Ranma blinked and shook his head as the world slowly swam into focus again. The landing had been rather hard, even with Happousai as a cushion. This was mainly because Akane in turn had fallen onto him. He had been ready for that, though; after all, he had assumed the position beneath her on purpose, while they had still been falling, to spare her further injury. When he was able to breathe normally again, he felt Akane stir, apparently regaining consciousness. One second later she sat bolt upright.
"The.. The map," she murmured. Suddenly she grabbed the front of his tunic. "Ranma! The pressure spot map!"
She didn't know. She had been unconscious when the map - the precious map that was the only means to restore Ranma's strength - had been torn into a hundred pieces by the force of his own Hiryuu Shouten Ha. Ranma sought for words, trying to explain his failure to Akane, when he heard voices from behind him.
"Baa-san, the map pieces."
"These are all the pieces that we found."
Ranma whirled to see his fellow students deliver hands full of torn pieces of paper to Cologne, who quickly assembled them into an ancient map. The map. His hopes soared for a brief moment.
"It's incomplete!" exclaimed Cologne angrily, "The one most important piece we need is missing. The one that contains the cure to Ranma's weakness. It's not enough." Ranma's world crashed in shambles around him.
"So that's it, Ranma," said Ryouga tonelessly. Ranma was still reeling from the sudden up-and-down he had gone through. He was slowly getting to his feet, when he heard the discussions taking place around him.
"Despite everything he'll stay a weakling?"
"Shhh! Don't be so loud about it."
"Yeah, right in his presence."
Ranma slumped. When he began to speak, everybody turned their heads. "Baa-san," he said, "Ryouga, Everybody..." He turned and smiled at everybody who was gathered around him. "Thanks... for everything you did. I'll be okay." And before anyone could respond, he jumped high, clearing the fence, and was out of sight.
"Muko-dono..." Cologne said to thin air.
"Ran-chan!" shouted Ukyou.
Akane just stared at the point in the air where Ranma had vanished.
Cologne shook her head. "With such despair about him, he can't be truly well."
"Poor Ranchan." Ukyou's eyes fell upon the cause of all their pain. Happousai. She growled. "That old bastard... Take this! And this! And this!" She was losing herself in the rhythm of her strikes. It was not until Ryouga stopped her that she realized she was getting slightly unhinged.
But that was not why he had stopped her.
"Wait a moment." he said, holding back her spatula before it could descend again. He pointed at the unconscious old man's brow.
There, pressed against the old pervert's forehead, was a small piece of paper. Small though it was, it made Ukyou jump to see.
"The missing piece of the map!" She cried.
Happousai's eyes snapped open. "Eh?" He snatched the little piece of paper. "Well, I'll be damned. It is the important part of that blasted map." With his pudgy fingers he shoved the sought-after piece of paper deep into his mouth - and swallowed. "Waahahahahaaa. That'll teach Ranma. Bwaaahahahahaaa."
The people around him turned to stone. But only for a moment.
The laugh died in his throat, as the collective wrath of two young martial artists and one Amazon matriarch descended upon Happousai.
"So," came a voice from behind Ranma, "Running away?"
"Who's running?" Ranma asked without turning around. "I'm walking away. Too weak to run, see?"
"Too weak to stay, you mean."
That did it. Ranma whirled around and pointed a finger at Akane. There was a hint of tears in his eyes, but he hid that behind his anger. "You! You- you have no idea. Have you ever dreamed? Have you ever hoped only to have your hopes dashed and slapped right into your face, carrying on and getting your hopes up again only to have them destroyed over and over again?"
She looked at him sadly. "I have..." The answer from her lips was too soft for Ranma's ears.
"I'm not going to stay here, seeing all those pitying faces stare at me every day. I can take a lot, but there's a limit. I can deal with this on my own. I don't need nobody to tell me they still like me, or whatever. 'Oh, Ranchan, it doesn't matter at all that you are a complete and utter weakling now - I love you just the way you are.' No thanks!"
Akane folded her arms and cocked her head. "So, basically you're saying you've got so much pain that you've decided to spread it around a bit."
"Yes, Ranma, you heard me right," this time it was Akane to point an accusing finger, "You. Are. Hurting. People. If you think you can run off into the woods or wherever to sulk because then it's only you who hurts, you're sadly mistaken. Do you think- Do you think Ukyou wants to remember you like this? Being beaten and just vanishing? And what about Ryouga?"
Ranma snorted. "Ryouga, he's-"
"Shut up!" Akane was furious now. "Who was it that protected you when all the others wanted to exploit your situation? Who was it that helped you master the Hiryuu Shouten Ha? He may shout and bluster, he may attack you rather than shake your hand, but in his own way Ryouga loves you. He can't show it - I think he doesn't even admit it to himself - but you're his friend. Sometimes I think you're the only friend he has." She calmed down a bit and took a step back again. "And right now you're about to throw that at his feet. If you want to make a hateful enemy out of a friendly rival, here's your chance."
Ranma's head reeled. What Akane was telling him wasn't true. It couldn't be true. But why was he aching, just hearing these words? "A- Akane... you-"
"And what about your family? Your father and- and my father and all of them. Are you prepared to hurt all these people just to... protect your injured pride? Pride and honour may go together, but when you've got to make a decision, which do you choose? Which do you choose right now?"
Ranma could not answer. He just stared at Akane, who stared right back. Was this the same Akane he knew? The Akane who would rather let her mallet speak than her mouth; who would jump to conclusions and not let him get a word in edgewise to explain until she had thoroughly punished him for whatever crimes she accused him of? Where did this new Akane come from, whose arguments pierced all those defenses he had built in his mind to keep out hurtful truths? Could it be that this new Akane had always been there, hidden behind walls of the mind, just as strong as his? Was it this Akane of whom he had caught a glimpse every so often that made his heart beat faster? And if this was true, what could have brought her out of hiding to confront him? What if not... pain?
He swayed as if struck by Akane's mallet. She had talked about Ukyou's pain, about Ryouga's, about his family's and hers' - and all the while she had not mentioned one person who was very visibly in pain right now. One person whose mouth shouted angrily, while her eyes were pleading, begging him 'Please, Ranma. Please don't hurt me like this.'
The backpack dropped from his lifeless fingers to the ground. Grasping, he reached out to her, almost stumbling over the pack, as he tried to step forward. "Akane... I never- I don't want to hurt you."
Tears began streaming down her face. Tears that she must have been holding back all this time. "Then why are you running away?! Why are you leaving me behind?"
Finally Ranma stood before her, the way to her having seemed like a hundred miles. He grasped her hands and felt her grip them back, as if hanging on for her life. "I won't," he said soothingly, "I'm not running away."
Sniffling, Akane blinked at him. "Really?" She shook her head to get rid of the tears. "You promise?"
"Of course! I just told you, didn't I?"
She smiled softly at him and squeezed his hands. "Yes, you did."
Sniffling one last time, she let go of one of his hands and wiped at the remaining tears on her face. The she pulled him forward by his other hand. "Come on, Ranma. Let's get you home."
"Come on, Ranma. Get up. Time for our sparring session."
With a tired groan, Ranma rolled off of his futon. His sluggish movements told the world what he thought of sparring right now. His father had long since given up getting Ranma to participate in training anymore. Akane hadn't, though.
Ranma kept his eyes shut for as long as he dared. If he opened them, he'd just see her looking at him with those big eyes and then he'd have to get up, because he couldn't say no to her when she looked like at him like that, and then he'd have to spar with her and then...
He sighed and opened his eyes.
He hated sparring with Akane. She knew he was too weak to fight now, but she refused to accept this, forcing him into match after match, always coming out victorious, of course. Perhaps that was why she wanted him to stay: to get a chance at paying him back for all those times he did almost the same in their sparring sessions, back when he was still strong. He could see now, how infuriating that must have been for her, and he felt sorry. He had even remarked something like that to her, apologizing for his behaviour back then in a way. So why did she keep on punishing him for it?
He hit the mat, felled by a punch to the shoulder that he didn't evade. Not one he couldn't evade - just one he didn't. He couldn't care less.
"One more time," Akane demanded. Ranma sighed and got up. No use arguing. She could mop the floor with him and she knew it. He watched her get ready and dropped into a fighting stance to match hers.
He just didn't get it. She jumped forward in a pretty powerful attack of the kind that he could not do anymore if his life depended on it. He sidestepped it, still wondering what Akane got out of these endless boring matches. She would attack and he would evade. She would rain blow after blow down on him, and he would dodge and weave until she got lucky or he just got tired of this stupid game and dropped his guard. And she would hit him and he would go down time after time, and then she would demand another round, and it was just so tiresome and pointless and... and... and he had enough of it!
He snarled in defiance. When Akane threw her next punch at his head, he did not sidestep, but instead ducked the blow and stretched his right leg between hers. Unable to react so fast, Akane was carried forward by her momentum, stumbling over his leg.
She hit the dojo floor full length and quite hard. Ranma immediately regretted his action. He shouldn't have let his frustration get the better of him. Akane sat up and turned, making Ranma gulp as he saw the tears in her eyes. He rushed to her side.
"I'm sorry Akane. I didn't- I'm sorry I hurt you." He reached out, softly caressing her cheek, wiping at the tears that continued to flow. He was surprised when she grabbed his hand and pulled him into a fierce embrace.
"You baka," she said, tears wetting her face and dripping onto his shoulders, "I'm crying for you. You did it. You fought back." She squeezed him tight. "Does that mean you are finally through with feeling sorry for yourself?"
Ranma, who had been confused by the joy in her words that belied her tears, stiffened in realization. All this time that he thought she was just getting her jollies beating up on a weaker opponent, making him pay for old sins... All this time she was just waiting for him to get up and fight back? He had to choke back tears of his own, as he returned her hug.
"Yes, Akane-chan. I'm through. The only thing I feel sorry for is making you wait for so long."
After that the couple just sat and held each other for a long time.
"Hold the pervert! Stop him!"
"Waahahahahahaha! Whatta haul; whatta haul!"
Happousai's first act upon returning to Nerima was, of course, to go on a panty raid all over town.
He had wisely left the city, after his last fight with Ranma's friends and Cologne. He had barely escaped alive and had known that he would not survive if he stayed. In the meantime, though, everybody should have calmed down, resigned or left, so he figured it safe to return. And return he did, for it is not enough to just beat an opponent, he must be reminded of it constantly and humiliated in his defeat.
First things came first, though, and thus he was currently bounding down the street with a large, stuffed sack on his back and an even larger mob of angry women following. He cackled with glee, both about his booty and in anticipation of returning to the Tendou household. His cackle was stopped short when suddenly, incredibly, he stumbled and fell to the ground face-first.
"Take back the clothes. The old man is mine," came a voice from behind him. He recognized that voice, even though the tone was unfamiliar.
"Ranma! You did this!" Happousai's battle aura flared. The women hastily scrambled away with their recovered clothing, only too happy to leave someone else to battle the suddenly rather imposing pervert. It was indeed Ranma who stood before him, calmly and with a look of absolute despise in his eyes. Ha, this was going to be a short fight.
He jumped at Ranma, not really putting much force into his strike. Ranma was still weak, after all. Happousai was rather surprised when it was he himself who went flying. A wall stopped his flight, and he plummetted to the ground.
"Happousai... I've been waiting for you. I believe we still have a score to settle." Ranma looked deadly serious and not at all like the broken man that Happousai had expected to find on his return.
"But- but," Happousai stammered in disbelief, "There is no cure. You were beaten!"
"Yes," Ranma's eyes bored into his, "I was. The trouble with me is, I don't stay beaten..."
It was in that moment that one fact struck the old martial artist with crystal clarity. He had been superseded. From this day on - and most probably for quite some time before - he was no longer the undisputed master of the School of Indiscriminate Grappling.
Just as he predicted, the fight was short.
"Kunou Tachi! Stand and defend yourself."
The girl so rudely accosted just sighed. When would that boy finally learn? "Yo, Muramatsu. What is it today?"
The brown-haired boy before her hefted a mean-looking stave and shook with anger, yet the girl did not seem intimidated. She just shrugged when he raved, "Today is the day you meet your well-earned fate."
The other students, who hurried past the pair, knew that this unequal fight of the big, strong boy against the petite, delicate girl could only have one possible outcome. They were right, of course. Bare fifteen seconds later, Muramatsu Ibashi was lying unconscious on the ground, his twice-broken stave tangled between his legs.
Kunou Tachi turned to see a trim-looking young girl of her own age, who looked a bit overslept due to the slight shadows under her eyes. She wore a Fuurinkan school uniform.
"Err, I'm Gosunkugi Shutarou," she introduced herself, bowing. Tachi raised a single brow at this. "It's a long story," sighed the other girl with the boy's name. "I just came back to Japan. I'm supposed to be in class 1C here at Fuurinkan High. Do you know where I find that."
"Sure," said Tachi, "Just come with me. That's my class." The other girl piqued her curiosity. She sensed an interesting story here.
"Say," inquired Shutarou, "You finished that boy awfully quick. You must be very strong."
"Not at all," Tachi laughed, "I just studied under a very good master. I'm taking classes in self-defense at a local dojo, and the Sensei teaches us how to overcome attackers without relying on strength alone. My father says he was once the strongest fighter all around, but he acquired a strange illness that prevents him from applying his muscle strength."
Now it was Shutarou's time to display curious disbelief. "How is that supposed to work?"
"I don't know," Tachi shrugged, "But it's true. I beat him at arm-wrestling easily - and he wasn't faking it either. Now, his wife, she is strong. I saw her hurl an enormous boulder clear across the yard at him once, after he had teased her. But he just stuck out a finger, touched the flying rock and it exploded into a thousand pieces. He simply danced around the falling shards without being hit once. The next thing I heard was a splash and his wife was sitting in the koi pond. She looked like she would explode for a second, but then they just laughed together."
"You're pulling my leg," Shutarou said, "That's just too weird. No couple could be so strange."
"Heh, watch it," laughed Tachi, "They're relatives of mine."
"Yeah, right," said the other girl. They started towards the School building, as the bell gave the first ring.
"So you were abroad?" asked her newfound friend as they mingled with the other students, flowing in from all directions.
"Yes. I was doing a field trip for my studies."
"Oh, so you know about magic?"
"Like you wouldn't believe," sighed the girl.
As the school bell gave the second ring, the last of the students emptied into the building, leaving the yard of Fuurinkan High vacated. Vacated, except for one brown-haired boy, who was just regaining consciousness, but already planning revenge. Recess was going to be interesting - as it always was at Fuurinkan.
Back to my Ranma ½ page.