"You idiots, the Nanniichaun!"

The barrel of Nanniichuan sailed in a graceful arc over the flurry of flailing limbs. Ranma watched its course in horror, body still moving, but now in the wrong direction. He twisted in mid-step and lunged towards the barrel, but by that time it was too late.

Everything seemed to go absolutely still for a moment. If Ranma had been in the frame of mind to notice his surroundings, he would have marveled over the fact that it was possible for this group of crazies could be in one room peacefully, even for a second. But he, like everyone else, was staring at the barrel.

Or rather, who it landed on.

"What - " said Akane, and she probably would have said more, had she not heard her own voice. Immediately, her hands flew up to her chest. After patting around for a moment she - oh, god no - he reached up to tip the barrel from his head. An undeniably handsome face that had considerably too much make-up on stared in horror at the dozens of faces staring back at him. Something inside of Ranma cracked straight down the middle as the barrel clattered behind Akane. For a moment, he and Ranma met eyes, then Akane wrenched his gaze away and fled from the room, skirts trailing ludicrously behind him.

Nabiki was the first to break out of her trance. "Oh, Akane." Though she was not the closest to her little sister, it was only she who went bolting after him.

Two Halves Are One
Akane 1/2

1.

Nabiki hesitated in front of Akane's room, the duck placard staring mockingly at her with one beady black eye. It was deceptively quiet. Nabiki cautiously tapped on the door, then jumped nearly a foot back when something crashed in the room hard enough to shake the entire house. Scowling at herself for her involuntary reaction, she cautiously pushed the door to Akane's room open.

The dress looked ridiculous on Akane's broad form. The laces she and Kasumi had painstakingly tied hung in shreds and the corset split at the sides. Akane was staring at himself in the mirror with a look of horrified fascination, tentatively examining his face with trembling fingers.

"I look so stupid."

Nabiki couldn't deny that. She cursed herself quietly, wishing she had the foresight to bring hot water. "It could be worse," she said optimistically, but couldn't offer any examples.

"How? What can be worse than being turned into a boy on my wedding day?"

"Being turned into a boy on your wedding night?"

Akane spun around, shocked out of his own self-pity. Against his own will, his lips quirked up into a shivery smile.

"Come on, let's get you out of that dress." Nabiki went to her - sister, mentally calculating the ruins of the wedding dress. She turned figures over in her head; how much it would cost to repair the dojo, what the rental stores would charge for the ruined dress and tuxedo, all of this on top of how much they had already spent on the wedding. But Akane looked so miserable that Nabiki stayed her tongue. Besides, she knew of some girls who would pay a pretty price for pictures of Akane's new body.

The skirts fell around Akane's ankles, revealing the lacy blue panties that were now - oh. Nabiki turned around, not because she was embarrassed (her profession required a certain amount of detachment for the human body), but out of respect for Akane and the look of mute horror on his face at the sight of the lace stretched over his new - appendage. Nabiki left the room as quietly as she came in.

Ranma was standing at the door, holding a steaming tea kettle in both hands like an offering but looking too nervous to proceed. The tuxedo was damaged irreparably; what again had made them think that this was in any way a good idea? But it had been Akane who had nervously interrupted their father and Mr. Saotome's shouji game, kneeling beside them with her head bowed.

"I'll marry him."

The stunned silence had almost immediately been followed by a maelstrom of activity. Within minutes, the pre-made invitations were flying through the streets of Nermia, despite Akane's desperate shouts of, "I didn't mean right now!"

In retrospect, they should have known better.

Ranma and Nabiki examined each other silently for a moment, before Nabiki held out her hand expectantly. As if this were a cue, Ranma shifted the kettle into one hand and dug around in his pockets for a few crumpled bills, which he deposited into Nabiki's hand without a thought.

"I meant the tea kettle, dummy," snapped Nabiki, but the yen still disappeared into her pocket.

"Oh! Oh. Um, I was hoping - " he trailed off, scratching the back of his head nervously. Nabiki blew her bangs from her eyes in frustration.

"Jeez, the two of you. Listen here, Ranma, because I'm only going to say this once, free of charge." Never mind that she had already taken his money. "How will Akane ever know your intentions if you don't speak them clearly?"

"It's not like that!" Predictably, he was getting flustered. "Here, just take the stupid tea kettle. It's not like I was worried or anything."

Nabiki rolled her eyes and stepped around him. "Take it yourself."

o o o o o

Despite Nabiki's "encouraging" words, Ranma still could not bring himself to knock on the door. It had not escaped him that all of the current events, up to this point, had somehow involved Akane sacrificing something for Ranma, and that was tearing him up.

He had no idea what to say.

"'Hey Akane, welcome to the club?' Yeah, right. She'd tear me to pieces. 'Hey, Akane. Did you manage to save a little bit of that Nanniichuan? No? Well, can I wring out some of the water from your wedding dress?'" Ranma smacked his head against the wall. "That's even worse than the first."

"Are you going to come in or what?"

The distinctively male voice coming from Akane's room made Ranma cringe, but gave him that necessary boost. Akane was standing in the center of the room, holding a towel tightly around his waist. He was smiling, but Ranma recognized it as the own brave smile he himself wore when faced with the ruins of Jusenkyo.

Ranma had prepared himself to see a guy wearing Akane's face, but it still made something inside him clench painfully. He was slightly taller than Ranma, with broad shoulders and a tapered waist. His hair was now a shade lighter, with hints of copper that flashed in the light. What was the most disconcerting, however, was that Akane's eyes were now green.

Ranma thrust the kettle towards him, looking down. "I brought you hot water."

Akane delicately took the kettle from Ranma, cradling it as if it were the water of life. Ranma understood.

"You're handling this well," said Ranma, somewhat surprised. He relived his own change on a regular basis, the first screams of his female form bouncing around the walls of his skull. Just thinking about it made the hairs on the back of his head stand on end. Maybe Akane was lucky, getting cursed while already completely saturated with knowledge about Jusenkyo. He turned to express these thoughts to him, but his tongue froze in his mouth.

Akane was staring down at the kettle in shock, fat tears rolling down his cheeks. Ranma normally had little sympathy for crying men, but this was Akane.

"Aw, come on Akane, don't cry. Change back. It'll make you feel better, I promise."

Akane's eyes narrowed in fury, sending a jolt of confused relief through Ranma. As usual, he had no idea what he had done to set Akane off this time, but it was a welcome change from the sheer terror and mortification that had not left his face since Ranma had entered the room.

"Ranma, you idiot. Of course I'm not going to change right now!"

"Why not? Do you like being a guy or somethin'?"

Ranma, who had been expecting the hit, was a little surprised by the power of it. Akane had the strength of a gorilla to begin with; it looked as if her male form just accentuated this particular trait.

"No, idiot. I'm just not going to change while I'm like this - " he jerked his hand towards his naked upper torso, " - with you in the room."

Oh, of course. Heat rose to Ranma's cheeks, but because he was who he was, he said, "It's not like it's nothin' I haven't seen before."

"Ranma, you pervert!"

Ranma wondered, as he was sent to the stars, if there was anyone else on this planet who was worse at expressing themselves than he was. As he landed in the cold koi pond, he decided that while Akane was a close second, he still took the cake.

o o o o o

Akane sighed at the hole in his ceiling, berating himself in a daze at his quick temper. He hated when he did that; it always made the nights so much colder. Sighing, he went back to his place in front of the mirror, cringing at the handsome face that winced back at him. There was still something distinctly feminine about his features, but there was no doubt that he was a male. He poked his well-muscled chest and snorted ruefully. At least he was well-built, though that was hardly a comfort.

The kettle was not nearly as hot as the ones that Ranma normally got dumped on him. It was a strange show of consideration. How does one thank another about something like that? "Thank you for not making the water too hot?" Akane snorted and dumped half the kettle over his head. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Familiar, yet now somewhat strange brown eyes looked back at her, and Akane realized that in her shock she had not noticed that her male form had green eyes.

She rubbed her eyes in frustration, hating how the sting of tears would not go away, and quickly threw on a pair of pajama pants and a loose shirt. Then she sighed and glared up at the hole.

"I know you're up there, Ranma. You better not be peeping."

It had occurred to her, once, that Ranma's preferred place on the roof had always been directly over her bedroom. Countless nights she had woken up to the sound of her ceiling creaking, which of course meant that Ranma was stomping around up there on purpose to annoy her since he could consciously walk silently. She had long ago chalked it up as him being a pervert, but -

The red-haired girl jumped back through the hole, holding her pants up and looking somewhat abashed. It was Akane's turn to hold the kettle out to Ranma.

"I wasn't peeping," said Ranma sulkily as she took the kettle. "You - saved some?"

"Just take it."

Ranma upended the rest of the water over herself and Akane almost laughed. Now they were a matching pair. The laugh choked off into a sob and Akane buried her face in her hands. To her surprise, strong arms wrapped around her and Ranma clumsily patted her shoulder. She let him, crying out all of her fury and horror. A part of her recognized that Ranma lived through this on a daily basis, but that just made her cry harder.

She pulled back only when she felt that she had cried herself out. Ranma looked so concerned that it nearly set her off again, but the damp spot on his shoulder made her want to laugh. She wondered if this was what shock was like.

It would probably be better if she sat down. Trembling, she dropped down on her bed. After a moment, Ranma sat down beside her.

"Of all times, it had to be on my wedding day," Akane mused, then frowned and corrected herself. "Our wedding day."

When Ranma didn't say anything, Akane turned to look at him. He was sitting perfectly still, staring down at his hands. "Were you really ready for it, Akane? Did you, um - " Akane noted with interest that Ranma was blushing to the roots of his hair. This, of course, made her blush, too.

"What, are you saying you didn't want to marry me?"

"That's not what I - jeez, Akane, why do you always havta make things even harder than they already are? I mean - " he held his hands up placatingly, as Akane looked ready to pummel him again. "I mean, we're really young, yanno?"

Akane had been ready.

At least, she thought she was ready. But looking at Ranma now, she wondered just what she had thought marriage was. Up until now, everything had been a competition. Had she thought that by marrying Ranma, she would win? Or was she hoping for those distant memories she had of her family before her mother had died? Whatever it was, she knew - and perhaps always had known - that she was deluding herself.

"Maybe - maybe we could try to be friends? I mean, I'm going to need all the help I can get right now, and - "

The rest of the words died in her mouth at the sight of Ranma. She had only seen that hopeful smile once, one year ago, when Akane had made that same offer to the red-haired girl that had burst into her life unexpectedly. It immediately made her blush.

"I'd like that."

They were sitting so close to each other, knees pressed together, and blushing like school children. Akane wasn't sure who leaned towards the other first. Hadn't they just agreed to take it slow? And yet, she was drawn to Ranma, like she always was, like he had his own gravitational pull.

"Will this finally be it? Will they finally kiss?"

It took a moment for Akane to realize that that those questions hadn't been in her mind, but rather spoken from her own father through that damn microphone that popped out at the most inopportune times. Akane and Ranma immediately sprung away from each other, glowing with embarrassment.

"Oh my. I should really throw out that microphone."

"You do that, sis," said Nabiki, pocketing her camera with annoyance. She had been so close to winning a very profitable bet she had made with Kuno last year - vis-à-vis who would truly kiss Akane first, Ranma or Kuno? They had agreed that the nekoken stint had been void, since even Kuno could recognize that Ranma had not been in his right frame of mind. They had upped it by two thousand yen every six months that went by without Akane being kissed, and the pool was now at six thousand yen. Sometimes Nabiki wondered if Kuno's fervor came entirely from insanity, or if he was just worried about losing the bet to Nabiki.

o o o o o

"Ranchan, we need to get hot water right now."

"Well, Akchan, in case you hadn't noticed, there's a black out and it's storming."

The venom in their voices negated the affection in the nicknames, though had any of the usual suspects happened to overhear their conversation, perhaps not entirely incorrect assumptions would be made. They certainly looked the part of a very attractive couple, though it was a little odd that they were running at top speed in the middle of a thunderstorm.

Akane skidded to a halt, grabbing Ranma by the wrist. "No, you don't understand. We need to find hot water right now."

Ranma looked up at Akane, frowning. "Why?"

For some reason, this made Akane blush. He looked around, though no one was wandering the streets in this weather, then leaned forward and whispered, "I have to use the restroom."

"So? What's the big de - ohhh." Ranma's gut instinct was to tease Akane for his prudishness, but she remembered the first time she went to the bathroom as a girl, crouched shivering in the middle of a storm similar to this for a good ten minutes before she could do her business.

"Let's try Dr. Tofu's clinic."

Akane blinked in surprise. "What, you're not going to tease me?"

"Believe it or not, I understand."

"Oh." Akane looked down, scowling at Ranma's wrist (though he was the one holding her wrist, damnit), then dragged her towards Dr. Tofu's clinic.

He didn't drop her wrist.

"Hey, Akane," said Ranma lightly. "If you want to hold my hand, you could at least do it right."

Immediately, Akane flung Ranma's hand away from him, as if it were on fire. That hadn't been quite Ranma's intention, but she folded her arms behind her head and grinned slightly, liking the way Akane's ears were red. She had to admit, she was still feeling a little giddy at Akane's request. It wasn't quite a step up from what they were before, nor was it at all a step down, but Ranma wanted to be Akane's friend. To be honest, she wanted much more. But she was sure that would come in time.

Well, she was pretty sure.

Nabiki had said all those pretty words about 'speaking your intentions clearly' and all that crap, but it went both ways. Akane had never said that she lov - lik - cared about him. Or, well, he cared about her, in their current states. There was a considerable amount of circumstantial evidence, but nothing concrete. Come to think of it, it was all a little depressing.

Ranma stopped in midstep, scowling. That happiness at Akane's request to be friends was quickly fading into a gloom that could easily rival Ryoga's funks. When Akane said she had wanted to be friends, had she meant that she wanted to onlybe friends? She trudged slowly after Akane's rapidly retreating back, kicking water up in annoyance.

"Look, Ranchan, I meant it when I said I had to go to the bathroom," Akane snapped, jogging back up to the sulking redhead and grabbing her hand. Ranma's eyes widened almost comically. Ranma couldn't say she had many friends, but she was pretty sure that it wasn't normal to hold hands with them.

It wasn't like it was the first time they had held hands, but something still somersaulted in Ranma's chest.

Dr. Tofu's windows were lit, but by the way the shadows were dancing it was obvious that he was using candles. Akane and Ranma stopped at the entrance, Akane's hand starting to shake in Ranma's grip.

"Hey, it's okay," Ranma said quietly. She wasn't good at this sympathy stuff, but she had enough empathy to more than make up for her lack of compassion. "I know how hard this is - believe me, I know, but you're going to have to do this eventually."

Akane shook his head.

"Trust me, this kind of crap happens all the time. You just gotta adjust a little."

Akane shook his head more vigorously.

"Look, it could be worse."

"I really wish people would stop saying that," said Akane, resigned. "All right, how could this possibly be worse?"

"You could still be wearin' that dress."

Akane looked at her, lips twitching slightly. "Okay, that would be worse."

One of the first things Ranma had done after Akane had reverted back to a woman was to offer her some of his clothing. Predictably, she hadn't taken that well, but for once in his life he had been able to talk quick enough to avoid her mallet. She tightened her grip on Akane's hand and tugged gently.

"Come on. Let's go home."

Back in the Tendo residence, Ranma leaned against the bathroom door, amusing herself by making her hands talk to each other.

"Daddy, what's the hold up?" said the right hand to the left.

"Well, son, I know we've been waiting out here for an hour, but some people are slower than others. Especially uncute tomboys."

"Maybe I could go faster if you weren't such a weirdo!" came Akane's muffled reply from the other side of the door.

"Daddy," said Ranma a little louder, "aren't the candles going to burn out if Mr. Customer stays in there all night?"

"Well, son, I'm guessing Mr. Customer will burn the place down before he gets anything done!"

It was still another twenty minutes before Akane finally left the bathroom, blushing furiously and scowling at Ranma. "Jerk."

"Tomboy."

"Was the running commentary really necessary?"

Ranma grinned widely. "Yes."

At that moment, the lights flickered on. Akane stared at them in disbelief.

"Welcome to my world," said Ranma, patting Akane on the shoulder as he rammed his forehead against the wall.

o o o o o

This was a nice change.

Ranma had no idea how Akane would react - if she would react at all - to him running beside her, instead of on the fence. He would have never expected for her to immediately grab his hand. There was no time for him to stop and mull over this (though he did blush immediately) as Akane was tearing off towards Furinkan like a bat out of hell.

"Why do you always have to fight with your father before school, Ranma?" Akane shouted over her shoulder at him, successfully killing off most of his shock at being dragged around by his uncute fiancee.

"I wouldn't have to if he'd stop trying to steal my food!"

"You should just let him have you're food! Maybe then we wouldn't always be - ack!"

If Ranma or Akane had thought that Shampoo would miss Ranma in her daily lunge because he was not on the fence, they were sorely mistaken. Shampoo launched herself onto Ranma, yanking him right out of Akane's grip. Her bicycle came to a neat stop by crashing nose-first into the fence. It, much like its owner, demolished the fence but managed to escape without a scratch.

"Aiyah! What Violent Girl doing holding hands with Husband?"

"What business is that of yours?"

But Shampoo had lost interest in the conversation and was waving an accusing finger at Akane, eyes almost bugging out of her head. "You! Why you wearing Husband's clothing?"

Ranma cringed. In all honesty, he had not entirely forgiven everyone for their parts in the destroyed wedding. Every time he thought of it he remembered the look of unadulterated shock on Akane's face as he tipped the barrel off his shoulders, or the way each one of the Tendos stared at their beloved dojo in varying degrees of loss and shock. He thought about how amazing Akane had looked in the Western style dress, and then the absolute devastation - after.

"In case you forgot, Shamchan," said Akane, icily enough to break Ranma out of his reverie. Akane did 'furious rage' like a pro, but she only sounded cold when she was really, very angry. "I turn into a boy now."

Shampoo sniffed haughtily. "You no as handsome as husband."

Normally this chain of events would result in Ranma flying into the canal, but this time Akane had huffed angrily and resumed stomping towards the school.

"Hey, Akchan, wait up! Come on, Shampoo, not now." He didn't resort to violence, but a few well-aimed jabs to pressure points that Shampoo's great grandmother taught him herself made her drop her arms limply. He turned to Shampoo, frowning.

Not now, not ever, really.

He shook his head slowly at her, hoping she understood. He thought she saw a hint of sadness in her eyes, but she stuck out her chin determinedly and met his rejection with a look of steely reserve. He liked Shampoo and her kooky personality but, well. She would never be Ak - she would never be enough. Ranma sighed and turned around, running after Akane.

When he reached her side, he grabbed her hand before it could swing up and clobber him. She spared a glance at him over her shoulder and slowed down a bit. Maybe she wasn't as angry as he thought she was. He was not naïve enough to lower his defenses, though.

"What was that about?"

Akane's shoulders slumped slightly. For a moment she didn't say anything. "I thought we were friends, you know?"

Ranma's heart stuttered. "We are."

"Not me and you, dummy. Me and Shampoo. After Jusendo - we had to share a tent, you know? And we talked a lot. It was fun." She sounded almost wistful. "I still wasn't feeling well and she helped me a lot."

Ranma squeezed her hand. 'I still wasn't feeling well.' What an understatement.

"She's an Amazon, Akchan. That'll always come first."

"I know, I know. Sometimes I just - I wonder what it would be like if things were different. Would Shampoo and Ukyo and I be friends? Can we be friends in the future, or will they always hate me for - well. You know."

Ranma didn't know. He wanted to shout at her to explain it clearly. Instead he held her hand and said, just as vaguely, "They'll come around some day."

They shared a look and completely missed the car zooming past. They did not, however, miss being soaked by the puddle the car had splashed through.

"Oh, gross!"

Like most mornings, they didn't have the time to stop and get hot water. Instead, they ran through the gates of Furinkan High, hands linked together, sexes reversed.

The leaves rustled. Ranma and Akane stopped, both looking up to the heavens in resignation.

"This morning I awoke to the sunlight filtering through my curtains, illuminating the beauteous faces of my dearest Tendo Akane and Pigtailed Girl."

"Ew, do you think he has posters of us up on his wall?" Ranma stage whispered to Akane, who grimaced in response.

"Today, thought I, I would persevere! I would steal a kiss from Tendo Akane's ambrosial lips - "

"All right, who gave Kuno a thesaurus?" Ranma shouted, accusingly.

"Me!" Nabiki called brightly, waving from the window.

Kuno refused to be deterred. "But alas! My resplendent angel is missing! My fragile heart can hardly bare it! My only comfort is that my wild and radiant Pigtailed Girl graces me with her presence!"

"How much longer is this going to take?" Akane asked, glancing at the clock. They still had two more minutes. Principal Kuno was on one of his many vacations in Hawaii, so at least he didn't need to worry about cleaning toilets, but he did not want to spend his morning holding buckets in the hallway.

"I don't know, how many more adjectives do you think he has left up his sleeve?"

"But is it possible that my heart can break a second time? Has my fierce and brilliant Pigtailed Girl been ensnared by this evil beast?"

"Me?" Akane mouthed to Ranma. Ranma nodded, sighing.

"I shall not allow it!" Kuno pointed his bokken at Akane's chest.

"Finally. Hold this," said Akane, throwing his bag at Ranma in a somewhat conscious mimicry of Ranma's first encounter of Kuno. He ignored Ranma's offended "hey!" and examined his opponent critically. Kuno was skilled in swordplay, but his knowledge about the martial arts aspect of kendo was limited and he left openings all over the place. Akane had fought Kuno hundreds of times as a girl, but this was his first time fighting - ever - as a male. He snapped his leg up in a neat kick experimentally, catching Kuno powerfully in the jaw, but to his shock Kuno did not go flying like he normally did. Instead, he lunged again, swinging his bokken wildly.

To Akane's consternation, his male body wasn't quite as fast as his true form and he was struck in the ribs by a particularly vicious strike, sending him skidding into a tree. He cringed, holding his side. Kuno had never gotten a hit in before. It had to be because he thought Akane really was a boy, though it ticked him off something fierce that Kuno would take it easy on him just because he was a girl.

Oh, he thought ruefully, if psychologists could read the mind of Nermia residents. They would have textbook material for decades.

Before Akane could hit him again, though, Ranma slammed her fist into Kuno's stomach and sent him airborne. Akane opened his mouth to snap at Ranma for stepping into his fight, but Ranma's teeth were bared and it was impossible to miss the look of blind fury on her face.

"I'm not your 'fierce and brilliant' anything, jackass!" She whirled on Akane, eyes blazing murderously. "And you! What the hell do you think you're doing, getting hit like that! You might as well paint a target on your side, what with how open you were leaving yourself!"

Normally Akane would give Ranma hell for adding insult to injury by mocking his skills, but his side twinged painfully. He had managed to dodge most of the blow, but Kuno had still hit him hard enough to hurt. So he didn't protest with Ranma grabbed his wrist in a bruising grip and frog-marched him into Furinkan High.

o o o o o

"Stupid Kuno," Akane grumbled quietly, adjusting her grip on the buckets. Despite their mad dash to the bathrooms, they were still tardy, and Akane was convinced it was because Kuno had taken his sweet time to spout out his nonsense.

Ranma didn't respond. Curious, Akane glanced at him. He was balancing one bucket on his foot and glaring at the ground with such intensity that Akane was half expecting him to attack it.

"What's the matter with you?"

"I'm going to kill him."

Akane knew she shouldn't be chatting with Ranma while they were being punished, but he actually sounded like he meantit. "Why?"

Without even glancing at her, he reached forward and lifted her shirt. Akane's eyes bugged and she would have sent him to his gravefor being so handsy, but he said, "This is why," and scowled at her exposed skin.

"That's a pretty good bruise," Akane admitted.

"I'll murder him."

Akane rolled her eyes. "I hate to break it to you, Ranma, but I am a martial artist."

"You don't understand."

Typical. "Oh, what. So only you are allowed to get yourself beat up for the art?"

"He hurt you!"

"You get hurt all the time!"

"That's different!"

"How is it different? You think you're the only one who gets to worry, Ranma?"

Her words had the desired affect. Some of the anger drained from Ranma's face and he looked at her in shy surprise. "You worry?"

Why did he have to make it sound like a confession? Akane was pretty sure she had blushed more in these past few days than she had in her entire life combined (or maybe her life before Ranma had moved in with them). She should say, 'Like I would ever worry about a pervert like you!' but for some reason that seemed completely inappropriate in the current atmosphere. She tried shrugging noncommittally. "Sure. I mean, since you're always getting the tar kicked out of you - "

Naturally, Ranma should have gotten defensive over the barest hint of someone insulting his skills, but perhaps the atmosphere was affecting him, too. Instead, he smiled at her.

"You know," said Akane after a moment, mulling over familiar words. "You're cute when you smile."

Akane was gratified when Ranma dropped his buckets in surprise, laughing and jumping out of the way to avoid the splash. The window to their class opened and Daisuke poked his head out.

"Sensei said you and Ranma can come back in." He raised his eyebrows at the now much curvier Ranma, then turned to Akane. "What happened to him?"

"Nothing!" Ranma snapped, stomping towards the bathrooms. Akane just laughed.

o o o o o

During lunch, both Ranma and Akane were greeted with identical okonomiyakis on their desks, with the character for 'regret' written neatly in okonomiyaki sauce. Ukyo was nowhere to be seen.

"What do you think, Ranma?" Akane asked, taking a bite of the okonomiyaki. It was delicious. Akane felt that familiar pang of envy when eating something tastier than anything she could produce, but she squashed it.

Ranma, predictably, had scarfed his okonomiyaki in two bites and was eyeing Akane's greedily. She scowled at him and put up a book as a barrier. "About what?"

"Ukyo's apology."

Ranma frowned thoughtfully. Ukyo's part in ruining his and Akane's wedding had hurt more than anyone else's role, yet she was the only one who apologized. "She's my friend."

"I don't think that's all she wants."

"I know, I know. I think we should talk to her."

"We?"

"Well, duh."

Akane had no idea how to take that. She cleared her throat and popped the last bite of her okonomiyaki into her mouth. "Okay. When?"

He didn't answer at first, munching pensively. "Not yet. I'm still - not yet."

It took a moment to realize that the reason why she only had a "last bite" left was because Ranma had stolen a quarter of her okonomiyaki. She frowned down at her empty plate, then at Ranma. "Hey!"

"Like a measly book could stop me!" Ranma crowed triumphantly.

Said book could at least effectively stop him from laughing, if applied with enough force to the back of his head.

o o o o o

"Do you - do you ever get a chance to just sit back and take it all in?"

Ranma braced himself on his hands, the tiles still warm from the afternoon sun. This was his favorite time of the day; when the sun was sinking behind the roofs and the sky was an explosion of brilliant colors. He had been surprised when Akane had joined him, jumping onto the roof from a nearby tree branch instead of taking the ladder. That had surprised him, too. It was easy to underestimate Akane, since she was nowhere near his level, but it apparently she had improved when he wasn't looking.

"This is usually when I do," he said, waving towards the sky with one hand.

Akane followed his hand with her eyes, her eyebrows drawn together and a small frown tugging her lips down. Considering the chaos that was their lives, Ranma would not be surprised if this was the first time Akane was able to really "just sit back and take it all in."

"We live really crazy lives, Ranchan."

"Yep."

Akane didn't say anything after that for a long moment, and when Ranma ventured a glance at her a swell of panic rose in his chest at the sight of tears coursing silently down her cheeks. Really, she was such a crybaby sometimes.

"Aw, come on Akchan! Don't cry!" He made a move to scoot closer to her, but she held up a hand.

"Just give me a moment, Ranchan. I just - need a moment."

Ranma fidgeted nervously, wondering if Akane understood just what she was asking him. How could he possibly just sit back and watch her cry? It was killing him a little on the inside. All the peace of the setting sun was shattered by the small sounds of Akane's sobs. He grit his teeth and tried to ignore her, but that proved to be as possible as ignoring someone who was jabbing needles into his heart so he reached over and grabbed her hand.

"Look, I know how bad this sucks. Trust me, I know. But - you don't have to deal with it alone."

Really, his words were supposed to comfort her, but since Akane was a weirdo she just sobbed harder. He cringed a squeezed her hand.

"I've said some pretty nasty things about your curse," she whimpered. Ranma frowned.

"Hey. Is that what's bothering you?"

She shook her head fiercely, but didn't look at him. Ranma turned to face her, tugging her hand until she looked at him. "Seriously, Akchan. You're bugged by that?"

"Well," she hiccupped, rubbing her eye with the heel of her hand. "Well, I should have been more understanding."

"Look, I've said some pretty nasty stuff to you, too. I'll probably continue to say nasty stuff to you, and you'll probably continue to shoot insults right back at me, coz that's just the nature of our relationship. And you know what? I wouldn't have it any other way. That's what I li - I mean, that's what - that's what makes you you."

Akane finally - finally looked at him, a hint of a smile that was just barely there lighting her eyes up. For a moment he was completely entranced, cheeks tingling, then he quickly turned away.

"Besides, there's nothing you can say that I haven't heard before. Give me more credit than that - I'm not going to get all weepy just because of a couple of names."

There was a slight pressure on his shoulder and Ranma looked down at the top of Akane's head in surprise. She was leaning against him!

"Thanks, Ranma."

They didn't say much after that, Akane watching the colors in the sky fade away into stars with a soft smile on her lips and Ranma trying very hard not to move, afraid that Akane would shift away if he did. Their hands remained linked on top of Ranma's knee.

-end of Chapter 1