Chapter 08: Suspended Souls - Part IV

"The Chance of Change"
Chapter Eight: Suspended Souls - Part IV

This story takes place in al alternate Ranmaverse, where Akane is a year younger than Ranma, and they have never met. There are no curses, no fiancees. Not your regular Ranmaverse. Please, consider yourself warned.

As usual, please mind the grown up "M" rating.

Disclaimer:
All the legal stuff everybody is aware of when it comes to fanfiction goes here. None of the characters are mine; they belong to Rumiko Takahashi and to Viz Communications. The characters are being used without permission, and I'm not making any profit from this.

Chapter Eight: Suspended Souls, Part IV

Latest Revision: 20/February/2016

OOOOO

Ranma was standing just underneath Akane's window, his feet having quietly landed him on the yard. He'd been there for several minutes, torn between going back and running away. But as he squinted in the darkness, trying to make out the details of the wall separating him from the street, he also couldn't help but to notice how… detached he felt. As if it wasn't a big deal. He knew that it was. But he knew it wasn't, either. These were very unusual times after all, at least for her. He could accept that much.

Some sadistic part of him was somehow relieved that even though it had taken this much, she'd finally cracked; she'd given him a reason to be angry at her. For real. Ranma squeezed his eyes shut. He could hear her sobs. Something inside him twisted at the sound, but he wasn't feeling it. Or maybe he was just ignoring it. His mind had somehow overruled his emotions, gotten control over his gut feelings, keeping him safe.

And yet, he still couldn't get his feet to move.

His chest felt tight. His mind slipped for a second, and he felt like curling into a ball and rock on his heels. He felt like closing his eyes and resting his forehead on his knees, the way a child would. For just a second, he felt like being sorry for himself. This was why he never did the thinking part.

So instead, he ran.

He was home very quickly. His family was having dinner. He stormed through, saying he was in a hurry, not to stand up, no thanks, he wasn't hungry. He packed his things in under a minute, and ran out as quickly as he could, without giving anybody the time to ask any questions.

He wouldn't have been able to answer anything. He really didn't know how he felt. All he knew was that he had to start moving, and do something and then it'd be alright.

On the train to school, and the infinite 45 minutes it took to cross the city, he had no choice but to be still. It almost killed him, having nothing to do. He even went as far as taking out a textbook and pretend to study.

He tried controlling his breathing to calm down.

Ranma was scared, he realized. Well and truly terrified. He'd dug himself into a tight spot, and there was no getting away from it.

He'd known Akane was bound to react badly. And he'd been fine with that. Maybe. Sort of. But he was once more reminded of her stubbornness and independence. The things she'd said, and all because of a nap. Ranma was painfully aware that bringing up family commitment with Akane could be destined to failure, if he blurted out the wrong thing at the wrong time. And he was so good at that!

What gnawed at him about the whole issue was that he'd made promises. Also, right now, he wasn't so sure he felt like carrying out any of them, seeing as his life wasn't truly part of 'the real world', as she'd so clearly put it. If she believed any of it, no matter how deep down… Well… he didn't know what, then, and would rather not think about it. Still no answers and way too many questions and he definitely wasn't going to think about any of them now.

He had to let her cool down. Things should get back to normal soon enough, and then he'd think about all that stuff. Because right now…

Right now…

He finally made it to his station, and got out in a hurry, and walked in a hurry, and reached the massive compound gates in record time.

Right now…

He didn't want to think. About anything. He didn't think he'd ever been so upset. He really didn't like who he was right now, didn't recognize himself at all. He needed to punch something badly.

So it was lucky that Arata had already arrived at school. Ranma had burst into their room and dropped everything on the floor on the spot, startling the other boy who'd been reading some manga. Arata blinked owlishly at him.

"Good. You're here." Ranma said, his voice flat.

"Yeah… nice to see you, too." Arata said, sitting up on his bed. He put his book down and stretched his arms above his head.

"Put on some training stuff on, will ya…" Ranma said, without much preamble.

Arata's eyebrows shot up to his hairline.

"And what crawled up yours…"

Ranma shook his head a little, slightly startled out of his bad mood. "Sorry. Bad day. Need to blow off some steam."

"Sure. Just a sec."

They ended up throwing punches at each other under the night sky. Or rather, Ranma threw punches and Arata tried to dodge them. It went on for a while, until they heard soft footsteps.

"Focus, Saotome-san" Ling-Ling interrupted them.

It made both of them stop and turn their heads to face her, their chests heaving. She was standing a few meters away from them, a curious look on her face.

Ranma tensed, ready for some sort of challenge.

"Hagayushi-san, loosen up," she continued, "and toughen up for a punch or two. Stop dodging. You'd see he's going at it blindly. All power and no intent. And you're no punch bag" She said, a hint of amusement in her voice. It was unexpected, and it made Arata do a double take before he nodded.

Ranma felt strangely excited. It wasn't like Ling-Ling to be helping out anyone after hours. On a Sunday, too. This was also the only other time he'd seen her so talkative. Maybe she was bored. He looked at Arata, who looked just as surprised as he felt.

Yeah. Ranma was aching for some sort of release. And perhaps Ling-Ling could be persuaded to take Arata's place. And she was right, he did need to focus on something other than— Ranma blinked his eyes, his mouth twisting into a slight snarl. He would not let it bother him. He would not let it bother him.

He was so caught up being upset, Ling-Ling walked up to him until she was almost in his personal space before he even noticed. Ranma only had a second to be startled, too distracted to see her short, very well placed punches, and do anything more than blink a couple of times, before he was briefly knocked off balance. It was enough for her to continue her swift and silent attack, which knocked his legs from under him. Without any warning, he found himself flat on the ground, her knee on his breastplate, painfully holding him down and obstructing his breathing. Her fingers were pointed at his neck, almost touching his skin, in what Ranma could only assume was a very deadly threat that would no doubt incapacitate him if he so much as blinked again.

"Not too difficult. Ne, Hagayushi-san?" she asked Arata, looking at Ranma instead, her eyes fixed on his, daring him to try and get himself out of the difficult position.

Ranma was starting to feel decidedly vulnerable when she finally stood up. He tried to stand up. How had she managed to put so much power under an attack from such short distance? She'd been practically breathing on his face before he felt any of her punches. And she was a rather petite woman. He'd been distracted, that was how. But now he'd know better than to let his guard down around her ever again.

"Stand still. Pay attention."

Ranma did, a bit on edge, and Arata watched unblinkingly as Ling-Ling very slowly demonstrated what had just happened.

It meant he got to stare at her from a close range for much longer, and it unsettled him. It also meant he ended up sprawled on the ground. Again.

"Punches are strong, but brief. And fast. Knuckled with fingers only, and pulled back swiftly. Applied in places where they can do the most damage. So opponent really feels them. The rest is a matter of equilibrium. Or lack of it. And of course, surprise."

Then she walked back a few paces.

"Hagayushi-san, emulate slowly. Saotome, stay still."

They worked at it, a few times, until Arata landed him on the floor. At this point, Ranma was starting to ache to get some punches in, himself.

"Saotome, focus. See his moves."

Fine, he thought, I'll focus.

When they finally got the gist of it, they were ordered into a kata. Right. There were plenty of chances in this one in which to apply what they'd just practiced.

Ranma, always on a defensive stance, found himself alert with anticipation, knowing that in one of the many times when his personal space was invaded, Arata would decide to attack him. From such a close distance, it was difficult to predict, and—

On the floor again.

"Again!" Ling-Ling said, her voice firm.

They started again, a bit more into it this time.

"Counterattack!" Ling-Ling ordered him.

'How?' Ranma wanted to ask.

"Half way through your opponent's attack. Follow his punches. Take a measured risk, Saotome."

Ranma felt like laughing. Just like she'd told Arata before. Take a punch, half way through you will figure it out.

Just toughen up and take a freaking punch. And it worked.

Ling-Ling was very good at working them through their paces and forcing them to concentrate on what they were doing to a point where nothing else existed. It was bliss for Ranma's soul.

Ling-Ling smiled all the way through their workout. Not for the first or last time, Ranma asked himself just how old was she.

Later that night, when they finally went to bed, Ranma's thoughts didn't torture him for very long, exhausted as he was.

OOOOO

Akane had tried to get on with her routine. She'd really, honestly tried. But she just couldn't be bothered. She knew she should be worrying about her exams. They were only two weeks away, after all.

She was more tired than before, if that was possible. She hadn't been able to sleep much after Ranma'd jumped out the window, after she'd said those horrible things to him. She probably was the most selfish person in the face of the Earth. Or close.

The look on his face… It had told her everything she should have known even before she'd opened her mouth. Afterwards, she'd been so consumed with guilt that she'd been unable to sleep. Not that she'd assigned herself much sleeping hours, really. But it was just… not happening. She couldn't stop thinking about it. She couldn't stop wondering how it could have worked out if she hadn't said the things she said, if he hadn't knocked her out, if she hadn't argued with him about taking a nap, if he hadn't been so pushy about it, if he'd stayed… She'd also entertained some horrible thoughts about him yelling back at her, a vicious look she'd never seen on his face plaguing her thoughts. It made her stomach twist unpleasantly.

By dawn, she was again wide awake, feeling exhausted, but unable to do anything about it. So she got up, and tried to pretend that nothing had happened, and continued studying. It sucked big time that she couldn't get a hold of Ranma at all. Not that it would have helped any. She had no idea what she would say to him if she could talk to him. But at least she could have done something about it, instead of waiting for Thursday night, and the chance that he might be willing to talk to her.

So she went about her day in a completely numbed state. She read her books, took notes, and studied the notes. She ate the light lunch Kasumi brought to her room. She continued studying. It was a very long time before she realized she wasn't really paying any attention to any of it.

It was an even longer time before she realized that one of the reasons why she wasn't paying attention wasn't because she had thoughts for Ranma only, but because somehow, she already knew everything she was reading.

It should've hit her with the force of a hurricane, but it didn't. Instead, she only blinked and stared at her texts some more.

It was just like he was always telling her. She had the answers to most math problems she tried to solve, to most history questions. She'd gotten an almost perfect score on the mock exam she'd taken right after lunch. It had taken her a ridiculously short time to finish it, too.

"Huh…" she mumbled, her eyes feeling dry and tired. They burned whenever she closed them for longer than a second. She really did know everything she had to know. Or perhaps not everything, but chances were she would do well in her exams.

This too should have been a revelation. But she was numbed to everything. All she really wanted to do was to crawl in bed and cry some more, and hopefully, Ranma would then drop by and make it all better. Only she was sure she shouldn't be expecting anything like the sort to happen.

Then numbness gave way to sorrow, and a bit more tears.

She definitely couldn't focus on studying any longer. It wasn't that she didn't care. But she just couldn't find it in her to worry about it. It seemed pointless. And besides, it didn't really matter if she did amazingly well in her exams if she continued to feel like this over Ranma. It tinted everything else. She suddenly prayed with all her soul that it wouldn't be too long before she could apologize to him.

Akane sighed, her eyes unfocussed. She was really, truly exhausted.

Her window was open. She closed the curtains as much as she could, blocking out some of the light. Akane moved to her bed, and did what she'd been dying to do all day. She curled herself over the covers, and focused all of her brain into rationalizing the events from the previous night. She gave into it with all her being, replaying every painful moment.

She cried some more and didn't even try to stop the tears. Gods, she needed to make things right!

And just like that, she'd forgotten about studying. She'd forgotten to be worried about it.

Amidst everything, the thought almost made her smile. Almost. She was ashamed that it had taken her this much to realize it.

She'd broken Ranma's heart, and she didn't think she could ever forgive herself for it.

How could she possibly think about anything else?

She desperately wanted to find a way to make it all better. How could she make it all better? She thought about it for a long time, but didn't come up with any answers. Well, duh.

The things that mattered…

The light in her room was almost the same that it'd been yesterday, the sun about to take the plunge behind the horizon. She closed her eyes and tried to relax, imagining Ranma's hands working wonders on her, over her skin and tired muscles, with so much care, paying attention to her responses, being careful not to hurt her.

Akane sighed, deciding to focus on the peace she felt remembering how caring he'd been with her. '…Go to sleep… Stubborn…' she heard Ranma's slightly annoyed voice in her head.

And so, she did.

OOOOO

It was Thursday again.

As usual after their afternoon lessons, most of the students left in a hurry to get home. A few stayed behind doing some homework.

He'd told himself it was fine like a million times. As far as he was concerned, nothing was really different.

He'd already decided to go home as usual. Instead, he'd stayed behind. He'd get some homework out of the way, then he'd be out and eating his mother cooking in no time at all.

Yeah…He'd gotten really good at dealing with his homework. It never bothered him the way it had in the past. At least now he knew what he was doing, and why he was doing it. If it made sense, it was fine, and he really didn't mind the load.

The school felt rather empty. And very quiet. His roommates were gone as well. Perhaps he should call home and let his mom know he'd be back a bit later than usual.

Yeah, better to get some of this reading done, then he could get home on a clearer head.

He got back to his reading, precariously balancing his chair on the back legs, back and forth, almost, but never quite managing to fall all the way back with each swing. One of his hands was hanging limply by his side, playing with a pen, his other hand resting over his stomach, holding a booklet open.

He dropped the pen without meaning to. It broke whatever concentration he had. He picked it up and resumed his previous position. Where was he? His eyes scanned the page, and started reading from the top as he couldn't really remember where he'd left off.

He really wasn't in it, though.

"Ahhhh… I'm such a coward…" he muttered, throwing his head back to stare at the ceiling, both hands now hanging limply by his sides. And suddenly the precarious balance shifted to unbalanced, and for an agonizingly slow couple for seconds he struggled to gain control of it, but there was nothing he could do to stop the chair from falling backwards.

And because there was nothing he could do, Ranma ended up bracing himself for the fall, and rolled his head forward into his chest, in the hope that it wouldn't connect with the floor. The booklet and pencil went flying in different directions.

Other than the very loud noise, which had been a bit deafening, he was fine.

Ranma sighed, and stayed there, staring at the ceiling, the chair biting uncomfortably into his back. But he really didn't mind it. He crossed his arms over his chest, and stared at the ceiling some more.

"Ahhh… what to do…." He mumbled, as if saying it aloud would get the worn tiles to whisper an answer. Perhaps there wasn't anything to do, and he was just… concerned.

Fine. So he was worried, and he didn't know what to do about it. And that was why he wasn't going home. Didn't take a genius to figure that one out.

He sighed once more. To hell with it.

Before he could change his mind, he got up and went around the room picking up some laundry and some more of his homework, stuffed everything in his backpack, and ran out to catch the train. He'd figure out what to do when he got there.

OOOOO

It was some weird twist of fate, Akane knew. No, rather than fate, it was just the irony of life. All she could think about now was fixing things with Ranma, and of course she wouldn't be able to find him. Because that was the way life was.

Forget her compulsion about studying, she had to switch her mind to the one thing she couldn't fix, to top it all off.

As usual, back when she hadn't been nuts with schoolwork, or at least not much, Thursdays had always excited her. Today had been no different, only this time the excitement was also laced with anxiety. It'd been a difficult day all the way through. She'd been counting the hours since morning and looking at the time every five minutes, or less, and trying to decide if it was time for Ranma to be home. And if he was, would he drop by the dojo later? Call? Should she go see him instead?

Akane was terrified at the prospect of seeing him. She didn't know how she should begin to apologize, or how she should start a conversation. Just thinking about it made her tense up like a coiled spring, ready to snap at the slightest provocation. She didn't want to snap. Not with Ranma anyways.

Kasumi had been tip toeing around her all day, asking how the studying was going, seeing as she wasn't doing any of it. Her sister offered her treats when she realized Akane was once more eating like a normal person. But eating and sitting around pretending to study wasn't helping. She just ended up dozing on the porch, completely melted, unable to sum up the energy for anything else.

She hated herself like this.

And that was why the minute she thought it was a reasonable time to do so, nevermind it was still quite early, she started walking in the direction of Ranma's home, her mind curiously blank, except for the will to get there, and studiously ignoring the thought of what she'd do once she did get there. Not thinking about it. Honestly!

…Which was why she was now sitting at the Saotome dining table, trying to swallow some iced green tea, and avoiding Ranma's mother's gaze as if her life depended on it.

The woman was staring at her with big round eyes which blinked owlishly at her. It didn't help that Ranko would occasionally pop into the room, stare at her in the same way, and continue on her way.

The silence was so obvious and awkward that it was almost comical. Akane was sure Ranma should have been home when she got there, and maybe they would get to talk. She'd also considered the possibility of his absence, but she hadn't predicted his mother's insistence that she stay and wait for him.

The woman blinked again. This was something that Ranma did as well, when he was putting something together in his mind. She was so tense, and the gesture was so familiar to her but alien on the woman's face, that it made her want to giggle.

Instead, she choked on the tea.

"Are you alright, dear?" Nodoka asked, frowning.

Akane coughed again, and nodded vigorously, her eyes filling with tears.

"I'm fine, Auntie" she managed to squeak out after another bout of coughing.

Akane sighed deeply, glad to get air into her lungs. She heard Nodoka sigh as well.

"This boy should have been home by now."

Akane looked at her.

"He's usually around at this time, unless he's been given detention…"

"It's been awhile since that's happened, I think…" Akane said absently.

The older woman chuckled. "Yes, thank Kami for that. I suppose he finally got it inside his head that there are better ways to spend his free time." Her beatific gaze very obviously fell on Akane, and the smile that transformed the other woman's face made Akane cringe inside.

Better ways to spend his time. This woman actually liked her. She thought Akane was a good thing for her son.

Oww, gawds…

Her distress must have been very evident, because the next second Nodoka was frowning again.

"Are you ok, Akane-chan?"

She nodded, and lowered her head, immediately planning her escape, and berating herself for not having foreseen something like this might happen. She didn't know how she felt about Ranma not being there, but on the other hand, she didn't feel brave enough to leave. She didn't know if she'd have the guts to come back again. But she was so uncomfortable right now, she was willing to leave and risk it again later.

"Ranma has mentioned that you've been very stressed with your exams."

Hearing the concern in her voice, Akane looked up, and tried to smile.

"I… well, yes. I mean… I've been studying a lot. The exams are next week."

Nodoka nodded.

"But I'm… I'm mostly done now. I mean, I think I have burned out by now, but I don't think there's any cause for me to worry about, really."

"I'm glad to hear that," Nodoka said, smiling again. "So, please excuse me for being so blunt, but why are you so worried, then?"

Akane swallowed, she felt her heart thudding.

"Worried?"

"It's coming off you in waves. It's even keeping Ranko in her room. She'd be all over, chatting about anything by now."

Akane had to smile.

"I'm sorry, Auntie."

"There's nothing to apologize for. But is there anything I can do to help?" and she practically beamed. "This seems like an emergency visit. Did something happen?"

Akane was taken by surprise. It was as if the composed lady she remembered from childhood was suddenly transforming into a teenager. Did she want to… gossip, or something?

"Well… I—"

"Because if he's done anything to upset you—"

"No! It's fine, really… I just… I need to talk to Ranma… He hasn't done anything, honest. He's great…" Akane trailed off, and looked at the woman, who was once more blinking owlishly, waiting for her to continue.

"I…" Akane wasn't even sure why she was talking, but once she started, she couldn't stop. "I said some really awful things last time we met…" she dropped her head, searching for the words.

"Did he deserve them?" Nodoka asked before Akane could continue. It seemed a bit funny how there was a little bit of threat in the woman's voice.

Akane shook her head in shame, and she couldn't help the sting in her eyes. Her voice was a bit broken when it came out again. "I need to apologize… but I'm not sure he'll want to see me… So I thought—"

"You'd ambush him before he had a chance to make up his mind. Good."

Akane forgot to feel ashamed, and just looked up questioningly.

"You might be onto something, dear. I obviously don't know what happened, but you're very clearly sorry, and are willing to to fix things, like coming here and risking this conversation. This is good." And she smiled.

Akane felt slightly relieved.

"I'm sure Ranma will be able to see it as well as I do… Don't you worry, and let's just wait for him to come home."

Akane nodded, immeasurably grateful for not being told off.

"In the meantime," the woman continued, "if you're up to helping me out with Ranko, I can make a quick dinner for us. Mr. Saotome will be here soon, and we can start a game afterwards. Do you play cards?"

Akane'd felt her world fixing slightly, so she agreed to everything Ranma's mother offered, even if spending so much time here without Ranma didn't make her exactly comfortable. She wondered if the woman had always been like this. She wondered if she'd chatted like this with her own mother, or if somehow she saw Akane as a daughter of sorts. As she thought of her own mother and childhood memories, Akane felt a strange calm descended upon her.

She played with Ranko for a bit, then had dinner with the Saotomes minus Ranma, and ended up playing a bit of cards first, and then a bit of monopoly, which Ranko liked better.

But Ranma was very clearly not coming back.

Eventually, Akane said her goodbyes. She'd enjoyed herself, almost forgotten what had taken her to the Saotome household -so different from her own home- in the first place. But now that she was walking back home, her problems still unresolved, she allowed the misery that had been at the edge of her consciousness all day to finally take over.

Ranma at school, not calling at all… it was difficult for her to see it as anything other than him not wanting to see her. She knew she was being extremely self-centered, as there could be a number of reasons why he wasn't back yet. But this was very unusual for him. Not the absence, but the lack of news. He would usually make the effort to let her know what he was doing.

Akane wanted to punch something. Herself, mostly.

How was she supposed to apologize if he wasn't giving her the chance? Perhaps she'd really blown it this time around. And she'd been willing to grovel and everything. If only he was around to actually see any of it, then maybe things would be alright again.

Akane stopped the slow drag of her feet, and looked around her. Oh, the park. She stared at the people walking by, at the empty bench were she'd sat many times before. The sun had set, finally. It was too hot anyways. Maybe now it would cool down a little bit. The humidity wasn't helping either. Maybe it would rain a bit, then her picture of misery would be complete.

Without much thought, she dragged herself to the bench and sat down. She saw Ranma everywhere; running around, getting away from Ranko, yelling from a tree top, or staring at her from an awkward position on ground, only a few yards from her, and everywhere else in between.

Her heart clenched, and she let a few tears drop. Perhaps she ought to calm down before she went home. It wouldn't do any good to worry Kasumi.

OOOOO

As he got off the train, Ranma started walking in auto pilot and he only realized what he was doing when he decided that he could probably go and see Akane first. His feet had already been taking him there. He really should have called home to let them know he'd be a bit later.

He felt this sort of… dread. He truly didn't know what to expect. He didn't know what he wanted to say to her. He didn't know if she'd want to see him. But the way they'd left things…

He'd been fine about what she'd said, really. Well, not fine fine. But it'd been just a fight, and maybe they'd even been due for one. But still… The things she'd said… It'd been too close to some of the things he was most uncertain about. Having them thrown at your face by someone you cared about was a lot to chew on. It made it a bit difficult for him to blame it all on stress and let it go, regardless of how much he may have wanted to.

Perhaps he was way out of his head, and should just go home and call her and test the waters first. Or maybe wait for her to call him? But excessive stress could bring out the worst in people… and he'd been the one to walk out… maybe he should be the one to reach out first…

It was giving him a headache, and it wasn't helping his stomach either. This wasn't like him at all.

Did Akane really think that his chosen 'career' (and what a weird word to use in this case) was not good enough? He lived his life, not a career. Or so he thought. He'd never once thought of his training in that way at all until she brought it up. And then, wasn't she always concerned about her own dojo? It made no sense. Maybe her rant came from somewhere else.

Then Ranma had a very uneasy thought that left him feeling queasy.

Were they… the same? Like equals? They had to be, right? Maybe they were, maybe they weren't, but he thought it worked, right? It nagged at him, now. A lot of the times he was in awe of her, of her brightness and the way in which she tackled on problems, her determination, her kindness, her complete inability to understand how awesome she was. He was in awe of her temper, of her beauty. He was in awe of the fact that she let him push her buttons… Was it the same for her, somehow? Was she feeling the same he was?

Why him? What was it about him? Other than the martial arts thing, he didn't think he was much to brag about, to be honest. Well… he knew he was good looking, sort of. He'd been told a few times. He'd been the most popular guy at school, after all. But… that didn't really mean anything. Perhaps if he'd worn the standard uniform and decided to go for the regulation haircut, there wouldn't have been so much about him to look at in the first place.

Or maybe that'd been the case when they'd met. He knew he'd changed since then. A little bit. But did it really matter how different he was? He was still the same person, and he really didn't feel that different.

He was ready to admit how troubled he'd actually been that night when he'd gotten back to school. Even after the exhausting workout he and Arata had gone through, Ranma had woken up several times. That was a first.

His walking slower and slower, Ranma thought back to their argument. He'd really wanted to take care of her. And he knew he'd been right to get her to sleep even for an hour. He'd known she'd be angry with him. But he'd completely misjudged the extent of her fury.

He stopped as an old thought poked his mind, a bit more strongly than it had before. She was stubborn. That was a fact. Ranma'd known she'd be upset about taking time off of her studying. But what had upset her most had been the fact that he'd forced the nap on her, not that he'd messed with her schedule or anything else.

It gave him too much to think about… A decision made for her, against her will.

Ranma felt his chest twisting painfully in his chest. He'd never even managed to bring up the engagement yet. And now… Well, now he was well and truly scared. He'd known when he'd run away last time that it wasn't looking good. But now, with a bit of a clearer head, it was looking definitely worse.

Late afternoon, and the street was still quite busy with rush hour. But Ranma was a bit too drowned in his own thoughts, like it hardly ever happened, to pay any attention to his surroundings. He didn't feel like it'd been four days, but that he'd only just ran away from Akane's room.

The sadness got him again. But this time, he really felt it. Oh, how he'd run away before, and pretended it wasn't that big a deal. Now he was afraid to see her, although he so wanted to. He was afraid his heart would get a bit broken if he went to her. He was afraid that he might say things he would regret. He was afraid his heart might get a little more broken if he didn't go to see her.

He'd been protected from all of it, he supposed, while he'd been busy at school. But now he was here, and he'd have to see her, or talk to her eventually. Or maybe he could go back to school and avoid things altogether. His stomach twisted into knots.

And her words started echoing in his head…

Her words… Ranma continued walking at a glacial pace, uselessly bouncing thoughts around, feeling uncertain.

Had she really meant what she'd said? Any of it?

And finally, after a long, slow walk, and as so many times in the past, he found himself sitting on her roof, above her window. Yes, he was afraid. But he'd rather see where things stood than to continue to wait it out. He couldn't go on second guessing himself like this. It wasn't in his nature, and he wasn't built for it. But sadly for him, right at this moment when he really needed to sort things out, when he'd finally decided to go with his gut feeling the way he usually did, Akane was curiously absent. Ranma had checked. Some books on her desk, but no Akane. Even though he hadn't been able to sense her at all, he'd waited for a while in case she was in the bath, or running or training or having dinner, feeling anxious the entire time, and waiting for the slight adrenaline rush her presence would bring, but that never came, jumping at every little noise. It was quite anticlimactic. She wasn't home. But as it'd taken some courage to get here, he wasn't just about to have it be all for nothing. Instead of heading back home, he set himself to wait for her.

Where the hell could she be?

Waiting was both good and bad. Good cause it gave him some time to shake off some of his nerves. Bad because sitting down doing nothing made him think more.

Did she really feel like that? Like he really didn't get her at all?

Maybe it was true. Maybe he truly wasn't good enough for her. Perhaps they weren't really the same.

Is this what it'd been like for his folks? Ranma smiled. He could certainly see some of it… Many times before he'd wondered how his mom had ended up with someone like his old man. It just wasn't right, even if they somehow managed to make it work. Maybe he was a bit like his dad. Only with hair and better eyesight…

Before he knew it, the sun had gone, and the temperature had lowered slightly. It was a relief.

Still no sign of Akane. Now Ranma was starting to worry. Everything he knew told him that wherever she was, she should've been back to her studies by now, anxious as she was about her exams. Perhaps she'd gone to visit her friends.

Ranma waited some more. The noises from the city started quieting down. He stretched a little bit, suddenly enjoying the loneliness, the familiarity of his location. He could have done with a bit of a breeze. It was still too warm. But it was ok. He closed his eyes, and tried to meditate.

He must have done a very good job of it, because he ended up losing track of time, and feeling a lot more peaceful than he had since leaving school this afternoon.

But now it was really late. There were hardly any people on the streets. Only the occasional passerby. He'd been here for hours. His stomach grumbled. And Akane still wasn't home. He'd felt Kasumi and Mr. Tendo moving around the house. But now everything was quiet. The Tendo household had gone to sleep. And Akane still wasn't home. He should probably get going if he wanted to catch some sleep before school tomorrow.

A bit disappointed, and a lot intrigued, and well, worried, he made his way back to the street, and walked home.

Inevitably, his steps took him by the park.

And there she was, sitting on the bench, close to the rock where he'd made such a fool of himself that day Ranko decided to take matters into her own little hands. He felt a tug at his heart. Some trepidation. Did he really not get her at all? Right now he felt like she was all there, laid out for him to see.

Akane was absorbed in her thoughts. He could feel her sadness around her, her whole body somewhat defeated.

And he felt the tug again, this time pulling him toward her, to help her, to make it better, to protect her from her sometimes vicious mind.

He wanted to run to her.

But he didn't. Instead, he stood his ground.

Ranma hoped she wasn't crying, he prayed that whatever had her like this didn't have to do with their fight. It would be so much harder if she'd been this miserable all of these past four days.

Wow. Four days. And unable to talk. A long time to leave things unresolved. They'd never done that before. Ranma felt bad for having left the way he did. Akane already had so much on her mind…

It was a night for realizations, Ranma thought. He wasn't sure what he wanted. But suddenly, he was quite sure what he didn't want. He didn't want Akane taking him for granted, no matter that she very well could. He would run to her every time. Just like he wanted to do now. All she had to do was ask.

But he didn't run.

Because more than anything, he wanted her to apologize.

He hadn't realized it until now. This was what he wanted; to have her admit her faults, to earn his devotion. Never mind she already had it.

As he walked towards her, his hands in his pockets, he allowed his footsteps to get heavier. He didn't want to startle her. She felt his presence even before he spoke, her shoulders tensing slightly.

"Hey…" he said softly, suddenly at a loss, not knowing how to behave. Was he supposed to act normal? Normal, how? Like nothing had happened? Was this normal?

Akane's head snapped up to him, her face reflecting so many emotions in the span of a second that it almost knocked him off his feet. She was relieved and elated and confused and sad and ashamed all rolled into one. Her aura was an explosive thing. But seeing these things reflected on her eyes as well… Of course he got her. She was an open book to him. Most of the times anyway.

Ranma saw her initial reaction had been to stand up and reach out. He saw her body getting ready for it, then reining the movements in. Her hands gripped the edge of the bench tightly.

"What—?" she tried and shook her head, then dropped her gaze to the ground. Ranma tried to examine her face.

Akane looked tired. Her gaze was so intently focused away from his, he could've done all the staring he wanted, and she wouldn't have noticed. It was like a bit of an invitation to do whatever he wanted. Not welcoming, but not rejecting him either.

Ranma held his ground.

He wasn't sure why he was doing it. He badly wanted to ease the tension. He'd never felt it like this, a palpable thing with a life of its own, standing invisibly between them, making them second guess their every reaction. This was exactly what he'd been afraid of. Things were not okay, not by a long shot. And he didn't know what to do about it.

They obviously had a lot on their minds. His could wait. He wanted to let her be the one to reach out. He was also enveloped in this… morbid curiosity to see what she would do, or say.

Would she try to act like nothing had happened? Who knew. Maybe imitating normalcy might actually be easier than this. But he knew her, no matter what she'd said. She'd never try to pretend. She'd mulled it over, he knew. A thousand times more than he had. Heck, he'd gotten a break from it all just by being at school. He was sure she'd most certainly not taken a break from her thoughts. Ranma knew she probably had a million things to tell him. Despite everything, he felt like smiling.

It was difficult for him. He'd always tried to make things easier for her, simply because he liked to. It came naturally to him. He wanted to make this better, too. But he couldn't. Not this time.

He'd already had his say, hadn't he? A few days ago, right before he'd jumped out her window. He'd told her how he'd felt, sort of. Not all of it, though. Not how he'd really felt. Heck, he hadn't even known how he'd felt then.

Ranma sighed, he looked at her face again, and her eyes still not meeting his. He saw her close them briefly. Then a tiny smile appeared on her face. He thought it didn't reach her eyes. He saw her throat working. She finally looked up at him.

"Ranma…" she whispered, her smile fading. "I thought you were at school."

He did a double take. Of all the things… "It's Thursday" he said, and shrugged a bit, as if that explained everything.

"I know. I was at your home today… I was hoping to…" she trailed off.

Ranma felt his heart thudding in his chest. He went from collected to a wreck in a second.

She'd been waiting for him.

"Your mom thought maybe you'd been forced to stay at school again and just forgot to let her know."

Ranma blinked, and smiled. Then he chuckled. Akane's confused expression softened the tiredness on her face. Her shoulders relaxed slightly.

"I was at the dojo, just now. Came straight from school," he said, and then he turned around slightly to show her his backpack, hanging from his shoulder.

"Oh," Akane said. After that, she ran out of things to say. She stared at her feet.

"I…" she started again. "I didn't think you'd—" she hesitated, snapped her mouth shut. Then she opened it again, and then she shut it once more. "I couldn't wait to see you… But I was scared that you might not…" and she trailed off yet again, her voice small and insecure.

Ranma felt his resolve softening again. But instead of fighting against it, this time he let himself go. It was fine, this time.

He sighed and reached for his backpack, slinging it off his shoulder, and sat down on the bench next to her, dropping his bag on the ground beside his feet.

He thought Akane was just as scared as he'd felt before. He wondered how it was possible for her to be scared. But Ranma was relieved. Perhaps she knew how awful her words had been. But he was confused as well. Had he ever given her reason to be scared? Was she scared of him?

They sat next to each other, not touching, Akane's hands clutching the bench at her sides almost convulsively, Ranma leaning forward, his forearms resting on his thighs, his hands hanging loosely between his knees. He wanted to fidget. He wanted to readjust those damn bracelets that he just wasn't getting used to, and scratch the skin underneath. It was a good thing they were so annoying. It gave his mind something else to focus on, and take the edge off the situation. But he didn't do anything, and pretended to be relaxed.

"I was afraid you might not want to see me so soon after coming back… And I…"

Ranma sighed as Akane trailed off again. He stayed just as quiet.

"I didn't know that I… The things I said…"

Ranma could tell she was trying to hold back tears, her voice threatening to break at times, the words coming out with some difficulty. Maybe she hadn't been crying before, but she was definitely starting now.

"I don't think I can forgive myself for lashing out at you like that… And I certainly don't expect you to—"

"Akane…" Ranma interrupted her, 'cause it was painful to hear her trip over her words like that, never mind it was fine she was feeling the way she did. But for him it was enough. He leaned back a little bit, turning his head to look at her. He inhaled sharply, caught unawares by what he saw.

Her gaze was fixed on him, her eyes large, and Ranma could see her pain mixed together with the determination that was so… her. Whatever he was planning on saying died on his lips.

"Ranma," she started again. "You're the best person I know, and I'm so sorry I made you feel like anything less… I'm so sorry… You have no idea… I'm so, so sorry, Ranma. I—" she fell quiet as his hand rested on top of hers, prying her fingers loose from their death grip on the bench.

"You've been nothing but good to me…" she continued, somehow encouraged, her gaze falling to fix on her feet. "You're so wonderful, and I've been so ungrateful…"

"It's ok," he said suddenly, surprising even himself. No matter how troubled he'd felt, it had come easily to his lips.

Akane gasped.

"But, Ranma!" she started to argue. And of all things, Ranma felt like laughing. It was too much like her. She was going to fight him over this, too. Stubborn woman.

"Be quiet, Akane" he said softly, a shy smile already forming on his lips. Akane shut up.

"I sorta… I guess I know why you lashed out like that. I mean… I knew you wouldn't like what I did, that I knocked you out. I knew I was pushing it."

He sighed. Akane was still quiet. He might as well spit it all out, then.

"You really need to let people help you, Akane." He said as he remembered those same words directed at him, coming from Sensei, several months before. "It'll only make you stronger if you do. Nobody expects you to be carrying the world on your shoulders. Not me, anyways. And I…" he swallowed. He stared at his own feet for a moment, his thumb rubbing lazy circles over the back of Akane's hand.

It was really late. She shouldn't have been here all alone. It was too dark, already. Too lonely. Too quiet. Not even a bit of wind to rustle leaves or take their words away.

"Akane… I, huh…" he whispered. It couldn't be any louder. Yeah… a bit of a breeze would have been nice. "I'm sorry, too." He said finally, his voice a bit more firm. "I'm very sorry about what I said. I shouldn't have—"

"But you were right." Akane's surprisingly steady, quiet voice interrupted him. "All of it. I just hope I can learn someday" she said with some sort of finality. But Ranma wasn't just about to give in.

"But Akane… You… you always know what to do. And you have this massive energy to take care of everything…"

Ranma was struggling to find the right words, and cursed himself a little bit for his apparent lack of brains.

"You've told me how it feels like I'm always sort of… doing something? How I seem to have so much energy?"

Akane nodded, a look of curiosity settling on her features.

"You're the same." He said. "You have this amazing energy about you, and you're always doing things, too. You just do them differently than I do." He chuckled at the look on her face. "Heck, you do so much more than I've ever done! Me, I just feel like something and go for it… It doesn't really take that much, you know. And I can never understand how you do all the things you do, and even have some energy left to use worrying about everything you're doing… You're always moving…. It can be exhausting sometimes" Ranma said, a smile forming on his lips.

Akane's eyes were very large.

"Maybe this is just your way," Ranma continued, shrugging a little. "You know you always succeed in the end. You always get what you want…"

Ranma thought Akane's eyes must be dry, 'cause she wasn't blinking. He looked at his feet again.

"I think you just need to… trust yourself… that's all." He finished, quietly.

He heard Akane choke a sob.

Oh no… maybe he'd messed it up.

He looked at her, slightly concerned. Akane was crying, alright, but she was also smiling. It was a weird combination. The look in her eyes…

He'd definitely blurted out too much.

Akane tried to get a hold of herself and stop her tears. Ranma squeezed her hand while she hastily tried to dry her face with the other one.

"Oh, Ranma…" she sighed. Ranma liked to think it was one of her favorite things to say. "You always…" and her voice broke down a little bit again.

"C'mon, Akane," he tried a bit more loudly. "I mess up a little, you mess up a little—"

"A lot," she quipped.

"And we're both sorry, and well… It doesn't change anything, does it?"

Akane smiled and shook her head.

"I still couldn't wait to see you… so… that makes both of us." Ranma said smiling.

"Yeah…" Akane sighed. "Oh, Ranma…" she said, and it made him smile. "I'm so glad you're here."

"Yeah, me too." He said, looking at his feet.

He felt Akane turn her palm up, and their fingers laced together.

"Your mom was way nice to me today…"

Ranma swallowed a bit. "She was?" he asked, slightly worried.

"Yeah, I was there since before dinner. She force fed me." Akane said, a grimace on her face.

Ranma chuckled. "I'm glad! You're so skinny you've gotten rid of all those little bits of curves you had—"

"Hey!" Akane reacted to his jibe almost without thinking. It was a good sign. He looked at her. She was thinking about getting mad, but holding it in.

He reached up to her, and pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. Her face went a bit slack, and inexplicably, she blushed and lowered her gaze to their joined hands, still between them.

"And… so…" Ranma asked, not sure he should. "Any more studying to do today?"

Akane sighed. "I think not… I'll try not to, at least."

Ranma nodded.

Akane yawned.

"C'mon. It's late. I'll walk you home."

Ranma stood up, threw his backpack over his shoulder and dragged Akane behind him.

They walked in silence until they reached the dojo, Akane's hand feeling small and frail in his. He squeezed every now and then, and felt her squeeze back. It was comforting.

Once at the dojo, Akane started opening the gate, and made to move in, but she turned around to face him. Her eyes were downcast.

"I… I didn't say this, but I'm really grateful that you managed to knock some sense into me." Her voice was very small. Ranma smiled. It must have cost her, saying that.

"Anytime," he said, and got a bit closer to her, cautious, not sure about the mood.

"I'll see you tomorrow?" he asked, softly.

Akane looked up at him, her face softening with a small smile, and she nodded.

Ranma sighed, not sure if he should, but he leaned in a bit. He heard Akane's surprised breath, felt her agitation, and he wanted to slap himself. This wasn't right. Was she scared?

He reached up with one hand to gently caress her cheek. Akane sighed, and leaned into his hand.

Before he could stop himself, Ranma was dropping a soft kiss on her barely parted lips. He pulled back before it could get more substantial and looked at her.

"G'night, Akane."

"Night…" she said, and stepped back from him, pushing the door open, and walking in. She turned around.

Akane may have been waiting for him to do or say something, but he could only stare at her. She smiled and closed the door, locking the gate from the inside. He turned around to walk home, but instead he just stood there, listening to her footsteps across the yard, then to the door opening and closing behind her. He was left staring at his feet.

Something gripped him then. He'd said everything he wanted, right? He hadn't downplayed anything, had he? He'd reassured her. Then why did he suddenly feel… like it wasn't enough?

She'd apologized, she'd said she was sorry. He knew why she'd yelled. It should have been OK now.

But standing here, outside the dojo gates at night, much like he had a few nights ago, suddenly too numb to do anything else right now, he remembered her face, transformed by her frustration and anger, all her spite directed at him, filling his head and his heart with doubt. And it was as if it'd just happened. All over again. Why couldn't he let it go?

He was gripped by some anguished feeling, a sadness that threatened to swallow him, he felt small and vulnerable against it.

The large wooden gates seemed enormous, standing unmovable next to him.

Ranma gasped, only now aware that he'd been holding his breath and that his eyes were prickling. How long had he been standing out here?

Before he knew what he was doing, he was running around the corner, and gone over the wall in the familiar motions he could have followed in his sleep, and reached Akane's open window.

Her lights were off, but the window was open.

Trying to calm his breathing, he jumped in.

He landed just inside the window, next to her desk, unable to decide what to do, or why he was here for in the first place. He dropped his bag noisily and he stared at her. She was sitting on her bed, already in her pajamas, feet still in her slippers, very clearly surprised to see him. It was a wonder she hadn't yelped.

Although it was dark, she must have seen his face, and there must have been something on it, because now she didn't seem only surprised, but scared. Again. She was definitely scared.

"Ak—Akane," he said brokenly, a bit more loudly than he'd intended. His voice ringed in his ears like someone else's.

"Ranma? What—?" she tried to ask as she stood up. But she couldn't finish. He'd almost knocked the wind out of her.

One second he'd been standing by her window, the next he'd been hugging her, crushing her against him, hiding his face in her neck. He could feel her surprise as her thin body tightened in his embrace. He's been embarrassed to say any of it before, and he was embarrassed now. But hiding here, next to her, in the dark of her room, something finally gave, and he heard his own thoughts spoken by a voice that didn't sound like him.

"Please…" he whimpered, a pitiful sound, like a wounded animal. His throat felt tight, his eyes stung. "You can never say stuff like that to me again…" And he heard her sharp gasp. "It hurt too much…" and he gripped her tighter. He felt her arms coming around him slowly. Cautiously. "Thinking you don't-" he choked a sob, "That you might think I'm a... a joke-"

Her warm breath tickled his ear, interrupting his rumble.

"No! Ranma! Don't ever think that! I was just lashing out, out of my mind…" Her voice shook a bit, but the words were clear. "Ranma… my Ranma…" he could feel her hands caressing him, his neck, his scalp, his jaw. Her hands were holding him in place, somehow, soothing him. "I… I promise I'll watch my temper" her voice seemed desperate, but small. "I'm so sorry that I hurt you like that. So sorry… There's no excuse. I'm so, so sorry… Ranma… I hope you can forgive me… I know I don't deserve it..."

But still, he didn't say anything, and continued to hold her.

He felt her hand on his head, pulling him away from her. Akane made him look at her in the eye, although he didn't want to. He was too exposed, too vulnerable. Doomed.

But she forced him to look at her, her eyes teary, and caressed his face, his temples, her finger ghosting over his eyes, making him close them for a bit. It was a relief. He took a deep breath, and then looked at her.

Her eyes were watery, but clear. She suddenly seemed very determined. There was a soft smile on her lips

"Ranma…" she started, her eyes fixed on his. "You really are the best person I know. I don't know what I've ever done to deserve you… Your heart is so amazingly huge… and I… I couldn't love you as much as I do if you weren't so generous and determined. And sweet and passionate… You amaze me, all the time, with everything you do, and I love you so much for all of it. I'll do anything it takes to earn your trust back… "

Ranma felt suddenly lightheaded as something fluttered in his chest. His breath caught. So she knew, oh gods, she understood exactly how much it had hurt him. Perhaps it had hurt her as well.

He rested his forehead against hers, closing his eyes and focusing on her nearness, on her arms around his neck. He was still a wreck, but not desperately so, now.

"Ranma…" Akane whispered, "Love…"

And her words once more did something in him. He'd known this for a while now, but it had never been clearer than it'd been just now. She owned him. She could tear him apart and mend him back together on the same breath… It was like nothing he'd ever felt. It was amazing and terrifying and he never wanted to stop feeling like this.

His eyes still closed, Ranma was trying to calm his breathing and cool down a bit, reign in his emotions, lest he run away once more from the sheer intensity of it all, when he felt Akane fisting her hands on the back of his shirt pulling him closer to her. Her body was shaking a bit. Maybe she was a wreck, too. It was enough to take the edge off.

Ranma rubbed their noses together, wanting to feel her skin on his, her fluttering wet lashes on his cheeks. He wasn't exactly calming down, though. Being in her presence, having her close to him, hearing her say those words… He hadn't known he'd needed to hear them so badly. It made him want to feel closer to her. And they'd been away from each other for a long time now. Weeks for sure, maybe even months. Ranma sought her lips, and kissed her desperately.

Akane seemed to give into it with as much urgency as he felt. They nipped at each other, sharing the air they breathed, their arms pulling to get them closer together. Relief washed over Ranma, feeling her so close, so pliant, almost as desperate as he felt. It was exactly what he needed.

Their kiss died down, their breathing returning to normal little by little. His arms relaxed around her waist, and Ranma felt her become shorter. He smiled. He'd been pulling her up to him, enough to lift her up. Gods, he loved it.

As her feet rested on the floor, Ranma felt Akane's hand caress his face again. He opened his eyes, and tried to focus on her foggy ones. She smiled. He smiled some more.

"I…" she tried to say. Then she swallowed and tried again. "Do you have to go back to school tomorrow?" she asked.

Ranma nodded, "Classes at 8…" his voice was rough, he noticed.

Akane sighed. She closed her eyes, and rested her forehead on his shoulder. Ranma automatically turned his nose into her hair.

"I was thinking… if it's not too inconvenient… maybe you could stay here," her voice was tiny. "But if you—"

Ranma interrupted her, kissing her again, softly this time, slowly caressing her lips with his own. Inconvenient… she really had no idea…

"I'd love to stay…"

She smiled. "Good" she said, and yawned a little. "Let's get to bed then,"

Ranma blinked a few times to try and get rid of the fog in his eyes, but he followed her anyways.

He ended up curling himself up around her as she lay on her back.

Ranma felt Akane's hands come up to tangle in his hair, and caress his scalp. He sighed and closed his eyes.

"You're rubbing off on me, Akane…" he said quietly. "I'm a basket case now, too."

"Oh, Ranma…" she said, her voice filled with tenderness, and it did wonders to him.

Of course, after five minutes, when he was happily starting to doze off and pretending to have no physical discomfort whatsoever, his stomach grumbled noisily. It was only to be expected, really. He hadn't had anything since lunch.

"You have to feed me…" he mumbled into Akane's chest. "I'm starving." He finally admitted.

He heard Akane's soft giggle, and felt it on his cheek, resting over her chest.

"Alright…" she said. "I'll go steal something from the kitchen."

"I'll also need the bathroom." It was completely and utterly mundane to bring up such a thing when they'd been so sentimental before. But it somehow served to put the horror of his doubts behind him. And besides, he really needed to use the bathroom.

Akane just looked at him.

"I'll be very quiet," he said. "I promise."

She sat up and nodded. "OK", she said, and stood up, grabbed his hand, and dragged him behind her.

Ranma finally remembered to kick off his slippers, and very, very quietly, they padded out of her room.

OOOOO

It seemed like it'd taken ages to reach the bottom of the stairs.

Akane felt her heart thudding with some trepidation. But she really didn't understand why. It was well past midnight, and both Kasumi and her dad would be fast asleep. And besides, even if someone found them in the kitchen, Ranma could just say his goodnights, leave, and then come back through the window, like he always did. She wasn't really worried about being discovered. But the sneaking about gave everything an illicit sense.

Without saying a word, Ranma let go of her and headed to the bathroom as she walked to the kitchen. She wasn't overly cautious about her steps. It gave everything some sense of normalcy. Walking around the house and getting midnight snacks, or even past midnight snacks was also normal, lately. Chances were Kasumi had even left a something already prepared for her to take to her room. Her studying had been carrying out late into the night.

Akane sighed as she turned on the light in the kitchen. There was a tray. With some food for, well, one. Would it be enough? Ranma could really eat. And what would he do tomorrow? Would he go straight to school? Home? Would he have breakfast? Perhaps she should grab a few more things to make up for tomorrow's breakfast as well. It wasn't like she could just invite him to seat at the table with Kasumi and her father after all. Maybe he could get breakfast at school, but if he didn't, she just rather be prepared so he could have something in her room before he left. Maybe in bed? Breakfast in bed…

Breakfast in bed…

Akane felt her excitment returning.

This was like before. When no one knew he was around, and she felt freer to enjoy their privacy. They hadn't truly had a moment all to themselves for a while.

Oh Gods… her own mind was betraying her once more. Breakfast in bed.

Akane tried to relax, and think about the food, and how it was her turn to care for Ranma, instead of worrying about things she had no control over. Or at least, not much. Still her heart thumped loudly in her chest. The extra adrenaline made her supposedly quiet movements very clumsy and rather noisy.

She trailed back up the stairs and to her room as fast as she could, carrying a very full tray which was also holding two glasses of water. She prayed she wouldn't stumble and fall, or she'd never hear the end of Ranma's teasing.

He'd turned on the light on her night stand, and was sitting on her bed, legs stretched out, his back resting on the wall.

Dinner in bed, too…

She tried to sit next to him, balancing the tray, setting it clumsily on the bed.

"Watch it!" he warned.

Akane felt like snapping. Of course she was watching it. She looked at him. He was smiling, and the retort died in her lips.

She leaned back on the wall.

Ranma started helping himself.

"Watch it," she said.

"Huh?"

"Save some for tomorrow morning."

He only just smiled and nodded.

Akane watched him as he ate, growing more and more sleepy by the second.

"Gods, you eat so much" she mumbled absently, looking at him inhale an onigiri in the span of two seconds, proper boyish style.

He stopped for a second to mumble, "And you don't eat enough."

Next thing he knew, he'd popped something in her mouth. Grapes again. She ate it slowly, and her stomach started to grumble.

"Huh..." she said, helping herself to some water, and grabbing some octopus sausage. "What do you know, maybe you're right."

Ranma snorted very loudly.

"Of course I'm right!" and he continued to inhale the food.

Akane snorted herself, and continued eating, at a much slower pace than that of her boyfriend.

Eventually, she grabbed the tray and left it on her desk before he managed to wipe it clean, then made it for bed. She studied Ranma settling down for the night, making himself comfortable. He'd stripped down to his underwear, his clothes flying across the room.

Although she felt drowsy, her heart thudded in her chest.

"Watcha starin' at?" he said, his voice soft.

Akane smiled and moved to settle next to him, although it was too hot and she'd be probably make them both uncomfortable. Ranma didn't seem to mind. She ended up lying on her back, Ranma wrapped around her, his head on his chest, like they'd been before his stomach had interrupted them. He seemed to really like that. She did, too.

She was almost asleep when she heard him mumble.

"…kane?"

"Mmmm…?"

"Don't wanna go to sleep."

"Mmmm…"

"I've missed this…"

Akane blinked a few times waking back up, and smiled.

"Yeah… me too."

A few more seconds passed. She didn't really want to go to sleep either.

"So," he said, all ready to start a conversation. Akane yawned. He continued, "You got to have some quality time with the whole Saotome clan… how much fun was that?"

Akane giggled at his tone of voice.

"It wasn't so bad."

"Oh, wow. I'm very surprised to hear that."

And they kept talking. And touching. And talking. And touching some more.

Something about their desperate confessions loosened up their inhibitions. And they felt free to ask difficult questions, and be so very honest with their answers. It was such a relief. It felt so new. Akane felt liberated and cuddly. Ranma was apparently feeling relaxed and possessive and needed to touched her a lot, and ask so many questions about it, too. Akane basked in it. She didn't care where it took them. She just wanted to be close to him, to heal their wounds. She let her hands roam, too. She asked questions. They laughed and joked, then got serious and intense. They rode these waves of pleasure and excitement and intimacy, and for the first time, Akane felt totally at ease with their weird rhythm. But mostly, they talked and cuddled. Their conversation was intense and silly at times. She enjoyed it so much, she forgot about being sleepy, and about her worries and anxieties.

It felt like the best time of her life, and she never wanted the night to end.

But eventually, birds started singing outside, they fell quieter and quieter, their hands stilled. Akane had enough presence of mind to set up an alarm for Ranma, who had a couple of hours before he had to leave for the train station.

It was the best sleep she'd gotten in ages. And saying goodbye to Ranma before he left was the best morning, too.

OOOOO

Her final exams were long past. And now, she was finally facing the National Examinations. It consisted of three days of different exams that would define her odds of making it to the University she wanted. In truth, she'd already been accepted. But getting better than average results might get her scholarships, too. The better she did, the better the scholarship. And she really needed those. But having been accepted already made her feel a bit more calm.

The weeks of her final school exams and graduation seemed like they'd been ages ago. Even Vengeance Senior Day had come and gone in a flash. It'd been fun gangin' up with her friends against some very random opponents. But she'd not been as intrigued by everything as she'd been the previous year, when Ranma'd been around to tease her and steal kisses from her on the hallways.

It was too early. Hardly anyone but the janitors could be seen on the grounds. It was early enough that the air still felt fresh and cool.

Akane sighed and closed her eyes, and thought of the last very difficult couple of months, and how things had seemed to click together to help her. Just in time. Her brain was buzzing, but it was a soft sound, cool and smooth. Like the morning air.

She wasn't feeling particularly exhilarated, or incredibly nervous, as she would've expected. It was such a relief to have the confidence that things would turn out ok.

Today she'd start with Math and Japanese History.

She smiled.

She wrapped her hand around the little pendant hanging from her neck. Ranma had said it was because of some sort of first kiss anniversary. She'd actually remembered it, although vaguely. But swamped as she'd been, she hadn't really thought Ranma would make a big deal out of it and had ended up discarding it altogether. She'd been very touched, and a lot ashamed that she actually hadn't made a fuzz herself, or even worried about it at all. What kind of freakish girlfriend was she? The kind who worried a lot more about labels than she was comfortable thinking about. She did know the date when he'd said she was his girlfriend. She thought that marked something, too, even if she didn't make a fuzz.

He'd said not to worry, as long as she wore the pendant to her exams, and that she would surely find a way to make it up to him later.

They'd also argued about which anniversary was the most important. He'd also said he'd try to break some sense into her skull, but later, after the Uni exams were over.

After university exams were over.

Akane looked around the very much deserted Furinkan grounds. Only the seniors would be around on this time of year, on these three days of exams, while all other students were away on summer break.

On this week, she would wear her school uniform for the last time.

Akane smiled again.

She would enjoy sitting these exams.

OOOOO

"Akane, that man is a saint", Sayuri said with reproach in her voice. "And you are not a very good girlfriend."

"But I—"

"She's right." Yuka added, her voice unusually sharp. "How could you have forgotten your first kiss?"

Akane was just about to argue that she hadn't actually forgotten. But 'it's the thought that counts' is a lame saying, so she just shut her mouth and pretended to be very busy drinking from her very fancy drink. It even had an umbrella! It was an amazing source of distraction from her conscience. And her friend's comments. Akane had the decency to look ashamed.

"You're just too used to him going along with whatever the heck you want." Sayuri continued, waving her index finger at her. "Problem is he might get bored."

Yuka nodded. Akane sighed.

"I know…" Akane conceded. "But I just don't know how to go about it. I mean, he's always happy with so little…"

"That can't be true!" Sayuri argued, "I'm sure there's something you could do to make up all the horrible things you've done to him over the past couple of months."

Only one thing came to Akane's mind, and she couldn't help but blush and stammer, "I don't think— I mean that's not—"

"You're such a pervert, Akane!" Sayuri laughed. "I wasn't talking about that."

"You weren't?" Yuka asked. Akane wanted to point out that she most certainly wasn't a pervert, if even Yuka had had the same idea, and that Sayuri was just plain obvious.

"Mmm… maybe I just wanted to see the look on your faces." Sayuri finished, and proceeded to laugh loudly. It attracted some attention from other patrons, so Akane swatted at her arm, and Sayuri shut up.

"Anyways, what's the big deal? You've been on the pill for months, right?" Sayuri asked.

Akane felt a bit annoyed and embarrassed at the same time. Mostly embarrassed. "Could you ask any louder, please?"

"Sorry…" her friend conceded. "But you are, right?"

Akane nodded.

"Does he know?"

Akane shook her head.

"Huh. No wonder he hasn't pushed it. Has he pushed it?"

Akane shook her head again, her face so red she thought steam might start coming out of her ears any minute now.

"But you said you guys do stuff, right—?"

"Sayuri-chan!" Yuka said, her voice soft but firm. "So what were you talking about before?"

"Oh, right", Sayuri cleared her throat. "I didn't have anything specific in mind; I just assumed there had to be something you could do. The way he does. Get him something he likes. Ask him out—"

"Would you ask a guy out?" Akane asked.

"Well… No. Cause I'd have a hard time asking out a guy who wasn't my boyfriend."

"Point." Akane said.

Sayuri was looking at her.

"You mean, you've never asked him out? Have you gone on dates at all?"

Akane didn't know how this was relevant to the issue at hand. Yes, she'd been a crappy girlfriend the past couple of months. And yes, she wanted to make up for it. The timing was perfect because Ranma would be free for the summer, although for a couple of weeks only, and they could definitely spend more time together. It was also a very positive thing that she was only waiting for her results now. But she was feeling very confident. She'd even started arranging her accommodation for the following year and everything. So she'd literally have nothing to worry about, at least until the academic year kicked up again.

But the truth was that she didn't know what to do for him. Perhaps Sayuri was right and it had all been about her. Well, it had all been about her. But she wasn't about to admit any of it to her friends. She could hardly admit it to herself. Perhaps she'd be more comfortable if they were talking in the privacy of one of their rooms, instead of a very public family restaurant.

"We've been on dates… But we train a lot, too. And we both like it…" Akane added, her voice small.

"You couple of weirdos…" Sayuri sighed.

"We just don't go out much."

"And you've never asked him out?"

"I hadn't thought about it, but I guess it's always his idea" Akane's voice had turned into a mumble by now. "I did plan a trip last summer though…"

"That's nonsense." Sayuri said, clearly ignoring Akane's last retort. "Why haven't you asked him?"

Akane mulled that over. She actually wasn't sure. She'd never thought about it. It was true that other than that trip to the mountains, she's never taken the initiative.

"Dunno… I guess… I just don't want to come up with something boring he won't want to do."

Sayuri inhaled.

"But, we're talking about Saotome-kun here, you've just said he's happy with little— Oh! I see! So it's insecurity issues—"

Akane wanted to complain.

"But you're insane, Akane!. That man is crazy about you, he'll go along with anything! I really don't get how you could be insecure at all…"

"But didn't you just say to do something he likes? So that he won't just have to do whatever the heck I want?" her voice was getting a bit loud. Yuka was getting worried.

"The point is," Sayuri said, wrapping her hands around her drink, "to show him that you care". And she raised the glass to her mouth.

In the silence that followed, Akane gave herself a moment to think about what she's just heard.

"Akane-chan," Yuka said, her voice small as usual. "I think Sayuri-chan is right. You have his summer break all to yourselves, right? His family is going away on a trip, right?"

Akane nodded, and Yuka smiled.

"Just have fun, then, ask him out, plan something. He won't even have to go home for dinner with his family or anything like that! Besides, you'll be spending a lot of time apart this year, won't you?"

Akane sighed, and felt the now familiar clench in her chest whenever she was reminded of this fact. It usually followed with a flip of her stomach. A really unpleasant one.

"Maybe… I think you're right…"

"Well, there you go then!" Sayuri exclaimed triumphantly. "Now… getting back to that…"

Akane and Yuka both groaned.

"But I'm worried for you, Akane!"

Conversation quickly degenerated after that. For a second, Akane wondered if it would be better to ask her friends to come home with her to continue the conversation, but when she mentioned it, Sayuri had quickly added that it would be a great opportunity to go shopping for some sexy lingerie on the way there. But after that suggestions, Akane conveniently remembered that she'd promised to help Kasumi with something, and that she ought to be getting back, and probably wouldn't have the time for guests.

They said their goodbyes, and that was that.

Akane and Yuka were quietly walking to the station together, when they passed by a lingerie shop. After the afternoon's recurrent topic, Akane stopped before the display, absently staring at the different models. She only realized that she'd been spacing out when she heard Yuka's soft voice.

"Would you like to go in?"

Akane shook her head slowly.

"Akane-chan?"

Akane sighed. "You were right before, Yuka… We've been sort of apart since Ranma started at Shindo Yoshin. But now we'll be really apart. At least 'til now we've been in the same city. I've become so worried about it after the exams finished that it's starting to ruin my vacation. Crap…" her voice was soft, her eyes fixed on some reflection on the display that didn't let her see what was on the inside. "Anything to do with Ranma, when he's not around… it just reminds me of the fact that we won't be together…and…"

She felt Yuka's hand on her shoulder.

"Why are you so worried, Akane-chan? You've managed most of this year just fine. Well, sort of." Yuka said with a soft chuckle.

Akane smiled. "Yes, it was peachy" she said, and sighed. "I don't doubt our feelings, you know, but it feels like there might be something missing… I don't know what, like a piece that doesn't quite match. If I can find out what it is before I go to college, I'm sure I will stop feeling uneasy. But I really don't know."

"Can't you talk to him?"

Akane thought about it for a second. "I don't think I could even voice it. I mean, I don't know what it is. I'm thinking he'd blame it on an overactive brain… Geez, even I think I blame it on an overactive brain!" Akane looked up at the sky. "Aaahhh… I'm mostly just being silly, now. I feel happy most of the time." She smiled.

"My underactive brain tells me you're just nervous over your new life starting so soon. I sort of feel the same," Yuka said with a bright smile, "and I get so nervous just thinking about everything that could go wrong, but I'm also quite happy to be doing this."

"You're very brave, Yuka, moving abroad like that."

"I don't think I'm particularly brave, or strong. I have nothing to lose, not really. I'm not leaving anything behind, and I'll most likely come back. It's already part of the plans. But I think you're really brave, doing what you want although you know there might be difficulties. I think Sayuri-chan is really strong, taking on the responsibility of the family business like that. Me, I'm just being selfish."

Akane wanted to tell her friend that she too was very brave to be going away, to be completely alone and pursue a career. But she was also slightly envious of the fact that she could do it. That she had nothing to lose.

"I also think that eventually, a time will come when you'll just stop worrying."

Akane laughed.

"Gods, I hope so!"

Yuka smiled.

"C'mon Akane-chan. Let's do a bit of shopping to take your mind off things."

And Akane was dragged into the shop. At least Yuka was very quiet, and wouldn't be making loud comments the way Sayuri usually did.

OOOOO

Very early on Saturday morning, Ranma's first day of complete freedom that summer, Akane'd shown up at his home, to have breakfast with his family, even before he managed to wake up. It was as if he'd had a brain melt down. No school equaled lazing about. There was just no joining the world.

Ranma'd slept so soundly that he'd been unusually disoriented when his mom had come to wake him up. He'd been even more surprised to see Akane having breakfast while keeping up with Ranko talk, excited as she was over their family vacation.

Akane was bright and sunshiney. His mind was so addled that the sight of so much cheerfulness made him squint his eyes.

"Good morning, Ranma!" she said brightly. "You look funny."

"Aaaa…" He replied.

"Ranma dear, go get changed quickly, cause we're running late. Breakfast's ready—"

"Breakfast's ready!" Ranko added.

"—and I've already packed a few things for you. But you really need to be quick."

In the meantime, his father was reading the newspaper, not saying a word.

"Huh…?"

"Just go!" Akane said, her voice commanding, but she'd still been smiling.

"Ahh… ok." He mumbled. And made his way to the bathroom.

Much more awake after his shower, and a hearty breakfast, Akane'd finally filled him in on the fact that they were taking a trip. When they'd all left the house and started walking in the direction of the train station, his family carrying a bit of heavy luggage, Ranma had panicked for a second, and hoped it didn't mean they were taking a trip all together. But had been too afraid to ask. Talk about bad ideas. And he'd been very clear with his parents that he'd be skipping this family vacation, because, well, he might have plans of his own. Unfortunately, he didn't have any. Other than spending some quality, stress free time with his girlfriend. But he couldn't really say, 'Hey, sorry for not joining you guys, but I have this and that very important things to do. Maybe next time!'

But when they'd reached the station, he'd been very surprised, and a lot pleased, to see that his parents and sister had said their goodbyes and ran to catch a train, and that there were people waiting for them.

"It's late! How come they're not here yet? She said 9 AM!" one of Akane's friends was complaining. "I really don't want to miss the train!"

"Maa, Sayuri-chan, they'll be here any minute now." The quiet one tried to calm her.

"Bet you anything you want Saotome's fast, fast asleep…"

Ranma was having a hard time grasping the group waiting at the station. Because not only Akane's friends were there, but Hiroshi and Daisuke also, and Arata, and a couple of girls he'd never seen as well.

"We're only ten minutes late, Sayuri!" Akane said as greeting, and people turned around to welcome them.

He was happy, and very surprised to see his friends, too.

From that point on, they day went rather smoothly. Everyone was in high spirits and excited over a group trip, and for Ranma it'd been soooo easy to revert to his high school days and enjoy the company of those two nut heads. Nevermind the fact that Hiroshi was a lot more guarded of what he said, seeing as one of the new girls was actually his girlfriend.

This was all very new. He'd never been away with just guys. Well, not really the case this time around either, but the girls had let them be, and were enjoying themselves separately, which suited him just fine. Their trip to Ashi Lake only took an hour by train, followed by plenty of hiking. To finish the day, they would stop at a rather simple but affordable inn and enjoy the baths in the area, have a massive meal, and head back the next day. A lot more luxurious than their previous trip, Ranma thought.

The hike up to Lake Ashi was a fairly easy one, and it allowed everyone to go up at a lazy pace, stop for photos, have a picnic halfway through, do a bit of swimming, and well, he guessed quite a bit of gossiping, too. Sure, guys talked, but only about what was needed, and always to the point. But the girls… oh Gods. Akane and her friends had included both newcomers -Hiroshi's girlfriend and Arata's fiancée- without skipping a beat. It was as if they'd known each other forever, the way they were getting along. He wondered if the muscles in their jaw ached at all.

Ranma would occasionally spy on them and feel rather embarrassed just by the look on their faces, and imagining what could it be that kept them chatting nonstop. Ranma hoped it wasn't about them.

The guys had been trying to catch some fish, and arguing about the latest pro-wrestling tournament when Ranma noticed Akane walking away from the girls, and up a rocky section off the path they were following. Daisuke had been bored waiting to catch something, and was ready to jump in the water, complaining that it was too, too hot to just sit there. He'd already gotten rid if his shirt and shoes. Arata was thinking of following on Daisuke's footsteps, and Hiroshi was complaining that if they weren't quiet enough the fish would go away, which promptly made Daisuke start singing at the top of his lungs, and loudly ask about how was it possible for his friend to be so changed just because he had a girlfriend. Arata stared a bit at their antics, shook his head, and jumped into the water.

Seeing as his friends would be engaged in a battle of wills for a while, Ranma quietly made his way towards the girls. Sayuri spotted him, and everyone went very quiet, very suddenly.

"Erm…. Do you guys know where Akane went?" He asked, a bit embarrassed at their very open staring.

Yuka pointed at a sign between some rocks, "Just up there to take a few photos." She said with a smile.

"Thanks." He said, and started following the trail to catch up to her.

It took him some ten minutes. It was a very steep, rocky climb, not at all like they'd been doing so far, and definitely not for beginners. But there was plenty to step on, as well as added handles to ease the path. When he finally did catch up she was almost already reaching the top.

"-kane," he called out when he saw her.

She turned around and smiled, and continued up. "Hurry up, dummy," she said, "I was told the view was amazing from here."

After another five minutes, they reached whatever it was she wanted to reach. It was true, the view was very nice. And there was a cool breeze blowing. Akane found a spot she liked, and sat down.

"Look", she said, pointing down. He got closer to her, and saw their friends below, looking a lot smaller than he would've expected.

"Just how far up are we?" Ranma asked, looking for a spot to settle close to her.

"Maybe a hundred meters?" Akane said, "Not really sure. Maybe a bit less. It's a very steep climb."

Ranma ended up crouching next to her while she fidgeted with her camera.

"Did you plan all this?" he finally asked.

"Yeah. Your mom helped me get in touch with your high school friends, and with Hagayushi-kun's family and his fiancée. From what you tell me I gather you guys are close. I hope that was alright—"

He kissed her, wrapping his hand around her neck to bring her closer to him. Akane was surprised at first, but gradually melted into it. It was a sweet, soft kiss that brought them a bit closer.

Ranma looked at her blushing face, and felt a bit embarrassed himself. He hadn't been able to hold it. He hadn't kissed her for a week now. And he hadn't been able to get close to her all day. And now the moment had seemed just perfect. And she'd planned this, and gotten a hold of his friends. His heart had tightened a bit in his chest. He moved around and settled himself behind her.

Akane leaned back into his chest and tried to take her photos.

"Thanks." He said into her ear, wrapping his arms around her. "It's been a great day." And he tried to hide his face in her neck.

He thought Akane was a bit agitated. He could feel her heartbeat on the skin of his face, and he wondered if there was anything wrong at all.

"Ranma," she said quietly, her arms wrapping around his, and melting a bit more into his embrace. "It's going to be a year now, you know."

Ranma blinked a few times.

"Tickles…" Akane whispered, a smile in her voice.

"A year?" he asked. "I thought it was longer." He smiled into her neck.

"Mmm… but it was official almost a year ago."

"I rather go by the first time we kissed." He said.

"I rather go by the first time you asked if I was your girlfriend." She insisted.

Ranma chuckled.

"Fine. Does this mean we're celebrating an anniversary, then?" he asked.

"That's right."

"Sneaky…"

Akane sighed.

"I'm very sorry I forgot about our first kiss" she said, pouting.

"Mmm… I wasn't really expecting you to have any space in your brain for it, so don't worry…"

"Well, that sucks."

"What?"

"You expecting me to forget."

"Akane…"

"Thank you for being so patient with me. And supportive, too."

Ranma sighed. He didn't really like the tone of the conversation, but he supposed she was right to be feeling a bit of remorse. He guessed he even liked it a little.

"As long as you're patient with me, too." He said.

Akane smiled.

"Deal." She said, and asked, "Should we do anything special, then?"

"When?"

"Next weekend."

"What for?"

"Our anniversary, dummy…"

"Oh, that's next week? I'd forgotten."

Akane slapped his arms and struggled a bit to pull away from him, but he pulled her back.

They heard some catcalls from down below. Ranma mumbled something along the lines of people minding their own business.

"You really should go and enjoy your friends," she said suddenly standing up. Ranma was rewarded with a really nice, although extremely brief close up of her behind. He was forced to close his eyes as she ruffled his hair a bit before walking away.

"I should?" he asked trailing behind her.

"Yep, 'cause for the next few weeks I don't think I'll be sharing you at all." Her voice was so small that Ranma wasn't sure that'd been exactly what she'd said. But it made him smile all the same.

OOOOO

Never mind that the whole thing had been her idea, Ranma had insisted on picking her up instead of meeting somewhere. So Akane had complied.

Because the whole thing had somehow reminded her of their first official date, and because it was very close to their anniversary, Akane'd decided to wear the same dress she'd worn on that first date, and the pendant Ranma had given her. If it was a charm, like he'd wanted it to be, then it had definitely worked. She'd aced all of her exams.

Kasumi had told her to have him stay for lunch, so they could all enjoy a meal together before they left on their date. Perhaps Kasumi was suffering from some sort of empty nest syndrome. Nabiki had finally come back to Tokyo, but had moved into a room of her own instead of coming back to the family household, and Akane wouldn't be staying for much longer, either. The eldest Tendo sister seemed very keen on having everyone over as often as possible.

Akane's emotions had been on a rollercoaster mode for the past couple of weeks. She'd get into these weird moods thinking about the future, then she'd become ecstatic over the fact that she was free to spend her summer however she wanted. But then she'd get too happy, and this would make her uneasy again. Maybe it was just the fact that she'd gotten rid of her major source of worries. So now she had to go ahead and find something else to fill that space. So of course she had to come up with something to spoil her mood. What would happen with her and Ranma now that she'd be moving out of town?

She'd tried to think about it as little as possible. But as the day when she'd have to move out drew nearer, she'd been growing more and more anxious. Not so much as to spoil her time with Ranma, but always there, like a grey cloud hanging at the edge of her vision.

She couldn't help but wonder if the distance would do anything to them, if it would drift them apart, or bring them closer together. Or if it was worth dealing with the difficulties of having a long distance relationship. And here was the missing piece, the bit that had her on edge and that she couldn't quite put her finger on. Over the past couple of weeks, it'd finally started to take a very real shape. Being apart would all be worth it, of course, if they were headed in the same direction. But she wasn't sure they were.

The thought had been plaguing her all day, unusually so, ever since they'd left the dojo. But Akane still tried to enjoy herself, and smile as much as she could. Before long, she forgot all about her worries. They'd been on a carnival in town all afternoon, gone for drinks afterwards, and then headed for public summer concert, in one of the city's major parks.

The music was perfect, the crowd was happy. Ranma was looking rather relaxed, and very handsome in his off white shirt, which showed his well defined arms and hugged his chest in all the right ways. It made Akane stare. They'd reached the edge of the crowd just a few minutes before the music had started. There wasn't that large of an audience, but people were very spread out, settling on the grass. Some people were chatting quietly, other had picnics with them. The mood was generally light hearted and festive. It was too happy, and Akane felt her unease return. It was almost as if she wasn't really allowed to join in on the festive mood, because suddenly her heart wasn't really feeling quite there.

Ranma'd lain back on the grass, resting his head on his hands, looking quiet and thoughtful. She sat down next to him, folding her legs beside her. Now she thought about it, he'd been very quiet for a while. She'd been doing a lot of talking.

It was a relief when the music finally started. She didn't know much about music, but she thought the orchestra was amazing. If only they would play more upbeat tunes than ominous ones…

There was no reason to be so upset. But the hardest she tried to act normal and happy, the more aware she became of her uneasy heart, the tightening of her chest. She even felt her stomach doing a few somersaults. She'd been so good at putting a lid on this for so long, sort of, so focused on getting what she wanted and studying herself to death.

She knew she was on the verge of forming the idea, of giving it a shape and a name in her head, something that she'd already thought about, but refused to face straight on. But the sadness she was feeling in this setting, with this music, the sun lightly filtered by the generous tree above her, Ranma's calm breathing raising his chest up and down…

Akane closed her eyes, as she felt them prickling. She didn't want Ranma to know how scared she really was.

She was scared about the future. Scared about what the next couple of weeks would mean for them. What being apart would mean. And again… Why would they be apart? Because she had wanted it. Not the being apart per se, but leaving home, seeing new things, being by herself in a new place. Experiencing everything that her home was not. A bit like Nabiki had. A bit like Ranma had, on his training trips. A bit like her friend Yuka was doing, too. Nothing to lose. Everything to gain. Well, Akane did have something to lose, then. The thing that worried her was that Nabiki had hardly ever visited home. For a long time Akane had thought that it'd been due to income issues, but her sister had insisted it was because she was more herself while away from home. Akane couldn't help but wonder if anything similar could happen to her.

But everything would be a moot point, and she'd deal with the distance and missing Ranma like crazy, if it wasn't so obvious that their direction weren't the same.

And Ranma…

Ranma seemed fine the way he was. In the place he was. It was like he'd been born to be in the place he was.

She hadn't realized she'd tightened her fist on the poor, unsuspecting grass underneath.

And then she felt Ranma's warm hand wrapping loosely around her fist. Akane'd been so immersed in her thoughts, that she jumped a little, opening her eyes. But she didn't turn to look at their joined hands.

She stared out at the orchestra playing far away from her. She stared at the sky, and felt Ranma's hand.

She saw it, suddenly, and it left her breathless.

Akane squeezed her eyes shut.

She saw their future, with a clarity that almost choked her, how they would drift apart and break up. It seemed so obvious in her head that it didn't even seem like she was being pessimistic at all. But the thought was there, now. In her head. Clear as the sky they were sitting under. It almost knocked her over. It would happen today, or tomorrow. Or maybe in a couple of months, or next year. But it was clear now that unless they decided to head somewhere together, there was little chance of them surviving the distance.

Talk about spoiling what time they had left this summer! Other than her bouts of anxiousness, which she'd managed to deal with very quickly, it'd been great. It'd been more than great. She'd been having fun, she'd seen her friends, she'd trained. They'd even gone out of town on day trips. It was what people did with their time. They enjoyed themselves with people they cared about. It was amazing.

She did not want to lose any of this, ever.

Perhaps she ought to just be stubborn, get herself out of her funk, and do anything it took to make it work. Never mind the distance or directions. All that mattered was that they loved each other, right? And gods, she was stubborn! She'd make it work no matter what.

They just needed to get closer, somehow, more aware of the other. Their directions would change eventually.

She needed to do something to solve her stupid thinking, to help her get rid of all these stupid ideas that just had to come and ruin her perfect summer. Stupid, stupid brain. Stupid Akane.

She thought furiously for a while, planning a little bit, putting some purpose behind her anxious energy, the sadness slowly edging away, her determination fueled by the anger she felt towards her own silly thoughts. She would not let it beat her. Only question now was… how, exactly?

OOOOO

The show was over. People started to rising from their different locations and slowly walking away. Because they'd been sitting on the very edge of the crowd, Ranma'd thought that if they hurried, they could probably get away fairly quickly, before everyone decided it would be good idea to leave quickly. But Akane seemed distracted.

Ranma had very good gut feelings, generally. So he wasn't particularly thrilled when he realized Akane's sudden aloofness gave him a bit of a chill. It meant it was a big deal. Or important, at least. He should definitely ask. But Akane always spoke her mind, and discussed with him whatever was going in her head. Extensively. He sighed.

Truth be told, Ranma was a bit disappointed. He'd had great expectations for the summer. He hoped they could spend as much time together as they'd done the previous year, especially because the past year had been so very rough on both of them. It couldn't have been any other way, really. At least he'd gotten hold of what was expected of him at school.

He knew he'd nailed whatever it was their tutors were expecting from their students on this first year. Sensei had already said once or twice that Ranma would make a fine candidate to go and study abroad. Perhaps he was talking about what Lung-sensei had told him a few months before. He'd been very excited at the possibility of learning more, beyond the Shindo Yoshin school capabilities. And he'd be lying if he didn't admit he was more than tempted to try and take that spot to go away. It would probably mean working even harder just to get there. It could also mean being gone for a long time. But for now, it was all just a thought.

Ranma was already on his feet, scanning the crowd and choosing which way to go. He looked down at Akane, who seemed spaced out. She was still sitting down in the same position she'd been in for the past hour. He wondered if her legs weren't cramping up yet.

He was disappointed because he knew this was one of the few days they would have all to themselves before she went away to college in a week's time. But Akane seemed to be in a bad mood, very much lost in her own little spaced out world. Shame.

The day had started out well enough, but he supposed when you had important things in your mind to be concerned about, it could be difficult to be carefree, so he was giving Akane a break.

He sort of wanted to feel upset with her, though. He was feeling a bit down over the fact that they wouldn't be seeing each other very often at all now, probably once or twice a month if they were lucky. But he didn't feel that moping about it would make it any better. So he'd really tried to not think about any of that, and just have fun and relax. But it seemed Akane had other ideas. And too bad, but it was sort of contagious. Sort of.

Looking at Akane's profile again, he swallowed. He wanted to get her out of her funk, if she'd only let him. He knew he had to, or the day would not end up nicely. But she wasn't talking. That in itself scared him more than he was ready to admit.

Ranma started fiddling with his wrist wraps. He'd been used to wearing them by now, but that had been before it became a requirement that they get slightly heavier every week. They were almost a burden, now. Today he'd been feeling them all day. Perhaps he too was more troubled than he gave himself credit for, and having to cope with this physical discomfort on top of everything else was turning out to be a tad too much.

He wanted to get rid of the tension. He wanted to just be happy and enjoy the day. Why couldn't they just focus on that instead? He'd always been so good at the one step at a time thing. Or the doing first, thinking later. He supposed school had changed him. And Akane. And the engagement thing. It was always there, in the back of his mind. And he still hadn't brought it up. And now everybody wanted it. It was as good as done. Ranma couldn't understand how he'd cornered himself into this position. He shook his head. He was still good enough at the one step a time thing. He would not think about that right now. At the very least, he'd finally managed to get people off their backs for good.

Ranma walked up to Akane and crouched behind her form, sliding his arms around her torso. She gave a startled little jump and sighed, turning her face towards him. Her eyes were closed. Ranma swallowed. And again he felt a pang of anxiety. He was not familiar with anxiety. Didn't quite know how to deal with it.

The sun had just disappeared and the wind was starting to pick up. People were noisy around them.

Ranma grazed her cheek with his lips. Akane snuggled a bit against him.

"Is… everything ok?" he asked her.

Akane swallowed and opened her eyes. She sighed very deeply and smiled. Then she closed her eyes again, a satisfied look on her face. "That was so beautiful…" she said. Ranma supposed it'd been a good show. The last final minutes had been timed to peak and finish as the sun was setting, when the sky drastically changed in color.

Although he hadn't been paying that much attention to the music, he had to admit it had been a grand finale. Maybe Akane was just savoring that, and he'd been reading too much into things.

"C'mon. Wanna get something to eat before we head back?."

Akane smiled up at him. The light did something to her eyes, and they shone for a second. It made his breath catch. He looked at her for a second too long, and was shaken from his moment by her reaching up and kissing the tip of his nose very briefly. He blinked a couple of times.

"Let's go, dummy. Help me up."

Ranma smiled. She was indulging him, he knew. He just tightened his arms around her, and pulled her up in one swift, gentle motion.

They started walking.

Ranma couldn't help but notice that Akane had not exactly answered his question. But she seemed a lot better now.

They walked in silence for a good twenty minutes. The crowd had almost dissolved. Akane had suddenly started to walk a bit faster, though he had no idea where they were headed. She was tense again. What was it with her today? He pulled on her arm slightly.

"Akane…" she stopped and turned around to stare at him. She seemed as anxious as he felt. Crap. Instead of asking what was wrong, he decided to just evade the thing altogether. "Where are we headed?"

Akane looked around for a few seconds.

"Just looking for a place to eat. Like you said. A cup of tea or something. I'm really hungry."

Ranma looked around. Perhaps it hadn't been such a great idea. It was Sunday, it was getting late. There didn't seem to be many open places at this time. Maybe ramen would do? But he didn't think it was the kind of food Akane had in mind.

"We could just go back to the do—" he started to ask.

"Don't want to. Not just yet. Too many people," she said, pouting, "and I want it to be just the two of us, at least for a while longer."

Ranma could share the feeling. People were nosy. People also wanted to push things on them. He didn't want to give them any more ammo than necessary either. Gods knew they already had enough as it was. And now that his parents and Mr. Tendo were getting along… He knew it could get worse. Crap, it had already gotten worse. He'd done an okay job so far, getting them off their backs. But he dreaded to think what would happen if Akane found out he'd been keeping secrets from her.

"Okay," he mumbled. He had no idea what to do under the circumstances, really.

"Let's go to yours," she said, suddenly perky again. "Your parents aren't back for a while yet, are they?"

He shook his head. "Not for another week, I think".

"Oh! Really? Ranma! That's perfect!"

"I thought you didn't like it there," Ranma asked, a bit confused.

"I never said that!" Akane said smiling. "I only just thought you had a lot more chances of sneaking into my room undetected than I ever did sneaking into yours." Her eyebrows shot onto her hairline for emphasis.

Ranma smiled. All of a sudden, he felt ten times lighter.

"Besides," she continued, grabbing his arms and pulling them around her, "we can do normal things just the two of us. I'd really like that." She pushed her body slightly up against his.

"Huh." He mumbled, distracted. Her waist felt so narrow. She was looking up at him with big eyes. He felt his heart thudding a bit louder, like it usually did when they got a bit too close. Somewhere, very deeply buried in the back of his mind, he realized this was one of those times when circumstances forced him to agree to whatever Akane was proposing, because his brain just plain decided to disengage.

Of course that was when his stomach growled.

Akane smirked.

"I'll feed you," Akane said brightly.

"Eehh…" Ranma managed, as he scratched the back of his head and looked away trying to look for something to say that wouldn't involve his dying from indigestion.

"I won't cook, you jerk," she said, keeping the teasing tone, "I had something else in mind, but maybe you should cook for me, save me the trouble." She turned around and started walking away.

"Akane! Wait up!" He smiled. Ranma didn't mind cooking. He was pretty decent at it, actually.

They ended up walking into a 24 hours convenience store, bought a whole bunch of stuff and headed back to his place in a rush. Akane was in a hurry, and he didn't understand why. He thought given her moody attitude, the best thing for him would be to just go along with whatever she wanted.

When they reached his place, Akane was brooding again. The house was a bit dark now, and it was just the two of them. They'd spent plenty of time by themselves in the past, so this shouldn't really make him all that nervous, except that… well. It did. It was making him nervous for reasons he didn't want to explore.

Perhaps it was Akane's quietness. Or perhaps it was what they were doing. He started working on their dinner in the kitchen, Akane helping out unwrap or peel stuff. She set the table. Ranma turned on the small radio his mom kept in the kitchen, on whatever station. He wasn't uncomfortable with the silence, exactly, but it wasn't companionable either. Akane was quiet because she had things in her mind. At this point, Ranma could guess it was about her leaving Tokyo in two weeks time. What else could there be? He dreaded asking. He really didn't want to upset her at all, now that she was back to normal after her exams, thank you very much. And if she was thinking, she'd probably come out and say something at some point anyways.

Having the house to himself was strange. Not that he didn't like it. Quite the opposite. He was ridiculously proud of himself for the fact that for the past week he'd managed to live by himself, without destroying anything in the process. It was as if the house was his. And Akane fluttering around doing things and tidying up a bit while he worked in the kitchen gave him a weird thrill. This was different. They'd never been by themselves like this before. Maybe it was a bit like their camping trip, so long ago. But this was even better.

So no, he didn't want to risk ruining everything by insisting that she tell him what the heck was on her mind now.

"It's too dark," she said suddenly, from the kitchen door, her white dress a ghostly shape. It was true. The day was almost gone from the sky. It'd gone darker and darker inside the house. It was that weird time of day when it was both night and day at the same time. Enough light when you stared out the window, but definitely dark at the same time.

"Here, stir this," he said. He saw Akane's eyes widen and he chuckled. "Stir it only, I said." And she came to stand next to him, and took the wooden spoon from his hands. Ranma supervised her for all of two seconds, embraced her and kissed her cheek, and then opened the sliding doors out to the garden and the porch which ran around almost the entire house, and went to the dining room and did the same. A cool breeze slid into the house. It was nice. It also meant the summer was on its way out. He turned on some lights, then flipped on the TV and started going through the channels.

"Want to watch something for a while?" he asked loudly over his shoulder. But there was no reply. Puzzled, he walked into the kitchen. Akane was still stirring the curry. The look of concentration on her face was almost comical. He tried to hide a smile.

"Yo," he said from the door. "I've turned on Ranko's lights. It looks nice. Wanna watch something?"

Akane gave a little start and looked at him.

"Ranko's lights?" she asked, her eyes turning briefly in his direction, then right back to the pan.

Ranma smiled again.

"Yep, just some fairy lights mom set up outside," he explained, "so Ranko won't be scared at night. They go around the garden all the way to her window. They're nice."

Akane was still so concentrated on the curry, that her only comment was "Huh… Nice."

Ranma walked up to her, turning the fire to minimum, and putting the lid on the pan. "Come on," he said taking her hand in one of his, and turning off the radio. She was still slightly catatonic. "This will take a bit more time." And Akane let herself be dragged out onto the dining room.

"Ohh… you're right! It looks very nice." She said, a smile in her voice. So finally, a better reaction. Maybe she was done thinking. Akane sat down on the floor and poured two glasses of juice. Ranma plopped down cross-legged next to her. The TV was almost mute in its corner.

"So how bored were you with the concert?" Akane asked, a bit of a smirk in her voice.

"Ahhh!" Ranma said, leaning back and resting his weight on his arms, "Well…" he tried. Then he grabbed the remote and switched some channels. "Lets just say that I'd have been more entertained with something like….." and the he stopped randomly, "…this!"

Sports equipment infomercial. Awesome.

"You could've said you didn't want to go, you know…" Akane said looking at him, her elbow on the table, her head popped up on her hand.

"I didn't not want to go. I just didn't really know what it was!" he said pouting.

And Akane laughed briefly.

"Oh, Ranma," she said smiling, and leaned in to drop a quick kiss on his lips. Then took the remote from him and flipped some more channels. Please let her skip the Korean drama. "What about this one?" she asked. Competitions show. "Kasumi liked to watch this— Ooouch!" She sort of hissed, as one of the contestants fell flat on their face.

Ranma laughed.

"I bet I'd nail that competition if I wanted," Ranma offered offhandedly. Akane looked at him.

"But that would be cheating!" she said indignantly.

"So? I could actually make a living out of it…" he said, and leaned forward, his elbows on the table. He grabbed the remote from her. "Gimme that." Akane's indignant squeak was drowned as he turned the volume up.

"Oh, no…" Akane cringed, "It's like they're being bad on purpose!"

Ranma only just laughed. "Yeaaaah… I'd score high point on this. I'm applying! Why hadn't I thought of this before?"

Akane laughed. "Hey, maybe I could try it, too!" She said in a happy tone.

"Naaaahhh…" Ranma said, dismissively, waving his hand up and down. "Too clumsy. You'd just slow me down—"

Ranma could have dodged, but he decided not to. Akane's palm connected to his forehead, making a loud slapping sound, and stayed there. "And you're hands are too heavy, no finesse, see that there? You'd need to be a lot more—"

"Ranma!" Akane complained, dropping her hand. Ranma laughed, and grabbed her hand, pulling her closer to him. She didn't resist. They watched some more TV.

They were at it for a while. Ranma loved it. Whatever slight tension he'd felt before had evaporated, leaving only them in their little new world.

They had their nice dinner. Then decided on dessert outside. So they turned the TV off, took their bowls with chopped fruits and ice cream out to the tiny porch.

Then her mood changed again.

"I've got my train tickets." She told him. "Went to get them this morning." Ranma only looked at her and waited for more information. Akane toyed a bit with the contents in her bowl, staring at them absently, and sighed.

"I also got some mail on Friday. I got assigned a dorm and everything. I've already signed them and sent them back." Her voice was soft.

Ranma smiled softly, his heart making itself uncomfortably known in his chest. He felt the little pang of whatever it was he didn't like thinking about whenever they talked about Akane going away to school.

"So you're all set, then?" he asked, trying to sound cheerful.

She nodded, her eyes hooded.

"So it was worth it to have Crazy Akane around for a while then!" he said.

Akane looked up, but she wasn't upset. The look on her face was more mortified than anything else. He supposed it reminded her of their argument, although he hadn't meant it that way. He just badly needed to change the tone of the conversation.

"You excited?" he asked her, his voice kind of flat, almost afraid of her answer.

She nodded again, this time more eager. "Oh, yes," she said. "I can't believe I'm starting University!" her voice went higher at the very end of that last phrase, and by then, her eyes were shining again. Ranma smiled. Of course she was excited. She'd worked her ass off to get to where she was, and everything had turned out exactly the way she'd planned. And true, it should be very exciting. He'd been thrilled when he'd first started his training the previous year. But he felt like pouting.

"Ne… Ranma?" she asked softly, before he could ask her anything else.

Ranma was tipping the bowl and started downing the last bits of his ice cream. He turned his eyes to her, still busy with his desert. Gods, she was a rollercoaster today, wasn't she? All pensive again…

"Mmmm?" he mumbled.

"Do you think you could…?" she started, but then trailed off.

Ranma put his bowl down.

"What?" he asked her, now very curious.

Akane sighed.

"Well… I was thinking that… maybe you could… come with me? For that weekend?" she swallowed and continued, "Help me get all settled in and things like that…?"

Something lit up in Ranma's head. He liked the idea. He didn't understand why Akane was so hesitant about it.

"Sure!" he said, feeling suddenly perky again, "Sounds great! Oh, it can be our trip for this year if we didn't go anywhere just the two of us." Ranma said enthusiastically

"Oh! You're right!" he saw Akane smile. And once more she'd forgotten her mood. Then she frowned and made a show of rubbing her tummy.

"That was great… thanks for dinner, Ranma," she said smiling, and made to stand up.

Ranma was a tad disappointed. Did she want to leave already? True, Kasumi would be wondering where they were. But she could always call home and let her know she was here, he thought.

The look on his face must have given him away, because then she said, "I'm just going to use the bathroom for a bit." And she skipped off into the house.

So she wasn't going yet. Good. Perhaps he should tell her to call Kasumi. He wanted them to stick around here a bit longer. Not that he couldn't just drop her home and then come in through the window. But there was definitely something different about being here, just the two of them. He liked it. Nevermind it also made him tense in a weird way. But he kinda liked that, too.

Before his mind started wandering, he got up and got busy dragging stuff back into the kitchen. He dropped everything and decided it was enough cleaning for one day, he could deal with dishes some other time.

When he came out of the kitchen, Akane was standing out on the porch again, staring at the night. Her neck and shoulders seemed tense. So very new, that. Maybe she was feeling the same way he was.

"You're right, Ranma…" he heard Akane whisper, her voice low, a bit breathy. "These lights are very pretty."

The fairy lights were a very nice touch, he had to admit. And his mom had been smart, he thought, and had tried to teach his sister not to be afraid of the night, by taking her out here when it was dark, turning on these soft lights, and showing her night was just as pretty as day.

Akane was quiet again. Thinking or just looking at the lights, he couldn't tell. He walked out to stand next to her. For a moment, he found the silence slightly uncomfortable and he tried to find something to say. That was when his brain informed him that, although it was just a coincidence, the lights made for quite a romantic setting as well as aiding in fighting the monsters of the dark. How could he have not seen that? He felt his heart flutter for a second, and it dawned on him, in a different way than it had before, that they were alone in his house, very, very alone, and had all the privacy they could ever want. And now he was suddenly very tense.

Oh… Ranma thought a bit desperately. Better not to go down that road. But now that his mind had offered possibilities, there was little else he could focus on.

Akane turned her head up to him. She had this glint in her eyes, he knew something was up. The problem was that he didn't know if it was a good or a bad thing. With Akane, it could go either way. And he didn't have the brains to figure it out. His thinking processes were seriously compromised now, in any case. Then she looked back towards the sky. Ranma felt his nervousness increasing as he struggled to find something to say. Anything! He started fiddling with his wrist wraps, instead. He was not supposed to remove them, but they were starting to get the better of him. He was examining them a bit absentmindedly, thinking of how much longer he'd have to wear them, and not of Akane and him alone in the house, when she looked up at him again. Ranma swallowed.

"What's wrong with them?" she asked softly.

He sighed. A bit too loudly.

"They're heavy, and a bother. And I want to lose them, but I can't work them off by myself. We help each other at school."

Akane stood up and stood within arm's reach from him.

"Dummy. You should've said so. I'll help out," she said, "let me." Her tone was both soft and commanding.

Ranma ignored her jibe, and extended his arm to her, exposing the claps on the underside of his forearm. But instead of going directly for that, she took a hold of his hand with both of hers, and pried it open, her thumbs gently caressing his palm. Her touch was soft but firm, like a massage. It made him immediately aware of her nearness, and not at all relaxed, which was probably what she'd had in mind in the first place.

One of her hands drifted upwards and started tracing patterns over the bracelet, almost caressing it, as if she were studying its texture. Ranma fancied he could actually feel her fingertips on the skin underneath the metal, even if he knew it to be impossible. His skin prickled. Then her fingers went past the bracelet. She stopped right before his elbow, her thumbs tracing circles on his skin.

Akane was taking her time. Ranma went into a bit of a trance, waiting for her next move, because he sure as hell wasn't capable of anything, the state he was in. She looked at her eyes. Her lids had dropped a bit.

"They're always warm…" she mumbled, "I figured they'd be cooler."

Ranma swallowed, her fingers tickling him, "They— They absorb the warmth from my body very quickly," he said. "They'll cool down quickly, too, after I remove them."

Their voices had dropped to hushes and whispers, as if someone was sleeping nearby and they didn't want to disturb them.

"Mmm…" Akane whispered, and then started working the clasps. She was very slow about it. It was driving Ranma a bit crazy. He wanted her to remove the damned piece of metal already and just touch the skin underneath, like she'd done his palm.

When he felt the third clasp make a little clicking noise, Ranma sighed.

But Akane still took her time cracking the thing open, and holding the two metallic pieces that formed the bracelet with both hands.

"It's so heavy", she said as she pulled it off, her voice filled with surprise. Ranma felt the air hit his skin. He closed his eyes for a second, flexing his fingers and rolling his wrist, as Akane crouched and left the thing on the floor. Then her hands went to his arm again, and started massaging the skin and muscle on the underside.

Ranma swallowed. It was sensitive. He hadn't known he was sort of ticklish there. He hadn't known it would do things to him, either.

"Yeah," he mumbled as Akane moved to free his other arm. "To build up endurance… We get stronger like that…" Ranma tried to explain. He knew there was more to the wraps than that, but that was as far as his brain was willing to cooperate. Was she doing this on purpose? If she was, then she'd gotten really good at whatever this was.

"You are. Much stronger than when we met," she said as the second wrist wrap came off. Akane left it on the floor as well. "I can tell," she said, her hands running up his arms, her eyes following the same path her hands had, "I like it. It does… it does things to me…" She looked up at him with half lidded eyes, her cheeks red.

"A-kane," he mumbled, his eyes fixed on her gaze, as both her hands rode up his biceps, slowly, then to his chest, her palms spreading out to finally rest on top of his shoulders. Her head tilted to the side slightly. Ranma wanted to kiss her. Urgently. But she just wouldn't get any closer. It was almost as if she was oblivious to what she was doing to him. He decided to cross the distance between them before she made up her mind. Whatever games she was playing at were fine by him. But he only had so much patience. And, he really needed to kiss her. His eyes closed as he leaned in. But she wasn't there, where he thought she should be.

Surprised, he opened his eyes to see her smirking slightly at him. She'd pulled back, just to tease him. It somehow charged the air between them. He craved her touch so much more than he had a mere second before. He didn't want her getting further away, so he pulled her to him none too gently, one of his arms sneaking around her waist, the other going behind her neck, cradling her head to hold her to him. And their lips finally met.

Akane's gasp, and the way she clung to him so quickly… yeah… that was hot.

Their mouths opened to let them gasp occasionally, to let their tongues drift out and caress each other. Ranma could feel Akane's chest against his, and he suddenly had a mental image of her cleavage, her breasts pushing up between them. He groaned between kisses with the need to touch more of her, and probably take a peek as well, as he used both arms to pull her even harder against him, and bit her lower lip without much gentleness. Akane gasped.

And then everything changed.

Maybe Akane hadn't been expecting to be, well… attacked. But she did retaliate. They started fighting. Her arms quickly wrapped around his neck, and her hands tried to grab hold of his hair, his neck, and keep him there, kissing her, as her mouth opened more fully. Ranma inhaled sharply, snaked his tongue into her mouth, seeking hers out hungrily. Akane whimpered. This was different. It was slightly violent. It was a bit invasive. He was inside her, somehow. It went straight to his groin, his arousal climbing higher with every passing second.

He had to touch more of her, get her closer to him, however he could. His left hand went lower and rested on top of her right buttock. He wasn't sure he'd be allowed, but decided to risk it anyway… and then she did something. She straightened up, and went up on her toes, so his hand came fully into contact with her ass as they continued to kiss, as Akane continued to rise up, getting even closer to him, lifting her right leg and wrapping it around his left. He grasped her ass as strongly as he dared. It made her moan and jump a little. And her leg snaked higher, over his thigh, and pulled him closer to her.

He couldn't help himself. His hand left her bottom and grasped the knee that rubbed against his hip. He so wanted to feel her skin. His fingers caressed her, splayed out to run up her thigh, under her dress, over her smooth skin, and back towards to her ass—

He thought there should've been a bit more underwear covering her than there actually as. What was she wearing?

—and Akane's leg tightened around him insistently. He could feel her trying to wrap herself around him. It dawned on him what she was trying to do, and he hurried to assist her, trying to hold some of her weight and pulling her up. As she made a little jump and her other leg went around him as well, Ranma held her against him, his right hand mirroring his left one, sneaking around under her thigh, then stopping at her ass as well. He felt her legs around his waist. And so, his hands were full.

Oh. This was also, definitely new.

Her dress had ridden up in front of her. Gods, that dress… He wanted to rip the buttons at the front, like he'd fantasized about so many times since he'd first seen her in it, and touch her and feel the skin of her breasts, her nipples rubbing up against the cloth of his shirt, against his chest—

Then his brain again registered the lack of underwear under his palms. So much skin… He'd expected to find her panties at some point, like he had in the past, instead there was this very narrow strip of something—

"You wearin' a-" Ranma mumbled as he continued to nip at her lips. Akane drowned his question by sucking on his tongue.

"Thong" she exhaled, her hips moving back and forth a little bit, trying to get a better hold of him.

"Oooh…" Ranma groaned. Her movements were driving him crazy, not to mention, she felt almost naked under his hands. Also new. It was too much, too quickly. Again. Would she ask that they stop? She better do that. Soon. He'd pretty much lost himself already. He wanted her so badly, it hurt. Literally. He could feel his erection straining between them, painfully reaching out to her. He wanted her to touch him. He wanted them to get closer. But his hands were gloriously full, and she was using hers to hold onto him. Her hips moved, her crotch pushing against his arousal. He groaned. Also, holding all of her weight wasn't exactly piece of cake. But he'd be damned if he complained about it. Hopefully, his arms wouldn't give out anytime soon.

Ranma swallowed, then made a quick decision, and tried to walk towards the house. Not an easy feat. He stumbled back into the kitchen, still refusing to let go of Akane's lips. Or ass. Without much grace, he dropped her on top of a counter. His hands ran up and down her thighs desperately, even as she used them to push herself up against him once more.

Her arms snaked around his torso, and her hands reached his waistband. She started tugging at his shirt until she released the hem, then Ranma felt her hands on his skin, and her uncoordinated attempts to rid him of the bit of clothing. In one quick motion, he pulled the shirt over his head. He felt the air hitting him. It was cool against his skin. He was too warm. He let the shirt fall into a heap on the floor, and then his arms went back around her. Their lips met again.

He could feel Akane's hands caressing his back, running up and down his spine, then slipping inside his pants, and underneath his boxers, tightly grabbing onto his ass.

Ranma growled low in his throat as he roughly pulled her against him, making her slide almost completely off the counter. His lips left her mouth, and opened up to caress her neck instead. Akane's head rolled back, exposing her neck to him.

"Ran-ma…"she moaned. Loudly. He'd never heard her moan quite like that before, either. It took him by surprise. He was distracted for a split second. It reminded him that they were very alone, and they were getting carried away. He inhaled her scent very deeply. It was enough. It had to be enough. He let his breath out slowly, and rested his forehead on her shoulder.

His eyes were tightly shut. He was panting. He could feel his body trembling with the effort of calming down. He was also a bit nervous. Akane wasn't doing any better either. He waited for a few seconds. She pulled him to her slowly. He felt her arms resting loosely on his shoulders. Her legs relaxed their hold on him, and dropped to rest by his sides, her ankles hooking behind his knees.

"Ak—Akane…" he gasped. He was desperately trying to reign in the sensations. He needed to make sure. He couldn't just—

But he could only feel Akane's heavy breathing, her chest rising up and down, a few inches from his lips. He wanted—

He took one deep breath. "I don't think I can—" he gasped and tried again, "I won't—I won't be able to stop, if we… if we don't—" He fell silent again. He gasped for breath. He just wanted to get back to what they were doing before. On an unconscious reflex, he pumped his hips against her, once. He realized he had no intention of stopping, not really. Unless she did it for him. And even then, she'd probably have to kick him to get through the thick haze fogging his mind. And everything else.

He felt Akane's legs slowly climbing back up, caressing the back of his own legs. She hooked her legs around his waist. Then he felt her hands against his chest. She pushed slightly.

Ranma raised his head to look at her flushed face and swollen lips. She stared at him and smiled, and then she lowered her gaze abruptly, almost as if she was embarrassed. Now she was embarrassed? It made Ranma want to smile.

"Well…" she said, then looked up at him from below her lashes. "Let's not, then," she whispered. "Stop, I mean. Let's not."

Ranma swallowed. It didn't matter that he'd been trying to calm down before. His breathing became labored in a second at the implication. His mouth reached out to hers, his lips lingering above hers, barely caressing them.

"Akane…" he whispered, his lips brushing her skin with each syllable, not quite believing this was really going to happen. He was not going to ask again… He didn't think he could ask again...

"Let's just…" she swallowed, one of her hands coming up to caress his jaw. "Let's just take it easy..." she whispered.

Ranma pulled away slightly to look into her eyes. He thought she was trying very hard not to think too much. She was a bit scared, or something that made her feel less confident than she should be. Oh, Akane… If she only understood a little bit of what she did to him. A wave of tenderness washed over him, and he nodded to her, smiling. Whatever you need, he wanted to say. But the words were stuck in his throat. He wanted to reassure her, that she was in control, and that she shouldn't be scared. Not of this. Not of them. But it was also the truth. Whatever she wanted of him, he would give her. Whatever she asked. He was completely at her mercy. No one else could make him feel so empowered, or had the power to hurt him as much she could. With no one else could he share himself like he did with her. He only hoped she trusted him half as much as he trusted her.

OOOOO

Akane stared at the wall for a few brief seconds. Then she closed her eyes. Then she gasped at a particularly intense sensation, and she opened them again. Her eyes focused on the wall again. One of the walls in Ranma's room.

It'd been all for the wrong reasons, she was well aware. She'd been so horribly sad, and it was this thing that had been eating at her for a while. She wanted to get rid of it. So she'd gone and pushed it.

In different ways, both her sisters had told her it'd be up to her. But she hadn't really understood what they'd meant. She'd thought it meant she had to prepare, to get ready. She'd thought about it constantly. Their situation was a complicated one, and perhaps she thought to release the tension by finally getting this done.

The mere way the thought was phrased in her mind had filled her with self loathing. To get it over with, to prepare for it. Deep inside her, she'd known her reasons were all wrong. It wasn't something she could reason herself in or out of, really. There was little intellect to be involved. And more important, she'd forgotten how much she wanted him, and how well they'd always fit together.

She hadn't admitted it to herself as she walked into the bathroom and removed her bra. Calculating. But while she unclasped Ranma's wrist wraps, she'd finally admitted how twisted it'd been of her to think and behave the way she had. She felt guilty. Like a manipulative hussy. But then she'd started going with it. And she'd been reminded of what she'd forgotten; how much she wanted him, how much she loved him, how well they matched. In most things.

And his desire, they way he gasped and moaned, the way he clung to her, how his voice came out uneven against her neck as he said her name between shaky breaths… how he looked at her…

It was nothing she could have calculated. It might have been for the wrong reasons, why she'd pushed, but now it felt right all the same. His desire was infectious. His fever contagious. And she was so turned on by how he responded to her. It made her bolder, it made her lose her inhibitions. And in return, Ranma grew a bit wilder, which turned her on even more.

Oh Gods, his hands on her! She just couldn't get enough. She wanted him everywhere, in every way she could think of. She liked the soft caresses, and the rough ones too. He'd never been as forceful with her as he'd was being now. Sometimes he'd manhandle her, as a tease, more of a joke than anything else. But now it was possessive. Like he couldn't help himself. Akane didn't know she could want it so much, to want him to take control, literal, physical control of the situation, and command her. She'd been even more surprised at how she'd reveled in her loss of action. She would never, ever forget that kitchen counter, how cold its surface had felt against her thighs, how roughly Ranma had pulled her to him. How she'd twitched all over and gotten more excited than she'd ever been.

Most surprising of all, had been him, as usual, which shouldn't have been all that surprising to begin with. On the verge of losing whatever shred of control he had, he'd still given her the chance to take it all back, still seen through the fog that she was sure was clouding his mind as much as it'd been clouding hers.

Akane had known with all certainty that she could always trust him. It had taken all this time. But now, she was glad she'd planned. Because no matter how things happened, she wanted them to, with all her heart. It would only be right.

And now… Oh Gods… she never wanted it to stop. The sensations, being so close to him… and there was so much skin everywhere, and so much heat. Anywhere they touched, her skin felt feverish. She hadn't known what to expect. Ever since they'd been together, she'd felt desire plenty of times. They had little by little learned what made the other tick, more or less. But there had always been barriers between them: either timing, or people nearby, or too many clothes, or shyness or whatever. Her knowledge of him was a collection of bits. She supposed it was the same for him.

But now, here, with no one to walk in on then, and so naked and close to each other…

Akane was melting with yearning. She didn't quite understand why she hadn't given up all her shields until now. Perhaps she was still holding onto some stupid sense of propriety out of sheer idiocy. Why not give in to it? Give into the moment. Give into him. Give into her own desire, for god's sakes!

Akane sighed and tried to move her slightly sore legs, which she was only just now taking some notice of. Ranma was breathing heavily, lying next to her. She laid on her side, curling a little bit, her hands close to her mouth. Her eyes fell on Ranma, who was lying flat on his stomach, his head turned towards her to look at her through heavily lidded eyes.

"No words…" he mumbled, his eyes closing.

Akane smiled. She hadn't any words either. It was so indescribable she was beyond words. He could see some of his hair plastered to his face, his cheeks were all red. She wondered what she looked like. Probably just as messy and exhausted.

Akane felt another tremor run through her, the ghost feeling of him filling her still with her. Her eyes shut and she hissed at the sensation, rubbing her legs together. She couldn't help it. But the next second she felt a bit embarrassed at the way she'd reacted. She shut her eyes a bit more.

Her hands had balled into fists, but she only noticed when she felt Ranma's fingers trying to sneak around hers. He clasped his hand between one of hers, and pulled it towards him a bit. His lips grazed her knuckles.

"Are you okay?" she heard him ask, his voice a bit cracked.

Akane opened her eyes.

Ranma's stare was still sleepy, but also a bit concerned. She nodded slightly, and she tried to get a bit closer to him as his thumb started moving lazily over the back of his hand.

"What… what was that, just now?" he asked again.

Akane felt like blushing.

"I don't know… It felt like…" she swallowed, and closed her eyes, forcing the words out "It was as if I… could still feel… you. Inside me," she finished in a tiny voice.

She couldn't believe how shy she was feeling all of a sudden. She felt Ranma's breath over her knuckles. And another aftershock took her by surprise. She sort of moaned and closed her eyes, her body riding the unexpected waves of pleasure.

Ranma's eyes were a bit more open now.

"So… that means that you could… keep going?" he asked.

Akane wanted to crawl under a rock and die, she was so embarrassed. And her body continued to betray her. She nodded again. "I guess so…", she said. Ranma closed his eyes.

"Oh, gods… That's…" he sighed, his voice low. "That's so hot…"

Akane's heart, which had calmed down quite a bit by now, started hammering in her chest just at the sound of his voice.

Ranma buried his head into the pillow. Akane heard his sharp intake of breath, and felt his grip on her hand grow stronger for a moment. Then he mumbled something unintelligible into the pillow.

"What?" she asked.

She saw him take a deep breath again, his shoulders lift slightly off the bed. His voice came muffled, and she had to strain to hear it.

"Just now…" he said, "you didn't…?"

Akane blinked a few times.

"What?" she asked again, as no more information was forthcoming.

She heard Ranma groan a little bit, then he turned his head to look at her again. He sighed.

"You said you were fine… but you didn't… you didn't—"

Oh. Something clicked in Akane's brain. He was going to say it, and she was going to—

"—finish just now, did you…" he said, his voice trailing off. But his eyes were fixed on hers, almost too awake for her taste.

"Well…" she tried, "I didn't, just now… no."

"Oh…" he mumbled. He sighed. "I'm… sorry..."

"Oh, Ranma," she said, and caressed his knuckles with her lips. "How is that… your fault?" she wondered what it was she wanted to say. "I don't really think it's… compulsory requirement… to enjoy all this", she finished somewhat lamely, although it was also true. "None of this feels… incomplete."

"Mmmm…" he mumbled, and stared at her, hard.

"I mean… It was still amazing…" she tried, "to see you like that… to know we can be like that together…" Not to mention that just thinking about it was getting her all hot and bothered again.

"Mmmm". He mumbled again, his eyes drifting shut.

"And besides," she continued, suddenly more confident… "I did… you know, finish… before."

Ranma opened his eyes in a hurry, and smirked.

"Oh, yes you did…" he said, and lifted up a bit to briefly kiss her mouth before dropping his head on the pillow, his eyes closed.

Akane sighed, and listened to Ranma's breathing, which had already grown heavy. She closed her eyes, and tried to drift off.

But she was suddenly feeling too self conscious. Her body felt hot and cold at the same time. Her face was burning. They were still too naked, there was nothing covering them. She opened her eyes, half expecting Ranma to be looking at her. But no. He was out.

Her eyes drifted around, looking at whatever she could see. She stared at Ranma's hand, still loosely holding hers. She stared at his fingers—

She closed her eyes, sighed, and tried to calm down and not think about those fingers.

But her eyes opened again.

There was absolutely no way she could go to sleep now. Everything was on overload. She could understand Ranma being tired. Heck, she was just as tired as hell, probably, but still too excited, and now too self conscious, to go to sleep.

She stared at Ranma some more, at the arm she could see, and a bit lower, the rise of his buttocks close to her folded legs—

She swallowed, closed her eyes and sighed again. With her eyes closed, she tried to focus on the noises of night time, on Ranma's breathing, on her own breathing.

It must have worked and helped her gone to sleep, because the next thing she knew, was that she was feeling very stiff, and a bit too cold, and that it was late and she hadn't called anybody to let them know where she'd gone.

That made her gasp loudly. It woke Ranma up.

Akane cursed herself mentally. She tried to sit up, rising up on her elbows, her muscles protesting a bit. She felt Ranma moving beside her.

"What…" he asked, still a bit sleepy.

"I…" she was a bit disoriented. "What time is it?" she looked around for a clock. She was suddenly too awake. She'd forgotten to be worried about her nakedness…

…until she felt Ranma's very warm hand splayed on her chest, close to her throat. He forced her back down to the bed, on her back. He was lying on his side now, his arm wrapping along her torso, spooning her back against his chest. His hand wrapped loosely around her breast.

In spite of the sudden urgency, Akane felt comforted by his warmth, and the feel of his body against her back, and around her.

"You're cold…" she heard his voice close to her ear. "You should have gotten under the covers".

"Maybe," she answered a bit absently. "I didn't want to wake you…"

She felt his warm lips nuzzling the back of her neck. She wanted to sigh and melt against him. He was like a big comfort blanket. Perhaps she could go to sleep.

"Dummy…I'd have gone right back to sleep anyway…"

"Oh, shoot," she said when she remembered what had woke her up in the first place, that she couldn't go to sleep because she needed to get home, or at the very least call.

"What?"

"I never called home… I need to get back…"

"Mmmm…" he said. And sighed. It tickled her skin and gave her goosebumps. Then she felt him stretch over her and reach out his arm to grab the alarm clock on his bedside table she hadn't been able to look at before.

She was so done for. She could see his muscles stretching, his warmth all around her. Everything he did sent her heart fluttering and made her sigh. It was a weird combination, feeling all that yearning with a bit of guilt mixed in as well. To imagine just today she'd been thinking that… that…

But she'd gone on ahead and pushed their relationship to a deeper level. Which wasn't a bad thing. From where she was right now it felt natural, but…

But she'd forgotten to call home.

She should really get going.

But she was probably a major mess.

"Midnight…" he said

"Crap…" she sighed.

Ranma scratched his head.

"It's not that late…" he offered. "You can say we…ahhh… went for a later dinner or something and forgot to call?"

"Maybe."

"You're tense again. C'mon. Just call home. I'll walk you."

"Mmm… yeah. Thanks" she said, reluctantly sitting up. She didn't know what to do, to get dressed, or half dressed, or just run out to the bath. She looked at their clothes lying around all over the place. Her mind flashed her a glimpse of Ranma's shirt, lying somewhere in the kitchen floor.

Ranma was next to her hastily collecting his black trousers and pulling them on. He stood up and walked to the closet. Akane heard the sliding doors being opened and shut. Her eyes were very pointedly fixed out the window.

"Here," Ranma said, suddenly in front of her. Akane looked up to see him holding a very standard t-shirt that she didn't think Ranma'd ever worn. She stared at him stupidly for a second before he started pulling it over her head.

"Thanks," she said, and smiled at him.

Ranma was looking serious.

"A—Akane…?" he asked her tilting his head as his hand cupped her ear, his voice uncertain. "Are you alright?"

She looked at him, saw him blink. He was frowning. Of course he'd get worried if she started freaking out. Well… she was slightly freaked out. Too many emotions swimming about. Also, she wanted to have another go, and she wanted to go to sleep in his bed, but she wanted to go home. And she was so, so messy.

"Would you… would you like to…" his hand traveled from her ear to scratching his head again, the gesture showing some nervousness she hadn't realized he might've been feeling. "Maybe we could… take a bath? Before we go?"

Akane imagined the warm water. The idea of soothing her muscles and cleaning up soothed her brain as well, and she felt instantly easier. She smiled at him. "Bath sounds good."

He offered her his hand and pulled her up. Ranma looked at her, his hand coming up to caress her cheek her cheek again. He lined up his body to hers, and Akane leaned into him a bit. It was as if they couldn't stop touching each other.

"Go call home, then. I'll draw the bath." He leaned in and kissed her cheek, then walked out of the room.

Akane sighed, stared around for a bit, and stack back down on the bed to try to gather her wits. Maybe Ranma was onto something. She wasn't alright. Physically, she felt wonderful. She felt in love, too. So much. But there was more, and she just couldn't ease her mind. Her stomach clenched a bit. She shook her head and took a deep breath. Counted her blessings. She tried to think of what to tell Kasumi when she answered the phone.

After a few minutes, and not trusting her legs very much, Akane stood up slowly, her movements a bit clumsy. Yep, shaky legs. Slowly, trying not to crash into anything, she made her way to the living room, where she knew the phone was, all the while ignoring the strange and awesome sensations still plaguing her body.

It took some courage to dial, and it almost made her heart stop when the answer was so very quick, but she was somehow relieved to hear it was Nabiki.

"Tendo Household", was the bored voice on the other side.

"Eee… Nabiki-oneechan?"

"Oh, Akane… bout time you called."

"What are you…?"

"Just popped in for a visit. And good time I chose for it too. Where are you? Kasumi is a bit worried. She hasn't gone to bed yet."

"Oh Gods, I'm so sorry... I just… I lost track of time. It's just that— ah—"

"You lost track of time…" it was her sister's flat tone that undid whatever cool she may had managed to get before calling. She could hear the water running in the quietness of the house. She could hear the kitchen radio as well.

"Ahh… yeah. The thing is that, we went to… ah… that concert thing, and afterwards it was still a bit early, so we… ah…" Akane's voice exhausted itself. Whatever she'd thought to say, she'd completely forgotten. She tried again, feeling her cheeks flush. "We didn't really plan to… ahh… do something else after, but it just sort of…"

"Oh. Okay. Eloquent. So you didn't plan to do something else. But you did— Oh… Oh!" Akane could hear Nabiki's smile. Her voice changed. "Okay… so… I'll let Kasumi know that the late showing you went to just got out, and that you're on your way. It will take you… what? An hour?"

"Ahhh… late showing?" Akane was just not catching on.

"Yeah, that movie you were telling me about a couple of weeks ago. Which one was it? The one with loads of martial arts in them? Couldn't care less, not my cup of tea, really…" Akane could imagine her sister playing with the phone, twisting the cord around her fingers.

"Oh… ok. Yeah. That one. Just finished. I'll be home in a while. Ranma'll walk me."

"Of course he will."

"Oneechan…" Akane was worried.

"Don't sweat it, sis. Should I wait up?"

"I rather you didn't. And Kasumi either? I'll go straight to bed. It's been a long day and I'm very tired."

"I'll bet you are..."

"Ahhh… thank you." Akane said through clenched teeth, her sister's sarcasm getting on her nerves a bit. Never mind she was getting the help she needed.

"Like I said, don't sweat it. But you're definitely talking to me tomorrow." Nabiki sighed and mumbled. "At least someone's having fun in this house— oh! Oneechan's staring daggers at me from the kitchen. Gotta go. See you tomorrow. Ja!"

And before she could reply, the line went dead.

Akane sighed and hung up. Then she shivered. She didn't know if she was feeling actually cold, or if her sister gave her the chills. In any case, it'd been so lucky that she'd been home. Akane didn't know what she would've said if it'd been Kasumi answering instead. Nerves…

Ohh… that bath sounded amazing. She closed her eyes imagining the wonders of warm water, when Ranma's voice startled her.

"I just filled it up a bit more—"

Akane jumped a little bit, and turned around to look at him still wearing his pants only. Her heartbeat was loud in her ears.

"—so you can go in now. I'll join you in a bit."

Akane nodded dumbly, and stared as Ranma moved closer and embraced her. She rested her hands on his chest, and closed her eyes.

"You're cold…" she said, her voice rough. She smelled soap on his skin.

"I just washed quickly… Go on, have your bath."

Akane nodded against his cool skin, and started moving away, holding onto one of his hands as she did so. She sort of didn't want to let go, or be apart for too long.

"I'll wash quickly, too."

She saw Ranma nod before she disappeared around the hallway and into the bathroom.

The warmth was nice, the humidity so familiar. And Nabiki was covering for her. Everything was taken care of. And Ranma… could well be waiting just outside the door for her to be submerged. That was kind of cute. And truth be told, it did make her a lot more comfortable to be washing up in privacy. But it was still strange. After everything. She was quick and thorough, and after only a few minutes she was enjoying the sensation of dipping into the warm water little by little. The tub was large and comfortable. Much like the one at home. A massive sigh escaped her. Which was followed by a quiet knock on the door.

And whatever level of relaxations she's managed to grasp fled in a second at the thought or Ranma coming in and settling next to her in the bath. Her heart started hammering away both from nervousness and excitement. Ranma's nerness always did things to her. All kinds of things. But today everything was on overload.

"Come in" she called in a somewhat shaky voice.

She realised she should probably just accept that's what it was. An overload of her senses that she'd never experienced, and didn't know how quite to deal with. Perhaps Ranma was feeling the same way, only he had the added stress of dealing with her own freaked out self. Sayuri was right. The man was a saint.

And when Ranma went through the motions of quietly opening and closing the door and removing his clothes, she also realized she was suddenly feeling incredibly shy.

Of all things…

But it was true. As Ranma sank in the water next to her, she was so very aware of his nearness, that she hadn't been able to look at him at all, instead fixing her sight on the ripples on the water.

She heard him sigh.

"So… how did it go?"

For a second, Akane wasn't sure what he was asking about, and started getting even more embarrassed, before she was able to clear her thoughts.

"Aaahhh…" she started. "Not sure… Nabiki picked up, and she was so on to me." Akane tried to chuckle at the situation, but realized she couldn't.

"But… will it be okay? That you're out so late?"

Akane turned her eyes to look at his profile. Ranma's gaze seemed to also be fixed somewhere completely irrelevant. It gave her a bit of a reprieve from her own nervousness.

"She made up a cover story for—" her voice stammered, "well— when she realized—" Crap, she couldn't even put a phrase together! "Aaahhhhhh!" she tried to vent out some of her frustration.

She heard Ranma chuckling next to her, and felt his hand grasp hers. She jumped a little.

"I… sorta… dunno how to behave. In the bath. With you. After, you know… that…" he said.

Akane felt sudden butterflies in her stomach, which only intensified when she looked at him, and saw his bright red cheeks, and his eyes still focused on the water. But he was smiling.

"It's… weird…" he finished with a sigh, and then he looked at her.

Akane was frozen for a fraction of a second, fighting the impulse to look away, embarrassed to be caught staring. But then she thought how silly that was, and how sweet her boyfriend was, and the butterflies increased in a very good way. It made her giggle.

Ranma tilted his head, a question clear in his eyes.

Akane's eyes got a bit rounder, and she choked a bout of laughter.

"Yep, me too… weird…" she said, and giggled some more. Then she laughed. It wasn't explosive, but it was a laugh alright, and it washed most of the tension out of her.

Ranma was still smiling.

"How stupid is that?" Akane continued, then sighed, and scooted closer to him.

"Good weird?" Ranma asked.

"Ooohhh… dunno yet…" she said, and tilted her head to rest it on Ranma's shoulder. "But as long as we're being weird together, I don't think I mind either way."

She heard him take a deep breath, and sigh theatrically. She hadn't realized he'd been so tense, but it was clear that he had been, now that the tension had apparently left him. He leaned back on the tiles at the edge of the tub, and looked at the ceiling.

Akane scooted yet a bit closer, and did the same as he did, closing her eyes as Ranma suddenly forgot to be shy, and started asking her all kinds of embarrassing questions about what had just happened. And embarrassing as it was, it gave her the opening she needed to tell him that she'd been on contraceptives for months, just in case. Ranma's reaction to that had been a broad, broad smile. She felt much better for telling him after that.

Later that night, after they'd ran back to the dojo all properly dressed and presentable, which had turned out to be completely unnecessary, as Nabiki had cleared the coast for them, Akane was back in her own bed, on her side, turned towards Ranma who was lying flat on his back wearing the same outfit he'd been wearing all day.

She was trying to go to sleep. Listening to his heartbeat or his breathing would've normally done it. But now that she was again in her head, she was trying to be relaxed and not think about the fact that the day had turned out the way it had because she'd been sad about their future, and she'd needed to do something drastic to get rid of her extremely unwelcome thoughts.

She tried not to think of how she'd decided to just try and go for it, how she'd insisted on going to Ranma's house knowing no one would be there. And how she'd gone to the bathroom to remove her bra and changed her underwear for something that made her feel like a slightly different person that might be able to take charge.

Maybe she could've chosen to talk to him about the stuff going through her mind, like she did most of the times, instead of jumping him like that.

Did her sadness and confused heart make everything less… genuine? She somehow believed they did. Or she wouldn't have been fighting with her head right now.

Akane sighed, did a show of stretching a bit, and getting more comfortable, and tried to force her breathing into a heavy pattern to help her sleep. For all her concerns, she also felt so contented. Thank God she was completely exhausted. That definitely helped. Luckily for her, she was asleep before she started drowning in her thoughts.

OOOOO

As Ranma stared at Akane's ceiling, too awake and pumped up to rest, he listened to his girlfriend trying to go to sleep.

He absently wondered what it could be that was keeping her awake, knowing at the same time that he really didn't want to know, and suspecting it might have to do with their upcoming separation. He could understand that. He tried deepening his breathing to influence her. It served to calm him as well.

He sighed.

The way he saw it, he was totally and completely doomed. He was going to miss her like crazy. He wanted to propose before she left. He wondered whether he might still feel like marrying her if it hadn't been forced on him. But it was a moot point. Things had happened how they'd happened, and there was nothing he could do to change anything. The only think that mattered was that he wanted her in his life, for as long as she would have him.

Would she feel trapped or forced to stay behind if he somehow managed to ask her? He didn't want to cut her flight short in any way. Or his. And in any case, he'd rather follow her, if she'd let him, if she'd only let him in on her plans.

But he still didn't know what it was she was really feeling. If she'd accept or not. Maybe she wasn't there just yet. Her nervousness just tonight had him second guessing. Then again, he'd been tense, too. It'd been a heady experience.

It'd given him the chills how out of sorts Akane had been afterwards, and how awkward they'd seemed around each other. He hoped it didn't mean anything. He hoped it hadn't really damaged what balance they had between them, and that it was just the left over excitement.

But he'd made up his mind, now. He wanted to ask her. He couldn't wait to ask her. It wasn't going to be a problem anymore, unless anyone spilled the beans on the family promise. And he'd already taken care of that. Plus, Kasumi was on his side as well.

He just needed to pay attention, find the right moment, and say the right words, and hope he wouldn't chicken out when the time came.

To be continued in next chapter "Life's Like That."

Author notes:

.2016

About "that" scene:

I always knew there'd be some heavily implied intimacy, or as much as I could write of it, before Akane left for college. These types of scenes… well, everybody knows they are tricky for many reasons. Personally, I wanted to write something meaningful, which to some extent reflected a bit of their personalities. But it's also only just about writing and reading smut. I'm so sorry. It happens. Never intended to write so much of it, though. I didn't want to add any more warnings at the beginning of this chapter or anything like that than I have done already through the years, because I've been warning people about the rating for ages. I didn't want to spoil anything, although I'm sure everyone saw it coming.

This is the first time I've ever written anything so graphical. It was a difficult scene, not to write per se, but to think about and plan. I thought about it for a very long time, I thought of synonyms for a very long time (oh gods the synonyms). I procrastinated instead of writing. Generally, I mull things over, slowly, without rushing anything, until something starts flowing out almost without my noticing. But this time it was turning out to be so fruitless, that for a while I'd decided I wouldn't write much, and leave it all to the readers' imagination. Honest, that's what I was going to do with this scene. Imagine my surprise when I finally started writing it and I just couldn't stop. I mean, really, I just couldn't stop. I really don't know what came over me! I suppose I'm a lot more shallow and basic than I'd sometimes like to give myself credit for. So. Comments are very much appreciated. But like I said, rating's there for a reason. And I'm only a fanfic writer, people. Now, let it be said I really don't think I'll be writing anything like this again in this story, because it won't be milestone anymore, so it wouldn't make sense. Not really. I mean, couples have sex. At least every once in awhile. It's implied. Not necessary to be describing it every single time, is it?

I'm feeling very vulnerable and uncomfortable posting all this, by the way. But oh well. At least I hope at least some of you have enjoyed it. If it did at least that, then I'm happy. And of course I'm all for constructive criticism.

I also hope there were sufficient sweet moments to be forgiven for the angsty cliffhanger from the previous chapter.

But do not be fooled, people! We still have quite a way to go.

Did anybody read the beginning of this chapter as Ranma doing exactly the same thing that Akane does? Submerging in his studies? I think he's better at denial than she ever was, only he does it less often. Also, did anyone get the reference that when people get close, you're bound to get hurt but need to learn to deal with it to move on? How lame am I? Hahaha. I literally laughed at myself, out loud. When I was writing that, I really didn't know why I was doing it, or why it went the way it did. I only figured it out after I'd typed the last bit. And then I laughed. I should be writing self help books.

Sayuri takes up after one of my very close friends from Uni, who just can't keep her mouth shut :). About anything. Gods, she's a laugh. She made me cringe often when I was younger though.

About timing and exams and summer vacations and etc… Are you confused about it? Well so am I! I've tried to figure out exactly how it goes, but I just can't get the Japanese academic year. So I've given up trying and fitting into the story. Just please take it as it comes.

Also, please don't laugh at me, but I always forgot to mention this. When I started writing this fic, I hadn't read or watched that many high school stories before. I didn't know school carnivals were the norm. Seriously! There went my brilliant idea. I apologize for lack of research. At least I can take some credit for Senior Vengeance Day! I haven't that seen in any anime so far, only at Chilean high schools :)

I hope you have enjoyed this very Ranma-and-Akane centric chapter. The next bits will have them interacting with a lot more different people. That's as big a hint as I can offer.

Thanks for reading!