Disclaimer: Ranma and co. still belong to Rumiko Takahashi, and apparently she isn't willing to part with them just yet. One day, perhaps. And the song "All I Want For Christmas Is You" belongs to Mariah Carey, or Mimi, or Meems, or whatever the hell she's calling herself nowadays.
Author's Notes: I can't believe it took me over a year to finish this! I started it around Halloween 2004, thinking I would have it finished and ready to post on Christmas day. Fast forward to after Halloween 2005, and I finally get inspired again! Anyway, I hope you enjoy it, and don't forget to put a review in my stocking! ;)
Bringing Home Beauty
Akane frowned, holding one delicate hair comb in each hand. Both were beautiful pieces, each crafted with equal care and precision, and both costing the same amount of money. The butterfly comb was fashioned from a distressed brassy metal and inlaid with a few tastefully arranged faux jewels. The swan comb was made of dark mahogany with mother-of-pearl accents. The problem was which would look better in Mrs. Saotome's auburn hair?
This was the pressing dilemma that had kept Akane rooted to the spot for the past fifteen minutes. Biting the inside of her cheeks, Akane's eyebrows formed a delicate 'v' as more slush melted off her shoes and formed a growing puddle around her feet. Several employees eyed the dirty puddle distastefully and hovered nearby, poised with mops and buckets, waiting for the dark-haired girl to make a move.
Finally, Akane shrugged and eenie meanie miney moe'd it. She put the swan comb back and headed to the cash register with the butterfly comb before she could change her mind again.
Wishing the jewelry store cashier a cheerful "happy holidays!" Akane rewrapped her scarf securely around her neck, and double-checked her woolly toque, making sure it was covering her ears. Bracing herself, she pushed the shop door open and was greeted with an icy blast of winter air as she stepped out of the store and onto the street.
Her new boots crunched the sidewalk salt into smaller pieces as Akane walked down the bustling main street at a brisk pace, her numerous shopping bags swinging merrily from both hands. A faint scent tickled her nose, growing steadily stronger as she walked. She paused in front of a small café, her mouth watering at the delicious aroma of coffee, cinnamon and baked treats wafting from the front door.
She hesitated for the briefest of moments, debating if she should just keep on walking past.
That idea was quickly abandoned. Time for a break! Akane decided gleefully, stepping into the comforting warmth of the small café.
It was a cozy place, decorated with earthy colours, eclectic furniture and soft lighting. In lieu of the season, pine needle wreaths were scattered over various surfaces, and a large Christmas tree occupied one corner of the shop, adorned with expensive and delicate-looking glass ornaments. Empty cardboard boxes wrapped in Christmas paper were arranged neatlyunderneath it.
She ordered a large hot chocolate with extra whipped cream, grimacing only a little at the inflated prices. She really should be hanging on to every yen she could find for gifts, but Akane couldn't deny herself this one treat. Accepting the cup from the harried-looking clerk, Akane made her way to the front of the shop, and seated herself on one of the stools facing the large window.
Akane sighed contentedly as the sweet liquid flowed down her throat. The sensation warmed her chilled body and numbed fingers from the inside out, right down to her toes. Smiling absentmindedly at the window in front of her, Akane settled back and indulged herself in some old fashioned people-watching.
Light flurries drifted from the darkening sky in clumps, settling on the ground and on the tips of eyelashes instead of melting right away. It was perfect for snowball making or snowman building, and no doubt the whole town would be covered in a thick, fluffy white blanket of frosting by tomorrow morning.
Akane took another long sip, savouring the sugary warmth on her tongue. Her smile broadened. I definitely get what people mean when they say every day should be Christmas.
Strictly speaking, it wasn't Christmas yet; the actual day was still two and a half weeks away. But the anticipation, the excitement, the whole spirit of the season was definitely in the air, and Akane just loved it.
She especially loved being in the city this time of year. She loved the wreaths and ribbons that hung from every lamppost on the street, and the red, green and white fairy lights that wound around the bare branches of every tree in the park. She loved the carolers that sang for charity on street corners, and the snatches of holiday songs that could be heard drifting from every shop. She loved the hundreds of jolly Santas seating children in their laps, eyes twinkling as they gently asked if they've been good little boys and girls this year.
Akane even loved the crowds.
No, she especially loved the crowds, because unlike any other time of the year, the hustle and bustle seemed to carry an overtone of friendliness and goodwill. People took extra care in holding doors open for those carrying too many packages, and complete strangers wished each other a happy holiday season with warm smiles.
Akane loved the mittened hands and the scarf-covered noses. She loved the crinkly, shiny wrapping paper that the stores gift-wrapped her purchases in, and the satiny ribbons that shop girls tied in their hair. She loved the merry laughter that intermingled with the almost constant sound of jingling bells coming from some place or another.
She loved the happy sight of families spending time together. She giggled quietly, remembering the large family she had seen earlier that day, arguing good-naturedly over the perfect Christmas tree in the lot.
There were normally overworked fathers gathering at the local skating pond, shedding their polished shoes in favour of raggedy old hockey skates as they taught their little ones to skate for the first time. Mothers sat on the benches with thermoses of cocoa, laughing joyously when their children made it from the fence to Daddy's waiting arms without tumbling. Sometimes she was on the ice too, waiting to pick her little ones up and brush them off when they fell ungracefully on their bottoms, words of encouragement spilling from her lips.
Akane's mother had taught her to skate. She smiled at the precious memory, one of the few of her mother she could recall with absolute clarity.
A young couple passed by the window, holding hands. Reminded of yet another thing she loved about this time of year, Akane sighed deeply, but was not an unhappy sigh. It was quite the opposite actually, because unlike last Christmas, Akane had someone to hold hands with and kiss under the mistletoe this year. That thought made her cheeks go warm without the help of the hot chocolate.
Her silly smile was replaced with a small frown as she did a quick mental inventory. Glancing down at the packages at her feet, she remembered that a special someone was among the list of people she still had to shop for. Herein lay a significant problem. She hadn't the foggiest idea of what she wanted to give him this year, only that it had to be absolutely, positively perfect, since it was their first official Christmas as an "us".
That, and she wasn't going to knit, sew, bake or generally hand-make anything. When he had pulled out the knotty yellow scarf she had knitted him last year, Akane had experienced one of those profound, forehead-smacking, 'what were you thinking?' moments, and instantly wrote off the idea of knitting a pair of matching gloves.
Maybe she should just ask him?
But no, that wasn't any fun. Subtlety wasn't a strong personality trait in either of them. He would definitely figure it out, and then the surprise would be ruined.
Knock, knock, knock.
Akane nearly jumped out of her mittens when a fist rapped on the window in front of her, startling her out of her reverie like a snowball down the back of the shirt. It was the young couple from earlier, whom she now recognised as Sayuri and Daisuke. Sayuri was now waving and gesturing enthusiastically, indicating for Akane to stay put. The pair stumbled into the shop, the door bell jingling merrily to announce their arrival.
"Akane! Fancy meeting you here!" Sayuri enthused. Her cheeks were rosy as she and Daisuke stomped the excess snow off their shoes before heading over to Akane's seat.
"How's it going, Akane?" Daisuke greeted. Dropping what Akane assumed was a day's worth of Sayuri's Christmas shopping on the table, he ran his fingers through his dark locks, trying somewhat successfully to rid himself of a mild case of hat-hair. Akane shifted over a few seats to give them some room.
"Merry Christmas you two! Why don't you guys grab a drink and defrost? You look like a pair of icicles."
Sayuri turned to Daisuke with glittering eyes. "Dai?"
Daisuke's hands paused in his hair. He recognised that look instantly. It usually meant that his wallet was going to be relieved of some it its burden very soon. "Yeah?" he answered cautiously.
"Would you mind getting me a large skim latte with whipped cream? And cinnamon powder on top?" Sayuri asked sweetly. With the soft lighting of the café making her light hair and fair skin glow, she could almost be mistaken for a Christmas angel if it weren't for the fiendish gleam in her eye. Akane snickered, knowing he would cave the moment she called him 'Dai'.
Daisuke rolled his eyes and sighed. "Anything else, princess? Apparently it's not enough that I spent all day playing pack mule for you, is it?"
She grinned and secured her triumph. "Oh, but you're so strong! Who else would I ask?"
"Yeah, yeah, keep layin' it on," he grumbled. Slumping his shoulders in mock defeat, he joined the end of the lengthy line.
"And don't forget the chocolate biscotti! I love you!" Sayuri called after him. She clapped her hands over her mouth when she realised the last part had come out a little louder than intended. Customers 'aww'ed as Daisuke blushed and grinned, shuffling his feet sheepishly.
Sayuri regained her composure and spun around on her stool, facing an amused Akane.
"So. How's the shopping coming along?" she asked, changing the subject before Akane had a chance to tease. Akane went along with it for now.
"Fantastic, actually. I've only got three people left to buy for."
"Good for you for not leaving it to the last minute. Have you had to beat anyone with a stick for the last Tickle-Me Elmo yet?"
Akane laughed. "Well, besides maybe Yuka, there's no one on my list who likes little red stuffed monsters that talk. I had a bit of a run-in with an old lady over your present, though," she added. The coffee table book filled with photographs of women's fashion trends over the last century had been an inspired find at the bookstore. It just screamed 'Sayuri!' and Akane had spent a good ten minutes explaining to the old lady why she simply had to have the last copy.
"Oooh, really? What is it?" Sayuri asked excitedly.
Akane shook her head, grinning. "Nope. Not telling. You'll just have to wait like everyone else."
"Come on, not even a teeny, tiny clue?"
"Please?" she simpered, putting on the same angelic face she had used on Daisuke. Damn, Akane thought. And I thought I was good at that.
Sayuri leaned forward eagerly. Akane put a finger to her mouth, making it look like she was thinking of a clever clue that wouldn't give the whole thing away. Suddenly, she snapped her fingers and leaned in conspiratorially.
"Okay, here it is..."
"It's...something you'll really, really like!" Akane cackled gleefully as Sayuri slouched back in her seat and crossed her arms over her chest.
"You're so annoying sometimes, you know that?" Sayuri said in a distinctly pouty voice.
"Ha. And you're too impatient. Serves you right."
Sayuri stuck out her tongue and huffed. "Fine. At least tell me what you got everyone else."
Akane rattled off the list of gifts had found so far, showing her the ones that weren't already gift-wrapped. Sayuri commented on Akane's good taste when she saw Mrs. Saotome's butterfly comb, and she especially "ooohed" over Ukyou's gift, a long white hair ribbon. Made of soft satin and accented with a shimmering snowflake design, it was different than Ukyou's usual plain strip of cotton, but nothing too girly or over-the-top. Akane was very proud of it. It was her way of honouring their budding new friendship.
"But I still don't know what to get Ranma," Akane sighed, putting the gifts bag back in the bags.
"Don't I know it," Sayuri said, rolling her eyes. "Guys are the worst to shop for. I don't know why they're always complaining about us. It took me weeks to find Dai's present and I'm still not convinced it's perfect."
"Really? What did you get?"
Sayuri glanced at Daisuke, making sure he was out of earshot. His attention was on the cashier as he placed their orders, but she lowered her voice just in case.
"I got him a t-shirt with his favourite band logo on the front, and a pair of tickets to their next performance," she whispered, adding vehemently, "And he'd better be grateful, I stood in line for three hours in the cold to snag them!"
"Maybe he'll be grateful enough to give you the other ticket?" Akane suggested mischievously.
Sayuri snorted and dismissed the notion with a wave of her hand. "Yeah, right. Knowing him, he'll probably forget and end up inviting Ranma or Hiroshi instead."
Both girls stifled their laughter when Daisuke approached, precariously balancing two cups of coffee and a plate of pastries. The three lounged around, lazily sipping their drinks and chatting while Sayuri tried unsuccessfully to get Daisuke to slip up and reveal her gift.
"Oh, and tell Akane about that perfect gift you found for me. It's so clever," she prompted, failing to sound casual.
"Sayuri, that didn't work the first three times you tried it, what makes you think it will now?"
It was starting to get late, so Akane reluctantly pulled on her coat and gathered up her shopping, waving goodbye to her friendsthrough the café windowas she headed to the closest subway stop.
Once aboard the train heading toward Nerima, Akane thought about Sayuri's gift for Daisuke, which consequently got her worrying about Ranma's again. She didn't think clothes were personal enough, and besides, Ranma had his own distinct way of dressing and she decided it was best to just leave that to him. He was good at picking out clothes for himself, since he had so much experience finding outfits that would fit both his male and female forms. She brainstormed some more ideas.
Movies? Books? Nope, not special enough.
Something related to martial arts, maybe? But what? She wasn't exactly in the position where she could journey across China and bring back scrolls of ancient, never-before-seen techniques for him to master.
Akane felt her frustration rising, and with it, her temper. Dammit, why did he have to be so...so...out there! Why did he always have to make things difficult for her? How typically Ranma. Couldn't he just be boring and plain, then she could get him a set of bookends and be done with it?
A niggling voice in the back of her head said, because you wouldn't love him if he was.
The more frustrated she became, the less likely she was to come up with a good idea. Akane blew the bangs out of her eyes and leaned back in the seat, letting the rocking motion of the train gently lull her temper away, and hopefully induce some creativity at the same time.
Before she realised it, an electronic voice was announcing Nerima station, jerking Akane out of her half-asleep state. She gathered her shopping and stepped out onto the platform, trying to steer around the crowd and avoid getting the contents of her bags smashed. It was almost completely dark now, and Akane was eager to get home and see Ranma. As silly as it was, she had missed her gender-bending fiancé a lot today. She wasn't used to being away from him all day, even though she couldn't very well have him around if she was shopping for his Christmas gift.
"Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!" a booming voice called out. "Don't forget your four-legged friends this holiday season! Please give generously to the Tokyo Humane Society!"
Akane stopped in front of a Santa Claus collecting money for the local animal shelter. His clear plastic collection box was rather empty, the bulk of it made up of loose change. This tugged at Akane's heart, for anyone who knew her knew that she loved animals. She dug through her purse, eager to make even a small contribution to the cause. She dropped all of her spare change into the slot, along with several bills.
"Thank you very much, young lady and have a happy holiday season!" said Santa in a jolly voice, before calling out to the crowd again. "Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas! Adopt an animal this Christmas and save the life of a furry friend!"
Akane froze, and turned back to Santa, who was waving a bell in her direction.
"What did you say?" she asked slowly, her brain locking up at the sudden onslaught of genius.
"Ah, is the young lady interested in adopting a pet? They make wonderful gifts, you know," he said, a twinkle in his eye. If Akane hadn't been so stunned, she might have noticed that this Santa's beard was quite real, and the roundness of his belly didn't come from any cotton stuffed under his red coat...
Akane didn't reply, but instead stared at the logo of the animal shelter, which was stamped on the front of the collection box. The address of the shelter was printed underneath it, and Akane struggled to memorise it. Santa helped her out by handing Akane a pamphlet with the shelter's information on it.
"T-thank you, Santa!" she stammered, not just for the pamphlet. She darted forward and kissed the jolly old man on the cheek before heading on in the direction of the dojo, waving back at him and calling out "Merry Christmas! Thank you again!"
Santa smiled after the young girl, tapping the side of his nose with his mitten-covered finger.
Somewhere far away, the names "Akane Tendo" and "Ranma Saotome" were checked off under a column labelled, 'Nice'...
The next day, Akane found herself sitting in the Tokyo Humane Society's waiting lounge, anxiously waiting for visiting hours to start. Barely able to keep her excitement in check, she fidgeted like a small child, tugging at her skirt and checking her watch every few seconds.
Finally, ten o'clock rolled around. A kind-faced woman poked her head around the door and announced that Akane was free to walk through the shelter by herself. She encouraged Akane to speak in soft voices so as not to agitate the animals, and warned her against petting the animals unless necessary ("I know, it's so tempting, the little darlings"), to avoid potentially spreading diseases.
Akane struggled to keep the second rule in mind as she walked slowly past rows and rows of dogs, cats, rabbits and other furry and feathered creatures in cages. All of them begged her with their forlorn eyes, crying out"take me home, Akane, please!" She knew these animals were much better off in the shelter than they were running around in the streets, starving—or worse, trapped with abusive owners. At least here they were fed, walked, and loved by the shelter staff, but she still felt tears coming to her eyes when she saw just how small their cages were.
But then again, that's why she was here, wasn't it? She couldn't take all of the animals home with her, but she wasn't leaving here without giving one canine a good home.
It was going to be a dog, of course, and not only because she knew Ranma had always wanted one. Cats simply weren't an option.
A tiny tabby cat mewed at her ankle, almost making her forget that little technicality.
Akane kept walking with no idea what she was looking for. How do you go about picking a dog, anyway? As far as she could tell, they were all wonderful, perfect creatures. She would just have to keep looking until one of them 'spoke' to her.
Akane jumped at the sound, surprised. Very few of the animals still responded so enthusiastically when visitors came by. Akane spotted the source of the commotion several cages to her left and peered in.
Inside was a black Labrador, medium sized, with big ears and paws. The statistics sheet clipped to the cage door indicated that it was a year and a half old female. Akane was shocked to read that she had been at the shelter for most of her life.
Glancing around, Akane kneeled in front of the cage and gently beckoned the dog over. The Lab cautiously sniffed at her hand before nuzzling and licking it curiously. Akane giggled and touched the canine's wet nose, but immediately felt guilty for breaking the rules. But staring into the dog's honest, caramel-coloured eyes, Akane was sure she had found the one she was looking for. Ranma would love this creature, she was certain. She called for a staff member.
The same kind-faced woman, whose name tag read 'Naoko', found a love-struck Akane still on her knees in front of the black Lab's cage.
"I see you've met Beauty," said Naoko, praying that this young girl would be the one to take Beauty home. She had been in the shelter so very long, almost as long as Naoko had been working there.
Akane smiled at the name. This not-quite-puppy was the most beautiful ugly dog she had ever seen, with her gleaming black coat and size thirteen paws.
"How come she's been here so long?" Akane asked quietly, not lifting her eyes away.
"Well," Naoko began slowly, "Most people tend to go for puppies, especially if they have small children. Beauty here was supposed to belong to Canine Vision Japan. She was going to be trained as a guide dog, you see, but there was a mix-up when she was just a puppy. Canine Vision thought the shelter was going to keep her, and the shelter was expecting Canine Vision to show up any day and take her back. There was no one to adopt her in the end, so she's been here ever since."
Akane's heart cracked a little more. "She's so energetic, though. I wouldn't have thought..."
Naoko smiled at Beauty's thumping tail. "Yes, she's got an unbreakable spirit, that's for sure."
So does Ranma, Akane thought. These two will get along just fine.
With that thought, the matter was settled. Beauty was coming home with Akane on Christmas day.
She just hoped P-Chan wasn't afraid of dogs.
Two days before Christmas found Ranma and Akane in her room, lying on their stomachs on Akane's bed while attempting to tackle and subdue their holiday homework. The radio on her desk was tuned to a station playing Christmas music, the volume turned down low. Surprisingly, it was Akane who found herself unable to focus, her mind's eye imagining the look on Ranma's face when he saw Beauty for the first time.
"...Why're you smiling at me like that?"
Oops, caught red-handed. "Because I love you, and because I can."
"Oh," Ranma replied, blushing only a little. No matter how many times she said them, those words still made the tips of his fingers tingle and his heart lurch pleasantly.
"Why? You gonna make something of it?" she teased, grinning.
Putting on his most dashing grin, the kind he used when Nabiki demanded beefcake photos because she wasn't raking in enough dough from the richer female population, he replied cheekily, "No. In fact, I understand perfectly. I mean, who wouldn't wanna look at a face like this?"
"Oooh! You are so egotistical!" she cried, smacking his arm playfully, "It's a wonder your big head doesn't block traffic when you walk down the street."
She wasn't charmed by that grin at all. Nope. No way. Not one bit.
Okay, maybe just a little.
Quick as a flash, Ranma grabbed her arm just as she was bringing it back to her body, simultaneously rolling onto his back so that she was settled comfortably on top of him. She made a shrieking sound that wasn't quite a protest.
"And what was that for?" Akane asked breathlessly, her face now just inches from his. Their legs were tangled and his one arm was wrapped around her shoulders while the other rested on her hip.
"Because I love you, and because I can." He shrugged his shoulders, which caused Akane's body to move against his in a delightful way. "Why, you wanna make somethin' of it?"
"Mmm...yeah, I think I do," she mumbled before closing her eyes and leaning in for a kiss. She planned to keep it short and innocent, but as things were, Ranma and Akane were two people driven by emotion and sensation. It was in the way they practiced the Art, in the way they argued, and in the way they loved.
Ranma responded to the kiss immediately. Pulling her closer to his chest, he traced his hands teasingly along her spine and up her shoulders and arms before repeating the motion in reverse. Akane shivered through her thin dress and cardigan, but not because of the chilly air in her room.
Akane's hands weren't idle either, running along the firm muscle of his sides and torso. They were itching to slide under the soft black silk of his Chinese shirt, but she resisted, afraid she wouldn't be able to stop if she came into too much contact with his warm skin.
The kiss had reached an almost feverish pitch when Ranma suddenly broke away with a hissing sound. Akane's hands froze on his chest, and she pulled her face back to look in his eyes.
"What is it?" she asked, concerned. She hoped she hadn't accidentally elbowed a bruise or something. His little sparring session today with Ryouga had escalated with the help of some well-placed insults, like most of their 'friendly' practices did. Idiot boys.
"Your feet. They're freezing!"
Without realising it, Akane's feet had pulled one of Ranma's trouser legs up and her right foot was slowly rubbing along the bare skin of his shin. She giggled, doing it again, and he made a "brr" sound, snatching his leg out of harm's way.
"What did you do, go skating barefoot?"
"No, they're always cold in the winter. I think it's a girl thing," she replied distractedly. Having his clear blue-grey eyes so close, close enough to see the specks of violet in the middle tended to have that effect on her.
He looked thoughtful for a moment. "I'll keep that in mind next time," Ranma said in a husky voice before planting a trail of soft, open-mouth kisses on the side of Akane's neck, just under her ear. It was Akane's turn to hiss.
Before they could pick up where they had left off, the pair froze again at the sound of Nabiki's voice coming from just outside the door. Staring at the door in mild horror, Akane fervently hoped that she had pressed the lock, before remembering that it had been broken for over a week when she had slammed it a little harder than necessary in a fit of anger. Apparently Ranma also remember this fact, what with him being the other participant in that particular fight. The pair sprang apart instantly.
The door swung open just as Ranma was buttoning up the top of his shirt—when had she undone it?—and Akane was slamming her textbook open again, trying to look like she hadn't roughly shoved it off the bed. Everyone knew that Ranma and Akane were together now, but that didn't mean they had any desire to get caught making out in Akane's bed, especially not by Nabiki.
Nabiki wandered in, not even noticing the two red-faced teenagers holding their textbooks upside down. She held a battered old cell phone to her right ear and was covering the other with her hand. She wandered from corner to corner of the room, apparently trying to get a clear signal.
"Hello?" she called out, "Aki, speak up, I can't hear you...no, I'm not in an elevator..." Jingle Bell Rock was interrupted with an unpleasant crackling sound as Nabiki closed in on the radio on Akane's desk.
"What? You want me in the sack! Buddy, if you think that just because I let you buy me dinner that one time…!" Nabiki paused. "Oh, call you back..."
Ranma and Akane shared an amused glance. This had been a common sight ever since Nabiki had come home from university for the holidays. Apparently her faithful pink mobile, the one that had gotten her through the last two years of high school and half of her first year of university, was headedfor the Great Junkyard in the Sky, kicking and screaming all the way.
The constant stream of curses flowing from her mouth meant that she would probably appreciate her Christmas present though. This year, the Tendos had pitched together to buy Nabiki a brand new, state-of-the-art phone while Ranma's parents were paying for the first month three months of calls. Mrs. Saotome had suggested six, but her husband, clapping a protective hand over his wallet, persuaded her otherwise. At least in high school students weren't allowed to use mobiles on school grounds, but now, the little device was practically glued to Nabiki's skull.
"Why won't this piece of shit just work?" the brunette cursed, stabbing at the buttons. "Motherf-"
Seeing that Nabiki was getting slightly red in the face, Akane snatched the phone away from her sister before it became familiar with a path well-travelled by Ranma – out the window and into the koi pond.
Nabiki shot her sister an annoyed glance, but then surrendered the phone with a long-suffering sigh and sat down heavily on the edge of Akane's desk. "Oh well, I guess I can manage two more days without a replacement."
This comment surprised no one.
"So," saidNabiki in that voice that meant she was bored and was now going to meddle in your business. "What're you two up to on this fine, festive day?"
"Nothing!" they answered together.
"Just homework!" they chorused again.
The looked at each other. "Stop that!"
Nabiki raised one well-groomed eyebrow. "Nice trick, you two. Do you practice that, or can you just do it on command?"
Akane made an exasperated sound and covered Ranma's mouth. "Nabiki, do you need something?"
Nabiki put on an affronted face. "Aren't we touchy today? Jeez, Ranma, you really should help Akane straighten out that twist in her knickers," she said, smirking at the pig-tailed boy. "Anyway, 'tis the season and all. Do I really need a reason to see my favourite little sister?"
"Your only little sister," Akane corrected.
"And the season for what, exactly?" Ranma added, valiantly ignoring the first part of her statement.
"For family, dear brother-in-law. For giving, for sharing, for holding hands around the fire and singing, for..." she struggled, groping around for more examples of holiday-themed sappiness, "I don't know, volunteering in soup kitchens or something."
The pair gazed at her flatly.
Nabiki sighed. "You guys are no fun. Alright, I just came here to give you your Christmas present, little brother."
Ranma perked up noticeably. "Really?"
"Yup, here you go. Blah, blah, blah, and a Happy New Year." She dug out a piece of paper roughly the size of a business card from the back pocket of her jeans and handed it to Ranma. He read it out loud for Akane's benefit.
"Seasons greetings. This card is redeemable for fifteen percent off of your current total debt with Nabiki Tendo. Not applicable with any other offer. Offer expires January 30th. See Nabiki Tendo for details." He shot the middle Tendo sister a look over the card. She was casually inspecting her French manicure, while Akane shook her head incredulously.
"Wow, Nabiki, how'd you know?" he asked sarcastically. "Throw in a lump of coal, a cardboard box and some bubble wrap, and that's everything on my list."
"Now, now, don't be ungrateful," she scolded. "Fifteen percent of your debt is a lot of yen."
"Not enough to buy back my dignity after that last batch of photos, it ain't," he shot back. "But thanks anyway. I think."
"No biggie, little brother," Nabiki said dismissively. "And don't worry, Akane, I got you something shiny to tear open on Christmas morning, too" she added, striding towards the door. She paused and turned to back to her sister.
"By the way, sis, isn't it a little cold for such a short skirt?"
Akane looked down, realising that her knee-length skirt had somehow traveled a little north of forty during her...scuffle...in the bed with Ranma. Nabiki observed with cool amusement as Akane hastily yanked it back down, while Ranma looked slightly disappointed.
Ranma turned to Akane after Nabiki left. "Isn't it kinda unhealthy that she likes to mess with peoples' heads that much?"
Akane shrugged. "Probably. She'll make a hell of a lawyer, though."
"Yeah, she will. Every time I finish a conversation with her, I leave feeling like an idiot."
The pair now sat silent on the bed, side-by-side, feeling slightly awkward. The mood was shattered, but would be back soon enough. But what to do until then?
"I'm cold," Akane announced suddenly.
"I said I'm cold."
"Well, it's the middle of December and about minus twenty outside, so that might happen sometimes," he replied drolly. "I'll go turn up—"
Idiot. Couldn't get a clue if it set up camp on the end of his nose. Quick as a flash, Akane pushed Ranma back down on the bed, stretching out next to him and throwing the blanket around their bodies. She settled her head comfortably in the crook of his neck, and laid her arm across his chest, sighing deeply and contentedly.
"Mmm...nice and toasty."
Ranma relaxed his rigid muscles and pulled her closer. Even better than an electric blanket. I could get used to this.
They lay together in silence for some time, with Akane still trying to melt her ice cube toes on his legs as they watched the snow falling outside her window. The comfort and intimacy of the moment was still a novelty, but Akane had a sneaking suspicion that it would stay that way, no matter how much time went by. She felt like they were trapped in the moment while the rest of the world kept spinning, and right now, she didn't care if she and Ranma ever rejoined it. But after a while, a thought occurred to Akane and her natural chatterbox tendencies overrode the need for quiet.
"I guess it's kind of good that Nabiki showed up when she did," she mused suddenly.
"Hmm?" was his half-asleep reply, lost in the same musings as Akane. She felt him jerk slightly and his eyes snapped open again when her words registered.
Akane faltered at his reaction, fumbling for the right words to say without actually saying them. "Because, you know, it was getting a little...and we agreed not to before we're married..."
She trailed off and buried her face deeper into his shoulder, wondering what on earth had possessed her to say such a thing when the two of them were lying in bed together.
"Right..." Ranma echoed slowly. "Not before marriage..."
His voice held something strange behind it, something Akane couldn't quite place. Abandoning her embarrassment, she sat up halfway, leaning on her elbow so she could see his face. It was arranged into a carefully neutral expression as he stared past her at the ceiling.
"Something the matter?" she asked. Aside from his initial reaction, she was surprised that he was being so calm and collected about this particular subject. He wasn't even blushing. This bothered her for some reason, even though logically it shouldn't. Maybe he was just trying to be mature about the whole thing?
Or maybe he didn't want to talk about it because of her. Didn't he want to...?
No, that wasn't it. It hadn't escaped her attention that Ranma seemed to be working extra hard earlier to keep his hips carefully away from hers. She smiled inwardly. Pervert.
He spoke up again, his voice still sounding odd. "I was just...thinking about your Christmas present."
Akane's eyes lit up enthusiastically. She crossed her arms over his chest and laid her head on top, looking at his face attentively. "Really? Is it something I'll like?"
His short laugh reverberated under Akane's chin, but it sounded strained and unnatural, even to her. "I hope so," he said, quietly adding, "Cause I don't think I can take it if you don't."
This startled Akane, and her face clouding over with worry. Surely he didn't think she would stop caring for him because of a Christmas present, did he...? "Ranma, what do you mean—?"
"Don't worry about it, Akane. It's nothing."
"It's okay, it's not a big deal. I was just thinking out loud." Akane's expression remained the same, so, running his fingers through her hair, he added, "Look, forget I said anything. Christmas is still two days away, we'll deal with it then."
Akane wasn't sure what he meant by that, but decided to drop the subject for now, even though his eyes still held a trace of unease.
"Well...I was just thinking about your present, too, actually," she said, trying to distract him. "I just know you're going to love it!"
He smiled at her warmly, brushing the hair away from her forehead. "I always do, don't I?"
Her smile turned down at the corners a touch. "Hmmph. If you're teasing me about the scarf, Ranma, don't. Trust me, I learned my lesson this year."
"I'm not teasing, Akane. I liked the scarf."
"Oh, I'm sure," she said skeptically. "That's not what you were saying last year."
"That's because last year I still had my head up my ass when it came to you," Ranma answered, in a rare fit of regret. "Besides, it's...different."
"Oh, really?" she said, still unconvinced. "Is that what they're calling 'tacky' nowadays?"
"Fine," he huffed, frowning down at her, "If you're gonna be difficult, let me put it a different way. I like the thought behind it."
She made a wry face. "Ha. Everyone always says that, but when was the last time you appreciated the thought behind something stupid, like a pair of socks?"
He sighed. Obviously, she wasn't getting it or she was being deliberately dense. It was uncanny the way she could do that. He tried again, explaining it a little better this time.
"Akane, the last time I got a Christmas gift—or any gift, come to think of it—was before I left home with my dad, and I don't even remember what it was. So yeah, I do appreciate the thought behind a pair of socks. And last year, I was still convinced you hated me, so I really appreciated the thought behind a home-made scarf from you."
That sounded a little sissyish, so he added, "So quit being annoying about it, will ya?"
Akane, whose expression had become soft and sympathetic, went stony-faced again. "Your way with words astounds me, Ranma," she intoned. "You should write greeting cards."
"Hey, I'll leave the pretty words to bokken-boy, thanks."
She didn't reply as she mulled over his words. Now that she thought about it, Akane realised he was right. She imagined a five, six, seven year old Ranma waking up on Christmas morning in the middle of the Chinese wilderness, all alone save for his fool of a father, his face hopelessly searching for a glimpse of shiny paper or tinsel but finding nothing. The image made her want to cry, or to travel back in time and shower that little boy with gifts, and let him know that there was someone waiting just around the corner, someone who was going love him with all her heart, and he just had to be patient and wait a few more years, okay?
But instead she leaned up and placed a long, lingering kiss on a surprised Ranma's cheek, before settling her head back on his shoulder and clutching him a little tighter.
"I never hated you, Ranma," she whispered. "Not even for a moment."
Ranma sighed deeply, his chest rising and falling under her hand like a tide. "I know. But you gotta admit, it didn't look like it from my side sometimes."
"I'm sorry." Her voice was very small.
"Don't be, Akane. I was such a jerk to you all the time, I wouldn't be surprised if you did."
"Ranma…" her voice cracked with emotion before she could get any further as she contemplated how much time they had wasted just dancing around, denying, fighting, yelling, mincing words, being jealous, not quite understanding why...
"Hey, hey, don't be sad!" he hushed gently, a note of panic in his voice when he realised she was about to cry. "It's okay now, that's all over!"
Akane sniffled and pressed her lips together tightly, refusing to give in to the tears. She had shed too many already, and she didn't want to get his nice shirt all wet.
"You're right, Ranma," she said firmly. "It is okay. We're okay."
But were they really? There were still so many insecurities to get past. Sure, the fiancées weren't really much of an issue anymore, but they were easy to face in comparison to what lay ahead of them. This was a battle that you couldn't see or hear, but only feel, and it meant using strength that didn't come from their bodies. It meant learning to trust someone implicitly, which neither of them had ever done before.
Just one step at a time, she thought as she listened to his strong, soothing heartbeat gradually synchronizing with hers. We're getting there. He loves you, and that's more than enough in the end.
The pair lapsed into silence again, warm in each others arms as soft music from the radio washed over them.
Make my wish come true
All I want for Christmas is you...
"Akane!" Mrs. Saotome gasped as she removed the last piece of wrapping paper from her gift. "This is beautiful! Thank you, dear."
Akane closed the space between them, catching her future mother-in-law in an embrace. "You're welcome, Auntie. I'm glad you like it."
She pulled away after a moment of reveling in the maternal warmth that Ranma's mother seemed to radiate in waves, and surveyed the family room with a joyous smile.
As was to be expected on Christmas morning, the room was a complete mess, strewn with bits and pieces of colourful wrapping paper and parcel packaging. Mr. Saotome and her father were sitting side by side, poring over the rule book of their new Chinese checkers set, and no doubt already concocting spectacular ways to break them. Nabiki, unsurprisingly, had her new phone out and was already beeping away at it, while Kasumi sat next to her, crying out in delighted surprise as she unwrapped a lovely necklace from Ranma (picked out with a little help from Akane, of course). Like Akane, both had gift wrapping bows stuck to their hair, making her wise and mature older sisters seem like little girls again. Mrs. Saotome was now delicately inserting the butterfly comb into the base of her bun, and Akane was pleased to note that it looked right at home among the older woman's dark red tresses.
Turning her attention back to the pile of gifts in her lap, Akane sorted through this year's stash with childish glee. From the residents of the Nekohanten, she had received a Chinese good luck ornament made of small brass coins strung together with scarlet threads. This made her laugh, as she had given them a new ornament to hang on the restaurant's front door, which was made up of a brassy bell hanging from a red rope. Kasumi had given her a copy of a new novel that was receiving rave reviews, and from Nabiki came the latest album from her favourite pop idol.
From Mr. and Mrs. Saotome she received a beautiful pastel yellow kimono printed with ivory swans—it was light and perfect for summer festivals—while her father presented her with a pair of earring which had once belonged to her mother. Giving her a wobbly smile, he whispered in Akane's ear that Mrs. Tendo had worn them on her wedding day, before casting a meaningful glance at the pig-tailed martial artist sitting across the room. Akane followed his gaze and thanked her father with a flushed face and a small wink.
Ranma's gift, however, had her very puzzled. Plucking the vase off the coffee table, she admired the pale blue and violet hydrangeas once again, lifting them to her nose to catch a whiff of their sweet scent. They certainly were very beautiful, and probably very difficult to find, since hydrangeas weren't in season…
But flowers were the type of gift you give a girl you like on the first date, not your fiancée of two years on Christmas. She had been more than a little surprised when Ranma had gone into the kitchen earlier, pulling the small beribboned vase out of the refrigerator and presenting it to her sheepishly. She was slightly ashamed to admit that her first reaction had been to ask Ranma if he had even remembered that it was Christmas at all. But then she recalled his little speech the other day about it being the thought behind the gift that counts, as well as his fear over her reaction.
And they were her favourite flower, after all. It was awfully sweet of him to remember that…
So, instead she had held her tongue and accepted the flowers, offering him a loving smile and a sweet kiss. Besides, right now, she was more excited about presenting Ranma with his gift than caring about what she received in return.
Speaking of which, she could practically feel Ranma's eyes glancing at her expectantly from across the room. Fingering the hydrangea petals idly, she smiled at him slyly and contemplated leaving him in suspense a little longer, before deciding that that was just mean. She placed the vase back on the coffee table and stood up, smoothing out her nightgown and cardigan. Ranma sat up straighter.
"Okay everyone, listen up. I've got one last present to give, but I want everyone else to stay here, got it?" she announced sternly. She grinned at Ranma, who looked like he was trying very hard not to appear too eager. "Coming, Ranma?"
"You bet," he replied with a grin, practically leaping to his feet. "Lead the way."
Akane returned the excited smiles of her family members as she led Ranma out of the living room by the hand. They were all in on the surprise, and she couldn't believe how difficult it had been preventing one of them from slipping up and revealing something to Ranma. Especially her father, who had a notoriously loose tongue when he was drunk. Of course, last night he had insisted on some celebratory sake with dinner in honour of the holidays, but a well-placed pork bun courtesy of Nabiki's surprisingly quick reflexes had been her saving grace.
She guided him across the house until they reached the narrow corridor that led into the dojo. Stopping abruptly in front of the door, she darted behind Ranma and reached up to cover his eyes. He placed his hands over hers reflexively. "What are you doing, Akane? And why'd you put my present in the dojo?"
"Ssh, you'll see," she hushed, smiling uncontrollably in anticipation. "Now remember, no peeking until I say you can look, okay?"
She felt his brow furrow in confusion under her fingers, but he nodded. "Got it."
Overcome by a sudden wave of affection, Akane planted a quick kiss on the back of his neck before nudging the dojo door open with her foot. Still covering his eyes, she led him inside and much to Ranma's surprise, let out a sharp, high-pitched whistle. "Okay, girl, you can come out now!" she called out.
"Akane, what's going—?"
Ranma's question was replaced by a startled yelp as Beauty came bounding in from the backyard through the open shoji doors, and leapt on him enthusiastically. Akane removed her hands from his eyes and jumped in front of her shell-shocked fiancé. "Surprise!"
Akane immediately regretted not having a camera handy to capture Ranma's priceless reaction. Standing stock-still, his eyes went as wide as saucers, while Beauty balanced on her hind legs with her forepaws resting on his chest, sniffing at his chin excitedly.
Akane was just about to tell him to snap out of it when slowly, he lifted his hand and gently scratched Beauty behind her ear. "W-who's this?" he asked in wonder.
Akane was certain that her face was about to split in two. "This is Beauty. She's a black Labrador, about a year and a half old, and lucky for you, totally housebroken." Side-stepping Beauty's madly waving tail, she added, "And I'm starting to suspect that her tail actually does have a mind of it's own."
"And she's...mine?" Ranma asked hesitantly, stroking Beauty's neck more firmly. That couldn't possibly be right. It had to be a mistake. She was probably the neighbour's dog, and his real present was a new piece of training equipment or something.
Akane laughed, feeling slightly giddy at his expression. She knew exactly what he was thinking. "Why else would I wrap a big Christmas bow around her neck?" she replied, pointing at the shiny ribbon attached to Beauty's collar.
After Akane had signed all the final papers at the shelter, Beauty had spent Christmas Eve over at Ucchan's, and had been delivered to the dojo at the crack of dawn by an exhausted Ukyou. The two of them had had a hell of a time this morning getting the wriggling canine to sit still while they fixed the bow in place, but seeing her looking so festive made the ordeal worthwhile.
Beauty, who was lapping at Ranma's chin affectionately, finally succeeded in her endeavor to knock her new owner off his feet. Ranma landed on his knees and settled back on his haunches as the hyperactive canine in his arms continued the assault.
"'Kane," he managed hoarsely between licks, "I-I don't know what to say..."
Akane knelt down beside the pair and stroked Beauty's gleaming black fur. "So you like her?"
"Like her?" said Ranma incredulously. His dazed blue eyes finally met Akane's laughing brown ones as he tried to communicate what he couldn't say in words. "This...this is the best thing anyone's ever done for me."
Akane's heart swelled unimaginably with those words. Reaching up, she gently placed her hand on Ranma's cheek, stroking with her thumb as she gazed into his eyes. "I know," she said quietly. "And that hurts me, because despite what I might say sometimes, you deserve much more than what you've been given in life."
Her fiancé took a deep, shuddering breath, and gently nudged Beauty off his lap. Beauty seemed to understand that her master's attention was needed somewhere else at the moment, and trotted off to explore the corners of the dojo. He brought Akane's palm away from his face, and used it to pull her into his lap. He wrapped her in a bone-crushing embrace, burying his face in her hair with another deep breath. Akane's arms immediately around his neck and she gently swayed them from side to side.
"You're wrong, you know," he whispered at length into her ear, his voice deep with emotion.
Feeling incredibly at peace for the moment, she idly played with the end of his pigtail, like she usually did when she was wrapped in his strong arms like this. "About what?"
"About what I deserve," he replied. He pulled his head back just enough to meet her gaze, and gently cupped her jaw, mimicking her earlier gesture. Her protest against his words died in her throat as she watched his eyes tracing over the features of her face, as if he was looking for something in the curve of her brow, or in the hollow of her cheek. She found herself blushing under his gaze, and had to fight the urge to shyly bury her face in the crook of his neck from the sheer intensity of it. Somehow, it was important that he find what he was searching for.
For a moment, he seemed to have forgotten that he was saying anything at all, but when he spoke again, his voice held an unwavering certainty in it. "Because...I think I've got everything I'll ever need or want right here."
Choking back a sob, Akane could think of nothing else to do but press her lips to his.
The rest of Christmas day flew by in a haze of gifts, delicious food, good company, snowball fights and, of course, eggnog (not on Ranma's part, of course—he wasn't exactly jumping at the chance to prove yet again what a lightweight he was when it came to liquor). Beauty was formally introduced to the rest of family, and was received with open arms by all. Upon encountering Mr. Saotome in panda form, she seemed especially pleased at having another furry playmate in the house.
They had even experimented with Ranma's girl form, to see how Beauty would react to her master's dramatic change in appearance. The canine had gazed at the cursed boy in bewilderment, but after sniffing at Ranma-chan's hand cautiously, she seemed to have determined that as long as he still smelled the same, it didn't matter that he lost about a foot in height and gained an entirely new shape.
As for Ranma and Akane, they spent a good portion of the day getting to know their new little bundle of joy. Beauty particularly seemed to enjoy romping through snowdrifts, or speeding along after the snowballs that Ranma and Akane mercilessly pelted each other with.
However, as the day drew to an end, and their wet clothes grew steadily stiffer from the cold, Ranma and Akane dragged a reluctant Beauty inside for a much-needed rest. Dinner was consumed with hearty enthusiasm, followed by hot chocolate and Christmas specials on television. Then, one by one, the Tendos and Saotomes bade each other goodnight and gave in to the lure of warm blankets, with visions of New Year's celebrations dancing in their heads.
That is, all but Ranma, Akane, and Beauty.
"You cold, 'Kane?" Ranma muttered into her hair, readjusting the blanket tighter around their bodies when he felt her give a tiny shiver.
Smiling to herself, Akane shook her head and snuggled back deeper into his embrace. She decided that being under a warm blanket on a cold day with her fiancé's arms around her was really her favourite place in the world to be. Beside them, Beauty gave a drowsy growl of a yawn from her spot on the laundry balcony floor.
Akane had thought Ranma was being crazy when he asked her to come out here in such cold weather, but now, feeling his broad chest against her back and his warm breath tickling her ear and neck, she decided she was very glad that she had given in to his insistence.
The front yard was covered in a layer of snow, most of which was trampled and flattened from their earlier activities; there were even a few patches of grass poking out here and there, which, judging by the light flurries which were just starting to fall again, would most likely be covered up again by tomorrow morning. A sloppy snowman wearing Ranma's raggedly yellow scarf stood near the front gate, as if guarding the entrance like a slightly lopsided soldier.
Beyond the yard were hundreds of snow-covered roofs, some with twinkling lights and smoking chimneys. A group of laughing people dressed in coats and scarves meandered down the street, most likely slightly intoxicated from too much eggnog at a raucous Christmas party.
A couple fell behind the rest of the group, and Akane watched as the young man pulled the girl close to his body, leaning in for a kiss. She let out a laugh when the girl gave a sudden shriek and stumbled away, reaching around her neck to remove the freezing snowball the boy had just shoved down the back of her coat. The young woman yelled threateningly and gave chase to her lover, both of them dissolving into giggles as they disappeared around the corner.
Akane sighed happily and squeezed Ranma's hand where it rested intertwined with hers at her waist. She smiled when she felt him tighten his arms around her in response. In the back of her mind, she added this moment to a list of her happiest memories, most of which, she realised, included her infuriating, pig-headed, stubborn, wonderful, amazing fiancé in some way or another.
"Look Ranma! A shooting star!" cried Akane suddenly, breaking the comfortable silence that had settled over the trio. She extracted her arm from the blanket despite the chilly winter air and pointed to the tiny pinprick of light flying across the night sky.
"I see it," said Ranma, tugging her arm back under the blanket protectively. "Did you make a wish?"
"Mmm hmm. Not telling though. It won't come true otherwise," she said cheekily. "Did you?"
"…Yeah," he said, his voice so quiet she barely heard it, even with his mouth so close to her ear. "Akane, did you like my present?" he asked suddenly.
Akane turned her head and looked up at him in surprise. "What?"
He looked down at her with an undecipherable expression, and she felt him fiddling nervously with her fingers under the blanket. "I mean, it's pretty crappy. I'd understand if you didn't, especially since yours was so…" He looked over fondly at Beauty before catching her eye again.
Baffled, Akane stared at him, and wondered what to say. "Of course I did, Ranma. I love hydrangeas, you know that."
But he appeared not to have heard her, instead closing his eyes as if steeling himself. Akane tensed at his demeanor.
"I got you the flowers because I didn't have any money left."
"It's okay Ranma, I understand—"
"I didn't have any money left because I spent it all on your real present," he said abruptly, the words tumbling from his mouth.
Akane continued to stare at him uncomprehendingly. She wondered if she should duck, because the point of his words seemed to be flying straight over her head. "I-I don't think I understand, Ranma."
But instead of explaining his odd behaviour, he gently turned her body until she was facing him completely, then leaned down and captured her lips in a searing kiss. Her confusion was momentarily forgotten, and she melted against him instantly, her arms going around him in response.
"You know I'm in love with you, right?" he whispered against her lips when they broke apart breathlessly. "Completely head over heels?"
Akane nodded absently, only vaguely surprised to hear such raw honesty from him. "I'm pretty crazy about you too," she replied just as softly, knowing that didn't even begin to cover the magnitude of her feelings for him.
He nodded as well, then much to her surprise, he extracted himself from her arms and stepped away from the shelter of the blanket, holding her only by her hands. Beauty lifted her head from her paws and watched him with vague interest.
"What are you doing, Ranma? Get back under the blanket before you catch a cold," Akane scolded. She tugged on his hands, but he resisted.
Ranma cleared his throat and locked his blue-grey eyes on her, all apprehension and uncertainty melting away from his demeanor as he looked at her with such love and wonder that Akane felt the breath leave her body.
"I-I've been planning this for weeks now," he began, "And I came up with all kinds of stuff that I thought I should say when the time came…but to tell you the truth, I can't remember any of it right now, except that I love you more than anything in the world. And that you're the prettiest girl I've ever known, even prettier than me," he added as an afterthought. Akane let out a short laugh at the bizarrely endearing statement. He gave her a slightly sheepish grin in return.
Then he let go of her hands, and slowly sank down on one knee.
Akane's free hands flew up to her mouth and she thought she might faint right then and there. The blanket fell from her shoulders, but she didn't feel the sharp bite of winter air, as lost as she was in Ranma's impossibly warm gaze.
The world suddenly stopped spinning.
"Akane," he said, extracting a small velvet box from his pocket, which caused Akane to let out a muffled gasp behind her hands. "You know me better than anyone in the world, and you definitelyknow by now thatI ain't exactly good with words. But I mean it when I say you're the only person I'll ever want to be with. We've had our ups and downs, and I don't expect that to ever stop, but the funny thing is that with you… even the downs aren't so bad. And I guess I like to think that if we can make it through even half of the stuff we've gone through and still be together, then the rest of our lives should be a breeze. I...I like to think we, I dunno, fit each other."
A chilly wind drifted across her face, and Akane was suddenly aware that tears were pouring down her cheeks. She made no move to brush them away.
Ranma paused and they simply stared at each other for several heartbeats before he continued. "Anyway, I know we're already technically engaged, but you told me once that you fought so hard against the engagement because it took away your freedom to choose. So I guess I'm giving it back to you now. Just…just remember that whatever your answer is…"
He trailed off and swallowed heavily before opening the small box and presenting it to her. "Akane Tendo…will you marry me?"
Akane stared into his beautiful face, free of all facades, and realised that she had never loved him more than she did at that very moment. Every hardship they had endured, every tear, every smile, every bitter word, every kiss, every touch, everything they shared with each other lead right to this moment.
Akane slowly lowered her body until she was resting on her knees in front of her nervous fiancé. Smiling up at Ranma through her tears, she gently took the velvet box from his loose grasp and peered inside. The diamond ring was simple but beautiful, just what she would have chosen.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Beauty nosing around Ranma's knee. Sniffling tearfully, Akane lowered the box near the curious canine and asked, "What do you think?"
Beauty sniffed it curiously, and let out a sharp bark, her tail wagging madly in a sign of clear enthusiasm. Akane laughed tearfully and turned back to her fiancé-for-real, beaming at him with all the love and adoration she could muster. "Well, who am I to argue with that?"
"S-so that's a yes?"
Making a sound halfway between a sob and a giggle, Akane reached up and pulled him into a crushing embrace. "It's always, always been a yes," she whispered in his ear before breaking down completely.
"Merry Christmas, Akane," Ranma whispered, as somehow, without letting her go, his trembling fingers managed to slip the ring onto Akane's equally unsteady left hand somewhere between wiping away her tears and kissing her breathless. They were impervious to the drifting snowflakes landing on their hair and skin, seeking warmth from only each other.
"Oh Ranma, Ranma. Merry Christmas."
A sleepy creature with honest, caramel-coloured eyes and oversized paws gave the pair beside her one last glance, before trotting back inside the house and settling down on her new rug in the laundry room, the equally new tags on her collar jingling merrily like sleigh bells.
Beauty had come home.
Author's Notes: So how was that? Sugary enough to rot your teeth? Should I expect a flood of dentist's bills in the mail soon? I finally managed to crank out this last scene after my friend called me up on the weekend in a flood of happy tears, telling me that her boyfriend had proposed to her completely out of the blue with her golden retriever Buddy looking on. :D I'm not entirely happy with this story either, but it feels good to finally put 'The End" on something!
And before I forget, Disclaimer Part II: I also don't own Beauty. Surprised? She is actually the creation of one of my favourite Canadian authors, Sylvia McNicoll, who wrote one of my favourite young adult novels, Bringing Up Beauty (hence the title). It's about a girl named Elizabeth, whose family decides to adopt a black Lab puppy called Beauty. They train her for a year to become a Seeing Eye dog for Canine Vision Canada, and Beauty and Elizabeth become companions while Elizabeth experiences all the angst and weirdness that comes along with being twelve-going-on-thirteen. I highly recommend it—it's a great read for a lazy rainy afternoon, and it definitely reaffirms my appreciation for not being a teenager anymore!
So, long story short, I was struck by inspiration while I was rereading the book, and voila! I hope you enjoyed this piece of nonsense. I would've saved it until a little closer to Christmas, but I'll be in India this year over the hols, so no time:D Thanks for reading and don't forget to review!