I claim no ownership rights to any of the works of Rumiko Takahashi or Naoko Takeuchi.


"Usagi-chan..."

Akane watched through the cracked open door to the furo as Ranma's orgasm exploded through her. For long moments the naked red-haired young woman that was her husband half-lifted off the tile floor on which she lay, jaw clenched and every muscle tight, wet-shiny fingers clamped between her legs, before collapsing limply to lie there gasping. Finally, Ranma rolled upright and grabbed the rinse bucket, and Akane silently slid the door closed.

Ignoring the sounds of splashing water that she assumed was Ranma rinsing off her pleasure-sweat, Akane put her back to the wall and slid down to the floor, anger raging through her and shaking her so hard that she was unable to stand even as tears rolled down her cheeks. It just wasn't fair!

Before Ranma's enslavement and Kuno's death it would have been Ranma she had blamed, one more excuse to keep her fiancé at arm's length so the fathers wouldn't call for an immediate wedding. But now the fathers were both dead: her own blade sending her father's head rolling across the dojo floor when she acted as his second when he committed seppuku to buy his daughters time and Uncle Genma going down under the knives of Kuno Family ninjas as he fought for the lives of his wife and Akane's sisters. And since she had insisted Ranma marry her weeks before Xian Pu had returned with the needed ingredients for unlocking his curse, Akane and Ranma's first wedding anniversary was only a few months away.

No, the one she ached to rend and beat and tear at was the one that had treated her husband's mind like his own personal playground. Not that that was any more productive than being angry at her husband, seeing that the Mentalist was as dead as the fathers. Though if she could she would have resurrected him from whatever unmarked grave his corpse had been tossed into and given him a much more protracted and painful death than the broken neck that Ranma had inflicted.

"Akane, Ukyo's getting restless."

Akane realized that she'd tucked her head between her upraised knees, and looked up to find her oldest sister standing in the door leading to the hallway.

Kasumi, at least, seemed to be hardly affected by everything that had happened. True, she had gone into hysterics once they'd safely reached the hospital after the attack on the dojo and had been on a prescription for months afterward. But she had risen to the challenge of meeting the needs of a household haunted by guilt and fear — when Nabiki had thrown herself into her new duties as the manager of 'Ranko's' new estates with such grim determination that they'd been lucky to see her twice a day at mealtimes, Kasumi had been the one to insist she make room in her schedule for an exercise regimen and some family time. By now, Kasumi was once again her previous serene self ... and no one had mentioned anything to Akane about noticing that when Kasumi returned from the weekly visits to a local gun range that she apparently believed no one knew about, she was even more quiet than usual. Or about the revolver she had hidden in the kitchen, for that matter.

Then Kasumi's words penetrated, and Akane's anger guttered out like a candle. She hastily rose to her feet as she wiped at wet cheeks, and Kasumi stepped aside as she hurried from the bathroom. The current head of the Tendo family put up the 'occupied' sign on the inner door and slid the outer door closed before following her sister down the hallway toward the stairs.

/\

A few minutes later Akane, sitting in the chair by her bed gazing down at the baby in her arms, shivered at the sensations coursing through her from her daughter's eager sucking at a nipple. Those sensations were nowhere near as strong as what she'd experienced again a few nights ago when she'd convinced her husband that she was finally recovered enough from the birth for sex, but they were close enough that she'd found them disturbing until Kasumi had informed her that they were perfectly normal for breastfeeding mothers. Now, she just found them embarrassing.

"Akane?"

Akane looked up at Kasumi, sitting on her bed. Her older sister hadn't said a word when they'd gotten back upstairs, simply invited herself into the bedroom that had been Ranma and Genma's and was now Ranma, Akane and Ukyo's. She'd sat quietly on the bed, waiting patiently while Akane had seen to her fussing daughter, but apparently her patience was at an end.

Now Kasumi softly asked, "Little sister, what's wrong?"

Akane's eyes dropped back down to her baby. "I'm losing him," she whispered.

"Who, Ranma?" At Akane's nod, Kasumi rose from the bed to kneel beside her sister, reaching out to take hold of a hand. "Akane, no! He loves you," she insisted, "now more than ever, I can tell."

"I know," Akane agreed. "But Kasumi … I don't think he wants to be Ranma anymore. He's turning into Ranko."

Kasumi winced as her sister's grip tightened on her hand, even as her mind raced. "Why do you think so?" she finally asked. "I know he doesn't like to leave the compound except in girl form, but — Akane, my hand!"

Akane hastily let go, blushing as her sister snatched back her hand and rubbed it for a moment, wiggling her fingers to make sure nothing was broken. "Sorry," the youngest Tendo muttered.

"I'm fine," Kasumi assured her. "So why else do you believe Ranma wants to abandon his manhood?"

Akane blushed. "Because ... when he masturbates, it's in his girl form," she muttered, "while fantasizing about Usagi."

Kasumi fought through her own blush to ask, "That doesn't mean you have to lose him. Have you tried to replace Usagi in his ... well, 'her' fantasies?"

Akane's blush deepened as she stammered for a moment, before taking a deep breath. "We ... tried once ... before Shampoo got back. It ... didn't go well. Kasumi, I can't! As much as I love Ranma, Ranko can't be more than a friend. The best I have in the world, but no more."

"I see." Kasumi frowned. "I ... don't know — about Ranma, I mean. But if you're right, what are you going to do? Ranma could decide to spend his ... her waking time was 'Ranko', but sleep with you as 'Ranma'. Certainly, the sounds he was making a few nights ago were ... enthusiastic."

For a moment, Akane thought she was going to faint, thanks to her blush. But she forced herself through it to consider her sister's words. "Maybe," she said doubtfully. "I ... really, I don't know what I'm going to do." She dropped her eyes again, hoping that her often surprisingly perceptive sister didn't recognize the lie for what it was, just as little Ukyo stopped sucking at her nipple. Akane concentrated closing up the top of her robe and getting a towel over her shoulder for burping Ukyo, then looked over again at her sister. "Kasumi, what about you?"

" 'What about you' what?" Kasumi asked. "Me and Ranma? He'd never accept it."

"No, what about your future?" Akane said. "You're already older than most girls when they marry, it's not fair for you to just … just be our housewife without even being a wife. You deserve better than that."

"Ah." Kasumi considered her sister for a moment before shaking her head, smiling gently. "Thank you for caring, but there is no need to be concerned. I am happy to continue as I am."

"But what about a family of your own?" Akane insisted. "You've been marvelous with Ukyo, you deserve your own home and family. Don't you want children, a husband, what a …" Blushing furiously, she forced herself to continue, "… what a man can give you, do for you? Or a woman?" She didn't think her sister swung that way, but suddenly she wasn't so sure.

Now Kasumi was giggling, as she shook her head again. She said, "Not everyone is as … physical as you and Ranma. I have proven quite capable of seeing to my own needs, and have never really felt driven to find a man of my own — or a woman. As for children, while Nodoka will not approve, I do not think you and Ranma will throw me out of the dojo when I have one out of wedlock … or perhaps two. I'll just need to find a good man willing to, ah … 'cooperate'." Glancing slyly at Akane, she asked, "Do you think Ranma would be willing to help out?"

Akane opened her mouth to furiously denounce the idea, then paused. This was Kasumi. The last thing she was going to try to do was take Ranma away from her. Besides, it wasn't like Akane wasn't ready to give Ranma away, if that was what it took to make him ... or her ... happy. Finally, she said, "You'll have to ask Ranma, but I think Ukyo would love to have a cousin or two for playmates. Just don't wait too long, or there'll be too big an age difference." Then it was her turn to giggle as Kasumi's jaw dropped in amazement at her agreement. Deciding that Ukyo had been burped enough, she rose to her feet and walked over to the cradle. "It's late, Kasumi, go back to bed and get what sleep you can before Ukyo's next demand to be fed."

Kasumi shook herself free of her shock and rose to her feet, made her goodnights, and left for her own bed as Akane laid Ukyo down.

Straightening, Akane tiptoed to her bedroom door and eased it open, listening as Kasumi's door clicked shut, then closed her own door again and turned to sit in front of the bedroom's new computer console. She had a call to make, and while her husband liked to soak in the furo for a while after one of his dreams her window of opportunity was limited. Quickly bringing the computer to life, she hesitated for a long moment before she straightened in her seat, took a deep breath, and brought up the vidphone function. Less than a minute later the Tsukino family wallpaper vanished to be replaced by the image of 'Ranko's' former body slave, bleary eyes framed by sleep-tousled blond hair.

Stifling a yawn, Usagi demanded, "Akane, do you have any idea what time it is?"

"Yes, I do, and I'm sorry," Akane apologized, "but I needed to talk to you privately and this is my best chance. Usagi, it's been almost a year, it's time you stopped making excuses not to visit. Ukyo need's to actually meet her Auntie Bunny."

/\

Usagi sighed and rubbed at tired eyes as she leaned back in her chair. Maybe she could blame the way Akane had rolled over every objection she'd come up with on the interrupted sleep after a long day of training. In truth, she hadn't tried all that hard, had even gotten the other girl to laugh when she'd objected to interrupting her samurai training — with a visit to Nerima of all places, much less the Tendo Dojo! Beyond wondering why Akane wanted her to visit now and to claim the idea as her own — a reason the older girl had refused to disclose, saying it had to wait until she arrived — she'd been feeling more guilty every time she'd refused yet another offer to visit. Still, the need to see Ranko ... Ranma again haunted her dreams, and she'd liked Akane when they first met, and that liking had only grown stronger through their ongoing exchange of emails and vid calls. Yes, she missed them both. But ... But you just can't stomach the thought of seeing them both ... together.

Still, now that Akane had forced the issue what Usagi mainly felt was overpowering relief — and even that carried its own burden of guilt, because the primary driver of that relief was how the trip would allow her to get away from her family for awhile. It wasn't her father's fault that the two years of slavery had destroyed his career, or her mothers' that the years of being a kitchen drudge had made her silent and withdrawn. And while her brother's decision to drop out of school and run with one of the street gangs now infesting Juuban was his own, his anger constantly bubbling under the surface wasn't his fault, either — she didn't know what had happened to him during the years he'd spent as a field hand, but her suspicions gave her nightmares. And she was so tired of being the happy, cheerful morale driver of the family. Almost the only real breaks she'd gotten were the occasional missions with the other Senshi, and those were just a different kind of pressure cooker. Though at least she got to meet Makoto and Ami during them and Minako was kinda cool, and they'd actually been able to hang out together a few times….

Buck up, 'Bunny', she thought as she stood up to return to her own bed. Maybe Pluto will tell you that there's an imminent mission and you can't do it. Then you can go back to just feeling stressed instead of stressed and guilty. You'll have to call her first thing in the morning. Then she paused, struck by a sudden thought. Some of Pluto's summons for missions had come in the middle of the night, so why shouldn't she return the favor? Considering her reputation for being a bit of a ditz (a reputation she fostered these days, both for morale purposes and as camouflage), the Senshi of the Future would probably just pass it off as Usagi being Usagi... She grinned as she turned back to the console and again brought up the vidphone function.

A few minutes later, the soft music of Setsuna's personal waiting pattern broke off as a voice growled from the blank screen ... but not the one she'd been expecting: "Usagi, this had better be good!"

Usagi gasped. "Haruka?! What are you —" Then she froze as she suddenly remembered. She wailed, "Oh, no, I'm sorry, I forgot you and Michiru had moved in with Setsuna! Did I wake up Hotaru?"

Her screen lit up to show the androgynously pretty Outer Senshi, haruka's short platinum blonde hair sleep-tousled. But the older woman was chuckling as she shook her head. "Got a little overeager to have some fun with our fearless leader, did you, Bunny? No, you didn't wake up Hotaru. Hold on a moment while I get Setsuna so you can properly poke her."

/\

A few minutes later, Setsuna returned to the bed she now shared with Michiru and Haruka to find her lover of the past year still awake.

"What was that about?" Haruka murmured sleepily, an arm circling the millennia-old woman as Setsuna happily spooned up against her.

"Our princess has been ordered by Akane to visit the Tendo Dojo, and wanted to know if there were any upcoming incursions that would get in the way. I couldn't tell if she was happy or upset when I told her we had a clear board."

Setsuna felt the warm breath of Haruka's chuckle on her neck. "How cute, our princess is growing up and learning life is complicated. Is she going to get her prince now?"

"The first steps, at least."

"Rei and Mamoru will be happy, as much for her as themselves — still, anything that keeps Usagi away from her last life's prince ..." Haruka said through a yawn.

Setsuna murmured back, "Go to sleep, 'ruka, we'll gossip in the morning."

She felt the warmth of another chuckle, but Haruka fell quiet and her breathing soon fell into a sleeping cadence.

But Setsuna found sleep elusive for a time, as she considered Haruka's comment about their princess growing up. No, lover, she thought to herself, smiling at the usual spurt of joy the descriptive brought. (She was still amazed that, after all the millennia alone, she could apply that title to anyone at all and mean it, much less to two girls as wonderful as her tomboy and 'debutante'.) Our princess grew up in a blood-drenched room almost a year ago — now, it's just a matter of experience. At least she's finally getting something positive from that mess, not just a well-hidden grim determination to never be that helpless again. She finally drifted off to sleep herself, her dreams a happy mix of the various minor variations of the Princess's homelife to come that the Time Gates had shown her over the past year, as the future had shifted slightly with the vagaries of humanity's combined choices.

/oOo\

Miiko lay on her back on a tarp spread out in front of her rude cabin at the edge of a jungle clearing, the trees dark shadows bracketing the night sky. The earlier rain had lifted and the clouds cleared away, and the stars were out.

In the weeks since her arrival at de Oro's hideaway, Miiko had come to appreciate the stars like she never had before. Stars didn't look at her with pity, or treat her like a child, or get uncomfortable in her presence. Stars didn't make her violently flinch away if they brushed up against her. Stars didn't refuse to let her help cook, or feed her anything that needed to be cut because they didn't trust her with knives. No, stars just spread themselves across the sky night after night, offering their silent beauty in companionship, on those nights that the weather cooperated (most nights, since it was currently the dry season) and yet another nightmare of the serial beatings and rapes she'd suffered under her now-dead master yanked her from her uneasy sleep.

She heard the soft clump-clump of someone wearing boots approaching, and glanced over to see a silhouette that might be the leader of the band of ... rebels? bandits? revolutionaries? crusaders? ... she wasn't sure how to describe them. But then, she hadn't been paying very close attention, caught up in her own nightmare since learning that it had taken a popular investigative reporter less than two days from the initial broadcast of the video of her abused body to discover who she was and post the information on his 'net site, along with college photos and a short biography.

It was Juan de Oro, back from what she assumed was another raid. He was carrying a tarp of his own, and spread it out next to her before lying down to join her in staring up at the stars, all without saying a word. As usual when in his presence, Miiko felt something inside her relax.

For a time the two simply lay there, until de Oro began to speak: "There the wicked cease from turmoil, and there the weary are at rest. Captives also enjoy their ease; they no longer hear the slave driver's shout. The small and the great are there, and the slaves are freed from their owners. Why is light given to those in misery, and life to the bitter of soul, to those who long for death that does not come, who search for it more than for hidden treasure, who are filled with gladness and rejoice when they reach the grave?"

The words were like no poem Miiko had ever heard, certainly nothing like the ever-popular haikus, but they'd been spoken with a cadence that seemed to add weight, that sank the words deep into her soul — to her shock, the American crusader actually understood.

She turned her head toward de Oro, to find him already watching her. She said, "That wasn't any style that a Japanese would use, but it felt like poetry."

"It is," he replied. "It's from the longest poem in the Bible. It was spoken by Job, a man that knew something of pain and loss. It didn't help that his wife advised him to curse God and die, and that his three friends showed up to tell him how it all must somehow be his fault, punishment for some great sin he'd committed. Most of his part of the poem boils down to insistence on his innocence, that he didn't deserve what had happened to him, and a demand that God put him on trial to prove it."

Miiko looked back up into the night sky. "You've seen the responses online to Kuroki-san's posting of my life story, then," she quietly said. "Everyone expects me to kill myself — complete strangers, school friends, even my mother when he interviewed her. But you don't want me to, do you? Did you give the order to keep me away from knives?"

"Of course I don't want you to kill yourself. I'm a Christian, Miiko — we have our own ugly cultural quirks, but making a fetish out of using our own blood to cleanse our honor isn't one of them. But more than that, if you kill yourself the motherless bastard that owned you wins."

"What?" Miiko bolted upright to stare down at the man that had led the assault that had rescued her. "How does he win? He's dead!"

"Doesn't matter." De Oro gazed up at her for a long moment, then sighed. "Miiko, your master was an example of the worst humanity has to offer, worse even than sadists. He didn't just want to hurt you, he wanted to destroy you — to make you a weak, broken, self-destructive, self-hating testament to his power over others. Don't give him the victory by proving he'd succeeded."

"But ... you've seen my scars, even if I could afford it no amount of plastic surgery could get rid of them all. And the teeth marks — I'll have to dress like a nun to keep people from staring, knowing who I am. And I'll never be able to go to the beach or use a bathhouse again!"

"No, do go to the beach and bathhouse — the ones that divide the sexes, anyway. I am a Christian." Miiko surprised herself by giggling, and saw de Oro's lips twitch at the sound before he continued. "One of the worst aspects of slavery is how easy it makes it for people like your master to prey on the helpless, how it hands them their victims. Miiko, you were in that hellhole for years, and no one was legally obligated to check on you because your master's payments were on time and in full. So don't kill yourself, do go out in public. Make yourself a living indictment of your empire's flaws, and if anyone gets in your face about it spit in his eye!"

Miiko thought of the future he was asking of her — the sidelong glances, the whispers, the silences, the way people would shift away from her on trains, even confrontations. She whispered, "I'm not that strong."

"Not yet. But you can be eventually, if you want it enough. You can be whole again."

Miiko stared at him, wide-eyed, and shook as tears began to roll down her cheeks. He spread his arms wide in silent invitation at the sight, and she threw herself into the embrace of the only person in the world that made her feel safe and sobbed out the pain of her years-long living nightmare.


The chapter title comes from the song of the same name by the Wailin' Jennys (you can find it on Youtube):

The wind howls 'cross the ice floes
Send the frozen snow skimming
A river on a river hardened over
It doesn't know the way it's going
Is it north or south or westward
It just glides across the shoreline 'til it's over

You came for me in fast forward
On a claim for something ordered
A way through and past the history that held you
I'd tell my own story through you
Tell it loud to never lose you
A moth caught by the flame it cannot measure
And there we go again, wishing something bolder
Trying to push and pull inside this moment
Trying to mold this life within our hands

This is where the whole world keeps on turning
This is where we come undone ... undone

Will they measure me by branches
Count the rings and take my ashes
Mark the ground where I fell and carry on
Or will we fight against the silence
Fill our days with noise and violence
Not recognize our hearts when we are done

There we'll go again wishing something bolder
Trying to push and pull inside this moment
Trying to mold this life within our hands

This is where the whole world keeps on turning
This is where we come undone

We don't know where it's going
Is it north or south or westward
It just glides across the shoreline 'til it's over ... 'til it's over