, Akane looked over to where a new challenge log had already been suspended from the ropes. "Is it my imagination?" she asked. "Or is that log thicker than the previous one?"

Everyone else looked at it as well. It was Konatsu who answered. "I believe it must be mostly your imagination, Akane-sama. I watched them put it up, and it is at most a few centimeters wider than the one you broke. However, before they put it up, several elders conferred over it, touching it and speaking words I could not catch. When I asked, I was told they were making sure that this one couldn't be broken the same way."

Akane smiled but said, "Fine by me. I hope I never find myself up there again."

Ranma looked around. A few people were visible, none very close. "Looks like we're not going to get a big send off."

"What were you expecting?" Akane asked severely. "A parade? Come on, let's get out of here. I wish we were home already."

Of course, however much she might wish it, they couldn't be back home immediately. They still had to cross a large portion of China and get across the sea between. Akane and Ranma shared a tent on the nights they camped, but did not take things any further than on their wedding night. In part this was because they were tired from each day's march, and needed their sleep for the next day, but it was also because they were very much aware of the proximity of Konatsu and, more particularly, Genma.

On one occasion Akane and Ranma were sparring while hiking down a road. Akane managed to slip inside Ranma's guard, but instead of taking the opportunity to hit him she instead kissed him on the nose. He was so startled that he froze, and Akane pulled him into a quick hug, laying her cheek against his. "Ranma," she whispered into his ear, "if you can catch me, maybe I'll let you help me undress in the tent tonight."

While he was gawking she took the opportunity to throw him over her shoulder into a stream. Akane ran down the road, laughing, trying half-heartedly to stay out of reach of the dripping, fiery-eyed, red-haired girl who was chasing her.

The four weary travelers didn't even pause at the gate, quickly pushing it open and stepping into the yard. A few paces further and they were inside the front door, dropping packs on the floor and kicking off shoes. "We're home!" called Akane.

"My little girl! You're all right!" wailed Soun as he ran down the hall and swept Akane into his arms. Tears were running down his face. "I was so worried!"

"Of course I'm all right, dad," she told him, half happy and half embarrassed. "There was never anything to worry about."

"Well, I see you got him back," Nabiki said, nodding her head toward Ranma. "Did you have any trouble?"

"Nothing I couldn't handle," Akane replied seriously.

"And did you ... Oh, you did!" Kasumi said gleefully, staring at the rings on Akane's and Ranma's fingers and clapping her hands. "Congratulations!"

Soun squeezed Akane even harder, causing her to nearly pass out. "My little girl is m-m-married! I'm so happy!" He suddenly released her, then grabbed Ranma and crushed the boy to his chest. "Son-in-law!"

While Kasumi and Nabiki both hugged Akane more circumspectly, Ranma tried to choke out, "F-Father." This only caused Soun to squeeze even harder, and to increase the volume of his tears. Ranma wheezed, "Tendo-san! Can't breathe!" It took the combined effort of Akane and Genma to pry Soun's arms loose.

Ranma glanced around while getting his breath back. "Where's my mom?" he inquired curiously.

Nabiki answered. "She moved back into her house after Akane and your father left to chase after you. You'd better call her and let her know you're back."

"All of you must be famished," Kasumi said cheerfully. "Why don't you go sit in the family room, and I'll bring in some tea and a snack. Then you can tell us everything that happened during your adventure."

"To tell you the truth," Ranma suggested wearily, "I wouldn't mind bathing before we eat. If that's not too much trouble, um, oneesan?"

Nabiki mimed a heart attack. "You're putting off eating? Who are you, and what have you done with our Ranma?" she demanded.

Despite her sister's theatrics, Kasumi smiled and said, "Of course, Ranma-kun." She turned to Konatsu. "Would you also like to make use of our furoba?" Kasumi offered. "You could bathe while Ranma speaks to his mother."

Konatsu was quite touched by this offer, and gratefully accepted. Doing so was all the easier as it meant further postponing the upcoming meeting with Ukyo, about which she was very nervous.

Ranma walked over to the telephone and called his mother, surprising her greatly with the news of their return. Nodoka was ecstatic to hear that her son was fine and back home, telling him over and over how worried she had been. Eventually, she tearfully exclaimed that she'd be right there and said good-bye. Ranma hung up the telephone and went in search of his wife. He found her in the kitchen, quietly reassuring her sisters that she was, really and truly, in perfect health.

"Oh, here's your husband," Kasumi said cheerfully. "I suppose the two of you would like to go take your bath now."

"Yeah, sure," Ranma responded absent-mindedly. "Why don't you go on ahead Akane? Let me know when you're done."

Akane turned toward Ranma, but both of them froze at the sight of Kasumi staring at the young man as if he'd grown an extra head. "But ... naturally the two of you will use the furoba together. After all, you're married now. It would be silly to waste time bathing separately."

Both Akane and Ranma flushed scarlet, so flustered that they could not speak at first, much to Nabiki's amusement. Finally Akane started to stutter some feeble excuse, but Kasumi was having none of it. "Now there's no need for the two of you to continue pretending to be so shy around each other," she told them, placing a hand behind each of their backs and gently persuading them down the hall. "Hurry and wash up so Uncle Saotome can have his turn, before his wife arrives. Go on, now, shoo!" She gave them a last push, and turned around, heading back toward her kitchen.

Bemused and unsure of themselves, Akane and Ranma entered the changing room just as Konatsu was leaving. She gave them a smile and a nod on the way out, obviously seeing nothing wrong with the couple being in there together. Their backs to each other, the two of them nervously removed their clothing, unable to believe they were doing this. Without discussing it, they each quickly slipped on a yukata to cover their nudity. Then they turned as one and confronted the door to the bathing room.

After regarding the door in silence for a couple of minutes, Akane said, "Well, I guess we have been sleeping together since the wedding. I suppose this is the next logical step." She was playing with the knot holding her yukata closed, and sounded as if she were trying to convince herself just as much as Ranma.

"We may have been sleeping together," Ranma retorted, "but we ain't been sleeping together. Are you sure we're, uh, ready for this?" He was carefully not looking in her direction, worried how she might react if he did.

Akane sighed, thinking longingly of the water in the next room. She felt as though she were carrying a road's worth of dirt and dust on her body. Besides, wasn't it time that she accepted the fact that the boy, no, the man beside her was her husband? Strengthening her resolve, Akane told him, "I'm going to bathe. What you do is up to you."

Picking up a towel and her basket of bathing supplies, she slid the door open and stepped into the inner room. After hesitating for one last moment, she untied the knot and let the light garment slide off her shoulders and drop to the floor. Akane heard a gasp, which brought a small smile to her lips, a smile the young man behind her couldn't see. She slowly strolled over and sat on the stool, beginning to wash herself.

For one glorious moment after her yukata fell, Ranma took in the sight before him, then spun around blushing furiously. He couldn't believe that Akane had just done that. Not his Akane. Not the girl who had always bashed him whenever she so much as thought he might have something perverted on his mind. But she had.

Of course, she was his wife. Wasn't she? Hell, yes, she was. And that meant it was all right to do this, right? Again, yes, except he hadn't expected Akane to see it that way so soon. He knew that they'd eventually do things like this, that they just needed time to adjust to the idea of being married, it was just ... he had thought Akane would be the one to take longer to adjust.

From inside the bathing room, Ranma heard a loud splash, surmising that Akane had poured water over herself to rinse. Then she called to him. "Just come on in, baka. I promise I won't look. Much."

Feeling flustered, Ranma heard this as a challenge. Steeling himself, he removed his own garment, gathered his things, and walked in. He almost stumbled on catching sight of Akane, as she stood and walked over to the furo. Controlling himself, Ranma tried to be nonchalant as he bathed himself, transforming into a girl as he did so. Finishing up, he walked over to the furo himself, then hesitated for a moment before climbing in. Akane gave him a small, bashful nod, and he sank into the water, instantly becoming male once more.

Deciding that he had to show he could handle this as well as his wife appeared to be doing, Ranma slid over and took Akane into his arms, holding her. At that point, he realized that she was putting on a brave front herself, as he could feel the slight trembling she tried to mask. The two of them sat there together for a time, gradually growing relaxed in the hot water, coming to accept the close contact. It was with a sensation of mild reluctance that they finally decided it was time to climb out and get dressed.

By the time everyone was gathered in the family room Nodoka had arrived, and tearfully hugged her son and new daughter-in-law. Everyone settled down and Akane and Ranma, with a few interjections from the other two, told the story of their travels. Akane blushed under the congratulations that everyone gave her for her victory in the tournament. A few minutes later Soun found himself on the receiving end of very intense looks from his daughter and son-in-law when they described the end of the wedding ceremony, and the surprise at finding the Amazons had all the forms necessary to make the marriage legal. He squirmed under their combined stares and almost started crying again before they admitted that they weren't really angry with him.

"And so you two are finally married," Nodoka proclaimed happily, eyes becoming moist. "I'm so, so happy for you. I suppose that means you will continue to live here, Ranma-kun, with your wife. My husband will of course return to our home to live with me."

A scared look suddenly entered Genma's eyes.

"Oh! I haven't even thought about what room you'll have!" Kasumi cried. "I've just been so worried about you both, I never ... no matter. We'll take care of it now. Akane, I really think your room is too small for the both of you. Since Uncle Saotome is moving out, I think we can turn the guest room into a bedroom for you and my new brother. Your old bedroom can become a guest room."

"If you really think that's best," Akane said uncertainly.

"Of course it is!" Kasumi exclaimed, cheerful again. "And with Father and Uncle Saotome here to help, we can get all of the furniture rearranged in no time! You'll see."

Under Nodoka's prodding the two older men did indeed help out, and in very little time Genma's belongings were all packed up and Akane's things were moved into her and Ranma's new bedroom. She and Ranma stood in the room afterward, looking around themselves. Akane summed up their feelings when she announced, "It'll do."

Konatsu joined them for supper, then asked if they could put her up for the night, which they were more than happy to do. She explained that she did not wish to trouble Ukyo with her return while the restaurant was open, when the chef would be busy, and also felt it unfair to show up during the short interval after closing before Ukyo would go to bed. On the whole she'd prefer to make her appearance in the morning before the restaurant work began, when there would be time for explanations.

In the morning Ranma accompanied Konatsu over to Ucchan's. He felt he owed it to Ukyo to be the one to break the news to her about his marriage. Akane remained behind, grudgingly agreeing with Ranma that it would probably be too painful for Ukyo to face her on hearing this news.

When they knocked on the restaurant door Ukyo approached it slowly, staring through the glass. She finally unlocked and opened the door, still staring at Ranma, her eyes hard. When she spoke, her voice was cold. "What are you doing here, Saotome-san? Uh, glad you made it back to Japan okay. I guess." She turned to Konatsu, then pulled her into a hug. "Welcome home, Konatsu-kun. I ... uh ..."

Ukyo pulled back, looked down. She reached a hand forward and prodded gently. Then she stretched her hand out and grabbed the doorjamb, feeling faint. "You stopped by Jusenkyo, I take it?" Her voice was about an octave higher than normal.

"Um, yeah." Ranma looked at the people around them on the street. "Can we go inside?"

Ukyo sighed and stepped back inside her restaurant. Ranma held the door open while Konatsu followed after, wearing her pack. Ranma made sure that the "Closed" sign was still in place when he shut the door. They all trooped into the back, where Konatsu dumped the pack into her small room and then joined Ranma and Ukyo at a small table.

Facing the ninja, Ukyo became all sympathy. "I'm really sorry about your accident. Though I guess that's what happens when you let this jerk take you near those pools."

"Er, what accident Ukyo-sama?" Konatsu inquired.

Ukyo stared. "Your curse. It was an accident, right?"

"Not, um, exactly," Ranma answered.

"It was my idea," Konatsu said nervously. "Ranma-sama and Akane-sama did their best to talk me out of it, but in the end I decided it was the right choice for me."

Ranma squirmed a little. "We weren't exactly trying to talk you out of it. Just trying to make sure you really knew what you were doing. And you gotta remember you really caught us by surprise when you told us you were thinking about it."

Ukyo was staring at Konatsu. "You mean you did it on purpose?! Why?"

Konatsu clutched her hands together in her lap, wilting a little under the intense look. "Please try to understand. All my life I knew myself to be a girl. Up until you rescued me. I feel right this way."

The okonomiyaki chef couldn't stop staring. "It just seems so ... extreme."

"Am I still welcome here?" Konatsu asked plaintively.

"Huh?!" Ukyo sat back in shock. "What're you talking about? Of course you're welcome here! I mean, if I was willing to put up with this two-timing clod ..." She nodded in Ranma's direction. "... despite his curse, what makes you think I'd throw you out?"

"Thank you, Ukyo-sama," Konatsu whispered, eyes glistening.

Ukyo turned toward Ranma, her expression changing to a glower. "So, they managed to pull your nuts out of the fire. I'm not unhappy about that - I don't hate you that much. Why're you here, though? Are you really so insensitive you can't understand you're the last person I want to see right now? Or were you really scared I'd throw Konatsu out because he, she, whatever, got cursed? I'm not ... uh, not ..." She was staring at the finger on Ranma's left hand.

Ranma looked down, wishing he didn't have to do this. To hurt his old friend like this. "No, I ain't here because of Konatsu. God knows I don't wanna hurt you any more than I already have, Ukyo. But, I had to be the one to tell you. About this." He touched the index finger of his right hand to the gold ring on his left. "It would of been the coward's way out to let someone else tell you."

Ukyo swallowed heavily, closed her eyes. It wasn't like she hadn't seen this coming, just not so soon. Her voice was hoarse as she asked, "You and Akane, I presume? Pretty fast work, Saotome."

"Uh, it wasn't exactly our idea to do it so fast," Ranma said thickly. "The Amazons kinda tricked us into it as part of getting me out of having to marry Shampoo. Didn't really leave us a choice."

"Ranma-sama speaks the truth," Konatsu confirmed worriedly.

The chef was paying no attention to her waitress, only staring miserably at her former fiancé. "I never really stood a chance with you, did I?" Ukyo asked, her voice breaking. "Why couldn't you've told me from the start?"

Ranma sounded as if he were in pain. "I wish I had too. But I was pretty stupid back then. About a lot of things. Didn't know what I wanted."

Ukyo choked as she fought against tears. So much wasted time. So much wasted effort. Why had she pursued him so blindly for so long? "I don't know if I would have listened even if you had told me. Go on and get outa here Saotome. Give ... give Akane my congratulations, okay? Tell her I don't hold it against her, not really. I'd appreciate it if the two of you don't come around for a while though. For that matter, I'd appreciate it if you don't even speak to me. I'm gonna need time ... time to reclaim my life. Figure out how to start living for me."

Ranma stood. "I'll tell her. And I hope it goes without saying, but we both wish you well." He turned to the ninja. "Take care of her, Konatsu. Okay?" With that he turned around and left, letting himself out.

Ukyo wrapped her arms around herself. "Oh God! Why does it still hurt so much?" Tears started running down her cheeks.

Konatsu scooted over and pulled her close, holding Ukyo's head against her shoulder. "Go ahead and cry, Ukyo-sama. You'll feel better. And remember, I'm here for you." They remained like that for a long time, and were late opening the restaurant for lunch.

Akane and Ranma went over to the Kuno estate that afternoon. It wasn't their first visit to the place, but all previous occasions held bad memories and consequently they were both on the alert. After a servant showed them to a parlor, a few minutes passed before they heard a loud, chortling laugh echo down the hall. Kodachi emerged with a bounce, her brother a step behind, holding the hilt of a katana.

"Ranma-sama! You came ...!" Kodachi started. However, she was cut off from her attempted embrace as Akane stepped between the other girl and her target.

Akane said not a word. She merely held her left hand up between them, fingers pointed toward the ceiling, the back of the hand facing the gymnast. The gold ring glittered, drawing the eye. Kodachi's breath hissed inward for several long seconds.

Behind her, her brother reeled backward, bracing himself against the wall. His blade buried itself to half its length in the expensive wood paneling.

Kodachi's mouth worked angrily, seeking something to say. She raised a hand as if for a slap, and Akane tensed, ready to defend herself. There was no need, however, as Kodachi found herself unable to swing the hand forward. Looking over at the cause for this failure, the gymnast found herself looking straight into Ranma's eyes, and through them into some deep and cold hell. The hand tightened on her wrist menacingly, crushing some final hope within her spirit. The young woman wilted before his gaze, letting her hand drop back down when he released it.

It was all suddenly too much for Kodachi. Her humiliation the last time she had encountered Akane. That Ranma had not chosen her. That they had come to her home merely to gloat. The shame crashed over her until she could bear no more.

She lifted her chin and sniffed loudly. In her haughtiest voice Kodachi told Ranma, "Do you imagine that I care? I decided weeks ago that you are not worthy to receive my attentions, and I have already begun to pursue more choice game. It is obvious that you have no taste whatsoever," her eyes flickered to Akane and back, "and this trollop is more than welcome to such a worthless husband if she wants him. I ... I have better things to do ... than to stand here ..."

Kodachi had already turned on her heels before she finished speaking, falling silent rather than risk letting them hear her voice break. She left the room swiftly, but was careful to walk.

Tatewaki was recovering from the initial shock, and his grip tightened on his blade, slowly pulling it from the wall. He had never before wanted to cut down the foul sorcerer so much as he did at that moment. He could almost see it, the body lying on the floor, the head rolling to the wall, the blood pouring out, Akane screaming ...

His heart contracted painfully on the final image. No, she would be happy! She must be! How could she not be glad to be free of the monster at last! No more of this cursed engagement! Free! Screaming. Widowed.

His blade had pulled free, but the point hung down toward the floor. He tried to speak, but found he could not. Kuno closed his mouth, swallowed, cleared his throat. He tried again.

"Dost ... dost thou truly wish ... this ... this ...?"

"I love him, Kuno-senpai," Akane told the boy simply. "And he loves me. I am bound in honor to Ranma, and if I were to lose him I would lose everything."

Tatewaki raised his katana, then slowly slid it home in its sheath. He was staring off into some far distance, and it was only with difficulty that he shook himself and returned his attention to his present location.

"I ... cannot give this union my blessing," the young man ground out arrogantly. "But ... neither will I give it my curses. I believe you will in time come to regret your decision. If so, do not look to me. I wash my hands of this matter."

Akane's eyes flashed, but she somehow managed to hold her tongue. Ranma just shook his head in exasperation.

Tatewaki spoke again, but only to say, "I believe you know the way out? Please leave my home. You are not welcome here."

Ranma passed by the kendoist warily on his way out of the room, but he might as well have been invisible for all the reaction Kuno showed to his presence. He and Akane walked out the door in silence and left the estate, never to set foot there again.

The next day Kasumi and Nabiki took Akane out shopping in lieu of the wedding gifts they hadn't gotten her. Ranma took the opportunity to make a quick trip out of town to the Unryu farm where, as expected, he found Ryoga. He told the lost boy about everything that had happened, that he and Akane were now married and, most importantly of all, the problem with seeking a cure for their curses.

"Well that just ... sucks," Ryoga said, skipping a stone across the pond beside which they were sitting. "So even if I found my way there I couldn't be cured?"

"Yeah, that's what they all told me," Ranma replied morosely. "Not for a good many years, anyway. Of course, I guess you could always replace the curse by a different one. No guarantee it would be a better one, I guess."

"And Akane, has she said anything recently, you know, about me?"

Ranma picked at some blades of grass. "A little. She's gotten past some of her anger. Not ready to forgive you yet, but ... I was thinking. You planning to propose to Akari anytime soon?"

Ryoga laughed weakly. "Don't know if there's any point. She just assumes we're gonna get married."

"Yeah, but do you want to? Marry her?"

Ryoga sighed. "Yeah. Yeah, I do. I worried for a long time that she just liked my cursed form. But I've come to realize that she really cares. About me. I'm still not used to that. I have trouble believing anyone could. So yeah, I think I do want to marry her." He turned toward Ranma suspiciously. "Why? You're married now, so you think everybody else should be?"

Ranma skipped a stone of his own, frowning when it made one fewer hop than Ryoga's. He immediately started feeling around for another stone. "No, not really. I was just thinking, if you do set a date, and it's say, six months or more off ... Maybe Akane would be ready to come. To the reception at least. For Akari's sake if not for yours. I think it might be a big step toward putting the past behind us."

The other boy frowned. "Yeah, well ... I suppose if you can go and finally marry Akane, maybe I can think about getting serious. If we set a date I'll let you know."

As Ranma stood to leave, he suddenly said, "Hey! How about a little sparring match, for old times sake? Huh?"

An evil glint entered Ryoga's eye, and he kicked out without warning. After all, it wasn't his fault if he hadn't told Ranma how he'd been working out with the sumo pigs every day. Then again, during his description of events in China, Ranma had neglected to mention the weights he'd worn for two weeks. Later that evening Akari mentioned to her bruised fiancé that she'd been down by the pond earlier, and something had torn up the ground around there terribly.

The first day of school was on the following Monday. With the exception of Yuka and Sayuri, in whom Akane had confided the first night back in town, everyone else was shocked to learn that her name was now Akane Saotome. It also didn't take the other students long to realize that Ukyo's name was not called in the roll. Earlier in the summer she had requested transfer to a different homeroom.

Akane had been thinking of eating lunch with her husband that first day of school, but had no chance. When the lunch bell rang she was immediately surrounded by other girls, and herded off to a corner of the schoolyard. Glares directed at any boys who came near assured their privacy.

"So Akane, what's it like?" one of the girls gushed.

"What's what like? You mean, uh, being married?" Akane asked nervously.

"Of course that's what she means," prodded Yuka. "You haven't told me either. C'mon, spill!"

"It's, uh ..." She stared off into space. Akane had no idea how to answer this. The obvious differences in how her days were lived weren't very great - she slept in the same bedroom with Ranma, and they bathed together, but other than that the daily routine was pretty much the same as before.

The real differences were more mental in nature. The vast relief at knowing that the long struggle was over, that no one would be taking Ranma away from her, that he had openly declared his love for her. That they were slowly learning how to talk more openly. That he was coming to be more at ease with her during their martial arts training. Holding him close at night, kissing, and the caresses they were experimenting with. Akane didn't see how she could really explain any of that.

"It's, uh, not all that different. We share a bedroom now, but the rest of the time is pretty much the same. We're getting along better now. I feel a lot different, but I don't know how to put it into words."

Sayuri gave her friend an exasperated look. "Not that stuff, dummy! We want to know about the sex! What's it like?"

Akane felt her face grow hot. "Th-That's private! I'm not gonna talk about that!" Besides, she thought to herself, she'd be mortified if they knew how little she and Ranma had done. Everyone would think her the biggest coward of all time.

"Oh come on!" one of the other girls protested. "You're the first girl in our class to get married! You've gotta tell us about it!"

"Hmmph!" replied Akane, studying her bento minutely. "I certainly do not have to tell you about it. And if all you're interested in hearing about is sex, I know for a fact I'm not the first girl in the class. Go pester someone else."

"Yeah, but no one's ever made it with Ranma before," Sayuri wheedled. "I mean, that curse of his has got to complicate things. Or provide opportunities, one or the other. You can't blame us for being curious."

Akane was sure that her face grew even more red. "It's none of your business and I'm not going to talk about it! If that's all you want to know, then this conversation is over!"

"Spoilsport," Yuka said grumpily. "Can you at least tell us about your wedding?"

Akane sighed. "That I can do. I suppose I should start with the feast the night before ..." She went on to describe everything that had happened from that night through the evening meal the next day, carefully stretching out the details to end the story at the bell signaling the next class period. It was with considerable relief that she walked back to the classroom. Also with a touch of worry. There was a look in Yuka's and Sayuri's eyes which said they had not yet given up on the original line of questioning.

"Ranma," Akane asked in bed that night, "do you think we're weird? Not to have, you know, made love yet? If people found out, I know they'd think we're strange, or chicken at least. Are you unhappy? That I haven't let you?"

Ranma pulled her closer, laying her head against his chest. "Were the girls asking you about it today?" He felt Akane's head nod against his chest. "The guys were bugging me about it too. I damn near killed a couple of 'em, the questions they asked. Daisuke's got more guts than I gave him credit for. He got between me and one of 'em and I pulled my punch just before I hit him."

He sighed. "I guess I can't blame 'em for being curious. It's kinda unusual, us being married and still in high school. And sure, they'd think it's weird, but who the hell cares what they think? With the life my pop and I lived, I learned a long time ago not to care what idiots think. The only person whose opinion I worry about is yours."

Akane snuggled a little closer. "I'll try not to let them get to me. But you didn't answer my question. Are you unhappy? Because I'm making you wait?"

"No," he answered firmly, willing her to believe. "I'm happy, because I'm married to you. Neither one of us was ready to be married yet. When the time is right, I reckon we'll know. Okay?"

"Okay," she said happily, smiling for the first time since lunch. "Would you like me to, uh ... what I did last night?"

He pulled her face up to his and gave her a kiss, by way of reply.

Days passed. They ran into Ukyo a few times at school. She hadn't spoken to either of them since the term began, but she also didn't go out of her way to avoid them. Nabiki reported that Konatsu had resumed his work as a waitress at Ucchan's, and gave every appearance of being happy. She also reported that Kodachi was receiving brochures for American universities.

Now that Akane and Ranma were safely married, Soun had mostly ceased applying any kind of pressure to them. He seemed content to wait for the graduation to see if they would willingly fulfill his hopes. Nodoka and Genma stopped by the Tendo home each Sunday for lunch, to visit with their son and daughter-in-law. Kasumi, curious about their plans, had an embarrassing talk with Akane on the subject of how soon she might be thinking about children, to which Akane had gasped out a reply that she didn't intend for it to be soon at all.

Late in October, Nodoka announced that she and Genma, and also Soun, were going to pay for a honeymoon for the newlyweds in December, as soon as the school term ended. She apologized for the fact that it was so long after the wedding, but hoped they would enjoy it nonetheless. Akane and Ranma both assured her they greatly appreciated the thought, and were sure that they would enjoy it immensely. Everyone ignored Genma's grumbling that the trip they had taken to China should have been honeymoon enough.

Later that night, Akane and Ranma lay in bed cuddled up to each other, basking in the afterglow of their most recent experiment. As their breathing gradually slowed, Akane brought up an idea which the promised gift had inspired.

"You know, baka ..."

"Hey!" Ranma interrupted, protesting. "Is that anything to call me after what I just ..."

Akane leaned over and kissed him, interrupting him in turn. "You'll always be my baka. By the way, remind me to send a thank you card to that man Jade's married to. Getting back to what I was saying ... we've, uh, been going pretty far lately. If you know what I mean."

"Yeah, I suppose we have," Ranma said contentedly, a bit sleepily.

"Do you think you can manage to wait another two months - well, really, it's a bit less - before we ... do it?"

Ranma forced himself to sound uncertain as he asked, "By 'it' I suppose you mean ...?"

Akane slapped him on the chest. "I mean make love, baka. Don't play dumb."

Ranma chuckled, then answered seriously. "Why so long? I was thinking we were, um, nearly ready. Like you said, we've been going pretty far. It's been getting a lot harder to stop."

"I know," she whispered, then cleared her throat. "It would mean a lot to me, though. If things had gone according to plan, we might, maybe, have gotten married around then. I know we discussed having the wedding after we graduated, but our dads might have talked us into having it earlier. Instead we got married by surprise. This honeymoon ... it could have really been right after the wedding. I want ..."

Akane's voice dropped. "I want my first time to be special. Not just another night here in bed. Could you ... please?"

Ranma pulled his wife closer. "The things I do for you," he told her with a groan. "I'll try. I can't promise more than that."

More weeks passed. The other students at school continued to try to pry intimate details out of the couple, but were entirely unsuccessful. Further, Nabiki had made it clear to the few who had dared approach her that she would not sell any such information. Both Akane and Ranma wondered nervously if she knew the truth, but neither dared to ask her.

As a matter of fact, Nabiki assumed they were doing what would be assumed to come naturally, and didn't bother to investigate further. What neither Akane nor Ranma guessed was that Kasumi knew the truth. She was, after all, still the one who did the laundry and bought the household supplies.

Ryoga sent word to Ranma that he and Akari had set a date that coming May. Akari would stop by sometime after the New Year to tell Akane, and ask if she would be willing to attend the wedding. As a matter of fact, she had wanted to ask if Akane would be in the wedding party, but Ryoga had suggested that this might be unwise.

A postcard from Lotion arrived in November informing them that Mousse had begun openly courting Meifen, and that many of the village girls were acting envious of her. The tribe had also received word that Prince Herb and Jasmine were expecting a child. No mention was made of Shampoo.

Konatsu came over on numerous occasions seeking moral support from Ranma, to talk about troubles she was having with her curse. In particular she had discovered there were more opportunities for accidents involving hot liquids than she had considered, when one was employed in a restaurant.

Ukyo grew curious enough about these disappearances on Konatsu's part to trail her one day, only to return to her restaurant feeling mentally unbalanced, wondering why Konatsu was visiting the Tendo home. A couple of days later, not trusting herself enough to hold it together when talking to Ranma, she tentatively approached Akane at school to ask what was going on. Although still very bitter toward Ranma, Ukyo found that she could accept Konatsu's need to discuss her curse with the only other cursed individual around whom she felt she could trust. The conversation with Akane also broke the ice a little, and afterward Ukyo exchanged the occasional passing word with Akane when they met in the school hallways.

The final school day of the term arrived, and came to an end at last. The young couple rushed home, ignoring the dusting of snow on the ground. A short time later Ranma stood in their bedroom packing for the belated honeymoon, while Akane was down in the laundry room, removing some of their clothes from the dryer. Ranma looked up as his sister-in-law Kasumi entered the room, hands behind her back.

"Are you two all ready to go?" she asked brightly.

"Yep," said Ranma. "Got our tickets and everything. Kind of glad we're heading south, as cold as it's been. I'm surprised our fathers didn't pick some place on Hokkaido instead, the way our luck usually runs."

Kasumi smiled. "I believe you can thank your mother for that. In any case, I'm wondering if you've really thought of all the supplies you're going to need."

Ranma looked down into the open pack at his feet. Sounding a little confused, he said, "I think I've got everything. We're not going to be gone that long."

Kasumi held out her arm. There were a couple of boxes resting on her palm. "I think you may have a use for these. Unless I'm mistaken, Akane is not planning to have children yet."

Ranma looked at the boxes, up at Kasumi's still smiling face with its absent expression, then back down at her hand again. He choked out, "Good idea." Taking the boxes he stuffed them down inside the pack. "How did you ...? No, don't answer that."

Without warning, Kasumi suddenly pulled him into a hug. "I just want you and my little sister to be happy. Be good to her, okay?"

Ranma returned the hug tentatively. "I, I will. I promise."

Her eyes a little moist, Kasumi nodded happily. She turned and left, passing Akane as she came in carrying a stack of clothes.

"Hey, what did Kasumi want?" she asked cheerily.

Ranma gave her a smile. "Just something I overlooked in the packing. Let's hurry up and finish. We'll have to leave straight after supper to catch the train."

In a large and mostly empty house in Nerima, Tatewaki Kuno pulled out the textbook he had already obtained for his economics class next term. He opened it and began reading, slowly losing himself to the fascination he had begun to feel for business matters, forgetting his heartache for a time. He had discovered the relief this provided early in the school term, and his teachers had slowly begun to think there might be some hope for him after all.

His sister Kodachi was out on a date, the third boy in less than a month. She was still incensed over the lecture her brother had given to her about it earlier, particularly because he was right. She had allowed her grades to slip this last term, which would not help her plans to pursue higher education overseas. With a sigh that had nothing to do with whatever the boy sitting across from her was saying, Kodachi decided that perhaps she should try to slow down a bit in her search for true love.

Across town Ukyo had seen the last of the customers out of the restaurant and closed for the evening. She watched Konatsu cleaning up while whistling a cheery tune. Konatsu seemed happier these days. She was showing a growing confidence, less of the old meekness, and she had lately taken to referring to Ukyo as 'Ukyo-san' instead of 'Ukyo-sama.' In fact, she had even had the nerve to insist on a raise a week ago. Ukyo smiled at the memory, though still peeved with herself for not putting up more of an argument before giving in.

The pain was starting to fade. She had even spoken with Akane today at lunch period, for several minutes, wishing her well on the upcoming trip. It seemed that time did heal wounds, even though Ukyo thought it would be a long time before she was willing to trust another man, if she ever could. With a sigh Ukyo resolved to try saying hello to Ranma when the next school term started in January.

At the Unryu farm, Ryoga was standing just outside the house, looking up at the stars, wondering what the hell he had gotten himself into. Bridal magazines covered every flat surface inside the house, and the number of details involved in the planning, from invitations to dresses to floral arrangements to God knew what else, was making his head spin. It was almost to the point where he was thinking of putting his pager down somewhere and going for a long walk.

At that moment a pair of soft arms circled around him from behind, and Ryoga felt his fiancée press herself against his back. He immediately forgot all thoughts of getting lost. "My poor Ryo-chan," her voice came quietly from behind, "it's all been a bit much for you, hasn't it?" At his grunt she said, "It'll all get better. You'll see. I tell you what. Grandfather's already asleep. Why don't you come back to my bedroom with me and I'll give you a little taste of what you have to look forward to?"

Ryoga stiffened. Akari managed to get him turned around and walked him back into the house, with a smile for his cute shyness. Sometimes he forgot that she was a farm girl who raised animals, and necessarily less innocent than she looked. As she led him down the hall, Akari pulled a handkerchief out of her pocket and dabbed at the trickle of blood below his nose.

Over in China the hour was earlier, and Mousse was having dinner with Meifen's family. Words like 'betrothal' and 'marriage' had not yet been mentioned, but it was by now fairly well understood that the time was coming. With Mousse tutoring her, Meifen's martial arts skills had increased considerably, to the point where she was thinking in terms of winning the championship in a year or two. She was constantly amazed how few people, even now, realized just how skilled her friend was, just because he was male.

Shampoo and Cologne were making camp for the night, a days hike south of their village in the mountains. Cologne had considered several males of their people as possible suitors for her great-granddaughter, but the girl had dismissed all of them contemptuously. In exasperation the elder had proposed this trip, on which Shampoo had joined her in complete innocence, never questioning where they were going, simply happy to get out of the village for a time. Tomorrow they would arrive at the home of that arrogant but fairly strong jackass Pantyhose Taro, and Cologne had a foolproof scheme in mind to see that her heir was defeated at the boy's hands. She thought his resistance to the idea of marriage might weaken when he learned that he could receive a new Joketsuzoku name as part of the wedding ceremony.

Elsewhere in the mountains Prince Herb was picking himself up off the floor in the hall, rubbing his posterior. He had only been trying to force his wife to rest when she had screamed at him that she was pregnant, not sick, then shoved him out the door and slammed it behind him. ‹I'm a descendant of dragons!› he told himself hotly. Then he thought better of it and decided to come back later, hoping that she'd cool down a bit by then. After all, perhaps there were some things even a dragon was wise enough to fear.

In the south of Japan, Akane and Ranma were curled up together in bed, both of them exhausted but happy. The sheets were half off the bed, and neither of them was wearing a stitch of clothing.

"That was ... incredible," Ranma said, panting.

"Mmm," agreed Akane, tired but very, very content. "That's my wild horse."

Ranma kissed the hair on top of her head. "I still can't believe you wore that headband to bed. What happened to it anyway?"

"Fell off somewhere in the middle," Akane replied unconcernedly, rolling over a little more and stretching a leg over his. "As for why ... this was my victory dance." She stretched up and kissed him, then pulled back, her head lying on the pillow beside his, gazing deep into her husband's eyes.

"You know," Akane went on softly, stroking Ranma's cheek with her thumb. "Winning you was the best thing that ever happened to me. You really were a prize worth fighting for."

She kissed him again. A kiss he returned with all his heart.

The End

Author's note:

This story has reached its conclusion. Thanks for coming along for the ride. Next up from me should be another chapter of Side by Side.

Although it wasn't feasible due to what followed in the scene, my pre-reader suggested that in the opening scene when Akane realizes what she's holding and releases her grip, Ranma could have quietly commented, "You don't have to move your hand if you don't want to."

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