The "Story Thus Far" Hokey-Pokey!

You put Ryoga in, he wants Ranma out,

Toss a Soul-swapping Jewel in

And you shake it all about!

Try to cover up your tracks

And hope Akane doesn't find out;

That's what the story's about!

*Yeah…Jazz Hands!*

LAST TIME on Opposite Attraction…

(But honestly, it's been SO LONG since my last update, you might just want to reread it! *SORRY!*)

Akane looked away with a huff. "I already told you, I'm fine. Have you seen him without a shirt on? I'm engaged to that, and I'm almost 18, why can't I have a little fun sometimes?"

Ranma's mouth fell open; she'd tricked him! Again! And, truth be told, he'd liked it…also again!

Kasumi stared at her youngest sister, unable to find the words that needed to be said. She'd taken on the role of 'mother' long ago, but she couldn't escape the fact that that same role had erased any chances of her having any true experiences in the dating department. How was she supposed to get the point across to Akane that life and growing up was full of responsibilities, not just fun and doing what you want?

"Oh!" she suddenly exclaimed as the answer came to her. Settling down on the foot of Akane's bed, Kasumi ran a finger down the stack of board games before lifting one from the pile. Looking serious, she turned to the young couple before her.

"This is the game of Life. Contrary to what it may sound like, it is not just a game. I want us all to play, and maybe it will help to show why what you just did was wrong."

Akane snickered, "No disrespect, Neesan, but I've played this before."

"Yes," Kasumi agreed, "but now you can hopefully see it through a more mature set of eyes."

Pulling a chair up beside the sisters, Ranma helped set up the board.

Opposite Attraction

Disclaimer: "Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened." -Dr. Seuss

Chapter 14: The Jewel of Denial


Several hours later Kasumi turned a weary set of eyes toward the window, praying that the sun would surprise her and be over the horizon already. The sun, however, was in no mood for surprises and was maintaining a low profile.

The idea of playing a few games to keep her sister awake (and behaved) had seemed like such a good one to have when she'd first rummaged through the closet to gather a few old family favorites. When she had opened the door to Akane's room, nearly catching her in the act of manipulating the pants off of Ranma, it felt like such a good idea that she'd grabbed the game of Life, a game that illustrated the gravity that a few errant decisions could hold. However, like so many good ideas, this one was fast becoming a burden.

"See that?" Ranma boasted, adding another baby boy to his second car-full of blue pegs, "That's what I call a happy family!"

"It's full of nothing but boys!" Akane balked, casting a warm eye toward her two and a half evenly mixed carloads of pink and blue 'children'.

"That's why it's happy," he smirked back.

Akane gritted her teeth before holding up a finger, "It's the number of children, not the gender, that make a house truly fortunate…and I have the most."

"That don't make it better!"

"Well it makes it better right now, 'cause I got paid for all of them and money is the name of the game!"

"No," Ranma deadpanned, "it's 'LIFE'. And how can you put a value on your kids?"

"Oh, Ranma," she said evenly, lifting one of her cars to eye level. Scrutinizing it for a moment, she refocused on him over their little plastic heads, "They never meant more to me than a paycheck."

Pulling back as if he were hit, Ranma's mouth fell open. Shaking his head sadly, he leaned back in, "Well maybe you shouldn't have put all your faith in goin' to college and gotten a job, like me. Then you would'a gotten paid quicker and not had to have kids for money."

"Yeah?" Akane grinned evilly, "And how's that Skunk Farm your uncle left you doing? In fact, that's the best thing you have going for you, isn't it?"

"My family is the best thing I got!" Curling his hand around his cars protectively, he shrugged, "My true wife thinks so, too."

"Oh, your 'true wife', huh?" Akane said with a roll of her eyes; the argument was suddenly starting to hit a little too close to home for her liking. "So does that mean there are other wives? Sounds about right for you."

Kasumi let out a sigh and spoke up before Ranma could continue, "I believe you're missing the moral of the game…and just how did you both manage to land on this many spaces for children?"

Shaking her head, she began to question why she was there. It was late, she was tired, and her sister only seemed to want to argue with Ranma now, nothing more. She should just leave them to their games and go rest in her bed, she'd have to be getting up soon, anyway. Her mind made up, Kasumi stood.

"It is kinda funny how many kids we got, isn't it?" Ranma laughed.

"Yeah," Akane grinned back, genuinely. "I guess we're lucky, I always wanted a big family."

Ranma swallowed, his smile slightly dreamy as he answered, "Me too."

Looking from one to the other, their dazed expressions reflecting a shared future chock-full of children, Kasumi quickly sat back down between them before they thought too hard about it. Placing her hand on the spinner, she forced a worried smile, "It was my turn, wasn't it?"

Morning broke over the horizon in a flurry of soft clouds and matching colors, a pastel orange gently painting the rooftops and spilling down to the streets below in a gentle glow. Inside, Kasumi's alarm began to ring in an empty room, the official occupant currently slouched fast asleep over the foot of her sister's bed.

"I think that's her alarm," Ranma breathed against Akane's lips.

"I think you're right," she answered in a rush before continuing to kiss him soundly.

When Kasumi had finally nodded off, the conversation once again shifted to more friendly tones and, in a rare moment of mutual agreement, the young couple took a chance and slipped into the darkened privacy of the hallway.

"We should probably wake her up," he whispered between kisses, causing Akane to pull back and meet his eyes.

"Or shut her alarm off before anyone else wakes up," she smiled silkily.

Bringing their lips together again, she kissed away his argument before he could make it. In truth, though, he'd had the same thought.

Taking her head in his hands, he pressed their foreheads together as he broke their lips apart. "This is too damned hard, you're a better kisser than I thought you'd be." Feeling her stiffen, he quickly amended, "For a tomboy, I mean…y'know?"

"Honestly, Ranma!" she whisper-shouted at him, "Think real hard, am I so much of a tomboy, or do you just like insulting me?"

"Well, I do like seeing you riled up," he smiled playfully at her, taking her hand and pressing it to his chest. Yanking it away, she planted it on her hip.

"I guess you got what you wanted, then!" Pushing away from him, she moved down the hall, "I'll go shut off Kasumi's alarm, why don't you just go to bed."

Turning on his heel, he snaked an arm around her middle and pulled her backwards to his chest. Leaning down, he whispered into her hair, "I'll get the alarm, you go be a good girl and wake up your sister, then get your own ass in bed."

"Fine," she squirmed, giggling as his breath tickled her ear.

"Your ass is pretty fine," he sighed, pulling away to steal a look.

Spinning around, she covered her backside with both hands, but a proud grin on her lips. "Thanks, but that wasn't what I meant! I was going to ask, uh…" Faltering, she began to blush. "What I meant was… will you, um, come back and stay with me? When you're done with the alarm, you know?"

Ranma cleared his throat, then swallowed the flutter of emotions and ideas her words had thrown onto the walls of his psyche. "Uh, yeah, sure," he fumbled, "if you want me to?"

Grabbing his hand and hugging it to her heart, she whispered, "I do, I want you to." Dropping her gaze to the side she added, "It'll be lonely if you're not around."

"Then I'll be sure I stick around, even if you can't stand me!" he chuckled, giving the top of her head a quick kiss before letting go.

Her fingers lingering on his as he moved down the hall, she shook her head. "I can never stand you, baka, but for right now I don't want to stand without you."

Stopping, he turned to lock her in an intense stare.

"Thanks, Akane. That, that was…the cheesiest thing you ever said to me."

"W, wh- huh?" she stuttered before her mouth gave up trying.

"But seriously," he continued to tease, wrapping a steadying arm around her, "were you being nice, or was that some way of tellin' me you can't walk?"

"What?" she squeaked, pushing him away, "My door is right here, I can make it in just fine, thank you! I was TRYING to be sweet, but I guess that's lost on your thick skull!"

Inwardly, Ranma smirked; this was the Akane he was comfortable with. Her kind words had thrown him for a momentary loop, but this Akane he could understand. He had no idea what to say back when she'd said sweet nothings, but insults…he had those!

"My skull's gotta be thick to like a tomboy like you!"

Akane reeled back, then poked a finger into his chest, "Back to 'tomboy', are we? And you said I was a good kisser!"

"Well, yeah," he began to blush. "I was just surprised since you haven't really, you know, had much practice."

Looking triumphant, Akane cracked a slow grin.

"Ranma, do you think you're the only person I ever kissed?"

"Well…?" he trailed off, suddenly not liking the conversation. "I, I just kinda assumed…"

Seeing the hurt wash over his whole body as reality crashed down, Akane couldn't strike the final blow, even though she wanted to…she REALLY wanted to! Letting out a sigh, she gently caressed his cheek, "Ranma, it was only, like, one guy. Heck, I've already kissed you more, probably!" Leaning closer, she whispered, "Besides, you are a much better kisser, trust me."

"Yeah?" He swallowed, his pride reclaiming its throne. "Yeah! I'll make sure you forget any and ALL the times you got kissed before me, Akane!"

Wrapping her arms around his waist she gave him a squeeze, bringing her lips close to his as she whispered, "Consider them forgotten, and what about you? Anyone other than Shampoo?"

"Sham-what?" he mumbled, already intoxicated by the promise of kissing her again.

"Good answer," she smirked.

Forgetting themselves and their mission for a minute, or two, or more, the kiss began to take on a life of its own. Their breathing growing ragged in the now indigo glow of the early morning, Ranma pressed Akane to the wall with a slight thump, his mouth moving lower, nibbling along her neck and shoulders. With a gasp, she threw her head back, a quiet moan slipping from her lips before she realized what she'd done and clamped a hand over them.

"Is this alright?" he breathed in a rough whisper, his hand slipping under her shirt just enough to graze her ribs. Arching her back into his touch, she pulled her hand from her mouth and grabbed the back of his neck.

"Thanks for asking," she rushed out, pulling him close enough to taste each other's breath, "now shut up."

Smiling against her lips, he realized just how much he liked her one-track mind in certain situations. Slowly tracing his fingers up her side while he kissed her, he spread his hand enough to trace his thumb along the bottom swell of her breast.

The sensation was so soft, barely a touch, but Akane's whole consciousness nearly came undone in that brief moment. With a loud gasping groan, she threw her head back onto the wall as her whole body arched involuntarily, molding itself onto Ranma.

"You gotta keep that under control, Tomboy," he smirked proudly, pressing harder against her as he moved his thumb ever so slightly closer to her nipple. Her body reacting once more to his touch, he pushed her further to the wall and captured her moan with his mouth. Snaking a leg around his hip, she made sure he knew that that was exactly where she wanted him, needed him, to be. They were losing themselves to each other, and they liked it.

Unfortunately for them, they weren't the only ones who had heard the still-ringing alarm clock. If the blood wasn't pumping so loudly in their ears, they may have remembered to hear it, too. Or, even more importantly, heard the door down the hall open with a click, the occupant of the room groggily stumble through the doorway, pause, disappear, then return with a camera. If it weren't for the fireworks going off in their heads, they would have seen the flash as it lit up the hallway several times in a blinding burst, capturing forever the moment when they forgot the rest of the world.

"SO," Nabiki said loudly, bringing the pair's feet back to the surface of the planet, "anyone going to tell me why Kasumi's alarm is still going off?"

Akane's eyes went wide with panic, searching Ranma's as he froze an inch from her face.

"Do you think she can see us good?" he asked in a barely audible whisper. Akane, still tangled around him, gave a slight shrug, "It's so dark, I bet she hardly knows we're here."

"I know you're there," Nabiki said with a yawn, walking toward the couple. "And it's 'well', Ranma, 'Do you think she can see us well.'"

"Guess that means you can," he grumbled in embarrassment, slipping his hand from under Akane's shirt and taking a small step away from the youngest Tendo. Moaning to herself, Akane found her footing once more and slipped her hands around Ranma's arm, "So what'll this cost us?"

"Hmm, I suppose I do usually require a fee," Nabiki pondered with a finger pressed to her lips. "But you did just get back to normal, and you're hurt, so perhaps I could let you off easy if you stop that annoying alarm and let me get some sleep."

"I'm on it!" Ranma yipped, wanting to get past the situation as quickly and painlessly as possible, especially before she changed her mind about zero payment.

Once he was gone, Nabiki turned a scathing eye on her little sister. Feeling it burn through her, Akane sank back against the wall with a feeble and uncomfortable, "…What?"

Nabiki cocked her head to the side and pursed her lips. Shifting her weight to her other foot, she folded her arms across her chest, crushing Akane under the pressure of her glare.

"I thought we had a deal, dear little sister, that you wouldn't be reckless."

Akane swallowed.

"I…it wasn't, I mean we didn't…" Her excuses dying on her tongue, she realized that she had been all that her sister had warned against. She had been reckless, and she hadn't thought everything through. What had she been doing? How far was she willing to push him, and then when she got there, was she really expecting him to just stop? Would he be able to…would she?

For the first time in her life, Akane truly realized that she was capable of being everything she never thought she could be, and it scared her a bit how easy it had been to let go of her morals. As Akane's eyes refocused on her, Nabiki finally saw that her advice had hit home. "It's easier to avoid the situation rather than trying to stop, isn't it now?"

"Yeah," she agreed quickly, then grew introspective. "Wait, how did you know?" Akane whispered, searching her sister's face for a clue. As far as she'd ever known, Nabiki hadn't had any boyfriends, had she? But she must have at some point…right?

With a wicked grin curling her lips, Nabiki answered, "With age comes wisdom, and with details comes a price. Now, if you don't mind, I only like to be awake while the sun is actually above the horizon."

Akane creased her brow as she watched her sister keep her secrets and stroll back to her room, literally shutting the door on their conversation. Who in Furinkan would have dated Nabiki and lived to tell the tale? But, as far as she knew, no one had…so…

"She didn't kill anyone, right?" Akane whispered to herself, then laughed. Of course not! It was probably someone outside of their school, maybe even a businessman or something, that would make sense for Nabiki. With a small chuckle and a shake of her head, Akane walked back to her room, then froze, the image of Nabiki walking into a love hotel flashing before her eyes.

"No!" she gasped, spinning to stare hard at the next door down. "No," she laughed, realizing how silly she was being. It was her sister, not some out-of-control girl. It was Nabiki. "No…?" It was Nabiki, anything was possible.

"No, what?" came Kasumi's soft voice, lifting her head from Akane's blankets groggily. Catching sight of the clock, she bolted upright, "Oh my! It's so late!"

"It's ok, Oneesan," Akane soothed with a smile, "you just dozed off for a bit."

"Did Ranma keep you awake?" Kasumi asked while rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

Caught in a momentary flood of guilt, Akane pressed her hands to her blushing cheeks. "H-hai. We didn't sleep at all."

"That's good," the elder Tendo replied absently, then her sleep addled brain woke up. Turning slowly to throw a look at Akane, she cocked an eyebrow, "Should I be saying that?"

"What do you mean?" Akane asked, feeling another round of sisterly advice setting itself up. Sinking further into her shoulders, she gave a weak smile.

"Akane!" Kasumi gasped, rising to her feet to stare down at her. "I can't imagine you would do something foolish while I was right here in the room!"

"Honestly, Oneesan, we wouldn't do that!" Akane shot back automatically, "We were out-"

Her eyes going wide as she once again talked herself into a corner, Akane quickly tried to pass off a theatrically large yawn as a natural break in the conversation. When she was done Kasumi stood, arms folded, ready and still waiting. Letting out a deep sigh, she trudged to her bed and climbed under the covers just as Ranma sprinted through her doorway.

"Tag, you're it," she smiled weakly at him. "I already got my lecture from Nabiki in the hall."

"Lecture…?" Ranma asked in confusion before noticing Kasumi. His eyes darting between the sisters for a moment, he let out a brief sigh before settling down at the foot of Akane's bed. "Ah, lecture."

Several uncomfortable minutes later, Kasumi left to get the house ready for the day, leaving a furiously blushing pair of teenagers in her wake.

"That was weird," Ranma muttered, barely turning to look at his accomplice. Truthfully, he was questioning if he was allowed to look.

"Yes it was," Akane agreed slowly, albeit not as devastated by Kasumi's words as he was. It was rare, but this hadn't been the first time her sister had given her a bout of long-winded advice.

"So, like, am I even supposed to be in the room with you right now?" he questioned, thoroughly unsure of himself at this point. After Kasumi's gently devastating words, breathing the same air as Akane felt positively sinful!

"Ranma," Akane laughed, a quiet rush in the stillness of the morning. "It's fine. We should just…slow down a bit?"

"Hmmm," he groaned in defeated agreement. "I'll just, uh, move off your bed and go to the floor, then."

"You can stay on my bed, silly," she laughed again. The gentleness of her voice helping to ease away some of his anxieties, Ranma cracked a grin.

"How 'bout I get the lights and we just, kinda, talk?" he asked as he rose to his feet.

"Sounds absolutely wonderful," she answered in an exaggerated flourish, lifting one of the extra blankets Kasumi had piled on the foot of her bed while she was sick. "I'd imagine my sisters want you on top of my covers."

"Probably," he grinned back, hopping onto her bed and lying next to her. After he'd arranged the blanket over himself, he turned to look at her. Feeling him staring from mere inches away, Akane glanced at him from the corner of her eye, "What?"


"Then why are you staring at me?" she asked, pulling her head away from him slightly.

"Because," he began to turn further toward her, "I want to give you something."

"Hmm, really now?" she answered, her voice dripping with doubt.

Noticing that he was beginning to position himself like a cat ready to pounce, Akane brought her hands up to defend herself. A moment later and he was looming over her with a sleepy grin.

"I wanted you to have this," he whispered, sinking down to kiss her on the forehead. Satisfied, he rolled onto his back and folded his hands behind his head.

Frozen for a moment, Akane began to giggle, "You are so dumb! What was that all about?"

"Can't have you falling asleep on me here, gotta keep you on your toes."

Turning to face him, she lay her head on his arm, "You're good at that, that's for sure."

"So how long before you can sleep?" he asked, a yawn slipping through his words.

"Don't do that, I'll have to-" she complained before losing her own battle to stifle a yawn. "How long DO I need to do this? I guess until Dr. Tofu checks me out?"

"I don't like other guys checking you out, Akane," Ranma smirked, "makes me jealous."

Laughing, Akane yawned again, "Then maybe I should make sure it happens more often."

"It happens enough already!" he whined.

"Awww, poor baby."

Rolling onto his side, he began poking her in the ribs, "Better cut that out, Tomboy. If I didn't know better, it would almost sound like you cared about me."

Giggling, Akane's eyes closed as she snuggled into his chest. Snuggling back, Ranma smiled softly into her hair before realizing he was beginning to feel fuzzy.

"Wait," he slurred out, "we need to…get up, before…we…"

A moment later and they were both fast asleep.

Kasumi stumbled slightly, catching herself in yet another yawn-induced moment of blindness. How was she going to make it through her morning, she wondered, pressing the back of her hand to her forehead and leaning heavily against the counter's edge. Looking down at the several empty bowls she'd set on the table, she shook her head. She needed to sleep, not cook.

Reaching behind her back, she untied her apron and hung it up before rummaging through the cabinets. Lifting out a box of cereal, she set it beside the bowls and headed back to bed. For today, at least, everyone could fend for themselves when it came to breakfast.

Turning the corner, Nabiki cracked a grin when she saw the cereal. "About time you stood up for yourself, Sis," she murmured, striding into the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. A moment later, Soun was at her side in tears.

"My little girl is finally-"

"Daddy," she interrupted before he could get excited any further, "I'm simply making myself some coffee, Kasumi left the rest."

"Oh," came his deflated reply as he shuffled past and slowly lifted a bowl. Almost letting out a sigh, Nabiki bit her bottom lip.

"Would you like a cup?"

Turning with a florescent grin, he nearly set the cereal box on fire with his glowing pride.

"If, if you wouldn't mind, I would love some!"

"Yeah," Nabiki said with an unamused look. As she turned away to get him a mug, she allowed one corner of her mouth to quirk up. Filling the mug, she handed it to him with a slight nod of her head toward the table.

"Would you like to have a seat? It looks as though it'll just be the two of us today, and I'd like to talk with you a bit."

Still glowing at near atomic levels, Soun followed her and took his spot at the head of the table. Looking at the empty seats, her words finally hit a chord, causing him to wrinkle his brow.

"Where are the Saotomes this morning?"

"Oh, them?" she laughed, no more than a swish of breath from her lips, "I have them helping me on a little project." With that, she lifted her mug to her lips and took a long pull of coffee into her mouth.

Curious, but cautious, Soun regarded her carefully before clearing his throat, "Should I even ask?"

"Daddy, Daddy," she laughed with a bit more earnest than before. Again, she lifted the cup to her lips, but before taking a sip she added, "You probably shouldn't."

"Hmmm…" he nodded in affirmation, growing more introspective as he, too, lifted his mug.

"However," she added, almost as an afterthought, over the rim of her cup, "I believe you'll want to be involved once you've heard the whole story."

Soun cocked one eyebrow up as he assessed his middle daughter, "Really, now?"

Nabiki began to openly grin into her coffee.

It would have been an understatement to say that Ryoga was excited. Clutching a piece of paper to his chest, he looked it over for the thousandth time, still nearly unable to believe what he was looking at. His long-awaited letter from Akane, saying she was visiting today and to please stay home and wait for her, was now physically in his grip. He'd been so worried that his actions would have been the end of their relationship, but now she was on her way and wanting to see him…it was perfect! A chance to make-up, put their differences and past discretions aside and move forward in a positive light.

He just needed to get to the front door.

After several stumbling minutes, he'd managed to get down the stairs and to the entryway, but the moment he'd cracked the door, a katana slipped in and nearly clipped his ear.

Back flipping away, he watched in total confusion as Genma Saotome and his wife barreled into his house.

"Wha-? What are you doing here?" he managed just before the older man lifted him up and expertly tied and gagged him in a flash.

"Pardon our intrusion," Nodoka said with a polite bow, then held out a bag which Genma dropped him into before hoisting it onto his shoulder.

"Oh, Dear," Nodoka said while laying a hand on her husband's arm, "you're quite good at this!"

Genma let a grin slip over his lips as a look of nostalgia filled his eyes. "This was how I was able to get our son to cooperate when he decided to be stubborn…I haven't gotten to do this for a while. So many fond memories."

"I'm so glad Nabiki chan asked us to help her," Nodoka beamed, "it feels so nice to finally begin to repay the Tendos!"

"They'll be getting a son soon enough, that's more than we can ever do like this," Genma said with an air of pride. "Especially being that he's the boy I helped groom into the finest martial artist around!"

Nodoka seemed pleased to hear his words of praise for their manly son and smiled proudly, closing the door behind them as they left with their struggling prize.

Peeking into Akane's room, Nabiki cracked a small grin as she saw the pair fast asleep on the bed…under different layers of blankets. Creeping softly up to her sister's desk, she silently opened a drawer and removed a small bundle of cloth, right where Akane had promised to leave it. Feeling the jewel through the fabric, Nabiki gave a thankful nod toward the bed, then slipped back out of the room. As she closed the door behind her, she heard the Saotomes return.

"Excellent work," she beamed as she descended the stairs and met them in the hall, "hope he wasn't too much trouble."

"Not at all!" Genma boomed, gently setting the bag on the floor.

"My husband has a rare talent for this!" Nodoka proudly proclaimed, happy to see her husband being useful for a change.

"I really do, don't I?" Genma grinned back, scratching the back of his head and acting uncharacteristically abashed from his wife's praise. Stepping closer, Nabiki tugged open the sack to inspect her prize.

"Hello, Hibiki," she crooned at the bound and gagged boy. "I know what you must be thinking, and this really must be troublesome on so many levels, being kidnapped and all, and you must be wondering just what am I up to now. Well, all of your answers can be found in one little word…karma."

Ryoga's eyes went wide as the color drained from his face.

"Oh, yes, there it is!" Nabiki continued with a sinister grin. "I do so love the moment when realization hits, makes it feel like all the pieces just click into place." She poked him on the tip of his nose, and when she spoke again, all of the mirth had fallen from her voice. "Just like now…you've been a bad, bad little piggy, haven't you? Always running around with that gentleman's mask in place, spouting nothing but nonsense about honor while hiding a hentai heart. Soon everyone will know what you're really like."

Watching the bag close off his view of freedom once more, he listened with growing dread as Nabiki instructed them to take him out to the dojo.

'I need to get out of here!' he thought desperately, struggling harder against his bonds. Unfortunately for him, Genma was correct; he really was unnaturally good at kidnapping people. No matter how he twisted or pulled, and despite all of his training and strength, all of the binds held tight. A few moments later and Ryoga heard Soun's voice added to the mix as the adults greeted one another and regaled their successful hunting missions. Then Ryoga heard another voice, old and eager, and felt the knot in his stomach tighten. It was then that the bag was opened and he was dumped onto the floor.

Trying to scramble to his feet, Ryoga's head whipped back and forth while looking frantically at the faces assembled before him. Then the owner of the final voice stepped forward, confirming Ryoga's worst fears.

Happosai looked first at the boy, then up at Nabiki as she stood beside him, a manic grin smeared on his old face.

"So you're just letting me do this?" he asked in near disbelief.

"There's just one stipulation," Nabiki answered, looking all too serious. "When we say stop, you listen. When we say it's time to turn back," she leaned down to his eyelevel, "you LISTEN…got it?"

With an untrustworthy glint in his eye, the old man was about to answer before Nabiki leaned closer and whispered something into his ear. The blood draining from his face, he slowly turned to look at her.

"But, but how did…?"

A grin tugging one corner of her lips with overconfidence, Nabiki gave him a wink, marking the first time a young girl had ever made him uncomfortable. "Got it?" she asked again.

Blinking his way out of his thoughts, Happosai nodded.

"Good," she said while reaching into her pocket, "then he's all yours!" Lifting out the jewel she tossed it his way, one tiny, withered hand snatching it from the air.

Ryoga Hibiki watched in horror as a pair of large, overeager eyes locked onto his. He cringed while the older man unwrapped the folds of cloth to lift out a smooth, blue stone. Finally, he began to fight with renewed strength as Happosai gleefully bounded his way.

"Wait!" called Soun and Genma in unison just as the old man's hand reached for Ryoga.

"Master," Genma began with a strange look of triumph, "we should have you restrained before you switch."

"Yes, Master," Soun continued, holding up a length of rope, "this way the boy is unable to simply switch back while his body is still bound."

Analyzing them skeptically for a long moment, he let out a breath and held out his diminutive wrists, "Go ahead. Just remember this, if you were to try and double cross me; I will never die by your hands. And living as long as I have has allowed me more time than needed to imagine punishments worse than death for a pair of untrustworthy students."

"Y-yes, Master, of course," Soun answered with a quick, nervous glance at Genma. For the briefest of moments their eyes locked, an unspoken conversation passing between them to confirm that this was not yet the time.

Not one to miss a silent conversation, Nabiki rolled her eyes.

"If you'd all be so kind as to drop your verbal weapons, I'd like to get this going, please."

Stepping forward, she took the rope from her father and pressed it to Genma's chest. "Sorry, Daddy, but he's better at this sort of thing."

Turning toward Happosai, she held out her hand. "I'll hold the jewel until this is done, don't want any accidents slowing things down."

Dropping the jewel into Nabiki's palm before holding his tiny arms out once more, Happosai turned his attention to the already bound boy across the room. "Hope you've had all your shots, m'boy! For the places I'll be taking us to, you'll need them!"

With a savagely eager grin, he began to gargle out a laugh while Ryoga watched in horror as they brought the evil little imp close enough to touch, then handed him the jewel once more.

It was a dream, Akane knew it was because it felt too good to be anything else. An overwhelmingly soft contentment flooded into every fiber of her being as she felt fingertips trace over her forehead, down her cheek and across her lips. It was Ranma, it was always him. Every erotic dream she'd truly had was filled with him, just like now. She only had to keep her eyes from opening long enough to see where she'd take them this time, how far they'd get before waking up ruined any imaginary progress they'd make. How she'd feel so heartbroken the moment she opened her eyes and reality came back to her, closing off the chance for any further intimate touches and whispered words.

Then his lips ghosted over her own and it felt-

"Ouch!" she yipped, pulling back in the bed. Bringing her fingers up to press gently against her split lip, she stared hard at the fiancé curled up on his side before her, the one she'd sworn could only exist in her imagination. Moving her eyes across the room, she noted the pile of board games and gave a short laugh; this was real. Meeting Ranma's eyes once more, she caressed his cheek and whispered a sultry, "Ohayo."

"Ohayo, yourself," he grinned back. Brushing a lock of hair from her forehead, he added, "You still hurting pretty bad? Want me ta get you more of that medicine?"

"No!" she rushed out, wanting to keep a clear head. Yesterday had been a bit much to process, and the medicine, she was pretty sure, hadn't been all too helpful in that respect. "Uh, no thanks. I think I want to actually feel what's happening today. Just be a little gentler with those kisses."

He smirked evilly at her, "Only if you're gentler with my heart."

"Only if you," she kissed the tip of his nose, "are gentler with your words."

"Ah, you're no fun," Ranma laughed with a yawn, rolling onto his back and stretching his whole body out. Snuggling a little deeper into her pillow, Akane arched an eyebrow as she allowed herself a rather indulgent peek as his clothes pulled tight over his form. No longer afraid of getting caught, she ran a fingertip over his chest, stopping to play with the zipper of his hoodie. Pulling it down to reveal another inch of his bare skin, her smile widened, "You can do that again, if you want."

Remembering that he hadn't put his shirt back on underneath, he stared at her small hand as it began to pull the zipper down yet another inch before she slipped a finger underneath to play over his skin. Swallowing hard, he closed his hand over hers.

"I think this might be a, uh…" he began, unsure how to finish as his brain slid to lower parts of his anatomy. "The medicine…?" he tried in a weak voice.

Hearing him lose the will to even attempt a battle, Akane moved closer to his lips.

"I told you yesterday, my thinking wasn't all that off because of the medicine, just my inhibitions." Her hand slipping from beneath his, she traced a line up his chest and over his throat, sliding around to the back of his neck, "And I told you this morning, I want to feel what's happening today."

"Pervert," he whispered playfully, bringing his hand up to play with the hair at the nape of her neck.

"Takes one to know one," she grinned back, rising to her elbows before sinking, gently, into his embrace.

Nabiki watched Ryoga's body as it leapt over the rooftops, set on a mission of reputation ruining destruction. It was poetic, in a sense, almost a work of art. A terrible work of art, but it was serving its purpose quite well, and soon Ryoga wouldn't even want to accidentally show his face anywhere near Nerima for a long, long time.

"Let him go," she called over her shoulder, losing sight of Happosai's new body somewhere on the horizon. Spinning around before Ryoga could rush off, she held up a finger.

"Ah-ah, now. Patience, Ryoga."

"He's just getting away with my body!" he screeched, getting ready to push past. Re-affirming her block, she stepped in front of his newly diminutive form and held out a paper.

"What's this?" he asked, momentarily distracted.

"This," she answered, giving the mystery paper a shake, "is a map of everywhere he'll be heading. Your salvation, Hibiki dear, rests solely on your sense of direction and not getting lost."

Looking down at the map she'd dropped at his feet, he felt like his world had just fallen a bit further into the depths of hell. Lifting it with shaking hands, he began a futile attempt to read it and orient himself.

"Go, Hibiki, wouldn't want to lose him now, would you?"

In a moment he was off, and for only a moment he was headed in the right direction. Then the inevitable took hold and he took a wrong turn.

Watching in awed silence, Soun and Genma stepped back to allow Nabiki clearance as she left the dojo, hoping to never be at the receiving end of her revenge.

"And she's definitely not marrying my son, right?" Genma reassured himself, resting a steadying hand on Soun's shoulder.

"That's what she's saying now," Soun replied with a slight shiver up his spine. "After a brief discussion about the wedding, we all agreed that nobody would be able to afford it, in any sense of the word. Especially me."

"Let's just hope she never marries," Genma laughed, "save some poor young man the trouble of dealing with her!"

Soun rubbed the back of his neck with a worried look on his face, "I just hope she marries rich."

Nodoka wrinkled her brow.

"I don't see anything at all wrong with what she just did," she scolded, lifting her trusty katana. "She's just driven, there's nothing wrong with that."

Walking past the two cowardly men, she followed Nabiki out of the dojo.

It was 9 am, several hours after she'd gone back to sleep, and Kasumi felt positively scandalous for having slept in so late! Rushing to make up for lost time, she made her bed and readied herself for the day before remembering the pair of teens that had caused her to be late in the first place. Letting out a sigh, she headed out of her room and toward Akane's.

Staring hard at the little duck nameplate, Kasumi took a deep breath to steady herself, then knocked at her youngest sister's door. Hearing an immediate call to come in, she let out a relieved sigh; she really wasn't sure WHAT to expect from the new couple anymore. Everything she'd thought she could imagine Akane bringing to the table of adolescence had been wiped clean when Ranma came into their lives, and she wasn't sure how much more drama she could handle!

Clutching a hand to her chest, she curled it to a fist, plastered on a smile, and opened the door.

"Ohayo!" the two teens cheered in unison as she stepped over the threshold. Pausing, the elder Tendo scrutinized the scene before her to check for any signs of misconduct, her smile frozen as her eyes scanned the room. Giving a slow blink, her sights settled on her sister. Shrinking back under her gaze, Akane's own smile faltered.

"Is-is there something wrong, Oneesan?"

Just slightly tilting her head, Kasumi replied, "Whatever could be wrong?"

It was simple; a question to answer a question. However, those four little words held the key to a much larger question, the weight of which Akane could feel pressing her further into her pillows.

"I think she want's you off my bed," Akane whispered, giving Ranma a nudge with her leg.

"But, I got my own blanket and everything," he whined, not wanting to leave his warm, comfortable spot beside her.

"I know, but look at her," she hissed, "clearly something's wrong!"

Suddenly locked in place by two sets of worried stares, Kasumi began to giggle at the ridiculousness of the situation. Lifting a hand to her lips, she felt the tension begin to slip away. All of the anxiety eased off her shoulders as she was hit with the realization that she was protecting Akane from her fiancé, whom she and the rest of their families had just spent over a year forcing into her life. Akane didn't need help figuring out her own heart; despite their meddling, she'd somehow done it all on her own.

"Oh, stay put, Ranma!" Kasumi laughed, waving a hand at the two while dabbing a tear from one eye. "I already gave you my lecture, so I suppose now I'll have to give you my trust." Then in a slightly more stern voice, she called out his name, causing him to sit up in the bed.

"Y-yeah, Kasumi?" he stuttered, unsure of what, exactly, was happening.

Letting a broad grin glint her eyes, she gave a small bow, "Thank you for choosing a separate blanket to sleep under, and thank you for taking care of my sister. She's in your hands, now."

"Uh…" Ranma looked between the two girls, both with tears and smiles on their faces, and honestly didn't know what to do or say. Then Akane's hand slipped into his and he felt his own grin find his lips. However, before he had a chance to attempt and probably destroy an elegant response, Akane spoke up on her own behalf.

"I was never in anyone's hands but my own, Oneesan," she said softly, "I just needed to hold onto yours every now and then for support. Thanks for always being there."

Again, the two sisters stared teary-eyed at one another, and now Ranma was moving from unsure to just plain feeling awkward.

"I, uh, don't think I'm really gonna replace anyone, so…" he mumbled, then took Kasumi and Akane's hands and put them together. Placing his on top, he cracked a crooked grin, "How 'bout just a sort of 'Go Team!' thing?"

Akane began to giggle, then outright laugh as she looked at Kasumi's bewildered expression, doubling over to lean her head against Ranma's shoulder.

"Baka," she wheezed, "you are so great sometimes!"

"Glad you can finally see my greatness," he boasted, fidgeting with her comforter to make sure she was still covered. "Just watch that 'sometimes' stuff, don't want anyone getting the wrong idea."

"The wrong idea about what?" she giggled, laying back on her pillows.

"That there might be any time that I'm not great. I mean, how insane would that be?!" With mock flair, he threw a hand to his chest.

"Truly," Akane arched an amused eyebrow, "that would be a travesty for the Great Ranma Saotome."

Suddenly, a burst of laughter broke through the air, startling the two teens into defensive stances. Cutting off as quickly as it began, both Ranma and Akane found themselves staring, unbelievingly, at Kasumi as she daintily touched her fingertips to her lips.

"Oh, excuse me!" she gasped, the smile still firmly in place. "So this is how you two behave when you're flirting! I never expected to see it, perhaps that's what all that fighting was about," she muttered, turning to the door while shaking her head, "such an emotional morning." Stopping in the hallway, she turned back to the now very red-faced pair, "Dr. Tofu will be coming this evening to check on you, I asked him to stay for dinner. He said to contact him sooner if you felt strange or had any trouble doing regular tasks, things like that. Come down to eat whenever you're ready."

Waiting until she was out of earshot, Akane blinked, "Did she just razz us about flirting, then slip in that she asked Dr. Tofu to eat dinner with us?"

Ranma shrugged, "So? We're not flirting."

Akane shot him a look, "You're right, why would I flirt with you anyway?"

"Don't act like you even know how, baka," he grinned smugly at her.

"Hmph, really now. I think it's just that you're too much of a dolt to realize when I do it."

"Maybe 'cause you do it in 'Beast Mode' all the time. I'll bet you think training is a date!"

"With you," Akane said, rising from the blankets and poking him in the chest, "it's the only way I'd know you were actually paying attention the whole time! Maybe if I were with someone normal…"

"Hey," Ranma shot back, "you're the one who keeps insisting that you like me the way I am!"

Akane leaned in nearly nose-to-nose, "Because I do!"

"Yeah?" he nearly shouted back, "Well you're right about a training date, I'd probably really like that!"

"Then stop saying stupid things and listen to me!" she said in exasperation, throwing her hands in the air.

They both stared hard at each other for a moment, letting their breathing settle back to normal before Ranma opened his mouth once more.

"So what were you sayin'? Something about Kasumi and a big deal…"

"That's right!" Akane said, a fire lit anew in her eyes. "The big deal is that Kasumi asked Dr. Tofu to eat dinner with us, she's never done that before!" she squeaked, grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him. "Is Kasumi actually thinking of dating him?"

"The times they are a changin', eh, Tomboy?" he smirked, giving her a quick kiss on the tip of her nose.

"I guess they are," she agreed, taking his hand and giving it a small squeeze. "Although your mouth seems to keep its old habits."

He gave her a small tug toward him, "Maybe your's can help mine learn some new, better habits."

She began to lean in with a smirk before the clock on her desk caught her attention.

Oh!" she gasped, remembering something important, "I think I have something to show you!"

"You think?" he whined as she jumped from her covers, "What's that mean?"

"You'll see, come on!" she said excitedly, pulling him off of the bed behind her. Grabbing a blanket and a slip of paper from her desk, she rushed to the window, "Mind giving me a lift?"

Looking utterly confused, he asked, "To where?"

Letting out a short laugh, she threw open the window, "The roof, silly!"

"Of course," he mocked, scooping her up into his arms, "how could I have thought it would have been something more, uh, normal?"

She giggled, snuggling against him tighter as he leapt outside. Hearing his heartbeat through his shirt, she closed her eyes and took a mental snapshot of the moment, wondering how she had ever managed to survive a life as boring as the one before Ranma.

Reluctantly slipping out of his embrace, she felt the cold seep through her socks as her feet touched down on the roof tiles. Reaching up, she brushed her fingertips over his cheek then rose up to her toes to kiss him.

Blushing, Ranma scratched the back of his neck. "Is, uh, this what you wanted to show me, 'cause I wouldn't mind seeing a little more," he said quietly, adding a quick waggle of his eyebrows.

"Hmmm…" Akane nearly purred, already staring at his lips while licking her own with a sultry grin. Snapping back to reality, she shook her head, "Wait, stop! I really do have something to show you," she laughed, pushing him back and lifting up the paper she'd snagged to examine it.

Stealing a glance over top, Ranma knitted his brows together, "What's that? A map or something?"

"This," she grinned evilly, slowly lowering the paper to reveal that he was correct, "is our reward, and our revenge!"

Scanning the horizon, her hand shot out to point at a tiny silhouette bounding over the rooftops.

"There! Guess who that is!"

Her smile was radiant, a devilish glint in her eyes lighting them to tiny infernos. It was obvious that she was bursting to tell him, but she needed him to guess in order for her big-reveal to carry the weight it deserved. Swallowing his uncertainty, Ranma slid his eyes to where she was pointing.

"Ain't that just the Old Geezer?" he asked, bringing his gaze back to meet hers.

She was biting her not-split top lip now, the anticipation practically coming off of her in waves. "NO!" she blurted out, jumping up and down a little, "It's Ryoga!"

Ranma's face contorted in confusion as he shot another look at the skyline and saw…still Happosai.

"Uh huh," he said slowly, "if that's Ryoga, then why does he look a lot like—wait. You guys didn't-"

"We DID!" she squealed, holding out the map for him to see. "It was Nabiki's idea! Happosai's going to all these places as Ryoga and ruining any chances of him being able to come back here any time soon!"

"Well, holy crap," he mumbled, looking first at Ryoga and then down to scrutinize the map, cringing at some of the stops.

"Nabiki even gave him a copy, so he could find Happosai if he can just follow directions, which he can't do. See? She really knows how to tailor a punishment!"

"Way better than hitting herself in the face," he muttered just loud enough from behind the map that he knew she had heard.

Akane punched him in the arm, "Jerk!"

"Myaa!" he grinned while sticking out his tongue. Folding the paper in his hands, he stuffed it into his pocket. Taking a step forward to close the gap between them, he wrapped her up in his arms and pressed her head to his chest.

"Ya know I want you to get your revenge and all, right?"

"Mmm hmmm," she hummed, wrapping her arms around his waist. She knew where this was headed; Ranma had too good of a heart, underneath it all.

"I, uh, and with Ryoga's sense of direction…"

She let out a sigh and tilted her head up to look at him, "I already know you can't just leave him like that. We can call Happosai back whenever we want, so let Ryoga sweat for a bit before helping him, ok? He didn't have to do what he did, he deserves a little payback, at least."

Ranma stopped fumbling his words, then let a smile light his eyes. Bending down, he laid a gentle kiss on her forehead, "You had me worried for a sec, it ain't normal for you to let anyone suffer. Thought you were turning into Nabiki."

"Not yet," she giggled, "but if we don't get inside soon I'll be turning into an icicle!"

Lifting her back into his arms, Ranma swung down through the window and placed her gently on the floor. "Thanks," she said coyly, not stepping away. Staring into his eyes, Akane began to lean forward, running her fingers over his cheek. Ghosting his hands down her arms, his smile turned hazy as their lips came together. The instant they touched, Akane's stomach let out a growl that made Ranma pull back and scan the room for enemies.

Her cheeks glowing red in embarrassment, she hid her face behind her hands. "Sorry, that was me."

His eyes pausing as they scrutinized their surroundings, he dropped them to her. Letting out a laugh, he pulled one of her hands from her cheek and squeezed it, "Wanna go downstairs and get something to eat? Maybe we can take a little walk after and see how ya feel?"

"Hai," she squeaked out, still trying to hide behind her remaining hand. "I'm sorry, that was so embarrassing!"

"It's ok, how many times have you heard my stomach growl?" he laughed, "I'm ALWAYS hungry!"

Beginning to relax, she let out a small giggle. Walking to the door together, she paused and spun to stare mischievously at him, "Bet I can beat you down there!"

"Wha-" he managed before she was off and running. Getting himself back together, a broad grin lit his face, "Not if I get there first!"

At the sound of the two teens barreling down the stairs, Soun, Genma and Nodoka lifted their glasses of tea off of the table, while Nabiki grabbed hers and the tray of snacks. A moment later, Akane rounded the corner and skidded into the table.

"Sorry!" she rushed out to them, holding out an arm to block Ranma from passing her as she barely maintained her narrow lead.

"I see that hit to your head didn't shake loose any of your clutzyness," Ranma chided from close behind.

"I am NOT a clutz!" Akane shot back, her impending victory lighting up her voice.

Nabiki, a small grin quirking up her lips, set the tray back onto the table. Lifting her cup she chuckled, "Even with everything different, it's all still the same, isn't it?"

"How do you mean?" Soun asked, turning to look toward the sound of Akane cheering her win while Ranma playfully demanded a rematch, one where she didn't cheat.

"Simple, Daddy," she answered, taking a sip of tea, "just listen to them arguing like always. The only difference is that now they're doing it because they like each other, and they both know it."

"They…" Soun began, looking to Genma as he finished his statement, "they like each other?!"

"And they know it?" the other man nearly choked, leaning closer to Nabiki, "Are you certain?"

"The bigger question would be have I ever been wrong?" she quipped back.

"Why this, this changes everything!" Soun said excitedly, grasping his friend's shoulders.

"Finally!" Genma cheered in a hushed tone, worried that if the two teens heard it would ruin any further plans. "We need to-" he began, stopping short as a katana blade glinted to a halt an inch from his face. Taking a long moment, Nodoka slowly withdrew her weapon while staring him dead in the eyes.

"We need to give them time to blossom on their own," she finished for her husband, wrapping her hands around her tea cup rather than the hilt of her sword. "All of our meddling only dragged this on longer than needed. It's time to leave them be."

"Yes dear," Genma choked out, deflated.

Nabiki watched with interest, then swung her head toward the older woman.

"I do hope you don't think this is too forward of me, but have you ever considered putting your skills to work? I was thinking of expanding my enterprise and I could use someone with talents like yours."

With a smile lighting her face, Nodoka's eyes grew wide with excitement.

"You know, Nabiki chan, I would be interested. Watching your skills with the handling of Ryoga Hibiki earlier, I was quite impressed. I think you've rekindled a fire in me that I've nearly forgotten I once had!"

At a loss for words, Nabiki's eyebrows rose up her forehead as an uncharacteristic blush swept, nearly invisible, across her cheeks. Her unique line of business seldom presented opportunities for sincere praise, and she was finding herself wildly out of the practice of receiving it.

Seeing her reaction, Nodoka reached across the table and touched Nabiki's hands, "Oh, dear, I'm sorry, I must be embarrassing you! My answer is yes, I would be honored to work with you."

A genuine smile gracing her face, Nabiki quickly saw the appeal that Ranma's mother held for Akane, especially in the absence of their own. Regaining a bit of her poker face, she held out a hand, "Then I look forward to working with you, partner."

Looking at Nabiki's distinctly Western gesture to seal the deal, Nodoka paused, leaned in, and dropped her voice.

"It looks like they were right about one thing," she took Nabiki's hand firmly, "our families do work well together."

"Guess you could say that we're uniting the schools, hmm?"

"With all the trouble they cause, do we even truly need the men?"

The two women began to laugh, adding to Soun and Genma's discomfort. A moment later Nabiki lifted the tea and snack tray once more, Nodoka looking on in confusion for only a second before Ranma and Akane burst back into the room.

"All I'm saying is that you're slow," Ranma said around a mouthful of food. Nodoka and Nabiki looked at one another at his comment, the younger of the two still balancing their snacks as she awaited the inevitable table-over-Ranma's-head routine.

"I'm not slow, baka," Akane quipped back in a surprisingly upbeat tone. "Besides, the movie doesn't start for another hour and a half, that's plenty of time to walk through the park on our way there!"

"I really don't wanna miss the previews," Ranma began to whine, Akane grabbing him by the arm as they strolled out into the hallway. "I don't want to either, but it's such a beautiful day!"

The four occupants of the room remained still as the new couple's conversation faded from earshot, time seemingly moving on without them as they stared at one another and tried to process what had just happened.

"It was a date," Nodoka began, looking again to Nabiki who had finally begun to put down the food and drinks.

"So it would seem," she smirked back. "Wonder what they're going to see? If Ranma plays his cards right, he'd pick a horror movie."

"A date…" Soun began, a faraway look in his eyes.

"Yes, Tendo! It's really true!" Genma shouted excitedly.

"But, but…" Soun continued, then broke into tears. "My baby girl is going on a date? She's grown up too fast!"

Nabiki let out a short laugh. "Really, Daddy? You've been trying to marry her off for nearly two years and this is what gets to you? Anyway, Auntie Saotome," she continued, her attention already back to money, "I have a few things I'd like to run by you, if you have a moment?"

"Of course, Nabiki chan!" Nodoka said eagerly, following the younger girl out of the room.

As the two men watched them go, Kasumi entered with a hint of disdain on her face as she glanced at the state of the table, only taking a moment before she was busily cleaning it off.

"Really now, Father, when will you and your friend learn to keep things tidy? I've asked Dr. Tofu over for dinner, so I'd appreciate it if you kept your 'celebrations' down to a minimum tonight."

Staring dumbly after her as she, too, left the two fathers alone in the room, Soun let out a small laugh.

"K-Kasumi, too?" he asked Genma in desperation. "Are all my babies leaving me at once?"

"Cheer up, old friend," the other man boomed, giving him a clap on the back, "this is just more reason to celebrate!"

"Just not tonight!" Kasumi called from the kitchen.

The two looked sheepishly at one another before calling out in unison, "Yes, Kasumi."

Ranma turned to look beside him briefly, knowing that Akane was right there at the end of his arm but still partly in disbelief when his eyes confirmed it. Staring hard at their linked hands, a goofy grin lit his face, followed by a blush as he followed her arm back up to her neck…and the little flips her short hair made above the collar of her jacket as she walked…the way her small, soft ears poked out… the way they felt on his face when he-

"Ranma!" Akane called again, giving his hand a squeeze for emphasis.

"Hai!" he shouted, coming to full attention and blushing madly.

"What the heck, where did your mind wander to just now?" Akane teased, "We're already here at Dr. Tofu's clinic!"

Ranma looked up blinking, trying to shake the dream-like haze that had settled over him so he could actually pay attention to what she was saying.

"…Clinic…right! We gotta hurry or we'll be late!" he suddenly snapped out, pulling her through the door.

"I know!" she sighed, "That's what I was saying when you were checked out of your own head!"

"Doc?" Ranma called, making his way through the waiting room in two strides, Akane stumbling to keep up before pulling her hand free.

"I know you're coming to my house, Doctor, but we were just passing by and thought I should get a quick checkup!" Akane tried. Still not getting a response, she turned to Ranma, "Where could he be?"

Just then they heard a crash followed by Tofu himself as he tumbled through the doorway, his hands tangled in something wrapped around his neck.

"Ranma, Akane!" he nearly cheered, "Do either of you know how to tie a tie?"

Akane pulled back in shock when she realized what she was seeing; he was in a button down shirt, jacket, pants, and was attempting a tie.

"Well don't you clean up nice!" Ranma beamed, "I didn't think you owned anything but a gi!"

The other man, pulling his hands free, attempted to smooth down his shirt and straighten the slip of fabric that was tangled around his neck.

"I, I normally can do this," he muttered, "but every time I think of Ka-Ka-Kasu-" His glasses fogging over, he began to once again become trapped in his clothes and stumble around the room.

"Woooowww," Ranma breathed in amazement, "he's always been bad with your sister, but this is kinda on another level!"

"Yeah," Akane agreed, the two of them slowly turning away from his struggle and locking eyes.

"I'll grab 'em," Ranma began.

"And I'll tie his tie!" she finished, the pair raising clenched fists in agreement before breaking for Dr. Tofu.

"Hey, Doc, stay still a minute," Ranma said as he grabbed him by the shoulders and forced him down into a chair, keeping his hold from behind.

Crouching before him, Akane said soothingly, "Let me get this for you."

After a long moment, Akane shot to her feet, "There! Not too shabby for a first try!"

Ranma blinked, "'First try'?"

Releasing Tofu, he walked around to see Akane's handiwork, and was not disappointed.

"Geeze! You're such a tomboy I never thought you wouldn't know how to tie one of these!"

"It's tied just fine!" Akane shot back. Looking at it for another moment, she deflated slightly, "Well…it doesn't look that bad!"

"Doesn't look that good, either."

"Is something wrong?" the doctor began, trying to look down at his collar. "I need to look my best for dinner tonight with Ka…with Kasu…su…mi… Wait, are you trying to sue me?" he asked in sincere befuddlement as he looked back up at Ranma.

"What? No- ah jeeze! Just sit here for a sec, would'ja," Ranma said, pushing him back down and grabbing Akane's wrist. Giving her a tug, he smirked, "Time to switch!" and placed her in his spot behind the chair, hands on Tofu's shoulders.

Making quick work of the older man's tie, he stood him up, took him to the door and pointed him down the street in the direction of the Tendo Dojo.

"We'll just come back tomorrow, ok? Good luck, man!" Ranma called out, waving him off before rushing back in to a dumbfounded Akane.

Looking up as he rushed back to her, Akane could do little more than give a quick yelp as he scooped her up and began to run down the street.

"What are you doing?" she cried, grabbing him around the neck as he leapt to the rooftops.

"I told ya, I hate missing the previews!" he yelled over the rush of wind.

"But we had time!" she groused, hugging him tighter as he made a sharp change in direction.

Looking up, she realized they were headed the wrong way from the theater. Lifting her eyes to his face, she watched him scan the horizon and suddenly realized what he was doing.

"Hey! You said we didn't have time! You said you'd let Ryoga wallow for a little while before helping!" Struggling in his arms, she barely managed to wriggle her way into his line of sight. "What about the previews!"

"Ah, come on, Akane! Would you really want to take on the freaking sins of that old creep? If I don't help a little now, Ryoga won't even stand a chance."

Seeing his target, Ranma leapt toward the setting sun and came down hard on Ryoga's body's head. For a brief moment, Happosai paused in the air before crashing down on the street.

"There. All I'm doin' is slowing him down a bit, the rest is up to Pork-Butt, for now!"

"Whatever," Akane groused, folding her arms, "it just makes me mad that he took those pictures, and…oh GODS, who even knows what else!" She briefly smothered her face in her hands, then pulled them down as they balled into fists. "I swear, he better hope he doesn't show up in front of me again!"

Shifting his grip uncomfortably, Ranma cleared his throat.

"So, uh, about those pictures…"

"Honestly, that disgusting piece of garbage! Dishonorable-"

"I, uh…I have 'em."

Akane stopped, her angry snarl melting away in surprise. She wasn't expecting this turn in the conversation, and suddenly she didn't know quite how to be feeling about the photographs' existence.

Hearing Akane go dead silent was last on Ranma's list of reactions that he had expected to need to counter.

"Um. Uh, yeah, so I took them so he, and Nabiki, y'know, so they didn't have them." He fidgeted a bit more and cleared his throat, "I didn't want to not tell you."

She stayed quiet a moment longer, trying to mull over her thoughts. The anger of Ryoga seeing them had been so strong that she was genuinely confused if she were mad at Ranma for picking them up. Then she was relieved that he had, because if he hadn't, then someone else would have.

"Ugh," she unconsciously shivered, making Ranma come to a stop.

"We don't gotta see the movie. I get it if you're pissed at me, Akane, just, just say something!"

Setting her down, he took her by the shoulders, trying to catch her eye.

"Akane, look, I ain't gonna say that I don't know what's on them. I mean, I looked, but it was before I knew that they were, uh, so much of, y'know…just so much." He scratched the back of his head, "And I might-a looked when we got home, for like a second, then I hid them, I swear!"

"What did you think?"

Ranma looked down in shock, "What?"

Slowly, she looked up at him. "Did you like them?"

His mind nearly exploding, he began to stammer, then caught himself and shut up. He needed to think, to read the situation. As calmly as possible, he looked back at Akane, who was blushing furiously, but keeping him locked in her gaze.

"Don't hit me, and I'll answer!"

Starting to smile, Akane grabbed him by the collar, "If I was going to hit you, you'd have already been clobbered."

Pulling her into a hug, he said quietly, "They're pretty damn hot, Akane."

"Good answer," she smirked, squeezing him back, "but give them to me when we get home."

"Understandable," he chuckled, pulling away.

"If you buy me popcorn, I'll let you keep one!" she laughed, grabbing his hand and running down the street. "C'mon! Can't miss those previews!"

Running for a moment, like they always seemed to be doing, he glanced back at her and realized how much of their relationship was spent going either too fast or too slow. Gently, he down-shifted their pace and changed direction.

"Actually, Akane, let's head over this way for a bit."

Confused, she looked up at him, "But the theater's the other way."

"Yeah, but what's the rush?"

She stopped now, letting their linked hands tug him to a halt. "I thought you didn't want to miss the previews?"

Turning to her with a lopsided grin, he stepped closer, "Sometimes I think we get too caught up in what we think is, or what we think should be happening, that we forget to appreciate what's going on right now. Let's go through the park, it's a beautiful day, right?"

"Yeeess," she dragged out suspiciously, bouncing the toe of her shoe off of his with a grin. "So you're content missing the previews all of a sudden with this newfound burst of enlightenment?"

"If we don't watch the previews, well," he stole a quick kiss, "guess we'll just have ta watch a whole bunch of movies and see what we missed."

Laughing, she stole a kiss of her own, satisfied to see his slight blush. "Sounds like a lot of dates, Ranma, you sure you can handle the commitment?"

As they began to slowly stroll through the park, he wrapped an arm around her, "If it's with you, I think I can. After all, Akane, we got the time."


A/N Thank you for anyone still reading, and so sorry for the wait! The whole world changed from the first post to this one, and I can only pray that every person reading this is safe and well. I'm not sure what else to say, I've loved writing these stories and keeping these two crazy teens' adventures alive! I suppose the one big takeaway for everyone out there is to find the beauty hidden in the chaos, the ability to love despite differences, and no matter how dark things get, as long as we breathe, there's time to make a change for the good.

Thank you, and remember-

You ROCK Harder!