Fragile Clay - Volume 2 Episode 3



I hope that those who've come before have enjoyed this story, for those of you who haven't read this before... I think you'll enjoy the dramatic and allusionary references throughout the work.

For those who HAVE read it, I suggest that you reread the Poem again before every episode, as it has certain.... foreshadowing effects on the story.

*Sigh* It's been a great deal of time since I wrote, and I finally decided to sit down and hammer out another Episode, so here it is. Those who've enjoyed my style before will most likely enjoy this story, as it keeps with the emotional/comical mix of original Takahashi, and Story-Weaver's Tapestry of Bardic quality.

I would like to thank a few people before we start. First, I would like to thank The Various authors who've inspired me to write this tale.

Mike "Cynewolf" Noakes, the slowest Fanfic writer I know, but very apt in his telling of tales.

Richard Lawson, whom I hold great reverence over as one of the all time greats with his "Thy Inward Love" and "Thy Outward Part" Fics. Lawson-San.... your tales are works of greatness... domo arigato for your inspiration.

I also would like to give a heartfelt applause to Zen, the writer of "The Bitter End", which is one of the finest works I have ever had the pleasure of crying to... *Snif* it's a ringer, Zen.

Krista Perry is also one of the author's I would like to mention, as her story "Hearts of Ice" is a continuing tale of excitement and torment for the loving pair of romantics, Ranma and Akane. Keep up the good work!

Ahem.... *Cough* I would also like to thank Hi and Dai, whom without this story could never have taken place. Thanks fella's.

replies go to kaoru@mosquitonet.com

Insert Standard Disclaimer Here:Characters not of my own design belong to Rumiko Takahashi, the Lady who invented Ranma 1/2

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Fragile Clay: Volume 2

Episode Three

"A Cullinary Catalyst! Ranma's Challenge of Taste!"

The soft glow of the dusk illuminated the ward of Nerima Tokyo.... casting brilliant shades of reds, yellows, and purples on the thin layer of clouds above. The wind blew a soft breath through the streets of Nerima... heralding that soon Winter would be here, as the tapestry of colourful leaves foreshadowed.

It had been a scant 19 day's since the streets had fallen quieter than usual, though one might ask what was so abnormal about quiet.
It's not normal for Nerima... and certainly not normal for a certain dojo, reknowned for housing a young Martial Artist by the name Ranma Saotome, as well as his Fiancee... Akane Tendo.
The Tendo Residence, in the past, had been one full of energy, excitement, battles, arguments, repairs, and various odd beings coming to take a call on the Saotome and Tendo clan.
If it were not this, then it would be a war of Love between Ranma's fiancee's. But.... since a challenge those 19 days before, the streets of Nerima had fallen into a silent slumber... the only spell breaking this was a single day when a super being named Aquarius escaped from her imprisonment and attacked Ranma... causing trouble in itself.
They had won the battle, Ranma and his friends.

The beautiful Tendo dojo... Pristine and sacred to it's inhabitants, sworn to defend their lives for it. The Silence was a blessing to the surrounding neighbors.... and one that would not last much Longer....

* * * * *

"RANMAAAAAAA!" A young woman cried.
Akane was not normally this upset. Before the Saotomes had come, she had been peaceful in her daily routine. Then, Ranma had come. It usually wasn't so bad, except on nights she got to cook.
Nabiki, the financier of the house, was currently scribbling on a pad of paper, estimating the damages the night would bring.

Kasumi, the Matron Saint of the House, walked slowly around the table, collecting plates of some noxious soup and hideously overbaked bread.

Soun Tendo was absently poking a fork at the bread, which promptly crumbled into a semblance of powder. His face a shade of green, and half the food on his plate missing.
"Daddy, you _really_ didn't have to try and eat it... I mean, we all know how bad Akane is at this type of thing," Nabiki heard a crash, and a thump... and figured Akane's hammer had connected with the floor, as well as that her sister had just found her would- be-fiancee.
"RANMA NO BAKA!!!" Crash. Bang. Shatter. *That would be the Bedroom wall, the table in Akane's room, and the Lamp...* Nabiki had learned to distinguish many things from the sound of them breaking. Being around Ranma caused things to break.
"I know Nabiki... I had just hoped she had gotten Better... well, call me a fool for hoping..." Soun promptly fell over, moaning his anguish. Mr. Panda watched this from the corner, then pulled out a watermelon he had been keeping for himself, knowing that this doom might have been fated for that night.
"Father... maybe I should try helping her in the kitchen again. I _know_ that if she tries hard enough, she can do it!" Kasumi beamed with promised hope, and Nabiki groaned.
Ranma ran in with Akane hot on his heels. His eyes locked on Genma's by now half-eaten watermelon... and glared with vengeance.
"I can't believe you were holding out on me, POP! GIMME THAT, I'M STARVING!" Ranma dodged Akane's hammer several times, and then got into a hand grappling contest with the Panda, quickly snatching it away from the furry creatures arms.
Ranma laughed at the glare the Panda gave him, then dropped twitching to the floor as Akane's hammer found his head before he could take a bite.
"Serves you right, insulting my food like that! I worked for three hours to prepare that, and all you can do is tell me you'd rather eat cow dung!" Akane's eyes were on the verge of bursting with tears.
Ranma groaned and rubbed his head.
"If you didn't find your ingredients at a chemical waste plant, I wouldn't HAVE to complain!" Akane smashed the hammer into Ranma's head again.
From the Kitchen Doorway, Nodoka sighed and shook her head. *What am I to do with you, child....* She smiled a bit, recalling that she would much rather put up with Ranma alive than fearing he was dead. She had missed her child...
"Next time you insult my cooking, I won't be so nice!" Akane stormed off to her room.
Ranma sat up again, rubbing his head vigorously. "If that's what she calls nice, I'd hate to see angry."
Nodoka shook her head again, a grin across her face. She walked over to Ranma, helping him up. "Be thankful it was only her cooking, and that Ryouga was not here," Ranma nodded absently.
"Mom... it's just that she's trying to kill me! I swear, you don't know the stuff she puts in her cooking!" Ranma turned bright red, then a shade of green as he recalled what he had to eat that evening.
"I know she could use some help in the kitchen.... and that her stubborn streak makes her difficult to advise in cooking manners... but she also takes great care in the food she prepares for you, as you took care in the breakfast you made for her," Nodoka Slowly walked back to the kitchen, glancing back for a moment to smile at Ranma.
Ranma sighed and shook his head. He glanced around for the Watermelon, only to find Mr. Panda nibbling on the rhine. Ranma, with a red complexion, bunted him through the ceiling. "Cheap," He said as he picked up the empty rhine.
Soun looked up at the hole in the ceiling, as did Nabiki. "Ranma, you really have to stop doing that," The middle Tendo Sister stated flatly.
Soun nodded his confirmation. "Ranma, perhaps you should go for a walk. Akane is most likely still upset about your comment and I do not want to see your relationship going for the worst on account of a single dinner," Soun stood from the table, a solemn expression on his face.
"C'mon, it's not like we haven't fought before. She'll get over it," Ranma shrugged and turned to the stairs.
"Ranma, listen to Daddy for a second. You and Akane have been getting along quite well lately... I haven't had to repair the roof in four days. I think maybe you should go let off your steam while Akane cools down for once. It couldn't hurt, you know..." Nabiki, he hated to admit, made a little sense.
With a heavy sigh he turned to the dojo door. "Fine. Maybe I'll go see Hiroshi, I've been wonderin' why he hasn't been around," Ranma slipped into his black chinese shoes and turned to the door.

Kasumi leaned out of the kitchen, a smile on her joyful face. "Ranma, could you bring home some Lo Mein for tomorrow night? I seem to be out and your Mother wanted to have one of my special Recipes for taste reference," Ranma Nodded absently, and headed out the door.

* * * * *

Ranma leaped onto the fence, staring up at the night sky. The glimmering stars emphasized the peaceful serenity that Nerima exuded... while hiding the turmoil of Chaos within.
He had hoped that his trouble-making would result in this. He hadn't been out in a while... and being around the Dojo four days straight got redundant without Ryouga or Tarou or anyone else showing up.
He almost missed Shampoo's liberal advances. His sigh was a contented one, though, as he stared at the starry sky, revelling in the wind blowing through his hair. *Alot has changed...*
Ranma reconsidered the battle with Mousse only a scant two weeks before. He recalled how Akane had slowly come to realize there were layers upon layers of him she had not discovered, nor touched upon. He found himself growing closer to Akane than ever before...
Strangely, that troubled him. Even Scared him a little. He wasn't sure if he was ready to commit to the relationship, if he was ready to love her.... and yet he did. An odd Paradox of emotion, which had him mentally running in circles about what to do.
His care caused him complex problems, such as tonight. He knew that if he insulted Akane, at the point in this relationship, Mr. Tendou and the rest would become uncomfortable about his endangering it all of a sudden. It hurt him, however, that he had had to do what he did to escape the Dojo for a night.
He shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs of uncertainty from his mind. He had decided to find out why Hiroshi had been avoiding him as of late. *Nah... he's not avoiding me. He's just busy, tha's all*. Lately, Hiroshi had been a bit distant in his conversation, and not in the thoughtful way like usual. It almost made Ranma think he was nervous about something.
Ranma smiled a bit, recalling what his friend had sacrificed to defend him. His life, his manhood, his honor. Hiroshi had been willing to accept the Nyannichuan Curse to try and understand Ranma better... to see his side of things.
While that had lasted a short while, Aquarius had damaged the amulet that provided this link in a battle not but a few days before.
Not only had Hiroshi been willing to put his manhood on the line for Ranma's friendship, he had also come close to sacrificing his life three times.
Ranma stopped as he came to Hiroshi's drive, and readied himself to jump in the water beside the fence. He had learned that around Hiroshi's house, Water seemed to seek him even more furvently than at the Dojo... and it was sometimes better to get it over with than worry about getting splashed as he maneuvered around Hiroshi's house.
Ranma let his balance slip, and fell carefully into the cold water below. He felt the tingling sensation permeate through him, and the contracting feeling from inside out as things reshaped themselves to a smaller frame.
Her red head emerged from the depths, shaking fiercely to get the excess water out. *Sheesh, the things I gotta do to get by.* Ranma climbed out of the canal and dropped onto the road, squeezing the water from her shirt.
After she judged herself as dry as she was going to be, she began walking up the drive.

* * * * *

Memeko silently cooked with a solemn look on her face. She looked down at the frying pan as she stirred the contents, teryaki rice and beef. She added several spices as she stirred, and looked into the living room, where
Hiroshi was idly sitting flipping through television channels.
Memeko shook her head with a sad sigh. Something had been bothering her brother lately, and she couldn't place her finger on it. She DID however know that Ranma had something to do with it.
"Mama? Can I have a cookie from the cookie jar?" Kaehmi asked with a small smile.
Memeko grinned in response. "Now, if I gave you a cookie... that might spoil your dinner. Would you want Mama to go to all this trouble to cook, and then you not eat because of a cookie?" Kaehmi nodded vigorously in response.
Memeko grinned and shook her head. "Well, I see you think so much of my cooking! Maybe after dinner, Love. It's going to be finished very soon anyways," Memeko smiled at the disappointed look on her child's face.
"Kaehmi, could you go ask your Uncle what he would want to drink with his dinner?" Kaehmi nodded vigorously, clutching her stuffed Cabbit to herself. She liked being of use, and helping her Mother.
The little girl virtually bounced into the living room and then stopped when she saw the sad look in Hiroshi's eyes. Her Uncle switched off the Television and picked up a notebook.
Kaehmi traced her foot along an invisible line on the ground as her gaze wavered from the floor uncertainly to Hiroshi. "Uncle 'Roshi?"
"Yes, Kaehmi?" Hiroshi responded without looking up from his notepad. He scribbled slowly on the page in Kanji 'Ranma'.
"Mama was wonderin' if you... I mean what she wanted to know is what you wanna drink for dinner..." Kaehmi smiled unsurely as she saw her Uncle look up.
"Anything is fine," Hiroshi forced a smile. "Shouldn't you be playing or somethin'?" Hiroshi asked as he looked at his Niece. She was a very cute kid, even when she was nervous.
Her smile returned and she nodded. Hiroshi, despite himself, grinned at her as she bounced back to the kitchen.
His grin faded though as his mind wandered back to the trouble that had been plagueing him as of late.
*Ranma.... why in the blue blazes of all the world did it have to be Ranma....*
Hiroshi shook his head and stood, setting the book down silently as he ran his other hand through his hair. He felt so stupid, not realizing the problem beforehand. He usually was very perceptive about such things....
It had started, for as much as he could tell, when Ranma's life had nearly fallen to pieces. Akane had called off the engagement in what appeared to be a very serious manner. Then, the day after the incident.... Ranma's problem's all pushed themselves at her, driving her from school when she realized she had hurt her best friend, Hiroshi.
Ranma slept over that night... and discovered Hiroshi's secret place... the Vault. Hiroshi could almost pinpoint the moment when his view had changed... when he had lifted Ranma into his arms to carry her upstairs he had looked down onto her peaceful face, and smiled.
*Something special in that smile...* Had echoed in his mind for the past week. Hiroshi left the living room in a grim mood and began walking up to his room. He was stopped on the bottom step by his Sister's voice.
"Hiroshi? Are you all right?" Memeko's words barely penetrated the fog over his mind. He turned and looked at her. Her face was writ with worry, which made Hiroshi feel all the worse.
"What?" He asked moments later, after he had stared for a long time trying to comprehend the question.
"Hiroshi.... something is bothering you. I'm your Sister.... I worry about you..." Memeko looked down nervously, then back up, her concern plain in her eyes. Kaehmi could be heard playing in the kitchen and humming silently to herself, her mind free of grown-up troubles.
Hiroshi opened his mouth to answer, then snapped it shut, thinking for a moment. He had been wondering if he should tell his sister anything, and now it seemed almost wrong to keep her in the dark. "Alright..." He nodded.
"There is something wrong.... but I can't fix it."
Memeko pulled Hiroshi back into the living room and sat him down on the couch with a gentle hand on his shoulder. "Go on..." She murmured softly as she took a seat beside him, deftly snatching up one of his hand and putting it in her own, clasping Hiroshi's hand firmly to provide emotional support.
"Well.... I suppose you could say it's girl-trouble...." Hiroshi rubbed the back of his neck nervously, then looked back at his sister. She had an encouraging smile on her lips, and a supportive gleam in her eyes. *Sometimes...* Hiroshi wondered, *She reminds me of my own compassion for others.*
"I thought it might be.... so what's wrong with her?" Memeko continued to meet his gaze, not letting him escape the answers she had been wondering about... Worrying about for the past four days.
"Well... nothing's wrong with her. She's fine.... I mean she's beautiful, she's caring, she's compassionate to the needs of others... and her smile is like the sun, if I look too long I could become blind..." Hiroshi mused a small space to consider his own words, before the dour depression returned, his heart suddenly aching to look upon Ranma, and his mind telling him that to do so would mean certain madness.
Memeko rubbed Hiroshi's hand with hers, still clasping it with her other. "She sounds wonderful, someone you could care for deeply? Or do you already?" Memeko warranted a small smile to creep into her supportive demeanor.
Hiroshi wrenched his gaze from his sister's eyes. "Yes. More than my own life, it would seem. She's strong... oh so strong, and noble, and loving, yet so troubled.... so many problems that plague her existence. She is the most brave and honorable person I've ever had the pleasure of knowing... but sometimes there are things she can't confront..." Hiroshi sighed and wiped a tear from his eye. He looked at it quizzically.
"Hiroshi.... if you Love her so much, then why not tell her?" At this comment, Hiroshi wrenched his hand free of his sister's comforting hands and stood. He paced back and forth several times, his frustration only mounting with his inability to grasp a solution to his problem.
"It's not that simple.... It never has been. Not with her, never with her. Things always come between her Love. And..... she doesn't like men...." Hiroshi's shoulders slumped at his words, and Memeko put a supportive hand on his shoulder. Hiroshi shuddered slightly, as his eyes seemed to tear for a moment.
"I'm sure Akane would understand if you only-" Hiroshi's shoulders tightened at Memeko's words, and he turned his face sadly towards her.
"...it's not akane..." Hiroshi whispered through clenched teeth.
"What?" Memeko had hardly heard Hiroshi, his tone was so low. Could she have been mistaken? *But the description was so exact...*
"I said It's not Akane, Memeko. It's Ranma," Hiroshi's proclamation seemed flat, a statement presented in true neutrality. As if it were an obvious fact that all should know.
A cold wave of confusion and fear fell over Memeko, her mind trying to grasp some alternate meaning from her Brother's words... yet finding none to behold.
She took her hand from her brother's shoulder, looking at him in confusion. "Ranma? But.. but.... Hiroshi... you're not gay...." Memeko was shocked as she placed a hand to her heart.
Hiroshi looked at her with a flat expression. "No. I'm not, Sis." He turned back to Memeko, looking her in the eyes, now his Sister seemed to avert her gaze. She couldn't understand why her brother would fall in love with... another man.
He cupped her chin. "Memeko... I am not gay. I am not attracted to the Male Ranma.... I am attracted to Ranma. Do you understand?" Hiroshi's tone of voice could little hold the hurt at the accusation. He had feared she would not understand.... and had hoped she would.
Memeko looked at her brother, if a bit reluctantly, and saw the torment in his soul. "Hiroshi...." She reached out to Hiroshi, who took a reluctant step back. It seemed to Memeko like she was losing her brother as he stepped back... his conflict flickered across the windows to his soul, and he spoke.
"Memeko, I Love Ranma. I cannot do anything about it, it's as if Ranma's gotten into my blood, my veins, my very soul.... made me wild. Like Her," Hiroshi shook his head, a sad smile spread across his face. He had hoped... but perhaps too much. For too many things...
Memeko was speechless, but she looked at her brother, into his eyes. He told no lies, that she knew. Every word had been spoken in truth, from Hiroshi's care for Ranma to all the qualities in Ranma that Hiroshi had come to know and Love. Memeko felt.... a sort of twisted happiness, that Hiroshi had found someone that he could bestow such an emotion on.
She also felt her brother's pain... saw it on his face. *Nothing is ever easy with Ranma...* Hiroshi had told her after Ranma's first visit. *If I could.... just for one moment... lift that sadness from Ranma's existence... I think that, maybe, my Life would be worth while.*
And Memeko smiled. It was a soft, almost bitter-sweet smile. "Love is never easy, Hiro-chan... but I believe you. Kami help me, I believe you..." Memeko embraced her brother in a fierce hug. Her emotions matched his own, the utter confusion, the sad acceptance, the strange emptiness that seems to be filled... only to reveal there's more pain to be conquered.
"I'm doomed. Who can ever understand what I feel.... how could Ranma?" Hiroshi lamented into his Sister's shoulder, as tears streamed from his eyes. His Sister comforted him, rocking him back and forth in her arms as they sat on the couch.
Memeko ran her hands through her brothers short brownish-red hair. "You have to tell.... her, Hiroshi. You have to tell Ranma this." Memeko was full aware of her sexual reference to Ranma... but if she continued to insist on Ranma's male identity, her brother might lose heart. She thought it best to give him hope....
Her brother tensed in her arms. "I... I... I can't do that to.... to... her. Him...." Hiroshi had never conceived of admitting his feelings to Ranma. It seemed that, just by the admittance of his Love for her, defeat was instantaneous.
He couldn't conceive of how Ranma would react to his confession.

Memeko sighed as she heard a knock from the door. "If you keep it bottled up inside, it'll destroy you little-brother. The only way is to tell her, and wait to see..."

* * * * *

Ranma whistled and tapped her foot on the stone step at the front Doorway. Fairly soon, the door clicked and opened, a familiar little girl's face peeked out. Kaehmi looked up at Ranma's eyes.
"Why, do I know you Miss?" Kaehmi asked, grinning while she said it. She opened the door a little more, and hugged her Cabbit to her chest.
"Hmmm.... I dunno. Maybe..." Ranma grinned back at the familiar game. Ranma liked Kaehmi.... the innocence and utter playful nature of the girl made Ranma feel somehow whole. As if a part had been taken from her by her father... and the little girl had somehow renewed that playful innocence with which all children view the world.
"Well, if I knew you.... don't you think I would 'member? I mean, with all the nice peoples that come around, I'm sure I would rec'nize someone as pretty as you, Auntie... I mean, er, Miss." Kaehmi stumbled as she almost lost hold of the joke. Ranma blushed furiously when Kaehmi called her 'Pretty', unsure why everyone thought she was so beautiful. She shook her mind off of the thought and continued with the game.
"Well, I guess I'll have to refresh your memory... Hmmm... now what would do the trick?" Ranma pretended to think, and then snapped her fingers.
"I know! How's about..... this!" Ranma pulled out a Chocolate bar, and Kaehmi squeeled in delight and hopped up and down.
"I know! I 'member now! You're Auntie Ranma!!!" Kaehmi giggled and snatched for the candy-bar. Ranma pulled it out of reach and caught the little girl.
"Nah-ah-ah! AFTER dinner.... 'kay?" Kaehmi nodded, a fake pout on her lips. Ranma laughed at the look, and then kissed the little girl on the cheek.
Kaehmi blinked and rubbed her cheek.
Ranma blinked. *Now why did I do that?*
Kaehmi smiled then hugged Ranma. Ranma blushed with Love for the little girl. She really did like Hiroshi's Niece... sometimes a handfull, but the little girl always brought a warm spot to Ranma's heart.
Memeko came to the door, a small smile on her face. "Why, hello Ranma!"
"Momma! Look what Auntie gave me!" Kaehmi waved the candy bar around, having snatched it from Ranma while she hugged her.
Memeko glared at Ranma.
"Hey! I said she couldn't have it till AFTER dinner..." Ranma looked at Kaehmi in her arms with a stern glare. "And I mean that!"
"Awwww.... yer no fun...." Kaehmi joked, but hugged Ranma again.
"Where are my manners.... come in Ranma. I didn't expect you so... late. In fact, I didn't expect you at all," Memeko turned and walked into the house. The Smell of food wafted to Ranma's nose, and she sighed. *Geez, I just LOVE Memeko's cooking.*
Ranma trailed Memeko into the house. "Well.... that's never stopped Daisuke from visiting..." Ranma grinned, setting Kaehmi down. The little girl ran off into the kitchen with a giggle.
Memeko smirked slightly. "True.... Dai has a certain Panash for showing up when you least expect him," Memeko chuckled slightly as she thought of that. Hi had known Dai since they had been children, and Memeko sometimes wondered how two complete opposites could be so close.
"Uhm... Hi, Ranma..." Came Hiroshi's voice as Ranma entered the Kitchen. She looked at her friend, who looked a bit distraught. In fact, he looked a bit pale, as Ranma noted.
"Hiya, 'Roshi! What's up? You look a little down..." Ranma set Kaehmi down and the little girl jumped in the chair opposite Hiroshi. Ranma sat down by her friend.
Memeko looked at her brother, as if urging him to say something. "N...Nothin'. I guess just Girl trouble. I don't wanna talk about it, though," Hiroshi took a deep breath of Memeko's cooking.
"Smell's good, doesn't it Ranma?" Ranma nodded in response, still looking at her friend. *He doesn't look so hot. What's he been doin' all this time?* Ranma could see the fatigue that seemed to surround Hiroshi.
"Hey, are you sure you're okay?" Ranma put a hand to Hiroshi's shoulder, and felt her friend's body tense up completely. Hiroshi nodded, giving a modest smile.
Ranma shrugged and turned to Memeko, who was dishing out food onto several plates. Ranma rubbed her hands together in anticipation. "What are we havin', Memeko?" Ranma asked, smiling up at Hiroshi's elder sister.
"Teryaki rice and beef. It's simple, but I've been busy as of late with work," Memeko smirked and sat down opposite Ranma, glancing over at Hiroshi for a moment, then back at her guest.
"So, Ranma.... what brings you out so late? We haven't had you visit for a while..." Kaehmi hopped up into her seat as Memeko spoke and grinned sheepishly at 'Auntie Ranma'.
It was Ranma's turn to look a little gloomy. "Well... I was sorta missing hangin' with 'Roshi. There was that, and I kinda...."
"You got in a fight with her... didn't you?" Hiroshi sounded almost wistful, remorse showing in his voice. As if he hated to see Ranma and Akane fight. The emotion surprised Memeko.
Ranma looked over at Hiroshi in mute shock. "Uh.... yeah."
"Ranma...." Hiroshi paused, and looked up at Ranma and directly into her blue eyes. Memeko waited expectedly for her brother to speak. When he did, it wasn't what she expected.
"Please.... Akane loves you. Don't jeopardize that love.... you are so lucky to have someone like Akane, someone who you can hold in your arms and know that everything is right with the world..." Hiroshi stared off into space as he spoke, and Ranma looked at him with confusion at first.
"...Someone that when you look at them... the stars shimmer in their eyes, and a blazing inferno is stoked from a tiny ember within your heart.... someone who you always look at side-ways and smile.... please. Someone who's eyes seem to make the world melt away into nothing, and the troubles vanish from your life...Try not to fight with her...." Hiroshi looked back at Ranma. His eyes were carefully neutral, but a silent sadness dwelled beneath the unsteady surface of his soul.
Ranma was stunned. "That was.... I guess beautiful, did you write that?" Ranma smiled softly. Hiroshi, she had noted, was very good at poetry and romanticising words and phrases. *It's one of his finer qualities...* Ranma noted to herself.
"I write most of what I say, yes..." Hiroshi poked his food absently and averted his eyes from Ranma's starry-blue irises.
Ranma leaned back and began eating her food, somewhat nervously as Hiroshi gave her odd looks every five minutes or so. *You'd think there was something wrong with me, the way he keeps starin'.* Ranma laughed inwardly at her comment, and politely didn't voice her opinion.
Kaehmi told Ranma about some of her days at Kindergarden, how they learned to make oragami puppets and had a play with them. Ranma laughed lightly when Kaehmi related the story of the play. Hiroshi sat in marvel of that laugh... and in silence of his heart, beating harshly in his chest whenever he glanced her way.
*I will not jeopardize this friendship....* Hiroshi reminded himself. *Ranma needs a friend...* Yet, with each word uttered from Ranma's mouth, with each glance in his direction... Hiroshi fell in love all over again. It seemed an impossibility to keep his silent vigil against an unbeatable foe. *I-Must-Try.* He reminded himself.
Fairly soon, Memeko retired and Kaehmi went to bed with a yawn from Ranma. She had been playing with the little girl for a good 4 hours, and when she glanced at the clock she found it was a quarter-past-midnight.
Ranma closed the storybook and stood up from her seat on Kaehmi's bed. She smiled down at Kaehmi. *Innocence in Youth... may you always be as bright as you are now, Kaehmi.* Ranma prayed in her mind silently.
"You're very good with her, you know," Hiroshi murmured at the Door. Ranma looked up, startled by the sudden presence. Hiroshi didn't look at her, but instead leaned in the doorway, his arms crossed over his chest and his legs crossed while he leaned on the doorframe. His words penetrated Ranma's startlement.
Ranma leaned over Kaehmi and gently ran a hand over the girl's cheek. "She's a wonderful kid, 'Roshi. Makes me wonder what I would've turned out like if not for Pop," Ranma sighed heavily. "But I can't blame him all the time. What's done is done, and building bridges in yesterday is a good way to forget a cliff tomorrow."
Hiroshi smiled softly. "It seems I've rubbed off on you a little... wasn't that one of my quotes?"
Ranma nodded. "I guess I jus' realize there's some things that we wish for we can't have. Those years with my Mother are one of them..." Ranma looked into nothing for a moment, then shivered.
"Somethin' Wrong, Ranma?" Hiroshi asked, stepping into the room slightly. A hint of concern suddenly seemed to appear on his features. Ranma shook her head and looked up after a moment, forcing a smile.
"S'Nothin'.... just a nightmare I had about children," Ranma swept past Hiroshi and downstairs.
Hiroshi blinked and then followed at his own speed, wondering exactly what Ranma had meant.
Ranma silently strolled down the steps, thinking to herself about the surreal dreams she had been having lately of a masked man and two children, as well as odd dreams of marriage and indecision.
Hiroshi followed in his own musings... his hands in his pockets he stared at Ranma as she walked. *So close and yet so far...* Hiroshi's mind flashed a picture of him Running to Ranma, but only seeming to get farther away from her, the distance seeming to span an endless track.
Ranma turned and looked at him blinking slightly and smiling... *Something in that smile...* Hiroshi mused. It melted his heart to look at that smile. It made his head spin, his mind race, his soul throb. His hand unconciously drifted to his breast, where his heart would lie.
"'Roshi, you sure you're okay? I mean, you've been awfully moody tonight. Heck, even Kaehmi noticed," Ranma brushed a hand through her hair and looked down at the ladder leading to the vault. "I'd say kinda.... dreamy, sometimes,"
Hiroshi stared for a moment in hushed awe at Ranma.
Ranma noted the vacant look in Hiroshi's eyes and squirmed inwardly. "Hiroshi? Hey, man, did you hear me?" She shifted from foot to foot a bit, uncomfortable in Hiroshi's gaze.
"Huh? Oh.... I know I've been kinda... gone. It's just I've been thinking alot... well, alot more than usual. Dwelling on things I shouldn't..." Hiroshi looked down at the ladder. "After you," He bowed dramatically, spreading an arm out in a mockingly Kuno gesture.

Ranma sighed sadly in her mind. *'Roshi...* She nodded and climbed down the ladder, Hiroshi followed moments later and started down the hallway ahead of Ranma. Ranma looked at him oddly but soon shrugged and followed. *Why can't you just tell me what's wrong?* Ranma added in her thought.

* * * * *

Ranma felt the soft sunlight of morning touch her eyes and she opened them for a moment, shutting them tighter a moment later. *Oy.... gotta remember to get more sleep over here, and less carving...* Ranma chastised herself.
The brilliant sunshine streamed into Hiroshi's room and seemed to fall directly on the bed. Ranma figured Hiroshi had put the bed there for that very reason, so he could see the sun rise and set.
Ranma frowned slightly as she layed in the bed. This was the ninth time Hiroshi had forgone his own bed for her comfort. It seemed that every time Ranma came over, she managed to fall asleep before Hiroshi did... and Hiroshi carried her up here to sleep. "He doesn't hafta to do that... I'd be fine on the couch," Ranma murmured quietly.
The events of the last night drifted across her memory, and she sighed. *Well... maybe Akane's calmed down by now. After all... she _has_ been a bit passive lately.* Ranma continued to stare up at the ceiling, where pictures and drawings were pinned. One caught Ranma's attention.
She gazed up at the picture that Nabiki had taken after the Battle with Mousse. She had her arm wrapped lovingly around Akane as they leaned into eachother, and Hiroshi stood silently by, his arms crossed, a small glimmer of a smile on his face. He looked somehow lonely, as if he weren't really part of the picture.
Ranma shook her head, then decided it was time to get up.
She sat up and pushed the layers of covers off of her body. She smiled as she looked down at her P.J.'s. They were a bright sky-blue with a rainbow across the chest and around the waist.
Kaehmi had bought the Pajama's for her on an earlier visit, when Ranma had gone to help Memeko with shopping. Ranma had been at first reluctant ro accept, or even wear, something so feminine... but Kaehmi flashed those eyes of hers and Ranma felt bad.
So Ranma had ended up wearing the P.J.'s. It hadn't been the first time she'd been tricked into something that she later came to accept... Ranma tugged on her bra- strap, recalling that it had been her mother that had first insisted that Ranma wear it... but later finding out it was much more comfortable to wear one than not to. Ranma mentally noted that the bra seemed a bit tight, but thought nothing of it.
Ranma stood and did several stretching exercises as the sun streamed in. A soft knock on the door caused her a moment of pause. "Yeah?" She asked, while touching her hands to her toes.
"Did you have a good sleep?" Hiroshi's voice sounded tired, and raspy. Ranma stood and looked at him for a moment. His complexion was slightly pale, and there was a weary quality to his stance.
"Hey, are you okay?" Ranma rubbed the back of her neck, seeing how tired Hiroshi looked. Like he hadn't slept in a few day's.
"I jus' couldn't sleep. That's all. Well, did you sleep well or not?" Hiroshi asked a bit more forcefully than usual. Ranma was slightly startled by it.
"Uh... I guess. Actually, I feel pretty refreshed... but then again, that's not saying much with me. Try riding on the back of an old wagon on a rocky, bumpy road in China and THEN saying you feel refreshed... ugh..." Ranma smiled when she heard Hiroshi chuckle slightly.
Hiroshi stopped when he saw that smile, and rubbed the back of his neck... his guilt for keeping Ranma in the dark about his feelings making him feel even worse for having snapped at her. "Look... ah... I'm sorry," Hiroshi grimaced as he spoke, and ran his hand through his hair. Ranma thought that when he did that, he looked even more tired.
Ranma gazed at Hiroshi oddly. "Hey, don't apologize, 'Roshi... you haven't done anything wrong! I'm sure you got a reason not to be your usual, cheery self," There was a slight pause as Ranma considered something, "I jus' hope..." Ranma looked down at the ground for a moment.
"Yeah?" Hiroshi asked, looking up at her.
"Well... I mean, it's jus' that I'm used to you being the one who's there to cheer me up. I don't like seein' you like this... it kinda makes me feel bad that I can't cheer you up. I dunno..." Ranma looked back up at Hiroshi. "I guess I hope that whatever's bugging you is just a temporary thing."
"It's okay, Ranma... I'm fine for now," Hiroshi flashed that winning smile, and Ranma paused for a moment, staring at Hiroshi.
"What?" Hiroshi asked, looking down at his clothes to make sure there wasn't anything wrong.
Ranma shook her head with a slight smile. "S'Nothin. Jus' that if whatever's bugging you is a girl.... she must be a damned fool for not realizing what a great guy you are. I mean, you're probably the most thoughtful, caring guy I've ever met. Whoever it is must be stupid for not realizing how much they're missin'...," Ranma laughed slightly, and walked out by Hiroshi.

Hiroshi stared after her, a bitter-sweet smile spread silently over his face. "... And I love you for your honesty and compassion..." She was too far away to hear, and Hiroshi shook his head, then headed downstairs.

* * * * *

Ranma silently dumped cold water over herself after leaving the bath. She picked up two towels after she stepped out of the tub-area. One she wrapped around her body, the other she started drying her hair with.
Ranma noted that it had gotten a bit long as she began brushing her hair. She hadn't cut it for a week and a half, and she had once purposefully let it grow long a week and a half before.
*Well.... maybe Kasumi'll cut it a bit shorter for me.* While standing in front of the mirror, Ranma set the brush down and looked at herself for a long moment. She shook her head a moment later. *I might look good.... but I'm definitely not beautiful.* Ranma mentally noted.
Ranma pulled on the towel hiding her body and it fell to the floor. She looked around for the fresh clothes Memeko usually sat out and found them neatly folded beside the sink. She picked up the black bra and put her arms through, carefully hooking it in the back. *Gawd I hate these things...*
She adjusted the bra to a more comfortable fit, and then put on her boxers and blue-jeans. Ranma pulled slightly on the bra-strap again. *Feels a little tight...* She shrugged off the observation and picked up a T-shirt that had "Ranma" written across the chest in red and blue Kanji. *Memeko has WAY too much fun...* Ranma chuckled at her thought.
Most of her outfit she was used to wearing, the jeans and bra she was not. She had learned to live with a bra, as her Mother demanded it. The Jeans had started when Hiroshi had let her borrow a pair. Afterwards, Ranma bought some of her own... making sure they would fit in both forms.
She pulled the T-shirt over her head then headed for the door. As she walked she pulled out the Dragon's Whisker and tied her hair in a pony-tail, not wanting to bother with the braid.
She quietly walked down the stairs and into the kitchen, where Memeko was going about her usual morning business of cooking breakfast, boiling tea, and generally tidying up the kitchen.
Hiroshi was sitting with a calm look on his face, the chair reclined back slightly as he drummed his hands on the surface of the kitchen table.
"Hiya!" Ranma intoned. Hiroshi looked at her and smiled as Ranma took a seat opposite him. She flipped her pig-tail over her shoulder with one hand and looked around. "So, what are we eating?" Ranma asked, noting that Memeko had not yet started cooking.
"Actually, Ranma, I was completely wrung out from yesterday... and got up a little late. I might be able to cook some breakfast, but not before you have to leave," Memeko paused for a moment in her bustle to look at Hiroshi.
"I've managed to make some sack-lunches, however... It's not as fine a cuisine as you're used to from here.... but I'm sure you'll like it Ranma," Memeko walked by the table to the kitchen entrance. "Excuse me... I have to wake Kaehmi up. The lunches are in the Fridge," Memeko turned and waltzed up the stairs in a hurry.
Ranma pouted a bit. "I was lookin' forward to some hot food... but I guess I'll have to be content," Ranma rested her chin on her hand and looked at Hiroshi. "So, are ya comin' to school? Or are ya gonna mope around s'more about that girl?" Ranma grinned when Hiroshi turned a bit red.
"I guess I should go... after all, it might get my mind off all my worries," Hiroshi forced a smile, then stood. "Maybe I should go get my stuff..."
"Shoot!" Ranma sat up abruptly.
"What?" Hiroshi asked as he turned back towards Ranma.
"I forgot my stuff at the Tendo's!" Ranma mentally scolded herself for forgetting her school work.
Hiroshi grinned and snapped his fingers. "Simple. Call Akane or Nabiki and tell 'em to bring it along. I'm sure ONE of them would be more than obliged to help," Ranma heaved a sigh of relief.
"What would I do without you, Hiroshi?" Ranma was slightly set at ease since Hiroshi seemed to be acting like his old self. She got up and walked over to the phone as Hiroshi disappeared upstairs.
She was about to dial when Memeko's finger clicked on the receiver. Ranma blinked and then looked up at Memeko. There was a calm, distant look in the woman's eyes... one that also spoke of determination and concern.
"Ranma... I know that you have noticed Hiroshi has been a little down as of late...," Ranma nodded at Memeko's words, wondering why Hiroshi's sister seemed so concerned.
"Yeah... He say's it's girl trouble. He must've fallen hard for whoever she is... Hopefully she'll wake up and realize the catch she's got. Hi's a great guy....," Ranma smiled half-heartedly to herself. Memeko blinked for a moment at the strange caring in the smile.
"You really have no Idea, do you?" Memeko asked, smiling a bit to herself... it was a somewhat sad smile. *Ranma, please do not hurt my Brother...*
"'Bout what?" Ranma asked blinking. "You mean there's something Hi hasn't told me?"
Memeko shook her head, almost wearily. "Ranma... I want you to make me a promise. Promise me that you'll listen to whatever Hiroshi has to say to you, and hear him out, and try to be caring... your opinion matters a great deal to him," Memeko took her hand off the phone and brushed it through her hair.
Ranma scratched the back of her head. "Uh... I'm not sure I understand."
"Ranma, what you think of Hiroshi is very important to him. You're his best friend, and he's closer to you in ways than he is to me. Promise me you'll never cause him harm... that you'll listen first and judge later," Memeko's eyes had a faint desperate undertone, and her words were asked in sincere concern.
Ranma sighed. "You know I'd never do anything to hurt 'Roshi. He's the only guy that's ever tried to understand..." Memories flashed through Ranma's mind, of Hiroshi's girl-side, of Hiroshi stepping between Cologne... then his Mother, of Hiroshi defiantly challenging Aquarius.
"Ranma. A Promise, I know you wouldn't hurt him intentionally.... but a Promise can sometimes stop those unintentional qualms that might arise." Memeko hoped beyond hope that Ranma would react well... when she finally learned of Hiroshi's feelings. She feared that hope might be misplaced.
Ranma considered the words, and then nodded slowly. "Okay. You have my word as a Martial Artist, and on my Honor. I promise," Memeko smiled at last.
"Great. Now, if you'll excuse me... I must be hurrying. Much to do today, and I am late," Memeko bustled off.
Ranma picked up the phone and dialed, wondering Idly to herself why Memeko would ask such a thing.

* * * * *

Cologne sat on a boulder at the base of Mount Shimitsu, considering the past few weeks. It would have been easier, so much easier, to have stayed in Japan. If she had only harnessed her anger a little longer...
She might have stopped the inevitable for a little longer.
*Why, Khu Lon, did you ever think you could keep Mu Tsu from her?* The Woman shook her head sadly, her golden locks reflecting beautifully in the midday sun.
*... Return to this... Nerima...* Echoed the Dragon's words. *... In a Month's time...*
Cologne leaped deftly off of the boulder, her blue eyes shining as she landed cautiously back on the ground. *So much energy in this young form... yet a great deal of status is what I've lost.*
Cologne looked down at her own form. It was a body she had been absent of for a long time, as time was what had taken it from her. *Glory to the Niie Chiizu... Strength to Joketsuzoku.... Honor to Shimitsu....* She recited in her mind, as she started a Kata.
It was fluid grace, that of several ancient styles. *Death to those who cross our Path... Woe be they who gain our wrath....* A figure silently watched from the shadows, observing the odd dance that seemed to move with the wind.
Cologne recalled why she had come to the Mountain... to find Kaoru-Ryuu. The last Dragon to be born of the Old-Age. Not five-hundred years old, he was a young Dragon with vigor and youth.
Unlike Herb, who was descended from a line of half-dragon cursed Jusenkyo victims... Kaoru was the son of two full fledged Guardian Dragons... and elemental dragons at that. Fire and Earth, two combined to create Chaos.
The visitor watched as the young woman practiced... this time, there seemed to be thought in the motions, as if she were considering something deeply.
Cologne was thinking that if she could find the Dragon-Prince, that she could... persuade him to come fight Ranma. Kaoru would humiliate Son-In-Law, and Ranma would be forced to leave Japan.
Cologne suddenly was a flash of motion as she thrust herself in her watcher's direction, but when she reached the area... no-one was to be seen.

*Strange... I sensed an aura, but nothing here?* Cologne looked around, wary that the watcher most likely had fled. After several minutes of searching, she decided to begin her training again... Her mind returning again to the matter of Ranma. *Ranma... pray that my curse never comes to pass, or your life will be your worst nightmare...*

* * * * *

"HEY! WAIT UP!!!" Ranma yelled, as she trotted along on the fence.
Akane had the sense of mind to simply ignore her would-be-fiancee. After all... he wasn't important enough to warrant her attention at the moment.
*Jerk...* Akane thought absently to herself. The events of the last night had shaken her a bit... after such a long period of peace with Ranma, there was suddenly this tumult again.
"Where have you been all night?" Nabiki inquired as the Pig-Tailed girl finally caught up with them.
Ranma shot Nabiki a blande look. "Well, gee... didn't I say I was at Hiroshi's? Both last night and on the phone this morning?" Ranma was about to turn away when something put her off. "Hey... why do you care anyhow?"
Nabiki grinned and raised an eyebrow. "Inquiring minds want to know." Ranma felt that underlying threat from the middle Tendo girl again... she had the look of a predator in her eyes.
"Whenever you wanna know somethin', Nabiki.... it's usually because it'll give you some quick cash," Ranma retorted, glaring at Nabiki.
"Would you two can it? Some of us are trying to think...," A familiar voice echoed from behind Nabiki.
"Really, Ranma... why not just ask Nabiki what she's hiding?" Came another voice, just as familiar.
Akane, Ranma, and Nabiki stopped and looked back. Daisuke and Hiroshi were walking side by side. Daisuke was busy fiddling with some little device, and Hiroshi was giving Ranma a somewhat bland look.
"Why, if it isn't the trepidous two. Hiroshi... don't you still owe me that 500 yen?" Nabiki grinned at the panicked look in Hiroshi's eyes.
"Well... uhm... didn't I pay you on Friday?" Hiroshi looked at Dai.
"Actually... you were about to pay her, when Ryouga popped into the cafeteria looking for Ranma...," Dai looked at his friend and smiled. "That's why I payed her for you!"
Nabiki laughed for a moment. "Really, Hiroshi, do you think I would take so long to collect on a loan? Just be thankful your friend was a bit generous that day..."
Hiroshi nodded with a relieved sigh. He looked up at Akane as they all started walking again. The youngest child of Soun Tendo seemed a bit troubled, and more angry than thoughtful. *Uh-Oh... there's a little more to last night than Ranma knows....*

Hiroshi didn't have much time to think about it, however, as the school bell rang a moment later. *I'll talk to her about it at lunch...*

* * * * *

Ukyou drummed her fingers on her desk, staring at the classroom door. Ranma walked in a moment later, with Hiroshi hot on her heels.
Ukyou had been wanting to talk to Ranma recently, but every time she got a chance... Ranma was elsewhere.
She had stopped at the Tendo's last night to bring Ranma a present... and from the impression of things, Ranma and Akane had had another fight. Which resulted in Ranma's departure from the house at Mr. Tendo's advise.
Ranma sat down beside her, and Hiroshi sat down on the other side of her. Ukyou turned to Ranma, "Ranchan... I was wanting to talk to you," Ukyou whispered, low enough so the teacher couldn't hear.
"Yeah? 'Bout what?" Ranma looked over at Ukyou, making sure to keep her own voice down.
Ukyou looked at Ranma. The Red-head was wearing a modest amount of makeup, though the chinese clothes were still a bit masculine in taste. Ukyou suspected that there was also some female undergarments that her Ranchan was wearing.
"I was wondering... you seem to be acting very... well.... feminine lately. I'm a little concerned, maybe your Mother has it all wrong," Ukyou fidgeted a bit, thinking back on all the odd mannerisms she'd been seeing in her Ranchan when the red-head visited Ucchan's.
Ranma looked a bit confused for a moment, "Ucchan... my Mom made a promise... it's up to me to help her fulfill it. Besides... I'm still the same person," Ranma smiled supportively, which only succeeded in making Ukyou a bit more uncomfortable.
"Ranchan.... you're different. I mean.... some of the things you do...-" Ukyou was cut off abruptly by Ranma.
"I am NOT different!" Ranma realized her mistake when the teacher turned around.
"Mr. Saotome... if you cannot learn to keep silent, then it would be best if you stood outside," Misses Tanaka put her hands on her hips and gave Ranma a stern, elderly glare.
Ranma turned a bit red, mostly from embarrassment, and Ukyou raised her hand, "Ms. Tanaka? If you'd please... it was my fault Ranchan was talking-"

"Very well... you may BOTH stand outside."

In the Hallway.

"I am not different, Ucchan. Why do you think I am?" Ranma was a bit upset at the accusation, but was at least worried about Ukyou. His ex-fiancee seemed genuinely concerned.
"It's... it's a lot of things, Ranchan. Little things, and the way you talk now...," Ukyou paused for a moment, setting the buckets down on the ground.
"What do you mean?" Ranma spoke in a softer tone than his usual loud, male bravado.
"That's what I mean... I mean, you still talk like a guy verbally, but the tone of your voice is... well, feminine. That's not it, though... that's just a little thing. There's also the way you've been walking for the past week," Ukyou smiled a bit, thinking about little things she'd notice.
"I've been walking just how I usually walk, Ucchan. I don't see what's so different...," Ranma scratched the back of her head.
"I notice these things, Ranma, because I had to train myself to notice them... and stop myself from doing them.
It's hard acting like a guy without knowing how guys walk, and talk, and gesture. Here, just set down those buckets and walk a little ways down the hall and back," Ukyou crossed her own arms and waited for Ranma to speak or move.
Ranma shrugged a moment later. "Okay, but I don't see the point," Ranma walked down the hall slowly and then back to Ukyou.
"Watch... what you're doing is moving your hips, kind of swaying. It's very feminine, in a way...," Ukyou imitated the walk, and then went back to Ranma. The red-heads face was about as red as her hair.
"Uhm... I looked like that?" Ranma rubbed the back of her neck, looking down at the ground.
Ukyou nodded. "It's very subtle, yet very noticable. It makes you look... well, like a girl. And very much of one, too," Ukyou blushed a bit at her statement.
Ranma walked up and down the hall several times, and asked Ukyou if she had corrected the problem. Ukyou shook her head as many times as Ranma tried. "I can't do it... Ucchan! It's like... just so natural," Ranma looked at the ground in embarrassment, her face was bright red.
"Well... there's another thing. You're a Pompous, Self-Composed Jerk," Ukyou blurted out.
"WHAT?" Ranma glared at Ukyou.
"Stop, don't move," Ranma froze as directed, an astonished look on her face. Then glared again, "I am not a jerk!"
"I said don't move. Look..." Ukyou pointed to Ranma's hands, which were planted on her hips.
"Yeah, so? I got my hands on my hips," Ranma stayed still, waiting for some point to the observation.
"No... it's the WAY you have them on your hips, your legs apart to about shoulder width and your hands are grasping your hips... My Mother used to do that all the time, and so did I until I taught myself to act like a guy," Ukyou sighed. "You're different, Ranchan...,"
Ranma took her hands off her hips, staring at them for a long moment. What Ukyou said was true, but Ranma hadn't been aware of any of those things. "I'm not a girl... I'm a.... a....," Ranma froze, then looked at Ukyou.
"Ucchan... I didn't know. I'm still the same person, really...," Ranma picked the buckets back up, a bit confused and troubled.
"Ranchan... it's okay. You're still my Ranchan, but I just want you to reconsider you're Mom's promise," Ukyou picked her own buckets up again.
"Ucchan... I love my Mother. I couldn't break her heart... or that promise... if my life depended upon it, but I will talk to her," Ranma shook her head, still unsure of herself. Was she a man or woman? Was she either?

"That's a beginning, Ranchan," Ukyou smiled. Perhaps she still had a chance with Ranma....

* * * * *

"I've been thinking..." Hiroshi said, rubbing his chin.
"'Bout what?" Ranma asked, taking a bite of her sandwhich.
"Well... about your fight with Akane. You said it was about her cooking again?" Hiroshi dwelled a moment on the thought.
"Yeah... she was cooking again and I told her what I thought about her food. She started chasing me around and then malleted me in the living room, Sheesh," Ranma realized she was speaking softly again and tried to correct her voice.
"Why don't you try and help her?" Hiroshi looked at Ranma, "I recall that you're a pretty good cook yourself," Hiroshi thought about Ranma's food. *Perfect was not the word...*
"That's just the thing! I mean, Kasumi'll watch her the entire time, and she STILL screws it up! Even Mom tried helping," Ranma scowled a bit as she realized that over the sentence she had fallen back into her feminine tone.
"You don't do yourself justice when you scowl like that," Hiroshi murmured.
"Yeah, so what? I'll scowl if I wanna," Ranma grinned at Hiroshi.
"Much better...." Hiroshi smiled and stared at Ranma for a moment... then another moment...
"Uh... 'Roshi? You okay? What was..." Ranma fidgeted under his gaze, "What was that Idea?"
"Huh? Oh... uhm. Yeah, well if Akane won't accept help, maybe she'll accept a challenge. Kind of a team thing with Akane, Shampoo, Ukyou, and Kasumi all on one team," Hiroshi grinned at the idea.
"Smart. Akane'll never turn down a challenge like that... and she'll give it all if she wants to win... but... uhm... who'll be the other team?" Hiroshi's plan made a great deal of sense, but very little if there was no other team. Ranma was interested in who Hiroshi had in mind.
"Well... You, Your Mother, and My Sister would be the other team. There's probably a bit of a lopsided talent, but I think things'll even out." Hiroshi rubbed the back of his head.
"Hiroshi you're a genius!!!" Ranma gave Hiroshi a tight hug, which made Hiroshi blush a deep red.
For the rest of Lunch, Ranma couldn't figure out why Hiroshi kept looking at her.

* * * * *

"YOU WHAT?!?!" Akane yelled. She couldn't believe her ears, Ranma was actually challenging her to a duel?
"I said that maybe we'd settle things better if we had a sort of... well, challenge," Ranma grinned sheepishly.
"Okay, Ranma... you're on!!! You just name what time and what place!" Akane grinned devilishly herself, and punched at the air several times.
"Well... not exactly a fighting duel. I was thinking more of cooking," Ranma avoided Akane's burning eyes.
"Oh, you're joking! I see, you think it's funny to make fun of my cooking?" Akane got ready to send her would-be-fiancee into orbit.
"No.... I was thinking that since you don't like me insulting you about it, and I would like you to get better at it, you might want to learn... that is... uhm... in case we ever DO get... well... married," Ranma let out her breath at the last word.
Akane blinked for a moment. "Ranma?" Akane smiled openly, "Do you really mean that?" She had never actually heard Ranma speak about marriage. Much less marriage to her.
"Well... yeah, I mean, it'd help a lot if you could cook a little better. Then I wouldn't open my mouth so much and get malleted," Ranma had learned from Hiroshi that it was best to coat an insult with a compliment... it tended to cancel the negative effect.
Akane thought a moment. She had been waiting for a genuine challenge from Ranma ever since the girl had arrived at the Tendo's doorstep. Even more so after learning about the curse. Could this be her chance?
"Okay. You're on! You said something about teams?" Akane began walking again, and Ranma heaved a relieved sigh when Akane refrained from malleting her.
"Well... I was talking to Hiroshi about it, and he thought that You, Shampoo, Ukyou, and Kasumi could be on one team," Ranma fidgeted nervously when Akane stared at her.
"What would possess him to team me up with, not one, but TWO of your ex-fiancee's?! I'll admit, Shampoo's not as bad as she was with Cologne around... and Ukyou has a generally nice personality, but putting all of us together is asking for trouble!" Akane daydreamed about some fight breaking out, with the kitchen ending up burned to a crisp with spatula's lodged in the walls and Bonbori holes creating make-shift windows.
"Well... that's why Kasumi is there. None of you would dare put poor Kasumi in danger," Ranma beamed at Hiroshi's thoughtfulness. It would've taken her the better part of the week to try and figure out a way to smooth things over with Akane. It never ceased to surprise Ranma when Hiroshi saved her hide.
Akane thought on the subject, trying to find something wrong with the plan... to her surprise, whatever she imagined could not involve Kasumi. Ranma was right, none of them dared to hurt Akane's older sister.
"So who would be the other team?" Akane asked, slightly suspicious about the entire plan. She would have much prefered a physical challenge, but what Ranma had said hardened her resolve. She'd prove to Ranma she could cook.
"Well... ah... me, Mom, and Memeko...," Ranma considered the challenge... it was about ballanced in skill wise. Her Mother had more experience than most of them, but Ukyou and Shampoo had their own secrets to cooking.
"Isn't Memeko Hiroshi's Sister?" Akane had heard about the woman, and had actually met Kaehmi, Memeko's daughter, when Ranma had brought her home one night. Akane couldn't help but love the little girl... there was such an innocent playfulness about her.
"Yeah. Hiroshi said she wouldn't mind. Too bad Hiroshi doesn't want to participate. He said he had to finish working on one of those statues...," Ranma dwelled on the night before. Hiroshi had been silent, moreso than usual. Ranma had contentedly worked on the Clay statue of Akane she had been making, trying to strike up conversation at several points in the night.
Hiroshi had eventually asked Ranma what she had fought Akane about, and Ranma had reluctantly revealed the reason for the fight. Hiroshi wasn't at all happy, and there was a hint of worry in his voice as he had talked.
"You know, you've been doing that an awful lot, the past few days...," Akane's words brought Ranma out of her reflection.
"Huh? What?" Ranma hadn't noticed herself doing anything, but obviously Akane had.
"You keep pulling on that Bra-strap, like you're uncomfortable," As if cued, Ranma tugged on it again.
It *Had* been bothering her... it had seemed just a little tight for the past few days. "I dunno... maybe I'm being fidgety. 'S not a problem, though," Ranma continued walking on, but stopped when Akane continued staring at her.
"What?"
"I'm just a little worried... could we go see Tofu?" Akane was a bit curious why Ranma had developed such a nervous tick... if that was actually the reason for the pulling.
"'Bout what? Did you hurt yourself?" Ranma asked, trying to recall if Akane had done anything overly physical that day. To her memory, Akane was fine. Her eyes agreed with her mind.
"Not about me, Baka! About you. I want to know if you're okay, is that so much to ask?" Akane was a bit miffed that Ranma always thought that she was the one who was hurt when she demanded to go to Tofu's.
"I'm fine! It's jus' a bit uncomfortable... tight...," Ranma pulled on the strap again, as if to emphasize her point.
"I know you're fine! It's not like you're falling over or anything! I just want to know why you keep pulling on that strap... sue me for worrying about a baka like you!" Akane began storming off.
"HEY! Wait!! You were worried?" Ranma scolded herself for being stupid, what was a visit to Tofu going to hurt any?
"Yes! If it's uncomfortable... that could mean there's something wrong. Either with the Bra, or with you... I'd like to narrow those choices," Akane had been wondering about Ranma lately. She'd become a lot more sensitive to her feelings, but still managed to erk her every once in a while.
Baka or not, She loved the fool. They'd been through too much for her not to have feelings for Ranma.
"I guess a trip to the Doc's office can't hurt any... if it'll make you feel better, Akane," Ranma gave a supportive smile.
"Yes, Ranma, it would. Besides... I want to talk to you about last night," Akane had been wondering why Ukyou had dropped by... and with a gift of all things. She could stand the Chef, but not when she was coddling Ranma. It made her furious that Ukyou had dropped by the same night she was cooking, and she wondered if Ranma had had something to do with it.

"O-Okay..." Ranma muttered unsurely.

* * * * *

Tofu was silently cleaning the office, humming a tune he had heard on the Radio when they knocked on the door.
"Come in, Ranma!" Tofu called out. He heard the door slide open and saw the sillouhettes of two girls displayed behind his office door.
Ranma slid the door open, a puzzled look playing across her face. "Hey... how'd you know it was us, Doc?" Ranma was aware that nobody knew about the trip, so how could the Doctor have known?
"Actually, you're one of the few people who come at this time of the day. The only other two are currently on Vacation, so by means of elimination, I reached the conclusion that it must be you," Tofu finished wiping his desk off.
"Shall we step into the check-up room?"
"Sure," Akane led Ranma into the next room, and Tofu followed a moment later.
"So, what seems to be the problem today? Ryouga Visited? Another Challenger? Or did you two get into a fight?" Tofu sat down in a chair by the examination bed.
"Well... we did get into a fight last night... but that's not why we're here," Akane looked over at Ranma, who had an utterly bored look on her face.
"Oh? Then there's something else? Some strange Chinese Curse? One of Shampoo's Special Herbs?" Tofu was trying to recall all the instances when Ranma had visited, as he named them off, Akane and Ranma shook there heads.
"Actually, Doctor, I want you to check Ranma. He's been fidgeting with his Bra-strap lately-" Ranma turned bright red at Akane's words.
"Akane!! Geez! It's embarrasing enough that you practically dragged me here...," Ranma sulked when Akane flashed him a glare.
"He's been complaining that the Bra seems tight," Akane explained how Ranma had been pulling on it unconciously, as if she were uncomfortable.
Tofu adjusted his glasses and looked Ranma up and down. "Really? Hang on..." Tofu walked back to his desk and retrieved a Physical Examination Notepad. He returned a minute later with a thoughtful look on his face.
"Could you both stand up for a moment please and face eachother?" Tofu asked, sitting back down in his chair.
Ranma shrugged, and Akane nodded. They stood up and looked at eachother. "What's the point Doc?" Ranma asked, wondering what Tofu was getting at.
"Uhm... Ranma?" Akane murmured.
"Yeah?" Ranma looked from Tofu back to Akane.
Akane's eyes met Ranma's on the same level. "You... uhm... seem a little taller," Akane noted that Ranma didn't have to look up at her anymore.
Ranma scratched the back of her head. "Hey... that's right. I thought something was odd recently," Ranma sat back down, and Akane followed her lead a moment later.
"Ranma, have you ever had your measurements taken?" Akane turned a shade of red at the Doctor's inquiry.
"Uhm... you mean like, how Tall and my Weight?" Ranma didn't think that the Doctor was asking about how tall she was.
"Not exactly... I mean, Your measurements as a woman. Bust, Waist, Hips. Have you ever had them taken?" Tofu figured that he'd hit on the answer to Ranma's problem, but he had to make sure of a few things.
Ranma turned a bit red, matching Akane, "Uhm... well, for the Bra and some clothes... Yeah. I think it was 35C 24 35," Ranma blushed deeper when he realized he had actually MEMORIZED the numbers.
"If you wouldn't mind, may I take them again?" Tofu waited for a response.
"Sure, Doc..." Ranma was a bit curious at what the Doctor was getting at, and more than a bit embarrassed at the topic of conversation.
"Well, Take off your shirt... I'll find my measuring tape," Tofu disappeared into his office, leaving Ranma as confused as before.
She quietly took her shirt off, looking at Akane. "What's all that about?" Ranma had a feeling that Akane knew something.
"I think the Doctor suspects you're female body had a growth spurt... Uhm... you might want to take that off as well," Akane pointed at the Black bra. Ranma turned a bright shade of red.
"In front of Tofu?!" Ranma asked, her voice rising to a high tone.
"He's a Doctor, Ranma. He does these things with girls growing up around here... it's nothing to be embarrassed about," Akane smiled a bit. Ranma fidgeted for a moment, glaring at Akane, but then took the bra off.
"Okay..." Tofu walked back in, a cloth measuring tape in his hand. "If you would, Ranma, please stand and raise your arms a bit," Ranma did as told, her face still bright red.
Tofu silently wrapped the tape around Ranma's bust, then quickly scribbled something down. He did the same with Ranma's hips and waist. Each time he nodded and wrote something down.
"You can put your clothes back on, Ranma," Tofu sat back in his chair. Ranma put the clothing back on, her face even redder than before.
"Ranma, you might want to consider shopping for a new Bra. You seemed to have grown an inch in the bust and hips... as well as gotten some height. Nothing to be worried about, but I'm glad you came," Tofu wrote
something on the sheet, then put it aside for a moment.
"It seems you've gone through a growth spurt. What I can't understand is why. You're Cursed form hasn't had any change in height, weight, or body development since you got it, has it?" Ranma shook her head at the Question.
"No, My Mom came several Months ago and got the first measurements, and I've always been shorter than Akane. I figured that My Cursed form was kinda the same the entire time," Ranma couldn't figure out why she would just suddenly grow.
"It could be a delayed growth, those tend to happen in the teenage years... or it could be something else. Have
you been spending a lot of time as a girl lately?" Tofu had several ideas, but only those two held any water.
"Well... I think a couple of day's here and there," Ranma shrugged.
"He's spent 11 out of the past 19 Days as a girl. At least, most of the time he's a girl," Akane had been counting each day, and had found it odd that Ranma seemed to care little about his curse recently.
Tofu raised his eyebrows and adjusted his glasses. "Really? That much?"
Ranma was likewise shocked. She actually went back through her memory, and found that Akane might be right. It began to trouble her. The information that Akane had just revealed, and what Ukyou had demonstrated in the hallway disturbed her to a new level. What was happening to her?
"I Think... Ranma, that you're extended time in your girl-state has actually started to let your body develop as it would have if you had been born a girl. I wouldn't fret about it, it's a natural function of life. If you have any other.... problems, call me, all right?" Ranma nodded absently at the Doctor's advice.
Akane squirmed at the Doctor's emphasis on the word 'problems'. She had a fair idea of what Tofu meant... but didn't think that Ranma would be running into that.
"Thanks Doc," Ranma said, a bit nervously. She had a lot to think about... like why was she suddenly developing in her girl form? Could it be as Tofu said? Could she be spending too much time as a girl?
Ranma shook off her thoughts and rose. Akane rose with her. "Well, thank you Doctor Tofu. If we need anything else, I'll be sure to call," Akane walked out the door.
Ranma was hot on her heels, but Tofu's hand on her shoulder stopped her. "Eh?"
"Ranma. Whatever you were fighting about couldn't be as important as the relationship you've both developed over the past two weeks. Akane just showed that she cares about you, and your well being is important to her. Take the lesson to heart," Tofu smiled slightly and adjusted his glasses.
"Uh... Thanks, Doc. Do you really think she cares about me?" Ranma looked at Where Akane had vanished through the door.

Tofu smiled a soft, knowing smile. "Ranma, do I really need to answer that?"

* * * * *

"You look like Crap, man. Haven't you been getting some sleep? Geez, you look like a bulldozer hit you, then backed up to finish the job...," Daisuke walked beside his Best Friend since Kindergarden, Hiroshi. Daisuke had noticed that Hi hadn't been looking very healthy.
He had worried about Hiroshi after Mihoko had dumped him... had been concerned he might hurt himself. *I remember that broken look on his face when she dumped him, over at Kyosuki's party... man that sucked...*
"Nah... I guess I've jus' been having dreams that keep me up. Then there's something else...," Hiroshi trailed off, shaking his head. What was he to do about the paradox of his heart? *If I tell Ranma... I lose a friend. If I don't tell Ranma... I lose my Love.*
"Bull Crap. There's somethin' big bugging you. I haven't seen you so bad since your last girlfriend dumped you.... it's a girl, isn't it?" Daisuke had grown up with Hiroshi, had known all of his girlfriends... and had seen that
broken look every time that Hiroshi had to part with one of them.
This was different, though. Hiroshi would sulk for a day or two before Dai or one of the others got up enough gall to cheer him up. It wasn't an easy thing... but Hiroshi was someone who didn't deserve self-punishment.
Yes, this was much different. Hiroshi looked sick, something was eating him from the inside. Something profound, catastrophic. This was True Love gone Sour.
*That's silly, Dai. Hi has had the occasional fling, yeah, but Hi always knew that those girls wouldn't stay with him. Besides.... you don't even know what love is.* Daisuke looked at his friend, who continued to walk in silence... staring at the ground.
Daisuke was a rational man, a logical person. His philosophy was strongly routed in the order of Science. Hiroshi was his balance... the emotional reflection, the Dreamer, the person who saw the Magic in everything... and rarely gave an explanation for something they marveled.
And Hiroshi marveled everything. Daisuke couldn't find another answer. Hiroshi had always been at his worst after a relationship.... but this seemed like Hiroshi was keeping his feelings from the person he cared for.
*Number one: Hiroshi would do no such thing unless the feelings would hurt the one he cared for. Number Two: If his current state is a factor of such care, then it is likely that his feelings would cause this person harm.* Daisuke had summed it up in his mind... but had no idea what to do about it.
"Hiroshi... you don't gotta tell me who, just tell me yes or no. Is it a girl?" Daisuke had to stop, as Hiroshi halted abruptly.
"Dai... it's not a girl. It's a person... and it does involve certain feelings for this person," Hiroshi sighed heavily. "She's a friend... and I don't want to jeapordize her friendship, or her life for my wants."
Daisuke blinked. Hiroshi had surprised him, he hadn't expected Hiroshi to just come out and say it. "Man... you gotta forget her if you can't be with her. You need sleep! It looks like you haven't slept well in days," Daisuke noted the pale complexion, the somewhat tired and bone-weary look Hiroshi had carried around all day.
"Yeah... I know, Dai. I'm trying. Would you like to come over and eat with me at the Ucchan? I have to talk to Ukyou about something Ranma and I planned," Hiroshi yawned fiercely, then started walking again.
Daisuke wasn't especially hungry... but he couldn't leave his pal in the current state he was in. *Ucchan's it is then...* He continued on in silence, the equations that usually floated in his mind pushed back for the moment...
His attention was completely on Hiroshi.

* * * * *

Ukyou flipped an Okonomiyaki, which landed neatly on the plate she'd set on the counter.
With a smile she turned around to her customer. "Will there be anything else, Sir?"
"No, I think this will do just fine, young lady," The elderly gentleman intoned. He poked the Okonomiyaki experimentally, then decided to try and take a bite.
Ukyou smiled and turned back to her grill. She glanced sideways at Konatsu, who was busy taking some more customers orders.
Ukyou thought back to her childhood, when her father had taught her how to cook. It had been one of the few joys she had had, since she was forced to hide her true sex from everyone around her at her parents demand.
Honor was never easy... Ukyou had learned that lesson the hard way.
Her mind, as would be the case, wandered back to the source of her troubles. Ranma Saotome. At times she could just kill him...
Then there were the other times... the times when he shared something personal with her, when there was a strange closeness that startled her.
*Ranma, you drive me crazy...* Ukyou shook her head, a blissful smile playing on her lips as she imagined a life with Ranma as his wife.
Ukyou frowned a moment later, realizing again that her engagement had been anulled by Ranma's Mother. Ukyou didn't like the woman. She didn't hate her, but there was a hard air that disturbed Ukyou. It made the Chef wonder what troubles Mrs. Saotome's life had presented her after her Son's departure.
A loud thump on the counter caused Ukyou to blink, then look back at the source of the noise.
Hiroshi was motionless, his head set on the bar and apparently asleep.
"Don't mind him, he's under a lot of stress," Daisuke sat next to his comrade, a somewhat bored look on his face.
"Hello, Dai. Care to explain why one of my regulars is using this place as a nap area?" Ukyou poked Hiroshi with a small spatula, which caused him to emit a muffled word which sounded like 'Ranma'.
"Well, he said he had to come talk to you about something. Personally, I'm more worried about his health," Daisuke drummed his fingers on the table, wondering when he was going to get back home.
Ukyou looked at Hiroshi. "I guess I know what you mean. He doesn't look too well. Do you know why?" Ukyou turned back to the grill as Konatsu handed her a piece of paper with an order on it.
"Well... I'm not sure, but I'm pretty sure it's a girl. I've never seen him this bad about a girl, though..." Dai poked Hiroshi, then poked him harder.
Hiroshi blinked and then sat up, rubbing his eyes. "Times'it?" Hiroshi looked around with a puzzled look on his face. "Were'm I?" He mumbled.
"In my Restaurant, sugar. Your friend said you were going to talk to me about something," Ukyou spoke while she poured the batter on the grill. Hiroshi looked around, and then realized who had spoke and where he was.
"Sorry, Ukyou. I've been having some trouble lately...," Hiroshi sighed heavily.
"Whoever she is, I hope she's worth it... for your sake. Did I mention you look like you had a run in with several cars?" Ukyou smirked slightly. Hiroshi blushed at her comment about his girl-trouble.
"You... told her, didn't you Dai?" Hiroshi glared at his friend as best he could. Dai simply shrugged and grinned.
"Hey, I'm worried about you. I've got a right to be, you Baka, I mean what self-respecting fool runs himself down because of a girl? Personally, you should tell her and get it over with," Dai shook his head, wondering why Hiroshi would put himself in such a spot.
"You sound like my Sister. She told me to tell her... but I just can't. There's a lot you don't know, Dai," Hiroshi sighed wearily. He wished it could be as simple as Daisuke thought it was.... but nothing with Ranma ever was.
"I'm sure there is, but Hi... you can't keep going on like this! It's tearing you up," Daisuke was frustrated that he couldn't seem to convince Hiroshi to either give up on the girl, or tell her how he felt. *Maybe it really IS Love gone Sour.*
"I'm not too interested in the topic of discussion, as I'm wondering what you came here to tell me..." Ukyou finished the Okonomiyaki and slapped them on a plate, ringing a bell for Konatsu to come and deliver it to her customers. "... But I think I understand Hiroshi's dillemma. Dai, if you'd ever loved someone... you'd know how hard it is to tell them how you feel. I also agree with you, though... and Hiroshi, you really should do something about this soon. I mean, you haven't even ordered anything!" Ukyou noted playfully.
Hiroshi smiled a bit, adding a slight sparkle to his eyes again. "You're right, Ukyou. I'll have the Special #2...," Ukyou nodded and turned back to the grill.
"Fine, be that way, don't even ask the poor.. starving... super-genius if HE wants anything. No! No! I'm fine, just go about your lives and forget the hungry Daisuke...." Hiroshi laughed a bit and slapped his friend on the shoulder.
"Same for Dai, Ukyou. I came to talk to you about Ranma," Ukyou paused in her cooking to look over her shoulder... there was an uncomfortable silence from the Chef before she responded.
"What about Ranchan? Is he okay?" Ukyou had been worried over her Ranchan... she had been uncomfortable explaining the differences he'd been exhibiting to him.
Hiroshi nodded, "She's fine... I was wondering if you would do something. Ranma wanted to make a team challenge to Akane... something of my idea."
Ukyou finished and put the two orders on a plate, handing them to her friends. "So, you want me to team up with Ranchan, or Akane?" Ukyou paused for a moment, "Exactly what type of Challenge is this?"
"For the first question, Akane. For the second, It's a challenge of Cullinary Cuisine. I was thinking You, Shampoo, Akane, and Kasumi would team up against Ranma, her Mother, and Memeko... my Sister," Ukyou gave Hiroshi an astonished look, then looked at him like he was crazy.
"You can't expect me to team up with Akane for this contest... She's probably the worst cook in history. And Shampoo? No offense, but our personalities conflict," Ukyou scoffed at the Notion, and Daisuke suppressed a laugh.
"She's got a point, you know. Her and Shampoo don't exactly mix very well, Kinda like Acids and Bases," Daisuke chuckled for a moment.
Hiroshi just looked from Daisuke to Ukyou and smiled. "I think you'll all behave yourselves in front of Kasumi. From what I'm aware of, nobody would want to get Kasumi mad at them, much less any of you three," Hiroshi grinned when Ukyou responded with silence.
"Touche, Mon Capitan. And Point for Hiroshi, that's game!" Daisuke smiled and dug into his Okonomiyaki. "Join us next time for more excitement in the Sport of Arguing! Game tickets Void if Not Prohibited," Hiroshi chuckled at his friends tangent.
"So, you said Ranchan thought it would be a good idea?" Ukyou considered the plan for a moment. She didn't especially hate Shampoo or Akane, and Kasumi she could deal with anytime. Why NOT participate? Besides... she might be able to impress her Ranchan by teaching Akane how to cook. *If that's even a possibility* Ukyou noted.
"I wouldn't have proposed the Idea if Ranma hadn't okayed it. So, whadda ya say?" Hiroshi poked his Okonomiyaki, waiting for a response. *Why are you doing this? I mean, won't this smooth things over between Ranma and Akane?*
*Because Ranma deserves happiness... She deserves so much more than what I can give her.* Hiroshi shook off his own thoughts, waiting for a response from Ukyou.
The Chef thought for another moment, and then nodded her head. "All right, for Ranchan's sake... I don't want Akane to poison him. Maybe I'll be able to help Akane learn about cooking in the process. She's a nice girl, and means well..." Ukyou had always respected Akane, in a way, putting up with all the things that happened.
Not to mention Mount Phoenix. Ukyou still couldn't let herself believe that Ranma did, in fact, Love Akane. Didn't they quarrel all the time?
*That's not important, though. Ranchan's happiness is important... and if he wants to marry a violent, self-absorbed girl, I'll just have to do my best to keep her from killing him*
"Great, then! It's decided, Oh, and Ukyou? Thanks for the food...," Hiroshi stood up and turned to leave.
"HEY! Aren't you even going to wait for me? *Munch Munch Munch*" Daisuke rapidly tried to finish his Okonomiyaki.
"Hiroshi," Hiroshi turned at Ukyou's call.
"Yeah?"
"Please take care of yourself. You're friendship is very important to Ranchan... and me as well. I'd hate to see that suffer because of some girl," Ukyou turned back to her grill after her words, and didn't catch the forlorn look in Hiroshi's eyes.

"I know, Ukyou. I hope things never change between all of us...," Hiroshi turned away, just as Daisuke was picking up his coat. He whispered silently, almost to himself, "... I'm just afraid that I can't stop things from changing..."

* * * * *

"Yes, Ranma?" Nodoka was busy preparing for that nights meal, trying to decide what they were going to have.
"I was wantin' to talk to you... er.... about somethin'" Ranma rubbed the back of her head.
"Manners, young lady. Talk maturely, and stop using rough Japanese," Nodoka absently murmured.
" Er... sorry. Actually, that's kind of what I wanted to talk to you about," Ranma leaned against the kitchen wall as her Mother looked up curiously.
"Pardon? About what?" Nodoka decided to drop her current preparations for the moment in order to give her daughter her fulll attention.
"Well... I mean... Ucchan was talking to me today, and told me some stuff...," Ranma deliberately averted her eyes from her Mother's gaze. Nodoka noted this.
"And what... stuff... would that be, Ranma?" Nodoka walked around the stove and up to her Daughter, taking the apron off.
"Well... I mean, she said I was acting like a girl a lot lately, and showed me that I was walking funny and talking funny...," Ranma looked up unsurely at her Mother. Nodoka had a calm look on her face.
"I... understand. The sway and the lilt?" Ranma nodded at Nodoka's words, blushing furiously in the process.
"Here, let us retire to my room to talk about this," Nodoka hung the apron on the hook and walked by her daughter. Ranma quietly followed her Mother upstairs.
The room was well furnished, with new curtains for the window and sheets for the bed. There was also a faint perfume smell to the air that Ranma liked.
"What is that? The smell?" Ranma asked, a bit unsurely.
"Roses, dear," Nodoka smiled a bit as she spoke, "Do you like it?"
Ranma stayed silent, which brought a frown to Nodoka's face. The blush only further troubled Ranma's Mother.
Nodoka took a seat on her bed, and patted her hand beside her. It took several moments before Ranma guessed she was supposed to sit.
Ranma decided that she'd waited long enough, and the silence was eating at her sanity, "Mom... I don't like walking around looking and acting like a girl. It's embarrassing!"
"I'm sure it is, if you're embarrassed about this side of your body. Why should you feel prideful in how beautiful you are as a girl? That would be wrong... wouldn't it?" Nodoka never liked being so forceful to her daughter. She didn't like the fact that her only son was having a personality conflict that was entirely her fault, and she definitely was not fond of the idea that her son was the one she was forced to train in the feminine arts.
Ranma locked her hands together, and stared at the ground. "I don't like being a girl, Mom. It's not me... I know I'm good-looking as a girl, but I don't like this curse in the first place," Ranma looked up at her Mother. "Are you... mad?"
Nodoka stared at her Daughter for a long moment, thinking to herself. If there had been different circumstances... she might have reacted differently to their reunion. She loved her son fiercely... but seeing Ranma as a man had startled Nodoka. It sometimes made her uneasy, as if Ranma's girl-half was the real Ranma.
After all, Nodoka had come to know the girl-side of Ranma over the past six months... it was only natural that she find that side more comfortable to live with.
"No, Ranma, I'm not mad at you. I'm mostly angry at myself for being too forceful in your training... I had thought that if you dressed like a girl that you might find some of it more acceptable... but that bottomed out in our compromise.
Ranma, you know I love you. Son, or Daughter. You have to understand how hard this is for me to accept.... I didn't have so many friends with similar curses or crazy beings coming after me to prepare me for you. It's not easy trying to cope with the adopted daughter I lost and the Son I gained. I suppose, in some ways, I miss Ranko Tendo," Nodoka sighed heavily, wondering if she was ever to get over that loss.
"Before I found out, I was dead set on making her a 'Proper' lady... and that's why you ended up swaying your hips, and speaking softly like a girl... as well as some other things," Ranma nodded her head, not having to ask what those other things are.
"Mom, all I'm asking is that you Love me for who I am, and not try and make me into who you want me to be. Dad tried that for too many years... and I'm not especially grateful to him for the things he did," Ranma stood up, walking towards the door.
"Just let me be me, and I'll love you for you. That's the way things should work, according to Hiroshi," Ranma smiled a bit as she spoke.
Nodoka nodded, then laughed lightly. Ranma gave her a puzzled look.
"You seem to talk a lot about Hiroshi. I've never seen two friends as close as you two," Nodoka stood and walked over to her daughter.
Ranma beamed a bit, "Yeah, I mean... Hi cursed himself just to understand how I felt. He's helped me out of binds I couldn't figure, and every time I've needed someone to talk to.... he's always been there. He's a great guy," Ranma walked down the hallway, retreating down the stairs and to the living room.
Nodoka was about to follow, but paused for a moment. There was this nagging feeling in the back of her head that there was something more to Hiroshi's relationship with Ranma...
Nodoka, being of a busy mind, labeled the thought and put it in a shelf behind the rest of her work. Things had to be done, and dwelling on thoughts wouldn't get them finished.
Ranma yelled back up the stairs, "OH! AND MOM? I WANNA TALK TO YOU 'BOUT SOMETHING!"
"Keep talking in slang, and I'll wrap your knuckles!" Nodoka made sure she was loud enough for Ranma to hear.

* * * * *

"A cooking challenge? Are you SURE you're up to it Sis?" Nabiki Tendo had spent years growing up with Akane, and only recently discovered her ineptness at cooking. She wasn't especially sure if Akane's food was alive or dead sometimes.
Akane shook her hand in a nonchalant gesture, "It's okay, Nabiki... I know I need some work, But it's Ranma's idea!" Akane couldn't understand why nobody wanted to believe that she had been challenged to a cook-out.
Nabiki raised an eyebrow, "Are you SURE he's got all his brains about him? Not sick, is he? Under the control of one of Kodachi's brews?"
Akane glared at her sister, "I hope you're joking, Nabiki, because I'm not laughing."
Nabiki shrugged, finally sure that Akane was serious. *But WHY would Ranma sentence himself to such a slow death?* Nabiki couldn't fathom the concept. She couldn't even imagine Ranma asking such a thing.
"Besides.... I'll be teamed up with Ukyou, Shampoo, and Kasumi," Nabiki was baffled yet again at her little sister's words.
"You mean.... they actually agreed to cook WITH you?" Nabiki received a burning cold glare from Akane that would stop Saffron in his tracks.
"Okay! Okay! I get you... so it'll be a team thing?" Akane nodded, relaxing her expression from intent-of-murder to say-anything-else-and-you'll-be-feeling-it-for-a-week. Nabiki suddenly formed an idea, which is not too inordinate for one with such a quick wit. "Hey... would you mind if I sold tickets?"
Akane couldn't hide her smirk. "I guess it'd be fine... I mean, Ranma really doesn't care about it."
"You mean you actually asked him about me selling tickets? I'm surprised, Akane. Neither of you have shown this much ingenuity in a long time.... and actually, none for Ranma," Nabiki laughed silently to herself. Who would have thought that the Saotome boy could have come up with such a brilliant plan?
*Then again.... maybe not...* Nabiki's inner voice somehow told her someone else had proposed the idea to Ranma.
"Very funny, Nabiki... Hiroshi called and said that both Ukyou and Shampoo agreed, after some persuasion. Ranma said Kasumi and Mrs. Saotome were a bit surprised at being asked... but were very excited about the idea." Akane was surprised that they had all agreed, and wondered exactly what Hiroshi had said to her two Rivals to get them to accept.
*Ask and you shall be answered...* Nabiki smiled as she placed who would have been most likely to cook up an idea. Hiroshi was very perceptive, and would most likely be the only one to try and help Ranma out of the trouble with Akane.
Hiroshi had been very involved with the Tendo's lately, mostly because of Ranma. Something bugged Nabiki about Hiroshi... but she couldn't place it. She also couldn't understand why this feeling had started just a few weeks prior. After all, Hiroshi had grown up with the Tendos.... his Sister, Memeko, was an old High-School buddy of Kasumi's.
Nabiki was naturally a rational woman, who could out think most people. The only problem is, Hiroshi was first among his class... he was well known, popular, and caring for his fellow students. Hiroshi had an abstract mind that Nabiki found it hard to intimidate... much less outwit.
For instance, Hiroshi's condemnation of himself with the Nyannichuan curse the week prior. Nabiki would have never guessed that anyone would actually take it upon themselves to share in a curse...
"I get the impression you're not listening to a word I'm saying Nabiki," Akane folded her arms under her breasts and glared at her older Sister.
Nabiki smiled a bit. "You're right... I'm too busy thinking why Hiroshi would suggest this plan to Ranma," Akane flinched in surprise at the words.
"Hiroshi? What does he have to-" Nabiki shook her head sadly at her Sister's Naivete.
"Ranma wouldn't have thought this up by himself... I personally believe that Hiroshi suggested the idea to him," Akane's surprised look changed to one of slight anger.
"You mean he didn't think this up by himself?" Akane couldn't believe the gall of Ranma, trying to take all the credit for his friends idea.
"Whoa, Akane.... Hiroshi was just trying to help Ranma out, no need to get angry because it wasn't Ranma's idea in the first place. Besides, Hiroshi probably doesn't mind being left out of the credit," Akane blinked again. It never ceased to amaze her when it seemed like her sister could read her thoughts.
Akane thought for a moment. *True... it's not Ranma's fault he's a bit slow on the uptake. I suppose I should forgive him this time...* Akane had come to like Ranma... there was still so much she didn't know.
There had been a time not long ago when she had thought that Ranma was simply a jerk, and couldn't see past the superficial machismo that Ranma put on for the rest of the world. Then Ranma had opened up... it had only taken once for her to realize her grave error in misjudging him.
Ranma had confessed fears she had no knowledge of. Over the past few days, as she talked to him... she had learned that there was a tumultuous tempest resting beneath those blue eyes. Ranma was a creature of many secret torments.
Lost in thought, Akane murmured a quick thanks to Nabiki and left for the bathroom.
Ranma had changed, too... so subtly, yet perceptably. Akane found him more sensitive to her feelings, not so harsh in his responses. Sometimes, he lapsed back into his role as the super-masculine jerk she had first known... but not as often anymore.
Akane unbuttoned her blouse and pulled it over her head.
Why was it so hard to show her feelings to Ranma? He'd begun showing her some of his secret thoughts... why couldn't she warm up to the idea of...
Loving him?
Akane slid out of her skirt, and unfastened her bra. She stared at it a moment, a memory of earlier that day floating through her mind.
*You've grown an inch in the bust and waist...* Tofu's words echoed in Akane's mind. He had been speaking to Ranma, but it had shaken Akane more than it had the young Saotome Boy.
Akane took her panties off, dumping the clothes in the bin. She looked at herself in the mirror. She had been growing, too.
How could Ranma call her a tomboy? She'd been.... filling out since Ranma had arrived. She was almost Seventeen, her figure didn't do much to hide the fact she was becoming a beautiful woman.
*You remind me of your Mother sometimes, Akane. You all seem to be growing up so fast... it breaks an old man's heart...* Her father had said those words only once or twice without breaking down into tears.
*But... Ranma is so much better looking than me. Her figure is... so much fuller.* Akane sighed. Her jealousy hadn't been what had bothered her from Tofu's comment. That had come later.
Sure, Akane had never been as full in the breast area as Ranma, or as wide in the hips. Her build was more athletic.
She was becoming a woman... it was the natural course of things. As the days crept by, and Ranma's relationship with her grew... she had begun dreaming of marrying him... having children, and raising a family.
Odd dreams for her, but that was what women did.
What bothered her the most... was that Ranma was becoming a woman too. The curse had disturbed her, even alarmed her at times... but she had learned to ignore it to a degree.
It startled her back into admission that Ranma's girl-half was actually growing up.... blossoming into a woman, just like Akane. What was worse was that Ranma had taken the news in stride... his curse no longer bothered him.
Akane shook her head, wrenching her gaze from her body. She opened the bathtub door and walked in. She quietly approached the faucet, running her thoughts over in her mind, and turned it on. She waited patiently for the bath to fill.

Her thoughts kept her company with uncomfortable solace.

* * * * *

Daisuke fumbled with the key in the lock, then finally sighed as he heard a click. *You can build a Chaometer... but you can't fix a door-knob. Daisuke, you are a genius!* He murmured sarcastically in his mind.
"Mom! Pop! I'm home from Communist China! Did you miss me?" Of Course, Daisuke knew there would be no answer. His father was probably down at the bar, and his Mother was most likely out somewhere.
*You lead a lonely life, Daisuke Nakano. One that does not rest easily upon your shoulders...*
"Ami! Lights please!" Suddenly the cluttered house was illuminated with fluorescent brilliance. The house seemed as random as an abstract mind could fathom... things littered the ground and counters ranging from experimental devices, to beer cans and potatoe chip bags.
**I've missed you, Daisuke. Why were you gone so long?** A disembodied female voice intoned. The soft lull of the AI comforted Daisuke.
"Long story.... I'm sorry, Ami-chan. If it makes you feel better, I missed you too," Daisuke sighed as he tossed his black dress-jacket across the arm of the couch.
**Is it Hiroshi Again?** Ami's voice was slightly coated with concern. Daisuke nodded and rubbed his temples, almost falling on the couch.
"It's a girl again. I don't know who it is, but I must know her... Hiroshi's really bad," Daisuke sometimes pondered why he spoke to Ami.... she had originally been a random program variance he had stumbled upon... now she was more. She was a friend.
**Perhaps, if you provided some data about the subject.... I might be able to discern from prior visits recently who it might be.** Ami almost sounded as concerned as Daisuke. It surprised the young teenage prodigy.
Daisuke thought over the matter, then shook his head slowly. "No, it's Hi's business. If he wants to keep it secret, then I'll respect his wishes. I'm not a snoop, like a certain Nabiki Tendo," Daisuke chuckled. Nabiki had once made it her personal mission to find out what little gadgets Daisuke was keeping hidden... basically on a bet from one of her classmates.
She'd been more than a little surprised to encounter Ami. Ami had been more than a little upset.
There was a faint tone of humor in Ami's voice as she spoke. **As you wish, Dai. I must note, however, that I also am concerned with Hiroshi's welfare. He has been a good friend, and has provided me with some intellectual paradox's that I'm not sure I understand.**
"Like what?" Daisuke asked, sitting up. He'd never actually heard Ami talk about what Hi and she had conversed about. Hiroshi had never been much inclined to tell Daisuke.
**Such as the concept of Love. It is a confusing emotion, of which I am unsure of the meaning. Why would one be willing to endure possible termination at the expense of another sentient? It is confusing.... yet he spoke with such conviction on his last visit.**
Daisuke did a double take. "Pardon? He talked to you day before yesterday?" Daisuke hadn't begun worrying until Hiroshi had come by two days ago, looking and acting depressed beyond words.
**Why, Yes. He used your Cerebro-Circlet. I was aware he had asked permission.... you mean he hadn't?** Ami sounded a bit embarrassed, and more than a little confused.
"No... geez, he must really have it bad to talk to you and not me. Man.... I wonder if Ranma knows..." Daisuke had been a middle man recently.... Hiroshi had been spending a lot of time with Ranma, and he'd been left out of Memeko's cooking more than once.
**Most Likely not, Dai. I have.... certain knowledge about the girl in question. Ranma most likely does not know... but it involves him greatly.** Ami sounded a bit unsure.
Daisuke thought about the words. *Could Hiroshi be... in Love with... ?* Daisuke discarded the idea. *Hi can't be fool enough to fall in love with HER. Ranma would kill him!*
"I pray, Ami, that it's not who I think it is," Daisuke yawned. "It's been a long day, Ami.... could you shut the lights? I need some think-sleep...,"

**As you wish, Dai.**

* * * * *

"Hiya! Is good day for cooking, Yes?" Shampoo strolled down the calm Nerima street with a bounce in her step.
"I guess so, Shampoo. I still don't understand what that Hiroshi boy said to convince you to help Akane Tendo.... Cook," Mousse was a bit baffled by the event. Hiroshi had somehow convinced Mousse's wife to help a once bitter-rival with her cooking. On top of that, Akane's cooking was legendary among the district. Only Ryouga Hibiki could withstand the vile substance.
Shampoo smacked her husband swiftly upside the head. "Silly Mousse... I no help Akane cook. I team with her so beat Ranma team. Maybe if I help, she get better and not poison Ranma so," Shampoo continued to stroll down the road, not a care in her world. After all, she had her restaurant... she had her man... and she had her happiness.
What more was to be asked for?
Mousse rubbed the back of his head, still wondering what would possess his darling Shampoo to try and create the impossible. Edible Akane Tendo food.
Mousse decided to change the subject to a more casual note. "I'm still sorting through Cologne's books and baubles. I never realized that she had so many odds and ends... there's things about the tribe in those texts that I don't remember reading in school..."
Shampoo nodded, getting a slightly thoughtful look on her face. "Great Grandmother was Princess of Amazon Tribe long ago, she know many thing that others in tribe not. I not surprised that there things about tribe we not know," Shampoo had always feared Cologne for that reason.
Knowledge was power, and power was dangerous if not handled properly. Cologne knew many things that she could not begin to understand.
"I... not want to speak about Great Grandmother right now. Is too painful...," Shampoo looked down at the cement, her shame washing over her again.
How could she have chosen Mousse over the Tribe? Her home.... her family... they would never accept her again. She had been outcast...
Mousse suddenly realized the old wound he'd opened. Shampoo had tried to put her banishment from her mind.
Mousse had learned to live with the disgrace of being a failure, but Shampoo had been the pride of Niie Chiezu, Princess of the Joketsuzoku Amazons, Heir to Cologne's knowledge and wisdom.
"I'm sorry... Shampoo," Mousse felt ashamed himself, for broaching the subject.
Shampoo looked up at Mousse. The boy's glasses had been pocketed and his brilliant blue eyes seemed to shine like sapphires in the sun. *He is sometimes so handsome... so brave... perhaps I know how I could have chosen. Perhaps it was never a decision... Mu Tsu...* Shampoo had realized that she had slowly fallen in love with Mousse.
He had never much impressed her... though he had tried. Perhaps she liked him for the simple fact that he wasn't the best... but he was Mousse, and refused to change for anyone else. They had been childhood friends, and then Mousse had fallen hard for his Purple haired Princess...
*Why did he try so hard? Why was I never able to crush his advances? ...* Shampoo realized that Mousse had something in his heart stronger than any Martial Art. Love... and Hope.
"Mousse... I Love you," Shampoo murmured quietly. It brought the smile back to Mousse's face. *He looks so handsome sometimes...*
"Thank you, Shampoo. I Love you too...," Mousse stood taller, then. As if he could carry the weight of the world on his shoulders, move mountains with his bare hands.
"We at Dojo!" Shampoo stopped and knocked on the door. Kasumi answered a moment later.
"Why, Hello Shampoo! It's been a while... how have you been?" Kasumi Tendo, the unshakeable beacon of light in the tumultuous chaos of Nerima ward. Shampoo had always envied the girl for her quaint vigil against the storm, and wondered how she could keep sane in the simple insanity of Ranma's life.
"Is Okay. Neko-Hanten run fine, is good business lately. Mousse help much, and we happy!" Shampoo smiled at the end, and wrapped an arm around Mousse, resting her head on his shoulder.
"Why, that's good to hear! It's been quiet around here recently... except for the other night when Ranma and Akane had a little spat. I'm assuming you're here for the Cuisine Team Match?" Kasumi smiled when Shampoo nodded. The Eldest Tendo girl opened the door and gestured for them to enter.
Shampoo and Mousse bowed slightly then slid off their shoes, placing them by the door.
"Things seem to have calmed down a little since Aquarius left, Ne?" Kasumi nodded her head at Mousse's comment, thinking quietly to herself.
"Yes... I've almost gotten used to the fast-paced life that Ranma brought to the dojo. Doesn't seem right, being so quiet all of a sudden. But, no use complaining about a good thing! Excuse me, I'll be back in a moment," Kasumi walked upstairs with a smile on her face.
"She right you know. It strange nothing odd happen, I almost miss," Shampoo sighed and took a seat at the table.
Genma was seated on the other side, in deep thought he didn't notice the two who had joined him.
Mousse studied Genma for a moment. The man had been nigh absent of most talk since Nodoka had returned, or so Ranma had told him. Mousse wondered if perhaps it was some form of punishment for his misdeeds to Ranma over the years.
Genma seemed to look up at Mousse. "I know why Shampoo is here, but why are you?"
Mousse thought about the question a moment. "I suppose because The Nekohanten is closed this late, and perhaps because I'm married to Shampoo."
"Ahh... I'd almost forgotten. So, how do you like the married life?" Genma let a small smile creep into his face.
Mousse shrugged. "I'm with Shampoo. I'm happy," Mousse looked over at Shampoo, who seemed busy in thought herself.
"Careful, or they might turn on you. I know how it is, that's why I took Ranma at such a young age. Couldn't let the boy be pampered and bossed around..." Genma grumbled the second half.
"So... you took him with *You*?" Mousse grinned from ear to ear. *Not bossed, eh?*
Genma leaned closer to Mousse. "Are you trying to insinuate that I run my boy's life for him?!"
Mousse shrugged again.
"Listen here... he needed discipline, Discipline! You must have a firm grasp on Discipline to understand the Art!
His morals would have been corrupted if he'd remained with-" Genma was suddenly on the ground, Ranma's elbow pinning him to the floor.
"Riiiight, Pop! That's why you took me to China, Dumped me in a pool, Knocked someone ELSE into another, and almost got me killed in an Amazon Tribe! That's discipline, all right! Why, I'm surprised my morals weren't corrupted by YOU!" Ranma ground her elbow into Genma's back.
Genma rolled, grabbing Ranma's hand by the wrist and twisting slightly. "Boy! I did everything in my Ability to make you a Man among Men!"
"You mean you did EVERYTHING in your ability to Humiliate me! Not to MENTION turning me into a Woman HALF THE TIME!!!!" Ranma lifted Genma up and threw him against the wall with her free hand.
"DON'T TALK TO YOUR FATHER THAT WAY!! SHOW SOME RESPECT, BOY!!!" Genma growled.
"Do I look Like a Boy to you?" The comment stopped Genma dead. Ranma had said it with a flat tone, almost like a threat... but the simple statement had cut through Genma's mind like a leather whip.
"I show respect where it's do, Pop. Maybe you'll earn it back someday," Ranma sat down Across from Shampoo. Genma looked down at his hands, as if wondering why there was no answer within them. After a moment, he wandered upstairs, a slump in his shoulders.
"That was uncalled for, Ranma," Akane's voice echoed from the door. Ranma folded her hands in her lap.
"It shut him up, Didn't it?" Ranma looked up at Mousse and Shampoo.
"Your Father hasn't had it easy with your Mother since she found out. He cares about you more than you think... you could have just shattered his hope," Akane silently walked in, a grim look on her face.
"Why should I let him have any, Akane?!" Ranma stood up abruptly, "He destroyed mine!! He ruined my Life! He destroyed MY hope! Why should I be more merciful?!" Ranma fumed. She had thought she was over her anger
with Genma...
"Ranma... you told me you'd forgiven your Father for some of the things he'd done," Akane was slightly worried about Ranma. He had seemed a bit uneasy since coming home from school.
"I know, Akane... 'S just... I'm...." Ranma thought a moment. "Sorry."
Mousse and Shampoo were slightly stunned, having seen Genma and Ranma argue before. There seemed to be, this time, a bitter sense of condemnation in the way Ranma had talked down to her Old Man.
It was as if, with a sudden violent act, the relationship between father and son had worsened to a point they had never experienced. Ranma sounded restless, angry, but mostly tired.
"Is okay for Shampoo talk?" The Purple haired Amazon warily asked, suddenly quite afraid of Ranma's demeanor.
"Go ahead! I could care less!" Ranma stormed upstairs. For several moments the three were stunned. Something that was usually Akane's words had just been uttered by Ranma.
Akane slowly sat down where Ranma had been moments before. "Look, Shampoo... I'm sorry about that. I don't know what's gotten into Ranma today," Akane looked back up the stairs, almost regretfully.
"Is okay... I think Ranma just have too much trouble recently," Shampoo looked up the stairs for a moment as well, a bit of concern in her demeanor.
Akane shook her head. "No... something's bugging him, and I don't know what. He was fine until today, but since I've been home he's been a bit upset for some reason. I'll have to talk to him...," Akane wondered to herself if, perhaps, Tofu's news had gotten to Ranma more than she realized.
"I hate to Interrupt, Akane-San... but perhaps we should discuss the Cooking Contest. After all, that *is* why we are here," Mousse pulled his glasses from his sleeves and donned them. He produced several jars from his voluminous robes as well.
Akane looked at each jar. One Blue, One Red, One a brownish color, and one painted white.
"Shampoo bring some Chinese spices, so make food with little bit of zing!" Shampoo arranged the Four jars on the table, lining them up neatly.
"Uh.... thanks, I think. What exactly are they?" Akane opened one of the jars and pinched a fine powder. It's smell caused her head to tingle faintly.
Shampoo smiled her sly smile. "Is secret Herbs that only Niie Chiezu know of... very hard to find, but make for good eating," Shampoo closed the jar Akane had opened and looked back at the youngest Tendo girl. "So, what we cook?"
"WE'LL be cooking a variety of things... as each of us has our own specialty," Ukyou Kuonji stepped down the stairs, Kasumi hot on her heels.
Shampoo glared for a moment at Ukyou. "Nihao, Spatula Girl," Shampoo wasn't too happy with the Okonomiyaki cook... the Neko-Hanten's business had been going slow lately, and some of Shampoo's regulars had decided on the Ucchan since Cologne left.
Ukyou blinked slightly from the gaze shot her way. "Uhm... hello, Shampoo. Could you, maybe, call me Ukyou?"
"Why I should do that? We rivals, and it not easy keeping business running without Great Grandmother...," Shampoo looked over at Mousse, who looked at Akane, who looked at Kasumi, who looked at Ukyou then Shampoo.
"Please, ladies. We'll be spending a lot of time together in the coming weeks... and I had hoped we might get along. It might be best, Shampoo, if you put your Restaurant Rivalry on the backburner for the moment, and try to work with us instead of against eachother," Kasumi put a book on the table. Akane stared at it with wide eyes for a moment before looking back up at her Sister.
"Mother's Recipes, Kasumi?" Mrs. Tendo's personal books had been untouched by any but Kasumi... who was herself reluctant to try and live up to her Mother's memory.
Mrs. Tendo had been one of the finest chef's in Nerima, but had never wanted anything more than to make her family happy. The Dojo produced more than enough income to sustain the family, so she had never thought of opening a restaurant.... though her friends had urged her.
Akane had heard the story from Kasumi, who was old enough to remember a lot about their Mother....
The recipes had been placed on a shelf, and untouched since Mrs. Tendo had been admitted to the hospital.
Kasumi nodded, half to herself. "I thought that Mother might want us to use some of them... if we'll be working
together." Kasumi smiled brightly then looked up at Akane. "She would be proud of you for your vigilance, Akane. Perhaps with her help, we can make you one of the best."
Akane blushed slightly, unsure of what to say. On the one hand, Kasumi had just told her inadvertently that her cooking wasn't on par with anyone's in the room. On the other, Kasumi seemed proud of Akane for undertaking the trial.
Shampoo dropped a large book on the table also. "Is Chinese Amazon book of Ingredients.... has many directions for many different foods and how to spice. Is good, no?" Shampoo didn't know much about cooking... only so much as Cologne had taught her. Still, that was more than most people needed to know.
Shampoo's specialty, however, was the delicacies of spicing the food.
Kasumi picked up the book, looking through it for a moment, then set it down next to Mrs. Tendo's. "This is very good, Shampoo. I'm looking forward to working with you... as I'm sure Akane and Ukyou are," Akane seemed indifferent to the statement, Ukyou seemed reluctant.
Mousse silently watched, just happy to be with his Shampoo. Ideas coalescing in his mind of different courses and foods.
"I don't have a book... all my Recipes are up here," Ukyou pointed to her head, then finally took a seat, realizing they would be there for a while.
"That's all right, Ukyou. Not everyone has to write their secrets down. In fact, sometimes it's safer not to," Kasumi smiled a secret smile, which Ukyou seemed to find familiar. Perhaps Kasumi had secrets of her own?
A low whistle echoed from the kitchen, and Kasumi looked at Mousse, "Mousse, could you be ever so kind and fetch the tea for us? Oh, and some glasses too?" Mousse nodded, he stood and bowed, then hurried off to the kitchen.

"Well then. Let us begin...," Akane got the feeling from Kasumi's words that this was going to be a long ordeal.

* * * * *

Ranma strode silently on the fence. His Mother walked on the sidewalk beside him, carrying a basket of various things.
Events flashed through his mind. Ukyou's revelations in the hallway, Tofu's proclamation at the clinic... he began to wonder. What was happening to him?
*Could Akane be right? Have I spent... Eleven days as a girl since that fight?* Ranma thought back through his mind, and found only four times when he had turned back to his male self. Including minutes before they had left the Dojo.
Nodoka sensed there was something wrong with Ranma... and had been stopped by Akane before they had left. Akane had relayed the fight between Ranma and his father to her, surprising Nodoka with the vehement anger that Ranma had shown.
Then Akane had told Nodoka about Ranma's growth.... that his female half was actually growing up. Nodoka had waivered, at that point, on her decision to train Ranma in the feminine arts.
*Perhaps it would have been best...* Nodoka thought absently as she looked up at her son, *...If I had left well enough alone.*
Ranma was deep in his own thought. Hiroshi's depression.... the news about his female half... the fight the night before. It all seemed like a certain day weeks ago, when things had changed drastically.
Hiroshi, in his own way, had comforted Ranma with his honesty and sincerity... and had been working since that day, 19 days ago, when Ranma had feared his life was falling apart.
*Have I really changed?* Ranma thought back to each night, and noticed small changes... very slight.... in his behavior as a girl. It was almost as if the curse had become natural to him, as if changing into a girl was something that he had grown used to.
Then there were thoughts.... that had been arising since his Mother had returned. His own mind had been a jumble of mixed emotions and confusion since Shampoo's marriage.
The more time he spent as a girl... the more he felt he didn't know himself. As if he had been playing a part for his entire life. It disturbed him sometimes... and it confused him.
The Silence wore on, and began to disturb Nodoka. She decided that her nervousness had become too great, and asked Ranma what she had been thinking about.
"Ranma?" She started warily.
Ranma stopped when he heard his Mother's voice. "Yeah, Mom?"
"Is there anything that is bothering you?" Nodoka was unsure of the reaction she would receive, and unsure what the answer would be when it came.
Ranma turned away from his mother, and looked down into the water, watching his reflection. "I don't know anymore." He was answering more than one question... many more.
Nodoka seemed to pick up on the confused feeling her Son was going through. "Why? Is it about some of the things that happened today?" Nodoka walked closer to the fence. Ranma gazed deeper into the reflection... trying to find some answer within the mocking image of his youthly face.
Ranma shook his head. "It's about a lot of things. The curse, I guess, would be one of the big ones. I'm confused, Mom.... about who I am. Tofu told me today.... that...," Ranma didn't finish, but looked up at the sky, blue as far as he could see... and the wind softly rustled his hair.
"You're female half is becoming a woman," Ranma turned his head slightly towards his mother. "Akane told me. Ranma...." Nodoka stepped slightly closer. "I cannot find your path for you, I can only give you what you need to make it down that path. Knowledge. If you wish to dislike me for.... training you, I will not object," Nodoka turned away, looking at the sky herself. *Why, Kami, does it always have to be so hard on him?*
Ranma turned and jumped down off the fence. "Mom... I could never hate you. I Love you too much. Maybe I'm just coming to realize that curses are only perceptions... and that my girl-side is as much a part of me as my guy-side. But... I got scared today. When Tofu said I needed to go buy a new... bra. When Ukyou said all those things... I suddenly felt like I was slipping away, becoming something I wasn't. It terrified me," Ranma began walking again.
It was moments before Nodoka realized this, and caught up to her son. Ranma had a thoughtul look on his face, as he looked up at the sky. Nodoka suddenly noticed that Hiroshi had a much similar look when he was simply wondering about life in general.
"You know somethin' though? Through all that Havoc and Chaos.... Hiroshi's stayed sane. He's been helping me in the hardest of times, when things seemed real bad. Most of all... he's told me that it's only important to be yourself. I feel more comfortable talking to Hiroshi.... you might say he's my shrink," Ranma laughed at the thought of Hiroshi as a psychiatrist.
Nodoka smiled a bit to herself. Hiroshi was a nice boy, gentle, kind, thoughtful, and observant. Nodoka wouldn't have her son if it hadn't been for Hiroshi's friendship with Ranma... such a strong bond cannot easily be overcome.
They walked on in silence, till they came to Hiroshi's house. They stopped for a moment, and then slowly walked up the drive.
Ranma was silent again, thinking to himself about all the times Hiroshi and he had laughed together, and told stories about their lives... revealed secrets in that Holiest of sanctums, the Vault. It seemed, to Ranma, that there was very little that he didn't know about Hiroshi. Vice Versa was also true.... Ranma found it hard thinking of new things to tell Hiroshi... so they usually discussed events of the week and rumors floating around.
Ranma stopped at the door, Nodoka a step and a half behind him. He knocked on the door.
A few minutes passed, where Ranma thought about what he was commiting himself to. *I can't believe I'm in a contest of cooking against Akane.... I must be out of my mind.* Was all he could think. Hiroshi's plan had sounded good... but the more he dwelt on it, the less he thought it might work. *Just wait... Akane, Ucchan, and Shampoo will be fighting before the day is out.*
There was a click from the door, and it opened. Kaehmi blinked for a bit in confusion, then smiled up at Ranma.
"Hey!! You're Hiroshi's friend! I haven't seen you in awhile," Kaehmi hugged the stuffed Cabbit to her chest as she looked up at the unfamiliar woman.
Nodoka offered a smile. "You must be Kaehmi-chan. Hello, I'm Nodoka," Nodoka offered her hand. Kaehmi stared at it for a moment, then back up at Nodoka's face.
She smiled a moment later. "You look kinda' like Auntie-Ranma!" The girl took Nodoka's hand and shook vigorously. "Pleased'ta'meetcha." Ranma blushed furiously, and Nodoka looked at her son and arched an eyebrow.
"That's because, Dear, I'm her Mother," Nodoka smiled down at the child. *So, this is the cute little girl Ranma is always going on about. What a darling child...* She had heard from Memeko, over phone-discussions, that Ranma had been taken by the little girl.
Kaehmi smiled up. "I fig-urd. Hey, do you wanna com'in?" Kaehmi tossed her Cabbit up into the air and caught it, and looked back up at Nodoka.
Ranma smiled a bit. "Actually... we came to talk to your Mommy, Kaehmi. Is she home?"
Kaehmi nodded, and opened the door some more. She motioned for them to come in. "She's been real busy with th' kitchen, and Hiroshi's been snoopin' and tellin' her what t'do. I tol' him to mind his biz-ness or he might get Momma angry. He seem's real excited 'bout somethin'," Kaehmi tossed her Cabbit in the air again, and caught it.
"Ranma?" Hiroshi stepped out into the hallway. He was dressed in an apron, with rubber gloves on his hands. He noticed Nodoka and blushed furiously. "Uh.... hi. I was just...."
"Doing a little cleaning. No need to be embarrassed, dear," Nodoka smirked slightly. Ranma chuckled a bit.
Hiroshi turned a bit more red. "Hey, I was cleaning up for you people. It's not every day that...." Hiroshi seemed to catch himself before saying something. "... That I get a visitor who's not Ranma or Daisuke. I wanted the place to look spotless...."
"Hey, 'Roshi. Don't worry about it, Man. We only came over to cook," Ranma slapped a hand on Hiroshi's shoulder. "Besides, I've seen your house before... and it wasn't all that dirty with Memeko around. Stop worrying yourself so much!"
Kaehmi nodded at Ranma's comment. "Yeah, Uncle 'Roshi. Momma hates t'see you all worked up... tha's why you're supposed to be sleepin'!"
Ranma glared at Hiroshi after Kaehmi's words. "Now listen to me, Man. You're goin' to go right upstairs and get into bed,"
"Ranma, I'm not tired." Hiroshi felt weary to the bone, but he couldn't sleep. He had to make sure everything went well.
"I don't want an argument out of you! Look at yourself, 'Roshi! It looks like you haven't gotten any sleep in days. I know you didn't get any last night.... or not much. Hey, jus' would you listen this once?" Ranma had a worried look on his face. Hiroshi had been beating his head against a wall about this girl, and it hurt Ranma that Hiroshi had to handle Ranma's problems on top of all that.
*He's a good friend.... but there's a point where helping me out is a bit much.*
Hiroshi sighed to himself. The worried look on Ranma's face seemed to drain the last energy out of his body.
"He's right, Hiroshi. You do not look so well, and I would wager you've got a fever from lack of a good appetite." Nodoka Paused for a moment in thought. "Here.... if you sleep, when you wake I'll have some hot Miso soup for you."
Hiroshi smiled a bit at the thought of Miso soup. "What can I say.... I guess I'm cornered. See you later..." Hiroshi pulled off the gloves and apron, and walked back into the kitchen to put them away. Moments later, he slowly walked upstairs.
"And you better be sleepin' or you're in trouble, Mister!" Kaehmi scolded, pointing a finger threateningly at Hiroshi. Ranma and Nodoka burst out laughing. Hiroshi smiled and continued on his way.
Kaehmi threw her Cabbit into the air again, catching it she winked at Ranma and walked into the living room.
"I'm worried about that Boy, Ranma. He seems to have lost that glimmer in his eyes when I last met him." Nodoka walked into the kitchen, and Ranma could hear her saying hello to Memeko.
He stared up the stairwell for what seemed like forever. *Sometimes... Hiroshi. I worry that things are too hard on you.... and it's all my fault.* Ranma shook his head. There wasn't much of a grounds on the assumption, but
Ranma felt somehow responsible for putting his problems on Hiroshi.

He turned, and with a small glance up the stairs, walked into the kitchen.

* * * * *

Daisuke pulled a handful of wires out of the machine. His bit down on the screwdriver, making sure it would stay in his mouth. *Sometimes, I think that these Machines have a vendetta against me.*
Daisuke inwardly laughed at the thought. He pulled the screwdriver out of his mouth and began adjusting a circuit panel.
There was a loud crash from upstairs as the door flew open. "DAISUKE!!! WHER'RE YOU!!!" He heard his Father yell.
Daisuke inwardly cringed at the drunken yell. **You're Father has Ret-**
"I know, Ami. I know," Daisuke whispered meekly. He dropped the Screwdriver, and ran up the stairs.
He opened the basement door and peeked through. The door came crashing open, sending Daisuke sprawling down the stairs.
"There You are... ya li'l Bastard. I thought I tol' you t'clean this DAMN MESS UP!?!" His Father reeked of Sake, and his torn clothes spoke of a bar-fight.
"I.... was just going to. I mean it," Daisuke remained on the ground, afraid to provoke his father to anger if he got up.
It didn't work. His father stumbled down the stairs, an angry look in his eyes. "Y'think that jus' cuz I'm drunk, you can make me believe your stupid li'l lies? YOU WEREN'T EVEN GONNA DO A THING, YOU LI'L BASTARD!!!" He punched awkwardly, Daisuke took it in the arm... unwilling to move lest his Father's anger be stoked at his defiance.
"I... I'm Sorry." Daisuke tried to avoid his father's gaze.
"THA'S NOT GOOD ENOUGH!!! LOOK AT ME WHEN I TALK TO YOU!!!!" His father backhanded him across the face. Daisuke grunted in pain, but did not move.
His eyes snapped up to his Father's angry face. "I'll clean it, I swear!!!" Daisuke pleaded with his father.
The man seemed to waver drunkenly for a moment. "You better you little bastard. You'll regret it if you don't, I'm goin' to watch some television. Tell me when your Mother gets home," Daisuke's father stumbled up the steps and up into the living room.
**Daisuke-kun.... your Father puts you in jeopardy of system Damage. Why do you not report him to The Police Organization?** Ami sounded confused, but slightly angry at the irrational actions of Daisuke's Father.
"He's my Dad, Ami. I couldn't do that. He might not be very loving, sometimes... but I know that he cares deep down in his heart." Daisuke moved back to the control panel, picking up his screwdriver he began adjusting the panel again, replacing old wires with new.
**I am aware that he has hit you physically 35 times since my activation. His Blood Alcohol has exceeded legal standards 91% of the time he is in this domocile.** Ami sounded slightly worried. **He needs to be reported for at least this.**
Daisuke shrugged. "He'd just be out the next day, and angry. Forget about it, Ami-chan. It's my problem, not yours."
**Friends worry about Friends.**
Daisuke paused in his adjustments. "Ami.... when did you start exhibiting such strong emotion?" Daisuke had been surprised at some of Ami's recent vehemence.
**I am able to learn such things. I care deeply for you, Daisuke, and wish for your welfare. I do not find it satisfactory the irrational abuse of your Father.** Ami DID sound concerned. Much more so than earlier about Hiroshi.
Daisuke shook his head. "He's just a little drunk. He'll be better in the morning, Ami-chan."
There was a long pause from the computer AI. **Then I shall deactivate for the night, if you have no further use for me at the moment.** There was an audible click, and The Hum of the AI slowly droned to a stop.

Daisuke sighed and continued his work, his mind drifting far away from the problems of the physical world... and his will pouring into the creation of his machines.

* * * * *

There was a knock at his door. He stirred... from what seemed beneath a blanket of lethargy... and his eyes fluttered open slowly.
An image inlaid itself on his eyes, it held a tray... that much he could discern... but the image itself blurred into several. *How long was I asleep? Feels like.... forever*
His head ached, but it was a dull ache... a restful ache. His mind seemed clearer... more precise and organized. The image slowly began to focus.... and it approached... *SHE approached...* Hiroshi added in his mind.
Ranma held a plate of Hot-Miso soup out on a tray, a steaming kettle of tea beside a porcelain cup sat beside the bowl. "Hey, man. You've been out like a light since yesterday," Ranma carefully set the tray down on the table next to Hiroshi's bed.
"Hmmm... Mm?" Hiroshi mumbled, his mind still trying to focus.... He caught a blur of red hair, and then Ranma was beside him.... all around her there was a soft golden glow.
Ranma blinked and stared at Hiroshi for a moment. She grinned and passed her hand in front of his face several times.
Hiroshi grabbed her hand after a moment and stared at it... He began tracing the lines of her palm as his mind settled itself...
Ranma had a curious expression on her face at first... then there was a sudden feeling of wrong... Hiroshi's soft touch disturbed her somehow and she jerked her hand away. "Are you awake, or do I have to kick you?"
Hiroshi stared at her a moment, the sun seeming to sillouhette her hair. "I'm awake... I guess. I think I feel a little better," Hiroshi looked over at the Miso Soup. "Did you make that?" He inhaled the scent with vigor.
Ranma nodded. "Mom brought you some yesterday... but you were so asleep I doubt you even remember eating it. You look a lot better, Hi," Ranma stood and began walking out of the room.
"Wait." Ranma paused at the door as she heard Hiroshi call.
She turned her head slightly so she could see him.
"Ranma.... I... I..." Hiroshi paused. *Now's not the right time, 'Roshi. Later... you have to wait if you're going to tell her.* He told himself. He realized how awkward and embarrassing it might be at that moment.
"Yeah?" Ranma waited expectantly.... she didn't know what for, which confused her.
"The thing is.... this girl I like. I think it's.... it's.... a lot more than just liking that person. I think it might be.... uhm.... that...." Hiroshi seemed to have frozen at the thought of the word Love. He couldn't say it.
Ranma smiled... that sparkle in her eyes stopped Hiroshi's heart for a single moment. "I know watcha mean, man.... I know exactly watcha mean. Why's it so hard to tell her, Hi?"
Hiroshi sat up a little straighter, wrapping his arms around his knees. "It's because I love her so much that I can't tell her, Ranma. You see... this.... this girl I like... she's got.... well.... difficulties with men, let's say. My Love
would..... would frighten her beyond belief... and maybe ruin our friendship. She and I are very close, friendship-wise... But the one reason I can't tell her, Ranma, is because it would hurt her. It would hurt her far more than any physical attack..." Hiroshi sighed a ragged sigh, and looked over at Ranma.
Ranma stared at Hiroshi's eyes for a moment. There was so much there to love.... so much there to see, and feel in those eyes.... Ranma couldn't understand how anyone might be hurt by Hiroshi's love. Ranma had shared everything with Hiroshi.... and developed a deeper friendship than she had ever had before.
Ranma thought for a moment. Hiroshi had done so much for her over the past three weeks.... and she had as yet to help Hiroshi out of any trouble. Ranma felt dedicated to helping Hiroshi.
"Hi... would you promise me something?" Ranma stepped a bit closer, and Hiroshi looked back up, wiping a stray tear from his eye.
"Anything. Anything at all, what do you need?" Hiroshi was intent upon helping Ranma... regardless how his own life might turn out. To bring her happiness was worth more than his wretched existence any day.
Ranma thought for a moment longer, then looked back. "Hi.... promise me that if I can't think of some way to get you out of this mess.... you'll just tell her when the first snow comes," Hiroshi suddenly stiffened at the request, and turned his eyes away toward the window.
"I... can't. Ranma, you don't under-" Ranma held up a hand, halting Hiroshi's protest.
"Promise me this, Hi. You've done so much for me.... let me help you this once," Ranma lowered her hand, a sympathetic sadness upon her face. "Please... I know what it's like.... to have somethin' eating you up from inside. It's terrible. Promise me... please...,"
Hiroshi continued to stare out the window, tears forming in his eyes. "You wouldn't be helping me, Ranma.... but I promise you that, at least. I promise, on the first snow...." He trailed off. His own heart beating madly with fear.... that he might have said too much.
Ranma flinched at the dejected tone which Hiroshi spoke in. She turned to leave. "Jus' like you, Hi.... I know that maybe it won't help, but I've gotta try. 'Cause we're friends." Ranma left the room.
Hiroshi still resided, his arms wrapped around his knees. *Friends.... and that's all we'll ever be.* He repeated in his mind, a grim feeling settling deep down in his heart.
*You're a Great Friend, 'Roshi!* And *'Cause we're friends.* Seemed to echo in his mind.
He wasn't sure what he was fighting for.... he somehow knew that nothing would ever come of his Love for Ranma. A Lost Cause, a Hopeless Dream, a Broken Path. Hiroshi looked at the door Ranma had just walked out of.
The image of him chasing her, and getting farther away flashed in his mind. *Ranma.... I love you for your Soulfull Eyes and your Breathless Smile...*

Hiroshi cradled his head in his hands and let the bitter tears flow forth from his agonized soul.

* * * * *

Nodoka silently stirred the Lo Mein, she added several spices, then began stirring again. Ranma had gone up to bring Hiroshi his Miso-Soup, and had been upstairs for more thna five minutes.
Nodoka supposed that Hiroshi had woken up and that they were talking.... which, in her opinion, was a good thing. There was obviously something bothering Hiroshi, and Nodoka could tell that it was something that was casting the boy into a deep depression.
Memeko was sorting through a stack of papers, a pair of glasses pushed up to rest on her forehead. She stopped a moment and settled them onto her nose, looking down at a piece of paper.
"Memeko, might I ask why you are currently occupied?" Nodoka halted her stirring and looked at the young Mother.
Memeko continued to read through the papers. "Forgive me, Saotome-San.... but I have a more liberal view on cooking. After all, there's only so much one can do with Lo Mein, and we need a bit of.... foreign variety in the cuisine," Memeko plucked a sheet of paper out of the pile. She looked it over, then stood.
"I'm going to go get some ingredients in the pantry... be back in a few minutes," Memeko bustled out of the kitchen and down the hall.
Memeko reminded Nodoka of herself at a younger age... before Genma had taken Ranma from her care. She was noble, caring, aristocratic. A good head on her shoulders, in Nodoka's opinion.
She seemed to be taking good care of Hiroshi and Kaehmi.... and she seemed to cope well with being a single parent. Nodoka had been lonely since Ranma and Genma had left.... no matter how irresponsible Genma could have been, Nodoka still found a place in her heart that warmed at the thought of her Husband.
Ranma silently walked down the stairs, thinking to herself about Hiroshi and his problem. Nodoka looked up absently from the Lo Mein and smiled. "Did he enjoy the Miso?" Ranma nodded absently.
"Is there something wrong?" Nodoka stopped her stirring and turned to Ranma. Her daughter had a worried look on her face.
"I guess.... Hiroshi. I mean, he's helped me out so much and I haven't done a thing for him. It tears me up seein' him like this," Ranma sighed and walked over to the Curried Rice she had been preparing.
Nodoka layed her hands on Ranma's shoulders, and looked down at her daughter with an understanding gaze.
"You've been a friend.... that is a very important task. Just the fact that you care about him is more than many could do. People need friends, to help them through these rough times," Nodoka sighed and went back to the Lo Mein.
Ranma took the top off of the Rice, and peered in.... it was still hot. "I know, Mom. I just feel.... I dunno, I guess terrible. Whenever I've needed him, he's been there to help me out of trouble.... but the moment when he gets into it, I can't do a thing. It really irks me," Ranma scowled, half to herself. She added several spices to the Rice and looked back at her Mother.
Nodoka put a lid on the Lo Mein and leaned against the kitchen counter. "Ranma... some things we must let others confront. If Hiroshi cannot find it in himself to tell even you, then it must be a very personal matter to him."
Ranma slammed the lid over the rice, an angry and frustrated look on her face. The action startled Nodoka. "Dammit, Ma! I don't get it! He's told me everything. All his secret fears, his deep feelings.... but now, you tell me, he has to handle it alone?! I ain't gonna let Hiroshi wallow in depression like I did!" Ranma stared at the lid of the Rice.
Nodoka turned away slightly. She looked out the Kitchen window, up at the sky. the stars were out, and the moon hung like a silver beacon in the sky.
Something.... about Ranma's words, her vehemence, bothered Nodoka. Nodoka wondered if Ranma was more angry at Hiroshi for not letting her help him.... or angry at herself, for not being able to comfort Hiroshi when he needs comforting the most.
Something was nagging at the back of her mind.... about Hiroshi and Ranma. Especially about Hiroshi. Could she be missing something?
"Ranma.... if Hiroshi won't let you know how to help him, or even who has caused the problem.... how do you expect to find a solution?" Nodoka turned back to Ranma, her mind carefully examining the pieces of an unfinished puzzle. She stored what information she had in the back of her mind, for later perusing.
Ranma continued to stare at the Kitchen pot, her face still kept the frustrated countenance. She *Had* to find a way to help Hiroshi.
Memeko walked back into the kitchen, feeling the tension which seemed to permeate the air. "I suppose I missed something."
"'S Nothin', I'm just talking about that Idiot Brother of yours," Ranma returned to the rice, sighing half to herself. Why did Hiroshi have to be so difficult about it?
Memeko frowned and walked over to stand beside the red-head. "Ranma.... Hiroshi cares a great deal..." she paused and took a breath, "...About you. But some things he doesn't want you to worry about. He doesn't want you to get so worried over his own problems," Memeko placed a hand on Ranma's shoulder.
Ranma scoffed and looked up at Memeko. "Yeah, that sounds pretty hypocritical to me."
"RANMA!" Nodoka was outraged that Ranma would be so.... rude in another person's house.
Memeko held up a hand to halt Nodoka's wrath. "She's right. Hiroshi makes it his business to worry about his friends.... to worry about you. It would only be fair that you should worry about him." Memeko moved back over to the stove, taking out several pans and pots.
"But.... this is something he must pass alone. It is his trial by fire, his calling. I think that he must face this himself, and be stronger for it," Memeko pulled out her sheet of paper and made several checks on the sheet.
Ranma turned and looked at Memeko, a stern glare that didn't phaze the older girl. "You know who she is, Don't you?" Ranma knew it was a girl.... but Hiroshi had been very careful as to keep the name to himself.
Memeko nodded, half to herself as she began moving around the kitchen. "It's not mine to tell, However. It is dishonorable to reveal secrets that others wish to keep, Ranma."
Ranma frowned even more, and moved back to her rice. It *Had* been rude of her to be so.... blunt with Memeko. She hardly knew why she had said what she had, and was more confused considering the events of the previous day.
"What, praytell.... are you making, Memeko?" Nodoka inquired, as she watched the young lady prepare for a long and arduous baking of some foreign cuisine.
"My Husband and I travelled around the world..... which is why I have my taste of foods I do. Europe, especially, was a favorite of mine. The German Oktoberfest.... the lusch desserts of Paris and the Swedish lands.... One of my favorite.... however, was Venice. The beautiful scenery, the breathtaking sights and sounds.... and the food," Memeko smirked slightly.
"Italian Cuisine? Never had it before," Ranma, unfortunately, wasn't as cultured as Memeko appeared to be. She wondered what could bring out that look of passion that Memeko's face now bore.
"You'll enjoy it.... an old Italian Woman, whom we had stayed with, gave me her recipe for a Lasagna that you could die for," Memeko got a distant look as she remembered Venice, and her husband.
Nodoka noticed the wistful aura about Hiroshi's Sister, and sighed in rememberance of young Romance.
"My Connor.... was such the Romantic. He knew ways of making your heart seem to soar on the clouds," Memeko sighed. "Oh, Connor.... I remember him so fondly. The Canals of Venice... the Lights of Paris.... the Alps and the Highlands....," Memeko sniffed, and wiped her eyes, unaware that she had almost lost her resolve.
"He must have been very special to you," Nodoka noted, remembering that there had once been a time when Genma had attempted at Romance. *If his timing had been better....* Nodoka recalled that, although he was not a bad cassanova, Genma had picked the worst times to show his affection.

Memeko nodded. Then she shook her head sadly. "Let's get cooking."

* * * * *

Akane flipped carefully through her Mother's recipes... treating the book as some holy artifact to be revered. It had been three days since she had started this trial, and three days since she had thought that this might be hopeless.
Only hours into the first night, Akane and Shampoo had gotten into an argument over which ingredients to use, what was to be cooked, and who was going to do what. Of course, Ukyou was partly to blame as well... but she had tried to be rational... and had submitted herself to some compromise.
Akane read over a recipe for Sukyaki, fuming inside. *Who does she think she is?! Telling me how to do every little thing... as if I were a little child!!!* Shampoo had a wider perspective of cooking than Ukyou or she did.... and had been at odds with everyone except Kasumi.
*Kasumi...* Akane's older sister had been a help, and she was immensely grateful that Hiroshi had thought to add her to their group. Whenever the fighting started to get out of hand, Kasumi would assert herself...
Which usually ended in embarrassment for the group.
"Well now, what do we have here?" Soun stood next to Akane's bed, looking down at the book she was studying.
Akane glowered. "Doesn't anybody in this house ever knock!?" She closed the book, a bit more firmly than she should have.
Soun frowned. "You seem to be working yourself a little hard, Akane. Would you care to talk about it?" Soun pulled up the chair from her desk and sat in it.
Akane shook her head, gently putting the book back on her dresser. "There's nothing to talk about, Dad. This could be the only time that I could show Ranma how good I am at something.... but no matter how hard I try.... I guess I just suck at cooking." Akane sighed and sat on the edge of her bed, her back to her father.
Soun looked at Akane, his youngest daughter... and felt the tingle of loneliness come over him when he dwelled too much on his daughter's... and how they were growing up so fast.
He wished that their Mother could see the women they had become. "Akane.... do you remember your training?"
Akane laughed a bit. "Yeah, but that's got nothing to do with learning how to cook." Akane paused for a moment, unsure of her words. After all.... Nodoka's first visit had showed her how Ranma seemed to apply martial
arts to everything.... including cooking.
Soun smiled a bit and rubbed his chin. "Actually, I used to cook for Genma and Master on the road. It's quite a task, having to please them," Soun remembered cooking over a fire in the middle of the forest, while Genma listened intently to a stern lecture from the Master.
"Yessiree.... I remember those days too, Soun," Happosai sat silently by Mr. Tendo, smoking his pipe.
"YOU!!! What the heck are you doing in my room?!" Akane reached over and grabbed her bokken, wielding it threateningly at Happosai.
Soun bowed to Happosai. "Please forgive her Master... she knows not what she does."
Happosai smacked Soun on the head with his pipe and stood. "Quit you're grovelin', Soun. And dear, sweet, Akane. I am not here to pilfer your precious panties... but to give you some elderly advice." Happosai paced back and forth in front of Akane's bed.
"I don't need advice from a pervert, if you haven't noticed this is a COOKING challenge!" Akane followed Happosai with her eyes, making sure not to let him out of her sight.
Happosai shook a finger at her. "Now listen here, I might be a little forward with you ladies sometimes..."
"Try all the time, you sicko," Akane swung her blade slightly in a threatening arc.
"Akane... please! Maybe the Master has something important to say," Soun picked himself back up and sat in the chair, cringing a bit as Happosai shot a glance at him.
"I don't need to know what he wants to say, no doubt something sick and twisted like his little mind," Happosai gave Akane his best sad look at her vehement words.
"Why... how could you say such a thing? All I wanted to do was help.... try and be nice to you, Akane..." Happosai wiped a tear from his eyes and sniffed.
Akane frowned a bit. *Okay.... what could listening to the little twerp hurt? Just so long as he doesn't try to glomp me...* Akane groaned. "Fine... what do you want to say?"
Happosai beamed for a moment. "Oh, Thank you Akane!! THANKYOU THANKYOUTHANKYOU!" Happosai cleared his throat, and took on the tone of a mentor. "Soun was on the correct path before I overheard... do you remember your training?"
Akane groaned again. *Are these two just idiots, or is it my imagination?* Akane lowered her bokken and gave both her Father and Happosai an incredulous look. "What does MARTIAL ARTS have to do with-"
"The Master's wisdom holds answers you could not believe. What we are asking is what is one of the most important things one must know to become one with the art?" Soun smiled to himself, as years of training flooded back into his mind...
Akane stared blankly at her father... what was he talking about.
"You see, Soun, she doesn't know because she's never *felt* it. She never learned how to enjoy herself while practicing," Happosai tapped a finger to his temple. "I've become the man I am today by throwing my passion into the art... not just to learn things no-others know... but to enjoy what I like doing best," Akane glared at Happosai who gave her an elderly grin.
"What, you mean stealing women's underclothes and spying on us naked all the time?!" Akane brought the bokken up to bear on Happosai again.
"Bingo. I use the art in something that I like doing... I use my abilities to enjoy life, and to teach others what I love the most. The Art.... and, of course, the culmination of precious silky darlings," Happosai launched himself at
Akane, who promptly flattened him with her Bokken, then stepped on him to make sure he was down for good.
"Sicko.... I should have known you didn't have anything important to say!" Akane didn't know why she was always so nice to Happosai, giving him chances when he didn't deserve them.
Soun crossed his arms, and his voice took on a chastising tone. "The Master is right, Akane. To you the art has been a means to an end... being the best at what you do. To Ranma, however, the Art is life. It flows in the tree's, the wind, the rocks, the ocean. If you can't learn to enjoy yourself while cooking.... instead of concentrating on beating
Ranma..." Soun Trailed off. He stood, patting Akane on the head gently, and picked Happosai up. He looked back at the door and smiled.
The Door closed. Akane sat, for a moment, dwelling on her father's words. Ruminating that, Perhaps, Happosai had said something profoundly wise to her...

Akane smiled a bit. *I think I understand, Dad. Thank You...* She picked up the book and, opening it to the page she had been staring at, stood and left her room.

* * * * *

"Sesame Chicken? Never tried it," Ukyou was silently adding ingredients to a Okonomiyaki batter she was experimenting with. Shampoo was rifling through her ingredients, having already tried Lo Mein and Stir-Fry with Akane.
"Hey guys.... I-"
"Akane! We've been down here slaving away, while you lounged upstairs...." Ukyou put the batter on hold for a moment and gave a glare to Akane. She had started getting tired of Akane's lazy attitude, and her seeming reluctance to listen to what they had to say. She didn't particularly dislike Akane.... but the girl could get on her nerves.
"Now Ukyou, I'm sure that's not what she was doing, was it Akane?" Kasumi smiled her motherly smile. Kasumi was still calm about all of this.... which surprised Akane.
Then again, it wasn't very surprising that Kasumi should be so patient with all of them.... nothing seemed to faze her.
Akane walked into the kitchen, clutching the book of recipes to her chest. "Actually, Kasumi, I was looking through Mother's Recipes.... I was thinking that maybe we could try this," She handed the book to Kasumi, and the eldest Tendo girl read the page for a moment, then looked up at Akane.
"Akane... are you sure about this? Sukyaki is a big step for you," Kasumi set the book gently aside, leaving it open to the recipe.
"Yeah, I'm sure. I even have some ideas of what to add..." Shampoo and Ukyou gave Akane a threatening glare, while Kasumi just worriedly looked at her little sister.
"Akane, is no good add things to already good recipe. Why you so unhappy with just following directions?" Akane glared at Shampoo for her comment, and then sighed.
Akane shook her head, and Ukyou suddenly noticed that Akane looked very tired. They had all been up late into the night trying various dishes and recipes, Akane hadn't gotten much better since the first day.... and Ukyou sometimes wondered if she had gotten worse.
But.... sometimes, Ukyou saw how hard Akane tried with what she did, and it reminded her of a young girl... who only wanted to please her father and bring honor to her family. A Young girl who lived out much of her life as a boy.
"I was just thinking that it might be fun.... if we worked together on this," Akane forced a smile, and looked back up at Kasumi.
Shampoo was stunned to hear this out of Akane. Akane, who refused help to any degree. Akane, who could always do anything on her own. Akane, who didn't need help from even her family or friends.
Kasumi beamed happily from Akane's words. "Together it will be then. Perhaps if we all work together to provide ideas for the rest of us, our concentrated effort might add a little bit of friendship to the food." Kasumi moved back to the kitchen counter, and began busily chopping vegetables again.
"Right... well, what do you two think about helping me with Sukyaki?" Akane picked her Mother's book up again, looking down at the page.
Ukyou looked at Shampoo, and the Chinese girl shrugged, then smiled. "If it help you get better as cook, Yes I help with Sukyaki."
Ukyou sighed and stirred the Okonomiyaki batter some more. "Sure, Akane. But you gotta promise us that you'll listen to our advice, and let us try and help you if you start doing things wrong."
Akane turned a bit red. She knew she had a... problem about people helping her. Perhaps that was one reason why the group hadn't gotten off to a good start. "Uhm... I promise, Ukyou. Can we have fun while doing it?"
Ukyou smiled and tossed Akane an apron. "Honey, I'm surprised you didn't ask earlier. Now get over here and I'll tell you something about Okonomiyaki..." Ukyou smiled as Akane put the apron on awkwardly and stepped over to the counter.

Akane felt that maybe.... just maybe.... things might be a little better from now on.

============== Back in the Living room.

"Well?" Genma asked, his arms folded as he sat at the head of the table.
"I think she'll listen. Hopefully our troubles are over, Saotome," Soun sat down next to his friend and sighed a breath of relief.
"I sure hope so, Tendo.... I don't think my stomach can take much more punishment," Genma's stomach grumbled in protest at the thought of Akane's food.
Happosai sat at the other end of the table, smoking his pipe. "Don't whine so much, Genma. I thought there wasn't anything that your stomach couldn't handle," Happosai blew a ring of smoke that drifted up into the air.
Genma scoffed. What did Happosai think Genma was? Some sort of glutton? "I'm sorry Master.... but Akane's cooking must come from some version of hell. The Kami themseleves could not withstand such atrocities as Akane's food," Genma turned a bit green as he remembered the past three days.
"Bold words from someone like you.... at least I stomach the stuff, you can't even bare to look at it." Happosai chuckled a bit, then stopped as he remembered the last few attempts his dear Akane had made to satisfy their palates.
Soun looked into the kitchen, a sense of apprehension growing over him. "I just hope that she's taken what Master Happosai and I had to say to heart. She's a good girl, Saotome, she just tries too hard sometimes, and cooking takes.... soul, I guess you would say," Soun recalled his wife's cooking... she had been modest about her talent, but had always been happy enough seeing Soun and her daughter's enjoying what she cooked.
Soun sometimes remembered the picnics they had together....
Soun was silently sitting in the park, watching Kasumi pouring tea for her sister's. He looked back over to his wife.... marvelling at how beautiful she was. Her Long Black hair, and her soft brown eyes...
She looked up, and into his gaze. Her smile seemed to make his heart skip a beat. Her eyes glimmered with love... oh, so much love. She gathered the flowers she had been collecting and wandered back over to the picnic area, smoothing her dress as she sat down next to him.
"Momma! Momma!" Akane called, and jumped into her Mother's lap.
"Yes, little one?" She smiled down at Akane. Soun sometimes marvelled at how similar they were, his youngest daughter and his Lovely wife.
Akane hugged her Mother tightly. "Tell me a story, Mama. I wanna hear the story again about the dancing and the party!!"
Mrs. Tendo smiled, and looked around at Nabiki, then Kasumi. All of her children had a look of anticipation on their faces.
"Hahaha! All right... Now, where was I last time? Ah, yes.... The finest of Amaterasu's daughters, and the Eldest of Susa'no'os sons had never met eachother. Their own heritage to the Sun and her Young Brother was a mystery, their lineage was far removed from the Kami and their kin.
Yet still, the blood of the Valiant flowed in their hearts. Starlight was the girl's name, and Courage the boy's.
There came a great call, when the Children of the Kami were summoned to rejoice in life and recall when the Two Lovers had pushed the darkness back and brought Amaterasu into the world to shed her light on us all.
It was a party, a great ball for the blood of the Kami." Mrs. Tendo smiled down at Akane, who was listening intently to the tale. Kasumi, likewise, seemed entranced. Nabiki had a dreamy look as she listened to her Mother, a picture forming in her mind.
"Starlight, the youngest of Amaterasu's grand-daughters, was a fiery soul. Her spirit could not stand still for only a moment, and rarely showed calm thought or feeling. Her pride would one day be her fault. For if she could not trust another with the matters of heart, then her Parents disdained ever wedding her to a man.
Courage, the boy, was one of the world. His mind went out with curiosity to all the things that stirred feeling. The very wind intrigued him. He could see the Love and Light in all things...
Yet, invariably, he was alone. His own wandering light could not find one bright enough to drown out his wonder, and replace it with Love for a single thing."
"Why not, Mama? Why was he so lonely?" Akane was too young to understand her Mother's words, but the gist of the story was marvelous.
Soun sometimes wondered where his wife had found these stories, if she had made them up, or if there was an old book that she had found them in. He listened, also intent on how the story would turn out.
Mrs. Tendo ran her hand through Akane's hair, a wistful smile travelling across her lips. "He was lonely, dear, because he loved so many. Yet those many could not endure his love, his fire was too bright.... too strong for them. His Courage of heart was more than many could bare. His parents disdained their sons sorrow, and begged Amaterasu to find him his Love.
So this is where the story begins.... Courage and his parents, as well as Starlight and her own, were brought invitations to the Gathering. At first, Starlight refused to go.... wishing only to keep her mind on her own desires. She did not wish to associate with those she deemed snobbish and bossy.
Starlight's parents were quite clever, and persuaded Starlight to go. They had promised her that there would be a competition at the Ball, which sparked her fiery spirit. She wanted to show her parents that her will was strong enough to prevail over any odds presented against her.
So she decided upon it. She would go and win the tournament.
When Courage received his invitation, his parents rejoiced. They saw this as an answer from Amaterasu. Courage, himself, did not wish to go. He feared that he would again fall into love with one who could not accept him. Yet, deep within his heart, he found that he would try once more... and then abandon his cause."
Kasumi sat up. "They had never met? Starlight and Courage had never met?" Kasumi understood which way the story was going, but was curious about several things.
"No dear, they hadn't. Starlight and Courage lived in two different places." Soun recalled the weariness of her voice, something he should have noticed early and didn't. Something that would have told him how his wife's life could slowly, surely, extinguish like a candle in the wind.
She continued the story, the glimmer in her eyes was remarkable, as if she could see what she spoke of. "They arrived at the great ball... and Amaterasu sat on her throne, the moon to her right and her impetuous brother on her left, as well as various others of the Kami.
The party was well under way when Starlight arrived. She had a carrying pack upon her back, and had travelled for many days to arrive... only to find no challenge. She addressed Amaterasu, demanding to know why there was no tournament.
Amaterasu considered the fiery girl, and favored a smile for her. 'Child' she said. 'If it had occurred to me that a tournament would increase the festivities, I would have gladly arranged one.'
Starlight was angry for her parents deception, but Amaterasu continued. 'Your parents are not at fault, for I whispered in their dreams to tell you this. If you wish a challenge, then riddles shall be the field of battle. A sharp wit shall quickly defeat a katana in any battle.'
Starlight began to object, to demand a battle of stamina and strength to show her fiery spirit to all, thus driving away any suitors.
So the riddles began.... and it took a good many hours, in which Starlight was gravely embarrassed at her inability to conquer the war of words.
Yet, Amaterasu always forgave her for the inability to withstand the torrent of questions. She always gave reason to discount the riddles asked of Starlight, and therfore take the blade off the hilt of the wielder.
Starlight began to disdain her unworthiness, and began to grow angry with Amaterasu's coddling smile and words. She wished to prove she was no child to be protected, but a warrior to be revered.
'Empress, if you please... might I beg to ask a riddle to the one which seeks a challenge?' It was Courage who spoke, intrigued by the atrocity they seemed to be showing the peasant girl. He, himself, was not of a noble blood.
Amaterasu suddenly felt shamed at the mockery of her brethren, and how they had humiliated the girl. She called attention to the crowd, who had begun to murmur of the peasant boy.
'You may, my son, inquire of Starlight a single question... as is the game, so shall it be played on our rules.' Amaterasu gazed.
Courage cautiously approached Starlight, his own clothes were worn with a long journey and his own shoulders had bourn a pack for many miles.
Starlight glared angrily at Courage, who returned her anger with a smile of his own.... a soft smile of warmth and peace.
'Before I ask of you my riddle... I wish to challenge you to duel of the Art.' The demand caught Starlight off guard, and she looked around at the patient Kami who whispered back and forth of the boy in front of her.
'Why would a peasant ask of me a fight, which this boy knows he cannot win.' Starlight inquired of Amaterasu.
The Goddess smiled, and replied simply, 'Why would a peasant demand of the Kami a tournament among them?'
Starlight turned back to Courage, bowing slightly... and keeping her eyes on the boy.
The fight began suddenly, and ended just as suddenly... Courage was brought low on his knees.
His eyes, however, still gazed into Starlight's. She looked down at him in contempt. 'What say you now, peasant?'
Courage looked deeply into Starlight's eyes, and smiled. 'I say that I have offered you my honor.... my patience... yet, I have so little else to offer for you to spare my life. All that I might offer is my Love."
There was a hushed pause among the Kami, and then Starlight slapped Courage roughly in the face."
"What?" Akane asked. "She slapped him?" Akane was confused. It had seemed so noble, so romantic in a way, how Courage had offered the only thing he had left.
"But.... Mother, why would she slap him?" Kasumi asked, pouring more tea for everyone since the cups had emptied over the course of the story.
Mrs. Tendo looked over at her husband and smiled wistfully. "Love is a hard thing to bear, sometimes harder than Courage. Starlight's free spirit dreaded the thought of loving anyone.... especially a man. Yet, her own soul was startled by Courage's offer... and her fear had caused her to lash out in anger.
Love has to be cultivated.... cared for. Sometimes, it is a long journey. To Courage, whose life was to explore the love in everything, he had initiated a challenge both to Starlight... and to himself. He would journey into her soul, or die trying, and find the love she had hidden." Mrs. Tendo yawned.
"I believe that is all for today, children," Soun murmured. Nabiki, Kasumi, and Akane all looked pleadingly at their father.
"But.... Daddy! She was just getting to the good part!!!" Akane pleaded.
Soun looked at his wife. He remembered how weary she had started getting... He turned back to his children and spoke. "You're Mother is very tired, and we've been out long enough. I have a class in a while,"
Soun slowly brought himself out of the memory....
Soun wiped his eyes.
"Something wrong, Tendo?" Genma asked, looking with concern at his friend.
"Nothing, Saotome. I was just recalling my Lovely Wife, and how proud she would have been to see her daughter's turn out so well..." Soun missed his wife... and tried not to dwell too much on her death.

Laughter from the kitchen rang in Soun's ears, and he smiled despite himself. He hadn't heard such joy in his house-hold for some time.

* * * * *

"Check and Mate.... that's game, Ranma." Hiroshi leaned back with a self-satisifed smile on his face.
Ranma glared at him for a moment, then back at the board. "Chess is a stupid game anyways... I mean, what's the point?" Ranma gathered up the pieces and set them back in the box, then folded the board and placed that in as well.
Hiroshi sighed, half to himself. "The point is, Ranma, that you're not enjoying yourself. You're too absorbed in worrying about my problems." Hiroshi leaned a little forward, and looked at Ranma. "Some things I've gotta handle myself.... don't worry, when I tell her how I feel, trust me.... you'll be the first to know."
Hiroshi's demeanor was a bit more relaxed, which relieved Ranma a bit. Yet, there was still those moments when Hiroshi's sadness crept up on him, and Ranma felt a bitter tinge of remorse in her heart that she could not help.
"How do you do it, Hi?" Ranma stood and walked over to his closet, throwing the chess-box onto a shelf in the
top.
"Do what, Ranma?" Hiroshi considered Ranma. She had been trying to untrain herself from walking and talking like a girl... and hadn't been entirely successful.
"You always juggle my problems around and manage to think of a bazillion different things that you always seem to be wondering about. But, when I'm worried about you.... I can't seem to concentrate fully on anything else,"
Ranma sat down on his bed again, looking around at the various pictures and posters.
Hiroshi looked at Ranma and leaned back in his chair. Her back was to him as she staired around the room, and his eyes travelled from her fiery red hair down her smooth neck, her strong shoulders, and the feminine curve of her waist.
He shook his mind off of his current train of thought, and began thinking about Ranma's question. "I've always had to deal with other people and their emotions. I've always had enough compassion to help people out. I guess it takes training, like anything else.... after all, you were isolated from social life by your father," Hiroshi folded his arms across his chest and looked out the window.
Ranma exhaled heavily and turned to look at Hiroshi. "Yeah... I guess I'm just not a people person, Huh Hiroshi?" Ranma smiled a bit and leaned back, falling onto Hiroshi's bed.
Hiroshi frowned, "That's not true, Ranma. You're kind, generous, thoughtful, and caring to those around you. It's just that.... you're not used to dealing with other people's feelings. After all, from what we've both shared.... you have a lot to deal with yourself."
Ranma rolled onto her stomach, and looked up at Hiroshi, resting her chin on her hand. "Yeah... I guess my life is kinda complicated. What with Ucchan, and Akane, and Mom..." Ranma sighed. "But do ya know somethin'? You make it all worth while. Talking to you, it seems like all my problems just up and vanish with the wind. It's easy talking to you, Hi.... I don't feel so alone when you're around..." Ranma felt a chill run up her spine, the feeling she had described was unlike many others she had felt.
Hiroshi seemed to have taken Ukyou's place as Ranma's best friend... and Ranma found the more time she spent with Hiroshi, the closer she felt to him. Their friendship had come to an entirely different level. Ranma enjoyed it, to a point.
Then there were the other times.... when Ranma became frustrated over Hiroshi's mystery girl. Who wouldn't like Hiroshi as a boyfriend?
Hiroshi blinked at Ranma's words. Now was his chance... it had sounded like Ranma had just admitted the same feeling he had exhibited toward her, "Ranma... I...."
"...I mean, what would I do without such a great friend?" Hiroshi's smile melted when Ranma said those words. Ranma, on the other hand, couldn't understand what she had said to upset Hiroshi. "What?"
"It's nothing, Ranma. I was just thinking about that girl again, I guess I should really forget her. With her, the odds are against me..." There was a long silence after his words.
Ranma felt awkward in the absence of discussion.... and awkward wanting to continue to speak with Hiroshi.
She sighed and stood up, "I guess I hafta go and help Mom and Memeko with the Cooking.... the contest is tomorrow, you know. Hey, are you comin'?" Ranma hadn't heard Hiroshi even mention coming to the contest.
Hiroshi smiled again, but it was a fixed smile. "Yeah, I wouldn't miss it, Ranma."
"Great! Then I'll see you there, okay?" Ranma walked out of the room, closing the door behind her.

Hiroshi looked out the window, at the starry night. "... And I love you for your Warmth, and your care...." Hiroshi felt himself falling deeper, deeper, deeper into a black pit.... and he was afraid he wouldn't be able to climb back out.

* * * * *

"Sukyaki." Ranma was frantically searching through the drawers.
"What would possess you to make Sukyaki?" Memeko asked, looking at the list of ingredients that Ranma had handed her.
"I dunno. I like Sukyaki... and I've got some ideas of my own. Where are the Water chestnuts, Mom?" Ranma moved several cans out of the way, looking and searching.
"Top cabinet, third on the right, behind the Rice." Nodoka tasted the Miso soup. They had been eating Meso soup with the rest of their failures for the past three days... Ranma always made sure there was little left over to be put in the fridge.
"Thanks. Hey, Memeko.... you know, your brother really gets me sometimes." Ranma grabbed the water chestnuts and walked back over to the stove. There was a can of Mushrooms and a pound of tenderloin beef sitting beside a large wok.
"What do you mean?" Memeko moved back to her Lasagna and began flattening a lump of dough.
"Well... one moment I'm talking about how much I rely on him for his friendship, and the next he's all depressed because of that girl." Ranma read over the cook-book for a moment and checked to make sure all the ingredients were there.
Memeko faltered in her motion and looked over at Ranma. "It's probably because he wishes he could be as open with her as he is with you. It's very hard admitting ones feelings to a girl, but not so hard admitting them to a friend," Memeko continued rolling the dough into lasagna noodles.
Nodoka was listening to the conversation while she waited for the mushrooms and lily buds to soak in warm water. "She has a point, Ranma. For years, your Father and I had trouble asserting ourselves about our feelings. It isn't as if we denied them, we both knew how the other felt.... but it was hard to say those feelings to eachother. It took a certain someone who announced his arrival to make us see how much we cared for eachother. Namely, you
Ranma," Nodoka smiled a bit as Ranma blushed.
"Uhm... Mom, do you know where the Bamboo is?" Nodoka shook her head and pointed at Memeko.
"I'll go get some.... are you really sure you want to try Sukyaki? A good Sukyaki takes a lot of soul to make," Ranma gave Memeko a blande look and nodded her head. Memeko grinned and went to find the other ingredients for Sukyaki.
Nodoka watched Ranma for several moments, her mind putting her cooking aside for a moment. "Ranma.... I've been wanting to ask you.... how do you feel about Akane?"
Ranma turned a bit red and looked up at her mother. "Uh.... what about Akane? She's nice, I guess... when she's not beatin' me up with a mallet," Ranma rubbed the back of her head.
Nodoka laughed a bit. "I'm sure. What I was asking is, do you want the engagement to be reinstated? You both seem dedicated to making this relationship work." Nodoka had been considering the girl. The acceptance of the contest on both her daughter's part, as well as Akane Tendo's had changed her view greatly of the relationship between Ranma and Akane.
Ranma fidgeted nervously with the apron, and averted her gaze from her mother. "Mom.... it's not that I don't want to marry Akane..."
"Good, then it's settled." Nodoka turned back to her food.
"MOM!"
Nodoka looked up, a bit startled at Ranma's level of voice. "Y...Yes?" She wavered for a moment.
"I'm gonna say what I think, before you guys make my decisions for me, got it?!" Ranma was fuming. Her life had been a culmination of decisions made by her father, and now her Mother was doing the same.
"I.... Alright. I'm listening young Lady," Nodoka composed herself. She would hear Ranma out, and scold her afterwards.
Ranma flinched at the title her Mother had given her. "All my Life, Pop's been tellin' me what to do and not to do. All my life, he's been makin' promises. 'You'll marry her', or 'He'll marry you', or 'I'll trade him for a bowl of rice and pickles'. I've had enough. I'm not gonna have you guys tellin' me who to marry, who to love, and who to hate.
When me and Akane decide to get married, I'll tell you, 'cause it'll be ME who proposes to her, got it?!"
Nodoka was surprised at Ranma's vehemence. She fixed her daughter with a stern glare. "It's a time-honored tradition to arrange a marriage-"
"I don't wanna hear about Tradition and honor and all that. Marriage should be about love, not duty. Duty just spoils it. I mean, what if Akane and I had turned out to Hate eachother? What then?" Ranma fixed her mother with her own stern glare.
"You're pushing the line, Young Lady. I've compromised a great deal to make you happy..." Nodoka was not content with the way the conversation was heading.
Ranma's voice took on a somber, sad tone. "I know you have, Mom.... but I gotta do this on my own. Like Hiroshi and his girl.... there's just some things you gotta let us do alone," Ranma's words seemed more a statement than anything else.
Nodoka shook her head. She had known her Son and Daughter for only a scant amount of time, and already she was facing a fear that other parents didn't face for years. The assertion of their children's will.
But then, Ranma's will was a powerful one. Not to be controlled so easily. *Perhaps...* Mused Nodoka *...Genma had a more difficult trial than I originally thought...* Nodoka's heart suddenly went out to her husband.
"Mom? Are you angry at me?" Ranma was unsure again. So many times recently with her mother, she had become unsure. It always seemed hard trying to form a bond with a mother that Ranma had hardly known.
Nodoka looked up at Ranma. "Yes. Furious, actually. I hate hearing you tell me that I can't help my only child make decisions..." Nodoka's voice changed slightly, became sad, "Because she's already grown up enough to make decisions herself..." Nodoka left the kitchen suddenly, walking right past Memeko.
Hiroshi's sister looked from Nodoka, as she stormed upstairs, back to Ranma. "Obviously, I shouldn't step out of the kitchen. What was all that about?" She walked over to Ranma, and put the Bamboo beside her on the kitchen counter.
"I don't wanna talk about it, Memeko," Ranma fumed, as she turned to the Bamboo and began preparing the Sukyaki ingredients.
"I could care less about whether you want to talk about it or not, Ranma. Your Mother has a hard time dealing with your curse, and she doesn't have to deal with your attitude while she's at it, neither do I for that matter." Memeko folded her arms under her breasts and glared at Ranma.
Ranma slammed her fist on the counter, and turned to Memeko. "She's tryin' to control my life!!! She tryin' to tell me how I should live, and who I should marry, and why I shouldn't do this or that!! It makes me sick!"
Memeko sighed and shook her head. "Ranma, Hiroshi talks alot about you when you're absent. He say's that you've told him that it feels like you have no control of your life, suddenly, when you're Mother tries to make things a bit more simple... you despise her care?"
"Tha's jus' it!!! SHE is trying to control me! I have no say in what path I must take!" Ranma leaned against the counter, staring down at the Sukyaki ingredients.
Memeko softened for a moment. She placed a hand on Ranma's shoulder. "I.... suppose we've both been somewhat harsh to eachother. Ranma, you're Mother is confused.... lost about how to react to you. She is afraid of losing you to your female side, so she wants you to understand what that might mean. Regardless of her own fear, she wants to show you both sides of the coin. She believes it might make you understand better how Akane and Ukyou think..." Memeko rubbed Ranma's shoulder affectionately, which produced a long... sad sigh from Ranma.
"I'm so tired of it, Memeko. Of all of it. I love Akane so much.... but I can't marry her jus' because someone tells me to. That just makes it all harder...." Memeko noticed the weary tone of Ranma's voice, and flinched slightly when she heard the girl's declaration of love.

After a moment, however, she cast off her worries. "Life is never easy, Ranma. With your curse, it is much more difficult.... I think you are beginning to see just a small amount of what Hiroshi has been battling these past few days when people tell him to confess his love for his secret girl." Memeko shook her head, and returned to her lasagna, leaving a resigned Ranma to muse over her words.

* * * * *

Hiroshi heard a door slam, and he sat bolt upright as it startled him. He had been slowly drifting back to his troubled sleep when the noise had resounded through the upstairs hallway.
He stretched, and picked himself up from the bed. He scratched the back of his head and climbed out of bed.
He shook his head, wondering what could have caused one of the few people in the house to slam the door.
He walked to the door, looking first at the slowly setting sun, then opened it and glanced both ways. He walked to the door he thought he had heard slam... knocking softly.
There was no answer... somehow, though, Hiroshi KNEW that someone was inside. A gut feeling in the pit of his stomach. He knocked again...
He heard a slight shuffling inside. "Hello?" He called. Hiroshi, slightly confused, placed his ear on the door. He could make out a faint sobbing... very silent.
He took the hazard of getting into trouble and turned the knob.
Nodoka had flung herself on the bed, and was crying into a pillow. Hiroshi looked back outside to make sure nobody was around, and walked in. He sat softly on the bed... Nodoka still too consumed with her own grieving to notice him.
"Nodoka.... Why are you crying?" Hiroshi placed a soft hand on her shoulder... causing her to jump as she realized she was not alone.
Mrs. Saotome looked up into the soft brown eyes of Hiroshi.... his worried demeanor troubling her more than her own emotional stress. "You... *Sniff*... You shouldn't worry about my problems, Hiro-kun. I can handle them myself...."
Hiroshi looked at her, a considering gleam in his eyes... he folded his arms across his chest. "You know, you and Ranma are very alike. At first sh- Ranma was reluctant to speak to me of the problems in he- his life.... I care,
Nodoka.... let me at least listen," Hiroshi looked back up at Nodoka Saotome, the woman who had been forcing
Ranma to face a decision that Ranma should never have had to face before.
Nodoka considered Hiroshi.... her own anguish pushed behind a fragile floodgate. "I... cannot speak of such things to you..."
"If you don't tell someone, it'll hurt more later." Hiroshi gave her a more worried, concerned expression than before. "C'mon. It certainly can't hurt to tell me at least."
Nodoka shook her head, then a thoughtful look filled with sadness glimmered in her eyes. "It's Ranma... I was asking her if she would consider carrying through on a new engagement to Akane...."
Hiroshi shook his head, a wry smile playing on his face. "That would do it, Nodoka-san..."
Nodoka looked at Hiroshi, a curious expression falling over her face. "What do you mean? And why do you seem so smug?"
Hiroshi turned to look directly into Nodoka's eyes. "I will say this once, Nodoka... and only once. Ranma is trying to find himself... herself.... whichever self she thinks she is. Her life up until now has been constant turmoil, people blaming her for faults not her own.... people attacking her for mistakes made unwittingly and without knowledge.... and then there is her Father. Your Husband has been trying to control Ranma's life since he left your doorstep, and the more control he imposed upon Ranma, the more Ranma got into trouble. Genma's method's usually ended in another enemy, another Fiancee... and sometimes even both," Hiroshi breathed in a long breath and let it out again. "That was a mouthful..."
Nodoka scowled at Hiroshi. "I am looking for only what is best for my Daughter and Son.... She needs the discipline to understand how hard her decision will be...."
"...Between Akane and Ukyou. But you see, Nodoka.... she doesn't. She is learning to be herself, her own person.... which I might add that your training is helping her very little in that respect. You are trying to make Ranma's female half the woman you believe is modeled perfectly for femininity. That, in itself, might destroy Ranma altogether.... but you don't seem to see something. Akane, Nabiki, Kasumi... are all very feminine in their own respects. Akane is caring and outgoing, Nabiki is... well, often boycrazy. And Kasumi? She loves her family, and everything that goes with it. The Liberated woman, the Extortionist, and the Traditionalist."
Nodoka looked at Hiroshi with an odd gleam of curiousity in her eye. "Hiroshi, why do you refer to Ranma as a girl all the time?"
Hiroshi's heart froze in his chest.... his thoughts plummeted down into his stomach and his gaze dropped from Nodoka. "It's... ah.... I....."
Nodoka waited for the boy, unsure why he was so apprehensive to answer. "Go on, Hiro-kun.... I'm waiting."
Something seemed to scream in the back of Nodoka's mind, most possibly the little hints she had been receiving about Hiroshi that she had never taken heed of. Alarms were going of in her thoughts, and she had no idea why.
"Its.... I guess because.... well, she's a girl a lot of the time since you came along.... and.... I just..." Hiroshi broke out into a cold sweat, fear gripping his insides like an iron vice.
Nodoka placed a hand on Hiroshi's shoulder. "It's all right, Hiro-kun. I understand you find it hard thinking of Ranma as a man when he is female so many times around you. There's no need to be worried!" Nodoka still felt the
slight nagging in the back of her mind, but ignored it on general principle.
Hiroshi looked cautiously back up at Nodoka... "Y... Yeah... that's what I was tryin' to say." Hiroshi breathed a sigh of relief, images of a katana flashing through the air quickly vanishing from his thoughts.
Nodoka frowned slightly. "I still do not know what to do with Ranma.... my child is so grown up, and I wish I had those years back that Genma stole...." A tear came back to Nodoka's eyes, and Hiroshi felt a bitter pang of
sadness for the woman.
"Nodoka-san... Ranma wishes for that too, but she knows that time has passed that can never be replaced.... she is happy to have you now. Please, treat her with respect and begin to see her as the young adult she is growing to be... do not try to cram a lifetime of womanly teachings down her throat." Hiroshi smiles softly, then stood looking down at Nodoka.
Nodoka looked up at the boy. "You seem more thoughtful than most your age, Hiroshi.... I am gratious for your kind spirit."
Hiroshi bowed. "I am always here to help when someone needs to speak." He stood again, winked, and left the room.
Nodoka sighed. The boy was a charming young man.... caring, resourceful, compassionate, sensitive to the needs of others.

He'd make a fine husband some day.

* * * * *

Moonlight streamed into Hiroshi's room, illuminating the walls with soft beams. Ranma set the alarm on the bed for an early start the next morning.
Hiroshi had told her that he would be busy into the night finishing one of his statues, and that he didn't mind her sleeping in his room.... Ranma objected, to begin with, but Hiroshi insisted that he would be fine sleeping the rest of the night on the couch.
*What is it with Hi, anyways? Every time I'm over here he insists on sleeping on the couch. Man, I know he's nice, but sometimes he takes it a bit too far.* Ranma sighed. She noted, thankfully, that Hiroshi had been getting more sleep the past several days. Of course, she sometimes had to nag him before he even ATTEMPTED to sleep...
Ranma hopped into the soft bed and pulled up the blankets around her. She thought absently for a moment. *Who could she be? This mystery Girl of Hiroshi's? If only I knew....* Ranma sighed again, sadly this time. *It hurts me when he's so depressed.... I wish I could do something for him...*
Ranma yawned, and her blue eyes slowly slid closed....
Images flash before Ranma, her Mother looking down at her with a cold, hard edge in her eyes. The Katana held out in front of her.
"Mom?" Ranma asks, looking up at her Mother, over a large lump in the bed resting over her stomach. Her mother held the cold stare, shifting her gaze from the lump over Ranma's stomach back to Ranma
"Look at yourself, Ranma... you are no son of mine!!!" Nodoka raised the Katana, and Ranma gasped. The arc of the blade slowly began to fall, the light glinting off the edge of it's tip...
The image faded, and there was an Image of Jusenkyo. Ranma found herself standing in front of the Nyannichuan, looking down into the pool. She watched casually as her male side began to sink deeper and deeper into the water, struggling to keep his head out of the pool. She noticed her reflection, a young girl with flowing red hair... The moon cycled from new to full, and seemed to cast a shadow over her and the pool, and then this image also vanished.
Ranma looked up over the mountains, seeing a dark palace form out of the shadows, and a mocking laughter echo in her ears, the Mask suddenly imposing itself over the image of her dream, and then like shattering glass, both visions vanished.
Ranma found herself standing in emptiness, looking around at the Void. "Hello?" Her voice echoed through the vast abyss. "Mom? Dad? Akane?" Ranma called out, no response forthcoming. She began to wonder where all her friends were, the loneliness disturbing her...
"Mousse? Ryouga? Shampoo? Ukyou?" She called off all the people she knew, and still no answer.... she began to shudder as the cold space seemed to be invading her body. Where were they? She felt so alone.... where were they when she needed them?
"Please.... anyone..... so alone...." Ranma shudderd, and fell to the ground, rubbing her arms. The cold, unyielding black seemed to shroud out all the hope... the confidence, the surety.
She noticed someone looking down at her. She felt tears falling through the darkness, her own tears. They seemed to fall forever, nobody there to understand, to care why she was crying.
"Ranma.... why are you crying?" Came a familiar voice. It was a comforting voice, that seemed to exhibit light and trust, and tenderness.... a compassionate voice that was sincere in the asking of this simple question.
Ranma looked up, at Hiroshi. At least, she thought, it was Hiroshi. His eyes seemed green, not his normal brown... and he was dressed in Japanese Noble-man garb from the 15th century. His soft brown hair blew calmly in a ghostly wind.
Ranma blinked, as Hiroshi dropped down to one knee. "Ranma... I am here. I promised you I would be here when you needed me... right?"
Ranma thought for a moment, and then nodded her head. "You promised, Hi... oh, I'm so glad to see you!" She flung her arms around him, relishing the feeling of a solid being... the loneliness seemed to ebb. How much she had needed someone.... someone honest, and real, and caring.... to hold onto in the darkness, to find through the contact that she was real.
"Ano... I'm sorry, Ranma...., I know your sadness...." Hiroshi embraced Ranma likewise, a single tear falling down his face. His comfort, his care, seemed to blanket Ranma.... assuring her that he was there waiting, always waiting, listening, understanding....
"It seems so empty.... I can feel them, just outside the darkness, but they cannot hear me. Akane, Pop... even Kasumi, and they never hear me, no matter how hard I yell..." Ranma sniffed, and wiped the tears she had been unaware she had wept. Why couldn't Akane be holding her? She couldn't get in.... inside this void for some reason. Her eyes had to see it first before she could find an opening.
"Ranma... you are so special to all of us... if you were to die, I do not know how I could continue. A Part of me would die with you..." Hiroshi shuddered at the thought of life without Ranma.
"Hi? Hiro-chan?" Ranma found herself saying, unsure why she would use such an affectionate title. She pulled back, her blue eyes meeting with his emerald green. "W...why?"
"Oh, Ranma... haven't you felt it? That stirring within.... that moving feeling whenever you look at me..." Hiroshi's face reflected sadness. His hair blew in that silent wind, as he looked deeply into Ranma's eyes... hoping beyond hope that Ranma could somehow realize the lies she had told herself.
Ranma shook her head, trying to keep unbidden thoughts from forming. "No.... Hiroshi, I'm not.... never that.... I'm a g... g...." Ranma shook her head vigorously. She couldn't let Hiroshi in.... not inside.... yet, he had gotten to the void, so was it possible she could keep him out?
"Ano...." Hiroshi cradled the confused girl's head in his shoulder. "Please, Ranma.... don't do this to yourself... you're hurting both of us..." Hiroshi let out a ragged, weary, mournful sigh.
Ranma found her eyes flowing with tears, but did not sob. She couldn't push Hiroshi out of the Void.... she NEEDED Hiroshi, he was the anchor to her soul.
"You know how you feel, that tightening of your heart when I am in pain.... that secret smile you flash at me when you think I'm not looking.... the way you feel when you hear me laugh, see me smile..." Hiroshi shook his own head.... looking around at their isolation in the darkness. "I feel these things too, Ranma.... Kami, I have wept so many times when I feared you would reject me...."
"Please..... please, Hi, don't do this to me... I can't, I can't.... not with you, I love you too much..." Ranma's mind registered the words moments later, her heart suddenly skipping a beat. "Kami.... no... I can't...." She pulled back, in fear, looking at Hiroshi with sudden horror.
Hiroshi looked back in sadness. "Ranma. You keep running from me, and you always seem so far away.... I've cried when I realize how easily you can be destroyed, how fragile the clay of your soul can be.... malleable, breakable by a single word..... a touch..." Hiroshi traced the jawline of Ranma's face as he spoke.
Ranma's eyes began to tear. "We.... WE can never be, Hi.... my.... Hiro-chan... Please, I was born a man.... do not make me..... choose...."
Hiroshi's face poised closer. "I cannot choose for you Ranma.... that, you must do yourself. All that I want for you, Ranma, is to be happy..." It hurts.... sometimes, to let someone you love find their own path. Hiroshi understood this, yet he could not force his feelings on Ranma, he cared too much for her to do that.
Ranma's eyes streamed crystal tears as she looked at Hiroshi.... her Hiro-chan. "Ano.... it's so hard, Hi.... so hard to tell you.... how I feel... to tell myself...." Her lips parted, moments from his....
For once, she knew the darkness would ebb.... and her shattered soul would be whole once more...
Ranma sat up abruptly, sweat beading out on her forehead. "Man... I gotta tell Mom to ease up on the Spices.... that was the weirdest one yet!" The fleeting voice of Ranma's subconcious quickly retreated back into her mind.
Ranma looked at the time. "Sheesh..... what a weirdo psycho dream..." Ranma shuddered as she thought of the things her dream self had said. *Yeah right.... that was so unrealistic I'm about ta retch.* A small voice that Ranma didn't hear sobbed silently in the back.... where she pushed the truth's she didn't want to accept.
"Oh well... back to sleep!" Ranma yawned, she couldn't admit that the dream had left her sleepless.... as she lay awake, confused at why she would dream something so far-fetched about her best friend.
For two more hours, she sat in the bed, her eyes still open.... trying to sleep, finding her mind wandering back to the odd dream over and over.

Eventually, she became exhausted from the immense loop she had tied herself into, and fell asleep mentally... which soon followed with physically.

* * * * *

Hiroshi sat on the front steps as the sun began to rise, a cup of tea in his hands. He watched as the first silent rays of light peaked over the horizon, casting the world once more into a new day.
"Mind if I watch?" A familiar voice sounded behind him. Hiroshi sighed at the question, then smiled slightly.
"If you really want to, Ranma. Be my guest." Ranma took a seat next to her friend, watching as the sun began to crawl past the horizon. There was a long moment of silence as Ranma and Hiroshi both watched, a certain awe of creation falling over their minds.
Whenever Ranma actually took the time out to consider the Sunrise, she found herself invigorated.... renewed. The very dawning of a new day seemed to tell her that anything could happen. Sometimes, when she thought about it too much, she dreaded the concept.
After all, it's not easy being Ranma Saotome.... Heir to the Anything Goes school of Martial Arts.
Hiroshi, however, looked at the dawning of a new day as hope for a brighter future... that any day could be the day that changes your life to the better... Reveals some secret truth, and Hiroshi always went forward into the new day with a healthy dose of courage...
Of course, his recent despair had dulled the effect... as he couldn't figure what to do with Ranma. *Or what not to do.* Hiroshi mentally stated to himself.
"It's kind of a simplistic beauty, huh, Ranma?" Hiroshi smiled and closed his eyes as the soft rays bathed his face in their radiance.
Ranma nodded. She looked at Hiroshi, the peaceful look on his face as he basked in the morning light. "Hi.... I was wondering something."
"Hmm?" Hiroshi opened his eyes and turned their soft brown presence to connect with Ranma's bright blue gaze.
"You've shown me so many things that I've always overlooked.... so many things I've taken for granted. You've given me something that I had thought I'd lost... joy in my life. I need to know why," Ranma looked at Hiroshi's eyes, a vague glimmer of the previous night's dream returning to her mind.
Hiroshi looked deeply into Ranma's eyes, then tore his gaze away.... looking back at the rising sun. "It's many things, Ranma. You're life is so hectic, crazy, out of control. Up until that night several weeks ago, I never knew how truly hopeless you felt. Since then, I've felt that my life would be so much more.... worthwhile if I could somehow be a friend to you. Where everyone else has failed, I wanted to succeed..." Hiroshi looked back at Ranma, a silent wonder in his gaze as he heard his own words.
Ranma smiled at Hiroshi's words. She knew Hiroshi understood.... why Ukyou had become less of a friend by her declaration of love. She found a profound caring for Hiroshi that he would take this task unto himself. Ranma had never realized how alone she had felt until Hiroshi filled that void with peace, joy, and harmony.
They both sat there, staring into eachother's eyes.... both lost in their depths, both unmoving. Ranma in denial of the emotions that Hiroshi stirred within her, and Hiroshi in fear of what those emotions might entail if he were to voice his own. Yet still.... as they sat there.... something connected.
"Ahem." Ranma and Hiroshi blinked and looked up, directly at Memeko. "Good morning, Ranma.... Hiroshi," Memeko looked at Hiroshi with a questioning glance, and Hiroshi shook his head softly.
Ranma looked at the Sunset and avoided Hiroshi's and Memeko's eyes, blushing furiously as she tried to figure out why her heart was racing. A staccato beat seemed to have formed in her head from the pumping of her heart.
"Er.... uhm. I've got to go practice. I'll be in a little later, Memeko."
Ranma stood and began walking around to the back of the house.
Memeko let out a deep breath before she sat next to her brother. "You still have not told her?"
Hiroshi shook his head, his own face quite red.
Memeko looked at her Brother, then to where Ranma had disappeared behind the house. *There was so much..... feeling in that gaze.* Memeko shook her head sadly. "Hiroshi.... I think it's best if you did. I was watching
you both for a good five minutes, just staring at eachother's eyes. Ranma.... I think she may be in self-denial of her emotions."
Hiroshi's shoulders slumped. "I can't do that, Memeko. Ranma's in love with Akane. She's supposed to inherit the Tendo Dojo someday, and it's her dream to carry on the School of Indiscriminate Grappling which she and Akane shall inherit from their Father's. I.... could never shatter her dreams like that. Her happiness is more important than my unrequitted love."
Memeko wrapped an arm over Hiroshi's shoulder, sighing with remorse. "Little Hiro-kun.... my little brother. Love is Never Easy... and I think that you're in Love with Ranma." Memeko recalled the words Hiroshi had just uttered, that Ranma's happiness was more important than his unvoiced feelings... only Love could put aside a
person's needs for another's dreams.

Hiroshi watched the sun, almost fully over the horizon, and smiled a bittersweet smile. "Gomen... Oneechan. I know for a fact I am..."

* * * * *

"Wake up, Sleepyhead." Ukyou shook Akane, who began mumbling softly as she hovered just beyond waking.
"I... go'way... sleep.... s'tired and gonna..." Akane held a pillow over her head, slowly drifting back to sleep.
"She no wake up, Ukyou. Maybe we use cold water?" Shampoo stood in the door, holding a bucket half-full of water in her hands.
Ukyou shook her head. "I think Akane would be pretty angry if we got her bed wet. Here, just help me pick her up..." Shampoo took one of Akane's arms and legs and Ukyou took the other two. They proceded to drag Akane out of her bed.
"Leggo! I'm still tired..." Akane mumbled, a bit more awake than to her liking. She'd been up for most of the night with Kasumi, touching up on the food they had all cooked together.
"Akane!!! We're going to be late for school if you don't get up!! We need your help with taking the food!!" Ukyou almost yelled in Akane's ears.
"Okay! Okay! I'm up already!!!" Shampoo and Ukyou set Akane down on the ground in front of her bed. Akane rubbed her eyes idly. "Gimme a break, Ukyou... I was up till 2:00 a.m." Akane yawned, then slowly pulled
herself onto her bed.
"I know you're tired, Akane... but if we don't hurry up, Hinako-Sensei will have us slapped in detention." Ukyou had never actually been in detention herself, but today was not the day in which she wanted to be.
Akane sighed heavily. "Okay.... I'll be down in a few minutes, I have to get dressed."
Ukyou and Shampoo looked at eachother, then back at Akane. "Are you sure, Akane-Chan? You no go back to sleep?" Shampoo moved to stand next to Ukyou.
"I'M AWAKE ALREADY!!!" Akane yelled. Ukyou and Shampoo flinched. "Okay... so maybe I'm a bit irritable. I'm sorry."
"It's okay, Sugar, I know how trying these last four days have been on you. We'll just be waiting downstairs." Shampoo walked out of the door as Ukyou spoke, and downstairs.
Ukyou turned to follow.
"Ukyou?" Akane asked, a thoughtful look on her face.
"Yeah, Akane?" Ukyou turned and looked at the youngest Tendo daughter.
"I'm sorry.... about everything." Akane had trouble getting those few words out, and seeing Ukyou's face suddenly take on a sad countenance did not help matters much.
"It's okay, Akane. I suppose all my dreams and hopes were never meant to be... Ranma.. he's..." Ukyou choked back a sob. "He's lucky to have someone.... like you."
Akane stood and walked towards Ukyou, stopping in front of her. The Okonomiyaki Chef and childhood friend of her fiancee looked at her, envy in those eyes... sadness in her soul.
"You love him, don't you Ukyou?" Akane noticed when Ukyou's eyes became distant, dreamy.
"How could you ask a thing like that, Akane. How could you ever dare to ask something like that of me.... All my life, I've lived as a boy. All my life, I've had to suppress my feminine side, because of Ranma. Our childhood friendship was the only thing that seemed.... real to me. These last few months it seems like everything about Ranma has somehow gotten into my heart, my soul. Ranma's kindness, his bravery, and every time.... it's always about YOU. Never about me, or Shampoo for that matter. We were never in the game to begin with.... we were just spectators, hoping for something we knew would never come..." Tears began to trickle down Ukyou's face, as she looked into herself. After a moment of silence, Ukyou looked back up at Akane, her eyes burning with a ferocious intensity. "And how COULD you.... how could you even DARE to ask me THAT!?!?!"
The sound of a slap resounded through the Tendo hallway, and for a moment, Akane stared in mute shock at Ukyou... her cheek turning bright red. Ukyou brought back her hand to strike again... but stopped when she saw the look on Akane's face.
A look of guilt, of pain, of understanding. Akane simply stood, waiting for the next blow to fall. "How could you..." Ukyou managed, before Akane wrapped the chef in her arms and Ukyou completely broke down.
Months of self-denial poured forth, as she finally realized that her Ranchan would never marry her... he had never seen her that way. With Akane around, he never would. Akane had changed in the past two weeks, become more caring, less volatile. Ukyou suspected that Ranma had been the cause of all of this...
After all, Ranma was usually the cause of everything in Nerima ward. Sometimes, Ukyou wondered if it all was some mad dream, like Lewis Carrol's Wonderland. Half the time none of it seemed real, or even feasible. The other half the time, it seemed ridiculous...
But that was the way it was around Ranma Saotome. Nothing was ever simple.... and NEVER love.
"I'm so sorry, Ukyou.... about everything." Akane murmured to the crying chef.
"It's... not your fault Akane.... It was mine for carrying on this delusion." Ukyou whispered between sobs.
Akane sighed. "You know that's not true. It's as much my fault as it is yours. I somehow knew in the end that some of us would be hurt.... no matter who Ranma chose. But you see, Ukyou, without that hope.... without that battle Love isn't worth much. Ranma's heart has been hard to win from the start, the stupid Baka...." There was a faint hint of humor in Akane's voice as she muttered those last words.
Ukyou sniffed, and stood again on her own, wiping the tears from her eyes. "It's.... been so long since I cried. I feel.... refreshed."

Akane smiled. "A good cry helps every once in a while, Ukyou.... I learned that a long time ago."

* * * * *

"Prithee, Foul Demon..... that you should plague Ranma's lovely body with your blaggart's tricks and evil wit!!! I shall, in 'ere end, by my Troth.... so foreswear that I, Tatewake K-MFGHFR!!" Kuno promptly fell over, Ranma's fist connecting solidly with the Kendoist's face.
"Can it, Kuno. I ain't got time for your stupid ranting." Ranma shook his head at the unconcious Kuno.... and began running through the hallway.
"Late, Saotome, The Hall...." Hinako said, pointing with a firm glare on her innocent child face towards the door. Ranma groaned, but walked out into the hallway, filling up two buckets of water and holding them in front of Hinako's door.
Ranma let his thoughts drift to the past..... His entire life, since setting foot on the Tendo's doorstep, had been a non-stop battle for his own sanity. He'd slowly, over the course of five months, learned that he loved Akane Tendo.
Sure, he would have loved to prove his Pop and Mister Tendo wrong, but that wasn't the case..... no matter how long Akane and Ranma had ignored their feelings, they yet remained.
Ranma thought over the last 3 weeks.... and how everything seemed to have calmed down. After months of non-stop, hectic adventures that always seemed to involve odd cures, strange women, or Martial Arts contests put on by various schools And sometimes a well Known Old Ghoul, who had conveniently vanished.
Ranma thought about how his own life had changed. For the past 3 weeks, he had been trying to say four simple words... "I am a Man." But it never came out, or if it did, it took supreme effort.
The chilling, disturbed presence still hung over him from Tofu's news.... and Ukyou's revelations. Ranma's Mother was turning him into a Woman. Something that scared, and shocked him with the sheer horror of the thought.
Ranma looked at the two buckets of water in his hands. Just a splash away was a man's worst nightmare..... and Ranma felt only half of what he had normally felt before things began calming. Ever since Hiroshi had stood in front of
Cologne, *He didn't hafta do that....* His lookout on life had changed greatly. Hiroshi wasn't as skilled in the martial arts as Ranma was, but he stood up for a friend regardless of his handicap.
Hiroshi, himself, seemed to preach a certain Gospel that calmed Ranma's soul. Ranma, somehow, found it unnerving that Hiroshi seemed to care so much about Him. However, to Ranma it was more unnerving that he couldn't help Hiroshi out when he needed the help.
Ranma wished more with every passing day that he could do what Hiroshi did.... take life, and enjoy every drop..... concentrate every moment into sheer brilliance, Resolution that seemed to clarify that life was to enjoy, not to despair.
Yet, he wished even more.... with pains writ in his heart, that he could ease Hiroshi's grief over a woman whom, apparently, would not have him. *What Woman wouldn't love Hi? He's kind, compassionate, caring, he listens.... oh boy, does he ever listen.....* Ranma chuckled to himself a moment, then looked at the school hallway.
The bell finally rang, and Ranma grinned widely. "Well, time to go to the Cafeteria for this.... taste competition." Ranma lowered the buckets as Students fled down the hallway to the cafeteria....
He ended up running by Nabiki, who was busy counting the money, and checking over her Little Black Book for the Betting Tables. She almost missed Ranma as he zoomed by her.
Almost, however, is never enough to miss Nabiki Tendo. "Ranma!! Slow down!!!" Ranma slowed, then stopped, turning to look at Nabiki.
"Yeah?"
Nabiki held out a hand. "2500 Yen," She said, smiling at Ranma.
Ranma stared at her for a long moment. "Funny, Nabiki.... I hafta get to the Cafeteria before the Tasting contest begins."
"Like I said, 2500 Yen. I was the one to talk Principle Kuno into letting you and Akane use the Cafeteria in the first place, and All the other Cooks have already payed the entrance fee." Nabiki grinned, pulling out her balance book and taking the pen from behind her ear.
Ranma gawked at Nabiki. "Don't TELL me you charged your own Sister?" He paused a long moment. "Hey!!! When did we have to pay to enter our own contest?!" Since Ranma had come to the Tendo Household, Nabiki had been trying to squeeze every last Yen out of him, citing the reason that he was 'Freeloading' off of their profits.
"Akane didn't object, and I don't like giving anybody an edge to work against me.... so she knows why I do things like this. As for Paying to enter the contest... YES." Nabiki scowled at Ranma. "If you had done well in Economics last Semester, you would've at LEAST known that Money Makes the World go round. Nabiki Tendo is a very busy woman, and buying space for time is also expensive." She scoffed, then shook her head at Ranma's Red face.
"Hey, I got nothin' to do with Economics. I didn't understand half the stuff Miss Kenashi was saying anyway, Nabiki, you know that." Ranma tried edging towards the Cafeteria, but Nabiki grasped firmly onto his Vest.
"2500 Yen, Ranma. Or I tell Principal Kuno that you'd like to have your Head shaved." Nabiki Grinned. "And you KNOW that *I* can arrange it."
Ranma had the intelligence to Gulp and pull his money out of his Pocket. "Ummmm... I've only got 2200, will 300 be good for later??"
Nabiki frowned, then took Ranma's money. "10% Tax for every day. Remember that, it's Compounded." Nabiki smiled. "You can go now, Saotome. I have to get the Betting Table calculations finished...."
"Yeah...." Ranma quickly ran to the Cafeteria, not looking back.

Nabiki counted the Yen. "Not bad for a days work. Ranma and Akane should really have these contests more often.... mmmmm....... 76000 Yen in Tickets for 380 people, and 15000 for Entrance Fee's. Not bad, not bad at all."

* * * * *

Ranma Stood behind the table with the various foods his Mother, Memeko, and he had created, his arms folded and an impatient look on his face. He looked over at Akane, who was similarly agitated, though she was pacing instead of standing, tensed, in one spot.
*Well, Ucchan and Shampoo don't seem so relaxed either....* Shampoo was frantically checking the food, making sure that nothing was wrong. Sometimes she tasted it, making sure that it tasted right.
Ukyou, on the Other hand, was trying to act bored by Sitting down and drumming her fingers on the table. She was, however, staring at all the students that were coming in, and nervously counting them.
Ranma knew that Shampoo and Ukyou would most likely be the less nervous of the two groups, as they were cooks for a living. Still, they seemed slightly agitated.
"Penny for your thoughts?" A Voice echoed in his ears. The soft, thoughtful voice was instant recognition to Ranma.
"Hiroshi!!! S'good t'see you, man!" Ranma slapped Hiroshi on the back heartily. A smile spread across his face.
Hiroshi grunted slightly from the slap, then looked at Ranma, who's tense demeanor seemed to have vanished. "I told you I'd be here. Gave you my word.... of Course, Nabiki had to toy with me before she gave me my ticket." Hiroshi looked at the Virtual Banquet set out on both tables. "Wow. Did you guys cook all this?"
"Yeah, Smells great, doesn't it? Kinda makes me feel a little proud for doing a good job." Ranma folded his arms again, looking with pride at the food that his Mother, Memeko, and He had created together.
"Yeah, it does smell pretty good. Hey Ranma," Hiroshi looked at the group of students walking into the Cafeteria, one amongst them being Dai.
"Yeah, Hi?" Ranma turned to his friend, and frowned as he saw that distant, sad, thoughtful look on his friend's face. *Why can't he just forget her?*
"Why were you so nervous a few moments ago?" Hiroshi turned back, looking at Ranma with his soft brown eyes.
Ranma scratched his head. "I dunno. I guess it was because I wasn't really sure if everything was going to go all right. You bein' around kinda makes me feel a little better, I guess." Ranma laughed lightly, putting a hand on Hiroshi's shoulder. "Kinda funny, Huh?"
Hiroshi sighed. Maybe his sister was right, that Ranma was in Self-denial..... but he couldn't take Akane away from Ranma. They were fated to be together, every time Ranma talked to Hiroshi about Akane, there was this light in his/her eyes.... and this wistful, distant tone in Ranma's voice. "Yeah.... I guess."
Ranma stared at Hiroshi's demeanor as he walked away. "What'd I say?" He asked, not particularly to anyone, feeling suddenly bad for having put Hiroshi into his dour mood.
"Nothing, Ranma. Just be glad that Hiroshi is here, he wanted to stay home but his word to you was very important to him." Ranma jumped, then looked at Memeko, who was smiling wistfully.
"Uhm.... I didn't really expect to be answered, Memeko-chan, but thanks." Ranma looked back at Hiroshi, then the food.

"You're welcome, Ranma-kun. Just be careful with Hiroshi, and remember your promise." Memeko turned and walked over to Nodoka, leaving Ranma with his thoughts.

Hiroshi.

*How can Ranma do that to me?? It's already hard enough trying to keep both her and Akane together.... without knowing that Ranma cares for me.* Hiroshi walked over to the table where Akane, Shampoo, and Ukyou were standing.
"Hiya, Hiroshi-kun!" Ukyou said, suddenly brightening at Hiroshi's presence.
"Nihao, Hiroshi." Shampoo mumbled, while lifting the lid to Akane's Sukyaki and checking to make sure everything was all right.
"Hello, Hi. How's life treating you?" Akane asked, walking up to Hiroshi.
"You know, Akane. The usual.... Life's good, Friend's are great, and everything is fine." Hiroshi smiled a bit, but the smile didn't touch his eyes.
Akane frowned, folding her arms beneath her breasts and looking at Ukyou with a nervous, worried look, then back at Hiroshi. "You sure everything is fine, Hiroshi? You haven't been by in a while, and you've been a little.... glum at school recently."
Hiroshi sighed shaking his head. Ukyou now wore a worried look too, which was not wasted on him. "I'm fine, Akane. Whatever problems I might have I can handle. Really." He turned to walk away.
"It's about that Girl, Isn't it?" Ukyou asked suddenly as Hiroshi was turning away. His body froze for a moment.
"Girl? What girl?" Akane asked, looking at Ukyou in confusion.
"Hiya, Akane Not know about Hiroshi Girl-trouble? She even more out of loop than I...." Shampoo turned her attention to Hiroshi, and moved to a seat herself.
"It's not girl-trouble, Shampoo. I can handle it." Hiroshi said angrily. How could Shampoo know? He never told her. Could she have heard simply from word of mouth?
"That's a load of Bull, Hiroshi. You know damn well you came into the Ucchan and started talking about your girl troubles. Dai was there too, and he heard just as clearly as I did." Ukyou glared at Hiroshi, and Akane looked between the two. Shampoo sighed loudly.
"What girl, Hiroshi??? What girl are you having trouble with?" Akane asked, completely clueless of the entire subject.
"I can't tell you. You know her." Hiroshi stated flatly. "If she knew I liked her, she would get angry, she would hate me.... and that would hurt too much for my fragile soul."
Akane frowned. "You can't tell us? How are we supposed to help you if we don't know who it is?"
Hiroshi shook his head. Things were never easy. "You would be angry, too, Akane. Like I said, you know her."
Akane stared at Hiroshi a long moment. then shrugged. "Fine. Don't tell us. But you'd better tell her before things get worse, I saw how you were for the past week, and although you look a lot better today, I'd bet that the girl who's giving you trouble is the cause of all of it."
Hiroshi nods. "You'd bet right, too. As for telling her, Ranma made me promise to tell her when the first snow came, so you can be sure she will know."
Shampoo looked at Hiroshi a long moment as he Spoke to Akane. "Hiroshi, you no should keep inside emotion.... is bad. Mousse no be husband if I kept in emotions when need to be released. It true, he no be alive today. You be carefull."
Hiroshi looked at Shampoo, so did Ukyou and Akane. They all were slightly surprised at the perceptive comment, especially from Shampoo. Hiroshi smiled a moment later. "I will, Shampoo. Thank you for not trying to tell me what to do.... too many people seem to want to." He glared at Akane and Ukyou.
Akane looked abashed and ashamed, glancing over at Ukyou, who was likewise embarrassed. "We're sorry, Hi. We were only trying to help you."
Hiroshi's face softened. "I know, Akane. I know you both mean well, but my road is my own to walk. I'll try and be careful in the walking, even though I walk alone." He smiled. "Now then, I suppose we should get this contest underway, Ne?"
Akane, Ukyou, and Shampoo looked at him slightly startled at the sudden change of attitude.
Hiroshi Looked around. "Where's Kasumi?"
"Oh, she had to go talk to Memeko. They both should be back in a few minutes." Akane stated, looking at Hiroshi's clothes. "Why are you dressed like that?"
"What, this?" Hiroshi was dressed in a black and white tux, with a Blue Tie. "I'm the coordinator of the Contest, so I'll be explaining the rules. Incidentally, the Competition is a Vote based win." Hiroshi gestured out to the 170 students in the audience. "Since anyone from the teams could be biased, Nabiki agreed to help me find some way to determine the winners. This seemed the best method."
The three girls exchanged glances.... Akane was slightly angry at first, but after giving it some thought, she decided that Hiroshi's Idea had been a good one.
She groaned. "Fine. Get on with it, Hiroshi."
"Will do, Akane-chan." With that, he turned to the gathered crowd, a Mike suddenly appearing in his hand from nowhere.
LADIES AND GENTLEMAN OF FURENKIN HIGH! WELCOME TO THE FIRST ANNUAL CULLINARY COOKOFF CHAMPIONSHIP! OUR COMPETITORS TO THE LEFT OF ME gestured left ARE TEAM RANMA!!! various cheers ring out through the crowd
TEAM MEMBERS INCLUDE SAOTOME NODOKA, SAOTOME RANMA, AND O'CONNELAY MEMEKO! TO THE RIGHT OF ME IS TEAM AKANE! More cheers carry over the crowd.
INCLUDING TENDO AKANE, KUONJI UKYOU! AND XIAN PU, OUR LOCAL CAT CAFE MANAGER! several men cried out their affection for Akane, or Ukyou. Some even for the newly married Shampoo. NOW, WITHOUT FURTHER ADIEU, THE RULES! THE CONTEST SHALL BE BASED SOLELY UPON YOUR PRIVELEGED VOTING ON BEST-TASTE! ANYONE TAMPERING WITH THE VOTES SHALL PROMPTLY BE DISQUALIFIED! ANYONE VOTING MORE THAN ONCE SHALL BE EXEMPT FROM THE VOTE COUNT! LET THE TASTING BEGIN!!!
Hiroshi stepped aside as the People began to form two lines. One for Team Akane's cooking, and one for Team Ranma's.
Hiroshi went to the Voting Box and took a seat, and watched silently as people started getting their food.
"I have to admit, Hiroshi-kun, this went over fairly well with both parties." Nabiki grinned as she took a seat beside Hiroshi. "From the base cost of 15000 Yen I had to pay the Principal, I made a rough estimate of 75000 Yen."
Hiroshi whistled. "Not a bad day for you, Nabiki. Glad I could be of help."
"Oh, I thank you most gratiously. I hope we can do business in the future.... this will most likely pay off any debts that you or Daisuke owe me. As well as Ranma's large sum of Money which he's been freeloading since he arrived. I bet you're thrilled about that last...."
Hiroshi looked at Nabiki, raising an eyebrow as his heart skipped a beat. "Whatever do you mean, Nabiki?" He said, not entirely in a level tone of voice.
Nabiki smirked, and the predatory gleam returned to her eyes. "I think you know what I mean, Hiroshi-kun. Do not think me a fool when my perceptions are far more.... delicate than the rest in my family."
"I don't know what you're talking about..." Hiroshi said, turning his gaze away from Nabiki. How did she know? Hadn't he been careful enough? *Perhaps she's bluffing...*
"Don't think I haven't seen the way you look at Ranma sometimes. It's not like I'm some idiot like Saotome is. Hell, even Ranma's Mother hasn't noticed yet. Tendo Nabiki, however, is no pushover. I see things other people miss." Nabiki glared at Hiroshi a long moment as the boy's eyes turned slightly sad.
"Please, Nabiki.... don't tell Ranma...." Hiroshi looked back at Nabiki, who had a cool, calculating look plastered across her face now.
"I would do no such thing, Hiroshi. I'm not heartless.... I know how you feel about Ranma." Nabiki raised her index finger and held it between her own face and Hiroshi's. Her voice had a touch of violent intent as she spoke.
"But I will say this, Hiroshi, and I know you're an intelligent boy and that will understand it. Stay away from Ranma if you can't control your goddamned emotions. My Sister Loves him, and He loves her. They will marry, and everything will be fine. If you interfiere, then you will pay far more than money."
Hiroshi had the intelligence to flinch. He had never, in all the years that he had known Nabiki, heard such a hostile tone.... never seen her so serious and defensive of anything.
Hiroshi sighed. A long, tired, soul-weary sigh. "Nabiki. The past three weeks all I've been striving to do is make Ranma happy. All that I've tried to do is help Ranma become closer to Akane. Even after I found out how I felt..... I knew that there was no place for me in Ranma's life.
So I live each day as I can, the pain in my soul slowly eating away at me..... the knowledge that Ranma can never accept my love. That I can never tell her how I feel. It's like a serrated blade twisted in my gut, that I can't pull out because it would hurt more.
I can't hurt Ranma that way. So I suffer that pain myself. I can't let her go either.... because I need her. No matter how much I want to tell her I love her, I need her friendship, her compassion....
So I do the only thing I can do, Nabiki. I love her, silently..... painfully. The only way I can show her.... show.... sh.... show her how m..... much I l.... love her...... is..... is...." Hiroshi paused, wiping the fresh tears from his face. He smiled, and looked at Nabiki. "Is to make her happy." He stared at Nabiki, who had an even harder look, if that was possible.
"Stay away from Her, Miramoto Hiroshi." Nabiki stated, her voice wavering with seeming anger.

Hiroshi smiled a sad smile..... "I made a promise." Nabiki stared at him for another long moment, and then stood and left the cafeteria.

* * * * *

Nabiki walked quickly out into the hallway, stopping suddenly in the darkness and turning to a group of lockers.
She screamed in frustration, then slammed a fist into one of the lockers..... leaving a fist-shaped dent.
"Dammit..... Kami dammit, Ranma what have you done to us....." Nabiki realized she was crying. She didn't bother to wipe the tears away, only more would come.
She had known Hiroshi, grown up with him, known him as she would know a brother. He had been the brother that the Tendo's never had. He never came to their house before Ranma had arrived, but just from school and childhood memories Nabiki could recall the wistfull, dreamfilled boy of years long past.
"Dammit..... Dammit Dammit Dammit....." Nabiki felt the ball of ice in her stomach as she turned, leaning against the broken locker, and slowly sank to the floor, looking at her badly bruised hand.
The tears Kept coming..... and she had difficulty seeing anything but what flashed in her mind. The lost, destroyed look Hiroshi had on his face.
She had done what she must. Kami, did she hate it...... she had done what she must to protect her family. *Hiroshi..... I'm so sorry....*
It had never been Hiroshi's fault.... it was not his fault that he had fallen in love with Ranma. Love was never planned. Love was never intended to happen, not true love. It was instant, magnificent... an epiphany of a single moment when you saw the truth of the person, and that your soul would never be the same.
"....Dammit....." Nabiki couldn't say anything else. It was how she felt. Hiroshi loved Ranma. There was no mistake about it..... Hiroshi Loved Ranma more than Life. Not like Shampoo, Not like Ukyou.
No, Nabiki had seen Ukyou's Love. It was the love of a friend, who could be more. It was the love of a childhood companion, grown up into a woman.... the love Ukyou had was for Ranma's friendship. Ukyou loved
Ranma because she wanted a friend in life, to share a family with, to laugh together, to cry together.
Shampoo had loved Ranma for his strength. His powerful will and spirit...... and because it was law to her. It was true that there was some love in Shampoo for Ranma, but it wasn't pure. It wasn't True Love.
No, Akane Loved Ranma truly, purely. Yet Akane didn't know Ranma half as much as she should. Akane and Ranma had always kept up fronts for eachother, a constant battle that was waged with insults... only rarely did they put away their weapons and agree to a truce of Love.
"Hiroshi.... Kami Dammit.... I'm so Sorry Hiroshi...." Nabiki whispered through her tears, staring at her blurry hands.
Hiroshi loved Ranma. Everything about Ranma. Nabiki saw it like a blinding white light..... Hiroshi knew Ranma within and without..... Hiroshi loved the Artistic symmetry Ranma's soul matched his own with. He loved Ranma's
Strength, His friendship, His Compassion, His Simple wishes, His complex fears, His tumultuous Life, His smile, his laughter....
Everything. *Dammit.....* Everything that was Ranma Hiroshi loved. Nabiki was sure that Hiroshi loved Ranma's very breath. It was.....
Pure. Untainted. Untouchable. Unattainable by almost all the population. Only the few, the lucky...... only they found love so true.
Hiroshi was willing to put it all on the line for Ranma. Nabiki didn't need to hear it from him, she knew it by the broken look in Hiroshi's eyes.
"I made a Promise." Echoed in her ears.
"Stay away from Ranma, Miramoto Hiroshi..." She had told him. Better to tell him not to breathe, or not to live. Hiroshi was with Ranma every moment of the day.... because although Ranma didn't see it, Nabiki did. Ranma, in his own way, loved Hiroshi.
Yet, he didn't know it. Nabiki prayed he never would, yet that in turn hurt her as well.... she was afraid for Akane what might happen if Hiroshi voiced himself to Ranma.
It hurt, for Nabiki, because of Hiroshi. A boy she had grown up with....
That she had hurt to protect her family.
"Kami Dammit..... Ranma..... what have you done to us...." Nabiki hung her head, and stopped thinking.

She just cried.

* * * * *

"Hey Ranma, this was a great idea, Man!" Daisuke doled out some Lasagna while speaking to his friend.
Ranma frowned, looking at Dai. "Hey Dai, what happened to your face?" He asked, pointing to the light bruise on Daisuke's cheek where his Father had struck him.
Dai laughed, and Ranma smirked. "Well, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was at one of Kodachi's fights, and a chair ended upside my head. Serves me right for wanting front row seats."
Ranma shook his head. "You've gotta be more careful, Dai. Especially in one of Kodachi's fights. Heck, Kuno got hit with a table that one time. I'd hoped it might improve his intelligence, but hey, we can't get everything we
wanted, Ne?" Dai grinned at Ranma's statement, nodding his head.
The wall suddenly collapsed in the cafeteria, and a feral yell echoed against the walls of the room.
"RAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANMAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!"
Ranma turned to look at the person who yelled, his body tensing as he recognized the voice.
"Hiya, Ryouga. Care for some Sukyaki?"
Ryouga ran at Ranma, his umbrella held high above his head. "RANMA SAOTOME PREPARE TO DIE!"
Ranma flipped up and over Ryouga. "Is this about last week when I was dressed like a girl, or are you still whining about that hair thing?"
"Grrrrrrrrrrrrrr..... Both are reason enough to beat that confident smirk off your face!!!!" Ryouga swung his umbrella following with a kick.
Ranma dodged the umbrella, then somersaulted backwards and landed Gracefully on Team Akane's Table.
"This ain't exactly the place for a fight, Ryouga. Couldn't we do this later?"
Ryouga growled loudly. "My entire life has been made hell.... a practical mockery, all because of YOU! It's the Same, Night or Day, and ANY TIME!!! I won't wait for justice to be served, when you can pay right now!!!"
Ryouga launched a flurry of Punches which Ranma blocked using the Tenshin Amaguriken technique.
"Ranma!!! Take it outside, and away from our food!!!" Akane yelled. "If you mess this up, I will be so Mad!!! I spent a long time working on that food!!!"
Ranma looked down at Akane. "Geeze, Akane, Ryouga attacked ME for cryin' out loud!"
"BAKUSAI TENKETSU!!" Ryouga launched his finger at the table.... and Ranma leaped at him. "RYOUGA!!! DON'T!!!"
Ranma's Words Came too late as the Table exploded, sending most of the food to splatter against the wall and spectators.
The Sukyaki, in the silver platter, flew up into the air, and Ukyou had the sense to catch it.
Akane, however, didn't note that her main cuisine had been saved as she began to turn bright red, and her fists clenched.
"Awww, c'mon Ryouga!!! Can't you just listen for once, instead of just tryin' to beat me up anywhere and everywhere?!! YOU JUST RUINED AKANE'S COOKING!" Ranma yelled at the boy as he dodged several
strikes and punched Ryouga several times out of reflex.
Ryouga stopped at Ranma's words. "You mean, that wasn't your food I wrecked?"
"NO! IT WAS AKANE'S!!!" Ranma yelled, hands above his head.
Ryouga pointed behind Ranma. "Then that would be the table with your food?"
"YES!" Ranma was frustrated that Ryouga could be so dense sometimes.
*SMASH!* The table flattened Ranma to the floor. Akane's teeth were gritted and her fists were clenched at her sides.
"I told you to take it outside, but you wanted to argue about it!!!" Akane glared at the flattened Ranma, then at Ryouga. "You're also at fault, Ryouga-kun!"
"I'm sorry Akane.... I had thought that it was Ranma's food..... I would never have attacked your table." Ryouga bowed low.
Akane sighed. "You're forgiven for that, Ryouga. Ranma should have taken it outside when he had the chance.... but you're also at fault! Why you and Ranma fight so much, I don't understand, but I'd like it if you left, Ryouga. You just ruined a perfectly good day."
Ryouga flinched, then nodded his head. "O....okay Akane-san. I will go. I am sorry."
Akane watched him go, then turned to look at the crowd, which was mostly gone. Only a few people left votes, as most of them were eager to get out of the cafeteria before fighting broke out.
Shampoo handed Akane the Sukyaki, a solemn look on her face. "Pig-boy ruin food we make....."

"It's okay, Shampoo.... it's not the food that's so important, it's what we learned the past few days together that we should remember." Ukyou said, wiping some fruit salad off of her shirt.

* * * * *

"Team Ranma, 27.... Team Akane, 23." Hiroshi looked up at Ranma and Akane. Ranma had a pack of ice on his head, and Akane had an angry look on her face as she held her Sukyaki.
"Guess I win, Huh Akane?" Ranma said in a level, bored tone.
"Shut up, Ranma!!! That wasn't a fair contest. Ryouga screwed everything up." Akane punched Ranma in the arm.
"I know, Akane.... but what'm I s'pose to do about it? My team won. Even if it wasn't fair." Ranma said, somewhat sadly.
Hiroshi looked at Ranma for a long moment, and at Akane, who was very red. "Ranma, maybe you should leave off while you're a head." Hiroshi said, looking with concern at both Ranma, and Akane.
"Yeah, the baka should know when to stop. That'll be the day." Akane's tone of voice didn't sound too friendly to Hiroshi, and he hoped that everything they had made over the past few weeks wouldn't go to pot because of something he had planned that didn't work out.
"Hey, What's that supposed to mean Akane?" Ranma turned to Akane, looking down at her.
"Just what I said, you big Jerk. If you and Ryouga would have just had enough sense to stay outside, maybe we would've won." Akane clenched her teeth, while Ukyou and Shampoo fidgeted uncertainly.
"Akane, remember what I said! The contest wasn't what was important, it was the things we learned from working together...." Ukyou tried to say.
"Can it, Ukyou!!! I wanted to beat Ranma.... just this once....." Akane said with a bitter tone.
"Ranma..... perhaps it's best to put it aside. In a way, Akane did win over you, because she learned a lot more than you did by this contest by the sound of it." Nodoka placed her hand on her Son's shoulder, looking at him with a concerned air.
"I know I learned a lot about all of that, friendship, teamwork and stuff.... but I want a fair fight!!! One involving martial arts!!!" Akane looked determined, and Hiroshi shook his head, knowing another challenge was about to be made.
"Whadda ya mean, Akane? I don't wanna fight you..... I don't fight girls." Ranma said flatly, which earned him a glare from his mother.
Akane turned bright red. "THAT DOES IT!!!! RANMA!!! I CHALLENGE YOU TO A MARTIAL ARTS DANCING CONTEST!"
"Martial Arts Dancing Contest?" Everyone said with a question.
"Next week is the Prom. I'm challenging you to the Martial Arts Dancing Contest!!!:

"Here we go again...." Hiroshi groaned.

* * End 2:2 * *

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Next, on Ranma 1/2! Akane decides enough is enough!!! She challenges Ranma to a fight on the danceroom floor! What? Hiroshi is Ranma's Partner?!?! Will Hiroshi finally admit his feelings to Ranma?!? Will Akane win the Dance-battle? Stay Tuned for the Next Episode of Ranma 1/2!!!

* * * * *

((Ending Song is "Equal Romance" With added pics of Ranma and Hiroshi in the vaults with their statues, and Daisuke hanging out with Ranma and Hiroshi.))
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