Part V : Worth Killing For

Prologue: Council of War

"They are making their move. This is unexpected. Already they have beaten two of the others. I did not expect such ruthlessness in them."

Shampoo beamed proudly. "Ranma is strong and quick. He can beat anyone. Did you really think he would fail?"

Cologne looked at her great-granddaughter with surprise. "You do know he is coming for you next, don't you?"

"Yes! Oh, Great-grandmother, I'm so happy! Soon he will declare our love to the whole world, and our marriage will be so beautiful!" She sighed and stared dreamily into the distance.

Cologne, balanced on her fighting staff, bounded over to Shampoo. She leaned forward to look into Shampoo's eyes. "Shampoo, he is coming to fight you. He thinks he has chosen Akane for his bride, and he seeks to eliminate you as he did the other two."

Shampoo's face lost her dreamy look. Slowly, her eyebrows lowered, and an angry glint appeared in her eyes. "Shampoo no allow that, Ranma," she said, slipping into Japanese as if speaking to him. "You will not leave Shampoo without her promised husband."

Cologne grunted in satisfaction. This was the mood she need Shampoo to be in. "There is only one way we can accomplish this, great-granddaughter. We need to remove the source of his... distraction."

Shampoo grinned wickedly. "Violent tomboy pervert girl."

Cologne bounded back over to the kitchen. "In a way, they have done us a favor. They have removed two of the others from consideration. We must move to eliminate the last one. We will separate Ranma from Akane, lure him back to China with us, and at the same time make sure Akane will never again try to interfere. We must take no half-measures this time. The final battle is upon us. If we are to win, we must be prepared to give our all. The glory of our tribe is with us; the pride of the Amazons is at stake. We will not fail them." Cologne moved through the kitchen gathering various ingredients. "There is nothing you and I cannot accomplish together, Shampoo."

Shampoo was lost in another dream, this one more vicious. "Shampoo no forget you, pervert girl," she said, still speaking Japanese. "She no forget giving you kiss of death. Is time to make good on promise. Obstacles is for killing."

In the back of the restaurant, something glinted among the shadows. There was a sound of cloth rustling, but it may have only been the wind.

***

Ranma stood in his ready position, assessing his opponent. She was focused and determined. She was good in a way, but not really in his league.

He saw her shift her balance onto her left foot. He leaned aside to dodge the kick of her right leg. She followed with a quick left jab, but he leaned back; her reach was not great. She continued with a series of kicks and jabs in rapid succession, faster than he had ever seen her execute before. It made no difference. He bobbed and weaved and leaned back; none of them touched him.

His opponent made a loud, frustrated sound. "I hate it when you do that!"

"Whaddya expect, Akane? That I should let you hit me?" Ranma shook his head. "This is training. We don't go easy on each other."

To prove his point, he launched a series of counterattacks. Akane jumped back and tried to dodge them, but her reflexes weren't quick enough. She started retreating, blocking his blows when she could, stepping back when she couldn't. Soon she was up against the dojo wall. Ranma pressed his attack, hitting her in her arms, legs and shoulder in very rapid succession. Not nearly at "Amiguriken" speed, but fast enough that Akane could do nothing to stop him.

He stopped and put both of his hands against the wall on either side of her head. "You're getting better, Akane, but you let me have my way too much. When I started attacking, all you did was to defend and retreat. You got to use some countermoves, or your opponent will do with you as they will. Never let your opponent develop a rhythm; find ways to disrupt it."

Akane smiled, slowly brought her hands to his face, and brought his head down for a kiss. Ranma was pretty sure what was going to happen next, but he didn't try to stop it. Her kisses were good enough to be worth any price.

She kissed him for a while. He could feel the edge of her bandage tickling his cheek. She put one of her hands on his neck and the other on his shoulder. She turned him slightly to the side. While thoroughly engrossed in her kiss, he waited for her body to tense and shift. It did soon enough. She snapped back her head, grabbed his tunic in both hands, and threw him to the side.

Ranma flipped easily in the air, landed, bent into a deep crouch, and launched himself back at Akane. She clearly wasn't expecting this, and could only gape at him as he tackled her.

They rolled around on the ground a couple of times. Ranma ended up on Akane, holding her arms pinned to either side of her body. He smiled at her, their faces a few inches apart. "You tried a good maneuver for an artist of the Anything Goes School. Only, another thing you gotta learn is to never underestimate your opponent."

Akane could only stare at him, her eyes wide, her face turning red. At first he thought she was getting angry. Then he realized how good she felt under him. He wondered how he could ever have called her unfeminine; there were some very feminine curves that he could feel underneath him. Her smell filled him - sweaty, yes, but intoxicating nonetheless. He lowered his head and kissed her again. She made a small sound and kissed him back ferociously. He let go of her hands and she wrapped her arms around him, holding him close. The feel of her was so good, this felt so right, he felt his reason slowly leaving him. He moved his hands to her head, stroking her hair, then moved one hand down to her neck.

It was either a case of very good or very bad timing, Ranma was never able to figure out for sure. The dojo door slid open. Ranma bounded up from Akane, rolling over and leaping to his feet faster than thought. He looked up at his father, who blinked at him in surprise.

A sly smile crept over Pop's face. "Ah, my boy, practicing up on your arts?"

This made Ranma angry. "Shut up! You were supposed to be here an hour ago!"

His father only smiled enigmatically. "I'm sorry I wasn't here sooner... or later." He bowed and entered the dojo. "Your mother and I were doing some shopping. She has some big plans for your wedding."

The pleasure of the thought of his mother and father doing something together was quickly washed away by outraged embarrassment. "Hey! We never said nothing about that! Don't you guys ever check with me first? Who said anything about marriage!"

"Who, indeed." Akane's voice sounded very small, and very quiet. Ranma withered at its sound. He turned around to see Akane kneeling on the floor, her eyes watering slightly. "I wouldn't want you to be forced into something you don't want to do, Ranma."

Ranma cringed inside. He'd done it once again. He'd run off at the mouth without thinking of the consequences. When was he ever going to learn?

He ran over and crouched in front of her. "Hey, Akane, I didn't mean-"

This one he never saw coming. He was lifted off his feet and landed on the ground a couple of meters away, staring at the dojo ceiling. He could hear the sound of feet running out of the dojo, but he could do nothing but notice the discolorations above him indicating the many times the roof had been repaired.

His father stood over him, bending from the waist to look down into Ranma's eyes. "Remind me sometime to tell you of how your mother attacked me with a bokken when you were three. She was not very skilled, but she was quite... determined."

Ranma looked at his father, saw the amusement in his eyes that he never allowed to show on his face. What was so funny about the situation, Ranma didn't know. He wanted to pound the amusement out of his father, but didn't seem to be able to find the strength to lift his head. Damn, she could hit when she wanted to.

Pop grabbed his arm, and Ranma allowed himself to be pulled off the mat. His head spun for a moment. He clutched his father's shoulder and stared at him. "Was it this difficult for you and Mom?"

The amusement flickered out. "Your mother and I got married too quickly, Ranma. The problems we had arose afterwards. In a way, it is good your marriage did not take place when it did. It is good to see you two resolving your problems first."

The old man sighed, then turned and grabbed both of Ranma's shoulders. "Boy, you must learn discipline. I have taught you patience in combat. You wait for the enemy to attack, and learn from the enemy's style how best to achieve victory. The patience you use when evaluating an enemy is not something you discard when the battle is done. Use it to constantly evaluate what is happening around you and how best to respond to it. Discipline means never forgetting the values you have been taught and applying them to all facets of your life."

Ranma's head continued to reel, whether from the affects of Akane's blow or his father's words he wasn't sure. Treat your entire life like you're in combat. That sounded hard. It also didn't sound like the kind of thing Pop usually said.

He was about to snap at his father, ask him what he knew about discipline. He stopped himself just in time and considered. He hadn't seen his father become a panda in the past week or so. Well, except that time at the Kuno residence, but that wasn't his fault. Maybe, just maybe, Pop did know a thing or two about stuff like that.

Ranma looked steadily at his father. He then nodded and turned to leave the dojo. "Let's hold our planning session tomorrow. There's some things I gotta work on right now."

His father grasped his shoulder. "You must not waffle with her, son. Indecision is the worst way of expressing your feelings. You'll end up hurting her and yourself. Trust me."

The old man was just full of advice tonight. Ranma grimaced; Pop was only trying to help. Maybe he really knew what he was talking about this time. Ranma nodded, then walked back towards the house.

His mind was full of questions. Where was he going with Akane? Could he want to kiss her - and more - but not want to marry her? How did he feel inside?

He found himself standing in the hallway, staring at a picture of the Tendo family taken when Akane's mother was still alive. They all seemed so happy. He examined the picture of little Akane. She had been a toddler, but he could see the lines that would make her face the beautiful thing it was today.

Ranma flushed at the thought. Calling Akane "uncute" had always been a reflex action. At first, he hadn't wanted to admit to his father that Akane was attractive in any way. Then, over the past year, he had begun to be frightened by the way his feelings towards her were changing. Whenever an impulse ran through him that admitted to her attractiveness, physically or emotionally, he had shoved it aside and resorted to his familiar insults. That kept the strange feelings at bay. That they hurt Akane at all was a small price to pay.

Or it had been. He turned away from the picture and moved down the hall, lost in thought. More and more, his greatest anguish had come from seeing Akane hurt in any way. During the fight at Ukyo's, the sight of blood dripping from Akane's face had driven a stake through his heart. The sight of her kneeling on the dojo floor just now, tears in her eyes, had been no less agonizing.

This was definitely something he needed to get right. He was pretty sure what he needed to do, he just wasn't sure he had the courage to do it.

He found that his feet had taken him upstairs. He stopped outside Akane's room and listened for a moment, but he heard nothing. He continued on down to Nabiki's room. Gathering his willpower, he knocked on her door.

***

Akane grumbled. Walking home by herself was boring. She had wanted to talk some things over with Ranma, but he had run off right after school, telling her he would see her at the dojo after dinner. Nabiki had also left in a rush, mentioning plans with Tatewaki.

Akane smiled; if given a thousand years to think on it, she would never have imagined those two together. The less charitable of her classmates still attributed it to his wealth, but Akane knew her sister. She was much more interested in making money than marrying into it. She really liked Tatewaki. Akane couldn't see it. Except he had been very helpful with Kodachi. In fact, according to Nabiki, he had very probably saved Ranma and Akane from death, or a fate worse than that. Maybe there was more to him than his silly speeches and arrogant presumptions. Akane trusted her sister's judgment implicitly; Tatewaki had to be a good guy underneath.

Akane laughed. However good he was, he was nothing compared to Ranma.

Her smile faded. Ranma was a good guy, but he could be such a jerk. He had hurt her badly last night. She had been lost in the feel of his body. She had felt his hands begin to roam and had welcomed their touch. And then he had once again expressed his reluctance to getting married. Akane wasn't sure if he just didn't want to get married, or if he didn't want to get married to *her*. She needed to know. She desperately needed to know.

Akane sighed. She wasn't a great listener, she knew that. Her biggest fault was that she would assume too much, too quickly, and not let anyone tell her otherwise. There may have been times when Ranma had been trying to tell her something of how he felt, and she hadn't given him a fair chance to express it. She was being punished for it now. She wasn't sure exactly how he felt. He found her attractive, and he liked to kiss her. Was it anything more than that? She was afraid of what the answer might be.

She gritted her teeth in anger. "Where are you when I need you, you jerk!" She glared at the empty street, daring Ranma to show his face, hoping he would. It was deserted.

Or almost. As Akane looked further down the street, she saw someone leaning against the wall. The figure was hidden by shadows, but it was definitely female, with long hair. And a sword.

Akane stopped short, her heart pounding. There was only one person that could be, and only one reason she would be carrying a sword. The only other time Akane had seen her with a sword was when she had tried to kill Ranma.

Shampoo stepped lazily into the street, her eyes glinting. She was as beautiful as ever, if you were into the purple-haired, slim, athletic, perfectly proportioned type. She was wearing a form-hugging purple outfit, the kind she usually wore when trying to tempt Ranma. "This Shampoo's lucky day. She very prepared to meet Ranma and ugly tomboy, but ugly tomboy is all by herself. This make Shampoo's job much easier."

Akane dropped her book bag onto the ground. They had intended to have a planning session on what to do about Shampoo last night. They had put it off until tonight. Somehow it had never occurred to anyone that Shampoo would make her move first.

Akane glanced quickly around. Shampoo had chosen her spot well. The canal was to Akane's left, an empty playground to her right. There was no one in sight; this was an out-of-the way place, well off the beaten path unless you were going from Furinkan High School to the Tendo Dojo. In crowded Nerima, Shampoo had found the one place where it was quite possible that no one would hear Akane if she screamed.

Akane considered running, but she had no illusions about her speed. Shampoo was nearly as fast as Ranma, and quite capable of cutting down Akane as she ran.

Shampoo raised her sword in front of her face, its edge perfectly bisecting her face. "Akane has bewitched Ranma too long. Shampoo no understand how violent pervert like Akane put spell on Ranma, but it end today. Shampoo give you kiss of death many months ago. Is time to kill."

Shampoo leaped into the air, her sword raised over her head. Akane sprang sideways, turning to watch Shampoo land. As fast as a snake, Shampoo cut at Akane with the sword. It tore part of Akane's skirt as she fell backwards.

Her heart in her throat, Akane knew she could not stay still. As soon as she landed she began rolling to the side. Shampoo's sword hit the ground where Akane's face had been a moment before.

It had been a while since Akane had single-handedly and routinely defeated twenty boys each morning as they attacked her en masse before school. Her reflexes had been good then. She had countered their moves instinctively, feeling where the attacks were coming from. When Ranma had become her fiancee and his obvious martial arts ability became apparent, the attacks had stopped. Akane had lost some of her edge, but Ranma had been helping her over the past few weeks regaining it. That she still couldn't lay a finger on him was disheartening, but she knew that he had no problems beating Shampoo, either. She had to believe she was good enough to beat Shampoo, or at least hold her off long enough until help arrived.

Trusting in herself, using the confidence she had felt each morning during the mass attack, she reached out and grabbed Shampoo's arm. She used her strength to keep Shampoo from lifting the sword while Akane's other hand formed a fist and launched itself at Shampoo's jaw.

Shampoo didn't allow the blow to land, instead dropping the sword and wrenching her arm out of Akane's grip. Akane aborted her attack, instead grabbing the sword and leaping to her feet.

As she felt the unfamiliar weight of the sword in her hands, she remembered Ranma's words about weapons. They limited your attacks and hindered your defense. All she was likely to do with it was cut herself, while Shampoo moved in for the kill.

If she couldn't use it, she knew a way to make sure Shampoo couldn't use it either. With a grunt, she threw it over the fence, where it landed with a splash in the canal.

Shampoo's faced looked grim. "Very good, ugly tomboy. Shampoo underestimate you. But Shampoo no need sword to finish off pervert girl."

With that, Shampoo launched a furious set of attacks. Akane attempted to fight them off, retreating backwards as a hand punched her arm, a foot connected with her hip, an elbow clip her jaw. She could do nothing but fall back, trying to weather the storm.

"You got to use some countermoves, or your opponent will do with you as they will. Never let your opponent develop a rhythm; find ways to disrupt it." Ranma's words came back to her. She was glad for them.

Akane planted her feet. Doing so cost her a vicious blow to her knee. Akane leaned forward into Shampoo and wrapped her arms around her. Shampoo tried to leap out of the way, but Akane held her in her arms and wrestled her to the ground.

Akane landed on top, and was gratified to see Shampoo grunt in pain. Akane grabbed each of her forearms behind Shampoo's back and began to squeeze.

"I may not be as fast as you and I may not be as skilled as you," Akane said through her teeth, "but you don't have my willpower. All of you stupid fiancees have called me ugly and fat and tried to kill me, but you have never succeeded. And you never will. I love Ranma, and none of you can have him."

Shampoo had a wild, helpless look in her eyes. She appeared to be having trouble breathing, which suited Akane just fine. Shampoo tried to kick her legs but they found no purchase. Her arms were pinned to her sides by Akane's grip. Shampoo gritted her teeth and gave Akane a hateful look. Akane could feel Shampoo using the last of her strength to try and break Akane's grasp. Shampoo was strong, stronger than Akane. Akane had the leverage, however, and knew how to use it. There was just no way Akane was going to let go. Staring into Shampoo's eyes, exultation coming over her, she tightened her grip one last time.

Something touched her high on her back, just at the base of her neck. And all of sudden, Akane couldn't feel a thing.

Shampoo threw her off like a rag doll. Akane landed in a heap several feet away, but she couldn't feel the ground, didn't feel the pain of bouncing on the pavement. She couldn't even more her eyes, although she could still see.

What she saw was Cologne, pulling her staff back. In her other hand she carried Shampoo's sword.

Shampoo was on her hands and knees, trying to get her breath back. Cologne went over to her and poked her in the ribs in a few places with the tip of her staff. Shampoo's breathing got easier. There followed a quick exchange in Chinese, which ended with Shampoo nodding and taking the sword from Cologne.

Cologne turned and looked at Akane. "You surprised me today, Tendo Akane. Few can these days. You would have made a worthy Amazon. I would honor you, but you still remain an obstacle to our plans for Shampoo and Ranma. I have freed you from pain, though. Your death will be quick, and soon you will be with your ancestors."

Akane tried to move, tried to feel something, but she couldn't even cry the tears of the helpless fear she was feeling. She watched as Shampoo, her hair disheveled and her form-hugging outfit dirty and torn, approached her slowly, the hate and anger in her face made more horrible by the smile she wore.

Shampoo kicked her shoulder. Akane felt nothing as she flopped onto her back, staring at the sky. Shampoo lifted Akane's chin with her sword. She rested the edge briefly on Akane's neck, then raised the sword over her head in a two-handed grip.

I'm sorry Ranma, Akane cried in her head. I'm sorry, I failed. You'll never know how much I wanted us to be married, never know the ways I planned to prove my love to you. Even if you didn't want to marry me, that's okay. Be happy and strong and protect my family. Please, know that I loved you.

Then came: the sword blurring, the sound of metal slicing flesh, and blackness.

~*~

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