Merry Christmas, Now Pucker Up
By: Angela Jewell

I realize it's a bit of a stretch to assume Easterners don't know what mistletoe is, so I'm going to plead creative license, and ask you to just go with it. Thanks and enjoy!

It looked sorta innocent just dangling there, wrapped in a garish red bow, and the berries almost looked good enough to eat . . . but Ranma wasn't fooled. Thanks to nuts like Kodachi and the Amazons he knew how dangerous plants could be, so keeping a safe distance away he continued to eye it distrustfully, as though any minute now it'd start spraying off noxious fumes.

"What'd you say this stuff was called again, Kasumi?"

"I believe Nabiki called it Mistletoe. Lovely, isn't it?"

Actually, suspicious and ugly came to his mind, but not about to tell Kasumi that, he shrugged. "Sure, I guess," he replied, "but how come it's hung over every door in the house? Was there a sale going on or something?"

"Well, not that I know of," she answered thoughtfully. "Though father and Uncle Saotome were awfully excited while hanging them up last night. Perhaps they did buy them at a real nice bargain."

Ranma frowned. His old man wasn't the type to "buy" anything, let alone a dozen dumb plants and he definitely wasn't the type to get off his lazy ass and help decorate either, not unless his mom put him up to it. Once she got back from shopping with Akane, he'd have to ask.

"Thanks Kasumi," he said as he threw another dubious look in the plant's direction. This time when he passed beneath it, for some reason he unconsciously shivered. As a martial artist—and a damn good one at that—Ranma was used to trusting his instincts, and this time his instincts were telling him to run and to run fast. . .

This stuff was trouble.

In the time it took Akane and his mother to return from shopping, the plants hadn't exploded, nothing strange had grown out of them, and beans weren't flying at his head . . . Ranma was starting to think he may have been overthinking things just a little. Still curious though, he wasted no time in tracking down his mother, just to make sure.

He found her almost immediately in the family room, chatting with Akane, all their purchases piled high on the table before them. The second he entered though, it was obvious something strange was going on with the tomboy. As soon as she saw him, Akane's face turned beet red and she looked away, purposely avoiding his gaze, and in that brief second all thoughts of mistletoe, conspiracies, and danger went right out the window.

"Hey," Ranma said as he poked her cheek curiously. "What's up with you? Your face is on fire."

Akane slapped his hand away, though with a little less force than usual given his mother was currently watching. Ranma beamed, knowing how much holding back pissed her off.

"I'm fine," she hissed quietly, "and if you know what's good for you, Ranma, you'll drop it, alright?"

Ranma had no intention of "dropping it" not when teasing her and making her mad was so much fun, but before he could continue tormenting her, his mother interrupted helpfully, "Don't mind her, dear. She's just feeling a tad shy about the Christmas gift I helped her pick out. It's not much . . . just, something you can both enjoy together."

"Really?" Ranma asked, suddenly curious. "What is it?"

Akane jumped up faster than Ranma had ever seen her and grabbed a small parcel from the table, clutching it possessively to her chest. "Nothing!" she told him quickly before turning back to his mother, polite as can be. "I'm going to go put this away now, Auntie. Thanks again for helping me."

"My pleasure, Akane-dear."

Though Ranma was tempted to follow his fiancée, his eyes were drawn instead to the dumb plant hanging above the threshold as Akane passed beneath it, and finally he remembered why he'd sought his mother out in the first place. "Hey ma," he questioned, deciding there was always time to tease Akane later. "Did you order pops to put up all these weird plant-things around the house?"

Nodoka's brow crinkled in confusion. "And what plant-things would those be, dear?"

Ranma stared at her, secretly wondering if maybe she was playing him—they were everywhere, in every nook and cranny of the house, this room alone had three. "Those things," he explained, gesturing to the closest one, a large stalk that was hanging above the engawa. "They're everywhere."

"Oh!" she exclaimed, as though seeing them for the first time that day. "Why no, son, I didn't. They do look quite festive though, don't you think? The girls must have put them up for decoration."

"Nah, it wasn't them," he muttered quietly to himself. Again, he wondered if maybe they were just that—dumb decorative plants. For all he knew, maybe his old man had gotten drunk last night and wouldn't even remember putting them up. The problem of course was that his idiotic old man wasn't around to ask. Like Nabiki, Mr. Tendo and his pops had been conspicuously missing since this morning, and with Happosai gone as well, Ranma was starting to wonder if the old pervert hadn't dragged them off on another dumb retreat without telling anyone.

As great as that would be, it still didn't explain the plants.

More out of defiance than anything else, Ranma reached up and flicked one of the lame decorations with the tip of his finger, and then berated himself for being surprised when nothing magical or frightening happened afterwards. Man, how pathetic could he be? Besides, if something weird were going on he was sure Akane would've mentioned it too. Aside from the whole P-chan thing, she could be surprisingly perceptive when she wanted to be; the fact that he the only one being bothered by any of this had to mean something.

As his mother stood up to begin collecting her things, Ranma quickly rushed forward, eager for a distraction. "Here, ma, lemme get those for you," he told her, channeling all his energy into being the perfect manly son. Within seconds he had every last bag gathered in his arms, stacked so high he could barely see, though that didn't faze him at all.

Nodoka smiled delightedly at him. "Why, how very manly of you, son. Thank you."

"Heh. This is nothing," he told her, and puffed out his chest. As they took their time walking to her bedroom, Ranma's mother told him all about their shopping expedition, about all the interesting things they'd seen and bought, until gradually the mistletoe was pushed completely from his mind.

A fact he'd soon come to regret. . .

Had he only known the true terror those little weeds would unleash and unleash soon, Ranma never would've stepped foot out of that room without destroying every last one.

"Hey, what's with all the strange plants?" Akane questioned as she finally settled down for lunch.

"Oh, hello, Akane," Kasumi cheerfully greeted as she passed her some tempura.

If Ranma hadn't been busy stuffing his face on his third helping (his father, happily, was still missing-in-action), he would've given her grief for only noticing the obvious now. Instead he managed to grunt "decorations" through a mouthful of food, before turning his attention back on Kasumi's delicious meal.

"Decorations? Really?" Nabiki asked, choosing that moment to saunter into the room. "For just 3000 yen I can tell you how very wrong he is, Akane-chan."

Akane turned her head away, not one to encourage her sister's money grubbing ways, especially when she was being uncharacteristically polite about it. "No thanks," she told her, and reached for her rice.

Nabiki shrugged as she turned her attention to Ranma instead. "How about it, Saotome?" she asked, a glint in her eye that immediately had him on guard and wary. "Only 4000 yen and the information's yours. And trust me," she added, in a voice that couldn't have sounded more ominous if she tried, "you're going to want to hear this."

Despite his annoyance at the price hike, Ranma found himself favorably considering the offer, if for no other reason than someone was finally validating the fears that had been plaguing him all day. The part of him that was reluctant to part with cash however, hesitated, secretly wondering if maybe he should wait and get the information for free. He didn't trust Nabiki, and if this was his pops doing, he could just beat the truth out of him.

Besides, there was no rush. Nothing bad had happened so far.

Nabiki, sensing his reluctance, glanced casually at her watch. "Just so you know, every minute you hesitate the price goes up. Now it's 5000 yen," she announced, and looking at Akane with a small smile, added, "though this next tidbit I'll give away for free. Things are about to get very interesting any minute now. . ."

"Oh my," Kasumi uttered as she rose gracefully to her feet and began gathering up all the dishes and uneaten food. She knew her sister well enough to know when danger was coming. Apparently so did Nodoka. Remembering her own home's destruction, she stood as well and began helping Kasumi carry everything back to the kitchen, moving with quiet efficiency, as though she'd done this a dozen times before.

Ranma groaned, recognizing a threat when he heard one. "Stupid," he muttered to Akane as he quickly dug in his pockets for cash, "if you'd just bought it while it was cheap."

"If this is a trick, Nabiki," Akane warned, her voice dangerously low.

"Come now," Nabiki chastised, managing to look insulted. "Would I lie when money is on the line?"

"Here," Ranma said, shoving two weeks' worth of allowance in her face. "Now out with it. What's up with all those stupid flowers?"

Smiling, Nabiki took the money and flipped idly through the bills, counting her ill-gotten bounty. When she was satisfied, her tone turned sober as she explained, "Actually it's easier just to show you. First I need both of you to stand beneath that stalk of mistletoe over there." She pointed to the closest one, the same one Ranma had pointed out to his mother earlier in the day.

Looking confused but finding no reason to argue, Ranma and Akane did as they were told, each carefully positioning themselves so the mistletoe was hanging directly above their heads. Then they looked expectantly at Nabiki. "Alright, now what?" Akane demanded, frustrated Ranma had paid money for this.

Nabiki folded her arms. "Now kiss," she told them.

For one blissful second, silence held the room in its thrall, until suddenly the two teenagers exploded as one: "WHAT?!" "Are you JOKING?" Too mortified and embarrassed to attack each other, they smartly turned their ire on the source of their anger instead. "What the hell kinda information is that?" Ranma demanded, as Akane nodded in agreement, adding, "Have you lost your mind, Nabiki?!"

"Hey, don't blame me," Nabiki defended lightly. "It's a popular Western tradition. When two people stand beneath mistletoe they're supposed to kiss. So go on, you two, pucker up."

This time their faces reddened for an entirely different reason, but before either could step away fast, a pair of hands appeared out of nowhere, landing on each of their shoulders, holding them firmly in place. Turning as one, the reluctant couple saw that the prodigal fathers had indeed returned.

"Why, thank you, Nabiki, for that fine explanation," said Soun with an approving nod of his head. "Truly, the Western world is a land of mystery and delights."

"Indeed it is, Tendo, indeed it is. Though I fear Nabiki here has neglected to divulge the most important part," said Genma, adjusting his glasses so they glinted ominously in the light. "I speak, of course, of the curse."

"The curse?" Akane repeated, her tone dry and skeptical.

"Yes, the curse," Genma intoned as Soun nodded knowingly beside him, both of them looking grave. "Mistletoe, you see, is an extremely dangerous, parasitic plant, one which brings misfortune and mayhem to all who dare stand beneath its sacred bough."

"Dangerous?" Ranma repeated angrily, "Parasitic?"

"And you thought it would be a great idea to hang them up all over the house?" Akane yelled.

Soun nervously cleared his throat. "Yes, well . . . if used properly, they are quite safe."

"Used properly, huh?" Ranma replied, crossing his arms. "What the hell does that even mean?"

"I'm glad you asked that, son," continued his father in darkly, sinister tones. "In ancient times, Mistletoe was used to bind stubborn, unfilial children together, for any couple that stood beneath its majestic foliage were duty-bound to kiss. Should they refuse or try tearing the mistletoe from its holy perch, the greatest of calamities would befall them, haunting and tormenting them all the days of their lives . . . until the mistletoe was appeased, that is."

Soun nodded solemnly. "A terrifying curse indeed."

"Wow, sis," Nabiki remarked, nudging Akane with her shoulder. "Sounds serious. Looks like you and Ranma better start making out pronto."

Ranma ignored the comment. "You've gotta be kidding. Just how stupid do you jerks think we are?"

"A plant that makes you kiss?" Akane muttered in agreement. "Honestly!"

"Best not anger the mistletoe, Akane," her father warned gently before giving her a reassuring pat on the shoulder. "Why not kiss your fiancé like a good girl and we can all put this nasty business behind us, eh?" One of Akane's patented death glares quickly had him dropping his arm and backing away.

Genma, however, wasn't so wise. "I only want what's best for you, Ranma," he grunted as he proceeded to try and shove his son's face in the direction of his fiancée, not having realized she'd already stepped away.

"Give it up, old man," he snapped as he broke free and gave him a good kick in the gut, shoving him back several feet. "I'm not kissing Akane because some dumb plant tells me to!"

"It's not like I'm dying to kiss you either," she muttered.

"Now, now, don't be stubborn, boy," Genma said as he approached him stealthily, like an animal approaching its prey. "This is for your own good."

"Oh yeah? Here's what I think of some dumb curse!" Reaching up, Ranma yanked down the mistletoe that was dangling innocently above his head, then stomped on it for good measure. Approving wholeheartedly, Akane quickly followed suit, attacking the piece that was leading to the hallway as Ranma took care of the last one by the television. When the carnage was over, they stared at the demolished flowers littering the family room floor, breathing heavily as they looked proudly upon their work. Behind them, their fathers watched on with an eerie, detached calm.

"And so the curse begins," Genma intoned quietly.

"Oh, shut it, will ya?" Ranma snapped. "There ain't no curse!"

"Ho ho ho ho ho!"

Every eye in the room turned toward the sound, and Ranma in particular froze in panic, his eyes glued to the hallway. "No way," he breathed as Kodachi Kuno came prancing in, a sprig of mistletoe held high in her hand. "Oh, Ranma-darling," she chortled, "I've come for our promised kiss!"

Akane stared in disbelief. "But, but how did she. . ." Eyes narrowing in understanding, she turned to glare at Nabiki, all the pieces falling into place.

"What?" her sister replied innocently. "I never promised the information was exclusive."

Ranma didn't have any time to complain. Jumping fast, he narrowly avoided Kodachi's ensnaring ribbon—her way of wooing when gentle persuasion failed to sway. "I'm afraid running will get you nowhere, my love," she tenderly rebuked him.

"Wanna bet," he challenged as he grabbed a cushion off the floor and used it to block her rose petal attack, all while staying mindful of the dangling mistletoe in her other hand. Not that he believed that load of hogwash his father had spouted, but if Kodachi managed to get him beneath that damn weed, he knew she'd never give up. "Look, I ain't gonna kiss you," he told her firmly, just in case running away wasn't clueing her in. "So just go home already."

"Such cruel words from such lovely lips," pouted Kodachi. "Very well then. I shall kiss you again and again as penance!" To show just how serious she was, this time when she attacked she threw red, black, yellow and white rose petals, and when the blizzard managed to obscure her beloved's vision, that's when her ribbon shot out, her secret weapon attached to the end—though despite all her careful planning, it never did quite manage to make it to its target. Just when Ranma was about to grab it out of reflex, Akane stepped forward and yanked the line instead, pulling it taut.

"Why, you—!" Kodachi fumed as she glared hatefully at her rival.

Akane's eyes widened as she stared down at the end of the ribbon, shocked to see she was holding a tiny sprig of mistletoe with a picture of Kodachi wrapped tightly around its stem. Realizing the other girl had tried slipping in a substitute, she gave a derisive snort and quickly tore it apart, allowing the pieces to fall to the floor at her feet. "Sorry, but I'm not kissing you either," she informed her.

Looking like he'd just dodged a bullet—albeit, a weird, revolting one—Ranma let out a sigh of relief. He didn't know what disturbed him more: the fact that Kodachi actually expected that to work, that she'd thought of it at all, or that he'd almost touched it. Either way, there was no cure for that kind of crazy. . .

Soun, watching the battle, grabbed his head in tortured anguish. "Oh, if only our stubborn children would kiss, this evil plant would finally be appeased!" Genma nodded sadly alongside him, wiping away bitter tears of disappointment.

Ranma grunted, "Fat chance," as Akane threw the ribbon right back at Kodachi, who already looked eager for round two. Before they had a chance, a new voice drifted in from the hallway, and recognizing it immediately, Ranma and Akane both groaned.

"Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth," quoted the other crazy Kuno as he sauntered into the room. His kendo sword was resting lightly on his shoulder while a stalk of mistletoe was clenched tightly between his teeth. Then, removing it with a flourish, he leveled it straight at his reluctant paramour. "For surely, my ears heard true: Akane Tendo seeks a kiss, and this paltry plant is the means?"

Scowling, Ranma glanced at Akane. "I really, really hate your sister."

"I'm not liking her that much either," Akane grumbled.

"Yeah," Nabiki piped up. "Still here."

Kodachi relaxed her stance as she stared at her brother in mild annoyance, if not outright disgust. "So. You've come as well, brother-dear."

Kuno turned his head slightly, only noticing the other girl now. "Well, if it isn't my twisted sister," he greeted coldly before turning his attention back on his love. "Come, Akane Tendo, let our lips meet in perfect union, then once I have satisfied your craving, we shall find the pigtailed girl and I shall grace her with the gift of my lips as well!"

"No thanks," Akane muttered as her and Ranma both took a step back, their eyes glued on their respective pieces of mistletoe. Having to deal with one crazy Kuno was bad enough, but two? And worst of all, Akane knew it was only a matter of time before the rest showed up.

"Hey," Ranma whispered, apparently fearing the same thing. "If you take Kodachi, I'll take Kuno, then we can raze every piece of that stupid shrub to the ground. Deal?"

"Deal," Akane whispered back, already imagining a mistletoe bonfire, with Nabiki busy fanning the flames.

With a plan of action now in place, both teens took a resolute step forward, only to find their paths suddenly blocked by Genma who was dangling another piece of mistletoe directly in front of them. "This could all be over with a kiss, boy," he told them slyly.

"Cut it out, would you?!" Ranma snapped, and more out of reflex than any sort of calculated attack, grabbed his father by the front of his gi and sent him flying—right in the path of Kodachi and Kuno, who were knocked over like a pair of bowling pins with the bulky martial artist landing right on top of them, pinning them down.

Nabiki whistled. "Wow, perfect strike."

"This isn't funny," Akane snapped, glaring at her sister. "Just whose fault do you think this is anyway?!"

"Yell at her later, stupid," Ranma said as he took off running, only one goal in mind: Destroying every last piece of mistletoe in this godforsaken place. Using his father as a springboard, he drove him right back to the ground, and the Kuno siblings who were struggling to push him off, found themselves kissing floor once more. Yet despite the helpful sendoff, Ranma didn't make it very far.

"Nihao!" greeted Shampoo as she came bounding into the room, the largest piece of mistletoe he'd ever seen wrapped tightly in her arms. "We kiss now, yes?"

"Oh no, you don't, you hussy!" Ukyo shouted as she came running up behind her, brandishing her own piece of mistletoe like a weapon. Though her battle spatula was still strapped to her back, Ranma could see another piece hanging from the giant handle there as well. "Ran-chan's going to be kissing me!"

"Over Shampoo's dead body!"

"That can be arranged, Sugar!"

More resigned than anything else, Ranma watched as his enthusiastic fiancées engaged in their own battle royal, happy that at least their energy was focused on their competition instead of on him. Taking advantage of their distraction, he slowly began to retreat backwards, determined to sneak away while they were busy verbally sparring. Though he was loath to admit it, he knew he was in way over his head—no way could he handle them all at once, not without someone getting hurt, or worse, kissed.

Sorry, Akane, he thought, silently promising to make it up to her later. Looks like you're on your own. . .

Unfortunately, luck was not on his side today; or any other day, for that matter. The moment Ranma made up his mind to turn tail and run, he heard a loud explosion nearby and then the sound of something crumbling, followed by the familiar cry of "Where on earth am I now?"

To his chagrin, Ranma stopped fast in his tracks.

Sure, Akane could handle Kuno just fine, but that directionless idiot was another matter entirely; just one goofy grin from him and she'd be putty in his hands. "Dammit, Ryoga," he muttered just as the tomboy ran straight into his back, not having realized he'd stopped.

"Hey," Akane complained, and then noticing the ruckus happening right in front of them, scowled. "Oh," she said sharply, crossing her arms as she watched Shampoo and Ukyo brawling for the right to kiss him. "You must be happy, Ranma. Now you can kiss ALL your fiancées."

Ranma's lips thinned, all his earlier worries disappearing into the pleasant haze of he-no-longer-gave-a-damn. "Yeah, have fun with Ryoga and Kuno," he muttered as he headed for the garden and the nearest escape route.

"Ranma!" Akane protested, following after him. "Where do you think you're going? You can't just leave me here. I can't possibly get rid of all that mistletoe by myself!"

Against his better judgement, Ranma stopped and turned back to face her, pleased to note that this was the closest to begging Akane was likely to get. "Okay then, say it," he told her, his expression cocky and arrogant, and determined to try anyway. "Say you're sorry for being uncute and jealous, and that you want me to stay and protect you. Go on."

"Don't be ridiculous," Akane replied, her tone icy. "I don't need you to protect me." To prove it, her fist shot out the second Kuno came running at her with open arms, and nailing him right in the face, swiftly returned him to the ground where he belonged.

Ranma didn't even blink. "So?"

"So," Akane snapped impatiently, "think about it, dummy. What if Happosai shows up next? Do you really want HIM getting a hold of this stuff?"

At the reminder, Ranma's face turned pale as visions of the old freak chasing every girl in town with that godawful plant materialized right before his eyes; man, Nerima would never forgive him. "Damn, why didn't you say so in the first place?" he complained, easily side-stepping Kodachi as she took a page from her brother's book and lunged at him from the side. With no one to grab, she stumbled and tripped gracelessly over her brother's prone body, hitting her head on the hard unyielding ground below.

Akane continued as though nothing had happened. "I'll go ask Kasumi and Auntie Saotome to help clear out the kitchen and the dojo while I head upstairs," she told him. "You should concentrate on the bathroom and all the rooms around here. Hopefully when all the mistletoe's destroyed, everyone will get bored and leave."

"Got it," Ranma replied, determined to get going while Shampoo and Ukyo were still locked in bloody combat, though secretly, he planned to track down that jerk Ryoga first. He'd feel much better if he could keep an eye on him, and it wouldn't hurt to have someone running interference if the girls managed to find him. So stepping on Kuno on his way out, mostly because he could, Ranma took off running.

Soun and Genma watched their stubborn kids depart with heavy hearts. "Well, looks like we should've held off on booking that church earlier, eh, Tendo?"

"True, but we mustn't give up hope," Soun told him firmly, for once responding with confidence rather than tears. "We'll get these two stubborn kids together even if it kills us!" Stirred by the strength of their convictions, the two men linked arms, united in denial as well as stupidity.

Meanwhile another shadowy figure had winded its way into the festivities. Beneath the Tendos front porch, crawling among the cobwebs and the spiders, was Hikaru Gosunkugi, his own piece of mistletoe clutched tightly in his hands. What luck that today of all days he'd decided to update his photo collection, and even luckier still that Saotome's fat father had unintentionally supplied him with the very charm he'd need in order to make his dreams come true!

At last, Akane Tendo's lips would be his for the taking . . . and if all went well, he might even get to talk to her too!

Giddy with the thought, Gosunkugi was just about to start cackling madly when Nabiki Tendo's face appeared right in front of him, and shocked and horrified, he jumped in alarm, hitting his head hard on the top of the porch.

"Hello there," she greeted, the creepiest smile Gosunkugi had ever seen making its way across her face. "You weren't trying to get something out of me for free now, were you?"

Very slowly, sincerely, he shook his head as Nabiki stretched out a hand and looked at him expectantly. Gosunkugi sighed, and with shaking hands reached for his wallet.

He never should've expected Akane Tendo's lips to come cheap.

Akane wasn't surprised when Kasumi and Ranma's mother agreed to help without hesitation. Like Ranma, all it took was Happosai's name and the two woman had been off like a shot, scouring the kitchen for every piece of mistletoe they could find and destroy.

Nobody wanted this information to fall into the wrong hands.

Feeling more confident by the minute, like maybe this wouldn't turn out so terribly after all, Akane headed upstairs, removing a piece of plant that was attached to the stairwell as she went. That's one down, she encouraged herself, now only a frightening-number-she-didn't-want-to-think-about left to go.

Luckily enough, the process turned out far less tedious than she'd feared. Her father and Uncle Saotome weren't very creative when it came to hanging them up—they were dangling in plain sight all over the guestroom and out in the hallway, but for some reason were missing from Kasumi and Nabiki's bedrooms, probably because their fathers were too afraid to step foot in either one.

Her bedroom wasn't so lucky; clearly her sisters needed to let her in on their secret.

Still, at least she was in familiar territory now. It was just too bad she'd been so naïve this morning, thinking all the plants hanging in her room had been Auntie and Kasumi's idea—if not for that, she would've torn them all down as soon as she woke up.

"Alright, time to get down to business," Akane told herself as she flung open her door and stared up at the first of many mistletoe encroaching upon her room. Honestly—if she never saw another piece of that stupid plant it would be too soon. Resigned to her thankless task, Akane reached for the troublesome little flower dangling above her doorway and pulled it down with much more force than necessary, then tossed it to the ground so she could grind it into the carpet with her foot.

Gosunkugi, creeping silently behind her, finally decided to make his move. Taking advantage of Akane's distraction, the love-struck boy raised the mistletoe high in the air, his lips pursed and ready for their prize.



Akane turned her head at the sound, shocked to see her classmate Hikaru Gosunkugi lying in a heap several feet behind her, out cold.

"Oh, Ryoga," she said, noticing the bandana-clad boy standing over the body, the fist he'd used to knock him out still half raised. With the mistletoe still clutched in Gosunkugi's hand, and the goofy grin on his face, it wasn't hard to figure out what must have happened—though why he was here at all, Akane had no idea. "Thank you!" she told him, smiling brightly.

"Ah, it was nothing," he said, suddenly turning bashful and shy.

Still determined to do her duty, Akane bent down to pluck the troublesome little flower out of Gosunkugi's pale hand. "Honestly, I really don't know what's gotten into everyone," she said, as she proceeded to crush it brutally like the one she'd retrieved from her door. "I guess people will believe anything."

Ryoga scoffed. "Pathetic, isn't it?"

"So you've heard?" Akane asked him, relieved she didn't have to explain what was going on. Considering how much Ryoga travelled, she should've known he'd have heard of mistletoe. In fact, he must know lots of strange foreign customs!

"Of course," Ryoga said, though the reason was far less glamorous. If the sight of Shampoo and Ukyo screaming and fighting over some red-berried plants hadn't been a dead giveaway, Kodachi trying to Frankenstein parts of a flower that had been mutilated back together would have surely tipped him off. Though the real kicker, oddly enough, had been Ranma himself. His hated rival had grabbed him without a word and dragged him to the bathroom, explaining everything as he ordered him to help clear the dumb plants away.

It was fate itself that led him straight to Akane after escaping that terrible hell.

"I can't believe anyone could believe such nonsense," he replied. "I've never heard anything so ridiculous in my entire life!"

Akane nodded in full agreement, happy to have someone to share her frustration with. "I'm glad you're not like them, Ryoga. It's nice not having to worry about you attacking me or anything."

"Of course not!" Ryoga exulted, following her into the bedroom. "Only a coward would use such pathetic, underhanded tricks!" A coward like Ranma, who apparently had no trouble leaving his fiancée alone to fend for herself against a hoard of perverted beasts!

Looking around her room, Akane sighed warily. "They really did a number in here, didn't they?" she complained, wondering how they'd managed to do all this while she was asleep. "Would you mind helping me get rid of them?" she asked, her eyes big and round and pleading.

"N-no problem!" Ryoga replied, and walking stiffly, began to retrieve them one by one. In here, there was no rhyme or reason to the strange arrangement—there were clusters just randomly hanging from the ceiling in packs, making it impossible to stand beside anybody in the room without finding yourself standing beneath one. It was almost too bad Akane was keeping her distance.

Grabbing the last one nearby, Ryoga crumpled it up in his fist and then stared down at the hateful little plant, the very culprit responsible for poor Akane's suffering. To think, something so vile could hold such fearsome power. Not that he put much stock in the legend, of course, and even if he did, he had Akari now. He wasn't tempted! Not one bit.

"Last one!" Akane shouted triumphantly as she turned from the window, proudly wielding her final prize. She was smiling brightly—which was the only reason Ryoga's eyes strayed to her lips, and sure, her face may have looked particularly pretty and kissable at that very moment, but it wasn't because of the dumb mistletoe.

Rather than destroy it immediately, Akane held it up, dangling it right in front of her eyes. "It sure doesn't look like much," she observed innocently as she tried to figure out how one little flower could wreak such havoc.

Despite his resolve and good intentions, Ryoga found his feet taking a step towards her, completely of their own accord, and his heart sped up, seeing her standing there so innocent and trusting—and completely against his will, his eyes and head grew hazy as his imagination took over.

In his mind, he saw Akane embracing him happily beneath the mistletoe, her pretty lips pursed as she leaned forward shyly, intent on thanking him for rescuing her from that vile pervert. . .

Noticing the movement, Akane stared at him in confusion, not sure why he was suddenly moving towards her or why he had a goofy expression on his face, not unlike the one Gosunkugi had worn. But just when she was about to ask what was wrong, someone came charging into her room; an angry red blur.

"Oh! Ranma! Are you done already?" she asked him.

Her fiancé didn't answer. Instead Ranma's eyes fell immediately on Ryoga, and taking in the scene, his eyes turned dark and fierce. "Stupid damn pig!" he yelled, seconds before he lashed out with his foot, sending the other boy flying through the window and into the dark December sky beyond.

Akane blinked slowly, trying to wrap her mind around what had just occurred. Then growing incredulous, she snapped, "What did you do that for? He was helping us, you dummy!"

More out of righteous fury than a fear of being overheard, Ranma slammed the door shut behind him and took an indignant step towards her. "Oh, so that's what you wanna call it," he replied bitterly, recalling the look on Ryoga's face, and how close that damn weed had been dangling between them. "So, what were you gonna do? Kiss him as some sorta reward or something?"

"Excuse me?" Akane shot back, incensed, and admittedly a bit confused as she wondered where this response was possibly coming from. "First of all, Ranma, I'm allowed to kiss whoever I want—you certainly seem to! And second, Ryoga's not Kuno, he'd never try something like that. Not to mention he already has a girlfriend, you idiot, or have you already forgotten Akari?"

Ranma couldn't help but laugh. "The only one forgetting Akari is that jerk Ryoga," he informed her, having seen the dopey look on Ryoga's face as he stared at that damn mistletoe. If he hadn't shown up when he did, who knows what might've happened! But before he could tell Akane that, they heard footsteps right outside the door and the two instantly froze, their ears straining for the slightest sound, suddenly back in battle mode.

"Ranma, Shampoo ready for kiss!"

"Akane, my love! Where art thou?"

Hearing their voices right outside the door, Akane blanched and started looking desperately for a place to hide. Ranma, quick to react, threw open her wardrobe and stopped short, staring in horror at the innocent stalk of mistletoe dangling from the very top. You've gotta be kidding me, he thought, aghast.

Akane, suddenly beside him, shoved him inside as she whispered urgently, "Just get in, dummy! We don't have time for this!" Crawling in after him, she quickly shut the door behind them as they sat in silence, afraid the slightest sound or movement would give them away.

The timing couldn't have been more perfect.

Having no regard for a simple thing like knocking, Shampoo come barging into the room, her heavily accented voice drifting to them from the open doorway, "Ranma? Plant gone, but Shampoo still free to kiss!" Ukyo's voice followed after, tinged with annoyance and contempt. "If you think I'm letting your lips near him, you hussy, think again!"

"Indeed, for I shall be the one to claim Ranma-darling's precious lips," Kodachi cackled.

Akane rolled her eyes, wondering again what they could possibly see in him—which is when another voice entered the fray, the one she'd least wanted to hear. "Why, if you wanted a kiss, dearies, all you had to do was ask me. Now then, come to Happy!"

Almost immediately, shouting, fighting, and the sound of doors slamming shut drifted into their quiet little haven, yet in the tiny wardrobe, both teenagers held their breath, only untensing once the sounds had faded far off into the distance—at least Happosai was good for something. Still afraid to move though, they stayed right where they were, both their gazes drifting to the parasitic plant hanging high above them.

"This sucks," Ranma whispered as he poked it lazily with his finger. "Here I thought we were running away from this crap but now we're right back where we started."

"What should we do now?" Akane asked with a sigh, shifting so she was sitting more comfortably. "Should we wait a bit more, do you think? Just to be safe?"

"Guess it couldn't hurt," Ranma replied, not willing to test his luck that they'd left for good. "Once they're gone, we can burn what's left of that mistletoe, beat our pops, and then have a Merry Christmas."

Akane laughed softly, loving that last part. Every now and then Ranma surprised her and proved he really did have a brain. "Who knows," she said at last as she leaned comfortably against the wall, "maybe your father was right. Things have been so quiet lately. . . do you really think this is all coincidence? I mean, maybe we really are cursed."

Now it was Ranma's turn to laugh. "Yeah, sure, Akane," he replied. "An evil weed that haunts you till you kiss. Riiight."

"And I suppose a bean-plant that shoots demons, or a flower that can turn someone into a housewife is considered "normal" then? Honestly! We've seen stranger and stupider things, Ranma."

At the reminder Ranma smiled and scooted closer so he was facing her. "Fine then. Maybe we should take it seriously. So go on then, kiss me. End the big, bad curse."

Rather than get mad at the provocation, Akane crossed her arms and looked at him doubtfully. "Are you sure you could even handle it," she taunted, and knew that the barb hit its mark the moment Ranma stiffened and narrowed his eyes at her.

"What does that mean?" he demanded, his pride feeling the sting.

Ecstatic that her jibe had knocked him down a peg or two, Akane continued to play her fiancé like a classy fiddle. "Face it Ranma, you're too chicken to kiss me on your own, that's what this is really about, isn't it? Well too bad. You can just go on being cursed for all I care."

Ranma opened his mouth to protest, to tell her how stupid and crazy she was being, but stopped himself for a reason he couldn't quite explain. Maybe it was their proximity, the daring subject, or because, despite the lack of light, he could see very plainly that she was blushing. In fact, despite the load of bull she was spouting, she looked almost shy as she sat there, in the dark, close enough to touch.

So, she was playing that game, huh?

Ranma fought back a grin. "Jeez, if I didn't know any better, Akane, I'd say you're trying to get me to kiss you." Attempting to appear nonchalant, he glanced up at the mistletoe and flicked it again with his finger in an attempt to hide his own blush. "If you wanted a kiss, stupid, all you had to do was ask. No need to blame it on some dumb plant."

Akane almost fell over at his idiotic reasoning, determined to tell him just how very wrong he was—when she noticed it—a familiar parcel tucked into the very corner of her closet, resting innocently behind her oblivious fiancé. Seeing it there brought back all kinds of embarrassing memories, and her eyes widened in horror as she cursed herself for not hiding it better.

Noticing the strange change in her, Ranma followed her gaze, finally noticing the shopping bag she'd tried to hide from him earlier.

"Ranma. . ." she said in warning, her heart in her throat as she shifted her position the slightest bit, just in case she needed to wrestle it away from him.

Turns out she did.

Ranma gave her a smug smile as he reached for the bag, and Akane dove forward, trying to knock it out of his hands, to stop him at all cost. Unfortunately her attack had been fueled by desperation, not technique, and dammit, Ranma's arms were longer. In the end, despite being laid flat with Akane on top of him, he still managed to hold the bag up above him with one hand, far away from her scrabbling hands.

Afraid she'd recover and knock him out with that brute strength of hers, Ranma quickly tore it open and flipped it over, allowing its contents to flutter to the floor before she could stop him. Realizing she'd lost, Akane, mortified, buried her head in his chest, determined to never raise it ever again.

"Uh, Akane," Ranma began unsteadily, staring at the silky garment lying beside him. The thing looked like it would've given Happosai a nose-bleed for a week.

"It's—your mother wanted—I, I tried to say no," Akane stammered uncomfortably, too embarrassed to look at him. At it.

Feeling his own face growing warm, Ranma reached for "the gift" as he began to sit up. Once Akane came back to herself, she'd probably tear it to shreds, then he'd never get a chance to properly look at it, or he admitted secretly to himself, imagine her in it. Not that he was a pervert or anything, but they were engaged, and despite their constant fights and arguments, after all they'd been through, after Jusendou, there was a part of him that recognized he wanted her. That he loved her, even, though he realized neither of them were quite ready to take that next step. That's why teasing and denial was the name of the game and that was an art Ranma excelled at.

"So, when were you planning on wearing this for me?" he asked her, his tone light and playful, though he was sure his face was on fire.

Akane balked as his words forced her to defend herself. Sitting up quickly, she shook her hot, flushed face, her eyes large and watery. "Never!" she insisted, and reached for it again, only to have Ranma move it just out of her reach. "Give it back, you jerk!"

"Why? We're supposed to be enjoying it together."

"Fine. Then why don't you wear it!"

A thoughtful look crossed his face as Ranma pretended to examine it. "Nah," he said at last. "My girl-side's more the dark, sultry type. White and see-through definitely suit you better."

Akane's mouth fell open, shocked he'd even go there. Did mistletoe do more than force people to kiss, like make them more perverted or bold or something? Or, she thought with a start, was this only happening because they were hiding in a closet together? After all, this was starting to become a bit of a habit with them.

Unfortunately, the only thing for certain was that Ranma was currently running circles around her, and her earlier victory over something as innocent as a kiss was becoming a sad, distant memory. That wouldn't do at all! Approaching this like a battle, Akane decided it was time to stop playing it safe; if Ranma could swallow taking sexy photos for Happosai to win a fight, she could surely handle a little awful innuendo.

"You think so?" She asked him, dropping her tone an octave or two. "You wouldn't mind seeing me in that? Only in that?"

Ranma's eyes widened the tiniest bit, but carefully schooling his expression, he leaned closer. Feeling nervous as hell, but somehow fired up that she wasn't backing down, he allowed himself a slow smile. "Sure," he told her, curious to see how far she'd take it. "If you think you could bring yourself to."

His challenge sparked something in her that Ranma absolutely loved to see. A fire and a passion that was uniquely Akane. First her eyes connected with his and seemed to set off a spark, changing from ordinary brown to a deep dark hazel, and her cheeks flushed, deeper and darker, her lips pursed in stubborn defiance.

Then she grabbed the lingerie.

For a second, Ranma was sure she was gonna change into it then and there just to prove that she could, and panicked, he quickly looked away, not sure what reaction he'd be showing her if he didn't. No way would she go through it, he tried to convince himself, despite hearing what sounded like the rustling of cloth coming from her direction. No way. Not his prudish, dorky fiancée.

Her shirt hit his head seconds later and Ranma's brain immediately short-circuited.

"D-dummy!" he stuttered at last, shocked and guilty that she'd actually go through with it. Turning back to yell at her properly, he said, "I wasn't being serious—!"

"Oh really?" Akane asked him, her voice light with amusement.

Ranma blinked several times, surprised to see she was still fully clothed. Confused, he glanced down at the shirt she'd thrown at him, and realized it wasn't even the one she'd been wearing. Apparently he really was an idiot—only now did he remember they were in a closet filled with her clothes. Still, disappointment and annoyance tempered his expression.

Stupid tomboy, tricking him like that.

"Idiot," Akane replied, bemused. "You didn't honestly think I would strip right here and now just because you goaded me to, did you?"

Realizing the evidence spoke directly to the contrary, he blushed and turned away. "Of course not," Ranma insisted as he threw the shirt back in her general direction, adding petulantly, "You're too uncute to do something sexy like that anyway."

Tensing at the familiar insult, Akane momentarily turned her face away and fought the powerful urge to hit him. Only one thing was holding her back—the way he'd said that had felt half-hearted at best, particularly since he wasn't following it up with his usual string of insults. In fact, it looked like he was going out of his way to turn his body, like he was purposely trying to avoid her eyes. And if she was so uncute, why the red cheeks?

"So, I'm unsexy, huh?" she asked him, though this time the question was more uncertain than accusatory.

Ranma gave a quick, curt nod, having no idea she was onto him, and for the first time in a long while, Akane found she didn't believe him. Heart beating unexpectedly fast, she smiled softly.

"Honestly, Ranma, you can't even say that with a straight face, can you?" Leaning forward slightly, she got right in his personal space, trying to look him in the eye. The dummy turned his head away and scooted back several inches to avoid her, but the harder he tried to put distance between them—which was ridiculous, considering how small her closet was to begin with—the more she found herself gaining confidence. Even the fact that he was no longer bothering to defend himself only spurred her on.

"You sure talk big, dummy, but you're the one that wants to kiss me. You're the one who wants to see me in lingerie, and you're the one always dragging me into closets. Honestly, Ranma," she told him, throwing his own words right back at him, "if you wanted to kiss me so badly, all you had to do was ask."

Check and mate, pervert, she thought triumphantly.

Before she could savor her small victory however, Ranma did turn to face her, fast and without warning, leaving their faces only inches apart. Shocked, Akane's eyes widened as she stared back at him, trying and failing to read his intention, though she knew what she wanted, what she'd been wanting ever since she put on that wedding dress. So despite the fear and uncertainty she stayed right where she was, secretly wondering if this was it, if this was the moment they finally stopped playing games and started getting serious.

Yet Ranma, the martial art prodigy who supposedly wasn't afraid of anything, stubbornly refused to move.

Feeling less optimistic than before, Akane continued to wait as the silence stretched between them, but she wasn't brave or confident enough to wait forever. When it became clear Ranma wasn't going to do anything, she sighed and finally looked away. "I'm sure someone would've interrupted us anyway," she muttered, not quite able to hide her disappointment or her frustration.

What was the jerk waiting for anyway? A written invitation?

Feeling stupid, and vulnerable, and like she needed to get out of there right that second, Akane turned to open the closet door—and felt Ranma's hand gently pulling her back.

"Akane, wait," he softly implored her.

"Why?" she asked sharply, her expectations so low she couldn't even drum up a modicum of anticipation or hope anymore. With her luck, the jerk would probably tell her not to let the door hit her on the way out.

"Is this . . . okay?" he asked instead, lightly touching her lips with his finger. "Because if it is, if you're ready for everything that comes with it, then hell, I'm game. . . but if you're not, if you want things to stay how they are, you gotta tell me now, 'cause once we decide to do this I'm going all in and all hell's gonna break loose."

"Ranma. . ."

Heart fluttering, Akane stared at him shyly, suddenly ashamed by her own snippiness. He was right to be wary; with them, a kiss wasn't just a kiss. It meant an increase in everything they'd been dealing with since Ranma first came to Nerima—meddlesome parents, surprise weddings, school gossip, violent suitors—all of which were guaranteed to lead to all-out war. The failed wedding had proved as much.

And was she ready for all that? Was Ranma even worth it?

It took her all of two seconds to make up her mind.

"You're so dumb," she told him fondly. "Did you really think I'd say, no, let's wait, I'm too scared? Honestly Ranma, sometimes it's like you don't know me at—" Moving forward, Ranma cut her off with a kiss, a kiss that was fast and sudden, and long, long overdue.

To Akane, it felt like electricity was firing through her, like her heart might burst from the feeling as the fluttering in her stomach became angry and fierce. Tape never tasted like this, she decided, as her fiancé kissed her the same way he approached the art—with talent, passion, and a confidence she sure as hell hoped he hadn't gained through practice. When Ranma finally pulled away, their faces were both red, but they were grinning and neither one seemed able or willing to stop. Feeling free and happy and like they wanted to do that again, both of them laughed, no longer caring about the world outside their little bubble, or who might've heard them.

"Well, guess this means the curse is broken," Ranma told her smugly, looking as proud as could be.

Akane fought back a grin of her own. "I don't know about that," she told him, deep in thought. "I mean, we've destroyed an awful lot of them. What if that kiss only absolved us from one? For all we know, we could be cursed twenty-times over!"

Ranma's eyes lit up, knowing exactly where she was going with this. "Dummy," he told her as he leaned forward again, not missing the look of anticipation in her eyes, its intensity matched only by his own. "I don't need some dumb plant to tell me when to kiss you, Akane."

"Then prove it," she challenged.

And as Ranma happily obliged her, unnoticed by them both, the piece of mistletoe hanging above their heads almost seemed to glow.

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A/N: I love favorites and follows as much as the next girl, but please don't be afraid to leave a review.