Disclaimer: I don't own Ranma ½.

Author's Notes: Alright, this is a story idea that I've been picking at for a long time. My oldest notes on it date back to January 2005. (To put that in perspective, I have since graduated from both high school and college, and upgraded computers three times… ;). It has its flaws, but there are a lot of things I really like about it—so I finally decided to buckle down and write the last scene, polish it up, and send it out into the world.

Because it's such an old idea (and I started writing it before I'd read the manga, so my knowledge of late canon was spotty), there are a few canon discrepancies you'll need to know: This story takes place about a year after Jusendo, but for obvious reasons it ignores the events of Volume 34 (where Nodoka learned the truth about Ranma's curse). Also, assume that Ukyo knows about Ryoga's curse.

Man Among Men

It was one of those moments when Ranma wished desperately that he had been cursed by the "spring of drowned gelatinous goo," instead of the "spring of drowned girl." One bucket of cold water and he could've disappeared through the cracks between the floorboards. But nope. No such luck.

As he sat there frozen, the warm water dripping from his jet-black bangs to mix with a fresh cold sweat, her eyes met his with the shock of cold steel plunging into him, the sickening slice of muscle and sinew as a silent stream of blood leached his life away in agony. Ranma gulped and every muscle in his body tensed, his very existence hinging on Nodoka's next breath.

"Ranma…" she whispered faintly, "is it really you?"

He nodded slowly, swallowing again, unable to speak.

"But…how? Where's Ranko?" she asked, her brow knit with confusion as she stared from his face to the empty tea kettle lying on the floor beside him and the room of stricken faces surrounding the Tendos' dining table.

"I…I'm Ranko…" Ranma replied quietly.

"But—but that's not possible…"

"Believe me, it's possible," the pigtailed martial artist said darkly, casting a small glare at his father—who was very carefully trying to leave the room unnoticed. Though it was difficult for a giant panda to do much of anything unnoticed.

"I don't understand," Nodoka said again. "How could this happen?"

"It happened on a training mission two years ago," Ranma said, returning his attention to his mother. "Pop took me to this place in China called Jusenkyo, full of cursed springs. We—"

Genma darted him a pleading look, and Ranma narrowed his eyes at him for a moment. "I," he amended, "fell in one of them, and now whenever I get splashed with cold water, I turn into a…a girl."

"A...girl," Nodoka repeated, still a bit dazed.

He nodded mutely, and Nodoka blinked, her eyes swirling with thoughts and emotions, the result utterly unreadable. All occupants of the room held their breath, waiting for the axe to fall.

"Well," she said at last, a delighted smile appearing at her lips, "This is a surprise!" Within moments she had moved across to the other end of the table, kneeling at Ranma's side and wrapping her awe-struck son into a tight embrace. "It's so wonderful to see you again, my darling! Oh, how I've missed you—where is your father?" she asked suddenly, pulling back and meeting his gaze expectantly.

"Uh…" Ranma faltered, trying to wrap his mind around this sudden shift. His deepest, darkest, and most potentially deadly secret had just been revealed, and not only was his mother not forcing him to commit suicide immediately, but she was hugging him and greeting him warmly as if he'd only just strolled in the front door after all this time.

Everyone else, however, glanced over toward the dumbstruck Panda who was now halfway to the door. He lifted a sign from behind his back. "Who, me? There must be some mistake…"

"Genma? Is that you?" Nodoka breathed. "Why, I should have known! No panda has penmanship as sloppy as yours, Genma…"

There was the sound of water splashing, and soon there was a very wet bald man in a white gi and glasses standing in the panda's place, his eyes wide with fear. Nodoka threw her arms around him as well, planting a kiss on his cheek. "Oh my, I've missed you both so very much—you really have no idea! How wonderful that we should have this time together before the two of you must keep your promise to me."

All eyes were on Nodoka once more, the air snapping taut again in an instant.

"Uh…p-promise?" Genma stuttered, swallowing hard.

"Why yes!" she said, patting him on the shoulder and gazing beatifically over at Ranma again. "I am sorry, of course, but you pledged to raise our son to be a man among men—which clearly he is not, as he's now half female—and so, for the sake of honor you must both commit seppuku. But at least we'll have a chance to get reacquainted first!"

"Now wait just a minute!" The dishes rattled against the table as Akane leapt to her feet. "Are you saying that you're actually going to make them go through with that insane pledge?"

"But of course, Akane dear," Nodoka said, her smile turning slightly incredulous. "It's a matter of honor."

"But you can't do that!" Akane protested, ignoring her father's warning utterance of her name. "Ranma is your son—and Mr. Saotome is your husband! Don't you care about them at all? You can't just—"

"Of course I care about them," Nodoka interrupted calmly, a hint of sadness coming through. "That's exactly why this is the way things must be. A martial artist is nothing without his honor—and I could not possibly sit by and allow the two most dear to me to lose theirs."

"That's ridiculous," Akane scoffed, her voice slipping with desperation. "There must be some other way. I don't care what anybody says—Ranma's curse doesn't make him any less of a man than…than Kuno, or Dad, or Ryoga!"

Ranma winced at the third example—but since his mother wasn't aware of Ryoga's curse he supposed it couldn't do much harm.

"Isn't," Akane stumbled, "isn't there something he could do? Some way for him to prove himself?"

"I don't know…" Nodoka murmured with a frown.

"Please," Akane implored her. "If you really do care about either of them, you have to give him a chance. Wouldn't you rather have them alive and with you if you could?"

Nodoka considered this for a moment, glancing toward her son's anxious face, and then toward her husband's still quailing one. "Perhaps there is a way…" she muttered at last, an idea taking shape in her expression, and hope swelled within Ranma once more—at that moment, he was so grateful to Akane he could have kissed her.

An apt impulse, as it turned out.

"If he were to marry, and prove himself capable of performing his husbandly duty toward his wife—despite his curse—then his manhood would be confirmed, and he could live with his honor intact."

Akane swallowed. "His…his…'husbandly duty'?"

"You are his fiancée, are you not, Akane?" Nodoka questioned, as though Akane had not spoken.

"One of them, yes…" Akane replied slightly bitterly, though the fidgeting of her hands betrayed her nervousness.

"But you were the first," Nodoka said, "and are therefore the only true fiancée. Your union was arranged at birth. If Ranma's honor is to be restored, you must be the one to marry him—one week from today."

Ranma could feel himself starting to tremble, his eyes wide and unblinking as he stared at his mother's face. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Akane's fingers clench in her skirt. He didn't want to look at her face, afraid of what he would find there—fear, anger, revulsion…

"B-but…don't you think…"

"There's got to be another way," Ranma interrupted, getting to his feet as well and drawing Nodoka's attention back to him.

"I'm afraid there isn't, dear—I can see no other honorable way of sufficiently proving the fulfillment of your father's pledge."

"But you can't just expect—I mean, isn't there some way we could leave Akane out of this?" he tried again desperately. So desperately, in fact, that he missed the flicker of hurt in Akane's expression.

"I'm sorry dear, but she is your only true fiancée—it would be dishonorable for you to marry one of the others, and it would be even more dishonorable for you to bed one of them out of wedlock."

He clenched his teeth, trying to suppress the heat rising to his cheeks at the subject matter. "Please, Mom—there's just gotta be another way…"

"Oh you're just desperate to marry anyone but me, aren't you," Akane snapped.

"Will you shut up already?" he shot back at her. "I'm trying to help!"

"Well stop helping! This whole mess is your fault anyway."

"My fault? You started this!"

"Well you were the one who was too stupid to hide when you got doused with the water."

"You dropped the kettle on my head!"

"So? It wouldn't have been a problem if you and your dad hadn't gone playing around those stupid springs and gotten cursed in the first place!"

"Well that wasn't my—"

Nodoka cleared her throat. "Ah—excuse me…"

"What?" the other two demanded in unison, and Nodoka jumped slightly at their suddenly redirected hostility.

"I'm sorry, Ranma dear," Nodoka said solemnly, "but Akane is your only hope. It's either this or seppuku—I can allow no son of mine to live in dishonor."

Then all at once she brightened again, picking up her wrapped katana from the floor and settling it across her back. "Now, if you'll all excuse me, I really must be going—I have an appointment I simply cannot break. This has been a lovely dinner! Good day!" And just like that she was gone, a smiling tornado, oblivious to the havoc she'd left in her wake.


"Well," Nabiki said drolly, speaking up for the first time in several minutes, "That was interesting. I think I'll get going myself…"

"Oh my," breathed Kasumi, "I hadn't realized the time—I ought to get these dishes taken care of."

"Yes," said Soun, jumping at the opportunity to escape, "I'll help you."

As Genma had managed to slip out somewhere in the midst of the argument, soon the only two people remaining were Ranma and Akane, both standing still as statues and staring stubbornly in different directions.

Ranma turned his head a bit to the side, trying to peer at her out of the corner of his eye, but looked away again quickly when he caught her doing the same. He knew there was something to say, but he had no idea what it was. What do you say to someone in a situation like this? "It's okay, you don't have to marry me, I can just go ahead and kill myself?" They both knew she had to do it—she wasn't that heartless.

But dammit, there had to be another way. Just the thought of it, standing up there in front of everyone and pledging themselves to each other forever, when it was obvious they couldn't spend five minutes in a room together without biting each other's heads off. And then afterwards…shit.

Sure, he'd thought about it before—and not at all in a bad way—but the whole circumstance was just…gross. Not because the thought of being with her was gross, but because…everything else around it was. He didn't want her to be with him because she had to—he wanted her to be with him because she wanted to. And even that thought scared the shit out of him, frankly, but for totally different reasons…

Finally, when he just couldn't take the silence anymore, he turned on his heel and dashed out the porch door, hoping to find solace in the twilit rooftops.

Akane turned her head at the sound of his footsteps, her angry expression settling into something more melancholy as she watched him go. Sure, maybe she had never really believed that things would work out for them in the end, that he would eventually come around—but some part of her must have believed it, deep down. Otherwise it wouldn't hurt so much to find out she was wrong.

News travels fast in places where people turn into eavesdropping-sized animals and travel on rooftops and…pretty much anywhere that Nabiki Tendo happens to be. (Especially when that news is worth money.) By the next morning, nearly the entire population of Nerima was well aware of what had taken place in the Tendo residence that night.

Mousse strolled into the Nekohanten with a spring in his step, whistling all the way. "Great Granny!" he called gleefully through the window into the kitchen. "Did you hear the news?"

"Of course I did, you numbskull," she croaked. "Did you finish your deliveries? You'd better not have spilled anything along the way—I've had enough of your bumbling."

"Everything's done, Granny," he replied, his delightful mood impervious to her ill-temper. "Where's Shampoo?"

"Where else? She's gone to knock some sense into the head of that son-in-law of mine."

That did manage to burst his bubble. "What? She's going after Ranma?"

"Of course! You don't expect a little thing like this to stop her, do you? Idiot."

The truth was, he had expected a little thing like this to stop her—and he'd hoped that perhaps he could be the one to comfort her in her hour of need. Of course, he was conveniently ignoring the fact that to a disappointed Shampoo he would be more likely to play the punching bag than the knight in shining armor—but he preferred to imagine things his way. "Fine—then I'll go after her," he declared, and was out the door like a shot.

Well, first he slammed into the doorframe—but then he put on his glasses and was out the door like a shot…

It didn't take long for him to locate the Tendo dojo; he could hear the shouts of battle from a block away. When he arrived, he found Ranma and his lovely Shampoo facing off in the backyard by the pond. So far it looked as though no one had actually landed in the pond, since both were still human and of the proper gender—but it would only be a matter of time.

"Airen!" Shampoo called, her voice filled with melodramatic longing, "Forget violent tomboy—Shampoo is only girl who truly make you happy. And if Airen wish to prove that he is too, too manly, Shampoo is perfect—is not?"

Ranma stood several feet in front of her, crouched into a defensive stance, his face schooled into an expression of concentration, even as Shampoo moved to accentuate those assets of hers that would help Ranma prove himself "too, too manly." Unfortunately Mousse, blind as he had a tendency to be, did not see it that way. Instead, he saw the fiendish, lecherous Ranma eyeing his beloved's innocent sensuality with an indecent lust—and that he could not abide.

"Ranma—prepare to die!" he shouted furiously as he unleashed a barrage of weapons upon the startled martial artist from his perch on the wall surrounding the property.

Ranma managed to dodge or deflect most of his attacks, sustaining only a cut or two as he refocused his energy on his new opponent.

"Mousse! What you doing, stupid?" Shampoo called out angrily as she began countering some of his attacks to save Ranma the trouble. "Leave Airen alone, you idiot bird!"

Mousse ignored her protests. "How dare you defile my beloved with your lecherous thoughts!" he raged, sending another volley of sharp implements—plus a not-so-sharp training potty shaped like a duck—in Ranma's direction.

Ranma continued to dodge, getting in a few blows of his own until finally a perfect solution came to him. He dashed over a few feet to his left, grabbed Shampoo by the forearm and yanked her in front of him with her arms pinned to her sides, forcing Mousse to halt his attacks.

"You cretin!" Mousse roared. "How dare you hide behind Shampoo in the middle of a fight?"

"My school is 'Anything Goes,' remember?" Ranma smirked. "Besides, I had to do something to get you to stop attacking long enough to talk to me."

"I have nothing to say to you—you're trying to corrupt my beautiful Shampoo!"

"I am not!" Ranma shouted back. He was so sick of having this exact same argument over and over again. Did everyone around here have some sort of short-term memory disorder or something? "Like I was just telling her, I don't want anything to do with her, alright? I'm not her husband, and I'm not going to be!"

"Oh Airen!" Shampoo cried, alligators tears swimming in her eyes as she turned and threw her arms around his neck. "Airen not mean what he says—he loves Shampoo!"

He heaved a weary sigh, tugging at her iron grip. "No I d—"

Unfortunately, he never got the chance to finish that sentence. At that moment there was a hard shove from his left side, and the two of them went toppling head-first into the koi pond.

Ranma emerged from the water with a gasp, sopping red hair plastered to his scalp, and immediately began thrashing around uncontrollably as he fought off the clingy white cat in a panic. After several moments of squealing and snarling, the cat finally gave up and retreated, her steadfast admirer chasing after her.

Ranma slumped against the stones at the edge of the koi pond to regain his breath and his grip on his sanity—and only then did he catch sight of Akane sitting stiffly at the dining room table with her back facing him. He didn't need three guesses to know who had pushed him.

"What the hell did you do that for?" he demanded irritably as he squelched into the house and snatched up a nearby kettle.

"I got tired of listening to you two lovebirds, so I thought I'd speed things along a little," Akane replied bitingly, turning a page in the magazine she was reading as Ranma poured the hot water over his head.

"Dammit Akane," he grumbled, tossing the empty kettle aside and dropping to a seat across from her, "I was trying to get her to back off, alright? Quit making it sound like I was encouraging her—I hate it when you do that."

"Oh, no, no, of course you weren't," she scoffed. "After all, how could you possibly have any interest in a gorgeous, voluptuous, ridiculously sexy woman who literally throws herself at you every chance she gets?"

"I don't!"

"The hell you don't—how could you not? She's right you know—if you really want to prove you're a man, all you'd have to do is screw her and leave her in some cheap motel. What could possibly be more male than that?" She flung the magazine at his chest and shoved herself to her feet, stomping away from the table.

But Ranma snagged her by the arm before she'd gone far, swinging her back to face him. "Look, if you're angry at me about this whole wedding thing, then fine—you have every right to be. I told you I'm sorry, and if there were anything I could do about it I would. But dammit, I'm sick and tired of you blaming me for going after Shampoo when I never wanted her in the first place!"

Akane opened her mouth to retort, but something in his expression seemed to give her pause. All of a sudden she deflated, looking strangely worn out. "You're right," she said. "I'm sorry, Ranma—I shouldn't have dredged that up again. I'm just…sort of stressed out, you know? What with…everything…"

Ranma swallowed and released her arm, looking away guiltily. "Yeah. I know…"

It was almost midnight by the time he made it to the house, and yet he'd made it in record time, considering that he'd been a whole four blocks away when he'd heard the news that morning. There were a lot of chances to get lost in four blocks.

But at last there he stood, his heavy eyes resting on the front door of the Tendo house.

Even at this late hour, he could see a light shining from somewhere inside, so he approached the door and knocked. Within moments, the door slid back to reveal Kasumi, peering out into the darkness with a curious yet welcoming smile.

"Ryoga? Is that you?"

"Yes, Kasumi," he replied, keeping his voice steady with great effort. "Is Akane here?"

"She's in the living room—are you all right, Ryoga?" the young woman asked with the concern of a mother, "You look a bit pale."

"I'm fine—I just need to talk to Akane,"

"Of course," she replied, smiling warmly, "Come right in." She stepped aside to allow him entry, and gently nudged him in the right direction when he started to head up the stairs.

When Ryoga found himself at last in the living room—having narrowly avoided a broom closet and the front door again on the way—he was overcome by a fresh wave of devastation at the sight of her. She was curled up at a corner of the table with a book in open in front of her, dressed in an old pair of pajama pants and a tank top, with a soft gray sweater wrapped around her shoulders. He supposed she looked quite frumpy by objective standards, but to him she had never looked more beautiful—or farther out of reach.

"Akane," he murmured, just barely managing to keep a leash on his emotions as he came to kneel beside her.

She looked up from her book, startled—but when she saw who had spoken, her face split into a dazzling smile. "Ryoga! We haven't seen you in weeks—how are you?"

Then her expression fell in concern, as notice the pain and torment that must have been evident on his face. He'd never been very good at concealing his emotions, especially when she was around. "Ryoga? Oh my god, what's wrong…?"

He lifted his eyes to meet hers, taking her free hand in his without even thinking. "Akane," he began in a whisper, "I just heard today—about you and…and Ranma. The thing is…"

He faltered, unable to continue. But…this was his last chance. He knew it was—there was no time for fear or embarrassment anymore. If he didn't tell her now, she would never know—and he would never be able to forgive himself.

"Oh god, Akane," he breathed. "I'm in love with you. I've been in love with you since the first time you—" he stopped himself just in time to avoid mentioning P-chan.

"Since…you first showed me kindness," he amended. "I always knew you were out of my reach, and you were engaged to that cretin Ranma—but as long as you weren't married I still had a chance to change that. So please, please…don't do it. I could make you happy—I'd devote my entire existence to it, I swear, if you'll just give me the chance."

Akane stared back at him, pained, tears forming in the corners of her eyes as he spoke—but whether they were of happiness, sadness, or worst of all, pity, he couldn't tell. And he was afraid to guess.

"Oh Ryoga," she murmured, placing her other hand over both of his, which now clutched her with such desperation he wasn't sure he'd be able to let go. "I can't do that. Believe me, I wouldn't be doing this if there were any other way, but…Ranma's life is at stake. I can't let him die—I just can't."

"But Akane, can't you see—"

"Please, Ryoga," she interrupted quietly, "I'm sorry—but even if I weren't marrying Ranma, I couldn't be with you. The truth is that I do love you, very much, but…I'm not in love with you. It wouldn't be fair to either of us."

His heart splintering in his chest as she spoke the words that had haunted his nightmares for nearly two years.

He wasn't aware of exactly what happened after that. He left the Tendo household in a daze, wandered the streets without even attempting to direct himself anywhere in particular. Everything he'd hoped for, everything he'd centered his life around for the past two years had disappeared into thin air in the space of a moment, and suddenly he couldn't seem to find any reason to go on existing at all.

The next thing he knew, he was at the door of Ucchan's Okonomiyaki. The sign outside said the restaurant was closed, but the lights were on in the kitchen, so he knocked anyway.

"Go away," came an abrupt female voice from beyond the door.

"Ukyo?" he called. "It's Ryoga. Can I come in please—just for a little while?"

There was a long pause, then the scraping of a chair against the scuffed wood floor and footsteps approaching. He heard the door being unlocked, and the person on the other side slid it back a couple of inches before turning and walking back toward the counter without bothering to invite him in. He took the opening of the door as an invitation in itself and stepped inside, shutting it behind him.

There was an open and nearly empty bottle of sake sitting on one of the tables—the only one with a chair flipped down from its stacked position, as though someone had been sitting there a moment before—but he bypassed it without comment. He shrugged his pack to the ground and took a seat at the counter across from where Ukyo stood with arms folded, staring into space.

"I assume you've heard," she said blankly, not looking at him.

He nodded.

"Have you talked to her yet?"

He nodded once more.

She ran a hand through her somewhat disheveled and free-flowing hair and gave a small derisive laugh. "I take it from your expression that you didn't manage to talk her out of it."

"Nope," he replied morosely, fiddling with a stray chopstick that had been left on the counter. "How about you—have you talked to him?"

She glanced at him, meeting his gaze for the first time since his arrival. "Not yet. I'm not sure I'm going to."

Ryoga raised an eyebrow at that. "Why not? You love him, don't you?"

"Of course I do," she snapped. "It's just…it's not easy, you know? Besides, he's obviously made his choice."

"That's what you said the last time."

"Yeah, well…this time I mean it," she murmured in reply. "Things are different now. I've—I've changed…"

"You're afraid, aren't you," he challenged.

Her gaze snapped to his. "So were you."

"Yes—but I did it anyway."

"And look where it got you," she retorted, and pain sparked in his eyes.

"Yeah, well—at least I did something, rather than just sitting here feeling sorry for myself. You're not the only one who's changed. Maybe the trouble is that you haven't changed enough."

He pushed up from his stool and hefted his pack once more—and then he left the restaurant, shutting the door with a snap.

"Believe me, I wouldn't be doing this if there were any other way…"

Ranma released a sound that was half snort, half sigh. If those weren't the words of a desperate woman, he didn't know what were.

Well, at least she wasn't in love with Ryoga—that had come as something of a relief. Granted, he'd been listening to the conversation through the kitchen door, so he hadn't caught every single word of it, but he'd heard enough to know that. One of his worst nightmares had always been waking up one day to find Akane all starry-eyed over Ryoga—not the pig version, which was already bad enough, but the real thing. Still, the fact that she wasn't in love with Ryoga was little consolation at this point, since not being in love with Ryoga didn't mean that she was any more in love with him.

And if he was honest with himself, that was what he really wanted.

He rolled down from his seated position so that he was lying stretched out on his back on the roof tiles of the dojo. Crossing his ankles casually, He linked his hands beneath his head and closed his eyes. So what now?

For the past day or so he had been searching for an alternate solution to the problem of "proving his manhood"—but no matter how many times he thought it through, he couldn't seem to come up with anything viable. He'd also considered the terms of the marriage itself—for instance, would they be required to stay married? How long did the marriage have to last? Maybe his mother would allow them to get a divorce after, say, a week or so? That way they would be able to get married, go to bed honorably, prove his manhood, and then go their separate ways.

Of course, any time his thoughts touched on the subject of the actual process of "proving his manhood," he began to get distracted by musings of when and where and how…and how many times…

But that was beside the point. He had to stay focused. Yes—focused…


Startled out of his wits by the shrill voice mere inches away from his closed eyes, Ranma lurched upward instinctively and thwacked his head against something hard.

"Ouch!" the something cried out, and Ranma blinked, attempting to focus his gaze in the dark.

"Kodachi?" he questioned, a note of dread coloring his voice.

"Yes my darling—I have come at last to rescue you from that awful girl!" answered the unmistakable voice of his most mentally unbalanced and frankly frightening suitor.

Oh crap… he thought wearily.

Kodachi, who was bending over him from up above his head, wasted no time in planting a passionate upside-down kiss forcefully against his lips. He groped blindly at the air, trying to find her and push her off of him. Most of his vision was shadowed by her enormous breasts, which brushed against his scalp with the help of gravity and a push-up bra—but soon the kiss was over, and he was being dragged to his feet.

"Ranma my darling," Kodachi proclaimed with the breathless air of a romance novel heroine as she pressed the length of her body up against his, "at last, we shall be together, always. Oh, how I've waited for this day—longed for it, pined for it, languished within the depths of my very—"

"Cut it out already," Ranma interrupted irritably, trying to keep all eight of her hands off of him at once—which was proving nearly impossible. And for someone who's mastered the Amaguriken, that was saying something.

"But Ranma sweetums—" she began, pouting in protest.

He interrupted her, snatching both of her wrists into an iron grip and stopping her pawing all at once. "No—I'm seriously not in the mood for this right now, okay? I don't have time to deal with you and your crazy fantasies."

Kodachi, unfazed by his rejection, narrowed her elegant eyes into a seductive gaze and arched her body toward him—a move he had not been expecting. She laughed devilishly at the look of surprise that crossed his face at the sudden intimate contact, apparently deciding to interpret it as arousal. "You want me—you know it as well as I do, my darling Ranma-sama."

"No I damn well don't—now leave me the hell alone already," he growled back, shoving her away from him.

She merely continued to smirk. "So you'd like to play hard to get, would you?" she simpered. "Fine then—I can play games too…" After that, she disappeared in a whirl of cackling laughter.

Honestly, there were some days when he would like absolutely nothing better than to strangle that crazy bitch.

He was just about to resume his seat on the roof, when another voice from the shadows alerted him to the fact that he was not alone. "Saotome—do not be afraid," said the voice mysteriously, "I have not come to kill you this time." He whirled around to find at the far edge of the roof the tall silhouette of a man dressed in hakama, a long, sword-like shadow at his side.

Ranma—who was now berating himself for forgetting that when one Kuno appeared, the other was usually soon to follow—gave a weary sigh. "Good, because I really don't feel like kicking your ass right now, Kuno," he replied.

The silhouette stepped forward, continuing as though Ranma had not spoken. "It has come to my attention that you are to wed the beauteous Akane Tendo in a fortnight."

"That's two weeks, moron," Ranma interjected under his breath, but Kuno didn't hear him.

"True, I have been opposed to your engagement since the moment you set foot within my domain, and have devoted my entire existence to thwarting you at every turn—"

"And a fine job you've done of it, I might add," the pigtailed man muttered.

"—but at last, I have come to the realization that this union is for the best."

"Oh for—wait…what?" Ranma replied, thrown off-balance by Kuno's sudden reversal.

"Though it pains me to no end to think of the great disappointment this will mean to the lovely Akane," Kuno explained, "and it cuts me to the very quick to let my beloved go, I must think also of the greater good. Until now, you have held both of my loves in your iron grip—but with your marriage to Akane, the Pigtailed Girl shall at last be free from your evil clutches."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Ranma interrupted, the picture of Kuno's warped thoughts finally coming into focus, "What the hell do you think you're talking about? You think that after I marry Akane, you'll get…the pigtailed girl?"

"Of course—you cannot hope to keep her under your sorcery after you are married. Thus, she will be free to come to me at last," Kuno answered simply.

"Oh no—no way in hell. You still don't get it, do you?" Ranma protested in frustration. "The pigtailed girl hates your guts as much as I do! More, if that's possible…"

"You cannot fool me, Saotome—a love as pure as ours will not be torn asunder…"

"Oh for—you're as crazy as that lunatic you call a sister, you know that? Bottom line, the pigtailed girl is not interested. Deal with it," he stated firmly.

Kuno responded with a contemptuous chuckle. "We shall see…"

Ryoga awoke to the very strange sensation of a little bird whispering in his ear. He flinched at the ticklish sensation, not fully awake yet—but when the whispering continued in a steady rhythm, and his mind woke up enough to realize that there weren't any words to it, and that birds don't whisper anyway, he began to get curious.

He blinked and squinted up into the throbbing yellow light, a bolt of pain shooting from the top of his skull to the base of his spine and back again, coming to rest somewhere between his ears. After a little while, as the world began to come into focus, he realized that he was staring up at the bumpy white surface of an unfamiliar ceiling. Just then, another puff of air in his ear prompted him to glance to his left—and what he saw made his heart clench with panic, blood pounding in his ears. Ukyo was lying on her stomach next to him, her bare shoulder visible from beneath the fluffy white comforter that covered them both.

Oh god no. There had to be some mistake. He'd taken a few wrong turns in his life, but he'd never found himself in this territory before. For god's sake, he couldn't even remember how he'd gotten here! In fact the last thing he clearly remembered was leaving the restaurant—after that, everything was a bit of a blur.

He was pretty sure there had been rain involved—and sake, yes, he knew there had been sake. Someone had scooped him up—he assumed it had been while he was in pig form, since he didn't think it would be possible otherwise—and taken him inside to change back and get dried off. And then they had both gotten very, very, very drunk.

And then…

For a long time he could do nothing but lie still, his mind a sea of guilt and self-loathing—not that that was entirely different from most other days, but this time he had a really good reason for it. He had absolutely no idea what one was supposed to do in this sort of situation. Should he wake her up? Would she blame him for what had happened? Why shouldn't she? He blamed himself—he should have known better than to do something so stupid. After all, she'd been drinking for awhile before he'd first shown up, so he'd had the advantage. He should have kept in control.

But Ryoga had never been very good at that sort of thing. He'd always been at the mercy of his emotions. Why else would he have gone over to Akane's the night before and let her blow his heart to pieces, even though he'd known deep down that it was a hopeless venture?

"Ryoga?" Ukyo's cotton-mouthed voice startled him from his musings, and he cast an uncomfortable glance over at her anxious expression. "Did we…last night…" she trailed off.

Ryoga swallowed. "Um…I think so…"

"Right," Ukyo sighed, squeezing her eyes shut and turning over to lie flat on her back, her voice weary with regret. "I was afraid of that…"

The silence stretched out between them as they both pondered the before and after of this moment.

"Look, Ryoga," Ukyo began reasonably, since he was clearly not going to begin the necessary conversation, "it was a mistake, alright? People make mistakes—even us." Then, with a wry laugh, she amended, "Especially us. Let's just…put it behind us. We hit a low point, and we did something stupid—now we can move on. Right?"

Ryoga took in a deep breath, lips quirking into a half-hearted smile though his face was still directed toward the ceiling. "Right," he agreed at last.

Ukyo glanced over at him for a moment, studying his profile—then looked away again, joining him in his diligent search for meaning in the random bumps that made up the ceiling. "Good," she breathed.

The next few days in Nerima were strangely quiet. It was eerie, almost, how little activity there seemed to be—as if the entire population were holding its breath in anticipation of the day when the event that had begun the chaos in the first place would finally come to pass.

Most of the suitors had lodged their complaints within the first day or so, and after that things had tapered off. Ukyo was the only one who hadn't shown up. Actually, now that he thought about it, Ranma hadn't seen Ukyo at all since the decision had first been made, and he couldn't help wondering what she'd been up to. She and Ryoga were the closest people he had to friends, and neither was likely to be very pleased with him at the moment.

The last Ranma had seen of any of the martial arts crowd had been that strange little midnight meeting with Kuno up on the roof. Since then, the days had been filled almost exclusively with wedding preparations, which Ranma found to be ridiculously excessive and more than a little intimidating.

He could hear the sound of Kasumi's cheerful humming drifting out from the kitchen, where she was busy preparing something for the ceremony. He had no idea what, because he had been doing his very best to avoid coming into contact with any details of the whole thing himself. Outside, the wind teased the chime hanging from the eaves, causing it to make a music of its own. He strolled over to the open doors and settled himself down on the edge of the porch, looking out over the koi pond.

That damn koi pond.

He really hated that thing. And yet, he didn't. Did that make any sense? Hating and yet not hating something at the same time?

It had definitely caused him more than his share of problems over the past two years. He'd never noticed until Jusenkyo just how much water there really was in the world, and how easy it was to fall into it or get it dumped on you without even trying. But there had been times—more than he cared to admit—when his so-called curse had proven to be an advantage as well. The ability to eat ice cream sundaes without looking like an idiot aside, how often had his female side served to help him in battle? His male side had superior strength, but his female side had superior speed—and on more than one occasion, he'd found it useful to take advantage of his female form to prey upon the ultimate male weakness.

And the truth was, over the course of the last two years he had been able to see the world in a way that no other man would ever be able to. That was worth something too, even if he couldn't really be sure why yet.

But no matter how he tried to convince himself of the benefits of his curse, there had always been one question in the back of his mind that he hadn't been able to put to rest: Did it make him less of a man?

Apparently his mother thought so.

But…apparently Akane didn't.

"Ranchan?" A quiet voice from the edge of the house over near the gates interrupted his thoughts, and he glanced over to see Ukyo appearing from around the corner. She was dressed conservatively in black pants and a sweater, her hair resting in a thick braid upon her shoulder. Her eyes were dark, her expression quite blank and unreadable.

"Ukyo," he said, getting up and crossing to meet her, "I've been wondering about you."

A ghost of a smile curved her lips, as though she were fondly recalling an obsolete memory. "You were thinking of me? What a coincidence—I've been thinking of you."

Ranma hesitated awkwardly before broaching the subject. "I guess you've—"

"Yes," she confirmed with a nod, saving him the trouble. "I've heard. That's actually why I'm here, I guess."

"It is?"

She took a deep breath before continuing. "I wasn't going to come, at first—I thought it would be too hard. But then I got to talking with Ry—with someone, and I realized that all I was doing was hurting myself even more. I guess I've been holding out hope that you'd suddenly change your mind or something and come tell me that you were in love with me instead, that you just couldn't hold it back any longer, and you couldn't possibly go through with this wedding. But then I woke up, and I realized that if that were true, you'd have done it by now…"

"Ukyo," he faltered. "I'm—I'm sorry for the way things turned out. I never wanted to hurt you."

"I know that," she replied, that smile returning for a moment. "I might have blamed you for it once—but I don't anymore. I'm the one at fault—I gambled, and I lost. Anyway, I just came here to tell you…congratulations."

It was Ranma's turn to smile this time, though it didn't quite reach his eyes. "Thanks."

It was no good.

Two years of plotting, planning, poisoning, and propositioning, and what had it all gotten her? Nothing but a curse and a lot of exercise.

She supposed she probably should have been angry, or hurt, or at least a little sad—but all she really seemed to be feeling was inward-turned frustration. She had failed in her goal—and Shampoo was not one who took well to failure.

Her fingers worked quickly and skillfully without her mind's direction as she packaged up a takeout order that had been called in a few moments ago—but even as she went about her usual activities, she found herself wondering what the point of it all was supposed to have been.

They say all's fair in love and war—and where she came from, love and war were practically the same thing. If a woman was defeated, she either married or killed her opponent. Love was a result of strength, and victory was a result of character. A kiss to the victor—of death or of life.

She'd been in love with Ranma since the moment he had first defeated her in his male form. For two years since, she had done everything in her power to make him understand that they were a perfect match, to make him love her too—but now that it was ending, she couldn't seem to feel what that love was anymore. The weight or the shape of it. The sound of his voice or the curve of his smile, which was never for her. It was just a kiss, lifeless. Honor without reason. Strength without heart.

Maybe Ranma wasn't the one who didn't understand.

Just as she was sliding the delivery box shut, Mousse appeared on the other side of the counter.

"Morning, Shampoo! I'll take that," he said in his usual cheerful tone, which grated against her insides uncomfortably. She wanted to thwack him on the back of the head and snap at him just for the hell of it, but she didn't. He'd surely give her a better reason to do it at some point during the day.

He disappeared out the front door of the café with the delivery box in hand. She knew he'd probably spill it tripping over a garbage can or something within about a half a block, so she went ahead and started another order just to save herself the trouble of doing so later.

She hated Mousse. He was weak and overly-sensitive and clingy and pathetic. The man simply did not have an ounce of pride or cunning in his entire body. One wondered how he had managed to survive this long, especially in a village of Amazons who loathed everything that he was and valued everything that he wasn't. If his mother had known how he would turn out, she most likely would have drowned him at birth just to save him the indignity of living.

But Mousse didn't seem to find his life to be an indignity. Despite his innumerable shortcomings, he lived each day without the slightest hint of embarrassment at who and what he was. No matter how many times she demoralized him and rejected him in the most bold-faced and offensive manner possible, he never gave up. Either he was a glutton for punishment…or he truly loved her in a way that she herself had never been able to comprehend. And there was a strange sort of courage in that.

"If pride stands in the way of winning Shampoo, then who needs it?"

She remembered him saying that once, just before allowing Ranma to throw a fight against him. This blatant dismissal of his own pride had disgusted her at the time—but recalling it now, she was surprised to find herself smiling.

What could be more important than pride? Pride was the essence of who she was—the pride of the Amazons, her pride in her fighting abilities, the pride that she and Ranma would have gained by making such a strong match and producing strong descendants. And yet Ranma—who had an ego that could drain the Pacific—didn't seem to care about that. Even he, a man of great pride, seemed to believe that there was something more important than that most paramount of virtues.

The door slid open and Mousse stumbled back inside, mumbling an apology as he placed the spilled delivery back on the counter. Shampoo admonished him and handed him the freshly prepared one with a scowl and a warning not to drop this one or she'd have Great-Grandmother dock his pay.

As he hurried back out the door, her scowl eased, and she caught herself watching him with a smile.

Déjà vu, Ranma thought as he straightened his tie and tugged at his collar, scrutinizing his pale reflection. He'd gone with a black tux this time around—seemed like it would be tempting fate to wear the white one again. Downstairs he could hear people bustling about with last-minute preparations, the conversations of arriving wedding guests drifting in through the open window from the direction of the dojo. He wasn't supposed to see Akane before the wedding—her father had determined that the old Western superstition might have been the cause of the disaster at their first attempt, so he had forbidden Ranma to see her in her dress this time around—but he was a-okay with that. His stomach churned at the thought of facing her at all these days, much less in a wedding dress.

A soft knock on the door made his pulse jump, and he glanced over to see his mother entering the room.

"My, don't you look handsome," she fawned, hands clasped at her chest, tears sparkling in her eyes. Crossing the room to his side, she brushed the lint from his shoulders and stroked aside his bangs, still admiring him.

"I don't think I can do this, Mom," he mumbled suddenly, not realizing what he'd said until he'd said it.

She looked up, dismayed. "But you must, Ranma dear—it's the only way."

"How? How can this be the only way? Mom, this is our lives we're talking about here. If it were just me, I'd go through with it, but what about Akane? She's not in love with me, Mom—how can I force her to get hitched to a jerk like me just to save my stupid skin? It's ridiculous—she doesn't want to marry me…"

Nodoka's gaze was shrewd as she tilted her son's face up gently. "I don't think you're giving yourself—or Akane—quite enough credit, Ranma. She knows what she's doing."

"Because we're not giving her a choice!"

"She has a choice. She could leave you to your fate. But she won't. Why do you think that is?"

He scoffed. "Because she doesn't want my blood on her hands, I guess."

She gave a small, indulgent smile. "If you say so. Come now, it's time for the ceremony…"

And that was that.

The whole thing passed in little more than a daze. As he watched her walk down the aisle, the ivory satin of her gown trailing gently on the floor, her eyes downcast beneath her veil, he was overwhelmed by a single thought:

Oh, shit.

He was marrying Akane. He was actually marrying Akane. A collage of images—past, present, and future—flooded his brain: thrown kettles and water pails, battles with eight-headed dragons, love potions, disagreeable suits of armor, her lifeless body cradled in his arms, cooking contests, children running in circles around their ankles while kicking the shit out of each other, bickering, nagging, insults, neighborhood cats sending him into hysteria. And all of it until death do they part. He had never thought much of the future. It was positively terrifying, stretching out in front of him as it never had before. And yet it was exciting as well, somehow, the thought that the adventure was just beginning, that it would only get stranger from here.

But then he looked at her face again, shielded from him by that gossamer layer of white, her gaze carefully averted.

Please, Akane…don't hate me. I couldn't stand it if you ever really hated me…

Ryoga leaned against the doorframe of the dojo, observing the motley assortment of guests making pleasant conversation—some expressing their hopes for the future of the bride and groom, some speculating on how long it would actually last, and others talking about things of no relevance whatsoever, completely oblivious to the magnitude of what they'd just witnessed. All in all, he wasn't sure exactly what he felt. Throughout the ceremony, he had been waiting for the crushing, agonizing pain to descend upon him in a black haze—but it had never come. He felt almost detached from it all. As though this weren't the worst day of his entire life. As though he hadn't just lost the only woman he had ever loved.

There was something funny about that phrase: "The only woman he had ever loved." He kept thinking it to himself, expecting it to trigger one of his world-famous depressions—but it just seemed to bump softly against his heart. What he felt wasn't really so much a pain or a loss, but something more like…nostalgia.

It was then that he saw Ukyo standing by herself over at the other end of the room, staring out at the crowd without really seeing them. He didn't really think about where his feet were leading him—he just kept his eyes on her, until suddenly he realized that he was standing just a foot away.

"Ukyo," he said quietly, and she turned.

Seeing him, her eyes widened almost imperceptibly, and she gave him a small, awkward smile before glancing away again. "Hi, Ryoga."

He turned to look out at the crowd again as well, so that they were standing side by side. "Nice party, isn't it?"

"Mm-hm," she answered with a nod.

They fell into a brief silence.

And then she turned to him. "Listen, can we talk for a minute?"

He glanced over at her with a curious frown. "Sure."

"I mean…outside."


She took him by the wrist and led him through the crowd and out the back door, taking them a short distance away from the dojo and the noise of chatter issuing from within. Finally, she stopped and turned back to him.

"What is it?" he asked.

She heaved a sigh. "I don't know exactly. It's just…I'm not sad."


"I mean," she amended, "I guess I sort of am. I mean, I'm sorry that it's over, and I'm sad to see him go, and I'm sorry I wasted all those stupid years chasing after him, but—I'm not sad. Not the way I should be. Not the way I thought I would be."

A bemused expression crossed his face as she described almost exactly what he was feeling himself. "Me neither…" he murmured.

She stopped fidgeting and looked him directly in the eye. "Really?"


There was a moment's hesitation—and then she said, still looking at him full on, "I've been thinking about you a lot since we—since that night."

"I've been thinking about you too…" he breathed, realizing it for the first time.

"You have?"

He nodded. "But…I didn't really know what to think. I mean—maybe it's just because I've never done that with anyone before…"

"Or because you happened to be there at the right time…"

"Or because we both just sort of understood what the other was going through…"

She glanced down at her hands, which were knotted in front of her. "Or maybe it was something else…"


Her eyes raised slowly, sweeping over his chest, and then his neck, and then his face, until they met his again. She swallowed. "What do you think?"

He contemplated her soft brown eyes in curiosity, and not a little confusion. One thing he knew: being near Ukyo was completely different from being near Akane. With Akane, every cell in his body seemed to tremble uncontrollably all the time, so much that it was almost painful just to be in the same room with her. To see her brush a lock of hair away from her face was torture of the worst kind. He lived for her smiles and died for her frowns. But with Ukyo, he was steady. His body was his own, whole, undamaged, and under his control. His feet were firmly beneath him, and he never seemed to have trouble saying whatever was on his mind. She was comfortable, and she understood him—she knew his secrets, and she didn't seem to care. She didn't look through him—she saw him as he was. He liked that feeling.

Was it possible that he had had it backwards all along?

He leaned in towards her, not really thinking about what he was doing, yet somehow knowing exactly where he was going, until his lips brushed hers, ever so gently. His hands grazed her shoulders, and he felt her hands rest lightly against his sides as she brushed her lips against his in return. Encouraged, wanting more, following the lead of his senses, he tilted his head and gently deepened the kiss, drawing her nearer. Her hands slid up his chest and over his shoulders, one palm coming to rest at the nape of his neck as she sank into him just a bit more.

Finally, their slow, silent kisses came to a gradual halt, though they remained in each other's arms, foreheads touching. "This could be a really bad idea, you know," she murmured seriously.

"I know," he agreed. "But it's the best one I've got right now."

She smiled in spite of herself and looked up at him through her eyelashes. "Me too…"

Ranma closed the door to his room behind him with a dull thud, shutting out the residual noise from the floor below and punctuating the suffocating silence that filled the room. He was reluctant to even turn around, to face the unbearably awkward situation in which his curse—once again—had left him. All through the ceremony, he had been able to distract himself from this moment; but now it was here, and there was nowhere left to hide. How was he going to get through this? How were they going to get through this?

He wished she would say something, because he was at a loss.

Finally he turned to face her, although his eyes didn't even come near her. A double futon had been laid out for them sometime after he'd last been here, and he stared at it for a moment before shifting his gaze elsewhere, desperate for some other distraction. She couldn't look at him either, could only get as close as his shoulder. That only made things worse.

When it became clear that he wasn't going to be able to move, she ducked her head and slid off her veil, running a hand self-consciously through her short hair. Then she reached back toward her zipper, casting him another almost-glance and turning away. He swallowed, taking the hint and turning away as well, shrugging out of his tuxedo jacket and hanging it on the stand by the futon, tugging at his tie with shaking fingers, fumbling over each tiny shirt button. He could hear her dress sliding to the floor in a heap of satin and chiffon, and his stomach started to churn, but he tried very hard not to think of her or what she must look like just now, silhouetted by the moonlight from the window. He didn't know whether he wanted more to look or to dash out the door and hide in the bathroom, so he just stayed put and kept working at his belt buckle.

Just as he was undoing his trousers, he heard the covers of the futon being pulled back, someone sliding between the sheets, and he swallowed hard again, feeling sweat beading on his forehead.

When he'd finally removed the last of his clothing, he sidled carefully over to his side of the futon and crawled in, keeping his back to her until he was safely covered, and even then all he could do was lie there parallel to her, staring up at the ceiling. He heard her head turn against her pillow, saw her cast a nervous glance at him out of the corner of his eye.

"You—you can…come closer," she said, sounding as uncomfortable as he felt, though she was putting on a brave face. "It's okay."

He closed his eyes and clenched his jaw, steeling himself, then rolled over onto his side and inched nearer, until he was leaning partially over her, his weight on one elbow. He kept his eyes lowered, focusing on her collar bone. The covers were tucked securely around her, her arms on top of them at her sides, but even so, the knowledge that she wore nothing underneath them did strange things to his brain.

He was terrified—he'd never been so terrified in his life. He could feel every breath as he took it in, hear it like thunder in his ears as he exhaled, and he tried to make it quieter, sure it must sound like he was panting over her like some sort of rabid dog. The moonlight made the soft, white skin of her shoulder luminesce, and he found himself entranced by the play of shadows where her clavicle lifted and fell with each tense breath. He lifted his gaze to her chin, and he could actually hear her lips part, his own mouth going dry at the sound. He pressed his lips together, trying to bring some moisture back into them, then squeezed his eyes shut tight and leaned down to brush his lips clumsily against hers.

Her lips trembled, and felt strangely rubbery against his tensed mouth. He tried to relax, felt her press back tentatively, but it all seemed so wrong, as though mouths were not made to touch like this. Still, it was better to remain like this, with his eyes closed and his lips pressed against hers than to pull back even an inch and be forced to look her in the eye. He would never be able to get through this if he looked her in the eye. He lifted his free hand over her body and rested a sweating palm ever-so-lightly on her shoulder. She drew in a small breath through her nose, but didn't protest—so he moved it slowly, quaking, to cover her soft, warm breast. It wasn't as though he'd never touched a woman's breast before—obviously—but both the fact that it was hers and the circumstances of the occasion made this an entirely different matter than ever before. Curious, he gave it a gentle squeeze, and felt her entire body stiffen with a shiver, as though it were causing her pleasure and pain at the same time.

They went on like that for a few minutes, and he tried to feel something, tried to spark some form of desire—but nothing happened. All he could think of was how hard she was trembling, how her arms never moved from her sides, how he didn't know what the hell he was doing, how he'd dragged her into this without even meaning to. It wasn't that he didn't want her—he supposed he'd always wanted her, ever since the day they'd met and she'd walked in on him in the bathtub. But there was a big difference between wanting and having. Sure, he wanted her—but not like this. This was all wrong.

Finally, he gave up, rolling away with a frustrated sigh. "I can't do this," he murmured.

She drew in a small breath. "Oh."

There was silence for a beat, and then she added quietly, "I'm sorry…"

He was so stunned that he glanced over at her profile—before remembering why he had been avoiding it and returning his gaze to the ceiling. "What the hell have you got to be sorry for?" He heard her flinch, and regretted his tone.

"For…for not being…you know. One of the others."

His brow creased with a frown. "One of the…what?"

She gave a huff of frustration, and clarified in a pained and slightly annoyed voice. "I mean, I'm sorry for not being the one that you…you know…wanted."

Suddenly he understood. "No," he rushed to reassure her, "no, it's not—it's not you, Akane, I swear."

"Yeah, right," she laughed wryly.

"No, really," he insisted, feeling slightly panicked somehow. "Look, I know I say a lot of stuff, but…I never really meant any of it. I just…I don't know…"

"You don't have to explain anything, Ranma—I didn't…really expect…"

He frowned. "Expect what?"


He glanced over at her again, and this time he didn't look away. "Expect what, Akane?"

She didn't answer—only turned over onto her side, facing away from him. When her shoulder twitched with a sharply-drawn breath, he realized she was crying.

"Akane," he said, rolling toward her again and inching closer without even thinking. "Shit, Akane, I'm so sorry. I'm sorry for getting you into this mess. I should've just told my mother to go jump in a lake the second she brought it up. I mean, even if I had to—you know—I should've just done it. Better that than this."

"Oh, great," Akane choked out wryly. "So now you'd rather commit suicide than be married to me."

"That's not what I meant!"

"Oh?" She rolled back slightly, meeting his gaze over her shoulder with a challenging, watery look. "Then what did you mean?"

"I meant—I…I just meant that…you deserve better than this, okay? And sure as hell you deserve better than me…"

The malice slipped out of her visage as they looked at each other. When it finally occurred to him just how long they had been staring silently into one another's eyes, he looked away, clearing his throat and flopping back onto his side of the bed to once again stare at the ceiling.

"Ranma…" she said finally, her voice meek, but steady.

He grunted to show he was listening.

"You know I love you, right?"

His brow lowered slowly in something akin to confusion as the words sank in. He whipped his head over to stare at her again. "Huh?"

She swallowed, still facing the ceiling. "I…I wouldn't marry just anyone, Ranma, not even to save them from committing suicide. I married you because…I love you. Maybe it wasn't the right time or the right reason, but I always figured eventually we'd get things straightened out—and if this was the way it had to happen, I was okay with it. I…didn't want to lose you. I couldn't."


"Anyway," she interrupted hastily, "if this isn't what you want, that's fine. I won't try to force you or anything. Just…don't think that you've ruined my life or anything like that, because you haven't. I chose to do this. I wanted to."

Ranma remained silent for a moment, dumbstruck. When he finally found his voice again, he said, somewhat hoarsely, "Akane—I never wanted anyone but you."

This time it was Akane's turn to look at him in surprise—it was so potent that he was tempted to look away, but he didn't. He needed her to know that he was telling the truth. There were tears in her eyes, and he couldn't tell if they were fresh ones, or leftover from before.

He propped himself up on an elbow and leaned over her again, never breaking eye contact. He was still somewhat terrified, but it was a different kind of terror—like he'd been pushing against a heavy door, and it had suddenly given way to send him tumbling into a strange and beautiful paradise. She lifted a hand and ran her fingertips tentatively along the side of his throat, that briefest touch sending shivers over his skin. He swallowed. Emboldened, she pressed her warm palm flat against his chest, then slid it up over his shoulder to the nape of his neck, drawing him down gently until his lips brushed hers.

This time was nothing like the last time. Though both were hesitant, there was a breathless anticipation in each touch, and with each kiss, they grew more confident. Her hand soon slid up to tangle in his hair, and his found its way beneath the covers to caress her smooth, impossibly soft skin. This time he could feel her in the kiss, and he could feel himself there as well. This time, they were together.

Something exploded somewhere outside the house, startling Ranma back to consciousness. He propped himself up on one elbow, blinking as he tried to make sense of the commotion outside—but it was all too garbled, shouts and screeches and the sound of splintering wood. He tried to untangle himself from the sheets as he rolled his way out of the futon, but one of his ankles was still caught up and he ended up sliding rather ungracefully to the floor.

He allowed himself a momentary wince of embarrassment at his undignified position, and listened with bated breath for a moment in hope that Akane was still asleep. She answered with a light snore, and he exhaled, extricating himself from the covers and tugging on the shorts he'd left crumpled on the floor beside his neatly hung tux.

With a silent grace that nearly made up for his earlier clumsiness, he tiptoed around the end of the futon and over to the window. He eased the screen open just an inch or two, squinting against the harsh morning sunlight into the courtyard below.

There it was—the usual devastation. It was hard to guess exactly where it had started, but judging by the bokken-scars on the tree-trunk and the black rose petals littering the ground Ranma had a feeling that the Kunos had shown up a day late trying to stop the wedding (Nabiki had cleverly spread the wrong date around to those most likely to cause trouble) and ended up battling each other instead. Shampoo, meanwhile, was now attacking Kodachi with her bonbori for some slight or other while Mousse had Kuno around the waist, sobbing declarations of love with his glasses perched on top of his head. The explosion appeared to have been one of Happosai's Happo-dai-karin, misfired somehow in the midst of the chaos, because Happosai was currently sobbing over the charred remains of a furoshiki, bits of half-burned lingerie hanging from the treetops and the eves of the house. Ukyo was there too, chasing P-chan around with a spatula and accusing him of being a pervert and ogling the other two women during the fight. Ranma gave a bewildered frown and cocked his head to the side as his eyes followed the piglet and the chef around and around the base of the tree—definitely needed to get a little more backstory on that one…

And then there were Soun and Genma and Nodoka hovering around the edges of the courtyard—Soun desperately trying to stop the fighting and minimize the damage, Genma currently in panda form and playing with a tire over in the corner, and Nodoka positively giddy with amusement. Ranma caught sight of his mother's pleased face and clasped hands as she watched Kodachi and Shampoo knock each other around, and he couldn't help smiling to himself.

On any other day he'd be right in the middle of it, soaking wet and covered in bruises, fighting a battle on twelve fronts over something stupid that he hadn't even done. But not today. Today he had done exactly what everyone suspected—and he had no intentions of fighting anyone at all. It would sort itself out, sooner or later. And there would always be another battle.

Ranma glanced over at his wife's sleeping form, her hair rumpled and mussed up on one side, her cheeks still slightly flushed from the night before, and he smiled again. Akane—his wife. Crazy how those words didn't scare the shit out of him anymore. They just made him really happy. He'd always been happy-go-lucky, but he wasn't sure he'd ever been really happy before. It was a nice feeling.

He slid the window shut again without a second glance and walked back around to his side of the bed, crawling under the covers and sliding up behind her again to wrap his arms around her waist. When he started kissing the join between her shoulder and her neck, she gave a sleepy giggle and shrugged in on herself, one hand sliding over his arms at her waist as she slowly surfaced.

"Hi," she mumbled, and he smiled against her skin.

"Hi," he replied, kissing her once more before pulling back to allow her to twist around in his arms.

She pushed her messy bangs back from her face and grinned up at him, nibbling on her lower lip. Her eyes could only seem to stay on his for a moment before dropping to his clavicle where they were met by her fingertips running down the side of his throat. He still couldn't quite get over the feeling of being close to her like this. It didn't make sense—it was too easy. Like walking off a roof and finding you could fly. Why hadn't they been doing this all along?

He leaned down to kiss her softly on the lips, and she responded sweetly, her fingers sliding into his hair as his hand brushed lightly against the side of her breast.

As he ran a thumb up and down over her soft skin, listening to the strains of the distant chaos in the yard, the sound of someone falling into the koi pond and several of Ukyo's small spatulas sticking into a wall in quick succession, he felt his heart clench in his chest a little. He pulled back gently, looking down at Akane again, a little of the previous evening's nervousness returning.

Akane frowned up at him, brushing her knuckles against his cheek. "What is it?"

"Nothing," he said reflexively, glancing down toward her shoulder. "It's just…"

"What?" she nudged gently.

Ranma pressed his lips together for a moment, still not looking up from her shoulder. "The curse," he said.

"What about it?"

"You…" he started, but his voice faltered a little, and he had to clear his throat and start again. "Do you really not mind it?"

Akane laughed lightly and reached around to tug on his pigtail, forcing his gaze up to hers again. "Of course not, Ranma," she said with a smirk.

"Really? I mean, you can tell me if you do. I just…I just have to know."

She smiled at his uncertainty, running a finger down along his jaw again. "Ranma," she said sincerely, "I don't mind it. You've had it for as long as I've known you—if it really bothered me, I wouldn't have fallen in love with you in the first place. To me, it's just part of who you are—like a birthmark or something."

Ranma gave her a wry look. "It's a little weirder than a birthmark…"

"So what?" she chuckled. "You're no ordinary Joe even without it. Weird is what you do."

"You don't…you don't think it makes me, you know…less of a man?"

Akane sighed and gripped his forearm gently, looking up at him with a serious expression. "Not a bit. You're a man no matter what you look like on the outside. Nothing can change that."

He smiled back at her with a rare softness, and reached a hand up to tuck her hair gently behind her ear. Then the smile slid into a more familiar smirk. "Ah, but am I a 'man among men'?"

Akane grinned back, giggling again as the slight flush renewed itself on her cheeks. "The jury's still out. You may just have to prove it to me again."

He leaned down until he was just a breath away from her lips. "I can do that…"

A/N: So! Done! I'd originally intended for this to be a funnier story, but the story had other plans. I think that was part of the reason I sat on it for so long (in addition to the numerous canon-contradictions). But I like many of the things that came out of it, so I guess it worked out alright in the end.

Also, I realize I completely ignored Akari. This was partly because I hadn't read the manga yet when I started the story, and partly because I don't really care for her. I think Ukyo's a much more interesting character, and I think an Ukyo/Ryoga pairing makes Ryoga more interesting too. Ukyo challenges him—Akari just fawns over him and coddles him. Which is fine for a laugh, but not something I'm interested in exploring in detail. So for the sake of fanfiction, I guess I'm an Ukyo/Ryoga shipper… ;)