A/N: Sorry for being gone so long. Finishing up this story is turning out to be a pain. Don't worry, though: this isn't the last chapter. I have another chapter and an epilogue planned for it. Also, I've been commuting myself to Twisting the Hellmouth again with my BtVS fanfics. If there are any Buffy fans (for Willow-centric fiction) out there, tell me if I should also post my stuff here.
"Ranma! I need your help!"
From his flattened vantage point on the rooftop, the young martial artist in question jerked to attention. He had been hiding from his fiancée since the events of earlier that day, well aware of the storm that could be her fury. Even so, he was… dejected, sensing that her initial reaction had been disapproval more than anything. So, hiding had seemed to be the best policy.
However, he was never one to ignore her calls. Even if he had as little as a few months ago affected disinterest when she called his name, he never willingly ignored her. This time was no different, especially as her voice held certain notes of distress now. Whatever words – and perhaps actions – she had been waiting to have with him, that was not what she wanted now.
In a fluid movement, he pushed himself to his feet and then proceeded to slide down the roof, purposely forcing his feet to lose traction. Lashing his arm outward so that his hand could catch the edge of the roof, he dropped to the ground with little to no impact. It was then that he realized that Akane was kneeling over something at the gate that barred entrance to the Tendo compound.
"What's going on?" He tried to portray his voice as loose and aloof but something about the situation bothered him.
"It's Mousse." Finally, she turned to look at him, her brown eyes wavering with concern. "He's hurt. We need to get him to Doctor Tofu."
Ranma refrained from rolling his eyes, knowing personally how resilient the duck-boy could be. "Alright." He knelt down, reaching out with his arms for the other boy's body. "Hand him over. I'll get him there quick."
Akane's hand lashed out, striking him on the arm quick and sharp. There was barely a tingle in its wake but he could see his skin grow pink with the force. It was a warning. "No!" she told him firmly. "We'll both take him. Slowly and carefully."
"Akane…" Ranma started, thinking this was another one of those times when she just didn't want to feel left out.
Her soft gaze immediately turned hard, pinning his unsaid words with a glare. "He's barely breathing, Ranma, and his mouth is full of blood. I'd let you take him but I'm afraid there might be internal damage." She shook her head and moved quickly, looping her arms under Mousse's shoulders. "Quick you might be but you're not the gentlest person in the world."
Ranma arched an eyebrow, following Akane's lead and lifting Mousse with a firm grip on his knees. "Whatever you say," he told her but he was thinking about what she said. Akane was likely the single person that he had carried the most on his quick aerial jaunts, usually when he was saving her from one attack or another. But she had never complained about it. Maybe she was a lot sturdier than he really thought her to be.
Because of the slow pace that Akane forced them to travel, it took nearly ten minutes to reach Tofu's clinic. Every time the muscles of Ranma's face caused him to grimace at the pace or the thought that Mousse could be so hurt that a couple minutes of rooftop travel would make it worse, he noticed the look on his fiancée's face. Akane looked extremely worried, her lips pressed into a thin line and her forehead wrinkling distinctly with deep concern. Though he couldn't ascertain any injuries, he was also well aware that he wasn't especially educated in the medical area.
It was entirely possible that she was seeing something he wasn't and that it was worth worrying over.
The clinic was dark, the lights of the lobby and waiting room long since having been extinguished. Ranma frowned at the building curiously – didn't Tofu live here or something? With some astonishment, he watched as Akane reached upwards, stretching on the tips of her toes, and slid a key from the lip of the upper right corner of the doorframe. With it, she unlocked the door with quick, precise movements and pushed open the door with her backside while reasserting her grip on the injured boy that they held.
"Tofu-sensei!" she called out immediately.
If he wasn't so used to being surprised by something completely out of left field, Ranma would have remained rooted to the spot, goggling at Akane in shock. As it was, he followed her into the clinic, his grip on Mousse never wavering, but questions with no answers flew through his head. How did Akane know that key was there? Did everyone know about that key? Why hadn't Tofu ever told him about an emergency key? Did the doctor not trust Ranma?
After a moment, when lights began to turn on around him, Ranma realized that the doctor was walking toward them from a back room. He was still properly dressed, which was a relief to Ranma, and his face was bright with alertness. The young martial artist could only assume he was doing something related to his files or something equally tedious and boring.
"Akane!" He smiled gently at the girl, though Ranma could see something of reproach behind the expression. "I see you let yourself in. What is…?" When he trailed off, it was obvious that he noticed the body they held between them. For him to not notice Mousse immediately, Ranma knew that his mind had to have been elsewhere. "Is that Mousse? Akane, you know that the Amazons prefer that I not work on them."
For her part, Akane blushed in embarrassment even as she pinned the doctor with that familiar determined gaze. "His breathing is… off, Doctor Tofu."
Frowning, Tofu strode forward on his long legs and peered at Mousse intently before shifting his gaze to Ranma. He knew that that question was coming, given how many of Mousse's previous injuries had likely been at his hand but it didn't irk him any less. "Ranma, did you fight with him?"
Ranma shook his head vehemently. "No, he just showed up at the dojo like this."
Tofu's gaze turned distant for a moment and Ranma instinctively knew that he was making connections that the martial artist himself couldn't even begin to guess at. "Ah, I see." His focus then shifted back to Akane. "Take him to the exam room. I'll have to see the damage."
When Akane's end gave a slight tug, Ranma followed her into the exam room, stepping back when their burden was on the table. Akane stayed by the exam table, arranging Mousse's body into the prone position, though Ranma wasn't sure why she was doing it.
"Good," Tofu said as he entered the room. Once he was across the table from Akane, he removed his glasses and closed his eyes, allowing Akane to take and hold the spectacles. After a moment, Tofu raised his hands over Mousse's chest, a white light covering them. It took little time for Ranma to realize that this was a ki technique of some sort. "If he's having difficulties breathing, the chest is as good a place to start as any."
"What's that?" Ranma asked Akane in a whispered hiss, nodding at Tofu's achingly slow hand movements over Mousse's body.
"Doctor Tofu discovered this technique when he was studying to become a doctor. He says it's like having his own personal x-ray machine," Akane said. She cast a sidelong glance at her fiancé. "Right, you've never seen him do this."
Ranma's lips twitched slightly, showing the need to smile despite the dire situation. "I didn't even know he knew ki techniques."
"Pneumothorax," Tofu said suddenly, breaking harshly into their conversation.
Akane immediately surged forward to the table again, her brown eyes roaming over Mousse's body intently. It was then that Ranma realized it was somewhat serious. "What? Pneumothorax? Wh-What else?"
"Cracked sternum and a broken rib. It seems the break caused a tear in his left lung, releasing the air into his chest." Finally, Tofu released the technique and opened his eyes, holding out one hand to receive his glasses from Akane. "We will have to remove the air from his chest and then fully inflate his lungs to move the rib back into the proper position."
"We?" Akane echoed. Then her face paled, making Ranma realize the doctor was asking something of her that she was balking at. "No, Doctor Tofu. I haven't assisted you in over a year."
Tofu grinned at her. "Akane, don't worry. I imagine it's like riding a bike – you never really forget."
Akane sighed and closed her eyes briefly. "Okay. Fine." She opened her eyes and focused on the teenager whose breathing was becoming increasingly soft and thready. "I'll help."
Before he knew it, Ranma was being ushered out to the lobby, doomed to wait restlessly until they were finished.
It took the better part of an hour but Akane released a sigh of relief when they finished. After sterilizing, they had begun with injecting a chest tube between the fourth and fifth rib on the left side of his chest to pull out the excess air. Tofu had insisted on the tube because he had seen that the pneumothorax had been too large for a syringe. After that, they had employed a manual resuscitation bag to fully inflate his lungs. As the entire chest area was relatively sturdy, there was no need for any other procedures and even this one went much easier than if it had just been the doctor alone.
Passing a hand over her face, Akane leaned over Mousse's unconscious body, turning her head so that her ear faced his mouth. His breathing was regular and even now, though somewhat shallower than she remembered. Every few moments or so, it would hitch slightly, as if he was feeling the pain in his chest even as he slept.
"This is my fault," she murmured softly, part of her willing his green eyes to open.
Akane jumped slightly, her mind having conveniently forgotten that Tofu was still in the room with them. Taking a deep breath, she was about to answer the doctor when she noticed Ranma through the small window in the door that now barred the exam room from the lobby. His impossibly blue eyes were staring into the room, concern and confusion apparent on his face. Akane laughed at herself. "Never mind," she told Tofu. "It's not important."
For his part, Tofu placed a hand on her shoulder, his bespectacled eyes smiling down at her. "I'm here if you need to talk. Never forget that."
Akane nodded at the older man and then walked out of the exam room, preparing herself mentally for Ranma. It wasn't that she wasn't prepared to talk to him, per se, but that she knew he had questions. Questions that he likely could hardly contain, questions that she didn't know if she wanted to answer.
"Is he okay now?" At least, she conceded, he started out with something relatively easy to answer.
Akane nodded, easing her body down into the sofa that rested against one of the walls. "He's a little better now. Breathing normally, at least."
"I didn't know you could do that stuff," Ranma said softly, his blue eyes looking intently at her face.
Akane frowned slightly. "What stuff? You mean, with Tofu-sensei?" At her fiancé's nod, a furrow in her brow joined the frown. "Really? I guess, I stopped doing it around the time you showed up." She chuckled softly. "Tofu-sensei said that as long as I was here so often, I might as well learn."
"You know medical stuff?"
She shrugged half-heartedly, lifting one shoulder in the process. "Kasumi still knows more than me." After a moment, she stared into space, part of her still wondering when Ranma was going to start rattling off real questions but mostly still twisted up in knots about what had happened to Mousse.
"What do you think happened to him? Mousse is pretty sturdy. I can't imagine someone able to hurt him this badly."
But Akane knew. Akane had been able to glean immediately who would be able to hurt her friend that badly. "Cologne," she told him. "Cologne could do this to him."
Barring the moment it took him to slide the pieces together, he agreed with her almost as soon as she said the words. "Of course. I should have seen that."
Even though a month prior she would have agreed with the fact that he should have seen it, quite obviously insulting him in the process, she strayed away from that reaction now. With Ranma's random and rampant jealousy and her own recent revelation about her pet piglet's true identity, she felt it was better for their conversations to stay on the side of caution. "It needs to be dealt with," she murmured softly, her mind on Mousse's cracked ribs and punctured lung.
Ranma stood suddenly, the very line of his body rigid with his usual self-righteousness. "I'll fix this. I mean…" He faltered for a second, his eyes shifting to Akane's. "Whatever she did, it could've killed him, right?"
Closing her eyes for a moment, she gave a brief, curt nod. "If left untreated, he could have drowned from fluid in the lungs. With a lung punctured and collapsed, it could have been… bad." She stood beside him then, placing two gentle fingers against his wrist. "Don't confront her. I will."
"What? No!" Twisting in place, Ranma moved his hands to grip Akane's shoulders, both fear and determination in his intense blue gaze. "You can't. That old ghoul will tear you to shreds. You can't even beat Shampoo in a fight."
Taking a breath and internally stepping back from his words, the teenaged girl tried not to take offense. He wasn't trying to insult her. In fact, he was trying to protect her, as much as she detested the notion. "Which is why I won't be fighting. Just talking. Like a normal person does."
"They're not normal people, Akane! They're warriors. All they know is fighting."
Reaching up, Akane roughly shoved Ranma's hands away from her. "I know that. Do you think I don't know that? Do you think I'm an idiot?" Her eyes flicked across his face as his expression darted somewhere between anger and reproach. "This is all my fault. Do you get that? This is my fault and I know to take my medicine like a good girl."
She watched his face for a moment, watching for the realization to dawn on him like it had on her, before turning away. It was true that she was at fault, there was no one that could tell her otherwise. She had been pushing Mousse to be defiant, to question everything about his life. For that, she was willing to take responsibility, willing to receive what punishment the martial artist's so-called superiors wished to rain down on her. She returned to Mousse's side, watching his breathing carefully, while she tried to ignore her fiancé's approach.
It was a long moment before she felt Ranma's fingers touch her shoulder. "You don't deserve the kind of pain Cologne could cause," he said gently. The words were halting enough that Akane knew it was something he actually felt rather than one of the pretty lies he could deliver so easily.
"I do," she told him in a soft voice that was hard as steel, a hardness that she was turning back eternally upon herself. "If I hadn't been making him look at them differently, if I hadn't pushed him so hard about Shampoo… maybe he wouldn't be here. Unconscious and struggling to breathe." Akane sighed softly. "He wouldn't have changed if it wasn't for me."
Ranma's arm stretched across her back and gripped her other shoulder, pulling her into a half-embrace. "Maybe… maybe things need to change."
Akane leaned into the side of his body, trying to take comfort in his warmth. "And maybe I should have left well enough alone."
"At least, let me come with you," he said, finally halting his argument with her about whose fault Mousse's condition was. "I don't want them to hurt you."
Akane nodded, her eyes never having moved from her friend's chest movements. "Okay." She flinched slightly when Mousse's breathing hitched again, his face scrunching momentarily in the pain.
It was going to be a long night.