A/N: Once in a while, reviews come through that are so uplifitng, so inspiring, that I just want to go ahead and write for those readers just so they can read the next chapter and get some satisfaction! They've earned it.
Thank you, everyone, for reviewing the lprevious chapter so well. I'm happy to say that this is the last chapter of 'Tokens', and as you can see by the lengtt, I sat in one place until I finished it!! It took me longer than 3 years to write this story. Wow.Thanks so much for sticking by me all this time.
This chapter is dedicated to all y'all who have waited and waited for a writer to update, and waited in vain, and who write such awesome fulfilling reviews that it can force some of us off our uninspired asses to WRITE! :)
Akane awakened unwillingly, but some sudden sense of urgency made her open her eyes. The sight she saw overhead nearly caused her to cry out. Ranma dangled from the ceiling a few feet away, his wrists wrapped in rusted chains that twisted and turned from the ever-present black marble, above. His head was slumped against his chest, his braid hanging wetly against his neck. A steady drip of blood snaked down his leg and dripped into a cauldron beneath his feet. The cauldron, Akane saw, was placed in a pentagram on the floor.
A woman with long black hair stood with her back facing Akane. She was dressed in a white robe, , staring up at Ranma. Low chanting was turning the pentagram a glowing blue star.
Akane blinked and looked around. She was in a dungeon, she saw. Guards stood at the entrance and at posted places, silent. Kuno's chair sat in one corner, mostly facing her. Kuno looked eager, she noted. The light from the pentagram set an eerie cast to his face, hollowing his cheekbones. His live hand was clenching and unclenching against the arm of his chair. Akane herself was tied with chains to a rack set in the floor, she noted with rising panic. The only good thing was that Kunou and the woman hadn't realized she was awake.
Who was chanting?
Akane automatically wrenched at her manacles, then cursed her idiocy, because they heard the unmistakable clink of the chains. The woman turned to look at her, and with a jolt, Akane realized that it was a man. He was the one who was chanting. He didn't stop, even as he stared at her. Akane shuddered. He seemed…evil.
"Stop this!" she demanded. "Please, just use the blood you already have. It should be enough. Or take mine."
Kuno shook his head. "I don't want to take any chances, Princess Akane. It has to be all. Mousse, keep going."
"Noooo…" Akane pleaded. She wrested with her chains, and although she was strong, they were stronger. Eventually, Mousse and the king turned away, bored by her struggles. She tried a while longer.
"Ranma!" she cried out. "Please, wake up!" The bound figure above her didn't show any sign of life.
"I suppose I can help you out there," Kunou murmured. "He isn't bleeding fast enough." He gestured to a guard, who quickly reached out and slashed Ranma's thigh with a quick swipe of his sword. Ranma jerked, but didn't raise his head.
"No!" Akane screamed, her eyes filling with tears. She shook with fury, remembering another time when she had seen Ranma tied up and bleeding. They had been seven. And she had promised she would rescue him. She'd promised!
She lowered her head and wept.
The whisper came so softly she lost didn't hear it.
"Akane…" The voice was coming from behind her.
Akane didn't raise her head. She opened her eyes and used her bowed head to hide her actions. She darted a glance behind her left arm, where a pony-tailed shadow hovered.
"Ukyou?" she whispered disbelievingly.
"Yeah," came the soft whisper back. "I'm here to help you. Don't look at me, idiot!"
Akane kept her head down, and couldn't feel anything for a while, even though she knew Ukyou was working on her bonds. But relief raced through her. They weren't alone!
Nodoka stopped in a palace corridor, the black marble walls hidden with gorgeous tapestries.
She had sent Cologne on her way once they were in through one of the secret entrances she'd known about. Cologne wasn't part of her fight. And fight she must. She knew that destiny had been pulling her back to Dara, to Kunou, and she must face him. Cologne was here to find Shampoo, and so Nodoka had pointed her in the direction of the harems. She silently wished the old woman luck. She herself must find Kunou.
How she was going to face him without any magic, she didn't know. But she could feel him, somewhere here. His life force throbbed malignantly in her mind. The pull had gotten so strong since she'd entered the palace that she was easily able to let it carry her along, and in fact so forgot herself that she nearly slammed into the two men guarding the sturdy wooden door that led down to the dungeons.
"Who are you?" one demanded, stepping forward, not recognizing her. "No women in this part of the palace!"
They caught her arms, and Nodoka furiously fought free of the binding web of Kunou's presence in her mind, too late. She cursed her luck.
"I…I got lost," she muttered. "From the harem corridors."
"You should never have strayed!" the other one barked. "The king doesn't like his women to wander." How true, Nodoka thought ironically as she struggled. The men began to wrestle her to the ground.
"Please stop harassing the lady," came a quiet voice.
The two guards looked up in unison, as did the struggling Nodoka. A frisson of shock ran through her, and she blinked her eyes. Surely, she must be seeing things. He couldn't be here.
Tarou, the Arun Prince, stood behind them. He walked softly forward, his slanted dragon eyes pinning the two hapless guards. "Let her go," he said.
Nodoka shook her head. The last time she'd seen him, a few days ago, the young prince had been running amok in her palace in Jiya with his desert tribesmen, fighting and destroying the palace, taking her people prisoner. What was he doing here, in Dara?
"You know me," Tarou said. "I've come to see your master, King Kuno, often." The guards only tightened their hold on her, staring at Tarou suspiciously. "You're the desert prince," said one, hesitantly.
Tarou merely curled a lip. He blurred into action, his sword moving like a scythe to cut the two men down. The guards didn't even have time to pull their swords from their sheaths. Seconds later, he gently lifted the surprised Nodoka to her feet.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
Nodoka pulled away. "Why are you helping me?" she demanded. "Your people have been attacking us!"
Tarou went stiff. "Things haven't been as they seemed," he replied regretfully. "If I'm correct, I owe you my apologies for attacking your palace."
"What do you…?"
But Tarou held up a hand. "We don't have much time. I assume you were trying to find King Kunou? If he's in the dungeon, I'll escort you."
Nodoka didn't think much about being escorted into Kunou's dungeon by her erstwhile enemy, but with her magic gone, there wasn't much she could do about it. And the urge to confront Kunou was getting stronger.
As they went down the winding staircase, Tarou wondered how angry the queen would be if she knew the unconscious body of her husband was tied up and dumped not too far away.
Kunou's body stirred in his chair, whatever that remained of him as flesh, that is.
It can't be…
He shuddered. Not after all these years….
The door to the dungeon swung open, and dim light poured into the shadowed room. Akane froze, unable to believe her eyes. Nodoka stepped in, her skirts still held high from descending the stairs. She looked regal and tall- the queen she had been for so long.
"Mother?" she breathed.
Guards quickly surrounded Nodoka, blocking her way.
Nodoka ignored them. Her gaze quickly took in the tied and bleeding Ranma, Akane, and Kunou.
"Nodoka…." Kunou whispered, eyes wide. "It's been so long."
"Kunou," she nodded. She didn't show it by word or expression, but somehow Akane knew that Queen Nodoka was terrified. What are you doing here? How can you face him?
No one noticed the dark, braided head rising, the slow stop of bleeding.
"You are trying to release yourself from the curse, aren't you, Kunou?"
Kunou's face grew enraged, and his one normal hand tightened on the armrest of his chair. "Why shouldn't I? The cuckold of a queen left behind to die with his city! Why shouldn't I save myself?"
"Your memory seems selective, dear king," Nodoka said, raising her head proudly. "Have you forgotten how you yourself kept concubines?"
"My right! Not yours!" he screamed. "Guards! Hold her!"
The guards pressed forward, but suddenly there was a slim figure in a green vest in front of Nodoka, scimitar raised and gleaming.
"Tarou!" hissed a furious voice from beside Akane, even as the chains tying Akane's wrists loosened.
"Tarou?" Kunou looked confused. "Why are you fighting my guards, fool?"
"I've been having some interesting conversation with Genma, Kunou," Tarou drawled as he whipped through the guards. "Heard how he contacted you a while ago, when he captured an Arun man and found out that my father was your pawn. Heard from Genma's own lips how you and him made some land deals."
"Heard.."Tarou's slashes grew wilder. "..how you sold..." and wilder. "...my sister and me to Cantos, so that Genma..." He slashed the head off one guard with one swipe, and turned to glare at Kunou. "...could get the kingdom of Jira! Your own allies! You betrayed us to the enemy!" More guards attacked and Tarou was forced to hold them at bay.
Kunou looked faintly displeased. "Allies are meant to be used in the most useful way possible. You're throwing a tantrum for no reason, Tarou!"
Tarou ignored him and began to fight back the guards, allowing Nodoka to slip past them and walk towards Kunou, who glared.
"I won't let you stop me!" he shouted. "Any of you!" He spoke a word, and sudden flames flew from his live hand to scorch the air before Nodoka. She fell back, choking.
"Mousse has been giving me lessons in sorcery, my dear," he purred, and smirked as Nodoka clutched her throat. "What do you think?" He spoke another word, and lightning sliced through the air, cutting Nodoka's arm, sending blood spilling.
"No! Stop that!" Akane, chains loosened, flew across the dungeon to stop squarely in front of Nodoka, facing Kunou. "Don't hurt her!"
Mousse, his chanting done, turned to help Kunou. He sent a shower of ice to lock Nodoka's feet in place, so she couldn't escape.
Ukyou, hiding behind the rack, saw what was happening and cursed. Akane would soon be next. She hadn't saved the princess to have her go down under that long-haired magician! She darted out from behind the rack and fell on Mousse, uttering her battle-cry. She pulled her spatula out of thin air and whacked him with it, sending him flying.
Yes! It felt so good to fight back! But before she could gloat further, Mousse rose to the fight, green eyes gleaming. He sent a shower of ice that locked Ukyou's feet to the marble floor. She knocked it off with her spatula, and jumped at him, using the jump to mask her shurikens flying through the air. They hit his arm, drawing blood. He hissed, and uttered a word. Ukyou's spatula went flying through the air. She cursed as he reached her and backhanded her, sending her flying.
Her head hit the ground and she cried out. Stars swam in her vision. Mousse reached her and taking advantage of her stunned state, picked her and threw her across the room.
This time though, she landed against something slightly softer. Arms came around her and pulled her up into a sitting position.
"Stay here," commanded a low voice.
Ukyou blinked her blurred vision into focus, to see that Tarou was in front of her, swinging his sword against Mousse. The magician smiled. "So, you're betraying us, Tarou?"
Tarou snorted. "If your head weren't so far up your ass, you would see that I was simply rectifying my earlier mistakes. But talking to YOU is a waste of time, Mousse. I never liked you. "
Mousse frowned and murmured a word, but nothing happened.
"My sword is enchanted against magic, Mousse," Tarou explained with a grin. Mousse scowled. Then he smiled. He whipped his hands, and two huge iron claws came flying at Tarou.
Oh, shit, thought Ukyou uncomfortably. Now who should I root for?
Akane kicked the ice around Nodoka's feet but it was rock hard. She picked up a nearby sword and began hacking at it. A burst of power behind her sent her flying into Nodoka, who screamed as she fell over, and the ice kept her feet locked. Agony seared through the queen's ankle.
"OhKhaitan!I'msosorry!" Akane leapt off Nodoka. She spun around. Kuno was firing up another blast, and Akane barely managed to duck as it came flying her way.
She didn't notice as above her, cracks appeared in the ceiling. The cracks all ran from the epicenter of chains in the ceiling. Something shook the chains, and more cracks appeared.
Akane knelt, panting. Kunou had gone completely red in the face. He was mad, she thought. But at least she had drawn his fire away from Nodoka, she thought. She looked down, trying to catch her breath. A glowing blue line ran past her knee. She was in the pentagram, she realized. And idea began to germinate in her head as she stared at the glowing blue line.
"You will pay!" Kunou shouted, and let loose another blast, but this time at the trapped Nodoka.
"No!" Akane screamed, and fell into the path of the blast…her arms crossed in front of her. It was futile, she realized. She wouldn't have time to try out her idea. She was going to die. NO!
Blue light blazed around her, shielding her.
And then died away. She looked up. Kunou looked stunned. So was she.
Just shielded herself?
No time to think about it. Before Kunou could react, she stood and raced toward the cauldron in the middle of the pentagram.
"You want to be human again so bad, Kunou?" she screamed. She lifted it by the lip and hauled it around, sending the dark red liquid within arcing across the room. "Here you go!"
Ranma's blood splashed Kunou in a warm, wet arc, spotting his hair, his face, his clothing, sending a great swath of it across his body, like paint.
Immediately, he began to scream. He threw back his head and howled, so crazily that every single person stopped fighting and turned to stare. Kunou used his free hand to pull off his robe, and everyone stared as the black marble melted away, revealing human flesh.
But it wasn't just him. The walls, the floor, the ceiling, began to leach black, showing stone, wood, iron- anything but marble.
Elsewhere, in Kunou's harem, Cologne and Shampoo broke their embrace, aware that something strange was happening. They looked around, shocked, as the black began to bleed down the walls, leaving them white sandstone.
"We should get out of here, grandmother," Shampoo commented.
"That's a great idea, Shampoo. But I think we had better find Nodoka first."
In the dungeon, Kunou stood for the first time in decades, grinning manically. "I'm flesh again!" he marveled, staring at his hands. They were both now the same. HIs bare torso was pale flesh. Only his legs, hidden by loose pants, were hidden. But they obviously were flesh and bone, because he was standing.
He laughed aloud. "Mousse! It worked. Now kill them, and this whole sorry episode will be over!"
"You evil man!" Akane gasped.
Kunou pulled his sword and approached Akane. He was quite tall, she noticed. "You, my dear, can be my new queen, if you want to live." She shuddered. "No?" He shrugged. "Well then, your loss." He brought his sword back to slash her. There was a loud crack from the ceiling. Kunou, uncaring, swung the sword back toward's Akane's neck.
Something stopped it.
A shadow blurred before him, and Ranma suddenly appeared between them. One of his chains was wrapped around his wrist and he'd used that to block the blade. Ranma's eyes were hidden beneath his bangs. He was bleeding from several cuts and had already lost a lot of blood. But the dark aura that emanated from him sent a chill through Kunou.
Ranma raised his head, and Kunou took a step back at the glinting fierceness of the prince's gaze that was focused fully on him.
"I told you…I won't...let you hurt…Akane!" Ranma growled. Kunou sprang backwards, disengaging his sword.
"Ranma!" Akane exclaimed, so relieved to see him and yet so worried by his condition.
"Stay back, Akane. You saved my mother. But I'm gonna finish this!" With that, Ranma sped toward Kunou, who also attacked. They met in mid air with a clash of chain and sword. Sparks flew.
Tarou and Mousse, meanwhile, spun in a circle, fighting. Mousse was injuring the prince with his hooks. They flew out of his sleeves, slashed sideways, and even Tarou's superior speed was slowed down after fighting with Genma in the hot sun.
When Tarou finally saw his opportunity, he worried that it was almost too good to be true. They were nearing the rack to which Akane had been chained. Mousse didn't notice, though, busy as he was trying to impale Tarou with his hooks.
Tarou spun through the air, over Mousse's head. Now that he had been hit so many times with the hooks, he could tell the instant they flashed out, and how long they took to snap to their full length. He timed it. He ended his spin by landing on the rack, and paused for a split second. The hooks rushed toward him. Before gravity could pull him down, he pushed off again, and the hooks wrapped hungrily around the rack, their barbs harmlessly scraping over its iron frame.
Just for a moment, as Mousse realized his mistake, he was trapped, and Tarou used the moment to land behind him and run his scimitar through Mousse's chest. Mousse's eyes widened and he slumped to the ground, his hooks still wrapped around the rack.
Ranma and Kunou flashed towards each other again and again. Akane watched, afraid to interfere in case she cost Ranma his attention and he made a fatal mistake.
Ranma was amazingly fast, as she remembered. But he had lost a lot of blood.
Kunou was stiff after so many years without moving, but he had cunning.
They parried and fought, until finally Ranma used an aerial kick to the head to send Kunou flying. Kunou landed on his back, rolled across the floor, and finally landed on his stomach, the breath knocked out of him. In a flash, Ranma was on his back, the chain looped around Kunou's throat, tightening until the links were digging deep into his neck and Kunou began to turn blue. He struggled, but his struggles grew weaker.
"Give it up," Ranma threatened hoarsely. "It's over, you bastard." He pulled the sword from Kuno's strengthless hand and tossed it into a corner. Swiftly, he looped the chain around Kuno's wrists.
He looked around for something to tie Kunou's mouth with, in case he decided to try another spell.
"It doesn't matter, my son. His magic is gone."
Ranma looked up to see that Nodoka had gotten to her feet. She still looked slightly groggy, but there was something new about her, or perhaps something that had been missing, but which now made her whole. She was glowing slightly.
She lifted her hand to stare at it. "Kunou has lost all his power. It has returned to me."
"Mother…" Ranma murmured.
Akane knelt shakily beside him. "Ranma, are you…okay?" She laughed. "I mean…are you hurt? I mean…" Sh ran a hand over his shoulders gently.
Ranma's grey gaze softened as he stared at his fiancée. "I'm fine, Akane."
He looked back down at Kunou, and pulled him to his feet. "Get up, asshole. I hope you're happy with your body, because you can enjoy it in prison."
He opened one of the cells in the dungeon, and tossed the dazed Kunou in.
Tarous pulled his scimitar out of Mousse' cooling body and stood, wiping it on Mousse's robe to clean it. He sheathed it and knelt beside Ukyou, holding out a hand.
She glared at him, and rose without help.
"I saved your life," he said. "I hope this makes us even."
"Go screw yourself!" she spat at him, thinking his tally was definitely off.
Tarou bent his head. "You were right. About Genma. I should have listened to you. He wasn't so tough when he was the one being tortured. He told me...Kunou had contacted him for some sort of deal…where they would both benefit with land…" He huffed a breath, and looked pleadingly at her. "I'm sorry, Ukyou."
As Ukyou stared speechlessly at him, Ranma's voice made him turn. "Tarou!"
The two princes sized each other up.
"Since you helped my mother, I'm assuming you're not on Kunou's side, anymore," Ranma ventured.
Tarou nodded. He looked slightly ill now. "I'm very sorry about all this. I should have paid more attention to what was going on. I apologize for attacking Jiya, and I'm offering remuneration in return."
"Remuneration, huh?" Ranma huffed. In his opinion, the prince had done a lot to mitigate the damage he'd caused. And Kunou would doubtless have attacked them whether Happosai helped or not. "Let's talk."
The princes led the way up the stairs.
Behind them, Akane supported a dizzy Ukyou. Nodoka followed as though in a daze.
Akane turned her head. "Are you all right?" she asked Nodoka.
Nodoka smiled at her. "Yes, but there is so much power building up inside me. After being a part of the city for so many years, it has grown…" She trailed off as she raised her hand. The glow was much stronger now. "I need to ground myself."
Slowly, they all climbed into the light.
Ranma, leading the way, walked out of the entrance, and froze. Tarou walked into him, pushing him onwards. He saw what Ranma had been staring at, and froze as well. Akane and Ukyou entered more slowly. Akane's blood chilled when she raised her head.
Genma stood there, grinning like a sand-jackal and weaving slightly. No doubt, the wound on his head contributed to that. Behind him stood fifty of his men, armed to the teeth.
"Ranma! My son! At last, I found you!" He walked forward and grasped Ranma's braid in a painful tug. Ranma yanked his head back, glaring with distaste.
The men began to surround them. Akane sagged in disbelief. Ranma stiffened, terror surging through him at the thought of being taken back to Jiya by his foster-father. It wouldn't be a pleasant trip, he could tell.
"I thought you had left the embrace of your father, my boy!" Genma cried joyfully. Yet the joy had a dark side to it. "I'll never let you out of my sight again!"
"Where…?" Tarou began.
Genma turned to him, and gestured. Immediately, two guards kicked Tarou to his knees. The Arun prince let them. They were all outnumbered.
"Ha! Yes. I had men following me to Dara. I left first because I didn't really think I wold need them, but it looks like they came in useful after all! Eh, Ranma my boy? We'll go home in grandeur." And he patted Ranma's face.
"Get. away. from. me." Ranma growled, the urge to kill Genma surging in his veins like the tide.
Genma's caress turned into a fisted punch to Ranma's cheek that was sudden in its viciousness. "Let's try this again, boy," he said silkily. "Remember OUR dungeon? Oh, yes, I know you do…"
"Leave him alone, you monster!" Akane flew at Genma, getting in a solid kick in the ribs before the surprised king sent her sprawling with a fist.
Ranma growled, tensing to spring, even though his wounds were beginning to drip again…
Genma's gaze flew up in surprise. A figure approached him from the back of the group. One he recognized, yet the posture looked different. It should be more stooped. She should be more cowed.
Though any other king might be relieved and even ecstatic to see his wife after their kingdom had been attacked, Genma's mind followed a different path. "Nodoka…" he drawled. "Are you still alive? I've been hearing stories about you and the king of this place, Kunou. It looks like some punishment might be in order for you, dear wife."
Nodoka regarded Genma with a straight gaze. "Genma. For years I trembled under you." She raised her hand and it trembled as though she were illustrating her words. "No more."
She poured the excess power she had received into the startled king, and before their eyes, he began to turn. Black marble crept up his torso, his chest, and his neck. His eyes widened to horrified realization before they, too, glossed over, unseeing, and the former King Genma of Jiya stood as a marble statue in the palace of the former King Kunou.
Nodoka turned politely to the armed Jiyans. "Anyone want to go next?" she asked.
As one, they dropped their arms.
"She did say she needed to ground herself," Ukyou commented in the stunned silence.
Two weeks later
Two weeks later
The caravan that left the gates of Dara was small, but light-hearted. Ranma and Akane rode on horses in front. Ranma, who had fainted from loss of blood after Genma's statuefication, had been patched up and fed lots of fried liver and goat stew to replace the blood., and Akane had fading bruises on her face and arms, but they smiled at each other shyly as they rode. Their pack camels were driven by guards.
Ukyou rode beside them. She was only going with them as far as Cantos, where she would split off and make for her home. Her father had a lot that he needed to be told. The entire power structure in the land of Sidon had changed with Genma's death, and change was good.
She didn't look to her left, where Tarou rode his own horse. The prince was coming with them to call off the massive tribal encampment outside Jiya's borders. At least the war with the Arun would be over. They had called an uneasy truce but that didn't mean Ukyou wanted to be in his company. Every time she looked at his hands, or his strong mouth, the oddest shiver went through her, and she wished herself far away from him.
Nodoka, Kasumi and Nabiki also rode with them. Nodoka had to straighten out things in Jiya, now that she had turned its king to dead stone. They'd placed Genma's statue in the central fountain in the city, where birds pooped on his marble head.
Cologne and Shampoo had stayed behind. Nodoka had left Cologne temporarily in charge of the city, after making her the Grand Vizier, for all her help.
The first night back out in the desert, Nodoka approached Akane. "You have powers," she said. "You're of my line, after all."
Akane stared at her own hands. That blue shield...She shook her head. "There are a lot of things to do when we get back home. I'm not really interested in developing it at the moment," she said. "Maybe someday..."
Nodoka nodded. "I understand."
"I do have one question, though," Akane ventured.
"Kunou said you needed to leave him an 'out' when you cursed him. But..for Genma, you didn't..."
"Genma will never come back," Nodoka replied shortly. "The crimes that Kunou and I committed against each other were equal. He cheated on me, and I cheated on him. The curse I laid on him was so vast that it needed a way to end it, else...But Genma...well."
Akane understood. No one could ever be equal in crimes to Genma.
The trek through the desert gave the group time to observe, and they noticed with interest the particular attention that the Arun prince paid to the Cantonia princess. Not that they ever talked. But when they camped, Ukyou's bowl was always filled with food first. Her tent was always set up first. Her horse was rubbed down quickly and magically. Ukyou ignored all this. And if she smiled to herself once in a while, it was so secret no one saw it.
And there seemed to be an unspoken agreement among everyone to return to their tents and let Akane and Ranma stay out the latest, when the campfire was dying down into embers. And if it got cold and Ranma made Akane cuddle with him under his blanket for warmth as they stared into the fire, or looked up at the cold stars, then no one saw fit to complain, least of all Akane, who was quite happy where she was. They didn't talk much.
It took them a few days to reach Jiya. Ukyou broke away first, returning to her home city. Ranma and Akane were sorry to see their long-time companion leave.
"Please come to visit often,"Akane pleaded.
"You were a stalwart friend," Ranma said with quiet appreciation.
Ukyou blushed. "Thank you for helping me bring to light the mystery I was chasing. My enmity with Jiya ends with Genma. I hope all our cities can now be friends."
She whispered something in Akane's ear that made the other girl blush, and then after hugging the women and a wide wave, she galloped off.
Tarou broke away soon after, when they came within sight of the Arun tribes. He and Ranma had spoken of how their respective peoples might benefit one another, and Tarou was set to make a trip to Jiya to discuss trading prospects, so they would be seeing him soon, yet parting felt melancholy all the same.
The palace in Jiya was still in the middle of repairs when they arrived. They were greeted with great joy. Explanations followed. Stunned disbelief, then slowly growing relief and joy spread, when it was announced that Genma had regretfully been killed in the fighting. And that the Arun would be retreating. Peace treaties were discussed.
The councillors, especially Kalamari and Tofu, began to discuss among themselves how quickly they could crown a new king. Kalamari had a few days where he went on to his room and fell to his knees to thank Khaitan that all his plans from when Ranma and Akane were borne had borne such excellent fruit. Whether Nodoka or Ranma took over, the kingdom would be in good hands.
Ranma would never have believed it, but it felt good to be home. Especially without Genma. A few days passed as he and Nodoka made administrative decisions, setting the palace and the city back on track.
He was watching the city from one of the balconies one day when he heard soft footsteps behind him.
He turned, to find Nodoka watching him.
"Mother," he said in greeting.
"My son," she replied. She came forward, and although he was now taller, she reached out and hugged him, hard.
"Mother?" Ranma asked, puzzled.
"I'm so proud of you, Ranma!" Nodoka leaned back and stared at his features. His blood had saved Kunou. The universe said he was her son. And Akane was her daughter. She was so blessed.
Ranma smiled. "What is it?" he asked.
"I'm going back to Dara," she said.
Confused, Ranma pulled away. "Really? You won't just let Cologne run it?"
"Dara is my home," she replied simply.
"What about Jiya?" Ranma asked.
"You will have to stay and rule here." Nodoka saw Ranma's grimace, and continued," I know it has unpleasant memories for you. We've all suffered here. That's why Kasumi and Nabiki want to come with me to Dara. But you..I'm afraid you have to stay and rule."
Ranma's look turned thoughtful. "I suppose I wouldn't mind…as long as…"
"As long as…?"
Ranma smiled and disengaged from the embrace, but he didn't reply.
Akane sat beside one of the palace pools, throwing bread into the water, watching as the ducks within snapped up the crumbs and fought each other for them. This area was quiet and serene, a sheltered green oasis of trees, shrubs and pools in the desert.
Akane turned around, heated anticipation turning her stomach gooey. "No. Content."
"Really?" Ranma descended down the path and sat down next to her. "Even with no crazy king trying to kill you, or Cyclops trying to eat you?"
Akane shuddered. "No, thank you. All that business is over, and I'm quite happy that way!"
"Not all of our business is over." Ranma leaned back to lay his head against his arm on the grass. He closed his eyes against the sunlight.
Akane crinkled her brow. "What do you mean? Kunou's safely imprisoned…"
"I mean…" Ranma's eyes stayed closed. "You and I have unfinished business."
Akane's heart began to pound. She remembered the night in Dara. She began to pull away quietly, but Ranma's free hand shot out and unerringly wrapped around her wrist.
"You and I made a deal," Ranma continued, sounding as though he were talking in his sleep. Akane tugged lightly at her hand, but there was no give. "We sealed our engagement with a kiss, and now you have to marry me."
"Have to marry you?" Akane asked lightly. "I don't know…"
"My mother is leaving for Dara, and so I need you as my queen if I'm going to be king. I won't treat you like Genma would, if that's what you're worried about." Ranma's eyes shot open, and his eyes were trained on her. "I'm not like him."
Akane frowned, even as the words 'my queen' sent a tiny shiver through her. "Of course you're not! If anything, you should worry about me, since I'm his blood."
"You're nothing like him, either, thank goodness," Ranma said, frowning up at her. "If I've learned anything over the past few weeks, I've learnt that. You are beautiful and strong, Akane, and when you stepped outside that carriage that day when you came to Jiya for our engagement, I just wanted to hold you and carry you away."
"Away?" Akane asked, bemused. "Where?"
He tugged her down sharply, so that she lost her balance and fell against his chest. She could fell the beating of his heart under her fingertips. "I wasn't very sure about this engagement to start off with, you know," he continued. His other arm came up to wrap around her. "It's not just that you've worn away my rough edges. If there's anything I've learned in the last few weeks, it's that you make my life worth living. You always have, ever since we were seven, and you told me you would take my burdens if you could. After that, it was as though a part of me knew that you were out there, thinking of me.
His eyes swept her face, a small smile tugging at his lips. "A piece of my heart has always been with you, Akane, and now I think you have all of it."
Sudden tears attacked Akane, taking Ranma by surprise. "I loved you even then, Ranma! I wanted to save you," she sobbed into his tunic, hiding her face in his chest. "When we were little."
"Shhh," Ranma comforted her, rubbing her back. "You did, my love." He raised her tear-stained face as she regarded him with surprise.
And then he kissed her.
I think since I gave 'The Prize' such a mushy ending, I kind of wanted to leave this one simple. But meaningful to the story. I wanted to make sure that Akane kept her promise. Even if she couldn't save him physically, she kept him sane.