It was raining and Akane's tent was sagging dangerously under the weight of the water. Her tent was as pathetic as Charlie Brown's Christmas tree; drooping and lopsided with two mysteriously extra poles propped up on the side. She sat huddled up in the center of her tent on a raft of gear in an attempt to stay dry. Water was trickling down the edges of her tent, running down the inside corners, and along the floor. She was miserable tonight. She rested her head on her knees; something from her pack was uncomfortably poking in her spine. It was probably her mess kit, she mused ruefully, not that she really needed it.
Five days into her excursion with the doctors and Akane was slowly starving. She supposed it had started on the flight to Thailand. She was so very upset about the whole Ryoga/P-Chan thing, that her mind wasn't focused on anything. She had traveled in a haze. So caught up in her own reflections, she missed the instructions on how to set up the tents, she missed the directions on how the camp was to be set up, and most importantly, she missed the meeting where people set up meal rotations. Now everyone assumed she wanted to eat on her own. Normally she would have asked to be filled in. It was the only sensible thing to do out here in the wilderness with a bunch of strangers, but two things held her back.
The first was that she wasn't really in the mood to socialize. She felt so stupid for not having picked up on the whole Ryoga/P-Chan issue. It was as though everyone who looked at her could see how oblivious she had been. The second reason was Dr. Masa. He was constantly watching her and disapproving of everything she was doing. Akane was convinced that Dr. Masa was just waiting for her to screw up so he could point out how right he had been on the day they met: that Akane was of no use to their mission. She couldn't allow that to happen. There was no way, homesick as she was, that she wanted to go home; so she did her best to set up her own tent away from everybody and she was doing her best to survive on her own cooking. It wasn't pretty.
The truth was Dr. Masa was right; she was of no value to the mission right now. She hadn't been able to heal a single person yet. Her emotions had been too jumbled up to channel anything but hurt and confusion. Dr. Masa had pounced on her weakness immediately. She was really developing a deep dislike for the man. Dr. Gifu had been patient and understanding. He attributed her moodiness to being away from her family for the first time.
Tonight had been a perfect illustration of how the last few days had been. Akane had tried to cook herself dinner again. Something had gone terribly wrong with her cheese, cocoa, fish sauce, curry recipe, and the pot burst into flames. She was sure she hadn't exposed any of the dried sage to the open flame she was cooking over, but nevertheless when she added it to the pot the ensuing explosion had burnt off most of her eyebrows and all of the hair on her right arm. The smell was distasteful, and the pot had belched up enough smoke that the whole camp was now operating in the midst of a lingering purple haze, which seemed unfazed by the rain.
To cover up her ineptitude, she took the pot out of the camp to try to clean it in relative privacy. First she tried to scrub it out with soap and water. When that didn't work, she screamed her frustration and manically swung the pan repeatedly into the ground. The second approach brought people running, and she was forced to hide in the bushes with her dented pan. The ultimate symbol of everything she couldn't do. Frustrated and starving, Akane stood in the bushes morosely trying to chip out the last of her curry from the bottom of the pan. She was within earshot, but out of eyesight of her coworkers in the camp, when she heard Dr. Masa say her name. She stopped hacking and listened.
"Dr. Gifu, you have to see that she is of no use to us. Look at this camp! It smells terrible here, and this purple fog is actually pigmenting my skin." He held up his hand revealing a pinkish tint to it.
"Masa Itou, I'm not sending her home. She is going to get the hang of things; we just need to be a little more patient."
"She's not doing what Tofu said she would," Ito Masa pointed out earnestly.
Tiredly, Dr. Gifu replied, "She's doing her best, and besides, even if she never healed another person, she would be worth her weight in gold because every night she makes this mosquito killing smoke out of natural ingredients. It's truly one of the most remarkable things I have ever seen. I've never had a pleasanter mission. She's like a one woman army against malaria."
"We didn't bring her along to fumigate nature. I don't think she's trying to kill mosquitos, I'm pretty sure she's trying to cook herself dinner."
"Don't be silly. No one could possibly be that poor of a cook."
"I wouldn't be too sure," Dr. Masa dubiously retorted.
Akane stood in the bushes, too humiliated to do anything but stand frozen until they had moved on. The pot felt like lead in her hand. Tears filled her eyes as she stared down into the fossilized curry lining the pan. Taking a deep breath she tried to get a hold of herself. There could be nothing worse than running into Dr. Masa on the way back to her tent with tears in her eyes. Taking some deep breaths, she calmed herself down enough to get back to her tent. With all the effort she possessed, she flung the pot out into the jungle and hurried to her tent.
Now she sat in the middle of the tent. She was wet, cold, and hungry. Akane missed home where her foibles were just accepted. Here they seemed magnified, or perhaps they just seemed bigger to her. Her usual confidence and determination had fled. She was mad at herself for feeling this way, and mad at Ryoga and Ranma for being the catalysts.
She was furious at both of them, but it was Ranma's part in it that hurt the most. She wanted to shake him, and then punch him, but mostly she wanted to ask him why. Why had he hid something like that from her? There must be some explanation, but because it was Ranma, it probably wasn't a good one. Still, something, anything to help her understand his deception. Ryoga was in on it too. She'd always thought he was an honorable kind of guy. Then he had crawled into bed with her and had seen her change. The tears flowed down her face now. She didn't understand, and until she did, it didn't seem like she would ever be able to help these doctors.
Ranma could see the light of morning filtering in through the window in his room. Soon his father would be up wanting to spar, and they would, with him keeping an eye out to see if Akane was watching; which she wouldn't be, because she wasn't there. He would bathe, get dressed, and go down to eat. His eyes would automatically go to Akane's spot at the table first thing, like they had for the last two years, but her spot would be empty. It had been empty for a week. He still had a small goose egg on his head from where she'd hit him. Ranma would have bet money that anyone else would have broken their hand hitting him so hard, but Akane was as strong as an ox. She'd hit him plenty of times without injuring herself, so he had to assume she was fine. Except I don't know if she's fine, he thought bitterly, because she's not here.
These days Ranma vacillated between guilt about Ryoga, anger that Akane left while he was unconscious, and bitterness that she had left at all. Some days all he could see was Akane's stricken expression as she asked him if he knew about Ryoga and P-chan. He could picture in his mind her heaving breaths and hiccupping sobs as he held her and tried to soothe her. If he could take those moments back he would. If he could've just thought of the right things to say; but his stupid mouth betrayed him again by keeping silent. He felt terrible about all of it. He was such a jerk for hurting Akane like that. After all the times he'd saved her and fought for her, that he should be the one to put that look of betrayal on her face. How she would ever trust him again was beyond him. The truth was he deserved the hit and about a thousand more, and he knew it.
Ranma punched his pillow and flopped on his stomach. If she hadn't been leaving, he wouldn't have laid out Ryoga, and then the whole scene would've been avoided. He felt the resentment in him rising. She didn't even give him a chance to explain, and who knew what conclusions she'd jumped to. Knowing Akane, it could be anything. That she assumed he and Ryoga were talking about her behind her back just incensed him even more. The thought never even occurred to him. Plus, the idea that Ryoga, even as P-Chan, knew more about Akane then he did left an awful taste in his mouth. Damn Ryoga! At night when he was drifting off to sleep, if he wasn't thinking of Akane, he was fantasizing about all the different things she was going to do to Ryoga once she got her hands on him; that was of course, assuming that there was going to be anything left once he got his hands on him.
Miserably, Ranma thought, she didn't even say good bye. She didn't say good bye when he left for Phoenix Mountain, either, and what a disaster that was. It was one debacle after another starting with their boat sinking. Ranma gave a cursory acknowledgement that he was the one who punched the hole in the bottom of the boat causing it to sink. But, he thought with more vehemence, I wouldn't have done it, if Akane had come and said good bye like she should have. Surely, Ranma wouldn't have punched a hole in the boat if he hadn't been so mad at her for not saying goodbye. Didn't she know that kind of thing was important to him? Ranma sighed and rolled over. Being angry didn't help. It didn't change the fact that he was here alone, wondering what she was doing and if she was safe. He hoped she was safe. Please be safe, he pled in his head.
She'd called twice and only managed to talk to her father. The two attempts at conversation with Kasumi hadn't gone well, and she didn't ask to speak to him. He shamelessly sat in the hallway and eavesdropped on both conversations, wanting to be available if she asked for him. She hadn't, but it was nice to hear her voice, even if it was a little tinny. It didn't appear she had gotten in any trouble yet. Soun had blubbered and turned on the water works after every conversation. He wailed about missing his baby, but Ranma didn't feel sorry for him. As her father, it was his responsibility to tell Akane no, but he hadn't. Between her pleading, Dr. Tofu's reasoning, and Nabiki reminding him that he was doomed to months and months of the same songs over and over if Akane stayed anywhere near Kasumi, Soun caved, and Ranma was bitter about it.
He rolled on to his back, put his hands behind his head, and tried to mentally prepare himself for another day without Akane. Dr. Tofu brought him the schedule of the mission Akane was on. Three months in Thailand and one week home to resupply and then nine months in China. She would be home for a week in two months and twenty-one days. If she didn't want to talk on the phone, he'd have to wait until then to talk to her. Could he convince her he was sorry, that he needed her to stay, that she shouldn't finish her mission? Good thing he had such a long time to think of the right things to say. If only he could turn his mind away from how much he missed her, then he could compose a damn sonnet if that's what it took. But for now he had to concentrate on how to live with this lonely ache in his stomach that never seemed to ease.
Kasumi wasn't happy. She wasn't happy with Akane, but there was nothing she could do about that now. She wasn't happy with Dr. Tofu, who had turned her sister against her and then turned tail and fled. She hadn't heard from him for a week, and she really wasn't happy with Ranma, who had picked a fight with Akane that was so horrible she left for her mission in a daze. Kasumi was seriously worried Akane forgot something essential, like pants. Of course she couldn't find out what was wrong because every time she got near Akane, Akane started singing, "Go grease lightening you're burning up the quarter mile…" That just made her angrier with Tofu. She stood there, dripping greasy, cold dishwater all over her clean floor, lost in her thoughts. She was so engrossed she didn't hear the soft footsteps pad up behind her. It wasn't until she felt a gentle touch on her shoulder that she spun around with a gasp and would have fallen over if a strong pair of arms hadn't locked around her.
"Hi, Kasumi," Dr. Tofu said, breathlessly.
She stood there stunned and made no move to respond, just looking up at him with wide eyes. The silence stretched out and soon Dr. Tofu felt uncomfortable, so he released Kasumi and took a step back, awkwardly rubbing the back of his head, unmindful of the fact that Kasumi's dish rag left a wet circle in the shape of a bullseye on his chest.
"I thought you might want to talk about things," he murmured.
Regaining her composure she set her rag down, wiped her hands on her apron, and said in a voice much calmer then she felt, "Of course, let me get some tea."
Hoping to keep her hands busy enough he wouldn't notice the shaking, she took some small comfort in bustling about her cheery kitchen as she prepared the tea things.
He stood in silence watching her, trying to gauge her thoughts. The fact that he was here in the kitchen was such a blessing and he was so grateful for it. Now he just had to keep Kasumi from throwing him out of it. In what seemed like mere moments, the water was hot and she was gesturing him into the tea room. He took the tray from her and carried it in; setting it on the table so she could arrange and pour. They drank in silence for a while and then Dr. Tofu felt the need to break it.
"I don't know what to say to you."
"Why don't you start with the truth, Tofu Ono," she said, with a formality that made him wince. "I deserve to know why you came back to Nermia, but not to me. I deserve to know what you have done to my sister and how you are going to fix it, and I deserve to know why you would run away again for a whole week leaving me to wonder what everything meant."
Ono could hardly speak for the lump that was in his throat. She was so beautiful. So many people underestimated her strength because she was a peacemaker, but now, kneeling across from her, he saw she had the same will of iron as her sisters. Her face was flushed with emotion, but her chin was held high. This was a woman filled with confidence, and she waited with quiet dignity for the answers she deserved.
Softly he begin, "Kasumi, you drove me crazy."
"I beg your pardon?"
"No, literally, when you refused my first proposal you drove me crazy. I had to leave, I had to try to get some control. When you wrote me asking me to come back, I did as fast as I could, but it turned out the craziness was…kind of permanent. I could no longer be myself around you."
"I don't understand."
"How could you?" he gently intoned, then he launched into a long explanation of everything. The only part he left out was his curse.
Kasumi's jaw dropped as she heard everything Akane and Tofu had done to try to help things work out between the two of them. Kasumi's eyes were moist as she said, "You two did all that for me?" her annoyance with Akane was swallowed up in the guilt she felt for asking her for help, and then hearing of the extremes Akane had gone to, trying to work both plans. As her heart softened towards her sister it still hadn't let Tofu off the hook.
Tofu's heart was buoyed up and the worried lines in his face eased until Kasumi, in a very Akane like way, burst out, "If you wanted to work things out so badly, why haven't you talked to me in a week?"
"I was trying to come up with some kind of plan before I approached you. I promised you I would fix it."
"And?" Kasumi demanded, tilting her head to one side.
"And I don't have a clue." Dr. Tofu sighed wearily rubbing both hands over his face. "I came today because I realized that my days around you could be numbered and I had wasted a whole week."
"What do you mean numbered?"
"I'm going to take my craziness back when Akane gets home. I was selfish to take her from you."
"So when Akane gets back, you are going to go back to being crazy, and then I'll get my little sister back to normal?" Kasumi tapped her fingers against the table thinking, feeling annoyed with her sister again.
"I assume so; I'm not sure about all the side effects."
Kasumi's voice rose in anger. "In all of your grand scheming, did either of you think of the impossible position this places me in? If I want my sister back I have to give up you, and if I want to be with you I have to sacrifice my sister!"
"You want to be with me?" Tofu asked in a hopeful voice.
Kasumi threw up her hands up in exasperation. "Right now, I'm not sure why, but I do. You are so thick headed sometimes I think you and Ranma could be brothers."
He didn't say it out loud, but that was exactly what he hoped for.
"So now what?" he asked.
"I don't know," she replied.
After another pregnant silence, Dr. Tofu finally said, "Do you want to go out tomorrow? Maybe we can think of a plan…" He trailed off.
She smiled a little hesitantly, "I'd love to."
It was the weekend. That meant a trip into the nearest town. Akane rode to town in the back of the mission's pickup truck with her new coworkers and tried desperately to remember their names. It had been a bad week. Already seen as antisocial, she was sure her cohorts thought she was also slightly crazy because she had no eyebrows. For someone who was used to easy social interplay, there was an unfamiliar awkwardness that tainted her interactions with everyone in camp. A week into a mission and she should know who they are, but because all she could do was dwell on her problems, she had no idea. It made for weirdness.
With instructions to return for their ride back to camp on Sunday night, the group was released. The first thing she did was find some food. Lots and lots of food. Once that need was met, she wandered the town aimlessly, feeling sorry for herself. It was a good sized town with two or three hotels. Their group was staying in one on the north side of the town, and so she headed south in an effort to avoid anyone from camp.
She wandered around until she found she could sit without feeling like she needed to puke. As she wandered, she noticed the little houses that were put in front of most of the properties in the town. They were like little dollhouses. Each one was different and she wondered at their purpose. One of the little houses caught her eye as she walked up and down the main street. It was off the main road up a side street, so she turned off and headed up the block a little ways. There was a tiny dojo shaped house about four feet off the ground resting on a single rod balanced on a platform. It wasn't a perfect replica of her dojo, but was near enough that she sat down across the street and studied it. Looking at it made her think of how very homesick she was. She hadn't successfully talked to Kasumi yet and that bothered her. She'd thought about asking for Ranma, but didn't know what to say to him that wouldn't sound whiny and petulant; plus she was still plenty pissed.
As she sat there on the curb digesting and wallowing, she felt a tap on her shoulder. Turning around she saw a small, withered old man. He looked about a thousand years old and had stark white hair that framed bright blue eyes. His frame, bowed with age, radiated a vibrancy and pride that contradicted the posture. He was dressed in a traditional navy kung fu uniform, with silver frogs and white cuffs. The quality of the outfit was so nice, Akane immediate took him for a man of influence in the town. Akane looked at him blankly for a few moments, and then she realized he was talking to her in Japanese. She was unprepared to hear her native language and from such a striking man, the result was that she had to ask him to repeat himself.
"I'm sorry?" she choked out.
"I asked if you were going to come in or just stare at my spirit house all day."
"Your spirit house?"Akane asked still slightly bemused.
"Yes, the little house, dojo actually, that you have been looking at for the last 40 minutes. Surely, you noticed them all over the town."
"I, uh, yes, yes I did. I just didn't know they were called a spirit house."
"Yes," he said turning away and beckoning her to follow, "it's an old Thai tradition. They are used to keep mischievous spirits at bay. I suppose the reasoning is that if they have their own house, they will leave yours alone." He stopped and looked over his shoulder. "Are you coming?"
She only hesitated a moment. It was nice to talk to someone in Japanese and he seemed nice enough. He stopped briefly in front of the spirit house and put small package of something inside.
She was curious, but respectfully kept silent. She followed him through the gate. The gate led to a side yard that had a beautiful manicured garden. It was cool and shaded and opened into a much bigger backyard.
He broke the silence by saying, "They were gummy bears."
"I beg your pardon?" Akane started.
"I put gummy bears in the spirit house. You see, about 14 years ago I made the mistake of leaving some diakon as an offering and that same day my TV broke. The next day I put in some gummy bears that I had in my pocket and I found 150 Bahts® on my lawn. I've been putting gummy bears in there ever since."
Unsure of the correct response for such an odd conversation she simply said, "Oh," then she ventured, "Your spirit house caught my eye. It is much less ornate than the other houses I've seen in town. It looks like my dojo, back home."
"Your family owns a dojo?" his voice floated back.
"Yes. We practice anything goes martial arts," she said, with modest pride.
His step faltered and there was a moment of silence. It was just long enough to make her wonder if she'd said something wrong. Her mind frantically searched back. Had Ranma and his dad ever been to Thailand, and had they ever mentioned swindling anyone in that country? She opted for silence as she followed him to the back of the property and to a lovely training hall that made Akane smile. It looked like home.
The old man slid open the doors and gestured Akane into the training hall. She removed her shoes and followed.
"Do you practice the art?" he looked her up and down speculatively.
"Yes." Akane tiredly mumbled.
"I too practice the art. Would you allow me to test your abilities?"
Akane wasn't really in the mood to spar. She wanted to wallow.
"Please, it has been such a long time since I had a chance to spar with someone worthy," he cajoled.
Sighing she took up a defensive stance, and waited for his attack. All of a sudden she felt a stinging sensation on her face and arms. Looking at the man she could swear that he hadn't moved, which meant he was throwing something at her. Looking at the floor of the training hall she saw five gummy bears smiling up at her from the floor. Reaching up she touched her stinging cheek. She was going to have welts from how hard he was flicking the candy at her.
He gave her a placid little smile and pronounced, "I wanted to test your speed." Speed had never been Akane's strong point, but she couldn't help but get in the spirit of things.
"Ok," she challenged, embracing his method, and she started to move her arms to block the high speed gummy deliciousness that was now speeding at her so quickly she couldn't see them. Soon however, she began to tire and as a result, more and more of the candies were getting through her defenses. Ineffectively, she tried dodging the gummies instead of blocking, but that meant they were now getting caught in her hair.
"Ok, Akane held her hands up in a gesture of peace. "I get it, you win. You can throw candies quickly," she sarcastically affirmed.
The old man looked at her for a moment and then she felt something hit her face and stick. It was another gummy bear and as she pulled it off she noticed it was sticky. Looking at the man on the other side of the room she tried to drop the gummy bear but it stuck to her hand and she ended up flipping her wrist get and watching the gummy bear fly off where it hit and stuck to the ceiling.
Outraged disgust painted her features, "Are you licking them?"
He smirked in a way that reminded her of Ranma and he threw four more sticky bears in her direction and they attached themselves to her face and arms.
"Stop that!" she demanded. It's so gross!" Akane exclaimed wincing a little she pulled a gummy bear from her arm and the hairs pulled.
He didn't stop, he just kept throwing and she started to dodge and block in earnest. It wasn't long until he decided she'd had enough and suddenly the storm of sweets stopped.
Akane was peppered in candy. They were stuck to her face, arms, neck and in her hair. She looked as if she had been struck with some disease that left multicolored boils all over her body.
Revolted she sat down and started to pull the bears of her face. They left behind a sticky residue that was like glue and made her feel like she was wearing a mask.
"That has to be one of the dumbest training exercises I have ever seen, and I have seen a lot of dumb things involving martial arts." Akane huffed.
The old man sat next to her and smiled. "That really was more just having some fun. There are some techniques out there that have been developed that no master should ever use on a student. The Nekoken for example, that is stupid and dangerous. No one in their right mind would ever train in that method.
Akane's hand stilled over her leg.
The old man looked at her sharply. "You know someone who has trained in the cat fist?"
Thoughtfully he considered her. "You did say you practice Anything Goes? You must know of Master Happosai," the mysterious little man casually commented.
Oh crap, she thought, this man knows Happosai. Carefully, she replied, "Grandfather Happosai trained my father in most aspects of the art. There are some things Happosai was unable to instill in him, and for that I am grateful."
The man nodded understanding her meaning. Akane was then compelled to ask, "How do you know grandfather Happosai?"
"We trained under the same master for a period. I would have even called us friends, until he discovered that I had six sisters."
"Ahhhhhhhhh," Akane nodded and tried to absorb the remarkable coincidence of meeting a man in Thailand who knew Happosai. She supposed she should be grateful he wasn't trying to kill her or curse her because that is what usually happened when Happosai's past caught up with her.
"I would like to test you now in combat. No drills," he declared.
Akane hesitated, this man was good and now he knew she had a connection to Happosai she suspected gummy bears were going to be the least of her problems.
She had barely finished the thought when, before she knew it, she was sliding on her side across the floor of the training hall. Her back collided painfully with the wall at the far end, and her sternum throbbed from the effects of his open palmed hit.
"For training under such a sneaky master, you are surprisingly slow and unprepared," he drawled as he lazily drew his outstretched arm back towards his body. The convivial gummy bear slinging man was gone, and in his place stood a man with strength and purpose, confirming her first impression of him.
Akane, who was unprepared for such hard blow, staggered to her feet, the gummy bears she hadn't removed showered to the ground. She braced herself and brought her hands up in a defensive stance. That sneaky old goat, she thought, pulling a move like that. It was worthy of Happosai. Well, she'd show him that she'd tangled with Happosai as well, and sometimes she even came out on top. The old man smiled at the sudden fierceness in her eyes.
"At least he taught you something." Shuffling to the center of the room he respectfully bowed and introduced himself. "I am Katashi. You may call me Master Katashi-san."
Reflexively Akane dropped her stance, introduced herself, and performed a respectful bow. As she was bent over he kicked her on the side of her head so hard she saw spots and stumbled backwards.
"I cannot believe that Happosai would allow the heir of his school to leave herself so vulnerable. Where are your defenses, girl?" Katashi-san chastised.
Rubbing the side of her head, she muttered, "I'm not the heir."
"But you said your family had a dojo."
"Ranma is the heir of the school," her words were brittle. Katashi-san picked up on it immediately.
"Ranma is your brother?"
"No, Ranma is my fiancé," and she didn't need him, Akane finished in her head. This line of thinking always made her a little reckless, so she attacked.
He flowed around every punch. He hit her upside the chin causing her to bite her tongue and her eyes watered profusely. Calmly, irritatingly he began a running commentary on her life.
"I can see why your fiancé is the heir. You claim to be a martial artist, but it is very clear that you think more of your abilities then you ought. You may practice the art, but it appears to be more of a hobby with you."
Akane wiped her streaming eyes and ground out, "That's not true."
Smiling, his eyes pitying her, he replied, "Yes it is. There is a price to be paid to be a martial artist, and you haven't paid it in full," his eyes took on a strange gleam, "at least not yet."
He stopped his attack. Bowing deeply he said, "I am at your service," when she hesitated, he added, "but only if you really want it."
Ranma'd had better days. Akane had only been gone for a week and everyone at school was acting like the world was ending. The poetry club was mad at him for pushing away their muse, and as a result, they had been leaving all sorts of insulting and highly misleading limericks about him around the school. The volleyball team spent most of their practice spiking balls in his direction, which, at first, was fun because he made a game of dodging them, but when they followed him into the cafeteria and kept him from eating his lunch he thought it less funny. The chemistry club had already blown up an effigy of him using water and pure sodium, the Formage club kept pouring nacho cheese on his chairs, and the kids in the "free hugs" club actually refused to hug him. Not that he wanted to be hugged, he got enough of that from Shampoo, but those weirdoes hugged everybody.
He stalked down the hall to change for gym. These stupid kids at school had no idea what missing Akane really meant.
When he got to the locker room he was met with cold stares. "Oh come on, not you guys too. Why the hell does everyone think it's my fault Akane's gone?"
One of the braver boys in the class spoke up. "Well, Ai heard it from Naomi, who heard it from Chou, who heard Rina say Akane was mad 'cause you didn't want to dance with her in the competition, so she left with some doctor friends to go do her magical healing thing in China."
Ranma started to hear whispers all around him.
"I heard he put her in an ivory box in the backyard so she couldn't interfere."
"I heard he chloroformed her and chained her in a closet."
Ranma closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Thanks to his father, Ranma was used to be being surrounded by idiots. He considered himself a bit of an idiot magnet, but sometimes the amount of stupidity surrounding him caught him off guard.
"Of course that's not true. How could you believe something so stupid?"
"But Rina said that Akane was sick of your slimy cheatingness, and she wanted nothing more to do with you and your dance competition destroying ways," another boy chimed in, and smiled when he was able to recall the quote verbatim. The smile quickly left his face when he saw Ranma scowl.
Ranma knew Rina was furious, but did she have to ruin his good name? Couldn't she just put some explosives in his locker or something? Hell, he hated rumors.
"Why would I care if Akane danced in some lame competition?"
"Rina said, that Akane thought you were an attention grabbing hack who-"
"I don't care what Rina said!" Ranma snarled.
"Well," said a derisive voice Ranma didn't recognize, "it's pretty easy to imagine you wanting to upstage Akane, seeing as how you have done it time and time again. No wonder she got sick of it and left."
Ranma turned to the speaker and saw Shiro, the boy whose nose Akane tried to help and who persisted in asking her out afterwards.
"Look," Ranma gave a short bark of laughter, and said with a bravado he didn't feel, "I don't know what you're talking about. I've never upstaged Akane, and she certainly isn't so sensitive that she would leave the country over it."
"What about the time when you played both Romeo and Juliet in the same play?" came a voice from the back.
"Or the time when you ate Akane's eel so you could win the take out contest?" another voice chimed.
"Wait, wasn't that the same time you were naked with that Chinese girl in Kuno's bathtub in front of Akane?" a third questioned.
"I was wearing pants," Ranma protested, and turned to see the smirking face of Shiro. Deciding this guy was the ringleader, he went on the offensive.
"I remember you; you're the slime ball who felt like he needed to ask Akane out while I was standing in the room. If I remember correctly, I helped you with your nose. That was satisfying," he smirked, confident he had put the little puke back in his place.
"Yeah," Shiro breathed out with a slightly glazed look on his face, "Akane made it satisfying."
Ranma had to use all his will power not to break the kid's nose again.
When his eyes refocused, Shiro shrugged, "It's not like I'm the only guy here to have asked Akane out."
Ranma's eyes scanned the locker room and suddenly every boy in the room had something so much more interesting to look at than him.
"Alright," Ranma said, irked, "I'm only going to ask this once, who of you have asked Akane out recently?"
It took a couple of minutes, but the boys must have decided there was safety in numbers because eventually, every hand in the locker room was raised.
This was not funny. "I mean in the last 30 days or so."
Three hands went down; really not funny.
"You guys have been asking Akane out behind my back? She's my fiancée!"
"You wouldn't think it," Shiro scoffed.
"What the hell's that supposed to mean?" Ranma shot back.
"I mean that if any of these boys thought for a second that you were really interested in Akane they wouldn't have asked her out, but you never took the fiancée thing seriously so neither did we." Shiro shrugged, confident in his flawless logic. "You never treated her like you were trying to keep her around, so we assumed you didn't want her. You have a bunch of other girls hanging around anyway. It's not like you paid that much attention to Akane, there was no reason to let you know. Despite the fact that you don't deserve it, she never said yes."
Ranma stared at Shiro, trying to absorb this piece of new information. For two years he had been at this school, and it seemed that for two years boys had been asking Akane out, and she'd never breathed a word about it. It's true that she'd gone out on a date with Ryoga once, but for the most part she didn't date. Ranma'd always assumed it was because they were engaged, and no other boys were asking her out. He thought this nonsense was all cleared up when he put a stop to the boys fighting her every morning. He thought that was a sign they were a couple, kind of. In his mind the matter had been settled long ago.
"What, got nothing to say, Saotome?"
"Shut up, man," Ranma growled still floored that no one in the room seemed to think they were a real couple.
"What are you going to do, fight me?" Shiro sneered.
"You know I can wipe the floor with you seventy times over, so don't even start," Ranma said, striving for cool as he took off his shirt and hung it in his locker.
"I know, but you have to know that you can't fight every guy who shows an interest in Akane. Face it, I don't need muscles to win this battle, I just need a little time with her to show her I can be thoughtful without shooting off my mouth, and I won't need to fight you at all. She'll choose me."
Shiro hit a nerve, and Ranma spun around and jerked open his locker so hard the door came off. He didn't need to stay here and listen to this. He already knew that as far as boyfriends went, he wasn't any good at all the romantic junk. He'd already lived through the pain of having Akane pick Shinnosuke over him. Shiro's barb was a little too close to an already tender wound. He put his shirt back on and rounded on Shiro.
"Stay away from Akane," he growled. Then in an effort to sound more casual, he added, "Feh, you're not even her type."
"Oh yeah, and how would you know what her type is?"
On his way out the door Ranma tossed over his shoulder, "She likes guys whose names she can remember."
Exhausted and sweaty, Akane collapsed on all fours seeing blood drip from her mouth onto the floor of the dojo. Her attack had been ineffectual. She was just as likely to get a hit in on this guy as she was going to learn how to make a soufflé. Her arms ached, her side hurt, she was pretty sure there would be a huge bruise there in the morning. Her lips were swollen, and she had a goose egg the size of Koyto forming on her head.
"Akane," Katashi-san called calmly, "it is time to rest." He moved to the center of the dojo, in front of the shrine, and sat in the lotus position.
Akaen staggered to her feet wiping the back of her hand across her mouth in a vain attempt to staunch the bleeding. He handed her a cold cloth for her mouth and she wiped it.
"Perhaps you could indulge my curiosity. Why is a nice Japanese girl like you in Thailand?"
Akane was feeling a little off kilter. Here was a kind old man who had just kicked her trash. Now he was inviting her to sit and tell him a story. Not forgetting the earlier lessons, she knelt down out of reach and kept a wary eye on the Master. Gently dabbing her lip she started off by explaining the medical mission and that she was only in town for the weekends. On Sunday night she would be returning to their campsite near a much smaller village. He smiled and nodded.
"Where are your eyebrows?"
"I'd rather not say," Akane said flushing to the roots of her hair.
Again he smiled and nodded. "Why is a nice Japanese girl like you training with Happosai?"
Katachi-san was a very sympathetic listener, and soon she was telling him about her family and her home in Japan. With every encouraging nod more of her life came spilling out, and soon he knew everything. He knew about the curses and how she messed things up with Kasumi, he knew about P-chan and Ryoga too. In fact, the only thing she didn't tell him was how she felt about Ranma. She talked until she was hoarse, or maybe she was hoarse from being punched in the throat. She couldn't tell and it didn't matter. It didn't matter if she ever saw this crazy, sweet, violent old man ever again. She just needed to talk to someone after a week of isolation. Her burdens were too heavy to carry on her own, and his aged shoulders were just the right size to carry some of them for her.
After she had completely dumped on this virtual stranger he was quiet for some moments, and then he said, "Akane, let me tell you a story."
"There was, in a small village in Japan, an old woman. Every day she would take her clay pot out to the stream and fill it with water. One day when she was at the river she spied a kitsune.* Being a respecter of the wise animal, she offered him some of her lunch of steamed buns. The kitsune took it and the woman and the kitsune became friends. After many years of friendship, the kitsune met daily with the woman near the river. She had advanced in age by this time, and her clay pot was very heavy. On this day she dropped her pot, and it shattered into a thousand pieces. The kitsune stepped on one of the shards and it lodged itself into his paw.
He was in such pain from his paw that he lashed out at the old woman and accused her of deliberately befriending him only to hurt him. She tried to apologize and offered to remove the shard, but the kitsune was too enraged to listen. He transformed into a human and had the woman brought before the mayor of the town. There with the throbs of pain from the shard encouraging him, he accused the old woman of all manner or vile crimes and she was put to death. The kitsune soon felt bad for his false accusations of his old friend, and as a penance, refused to ever have the shard pulled from his paw. The kitsune never was able to make peace with his actions, because he never had the shard removed. It served as a constant throbbing reminder of his past."
Akane only half listened to the story. The embarrassment of having a breakdown to a complete stranger was starting to catch up to her, and she wondered what he was really thinking, Additionally, she was very aware that he might pounce on her at any time. She ached everywhere. Training with Dr. Tofu had been tough, but he always healed her after and she never went home with so much as a bruise. The pain was always temporary. Now she knew she was going to ache for days.
"Akane, are you listening to me?"
"Hmm? Yes sir, I am listening."
"Tonight you will stay here in the guest house. It has its own bath, and you can recover. We will start bright and early tomorrow with more training. This is going to be more work than I thought," Katachi sighed.
Akane's temper got the better of her. "Hey I didn't ask to be trained by you-"
Katachi-san cut her off, "No, but you need it. I also think you need me to remove some shards as well."
Her pride stung. She didn't come on this mission to train. She came to help people, but she wasn't even doing that now. Would it kill her to sneak in some extra training on the weekends? It was a good excuse not to hang out with anyone at camp, plus it would keep her in shape, but she had her pride.
Akane vacillated for a few moments and then griped, "Fine. We start bright and early."
Ranma cornered Daisuke and Hiroshi at the end of a hallway. Now that he knew boys had been asking Akane out he had no doubt that these two were just as guilty as the rest of his gym class. Now he wished he'd poisoned both of them instead of just Hiroshi.
"Hey," he said.
"Hey, Ranma," they said, Daisuke stuffing a dirty magazine in his locker. "What's up?"
Ranma hadn't really thought about what he was going to say to these boys when he approached them. At the time, all he could think of was finding someone that could tell him if he and Akane were the couple he thought they were, but now, blurting out, "Hey, did it seem like Akane and I were an item?" suddenly seemed like a really good way to get himself made fun of for the rest of his life.
"I, uh . . . need to ask you guys something, ok?" he stammered, already blushing.
Daisuke and Hiroshi looked at each other, instantly on guard. "Sure, buddy, what's up?" Daisuke asked cautiously.
"It's about girls…a girl…she and I…about being together," Ranma stumbled over his words.
Hiroshi and Daisuke looked at each other in disbelief and then a gleeful smile came over Hiroshi's face.
"Ranma, after all these years we thought this day would never come." He nodded at Daisuke, who turned and fished out his dirty magazine from his locker.
"Now," Daisuke excitedly rubbed his hands over his magazine, "we have all the information you want right here. We're happy to share it with you, but you have to give us something in return."
Ranma, ever suspicious, asked, "What?"
Hiroshi and Daisuke looked at each other as if confirming their mental connection via the gutters of human thought.
"We want details, man. DETAILS."
"You want details?" Ranma repeated, not a little confused. "Details about what?"
"You and this girl, man. We want to know what she's like."
"You know what she's like, she's violent and crazy," Ranma huffed out.
There was silence for a moment. Then Daisuke ventured, "Akane?"
When Ranma nodded, Daisuke burst out, "You've got to be kidding me! You and Akane. I never would have thought. She's, like, wow man."
Hiroshi couldn't contain himself anymore. "I never would have thought Akane. I thought for sure she was going to make you wait for marriage, or at least until you were done with the other three girls." Tears came to his eyes and he rested his hand on Ranma's shoulder. "I'm just so damn proud of you."
Ranma, who was a little slow on the uptake, finally caught on. "Oh no..no..no..no..NO. Akane and I have never….I would never… who would want to…with her…"
Hiroshi and Daisuke deflated. "So, not Akane?" Again they looked at each other and without saying a word, came to an agreement. "That's ok. We're still happy to hear about that hot, Chinese chick."
Ranma slapped his hand to his forehead and then slapped both boys upside the head. "That's not what I was going to ask about you perverts!" Then he turned on his heel and walked off down the hall.
After a moment of silence, Hiroshi murmmed to Daisuke, "I bet it was Akane, dude, he's even starting to sound like her."
The two boys knowingly nodded, high fived, and then saluted the empty hallway where their new hero had just vacated.
Akane climbed in the back of the truck cradling her right side. The drive back to camp was going to be so painful. She steeled herself for the pain. Focused as she was, she didn't notice Dr. Masa come and sit next to her on the makeshift benches.
"Holy hell! What happened to you? You look like you were hit by a bus," Dr. Masa exclaimed.
Akane was unaware of the mosaic of visible multi colored bruises that covered her skin. She gave a weak smile and said, "I think that would hurt less."
"Seriously, what happened? Dr. Gifu is going to blow a gasket when he sees you. Are those gummy bears in your hair?"
"I promise nothing bad happened to me this weekend. I just found someone who was willing to spar with me, and he won."
Itou shook his head. "I'll never understand you martial artist types. How on earth could that be fun?"
"It wasn't." Akane smiled.
"Don't let it interfere with all the work you are doing at camp. Oh wait, never mind," Itou said. "Oh, and you better not let any of the little kids from the village see you until you've healed a bit. Without eyebrows and covered in bruises you look a little scary." Then he got up and moved to the other side of the truck and didn't spare another glance in Akane's direction.
Akane wanted to harrumph, but her ribs hurt, so she settled for rolling her eyes. Physically she felt terrible. She'd lost over and over again, but she was so focused on the art that she spared very little time thinking about herself, or Ranma. That felt really good. With no time and no extra energy to feel sorry for herself, she actually started to feel like herself again.
One of the nurses on the trip sat next to Akane and quietly said, "I noticed you are favoring your side, would you like me to look at it?"
Akane looked at her and smiled. "That would be great. I think it might need to be wrapped. I'm Akane."
"What a lovely name." Akane's natural ability to put people at ease brought a brief smile to her new friend's face.
"Thank you. Are you sure you're going to be ok?" Miwa asked, concern creasing her face.
Akane looked at her for a long moment and then broke into an infectious grin. "Yeah, I'm going to be just fine."
*a Japanese fox commonly used in folklore
Phew, what a long chapter. Thanks for sticking with it. So Akane gets a taste of what it must have been like to train like Ranma. Let's see how she deals with it. As to Ranma, well, he gets to deal with High School without Akane acting as a buffer for him. We'll see how works out for him as well. I know many of you are concerned that Ranma isn't growing up fast enough, but I promise he will in the next few chapters. We'll get him where many of you have been waiting for him to be. Things are going to work out. Trust me. Thanks for the reviews.