This Is It

There is a thing in Akane, a feeling. It pushes at her mind, tries to find its way in. Sometimes she pretends it doesn't exist, sometimes she holds it so tight she chokes on it. And even when she's gasping for breath, she expends more and more energy to push it away, sear it out.

Most of the time, Akane feels it there, she just doesn't want to think about it. But she does, every day. It's eating at her, like a parasite, like a fungus. It takes and takes and doesn't give anything back except pain and a rash.

This is Akane Tendou in love.

Ranma might be dying.

"He's very sick," there are words coming out of the hole in the doctor's face, "it's really touch and go right now," words no one would want to hear about someone they loved, "we're doing all we can."

Ranma can't die, though, because that's impossible. You can't kill him. He defeated a god.

"Akane, maybe you should sit down." Nabiki sounds worried. Had she said that out loud? Nabiki's face comes into view, concerned. She lets herself be led for a minute, and then she stops.

"Wait, doctor," her voice sounds small, and when it echoes back to her off the hospital walls, she can feel it cut her, "can I see him?"

The doctor hesitates. He looks at Nabiki, still clinging to Akane's arm, like she'll drift away if someone isn't holding on to her. But there's no way Akane could ever drift away; her body is heavy with despair.

He nods after a few tense moments. "Follow me; please, however, keep it down. Don't excite him." Nabiki is right behind her the whole time, like a shadow. The rest of the family is sleeping, but Nabiki has stayed by her, mostly silent, but occasionally offering a few small words of hope and encouragement.

Akane doesn't want to hear any of it, unless it's coming from Ranma. After everything, and despite the jealous rages in which she sometimes finds herself, Akane trusts Ranma more than anyone in the world. He would not lie to her, not on purpose, not without good reason. Whether it is because he loves her or not isn't the issue—the solid fact is that he is a good person, an honest person. Sometimes too honest.

"Right in here; remember, don't excite him," the doctor stands at the door as Akane walks in, towards the figure in the bed.

That's not Ranma. That's her mother. Akane watches the rise and fall of his chest, the slow blink of the eyes, and she sees only her mother in the bed, dying, leaving her behind.

But no, it isn't her mother. Not again. Couldn't be.

"Ranma," she whispers, ignoring Nabiki's trembling hand lain upon her shoulder, "how are you?"

The stupidest question award goes to Akane Tendou.

"Okay," he croaks out, managing a smile, "what're you doin' here?"

Runner up, Ranma Saotome.

Akane rushes to the bedside, settling the cloth doll that has become her body into the chair nearest his bed. Acid runs through her veins, pulses at her temples; it erodes her nerves until her heart is just a big hunk of meat, flopping voicelessly in her chest. She touches the bed sheet, testing it as though it might burn her. Feeling lost, helpless, she tumbles through an abyss of emotions, old emotions that stab their way into her flesh like hot knives.

Despair is supposed to be cold.

"We came here to see how you were doing," Nabiki sounds like she's speaking from the bottom of a well, "I'll go call and tell the family."

Tell the family what, Akane wonders as Nabiki makes her exit, brushing past the doctor without another word. Tell the family that Ranma looks like a poster boy for suffering?

Nabiki's footfalls sound like the pounding of a heart.

Ranma's still smiling at her. Despite how exhausted he looks, the grin looks like it might split his face. "How are you, Akane?"

Something deep inside her is breaking, shattering. That feeling comes out of its hidey-hole, tentatively, sniffing the empty spaces inside her, touching them, wondering if it's safe. Will she push it away? Will she shove it back inside, hide it way, swallow it and wash it down with some liquid cowardice?

The coast is clear.

This is Akane with love and blood in her veins, rushing through. Her head feels light, full of butterflies and a hesitant exaltation. She's crying, she realizes suddenly.

Ranma's hand reaches out to touch hers. His hand is frail and thin, the bones sticking out like rocks pushing up through the earth. Akane covers it with her other one, because she can't bear to see it.

In her heart she cradles the feeling, caresses it, expresses the regret at pinning it down with her rage for so long it doesn't even really know how to speak or breathe or be anymore. It remembers itself, and him, and suddenly she cools down, and her soul is soothed into a tranquility it has not known since Ranma became ill. Since before that. Since before he even came. Since before her mother died.

Since she knew the world held pain.

This is Akane at what might very well be Ranma's deathbed.

"I'm fine," she says quietly; the feeling speaks up, coughs, takes a tentative breath, "don't die, Ranma." It squeaks out through her mouth, manipulating her as it always has. Akane lets it; in these moments, nothing but the feeling can matter.

Ranma laughs—actually laughs. It's a wet sound, followed by a fit of coughing.

Pneumonia. He has pneumonia. He was very ill when he was little, from all the traveling with his damned father. It weakened him, and the weakness crept in, silent and deadly, an assassin sent to wait and wait until it could do the most damage. One too many nights spent out in the rain, one too many brawls, one too many colds; the weakness relished in Ranma's active lifestyle. It grew corpulent, took over every bit of him.

The doctors don't even know if the antibiotics will even help him now.

"I'm not gonna die," he say it so easily that Akane wants to believe him, "I'm just sick."

"You have pneumonia," Akane insists quietly, not wanting to upset him—if she can, she'll never upset him again, "it's serious."

He laughs again. It's the most beautiful sound in the world, despite the fluid in it. "No it ain't; doc thinks I'll prolly pull through." There are bubbles crackling in his lungs, she can hear them.

Akane looks back at the doctor, but he's not in the doorway anymore. But someone has to explain, in medical terms, terms Akane doesn't know, how serious this is. Ranma has to know. If he doesn't know, he might not fight hard enough, he might lose.

Fear swarms in, stinging the backs of her eyes and forcing more tears out. Akane shivers with the thought of no more pervert fiancée, no more insults, no more fights, no more suddenness. If Ranma dies, every day will be the same, slow suffering until she dies. She cannot live without him to breathe life into her.

"How do you know—"

"Hey, have I ever lost a fight before?" Akane stares at him; she wants to remember him just like this, his eyes brimming with confidence. Ranma, believing he can beat an opponent that doesn't even come close to playing by the rules. An opponent incapable of honor or surrender. An opponent that he cannot even see or touch or hear.

This is Akane's memory of Ranma, it will be how she always thinks of him. Fighting a battle that everyone but him thinks he's going to lose. Despite her own lack of confidence in his ability to pull through, he still believes in himself.

"This is a different kind of fight," the feeling speaks the truth; that's all it ever speaks, "Ranma, this isn't Kunou or Ryouga or even Saffron."

"Yeah, well," his voice trails off into the tense silence that slowly suffuses the room. Akane is conscious of the doctor's presence in the room again, but he doesn't seem concerned with their conversation, so Akane isn't concerned with him.

She is concerned only with Ranma. And how wrong this all is.

Time passes, and Akane remains at his bedside. No one tries to move her, and neither she nor Ranma speaks. Occasionally he lets out a wet cough, and always she hears the moist crackle of his lungs expanding and contracting.

Without ever realizing that she had fallen asleep, Akane wakes up. Her cheek is pressed into the sheet, and she still clutches Ranma's hand. Looking up quickly, she is flooded with relief when she sees that he's still breathing.

"You're awake." The doctor smiles at her from across Ranma's bed. He has Ranma's free wrist in his hand, and looks at his watch. "His pulse and vitals are strong. I'm sure he'll make it; he just needs to rest a little," he shakes his finger at her as he gently lays Ranma's wrist down, "don't go waking him, miss Tendou. He needs plenty of sleep."

"O-of course, I'll see to it," Akane sets her jaw and clutches tighter at his hand, "yes, he'll get plenty of rest." The doctor chuckles a little. His hand rests briefly on her shoulder as he passes her, but she barely notices him.

Ranma's going to live. The feeling huddles in her belly, then stretches up, coiling its way gently around her spine to stare at him out of her eyes as he lies there, breath coming in and going out. This is it.