The characters from the Ranma 1/2 by Rumiko Takahashi are used without license. This story is not for commercial use. It's just for the enjoyment of those who like to read the alternatives.

Notes: * - signifies thoughts

LIVING LIFE ANEW

CHAPTER I

THE PROM

It was a bright spring day and the wind picked its way through the leaves. The wind frolicked with the leaves, enjoying the dry rustle. The trees whispered with the wind, telling their story. It was a happy one and the wind continued on. The birds flew with the wind, catching it under their wings and they sang to it, too. In response to their kindness, the wind lifted them ever higher. Their joy was carried with the wind to the school and, thus, by the gymnasium where the sound of rambunctious youths worked on their projects. Pausing a moment, the wind swirled in front of the door to listen. Taking the laughter with it, the wind continued on its journey.

Inside the gym, a group of boys were starting to argue about whose banner was to be put up on the wall. The discussion had started ten minutes prior and had escalated ever since. Two of the boys were about to come to blows when they were suddenly quieted by a lone figure having walked up to them. All arguments ceased and they just stared at the goddess that stood before them.

"Why don't you put all of them up," she asked in her soft voice. Slowly the logic sank into the their teenage heads. It bounced around for a moment and finally settled, allowing them to finally make a response. Dumbly, they nodded.

Only one boy was able to pull himself out of his stupor and say, "Hai." Continuing her walk by the boys, Akane went about her business. They watched her walk away, wishing for her presence once more, but knew that such was not their luck. Soon, however, they were bickering again. Whose would go on top? Akane, hearing this, could only sigh at their antics. The one who had been able to answer jogged up to her. "Thanks for the advice, but could you help us out again? What I mean is, which one should we put up first?"

"Well, why don't you guys try to hang up the largest on top and then the smaller ones below it in order of size? That way everybody has theirs on the wall and it's ordered, instead of in disarray." The young man bowed his thanks and went back to his companions. She saw him gesticulating wildly at the banners and in her general direction as he talked to them. When he ended his speech, all of the boys looked over at her and waved in thanks. This done, they set about their task with abandon.
Akane turned around again and continued on her way to where she had been working earlier. Her friend, Sofi, was working with a small air tank. Using the tank, she would blow a balloon up and then tie it to a string. The balloons that were being amassed were to be strung from the corners of the ceiling to the center, where they would meet with the disco ball. She looked up from her task as Akane approached. Smiling, she finished the balloon she was working on and brushed her hands off.

"Finally!" she exclaimed. "Did you get enough balloons to finish all of this?" Akane pulled out a bag of balloons from her skirt pocket. Eyeing the bag, Sofi said, "That might not be enough, but I guess we'll just have to make do."

"That's all I could find in the box from last year. We were more prepared for this than the juniors this year. How many banners did we need last year? They should have organized everything before they decided to just come in and start decorating." Akane looked behind her at the bustling gym.

A majority of the junior class was there, trying vainly to ready the gym for the prom night, which was only in three days. The past two days had met with disasters on a regular basis. That was, of course, until the seniors had heard of the problems and a detachment had been sent in to help with the preparations and give direction to the lost souls. Akane and Sofi had been the first to join in the endeavor, as they had experience from the prior year.

Students milled around the gym, trying vainly to be of assistance, but failing utterly. Some of the seniors gathered them up and set them to tasks and went in search of more of the junior class that was having a hard time.

Akane turned back around, smiling. "You'd have thought that, with all of the trouble our class has, we'd be the last to be helping out this year's junior class, ne? I'm glad that it's the last thing we have to do for this school, besides taking the final exams."

Sofi nodded, agreeing heartily. "That means that you can have Ranma to yourself now," she japed. The desired effect was accomplished, as Akane blushed.

"You really think I want to have that hentai? You're almost as bad as he is. Hentai," she accused. Akane started to work on the balloons again, trying to steer the conversation away from Ranma. "I wonder how the prom would have turned out if we hadn't decided to help."

Sofi, however, would not be deterred from the subject. "Have the two of you set up another date for the wedding yet? After the last one, you two have made some pretty good progress with each other, haven't you?" Her observation was far from the mark, as she saw from Akane's expression.

"Iie. Lately he's been keeping to himself. It seems like he's been avoiding me for the past several of weeks. I don't know why, though. He'll go for a walk at night and not return for a few hours. Sometimes he comes back in his female form and his feet are muddy. Other times, he just goes up to his room and sits there, meditating." She didn't know what to make of it.

"What, is he seeing someone else on the sly? I thought you guys took care of that problem quite some time ago." With a worried frown, she watched as Akane was remembering one of the incidents.

He'd suddenly stood up from the dinner table. Surprisingly, there were a few bits of food left on the plate. That didn't last long, as Saotome Genma swiped them and ate with abandon, savoring the taste. Not even a retort came to Ranma's lips for his father as he left the house, taking another one of his walks. She followed him to the gate, hoping to find out what the problem was with her fiancee.

"R-ranma? Is there something the matter?" He turned, a few steps away from leaving the Tendo's gate. "If there's a problem, you can always tell me."

"Nah, I've just got a few things on my mind." He never met her eyes as he shook his head and walked away into the night. Her anger flared, caused by his lack of response to her offer. How could he ignore her when she was going out on a limb and offering her help? Stalking out the gate, she turned the corner to see Ranma walking away, shoulders slumped and him kicking pebbles down the street, lost in thought. They bounced off of the light poles, causing them to make a tinkling sound as they bounced from the poles to the ground and settled once more. Her anger cooled, to be replaced by worry. She'd never seen Ranma like this.

Curiosity grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and she decided to follow. He eventually came to a nearby park. The streetlamps illuminated the grassy area that he stood in. Akane watched him begin the most complex kata she'd ever seen him do in slow motion, but it was one she didn't recognize. She held her breath, hiding in the shadow of a tree. It was a bit of a shock to see Ranma perform all of his moves in a slow, exaggerated manner.

Granted, she had watched him perform katas, but not this way. He was always moving at the speed of light, it seemed. To see him perform with such...control was astonishing.

After perhaps an hour, Ranma ended his kata. He'd repeated it several times, until finally he felt he'd gotten it down to perfection for the night.

Realizing what she was doing, she ran back home before Ranma could get back. Her father didn't seem to have noticed her absence, since he was playing shogi with Uncle Genma.

Coming back to herself, Akane looked a Sofi. "There's nothing like that going on. I don't know what's gotten into him lately, but it's got me worried." Trying to get the conversation on a lighter note to avoid the worry that was threatening to creep up on her, she said, "Well, Ranma is Ranma. You never know what to expect. Say, how about going to get an ice cream after school. It's only a half hour away."

Sofi's eyes lit at the mention of ice cream. Nodding vigorously, she said, "I'd love to. Your treat? You did offer, didn't you?" Akane only grunted, having been suckered into paying for Sofi's ice cream.

They finished the string that Sofi had been working on just as the bell rang, releasing all of the students for the day. Grabbing their bags, the two girls started off to the ice cream shop, dreaming about mounds of ice cream stacked on top of their cones. Soon their walk became a trot, then the trot became a full sprint. Giggling uncontrollably between breaths, they entered and ordered their favorites.

Sitting on a bench outside of the store, they enjoyed the sunny day as the wind played with their hair. The ice cream was consumed rapidly, but they slowed as they neared the cones, finally appreciating the taste more fully than the past few minutes.

Sofi looked up from her cone to Akane. "So, how did Ranma ask you to the prom? Did he get down on his knee?" Sofi heard a sharp intake of breath from her friend.

Akane's stomach sank, trying not to think of how she hadn't been asked. "Well,...no. He never asked me."

"How unromantic," Sofi interjected. "You mean he never even attempted to ask you? He's such an idiot."

"I guess that since we're engaged, we're supposed to go together," Akane mused. *He could have at least tried to be nice.* "We get a lot of pressure from our parents. Especially after the failed wedding. I dunno. It's hard to say with Ranma lately." Sofi watched Akane curiously, a worried crease knotting her delicate brow.

"You mean that your father and his parents have pretty much said that both of you are going anyway?" She continued to eat her ice cream and looked down at the sidewalk, wondering how Akane and Ranma's parents could be so insensitive.

"Yeah, Ranma's father keeps telling him that he has an obligation to the family. Ranma, lately, has just been shrugging him off. Not even a retort of any kind, when he'll usually fight with his father. And, when his mother mentions it, he just sulks. I don't know what's gotten into him." Akane remembered one incident, in particular, when Ranma had been bothered by his father about the engagement. She'd seen him start to flare up and then had deflated almost as suddenly. He'd just walked out afterwards, not even saying a word.

"So, did any of the other guys ask you this year? Everybody knows there's always half of the school that wants to take you out, even if you are engaged. Hmm?" This brought a brief smile to Akane's lips.

"There's been a few, but I declined."

"You didn't knock them through the wall, did you? Or is it that you really want to go with Ranma anyway?" Sofi saw Akane's smile grow larger, as with her blush.

"No, but I was tempted to a few times. Keiichi almost learned to fly when he was too persistent. When he saw that I was getting mad, he decided it would be better to be somewhere else. You should have seen his face." Both girls giggled at this. "But as for Ranma...I dunno. Sometimes he's so nice. Then he shoots off at the mouth and I get mad. What am I going to do, Sofi-chan? Each time our parents try to get us together, the harder we seem to fight it. Is there any hope for us?" She sighed, bewildered by the dilemma. "Well, I better be getting back home. I need to study some more for the finals. Ja mata, Sofi-chan."

"Ja mata, Akane-chan."

The girls parted ways and went home.

Ranma watched the others leave the classroom after the bell rang, putting his books into his bag. Picking up his bag, he headed for the door. Mr. Takaniri stepped up to Ranma as he was leaving. "Ranma, Mr. Ohibari asked to see you after class. If you would, please stop by his office." Nodding, Ranma continued on his way.

The halls were bustling with students as they prepared to leave. A few said their good-byes to Ranma as they passed by him and he acknowledged them with a smile and a wave. Going downstairs, he headed to the office of Mr. Ohibari. Ranma looked up to see the sign,

Mr. Ohibari Jiro Student Counselor

Knocking on the door, Ranma waited for a response before entering. Mr. Ohibari was sitting behind his desk, reading a memorandum. Not looking up from the letter, he motioned for Ranma to take a seat. Ranma took the proffered seat and waited, tapping his fingers on the arm and shifting his feet, impatient. Finished with his reading, Mr. Ohibari finally looked up.

"I've just received a letter from the college you applied to. Now, I know a little of your situation with the Tendo girl. Are you sure that you want to attend a different school? I don't mean to pry into the private lives of students, but I just want to make sure you know what you're doing."

Ranma took a moment to think how he was going to answer. He realized that he'd doing that a lot lately. Thinking before he spoke. Oh, how things change. "Yes. Our parents are set on us being married. But I think that with all of the stuff that's happened to us in the past two years, it is better for us to go to school away from each other for a while. We've fought a lot in the past. It's not like we're going to be on the other side of Japan, though. She's going to Meiko University, which is right next to mine.

"If we go to a different school, we might actually get along better. I haven't talked to anybody about it yet, but I think it's for the best. It doesn't mean that we can't see each other on a regular basis."

"I think Akane actually thinks very highly of you. In the past, you two have looked out for each other on more than one occasion. I've seen it myself."

"I just feel that it's better for us to be apart for a time, even if we are going to be so close to each other. She's going to be in the dorms and I plan to get an apartment off campus. Can I have the letter, please? I'd like to get home and do some studying. I've got to get good grades." He'd only recently caught up with his school work since having gone to China.

Mr. Ohibari shuffled some papers around on his desk, finally revealing the letter that was addressed to Ranma. Standing, he handed it over to Ranma. "I do hope you find what you're looking for. I just hope you're not running away from your problems. Someday, though, you will find what you want from life. But, until that day, take life one day at a time. I wish you the best of luck, Ranma." Ranma bowed, taking the letter and left Mr. Ohibari's office.

Once outside of the school grounds, Ranma finally opened the letter as he walked on the fence. It said,

Dear Saotome Ranma,

We congratulate you for your hard work in school. It is our wish to help further your education. The facilities for the students are numerous, as well as the activities supplied by our faculty. We hope that the surrounding area will be to your liking, as the community has reserved special trust in the welfare of the students. You need not fear of finding a job, as there are numerous requests to have students work in the surrounding area.

We have reviewed your records and find them to be satisfactory. We have enclosed some forms for you to fill out to help facilitate your quick entry into our college. A list of housing in the local area is also enclosed, as you requested.

We would also like to congratulate you on the scholarship you are to receive. As an applicant, your paperwork was submitted and you are to receive fees for a year's term in the form of a scholarship. This is to help you along in with your finances and your decision to attend our college. All you need worry about is the cost of the books for your classes. We hope that you will attend our college to further your education.

Mrs. Yamato Oyuki Admissions, Seko University

Ranma could only stare at the paper. Accepted? He'd feared that with the past problems of school he'd have trouble entering college. But such was not the case. Goose bumps rushed across his body as he thought of his good luck. Taking out the remainder of the papers from the envelope, he reviewed them. Several of the locations for housing were just about right. Not too far, and not too close. That way he'd have some privacy.

He continued home, reading all of the forms by the time he arrived. Taking off his shoes, he went upstairs and began filling out some of them. Tired of all of the paperwork, he went out into the dojo. Just as he was getting his stance for his kata, he heard Akane arrive at home her usual "Tadaima" ringing throughout the house. Dismissing this, he continued. As he went through his katas, he relaxed, mulling over how he was going to tell everybody about having been accepted to college.

Eventually he decided to hold off on the telling part. They'd just give him a hard time about going to a different school than Akane or not staying at the dojo to teach like they always did. *Ah, well that's family for ya.*

Just as he was finished with a kata, he heard Kasumi call everybody in for dinner. Bowing to the shrine, he exited to go eat. Ranma entered the house and saw his father at the table, waiting for the food to arrive. Grabbing his chopsticks, he sat down and waited. Eventually everybody was seated at the table and Kasumi brought out dinner. Then the battle for food ensued between him and his father, as usual. Near the end of the ritual, he lost his interest and stood to leave. Genma didn't take note of it except to steal the last morsels off of his plate, but Akane did.

Looking up at him, she frowned in worry. She finished her dinner and followed him upstairs. Knocking on his door, she heard him say for her to enter.

"Ranma, is there something wrong?" His back was turned to her as he studied. He had a book in hand and was sitting on the window sill, feet dangling outside. The sun was just going down, casting his shadow across the room, looking larger than life.

Without turning, he replied. "Nah, I'm just tired of messin' around with Pop. It gets old after awhile, ya know? Besides, I wasn't too hungry anyway." Akane took another step in.

"Well, if you want to talk, I'm here."

"Nah, what would a kawaiikune tomboy like you know, anyway?" Ranma said, slipping back to his abrasive manner. He didn't know why he did it, but regretted it immediately after. Akane bristled at the insult.

"Che. I was only trying to be nice. You don't have to be mean." She picked up the nearest heavy object and threw it at him, which happened to be his book bag. It bounced off his back and landed on the floor. She slammed the door on her way out. Ranma just looked behind him and sighed, rubbing his back and going back to his studying. His thoughts were muddled as he tried to decipher the ways of the female side of the species. Eventually, however, he was finally able to purge his thoughts and continue with his studies.

Meanwhile, Akane went to her room to fume. Taking one of her stuffed animals in hand, she sat on her bed. "What did I ever do to get treated this way? All I wanted to do was help and all he can do is insult me. That's what I get for trying, I guess." She thought of ways of getting Ranma back, but dismissed them all. It would only get her more insults and more injured pride. No need of that.

She eventually remembered that there was studying to be done and went about doing it. She could only study half-heartedly, still worried about Ranma. The day finally came to an end and she went to bed. Snuggling up with her stuffed animal, she went to sleep. She never heard the door open as Ranma entered.

He stood there, watching her as she slept. He was sorry for having said what he had. But he couldn't really tell her what had been bothering him. She'd have just laughed at him and called him a baka, or worse.

His heart ached to reach out and tell her how much he cared about her, but he dared not. It would only get him a mallet and another lecture from Kasumi about the proprieties of unmarried couples. Besides, she didn't care about him. She just felt sorry for him and his curse. Sighing, he went back to his room.

Genma slept soundly, emitting loud snores with each breath. Ranma kicked him over onto his side, trying vainly to alleviate the noise. It only gained him louder snores. Shooting a glare at his father, he laid down and eventually drifted off to sleep.

The Tendos and their perpetual guests sat at the breakfast table. The only sounds from Ranma and Genma were the occasional clash of chopsticks as they fought over a morsel of food and the continuous munching they made as they ate. Soun was reading his morning newspaper as usual. Looking up from it, he said, "Ranma, my boy, have you gotten your suit for the prom this Friday?" At mention of this, Ranma looked up in startlement. It was obvious by his expression that he had forgotten.

"Uh, ahem, I couldn't find one that I liked," he said lamely. Akane just glared at him. Noting her expression, he just gulped loudly. "I'll pick one up after school sometime." At this, Kasumi perked up.

Standing, she said, "Hold on a moment, Ranma. Your mother sent a package over yesterday. I'd forgotten it until now." Walking into the kitchen, she returned with a box. Handing it over to Ranma with a smile, she sat back down and continued to eat. Ranma could only smile weakly in thanks as he opened it.

Inside was a dark blue tuxedo. It didn't have the tails as his wedding tux had, but it was of a similar cut. Taking it out, he saw that it would fit him to perfection.

"You'll have to thank your mother for her foresight, Ranma," Soun said. Akane was still giving Ranma the evil eye as he put the suit back into the box. Sitting back down, he saw that all of the food that had been on his plate was gone. Looking over at his father, he saw the old man smiling at him and wiping his mouth with a napkin in an exaggerated manner. Disgusted, he got up and put the box in his room.

As he was coming down the stairs, he realized that if he didn't hurry he'd be late. Grabbing his book bag, he rushed outside to catch up with Akane. He caught up with her quickly, jumping onto the fence. She ignored him when he arrived, still mad about him having forgotten to get a suit for the prom. He took note of her expression and wisely decided to hold his tongue, for once. They continued walking to school in an uncomfortable silence.

Later, during the lunch hour, Akane was talking to some of her friends about Ranma. "This morning I found out that Ranma had even forgotten about getting a suit for the prom. If he was supposed to go with me, what would he have gone in? His Chinese suit? Ha!" Her friends saw how distraught she was and tried to comfort her, with little success.

"Well, Akane, he is a guy. Stuff like that isn't important to them." Miyu only received a glare for her efforts. Lapsing back into silence, she tried to fade into the background.

"I don't see all of the other guys forgetting, do you?"

Sofi came to Miyu's defense. "No, but everybody knows that Ranma's not one the most socially-minded individuals around, ne?" The other girls nodded, agreeing with her. "As we all know, he was with his father on a training mission for most of his life. So the subtleties of having a girlfriend, much less a fianc e, is beyond Ranma. I'm sure he didn't mean to forget."

"Yeah, right. Like he won't conveniently forget something else."

"Try to give him a little credit, Akane," Miyu piped in again.

The warning bell for the students to return to class rang. Grabbing their trays, they put them up and headed back to class. Thinking of Akane's last remark, Sofi realized that Ranma may have forgotten something else.

When the school bell rang its last note for the day, Sofi caught up with Ranma before he left the school. He looked at her curiously as she grabbed his arm and pulled him off to the side.

"Um, Ranma, you're taking Akane to the prom, ne?" He nodded, wondering where this was leading to. "You really upset her by having forgotten to get a suit for the prom, you know. And by not asking her to the prom."

Instantly on the defense, he said, "Nani? It's not like I want to take her." He regretted saying this, however, when he saw Sofi's eyes flash dangerously.

"Well, it seems to me you don't seem to care. Maybe I'll just let you hang yourself again. See if I care." She started to walk away, hoping he would see she was only trying to help him.

Rising to the bait, Ranma caught her sleeve as she started to leave, saying, "Sorry. It's my fault that I didn't ask her. With all of our parents telling us that we're going together, I just didn't think that Akane would be worried about it. Eeto, what did you wanna tell me, by the way?" She smiled quickly and dropping it from of her face before turning around.

"Well, since you forgot to get yourself a tuxedo, is there anything else you may have forgotten? I mean, for Akane-chan, that is." He could only scratch his head and give her a blank stare. Seeing this, Sofi ground her teeth together and tapped her foot. Ranma still couldn't think of anything. "You forgot to get a corsage, I'm sure. You know, a flower arrangement for the dress. It's traditionally bought by the guy that's taking a girl out."

"Oh. Is that all?" He smiled brightly at her pronouncement. Seeing his smile directed at her, her knees started to become jelly. She caught herself before she could make a fool herself in front of Ranma. Calling herself all manner of idiot, she gave herself a mental slap. Here she was getting all worked up over her best friend's fianc e.

She said, "Just don't forget about it again before the prom, okay?" Ranma nodded to her, his mind somewhere else already. She walked away, cursing the gods that were and Akane that she couldn't have had Ranma. The thought struck her that this is probably what most of the other girls did every day. Giggling to herself, she went home.

Ranma dimly heard Sofi's laughter as he thought about what she had told him. Sparing a moment for a remark, he said "Girls" in an all-suffering manner. Walking out of the building, he caught up with Akane. She didn't even glance at him as he began walking above her. Halfway home, he decided that now would be the time to go and get the corsage.

"I have to go get something, so I'll be home a little late," he said to Akane. She looked up at him curiously, about to ask what he was talking about. Not waiting for the question, he leaped to a nearby roof and out of sight. Dropping to the ground, he began running. He turned a corner, heading for a flower shop that was nearby.

"Irasshai mase," the lady said to him as he entered. She was a petite girl, blue-black hair and soft brown eyes. "How may I help you today, sir? Would you like a rose arrangement, or perhaps one of our specials?"

Shaking his head, he said, "Iie. I'd like to get a corsage for my fianc e."

With a knowing smile, the clerk stepped out from behind the counter and went to a glass cabinet. She pulled out a red rose corsage, holding it up for him to inspect. He looked at the corsage and shook his head. "Iie. I'd like a yellow one, please." At this, the clerk gave him an incredulous stare.

"Yellow? Do you know what you're talking about?"

Ranma nodded, saying, "Hai. It's her favorite color."

"Iie, I mean, do you know what yellow stands for?" Shaking his head again, he gave her a blank stare. "The colors of certain flowers mean different things. For the rose, yellow means friendship, red means love, and the other colors signify other emotions and attributes. But you've got a fianc e, ne? Normally you get a red rose or something just as significant for the one you care about."

"Hai, I understand that, but it's arranged. You see, we don't get along so well. So, if what you're saying is true, if I gave her a red rose, she'd probably hit me again. She doesn't really like me too much."

Bewilderment clouded the clerk's face at this pronouncement. "You mean that the two of you are engaged, but you don't care for each other? How odd."

Ranma sighed, getting ready to tell his spiel about the situation. "Our fathers decided to engage the two of us before we were born. That way we could unite the two dojos as one. Well, when we met, we started off on the wrong foot. Ever since then, we've fought with each other. We even had a wedding set up for us, but it was interrupted. And, ever since, we've hardly spoken to each other, at least politely. I know her favorite color is yellow, so I thought that it would help to give her a yellow corsage, since she's mad at me for having forgotten about the prom and getting a tuxedo."

With the short explanation, the look slowly faded from the clerk's face as understanding grew. "Ah. I see. So you need to become friends first before you two can actually make amends with each other?" *They still do arranged marriages these days?*

"Eeto, sort of, I guess. It's a little more complicated than that. But I already messed up with the suit, so I need to appease her somehow. A red corsage would be taken the wrong way by our parents and we'd be married before the dust settled. I don't want that, and I'm sure she doesn't. So, if you would, I'd like to get a yellow corsage."

The clerk nodded and turned back to the cabinet. Putting the corsage back in, she pulled out a yellow rose corsage for Ranma. He looked at it, satisfied. She rang up the price and he paid, grimacing at how little he had after this. "Hold on a moment, sir, while I wrap it up." Ranma waited as she put the corsage in a box and wrapped it with some paper and tied it shut with a bow. Finished, she handed it over to Ranma. "I wish you the best of luck, sir. Sayonara."

"Arigato goziamaisu." Ranma left the shop and headed home, glad that he was done with that. When he arrived home, he put the corsage in the fridge, trying to keep it fresh. He'd seen Soun and Kasumi put flowers in it before, so he just followed their example.

Kasumi came out of the washroom with a basket. Seeing him in the fridge, she said, "Dinner will be ready soon, Ranma. I think you can wait until then, can't you," she said in a condescending tone.

Ranma closed the fridge and looked over at Kasumi. "I was just putting something in here. Could you make sure nobody messes with it, please? It's the box with the bow. It's for, ah, um, Akane, so I don't want anybody to take it."

Kasumi smiled at him and continued with her work, saying, "Sure thing, Ranma. That's sweet of you to get Akane something. Now, out of the kitchen while I make dinner." Ranma left the kitchen and went upstairs. Passing by Akane's room, he saw her studying. He stopped to look at her.

She was leaning on her hand, reading from one of her textbooks. With her other hand she pushed a lock of hair behind her ear, revealing more of her delicate jaw. Ranma felt his heart skip a beat as he watched her. Yet so close, yet so far away, he thought to himself.

Gathering up his courage, he knocked on her door. She looked up at him and a frown entered her features. Seeing this, he took a step back.

"What is it, Ranma? If you can't see, I'm trying to study."

"I just wanted to, um, say sorry for not having asked you to go to the prom with me earlier. I guess I kinda forgot. I just thought that, since we're supposed be engaged, we'd naturally be going to the prom together."

As he continued his speech, her ire began to rise. He'd assumed too much this time. Her voice rising an octave or two, she said, "That's it, you don't think enough. Now, if you're finished, I'd like to get back to studying. Unlike some others that I know, I care about what my grades are." Standing up, she pushed him out of her room and slammed her room.

"Kawaiikune tomboy. I was only trying to be nice." Flustered, he headed to his room.

When he entered his room, he sat down and rummaged through his book bag to find the subject he needed to study the most. He had trouble studying for a while, as he was fuming from what Akane had said to him. Eventually, he put it behind him and got down to some serious studying.

The night ended as usual. The fighting over food with his father and then practicing a few katas before going to bed. Ranma avoided Akane, not wishing to be visited by her wrath. He knew that if he went near her he'd say something stupid to make her mad and then get hit for it. Thus, he went to sleep without any new bruises.
**********

At midday for the prom night, the students of the senior class were released. This was so they could rest up and get ready for the upcoming festivities. The rest of the student body envied them, only muttering a few deprecations.

Akane and a few of her friends had decided earlier that they would meet at the park for a picnic and enjoy the day before they went to change and go to the prom. As they sat, they talked about what their dates had done for them until then. Akane was silent during this part of the conversation. After a while, she went over to the pond and started skipping rocks over the surface. Not many skipped more than five times, as she was distracted with her thoughts and wasn't trying too hard. Sofi and Miyu noticed her standing over at the pond and detached themselves to walk over to her.

"What's the matter, Akane?" Miyu asked.

"Gomen nasai. I didn't want to upset your party. It's just that I had nothing to put into the conversation, so I sorta felt left out." Akane stopped skipping rocks and turned to her friends.

"You're still mad about Ranma forgetting to ask you to the prom and about his tuxedo?" Sofi asked.

"Hai. He's so insensitive sometimes. Why do I even bother?" Sofi and Miyu looked at each other, wishing they could do something to help Akane.

Sighing, Sofi motioned for the three of them to sit down and said, "Guys aren't like us. Most of them don't know what is meaningful to us. It's hard for us to understand this, but it does happen. You have to remember that Ranma didn't have a mother to teach him some of the things that most others get. You've said so yourself on many occasions that he didn't know a lick about the girls. Even if he is one at times, he still doesn't understand us. How can you blame him?"

"That's the thing, though." Akane looked up from the grass to her friends. "When he's a girl and wants something, he's very good at getting it. You know, batting his eyes and all that. He's done it to Ryoga so many times and he still falls for it."

"Yeah, but that's to the guys," Miyu piped up. "He's a guy and he knows what they like. It's to the girls that he has a hard time understanding. You see? All that flirtatious stuff can come easily if you know what would melt your heart, you know? So you have to understand that he still comes from a different viewpoint."

"I guess you're right. It still irks me, though. Arigato for the pep talk." Akane finally smiled and got up from the grass. The other two followed suit. They walked back to the group and joined them in the latest discussion of what they were all going to do after the school year ended.

Soon the tinkling of laughter could be heard throughout the park as the girls told each other their dreams. The time passed and they had to go get themselves ready for the night. Parting ways, they all went home.

While Akane had been at the park with her friends, Ranma had gone to Ukyo's. Entering Ucchan's with her, he sat down at the counter where Ukyo put her apron on and began to cook. In just a few moments, Ranma was eating some okonomiyaki. It took a shorter amount of time for him to eat it than Ukyo to cook the pancakes. Settling herself beside Ranma, Ukyo began to eat her okonomiyaki.

"Do you ever have the feeling that you're about to do something really stupid?" asked Ranma. Ukyo looked up from her plate. Her eyebrows knitted together, showing her concern.

"Yeah. Kinda like before I started to mess up your wedding. I suppressed it, though."

"Mmm. I have one of those feelings right now. It's just that I can't place what I need to do to stop it. It kinda scares me."

Ukyo looked back up quickly from her food. Something was really bothering Ranma for him to admit that. Swallowing her food, she said, "Something like that usually can't be avoided. It's kinda like Oedipus Rex from one of Homer's stories. The more you try to avoid it, the worse it gets."

"I suppose you're right. It's just that I wish it wasn't so...It's kinda hard to describe."

"Let me try for you. You have a hollow feeling in your stomach and your head is kinda fuzzy?" Ranma nodded. "And, when you try to figure it out, you start feeling a sense of dread. Believe me, I've felt it before. Sorry, though. How to get rid of it is almost impossible."

Ranma put his face in his hands, letting out an explosive breath. "It's just so irritating that I can't do anything to make it go away." His frustration about the subject showed itself as his voice warbled.

Ukyo's concern grew at seeing her...friend like this. That was still hard for her to adjust to. After the failed wedding attempt he'd made it clear that she was only a friend. And most emphatically not a fianc e. Brushing aside her uneasiness, she watched Ranma as he struggled with himself. Putting a comforting hand on his shoulder, she said, "I know it won't help much, but you can't let it get to you. Something like that can't be dealt with until the situation presents itself. That's the time that you will know what to do. In the meantime, you need to relax. There's a dance coming up and you need to get ready for it."

"You're right. I'm just going to run myself ragged trying to worry about it. So, did you ever convince Konatsu to wear guy's clothing for once?"

A peal of laughter came from Ukyo when he said this. "You wouldn't believe what I had to do to get him to do that. But, eventually, he gave in. He's rather striking in his suit, I might add."

"You don't look half bad in a dress, you know." Both laughed, enjoying themselves at her expense. "If you teach him to be a guy, he might even be able to show you how to be a girl." By this time they were fully in the throes of laughter. Eventually their laughter died.

"You might even want to try to learn how to be a girl, too. Especially since you're half girl yourself." She missed the fraction of a second where Ranma's brow darkened into a scowl. He forced a laugh for her, however, not wishing to spoil her mood.

They heard a noise from the stairs. Looking, they saw Konatsu standing in the entryway of the stairwell. Ranma was taken aback to see him in male clothes, for once. The poor boy didn't look too comfortable, by Ranma's estimation. He was constantly fidgeting with the jacket he wore, as well as adjusting his pants every so often. Konatsu walked into the room and sat down beside Ukyo, across from Ranma. He didn't look half bad, by Ranma's reckoning.

Ranma smiled encouragement for the boy, privately glad that he wasn't in Konatsu's shoes.

"Well, Ucchan, I think I need to be going. There's a few things I want to do before I have to change. Ja mata."

"Ja mata," both Ukyo and Konatsu said to Ranma.

Ranma heard Ukyo complimenting Konatsu as he walked out of the shop. Jumping up on a fence, he walked home. When he arrived, he found his father sitting by the pond and reading a newspaper. Unable to resist, Ranma launched a kick attack and knocked him into the pond.

A fight ensued between the boy and the panda. He was hit a few times as he tried practicing one of the new moves he'd fashioned himself. Near the end of the fight, he was hit and fell into the water. Using this chance, Ranma-onna began another attack that she'd almost perfected in her female form. Her speed of attacks increased, causing the panda to fall back. Ki attacks were thrown in at seemingly random intervals, but appeared to have devastating effects when they hit.

The battle was over in moments with a smoking panda cooling off in the koi pond. Brushing her hands off, she went inside to find some hot water. Going into the kitchen, she ran the water until it was warm enough and filled a glass. Pouring it over her head, she heard a gasp behind her. Turning, she saw Kasumi with a mortified expression on her face.

Looking down, he saw the reason for her distress. Water was all over her clean floor. Sheepishly, Ranma grabbed a mop and began cleaning up his mess. This done, he went back outside and to the dojo. Taking a stance, he began to work through a kata. At the end of his kata, he was attacked from behind by an angry panda. Picking himself up, he faced his father. "Che! You want another beating? Prepare yourself!" With a maniacal laugh, he launched himself at his father. Beginning again on his previous kata, he started to push his father back. Genma, however, saw an opening and smashed Ranma against the wall.

Picking himself up, he faced the smirking panda. Genma held up one of his signs, which said, "Gotta try better than that, boy!" Continuing where he left off, Ranma began to lose ground. As the panda sat on top of him, he managed to free a hand. Using his hand, he pushed his father off and flipped to his feet. Genma held up another sign. "You dropped your stance too low the first time." Having said this, he walked out of the dojo.

Taking the advice, Ranma began the kata and worked through it, analyzing all aspects of it before he finally found the chink in his stance. Sighing grumpily, he finished the kata with a higher stance. He hated it when his father was right. Satisfied with the modification, he went inside to eat, clean up and get changed.

He passed Akane on her way out of the changing room. With a weak smile, he slid past her and into the changing room to take a bath, with her pointedly ignoring him. He blushed at how much of her chest had been exposed by the robe she was wearing. His nose threatened to bleed and he tried to head off any further thoughts. Slipping into the warm water after washing himself off, he relaxed. After a time, his thoughts intruded into the soft warmth that surrounded him and told him to get ready for the dance. Regretfully, he got out and toweled himself off. Dressing in his tuxedo, he checked himself out in a mirror. Satisfied with the look, he went downstairs.

Ranma went into the kitchen to retrieve the corsage he'd stashed in the fridge. The box felt a little damp, but that couldn't be helped. Walking into the living room, he saw that his mother had arrived. She fussed over him, turning him around to see how the suit fit. Turning him back around, she kissed him on the forehead. "Oh, you are a handsome boy. The two of you are lucky to have each other." Ranma could only give her a sickly smile. She missed this, however, because Genma and Soun had entered the room and she had turned to them.

"Akane should be down any moment now," Soun said, on the edge of tears. At this pronouncement, they all heard the stairs creak as a weight descended upon them. When Akane and Kasumi came down from upstairs, Ranma could only stare at the sight. Akane was wearing a canary yellow dress that revealed her shoulders for the whole world to see. Soft white lace framed the upper portion of the dress, falling down over her breasts. The skirt had a similar fringe of lace, yet larger and just a tad more frilly. Akane missed his expression, even as she was staring at him also.

His suit was cut very fashionably. It sat on his frame as if it had been cut specifically for him. The blue did not detract but seemed to accentuate Ranma's eyes. As she looked into his eyes, she realized what she was doing and blushed prettily, feeling it go all the way down to her shoulders. Dropping her gaze to the floor, she stepped forward. Ranma saw the blush and wondered about it.

Akane's eyes traveled back up and she noticed something in Ranma's hands. He was clutching it, nearly crushing the box. "What's that," she asked, pointing. With a start, Ranma came back to himself. Holding it out to her, she took it from him. She pulled the ribbon off of the box. Opening it, she emitted a startled gasp.

Inside, to her disbelief, was one of the most beautiful sights she'd seen. Three yellow roses were surrounded by a swarm of baby's breath. The baby's breath looked like tiny sprites trying to get kisses from the larger petals of the roses. Underneath it all was a bed of lace to hold them together. Each rose stem had been slipped through a pocket of lace to hold them in place. Small petals made by the lace surrounded the base of the whole arrangement.

"I-it's beautiful." Akane could only stare at it.

Nodoka came to rescue and said, "Ranma, dear, why don't you put it on her? That way the two of you can get to the dance sometime tonight." This spurred Ranma into action. Picking the corsage up out of the box, he held it out, ready to pin it onto Akane's bodice. He stopped, however, trying to formulate a plan. Seeing his hesitation, Akane looked down and blushed. The only place for him to place it on her dress would have him touching her breast. Thinking of a solution, she pulled the top of the dress away from her body and held it so Ranma could put the pin through without embarrassing them both. With a smile of thanks, he pinned it onto her dress.

She smoothed the dress back onto her bodice and looked down at the flowers. Satisfied, she looked around at their parents and smiled at them. Genma gently shoved Ranma forward. Taking his cue, he held his arm out to Akane. Taking his arm, the two of them left for the prom. Their parents watched them until they were out of sight. With a collective sigh, they closed the door and went about their business. Soun and Genma sat down at the shogi board, whereas Nodoka and Kasumi chatted about the workings of the household.

Ranma was tempted to jump up onto the fence, but took the feeling and stomped on it. He felt comfortable with Akane at his side. He had decided earlier that he would keep his mouth shut. That had calmed the sense of dread, but not dispelled it. Still worried about that, he tried to put on a pleasant face. Akane felt some of his discomfort, but misinterpreted it as him feeling uncomfortable with her at his side. A bit miffed at this, she pulled away slightly.

When she did this, Ranma looked down at her, wondering why she'd pulled away from him. Shrugging mentally, he continued without comment.

As they neared the campus, they could see other couples streaming into the gymnasium. Joining the crowd, they entered to the overpowering sound of a techno beat.

When they entered, there was a section set off to the side for pictures. They stood in line until they finally got theirs taken. Ranma handed the man the cash and received a receipt for the exchange. They could pick the pictures up in a few days.

Looking around, Ranma caught a glimpse of Ukyo with Konatsu. Getting Akane's attention, he pointed in their direction. Nodding to him, they walked over to the other couple.

Konatsu looked uncomfortable in his tuxedo. He was still fidgeting with the suit. Ukyo was pointedly ignoring this, trying to enjoy the music. As Ranma and Akane approached, she smiled brightly. Hailing a greeting to the other couple, Ukyo grabbed Konatsu's arm and dragged him forward.

Ranma and Akane took in Ukyo's dress. It was a pink silk affair with thin straps barely holding it on her. The rest of it seemed to cling to her body, revealing her figure in a most suggestive manner. Akane could only envy the other girl's endowments. Ranma shook his head, trying to clear it. Akane noted his expression and elbowed him in the ribs. He grunted, trying to sidle away from her, but his arm was still entangled with hers.

"My, what a lovely dress, Akane," Konatsu said in a soft, lilting voice. Ukyo frowned and elbowed him in the ribs. Trying again, but in a deeper voice, he said, "It suits you well, and the corsage you have is remarkable."

"Arigato. Ranma got it for me." Both Ukyo's and Konatsu's eyebrows shot up at this. They looked at Ranma in disbelief. Seeing their looks, Ranma tried vainly to blend into the background.

When the techno song ended and a slow song came on, Ukyo took the opportunity to ask, "Ranma, would you like to dance?" Taken aback by the request, Ranma nodded. Akane reluctantly released her hold on Ranma. Walking out onto the dance floor, they noticed that Akane had grabbed Konatsu and dragged him onto the floor, also.

Ukyo smiled to herself. Ranma saw this and asked, "So, how's it going with you and Konatsu?"

Intentionally stepping on Ranma's foot, she said, "He still thinks that now that you and I aren't engaged that he has a chance. It's just that I don't feel anything romantic towards him. I can sympathize for him, but that's something that doesn't hold a relationship together." Ranma let out a wistful sigh, understanding completely. "And why so great a sigh, Ranma?" Curiosity sparkled in her eyes as they met with his.

Looking away, he said, "Things aren't what they always seem to appear. I feel like I'm one of those lost puppies that some little girl finds and takes home, felling sorry for them. It just bugs me. That's how I think Akane feels about me. You know, one of those lost puppies."

"Mmm," was the only response that Ukyo could utter to Ranma's pronouncement. This was the first Ranma had told her this. An uncomfortable silence ensued, lasting the remainder of the dance. Parting, they walked off of the dance floor. As another techno song came on, Ukyo got a mischievous glint in her eye. Grabbing Akane's arm, she dragged her out onto the dance floor and joined a group of other girls. They started gyrating to the music, letting off steam from the past few weeks.

Ranma watched, glad he'd been left alone this time. Moving fast with his martial arts was one thing, but making a fool of himself to music was another. He and Konatsu stood at the edge of the dance floor, admiring the young women on it. Akane and Ukyo danced until the fast-paced songs were cut off and the slow songs back on. Giggling uncontrollably, the two girls came off and fell into their respective date's arms, exhausted, only to drag them onto the dance floor. The next few hours went on like that. The couples would switch between partners for the slow songs and the girls would go out onto the dance floor and enjoy themselves with the fast-paced music. Occasionally would another ask to have a dance with them. Akane and Ukyo were asked multiple times, having to deny some of their erstwhile suitors the chance to dance with them. Ranma was asked by various friends of Akane's, and he went along reluctantly. With great trepidation, he danced with the girls, trying to keep them from getting too close to him, knowing that some of them were jealous of Akane and him being engaged because of the conversations he'd overheard before.

Konatsu almost had heart failure when he was asked by one of the girls to dance. The girl had seen his shocked face and started to walk away when he finally gathered his wits and caught her, accepting the invitation. After that, he seemed to enjoy himself more, not fidgeting absently with his clothes.

As the night ended, and everybody exhausted, the music was stopped for a short interlude for the class president to make his speech. When he finished, the last remaining song was played. Ranma and Akane went onto the dance floor, keeping themselves separated as they had all night when they danced together. This was by unspoken mutual consent. It was natural, almost. Akane wished that she could trust Ranma not to do anything to embarrass her if they got close, but she'd decided to go along with him on that account. His feet still got stepped on occasionally, however.

"Would you like to go for a walk before we go home, Akane?" Ranma had finally gathered the courage to ask her. She was a bit startled at the question, but only nodded. "I thought the park would be nice, wouldn't you agree?"

Akane smiled, liking the idea. When the song ended, the couple said their good-byes to their friends, exiting the gymnasium and beginning their walk to the park. As they walked, they enjoyed the night, not wanting to spoil the moment. The stars were out in full force. Not a sign of a cloud shown, to Ranma's relief.

A few moments after leaving the school, they found a path that went through the park. Wending their way through it, they eventually found themselves at the pond. They stopped and enjoyed the soft shushing sound of the wind through the reeds. Ranma felt the hairs on his neck stand on end. He dismissed the feeling away as nerves.

In a nearby tree, a presence added more power to its misdirection spell. It wouldn't do to be detected.

Ranma turned to Akane, breaking the silence. "There's something I want to tell you, Akane." Akane looked up into Ranma eyes, her heart catching in her throat. She'd been wondering why he wanted to come to the park. When her eyes met his, his thoughts scattered like the clouds before the wind . She waited silently as he gathered his thoughts once more. "I haven't told anybody about it yet, as you might have guessed, but I'm going to go to college." With a startled gasp, Akane took a step back. "I came to my decision a couple of months ago and I had Mr. Ohbari help me. I-I've been accepted." Ranma took a deep breath. He'd wanted to tell her for so long now, but knew that their parents would have deemed it necessary that he marry Akane before they went to college.

Continuing, he said, "I'm going to Seko University. They've given me a scholarship for the first year, just like you at Meiko University. I'll be going there this fall. It's not too far from where you're going." He didn't notice the light in Akane's eyes fade in consternation.

The presence pounced. Now was the time to play its hand. With great trepidation and a tremble of its lower lip, the presence used its mental powers to send images into the young woman's mind. The hairs on Ranma's nape stood on end.

Conflicting emotions raged through Akane. Incredulity, confusion, surprise, many others she couldn't put a name to. Eventually her emotions settled onto a familiar one. Anger. *How dare he?* Everybody had known she was going to Meiko University since the beginning of the year. Now Ranma wanted to go to another college...without her?

Ranma felt another uneasy twinge as yet another mental blast entered Akane's mind.

The worm of unreason reared itself. It wrapped itself around Akane's mind and started suffocating her sanity. Sanity tried vainly to keep its grip on her, but she let unreason take control. Along side it, jealousy reared its ugly green head. She refused to admit that it was jealousy, but it still added to her rage. Her imagination took over. Through a red haze, she saw Ranma surrounded by innumerable girls who vied for his attention, while she stood dejectedly on the outside. He never once looked her way.

He wanted to have a chance to check out all of those college girls, it seemed. Maybe even...the thought sent her mind tumbling into even more irrationality. Thinking of how all the girls had clung to him at the dance, she reasoned that he had liked it. He'd never refused a one, whereas she'd refused several of the advances directed at her. Sanity lost its grip with her. With the door open, hate filled the empty space.

The thought never crossed her mind that the two colleges were only half an hour apart. She wasn't thinking rationally by this time. All she saw was red as her emotions took control of her.

Ranma, however, had been watching Akane for the past minute as her rage had built. It surprised him. He hadn't expected her to get mad at the news. In fact, he'd thought she'd be glad that he was wanting to continue going to school and better himself.

Through clenched teeth, Akane said, "You want to go to college, eh? Why, so you can be a Casanova there, too?"

This turn of the conversation rocked Ranma backwards. Where had this come from? Ranma tried to defend himself by saying, "No, I just want to get some more schooling. It's not like I'm going to be-"

But he was overridden by her voice as it rose several octaves. "Ever since you and I have been engaged, you've tried to find all the other girls and woo them." A little voice said that this was untrue, but she ignored it. "Well, now you're gonna have your chance. I won't be around to interfere. That's what you had planned all along, isn't it?"

He tried once again to explain himself, but was stampeded over.

"You've always complained about being engaged to me. Well, now is your chance to get away from me. Fine. If you want our engagement to be over, then it is. We're through!" This last was shouted. Ranma took a step forward, trying to get a word in edgewise but could only imitate being a fish. She shoved him away violently. His foot caught on something. Tumbling backwards, he rolled on the ground, only to fall into the water. Ranma-onna stood up, the tuxedo hanging limply from her form.

Akane, still in the throes of her anger, looked down do see the corsage at her breast. She ripped it off, opening a large hole in the dress. Throwing it at Ranma-onna, she ran off, crying. She tripped as she was running, dirtying the dress and skinning her knees. Regaining her feet, she continued to run.

Ranma could only stare after her retreating form. Utter amazement slowly turned to anger. He saw the corsage in front of him, lying crumpled at his feet. " Shi Shi Hokudan," he yelled, using one of his strongest attacks on the flowers. The ki blast disintegrated the mauled flowers. The ashes settled in the small crater that had been created. Stepping out of the water, Ranma-onna walked home, leaving the scene where his world had been shattered. A single petal floated down and landed in the water, its edges singed and looking forlorn. It continued its journey in the water, becoming lost.

A figure sighed from the branches of a nearby tree. It wasn't happy at what had happened, but it had been necessary. It found the lost petal, floating near the shore of the pond. A single tear fell from its eye, shining like a fine crystal drop. The tear landed on the petal, causing a startling transformation. Before its eyes, the petal became a full rose bud, the calyx curling out slightly from the tight buds. The petals turned from a pale yellow to a ruby hue. The flower was one of exquisite beauty, which would elicit strong emotions of those who saw it. It also told of the tragedy that had befallen the young couple. Looking around, it sadly shot into the sky with the newly transformed rose, keeping it for a time that it would serve its purpose.

Akane was still crying uncontrollably when she got home. Everybody was still awake, waiting for the couple to come back from the dance. When she came storming in, they saw how distraught she was. Her face was streaked with tears, puffy and blood-shot eyes telling the tale of how hard she had been crying. They also saw the rip in the bosom of her dress and the general disarray.

She stormed up into her room, followed closely by Kasumi. Stunned silence hung like a pall over the three that had stayed downstairs. Tears started to leak from Soun's eyes as he wailed for his daughter, bemoaning life in general. Genma's anger at what he imagined what his son had done finally burst out with a fist slammed into a cupped hand. It didn't stop there, however. He began to wear a hole in the floor as he paced in anxiety.

Soun looked over to his friend, saying, "Saotome-kun, what has happened? And why does she look that way? Why is my poor daughter crying on such a joyful night?"

"I don't know, Tendo-kun. I intend to find out, though. That boy will pay for what he's done. I'll see to it, even if it's the last thing I do." He stood there, clenching his fists convulsively. Again, he started pacing.

Nodoka looked at her husband, trying to fathom what he was going to do next. She was the calmest of the lot, trying to reason out what had happened between the couple. Her motherly instincts told her that Ranma would not have done...that to Akane. She shuddered to think that her son would be capable of rape. It still bothered her, however, that the two of them had ended the night so badly when, earlier, they had looked so happy.

Kasumi was holding onto Akane as she wept. Cooing to her and rocking her gently, trying to soothe her sister. Akane was mumbling insensibly as she cried. The only word she caught was "why". Dread filled her heart as she clutched her sister to her breast.

By the time Ranma-onna made it to the Tendo household, her emotions had taken her to the lowest pit they could find. She wallowed in her despair. Her world was crushed. Akane had broken off their engagement. A central pillar in her life had crumbled and she didn't know what to do with herself. Walking in the front door, she made her decision. She'd take her things and go back to her mother's to stay. At least for the remainder of the school year.

Ranma-onna was met by her father as she entered. His aura was pulsing around him as he stared down at Ranma-onna. Fear crept into Nodoka as she watched her husband. She didn't know what he was about to do.

Ranma-onna stared up at him. Something wasn't right. Her father had never looked this mad before. It disturbed her, even frightening her a little to see him this way.

"How dare you treat Akane the way you have. I'll not have a rapist for a son!" She could only gape like a fish, opening her mouth and snapping it shut. Before Ranma-onna could utter a word in defense, she was slapped. She stumbled and fell to the ground from the blow. Genma's utterance of what the three had been ruminating about stopped the other two's thoughts. Nodoka just stared and Soun stopped crying, to look from the prone form of Ranma-onna and back to Genma.

Confusion clouded Ranma-onna's thoughts. Rape? Where had that come from? Trying to rise, she was kicked back down onto the floor. "Stay down, before I make you regret having been born." His voice was an iron whip, striking her unmercifully. "If this is the way you treat women, then you have no right to be a son of mine!"

Ranma-onna's eyes flashed, anger filling her once again. How dared he think she would do something like that to Akane! Genma was about to kick her down again when Nodoka pulled him back. While Genma had been pulled away, Ranma-onna had stood and gotten into one of her attack stances. Shrugging Nodoka off, Genma met Ranma-onna halfway.

"Feel better?" The question had the effect of a bulldozer running over a mouse. Genma missed a step, for her voice were like the thorns of malice covered in acid. As Genma advanced, she attacked her father. Not holding anything back, Ranma-onna finished the fight in a matter of minutes. Genma lay at her feet, unconscious. Walking back through the broken doorway, she looked around for another challenger.

Nodoka and Soun stared at the prone form of Genma and the fiercely glowing Ranma-onna.

Her eyes bore into the two remaining parents. "I never touched Akane. So, if there's anybody else who wants a piece of me, step forward now." The two shook their heads, numbly. Going into the kitchen to get some water, she poured it over herself so she could change back. Ignoring the puddle on the floor, Ranma went upstairs to get his things. He packed all his necessities in his backpack, wasting no time. When he finished, he stepped into the hall.

Akane heard noises coming from Ranma's room. This sparked off another bout of uncontrollable anger and she tore herself from Kasumi's embrace. She rushed out of her room and blind-sided Ranma as he came out of his room. Kasumi ran to the door, seeing Akane attack Ranma. She watched in astonishment at the ferocity of her little sister.

Ranma rolled on the floor, trying to get up. Akane, however, was on top of him in a flash. Her kicks found vital spots, causing her victim to wince in pain. When Ranma finally lay still, she turned away and started back to her room. Ranma made the decision to stand, which caused Akane to turn around. He stood in the hall, looking at her. His expression was unreadable. Clenching her teeth, she rushed him again.

A punch. That's all it was. It descended on Ranma and he just watched it. It was from a fist that could break bricks easily, he knew. Unconcerned, he let if fall.

Into the hand that stopped it in its path for his face.

Akane just stared at Ranma. She hadn't seen him move, but her fist had been stopped by his hand. She realized that he had always managed to get hit by her when she was angry. This time, however, was an exception. He was much better than her. She'd always known it, but had always felt satisfaction when she'd connected, at least outside of the dojo. It'd made her feel like she was at least a decent martial artist. But this proved to her again that she was a mewling kitten compared to Ranma. He always seemed to prove it in the dojo, but outside he always fell under her wrath.

His words cut her like a searing knife as he said, "Now that we're not engaged, Akane, I'm not your personal punching bag." He turned around and started heading down the stairs, pausing only long enough to pick up his backpack.

"I hate you." What she said to him was only a whisper, but it had the effect of one of the strongest punches he'd ever received. It was said with such malice to have made one of the most venomous snakes to have hidden itself from her in stark terror. Stopping in his tracks, he absorbed the blow, losing his breath at the same time. She had said it before, but not in such a way. Bursting into tears, she ran back into her room. Kasumi, once again, tried to comfort the heart-stricken girl. He collected himself from the blow and continued on.

When Ranma got downstairs, he saw that his father was sitting on the floor with an ice pack on his head. Nodoka stood over him, daring her husband to make a move towards Ranma as he left. All three parents watched Ranma leave the house. Soun was crying again, lamenting the turn of events of this night.

Ranma had intended to go back to his mother's, but after stepping out of the house, he'd fallen back into his despair. His surroundings became a blur and his feet began to take him where they willed. Unconcerned about this, he continued on. After an hour of wandering, he finally looked up. He saw that he'd wandered around in a random pattern, only to end up in front of Dr. Tofu's clinic. The spark of an idea formed in Ranma's head as he gazed upon the structure. Walking up to the door that Dr. Tofu reserved for his private entrance, he knocked.

A muffled response came from the other side. After a moment, the door finally opened to show a sleepy Dr. Tofu. Upon seeing the bedraggled Ranma with his backpack, he woke instantly. He ushered Ranma inside, motioning for him to drop his bag at the entrance.

Without saying a word, he drew a bath for Ranma and had him clean himself up. Fifteen minutes later, a clean, but emotionally numb Ranma was sitting on the couch in Dr. Tofu's home. He held a cup of tea in his hand. Dr. Tofu watched the boy, trying to find the right words to ask Ranma about what had brought him to his house at this late hour. As he watched, he saw Ranma's hands start to shake.

Ranma's mind was not still. It kept racing through what Akane had said at the last. She'd said it many times before. But this time, she'd meant it. He knew that like he knew the Art. Reflecting on how their relationship had started, he realized that he hadn't helped the situation any. Always calling her uncute, tomboy, and many other assorted names had caused her to resent him.

Staring into the tea in his hands, he could only see the anger reflected from Akane's face like the fires of hell. It was what he'd brought to her. Before he'd come, she'd had a lot less problems. Sure, she fought with the guys every morning when she came to school, but she had always handled that. Then he'd come along and torn her world apart. It was that damned curse! If he'd only told her before she'd walked in on him, then maybe...Too late for that now, he thought. Even now she had trouble with him being in the same room. In either form.

Words were a powerful thing if you let them get to you. That was the problem. He'd let his mouth get away with him and had bombarded her with too many negative words. Tomboy...Uncute...But he couldn't tell her how he really felt. Every time he did there was something that went wrong. Either he put his foot in his mouth again or somebody would interrupt and spoil the moment. But, most of the time, he'd chicken out. The frustration was unbearable.

It was hopeless. They'd never get along. It was all Oyaji's fault. If he hadn't engaged him to the Tendo girl then he'd never have had any reason to destroy Akane. If only...But the harshness of her words attested to how he was a lame excuse for an iinazuke to her. Her smiling face materialized in front of him, only to be replaced by what he'd seen last. Her anger.

He felt something make a track down his face. Realizing what it was, self-loathing took over. Men don't cry. Trying to suppress the other tears, his heart let itself fall into his stomach. The emptiness needed to be filled with something. That something crept up on him silently. With cold fingers, it gripped his mind and sought to take control of him. It whispered in his ear. A struggle ensued...and he lost.

"Ranma..." Dr. Tofu started to say, but didn't finish as he saw that Ranma's whole body convulse.

The words "I hate you" kept pummeling his mind. To Ranma, the whole world had come tumbling down on him. Every facet of his life seemed to fall and strike him down. The night's events flashed before his eyes again and he was overwhelmed. Hopeless and dejected, he started spiraling deeper within himself.

Unable to control himself, he did something he hadn't done since he was a small boy on his first training trip away from his mother. He cried. His soul poured itself into his eyes and let the whole world know that there was a broken-hearted little boy again. He didn't care who saw him right now. His life had been crushed by only a few words. Ranma curled up in the fetal position, tea pouring over his hands and spilling to the floor. The hot tracks of tears streaked across his face. They felt like rivers of fire, trying to purge the pain from Ranma's heart. The fires weren't hot enough, Ranma knew. The pain struck deeper, burrowing itself within his soul. A dark hole was seared within him, scarring him.

Dr. Tofu watched as Ranma curled up on the couch, trying to hide within himself. He didn't know what to do. One thought came to mind as he went to get a blanket. When he set the blanket on Ranma, he tried vainly to comfort the young man. Until then, Ranma had been crying softly, eyes tightly shut. He was trying vainly to keep the tears from leaking out. But, as Dr. Tofu offered his assistance, he broke out into loud sobs, losing himself within his grief.

Eventually, however, tears dry and the young tire. Ranma's face settled and he fell into a dreamless sleep, the tear marks marring his face. His hair was matted with sweat, as if he'd just run several miles. Tucking the blanket over Ranma's sleeping form, Dr. Tofu turned the lights off after cleaning up the spilled tea and went back to bed. He was disturbed to have seen someone as emotionally stable as Ranma cry. Whoever had done this to him had a strong hold on the boy's emotions. That would be Akane.

He would get answers in the morning, he knew.