Author's Notes: I know this is a little late in the game, but I did some actual semi-in depth research on the PSIA, and I realised that Ranma's not so much a cop as he is an elite government agent (think along the lines of Jack Bauer from 24, only ever so slightly less supercop-ish, and slightly better at not screwing up all of his romantic relationships). Apparently it's all very hush-hush, and there are only something like 1200 PSIA agents on active duty at any given time across the country. But I did manage to get the agency's duties correct: they specialise in monitoring "subversive criminal organisations".

Anyway, I don't think this makes any difference to the story thus far, other than the times when I actually referred to him as a 'cop', including in the summary, which I won't change because 'government agent' has too many letters in it. :P But that's what happens when you don't plan ahead.

Speaking of 24, that show has recently become my latest obsession. I've finally caught up on all four seasons (that's 96 hours of television I've watched in the past several weeks) and I got some good ideas from it to use in this story. In fact—and this was completely unplanned—who noticed that the first three chapters of this story have taken place almost entirely in real time?

Last thing, I forgot to properly thank FrameofMind for beta-reading the last chapter, so I'll do it here: thank you dahling! Incidentally, this chapter is un-beta'd because I'm an impatient little child and need to post now, now, now (and plus university first-years generally tend to have batshit-crazy schedules!), so please excuse any spelling/grammar errors and typos.

On with the chapter, and don't forget to review!


The Harder They Fall
Chapter 3: Second Encounters

Ranma strode purposefully down a well-lit corridor, occasionally sipping on some sort of energy drink he'd found in a vending machine in the cafeteria. It tasted filthy—kind of like old soy milk flavoured with a splash of cherry cough syrup—but right now he could use any extra boosts of nutrition he could find. After his memorable train ride, he'd stopped off at home for a quick shower, and an even quicker nap, but now it was the middle of the night and he was back at work again. And after the agonisingly long-winded briefing he'd just sat through (during which he was attacked by a fit of sneezes, strangely enough), something told him that it was going to be a long, long night indeed.

It probably didn't look like it from the outside, but in many ways, his job was almost routine in its unpredictability. The long periods of inactivity were kept busy with paperwork or training, and interspersed with short, intense bursts of frantic action which soon fizzled, only to have the cycle repeat again some time later.

Or so went Daisuke's vaguely sexual metaphor about their line of work.

And right now, the PSIA was in the action phase, with agents working ridiculous, inhumane hours and surviving on Styrofoam box after Styrofoam box of take-away Chinese food. Shampoo may think it the food of the gods, but if Ranma ever saw another bowl of ramen again in his lifetime, it would be all too soon.

Reaching his destination, he pulled an electronic keycard out of his back pocket and swiped it through the reader mounted on the wall. The small light on top went from red to green with a loud buzzing sound, and he pushed the door open. Once inside, he was greeted with the familiar sight of the PSIA Tokyo Bureau's main operations room, often referred to as the Cockpit.

He vividly remembered his first time ever entering this room, almost five years ago. The sheer volume of noise had been the first thing to strike him. The open-concept design made the room seem massive, with television monitors tuned to various local and international news stations along one wall, and desks set up in small clusters in the centre. Each desk was equipped with a perfectly functional telephone which came with it's own extension number so employees could call each other even from a few desks away. But for some reason, everyone seemed to prefer shouting across the room.

On a good day, it made the environment seem high-energy and productive, and on a bad one, it made him want to climb on top of a desk and tell everyone to just shut the hell up because he was getting a headache.

But despite the fact that his evening had almost all the makings of a bad day, there was a slight bounce in his step that didn't go unnoticed by Hiroshi, who pulled up next to Ranma as he was striding through the rows of desks toward his small office.

Because he rarely ever pulled rank on his coworkers, most people forgot that Ranma was one of the highest-ranking agents in the bureau, and thus was blessed with the privilege of having his own office space. With a minifridge.

"It's almost midnight and you've been up since four o'clock in the morning," Hiroshi informed him, keeping pace with his friend. "So why the hell are you so chipper?"

Unfazed by the rather astute observation, Ranma took another sip of his fruit-flavoured energy drink and pulled a face at the taste.

"No reason. I'm just happy with the progress we're making on this case," he answered amiably, entering the small room and settling down in his comfortable chair behind the desk. He gave the can in his hand one last dirty look before tossing it inside the minifridge with the vague intention of finishing it later. Most likely, he would completely forget about it and rediscover it three weeks past the expiration date.

Hiroshi snorted as he shut the door behind them. He sat down on Ranma's desk when he reached the paper-strewn table in the middle of the room. "That's bullshit. Seriously, why are you so happy?"

"Seriously, why're you so damn interested in my business all of a sudden?" Ranma countered, but there was little hostility in his voice.

The sandy-haired man shrugged. "No reason," he echoed. "But from my experience, nobody around here is in that good a mood during a case unless they're getting laid. And if that's the case, then it's definitely my business."

"And how do you figure that?"

"Because you know I live my life vicariously through my friends. So come on, tell me. On a scale of one to ten—one being you've had more fun by yourself, and ten, you're so dazed you can't remember how to spell your own name—how was it?"

Ranma let out a short laugh and began shuffling through some papers on his desk, mostly just to give himself something to do. "Hiroshi, I'm not married, I don't have a girlfriend, and there were about two hours between the times I last contacted you, and when I arrived here for the debriefing." He looked up at his friend with an arrogant smirk. "I mean, I know I'm good, but come on..."

"Shut up and tell me—yes or no?"

"Sorry to disappoint you, but nope. I went home, cleaned up and now I'm here." He should've just let it go, but seeing Hiroshi shake his head like Ranma had just let him down in some profoundly important way, his ego prompted him to add, "But I did meet a cute chick on the train on the way home."

Hiroshi perked up with interest and sat on his desk again. "Ah, so that's it. And?"

"And what?"

"What do you mean, 'and what'? And did you ask her out?"

Ranma's cocky grin slipped a notch. "Er, no."

Dawning apprehension crept onto Hiroshi's face. "Did you at least get her number?"

"Not exactly..."

"Email? Fax? Beeper? Anything?"

"She doesn't have a beeper," Ranma replied lamely, wishing he'd gone with his original instinct and just kept his mouth shut.

Hiroshi slapped his forehead and groaned. "You always do this, Saotome! Every single time! What excuse did you feed yourself this time? That you're too busy? Maybe you'll think about it once this case is over? Newsflash, my friend, you've been saying that for as long as I've known you!"

"Like you're any better!" Ranma shot back mulishly. "At least I'm actually meeting women, and not hounding other people for dirty details about their sex lives."

"Your edged words cut me deeply," Hiroshi said dryly, slapping a hand over his heart for dramatic effect.

"Yeah, well, cry me a river," the pig-tailed man replied sourly, feeling irritated. Hiroshi was right, and Ranma knew it, but he decided to deflect the conversation. "And why are you here? Shouldn't you be doing something, like, I dunno, your job?"

"I am."

"I mean besides pissing me off."

"Oh! Well, why didn't you just say so?" Hiroshi replied with a cheeky grin. It faded almost instantly at the dangerous look on Ranma's face, so he plucked out the folder he'd been carrying under his arm and handed it over. "Here, this is all the info we found on that Henderson guy like you asked."

Ranma snatched up the manila folder and inspected the contents. Inside, he found a few passport photographs, some medical documents, and addresses and phone numbers for various contacts throughout the UK. His temporary work visa papers stated that he was in the middle of a four-year contract as a consultant and analyst for the Japanese Ministry of Finance.

"No info from Thames Valley or M15?"

"Nope, his record's clean."

Ranma nodded as he flipped through the rest of the documents. "So what's that latest on this guy? Has the body been collected?"

"Nope, because, get this—he isn't dead."

Ranma stared at Hiroshi, shocked. "What? How's that possible? You heard those two thugs, they put a bullet in his head and left him in an alley!"

"Yeah, well, apparently he's one lucky bastard," Hiroshi said. "The bullet went in at just the right angle and missed all the important stuff by a hair. A civilian found him in the alley, called an ambulance, and he's at Tokyo General right now, alive and mostly in tact. In fact, he'll be going in for surgery within the hour."

Ranma processed this information quickly, then suddenly felt his ire rising. He slammed the folder shut. "Why the hell wasn't I told about this?" he demanded, jumping to his feet and glaring down at a seated Hiroshi.

"Er, I thought that's what I just did," said Hiroshi, leaning back slightly in alarm.

"You know what I'm talking about. Somebody high up wanted him dead and badly, so this guy might be the best lead we've got so far. Dammit, Suzuhara, you should've called me the second you found out!"

"Cool it, Ranma, we've got it under control. Me and Daisuke just thought you could use a break. You've been working harder than usual on this case."

Ranma's heated reply was interrupted when the door flew open, revealing an out-of-breath Daisuke clutching a mobile phone and a slip of notepad paper in his hand.

"What happened?" Ranma demanded without preamble, sensing Daisuke's alarm.

"I got a call from the agent we sent to the hospital to question Henderson. Someone found out the old guy was there before we did," Daisuke said gravely. "He's dead."

"Shit!" Ranma cursed. "Just goddamn perfect!"

Beside him, Hiroshi let out a frustrated groan. "How?" he asked, looking ready to punch someone's lights out. Ranma's expression mirrored his almost exactly.

Daisuke seemed to deflate slightly. "A remote-triggered bomb. Took out the entire room and everything in it."

"The bomber?" Ranma asked tensely.

"Got away."

Ranma took a deep, calming breath and laced his fingers through his hair. Shit was really starting to hit the fan. "Any other casualties?"

"Actually, no. A lot of structural damage, but the patient's rooms on either side were empty, luckily. A med student almost got caught in the blast, but other than a few minor injuries, she's okay."

"Good," Hiroshi muttered with a tense nod, and the three men lapsed into silence.

Finally, Daisuke stepped into the small office completely, and shut the door behind himself, drowning out the noise from the Cockpit. He turned to the other two, his expression serious. "So what's our next move?"

"We need to interview some witnesses, see if anyone got a good look at the bomber," Hiroshi said, reaching for the phone on Ranma's desk and punching in an extension number. "I'll get some guys on it right now."

"Got it," Daisuke replied. "Ranma?"

Ranma stood with his brow furrowed and his hands still laced in his hair, frowning in thought. Something was bothering him; a thought was buzzing at the back of his brain and he couldn't quite reach it. Something he should be remembering, but it didn't have to do with the case. Shaking it off for now, he replied, "I want to talk to the last few people who saw Henderson alive. Nurses, doctors, visitors, whoever. He might've spilled some information while he was being treated."

Daisuke nodded and skimmed over the paper in his hand. "I figured you'd say that. I've got a list here, and it looks like the med student was the last person to see him. If you leave now, you might still catch her before they send her home."

Ranma was already reaching for his faded army-green jacket, which was draped over the back of his chair. "I'm on it. Tokyo General, right?"

"Right. And use the Tokyo Medical University's parking lot next door. It's free."

Ranma rolled his eyes and was about to comment on what a cheapskate his friend was, when suddenly the buzzing thought at the back of his brain came screeching around to the forefront of his attention. He turned to Daisuke and asked hesitantly, "By the way. This med student..."

"Yeah?"

Ranma cleared his throat nervously. "...What's her name?"

Ranma held his breath as he watched his friend's eyes skim over the note.

"Her name's Akane," Daisuke replied, looking up at Ranma. "Akane Tendo."


The curls were gone. The curls were gone.

Akane fingered her dark hair with a bandaged hand, staring morosely at the jagged, slightly charred ends. Ends which had finally grown long enough to wind themselves into soft, loose ringlets that bounced cheerfully in time with her walk.

She narrowed her eyes. Someone would pay.

Akane let out a sigh and gathered the rest of her hair into a loose, messy knot at the back of her head, knowing that she was fixating on it to avoid thinking about what had just happened. The last six inches of her hair, some minor burns on the backs of her legs and arms, and a few cuts were a very small price to pay. She was lucky that she wasn't covered in third degree burns. In fact, she was lucky to even be alive. Before blacking out, her lightening-quick reflexes had sent her diving to the floor when the explosion hit, thereby saving her life.

When she had regained consciousness, she found that her injuries had been taken care of and that the ER ward was swarming with medical personnel, fire fighters, and police officers, all clamoring around each other to determine exactly what the hell had happened.

'Terrorists' had been the hot-button word spilling from everyone's lips.

Akane worried her bottom lip between her teeth as she thought about what had happened next.

For several moments, Akane sat up in the bed, listening to the wail of sirens, and watching the blue and red lights flash a pattern across the opposite wall of the darkened room. These certainly were normal hospital sights and sounds. But looking outside her window, she spotted several police officers armed with yellow tape, nightsticks and bullhorns setting up a perimeter around the front entrance of the hospital while warding away curious crowds.


That was slightly less than normal.


Fighting off a wave of dizziness, she exited her hospital room and made her way down the hallway. She stood staring for a long while, taking in the sight of three firefighters extinguishing the last of the flaming wreckage that had once been room 210, while a fourth and fifth inspected the blackened walls and ceiling, making sure that it wasn't in any immediate danger of collapsing.


She swallowed the lump in her throat and choked back a tiny sob. This was not like life or death in the operating room. He didn't even get a chance.


The forensics teams would be arriving soon, to gather up the remains...


Akane jumped and whirled around when she felt a hand touch her shoulder. It was a uniformed police officer, who tipped her hat at Akane in apology, then proceeded to ask her the expected questions. No, I'm not hurt, yes, I was in the company of Junko Higashi during the explosion, no, I didn't get a good look at the suspect, yes, I'll be sure to contact you if I have any more information.


"One last question, Ms. Tendo," the officer said in a gentle tone that came across more condescending than reassuring. "Did Mr. Henderson say or do anything that caught your attention when you spoke with him last? Did he exhibit any signs of unusual behaviour?"


'Yes. He freaked out on me completely and nearly gave himself a heart attack when I told him my surname, and then he entrusted me with a suspicious disk with contents unknown. Do you want it, I'd really love it if you took it off my hands and my conscience.'


("Don't show...anyone...but...na..b..")


"Ms. Tendo?"

Akane licked her lips and swallowed hard, making a split-second decision.


"No. I only spoke with him for a few moments while I was administering his medication. He seemed fine."

Thank you, here's my card, have a good night Ms. Tendo.

Sucking in a deep breath, Akane slid the disk into the appropriate slot on her computer. Belatedly, she realised she could be downloading a virus that could erase everything on her entire hard drive, and she panicked briefly. But then she remembered that she had several backup copies of her eighty-page doctorial thesis saved and distributed in various locations all over her flat, including one tucked away in her underwear drawer, right underneath a wad of balled-up socks.

Some people called it obsessive; she called it better safe than sorry.

A file appeared in the screen, and she hesitated for a moment before opening it.

Here goes nothing.

"…What the hell?" Akane exclaimed out loud.

She read the words again, wondering if she had made a mistake.

7-31-1959

3:26

DEARIE, JOIN OR

RUN AS JOHN BEGS.

A DEBT UPS.

SIAM SELLER,

COBRA LANE

She gaped at the screen.

But…but…that didn't make any sense! It didn't mean anything! Akane wasn't quite sure what she had been expecting to find on that disk, but this certainly was not it. Why had Mr. Henderson been so upset and secretive over something like this?

A thought occurred to her suddenly, and she hated herself for thinking it, but…perhaps Mr. Henderson hadn't been right in the head?

"What's the matter, sis? Are you okay?"

Akane tore her eyes away from the screen to see her older sister Nabiki almost running into the living room, dressed in her nightclothes. Her usually alert and sharp-as-a-tack sister was looking pale and weary, as had become normal over the past few weeks. And as of tonight, she also looked incredibly worried and anxious after discovering that her baby sister had almost been blown to smithereens.

It truly freaked Akane out to see Nabiki looking anything other than cool, calm and collected, but she chalked most of it up to stress at work, and her separation and impending divorce from her millionaire husband.

Akane scowled as she thought about that no-good pompous jackass. Sure, he came off like a good husband, all posh and gentlemanly, but was he even trying to sort out whatever problems he and Nabiki were having? Not at all! In fact, ever since Nabiki had arrived at Akane's small campus home one night looking more discomposed than she had ever seen her, he hadn't called or visited once!

And Kuno had the nerve to wonder why Akane had suddenly cancelled their Sunday morning kendo practices.

Stuffed-up jerk.

"Akane, answer me!"

"Huh? Oh, sorry Nabiki. It's okay, I'm fine," Akane replied, hastily abandoning her mental fantasy of beating Kuno to a pulp with his own bokken.

"Are you sure? You look pretty beat up, you're positive you don't want to go back to the hospital and get yourself checked out again?"

Akane looked at Nabiki's hands and nearly choked when she noticed they were wringing the fabric of her pyjama pants nervously. "No, really, I'm fine. Are you sure you are, though? You're going to wreck your trousers if you don't stop that."

Nabiki glanced down at herself and hastily pulled her hands away. She crossed her arms over her chest in a gesture reminiscent of the old, confident Nabiki that Akane was used to.

And for the first time in living memory, Akane saw right through it.

She pulled down one of Nabiki's arms and took her hand, squeezing gently. "I'm so sorry I worried you, but really! Look at me, I'm fine! Just a little overcooked, that's all," she said with a smile.

Nabiki's expression slowly cleared and she lifted her free hand to hover over a particularly nasty cut just above Akane's eyebrow, before moving to her hair. "You're going to have to get this cut soon, sis. Maybe if you're really nice to me, I'll do it for you tomorrow."

"Oh really? And how much is it going to cost me to employ you hair care expertise?" Akane teased.

Nabiki looked down at her sister with an unreadable expression. "Tell you what. For not getting yourself killed today, I'll do it free of charge."

Akane gripped her sister's hand and felt Nabiki squeezing back just as tightly. "Sounds like a plan," she whispered thickly.

Let it never be said that near-death experiences don't bring people closer together.

"So what've you got there?" Nabiki asked suddenly, breaking the silence. She leaned over Akane's shoulder to look at the computer monitor. "Writing another long, boring paper…on…"

"A paper on what?" Akane prompted when her sister failed to finish her sentence. She glanced over and saw Nabiki silently mouthing the words on the screen and looking slightly agitated.

"What is this, Akane?"

Akane quickly closed the window, ejected the disk, and slid it in her pocket. "Oh, ah, nothing. I borrowed the disk from Yuka, it's probably something of hers," she lied swiftly.

There was a faraway expression on Nabiki's face for a moment, but then she shook her head and sat down on the sofa, grabbing the television remote. "If you say so. Floppy disks are so outdated anyway. You should tell Yuka to keep up with the times. Come on sis, that new crime drama is on, the one with the hunky badass cop with the sexy voice."

Akane smiled, glad that her sister seemed to be feeling a little better for the time being. "Just let me put some popcorn in the microwave and I'll be right there."

"Remember, if the paper bag lights on fire, you've overcooked it."

"Would you let it go already? That was one time!"

"And don't forget the extra butter!" she sing-songed.

The doctor in Akane cringed at the thought of all that artery-clogging cholesterol, and the annoyed little sister in her scowled at being made fun of again, but she decided to make an exception this one time, and tossed a bag of Nabiki's favourite into the microwave.

Now, what to do with the disk? A rather loud and obnoxious 'I-told-you-so' voice in the back of her mind was telling her she'd made a big mistake taking it, and furthermore that it was an even worse mistake hiding it from the police, but she would rectify that first thing tomorrow morning.

She took the disk out of her pocket again, and just as she was about to place it in a kitchen drawer for safekeeping, something caught her eye.

Engraved on the back of the disk was a round design of some sort that she hadn't noticed earlier. Squinting and bringing it closer to her face, she realised it was a logo of some kind. It looked very familiar, and she wracked her memory trying to figure out where she had seen it before.

Suddenly it hit her.

"Hey Nabiki," she called out. "Come here a second, will you?"

"Akane, the hunky badass cop is about to deactivate the nuclear device! Can't it wait a second!"

"Nabiki!"

The brunette gave a theatrical sigh and stood up. "Alright, fine. Impatient as ever. What is it?"

Deciding to make an exception to Mr. Henderson's orders, she indicated for Nabiki to move in closer, and turned the disk over in her hand. She pointed at the logo. "This is the disk I, er, borrowed from Yuka. Isn't this a government logo? And look, it says Ministry of Finance. Does this belong to your office?"

She looked up in time to see all of the colour drain from Nabiki's stricken face.

"…'run as John begs'…" she whispered. "Oh god, Akane, tell me the truth! Where did you really get this?"

Startled, Akane managed to stammer out, "F-from a patient at the hospital. Why? What's wrong?"

Nabiki suddenly seized the disk from Akane's limp hands and began looking around the room frantically. "We've got to get rid of this thing, now."

"What? Why?"

Nabiki ignored her sister's anxious questions and instead strode into Akane's tiny bedroom and began rifling through the closet. "Do you still have that wooden bat from when you played on the school baseball team?"

"No, I gave it to the Terada twins when I moved out here, remember?"

Scurrying behind Nabiki as she presumably searched the apartment for something to smash the disk with, Akane finally lost patience and grabbed her sister by the elbow, spinning her around.

"Sis, listen to me," she demanded. "You're acting really weird. What's going on? What aren't you telling me?"

Nabiki opened her mouth to protest, but she was cut off by the deafening bang of gunshots coming from right outside their window.


Ranma couldn't believe his luck. Of all the cute med students on all the trains in all the world, she had to be the one involved in his case.

He would be lying to himself if he said he hadn't been distracted all night thinking about her pretty smile, and imagining her practicing a graceful kata while dressed in a sweaty gi that was ever so slightly smaller and tighter than the average.

And even though he had resolutely told himself no, no, a thousand times no, he was still incredibly pleased at the chance to see her again.

That is, until he remembered that he had told her he mowed lawns for a living.

Damn! Why did stuff like this always have to come back and bite him in the ass?

And after just missing her at the hospital, he was now going to enter her home with a scary-looking gun holstered at his hip, a gold badge in his hand, and question her on a possibly traumatic experience.

Well, the jig is up, I guess. I made this choice when I joined up, no use bitching about it now.

Ranma parked his car under a streetlight, and took a second to admire the way the pale yellow beam of light played against the bright red hood of the convertible—an image he had so missed in the past few weeks.

He walked to the end of the block and turned the corner onto a street of identical semi-detached, single-story brick houses. Each graduate residence had the same set of steps leading up to the front door, the same wrought-iron railing separating each address, the same overgrown green bushes planted under each window, and the same sloping tiled roofs. The only thing that varied was a potted plant here or there, and the occasional painted front door.

How bland. Ranma found himself thinking this place didn't suit Akane at all.

Then he reminded himself that he didn't know Akane at all, and how about he focus on the task ahead now, hmm?

As Ranma made his way down the empty street towards the address that the hospital had given him, a flash of movement on his right suddenly caught his eye. He froze, watching the other side of the street carefully.

There is was again! This time, a bush shivered in its wake, and Ranma realised it was too big to be a cat (thank god). Someone was sneaking around under the cover of the foliage.

Silently, Ranma moved out from under the streetlight and crouched down behind a generic green sedan that was parked on the street. He watched the shadow carefully, but it appeared that whoever it was had stopped moving.

With a sudden jolt, Ranma realised the figure had paused under the window of apartment 132B.

Akane's place.

Aw, hell.

Preparing himself for a nasty confrontation, Ranma carefully reached into his jacket and removed his gun from its holster. He switched off the safety latch, then he realised his position across the street was too far away to do any good. He needed to be closer.

Gun in one hand, he kept his body bent low as he silently shot across the street, and took cover behind a chic black SUV parked directly in front of Akane's apartment. Vaguely, he wondered who it belonged to, and privately hoped the driver wasn't some snotty rich boyfriend of hers.

He raised himself higher until he could see over the hood of the vehicle, and aimed his gun directly at the bush. He waited for the figure to make its next move.

As if on cue, a slight-framed man dressed in black stepped out from behind the bush. It didn't take a genius to see he was moving towards the front steps of the apartment, and that he was carrying a pistol with a long, narrow silencer attached to the end.

Oh, no you don't, you little shit.

"Drop the gun and put your hands behind your head!"

The gunman spotted Ranma and slowly obeyed the order when he caught sight of the weapon aimed directly at his abdomen. But at the last second, the man dove to the ground and rolled back into the bushes. Ranma stood up and blindly fired several shots into the leaves, but knew immediately that they were no good.

A sense of urgency filled him as he realised the gunman had moved to the back of the house, where there could be a breakable window or sliding door that lead straight inside.

His only option was to get inside there first.

Racing up the half-dozen or so front steps, Ranma tentatively twisted the front door's handle. As expected, it was locked. He couldn't very well ring the bell, so he lowered the gun to his side, kicked out his right leg and smashed the door wide open. He winced at the noisy sound of splintering wood.

Leveling his gun again, Ranma crept inside the darkened house, alert for the slightest traces of movement. As he reached the end of the narrow hallway, an odd popping sound reached his ears. He came to a doorway and glanced around the corner before entering slowly.

The source of the noise became clear when he spotted the microwave sitting on the kitchen counter, with an inflated white and yellow popcorn bag slowly spinning inside it.

That meant there was no chance that Akane wasn't somewhere inside the house.

His sense of urgency elevated even higher, and he turned to leave the kitchen. He had to find her before the gunman did.

Suddenly, an object came swinging out of the darkness, aiming for back of Ranma's head. Ducking swiftly, he spun around behind his attacker and quickly disarmed her, tossing the wooden sword aside. He grabbed her arms and pinned them against her sides with one arm, while covering her mouth with the other.

"Shh, shh, it's okay! I'm not gonna hurt you!" Ranma whispered frantically in Akane's ear as she struggled against him furiously. "I'm a police officer!"

Not exactly the truth, but close enough.

But she continued to struggle, making loud sounds of fear and anger in her throat. He realised she was trying to say something, but her words were muffled against his hand.

"Okay, I'll lower my hand if you promise not to make any noise, got it?"

She nodded tersely. He could feel her pulse pounding against his forearm, and he was suddenly very aware that he was holding her tightly across the chest. He promptly ordered his mind to think about something else.

"I don't believe you!" she spat out in a harsh whisper when he removed his hand.

Maintaining his solid grip on her small frame, he reached awkwardly into his jacket pocket and produced his badge. Flipping it open in front of her, he felt relieved when she finally stopped struggling and relaxed against him.

Evidentially, the darkness prevented her from being able to read his name on the badge, and it didn't surprise him that she didn't recognise his voice either. He was glad for it for the moment; the last thing they had time for right now was awkward explanations.

"I heard gunshots," she whispered, breathing very quickly. "Just outside. And I think someone else is in the house. My bedroom window was unlocked and I heard it slide open a few minutes ago."

He nodded. "I'll go check it out. The shots you heard were mine, but guy who broke in here also has a gun. I need you to stay in here and hide."

"What? No way!" she hissed. "This is my house, and whoever has the nerve to break in here is getting his ass kicked!"

"Are you listening to me? I said he has a gun!" Ranma whispered back just as furiously. Was she crazy?

"And besides," she went on, ignoring him, "I'll just be a sitting target in here if he finds me before you find him. So lead the way, officer."

He discovered angrily that he couldn't refute the logic of her argument, as much as it went against his instincts. "Fine, but stay behind me and don't make a sound."

"Got it. And you get let go of me now. I won't try to take your head off again, I promise."

Embarrassed, Ranma quickly released his hold on her and steered her behind his body, hoping that and the darkness would prevent Akane from catching a good glimpse of his face.

Together, they crept out of the kitchen silently and headed towards Akane's bedroom.

They didn't even make it halfway there when more shots rang out, this time from inside the house, and from someone else's gun. Akane let out a strangled yell as Ranma pushed her behind the living room sofa and then dove behind it himself.

"Dammit!" he cursed, looking around frantically for something, anything he could use as cover. Bits and pieces of stuffing rained down on them as the sofa was riddled with gunfire.

There was a large ceramic lamp seated on a coffee table near Akane's head and he got an idea.

"Akane, grab that lamp and when I tell you, throw it as hard as you can!" he shouted over the noise.

"Throw it where?" she yelled back, her arms held over her head protectively.

"Anywhere, it doesn't matter!"

Suddenly, the gunfire stopped, and he heard the gunman frantically reloading his empty weapon. This was his chance.

"NOW!"

Akane seized the heavy lamp and blindly lobbed it over the sofa. The resulting crash distracted the gunman for one fatal second, and Ranma jumped to his feet, aimed and fired.

The assassin went down without a sound.

For a long moment, the only sounds he could hear were his and Akane's heavy breathing accompanied by a slight ringing in his ears from the noise of the guns. Feathers and cotton wool floated serenely in the air like a fresh snowfall at night.

"Is he dead?" Akane asked in shaky voice from the floor.

"Yeah…yeah, he's finished."

He would never, ever get used to how this moment felt. The moment when the noise, and adrenaline, and training reflexes, and desire to uphold the law just disappeared, and all he was left with was the sight of the living, breathing person he had just killed.

"Are there any more of them?"

"No. It was just him."

"Oh. Good." She got to her feet slowly and glanced at the dead body in her living room before quickly turning away again and picking her way around the ruined pieces of furniture.

"Nabiki," she cried out suddenly, causing Ranma to jump. "It's over, you can come out now!"

"Are you sure?" came a muffled voice from the other side of the house.

"Yes, there's a police officer here. Everything's okay." She looked over her shoulder at the body once again. "Well, not completely okay…" she went on in a quieter voice.

Ranma looked at her through the darkness. "There's someone else here, and you didn't tell me?" he demanded.

"Sorry, it kinda slipped my mind," she replied, and as far as Ranma could tell, she wasn't being sarcastic. "Nabiki's my older sister. I told her to hide in one of linen cupboards in the hall. It doesn't look big enough to fit a person, so figured no one would look for anyone in there. Ah, here it is."

Akane flipped a switch on the wall and the room was suddenly flooded with light.

"I don't know how you managed to get here in time," she began, blinking at him as her eyes adjusted to the light, "but I can't thank—"

Ranma saw recognition dawn in Akane's eyes as she got a good look at his face for the first time. Her jaw dropped and she stared at him.

"Y-you!"

He nodded and tried to look as casual as possible as he holstered his gun. "Um, yeah. Hi, Akane."

"But-but…you're not a cop!" she cried, pointing at him accusingly. "You're a gardener!"

"Actually, I'm not really either." He kept his voice even, trying to downplay the fact that had lied to her twice, once for each time he had ever spoken with her. "I'm a federal agent. I work for the PSIA."

She made a funny squeaking noise, and he took it as a bad sign.

Just then, a third, slightly disheveled-looking figure entered the room and whatever explanations he was about to give to Akane died in his throat.

The short-haired brunette caught his eye and they locked gazes. She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out.

It didn't matter. He didn't need to hear a word.

Ranma heard Akane give a cry of surprise when he plunged his hand into his jacket, withdrew the gun again, and aimed it straight at Nabiki's forehead.

"Don't move. Get down on your knees and put your hands behind your head. You're under arrest."

"Under arrest?" Akane echoed incredulously. She glanced back and forth between the pair, alarmed that her sister was doing what she was told. "What the hell for?"

"For involvement in organised crime."


Author's Notes: I'm doing that Mr. Burns evil hand-rubbing thing right now. >:D Cliffhangers are mah bitches.

So I promised it wouldn't take months and months to update. Well, I still did, but not five, so that's a definite improvement. But yeah, I really, really enjoyed writing this chapter. The last half of it just came to me in one go over the past three days. :D

Just a quick thing or two: Thames Valley Police is the police force that serves Oxfordshire, where Mr. Henderson was from. The second thing is—and this is so lame but I couldn't help myself—the TV show Nabiki was watching was indeed 24. Hunky badass cop with the sexy voice who's good with nuclear devices? Keifer Sutherland's Jack Bauer, of course! I'd like to meet a female alive who doesn't get the shivers every time he says anything at all in that smooth bedroom voice of his. Apparently the show is quite big in Japan, too.

And besides, I thought it was kinda fitting for this story. :D

Anyway, enough fangirling about non-Ranma fandoms. I hope you liked this chapter as much as I did, and if so, let me know! ;)


Review Responses: (the, er, condensed soup version)

Ayumi Omoide: I know I've said this before, but you're such a sweetheart and I just love your reviews! They're so cheerful and enthusiastic and make me want to be your friend in real life because I'll bet you're a ton of fun to hang out with :) I write for people like you (but really, you're giving me far too much credit! There's tons of much better, more creative Ranma writers out here!) I just hope I made up for the lack of RA interaction in the last chapter here. :) SkippyPanda: The girl talk was definitely fun to write, because it sounded like a transcript between me and my friends during any given conversation. :P And it was pretty sneaky of Akane to do that. We'll see how that plays itself out later. :D Angela Jewell: Yay, fabulous reviewer alert! I'm so happy to hear that you're finding this story engaging, and thank you for your vote of confidence. One of the things I love about the Ranmaverse is that there's so many characters to play around with, and I enjoy coming up with roles for each one of them that reflects something about their canon roles. I'm so glad you noticed and appreciated the whole Shinnosuke thing. And dude, fifty point for you for guessing the P&P reference! It's a great book, isn't it? You must watch 'Bride & Prejudice', it's a really great adaptation. :D nishikaze: Hee, actually 'pediatrician' is the American spelling of the word. Canadians tend to use the British spelling, 'paediatrician'. Sharp eye though, way to go! Jazz: Hehehe, this humble Real fan bows before you. And to be perfectly honest, I haven't been keeping up with it for almost a year now, so don't hold it against me. :D And don't worry, there's lots more of the story yet to come, and I plan on chugging on till the very last sentence. :D Jade Eye: Don't you worry, Akane is one of my favourite characters, there's no way she's getting the brush-off in this story! Ningen Demonai: Hehe, I call everyone 'silly'. It's just one of my terms of endearment. :) And I'm glad to hear that you felt sympathy Mr. Henderson's character. I was kinda worried he was a bit of a sore thumb, because he's just so different from any original character I've read, but I'm so pleased with the good response he got. And yes, RIP Mr. Henderson. Breed 107: What are you talking about, you're English is lovely! A hell of a lot better than my French (and that's pretty shameful, considering I'm a Canadian :P), and miles beyond my Italian. And Akane is my favourite character too, so I'm glad you liked my portrayal of her. :) Shadow Knight2: Thank you so much for the nice words! I really enjoy your stories as well, so it means a lot to hear it from you. As for Akane's behaviour on the train, I agree that it's odd for her, but I really wanted them to meet and like each other right away, instead of starting their relationship off with conflict and nothing else. I kinda wanted to put a different spin on their story so they could interact a little differently from the usual "I thought I hated him/her, but I guess he/she isn't so bad" thing later on. I hope it's working well! -Oleander Tea-: First things first: why aren't you updating your story:P But thank you so much for the encouraging words, and it's great that you think Akane's profession suits her. And it is weird how our stories and our personal professions are all crossed like that! I hadn't really even thought about it that way, but good point! ChelseaBurger22: And you, same to you! Why are you updating either:P And please, I would absolutely love to hear any theories you've come up with! It'll be cool to see how well, or how badly off-course I'm leading readers. XD Dandy Mandy: Yes, I think 'collide' is the perfect word to describe how Ranma and Akane's lives are going to come together. :D Thank you so much for the nice comments! Leina: As you can probably tell in the last few lines, Nabiki and Ranma do know each other, and you'll find out more about it in Chapter 4. Great guesswork! And unfortunately, I won't be writing any more about Mr. Henderson after the next chapter, but you're right his final rites. ForeverDestiny: Hehe, that's got to be some kind of first, the author's notes compelling a reader to review, instead of the story itself! But thank you so much for the kind words. I'm especially glad that you appreciate the research part, because as fun as it is to do, most people I think tend to assume the author is just making stuff up. :P Hope you liked this latest chapter! SweetestTaboo: Well, as you can tell, Akane managed to save herself from the bomb, but Ranma did get to do a bit of hero-ing in this chapter! And as for Yuka and Sayuri, I'm pretty sure they're side characters right now. That may change later on, but for now they've served their planned purpose—to annoy, tease and embarrass Akane. :D And ooh, sorry about the cliffie:P SakK: Lol, I'm having a laugh here because I've just figured out that your name is pronounced 'sake". Very clever! Anyway, yay, I'm glad you liked my spin on the Ranma/Akane relationship. There's no way R and A can be R and A without a bit of quarreling, but it can get a bit tedious, not to mention out of character if that's ALL they do. Thanks for the review! sodalicious: Seriously girl, you are like my ff dot net soul mate. I went all 'squee!' when I finally got your review, and OMG, you're way, way too kind. There's so much stuff here I can reply to, and I think instead of me taking up another page and a half, you need to just give me your email address. :P But the greatest part of the review was you telling me that you felt the same emotions as the characters I'm writing do. That there is everything I've been hoping to accomplish, so thank you. (Also, I'm guessing that it's the LSATs you're taking right now until Oct. 1? Either way, good luck on whatever horrible exams your writing and I'm so looking forward to when you'll have a chance to write again!) clavira89: Was this update quick enough for you? ;) To tell you the truth, you're review was the first one I've had in a while for this story, so you definitely helped jump-start my motivation again!