Disclaimer: I don't own any of this.

The Lady of the Mountain

by: Flashfyre5

Chapter 7: Family

Afterward, Ranma and Akane shared a long silence. He had not expected his own explanation at the end of it, the simple voice that he'd given to the torturous moment that had set him on this path. It wasn't something that he'd ever really thought about—after all, he'd come to the mountain to bury that past, to escape it as completely as he could. It... unnerved him to think that his escape itself might very well be a part, perhaps the most important part, of a life that he thought he'd abandoned.

She, on the other hand, felt her insides crumbling. As the years had passed and she'd come to terms with the fact that Ranma was not and had never been the pervert that she'd once taken him to be, a large part of her had surrendered to the seemingly-simple truth that Ranma must have slept with Shampoo because he loved the purple-haired warrior woman. He may very well have loved Akane as well, but the sex had represented a monumental thing to her, a decision that had been meant to end the mad year of engagements that had plagued them all. Hearing Ranma's perspective, and especially the reasons for what he'd done, was a terrible disillusionment. Akane licked her lips.

"Mousse never mentioned you or Shampoo crying," she managed softly. Ranma nodded.

"He never could see very well, even with the glasses," Ranma agreed. "Besides, they're made for his human eyes. They're worse than useless when he's a duck." Akane nodded, and there was silence again.

"I-" they both started at once, and stopped. Akane blushed, and Ranma laughed.

"You first," he said. Akane gathered her courage again.

"I know that I apologized before," she said, "but-"

"Don't," Ranma interrupted. "You got pissed and overreacted. Of course you overreacted. You always overreacted." Akane's eyes began to fill with tears at Ranma's harsh words. He winced. "Gah, I didn't mean it like that," he said, and put a muscled hand on her shoulder. He bit his lip for a minute, then tried again. "What I mean was that I should've known better. Sure, you blew your top, but I woulda too. I've been thinking about that day with Cologne for fifteen damn years, and I can't even begin to tell you how big I screwed up. You got mad, but it was really all my fault."

"But I didn't give you a chance to explain," Akane said, her despair clear in her voice. Ranma shook his head.

"So? You'd just gotten cheated on by your fiancee," he shrugged. "What sane person woulda given me a chance to explain? I got what I deserved outta that."

"But..." Akane tried, but found that she had nothing to say. Ranma smiled, just a bit.

"I shoulda come and told you about it before," he said, voice thick with certainty and regret. "I had four hours to set things up so that people knew what was gonna happen and why, and I blew it. I sat there for a half hour and thought about all the ways that having Shampoo gone was gonna make things better, and it blinded me to everything else. I just took Cologne's word that things'd stay a secret." He laughed a bit and shook his head. "It was Nerima. Of course someone'd find out. I sure as hell lived there long enough to know that."

"I probably wouldn't have listened," Akane admitted.

"Then I woulda told Nabiki, and Ucchan, and Kasumi, until someone started listening," Ranma said. He thought for a moment. "Or I could've gotten Cologne to tell you all about the plan. You woulda been pissed, but you would've also seen the backside of Shampoo forever in a week's time. I think that would've gone a long way toward making stuff better." Akane nodded a bit, even if she wasn't so sure, and became increasingly aware of Ranma's hand on her shoulder. He seemed to remember after a bit, and dropped it to his side again.

"What were you going to say?" Akane asked.

"Actually," Ranma said sheepishly, glancing out the window into the night sky beyond the little house. "I was gonna apologize too." Akane smiled a bit.

"How about we both just say that we screwed up and call it even?" Akane asked, holding out a hand. Ranma looked at it, thought a bit, then nodded.

"I don't think it's exactly fair, but it's a deal," he agreed, and clasped her hand. They shook once, firmly, and the almost oppressive atmosphere that had hung over them both since Ranma had begun his story seemed to lift a little.

"So," Ranma said with exaggerated cheerfulness. "I'm dead tired. We were up late last night, and I didn't get much sleep. I'm heading to bed." He arched his back, stretching, then rose.

"I'll be in in a bit," Akane said. There was still a half-bowl of stir fry from dinner sitting on the table next to her left hand, long forgotten after Ranma's long story. Still, she'd been working out all day, and her stomach was still empty; that would have to be remedied before she could sleep, and Akane had never cared for cold stir fry. Ranma padded off to the bedroom and slid the door closed behind him.

Akane walked over to the pantry. After a few minutes of thinking, she took a small jar of Ranma's pickles, opened it, and took a bite out of a small spear. She blinked in surprise at the delectable vegetable, and looked again at the little treat.

"He wasn't kidding," she muttered to herself, and finished the spear in two quick bites. Another followed it, and then a third, before she slowed some and began to think again. Despite her agreement with Ranma over their shared past, hearing his side of that day had changed everything for her in a way, she realized, that she simply couldn't ignore. Akane pulled herself on top of the kitchen counter near the sink and chewed slowly on another pickle.

Sex with Shampoo had been a decisive act, as Akane had always thought, but his choice had been her. The fact that he'd been willing to go to such lengths to settle things, not just over the short term, as he had done so many times before, but permanently was already haunting her, the idea dancing around the outside of every thought she had. Akane winced in pain as she bit into her finger—she'd finished the fourth pickle without noticing. A fifth replaced it, and she re-capped the jar. She dropped down from the countertop, hauled out Ranma's cooler, and put the jar in to keep them fresh.

She ate her last pickle slowly. As she did, she leaned against the kitchen counter and stared at the door to their shared bedroom. Something stirred within her, something all too familiar and far too dangerous. Akane quashed it as best she could, but she knew very well that her body would not quiet itself so easily. She wanted Ranma, wanted him in a way that she hadn't wanted anything or anyone in all the years since her meditation training with Shodai-sensei had helped her to face her private demons and tame them, if imperfectly. Now they raged free again, and images of what she could do with, and to, Ranma consumed her. A traitorous part of her argued that, since sex had ruined everything, sex might be able to fix things between them. She tried to focus on the pickle, but it was gone and with it, her excuse to stay outside of the bedroom.

With a sigh and as much focus as she could muster, Akane opened the bedroom door and slipped inside. Ranma already lay asleep, half of his body sprawled against the exterior wall that his bed shared a wall with. Akane shucked her clothes, then pulled on a large shirt, one that would've been just a bit loose on her former male form but was far too big for her female one. Though she still held many reservations, Akane closed her eyes, took the edge of Ranma's bedding and, in one swift movement, pulled it up and slipped in.

Ranma awoke immediately as Akane joined him in bed. Before he could react, Akane wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled herself close, head burrowing against his chest. He held a panicked pose for a few long seconds before he said anything.

"Akane, what're you doing?" Ranma asked.

"I want to sleep here tonight," she said softly. There was a silence.

"I thought that you didn't love me," Ranma said cautiously.

"I don't," Akane said. "But I think that maybe I could." The silence was longer this time, and it was Akane that eventually broke it. "Did you ever... you know, after Shampoo?"

"No," he said, shaking his head softly above hers. It was a sensation that she'd felt, and enjoyed, countless times before, but it felt different this time, as different as the sun was from the moon. "Are you... do you want to...?" he tried unsuccessfully. Akane kissed him, firmly, on the lips. Ranma stiffened for a few moments, then began to relax.

"Shut up," she said, breaking the kiss, and closed her eyes. Although it was, by far, the hardest thing she had ever done, Akane settled into Ranma's arms and slowly began to drift off to sleep. After a long, perplexed time, Ranma followed her.

Ranma woke early, as he always had, and looked down at the woman that had crawled into his bed last night. It was... different than he thought it'd be. For one, it was more painful. Akane's slumber might have grown calmer over the years, but it couldn't possibly have grown that much calmer. His shoulder smarted, and his neck felt like it had a crick in it that'd take all day to work out. Still, she was calm now, in the last few minutes before false dawn would break over the mountains, and the ghostly gray non-light made her look like an extra in a horror movie. She was, Ranma decided, still quite beautiful.

He carefully extricated himself from the bed via a combination of judo and gymnastics, executing a perfect landing from a handstand braced on the frame of his bed. She stirred a bit, but didn't wake. Ranma took the opportunity to look at her for a few more minutes, thinking, trying to identify the subtle wrongness that he sensed. Eventually, he gave up, and slipped out of the room silently.

Akane waited a full minute before she opened her eyes. In truth, she had awoken before Ranma had, and had felt the oddness, the... wrongness that Ranma had felt as well. She had known exactly what it was, and despaired. Still, she pretended to sleep, if for no other reason than to see what Ranma would do when he woke. If, she had hoped, he didn't feel the same way she felt that morning, there might be a passing chance... instead, he had vanished from the bed like a spirit, and that last vestigial hope had vanished with him.

When Ranma finally began to make enough noise in the kitchen that she could be certain he wouldn't hear her, Akane let herself weep the bitter tears that's she'd held back since she'd awoken.

The sense of wrongness was back, Ranma observed, when the two shared dinner that evening. Akane had spent all day in the practice fields again, and had very nearly mastered the basic form of the morisenken to the point where she could use it at a moment's notice in battle. Another day's work and she'd have it; after that, she could work on developing some of the advanced forms that the technique would enable. They'd sparred that afternoon, but her heart hadn't been in it, and she'd left to continue her practice halfway through the fight.

Akane's behavior perplexed Ranma, and it was perhaps for that reason that he didn't examine his own feelings more carefully. He'd never seen her like this; in some senses, she was acting like a very quiet Ryouga. He could feel the depression sloughing off of her, but there was something else behind it, something that he couldn't put his finger on. As he munched on that evening's fare—vegetable tempura—Ranma considered asking her about it, but quickly decided against doing so. Frankly, they'd spent a lot of time talking in the past couple of days, and he was quite tired of the long, difficult conversations that had become almost standard between them. Articulation had never been his strong suit. He chewed on the thought for a bit, then decided that he'd be better off just doing something about her depression instead. A plan began to form.

As such, scarcely ten words passed between the two that night. They slept separately.

Akane found a little note tacked into the front door with a pushpin the next morning. Ranma had risen earlier than she had, and there was no sign of him around the farm aside from the note. It read as follows:


I'm gonna be out today. See ya at dinner. Come hungry.

It was signed with a little drawing of a horse, and Akane couldn't help but laugh. It was still early, and Ranma had apparently left her alone for the day. She thought for a minute, and then decided that this called for a long bath. Within five minutes, she had stripped, scrubbed, rinsed, and inserted herself into the interior onsen. The scalding heat soothed her mentally more than it did physically, and she savored it.

Today would be better, Akane decided. Yesterday had been a day of mourning, for what had been and for what might have been. The sadness of her reality had weighed on her heart, but the crucial moment had passed. She hurt, yes, but the pain was already dulling.

She shifted in the tub and, on a whim, slipped into the morisenken. It came easily now, and she was surprised to notice that it didn't stir the waters of the hot spring at all. She released the technique and shifted a bit.

The question now was what she should do—it was the very last question she would have to face here, she knew, and it only arose because all her other questions had been laid to a firm rest. She considered several different options. After about a half hour, she pulled herself from the hot spring and toweled herself off, having made no real progress.

After a light breakfast, she removed herself to the training fields. Two long kata later—a light warmup, but one that she enjoyed, for the simple beauty of the forms—she began her training with the morisenken again. While she was getting better and better at the base form, she knew that the technique left a great deal of potential open space, an area for growth and experimentation that would take her years to develop. Just learning how to breathe while maintaining the morisenken would take her months, she knew instinctively. It was at once exciting and intimidating.

Akane left off her training around noon. There was still plenty for her to do, but the question of what she should do about Ranma had begun to weigh on her again. This time, she made her way over to the obsidian boulder, sat on it, and crossed her legs. Slowly, she began to meditate.

Time passed.

When Akane opened her eyes again, hours had passed. The sun had dipped low in the western sky, washing the few clouds near it in hues of orange and pink. It was beautiful, and she enjoyed the view for a few minutes before she rose. The meditation had been good—she had her answer. Tomorrow, then. It wouldn't do to put it off any longer.

The house was lit from within when Akane returned; she could see Ranma's shadow flickering as he moved around the kitchen inside. She smiled, remembering his note from earlier, and entered.

"Hey," Ranma greeted her from the kitchen when she entered. Akane gasped in surprise at the scene arrayed in front of her.

The usual rice-pot had been set out on the counter, and Ranma was scooping a handful out. He shaped it with his hands, slapping his cupped palms together with a popping noise. When he was satisfied, he took a strip of thick-sliced but still small fish from the pile that lay near the red snapper from which it had come. Near the snapper's carcass was a dismembered octopus and the shells of several shrimp. Ranma carefully placed the strip of fish onto the rice, then secured it in place with a thin strip of seaweed. The piece of sushi joined several mates on a platter that Ranma had almost finished assembling. He began another piece.

"This must have cost you a fortune!" Akane managed. Ranma laughed.

"Why pay when you can go catch 'em for free?" he asked, forming another bit of rice. "It's only about an hour and a half to the ocean with the kazesenken."

"You caught all this?" Akane asked, sitting at the table.

"Yup," Ranma grinned. "The octopus put up a pretty good fight, but nothing the world's greatest martial artist couldn't handle." He laughed, and Akane joined him. The last piece of sushi finished, Ranma washed his hands then brought the platter over. Balanced on his head was a little plate of freshly-grated wasabi.

"What brought this on?" Akane asked. Ranma set the platter down, then slid the wasabi saucer down his arm and onto the table.

"You seemed kinda down last night," Ranma shrugged. "I remembered that you always used to like sushi, so I figured I'd make some." Akane shook her head and took a piece of shrimp sushi.

"Only you," she said, but her smile didn't leave her face.

"What?" Ranma asked wryly. He gobbled down a piece of octopus sushi and grabbed a second.

"You decided to make sushi," Akane explained, "so you flew out to the ocean with a martial arts technique, wrestled an octopus and a fish into submission, and then flew back." She laughed. "Who else could or would do something like that?" Ranma shrugged bashfully and bit into his second piece of sushi.

"Well, is it any good?" he asked.

"You're no sushi chef, but it's tasty," Akane said. They ate for a while in silence.

"You mind me askin' what had ya down yesterday?" Ranma eventually asked. Akane smiled wanly.

"I realized something," she said. A piece of red snapper was devoured.

"What?" Ranma asked when she didn't elaborate. Akane hesitated, hand hovering over the platter, then sagged a bit. In that moment, every day of her age showed.

"Yesterday morning," she began slowly. "When you got out of bed and looked at me..." She paused, looking for the right words. "You weren't watching me out of fondness or love or anythng like that, were you?" Ranma was startled by her question, but he gave it a moment's thought before he answered.

"No," he admitted.

"Why, then?" she asked. Ranma thought some more, and ate another piece of octopus.

"I don't know," he finally said. "Something felt wrong... weird. I don't know how to explain it." Akane nodded sadly.

"I do," she said, "because I felt it too." She drew a deep breath and expelled it before continuing. "You're attracted to me, right?" Ranma nodded cautiously. "And I think you know how attracted I am to you," Akane added. Ranma shrugged a bit bashfully.

"The problem," Akane said after a moment, "is that our bodies are telling us one thing, but our hearts are telling us something else. Our whole time together here has been full of pain and stress and emotion, and that's not something that you can build a working relationship on. The weirdness..." Akane paused sadly. "The weirdness is the death of a romance. It happens when two compatible people have too much between them to love anymore." She sighed sharply and looked away. "I've been through this sort of thing a few times." Ranma considered this for a long time, and eventually nodded.

"Yeah, I think you're right," he said. They looked at each other, the weirdness swelling. "So, what's the plan?"

"I'm going to leave for home tomorrow morning," Akane said. "I have what I came for, or at least as much of it as I'm going to get. I've been on the road for nine years. I miss Daddy."

"That quick?" Ranma asked.

"What more is there to stay for?" Akane asked, shrugging. "If I stay, things'll only get worse between us, and you can't help me with the morisenken any more. I want to leave while we're still on good terms with each other." She paused, and when she spoke again, it was very soft. "I want my last memory of you to be a good one this time." She looked at the sushi platter. "Something like this." Ranma didn't have anything to say to that.

"I thought you said that you could love me again," Ranma said, almost accusingly. Akane winced.

"I think that maybe I could," Akane said. "Someday. Not here. Not now. This place is full of pain and hard memories for me. Even if we left together, I think it'd haunt me." She paused. "You deserve better than that."

"Says you," Ranma sniped. He took a moment and, eyes closed, visibly calmed himself. "I really don't give a damn about this weirdness crap. All I know is that if you're willing to give it a try, I am." His offer hung in the air, and the allure of it drew Akane in ways that she had been totally unprepared for. She opened her mouth, and for an instant, a frenzied acceptance nearly spilled out.

"Ask me again sometime," Akane said. "When time and space has given us the chance to heal a bit."

"Why not?" he asked. Akane took a long time to answer.

"Because," she said, "if you and I were together, I'd need it to be forever." She paused, biting her lower lip. "Because you mean too much to me, good and bad. Because," she added, her voice tiny, "I don't think that I could survive losing you this time." Ranma rocked backwards, and for the first time he began to truly understand what his affair with Shampoo had done to Akane... and what it had almost done, perhaps had very nearly succeeded in doing, that she had never discussed. He could see the warning in her eyes, mingled with the unshed tears that had begin to crowd into them, and did not dare to ask.

"Okay," he agreed. The two were silent for a few more minutes, and then began to eat again. The platter was cleared of fish in fairly short order, and not another word was exchanged between the two for the duration. They sat there afterward for a time. Eventually, Akane rose and began to walk toward the bedroom.

"Before you go," Ranma said suddenly, and Akane stopped. "Let's fight one last time. For real." Akane turned to face him.

"You sure you can handle me?" she asked, a rakish grin creasing her face despite the more volatile emotions that hid behind it. Ranma returned the grin with a devilish look.

"Ranma Saotome doesn't lose to anyone," he said confidently. "Especially not uncute, musclebound tomboys." Akane's eyebrows shot up at the unexpected verbal jab, but couldn't help but be encouraged by Ranma's playful tone.

"Careful, or I'll pull out the mallet right here," she threatened, her own tone equally playful.

"Go ahead and try," Ranma grinned, hopping to his feet. "You couldn't hit the broad side of a barn, let alone me." Akane dove at him. He spun out of the way and out the front door, leaving Akane to crash into the dinner table and the remains of their food. The table collapsed under her weight, dishes and soy sauce flying everywhere. She rolled quickly and leapt out the window, which Ranma had left open for ventilation. Akane landed lightly and chased after Ranma, who was already making his way toward their sparring grounds. They ran for a few minutes under the bright light of the moon and the stars of the milky way. The sky was cloudless and clear, but neither Ranma nor Akane paused to appreciate it.

When Akane arrived at the training grounds, Ranma had taken up a more aggressive variation of his easy stance. Akane struck a kempo stance, the same that she had used to open their very first fight together.

"I say screw the warm-up stuff," Ranma proposed.

"All right," Akane grinned, and stomped the ground hard, using a combination of martial arts turf wars and the bakusai tenketsu. The earth under Ranma's feet warped, and he had just enough time to sway backwards before a spray of small rocks blasted upwards from the ground underneath him. The grapeshot mostly missed him, and he turned the sway into a cartwheel; as he came out of it, a sharp, focused blast of ki shot out from each hand and toward Akane. They briefly illuminated the battlefield in a sharp blue before they were disintegrated by Akane's morisenken.

In the few moments of pause that the morisenken demanded, Ranma charged. Akane took his first flying kick to her forehead, the morisenken holding her immovably in place. The pain of the attack blossomed, but she ignored it. Ranma rebounded off of her, striking her chin with his other foot as he flipped backward. Akane took the blow, and then dropped the morisenken in the moment afterward. Ranma had no chance to see or stop the sharp two-fisted punch that caught him in the back, and the force of it sent him flying backwards like a fired cannonball.

Partway through his flight, Ranma whisked into the kazesenken. His momentum carried him harmlessly through the obsidian boulder, after which he flew upward into the night sky. Akane tracked his progress and fired a ki blast of her own—this one the warped purple of ambivalence—but missed him by a fair margin. She tried again, and while this one was nearer, only missing Ranma by about a foot, it gave Ranma the opportunity to fire back with a ki blast of his own. Akane was forced into the morisenken again, and the blast dissipated, but Ranma again took the opportunity to punish her—this time with a punch to her solar plexus.

Akane exhaled a gout of flame after Ranma as he flitted away, insubstantial again, but he was simply too quick for such a tactic. Perhaps the only good that the flamethrower did was to ruin both his and her night-vision; for a few seconds, hostility ceased as their vision cleared.

"You should really give up now," Ranma gloated from overhead. "You can't get me while I'm using the kazesenken—you can't get close enough for your ki attacks to hit me before I dodge, and I can get in and punish you every time you use the morisenken. If you can't fly, you can't beat me." Akane's eyes narrowed, even if Ranma couldn't possibly have seen them.

"You know," Akane said, "I never told you who trained me until I could beat Herb." She crouched, and managed to locate Ranma's faint outline above.

"Oh yeah? Who?" Ranma asked.

"Saffron," Akane grinned, and a great gout of flame erupted from her feet. She roared into the air like a rocket, a fiery contrail streaking behind her. Ranma dodged desperately, but Akane's technique imparted her with a terrible speed. She streaked through his insubstantial legs harmlessly, but the ki-fueled flames that propelled her scorched Ranma's shins. The bottom half of his pants burned and fell from the rest of him, becoming physical again as they did. Akane streaked onward, turning ponderously under the force of her own acceleration.

"What the fuck!" Ranma exclaimed, both at the technique and at Akane's claim. He twisted and blindly shot ki blasts after Akane as she turned, the light of the fire having ruined his night-vision again. One got lucky, and Akane had to drop the flight technique and bobble wildly in order to avoid it. Ranma lobbed another two blasts at her falling form, one of which struck home. She tumbled and struck the ground hard. Ranma watched warily, not daring to approach.

"Houou Tachiagatta!" Akane cried, and rose into the air again in a fiery pillar. This time, Ranma had enough space to dodge, and as Akane passed by, he spiraled quickly around her contrail.

"Hiryuu Oriyochi Ha!" he countered, striking into the heart of the superheated air with a corkscrewing uppercut. A tornado erupted, and the tight convective vacuum formed by the tight spiral and Akane's even tighter flames struck Akane with the force of a dropped bomb in reverse. At first, seeing the almost-horizontal twister forming behind her, Akane dumped ki into the fires that propelled her. Unfortunately, as she quickly realized, this fueled the tornado's expansion to a terrible degree, and the massive low pressure drew her in despite her best efforts. As she was about to be swallowed by the terrible thing, Akane dropped the houou tachigatta. She tumbled into the heart of the giant twister uncontrollably, and the ki-fueled winds sliced her skin and sucked at her ki.

In a moment of prescience, Akane drew up the morisenken. For a short second, her descent halted, and she froze in midair. Afterward, gravity reasserted its dominance over her warped bubble of local reality, and she continued to fall, but the fury of Ranma's technique was greatly reduced; still, she was cut, and still she bled, but without any sensible ki to draw upon, Akane could already see that the tornado was beginning to destabilize.

Ranma must have seen this as well, because a rapid series of punches crashed into her kidneys as she fell. Trapped in the morisenken, Akane couldn't respond, and a second series of punches hammered into her spine. She caught a glance of Ranma's insubstantial form for a moment before a spinning axe kick smashed into her ribs and sent her crashing to the ground. Still insubstantial, and as such unaffected by the winds of the failing tornado, Ranma flitted down after her. Blow after blow followed, which Akane could only bear without retaliation or defense; if she dropped the morisenken now, the tornado would stabilize again and finish the fight on its own.

By the time that Ranma's twister finally fell apart, Akane had well and truly lost the fight. Ranma had hammered on her every vulnerable spot for over a minute, and he knew as well as she did that she couldn't possibly continue after such a beating. Akane dropped the morisenken and held her hands up in a shielding gesure.

"I give, I give," she croaked. "Uncle, already." Ranma, breathing heavily. dropped out of the kazesenken and kneeled next to her, wincing at the pain from his freshly-burned legs.

"You okay?" he asked, placing a hand on her shoulder. Akane nodded.

"Just bruises. I'll be fine in the morning," she said, and simply lay in the little crater that she'd created as a result of Ranma's attacks. Most of her body was telling her rather emphatically that she'd really rather not move right now, and she was inclined to obey. Ranma nodded and slouched back.

"Damn, you're good," he said, and Akane grinned, despite her pain.

"Told you," she said. Ranma chuckled and patted her shoulder again.

"Saffron?" he asked after a minute of rest. "Really?" Akane nodded.

"He's weird this time around," she explained. "The phoenix people kidnapped a Buddhist monk when he was little, and made him help while they were raising Saffron." She paused for breath. "Now he's equal parts monk and maniac. He thinks he's the reincarnation cycle in physical form. One minute he'll be quoting Siddhartha and the next he'll attack you without mercy. He taught me for the better part of a year and I still don't understand him." Ranma thought about this.

"I don't get it," he said. "Why'd he help you?"

"He says that he has to deal with the karma of his last death," Akane said. "He still remembers all of his past lives, sort of, but he's got this whole weird interpretation of his place in the world because of all of the sutras that they filled his head with." Akane thought for a bit. "He's really good with ki, though."

"And he's looking for me?" Ranma asked. Akane nodded.

"Apparently, for the same reasons as he wanted me me, though I'm not sure whether he'd rather help you or kill you," Akane said. "He almost killed me in training a couple of times. He's scary, even with this whole monk thing." She pushed herself to a sitting position, wincing at the pain. "Kiima found me wandering around the outskirts of Musk territory after Herb beat me up the first time, and came back with a platoon. I did better than I did last time, but they still kidnapped me again," she grinned sheepishly. Ranma grinned back.

"What is it with you and weird princes anyway?" Ranma teased, and both laughed, even if the laughter was more subdued than it might have been. Afterward, the two shared an easy silence, the weirdness that had hovered between them gone for a time.

"Help me up," Akane asked. "I want to get to bed. It's going to be an early morning tomorrow." Ranma pulled her to her feet, and together the two made their way back to Ranma's house.

Akane slept later than she'd intended that night, perhaps on account of her injuries, or perhaps simply because she was exhausted. Regardless, she awoke from a deep sleep to find that Ranma had already risen. She stood and stretched; the injuries that Ranma had inflicted on her still smarted, but a night's sleep had done a world of good. As she arched her arms over her head, Akane noticed her own scent and grunted in disgust. She hadn't bathed after the fight last night. That would have to be remedied if she planned on using public transportation, which was hard to avoid in Japan. She peeked out into the main room and, finding no sign of Ranma, stripped and grabbed her bathing gear.

When she opened the door to the bathroom Ranma, soaking in the heat of his bath, glanced in her direction. His eyes widened a bit in surprise, then he looked away.

"Sorry!" he said, cringing. Akane blinked once, then laughed. After a moment, Ranma relaxed and joined her mirth.

"Didn't we do this already?" Akane asked, as she sat down and began to scrub herself.

"I guess so," Ranma agreed, and relaxed again. "Turned out a bit differently this time."

"Don't get your hopes up, pervert," Akane teased, and lobbed her soap bar at Ranma. He dodged it easily.

"Who's a pervert, now?" Ranma asked skeptically. Akane laughed again.

"That's fair, I guess," she said, and rinsed herself off. In short order, she had joined Ranma in the hot spring, sighing in pleasure as she dipped into the steaming water. Ranma shifted a bit, and made a point of looking away. Akane just sank into the basin and closed her eyes.

"So, when are you gonna leave?" he asked.

"After I get out of here and pack," she answered. "I can get breakfast in town." Ranma nodded.

"You know, I've been thinking," he said after a few minutes.

"Oh? I'm surprised," she teased. Ranma kicked her softly under the water.

"Shaddap," he growled. "Anyway, I think that I'm gonna leave too." Akane opened her eyes in surprise.

"Leave? Isn't this your home?" Akane asked.

"That's what I've been thinking about," Ranma said. "And I think the answer's no. I thought it was my home, but it's really just a hiding spot." He paused. "I've never really had a home, except for your dad's place. This place... it was always just a means to an end. I never really liked farmin', and I hated being a girl all the time. Besides, now the whole place just reminds me of why I ran away in the first place." Akane nodded, thinking.

"Where are you going to go?" she asked.

"China," Ranma said firmly. Akane looked over and raised an eyebrow. "I'm way damn overdue to meet my daughter. I wanna see what kinda person she is. I want to train with her." He thought for a minute. "I want to learn how to be a dad, even if I didn't start out as much of one." Akane placed a hand on his arm and squeezed in sympathy.

"Are you going to meet Saffron?" Akane asked. Ranma nodded, but slowly this time.

"Yeah," he said. "He's as stubborn as I am, and if he's out for blood, I don't want it spilling over to anyone else. Better to go see him on my terms."

"Be careful," Akane said, and Ranma nodded. She hesitated for a minute, then spoke again. "Ranma, you should know something."

"What?" he asked.

"You saw how well I could control fire last night," Akane said. Ranma nodded. "Well, that's not really natural. Normal people shouldn't be able to do that sort of thing." Ranma looked at her quizzically. Akane sighed, then explained, "Ranma, surviving the Kinjakan changed me. Think about it for a minute—that thing's magical, and powerful enough to control Jusenkyo. Saffron said that it's a miracle that I survived, even as a doll. Most people would have been simply obliterated." She paused for a minute.

"The same sort of thing is true for the Gekkaja," she said, and let the statement hang in the air. Ranma thought about it, then his forehead creased.

"Are you saying that that thing changed me too?" he asked.

"You did freeze your body," Akane said. "It should have killed you. Think about it for a minute—water expands when it freezes, and your body is mostly tiny little bags of water. Using the Gekkaja to freeze yourself should have turned your body into red goo once it melted." Ranma considered this, and shifted uncomfortably.

"So, what'd it do to me?" he asked. Akane shrugged.

"I don't know," she admitted. "Even Saffron doesn't fully understand how the Kinjakan changed me, let alone the Gekkaja. All I know is that it lets me work with fire very easily, and that I don't burn anymore." Ranma shook his head.

"You know, I was just thinking the other day that I preferred the cold," Ranma chuckled. "Always figured it was left over from the full-body cat's tongue."

"Who knows?" Akane said. "Maybe it is, and you just got lucky with the Gekkaja. If Saffron's in a good mood, he might help you figure it out."

"And if he's in a bad mood?" Ranma asked.

"Run," Akane advised.

That evening, Akane entered her childhood home for the first time in almost a decade. It was quiet, much moreso than it had been when she'd left so many years ago, but the bits and pieces that had always made it her home were still there. The ancient wood smelled of varnish, oil and care, and the rice-paper screens snapped softly in the light wind. Her father's shoes were haphazardly strewn across the engawa. The fresh, new tatami mats still smelled of bleach.

Akane pulled off her heavy traveling pack and set it down in the engawa, and in that instant she knew that she never wanted to carry it again. The house wrapped around her like a warm, comforting blanket, filling up her heart and soothing her soul. When she'd left, it had been suffocating, a dreary reminder of her rocky past with Ranma. Now... now it was the home her mother had lived and died in, the house that she'd learned her first kata in, the place where she'd fallen in love for the first time. Even the painful memories seemed dulled. Akane smiled.

"I'm home," she called and, for the first time since Ranma had left, felt the truth of it.


And here we are, finally at the end of our little story. There might be more for us to look into—Ranma's trip to China, Akane finding her place at home again and so forth—but they were never a part of the story that I wanted to tell here. For me, this was always a story about Akane coming to terms with who she was and why she was that way and as such, those sorts of things are really outside of this story.

I suspect already that many of you will be upset that a Ranma/Akane pairing didn't happen here. Frankly... tough. I had never intended for this to end in a relationship between the two of them, and for the very reasons that I laid out here. What had to happen demanded pain and emotion and hardship, and romance, even when powered by history and a strong mutual attraction will wither in such ground. Akane is experienced enough to know this; even if she wants a relationship with Ranma, which she does, she's smart enough and, more importantly, self-aware enough to understand how quickly a relationship based on such a foundation would surely fail.

In truth, I have to admit, there are the seeds of a sequel here. I'm not sure if I want to write it or not; in many ways, I really like where this one leaves off. On the other hand, there's all sorts of stuff that I set up that I didn't get to develop—for instance, the Nerima businesswoman that was looking for Ranma in the first chapter is actually Nabiki, and not out of any romantic interest—which I'm awfully tempted to explore. Additionally, Tao Hua is a real spitfire, and a character that I'd honestly like to write about. She was a bit of an extra in LotM, and I'm a bit sad about that. For now, at least, oh well.

Finally, I'd like to thank you all for your kind words and encouragement as I wrote this. It was, to say the least, a gas.



Houou Tachiagatta- The Phoenix Rises

Hiryuu Oriyochi Ha- Flying Dragon Descent to the World Wave