AN: Warning for violence and more death. As always, I promise there will be a romantic and happily ever after. That's how I roll.

Thanks for reading. I love that people enjoy my stories and tell me how they make you feel. You are my box of chocolate truffles. But don't be a jerk with your comments. I don't appreciate it. Akane's death was prophesied years ago in this fic. You knew it had to happen at some point. I warned for it at the top of the chapter. I do this for free to entertain you. Attacking me is rude and not even signing your name when you do it is cowardly. You don't have to read my story. If you are bitter, you can leave. I put my heart on the line with every chapter I upload for you guys. I spend hours and hours away from my family and other responsibilities to write this because I think writing is a worthy sacrifice. Don't spit on that. I love Akane and Ranma as characters and will bring them through this angst to a happy and romantic ending. That has always been the plan. I want to know your thoughts, good or bad, and I totally understand that seeing our favorite characters hurt is upsetting. That's okay. In fact, I want you to be upset and feel along with the characters. That way, the triumphant win will be all the sweeter. If you didn't care, that would mean my writing failed. But your responsibility as a reader consuming free content is to be respectful in our interactions. If you are mature enough to read this story, and you waded through over 200,000 words to get here, then you are mature enough to tell me why you did or did not understand or like something in a rational way without lowering yourself to vitriol. Several of you signed in and told me you were upset with events but were waiting to see how they got out of this. That was fine. Most of my readers are wonderful and interesting people whom I love hearing from, but lately with this and my Ladybug fic, I've been getting rude and hateful attacks. I don't deserve that and neither do other authors out there. This is why good writers yank their stories from the web and even go as far as not writing fanfiction anymore. It only takes a few bad apples to spoil things. Well-written reviews are the positive reinforcement that keep me going with the ear infection I've had for over a month, my kids vomiting in their beds so many times we ran out of clean sheets, holiday stresses, and the hundred other things I'm dealing with. Enjoy my story, but don't take my gift and then spit on it and me. Okay, I'm done. Thank you for listening.


No more pussyfooting around: a Ranma ½ fanfic

By Indygodusk


Chapter 42: I Will Follow You into the Dark

Screams filled the room. Anguish. Rage. Insanity. Vision a flat monochrome, the only color the violent red blood pouring from Akane's throat, it took Ranma a second to realize that one of the tortured screams came from his own throat. He sounded like a mortally wounded animal. Swallowing the jagged sounds back down felt like swallowing shards of glass. Ranma ground his teeth together. His jaw hurt, a safe focus compared to the pain in his mind and heart.

Fists crackling with barely contained bolts of energy, Ranma charged. He didn't care that Sachi was a woman or that she might be possessed by a demon. He just wanted to destroy the person who'd hurt Akane. Then he'd… he'd fix this. Somehow. He'd done the impossible before. He'd do it again. Somehow. The alternative didn't bear thinking about.

Scarlet drops of Akane's blood stood out vividly on Sachi's skin. It was wrong, all wrong. Out of control, Ranma let his fist fly with enough force to flatten a tank. She'd cut Akane's throat. He would destroy her. If a phoenix egg appeared, he'd destroy that too.

However, before his hit could land, a woman got in his way. She was too focused on attacking the monk to notice that Ranma was going to hit her too. Nothing but the sudden realization that the woman was Akane's sister could have halted his punishment, but if—when Akane got better, she'd be mad if he hurt her sister, hurt Nabiki. He liked Nabiki, didn't want to hurt her. Twisting his torso, Ranma dodged just in time to send his fist snapping through empty air.

Nabiki had a tray in her hands. She swung it at the monk with a shriek of rage, barely missing Ranma as she cracked it across the side of Sachi's head. The tray shattered and Sachi dropped to the floor.

Ranma wanted to hurt Sachi more, make her pay for what she'd done to Akane, but Akane's body was falling, about to hit the altar. Revenge had to wait. As long as there was strength in his body, he'd always catch Akane when she fell. Always.

In a move he'd done countless times over the years, Ranma leapt forward and closed his arms around Akane's body, but it felt wrong. Nothing about this was the same. It was so much worse. Akane convulsed in his arms. Hot blood spattered Ranma's face and flecked his lips like the vilest poison. The thick smell filled his nostrils. Unable to stop a tortured moan, Ranma clamped his hand around Akane's throat to seal the lips of the wound and try to force the bleeding to stop, to somehow force her to be okay. Despite his grip, blood bubbled through his fingers, staining his skin red.

Trying to pull her into his arms, he met resistance. They'd shackled her leg to the altar, staked like an animal for slaughter. Broken chains dangled from her wrists. Breath coming in ragged gasps, Ranma formed claws of ki on his free hand and sliced away all of the chains.

How dare they do this to Akane. How dare they!

A mighty blast of depression ki flew past his shoulder and exploded. It destroyed a table and broke a large hole in the back wall, opening it to the courtyard. Voices shouted and screamed, but Ranma barely heard them. The room exploded into violence. Fighters churned around the altar, running into the room. Sobbing, Nabiki huddled on the ground nearby. Prisoners pressed against the walls.

Ranma should be paying more attention, or at least making sure his back wasn't vulnerable to attack, but he didn't have the energy to care. Nothing mattered but the woman bleeding in his arms—his Akane.

Pulling her deeper into his chest with trembling fingers, Ranma tightened his hand on her neck. The bleeding was slowing, but not because of his grip. Akane just didn't have that much blood left in her body.

"Please," Ranma whispered raggedly. "I'm sorry. Please!" But no one listened. Akane's panicked struggles slowed as her brown eyes dimmed. The ties linking Ranma to the soul of the woman in his arms quivered and frayed as she went unconscious and slid towards death.

Tears burned down Ranma's cheeks as if made of molten lead. He felt blind. Everything hurt. Curled around Akane's body, he panted into her hair like a caged animal, overcome, helpless at the tearing agony and howling blackness of Akane's impending death. It felt like a hurricane tearing at his sanity. His body shivered, the pain leaking out in physical bolts of destructive energy that hit walls and combatants indiscriminately.

All was lost.

NO!

The word reverberated through his mind, a hard slap across the face of his despair. What was he doing, just giving up to blubber on the floor like a baby? Even a little girl was tougher than he was right now. He was better than this. Akane deserved better than this. She couldn't die. Would not. He wouldn't allow it, wouldn't survive it, but his survival didn't matter, only hers. How dare he give up without even trying?

Right now, he was being emotional and weak. Saotomes did not give up. Ranma was a fighter and a winner. Lack of control was for losers. Balling up his panic and rage, love and despair, he pushed them into a closet in his mind and slammed the lid shut. Ranma had to win the battle for Akane's life, the most important battle he'd ever fought, but he couldn't win if he didn't start fighting.

Flipping frantically through every scrap of knowledge he possessed, Ranma seized on a key piece of information. Wait, hadn't Miaka's prophecy warned of Akane's death, but promised that it could be temporary? Ranma just had to stop being an idiot and get Akane to make the choice to come back to life.

Ranma leaned to the side instinctively, avoiding a monk stumbling past with a soldier in a headlock. His mind whirled. He could catch hold of the fading spark of Akane's ki, trap her soul before it moved on from her body, but what good would that do when her body was so broken? He had to heal her body, but how?

The answer bloomed in Ranma's mind. Just like he'd healed her feet after the hot spring, he could make Akane's body congruent. However, with this much damage to both her body and soul, congruence could backfire and tear out Ranma's throat instead. He'd need a source of extra energy, but even then it could backfire and kill him. Nevertheless, he'd take that risk gladly as long as Akane had a chance to live. She had to live.

"Ryoga!" Ranma called demandingly, his voice gravelly and raw after his primal scream.

The lost boy collapsed on his knees next to Ranma. Negative emotion manifested as a dark cloud around Ryoga's body, dimming the room. "Akane?" Ryoga asked, voice thick and almost incoherent with devastation. He loved Akane too.

Ranma couldn't meet Ryoga's eyes, unable to deal with the lost boy's pain on top of his own. Not without shattering again. "Keep everyone out of my way," Ranma ordered in a gravelly voice.

Nodding jerkily, Ryoga stumbled to his feet. "Okay, but—," his breath caught in a sob, "but what can even you do?"

"I'm going to save her," Ranma snarled, sending an angry glare at Ryoga before returning his eyes to the unnaturally white face of the woman in his arms, the woman he loved. Ranma's eyes narrowed. The red blood that had drenched Akane's robes had disappeared in that second of glancing away, leaving them a pristine white. The metallic taste of Akane's blood on his lips was also gone. Stolen. It must have been taken by the demon pearls she'd once told him about.

It didn't matter.

The loss was temporary. He would get the blood back, get all of her back. Ranma would return Akane's blood and soul, pulverize the pearls, and disembowel the demon. Everything would be fine and Akane would live. She had to. Nothing else was acceptable.

Ranma's fingers trembled as they slid over Akane's cold cheek. Despite his attempt to exert control on his body, cold sweat coated his forehead and back and his breathing was too fast. He was going into shock at the feel of Akane's dying body in his arms.

Opening all his senses, Ranma forced himself to critically evaluate what was left of the woman in his arms. There wasn't much. Gritting his teeth, he reminded himself to stay in control. To heal Akane, he couldn't just give her his energy. She was too damaged, both physically and spiritually. If he tried to use brute force, he'd fail.

He didn't have enough strength to do this alone. To win this battle, he needed Akane's help. She'd love that, seeing him humble himself enough to ask. Akane, I need your help, he pushed down the cord connecting them, his voice coaxing and pleading. I need you!

Each second she faded in his arms felt like torture, but Ranma had to do this right. He needed his partner. He needed Akane. For everything, he needed Akane. He didn't want to live in a world without her in it.

Stop wallowing! Ranma adjusted Akane's still body in his arms and tried to pretend she was merely sleeping, tried not to see and feel the cuts scoring her flesh, tried to ignore his breaking heart and weeping soul. With all the tenderness he possessed, Ranma pressed a kiss to Akane's slack lips. Then he sat back and locked away his heart. For this to work, Ranma had to be mean. Rules and limits would only hold him back. He had to be hard and act without hesitation.

Flicking his thumb, Ranma broke open the earring he'd placed in Akane's ear. Magic cracked. Ranma cut his finger on the wire and smeared the small clay bead with his blood, a whip to remind the spell who was in charge. The magic flinched, quivered, and then the reservoir of Akane's lifeforce burst open, pure and beautiful and bright, just like the woman it belonged to.

It felt like sun on the first day of spring, melting snow and restarting the cycle of life. The cloud of pure energy surged out of its cage and then split into a countless number of breathtakingly beautiful delicate sparks. Finally free, the energy had one purpose, to return to Akane's womb and make it fertile enough to create a new life.

But Akane didn't need the power to make new life. She needed to repair the one she had. No matter that Akane had consented to the earring, Cologne would still say that enslaving Akane's fertility to his own teetered on the cusp of evil. If the old bag saw him tearing that female energy from its natural purpose, she'd consign his soul to the abyss and send her entire tribe to cut out his organs and sacrifice them to the Gods. That beautiful energy would resist being twisted to any other purpose, but he had no choice. Ranma didn't care if it made him evil. Right now, he only cared about one thing - Akane's life.

Ruthlessly he grabbed at the sparks with a claw-tipped hand, fisting them in his darkness and not letting even one escape. Ranma forced the sparks into a ball. Linked intimately to his blood and enslaved by the primitive magic of the earring, the light of Akane's fertility compressed inside a cage of shadows. It fought him, just as he'd expected, but Ranma hardened his heart against the quivering sparks. Imposing his will on the energy, he pressed it against Akane's chest and loosened the cage.

Instead of continuing to fight him, the energy paused for a moment in his fist and then the sparks caressed him as if granting forgiveness, taking his pain for a split second. Barely keeping his composure, Ranma watched as the energy flowed out into Akane's heart, filling her arteries and veins, and sliding over her muscles and skin. Delicate like a soap bubble, it formed an iridescent film that rippled across the damage done to her body and sealed up the cracks.

Akane's heart began to beat.

Sealing his mouth over her lips, Ranma blew air hard into her lungs, reminding them of their purpose. Air sacs filled and the magic took over, making Akane breathe out and in again in a shallow but stable rhythm. The magic forced her body to mimic life like a puppeteer jerking on strings. It hurt to know it was only a parody of life, but Ranma reminded himself that this would give him time. He needed that time to heal her body completely and pull her soul back into it.

Ranma didn't want to give Akane a choice about coming back. He wanted to force her to live. He'd done it before, but the woman he loved wouldn't put up with that again. She'd stubbornly demand the right to choose. He just had to make sure she he manipulated her into making the right choice.

It would be difficult since he'd promised her no more lies. He respected and loved Akane too much to make the same mistake again. He'd certainly make new mistakes, and wouldn't completely rule out stretching the truth for her own good, but she would understand and forgive him in time as long as she was alive to do so.

And if he failed and Akane chose otherwise? Chose not to come back?

The answer was simple. Over the years, Akane had often followed after Ranma, trying to keep him safe, trying to cheer him up, trying her best to just be there so he wasn't alone. Now it was his turn. If she wouldn't or couldn't come back, Ranma would would follow her into the dark.

But first, he had to heal Akane's body so she had the chance to make that choice. About to flow into the next part of his plan, Ranma felt the pulse tapping against the hand he'd wrapped around Akane's throat stutter. It beat normally for four beats and then faltered again. Ranma wanted to howl at the unfairness.

The congruence kata took time to shift their energies into alignment. He'd thought the magic of the earring would give him that time, but Akane's body and soul were just too damaged. He needed something more to tip the scales in his favor. The magic should have been able to keep Akane's organs going for hours, but there wasn't enough blood in her body. Having to mimic the blood and pump her organs at the same time was draining the power too quickly.

For a second he seriously considered slitting his wrists and pressing them against Akane's open wounds, but he ran the risk of passing out before completing the ritual, leaving them both to certain death. Anyone else's blood would be rejected by her besieged body. No, he somehow needed to get Akane's own blood back into her body.

Ranma spun, easily finding the pearl necklace in a clear patch of floor. It was exactly as she'd described. No one went near it, circling warily lest they too be devoured. Only Ranma stalked closer. How convenient that the pearls had collected all of Akane's spilled blood in one place. Ranma would take it back. He would return the blood to her body and she would live again.

Voices shouted, magic snapped, felines snarled and rats hissed. Gliding forward, Ranma slid, stomped, and swirled, taking the first steps to bring his and Akane's spirits into harmony while simultaneously gathering his energy for a massive attack. Ki gathered in the soles of his feet. Akane's body felt too cold, her breathing artificial and jerky as her heartbeat stuttered, but he couldn't think about that or he'd go crazy... more crazy.

A knot of fighters blocked his way. Ranma kicked one of them out of his way and spun around the rest of the group, leaping over two bodies wrestling on the floor. He passed a young male monk freeing chained prisoners from the walls. Part of the ceiling had collapsed on the demon across the room and a group of soldiers were frantically digging him loose. Bad things would happen when the demon joined the fight, but that nebulous future had no power over him. Only Akane did.

Between Ranma and the pearls stood the cat man Ranma had fought in the fortress all those months ago. The warrior backhanded an attacking female monk and met Ranma's eyes. His melted-wax face twisted with recognition and anticipation. The woman he'd hit didn't stay down. Jumping back to her feet, she hammered a blow against his side that made him stagger. Before she could follow-up, he grabbed a soldier and pushed him at the monk, sending the two sprawling.

Turning back to Ranma, he charged, bouncing off someone's back to attack from above with his hands curled into claws. Bracing himself to fight the difficult opponent with the handicap of Akane in his arms, Ranma was saved by Ryoga. The lost boy tackled the cat man in midair and slammed him to the floor. Fists flew as Ranma turned away. He trusted Ryoga to handle it. Akane's time was running out.

Stepping into the open space around the string of pearls, Ranma's thoughts suddenly slowed. His purpose grew murky and his body stumbled to a halt as magic burst forth from the pearls. It felt like a song of indescribable beauty, as potent as a siren luring sailors into the sea. Ranma stared down, unblinking, barely breathing as his eyes caressed the shimmering pearls full of faintly moving forms. The necklace was beautiful. It wanted him to protect and feed it.

Ranma could do that. He was good at protecting things and he couldn't help but care for the beautiful beads. Filling his mind with feelings of pleasure, the pearls prodded him to drop everything to pick them up, to love and devote himself to them above all else.

But... Ranma's hands were full of Akane. Why would he ever drop Akane? Lashes draped across Ranma's eyes in a long, slow blink. The pearls disappeared from view. In that moment of blackness, fur bristled beneath his skin and fangs pricked in sharp warning.

Ranma cared about the pearls, but they couldn't make him feel more than that. Going through life, Ranma found it easy to care for people. It made him happy and an honorable person, according to his mother, should care for and protect others. Ranma cared for his friends and family, for innocent bystanders and interesting opponents. However, he made a choice to care for those things. They made his life interesting and kept him from being lonely and bored. Caring for Akane wasn't a choice.

Most of the time Ranma passed for normal, even with all of the curses. However, Ranma wasn't normal. Whether you called it training or torture, his childhood had wired his brain differently. It had taught him harsh lessons and twisted his perceptions. The mental channels the pearls relied on to enslave someone with love were warped almost beyond recognition in Ranma Saotome.

Until Akane came along, Ranma had accepted that he probably wasn't capable of loving another person the way everyone else seemed to take for granted. Sixteen years of living had made him well aware of his limitations. Yet somehow, impossibly, Akane had become his heart and the center of his world. He'd tried to fight it, but it was a battle he couldn't win. For the first and perhaps only time in his life, he appreciated surrender. Ranma gave into his love for Akane. She was his now. It was nice to have family, friends, and opponents, but the truth was, only two things in his life had never let him down - martial arts and Akane Tendo - and he didn't have the capacity to care even half as much for anything else, much less care more, as the magic of the pearls demanded he do. Maybe if he lived long enough he'd figure out how, but until then, he wouldn't worry about it.

The pearls were full of stolen blood. Akane needed that blood or she'd die. Nothing was strong enough to keep him from taking that blood back, no matter how pretty they were or how much he cared about them. Akane trumped everything. That the pearls were evil and needed to be destroyed simply made his regret easier to bear.

Ranma shifted his fingers and magic around Akane's neck to release a single drop of her blood. It splattered onto the ground. The magic of the necklace immediately dragged the precious drop of blood across the floor, thinning the magical skin of the pearls to pull the blood inside. In the process, the necklace made itself vulnerable for a split second.

Full of regret at what he had to do, Ranma nevertheless moved like lightning. Lifting a ki-sheathed foot powered by the rage and anguish seething in his belly, he stomped hard on the pearl necklace. The floorboards disintegrated into sawdust and the ground cratered beneath his foot, shattering the string of pearls with a sound like the shrieking of the damned. The explosion flung Ranma into the ceiling. Taking the impact on his shoulders, he flipped through the air with his precious burden clutched to his chest and managed to land in a crouch. Blood geysered up and then splashed back down, streaming into the bowl of the crater to form a dark red puddle.

Across the room, the demon in the brightly colored robe who'd just regained his feet gave an ear-splitting bellow and fell to his knees, clutching his head in pain. Flinging out his arm, he released a wave of magic. Everyone in the room flinched and staggered, including Ranma, who'd just stood up when he suddenly found himself on his knees without knowing quite how he'd gotten there beyond the ringing in his ears. The demon then fell to the ground as if unconscious.

Seconds later, mutated female cat soldiers began racing into the room. Several of them bore clawing Iriomote cats on their backs. More cats raced in on their heels. Meeting their charge, the rats jumped up from the floor to bite and claw at the Iriomote cats. Monks and soldiers forced their way into the already crowded room. Ryoga cursed and kicked the cat man in chest, sending his body flying through the space in front of Ranma, knocking the new combatants out of his way. Seeing the cats gave him the feeling of being surrounded by flies, an annoying buzz of fear and irritation that he could ignore to focus on Akane.

Gliding quickly into an open space, Ranma swirled into the kata for congruence. He spun around the crater of blood, pulling, coaxing, forcing the angles of energy into place, instinctively making minute corrections with each step. Pushing with as much finesse as he could muster, Ranma pushed Akane's thinning energy out to align with the sphere of his own. He added a slight wave to each step, making the sphere of ki spin, turning it into a scoop that dipped into the crater on each rotation to retrieve Akane's blood, calling like to like. Although the dark red puddle in the crater wasn't close to empty, Ranma stopped as soon as it felt like no trace of Akane remained.

Moving away from the lingering corruption, he followed Ryoga's ki blast to a clear corner of the room. In the new space, Ranma paced the congruence kata again. Ryoga fell beneath two twisted cat soldiers. A pang of worry spiked in Ranma's chest. Fighters struggled around the room, coming closer to his corner.

Suddenly Nabiki appeared at his side, eyes bloodshot and designer haircut disheveled. "Save my sister or I'll destroy you," she snapped at Ranma, her normally cool voice uncharacteristically hoarse. Then she raised a broken table leg and swung it with more deranged ferocity than skill at a group of advancing soldiers. She held her own for over a minute as Ranma paced his kata, but then lost her weapon to a soldier almost twice her size. An older female monk Ranma vaguely recognized from Akane's sickroom all those months ago charged out of the fighting. Kicking the soldier about to punch Nabiki, the monk and her comrade took up position to help defend Ranma's corner.

Ranma did the kata again, trying to throttle back his impatience and fear. The congruence couldn't be rushed. Abruptly the fertile magic he'd twisted into sustaining Akane popped and gave out with a fizz of sparks, a quick warmth on his senses like a goodbye kiss.

Akane's body stopped living. Their spiritual ties once more shriveled. Not allowing himself to think about anything but the next step of the kata, Ranma forced his movements to stay sure and strong. Exercising iron control, he bent his left leg deeply into a 25 degree angle and moved his right leg slowly until it achieved a 155 degree angle. He pivoted in a semicircle and then shifted with his knees still bent so his legs formed a pentagon with the ground. Abruptly surging upwards to straighten his legs, he pivoted on one foot like a ballet dancer, drawing a circle on the ground with his outer toe. As he completed the revolution, the energy finally curved into place.

Akane sighed and then began matching breaths and heartbeats to his. Throttling back the urge to celebrate prematurely, Ranma kept going. It took three more revolutions in the shape of an equilateral triangle before Ranma finally felt everything finish settling into place with perfect congruence. Akane's cheeks pinked, her skin warmed, and the wounds on her throat and limbs disappeared until her body lay whole in his arms, utterly healthy and completely perfect.

Ranma felt emotionally drained, but he wasn't even close to done. Despite healing her body, Akane's spirit barely lingered in her body. Only the piercing claws of Ranma's cat side had kept it attached while he'd focused on her physical healing. The demon still had a putrid harpoon attached to Akane's spirit, yanking her towards eternal damnation in the demon plane. Akane's soul hung suspended between the pull of Ranma and the rat demon.

Akane belonged to him. Ranma would never let someone else have her, much less a demon. He was never letting Akane go, never.

Kneeling down on the ground, Ranma pressed his forehead to Akane's and dropped fully into the spiritual plane. He took stock of how much energy he had left, of the cords stretching between his soul and Akane's, and of the three aspects of his spirit: male, female, and feline. This had to work. Ranma would give anything and everything for Akane's sake.

Keeping that thought in mind, pushing down his habitual fear and distrust, Ranma knew what he had to do. Reaching out, he connected with his cat side. With full awareness of the consequences, Ranma told the feline what he had to do. The cat froze. For a second, Ranma thought the contrary cat would actually refuse, but he loved Akane just as much as Ranma did. Their eyes met and held. Then the cat bowed his head and got to work.

Turning, Ranma dived deep into the spiritual plane, following instinct and the fraying tie binding Akane's soul to his as it disappeared down, down through dark caverns and into a seemingly endless fog. Unlike the last time he'd returned Akane's spirit to her body, there was no climbing to find a shining heavenly gate on top of a grassy hill. Instead, Ranma travelled deeper and deeper into the gray. Time had no meaning. Ranma felt no hunger or thirst, just a throbbing push to hurry, to find Akane before it was too late. That and the pain.

Eventually he made his way out of the fog, only to find himself facing a vast, green forest full of shadows and watching eyes. No sun shone overhead, merely a solid curtain of white clouds. Firming his jaw, Ranma forced his way through the thick forest and the creatures who tried to eat his spirit along the way. Finally breaking through the trees, he found a series of three rivers swollen to turbulent gray and white. Undeterred, Ranma swam across the rivers one by one. The battering force of each river pushed him downstream, forcing Ranma to backtrack each time to reacquire the path leading to Akane.

Spiritually bruised and drained, Ranma finally came to a large, flat plain. The grasses bent beneath the force of the wind. They stretched out toward the horizon in an unending swathe of yellow-green and gray. In the far distance stood a lone mountain in the middle of the plain. The peak disappeared into clouds of such blinding whiteness that it hurt his eyes to look upon them. The spiritual tie looping him to Akane went in that direction. Ranma followed it, travelling through the green and yellow grassland for what felt like days. Whenever it felt like he was about to reach the foot of the mountain, he'd blink and it would once more seem distant and just out of reach. Ranma refused to give up.

Then one endless day it happened without warning. Ranma raised dull eyes from the rhythmic pounding of his feet and found his eyes caught by the light glinting off a shining door set into the base of the mountain. The door stood less than a mile away. Ranma forced his weary body into a sprint, trying not to blink despite the watering of his eyes in case the magic of this place spirited the door far away from him. As he got closer, he realized that the door was made not of metal, but of opaque glass. It reflected the light from the clouds, but showed nothing of the other side. A metal bar spanned the glass door. The cord to Akane's spirit led inside.

Not hesitating, Ranma grabbed the metal bar and wrenched open the door. It opened smoothly without any resistance. A long hallway stretched into the distance, seemingly empty and without end. No doors or windows broke the uniformity of the blush pink paint on the walls. Pendant lights made of amber glass and bronze geometric shapes hung at regular intervals from the ceiling. Underfoot, the dark blue carpet had a pattern of repeating triangles and squares in gold and cream that echoed the shape of the lights. It reminded him of some sort of upscale hotel.

Squaring his shoulders, Ranma stepped inside. The door closed silently. Glancing back, he made note of the shadows he cast upon the door: two overlapping human silhouettes of different heights that merged and unmerged with a large cat. Ranma turned his back to the door and broke into a jog. The subtle curve of the hallway kept him from seeing very far ahead. He ran and ran.

Finally in the distance he saw a break in the monotonous blue carpet and pink walls, a speck of black and yellow. As he got closer, he saw the hallway end and the speck resolve itself into a woman in a yellow dress. She stood facing away, but he knew it was Akane. The unique curve of her back was burned into his memory more indelibly than the taste of rice.

"Akane!" the name leapt from Ranma's tongue like a fish escaping near death in a bird's gullet to dive back into the ocean's warm embrace. Exultant, relieved, Ranma raced forward. She didn't turn. "Akane!" He called again, but still she faced away, back becoming more stiff and unwelcoming the closer he got, but that made no sense. She probably just couldn't hear him, he decided. Perhaps her spirit was dazed or still in shock from almost dying.

The end of the hallway was split by a line from floor to ceiling, like a pair of doors. Two circular buttons were recessed into the wall on the right side. Akane's fingertip looked white where she had it pressed hard against the top button. Still she didn't turn. Wanting to sweep her into his arms, barely containing the maelstrom of emotions flooding his soul, Ranma reached out, words of love trembling on his lips.

Yet the second his fingers skimmed her arm, Akane stiffly dodged away from his touch, not even bothering to glance his way. Frowning, face full of life and emotion, she banged her fist angrily against the top button on the wall. Ranma's fingers hovered in midair for a moment, trembling slightly, before falling to his sides and curling into a fist. The air thickened with silent tension.

Ranma felt his temper pricking. They were probably going to fight, but... that was okay. Sure, she was being contrary, but beneath that he was just so damned happy to see her that he would put up with anything she had to say. He didn't mind fighting with Akane as long as they made up at the end. He especially liked Akane being around for him to fight with.

"Do you know how to make this work?" Akane demanded abruptly in the silent hallway, making Ranma jump. However, she still didn't bother looking at him, keeping her attention on the top button as she began picking at it with her fingernails. Her face looked tight as she muttered, "Of course it's you, but that doesn't matter if I can just get this button to work."

Stung, Ranma dropped straight past indulgence and into irritation. "You don't need the button, Akane. The button doesn't matter because I'm here now! C'mon, it's time to go!"

Akane's lips twisted. She flattened her hand on the wall next to the buttons and dropped her head. Thick strands of blue-black hair slid down over her cheeks and deep brown eyes, hiding her expression before he could get a read on just what she was thinking. "Just like that?" she asked evenly. "I don't think so."

Fed up, he grabbed Akane's arm and yanked her around to face him, not letting her dodge or shake him loose. Akane's hand skidded and pressed across both buttons as she tried to resist turning, but ultimately he was bigger and stronger. "Look at me!" Ranma snapped.

Akane's thick lashes lifted as she finally met his gaze, revealing the beauty of velvet brown eyes full of life. The impact of that gaze felt like a punch to the chest. The life in those eyes meant everything, everything. Ranma's voice went tight. "You're going to live." Grip loosening, he stroked his thumb across the downy softness of Akane's inner arm and let himself get lost for a second counting the amber flecks in her eyes. Akane shivered as he whispered huskily, "For once in your life, Akane, don't be stubborn and difficult."

The wonderfully smooth and unbroken skin of Akane's throat bobbed as she swallowed. She searched his eyes desperately, no longer seemingly cold and remote. He didn't know what she was looking for, but he wanted to give it to her, wanted to give her everything. Licking her lips in an innocent move that made things low in his belly clench, Akane whispered, "I want to."

Sliding his hand down the sleek muscles of her arm to intertwine their fingers, Ranma tugged. No longer resisting, Akane let him pull her up against his body. "Then come with me," Ranma coaxed, trying to tempt her into choosing life, trying to keep his mind on strategy instead of letting himself be overcome by the feel of her lush curves pressing warmly against the hard planes of his body.

Akane's eyes closed, but she didn't try to move away. He wasn't going to bring up the rest of that stupid prophecy until and unless it became necessary. They had to at least try for a happy ending first. A moment of silence passed that Ranma had to fight hard not to break with either babbling or throwing her over his shoulder like a caveman and running for the door.

Finally, Akane opened her eyes and looked up straight into his. She looked vulnerable and scared, but Ranma refused to give her any quarter, his eyes boring into hers in silent demand. Akane bit her lip and then nodded. "I'll try," she agreed unsteadily.

Turning her head, Akane pressed a fleeting kiss against the corner of Ranma's jaw. It burned like a brand, somehow a gesture of both surrender and ownership. "I missed you," she whispered with aching sweetness.

Ranma's vision went blurry. It wasn't until Akane cupped his jaw and rubbed across his cheek with her thumb that he realized he was crying. His throat felt too thick to form words, unable to express what her loss had done to him. Curling himself over the woman in his arms, Ranma buried his face into the crook of her neck and held on tight. Akane clutched him back fiercely, flattening one arm in the middle of his back and fisting the other in his hair. "Oh, Ranma," she whispered.

"I'm sorry, I'm so damn sorry," Ranma squeezed out on a gasp of breath, his hands clutching convulsively, reminding himself that Akane was alive and in his arms.

"I'm sorry too," Akane said wetly.

The nonsensical nature of her words made Ranma lift his head and scowl. "Don't be stupid. You have nothing to be sorry about. I'm the one that screwed up everything."

Akane's eyes snapped. The hand buried in his hair yanked hard once. "Don't call me stupid, you jerk. I can be sorry if I want to! And none of this crap is your fault or my fault. It's the demon's fault!"

"Fine," Ranma growled.

"Fine," Akane snarled in an adorable echo that abruptly made him want to grin. She'd probably kick him if he told her that.

Ranma fingers spread over the enticing curves of Akane's lower back and hips as his eyes grew heavy-lidded. "I'm going to kiss you," he announced, just to see what she'd do.

Leaning back, Akane looked up at him through her eyelashes and raised one eyebrow. "Not if I kiss you first, slowpoke."

Ranma was smiling when their mouths met halfway in a sweet kiss. Their barely parted lips slid across each other in an intimate greeting that he felt no urgency to rush. Reaching up to circle Akane's throat with one possessive hand, Ranma felt the jagged edge of recent events begin to smooth. For a few seconds the plump curves of Akane's lips pressing against his were enough to bring him peace, but then the ravenous, uncivilized beast inside demanded more. He wanted, needed to lick its way into her mouth over and over again until she couldn't think or even breathe without tasting him there. Pulling back just enough to look into Akane's pleasure-dilated eyes, he whispered against her lips, "Open your mouth."

Akane's eyes flashed at the order. She slid forward and unexpectedly nipped his bottom lip with her teeth. The small sharp hurt sent sharp pleasure zipping through his body. It made Ranma want to do bad bad things to the sexy woman in his arms. Pulling open her smug but unresisting lips with the thumb on her chin, Ranma's tongue surged into the warm cavern of her mouth, laying claim, devouring the taste of the woman he loved. Akane whimpered at the sensual assault, digging her nails into his back as she went up onto her toes to give as good as she got, kissing him with love and wild abandon.

She tasted of memories: of running through the streets of Nerima side by side, of sparring in the dojo, of sitting at meals with their legs brushing each time they moved, of laying on the grass together stargazing, of each time they held hands or hugged or kissed. Even more, with each stroke of his tongue and lips he could feel echos of Akane's stubborn devotion and pure love. She really did love him as much as he loved her. He could feel it stroking across his spirit like the brush of downy feathers. Feeling drugged, they kissed and kissed until battling tongues slowed to sweetly sipping lips. Leaning back, Ranma pressed his forehead against Akane's and sighed.

"Wow," Akane announced, eyes crinkling at the corners.

"Double wow," Ranma answered with a grin, so full of love he could barely contain it. Sighing, he forced himself to loosen his grip on the woman in his arms. "We should get going, return to our bodies, destroy the demon, and find a comfy bed to sleep in, if you know what I mean," he wagged his eyebrows.

"As long as they're clean sheets," Akane retorted easily, slanting him a superheated look.

Ranma's cheeks went red and his mouth went dry. He wavered between shock at her agreement and overwhelming lust as his hindbrain offered up ideas of what they'd get up to on those clean sheets. Nevertheless, "I-uh, I thought we were waiting for marriage? For-for that?" he stuttered.

Akane's flirtatious expression turned into amusement as she stepped back with a chuckle. "I want clean sheets for sleeping," she emphasized sternly, though her mouth twitched at the corners. "But you're right that we aren't," she stumbled and turned pink, "aren't making love until we're married, no matter how tempting."

Pushing down his tangled feelings and trying to hide his blushing cheeks, he turned them to face the hallway. "Then let's go. The sooner we leave, the closer we are to-to getting married." They shared a smile and began walking hand in hand.

However, Akane slowed and then stopped before they'd gone even ten feet. Ranma tugged at her outstretched arm, but her body didn't even rock on its toes. Pulling on her hand felt like trying to move the mountain itself. He opened his mouth to snap something, but the despair on Akane's face froze his tongue. "Akane," Ranma finally choked out, trying to sound impatient instead of afraid.

Lifting her free hand, Akane pushed her fingers out into the space between them. The tips of her fingers went white and flattened against what looked like empty air. "The barrier still won't let me pass. I was hoping that maybe it was gone since you walked right through it without a stutter. I guess not." Her lower lip quivered once before she pressed her mouth flat, flaring her nostrils as she tried to keep a calm face.

"Then I'll break it," Ranma promised recklessly, "and if that doesn't work, I'll break through the walls or ceiling or floor. I'm not leaving you here." Releasing her hand, Ranma tried everything to sense the barrier trapping Akane, but despite his best efforts, he couldn't feel anything. Switching tactics, he began attacking the hallway itself, but his strongest hits failed to even chip the paint or create a snag in the carpet. Not even the lights would break. They simply swung away from his hits and returned with enough force to almost split his scalp open.

Frustrated, he turned away from Akane's watchful gaze and pulled roughly at his hair. His harsh breathing sounded loud in the empty hallway. He had to find another way.

"It- it's okay," Akane soothed unsteadily. "I couldn't break the barrier either, but thank you for trying."

"Don't thank me," Ranma snapped, keeping his back to Akane so he wouldn't have to see her disappointed expression. "I'm not done yet. I'm just getting started." He forced himself to sound confident and cocky.

Into the ensuing silence came the unexpected ding of an elevator, followed by the sound of doors swooshing open at his back. "Don't look," Akane warned desperately, but it was already too late. Ranma only had a split second to take in the look of Akane's white face and dilated eyes before his gaze was drawn to the open doors where the back wall used to be.

A repulsive, pungent miasma pulsed just inside the opening. Ranma froze in atavistic terror, the hair on his arms standing on end and his breath going choppy. Forms slid in and out of focus within malevolent shadows that seethed with staring eyes the color of a diseased corpse left to rot. The bodies attached to those eyes didn't make sense, with impossible proportions and irrational shapes. His mind literally could not comprehend it. Even just the small flashes of joints, claws, and skin made his mind shiver on the knife-edge of madness.

Face turned to the side and eyes squinted almost shut, Akane lunged forward towards the doorway. Her hand slammed at the top button as she pressed herself flat against the wall. A twisted limb shot out of the doors, stabbing for Akane with something that was similar to but not quite a clawed tentacle.

Mind snapping into focus at seeing Akane in danger, Ranma dashed forward. Kicking the tentacle back through the doors with a sound like stepping into a pile of dessicated leaves sheathed in frost, he felt the impact spike through his foot, leaving it numb. Ignoring the injury, he snatched Akane into his arms and jumped away. He flattened Akane against the wall as far back as she could go with the barrier in the hallway and balanced himself on his one good foot in front of her, raising his fists defensively.

Something with the fuzzy legs of a spider, except covered in slime, sharp barbs, and the size of a rhino, started coming into focus out of the shadows. It curled the ends of its limbs around the edges of the open doors and began heaving itself into the hallway. Ranma's mind tried to revolt, but if he broke and ran, he'd leave Akane to face this thing alone. Bulbous pus-colored eyes full of hunger dropped into view from the top edge of the door and peered into the hallway.

Ding! Ranma thought he'd imagined the sound of the elevator, but then the doors began sliding shut, forcing the multitude of legs back into the miasma. Claws scrambled frantically against the blush pink doors, only to be slurped inside seconds before the doors swooshed shut with finality.

The hallway resumed its innocuous appearance. No claw marks gouged the paint or marred the blue carpet. The only thing proving what had just happened was the painful pins and needle feeling as his foot woke back up. Turning to Akane, he demanded, "What the hell was that!?"

Slumping against the wall, Akane rubbed her face and laughed, though the sound held no humor. "You just answered your own question."

"What's that mean?" he snapped belligerently, shaken by the terror he'd just felt.

Shooting him a glare, Akane pushed herself sharply to her feet until they stood toe to toe, refusing to take his crap, as always. Then she enunciated slowly, as if talking to an idiot. "That was hell, also known as the demon plane." Arching an eyebrow, she asked, "Do you need me to draw you a diagram or speak more simply? How about this: demon plane bad." Akane crossed her arms across her chest.

Ranma felt himself flushing. Backing down, he paced up and down the hallway until his heartbeat settled into a normal rhythm. It hurt to do it, but he forced his mouth to form the words because it was Akane. "Sorry."

Nodding, she let herself slump back against the wall at her back, though he noticed she kept the door in her peripheral vision. "Look Ranma, I'm dead. It's just shy of my nineteenth birthday, as expected. There's no easy fix for this." Her hands cupped the elbows of her crossed arms and rubbed.

Leaning back against the wall across from her, Ranma let his own arms cross stubbornly. "Maybe not easy, but the prophecy does give you a fix."

"I don't want to follow that stupid prophecy!" Akane shouted, arms dropping and eyes snapping. "The only way I come back is if someone I love dies! Well newsflash, Ranma, but the only people around that fit the bill are you and Nabiki and I'm not killing either one of you. I refuse!"

Letting his own arms fall to his sides, Ranma barely kept himself from yelling back. But this was a battle he refused to lose. Dropping his voice into a croon, he stepped close. "If you don't, you'll end up in the demon plane. Is that what you want? To go through the door to where those things live so they can torment and feed off you for eternity? Be reasonable, sweetheart."

Knuckling wetness out of her eyes, Akane focused on the wall over his shoulder. "What's reasonable about killing someone I love? Of course I'm terrified, but hurting someone else is worse." Her words shook with the strength of her emotions.

Ranma couldn't stand it. Stepping forward, he enfolded her in his arms and tucked her head beneath his chin. Akane curled herself into his embrace instead of continuing to fight. "A lot of people will be hurt if you don't go back," Ranma said softly to the crown of her head. Dropping a kiss onto her hair, he breathed deeply of her scent. "Your family, your friends… me," he broke off as she rubbed her face against his chest in a move that made his breath catch.

"Please, Akane. You have to go back. The world's no good without you in it." Ranma sent his hands stroking up her back and down to her hips, over and over in a soothing cycle that hopefully felt as good to her as it did to him. "Besides, it's not just my selfishness talking. That stupid prophecy says that you have to go back if we're to have any hope of defeating the rat demon. If you don't, we could all end up dying anyways: Nabiki, Ryoga, me, the monks from both Martial Arts Geometry temples, and even all those Iriomote cats. Did you know that the rat demon is their ancient enemy? Every adult cat who can fight showed up to do battle, even though their species is on the verge of extinction. If you don't want that on your conscience, you have to go back."

Akane gave a wet chuckle. "You manipulative bastard, don't try to convince me that you care about a bunch of cats."

Tugging playfully on the back of her hair, Ranma felt her shiver in his arms. Unable to stop himself, he slid his hand possessively over the nape of her neck and squeezed. Akane looked up, careful not to dislodge his hold. Her dark eyes slid across his face like she was dragging her lips over his skin. Desire pooled low in his belly.

"Of course I don't care about a bunch of stupid cats," he admitted, his voice gone husky, "but I know that you do." His thumb stroked up and down the graceful column of her neck. "This is a fight I'm not going to lose. I will use anything and everything I have to until you give in. Nothing is more important to me than you are, Akane. I love you and I want you to live."