A/N: Okay, everyone here it FINALLY is! The last chapter of Hearts or Diamonds! Thanks to everyone who chased me until I finished it. What with getting married and moving, it was all very hard, but whew…it's done! I'd have liked to have added more detail, but if there's a sequel, I'll put it into that.
Please let me know what you thought. I might still refine the ending a bit more, but it's 1200 am, and I have work in the morning.
Thanks loads to everyone who stuck it out with me. I started this fic more than a year ago, and there have been lots of you guys who were there from the start, including Oyuki, especially, and new fans, thanks to Danae and her awesome Spanish website! Well, here ya go!
Shekuto flung the rest of the water from his bucket into Shampoo's face, and she transformed. She shrank in the blink of an eye into a slim white cat and sprang onto Shekuto's startled face, claws fully extended. The ninja yelled, stumbled backward, blinded by the feline fury Shampoo had become. Her yowls of fury echoed through the room as henchmen and villain alike stared in shock.
"Get her off him, you fools!" Zhang shouted.
It was too late. Shampoo was now only a white ball of fury that no one could catch, and Shekuto's face was clawed red. She leaped from his forehead to the table, where Zhang had placed his cup of tea. She upended it, and before the ninjas could quite recover from seeing the cat turn back into a curvaceous, gorgeous chick, she had sliced through Mousse's bonds. Now they were both free and the ninjas shut their mouths and went to work.
Well, lucky them. Here I was, still strapped to the board, unable to move. My leg was on fire, and there were two of them against a crowd of ninjas. Well, the odds weren't too bad, but now more were pouring in from the hallway.
"???" I stared at Blaine. I was standing with my back to the wall in one of the storerooms, hands up, looking down the dull, deadly barrel of Blaine's Beretta 92 FS handgun, not enjoying the experience in the least.
"It's not easy to double-cross EVERYbody, Mr. Saotome," Blaine was explaining with a grin on his face, twirling one end of his mustache with his free hand. "Yes, I was originally meant to represent a minor Indian official. Poor chap was quite determined to get the Mogul back to his country and display it in some sort of museum, you see. Rather silly of him to trust me, what? Considering the Kohinoor is still in Britain's hands." Blaine laughed at this point, still careful to keep an eye on me.
We were waiting with five other ninjas for chains to truss me up in. Blaine had been very specific about that as he sent a couple of Zhang's flunkies scurrying.
"Perhaps he's not as dishonorable as you," I said.
"Whatever it is, I'm afraid he was misinformed. Zhang and I have been secret partners in the smuggling trade for a few years now. And as my partner, he wanted to cut in on the deal, naturally." Blaine stopped. "Oh, here they are with the chains. Good men!"
He looked on in satisfaction as the ninjas began to tie me up. I tried to ignore his blathering as I looked for a way to escape. With a gun centered at my forehead, it wasn't as easy as you might think.
"But then I thought to myself, Roger, you came up with this idea all on your own. Why share it with Zhang, who's got loads of money already? That's when I decided on the idea of a courier! Rather brilliant if I say so myself."
I glared at him. "You hired a courier so anyone could take potshots at her, all the while waiting for her to bring the diamond to you…"
"Oh, well, I'd heard of Akane Tendo's reputation you see. She's never yet failed to deliver. Zhang and the Indian minister were not similarly enlightened."
"So all you had to do was tell each one that the other had stolen it, and you would have the diamond delivered to your own doorstep!" I watched as the ninjas continued to wrap chains around my shoulders, between my legs, wrap around my wrists and around my neck so that I was bowed back, my wrists touching the backs of my knees.
"Smart boy." By now, the ninjas had secured me tightly and Blaine gave the signal for them to retreat. "Now I shall pay a visit to the lovely Miss Tendo and see how things are progressing. Zhang might have wrested the diamond from her by now."
I watched as Blaine and his entourage pulled the heavy door closed behind them. I could hear them pulling the giant oak bar across it, then some clinking of keys which I took to mean they'd locked the door as well.
"That creep, using Akane like that!" I muttered. Still, that's what the villains of the world did. They abused the innocent for their own ends. And martial artists were sworn to defend the innocent, right? Right.
I looked around the room. It was large, and there was plenty of space for what I wanted to try. I lay on my side, my wrists crossing my ankles at the small of my back. An uncomfortable position for most people, but not for me. I began to rock back and forth, slowly at first, then faster. There were so many chains tied around me that they grated against the stone floor as I tried to move, but I persevered. Eventually, my momentum allowed me to rotate in a small circle, using my shoulders as a fulcrum.
"Don't lose it!" I gritted out, as I began to spin faster and faster, keeping my momentum growing. Despite my efforts, the chains were heavy, and their uneven shape was throwing me off track. I tried to rise higher onto my shoulders, tuck my knees closer against my chest and began to spiral faster and faster into larger and larger circles, so that I must have looked like a crazy top spinning loopily on its axis.
"C'mon c'mon, get the body in motion," I muttered to myself, as the beat of the Wiseguys' hit song suddenly came into my head. I spun faster and faster, feeling the chains digging into my flesh with every turn.
Get up, get up, put the body in motion…
Nevertheless, I concentrated, and I began to glow blue.
Get up get up
Get up get up
The song beat a tattoo in my head.
And finally I started gaining speed. The room whirled around me in a swirl of shadows, as though I was on a merry-go-round in hell. The glow lit my face and the walls eerily, my bangs rippling in the wind of my chi. I spun faster still. The blue glow expanded, and there was a loud bang. I flexed my arms with a shout and fell back to the floor as pieces of broken chain rained around me.
"Hiryu Shoten Ha, revised yet again!" I shouted triumphantly and rolled to my feet.
"Saotome's still got it!" I crowed, shaking a fist in the air. Then I fell down.
"Ooh, the room's still spinning," I noted woozily, flat on my back.
Akane was waiting for me. Dammit, I had to get up.
"Gimme a second, Akane, I'll be right there…" I put my fingers to my head, and tried to stop seeing stars. That silly song was still bopping in my head, the way a song can get annoyingly stuck in your head sometimes.
I slowly got to my feet, still hearing 'get up get up' in my head…
I fisted my hands and cracked my knuckles, feeling a crazy grin on my face. My blood was up, and I felt like cracking some heads together before I caught up with my errant lover.
Get up, get up, put the body in motion
"Ranma Saotome's in da house!" I sang out, and began building up chi.
Time to start the commotion
The storeroom doors blew outwards, flattening a score of startled ninjas.
"Where's Ranma when I could have used him for a change?" I thought, watching Shampoo and Mousse make short work of Zhang's ninjas. The problem was, more of them were pouring in through the open doorway.
The second problem was, Shekuto had recovered somewhat from Shampoo's scratching and was now headed towards me, an extremely hostile expression on his face. Zhang was watching me with a predatory expression on his face.
Panic was pumping adrenaline into me, and I could no longer feel the burning in my leg. Much.
This is what always gets you into trouble, said that dry little voice that ignored dangerous situations as a BAD TIME TO SPEAK UP. You expect Ranma to rescue you, and he does, but you're never quite sure if it was YOU he came for or the dratted solution to his curse.
"Shut up," my mind snarled. "You're just here to distract me, as usual. I've fought with you for eight years over the could-have-beens in my life, and this is no time to start again!"
The voice had started soon after I left Japan. It sneered at me, thought it was superior, and I was convinced it was a part of my ego that couldn't resist picking my decisions apart. I tried ignoring it when I could, but it always seemed to crop up in my weakest moments.
Has there ever been a time when you were sure he'd come for you, and you only?
"Well, he…that time in Togenkyou, he boiled up the water to save me," my mind replied, knowing that it was easier to answer than try to shut the voice up once it got going.
Of course, what else would he do? He's chivalrous at heart, after all, the sneaky voice kept on. But chivalry is not love.
"I KNOW that," my mind yelled, "but I know that he loves me. He loves me no matter what!"
My heart, a silent spectator to the screaming match in my head, agreed just as silently.
But the voice wasn't ready to let up.
So you don't NEED him to prove he loves you by saving you?- The voice asked dryly.
"Of course not!"
Then save yourself, Akane.
The thought echoed in my head and I realized that once again, I was depending on Ranma. Sure, until he'd shown up, I'd written him out of my life, and my independence asserted itself enough so that I was quite efficient at taking care of myself.
As soon as he shows up, though, I became the maiden in distress, and I hoped he'd come in to save the day, like he always did.
Because that would prove that he loved me.
"Not this time," I swore. "I'm still a Tendo, not a Saotome throwaway, and I can save myself."
I flexed my biceps and wrenched, hard. Felt something give slightly in the frame I was bound to. But Shekuto was a lot closer, now, almost close enough to reach out with those huge fists and crush the life out of me.
Shampoo yelled and body-slammed him. I could tell he wasn't expecting that. Even as he fell and rolled, something sparkling shot high into the air.
Everyone froze, just for a split-second.
Zhang, Shekuto, Shampoo, Mousse, the ninjas and I watched as the Great Mogul diamond arced high in the air, poised at the top of the parabola for an infinite moment, and fell to earth, right into Zhang's hot, little hands.
The smuggling tycoon stared at his treasure for a second before he looked at Shekuto, lying on the floor.
"YOU had it!" he breathed. "Double crosser!"
"Noooo…Master…" Shekuto disavowed, shock and puzzlement in his eyes.
Damn, now everyone knew my hiding place.
Zhang made a run for it, and the fighting began again, as I cursed in frustration.
"So close!" I muttered helplessly from my bound state, my eyes tracking Zhang as he disappeared behind a statue.
Shekuto roared with rage and punched Shampoo hard. She rolled with the punch, using the momentum to twist her body and run up the wall sideways before launching a kick at Shekuto. With the hulk thus occupied, I got to work on my bonds.
I flexed my arms again, curved my spine, straining mightily, and wrenched again. A sharp pain shot through my side, but I ignored it and pulled again, hard and fast.
The frame snapped off its stand with a sound like a shot.
Its weight overbalanced me and I nearly fell to the ground. Wobbling, I managed to straighten myself and stood, my wrists still pinned to the frame. One of my legs was free, though. I hopped towards the entryway like an ungainly bat, concentrating on my martial balance.
Ninjas came for me, but Mousse distracted them. Reaching the door, I turned and slammed the frame into the open doorway, blocking any more ninjas from coming in. The rectangle of wood wouldn't keep them out for long. Already, I could hear weapons thunking into the wood at my back. It wouldn't be long before a sharp blade penetrated the wood and sheared into my spine.
I worked my trapped leg through the iron bond, turning my ankle in ways that would be impossible for a normal person. I'd taken ballet in university, however. They taught you to treat your toes like fingers and your feet suffered cruel and unusual punishment. I'd enjoyed it, though, because it showed me action could be feminine.
My foot protested, but some jiggling and a scrape or two later, the foot was free. I arched it up to my wrist, and worked the toes until they wiggled their way under the strap. I let the natural arch of my leg do its work and spring back down, pulling the strap until it ripped free of the frame.
I used the hand to pull the last strap off my other hand and sprang away from the door, just as a shining katana pierced the wood like a steak knife shearing through meat.
I stared at six inches of shining steel protruding from the frame, and gulped. Close call. That had almost gone through my spine.
I needed a weapon. I looked around and saw lots.
When the frame smashed down to the carpet and ninjas poured over it into the room, their eyes widened when they saw what I held.
"Come on, boys, mama's gonna whip you into shape!" I laughed crazily, and menacingly cracked the long, red leather whip I held in one hand. I'd snatched it from the wall of horrors. It had been right next to a cat-o-nine-tails. The ninjas stared for one timeless moment, then with a shout they attacked.
I didn't bother cracking the whip again. The first time had been for show. This time, I simply wrapped it around the foot of the first attacker and slammed him into the wall. I slammed my palm sideways into the throat of the next one, denting his larynx. He fell to the ground, choking. I brought the whip into play again, snapping it around two ninjas at once and yanking on the whip to send them flying. I gave another ninja a stinging crack in the face, then whirled and slashed again at another one.
Shampoo had had the advantage of surprise in fighting Shekuto, but she'd lost that now and I didn't think he'd let her trick him again. He was pounding her like a piledriver. Across the room, Mousse was disappearing in a crowd of ninjas.
Shekuto finally growled, and picked a nearly unconscious Shampoo up and threw her toward the exit. Mousse and I watched as her body sailed through the air, descended and was caught in a pair of sturdy arms.
Ranma was here.
Despite my newfound decision not to depend on him, I nevertheless had to admit he made an entrance.
The ninjas paused again, eyeing this new entry warily.
I almost smiled.
They were about to get trounced.
Ranma walked into the room, carrying an unconscious Shampoo in his arms. He ignored the ninjas, ignored Shekuto. He looked straight at me.
"Are you okay, Akane?" he asked.
I stared at him. He'd followed me, just as I'd known he would. Was he mad that I'd disobeyed him? It was hard to tell. I decided bravado was the best front.
"I'm fine," I said, giving my whip a lazy twirl. "I saved myself," I added defiantly. I don't know what compelled me to add that. Maybe it was seeing Shampoo in his arms.
Ranma cocked an eyebrow, smiling. "So I see," he said. "Well, then I guess all that's left is to save Shampoo."
Shampoo? My ego said indignantly.
Ranma placed his burden carefully on the ground, straightened and sent Shekuto a glare, cracking his knuckles.
"That girl is a friend of mine," he said, "and I just can't stand people who hurt my friends."
"And you seemed to have busted up Akane's leg," Ranma said, his voice growing deadlier. "For that, you're gonna pay."
I grimaced. I'd sort of forgotten about the leg in the whole adrenalin rush of getting free, but trust Ranma to notice.
Shekuto smiled grimly, and made a 'bring it on' motion with his index fingers.
I sighed. Macho posturing.
In the meantime, Zhang had escaped with the diamond. I'd leave them to their play and find the master spider.
Where had he gone? I looked around the room carefully. He'd been near the naked statue of a satyr when he disappeared. I walked up to it as Ranma and Shekuto began to fight. I examined it from all angles, and blushed when I saw how explicitly nude the statue really was.
"Wow, that's a lot of…detail." I looked closer, blushing, and there, right on his happy man, I could see a button. "What a pervert." I poked the button gingerly. Nothing happened. I looked up at the statue's leering face. He looked like he was laughing at me.
"You've got to be kidding."
I placed my fingers gingerly around the statue's penis, grasped it and turned it with my thumb depressing the button. Sure enough, a whole section of the wall slid away, revealing a cavern of stone. The sight was so unexpected that I quite forgot I was holding a statue's genitalia. Zhang was nowhere to be seen, but he was sure to be close by.
I released the statue and walked in, peering around. Ranma, Mousse and Shampoo were still back in the room, but I wasn't worried. I could take on the shrivelled spider easily. I walked furthur in, noting that the cavern looked like it was carved out of ice. No surprise there. My footsteps echoed through the tunnel, and I looked around for Zhang.
"Aack!" I gasped as hard fingers seized my wrist. I turned, fully expecting to see another super-sized villain, but it was Ranma who held me in his grip.
"Ranma!" I stared at him. "A ha ha ha…you scared me."
"Damn well you should be scared!" He hissed, pulling me closer, until our bodies were flush against each other. "I warned you about coming here alone and you deliberately disobeyed me."
"Mousse was with me," I replied, struggling to release myself.
"You're not helping things," he growled, grabbing my shoulder.
I smiled weakly. I wanted to tell him that I loved him, but now didn't seem to be the best time.
"Where's Shekuto?" I whispered.
Ranma looked haughty. "Just a bunch of big muscles, nothin' fancy. I took care of him."
Stones clattered hollowly behind us, as though they were falling.
I spun around.
"What was that?" Ranma demanded.
"Zhang," I said tersely. "He has the diamond."
The little rat was close. I could almost smell him.
We set off in the direction of the sound, crossing a vast cavern until we came to a bridge with a low roof studded with stone stalactites. The bridge was immensely narrow, merely a handspan width to walk on.
"Stay here," Ranma said, and began to cross.
"Like hell," I said.
He swung back and leveled a warning glare at me.
"You don't want to be close to me just now, Akane. My fingers are still itching to give you a good whipping."
I laughed nervously and put up my hands palms-out in a soothing gesture.
"Whatever you say, Ranma." Obviously, he was still mad. Geez, and I thought guys liked independent women.
Ranma walked across the narrow bridge with confidence. Just as he reached about two thirds of the way across, there was a clang and iron chains dropped down to imprison him in their links.
"Not again!" he cried.
Zhang appeared on the opposite end of the bridge, laughing gleefully. In his hands, the diamond glowed brilliantly.
"Fools" he cried. "You thought I could be so easily vanquished? Now it's YOU who are trapped."
"You won't get me so easily, you little twerp," I vowed, starting across the bridge.
"Keep back, Miss Tendo," Zhang warned, throwing a hand out to stop me. "You're too lovely to be roasted."
Even as we watched, there was a deep grinding noise, and immense heat assaulted my exposed skin from the chasm. I peeked over the lip of the chasm with dread.
A molten lake of lava bubbled forty feet below us.
"My own little emergency exit," Zhang crowed. "Cross now, Miss Tendo, and I'll drop your boyfriend into the lake before you can say 'Crispy, please'! Wahahahahahaha!" He threw his head back, laughing evilly.
I glanced back at Ranma worriedly. He was struggling with the chains, but they were seriously massive, and he didn't have much of a grip. I didn't want him to be toast. Was Zhang about to get away? But if I were to stop him, Ranma would be history. We were meeting after so long. I wasn't about to let some evil Flash Gordon villain end Ranma's life when there was so much ahead of him!
"Ranma," I called, worry in my voice.
Almost like it was mocking me, the diamond sparkled more brightly, unreachable. I stared it gloomily. And then I had to look away, because its brightness was reaching incandescence.
"What the hell..?" Zhang cried.
The brightness dimmed, and when I looked at Zhang again, I stared at him sternly.
"You will not separate me from my love," I said in a strange accent.
My LOVE? Did you just say that out loud, idiot?
"What?" he said, blinking.
"WHAT?!" Ranma gawked at me.
"I've been separated from him for too many lifetimes," I said, feeling sadness and loneliness run through me. I was familiar with the emotions. I'd experienced them over the centuries as I was separated from my love. I looked up at where my lover hung from chains. "Darling, don't worry, we'll be together now."
Wha…centuries? It's only been eight years! This isn't me!
"I know," he said, in a deeper voice than usual. "I wish we hadn't had to be apart for so long."
"It was decreed," I said, moving onto the bridge, ignoring the heat. Such things bothered me no longer. My eyes were only on him. "Too many opposed our union."
I could feel the other presence in me now. She was older than me, and dead. So she'd taken over my body to speak to her long-dead lover. I recognized her. I'd dreamed about her when I'd had the diamond. She was nobility of some kind, from the Mughal period in India.
"They are not here any longer," Ranma said, his eyes brimming with love. He was some kind of warrior, I assumed with the part of my mind that was still Akane. The ghostI knew he would have reached down to her/me if he could but the chains were in his way.
She/I raised my hand, let the diamond channel her/my power up into him so that the chains loosened, unbound themselves and fell clanking, onto the bridge.
Free, her/my lover pulled her/me into his arms, cradled my head and crushed her/my lips to his. She/I sighed with happiness against the pull of his mouth, filled with joy to be enfolded in those arms after so long.
We drew apart momentarily.
"My rivals were jealous," he said, "that I should have one as beautiful and fine as you."
"All the women were jealous of me," She murmured. I couldn't help thinking that I could identify with that.
"But now, we can be together," he said. "Always."
And just that suddenly, I felt like I'd been splashed with cold water, as something warm left my body, and I was left in Ranma's embrace.
The ghosts were gone. We blinked at each other.
"Hmmm," Ranma purred.
"Ack!" I jumped back, startled.
We heard the sound of running feet, and Ranma said," Where do you think YOU're going?"
Zhang was belting off as fast as his little feet could carry him. When Ranma materialized in front of him, he stopped so suddenly he fell over his own feet, sending the diamond tumbling from his grasp.
Ranma caught it with swift fingers and tossed it to me.
"That's mine!" Zhang yowled, his fingers opening and closing.
Ranma leaned down and looked at him.
"Where you're going, you won't have to worry about pretty little baubles like these," he said, hauling up Zhang's collar.
When we got back to the Red Room, it was crawling with Mousse's soldiers, who had finally gained entrance to the fortress. They had most of the ninjas under guard, and were chasing down the rest. Three had Shekuto tied up.
One of the soldiers was reporting to Mousse in a distracted manner, his eyes staring at the devices of deviation strapped to the walls.
Mousse himself had a gorgeous black eye forming, and he was scowling at Ranma and rubbing his cheek.
"You struck him!" I accused Ranma, who turned to look at me with a smirk.
"Did you strike him in the confusion?" I demanded.
"No, I struck him in the face, and he damned well deserved it," my ex-fiance retorted.
Ranma handed Zhang over to two of the soldiers, and turned to me.
I was still slightly shocked from being taken over by a ghost, and a bit leery of being around him but he was having none of it.
He grabbed me around the waist, and looked deep into my eyes.
"You drive me crazy, you know that?" he asked, his blue-grey eyes twinkling with mischief. "But that's okay. I have plans for you."
"I…" Before I could respond, he captured my lips with his, showing me quite thoroughly exactly what sort of plans he had for me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Shampoo scowl at us, then faint into Mousse's arms. Well, the Chinese pair hadn't scored romantically, but they'd be heroes back in China once they hauled Zhang in and turned his fortress over to be examined. The fortune in stolen cargo alone would be worth millions.
Yes, I couldn't bring myself to feel too sorry for them, especially when Ranma's kisses were setting me on fire. I closed my eyes, moaned when that simply deepened the sensations that tingled through my body and kissed Ranma back.
He tore his lips from mine, breathing harshly.
"Time for a change of scene," he said.
The cottage was set deep in the mountains. It was snowing and the path leading up to the cosy little cabin was inaccessible for most vehicles. That suited Ranma just fine. He'd spent most of three days and nights showing me just how much he'd missed me, after torturing me a bit for disobeying him. I took it with good grace. I still wasn't sure what I was going to do with him. We hadn't spoken of the future. We were just glad to have survived the past.
I stood looking out the window as snow flakes gently drifted down beyond the glass pane. Beside me on the table lay a newspaper. The headlines read 'Great Mogul diamond returned to Indian Government, safeguarded in museum', and below that, 'Indian public ecstatic'. The finer print was hidden by a tray of hot chocolate and a plate of cookies. I grabbed one to munch as I turned to look at Ranma.
He lay in bed, covered only by a single sheet that draped dangerously low over his hips. Lying there, he looked like a desert sultan, waiting for his houri.
"Come back to bed, Akane."
I looked briefly again out of the window, at the snow piled in soft mounds outside our window, at the mountains glittering in the morning sunshine, and the world hidden beyond, waiting for us.
But that was a while away. For now, I had Ranma.
I traced a diamond on the frozen window pane, studied it. Then I drew a heart.
I glanced at the paper thoughtfully, rubbed out the diamond and walked back to the bed to fall willingly into Ranma's arms.
Hearts, or diamonds?
I knew what choice I had made.