The four martial artists set off in the morning and hiked towards the swamp. They passed signs for the local village but bypassed it in favor of getting to the swamp faster. The trees thickened into a mangrove that had trees and fallen logs scattered throughout the murky waters.
There weren't any dry spots to place their packs, so they hung them from branches of nearby trees. Ranma stretched out his back and neck with loud cracks. He slid the Chinese silk shirt off and handed it to Akane for safe keeping. Akane took it with a soft blush, trying to discreetly admire his strong body.
"Mousse," he called. "Ready?"
The Chinese boy sighed resignedly. "I suppose."
Ranma gave him a calculating look. "Migh' be easier ta start off changed." Mousse opened his mouth to respond, but before he could say anything, Ranma splashed him with his canteen and a damp duck sat in the middle of Mousse's clothes. Duck-Mousse started quacking indignantly and flapping his wings angrily.
Ranma waved him off. "Calm down." He turned the canteen on himself, and his muscular frame shrank into a petite and curvy red head. She shook off the extra water and flipped her braid over her shoulder carelessly and turned to Mousse. "See?" She said smugly.
She turned to Ryoga with a frown. "Guess you're staying dry with Akane, huh P-chan?"she sneered at Ryoga who suddenly stood rigidly and looked incredibly angry with a pulse beating in his forehead. When Akane looked between Ranma and Ryoga with a wondering expression, the pulsing vein turned to a large drop of sweat and he looked incredibly nervous.
Akane cast Ryoga another curious look and at his horrified expression, she shot Ranma a stern glare. "Stop teasing him Ranma." She scolded.
Ranma ignored her admonishment and went to her pack and riffled through it until she pulled out the scroll with the antidote ingredients. She found the hand sketched picture of the Hydrilla plant on the scroll; it almost looked like a thyme plant and was capable of growing up to twenty-five feet in length, but what they were after were the roots.
Ranma brought the scroll closer to the duck. "Put yer glasses on." She grumbled as the duck blinked blankly at the scroll. He used a wing to knock the glasses from the top of his head to rest on his beak. "There's gonna be a whole bunch o' this junk, but we only need the roots, so ya gotta dive down ta the bottom and pull 'em up near the base so ya get the roots." Ranma explained and Mousse nodded along. "Alright! 'Kane, you stay out of the water. Keep 'er safe bacon breath. Let's go!" Ranma shouted enthusiastically as she took a running start through the marshy lands to jump from one fallen log to another, Mousse in duck form flying close behind.
Akane watched from the safety of the shore as Ranma landed on the third log and it lurched beneath him.
"Woah!" Ranma cried, keeping his footing until the log seemed to twist on itself and suddenly Ranma was face-to-face with an alarming number of teeth and the angry hissing of the Crocodile that Ranma had mistaken as a log.
"Ranma!" Akane called in worry.
Ranma deftly leapt from the angry crocodiles back to another log, but just as her particular luck would have it, it was not another log. "EEEEAAAHHH!" Ranma shrieked as snapping jaws from the second croc missed her face by inches.
Mousse had fluttered up into the air quacking in alarm, narrowly avoiding the snapping jaws of the first crocodile. Ranma ran, jumping from log to not-a-log-that's-a-crocodile! As she ran from their snapping jaws. She called out to Mousse who was flapping above Ranma to keep out of reach of the writhing swamp of angry reptiles.
"Mousse!" Ranma cried, "The only way we're gettin' outta here is with those roots!"
The duck that flew above her quacked loudly in what she could only assume was dissent.
"It's fine! I'll dive, you just fly that way" she gestured behind her as she continued to run, "and keep them busy! GAH!" A gaping maw of jagged teeth surfaced right in front of the red head and Ranma had no way to stop herself from being propelled forward.
Suddenly a small boulder smashed into the crocodile's face, and it slipped back beneath the murky surface, stunned.
"Go Ranma!" Came Akane's instant call from the shore. Her hands were muddy like the rock that had been thrown and Ryoga was hefting a boulder of his own to aim at the next croc that dared venture too close. With that being all the encouragement she needed, Ranma dove below the murky surface and right into a thick patch of underwater plants. They tangled in her limbs as she kicked and paddled towards the bottom. Her hand brushed something warm and solid and caught a glint of white teeth before she used both feet to kick it below the jaw and push off into deeper water.
She followed the plants downward, feeling her lungs beginning to ache for oxygen when her fingers sank into the silty mud of the bottom. Ranma quickly groped for the nearest stalks of Hydrilla and grasped them at the base, giving a mighty tug to dislodge the roots from the mud. Several stalks came free and Ranma broke off the excess plant and propelled herself off the bottom towards the surface, her lungs on fire. She broke the surface with a gasp but didn't have time to fully catch her breath as Mousse came flying and quacking her way.
"Hey watch it!" She shouted at the duck as she tucked the precious plant roots into the cleavage in her tank top.
"Ranma!" Akane cried from the shore.
"Look out you idiot!" Ryoga called, throwing a boulder that landed with a splash just a few feet from Ranma and he saw a flash of crocodile before it sunk below the murky waters from the weight of the rock.
"Eep!" Ranma squeaked as she started paddling desperately for the shore. A large crocodile, much bigger than all the others, swam to cut off her progress back to Akane and Ryoga. "Whoa!" She cried as she quickly turned and swam towards the nearest submerged tree. She reached it with several other crocs close on her heel and scrambled up before the snapping jaws could catch her. She pulled herself up in the tree and took a moment to catch her breath.
"Are you okay?" Akane called, cupping her hands around her mouth, and standing near the water's edge, her eyes fixed on the wet red head in the tree, completely missing a suspicious "log" drifting closer to where she stood.
"Akane! Look out!" Ranma shouted as she lunged forward on her branch in a panic.
Ryoga, who had been paying more attention, wrapped an arm around Akane's waist and launched them into a high branch of the tree above them just before a crocodile surged from the shallows and snapped it jaws menacingly in the place Akane had just been standing. Ranma let out a shaky breath as she watched from her own perch in a tree.
"Akane, are you alright?" Ryoga asked urgently as he helped stabilize her in the tree.
Akane turned her wide gaze from the spot where the crocodile had lunged to Ryoga. At his concerned expression, Akane felt the tension and anxiety melt from her. "Uh, I'm alright… thanks Ryoga." She said, tucking her hair behind her ear self-consciously. A haggard duck landed on the branch in a heap, ruining the tender moment.
"Oh Mousse! Are you alright? Are you injured?" The duck straightened and shook his head. Akane nodded and looked across the water. "Ranma! Are you okay?" She called.
"I'm fine 'Kane! I'll be there in a minute." She called back. Taking one more deep breath, she looked down at the crocodiles that were gathered around the base of her tree and pulled down an eyelid and stuck out her tongue "Nya-nah!" she teased before springing away from branch to branch of the tree's rooted in the swamp until she landed lightly on the same branch as the others.
"Ranma, you didn't get bitten, did you?" Akane asked worriedly as she held onto an adjacent branch for balance as she leaned around trying to look over the wet redhead.
"Tsk," Ranma brushed away her worries. "Nah, those crocs were too slow fer me." She bragged as she took the Chinese silk back from Akane and started buttoning it up.
"Did you get the roots, stupid?" Ryoga snapped impatiently.
"Like you were any help porkchop?!" Ranma snapped back.
"Ranma…" Akane trailed off uncertainly.
Ranma let out a dramatic sigh and stuffed her hand down her cleavage and produced a handful of plants that looked like thyme leaves and the little white scraggly roots connected at the bottom of each of them, she presented them to the others with a flourish.
"You did it!" Akane exclaimed excitedly and Ranma turned a pleased smile on her.
"Like you ever doubted me." She said cockily, pocketing the plants. Before Akane could respond, Ranma looked to Ryoga. "You keep a thermos in yer pack, right?"
With that, Ranma was hopping through the branches until he reached the one holding Ryoga's pack and started digging through it.
"Hey!" Ryoga protested.
Ranma only stopped once she pulled out a thermos and dumped some of the water on herself, transforming back into a broad, dark-haired adolescent. He flashed Ryoga a grin before he grabbed his and Akane's pack, Mousse's clothes, put the lid back on the thermos and made his way back to the others. He landed lightly on the branch and handed Akane her pack.
"Thanks." She said, carefully putting her arms through it while alternatively gripping the branch for balance. Ranma tossed the clothes on top of the duck and then stood firmly between Mousse and Akane, blocking her view as he dumped more of the hot water on the duck.
Mousse popped up under his clothing and quickly arranged his robe properly. "Thanks." He grumbled, sounding less grateful than Akane had.
"Where's my pack?" Ryoga groused.
"You can get it yerself." He said nonchalantly.
Ryoga started jumping down branch to branch, muttering the whole way. Mousse let out a sigh before he followed after the bandanaed boy.
While they were gone, Ranma added the Hydrilla plant and its roots carefully into the pack, tucking it along with the purple Hyacinth already there before sealing it back up carefully. He turned his attention back to Akane to see her leaning over to watch Ryoga's progress intently. Ranma frowned at the attention riveted to the lost boy and he reached out a large, calloused hand to tentatively wrap around Akane's free wrist, catching her attention.
"Just one more ingredient 'Kane." He said with a reassuring smile.
Akane blushed at being caught staring and the embarrassment turned to anger. "Good." She said firmly. "My life is complicated enough without this love potion! I shouldn't be stuck with some guy just because he sprayed me with magic mist!" She huffed irritably.
"…Or because their parents agreed to it before they were even born." Ranma said softly, dropping his hand and his gaze.
"Ranma…" Akane started, and then was at a loss for words. "I'm sorry. I was just…" she pursed her lips stubbornly, at a loss. Ranma leaned forward, holding his breath, eyes intent on her face as she tried to choose her words.
"Ready?" Ryoga asked, suddenly popping up on the branch next to them, making the limb sway in the air for a moment and Akane scrabbled to find decent purchase on the nearby branch.
"Damnit you idiot!" Ranma raged, suddenly punting the stunned fanged boy away from the swap, over the trees. "You're interrupting somethin' important!" He shouted angrily after him.
Akane shook her head in exasperation and turned to Mousse. "Would you please go after him? He'll get lost and we'll never find him." Akane asked gently.
Eager anticipation lit behind Mousse's thick glasses before it was quickly and firmly dampened. "Fine." He responded before leaping away in the direction Ryoga had been launched.
Akane turned her attention back to Ranma. "We should probably go too."
"Wait!" Ranma shouted a little to eagerly and his cheeks flamed before he cleared his throat. "Wait. You were saying something before pig-boy interrupted."
Akane frowned, still not sure why Ranma called him such names, but then balked at the answer Ranma wanted. "I-I… I don't remember what I was going to say." She lied, badly.
Ranma kept his steely blue gaze on her, cocking an eyebrow at her obvious lie. He took a step forward and this time, he grasped her small hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. Akane's eyes darted from Ranma's expression, so open, eager, and gentle, to their linked hands and back to his face again. "You said you were just…" He prompted softly, leaning in intently to hear her answer.
"I just…" she trailed off, feeling the nerves building as her legs began to shake and she began to wonder if they would support her, and her stomach was twisting so painfully. The sting of tears was making itself known, but she fought valiantly to keep them at bay. Her voice shook as she tried to answer him as his gaze stayed steady and intent. "I j-just… wan-ted to make… y-you… ha-happy."
Ranma looked so incredibly shocked, confused, and hurt. He stared at her blankly before blurting the first thing that came to his mind. "By ending our engagement and kicking me out?" He asked in disbelief.
The accusation hit Akane like a slap and she felt her knees buckle and knew this was not an ideal place to breakdown, being in a tree above a swamp full of vicious crocodiles and all, but her hands had been sweating and her grip slipped, but the sobs ripping through her made everything else not worthy of her notice. As she started to sag, powerful arms encircled her and brought her to a strongly muscled chest where she cried harder and tried to explain herself at the same time, not an easy feat.
"You s-said… y-you were… miserable… an-and you… had t-too many… fiances… a-and I'm not-not even the cute one!" She wailed for a moment, unleashing the torrent of emotion she had been trying to suppress since the day this whole mess started.
Ranma's arms tightened around her, tighter and tighter the more she spoke, shame and guilt wracking him almost painfully. "A-kane." He said brokenly, lowering his face into her blue-black hair. "Don't cry. I hate it when you cry." He murmured softly.
"The w-worst part is…" she continued to cry into his chest. "Is th-that I miss you! I miss bickering with you and doing things with you and always having you close by!" Akane had her hands braced on his chest to help hide her face, but she was exposed when he pulled back suddenly, yet still keeping her encircled in his arms. Akane wiped her face, trying to hide some of the evidence of her tears and avoiding his gaze.
"Akane." He said softly. When she wouldn't look up at him, he called her a little firmer. "Akane. Look at me." He was unwilling to let her go. When she sniffled and finally met his gaze, he smiled broadly at her. "I missed you too. I've missed all those things. More than you know."
"R-really?" She asked, her voice still unsteady, and she rubbed at her eyes again. "But I thought y-you said-"
"I lied." He cut her off.
She stared at him, just stared.
"I… that day I said all that stuff… Daisuke and Hiroshi were bein' jerks an' I just wanted 'em to leave me alone. I… I didn't actually mean all that stuff." Akane continued to blink at him, her big brown eyes glistening with the tears she had shed and Ranma felt his heart wrench and knew he had to say more. "Things just ain't the same without ya. If I could take it all back, I would. I'm sorry."
Akane gave him a tentative smile, and finally returned his embrace, her arms wrapping around his slim waist. After a moment she pulled back, Ranma allowing her space to step back, and looked up at him. "Now what?" She asked with a hesitant curiosity.
Ranma screwed up his face in thought, but before he could answer, Ryoga's voice rang out.
"Can we go now?!" He hollered in frustration.
Ranma blew out a breath in frustration and turned in the direction Ryoga's voice had come from and sucked in air to shout his response, but Akane's warm hand on his chest stopped him.
"We should go." She said softly, giving him a small smile.
Ranma looked down and then nodded. "We're coming!" He groused back at Ryoga before he swept Akane into his arms and started gracefully leaping through the trees to bypass Ryoga and Mousse as they joined him in their tree-top adventure out of the thicker part of the swamp and onto firmer, drier ground. Reluctantly Ranma set Akane on her feet and the four of them continued hiking, once Ranma had consulted the map, in the direction of Schizonepeta, the valley where they would find the final ingredient to the antidote.
Sarahplainntall here! Thanks for your patience! Big shout out to my reviewers! Flameraven: You are so right about Ryoga and you'll see soon enough how his curse and the love potion "interact" ;) Jamesbirdsong: Glad you continue to enjoy! Thanks for reviewing! Allimtry: Glad you enjoyed the last feely chapter! You have to have fluff with the crazy antics. Hope you enjoyed this last bit as well. SonkaD: Thanks for the constructive criticism. I do struggle to keep the characters "in character" at times and still acheive where I'm trying to go with this story. I took your advice and added more Ryoga v. Ranma bickering and will try to be mindful in the future. I appreciate you sticking with me and for the constructive criticism. It wasn't mean (thanks) and had some good points. CuteClau: Thank you! I'm glad you're enjoying it and thanks for the positive vibes. :)