Part VII : Shadows of the Past

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It was an uneasy group that made its way to the Tendo Dojo.

Genma looked around. Akane was hugging Ranma as they walked - or maybe Ranma was holding her to his side, it was hard to tell. Akane looked very tired, her eyes half-closed as they walked down the road. Ranma looked ready to explode. He kept looking all around them, expecting an attack from all quarters. Mostly, though, he was glaring at the other couple walking with them.

Shampoo's face was quite puffy, the combination of her swollen lip and the amount of crying she had done earlier. In fact, she didn't look to be too far from crying now. She was staring straight ahead and walking stiffly.

Mousse had put himself between her and Ranma. While he occasionally glanced at Ranma, for the most part he didn't take his eyes off of Shampoo. Genma reflected that this was the longest he had seen Mousse keep his glasses on. Mousse seemed to expect Shampoo to collapse, and was ready to catch her before she fell.

It was just as well, Genma supposed, that Ranma had called him and asked him to escort them home. Ranma didn't feel very kindly towards Shampoo right at the moment, and had hoped that his father could be a sort of moderating presence. Genma felt flattered. At the same time, it was slightly unnerving; this was not a role he was accustomed to.

Genma tried to figure out how they were going to break this to Soun. Soun had a tendency to carry on all out of proportion. The knowledge that his daughter had nearly been killed was likely to drive him insane, at least for a while. Genma thought about not telling him, but it was hard to miss Akane's new bandage on her face or her limp. Maybe they should have Kasumi break the news to him; she seemed to be best able to console him, and she could tell it gently.

All too soon, they had reached the dojo. They all stopped just inside the front door, and an uneasy silence followed. Ranma was still glaring at Shampoo, and Shampoo was still staring at nothing at all. Mousse was shifting uncomfortably, and Akane looked to be a few seconds away from falling asleep.

With a start, Genma realized it was up to him to bring some order to this bunch. Part of him wished for a bucket of cold water: pandas couldn't talk, and wouldn't be expected to take charge of the situation. He beat that part of his mind down; pandas also didn't have wives. Neither would he, if he succumbed to temptation.

"Ranma, take Akane up to her room and put her to bed. I'll find Kasumi and tell her what's happened. Try to avoid running into her father if you can."

Ranma looked at him, nodded, and led Akane upstairs.

Genma turned to Mousse and Shampoo. "If Cologne is coming after us, it's best that you stay here. There is strength in numbers. Mousse, you can sleep with Ranma and I. I'll ask Kasumi where we can put you, Shampoo. Very likely, Kasumi will suggest you sleep in her room."

Mousse nodded as well. "Thank you, Saotome-sensei. We are honored by your hospitality." He gently took Shampoo's arm. She looked up at him, then allowed herself to be led upstairs as well.

Genma found Kasumi and told her what he had learned of the day's events from Ranma. Kasumi assumed a cheerfully business-like manner and soon had everyone arranged. She sent Nabiki to tend to Akane, while she herself made some tea.

She looked at Genma. "Uncle, I am going to talk to Father for a while in the dining room. Please try to see that we are not disturbed."

Genma nodded. In her own way, Kasumi was as formidable as anyone else he knew.

Kasumi's eyes twinkled for a moment. "Also, Auntie Saotome arrived a few minutes ago. I believe she is out in the yard."

Genma felt his pulse quicken a little. Nodoka was here! He'd used to shudder at the thought of her presence; now he was acting as he did twenty years ago, when the sight of her had made him forget that the rest of the world existed.

He turned and headed out into the yard. He actually found her standing on the porch, very near the door.

Nodoka looked at him, smiling, and bowed deeply. "So good to see you, husband. It seems you have had a busy night."

Genma bowed back. "It... it is a pleasure to see you as well." He berated himself; he was acting like a teenager again. He continued more forcefully. "This is a bad situation.We face a dangerous enemy."

"You face problems with your warriors also. All is not well between them, yet you keep them together and prevent them from fighting. I was watching you just now, Genma. You acted very much like an adult tonight."

This was part praise, part condemnation, but it was still the nicest thing she had said to him in a long time. And she was still smiling. Genma found himself flushing very slightly; she was beautiful, and just beyond his reach.

Nodoka took a step towards him, reached over and straightened his gi, her face very close to his. "Tell me, husband, what are your plans for this evening?"

Genma's heart started pounding, as if he were in the middle of a martial arts contest. In a way, perhaps he was. Swallowing, he gathered his nerve. "I... I need to think. About what's going to happen, and what we do about it. I, uh, will probably stand guard, too. Our enemy might strike at night, and I should make preparations."

To his mild surprise, Nodoka's smile widened. "You are learning some responsibility after all. Very good, Genma. Very, very good." She kissed him lightly on the cheek. "Be strong, my husband. Guard our future well."

Nodoka took a step back, bowed, and left.

Genma stared after her, flabbergasted. The woman was uncanny. He could never tell what she was thinking behind her smile, and it was often the very opposite of what he supposed. During the early years of their marriage, he had found this very irritating. Now, it intrigued him.

She was just outside his reach, but leaning in. If he could just make sure he didn't lose his balance now.

***

Akane woke up from a dream that had wavered between frightening images of Shampoo with a sword to comforting images of her mother. She tried to retain the memories of her dreams, but they slipped through her grasp. She sighed regretfully.

She sat up slowly, most of her body aching, her knee throbbing painfully. It would be best if she could get up and walk around on it a little. She was quite hungry, too.

She looked over to see Ranma, sitting in a chair, his head on his chest. Nabiki was on the floor, lying on a sleeping mat, still fully clothed. Akane smiled fondly at them. They both had trouble telling her about their feelings, but they didn't have any problems showing her how much they cared.

She got up quietly, trying not to disturb them. She might have made it, too, if she hadn't grunted when she put weight on her knee. Ranma opened his eyes and looked at her with alarm. "Hey! Get back into bed. You know what Tofu-sensei said."

"I'm fine, Ranma." She let a note of acerbity slip into her voice. "I just need to walk around for a while, loosen up my muscles." She softened her voice. "Why don't you go lie down and sleep for a little while more?"

"It's because, my stupid sister, the fool won't leave your side for a second." Nabiki sat up and yawned mightily. "Plus, he happens to be right. Sensei says you're to rest today. He'll be over later to check on you, if we can keep him away from Kasumi, that is."

Akane glared at Nabiki, who returned it calmly. For once, Nabiki was holding the moral high ground. Akane relented. "At least let me go take a bath."

Ranma sprung up. "Let me help."

Akane slapped him. "Pervert. I can do this on my own, thank you very much."

Ranma's face darkened. "That's not what I meant! You're always jumping to conclusions."

Akane limped to the doorway. "That's because you're always thinking of the same thing. Just like Happosai."

"I do not! Why would - "

"It is so nice," Nabiki interrupted, "to see you two acting normally again. I was afraid I was going to have nothing to look forward to each morning besides the sight of the two of you staring at each other dreamily."

Akane looked over at Nabiki, who had a droll look on her face. Akane was torn between biting Nabiki's head off, and laughing out loud. Ranma, too, looked like he didn't know how to react.

Akane smiled and opened her door. She made her way to the bathroom, carefully watching her step. Her knee still hurt a lot. She went inside, glad to notice the air full of steam. Someone had already drawn a bath. Probably Kasumi; she was so considerate. Still watching her step, Akane made her way to the stool. She carefully took off her pajamas, washed herself under the shower, then slipped gingerly into the bathtub.

So focused was she on moving carefully on her damaged knee, Akane completely missed the fact that someone was already in the bathtub.

Shampoo had her long hair wrapped in a towel and had moved to the far end of the tub. She had her hands over her mouth, and her eyes were wide.

Anger overcame Akane. She would have stormed out of the bathroom, but she didn't trust her knee enough to allow any sudden movements. She satisfied herself with glaring at Shampoo, hoping she would get the message. Instead of leaving, Shampoo merely tried to move further away, her eyes still fixed on Akane.

This was so unlike Shampoo that Akane's anger began to fade a little. She contented herself with giving a sniff and looking away from Shampoo. She stretched out her legs, letting the heat of the tub relax her muscles.

"Akane..." Shampoo sounded tentative, another first for her. Akane ignored her completely.

"Shampoo is... sorry, Akane. Shampoo so much want Ranma. She no like Akane because Akane already have Ranma's heart." Shampoo's voice got quieter. "Shampoo so jealous, so envious of Akane. She give her kiss of death. But kiss of death is not allowed for this in Amazon law. Kiss of death only for those who defeat us in combat. Womans not supposed to fight over stupid man. Womans' bond supposed to be stronger than that. Shampoo forget that, forget Amazon law. Only want Ranma."

Akane was having a hard time staying angry in the face of Shampoo's self-effacing remarks. Still, Akane had tremendous wells of anger to draw upon. She glared at Shampoo once again. "Why? It's so silly; Ranma beat you by accident when he was a guy. The bonbori fell on your head; he didn't mean for it to do that. Why would something like that make you fall in love with him?"

Shampoo looked down into the water. "All her life, Shampoo has trained to be a great warrior. Is her destiny to lead the Amazons, that what Shampoo tell herself. Amazons great warriors; is none who can oppose us. Ranma beat Shampoo. Even if accident, still beat Shampoo. Shampoo have hard time believing that." Shampoo looked back up at Akane. "Is better for Shampoo to say, this man is my love, rather than, this man is better fighter than Shampoo."

Akane stared at Shampoo. She couldn't think of anything to say.

Shampoo's eyes lowered again. "Shampoo has always had so many mans chasing her, she could no understand why Ranma no fall in love with her. She began to see how good Ranma is. Is strong fighter, strongest fighter. Is brave, is handsome. Shampoo love him more and more. More and more, Shampoo realize Ranma no love her. Is very hurtful."

Akane's anger finally melted. She knew all about unrequited love. It had hurt Akane to give up on Tofu-sensei in favor of her sister, but at least she had had Ranma.

Shampoo wiped her eyes with her hands, which because they were wet left dampness behind. "Is easy to let Great-grandmother tell Shampoo how to force Ranma to love her. Is easy to do all sorts of hurtful, sneaky things to try to win Ranma's love. What means honor, pride, Amazon way, when it mean Shampoo can no have Ranma?"

Shampoo looked up water streaming from her eyes, and Akane wasn't entirely certain it had all come from her hands. "Shampoo is ashamed. She no really want to kill Akane. She knew Mousse would stop her. But she still hurt Akane, torture Akane. Torture Ranma because Akane hurt. Shampoo want to make up for all that. Shampoo give her life to Akane. Akane say, Shampoo do. Akane say, 'Die Shampoo', Shampoo dies."

Akane blew out a frustrated breath. Shampoo had gone from one extreme to the other. There seemed to be no middle ground in the young Amazon. Still, this Shampoo was preferable to the sword-wielding one. She would make a useful ally.

Akane stared at Shampoo for a long time, trying to measure her. This time, Shampoo met her gaze. Some of her usual arrogance and pride had slipped back into her bearing. Her chin was up, her face was set in a calm, accepting expression, and her eyes held a glint of the fierce determination that made her an Amazon. For the first time, Akane could see these as admirable qualities in Shampoo.

Akane almost smiled. This was more of a woman she could call a friend.

"All right, Akane says... er, I mean I say... give up on Ranma. Stop chasing him. Don't try to make him marry you."

Shampoo stared at her defiantly. "Is too late."

Akane's anger rose in full force, along with a tinge of desperation. "What do you mean? You told me-"

"Shampoo means, is too late, Shampoo has already given up on Ranma. Ranma is rude, stupid, silly boy. Tomboy can have him. Shampoo has better things to do than make love-eyes at half-man."

Akane cried incoherently and lunged at Shampoo. She forgot about her knee, though, and could only move so far before the pain forced her to stop. Shampoo sprung out of the tub, wrapped herself in some towels, and turned towards Akane.

"Shampoo can go now, Akane?" She had that superior tone in her voice again, a trait she shared with Kodachi that had always set Akane's teeth on edge.

Akane looked around for something to throw at her. Nothing came readily to her eye, so she just yelled, "Get out!"

Shampoo smiled sweetly. "Shampoo obeys." Her smile faltered, and for a moment she and Akane stared at each other. Akane could see the pain in her eyes, a sadness that spoke of how hard it had been to release Ranma from her heart. Dropping her eyes finally, Shampoo turned and left.

Akane settled back, trying to calm herself. Shampoo was a strange woman. Akane was surprised to realize that she had already forgiven Shampoo in her heart. If Shampoo could learn to control herself, Akane could easily see her becoming a great leader of her people.

If Akane didn't kill her first. Shampoo was still an infuriating person to deal with. Akane relaxed in the tub, fantasizing about various creative ways she could order Shampoo to her death.

***

Ranma sighed and removed the headphones. One of these days, he was going to come in here and destroy Nabiki's stereo system. For now, though, she had the amazing ability to anticipate crucial conversations and to put herself into a position to overhear them. The bathroom had been a lot further away than Akane's room or the outside porch, but Nabiki had produced a very long - and well-used - microphone cord that reached the bathroom window easily.

Ranma considered what he had just heard. He still wasn't sure he was ready to forgive Shampoo (being called a rude half-man certainly didn't help), but he was more willing to listen than he had been.

Nabiki removed her headphones and looked at Ranma. "Well, there you go, Ranma, all fiancees accounted for."

Ranma glared at her. "Don't forget, Shampoo includes Cologne. I ain't sure that Shampoo wouldn't go back to chasing me if the old hag puts her up to it."

"Hmmm." Nabiki stared at the ceiling. "Probably right. Can I help?"

Ranma thought about it. "I dunno that there's much you can do in this situation. It's sure to be a fight. If she tries to drive us into bankruptcy, though, I'll be sure to let you know."

Nabiki snorted at that. "Just let her try."

Ranma got up and left Nabiki's room. He climbed down the stairs and left the house to enter the dojo. Pop was probably waiting for their morning workout. It would be a good way to clear his head.

He slid open the dojo door and froze. His father was lying in the center of the dojo, face up, his eyes staring vacantly at the ceiling.

Ranma had no time to think. Instinctively, he leaped backwards, watched as a staff just missed hitting him in the chest. He hit the ground and took a few steps back, putting himself in the ready position. "Mousse!" Ranma shouted, his voice reverberating through the courtyard. "She's here!"

Ranma paused for a moment, considering the tactical situation. "Kasumi! Get everyone out of the house, NOW! That means your father, too." Uncle Tendo would be of little help; his best martial arts form was years behind him.

During his shouted commands, his eyes had not left the dojo door. As he had watched, the lights inside went out. The slight darkness inside deepened, become pitch black. Cologne was up to something, and up to something big. He could hear her chanting in Chinese inside the dojo.

Mousse ran up beside him, as did Shampoo. Ranma had no time to waste on considering whether or not to trust her; he had no choice, now.

Still keeping his eyes on the door, he asked, "What's she chanting?"

Mousse turned his head a little. "It's a prayer of some sort. She's asking for the spirits of the Amazons to come and save their people. It's hard to make out, something about restoring glory."

"She using Ancestor Stone."

Ranma flicked his eyes over at Shampoo, then back towards the dojo. "What's that?"

"Is most powerful magic piece Amazons have. It call spirits of greatest Amazon warriors to come protect Amazons during troubles. Is dangerous." Shampoo's voice turned dark. "Shampoo thinks Great-grandmother should not use it for this. Spirits may be angry, who knows how spirits react."

Ranma licked his lips. "Maybe we should attack now, before she succeeds."

"Too late, Son-in-law." Cologne appeared at the dojo door. Vague shapes could be seen in the darkness behind her. Cologne's eyes moved over to consider Shampoo. She started speaking in Chinese.

"Mousse! Translate!" Ranma barked, realizing belatedly he could have said it nicer.

Mousse, however, didn't seem offended. "She's asking Shampoo if she wants to join me in disgracing the Amazons. She says she will be very disappointed if Shampoo disobeys her elders."

Shampoo shot a look at Ranma, then answered in Japanese. "Is not Shampoo who has disgraced Amazons. Is Great-grandmother. Shampoo no longer allow it. Too long has been spent in Japan, away from tribe. Shampoo thinks Great-grandmother has forgotten what it is to be Amazon now. Amazons is different, better than before. Great-grandmother no try to make Amazons be like before. Be like before is to be destroyed. Amazons adapt. Shampoo adapts. Great-grandmother stays the same." Shampoo adopted a fighting stance. "Is time Great-grandmother stopped being matriarch. Is maybe time for Great-grandmother to write poems and play with childrens and leave Amazon business to modern Amazons."

Cologne stood, the very picture of righteous indignation. "Child," she answered in Japanese, "the day I give up guiding the Amazons is the day I lay down and die."

Shampoo's voice was cold and deadly. "If that is how Great-grandmother wants it to be, then that is how it will be." She faltered a little, spoke again, imploring. "Great-grandmother, Shampoo no want to fight you. Shampoo gives up Ranma, no want him. Shampoo want to go back to China with Mousse and Great-grandmother. Is nothing in Japan but sadness and pain. Love and healing is home."

Cologne thrust her staff at Shampoo. "I will not allow us to return, defeated, humiliated before the whole tribe. Ranma will be your groom, and you and he will make the Amazons stronger than they have ever been before. You will lead the Amazons to a new age of glory!"

With this, Cologne turned to the shadows behind her and started making commanding statements in Chinese.

Mousse spoke up quickly. "She is asking the spirits to help her return the Amazons to glory. You, Ranma, need to be taught the folly of resisting the will of the Amazon people. You are to be beaten, humiliated, but not killed. Shampoo only needs to be subdued, she is a worthy Amazon, temporarily..." Mousse faltered, continued. "Temporarily bewitched by a traitor to the Amazons, a half-man, half-duck abomination that needs to be eradicated. She is imploring the spirits not to falter in their duty; the entire future of the Amazon tribe is at stake."

Ranma swallowed. This was not going to be fun.

The shadows came out of the dojo. They resolved themselves into female fighters of various shapes and sizes. Some carried weapons - bonbori, swords, staves, axes, even polearms - while some crouched confidently into bare handed fighting stances. They seemed to carry blackness with them. No matter where they stood, they appeared to be hiding in deep shadow. There looked to be a hundred of them.

Ranma drew in a breath. "Shampoo! Mousse! Form a triangle. We'll keep our backs to each other. Don't let them draw you away. If they surround you, you're done for. Wait for them to attack. You're each responsible for a third of a circle, which is about your field of vision looking straight ahead. Don't go for an enemy outside your area; you'll just leave yourself open elsewhere. We gotta trust each other. Don't hold back; these folks are already dead."

Ranma watched as Shampoo and Mousse moved to either side of him. He needed more people. Ryoga would be great to have right now. And about twenty fighters just like him. They were stuck with what they had.

Ranma made one brief prayer. Let Akane be safe. Let Mom and Dad get back together and be happy. Protect the Tendos and the Saotomes and all their friends.

He wanted to add some more about his feelings for Akane, but the Amazon spirits attacked.

They fell in a wave. Ranma block a staff, ducked under a sword, and kicked a bare-handed woman back into some other shadows. As he fought, his hopes for victory sank. These spirits were very good. The best of the Amazon warriors, Shampoo had said. They needed fifty Ryogas at least.

Weapons were flying from Mousse at a prodigious rate, but Ranma knew that couldn't last. Shampoo seemed to be having difficulty already. Ranma sent four more warriors flying, but suffered a nasty cut in his side and a glancing blow to his head in the process. These women were very, very good.

Ranma pushed a bare-handed attacker back, and tried to apply an equalizer. "Hiryu Shoten Ha!" A huge whirlwind appeared in front of him, scattering the shadows.

The area before him momentarily clear, Ranma turned quickly to his right to aid Shampoo. He could see the spirits were going easy on her, but her clothes were torn in several places, and blood trickled from a couple of scratches. She had acquired some shadow bonbori and was using them to good affect, keeping the spirits at bay. Still, assessing the situation at a glance, he knew that they would have her easily if either he or Mousse fell.

He had no time to look at Mousse as the spirits gathered in front of him again. These spirits seemed to take no damage. He could push them back, send them flying, but they had no flesh to bruise, no bones to break. They seemed to be nothing more than shadow given substance. Ranma had no idea how to combat them effectively.

Ranma could think of nothing better to do than to cut their losses. He grimaced. I'm sorry, Akane, he thought to himself. He turned himself slightly and aimed himself at the pond. With another cry of "Hiryu Shoten Ha!", a second whirlwind formed. This one sent water from the pond flying into the air. It landed in the center of the triangle, drenching him and the others.

Ranma turned and grabbed Mousse. "Go! Get away from here, protect Shampoo!" She threw the duck into the air, where it took wing and circled the yard.

Ranma closed her eyes and rolled to the other side. She felt for Shampoo's fur. She'd hoped not seeing Shampoo would make it easier, but it didn't. The very act of touching Shampoo made her tremble in fear, but she had to resist it just this once. She grabbed the cat and flung it in what she hoped was the right direction. If she had done this right, Shampoo would land on the roof of the house, where she'd be able to climb down the other side and get away.

Ranma opened her eyes, trying to forget she had just touched a cat. She had much worse things to worry about. In a way, she was a little freer than before; she could dance around and do some airborne attacks, which was her specialty. A quick look, however, told her how ineffective it would ultimately be. There were just too many of them, and they were too good.

Ranma leaped to her feet. She would never give up, she'd rather die first. She had the feeling, however, that neither would happen. These spirits would beat her within an inch of her life and then dump her in front of Cologne, who would make Ranma wish she had died in the fight.

Ranma shouted her defiance. "Come on, come and get me! I'll take you all on! A hundred to one odds mean nothing to me, I'll pound you all back to wherever you came from! You're all a bunch of wimps! Let's do it!" It made her feel a little better, staved off the despair, if only for a minute.

The spirits seemed quite surprised by the events of the past few seconds. Some continued forward but were stopped by others. A few of the shadows turned back towards the dojo. Ranma, trying to look all directions at once and failing, decided to look at what they were staring at. It turned out to be Cologne.

"This is not honorable combat, child." One of them spoke in a quiet whisper that seemed to be in Ranma's mind more than in her ears. With a start, she realized they were speaking Chinese, but somehow she understood them. "This woman is full of the spirit of the Amazons and should not be humiliated as you command. What is the meaning of pulling us from our slumber for such as this?"

Cologne spoke quickly, fearfully. She too spoke Chinese, but Ranma heard it echoed in her mind, and understood her as well. "He is not a woman, he is a mere man. He has been cursed so that cold water changes him into a woman. His true nature is that of a man. He has defied the will of the Amazons. He must be brought down and made a slave of the Amazons, so we can use him to inspire our people to greatness again."

A cat leapt to the ground near Cologne. Ranma recoiled reflexively and averted her eyes. The cat meowed, sending more shivers up her spine. "The Amazons are great already." Somehow, this was Shampoo's voice, without the heavy accent which made her diction almost a parody of itself. "She merely wishes to keep the Amazons rooted in the past, a past which will lead to the destruction of the Amazons. Her hope is merely for revenge on the ones who forced the Amazons to live in the world once more, rather than hiding behind their fences and hoping no one would notice them. She does not care if the Amazons are outnumbered a hundred million to one. Her pride is more important."

Ranma heard something flutter; she realized Mousse had landed by the dojo as well. "This is a new world the Amazons live in." Mousse's voice was strong and resonant. His voice was without an accent also, and it made it sound more powerful somehow. "One where we must trade with those outside our village, where we must be considerate of the rights of other tribes, or they will unite and grind us to dust. I honor my ancestors, and wish them peace. This is not a battle they needed to be pulled from their slumber for. Return to sleep, and know that the Amazons live, and that they will set an example of prosperity that will be the envy of the world."

Cologne looked frantically around, as if trying to find an ally somewhere nearby. "These young ones would have us forget our glorious past. They seek to change the very concept of who we are. They cannot be permitted to do this, you must-"

One of the spirit warriors, taller than most of the others, with a bearing twice as proud, interrupted. "When I lead the Amazons from their male oppressors, we too had to change all that we were. Some could not accept it, and went back to their men. Those who stayed made us stronger; they accepted the new order, and we flourished as a result. I see the fire in these two young Amazons; it is the same fire that burned in us when we founded Joketsuzoku."

She looked over at Mousse and Shampoo. "These are not forms befitting Amazons." She reached out, and black shadow flew from her fingertips to encase Mousse and Shampoo. When the shadows were lifted, Shampoo and Mousse had been returned to human form. Mousse wore his white robes and Shampoo had her purple outfit on. They both looked around, dazed.

The tall warrior stepped closer to Cologne. "In you I see fear. Fear of losing your power; fear of the outside world; fear of change. Such fear is not worthy of an Amazon. Your abuse of the power granted to you as a matriarch is not tolerated. You were warned about misusing the Ancestor Stone."

The shadow warriors closed on Cologne. She screamed, a sound Ranma found more horrible than any other sound she had ever heard. "Shampoo! Mousse! Help me!" The shadow warriors surrounded her.

"Great-grandmother!" Shampoo tried to reach Cologne, but was stopped by more shadow warriors, who simply interposed themselves and wouldn't let Shampoo or Mousse through. Mousse flung one of his arms, and seemed surprised when nothing came out of his sleeve.

Ranma grimaced; she knew she was going to regret this. She leaped over most of the shadow warriors and landed very near Cologne. She could see some of her hair and a piece of her green wraparound among the press of the Amazon spirits. Ranma began fighting her way closer, trying to catch a hold of Cologne.

Something grabbed Ranma's neck. She was lifted off her feet. Ranma kicked her feet and grabbed at the hand at her throat, but it was no good; the hand's grip was incredibly strong. She found herself face to face with the tall Amazon warrior.

"Such a noble heart, such a proud bearing, such a strong and brave spirit. You would have made a fine Amazon. It's a pity you're only a man." She flung Ranma across the courtyard.

Ranma bounced up and ran back towards the dojo. But she was far too late. The spirits faded, and Cologne with them. As Ranma reached the dojo, all that was left of Cologne was the echo of her last scream.

Shampoo was clutching Mousse, sobbing. Ranma was surprised to see tears coming from Mousse's eyes, as well. Ranma stood there, unsure of what she was feeling. Her greatest enemy had just been defeated, but she would not have wanted Cologne to meet her fate in that manner.

With a start, she remembered her father. She ran into the dojo, to find her father sitting up and shaking his head. She ran over and squatted on the floor next to him. "Father, are you all right?"

"I'm fine, son." He looked around in alarm. "Cologne is here. We must act quickly."

"Cologne is... gone. For good." Ranma found that her eyes were watering, and wiped them quickly. It wouldn't do to cry in front of the old man.

Her father looked at her, a strange expression on his face. He reached over and put an arm around her shoulders. He drew her in, and suddenly Ranma was hugging her father as if her life depended on it. There was sadness and relief and joy in the hug, and it felt good to share it with him.

***

Akane sat on her bed, reflecting on the day's events. There were reasons to celebrate, and to mourn.

Her father had carried her as he and the rest of the family fled to Auntie Saotome's house. There they had fearfully awaited the results of the battle, debating what should be done if they didn't hear from Ranma soon. Finally, the phone had rung. An exuberant Auntie had announced that it was Ranma, and she was telling them to come home.

The storm clouds that had threatened all day had finally darkened to the point that rain was inevitable. No one had thought to bring umbrellas as they had fled the house, so they had run back, although Akane suspected there was more than one reason for their hurry.

They had tumbled into the house and run to the back porch, Akane forcing her father to set her down. The yard was a mess; it looked as if dozens of people had fought there, and that Ranma had let loose some of her fireworks.

Ranma and her father were standing over Shampoo and Mousse, who were kneeling on the ground outside the dojo, hugging each other. Shampoo was crying steadily, and Mousse's face was wet, but they hadn't seemed hysterical. Ranma and her father had seemed to be doing their best to console them, and it appeared to be helping.

Finally, Shampoo had looked up at the crowd of people on the porch. She had said something to Mousse, and they had risen from the ground. Shampoo had looked evenly at Ranma, then taken her hand and smiled at her. Ranma had grinned at her, and they had come over to the group by the porch.

Shampoo had stopped just outside the porch, standing in front of Akane. "Shampoo this day says to Akane, debt is paid. Great-grandmother..." She had paused, fighting back a sob. After a second, she had continued. "Great-grandmother is no longer threat to Akane or Ranma. Blood has paid for blood. Let there be no more hurtings between us."

Akane had looked at her a long second, then had bowed deeply to Shampoo. "Let us fight no more, Shampoo. You helped our family, and I am honored to know you."

Shampoo had simply nodded back at her. She had looked over at Mousse. "Is time to go home. We sell restaurant; we pack, we leave. Shampoo never want to see Japan again."

Akane's eyes had widened. She was curiously sad to know she would never see Shampoo again. "Why don't you come with us to the beach? It's only six weeks from now; you'll need that much time to put your stuff in order. Please, one last time together, that's what we're always saying about it."

Shampoo had looked reluctant. "Shampoo don't know, is not good that we be killing each other one day, playing at beach the next."

Akane had smiled. "I order you to come to the beach. I order you to bring Mousse with you."

Shampoo had smiled also, and for the first time that Akane could recall, had looked like a happy teenager. "Okay, is last order Shampoo obey. We go to beach, we be happy, we say goodbye."

Then the rain had started, as if a faucet had been turned on. It came down in sheets, and Akane had cursed the fact that they had not gone inside.

Shampoo had seemed irritated, too. "Is stupid, standing here in open." She'd looked down at her outfit. "Is getting wet clothes spirits made for her."

Mousse had stood there in shock. He'd slowly raised his hands, stared at them, then turned to Shampoo, a smile threatening to cut his face in half. "Shampoo!"

Shampoo had looked at him curiously. "What is Mousse looking so stupid about?"

He'd looked at her, beaming. "Your hair looks beautiful when it's wet. So much better than fur."

Shampoo's eyes had widened, and she'd looked down at herself. "Aiyaa!" She had looked up at Mousse, and they'd hugged each other in happiness, doing an impromptu dance in the courtyard.

Ranma had looked wistfully at them. "Just 'cause a guy ain't an Amazon, doesn't mean they couldn't have helped him out, too." But she had smiled at the couple. It was too hard not to share in Mousse's and Shampoo's excitement.

Akane smiled at the memory. There was a lot to be happy for. Shampoo and Mousse, cured. The last of Ranma's fiancees dealt with. So many chances for happiness now.

Akane's face fell a little. So many chances for sadness, too. Ranma had been less than exuberant. He thought there were still other problems to deal with - something about "the pig still after Akane", though Akane herself had no idea what he was talking about - and he had seemed nervous and edgy all throughout the victory dinner Kasumi and Auntie Saotome had made for them.

Akane's mouth turned down; she remembered the scene in the dojo two days ago. Maybe he was thinking of a way to deal with one last fiancee.

There was a tapping at her window. She looked up to see Ranma hanging upside-down just outside. He always gave her the creeps when he did that. She got out of her bed and limped towards the window. She opened it and stared at him. He looked nervous. He reached out his hand. "Can we talk for a minute?"

She looked at him doubtfully, but took his hand. He pulled her out the window, and Akane once again marveled at his strength. He lifted her to the roof with him. He stared down at her, then gave her a tentative kiss.

Akane had accepted the kiss, but she could tell he had something else on his mind. He broke off the kiss, looked at her again, then helped her to sit down on the roof. The storm was gone, and the stars seemed very bright. You couldn't see many of them, in the city. Akane remembered how many of them there had been in the Higo Forest. They'd been breathtaking.

"Akane..." Ranma was struggling with something. Akane was afraid of what it might be. He sat there, biting his lip, trying to get the courage to say something. Akane sighed and held him, a bit shaky. She wasn't sure she wanted to hear this.

Ranma's head jerked to the side all of a sudden, and a suspicious look came over his face. "Excuse me a sec, Akane," he said causally. He walked along the roof, hooked his feet into the gutter and leaned over the edge. "Yaaaaahhhhhhh!" Ranma's shout was loud, and it was immediately followed by a shriek from inside. Someone threw a string of curses at Ranma, who merely lifted himself back up. He came over to sit down next to Akane, putting a disconnected microphone on the roof next to him.

Somehow the whole exercise put Akane's mind at ease. If he was in the mood to break up with her, he wouldn't have played that joke on Nabiki. For once, she hadn't jumped to any conclusions, and it had paid off for her. She snuggled up to him, while he continued to struggle with himself.

Suddenly it hit Akane. He was finally going to say the words. He was finally going to admit that he loved her. Akane's spirits rose to new heights; she'd been waiting for this moment for a long time. She turned her head down so that Ranma wouldn't see her silly grin.

She spent the time Ranma used to gather his courage to consider how she was going to respond. A casual, "I love you too, idiot"? That would throw him off his stride. Or, "Do you love me more than you love Kasumi's cooking?" Nah, that wouldn't go over well. How about, in a silly voice, "My darling, how long I've waited for those words, oh you must say them again, please oh please?" Her grin grew broader, imagining the look on his face.

Finally, he seemed ready, and drew himself away a little bit to put some room between them. As if the small distance made it easier to say. Akane had to decide quickly what she was going to say. She decided to go with the most honest response, which was to hug him fiercely and say, "I love you, Ranma."

She looked steadily at him, waiting for the moment.

Ranma thrust his hands into his pockets. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He closed it, opened it again. "I... I say some bad things sometimes, without even thinking about it. My mouth just starts saying stuff, and I don't pay any attention to what comes out. So, I was thinking, I needed to give you something, something that would tell you that no matter what my mouth says sometimes, I... I feel another way about you."

She smiled. Enough preamble, Ranma, she thought to herself. Give me the words. I know what you're going to say, and I feel the same way, but it'll be so good to hear the words at long last.

"Akane..." Here it comes.

"Akane, will you marry me?"

Akane blinked. Those weren't the words he was supposed to say. She looked down to notice that Ranma had removed his hands from his pockets and was holding a box out to her.

Akane's mind exploded. There was no other way to describe it. Everything she thought she knew, every assumption she had ever made about Ranma, told her that he simply could not have spoken those words. She stared stupidly at the box, for the life of her unable to figure out what to do. She made her hands take the box; they were shaking horribly. She tried to open it, but couldn't make it work.

Gently, smiling, Ranma took the box from her, opened it, and put it into her palm. She gazed at it: a simple gold ring, not much, he'd probably had to borrow money from Nabiki to afford this much. But on the roof, under the stars, in Ranma's presence, it was the most precious thing in the world.

Numbly, she took the ring out of the box. Again Ranma intervened, taking the ring and putting it on her finger. She looked down at it; it fit perfectly. It was beautiful.

She looked up at him. The tears were beginning to flow, she was finally beginning to react. "Oh Ranma..."

He looked down at her, smiling, confident, all hesitation gone. "I love you, Akane."

With a sob, she flung herself into his arms. She cried into his shoulder, unable to stop. He held her tightly.

She pushed herself up, still sobbing, and looked into his face. "I... I... I..." The sobbing wouldn't let her finish.

He was smiling, happy, amused. "You love me too?"

"Yes!" She grabbed his face and kissed him, the sobbing make it mostly ineffectual. They went back to hugging. Akane calmed herself.

She was still afraid to speak for fear of triggering the sobs again. She continued to hold Ranma, looking over his shoulder at the stars reflected in the pond. She looked down at her hand to gaze at her engagement ring.

The promise of the future, given solid form. The direction that future would take, holding her in his arms right now. The whisperings in her heart, telling her that better things were ahead. Akane sighed, too full of the knowledge of these things to contain herself.

One other thought came to her. It made her laugh, but it was also touched with a hint of pride, of self-confidence she hadn't realize she'd possessed.

The other women never really had a chance.

~*~

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