Part X : One Part of Two

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Akane shook the water off of her as she headed back to the towels. She smiled; she was having a lot of fun. Even if she couldn't swim, she had waded up to her waist and let the waves push her around. Tofu-sensei had hovered over her and held her when the water threatened to overwhelm her. She didn't mind; he was the only person who didn't condescend to her. Well, other than Kasumi.

The odd part was, she used to love feeling his strong hands on her when she had visited him at the clinic. Even if she'd given up on him, she couldn't help almost quiver at his touch. Lately, however, it had felt wrong. More and more, she had come to realize there was only one man she wanted to have put his hands on her.

She flushed a little at the thought. Her physical relationship with Ranma had been proceeding slowly. She wasn't sure if she was going to go Nabiki's route and indulge in something prenuptial, or if she would be like Kasumi and remain virginal until she was married. She was, however, coming more and more to anticipate the moment. Ranma was very handsome, and surprisingly gentle when they were making out. It was unfortunate that the beach house was so crowded. She wondered if she could find a way to get Ranma alone for a while.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the appearance of a whirlwind. It rose high off the ground a hundred meters beyond the beach. She couldn't see beyond the beach houses, but there was only one reason for its appearance. It died as quickly as it had formed, but not before Akane had run off towards it.

***

Ranma gaped at Ryoga. "Where'd you get that?"

Ryoga smiled coldly. "Where do you think I've been these past few weeks? I went to Jusenkyo and brought some of this back with me."

Ranma gazed at the cask. So close, but still lots of room for the curse to make sure he didn't get it. "Why didn't you just jump into the pool?"

Ryoga scowled at him. "Just you never mind about that!"

Ranma could guess. For all that Ryoga hated his curse, he loved sleeping with Akane. If that meant that he had to become a pig to do so, it didn't bother him. But then... "Why did you go at all, Ryoga? If you didn't want to use the water, why go and get some?"

Ryoga glared at Ranma, his face becoming darker. "Because... because..."

Ranma, though, had figured this out, too. "Because of Akari, right? You want to become a complete man for Akari, but you can't let go of Akane. So you just took some water in a cask, and you'll keep it with you until you can decide what to do." Ranma shook his head. "Ryoga, get over it. I'm not going to let you sleep with Akane anymore. Let's just open it, use the water, and let bygones be bygones, okay?"

Ryoga clenched his jaw. "If you think you're going to get off that easy, Ranma, you're sadly mistaken. I have two years of hell that I'm going to take out on you. Taking Akane from me was the last straw. If you won't fight me, then say goodbye to the Nannichuan water!"

Ryoga raised the cask over his head, and made a movement to smash it on the ground.

"No!" Ranma knew he was playing into Ryoga's hands, but he couldn't help himself. The cure was so close - again. He wanted it so badly. Ryoga had him just where he wanted him.

Ryoga stopped himself, smiling at Ranma. "So what do you say, Ranma? Shall we fight?"

Ranma gritted his teeth. No choice, really. Maybe a surprise attack. With a quick, convulsive effort, he let loose a Hiryu Shoten Ha. He hoped the whirlwind would separate Ryoga from the cask.

Ryoga, however, kept both hands on the cask as he was lifted off the ground and tossed about. He land on the ground a few meters from Ranma, rolling on his back, keeping the cask safe.

Ryoga bounced back on his feet, looking only slightly battered by an attack that left most people wasted. "Is that the best you can do, Ranma? This is going to be easy."

Ryoga put the cask under one arm and launched himself at Ranma. He attacked with one hand and his feet, keeping the cask away from Ranma.

Ranma was able to block or avoid Ryoga's blows pretty easily. He was afraid to counterattack too vigorously, though, for fear of smashing the cask. He danced around Ryoga, trying to find a safe opening, knowing that if he didn't, it would only be a matter of time before either the cask was destroyed or Ryoga pounded him.

***

Akane ran up the street, to see Ryoga and Ranma fighting. It was a strange fight; Ryoga had a barrel under his arm, and Ranma was attacking him very cautiously, as if he was afraid of hitting Ryoga - or the barrel.

She saw Akari watching the battle also, her hands covering her mouth. Akane ran up to her. "Akari! What are they fighting about?"

"I don't know!" Akari sounded afraid. "I thought they were such good friends. What did Ranma do to him?"

Akane scowled at her, but Akari was intent on watching the battle. Akane bit back her reply; no purpose would be served by fighting with Akari.

She looked over at the combatants. She wondered what could be in the barrel that was so important. She could make see that something was written on the barrel, but she couldn't make it out. She decided to ask Akari about it. "What's in that barrel Ryoga's holding?"

"I don't know that either. Something he brought back from China, I suppose."

China! Akane looked at the barrel again. It did look exactly like the barrel of Nannichuan water that her father had gotten from Jusenkyo. Why would Ryoga go all the way to China for it? Ranma was the only one who needed it. If Ryoga was going to give it to Ranma as a present, why were they fighting? It just didn't make sense.

Ranma danced back from Ryoga, looking quite frustrated. "Ryoga, stop this! Any more fighting and we'll both lose the water!"

Ryoga growled back at him. "Then that's the way it will be!" He pressed his attack again.

Akari looked at Akane. "What's so special about that water?"

Akane thinned her lips, but could think of no reason not to tell Akari. "It's water that will turn you into a man when hit with cold water. Ranma needs it to cure a curse he has."

"Oh! That's why Ryoga went to China." Akari beamed with understanding. She turned back to watch the fighting.

Akane shook her head. "Why does Ryoga need it?" She meant the question to be rhetorical.

To her surprise, Akari answered her. "Oh, I imagine Ryoga doesn't want to be a pig anymore."

Akane's eyes widened. She grabbed Akari's shoulders, turned her to so they were face to face. "What did you say?"

Akari looked at her in surprise. "Oh, didn't you know? Ryoga turns into the cutest little pig when he's hit with cold water."

It was the single greatest shock of Akane's life. Suddenly a hundred things all fell into place at once. Little puzzles, strange behaviors, the way Ranma acted sometimes - it all made sense.

The bandanna. She should have known by the bandanna.

The anger rose in Akane. She was so furious she couldn't see straight. She heard someone cry out in pain. Akane released Akari's shoulders, turned, and started walking towards Ryoga.

He was intent on fighting Ranma. He didn't see her until she was right next to him. When he finally saw her, he drew back a step. "Akane-san... what's wrong?"

She couldn't contain it any more. "RYOGA!" She hit him as hard as she had ever hit anyone or anything in her life. Ryoga went flying up and away. He hit the top of a nearby telephone pole. Akane didn't care; as far as she was concerned, this was only the beginning. She continued towards him.

***

Ranma darted in and out, trying to get through Ryoga's defense to the cask. It was extremely difficult. Ryoga was very good, and knew what Ranma was after. Ryoga's counterattacks hadn't landed yet, but he has getting closer.

Ranma's mind was hard at work trying to find a way to separate Ryoga from the cask. He just couldn't think of a way that didn't endanger the cask. Reasoning with Ryoga was getting him nowhere.

He saw a glow out of the corner of his eye. He turned to see Akane stalking towards Ryoga, looking as angry as he had ever seen her - and he had seen her plenty angry. She was glowing a bright red, emanating an enourmous amount of chi.

Ryoga seemed surprised at her anger. With a cry, Akane hit him. Ryoga went flying. He hit the top of a telephone pole.

And dropped the cask.

Ranma followed its trajectory. Akane was walking towards the telephone pole. The cask was going to hit the ground next to her.

Ranma moved. He moved as fast as he could, trying to reach Akane. He was not going to let her be cursed. He could not let it happen to her.

Everything was happening so slowly. The cask was taking forever to fall. Akane, still glowing with anger, was barely moving her feet. Ranma himself couldn't make his feet move fast enough.

He realized, to his horror, that he wasn't going to make it in time.

"No!" The word was torn from his throat as continued to move glacially towards Akane. At the same time, an umbrella appeared from above.

The cask hit the ground and burst, sending water spraying everywhere. The umbrella bounced in front of Akane, opening and protecting her from the spray.

As the umbrella continued bouncing and no longer covered Akane, Ranma tackled her. They both went flying across the street, away from the spray of water.

Time resumed its normal pace. Ranma rolled with Akane, protecting her from the pavement. When they came to a halt, he looked back to see the ground covered with water, evaporating almost instantly on the hot pavement. Ryoga was clinging to the top of the telephone pole with his feet and one hand, his other arm flung in front of him, the after-affect of his throw.

Ranma looked at Akane, grabbed her breast, and let out a sigh of relief when he discovered that it was still female.

Akane slapped him. "Not now, pervert." She still looked angry.

Ranma wasn't worried about that right now. He jumped up, looked at himself. He seemed to be dry. He turned his back to Akane. "Am I wet? Did the water splash me?"

Akane's voice sounded very sad. "I'm sorry Ranma. Your clothes have a few wet spots, but nothing that soaked through." She turned him around. "I'm sorry I yelled at you. I'm sorry you lost your cure." She hugged him tightly.

Ranma sighed, the disappointment tasting bitter in his mouth. Yet another opportunity wasted. The frustration caused his eyes to water.

Ryoga. This was all Ryoga's fault. He turned away from Akane, looking for Ryoga. There was no need to hold back anymore. If Ryoga wanted a fight, he had one now.

Ryoga had dropped to the ground. In front of him were the remains of the barrel. It had mostly been destroyed, but the bottom seemed to be somewhat intact. He was crouched by it, looking down.

Ranma ran over and knelt next to him. In the bottom of the barrel, some water still remained. No more than a couple of handfuls worth.

Ranma and Ryoga looked at each other. "Just enough for one person," Ryoga said, his face and tone neutral.

Ranma bored his eyes into Ryoga's, struggling with himself. He wanted to send Ryoga flying, but Ryoga had his hands on the barrel. There was just one more chance at a cure; he couldn't blow it now.

"You certainly don't deserve it, 'P-chan'." Akane had come up to them, her face as furious as ever, although she wasn't glowing.

Ryoga seemed to shrink into himself. "H-how did you..." He looked at Ranma, his anger returning. "You told her, didn't you! You promised..."

"I told her, Ryoga." Akari had come over as well. "Who is 'P-chan'?" For the first time, Ranma saw Akari looking a little angry herself.

Ryoga withered under the combined glares of Akane and Akari. Tears came to his eyes. "I did-didn't mean for it t-to be th-this way..." He looked over at Ranma, pleading for help.

Ranma wasn't in a terribly forgiving mood. He wanted to walk away and let him be pounded by Akane and Akari.

What stopped him was he knew it would destroy Ryoga. Ryoga really did love Akari and Akane. If he lost them both, he would have nothing. Ranma couldn't let that happen to him. Ranma still owed him something for knocking him into the cursed pool.

Also, despite everything that had ever happened between them, he considered Ryoga to be a friend. And his friend needed his help.

"Akane." Ranma stood up and put his hand on her shoulder. "Let's leave these two alone. Ryoga needs to talk with Akari."

Akane whirled on him. "And you! How could you let him do this to me!" Her eyes threw daggers at him.

Ranma sighed. "I got some stuff to explain to you as well." Her face was still set in anger. "Please, Akane, let's go and talk. Listen to me, okay?"

Akane glared at him for a long while, then turned her glare back to Ryoga. She clenched her fist, and both Ryoga and Ranma braced themselves. Finally, she spun on her heel and stormed away.

Ranma turned back to Ryoga. "I'll take care of Akane. You know what you have to do, don't you?"

Ryoga nodded glumly. He looked down at the water. "What do we do with this?"

Ranma had almost forgotten. He couldn't deal with it right now. "Let's talk about it later. Okay, Ryoga?"

Ryoga looked uncertain, but he nodded. "Okay, Ranma."

Ranma stood and looked for Akane. She stood a small distance away, her back to him, but clearly waiting for him. Ranma sighed again, and started walking to her.

"Ranma?"

He turned to look back at Ryoga. "What?"

Ryoga gulped, looking as if he'd rather be saying anything else. "Thanks."

Ranma stared at him for a moment, then smiled. "No problem, buddy."

He turned and followed Akane.

***

Ryoga watched as Ranma went to Akane. As he was about to pull even with her, she resumed her pace, stalking angrily away. Away from Ryoga.

He couldn't blame her. When he saw the cask falling towards her, his heart had leapt into his throat. He'd seen Ranma running towards her, saw that Ranma wasn't going to be in time. Ryoga had grabbed his umbrella and thrown it in front of Akane, the fastest single motion he had ever made in his life.

Thankfully, it had worked.

Still, his heart was broken. Akane knew. She knew everything. And she hated him. Akane would never love him, now. He felt the tears coming to his eyes again.

For some reason, it didn't hurt as bad as he thought it would, though. He wondered why.

Someone cleared her throat. He looked up at Akari, her face angry, her eyes glaring at him. Suddenly, he understood.

He stood up and took Akari's hands in his own. "I've got some things I have to tell you."

Akari took her hands away from his and nodded. "I would say so. How come you never told me you were in love with Akane?" Ryoga could see the hurt in her eyes.

He swallowed. "I've been chasing Ranma for a long time. He humiliated me time and time again in front of our classmates. I swore he was going to pay for that. I chased him all the way to China. That's when I was... cursed." He stared back down at the water, then up again to Akari. "It was more reason to hate Ranma. I followed him to Nerima. I found him at his school, and fought him. Then I found his home. I challenged him there, but it was raining, and I lost my umbrella."

He looked down. "When I changed, I hid. I couldn't fight him when I was cursed. That's when Akane found me. She - she was kind to me. She hugged me and told me I was cute. She was quite affectionate."

Ryoga licked his lips, nervous, not wanting to look at Akari. "It was the first time in a long time that anyone had ever treated me that way. I - I fell for her. Somehow, it didn't matter that she only loved me when I was a pig. It was enough to know she loved me, in some way. Suddenly, there was more to my life than revenge. There was a way to have some affection, even if I was only a pig."

The more he talked, the more shame he felt. "I knew she was falling in love with Ranma. I hated him all the more for it. Yet, if it made her happy, it made me happy, too. Her happiness was all that mattered."

Ryoga drew in a deep breath. "It made me so confused. I wanted to tell her I loved her. I wanted her to be happy, which meant helping her and Ranma get along. I wanted her affection, which meant being her pet pig. It made for a pretty miserable existence."

Raising his head, Ryoga snuck a peek at Akari before looking down again. "Then I met you. You loved me, and you knew about my curse. You weren't in love with anyone else. In you, I could find happiness. But I had become so accustomed to misery, I found it strangely hard to let go of it. I still needed Akane's affection, and the agony I felt being torn between the two of you was greater than any I had ever felt before."

He toed the pavement in front of him. "I never wanted to hurt you, Akari. I think I want to be happy. I just don't know how."

He stood there, staring at his feet, awaiting her reaction, afraid of what it might be.

A hand came out of nowhere and slapped him. He hardly felt it; he'd taken Ranma's best punches in stride. But it hurt him more than any blow ever had. He finally looked up at her, to see her glowering at him.

"Hibiki Ryoga, to think of all the time I've wasted with you. I thought I'd found my love. I gave you love and thought you were giving me love in return. Instead, you were using my love to make yourself miserable. How could you!"

Ryoga took a step back. "Akari, I... I'm sorry. If I had known..."

She whirled and stalked away. He watched her go into the beach house and slam the door.

Ryoga's world came to an end. He collapsed on the ground, letting his tears flow, not caring. He could see the barrel within arm's reach. He didn't care about that, either.

The world was a dark and lonely place.

***

Ranma followed Akane warily. He was not looking forward to this.

She stopped suddenly and spun to face him. "You knew all along, didn't you! From the very first moment! And you let him do that to me!" She was so mad she was shaking.

Ranma tried to make his voice reasonable. "I tried to stop him. You saw how much I tried."

Akane glared at him. "You could simply have told me. Do you know how... humiliating this whole thing is! I changed in front of him, I..." She was flushed. "I slept with him held to my chest! Ryoga!"

Ranma started feeling defensive. "I couldn't tell you because-"

"Because why? Because it gave you a good laugh, to know your old buddy was getting his jollies off of stupid Akane!"

"Because it was my fault he was cursed!"

That stopped Akane short. "What?"

Ranma nodded. "Remember I told you I chased Father around the pools for a couple of hours? During the chase, I accidentally knocked Ryoga into one of the pools." Ranma grimaced. "I owed him something for that. He took advantage of me, used my honor to become your 'P-chan'. I hated him for that, but I couldn't break my word. I'm sorry, Akane."

Akane stared at him. She seemed to relent a little. "Okay. So you were keeping a promise. Okay. I'm not happy about this whole situation, but I can't blame you for it."

Ranma grasped her shoulders lightly. "Please don't take it out on Ryoga. He loved you, he really did. Anything you could do to him wouldn't be any worse than the agony he caused himself."

Akane drew a couple of deep breaths. "All right, for you, Ranma, I won't do anything to him. That doesn't mean I forgive him, though."

Ranma sighed in relief. It was the best result he could hope for.

Akane stepped away from him. "I'm going to go to my room. I need to think for a while."

"Wait!" Ranma gulped. He wished the timing could be better. "There's one more thing we need to talk about."

***

Ryoga wondered if any cars ever came down this street. He wondered if he could throw himself in front of them before they could stop. He wondered if he could just lie here until he died. That seemed a good enough plan for now.

"Ryoga-kun?"

He turned his head. Kasumi and Ukyo were staring at him. He supposed he looked silly. He didn't much care.

Ukyo crouched in front of him. "What's wrong with you, sugar?"

Ryoga could only shake his head.

Ukyo thinned her lips, then grabbed his shoulders and forced him to sit up. "Don't be like this. Just tell Ukyo all about it."

Ryoga stared at her. "Akari..." He swallowed. "Akari and I broke up. She never wants to see me again." He felt the tears falling down his face.

Kasumi looked down at him. "How long ago did she break up with you?"

Ryoga shook his head. "I can't remember. An hour ago, maybe."

"And where did she go?" Kasumi's voice was gentle, reasoning.

Ryoga wondered what Kasumi was leading to. "She went into the house."

Kasumi smiled at him. "Well, I'd say you should go talk to her."

He gaped at her. "But she doesn't want to see me, ever."

Kasumi chided him gently, still smiling. "Now, now, Ryoga-kun, if she never wanted to see you again, she would have gotten in her car and gone away. She went into the house and stayed there because she wants you to know how mad she is, but she also wants you to come after her." She bent over and looked into his eyes. "Go, Ryoga-kun. She wants you. She loves you. All you have to do is to tell her that you want and love her, too."

Ryoga gaped at her. Hope flowed into him, forcing out the depression. Maybe it wasn't too late. He jumped up and ran towards the house.

***

Ukyo looked at Kasumi in admiration. "How do you do that?"

Kasumi smiled. "I learned it from my mother."

Ukyo smiled back. "You're very good. I hope Tofu-sensei knows how lucky he is."

Kasumi's eyes lost focus. "Almost as lucky as I am," she sighed.

Ukyo laughed. Together, they went into the house to make dinner.

***

"Married?"

Ranma nodded at Akane. "By the end of the week."

Akane shook her head. "They can't. They wouldn't."

Ranma shrugged. "They've done it before."

Akane's mind reeled. She did not need this, not now. She still couldn't get over Ryoga. "We'll just have to stop them."

Ranma flinched, so slightly she almost didn't notice. "My father says he'll stop them if we want. He says he can control my mother."

Akane shook her head, trying to clear it. Ranma had flinched just now. Why? The only reason she could think of was that he wanted them to be married this week.

Akane tried to imagine it. Married. They weren't even out of high school yet. Too young, they were too young. Kasumi wasn't getting married for a year yet. Why couldn't she wait, too? That was best, that was reasonable.

Ranma wanted to get married now, though. She could feel it.

What might happen to them in the coming year? They had both nearly been killed a number of times over the past year. What if someone succeeded?

She shook her head. Ridiculous. This past year had been a fluke. All of the fiancees had been taken care of. There were no more threats.

But who knew what other threats were lurking? Another maniac like Kodachi, waiting to fall in love with Ranma at first sight. Another woman like Shampoo, with a strange sense of honor that compelled her to try and force Ranma into marriage. More fiancees Ranma's father hadn't yet told them about. Should she risk that happening?

Ranma wanted to get married. He loved her so much, he was willing to marry her.

How were they going to live? Would they share a room back home? What if - she blushed at the thought - what if she got pregnant? A baby and a husband, all before she graduated from high school? Wasn't that too much to ask one person to deal with at once?

But Ranma wanted to get married. Over the past year, she had heard nothing but protestations from him, how much he resented being her fiancee, how unfair the whole situation was, how he would never marry an uncute tomboy like her. When they'd nearly been married before, he'd found out how they were forcing her into it, and had gone ballistic. He'd removed the leverage they'd had on Akane, and her father had finally relented, saying that it wasn't yet time.

Over the past few weeks, things had changed between her and Ranma. They'd finally shown each other their true feelings. Those feelings had taken them to new heights, to happiness they had never experienced before. She'd found strength and peace in his arms, and she could see him getting the same in return. They'd shared love with each other, and it made her feel as good as she had ever felt.

Ranma wanted to get married.

And oh God she wanted to also.

She reached a shaking hand out to Ranma. "I mean, we'll have to stop them from forcing us. We'll have to tell them we're willing."

Ranma's eyes got very big. "Y-you really want to get married?"

She stepped up to him. "As long as it's to you."

That got to him, she could tell. His eyes began glistening, and they stared at each other, the enormity of the decision weighing on them both.

Slowly, his own hands shaking, Ranma gathered her in. They kissed, trying to steady each other, neither doing a very good job. They trembled in the sea breeze, neither one of them cold.

***

Ryoga looked around; he had no idea what room Akari was in, and he knew he was quite capable of spending hours looking for it. He bit his lip. Please, not this time. Let me find her right away.

He wandered down a hallway, and found one of the doors was open. Looking inside, he saw Akari, sitting on the floor, clutching a stuffed pig in her arms. She didn't look at him at all.

Ryoga entered slowly and sat down opposite her. She glanced at him quickly, then looked deliberately away. Ryoga's heart was beating very fast; he didn't know where to begin.

"I want you to know..." What? What did he want her to know? He needed to think this through.

He swallowed, tried something else. "If I had wanted to... stay with Akane, I would never have gone to China. I brought back the water because I wanted to use it on myself so that I could never be a pig again. That way, I could never be with Akane again."

Akari still wasn't looking at him, but her face seemed to soften a little. Ryoga hoped this was a good sign. "It was hard to give her up. I think that's why I wanted to challenge Ranma. I know that, in a fair fight, he'll beat me nine times out of ten. I knew he'd never let me at Akane again if he won. I think I wanted him to win."

Ryoga rubbed his forehead. "It's difficult for me. I don't do things the easy way. I think I was trying to find my way to you, I just wasn't doing it very well. If...."

He took a deep breath; this was his last play. "If you would give me another chance, I think I could do it the right way. Akane is in love with Ranma, and I am letting her go. I will never be her 'P-chan' again. I would rather be with you."

Akari began crying softly. She finally turned to Ryoga. "If you wanted to cuddle with someone, why didn't you come to me? You wouldn't even have to be a pig." She reached out to him with both arms. He grabbed her and they hugged each other fiercely.

Like a muscle that had been tense for a long time, something relaxed inside Ryoga. The depression that was always a part of his existence began to lessen more and more. Ryoga realized there were alternatives to unhappiness. Good alternatives. He wanted to explore them, starting with the woman he held in his arms.

Suddenly, the world was an okay place after all.

***

The four of them met by the remains of the barrel. Akane and Ranma holding hands on one side; Akari and Ryoga with their arms around each other opposite them.

Ranma studied Ryoga. He had a strange expression on his face. Ranma realized with a start what it was. Ryoga was happy. Happy without being tense. It was good to see him that way.

Ranma watched him carefully. "Akane and I are getting married in a few days."

Ryoga's expression didn't alter in the slightest. "It's about time. I'm happy for you two."

Ranma breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Ryoga had finally made a decision. The right one, too. Ranma looked down at the precious water in the barrel. "So, what do we do about this?"

"It's too bad we couldn't have resolved all our problems before," Akane commented. "Then everyone would be happy."

"It's the curse," Ryoga said. He too looked at the water.

Ranma nodded. "Who do you think is supposed to get it?"

Ryoga looked at Akari, then back at Ranma. "Somehow, I don't think my time has come yet. I think there's still a purpose that hasn't yet been fulfilled. I think that's what led me to Akari. It's just too much of a coincidence that pigs dominate both our lives." Akari looked up at him in adoration.

Ranma was impressed, too. That was pretty good reasoning for Ryoga.

Ranma leaned over and picked up the barrel. He held it in his hands, waiting for something to happen. For the wind to blow, for Happosai to snatch it, anything. He looked down at his feet. No grass, nothing but dry pavement.

He looked at Akane. She was smiling at him. "It's what you wanted. You don't have to be half a man anymore."

Ranma stared back at the water. Being cursed this past year had been a strange adventure. He had been attacked left and right, put in all sorts of unusual situations, been chased by men, and exposed to all kinds of humiliation. He had also learned more martial arts, become stronger and faster, discovered a new identity, and had experiences he could never have known otherwise. Not to mention, he had not met Akane until after he'd been cursed.

Now the adventure was ending.

Ranma looked at Ryoga, then at Akane, smiled, and raised the bucket over his head.

***

Genma sat in the sand, putting on his most inscrutable face. Nodoka was deep into the plans for the reception. They had already covered the abduction and marriage in great detail, and now were planning how they could have a good party but still get everyone to leave by a reasonable hour so that Akane and Ranma could be alone on their wedding night.

Genma stirred uncomfortably. He was not looking forward to telling his wife that there would be no wedding night. It would be sure to end any chance he had to get back together with her. But he could not allow Ranma to be forced into a marriage. Ranma was a good man; he would marry when the time was right. That he had agreed to marry the bride chosen for him by his parents should be enough for Nodoka. She shouldn't press the issue.

He knew, however, that it was a personal issue for her. She knew that her son loved Akane as much - or more - than he loved her. That was hard for her to accept. Nodoka needed them married to ease the hurt she felt. This was unfair to Ranma and Akane, though. Genma would not let her force a marriage on them to soothe her pride.

No matter what it cost him.

"Mother? Father? Uncle Tendo?"

Genma turned. Ranma and Akane were kneeling on the beach. As he and the others turned towards them, they bowed, their foreheads nearly touching the sand.

Genma grimaced despite himself. He wished Ranma had spoken with him first. He could have prepared Nodoka for this moment. Too late; his only choice now was to play it out as best he could.

Nodoka was looking at her son with something approaching suspicion. "What is it, Ranma?"

Ranma straightened with Akane, and addressed her. "Honored Mother, it has come to my attention that you have planned a wedding for me and Akane."

Nodoka's eyes got wide. She turned and stared daggers at Genma. He withered inside; it was as bad as he feared. He kept his outward appearance calm. Now was not the time to fight with her.

Nodoka turned back to her son. "Your mother feels that this is a good time. There's no reason to delay. You can be happily married by the end of the week." She faltered; she could come up with no good reasons why Akane and Ranma couldn't wait. She ended by almost pleading, "It would make your poor mother very happy."

Ranma nodded his head. "As you wish, Mother. We would not want to make you unhappy. As it is, Akane and I agree that there is no reason to delay. We will willingly cooperate with you, Mother, if you will let us know your plans."

Silence descended upon the group. Genma saw the stunned expressions on Nodoka's and Soun's faces, and knew that they mirrored his own. This was not the answer he had been expecting. Ranma and Akane *wanted* to get married now? The possibility had never occurred to him. He probed his feelings, and discovered that their decision made him very happy. No one could deny that his son was a man, now.

Nodoka was close to tears. "You... mean that, son?"

Akane spoke up. "It was a decision we both made. We want to honor your wishes, Mother-in-law." She bowed her head, and turned to Soun. "Yours as well, Father."

"Oh, Akane..." Soun was crying. "If only your mother..." He covered his face with his hands.

Genma sighed. Where was Kasumi when you needed her? He punched Soun in the arm, hard. "Don't carry on, Tendo-kun. Her mother knows. Let's get on with the wedding plans so that these two young people can be married."

Soun rubbed his arm and nodded.

Genma turned back to Ranma. "Thank you, son, for telling us this. Why don't you and Akane go back to the house for dinner. We will join you soon."

Ranma nodded. "There is one other thing you should know." He turned towards Nodoka. "This should make you very happy, Mother."

Nodoka was still more or less in shock, but managed, "What is it, Ranma?"

Ranma reached behind him and brought out what looked like half of a smashed barrel. He turned back towards Genma and threw it at him. It landed upside down on Genma's head, the water soaking him.

Genma looked at his son in disapproval. Both Ranma and Akane were grinning widely at him. "I fail to see the humor in this, boy."

Soun was staring at him. He reached over and fingered Genma's soaked tunic. "This is cold water, Saotome-kun."

Genma blinked. It was cold. And he was feeling it with his skin. Not fur.

He reached up and took the barrel off his head. He examined it closely and found half of a Chinese phrase he had come to know. He looked at Ranma incredulously.

Ranma nodded happily. "Nannichuan. Only enough for one person, I'm afraid. Thought you could use it the most."

Genma gasped. He had become so accustomed to his curse, he had not thought much about its end. Then, unexpectedly, the cure had literally fallen on his head. His mind was whirling, his emotions churning as he hadn't allowed them to in many years.

He looked at Nodoka, who seemed on the verge of fainting under the impact of the multiple shocks she had received in the past few minutes. He couldn't stop a smile from reaching his lips. "Nodoka, I guarantee that I will never be a panda again."

She stared at him, apparently unsure how to respond. Then she smiled. "Oh, Genma, I am so happy for you. Are you sure that you are happy?"

Genma examined himself, tried to make some sense out of this own thoughts and feelings. He discovered, to his surprise, that he was not sorry to see the curse lifted. He had finally recognized it for the crutch it was, and was gratified to be standing on his own.

He nodded. "I am a man. That is my true nature. And I am glad of it."

Nodoka closed her eyes and said something to herself, so softly he couldn't hear it.

Ranma stood up and clasped his hands on Genma's shoulders. "Congratulations, Pop. Father, I mean. Now you can show everyone how much of my swimming skills I learned from you."

Genma looked into Ranma's eyes, for the first time realizing what Ranma had given up. He saw no trace of remorse or jealousy in Ranma. Ranma seemed content to be as he was right now, and that made Genma feel good, too.

Ranma turned away, took Akane's hand, and started walking back down the beach. The three parents looked after them.

"You know, Tendo-kun," Genma remarked. "We did a good job with those two."

"They are exceptional young people." Nodoka looked at Genma, a puzzled look on her face.

Soun sighed. "She's as much a product of Kasumi's parenting as much as mine or her mother's. I must remember to thank Kasumi."

Genma nodded. He knew, though, that as much as they might have helped, in the end, Akane and Ranma had chosen to be good people. They were lucky to have such fine offspring.

***

Ranma fidgeted in his tuxedo. Somehow, the fact that he had put it on himself made it more uncomfortable.

He couldn't believe he was doing this. He could not believe he was about to go through with it. He must be mad. This had to be the result of some mad plot on someone else's part. He looked around. It would easy to run across the sand, lose himself in the beach houses....

"Relax, Ranma." Ryoga put his hand on Ranma's shoulder. "It'll be over in a little bit." He paused, and a twinkle of amusement entered his eyes. "You know, Ranma, I wanted to take my revenge on you by beating you up. Seeing you suffer like this is much more satisfying."

Ranma glared at him. 'Best man' indeed. More like the guy who poured salt into an open wound. He could use a good chi-attack. Ranma didn't feel up to a Moko Takabisha. A Hiryu Shoten Ha would cause too much damage. Maybe a simple Kachu Tenshin Amiguriken; he hadn't done one of those in a while.

There was a sudden rustle, the sound of everyone turning in their seats at once. Ryoga looked down the aisle and his eyes got big.

Ranma slowly turned, somewhat afraid of what he was going to see.

Akane was absolutely radiant. She had on another western-style wedding dress. This one had many more frills and a long trail. The lace seemed to positively glow in the sunlight.

What made her more beautiful, though, was her face. She had on the biggest smile he had ever seen from her, at the same time close to tears. Her eyes were big, and they were fixed on Ranma. He swallowed. He never wanted her eyes to leave him.

He wasn't sure if her father was supporting her, or she him. Probably a bit of both, Ranma decided. Her father released Akane at the head of the aisle, to practically collapse into a chair next to Ranma's mother and father. He didn't seem up to standing through the ceremony.

Ranma turned his attention back to Akane. She wasn't smiling anymore, just looking at his face with a solemn, slightly frightened look on her face. She was breathing rapidly, and seemed about to faint. He gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile, although it felt weak on his lips. She also gave him a weak smile. Ranma almost laughed; she was probably trying to reassure him as well.

They both turned to the court official Ranma's mother had hired for the occasion, a nondescript man with dark hair and glasses. He was smiling too, with more strength. He nodded at them, then began.

"Ranma and Akane have agreed to marry each other, and give each other happiness and love. They enter into a lifelong partnership, where each submerges their will into the greater whole of their unity. For they are no longer separate identities, but rather, each is one part of the two lives entwined, finding strength together, peace together, love together. Let them not be thought of as merely individuals, but each one-half of the total sum of their spirits.

"Inasmuch as Akane and Ranma have consented on paper to be man and wife, I must now ask them to give this consent aloud, for a contract of marriage is the one contract in which the promises of heart and mouth must supersede those of brain, and ink, and paper.

"Think not that this is an easy thing, this exchanging of vows, or one to be taken lightly. Each of these young people is taking an oath, which binds their honor and the honor of their families to their words. When a person takes such an oath, that person cradles their own soul in their hands.

"And so, Akane and Ranma, I charge you now: If you don't intend for these vows to bind you, release each other from the pledges you've made until now, and me from my promise to wed you, for I shall not do so willingly should this be the case.

"Indeed, should any witness to this ceremony know a reason why the oaths taken today shall not be kept, and kept sincerely, speak now, or ratify this marriage with your silence."

Ranma couldn't help but look around. Shampoo was holding Mousse's hand very tightly, and seemed about to cry, but she didn't look like she had anything to say. Tatewaki was sitting next to Nabiki, looking very stern, but also strangely content. Ukyo was sitting by herself, and she *was* crying, but she met Ranma's gaze with a brave smile and a nod.

Ranma looked at Ryoga, who raised an eyebrow and indicated with a movement of his head that Ranma should pay attention to the ceremony. Relieved, Ranma looked forward once more.

"Do you two swear and affirm that you stand here of your own will, free of external compulsions, to be wed by me before these loved ones, and that you willingly exchange the vows you are about to take?" Ranma and Akane both murmured agreement. Ranma couldn't help but wonder what would have happened at this point if Mother had carried out her original plan.

"Good. Take each other's hand, and look at each other."

Akane shyly offered her hand. Ranma placed it in his own. They looked at each other. Ranma felt the outside world melt away. The only thing that existed at all was the woman in front of him. His doubts, hesitations, and fears vanished in her eyes. He smiled, confident, assured, knowing that this was good and right. Akane smiled at him too, also seeming less afraid. The love they felt seemed almost a physical thing, saturating the air between them.

Words seemed to float in from somewhere. Ranma didn't much care about where they came from, but he listened to them nonetheless.

"Ranma, repeat after me..." Ranma did, putting his love into the words.

"I, Saotome Ranma, accept you, Tendo Akane, as my one true wife..." he almost stumbled over the word, but kept going, "...and will love and honor you and you alone in this fashion, and will serve you and you alone with every last breath as lover, provider, and shield, and not forsake you, no matter how the winds may blow, for as long as we two shall live."

The words from outside were now directed at Akane. She echoed the words, her expression serious, her voice quiet but firm, her eyes wide, her hand steady as it held his. "I, Tendo Akane, accept you, Saotome Ranma, as my one true husband, and will love and honor you and you alone in this fashion, and will serve you and you alone with every last breath as lover, provider, and shield, and not forsake you, no matter how the winds may blow, for as long as we two shall live."

The world grew a little, and now Ranma could see the court administrator as he continued the ceremony.

"Do you have the rings?" Ryoga handed Ranma two gold bands. One had a small diamond in its center, beautiful still in its simplicity. Ranma gave the plain one to Akane, and put the other on her finger. She took his hand and put his ring on his finger. It felt like cold fire on his skin, burning the knowledge of his marriage into him.

"So be it. You two have, this day, demonstrated your complete and total faith in each other. By virtue of the powers vested in me, I now declare you one soul, husband and wife, lawfully joined."

The court administrator smiled again. "You may, at your convenience, kiss the bride."

Ranma fought to keep his hands from shaking as he lifted his wife's veil. She was looking at him, eager, loving. They kissed, and the sound of cheering buoyed them as they lost themselves in each other.

***

Shampoo watched from the edge of the reception. Ranma and Akane looked dazed but happy. She wondered if they truly knew what had happened to them. She sighed, unable to suppress a twinge of jealousy.

Mousse was gazing wistfully in completely the wrong direction. He didn't have his glasses on, and he was about to make a fool out of himself again. "Don't they look beautiful together?" He was staring at Ukyo and Genma, standing together.

Shampoo blew out a exasperated breath. "Stupid Mousse." She reached up and brought his glasses down onto his face. She snuck a look at his eyes before the glasses covered them; they really were beautiful. "Let's go say goodbye, Mousse. It's time we began our journey home."

Mousse looked sad but nodded. They made their way over to Akane and Ranma.

Ranma was busy twisting his wedding ring around and around his finger. Akane noticed them, and smiled as they approached. "Shampoo! Mousse! I am so glad you came. It's good to see you."

"Was not always so, eh, Akane?" Shampoo wished her Japanese was better. She had never put much effort into it, and now that she was leaving Japan forever, she wished she could say this last thing clearly. "It brings joy to Shampoo's heart to see you and Ranma happy so. Shampoo thinks best person for Ranma is Akane. Has always been Akane." She bit her lip. "Shampoo is sorry to have caused so much trouble trying to make it not so."

Akane reached over and took her hand. "Hush, Shampoo, that's all behind us. You helped us, too, when we needed it most. Let us always remember the good things, okay?"

Shampoo nodded. "Okay. Akane speaks wisely. Shampoo hopes to be like Akane." She couldn't resist one last taunt. "In some ways."

Akane laughed. They held each other's gaze a moment, then Shampoo turned to Ranma.

Ranma was smiling sadly. "I hate to see you go, Shampoo. I'm going to miss you."

Shampoo viciously fought back a sob. "Shampoo will miss Ranma. Is only man who could make Shampoo act like little girl. Is maybe good we not get married; Shampoo wants to be adult." She reached up and touched Ranma's cheek. "Ranma, you always carry part of Shampoo's heart, part of Shampoo that you took when you beat Shampoo in combat. When troubled, when you need little spark of fire that Amazons give best, look to piece of Shampoo. It always burn for you."

Ranma took a deep breath, grabbed her hand with his own. "Thank you, Shampoo. If you ever need any help, let me know and I'll be there. I promise."

"Shampoo knows that." She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. "Wo ai ni," she whispered in his ear, so soft she could barely hear herself. She looked down and turned away.

She waited while Mousse gave his best wishes to Ranma and Akane. Mousse and Ranma shook hands firmly, and Ranma thanked him for his help and wished him a good journey. Mousse thanked him right back, said goodbye, and then put his hand on Shampoo's elbow. Together they left the reception.

As they walked down to the train station, Shampoo attempted to shake the melancholy from her soul. This was not how Amazons acted. She looked over at Mousse, and was slightly startled to see him studying her intently.

"You were very brave tonight, Shampoo. I'm proud of you."

"Hmph. As if an Amazon would behave any other way." She lifted her chin. "It's time to put this silly island behind us. Time to go home and face the elders. After that, we'll start making a better future for our tribe. You'll see, Mousse. My name will be written among the greats of the Amazons."

"Of that I have no doubt." His face faltered a little. "Shampoo, when you say we... do you mean, you and me separately, or...." He swallowed, unable to continue.

She studied him carefully. He had been chasing her as long as she had known him. Then again, many men had been chasing her for the past couple of years. No one had started as early as Mousse had, however. He had always been around, always there to guide her or help her. He'd even come to Japan to be with her.

She was still pining a little over Ranma. When she was over him, maybe she had room in her heart for someone else.

Shampoo looked at Mousse haughtily. "Mousse, where would I be if you hadn't been with me? A good leader takes full advantage of her assets. Right now, you are an asset." She sniffed. "Just make sure you remain so."

Mousse looked at her uncertainly. Good. He should never assume too much about her, never believe he knew what she was thinking.

But he shouldn't be completely in the dark, either. She reached over and took his hand. He smiled and seemed to grow two feet.

Shampoo smiled back at him. It was a beginning.

***

Ryoga clasped Ranma on the shoulder. "Well, Ranma, I can't say that the better man won."

Ranma looked at him, raised an eyebrow. "Oh, yeah?"

Ryoga smiled at him. "I will say that the right man won, though. Congratulations."

Ranma smiled and clasped his hand. For a moment, they squeezed each other's hand very tightly, yet another contest. Ryoga let go first; no need to embarrass Ranma on his wedding day.

Ryoga looked over at Akane. She was smiling, but her eyes were a little guarded. There was still a lot she wasn't quite ready to forgive, evidently. Ryoga couldn't blame her. Even thinking about what he had done to her made him want to beat his head against something very hard. Fortunately, Akari was helping him to deal with it.

He bowed to her. "Akane-san, I am very happy for you. I can't ever hope for your forgiveness, but I do hope you'll come to understand how much I truly respected you, even if my actions indicated otherwise. It was... very pleasant to have your affection, in any form. I am glad that Ranma will be able to receive that same affection; he is worthy of it."

The guarded look left Akane's eyes. "I forgive you, Ryoga. If the truth be known, I really did love P-chan. He comforted me a lot during some bad times. He seemed to understand me, and listened attentively when I needed someone to talk to. Those are the memories I'll cherish, and I thank you for them."

Ryoga felt another weight being lifted from his soul. "Thank you, Akane-san. You have a very good heart. May I learn kindness from you."

"What are you going to do now, buddy?" Ranma smirked at him. "Go play with Akari's pigs?"

Ryoga let out an amused breath. "I don't know if I'd call it 'playing', but I am going to help Akari out with her business."

Akane looked over at Akari curiously. She was across the room talking with Ukyo. "What does she do, exactly?"

Ryoga blinked. "You know, I'm not sure. We, uh, haven't talked much about it yet." He smiled; most of the past week had been spent with them together playing at the beach. They had managed to spend a few moments here and there alone together, and he found those moments to be very exciting. He was looking forward to expanding on them.

Ranma seemed to read his thoughts and smiled at him. "Well, when you find out, let us know. I hope we can still see each other. You'd better let us come to you, though."

Ryoga chuckled. "That would probably be best."

He stared at them, the two people who had dominated his life during the past year. As sad as it was for him to realize that he was going to be seeing far less of them, it was also a relief. He would no longer be agonizing over Akane or fighting with Ranma. Even if it had been unintentional, no longer would they be making his life a misery.

He bowed his head one last time, smiled, then turned to find Akari.

She had finished talking with Ukyo and was on her way over to Ryoga. "Ready to go?" She sounded very happy, as usual.

Ryoga nodded. They walked hand in hand out the door.

Ryoga struggled with his new feelings. Happiness. Love, offered and returned. Instead of brooding about what might have been or agonizing over what to do, he was now excited about the future and ecstatic with the direction his life was going. It was good to feel this way.

Even if it took some getting used to.

***

Nabiki watched from a distance as Tatewaki stood in front of Akane and Ranma spouting phrase after phrase of some sonnet or other. Something about parts of the body fighting with each other; it sounded awfully boring. Both Ranma and Akane had glazed expressions; they weren't getting it much, either.

He finished with a flourish, and bowed, as if expecting applause. Akane was quick to thank him, while Ranma merely blinked, as if waking from a nap. Nabiki decided it was time to come to their rescue.

She came up to Tatewaki and grabbed his arm. "C'mon, Kuno-baby. These two want to be alone real soon. Let's be off."

Tatewaki looked at her, faint reproach in his face. She decided she would make him pay for that later. He turned back to Ranma. "Take good care of her, Saotome Ranma-san. Know that you have Kuno Tatewaki as both guardian of your good fortune, and avenging angel of your indiscretions."

Nabiki rolled her eyes. "Come *on*, dear. That's enough for tonight." She started pulling him away.

Akane rushed up to her. "Nabiki..." They stared at each other. Akane's eyes were moist. Nabiki discovered, somewhat to her disgust, that hers were as well.

She leaned forward and hugged Akane. "You take good care of Ranma, Akane. Let me know if you need any... advice." They separated and looked at each other again, Akane turning slightly red before they both started laughing.

Nabiki looked at Ranma, who was sharing a puzzled look with Tatewaki. "Let me manage your books when you take over the dojo, Ranma. You'll only bungle them. I'll even give you a reasonable rate for my services, now that you're family and all."

Ranma looked at her. "Thanks, Nabiki. If that's what I decide to do, I'll take you up on that." Akane looked at him in surprise.

Nabiki considered his words for a moment, and decided that it was not a matter worth pursuing right at the moment. She smiled at Ranma, then grabbed Tatewaki and pulled him with her out the door.

Tatewaki followed her, sounding puzzled. "Where are we going?"

Nabiki snorted. "Back to the beach house. We don't have much time. The reception will be ending soon and everyone will be getting ready to leave."

Tatewaki's confusion seemed to increase. "Time for what?"

What an idiot. They reached the beach house. She opened the door, pushed him inside, jumped on his back, and started kissing his neck. He staggered under her weight, but headed down the hall to a bedroom.

He put her gently onto a sleeping mat. They looked into each other's eyes for a moment. She loved the way his stern features melted at times like these.

"Nabiki-chan, will we two ever know a moment like Ranma and your sister knew this afternoon?"

Nabiki harumphed. "Not likely, Kuno-baby. College is going to be taking up all my time, and after that, business. There just simply isn't time for anything else." She quavered; she hadn't meant to tell him this, but she couldn't help herself. "Ask me after college. I might give you a different answer."

She saw his eyes glow with her promise. That, she decided, made it worthwhile. Maybe there was something to this open and forthright behavior Tatewaki was always exhibiting. She'd have to explore it a little further.

He bent down and kissed her and it went on from there. This time, he got it right.

***

Kasumi looked over at Akane, who was smiling happily at everyone. You could just see love radiating from her. Kasumi was so happy for her.

Kasumi watched as Nabiki pulled Tatewaki from the reception. She could guess what they were going to do, and for once, it didn't bother her. Nabiki had found love as well.

Her sisters, in love. She was in love. There was so much love, it filled her heart to overflowing. She started to cry.

She'd been doing a lot of that today. Tofu patiently handed her a handkerchief. He was smiling, not the big silly smile of oblivious love, but the quiet, understanding smile of a friend. She was so lucky to have found him. She started crying harder.

"Now, Kasumi, it's okay." Tofu put his arm around her, somehow knowing that his presence said more than any words possibly could. She took strength from him.

Drying her tears, she made her way over to Akane and Ranma. They saw her coming, and their expressions changed. They both showed affection and respect. And love. It started her crying again.

Akane stepped up to her and hugged her fiercely. "Kasumi..." Akane was crying, too. "You've done so much for our family, for me. I can't... I can't begin to tell you how much I've depended on you." She squeezed Kasumi. "Thank you, older sister."

Kasumi was surprised at the rate water was flowing from her eyes. "Oh, Akane. You've made me so proud today. You are such the perfect young woman. Mother sees you, Akane. She must be very happy with how you turned out."

Akane disentangled herself from Kasumi, looked into her eyes. "If she is, then she also knows that it's mostly because of you. Mother sees you too, Kasumi."

They looked at each other, taking comfort in the shared memory of their mother, and their life spent together.

Tofu was speaking to Ranma, sharing his congratulations. He and Ranma both turned to look at Kasumi and Akane, and Kasumi could almost feel their affectionate grins.

Kasumi finally looked up from Akane and over to Ranma. "I am ever so glad that you came into our lives, Ranma-kun. We will see you in a week. It'll be time to get ready for the next school year."

"Already? Yuck." Ranma grimaced. Then he beamed at Kasumi. "We'll also need to get ready for your wedding."

She glanced at Tofu. "Oh my, that's a year away, Ranma-kun."

"Well, you can't start too soon. Who knows, maybe we'll kidnap you and force you into a wedding dress next month. Trust me, it's happened before."

Kasumi laughed, then went over and kissed Ranma on the cheek. He blushed, and gave her an awkward hug.

Kasumi went towards the door. "Tofu, I need to get us ready to go home."

He smiled at her. "Of course. Let me help."

She stopped just outside, realizing that Nabiki was probably at the beach house and would need a little privacy for a while. She looked at Tofu, and smiled. She took his hand. "Can we take a walk along the beach for a bit first?"

A little bit of the silly smile crept onto his face. "Sure!" He tried to lead them back inside. Gently but firmly, she pulled him in the direction of the ocean.

Kasumi sighed. Her whole life had been spent on her family, trying to make them as happy as possible. She had reaped some of the benefits tonight. Still, she thought, looking up at Tofu, it was good to know that a future lay before her where someone was going to be making her happy as well.

She stopped him, and looked steadily into his face. He took the hint, and kissed her.

***

Ukyo sighed and decided she couldn't put it off any longer. Just about everyone was gone, and Ranma and Akane looked very tired. It had been a long day for them.

It had been a long day for her, as well.

She walked up to them slowly, keeping her eyes down. She had no idea what she was going to say. She thought maybe she should just keep walking by them and out the door.

Instead, she stopped in front of Akane and looked at her. "Congratulations, Akane. You won his heart, and that's not an easy thing to do. Trust me."

Akane smiled brightly. "I'll tell you a secret. I always thought to myself, if Ranma doesn't choose me, I hope he chooses Ukyo. You were - are - his good friend, and that's ever so much more important than Kodachi's wealth or Shampoo's ungodly figure."

Ukyo chuckled, but at the same time she was deeply touched. Somehow it made everything easier to bear. She reached out and squeezed Akane's arm. "Thanks, Akane. Come on over to my restaurant any time. There's always a free okonomiyaki there for you."

She turned to Ranma. He was smiling broadly at her. "Ucchan."

She flinched slightly. "Do me a favor, kiddo. Don't call me that. It reminds me of too many things."

Ranma's smile flickered out. He nodded sadly. "I understand."

Ukyo forced herself to smile. "Come on, no unhappy faces. I'm glad you and Akane found each other, truly I am. We'll always be friends though, right?"

"Of course." He was smiling again. "Who else has known me as long as you? I'm glad you're staying near. We'll still be seeing each other. Maybe you can come over and cook for us once in a while."

For the first time all day (bringing to a halt a personal best time, Ukyo was sure), Akane got angry. "What, my cooking's not good enough for you?"

"Ulp." Ranma had a stricken look on his face. "I mean, you know, she can help you."

"I need help, do I?" Akane's face was turning a little red.

"Uh... uh..." Ranma was incoherent again.

Ukyo laughed and grabbed each one of them by an arm. "I'm so glad marriage hasn't changed you two. Life would be so boring otherwise."

They both stared at her for a second, then Ranma began laughing with her. Akane's lips quirked in a wry smile.

Ukyo calmed herself and stared at Ranma once more. Looking at him, she could finally remove the last traces of him from her heart. A good friend, yes, but never any more. She was glad she had faced him, glad that she could talk to him without the yearning eating at her soul. She looked forward to his and Akane's friendship.

She also looked forward to finding someone very much like him for herself. It would be a difficult search.

Ukyo held out her hand. Ranma looked at it, grabbed it, and hauled her in for a hug. She laughed and hugged him back. It felt good, as between friends.

She released him, took one more look at Akane and Ranma together, then turned and left.

Ukyo was eager to get back to her restaurant. The customers would be waiting, and she still had her dreams of prosperity to look forward to.

Life without Ranma in her dreams. Ukyo realized that for the first time, it actually felt pretty good.

***

It was a tired group of people that pulled up to the Tendo home. Everyone piled out of Tatewaki's van slowly, gathering their things. Genma looked around to see Nabiki give Tatewaki a kiss goodnight, evidently too tired to realize everyone was watching. Genma stifled a sigh; it was good to see so many young people in love.

The sight of his son and Akane together had hit him harder than he'd thought. His son had been his responsibility for so long. To let go of some of that duty had been more difficult than he thought, but the way Ranma had looked at Akane, with the love plain on his face, eased Genma's soul. He hoped they could keep the love going. Genma thought they could. He'd always be there to help. He knew the signs of love going sour, and he hoped he could help Ranma discover them before they went too far.

Reaching for his single bag in the back of the van, his arm brushed Nodoka's as she reached for one of her bags. She looked at him, her expression neutral. She had not spoken to him unless necessary for the wedding since he had told Ranma about the wedding plans. Genma deeply regretted that, but did not think he could have done things any differently.

He sighed, this time audibly, and turned towards the Tendo home.

"Stop, Genma. I want to speak with you." Her voice was as neutral as her face.

The others took the hint and quickly dispersed, Tatewaki driving off in his van. Genma waited with extreme trepidation; when she was like this, anything was likely to happen. Including attacks with a bokken.

She stood there, her arms clasped in front of her, standing very straight, her face and tone still neutral. "Why did you go against my wishes and inform our son of my plans to have him wed?"

Genma grimaced, but refused to soften his stance. "To force our son into marriage is not honorable. I wished our son to begin his life with Akane uncoerced, so that there would not be any regrets, no thoughts that his marriage was rushed and not entirely in accordance with his wishes." He looked steadily at her. "I know how regrets like those can haunt a person."

She didn't react. "You were fortunate that he agreed anyway. What if he had told you that he did not want to get married?"

This was a good place to try and appease her. He could say that he would have gone along with her plans. Who was to say he wouldn't have? But he couldn't lie, not anymore, not about this. "I would have prevented you from forcing him to marry. His needs, his desires in the matter were more important than our own, Nodoka. For such an important decision, his will must govern - and Akane's - or it would lead to unhappiness for them both." Once again, he tried to draw from the experiences they shared. "I would do anything in my power to prevent my son from having an unhappy marriage."

She was silent a while. "We had been making good progress towards a reconciliation, Genma. You knew how much our son's marriage meant to me. You were willing to throw away your own happiness to protect Ranma?"

There was no hesitation in him. "Of course. Always. He is my son."

Nodoka walked closer to him, to peer into his eyes. "I have always known you to be an immature and irresponsible person. I held little hope that you would learn what it was to be an adult. But when *I* learn duty and responsibility from *you*, it is a sign that you have changed. For the better."

She reached up and patted him on the cheek. "Let us return to our house, my husband."

Joy filled Genma, a kind he had not known for twenty years. He felt his face cracking into the biggest smile he had let loose in a very long time.

Nodoka picked up a couple of her bags. Genma gathered the rest along with his own, and followed his wife home.

***

Ranma stood on the porch of the beach house, looking at the stars. You couldn't see the ocean from here, but you could smell it. He breathed it in, wondering if it would always remind him of his wedding to Akane. He hoped so.

Akane padded up to him. She had changed into her yellow pajamas. He wondered how she knew that they were the ones that drove him wild. He was wearing a tank top and his shorts. There was one more... task... yet to be performed, but Ranma felt reluctant to leave the porch just now. For the first time all day, he was at peace.

Akane seemed to feel it as well. She wrapped her arms around his chest and looked up at the stars with him. "What are you thinking of, husband?"

Ranma gulped. Husband. It felt strange to hear that. Good, too.

"I was thinking about all the stuff that's happened this year. It could be just the prelude. I'm still cursed. Who knows what the curse has in store for me next year."

Akane looked at his face. "Are you sorry that you didn't use the Nannichuan water on yourself?"

"No." Ranma was firm on this. "Father needed it more. He and Mother are going to get back together; he doesn't need all the wacky stuff that goes along with being cursed."

"We can still go to China. The curse seemed willing to let you go."

"Maybe." He stared at the stars thoughtfully. "Maybe it was just testing me. Strange how there was only enough water left for one person. Maybe it wanted to see if I was... I dunno... worthy or something. That's why I was thinking that there's worse to come. If I passed this test, that may mean more difficult challenges await me."

He felt Akane shudder. "More difficult? As if what we've faced hasn't been difficult enough."

Ranma nodded. "Mousse spoke to me of destiny. He seemed to think I had a greater destiny than just running your father's dojo." He grimaced. "This may sound like I got a huge ego, but I kinda believe that. I'm actually looking forward to it."

"Do you still hate the thought of sometimes becoming a woman?"

Ranma tilted his head. "Something that guy said at the wedding. About you and me each being one part of a greater thing. I think maybe my curse is like that. We're each half of me, if that makes sense. And I think I've become a better person because of it. I shouldn't hate it. I should appreciate it. That doesn't mean I'm gonna start running around in dresses or nothing like that. But I ain't gonna hide from it, either."

Akane let out a long breath. "I'm glad, Ranma. You shouldn't be afraid of who you are. I remember how much I liked you when I thought you were a girl. It took me most of a year to rediscover the part of you that I saw in you that first time. It was that part of you that I fell in love with. I might never have tried to find it if I hadn't seen it in your female half first."

That took Ranma by surprise. He had never considered that. He remembered seeing Akane for the first time. She had smiled at him and asked him if he wanted to be friends with her. She might never have asked if he had been a guy. And they wouldn't be standing here now.

For the first time, he was glad he had fallen into that pool.

He turned to Akane and gazed deeply into her eyes. He no longer tried to keep his feelings hidden around her. There was an invitation in her eyes, a desire to know everything about him, a willingness to share his burdens, and a promise of happiness now and forever. He hoped she could see the same in him.

He kissed her, and she kissed back fervently. He suddenly found a desire to complete that last task.

One part of two. Ranma never wanted to know of any other fraction ever again.

THY INWARD LOVE - THE END

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