It was a stormy April morning in Furinkan. A week after the cherry blossoms had bloomed and darted across the sky to the delight of schoolchildren beginning a new year and office workers taking time out to "view the flowers" with booze, The flattened, wrinkled, petals brushed up against the narrow roads as the rain poured over the city. Amid the din of thunder, and of water hitting pavement, chain link fences, and rooftops, several screams and thudding noises could be heard.

"Just lay off for once in your miserable life, you annoying pig!" shouted a red-haired girl in a red chinese style shirt and black silk pants as she alternately ran away from and bounded towards a young man, at least a head taller, wearing a poncho, coat, rainhat, and carrying a large umbrella. She had been repeating this run away, turn, fight off, run away again pattern since school had ended that day.

The young man, to his credit, while winded and obviously bruised, was keeping up the pace.

"Not a chance, you...scoundrel! How dare you hurt Akane like that! Flirting with Shampoo AND Ukyo during lunch and dragging Akane's reputation in the mud! Don't you have any honor, Ranma?"

"Please, Ryouga, That wasn't my fault! I got blindsided cause I fell asleep in class!" She yelled at the young man while, in the same breath, muttering "Besides I'm sure that uncute tomboy was just gonna subject me to another one of her Home Ec. experiments. I mean, you're her cooking partner, you know I'm not full of it!"

"Again with the insults! Aren't you two engaged? Don't you have any pride as a man?" Ranma stopped and turned around, a look of irritation in her eyes.

"Hah! Coming from a pig who sleeps with Akane, that's rich," she exclaimed as she jumped towards him, covering the gap in a single bout, landing on the boys shoulder.

She yelled, "Kachuu Tenshin Amaguriken Revised: Thousand Moth Strike!" and threw a barrage of punches, seemingly to the empty air around his head and knocking his umbrella almost out of his hands. Ranma then, using Ryouga as leverage, jumped off of the confused boy and bounded down the road once more.

Ryouga, knocked somewhat off balance regained his composure. He yelled at the slowly fading girl, "Ranma! You coward of a man! Did you think that pathetic excuse for an attack would work. You missed me the whole-, " Ryouga was cut short as his hat, unbrella, and raincoat began coming apart at the seams and enough rain had made it though that the boy, once again a small pig, struggled to breathe as he wriggled his way from his clothing and pack.

At the same time, the Ranma looked back, no longer seeing Ryouga pursuing him and, figuring him lost or wet, slowed down her sprint.

"Hah. What a chump... at least I'm getting more of a workout than I ever did with Kuno. But man, what was up with that bull about 'male pride'?" She slowed down to a saunter as she neared her home.

"Hell, I'm Ranma Saotome, man among men. I got more honor and manliness in my pinky than most men have in their- achu!" Ranma sneezed in a short, by some measure cute, burst of sound.

"Jeez, I'm gonna get sick for sure..." she said to herself, picking up her pace as she entered the Tendou Dojo.

Ranma entered the Tendou Dojo, sniffling, trying to hold in the contents of her nose until she could make it to the bathroom. She barely made it past the entryway when she announced her presence with a loud sneeze, leaving her face and shirt covered in mucous.

"Crap." she said, continuing her walk into the bathroom

"Ranma? Is that you?" A warm voice said distantly. Ranma poked her head out of the bathroom and said, "Yeah Kasumi, Just changing. Got soaked out there and I think I'm getting sick." She then turned on the sink to wash her face.

"All Right. Dinner should be ready in an hour. Are any of your friends coming over tonight?"

"Kasumi?" Ranma cocked her head and asked, unsure, "what friends?"

"Oh, your friends from school. That nice Ukyo girl from Kyoto, our friends from China, and that nice Ryouga boy."

"Kasumi!" She yelled, half out of anger and half to project her voice over the sound of the sink, "those are people who want to marry me or kill me. Sometimes both. They're not my friends!"

Kasumi laughed a little to herself and said, once more up the stairway, "In any case, should we be expecting any of them?"

"I don't think so, if they got any sense they'll stay home tonight" she replied, muttering "not like that ever stopped them before."

Ranma turned off the faucet, removed her clothes, and took a bath. As he was soaking in the tub, gaining back some of his body temperature, Ranma closed his eyes and began to reflect.

It had been two years since Ranma Saotome and his father had settled down in Nerima with the Tendous. In that year, all sorts of adventures and people had emerged, seemingly haphazardly intersecting their lives and actions around Ranma: Akane, Kuno, Ryouga, Kodachi, Shampoo, Ukyo, Mousse, Happousai, the old crone, and countless others. As much as any one in Ranma's social circle would deny it (him most of all), after the failed wedding attempt, they had settled into something of an equilibrium.

Having to join together against true threats: Pantyhose Taro, Herb and the Musk Dynasty, Kumon Ryu, and Saffron, among others had bonded the various martial artists. Even a relatively minor threat like Principal Kuno required something of a cease fire. Hell, that was one threat even Tatewaki could get through his skull. Among the saner martial artists, there had emerged a sense of mutual respect. Sometimes, maybe, even friendship. Shampoo, Mousse, and Ryouga had eased off on the attacks and started attending school along with Ranma, Akane, and Ukyo.

There were still the same tensions, but usually, balance was maintained. The events of the wedding seemed to have a sobering effect on everyone. To Ranma, even if he couldn't quite articulate it in such a manner, it seemed that they had entered into something of a detente, and that any one person's actions, if taken too far, could conceivably destroy them all. It wasn't ideal, since no one ever enjoys mutually assured destruction, but it meant that Ranma had more time to think in the tub.

It was in these recently increasing introspective moments that he realized this stability. As long as there were no big changes, things could stay relatively peaceful and he could live out the last year of high school in relative peace. He might even live to see the new millenium, with his enemies/ rivals/ fiancees as real friends. Nothing had to change, least of all himself.

Ukyo seemed to be easing off, though having a hard time balancing herself between being a good friend and wanting to be more. Ryouga had been spending his weekends with Akari and at Ucchans during the week, renting a room and getting led to school by Ukyo or Konatsu in the mornings. The routine thankfully seemed to reduce his pent up anger towards Ranma, as well as his lack of direction, with only ocassional outbursts that tended to be more like extended sparring matches than duels to the death.

Mousse had taken the downtime to dive into his studies, proving to be brilliant in math and science and even picking up English, claiming the grammar made more sense than Japanese did. Shampoo was a tougher nut to crack, but the old ghoul had kept her in line, for the most part. The first day she and Mousse came to school, Cologne had explained to Ranma that she was willing to take a back seat on the marriage issue and wait him out and, in the meanwhile, Shampoo may as well take advantage of the Japanese educational system. This did little to ease Ranma's fears and a small, but significant amount of time was spent maneuvering her away so that he didn't have to end up in any awkward situations. It was stressful, but he usually was able to avoid any awkward moments these days. Today had been an unfortunate exception.

Then there was Akane. She was so irritating sometimes. He couldn't understand how one girl could be so frustrating and yet...

Yet...

Yet, he knew in his heart he felt something for her that was different than what he had for others, even his other female friends like Ukyo. He thought it was love. At Jusendo, it felt like it couldn't be anything else. But he couldn't be sure yet. He wasn't sure about a lot of things. Ranma worried about what would happen in the future, but he was hopeful that he could keep the peace, at least until high school finished. Maybe afterwards he could do some real soul searching.

"Yes, what's important was keeping the peace," thought Ranma. "Even if it means I gotta stay tough, I'll do it." His mind wandered , contemplating these things he was a bulwark against. The things he thought he had put away, locked in the darkest corner of his mind until Jusenkyo came and washed over him, both literally and emotionally. Shaking his head, Ranma started to think about something else, anything else. Nothing else came but a dull ache in his heart. He threw his face into the warm water, lying still for a few minutes.

Afterwards, with a deep breath, Ranma stood up in the tub suddenly, punch himself in the temple, muttering angrily "You idiot. Just shut up."

Exiting the tub, he changed into a fresh pair of clothes and sauntered downstairs for dinner.

As he was entering the living room, breathing out slightly and, attempting a somewhat forced air of joviality, said "Yo Kasumi, what's for-" before being blindsided by a punch which threw him out towards the garden and its koi pond.

As the splash subsided, the owner of the fist that sucker-punched Ranma ran towards the edge of the porch, the bottom of her school uniform dripping a bit of water across the living room.

"Ranma, you idiot! Letting Ukyo and Shampoo hang all over you like that at lunch! You're the worst kind of man!"

"Welcome back Akane. So nice to -achoo!- see ya," Ranma said as she walked back into the house, wringing out her shirt on the deck.

"Well? Don't you have anything to say for yourself, you, you, you pervert?" Akane shouted to him, knowing that it usually garnered a response from him. This time however, Ranma just sighed as she slowly walked upstairs, sniffling her nose and sneezing as she made her way towards her room to change clothes. Again.

This time, Ranma came downstairs to find that dinner was laid out, A simple meal of broiled fish, rice, pickles, and soup. Sitting down, she started to eat, but after a minute began to slow down, then stopped. She seemed to be staring down at her food, sighing slightly.

"Ranma? Is there something wrong?" Kasumi asked, tilting her head slightly. Ranma looked up, snapping to attention.

"Hmm? Oh, um... I dunno. Don't feel so hot. I think I'm getting sick"

"I hope it wasn't being caught in the rain."

"Yeah. I took a bath as soon as I got home, but then someone decided I needed to get soaked again."

"Well maybe if you weren't so lovesick for Shampoo, you wouldn't have gotten ill."

"I was trying to tell you! Shampoo snuck up cause I fell asleep in English. Ucchan was just trying to pry her off. I was trying to figure out what was going on and get out of that Amazon's deathgrip when you showed up cause you forgot your lunch."

"Of course! You just 'fell asleep' and she took advantage? Please! You let her get too close!"

"Ranma! Is this true, son?" interjected Soun, almost on cue.

"Why are you acting so dishonorably child? Aren't you a man?" added Ranma's father, as he started taking food from the now startled Ranma's plate.

"I-! ugh! I don't have time for this. Excuse me, I think I'm gonna go to bed early..." Ranma stood up and went.

"Ranma! Get back here! You idiot! Girl-boy! Pervert!" Akane yelled at the slinking redhead. At first her voice was full of righteous anger, which faltered as Ranma slowly made it upstairs. Akane had notice something glinting on Ranma's cheek.

"A tear?" she whispered to herself. The room then became quiet as the family ate in silence.

In the middle of the night, Ranma woke up, Her father was fast asleep next to him. As she sit up, she noticed her head get light as well as the sweat on the pillow. If she felt a bit unsettled at dinner, she was definitely catching a cold. She stood up and fanned herself, suddenly sneezed, and then started shivering. She grabbed a blanket and went downstairs.

Akane couldn't sleep. She kept thinking about what she briefly saw as Ranma went upstairs. A string of thoughts ran through her head repeatedly and she could seem to stop it: Why was Ranma crying? True, maybe she was unfair about what had happened, but she had done far worse (deservedly every time) and he never seemed to take it in any way other than in stride. After all Ranma was a martial artist who bought into that "man among men" tripe his dad spouted. It's not like his feelings could be hurt that easily... right?

She heard some movement coming from Ranma's room and, after waiting a minutes, Akane exited her room to see Ranma slowly walk downstairs.

"39 huh? No wonder I feel lousy," a voice softly remarked to the quiet house.

She slowly followed until she sat down in the living room. From that distance, Akane could make out the girl Ranma as she put down a thermometer, filled a bag with ice and put a kettle on the stove.

"Want some tea,'kane?" The flat soprano voice asked between shivers.

"Ranma! I-uh... okay," Akane sheepishly replied.

A few minutes later Ranma sat down, offering Akane a mug, then sitting down. Ranma placed the bag of ice on her forehead and just sighed.

"Couldn't sleep? Hope my sneezing didn't wake ya." Ranma quietly said, trying to cut the tension.

Akane stiffened a bit, "Oh, um, no. I was just... thinking"

"Look Akane, Sorry about that. I'll try and keep my guard up. Even if trying to learn English is as dull as dirt."

"No. It's...don't worry about that. Sorry about throwing you in the pond. I didn't realize you were sick."

"S'okay. Probably more Ryouga's fault anyway since he was defending your honor or somethin'. Hope he made it home okay in the rain."

"Ranma, That's awfully sweet of you to say! You must be ill." Akane lightly nudged Ranma's shoulder.

"Hey, don't tease. He's a pain in my butt sometimes, but he means well... ya know, when uses his brain and doesn't try to kill me." Ranma giggled a bit, but the giggling turned into coughing.

Afterwards, things were quiet. The two sat silently for 20 minutes, the only sound being the occasional sip and setting down of teacups. After Akane had finished her tea she looked at her sick fiancee with a wan face.

"Hey, Ranma"

"Yeah?"

"Did I hurt your feelings earlier? It... don't get mad, but it looked like you were crying."

Ranma paled slightly.

"N-nothin to worry about. Just was feelin' feverish and tired so I needed to get upstairs so I didn't cough or sneeze and get others sick cause yaknow that ain't healthy an stuff...yeah" Ranma babbled, hoping to dodge the issue.

Akane looked at her askance. "It's okay to cry you know. I know you're Ranma the tough martial artist who doesn't let people hurt his feelings, but everybody cries once in a while." Akane sensed that what she said didn't really help her fiance, if anything, it made her stiffen.

"N-Now see here, I wasn't cryin'. I don't cry. I was..." Ranma stopped talking because she could feel her eyes glaze over and then, she felt her cheeks dampen. Ranma started muttering softly

"shit. shit. shit. stop it brain. stop it."

"Ranma?"

"I'm-I'm sorry Akane. I need to go to bed." She got up suddenly and shakily placed the mug in the sink before coming back to the living room. Her face was now noticeably wet, her eyelids puffy.

Ranma steadied her voice as best she could and, turning to Akane, pleaded, "P-please. D-don't tell anyone you saw me l-like this."

Akane nodded and then reached up to wipe away the tears from Ranma's face, but Akane was stopped by Ranma's delicately small hands. Ranma shook her head.

"I-It's okay... I'll live... I'm R-Ranma Saotome. J-Just don't say anything...please. I-I'm sorry about this."

It was deathly quiet as Ranma made her way upstairs. Akane sat in the Tendo living room until morning.