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CHAPTER #2

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Akane was bent over the sink, staring intently into the mirror as her hand vigorously pumped the toothbrush over her teeth. She might have been applying more pressure to her poor gums than was really healthy, but she was struggling to stay awake as it was, so at the very least, she saw the dull pain she was inflicting upon herself as a way to keep conscious. She had studied until four in the morning for a test she was going to have in her literature class today, and she had been surprised to wake up to find that she was sprawled out on her desk with her hand sandwiched in between the pages of her book, keeping her place. She had awakened twenty minutes after she'd wanted to, and was in a mad dash to get to the college before her class started—not to mention ended.

"Hey, tomboy," Ranma casually greeted as he walked into the bathroom with his shallow bucket of supplies. He noted the exhausted glaze of her eyes when she shot him a dirty look. He inwardly snickered and reached for his own toothbrush as he placed his goods on the counter. "Man! You look like hell," he announced a little more lightly than she appreciated. He was sure that that would get a rise out of her, which was exactly what he'd wanted; it was always what he wanted. As he squeezed a small ball of toothpaste out onto the frayed bristles of his old toothbrush, he ducked indifferently underneath one of Akane's roundhouse kicks.

She turned to spit the foam from her mouth into the sink, and then spun back to him with a thin line of white lather tracing the edge of her mouth. "Shut up, Ranma!" she barked.

"Oh, relax" he said, bringing the toothbrush to his mouth and beginning to scrub. His eyes locked on her, and searched her for an explanation as he brushed. She stared back, understanding the question his stare seemed to imply. She straightened her back and smoothed her hands over her hair as she let loose a weary sigh, with more than a hint of annoyance edging her voice. "I overslept fell asleep at my desk again last night."

He leaned against the counter and closed his eyes. "Fssh. All that shtudying... I dun' shee how you cn' shtand it," he mused through the sloshes of his toothbrush.

She too leaned against the counter and stared across the room for just a moment. It was slightly unusual for her to be attending college, and she knew it. But all the same, after high school, with the thought of her studies coming to an end and marrying Ranma being her only option from then on, she suddenly developed an interest in continuing her education. While she hadn't wanted to admit it to herself, somewhere in the back of her mind gnawed the memory of the failed wedding attempt when they were both sixteen. She certainly hadn't wanted to be faced with that same embarrassment again, and so had decided that college would be a good diversion from the prospect of married lifeat least for a little while.

Liberal-minded Tendou hadn't been bothered by the fact that his daughter had wanted to continue her education, but he certainly hadn't been the one to suggest it, either. He had, of course, questioned why she'd want to do such a thing when she had wifely duties to be thinking about. Once she'd pointed out that she wasn't married just yet, he'd answered in typical Tendou-otousan complaisant fashion: "Well, I suppose that's true"

"Ptoo!" came the sound of Ranma spitting the toothpaste into the sink. He turned to the motionless Akane and gently tapped her on the nose, bumping her out of her reverie. "Hey."

She turned her head and looked at him, eyes round, tired, and a little startled. He wiped his mouth with a hand towel, smiled, and then tossed it over his shoulder. "You really are out of it," he said, unable to hide the genuine amusement in his grin. He'd not tried so hard to fight it actually, though he was a little self-conscious about the amount of sympathy he'd let slip into his voice just then. When he thought about it, he quickly jerked the corners of his mouth into a sedated version of his earlier smile, and then, finally, muted it completely.

She stared. Ranma returned her gaze with a steady one of his own. For a brief moment, they both felt something indescribable moving between them; a strange feeling that was hard to decipher, but not impossible to accept on its own terms. It was an odd emotion, though to be sure, it was hardly negative. It could, in fact, only be described as something very fitting. Something almostcomfortable.

All too quickly, they realized how long they'd been staring at each other, and looked away simultaneously, afraid perhaps that they were reading too much into one another's actions. With a slight pause, they hesitated to speak or move, for fear of breaking not only the strange emotion they shared, but also their own egos. Ranma was first to vocalize his embarrassment as he turned back to the sink and twisted the knobs on. "Go to class already," he mumbled at last.

"Wh...a? Class!" she suddenly remembered with a gasp. She darted from the bathroom immediately, remembering that she still had to get into her school clothes, and that catching the bus to the school downtown took almost thirty minutes, not to mention the walk to the campus, which would take up to ten minutes (and that was if she was lucky), and she had to get some food into her stomach first, of course, because what's a test if you've not had breakfast, all the while she had to do this, and had to make sure of that

Ranma bent over the sink and listened to the girl tear down the hallway. He didn't bother to hide his grin this time as he laughed to himself in the solitude of the empty bathroom. "Dummy," he muttered ineffectually under his breath as he dipped his hands under the faucet and began to wash his face with the hot water. She'd been no more punctual a person when they'd been in high school. It seemed to him that the girl must've been slightly masochistic for volunteering to put herself through more of the same monotony they'd experienced at Furinkan. He figured he'd never know why anyone would choose a life of insomnia and tests over the exciting, fast-paced life of a martial artist. Maybe she'd actually land one of those kicks every once in a while if she spent more of her time training instead of studying herself to exhaustion, he thought, suddenly feeling very annoyed with academic institutions.

What had that weird feeling been just now between them, though? The girl had looked so exhausted and stressed, and he'd not been able to suppress the tender thump of his heart at the sight of her feeling so out of sorts. He decided that he had pitied her just then. Pitied her for losing sleep, pitied her for having to deal with those dictatorial professors and their stupid tests Maybe that's what the feeling had been. Pity. He hoped somewhere deep inside himself that she had noticed his friendly concern and appreciated it.

He screwed at the knobs again, and thoughtfully propped himself over the sink, pressing his palms onto the cool marble of the bathroom counter. Friendly concern', he thought again. He chuckled mockingly despite himself and shook his head. I'm an idiot.

There was tension between them, he knew that much for sure. But then again, there had always been tension. The only change he could really pinpoint at this moment in time was that, between insults and arguments, he felt like being nicer to her these days. Had four years of living under the same roof, getting to know one another, and vehemently denying their feelings only worked itself up to "friendly concern"? What a moronic concept. It had to be more than that. That feeling couldn't have just been pity.

He entered the bathing room sliding the glass door behind him, and walked to the tub to fill it up. He cleared his throat and blushed at his next thought: maybe the reason they felt so awkward had something to do with that kiss they'd shared. The first one, anyway

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It was one of those still, quiet days between the seasons of autumn and winter, when the red leaves on the trees were beginning to brown in response to the rapidly chilling air. The sky was a muted gray, almost white, and not a cloud existed to stir the skies into making a single sound. The streets of Nerima were almost equally as motionless, and every once in a while, when one of the dogs in the neighborhood would bark, it would just as quickly stop, almost as if it were embarrassed at how loud its own voice was.

Akane had managed to become bored enough with her studying that she'd decided to swallow her pride and ask Ranma if he'd like to spar with her, to shake the stillness of the day a bit. The boy had been in the midst of reading a manga, and had already gotten his practice in that morning, but the request had seemed sincere enough that he'd agreed to it—with much sighing, and rolling his eyes, and complaining about how he'd already been doing something, of course. After several minutes of frivolous arguing, they retreated to the backyard to train, or, more accurately, for Ranma to stand in front of Akane, refusing to do anything more than dodge when she threw a kick or punch.

She huffed, and tossed another kick in his direction, the dead grass hissing under her bare feet as little clouds of steam emanated from her lips. He leapt back, his face unimpressed, then bent forward to flick a finger nonchalantly against her nose. "So how's school, kiddo?"

The shorthaired young woman arose from her defensive position and gave him an annoyed look. "Okay, what gives," she said, panting through gulps of cold air, "why won't you take me seriously, Ranma?"

He furrowed thick eyebrows at her and looked away with a light shrug. It had been such a slow day, he felt like stirring up the pot a little, and he suddenly found himself rather determined to annoy the girl. "I told you, I was already doin' something. I'm only out here as a favor," he replied in the most uninterested voice he could muster.

She studied him for a moment and chewed the inside of her cheek before waving a lithe hand across her bangs and turning to walk away. "Never mind then," she retorted, effectively keeping her voice as cool as the air surrounding them. "It'd be just as well if I practiced on a training dummy with you standing around like that." She was onto his little game, of course; after all, he had been playing it for three years. It had taken her a while, but she had only recently realized that he secretly reveled in the angry, passionate reactions to his taunts she was so famous for doling out. If she had reacted in her traditional manner, with the mallets and the low earth orbit punches and the screaming and shouting, she would only get so far with the obstinate boy. She had begun to find, however, that returning his detached insults with some of her own really got to him, and would steer an argument in her favor much quicker than physical force alone. It had become one of their newer routines with each other, and Akane somewhat unconsciously relished in the new spin on their flirtatious dance of wills.

He turned with a sarcastic "fssh" and began walking towards the house. Once again, she hadn't taken his bait—how disappointing. When had she decided to stop being so violent, anyway? That dumb girl

Somewhere in the back of his mind, he couldn't ignore the fact that he hadn't really been having much fun reading his manga, though. In fact, Akane showing up and asking for a sparring session had been a welcome release from the aggravating inertia of the afternoon. As he neared the flat, broad steps leading up to the dojo, he battled internally over whether he should swallow his pride, turn back, and help her train, or let her practice by herself while he returned to his room to carry on his arduous task of being bored. His father and Tendou-ojiisan had gone to one of their old friends' houses for the day, and Nabiki and Kasumi were both off in the enormous estate doing their own thing. He wondered if he should watch television, but he felt listless just thinking about it. Doing what Akane wanted—ooh, that stubborn tomboy!—seemed to be his only option at the moment. He peered over his shoulder in the direction of her retreating form. Damn it, Akane, he thought. "Hey"

At his call, she turned to him with arched eyebrows, still very much playing her aloof role. This irritated him, because he knew that that was what she was doing, but he walked to her anyway with hands clasped behind his back. She watched as he approached her, and blinked innocently when he finally stopped staring at the ground and looked up at her. "If you're sure you can handle me," he mumbled, averting his eyes from the deliberately cute expression of her face as quickly as he saw it.

She smiled. "So! Does this mean you'll promise to fight without holding back?"

He flushed, but continued looking away from her. "Don't push your luck," he returned. "It ain't right to hit girls, even if it is just training." He peered at her out of the corner of his eye. Hell, it was worth another shot: "...even if it's a macho tomboy, for that matter."

Her eyes narrowed. She wheeled around to go to the storage shed, fighting those old urges to bash him in the face upon hearing the familiar slur. "Fine! Training dummy it is, then, you JERK."

Damn, he thought, that one didn't work either. He reached forward and grasped the girl's small wrist in his hand. "Jeez, I was only kidding," he admitted flatly, hating himself for being desperate enough to even consider training with a girl—let alone this girl. "Come onI know you're bored," he continued. He blushed despite himself at the admittedly cheap effort of trying to make it seem like he was doing her some grand favor by taking the ennui of the afternoon off her hands. Akane recognized the transfer of responsibility trick he was attempting, but decided to ignore it. If anyone had been bored, after all, it had been him.

She turned around again and studied the sincerity of his features. Perhaps he wasn't going to treat her like some child, and would really train with her this time. She reached a hand down to her belt and gave it a tug. His blue eyes looked brighter in the haze of the frigid afternoon, and he backed away from her several steps, releasing her arm. She was suddenly very aware of how warm his hand had been against her skin, and, for a brief second, almost forgot about their spar. When he crouched into a fighting posture, however, he suddenly reminded her of their arrangement. With pursed lips, she crouched into her own posture and walked several steps in his direction.

He didn't move, instead only waited for her. Once she was within about a leg's distance, she stopped and feigned left, only to dash back with a kick intended for his neck. He blocked it with his wrist and struck a foot out intended for her ankle. He slid his callused foot against the dry, crunchy blades of grass, making them pop and snap under the speed of his attack, and was surprised when he made a connection. It was too early in the fight for Akane to be getting hit, he thought. Her mind must've not been clear.

She sucked in a breath through her teeth and hopped back on her good foot as his thick man's toenail managed to make a small cut in the soft woman's skin of her ankle. Once she'd regained her composure, she jumped forward, flailing punches to his head. He managed to block most of them, but her last one had been completely unexpected, and managed to sock him in the collarbone. He did a good job of not showing how much it'd hurt, but he'd figured he had only let it slip by so that she wouldn't feel so bad about getting her ankle kicked earlier. Yes. That had to be it

It went on like this for some time, their grunts and sharp HYAH's piercing the silent chill around them. But as their fight wore on, Ranma began to notice to his dismay just how rusty Akane had gotten. Despite the punch she'd managed to land early on in their spar, she'd only managed to get in one or two other hits since, while he was doing a pretty good job landing his attacks (though he was still holding back considerably from using full power). Then again, maybe it wasn't so much of a case of her getting worse as it was a case of his getting better. After all, now that he'd graduated high school, he could devote all his time to developing his skills, while she well, she still had classes to worry about. She continued to train as much as she had when they were in high school, but with his surplus of time, he must have developed beyond the level that he'd been when he was younger, which was something he hadn't even thought was possible.

While reflecting, he managed to throw a punch that Akane had been too slow to deflect. She was hit in the shoulder and knocked backwards, letting loose a tiny squeak of pain. Ranma gulped and froze as he stared down at the precious body lying splayed out before him. He gazed down at his offending fist, as if it were some sort of criminal, and then swiftly tucked it behind his back. "A-Akane" he stuttered, ashamed, and stood up straight. "I reallythink we should stop."

She smiled despite the aching that washed over her body and forced herself to her feet, standing on wobbly legs. "What's ththe matter?" she asked, trying to sound bold. "You t-tired?"

He frowned. That was it. He was through fighting her. "No!" he answered defiantly, insulted by the accusation. "Look at you," he continued with an obscure mixture of disgust and sympathy, "this isn't an even match." He'd not intended for it to come out as arrogant-sounding as it did. Indeed, his aim had been concern. But he realized all too quickly how the girl had taken it once he caught the hot expression on her face.

That overconfident little—! she raged to herself. How dare he assume me so weak! New techniques be damned, she couldn't accept this blow to her martial artist's pride, no matter how cool a front she had originally wanted to keep while in his presence. She returned shakily to her defensive stance, her eyes burning into Ranma's with a steady heat. To complete the image of her unwavering toughness, she turned the corners of her mouth up into a little smirk. "Then how bout you ffight me until we ARE evenly matched!"

His arms remained at his sides. "Akane, don't be—"

"—SHAAH!" She let out a yell and flattened her hand into a bokken fist. She'd been slowed down considerably from the fight up to that point, but she still managed to leap forward at an impressive enough speed to bring the fist down upon his neck.

The thrust never made the connection, unfortunately, abruptly shattering what had been left of her ego. He flicked his hand up just in time to grab her wrist, and frowned when she tried with her other hand, throwing a punch at him from the other side with an equally fearsome velocity. He caught the second punch in mid-throw and held her fast, her slender wrists wriggling futilely in his rough, yellow palms. "HEY! Now, look! You know I don't like fightin' girls, an' I only did this because you asked me to!"

Akane groused as she tried to twist her hands from his. So now he was trying to humiliate her? "Oh, no you don't, Ranma" she growled through clenched teeth. After a pause and a few moments of ineffective yanking, she turned her fiery gaze up to him. "—not when you're finally treating me like an equal!"

His eyebrow arched at the remark. "What? Equal'?"

"If you think that I'm going to back down after three years of waiting for you to get off your damned high horse and fight me on even terms, you're seriously mistaken!" she finished in a furious, shaky voice. He stared at her dumbly, apparently trying to figure through the information he'd just received, but his grip remained vice-like, and she decided with a burst of adrenaline that while he was thinking, she should take advantage of the opening. Without taking her surroundings into account, she lifted a foot, plopped it firmly in the center of his chest, and jerked her whole body backwards. It ended up working, as she was suddenly able to snap her wrists from his grasp, but in her efforts, she had forgotten about the ice cold koi pond located behind her. Just as quickly as she'd begun to congratulate herself on her small victory and regain some of her self-esteem, she felt her heel collide with a sharp rock behind her, and the next thing she knew, her back smacked against water, submerging her in bitter iciness.

"WHAAAAAA!" she screamed as she flailed her arms about in the freezing pool. The poor koi swam frantically away from the intruder. Her panic consumed her for a very crucial instant, and she ended up swallowing a copious amount of the water, which terrified the wits from her, since it only reminded her of her inability to swim. "RMA!"

"Akane!" Ranma shouted as he dashed forward and grasped her hands by the edge of the pond. With a grunt, he hauled the dripping girl from the water, and yanked her to her unsteady feet. He clasped her arms tightly to her sides to hold her upright. It seemed to him as if she'd shrunk in the cold water, because she suddenly seemed much smaller somehow. "Akane!" he repeated as he clung to her shivering form.

She stood for a moment, hacking, sobbing, and generally trying to convince herself that she hadn't just been on the brink of death. Finally, after she had gotten her fit under control, she tilted her head down and stared in distress at the ground. After a period, her eyes feebly traveled upward to find the face of her fiancée.

He paused, studying her pale cheeks and quivering lower lip. He gave her a commiserating look, and slowly removed his hands from her sides. With that, he turned on his heel and walked into the house, leaving a soaking, bewildered Akane in his wake.

She blinked and watched the boy pace away, her heart sinking slightly from disappointment. Just where did he think he was going? Did he feel guilty enough about her falling into the pond that he had suddenly decided to run off? She rolled her eyes at the thought as a frustrated puff released itself in a little cloud of steam from wet, pink lips. Afraid to face the un-cute tomboy's wrath, aren't you? the girl thought numbly, as her eyebrows dented into a light frown. "Jerk," she muttered miserably, and lifted a shivering arm to wipe a drop that was trickling slowly down her temple. She figured she might as well get into the house before she caught her death of cold. Her wet feet padded across the brown lawn, crunching with each step, and she smoothed her hands over her dripping hair as glinting droplets of ice water fell from the heavy strands. She winced at the new pain in her ankle as she trudged along the dry grass. She figured she must've twisted it when she tripped into the pool. Well, she wasn't known for being the most graceful of people, after all. No wonder that dummy's always making fun of me.

Suddenly, Ranma once again appeared in front of her. She looked up, slightly startled, having not expected for him to return. He held in his arms a colorful fleece blanket from the Tendou sitting room, which he promptly unraveled before her. He looked into the confused girl's doe brown eyes and flapped the quilt out with a sigh. He whirled the blanket around her shoulders, clasping it together at her front. "You idiot," he softly scolded as he languidly pulled her into his arms and began rubbing her back and sides with his hands to warm her up. "You'd better be thankful you're not equal to me, else you'd be somethin' completely different right now."

She frowned at his overemphasis of the word "not", but kept quiet out of her own chilliness, and perhaps out of shock. She couldn't quite place if he'd meant it as one of his semi-affectionate insults to her, though the tone of his voice had sounded so unusually kindhearted She would never have been able to recognize it as something even minutely insulting.

Akane marveled at how quickly it had taken a simple sparring session to turn into being hugged by Ranma. First, they'd had one of their typical, non-combative arguments, then they'd actually had a serious spar for one of the first times in their relationship, she'd fallen into cold water, and now he held her against him, as if they were actual lovers who were used to such cuddly displays. She closed her eyes and rested her head against his warm chest while she held the blanket closed in front of her and enjoyed the luxurious heat his rough hands provided. Nice as it was, she wasn't sure how much of her longing she should let show. She settled on sighing gratefully, suddenly euphoric at the thought that he'd come back to offer her the blanket and his warmth. She at once felt a lot better, and certainly a lot less cold. "Ranma"

Ranma paused when he felt her soft shoulders press against his front and heard her contented sigh as it flowed in a warm little burst against his chest. He knew that what he was doing was a nice gesture and all, but he hadn't expected for her to sound so happy from it. He swallowed violently to alleviate a tightness that was taking hold of his throat. Oh, God. What do I do now? his addled mind squeaked. He could do nothing but hold her for a moment, unsure of what his next move was to be. His large hands traced uneasily along her sides and rested lamely upon the curve of her waist, until he was able to calm down enough to convince himself to follow her silent example and enjoy their closeness. After a time, he shyly reached the length of his arms around her and pulled her into a timid embrace, bringing the contact into something vastly more intimate, and arousing an excited flurry in both their stomachs.

They stood like that for an indefinite amount of time, before she stepped back shyly and they stared at the ground in between them in silence. Were things moving too fast? Then again, how slowly should things move? It had been three years, after all.

The shorthaired young woman looked up at him with parted lips, as the chilly silence of Nerima whooshed about them. "Ranma" she whispered. "Ththanks." She turned her head down again, feeling bashful just looking at him.

He mumbled a reply, though it wasn't anything coherent, and quickly stuffed his hands into his pockets. He was thankful that a cold wind kicked up just then, as he could have easily blamed the stark redness in his cheeks on wind burn; he wasn't quite ready to admit that they'd become the brilliant shade on their own. He looked up at her, eager to get their minds off of the hug they'd just shared—he couldn't yet tell if the connection had been awkward or something that they both had needed. "Um are you you're not hurt from you know, from earlier." He waved his index finger gingerly at the shoulder he'd hit.

She shook her head, a little surprised at the question, though more surprised at how bumbling he'd sounded just then. "No," she affirmed with a small smile. It was a lie; she was sore in several places, though mainly on her ankle, which hadn't been his fault anyway. I was a fool to think I was any match for him, she thought ruefully.

He swallowed and steeled himself for vulnerability. "Akane," he said finally. "Don't ever ask me to spar with you again." He paused for her reaction, and was surprised to find that she didn't have one. He finished his entreaty in a whisper. "Okay?"

She gave a light nod of consent, though she was taken aback by the request. Torn between being offended by his assumed superiority and touched by his concern, she quickly pushed any feelings of uncertainty away, unable to form any sort of conclusion from anything at the moment. She had been bombarded by too many emotions, by too many events, and too many questions for what was only supposed to be a simple training session. "We should probably go inside," she said hastily, still unsure of what had just happened between them. He immediately agreed and they turned and followed the path away from the low, flat steps of the dojo.

Her hunched form slowly shuffled up the stairs to the house on hobbling legs. She felt her knee give out momentarily from the pain shooting through her heel, and her body took a woozy dip that almost landed her on the wooden planks of the hallway. She felt the familiar support of Ranma's strong arm as it wrapped around her abdomen to hold her upright from behind.

Akane turned about, startled, and caught a look from him that seemed both frightened and longing at the same time. "Akane," he breathed, "I'm sorry, I, um" He immediately unwound his arm from her waist and backed away, believing that she'd do what she normally did when he made unsolicited contact with her and punt him into the sky. For all the luck he'd had earlier in the day, touching her in such a fresh way was something he was sure Akane would take exception to.

She instead turned to him, her hair still weighed down from the wetness of the pond, bronze eyes sparkling with intrigue. "What is it?" B-bump

He blinked at her, then raised a hand to his head and rubbed his fingers through his hair. She hadn't malleted him, or whacked him into the stratosphere. It was progress. "I just I, I was trying to keep you from falling, that's all." Thump

She wetted her lips with her tongue. After a lengthy and uncertain pause, she gathered her nerve and willed the yearning they'd felt when they hugged to manifest itself again.

Slowly, she took a clumsy step forward on her bruised ankle. She felt, tentatively enough, that if she were to let the emotion of the afternoon slip from her grasp, she would never be able to show Ranma how she felt about him as perfectly as she could now. She leaned towards the surprised boy and pressed her lips softly against his. Her body was numb, and her mind terrified, as she begged God to let her know for sure that this was what he wanted, too.

At first, it seemed as if they were only hovering against one another's lips. It didn't feel like what he'd consider a kiss, though the new touch alone was exciting in and of itself. He slowly pushed back once he felt sure that she wasn't doing it out of pity, or out of some strange sense of possession over him (if anything, he'd learned to be wary of the things girls do when they feel entitled to something). He felt ecstasy overtake him when the thought occurred to him that this might be an earnest gesture of Akane's love. He felt scared when something else told him that this was to be the death of his indifferent demeanor around her, as well. How could it be that kissing the girl he'd desired for three years made him feel so helpless, while at the same time, so powerful?

What was soft and chaste quickly became intense and needing. Had they known something as simple and innocent as a small kiss would arouse such passion and such a love-starved hunger, they might have hesitated a bit more, but it was blatantly obvious to them at that point that they'd have gone through with it all the same. His hands moved to cup firmly against her back while hers found their station grasping gently at his shoulders.

As she stood two steps above him, they willed the hush of Nerima to envelop them enough to get through their first kiss together without any interruptions from jealous or nosy meddlers; to have the moment only for themselves. A lone foghorn from a distant steamboat crooned softly along the canal as the heirs to the Masubetsu Kakuto let all of the tensions, all of the questions, and all of the anxieties of three years slip through one another's lips.

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Ranma opened his eyes as the steam from the furo curled about his face. All that had happened almost a year ago. He thought she'd gotten over it by now, and that they would start being open about their feelings to one another, but apparently, as that morning had proven to him, they were still too shy to progress very far beyond affectionate bickering and wistful gazes.

They'd avoided looking at one another for several days after they'd kissed that day, ironically terrified of how their newfound intimacy would impact their relationship. Still, ever so gently, they had moved back into their old comfortable roles with one another. He'd returned to teasing her and taunting her and becoming strangely aroused when she reciprocated or tried to smack him for his insolence. She'd returned to making offhand comments to make him jealous or angry, or splashing water on him when she felt like insulting the masculine front he tried so ridiculously hard to uphold.

But the nice things they did for one another were also amplified, as well. She didn't force her cooking on him as much, though she still tried just as hard to cook food she thought he'd like (she'd even gone so far as to actually try the food before propositioning him). He'd been in several fights, and she had stayed next to his futon for the duration of the healing process and made real efforts to make him feel comfortable, even going so far as holding his hand and lying down next to him once. As for him, he, surprisingly, made more efforts to touch her than he once had. He'd jumped in front of her to get her out of harm's way just as often as he ever had, but he'd hold her closer during those moments when she wasn't in trouble. He'd even worked up the courage to hug her a few times before they went to bed at night—which they still did in separate rooms, of course.

Since then, they'd kissed twice more. Both times had been stimulating in their own ways, but had seemed more hurried when compared to their first time (suspicious parents and siblings to worry about, you know) which had come so naturally, and with such an exciting whirl of different feelings.

He felt a distant yearning in the pit of his stomach when he realized that he wasn't running alongside her every morning to school anymore. Maybe he should enroll at the college also?

He felt around the slick porcelain surface of the tub with his big toe and flicked the rubber stopper out of the drain. As he arose from the water, he grabbed a towel from a wooden rack standing next to the furo and tugged the rough material across his back. Your girl side's startin' to make you think about weird stuff, his machismo rebuked him. I can't spend all morning thinkin' about this. I've got trainin' to do.

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"I'm home!" Akane cried as she entered the foyer of her house. She was greeted by the muffled "welcome back" by her older sister somewhere in the back halls of the house. The young girl tapped her heels against the floor, causing her shoes to wiggle loose enough for her to kick them off into one of the little cubbyholes near the door. As she dropped her flat book bag onto the raised floor of the home and stepped up upon the shiny wooden floor, she glanced about with intent. She clucked her tongue against the back of her teeth and held her arm low to the ground as her eyes searched the scene purposefully. "P-Chan!" she called in a high voice. "Ttk, ttk, ttk, ttk, ttk, ttk, ttk! P-Chaaaan!"

Her return home was never complete without her favorite pet rushing into her arms to greet her. It was something she'd come to expect, and had become something of a welcoming routine she'd grown very fond of, for sentimental reasons, of course. The small thump of an animal as he plopped from his seat in the back of the sitting room was heard, and the excited click of his tiny feet against the hardwood floors rang out as the little black figure ran to the entrance to meet his beloved mistress. Akane turned to the source of the sound and grinned as she knelt and held her arms wide for her small, plump pet to jump into.

P-Chan gratefully hopped up into the girl's thin, soft arms and stuck out his flat, pink tongue to kiss her, his cold, wet doggie's nose pressing against her warm cheek and making her giggle. "Hi, P-Chan," she greeted affectionately as she snuggled the stubby black figure of her pet pug while he kicked his legs excitedly and licked her face. He let loose an eager yip amid her soft, feminine laughter.

Kasumi padded from the sitting room into the entrance of their home while carrying a small pincushion and several slippery yards of fabric. She eyed the girl with a hint of displeasure. "Akane-chan, you're thirty minutes late," she admonished softly as she watched her younger sister cavort on the floor with the small, hyperactive dog.

Akane's sugary, laughing eyes went up to greet her sister's face. She gently placed her pet on the floor and rubbed at the stickiness on her cheeks with the sleeve of her sweater. "I'm sorry," she said with a small bow of her shoulders and a shallow giggle. "My professor needed to talk to me about one of the assignments I turned in. He said it was good, so he wanted to publish it in the college gazette."

Kasumi's lips curved upward into a gentle smile as she looked proudly down upon her little sister. Though she'd told her sister to return home so that they could get started and finish their project early, she found that it'd be impossible to scold the girl when she had only been late because she'd been receiving the honor of a teacher. "Oh, congratulations! That's wonderful news," she said, her voice suddenly buoyant with enthusiasm. She reached to her wrist and lifted the cloth draped over it with raised eyebrows. "You'll tell me about it, won't you?" she asked cheerily, gesturing to the fabric, and all that it suggested.

"Mm!" Akane agreed with a nod of her head. As she stood and followed her sister to her room upstairs, the small dog about her feet yapped and wove ecstatically between her heels, giving a playful nip every once in a while. The girls chatted back and forth easily, with high breaths and light chuckles characteristic of their devoted sisterhood, as the little black pug followed them into Kasumi's room.

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"I hadn't ever considered that before, but you're right," Kasumi noted as she busily snipped the satiny fabric along a dotted chalk line, making absolutely sure that each cut was perfectly aligned. " Mishima's work does have undertones of passion and death being connected in some way. And it's mostly in the Sea of Fertility', you said?"

"Uhhn. Nakajima-sensei said that it would be showing up in the student reflections' column sometime in the next two weeks," Akane replied as she sat cross-legged across from her older sister and watched her hands slip over the cloth. P-Chan had nestled himself into Akane's lap and was lounging lazily over one of her calves as he too watched the glinting scissors make their way through the fabric that would be fashioned into Akane's seijin-shiki kimono.

"We'll have to make sure to get a copy, then," Kasumi lightly returned as she readjusted one of her previous measurements and trimmed some of the frayed bits of the fabric away.

"Kasumi-oneechan, this material is really beautiful," Akane cooed as she reached a hand forward and ran a fingertip over the cool silk, listening as it made a small ssshh noise. It was a lovely shade of pale green; Akane immediately recognized it as one of her favorite colors from her childhood. "I thought we had decided on red, though," she remembered suddenly as she peeked up at her big sister.

Her older sister turned her face upward to meet hers and suddenly gave a small, apologetic smile. "Well, I did try to get red, but it is a very popular color for this ceremony. The store was all out of the nicest shades," she explained as she stretched out another piece of fabric and began her deliberate cutting.

Akane watched her sister's tapered, womanish hands work in silence. She was slightly disappointed that she wouldn't be wearing the bright, lively color she had originally intended—she had secretly wanted Ranma to notice on the day of the ceremony how nice she looked in his favorite color, as well—though something deep inside of her felt a little relieved that she wouldn't be wearing anything more gaudy than she was used to wearing. After all, this light meadow green was a color she'd always been very fond of, and despite her name meaning "deep red", the light green certainly reflected the person that she was and the soft, watery colors she liked to wear. She wiggled her toes, suddenly feeling lighthearted.

P-Chan panted gently in her lap and groaned lightly as he let loose a small yawn. She turned her attention to him for a moment, and promptly let the sound of her sister's methodical snipping lull her into a blissful, calm state of mind. She reached down and scratched the half-comatose dog's head. P-Chan was adorable, and, though she had certainly missed her first P-Chan, she'd never forget how grateful she'd been when this little one had wandered into her life.

Well, he hadn't so much wandered as he'd been brought by Ranma himself into her heart. She frowned momentarily as she recalled how much the young man had hated her little piglet, but felt her resentment fizzle when she just as quickly remembered the irony of his presenting her a second P-Chan. She had never understood what had moved him to even bother to replace an animal he had so disliked in the first place

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Akane shuffled the shoji panel out of her way and stared out miserably over the garden behind her home. She stood there a moment, peering blankly at the dark grass stretched out ahead, and listening to the blotchy, muddled sounds coming from the TV in the sitting room behind her. A roll of thunder lightly shuddered the floor beneath her and she responded to its call by peering upwards into the dusky gray sky. Rain, she thought as a few heavy droplets fell from overhead and splattered thickly to the mud of the yard. She felt the worry bubble up inside of her at the sight of them. It had been almost ten months since she'd seen her little pet pig, P-Chan, and the abundant rains that had been surging their way through Tokyo had done nothing to put her mind at ease about his absence.

The creature had never had an easy time returning to her for some odd reason, but whenever rain had been in the forecast, she had made it a point to leave the sliding doors of the west wing of the house open so that he could make his way in to her. He'd always seem to make an appearance on nights that there was rain; perhaps because he was homeless and just wanted a warm bed to sleep in during storms, or perhaps because he had a home somewhere else and would get shut out on nights when the weather had turned bad. She didn't really know. Either way, it had become a conditioned response for her to expect the piglet on the nights when showers wept from the sky and the stormy weather encouraged the sweet little animal into her embrace. A conditioned response that had, for many months at least, been failing her.

Ranma and Nabiki, who had been making their way through the dark hall as quietly as they could, paused to watch the young girl with interest. Ranma stared curiously at his fiancée as his prospective sister in law fidgeted at his side, shuffling crumpled yen bills into her wallet, and all of a sudden seeming very determined to appear indifferent. Akane turned from where she had been staring into the bleak night sky and looked inquiringly at her sister and her betrothed, who had apparently appeared out of nowhere. She felt like opening her mouth to greet them, but something about the way they were standing, looking as if they had an important mission, rendered her unable to speak. What was Ranma doing clamping his hands so tightly behind his back like that?

"Hi," the boy offered after a time, prompting Nabiki to stop jumbling around in her billfold long enough to see that her little sister was gaping at them.

The middle Tendou daughter gave the younger girl a small smile, and fought a chuckle seeing the confused, drawn expression on her sister's face. As far as Nabiki was concerned, Akane had always had a way of making too big a deal out of things. No matter, she thought airily, she won't have any reason to look that way after we give her this. The elder sibling walked to the young girl and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Hey, Akane-chan," she greeted as she nodded her head in the direction of the open shoji, "you're leaving this open again?"

Akane peered dumbly out into the garden. The light-hearted tone of Nabiki's voice at once made her feel foolish. "H-he might come tonight," she answered quietly.

Ranma swallowed and tightened his jaw upon hearing the girl's words. Stupid Ryouga! he thought bitterly. Did Akane really miss that idiot so much? He, as always, found himself torn between being angry at the other boy for lying to his fiancée, and angry at Akane for being too damned innocent to see the truth about "P-Chan" and all of his sick perversions. The drowsy puppy he had hidden behind his back wiggled a bit under the sudden tension of his hands.

"Ahh. I think you're deluding yourself," Nabiki observed in a soft voice, though Akane couldn't ignore the harsh truth behind the words. "That pig's long gone."

"How do you know that?" Akane asked defensively, breaking eye contact with the older girl. It was a shame that Nabiki was so perceptive, otherwise Akane could have gone the rest of her life thinking that P-Chan would return to her. But now that she had the confirmation of her older sister, how could she go about deceiving herself into believing he'd be coming back?

"I don't. Not for sure, anyway. But then again, when is anyone ever sure about anything?" Nabiki asked casually as she gestured to Ranma to join them. He dutifully stepped forward from the cool shadows and into the light pouring out from the sitting room, not uttering a word.

Akane looked at him silently, the pain of reality still lingering on her moonlike face. He subdued a sudden longing to wrap his arms around her and hold her until she forgot all about her painand the fool Ryouga, who had so abruptly stopped visiting as P-Chan, that it had broken her naïve heart. He quickly turned and looked nervously in the older girl's direction, hoping that Nabiki hadn't noticed his plaintive countenance, but was relieved to find that the middle Tendou was looking too impatient to have noticed. The big sister nodded tersely at his hands, apparently eager to display Akane's gift to her. He slowly pulled his hands out from behind his back and presented to his fiancée the sleepy little dog he and Nabiki had bought that afternoon at the pet shop.

Akane looked down at the little black lump with wide eyes. She seemed for a moment to be wavering on indecision, and both Ranma and Nabiki—though they would certainly never admit it out loud—felt a wave of panic as they watched her, wondering if perhaps it was presumptuous of them to be attempting to replace the pet she had loved so much. She reached forward gently and stroked the soft velveteen skin of the pug and silently drew back when the black mound groaned at her and snuggled further into Ranma's hands. She melted at the sweet defenselessness of the puppy, and turned a reassuring gaze up to the two people before her. The gift-givers felt a weight being lifted off of their shoulders seeing her heartening expression.

"Who is this?" she asked in a small voice as she looked between them, with those wet, smiling eyes.

"This," Nabiki answered in a matter-of-fact tone, "is your new pet. We could all see how much you missed P-Chan and someone here thought it'd be a nice idea to get you a new one."

Ranma tensed at the reference, no matter how indirect, and glowered at Nabiki. "I-it wasn't my idea."

Nabiki turned to him, a blank expression upon her face. "Did I say it was?" she returned flatly.

"I don't know what to say," Akane admitted softly as she reached forward and lifted the pup from Ranma's hands. The little animal gave a single exhausted groan, but quickly found comfort against Akane as she pulled him to her chest and cradled him there with one of her hands. Her features were still demure, but no doubt grateful, as she looked up at the two of them and smiled. She didn't know quite who to thank, but she felt, somewhere in the back of her mind, that Ranma had more to do with it than he was leading on. Surprisingly enough, Nabiki had probably been the one to put up the money to buy the little puppy, in addition. Her smile turned into a grin. They could be so sweet when they were worried. "Thank you"

Nabiki patted her little sister on the shoulder again. "Well. It was about time you got over that little porker, anyway. You're welcome, sis." She winked briefly and mouthed "his idea" at the shorthaired girl before turning into the dark hall and walking slowly up the stairs to her room.

Ranma and Akane stood for a moment, peering down at the little black dog that cuddled sleepily against Akane's breast. Ranma smiled inwardly. It felt good to see Akane's pet do that and not have to feel jealous about it.

Akane stroked her hand against the sleeping dog as Ranma silently looked on. As she stroked, she luxuriated in the unfamiliar joy that came with sharing the puppy's presence with Ranma. Is this what it's like to have children with someone? her mind blurted unexpectedly. Her cheeks reddened, and she attempted desperately to get her mind away from the thought, refusing to consider it too much. "So. Umwhat should I call him?" Akane inquired to ward off her inner turmoil.

He met her gaze and then let it fall back to the dog. "I dunno" he stammered. He watched the puppy sleep against his fiancée's chest. "How bout P-Chan?" Off of a questioning look from Akane, he quickly explained himself. "Y'know Pug-Cute'."

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Kasumi looked up at her little sister as she gazed adoringly down at her little dog. She smiled privately.

The eldest Tendou daughter turned the fabric over and raised a finger to her sister to get her attention. "Look at this," she said in an eager voice. Her hand revealed to Akane the stark patterns on the front of the cloth, stitched into the green silk with painstaking care, and long, glinting threads. Akane gave a small gasp at the intricate designs and squinted her eyes at the pattern to make it out from where she was sitting. The cloth had a wild herd of horses roaming across its front, several different hues of green thread knotting about their powerful, graceful hooves like wispy strands of hay on an open plain. "Remember the story mother used to tell to you when you were small? About the baby horse?" Kasumi asked hopefully as she studied her sister's reaction.

Akane looked back up at Kasumi. She gave a small smile and a light shrug of her petite shoulders. "Do you mean the one with the little horse that couldn't find her way back to her family?"

"That's the one!" Kasumi cried, delighted that the younger girl had remembered. The story had been one of Kasumi's favorites, as well.

"Kasumi-oneechan, you're so sentimental," Akane laughed good-naturedly. "Here I'm supposed to become an adult, and I'm wearing a kimono with a picture from my favorite story when I was three or four years old." The irony certainly hadn't escaped the girl, but even so, she thought it sweet that her sister would take such considerations on her behalf.

Kasumi smiled warmly. "The joys of childhood prepare us for the joys that come later in life, ne? You had to pass through childhood before you could make it here."

Akane shuffled the dog on her lap and pulled her knees up a bit. "Well that's true."

Kasumi began to tuck the folds of fabric and pin them as she hummed a little tune to herself. Akane hadn't understood fully what she was suggesting; but she was sure it was only a matter of time before she did.

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A moist Ranma jogged up the steps of the house, the black cotton of his shirt soaked through with perspiration. He lightly dabbed at his forehead with the small hand towel he had draped over his shoulders. It had been several hours training with his dad, and he had completely lost track of the time, though it felt good to prepare for the challenge he felt was coming in the next few days. As he twisted on the landing to run to his room and change, he was surprised to find that a smaller figure bumped into his wet chest, causing them both to "oompf".

Akane peered up at him momentarily before turning away again, a blush tracing her cheeks. She sidled about him uneasily with a mumbled "goodnight" and walked briskly in the direction of her bedroom.

He turned about and self-consciously lifted the towel to his forehead again to wipe away the stray droplets that trickled across his skin. "You goin' to bed already?" he asked.

She turned and paused to give him a funny look. "Already'?" she echoed. "It's past eleven, you know."

"It is?" He was genuinely surprised, and searched the shadows of the dim hallway for the clock.

"Yeah," she said with a hint of sarcasm, but a sincere smile. She fidgeted for a moment and watched him mop the back of his neck with the towel. When he had finished and seemed satisfied enough with his work, he peered in her direction again, only to be greeted by a small wave of Akane's hand. "Well, sweet dreams," she said as she turned about once more to go to her room.

"Hey, wait a sec." His hand reached forward to grab her tapered fingers. She felt an electricity go up through them, mingled with the moisture from his workout. She glanced back at him, curious of his motive.

He jerked his head involuntarily at a cough from someone's room down the hall, but remained resolute in holding onto her hand. He cleared his throat and took a few steps towards her, bringing his other hand to gently clasp around her other arm. "Can I, ummm hug you g'night?" he asked in an almost inaudible voice.

She smiled and leaned towards him, closing the air between them slightly, enough so that they could feel one another's body heat. "Why?" she teased in an equally hushed voice.

He shrugged his shoulders impatiently. Why did she need to ask questions? "Just felt like it," he replied, a slight hurt to his voice. His grip slowly began to loosen itself from her arm as he took a step back, away from her. "N-never mind, then. Goodnight."

She panicked as she felt him pull away. "No, no," she whispered as she clutched a hand over his to hold it in place, and slowly walked into his embrace. She didn't care how wet his clothes were; his sweat smelled clean and the gentle musk of a martial artist's training hung over them, making her feel very at home in his arms. Her small hands shyly worked their way up the ridge of his back, and his fell awkwardly to her hips, no her waist, nosomewhere in between. She mindedly pressed her front against him to shift his hands higher up her back, and felt relieved when he obliged and slid his palms up along her curves, where he rested them in a gentlemanly manner on her shoulders.

They stood for a time, until he hesitantly dipped his head to whisper a reticent "g'night, Akane" to her coconut-scented hair.

"Goodnight, Ranma."

With that, they parted ways, giving one another's hands one last light squeeze, and walked quickly in opposite directions to their respective bedrooms, excited flurries in their stomachs.