~~~~~ Chapter 10: Honeymoon ~~~~~
Two young women trudged up a snowy road through a mountain village. Both carried large packs on their shoulders. "Look, I wanna find some hot water before we get there!" one told the other loudly.
Akane sighed and hitched at her pack-straps for the seventeenth time. "Stop it, Ranma. It's not my fault that water fountain was broken."
"I'm not goin' inta the hotel like this!"
"Yes, you are. I'm cold, I'm tired, and I'm hungry, and I want to get checked in just as soon as we can."
"Well, it's not MY fault the train was late and the damn bus blew a tire!"
Akane ignored her and looked at the piece of paper in her hand, then up at the rambling building of dark wood on the outskirts of the village. "Yamashiro Onsen. We're here. Finally." She headed for the entrance, noticed Ranma wasn't following her, turned around, stomped back to Ranma, grabbed her arm, and towed her up the steps.
"Welcome!" the woman in the office said cheerily as Akane and Ranma came up.
"Hello. Ten, um, Saotome Akane and Saotome Ranma. We should have paid reservations." Akane blushed a little over her slip.
The clerk riffled through a file and pulled out a paper. "Oh, yes, here you are... the honeymoon cottage?! Oh dear, there must have been a mistake!"
Ranma nudged Akane. "See, I toldja we shouldn'ta come in here both girls oof!"
Akane removed her elbow from Ranma's ribs, gathered the remaining shreds of her patience, and tried to smile at the clerk. "No, no mistake," she said. "This is, um, Tendo Ranko, my cousin. Saotome Ranma, my husband, will be along soon." Just as soon as I get some hot water and some privacy....
The clerk looked distraught. "No, no, you don't understand," she said, wringing her hands. "Just wait here a moment; I'll get the manager, he'll explain."
Ranma and Akane traded looks as the clerk left the office. "I don't like the sound of this," Ranma said, swinging her pack down to the floor and rotating her shoulders. "Here...." She helped Akane put her pack down too.
"If there's a problem with the reservation, they'll regret it, and when we get back to Nerima, Nabiki'll regret it," Akane vowed. "Mmmm...." Ranma was rubbing her neck.
A middle-aged man came out of the inner office with the clerk close behind. Ranma dropped her hand from Akane's neck hastily and pretended she hadn't been doing anything. "Ah! Welcome to Yamashiro Onsen!" the manager said happily. "Saotome... you're the experts Tendo-san sent, then?"
"You betcha," Ranma said proudly before Akane could respond. "We're the heirs to the Musabetsu Kakuto, from the Tendo Dojo."
The manager looked a little confused, then looked down at the paper in his hand and shrugged. "Splendid, splendid. I apologize for the confusion. Your, er, room is ready for you. Right this way...."
Akane prevented Ranma from decking the porter when the man tried to pick up their packs and led her off down the hallway, following the manager. The porter brought up the rear, staggering. How the hell did those little girls carry these damn things?!
They went out a side door and down a graveled path to a small building set off by itself in a grove of pine trees. The manager pulled a key out of his pocket, took an ofuda off the doorknob, opened the door, and handed Akane the key. "Here it is," he said, waving. "We had it cleaned up especially for your arrival. I hope everything works out all right... if there's anything you need, just use the intercom." He hurried away. The porter gave them a glance fraught with some unidentifiable emotion, dropped the packs in the entryway, and fled without waiting for a tip.
Akane watched them go and shook her head. "You have to stop terrorizing perfect strangers, Ranma," she said, walking into their room. She stopped. "Wow." The room was old-fashioned and fairly large, with tatami mats on the floor, a firepit in one corner, and two shoji walls. Some of the shoji were damaged and the ceiling looked a bit shabby, but it was still luxurious by their standards.
Ranma was looking around. "Jeez, for once Nabiki came through," she said wonderingly. "I was expectin' a closet. This had ta cost an arm an' a leg...." She walked over to a shoji and slid it open. "Hey, Akane, looka this!" The shoji opened onto a narrow veranda, and shutters opened from that onto a stone-flagged yard screened by bamboo fences. At the far end, wisps of steam rose off a small pool surrounded by boulders. "Looks like we got our own private onsen...." Ranma trailed off, looked at Akane, and blushed.
"So it does," Akane agreed. She turned aside to cover her nervousness and slid open another shoji. It didn't help. "Um... futon storage...." She slid open the one beside it, stared, and leaned her head against the post. "Bedroom...."
"I wonder why there was an ofuda on the door," Ranma said from right behind her.
Akane jumped. She hadn't heard her come up. "Sort of like a do-not-disturb sign, maybe?" That didn't help either.
Ranma and Akane stared at each other. Each knew the other was thinking the same thing. Tonight....
Ranma turned away. "I, uh, I'll get that hot water now, I guess."
Akane reached out, not far enough to touch her. "Wait, Ranma...."
Ranma turned back. In her eyes was mingled relief and disappointment. "What?"
"Um, let's have supper first?"
Ranma's stomach growled loudly. They both laughed, the tension broken, or at least deferred. "Sounds like a good idea," Ranma agreed. She looked out. "It'll be dark soon."
Akane found the intercom and pushed the button. "Hello?"
"Yes?" the intercom crackled.
"Um, what do we do for supper here?"
The voice laughed gently. "Well, if you'll tell us what you'd like, we'll bring it to you."
"Let's see... soup? With noodles? And, um, whatever your specialty is. We're pretty hungry, we had to walk a long way. Oh, and tea."
"Of course," the intercom said. "Now, what room are you in?"
Akane glanced at Ranma. "The manager called it the 'honeymoon cottage'."
There was a short silence. "Ah. You'll be the experts from Tokyo, then. We'll send someone out, er, as soon as we can find someone to send out. Er. Good luck."
Akane took her finger off the button and looked at Ranma questioningly. Ranma shrugged. "Hey, as long as they bring the grub, they can be as weird as they like," she said. She went out and came back in carrying their packs, then went out again and came in carrying an armload of firewood. "Big stack out there," she said, dropping it neatly in the firepit. "Good thing, too; it's gonna get cold tonight."
Not in here, it's not, Akane thought, blushing.
Half an hour later, their rooms were much more comfortable, with a fire going in the firepit, the toilet located and used, lamps switched on, and packs unpacked. There was a knock on the door. Akane opened it and found herself face to face with a waiter holding out a large delivery box. The crockery inside clattered faintly. "I beg your pardon," the waiter said, looking nervously over Akane's shoulder. He departed rapidly as soon as Akane had a grip on the box.
"Honestly," Akane muttered. She kicked the door shut and turned. "I don't know much about room service, but I thought it was better than this," she complained, carrying the box over to the table by the firepit.
"Beats camping," Ranma said, unpacking the box. "Mmm... udon soup with tofu, looks like, pickles, rice... hey, a grilled mackerel! Thought I smelled something fishy!" Akane laughed. They dug in.
"Ahh..." Ranma sighed later. "Much better." She put the well-gleaned skeleton of the ex-mackerel atop the pile of used dishes in the box and belched contentedly.
Akane sipped the last of her tea and stood. She went to the futon closet and came back with two dotera: quilted knee-length robes with "Yamashiro Onsen" on the backs in large characters. "Bath time, then," she said quietly.
Ranma looked up at her and gulped. "Yeah...." She got up, picked up their bath things, and followed Akane outside. It was cold, but the fences blocked the wind and the overhanging pine boughs seemed to trap some of the heat from the onsen; the ground inside the fences was bare of snow. Ranma found a bucket, walked over to the taps, and started to take her clothes off.
"I'll be back in a minute," Ranma heard Akane say. She nodded without looking and started washing herself off. The minute seemed much longer, but eventually Ranma heard Akane's footsteps coming back.
Ranma turned to look at Akane. She was wearing one of the dotera and looked very serious. "Um, yeah?"
"Ranma, I know Kasumi talked to you about me, a long time ago," Akane said slowly. "She told you... she told you not to... to make any moves on me unless I...." She broke off at Ranma's nervous nod. "You haven't, really, and for a long time, I guess I sort of appreciated that, even though I didn't know about it, but now... Ranma, we're married now, and what Kasumi said doesn't matter any more. You understand?"
Ranma found her voice. "Uh, yeah, I guess so...." Akane opened the front of her dotera, shrugged out of the shoulders, and let it drop. She wasn't wearing anything under it. Months of training had left just enough padding to smooth the lines of the sleek muscles on her compact frame, and the gymnastics had replaced her former clumsiness with grace. To Ranma, she was a vision of youth and beauty, somehow fresh and exciting even though she'd seen her every day in the locker room at St. Hebereke's. "Akane...."
Akane stepped forward, blushing and goose-pimpling at the same time, and knelt next to Ranma. "I'll wash your back," she said. "And then you can wash mine. And then...." Hot water, they both thought.
Ranma sat on the bath-stool while Akane's small, strong hands soaped and scrubbed her back, tried to cope with a sudden flood of new and powerful feelings, and failed. "Uh..." she began, cursing her tongue for being so inept.
"I know you're nervous," Akane's voice said behind her. "I... I'm nervous too. I've never done this before, and there'll never be another first time, and I want it to be perfect. But more than that, I want you to be happy, and I know this isn't easy for you, because you've never done it before either... right?"
"Right. Yes. Absolutely," Ranma agreed hastily.
"Well, that's good." Ranma could hear the smile in Akane's voice. "Because if you'd said anything else, you'd be in a lot of pain right now." Her voice turned serious again. "Just take it easy, and remember that I love you, and remember that you love me, and everything will be fine. Okay? I'm done." Akane poured a bucketful of cold water over Ranma to rinse her off.
Ranma turned, and admired the back that was presented to her as she began to wash it. "Thanks, Akane. I... thanks." She shut up. If I try and say anything, I'll just mess it up. "Done," she said eventually.
Akane stood up, walked to the edge of the pool, and stepped in cautiously. "Ahh," she said. "Perfect." She turned to Ranma, who was still crouched by the taps, and smiled. "Come here, baka." Ranma tried to tear her eyes away from Akane, couldn't, and then realized that she didn't have to. She wandered unsteadily over to the pool and stepped in, lowering herself carefully into the hot water until
"Oh, my," Akane said, looking down. She looked up into Ranma's anxious eyes and smiled, a little uncertainly, and reached up for him as he reached down for her. They both jumped a little as their bodies met. They kissed with growing passion, standing up to their waists in steaming water....
Ranma and Akane broke the kiss. "Was that you?" they said simultaneously.
Ranma and Akane turned their heads slowly toward the other side of the pool. The mist that rose from the water had drifted together to form the translucent but quite detailed image of a young woman wearing a yukata. The hem of the garment drifted a few inches above the water. No feet were visible.
Ranma exploded out of the water carrying his screaming wife in his arms, landed neatly on the flagstones, put Akane down, and faced the ghost. "DAMMIT! IS EVERY ONSEN IN JAPAN HAUNTED?!" he roared. Akane stopped screaming suddenly and blinked.
The apparition ignored Ranma's shout. "Hitoshiiii...." It drifted slowly forward. As it approached, Ranma could clearly see the yearning expression on its face. It kept getting closer.
Akane watched in amazement as the ghost drifted up to her brand-new, never-used, stark-naked husband, put its misty hands on his shoulders, and kissed him as Ranma stood motionless. Then she noticed that one of its hands was drifting lower....
"RANMA!!!" Crash! A wooden bucket of cold water splintered over Ranma's head. "We haven't even been married a DAY! We're on our HONEYMOON! And you have some steamy bimbo draped ALL OVER you already!"
"Er..." the ghost began.
"Dammit, Akane, it's NOT MY FAULT!" Ranma screeched, face to face with her wife and ignoring the ghost. "If I'd'a known this was gonna happen, I'd'a... I'd'a... well, I'd'a done something else, I can tell ya!"
Akane also ignored the ghost. "This is just like you! Every time something NICE is about to happen, one of your OTHER girls comes along! Well, I'm SORRY I'm not as pretty as they are! I'm SORRY I'm not as nice as they are! I'm SORRY I'm not as dead as...." She ground to a halt, looking confused. "Um...."
Ranma and Akane both turned on the ghost. "YOU SHUT UP!!!"
"Er... where did Hitoshi go?"
Akane and Ranma blinked, looked at each other, then looked at the ghost. "Right," Ranma said decisively. "That's IT!" She turned toward the ghost and thrust out her palms. "MOKO TAKABISHA!!" Fwoosh! The ball of ki-charged air blasted through the ghost's midsection, barely cleared the fence on the other side of the spring, and hit a pine tree. Flump! Snow fell from the tree's branches.
The ghost's even-more-disembodied-than-before head looked down. "Ow," it said plaintively, and faded out, becoming just another wisp of mist.
"Hitoshi?" Ranma asked, looking at Akane.
"Nabiki," Akane answered, looking at Ranma.
"Manager!" they said together, nodding firmly. They looked down at each other, blushed, and looked up. "Clothes," Akane muttered. She picked up her discarded dotera and put it on. Ranma found hers and put it on. They left rapidly, bouncing over the cottage and away.
Ranma and Akane ran up to the front counter. "Where is he?!" Ranma shouted at the astonished clerk.
"We demand to speak to the manager!" Akane clarified.
The office door opened. "So, how did it go?" the manager asked hopefully. "We heard the, er, noise...."
Ranma grabbed the manager by the throat and hauled him down to her level. "Why, you! You KNEW about this?!" she hissed.
"Gurk!" the manager said.
Akane bopped Ranma on the head. "Let go, he can't answer questions like that," she told Ranma.
"Well... all right." Ranma let go.
"Argh. I thought YOU knew about this," the manager said hoarsely, rubbing his throat. "You're the experts, after all. Tendo-san told me that you"
"Hold it," Akane cut in. "Which 'Tendo-san', and exactly what were you told?"
"Tendo Nabiki." The manager watched Ranma and Akane look at each other. Akane shook her head and covered her face with her hand. Ranma rolled her eyes. "She told me that you could solve our, er, problem. I paid her two hundred thousand yen to have you come up here and"
"Hey!" This time it was Ranma who interrupted. "YOU paid HER?! She was supposed ta pay YOU! We're up here on our honey ow!" Ranma rubbed her head and glared at Akane.
"What my cousin means," Akane took over, "is that my husband will be here soon. We're on our honeymoon, and we'd thought Nabiki had found a nice place for it."
"You mean you can't take care of the problem?" the manager asked disappointedly.
Ranma and Akane glanced at each other, and images of the contrast between a private onsen with room service and camping out in the snow for three days danced across their minds. "Oh, sure we can handle it," Ranma said confidently. "Absolutely. No doubt about it."
Akane nodded several times quickly. "But Nabiki neglected to give us all the details before, um, sending us out," she said. "It would help us a lot in our, um, efforts if you could tell us what the situation is...."
The manager looked around. They'd already attracted a curious audience. "Certainly, but not here," he told Akane and Ranma. "Come into my office." The audience muttered disappointedly and dispersed as the manager closed the door.
"Now then," the manager began once the young women were seated, "I must tell you a very tragic story of a young bride who drowned in that spring what's the matter with her?"
"Oh, nothing," Akane said over Ranma's coughing. "Go on."
The manager eyed Ranma curiously. "As I was saying, a young bride drowned in that spring 20 years ago. I believe her husband said that her wedding ring slipped off and fell into a crack among the boulders, and she reached for it, but her hand got stuck and... well... she died. It's a very tragic story."
Akane nodded, sniffling a little. Even Ranma looked less incensed.
"Well, that spring is quite small, and the water flow isn't enough to enlarge it, so when this hotel was built, they set it aside as a spot for newlyweds. It was quite profitable for many years, until the, er, incident. When I came here, I inquired why it was unused, and the staff told me about the, er, haunting. I didn't believe them, of course, so I spent a night there... well, part of a night there." The manager shuddered. "Obviously, we can't admit guests to it in its present condition. Women are quite safe, but if a man is present after dark, the ghost, er, accosts him."
"See?" Ranma muttered to Akane, and got an elbow in the ribs.
"What I don't understand," the manager said, "is why the ghost appeared to you. It never appears unless there's a man there."
"Hey, we're good," Ranma said nonchalantly.
"Is that everything you know?" Akane asked. The manager nodded. "Well, in that case, we won't keep you any longer. Come on, Ran um, Ranko."
"'Such a deal'," Akane quoted on the way back to the cottage.
Ranma glanced at her. "Nabiki's gone too far this time," she said in a dangerously calm voice.
Akane half-smiled. "Only if we don't get our cuts."
Ranma boggled a bit. "Two hundred thousand...."
"Plus the money she was supposed to spend on our honeymoon," Akane pointed out. She considered. "Let's get our money from the room," she said finally. "I saw a phone in the hotel."
The phone rang in the Tendos' home. "I'll get it!" Kasumi called. "Moshi moshi? Oh, Akane! But you're supposed to be nothing's gone wrong, has it?" She held the phone away from her ear a little and winced. "Oh, my. What? Yes, she's here... yes, he's here too... yes, I'm listening." Kasumi listened for almost a minute, her eyes widening slowly. "She what?! Two hun... oh, my goodness. Wait just a minute."
Kasumi covered the mouthpiece of the phone with her hand. "Father! Nabiki! Come here quickly! It's important!" She waited.
Soun and Nabiki arrived shortly, Soun looking panicked, Nabiki looking bored. "What?!" Soun expostulated.
"Just a moment, Father," Kasumi said. She uncovered the phone. "They're here... all right, I'll tell them." She fixed Nabiki with her gaze. "Akane wishes me to inform you," she told her sister, "that unless you promise your word of honor, to her, to me, to Father, and to Ranma to turn over the two hundred thousand yen to her and Ranma, she's not going to, um, exorcise the haunted onsen."
Soun's eyes bugged out. "Two hundred...?" They bugged out some more. "Haunted onsen?"
Nabiki ignored him. She examined her fingernails. "And if I don't?"
"In that case," Kasumi said with great restraint, "Akane and Ranma won't do your little job, you'll have to give the money back anyway, and you'll have to answer to them for ruining their honeymoon." She took a deep breath. "You'll have to answer to me, too."
Nabiki had stopped looking bored. "But...." She wilted under Kasumi's look. "Darn. It was such a great deal, too." She raised her voice and spoke to the phone in Kasumi's hand. "All right, all right, I promise. You'll get all the money." She stomped back up the stairs, muttering.
Kasumi held the phone to her ear again. "How was that? Yes, I know.... Have a nice time.... 'Bye!" She put the handset down and shook her head. "Poor Ranma...."
"Haunted onsen?" Soun reminded her.
"Never mind, Father," Kasumi said soothingly. "They're just having another adventure. I'm sure they'll tell us all about it when they get back."
Ranma and Akane stood in front of the door of the "Honeymoon Cottage", looking nervous. "So now what?" Ranma ventured.
Akane stared at him. "I thought you had an idea!"
"Dammit, Akane, I'm a martial artist, not a spiritualist!" Ranma said hotly. She cooled. "Jeez... when he said 'tragic story' I thought I was gonna swallow my tongue."
"I know what you mean." Akane's voice was strained. "I was almost a 'tragic story' myself, remember. They didn't have to pull me out of the spring after they put me in it, and I darn sure wasn't going to swim out." She breathed heavily. "Ranma, we have to help her. We have to let her go... wherever she's supposed to go. We just have to."
Ranma eyed her sidelong. "Yeah... I guess we do." She smiled suddenly. "Good thing ya didn't tell Nabiki that, hey?"
Akane tried to smile, but didn't quite manage it. "We'll deal with Nabiki when we get back. Right now we have a problem."
"Two problems," Ranma said carefully. "This is our wedding night...."
Akane put an arm around her. "I haven't forgotten, Ranma. Well, let's see what happens." She opened the door, and they went in together.
The fire was still burning, the lights were still on, and the supper-box still smelled of grilled mackerel. Ranma and Akane moved cautiously through the main room and out to the spring. Wisps of steam drifted above the water, but they did not resemble a restless spirit. Ranma looked at the water. "Well," she said, "if we want her to show up, there's always hot water...."
"I suppose we can try talking to her," Akane said. She frowned. "Try to keep her from getting a liplock on you this time, all right?"
Ranma snorted. "Gimme a break, Akane. I got no more interest in dead gals than I do in live ones." She paused. "Uh... I mean... oh, hell with it."
Akane shook her head and filled a bucket with hot water from the spring. She filled another with cold water from the tap and set it by. "Ready?"
"Just a minute." Ranma took her dotera off and tossed it out of splash range. "Don't wanna get it wet," she explained, shivering. "Now I'm ready."
Akane splashed Ranma with hot water from the bucket, watched as her husband appeared, and suddenly had to overcome a severe case of weak knees. Ranma looked down. "Oops." He hastily retrieved and donned the dotera. "Better?"
"No. Um, I mean yes. I mean...."
"Hitoshiiii...." Ranma and Akane watched as the ghost drifted towards them over the pond. "You came back to meeee...." She drifted up to Ranma and reached out for him with translucent arms.
Ranma started suddenly and retreated out of range. "I ain't your Hitoshi, lady," he began.
"Hitoshi.... Now we can finally be together.... Come make love to me at last...."
Ranma looked at Akane and raised an eyebrow. "I think I know where she's comin' from," he said, continuing to evade the ghost.
"Um. Yes. Me too." Akane shook her head hard. "Try moving around behind me so she can't get to you."
Ranma eyed her doubtfully. "You sure about that?"
Akane laughed shortly. "No. But try it anyway." She moved to intercept the ghost.
The ghost stopped as Akane blocked her path. Her beautiful face warped and twisted into a vision of horror. "You! How dare you come between us, you hussy!" Akane felt a sudden chill that had nothing to do with the wintry air. She concentrated and her aura manifested, warding off the chill. She heard a splash.
"Hey! Get away from her!" It was Ranma's female voice.
The ghost drifted back and up, and her face returned to its former beauty. She looked around in puzzlement. "Hitoshi? Where are you? Oh, Hitoshiiii...."
Akane licked her lips. "Um, we're here to help you find your Hitoshi," she said cautiously.
The ghost looked at her. "But... you're not...."
Akane thought quickly. "Tell us what holds you here," she suggested.
The ghost floated back to the onsen. "My ring.... My ring is here...."
"Hey!" Ranma burst out. "That's it! She's haunting the onsen 'cause her ring is still in it! If we find the ring...." She stopped.
"I don't know what we do then either," Akane said slowly, "but I think you're right."
"So I'll just dive in and"
"No," Akane interrupted. "She gets all crazy when you're a guy. I'll have to do it." Akane looked down into the spring. The ghost was pointing down into the water, and when she moved her head a little, she could just see an occasional flash of something reflecting as the ripples on the surface crossed and rebounded: an improbable glint down in the shadows between the boulders. Where the water was deep enough to drown a poor woman who got her arm caught between them, Akane thought, and shuddered.
"Be careful, hammer girl," Ranma said, but her tone was concerned, not insulting. Akane looked at her and smiled a brave little smile. She took off her dotera and handed it to Ranma, then fixed the location of the crack in her mind, took a deep breath, held it, and stepped in.
The bottom of the spring was not deep. Akane reached it immediately. She thrust her hand into the gap between the boulders and felt around, acutely conscious of her lungs starving for breath. She fought the panic that water over her head always caused. Her fingers touched something round and hard, and she seized it in sudden triumph and kicked off the bottom. Her arm jerked her to a stop. Oh, god, I'm caught, I'm caught, I'm going to drown in five feet of water and there'll be two ghosts.... Bubbles gouted from her mouth. Hot water filled her throat. She gasped for air and got only water.
A terrible noise filled Akane's ears, and she was buffeted by powerful forces which seemed somehow familiar, but someone was there holding her and shielding her. Suddenly water cascaded from her mouth and she could breathe. She was aware of a receding roar and a voice talking to itself: "Dammit! Baka! Baka! I shoulda done this right away!"
"Ra... Ranma?" She looked up, coughing, and saw Ranma's worried face. "What happened?" She looked around. Her arm was still stuck in the rocks. There was only a little water left in the bottom of the spring, but more was welling in as she watched. "Where'd all the water go?"
Ranma reached down and gently maneuvered her arm out of the crack between the boulders. "Up, mostly," he said. "I used its heat for a Hiryu Shoten Ha." He snorted. "I shoulda done that first thing."
Akane opened her fist. A gold ring shone there, a little like her own. "No," she said, and coughed again. "If you had, the ring might have been blown out with the water, or pushed deeper in the rocks, and we'd never get it out. This was the only way."
"If you say so," Ranma said doubtfully. He peered at Akane. "You all right now?"
Akane smiled. "Sure. Thanks to you. Like always." She stood up, wobbled a little, and climbed out of the empty spring. Ranma followed, careful to keep her from falling. He picked up a slightly-damp dotera and wrapped Akane in it. They stood on the flagstones and looked at the ring in Akane's hand.
The air was foggy until the mists swept together and the ghost appeared. She stared yearningly at Akane. "Wear the ring," she moaned. "Wear the ring. Make love with Hitoshi. Then I can be truly wed...."
"Oh, no," Ranma said forcefully. "No! Over my dead body! She's MY wife, dammit! She ain't gonna 'truly wed' no one but me!" The ghost floated silently.
Akane was struck by a thought. "Um... Ranma...."
Ranma glared at her. "No! You talk good, but there's no way you're gonna talk me into this!"
Akane put her finger to his lips. "She thought you were Hitoshi, remember?"
Ranma's face froze. Akane took her finger away. Several expressions crossed Ranma's face in rapid succession. "Ick," he said finally. "I think I'd rather be watched by Happ"
Akane's hand was over Ranma's mouth in an instant. "Don't," she hissed. "Don't say that name!" She took her hand away.
"Oops," Ranma said. He sagged a little and looked at Akane sidelong. "You really think...?"
Akane shrugged. "I'm not a spiritualist either," she said. "It feels right, though. Did you notice? She's not chasing you any more. She's... waiting."
"Virgin ghosts," Ranma muttered, eyeing the silent spirit. "Oh, all right." He sighed and looked down into the spring. "No hot bath for a while," he said sadly.
"We can do that tomorrow." Akane looked at the ring, then slid it onto her finger, next to her wedding ring. The ghost suddenly became an oddly-formed patch of mist, which began to break up. Akane jerked.
"Akane!" Ranma seized her shoulders and peered down into her eyes. "Are you still in there?"
Akane blinked. "Yes. Yes, it's me."
"Uh... is she in there?"
"I think maybe she is..." Akane said distantly. Her eyes refocused. "Yes. It's all right, though. She's just, um, watching. She'll go away after we...."
Ranma chewed his lip. "I gotta make sure. Uh, what did I tell you in Jusendo?"
Akane's expression altered, taking on an old sadness. "I thought I heard you tell me you loved me. But later you said you didn't say that."
Ranma winced. "I was a damn fool. I'm sorry. I loved you then, and I, I love you now...."
"I love you too, Ranma. It's time." Akane took Ranma's hand and led him inside. The shoji slid shut. The light in the main room went out. The light in the bedroom dimmed. A shadow crossed the shoji and vanished.
"Oh, Ranma. Finally. Finally you're all mine."
"Just don't say nothin' else can go wrong, hey? I think that's sorta like writin' a challenge letter to the gods."
"Akane... gaah. I wish I could tell you how beautiful you are, but I can't. Sorry."
"I... I think you just did. Oh, Ranma...."
"Aw, don't cry...."
"Baka. Shut up and kiss me."
The night was silent for a time, save for the water gurgling softly as the pool refilled.
"What?! WHAT?! Are you all right?! OW!"
"DON'T STOP NOW, YOU BAKA! AAaaAAaaAA!"
"Ow! Getcher nails outa my back, dammit! Aiee!"
Ranma awoke to a light tapping at the door in the other room. He grimaced, then saw that Akane was still asleep, and his face grew a rare fond smile. He watched her for a moment.
The tapping repeated. Ranma cursed under his breath. He slid out from under the quilt, careful not to disturb Akane, and padded across the floor, picking up his dotera on the way. He put it on while he walked to the door. The door handle rattled before he got there.
The door opened and the manager peered in cautiously. Behind him were two porters who looked like they really wished they had pitchforks and torches. "Er, hello?" He saw Ranma. "Oh! You must be, er...."
"Saotome Ranma," Ranma said quietly. He stepped through the door, forcing them to give way before him, and closed it behind him. "Akane's still asleep. What the hell are you doing, coming in at this hour?"
The manager looked apologetic. "I'm terribly sorry. We thought... well, if we'd come any earlier, it would still have been dark, and... well, after the, er, phenomena last night, and then the screaming... well... I was half expecting to find, er, blood all over the walls and, er, bits...." He gestured vaguely. The porters looked like they were about to faint.
Ranma frowned. "Screaming?" He blushed suddenly and reached up to fondle the gold ring braided into the base of his pigtail. "Oh. That. Uh... that was part of the, uh, procedure."
The manager regarded him with respect. "So, were you, er, successful, then?"
Ranma opened his mouth and closed it. "Maybe," he said cautiously. "We... we won't know for sure until a couple of nights have passed without stuff happenin'. We'll let you know." He paused. "Say, could you have them send us some breakfast? Something strengthening. I, uh, we had a kinda rough night." He blushed again.
"I can imagine," the manager said in an awed voice. "Yes, certainly. Since everything's all right, I'll bid you good morning, then." He bowed, matched by the porters, and left. Ranma shook his head and went back inside.
"Who was that?" Akane asked sleepily as Ranma came back into the bedroom.
Ranma knelt on the floor next to her. "The villagers are terrified," he said with a wry smile.
Akane blinked. "What?"
"Well, I guess the Hiryu Shoten Ha scared the hell out of the hotel guys, and then there was the screaming, and they thought we was bein' massacred in here." Ranma's eyes twinkled.
"Screaming? Oh. Oh dear. Oops." Akane blushed and hid under the quilt. "Sorry. I, um, couldn't help it."
"Was it, uh, good, then?" Ranma's voice was anxious.
Akane lowered the quilt to her neck and looked up at him. "Ranma... it was so far past good I can't even tell you." She laughed a little. "I've read the books and the romances and the shojo-manga, but I had no idea.... You baka, after the second time I woke you up you should have figured out how much I liked it. Loved it. Love you." She paused. "Um, how was it for you?" she asked shyly.
Ranma blushed. "Uh, it was some workout." He got a distant look in his eyes just in time to stop Akane from bopping him. "Mmm... what's the word... transcendent. Like Jusenkyo. Like Jusendo. Like that night I found out you loved me. Like nothin' will ever be the same again."
Akane slid a hand out from under the quilt and touched Ranma's knee. "That was pretty good, Ranma. I know what you mean. It won't be the same. It'll be better. You'll see."
"Yeah, I think so. Speakin' of which... uh...." Ranma's voice was anxious again. "Now that you're the one who gets ta decide if I'm manly or not...."
Akane tried to frown and discovered that her face just wouldn't do that at the moment. She settled for an impatient look. "How many ways do I have to say it, Ranma? You passed. You don't have to worry about that any more. If anyone gives you grief about it, refer them to me." Her eyes narrowed. "And if you even think about getting a second opinion, you'll regret it. You know how jealous I get, and now that you're really mine, I'm even less willing to share you with all those other women."
"Cut it out, Akane," Ranma began petulantly. "I made some promises yesterday, and I meant 'em, and I'm gonna keep 'em, and I wish you'd just trust me." He looked down. "Besides... I'm pretty sure I couldn't give anyone else what you got...."
Akane smiled brilliantly. "You do understand. That's exactly how I feel." Her voice changed. "What are you still doing out there when you could be in here?"
"Uh... they said they'd send breakfast... it oughta be here pretty soon...."
"Are you sure?" She lowered the quilt to her navel.
Akane tried a pout, and discarded it in favor of what she hoped was a sexy smile. "Well, of course later. I'm talking about now."
Akane bit her lip. I almost challenged him to be 'manly'. Bad, bad idea. "I was just teasing, Ranma. Later it is." She got up, accepted her dotera from Ranma, and put it on, enjoying his eyes on her.
Ranma's gaze changed from admiring to concerned. "Is she still with you?"
Akane looked inward. "No. No, she's gone." She grinned suddenly. "We gave her a great sendoff, Ranma. She was happy when she left. I could feel it." She looked at the second ring on her finger and slowly slid it off. "I wonder what to do with this."
Ranma examined the ring intently. "Keep it safe 'til we can find her grave. It shoulda been buried with her. I got a feeling." His expression lightened. "I told the manager we'd need to stay another couple of nights to make sure we'd done our job right...."
Akane raised an eyebrow at him. "That was unusually clever of you."
Ranma slid the shoji open, walked out to the spring, and looked up at the morning mist drifting through the trees. "I was lookin' around when we hiked up here," he said as Akane came up behind him and put her arms around him. "We can do some trainin' if you like. There's stuff you can do with trees and rocks that I haven't showed you yet."
"I'd really like that," Akane said. "And in between there's room service, and the onsen, and hot water twenty-four hours a day...."
"Yeah. This is great." Ranma loosened her grip on his waist enough to turn around in the circle of her arms, and hugged her gently.
"It's not exactly what I imagined for our honeymoon," Akane said softly. "But now that I think about it, I should have expected something like a haunted onsen exorcism. It was so perfectly... us."
Ranma laughed, a carefree, happy laugh, and then laughed again just because it felt so good. "I guess it was. I guess we better get used to stuff like that happenin'." He smiled down at Akane's upturned face. "I guess I can handle it... as long as you're with me. Partner."
Akane tightened her grip. "That's what I've been telling you. Partner." They heard a knocking at the door. "Oh, darn."
"Foooood," Ranma said reverently. He didn't move, but the growling of his stomach was plainly audible.
Akane shook her head fondly, and reluctantly let go of her husband.
"Oh, I almost forgot," Akane said suddenly after breakfast. She rummaged in her pack. "That wedding present that said 'don't open yet'."
"Hey, yeah!" Ranma said excitedly. "It was from Cologne...."
Akane held up a cylinder wrapped in heavy paper, with "Do not open until after consummation" calligraphed on it. "Here it is." She handed it to Ranma. "Shall I call the bomb squad, just in case?"
Ranma stared at her. "Nah," he said eventually. "She wouldn't do anythin' nasty... hell, she gave it to Kasumi to give to us. It's gotta be safe." He laid it down on the floor anyway and teased at the knots with his chopsticks. Once they were undone, he picked at the seam until it gave, and lifted it. An ancient-looking scroll rolled out. "Wow," Ranma breathed. He frowned. "Crap. It's in Chinese. I think I know these, though... uh, 'manual advanced' something 'techniques'? Joketsuzoku lore, it's gotta be!" His chopsticks made quick work of the knot in the silk cord holding the scroll closed. He shaded his eyes with his hand, took a deep breath, and unrolled the scroll across the floor with a quick jerk.
Nothing happened. Ranma and Akane bent forward and looked at the pictures. They looked at each other. They blushed. They looked back at the pictures. Akane found her voice first. "Yes, that's, um, 'advanced techniques', all right," she said. "Um... that one's got to hurt... doesn't it?"
"Whatcha askin' ME for?" Ranma said indignantly. "I think we only did the second one there... and maybe the fifth, sorta." He nudged the scroll farther open.
"Oh. Oh, my goodness. Ranma, we have to try this one."
"Mmm..." Ranma said, sounding distracted. He unrolled the scroll all the way and stared at it. "Damn that old bat!"
"What?" Akane picked up the end of the scroll. "Oh. Two girls...." She found a character she recognized. "'Forbidden'?" She put the scroll down and looked up. Ranma was sitting with his back turned. "Ranma... what's wrong?"
"I don't know!"
"I know that voice," Akane said to Ranma's back. "You're struggling with yourself again." She moved around in front of him. "Um... if you want to, um, let your female form in on the honeymoon, I... we...."
Ranma looked up suddenly. "Do you want to? Is that it?"
Akane recalled Kasumi's words: 'If you are honest with him and yourself, it should all be all right.' "I don't know," she said carefully. "I... I wouldn't mind finding out."
Ranma regarded her. She couldn't read his expression. "All those times you called me a pervert," he said without emphasis.
Akane winced. "Well, what about all the times you called me unsexy?!" she countered weakly.
Ranma half-smiled, but the other half was troubled. "Heh. I sure can't say that any more...."
Akane bit her lip. Control. Honesty. "All right. You aren't a pervert, and you never were, and I still feel bad about that," she admitted. "But...." She picked up his hand. "Come with me. Please." She got up, and he followed her outside, to the water taps.
Akane turned aside and filled a bucket with cold water. "This isn't about perversion, Ranma. This is about love. This is about me wanting to love you even when you don't look like a man, and maybe about you needing to be loved by me even when you look like a woman. I hope that doesn't make me a pervert, because it's only you I feel that way about." She took a breath. "This is your choice. I don't know if you want to. But if you trust me, you'll think about doing it, because I think you need it." She stood, holding the bucket, watching him, and hoping.
She saw the fear in his eyes, and watched something else overcome it. Ranma reached out for the bucket, stared down into it, and poured it over himself. She looked at Akane with the same stricken look she'd had in the park by the canal, months ago. "Now what?" she asked in a small, very un-Ranma voice.
"I don't know either," Akane said. "I'm scared too. Let's... let's go inside." They went into the bedroom. The shoji slid shut.
"Tell me what you're feeling, Ranma."
"I can't! You know I can't!"
"You told HER about this?!"
"I told her about ME! I was scared! She's my sister! I had to talk to SOMEONE about it, and I couldn't talk to YOU, could I?!"
"...Oh. I... guess not. Uh... sorry."
"I... I'm sorry too, Ranma. Anyway, Kasumi said that if I was honest with you, and honest with myself, it would all be all right. So I'm just going to tell you everything, and hope like hell it will be, because this HURTS, and I was so happy ten minutes ago, and now I'm scared to death that you won't love me anymore when I tell you, and if you don't stop laughing, I'm"
"I, uh, I was laughin' 'cause it hurt. You sound so much like me that I'd swear you had a curse too."
"I do, baka! Yours!"
"Anyway.... What are you doing?"
"Takin' off this cold soggy thing and gettin' into bed where it's warm, what's it look like?"
"Um... can I...?"
"Well, sure. It's your bed too."
"I... this is a special place for me, you know. Anyway... the truth is... darn. I can't say this and look at you."
"Look away, then. If you say it to the wall, I'll still hear it."
"Ranma... that's almost poetry. Anyway... you know the feeling I get when I see you naked now? I sort of get that even when you're wearing clothes, when you move just right or look at me and smile, you know. It's a... a wanting. When we started going to St. Hebereke's, and had to be in the locker room and such, I would get those feelings when I saw your girl form naked... oh, god...."
"I'm not SUPPOSED to get feelings like that! I TRIED to ignore it, to pretend you were just another girl, but it was so HARD! It's still YOU in there all the time, and I KNOW it, and sometimes I just want to HUG you or KISS you or TOUCH you, and I CAN'T, because you'll freak out, or I'll freak out, or it's just WRONG, and you'll make fun of me, and they'll ALL make fun of me, and I'll just have to fall down and DIE...."
"Aw, Akane, don't cry, you know I can't stand it when you cry... jeez, now I'm cryin'."
"It's easy for YOU, I'm still the same!"
"It ain't easy! Like ya said, I'm afraid ya won't love me if I...."
"Baka." Sniffle. "Of course I'll still love you."
"Yeah? Well, I feel the same way you do, just backwards, how about that, huh?!"
"But.... Let me get this straight. I want to touch you, but I'm afraid you won't want me to touch you, but you don't mind. You want to touch me, but you're afraid I won't want you to touch me, but I don't mind."
"Uh... I had trouble followin' that, but it sounded about right. What the hell you laughin' about?"
"I've been an idiot again. So have you. Oh, Ranma."
"I don't get it."
"You will. Here. Take your hand, and put it... mmmmmm."
"Hey. It did that last night, too."
"Well, if you want to know what it feels like, you have these here...."
"Uh... oh... oh, jeez."
"...yeah. Uh, ya mind if I kiss you?"
"Um... I don't know. I guess there's only one way to find out."
"Uh, that was, uh, different...."
"It sure was."
"Not bad, though."
"Pretty good, really."
"Well, are you going to kiss me again, or do I have to"
"Damn. We're doin' it again."
"Well, I thought we were"
"No! Just like I keep tellin' ya! We're thinkin' about it when we oughta just do it, and it's messin' us up! Use the Art!"
"Auras, dammit. Use your aura like we practiced for partner fightin'. Here."
"Yow! Not cold!"
"Oops. Sorry. How's that?"
"Now yours... there. Now we don't need ta talk anymore."
"Uh... I dunno if I wanna say. You first."
"Um... I liked it. I like it better when you're a man, though. God in Heaven, we have to try that aura thing that way...."
"Good thing you said that, 'cause there's one more thing I gotta know right now. Hang on, I'll be right back."
The shoji slid open and Ranma came out of the bedroom. She walked determinedly across the flagstones, wobbling a little, and plunged into the pool. He climbed out and walked back to the bedroom, stripping the water off his body with his hands as he went. The shoji slid shut.
"Oh. Oh, yes. Stop drying yourself and come here."
The wind whispered in the trees, muffled somewhat by the snow-laden branches. The spring gurgled quietly.
"Well, that really proves it once and for all. I can be a woman and still be a man. Now I can tell ya... uh... I liked it too. But I like it better as a guy."
"Jeez, Akane, why ya cryin' now?"
"Baka! I'm crying because I'm happy! I'm crying because I was stupid! I was so worried about me, and about you, and about us, and it was all nothing!"
"Uh... I was too. But... it wasn't nothin' until just now. I can think of a dozen ways it coulda all gone wrong, and just one way for it to go right."
Sniff. "Well, that's the story of our lives, isn't it? Somehow it always goes the right way, even if we can't tell it's the right way at the time."
"Akane. Say that again."
"'It always goes the right way, even if we can't tell it's the right way at the time'?"
"Dammit. That easy. It is. It always was. Everything we went through to get here. It was the right way, out of the hundreds of wrong ways that went somewhere else. Somewhere worse."
"Ra... Ranma! I see it!"
"Yeah. You know somethin' else?"
"It... it was worth it, wasn't it."
"Bingo. Even... whoa. Even Jusenkyo. Without the Nyannichuan... whoa."
"Ranma... if it was worth it, then maybe... maybe your curse might be... a blessing too?"
"...I love you, Akane."
"Wow! What a view!" Akane said excitedly. They'd left the cottage after breakfast the next day and spent the morning leaping from rock to rock, working their way up the side of the valley as Ranma pushed Akane to stretch her limits. Now they stood at the top of a crag, well above the forested slope.
"Sure is," Ranma agreed. Akane glanced at him, saw that he wasn't looking at the cloud-wreathed ridges and peaks, and blushed prettily. Ranma turned away, smiling faintly, and faced into the wind, letting it blow his hair back.
"So, ready to turn back?" Akane asked.
Ranma nodded. "Yeah, it's just about time for lunch. Still got something to show ya, though."
"Fine. So, which way now?"
Ranma glanced back at her. His faint smile widened. He pointed straight down the cliff.
Akane stared. "You're kidding." She looked down the cliff. It was about fifty meters high, not vertical, but close enough to make little difference; the slope was perhaps seventy degrees, and there were few features on the rock face that looked like hand- or footholds to her. "Are you trying to get me killed?!"
Ranma didn't answer. He was remembering running down a similar slope on another mountain, pursuing a plummeting, clip-winged figure that suddenly rose, wreathed in flames....
Ranma shook himself. "Huh? Oh. Nah. It's not as bad as it looks."
"Well, I'm glad to hear that, because it LOOKS pretty bad!"
Ranma eyed Akane. "Do you trust me?"
Akane straightened, suddenly aware that the conversation had jumped to another level. "Hai, Sensei."
"Good. This is just like runnin' down a rock the size of a house, and we've been doin' that all mornin'. The only thing is, if you get scared, you might forget how. So don't get scared."
"Easy for you to say," Akane muttered, peering down the cliff.
Ranma shrugged. "I can do it. You can do it. The thing to remember is not to get too far from the rock. If you stick close to it, you can control your fall as ya run. If you get out away from it, all you can grab is air, and you're not real good at that. Yet." He smiled confidently at her. "I'll be right with ya in case you lose it."
Akane tried to draw self-confidence from Ranma's smile. She looked over the edge, summoned her courage, took three quickening steps, and was running down the cliff. "Yaaa!" She felt the flow of the power in herself and in the mountain slowing her with each stride, remembered Ranma's advice to stay close to the rock, felt his presence close beside her, and suddenly realized that the bottom of the cliff was approaching very very quickly and she had no idea how to
Akane climbed up out of a perfect Akane-shaped hole in the snowbank at the bottom of the cliff, spat out snow, and glared at Ranma. Ranma, standing on a rock close by, put one hand behind his head and grinned sheepishly. "I guess I forgot ta tell ya how ta stop. Sorry...."
"Woop!" Ranma danced nimbly out of the way of Akane's floundering charge through the snow, and the next one, and the next one, and then there was a large pine-tree in the way. He watched Akane pick up a rock twice the size of her head and heft it, grinning evilly. "No, wait" She threw, and Ranma saw immediately that it was going high and to the left. "Hah! Missed!"
Whack! The rock hit the tree trunk.
Akane saw Ranma's gleeful expression change as tons of snow began to fall from the branches above him. His aura flared, and he began an almost-familiar spiral movement
"HISETSU SHOTEN HA!!"
Akane swapped her grin of anticipation for a frown. 'Flying Snow Ascending Strike'? HOT aura?! "RANMA, YOU CHEATER!!" she screamed over the sudden roaring wind.
Ranma was left standing in a circle scoured clear of snow, smirking, when the compact snowstorm rose up off the ground. Akane growled and was about to charge again when she realized that the howl of the whirlwind above them had trailed off and stopped. Ranma looked up and grinned. Akane looked up, too late.
Ranma nodded in satisfaction. "What goes up, must come down," he told the pile of snow where Akane had been, and waited for her to come bursting out of it to resume the chase.
The pile of snow didn't move.
Ranma lost the grin. "Oh, shit!" He darted into the pile, searching frantically for a trace of Akane's body or aura. He'd barely begun to toss snow aside when he felt a hand clamp around his ankle. "Jeez, Akane, don't scare" He suddenly recognized the hold she was using. "NooaaaAAA!" Akane stood up out of the pile of snow, whirled Ranma once around her head by his ankle, and brought him down hard.
Ranma picked herself up out of the perfect Ranma-shaped hole in the snow pile, spat out snow, and glared at Akane, who was dusting snow off of herself and laughing. "Yeah, real funny. Look what you made me do." She looked down at herself.
Akane stopped dusting. "I thought snow didn't do that to you."
"Me too... oh. I still had the hot aura, and it melted the snow to cold water. Damn." She thumped herself on the head.
"It serves you right. You told me you were going to train me to do stuff with rocks and trees...."
Ranma glanced at Akane's triumphant smile and couldn't help but smile herself. "Yeah, I guess so. You got snowed twice, though, so I win."
Akane's smile turned evil again. "Who says the game's over?" She advanced on Ranma.
"Uh, no, wait, uh, truce?" Ranma said quickly while backing up and waving her hands.
Akane stopped and straightened. "Truce it is." She turned and looked up at the cliff they'd just run down. "Wow."
"I told ya you could do it," Ranma said, walking into the scoured circle and sitting on a log to rest. Akane finished brushing the snow off and joined her.
"What?" Akane said shyly when she noticed Ranma studying her.
Ranma looked away. "Nothin'."
Akane elbowed her. "You know I'm not going to let you get away with that. What?"
"It's just... nice ta see ya happy for a change," Ranma said, still not looking at her. "For the longest time, you got angry so often. Even when ya weren't mad at me, you were so serious."
Akane thought back. "Well, they tell me I was a serious child. And then when Mother died... well, it was like the sun was gone. If it hadn't been for Kasumi, I don't know what would have happened. We all owe her a lot."
"Yeah, I figured that."
"I didn't have many friends when I was growing up, either. A few girls from school, that's all, but we were never very close. They all thought I was a strange kind of tomboy for spending so much time with the Art."
"What, you mean you weren't?" Ranma's voice was teasing.
Akane elbowed her again. "Baka. I'm being serious here."
"I like you better when you're laughing."
"I'm getting there. Be patient." Akane collected her thoughts. "And then when Kuno-sempai made that STUPID proclamation and all those STUPID boys started attacking me... well, half the girls in school blamed ME for it, can you imagine? Anyway, when you showed up, I thought 'here's a girl my age, she knows the Art, maybe I can have a real friend at last.' And then you turned out to be a boy." She felt Ranma flinch. "Yes. I resented you partly for that, partly for the embarrassment, partly for the engagement... and partly because... oh, god."
"It's all right, Akane. It don't matter no more."
Akane smiled ruefully at Ranma. "No, I guess not. But I want to tell you anyway. I resented you because you were... better than I was."
"You were so skilled in the Art. You were cute. You had a great figure. You had an excuse to be a tomboy! You had a future, when they were trying to make me be just a wife! You had a MOTHER! You were everything I wanted to be and wasn't!" Akane subsided. "I've never said that before, even to myself," she said reflectively.
Ranma stared at her. "You're out of your mind. You had a home. You had a family. You had friends, maybe not many, but more'n I did. You went to the same school for more'n a few months. You had enough ta eat."
Akane laughed suddenly. "Oh, Ranma. We've done it again. See, now you have a home, and a family, and friends, and a school, and... um... well, I'm trying to cook better, but you're sure not going hungry...."
"...and my momma's yours now too, and we're partners, and you're gettin' better at the Art all the time," Ranma continued, catching on. She blushed suddenly. "Uh... I think you're cute, an' I like your figure just fine. I don't mind that you're a tomboy...."
"I guess that's part of why I love you," Akane said fondly. "We gave each other what we thought we were missing."
She took a deep breath and looked up at the cliff again. "But that was later. I don't know when I started to love you, or why, it was just... there. And I was so afraid that you didn't love me back. I think that's why I got mad at you so much, because every time you did something that gave me hope that maybe you liked me, you'd do something else that took it away. And there were the other girls, and I was afraid you'd go with one of them, and I'd be alone again. And then, at Jusendo, I found out you loved me, and everything changed."
Ranma laughed shortly. "Yeah, I can imagine. When you told me you loved me, it surprised the hell out of me. I knew how I felt about you, but I had no idea you felt that way about me."
"Yes, that's it. I guess we're both a little dumb that way." Ranma eyed Akane sharply, but Akane was smiling. "Anyway, after that, things just got better and better. Going to St. Hebereke's was wonderful, what with getting away from those lunatics at Furinkan and making new friends, but... Ranma, don't get upset, but I think the best girlfriend I made there... was you."
Ranma cocked an eyebrow at her. "I woulda gotten upset not too long ago, I guess, but not now. But if you're happy, I'm glad."
"I'm happy," Akane said softly. She leaned forward and kissed Ranma on the corner of her mouth, then pulled back.
Ranma read the desire in her eyes. "What, again?"
Akane nodded slowly without changing her expression or taking her eyes away from Ranma's.
"Sounds good to me." Ranma stood up and stretched. "Race ya to the onsen!" she said suddenly, and dashed away over the snow.
"RANMA!" Akane bounced to her feet and sprinted after her. Their silvery laughter faded into the forest.
Akane propped herself up on one elbow and watched her husband for a while in the dim light of the lamp in the bedroom. His face and the upper part of his chest were visible above the quilt. Ranma cracked one eye open and looked at her. "Hmm?"
"Ranma, can I ask you something?"
Ranma smirked. "Woman, you are insatiable."
"I am, too, er, satiable," Akane replied primly. "You just haven't managed it yet."
That got her both eyes. "Hey!"
Akane slapped him lightly on the chest. "What did you expect me to say, that I'm tired of you already? Get real."
"Hmph." Ranma's smile came back, though. "So, what didja wanna ask?"
Akane chewed on her lower lip for a moment. "I wanted to ask about Saffron. And Shampoo."
Ranma's face didn't move at all, but it was as though curtains had been drawn across the windows of his eyes. "What about 'em?"
"Ranma... I know you would kill for me. What I want to know is... what was it like?"
Ranma sighed. "It was like a nightmare," he said in a flat voice. "It was something I don't think I should think about much."
"I can't help wondering. I don't remember much from Jusendo, and even though I was there when Shampoo attacked us, I think I missed a lot of it. But... how do I know when to, you know, go all-out? It bothers me... Sensei."
"You don't know. I don't know. Not 'til it happens."
"I don't understand," Akane said. Make me understand, she didn't say.
Ranma considered for a moment, then nodded unhappily. "You know what happened in Jusendo. You were dying, and that bastard Saffron wouldn't let me take the water that would save you. He tried to burn all of us. If it hadn't been for Ryoga, and Mousse, and even Shampoo and you, even though you didn't know what you were doing or if I'd been just a little slower, or a hair less lucky, we'd all be ashes. I gave him chances to give up, but he just kept coming back, and time was running out. So I froze him solid and blasted him into bits way up in the air. I didn't want to, but it was him or you. I thought you'd died once, when the Kinjakan dried you up. I couldn't let it happen again."
Akane couldn't tear her eyes away from his. "And Shampoo?"
"Same thing. She.... I don't know. She snapped or went crazy or something. I could read her easy, and I could see she meant to kill you, and I knew that if I didn't take her all the way out, she'd be back, because she just doesn't give up. I had this sudden flash of Jusendo, and Saffron coming back, and coming back, while you were dying"
Ranma stopped suddenly, and Akane saw the reflection of the lamplight sparkling off a single tear sliding down from the corner of his open eye. She reached out and wiped it away. "It's all right, Ranma."
"No. It's not all right. If I'd killed Shampoo, Cologne would have had to do something, and that could have been... real bad. You stopped me, and that was the right thing to do. I was going to kill her because I was afraid. I'm still afraid. In dreams, I'm back in Jusendo, but I'm heavy and slow, and the fire comes, and I wake up, and for a moment I think I'm the only one who made it out alive...."
Akane stared, appalled. "Ranma, you should have talked to me about this before. I have dreams like that too."
Ranma's eyebrow arched. "So why didn't YOU tell ME before, hey?"
Akane's mouth opened and closed. "I.... Oh, you baka!" She pushed his arm out of the way, laid her head on his chest, and snuggled up to his side, ignoring the usual trouble with the fourth arm. Ranma put his arm around her and laughed a little, bouncing her head pleasantly.
"This is a pretty good cure for bad dreams," Ranma said, stroking her bare shoulder. "You're so... alive."
"I'm planning to stay that way, too," Akane said quietly. "Remember, everything turned out all right. Everything will go on turning out all right. I have to believe that, and I want you to. We can't live our lives being afraid."
"Yeah. We'll keep training, though. I want you to be good enough that I don't need to worry about protecting you." I'll probably go on worrying anyway....
"Sounds good to me," Akane said drowsily.
"Uh... don't be too sure. I was thinkin' ya really oughta be able ta swim ow!"
"I get to teach you to ice-skate first." Akane rolled away to turn the light off, then rolled back and snuggled again. "Good night, Ranma. Sweet dreams. I love you."
"Good night... dear."
"Mmm. Say that again. It makes me feel so... warm and fuzzy."
"Heh. Good night, dear."
The next morning, Akane and Ranma walked up to the hotel office. The clerk smiled at them. "Ready to go?" she said, noticing their packs.
"Yes, all ready," Akane said wistfully. Ranma squeezed her hand.
The clerk went into the inner office. A moment later, the manager came out. "Well!" he said. "I can't thank you enough for the service you've done us. Er... if you would...."
Akane took the proffered sheet of paper and looked at it. "A bill?"
"Well, yes, it is customary in this business," the manager pointed out.
"But" Ranma began hotly. He subsided at Akane's warning look, but continued to glower at the manager.
"No, it's fair, Ranma," Akane said. "They just charged us for meals, see? We ate, we pay. We have enough money for that." She regarded the manager thoughtfully. "Unless you want to consider a trade...."
"And that would be?" the manager prompted cautiously.
"Why don't we go into your office and talk about it?"
A minute later, Akane leaned forward in her chair. "Our original deal was to remove the ghost from the premises. We've done that. However, you don't know the end of your 'tragic story', do you? We do. And we can tell it to you. And you can tell it to your guests. And now that the ghost is gone"
"Yes, yes!" the manager interrupted. "The haunted honeymoon cottage... now that there's no real danger, they'll be lining up to spend a night there." He looked at Akane. "So, you propose to trade the tale for your bill?" Akane nodded, smiling slightly. "That's an expensive tale."
"Compared to the fee you can charge now for one night there, it's nothing," Akane pointed out. "But if you like, we'll tell you the story, and you can decide then whether it's worth it."
The manager eyed Akane's trusting smile, Ranma's stern look, and their obvious and exceptional fitness, and remembered the phenomena, the screams in the night, and his own encounter with the ghost, and suddenly realized that these were not naive teenagers. "I accept your proposal," he said formally.
Akane started telling the story.
The manager wiped his eyes and blew his nose. "Oh, my," he said brokenly. "That's... that's.... I don't know what to say."
Akane's deep blush began to recede. "Every word is true," she said. "If anyone doubts it, have them check with the Tendo Dojo in Nerima. We teach Musabetsu Kakuto there." She pulled one of Nabiki's flyers out of her pack and handed it to the manager. "Well, was it worth it?"
"Oh, yes," the manager said. "I, er, might not want to explain the real reason for the screaming, though...." He picked up the bill and tore it in half. "If you decide to come back someday, I'll see that you go to the top of the waiting list. It's the least I can do."
Akane restored her smile as best she could. It sure is. She stood up. "It was a pleasure." She bowed slightly, glanced at Ranma, and followed him out.
They stood on the snowy road, wearing their packs, and looked back at the hotel. "I don't want to leave," Akane said quietly.
"Yeah. I know whatcha mean." Ranma turned to the road. "I'm not sure I wanna go back."
Akane studied him. "We don't have to, you know," she said. "We have our packs... we have some money... we, um, have each other...."
Ranma reached for her hand. "Yeah," he said. "We could...." He read her eyes. "I guess it's enough that we could," he said finally. "Sometimes, if ya can, ya don't hafta."
Akane felt the happy tears coming to her eyes again. "Ranma...." She sniffled. "Let's go home."
Ranma smiled a little and started down the road, but he kept her hand.
"We're ho-o-ome!" Akane and Ranma blinked at the storm of activity their announcement created. A few minutes later, they had been relieved of their packs, Ranma and Genma had been splashed with hot water, and the joined families were gathered in the Tendo main room.
"So, how was it, dear?" Nodoka asked. Ranma and Akane looked at each other, smiled a little, and blushed a lot.
"That good, huh?" Nabiki said with a hint of envy.
"It was wonderful," Akane said dreamily. She gave her sister a meaningful look. "It almost wasn't. We'll talk about that later."
"You bet we will," Nabiki agreed. "I have some questions for you."
"So do I," Kasumi said demurely. Akane blushed again and looked down at her hands.
Genma laughed loudly and clapped Ranma on the back. "So, admit it!" he said jovially. "Arranged marriages aren't so bad, hey, boy?"
Ranma flushed. "Look, Pops"
"He is a man." Everyone stopped and looked at Akane. Her head was lowered, but when her eyes came up, Genma was speared on a look that made Nodoka proud. "He's a woman sometimes, but he is a man. Not a boy. Not a girl. He's proven that all the ways he has to." She glanced at Nodoka. Nodoka bit her lip and lowered her eyes.
Released from the glare, Genma sagged a bit. "I just...." He stopped. "Sorry, Ranma." Ranma nodded without looking away from Akane.
Soun coughed. "Haunted onsen?"
"Oh, right," Ranma said, grateful for the change of subject. "Well, the train was late...."
Akane walked into her room and stopped. "What the heck?"
"We made a few changes while you were gone," Nabiki said from the hallway. "We kicked the panda out of the guest room and had a door put in, so the guest room is your bedroom now and your old room is, well, whatever you want it to be. We weren't sure about the furniture, though, so we just left it."
Akane and Ranma looked at each other. Comprehension dawned. Ranma slapped himself on the forehead. "Jeez. If ya hadn't said somethin', I prob'ly woulda gone back to Momma's house."
"I would have said something," Akane said. She raised her voice. "Where do you think you're going, DEAR? Get back here!"
Ranma and Nabiki laughed. "Yeah, about like that," Ranma said.
Akane stopped smiling and looked at Nabiki. "Now, about our honeymoon that you almost ruined with your 'great deal'...."
"Hey, I was just trying to...." Nabiki stopped at the looks Akane and Ranma gave her. She glanced over her shoulder, but Kasumi was there with an amazingly similar look. She slowly pulled out a large bundle of cash, then a smaller one, and looked at them sadly. "Here. Two... hundred... forty... thousand... yen." She gulped. "Less the train and bus fare."
Akane reached out and took the money. Nabiki's fingers seemed reluctant to release it, but Akane managed to extract it from her grasp without damaging either the money or Nabiki. She counted the bundles quickly, glanced at Ranma, then held out the smaller bundle to her sister. "Here."
Nabiki took the cash much faster than she'd let go of it. "Um... not that I'm complaining or anything, but... why?"
Akane glanced at Ranma again. "We decided that since things turned out all right... well, better than all right. The place was much nicer than we paid for, and we did a good deed, and it was all wonderful. So you deserve a reward." Akane held up the other sheaf of money, the exorcism fee from the hotel. "Now, if you'd told us ahead of time what you were setting us up for, and let us in on the deal, we'd be splitting this three ways, after expenses. Remember that the next time you come across another 'great deal'." Akane smiled a smile Nabiki had last seen in the mirror. "If you don't... well, Ranma and I will just have to take you out to our dojo and, um, train you a little."
Nabiki stood there with a bad case of dropjaw. "Hey, have you been feeding her meat, Ranma?" she asked finally.
Ranma smiled. "You betcha." Nabiki suddenly turned bright red, but he ignored it. "She's my partner. She handles the money, I handle the swimmin'." He pretended to dodge Akane's affectionate elbow.
"Kasumi's doing kempo, Akane's making deals... I hope no one expects me to start cooking," Nabiki muttered. She studied Ranma. "There's something different about you, too, Ranma-kun," she said.
"You seem much happier, and less tense," Kasumi agreed.
"I guess I finally found my center," Ranma said. He glanced at Akane. "It wasn't where I thought it'd be. But everything's more-or-less balanced now, and I think I can keep it like that."
"Same here," Akane said. "For some of the same reasons."
"Well, I'm happy for both of you," Nabiki said, "but if you'll excuse us, Ranma-kun, we have some serious girl-talk ahead of us." She turned an expectant stare on Ranma and waited.
Ranma glanced at Akane. Akane smiled and raised an eyebrow. "Sure, 'nee-chan," Ranma told Nabiki easily, and left. The sisters heard Ranma run down the stairs.
"'Nee-chan'?" Nabiki said. She shook her head. "He HAS changed."
Kasumi closed the door and sat on the bed. "Now, Akane, about what you said about all the ways Ranma proved he was a man..." she began.
Akane held up a hand. "Just a moment," she said with a secretive smile. "Someone's missing."
Nabiki and Kasumi looked at each other. "Who, Nodoka-sama?" Kasumi asked. Akane shook her head, trying not to giggle.
The door opened. Ranma came in. She closed the door behind her. "Now, about that girl-talk...."
~~~~~ end of Honeymoon ~~~~~
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