In a matter of seconds, everything changed. Akane realized that no matter how pitiful Toma was, she didn't want to spend the rest of her life with him. She realized that no matter how much Ranma angered her, she still felt something for him. She didn't know exactly what, but part of her knew exactly why. Only Ranma ever came after her in situations like these—where she was the "prize" of some new enemy, where it was all or nothing....
In this case, "all" was a cure to Ranma's curse, an escape from Togenkyo Island, and a way to get back home to Japan. "Nothing" meant death, or probably eternal imprisonment on the island, likely coupled with a curse more permanent than anything found at the Cursed Springs of Jusenkyo.
And right now, it was definitely all or nothing, without the slightest bit of doubt to cloud Akane's mind. Even though she'd gotten the wind knocked out of her when Ranma's "foot-as-a-train-brake" technique worked, sending both her and Ranma hurtling off the open-air cart in which Toma had been escaping with her in, now they were both plummeting toward Togenkyo's Legendary Cursed Spring—which would permanently turn anything it touched into a man. It was that spring's water which caused all the women of Togenkyo to give birth to boys, and left the Prince and his guards alike seeking "brides" from all around the world, traveling on the ocean currents on their mystical moving island.
It was that spring which would cure Ranma at long last, like he deserved…after everything he'd been through.
Why then, was he forming a ball of powerful energy in hands, as if readying to destroy that which would give him everything that he'd wanted?
"The spring, Akane! I gotta destroy it!" Ranma shouted, attempting to right himself while falling. It wasn't easy with Akane on his back, but he'd be damned if he ever let her go. Quite abruptly, Akane's grip on him tightened, and Ranma felt unbearably hot, despite his meager outfit consisting only of a tank top and shorts.
"Ranma, NO! Then you'll never be able to…!" Akane screamed over the howling wind in her ears. If Ranma destroyed the spring, then everything they'd been through on this stupid island would be for nothing!
'Hey, it's not like there's no Jusenkyo…' Ranma thought as he grimaced.
But it was so close…
NO! There was Akane to think about, he remembered, and if she fell in…!
"If for some reason you should refuse, I'll be forced to turn you into a man, by virtue of Togenkyo's Legendary Sacred Water. The pity is, you'll never be able to love a man in female guise." Toma held a gourd up and grinned maliciously—a frightening expression on the face of a boy so young.
At first, no one understood—not until Toma spilled the water on a passing crab, and they all watched as it turned into a man—or something like one, anyway. The moment Ranma, Genma, Ryoga, and Mousse realized what Toma's water could do, they launched themselves at him, but Toma's own henchmen easily gained the upper hand, and Toma's own illusions prevented them from saving Akane—the last young female among them—from being kidnapped.
'She'll be turned into a guy forever…I won't let that happen!' With that single thought propelling him onward, Ranma strengthened the ball of energy in his palms, allowing it to grow hotter—enough to evaporate the spring water in one blazing blast, before they even touched down. They could float on the hot air and make a safe landing in the tree hollow if everything worked out all right. At least, that was the plan.
"RANMA! STOP!" Akane screamed, seeing him form the energy ball in his palms.
"Didn't you just say you liked me the way I am?" Ranma glanced up at her, temporarily releasing his focus from his attack to her. Akane shifted on his back, rubbing her cheek lightly against his back.
"I do…" Akane whispered.
"Well the woman you are is the woman I lo—" Ranma choked on the words but shook the feeling away; there was no time for admissions or second guesses. "I gotta destroy it!!" Though he could feel Akane angling to look at him, Ranma refused to meet her gaze. He had almost…!
'No! If he destroys that spring…' Akane thought, pinching her eyes shut. She released one of her arms from around Ranma's shoulders, using her free hand to force Ranma to face her once more.
"Akane?! What are you…?!" Ranma had no time to say anything else, because Akane kissed him fully on the mouth. Ranma blinked twice and stared at her as she kissed him, his own face a mask of complete astonishment. His concentration broken, the ball of energy he'd been working to power up evaporated, and what little hot air had been surrounding them cooled almost immediately.
Akane's own eyes remained firmly closed, her cheeks red and stained with tears. But Ranma didn't notice—after a second, he'd closed his own eyes as well, finally relinquishing to the warmth of Akane's lips on his. He hardly noticed as the wind around him changed direction—as Akane shifted them so that she was beneath him. This way, she would hit the water first, and there was no way Ranma could form a ki attack to destroy the spring—not unless he wanted to go right through her.
Oh, it would hurt no matter what—Akane knew that landing back-first into a body of water was just as painful as any martial arts technique used incorrectly. If she was lucky, she wouldn't break anything, or hit her head on some underwater rock or branch and die instantly. But regardless of the consequences, so long as Ranma finally got what he had deserved for so long…
Akane's lips left Ranma's, and he suddenly realized there was something amiss the moment he saw the unquestionably heartbroken expression in Akane's eyes.
"Akane?!" Ranma stared at her in horror, and then over her shoulder at the quickly approaching spring.
"I-I'm sorry," Akane whispered, and then kissed him once more, this time gently, as if it might be the last time and she could finally manage to be the tender girl Ranma always accused her of being nothing like.
Mere seconds passed before the impact between water and girl came, and the effects of the cursed liquid seeped into her skin. Ranma acted on instinct as he swam upward toward light and oxygen, but it didn't take him long to realize Akane was nowhere in sight.
"AKANE!" Ranma screamed, not even aware of his own decidedly male voice despite the cool waters of the spring. He immediately dove deeper into the black waters, ignoring the tingling coursing through his veins, as the curse he had so long despised left his body.
He saw a vaguely-human arm floating deeper into the water, and he dove for it. The water was thick and foggy, and Ranma couldn't really make out much more. But he looped the arm around his neck and swam quickly to the surface.
Ranma inhaled deeply the moment he broke through the surface of the water, the oxygen filling his lungs almost tasting sweet. It took a few moments before his feet found solid ground to stand on, and before the sensation of cold water droplets sliding down his body.
'The water's cold…and I'm still a guy?'
For a moment, Ranma forgot about the figure he'd rescued. With his free hand, Ranma absently touched his chest: it was flat. He felt…like himself. Normal, for the first time in so long….
It felt strange to feel "normal," as if he were missing a part of himself that he'd gotten used to.
But reality suddenly hit Ranma like a ten-ton rock. If he was cured, then that meant—!
"AKANE?!" Ranma looked to his side and saw the figure he rescued. It was… "No. No…AKANE!"
The figure he had rescued was male. 100 per cent male.
"AKANE!" Toma cried. He had watched the entire scenario from the lowest track of the train rail. Saw her twist and turn as she kissed Ranma, saw her as she splashed into the water…saw as, for the few moments that seemed like an eternity, she didn't come to the surface, but Ranma did and after a split second of confusion, dove back down, this time emerging with a figure looped around him: a decidedly male figure wearing the shreds of the dress that he'd given to Akane.
"No…" Toma whispered. Although Toma had only known Akane for a few hours, she had already touched his heart in a way he had never thought possible. And now she was cursed and would hate him forever!
Toma clutched at his head in pain as a wave of memories assaulted him.
"Mother…" Toma cried, as tears fell unwillingly to the floor.
Not too far away, the Tendo family females, Ranma's fiancées and rivals all gathered in the hallway. Nabiki and Kuno had come from the room where she had been held captive by the dog-guard Wanton, Shampoo held a limp Mousse in her arms, after he had defeated the bird-guard, and Ukyo had her arms around a weakened Ryoga. Kasumi was standing next to a silent guard who carried a bag of groceries, as well as her father Soun Tendo, Happosai, Cologne, and Genma Saotome.
"We all heard that blast, right?" Ukyo said, shifting Ryoga's immense weight (mostly muscle, she surmised) on her shoulders. She cast a slight grin at him. He had saved her
all right, and used up all his strength in the process. He was nice—just really stubborn.
"You no think that Ranma…" Shampoo trailed off, and forced herself to look at Mousse, and not at the collective gathering of worried faces. Mousse's expression looked no better. She was beginning to get worried. Persistent he was, maybe even stubborn and perhaps stupid…but he was still her friend, and he had risked his life for her, and won—against the odds.
Wait… The birdman had defeated Shampoo. Mousse had defeated the birdman. By all rights and Amazon law, Mousse was legally her husband now!
'What about Ranma?' Shampoo wondered, blushing lightly as she looked down at Mousse, and then sneaking a glance towards her great-grandmother. If Mousse could beat him…and have confidence…
'Aiya! What am I doing, thinking like that?!' Shampoo reprimanded herself mentally, and swallowed her breath. She looked up and realized that the conversation had gone on without her.
"The water is sacred, legendary, and very powerful. Because we are not the higher guards of the palace, myself and many of the other guards don't have the privilege of knowing its secrets. But what we do know is that the water comes from a spring deep within this tree. It's supposedly made from the sap of the tree mixing with sea water, and having some purifying, yet cursed effect. It turns whatever it touches male permanently, and those women who drink it will undoubtedly bear male children."
"Oh my," Kasumi remarked softly, putting a hand over her mouth.
"But that's just what Toma told us. What 'secrets' are you talking about, then?" Nabiki asked.
"Huh? You mean…well, it's just rumors," the guard began, scratching the back of his head nervously, "But many of us guards believe that the water isn't permanent."
"Isn't…like how?" Ryoga asked, groaning as he awoke. He flashed a fanged smile at the scantily-clad Ukyo who still held him up.
"Well, the great-grand cousin of one of the old guard's best friend's brother's son said that he saw the water's effect reversed with hot water!"
"Like the cursed water of Jusenkyo!" Genma exclaimed. So that meant the water had the same effect as the Spring of the Drowned Man!
"Calm yourself, old friend," Soun began, uncharacteristically calm and collected, "That water may not be in existence anymore."
"Are you saying…!" Genma looked up at his friend, shock evident on his face.
"Vile Saotome…must have destroyed the spring…" Kuno mumbled, and collapsed into unconsciousness.
Ryoga and Genma paled: if that was true, their chances at getting cured were gone—again.
Shampoo and Ukyo breathed a slight "Aiya…" and "Oh geez" respectively, and the two Tendo sisters gasped, only imagining what could have happened to their little sister.
"BREATHE, DAMMIT!" Ranma cried as he breathed into the mouth of the person he had rescued. While part of him was disgusted that he was giving mouth-to-mouth to another man, the other part of him—the sensible part, which, in the eyes of others, stayed hidden 99 per cent of the time—screamed that this wasn't a man, it was Akane, and there was still a way to change her back, and to save her!
Ranma repeated the process once more, and let a slight smile come to his wet face as the blue-black haired Ryoga look-alike began coughing up water, and breathing hoarsely.
"Akane!" Ranma grinned, and embraced her—er, him. Then, realizing the situation, Ranma pulled back, and looked at him closely. Yes, it had to be Akane. Even in male form, she—he—whatever!—had the same brown eyes.
Suddenly, Ranma burst out laughing, and Akane-kun could see why. He—yes, she'd definitely been cursed by the Togenkyo spring—was still clad in the white "princess" outfit Toma had given her, complete with tiny sandals, a flowered headband, and decorative choker. Suffice it to say, it didn't look as good on Akane-the-guy as it did Akane-the-girl.
"Why you…!" Akane-kun yelled, enraged that Ranma was unabashedly laughing at her—him—whatever! But before Akane-kun could produce his trusty mallet, he began choking, water still apparently stuck down the wrong pipe.
"AKANE!" Ranma was at his side in a minute, and after having ripped off the choker from Akane-kun's neck and patting Akane-kun on the back to help force the water out, Ranma plopped down beside him and looked at him critically.
"You look like Ryoga, only with lighter hair, no bandana…and…"
"A dress?" Akane-kun grimaced.
"Well, actually…" Ranma began, suddenly blushing at the memory of the kiss he had shared with Akane, "I was gonna say you have way more beautiful eyes…"
"Huh?" Akane-kun blinked and stared right at Ranma, whose nose was almost touching hers—er, his.
"I think, maybe I shouldn't…" Akane-kun stuttered, and then examining his new body with wide eyes and the faintest of touches, promptly passed out.
"Oh, boy…literally…" Ranma groaned, slapping a hand to his brow.
"Ranma! Up here!" Toma called and tossed down a rope.
Ranma caught the rope with simple ease, grabbed hold of the unconscious Akane-kun, and climbed up while Toma pulled, using the only train cart left as leverage.
When the twosome reached the bottom rail track, Toma inspected them critically. "She—he—oh…" It had been one thing to imagine that Ranma had brought a male to the surface, knowing that was how the spring functioned, but to see it right in front of him, to know that it was his fault that Akane was now cursed to be like this…!
"There better be a cure for this, you brat, or I'm going to make the rest of your miserable life very short," Ranma seethed.
Toma only nodded dumbly. "This way, I'll get some clothes for him." Toma stared straight ahead, in a desperate attempt to not look at the misery he had caused in so few hours.
'It's not as if I'm blind. I think I knew the minute she told me she had a fiancé that she loved him. And somewhere, I knew it had to be the one who had screamed her name when I took her away. He's in love with her also. Even in Akane's male form, the way he holds her…'
Gulping, Toma, thinking for his life, spoke quietly. "There is…a way."
"A way to what?" Ranma asked grimly. Nothing was more important than Akane right now, and it irritated Ranma greatly that the little brat that had caused all this trouble in the first place was trying to act so nice.
"Cure her. The water isn't permanent; I just say that to frighten the girls into coming. It…can be reversed with hot water." Toma hesitated in saying so; it was the last great secret of his deceased family. But he was the only one left anyway, so what was the point of protecting the secret any longer?
"WHAT?!" Ranma cried, startled. It was like Jusenkyo water after all!
"But it's only until she gets hit with cold water again," Toma continued quickly, wanting to end the secrecy once and for all. "There's supposed to be some Amazon village, filled with women, and they have a spring like ours, only reversed…but I have no idea where it is." He turned back to Ranma and the cross-dressed male he held in his arms and frowned sadly.
"I'm sorry I can't help you more at the moment, but I will do everything in my power to help you…and Akane."
"Thanks…I think," Ranma grunted, and continued to follow the prince up the tiny flight of stairs that wound up past the train tracks.
"SAOTOME! WHERE ARE YOU?!" Ryoga called in desperation. Anything could have happened. It was just speculation, but it was more likely that not that Ranma had found both Akane and the spring, and gotten into a fight with the bratty prince in the process.
Gritting his teeth and cursing under his breath, Ryoga continued to stumble along, until Ukyo ran up behind him.
"Didn't I tell you that you should relax, sugar? You can't go hunting around for Ran-chan. Don't worry; we'll take care of it."
"But…Akane!" Ryoga managed, short of breath now. He was slightly surprised that his dream—no, his nightmare—had caused his Shi Shi Houkodan to be so powerful, and so taxing on his body and health.
"What are you doing here, Ryoga?"
"'What?'" Ryoga repeated dumbly. "I—I came here to rescue you, Akane!"
"Rescue me?! Hah. Can't you see? I finally am alone with Ranma. Go away, Ryoga. I hate you!"
Well, truthfully, it couldn't be that much of a surprise: it was Ryoga's worst nightmare for Akane to hate him, and no matter how ill he was, he had to make sure that his nightmare didn't come true. At all costs…he had to make sure that Akane was all right!
"Well, if you insist, sugar," Ukyo said, placing her arm around his neck, and doing vice-versa with his. She walked slowly to support him, and they continued their search for Akane and Ranma.
Once they got upstairs, Toma led them to a private bath with hot water available. Toma procured a glass goblet and filled it up. Ranma tested the temperature with his finger, finding it warm enough but not boiling, and promptly upended it over Akane's head.
Immediately, the change occurred, and the male features of the figure Ranma rescued seemed to melt away, being replaced with the familiar, more compact features of Akane that Ranma was so familiar with. She definitely fit the outfit she was wearing better, despite all the rips and worn spots she had attained after transforming into a male.
She remained unconscious, her sleeping face marred by an expression of worry: her eyebrows tilted up, and her lips curved in a slight frown.
Worried or not, to Ranma's eyes, she was still beautiful. Beautiful…and more importantly, alive. That, above all else, was the most important thing, wasn't it?
Ranma clenched a fist tightly; she was cursed now because of him. Because she—once again he remembered the kiss and how startling, how soft, how incredible it had felt…. Because she wanted him to get what he wanted, even if it cost her everything.
"Ah…here are some clothes for her…" Toma said. Born and raised a prince, he'd never felt this way before: like one of the lowly creatures he'd transformed with the spring water just to demonstrate how it worked. Was this what it was like, to "really live?" To not get what he wanted, to feel foolish and angry and wanting to bury himself in his mother's skirts, hiding himself from shame?
He couldn't ask his mother, his mother who had once been an off-islander just like Akane, who maybe had some inkling of what her life was like and why it was so upsetting to be kidnapped, even if you could live as a princess. His mother was gone. And soon, no matter how much it hurt, Toma knew Akane would be, too. She would leave knowing that her curse wasn't permanent and that if there was a cure out there for her, it wasn't on Togenkyo. She would leave and never return.
Toma sighed as his fingers left the pile of clothes he'd set down for Akane. They were his own, but because Akane was closer to him in height both as a man and a woman, they would fit her better than anything anyone else could provide, and without the concern of choking collars or shredded short skirts.
"Thanks," Ranma said in a low voice. "I think we oughta let her sleep for a while. She might be shocked or something. Besides, I gotta find the others."
"All right…I can call the guards to look for them, if it might help." Toma hesitated more since Akane's descent into the spring. He didn't have his guards or advisors to help him, to assure him of his rightful position above off-islanders like Ranma. It turned out everything he'd been doing had only been for his own betterment, not taking into account the feelings of the girls brought to Togenkyo or the families they'd leave behind. So instead of immediately calling guards and asking for help, he left the idea open-ended, letting Ranma determine whether it was truly the right thing to do.
Even someone who treated Akane as badly as Toma had witnessed Ranma doing somehow had more foresight…. In the end, no matter what he said or did, he did it because he wanted the best for others. At least, that's how it seemed, with him willing to give up his cure to save Akane. And regardless of what fights they had, Akane clearly loved him or else she wouldn't have knowingly allowed herself to be cursed….
"This time, you better treat them nicely. I don't think anyone really wants to be on this island."
"I can't help that!" Toma burst out.
"You kidnapped all the girls in this palace! Of course you can help it!" Ranma shot back, now angry.
"This is a floating island! If someone came here to explore, and got lost while the island was floating from wherever they came from, is it my fault?!"
"If you take them to be your concubines, it is!" Ranma growled.
Toma pursed his lips; there was no proper response to that.
"Look," Ranma began again, trying to remain calm, "You should arrange to send the girls home. My friends have gotta get their stuff from the island across the way from here, and this little floating island will take us back to Japan. Are we clear?"
"Japan. Right. One week," Toma stuttered, unaccustomed to be ordered around by anyone. At least…not since his parents were alive. His father, at any rate.
"One week?" Ranma cocked an eyebrow, mutely asking if Toma was intentionally delaying things.
"The current this island is on will carry us to Japan within a week. But I won't be able to tell you exactly which island it'll be near; the current changes rather often."
"Fine. Let's get out of here so Sleeping Beauty can get some sleep," Ranma told Toma, and headed to the door.
"Oh yeah, and this whole Akane being cursed thing stays between us, got it?" Ranma said, his gaze burning with intensity. He turned back toward the door and was about to leave before Toma found his confidence once more.
"Ranma…wait," Toma said, turning around in the doorway.
"What is it now?" Ranma asked, irritated at the prince's continuing delays. He had to find the others and make sure they were okay.
"I think…you should stay with her." Toma sighed and then barrelled onward. "She obviously loves you, and will no doubt want an explanation and comfort when she awakes. Maybe just someone to be with. Besides, if she is in shock, you have to make sure she stays…she's still…" Toma trailed off, and then hurried out the room, shutting the door behind him.
"L-Loves me?!" Ranma uttered, looking like a landed fish. He looked to the closed door and back to Akane sleeping peacefully, and then blushed crimson.
"TOMA!" Ryoga growled, baring his fangs when the prince appeared from a side hallway.
"Huh?" Without his guards, sword, or any of his other abilities that made him a dangerous foe, Toma was seriously outnumbered, even if was against one weakened martial artist
and a scantily-clad-in-pink girl. He hadn't expected to be confronted by one of Ranma's friends so quickly!
"Eh...uh…" He took a hesitant step backward, trying to see if anything nearby could be used as a defense, but there was nothing.
"YOU BASTARD! WHAT DID YOU DO WITH AKANE?!" Ryoga growled, his face dark and eyes narrowed.
"Eh…ah…" Toma stuttered, and groped at his belt, fumbling for anything that could he could make use of. He came upon a small vial that he had forgotten about until now, and grinned.
"Wait. I will tell you where your friend and his fiancée are…"
Ryoga cringed. So Ranma was with her.
"And give you this. But only if you don't hurt me." Toma seemed confident on the outside, but inside, he was trembling. He was defenseless without his illusions, or his sword, so his only hope was to give this boy what he wanted.
"That is…" Ryoga peered at the vial, but there was no label to discern the contents.
"It’s the Sacred Water you want. It will turn you permanently into a man…though," Toma inspected him, and found nothing strange about him, save maybe his fangs, "I cannot see why you'd want it."
"Got cold water, sugar? Turns him into a pig, Shampoo into a cat, Mousse into a duck, and Ranma into the redhead who kept on flirting with you. Oh yeah, and his dad becomes a panda," Ukyo said with a grin.
Toma shuddered, and was glad that Ranma now had his cure.
"Not anymore…" Toma muttered, remembering the whole bridal contest incident.
"What was that?" Ukyo demanded, dropping her hold on Ryoga. He struggled to stand up again and failed miserably, settling for sitting cross-legged at Toma and Ukyo's feet instead.
"Ah—that is, Ranma is cured." He hadn't said that he was cured at the cost of Akane being cursed, so hopefully he still fell within the terms of his and Ranma's "agreement."
"HE IS?!" Ukyo beamed happily, and her eyes became starry.
"That jerk. Got cured before me." Ryoga briefly looked angry, but considering his present state, he didn't feel too inclined to leaping up and hunting Ranma down just for getting cured first. He examined the vial in his hands, sloshing with its dark water and sighed. If this was really it…? "Oh well. Bottoms up." And Ryoga dumped the contents of the vial on his head.
Both Toma and Ukyo paused, and stared at the fanged martial artist. He shuddered for a minute, and then he grinned.
"Say, do you have cold water?"
"T-This way." Toma led them down another hall, where they found Genma and Soun walking toward them.
"You little devil! Where is my son?!" Genma demanded, closing the distance between himself and the prince, hauling Toma up on his fist.
"I will show you to him soon." Toma struggled briefly and alit on the floor once more. "But I think you want this first…" And Toma produced another vial. He had a few left in his side pouch, with just enough for each of the males. Hopefully, this would appease them and distract them from asking after Akane.
Genma looked to Ryoga for confirmation that the prince wasn't trying to pull another illusory trick, and stared at the vial in hands dreamily when Ryoga grinned back at him.
Minutes later, the group had arrived in what looked like bathing chambers, with clear pipes carrying water to different tubs. Behind a veil of mist was a large hot tub.
"Here goes…" Ryoga jumped into the cold water tub and popped out instantly, chattering furiously.
"Boy, you didn't change!" Genma exclaimed.
Once Ryoga had settled himself—with his clothes still on, mind you—in the hot water tub, Genma too, dumped the second vial's contents on his head, and tested it in the same manner as Ryoga had.
He didn't change into a panda.
"Ugh…" Akane moaned. She felt hot and sticky, as she did after an intense workout.
"You awake?" a soft voice seemed to echo.
Akane's vision seemed to shift in and out of focus for a minute before her gaze rested on Ranma.
"I'm not…" Akane looked at her obviously feminine hands, and at the swell of her chest. Yes, she was female.
Ranma looked away, unable to meet her gaze. When Akane finally did glance up at him again, she blanched when she saw he was not facing her.
"It wasn't a dream, was it?" Akane whispered.
"No," Ranma said quietly, "It wasn't."
"Oh I'm—I'm a guy? But then…?" How was she female now? Hadn't she distracted Ranma and twisted him around so he couldn't destroy the spring, and he could get cured at last? Hadn't that been the whole point? Or was it possible that it hadn't been "all or nothing" after all?
"Turns out the water is reversed with hot water. Just like if you'd fallen into Spring of the Drowned Man at Jusenkyo."
"Your curse? Ranma, did it work?!" Akane asked suddenly.
"Yeah. Yeah, it worked. No more 'Ranko.'"
"I'm gonna miss her," Akane whispered, a faint smile on her lips.
"Hey, but I'm…" Ranma trailed off. 'I'm still here! I'm me, the real me, the one that—' But the thought cut off, even in his own mind. What could he say? What could he do? All he seemed to accomplish was getting her caught up in his and his old man's issues, getting her cursed along the way. Even though this time, she'd known what she was doing? She'd known what was going to happen to her the second she'd—
Ranma shook himself out of the memory of Akane's kiss and looked up at her, only to see her staring at him too, concern and sadness and something else in her eyes. Suddenly, tension seeped between them like a noxious gas.
"Ranma, I…" Akane began, her cheeks stained pink and her voice softer than he'd heard it in a while. This was the Akane that made him uncomfortable, because he didn't know how to act around her. He couldn't yell, he couldn't fight, so then what…?
'So I'm not good at saying it. Pop's always said "Actions speak louder than words," right?' So Ranma opted not to say anything, but he swallowed any fear and moved toward Akane. Her gaze widened, her cheeks flushed an even deeper crimson, and her fingers suddenly twitchy on the mattress cover.
None of this was really happening, right? Akane felt nauseous all of a sudden, her head pounding and her vision swirling. Everything except for her and Ranma seemed to get dark….
Akane faintly remembered waking up to a dizzying feeling, and a surprised and glad shout from someone next to her, whom she couldn't yet make out. Maybe it was her vision; maybe it was the darkness. She coughed up some more, and then stared at her savior, who was embracing her tightly. Strangely, it felt uncomfortable. She felt disjointed, out of place, and…well, clunky.
"R-Ranma…" It was him, wasn't it? He was always there when she needed him, when it mattered the most. She didn't understand why she felt so strange, so different, but if Ranma was there, then everything would be all right.
Suddenly, Ranma burst out laughing, and Akane's vision cleared enough to let her realize just why. Gone were her small shoulders and round breasts—breasts that Ranma often insisted weren't there at all—and any other features Akane tried to pride herself on as being feminine, and in their place were thick, corded muscles along larger arms, larger legs, and a completely flat chest.
"Why you…!" Akane felt anger boiling up in her, rage that Ranma was laughing at her after what she had done—! But before Akane could produce her—his!—trusty mallet, he began choking, water burbling up from a place in her throat where it wasn't supposed to be.
The laughter ceased and suddenly Akane could make out Ranma's shout.
Ranma was at his side in an instant, his fingers deftly finding their way between Akane's now-thick neck and the slim choker strangling her. He ripped it off with one quick pull and proceeded to pat Akane on the back to force the rest of the water out. Once cleared, Akane lifted his large hands to his throat and rubbed the sore spots gently. He glanced up only to see Ranma staring at him with an odd expression on his face.
"You look like Ryoga, only with lighter hair, no bandana…and…"
"A dress?" Akane-kun grimaced, fingering the remnants of the Romanesque white number Toma had given her.
"Well, actually…" Ranma began, suddenly blushing at the memory of the kiss he had shared with Akane, "I was gonna say you have way more beautiful eyes…"
"Huh?" Akane-kun blinked and stared right at Ranma, whose nose was almost touching hers—er, his.
"I think, maybe I shouldn't…" Akane-kun stuttered, and then, after her fingers brushed against a wholly new part of her body, with the faintest of accidental touches, promptly passed out.
"A-Akane…" Ranma's voice was so soft, it was almost hoarse. He'd wanted to kiss her again, feel that softness once more, and tell her that this time, this time they woukdn't get interrupted like they always did, that he didn't care what anyone else thought: he'd come too close to losing her forever again, and one time was already too many.
But Akane had pulled away first, a pained gasp pulling her away from what Ranma knew they both wanted—had wanted for so long.
"I deserve this," Akane finally whispered, looking away from Ranma, squeezing her eyes shut. Even if right now she was female, in the body she'd always known, a part of her knew something was different inside, and always would be different. That she was cursed.
Ranma's eyes snapped open at her words, and he felt his heart clench upon seeing the tears starting to track their way down Akane's cheeks.
"Oh don't cry…please, Akane, don't cry…" He didn't know what to do when she cried. Somehow things always got worse before they got better, and he put his foot in his mouth or someone interrupted or something else just plain went wrong.
But Akane continued, hiccups lacing her voice as the tears came harder and faster. "After everything I've said and done to you, I deserve this curse, and you deserve your cure, but how can you still—still…"
'Ah, so that's it.' He understood. At least, he thought he did. Ranma had the gift of being confident in himself even when he was wrong, but at least he was always willing to learn from his mistakes. And if this was one of them, well, so be it. But he didn't think he was wrong. Not this time.
"Love you?" Ranma finished for her, a cocky grin on his face.
"Wha?" Akane spluttered, the tears ceasing as she glanced up at Ranma in surprise. "You—you…" Akane blushed, and her lips puckered in a fish-like expression.
"I love you, Akane Tendo," Ranma leaned in and whispered in her ear, and his warm breath tickled her hair.
Akane stared at him wide-eyed, her mouth opening and closing, but words just wouldn't come. She hadn't expected this. She hadn't planned this. In fact, she hadn't thought too much past the point when she realized Ranma was going to sacrifice his cure to save her—again—even though he'd been the one fighting, always fighting. She'd thought that Ranma would get his cure, and if that meant she was cursed, well, then…. But she hadn't thought about what that "distraction" of hers would mean for the two of them after the curse, or what she would do now, cursed in Ranma's place.
Ranma, her unwilling and unwanted fiancée. Ranma, who teased her about how uncute she was, how inept in the kitchen, how much of a flat-chested tomboy with no talent… Ranma, who always defended her, who always saved her, who was always there when she needed him the most. He was here now, and had saved her again now: from drowning, from choking, from hating herself for the rest of "her" life.
"But—but I…" She had to say it, because she felt it, and Akane was never good at bottling up her feelings. "I'm a freak!" She abruptly shoved the blankets off her and made to run out of the room, get away from Ranma and these feelings and this tension and this desire, but Ranma's hand found her exposed thigh first and stopped her.
Akane turned red, but any anger about Ranma being inappropriate never came. After confessing he loved her, it seemed stupid to get angry at him for touching her, especially since…
'Since I feel the same way.' It didn't matter if she had the female body she'd grown up with or a strange, new male one: her feelings for Ranma didn't change.
"You are not a freak, Akane." His voice was serious, sure, firm and unrelenting: not too different from his touch on her skin.
"Y-Yes I am," Akane mumbled. How could he treat her like this, knowing that she was even less of a girl than she was before, that she wasn't entirely what she appeared to be at all?
"Then was I a freak when I had my curse?" Ranma asked, knowing he was baiting her.
Akane looked down at herself, at her hands fisted in the covers and Ranma's hand still on her thigh. His hand was larger than hers, with cuts and bruises and scraps all over it. It was a working hand, a martial artist's hand.
"My name's Akane. Wanna be friends?"
That was such a long time ago. It almost felt like a life time when she'd said those words to Ranma, not knowing the "she" Akane had spoken to was really a "he," a "he" that was afraid of people branding him a freak. And at first, it had been unsettling and upsetting to discover the girl she'd offered her friendship to so guilelessly wasn't a girl at all. The barriers had come up then, but Ranma always found a way to get through them, go over them, or break them down entirely.
Slowly but surely, Akane had grown used to Ranma changing back and forth between the genders, as if it was a perfectly everyday occurrence (well, for them, anyway) and not the result of some mystic Chinese curse from a series of springs. He stopped being a freak and was only occasionally a pervert, but that didn't make him—them, and their bizarre non-relationship—any less frustrating.
"Well, no, I guess not…" Akane finally said.
Ranma gawped at her and his hand slid off her thigh, leaving an abruptly cool patch on her skin. He'd nearly planted his face in the mattress out of shock but settled for shaking his head instead. "You guess not? Geez!"
Akane laughed slightly, and at that, Ranma looked up, a half-smile curving his lips.
"No, you weren't. I guess I'll do the same thing you did, and use it to my advantage. But what will my family think of me? It'd be one thing if you still had your curse…"
"Whaddyou mean by that?!" Ranma demanded. He was finally free of his curse—because of her, no less—and now she wanted him to have it again?!
"Well, " Akane grinned sheepishly, her cheeks a light pink color, "we'd be a couple either way."
"Huh…oh. Oh. OH!" Ranma finally got it, and his eyes lit up in understanding.
"But I'm happy for you, Ranma. You finally have what you always wanted," Akane said, able to meet his gaze again.
"Yeah…" Ranma looked down, and then back up at Akane, as if he had found a new resolve, "But I only wanted it because of you."
"What? I-I don't understand."
"You made me want to be a whole man again, Akane. You're the reason I tried so damn hard to get a cure."
"I…but you—and now…" Akane looked away forlornly, breaking off from whatever thought she'd had a moment ago, "It's my turn to go through hell to get a cure."
"Yep. But I'll be there with you every step of the way. Just like you were for me."
"Thanks Ranma." Akane smiled brilliantly, and suddenly, Ranma felt uncomfortable. It was weird, getting used to the affection Akane and he now shared—between themselves.
It would be another thing entirely explaining it to everyone else.
"This is gonna stay just between us, okay? No one's gonna know you're cursed till you tell them," Ranma told her. He placed his hands on her shoulders to reassure her, and as soon as Akane looked at him, that thick tension seeped back between them.
"I guess…but won't cold water just come out of nowhere?" It always seemed to for Ranma: even on the sunniest days he somehow got wet, as if he were a water magnet.
"Heh. That's where speed comes in. Guess you'll have to learn Kachuu Tenshin Amiguriken." Ranma grinned. Part of him had always wanted to train with Akane, because he saw the potential in her. Not just that, but her passion for the Arts and her desire to be better. But he'd made stupid excuses and started silly fights and hurled insults her way in an effort to mask what he really wanted to do, which was fight by her side. Together, as a team, they'd be the best.
Ranma smiled. He'd never dared to think of them as a team—as a couple—before, but now…it sounded nice.
'Akane and Ranma Saotome. Wait, wouldn't that mean we…' Ranma looked at Akane, his lips forming a small 'o.'
"What is it?"
"Nuthin'," Ranma muttered, looking at his hands suddenly. Boy, they were fascinating.
"Ranma?" He looked up at Akane, but before he could get a word out, Akane had grabbed him by the straps of his tank top and pushed him to the mattress, sealing his lips with her own.
"I knew I shouldn't have left them alone," Toma muttered as he opened the door to the chambers where Ranma and Akane were. Soun and Genma's jaws dropped to the floor, and beside them, Ryoga's eyes rolled back in his head and he dropped to the floor unconscious.
Ukyo covered her eyes and began crying. Of all the things she'd expected to see after hearing Ran-chan had gotten his cure, this was definitely not one of them!
Ranma, lying on top of Akane with one of her legs wrapped around his hip and a hand tangled in his braid, the two of them kissing passionately!