Epilogue I: The Wheel Turns
A Ranma ½ story
by D.B. Sommer
Disclaimer: Ranma ½ and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video.
All comments and criticisms appreciated. You can contact me at email@example.com
What happened last chapter: Ranma made his choice. Now others have to live with it as well.
The journey was over.
Akane had at last returned to where it had all began. She stared at her home through the window of the taxi. There seemed to be little point in delaying the inevitable, so she opened the door. For a brief second the difference between the bright daylight and the darkened interior of the vehicle temporarily blinded her. That temporary blindness passed just as quickly as it had appeared as her eyes focused once more upon her home. Her reaction was instantaneous as she noticed the difference between what had been there before China, and what stood before her now.
Once it had been a warm place, full of love and hope, not that she had ever truly thought of it in such glowing terms at the time. No, before she had taken its warm protective confines for granted, like most people did. It had been her shield that had protected her from harm. Not only the physical, but from the emotional too. That was why she had rarely slept over at otherís houses growing up, despite many offers from close friends. She never felt as secure under a strangerís roof as she had under her own.
It was where she had lived, where she had grown up, where she had loved. Now none of those feelings were present. It felt just like it looked: a building constructed of wood and plaster. Brick and mortar. Steel and Iron. Just a place with no real emotional value whatsoever. A sanctuary no longer.
Now her home was just another place.
Once, not so long ago, it had been the place where childhood dreams and fantasies had lived and died. All of them, really. Growing up, she had wanted to be a princess, a pirate, a dancer, an idol singer, a martial artist. All of them came and went with the changing of a mood, save the last one, due in no small part to her fatherís gentle encouragement.
She developed her first crush there. The object of her affection was not Dr. Tofu, although that fact had been a closely guarded secret too, but little Jiro Nagoya, who had lived across the street. Of course the two of them had only been around eight at the time, but it had still been an unspoken thing. Jiro had never known, and just when she thought she might have worked up the courage to say something, he moved away, the rat. Her affections then turned to someone safer, who wouldnít disappear on her: dear Dr. Tofu. Jiro was forgotten in time. Time healed wounds.
Not really. The way she felt now told her otherwise. It was too bad the same forgetfulness that had claimed Jiro would not take Ranma as well. Memories of him would never be forgotten. Ever. What she had felt for him was no crush, but the real thing, true love, even if she hadnít been able to admit it to herself until the end, when it was too late.
Again a thousand recriminations leaped forth. ĎIf only I had been cuter or not been so hostile to him or been a better martial artist or had been more understanding or this or that or any one of another million things then Ranma would have been mine.í That was what her mind tried to tell her, but she had doubts about that. Maybe there was something she could have done, some words spoken or feelings openly expressed that would have made the difference, but she didnít really believe it. She had done everything that felt right at the time, and even hindsight couldnít tell her where she might have gone wrong. Not that it mattered. He hadnít chosen her anyway, and the world was not made of what ifs.
"It looks wonderful, Soun."
Akane found the sorrow that threatened to drown her momentarily distracted by the cheery voice. Silk had been a surprisingly pleasant companion. Akane had wanted to hate her with all of her heart. After all, the woman was a damned Amazon. However, shortly after the long journey back across the world on that wreck of a wandering ship, whatever stereotypes that she had tried to place Silk into didnít fit. The horrible truth was that Silk was a nice person who always seemed to have the right word to say at the right time. Akane found herself quite unwillingly warming up to the woman. It was only a matter of time before Akane took a step back and accepted the fact that all Amazons were not to blame for the behavior of one. Her attitude was not one that led towards vindictiveness, not without good reason anyway, and she forced herself to change her feelings towards that land of women now so far away.
Besides, Silk made Soun happy. The smile her father almost perpetually wore now was one that Akane had seen too infrequently over the years. Knowing what it was like to be denied a love so desperately wanted, who was she to try to make her father suffer from the same feeling by trying to push Silk away? No. The Amazon met with her approval, and she was certain to let her father know that.
How odd it was that the curious exchange had taken place: Silk for Kasumi. One mother figure for another. It was some sort of cosmic symmetry, Akane supposed, but her sisterís absence still bothered her far more than she openly admitted. Kasumi had been there forever, and to have her leave as well seemed too great a burden to bear. But she forced herself to strengthen her resolve, and wished Kasumi safe journey on her little vacation to China. Of course she was going to come back, but despite what Kasumi had said about her absence only being for a little while, it felt to Akane as though she was leaving for good. Even if that did turn out to be the case, then so be it. If she could let go of Ranma, she could also let go of her oldest sister. It wasnít like Kasumi could stay at home forever. She had a long overdue life of her own to live, and sometimes Akane wondered if she hadnít been inadvertently responsible for the delay in some way.
Once Akane thought about the impact Kasumiís absence was going to have, it occurred to her how much she and her family had taken the eldest Tendo girl for granted. Had Akane ever truly explained to her oldest sister just how much she appreciated all she had done for her? It didnít feel that way, and Akane vowed sheíd let Kasumi know face to face the next time they saw one another. Not expressing what she felt had screwed up her life once, and she was damned if sheíd make the same mistake twice.
So many changes.
Too many changes.
Why couldnít some things remain the same?
Akane noticed Silk observing her out of the corner of her eye. Akane had not said much about her feelings concerning the whole sordid affair with Ranma, but she still had the feeling that the Amazon knew exactly what she had been going through. Silk didnít use words, but expressions, and never anything overt, just subtle gestures and glances. What few words Akane had afforded to Silk over everything that had happened had a surprising effect on her fatherís love. Silk agreed wholeheartedly that what Shampoo had done was wrong, and the way she said it left no doubt she was being sincere. To Silk, it had been highly morally objectionable for Shampoo to abuse the Tendosí hospitality and steal Ranma away from the family, forcing him to break the pact between the clans. Akane was fairly certain that the next time Silk and Shampoo crossed paths, someone was going to get a tongue lashing, and it would serve Shampoo right too.
Akane felt the rage against Shampoo build and hurriedly quelled those feelings, using the advice Tarou had given her. Keep the anger under control until you could do something about the cause of it, then you unleash your fury. The anger would not serve Akane now. Shampoo wasnít coming back, not in the near future and maybe not ever. The latter would sit with Akane just fine. She had more important things to do than dwell upon someone she despised, like getting on with her life.
Subconsciously, she played with the dragonscale bracer on her right arm. There were funeral arrangements that still had to be made. Of all the people that knew who Tarou was, she was the only one that had come close to understanding him. It was her responsibility to see that his name was remembered with honor. She had been unable to give him the love he had wanted, but she could treat everything about him with respect. And woe to anyone that tried to besmirch that name, for Akane would not tolerate such ramblings for even a moment. Tarou had not had many friends and had somehow accumulated many enemies, but she would be damned if she would not defend the honor of one who had given her everything and received so little in return. It was the sort of thing Tarou would have approved of.
Akane was still mentally sorting out what steps she would have to take for the funeral arrangements when the trio entered the house. Soun called out Nabikiís name, but received no answer in return. Akane simply assumed her sister was out and headed for the living room. Turning the corner, she saw that Nabiki had not left the house at all.
She was draped awkwardly on her back over the table. Her limbs were splayed out wildly as her head hung over the side, while her eyes were wide open, simply staring off into space. But the worst part was the thing on her chest. Birdy was sitting on it, looking contentedly, as if he had somehow brought down Nabiki as though she were a giant rat. Akane looked on in horror, until she noticed that Nabikiís chest was still moving and her eyes blinked.
Akane sighed. The way Nabiki played games with Birdy was really weird. Sometimes she wondered if the pterodactyl didnít torment her older sister in some way, but that was absurd; it was a dumb animal and Nabiki was one of the smartest people Akane knew. It was all just some weird mind game she was playing with all of them. It was just like her.
Nabiki blinked again and slowly raised herself up, Birdy moving from his now uncomfortable perch. Once Akane got a good look at her, she saw that Nabikiís hair was completely askew and her clothing had many tiny rips all over it. It looked like she had been through a blender.
Nabikiís glazed eyes slowly took in the people before her, then focused on them. With a cry she rushed over to her father and hid behind him.
"Make it go away! Make it stop!" Nabiki cried out. "Itís been torturing me since you left! I didnít feed him the first day everyone was gone, so he took his revenge! First, I discovered someone got on my computer and transferred most of my bank funds as an anonymous donation to a charity. Then my diary somehow fell into the hands of people that didnít like me. I keep finding dead rats in all of my belongings. And I kept sensing someone watching me. Late at night Iíd hear a voice whispering it was going to do terrible things to me. I know it was him, even if every time I checked he was still in his cage. I tried apologizing to him, but he wouldnít listen. And then you saw what he did to there. I canít take it anymore. Whereís Kasumi?! She has to make him stop tormenting me!"
Akane sighed. Her sister had snapped. That was all there was to it. She had no idea that Nabiki had been so close to the brink. Really, Akane had thought her sibling was the one with her head screwed on the tightest. Maybe with no one else around she had some sort of delayed phobic reaction to being alone. Akane always thought Nabiki hadnít shown enough emotion after their mother died. Perhaps that was what helped cause the breakdown.
"Nabiki," Akane cooed as she placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "Birdy is just an animal. He couldnít do any of those things. Iím sure it was all a really big coincidence. Now all of us are going to be here from now on, so you donít have any reason to be afraid any longer. All right?"
Nabiki seemed to calm down a little. "Whereís Kasumi? Why isnít she here?"
"She decided to stay with the Amazons for a few months. Iíll let Dad fill you in on what happened while we were gone." Akane found the next part difficult to say, but she knew she would have to get used to saying it out loud. There were others that were going to want explanations as well. "A lot of things have changed. Ranma isnít coming back."
Birdy suddenly flew out of the room and straight out the door, never stopping once or looking back. By the time Akane realized what had happened, it was too late to do anything about it. She cursed herself at Birdyís escape. Maybe the tiny pterodactyl would come back on its own, but if it didnít, Kasumi would be heartbroken over her petís departure. Still, there was nothing Akane could do, other than maybe leaving pieces of raw meat out for him in the hopes he would return. She headed for her room as Nabiki whooped for joy at the pterodactylís departure; the middle Tendo was really taking the joke too far, Akane thought.
She made her way upstairs and to her room. After Nabikiís festive reaction, everything quieted down. Genma would come by for his and Ranmaís things eventually, then there would no longer be anything that belonged to Ranma in the house. Not his clothes. Not his backpack.
Not his fiancťe.
She let forth a deluge of quiet tears as it hit home. She wasnít his fiancťe anymore. She was… nothing to him. Absolutely nothing.
The tears went on through the night.
The weeks passed, the days seeming to last forever. Such a ridiculous notion, that time somehow went faster or slower. It was all in the way one perceived it. It was inexorable. You couldnít make time. You couldnít kill time. It just came and went. One second passing to the next. Never pausing, never stopping, never skipping. One. Two. Three. Four. Infinity.
It was time to get up. It was a task to rise each morning. There just didnít seem to be any point to it any longer. What was there for her once she rose out of bed and confronted the world? Oh, certainly everyone tried to help her out. Her friends had attempted for weeks to get her to loosen up and try to have fun again. It didnít work. She had tried to, but all she ended up doing was going through the motions, as though she were some kind of automaton programmed to act just like a normal young woman whose heart wasnít shattered into a million tiny pieces. The others saw through it immediately, and tried to console her with words that could never really change anything. It was nice that they tried, but everything they attempted was still woefully inadequate. Now her friends werenít trying as often to drag her out with them. It was appropriate. Why should she ruin their time by refusing to allow them to help?
School hadnít turned out quite as badly as she had thought it would. There had been very little loss of actual face because her fiancť had dumped her, not that she cared less about what others thought of her any longer. How ironic that she had Shampoo to Ďthankí for that dubious pleasure, or at least her cursed form. No, most of her peers were quite understanding about what had happened.
After all, everyone knew that she and ĎRanmaí hadnít gotten along. After the first couple of months he never expressed concern over Akane. Actually, the two had held nothing but open disdain for one another. Why, he had even dated that terrible (at least to the female population) Chinese tramp, the fiery-haired ĎShampooí. It was no surprise that he broke off the engagement with Akane. Why would they want to make each other totally miserable for the rest of their lives? Ranma had done all but take on a mistress before he was even married (which was met with open approval by most of the male population of Furinkan, at least when no women were within earshot) so no one blamed Akane for letting him go. Everyone agreed it was better that way, although there was a rumor that ĎRanmaí would now be engaged to one of the other Tendo sisters, probably Nabiki, since Kasumi had disappeared. (Rumor had it she was being held captive by a bunch of Amazons. What a silly story.)
Akane thought the saddest thing about the engagement rumor was that it was the truth. Both of the idiot fathers were still operating under the delusion Ranma could marry Nabiki or Kasumi —once he returned to his senses, that was. The whole thing was pathetic, but Akane was forced to admit sometimes the two men were exactly that.
And when it came to the aborted wedding, well, the few people that were in the know as to whom it was going to be didnít say much. Akane had asked them to keep their mouths shut about it before the ceremony had begun, and when a few mentioned that she had almost been married to Ranma, most assumed it was Shampoo-kun instead of ĎShampooísí brother. At least the confusion over the two Ranmas and Shampoos was now over and done with. One tiny silver lining that didnít make a bit of difference to her.
Akane still thought of Ranma. Not an hour went by when he didnít enter her thoughts. Actually, it seemed not even ten minutes would go by when he wasnít there in some way. Sheíd remember the way he laughed, or would say something insensitive or insulting to her. She missed that arrogance, that tremendous ego that made her want to stuff him in a garbage can sometimes. She missed those moments when he was thoughtful towards her, trying to help cheer her up when she was down, not that he would ever admit that was what he was doing. There were far more of those times than she had originally believed, now that she had thought about it. Whenever she passed the room he had stayed in, her eyes remained fixed on that door, hoping that somehow it would open and he would be there, smiling at her, telling her how things were going to be since he had changed his mind and returned for her, coming to his senses at last.
But he was never there and never would be. Daydreams were Ukyouís thing, not hers. She would always scold herself, overcoming the ache in her heart, and move on, trying hard not to look back. And sometimes she even succeeded.
Akaneís thoughts went to Minami, who was supposed to drop by later in the day. The ghost sweeper was one of the few people that seemed unperturbed by Akaneís depression. Sometimes they would eat lunch together while Minami complained about how Gosunkugi and Sayuri were now an item. The one time Akane mentioned how she had lost someone close to her too, Minami gave her an icy glare and coldly proclaimed she had never thought about Gosunkugi like that, and if Akane ever implied anything like that again Minami would be using her in the next magical experimentation of trying to bond a demon to a personís spirit. Akane let the subject drop after that.
Minami was going to come by so she could go through Happosaiís belongings. She had sensed some powerful magic emanating from some of them, and regarded them as dangerous until they were properly catalogued. Akane had already moved Happosaiís things out of the room he had left them in. Once Minami grabbed the magic items, Akane would arrange to have most of the rest of the old masterís belongings taken care of.
Thinking of Happosai reminded her of the other loss from Mount Phoenix. Her mind went back to the day they held the funeral service for Tarou. There had been so few people there, just her and the members of her family. And it had been so emotionally draining on her. It was raining on the day they had his Ďburialí, not that there had been anything left to bury, his body had been destroyed with Mount Phoenix, but a symbolic one could be held for him in view of the lack of remains. During the service she had managed to keep her open emotions to simple tears. One thing Tarou had always been was full of pride; it wouldnít do to break down at his funeral. So she just stood there while they lowered an empty urn into the earth.
Amazingly, Nabiki showed an incredible amount of emotion at the funeral too. Akaneís sister had cried long and hard when she first heard that Tarou died. That had been a complete surprise to Akane, she had been certain her older sister intensely disliked Tarou, yet Nabiki had behaved as though his death was the most heartbreaking thing that had ever happened to her. It had to have been his sacrifice. Nabiki must have forgiven him because he had saved Akaneís life. It was one of the few times Akane could truly say she was proud of Nabikiís behavior.
Tarou was another debt Akane would never be able to repay. Sometimes she forgot there had been other people who had lost more than her at the mountain as well. Although, given the circumstances, it was probably forgivable. She had never dealt with loss all that well, even before Ranma. She sometimes cried over Tarouís death as well, though she was ashamed to admit she cried harder for the loss of her fiancť.
She cast off the memories and made her way downstairs. Upon arriving at the bottom of the steps, she heard the loud, boisterous tones of a man bellowing some kind of challenge. She rushed towards the dojo and saw a huge, heavily muscled young man in a black gi yelling something at her father. Now that she was in the room, she could clearly hear what the man was saying.
"I, the great and powerful Myoshi Tanaka, am here to challenge the so-called great Ranma Saotome! How dare he not wait here for me to appear! What kind of a martial artist leaves his school when itís about to be challenged?!" the giant bellowed.
"No one knew you were coming," Soun explained.
"I sent my challenge letter two months ago!"
"Oh, that explains it, we were out of town during that time," Soun explained. "Well, you see, Ranma is no longer a part of the Tendo Dojo at the moment. Heís—"
"If youíre looking for someone to fight, fight me!" Akane said as she moved in front of the man and dropped into a fighting stance. If it wasnít bad enough the man was a boisterous buffoon, he had to assume that the dojo was Ranmaís. Even if Ranma had stuck around, it was going to be shared between the two of them. Just because he had been better was no excuse for everyone to ignore her. Especially now since it was solely hers.
Myoshi looked her over. "A mere slip of a girl like you, challenge me? HAHAHAHAOUCH!!!"
Myoshi started jumping up and down on one leg, the other currently in a great amount of pain from the kick that she had laid into his shin.
"Never insult a martial artist in her own dojo. Any real fighter would know better than that." Akane resumed a fighting stance, allowing Myoshi time to recover.
He looked her over more carefully, reassessing her as a threat. He too took up an aggressive fighting posture. "Very well. You want it. You got it."
The two began their duel.
After twenty minutes, Akane was barely able to stand. She had managed to hold her own in the beginning, but ever so slowly Myoshi gained the upper hand. He wasnít nearly as good as Ranma, but her current opponent was just slightly better than her. And up to that moment he hadnít made a mistake in the entire fight. His caution had paid off as Akaneís defenses began to break down at his hands. She had tried everything she could think of, but the man was just too good for her.
Myoshi realized that as well. He interrupted his attack for a moment to carefully look Akane over. "You know something, youíre pretty good looking. After Iím done beating you up, I just might take you on a date."
As the last word left his mouth his fate was sealed. Akane glowered at him with an intensity that made her nearby father and Nabiki back away in fear. She was like a blur as she lunged forward, her entire arm encased in a blue glow. Her speed was so great that all the Ďgreat and powerfulí Myoshi Tanaka had the time to do was gawk as a fist connected squarely with his jaw, sending him like a missile through the wall of the dojo, through one of the trees in the backyard, through the brick wall of a neighborís house, and at last stopping when he struck a cast iron stove in the second house in his flight path.
"Umm, Akane. I think you hit him too hard," Nabiki said as she examined the hole in the wall and began calculating how much it would cost to repair it.
"He had it coming! I am not some prize to be won, and Iím not going to take being treated like an object by every jerk that knows how to throw a roundhouse kick and thinks he can beat me. I went through that nonsense once at the start of last year. Well, never again!"
Akaneís glow vanished, but in spite of her exhaustion, she felt good. Real good. Not at defeating Myoshi, although there was more than a little satisfaction in wiping the arrogant smile off of him. It was that, for the first time since her return from China, she felt in control of her life. That was a feeling she was not going to let go of. Fighting for her dojo gave her a purpose in life, and if that was what it took to snap her out of her depression, then that was what she was going to do. Let perverts and challengers beware. Ranma Saotome may not have been around to answer the call to battle, but Akane Tendo would be more than ready to prove her worth.
And the weeks turned into months:
Akane lay on her bed, crying the hardest she had since that first horrible month of her return. It was all so stupid. She should have already been asleep, dreaming dreams she never remembered. There was not a single one she could recall upon awakening since Ranma had refused her. That wasnít to say she didnít dream, she knew she did. During the first two weeks she had come back she had awakened every single night in mortal terror, no doubt over some nightmare with Ranma in it. But as time passed those dreams that were more like nightmares became less and less. Soon she stopped her nocturnal awakenings altogether, but she knew that dreams were still there. Sometimes she could only recall vague impressions, but they were real. She still dreamed, even if she could not remember.
But it seemed there would be no dreams this night. No sleep to have them with. No. She knew she would see the morning dawn without ever closing her eyes. It was such a stupid reason too. It meant she was getting better. Her life was starting to finally begin anew. She had old friends and new. She had improved a great deal in her martial arts, so she had every reason in the world to be happy. And still she wasnít.
It had all come down to one thing. Just one simple thing. She hadnít even realized it until her eyes fell upon the picture of Ranma that she had sitting next to her bed. It was a simple little thing, taken from the night she had asked him out on a date and they had ended up in the amusement park. One of the barkers shouted out a good price on pictures, and much to Akaneís surprise, Ranma had offered to pay for it. The two of them stood together, and Akane took a chance by looping her arm through Ranmaís. He had looked at her, panicked, then calmed down and smiled at her. Both of them looked up just in time to smile at the camera.
And there the picture sat in its frame. At first, she cradled it and wept. Later, when she was past that stage, she would just stare at it for hours on end. Lately, she just glanced at it and wondered where Ranma was at that moment.
But tonight something else had happened, and she cradled it close to her bosom once again. It was so stupid, she kept telling herself, but still the tears came. Tears of guilt. Of foolish, pointless, meaningless guilt, as though she had something to feel guilty about.
And that guilt came from one thing. For when she sat down next to the picture, it occurred to her that she had not thought about Ranma the entire day. Not a single errant thought of how he would react to a situation or call her some name as she screwed something up. Not once. It was not until that moment, when she laid her eyes upon the photo, that she realized it had happened. And she cried long and hard once more.
She was finally getting over him, and for some reason that made her heartbreak hurt all the more.
A few months turned into many:
Akane felt like crying as she watched plane took off on its flight to China. She looked to her side to see a mirror of her own depression on Nabikiís face. Yesterday had been one of the most emotionally draining days in her life, and it went far beyond her fatherís marriage to Silk.
The marriage itself had been simple enough. Silk hadnít even gone through the formality of forcing him to defeat, or even challenge her, to win her hand. When asked, she just shrugged and said that she had decided she was going to marry him and didnít care about what the others back home thought. She was forty-plus years old, and if she had found a man that was willing to marry her that Ďlate in the gameí she was damned if she would let him go. Anyone that argued with that statement would be given a diatribe that would make a sailor blush. So, a simple ceremony was conducted with the two of them; a traditional Japanese wedding that had gone off without a hitch, although Nabiki had still grumbled about how much it had cost.
Nabiki never had warmed up to Silk, despite the Amazonís best efforts. The best that the two could agree upon was a truce, which was largely thanks to Soun bawling his eyes out about how they didnít get along and how much it hurt him to see step-children and step-mothers argue with one another and not be a big happy family. However, in spite of the promise, the general rule was that the two had as little to do with one another as possible. That was in direct contrast to Akane and Silk, who had begun to get along as an aunt and niece would. There was now a great deal of respect between the two, which helped cheer Akane up.
There had been one other unexpected pleasure about the wedding, the main cause of why Akane felt so depressed now; Kasumi had returned for it, although she only stayed a single day and night. Akane found herself hurt by her sisterís seeming reluctance to stay, but there was unquestionably some sort of urgency on Kasumiís part. When pressed about it, all she would say was that Cologne was suffering from some health problems, and that she absolutely had to go back as soon as possible.
The instant Akane laid eyes on Kasumi for the first time since her return, she could tell there was something different about her sister. There was a sense of seriousness about her, and concern, as though she were worried about something. At first, Akane thought it might be over her long absence, but as time passed it seemed to be something else that was preying at her oldest sisterís thoughts. More than once Akane noticed Kasumi staring outside and off in the distance, worry etched on her brow. And always it was in the same direction: west.
The reason why Kasumi had chosen to extend her trip to Joketsuzoku, since the time she had first decided to remain there after the destruction of Mount Phoenix, eluded Akane. It was true that Kasumi constantly sent messages telling everyone she was all right and asking how things were going at home but as to personal appearances, or even a straight answer about when she would return home for good, somehow those questions always ended up evaded. Although Akane couldnít seem to bring herself to openly accuse Kasumi of doing that. For whatever reason, her oldest sister wanted to stay there, and Akane was willing to accept it. It might even have been Kasumiís way of saying it was time for her to move on, like Nabiki would in less than a year when she headed off to college.
That was what made it all the sadder when the three Tendo sisters sat together and talked the night away. Their father was off on his honeymoon, leaving the place all to themselves. A great portion of it was spent grilling Kasumi as to what she had been up to in the almost year that she had been gone from home, but again, for the most part she just said that she was enjoying herself immensely and that she wanted to stay there just a little while longer (although she did thank them for sending Birdy back, which confused the hell out of Nabiki and Akane). Things were busy in China, as Perfume seemed to be setting up to make a bid for leadership, despite still being a teenager. That she was rapidly gaining converts among the village made things all the more interesting. It was like watching a soap opera, except that it was all real. Kasumi seemed to be amused by that. Otherwise she remained closemouthed about anything she personally did. Even Nabikiís intense questions were evaded with a kind word and a turn of the tables when Kasumi asked back about how her younger sisterís life was progressing.
Then it was Kasumiís turn to grill her sisters on what had happened in her absence. Nabiki had not done anything noteworthy. She had her hands full getting ready for college and reestablishing her Ďnetworkí of people. A much smaller group this time around, made up exclusively of the people she trusted instead of those that were simply useful.
Then the conversation switched back to Akane and how she had been dealing with life. She had been more than happy to open up and informed Kasumi of how school had gotten more interesting in the last year. She also informed her of how much her martial arts had improved thanks to techniques she had learned from Dr. Tofu and handful of other martial artists she had come across. She was now at a level that people would come to the dojo to challenge her rather than the long departed Ranma Saotome. Nabiki did add that occasionally one of the challengers would make the mistake of saying that he had come to challenge Ranma. Those ones always ended up falling even more quickly than the usual opponent. Likewise, Akane would destroy more of the dojo during those matches too, as she tended to simply punch them through a wall and into unconsciousness.
The night ended all too soon and Kasumi caught the morning flight, which Akane watched take off in the air, much to the regret of both herself and her sister. To each of them it seemed Kasumi had all but have left the fold already, and she was just visiting the same way any other child that had departed home would. As much as she tried to let go, Akane was already missing Kasumi terribly once more. It seemed as though everyone was going to abandon her in the end.
And the months turned into a year, and a little more.
"Akane, hurry up!"
Akane rushed down the stairs at the sound of her name being called. Running the risk of being late was becoming a nasty habit, but when Malia and the others suggested the late movie, neither she nor the others could resist. So it wasnít until nearly one A.M. that she had gotten home and even later when she actually managed to fall asleep. Naturally she was paying for it now in having to rush downstairs, greet everyone, then grab a quick breakfast she would eat as she ran to school.
She was almost to the bottom of the steps when the telescoping staff came from just around the corner, aimed at knee level. With an effortless leap she was over the staff and on the floor. She continued with a tuck and roll, hearing rather than seeing the sound of the metal shod staff striking the floor just behind her.
"SILK!!! What do you think youíre doing?!"
Akane knew that was all the surprise training she would receive this morning. It was unfortunate. Not only was Silk teaching some new moves with her Amazon arts, but Akaneís warning senses were now becoming more acute thanks to the sneak attacks that Silk made upon her every morning and afternoon. Although lately they had been few and far between, but the answer for that was simple enough.
Akane watched as Silk gave Soun a cross look combined with an exasperated sigh. "I am not made of glass, thank you very much."
"Buh… buh… but our baby!"
Silkís hand found its way to the small bulge in her abdomen. "Iím only four months pregnant. I still have at least one more before Iíll become an invalid." The last comment was added dryly.
"We shouldnít take any chances. Our child…" Soun could contain himself no longer as he burst into tears.
"All right, Soun. Iíll stop." Silk took note that his crying outbursts were becoming increasingly worse as time passed. Funny how before she had told him the good news, he hadnít cried for months. "No more morning workouts," she continued to reassure him. "Iíll get fat, dumpy, and not do anything."
"Thank goodness." And with that his tears dried up. He was so relieved that he failed to notice the icy glare she shot him for that agreeing to that comment.
Akane found herself smiling at the situation. Her father really was a lot happier now, despite the fact he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown when it came to his new wife and child. When Akane first heard the news, she found herself quite pleased that she was about to get another new sister, even if there was going to be over seventeen years of age difference between the two. The other nice thing was that the baby would certainly keep her father busy when the rest of the Tendo girls moved out. A time that was approaching all too quickly.
"Would you hurry up, Akane?"
Akane focused back on the matter at hand as she rushed into the kitchen, grabbing a couple pieces of toast with some sort of spread on them.
"Quit stalling. Weíre going to be late. Nabiki left already, you know."
"No one asked you to wait for me, Natsume," Akane replied as she watched her newly adopted sister grab a piece of toast as well and join her on their way out the door.
"Whereís Kurumi?" Akane asked as she realized the other half of her new pair of siblings was still absent.
"She was just starting to come around when I rushed downstairs," Natsume explained through the piece of toast in her mouth. "Itís not like sheíll be late."
That was the truth. Kurumi was never late for anything. No matter how delayed a start she got, somehow she always managed to make it to her destination before anyone else. Sheíd have the time to stuff her face with the remaining food on the table and still make it to Furinkan before either Akane or Natsume.
The discovery of the new, ĎTendo Sistersí was another bright point in Akaneís life, one of the few in the Ďpost Ranmaí world. The Gambler King had come by with them in another attempt to win the dojo from Akane. The confusion that came about from the accusations that they were Soun Tendoís children, and the subsequent freeing of them from the Gambler King by the combined muscle and savvy of Akane, Nabiki, Silk, and one other, had released the girls from their forced servitude to the walking poker deck. Even after medical tests proved that they could not biologically be Sounís children, all of the Tendos agreed that the two girls, whose lives had been spent with so little to call their own, should have a roof over their heads and a family to love them. The time Akane had spent in talking with them made her initial judgment —that they were nothing but two con artists trying to steal the dojo— seem terribly shameful. They never did learn who it was that had taught them their techniques and claimed Soun was their father, though.
Now that the two newcomers had settled in peacefully, Akane found herself getting along well with both of them, although there was a stronger closeness to Natsume. The older of the sisters was nowhere near as open in displaying her emotions as Kurumi was, but when she at last opened up, Akane found herself drawn to the girl as a kindred spirit, and Kurumi felt the same. Now the two of them were practically inseparable. That closeness sometimes sparked jealousy between Kurumi and the other two, but of late all three had begun to settle into their new relationships.
As the pair made their way towards Furinkan, Natsume caught Akane examining something in her hands. "Thatís not that worthless thing you bought off of that weird Chinese girl with the elephant, is it?"
"Yeah, it is," Akane said as she continued playing around with it, trying to figure out what possible use half of a scroll (that couldnít even be unfolded) could have.
"I donít see why you paid her so much money for it. Not that Iím becoming Nabiki or anything, mind you, but it just seems like it was a waste of money."
Akane placed the half scroll in her school bag. "Look, Happosai may have been a panty-stealing pervert that caused more stress in everyoneís life than any natural disaster, but he was the founder of our school, and he did give his life for all of us. I figure the least we can do in memory of him is to pay off his old debts. Itís the right thing to do."
Natsume nodded in agreement. From the description everyone gave of him, there wasnít one redeeming quality in the little man everyone called Happosai, yet Akane was willing to go out of her way to help right some of the wrongs he had done, and which she had no real responsibility for. Akane still managed to surprise her new sister, even though they had known each other for almost a month. Truly amazing. Natsume realized that she still had a lot to learn about her new family.
Silence reigned between the two until they were almost halfway to school. That was when a voice caught their attention.
"If it isnít the lovely Akane Tendo. And here I feared our paths wouldnít cross today."
Akane gritted her teeth while Natsume growled in his direction. "Great. Canít a day go by without having to put up with him?"
"Be nice," Akane said softly enough that she wouldnít be heard by the boy. "If it wasnít for Kinnosuke and Nabiki, you and Kurumi would still be under the thumb of the Gambler King." That was the honest truth. Only the combined abilities of the duo had managed to outwit the King and his rigged games of chance.
Things had gone well enough afterward, save that Kinnosuke decided to stay around Nerima since it appeared so interesting. How unfortunate one of the things he had found Ďinterestingí was Akane herself.
"Well, well, well. If it isnít everyoneís favorite Martial Arts Deadbeat. How are you, Kinnosuke?"
"Charmed and charming, as always."
Akane resisted the urge to punch him out. He might have been an arrogant silver-tongued flatterer that was as shifty as a fox, but he had more than enough sense to keep his hands to himself when he hit on Akane. ĎDeadbeatí martial arts, as Akane liked to call the Kash-oo School of which Kinnosuke was a member of, involved evading paying what you owed and sponging off of others, not having to defend yourself against attacks that didnít involve large sums of money being thrown at you.
"Oh, look, Kinnosuke. Thereís a five yen piece over there." Natsume pointed to the middle of a busy intersection. "Why donít you run over there and get it?"
"No need to be jealous, Natsume Tendo. Itís not your fault your beauty pales in comparison next to your sisterís." Kinnosuke delivered the line with just the right amount of false sincerity to set Natsumeís teeth on edge.
"Hey, if it isnít my favorite playmate. Want to go out on a date?"
Akane had to smile as she saw Kinnosuke flinch slightly at that line. Nabiki had managed to silently approach from behind the boy and waited until she was almost directly behind him before speaking.
Right after the Gambler King incident, Nabiki and Kinnosuke had decided to go out on a date, the first one to spend ten yen having to pay for it all. It had been close, but Nabiki had tricked him and won, earning Kinnosukeís respect. But what appeared to be a match made in Heaven to Akaneís eyes quickly fell into something more akin to a rivalry, with Nabiki coming out on top each time. Kinnosuke seemed to lose interest in dating Nabiki when she proved she was better, and somehow switched targets to another girl: Akane, much to her eternal regret. Romance was something she did not want in general. Romance with someone as shifty as Kinnosuke she wanted not at all.
"Ah, I fear I would be outclassed once more, Nabiki Tendo," he said smoothly as he bowed to kiss the back of her hand. "But Iím afraid I must break your heart and refuse." He turned to go, giving Akane one last farewell, before heading out of sight.
"Thanks for the save," Akane said to Nabiki.
"No thanks necessary," Nabiki responded as she stared in the direction Kinnosuke had left in. "Iím still a bit miffed that he gave up on me so easily."
"You mean you actually liked him?" Natsume asked in disbelief.
Nabiki shook her head. "It was more like a matter of respect. Besides, he was kind of fun to hang around with. A lot more interesting than some of the guys that go to our school, even the new ones. At least Iíll be graduating soon."
A blur in a school outfit joined the other girlsí sides. Once it stopped its motion, everyone could focus on the new arrival.
"Iím glad I managed to catch up to you guys," Kurumi said as she nearly inhaled a muffin, that she had brought from home, into her mouth.
"If you got up earlier, you wouldnít always have to hurry," Natsume said reproachfully.
"Well, I hate dragging my feet waiting for you guys. Itís not my fault everyoneís so slow." Kurumi held up a single finger. "I almost forgot, they said a really powerful, localized snowstorm is going to come through here soon."
"It snowed last week," Nabiki growled. "Then it hit one hundred degrees two days ago. Now theyíre calling for snow tomorrow. I hate this!"
"Umm, actually itís not for tomorrow," Kurumi said softly.
"Whenís it supposed to arrive then?"
"Oh, in about four seconds." Kurumi pointed at the wall of white that had seemed to move up from behind the girls.
Three minutes later, after the Ďstormí had passed, four heads popped out of the five feet of snow they had been buried in.
"THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT, RANMA!!!" Akane bellowed.
Halfway around the world, someone sneezed.
"Funny, isnít it? I mean, I know the weather all over the world is messed up, but itís a lot worse here than anywhere else," Kurumi said.
"Sister, dear," Nabiki replied dryly. "Nerima has always had the most bizarre weather on the planet. Now it is simply official."
"Well, that was eventful," Natsume said as the quartet managed to get out of the area where the snowstorm had passed, and stood in front of the walls surrounding the school.
"It looks like the blizzard didnít hit here," Akane pointed out as she looked the school over and saw that there wasnít a bit of snow on the ground.
Kurumi sighed as she gazed wistfully at Furinkan. "You know, I never get tired of this sight. I love school. Since youíve accepted Natsume and me into your family, itís become a symbol of how normal our lives have become."
"Iím going to pretend you didnít say that part about how Ďnormalí everything is," Nabiki said.
A high-pitched whistling noise caught the attention of all but Kurumi. The other three girls began looking around for the source.
"Itís a wonderful place," Kurumi said as she continued staring at the school, "where you can accumulate knowledge…"
The trio continued searching.
"…participate in school activities…"
Three sets of eyes turned skyward as they identified the location of the increasingly loud whistle.
"…meet lots of new people…"
"Here comes one of those Ďnew peopleí now! Move it, Kurumi! Unless you want to become real intimate with her!" Natsume shouted as both she and her two new sisters ran as far as they could from Ďground zero.í
Kurumi looked upward just in time to see a cyan-haired missile head directly towards her from above. There was only one point three seconds for her to react before the humanoid projectile would strike the ground, and subsequently her.
Akane saw that Kurumi had raced ten yards past her by the time the object impacted with the street. All of the girls were outside of the blast radius, and once they realized they were safe, (and scanned the skies to ensure that there were no other people falling towards them), they approached the dust cloud that had been kicked up from the impact. When the dust settled, they could clearly see that the missile was indeed someone they were all quite familiar with.
The girl barely managed to raise her head up as she said, "No… fair… double… team…" and with that last utterance her head hit the ground, unconscious.
Nabiki whipped out a notebook and scrolled down the contents of one of the pages. "YES!!!" She jumped up and down in joy. "Only two people bet on Ryoko being the first one knocked out this morning! That means Iíll really clean up today!"
Natsume walked over to Ryokoís unconscious form and nudged it with her foot until she was rewarded with a groan from the fallen girl. "Sheís still alive. Letís get going."
"Youíre right. I have to see who falls next." Nabiki hurried into the schoolyard, followed closely by the other three girls.
"Oni slut! Stay away from Lord Tenchi!"
"Juraian bitch! Donít go near Darling!"
Akane covered her eyes as Juraian energies met supercharged Oni electricity in a display that lit up the sky. She shook her head sadly at the display and thought about how much things had changed in the last year. It was sort of odd. So much of the chaos that had entered her life of late had been due to Ranmaís, and to a lesser degree Shampooís, presence. Once they departed from her life, she had assumed things would go back to being normal, but they hadnít. If anything, it had gotten worse, perhaps not so much on a personal level, but rather all around her. In hindsight, she felt that she shouldnít have been so surprised. Life in Nerima had never been truly Ďnormalí, certainly not in all the time that she could remember. Kunou had always been Kunou; the teaching staff had always been a bit weird. A good portion of the male population wanted to beat her up for a date, for goodnessí sake. Those, among many other things, had been there before Ranma had ever set foot in Nerima. All Ranmaís arrival had done was kick the whole thing into overdrive. And once started, even taking him out of the equation didnít do much to slow the chaos down.
The biggest disruption to peace occurred with the arrival of a new student that had transferred to Furinkan during Akaneís extended trip home. In truth, Tenchi Masaki was not the actual problem, he was a quiet and exemplary student; it was the group of women that had followed him to Nerima that caused the problems. Four girls, all aliens, apparently had some interest or other in him. Ryoko, Ayeka, and Lum all sought to become his girlfriend, coming to blows over it more than half the time. Actually Ryoko and Ayeka started most of the fights, Lum just seemed to get caught up in them, somehow holding her own against her more powerful rivals.
The fourth one was the new head of the science department. Akane had to admit, Lilí (unless weíre in class, then call me Professor) Washuu managed to rival the principal for causing disorders to the dayís events. At least she seemed to enjoy teaching, although Akane wasnít sure if she liked Washuuís description of her as Ďanother young, impressionable mind that can be filled with, and shaped into, whatever I, the greatest scientist in the known universe, choose. HAHAHAHAHA!!!í
At least things had at last started to hit an equilibrium, the point being driven home by the fact that Nabiki had managed to turn the antics of the new arrivals into a moneymaking scheme. And after being matched up with Tenchi in a class project, Akane learned he wasnít the one responsible for stringing the women along, as she had first thought. Actually they had become friends over time. Once he opened up to her, explaining how much it bothered him to have people he liked fighting over him, she felt a deeper understanding of what Ranma might have gone through when she and Shampoo had waged their contest over him. She was still hurt over losing Ranma, but a great deal of the anger she had over him disappeared after learning the truth about Tenchi. And there was no way she was interested in the alien-attracting guy, no matter how nice he seemed. He was not looking for any new romantic interests, and Akane was still avoiding anything resembling romance altogether. A real friendship was all that Akane needed at that point in her life.
Kurumi shook Akane out of her reminiscing as she shouted out. "Oh, wow! Look Akane! Itís a flying ark!" and pointed to the sky.
Akane followed Kurumiís finger. Sure enough, an ark, surrounded by a bright golden nimbus of light, was descending from the heavens. That no one in the entire school seemed particularly startled by the new arrival was another statement to just how much weirdness was now taken for granted at school.
"Itís a flying wooden ship. I take it itís one of yours?" the recently returned Ryoko asked Ayeka.
"No. Iíve never seen its design before. Itís definitely not Juraian."
Nabiki quietly moved some distance from the group.
"I think I see some people on the foredeck," Natsume said as she strained to make out the figures above.
"Geez! Would you look at the goofball with the chopsticks and bowl of rice in his hands," Ryoko said. "From the way heís moving, I think heís getting ready to make a big speech."
As if on cue, Ki Rin began. "I have come seeking she who is destined to be my future bride." He put down his bowl and pulled out half of a scroll. Slowly he began waving it around until it settled upon Akane. "I sense that that woman is the one I seek, and what a fine catch she will be. Ebitan!"
A little man, about the size of Happosai and armed with a fishing pole, bowed before his leader. "One bride coming right up."
He drew back his rod and cast it, the line extending over a hundred feet until it wrapped itself around the target, Akane Tendo, pinning her arms to her sides. With a quick tug of the line, Akane was jerked upward into the sky. Ebitan reeled her in until she was directly above Ki Rin, then released the line, allowing her to fall into his waiting arms.
On the ground, the others collectively winced.
"Ohh. That was a mistake," Lum said as she watched the events unfold above.
"Five," Natsume said as she gazed at the ark.
"Three," Kurumi replied, taking her eyes off of the ark long enough to look at her sister.
Natsume scowled in return. "Four."
"Two." Kurumiís eyes shone with amusement.
"HOW DARE YOU TRY KIDNAPPING ME AND FORCING ME TO MARRY YOU!!!"
Natsume and Kurumi correctly identified the sound of Akaneís fist smashing heavily into her captorís face.
"Okay. You were closer," Natsume reluctantly admitted.
Above, Akane pried her fist out of the very stunned Ki Rinís face and regained her footing.
"Hey! You canít assault Prince Ki Rin like that!"
Akane turned to the diminutive man. "And you. You were the one that snared me." Akane cracked her knuckles.
Instincts of self-preservation roared in Ebitan as he tried to back away. "L… look. I was only following orders."
"No excuses!" Akane snatched the pole out of his hands and punted him off the ark. She was delighted to see that, from his trajectory, he would probably clear at least thirty miles. That was nearly twice as far as her best kick against Happosai. She really had improved her martial arts skills.
The sound of weapons being drawn caught her attention. Three of the remaining five opponents: an attractive woman with a musical instrument, a bearded man with a polearm, and a large… lump of a man, came menacingly towards her. The remaining two, a pair of twins, helped Ki Rin regain his feet.
Akane slowly retreated, trying to get more room to maneuver. Her backward progress was stopped abruptly when she ran into something behind her. She turned to see the offending object was an odd lever that poked out from the deck itself.
"Donít touch that lever!" the bearded man, Bishamonten warned.
"You mean this one?" Akane smirked as she pulled it, and was delighted to see her action rewarded when the forward section of the foredeck, where all of her opponents were, began to rotate. It spun around, hurling all of her would-be kidnappers towards the ground below.
Akaneís smile disappeared as a sudden realization occurred to her. Thinking quickly, she used Ebitenís rod and cast a line towards Ki Rin. Only luck enabled her to snare his arm and prevent him from plummeting towards the ground with the others. With a great deal of difficulty, she was able to reel the man in, dumping him unceremoniously next to her.
Ki Rin regained his feet and stared at his savior in surprise, then smiled. "I had thought you didnít desire to wed me. I see you have changed your mind. Hardly surprising." He smiled smugly and brushed back his cape with as much flare as he could muster.
"Actually, I just wanted to make it very clear to you why you shouldnít go around abducting young women for your perverted schemes." Akane smacked a fist into her open palm for emphasis.
Ki Rin appeared irate. "You possess the other half of the scroll. It is our destiny to be wed."
"Funny thing about Ďdestinyí." Akane took a step towards him. "Sometimes it doesnít quite work out the way you think it would."
"I see you have spirit," Ki Rin proudly stated. "All I need do is tame it. Only then can we become one."
"Oh, youíre about to become one with something all right." Akane began to glow dull blue.
The rest of the much-vaunted ĎSeven Lucky Gods Martial Artistsí crashed into the ground with a loud boom. The heaviest member, Muu, was first, making a huge impact crater as he hit. The others landed on his form, which cushioned their own rather painful landing. Despite that, it was only with a great deal of pain that they were able to regain their footing.
The woman, Mon Lon, looked high above at the ark, and winced when she saw Akane smash Ki Rin into the deck several times. "Our prince is in trouble!" she shouted to the others, hoping to rouse them to battle. Her horror grew when she saw Akane stop driving Ki Rin into the deck, only to rip up large sections of the ship with which to bash him.
"We have to save hió" the rest was cut off as she discovered an energy sword thrust under her nose. She turned to see the wielder was Ryoko wearing her red and black skin-tight battle outfit.
"So, you wanted to kidnap someone, huh?" Ryoko growled menacingly. "That was a big mistake. You see, I was abducted and held captive by someone once, and I donít have a whole lot patience with those kinds of people."
Little wooden boxes surrounded Ayeka as she switched to her Juraian battle garb. "I too was abducted by the same man that took Ryoko, and I too suffered at his hands. My tolerance for kidnappers is not… generous either."
The remaining five martial artists learned what it meant to get on the bad side of the galaxyís most wanted space pirate and a Jurain princess. But, as Mon Lon would state many years later, the pain eventually went away.
"Hey, Akane. Guess what Ki Rin did today," Minami said as Akane sat down in her seat.
Akane felt another headache coming on. Ki Rin refused to take no for an answer. Instead of trying to kidnap Akane once more, he swore that he would one day capture her heart and take her as his bride. He had tried everything he could to woo her. He bought her expensive baubles, flowers, her own flying ark, a whole ton of pickled vegetables and rice, anything he could think of to try to win her over. The gifts ended up producing the opposite effect they were intended to have. She was not the sort of girl that could be bought with shiny trinkets, and that he would imply such a thing did nothing but make her grow increasingly hostile towards him. The only beneficial thing he had done was scare away several other annoying suitors for her hand. And even then it hurt her pride that she was not the one chasing them off. She could take care of herself.
Akane was getting to the point where she thought it might be a good idea to start pummeling him in the hopes he would get the hint, when Minami explained to him that Akane couldnít stand arrogant egomaniacs that forced themselves upon women. Akane had watched as, amazingly enough, he seemed to consider the words and wandered off. It was the first time he had actually listened to someone give him advice.
Now Minami was grinning broadly at some action Ki Rin had taken. That meant trouble. "What did he do now?" Akane forced herself to say.
"I have taken a job at this school so that I may learn what it means to be humble."
Akane nearly fell over as Ki Rin seemingly appeared out of nowhere. She looked him over to see that, sure enough, he was wearing a pair of overalls rather than the usual expensive raiment he usually went about in. "You mean you took a job as a janitor?"
"I prefer the term, Ďwaste management technicianí, if you donít mind." He brushed back a stray lock of hair. "I have even gone so far as to forsake my wealth and shall live on what I make through gainful employment."
Akane looked at him in disbelief. Was he actually telling the truth? He reduced himself to mopping floors and cleaning toilets to try to impress her?
Ki Rin stood up proudly upon a desk and shouted to the world. "I shall be the best waste management technician the world has ever seen! All will acknowledge me is the mightiest in the land! Hahahaha!"
Akane just shook her head. So much for humility.
It was nearing two months since Ki Rin had accepted his new job, when Minami approached Akane during school. The ghost sweeper hadnít said much at the time. All she had asked for was to meet Akane in the dead of night in a deserted park. Nothing out of the ordinary there, assuming she wanted Akane to help her hunt ghosts or something.
Rather than disturb the others, and possibly have to explain her actions, Akane sneaked out to rendezvous with Minami. Halfway there, the rain began to fall in a heavy downpour, soaking her to the bone instantly. It didnít take her long to regret not bringing an umbrella, or going out to meet Minami period. Akane wasted no time as she hurried through the rain, hoping she would arrive at the park at any second so she could get out of the awful downpour.
When she finally reached her destination, she saw that the ghost sweeper was already there. Minami was wearing her shrine maidenís outfit, looking every inch the demon fighter she had become in spite of being soaking wet. There was no reaction from the girl as Akane approached, save for her eyes, which tracked Akaneís movement as she got closer. Once she was near enough, Akane looked past the water-splattered glasses and directly into Minamiís eyes, seeing a seriousness that was almost never present in her friend. A slight unease began to make its presence known
"We need to get out of this rain." Akane felt proud of how steady her voice was in spite of the nervousness she felt.
Minami shook her head. "I think it would be better if we stayed right where we are. Somehow, itís appropriate that what comes next should occur while being drenched with water. Water has played such an important role in your life, after all. It was magic water that brought your one-time fiancť, as well as your chief rival, to you. It was water that triggered their changes. It was water that would have held the cure. Water, water, water, water, water. So important to your life before. So important to your life now. Even after all the time that has passed, water once again becomes the focal point of your life."
"The storm doesnít bother me that much," Akane assured her, hoping Minami would get back to normal soon. The ghost sweeperís disturbing behavior was really setting her on edge.
Minami laughed. A laugh that sounded painful and hid back something. "Not the storm, Akane. Tears."
"Yes, tears." The smile Minami gave unsettled Akane even more. "Youíve spilled enough of them since Ranma abandoned you."
"Shut up." Anger replaced unease. That was past her. It was over now. She didnít need to be reminded of him. Minami should have known better.
"Little Akane, still crying over her lost love."
"I said shut up," Akane said more quietly than the first time. Why was Minami doing this to her? It was over, had been for well over a year. Just because she was over it didnít mean she wanted those terrible memories reawakened.
"Left behind like a piece of unwanted garbage. The poor little girl that couldnít even hold onto her man."
"What kind of a girl canít even do that? Maybe you should swear off your womanhood, like Ukyou did. That might be for the best, right? I mean, you are pretty unfeminine."
"I SAID SHUT UP!!!" The welled up anger burst forth as Akane was instantly in motion, grabbing Minami by the collar of her robes and hoisting her up into the air as though she weighed nothing.
Minami appeared unfazed by Akaneís actions. If anything, she actually seemed to be amused. "You shouldnít threaten a ghost sweeper. It could be bad for your continued health."
"Why are you doing this to me?!" Akane sobbed as she could feel the tears from her eyes mingle with the rain.
"Because youíre over Ranma. You said so yourself many times. And I can tell by your actions you told me nothing but the truth." Minamiís voice held a mocking tone.
"I am." Akane tried to keep her voice from cracking. In the heavy rain, she thought the catch to it might even have been missed… by a deaf man. It wasnít fair. She was over Ranma. There had been no tears for months. Should have been no tears for the rest of her life. Not over him.
"I see. Well, now, I guess you wonít be interested in how you can change everything that happened to you."
Something awakened deep inside Akane, then. Something she had thought gone a long time ago, yet it had only taken several words to bring it forth, alive and well, lashing about in her mind.
It was hope.
Akane tried to dismiss the feeling. "What the hell are you talking about?! Did something happen to Shampoo?" She hoped nothing bad had happened to Ranma. Surely not him.
"Last I heard there were somewhere in India looking for a cure." Minami answered. "Knowing them, theyíre probably screwing somewhere. Maybe in the rain, in their cursed forms. You know how Shampoo used to act around Ranma when they were cursed. Couldnít keep her eyes off that delicious redhead, right?"
Akane felt rage burn through the hope. She drew her fist back, intent not in simply striking Minami, but grinding her bones into powder for tormenting her this way.
"You can change all of that."
Once again, Akane felt her anger subside as Minami dangled the Ďcarrotí before her eyes. She was being thrown from one extreme to the next. Akane could feel herself approaching a breaking point she had thought long past. The edge of it was right before her. "Explain yourself," she finally managed to get out.
"Put me down first."
Akane did as she was bid, but allowed her fist to remain balled up. Anger was still there, so much rage just waiting to bubble forth. In many ways it was like a year hadnít passed, and that everything was the same as the day she knew Ranma had finally chosen Shampoo. Still, Akane longed for his touch.
Minami cleared her throat as the rain continued to strike her glasses, obscuring almost all of her eyes. What little could be seen made her appear almost insane in the dim moonlight. "I found a way you can change everything. All it would take are a few of the tears you seem to have hidden away for so long. Just one, actually."
"Quit talking in riddles! Tell me exactly what you mean!" Akane could feel her temper beginning to break once more.
Minamiís mask of amusement disappeared as she pulled a mirror, hidden within the confines of her robes, out for Akane to see.
"What is it?" Akane asked.
"This is the ticket to achieving your heartís desires. It was one of the magic objects Happosai had tucked among his many things, although by the Black Rings of Amadora I donít know how he got his hands on it. It took me forever to figure out what it was, but now I know for certain. This is one of a set of three magic mirrors. They were incredibly powerful items. With them, one can travel through space and time instantly. What we have here is an object that can allow the possessor to walk through the ages themselves.
"Would you like to see the signing of the Magna Carta? How about Nero playing his fiddle while Rome burned? You could ask Einstein his theories up close and personal. Itís the only way I can see us passing Professor Washuuís advanced special relativity class. Wait! Iíve got it! You could go to Easter Island and see how those funky heads really got there.
"Or maybe, just maybe, you could change the way your life turned out."
Akane just stood there, her fist at last unclenching. Her mind was just barely able to grasp what Minami was saying. Change her life? It had to be some kind of sick joke.
"No. Iím dead serious," Minami answered, guessing the thoughts of Akane. "All it takes to activate it is a tear, something you have plenty of when it comes to Ranma Saotome, yes?"
She wanted to say no, that it wasnít true, that she was over him, but the words failed to leave her mouth.
Minami remained where she was, holding the mirror out towards Akane in an offering gesture. "Choose a time when you want to go back, let a tear fall upon the mirrorís surface, and it will take you to the time period you ask for. Then all you have to do is visit the younger version of yourself and the two of you can figure out what you did wrong and win Ranmaís heart the first time around. It would correct only the biggest mistake of your life. All you have to do is cry."
Akane took the offered object and looked down at the mirrorís surface. It was awash with the water falling from the sky. The Tears of God were already dotting its surface, yet nothing happened. But her tears could do it, if Minami was telling the truth. She could summon them now and change her life for the better. Yes. In hindsight she could change everything and have Ranma fall in love with her. She would be the one he kissed, proudly announcing to the world that Akane Tendo was the one he loved and wanted to spend the rest of his life with. Then they could be married as soon as possible; the day after he declared his love would be good. Yes. And she wouldnít be alone any more. That touch she longed for would be hers once again. She could hear his voice grumble about how she couldnít cook worth a damn, was uncute and flat-chested, and then she would kiss him and his wonderful insults that masked how he really felt about her. All would be right with the world.
And she could keep Tarou from dying. Yes! Of course! That too. That was it. He would still be alive, and she could continue to train with him and enjoy his no-nonsense, if brusque, behavior and his companionship, to have him alive too.
Why stop there? She could go further back, back to the time when her mother was still alive and maybe they could diagnose her disease much earlier and save her. Oh, to have her mother alive. It would be so wonderful to see her in the kitchen, raising all of her daughters just as things should have been. And her father would be so happy, almost like the man he was now that he was married to Silk. All of those wasted years the family suffered, eradicated in the blink of an eye. And to see her motherís face, lacking the horrible pain that was in all of the few memories that Akane had of her. Just to see that smiling, happy face that Kasumi described so well, yet Akane could only imagine. It would be wonderful.
Of course her soon-to-be born sister would never exist then. Her sibling, which was only a month or two away. Akane was already looking forward to actually seeing her when she was born. Nabiki, who was also looking forward to the birth of yet another sister, was already placing bets on which Tendo girl she would look the most like. After all, Silk was a virtual dead ringer for their mother, so maybe the girl would look like Akane. Somehow, she felt sort of flattered by that idea.
But to go back and affect the past might jeopardize that birth. Actually it would almost surely destroy it. Could she bring herself to do that? There were no assurances she could even save her mother, for that matter. Would Akane be able to live with herself if, in spite of her best efforts, her mother died anyway?
Let the dead rest in peace. Yes. Her mother, may she be happy with kami-sama, should be left where she was, no matter how much it hurt. That pain was behind Akane. So she could just go back to a time after her motherís death but before Ranma arrived. Then she could tell the younger version of herself what would happen, and what she could do to prevent Ranma from falling in love with Shampoo, and instead fall in love with herself.
For a moment, Akane paused to consider what she would do if someone who looked like her claimed to come from the future and told her she would fall for some strange guy she had never even heard of. Would the younger version of herself believe the story? Probably not. And even if she did, how exactly would Akane go about winning Ranma under those circumstances? If the younger version of her seemed to know too much about him, might that just scare him, make him harder to win over? Maybe. And if she interfered with things that early, the future from that point onward would become nearly impossible to predict. She had learned enough from Professor Washuu about basic time travel to admit it was probably correct, and that all it would take was one little difference to change everything from that moment onward into something unrecognizable. All it would take would be for the Ďbutterfly to flap its wingsí to eventually cause a hurricane on the far side of the world.
How many lives would be changed by her interference? Did it matter? She would have Ranma. Wasnít that worth any risk? Worth any sacrifice? Like the arrival of Natsume and Kunumi? Like that of Silk and her fatherís happiness?
Like that of an unborn sister?
But it was all for happiness: hers and Ranmaís. That made it worthwhile. That made it worth any risk. She and Ranma would be happy…
…except that Ranma was already happy. He had made his choice, and she could tell from his voice behind the door, that day he had finally told her by apologizing, that he had meant what he said. There had been pain in his voice, but not doubt. Oh, how much it had hurt Akane to accept that horrible truth, that he had known who he loved and there were no regrets about that, just lamentations that he had hurt others with his choice. But he had made it all the same.
That meant it was all for her. Just her happiness. She would risk changing everything, affect everyoneís lives, her new sisters, the one to come, her fatherís newfound happiness, all for her desires.
No. All for just one desire.
Minami watched as she picked out a tear, one single tear among the deluge of other streaks of water that fell down her face, go from Akaneís eye, travel down her cheek until it reached her chin, then fell and struck the surface of the mirror.
Minami watched as Akaneís shoulders seemed to slump slightly, then stiffen with resolve. Slowly she handed the mirror back to Minami.
"I donít want that anymore."
Minamiís mask of insane glee disappeared, only to be replaced by a much more satisfied one. "Itís about time you said goodbye to him."
Akane looked softly at her friend. A truer friend than she had ever suspected. "Yes. It is."
"Want to come over to my place?" Minami offered.
Akane shook her head. "I think I need some time to adjust to this. I need to be alone to do it."
Minami nodded her head in understanding.
Akane was about to turn, when one last thought occurred to her. "What are you going to do with the mirror?"
Minami looked Akane in the eye, then held the mirror out before her. "What anyone with the common sense of a dog would do with an object as powerful as this."
And she threw it down on the ground, shattering the glass into a thousand tiny fragments.
"Those that seek to change the past will never truly be happy with any present, even the ones they believe they create." Minami looked soberly at Akane. "You arenít the only one who has a past theyíd like to change. For better or for worse, Iíll take the present Iíve got now. Sometimes it stinks, but overall it could be worse."
"Meet before school, same as always?" Akane asked in a far more normal tone of voice.
"Of course," Minami said as she began the long walk back to her home, opposite the direction of Akaneís.
Akane watched the ghost sweeperís form end up consumed by the darkness, while she remained standing alone there for some time. Perhaps she was alone, but curiously, it did feel as though something was at long last put to rest inside her. The rain, which had been a depressing deluge, suddenly became a cleansing flow. She held her face towards the sky and allowed the full effects of the liquid to purge her of what resentment had remained hidden deep inside her. It felt good to be truly alive once more.
Eventually the rain went from being cleansing to just making her wet and uncomfortable. Akane decided it would be a very good idea to return home, so she hurried back, taking the time to skip through the puddles as though she were a child again. The weight had been removed from her shoulders. She felt so much better now that she had truly resolved the matter of her heart. There was little doubt that she would think wistfully of her lost love from time to time, but at last she could truly get on with her life, and apologize to those she had shut out of it for far too long.
As she made her way past the wall surrounding the dojo, she saw that, even at that late hour, she had an unexpected visitor. He wasnít enough to bring down her good mood, but her spirit was dampened a little bit. All men were still compared with Ranma in her mind, and he unquestionably fell short in her eyes. Hopefully she could break herself of that particular habit in the near future, though.
"What do you want, Ki Rin?"
As he turned to answer her, Akane immediately noticed there was something different about him. It was easy to see. The usual arrogant swagger, the one he possessed even when he was on his knees cleaning toilets, was missing. He seemed almost… normal.
"Greetings on this evening, Akane Tendo." He did bow for her, but even that seemed different, lacking the air of superiority it usually possessed. What was going on? He didnít have anything in his hands, and he almost always visited bearing gifts.
"Itís late." Which was true. Akane wasnít sure what would bring him out at that time of night. Usually he timed his visits after school, before dinner, so he could invite her out to eat. An invitation she always refused.
"I wanted to tell you something I just discovered, but I was afraid to awaken your family. So I leaped up to your window, just to knock on it, really. My intentions were noble. When I saw that you werenít there, I chose to wait outside for your return. Forgive me if I was impertinent."
Once again Akane was struck by the difference in Ki Rin. He seemed so… sincere. "Donít worry about it. What was so important that you felt the urge to wait up for me this late at night?"
And then she saw the Chinese youth give a smile. Not the haughty grin he usually bore, but rather a soft grin that showed genuine amusement.
"All of this time I have been shouting out how humble I am in taking such a Ďlowlyí job, and renouncing my wealth back home. During this entire time, I never understood why no one seemed to think I was humble." He turned his head away from her for a moment, then turned back. "I pondered that enigma for quite some time, and you know what I finally realized?"
Akane thought she did, but it would be for the best if he were the one to say it.
"A humble, I mean a truly humble person, does not shout out how humble he is. He simply is." Once again he gave that now innocent smile. "I canít believe how blind Iíve been. Looking back, I understand what I did wrong. Not just here, but back home too. Iíve been an arrogant popinjay."
Ki Rin stared at her for a moment, then began to laugh, although he caught himself before it became too loud and disturbed someone. "You see, not all that long ago I would have been irritated by that and denied it, but no longer." He brushed back some errant strands of wet hair from his face. "Now Iím just irritated."
Akane arced an eyebrow quizzically at that. "At me?"
"At myself for being that way. I know Iím not going to change overnight. I might not even change all that much, but at least I am aware of my behavior. That is the first step to truly understanding what humility means. Correct?" As he finished saying that, a hesitant look crept across his face. "Akane Tendo. Akane, I hope you wonít be offended by this, but even if things do not work out between us, even if you maintain the very legitimate disdain you had for me since the first time we met, I have still gained something invaluable from knowing you. You have my thanks."
She stood there staring at him, not so much from being moved by the moment, but just because she had no idea of what to say.
"I would take my leave of you now." He bowed gracefully before her, then turned to go.
Ki Rin turned in surprise at the sound of her voice.
"Iíll be right back." Akane darted inside the house, only to return a moment later with an umbrella. She handed it to Ki Rin. "Make sure you give it back to me tomorrow."
He bowed before her once more, then left. She remained where she was for several minutes, staring in the direction he had taken. Once she was satisfied he had truly left, and that she had a few moments alone to think about what had just happened, she turned to look up at the raining skies.
"Interesting timing there," she said to the heavens above. "I donít know if thatís supposed to be some kind of weird sign or something, but donít hold your breath. I still think heís irritating as hell, and Iím not convinced this isnít just some phase heís going through." She continued considering things before speaking once again. "Still, I might give him a chance. I might give someone else a chance too. Iím just going to play it by ear."
The way her life had gone, she half expected some kind of an answer to what she had said, but none followed. Giving a little chuckle at her own silly behavior, she went inside. No matter what happened, she felt a lot better about herself than she had in a long while. It was time to get on with the rest of her life.
And now she was.
Author's notes: Thanks to Jurai-Knight for making some idle speculation that ended up becoming a full scene.
And as always, special thanks to:
and Ryoucilo for persistence.
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