Close Encounters of the Ranma Kind
by Angela


CHAPTER ONE: Initiative, My Girl!

Part One: "The Ultimate Team Up!?"

The sun felt good on Ranma's face. He felt more awake than usual that morning and for once he didn't even mind heading to school. He was relieved that the weekend was finally over--the mess from the would-be-wedding was cleaned and the dojo repaired and life was finally back to normal. Ranma sighed, putting his hands behind his head. It was a beautiful day and was good to be free.

He thought of Akane, who walked silently beside him. He wondered how she felt about all of this. He figured she must be a little nervous about facing their classmates after everything that had happened. He intended to stay by her and help her save face. Ranma glanced down at her curiously--he hoped she wasn't too upset.

Akane was smiling! More than that, she was grinning! Ranma stopped walking and stared at her. What was //she// so happy about? Her step was light and she hummed quietly under her breath. She was supposed to be nervous, even scared. She was supposed to be a little disappointed! Ranma scowled, jumping onto the fence. Why was she so happy?

The fence rattled noisily from his jump and Akane looked up, startled. For a moment she looked irritated, but then smiled broadly at Ranma. "Why do you look so cranky?" she asked. "Don't be nervous about the kids at school; I'll handle that."

Ranma's jaw dropped. She thought //he// was nervous? He tried to think of something to say to her, but couldn't. "Oh yeah?" He clenched his fists in frustration. Sometimes he felt so stupid.

Akane laughed. "Yeah, Ranma! Don't worry about a thing!" She laughed a little more and turned away, skipping slightly as she proceeded to school.

Ranma couldn't believe this! She wasn't acting right at all! She'd nearly died not even a week earlier, and then she was shamed in front of the whole school when their wedding was wrecked--she wasn't supposed to be skipping! A new realization dawned on him. Akane was a proud girl; she was probably just trying to save face. He jumped from the fence, landing in front of her.

"Okay Akane, spill it. What'chya so happy for?" He cleared his throat. "Uh, I mean, you don't have to fake like you're okay--a girl's expected to be a little weepy after all--"

"Weepy? You really expect me to be //weepy?// Honestly! Here you are, grinning like a Cheshire cat and you want me to //cry?// She took a deep breath and dropped her book bag, clenching her hands into tight fists. "Did you ever consider that maybe I'm just as happy as you are to have gotten out of that wedding?" Her eyes were wild and she looked as though she might hit him.

Ranma jumped back, surprised. Truthfully, he'd never considered anything of the sort. "I never said I was happy about nothing! I mean, I didn't ask for them to knock me out and dress me up so I could marry an un-cute girl like you!"

He saw it coming. For a long time he hadn't been able to see how she did it, but experience had taught him to be more aware. He watched as Akane, a look of rage across her face, reached into hammer-space and plucked a large wooden mallet from beyond. It was a big one this time. Ranma cringed and closed his eyes, preparing himself for the blow. Even after all this time, he'd never come up with a way to block this attack without hurting her, and dodging worked only half the time. He'd discovered that his best bet was usually to accept the pain early. So now he waited.

And waited. Nothing was happening. Ranma opened his eyes, peeking through his hair at Akane. She was posed in an attack position, the mallet swung high over her head, but the anger had left her face. Instead, she was laughing silently, her eyes brimming with tears. Dropping the hammer, she covered her mouth with her hands, but a giggle escaped anyway.

"What're you laughing at?"

"Oh Ranma, you're //flinching!// If you saw the hammer coming, why didn't you just use your 'chestnuts' to block it?" Her laughter had subsided, but her voice was playful and happy.

"Geez, Akane, I didn't save your life at Jusendo just to beat you up now! That kind of block could hurt you!" Ranma kicked the hammer at his feet, sending it flying over the fence. It was the first time either of them had mentioned Jusendo since the morning of the wedding. Now that it was out, he almost wished he could take it back.

Akane was giving him a strange look. "So you mean . . . you would rather . . ." she glanced over to where the mallet bobbed in the canal, "than hurt me?" She looked up at him slowly, her eyes wide and dark.

Ranma was startled by how cute she looked.

"Aw, Akane, I never said that." Things were spinning wildly out of his control now, and Ranma wasn't sure what to do or say. It was good that she wasn't mad anymore, but he didn't know how to handle her strange behavior.

She smiled boldly and turned to walk toward school. "I know; you didn't have to." He stood and watched her go, surprised. Akane turned back and motioned with her hands. "Come on, dummy! Do you want to be late?"

Without thinking much about it, Ranma scooped up her book satchel from where she'd left it and ran a few paces to catch up.

Akane reached for her book bag, but Ranma tossed it into his other hand before she could grasp it. She looked at him, startled, and Ranma wondered if she was going to make a fuss over it. He was prepared to relinquish the books at the first sign of trouble. To his surprise, a happy grin spread across her face and she looked at her feet, blushing. Then she reached out slowly and grasped his fingers instead.

He jumped, not sure whether to curl his hand about hers or pull away. She entwined their fingers, locking his in place. Now it was Ranma's turn to blush. He shyly turned to her, scared to meet her eyes. They shared an awkward smile. Ranma could hear his heart thudding in his chest and he felt warm all over. Akane looked nervous too, and he squeezed her hand to reassure her.

"Well, com'on, we don't wanna be late." With one last smile, they continued on to school.


Part Two: "If It's Not One Thing, It's Another"

"Hiyaa!"

Ranma could hear Akane practicing in the dojo as he walked through the Tendo's front door. He'd avoided her after school that afternoon, preferring to walk alone. He'd wandered all around Nerima, thinking about how good her hand had felt in his that morning. He wondered what he was going to say to her, now that he had gone out of his way to ignore her at lunch and then ran away when school let out.

He kicked off his shoes and went into the kitchen. Kasumi was making dinner, and by the smell, it was nearly ready. "Oh hello, Ranma. Akane is in the dojo; she was looking for you earlier." Kasumi smiled her happy little smile and Ranma wondered if that girl even knew what it felt like to be confused. "Could you tell her that dinner will be ready as soon as Tatewaki arrives?"

Ranma was taken aback. "Kuno? What's he comin' here for?" He wasn't at all sure that having Tatewaki Kuno at the table wouldn't ruin his appetite.

"Why, Akane invited him." She turned to stir a large pot. "He's a good friend of yours, isn't he?"

Ranma stared at her back. "Sure," he mumbled, heading out to the training hall. Now he didn't have to explain anything to Akane--she was the one who had a story to tell.

He slid the door open and stepped into the dojo. Akane was breaking cinder blocks again. Her hair was pushed from her face with a bandana and beads of sweat trickled down her neck. Ranma wondered how he'd ever thought of her as cute. He liked girls who acted like girls.

"Hey Akane, Kasumi says that dinner'll be ready just as soon as Kuno gets here." Ranma leaned on the doorway, arms crossed.

Akane wiped her hands on her clothes. Powdered clement dusted the floor around her and she left little footprints as she came toward him. "Great!" she smiled. "I'm starved!" She walked past him without another word, heading up the hallway to the bathroom. "Tell Kasumi that I'll clean the mess after I have a shower!"

Ranma stared after her. Was she serious? Did she really want to spend time with //Kuno?// He thought of her face in the sunshine that morning, and how he'd avoided her all day in order to sort out his feelings. Now it all seemed wasted. Well he wasn't about to let Kuno . . . "Aw, see if I care!" He punched a hole in the wall and then stalked out to the kitchen.

The whole family was seated around the table when Akane brought Kuno into the room. He bowed graciously and sat between Akane and Nabiki. "Tendos, I thank you for having me in your home. I am honored."

Ranma rolled his eyes in disgust and Akane jabbed him with a chopstick. "Not a word from you!" she hissed threateningly. Before he could respond, Kasumi came in from the kitchen with a huge tray of curry. It smelled delicious, but Ranma lost his appetite watching Akane gracefully serving Kuno. She smiled so prettily, as if she did this every evening. Kuno reached for his chopsticks just as Akane was picking them up. Ranma scowled, feeling his face flush. He wasn't about to let them ruin his meal.

"Uh, I'll be right back," Ranma mumbled, jumping up from his seat. He dashed from the room before anyone thought to stop him. So Akane wanted to spoil his evening by letting Kuno follow her around like a lovesick puppy? Well, two could play at that game. He darted into the bathroom.

When Ranma returned to the table, she had changed from her wet clothes and donned slippers on her bare feet. She paused in the doorway. "Hi! Sorry I'm late!" She bounced into the room, all smiles. As she had anticipated, Kuno lost his confident stance and his eyes went slightly out of focus. Ranma slid past him, letting her fingers trail through his hair. "Ooh, Nabiki, can I have your seat? Pretty please?"

Nabiki looked at her, arching one eyebrow. "Sure. This promises to be very interesting." She gathered her food and took Ranma's empty seat next to Akane as Ranma slid in close to Kuno. Kasumi handed her a bowl of curry.

Soun nudged Genma, looking a bit worried. "What's the boy up to, Saotome?"

Genma shrugged. "Of all the times for the evil master to be out on a raid. Looks like we could use him tonight."

"Ranma would never do such a thing with the threat of the master's greedy little hands nearby." Soun shook his head and dug into his meal.

Meanwhile Kuno was looking a bit worse for the wear. He was glancing back and forth from Akane to Ranma as if trying to decide which to talk with. Just as he decided on one, the other would move just a bit and grab his attention. Glaring at Ranma, Akane grabbed Kuno's arm, commanding his gaze. Ranma fumed. It seemed that Akane wasn't willing to lose this thing gracefully. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Ranma giggled wildly and reached her chopsticks into Kuno's food. "Upperclassman Kuno, you have a pepper! Do ya mind if I take it?" She guided the pepper into her mouth and closed her eyes as she chewed. "Mmm . . . It's the best I've ever eaten." She peeked through her lashes to see Kuno watching her, his eyes watering. "You should try one, Kuno; they're really yummy."

"Here Kuno, try one of mine!" Akane smiled at her guest, offering a pepper held between her chopsticks. Kuno opened his mouth to speak and Akane pushed the food in. "Good?" Tatewaki could do nothing but nod as he chewed.

"What he needs is some beef with that," Ranma announced in a determined voice. She was reaching into Kuno's bowl again when Kasumi cleared her throat.

"I need to get something from the kitchen. Ranma, would you please help me?" Kasumi stood and beckoned toward the door, her eyes focused mildly on the redhead.

Ranma dropped her chopsticks and stood up. "Uh, sure thing Kasumi!" She turned to Kuno. "I just love to cook, and I'm so much better at it than Akane. She's such a tomboy." With a malicious smile at Akane over Kuno's head, Ranma pranced into the kitchen after Kasumi.

As soon as the door closed, Ranma felt a splash of heat envelope her. She felt herself changing--getting taller and slimmer. She felt muscle tighten and weight shift, and shook her head in frustration.

"What'd'ya do that for?" Ranma glared at Kasumi, who held an empty teakettle with an oven mitt. He didn't usually snap at Kasumi, but then, she didn't usually undermine his plans, either.

"Now Ranma," Kasumi began, a tense crinkle in her brow, "you know it's not nice to spoil Akane's evening like this." Ranma looked at his feet. To a stranger it would seem that Kasumi wasn't even raising her voice, but Ranma knew that she was furious. He'd never been the object of her anger before, and didn't like it a bit.

He glanced up to see her glare soften a bit. She patted his shoulder in a mothering fashion. "Why don't you just sit this one out? I'll save you some food." She picked up her tray and glanced back over her shoulder. "And Ranma? Don't worry about Akane. I'm sure she knows what she's doing."

He wasn't so certain as he watched her leave. He didn't know why Akane had suddenly changed her mind about Kuno, but he didn't like it. Not at all. But then, maybe Kasumi was right. He had other things to do, why not leave it alone for now and talk to Akane later? He really should be relieved that she hadn't blown up at him for avoiding her.

Ranma grabbed his books from where he'd left them on the counter. He pulled out a sheet of paper and a pencil, then sat on the floor to write. He'd thought about this for most of the day, but he knew he'd have to word it just right.


Part Three: "The Great Girly-Girl Gambit"

"Have a nice evening, Tatewaki, and do give your sister our regards--Ranma tells me she's unwell." Ranma looked up from his challenge letter a couple hours and a dozen crumpled papers later. Good, Kuno was finally leaving.

"My sister is always unwell, but I will send your regards. Thank you, Kasumi Tendo." Ranma snickered. Kuno had that right!

Ranma wandered into the front room just in time to see Kuno take Akane's hand. Hiding behind the doorframe, Ranma watched as Kuno bowed low before the girl.

"Akane Tendo, it has been both a pleasure and an honor to share your company this eve. Would that I could always enjoy such hospitality in your eyes." He looked as though he would try to kiss her, and Ranma stepped forward, fists clenched. If Kuno so much as tried to lay his lips on Akane . . .

To Ranma's relief, he didn't have to reveal his presence after all. Akane deftly sidestepped Kuno's attempt. Ranma waited, anxious to see her lay Kuno out, but was surprised to see that she didn't so much as scowl. Instead she pulled a folded note from her pocket and slipped it into Kuno's hand.

"Have a good night, Kuno. I'll see you at school tomorrow." Her voice was soft and low and it sent goose bumps up and down Ranma's spine. He didn't know what she was thinking, but was determined to find out.

"I will be waiting with bated breath." Ranma thought he was going to be sick.

After Kuno left, Ranma followed Akane down the hallway to the bedrooms. She paused at Nabiki's door and knocked once before going in. The door was left ajar, so Ranma crept quietly closer. He couldn't believe he was spying on her, but knew that she'd never confide in him about anything interesting. By the time he was within earshot, the girls had already begun talking.

"So you'll be there tomorrow at four?" Akane's voice was the first he heard.

"Yes, yes, as agreed. So what exactly do you want me to say to him?" Nabiki sounded mildly irritated.

"Everything that we talked about earlier! You could even convince him yourself if you want." Ranma had no idea what this meant, but it sure didn't sound good. Who were they talking about?

"That, my dear Akane, will cost extra. Upfront. I'm not getting involved without another 3000 yen."

Akane made a noise in her throat and Ranma could imagine her frown. He heard the clink of coins and Nabiki's sigh of delight. "Are you happy now?" Ranma wasn't surprised at the irritation in Akane's voice.

"I will be when I get the rest. Tomorrow at four?" Nabiki paused. "Good. Now get out of here so I can finish my homework."

Ranma quickly scurried halfway down the hall, only to turn and walk back as nonchalantly as possible. He smiled at Akane as she emerged from Nabiki's room. She only glared at him. He guessed she was still mad about dinner. With a sigh, he turned into the bathroom. He could use a good long soak.

Within minutes, Ranma was submerged in a tub full of hot water. He felt his tired muscles relax and realized that this whole day had been more stressful than he'd imagined. He still wasn't sure how he felt about holding Akane's hand, except that it'd been real nice. He'd been pretty sure that Akane had felt the same, but this thing with Kuno made no sense. He didn't even want to think about what had been cooked up with Nabiki--he just hoped that he wasn't to be the recipient of their manipulations.

Ranma took a deep breath and slid under the water. Nothing made sense anymore. He reminded himself to be glad that Ryoga wasn't around. He wasn't up to chasing "P-chan" around the house tonight. He wanted to go to his room--all his own now that Pop had moved into another--and sleep until winter.


Part Four: "Stormy Weather Comes to School"

The next day at school Ranma ate his lunch near the softball diamond. He sat under a tree where he could watch Akane eating and joking with her friends. She sure was popular. All the girls wanted to be her friend and all the boys wanted to go out with her, especially Kuno. Ranma tried to figure out why. Sure, she was cute when she wanted to be, but that didn't explain much. Ukyo was cute all the time and she didn't get that sort of following.

Ranma sighed and focused his attention on Akane. She looked the same as ever, but different, and Ranma couldn't figure what it was. She threw back her head, laughing at something another girl said. He had never noticed how pretty her neck was or how her eyes lit up when she laughed. He put his hands behind his head and leaned back on the tree, smiling. All thoughts of Kuno vanished as he studied Akane.

She took a bite of her lunch and suddenly looked up at him, as if she'd been aware of his presence nearby. Ranma felt his heart beat erratically. He couldn't believe he'd been caught staring. He was about to look away when Akane smiled, her blush visible even to Ranma. He felt his face flush, too, and it only deepened as Akane got up and began walking toward him. She was actually pretty graceful; all those years of martial arts training must have been-

"Master Kuno, aren't you going to eat any of your lunch? I made it especially for you." Sasuke. Ranma's thoughts were cut short by voices in the grove behind him.

Kuno's lower voice answered. "How can I eat? Tonight I will finally date with the elusive Akane Tendo. Not only has she agreed to meet with me, but she has //asked// me to see her. I cannot think of food. Come, Sasuke. Let us leave here so that I may prepare for our meeting."

As their footsteps faded, a shadow fell over Ranma's face--Akane. "Ranma," her voice was bright, though slightly hesitant. "There's something I need to tell you--about Jusendo."

Ranma jumped to his feet, his face dark with anger. "What's this about you and Kuno?" He curled his hands into fists. "He said that you asked him for a date. Is it true?" Before she could answer he spun on his heel and punched the tree. The sound of wood cracking filled the air for a moment before he turned back to Akane. "Is it?"

Akane stepped back, her face suddenly pale and confused. "It's not what you think, Ranma. I just--"

"Yes or no?" His voice was quietly furious. He had to hear it from her before he found Kuno and beat him to a bloody pulp.

Akane looked at him for a long moment. Ranma crossed his arms and stared at her, his glare cold. Tears slowly welled in her eyes and she blinked them back furiously. "What do you care, anyway?"

He wasn't about to answer that question, so he countered with another. "Okay Akane, tell me this, how would you feel if I suddenly asked Shampoo out?"

"Nihao!" They both were startled to see Shampoo's bike, as if on cue, break through the crowd that had begun gathering to watch them fight. She came to a stop before them and offered a huge smile for Ranma. "Ranma date Shampoo now? Pervert-girl no like?" She jumped from her bike and attached herself to Ranma's arm. "Ooh, Ranma make Shampoo so happy!"

Ranma yanked himself away. "I never said nothin' like that!" he roared.

"Go ahead, if that's what you want, Ranma!" Akane's voice was icy. "Don't let me stop you." She was as jealous as ever, but Ranma couldn't see why, now that Kuno was in the picture.

"If Ranma no want Shampoo, why you challenge Mousse? Want stupid duck no more chase Shampoo? Go back to China?" She sounded so hopeful, as if she really believed her half-coherent ramblings. "Wo ai ni!" She locked her arms about his neck again as a hush fell over the enthralled crowd of students.

Ranma looked up to see Akane walking away, the students making a path for her. He felt a little panicky. How was he going to fix things and get rid of Kuno now?

Ranma struggled to free himself. "Akane!" She didn't even look back. He looked to Shampoo. This girl was insane! "I never said nothing about liking you!"

"But you challenged Mousse." Nabiki's dry tone interjected. "You must want something." She stood next to Shampoo's bicycle, eating an ice cream cone. For a moment Ranma ridiculously wondered where she got ice cream at school.

"Mousse no can beat Ranma. He get challenge letter in morning and train all day. Even Mousse know he no will win. Why you challenge stupid Mousse if not for Shampoo?" She still had her arms around him, and Ranma was becoming aware of just how strong the girl was. No matter how he twisted, there was no getting out of her grip.

Suddenly a splash of cold water ended his struggles. He emitted a startled yelp and felt his body change even before the water fell to the ground about him. Through the waterfall he could see Akane. She held an empty bucket and wore a satisfied smile on her face.

"Hey! What'd'ya do--" Ranma began in a rage. Then she felt the softness of wet fur on her neck. She glanced down at the damp pink furball clinging to her shoulders. "Ugh! Get it off me!"

"Merow?" The kitten seemed to smile at Ranma and cuddled against her neck.

Akane dropped the bucket and walked back to her lunch, just before Ranma broke into a run. She screamed and pushed at Shampoo, who clung all the more tightly.

As she ran, Ranma was vaguely aware of the activities of the schoolyard going back to normal. Realizing that there was no getting rid of the cat at school, Ranma shimmied over a high fence. She'd get back at Akane later.


Part Five: "The One to Carry On"

Ranma looked at the clock tower of Furinkin High. School would be out in a few minutes. After leaving the school grounds trying to get away from Shampoo, she had finally been able to get the cat off of her. The hissing furball was promptly tossed into the canal. A good place to cool off, or so Ranma thought.

Preferring not to have to explain the scene in the schoolyard, Ranma didn't go back to school. Instead she wandered around for a few hours, thinking about how to solve the whole complicated mess. She realized that she'd have to talk to Akane, and chose not to change back into a guy for that. Akane seemed more willing to talk when Ranma was a girl.

Now she waited outside the school gates, trying to think of something clever to say to her when she came out. She knew it'd have to be pretty good--Akane hadn't been this mad in a long time. While she was thinking, the bell rang, announcing the end of another school day. Ranma looked at the doors, anxious to catch Akane.

To her surprise, Kuno was the first out, leaving the building as the bell still rang. As he neared the gates, Ranma hid in some nearby shrubbery. It wouldn't be useful to have Kuno see her and ruin everything.

"Come Sasuke, we must arrive before Akane Tendo. It won't do to have her wait, as I've waited for this day." Ranma's interest was piqued. She crept closer through the undergrowth for more information about Akane's date. "You will stay well-hidden, of course, but watch carefully. You will look on as I, Tatewaki Kuno, oft called the Blue Thunder of Furinkin High, sweep the lovely Akane Tendo off her feet and into my arms." With a confident laugh, he strode away, seemingly toward a nearby wooded park.

Ranma stood up, glancing back to the school. Students were pouring from the doors, including Akane, who walked with her sister. Ranma made a quick decision and followed Kuno. She could catch up with Akane later, after she pummeled Kuno and ended the date. God knew they'd have plenty to talk about then.

Following Kuno through the park proved more difficult than Ranma had expected. She didn't want to be seen, so she ran from one shrub to another, keeping Sasuke and Kuno within sight. At one point she saw Genma in his panda form, playing with the children at the playground. She prayed she'd pass unnoticed; having her father show up would only complicate things.

In the wooded center of the park, Sasuke led Kuno into a small clearing. Ranma hid in the brush nearby, wanting to be able to see whatever happened. A lavish picnic had been arranged, complete with wine and roses. It seemed that Akane was in for a treat.

"See, Master Kuno? I set it up just as you asked. Do you want me to--"

"Go hide yourself, Sasuke. I can handle it from here." Kuno was surprisingly harsh to his manservant, and the little ninja scurried into the undergrowth. Kuno paced nervously, obviously uneasy about seeing Akane.

Within a few moments, a stick cracked in the woods and Ranma saw the blue of Akane's school uniform. Kuno bowed low, his hair covering his eyes. "Akane Tendo, welcome."

"I'm sorry, Kuno-baby, but it seems you have the wrong Tendo." Nabiki stepped from the shadow of a large tree, a strange look on her face. She was almost smiling, but at the same time she didn't seem amused by the situation.

Kuno dropped down onto the blanket in surprise. "Where's Akane?" he asked, for the first time dropping his pretenses. Ranma was startled by the vulnerability in his face, almost feeling sorry for the guy. What on earth was Akane up to?

A rustle in the bushes behind her made Ranma turn away from the scene in the clearing. Akane was pushing through the nearby brush, trying to get a better view. She glanced up and met Ranma's eyes. "Oh!"

"What's going on?" Ranma whispered anxiously. This was making less and less sense with each moment.

Akane pressed a finger to her lips and hissed for silence. With a nod of her head, she motioned toward the clearing. No less confused, Ranma turned her attention back to Kuno and Nabiki.

As Nabiki looked down at Kuno, a look of discomfort seemed to flash across her features. Before Ranma could be certain of it, however, it was gone and her professional air recovered. "Sorry about that, but it looks like you'll have to make do with me." She sat next to Kuno and glanced through the food. "Mmm, looks like you went all out." She picked up the wine. "Dom Perignon--//nice."//

To Kuno's credit, he recovered smoothly. "Would you like a glass, Nabiki Tendo?" Before she could answer, he filled a goblet and held it out to her. "I understand that you appreciate the finer things in life."

He filled a glass for himself and raised it for a toast. "To the Tendo family," he said with a surprisingly low amount of sarcasm.

Nabiki drank her wine in a quick gulp. "I'm certain you must be wondering why I'm here instead of my sister," she began matter-of-factly. When Kuno nodded, she continued. "Although I honestly wish I hadn't, I agreed to come out here to explain Akane's true feelings for you." She paused and rearranged her skirt about her legs.

"Go on, Nabiki." Kuno's voice was devoid of emotion. Ranma leaned a little closer, just as anxious to hear what she had to say. Finally, some answers!

Nabiki shifted uncomfortably. "Kuno-baby, Akane doesn't love you. She's sorry to do this, but decided that you have to be told. She's in love with Ranma Saotome."

Ranma felt her entire body twitch uncontrollably. She looked over at Akane in shock. She didn't even know how to feel, but her heartbeat was suddenly a rapid throbbing in her ears.

Akane's face was bright red--redder than any blush Ranma had ever seen. She shook her head violently, her mouth forming a silent "no." Tears welled in her brown eyes and Ranma had to look away. "I never--" Akane whispered fiercely, grabbing her arm. "Ranma, I don't!"

Too confused to look at her, Ranma looked back at the clearing, trying to ignore the sinking in her chest. Kuno was silent. He looked down at his hand holding the wine glass. Suddenly his grip tightened, and the crystal shattered.

"Tatewaki!" Nabiki cried, grabbing a napkin from the basket. Taking his hand in hers, she unclenched his fist. Shards of glass and wine mixed with blood fell to the ground. "Oh, Kuno," she said softly as she pressed the napkin to his many cuts. "You are so sensitive."

Kuno looked into her face, his eyes spilling tears. "Nabiki Tendo," he whispered, in something like awe.

For a long moment, neither moved. "Kuno-baby, you idiot," she murmured. She reached up and caught his tears with her fingers. With a gentle smile, she pressed her lips to his.

After a brief kiss, Nabiki pulled away and smiled into Kuno's eyes. "Well, Kuno-baby, it looks like you've had the wrong Tendo all along."

Kuno shook his head gently, smiling. "You're beautiful, Nabiki." He cupped his good hand behind her head and pulled her close for a more passionate kiss. She willingly succumbed.

Ranma looked at Akane, who's face mirrored the amazement he was feeling. Without speaking, they both backed out of the bushes and headed away from the clearing. Ranma stopped worrying about what was going on, she was obviously locked in some twisted dream.

Neither spoke until they reached the street. Ranma couldn't shake the image of Nabiki lifting her face to Kuno's. Of them kissing. Then kissing more.

"What just happened?" Akane's voice was a little shaky.

Ranma stared straight ahead. "I figured you'd have a better idea than me." The closer they got to home, the more real things seemed. She still didn't know what Akane was up to.

"I admit I paid Nabiki to talk to Kuno. . . " Akane stared at the clouds overhead. "But I never. . . I mean, she didn't have to kiss him!"

Ranma glanced curiously at Akane. She was blushing--again. With a jolt, she remembered what Nabiki had told Kuno about Akane's feelings. Feeling fidgety, she bounded onto the fence and looked at the sky. "So, Akane, Nabiki said . . . "

Akane froze. "I told you I don't!" she cried. She then turned and fled up the street, leaving Ranma to stare after her. Shaking her head in bewilderment, Ranma continued home alone. She really hoped that things would get back to normal soon.


Part Six: "P-P-P-Chan! He's Good for Nothin'"

Nabiki didn't come home until after dinner. Kasumi had all the dishes washed and dried and Soun and the panda were already deep in a heated battle over the shogi board. Nadoka was visiting; she and Kasumi were at the table, whispering a conversation that apparently didn't include the men. Ranma was sprawled on the living room floor doing his homework; he had no idea where Akane was. She hadn't talked to him since the walk home.

"Hello, family. I hope your evening was enjoyable." Nabiki threw her books on the floor and headed up the stairs.

"Nabiki," Kasumi called. "Won't you have some dinner? I saved you a plate."

"Thank you, Kasumi, but I've eaten my fill for today. I think I'm going to have a long bath." Without another word, she walked up the steps.

Ranma felt weird about following her, but he had to go up anyway, to find Akane. It was about time for her to get over whatever had been bugging her that afternoon.

Nabiki went straight to Akane's room and Ranma slipped in behind her. He leaned against the wall, his hands behind his head, as the girls talked.

Nabiki gave him a puzzled look before speaking to her sister. "Akane? I believe you owe me 5000 yen." She bowed mockingly. "I can assure you that the job was well done."

Akane sat up on her bed. "How did it go?" She blushed. "I mean, I left early. Is Kuno . . .?"

Nabiki smiled dryly. "Yes, Akane, Kuno is. And don't you worry, he won't be bothering Akane Tendo anymore." A small smile touched her lips as she held out her hand to receive her payment.

Akane leaned over the edge of the bed, her head nearly touching the floor as she reached for a box underneath. So she really had paid Nabiki off to take care of Kuno? Ranma felt relieved. At least now he knew that the world wasn't going completely crazy. Akane dumped a wad of money into Nabiki's outstretched hands, grumbling under her breath as she did so.

Nabiki looked at her sister reproachfully. "Now, now, Akane, I told you my price upfront, and I happened to do a magnificent job of it. No need to fuss."

Her money collected, Nabiki turned and walked out of the room, pausing before Ranma. "I hope you enjoyed the show," she smirked, leaving him dumbfounded as she strode to her own room. Ranma was amazed that she had noticed him in the bushes. He would've thought she'd been too busy to look for observers.

"Why did you challenge Mousse, Ranma?" Akane's voice was soft and far away. He snapped out of his stupor and looked at her. For the first time, Ranma noticed her appearance. She looked small and pale, curled up on the bed in her yellow pajamas.

He pulled her chair near the bed and sat down. "Remember last time, when he challenged me and you told me to lose on purpose?" She nodded, and Ranma continued. "Well, I decided that it was time for me to really do it."

"Throw the fight? Why?" She looked away. "If you couldn't give Shampoo up then, why can you now?" She wouldn't look at him, but he could tell that whatever his answer, it would be important. He considered telling her the truth, explaining everything he'd been thinking.

"I figure if I give Mousse what he wants, he might be willing to teach me some of his moves. That blade-thing especially could come in handy." He was really disgusted by how much of a coward he was turning out to be.

A disappointed look crossed her features. She really did look miserable. Ranma impulsively grabbed Akane's hand. "Akane, are you okay?"

She stared at his hands wrapped around hers, but she didn't pull away. Ranma regretted his impulse for a moment, but then he noticed her smile. It crept slowly across her face and put a hint of a sparkle in her eyes. He realized that her hand was tiny and warm and felt good in his.

"Uh . . . A-Akane . . . " He had no idea what he was doing or what he'd wanted to say. He closed his eyes and silently prayed that Akane would take over the conversation.

"Ranma?" Her voice was sweet in his ears. "Are //you// okay?" He opened his eyes to see her face peering into his. "You look a little . . . weird."

Ranma's face heated and he backed away. "Well, uh, //you// looked uh--a little sad," he said as nonchalantly as possible, releasing her hand. "I just wanted to make sure you were okay, that's all."

Akane tilted her head, a tiny smile on her lips. "So you're really going to lose to Mousse?" He nodded. "Then I'm fine."

He didn't want to leave her room, but couldn't think of anything else to say. In fact, he couldn't think of much at all. Why did Akane's hair smell like flowers? And why did he let go of her hand? He suddenly missed the feeling of touching her.

Studying the cracks on the ceiling, he deftly reached for her hand again. To his shock, his fingers clamped around her knee instead. He felt Akane jump with the contact.

"Ranma?" Her voice was barely a whisper.

He realized that he couldn't yank his hand back, as was his first impulse. He didn't want her to think that he didn't know what he was doing. Very slowly, he dragged his eyes from the ceiling and focused them on Akane instead. "I . . . I oughtta go." His breath was rapid, so the words came in a rush.

Akane reached out and covered his hand with her own, pressing his palm more tightly to her knee. Ranma tried not to hyperventilate at the feeling. He realized that he wasn't going to get out of this easily and wasn't totally sure he wanted to.

Akane leaned in closer, speaking softly. "Then, goodnight." Her voice was barely audible, even to Ranma, who was merely inches from her face.

With a surge of emotion, he placed a trembling hand on her shoulder and leaned in to plant a shy kiss on her cheek. To his shock, it wasn't the smooth skin of her cheek that his lips made contact with. He opened his eyes wide to see Akane's looking back at him. She had turned her head, taking the kiss on her mouth instead. He watched as her eyes fluttered shut, her long lashes somehow tickling his face. Of their own accord, his own eyes drooped shut.

Her mouth was warm and soft, and he realized with a blush that she tasted really good. He slid his hand up to her waist, pulling her a little more securely to him. She was soft through the flannel.

What the hell were they doing?! Ranma tore away, feeling more than a little scared. Akane's eyes opened slowly, her sad expression returning. Her head drooped as she studied her hands in her lap.

"Akane, I--" Suddenly it dawned on him that he really //wanted// to kiss her. He reached out a shaking hand, tucking a lock of her soft hair behind her ear. Akane leaned her head into his palm, changing his touch into a caress. He was shaking as he drew her close, but he knew that the time had come. He watched Akane close her eyes, her face flushing slightly, and he closed his at the last moment as he felt her breath on his skin.

"Bweeeeeee!"

The impact of the pig on his forehead sent Ranma sprawling onto the floor. Tiny hooves beat his face as that annoying squeal filled his ears. He struggled, trying to grasp the wriggly pig. "Ryoga!" Ranma never hated him more. Talk about lousy timing! "Wha'd'ya think you're doin'?"

"P-chan!" Akane's usual squeal of delight was tinged with irritation. She somehow grasped his bandana and yanked the little black pig from Ranma's face. "Did he hurt you, Ranma?"

Ranma sat up and shook his head. "No, I'm okay, but that stupid pig's gonna get it."

Akane hugged her pet. "P-chan was only playing," she said, petting the creature. "He didn't know what he was doing."

"Yeah whatever," Ranma growled, sending an icy look at the pig, who was nuzzling against Akane's neck. P-chan narrowed his eyes and stuck his little pink tongue out in Ranma's direction.

Walking out the door, Ranma glanced back over his shoulder. Akane was watching him leave with wide eyes. "'Night, Akane," he mumbled.
In the dark hallway his mind conjured the image of her face. Her sweet pink lips. Her eyes full of affection. "Sweet dreams," he whispered, a half-smile on his face.


to be continued . . .