FC: Episode 4

Welcome, yet again, to another Epic Episode of our Beloved "Fragile Clay" Series! I am your Host, Kaoru Shimitsu. This Fic seems to be building up a little popularity Though I don't rightly know why.... so I decided that now would be a good time to start on another episode.

I think that, through the beginning of the first episode, I had despaired ever finishing the pilot.... and look, here I am on the 4th episode, cheerily plugging away at a storyline that everyone seems to like.

Of course, comments and criticism are very helpful, and I am actually begging any of you out there who like this to send your C&C to my e-mail! Opinions, Ideas of what might make the story better, things you like, things you didn't like..... Anything is welcome. But just don't flame me needlessly.

As before, I would like to thank a few people.....

Frank-Kun of the Ranma 1/2 Library for Tolerating me and putting up with my stories on his Page....

Tokibana Yumeko, for being a great C&C fan, and for conversing with me in the wee hours of the morning about this fic, giving me some ideas and input about it, and pointing out a few things I never thought of.

Emry-kun Nabiki From #RanmaRPG on Starchat, for helping my creativity with the story, delving into a future character's Psyche, and for just being an all around great friend.

I'd also like to thank my Adopted Imoutochan from Starchat #RanmaRPG on mIRC as well, for being such a great player, friend, and always being there for me. ^_^

And I can never forget the people who have gifted me with their love, both in the past and the present, and hopefully the future. My family, Sera, Josh, Ken... Lots of love you guys.

Then there are all the people who have actually e-mailed me.... You guy's know who you are.... Thank you for actually responding to me about this beginning fic.

Then there's all the rest of the fans, who I am doing all of this for..... I hope you like it. If you don't, well then why are you reading episode four, Bakas? ^_^

Sin.

Kaoru-Ryuu, Of Ryuu Shimitsu

{kaoru@mosquitonet.com}

Disclaimer here:Rumiko Takahashi owns the Ranma 1/2 Characters. Deal with it. I own All original Characters, so ask me before goin' and stealin' them away, okay you tools?

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Fragile Clay: Volume 2

Episode:4

"The Ballroom Blitz?! Akane's Prom Night Challenge!"

The cracking of a cement block rang out through the clear morning air, and a flock of birds took wing as the sound resounds through the calm, breaking the still that seems to surround Nerima Ward. The brisk scent of winter hangs over Tokyo, ominously foreshadowing that perhaps winter is in a bit of a late swing.... but no less prominent in it's arrival. It would be here soon, by the chill of the air.

The loud sound had resounded from the Dojo of the Tendo family, where three daughters lived with their widowed father.

Recently, over the past year or so, the Tendo household had been housing the Saotome's. Ranma and Genma. Along with these two followed, to most it would seem, all the chaos the world had forgotten.

From a dojo destroyer, to princes of lost lands who come seeking a bride, from ancient martial artists well over 300 years old, to various victims of the Accursed Springs of Jusenkyou.

Recent events, however, had been quiet.... too quiet.... and quiet in Nerima is like fish in the Sky... it was far too odd to the residents. Which, through simple deduction by most people, foretells that it was not to last.

And undoubtedly to be the center of whatever happened was the man whose life fate had decided to smile upon, the young soul whose destiny was forever bound by a curse that held his fate in the balance, the young Saotome boy.....

Ranma Saotome.

* * * * * *

"HIIIIYA!" Another slab of concrete snapped in half, almost effortlessly. Ranma huffed for a moment, looking at the two halves of the block he had just split. It never ceased to amaze him how easy it seemed.... focus, concentrate, and strike.

Of course, he was not used to breaking blocks. That was more of an Akane type thing to do.

Ranma walked over to the pile of cement blocks, and carefully picked one. He returned to his place and set it on the platform before him. He assumed his proper stance and gazed at the block a long moment..... his mind, for some reason, wandering back to the contest four days before.

It had been the first direct challenge he had made against his once fiancee, Akane Tendo, since he had set foot on the Tendo's doorstep. A cooking challenge. Now, most people who were familiar with Akane Tendo's cooking skills would think anyone was mad as a hatter to initiate a challenge involving cuisine..... but, in a way, it had been something Ranma had to do. Hiroshi had pointed THAT out to him.

"Man, 'Roshi, now I'm in more of a mess than before!" Ranma sighed, and struck the block with his fist, smashing it in two effortlessly.

His friend, Hiroshi, had been the one to suggest the idea, so that Ranma could smooth things over with Akane after one of their many fights. Hiroshi seemed to be doing a lot recently to help Ranma out of the insanity that infested his daily existence.

Of course, things did not go as planned..... Ryouga Hibiki, Ranma's arch-rival, had barged into the cafeteria, and promptly destroyed a table.... initiating a very short battle which ended quickly due to Akane's renowned temper.

In fact, Ranma ended up with a table smashed over his head. Not at all a pleasant feeling. *Why'd she hafta go'n do that?* Ranma shook his head, and wiped his brow with his arm. He could still imagine that his head smarted from the blow.... even though the pain had quickly passed after the initial attack.

Because of Ryouga's interruption, Akane had ended up losing the challenge.... which didn't make her at all happy. While Ukyou and Shampoo tried to calm down the youngest Tendo girl, telling her that winning wasn't what was important, she insisted on a formal challenge involving martial arts.

Ranma sighed, slumping his shoulders. *Ranma, if you had kept your fool mouth shut she wouldn't have thought a second about another challenge.....* Ranma brought his gaze back up to the pile of broken concrete around him.

"Gonna clean that up, Ranma, or are you too much of a girl to lift the rubble?" Ryouga..... his voice was a constant taunting jest to Ranma. Whenever Ryouga found something that got to the Saotome boy, he pounded on that nerve until there was little choice left but to pound on his face.

Ryouga leaned against the dojo entrance, staring at Ranma with a smug expression on his face.

"Shutup, Ryouga.... I told you last time not to push me, and I almost hurt you seriously. You can't be tellin' me that you LIKED having your ugly face beaten in, do ya?" Ranma turned to Ryouga with fire in his eyes. If there was one thing Ranma couldn't stand, it was Ryouga making fun of his female side, and demeaning his masculinity.

Ryouga shook his head. "No, but you sure seemed to like it, Ranma. Makes me wonder if you won't fly off the rocker and hurt Akane like you did me," Ryouga scoffed, turning to look at the blocks.

Ranma clenched his fists, glaring at the Hibiki child. "You better watchit, Ryouga, or you'll regret what I do to you. You pushed the line last time.... You..... You've got no idea what I've been through, man....,"

Ryouga returned his smug expression to Ranma. "Maybe not, but I think you're losing it Ranma. What self respecting man would wear make up and dresses?"

Ranma growled and began running to Ryouga. "RYOUUUUGAAAA!" Ranma began throwing a furious amount of punches at Ryouga, and Ryouga began blocking them, while still holding his smug expression.

For a good ten minutes, Ranma and Ryouga exchanged attacks, neither seeming to gain any footing to launch a counter offensive. They both seemed evenly matched to each other, and locked in a dance of graceful deadliness. Then, Ranma found an opening...

"KACHUU TENSHIN AMAGURIKEN!" Ranma yelled, breaking into a furious blur of fists, Ryouga's smug look vanished as Ranma pummeled him to the ground.

Ranma heaved a breath. "Thanks, Ryouga. I needed that." Ranma grinned, picking Ryouga up and setting the boy against the wall.

"That.....wasn't..... very nice, Ranma.....," Ryouga huffed, gritting his teeth as he looked at Ranma.

"Yeah, and where did it say in the rules that I gotta be nice to a meat-head like you, piggy?" Ranma laughed, turning and bowing to the Dojo, then put his slippers back on and stepped outside. Ryouga was bright red as he left.

* * * * * *

Ranma walked into the Tendo Household and silently slipped his shoes off, yawning in the process. The past three days he had been practicing alone in the dojo, and casually wearing himself out every night. It beat having to deal with Akane mentioning the challenge she had initiated.

Ranma slowly padded through the living room, where Nabiki was Reading a book titled, "The Economics of Money in Japanese Society," and Soun and Genma were playing a game of Shogi.

Ranma glanced casually at Nabiki, then headed upstairs as he thought to himself. Nabiki had been strangely silent for the last four days, not muttering more than a few sentences to him at any given time.

He had asked her about it, but had received only a cold glare in return.... the glare Nabiki gave people when she thought it was better they not ask, for their sake.

Ranma slowly pushed the door to his room open and plodded in, somewhat tired from the fight with Ryouga and the exercises he had been doing all night since dinner had ended.

He virtually collapsed on the futon, the events of a very vigorous day wearing at him. He'd been busy today exercising with his father. Genma hadn't been talking to him much since their fight seven days ago, but had agreed that today they would train together.... if only to keep Ranma's abilities up to par.

Of course, Genma had said almost nothing during the day except to give Ranma some encouraging advice, or to comment on something important. It unnerved Ranma that he could have driven his father to such a reaction.

Of course, when Ranma had yelled at Genma he had said some fairly strong words that had struck deep to Genma's heart. Ranma wasn't so sure it could be repaired so easily, even though he regretted it now.

Ranma heard the door to his room slide open, and he sat up, looking at the doorway. He instantly recognized the sillouhette, and sighed again.

"Heya, Akane....." Ranma said half-heartedly. Somehow, he had been somewhat depressed recently, although he didn't know why. Maybe it was because Hiroshi had begun avoiding him again, even after their talk.

*I hope it snows soon, I'm not sure I can take much more of this from him....* Ranma mentioned to himself. He didn't know why, but having Hiroshi happy had become a major driving force in his life recently.

"Is that all? Heya Akane? No, 'Sorry Akane for avoiding you so much recently' or 'Sorry for what happened at the Cooking Contest'?" Akane walked in slowly.... there was very little anger in her voice, Ranma noticed.... and Ranma wondered if she had calmed down over the entire cooking ordeal.

"Well.... I dunno what to say, really..... I accepted your challenge, Akane, what else do you want from me?" Ranma rested his elbows on his knees, and looked at Akane as he tilted his head.

Akane took a seat beside Ranma, a worried expression on her face. "You've been trying to stay away from me, as if I wanted to hurt you again. I think the table did enough damage to that poor brainless head of yours...." Akane smirked.

"Hey! Watchit, you Kawaiikune Tomboy.... I'm jus' as smart as anyone else," Ranma was a bit red from Akane's comment, but turned even brighter red when Akane laughed.

"Oh Ranma, I was just kidding. Geeze, you never know how to take a joke, do you?" Akane placed a hand on Ranma's shoulder. "I have to know, Ranma, there's something bothering you, isn't there?"

Ranma stared at Akane for a long moment, then looked over at the mirror. For a moment, an image flickered in it.... an imagining by Ranma's psyche.... a flash of red hair. "Well....."

"I know there is. It was back when we went to Tofu's, isn't it?" Akane assumed a similar posture beside Ranma, staring at the mirror in front of them.

"Uh.....yeah..... I guess that's a little responsible...." Ranma rubbed the back of his head, unsure what to say to Akane. He was still so new to opening up to people. *How Hi does it.... I'll never know.*

Akane brought her legs up and wrapped her arms around them, looking at Ranma sideways with her knee's under her chin. "I'm sorry, Ranma. When I saw your reaction, I thought that you just brushed it off.... I didn't think that you might be just as upset as I was."

Ranma laid down straight, and looked up at Akane. "Yeah.... I was pretty freaked, actually. It's not every day that a guy is told he's grown another inch in the bust and hips...." Ranma shuddered as he repeated what Tofu had told him. *How does it feel, knowing you're growing into a woman? Damn scary....* Ranma whispered in his mind.

Akane looked at Ranma sadly. "You don't know anymore, do you?" She ran a hand through her hair as she looked down at him.... recently, Ranma had begun having doubts about his gender. It worried Akane to no end.... and it scared her.

Ranma bit his lower lip as he looked up at the ceiling, where the Gundamn poster was hung. "Nope..... there's a lot of things I'm unsure of nowadays, Akane. I mean, who would have ever thought that you could learn to cook Sukiyaki."

Akane turned red for a moment, but quietly pushed her anger down. "You're trying to change the subject, Ranma," Akane stared at the mirror, wondering what Ranma could have seen in the mirror that would disturb him so.

"Yeah, I know Akane. It's just that I'm scared too...." He turned to look at her with a solemn look on his face. "Jus'.... don't tell Pop I said that, okay??"

For a long moment they gazed at each other, Akane's soft brown eyes with Ranma's deep blue..... then they both leaned forward simultaneously, lips touching for a moment.... and drew back, instinctively. Akane slapped Ranma, also instinctively.

"HEY!!!" Ranma rubbed his cheek, and was about to say something to Akane, but paused when he saw the look on her face.

"I Love you, Ranma Saotome," Akane whispered softly, her fists clenched. Her mind was reeling, and seemed to be thrown back in time, to a single moment that heralded a change in her life.... *Hello, I'm Akane.... would you like to be friends?* Echoed in her mind. Her first words to Ranma.

Ranma's hard, prideful air seemed to melt away for a moment. "Yeah.... I know, Akane. I Love you too." She had kissed him.... He had kissed her. HE had kissed her, in MALE form.... He'd finally done it!

Then Ranma shivered a moment. "It's jus'..... I don't think I'm ready for this. Somethin' keeps buggin' me, Akane, and before we can.... you know, get engaged again, I gotta find out what that somethin' is. It has a lot to do with me, which is becoming more and more difficult to figure out for myself...," Ranma sat up on his futon, and reached over.

Akane's face was solemn, and a bit disappointed.... Ranma's hand took hers, holding it softly he lifted her chin and looked into her eyes.

"I promise you, Akane, we'll always be close. We'll always have what we have now, what we've worked so hard to find....." Ranma lifted his hand from Akane's chin, gently brushing his fingers across her cheek, as if she was some delicate flower to be treated carefully.

Akane smiled, looking at Ranma's eyes, then blushed nervously. "...R...anma." She said.. pulling a bit away from his gentle caress.

Ranma sighed, feeling a bit of that old barrier coming between them again. "Yeah, Akane?" he suddenly found himself picking nervously at a loose string on his pants.

"I came in here to ask you something." Akane's eyes looked back at Ranma's, her mouth in an unsure smile.

Ranma smirked back at Akane. "So, the strong, Fierce, independant Akane comes to Ranma for advise??"

Akane slapped him across the cheek, looking a bit upset. "It's not like that, Baka. I came to ask you for a favor."

Ranma rubbed his cheek, a bit of the old flair edging back into his voice. "What would that be?" His sore cheek was a bit red from the slap. *Kawaiikune.... she could at least ACT female for another minute or so.*

"I... invited some friends over tomorrow night, they're going to be sleeping over. It's kind of a slumber party, really...." Akane looked down at her knee's, studying them intently, her mind half wondering the expresion on Ranma's face at that moment.

Ranma sighed, laying back down and looking at the ceiling. "I guess you want me to leave, then. What time??"

Akane spared a glance at Ranma, but found that keeping her eyes on him was a bit more agrivating than just staring at her knees, and decided that the latter was better than the former. "No.. It's.. I mean, not really..."

"Aww, c'mon, don't tell me that you don't know when you want me outta here. What, an hour before so you can get ready?? Hey, when're they coming over anyways? I promise I'll get outta your hair so I don't ruin your evening." Ranma looked at the window, sulking silently to himself. *She was being so nice, and then she tells me all this....*

"It's.. Ranma, I don't.. really want you to leave." Akane picked at her dress, wondering at why she found it so hard to ask something so silly of Ranma. *Oh... wait... maybe because it's so silly.*

"Huh??" Ranma looked back at Akane, mulling over the words for half a moment. "Oh... so you just want me to stay outta your way?? S'okay, I need to read some stuff anyways-"

"Ranma, I- Kinda want you to come along." She looked up at the blank wall, her heart pounding in her chest. *Stupid idea.. stupid stupid...*

Ranma did a mental double-take. "Huh?" he sat up again, looking over at Akane. "Uhm... why would you want a guy there, Akane?? I'd just ruin your Girl's Night' bein' there." Ranma felt more than slightly confused, usually a natural state until recently.

"I want you to come as a girl... Like.. Like the beach, when you and I were friends," Akane spared another glance at Ranma, who's face was one of shocked confusion.

"A-a-a-girl?" Ranma's mind flashed a picture of Ranma and the girl's, singing at the beach, a moment of happiness for everyone. *It.. was so nice, but I never thought it would happen again.*

"Hai, Ranma... uhm.."Akane looked away.... back at the door. *Bad idea, Akane. You know how Ranma is, this'll just confuse him more.*

"A-Akane. I... I liked it, but.. I dunno if I'm ready to... be like that again. It was a little scary, now that I think about it." He'd enjoyed it. That's why he was so upset, he shouldn't enjoy being a woman so much. It only served to enhance his confusion and insecurity.

Akane turned and hugged Ranma tightly. "Please, Ranma, it would mean so much to me if you were there... I... I liked the time we spent at the beech. Just consider it, okay???" Those moments were so few and rare in Akane's life, when she saw Ranma truly happy. The beech had always stuck in her mind as one of those precious few memories of Ranma's happiness.

Ranma was shocked at first, but wrapped his arms around Akane after a long moment of introspection. "....sure.....sure I'll come, Akane. For you, I'd wear a Fuku..... well, maybe not that far.... but if it means so much to you, I'll be there."

Akane sighed... leaning back and looking at Ranma's deep blue eyes, she saw there a tender caring and concern that was always well hidden. "Thank You, Ranma. You don't know how much this means to me."

Ranma sighed, looking away for a moment, then back. "Sure I do, Akane. I know what it means to you, because I feel kinda the same way."

Ranma smiled...... and for once, it seemed a genuine smile. Not the brash, cocky grin that he used to flash around at everyone. This was..... a secret smile.... one Ranma had never shown anyone.

Akane blinked. *No..... I've seen it before.....*

But where, was the question....

* * * * * *

"GERONIMOOOOO!" Hiroshi yelled, jumping hard against the end of the diving board and plunging into the air.... twirling gracefully in an intricate pattern before straightening as he dove into the pool behind his house.

"Really Hi, you don't have to be so graphic, not that you can hear me underwater," Daisuke casually sipped his warm tea, dressed in warmer gear due to the coming cold. Daisuke didn't know WHY Hiroshi swam at this time of year. It was so close to winter the water must have been freezing.

"Yeah, Uncle 'Roshi.... you should be more quiet, too," Kaehmi hugged Jessabelle, her stuffed cabbit, closely against her. She resumed humming the soft lullaby song in an effort to put her cabbit to 'Sleep'.

"Actually, verbal resonation is what I was meaning, Kaehmi," Daisuke muttered, setting his tea down and picking up a book titled, "The Principles of Technological Revolution in the Late 90's,". He casually adjusted his glasses.

Kaehmi giggled at Daisuke's words. "Uncle Dai say's funny words... doesn't he, Jessabelle?" She whispered to the stuffed animal. Daisuke grinned and winked at Kaehmi.

"Indubitably."

Hiroshi surfaced, shaking his head to get rid of the water. "Brrrr.... it's a little chilled, but not bad for this time of year. I can't believe you two don't want to come in, it's not THAT cold....," Hiroshi muttered, splashing some water at Kaehmi, who began emitting shrill shrieks and backing away from the pool.

Memeko walked up to the pool, looking at Kaehmi, then at Hiroshi. "Hiro-kun.... you know I told you not to try and get her wet," Memeko gave Hiroshi a stern glare, which promptly caused his mischievous grin to waver, then wither completely.

Daisuke turned a page. "Hey Hiroshi..... isn't the Prom this weekend?" Daisuke muttered half heartedly, not even sparing a glance up from his book.

Hiroshi ceased his splashing and resumed his glum countenance. "Yeah, Dai... it is...." He murmured in a dejected tone.

Memeko scooped Kaehmi up into her lap and took a seat. "Is something wrong Hiro-kun?" Memeko was worried for her brother, ever since discovering the identity of his secret girl, she had been waiting for him to make some sort of decision.

"Nah.... just that I'm probably not going to go, that's all. Besides, it's just another dance. Nothin' special," Hiroshi tried to resume his previous glee, but could not.... so he floated slowly in the water, a sad look on his face.

Daisuke looked up from his book. "Whyever not, Hi? Gimme a break... there's several girls that I'm sure would jump at the chance with going with you," Dai set his book down, and stood up, taking his glasses off and putting them in his shirt pocket.

"Yeah.... but there's only one girl that wouldn't, and that's the one that breaks my heart...." Hiroshi sighed deeply, almost on the verge of a sob.

"Why doesn't Uncle 'Roshi go with Auntie?" Kaehmi asked, which caused Memeko to jump in surprise and Hiroshi to turn a little pale. Memeko hurriedly tried to hush Kaehmi, who had an utterly confused look on her innocent little face.

"Auntie???" Daisuke asked, looking back at Hiroshi. "You've got ANOTHER Sister???" From what Daisuke could remember, Memeko was Hiroshi's only sister.

"It... She.... She's someone that Kaehmi knows, she just calls her Auntie... that's all. She's quite taken with her....," Hiroshi mumbled out slowly.

Daisuke raised an eyebrow at Hiroshi's reaction, shaking his head. "Whatever. Sounds like Kaehmi thinks she's the top of the world," Daisuke sighed, sitting back down in his seat and rubbing his eyes.

"Yeah, Auntie is the greatest!!! She tells me stories, and plays with me when Uncle 'Roshi and Mama are too busy....," Kaehmi said hurriedly.

"Shhhhh, Kaehmi. Uncle Dai doesn't want to hear about Auntie, he's talking to Hiroshi right now," Memeko whispered softly to her child, which emitted a smile from Kaehmi.

"Hi..... you only get ONE Prom..... you've gotta go!!! I mean, even I'm going. Granted, without a date, but I'm still going. This is a once in a lifetime deal," Daisuke chuckled softly a moment, putting his glasses back on his face.

Memeko smirked for a moment, and Hiroshi sighed, dragging himself out of the water with a shiver.

"Actually, Dai.... there was a Prom last year I went to... so that's two Prom's. There'll be a Prom next year, too," He murmured half heartedly.

Daisuke shook a hand at Hiroshi as if brushing him away, an annoyed look on the boy-geniuses face. "Details, Details! Lighten up, wouldja!!"

Kaehmi jumped down and rushed up to her Uncle Hiroshi, a pleading look on her young face. "Please Uncle 'Roshi!!! I know Auntie would love to go with you... she's always saying how nice you are to her, and I bet if you just asked her...." Kaehmi trailed off from the sad look on her Uncle's face.

"I'm sorry, Uncle 'Roshi.... I said something bad, didn't I? I'm sorry....," Kaehmi looked abashed at Hiroshi, whom had a defeated look on his face.

"That's okay, Kaehmi-chan.... it's not your fault. Uncle 'Roshi just doesn't feel very good," Hiroshi snatched his towel up and began trudging to the house. Kaehmi followed him, trying to cheer him up by taking his hand and offering him Jessabelle... but he shook his head silently.

Daisuke stared after his friend, a slightly worried demeanor creeping into his usual jovial mood. "Oh gods, he's got it bad..... never seen him look so depressed about a girl before," Daisuke looked over at Memeko, who was staring after her brother as well. "Whenever Kaehmi kept mentioning Auntie, Hiroshi looked more and more depressed.... why would that be, Memeko-chan?" Daisuke had never heard much about an adopted Aunt...

Memeko looked at him with a slightly surprised look. She had to think quickly... which was what she did best. In a moment she had thought up a reason. "Because Hiroshi couldn't bear to ask anyone else but his Lady Love to the Prom...."

"Oh... so that's it. Geeze, and I thought Kaehmi had hit on something..... only to find out that mentioning other girls makes it worse. Glad I found out this way, instead of me trying to hitch him with one of the girls at school like I was going to," Daisuke shook his head.

"Daisuke! I am ashamed you would do such a thing..... Hiroshi has told you, he can't handle other girls until he gets through figuring what he is going to do about this one.... and believe me, he has a lot of thinking to do," Memeko worried for her brother.... she hoped he would make a choice. She hoped it would be the right choice..... if any choice with Ranma can be said to be right.

"Okay, Memeko-chan! I told you I wasn't going to... it was only a fleeting thought," Dai looked at Where Hiroshi and Kaehmi had gone inside and sighed. The more he watched Hiroshi suffer, the more he felt that things just seemed to be getting worse. *Things are never easy, are they Hiroshi. Heh.... All's fair in love and war.... should be more like Everything hurts in the War of Love.*

* * * * * *

Sunlight shone into Ranma's room, the slumbering form of the young Saotome child looked at peace. The gift of restful sleep always a quiet blessing in Ranma's life of chaos and uncertainty, at least, for this night. Nightmares, which lately had troubled the gentle blessing of dreamless sleep, were blissfully absent.

Then, without warning, they returned. Flashes of a man named Grim, two small children, a vast expanse of darkness and a dreadful feeling of loneliness.

Ranma's form stirred, a slight whimper issuing from his lips, rolling over the dream came to a climax... the masked man's face suddenly drawing closer, and Ranma's entire body being swallowed by those cold, socketless eyes in the porcelain face cover.

Ranma gasped, sitting up in a cold sweat, the fear thick in his mind as his heart pounded. *...again.... Dammit, AGAIN!* The visions slowly faded, as they had for the past few weeks, leaving Ranma with a vague sense of dread.

Light played softly through the window, casting Ranma's face in a soft golden glow. Genma was, naturally, absent.. having been sleeping with Nodoka as of late in the Attic Room Kasumi had cleared out. *...well, at least they are getting along again... even if me'n pop are still not talking.*

A moment later, the door opened, and Akane's face peeked in. "...Ranma? You're awake?" Her voice was full of surprise as she blinked in shock. *Funny... he is usually dead asleep until 2:30 pm on Sundays.*

Ranma looked at Akane, his heart slowing down. *A dream... a nightmare, only a dream.* "Yeah... I.. kinda woke up, had trouble sleeping." Ranma looked around the room, suddenly noticing how empty it seemed, except with the Gundamn poster hanging above his head.

"Oh.... Okay.." Akane stepped in, fully dressed in her pastel yellow and red floral printed dress. "I... was just about to go out to town to shop for some things for tonight."

Ranma blinked, looking at the alarm clock. *12:00??? Not AGAIN!! Why can't that dumb dream just leave me alone??* He sighed, hearing no forthcoming answer. Not that he had expected an answer.

"Would you like to come along?" Akane leaned against the door, looking at Ranma as he was bathed in the light.

"Huh??" Ranma blinked, suddenly being jerked back to reality by Akane's inquiry.

Akane sighed, shaking her head. "Ranma... I just asked you if you wanted to come shopping with me." Akane was a little upset that Ranma was so inattentive upon waking, but then she couldn't blame him. He'd been getting less sleep, from what Kasumi had been telling her. *But.. the Baka could at LEAST try.*

Ranma scratched the back of his head in confusion. "Urr.... why would I want to go Shopping?" Ranma suspected that Akane wanted him to carry her bags or something, this was the first time Akane had ever asked him to do such a think.

Akane frowned, furrowing her brow. Her hands resting on her hips. "Well, maybe because it's a pajama party, and YOU don't have anything appropriate to wear?"

Ranma's mind seemed to halt for a moment, Akane's words racing through them. *Pajama party??? What did you get yourself into, Ranma...*

"Urr...." Ranma stated intelligently. His mind ran through a hundred different reasons to avoid shopping with Akane.

Akane saw the unsure, nervous look in Ranma's eyes and spoke before he had time to formulate his objection. "Uh-uh! No backing out, Ranma! You promised me." Akane's eyes told Ranma that this was something that really DID matter a lot to her.

With a heavy sigh, Ranma got up and walked to Akane. "..okay.. okay.. I did give my word, so I guess I'll go with ya. Just one thing, though. I already got some Pajamas, from Kaehmi-chan and Memeko-Sama."

Akane blinked at Ranma's latter comment, then smiled a bit at having won a small battle with her would-be-fiancee. *...Maybe things won't be as bad as they were before. Maybe they're getting better.*

"BUT..." Ranma added, looking Akane straight in the eyes, a tone of seriousness in his eyes and voice.

Akane dropped her smile, looking directly at Ranma.

Ranma relaxed when he saw Akane was taking him seriously. "I am going to go with you as a girl, okay??? I'd feel funny goin' shoppin' for this stuff as a guy." He managed a smile afterwards, attempting to encourage Akane's previously bright attitude.

It worked, to a degree. She did smile a bit, although it was a bit half hearted. "Hai, I understand." She smirked after that... stepping aside and opening the door for Ranma. "You make it sound like we're going shopping for lingerie or something."

Ranma groaned as his mind was brought to attention of the arranged shopping trip. "Please, don't remind me.... Mom has already planned to get me some stuff after the Prom this weekend."

Akane stifled a giggle. "Really, Ranma, it's not that bad. Bra's and Panties won't kill you, you know."

Ranma shook his head, looking a bit concerned as he mulled over the past month. "Yeah... I know that, Akane, but I don't like it in any case. If I didn't feel more comfortable with the bra, I wouldn't wear it."

This time, she couldn't hold back the giggle as she imagined Ranma wearing a bra as a guy, under his vest.

"What's so funny??" Ranma asked, suspicious of why Akane seemed to be trying to hold her laughter down.

Akane waved Ranma off, stifling another bout of giggling with her hand. "Just wondering... do you wear that sports bra as a guy, so that if you changed.....?"

Ranma's face turned Red as he stopped at the bathroom door. "...remind me to hurt Nabiki." he wrenched the door open and walked in, closing it behind himself.

Akane blinked, her mind feeling numb for a moment. *..R...Ranma wears....??* She shook her head. *That's... silly.* Akane walked downstairs, sitting at the dining table and thinking carefully to herself.

From Ranma's reaction, obviously her Imagined Joke' was very much a reality. It made some sort of sense, if Ranma had become so used to wearing a bra as a girl. *...they ARE more comfortable.. but... Ranma, as a guy, wearing one??*

Then again, she'd noticed that recently Ranma hadn't bothered changing back to a guy when splashed with cold water. It made SOME sort of sense, but... she couldn't help but feel Ranma was being a LITTLE perverted for doing such a thing.

*Baka.. he doesn't HAVE to wear one so much.. I mean.. why can't he just carry one in his school bag??*

But then again, Ranma only had his bag at school, and he was only splashed on occassion at school. Usually, AFTER school some strange event would cause him to change... and that usually meant that his bag wasn't with him.

Kasumi set breakfast on the table, and served Akane a plate. The youngest Tendo daughter was so busy in her thoughts that she began eating a bit mechanically, her mind running over Ranma's embarrassment over her Discovering' the odd little secret.

Kasumi noted that Akane was rather busy in her own thoughts, so kindly avoided making any comments, as her sister would hardly even acknowledge her words if she had spoken. *So many things have happened lately, it's a wonder Akane hasn't been thinking more until now.*

With that thought, the elder Tendo daughter stood up and left the room, leaving Akane to her thoughts.

After what seemed like but a few moments of silent thinking, Akane noticed that Ranma was sitting next to her in a dark red dress with gold buttons and trimming. "...so... you.. uhh.. want to go shopping??"

Akane blinked, looking at Ranma carefully. For one, the red-head's hair was unbound again, and showed the definitive wavy property that Ranma shared with Nodoka.

After a long moment of staring, which upset Ranma, Akane shook the silent amazement from her face. "R...Ranma?? Why are you dressed like that??" Some part of Akane flared up in anger, noting that Ranma was very beautiful, even more so than Akane herself.

Another part of her felt sadness, that her Ranma could be so beautiful yet be so afraid of his femininity.

Still another part felt fear, that this was some sort of sign that the Ranma she knew was slowly slipping away, replaced by this unfamiliar girl.

Ranma, in response to the question lowered her eyes to the table. "I thought about some of the stuff that's been happening recently, and I thought that maybe, if I was gonna be a girl tonight at your party, that I could spend the whole day as your... friend." Ranma looked back up at Akane, an ache in her chest growing in intensity.

Why did she have such trouble with Akane??? So many times she had longed to just hold Akane and never let go. Yet more and more often, it was easier to get closer to Akane as a woman, not as a man. That had changed recently, but only because of a friend's help.

Akane put a gentle hand on Ranma's. "....Ranma... you don't have to go that far, you know." The same ache echoed in Akane's own heart, the desire to wrap this lost girl in her arms and protect her from the world's cruel touch floating through Akane's soul.

"I know, Akane... I want to do this." A smile drifted across the red-head's face, it was an uncertain smile. One that someone in a particularly uncomfortable situation might give.

Akane looked down at her hand on Ranma's, a gentle touch that seemed to bring them closer together for a small moment.

Her other hand slapped down on the surface of the table as she smiled. "Well, I guess we should get going then, ne?"

With a firm nod and that unsure smile, Ranma stood up.

Both girls made their way to the door.

* * * * * *

The glowing ember of the sun had slowly climbed it's way into the fierce azure sky, and like so many things that soar along with the clouds, it eventually began it's slow trek downward in it's eternal arc.... plumetting to earth as Icarus did in some long passed tale.

The city of Tokyo was thriving that day, as the Sun began it's lumbering descent, Yet the largest city on the island of Japan was always rushed and busy. There was a saying that solemnly stated that if a man was late in getting where he was going, his soul could be sold by the time he got there.

Needless to say, the people of Tokyo were very hectic this day. Especially on a certain road, where a certain child of the Saotome lineage was patiently awaiting his lady love.

Not to mention the high speed buzz of people down the main thoroughfair was a thing Ranma could do without. Of course, she also had a faint complaint of all the grocery bags that Akane had kindly bestowed upon her.

The people hurried by as Akane took her time looking for some games to play at the slumber party. Ranma, who was sitting on a bench waiting patiently, let out a slow, weary sigh. *I don't get it, why does she have to have all THIS for a slumber party??? Icecream I can understand. Hey, actually, she'd better hurry up.*

Akane walked out several moments later, a small white bag in her hand. "Okay, I'm ready to go Ranma." She said in a cheery voice. The bright smile that she had worn on her face since that morning having never left her complexion, to Ranma's delight.

Akane silently thought about hwo the day was going, very commendable on Ranma's part. Not once had her erstwhile fiancee commented about her own femininity. Which did worry Akane. It just seemed as the more time passed that Ranma just wasn't Ranma anymore, but some whole different person.

Shaking off that thought, she drew her introspection back to their current outing.

She didn't get to go out with Ranma by herself all that much. Ever since Shampoo got married to Mousse, things had been next to quiet. Not even Ukyou had tried to get between her and Ranma.

The thought of Ukyou slowly brought a brief worried expression onto her face.... mixed with a dose of Sadness. Akane knew that Ukyou loved Ranma, she knew that Ukyou would do anything to make Ranma happy, even...

Give him up.

Ukyou was a friend, in Akane's eyes, and she knew that giving up Ranma would hurt her. The girl deserved to be happy, in Akane's opinion.

Looking up at Akane, Ranma blinked, wondering what the other girl would be thinking about. Ranma gently lifted the two bags of groceries. She stood up ready to make haste on their way home. "Uhhh.. so what did you get??" Ranma asked, curious what she had taken so long to buy.

Shaking herself out of her contemplation, Akane returned her attention to Ranma. "Deck of Cards, a Ouiji Board.... I've always wondered if these things work," She giggled, and slowly let her gaze meet Ranma's. "Sorry to keep you waiting, Ranma," She said as she turned and began walking down the Street.

*....Two...things?! She kept me waiting for all that time for two things?!?* Ranma thought in a faint bit of anger. Moments Later, Ranma followed her, a definite scowl forming on her face.

"You mean you-" Ranma began, then had to mentally rip the sentance before she could finish. The jerk part of Ranma's mind was grumbling about how a woman could take so long and buy two things that were OBVIOUS slumber party cliche's.

"..Urr..." The half that had been taught of Hiroshi's caring and concerned philosophy decided on a bit more tact than Ranma was usually used to. The two halves Struggled for a moment in Ranma's head, until the more polite of the two bound and gagged the jerk-mouth.

A Moment later Ranma smiled. "S'okay, Akane, I don't mind, just so long as I spend my time with you." A blush crept into Ranma's cheeks as she spoke.

Akane felt her heart shift and flutter a moment at those words. *Will I ever get used to him saying that??? Kami, I love him so much....* "Don't be so flattering, Ranma, it's weird for you." She smiles.

Ranma blinked for a moment, then let a smile similar to Akane's drift slowly across her face. "Okay, Kawaii-"

"Raaanmaaaaaa....." Akane started, feeling a slight rush of anger spread through her. WHY Ranma kept insulting her femininity she could not understand. *He always picks on me for-*

Ranma's smile grew from her response. "-Iinazuke." She finished with a certain finality.

Akane slowly came to a halt in the middle of the crowd. The wind seemed to gently breeze by for a moment as all the disquiet of the cities tempest seemed to fade for a moment. *Did he say that?*

Ranma walked on, oblivious to the fact that there was a definite something missing. It took her all of a minute to realize that Akane had ceased following her. Blinking again, she turned and began trekking back towards the shop they had left. She stopped on the way as she saw Akane standing in the middle of the sidewalk, staring at her. "What?? Did I say something wrong?"

Akane just shook her head slowly. "Was that some kind of proposal?" Akane asked in a voice that shook with anticipation. Her heart surged and pounded in her chest, echoing that loud rhythmic sound in her head.

Ranma blinked, yet again, in a slightly confused expression. *What does she.....* Then her own words played back to her. *....oops.....* A quick run of excuses ran through her mind.

*What are you doing?!?!!* Her mind screamed with legitimate frustration. *You LOVE her, don't you??* It asked her in a tone demanding an answer.

Ranma blinked at the voice yelling in her head. *Yeah. but...... I'm not ready. It's... it's too soon. I need to sort some things out.*

The voice gagged for a moment, making it's obvious disgust and offense known. *Ohhh, you mean that OTHER Love problem....*

*What does Ucchan have to do with this??* Ranma asked, getting a stern look on her face. If anyone were to note, it was a look as if she had forgotten something important and was upset with herself.

The voice laughed at Ranma's ignorance. *Oh please, this has nothing to do with Ukyou... I can't believe you are so dense.*

Ranma, feeling somewhat defensive, began to retort to the strange voice in her head. *What are you-*

"Ranma?" Akane asked, looking concerned as she watched emotions flash across Ranma's face. *...maybe...maybe he didn't mean it..* A heavy sigh slowly escaped her lips.

Ranma focused her eyes again and noticed the sad look on Akane's face. "Huh?? Oh..... Oh. Akane.. I... I'm sorry. I.. uh...." Ranma articulated with apt skill, her eyes finding a place of comfort as she concentrated heavily on her feet.

"It's okay, Ranma... I understand. Sorry I overreacted." Akane felt her heart sink into her stomach as she spoke, and she continued walking, this time leaving Ranma behind.

*Dammit! Now see what you've done???? Akane is hurt....* the voice murmured in her mind.

Ranma shook her head. *....I.......you're right...* She finally admitted with a firm level of defeat in her heart. Ranma caught up with Akane. "Akane, waitasec.... I... I did sorta mean it."

Akane stopped and looked at Ranma again, her eyes and heart filling up with a sense of hope once more.

Her gaze met the redhead's, a slight hope welling up where her heart had plumetted and causing it to lift a little higher. *No.... no, he said SORT OF.....* She reminded herself, just to keep the reality of the situation close at hand. "...what.. do you mean, Ranma?"

Ranma looked at Akane, struggling to get the words out of her mouth. "..I....I would sort of.... like to consider you... I mean... I don't want to... be engaged again or nothing....,"

Turning away, Akane lowered her eyes. "...Oh..." Akane let herself say, feeling her heart sinking again. *I guess I'm not worth enough to ask.... not yet, or something....*

Ranma saw that smile on Akane's face starting to slip away again."....No, wait!! But.. i am really really considering it, Akane, okay?? I mean, I've almost asked ya, so could ya wait just a little longer?" She said quickly... trying to salvage the situation before she ruined Akane's cheery mood.

Akane looked back up at Ranma, and seemed to consider her carefully for a long moment. *...I Love him, I know he loves me.... I can wait a little longer.... it's not like the world is going to end tomorrow.* Akane slowly forced herself to relax, letting the tension of the past several moments drain from her, her eyes locked on Ranma as she carefully considered his words.

Ranma suffered the critical stare Akane used on her... her eyes staring back at Akane's gentle brown orbs. A tense feeling tightening within her chest, and Ranma waited for the world to stop and listen to them.

Gleefully, for the world, it was keenly oblivious to the two lovers that spoke on a street in Tokyo.

"....Ranma...." Akane said gently... almost so gently Ranma couldn't hear her. ".....Thank you...." She followed with, in a soft, comforting tone.

She turned and began her slow voyage home, a little more spring in her step than before.

Ranma followed her for quite a while, just watching Akane carefully. *She is very cute......... when she wants to be. I'm so happy Hiroshi helped me get her back....*

The thought of Hiroshi suddenly brought back all the tension that Ranma had kept in the box within her soul. *Hiroshi.... oh, Kami, Hiroshi.... why must you suffer so much. You've done so much for me.. so much for others, and you've never asked for a thing... nothing at all but for a single girl to love you.*

Ranma made a silent vow that she would do everything possible to make this girl give Hiroshi a chance.... even if just for a day, she KNEW that Hiroshi could win her over. *...I swear I won't abandon him to the darkness..... I'll make sure that he has a chance, like he's given me.*

Akane, on the other hand, was planning out the night's events. *Let's see, I've got Yuka, Sayuri, Ami, Kiyomi, and Shiyori coming over tonight...... and I have Ranma joining in on the fun... I have icecream, snacks, Fruits, whip cream, chocolate syrup, cherries. I've got The Ouiji Board and a deck of cards..... okay...*

Akane mentally checked off each thing as she ran through her shopping list. She didn't take much notice of the dust cloud on the horizon as they began entering Nerima's outer area.

Ranma, however, did notice the telltale signs of a certain perverted master of the Art. "..urr.... Akane????" Ranma said tenatively, seeing Akane's deep thoughtful expression.

Akane waved Ranma off with her free hand. "Not now, Ranma, I'm trying to think." She said gently. *Okay, now am I forgetting anything??*

Ranma attempted to Point with the two bags in her arms, not entirely successful. "Uhm... but Akane.... there's-" Ranma was cut short.

"Please, I'm trying to see if we forgot anything." She said in a shorter tone than she would have preferred. *He can WAIT just a second...*

Ranma noticed that the Dustcloud was heading straight for them. *Typical, he runs towards Tokyo, then hops down an alley and heads back to the Dojo...........*

"Akane, Happosai is coming this way." She said, rushing ahead and standing in front of Akane. "...here, you take these back to the Dojo.... I'll take care of the old pervert." Ranma held out the bags.

"Huh??? Happosai??" Akane looked around, and finally noticed the cloud of dust that was closing on them, then she carefully narrowed her eyes. "Oooh, so he's on his daily pillaging."

Ranma still held out the bags. "...I can take him.... don't worry bout it.. you take these and get home, or that Icecream is gonna melt."

"But Ranma, I Can-" Akane didn't get to finish as she was forcibly handed the bags and Ranma jumped up onto the wall, running at full tilt towards the cloud of Dust. *He didn't even let me finish. Baka...* She sighed heavily, shaking her head. *He's probably right anyways..... I guess I should be going home.*

Akane turned and began walking down a side street towards the Tendo household.

Ranma hesitated after several moments of Running and looked back, the wind gently playing through her hair as she stood for a moment, looking back at where Akane had been moments before. *Good... at least she listened to me just once.....*

Turning, Ranma began once more the rapid staccato rhythm of her feet *Front, front, heel to toe, heel to toe..... front front.... balance, continue, heel, toe....* She gently chanted in her head in succession to the rapid beating of her feet on the stone walls.

The cloud of dust moved just as rapidly towards her as she did towards it..... chaos running towards chaos.

Fate rippled outward with each passing moment..... and the world hardly took notice as the two lovers travelled further and further away from eachother.

* * * * * *

The dust rose behind him, as if some mighty storm had been stirred into being by the countless feet of his pursuers.

He could feel the adrenaline rush through him as he thrilled at the excitement of the chase.... his back heavy with the goods of countless young flowers purged of their belongings by his adept hands. Age had never touched his heart, though it had shrivelled his body.

*What world would there be without Happosai to give it life???* He wondered, a mad Lecherous grin on his face. *What world, indeed....* His thoughts silently murmured.

Shouts of Lecher!', Pervert!', and Come back here!' pursued him. His purpose clear, and his skin tingling from the rush of pure life running through him as he followed the firm and peaceful rhythm of his own steps.... drowning out the girls following him as he revelled in his freedom.

None made Happosai do their bidding, he was master, and he was the one in control. None could stop him from his daily routines, and none had the power to try.

*Well.... maybe one....* His sharp mind contemplated. *Yet he is too unskilled yet to match me in battle..... though he will learn.*

A moment later Happosai saw a descending shadow in a familiar, female sillhouette. His skilled eyes watched the figure, locking on it's ki as it descended.. *....Ranma...* It chortled inside.

Then the shock of shocks, Happosai stopped in his escape as his mind visibly locked up. "..panties??"

Happosai saw Ranma descending in a graceful flying kick straight for his aged and weathered face, yet all his mind could fathom or take note of was the fact that Ranma was wearing a dress, and under that dress was PANTIES.

A moment and a half later, Happosai felt a violent surge of pain flash through his chest as Ranma's foot connected, sending him sprawling back through the air in a smooth arc towards the group of pursuing girls, the wind in his lungs quickly escaping him. "Ranma....wearing....panties...?" Was all his mind could muster, and his breath could relay.

It took several more moments for his mind to comprehend the trajectory of his flight, and that he was now lying on solid pavement, looking up at a large group of beautiful, yet angry faces. All of which who's hands were hefting mallet's, brooms, bokken, and various other instruments of pain Happosai had become accustomed to over his time knowing women.

He attempted to use his most innocent, cute expression in hopes to divert the obvious torment that would follow, knowing that it was a nigh useless attempt at hope. "...Hee hee... now ladies, don't overreact...." He begged, more than asked, in a pleading tone.

"POUND!" A young brown haired girl cried out in righteous anger.

A pretty black haired beauty added to the cry, "HIM!"

"DEAD!!!" A brown eyed vixen finished with a certain finality as they all raised their instruments of destruction.

"...urp..." Happosai managed before blow after blow of unending pain was rained on him from above. He felt the pain lancing through is limbs with every blow, his bones rattled in their foundations from the graphic violence the Girl's anointed his small form with.

With a heavy heart and a angry twinge in his demeanor, he bundled up the remains of his gathering and left them in the group of girls as he crawled slowly out, his body bruised and battered from the afflictions of the various girls.

He panted for a moment, hiding behind a trashcan to avoid the girl's eyes from catching him... wondering how the day could have turned out such a disaster after such a beautiful and fulfilling morning. The sun was bright, there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and he had felt extra vigorous that morning when he returned to the Tendo Dojo.

A familiar silhouette suddenly shadowed his little form, and he gaze up in anger at those fierce blue eyes. "..Ranma... how dare you interrupt an old man's enjoyment!!!" He said, his body shaking.

He was furious. Every time he had begun feeling even a moderate amount of enjoyment, Ranma had returned to thwart his peace. Just when he was beginning to feel the core of the art, too.

He watched Ranma as she looked down at him, the obvious contempt in her eyes. His fury was mounting, as it so often did when his daily excursions were interrupted by the Heir to his school.

"Bet you're upset that I foiled your little game, aint'cha gramps?" She said with a healthy bit of bile in her voice and words. He hated it... that the boy showed him no respect.

Inside he laughed a moment from his own folly. *Boy he is not..... hee hee... boys don't wear panties.* With that thought, his cool demeanor suddenly returned, and he smiled a lecherous grin. His heart suddenly calmed, and he realized that perhaps today WASN'T so bad.

"No, my Student, in fact you've provided me with quite a bit to think about... none of which is unpleasant...." He chortled, looking up at Ranma as he spoke in his calm, cool, collective way.

Happosai noticed her flinch when she didn't get the response she expected. *Always good to surprise someone.. hee hee...*

"Quit staring at me, ya dirty old man..." He heard her say, her voice a little tinged with confusion as she fell into the fighting stance she had become so familiar with.

Obviously he couldn't startle her for long. It was no matter.... "...Ranma... I don't wish to fight you..." Happosai murmured, turning his back and folding his arms in a smug pose. "It's not in my nature to assault pretty young things..."

Happosai could almost imagine Ranma's face twisting in anger at that comment.... "Tha's funny, I could swear that's ALL you do every day." Happosai could hear the barely controlled bile in her voice as she spoke.

*Odd, that's new. Ranma, controlling his anger? Oh, my error, HER anger, heeheeeheee.* Happosai looked over his shoulder at the pretty redhead who was shaking with half-controlled rage. His eyes drifted across the firm and supple swell of her bosom, so likely to be encased by a bra.

Drifting down across her wide flaring hips and flat belly. Images of the panties he had stolen a glance of firmly in his mind.

"Stop ogling me, you perverted old freak!" Ranma snapped into motion, her leg cutting through the air towards Happosai.

Happosai saw it as if it were in slow motion, bringing his pipe from out of his gi he caught Ranma's ankle and hopped into the air, using the momentum from his jump to pull Ranma's ankle upwards, tossing her off balance.

Happosai bounced off of Ranma's head as she began to topple backwards, and landed standing behind her.

Little to Happosai's surprise, Ranma turned the fall into a roll, giving Happosai a choice view of the silk-encased bosom he had intended to see..... Happosai chuckled, feeling a faint trickling of energy rush through him at the sight.

Ranma was on her feet again in and back in her defensive stance. Happosai chortled internally, finally feeling a sense of unbidden rapture flood through him. Ranma was wearing both PANTIES *AND* a BRA!

"Ranma, you disappoint me. The Heir to the Musabetsu Kakutou Ryuu should be much more prepared for a counterattack!!!" Happosai smirked self appreciatively. Happosai, seeming to stand at a relaxed position at all times, was ALWAYS prepared for an attack from anywhere.

It was one of the many things that had kept him alive in his youth, and on his toes. It was what urged him to found the School... the need to defend himself from those he relieved of items, or those who tried picking on him since he was so diminutive. *Never again...* Happosai mentally noted. *Now I am the Master.*

Happosai snapped out of his reverie when Ranma started in on a series of rapid punches and Kicks. Happosai dodged nimbly as a kick came close to his head, leaping up over a punch and thwacking Ranma in the head with his pipe, chuckling to himself.

"You'll have to be faster than that to beat me!!!" Happosai hopped on top of Ranma's head, stealing a glance down her dress he chuckled and launched himself up into the air, where Ranma followed.

"Shaddup, ya dirty old man!!!" Ranma spat out as she flew into the air after him, a firm look of concentration on her face.

There was a quick exchange of several punches and a kick, then they landed back on the ground, Happosai used the kinetic force as a spring and literally bounced right through Ranma's defense and attached himself to that full. soft, maidenly amount of flesh attached to Ranma's chest.

Happosai felt a wild surge of energy suddenly FLOOD into him as he sapped from Ranma's resources. NEVER had he felt so much raw Ki!!! "Ohhh Ranma, how I've waited for this day...." He sobbed into her bosom, fondling them and squeezing them, rubbing them and massaging them in a few short seconds.

He could feel Ranma shiver at the new sensation..... could see the sudden revulsion pass over her face as she felt something being violated deep inside of her, something being TAKEN from her unlike all the other times Happosai had attached himself to her bosom.

"..you...." Ranma shivered, rage beginning to build. He knew she felt violated in a way she'd never felt before, the essence of her ki being sucked out of her in a single groping.

Happosai knew he should have let go about then and made a run for it, but... his weakness had always been for the female body, and this time it was RANMA he was groping.... while she was wearing a bra!!!

How often could that happen in Happosai's life??? So he held fast to his quarry, trying to drain as much as he could before he was sent to LEO. The sweetness of Ranma's vigorous ki swelling within him, filling him so fully he could not recall when last he felt so young.

"...PERVERT!!!!" Ranma howled out, her voice carrying over several blocks of the Nerima district. The people wise enough not to ask questions or spare curious glances in exchange. They had grown accustomed to Nerima's subsequent oddities.

Happosai felt the solid steel punch of Ranma's ki enforced fist.... and as he soared into the sky, he thought he had at last found true happiness in Ranma's lovely bosom.

*Oh wonder of wonders!! Rapture, Joy, Bliss!!!* Happosai recited to himself as he began his downward arc, back towards the cruel and unforgiving earth. *Now all I need to do is find some way to get Ranma to stay female!*

* * * * * *

Akane was startled when she heard the front door slam with a resounding finality. She turned back to the phone as Yuka asked her if everything was allright. "Yeah.... I think Ranma's upset. I'll see you at 7, okay?"

There was a slight pause before Yuka answered, surprising Akane, who had expected a modest amount of sulking from Yuka. The girl was offish about Ranma. "Sure, Akane..... I guess I'll call Sayuri and make sure she's bringing the tapes over, okay???" Akane's friend asked on the other side of the line with a carefully sweet voice.

"Yeah, Yuka... do that, I got to go see what's wrong with Ranma," Akane knew she sounded slightly distracted, but didn't care much.

Yuka sighed into the receiver, probably thinking how bad of Ranma it was to worry Akane so much. "Sure thing, see you later, Akane!"

"Bye," Akane said as politely as she could.

Akane gently let the phone connect with the receiver, and looked up just as Ranma walked past. "Ranma, what is..." She stopped at the look on Ranma's face. It was an expression she was used to giving him, one that she could read very well from years of experience.

Sheer and unmitigated anger. There was something else under that mask..... maybe a strange fear or self loathing ran deeply through Ranma.

Akane could only guess what had happened. She put a hand on Ranma's shoulder, trying to put a calm into her voice. "Ranma, did Happosai.. did he-" Akane jumped when Ranma grabbed her hand in a hard grip.

"..please, Akane... not now, please don't touch me right now....." Ranma said, her voice quavering both with anger and barely controlled frustration.

Akane looked at Ranma's eyes, which were shimmering with angry tears. There was a fire burning in them, one that Akane knew quite well. Perhaps too well, she noted with melancholy disposition.

Akane could only nod her head, sure that she wore a shocked expression on her face. *But why??? Happosai never upset him so much before!!!* She asked to herself, unable to ask Ranma, she found that she had to wait for an answer.

Ranma let go of Akane's wrist, and turned... walking upstairs, then into the the room where the Furo resided. Moments later water was heard.

Akane sat down, once more mulling over what had just happened. For some strange reason, she concluded, Happosai had somehow upset Ranma.

She spared a glance back at the stairs where Ranma had vanished. Happosai had DEEPLY upset Ranma. That had never happened before. Sure, Ranma had been upset with Happosai before.... the instance with the Moxibution came to mind.

The little old man had often been purposefully hurtful, especially towards Ranma. He had even tried seperating Ranma's female half from his body, Akane recalled. To very bad effect.

*What could he have done that.....* Akane trailed, off, suddenly latching onto an idea. *Maybe nothing HAPPOSAI did was different.... maybe it was something Ranma did?*

Akane shook her head. *I have to go call the others, make sure they're still coming over....* With that, Akane pushed the thoughts of what could have happened to the back of her mind.

An hour passed as Akane double checked to make sure her friends were still on for the slumber party. As she hung up the phone from the last call, she found her mind wandering back to Ranma.

*What could have upset him so much????? Honestly, he shouldn't get so worked up about Happosai.* Akane found herself standing at the bottom of the stairs, and her face took on a slightly worried expression. *I hope he's alright.... It's rare if ever to see him so upset.*

"Going to stand there all day, Akane, or are you going to go talk to him?" Nabiki's voice caused Akane to almost jump out of her skin.

She had noticed Nabiki reading in the corner of the room when she began her phonecalls, but had forgotten about her after Ranma walked in. Akane's sister could be disturbingly quiet when she wanted to be.

Akane turned, putting on her practiced expression of feigned annoyance. "Excuse me, Nabiki, but since WHEN do you give me free advice?" Akane knew her sister, there had to be something the older Tendou girl wanted.

Nabiki raised an eyebrow, setting her book down on the table. Akane noted, strangely, that it was a book on something called Gender Dysphorics in Love. Whatever that meant.

"Scuse for trying to give my little Sis some good advice, but Ranma needs you more than ever since Auntie started her psychologically disturbing plan to train him as a woman. Sometimes I wonder if anyone in the Saotome family is sane," Nabiki turned her cool gaze on Akane.

Akane was normally just as adamant with expression as Nabiki was, but recently there had been something in her Sister's eyes that made her turn away from that gaze. Determination, and fear. Nabiki was afraid of something, and that scared Akane to no ends.

Akane steeled herself, and while not looking directly back at Nabiki's eyes, she did manage to look TOWARDS her sister. "Don't say that.... Auntie Saotome means well, Nabiki. You know that. She's not trying to hurt Ranma," Akane had heard how out of control Ranma felt his life was becoming. How both his Father and Mother trying to push him towards her, his Father wanting him to be a man among men, and his mother wanting him to be a woman's woman. Ranma was strong, but Akane had seen.... confusion in Ranma lately, but Nabiki couldn't be right, Nodoka wasn't as bad as Genma. Not by a longshot.

Nabiki smirked and looked down at her book, then back up at Akane. "I have my own views, Akane. You don't have to share them. I just told you to go talk to the idiot upstairs, because he likely needs it."

Akane had nothing to say to that, so turned back towards the stairs. On a second thought she turned back to Nabiki. "Shouldn't you be going to that Business Convention you were talking about?? It's in an hour, and it'll take a while to get through Tokyo."

Akane didn't wait for a response, she headed upstairs to go talk to Ranma.

* * * * * *

The door creaked ever so slightly as Ranma opened the door to her room. She had been about to step out, yet instead blinked in shock at Akane who was standing in the doorway getting ready to knock.

Akane stood there blinking back at her, her hand raised and a confused expression on her face. Both of them stood there for a while, just blinking and staring at eachother before some motion was made to dispell the awkwardness.

Ranma let an uneasy smile drift across her lips. "So, we gonna stand here all day or what?" She asked, falling into a relaxed mode.

Akane giggled a bit and blushed. Ranma saw Akane's eyes drift across her Pajamas, which started a slight flush in Ranma's cheeks. *I can't believe I agreed to this.... this is so embarrassing.*

Akane looked back up and into Ranma's eyes. Ranma saw Akane bite her lip, a sign of nervousness. "Ranma," Akane murmured as gently as she could, "Are you alright?"

Ranma shivered at the question, and the dark anger returned to her face. "I don't wanna talk about it, Akane." The redhead turned her back and padded back into her room.... sitting down on the futon facing the window.

Akane watched for a moment, unsure as she lowered her hand and stepped into Ranma's room. Her eyes drifted back and forth for a moment or two.

The room contained very few personal items. It seems Ranma had always been on the go, and no matter the length of time spent at the Tendo household, she was always prepared to leave in a hurry. Akane had known this for a long time.

There were a few odd objects that stood out. One was the Gundamn poster hanging from the ceiling, a gift from Hiroshi, according to Ranma. There was a dresser that Kasumi had put in as soon as Ranma and his Father had come to stay with them. It used to be barren, only a convenience to hold Ranma's clothing, nothing of real importance.

Now, though, there were some oragami puppets and lumps of clay resembling animals that decorated the top of the dresser, as well as a carved oak box, simple in design... but from it's placement something of value.

Akane returned her gaze to Ranma on her futon. Her hand gently caressed a stuffed Cabbit, as if absent mindedly.

"What's that?" Akane's sudden question caused Ranma to jump.

Ranma lifted her head instead of looking at Akane, looking out the window instead. "What's what??" She said, attempting to sound innocent of whatever Akane was accusing her of. *That's the old Akane....* He told himself. *This one's... different.*

Akane gently sat down aside Ranma, a fluid, almost floating motion. "I mean what's this, Baka." She said, putting her hand on Ranma's as the redhead caressed the Cabbit.

Ranma snatched her hand, and the cabbit away, hugging it to her in a protective embrace, her fingers running through the artificial fur. "It was a present from..... Kaehmi-chan. She spent her allowance on it, I got her one to match." Ranma looked down at the stuffed animal, then set it in her lap.

Akane tilted her head to the side. "You really like that little girl, don't you?" She asked tenatively. Her eyes were intently locked on Ranma as the redhead looked down at the cabbit's face.

A gentle nod, just slightly, almost unnoticable. Akane noticed, being who she was. Being who Ranma was.

"I dunno.... she's such a sweetheart. I just find myself acting all childish around her, I guess that's kinda stupid of me, huh Akane..." Ranma's eyes drifted up, meeting Akane's gaze in their own time. Hanging there for a long moment.

Akane shook her head, the hair framing her face swaying like a ocean breeze for half a moment. "No, Ranma.... there's nothing wrong with that. It means... well.." Akane pursed her lips in a somewhat puzzled expression, striving to find the right words, fearing that she would choose the wrong ones, she drummed her fingers for half a moment as she thought.

Cautiously, she opened her mouth again to speak. "It means that you're good with Children, Ranma. You can relate with them," Akane nodded, half to herself and half to Ranma.

Ranma brushed some hair from her face, the slightly wavy red mane was wild at best, though Akane held a certain envy of it, Ranma was sure. "Do you really think so, Akane??? I mean.... some people might think a guy was weird for acting so.... so...."

"Caring?" Akane offered, mostly sure it wasn't the word that Ranma was looking for.

Ranma nodded without skipping a beat. "Yeah..... caring, I guess."

Akane let a smile assault her calm expression, winning over it. "Ranma, every woman wants a man who can feel. A man who is all guts and no heart isn't really worth marrying anyone. Caring is..... it's a big part of family. Of the future, I guess you could say."

Ranma half nodded, then a sigh escaped her lips. "I dunno. I really don't want to talk bout much right now.... I need to calm down after...." Ranma's expression turned a bit white, and her eyes flickered angrily for a moment.

Akane likened it to a Dangerous Fire that was almost out of control. It caused her to feel on edge herself. "Ranma, was it Happosai that-"

"I DON'T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT!" Ranma suddenly screamed, then her eyes flickered to a distant setting, seeing through akane.

In a flash, several emotions fell like night over Ranma's face. Anger, Fear, helplessness, then finally revulsion. A mere moment. She was gripping the Cabbit firmly in her hands, as if she would tear it apart.

Then calm. Calm as ice. Ice that could cut. Ranma looked down with a silent expression and relaxed her grip again on the stuffed animal. She stroked it several times while looking into it's glass brown eyes.

Akane had jumped after the scream.... then winced at the expression Ranma shot her. "..o..okay.. okay." Akane nodded, noticing she had cringed away from Ranma, and that there was a good foot and a half between the redhead and herself.

Ranma turned her body away from akane. "S' not okay, Akane. It'll never be okay so long as I'm..." Ranma stood up abruptly, cutting herself off in midsentance. "Gomen, Akane.... I.. please leave. I need some.. I've got to calm down." Ranma was hugging onto the cabbit as if her life depended on it. It seemed more like she was clinging to the cabbit than she was simply holding it.

Akane reached out to Ranma, to simply touch her hand, but didn't come within five inches. Ranma's entire aura felt like steel.... sharp steel razors. All danger and threat. Akane could feel the stinging threat of tears and the burning at the back of her throat and nose.

She drew her hand back with a sadness in her heart and nodded slowly. Just a little. Most people wouldn't notice. Ranma wasn't an exception at this point.

Akane placed her hand on her chest, fingers clenched in a gentle fist as she fought back the worry for Ranma. She drew herself up from the ground, a gentle uncertaintly caused her to reach out to Ranma again, and for a moment she thought she could touch him.

"Don't." Ranma said in a voice that shook with barely suppressed emotion. Akane couldn't place what emotion, but she knew it wouldn't be good if she pressed anything. Not good at all.

Akane found the strength to walk away. She didn't know how, but she reached the doorway. *I have to turn back... just to ask.*

"Yes, I will." Ranma said slowly, still facing away from Akane. "I'll be there tonight, just go."

Akane wondered if she should ask Ranma how he knew what question she would ask. Then those icy eyes returned to her mind.

Dangerous Fire.

* * * * * *

There was a soft, rhythmic chopping in the kitchen. The sunlight streamed in through the window, casting a sillouhette across the floor of the matronly figure at the counter. Slowly, she chopped the vegetables with a steady, rhythmic beat.

There was a moment where the beat was accompanied by three very wooden, and echoing, knocks. Kasumi blinked for half a moment, and paused in mid chop, raising her head a little and waiting for several moments.

There was no response to her silent inquiry.... so she began her steady pace until again she heard the stoccato of someone's hand upon the door.

Kasumi blinked, and set the knife down. She went to the kitchen and quickly rinsed her hand as she heard the knock return again. "Just a minute, I'll be right there," She called, as she does so often. Just loud enough for someone to hear her.

*I wonder who it could be?* Kasumi inquired to herself, as she slowly turned, drying her hands, and walked out of the kitchen.

She opened the door, and a young girl about Akane's age greeted her eyes, with brown hair up in a pony tail. "Konnichiwa, may I help you?" Kasumi chimed in a cheerful tone.

The young girl had a dazzling smile, and was carrying a brightly multicolored backpack with various patches all over it from different places in the world, she held it in front of her with both hands.

She was dressed in a pair of jeans and a loose fitting sweatshirt was an anime girl with a somewhat distant look on her face printed on the front. Below the picture of the girl was a caption that said "Key: The Metal Idol."

"Hai, Akane's home, right?" The girl asked, tilting her head slightly to one side and causing her pony tail to sway in the process.

Kasumi smiled a gentle, matronly smile. "Of course she is. Yuka, was it??? How have you been recently?" Kasumi stepped aside, gesturing for Yuka to come in.

Yuka gave a bright laugh. "Oh, I've been fine, school and all. Nothing really bad, how about you, Kasumi?" She inquired, stepping inside and slipping off her shoes.

Kasumi gave a slow nod. "I've been okay. One of my best friends, Memeko Miramoto, moved back home to live with her brother," Kasumi padded back into the living room, with Yuka on her heals.

Yuka blinked, turning and looking at Kasumi as they both walked , "Oh really, isn't that Hiroshi's oneechan he's always talking about??? I thought she was in Europe somewhere?" Yuka carefully took a seat as Kasumi gestured for her to sit, folding her hands in her lap and fiddling with the ring on her pinkie.

Kasumi stood, looking at Yuka carefully for a long moment. "Hai, she was in Europe since she moved out of Japan... but her husband died about a year and a half back, and her parents asked her to come back home," Kasumi's eyes focused on some point far in the distance, a sad, wistful look in her eyes. For a moment Kasumi could almost imagine how Memeko and Connor had been, such a short time ago... yet somehow it seemed much longer.

The wind chime on the porch twinkled with sound as the wind silently blew. "It can be pretty lonely in a big house all by yourself," She murmured, drifting out of her reverie then nodded to herself as much as Yuka. Kasumi bowed her head. "Scuse me, I must be getting back to Dinner," And with that Kasumi bustled back to the kitchen to finish her daily routine.

Yuka stared after her, wondering what Kasumi could have been thinking about. *I hope I didn't upset her.* Yuka wondered as she brushed a strand of her hair back behind her ear.

"Yuka!" Akane's voice rang out from the foot of the stairs.

The girl turned her head to cast her eyes upon Akane, her brown ponytail swishing behind her for a brief moment before a smile seemed to ease it's way into her features. "Heya, Akane!!! How is it going?? Hey, are you ready for tonight??? Lotsa fun, ne?" Yuka's smile brightened as she recalled how much fun they had had at last year's sleepover.

Akane smiled half heartedly, or that is how it seemed to Yuka. "...Sure, it'll be lots of fun and just like old times. I'll love it," Akane took a seat across from Yuka, looking at her hands that were folded neatly in her lap. To Yuka, it was very obvious that Akane's mind was not at all with her at the moment, and that it was likely on her baka fiancee.

Yuka chewed thoughtfully on her lip, wondering if she should say anything to Akane, or if she should mind her own business. She brought a hand up, drumming her fingers on the table's surface for half a moment before opening her mouth to speak.

"Okay, what did he do this time??" Yuka tried to keep the half controlled anger out of her voice, after all, Ranma had been going through a lot recently. In fact, Yuka had come to the conclusion that Ranma wasn't the huge chauvinistic jerk she had pegged him for.

Akane blinked, looking up at Yuka. "Oh, No, Yuka... he didn't do anything..." Akane raised a hand, shaking it in a gesture of negation. A worried breath ushered from Akane's lips. "I guess something happened with Happosai, and it really upset Ranma for some reason. I tried talking to him about it, but he was... well, in a somewhat defensive mood." Akane's shoulders slumped as she recalled how she had upset him with just a few simple words.

Yuka shook her head, her eyes closed and her head bowed slightly. She fidgeted with the ring on her pinkie, which Sayuri had given her for one of her Birthday's, turning it on her finger absently. "I don't know why you bother sometimes, Akane. Ranma is nothing but trouble, it seems," Yuka looked back up, and right into Akane's eyes.

"No, he's not Yuka... sure, he is a handful, but you don't know all the things he's been through. Even I only half understand. I mean, sure, I've been around him for so long.. but that just makes it even more tragic, because I really hardly know him." Akane sighed, rubbing her head with one hand.

She'd been getting headaches more often in the last week and a half, since all the tension with Ranma's identity had begun. She felt utterly useless in a battle that she needed to help Ranma win. Several times she opened her mouth to tell Yuka of what had happened uptairs, but instead she said nothing about it when she finally chose to speak.

"I don't know, maybe I just worry too much about the baka...." Akane said in a half tired tone of voice. She WAS tired... worrying so much all the time had worn her down. Not only from the past month, but just as much since Ranma first entered her life.

Worrying if she wasn't good enough, worrying over whether Ranma would win a battle, worrying over whether Ranma would save her from the madness that seemed to follow him everywhere, and worrying if perhaps she was pushing Ranma away too hard.

That last was a very recent fear.

Yuka frowned. "Well, at least you have tonight to relax and get away from it all, Yuka said she was going to bring some of the tapes over..." Yuka Trailed off as she noticed that Akane was once again staring down at her hands.

For several moments there was a long silence, Yuka watching Akane in the interim. "What's wrong?" Akane's friend finally asked.

"Yuka... I.. sort of invited Ranma to stay the night with us," Akane's head slowly moved up, her hands interlocked on her lap clenching eachother as she saw the startled look on her friend's face.

Yuka shook off her shock after a long moment. "Uhm.... Did you just say you are letting RANMA stay the night in our girl's slumber party???" Yuka gaze Akane a cross look, she had NOT planned on having any men in a girl's only slumber party, no matter the circumstances.

"Is there...a... problem, Akane?" Ranma was standing at the bottom of the stairs, dressed in her pajama's and a pair of house slippers. She had her arms folded behind her, and a unsure, almost tense mood about her. "I wouldn't want to make any trouble for ya.... I mean, it *IS* an all girl's thing, Akane."

Ranma's head was bowed slightly, and her eyes were fixed on a floorboard several feet in front of her, the whole picture one of nervous aprehension.

Ranma didn't want to impose, he didn't want to ruin a night where Akane could relax and forget all the problems recently. She wished that she could give Akane time out from the strange calm unsurety that seemed to invade her life as of late.

Akane fixed her gaze on Ranma, and then turned it back towards Sayuri. She couldn't tell Ranma to leave at a time like this, not after whatever had happened with Happosai.... besides, she liked having Ranma around. She would have hated even admitting it only months ago, but lately Akane had wondered what kind of friend she had given up on that first day, in exchange for a fiancee.

Akane shook her head suddenly, her eyes softly closed. A moment after she opened them and gazed directly at Sayuri.

"No, you're staying the night and that's final. You are going to have fun with the rest of us, Ranma, and you promised you would stay for me. You PROMISED," Akane looked at Ranma sternly, but with a certain pleading in her eyes, her hands hurt from where she was clenching them so hard.

Yuka opened her mouth to utter some words of objection, until Akane looked at Yuka with those worried eyes. The brown haired girl sighed, shaking her head. *I... guess we can pretend.* Yuka thought absently to herself.

Yuka could tell SOMETHING had happened, it didn't seem to be an argument. Or at least not the type she would expect of Akane and Ranma.

"I don't have a problem with Ranma staying with us, Akane, but if he starts getting perverted....." Yuka's voice trailed off in a tone of implied warning. Her face matched her unspoken threat with her brow furrowed and a stern look plastered across her face.

Ranma walked a bit closer, her eyes looking from Akane back to Yuka. "I.. I'm a girl for tonight, Yuka. Akane said that she wanted me to be her friend, not her fiancee for tonight," Ranma fidgeted unsurely.

Ranma didn't know where to go if Akane decided to make her leave. She instantly thought of Hiroshi, but didn't want to impose on her friend. Hiroshi seemed to prefer being alone a lot in the past several days. She found herself hoping that Akane DIDN'T change her mind, and that she kept her to her promise, even though she wasn't used to being around other girls, especially when it was an only girl sleepover.

Sure, she had played her fair share of pranks, going into the girls locker rooms at times, but she'd never SOCIALLY been around girls. She'd always hung around the macho guy crowd.. well, when she wasn't fighting of course...

Yuka looked up at Ranma and growled internally. *What, am I some guilt target now??? Sheesh....* Yuka looked back at Akane. "Okay... I will PRETEND that Ranma is a girl for tonight, but he'd better ACT it, or he's out, okay???" Yuka smirked slightly and crossed her arms. *Heh, let's see if Ranma can survive the night.*

Akane and Ranma exchanged a look, and both nodded... seemingly to eachother, yet also in response to Yuka's query.

"Sure, I can handle it..... it can't be that hard, right??" Ranma grinned with a pompous smile, she was worried that getting the girls to go along with Akane's wishes would be harder.

"Well then, Yuka, I guess we have to get ready for the others to arrive," Akane smiled up at Ranma, as did Yuka. Yuka's smile was one of mischief.

Ranma blinked. *Somehow, I feel as if tonight is going to be very long....*

* * * * * *

Ranma stared out the living room window, watching the tree's sway gently in the breeze... some of the leaves that were still clinging to the branches slowly drifted down and joined their brothers on the ground.

Ranma had been asked to wait while the Akane and Yuka talked to the other girls about letting her stay... several of the girls didn't even know who she was, but were asked to come along anyways.

Of course, Ami and Sayuri knew who he was, but the other two girls... Kiyomi and Shiyori were new to Tokyo, and hadn't really heard that much about Ranma, seeing as how they had been gone several years in Kyoto, coupled with the fact that they were going to one of the schools just outside of the Nerima District.

Ranma looked up at the sky, seeing the splotchy grey clouds that covered half the azure canvas. It had been getting colder, lately, and winter seemed to be taking it's time getting here. It had frosted the night before, but other than that, there was no sign of snow.

Ranma heard the soft pattering of some house slippers, and looked over her shoulder, up at the raven haired new girl, Shiyori.

She was dressed in pale blue pajamas with white chickens printed on them, her hair coming to just about shoulder length, cut in a style resembling Nabiki's.

Unlike Nabiki, though, Shiyori was several inches shorter and had a innocent look to her face. her small nose and round face had more the look of a young girl than a teen on the brink of womanhood. Her body matched her faces youthful appearance, throgh the pajamas Ranma could tell that she had only a modest amount of development these past few years.

All this was seen in the span of half a second, Ranma returned her gaze back to the yard, and a pregnant silence ensued for quite a while in many people's terms.

Ranma watching whatever it was she was watching, Shiyori watching Ranma, Ranma proceeding to watch that which she was, Shiyori looking out the back doors to check and see if she could determine what Ranma was watching.

After many moments of this, Shiyori finally decided to break the tense silence.

"Whatcha looking at?" She asked, smiling at Ranma in a patient manner. She sat down indian style right beside Ranma. While it frustrated her that Ranma seemed to desire no company, she did feel as if the girl needed some.

"I'm watching the leaves Fall...." Ranma found herself saying, in a calm level tone. Her hair was unbound and framing her shoulders, and she fingered it idly for a moment, rubbing a lock between her fingers to feel the silky, smooth texture of it.

Shiyori smiled brightly, she was a year younger than Ranma, and hadn't known the hectic life that Nerima Ward was reknowned for. "Really?? Isn't it kind of boring??" Shiyori joined Ranma in looking out the window, wondering at what could hold Ranma's attention so Rapt.

A long moment passed, the creaking of the tree could barely be heard from where the two girls sat. The wind slowly swept it's branches back and forth, in a lulling, almost dreamy motion. The light in the sky illuminated the yard, casting shadows where the small clouds passed overhead.

The sun seemed dull, as if even it was sleepy. Or perhaps the cold had only made the illusion more pronounced. It was a resilient moment in time, then Ranma spoke in answer to Shiyori's soft inquiry.

"...'The seasons pass and change with glee, from springs young blooms to summer's prosperity, into the death of autumn's kiss, winter's dream, and rebirth's bliss.... yet as we wander down our paths, we rebel change and fear it's wrath. With calm acceptance should we step, forward, onward, a promise kept.'..." Ranma recited, watching yet another leaf fall from the tree.

The leaf tumbed end over end... floating gentle down, torn from it's safe home within the cradling branches of the tree, plumetting and falling... a gust of wind lifted it high up, and for half a frozen moment it seemed to hang in midair before once more it began it's slow drifting back to the earth.

It swayed, back and forth, almost floating as it drifted closer and closer to the ground. It shifted it's path slightly, and then gently touched the surface of the koi pond. The ripples extended out from it's gentle touch, glimmering in the dull light of the frosty autumn morn.

Shiyori turned, looking at Ranma as she brushed a lock of hair from her face. There was an ageless feel to the moment, as if it could take place anywhere in the world and yet still hold the same simple awe, an awe that was wholely wasted on the young girl beside Ranma.

No, Shiyori had not traced the path of the leaf in quiet wonder, she had instead chosen to mull over the words Ranma had whispered in only half thought memory. "That's very pretty, who wrote it???" She asked, giving forth a heartfelt smile. Her new inquiry slowly penetrated the haze enshrouding Ranma's mind, lifted her up out of the calm void inside of her soul, much as the wind had lifted the falling leaf.

Ranma bit her lip, and looked away from the window, looking seemingly at the wall for a long moment as she drummed her fingers on the floor. "A friend of mine... He said it means instead of worrying about tomorrow, we should accept that time passes and try and live our lives without fear of what will come."

The wind was chill outside, causing Ranma to shiver just slightly from her close proximity to the door. it stirred her hair gently, a soft caress of unseen hands. Ranma looked up, seeing a small flock of birds drifting slowly with the wind, their wings beating gently to keep them afloat in the sky. They were flying south, to warmer parts of the world.

Shiyori's smile brightened, once more absent of what Ranma was truly seeing with her deep blue eyes.

"He sounds very smart, your friend," Shiyori pursed her lips for a moment as she watched Ranma nod. "Urr... Yuka and Sayuri said that you could come up, and that they talked about it and thought that you could stay. I dunno why you wouldn't be able to, though." The girl Blinked in startlement as Ranma looked at her.

Ranma looked Shiyori in the eye, a soft smile slowly etching it's path into her demeanor. "I'm Ranma," She said, as if in some half waking dream. Ranma bowed her head quickly, her shoulders moving with it just a slight bit. A greeting of equals.

Shiyori smiled. "Matsuno Shiyori. It's a pleasure to meat you, Ranma-san," She copied Ranma's example, bowing ever so slightly.

Ranma looked at Shiyori for a long time, Ranma had this feeling of inner calm and relaxation that she had rarely ever reached before, as if everything is heard in sharp crystal clarity, yet muffled at the same time to a soft firmness. Everything had a sort of blur around it, as if in some sort of dream...

"It's nice to meetcha, Shiyori-San.... maybe we could be friends, ne?" Ranma smiled, a dreamy, half awake smile. She had her full mind about her, but somehow she just couldn't feel the inner turbidity she had so often been accustomed to.

No, it was still there.... her mind told her that, it was just so small and compressed that she could hardly feel it. Locked in a box.

"Oh, I would like that ever so much... You seem like a very nice girl," Shiyori smiled brightly, squinting her eyes a bit as she did so. It was a cute smile, the kind you might be forced to smile back to.

Ranma's smile faltered for half a moment. *Girl..* She thought sadly, almost bitterly. Another half a moment later her smile returned.

The brief lapse was not unnoticed by Shiyori, "I'm sorry, would you... rather be alone??" She asked, making to stand up.

Ranma put a hand suddenly on her shoulder, startling her. "No, I am fine... I.. I'm Ranma, one of Akane's friends. Uhm.... well, Sayuri and Yuka dunno if they should let me stay cuz I am.. well, they think I'm a pervert," Ranma blushed and looked away from Shiyori's eyes carefully.

"Are you?" She asked calmly, without any hint of agression or accusation.

Ranma brought her eyes back up slowly to the new question, one she had never really heard before. Certainly one nobody had ever asked her. "Huh??"

Shiyori giggled softly, it was a girlish giggle that reminded Ranma of candy, red ribbons, and christmas presents. "You can be honest with me," She said, a questioning smile, an upturned brow, a sly inquiring look, "Are you a pervert??"

Ranma smiled gently back at Shiyori. "No, I guess I'm not. I suppose they just misunderstand some of the things that... happen to me," Ranma tilted her head slightly, raising a skeptical brow. "Uhm.. do you-?"

"Sure I do. You've got no reason to lie to me, right??" She giggled again, like Summer days and swimming, all rolled into one.

Ranma could only giggle unsurely in response. "No, I guess not," Ranma smiled at Shiyori. "It's very nice meeting you, Shiyori-San. You seem like a very kind girl."

"Who, me?? Nawww.... I'm just always in the wrong place at the right time," She winked mischieviously, it reminded Ranma of secret girl-gossip behind closed doors.

It made Ranma giggle sincerely. "Suuure, and I bet that you just hate being burdened by all these people claiming to be your friends."

Shiyori feigned a weak, tired look. "I just don't know what to do, all of them seem to rely upon me for some reason. Who am I to tell them I am not the goddess they think I am??" Her tone was Mocking, as if she were imitating someone she knew.

"Goddess, huh?? I can give you a run for your money, Honey," Ranma winked that secret, girlish wink, which started Shiyori into a giggling fit.

The two couldn't stop laughing, and for several minutes they sat there, teasing eachother and mocking people they knew.

It was inevitable that a shadow fell over the two giggling girls. Ranma looked up at the face of Kitsuragi Sayuri, her shoulder length brown hair tied up into two VERY girlish pony tails on either side of her head.

Ranma pointed and snickered, which started Shiyori into a giggling fit again.

Sayuri narrowed her eyes in mock anger. "Are you two quite finished bonding???" Sayuri asked the two of them through clenched teeth.

"Hmm..," Shiyori scratched her head in a mock confused(Gourry-like) fashion. "Uhm... I dunno..."

Ranma had to giggle at the sillyness that was rubbing off on her.

Sayuri could only smile, "Okay, I'll give you some time to think about it....," She turned around to go, then looked calmly over her shoulder. "I guess that means you don't want any icecream after dinner?"

It was as if two bolts of lightning shot down and electrocuted Shiyori and Ranma, the expressions on their faces one of genuine offense. "NANI!?!?!"

Sayuri ran upstairs laughing, heading in a beeline for Akane's door.

"Come back here!!!" Ranma yelled, chasing the pony-tailed brown haired girl up the stairs.

"Yeah! No fair scaring us like that!!!" Shiyori asked, hopping after Ranma in her own innocent, girlish fashion.

Ranma had to wonder, maybe the night WOULDN'T be all bad.

* * * * * *

Ranma watched Silently as the girl's sobbed at the ending to the movie, was confused at the dabbing of eyes and the sniffles the girls were making. It was about a woman trapped within her role as geisha to the emperor, and of a young Samurai under the emperor's rule falling in love with her.

It ended with the Samurai being brought back from war, near death... the Geisha woman was ordered to tend to him as he died. She could only admit her love to him on her deathbed, and soon after she took her own life in a very Romeo/Juliet type of manner.

Ranma, herself, found the ending a bit heart wrenching, but certainly nothing to cry over. Ami muttered something about Ranma being insensitive, which got her firm words from Ranma's new friend Shiyori.

Of course, Sayuri, Yuka, an Ami all laughed at Shiyori's stern attitude. Unfortunately, Shiyori hadn't a clue about what they were laughing at, and was again wuite offended.

So with Shiyori sulking, and Ranma feeling embarassed at having spoken up, Yuka popped in a new tape for them all to watch.

Ranma continued watching in rapt attention as they watched some Anime that Sayuri had brought over, entitled "Key: The Metal Idol."

Ranma liked this one much better since there was some action and real violence in it, although she got some very odd looks from the two new girls when she got excited about those parts, so stopped commenting.

It was about some Robot Girl who wanted to be human because her grandfather was dead, that much Ranma had gathered.

"I just didn't get the point of the entire thing... I mean.... She's probably faster and stronger, so why be human??" Ranma asked after the 3rd tape ended.

Kiyomi sighed and rolled over, propping her head up with her hand, her elbow on the futon, "C'mon, Ranma... it's not about strength or speed or how well she was made or what not.... it's not even about the guys who are after her all the time, It's really about how Key has wanted all her life just to fit in and be normal, alive like everyone else."

Ranma scratched her head in a confused expression. "Urr... but.. uhm, isn't that kinda dumb? I mean, life can really suck at times for some people, why would she want to be human?"

Ami rolled her eyes and glared at Ranma. "Gimme a break, sure life might be hard sometimes, but at least we feel things like love and hope and happiness and at least we know what to cherish and protect. Key wants to feel because she wants to feel the good things as well as the bad, AND she doesn't want to just stop working after so long."

Shiyori nodded at Ami, and looked over at Ranma with a calm and gentle expression. "Sakura, her best friend, loves her a lot, and doesn't want to lose her after just finding her again. Key knows what friendship is all about, even though she's never felt it so completely before. Kinda makes you think, maybe we can all become more than what we are, exceed our programming so to speak," Shiyori smiled and looked back at Ami.

Ami rolled her eyes and leveled her gaze on Ranma, folding her arms . "See, it's not TOO hard to understand, Ranma... Everything doesn't have to be martial arts, you know."

Ranma did her best to ignore Ami's snide tone, cocking her head to one side. "Okay, I think I understand what you mean... uhm.. sorry??" Ranma offered, unsurely.

Akane sighed. "Okay... uhm.. maybe we should try a little something else for tonight, ne??? I think we've watched enough tapes for now," Akane stood up and slowly padded over to her closet, carefully picking up the old Ouiji board she had bought from the antique store in town.

"Okay girls, pull up some seats," Akane gently placed the stylized wooden box on the bed, as the girls got pillows and chairs and made a small circle around it.

Akane carefully opened it and placed the small cursor in the center of the board. Pulling her own chair up to the bed, she smiled supportively to Ranma.

Ranma looked down at the board apprehensively, she scratched her head with an uncomfortable expression on her face. She didn't know exactly WHAT a ouiji board was, or what it was for. It looked like some sort of board game to her.

Kiyomi looked at Ranma, tilting her head gently to the side, her brown, short cropped hair making her look much younger than her actual age of 17. "What's wrong, Ranma?? You look a bit uncomfortable," The nectar voiced teen chimed.

Ranma blushed, hanging her head. "Uhm.. I dunno what this game is, really," Ranma mumbled half under his breath.

Ami glared at Ranma with a accusatory gaze. "What was that, Ranma??" She asked, the care of controlling her voice plain on her face.

Akane looked worriedly at Ami. *What is wrong with her??? I didn't know she hated Ranma this much...* Akane shook her head, wondering if she shouldn't have invited Ami. *She seemed nice all the other times.*

"Urr.. I kinda... well, I dunno what this game is, ya know?? I don't usually get t'play many girlish games, I guess," Ranma looked even more chagrined than before, without even looking up. She could feel the intense gaze of loathing on her from Ami's eyes.

What had she done?? She didn't do anything to Ami, that she could recall. Ranma could tell that she was barely controlling her anger out of respect for Akane and the other girls...

Ranma wished she knew what Ami was so angry with her about.

Kiyomi didn't seem to notice the killer looks from Ami, smiling softly and explaining to Ranma in her velvety sweet voice, "You see, Ranma, this is called a Ouiji board... most people think it is but a harmless game of fun, but the main idea is that we all put our hands on the little cursor and ask a question, and the spirits are supposed to make the cursor move to spell something out, or to move to yes, no, possibly, or the answer is unsure," Kiyomi smiled brightly after finishing her small speech.

Ranma looked unsurely at Ami at first, then turned her gaze to Kiyomi, holding her left hand palm up about face level, in a questioning (And very feminine) Gesture, "Uhm, but how do we know for sure that none of the other girls are moving the thing on purpose???"

Yuka was idly munching on some potatoe chips, "We don't Ranma... *Gulp* But usually you can trust everyone to not screw with the thing. Especially if the question is a serious one," Yuka sucked on her fingers in a slightly annoying fashion, then wiped her hands on a paper napkin, tossing it in the trash can.

Sayuri carefully looked at the board, putting her hands on it. "Okay, well.. I guess we should start. Uhm.. I guess we should all take turns in asking questions. Since it's Akane's party, how about she starts first and then we move counter clockwise?"

Ami raised an eyebrow in a questioning manner, her arms crossed beneath her breasts, "Oh, so after Akane.. that would be... You, wouldn't it??"

Yuka rolled her eyes and pushed slightly on Ami's shoulder, "Give it a rest, girl, we'll ALL get our turns...," Yuka shook her head. Ami didn't usually have this much of an attitude... she didn't know why she was acting so flippish, it just wasn't like the Ami she knew.

Ami looked directly at Ranma with a self appreciative smile on her face, "Even the freak??"

Shiyori got wide eyes and actually stood up, looking angry at Ami.

Akane gave Ami a firm look. "Ami, Ranma is not a freak.. she is my FRIEND. Do you got that???"

"I can't BELIEVE you would be so-" Shiyori was cut off by Akane giving her a look that told her now would not be a good time to start this.

Shiyori had to force herself to sit back down, she looked at Ranma with an apologetic look on her face. She hadn't known Ranma very long, but she could tell there was an immense sadness that permeated the redhead's essence, a ephemereal ghost that seemed to cling to the air around her.

Indecision.... uncertainty.... Shiyori could tell that Ranma was a very shy girl who didn't relate well with other women, and found herself wondering what kind of childhood Ranma might have been subject to.

"Hands everyone!!!!" Sayuri said firmly, putting her hands on the small cursor... Akane following suit.... then Ranma, Ami, Kiyomi, and finally Shiyori as she winked at Ranma, causing the redhead to giggle a little.

Everyone turned their gaze upon the hostess of the party... Waiting patiently in the still moment for her to speak, to say something, to ask a question of the small, inanimate cursor which all their hands shared.

Akane smiled, and then said in a prompt and commanding tone, "Okay... well, let's start by asking the spirits a couple questions to get a feel for this whole thing," Akane gently closed her eyes. "Everyone relax," She said calmly.

Her eyes drifted closed a moment, and for a brief part of a single second she saw images flashing through her mind. A wedding dress. A Mask. Long stemmed roses, still thorned, lying on the ground amidst shattered glass. Tears running down Ranma's face. Ryouga holding what looked like her in his arms, weeping over her still form. Then the images stopped.

All took but 1/2 a second to sear through Akane's mind, and left her senses reeling for a moment. She wavered a bit back and forth, blinking away the spots dancing before her eyes, wondering what just happened, since every image zipped by so fast that she couldn't recognize any one.

She clamped her eyes shut for a moment and took a deep breath, her head feeling a bit better afterwards.

She opened her eyes a moment later, the muscles in her arms as relaxed as she could get them while maintaining her hold on the cursor. "Spirits...," She intoned solemnly, "When is my Birthday???" She asked, looking carefully at the cursor.

Shiyori giggled a little then got quiet as the thing started moving. It felt as if someone around the board was pushing it one way or another... She looked carefully at everyone else, but everyone else was equally as confused, looking at eachother with critical eyes.

A chill wind seemed to stir their clothes and hair, causing all of them to shiver as the Cursor began spelling out a word. Strangely the window was firmly shut and fastened.

Akane was firmly focused on the board, her body relaxed as she watched the board spell out "MAY" Then move to the Number 9.

"Wow, Akane... that's pretty neat," Sayuri said, looking around unsurely, wondering if someone had moved the cursor... the only problem is, she and Yuka were the only two who really knew Akane's birthday who were in the room other than Ami, but Ami didn't really seem to care much about the little game.

She was sure Ranma had no idea, because of the look she got on her face... as if she were making a mental note and telling her not to forget the date. Shiyori and Kiyomi both were new to Akane's friendship, and didn't know that much about her yet to really hazard a guess.

And Sayuri was she she had not moved the cursor, she was completely relaxed.... she didn't think Yuka would do so, since her friend was into some of that spiritual stuff, which left Akane, But why would Akane move the cursor??

Akane smiled at everyone, "I think it works... Okay.. hmmm..," Akane sat in thought for a moment, looking at the small cursor as it returned to the center of the board.

*What should I ask it... hmmm... Something personal, but not too.... urm.. too personal...* Akane looked over at Ranma, who promptly blushed and looked down at the cursor. *I know..*

"Spirits..." Akane intoned once more, drawing everyone's attention back to her. "When will I get married??" She asked in a mostly level voice. She hoped she didn't sound too excited.

Everyone smiled except Ami, who shot a burning glare at Ranma. This time she would move the cursor herself, instead of letting Akane do it.

She looked down and tried pushing, but her arms wouldn't respond.. it were as if she had no control of them!!! She turned a bit pale as the realization hit her... the board was actually working!

The Cursor Moved around the board several times, it started spelling out a word, then stopped, then started again. It looked like May to most watching, but the date was unclear... then the cursor stopped on the word "UNCLEAR" that sat in the optional choices at the bottom of the board.

Akane frowned, unsure of what to make of the board's answer. It had not given the year or the day, but it might possibly have given the month. May?? On her Birthday???

*How romantic.* She thought to herself, she wondered when Ranma would propose to her. She knew that her recent efforts at improving their relationship would pay off. She caught herself looking at the redhead with a wistful gaze, and immediately struck it from her features, hoping nobody noticed.

"Congratulations, Akane!" Shiyori Said brightly, causing Ranma to blush from head to toe. "I sure hope whoever he is is as much of a good person as you are to all of your friends," She smiled, looking at Ranma, and suddenly noticing how deep the red that colored her cheeks really ran. "Did I say something wrong, Ranma??"

Ranma shook her head. "Naah, you're fine. Just.. sorta shocked Akane'll be getting married," Ranma said, looking down at the board. It had to be some sort of trick, one of the other girls was moving the cursor. Ranma figured she would just not worry about it, after all, it was only a game.

Yuka and Sayuri giggled as quietly as possible, looking at eachother. "It's about time," Sayuri whispered to her friend.

"It's your turn, Yuka!" Kiyomi Said brightly.

The Questions went around, most of them typical, about boys, or grades, or when THEY would get married. Yuka and Sayuri found out they were to be married on the same day.

Ami asked several taunting questions about Ranma, asking if Akane's Fiancee was a pervert.. which was a no, or if he even cared about Akane, which gave her a shocking yes. *But then, it's only a game, right?* She tried to convince herself. She still couldn't take her hands off the cursor.

It was about 30 minutes into the game, and Ranma had as of yet to ask a question... she was nervous, and unsure about this so called game. She had that creepy feeling she got around the Old Ghoul or Happosai.

"Come on, Ranma.. what's there to be afraid about?? It's only a game," Shiyori said, giggling that bright, sunshine giggle of hers.

Ranma looked at the board, staring at the cursor unsurely. "I dunno.. I think it's kinda creepy... ya know??" Ranma said in a bit of a wary voice.

Akane cast her gaze towards Ranma, "C'mon.. ask, it'll be fun Ranma!" She said, smiling gently, a supportive glimmer in her eyes.

Ranma looked a bit unsure but opened her mouth after a long moment of thinking, "Urr... will.. uhm.. will Akane be happy in her marriage?" She asked a bit unsurely, as soon as the last words left her mouth the cursor slowly started to move.

Ranma's heart was thumping as the cursor slowly moved towards one side of the board. A shiver ran through her as it stopped on the yes. She breathed a sigh of relief before she noticed it moving again, it hovered on the ampersand.

Akane's breath caught in her throat as the cursor jumped from ampersand to the two letters on the opposite side of the board. N-O. That same cold shiver ran up her spine, disconcerting and utterly eerie.

Ranma and Akane stared at the cursor in mute shock. Ami smiled a secret smile inside, Yuka and Sayuri gave eachother worried glances. Shiyori looked puzzled at the expressions on everyone's faces. Kiyomi was equally as confused.

Akane laughed a bit to break the tension. "It's.. only a game, bahh!!! Who cares what the board says?? We're here to have fun," She said, not sounding entirely too sure of herself. Luckily, Ranma was shaken enough to take the words seriously.

*Akane's right.. it's only a dumb game, nothing to be worried about,* She told herself in an all too uncertain manner, *I hope* She amended. That shiver ran up her spine again.

"Will Ranma be happy in.. her Marriage?" Shiyori asked, Following suite. The cursor once more began it's gentle trek across the board. YES M-O-S-T-L-Y.

"Yes Mostly?? What is that supposed to mean???" Ranma asked looking offended. "Yes Mostly? Sheesh, stupid board..."

Akane was feeling uncomfortable, staring at the cursor that seemed to silently taunt her. *It's a game.* She told herself, forcing the disturbing feeling out of her system with sheer will.

"Is Cologne still alive?" Akane asked, as if in challenge to the cursor. There was a long pause, the cursor sitting immobile, as if considering whether it should answer the question.

Shiyori exchanged a questioning look with Ranma, "Who is Cologne?" Shiyori asked before everyone hushed her, the cursor had begun to move. Gliding carefully and slowly over the board, it rested finally on YES.

"Will her curse come true??" Yuka asked, looking intently at the cursor as it began slowly gliding across the board once more. YES was the response.

"Guys.. urr..." Ranma stared uncertainly at the board, the eerie feeling only getting worse as moments passed. "Mebbe we should cut this out, I mean, this game is starting to give me the creeps."

Sayuri nodded in understanding, "Okay, okay... I'll change the tone, Ranma," She smiled mischieviously, light dancing in her eyes as she looked at the cursor. Several questions floated through her head, and she plucked one of the many and brought it to the forefront of her mind.

"Will Tatewaki Kuno EVER catch a clue about his Pig Tailed Goddess's True nature??" She asked, inwardly chuckling.

"Fat chance, the pig," Yuka noted, sounding half amused at the question. Ranma was forced to smile at the thought of Kuno actually figuring it out.

*That would be the day* The redhead laughed inside at the thought, she could imagine smoke coming out of Kuno's ears as he tried to figure a way out of the truth.

YES. Was the answer from the board, summoning shocked stares from everyone around. Kuno's reputation preceded him, so even Shiyori and Kiyomi were shocked.

Sayuri blinked at the board's answer, completely confused. "Kuno... using a braincell? Since when???" She asked, meaning it rhetorically.. unbeknownst to the board.

The cursor shifted again and began it's answer to the question provided. 2 D-A-Y-S. Everyone laughed at the ridiculous answer. There was no possible way that the "True Blunder" of Furenkin High would ever cast off his delusional fantasy world and actually consider reality for even a moment.

"Now I *KNOW* This Board is BSing us..." Sayuri wiped tears of laughter from her face, sighing. She had needed a good laugh from the tone that the board had started to take... she had actually believed for a moment that it might've been serious.

Yuka was in the same boat, and was quite relieved that she had been reminded that it was only a silly game.

"Does Akane's Fiancee like dressing up like a girl and pretending he is a girl all the time like some pervert??" Ami asked, looking straight at Ranma as she spoke.

Akane glared at Ami. *I am not inviting her again...* The girl had done nothing but taunt Ranma all night, which was getting to Ranma... Akane noticed.

Shiyori narrowed her eyes at Ami, "If... *IF* this were not Akane's house, and if I were not a guest here... I would.. I would-"

"It's okay, Shiyori-chan," Ranma said in a meak tone, which in itself was odd. Ranma's eyes were downcast, looking at the cursor moving from YES to the ampersand. There was an abashed look on her face.

"No it's NOT okay, Ranma! She has been bothering you.. and Akane all night," Yuka said firmly, making sure to add that last part.

"Ami, what is your problem with Ranma?? She is a guest tonight, just like you. You have no right to treat her like you are," Yuka was upset. Ami was one of her own friends, and she had NEVER seen her so snippish and snotty towards anyone.

Ami was usually a bright, cheerful, caring person as far as Sayuri knew. This was a sharp contrast to her usual self, and it caused Sayuri to wonder if there was anything wrong with Ami.

Nobody other than Ranma noticed the YES or the ampersand, since they were too busy bickering over Ami's... everyone caught the NO.

"Ami, I don't want to hear another comment about... about my Fiancee or Ranma, do you understand?" Akane said, her temper barely in check as she glared at the girl she knew from school.

Ami looked at Akane, suddenly seeming to notice how inappropriate her actions had been during the night. She sighed and nodded slowly, "..Look.. I.. I'm sorry, I just.. I've had.. well.. I'm sorry," She finished, sounding inadequate to her own ears.

Ranma nodded, still looking down at the board in a very depressed manner. "..I.. I'd like.. to ask it a question, Akane," Ranma said quietly, almost so hushed that Akane hardly heard her.

Akane turned her attention to Ranma, noticing the mood her love was in her own heart fell. She nodded slowly, "..you can ask it anything you want, Ranma... you're my friend, and you don't have to be afraid of anything," Akane smiled softly, trying to comfort Ranma in her depression.

Ranma looked up at Akane with those beautiful blue eyes, "..thanks, Akane-chan," She said in a very soft, low tone. She whispered a question silently.. it was hard to hear.

"..is..there... a... a cure... for... for... the problem.. I'm asking about?" She asked, her eyes closed softly.

She held her breath, her heart thundering in her ears. *Please..* She asked as she felt the cursor lurch and begin movement.

*PLEASE* She begged, her eyes clenched tightly shut as she felt it drift slowly across the board.

There was a FLASH of a Masked figure with empty, bottomless eyes that flickered in Ranma's mind for a moment.

She shivered. *Please.. Kami Please*

Another Flash, A pool rushing up at her. *No.. please, no... Please Kami...*

FLASH, a clay statue gently caressing her face.

*Why.. why kami...*

FLASH, two children laughing, cut violently short by a scream.

*A cure, let there be a cure...*

FLASH, Her tears mingling with the rain, the ache of pain in her heart.

Ranma slowly began to open her eyes...

FLASH, Holding roses in her hand, glass cutting her fingers as she held them.

NO.

Ranma stared.

* * * * * *

"It was only a game, Ranma," Shiyori was sitting by Ranma, who was still staring at where the board had been, her mind locked on the word it had stopped on.

She stared at the Red head. Ranma was a very beautiful girl, marked with a very unique and beautiful gift of bright red hair... something which Shiyori had never seen before.

A smooth, flawless, unscarred face that seemed almost porcelain in it's perfect complexion... and such fair skin as to seem almost pale, but a beautiful pale, not sickly.

Her eyes were a shining, brilliant blue that seemed to flicker with passionate emotions, which was a very deep sadness or depression at the moment.

Akane had taken Ami to another room with the other girls, who were having it out with the girl for being such a rude guest. Kiyomi was downstairs whipping up some munchies and icecream.

Shiyori looked from the door back to Ranma, who was staring down at her hands. She reached over and gently took one of the girl's hands, holding it in her own and looking it over, running her fingers over it.

It was smooth, and delicate.. with long fingers and beautiful fingernails... hands that were so very soft and gentle, but which looked strong enough in their own right. Shiyori could tell Ranma practiced martial arts, like Akane did, the soft hand was firm and somewhat rough on the palms and fingers, but not so much so as to seem unfeminine.

"Hai... I.. I hope you are right," Ranma turned those bright blue eyes on Shiyori, and brought a half hearted smile to her face. She squeezed Shiyori's hand to let her know that she was okay, if a bit shaken.

Shiyori smiled a bit at getting a response from Ranma, "Seriously, sometimes people take Ouiji too seriously, I hope it didn't bother you?"

Ranma sighed and shook her head, turning and looking at Shiyori, "Look, Shiyori-chan.. there's a lot of stuff that you don't know about me. Secret stuff, personal stuff, and.. well.. it's just that the answers to those questions, even if they were fake, kinda upset me a little."

Shiyori nodded slowly. "You seem like a.. well, a weird girl. Not like most girls I know," Shiyori received a smile for her comment.

"You have no idea how weird..." Ranma smiled a bit brighter at Shiyori, temporarily forgetting what had so upset her only minutes before.

Shiyori didn't know Ranma that well, but she liked the redhead. It was one of those times where a person meets someone completely new, but they cannot seem to dislike them, as if there was something about Ranma that was inherently charismatic.

"What is your life like, Shiyori-chan?" Ranma asked suddenly, catching the black haired girl off guard.

Shiyori had to think a moment, to gather her own memories and words. "Well... I go to Gakudai High School, I'm on the swimming team, my Boyfriend's a big fan of the internet, plans on going to programming college after school. What's scary is he's actually good at that kind of stuff."

Ranma tilted her head carefully to one side, "Why would that be scary?? I mean, I'm a good martial artist, it's what I do best," She blinked as Shiyori giggled lightly.

"It's scary because I don't know ANYTHING about computers... and when he gets to talking about those things, I just nod my head and smile, not really understanding a thing," Shiyori smiled at Ranma. She definitely liked the girl.. Ranma was.. shy was the best word for it. Around women, it appeared to her.

"You think THAT is bad, Tasuki listens to real loud american music that I just can't STAND... and he snores," Sayuri said in a mildly annoyed manner as she walked back into the room.

Shiyori grinned, looking up at Sayuri, "And how do you know he snores, Sayuri-chan?" Sayuri threw a pillow in response to that suggestion.

"I have done no such thing!! He falls asleep on the couch all the time, especially when we're in the middle of a movie I like," Sayuri wore a pouty look on her face as she remembered her boyfriend snoring loudly as he leaned on her shoulder, ruining the movie for her.

Yuka leaned in the doorway as Sayuri finished talking, "You think THAT is bad... Nobuo makes lewd jokes with his male friends all the time, so much so that I just can't STAND being with him when he is at school..."

"So dump him," Shiyori thought it was common sense, if a guy did THAT to HER, she would drop him in short order, no questions asked.

Yuka rolled her eyes, walking in and plopping herself down on Akane's bed. "It isn't that easy, I mean.. I care about him, it's just I don't care for his social habits," Yuka looked at Ranma, smiling a bit supportively.

Ami strode back in with a very sullen and angry expression on her face, "Sure it's that easy, Yuka... if a guy is a jerk, I would tell him off... in public, if possible, to really get his goat," Ami cast a very venomous, murderous glare at Ranma.... but said nothing at all.

Akane and Kiyomi followed Ami into the room, Akane sat down beside Yuka, "Actually, Ami, you don't have a boyfriend, so you don't know what it's like loving someone... even for their flaws," Ami grumbled in response to Akane's statement.

"I personally don't WANT a boy friend... all of them are the same, they all want one thing or another... usually more than you're willing to give, and if there was EVER a man who I would date, he would have to be nigh perfect," She almost spat the last part of her statement, a vindictive defense edging into her voice.

Kiyomi frowned, gently putting a hand on Ami's shoulder, "Honey.. that's the whole reason that you love someone, knowing that someone you love is less than perfect helps you feel better about the person that you are, knowing that YOUR imperfections are acceptable to them," Kiyomi attempted a smile of encouragement, but dropped the gesture when Ami just glared at her in return.

Ranma looked down at her hands in her lap, "Not.. all men are like that.. There are some very nice men, who are just a little confused as to what to do with themselves," Ranma smiled brightly, looking up at Akane, who smiled back in return.

Shiyori and the other girls took on a dreamy, wistful look, "If I had a man, he would be brave, with courage and honor that shines through his rough male exterior," Several of the other girls sighed, Akane smiled at Ranma gently, which caused the redhead to blush slightly.

"My man would be honest, and he would never be afraid to share anything with me... He wouldn't be afraid to tell me what he is feeling, and we would never keep ANYTHING from eachother!" Kiyome looked around shyly, blushing as everyone looked at her with silly, girlish grins on their faces.

"I'd like a man that is never afraid to help out, no matter how unmanly some of the things might be... someone who isn't afraid to take risks for me, because they love me so much," Sayuri smiled and leaned on Yuka, who sighed, wrapping her arm around her friend.

"A man who cares more for others than himself... selfless to a fault, always keeping others more important than himself," Yuka nodded solemnly, her own vision of some knight in shining armor coming to her rescue.

"You are all fools.. men are pigs. I've known enough in my life to tell you that for SURE, There is no perfect man, there is no wonderful messiah of your heart that is going to come along and make your life dance on cloud nine... And you're ALL idiots to think so," Ami looked at Ranma for a brief moment, an accusatory look that said I was talking about you, pig'.

Ranma glared back in defiance.. a fire flickering in her heart. "I know a man like that.... and more, who is more than deserving of ANY girl in this room."

Yuka blinked, then smiled... "Oh really, Ranma?? How about you tell us about this dream man then..."

"Hai! Hai!! What kind of guy is he like???" Shiyori asked, her eyes dancing with that inherent merriment that seemed to permeate her being.

Kiyomi giggled, "Is he handsome???"

"Is he Compassionate?" Sayuri inquired.

"Or gentle?" Yuka amended.

Ranma blushed, looking down at her hands... Ami narrowed her eyes at the redhead.

Ami crossed her arms, glaring at Ranma in mild irritation, "Well, go ahead, tell us about this godly perfect man, Ranma... we're ALL listening..." She sounded slightly upset... but she kept it carefully under control.

Ranma stared at her hands for a long moment, all of the girls watching her in silent wait for this revelation of some perfect man that all of them dreamed of, but seemed to glance over.

Ranma continued staring as she looked up, as if looking somewhere distant, a straight and serious look on her face. Her mouth opened, and for the next several minutes the other girls fell silent as they listened to Ranma slowly tell them about a man that they had all known, or seen... that they had simply ignored.

"It is like drowning.... where you feel like your whole world is being flooded by water, and all the control and self empowerment you have had for so long is washed away in a panic.

Then, it is like coming up from that moment, and breathing air for the first time... this man, he is like that. He makes you value the world in a whole new way, as if before you were dying a slow and painful death, and now your eyes are wide open and you have life thrust under your nose on a silver platter.

He can take a moment in time.." Ranma snapped her fingers, looking at them for a long moment. "And freeze it, make it pure and wholesome and 100% wonderful, undiluted without additives... He can take the simplest thing in your life, and fill it with purified sunlight.

He sacrifices his own safety, his own welfare, his own fate for those he cares about, for his friends nothing is ever too much to ask. His arms are always open, welcoming whatever fate brings him, and his gentle heart isn't just confined to his friends..

He helps them with their problems too. He talks to people he doesn't even HAVE to bother meeting, just to make his friends feel better." Ranma looked at each of the girls, as if for a first time as she continued. Each of the girls was held in rapt attention, Ami in mute shock.

Ranma lifted her hands, as if she were holding a fragile rose in her gentle hands, "He is like a blossoming rose... so plain, so dull looking in it's winter, but when you look closer.. and when you are patient, it opens slowly, revealing beauty that you never really knew existed....

He makes your heart ache because even though he is so wonderful, so brave, and so selfless, he sometimes worries about others accepting him for who he is. His heart is an open book, if only others would look at it and see the truth about him, that there is more than they see every day.

They see a bright boy, who daydreams in class, and who seems not to have a worry in the world, but what I have seen.. what I have witnessed is a fragile soul of clay, which a hard touch could break too easily, where a soft touch is needed to show that you care as well," Ranma looked at her hands, as if realizing for the first time that they were horribly empty.

Ranma blushed, looking down. Everyone stared for a long moment at Ranma, blinking and then gazing at eachother.

"Wow.. you've got it bad, Ranma hon," Shiyori smiled brightly, whoever Ranma had fallen for sounded simply WONDERFUL to her ears!!!

"Yeah, who is the lucky guy, Ranma?" Kiyomi giggled, like sugar coated candy, she was almost envious of Ranma.

"Huh?" Ranma inquired with as much intelligence as could be mustered.

Ami rolled her eyes, "Are you purposely dense, or just stupid?? They're asking what lucky GUY you FELL IN LOVE WITH," Ami grinned as she saw Ranma look very pale and then shake her head and wave her hands.

"Nonononono!!! We're just friends!!! I just want to see him happy, and he moons after this girl all the time!!" Ranma couldn't understand where they had connected HER to HIROSHI from, but she didn't like the direction that this conversation was going.

Akane blinked, looking at Ranma, then at the other girls. What were they TALKING about??? Sure, Hiroshi and Ranma hung out all the time... but that's because they were friends, and no better friends had she met.

Sure, Ranma acted a little funny around Hiroshi... but then Ranma didn't have a lot of friends, so who was she to be suspicious of such a close relationship? In fact, Ranma had trouble KEEPING friends.

"Suuuuure, Ranma.. that's why you were talking all dreamy about him, right???" Shiyori giggled and nudged her new friend in the side. Ranma gave her a scowl, which startled her.

"Hey, we're just friends, Okay??? Hiroshi and I.. we ain't like that... He and I are honest with eachother, and we talk a lot to eachother, but we ain't like that," Ranma said in a sharp and level tone.

Ami smiled a mischievious smile, "Hmm... you deny it so strongly Ranma, that I think you really like him as more than a friend!!!"

Ranma glared at Ami, her eyes burning with anger. "That ain't funny, Ami... and I would please you not to talk about Hi like that, seeing as you are friends with.. with.. Mihoko," Ranma tightened her fingers, the knuckles popping.

Yuka looked between the two... "Okay, that is enough Ami... I think you've prodded enough for tonight," Yuka spoke in a level and commanding tone, always the leader.

Shiyori looked at Ranma uncertainly... perhaps she had misjudged Ranma's reaction when telling about this Hiroshi??

Ranma looked down, her body quivering in anger, shaking as her muscles tightened. "...I ain't like that..." She said under her breath.

Shiyori put a hand on Ranma's shoulder, ina comforting gesture, Ranma shrugged it off and stood up quickly.

"I'm sorry Akane.. but.. I just.. I just am a little tired. I hope you'll forgive me if I turn in early," Ranma said in a barely level tone.. her eyes shimmered slightly, she clenched them closed a moment later and visibly controlled her breathing.

Akane blinked and watched as Ranma walked out with a very tense look to her body.

"I always knew she was a pervert," Ami said in a matter of fact tone.

Akane's slap could be heard outside.

* * * * * *

"Ranma???" Akane asked, gently sliding the guestroom door open and peeking inside. Ranma was curled up on his futon, his back towards the door, eyes quite open as he stared out the window at the moonlight.

Akane bit her bottom lip, stepping in and closing the door behind her. "Ranma.. I'm sorry for inviting her, I didn't know she disliked you this much, please forgive me," Akane bowed her head, looking hurt at how one of her supposed friends could be so cruel to the man she loved.

Ranma sighed deeply, wiping a tear from his eyes and sniffing, "S'okay Akane.. don't worry about it, not her fault I'm a big macho mean arrogant jerk," Ranma drew a shuddering breath as he held back more tears. *I am a man now...*

Akane furrowed her brow in a pained expression, "Ranma.. that's not true, you are a wonderful, caring person, who worries about his friends.."

"Yeah.. that's why you were always hitting me and calling me a perverted Jerk.... she's right, I am a jerk, I don't deserve you Akane," Ranma wiped his eyes again, he heard Akane walk closer, kneeling down beside his futon.

"Ranma... I love you, and maybe I did think you were a jerk for a while... but that was because I refused to get to know you, I thought of you as only another problem in my life, something to be avoided," Akane placed a gentle hand on Ranma's shoulder.

Ranms shivered like a small child, curling up in a ball, "Akane, I am scared..." Ranma said in a weak voice.

Akane lay down beside Ranma, putting her own hand on Ranma's hip... "..why??" She asked in a soft, concerned voice.

"It's because.. I.. I don't know myself anymore, I hardly know who I am, I don't know.. I don't know what I am supposed to do, Akane. You, and Pop, and Mom, and Mister Tendou... all of them are pushing me towards this one path..." Ranma rolled over, putting his own hand over Akane's, which now rested on his stomach.

"Akane... there is this other path that's callin' me.. I dunno why, but it is so confusing, these dreams I've been having... and they frighten me, ya know??" Ranma looked up at akane with those beautiful blue eyes of his, there was fear in them, and confusion.

Something quite common lately, it seemed. Ranma's confusion had started getting worse since Nodoka found out about his little curse.

Akane looked down at her love, her life.... "Ranma... I know that we haven't always been the best of friends, that we haven't always been the most open and loving of people towards eachother... but I want things to be right. I want to help you through whatever is bothering you recently..."

Ranma sighed deeply, a weary, worn down sigh, "Akane... I am sorta tired... go.. go see your friends, I am fine here, I need ta get ta sleep anyways," Ranma pulled the blankets up over himself shivering in the autumn air.

Akane lay for a moment beside Ranma in silence, "...are you sure, Ranma??" She asked in a wary, concerned voice, thick with care and love.

Ranma stared out the window, at the moonlight gently pouring in, illuminating his futon with it's gentle ivory light.

"Hai... go Akane, your friends came here to spend time with you. I'll just be going to bed... I need the sleep anyways," Ranma closed his eyes, feeling a sharp tremble run through him.

Akane hesitated, watching Ranma carefully. They sat like that for a good ten minutes, Ranma's eyes gently closed, yet his body fully aware of how close Akane is. She seemed so close.. yet so far away.

There was a gentle knock on the guestroom door... and Akane tensed.

"Go on... go to your friends, Akane, please.. don't let me ruin your fun," Ranma said quietly.

Akane sighed, standing up and walking towards the door... "...ranma..." She whispered quietly, looking back.

"..akane.." Ranma whispered, although he had not heard Akane's soft murmuring of his own name.

Sleep took him moments later.

* * * * * *

Ranma stirred softly on his futon, tossing and turning as fitful dreams disturbed his sleep.... the sounding siren of his alarm clock snapped him out of his restless slumber and into the waking world. Usually Ranma ignored the blaring of the digital alarm and slept several hours more.

He shuddered a long moment, shaking his head wearily. *Not again.* He took a deep breath and let it out. Slipping slowly out of his futon he stood and walked to the closet quietly. The large panda on the other futon did not stir, but a silent buzz emitted from it's snoring form.

Ranma slid the door open, and looked at both sides of the closet. On one side was a small collection of female clothes, some he had bought for disguises earlier in his stay with the Tendo's.... others had been bought by his Mother, so that he could be trained in the arts of womanhood.

Ranma sighed, and shrugged, taking out his most neutral gender outfit, his red Chinese vest and black slacks. He shuddered again for a moment, then opened another drawer, taking out a new bra. *Geeze, I hate wearing this..... I wouldn't if it didn't feel worse without it....*

He also took from the same drawer a small black box. He looked once more at his father, the sleeping beast on the futon, then padded softly out of the room.

At about the same time, Kasumi's door opened up, and she stepped out with a smile, closing the door behind her. She turned and started as Ranma looked at her. "Oh, Ranma-kun.... you're up a little earlier than usual." She cast a worried eye over Ranma's somewhat tired shape. "Oh my, you didn't sleep well last night, did you Ranma-kun?"

Ranma sighed, shaking his head. "Nah..... nightmares about some masked freak, Jusenkyou, and a vast darkness that only one person knows about....," He sighs, shaking his head. *Where do these dreams about Hiroshi keep coming from??? Maybe they mean something.....* Ranma smiled a bit in humor as he remembered the nightmarish thoughts that had wandered through the void-like dream.

Kasumi seemed to look at the air for a moment, and touch a hand to her chest. "Ranma-kun, you don't usually get up this early.... but recently, you and I have been waking up about the same time. It's only every other day, though, do you know why?" Kasumi, to her honor, was very perceptive when she wished to be.

Her family probably didn't know that she cried herself to sleep sometimes from all the things that had happened to them.... she cried herself to sleep while praying for them to be well.

Recently she had begun to add Ranma to her prayers, for it was only a few weeks past that she had seen Ranma crying..... and decided that perhaps Ranma needed a bit more care and understanding than any of them were giving him.

Ranma sighed, and shrugged slightly at Kasumi's question. "Sure, I know why. The night's I'm not a girl I get nightmares.... funny, huh?" Ranma turned, leaving a pale looking Kasumi as he went into the bathroom.

He slowly closed the door behind him, thinking to himself. *Really odd..... every other night for the past ten days.... nah, maybe it's somethin' else. Can't be just cause I'm a guy when I fall to sleep.....* Ranma prayed it wasn't. He didn't know why, but that thought made him uncomfortable.

Ranma pulled off his shirt and boxers, laying them in the dirty clothes bin, and opened the bath door, walking slowly in. He leaned over the bath, turning on the hot water and letting it fill the tub as he went to retrieve a towel.

He returned to the tub and slid the towel on the rack, he stepped towards the bath.... then hesitated a moment.

He stared at the warm water, an uncomfortable feeling of apprehension and uncertainty creeping into his mind.... then he shook his head and slowly stepped into the water.

His mind wandered to the dreams he had been having, an odd man in a mask whispering to him lowly, he was dressed in a blue and white ball gown and was female at the time.

Then there was him, as a guy, in a fighting stance..... facing the masked man who was laughing maniacally, then a sense of dread fell over him in that section of the dream... then it changed slowly.

A wedding scene, sometimes with Akane, sometimes with him alone.... seemingly waiting for someone. Whenever Akane was involved, there were things being destroyed by his Mother and Father, and Nabiki had a mask of ice on her face.

Or, on other occasions, he would be whisked into the sky and towards the setting sun, away from Akane by someone he trusted.... it was odd.

Usually after that, it would fade into scenes of two children, whom he thought resembled himself and Hiroshi. He found that the oddest himself. On occasion there was an odd dream of surrealism to replace the child scene....

A vast darkness, and he is a girl... talking to someone who makes her feel less alone....

Ranma blinked after a moment, looking at the steaming water. *Akane......* His entire life for the past six months had focused around her, and only recently had he been able to tell her his feelings.

He wished so much that he could reestablish their engagement, but there was so much about himself he didn't know, and so many answers he needed. Whether or not there was a cure for Jusenkyou was one of them, but oddly it had begun to get further and further from his mind, despite the dreams of Jusenkyou.

He dwelt on the past four weeks, and how many things had changed so suddenly. Since the cooking challenge the week before, Ukyou never mentioned their engagement.... nor did it seem the thought ever crossed her mind. She was always there with a helpful hand.

It was as if they were friends again, and nothing more. That made Ranma feel happy, for some reason. He loved Ukyou, his Ucchan, but like a Sister..... when she had confessed her love for him, he had suddenly become slightly uncomfortable with discussing things with her.

*I thought that when she came back into my life that I could confide in her all the things I had kept secret.... then I found out she was a girl, and in love with me, and that hope was gone.....* Ranma shook his head, then realized something.

Hiroshi. He had confided more in Hiroshi than he had with anyone else he knew.... Hiroshi was always willing to listen, and give sage advise when it was needed. Ranma thought highly of Hiroshi since they had become so close, in fact, Ranma thought that Hiroshi was the one he respected most.

Ranma finished rinsing himself off, and slowly rose from the water. *Another day as a woman, Ranma.....* He muttered to himself, half bored with the entire concept. The other half being of a fearful anticipation.

At least his Mother had held her word. At least she had let up on her strict schedule and harsh rules. She let him wear other clothes, not so utterly feminine, so long as they were not terribly masculine.

Nodoka was still teaching him the rules of proper speech, and she still required him to wear some modest make-up, but at least she was not pushing him to do everything as a woman would.

He filled the bucket slowly with cold water, and clenched his teeth. "Here goes...." He dumped the water slowly over his head, feeling his body shudder and reshape as the cold feeling ran down his body....

He shrank, his shoulders narrowing, his face becoming more delicately formed, his hair changing hue and color..... his chest expanding into breasts, his waste growing smaller just as much as his hips grew wider, and his legs reshaped to match a more curvaceous frame.

Ranma, now a girl, shivered a moment. *That was wholly unpleasant....* Ranma noted, just as he had a thousand times before. She left the washroom, slowly taking the towel and wiping it over her soaked body, drying herself of her bath.

She slipped quickly into her bra, vest, and slacks, and lifted the black box, carrying it carefully to the sink.

Ranma opened it, and took a deep breath as she always did. *Let's get it right this time.....* She began to apply the makeup, very slowly.... with a hand that was much more practiced with martial arts.

Yet, still, she seemed to have had great stress in practice, for Ranma seemed to apply just the right amount of everything this time. The result was a face that seemed slightly more beautiful than before, but not so outrageous as to cry harlot. A modest application.

Ranma sighed. *Finally.... at least Mom didn't have to help me this time..... hmmm....* Ranma felt.... adventurous for some reason, and reached a hand back to softly touch her pig-tail, now more of a pony-tail since it was down to the tips of her shoulder blades.

Ranma grinned for a moment, giving herself a mischievous look in the mirror. She pulled softly on the dragons-whisker, and her hair tumbled forth in a cascade around her shoulders. *Not so bad, now that I think about it. Maybe it does look good down as a girl.....*

Ranma jumped as she felt eyes on her, and she turned to look at a dazed Kasumi. "Er...." Ranma noted intelligently. "K.....Kasumi. How long have you been standing there?"

"For about five minutes, Ranma..... why did you let your hair down?" Kasumi asked, her worried tone even greater than before. What was Ranma doing?? Kasumi shuddered to think what her imagination was telling her.

Ranma shrugged. "Dunno. I felt kinda bored, so I decided on somethin' different. Everyone's got a right to choose how they wear their hair, isn't that right?" Ranma asked brightly.

Kasumi frowned, furrowing her brow in concern. "Yes, Ranma.... I guess I'm a little shocked. You don't usually prefer your hair down. That's all I was saying.....," Kasumi sighed, and stepped back. "I'll leave now...."

"Wait! Kasumi!" Ranma asked, taking several steps towards the door.

"Yes, R...Ranma-kun?" Kasumi asked. For a moment she had been about to call him Ranma-chan. His appearance, she thought, was startling to her. Rarely had she been more shocked.

"Do you need some help with cooking?" Ranma asked, stuffing the Dragon's Whisker into her pocket.

Kasumi smiled for a long moment, just looking at Ranma. It disturbed her that Ranma was acting so strangely that day, but she knew when Ranma's sincerity was shown. *Ranma can be such a sweet boy at times....* Kasumi thought to herself. "Yes, Ranma, that would be wonderful. It would be very kind to give your Mother a day off," Kasumi bustled downstairs, Ranma on her heels.

* * * * * *

After helping Kasumi with breakfast, Ranma retired out to the yard to await school. She was unaware of Genma watching her from the second floor.

Ranma jumped onto the wall that surrounded the Tendo Residence, her blue eyes looking far out to the horizon..... where the sun was just now lumbering into the world.

Ranma's eyes met it for a long moment.... something she had done frequently as of late, then closed her eyes. She raised her arms out beside her, and began a Kata on the wall with her eyes closed.....

She could feel the wind blowing through her long hair.... and the soft caress seemed to drive her, move her with it.... in fluid motion. She could feel the heat of the sun rising to warm her skin, at the same time the stirring of the leaves reached her ears.... the world was on fire with life, and her senses seemed to burn with every sensation but sight. The smell of the morning seemed to permeate the air. *Things seem so much clearer, when you close your eyes....* Hiroshi had told her on one of his many philosophical mood-swings. *Close your eyes, Ranma..... feel the thrum of Life coursing through you, let it flow within you, and run rampant through your blood.... take in the smells, the sounds, the feeling....... and laugh....*

Ranma finished the Kata, and opened her eyes slowly. She felt her mouth upturning in a smile, and she opened her mouth and began to laugh.... not from a joke, or insanity, or to relieve stress.... no, she laughed to enjoy life, and to meet the morning sun with a laugh on her lips.

Genma watched, entranced, as his daughter moved with fluid grace. He watched as Ranma had closed her eyes. He sat, confused, as Ranma began laughing at the rising sun. *What is the boy doing? Has he lost his marbles?* Genma wondered. It was something he had wondered quite often as of late.

Ranma, to Genma's surprise... turned and looked up at Genma, and smiled. Genma blinked at the serene look on Ranma's face, one of utter contentment and happiness. Something he had never truly seen on his boy's face.... It had somehow replaced the constant internal war that was Ranma.

Ranma then jumped off the wall, flipping in midair and landing softly on the ground in front of the house. She slowly padded inside and took a seat opposite her mother. "Good morning, Mom!" She said in a very cheerful tone.

Nodoka blinked a moment, and then stared at Ranma with a critical eye. "Good morning,

Ranma.... why are you so happy all of a sudden?" She asked, smirking slightly as she poured herself some tea.

Ranma sighed, a light flickering in her blue eyes. "Because I feel so alive, and happy... for once, everything in my life seems to be goin' okay. It's all cause of Hiroshi...." Ranma smiled and poured herself some tea as well, getting a distant, thoughtful look in her eyes that Nodoka usually marked as Hiroshi's dreamy gaze.

Nodoka frowned suddenly as she thought. Why is it whenever Ranma mentioned Hiroshi, or someone else mentioned Hiroshi that Ranma got a dreamy, distant look in her eyes and a soft, happy smile on her lips?

*Hmmm.... something odd is going on here. Maybe I should look into this.....* Nodoka slowly lifted the cup to her lips, taking a small sip, then lowering it. She looked at her daughter for a long moment as Ranma sipped her own tea with that lost look on her face, and a air of utter contentment.

Nodoka, despite her suspicions, had to smile. Never had she seen Ranko, or Ranma for that matter, so happy and full of life. *Surely it can wait, though. Whatever could make my Ranma happy couldn't be so bad as I fear.*

"So, you've decided to wear your hair down, Ranma?" Nodoka asked, noting the beautiful mane of hair that framed Ranma's face and cascaded down to her mid chest and back. It was very good looking, but Nodoka wondered WHY Ranma had decided upon the style.

Ranma blinked at the question, then shrugged. "I dunno..... I felt kinda bored having the same style all the time, so I decided to try somethin' different." Ranma ran a hand through her hair, marveling at how smooth and healthy her hair was.

Nodoka sipped her tea softly again, then looked carefully at Ranma. "Now what have I told you about your language?"

Ranma turned slightly red at always being chastised about her bad verbal skills. "Sorry Mother, I will try to do the best I can at correcting my speech." She said carefully, making sure she didn't make any mistakes with her grammar and pronunciation.

Nodoka smiled, and nodded her head. "Much better, Ranma. Maybe there is hope for you yet."

Ryouga wandered into the room, a dazed look on his face.... one of surprise and shock. His eye twitched and his body was tense.

Ranma and Nodoka both looked at Ryouga, Ranma glared at Ryouga through narrowed eyes. "Whadja do this time, Mr. P?"

"I.... I..... I...." Ryouga mumbled, then lifted the letter up to his face and read it again. His eyes seemed like they were going to bulge out of his head.

Ranma frowned, wondering why Ryouga hadn't responded to her obvious taunt. Ranma's Mother frowned from Ranma's inability to speak like an intelligent person for more than 5 minutes.

Ranma jumped up, snatching the paper from Ryouga's hands. "What's got you so worked up?" Ranma asked as Ryouga fell out of his mental coma and began to get angry.

"It's none of your business, Ranma!!! Gimme it back, before I pound your skull in!" Ryouga yelled, his hands twitching in a clawlike position.

Ranma looked at the note. "Hmm. Dear Ryouga, I was wondering if you would like to be my partner for the Martial Arts Ballroom Dance at the Prom.... Sincerely your Friend, Akane Tendo," Ranma shoved the paper back at Ryouga, who's face was quite red by now and a look of murder was in his eyes.

"Now what is so..... ?!? eep?" Ranma read the message over again. "Akane!?!? AKAAAAAAAAAAANE!!!!" Ranma yelled at the Top of her lungs, just as Ryouga ground her Skull into the ground with his elbow.

"Damn you, Ranma!!! Can you never leave me in peace and leave what is mine alone??! Must you always corrupt and defile everything in your presence, even the love letter dear Akane has sent me?!?! Are you so jealous, Ranma?!"

Akane ran downstairs at the obviously pained yell from Ranma. "Ranma?! What is it?" She asked, then looked at Ryouga and how he was grounding Ranma's head into the floor.

"Ranma!!! You called me down here to tell me Ryouga was here?! How thoughtful of you!" Akane smiled at Ranma, who was in very much pain.

Suddenly Ryouga left Ranma on the ground and approached Akane, a flower in his hand. "Did you mean it, Akane? Do you really want to go with me?" Ryouga asked, a hopeful tone in his voice.

Ranma picked herself off the ground with a growl, glaring at Ryouga and Akane. "....Ryouuuuga....." She snarled low in her throat.

"Well, I guess. I mean, I need a partner if I'm going to challenge Ranma, right?" Akane said with an oblivious look in her eyes as she gazed at Ryouga.

Ryouga was at the brink of tears. "Oh Akane, I would be your date anytime!" He said as his heart soared, threatening to pull him into the clouds. "Here, this is for you!" He offered her the flower he had, and Akane took it.

"Thank you, Ryouga! You're such a sweet friend...." Akane beamed, and then looked at Ranma, who was standing by Ryouga with a very angry expression.

"So, Akane, you wanna go with Ryouga, do you? Fine by me. Just peachy," Ranma's voice dripped with sarcasm, which caused her Mother to frown in dissatisfaction at her.

Akane looked at Ranma with a slightly angry look on her face. "Don't tell me you actually thought I would go with you? That's just stupid, Ranma.... how could I go WITH you when I have to CHALLENGE you??"

Everything froze in Ranma's head at those words, a blank look coming over her face. How could she be so stupid? Assuming Akane would go with her to a dance where they would have to challenge each other.

That meant Ranma didn't have a date!!! Where would she find one so soon??? How could she have overlooked such an obvious necessity! A partner for the battle!

"Geeze, Ranma, and I thought you were dense before...." Ryouga mumbled, then twitched as Ranma's fist smashed into his face.

"Shaddup, P-chan...." She growled angrily.

"Ranma, stop picking on Ryouga!!! Seriously, what is it with you two?" Akane asked, and promptly sat at her spot around the table.

Ranma snapped her fingers at a sudden inspiration. Ukyou! Shampoo! They would help him out!

Ranma sat to eat her breakfast, eager to get through the day at school so he could go seek his partner. "You just wait, Akane.... I'm gonna win that contest fair and square."

"If you do, Ranma, I'll concede... but until then, you just keep on wishing," Akane smiled with a smug expression on her face.

Ranma frowned at Akane's reaction. *I'll show you, Akane.... just as soon as I talk to Ucchan.....*

"Ranma, Ryouga, sit down please... Breakfast will be out in a few minutes." Nodoka looked at both of them with a stern glare, especially Ryouga... who looked as if he was ready to rip Ranma's head off.

Ranma quickly sat down from the warning glare, but it took Ryouga several moments to comply.

It was going to be a very long day.....

* * * * * *

"I'm sorry, Ranchan.... I can't," Ukyou silently flipped her Okonomiyaki, a sad and upset look on her face.

Ranma had come to ask her to the Prom, to be his partner for the Martial Arts Ballroom Battle held annually. She had been on cloud nine for the whole of one minute before realizing she couldn't go.

Ranma stared abashed at Ukyou. "Why?? Did I do something wrong? Please, Ucchan, I really need a partner!"

Ukyou flipped the Okonomiyaki again, then sighed deeply, she turned around to look at Ranma, and stared once more at her hair. It had been bugging her the entire day, seeing Ranma's hair unbound. The length of it completely destroyed the image of a man she had seen whenever Ranma turned female.

"It's not you're fault, Ranchan... don't you ever think that!! I care about you a lot, and would help you out in any way that I could.... but.... I have to go to Kyoto and see my Mother. I have to talk to her, before she makes me come back to live in Kyoto," Ukyou leaned against the counter.

She had felt so weary lately, since she had realized that Ranma would never be hers she had lost some of the usual vigor and cheeriness that her business was known for. She'd also lost several customers, even WITH Shampoo suggesting her restaurant to the customers that didn't prefer the Chinese food.

Ranma sighed. "I'd forgotten about that..... sorry, Ucchan..... I guess I'll hafta find a partner elsewhere. I hope everything goes well with you and your Mother... cause I would be very sad if you had to leave Nerima....," Ranma smiled supportively to Ukyou.

Ukyou nodded, looking up at Ranma with a weary gaze. "I know, Ranchan. I wouldn't be too well if I moved back to Kyoto either. All of my friends are here, and you're here. I would feel terribly guilty for leaving my best friend behind," Ukyou winked halfheartedly, and Ranma smiled.

"Thanks, Ucchan, for being such a great friend. I really had wished you would go with me, but I guess I'll keep searching," Ranma took Ukyou's hand for a moment, and with a slight squeeze stood and left the restaurant.

Ukyou stared after the girl for several moments, a sad look coming across her face. Akane had taught Ukyou much when they had been teamed up against Ranma.... and many things she did not want to hear or learn. Like Ranma didn't love her, but saw her as a friend and possibly a sister.

It still hurt, Ukyou mused, even after a week of acting as if nothing had happened. She still hurt for Ranma, longed for his love.... but it was not to be. She had realized this, first, when Nodoka had broken off all engagements. She realized that she had lost the battle.... that Ranma's heart belonged to Akane.

Many people had tried to tell her, Hiroshi, Ranma, Shampoo even.... that Ranma saw her as just a friend. Nothing more, and nothing less could come of that relationship. She had, for so very long, disbelieved it. She couldn't accept it as what it was.....

Finally, when she did, she saw the pointless futility of the battle. There had never truly been any choice. Ranma Loved Akane. Akane Loved Ranma. In the end, they would be together no matter what.

When Kirin had kidnapped Akane, Ranma had followed to get her back from the prince.....

When Toma had taken them all prisoner, it was not Ukyou that Ranma saved, no, it was Akane. Akane Tendo..... whose kind soul and generous spirit had braved death itself to thwart Saffron's attack upon Ranma.

She had heard of the grief on Ranma's face, could imagine the pain and suffering in his soul when he had believed Akane dead. She should have known then that she had lost him. She should have known then that she had never really had him.

"Mistress.... are you all right?" Konatsu asked, a touch of worry on his feminine face. Ukyou looked at him for a long moment before the words seemed to register.

Ukyou nodded very slowly. "Yes, Konatsu.... just reminiscing on sour grapes. Excuse me, but I think I have to go pack.... can you run for the last two hours and lock up for me?"

Konatsu beamed happily. "Anything for you, Ukyou."

Ukyou nodded sadly. She didn't love Konatsu, but he cared so much for her.... she knew what it was like to have the one you love reject you.... and she felt as if she was hurting Konatsu more by letting him stay.

She would tell him, soon, how she felt. She wouldn't let him delude himself any longer. As soon as she returned, she would tell him, and set him free.

With that thought, Ukyou walked upstairs to pack her things.

* * * * * *

Ranma's jaw hung open for a long moment as she stared at Shampoo. "You've got to be kidding...."

Shampoo fixed Ranma with a stern glare as she mixed the boiling water and ramen noodles. "Do these eye lie? You close mouth now, Ranma, it make you look like codfish," Shampoo stopped mixing, and turned to look at Ranma.

"Is there a problem, Shampoo?" Mousse poked his head in, looking between Shampoo and Ranma. "Oh, Hi Saotome. Long time no see," Shampoo continued glaring at Ranma.

"Is already decided, yes? Shampoo go to Prom with Mousse. Nabiki already buy pass for us. I sorry, Ranma....." Shampoo looked at the obviously abashed Ranma.

"That's great... Just great.... Ukyou has to leave and you're already going with someone else....," Ranma murmured in a dejected tone.

"Hey! For your information, Ranma, I'm going with my wife..... and this was decided at least two weeks ago. Sorry, Saotome," Mousse left the room, going back out to serve customers and take orders.

Shampoo brought several orders out to the counter, where Mousse would find them, laying the receipts by the dinners. Ranma followed in stride.

"Geeze, what the heck am I supposed to do now, Shampoo? I don't got a date, and I don't got a partner for the contest that Akane challenged me to!" Ranma stood in mute shock, a panicked look on her face. She had never walked away from a challenge, Ryouga's excepted... though that was understandable.

What was she going to do?? Where could she find a partner a single day before the Dance? Most people would already have dates, and most people didn't have any martial arts skills.

"Maybe you go with Kodachi?" Shampoo offered absently. Ranma shuddered, then sneered at Shampoo, who was grinning like a cat.

"Not funny, Shampoo. I don't need a date THAT bad, and I need Kodachi's company like I need a bullet in the head. I'm serious, what am I gonna do?" Ranma sat roughly down onto a chair, holding her head in her hands.

"Maybe you ask Hiroshi what you do?" Shampoo offered, pouring Ranma some tea. "Here, you drink. You have long day, it look like," Shampoo watched Ranma for another long moment, and then went back to her cooking.

"I dunno..... I don't think Hiroshi would have any ideas that I haven't tried. I could ask him, but he's been avoiding me recently....," Ranma suddenly felt the bitter pangs of sadness as she recalled how apprehensive and unsure Hiroshi had looked that morning in Hinako's class. In fact, for the entire day.

Daisuke had joined Ranma for lunch, spouting the usual quips to the disgrace of Kuno and some of the other unlikeables of the student body.

"Why sappy-boy avoid Ranma? He usually very ready to help....," Shampoo turned and looked at Ranma's sad attitude, and frowned. "You upset with Shampoo, that she mention boy?"

Ranma shook her head, and looked up from her tea. "No, It's not that... it's just.... well, Hiroshi's possibly my best friend... and it hurts that he would just avoid me like I was the plague er' somethin'," Ranma shrugged, and finished the tea slowly.

"Ah.... maybe you should go talk to sappy-boy, if it bother you so," Shampoo couldn't see the uncertain look on Ranma's face with her back turned to the red-head.

"Yeah.... maybe I should....," Perhaps it was time to pay Hiroshi another visit... Ranma had been wondering lately about her friend, and she certainly missed Kaehmi and Memeko. "I think I will.... thanks anyway, Shampoo..."

"Is no problem, I help when can... I sorry cannot go with you to dance, but promised Mousse would take him," Shampoo smiled softly for a moment. If someone had told her but a month before that she would be married to Mousse, she would have blown her top and attacked them in an instant.

Yet, the more and more she spent in her husband's company, the more and more she decided that Mousse was the happiest thing to ever happen to her. She shuddered to think what her life would have been like without the resolute pining that Mousse always provided.... Mousse, before she realized her own love for him, had always made her feel important... that she was the most important thing in the world.

Perhaps that is why she was so stubborn with Ranma.... perhaps she could not understand why Ranma didn't fall at her feet and proclaim his undying love to her, as Mousse did. Perhaps she wanted to feel important, to feel like she was the world to someone. It was surprising, to herself and her friends, that Mousse turned out to be that Someone.

* * * * * *

Daisuke walked silently beside his friend, who had a glum look on his face as per usual from recent events. Daisuke had been puzzling about Hiroshi since the entire depression began.... it was very confusing, but it began quite suddenly.... overnight, Daisuke would bet.

Hiroshi was staring at the sky, the wind playing through his dark brownish red hair, and a lost look on his face.

*Sheesh.... give a man a heart and he'll flaunt it. Give him a brain, and He'll find a woman to give his heart pain.....* Daisuke smirked for a long moment at his mental comment.

Daisuke despaired Hiroshi's melancholy disposition, but what could be done? There was little else to do but let Hiroshi muddle through the depression by himself, or if there WAS a way out, Daisuke didn't have the emotional experience to fathom it.

Dai shook his head sadly, and resolutely began to stare at the shadows cast by the slowly sinking sun in the sky. He pondered for a long moment as he stared at the dark shapes left by the light playing off of indiscriminate objects.

He turned his gaze to Hiroshi's shadow, and rubbed his chin. "You know, Hi, I've been thinking...."

Hiroshi groaned and shook his head. "Isn't it that 'Thinking' thing that always ends up with me listening to a somewhat endless tirade of mentally obscure thought processes?" Hiroshi turned and looked at Daisuke.

Dai grinned. "Yes, that would be it, and that sounded like something I would say. As I was saying, I was thinking...."

"....Usually a sign of trouble brewing, I might add." Hiroshi mentioned under his breath, looking back up at the blue sky.

Dai shot him a withering glance, and Hiroshi quickly stilled his tongue. "If I could please get at least a word in before you discount my observation as mere fanatical examination of the surrounding environment?"

Hi had to think a moment about what Daisuke meant, but after that moment he nodded his head slowly. "Uh.... Sure.... I think."

Dai chuckled, and Hiroshi had to smirk from the jovial tone of his laugh. "As I was saying before you so rudely interjected on your own behalf, I have been thinking about the constant duality of metaphysical and spiritual existence. Redundant statement, I know, but then again, Duality in itself is a constant redundancy composed of our non-linear concept of reality and it's composition, right?"

Hiroshi nodded his head up and down, and then in a confused circle as he stared at Daisuke. "Uh......what?" He got the general gist of what Dai was trying to say, but other than the GENERAL Hiroshi was completely lost.

Daisuke groaned, and decided to paraphrase for his friend. "What I was saying is that Duality, the existence of equatorial opposites, is made up from our abstract belief of reality, correct?"

Hiroshi nodded his head after a moment. "I guess so. You mean like the sun and the moon?"

Daisuke rubbed his chin again. "Hmmmm... no, actually I was thinking more like the Light and the Darkness. I was pondering the preternatural instinct of mankind to adversely react to the dark and unknown," Daisuke saw the confused look on Hiroshi's face, and sighed.

Why was it that he had such a difficult time talking of the things he liked without going over people's heads? Maybe he should stick to his regular joking mood, and forget the philosophy of physics.

"So you're saying that you believe there is something more to being afraid of the dark?" Hiroshi had learned over time to understand the basic concept of Daisuke's comments, but some moments were harder than others..... especially about subjects relating to his own field of spiritual philosophy, which Daisuke rarely delved into.

"Yeah, that's what I'm saying." Daisuke looked up at the sky as he walked by Hiroshi.

"Basically, I was wondering if in the pre-existent psyche there wasn't some sort of malevolent entity that caused much of the misconstrued thought of darkness and evil being related. In essence, perhaps there is more to the dark than what we see," Daisuke grinned, considering the implications of such a statement.

Hiroshi shrugged. "Good point. So you think that there might actually be some great evil that, in the beginning, man knew was associated with the darkness?"

"Hey, it's as good a theory as the Tree In the Forest suggestion. Besides, it would make some logical sense, considering that there are some genetic inheritances that insinuate the patterns of fear and instinct into a being.

Being afraid of the dark might be associated to what lived IN the dark when there was something far more ominous and foreboding in the world," Daisuke pondered exactly what that ominous thing might be, if there were such a thing.

Hiroshi actually thought for a moment, and his melancholy disposition vanished for a brief instant. "Perhaps that is why mankind strives for what is right, what belongs in the light. Perhaps that is why Love is associated with Light, and Hate with Darkness.... you are saying duality's exist because.... because of things that caused us to create them? Daisuke, that is a very spiritual statement," Hiroshi hadn't known Daisuke to make many religious or spiritual references, but in some ways what he said pointed to both.

Daisuke shrugged at the question. "I have never discounted such a theory, and truly there might be more to the existence of emotional representatives of different aspects in our Psyche. I simply have had no proof to prove thus or otherwise, so I simply question," Daisuke grinned. "Had to bring love up somewhere, didn't you moon-boy?"

Hiroshi glared at Daisuke a moment. "Shut up, Dai. It's not nice picking on someone who's already having enough trouble with love as it is....," Hiroshi sighed wistfully, looking back up at the sky. *Oh Ranma..... how could I tell you how I feel without utterly destroying you?*

Daisuke slapped his friend on the shoulder, and presented him with a serious face. "Hi, It's me, Dai..... we grew up together. This is tearin' you up inside, and it really ticks me off that I can't help you through it. I don't like seeing you hurt, man, and you're in a world of hurt because of this girl," Daisuke looked up at the sky.

"Why not give her to Ranma? He's got enough Fiancee's, I'm sure he wouldn't mind. Besides, it would solve your problem! She'd be happy, as I'm sure Ranma would make ANY woman happy.... otherwise he wouldn't have all those women falling all over him! Eh?"

Hiroshi looked at Daisuke with a carefully neutral expression, then spontaneously burst out into raucous laughter, trailing on for a good minute and a half.

"Daisuke.... if only you knew.... if only you knew....." Hiroshi wiped the tears of laughter from his eyes, strangely they did not touch his soul.... the scar there was too deep for laughter to touch.

* * * * * *

Ranma walked silently back to the Dojo... humming absently to herself. She couldn't get the dance out of her mind, as well as the current problem she was facing. Although the sun was bright and the sky was blue, her own demeanor was in a slightly gray and unsure mood.

"What am I gonna do??? The dance is tomorrow, and I ain't got nobody to go with...." Ranma calmed herself down, trying to think clearly through her problem like Hiroshi would. Hiroshi had an uncanny knack for analyzing these sort of things..... Which was one reason Ranma had come to rely on his advice.

"Okay.... I've been challenged to a duel of dancing, problem.... I don't have a partner." She couldn't believe she had been so self-deluded as to think that she could go with Akane. She had expected things to be as usual, without thinking things through.... something that had always gotten her into trouble before.

"Problem two..... none of my usual suitors can go with me. Including Ukyou, Akane, Shampoo, and never mind Kodachi....." Ranma nodded. It was obvious that she would have to look elsewhere for a date, but where?? She didn't know many people at school that she could ask... And the people she COULD ask were not experienced in Martial Arts anywise.

Which was THE prime requisite for entering the Contest she was going to participate in.

Ranma stopped, and looked up at the door to the Tendo Household. She took a deep breath, then slid the door slowly open, doffing her shoes in the entryway. She dreaded to hear Ryouga's mocking when she had to tell Akane he couldn't be at the dance....

*Maybe Ryouga'll get lost before the dance??* She thought hopefully.... he had always reliably gotten lost before... then she shook her head. This was his big chance... he wouldn't set foot outside the house until the dance.

She turned her mind back to the solution, not wanting to dwell on Ryouga for a moment longer than she could.

Ranma sighed, shaking her head. *Solution.... Problem might arise from looking in the wrong places. Find a date elsewhere... ask Hiroshi if he has ideas.* She would do just that, right after dinner.

Sighing softly from the long day passed and the definitely long day ahead, she walked silently into the living room, and stopped as three feet and six inches of little girl tackled her. "AUNTIE!!"

Ranma blinked for a moment, slightly confused at the unfamiliar child.... as it took several moments for the information to process in her currently occupied mind. After that moment had passed, she grinned, and tickled Kaehmi furiously. "Heya... do I know you?"

"I'm Kaehmi!!!" The little girl whispered through giggles as she struggled against Ranma's hands.

"Wow! Really? The one and only Kaehmi????" Ranma grinned, and lifted the girl up to her feet. Kaehmi giggled and nodded her head emphatically. Ranma touched the girl's nose gently in an affectionate manner. "Well, I guess I should ask for an autograph, shouldn't I?"

Kaehmi made a mock serious face and waved a finger at Ranma, putting her other hand on her hip. "I don't have lotsa time for playin'... you c'mere and gimme hug...." And then the little girl opened her arms, and embraced Ranma.

The Saotome child laughed lightly, then hugged Kaehmi back lovingly. The little girl was too sweet for words.... and Ranma loved her for it. "Well, I guess I have no choice, your worship...."

Nodoka watched the exchange with a smile... Ranma would make a wonderful father some day.... he identified with Kaehmi so easily... and the little girl loved him dearly. The child seemed to take well to Ranma...

Of course, Kaehmi didn't know that "Auntie Ranma" Was actually a boy... which might have been better. It would confuse Kaehmi if she were to know about Jusenkyou....

Ranma, to his own credit, had a certain maternal care that he took with Kaehmi... which was very odd for his usually brash and cocky attitude towards others. When Kaehmi was involved, Kaehmi was first.

The elder Miramoto sibling smiled and looked at Nodoka. "She always gets overly excited with Ranma around.... I'll have trouble settling her down at home."

Ranma picked Kaehmi up and flung her over his shoulder....carrying her like a little sack he walked over to Memeko. "I think you misplaced this little energy ball...." Ranma smiles softly and tickled Kaehmi's feet, laughing as the little girl squealed and tried squirming free.

Memeko shook her head. "You must be mistaken, Ma'am, that's not MY little bundle of energy..... Why, I don't even recognize that little girl!" She replied in joke. It was a game that Ranma had often played with Memeko and Hiroshi, and Kaehmi always got worked up about it.

"Momma! Momma! It's me, Kaehmi!!!" She cried through a fit of giggling as Ranma tickled the souls of her feet again.

"Kaehmi??? Why, whoever would that be????" Nodoka asked, playing along with the game. The child was so endearing it was almost impossible not to play along with her and her "Auntie".

"Huh! The little bundle of energy seems to think it has a name!" Ranma grinned, and put Kaehmi back on the ground.

The little girl giggled slightly for a second, then put her hands on her hips. "Now, you listen to me Miss Satomee... you're gonna behave, or I'll beat you up with Kampu!"

Nodoka laughed lightly. "That's Kempo, little one....." She added, recognizing the Ranma impersonation. The little girl was a darling child..... Nodoka could see a little bit of spark in her demeanor, reminding her a little of Ranma in a way.

Ranma mockingly put up her arms. "Oh No! I wouldn't want that..... to get my pretty face all messed up! Please don't hurt me, Master Martial Artist Kaehmi!" Ranma giggled girlishly, getting into the act... then turned around, and squealed, running up the stairs with Kaehmi hot on her heals, a laugh escaping her lips.

"Mwahahahaha! This is all your fault, Ranma!!! Baksa Ten-Pests!!!" Kaehmi ran after Ranma thrusting a finger and poking the walls in mock imitation of the Ryouga stories her Auntie had been telling her.

Akane opened her door after several minutes of the chase and watched as Ranma tackled Kaehmi, tickling her furiously, then running away giggling like..... well, like a schoolgirl.

Akane was confused for several moments, not used to seeing this childlike happiness in Ranma, but then began to laugh as she watched Kaehmi chase Ranma around the House. She smiled softly when Ranma looked up at her, and she almost felt the love that reflected in her eyes.

*Oh Ranma.... why can't you be happy like this all the time??? What is haunting you so much???* Akane walked out, and avoided the chasing contest as she slipped downstairs, the sound of Kaehmi's laughter echoing down the halls and adding a strange sense of familiarity that Akane seemed to find puzzling.

She blinked at Kasumi, Memeko, and Nodoka sitting around the table, Soun and Genma absent on one of their regular drinking binges. Not that Genma had said much to anyone other than Soun since the fight with Ranma the previous week.

Akane shook her head at the thought of Genma... who cared about that idiot anyways?? He'd caused more than his share of trouble since he'd come to the dojo, and however much the argument between Ranma and his father had disturbed her, she felt that Genma was deserving of some harsh words for once.

Akane banished the thoughts of the Elder Saotome from her mind, and concentrated on Kasumi, Memeko, and her Auntie Saotome.

"Really?? Natsume is working in Kyoto nowadays?? I had always wondered what happened to her... do you two still talk?" Kasumi asked Memeko, the Miramoto girl smiling as she took notice of the silent watcher and gesturing for Akane to sit. After the momentary glance, Akane did just that.

"Actually, Kasumi, we only went out together for a day..... there's still a tense feeling between her and I about Connor....." Her smile faded into a slightly uncertain frown. "I wish she could have forgiven me.... I did not do anything wrong back then."

Kasumi put a hand on Memeko's. "I know, Memeko..... but Natsume was always the fickle sort. We all knew you didn't do anything to gain Connor's attention, everyone but Natsume was happy for you." Kasumi smiled, squeezing Kasumi's hand softly.

Nodoka looked between the two girl's as they began talking once more about the old day's in High School. She then turned her gaze to Akane, and put on a supportive, matronly smile that warmed Akane's heart.

"So, Akane Dear.... it's your Prom tomorrow, isn't it??" Nodoka smiled gently as she sipped her tea, noting the faint mint flavor that Kasumi had added for Memeko's sake.

"Hai, Auntie...." Akane said, smiling as well, then getting a stern look as she remembered WHY she was going to the Prom. "But it's also my one shot-"

"At Ranma, yes I know..... you and he need to relieve this tension. I think this might be the best way, even though I dread fighting of any sort.... even Martial Arts Dancing." Nodoka frowned for a long moment, seeming to look at something that was not truly there.

"Then.... why did you marry a Martial Artist, Auntie??" Akane asked, looking over at Memeko and Kasumi and smiling at the two old friends. She hoped that she would be like that with her friends some day, reliving old memories and ties of friendship.

Nodoka thought for a moment, staring into her tea. "Why do you plan to, Akane?? Genma, for all his fault's, does his best for what is right. He doesn't always understand, and some of his opinions are skewed, but he is a gentle man with a kind soul..... if not a little greedy and ignorant sometimes..." She had to deliberately loosen her grip on her tea cup and set it down before she cracked the fine porcelain. Whenever she thought about the way Genma usually acted, it got her blood boiling all the more about Genma's brash arrogance in Jusenkyou.

Akane looked at the tense state of Nodoka for a long moment, a sense of deja vu flooding into her mind. "I...." She looked at the cup of Tea that Nodoka had placed before her when she sat down, lifting it and sipping as she scrambled for some explanation why she planned.....to..........wed......

"Hey, Hang on here....." Nodoka smirked at Akane's tone of Voice. "Who said I wanted to marry that Baka???" Akane said, in a half defensive tone... some of her iron having left her will since Ranma began to change for the better. It was hard to stay mad at a complete idiot when he was acting like a gentleman.

"You were about to say SOMETHING about that Baka, Akane. I don't think it was an insult, either....." Nodoka smiled as she lifted her tea cup again..... taking a small sip and looking down into the tea as she placed it back. It really was good tea.... Kasumi had a talent, then again given the fact that she'd had much more practice than most girls nowadays, it didn't surprise Nodoka much.

Nabiki sighed, shaking her head sadly for a moment as she closed her book. "Admit it Akane.... you love the simple minded fool....." There was a weary quality in her voice, as if she was debating a heavy price that she didn't like, but had to endure.

"WHAT?!" Akane said in a mock angry, but mostly frightened tone. She had never said as much to Nabiki.... but she supposed Nabiki was sly enough to weasel out any information there could have been, and formed an opinion on that.

Nabiki smirked slightly, the joy not touching her somehow sad eyes. "Come on, Akane, we all know you are only delaying this because you want to prove Daddy wrong.... you and I both know how you feel....."

Akane wondered why Nabiki seemed so upset about having to say something she would normally jump at the chance to tease her about.

"Oh my...." Kasumi and Memeko said simultaneously, then both smiled.

"Akane.... I've heard how Ranma talks about you, he definitely feels something for you." Memeko said, looking in concern at Akane, the memory of her brother's confession echoing through her mind as her words tore her soul in two..... two duties, what could she do but choose a path and take it?

"Are you saying you don't feel anything for him, Akane???" Kasumi asked, looking directly at Akane's turned face. She had a bad feeling that things needed to be resolved..... very soon, or something terrible could happen. Kasumi usually didn't fret over such matters, but something told her there was an important turning point where a decision had to be made... and it was coming towards them faster than they could prepare for.

Akane's face softened for a long moment. "N...No... I'm not saying that I don't care..... for him a little....." Her heart pounded, the world turned gray and seemed to slow down.... It was one of those moments in time where everything froze for an instant, as if the entire world were hinged on your next words.

It made Akane's heart jump.... surreal and frightening, a single picture of tense calm clouding her vision. Stopped, and waiting, the world seemed to LISTEN.

Could she say it, with half her family present?? And Ranma's Mother as well?

Kasumi smiled, Memeko did the same, although it looked more unsure than Kasumi's. Nabiki didn't smile.... she stared coldly at Akane, as if demanding some Answer. All frozen in those poses..... as if some mad work of art by some insane artist.

Nodoka's hand still rested on hers, as if beckoning her to make a choice. The soft motherly smile still touched Akane's heart.... possibly the only redeeming piece of this abstract moment.

"....but...." And everything began again. "...We can't..... not yet." She murmured softly.

"I see." Nabiki said, turning back to her magazine with an uncaring grace..... hiding her eyes behind the pages so that the sadness and fear couldn't be seen. She hoped it hadn't been witnessed or noted by her younger sister.

"All right Akane...." Kasumi turned back to Memeko, who took a second to respond to the question her old friend posed to her, thoughts of her own haunting her mind with the words of a brother in anguish.

"It's all right, Dear.... give it time. You both need time, unlike my foolish husband's plans.... Love takes time. Just be sure when that time does come.... all right???" Nodoka's constant motherly grace was a blessing on the Tendo household.... one that often stirred cheer in Akane's breast.

"WAAAAAA!!!" Ranma rolled down the stairs, standing back up and looking around. "Hehehe... I lost her." The red-head stood up, dusting herself off from her tumble down the stairs and running a hand through her unbound hair.

Akane blinked and looked up at Ranma. "You look a little tired, Ranma.... can't keep up with a little girl??" She had a dead-pan expression on her face, as if she was serious.

"Hey, She's pretty fast Akane!!! Cute too... when she's not trying to tickle you to death." Ranma rubbed the back of her head, blushing. She usually didn't admit that her female body had a hypersensitivity to tickling, unlike her male body......

Memeko looked up and smiled. "I take it you are enjoying Kaehmi's company, Ranma.... even though she's running you down?" Memeko wondered why Ranma had decided to put her hair down..... it was oddly disturbing.

Ranma laughed, winking at Memeko. "Always.... she's a cute girl. Like the little sister I never had...." She instantly regretted the words as Nodoka frowned, a sad, tense expression crossing her usually bright cheery smile. "Awww, geeze... Mom, I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking...."

Nodoka held up a hand to Ranma. "Don't. Just don't apologize.... it was none your fault. I made a choice, as did Genma. I would also have liked more children.... the Kami judged it not to be, so do not punish yourself for your own words in haste." They had hurt her, true, but Ranma had not meant to hurt her. *Yet.... another child, one that I could have had if only Genma had waited....*

Ranma shuffled her feet uncertainly. She felt suddenly embarrassed, regardless of her Mother's words..... There was a long silence, broken by a knock at the door. Everyone blinked, and looked at the hallway where the entrance was.

"I'll get it...." Kasumi said quickly, standing and shuffling to the door. Memeko's eyes were fixed on Ranma, as if they were studying the girl before her for something. It unnerved Nabiki, who was still silently watching the exchange.

The back door slid open, and Ryouga... somewhat worn from practice in the back yard emerged, taking a seat across from Akane.

Ryouga had become so familiar with the Tendo Dojo that he hadn't gotten lost over the day, as Ranma had hoped he would.... Ryouga's entrance stirred people back into a social mood.

That started conversation again, as Akane coughed, and looked from Ryouga to Ranma. "So.... Ranma.... did you find your date today??" Akane asked, slightly unsure of her words, but eager to know if Ranma had succeeded on his macho boast.

Ranma sighed..... looking abashed for a moment.

Ryouga chuckled lightly. "So, the mighty Ranma Saotome can't even find a date when he needs one, And here I thought you were some Casanova. You must've lost your charm, Ranma."

Ranma growled, looking at Ryouga. "Ain't bein' embarrassed enough for you, Ryouga, you gotta rub my face in it too?!" She yearned to wipe the floor with Ryouga's flippant attitude.

Ryouga smirked, looking down his nose at Ranma. It wasn't often that the Hibiki child had the tables turned in his favor. "Naturally, Ranma.... it wouldn't be fun unless I taunted you." Taunt him he would, he'd had far too much of Ranma's attitude, it was HIS turn for a change.

"Both of you, Stop it!!!" Akane said angrily. She honestly wished she knew what the quarrel between Ranma and Ryouga was. *Seriously, if they weren't fighting all the time, they might find out they are great friends.* Akane looked at Ranma. "I guess you concede defeat then, if you aren't going to participate??"

Ranma growled, her eyes locked on Akane's. She couldn't give up..... she'd never walked out on a challenge in her life.... barring Ryouga.... she wouldn't do it now. She needed time, so much more time..... all wasted with her brash arrogance and cocky confidence. *Dammit, why couldn't I just stop and THINK for once in my life?!*

"Never..... I'm goin' to that contest, Akane..... and there ain't NOTHIN' gonna stop me from participating!!!" Ranma said, slamming her fist on the table.

Akane's eyes flashed. "You don't have a date, Ranma. How do you even expect to enter the contest when you require a partner???" She began to get the feeling that Ranma wasn't going to give up, through hell or high water. It made her heart jump a little, knowing Ranma wouldn't back down from any serious fight. It reminded her of all the times the odds had been stacked against Ranma, and he had still won..... for her.

Ranma's eye twitched.... she would enter that contest if it killed her..... she would do ANYTHING to wipe that confident smirk of Ryouga's face, to show Akane what she was made of.

"Oh my, Hello Hiroshi-San!" Kasumi said from the door in a cheery tone. Hiroshi asked a question which Ranma couldn't make out.

Nabiki looked up, her eyes slightly large not only from the conversation, but from the last words uttered from her Elder Sister.

Ranma's mind snapped to attention..... *Of Course.....* A plan began to form in her mind. What did it matter if she was guy or girl when she participated??? She WOULD win that contest.... and Hiroshi had some moves that could help, she noted, as she recalled the fight with Aquarius.

Hiroshi walked in, smiling a bit as he looked at his sister.... He opened his mouth to speak. "Hey, Everybody-"

That was the moment Ranma decided to blow up, the rising excitement within her mind and heart unable to be kept still a moment longer. She rose from her seat like some grim reaper, the words moving to her lips even before she could think them through. "FINE, AKANE!! HIROSHI WILL BE MY DATE THEN!!"

Memeko nearly choked as she spit out her tea.

Nabiki's eyes turned the size of Watermelons... Figuratively

Nodoka blinked in shock.

Ryouga looked at Ranma as if she were Crazy.

Akane laughed as if the idea was stupid.....

Hiroshi????

Hiroshi looked like a deer caught in Headlights.

* * * * * *

"FINE THEN, AKANE!! HIROSHI WILL BE MY DATE THEN!!" Ranma shouted.

His heart stopped.

His breath stopped.

He stared at her, as if she had grown wings and fangs. He could feel the eyes on him as Ranma laughed maniacally. *Hoh boy....* He quoted Sam Beckett, from that show on television late night.

Could his timing have been any worse??? He had come home to talk to his sister, only to find her not there and the house locked up.... so he had decided to try the Tendo Household.... where Memeko stopped by on occasion to talk to Kasumi.

He looked around at the surrounding people.... Nabiki looking at him with a murderous glare.... as if accusing him of Ranma's outburst. *Am I completely innocent?* He wondered. His sister's words about Ranma coming back to him suddenly.

Memeko looked at Ranma, quite possibly hurt that Ranma had made the statement without knowing how much it would mean to her Brother. How much it would mean to him.

*Hiroshi.... welcome to Nerima.* He chided himself.

"You can't be serious, Ranma... that's the dumbest idea you've ever come up with!!!" Akane said as she noticed Ranma's possibly Mad laughter. *How could he possibly think of going to the Prom with another guy?? That would be just plain silly.*

"No, Stupid Akane!!! It's the best one I've ever had!!!" She said, slowly relaxing from her adrenaline high. She wanted to slap herself, for thinking so two dimensionally.... for discounting an obvious out, as Hiroshi would put it. Why COULDN'T she go as a woman??? Besides, it would be with Hiroshi. Some other guy might make her too nervous to concentrate.

"Uhhhh.... I missed something, didn't I, Oneechan?" Hiroshi inquired, his face quite red from Ranma's statement and his heart thumping madly in his chest.

Memeko looked up at Hiroshi, a slight glimmer in her eyes. Hiroshi blinked, confused at the strong emotion of sadness in his sister's gaze.

"Nah, Hiroshi! I need a date, and you're jus' the guy!!" Ranma said, walking over and taking his arms, giggling girlishly.

Ryouga crossed his arms, closing his eyes. "Hmph.... now I've seen everything, Ranma's lost his marbles, Akane."

Ryouga had seen Ranma do some odd things, once or twice Ranma had even kissed HIM as an act to torment him, But this took the cake for insane ideas.

Ranma scowled, hugging Hiroshi's arm. "I have not, Ryouga! I'm jus' doing what I hafta to get into that contest!! If I can't go with any of my fiancee's, then I've gotta go with SOMEONE, and I was jus' thinkin' about goin' as a guy.... discounting a very obvious choice." Hiroshi was as tense as a board, which Ranma noted and puzzled at.

Nodoka blinked in shock. Something very odd was going on, and her mind was screaming at her again.... telling her to pull the Katana... but why??? It didn't make sense.... this was her son!! She had to have faith in his choices.

"Oh my...." Kasumi said quietly from behind Hiroshi and Ranma.... she had noted before Ranma's almost giddy attitude lately around Hiroshi.... and the soft smile whenever his name was mentioned. She suddenly remembered why she was so worried about Ranma.... and her brow creased slightly. Should she talk to the red headed Saotome child??? Or was it only her imagination?

Akane sighed. "While that was very funny, Ranma, I think we've all had a good laugh at your joke." She shook her head. *Honestly, to think he thought that was funny. Ranma no Baka....*

Ranma's blue eyes danced as she gritted her teeth, glaring at Akane. "I was very serious, Akane..... I'm goin' with Hiroshi. He's my friend, and he'll be just as good as anyone else at that Martial Arts Dance Contest.... you remember, I'm sure. He's the ONLY guy I would ever consider goin' with....." Ranma said with finality.

Akane glared at Ranma and Hiroshi.... something edging it's way into her mind.... *Why is she standing so close to him??* She wondered, looking at how affectionately Ranma clung to Hiroshi's arm.... She gritted her teeth. *NO..... Ranma isn't that way.... he... he could never..... never....*

Akane stood up, looking slightly shocked, and ran upstairs.

"Akane!!" Ryouga called out, stretching a hand towards the departing woman. He growled, turning back to Ranma and rising from his seat. "Don't you think your little joke has gone far enough, Ranma???"

Ranma stared back at him in unwavering consternation. "Ryouga. I am going to the Prom with Hiroshi, and I'm gonna win that Contest." She looked up at Hiroshi, who had a slightly shocked look to his face.

*Why is she doing this?* Hiroshi wondered. His heart sounded like a fury of small explosions in his head, wanting to leap out of his mouth if he opened it. He had wished, and hoped that Ranma could return his feelings.... but this wasn't about feelings, this was about Ranma winning.

Why did it have to be that??? Why was it the only time he could actually be with Ranma ALONE in public was when she needed his help for a fight??? He so longed to hold her, to tell her how he felt.... if only she would accept that truth when he said it, when he knew she would never do such a thing.

Hiroshi sighed sadly. *At least I could be happy..... I mean, I'll be with Ranma. Even if.... if it's not the way I want.*

Ryouga laughed, somewhat uneasily. "Ranma, in all the times I've known you, you've never been so serious about going out with a guy..... you enjoy it, don't you??" Ryouga tried to rationalize why his rival and erstwhile friend would do this to Akane.... it wasn't funny in the least, in Ryouga's opinion.

Ranma looked up at Hiroshi... then blushed as she realized her hand was against his chest. *Geeze.... that must've looked really bad...* She stepped away slightly, looking down at her feet and gathering herself, then raising her eyes to glare fire at Ryouga. "Enjoy WHAT Ryouga???"

Hiroshi touched his chest slightly..... where Ranma's hand had been. A sad glimmer reflecting in his soft brown eyes. *...yet she's always so close..... but so far, far away.... Oh, it's such a cruel fate..... an unfair price to pay.... my delicate soul weeps.... forged of Fragile Clay....* The words seemed to flow in his mind, along with the pain.

Ryouga smirked, his stoic surety in his own self-righteous ideals faltering for a moment as he sees a familiar glint in Hiroshi's eyes. *....I....have seen that.... many times before... but where??* He couldn't fathom that the lonely glimmer of loss and anguish in Hiroshi's eyes matched his own soul, par for par.

".....Being with a guy, Ranma.... you obviously like it, if this isn't a joke." Ryouga chuckled, but it sounded more forced than to his liking.

Nodoka looked up at Hiroshi, who was standing stunned staring at Ryouga. *What is in that boy's mind??? ...no.... Better question.... what is in my own Boy's mind??* She looked at Ranma fearfully as she saw the anger building within her blue eyes.

"....I'll do anything to win this contest..... I've gotta prove to Akane..... Show her I can take care of her...." Ranma's fists were clenched. How *DARE* Ryouga even suggest a thing!!! Especially of Hiroshi, who had been there when nobody else was! She needed him now, and he was there for her.....

"This was NEVER about Akane, Ranma!!! This is all about your foolish pride!" Ryouga growled, his eyes narrowing to a dangerous glare. Ranma was trying to rationalize the arrogant and self-serving attitude she always had!!! Ryouga was getting sick and tired of his Rival's flippant ways, and immature excuses for her actions.

Ranma clenched a fist, knuckles popping. "...Take that back, Ryouga.... Or I'll shove those words down your throat." Ryouga had NO right to say that....

Hiroshi put a hand on Ranma's shoulder, ".....Ranma....." His soft voice crashed against the walls of anger, washing them away as if a wall of mud in a rainstorm, her composure instantly eased.....

The tense stress of the surrounding world seemed to drain away. "Let it go, Ranma..." Hiroshi whispered in a soothing tone. "...Ryouga is right, in part, but so are you.... just let it go."

Ranma looked angry for a moment, then hurt.... then infinitely weary as she nodded with a sigh. "...yeah....I guess you're right, Hiroshi." However much she hated to admit it, whenever Hiroshi had that serious tone in his voice, she always had to look back at what she had said, and what she had meant.

"...w...w...what?" Ryouga stuttered. He looked at the red-head with her eyes downcast for a long moment. Maybe Ranma really WAS losing it..... she'd never admitted she was wrong before. Not openly, and NEVER to Ryouga.

"Sorry, Ryouga.... you're right, I should be more considerate about Akane and her feelings. I guess I've been a bit absent lately..... we've been avoiding eachother, I guess you could say."

Nodoka smiled softly at the admission. It took a lot for Ranma to admit she was wrong..... and usually, it never happened without a long and painful argument on Ranma's part.

There was a sort of easing presence to Hiroshi's company.... Nodoka noted. It.... disturbed her to no end, a screaming thought in the back of her mind telling her the boy's considerate attitude was a danger for some reason.

She looked at Hiroshi with her own soft blue/gray eyes.... and the boy looked back for a moment.

She flinched at what she saw. There was a battle being waged in the boy's soul..... that she was sure of by the agony of conflicting emotions in his eyes. His smile.... just did not touch that soft brown gaze.

*Miramoto Hiroshi.... why are you so unhappy, child??? What woman, if any, could cause such a kind soul to quiver in such anguish???*

Hiroshi returned his gaze to Ryouga, who had a confused look on his face. He suspected that the lost-boy was surprised Ranma had admitted to error..... Ranma, Hiroshi had come to find, had trouble admitting when she was wrong.

Strangely.... his presence seemed to lessen that fact, make her more insightful and accepting of her own flaws. As if.....

As if her problems didn't matter as much.

Ryouga growled, clenching his fists. "I don't know what the heck happened to you, Ranma.... but.... but.... You had better not hurt Akane again!" Was that what he had meant to say? Ryouga's eye twitched for a moment.

It was not entirely what he was worried about. There was something VERY wrong here.... Ranma's actions had proven that to him, and regardless to what Ranma would believe, Ryouga was more observant than she gave him credit for.

With that said.... Ryouga turned, fists still clenched, and walked out the back door.....

"Oh my, Ranma.... are you sure you know what you are doing?? Akane seemed very shocked at your choice of partners." Kasumi uttered softly as she looked up again with Ryouga's departure.

"Sure I'm sure!! Besides, Akane'll get over it.... she's a strong girl." Ranma smiled, and looked at Hiroshi. "Besides..... Hiroshi is better than nobody at this point.... and I *NEEDED* a partner for the duel. I can't throw a fight like that.... jus' isn't my style."

Kasumi looked worriedly at Ranma. Perhaps she SHOULD talk to Ranma..... "...Ranma-Kun, would you step upstairs with me for a moment? I think we should talk about something." She couldn't put it off.... there was a flush on Ranma's face as the red-head looked at Hiroshi, then back at her.... she HAD to know.

Ranma blinked, looking at Kasumi, then back at Hiroshi. She smiled again. "Sure thing, Kasumi."

Kasumi rose. "Pardon me, Memeko-Chan..... I will only be a second."

Memeko smiled, if a bit uneasily. Ranma had definitely been acting flirtatious with Hiroshi, even if the sex-changing girl didn't notice. *Gods, How can she not notice how..... BOY crazy she is acting?? For that fact, how can nobody ELSE around here not notice??*

"It's okay, Kasumi-Chan..... I'll wait here for you. I'm in no hurry." Memeko looked at Nodoka, who, instead of making eye contact, was staring at Hiroshi with a confused expression on her face. *....or maybe they are putting things together. Kami.... Hiroshi, please be careful.*

Kasumi smiled happily, and walked to the stairs... Ranma on her heels. "Be back in a minute, Hi...."

Hiroshi smiled back, the gentle expression still not touching the cold anguish that he could not seem to wash away. *....always walking away..... and she doesn't even know she makes my heart ache.* "Sure thing, Ranma.... Not Like I'm goin' anywhere without Memeko and Kaehmi."

"Kay!" Ranma said in a positively Kawaii tone as she smiled and walked up after Kasumi.

Hiroshi felt like she was walking away from him forever..... and wondered if it was not for the best.

* * * * * *

Dark...

*Cold....*

So....Dark...

**How long... How long....**

Lonely....

*A thousand Years.....*

Where am I

^^You're in Limbo.^^

Where's Okaasan....

@She is gone...... we got lost.... There was a fight....@

...yes....Akuma... there was an Akuma.....

*We will be free soon..... I know it.*

A faint glimmer of light..... and a figure, small, lithe, and lanky...... floats through the darkness..... the cold, huddled form of a creature draws it's attention. The form was trying to escape within itself... the harsh cold of the vast abyss seeming to seep into his flesh....

Seeming to seep into his very soul, trying to fill it with the same emptiness around it.

...why am I so Alone??

@You have us, K-chan.....@

*You'll always have us, Weakling.*

**We will always stand by you, K-Chan.**

^^We are your strength.....^^

!!We are what makes you Whole!!

The figure floats closer.... a halberd strapped to it's back and a metallic Chinese style hat sitting upon it's head..... It looked at the pale body of the floating creature....

It took in the condition of the lost figure.... the vacant blue eyes that dance with chaos, the flesh that seems unnaturally cold and rigid, the wild mop of flame red hair and a green streak running down the center.

Whatever it was, it was curled into a fetal position.... floating in the midst of nothingness....

"....Lin ma Jin Pai....?? Oratta Xing Mao Xei?? Who are you... Rei??" Kappa mutters, grinning impishly.

The figure emits no response for several long moments. Kappa began wondering if the figure was actually still alive. Just a brief glance into the vacant eyes and he could see something that disturbed him, something that normal beings might have nightmares about.

Insanity.

...who....who are you???

@We're your friends... *Giggles*@

*That is debatable....*

**We are a part of you now.... as well as your past.**

^^We are your brethren...^^

!!You should Probably answer Imp-boy.!!

"Lali Na???? You awake, Sim Pa???" Kappa poked the prone figure with his halberd, and the deep blue eyes seemed to glow with life for a moment. If only but a moment, before the shattered, lost look returned to the gaunt face of the lost soul.

".....kaoru.....shimitsu....." Then lifelessness again. Kappa wondered if it had taken a great feat of willpower to focus the soul's fractured pieces close enough to say those two words.

The Imp tapped his hat, making a metallic ring throughout the empty void, a special resonance echoing in the empty space of Limbo, a tone that rang out and summoned forth a gate into being.

After what seemed an eternal moment, a sliver of light burst into existence... something Kaoru had not seen in 1000 years, something his shattered mind only half recognized from the abysmal depths of the dark aeon he had spent in the cold prison.

"...lamma Zin tei, you need return to life, Lali Na....." The Imp picked up the prone form of Kaoru... and dragged him towards the light. "I take you mountains, Zhim Pa Li Na.... It Dragon live there, who name Shimitsu, Maeri Na la...."

A tear escaped Kaoru's eye, rolling down his cheek. *.....I'm going home... Okaasan.... I'm coming home....* Some memories seemed to flash in his mind, of a laughing girl, a woman who embraced him.... a man with a smile.

The Tear drifted off of Kaoru's face, and floated lifelessly in the prison of Limbo, freezing moments later. It was a part of him he could not take from the void, a symbol that he could never take himself back from this abyss of torture.

And with that... the darkness of insanity returned.... the voices keeping him pleasant company.

* * * * * *

Daisuke sat at the small dining room table, wearing a leather strap around his forehead with a mini-snake light attached to the front.... in his mouth was a tiny screwdriver...

His face was poised in a curious child's fixture, and his eyes seemed to stare at the object in his hands with a fury of passion.... every detail being analyzed and stored in his memory with unique rapture for the most minute of fixations.

A large smile spread across his face as he turned the object left and right, looking at it with scrutinizingly professional skill.....

Of course, one watching this scene of monotony might find it a bit.... stranger than the usual tinkerers meditations.... because in Daisuke's hands was a human skull.

*....perfect.... evolution has done it's job swell.... now, all I have to do is try and squeeze all of that programming into something about this size..... and KAPOW! Zillionaire Daisuke! Most wanted man in the world! Women flocking to his doorstep for his easy spend lifestyle!!*

He chuckles slightly for a moment. *...okay... well, maybe I *DO* have to get through the hard work first.*

He had been happy that his Biology teacher had let him borrow the skull.... it was a genuine human skull dug up in one of the archaeological finds that his Teacher had attended frequently in his College days long past.

Daisuke, with the respect of it's delicate nature, placed the skull back on the table.... amidst the thousands of wires, Circuits, and complex innards of a hundred different things. Some things bought separately, with the price tags still attached.

*....well then, back to work....* He picked up a similar looking object... one shaped mostly like a skull, but with a very metallic sheen to it, and obviously unfinished from the wires sticking out of the bottom. *....hmm.... a genius's work is never done.*

The back door slammed open... startled Daisuke and almost causing him to drop the object of his momentary affections.

His father stood there.... the very semblance of a broken man. There was a fury of passionate emotions, a tumultuous tempest of raging contradiction in his eyes.... anger, depression, a somewhat sadistic pleasure at finding his son fooling around when he should be working.

To most, this might seem frightening, but Daisuke was used to his Father's eyes, no, that's not what scared him.

Many have seen the ragged drunkenness of a man without hope..... the stubble of a beard, the torn white tank top.... the filthy jeans..... Daisuke's father was no different to this cliché... but still, this did not startle the boy genius.

Rather, what scared Daisuke to death was the firm and unshakable contrast of his Father's face to his eyes.

Yushiro, his Father, always had the furious storm of clashing emotions in his eyes when drunk.... but unlike other people, he also had something that caused an even more disturbing image.

His face was an expressionless mask. It was as if it was painted on, a thing not real, like some marionette with it's strings cut.... the more disturbing fact came to Daisuke when he spoke.

"...what are you doing, you little bastard?? Didn't I tell you to clean the #$!@% Dishes??" His voice was soothingly calm.... as if he was completely sober. Most drunks have a slur, or a waver to their voice. Yushiro had an unearthly calm.

"...uh...m...mom's home, Father." Daisuke muttered, looking over at the woman in the apron washing the dishes.

"...You lazy little SH!T..... you should be doing the dishes, while your pompous mother should be making me my food." Yushiro walked over to his wife.... a bottle of Sake hanging from his hand as if ready to fall and shatter at any moment from his almost limp grasp.... as if it were some heavy wait that were attached to him pulling him down.

"Oh, hello Yushi-kun! I didn't hear you come in, Dear." Mrs. Nakano was a patient woman..... also a startling Contrast.

For months after Dai's father had been laid off, she had taken the punishment and cried from the pain... now she scared Daisuke as well....

"Shutup, Ikana..... where the hell is my food???" Yushiro asked.... his left hand tensing since his right was holding his bottle...

"Oh my, I had forgotten about it. I suppose I should get started on it then..." She was drying one of the plates in the kitchen.

His Father's fist came up, and smashed into her jaw... sending her whirling.... tears of pain suddenly flooding to her eyes. "....you know I want my food when I get home, Ikana. You should have that little bastard of our son doing the dishes while you finish what I tell you to."

The plate had fallen and shattered on the floor..... Ikana looked at it with dismay. "...oh dear, I seemed to have dropped the plate..."

Daisuke's father knocked over the drying bin... causing everything to shatter on the ground. His mother would clean it up later without a word. "...you better start cooking, Ikana....." He kicked her, a small whimper coming from her....

Daisuke was paralyzed with Fear. If he moved to help his Mother, his father would be even harsher on him, and then would beat his Mother badly. It was a nightly trial of fire and pain that Daisuke's dreams were haunted by.

His mother shook for a moment, wiping away tears. "...yes, dinner would be good right now.... I'll start right away, Love."

*Love.....* Daisuke felt his heart fracture again, like it had a thousand times before. *....is this Love???* His mother had retreated from her mind... every blow seemed to push her farther and farther from the reality of her situation..... she reacted as if she had knocked over the dishes.

"...oh my, I'm sorry Love... I must have knocked them over when I collapsed...." She began gathering the dishes, only to have her face backhanded by her father.... he lifted her and whispered in her ear.

"...clean this sh!t up.... and get me my food, or I'll kill you, do you hear me you !@%#*?" he threw her on the ground. Daisuke whimpered a bit.

His father's face shot to him. "And you clean that bullsh!t up, taking apart all the crap I pay for... you're lucky I don't kick your little....." He turned with a sneer and shambled into the living room to watch some television.

Daisuke mentally had to calm himself, as his heart was racing at high speeds and he had broken out into a cold sweat.

He looked back at his Mother.... if anyone were to look at her, she would seem normal. A mother. Yet if they had just watched the tableau of blows being rained on her and her accepting them as nothing, they would likely see how disturbed she was....

Daisuke wiped his eyes.... from tears as his mother cleaned up the shards of broken dishware. *....is this Love???* He didn't know what love is, but it couldn't be this....

His fear, his terror, his pain at seeing his family breaking further and further, at watching his mother's sanity slowly ebb away like the tide, and at witnessing his father's desecration of his soul.... all of it ripped him apart.

So, he did what Daisuke Nakano does best... he ran away from the world.... he ran away from this circus of humanity.... he ran into his own mind, his own passions....

Daisuke turned back to the metallic skull.... and began his work again.... hoping that everything would be all right when he returned to the world.. hoping that his father would be the business wonder he once was.... hoping his mother would once again become the loving, trusting, understanding woman that smiled at everyone....

Hoping in vain.

Somewhere inside him, a boy cried.

* * * * * *

"Whadidja wanna talk to me about Ka-" She was cut off abruptly with the immense severity and seriousness of Kasumi's expression. The very room seemed like a calm before a storm.... despite Kasumi's cheerfully decorated tastes.

"...woah, man. What the heck happened to get you so upset?" Ranma rubbed the back of her head, looking fairly nervous, and fixing an embarrassed unsure look on her face. The past few days Kasumi had been tenser than usual.... which was disturbing in and of itself.

She had never seen Kasumi this serious and no-nonsense before. It was a startling contrast to how she USUALLY acted. Of course.... that morning had also been a little odd, with the shocked expression that Kasumi had worn.

"...Ranma. I have to know something.... and.... and I don't want you to be offended by what I might ask you, because I know some things are very important to you to protect." Kasumi was worried beyond belief.

Her hands smoothed over the clean white apron in her lap as she fixed her eyes on the floor, a puzzled, and deeply perplexed look on her face, as if she was puzzling out some dreadful meaning of a puzzle or riddle. She fixed her gaze on a specific spot and stared at it, organizing her thoughts in a quiet moment of contemplation.

She could see the concerned and worried look in Ranma's eyes.... could see the expression she wore that told her Ranma would listen to whatever she might say. To whatever was bothering her.

The gray dusk of the setting sun seemed to fit her mood... some reds splashed across the sky to mix with the coming clouds.

"...Sure, Kasumi. You know I'd love ta help ya in any way I can... talk to me..." Ranma felt a cold chill travel slowly up her spine..... something was slightly odd here, and she couldn't place what.

Ranma took a careful seat by Kasumi on the older girl's bed.. and turned to face her, relaxing her body and calming her features to try and get Kasumi to relax as well. She brushed some of her long scarlet hair behind her ear and looked at Kasumi with her gentle blue eyes.

"Ranma, you... you like Hiroshi a lot, don't you?" Kasumi asked.... finally bridging the topic of discussion. It took a lot more effort than her Mother had said. After the final words stopped in the air, Kasumi fixed Ranma with her soft brown gaze, a concerned, motherly expression on her face.

Kasumi realized that this would be a hard discussion to sit through.... one Ranma might storm out of at any moment if the wrong words were said. Ranma was like a fragile flower. If tended wrongly, it would break yet if treated with kindness, love, and compassion it would blossom.

Ranma thought about it for half a second, then nodded. "...Sure. Hiroshi's my best guy... I mean, he's been there so much recently, I've gotta care a little about him, right???" She sighed as she thought of Hiroshi. The images of his ever calming presence and his always ready supply of wisdom and care

Then Kasumi noticed, like a fog falling over her, when that dreamy smile slowly drifted into Ranma's features. There was a vague sense of dread that suddenly fell completely over the Eldest Tendo Daughter. It was like all the horrible nightmares of a dark night rolled into one disturbing thought.

"....He's done a lot for me, ya know? I mean.... I don't think nobody has done so much for me ever... not Ukyou, not Pop, Not Akane even.... it's a little unnerving sometimes how much I rely on him, but he's m'man.... till the end." Ranma's voice was cheery, wistful, distant.

Her eyes fixed on memories flashing in her own mind, some seeming distant recollections of happiness. Something Ranma had always been lacking since Jusenkyou.

Something Ranma had seen very little of since a six year old boy was torn from his mother's caring embrace and thrust into the cold embrace of the real world, with only the passion of the Art provided it.

Ranma snapped out of her Reverie and looked at a slightly more pale Kasumi. "...Oh... wow, hey, Kasumi, Are you okay????" She reached over with a kind gesture, and touched Kasumi's hand with her own in a somewhat feminine gesture of worry.

Kasumi jumped, and wrenched herself back to the reality of the situation.

Kasumi nodded, perhaps a bit too quickly... she might have never known afterwards. "Yes... Yes... I'm.... I'm just worried that you're spending far too much time with Hiroshi than you should."

Ranma got a wary glare.... looking at Kasumi's fidgety motions.... Kasumi was NEVER fidgety, in Ranma's experience. Right now she was constantly straightening her dress, and avoiding Ranma's eyes. Ranma felt a sort of defensive wall building within her from Kasumi's question, and she didn't know why she felt threatened by the simple inquiry.

"What's wrong with spendin' a little time with a great friend, Kasumi??? Hiroshi's been there for me, when I really needed someone t'listen. I don't think I could ever repay that," Ranma crossed her arms under her breasts... tilting her head to one side in a curious gesture as she wondered what Kasumi was driving at.

Kasumi tugged a little on her pony-tail. "...Ranma...It's just... you seem to be acting like.... like Hiroshi was more than a friend?" Kasumi hated the way those words had come out slightly strangled, hasty, and with more than a bit of fear in it she was so unused to handling fear with someone else around.

Ranma blinked. Genuinely stunned. "KASUMI!?" The walls grew thicker, higher. Protecting Ranma from the hurtful implications.

"...oh...oh my...." Kasumi looked abashed, red, and embarrassed.... as well as a little startled. Worried, Ranma might say...

Kasumi's eyes were seeking anything and everything but Ranma.... and her hands were wringing in a nervous gesture.

"What the heck are you talkin' about?" Ranma couldn't believe her ears. KASUMI thought that.....

WITH HIROSHI?!?

"....I'm sorry, Ranma... but you're scaring us all.... I mean, when you're with Hiroshi... and Akane.... now the dance... Oh.... Oh my, I'm not sure what to say," Kasumi looked back at Ranma with fear in her eyes.

Fear of Retribution.

"...Kasumi.... you KNOW me.... I would never-"

"...but I don't, Ranma. I don't know you half as well as I thought.... That's what you've been telling everyone lately, and quite often I must say." Kasumi seemed to have calmed. It was an uneasy calm. Ranma could see a storm behind Kasumi's eyes..... in her tense body.... there was a lot of worry Kasumi was holding back.

She had just seen a bit of what Kasumi had been hiding.

"Kasumi. You know me'n Hiroshi are just friends..... I don't believe you would think such a thing!" Ranma couldn't believe her ears. Kasumi was accusing her of being attracted to a MAN of all things!

The idea was crazy..... completely ludicrous.

"...You should talk to Akane, Ranma. I.... I think she was hurt by the way you were acting with Hiroshi." Kasumi looked to the door... then back at Ranma.... who was looking out the window at the setting sun.

The sun..... was slowly vanishing behind the horizon. Soon, Ranma knew, there would be a darkness.

"...Yeah.... I guess I should, Kasumi." She scoffed, a bit offended by the implications. "....I.... I don't want to hurt Akane anymore. I want to get to know her better, let her get to know the real me."

Kasumi nodded slowly.... opening the door and stepping out...... "...I will be downstairs, telling Memeko and Kaehmi goodbye."

Ranma nodded absently.... looking out the window again.

The Sun was setting... the darkness would be here soon.

".....absurd......" Ranma heard herself say, with her voice wavering slightly. She half wondered why it had wavered. She half wondered why "disgusting", "revolting", or "gross" had not come into her line of thinking on the subject.

The darkness was coming.

But would she be alone in it?

* * * * * *

Akane stared down at the notebook she had snatched from Ranma's backpack.... her right eye was twitching slightly as she read it.....

The flame flickered slightly, dancing gently atop the candle.... It's light providing much more illumination than irregular shining of the moon

Akane wasn't so much as surprised from the WRITING, although that was also shocking in some respects..... she was more surprised at what surrounded it.

Ranma had never been too prone to doodle when he was bored, although on occasion she would see him sketch out something or other. He'd usually throw away the piece of paper, having gotten bored with THAT as well.

No... no the writing isn't what surprised Akane.... it was the doodles. Some of them involving the daily Kuno-smashings, some of them involving Shampoo and Mousse.... but ALL of them were...

Disgustingly cute Chibi-figures.

With hearts.

And Smiley faces.

Akane's eye twitched for these reasons.... *What the hell did Nodoka and the others DO to Ranma?*

She had taken the book from Ranma's bag as she had walked upstairs, with the vague dread that Hiroshi meant more to Ranma than a simple friend.

She had discarded that thought, Ranma was so homophobic that that sort of thing was an IMPOSSIBILITY.

She was, however, still worried about Ranma's growing sense of femininity. Akane had mentioned that morning that Ranma looked good with long hair, feeling a bit uncomfortable saying so at the time, too.

Ranma had blushed... and said 'Thank you Akane, you don't know how much that means to me.'

Akane snapped the book shut with a gasp as she came to a page that said "...Dear Diary..." her face going pale. She had noticed that it was Ranma's personal book, but he had NEVER referred to it as his diary in any of his notes.

Not only did it say THAT, but it was written in a carefully scrawled out hand. "...Ranma....what is happening to you..."

There was a knock at the door, and Akane jumped... taking the book and stuffing it in her pillowcase.... ".c...come in."

The door slowly creaked open, snuffing the candle. "...a...akane? I...I think maybe we should talk..." Ranma said quietly, his voice much deeper and richer than his female side's. He sounded a bit uncertain, and from what Akane could make out, he seemed slightly worried...

*At least he's male again... thank goodness...*

Akane's eyes traveled over to her clock, which read 2:37 a.m.. The sky outside was largely overcast.

She sat up, stretching a bit and yawned. "You can come in, Ranma" She said in a somewhat upset tone.

Ranma tentatively stepped into the room, shutting the door quietly behind him, his eyes looked around the room, taking it all in with a nervous precision. On almost every occasion he'd been in Akane's room, he had always ended up going out through the window.

"You know it's 2 o'clock in the morning, Ranma what the heck are you doing up so late?" She asked, tossing aside her blankets and sitting on the edge of the bed, her brown gaze locking with Ranma's blue eyes.

"..I know, I couldn't sleep I got ta' thinkin' about what Kasumi had said to me, and.. well, Akane, I think we need to talk. I mean" Ranma rubbed the back of his head, still standing at the doorway, looking away nervously.

Akane's gaze softened a bit. "You know you can sit down, Ranma. I don't mind" She patted the bed beside her, relaxing her defenses that always seemed to go up around Ranma.

Ranma walked a few steps in, uncertainly, then looked back up at Akane's eyes.

Akane put a smile on her face, trying to assure Ranma that she was sincere this time. "Come on, really. I'm sorry about running out earlier, Ranma." She said, though it was a bit hard to admit out loud, it had always been hard to apologize to Ranma.

The young Saotome boy looked at Akane, then the place offered, and turned, sitting gently "..I Actually, I wanted to come talk to you about that too. Kasumi had some outrageous ideas about why you were upset but I guess some of them make a little bit of sense."

Akane tensed again. *.could Oneechan have seen it too??? Oh Kami, please don't let it be true.* She could never believe Ranma would do that, with ANY man.

Ranma loved her, and she knew it. He'd said so very few times, when he could have so many different times. It made those three special words all the more precious to Akane.

"Akane. I'm sorry, I know I've been spending a lot of time as a female, and that upsets everyone I guess." Ranma sighed, looking down at his hands, then up at the door of the room.

"I-I think I understand why, Ranma, but you don't have to be so brave about it. I just worry about you." Akane looked over at Ranma, and was startled to find his soft blue gaze looking into her own deep brown eyes.

"I know, Akane. I know" He touched her cheek gently. "It's not about me, though. It's about overcoming this. This FEAR that I feel towards the curse. I guess I've kinda forgotten how much time I've been spendin' as a girl, but sometimes I'm more comfortable that way, I think." Ranma closed his eyes, holding back a wash of uncertainty at his own words.

*How could I be more comfortable as a girl?? I'm not supposed to be comfortable as a girl. But why doesn't that seem so important?*

Akane looked at Ranma, obvious care and compassion playing across her features. "Ranma, I know why you started doing this, but but I am so afraid you'll start drifting away from me, that you'll become some person I don't even know" Her hand came up to his cheek, and caressed it gently.

Ranma opened his gentle blue eyes, looking into Akane's. "Are you so sure you know me so well, Akane?" He asked, his own hand coming up and holding Akane's hand from his face. A bit of pain flashed across his gentle eyes as he stopped her loving caress.

Akane looked a bit confused, but more hurt than lost. ".I want to" She felt something drip from her chin.

Were these tears she shed?? They couldn't be from her, she had so rarely cried in the years spanning her Mother's death. "II want to know you, Ranma, I want to be with you, and walk with you I want to get inside, but you you keep us all out."

Yes, they were tears, Yet that wasn't the important part. They were HER tears some dark lurking pain and emptiness welling inside her chest, like a wound that was bleeding itself larger and larger, soaking her with it's dark feeling. It's.. loneliness.

"No. Akane, No," Ranma took Akane by the shoulders, looking her directly in the face. "Look at me, I don't ever want to hurt you by what I say, but you need to know it."

Akane pulled her eyes up to Ranma's, her tears still flowering and running down her cheeks.

That gaze was so hard to meet for her. A gaze filled with pain and torment, what REALLY resided in Ranma's past? She had never known she could never possibly begin to imagine what had shaped this man before her, this frightened wild creature that could so easily change everyone's lives, but never it's own.

"I've never kept you out NEVER I've been crying silently inside myself, too proud, too brave to let it out, but that NEVER stopped any of you from simply sitting down and asking. I never kept anyone out, Akane, no I can insult, and fight, and argue all I want, but that's not keeping people from seeing who I am.

It's their own fears of what they could find. Ucchan is afraid she won't find the love she has for me, Shampoo was afraid that I will reject her utterly, Ryouga always afraid that the friendship we once had is utterly dead, and you? You're afraid of finding out I'm horrible, finding out you are so right about me and have always been." Ranma's hands were gentle in their grip, but his eyes tore Akane to the bone.

"No!! No!! It's not! I want to, please. I didn't it's not true." Akane was shaking violently. Tears and sobs tearing at her soul.

Ranma took her into his arms, and just held her there for a long moment. "Akane, Kami, I never want to hurt you. Never. With my words, or my actions, or my. choices. You are the only one I think about every time I'm forced to choose, wondering if you could forgive me if I chose someone else, wondering if we would be happy if we chose each other.

I can't know, though. You and I know so little about each other, about who we really are"

"I want to. Ranma, I have always wanted to." Akane said through a sob, wrapping her arms around Ranma as if he would be torn away forever and flung to the farthest wind, out of her reach.

"No, Akane. Please, oh Kami, Please just listen to the truth for once, listen to me look at yourself" Ranma felt his own hot, acrid tears welling up. The truth could hurt so much, could burn and destroy so much, But it had to be said.

Akane shook her head, burying her face in Ranma's chest.

"I never kept you outside you chose to stay that way, you chose to toss aside what you could've known about me for your own pride. I'm sorry, Akane, I was silently asking for someone to understand, and you were never there to listen." Ranma shook a bit himself and clenched his eyes shut tightly, a few tears running down his face and into Akane's hair.

". Ranma.. please.I didn't. no I'm sorry. Please.." She sobbed, looking up at Ranma.

Ranma's eyes, filled with tears, were understanding. "I know, Akane. I know you didn't mean to I know you'd always ached to see me, the real me. The only time you saw the real me was that first day in the dojo, I'm serious," He sniffed, and wiped his eyes with one hand his bout of emotion having slowly passed by.

Akane looked uncertain, gazing into Ranma's deep blue eyes. Wanting to become lost in their soulful depths. "..Ranma can can we"

"Yes, Akane?" He asked, patiently. His hand slowly clasping Akane's with understanding.

" let's get to know each other." Akane smiled, a bit forced, but she smiled none the less.

Ranma smiled in kind. He could feel something beginning, something wonderful, something new and glorious.

It was like the dawning of a new day, where the world would be perfect and full of all the things that it so lacked before.

"" Ranma said with a gentle smile. "Hai, I think I'd like that, Akane."

Akane smiled a bit, and nodded, and they both sat for a long moment, gazing at each other. A decision had been made.

* * * * * *

"My Mother used to sit down at night and tell us Fairy Tales. I don't know if Nabiki remembers, but Kasumi sometimes talks to me about some of them. When we're here alone, and neither of us can sleep, we sometimes try and think up how they used to go."

Akane walked quietly after her statement, her hand clasped in Ranma's. Her eyes went up to the moon, a silent watcher that bathed the two lovers in a glowing light.

Ranma looked at Akane as they walked, his other hand in his coat pocket. "She must've been somethin' Akane. I mean, you girls never talk bout her."

Akane reflected sadly for a moment, recalling the sickness that had swept down upon her mother quickly, without warning, and taken her within months from a loving family. A silent angel of grim servitude, collecting souls without compassion to those left behind.

"She was everything to me, Ranma. She was a lot to many people around town. But they never talk about her. I think it's out of respect for her spirit that they pretend not to mourn." Akane looked up at Ranma's silhouette, his soft blue eyes seeming to take in the moonlight.

"Wish I could've known her, Akane I really do. Was she anything like you?" Ranma said, smirking slightly.

Akane smirked a bit, and leaned into Ranma, taking her hand from his and wrapping her arm around his waist. " no she was nothing like me. She was a bit of us all, the best parts I think. Kasumi's natural motherly instincts, Nabiki's quick wit and financial skills, and my silent strength and inexhaustible reserves."

Ranma heaved a sigh of relief in jest. "Whew, glad she wasn't a terrible cook. That way I know it's not inherited."

Akane looked mock offended and poked Ranma hard in the side. "Baka!! You Baka.." She whispered affectionately as she leaned her head against his chest. For some odd reason, Akane couldn't get angry at his comment. She could find no rational reason not to, but the anger simply would not culminate.

Ranma draped an arm around Akane, glad that they had brought their coats as the brisk chill of the wind picked up for a moment, tossing leaves around the park at random.

"She would've liked you, Ranma. I really think she would have." Akane said sadly. Her eyes looking up at the tree's and remembering a time so long ago when the blossoms were full, and a happy family had gone on picnics in the sun of the summer days.

"It seems such a long time ago. Like summer was all our Mother had with us, it's what I remember the best, Ranma." She could feel the sting of tears welling in her eyes again. "now.. now it's winter, and. The pain still hasn't stopped, even after so long."

Ranma looked around at the skeletal tree's, having already shed their leaves and getting ready for the long slumber of winter. His arm tightened around Akane for a brief moment, then relaxed, reassuring her that he was there if she needed to say something.

"Ranma what kind of music do you like??" Akane asked suddenly. Her head rising a bit.

Ranma wasn't surprised that she would want to change the subject, he couldn't imagine losing his father so suddenly, or even his mother now that he was getting to know her.

"I don't know. I listen to a lot of stuff. Recently, I've been listening to a lot of classical. It's Okay, but I still love a good rock song on any occasion possible." He smiles and looks down at Akane.

"I Like Romantic songs. I don't know, that's silly, isn't it? I mean, I'm so tomboyish' all the time, it seems kind of silly to be attached to Romantic music." Akane blushed a bit, purposefully avoiding Ranma's eyes.

He laughed a bit, surprising Akane she was startled at first from the sound, then the familiar veil of anger began to descend over her mind.

"That's great, Akane!" Ranma said, calming down as he noticed the tense nature Akane's body was taking on. "I mean, I would never have guessed. That's wonderful, Akane. I really mean that."

Again, She was shocked. What she had thought had began an insult ended up a compliment. " Domo, Ranma." She said smiling a bit in return.

"This is great. I I feel so alive, and happy all at once, I'm glad you asked to do this, Akane." He said, looking down at her as they came to the lake.

"So am I, Ranma." Akane said, taking a seat on the bench. Ranma sat down beside her a moment later.

Ranma looked at the water for a long moment. *Water. It still makes me so uncomfortable, but. At least I don't feel helpless terror when I'm in it anymore.* He smiled and looked over at Akane.

"you were just wondering about your fear, weren't you Ranma?" She asked, looking up at him.

Ranma's face took on a puzzled, and somewhat stung expression. " yeah I was." He said cautiously, as he leaned back, crossing his arms.

"What happened, Ranma? I mean, you're so different now that sometimes I'm so scared you're slipping away." She looked down at her hands in her lap, and brought them to her mouth, cupping them then blowing into them to warm them from the chilled autumn night air.

"Akane, I know I'm different. I I wish I could explain how much happier I am, how brightly I see the world nowadays. In such a short time, it's like the world's been turned upside down from some dark depressing nightmare into some dream world." Ranma picked up a stone by the bench, and launched it into the lake.

*15* He thought absently to himself, not really much caring about how many times it had skipped.

Akane blinked at the amount, however.. then shook her head as Ranma's words registered. "how do you mean, Ranma?"

"I dunno, Akane. I mean, so many little things I use'ta worry about are now things I don't even think about. The world seems like such a better place, since I-" Ranma trailed off looking down at the ground in a bit of embarrassment.

"Go ahead, since you've gotten to know Hiroshi." Akane said in a level, almost half angry tone.

"..Akane, please. I don't wanna talk about him right now, Okay?" Ranma said, looking up with a bit of fear and pain.

"Ranma, why is it you spend so much time worrying about Hiroshi when When I'm here worrying about you. I'm always standing right beside you, but you never even notice." Akane said, looking away from Ranma at the barren trees.

"Akane, I know, I'm sorry. It's jus' that Roshi's been there for me. I mean, I feel so responsible for everything that's happened to him, and I just want him to be happy. He did so much for US too, Akane!" Ranma gently took Akane's hand into his, his eyes looking at her intently.

Akane looked back, with tears. "I I know, Ranma. If it wasn't for Hiroshi, we would never. And we'd be apart now. I'm so sorry. I don't know WHY I just I feel."

"Jealous?"

"Yes It makes no sense, I know that you'd never I mean, with a man. But I keep having these feelings when you choose to spend your time with Hiroshi, instead of me." Akane suddenly hugged Ranma tightly.

" I guess it is somewhat my fault, Akane. I mean, I knew how you felt, heck, I knew how I felt. I was just afraid, and I still feel so unready for you. I spend so much time with Hiroshi because he's helped me out of so much, that I was hoping maybe he could somehow help me get through to you." Ranma's mind told him there was another reason, somewhere, but he ignored that part of his mind.

Right now he was with Akane, and nothing was going to ruin that.

"II guess I could've tried harder, Ranma. Back at the Wedding, after Herb, or the Cat's Tongue. I guess I should've tried to see it clearer when you spoke at the Skating Tournament, when you tried finding the cure for the shampoo that Shampoo used on me all the times you saved me. Kirin, Toma Saffron." She fell silent a long moment, looking down at the hands in her lap.

Those hands had always been easier tools of punishment than they had been instruments of healing, her righteous anger always much easier to wield than a gentle caress.

"Akane. We both didn't try hard enough. I. I'm sorry about what I said a while ag-" Akane held a finger across Ranma's lips, tears glimmering in her brown eyes.

"..No. Don't you ever apologize to me when you don't need to, Saotome Ranma don't tell me something to ease my heart that is just a candy coated lie." Akane sounded angry, and close to tears.

Ranma had rarely seen this combination in her mood. "..A..Akane? But I was wrong, it was partly-"

"No. No, you were right Ranma," Akane took her finger from his lips.. looking down slightly at her hand in his.. she squeezed it unsurely.

"No I was at fault. We all were. Ucchan, Shampoo, Ryouga, Mousse, and I. I. It's so hard to see that Ranma. It's so hard to look at yourself and see how badly you've wronged someone." A gentle tear rolled down her cheek, it was a silent tear in a moment of grieving.

Ranma gently brought his hand up and caressed her cheek, wiping the tear away with loving grace. "the truth.. is always hard to see, Akane I ignored it for a very long time, and I almost lost you because of it."

Ranma could feel the sweet pain inside his chest. That beautiful feeling that welled inside of him whenever he was near Akane. That feeling that, until recently, he didn't know how to react to. It was a deep aching inside of him, a throbbing in his heart something that made the entire world seem more real to him.

"I.. I don't know why I didn't see it, Ranma. I feel so ashamed for treating you like I did, never listening to your side, never waiting for you to open up. Never trying to to understand you." Akane sighs, another tear rolling down her cheek.

Ranma's hand, so gently, cupped Akane's chin lifting it as he looked into her brown eyes, the wind stirring his hair as he looked down into her eyes. "Reaching out is hard for me too, Akane. I'm just as guilty."

Akane smiled a bit at that. "I never had a reason to open up to you, Ranma. I never had your curse, or your life I never had your pain." She said quietly.

Ranma nodded, his lips gently brushing Akane's. "Well, I've given you the chance, Akane. I have to say, you're doing well so far." His heart throbbed in his chest as Akane looked up, a gentle smile ghosting across her face for a brief instant.

Akane leaned forward languidly, bringing her lips to Ranma's and pressing gently in a kiss. Ranma responded with the same gentle, quiet passion that Akane displayed.

For a brief moment, all was right with the world, all was perfect and all was frozen in that moment of solitude. Just for one instance, Ranma's entire world made sense, his entire life was clarified.

Akane could hear nor see anything else, only Ranma. There was nothing else for her... no lake, no trees, no sky nor moon. Her entire world included a single kiss and her arms around someone she KNEW she loved... without a doubt.

Yet... all things so perfect rarely last, the sky boomed it's jealousy of the bliss and exploded downward in a full blow tempest.

Ranma shrank, his body taking on curves and angles to rival Akane's. In that moment... the kiss stopped.

There was an almost sad look in Ranma's eyes as she caressed Akane's cheek, the emotion playing there was so intense that no words could ever be put to test in order to explain it. For one brief moment in the infinite, Ranma's life was whole... for one single second in a lifetime of troubled thoughts, she was complete.. no longer a shattered, lost soul.

"...akane..." She whispered softly, her soft, feminine soprano cutting through the night like some vile blade of reality. Snapping the blissfull moment in twain with harsh uncaring.

Akane's face was a mix of pain, fear, anger, and sorrow. "..R..Ranma..." she murmured softly.. holding tighter to the redhead in her arms... the woman who had somehow ripped the man from her arms.

*NO!!! It.. will NOT be this way!* Through the fierce rain, a tear trickled down her cheek, mixing with those shed by kami which descended upon the two lovers from on high. *I won't let it end... it's the beginning, and I won't waste it!!!*

Ranma began to turn away... that painful darkness descending on her soul... that bleeding feeling inside her chest, where the sludge of depression slowly grew. *This curse... this curse and all it's pain, will the hurting never stop???*

Ranma flinched somewhat as Akane's hand touched her chin.... and for a moment, she struggled... not knowing why, noticing a face flash through her mind that she could barely make out before it was gone.....

"Ranma.... I Love you. I Think I have loved you since the moment we met.... yes, even as a girl. There was something about you, some spark... something that made the rest of the world unreal." Akane's soft brown gaze seemed sad, but vigilant in their emotion.

"I can't lose you, not now, not ever. I could never give up on you, no matter how much we fight, or how much I hurt you... I realize that now. I understand, finally, what love truly is. It is you, Ranma. You are what makes my world worth living...." Akane could barely hold back the tears.

They both realized they were being drenched... that they could possibly catch a cold. Yet, for once, neither cared. It was as if all the events of the past were but a mere dream compared to the reality of this profound truth.

Ranma gazed a moment longer into Akane's eyes... then smiled. It was a gentle smile, an understanding smile. "Akane.... I am so sorry about tonight, about.. about everything I've done. Is this real?? Are.... Are we going to try this time, to.. to make this work?"

Akane nodded softly.... wrapping her hand around Ranma's. "....You bet. We'll get through all of this... no matter what."

Ranma smiled inside and outside... it was a rare moment, one history would do well to note. It was a rare happening with Tendo Akane, with a one Miramoto Hiroshi it had happened often as of late... but hardly often with the fierce Tendo Akane.

Somewhere, in Nerima, two lovers sat. Talking.

Some might not find this odd.....

Yet to the people who knew them best, it was a miracle....

In another place... nearby, a boy lost in a dream sat weeping... for what might have been, for what may yet still be.

Weeping his tears for a stone statue which sat unyielding, with a smile of love on it's face.

Icy Raindrops fell.... and as the two lovers began their long and winding road home a front of icy clouds moved in from the south....

Winter's bite was soon to be delivered.

* * * * * *

"Did I come at a bad time, Niichan??" Memeko stood in the doorway of her brother's room. Her brother was holding his head in his hands as he sat on his bed.... a freshly pressed and cleaned tuxedo beside him.

Hiroshi didn't acknowledge his sister's presence, his mind's eye clouded with a single picture of Ranma, her eyes locked on his as the sun rose early one morning. The wind seemed to play through her hair, her delicately framed face shining in the brillance of that rare, brief moment.

"Hiroshi??" Memeko's voice was uncertain, it wavered slightly as she took a step further in.

"Don't." He said with a powerful voice. It tore through Memeko like a shockwave. She hesitated for a moment.. a look of confused compassion on her soft face.

"Hiroshi, I- you need to talk to someone," Memeko wanted to reach out, wanted to wrap her arms around her brother. To comfort him, to take away his pain and sorrow.

She had had so much in her life, so much anguish and loss since her husband died... so much pain from friends and family about her choice of paths. It was destroying her delicate soul seeing her brother in such a dark pit of agony.

"No, Memeko. I'm a dead man walking. To think that I Love her, and- and this happens. Why?? Why does it have to be me," There was anger in his voice, harsh, brutal anger. It was indirect, because Hiroshi did not know what or whom to aim it at. Fate was his disdainful enemy, but one cannot harm what cannot be touched.

Memeko DID take a step back at that. *What.. has happened to him??* The Hiroshi she knew could never cry, he was always so happy and carefree, always so caring about people and their problems. The pain never touched him, LIFE couldn't touch him. He was what many people wished to be.

What had happened to that man? Where had this frightened, angry boy come from?? She could only guess.

Hiroshi looked up at her, the headband of his grandfather's Genjii outfit tight around his forehead. His gentle eyes were red and swollen from hours of crying, yet there was a fire in them that burned with a silent intensity.

"It's her damn Curse, Memeko.... it's... it's that damn fate that followers her everywhere she goes. I tried to help her become happy, so for that faith in her I am to be punished. Everyone who loves Ranma *MUST* feel pain." Hiroshi clenched his jaw, his fists tightened as he slammed his eyes shut, holding back another fierce torrent of tears.

Memeko began to step forward, the brutal torment lashing at her soul too much for her to stay away.

"STOP!" He cried out with fury, hearing her feet move towards him. His body suddenly slumped from anger directly to the sadness of dejection. "...How can I do this to her, Memeko, how can I do this to myself?? What is there for me with her???" There was a certain melancholy in his voice that leveled upon nothing Memeko had ever heard from her brother. This was some stranger with her brother's voice, some person she didn't recognize who had taken on his shape... his soul.

She attempted to comfort the lost soul before her, not with gesture, but with words... "Hiroshi, I-"

"NOTHING!! That's the answer, I have nothing!! My hope is baseless, my dreams a mockery! Ranma made her choice long ago, when I wasn't even a twinkle in her eye!! What weapon do I have to combat such feelings??" Hiroshi opened his hands, looking down at them... demanding some answer from them that they could not give.

Empty palms stared back at him, devoid of the soft curves and kind face of his beloved. Empty of anything important, and filled only with emptiness, much like his soul. He wondered if the chill was from the dropping temperatures, or from the cold void that was his soul.

"Hiroshi, please, listen-" Her soft words once more were leveled with his stern tone.

His eyes burned with a forlorn passion, yet stared at empty space as if looking to some far off place.

"No. No, I can't keep doing this. I can't stop either. No way forward, and the path behind has been destroyed.... things can NEVER go back to the way they were. Ranma... Ranma, you've done it again...." he laughed a bit. There was a disturbing quality to his laughter.

It was completely devoid of all humor.... absent of emotion and humanity. It was as if his soul was dead, or dying. It was, as Hiroshi had described, a laugh without hope. A laugh ignorant of sunlight and the calm sea breeze, as if never having known such small wonders.

"Hiroshi!" Her voice rose with a faint bit of anger in it, piercing through the darkness into the empty confines of loneliness her brother had sheltered himself within.

Her brother looked up, as if seeing her for the very first time. "...m..memeko... what am I supposed to do??" His voice was no longer one of terror and anger at some impenetrable foe, but one of calm recollection of an unsolvable problem. Overwhelmingly weary, could best describe it.

Memeko felt the tension drain from her brother, and she stepped up beside him, taking a seat on the bed with him and putting a tender hand on his shoulder. "Hiroshi, do you love her?"

Hiroshi shook his head in futility, feeling the anguished pain in his soul. "That's not the-"

"*DO* *YOU* Love her?" Memeko's voice was firm now, but there was a large amount of love in her tone beneath the unwavering question. Her words had the desired effect as her brother's eyes seemed to gaze far within his own soul.

Those words struck coldly through his heart, those four words were something he had never doubted, not since the first moment of that harsh unwavering epiphany. The choice of that question was deliberate, he knew, because he could never lie about the answer. Not from this, for he had not the ability to lie to himself or the world about such a thing.

It was as if all his life he had been blind, lost to the world's grief's and how truly such things could hurt him, lost to what True Love feels like. Then, without warning or just reproach, it was slammed into his being with full force in a single, violent awakening of emotions so powerful that to explain them would be to diminish them.

"...Yes..." He found himself saying, for he could say nothing else. Ranma hurt him, she confided in him and hurt him more... She time and time again missed those brief and rare moments where he almost came close to saying it. She was oblivious as to how much Hiroshi's world had changed since she took that first step towards something closer than friendship.... and all of it had hurt him.

Then why couldn't he stay away from her?? Was there any other rational explanation??

*Love isn't rational..* Hiroshi told himself. *Oh Kami, how I wish it were..... how I wish that all things were so simple, for if they were, perhaps the world might hurt a little less.*

Memeko took Hiroshi's hand into both of hers, enclosing it within them, she looked gently at her young brother. "Then you have to have faith in that, Hiroshi. You have to put yourself above the hurt and the pain, and see for yourself that there is hope on the horizon."

Hiroshi looked up with his red rimmed eyes. "..Memeko, how can I have faith when there is no way??? Ranma doesn't even know.. if she did, then.. then she would be terrified. I'd never see or hear from her Again." His body shuddered at the thought of losing Ranma, a cold icy ball forming in the pit of his stomach at the very concept.

The older Miramoto sibling squeezed her brother's hand gently. "Hiroshi, you are like nobody I have ever met. I watched you grow into a young man of happiness and hope... you always were so joyous and dedicated that I could never be unhappy.

I cried when Connor died.... and you came into my room. There were no words, do you remember that???" Memeko's eyes shimmered with tears of remembrance... her mind tracing back to that dark moment of grief. She had heard over the phone that he had died suddenly from an embolism, only hours after she had last seen him.

Hiroshi looked up at his sister, mirroring her sad complexion as he nodded. "...hai.... hai, I remember Memeko-oneechan... I was Twelve...." He added a gentle smile as best he could.

Memeko wiped a tear away. "You came into my room when I was crying my heart out, when I was holding the box of letters he had written to me. You came to me, hearing that odd sound you never could relate to... you touched my shoulder...."

Her hand drifted up to touch her own shoulder.... a tear running down her cheek and hanging from her chin. She shuddered an intake of breath, swallowing the rough lump that had appeared in her throat.

"You tapped me on the shoulder, and I looked up at you with tears in my eyes... you never needed any words, Hiroshi. You were that rare magic for all of us....." She smiles through her tears as Hiroshi himself held another bitter flood of his own back as best he could.

Memeko's lip quivered for a moment and she sobbed... "..you touched a hand to my chin gently, and I could see so well the love in your eyes, could see so much of what the world was to you. Hiroshi, your eyes gave me life again. I saw Connor in them... I saw Grandfather, I saw so many people I had lost in your eyes, the best of them all..."

Hiroshi could hold back no longer.. his arms wrapped around his sister tightly as he let out a wracking sob..... the memory was one he had always recalled, when his sister had needed him the most he had been there for her, when she had needed someone with hope and love.

She buried her head into his shoulder, his hand resting on the back of it as she felt his hot tears on her own shoulder. "You smiled at me... and it was like everything else just vanished, only me and my little brother. My Little brother telling me without words that everything was going to be fine.... that he was here, and he wouldn't let anything else happen to me...." Memeko sobbed again.

The tears she had not wept for so long were now for her brother.... trying to cleanse him of the doubt and fear.

"Memeko.. Memeko-oneechan.. kami... *Sniff*" His entire body was shaking, the force of his emotion suddenly enough to banish the darker thoughts of his mind.

Memeko kept crying, the barrier of years long past, formed of the joyous magic of a brother's love finally opening it's floodgates and letting the grief out in a healing wave. "Please, Hiroshi.. please, Kami, don't lose that hope, don't lose that magic in your heart. You make the world a better place for being, you deserve happiness.

Ranma smiles so much around you, because of that simple magic you have. That magic of life and joy. When she looks at you, I see myself... in such haunting familiarity, as I gazed upon my Connor. As I looked upon him that first time, and my whole world seemed perfect. There's hope in her eyes, Hiroshi... some part of her can never let you go...."

Memeko tightened her grip against her brother.... rubbing her eyes against his shoulder. "Hiroshi, don't give up on her. Don't you EVER give up on something that makes you feel so complete.... Because, Hiroshi, if you give up.... Then you'll lose that magic. That light in your eyes will fade and you'll become like the rest of the world.

Oh, Hiroshi, there are so few of you in this world. People who see the beauty in things and not the hideousness that we all seem to see.... Kaehmi has that magic, too... she learned it from you, Hiroshi. She learned it from a man who took it upon himself to stop the pain of someone close.

She learned that smile, that magic glow in her eyes from a man who risked his own life time and again for a friend, with no demands of recompense. Someone who's soul takes pleasure in the simple things in life....." Memeko had stopped crying... and was now cradling Hiroshi in her arms.... his own tears flowing freely.

Hiroshi calmed after so long, the memories of a life of kind understanding suddenly crashing upon him.

"Hiroshi.... please, see the hope in this..." Her voice was calm again.. with the stern undertone, thick with love. "Please understand that if Ranma didn't love you, I would know it.... if she didn't love you, then I would never have seen that look of clear calm as she gazed at you, the sun rising behind you both." Her arms were wrapped around Hiroshi as he shook with his grief, protecting him as if he were a small child.

Yet it was a different embrace than that, for Memeko was protecting him from the cruelness that the world had forced upon him, trying to create a bastion of hope in an otherwise dismal situation.

*Hiroshi can do it.... I don't know anybody else that can, but I know in my heart that he can make this work.* Memeko told herself, for she must have faith in her own words as well. Faith in Kami that somehow they were watching... that in some way, her brother had been granted a gift instead of a punishment.

"Hope.... Memeko, I try so hard to keep hold of hope, but it just seems to get farther and farther away. Just like this dance, Ranma doesn't even know what... what she's doing to me by asking." Hiroshi shivered, and looked up at his sister's eyes for a fleeting instant.

Her eyes, now a bit red rimmed themselves, looked back with an unwavering love and compassion in her eyes. "....You are going to take her to the dance, Hiroshi, and you will enjoy that time you spend."

She brushed a hand through her little brother's hair.. sighing and looking at him as a mother might. *So grown up, so hurt and unsure, Kami give him patience and a light to guide the way.*

"How..how can I go, Memeko-oneechan???? It only makes the hurting worse." Hiroshi could almost imagine dancing with Ranma gently wrapped in his arms. Not that the martial arts tournament of dancing would HAVE a lot of slow dances.

Memeko shook her head... reaching up and brushing a strand of her own hair out of her face. "How can you not go?? Hiroshi, no matter how Ranma feels about you, never waste that time you have, because you might not get it again." Her face returned to a serious, almost contemplative mood. "I would never give up one second of the time I was with Connor, even though I was sometimes hurt by it."

Hiroshi clung to his sister as a drowning man might attach his hope to a piece of driftwood in hopes that it might lead him to safety, "...I am afraid, Oneechan," He said, his emotions slowly subsiding as Memeko rocked him in her arms.

She smiled gently, stroking his head she kissed him on his brow, "We've all been afraid, Niichan, but fear shouldn't make you hesitate in what you must do.. it should only drive you harder towards what you know has to be done. The bravest people in the world have very often been afraid in the stories of fame they are recorded in."

Hiroshi sighed, gathering himself carefully as he looked back up at his sister's eyes. "I'll go.. I'll go because I love her, I will go because I wouldn't be the man I am so proud of being if I didn't, I will go because you deserve to be proud of your little brother, But most of all I will go because.. Because..."

Memeko put a finger to his lips. "Because you have to know if she loves you, once and for all," Hiroshi stared back at his sister.

She kissed him on the cheek, and pressed something into his hands, dry, cracked paper... parchment...

She smiled softly at him, her eyes dancing. "And Hiroshi.. you are my brother, I will always be proud of you, no matter what happens," She carefully stood, gazing down at hiroshi, the yellowed parchment held gently in his hands.

She walked out of the room, only glancing over her shoulder as Hiroshi broke the seal on her grandfather's scroll....

* * * * * *

"YYYYYOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOWWWCH!!!!!" Ranma yelled as her Mother primped and pulled her hair, it reminded her of some very sick and painful chinese form of torture, and Ranma half wondered if her Mother had LEARNED it in China.

"Be still, and be QUIET, Ranma!!! I will not have my child seen at the Prom in some half prepared mode of dress!" The elder Saotome woman said in a stern and chiding tone.

She clamped a lock of Ranma's hair into the hot iron, curling it then holding it for a moment before pulling the hair out of the iron, leaving Ranma's hair slightly curled underneath, with a bit of a wavy aspect... Nodoka clouded Ranma's senses with a thick mist of hair spray.

"Ahh..AHHHCHOO!" Ranma rubbed her nose. "Geeze, Mom, it's only a stupid Dance!!! Well.. except for the martial arts part," The comment earned her a firm smack upside the head witha brush.

"OW! Hey, whadja do that for??" Ranma asked with a scowl on her pretty face, earning her another firm wrap upside the head. "OW!"

"Several things... for one, this is not just a DANCE, this is the PROM, when all the young ladies and men have to look their FINEST no matter what, showing up in a chinese shirt and slacks is NOT something you wear at the Prom," Nodoka's tone was a firm and a parental lecturing one, as if speaking to a small child who didn't know any better.

Ranma frowned.... "Aww geeze... do I gotta wear THAT dress???" Ranma got smacked again. "OOOOW!!!"

"You helped pick it out.. are you saying you don't like it, after it's always been payed for???" Nodoka asked, cinching more hair in a painful tug.

"EEK!! NNn.... no.. I like it just fine, I just.. well, I dunno if I wanna wear a dress," Ranma said fidgeting, a pouty look on her face.

Nodoka tugged on her hair again, putting it into the curler and working it down through her hair, "You will not pout, you will not frown, you will not ruin your pretty face tonight. You are to be on your BEST behavior, and act like a YOUNG LADY..." Nodoka yanked hard on some of Ranma's hair, her patience slightly thin at this point in the day.

Ranma had asked for it.. and asked for it very sincerely. So Nodoka was VERY obliged to get her ready for "The Night of Night's" As some High Schoolers referred to it as.

"OW!!! Cut it out, Sheesh!" Another smack of the brush delivered upside Ranma's head.

"OOOOOWWW!!!" Ranma replied in a somewhat predictable manner by now.

Nodoka finished with her hair, Spraying it with a generous amount of hairspray, causing Ranma to cough and hack. "And three, you will use proper female japanese pronouns in public tonight, I will not have parents around here accusing me of raising you improperly, with no respect for ettiquete," Nodoka was finally finished with Ranma's hair.

"Aww... geeze... do I gotta?" Thump, "OW!! Cut that out! i don't want to have a knobby head for the rest of the night!!"

Nodoka smiled a bit. "You will speak in a normal manner, young lady.. now put your makeup on just like I showed you those THREE times this morning... I have to go get your dress," Nodoka bustled off to busy herself with preperations for the rest of the night, including helping Kasumi with dinner.

Ranma sighed, looking back at the mirror at the girl with now slightly wavy and curled hair. Her face was plain, but very beautiful in it's simplicity... bright blue eyes flashed with a slight bit of trepidation and excitement as she thought of what tonight would be like.

*Why do girls have to put this stuff on anyways??? It's just more of a hassle than it's worth,* Ranma stared down at the small black box that she had become so familiar with only recently.

Only the past several weeks had prepared her for the full female role of getting dressed and prepared, a crash course given by her mother to catch up for lost time. A crash course that almost drove her batty, till Nodoka had been forced to back off from the anger Ranma had begun exhibiting towards her.

Ranma opened the small black box, a gift from her mother.... inside there were various shades of rouge, blush, base, eyeliner, eyeshadow, and lipstick. *Lipstick.. yikth...*

She looked back up at the rather plain face in the mirror, and she tilted her head slightly to the side, looking carefully at the face staring back at her.

Full, pouting lips, a delicate and round face... with slightly sharp features that seemed to add a statuesque beauty. There was potential in the image, after several long moments Ranma noticed this hidden beauty beneath, what is more, she began to work, as if unconciously, picking up the base and gently applying an appropriate amount.

*Life is art,* She heard a familiar, gentle voice murmur in her mind, *The Art is Life* She heard her Father intone from what seemed ages ago. The two phrases clicked together, forming a unified idea as she began to gently use the tools given to her to bring the beauty out of the plain canvas of her face.

Ranma wasn't plain... there was potential, and she was pretty even without the crutch of facial paints. Yet perhaps it was an internal driving that seemed to urge her to try and bring the best out in her face, to try and ease that feminine look into her features even more.

Ranma paused as she was applying Mascara, staring at herself as she came out of her distant, thoughtful mode.

*Why is this not buggin' me?* She wondered, staring at herself. Yes.. yes, she was pretty, but she could always be prettier. There were girls she had met, she had seen that were far prettier. Such as her previous fiancee's.

They all had a sort of inner beauty, a self confidence that only came with growing up a woman... Ranma sighed, and finished with the mascara, setting it back in the makeup box as she applied lipstick, a shade darker and redder than her actual lips.

*I can't BELIEVE I am doing this.* Ranma looked at herself carefully, then shook her said, *No, I can believe I am doing this, but I can't believe that I am doing this WELL.*

She finished carefully outlining her eyebrows and lips. She smiled softly, the girl in the mirror still looked like the redhead of just minutes before... but somehow there was a more mature, more feminine look about her.

The door slid slowly opened, and Nodoka walked in with a beautiful deep green dress on a hanger, a formal dress with spaghetti straps and silk embroidery. In Ranma's opinion, it had been WAY too expensive to buy.. but her Mother had insisted.

Nodoka stopped, looking at Ranma, blinking for half a moment. "That's very good, Ranma.. much better than the last few times you did this, I could hardly tell if I didn't know what to look for," She smiled gently at her daughter, hanging the dress in the closet.

Ranma blushed, looking down at her hands, then back up at the mirror. "Thanks Mom, do I really got ta wear a dress?"

Nodoka sighed, and fixed Ranma with a stern, matronly glare, "Ranma, of all the nights to have this argument, do NOT choose tonight. It was your choice to go as a... female, and if you are going to go as female, then you will be going as the best looking girl in the whole dance!"

Ranma shook her head, her hair bouncing slightly around her face, "It's just.. well.. I feel so NERVOUS for some stupid reason!!" Ranma saw the redhead in the mirror scowl, which certainly didn't make her look very pretty.

Nodoka pinched Ranma hard in one of her shoulders, causing Ranma to cry out again. "Cut that out!!!" Ranma said.

"No scowling, remember??" Nodoka took Ranma's face into her hands quite suddenly and seemed to carefully study her daughter's features.

Ranma blinked, staring back at her Mother with her own bright blue eyes. She stared at her own mother's face, the slightly dull red copper tint in her hair, the same red that colored her own hair in her female form.

There were almost no real signs of aging on Nodoka's face, youthful yet mature, lines didn't hamper her face as many women her age. Graceful age...

Ranma half wondered, if she had been born female, if she would have aged as gracefully as her Mother had.

Nodoka smiled a moment later, her own eyes dancing with pride, "You did a splendid job, Ranma... I am very proud of you," Nodoka smiled, letting go of Ranma's face, and gently brushing a lock of hair from her daughter's face.

Ranma blushed slightly, "Urr.. Thanks again, I still feel nervous though, almost.. urr.. sorta giddy," Ranma idly picked at her slacks, looking down at her lap.

Nodoka set a pair of panties and a bra on top of the counter in front of Ranma, issuing a bugeyed stare from the redhead.

The previous weeks Ranma had accepted that she had to wear a sports bra, and on occassion a pair of panties. With what had happened with Happosai the other day, she had pointedly avoided panties.. but in front of her were a pair of panties, with an actual wire framed bra.

"Urr.. Mother.... what is this?" Ranma asked, holding up the bra in front of her Mother, it was white and formed mostly of silk with lace trimming.

Nodoka looked at the bra for half a moment, then back at Ranma, "It's a bra that you are going to wear, or would you rather be flopping out everywhere while you dance?"

Ranma growled, crumpling the bra in her hands, "Ma, I will wear a sports bra, but THIS is going a little too far, don't you think???" Ranma's words were received with a cool, calm expression from her mother.

"Ranma, there are many situations that allow for a sports bra, and they have become one of the more popular trends recently... but there are still some things that require an actual bra that provides more stability than a sports bra provides," Nodoka reached around her neck and unlatched a chain, pulling a small necklace from around her delicate neck.

Ranma blinked, looking carefully at the necklace. It was teardrop shaped, with a pale blue quartz hanging from a silver chain. The light seemed to dance inside of it, almost making it seem as if it was covered in liquid sunshine.

"This was given to me by my Mother, if I had had another child... a daughter, this would be hers," Nodoka held it in her hand, looking down at the beautiful crystal as the light played off of it, "But.. since I never had a daughter born from my own body, I'm giving this to you.. the closest thing to a daughter I might ever have."

Ranma furrowed her brow, looking up at her Mother, "I can't take this, Ma... I wouldn't feel right, I mean, it's probably more important to you than it is to me."

Nodoka shook her head, and gently took Ranma's hand, pressing the piece of jewelry into her hand and closing her fingers over it, "Ranma, you are my child... and I love you. I want you to have fun at this Prom, even if you and Akane are supposed to compete against eachother, it doesn't mean that the rest of the night has to be ruined."

Ranma looked down at her hand enclosed around the necklace, "Mom... please, I-"

"No, Ranma... take it," Nodoka gently lifted a finger and traced Ranma's cheek carefully with the back of it, "You look so much like I did, at your age Ranma... Always be proud of who you are, my child... always be proud of who you are," She smiled and kissed Ranma on the forehead gently.

Ranma felt a warmth spread through her from where Nodoka's lips had touched her... for once since her Mother had found out, she truly felt loved. There had been moments that were SO close to what Ranma had imagined a Mother and Child being like... but never one that completely felt correct in Ranma's own opinionated imaginings.

A smile edged its way slowly into Ranma's serious complexion, "Okay.. okay.. could you.. help me put it on??" Ranma asked tentatively, holding her hand open.

Nodoka smiled, lifting the silver necklace from Ranma's hand as the redhead turned the chair, looking in the mirror as Nodoka placed it around her neck carefully, pulling her hair out from beneath it after fastening it around Ranma's neck.

The tear shaped gem nestled itself between Ranma's breasts, feeling cool against her skin. Her tanktop neckline low enough to show the glimmering gem off. It set off Ranma's eyes, seeming to make them an even brighter blue, causing a striking contrast.

Nodoka smiled.. "It looks nice on you... but I think your clothes need to be a little more appropriate," Nodoka smirked, holding up the panties and bra.

A groan was her response, "You're not going to let it drop until you get me in those, are you???"

Nodoka let a slight smirk decorate her face, "Why not humor an old woman and just get dressed like all the other young ladies will be tonight??"

Ranma rolled her eyes, smiling and shaking her head, "Geeze, I guess I have no choice," She took the Bra and Panties, looking at them for a brief moment.

Nodoka smiled patiently... "I'll be back in a moment, you need something to go with the necklace, and I think I know just the thing..." She once more hurried out the door, leaving Ranma to stare at the feminine undergarments that seemed to taunt her with their simple necessity.

*Stupid bra.... and silk panties?!* Ranma rubbed the material with her hands. *Mom's lost it... then again, Did she ever have it??* Ranma giggled quietly to herself.

"Oh well.. I.. Guess it ain't gonna kill me..." Ranma stood up, quietly shedding her masculine clothes, she put her feet into the panties, sliding the fabric slowly up her smooth, finely toned legs, pulling them up around until they fit snugly, hugging her wide flaring hips.

Ranma then stared at the bra for several moments, and took several more trying to figure out how to fasten it.. then decided the best way was to put her arms through, fasten it in the back, and adjust the front.

Afterwards she turned back towards the mirror, looking at the woman that stared back at her. Granted, still in her underwear, but that made the image seem even more feminine.

Ranma frowned somewhat sadly, *..where did the male Ranma go all of a sudden? It's like the real me has just completely vanished...* She suddenly found herself nervous again as she turned, lifting the green dress.

It was a few shades darker than emerald, with the lace embroidery just a touch lighter than the rest of the dress.

*It looks so.. ugh.. so girlish* Ranma held it up over her body, looking in the mirror... with the necklace dangling around her neck, it set off her eyes, and the green seemed to intensify the red color in her hair. *Gotta admit though... I'd look pretty good in it...*

The door slid open again, and Nodoka returned with a small laquered box in her hands. Ranma turned, still holding the dress against her body, and bestowed her attention on her Mother.

Nodoka stopped, looking at how the dress was pressed up against Ranma... for a moment she faltered, her cool facade cracked for a brief instant as the feeling of fear drowned out her joy.

She could remember, very easily, a little boy of 6, and wondered if somehow she was killing that little boy. She shook her head, forcing the pain and fear back down. It would not do to upset Ranma, not at this point in things.

She held out the box, as if in offering to her little girl, "...a matching pair of earrings, I bought them soon after Mother died from a pawner she had sold them to," Nodoka faltered, looking at the box in her hands for a long moment.

Ranma noticed, worry creasing her brow as she reached out to her Mother, a question on her lips.

Nodoka clenched her eyes shut, then opened them. She painted a smile on her face, albeit a bitter sweet one.

"Why did she pawn them???" Ranma looked at the shiny surface of the box, it reflected a young girl of 17 with luxurious red hair brushing the tops of her breasts, and the tips of her shoulderblades.

Nodoka opened the box, looking at the two teardrop-shaped earrings, "When your Grandmother fell ill, about 6 months into my pregnancy with you, the hospital care started eating into the family funds," Nodoka took out the two earrings carefully, her hands trembling slightly as she spoke.

"Mother ended up insisting that her own belongings be sold to help pay for the costs of her medical bills," Nodoka stared at the colors that seemed to dance inside of the two gems, shifting and swirling in a furvent rainbow.

Ranma looked with concern at her Mother, who just stared at the earrings for a long while, "Mom.. you really shouldn't do this to yourself, I don't need all this stuff for the Prom, what if I lose something??"

Nodoka blinked, looking up at Ranma, her eyes slightly misty as her hands held the two gem earrings as if they might break by just resting atop her palm, "Ranma, I want people to see you and the beauty that you seem to miss so often when you look in the mirror. I know you never asked for this curse, and I know you have.. trouble looking at yourself as a female,"

Nodoka paused, holding out her hand with the earrings in them in an offering gesture towards Ranma.

"I want you to learn, tonight, that there is pride in being beautiful.. not just strong. I want you to learn tonight that there is something very special about how a woman feels when she is complimented, I want you to learn to feel good about yourself and how you look, Then... Then I think that we might stop the training," Nodoka said in a wavering tone.

Ranma's eyes grew wide, "You really mean that Ma?? After tonight I can stop all this stuff??" Ranma hoped she didn't sound too giddy, she also hoped her Mother did not catch the small bit of regret in her voice. She would have preferred to ignore it herself.

Nodoka looked around at the room, the Vanity that she had bought just a couple weeks ago... the dresses that hung in the closet, various odds and ends that had accumulated since the training had began. *I should never have started this, it was a mistake in judgment, and a selfish mistake at that* The elder Saotome told herself sadly.

"Yes, Ranma. After tonight, you don't have to do any more training," She said in a slightly weary tone of voice, "Unless you want to," Nodoka amended, then blinked at her last few words.

Ranma smiled and nodded. Perhaps her Mother was a woman she could truly look up to and love.

"C'mon, Ma... let's get me ready for the night of my life," She said grinning.

The love in Nodoka's smile could have warmed the coldest of days.

* * * * * *

Akane fidgeted with her dress, looking nervously on as Kasumi helped prep her hair for a hard night of dancing.

Akane's Ensemble was a sleeveless dress that had a modest neckline, matching choker with an embellished blue glass stone on it. It hugged her form like a standard dress gown, and had slitted sides starting at mid-thigh for better maneuverability.

In the color of a dark blue, to contrast with her raven hair, the dress had matching pair of velvet gloves that covered her forearms.

Kasumi continued styling her hair as she fidgeted nervously with the dress.

Somehow, Kasumi had a way with feminine things. Whatever the eldest Tendou girl touched seemed to be gifted with a look of newly revealed beauty, yet understated so as not to take away from the rest of the Prom ensemble.

"Akane, Dear, sit still. There's no need to be nervous!" Kasumi said in that cheerful way that seemed to calm everyone down.

"I can't help it, Oneechan. I *AM* Nervous, This is the Prom.. THE Prom, maybe I made a mistake in challenging Ranma. Shouldn't I be going with him to the Prom, I mean?" Akane said quickly, adjusting the Velvet blue gloves on her arms.

Kasumi sighed that gentle, motherly sigh and smiled at Akane. "You are only now thinking about this?? Think of how poor Ryouga-san would feel if you just decided to cancel now, he's so nervous that he hasn't been able to get lost the whole day," Kasumi stifled a slight giggle.

Akane sighed, slumping her shoulders, "I- guess you are right. Ryouga deserves to be treated with decency and respect," Akane looked back up at the face in the mirror, definitely not uncute, far from it. A woman stared back at her, a woman with strenght, with pride, with passion.

"And I did make that challenge... as a Martial Artist, I suppose that I have to hold to my challenges," Akane said in a slightly annoyed tone of voice. *Why do I feel as if I've been tricked by Ranma into doing this?? Baka.*

She scowled at the mirror, wondering what Ranma might be doing at that moment, probably bragging about how she was going to beat Akane.

Regardless, Akane felt love as she envisioned Ranma's face. No matter how upset she always got with Ranma nowadays, she could never shake that feeling.

Akane felt her scowl slip from her face as she imagined how Ranma had kissed her just the night before.. how he had held her in his arms and told her how he felt. How he had listened, and how she had listened in turn.

"I really do love Ranma... Somehow, I finally realize that," She said under her breath, her mind elsewhere to her mouth as it fired off those words that hadn't been heard in anyone else's presence but Ranma's.

And, for her mark, Kasumi blinked and proceeded to tangle Akane's hair, "P-Pardon?" Kasumi said, her shock nowhere near being hidden. For once, the impossible had happened.

Kasumi was stunned speechless! About 5 minutes passed with Kasumi simply staring at her Sister in the mirror, as if she had grown fangs and a third eye.

She had HEARD Akane say those words! Those words!!!

Akane seemed to awaken from her stupor, and then turned a bit pale, "I- I- I mean, what I- I meant to say-" Akane stared at her Sister in her own moment of shock.

*Go ahead, Akane.. open mouth, insert foot, chew vigorously, no complaints THERE!!! You call Ranma a Baka... Baka Kawaiikune!!* Her internal voice taunted. She then proceded to smash it's head in with a sledgehammer, bind it, tie it, and throw it back into the corner it had escape from.

Blush colored Kasumi's cheeks as she smiled a gentle, knowing smile, "You shouldn't be telling me, Akane.. you should be telling him," She said as a matter of factly, as she expertly repaired the damage she had made to Akane's hair-do.

"I... I do tell him, we've told eachother many times in private, but.. neither of us have been able to say it in public in front of anyone," She turned her gaze from the girl in the mirror, looking down at her lap.

Kasumi pursed her lips in a thoughtful expression, still busy at work with Akane's hair. Almost finished, she was concluding her work with touchups. "Why haven't you said anything to Father or Mr. Saotome? Or even Auntie Saotome?"

Akane groaned, exhaling a vexed breath, "Kasumi, we want to love eachother in our own time, if we told Father, or Mr. Saotome, or even Auntie, they would insist we marry right away without wasting any time," Akane brushed a strand of hair behind her ear, still staring down at her lap.

Kasumi set the comb down, looking at how serious Akane had become. She frowned a slight frown, an expression of concern, "Akane, I know that you and Ranma have despised the arranged marriage from the beginning. I agree in some parts with why you both fight it so much, but in others," Kasumi paused for a moment, thinking of the right words.

"I just worry that you might be pushing Ranma away with all this hesitation, that you and he might ruin what you have together by waiting so long before announcing to all of us that you will get married," Kasumi smoothed her skirt and apron, looking back up at the mirror with a pleasant smile.

"I... I know, Kasumi, I know. Sometimes I am afraid of the same things... I think that if we keep up how we are going, in a month or so we might just be ready," Akane looked at her sister in the mirror, "Might, Oneechan, just.. please don't press us, ok?"

Kasumi seemed to consider for a long moment, her brow creased in stern concentration, her mind calculating if she should or should not listen to Akane's plea. After a long moment of concentration, she fixed her gaze on Akane once more, her hands locked together in front of her, "I will do my best, Akane, to help you and Ranma be together the way YOU want to be. I want my little sister to be happy in her marriage, not just honorable."

Akane smiled, rising from her seat and walking around, she wrapped her arms around Kasumi and hugged her tightly. "Domo, Oneechan, for everything," Her thanks meant more than just for Ranma, and just for tonight... it extended far beyond, into the past, where a young girl took up the mantle of motherhood to help raise her two baby sister's.

Kasumi smiled, her joy reflected in her eyes, "There's no need to thank me, Akane. I never needed it before, and I don't need it now. All the things I've done I have done because I love and cherish you, the same for Nabiki, although she can be difficult at times," Kasumis smiled and kissed Akane's cheek softly.

"Thank you, all the same Kasumi, for always being there for us when we needed you," Akane said, clasping her hands in Kasumi's for a moment.

Akane was proud of her sister, Kasumi had given up so much to help keep the family together after her high school graduation, some things which would have made her much happier in the long run than she could ever be stuck at home with her family.

That sacrifice meant a lot to Akane... a sacrifice which she herself couldn't make, she didn't think she was strong enough.

Kasumi looked Akane up and down, straightening her dress, then her hair, then looking at her with that proud, loving smile, "You are ready, Akane, and very beautiful I might add."

Akane blushed, nodding slowly at her elder sister, "Thanks, that means a lot to me," She smiled an inward smile. Beautiful, not Kawaiikune, not even uncute... beautiful. Cute would have been enough.

Kasumi smiled a knowing smile, "Go on.. I think your date is waiting for you downstairs," Kasumi watched with pride as her little sister walked out the door.

Akane spared a look back at Kasumi... and she looked excited, alive, giddy. *Youth* Kasumi remembered her youth, was she ever that young?

As Akane closed the door behind her, Kasumi sighed, looking at the mirror in Akane's room. *Kami watch over her, keep her safe, and bring her safely home... and help her to enjoy this night for the memories it will be.*

Outside, a snowflake fell, lighting on the Koi pond... ripples shimmered and cascaded outwards from the point of interception.

The clouds were grey, and thick.

* * * * * *

Ryouga paced back and forth rapidly, his eyes frantic and panicked. *She is taking so long!!! What is taking her so long? She didn't change her mind, did she??? She didn't decide not to come, did she??? Did she decide to go with Ranma!?*

Ryouga ran a hand through his hair, which had been dyed black the past several days... back to it's original color. He was intenesly giddy and it felt as though knots had formed in his stomach.

Memeko watched the Hibiki child pacing nervously, Kaehmi sitting in her lap humming a tune as she petted and sung softly to her stuffed cabbit.

Ryouga looked down at the Tuxedo that Nabiki had "Loaned" him for the night, fidgeting and straightening the overcoat, then tugging nervously on the cuffs of his shirt beneath the coat.

Hiroshi was dressed in a similar outfit, plus the white bandanna from his Grandfather's Genjii outfit. Unlike Ryouga, however, he was calmly seated and playing a game of Shogi with Genma.

Genma was sweating visibly, noticing that Hiroshi didn't look away from the board like Tendou did. He had tried his best ploys to get the boy to drop his guard, but Hiroshi's attention seemed primarily focused on the board.

*Ranma must have warned him about me,* Genma grumbled inwardly while contemplating his next move. *It doesn't help any that he's good at this... tricking me with saying he's a beginner, I should've known better.*

Nabiki was playing solitaire on the table, already dressed in her own dark blue strapless dress and ready to go out to the prom.

Nabiki HAD better things to do, but she had good reason to be going, since she arranged the location for the dance. A modest sum was required, of course, but Principle Kuno didn't have half the brain's his Son did, which was saying a lot in Nabiki's opinions. Kuno himself was a dolt.

She also had a vested personal interest in what happened tonight, though she didn't let Hiroshi have the satisfaction of seeing her worry. Nabiki Tendou was harder than that. Nabiki Tendou had drawn the line, and it was up to her to see that line was not stepped over.

She frowned as she stared at a card, the Queen of Diamonds. She had so much power, but could she really control what direction the night's outcome would have??? She found herself doubting. What *COULD* she do to Hiroshi if he couldn't keep his feelings to himself?

Soun, in the meantime, was sitting at the table opposite of Nabiki, reading a book entitled, "The Art of Arranged Marriages: How to fix your Son-In-Law good," A self help book featuring 120 different ideas of how to trap your Son-In-Law in an arranged marriage.

Hiroshi moved his piece a moment after Genma had taken his hand off of his own, taking one of Genma's pieces in turn. Without looking up, or even glances at Ryouga, Hiroshi had noticed that the lost boy was quite lost as to what to think about Akane's lengthy preperation.

"Maybe she just is trying to look really really good, Ryouga," Hiroshi smirked after he spoke, Ryouga turning and looking at him.

Ryouga blinked, turning towards the other boy, "W-what?"

Hiroshi rubbed his chin as he stared at the board, waiting for Genma to move, "Ryouga, Akane is a martial artist, and would adhere to any promise she made with you... that includes asking you to the Prom, so you really have nothing to worry about. She is only taking a while to get ready, girls are notoriously nervous about prom night," Hiroshi grinned widely as Genma's shaking hand moved the chosen piece.

Memeko turned her head and cast a skeptical look upon Hiroshi, "And how, pray tell, do you know so much about the workings of a woman's mind, Hon?"

Hiroshi smiled, turning his head towards his elder sister, "Simple, I actually talk to girls and listen, instead of staring at their chest all the time, or fighting over them, or doing something to injure their trust in me," He smiled and slapped Genma's hand hard as he tried to reverse the board.

Ryouga frowned, fiddling with his bandanna in a habitual gesture, "I guess I am a bit.... nervous. I mean.. this is Akane, not just anyone!"

Hiroshi laughed lightheartedly, "That is very true, I don't think Akane could EVER be Just Anyone', if that happened I would wonder where they took the real Akane," He wondered if Akane had ever been a "Normal" girl. As far as he could remember she had always been a bit energetic as a child.

"Is Miss Kane goin' with Mister Ryouga to that dance thing, Uncle Hiro?" Kaehmi asked in a somewhat hushed tone as she pointed at Ryouga.

Ryouga heard her, and laughed a bit nervously, "Hai... urr.. yes... I am, I hope, I pray I am-"

"I'm sure everything will be fine, tonight, Right Ryouga?" Soun asked as he continued reading his book.

"I sure hope she isn't much longer, I think I'll go mad," Ryouga murmured under his breath, twiddling his fingers in a circle.

"I SAID, RIGHT RYOUGA!?!?!" Soun's head seemed to inflate to gigantic proportions, the classic Tendou Demon Head Maneuver.

Ryouga yowled in shock, making the "Away evil spirits" warding gesture and yelling as loud as he could, "SHE WILL BE SAFE WITH ME, MR. TENDOU, THIS I SWEAR!!"

Soun turned the page, still sitting, "Good," Ryouga promptly fell over due to shock, his eye twitching.

"I hope you didn't kill the boy, Tendou," Genma looked over at the twitching Ryouga, "Then again, maybe it's better if you did.. mercy and such."

Ryouga was quite suddenly up and shaking Genma by the lapel of his gi, "That's not funny!!"

Kaehmi giggled silently, "This place is so much fun, momma, I like coming here," She tossed her stuffed cabbit in the air and caught it, hugging it to her.

Two sets of feet slowly shuffled down the stairs, and everyone's heart decided to stop for a moment, and all eyes were fixed on the steps.

Excepting Genma, of course... he decided to pocket several of Hiroshi's pieces while the boy's mind was somewhat vacantly awaiting whoever was coming down.

Kasumi's dress peaked around the corner, and then the Eldest daughter was downstairs, looking at everyone with a proud, beaming smile. There was a glimmer of a memory in her eyes, of some of the dances she had been to in High School.

"Hey Ryouga, I think it's for you," Hiroshi said, turning and looking back at the board, then blinking and staring at the missing pieces. He turned an accusing glare on Genma, who simply sat there with a self smug expression on his face.

"Never underestimate your elder's," Genma grinned and winked at him, it was a sly, almost joking wink, as if the Saotome patriarch REALLY wasn't meaning to insult, only to entertain.

"Saotome-san, you really should've been a showman of some sort," Hiroshi chuckled, shaking his head and returning to the game at hand.

Ryouga, however was standing straight as a board, staring at Kasumi, who was gesturing for someone to come downstairs.

Tentatively, there was a flash of dark blue as part of Akane's dress came into site, Ryouga fixated on the bottom of the dress as if a moth hypnotized by the seductive flame. His eyes were drawn upwards as he saw both of Akane's shoes, drawn upward over the elegant beauty of her dress, across her body and up to connect with her sparkling blue eyes.

Ryouga was almost at tears. Soun was crying, proclaiming how beautiful his baby girl was. Nabiki was staring at Akane with a much too impassive expression on her face, even Hiroshi and Genma were in awe of Akane's beauty that was heretofore hidden behind the rough exterior.

Memeko and Kaehmi were both now standing, the elder Miramoto sibling exchanging that proud gaze with Kasumi.

"I really wish you all wouldn't stare, I feel like I'm at some kind of pervert convention," Akane said in a level, slightly fuming tone, her hands on her hips as she spread the dagger throwing gaze at each person staring.

"You're real pretty, Miss Kane," Kaehmi intoned without fear, she held up her stuffed animal, "Would you like to kiss it for good luck? I hear people kiss things for good luck," She gave a happy smile, all was right with the world.

Akane's slight irateness vanished in the barrage of the kawaii little girl and she smiled softly, "Sure thing, Kaehmi-chan," She kissed the nose of the furry little doll.

Kaehmi giggled and whispered to Akane, "I think that man in the funny bandanna likes you lots, he was acting funny when he was waiting," She giggled as Akane blushed.

Kaehmi bounced back with her stuffed animal, hugging her mother's legs. Memeko in kind patted her back and smiled at a now blushing Akane.

Akane looked back at Ryouga, noticing his slightly downcast eyes and the barely noticable flush to his cheeks. *Oh boy...*

"A-Akane. You are very beautiful tonight.. I mean, I don't mean to be more than- I guess I- Urr.. you look good," He said in that quiet, shy manner he always had, twiddling his index fingers as he spoke.

Akane felt a bit of a sad sigh inside of her for Ryouga. *If only I had known before asking*

She walked up to Ryouga, the shy, Lost Boy that had always been kind to her, always been nice to her.

She shook her head lightly, her eyes closed, then she lifted Ryouga's hand, cupping her own around his. Hands that break rock, yet that seem so gentle at times.

"Ryouga.. thank you, that means a lot to me, and don't be afraid to tell me anything, okay?" She smiled that beautiful, sweet, Tendou Akane smile that seemed to lighten up the room, however rare it might have been.

Ryouga looked up a bit unsurely and smiled back, "H-hai, I will Akane," He smiled, perhaps a bit encouraged and fueled by her words of assurance and trust. "I mean I won't- I mean-"

"Shh, I know what you mean," Akane noticed how Ryouga's eyes glimmered for a moment, then turned into a dull, lost, wandering pain. *Always wondering how long it will be until you see me again.. I should have noticed sooner, I am such a fool, Poor Ryouga.*

"Just enjoy the night, okay Ryouga?" She grinned, holding up a fist in front of him, "We're going to beat Ranma no matter what!"

Ryouga laughed, even though it felt a little hollow to his own ears. *Oh Akane, if only I could tell you my true feelings, if only I could say those words...*

"Excuse me, Ryouga, Akane," Nodoka said, slowly making her way downstairs. There was a soft, loving gleam in Nodoka's eyes, much akin to the vision of pride that seemed to be reflected in Memeko and Kasumi's twin gazes.

Ryouga and Akane took a step back, both looking up the stairs, both wearing a stunned and baffled expression upon their faces. Ryouga unconciously pinched himself to make sure he wasn't dreaming.

Nodoka composed herself at the bottom of the steps, looking up, "You can come down now, dear, Don't be shy now. You look splendid!" Nodoka remembered her own Prom, Genma had looked resplendid in a suit. It was one of the few times she had truly enjoyed his company.

Nodoka looked over at Genma, and they exchanged a warm, knowing smile for a brief moment, the board forgotten to Genma. *He remembers... both of us thinking of the same thing.* Sometimes she wondered why she married Genma. Other times... she knew.

"Do I got to come down, Mom? I feel... well.. kinda silly," Ranma's voice echoed down the stairs, and Hiroshi paused as well, standing up and waiting with apprehension. Nabiki's expression seemed to drive nails into Hiroshi, yet even that seemed less important than what he was about to see.

"Yes dear, you have to come down, unless you want to have wasted all that time preparing?" Nodoka smiled assuringly at Hiroshi, who smiled back in return, if a bit nervously.

"Well, if you put it that way," Ranma's feet barely made a sound as she slowly walked down the steps, Hiroshi's breathe caught in his throat as he looked at Ranma. The green set off the fiery hue of her hair, and the gems that adorned her ears and hung delicately between her breasts made her eyes seem all the brighter.

But what struck Hiroshi was a vision of loveliness as a whole, Ranma's face seemed caught in the moment of perpetual youth and beauty, and for him.. for Hiroshi that moment would stay in his memory for as long as he was left breathing. Perhaps even after.

Ranma likewise blinked in shock at Hiroshi, who was well groomed and prepared for the night, while she had seen him in his fighting garb, this was more of a mix of formal and battle issue clothing, leaning more on the formal side.

*He looks almost regal, brave even...* She caught her train of thought, shaking her head. They both smiled at eachother for a long moment, while everyone stared on.

They all wanted to savor the moment, none wanted to forget that night... the Senior Prom. A night to remember, something that is fondly coveted by all who attend.

And for that long moment, as Ranma and Hiroshi both looked at eachother... Ranma felt the beginnings of some sort of understanding creeping into her mind, something about that look of unmitigated purity of emotion inside of Hiroshi's depth filled gaze.

"Mommy," The moment had been broken, "When is Uncle Hiro-chan and Auntie Ranma getting married?" Correction, the moment had been shattered.

Everyone looked at Kaehmi, the innocent little girl who was looking around as if shocked that all the attention was suddenly on her.

Memeko looked shocked and unsure at her child's innocent words.

Nabiki looked at the girl with barely suppressed anger, which she quickly swallowed. Only a monster would be angry at a small child for very long, and although Nabiki showed little emotion at times, she had a heart.

Nodoka felt a twinge in her mind, then a tiny string snapped, which brought down the wall holding back the information she had kindly been withholding from herself.

Genma looked hard between the two, Hiroshi and Ranma, but little else showed.

Akane looked at the little girl as if she had sprouted horns and fangs, then at Ranma in a likewise manner.

Ryouga was in shock, just staring at Ranma.

Kasumi's eyes were wide and fixed on Ranma, a flush on her cheeks, "Oh my," She intoned, those often heard words when other things would certainly not explain as well.

Everyone seemed to stand like this for an eternity, though it surely could have been an eternity and a half, it in actuality was only 10 seconds.

Then Hiroshi's mouth twitched, and then he grinned, then he began laughing. He laughed loud, leaning over and holding his sides as he laughed. Ranma soon followed, catching everyone off guard.

Looks were exchanged, people glanced between eachother in confusion. Nodoka snapped her mouth shut, as she was about to ask Ranma what the little girl meant.

Hiroshi finally caught his breath, "Kaehmi, why would you ask something so silly???"

Ranma kept laughing, wiping her eyes, "Yeah, you know that Hiroshi and I are just friends, Kaehmi-chan," Ranma felt her cheeks, which were flushed. *I shouldn't laugh so hard* She thought, as she chuckled again to herself.

Kaehmi blinked in confusion, "But you two are going out, and Auntie-"

"Shhh, little bundle of joy," Memeko said, ruffling her daughter's hair, "That is enough excitement for one night."

Kaehmi blinked in confusion, and opened her mouth to comment further.

"Say, would you like some icecream?" Kasumi inquired cheerfully of the little girl, instantly causing Kaehmi's eyes to light up.

"You bet, Auntie Kasumi!!" She giggled brightly and Memeko breathed a gentle sigh of relief.

"You never know about some of these things kids say nowadays, I should really carry a tape recorder around, some of it is just too darling and funny to just let it pass by," Memeko said in a slightly wavering voice.

"Yes, I know how that is. Ranma was a lot like that at Kaehmi's age, right before the training trip," Nodoka looked at Ranma, smiling that bright smile.

Ranma smiled back, unknowing that the one her mother wore was as false as black is white. "Okay.. well... I think us five had better be getting to the Prom, okay Mom?" She said, hooking her arm around Hiroshi's arm.

Nodoka looked at Hiroshi with a calm, speculative look, as if weighing him carefully. She then returned her gaze to Ranma, smiling once more, "Yes, and don't forget your coat... Forcasts say there's a 90% chance there will be snow."

Nabiki noticed that Hiroshi turned a bit pale at the comment, although his expression didn't change much. *At least he knows when to keep his mouth shut.*

"Well, are you ready Ryouga?" Akane asked, linking her own arms with the taller, black haired boy.

Ryouga swallowed, and nodded, "Always, Akane!" he grinned, bearing his fangs in his display of happiness. He picked up his own coat, as well as Akane's and trudged for the door.

Kasumi bustled off to the kitchen, "Someone has to make dinner for when everyone comes home!"

Nabiki stood up as Nodoka and Memeko followed Akane and Ryouga to the door, "I forgot something upstairs... tell them to go ahead without me, okay Auntie?"

Nodoka nodded, looking at Nabiki with the same calculating expression that she had given Hiroshi. "Yes, I will tell them Nabiki Dear," She said softly.

Nabiki nodded absently, walking upstairs as Nodoka watched her.

The Saotome Matriarch cast a glance at Hiroshi and Ranma, who were speaking silently with eachother about the dance, then turned, following Memeko out to the front door.

"Are you SURE that you can handle it? I don't want ya to get hurt, Roshi," Ranma said in a gentle, concerned tone.

Hiroshi smiled brightly in return, "I am sure, Ranma, I can handle it if you can. I never used to fight at all, I considered it below me, but now I know that sometimes fighting doesn't have to be something violent and ugly."

Ranma smiled in Return, zipping up her coat as Hiroshi the same, "And I've learned that life doesn't have to be ugly all the time, sometimes it can be remarkable," She smiled that wonderful, sun filled smile and took his arm. "Shall we?"

"I think we shall," Hiroshi chimed, looking her straight in the eyes and nodding.

They turned to walk out of the dining room.

"Son," Genma intoned behind them, still standing where he had since Ranma had come down the stairs.

Ranma blinked, turning to Genma. She could faintly hear Soun sobbing at the front door about his little girl being all grown up.... "Yeah pop?"

Genma walked closer, looking at Hiroshi carefully, with a stern and penetrating look. It shook the Miramoto boy to his soul.

Genma then looked at Ranma, as if weighing Ranma and not liking what he saw there, judging himself at fault. This shook Ranma, who wasn't used to her irresponsible father showing ANY form of concern for her well being.

Then he looked at them both. "Good luck, Son," Genma said with an enigmatic smile, somewhat wistful as of what COULD have been, yet somewhat stern with the power a Father figure SHOULD have.

Hiroshi blinked, and exchanged a look with Ranma. He was unsure if Genma had spoken to HIM or to RANMA in the manner he had said those last few words.

Ranma also blinked, looking at her father oddly. "Thanks... Father," She said, in a more than respectful manner, rarely did she ever call Genma anything other than Pop.

Genma nodded, as if approvingly, then Turned and walked back upstairs.

Hiroshi and Ranma exchanged another silent look of confusion, then turned, striding carefully to the door.

As they stepped to the threshhold, Nodoka wrapped a scarf around Ranma's neck and kissed her on the forehead. "Have fun, my child, the Prom isn't all about a martial arts contest, it's also about-" She paused almost half a moment as she shot a glance at Hiroshi, and hoped Ranma had not noticed, "-Memories."

Ranma grinned and nodded, "Thanks, Mom.. for everything," She hugged her mother for a brief moment, there was a tense feeling to Nodoka that Ranma really didn't understand.

"Do not thank me," Nodoka sounded a bit upset when she said it, and Ranma half wondered if she had MEANT to sound that way.

Ranma took Hiroshi's arm again and walked out the door, waving when they got to the Dojo gates back at her Mother who was in the doorway, then she was gone around the corner.

Nodoka stared coldly at where her child had vanished, the chill winter air didn't seem to touch her much icier exterior, her eyes narrowed in a burning, intense glare.

She began to go over mentally exactly how the family Katana looked like, having spent 10 years familiarizing herself with the cold, harsh, unfeeling piece of steel.

10 years where she memorized every fine detail of the old Katana, down to the the exact spots that had been worn away by time and the hands of previous Saotome's.

Nabiki began to brush past her in short shrift, and her hand snaked out like a viper, catching the girl by the strap of her dress.

Nabiki looked up, and into the face of burning fury, and for what it is worth...

Nabiki Tendou Flinched.

"You will tell me everything, And you will tell me everything *NOW*"

As the words were spoken, snow began to fall from the sky, full and lustrous in it's lacy delicacy.

It began to snow, while a cold fire was fueled in the heart of Saotome Nodoka.

* * * * * *

Hiroshi looked up at the sky as it began to deliver his doom. *Sometimes I feel as if Susano-wo is Laughing at me... what a mighty fine Joke this time.*

Ranma hugged herself closer to Hiroshi's arm, "Sooo.. Roshi," She looked up as well, but with anticipation. Why she did not know.

Hiroshi looked back down, and he smiled. It was the old him shining through, even in adversity. *When your path is woven too late to shift, you might as well go with the drift.* He recited to himself. "Yes, Ranma?"

"I was just wondering...." She looked up at the sky, "If that girl of yours was going to be at the Prom tonight, I mean since you promised me that you would most definitely tell her-"

"Yes, Ranma, she will be at the Prom tonight.. most definitely," he said with no fear in his voice, in fact there was a certain warmth and acceptance that echoed in Hiroshi's words.

Something that seemed somewhat familiar to Ranma, "What is she like, Hiroshi? If I could ask that, I mean?"

Hiroshi took on a somewhat distant, yearning expression, looking down at the snow gathering on the ground. He brought his eyes back up to connect with Ranma's and there was such a warm feeling that swelled in Hiroshi's chest, "Yes, you can ask, Ranma," He nodded to her, noticing how close she was.

Ranma leaned Against Hiroshi, her head on his shoulder. She didn't know why, and for some reason she didn't much care, she only knew that it was comfortable and almost like a dream she had had once.. with the snow falling.

Hiroshi blinked in no measure of little shock, then sighed, wrapping an arm around Ranma's shoulders, "She is kind, and she is brave. She has honor, and love, and compassion without measure. She does such little things, so many silly things that seem sometimes childish to do... things that make her wild, untameable, like hard granite that is difficult to shape into what you want of it-"

"Because it wants to be a certain shape, instead of what you want it to be," Ranma said, smiling to herself.

Hiroshi sighed, looking up at the sky, "Yeah, I am glad you remember that stuff. She has a big heart, and never wants to hurt anyone, even though there are many people who would be hurt if she said some of the things she felt, and she has a way with people that just somehow makes her seem perfectly charming, despite her somewhat less than traditional Japanese upbringing."

"Oh really?" Ranma grinned from ear to ear, whoever she was sounded wonderful to her ears, "Is she beautiful? She really should be for a guy like you, you shouldn't settle for less and all that," Ranma knew in her heart of hearts that some queens couldn't be enough for Hiroshi, there were very few people who she would approve of for her friend. She was sure of it.

Hiroshi laughed, causing Ranma to look up at him, meeting his eyes. Those two brown orbs seemed to sparkle with mirth, and he wore a grin on his face as if he knew some enigmatic joke, "Not as beautiful as you are," Hiroshi almost started laughing again at his comment, and couldn't seem to wipe the grin off his face.

Ranma pouted visibly, "I am not beautiful, what is it with all the guys saying I am some drop dead gorgeous bombshell that they would just LOVE to go on a date with? Sure, I got a hot bod, and sure, I know I'm desirable, but there's a LOT of girls more desirable than me."

"Okay, name one Ranma," There was a slight touch of Humor to Hiroshi's voice as he asked.

Ranma thought for half a moment, then grinned, "Ucchan! Ucchan's very pretty, hah!"

Hiroshi nodded carefully, a careful expression of thought writ on his face, "True, true, she is beautiful, but I would bet that if you asked any number of guys who they would go out with, they would pick you. You just have this... I don't know how to describe it, this spark of life I guess. It makes people feel as if everything around you is exciting, and they WANT to be a part of that."

"So what, am I some kind of perfect drug now?" Ranma asked jokingly, nudging Hiroshi in the rib with her elbow.

Hiroshi looked down at Ranma, her looking up at him, "Hmm.. let me check and get back to you on that..." the comment earned him a much firmer and more noticable jab in the rib, which he winced at.

They walked in silence for a good ten minutes more, Ranma bundling the scarf around her neck and hugging closer to Hiroshi.

Hiroshi opened his mouth at the end of the long silence, and was quickly interrupted before he even began.

"I am not beautiful," Was the quick reply, with an almost pouting look from Ranma.

Hiroshi sighed as they walked, "Ranma.. why do you think that you are not as beautiful as everyone claims you are??" He continued walking, noticing that they were walking through the park that Hiroshi and Tofuu often spent time around during Sunday.

Ranma stared off for a moment, then got a stern and somewhat troubled look on her face. "Cuz' I'm a guy, Roshi. I mean... I am just a guy in a dress, all the same, that's what I see, that's all I see is me being made up to look like some silly girl..." Ranma trailed off, slumping her shoulders and leaning against Hiroshi.

Hugging Ranma tighter, Hiroshi brought a hand up, brushing some of Ranma's hair from her face, "Do you relieve see only that, Ranma?" He asked in a calm, soft, caring voice.

Ranma felt stinging hot tears threaten to overflow quite suddenly, and wasn't sure why. "I- I Don't know, Hiroshi. I mean, I think I've seen some other stuff.. before... It's just-It's just... I.."

"You're afraid?" Hiroshi provided, which earned a long moment of silence as Ranma bowed her head.

"Hai.. I'm afraid of what I'd see if I let myself see it, It's a little frightening, Roshi," She shivered, although not from the cold.

Hiroshi noticed they were walking by the small lake of water that the Kuno statue had been placed. He paused a moment, looking at the water.

"Hiroshi?" Ranma asked, noticing he had suddenly stopped. She blinked, looking up at him, he had a warm smile to greet her.. he took her hands in his, and her heart pounded for an unknown reason.

"Come here, I have an idea," Hiroshi pulled ranma towards the cool waters of the lake.

"Wait, Hiroshi, what are you doing?!" Ranma pulled against Hiroshi, trying to get her hand free as she wondered what he was doing dragging her off the beaten path towards the water.

"Just trust me, allright??? here.. slip off your shoes and step into the water a little.... just a little," Hiroshi stood by the water, watching Ranma intently.

Ranma knocked on the top of Hiroshi's head, "Uhm, you ARE still there, right???"

Hiroshi smirked, "Funny, just do this for me, please??? Indulge a foolish person for tonight," He took one of her hands, squeezing it gently.

Ranma blinked and stared at him for a long moment, then rolled her eyes, "I must be nuts t'listen to this stuff," She slipped off her shoes, grinning while she did so.

She gently touched her feet to the water, shivering a bit as it's cool feeling assaulted her, nowhere near as cool as the air around though.

"Okay, I am standing in water now. So what is the point?" She asked, grinning back at him.

Hiroshi took on that intense, passionate gaze as he looked at Ranma, "Close your eyes, Ranma..."

Ranma gave him a curious expression, pursing her lips as she was getting ready to ask a question.

"Just close your eyes for a moment, okay?" Hiroshi asked, looking directly at Ranma with that thoughtful passion of his.

Ranma sighed again, closing her eyes, "Okay, now what?"

Hiroshi slowly ran over the concept in his mind, "Do exactly what I say... first, imagine your male self, try and remember every detail you can," He said in a calm, soothing voice.

Ranma nodded after a long moment, "Okay, now what??"

"Now imagine a fire burning in your mind along with the image of yourself," Hiroshi closed his own eyes, taking a deep breath and running through the concept in his mind again.

Ranma nodded again, Hiroshi didn't need to see to know the positive response.

"Now toss the image of your male self into the fire-"

"What?!" Ranma said, opening her eyes and looking at Hiroshi.

Hiroshi sighed in frustration, "Just trust me, Ranma, it's ONLY a temporary thing, you aren't actually burning your male self... it's a mental trick I want you to try, please?"

Ranma glared at Hiroshi for a moment, then closed her eyes again. Hiroshi counted up to three minutes before she nodded. "Done," She intoned in a distant manner.

"Now begin running through your mind all the male things that pop into it... memories, feelings, whatever, anything and everything, try and find as much as you can and toss it into the fire," Hiroshi watched Ranma, who's brow was furrowed in thought.

Several minutes passed and Ranma's stern expression of concentration ebbed, giving over to a more relaxed and calm look.

Hiroshi continued watching, and found himself studying Ranma's face, every curve and line... her jaw, her lips, how her hair framed her face.

His heart ached suddenly for him to reach out and touch her, and as if by some strange independant force his arm raised against his will, his eyes transfixed on the beauty before him. His fingers came within inches of Ranma's face, trembling, so close yet so far away.

Then Ranma nodded, causing him to jerk his hand back. Her breathing was easy now, as if she had fallen into a meditative trance. "Got everything, I think, Hiroshi," She kept her eyes closed, making sure there was nothing left.

Hiroshi sighed at the almost-touch he had made, then forced a smile back on his face, "When you are done with all of that, clear your mind of anything that is left at all.. make it empty and peaceful."

Ranma nodded only a moment later.

Hiroshi stepped closer to her, putting a hand on her shoulder instead... "Now open your eyes and look down at your reflection."

Ranma slowly let her eyes drift open, as if in almost a dream. Her eyes drifted slowly downward, and was suddenly captivated with what she saw, almost causing her to jump in shock. "Is that me?"

Hiroshi smiled, relaxing, "Yep.. that is what we see when we see you in female form."

Ranma touched her face, looking down at the reflection calmly, "I- I really am beautiful," She intoned in a hushed, barely audible manner. She ran her hand across her face, her cheek, brushing her hair lightly aside as she gazed in awe at her reflection.

Hiroshi's tone was soft as he replied, looking at Ranma with a plainly amorous glint in his eyes, "Yes, Ranma, yes you are... and it's about time that you realized what everyone else see's in you," He smiled and held out his hand, a signal that they needed to get going to the Prom.

Ranma looked at his hand a moment, then took it carefully. She looked at him, something stirring in her heart, "Thank you, Hiroshi," She found herself saying, not really knowing why her voice was low, pleasant, filled with care.

Hiroshi smiled back in turn, pushing his own emotions into the back of his mind, "You are welcome, Ranma. We should get going, the Prom isn't going to wait on us you know," And then the moment had passed.

Ranma blinked, seeming to come out of some far distant dream state, she smiled, stepping out of the water and slipping her shoes back on. "Hai.. let's go, Hiroshi," She smiled, taking his arm again.

The snow fell silently all around them, seeming to paint a picture of eternal bliss.

* * * * * *

The prom was being held in an enclosed Stadium which was, on rare occasions, used for housing various sporting tournaments. It had made very little money in the long run, only enough to keep it open, and concidering it's relatively small size, it was perfect for a dance.

It had only needed a little touching up... all of which had been dutifully taken care of by the Prom Commitee, which was.. of course.. headed by Nabiki Tendou. In all sense of truth, Nabiki Tendou headed ANY school project that involved making money. Nobody would say it out loud, of course, but money just seemed to flow towards Nabiki, for fault of a better explanation.

Akane Looked around at the people who were coming in the doors, at the refreshment table with all the fixings of a banquet. She blinked, noticing some of the intricately fancy dresses and tuxes that the other women and men wore.

Of course, Most of them were here for the NORMAL version of the prom. Not a lot of people would participate in the Annual Martial Arts Prom Tournament.

She was also shocked at the size of the dance floor.. while it was a small stadium, that still made for a fairly large area for dancing. Half of it was blocked off, reserved for the contest.

Akane herself had thought it was a completely ridiculous idea in the first place when it was proposed by Kuno in her freshman year. Just another means to get her to date with him, she had assumed... yet the tradition had stuck, even though she hadn't participated until this year.

"It looks very nice, Akane," Ryouga cast a wary look around at the gathered people, some talking, some getting food at the banquet table. Ryouga was adverse to leaving Akane's side, seeing as how he could get lost so easily, especially in a new place.

"Yeah... Nabiki sure did a great job, not that it's surprising," Akane's last few words were said in a bitter manner, as if Akane had taken a bad pill.

"Ahhh, to behold the virtuous beauty that hath been gifted most wonderfully to the pure and devout lady of the raven hair, yay, to behold such a precious gem amidst the false glass of the numerous other less than ample flowers is to truly perceive what true maidenhood should represent.

Yes, I, Kuno Tatewake, hath been overcome with the vision of kami that hath been gifted to me by the gracious and benevolent spirits of the eve, and mayhaps this noble soldier of virtue may even be so dubious as to give this fair blossom a chance at his noble self upon the grace of the ballroom floor," The familiar voice intoned behind Akane and Ryouga.

Akane ground her teeth, one of her brows twitching with not a small amount of fury. She rounded on Kuno, about to throw an insult at the arrogant snot who would dare approach her on such a night.

Kuno stared back impassively, waiting for something to be said, his own eyes meeting Akane's, respectfully as an equal, "Or perhaps the fair blossom has come to challenge the champion of Furenkin sporting events upon the self same floor that he would choose to declare his devoted self to the cause of her heart, in which case, I must insist that we hold our anger for perhaps a more prudent period of alottment, persay, I would suggest that you hold your fury for the battle which you would wage tonight, for although I have been lenient in my treatment of you up until this point, tonight shall be another matter entirely," Kuno said in a serious manner.

Ryouga growled and cracked his knuckles, "Don't you have any respect for a lady, Kunou!? Akane has told you countless times that she doesn't have any interest in you," Ryouga was angry that the kendoist would choose TONIGHT of all night's to approach Akane to declare his love, but then again, Ryouga would have expected as much from his mentality.

Akane held out a hand on front of Ryouga, her teeth clenched, "I hate to say it, but Kunou is right Ryouga.. you want to wipe the floor with his butt, do it in the tournament."

Kunou bowed in a formal manner, offering a yellow rose to Akane, "A simple offering, if we are to do battle then I wish you the best of luck.. for although I might otherwise allow you more leeway to do as you please, allowing you to win victory of me, my partner is less than lenient about losing.. hence I come to warn you that no mercy shall be shown in this night's tournament, as would otherwise be the case."

Akane blinked for a moment in shock, then renewed her stern expression, her hands on her hips, "And why do YOU care to help us, Kuno?"

Kuno stood, still holding the rose out in offering, "If I once had been an enemy, perhaps I have finally beheld the inherant fault of my nature, and.. have questioned my actions to you as honorable. Though my own benevolent fantasies do me justice, I doubt that others find them so dubiously enjoyable, or as safe as I do. In truth, I am unsure if I should have ever escaped into my own avalon of dreams and hopes.

I pray that you may perhaps come to forgive me with time for my erronious manners and dishonourable conduct, for I have acted with very little maturity towards a lady of your own caliber, or one of fair Ranma's caliber for that matter... both of you deserve far better than I may offer. Perhaps, in some strange twist of fate, I have earned a small sample of maturity that you all seem to believe I am lacking from."

Ryouga growled, almost ready to ignore Akane's request and pound Kuno's face into the ground of his own free will. "Why can't you just talk *NORMALLY* you freak?!"

Akane put a gentle hand on Ryouga's shoulder, holding him back again, "Kuno, why should I believe you've actually caught a clue after all this time??? How do I know you just won't revert to mind numbing idiot next week???"

Kuno raised an impassive eyebrow, looking at Akane carefully. "Because, Akane, my obliviousness on this last attempt was farse."

Ryouga and Akane facefaulted.

"Wh-wh-what?!" Akane asked, grabbing Kuno by the lapel. "You mean you were PLAYING stupid!?"

Kuno looked down at Akane impassively, with a calm and accepting air. "Indubitably so, Tendou Akane... The reaction was a coping strategy to help deal with the truth, as have been all the numerous other seemingly impossible situations that have arisen from my legendary ignorance. Did you never entertain the notion, fair Akane, that I could be capable of scamming??? After all, it is quite possible since I was forced to grow up with that mercenary of a sister you call Nabiki," Kuno spat the words with distaste.

"Impossible, Akane, nobody can play that stupid," Ryouga glared at Kuno, who looked back impassively, which enfuriated Ryouga even more, *Damn arrogant cocky bastard... should wipe the smirk off his face...*

Akane let go of Kuno, "I have to agree with Ryouga, Kuno... and why should we believe you now???"

Kuno sighed, shaking his head, "Admittedly, I chose not to see the truth that I truly knew, this does not mean that I did not perceive the events or actions that all of you believe I misconstrued and modified in my head. I did, most definitely, know the truth in a most unpleasant manner, but one cannot accept insanity when ones vision of a perfect world does not include it," Kuno brushed his free hand through his hair.

"Since you obviously shall not take my gift when offered from mine own hand, I shall leave it thusly," Kuno set the rose gently down upon the table beside Akane, "So that you might consider accepting it later, if at such a time you deem my apology worth noting."

Akane glared at Kuno, yet under that facade she was unsure WHAT to think. Last time they had trusted Kuno had figured out the truth, he turned around and started acting the part of an ass again.

Kuno, noticing that no answer was forthcoming, bowed formally, then rose, turning on his heels he strode off to find his date.

Ryouga growled, punching the table fiercely, splintering it into two halves. He blinked in a fair bit of surprise and then growled. "I don't like Kuno, Arrogant Pompous Self Absorbed-"

"Ryouga, how often do you know Kuno to apologize for something?" Akane's voice had a curious tone to it, she lifted the rose from the remains of the broken table, sniffing it in an absent minded fashion.

Ryouga blinked, then thought for a moment. Come to think of it, Kuno almost NEVER apologized about any of his shortcomings. He was usually far more arrogant than to allow himself to be demeaned in such a manner.

Akane wound the rose into a section of her dress, *Good luck, he say's... I'll need it with Ranma.*

As if on cue, the knockout redhead strode into view, her arm locked in Hiroshi's, "Yo, Akane!!! This place is pretty jumping, huh?"

Akane smiled back at Ranma, "You bet, if I had known it would be this interesting I would've tried coming last year and the year before."

Ryouga smirked at Ranma, "So, are you ready to lose Ranma??? With Akane and I paired, I'm sure you don't stand a chance," Ryouga loved prodding Ranma.

A cool and calm smile was returned for his taunt. Instead of Ranma replying, Hiroshi spoke up in response.

"I wouldn't count on that, Ryouga..." The brown haired boy smiled a knowing smile, a self assured, cocky, confident smile. Ranma simply reflected the expression without a word.

"Good Luck, P-chan," Ranma said with a slight smile, "And may the best man win."

Ryouga grinned, looking at Hiroshi. Ranma growled.

"You know what I meant, Baka," the redhead grumbled, throwing a friendly punch at Ryouga's arm.

Ryouga chuckled and nodded, "Yes... the best to you too," And the two clasped hands for a moment.

Akane blinked in silent surprise, "Wow.. I never thought I'd see both of you act so maturely, I'm shocked."

Ryouga rubbed the back of his head, laughing a bit and Ranma blushed.

"Hey, s'not like we fight ALL the time Akane," Ranma's voice was defensive.

Akane grinned, nodding, "Right, just most of the time," her answer caused Hiroshi to chuckle quietly.

They all turned to look at the arena when someone picked up the microphone.

"LADIES AND GENTLEMEN...."

* * * * * *

Daisuke sat in a corner of the auditorium, alone, typing on his miniature laptop (Pieced together from spare parts, yet again.)

His mind wandered, thinking of a billion seperate ideas as his fingers tried to keep up with them. His brain awash with equations and formulas.

Which is a good enough reason that he didn't notice someone approaching him. That is, not until that laugh...

"OOooooohohohohohoho!!!" That laugh... caused Daisuke to tense up, his hands to suddenly go cold and clammy, he lifted his head, looking up at the figure who emitted the laugh.

Some people would say a thing out of a nightmare... others would say a walking wet dream, until they heard that laugh. Daisuke had to agree with the former appreciation of the youngest Kunou sibling. She was, after all, nuttier than a payday candy bar... and a candy bar isn't expected to drug you or beat you.

"You will do nicely, peasant.. do you know how to dance?" Kodachi asked, running a hand through her luxurious black hair. She was dressed in a dark red tight fitting gown, with a low cut neckline and a bottom that barely brushed her ankles.

Needless to say, Daisuke was NOT directly drawn to her face... rather her cleavage, and to that is what he spoke.

"K-K-Kodachi.. urr.. what are you doing here?? This is the Furenkin High School Prom-" He was cut off abruptly by Kodachi's laugh, causing the protrusions he was staring at to bounce with her mirth.

"Ignorant Peasant!! My Father is principal of this school, I have every right to attend a dance that my darling Ranma will be at, do I not?? Now, do you dance or don't you???" She asked in a stern manner, glaring fire at Daisuke, not really seeming to notice his lewd gaze, or if she did, not bothering to scold him for it.

"Urrr.." Daisuke asked intelligently, rapidly going through his choices on how to avert himself from the situation. Sure, Kodachi was good looking... but then again, she was also totally bonkers, or that's what Daisuke thought.

"Good, then you shall be my partner!!!" Kodachi grabbed him by his tie and began to drag him off to the Martial Arts Dancing Tournament.

Needless to say, he did not go quietly.

* * * * * *

Ranma ran her hand around the small metal bracelet fastened around her wrist. It was connected to a thin but strong leather cord of about 3 feet in length, and about 1/4 of an inch in diameter. The other end was attached to yet another bracelet, which was securely fastened around Hiroshi's wrist.

The other people participating in the tournament were wearing similar bracelets, each attached to their partners twin bracelet.

"The rules are simple!" The announcer intoned. "Anyone who's link is broken will be disqualified! Anyone who leaves the designated fighting area, or is thrown out, will be disqualified! Anyone using deadly weapons will be disqualified! All attacks must be in synch with the music, and must be graceful and in step with the dance!!! Final winner will be judged both on Skill, strength, and grace!"

Ranma looked at the other competitors... Mousse and Shampoo were there, but they were staring straight at eachother, Mousse whispering in a low voice.

Kunou had found a partner that definitely did not sit well with Ranma... the girl, Ami, had a lot of experience in rhythmic gymnastics, as well as the soccer team. Not only that, but Ami was smiling at Ranma with a burning glare.

Ranma glared back, defiant. *I will give her what she deserves, after that night...* She felt a thrill of adrenaline rush through her as she burned her gaze through Ami.

The girl flinched, if for but a moment, but then turned away from Ranma, looking up at Kuno.

*Bitch* Ranma mentally growled. Ranma wasn't one for using vulgarities, even in her own mind, but she would make an exception for Ami.

"Let the dance beg-" The announcer's words were cut off sharply with the bounding echo of Kodachi's laugh.

She pointed at the announcer, Daisuke next to her and firmly tied with her ribbon, "Surely you would not start such a fiasco without first inquiring of the Black Rose if she might wish to join?" She asked in a commanding tone of voice.

The announcer began to object, but couldn't shake the huge grin on Principal Kuno's face, as if daring him to keep Kodachi out of the tournament. Sweating profusely, he nervously intoned, "Urr, why, urr.. no Miss Kunou!!! We would be honored to have a woman of.. uhm.. your level participate in the competition!!!"

Kodachi gave a nod of her head, without truly looking at the announcer. Everyone stared at her as Miss Hinako (One of the Judges) gave her and Daisuke a pair of bracelets.

"Seriously!! There's someone else who is a MUCH better dancer than me, Kodachi!!! Besides, I don't really lik-" Daisuke's nervous string of excuses was abruptly cut off, as the Announcer's had been.

"Peasant, you should be honored that a beautiful flower of the Noble house of Kunou would choose YOU to be her partner in this charade! Now be silent and assume the position!" Kodachi snapped.

Daisuke immediately dropped onto all fours, his behind facing Kodachi.

Since everyone was watching the exchange, almost everyone burst out laughing as Daisuke grinned.

Kodachi kicked him in his rear, "Not THAT position, Dolt! The PROPER position!!!"

"Which one would you prefer??" Daisuke asked, grinning and looking up at Kodachi. Everyone started laughing again, causing Kodachi to turn a bit red in the face.

Kodachi picked Daisuke up and shook him violently, "Be silent and obey, Peasant!! My patience is short right now, and you will respect my beauteous self, knave!"

Daisuke gulped at seeing the anger in Kodachi's eyes. *On second thought..* Daisuke chided himself, *I don't think I want Kodachi angry with me.*

After another moment of people trying to control their laughter, the arena was calm again. The Announcer looked around, then smiled, "Allright... Begin the Dance!!!!"

Each partner in kind linked arms with eachother as the music began, each beginning a somewhat fast paced dance to the beat of the music.

Ranma linked eyes with Hiroshi, a determined look in her gaze. Hiroshi smiled in return, and nodded slowly, as if knowing exactly what Ranma could be thinking.

Their bodies seemed to relax, move in an almost uncanny unison... as if fluidly, they were moving as one.

The lights flashed on the dance floor, reflections of the slowly revolving silver sphere hanging but a few yards above their heads. With the rhythm of their twin beating hearts, they moved as one. Their eyes for only eachother, yet seeing their surroundings far better than most inthe competition.

A pirouet from a female in one of the other pairs turned into a devious kick at Ranma's head, deftly avoided with grace as Hiroshi spun her to the other side of him, catching her around the waist as he carefully dipped her in one arm, his eyes locked upon hers.

His seemingly random dip avoiding a couple who spun through, legs flashing quickly in an attack that caught the couple behind Ranma and Hiroshi, sending them sprawling across the dance floor, they soon recovered themselves, ready to continue.

On the other side of the Dance floor, Ami averted her eyes from Kunou for a moment, burning them in a pathway towards the scarlett haired temptress that seemed to steal the attention of the judges with expert maneuvers.

*That arrogant... that.... he will pay, the bastard... Mocking women like he does* She felt the seething fire burning in her, and took the lead of the dance forcefully, causing Kuno to blink.

"Pardon me, Madame Ami, but it is tradition that the man naturally take the lead, and such as I am so manly a man, it is less than proper that you should even dare presume to take from me what rightfully should be-" His words were sheered quite short with the burning vengeance in Ami's eyes.

"Shut up and dance, you idiot," She spat the words out as if they were acid, meant to burn and hurt. To her credit, Kuno flinched, and proceeded to open his mouth, then thought better as she jerked him one way, swinging him like a weapon into a man, throwing him violently from his partner and into a wall, thus breaking the leather strap connecting the two.

Kuno's head Rang from the impact, and his shoulder hurt just as much. *Truly, I should pick my dates more carefully, for the fawning mistress seems to hath metamorphosed into a bile filled demoness.... truly, Tatewake, you should think carefully before you presume to act.*

Ami's vengeance was not lost on another couple. "Oh, god.. I should have known she wouldn't have stopped after the party," Akane looked fearfully at Ami, who was burning a warpath straight for Ranma and Hiroshi... reluctantly, at first, Kuno was participating... until he was forced to move with his partner by a few choice words from Ami.

Ryouga lifted Akane in a spin, taking her away from a barreling girl who was thrown by another pair, also seperated from her partner. "What are you talking about, Akane?" He set her down gently after another moment, looking into her deep brown eyes.

Akane blinked, bringing her gaze level with Ryouga's as she quickly stepped forwards in the dance, Narrowly avoiding another attack, "Ami is after Ranma... she.. really really hates him. More than you do, I think... I have no idea why, but she wants to hurt Ranma badly," Akane and Ryouga seperated slightly as someone flew between them, their fragile cord humming as it almost snapped.

Ryouga took her hand, spinning her towards him and wrapping his arms around her from behind... *Ranma... friend or enemy.. do I really want to see him hurt??? Not that someone as inexperienced as she probably is could hurt Ranma... but maybe I should lend a hand.*

Taking Akane's hands, he spun her carefully back into the starting position as the music changed subtly.

The pace was faster, something of a quick and flighty melody. People began speeding up in their movements, some losing the graceful air that they had maintained, others being easily taken out by more experienced participants. Lights flashing, couples spinning, eyes locked in perpetual union.

Her gleaming blue eyes, his sparkling brown eyes, fixated on only eachother as their dance, seemingly random and chaotic, took on a beauty that seemed far beyond the kata Ranma had done alone the past few mornings. There was a certain yin and yang about their match, Ranma's fast paced and often brash maneuvers were contrasted with Hiroshi's calm, thoughtful, and patient grace...

Both mixed, meshed, melded into a flawless machine, weaving in and out from between brawling couples, seemingly untouched. *The trick..* Hiroshi told himself, *..Is not in defeating others. It is in not being defeated.*

Ranma thought the same, although circumstance forced the pair into defending themselves, and often into removing some competition from the arena.

Neither noticed the deadly siren that was slowly spiraling her way towards them, intentions to dash them out of the rings, as those fell singers had attempted to do to Odysius in that age old legend. Nothing stood in her way, for nothing could. She would not let her anger be quenched for yet another night.

She weaved, dodged, sometimes jumped over her competitors, all in a single minded attempt to get at Ranma. Kuno was far beyond arguing with her, since he had deduced there was no reasoning with her. A wise sentiment, from one of the biggest buffoons in the school.

"Mu-Tsu.. why for girl hedging path towards Ranma?" Shampoo asked as mouse spun, arms around her hips as she raised a graceful leg, booting a man in the back and sending him sprawling into the date as Shampoo landed, once more looking up at her husband.

Mousse cast a glance towards Ranma as he dropped into a sweeping kick, his hand linked gently in Shampoo's as she leaped over him in a flying kick, both mirrored eachother for a brief moment. The judges noted that Shampoo seemed to hang in midair for a moment before both her and her partner's attacks impacted.

A man fell violently to the ground from the sweep kick Mousse had delivered, and another couple's strong leather cord was snapped in two by Shampoo's attack as she sent one of the girl's flying.

"She seems to be out to get Saotome, Beloved," Mousse noted as they both spun on their heals, joining once more at the hands.

"What we do?? Can't have Ranma lose, would not be good fight if She not make it to finals," Shampoo swung Mousse around, and like a rubber band Mousse used the momentum to swing Shampoo at another pair... shampoo's hand clasped tightly to Mousse's as she lifted off the ground, spinning in an arc with one leg extended to drop another partner from yet another couple.

The battle was thick and furious, but was strangely conflicting, the grace and adeptness that each couple took in their movements matched the music well, yet was also mixed with attacks and defenses that seemed to flow with the dance as easily as if they fit.

Ryouga and Akane rolled to one side together as two couples clashed, the grace of their dance ending in a brawl.. which was quickly ended as the four people were dragged out of the arena, disqualified for their obvious disrespect of the rules.

"That was close, Akane," Ryouga turned the roll deftly, allowing the two of them to end standing, once again moving to the music.

Akane looked at Ranma, a worried expression on her face, "Ryouga.. I am worried about Ranma.. have you seen how Ami is barreling through everyone?? Even if it *IS* graceful, for her part, she is also dead set on eliminating Ranma," Akane found herself pulled closely up against Ryouga as he spun gently on his heels, dipping her low as he followed, someone flying where her head had been.

"Not too bad at what she is doing, either... she definitely has some skills, I will say that. Don't worry about Ranma, he can take care of himself... he *IS* the best, you know," Ryouga said in a half snide, half mocking tone. He did bother to coat it with a small amount of respect, however.

Akane sighed, shaking her head, "I just don't know.. I.. I have a bad feeling about tonight, Ryouga."

He linked his hands tightly around her waist and jumped into a backflip, landing closer to Ranma and Hiroshi, who seemed completely oblivious to their surroundings.

Ryouga furrowed his brow in stern contemplation, "You should be, Akane.. after.. the way Ranma was acting around Hiroshi earlier, even I am feeling somewhat uncomfortable with what it could mean."

Akane blinked, caught off guard as she mulled over what Ryouga could possibly have meant. The moment cost her as a couple, in unison, kicked her square in the back, sending her sprawling forward onto Ryouga.

They both rolled for a moment, and then stopped, Akane laying atop Ryouga in a somewhat compromising position.

Ryouga wasn't surprised that Akane's cheeks became noticably colored... he only prayed to Kami that she didn't notice how red he was sure his face must have been.

Akane scrambled to get up, she knew her cheeks were hot. *What the heck am I embarrassed about? This is RYOUGA... my friend,* Still, the heat in her cheeks persisted, and was echoed by a faint heat from much lower on her body. *Stop that.* She told herself, shoving the thoughts farther back in her head.

Ryouga scrambled up as well, taking Akane's hips in his hands, trying to force the blush to leave his reddened face. *IwillnotdefileAkane'smemory, IwillnotdefileAkane'smemory, IwillnotdefileAkane'smemory* He chanted to himself while pushing the improper thoughts to the back of his head.

Nearby, on the dance floor, Kodachi was using her Partner' As a bludgeoning tool to beat the other dancers with. Daisuke's head felt as if it was stuffed with cotton, his body sore all over from the tossing and colliding with his fellow classmates. *When will the hurting stooooop!!* he screamed in his mind.

Kodachi's eyes fell on Ranma, and her irises seemed to Narrow, *The VILE Red WITCH attends this Social??? How dare they allow such a venomous heathen to walk the grounds of my Father's School!!*

Kodachi spun around in a graceful pirouet, her body contracting almost like a spring as her hand locked on Daisuke's, wrenching him into the spin, She put all of her strength into it, and then threw the helpless boy into the air, the leather cord connecting her and Daisuke snapping from the force.

"GAAAAAAAH!! WHYYYY MEEEEE?!?!" Daisuke wailed as he flew through the air, Ranma seemingly unaware of her friends trajectory.

Kodachi realized that as soon as her Partner' connected with the ground, she would be disqualified from the competition, she growled with no minor annoyance and tossed her hand forward, a rhythmic gymnastics ribbon lashing out from seemingly nowhere, wrapping around Daisuke's hurtling form just as he smashed into a couple, narrowly avoiding Ranma.

The announcer blinked, looking at the Judges, "Can she do that???"

Several of the Judge's conferred, Principal Kuno ending the debate with the valid question of if she couldn't, who was going to stop her?

Kodachi laughed her hearty, bellowing, disturbing laugh... several of the couples collapsed, screaming about the pain in their ears, which naturally got them disqualified since they couldn't continue, the laugh being stuck in their heads.

Kodachi yanked on the ribbon, which brought Daisuke hurtling back towards her.

"Did anywon git da name o' dat Truck???" Daisuke blubbered, his head ringing as he flew back through the air. He landed in Kodachi's arms, his head ringing and his eyes seeing two Kodachi's, which caused him to laugh like a gibbering madman.

"This isn't LOGICAL Jim!!!" He screamed, grabbing kodachi by the sleeves of her dress and shaking her violently.

Kodachi sneered in disgust of the pathetic excuse for a partner she had chosen. With a swift Yank, Kodachi sent him hurling back towards Ranma and Hiroshi, who seemed at peace while dancing.

"WHY DOES IT ALWAYS HAVE TO BE MEEEEEE!" Daisuke flailed his arms as he glided through the air.

Suddenly, both Hiroshi and Ranma spun, extending their feet to connect directly with Daisuke, and adding force to send him BACK towards Kodachi, both uttering simultaneously, "Sorry bout this Dai!" as their feet connected.

As he flew back he crossed his arms across his chest, "Oh SURE, you two WOULD kick me when I'm down, wouldn't you?!" his comment ushering a giggle from the pretty redhead with the handsome friend of his.

"It's nothing personal, Just business," Hiroshi said, quoting many Mafia movies at the same time as he spun Ranma around gracefully to avoid a suddenly VERY close Ami.

Kodachi was laughing heartily as she looked up, then blinked when she realized her weapon was heading straight for her. She began to make haste the other way, just as Daisuke barreled into her, both rolling end over end, and Daisuke ending on top, his face buried in her bosom.

"Yu knwww... They Rlly d'make gd pllows..." Her mumbled around the expanse of flesh surrounding his head.

Kodachi Slapped him mercillesly, to no avail, "Get off me you lecherous heathen!! How dare you defile the virgin grace of the Black Rose!!!"

"N'thin yu say m'dme.." He mumbled again, then began to purposely get off kodachi, Accidentally' placing his hands where they shouldn't go.

"HENTAI!! DEFILER!! LECHEROUS CRETIN!!!" She brought back her fist and then forward so that it connected squarely with Daisuke's face, sending him soaring through the air again, She glared death at him as he flew, until she noticed several couples staring at her bosom, which was now very bare and absent of a undergarment.

Kodachi screamed and ran straight for the bathroom.

Daisuke clutched the bra in his hands, Tears of joy streamed from his face, "I don't care what Anyone says.. today is a GOOD day to die!!" he crashed firmly into the wall and began sliding down, a silly, happy grin on his face.

Akane noticed the tail end of the whole exchange, "Wow.. I feel sort of sorry for Kodachi," She turned with Ryouga, avoiding a carefully planned attack as she and her partner danced amidst severl more skilled pairs.

"Why?? She is insane, and deserves a bit of humiliation for some of the cheating she's done," Ryouga leaned down as Akane flipped, her back over his, and landed on her feet after taking out one of the offending competitors with a swift kick.

"Sure, but... well.. no girl should be shamed like that, on her Prom night no less," Akane found herself having a lot of extra space, only about 10 couples left from the 40 that had started the contest. Her and Ryouga, Ami and Kuno, Ranma and Hiroshi, and two other pairs who seemed to be fairing well enough.

Ami had been ruthless in her pursuit of Ranma, Kuno half reluctant to harm the red head caused her no end of grief in the contest, until she became so short with him that he finally took her seriously with her threats.

She had been following Ranma and Hiroshi for a good 15 minutes, and each attack was expertly deflected, be it from her or from Kuno. They moved in unison, in perfect symbiosis of eachother.

Eyes together, heart together, mind together, two bodies made one. The lights flashed, and they danced. Their eyes never wavered, and they danced. Their graceful movements beautiful yet complex in the same respect.

Ami was growing frustrated, yet suddenly she saw an opening, something RARE. Yet before she had a time to exploit it, and then a pair spun between her and her target, a purple haired girl and her raven haired date. The Amazon team.

Ami sneered, and spun as well, aiming a kick at Shampoo, which Mousse blocked with his arm as he spun Shampoo away from the obvious attack.

"You want Saotome..." Mousse said in a quiet, calm manner.

"You must go through us," Shampoo finished, as they both lept into the air, flipping and suddenly descending in a twin flying dragon kick.

Ami squeeled and spun Kuno in front of her, the Kendoist being hit full with both kicks and sending him sprawling, with his date, 10 feet back.

Shampoo and Mousse continued their dance, watching Ami and Kuno respectively.

The offending couple rose again, still attached, and Ami once more began her ruthless pursuit of the redhead on the dancefloor.

Moments later a whistle was blown loudly by the announcer, "TIME!!!! We will have a short break before we continue with the remaining groups. Take your time, there will be an hour.. go socialize with your friends who AREN'T participating in the competition, get a soda, relax while the judges work up their scores thus far for the remaining pairs," After having spoke, he quietly walked over to the judges and began to conferr with them.

Ranma and Hiroshi relaxed, Ranma didn't find it too odd how close she was to Hiroshi.. she felt comfortable. She felt SAFE.

Slow music began to play, a noticable contrast to the upbeat melodies that the dance contest was prone to.

Neither recognized the song, which was in english.... but the melody had a certain harmony with their souls...

"There used to be a greying Tower alone on the Sea,

You became the Light on the Dark side of me.

Love remained the drug that's the high, not the pill...

And did you know, that when it snows, my eyes become large, for the light that you shine can't be seen...."

They calmly danced, Ranma holding Hiroshi close, as if she might lose everything important if she let him go.. the lights dimmed, slowly changing to a deep azure that drifted lazily across the dance floor.

Two as one, one in love, Love in vain, Love Plain, yet distant. Their arms seeming surreptitiously wrapped around eachother, as if nobody else was around to watch them. Alone on the dance floor of life, yet alone together.

"Hiroshi??" Ranma asked in a quiet voice.. as if she suddenly had some sort of inkling, something that was scraping it's way slowly up from the pit of her supressed emotions...

"Shhh, Ranma... Shh.. I know.." He knew she so longed to say those words, those words that she didn't even know she wanted to say. Words so hard to say, three simple... simple words.

He held her tighter, his own tears threatening. *What would you do for love, Hiroshi?? Would you give it up, if need be? Would you walk away? Are you that brave, Hiroshi?*

The words taunted him... that small, nagging concience he had been cursed with. Something that had always made him a compassionate, caring, noble person he now feared and hated.

A hand came to rest on Hiroshi's shoulder, breaking the nigh perfect moment.

"I ask, with infinite humility and great embarrassment, if I might have a word or three with your partner on this eve, fair Saotoe Ranma, so that I might discuss some matters which thine ears are not adept to hear. If you please, that is, M'lady," Kuno looked quite serious as he spoke, and looked directly at Ranma's eyes as Hiroshi gazed up at him in curiosity.

Ranma bristled, "Just a second, Kuno... ain't you supposed to be with mega-bitch-monster?" Ranma glared fire at Kuno, her disposition none too friendly at being interrupted.

Kuno's lips tightened into a thin line, "My... date is less than appealing to bear social company with, thusly, I have informed her that she might mingle with her female cohorts and thus leave me to peruse my own modest aquaintances for intriquing debate topic. A needless boast, but enough for her rather simple mind to rationalize that I may, indeed, need mine own personal space," Kuno crossed his arms, looking at Ranma with a level expression.

Ranma narrowed her eyes, her hand unconciously on her hips in a rather feminine stance of righteous anger, "I don't like you, Kuno... since I came to this town, you have done nothing but fawn over my girl side, even when I explained to you what was up. If you want to-to-to Talk to Hiroshi, then FINE, TALK TO HIROSHI!"

Ranma turned on her heels and stomped off, leaving Hiroshi standing somewhat stunned and speechless.

"Never have I seen the lady fair let down her scarlett blessed locks of hair... nor have I witnessed so divine a wrath, as shown Ranma's most FEMININE warpath. Methinks all is not right in the world," Kuno frowned in quiet contemplation.

Hiroshi sighed and shook his head, despite Kuno's knack for ignoring general reality, he had hit the nail on the head for once. Ranma was acting female... and very bizzarrely female at that. No doubt about it anymore.

He turned patiently, looking up at Kuno, "What did you want to speak to me about, Kuno?"

The Upperclassmen looked down at Hiroshi, his lips tightening again as his brow furrowed, a serious expression for the kendoist. "Methinks that a less public surrounding may be more appropot to that which I severely must discuss with you, Miramoto Hiroshi," Kuno brought his hand up, running his index and middle fingers along the line of his jaw and rubbing his chin in a thoughtful motion.

"The balcony should suffice well enough, if you will but step before me, I shall follow in post haste," He bowed at the waist, waiting for Hiroshi to walk up to the balcony before he did.

Needless to say, this was an ODD reaction from Kuno.

"Kuno.. uhm.. are you allright? You aren't your usual pompous self," Hiroshi looked at the bowing upperclassmen. Kuno was ALWAYS blabbing about his superior status, this seemed like something out of the Twilight Zone.

"My arrogance is ill fitting on this night, when sternness is much more needed," Kuno rose from the bow. "I am asking of you if I may speak in private with you.... this is not an easy thing for one such as I to do, who has pride and honor that is hard to ignore for very long, so I ask again," Kuno held a hand towards the stairs, waiting for Hiroshi to move.

Hiroshi sighed, then nodded. Whatever could make Kuno serious HAD to be severe indeed. He began walking up the stairs, followed shortly by the kendoist.

Nabiki Tendou watched them go, her mind asking a million questions... all of which she had no answer to.

* * * * * *

She stared at the pool of unmoving water, down into the eyes of her reflection. Those eyes had a disturbing, almost empty quality, or perhaps there was something else. Perhaps it was how the light danced behind that vacant gaze that seemed to insinuate that the person in the body was not alone in the least in their catatonic state of mind.

Those blue eyes that occassionaly had a bright color dance across them... almost like rainbow fire, her eyes... blue, most of the time though. As blue as the beautiful sky. A somewhat sharp, angular slant to her facial structure, bones, jaw set in a way as to seem somewhat feline.. or almost smooth, as a serpent might be.

The complexion in the reflection was one of smooth, pale ivory.. almost a ghostly ambience that seemed to hover just ever so slightly above the skin. Hard to notice unless you gazed long enough.

She sat, in a kimono, at the foot of the pool, on a red silk pillow with a gold dragon embroidered upon it. A gift, from the Amazons. A gift to furnish the temple. Not that she noticed, then... not that she noticed anything but the voices in her head, arguing, debating, considering, insulting.

The Kimono was a deep crimson, with green trimming and multicolored blossoms depicted across it's surface, vines winding and decorating the sleeve cuffs and neckline. A midnight black sash was wrapped tightly around her feminine frame.

The Pool was tiled all around, with a short lip at the edge, jutting several inches from the ground. The water was crystal clarity, yet the bottom could not be seen...

"Kaoru," A soft female voice came, something that seemed to barely pierce the cloud of darkness that danced across Kaoru's vacant eyes. Her gaze devoid of any humanity, of any.... intelligence. An Empty shell, only voices.

"Kaoru.... My Child," The voice was smooth as silk, as sweet as honey, yet with a undercurrent that promised sharp steel as that of a katana's edge. Such a caring, gentle voice, with such promise of wrath beneath the surface.

Again, there was no response, just the voidless vacant stare of the young dragon child, staring at her reflection. Kaoru opened her mouth in a seemingly unknowing manner... her breath slowly ushering out from betwixt her silken lips.

A shiver ran down Shimitsu-Ryuu's spine, as her child breathed out, a wind seemed to stir from somewhere in the temple, ruffling her clothing and hair.

The wind caressed Kaoru, seeming to tug and to tease at her crimson locks... moving the band of her braided green hair that hung over her shoulder. The green streak was inherited from her mother's side... marking her as a Shimitsu.

Shimitsu-Ryuu cautiously stepped closer to Kaoru, going to her knees beside her child, sitting in the same position and staring at her child's reflection.

A pretty girl Kaoru was not... her supernatural heritage, as well as the clothing did much to improve her looks beyond mere beauty. Yet there was this disturbing quality to her presence. It was like walking into a room full of mad people... you feel such infinite sadness and pity.

It is said, in some places, this is because you can feel the broken souls... the fractured remnants of once happy and lively people. Yet, with Kaoru, it was worse. You could SEE it in her eyes, sometimes her eyes would refract light in such a way as to seem like broken glass... shattered.

"20 years.. Mother....," The words were quick, quiet, ushered low and calm, no emotion or inflection at all.

Shimitsu nodded, sighing sadly. For twenty years Kaoru had been hidden, when the villagers had come to speak with her, she had to lie to them. Her child's fragile sanity had no place for change... it had to heal, it had to gain that strength back, lest she lose Kaoru forever.

"20 years of pain.. suffering... loneliness," There was emotion thick in that last word. Almost tears. "So much longer, since Mihiru... sometimes it devours me and I cannot sleep, Mother," Yes, definitely near tears. Thick with sorrow.

Mihiru... a man. *No, never, never JUST a man,* Shimitsu reminded herself with a firm and angry chiding. "Will you dwell, my child?? My darling Kaoru?"

A shiver ran through Kaoru, and the whole room seemed to drop to a freezing temperature, ice forming on the surface of the water, "It was so cold, Mother..." Her breath was misty and hot, floating through the air.

"So cold... I couldn't help it, they were the only thing I could have of me... the voices, they helped me... the cold.. and dark," the light suddenly seemed to vanish from the room... Kaoru and Shimitsu outlined in a gentle glowing nimbus.. Kaoru's an icy blue.

Shimitsu took her child's hand, holding it tightly, "You are safe now, my darling.. my dear, sweet child. Safe, there is no more darkness, no more cold... we are home, we are here, in Shimitsu Temple," Her tone was urgent, yet at the same time patient. Forcefull, yet at the same time humble and accepting.

Kaoru turned her eyes towards her Mother, as if seeing her for the first time.. two tears made twin trails down her cheeks, "The darkness is inside of me, Mother.. inside of me, it eats out your insides.. fills you up with cold and pain and loneliness..." her voice seemed to echo.

Shimitsu held tightly to Kaoru's hand, looking with painful love at her poor, broken child. She took Kaoru in her gentle arms, even as she felt the painful twisting and shifting of bone, the cracking and popping of joints as they realigned.

A young man now sobbed in her arm, victim of a heritage that was grim and unyielding... a curse on his birth, at his birth, by his birth.

"My son... my tortured.. lonely son... How I wish I could take your pain into me, take away your hurting, How I long to hold that laughing child in my arms again, and not have to fear stains of tears," Shimitsu rocked him gently back and forth, as a Mother would her babe.

"Mother.. Mother, why, why did this have to happen to me??? Is it because of what I am? Why couldn't the demon just kill me... the pain... it hurts...," Her child howled as another bout of crying began, bones and muscle once again shifting, popping, reshaping as Kaoru shook violently in her mother's arms.

A demon... one of the Lords of Darkness had done something to her child. Nothing similar to Jusenkyou, not in the least... this curse seemed locked in trigger to Kaoru's soul.

A soul of Chaos, ever changing, so was her son's body to change back and forth, from female to male... the trigger was never sure, never fixed. It could be as simple as emotion, or as complex as specific roots that were rare and hard to come by... and never was there a full cure. At any time, any where a change could happen.

*Jusenkyou.. would have been so much more merciful, dear Kami...* She blamed herself as Kaoru shuddered and finally stopped convulsing from pain, a weary, weakened look on Kaoru's face.

Shimitsu thought of it as her punishment, punishment for giving birth to Kaoru, to watch her child suffer for the rest of her life. Kaoru, by all rights, should have been killed on birth... other dragons with the same marks had been born throughout history, and all went insane. Kaoru was the 9th of these dragons, destined to go mad people said.

Dragons of Chaos, of disorder, of madness... they were well known in chinese folklore, destroying whole cities in fits of insanity and rage. They never seemed so powerful until that moment of insanity... then their full fury seemed to be unbridled in all it's horrendous glory.

Shimitsu looked down at her sobbing, pain wracked child. They never seemed to be a threat....

"M..mother... please, take the pain away," Kaoru's face was pale, a slight sheen of sweat on her forehead. She had stopped changing, but there was no telling when she would change next. Days, months, years.. or hours...

Shimitsu took the slight girl in her arms, her child weighing almost nothing at all, as light as a feather to her. She carried the shaking child carefully to the next room, which was wall to wall shelves with various pots, jars, and glass vases full of plants, herbs, and other rare ingredients.

People feared Kaoru, shied away from the Dragon child. They warded their houses against her, and didn't like it when she was around.

By all rights, her very Mother should have feared what she was.. instead, the Guardian Dragon loved her child. There was never a moment that went by that Shimitsu did not cherish and comfort Kaoru, not a moment where she did not do her utmost to make Kaoru feel normal, to feel like a normal child, not a freak of nature.

She set Kaoru down on one of the pallets in the room, brushing some hair from the young Dragon's face. She turned, and began searching for ingredients to a special healing salve, unsure if it would work this time or not.

A few rare people had actually become friends with Kaoru.. most among the tribal Amazons that lived at the base of the mountain. Most of which had died since Kaoru was lost in the battle with Dhim Ta.

*A thousand years of darkness and cold* Shimitsu stopped for a moment, holding one of the many jars. She looked at Kaoru, the shivering, fragile, scared creature that was her child. She felt the bitter pangs of regret, of sadness... that she could have kept this from happening, she was sure.

Kaoru was strong.. unnaturally strong. She had always been strong. From childhood on, she had to be in order to survive. Some of it came from her father, *Vintarou... my love*

Shimitsu shook the memory off, mixing the ingredients she had found. Vintarou... one of five priests of Kami that were dragon purebreds. *No use crying over spilled milk.. centuries past....*

Her husband had been lost in a battle with the very same demon that took her child from her when Kaoru had gone after the vile creature to avenge her father.

The demon had done something, and no healer she had ever met could figure out what the Demon had done to her child... on that first meeting, the meeting where Vintarou had died.

She continued grinding the mixture together into a paste as she walked over to Kaoru, who was breathing in a controlled, disciplined manner, pushing the pain to the back of her mind as much as possible.

"Mother.. it.. it is hard... I can handle it most of the time now, you know I can. I can... I am not mad, there are voices... they are there, please.. believe me..," Kaoru clutched a hand tightly to one of her Mother's sleeves.

Clutching with an almost wild fanaticism that some mad people go through, as if to find something real that could tell them that what they know is real, not just some half-faded dream from a hopeless mind.

"I know, my lovely Kaoru, I know... I believe you, do not worry my darling one," She smiled, and for a brief moment she seemed her age. Very old, that.

"Yes.. Yes, thank you..." Kaoru seemed to calm, although she was still shaking from pain. Unlike Jusenkyou, this change was not without torture.

Shimitsu lifted the bowl of the noxious substance to Kaoru's lips, "Drink this, dear... it may taste bad, but-"

Kaoru nodded her head, taking the bowl and drinking as if she had spent weeks in the desert. Her face twisted in disgust at the initial taste, yet she drank it. *Discipline, Order, Control, Humility..* She recited to herself.

Discipline to work through the pain, both emotional and physical, as well as spiritual. Discipline to know what must be done.

Order to keep limits to yourself, to know your own limits as well as to know the limits of the world around you. Order to understand, Order to give patience to the Soul.

Control, to fend off the madness. The madness that so many have told her she would succumb to.. the madness that told her she must in the end destroy. Always it beckoned, tempting...

*HUMILITY...* Kaoru said loudly as the medicine began to make her muscles burn, her body relax.

Humility to know. To know that even though she was born by right and blood into a race longer lived and more powerful than man.... that she was, fundamentally, human. Perhaps not by race, nor blood, but by the frailty of her soul.

Shimitsu waited and watched patiently as her child finished the bowl, handing it back. She noted that her child's breathing was still carefully being controlled. *Oh, Kaoru.. my baby...* She fought back her tears.

She loved her child, loved her fiercely, strongly. *Kaoru.. my little Princess.. my darling Soldier of Misfortune..* She squeezed Kaoru's hand gently, smiling down at her. A tear escaping, trailing down her cheek.

Kaoru opened her eyes, relaxing her body. She looked at her mother, smiling weakly. "..thank.. thank you Mother. It is still sometimes hard, when I am alone in a room... I begin to wonder if-"

"Shhh, no.. don't wonder, please," Shimitsu smiled gently, clasping Kaoru's hand in her own. "I love you, and I don't want you to ever wonder if.. if this is all just a dream and you are still in that.. horrible place, My darling Kaoru," She reached out, gently touching Kaoru's cheek in a soft caress.

Kaoru smiled somewhat sadly. "I may have left there.. physically.. but a part of me remains there, for all time Mother," Kaoru sat up, her body looking worn, tired.. as if she hadn't slept in days.

"Please, Love, don't exert yourself..." Shimitsu asked calmly, not expecting an affirmation for her request.... after all, it was Kaoru, not one of her Acolytes.

Kaoru closed her eyes for a long moment, relaxing and just concentrating on breathing. Slowly, they opened again... and turned to gaze directly at Shimitsu's green eyes. "Who was it, Mother??? You don't usually interrupt my.. my.." Kaoru's face twisted in a pained fashion, "My reflection."

Shimitsu suddenly felt threatened.. somewhat self concious as she turned away from her child's piercing gaze, "It was no-one. Nobody you should concern yourself with, you're in no condition to-"

"Mother," Kaoru's tone was in no way stern, or hard... it was calm, pleading, the words soft and gentle, "I don't care who it was, anyone who wants to see me..." She trailed off, frowning and looking inward, as if not liking what she was seeing.

Shimitsu turned and looked back, watching Kaoru for a moment as she stayed silent. It took her a minute to realize that.. one of them were speaking to her child, a concept that caused a sad, sinking feeling deep inside of her.

That blue gaze once more returned to Shimitsu, as if hearing her thoughts, "Mother, the people who come to see me are the only people that I can speak to outside of the temple.. I am.. I am trapped here, Mother, don't you know that? Didn't you know that when I left to journey??"

"Yes, Kaoru. But I just want you to heal, to-" She stopped, her jaw moving but nothing coming out, tears threatening once more.

Kaoru's expression softened, "I need to go, Mom... I need to leave, staying here, no matter how much I love and cherish you, will not help me heal any more than I have. I need-" She paused, tears welling in her blue eyes as a thought brushed past her memories, "I need the touch of friends, the thrill of travel.. I want to start over fresh. My luck is bound to change, Mom."

Shimitsu knew her child's luck had never been the greatest.. that silent curse on her birth might be the cause, or she might have just been picked out of millions to be Kami's kicking post... she didn't know.

"I want what's best for you, Kaoru, I always have," Shimitsu walked closer, taking her daughter's hands in her own and looking at her carefully, "Do you think this is best?? Leaving.. now?"

Kaoru stared back at her mother, considering. All her life, her mother and she had been close.. yet since the curse had come along, somehow she had become closer to Shimitsu, closer to her as a woman and daughter.

Letting go, that first time, had been torture... agony. Leaving the temple, her home, had been even worse. Yet through all of the hard times, the trials and tests, she had come to a comclusion.

She would never give up her time outside the temple. Friends, companions, foes, comrades... they were all too precious to give up. Memories she would never EVER long to change, no matter how painfull.

So she nodded. "The road... the world makes me whole. I need to find myself again... and.. I feel something stirring in the wind, something momentous. Something linked with.. with whoever came to visit me, Mother."

Shimitsu stared back, something aching inside of her... the part that was a mother to her child, letting go was always hard. She felt that Kaoru still needed her, as a friend more than a mother, still, she nodded, through her tears, and began telling Kaoru of the visitor.

"Her Name, my child... is Cologne, Matriarch of the Niie Chiezuu..."

* * * * * *

"You love her," The words were simple, a statement, a very true statement in any case. Three words, from someone who Hiroshi had expected a barrage of litanies from.

Hiroshi leaned on the railing that overlooked the parking lot, crossing his arms as he cast a sideways glance at Kuno, "Uhm.. what do you mean, Kuno???" Hiroshi asked, wondering if his voice was level.

The night air was very cool, snow drifting down around them, almost as if it were a dream. Hiroshi had wished, more than once that night, that it was.

"Miramoto, I may be delusional, but I am in no manner, way, or form stupid. You love Ranma Saotome, the Saotome that you were dancing with, I as a warrior poet know love when I see it, and YOU are in LOVE," Kuno stood, arms folded across his chest, as he looked levelly at Hiroshi, there was no jesting, no joking in his tone of voice. Only firm assuredness.

Hiroshi frowned, his eyes looking fully at Kuno. Was it so obvious to people??? If Kuno could tell..

"Like I said, Miramoto-san.. I am a warrior poet, and have had a certain... enamored attitude towards the red-head in question, I doubt the others even cared enough to notice, so don't worry yourself," Kuno seemed to have read him like a book, and didn't seem to doubt his assumption in the least.

Hiroshi let out a long, weary sigh, "Okay.. I do, I love her more every sunrise, Kuno.. but what does that matter??? We're destinies apart, as far as I am concerned," Hiroshi looked away from Kuno, up at the sky, the swirling snowflakes dancing across his vision, some falling on his face to melt quickly from his body heat.

"If you love her truly so much, then why have you not spoken with her??? Told her your feelings? Out of all mine peers in Furenkin High, I would never brand you a coward Miramoto Hiroshi," Kuno smoothed his outfit, locking his hands behind him.

Hiroshi growled in frustration. ALWAYS the same questions. "Because I *CAN'T* Kuno!!! She is engaged to a lovely, bright, caring woman who has FINALLY come around in the relationship! I am a problem, something to be removed, something that.. That.. She just can't afford to confront."

"Yet you must confront her, and I am guessing that tonight you were planning on doing this?" Kuno stepped closer, ignoring the tense, unsure demeanor that Hiroshi was naturally exuding.

Hiroshi's emotions seemed to collapse in on themselves, and the hurt and pain welled up inside of him again, "God, Kuno... I love her so much, I should never have promised to tell.. the girl I love about it on the first snow. I just couldn't.. I can't let it go on forever, I would die," The pain was fresh, as if the wound was new instead of weeks old.

Kuno nodded, almost to himself, as he turned, looking up at the sky. "So you are trapped in a web of your own making.. forced to tell a woman you care for deeply of your true amorous feelings for her.. feelings which may, in truth, destroy any chance of friendship that you might have had. A betrayal of trust... this is what you feel," Kuno spoke as if he knew, in some way, what Hiroshi felt.

Hiroshi wiped tears from his eyes, "Y-Yes. If there were only some way to tell her and not lose her, but then I am going to lose her anyways... she is Honor bound to marry Akane, an arranged marriage.. but they both love eachother, YOU should understand better than most the price honor exacts."

Kuno turned, his face sad and pained at the same time, as if he had been stabbed in the heart by his dearest friend, "Hiroshi," Kuno said in a calm, level tone, "I should know better than anyone else... that Honor's price is sometimes too heavy to pay. Sanity, friends, respect... all these things I have lost in the name of Honor and Bravery. What Price Honor, Miramoto??? What Price Honor?"

Hiroshi turned to look at Kuno in silent shock, he was unsure if those words were truly coming from the Kendoists mouth.

"What price, Hiroshi, is Honor... is it worth losing all the things that are important?? Is it worth giving up all that which makes us whole and happy, our honor?? Sometimes... Sometimes honor is too much to pay," Kuno turned back, leaning on the railing.

He looked tired, as if he had been fighting his whole life and hadn't gained any ground... as if he had fought and lost what he was protecting, his humanity. "Yet some people are bound by honor, tied as surely as one would be if they were bound by cords of the strongest steel. Trapped in a guilded cage.... an iron box where nobody can hear them screaming, or crying," Kuno's voice was solemn, and his eyes grew distant.

"But then you become used to it, and you begin to like the box you have put yourself into, you begin to make pride and embellishment of how dubiously gifted you are to be trapped, wrapped, and packaged in honor. You forget what emotions are, forget there is anyone else but yourself.. you become what you truly have fought and feared.... your father, in my case," He smiled bitterly, looking over at Hiroshi.

Hiroshi looked at Kuno. A totured soul, a soul that had suffered and known suffering intimately, "Why???" He asked... he couldn't think of anything else to say, the words from Kuno so shocking. More shocking that it was Kuno who was speaking them.

"My mother was a good woman," Kuno nodded, looking out across the parking lot at the city, "She was a GOOD woman, a wonderful, caring, proud woman," Kuno said it with vehement conviction, as if he was trying to convince Hiroshi of it.

Getting no response he continued, "She was human, and frail.. she did not fear her emotions, her humanity. She did not fear showing them when they needed showing.... she taught me to live by honor, yet never to live by honor alone... honor alone can kill the soul as surely as lack of honor can, Hiroshi," Kuno nodded again... it half seemed as if he was talking to himself.

"How.. how did you get to this point, K-... I mean, Tatewake?" He asked, leaning against the railing beside Kuno.

"I was alone... I was thinking. You see, since Ranma has entered our lives, I have lost more and more respect and honor... so much so until I realized that my peers never loved the man I was, they loved my strength.. they feared it, they revelled in my pomposity... when I was proven a fool to them, I became nothing more than a loser to be shunned and loathed, you see..." he trailed off, looking at Hiroshi.

Hiroshi smiled, "I understand, go on," for some reason, Hiroshi felt Kuno truly was different than the Kuno he knew.

"You see, they only knew me as Kuno, Champion of Furenkin High, because that is all I showed them. I spoke of honor, because that is all I had when my Mother died. I locked my emotions away... that is dishonorable, far more than our.. our society lets us believe. It kills the soul, Hiroshi, as surely as any blade can. What we feel is far more important than what we have been taught to feel," Kuno grew silent, looking out at the city, yet giving the impression that he was looking deep within.

"What... what does it have to do with Ranma, though?" Hiroshi asked, silently, calmly.

Kuno smiled in sad reflection, "Tell her, Hiroshi... then you must leave her. You must... remove yourself from the situation. Let events decide themselves.... is honor more important than what she feels for you??? Choices are rarely made when they are pressed and forced so much that they crush a person's soul... you must have freedom to choose, freedom to realize, to come to your own conclusion."

They both sat quietly for a long moment, Kuno reflecting on his shameful actions for so many years, Hiroshi reflecting on the offchance that Ranma really could choose... if it was possible at all for her to choose him.

Hiroshi reached into his inner jacket pocket, pulling out the yellowed parchment his sister had given him. He stared at it for a long time, wondering, thinking, and finally deciding.

"Tatewake...," He asked quietly, with calm and patient precision. "Would you like to go on a... sabbatical for a while??"

Kuno looked up at Hiroshi, nodding silently. "I believe, to speak in truth, that we both are in desperate need of a temporary leave of absence, for the mind and soul," It was a pragmatic answer, with none of the roundabout that Kuno was so well know for... yet Kuno had been speaking over the last several minutes somewhat normally.

"But what of Ranma?" Kuno asked suddenly, causing Hiroshi to wince, feeling that old hurt welling up again.

"...I... I can't face her in the school, it will be tonight but.. but.. I can't stand being so close to her and not being able to tell her anymore," Hiroshi looked down at his hands, once more wondering why there was no answer within them.

Kuno sighed, nodding solemnly, "If you leave now.. she.. will be upset, to say the least,"

"I.. I know, Kuno.. but.. I was doing so good until..." He wiped his eyes, tears threatening to burst from his eyes in a torrent, "Until you opened up the wound I was hiding from..."

Kuno nodded solemnly. "Then I suggest you... and I, both leave. A single contest will not determine our lives, I am sure. On the other hand, if we are to leave, we both must prepare... I am sure that you meant tonight?"

Hiroshi could only nod, looking back at the doors into the stadium.. wishing that he could dance one more time with her.

* * * * * *

Ranma fumed, pacing back and forth on the edge of the dance floor, How could he go off and LEAVE her like that??? A part of her thought it was very rational, since someone wanted to talk to him...

The larger part was pouting, much like a child who's had their favorite toy taken from them after misusing it. *Nonsense* Ranma told herself, *How can you misuse a person??? That's silly.*

Ranma growled, looking at the clock. Only 7 minutes remained in the contest break. 7 minutes, and no sign of Hiroshi anywhere. She had looked on the balcony, where Kuno and he had vanished after she had stormed off.

*Dammit, Roshi... you KNOW that tonight is important to me, it's not like you to just... BLOW IT OFF....* Ranma frowned, sitting down with a thump on one of the resting benches.

She looked around at all the people who were happily talking, each of them had a partner, a compliment, someone who they could laugh with, talk to, enjoy the evening with. *Dammit, Hiroshi, where are you?!* Ranma tapped her foot impatiently.

Naturally, she told herself, it had nothing to do with the loneliness. Nothing at all, she told herself, feeling sure and positive. It just had to be about the contest, she was sure. It didn't matter about how people were hugging and kissing, it didn't matter that she somehow wished Hiroshi could hold her...

That he could hold her like he had been holding her, like he had been holding her before kuno interrupted. The song was nice... that's why she liked being so close to him, it was the song that reminded her of being relaxed she told herself.

Yet, that little niggling part of her that she chose to ignore, that part in the back of her head murmured there was something more than just the contest, something more than just the song. She had been feeling something the whole night with Hiroshi, from the moment she saw him smile again her world seemed to brighten up.

From the moment she set eyes on his lovely, soft brown gaze, she felt complete. She couldn't explain it, she couldn't understand it, so she ignored it... rationalized it away, made believe it was something else entirely.

*Dammit.. where are you, Hiroshi???* Ranma asked, as the clock continued drawing closer to when the contest would resume.

"Ranma???" Said a soft, yet strong female voice. Ranma looked up, and smiled in recognition of Yuka.

"Hi!! Are you enjoying the night??" Ranma asked, somehow happy there was someone else to talk to.

Yuka looked somewhat upset as she looked down at her feet, "Yeah, my date is being a perfect gentleman... not that I can say much more good about him," She spared a smile, her comment drawing a giggle from ranma.

"Well, all guys can't be perfect like me, ya'know," Ranma posed for a moment, looking not at all male.

Yuka smiled softly, then sighed, "Ranma... uhm.. I hate to comeover here and upset you, because I like to think of... us... as friends since the sleepover. Somewhat good friends, I hope..?" She was unsure, and fidgeted slightly with the gloves that decorated her forearms. Velvet.

Ranma smiled back, then noticed her serious demeanor, "Uhh, Sure Yuka-chan.. we're friends, I suppose. I mean.. as much as a guy can be friends with a girl, right???" Ranma smiled brightly, trying to cheer Yuka up, not knowing what was bothering the girl.

Yuka furrowed her brow, looking very serious, "Hiroshi hasn't talked to you tonight, has he??? Has he said anything serious or anything???"

Ranma blinked, then thought back over the night, "Naah, Roshi hasn't said anything... he's just been great tonight, a real pal, ya know?"
Yuka sighed, rubbing her eyes a little in vexation, "Ranma.. Hiroshi, he-"

"He what?" Ranma asked, suddenly very unsure, what could have happened??? Hiroshi wasn't one to be late... could he have gotten hurt somehow? Fallen off the balcony?? She hadn't thought of that, "Is.. is he okay??"

Yuka blinked for a moment, then softened her expression, "He's fine, last I saw him.. but.. Ranma, he's left the dance... he looked pretty bummed when he did so, Too," She looked worried, unsure of how Ranma would react to the news.

Ranma frowned, a heartbroken look in her eyes, "But.. he.. he said he would do the contest with me, he said he'd be my partner and help me try and win... Hiroshi doesn't lie," She said, as if stating common knowledge to Yuka.

Yuka sighed sadly, shaking her head. She knew how Hiroshi felt.. how Ranma felt, it was all too obvious after the sleepover, "Ranma, Hiroshi... well, You're right, I've never known him to lie... but, he looked very upset and.. even hurt a little. I don't know why he left, but I know that something must have happened," She sat down by Ranma, picking up the redhead's hand.

"But he wouldn't! I know Hiroshi, my Hiroshi wouldn't skip out on me like that, not when I need him, I KNOW he wouldn't," Ranma sounded as if she was trying to convince Yuka that she hadn't seen what she had seen, she sounded confused and more than a little hurt.

"I know what I saw, Ranma-chan... Sayuri saw it too, do you think I would lie to you about something like that?" She squeezed Ranma's hand gently, as if to reassure the redhead that she was there to talk to if Ranma needed to.

"But... tonight was important to me.. to Akane too, how could he do that??? I don't.. understand," Ranma shook her head, feeling stinging tears threaten, not understanding why.. it was only a contest, right???

"Ranma... I can't explain it, all I know is he looked pretty hurt and lonely when he left... maybe.. maybe he needs someone to talk to. I just hope he doesn't do anything brash...," Yuka trailed off, unsure if she should have said that last thought.

Ranma stiffened, looking fearful all of a sudden, "He wouldn't do that, would he?? He wouldn't, tell me he wouldn't..." Ranma started to panic, was it something she had done?? Did she insult him somehow???

Yuka shook her head quickly to dissuade Ranma's panic, "No! No! I don't think he would.. no, I know he wouldn't.. but.. maybe you should go see if he's okay, you know???"

"But the contest-" Ranma heard the buzzer, cueing the contest to start again, the remaining pairs already gathered on the dance floor.

Yuka sighed, "Without a partner, you can't participate.. besides.. which is more important your..." Yuka paused a moment, then started again hoping that Ranma didn't notice her error, "..Best friend, or a contest???"

Ranma sighed as the dance began again, looking up at the Announcer as he announced the new rules for the final round, Then she stood, Yuka doing the same.

"...I... I guess I have to go, Thanks Yuka," Ranma forced a smile, even though she felt very sad for some reason. *The contest, it's gotta be. I hate losing.* She tried to convince herself.

Yuka smiled, "You're welcome Ranma..." She squeezed the redhead's hand again, then let her go.

Ranma picked her jacket up and walked towards the door.

Akane stared after Ranma, wondering why she was leaving.

* * * * * *

She walked quietly down the street, her arms wrapped around her. The snow fell with a silent yet persistent strength, gathering on the ground.

She shivered, exhaling a misty vapor as she looked around. The night was quiet. The darkness pushed back only by the dull glow of the city streetlamps, there were no dogs barking, no sirens blaring... not even a car passed by.

All in all, a strange night at the edge of Tokyo. It made it seem a little unreal, a little unbelievable.. that silent darkness. It also made Ranma feel all the more alone, it reminded her of a dream she had... she couldn't remember much, only that she was very very alone in a big dark place, and even Akane couldn't hear her.

She sighed, looking around at the empty streets, looking at the houses she passed. She figured families were eating dinner about now... *NORMAL families..* Ranma noted with a broken feeling inside. Her family had never been so normal... sure, the Tendo's had dinner every night, but almost every night something weird would happen.

She had never grown up with a mother.. never known what it was like growing up with one. All too soon, she was grown up.. forced to accept the world in a harsh new way. *Mom... I wish I could have spent more time with you.. known you better before.. before I became an adult.*

Regretted time, regretted consequences... Ranma knew there was no going back on some things. Recently her mother had been trying... so very hard to bond with her. To find some connection with the child her Husband had taken away.

*Pop...* Ranma stared at the sidewalk as she walked, realizing that her father hadn't been very talkative or social with her lately... a man she had grown up with, a man who she knew and.. yes, and who she loved in some strange way.

Everyone she knew seemed so far away all of a sudden... Akane so intent on beating her in some fashion, so intent on proving that she was an equal to Ranma. She had turned out to be a wonderful, caring, loving woman.. but sometimes she could be so single minded.

*Not that you can blame her, Ranma, look at yourself.* Ranma hated remembering that she was no better than her fiancee.... no better at thinking things through, thinking carefully about what their relationship meant.

*Why now???* She couldn't understand.... had no idea why she had suddenly, as of a few months ago, began to understand the subtlety of how her relationship with Akane worked. Was it Hiroshi?? Surely one person... one person couldn't be so influential on so many.

Ranma looked up at another streetlight that she passed, noting that she was getting closer to Hiroshi's house. *Hiroshi... a sweet, caring, compassionate friend... a person who's been nothing but a help to me... someone I value, and trust, and who I hate seeing hurt... that.. woman, whoever she is.... how could she not love Hiroshi??*

Ranma shook her head.. no use dwelling. She obviously didn't know something about the relationship Hiroshi had with this woman, and wondering WHY it couldn't work out didn't help matters much.. only ended up making her feel even WORSE.

The night was beautiful, she noted... the wind wasn't too strong, and the snow seemed to make everything seem tranquil, as if the world was dreaming in some quiet slumber.

Ranma reflected over the past several weeks.... not for the first time. She was more than surprised at how much had changed in such a short time... Mousse and Shampoo's Marriage, Cologne's disappearance, Nodoka's discovery of her curse...

For some reason, she missed the chaos.. the zaniness that seemed to invade her day to day life. She missed the adventure and excitement, knowing that anything could happen at any time. She missed having the constant adrenaline rush of wondering what could happen next.

*Of course...* She mused, *I certainly DON'T miss being malleted. One plus for the changes... although not a big one.*

Akane had calmed down a lot recently, most likely because of Hiroshi's little talks with her. Ranma was never surprised at how well Hiroshi influenced people, he had a good heart, a good soul, and cared genuinely about everyone with no motive for himself.

Ranma sighed, wondering why Hiroshi, her friend, her confidante, would leave without telling her where he was going, why he would leave in such an upset state... if Yuka was to be believed. Which Ranma figured she was.

She worried about Hiroshi.. perhaps more than she should, but through some of the hardest times lately he had been there to guide her through, to be a protector... *Protector??? Do I really need protection??* She didn't think so.. but.. somehow she felt safe around Hiroshi, when she was with him she didn't feel as if events were likely to blow up in her face.

She stopped at the driveway leading up to her friend's house, noticing that it was dark inside except for a light in the living room. *That's right... Memeko and Kaehmi should be asleep by now,* Ranma frowned, wondering if she should just go home instead.

She steeled herself, *I have to know if Hiroshi is okay.. I HAVE to...* She began slowly walking down the driveway, worry edging itself into her soul.. what could have happened?? Was it the girl?? That must be it.. he must have told the girl, and the reaction was as bad as he had thought.

*Oh god, poor Hiroshi...* She felt tears threaten, tears she pushed back.. now was NOT the time to cry. Hiroshi needed her, and she would be there for him to comfort him, to hold him...

She would be strong for him because he was strong for her, all those times when she needed someone strong... someone who could help, and listen.

She stopped at the door, looking at it carefully for a moment... a small niggling doubt surfaced. What if Hiroshi wanted to be alone?? What if he was upset that she had come??? What if he didn't want to speak with her?

Something hurt severely inside her at the possibilities... she didn't know why, but she wouldn't be able to handle it... Hiroshi not wanting to speak with her. It would hurt worse than her whole body had after the fight with Saffron.

She had to know.. she had to be sure he was allright... even if he was upset with her, she could tough it. She'd been through worse. *I just have to know.... to make sure. He's my friend.* She said silently to herself, as if to convince herself that was why she was coming.

She gently knocked on the door, then blinked as she noticed it slightly ajar. She pushed it slowly open, looking around the dark hallway with the faint glow from the living room. "Hello?? Hiroshi???" She asked, tentatively... her voice echoed in the empty house, no response forthcoming.

She walked in, carefully closing the door behind her... she flipped on the hall light, and peaked into the living room. The lamp was on, but nobody was around... Hiroshi's prom outfit was back on the hanger, and hanging on the knob of the closet door.

She frowned, looking around. Obviously Hiroshi had come back, since his outfit was here... but where had he gone???

*Maybe he's in his room,* Ranma pondered, turning from the living room she began walking upstairs, wincing as one of the steps creaked, and hoping she hadn't woken anyone up.

She carefully peaked into Hiroshi's room, seeing that some of the clothes were laying out, as well as several other things, looking as if Hiroshi had been sorting through various objects.

Again, Hiroshi was strangely absent. A thought occurred to her. If the girl HAD gone and told him off.. he would be downstairs, in The Vault. The place where he was most relaxed, the place where he had been working that first day... that day months ago when Ranma had run from the school while having a nervous breakdown.

Ranma slowly crept back down the stairs, being sure to avoid the squeek she had caused on her route up them. She walked slowly down the hallway, flipping on the light for the ladder, she looked down carefully, then quickly descended, having a slight bit of trouble since she was still in her Prom outfit.

She walked slowly down the hallway, carefully avoiding the dripping water from above, and peaked inside the dimly lit carving room.

For some reason, the air smelled of lilacs and incense. There was a tense feeling to the room as the lights flickered for a moment.

He was sitting quietly at one of the covered statues, dressed in his casual working clothes that were heavily smudged with clay in various places.

He hefted the small hammer in one hand, the chisel in his other, staring at them in forlorn sadness... silently asking them why they had cursed him with this love.

"Hiroshi??" Ranma said, there was worry thick in her voice.. she was startled, but not ashamed that she would care so much for him. She drew closer, her shoes making a clicking noise on the the cement surface of the floor.

Hiroshi shook his head silently, his eyes on the verge of tears, "You shouldn't have come, Ranma... you shouldn't have come here, not now, not tonight..." Hiroshi's voice wavered... he wasn't sure if he cared at that point. The time for hiding had come to an end.

Ranma looked around self conciously, as if one of the stone and clay statues would press her on, give her courage... they all just stared vacantly. She furrowed her brow, stepping forward with more intent purpose in her stance, "I *Had* to come, Hiroshi.. you are my friend, my good and dear friend, and I couldn't.. let you hurt alone. Not when you were there for me-"

Hiroshi abruptly held up a hand, anger edging into his voice, "Stop it, Ranma.. please, just.. just stop being so.. so... caring for me, I am not someone you would want to care about, not.. at least... in the way that I want you to," He looked up at Ranma, who stared back with her blue sapphire gaze.

There was confusion in those eyes, those beautiful crystal blue orbs.. confusion, and pain at the slight anger in his voice... when she spoke, she spoke as a hurt animal trying to understand why they had been hurt.

"Hiroshi.. why wouldn't I care? You've done nothing but try and make my life easier, better to live... you've done everything to make me happy that.. that's important to me, Hiroshi," She didn't understand what he meant.. she couldn't just stop caring for him, that thought hurt even MORE than the others.

Hiroshi set down the hammer and chisel, then rose slowly, putting a trembling hand on the statue in front of him. On the cover sheet for it, "God, Ranma, don't you even know how much it hurts?? How much it aches to be so close to someone you love, but never be able to.. to kiss them, to hold them as a lover instead of a friend... don't you KNOW how painful that is?!"

Ranma stepped back for a moment in the anger, the vehemence, the torment in Hiroshi's voice. "Hiroshi.. you are too good of a person to worry about that girl, whoever she is... so she blew you off tonight, don't let our friendship die because of her!!" She stepped closer, her hand reaching out to touch Hiroshi, yet hesitating partway, as if she'd hit an invisible brick wall.

Hiroshi stared down at the statue, "I haven't told her tonight, Ranma.. not yet.... in the next few minutes, she will know," Hiroshi said solemnly, like a man who was talking about his own inevitable death.

Ranma blinked, confused, "..what.. did you leave a message for her on the answering machine, Hi??? I thought you wanted to tell her in person?" She stepped a little closer, wanting to hold him, to cry on his shoulder and tell him that everything will be okay, that she was here.

Her mind was reeling, trying to understand why Hiroshi would be so harsh and short with her, Hiroshi one of the people she cherished the most in the world, her closest and most wonderful friend.

Hiroshi shook his head sadly, still staring at the statue beneath the cover sheet, "Ranma.. did you know the entire time you have known about this girl.. that there has been a statue in this room, countless times you were here.. and the statue under my hand, right now, is the girl that I so love.. that I so long to love. If only you had been more curious and snooped a bit...," Hiroshi sounded like he had been deeply hurt, as if his best friend had done something horrid and unforgivable to him.

Ranma turned her look from Hiroshi to the statue he stood in front of... about the same height as her. *Why hadn't I ever thought about that??? I am so stupid, asking him so many times again and again who she was, when I could have.. I could have just found out for myself.*

"Hair as red as the crimson rose, and eyes that burn bright blue like a sapphires inner flame," Hiroshi slowly lifted the cover sheet, letting most of it slide off of it's own volition.

Ranma looked back at Hiroshi as he spoke.. "Hi..Hiroshi, what are you.. what are you talking about??" Her heart was pounding, she could hear it in her head. The smell of incense and lilacs seemed sharp, too sharp.. as if her senses were going into overload for some reason.

"I shame myself with how much I love, how much have I loved and never been able to say... I shame myself as your friend because of the betrayal... that girl, the girl that owns me, heart, mind and soul... is you Ranma."

Ranma shook her head, the world seemed to lose all color as Hiroshi turned and looked at her... time stopped, motion stopped, it was a picture from a black and white photo album. Ranma stood paralyzed, unable to move as she stared....

Ranma's eyes were locked on the statue, a perfect replica of her, smiling brightly, her eyes almost shining with life.

*No..* Ranma said to herself. *This is another dream... like that silly one.. that.. that silly one where... where the darkness, and nobody could hear me.* She felt her heart thumping in her head, her breath held almost against her will as she slowly looked at Hiroshi, her movements felt as if she was in a tub of molasses.

Hiroshi stared back sadly, his eyes looked so old, so worn down, so sad. "No..." She heard herself say, the world slowly seeming to move again, color flooding back into it.. TOO much color...

"No.. no, Hiroshi, you can't.. you.. you can't love me, who is she?? Really???" Ranma asked, her voice cracking, her heart swelling larger yet also full of pain and hurt. Why was she hurting...

Hiroshi felt a tear trickle down his cheek, "All I see, all I feel, everything I daily do.. pales in comparison to what I feel, what I see when I am with you. You are the woman.... the person I love, Ranma Saotome."

He wasn't joking, Ranma looked at him with wide eyes. He wasn't joking, there was no tone of joking in his voice at all, only sad and tired and old and so hurt.. so hurt that her own soul ached in agonizing pain.

She felt suddenly as if a freight train had collided harshly with her head as she came to the realization that she should have known all along, *Oh god.. oh god, I love him... no, I can't love him....*

She stepped back several times, losing her balance as her brain suddenly crashed open, her mind flooded with the emotions, the love, the agonizingly sweet and pure love she held for Hiroshi. *No.. I love him, no, I am a man I love him I am a man.... a MAN...*

A man, a man couldn't love another man. It wasn't allowed, and certainly not for the man among men... not for Ranma Saotome of the Anything Goes School of Martial Arts. Everything seemed to be spinning, twisting, expanding in her vision...

She felt herself falling.. and falling.. and falling, or was the world falling down around her? She felt dizzy, and everything was so filled with color, with life, but only Hiroshi was grey, she'd sucked the life out of him, used him like a vampire uses their victims... she was falling..

Hiroshi caught her, held her in his strong, stonecutting arms.... looking into her eyes with his gentle, sad, old gaze. "God, Ranma... every day.. every moment, every moment in between a moment... I have thought and breathed and sweated and dreamed you.... I have betrayed you..."

She shook her head, she was crying, she knew she was crying.. she couldn't love Hiroshi, there was Akane... Akane she loved, she knew she loved... Akane, her fiancee. "No.. No.. don't love me, Hiro.. don't... Hiro-chan, please..."

Hiroshi was crying too, she could feel his hot tears as he held her, his eyes looking into her own, everything blurry and out of focus. "All my life I've been looking, hoping, praying for someone like you... all my life, and now... now..." he trailed off... she realized she had put a hand on his cheek.

"People hurt when I love them, Hiro-chan.. don't love me, ever.... don't. I can't let you.. I love Akane... please..."

Hiroshi drew her closer, his body sobbing, "You are so beautiful Ranma... not just the way you look, that brave, kind soul... the selfless, honorable warrior that is so fragile inside.. that needs someone to hold them, someone to help them through the tears," She couldn't stop shaking, the world had to be falling apart, she knew it had to be, she COULDN'T LOVE HIROSHI... she couldn't. It wasn't allowed. *Man among men.. man among.. men... Hiroshi.. my Hiroshi..*

She held Hiroshi tightly as if he was going to die in that very moment, she saw the pain in his eyes that telling her had caused, pain she wished she could take away.. pain which she would gladly take in his place. "Hiro-chan.. Hiro-chan.. I don't want to lose you, please not this... anything but this Hiro-chan..." She pleaded, her voice broken as she was wracked with sobs.

"I had to tell you, Ranma... I couldn't hide anymore... how often have I wanted to... to tell you, to show you, and Ranma.. tonight, you looked so wonderful.. so calm, so at peace... tonight.. tonight I just.. wanted to.." She felt him moving closer still.

"Every moment tonight will live forever in my memory... my love... my beautiful Ranma-chan.. I can never forget the moments... so many moments... that were perfect when I was with you," She felt his breath on her lips as he spoke, she felt the horrible longing, the yearning to be with him forever, to stop this hurting they both were feeling.

Something warm brushed her lips, something stained with salted tears... she opened her mouth, pressing her own lips against Hiroshi's... the whole world seemed to explode, or to implode, she wasn't sure. Maybe it was melting away, or perhaps it was a flash that seemed to burn everything but them in it's wake...

It all seemed to shatter like glass and fall away, and she could hear his heartbeat.. or was it her own...

Maybe it was both.

She felt his lips on hers... a part of her told her she should be disgusted, a man kissing her was something to be loathed... to be repulsed by... to turn her stomach... but it was too beautiful, too perfect to loathe.. too addictive to hate... a kiss of love, not lust.

There was a flash in her mind... several flashes, of Hiroshi when he was growing up... Hiroshi's mind likewise mirrored several flashes from Ranma... snapshots of their life.

*No..* A part of her soul suddenly murmured in Ranma's mind. *NO!!!* It yelled.... that part that was the sole core of male Ranma Saotome, the part that objected to it's very essence the embrace they had indulged in.

"NO!!!" She yelled, pulling away from the embrace, away from Hiroshi, she didn't know what had happened, but she jerked out of his arms, running.. running... she half remembered scrambling up the ladder as she kept running.

She sobbed as she ran, tears flowing freely, only to freeze on her face as she ran outside, she kept running.. fast.. as fast as she could, running away, running from her heart, running so hard, yet somehow she felt she wasn't getting anywhere. She still hurt.

She didn't know where she was running, only she had to get away, she had to somehow outrun the hurting and pain, she had to escape that look in Hiroshi's eyes when he had told her. Running from feelings she had no right to feel, honor, obligation, promised to another. Her heart promised to another, it wasn't allowed, no place for Hiroshi.

She felt the aching pain tear through her, as if she had torn a part of her body away from herself violently and the wound was inside. She couldn't think of words to explain the horrible sorrow that filled her at running away from Hiroshi.

"NOOOOOOOO!!" She howled as she ran, through two bouts of sobbing. It was the voice of someone who's soul had been torn from them, shredded, and burned.

She fell onto the sidewalk, scraping her knee and tearing part of her dress.. she sobbed, her knee stinging from a mix of blood, snow, and dirt... she sobbed for a long minute, then threw back her head, and screamed in full and utter torment...

"HIROOOOOOOOOOOOOSHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII!!!!!!!!!!"

And somewhere in China, Cologne heard the wail of a soul.. and knew.. the curse was beginning.

* * * * * *

Ryouga looked around in the dojo, for the fifth time that night. The last several hours had been consumed by the whole families cooperative search for Ranma, since they had heard that blood curdling scream.

*This is hopeless.... damn Ranma, getting lost when he needs help the most...* Ryouga thought for a moment, then amended his mental comment, removing the cursing of Ranma.... no matter how much Ranma had put Ryouga through hell, Ryouga could not purposely hate Ranma when Ranma was hurting.

*I just hope he's okay, the idiot...* Ryouga couldn't deny how worried he was, now.... Ranma was his friend, his rival.. his comrade. He didn't have many friends, and none that could match him in a Martial Arts challenge.

He looked around at the barren Dojo, hoping that somehow Ranma would drop down from the ceiling and taunt him with that cocky, arrogant, self assured way he always had.

He didn't...

Ryouga sighed and shook his head, making a silent prayer to the gods to watch over Ranma that night. Opening the dojo door, he began to walk out, and was blocked by a petite redhead.. with very puffy eyes, ruined makeup, who looked like she'd been through hell.

"...h-heya.. P-chan.." Ranma said in a broken, forlorn manner. She was shivering, and very cold, Ryouga noticed as he put a hand on her shoulder.

"Ranma!" Ryouga squeezed the girl in a bear hug, so relieved to see that she was allright.

"..I...can't..breathe.." Ranma wheezed, gasping for air in Ryouga's strong as steel embrace.

"Oh geeze, I'm sorry... we've all been.. well, *I* have been worried about you... geeze, what a turn. Everyone else has been looking for you because-" Ryouga watched Ranma walk into the dojo with a very tired, shuffling gate to her steps.

"Yeah... because they want to scold me so's that I don't go and fall for some idiot man... idiot..." She wasn't drunk.. she just didn't seem to care about how well the words came out now.

Ryouga frowned, looking back at the house.. wondering if he should tell them first, or if he should...

He closed the door, turning and looking at Ranma, who was now on her knee's, crying her eyes out.. yet again for the night.

"Ranma... are you ok??" Ryouga asked, walking a little closer. He didn't like the severe stain of dark ki on Ranma's aura.. this was on his level of depression. Maybe even worse.

"Am I pretty, Ryouga??" She asked suddenly, wiping tears from her eyes.

Ryouga blinked, a confused expression plain on his face, "What, Ranma??" It wasn't every day that the resident expert martial artist in Nerima asked if he was pretty.
"They all say I'm pretty.. I.. I hate.. I hate this curse... being female... or at least I did," She didn't sound sure, by the way she was talking. There was a time when her hate for her curse was a vehement one.

Ryouga frowned, kneeling down beside Ranma, "I don't understand, Ranma... what does this have to do with Hiroshi???"
"Kiss me, Ryouga..." She blurted out, a desperate, panicked look in her eyes. She looked like some wild animal that was being chased by something it couldn't escape.

Ryouga facefaulted, "Wh-what?!"

Ranma held a hand to her heart, pain written clearly on her face, "I have to know.. I have to know if.. if.. if I am like.. like.. if I like guys... or.. or if it's just him, just my Hiro-chan....," The last word was strangled out in no little amount of pain.

"Hiro-chan??" Ryouga's expression softened slightly. "You love him, don't you?"

"SHHHH!!!" She hissed violently, then her expression returned to it's dour, depressing state... "..I... I can't.... it's... I'm a man..."

"Answer the question, Ranma," Ryouga said calmly, levelly.

Her eyes shifted, looking all around her as if she was suddenly trapped.. anywhere but Ryouga.

"Ranma, you need to be honest with yourself," Ryouga said once again, wondering why out of all the people he could help, he was helping the person who he once thought he hated.

Ranma looked at Ryouga, pain clear on her face as her mouth moved, but didn't seem to be working for a long moment... "Yes." She breathed out, as if it was the hardest thing she had ever said in her whole life.

Maybe it was.

Ryouga sighed... "Engaged to Akane... and you love her too," there was a solemn nod in response to his observation.

"Now you know how I feel about Akarii and Akane... I promised myself to Akane, silently.. then met Akarii.... it isn't easy, Ranma-" Ryouga was cut short by her slap.

"Don't ever compare me.... you.. there.. there is something different... Ryouga..." She turned away, looking at the hand she had slapped him with in confusion. "Beyond what you and Akarii have..."

Ryouga growled, opening his mouth to give a venomous retort to Ranma's arrogan assumption.

"Kiss me... please," She said again, looking up at him.. her eyes puffy and red as she pleaded.

"Ranma, you are my friend... I... It wouldn't be right," He stammered, feeling more than a little off balance at the request.

"Dammit, Ryouga... I have to know!!!" She shook with anger, and confusion, and depression. "I have to.. one favor.. one favor, dammit..." She rocked back and forth hugging herself.. "..it hurts.. it hurts.. I can't breathe sometimes..."

Ryouga felt a part of him melt slightly at her words, felt a familiar twinge in his glass heart... compassion, he thought it was.. something that had been rarely shown to him in his life... a life of a lonely wanderer who was none to welcome most of the time.

"If... If I kissed you... would it help any???" Ryouga asked, mentally kicking himself for giving in, but not about to go back now.

Ranma wipes her eyes again, nodding slowly for a long moment.. "...a little.. not much.. but.. but it would help me.. figure out some of this mess," She sniffed, brushing some of her hair out of her face.. her beautiful hair in a disarray.

"Okay.. this means NOTHING... okay, Ranma?? Remember that, I don't feel a thing for you," He didn't know why, but he felt that he had to make himself DEAD CLEAR on the subject... maybe he was just paranoid. *Likely* he noted to himself.

Ranma crawled somewhat closer to Ryouga, looking up at him expectantly. She didn't relish the idea of kissing Ryouga, but she had to know if she felt a constant attraction to all men.. or just to Hiroshi specifically.

There was several moments of awkwardness as the two stared at eachother, Ryouga noting how run down Ranma looked from the redhead he had seen at the prom. Happiness seemed to have left her eyes.

A moment later Ryouga slowly leaned down and pressed his lips to Ranma. They both responded to the kiss for a moment, then Ranma pulled away, shaking her head and making a sour face.

"...that.. that felt.. disgusting," She wiped her lips, as if trying to wipe the feeling off... it had felt NOTHING like what she had felt when she had kissed Hiroshi. There was nothing she found appealing about being kissed by Ryouga... strangely, that made her feel a little better.

"I'm glad you could flatter me with your opinion," Ryouga commented snidely, yet in a joking manner. A large part of him was also relieved... at least Ranma had stopped crying. Even if Ranma wasn't a real girl, Ryouga hated seeing him cry.

Ranma sat silently, her arms wrapped around her legs as she hugged her knee's against her chest. She rocked back and forth, trying to make some sense of the immense pain she wsa feeling...

She felt pain, throughout her whole body, as if something had been torn out of her... her heart, maybe, or her soul. Various times in the past several hours she had gone unconcious from being unable to breathe from the pain.

She loved him... the only explanation for the torturous feelings she had been having since running away from him. But she was promised to Akane, another person she loved... but.. but did she love Akane as much??? When Akane had almost died, she had felt that immense absense... that hurtful tearing inside... but.. she could breathe... she could live, if she had to.

Who did she love the most??? Perhaps it was only the shock of the revelation that had caused Ranma such pain... even though she tried to convince herself of that, she couldn't seem to make the pain go away, or the feeling to lessen in any extent.

"You're trying to figure it out, aren't you," it was more a statement than a question, but Ranma nodded anyways.

"I.. I don't know anymore, Ryouga... I am feeling very real... very bad physical pain because... because I know I can't be with Hiroshi. I am promised to Akane... and I love Akane too... it is just all too much pain for me, I.. I don't know if I can deal with it right now..."

Ryouga shook his head solemnly, "No good, Ranma.. all of them are inside, waiting for you to come back... everyone knows. Your Mother brought everyone together and announced what she and Nabiki had talked about before the Prom-"

"What?" Ranma asked silently, looking up at Ryouga as if she had been stabbed... "..everyone... everyone knew but me?!" She felt anger, and an even deeper depression fall in on her.. everyone had known but her, she had blinded herself to the truth, to Hiroshi's love.

Ryouga sighed, rubbing his hand across his forehead, and the bandanna... "Ranma, only Nabiki knew... Kasumi suspected, and everyone else was clueless until tonight. Don't sell yourself short, we've all had our naivetes," Ryouga found two arms wrapped around him tightly, a trembling red head embracing him.

"...Ryouga... thank you for.. for.. for helping me... I don't know why you would even want to, you've hated me for so long," Ranma trembled almost like a frightened child.

Ryouga was again caught off balance by the sudden change of subject, then he regained himself, "... Ranma.. I've never really hated you, I've hated some of the things you've done.. the things you do sometimes, but you? Overall?" He shook his head, "No, I don't hate you."

Ranma relaxed, and stopped trembling after a moment, "..what am I going to do... Ryouga.. god, I.." Ranma gasped for breath again, and Ryouga noted she was trembling again, but this time she didn't seem able to breathe.

He shook her, "Ranma.. concentrate, control your breathing..." He slapped her on the back several times, which emitted coughing, some more gasps, and eventually a long, slow breath.

"..s..see... I feel like I am empty, a shell... when.. when I think about him, I have trouble breathing, thinking about.. about how i left him!" She burst into sobbing again, holding her face in her hands to hide her tears from Ryouga.

Ryouga held her as she cried, feeling somewhat awkward while doing so... here, one of his best friends was crying in his arms.. one of the strongest men he knew.

Ryouga didn't know what to say to Ranma as she cried... Ranma seemed trapped in one of the worst possible situations, a choice between two people she loved more than life itself.

One person he loved.. one person he longed to be with, but knew it couldn't be. A person whom he would sacrifice so long as she would be happy... a part of him was tempted to use Ranma's weakness to his advantage... but he would never do such a thing, not about THIS, one subject that he was all too familiar and intimate with.

"..wh..what...what am I going to do..." She asked him through muffled sobs against his shoulder.

Ryouga patted her back gently, relaxing a bit.. a friend needed him, and he was strong enough to be a friend to someone, he had always been strong enough for that. "You live, Ranma... you live."

It was all he could think to say. All he could muster to tell Ranma... strangely, it seemed to be enough.

The small redhead drifted off to sleep in his arms... he lifted her, looking down at how haggard and tired she looked... *I never wished this, Ranma.* He told himself silently.

*I may have been jealous... but I never wished this.*

* * * * * *

"I do not want him seeing the boy anymore. Part of this is my fault, and I accept that responsibility, but I do not want Hiroshi coming here anymore.... not after what happened to my child tonight," Nodoka sipped her tea, noting that it was a bit more bitter than was Kasumi's usual style, but then the eldest Tendou girl seemed very agitated and shamed by the whole night's proceedings.

Nabiki slapped her hand down on the table, glaring at the Saotome Matriarch, who simply stared down into her tea with a passive, calm heir, "Dammit, Nodoka, YOU have NO idea what Ranma feels for Hiroshi, for god's sake, Ryouga just told you she couldn't BREATHE when she thought of how she'd hurt him!!!! Is that not enough pain for someone to go through without TAKING something so precious away from them!?!?"

Everyone got very silent after Nabiki had spoken.. not that all of them were paying attention.

Akane was leaning up against the door frame, looking out at the Koi pond as she listened to her sister and aunt have it out.

Her thoughts were full of Ranma... of how very worn and tired she looked when Ryouga had brought her in, even in her sleep she seemed troubled.

Soun was sitting beside Kasumi trying to calm the elder sister from her agitated state. Seeing what had happened to Ranma had not done well for Kasumi's emotional state, since she felt it was mostly HER fault for not being firmer with Ranma in their previous discussion about her feelings.

After all, she had had a chance to help Ranma come to the realization that Hiroshi felt more than just friendship.. she had dropped her belief because of Ranma's vehement denial of her own emotions.

Ryouga was quietly eating his rice, trying to avoid any more involvement for the night.

He didn't know WHAT to think about Ranma's situation... it was so similar to his own, yet so subtely different. He wasn't promised to anyone by birth.. he wasn't trapped in an arranged marriage, regardless if he loved the person or not.

Thinking about it, Ryouga realized that Ranma DID feel trapped... because in a way she was.

Genma was carefully watching everyone with a slightly detached attitude, he had a silent, very troubled look on his face, as if he were carefully weighing something that was very important.

Nodoka looked up at Nabiki in response to her harsh words with a cold, level gaze, "You will call me Aunty, or Miss Saotome. I never want to hear you use my first name ever again, young lady," She set the tea down carefully on the tray in a nonchalant manner, as if what Nabiki had said was as common as saying you had mown the lawn.

"You are not my fucking Mother, NODOKA," Nabiki spat, Standing up, fists at her side, "And I may be one cold calculating bitch most of the time, but I don't go out of my fucking way to hurt my family members... if I had a child like Ranma, I wouldn't have screwed with his mind in the first place!" Nabiki knew she was yelling, but didn't care.

"N-Nabiki!? How dare you speak to your Aunty Saotome like that, young lady! I raised you better than that!" Soun was in a shocked rage at his daughters foul mouth. Kasumi looked up at her sister in equal shock, Nabiki had never been so.. vengeful in her words.

"Screw off, Daddy, KASUMI raised us while you wept your little FITS all over the place. If it wasn't for US you'd be in a HOME by now!" Nabiki didn't care anymore, she was going to smash the truth into someone's face before the night was over.

"That is enough, young Lady," Nodoka said in a level, firm tone as she sipped her tea again.

Akane sneered as she turned, looking at her sister, "You are so full of it, Nabiki.. you've never given a damn about any of us in your life... it's all been about your money.. cold is too nice a word," She said it in an as-a-matter-of-fact tone that really got on Nabiki's nerves, the kind Nabiki usually used with simple minded people.

"Oh really, Akane??? Only money?? I don't see YOU making money, I don't see KASUMI owning a regular job to keep the damn house over our HEADS... sure, Daddy has his classes, but that's never been enough to pull the weight.. especially since there's only 2 classes, and half the students don't usually show up," Nabiki glared fire at her sister for even accusing her of not caring.

Akane walked closer to Nabiki, "You disgust me sometimes, Nabiki... how you exploit anything and everyONE for the fast buck... that is sickening and perverse, so don't you suddenly start acting so noble when you are a two faced mercenary domineering-"

Nabiki slapped Akane, "Shut your mouth, or I WILL shut it for you. You aren't any better, Miss macho tomboy... I think it's pretty damn sick that until HIROSHI came you were beating the crap out of Ranma any chance you got. THAT is pretty damn messed up, SIS," She pushed Akane back with one hand, her sister giving her an outraged look.

Akane had had enough for the night, she lashed out in a punch, catching Nabiki firm in the gut.

Nabiki doubled over, coughing...

"Oh.. oh... oh my, Akane.. you.. you shouldn't, Oh my.." Kasumi babbled, unsure WHAT was going on anymore.

Nabiki coughed a moment more, then laughed, "It's your fault, Akane... little miss coward..." The comment almost earned Nabiki another attack from her sister.

Nodoka stood up, yelling, "STOP!" quite loudly so that it carried well out of the house.

Akane looked at Nodoka, glaring at her for a moment, then sniffed, shrugging and turning back to lean on the doorframe.

"You have ALL gotten carried away tonight, and I am ashamed at how you have all acted. I am Ranma's Mother, so I have final say over what will happen in his life until he is an adult. I am saying that Hiroshi is not welcome to be around my son any longer, no matter the circumstance, and that is final," Nodoka looked at Akane, who didn't even seem to be paying attention anymore, then at Nabiki, who was straightening herself and glaring at her Aunty'.

"I bet your son hates his parents, Aunty' Saotome," That brought a slap from Nodoka, and a somewhat crestfallen expression from Genma, who otherwise had given no other comment.

"I have had enough of your foul mouth Nabiki dear. I don't want to see you for the rest of the night," She said in a level, calm, and orderly tone.

"You are NOT my-" Nabiki was cut off by her Father's angry look.

Soun stood up slowly, and spoke in a slow and very precise manner, "Go to your room, Nabiki... and I do mean now, young lady."

Nabiki's expression suddenly changed to one of angry confusion, "But daddy-"

"Go to your room," He said in the exact same manner.

Nabiki glared at Nodoka as she rose, then at her father. She walked up the stairs, a silent storm boiling inside her gut.

"Your middle daughter has a problem with authority, Soun," Nodoka sat quietly again, sipping her tea in a very fastidious manner. Nodoka did not like being confronted by headstrong young girls who knew nothing about what life really was like, least of all by those arrogant enough to discount she had lived a hard life since Genma had left.

Soun sketched a semi-formal bow, "You must forgive Nabiki, Saotome-san.. she is trying to deal with this in her own way, and it has never been a good way I am afraid. Please, be patient with her," Soun didn't really know why Nabiki was acting the way she was. He had never seen her so verbal with anyone before.

"There is no need to ask, Soun.. I have patience in very large degrees, one headstrong little girl isn't going to offend me, I am sure Nabiki will be more rational when she has had time to think," Nodoka set her empty tea cup down.

"Kasumi, could you fetch us some more tea?? My cup seems to be empty," She said in a level tone, then turned to look at Akane who was doing her best to ignore the people sitting at the table.

Kasumi was bustling off as Nodoka began speaking gently, "Akane dear, I know that this must upset you deeply by the events of the night-"

"I don't want to see him again... I don't EVER want to see that.. that bastard again, acting like a friend, someone to be trusted, and then stabbing me in the back like this," Akane's anger was barely suppressed... just barely. It could be heard in her words, if you knew what to listen for.

Nodoka frowned slightly, "I have already told you that I will not be allowing him to hang around my son, Akane. That should be sufficient enough to remedy the problem," She knew that Akane was thinking about something, something bad. She wished that she knew what the girl was thinking... wished she could understand Akane better.

"Hiroshi was my friend... Friends don't try and steal someone away from you," Akane stared out at the koi pond, her fists clenched tightly. She couldn't get the idea of Ranma kissing Hiroshi out of her mind.

She didn't know for sure that Ranma had been kissed... but Ryouga had told about what had happened in the dojo, although she knew he had held some things back so as not to embarrass Ranma, but the way that Ryouga had spoken, it sounded like he was very sure what had happened to Ranma.

She felt that slow boiling fury, that immense heated anger building up inside of her... she had wanted to hurt Nabiki for saying what she did.. it wasn't HER fault that Hiroshi was such a backstabbing, selfish, manipulating weasel.

*How dare he.. how dare he play with Ranma like that, use him like a toy... how dare he hurt Ranma so badly. How dare he fool me into thinking he cared about Ranma and I.. it was Ranma the whole time.*

She couldn't imagine what she would do if she would see him again.. most likely try and kill him, he had toyed around with her emotions. Something that she had NEVER let anyone do.

"I understand how upset you must be, Akane, all I can do is promise that I will do everything I can to make sure this... problem... gets resolved," Nodoka looked at the stairs as she heard someone walking slowly down them.

Ryouga looked up at Ranma... dressed in the standard red chinese vest and slacks, hair once more bound back. She looked back, then around at everyone else. He noticed that she looked somewhat better than when he last saw her, hours before.... but there was something of defeat in the way she walked.

Kasumi stood in the kitchen entreeway holding the kettle of tea that Nodoka had requested. She stared at Ranma as the girl locked eyes with her, then looked at Ryouga.

"I forgot I hadn't had dinner," She said.. still very female. "Maybe I could get something??" It was a normal request, a quiet one... her voice very meek in the asking.

Akane heard Ranma's voice, turning around with a very worried expression. She wondered what Ranma was feeling at that moment... wondered why there was no comment, no mention of the night's events.

Kasumi smiled her best bright smile, which didn't succeed very well, "Of course, Ranma-k... Ranma," Ranma stared at her when she paused in adressing her properly. It was an almost accusing stare.

Kasumi quickly put the tea kettle on the table and hurried back into the kitchen, perhaps a bit too fast.

"Ranma?" Akane walked closer to the redhead, "Ranma..are.. are you okay?"

Ranma shrugged, "I'm fine... just hungry," He avoided looking at Akane.. who noticed her apprehension.

"Ranma, there are some things that I think we need to talk about, Dear," Nodoka said, pouring herself another cup of tea. It would never do to let her son's problem go without attempting to remedy it, she was his Mother and was responsible for his well being.

"Not interested," Ranma said quietly, very quietly. She fiddled with her own tea cup for a moment, then carefully poured herself some tea. She stared at the tea for a very long moment, watching the warm steam rise from the rich colored tea.. she watched her reflection, so feminine, so beautiful.

Nodoka looked directly at her child, blinking a bit when Ranma refused to look at her, instead staring intently into her teacup. Nodoka spoke in any case, "I didn't ask if you were interested, Young man, I TOLD you that we needed to talk."

Ranma looked Nodoka straight in the eyes and answered in the same nonchalant, yet somehow threatening manner, "I am not interested, Mom," She softened her tone, "So please.. just.. just leave me be, Mother," She didn't want to think about it.. thinking of it hurt too much. Ached too much...

She could almost imagine now Hiroshi crying his heart out, as she ran away from him... she swallowed. *I will not cry.. not.. not right now.* She silently promised to let herself cry later.

Akane sat down by Ranma, taking one of the redhead's hands, whispering to her, "..I'm sorry for what Hiroshi did, Ranma.. I swear I didn't know at all.... He had no right to do what he did to you-"

Ranma raised her voice, anger very clear in her words, "HE HAD EVERY RIGHT!" She yelled directly into Akane's face. Then she turned, sipping her tea as Akane stared shocked at Ranma.

Ranma had often yelled at Akane, but usually it was some phantom insult used to cover up his true feelings.. the redhead in front of her had just yelled in anger, in frustration.

Ranma bowed lightly, "I am.. sorry for my outburst. It was inappropriate and rude.... I told you, I didn't want to talk right now, and... and I would like it if you respected my wishes, please?" She tailed the request with the kindest voice she could muster.

Ryouga set down his bowl carefully, smiling and turning to Ranma. "Last time I visited Akarii, we went to a fair.. she had a competition for one of her prize pigs. I managed not to get lost for a whole day," Ranma seemed suddenly to relax, and smiled genuinely at Ryouga.

It was a smile full of thanks, of graciousness.. it was a smile of a friend who was in pain, in need.. and you had somehow helped, even the tiniest bit.

"Really??? That's pretty impressive, Ryouga. Did you have any fun while you were there?? I haven't been to many fairs in my life," Ranma whispered a silent thanks to Ryouga, for being a friend for just a single moment.

"Ranma.. I think we should really talk, I.. I don't think I understood what you meant," Akane said in an unsure, almost frightened and angry voice.

What did she mean, he had every right??? Hiroshi had no right to hurt Ranma like that, in his selfish self serving way. *NO right whatsoever* She told herself, *Ranma isn't his, he's an idiot to think he could own him.*

"Sure, Akarii and I went on the ferris wheel.. it was something like romantic for a while. Until it started to Rain," Ryouga growled at the last part.

Ranma laughed, even though the laugh was slightly hollow, "I'll bet... got real wet, didn'tcha???" She ignored Akane's plea, concentrating on speaking with Ryouga. She didn't want to think right then, not about him.. not about how she had left him. He needed her.

"It wasn't the BEST night of my life, Ranma... but it was pretty enjoyable, we had something called Pizza for lunch that day, you should try it some time.. it's good," Ryouga smirked, picking up a large chunk of rice from his bowl and shovelling it into his mouth.

"Right, Pizza.. I'll have to remember that.. so, have you been anywhere interesting recently?? Paris?? Zimbabwe?? Saskatoon?" Ranma asked, ignoring Akane as once again she begged to just have a moment to talk about HIM.

"Ranma dear.. your fiancee and I both think that we need to talk about what happened tonight... with Hiroshi," As Nodoka spoke that last word, Ranma's face contorted in pain, she closed her eyes and carefully controlled her breathing for several moments.

She had left him when he likely needed her the most, when he likely needed her and ONLY her... she had run away from him, when he had always been there for her.. to hold her, to tell her it would all be okay, to tuck her gently in bed after carving in the vault... she tried to hold back the tears.. no use crying, she had run away.

Both Nodoka and Akane blinked, staring at Ranma quietly. Ranma opened her eyes and looked intently into her teacup. She spoke in an even meeker, more silent voice, "I will ask again that you please.. please.. for the LOVE of KAMI do not talk to me about this right now. This I ask of you, a simple thing, it's a simple thing isn't it Ryouga?"

Ryouga nodded his assent, sadly looking between Akane and Nodoka. What they were doing was in no way good for Ranma, even he could tell that she was on edge.. that pushing was only going to make her worse.

"See?! Very easy, maybe I should speak louder all the time," Ranma had to stop and concentrate on her breathing for several minutes.

Would she ever see him again?? Did she want to?? *That's silly.. of course I do..* She sadly realized that the feeling was only getting stronger. She loved him, and she didn't know why she couldn't just forget that revelation, she wished that it were that easy.

Akane was becoming angry at Ranma's attitude, "What's wrong with you?! I am worried about you, and am afraid for how.. how.. How HE hurt you, and you just.. you just ignore me!" Akane had been worrying for most of the night about Ranma. Her nerves had had enough stress for the night, and she wanted to get this over with so everything would be okay again.

Ranma turned to Akane with a pleading look on her face, "Akane.. please.. I know that you care for me, but right now I just can't talk about it. I am asking... do I have to keep asking again and again? Why can't anyone but Hiroshi listen when I need them to?" Ranma said in a depressed, anguished tone of voice.

She didn't want to hurt Akane, that was always the last thing she wanted to do... she just seemed to do it all the time. She hated the fact that she kept saying the wrong thing, she wished that somehow Akane would just see why she couldn't talk about.. him.. at that time.

Akane shook her head, "Why can't YOU listen, Ranma??? This is important to me just as much as it is to you, because it involves US.... and *I* Think we need to talk about it," She slapped her hand on the table as there was a knock at the door. Everyone looked around at eachother.

"I'll get it!!! Dinner's cooking, Ranma...," Kasumi said as she bustled to the door.

After Kasumi had disappeared to get the door, Soun turned to Ranma. "Ranma, son, I think it would be wisest if we married you and Akane very soon.. within the next week if at all possible. Your Mother and I have been speaking about the arrangements, and feel that soon would be better for all parties involved."

Nodoka nodded quietly to Soun, "Yes.. one of the things we need to talk about. After all, you were promised to Akane at birth, and it is only honorable to uphold the family's promise. If you both were still sixteen, I would say you were too young, but since you're both seventeen now-"

Ranma felt tears welling up in her eyes again, "You all have to.. have to control me, don't you??? I don't have any life outside of what you all choose for me, is that it?? I should nod my head and smile when you pick out the perfect tuxedo for me, I should pretend to be happy the whole time while you plan and map every single goddamn thing in my entire life?!"

Ryouga looked at Nodoka, "Maybe you should... just leave off for a while, all respect due, Mrs. Saotome-"

Ranma held up a hand, "No.. no, let's talk about this right now!! Where am I going to make a choice?? I have to fight you tooth and nail before I even have a CHANCE at a life... I hated your training from the beginning, but I went along with it because you are my MOTHER. I pleaded, begged you so many times, and it took the worst arguments to get you to change your mind.. so tell me, Mom, tell me when I can be grown up enough to run my own life, huh? NEVER?"

Akane put a hand on Ranma's shoulder, "Ranma.. I don't think that you need to be so harsh, your Mother is only trying to do what's best for you," She spoke firmly, trying to calm Ranma down and make the redhead see that the people here were trying to help her.

They loved Ranma... they all cared for him, and were all very unsure how to handle what had happened that night. Why couldn't Ranma see that??

"Best for me?!?! BEST FOR ME!??!?! FOR GOD'S SAKE I HAVE NO FREE WILL!!!! I love you Akane, and I love you dearly... but I will not be controlled.. I am not going to be everyone's toy, turn off, turn on, speak, sit, stand, OBEY...." Ranma was shaking Akane, her eyes afraid, like a trapped animals eyes... trapped without a way to escape.

"Ranma, as soon as you are married you can have free reign of your life.. this was planned YEARS ago, and you have known about it for a year now, you've had ample time to prepare for it, so I do not see any rational reason why you should be overreacting about this particular subject," Nodoka sipped her tea.. Ranma reached over, snatching the cup out of Nodoka's hand and throwing it to shatter against the wall.

"I JUST HAD MY HEART RIPPED OUT AND YOU WANT ME TO MARRY AKANE, ARE YOU FUCKING INSANE!?!???!" Nodoka stared in complete and utter bafflement at her child as the redhead yelled at the top of her lungs, then turned to stare at the figure standing at the threshhold of the dining room, dressed completely in white.

Akane, Ryouga, Soun, and Genma all looked, then Ranma realized their attention was elsewhere... she turned, and looked into the eyes of the man who had stolen her heart.

Hiroshi calmly looked around the room, his eyes sad. He was the cause for all of this tension, this... panic. He was the cause of the hateful look in Akane's eyes, the uncaring glare that Nodoka cast at him.

He looked at Ranma, seeing the painful longing in her eyes... longing unfulfilled. He was the cause of that too... all his fault. Yet.. there was love there too... was he the cause of that?

"Hey," He said, smiling that regal smile... dressed fully in his genji outfit, a backpack on his back as if he was going somewhere.

"Hey," She said quietly, unsure of what to say.. she suddenly felt guilty, somehow, for changing back into the most masculine outfit she could find. Guilty that in this tiny way she was still running away from him.

Akane stood up suddenly, looking with unmitigated anger at Hiroshi, "How dare you come here, after what you did," There was bile thick in her voice.

Hiroshi looked at her calmly, a sad, almost lost look in his eyes, "I suppose so.. I am sorry, Akane," He said quietly.. patiently.

Ranma stepped closer, "..are...are..," She held back her tears, and forced a smile, "..hey, so, uhm.. what's with the pack??? Going camping for the weekend??"

Akane felt her anger Rising with a vengeance, her aura on a slow burn for the moment as she tried to be patient. She noticed how Ranma was speaking with Hiroshi... the way that her eyes looked at his longingly. *So I'm not the only one.... how typical of Ranma.*

Hiroshi shook his head, looking at Ranma and only Ranma, "I am going.. leaving really. For a while.. I don't know how long," he took one of Ranma's hands, holding it in his, "I'll miss you... while I'm gone."

Ranma pulled her hand from his. It wasn't right.. she couldn't love him. She so wanted to, but it wasn't right. She saw the hurt in his eyes then... she couldn't afford loving him, but it was already too late.

Akane stepped forwards, pushing him away from Ranma, "How dare you.. how dare you pretend to be our friend then go and hurt Ranma like you did, how dare you even THINK of him like that, you sicko!!!"

Ranma looked in horror at Akane, "Akane!!" She should have known, should have known that Akane would overreact to Hiroshi... she should have known that this sort of situation would be bad.

Akane kept on, pushing Hiroshi back farther, Hiroshi just bowed his head, taking the shoves and the occasional slap, "You sicko, you PERVERT... thinking of what you did is so disgusting!! I can't look at you without feeling my stomach turning you demented freak!!"

Hiroshi only nodded, sadly as he was slapped again and again by Akane... All things he had told himself before, things he had feared hearing spoken aloud by anyone else.

Ranma tried pulling Akane back from Hiroshi, "Akane!! STOP IT!!! STOP IT!!" She yelled, Akane's words ringing in her ears, each insult stinging her to her core.

Ryouga sprang up, trying to help Ranma pull Akane back, both having a tough time of it, She turned around and punched Ranma off of her, then threw Ryouga over her shoulder into a wall as she kept up her viscious litany.

Nodoka stared on impassively, trying to decide if she should intervene or not... Soun was very adverse to getting in between his Daughter and ANYTHING.

"Nodoka," Genma said quietly, causing his wife to blink in surprise and look at him. He stared sadly back at her, "Nodoka, it isn't right," He said quietly under his breath.

Nodoka gave him a thinlipped smile, "Since when do you know what is right, Genma???"

"You don't have a CHANCE with him, do you got it, you freak?? You twisted little bastard?!?!?! He is MINE... and he doesn't like men that way, so why don't you dry up and die you piece of crap!!!" She punched Hiroshi hard in the gut, causing him to cough, but not to fold like Nabiki had.

Ranma was hers.. her love, her one and only. Her man among men, her handsome protector.

Ranma stepped suddenly in between Akane and Hiroshi, "STOP IT AKANE!!! Please!! Don't DO this!!! I love him!!!" The words were a shock, something she hadn't meant to say..

Akane was no longer listening.. she knew only one thing, Hiroshi was trying to take away the man she loved.

"Get out of the way, Ranma, so I can deal with this scum... this.. this... disgusting slime who gets his kicks out of seducing other men... who tried taking you away from me, who hurt you so deeply," She was waving her mallet, and smashed Ranma on the side of the head, causing her to fold, clutching her head as it Rang.

She brought it down on Hiroshi, causing him to fall to his knee's in pain, clutching his shoulder, and she was about to bring it down again-

"FOR GOD'S SAKE STOP IT!!!" Ranma, eyes flashing with tears suddenly stood again, and in one swift, lightning fast motion, her hand snapped back, and then in a violent crack like lightning it collided with Akane's cheek, sending the girl flying back through the air.

The moment seemed to slow down, distill into that black and white snapshot of Akane flying through the air, for a moment Ranma thought everything had frozen, Akane seemed to hover in place in her vision, a red trickle of blood from a cut on her cheek gleaming through the black and white.. Ranma could hear her own heart again.

It was beating in her mind... it was padding a steady, loud rhythm in her skull... then it all unfroze and Akane fell harshly to the floor, holding her cheek as everyone stared in graphic horror at her. *I never hit girls.* She heard that male voice from a long time ago say.

Everyone continued staring at her.. Ryouga included, in complete and utter AMAZEMENT and HORROR.

She stared at her hand, mortified and terrified at the same time. What had she done??? She had never EVER been that controlled by her emotions before.

A moment later, Akane burst into tears, and ran upstairs. Everyone continued staring at Ranma, but now there was a look of shame on their faces, all except Genma who nodded very sadly for some reason.

She wailed an almost sob, and turned, running towards the front door of the household in a futile attempt at escape. Hiroshi, moving with grace and dexterity, caught her hand before she could make it fully out the door, "..I.. I.. I have to.." She stammered.

"No." he said, with a firm finality that broached no argument.

"But why?" She asked, her tears brimming as she turned, putting a hand on his chest, looking up at him with painful questioning.

Hiroshi held Ranma in his arms, drawing her close and resting her head on his chest. "Because a promise is a promise.... Ranma. You love her, even after this you do... and you must find your own path, I can't make you choose by taking you from where you are now..."

"I have to.. I can't.. I can't live like this anymore," She began to cry. The tears hurt him, hurt him deeply, more deeply than she could have ever imagined.

He brought a hand up, lifting her chin, "...It's never easy, Ranma. That's why the results are so precious and worth while... remember...," He smiled softly to her, brushing tears from her face.

"..where.. where are you going??" She asked, wanting to at least know that much.

Hiroshi smiled that bright, caring smile of his.. regal..., "A place called Everland... I promise to write to you every day, and find some way to get those messages to you."

She smiled, the tears starting again, "..I.. I would like that..."

"Ranma, promise me something?" He said in a low voice.

Ranma nodded, "The world, or anything you want Hiroshi...."

He smiled, thumbing her chin for a moment, "Promise me you will try with Akane, try your hardest and fiercest.... because a promise is a promise," His eyes were sad... they were full of longing and loss.

Ranma's tears continued flowing as she felt that hurt, she didn't know how she could promise that to him. She didn't know what she was going to do, trapped in this family life that wanted to do nothing but control her every thought and whim.

She didn't know how she was going to do it, but she found herself silently nodding.... Hiroshi asked it of her, so she would do it no matter WHAT the cost was.

He smiled, "Good.. good. I would like you to.. to visit Kaehmi while I'm gone... and to watch out for Daisuke... he needs all the help he can get," He knew he was stalling, finding anything and everything to postpone the inevitable. He knew Kuno was likely waiting at the docks for him at that very minute.

"Yes.. yes, of course.. I will, I swear I will...," She didn't want him to go.. she knew what he was doing, trying to give her a few last minutes with him... she knew he didn't want to leave either.

"And Ranma??" His voice was low, quiet, it wavered slightly as his eyes shimmered with unshed tears.

"Yes, Hiro-chan??" She wasn't afraid of saying that anymore.. her Hiro-chan, the man she couldn't be with.. the man who was leaving because she was promised to another.

"I love you, Ranma." It was a statement, one of the truest that anyone could say... something that was full of so much more than words. Something more than a promise, more than a guarantee... something priceless, ageless, deathless.

"I love you too, Hiro-chan..." She said softly, sadly, another promise.. another guarantee... another thing that had no death. "I love you and.. and.. I understand..."

They kissed, then, in the twilight... the stars playing gleefully over head. They kissed, and for a moment... the world dreamed of what may be. Of what could be.. the world dreamed...

And it hoped.

Then, like a dream.... it ended.. and he smiled... she watched him go. She stood there on the doorstep, watched him vanish around the corner, her hands carefully playing across her lips as she sighed deeply.

"I'll see you.. when.. when you come back," Her words were quiet.... and full of longing.

The wind stirred her hair... and a part of her dared to dream, and wonder.

* * * End 2:3 * * *

Did you Like the story? Then...

Tell a Friend About Fragile Clay!!!

get this gear!

"Yo, Ranma Here.... I bet you're wondering what's going to happen next, with Hiroshi gone and everything far from okay... Shimitsu Kaoru would like to thank all of you faithful fans for a great first two seasons, so stay tuned, because Volume 3 is coming up... In the next volume, we'll meet an important new character!!! The next episode, come see me as I zone out and my loved ones have to save my butt... See ya then!!"

Ending song is "Equal Romance" With different scrapbook pictures of Hiroshi and Ranma together, starting with...

Ranma Picture, opposite Ranma-Chan

Akane, Kasumi, Nabiki picture

Ryouga and P-chan picture (Opposite) Genma and Panda Picture

Nodoka and Soun Picture (Opposite) Kuno and Hiroshi Picture

Cologne and Happosai Picture (Opposite) Shimitsu and Kaoru Picture

Kaehmi and Memeko Picture (Opposite) Yuka and Sayuri picture

Episode 1 pictures: Ranma in Hiroshi's arms, Ranma speaking with Hiroshi in the vault, Ranma being chased by Shampoo/Mousse/Ryouga/Kuno/Kodachi, Ranma smashing Tsubasa, Hiroshi talking to Ukyou, Hiroshi talking to Shampoo, Onna-Hiroshi and Ranma looking at eachother, Onna-Hiroshi scolding Ranma after the attack from Kuno, Hiroshi standing between Ranma and Cologne.

.Episode 2 pictures: Onna-Ranma/Onna-Hiroshi/Akane/Shampoo/Ukyou all singing at the beach, Ranma malleting Ryouga after his glomp, Hiroshi defending Ranma from Nodoka, Hiroshi/Nabiki/Kasumi all laughing at Ranma and Akane in the hallway after Nodoka and Genma's Argument, Hiroshi and Aquarius in the back yard,Ranma and Kaehmi, Ranma in her room as Nodoka shows her how to apply makeup, Ranma and Daisuke in school hallway, Ranma hauling ass from Aquarius, Ranma in her gym outfit, Ranma running with neko-shampoo on her head, Ranma running with neko-shampoo on HIS head, Mob/Ranma/Happosai, Big Aquarius, Hiroshi fighting in Genjii garb, Hiroshi/Ranma/Akane/Kuno talking with Aquarius after the battle

Episode 3 pictures: Ranma getting hammered by Akane, Ranma talking with Hiroshi, Ranma playing with Kaehmi, Ranma Reading to Kaehmi, Akane with astounded look, Ukyou with Astounded look, Shampoo with astounded look, Ranma arguing with Nodoka, Ranma cooking, Akane cooking, Hiroshi and Ranma playing chess, Ranma and Hiroshi back to back, Ranma with Hiroshi at the contest, Ryouga smashing through the wall at the contest, Hiroshi with his "Here we go again" face (Along with everyone else)

FINAL PICTURE: Ranma and Hiroshi, the sun Rising behind them as they stare at eachother on the back porch at Hiroshi's house.