Solace with Cherries

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ belongs to Rumiko Takahashi.

Here at last, she thought as she looked up towards the rickety wooden sign. It announced 'The Mori's World Famous Cherries' as if it wasn't a tiny convenience store buried in the mountains. For a moment Akane vaguely wondered how the shop made enough money, and then dismissed it as unimportant. Pulling her heavy pack on her shoulders the traveler followed the path up to the store front.

As she passed under the eaves by the entrance she glanced at the warning posters before doing a double-take. Ripping the posters off the wall Akane numbly acknowledged that she hadn't been seeing things. They were in fact posters barring the entrance of one Akane Tendo and one Ranma Saotome. They even had pictures of Ranma in both his forms.

Shock waned to be replaced with outrage. Akane was positive she had never been in this area before, and Ranma…well, Ranma and his father had travelled around a lot, there was no guaranteeing where they had and hadn't been. But still, these were recent photographs; one of the pictures was, in fact, of her looking rather annoyed at the failed wedding. How dare these people who never even met her (and well, who knows about Ranma) ban her from their store?

Righteous fury ignited as Akane stomped right into the store and slammed the posters down on the counter before a large man she assumed to be the proprietor. "What's the meaning of banning me from this place?"

For a moment all the man could do was blink at her. He glanced at the posters beneath her hand and up at her face again, "Didn't think you would actually come here. My daughter made those posters as a joke for her cousin."

It was Akane's turn to blink, "You know me?"

The man shook his head, "Not really, my niece knows you. She sends us the most entertaining letters that I had not quite believed to be true until now. She happened to send those pictures with the last letter to try and prove she wasn't lying. Now, what can Masahiro Kuonji do for you?"

Akane blinked again, still rather confused. The man said his name was Kuonji, did that mean…, "Ukyo is you niece?"

"Why, yes, now, what can I do for you Miss Tendo?"

Shaking her head to dismiss the last bits of confusion Akane spoke up, "I came to learn Martial Arts Cherry Picking."

"You want to learn my art?"

Akane stared back, unflinching, "Yes."

"Why?"

The short haired woman licked her lips, now that was the real question, wasn't it? Why was she here on this training journey, alone, to learn another bizarre form of martial arts? The easy answer was that she loved martial arts, and obscure or not, she was always eager to learn. But in truth she could effortlessly do that at home, the bizarre martial arts certainly found her easily enough. The not-so-easy-but-closer-to-the-truth reason was that after the failed wedding she had felt an increasing desire to get away for a little while. She needed to sort out why she felt so lost recently and solve the unsettling nightmares that had been continually plaguing her. Surrounded by the others, Akane could not find any plausible clues as to why she felt a part of her was missing. It couldn't be her relationship with Ranma for both of them had become subtly closer. The chaos around them had eased up a tiny bit as if everyone knew how the story would end and the others were just half-heartedly protesting at this point. While she was glad for the slightly more relaxed encounters and events, they gave her no clue about what was bothering her. Thus when a long enough break from school presented itself she left a 'don't worry about me' note, bought the train ticket, and headed out after some nonsense-sounding martial art. She realized that it was only a matter of time before Ranma undoubtedly would find her and drag her home. In the meantime, for inexplicable reasons, she felt she needed the time to herself.

She could hardly tell Ukyo's uncle that however. Instead she heard herself proclaim, "As soon as I heard of this amazing Martial Art I just knew I had to learn it, and I will do whatever is required of me to do so."

She could see from the look in Mr. Kuonji's eye that he saw through her speech and didn't fully believe her. After a moment Akane saw him mentally shrug and he reached over for a carton of ripe cherries beside the register and placed them before her. He also gave her two bowls. "Your first task is to de-pit each of these cherries by hand. Go sit on the back step to do so. I'll send my daughter out to help you in a minute."

Akane glanced dubiously at the cherries and the bowls. That seemed like a simple enough task, she was waiting for the catch line, such as, 'while you dodge a dozen throwing stars,' but it never came. Grabbing the necessary items and pausing to sheepishly wash her hands where her new teacher instructed she stepped out the back door and sat on the back step.

Taking a moment to look around she was nostalgic to find they also had a koi pond. Two ornamental Sakura trees stood on either side of the pond. Beyond it was the orchard filled with the fruit producing cherry trees. The image was very beautiful and Akane wished Ranma were there to see it with her. Shaking her head she concentrated at the task at hand.

For the briefest moment a sensation from her nightmares came over her. Akane felt a heavy pressure wrap around her throat; just as quickly the sensation was gone. Raising a hand to lightly touch her throat she did her best to ignore the event, refusing to let her mind draw any attention to it.

After setting the bowls and carton before her she picked up the first cherry. Akane removed the stem simply enough by tugging it away from the fruit. After a moment's consideration she tried crushing the fruit in her fist to remove the pit. Cherry juice dripped everywhere and when she opened her hand she was disappointed to find that the flesh was squashed and mangled, and still firmly attached to the pit. She had some prying and shredding to do before she could place the pit and flesh in the separate bowls.

For the next cherry she again removed the stem and this time, shoving her thumb nail in the crevice from the stem, sliced the cherry in half with her thumb nail. Cherry juice dripped all over her hands again, and the two halves were still firmly stuck to the center requiring it to be pried out.

After mangling several more cherries Mr. Kuonji's daughter came out. Akane could easily see the resemblance the nine-year-old had to her cousin. The same silky hair, if a darker shade, and a light of determination lit her eyes. The girl silently watched Akane for a bit before bluntly saying, "You're destroying the cherries."

After having struggled with the task for the last ten minutes Akane was rather annoyed but still trying to be polite, "Then how do you do it?"

The little girl picked up a cherry, held it stem down above the bowl of pits and stems, and lightly squeezed the fruit between her thumb and forefinger. The stem and pit neatly plopped out leaving the fruit looking nearly intact. "Daddy says it's all in the touch," the cheeky girl replied to Akane's gaping stare.

Collecting herself Akane closed her mouth only to lunge toward the girl and clasp her hands, "Please, teach me how to do that," she stared intently into the younger girl's eyes. Akane's mind was whirling; that simple demonstration was amazing, how effortlessly the technique was applied. Experience had taught Akane that martial arts forms with seemingly simple everyday practical basics could become some of the most effective (or ridiculous) techniques. The blue-haired student couldn't wait to see the combat applications or the more advance techniques of the school.

Mr. Kuonji stepped out from the store, "Go on, Chieko, it would be good practice for you to teach." He stood back and observed the lesson.

Catching Akane's attention again the young girl placed a cherry in her hand before taking picking up another. "Watch carefully and do what I do," Akane imitated as Chieko put the cherry between her thumb and forefinger, "to get the pit out of the cherry one must concentrate energy into the lightest touch. It is the small, yet persistent tap that will send the pit out."

Watching Chieko, Akane thought the girl must have heard that saying many times and was merely repeating it. She noticed as the younger girl seemed to again give the fruit a slight squeeze before the pit and stem slid neatly out. That must be it. If she just squeezed the cherry right it should work. Now concentrating on the task at hand Akane stared cross-eyed at her cherry. She willed her fingers to force the pit out and squeezed. Her fingers slid on the skin and slammed together, sending the cherry flying into the koi pond in the process.

Akane and her two teachers stared incredulously at the red fruit bobbing in the water. A black-and-white koi nudged the cherry before swimming on. "That is similar to the throwing technique of the school, you will perfect it another day," the older man said breaking the awkward silence, "Try removing the pit again."

The dark blue-haired student did as she was told and picked up another cherry. This time when she scrunched up her face and squeezed the fruit burst around her fingers but the pit remained firmly in the center. Akane tried several more times with occasional hints from either instructor, but all she managed was a pile of mangled fruit or small red missiles launched in errant directions. At one point she hit Chieko square in the cheek hard enough to give the girl a small bruise.

After that Masahiro Kuonji stopped her, "We will definitely give you training on launching objects, to give you a sense of aim and control. For de-pitting cherries, I have a training method to help you, but first let me show you to the guest room."

After settling her pack in the small and simple guest room Akane was introduced to Mrs. Emi Kuonji, wife of Masahiro Kuonji and mother of Chieko. She had returned from selling their goods in a nearby village market. As Akane watched the family matriarch greet her family she felt a slight pang and wishfully thought of her own deceased mother.

Eventually Mrs. Kuonji and Chieko went to the kitchen to prepare their dinner and Mr. Kuonji asked Akane to sit in the shop with him. "While we wait for customers you can practice the training method to help you de-pit cherries," he gave her a small dish filled with safety pins, some of which appeared quite old and rusty.

Akane looked confused at the dish a few minutes, "I don't understand; what do you want me to do?"

"Open and close each of those safety pins as fast and smoothly as possible. Start with fifty times each."

Akane gave him a confused glance but grabbed a chair to sit and did as he said. She soon discovered that it wasn't as simple as it first seemed. Many of the safety pins resisted movement and the tops were slightly warped. This forced her to use extra force that sometimes caused the pins to rapidly slide sideways and, depending if the pin was mostly open or not, narrowly miss slicing her finger.

The end result was that some of the safety pins she easily opened and closed fifty times and put them off to the side. The rest she struggled with until she got a feel for each individual safety pin, at what angle and how much force to apply. Once Akane began to realize this she thought she had a better understanding of the cherries. They must work the same way: the right amount of force at the right angle would send the pit flying out.

"Miss Tendo?" Akane turned abruptly to look into the warm smile of Mrs. Kuonji, "Dinner is ready, please come join us," the woman bowed slightly with her request.

Blushing, the blue-haired martial artist realized she had zoned out and quickly returned the bow and scampered after her hostess.

….

Dinner started out awkwardly for Akane as the family of three happily chatted amongst themselves. That is, until she decided to use the opportunity to answer her own questions.

"So, Ukyo has told you about Nerima?"

"Oh, yes," Mr. Kuonji replied, "We're all very proud of what she has accomplished with my brother's art. To think she opened her own restaurant!" His eyes sparkled as he gazed off in the distance.

"Yes, Ucchan's is a great restaurant. Er…What about…? Has she told you…?" Akane paused. How to bring up the tangle of engagements?

Luckily, or perhaps not, Chieko piped up, "She told us all about her engagement to Saotome, and how he has lots of other engagements as well. You're one of those, aren't you?"

"Well…perhaps, yes. Yes, I am."

"And you're no doubt wondering why we're training you and allowing you to stay here," Mrs. Kuonji broke in.

Akane sighed, "Yes, exactly."

"I always thought my brother was foolish for engaging his daughter so early," Mr. Kuonji commented. "But really, by training you and keeping you here I'm easing my niece's competition, aren't I?" The man grinned evilly.

Chieko froze her chopsticks half way to her mouth. She suddenly turned and stared pointedly at Akane, before menacingly whispering, "Go home. Immediately."

Mrs. Kuonji, having missed her daughter's actions, lightly bopped her husband on the arm before turning her attention back to Akane. "If the Saotome boy has already made up his mind about who he loves, keeping you here for a while won't make any difference. You did almost marry him, didn't you?"

Akane was unsure how to respond to the gleam in the older woman's eye. She settled for sputtering a nonsensical response and quickly taking some more bites of food.

….

That night Akane's mind wandered as she lay on the futon staring at the shadows across the ceiling. Why had she felt so lost recently? Was it because her relationship with Ranma was advancing too quickly? No, she felt comfortable with Ranma. More than comfortable, he was the one she cared for and wanted to spend her life with, and no matter how much he evaded she knew what she heard at Jusendo. She had agreed to the wedding because she honestly wanted it. In hindsight, it might still be rather early for her to get married; Ranma obviously wasn't prepared to take that step yet. When the day came she was confident they would be ready. Her relationship with Ranma was more or less where she wanted it.

Then what had chased her away? All the suitors and crazy rivals? Only their attacks had lessened and weren't much to worry about anymore.

The shadows of the Sakura tree offered no answers and she eventually fell asleep.

….

A hot, heavy darkness surrounded her, smothering Akane as she tried desperately to reach the elusive faint light above her. Liquid hands and chains held her down, crushing her with their weight. Waves crashed far above her head as all air was sucked out of her throat by a dry smoldering heat. Akane strained to reach her hand above her but the darkness was weighing her down, squeezing her lungs and making it impossible to breath. Ranma, save me, her mind called out in vain as she redoubled her efforts, but her struggles became weaker and weaker until the suffocating girl bolted awake. Panting she waited for her racing heart to calm down. She shivered as her memory replayed the dream. Remembering did not give her any answers. Eventually she returned to a troubled sleep.

The following morning Mr. Kuonji announced that he and his wife would demonstrate their art in a sparring match. Akane and Chieko were to observe and learn what more they could about Martial Arts Cherry Picking.

Akane eagerly sat on the porch next to Chieko as her two hosts faced each other on the other side of the koi pond. For a moment Akane wistfully thought of Ranma and his morning antics, but dismissed the thought before she missed the fight.

For the first few agonizing moments neither combatant moved. Then, in a burst of movement, Emi Kuonji leapt into one of the nearby fruit trees and disappeared in its leaves. Dozens of small red missiles shot out straight at Masahiro Kuonji. The man merely caught the projectiles with a sweeping movement of his arm collecting them in a basket while the rest of his body remained unmoving. Suddenly from the barrage of cherries a dead branch flew like a javelin straight for Mr. Kuonji. The man leapt to the side and in a flurry of movement had plucked a single leaf from a tree. Swiftly he rolled it into a tube and shot it towards the tree his wife resided in. On impact the cherry tree shook but Mrs. Kuonji was already flipping out of the tree. Once she landed Akane saw that she held four ripe cherries between her fingers in each hand. On some unseen signal the two fighters closed the distance between each other and began to take quick jabs at each other. As they danced around each other Masahiro Kuonji took the slightest hit as one of his wife's fingers barely grazed his side. He shifted his weight to his other foot, but it was already too late. Emi Kuonji pointed one hand at his face and sent four cherry pits straight at him. Before he could recover the other hand came up and sent four more cherry pits flying, pushing him backwards onto the ground.

Mr. Kuonji stood back up and, facing his wife, they both bowed. Mrs. Kuonji offered her husband half of the de-pitted cherries that she had defeated him with.

Meanwhile Akane was distracted by Chieko bouncing excitedly in her seat, "Mother's the best!" the girl turned to Akane and gushed, "Only the best get to train with Mother, I can't wait until it's my turn!" Mere moments after Chieko said this she frowned as if remembering she was mad at Akane and turned pointedly away.

The married couple approached their audience with a basket full of freshly picked cherries.

"Well, what did you think? That certainly wasn't a display of all the moves of the school, but the basic ones were included," Mrs. Kuonji asked with a secretive smile on her face.

Akane grinned up at her hosts, "That was amazing! I can't wait to learn!"

The family matriarch smiled back at her, "In due time."

….

Days passed and Akane gained more experience from her lessons in the eccentric Martial Art. Mostly Mr. Kuonji taught her but every once in a while his wife would give a lesson to her. The young woman through exercise and practice began to successfully pit cherries into a bowl. Meanwhile she was also given jumping exercises to build up leg muscles and learn to control a powerful jump.

Akane enjoyed these exercises up until the first couple times they had her jump up and down from a tree branch. Chieko, who was supposed to be practicing jumping along with Akane, kept pulling branches back only to let them go and smack Akane when her parents weren't looking. This stopped when Akane snapped a branch back at her in retaliation. Chieko stayed out of Akane's reach after that.

Akane was also given throwing exercises with twigs and branches, trying to shoot them like darts and javelins. Her teachers, when not training her in their own art, encouraged her to practice forms and styles that she already knew.

Eventually Mr. Kuonji decided she was ready to learn how to launch the cherries as small projectiles. He set a bulls-eye target up and instructed Akane to stand three meters away. Telling her to give it a try he stood watching on the side-lines. Chieko also sat on the sidelines, looking bored as she idly flipped through a book.

Akane picked up a cherry and flicked it toward the target. It fell short by a meter.

"Don't flick the cherries. That takes much more energy than is necessary and it also can take away from your aim. Although," her instructor added glancing at the cherry on the ground, "your aim is rather good, you just needed more power to reach the target. Flicking mainly works when the object is the correct size and density. What I want you to do is fire the cherries the way you did the first day when you were trying to de-pit them."

Trying again, Akane picked up a cherry and placed it between her forefinger and thumb.

"It is easier, especially for beginners, if you hold your forefinger horizontally," Mr. Kuonji called out helpfully.

Following instructions Akane curled her finger under the cherry and pressed down hard with her thumb. The cherry slid to the right and fell off her hand onto the ground.

"Place the cherry toward the front edge of your curled finger."

Akane tried again and to her amazement this time the cherry flew straight toward the target and even hit the edge of the outermost ring.

With her teacher giving her encouragement and her own excitement growing, Akane picked up another cherry and another and continued trying to shoot at the target. As the hours progressed her aim improved to the point where it was just outside the center ring when Mrs. Kuonji informed them that lunch was ready. Mr. Kuonji allowed her to take one last shot before they would go inside.

Akane eagerly picked up the last cherry, lined it up on her finger when she felt a heavy pressure surround her, try to squeeze the air out of her lungs. Just as quickly as it came, the sensation was gone leaving Akane shaking, almost violently, with the cherry still lined up on her finger.

The youngest Kuonji jumped up to her side and looked up at her with worried eyes, "Are you okay?"

"I-I feel… I w-will be fine," Akane turned and spoke louder toward her teacher, "I'm ready to eat now, teacher?"

Mr. Kuonji looked at her confused, having missed what happened, but nodded in consent to her request.

After watching another sparring match between the two masters of the Cherry Picking School, Akane voiced a desire to learn the blocking technique Mr. Kuonji used to basket the pitted cherries.

"Then you shall!" Mr. Kuonji dropped the basket full of cherries in front of the koi pond, "We'll start by de-pitting these cherries!"

As Akane stared cross-eyed at the cherries Chieko shot up, "Mom, I'll help open the shop with you!" and with that the two Kuonji females were gone in a flash. Watching their departure Akane wondered if she missed something.

Mr. Kuonji motioned for her to stand next to the basket of cherries in front on the pond, "wait here, I will get the other items we will need."

Waiting, Akane watched the koi. The light glinted off their scales as they swam around, the water rippling above them. Her mind drifted to imagine what it would be like to be among the fish, darting and twirling through the water, precious air, precious breath, always just out of reach…

"Here we are," Mr. Kuonji placed a clean bowl at her feet and two more, one filled with water, on the porch where he stood. "Miss Tendo, you are to shoot the cherries to me, I will wash them and then launch the pits back to you, which you should try to deflect into the bowl at your feet, understand?"

Akane glanced dubiously at the setup, "Y-yes."

The man smiled mysteriously in response, "Let's start slowly."

Glancing down at the cherry in her hand, Akane curled her forefinger under the cherry. Taking aim she pressed her thumb down hard on the cherry and sent it flying. It angled to the right, but her teacher still caught it all the same. With amazing speed he dipped the cherry in the bowl of water and squeezed the pit out sending it flying right back at Akane. Not quite expecting the sudden attack the Tendo's reflexes kicked in and she deflected it toward the ground.

A light twinkled in Mr. Kuonji's eye, "Good, now, try it again."

She did, many times. Her aim improved as did her blocks of the pits, though a couple did hit her when she moved slightly too slowly.

"Enough practice. Instead of launching each cherry one at a time I want you to launch as many as fast and accurately as you can. Be prepared to deflect pits at the same time."

Nodding her understanding, Akane gave herself a moment's pause before grabbing some cherries and launching her attack. She quickly discovered that to attack and block simultaneously was very difficult and her aim in both was greatly reduced. Several cherry pits whizzed toward her only to land in the pond or strike her painfully. She also found that having to bend over to pick cherries up out of the basket was slowing her down as well. Struggling to keep up with the exercise and think of workable solutions at the same time, a cherry pit hit her painfully in the knee and knocked her slightly off kilter. The following pits caused her to lose her balance completely and fall backwards into the koi pond with a splash.

The feel of water pressing in on her from all sides sent her automatically into a thrashing panic. Akane felt an immense heat flush through her body. A thousand memories of similar occurrences flashed through her mind; being dragged under water by a monster in Ryugenzawa, struggling in the school's pool, falling in the hot spring with the vindictive doll floating above her, drowning at Jellyfish Beach, and drowning in a spring of Jusenkyo.

Foreign hands grabbed her arms and dragged her to the surface. Akane, coughing and sputtering, concentrated on the burning of her lungs and the sweet, sweet taste of air. Dazed she almost missed the frantic questions and blurrily mumbled that she was alright and merely wanted some rest. Someone had carried her to the guest room and helped her dry off. Her helper exclaimed worriedly and wrapped a thick blanket around her when she began to shiver violently. She didn't bother telling them it wasn't the cold she was shivering from. Her mind was far, far away from the small guest room she resided in and the care the Kuonji family were giving her.

Akane had drowned in one of the springs of Jusenkyo, a blank one, causing everyone else who fell in that spring to steal some aspect of her form. For the rest of her life and beyond random strangers could sap away her identity, her life… As if to add insult to injury she had almost died of dehydration at Jusendo not long afterward. Zapped into the form of a little doll, her throat had closed up with thirst and she had felt herself suffocating as she watched Ranma and the others being drawn into chaotic battle.

Her mind ran through the other examples of Jusenkyo victims she knew. Others who unwittingly drained the life of the original victims of the springs: Ranma the girl, Mr. Saotome the panda, Shampoo the cat, Mousse the duck, Pantyhose Taro the…minotaur, and… Herb the… girl.

Ranma and Herb both fell into the same spring; yet, their cursed forms were not identical. None of the other springs were as specific as the Spring of the Drowned Akane; they all passed on a few specific characteristics to their victims and nothing more. Victims with the same curse weren't identical. She would have to ask the guide, but perhaps traits faded over time. She detachedly wondered about the Spring of the Drowned Akane as the others had told her that Kiima had used it to steal her form. Morbidly she mused, what traits of hers would be passed on..? Her memory flashed and she could feel a giant hand wrap entirely around her body and pick her up, the view of the world many times larger than it should be.

Twice now, in her lifetime, she had been changed into a doll; that was hardly something most people could claim happened to them. Maybe eventually, the Spring of the Drowned Akane would change into the Spring of the Drowned Doll? That certainly could explain how a few of the more bizarre springs at Jusenkyo came to be…

Memories assaulted her once again and imaginary forces closed her throat. Struggling to cough, her hands came to her throat and dispelled the imaginary foes. She had nearly suffocated to death far too many times to count. Was this what Jusenkyo did to its original victims that walked away? Remind them always of the watery grave? Perhaps trying to reclaim what it lost? The numbness and shock wore off and Akane began to sob bitterly into her hands.

Sometime later Akane emerged from the guest room and, still wrapped in the heavy blanket, peeked into the store.

Masahiro Kuonji immediately spotted her, "Are you feeling better? Emi told me that you had fallen asleep when she left you, do you want some food?"

Akane shook her head and collecting herself, bowed, "I'm really sorry for the trouble I've caused you…"

Mr. Kuonji waved her off, "Don't worry about it! I moved too quickly with your training and…"

"Oh, no, it wasn't the training…" Akane glanced around the empty store for a moment, "Where are Mrs. Kuonji and Chieko anyway? I should thank them too…"

"They are in the kitchen preparing lunch right now, I'm sure they'll be happy to see you're awake…"

"Do you mind if I sit in here for a little while?" Akane didn't know why, but she felt the need to stay in the store for the moment.

Kuonji nodded, watching her worriedly. He gave her a little stool which she sat on in the back, across from the entry door.

Instead of sitting idly Akane picked up some safety pins and worked on her training from earlier as she sat. The front bell chimed as the door was opened and the blue haired woman jerked her head up.

There in the doorway stood Ranma, his eyes immediately finding hers. Dark bags hung under his eyes as if he hadn't slept recently, his hair and clothes were dirtier than she ever remembered seeing them, and there was an unreadable look in his eyes as he stared at her.

Ranma cut off Mr. Kuonji's greeting by marching right over to Akane and, before she had time to react, pulling her tightly into his arms.

He was shaking, she noted dully, in an almost unperceivable way, but he was indeed trembling. Gathering her wits about herself, Akane wrapped her arms around him and returned the hug.

He didn't respond at first. Finally, pulling back, he glared at her with an intensity that made her want to find somewhere to hide. Before she could Ranma grabbed her face and kissed her.

The Kuonji women chose that moment to walk in and, Chieko, seeing them, complained loudly before her father could cover her mouth. "Ugh! Kissing! "

Breaking apart with a blush the teenagers faced the Kuonji family. Chieko was still complaining and making gagging noises, but it was the gleam in the adults' eyes after they shared a knowing look that unsettled Akane the most.

…..

The Kuonji's graciously invited Ranma to stay until the following morning. As Ranma awkwardly accepted the invitation Akane could tell that he was itching to talk to her alone.

Finally he got his chance when their smiling hosts grinned wickedly as they dragged their daughter out, citing that they needed to clean up for lunch. Akane didn't believe them for one moment, but let them leave anyway. Instead she stared at her feet as Ranma, suddenly shy, studied the wall.

"I left a note for Kasumi," Akane ventured to break the silence.

Ranma gave her a look, "All it said was not to worry about you," he stepped closer into her space, "which didn't tell us anything."

Akane huffed sarcastically, "What do you want, a ten-page report about why I left, where I'm going, what I plan to do, and when I'll return?"

Ranma growled, "It would have been nice."

Akane snorted, "Why? You and your father are forever leaving telling us nothing other than that you're going on a training trip, why can't I do the same?"

Ranma glared at her for several moments. Finally he lowered his eyes and mumbled, "I-I was worried."

"R-really Ranma?" Akane received no further response as Ranma remained motionless. She continued after a short silence, "I'm sorry I worried you and everyone else, but I needed some time to myself." Akane paused trying to collect her thoughts, "I…recently I've been having these nightmares and… I'm sure they are connected… to what happened to me in China." Ranma winced at her words but Akane kept speaking, needing to tell someone what she found, "While I was here I realized that the Springs of Jusenkyo…they haunt their original victims. I fell into a blank spring and that is the reason I've been having nightmares..."

During her little speech Ranma remained utterly silent. As she finished her words he swallowed and then voiced his own concerns. "I've had…nightmares too. Of you…when you became the doll…and after you were restored…not waking up." He looked up at her and stared directly into her eyes, "Akane, you should have told me. I…I would have come with you and we could have figured it out together."

"Now that I know what was…is bothering me I could go home. Although, I would have liked to learn a bit more of Martial Arts Cherry Picking," Akane mused.

"Martial Arts Cherry Picking?" Ranma snorted, "Sounds too restrictive."

"Not like Martial Arts Dining and Martial Arts Tea Ceremony?" Akane asked sweetly.

As Ranma stared back at her a small projectile flew straight at his face. He raised his hand and blocked but the cherry pit still stung his hand where it hit him.

Chieko, smiling innocently, announced, "Lunch is ready."

The afternoon passed quickly. The Kuonji's gave Akane a few more tips and pointers for practicing their art as Ranma watched with interest. That evening Akane and Ranma found they had to share the guest room with a screen between them. Other than lots of uncomfortable silences and semi-permanent red faces the night passed without incident. Everyone knew that Akane and Ranma would be leaving in the morning.

Ranma sat fidgeting nervously under the intense scrutiny the Kuonji family was giving him after they had finished their morning meal. Akane sitting next to him wanted to offer him some form of comfort, but she was just as confused about what her hosts were up to.

Masahiro Kuonji was the first to speak. Clearing his throat he turned toward the Saotome boy, "As I understand it you are forsaking my niece for my student. Is this true?"

Akane stared dumbfounded at her instructor as Ranma beside her sputtered nonsense. Where did that come from? What was with the interrogation?

Chieko piped up suddenly, "You won't abandon Akane, and leave her behind, will you?"

The blue-haired woman wondered when this had turned into some sort of marriage meeting, and jumped when Ranma replied, "No. I'll always be there for Akane."

After a brief pause Emi Kuonji concluded, "From what I have seen and what I have heard, you, Ranma Saotome, are an honorable and worthy man. You have our blessing to take Akane back with you." Turning to address Akane she continued, "Visit when you get the chance and we shall continue your training. In the meantime practice and maintain what we taught you."

Waving goodbye Ranma and Akane set out for home. Without hesitating the young man scooped up her hand in his own as they continued down the path.

Akane smiled softly in response. With a sigh her thoughts took a more serious turn. She would have to call the Jusenkyo Guide when they got home. She was sure her nightmares were far from being over, but now she had a starting point to put a stop to them. Having Ranma's help gave Akane a boost of confidence that they would find a solution.

She turned to look at his face. When he glanced at her with a questioning eye she smiled again and he blushed in response. In the mean time she could help him with his own nightmares.

It was nice to know she wasn't alone.

Notes I have for this story:

The Kuonji's:

Ukyo's father is the eldest son of his generation, thus he inherited the family art (Okonomiyaki Martial Arts). Masahiro is the second son; he met and fell in love with Emi Mori. Emi's family practices Martial Arts Cherry Picking and did not have any male heirs. Somehow Masahiro and Emi convinced their families it was in their best interest to allow them to marry and to have Masahiro learn Martial Arts Cherry Picking (there is undoubtedly a story in there about Masahiro and Emi, but I do not know it).

Chieko admires her cousin Ukyo. However, Chieko sees Ranma as almost stealing Ukyo away from her. For example, Ukyo probably visited her aunt and uncle and cousin occasionally during her years training and searching for the Saotomes. Once she found them and opened Ucchan's she stopped visiting as much. Chieko somewhat blames her cousin's lack of visits on Ranma, and therefore made the poster banning Ranma. She also made a poster of Akane because she associated Akane with Ranma based on what Ukyo told them through letters and phone calls (she probably also would have made one of Shampoo, Kodachi, maybe even Ryoga if she had pictures of them). It took several days but after Chieko met Akane she decided she liked the Tendo and changed her mind about her.

Practitioners of Martial Arts Cherry Picking could probably expand their art to use other fruits to some extent when cherries aren't in season.

Their names:

"Masahiro" means great prosperity. Also it is similar to 'maraschino' cherry.

"Emi" means beautiful blessing. "Mori" means forest.

"Chieko" means child of intelligence. Also it looks similar to 'cheeky'.

About cherry trees:

There are (at least) two different types of cherry trees grown in Japan. The ornamental cherry trees grown for the beauty of their blossoms (I called them sakura trees in the story) and cherry trees grown for their fruits.

Thanks for reading, comments are welcome.