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Hand-Me-Down Ranma -- A Good Fit?

Chapter Text

Nabiki barely had time to realize that Akane had just destroyed the balcony they were all standing on, before she felt herself falling. Before she had time to panic, though, she felt someone strong scoop her up and shield her with their body from the falling debris. As they softly landed, she looked up to see Ranma holding her.

Of course it was Ranma, who else would it have been, Akane? While she knew Akane was actually a very kind girl, when she was angry, she didn't act like her usual self. Ranma, on the other hand, seemed to always have an eye out for protecting those around him. Nabiki looked up at Ranma as he held her. He was very strong, she had to admit.

While she didn't really mind him holding her, she knew that Akane seeing him holding her would cause ... problems. She felt that she at least owed him an acknowledgment of his actions though. "Well, it looks like you saved my life, Ranma. Thanks."

Ranma looked down at her and smiled nervously. "Yeah, that was a close one..."

Nabiki knew Akane was standing there watching them. So after a moment had passed without him putting her down she tried to prod him again. "Maybe you shouldn't have, Ranma." She stared pointedly at Akane to try to drive her point home. Honestly, the boy could be so dense. When he still didn't put her down, she tried again, this time a little more bluntly. "I mean, saving me and letting your fiancée fall..."

Ranma clued in at that, and hastily set her down. "What was I supposed to do? You're a normal girl ... unlike Akane." He said as he glanced nervously over at her sister, who was staring at them with an outraged look on her face. He walked over to Akane as Nabiki smiled sardonically to herself, this wasn't going to end well for him.

As he talked to her sister, she tuned them out as she usually did, and was getting ready to head back inside and tell Daddy that the balcony was broken. She was also trying to decide how she felt about Ranma holding her and how it had made her feel. She decided that she had liked it. Ranma was only a year younger than her, and he was gorgeous. She really didn't mind him holding her, at all.

Akane raised her voice and yelled something then that snapped Nabiki out of her revere. "That does it, we're finished! Why don't you just go get engaged to Nabiki?!" Her scream was accompanied by the sound of a slap. What Akane said got Nabiki's attention. She had to admit, at least privately to herself, that she sometimes regretted hastily foisting Ranma on Akane.

When he had showed up after Daddy had announced out of nowhere that one of them had to marry him, her self preservation instincts had kicked in. At the time, she had done what she had felt she had to do to duck a possible major liability. Now, after she had been observing Ranma for months as he took care of Akane, she had to admit that having him devoting his attention to her wouldn't be ... all bad. He was kind to all the girls after him, actually. She had watched him do what he could to spare the feelings of the rest of the girls chasing him, while still trying to live his own life and become a world-class fighter.

Of course, she would have to make him work for it, she wasn't interested in being someone's toy girlfriend or trophy wife. Of course ... there was still the question of Akane. Nabiki looked over at the two of them, and sure enough, Ranma was now sporting a red hand print on his face as he twitched and stood in front of her sister. Oh Akane ... she really was a sweet girl, but Ranma really seemed to be able to push all of her buttons. They just didn't really seem to be a good match. Neither one of them seemed to be able to give the other what they needed.

Poor Akane. Mother's passing had really messed her up. In truth, it had messed them all up. Kasumi had done her best to step into the mother role, which was extremely awkward to watch as Daddy more or less treated her like the woman in charge of the house.

But Akane ... Akane had known Mom the least amount of time, and she had also clearly needed her the most. Even when Nabiki was a little girl, she had prided herself on being self sufficient. Akane tried to pretend she was as well, but it was clear to anyone who watched her, that she not only thrived on outside validation, but that she needed it. It wasn't enough for her to do something and take pride in her own accomplishment. Like a child, she needed someone to pat her on the head and tell her she was a good girl and had done a good job.

Akane's emotional problems also could be traced back to the passing of their mother. Daddy's slow meltdown into how he acted now, hadn't helped either. Yes, Akane had been a tomboy even when Mom was alive, but not like she was now, and she hadn't had the out of control temper then, either.

Nabiki knew that Akane thought she was in love with Ranma. But she also knew it was the fantasy love of a child. She was more in love with the idea of being in love than anything else. She was not ready to be in a real relationship with anyone. Her selfishness when dealing with Ranma was readily apparent to anyone watching them.

Akane clearly thought that the role of the girl in a relationship with a boy was to allow the boy to shower them with praise and adoration, and that the boy should never admit that the girl had ever done anything he didn't agree with. Akane had no concept of the give and take of a healthy adult relationship between equals. Watching her with Ranma was like watching a little girl trying to play house with some bewildered boy she had captured off the playground, and getting upset with him when he didn't follow the rules of her made-up game.

Ranma did his best to keep Akane happy when he wasn't deliberately doing things to spite her because she had pushed his buttons. But, it was clear to everyone watching them that Ranma wasn't all that much more mature than Akane was and anyone dating him would have to help mature him a bit if they wanted the relationship to succeed.

Nabiki thought about it, and decided that she would be willing to do that, if Ranma reciprocated. She looked over at Ranma and decided that he could be a worthy project. Still ... she supposed she had better let Akane have a chance to retain her claim on him. It was only fair. If Akane decided to be childish about it, and she would not bet against that, then so be it; Nabiki would accept the change in engagement and see if she and Ranma might be a better match. Even if they weren't, they might at least have some laughs for a while.

Her decision made, Nabiki put her hand on Ranma's shoulder and replied to her sister. "Akane? Are you sure?" She said as she stepped closer to Ranma. Ranma wasn't paying any attention to her, he was babbling something to Akane about her not meaning what she said. Nabiki cut across him. "If you say take him, that's it, he's mine." She grabbed his arm possessively as she said this and leaned into him. She could feel him tense up as her words registered, but she didn't take her eyes off Akane. Akane had turned back from the dramatic exit she had clearly been planning, and looked back stricken with shock at her.

Akane had the greater claim on him. So Nabiki decided she would back off and let her take him back if she took back what she had said, now. Akane had put in the most time with him after all, it was only fair. But she wanted her to know she was going to take her up on this if she didn't take him back.

"I'm not borrowing him. I'm keeping him. Understand?" She smiled as she grasped Ranma's arm tighter to drive home her point. "And you're not getting him back!" Ranma looked down at her with naked panic in his wide eyes. She knew he must be thinking she had either lost it, or was teasing. She smiled reassuringly at him before turning her attention back to Akane. She knew exactly what she was doing. She hoped Akane did as well.

Akane narrowed her eyes at Nabiki and stomped over towards her. She briefly wondered if Akane intended to hit her. Instead, Akane threw a ribbon on Ranma. "Take him, the creep's all yours!" Akane said angrily. Akane then spun on her heel and stomped off to continue her dramatic exit.

"Thanks!" Ranma called out angrily to Akane's back.

Nabiki had not let go of Ranma's arm yet. She was pressing herself up against him still. She realized that it was very forward for her to be doing what she was doing. Granted, she had done it mostly to pressure Akane to take back what she said, but now she was curious what Ranma would do about it. She looked sweetly up at him, and waited. Ranma looked between her and Akane's retreating back with rapid turns of his head, with growing panic on his face.

"Relax, Ranma. It's over. She'll calm down eventually, but even if she doesn't, it doesn't matter. You're mine now." She said with a sweet smile and her best seductive voice as she continued to press her body into him. He smelled like cedar wood and some sort of a flower. She'd never noticed that before. She could tell he was about to stroke out so she stopped torturing him and pushed off him lightly as smiled up at him. "I'm just teasing you, Ranma."

"S-so, you didn't mean it about ... about the engagement stuff?" He asked.

"Oh, no, I meant that." Nabiki replied, still in her sweet voice.

"Nabiki--" Ranma started what was sure to be a long conversation, so she cut him off, she didn't really want to get into it right now, especially not outside in the cold, especially since she herself wasn't sure how serious she was about him. She could feel a growing pit of warmth inside her, though. She had enjoyed being in his arms, and holding on to him just now.

"Ssh, don't worry about it, Ranma. Our fathers just want you to marry one of us. Akane gave you up, fair and square, and I have accepted the engagement. They'll be fine. Akane will sulk about it at first, but I think she'll get over it pretty fast, and she will eventually realize that she was never ready to be engaged to anyone. Eventually she will probably thank me for agreeing to take you." Nabiki said as she pressed a finger to his lips. Then, with a grin, she reached up on her tip-toes and kissed him on the cheek. She ran into the house then, and left him standing out in the garden, absolutely speechless.

She walked calmly into the entryway. She fully expected Akane to be waiting for her. She decided that if Akane asked her nicely, she would give the engagement back to her. If not, she would make her pay to get him back. If Akane didn't make a serious attempt to get him back, though, she really would keep him.

To her surprise, she did not find Akane waiting for her when she entered the house. Akane wasn't waiting for her on the stairs or in the hall outside their rooms, either. She opened the door to her room cautiously, but Akane wasn't in there waiting for her either. So, she shrugged and closed the door behind her. On a whim, she pulled her curtains back and looked out in the courtyard where she had left Ranma. He was still standing where she'd left him, in the exact same pose, like he was frozen.

Oh well, he'll snap out of it eventually. She thought happily to herself. She let the curtains fall closed again with a soft smile to herself. After she got undressed and changed into her pajamas, she sat at her desk and began writing out some plans.

If she was going to be engaged to Ranma anyway, she might as well have some fun with it. Akane had been having all of the fun with him so far. Even if Ranma didn't honor the engagement, tomorrow would be ... interesting. She hummed to herself cheerfully as she worked. She was looking forward to tomorrow.

Chapter Text

Nabiki dressed in a hurry the next day and ran out of the house after wolfing down a quick breakfast. Today was going to be a fun day. She smiled to herself, she had a lot to do. She hummed happily as she ran to school.

Ranma arrived alone at the gates of the school about a half hour later. Nabiki smiled to herself, he was right on time for his usual schedule. She was surprised that Akane wasn't with him, but she had to admit that she wasn't sad about it.

Ranma nodded politely to her as he entered the gates and headed towards the school building. He was playing it very cool. She smiled back at him in return and let him pass in silence. He twitched at that. Oh yes, today was going to fun. She always enjoyed taking people out of their center, especially powerful people. With Ranma inexperienced with the ladies, it would be easier than usual to do that, but it wouldn't be any less fun. She smiled to herself as she began to follow him. It would only be a matter of time now. She could already hear the commotion starting as students called out to themselves about the news.

"Hey did you hear?"

"What?! Ranma and Akane split?!"

"I hear he switched to Nabiki!"

"Wow... an older woman!"

She couldn't help herself, she knew she was grinning. Some of the students noticed her walking behind him, and ran up to ask her to confirm or deny the news. She happily handed them the flyers she had made last night, without speaking as she continued to follow Ranma.

Akane arrived at a full run at that point, but slowed when she saw Nabiki following Ranma. As she reached Nabiki's side, Nabiki teased her, "I wonder how they found out?" She said as she continued to hand out flyers to the students who approached her.

Akane wasn't in a joking mood, though. She replied in an annoyed tone, "gosh, could it be because..." she trailed off and just pointed at her as she continued to hand out flyers.

Nabiki simply smiled. To herself she thought, any minute now...

"Akane! Come! Leap into my arms!" Kuno yelled at the top of his lungs, with a rose clenched in his teeth, as he appeared from nowhere and lunged at her sister. It was uncanny how he was able to do that.

Here we go. Nabiki thought smugly to herself as Ranma leaped into the air as Kuno lunged. Her eyes tried to follow him as he moved, but he was just too fast.

Akane danced back out of Kuno's range and yelped, "K-k-kuno?!"

Ranma landed on Kuno's head at that point and glared down at him as he said, "mornin', Kuno."

Kuno, to his credit, simply stood up and brushed Ranma off his head as he smoothly pulled the rose from between his teeth and handed it to Akane before he turned to grasp Ranma's hand with a friendly smile plastered on his face. "Good morning, future brother-in-law!"

Ranma recoiled at that, "hey, who're you callin'--?!"

Nabiki took the opportunity to remind Ranma of what had happened last night, she quickly stepped forward and looped her arm through his and said to Kuno, "oh, yeah...that's right..."

Kuno reached over and wrapped his arm around Akane's shoulders as he smiled in a way he probably thought was magnanimous and said, "yes! Brother and sister-in-laws! Akane will be mine!"

Akane was twitching in anger, Nabiki leaned back a bit to make sure she didn't get hit in the crossfire of what was coming. Akane smoothly slipped Kuno's arm from her shoulders, pivoted her hips and then kicked him so hard that he sailed away across the courtyard. Many of the guys in the school cheered and whistled as she did so. They not only liked watching Kuno take it in the teeth, but they also enjoyed seeing Akane in action.

As Akane calmed down, Nabiki leaned over and pulled Ranma behind her as she taunted quietly into Akane's ear, "Akane ... admit it. You want Ranma back, don't you? Act now and I'll give him back for five thousand Yen."

Ranma protested, "I'm not for sale!"

Akane growled and turned on her and again denied her claim on him, "I don't want him!" She then turned to walk away in a huff, but paused and said over her shoulder, "since you have decided to tell the whole school about this, just one word of warning, Nabiki ... if you're going to be engaged to Ranma ... you'd better do some training." She walked away quickly after that, hurrying to class.

Nabiki called after her, "huh? What do you mean?" But Akane didn't respond. Nabiki looked up at Ranma who shrugged.

Nabiki's mind was going a mile a minute. What had Akane meant by that? Was she just trying to confuse her? Was she threatening to fight her for Ranma? Ranma interrupted her train of thought, "um ... Nabiki?" He asked nervously.

She simply looked up at him, annoyed at the interruption.

"I-I need to get to class..." He said, looking down pointedly at his arm. She realized that she was still holding on to him. She smiled sweetly at him and released her grip on him. He took a couple of hesitant steps away from her, unsure of what to do, so she shooed him towards class.

"Well, go on, you'll be late." She added, to get him moving. He nodded sharply and pivoted on his heel and dashed off towards the school building running at incredible speed. Instead of entering through the main doors, though, he jumped up into a nearby tree, and then into the window of his third floor classroom. She had to admit, he was good. She hummed happily to herself as she walked into the school building while she pondered what Akane had meant about needing to train.

She was sure it was nothing but Akane trying to rattle her.

Chapter Text

Nabiki was sitting in class and trying to pay attention. But she was already planning on what she should do with Ranma at lunch time. She didn't really want to go find a quiet place to eat lunch alone with him, and she also didn't want to bring him in to socialize with her friends. He wasn't ready for that yet.

The door to her classroom being yanked open snapped her out of her reverie. As she looked up at whoever was coming in extremely late, she saw a blur as an object streaked towards her face. Without thinking about it, she reached up and grabbed the object out of the air using instincts and muscle memory from the days when daddy had trained her in the art when she was little. She actually remembered a great deal of it, and she practiced it occasionally in the privacy of her room when she was home alone. One never knew when skills like that would come in handy.

Puzzled, and somewhat embarrassed that she had revealed that she was a bit more athletic than she let people believe she was, she looked down at what she had caught. It was ... an okonomiyaki? It had a message written on it in sauce. It said, "come to the back of the gymnasium --Ukyo."

She looked back at the door but only caught a glimpse of a retreating back of someone in a boy's school uniform. Had that been ... Ukyo? She looked back to the front of the room to find the teacher staring at her crossly. She shrugged and set the okonomiyaki to the side as she said, "lunch delivery. I guess they got a little ahead of schedule."

The teacher opened his mouth like he was going to argue the point with her, to which she simply raised an eyebrow. She knew he wouldn't be able to prove anything, and she knew he knew she knew. He stared at her for a moment more in irritation, then closed his mouth, and turned back to the board to continue his lesson like the interruption hadn't happened.

Nabiki smugly thought to herself, another battle won before it even began. As the lesson continued, she glanced down at her watch. There was only another few minutes until the lunch bell rang. She was sure Ukyo had meant for her to run off and answer the challenge immediately. She had no intention of doing so. She wasn't as wrapped up in the Bushido thing like daddy was. Honor had its uses, but she didn't let it rule her life.

When the bell rang, she calmly packed up her stuff and headed out. Her friends called out to her to follow them, but she waved them off. She did this a lot when she had business to take care of, so they were used to it. They smiled and nodded and said they'd save her a seat.

Nabiki thought about stopping by Ranma's class and having him go meet with Ukyo, but decided against it. Of all of Ranma's other suitors, she was the most like Nabiki, and she was the least violent. She could be reasoned with. She hoped.


***


She made her way behind the gym as the note had instructed, and sure enough, there was Ukyo, waiting there looking impatient, dressed in her boy's school uniform.

She stopped a good two meters away from Ukyo, and pushed one hip out and rested a hand on it in her best intimidation pose and asked, "what's with all the formality, Ucchan?" She knew using Ranma's nickname for her would pull her off her center.

Ukyo's left eyebrow started to twitch as she replied, "being ran-chan's fiancée myself ... I thought we should get re-acquainted." Ukyo looked a little lost as she drew her battle spatula. It was clear that she thought she needed to fight Nabiki for Ranma, but she didn't think it was the right thing to do.

Ut-oh, does she want to fight me? That won't end well. Nabiki thought to herself as she realized belatedly what Akane had meant about training. She tried to keep Ukyo off-center and called out in her best confident voice in a bluff, "what, you think you can take Ranma away by force? You underestimate me, Ucchan." Oops, bluffed wrong. Nabiki thought as Ukyo's expression changed from regret to anticipation. Nabiki started to back up. On her best day, she might be able to fight Akane to a draw. She wasn't going to be able to fight Ukyo with fists and win. She would destroy the girl in logic, planning or finance. But in a fist fight, Ukyo had the edge, especially if Ukyo was fighting for Ranma. She gathered up her pride and buried it down deep as she got ready to run.

It was too bad that Ranma's ability to come to the rescue only seemed to work when it was Akane in dang-- sonofabitch, look at that -- she thought with disbelief as she saw Ranma bounding over the rooftops heading straight towards her. She immediately changed her plan as Ukyo charged her and yelled as she raised her battle spatula, "oh? We'll see about that!"

Ranma crested over the last building and leaped in between them as he yelled, "don't fight!"

At the same time, Nabiki yelled, "I'll sell him to you for six thousand Yen!"

Ukyo surprised her by immediately dropping her battle spatula as she grasped her hands and yelled back gleefully, "sold!" It was amazing how many people were willing to drop all pretense of the honor code they claimed to live their lives by, if they could find an easy yet dishonorable way to get what they wanted.

Ranma looked at them crossly. Nabiki ignored him and said, "okay, he's your problem," as she crossed her arms. She was hoping Ranma would step in and say ... something. She knew he wasn't going to profess his undying love for her, or even for Akane, but she would be disappointed in him if he didn't fight to at least stay in the Tendo household and honor his promise. She looked at him expectantly as Ukyo yelled excited yippee noises.

Ranma opened his mouth to say something, but before he could, several clubs used in martial arts rhythmic gymnastics came whistling in at Ukyo from a high angle behind her. Ukyo immediately recovered her composure from the celebration she had been doing and batted them away with her battle spatula.

A cloud of black rose petals showered the area as an insane laughter rained down all around them.

Nabiki rolled her eyes. It was amazing how many of these people liked to do these dramatic entrances. It wasn't like everyone in town didn't already know about Kodachi Kuno's trademarks already. She wasn't confounding anyone with her entrance.

From behind the cloud of black rose petals a shrill girl's voice lashed out, "the nerve of selling Ranma for a mere six thousand Yen!"

Ranma slumped in exasperation as he heard her voice. Nabiki didn't blame him. Kodachi was exhausting. Hell, it was exhausting just sitting through her little entrance. Kodachi then yelled as the rose petals cleared, "I'll pay sixty one hundred for him!"

Nabiki smiled. Now they were in an arena she could control. Ranma could stop it whenever he wanted. But until then, she would have fun with these goofy girls.

Before she could even say anything, Ukyo stepped in front of her and rounded on Kodachi in a combat stance. "And just who are you?!"

Nabiki put her hands on her hips as she ran her eyes over Kodachi. She was in her trademark leotard, and twirling one of those ribbons around like she always did. She couldn't help commenting, "wow, it's been a while..."

Ranma muttered quietly to himself like he was trying to ward off an evil spirit, "Kodachi the black rose!"

Ukyo yelled at Kodachi, "sixty two hundred!"

Kodachi shot back, "sixty two fifty!"

Nabiki grinned as she pulled her bullhorn out of her bag and got into her auctioneer persona, "I have sixty two fifty. Sixty two fifty going once..."

Ukyo glared back at her before fixing her stare back on Kodachi and yelled, "sixty three hundred!"

Kodachi countered, "then I bid sixty three fifty!"

Already getting tired of it all, and hoping to prod Ranma into doing something Nabiki turned to him while the girls were shouting escalating numbers at each other, "sounds like you're worth about a week's allowance..."

Ranma dragged his uneasy gaze from the fighting girls and fixed his stare on Nabiki as he twitched in annoyance and said, "Hey, you--!" Then he stopped and cocked his head to the side like he was listening to something only he could hear. A moment later he lunged for her as he yelled, "uh oh! Duck!" Before Nabiki could react to that though, he had grabbed her about the waist and yanked her off her feet like she weighed nothing as he pulled her hard to the other side of himself while a large metal ball on the end of a stick came crashing down into the ground where she had been standing.

Whoa ... was all she could think of as she stared at where she had been standing as a cold shiver ran down her back. She refused to be rattled by these silly girls' violence, so she pulled her eyes up to Shampoo's cold and determined eyes and said as nonchalantly as she could manage, "hey there, Shampoo."

Shampoo smiled a grin of a predator as she advanced on Nabiki and said in her broken Japanese, "if Nabiki dead, then Ranma for free!"

Kodachi immediately jumped in with that plan and turned from shouting at Ukyo to also advancing menacingly on Nabiki, "and that is a bargain!"

Ukyo tapped her fist into her palm as she realized they were right.

Nabiki wasn't worried while Ranma was there. She knew he wouldn't let them hurt her. So she played along and put on a panicked face. Privately, she wondered if they were on to her. She doubted it though, they seemed to be pretty surface-level girls.

Ranma didn't wait to let her see what would happen next, he grabbed Nabiki's hand and sprinted away from the three girls like a spooked deer. Nabiki was almost airborne behind him as she struggled to keep up with him as he ran.

The girls gave immediate chase, yelling their usual battle cry nonsense. Nabiki let real panic cross her face as all three of the girls launched weapons at them. Ukyo threw small, sharp spatulas at them. Kodachi launched her ribbon, and Shampoo threw one of her bonbori. As the missiles came closer she started to yell for Ranma to dodge, but all she got out was a worried, "R-Ran--" before he yanked her forward and completely off her feet to scoop her up in his arms and shield her with his body as he ran. The weapons rained down around them, some of them impacting off him, but he didn't even flinch. Nabiki buried her face in his chest in not-all-together mock fear.

As Kodachi chased them she yelled, "Ranma darling, if you value the life of this fiancée--"

Ukyo cut across her, "--you must choose me instead!"

Ranma didn't respond to them, he just continued to run, and occasionally let out little yelps of pain.

Nabiki couldn't help but admit that he was at least noble. Even though she knew that the girls weren't attacking with lethal force, and that he was way too tough for their attacks to do much if any damage to him. Still, she felt he could use a little encouragement, so she said as he carried her, "I'm so flattered you're suffering for me!"

Ranma rounded a corner and set her down for a moment and said crossly, "I'm suffering because of you!"

Nabiki winced at that. He had a point.

Shampoo jumped past Ranma to kick at Nabiki and yelled, "Nabiki, you die!"

Ranma grabbed Nabiki again, wrapped her in his arms and spun with her, pulling her out of danger again, but putting himself in the path of Shampoo's kick, which knocked him to his knees.

Geez, they are getting a little out of control, aren't they? Nabiki thought in growing concern. She was starting to worry what would happen to her if they managed to knock Ranma out.

Shampoo looked briefly down at Ranma and regret briefly flashed across her face before she turned back to Nabiki with renewed determination set on her face again. Nabiki started to back away but before she had to take even a step, Ukyo's giant spatula came swinging in to her field of vision as she screamed, "how dare you kick my Ranma!" Instead of hitting Shampoo, though, she smashed into Ranma who had just stood back up and in Shampoo's path. Ranma went down, again.

Kodachi landed next and attacked Ukyo with her ribbon as the melee grew.

With the three of them engaged in combat against each other, Ranma leaped back to his feet and pulled Nabiki quickly around a corner and into some bushes as he ducked in next to her to hide.

The sounds of their fight carried to their hiding place easily, and Nabiki heard Kodachi and Ukyo continue yelling while Shampoo screamed enraged curses in her native Mandarin for another few moments before they all stopped when they realized Ranma was gone and Nabiki with him.

They all yelled parting shots at each other before they split up to look for Ranma. Nabiki looked up at him and said, "that was close."

Ranma looked back at her, bruised, with a couple of Ukyo's smaller spatulas still sticking out of his skin and said, "now that hurt."

Nabiki, despite the somewhat serious nature of the event, couldn't help but go for the joke. It was just who she was. She leaned in and asked sweetly as she clasped her hands together pleadingly, "will you protect me forever?"

Ranma frowned and said in an exasperated tone, "no!"

Before Ranma could say anything else, they both noticed that the bushes around them were moving. They looked down and realized they were partially on Akane, who was covered in bushes in an obvious attempt at camouflaging herself. Nabiki was amused that she had been spying on them. "Huh? What are you doing there, Akane?" She asked innocently.

Akane replied in an extremely embarrassed voice, "...nothing..."

Nabiki rolled her eyes at her as she stood up after listening to the girls' search moving further and further away from their position. She reached down and extended her hand to Ranma to help him up.

He looked up at her in confusion, but allowed her to help pull him up. Neither one of them acknowledged that he didn't need any help getting up from her. Nabiki looked him up and down, and brushed away the last of the weapons still embedded in him, and nodded her head as she came to a decision. "Come on, Saotome, I'll fix up your boo-boos." She grabbed his hand and started pulling him.

He followed her in confusion. Nabiki looked back at Akane and yelled, "can you tell your class and mine that we're going home early today? Thanks, Akane." She smiled as she turned back to guiding Ranma home.

Akane looked blankly after them as they left. She looked crestfallen.


***


A little while later, Ranma was sitting on the ground in Nabiki's room as she fished around in one of the many large and fully stocked first aid kits they kept around the household.

Ranma had gotten his gumption up to argue with her about the fun she had been having. "Will you cut it out already?! This is all because of your stupid gossip!"

Nabiki didn't miss a beat as she continued to rummage around in the box for a bandage in the size she wanted, "but, it's true, isn't it? You did switch fiancées, right?" She found the one she wanted and turned to face Ranma as she held it up. "You're in love with Akane, is that it? C'mon, if you're still in love with her, admit it." She held her breath, waiting for him to answer.

Ranma huffed and turned away so she couldn't look into his eyes and said angrily, "I don't think so!" He then turned back to her and leaned in and pointed a finger at her and pleaded, "look, will you just make up with her... please?!"

Okay. That hurt. A little bit. He obviously had feelings for Akane. Well, fine then, she would fight for him. She rounded on him and turned on the tears as she glared at him, "Ranma ... don't you know ... my true feelings...?" He looked blankly at her but nervously. She pressed onward, "I thought I'd never tell you this, but..." she looked away dramatically, she wanted to really sell this, "...for a very long time now..." she turned back to him and clasped her hands pleadingly, as she thought, here we go, let's see how he reacts to this, "I've been in love with you, Ranma! There, I've said it!"

Ranma's face went white. He pushed back away from her and kept going until he ran his back into her bed. He managed to stutter out, "y-you're kidding, ... right?"

Nabiki looked away from him and repeated herself, "I love you! Is that so wrong?"

Ranma choked back, "y-you're, you're kidding, r-r-right, Nabiki?"

She turned back to him with real and fake tears in her eyes and simply said, "no."

Chapter Text

The next day, Nabiki woke up and sat on the edge of her bed and thought about last night. Ranma, in his typical demonstration of being unable to handle emotions or anything female that wasn't him, had stuttered his way out of her room after she told him she had loved him, without actually dealing with what she said, at all.

Had she been playing with him? If I am being honest with myself, I would have to say that I was mostly playing with him. It was just so much fun to tease him. She thought about that for a moment and decided she had some maturing to do as well. Oh well, she figured she could do so at the same time Ranma did, and still stay ahead of the curve.

Putting all of her jumbled thoughts aside she stood up and started to get dressed for the day. Before she had finished dressing, though, she stopped and thought for a moment, then set aside her shoes and overcoat and stood quietly in the center of her room for a moment. She then took a deep breath and ran through the basic footwork, balance, and striking katas she knew from when she was a little girl. She also practiced a few parrying hand drills she remembered. That finished, she finished dressing.

She normally didn't like to practice unless she was home alone, but since yesterday had proved that her own martial arts skills were suddenly in play now, she figured she had better at least keep sharp the skills she did have. Ranma wasn't omnipotent, he would eventually not be there when she might need him.

She smirked to herself as she thought about those silly girls attacking her yesterday. She had briefly considered just exacting a blunt revenge on them. She knew a lot of people in low and high places across the city. But she had decided to get back at them in her own way, in her own time. She had her own code that she followed, and that code included the teachings of Sun Tzu. She intended to win this war without ever actually fighting any of them. Turning an enemy's strengths against them was the mark of a master strategist, after all.

She knew Ranma and for that matter daddy and Mr. Saotome wouldn't approve of her way of taking care of enemies. They were more the front-line soldier types. She liked to think of herself as at least a good intelligence officer, if not a master strategist. She had already set various things into motion last night after Ranma had made his hasty exit from her room after she told him she loved him.

She shrugged and decided to go see how her fiancée was doing. She smiled and hummed happily to herself as she set out to find him. She grabbed a towel from the hall closet on her way out. Finding him didn't take long. The boy was fairly predictable. She found him working out in the courtyard where he usually worked out in the mornings. She hung back and watched him a bit from across the courtyard in the shadows. She had wanted to go talk to him immediately, but she had hung back when she saw Akane across the courtyard quietly slinking towards him. She decided to see how he handled her. This would be his first encounter with her since she told him she loved him last night.

She couldn't hear what Akane said to him, or Ranma's reply, but after Akane poked her head around the corner and looked at him for a bit and he noticed her, they seemed to fall into their old pattern of friendly bickering fairly quickly. Well, so much for her declaration of love changing him overnight. She hadn't really expected it to, of course.

With a smile on her face, she stepped out from the shadows, and hurried over to where Ranma was standing and said, "ah, there you are, Ranma, did you miss me?"

Ranma immediately stopped moving as he heard her approaching. His face had a look of ... was that guilt? Akane was watching her cooly, but didn't move to interfere or say anything, so Nabiki ignored her and pressed the towel she had brought with her against his face and neck while smiling sweetly at him as she said, "here. Let me wipe your sweaty brow."

Akane's neutral stare changed to an angry scowl as Ranma stuttered out in a panic, "uh ... thuh... thank ... y-you ... v-v-very muhh..."

Nabiki fixed her own cool stare on Akane and said, "hey! do you mind?"

Akane opened her mouth like she was going to challenge her, then closed it again with enough force that Nabiki could hear her teeth click together. Akane spun on her heel and stormed off with a growl but not a word spoken.

Nabiki stared after her for a moment, and decided to catch up with her later in the day and try again to give her the opportunity to take Ranma back. The fool girl would have to put aside her childish pride to do that, though. But she figured she owed her at least a few chances to change her mind. The window was fast closing, though. She wasn't going to keep herself neutral for too much longer. She had her own feelings to take care of as well. The entire world didn't revolve around her emotionally damaged little sister.

Nabiki looked up at Ranma who was still twitching uncomfortably. Nabiki realized she still had the towel pressed up against his neck, and she was still pressing her body against him to be able to reach.

My but wasn't he awkward around the ladies. One would think that with his familiarity with his own sometimes-female body, that he wouldn't be so shy.

Or, was it just that he was only shy with her? She pondered that as she stepped back and asked, "ready to go to school?"

He nodded mutely. She looked down at her watch and asked, "leave in five minutes?" He nodded again. Lordy, she was going to have to work on his communication skills. She smiled patiently up at him and headed off to the table to grab some food that Kasumi undoubtedly had prepared. Say what one would about Kasumi, but she took good care of her family.

Ranma joined her at the table, and instead of sitting in his usual place looked at her sideways in a way she assumed he thought was sneaky, and then casually sat next to her.

Interesting. Very interesting. She wondered what he was trying to say by sitting next to her. For all she knew, he was just trying to placate her and hoping that if he gave her the bare minimum amount of attention, that would be enough to keep her in the background for now.

She smiled inwardly as she watched him eat out of the corner of her eye. She had no intention of staying in the background. She wasn't the Kasumi-type. She saw Akane dash out the front gates a minute later, and checked her watch.

A moment later they were dashing off to school together. She had timed it so they were just enough behind Akane that unless she stopped and waited, she wouldn't see them. She hadn't gone to school with Ranma since the first day he had arrived and she had gone with him part-way with Akane after telling Akane it was her duty as his fiancée to get him to school.

She smiled sadly at the memory. She kind of missed those days. Kuno's insane challenge to the school's boys that they had to defeat Akane in combat before they could date with her, had been extremely entertaining. She had also made a considerable amount of money betting on Akane every day. She had kept it fresh by changing the bets to things like how many boys she could knock down with a single strike, how many would lose teeth, etcetera.

She looked up at Ranma, who was running on top of the fence that protected the water canals that ran through town like it was no big deal and wondered what he was thinking about. He noticed her looking up at him, but other than meeting her eyes for a moment, he didn't say anything.

They arrived at the gates of the school soon after that, and stopped short. Nabiki couldn't help herself, she grinned openly.

Arrayed before Akane, who had stopped short of the gate herself, was more or less every guy in the school who was single. For that matter, Nabiki saw a couple of guys in the crowd whom she knew were dating people. She made a mental note to make use of that information later, then she turned her attention back to Akane. She was shaking with obvious anger at having to deal with the weird attentions of the boys of their school again.

Ranma stood passively next to Nabiki and just watched. She knew that he knew by now that Akane could handle the guys in the school trying to defeat her in combat so they could date with her. She scanned his face and couldn't find any traces of concern or even all that much interest in the scene before him. She wondered if that was just anger at Akane, or if he really was starting to care less about her personal life?

Nabiki didn't have any more time to wonder about it, though, as the dumb guys chose that moment to launch their attack en masse like they always used to do. It was over almost as fast as it had begun. Akane made short work of dropping them, as she always had, and walked angrily into the school without looking back.

Nabiki whistled as she surveyed the carnage. It was a good thing she hadn't made bets today. Most of the guys were sporting some serious injuries. A few of them were out cold. Her little sister was obviously more upset than she was letting on. She really did need to talk with her. She looked over at Ranma and smiled. He wasn't watching Akane leave, he was looking down at her expectantly. Nabiki commented as they started walking again, "leave it to my sister, soon as the obstacle's removed... she's miss popularity!"

Ranma asked in a confused voice, "huh. What do they all see in her?"

What indeed? Nabiki thought to herself as she walked into the school with Ranma and looped her arm through his. He twitched a little at the public display, but didn't say anything, and didn't remove her arm. She smiled up at him, and he looked down and returned her smile with a nervous one of his own.

She couldn't blame him. The school grounds were a pretty dangerous place for him, especially when his romantic life was involved. They parted ways on the stairs as they headed to their separate classes. But, as Ranma walked away, he turned back and called after her. "Nabiki?"

She stopped and looked curiously over her shoulder. He had skipped all of the prior moments he had alone with her so far today to speak with her. She was sure it was no coincidence he was choosing to do so now, right when classes were about to start. She raised an eyebrow and waited. Several people passed them as she waited, many of them calling out greetings to her and Ranma. They both ignored them. Ranma pressed his fingers together awkwardly as he obviously worked hard to summon the courage to tell her whatever it was he wanted to tell her.

The bell rang, and neither of them moved. Finally, in a small voice, he asked, "N-nabiki?"

She nodded but didn't speak.

He gulped and pressed onward, "N-nabiki ... would you meet me for lunch under that big tree over by the softball fields?"

Nabiki actually blinked at that in surprise. Was he ... was he asking her out on a date? So soon? She had been sure that it would take weeks if not months of coaching on her part to get him to that point, and that would have been after she managed to get Akane to calm down, and get the rest of his crazy suitors to back off. This was surprising, to say the least. Still, she felt like she should reward his courage. She walked over to him, and grabbed his hand with both of hers and squeezed it gently as she said, "of course, Ranma. I'll see you then, all right?"

He nodded solemnly, like they had just made a very serious promise, and quickly turned and bolted for his classroom. As she walked towards her own class, she mused that in his mind, it probably was a solemn promise. With Genma as his father filling his head with all of the crazy honor stuff he and daddy liked to squawk about, it was no wonder he was so hesitant to agree to do or say anything, let alone to make a promise. The fallout from the few promises he had made, and which had been made on his behalf, had already changed the course and destiny of his life in ways he probably still didn't even understand.


***


Nabiki made her way to the meeting place Ranma had asked her to come to faster than her pride really wanted her to. She forced herself to slow down and walk at a more leisurely pace as she got within eyesight of the tree. She could see Ranma's trademark red Chinese shirt standing under it from where she was. It wouldn't do to make him think that she was eager to see him. She wasn't was she? No, she was just curious about what he wanted to talk about. Sure, and if you believe that, I have a beach in Hokkaido to sell you. She thought to herself sarcastically.

As she reached the meeting place and came within easy speaking distance of Ranma, she stopped and clasped her hands behind her back. She liked to think of that as one of her cuter poses. Ranma hadn't turned to look at her, so she asked, "what is it, Ranma? What's so urgent?"

Ranma continued to look away from her, but started bridging his hands together nervously. He finally spoke up and said, "well... about ... you know..."

Oh, of course, he wanted to talk about last night. That made much more sense than him asking her out on a date. Well, she might as well double-down on what she had said last night. If she didn't present at least a semi-consistent message to him, she would confuse him like Akane had. So, she smiled and asked sweetly, "about me telling you that I loved you?"

Ranma turned to look at her and returned her smile in a hopeful way and asked, "um ... you were only kidding ... right?"

Well, damn. This was more like how she had been expecting him to behave, but it was still a little disappointing to hear it. The sad face she put on after he said that wasn't much of an act. She looked away from him and asked a question she actually had been wondering about since the day he showed up, "... you don't like older women?"

Ranma made a choking sound in reply. She buried her face in her hands without turning around and wailed, "then it's true, I'm too old!"

She watched him carefully through the gaps in her fingers for his reaction. He gasped at her display and started waving his hands in a panic as he tried to calm her down. "N-n-no ... I ... no! I don't care ... about age ... I ..."

Well, that was good news. He was a terrible actor, and that had been a genuine reaction, so at least she now knew that he really didn't have a problem with her being slightly older than him. She rushed over to him and dropped her hands from her face to clasp them under her chin as she asked, "really?!"

He leaned back from her advance but held his ground as he said, "y-yeah, I don't care how old you are, really. But I--"

"--Oh, Ranma! I knew it, thank you! I'm so happy!" She cut him off happily as she grinned at him. Was she acting? To be honest, even she didn't know for sure. Ranma, overwhelmed, staggered away from her for a few steps and crouched down quietly in the shade of the tree.

Unfortunately, at the same time some of her regular customers spotted her and called out to her from across the field. She swung her gaze over to them in a panic, then back to Ranma, but he hadn't moved. He seemed very lost in thought. Well ... while he was day dreaming, she supposed it wouldn't hurt to continue to get rid of some of the extra photos she had of his girl-side.

The whole photo thing had started as a way to bribe and control Kuno. And, honestly, selling him pictures of Akane breaking bricks and sweating in her uniforms seemed entirely innocent to her. When Ranma had come along and brought his cursed female body with him, Nabiki had found out rather quickly that he had no sense of the usual female urge to cover up, especially from the waist up. She had resisted for a long time, but as the weeks and months had dragged by and he had made absolutely no effort to cover up, despite numerous lectures from Akane and others, she had finally given in and started taking pictures whenever he was on one of his nudist streaks.

Since he didn't consider his girl-form part of himself, but instead just a cursed illusion that he just had to put up with, she really didn't feel like it was that big a deal. He walked around nude to semi-nude at home all the time as a girl, and even in public he went shirtless quite often, and with absolutely no effort to cover up.

As Nabiki's feelings had grown for him over time, though, she had stopped taking new pictures of him when he was a girl. But, still, she had made so many prints of the duplicates of the ones she had taken ... at the very least she wanted to sell enough to break even on the cost of printing out the duplicates. She took another look over at Ranma, but he was still lost in thought. So, she waved the guys over and held a finger up to her lips. As they gathered and formed a line, she took out the ever-dwindling envelope she had in her bag of the prints she had left and said with her business-smile on, "three thousand Yen for a set of five." They each paid up quickly and were on their way again clutching their new photos in moments. Interestingly, she knew at least two of them knew full well that the red-headed girl they were buying pictures of, was really Ranma. And she caught both of them sneaking glances at him as they retreated. Interesting. Very interesting. But also not important right now.

As she was putting the envelope away, she heard Ranma getting to his feet behind her. That wasn't good. She hurriedly stuffed the envelope in to the top of her bag and turned to face him with her best innocent face plastered on.

As he walked over to her his eyes darted to the backs of the retreating guys, then narrowed as he looked at the ground behind her. Before she could react he darted over and picked up a couple of the pictures that must have fallen out. They showed his girl form in various states of undress. He looked up at her with a mixture of betrayal and happiness on his face. The source of the betrayal was obvious, the happiness was probably just because he was back on what he considered to be solid ground. He stood up and waved the pictures at her and asked, "hey, what were you just ... what are these?"

Busted. Was all she could think of as she looked at him with regret. She then dropped to her knees and tried her best to deflect him, while trying to pull him off his center, of course. "Well ... a girl does love to gaze ... upon the man she truly loves ... even when he doesn't happen to be a man!"

Ranma wasn't having it, he leaned towards her and growled, "tell me you're not selling these?!"

Thinking fast, she reeled back and brought her hands up under her chin as she tried to stay calm. She could recover from this. If Ranma forgave Akane for whacking him with that mallet of hers, and for constantly splashing him with cold water to get back at him, then he could forgive this. "I was only selling the duplicates!"

Ranma narrowed his eyes at her like he wanted to argue the point further when Ukyo's voice interrupted them. "She'd sell love itself, if she could..." Nabiki couldn't see her, so she must be in the tree. There was no way she could have gotten there unseen while she had been there, which meant either Ranma had told Ukyo about the meeting, or she had followed him to the meeting and slipped into the tree while he was waiting for her to arrive. Nabiki hoped it was the later instead of the former.

Ukyo interrupted her musings as she jumped out of the tree and yelled, "Nabiki Tendo, take this!" As she said that she threw something at her. Nabiki braced herself to dodge. She didn't want to risk trying to grab it out of the air again--

Before she had to do anything, though, Ranma stepped in front of her and snapped, "Ukyo, no!" As he snatched whatever Ukyo had thrown out of the air. "I won't let you hurt--"

Nabiki swore her heart skipped a beat as he said that. Even after all her teasing, and the lines she had crossed, he still wanted to protect her. He really was very kind. She watched him as he looked at what Ukyo had thrown.

"--what is this?" He asked Ukyo, holding up one of her throwing spatulas with a Yen note tied around it.

Oh boy, this is going to cost me. Nabiki cringed as he rounded on her. Ukyo piled on, "that's the rental fee for you, Ranma."

"Fee?" He repeated numbly.

Ranma turned to stare at Nabiki in disbelief as Ukyo looked on smugly. Nabiki shrugged and figured she would explain this one to him later. "Yes, fee. One thousand Yen an hour."

"B-but ... why?" He asked.

"To keep the peace, silly." Nabiki said cheerfully. She knew she was going to have to explain this better tonight, but Ranma's shouts had already summoned several sports teams their way, she could hear them charging up now. Oh well, Ranma was a big boy. He could walk away from this whenever he wanted. In the meantime, to keep the peace, she was indeed going to rent him out by the hour. She wasn't nearly as jealous as Akane was. Besides, the best any of his would-be suitors would get out of an hour alone with him would be awkward silence. As for the sports teams...

"Did you say you're renting out Ranma?!"

"We want him for our competitions!"

They shouted over each other as they ran over to rent Ranma's skills. With Ranma on any sports team, they couldn't lose. He was like Furinkan High School's reluctant secret weapon.

Nabiki waved them over and smiled as she said in her best carnival voice, "Step right up!"

Ranma started to protest, but Ukyo dragged him away, "uh-uh! You're mine for the next hour!" Bless her.

Nabiki then rounded on the assembled guys and picked the various fighting teams that she knew Ranma would do well with, and rented him to the Aikido club, the Judo club, the Karate club, and the Kung-Fu club for their competitions. She turned down the Kendo club's request regretfully. While she was sure it would have been extremely amusing to have Ranma under the authority of Kuno in any capacity, she also knew that Ranma had breaking points, and Kuno was one of them. For that matter, Ranma could very likely break Kuno as well, if he was pushed too far.

To the clubs she had agreed to help with Ranma's skills, she gave each of them a paid receipt to show Ranma, and sent them on their way. She knew he would honor the agreements both because he would feel honor-bound to do so, and also because he loved to fight and prove himself to be the strongest fighter around. She figured it was win-win and he would forget all about being annoyed with her afterwards.

As she watched the gleeful sports teams follow Ukyo as she dragged Ranma away for her idea of a date, probably to go slave over an okonomiyaki stove for an hour and play married chef couple, Nabiki thought with no small measure of satisfaction. The fool girl wasn't making Ranma want to spend more time with her with her antics, that was for sure.

She reached down and gathered her bag up to her shoulder as she did a quick survey of the ground to make sure nothing else had fallen out of it. She then watched Ranma get led away for awhile, and stared wistfully after him. Still, she wasn't jealous that he was with Ukyo. She was kind of dreading what he was going to say to her when he got home, though.

She decided that she would go out of her way to be nice to him when he got home. She owed him that, at least.

Chapter Text

When school was over, Nabiki followed Akane home. Or, at least she thought Akane would head home. She hadn't bothered waiting for Ranma, because she knew he would be busy with the teams she had rented him to.

She figured she may as well try to make peace with Akane. She didn't want Ranma to come between them after all. As she followed behind her little sister, she realized that she was deliberately avoiding going home as she wandered into one of the shopping districts near the school.

She probably doesn't want to be around Ranma while he is engaged to me. She mused thoughtfully as she watched Akane window shopping from across the street. Her little sister's steps were getting shorter, and whenever Nabiki could catch a glimpse of her sister's face, she could tell that she was on the verge of tears.

Well, fine, she may as well get it over with. As Akane leaned against the wall of one of the shops she had been looking in, Nabiki walked up behind her and announced her presence, "Akane?"

Akane stiffened is surprise and immediately stood up straight as she turned around to face her and replied, "Nabiki?"

Poor Akane. Just looking at her face it was clear she was miserable. But, it wasn't like this whole situation hadn't been caused by her, so Nabiki's sympathy for her was limited, at best. She tried to lighten the mood as she asked, "what's with the end-of-the-world face?" She tilted her head and waited for an answer from her overly serious sister.

Akane looked back at her with her unspoken answer on her lips, but she was still too proud or childish to say she wanted Ranma back.

Fine, she would give her another chance to take him back. She smiled and said, "oh-ho! You actually want him back, don't you?" She held up two fingers and leaned closer to her, "for two thousand Yen, he's all yours."

There. She'd said it. As she had promised herself the night Akane switched the engagement, she wasn't just going to give him back. She had her own pride after all, and Akane needed to learn her lesson. Ranma was a person, not a toy to fight over. Akane couldn't just throw his engagement around to any of the Tendo sisters whenever the mood struck her. She would have to pay the price for her casual dismissal of her engagement to Ranma.

And, if Nabiki was being honest with herself, she also wanted Akane to pay the price for involving her in this as well. She was sure Akane was unaware of how she really felt about Ranma, but that wasn't the point.

Akane looked at her sadly, but didn't respond. Nabiki was getting tired of her stubbornness. If she was this bad with her, she could only imagine how she was with Ranma. After waiting a few more moments for Akane to respond, she pressed her, "well? Do you want him back, or not? If you don't want him back, fine, but don't come crying to me later." She ended up saying that a lot more forcefully than she had meant to. Inwardly, she wondered if it was just sibling rivalry, her distaste for Akane's attitude, or if she really did want to keep Ranma? She'd probably never know, because Akane was sure to break down soon and take him back. She watched her expectantly. When Akane didn't say anything after a few moments more, Nabiki rolled her eyes and started to walk away.

Finally, Akane called out after her with a shaky voice as she looked down at the ground, "b-but I'm... I'm not like you, Nabiki."

Nabiki listened to her but didn't say anything. She wondered how her self-righteous sister thought she wasn't like her.

Akane continued as she balled her hands into fists and tears of frustration sprang into her eyes, "I can't ... I can't say it! So why should I even care?!"

Oh, ... Akane ... Nabiki thought as she walked over and silently put her arm around her dopey sister. As she pulled her to start walking with her, and Akane cried quietly into her shoulder, she said kindly, "let's talk."

She walked them down a few doors to a nearby snack shop and pulled her sniffling sister in the door after her. The shopkeeper greeted them warmly and when he saw it was two young ladies, one of whom was crying, he quietly pointed to a nice sunny table by the window to the one who wasn't crying. Nabiki nodded her understanding and steered Akane towards the indicated table.

She sat her down at the table, and pulled a chair up next to her and let her little sister lean on her for a while and just let it out. A minute later Akane was pulling herself upright and wiping her eyes on the backs of her hands. Nabiki made eye contact with the owner, and held up two fingers. He nodded and hurried over with two menus as Akane finished getting herself sorted out, and Nabiki reseated herself across the table from her.

Once they had both ordered, Nabiki sat back in her chair and watched her sister curiously. She wondered if she would be able to speak honestly about Ranma after that outburst.

After the owner brought their food and drinks, Nabiki paid him and then waited a bit while Akane ate. Once she slowed down, Nabiki asked her the most pressing question she had on her mind, "when you said you weren't like me, because you couldn't 'say it' -- what did you mean?"

Akane looked down at the table, and blushed as she responded, "you told him you loved him, I heard you."

Nabiki raised an eyebrow at that. Akane continued, "your room is right next to mine, you know. And you weren't exactly whispering when you said it. You were practically yelling."

Well, she had to give her sister that one. When she was in her dramatic mode, she tended to get a little ... overly theatrical. "All right, so what if I did tell him that? I'm telling you now, I am willing to sell him back to you and end this whole thing, right here and now." She said. Akane didn't say anything, she just looked at her sadly.

Nabiki sighed and put on her business face complete with a fake smile and forced herself to laugh as she decided to make it a little easier on Akane, "come on Akane, snap out of it, I was just joking when I said I loved Ranma."

Akane scowled at her across the table, then let her scowl fall back to the sad frown she had been wearing since Nabiki had walked up to her. She looked back up at Nabiki and sighed as she said, "you don't have to lie to me, Nabiki. I know you can be cold ... heartless ... and manipulative..."

Nabiki kept her fake smile on her face, but she let it slip a little bit as Akane called her names. She would deal with that stuff later. She wasn't all that amused that Akane was calling her cold and heartless after she had let her cry on her, and paid for her meal.

Akane continued, interrupting her train of thought, "but even you can't say something like that and not mean it!"

Nabiki felt like she had just been stabbed straight though her core with a icicle. It was one of those rare moments she had from time to time when the clarity of a moment was surreal, like glass was shattering all around oneself as realization broke through. With a determined bite on her lower lip she suppressed everything and continued to try to give Akane the chance to take him back.

Akane was still talking, she tuned back in as Akane finished up her little rant by saying, "...don't kid around when it comes to Ranma!"

Nabiki eyed her sister over the rim of the glass she was drinking from, and seriously considered getting up from the table and walking away. She had made it clear when Akane switched the engagement that she intended to keep him. She had now offered him back to her twice. She only had so much patience for this. She cared about her sister and didn't want her to suffer, but she didn't have it in her to give Akane too many more chances. She figured she would try a couple more times now and lower the price as she did so. Maybe if Akane thought she was wearing her down, she would pay the price, everyone could keep their honor, and she could wash her hands of all of ... this, whatever this was. If Akane didn't take him back today, she honestly didn't know how many more chances she would give her.

Nabiki leaned closer to Akane, and asked softly, "what if ... I cut my price and let you have him for fifteen hundred Yen?"

"You don't have to put on an act for me..." Akane replied quietly.

"Okay, final offer, nine hundred Yen." Nabiki responded a bit louder as she leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. She had gone as far as she was willing to go.

"I said, it's okay. You're in love with Ranma. You're the one who's not being honest about your feelings." Akane whispered.

"Listen ... Akane ... " Nabiki started to say.

But Akane cut her off, "it doesn't matter any more."

"Oh ... is that so?" She wondered what Ranma would think of that? Regardless, she was done with this for now. She stood up smoothly and tossed a couple hundred Yen on the table for the nice owner, grabbed her bag, and headed for the door.

Akane watched her go, but didn't say anything else. Nabiki looked back at her and thought to herself, OK, have it your way, then, but you are going to be sorry.

She looked at her watch on her way out and realized with a shock that she needed to get home soon. Ranma should be finishing up with the sports teams in less than an hour, and she wanted to be ready to greet him when he got home.

She set off at a fast walk for home, and as she thought of seeing Ranma again, she hummed to herself cheerfully as she made her way home.

Chapter Text

Nabiki watched for Ranma's return from the upstairs window that had the best view of the street approaching their front gate. She had been home for about half an hour now, and she was ready to welcome him home.

She had heard Akane come home a little while ago. Akane hadn't made any effort to seek Nabiki out, and she was fine with that.

She found herself worrying about how mad Ranma was going to be with her when he got home. She was sure he didn't understand it, but she figured the best way to keep the peace right now was for her to not fight for him. Until she had things settled with Akane one way or another, she wasn't willing to take a public stand over Ranma. And even if she ever managed to get Akane settled, something had to be done about the rest of the little ducklings chasing after him. Well, maybe not little ducklings, more like homicidal hyperactive ferrets. But, more to the point, Ukyo's challenge and the subsequent melee it had caused were still fresh in her memory, especially Shampoo's attack on her.

Shampoo frankly freaked her out. In some ways Nabiki related to her fairly strongly. On one hand, the beautiful Amazon girl was ruthless and played by her own rules, and she didn't care whom she had to step on to get what she wanted. On the other hand, Nabiki always stopped short of using actual violence. She had no real tolerance for it, and she had always felt that there wasn't really a situation that couldn't be dealt with using logic, good information, and an iron will. She had a feeling Shampoo was going to test that belief of hers if she stayed engaged to Ranma long enough.

Her thoughts were interrupted as she finally spied Ranma making his way down the street towards the house.

Was he ... was he limping? Oh ... oh no ... she thought in alarm as he walked closer and she could make out details. He was limping, and using a stick to help him walk.

Oh no, oh no, oh no. She thought in a panic as she dashed from the window and raced downstairs. This was all her fault. She hadn't meant for him to get hurt! She hadn't even thought it was possible for any of them to hurt him! She seriously doubted the country chef had hurt him, so it must have been the martial arts clubs. How had they managed to hurt him? She had never seen him lose a fight, and he regularly wiped the floor with Kuno, and Kuno was the best fighter in the school ... well, he had been before Ranma showed up, anyway.

Nabiki waited in the entryway for him and danced back and forth nervously. She was chewing on her lower lip and trying desperately to figure out a way to fix the situation. She could hear him approaching the door, she was out of time. What could she do? He had to be just ... furious with her.

She heard the door start to slide open and did the only thing she could think of ... distract him. She threw herself into his arms just as he finished opening the door and called out for her angrily, "Hey! Nabiki-- oof"

She called out happily to him as she interrupted his angry yell for her, "oh, darling, I'm so happy you're home!" She then buried her face in his neck, and hung on to him with everything she had while her mind was still desperately trying to figure out what to do. She hadn't expected him to get hurt.

With Ranma twitching in place, frozen where she had leaped into his arms, she sighed and decided to just run with the distraction. It seemed to be working well enough.

She knew she wouldn't be able to keep doing this and continue to get away with it forever. Even her considerable feminine wiles would lose their effectiveness on him over time. Still, maybe if she was very nice to him tonight, he might forgive her? He had forgiven Akane after every time she hit him, hadn't he? She shrugged inwardly and figured it was worth a try.

She called out happily to him as she hung on him, "you must be tired. Why don't you take a nice long hot bath while I fix you something to eat, OK?"

Ranma tried to lean back away from her with a panicked gasp, but she held on tightly, and continued to pile on, "want to take a bath? I'll wash your back."

Ranma was blushing now, she could feel the heat of it in his neck. He managed to stutter out, "wh-wh-what are you t-t-t-t--" he froze at that point, and Nabiki could tell something was wrong when he again gasped and tried to pull away from her. She lifted her head up to see what had spooked him.

Across the entryway was Akane. She was just standing there, watching them, but she had an angry other-worldly stare fixed on her face. Nabiki was sure if she was trained in the art like Ranma was, she would probably be able to see a battle aura pouring out of her. Well ... tough for her. Nabiki wasn't interested in offering him back to her right now. She needed to make up with him before she did anything else. Still, she couldn't help but be satisfied with how easy it was to trap Akane. The girl had no control over her emotions.

Ranma struck as defiant a pose as he could with Nabiki still hanging off him and yelled to Akane defensively, "hey, what's your problem? Would you quit staring?"

Akane seemed to deflate at that, Nabiki watched her out of the corner of her eye as she seemed to lose her entire fighting spirit. Ranma, being who he was, continued to fight the fight he had already won, "if you want a fight, it's a fight you'll--"

Akane stomped out of the room before he could finish. He watched her go with wide eyes and made a confused sound as she left.

Well, at least he wasn't running after her. That was a start. Ranma looked down at her and cleared his throat. She looked up at him sheepishly and whispered, "are you all right?" He nodded his head hesitantly.

"I-I didn't mean for you to get hurt. I'm sorry. Do you forgive me?" She asked in probably the most sincere voice she had used in this house since before mom had died.

Ranma looked down at her, and the angry creases in his face disappeared as he nodded mutely. She smiled up at him as she pulled herself off of him and said, "good. Want to go get some dinner?" She held her hand out for him, and smiled happily when he took it. She led him to the dining room where Kasumi was already laying out dinner.

Mr. Saotome and daddy were already in the room, sitting around the table watching Kasumi expectantly as she laid out the food. They were such gluttons. Nabiki wondered idly when or if Kasumi would ever get tired of playing housewife.

She sat in her usual place, and Ranma sat down next to her. She released his hand and smiled at him again. He started to return the smile, then Akane entered the room. His face froze then turned into a mask of innocence. She recognized it as a mask she herself wore frequently.

Nabiki watched Akane's eyes and saw her note where Ranma was sitting. But Akane didn't say anything. Akane just sat down at her usual spot and picked up the rice bowl Kasumi had set out for her, and began eating slowly while staring straight ahead at nothing. So ... Akane had decided to ignore them. Well, that was fine with her.

She still wanted to be nice to Ranma, and unlike Akane she had no problem doing so around other people. She really didn't care what anyone thought about what she did in her personal life.

She held up some food from her plate to him and said, "here you go, Ranma. Say Ahh."

Ranma looked sideways at Akane, and winced at what she was doing and leaned away from Nabiki's attempt to feed him.

Nabiki looked over at Akane then back to him and asked, "what's the matter? We're engaged, right?"

Ranma looked back at her and nodded, then waved his hands in a warding gesture and protested, "b-but I can feed myself!"

"Come on," Nabiki said as she got him to eat a little, "one bite for your little Nabiki?"

He swallowed the food then clamped his teeth closed and looked at her sternly. Okay, she had to admit, she was pushing it. She shrugged and stopped trying to feed him, and for the rest of the meal everyone ate in silence. She watched daddy and Kasumi as she ate, and noted that daddy seemed fine with everything. Kasumi, however, looked disapproving and kept trying to lock eye contact with her. She would have to deal with her at some point.

When she had finished eating she sat quietly and waited for Ranma to finish. Akane stopped staring at nothing, and started staring at her. Nabiki smiled at her. Akane scowled but didn't say anything.

Ranma finally finished, and stood up. Nabiki got up to follow him. Before she could leave the room though, Akane, deliberately stepped quickly across her path and knocked into her with her shoulder. Not enough to hurt her, just enough to push her off balance. Akane looked back at her and said sweetly, "oh, I'm so sorry, I didn't see you there," before she stomped out of the room.

Nabiki was no longer content with ignoring her. Now she wanted to teach her a lesson. She followed Akane upstairs and waited until she had gone into her room before she also went into her own room. She knew just what would get Akane riled up, too.

She waited inside her room for about a minute without doing anything, then she went to her door, opened it and closed it, then said loudly, "hello, Ranma. Come on in!... Oh! Ranma, stop! ... We mustn't, not before the wedding!" As she yelled out her bait for Akane, she walked calmly over to her bed and sat down. When she had yelled the last syllable, she counted down in her head ... three ... two ... on--.

Her door crashed open before she even finished thinking one. Akane stood there in the door frame, having kicked the door in. Her shoulders were heaving as she breathed heavily in anger and looked around the room wildly as she yelled, "Ranma!!!"

Nabiki just looked at her. This, this was the nonsense she was sick of. The overreactions. The anger. The violence. The childish temper tantrums and overly territorial behavior. It was exhausting just being in the same house with it.

Akane locked eyes with her and harrumphed as she realized she'd been trapped. All too easily too. Nabiki thought to herself smugly.

At first when she had decided to do this to her, to teach her a lesson, she had thought about offering to sincerely sell him back to her again. But, just seeing her kick in her door made her not want to do that. So she decided to taunt her instead.

She turned her head and did her best overly dramatic pose as she said, "well, well, if it isn't Ms. jealous looking for her former fiancée." She turned back to face Akane, and found her sister glaring at her. Good, maybe if everyone stopped giving her what she wanted when she did this, she would stop doing it. In the most sarcastic voice she had, she asked her, "now quit being so stubborn and buy him back from me!"

Akane twitched when she heard her tone, but didn't back down. She stomped over to Nabiki and leaned in so she was less than half a meter away and said, "listen very closely, I'm not going to buy him back from you!"

Nabiki just looked at her expectantly. Finally, Akane asked, "are you trying to tell me ... you really don't care about Ranma?"

Nabiki smirked, "of course I care," she paused and looked away, then back to Akane, still doing her theater-major routine and held up five fingers as she said, "five thousand Yen worth!"

Akane twitched again and stood up to leave. She yelled over her shoulder as she stomped out of the room, "I'm not paying you anything!"

Okay, she had to admit. That had been fun, and Akane had had that coming. She smiled happily to herself as she got up to close her door. Just as she was swinging it closed, someone put their hand on the other side of it and stopped it. Then they knocked gently. She pulled back the door curiously and found Ranma standing there looking both worried and unamused. He said in a very quiet voice, "can I come in?"

She nodded and stepped back away from the door. As soon as he was in the room he closed the door behind himself and brought his eyes up to hers. He looked ... troubled. Before she could say anything, he held up a hand for her to listen and said quietly, "we need to talk."

Chapter Text

Nabiki looked at Ranma as a cold dread settled inside her. This can't be good. She thought to herself as she walked slowly over to her bed and sat down and tried to collect her thoughts.

Ranma stood in the center of the room and waited for her to get settled. His face was cloudy, like he had warring emotions pulling him in different directions. When Nabiki had settled, he spoke in a hesitant voice that was shaking a bit, but she could tell had some anger behind it. "What are you playin' at?" He asked her quietly.

She looked at him blankly. She honestly didn't know how to reply to that. As she tried to figure out what to say, he continued, "I heard you, just now, ya know? What are you doing? Are you just playin' around? Is this all just a game to you?"

Nabiki's heart climbed into her throat and she honestly felt like she might faint or throw up. Ranma stood there looking at her with those piercing blue eyes, and waited for her to respond. She was sure that to him, this was like a battle now, since he no longer thought that she was being sincere. If that was the case, he would stand his ground and fight, so deflecting him wouldn't work. Was she ready to open up to him more? Did she really want to keep him, or was she just punishing Akane for foisting him on her? She was in fairly uncharted waters right now. It wasn't often that anyone had her at a loss for words, especially someone younger than she was. She fumbled for an answer and said, "w-what you heard, just now ... I was just ... teasing Akane..." she began awkwardly.

He raised his eyebrow but didn't interrupt her, so she continued, "...as I am sure you could tell at dinner, Akane seems to think I have done something terrible to her. Maybe I have, maybe I haven't, but regardless I was responding to her actions when I teased her."

He frowned at that, "what actions?"

Good, he was willing to listen. That was a good sign, she continued in a stronger voice, "as we were getting up from the table to leave the room, Akane bumped into me on purpose. I think she was trying to goad me into a fight."

Ranma shook his head when she said that. "But, that's not what happened." He said calmly as he looked at the ground.

Now Nabiki was confused. She was one hundred percent sure that Akane had bumped into her. Ranma elaborated in a quiet voice, "she tripped. She was watching me leave, and she wasn't paying attention to what you were doing. I saw her from the opposite angle you saw her from. She caught her toe on the mat and she lost her balance. When she stepped to regain her balance, that put her right on a path to you. She apologized to you, didn't she?"

Nabiki just stared at him in shock. She ran the moment back in her memory and realized that yes, Akane had dipped a bit before she ran into her. Had she just tripped? Or was Ranma covering for her?

Ranma looked back up at her then and asked, "but even if she had run into you on purpose, ... why would you say what you said? Why are you offering to sell me back to her?" He asked quietly.

Nabiki was afraid. She hadn't been truly afraid in a long time. Even when those crazy girls had been swinging weapons at her, she hadn't been truly afraid. She had known Ranma wouldn't let them hurt her. But ... now ... but now ... Ranma was the source of her fear. She wasn't afraid he'd hurt her, of course. She was afraid of what he would say next. She forced herself to look up into his eyes, then she quickly looked back down at her hands as she grasped them together nervously in a constantly changing grip. He was standing there, waiting for her to respond. What she saw most in his eyes, was hurt and disappointment. Maybe Akane was a better match for him after all. Maybe their form of a relationship with its childish bickering was more healthy for him than what she could offer. Maybe ... maybe she wasn't as grown up and mature as she had thought she was.

In a voice that broke with emotion, she tried to explain, "I ... I ... you're right, I did say that. And the truth is ... the truth is ... " She took a deep breath and forced herself to look up again at him, "the truth is I don't know how I feel about you, Ranma. I think ... I think maybe I do have feelings for you. But, maybe this is just a fun game for me..." she trailed off as she ran out of things to say, then she thought of one more. She blushed crimson as she asked, "how do you feel about me?"

Ranma blinked at that and sat down slowly on the floor. He looked at the ground and said quietly, "I don't know. I do like you ... sometimes more than others ... depending on what you're doing."

Her heart was pounding as she waited for him to continue and she stared at her hands. She had to admit, what he said was fair. She couldn't trust herself to look at him. When he didn't continue, she asked, "well, what do you want, Ranma? Who do you want to be engaged to?"

She couldn't see the expression on his face, because she was too afraid to look at him, but he was silent for a long time before he answered her question with a question, "were you lying to me when you said you loved me?"

Nabiki actually gasped softly at that. She was having a hard time breathing. The room seemed to be too hot, and she started to see black at the edge of her vision. She took a deep shuddering breath and closed her eyes as she tried to regain her center. Ranma hadn't just pulled her off it, he had slammed her into the proverbial cold mud at the base of it. She didn't know what to do or say. She couldn't think of a clever quip to give voice to; she couldn't think of a joke to use to lighten the mood; she couldn't even seem to slow her heart rate down. What was wrong with her? A few days ago, Ranma would never have been able to affect her like he was now. She forced herself to look up at him as she took another deep breath and let it out slowly as her eyes settled on him. He was still just sitting on the floor, trailing his finger in the carpet nervously. He was blushing, but not that much. She couldn't tell if it was just because of the situation he found himself in, or if he cared what her answer was.

She couldn't think of another way to handle the situation, as her mind which usually never failed her was coming up with blanks. So, she decided to just tell him the truth. "The truth is, Ranma... t-the truth is, yes, I was lying when I told you I lov--"

"--all right, then I guess we're done here." He interrupted her in a hurt voice as he stood up to leave.

She panicked and called out much more loudly than she meant to, "w-wait!"  He paused as he was in the act of standing up and looked at her with wide eyes. Neither of them wanted Akane to get involved in this conversation. Nabiki blushed and lowered her voice and said, "p-please ... just hear me out .... please?"

He sighed but nodded his head and sat back down. He wasn't glaring at her, but he wasn't blushing anymore, either. He sat cross-legged and was waggling his legs up and down in a clear message that he wanted to get going, he also started flicking his fingers together impatiently. At least he was polite enough to hear her out though, she respected that. She didn't know why, but his sudden lack of nervousness hurt her more than she would have expected. She continued as best she could on a shaky voice, "... I-I didn't mean I lied in the sense that I don't have feelings for you. I meant I lied in the sense that I don't think I know what love is. When I said what I said, yes, I have to admit that some of it came from a desire to just play with you. But, the intention of what I said wasn't to hurt you..."

Ranma's impatient body language slowed and then stopped as she spoke, and she noticed with great happiness that his blush was starting to return as well. Nabiki continued as best she could, she knew she wasn't going to get another chance like this, "... I...I am not head-over-heels in love with you, that's the truth. In fact, I don't know if I could ever be the kind of person who is just silly-in-love like that. But I do have feelings for you. I don't know if they are real feelings or if it is just something else, but I do know that you are kind and you have done a lot for this family. You've saved my dopey sister more times than I can count. You are the only one in this house brave enough to stand up to Happosai and to keep him in line. And... and, you've saved me too, twice just recently."

He was looking at her with panic growing on his face. She could tell that he was uncomfortable talking about real things like this. Well ... tough, he had started this, so she was going to say her peace. "None of that means that we should be engaged to be married for real, if you don't want to be." She added quickly as she saw worry growing on his face, "but I will be happy to tell our parents that we are engaged for as long as you want, and give you some breathing room."

He didn't say anything to that, he just looked off into space thoughtfully. She didn't have much more to say so she finished with, "but if you would rather switch back to Akane, I ... I understand. Why don't you think about it tonight, and tomorrow we can talk about it again, maybe at lunch?"

He looked very relieved when she said that, and met her eyes again as he nodded and said, "all right, Nabiki. I'll think about it. While I am in training the whole engagement thing doesn't matter all that much to me, but you're the first person I can ever think of who ever asked me what I wanted about all this." He stood up to leave and looked down at her with those cold blue eyes and said, "thank you for being honest with me."

She nodded hesitantly and walked with him towards the door, as he opened it and peeked out to make sure the coast was clear, she couldn't help but feel like he was walking out of more than just her room, and a lump started to climb in her throat. He looked back at her and smiled as he started to leave the room.

She couldn't help herself, she reached out and grabbed his arm. He froze but didn't look back, so she pulled on his arm and moved to him and hugged him from behind, burying her face into his back. After a moment, he turned in her arms and let her hug him properly. He didn't hug her in return, though. He let his arms drape down on either side of her, but he didn't wrap her in them like she wanted him to. She didn't know what to make of that, but she knew she couldn't hold on to him in her doorway all night. Eventually someone would see them together and get the wrong idea. So, she took a deep shuddering breath and loosened her grip on him and let her arms slide down to grasp on to his hands.

He stepped back away from her almost immediately. He made eye contact with her, but she couldn't read his expression. With a small smile he took another step back from her which caused her to lose her grip with her left hand. As he stepped back slowly again, her right hand slid down his hand until she was only brushing his fingertips, and then a moment later she was holding only air.

He smiled back at her with one of his winning smiles he used when he was trying to be nice to people, but if anything that just made her feel worse. She watched him head down the hall and go into the room he shared with his father. He didn't look back again as he entered the room.

She slowly stepped backwards into her own room and closed the door. She braced herself against it with her head on the door and her hands framing her head. Slowly, she turned and put her back to the door as she slid down it to sit on the floor as the tears came. She had fought hard against them while Ranma could see her, but now that she was alone again, the dam was breaking, and she couldn't make them stop.

She slowly slumped all the way to lay on the ground and hugged herself and sobbed quietly on the floor as she thought, what have I done?

Chapter Text

Nabiki was miserable. She had gone to sleep miserable, and she'd woken up miserable. She didn't want to get up. She didn't want to go to school, she didn't want to be alive. Okay, she didn't mean that last one, but still, she didn't feel like facing the world today. She huddled under her blankets in her warm bed and thought about last night.

She'd blown it, she knew she had. She had to let him go, it was the only thing left to do. Besides, if she had cried herself to sleep last night over him... poor Akane must be going out of her mind.

If he had any strong feelings for her, he would have said something last night. She hadn't told him everything last night, but she had told him enough. He hadn't rejected her, but he hadn't pursued her, either.

As she lay there feeling sorry for herself she heard a soft knock on her door. She thought of pretending to be asleep still, but knew that would just encourage more attention. So, with regret, she shattered the morning's silence and asked, "yes?"

"Can I come in?"

It was Kasumi's voice. Nabiki did a quick check and found that she was still wearing the clothes she had on last night. She rubbed under her eyes and found them to feel a bit tender and puffy. Lovely, there was no way Kasumi would miss all that. Well, there was nothing for it, if she told Kasumi to go away, that would just get her more of her attention. Better to just deal with her now. "Okay," was all she said in reply.

Kasumi opened the door to her room and stood in the door frame smiling her usual smile. Nabiki was convinced it was an act. Kasumi hadn't been like that before mom died, and nobody was that happy and placid all the time. Her older sister asked her softly, "I was just wondering how you were doing."

Nabiki just looked at her. She knew. She always knew. Kasumi closed the door behind her and went and sat on the edge of her bed. Nabiki didn't move. She honestly didn't feel like dealing with anyone right now, even Kasumi. Her older sister reached down and started to stroke her hair, like mom had done when they were little. The urge to cry rose up in her, but she summoned her iron will, and crushed that urge under it. She was done crying, at least for now.

After a while longer, Kasumi rose gently from her bed and walked softly to her door. As she left, she called out over her shoulder, "whenever you're ready, if you want to talk, come find me."

Nabiki nodded at her, and Kasumi smiled and then left with the soft close of her door. With that done, she rose from her bed and looked at the clock. She had overslept a bit. No wonder Kasumi had come looking for her. She honestly didn't care all that much. If she was late for school, then she was late for school. The way she was feeling today anyone crossing her path had better tread carefu--

A knock sounded at her door again. With growing irritation she called out, "what?!"

The door opened, and there was Ranma. He smiled at her and asked, "hey, Nabiki, how are you doing?"

She quickly put on her professional mask and replied, "I'm fine, Ranma, how are you?" She noticed at that point that he was dripping wet. The fact that he was male at the moment must mean he had recently been splashed and then had hastily changed back with some hot water.

A dark cloud crossed his face and she could see raw anger in his eyes as he looked off at nothing and replied, "I... I've been better." He said crossly before he evened out his tone and looked back at her and asked, "so, see you at breakfast?"

"S-sure." Was all she could think of to say.

"Great, see you down there." He said, again with a touch of anger in his voice. He closed the door again as he said it, and was gone.

I wonder what that was all about? She thought to herself as she stripped off her clothes from last night. She paused when she was done and considered trying to squeeze in a bath before breakfast, but another look at the clock convinced her that she didn't have the time. The gym showers at school would have to do later in the day.

She hurried and got dressed in her school uniform, and rushed downstairs. She didn't feel quite as bad anymore, but she refused to let her moods be controlled by anyone other than her. She was determined to keep control of herself on that front today, no matter what might happen.

As she entered the dining room, Ranma jumped up from the table and indicated the spot next to him as he smiled at her and said, "good morning, Nabiki, have a seat."

Akane was in the room too. She watched Ranma with cool detachment on her face, but Nabiki's trained eye was able to pick out the subtle winces and slight facial ticks that showed that Akane was both unhappy, and felt like she was guilty of something. She was hiding it well behind a mask of indifference, though. She ignored both of them and just continued to eat her breakfast at a steady pace, looking straight ahead, just as she had done last night.

"You look beautiful today, Nabiki." Ranma said as he smiled widely at her. She looked sideways at him, and frowned.

It was extremely unlike him to say something like that to anyone, especially with witnesses around. Her eyes darted between Ranma and Akane, and she realized he was putting on a show to either taunt Akane, or punish her for something. Well, she supposed turnabout was fair play. She wouldn't join in, but she could accept the compliment gracefully. "Thank you, Ranma, you look nice too."

Akane twitched a bit when she complimented him in return, but she didn't say anything. Nabiki settled in and ate quickly. She knew she was running up against the clock. As soon as she set her bowl down, Ranma leaped up to his feet, grabbed his bag and her bag and said, "get up, fiancée. Time to go to school."

She looked up at him confused and said, "huh?"

He smiled and reached down and offered her his hand. So, she shrugged and took it. He lifted her up like she weighed nothing and started to pull her towards the door. She looked back at Akane who was still eating and asked, " ... but, Akane ...."

Ranma continued to charge forward in his steady walk that was almost a jog and called back over his shoulder, "leave her."

Nabiki frowned as she let him pull her along. It was clear that he was using her to get back at Akane, for ... something. Who knew what it was, it could be anything from a careless word that she had dunked him for, to her rejecting him as a fiancée again. Whatever it was, Nabiki didn't like being in the middle of it.

She looked at him sadly as he pulled her along, and decided what she would say when they spoke today during lunch.

They reached the school grounds without incident. Interestingly, Ranma continued to hold her hand as they walked onto the grounds. She didn't really want to be seen being led around by him, though, so she pulled on his arm and forced him to walk side by side with her evenly.

She slowed her pace to a leisurely walk and decided to just enjoy walking in the courtyard with him while holding hands. He wasn't in a chatty mood, but that was fine because neither was she. They were a dozen or so steps away from the front door when Akane ran past them at full speed. She didn't say anything to them as she ran by. Ranma didn't do anything to note her passing, except to hold Nabiki's hand tighter. She sighed and walked with him to his classroom.

When they arrived, Akane was already seated at her desk, looking anywhere but the door.

Ranma's classmates noticed him approaching and called out to him as they saw him with her.

"Good morning, Ranma."

"So what happened?

"How come you're with Nabiki?"

Nabiki watched Akane as they greeted Ranma, and saw her twitching angrily as her classmates piled on with questions about her.

Ranma put his hand behind his head in embarrassment and said, "well..."

One of Akane's friends called out in disbelief, interrupting him, "does Akane know?"

Ranma looked down, still embarrassed, and could only mutter, "uuuh ..."

Nabiki smiled at that, despite herself. She knew he was using her to get back at Akane, but, that was exactly what she had done, at least a little bit, with him as well, so she didn't see the harm in it. However, she did have to get to her own classroom. So, she smiled up at him as she squeezed his arm and said, "oh, you're so cute!" As she let go of his arm and dashed off she called back over her shoulder, "I'll see you after class!"


***


She sat through her morning classes in a daze. All she could think about was what she was going to say when she saw him at lunch. And, if she was being honest with herself, she was also worried about what he was going to say to her. When the bell chimed for lunch, she hopped out of her desk and hurried out of her classroom, ignoring her friends calling out for her and asking about her plans.

She hurried back to Ranma's classroom and found him sitting in his desk, looking back sullenly at Akane as she studiously ignored him. Fine then, if he was still fighting with Akane, she could give him some ammunition. She called out to him in a cheerful voice, "oh, fiancée Ranma!"

He looked over at her and perked up at the sight of her as he leaped over to the door to stand in front of her. When he did things like that, she was reminded of just how unusual he was. It was kind of funny that he could perform super-human feats like leaping across rooms like it was no big deal, but he couldn't handle simple things like relationships and dating.

Feh, who was she to talk, she obviously couldn't handle them either. Maybe those things were harder than training in the Art to leap across rooms.

Ranma looked at her expectantly and asked loudly, "what is it, fiancée Nabiki?" He looked back sullenly at Akane to drive home whatever point he was trying to make with her. With that out of the way, Nabiki walked backwards out of the room and waved for him to follow her.

She walked up the stairs with him to the roof in silence. Now that they were away from Akane, both of them had dropped their acts. At least they were now back in an arena that she was familiar with. She could dance the dance he was trying to lead them through.

Once they reached the roof and the door had shut behind them, she walked quietly over to the railing and leaned over it. He followed her a few steps but stopped short of joining her at the railing. She let the silence between them build for a while, then when she heard what she had been waiting for, the sound of the door opening and closing again quietly, she said to him calmly, "Ranma, what do you think about us breaking up?"

The wind blew across the roof as she waited for him to answer. She knew Akane was on the roof somewhere, spying on them. When she hadn't been able to stay away the day Ukyo called her out, she knew Akane wouldn't be able to stay away if she called him out to meet with her right in front of her. She wanted to see how Akane would react to what she was about to do. And, she felt that it was the right thing to do for Ranma as well. It didn't matter how she felt.

Ranma finally answered her, "b-breakup? B-but why, Nabiki?"

"Ranma ... please..." she answered him in her theater-voice. "I know you really want to make up with Akane... and that I'm not the one you want." She spun around to look at him, and found him staring at her with disbelief.

Bringing Akane into it had the desired affect, though. He protested strongly, "feh, please!"

She looked sadly at him, and said, "you don't have to pretend with me. I'm setting you free, Ranma..." She smiled sadly to herself at what she was about to say. It should give him the push he needed to go back to Akane, and it should give Akane what she wanted. It was easier for everyone to just believe that she was an ice queen. She held out her hand to him and said, still in her theater voice, "... and for only ... five thousand Yen!"

He looked at her with wide eyes in utter surprise, then his eyes narrowed and he turned his head a fraction of a degree to either side, like he was searching for someone.

Ut-uh, I think he may be on to me. She thought. She wasn't really worried. If this didn't prompt him to go back to Akane, she could give him a harder push later. It was the best thing for ... almost everyone.

Ranma looked at her and said, "five ... " then stopped and walked to the railing himself. As he leaned over it he said, "forget it, Nabiki. I'm not breaking up with you."

She stared at his back for a moment, stunned by that. She certainly hadn't expect him to say that. She wondered how far he was willing to go to prove his point. She started walking towards him with a sly smile on her face and said, "if ... if you really mean that ... kiss me." She arrived next to him at the railing and leaned in towards him seductively.

He started twitching almost immediately, and stuttered, "huh ... but...why?" he said in a panic as he leaned away from her. So much for his game face.

She looked down and blushed a bit herself. She wasn't sure how far she wanted to push this, especially with Akane back there spying on them. She was trying to push him back to Akane after all, not drive a wedge between them. But, maybe Akane seeing him refuse her advances would be a good thing as well. So she pushed a little bit harder, "you say you want to be engaged to me... so prove that you mean it."

That was it, Ranma had reached his limit. He was twitching so bad she was worried he really would stroke out if she pushed him any further, so she retreated a bit and turned away from him and said sadly in her theater voice, "you can't, can you?!"

She turned back to face him and found him standing very still, and very pale. Well, that was it for him then. She'd have to sell it to Akane now, and hope for the best. She collapsed to the ground and buried her face in her hands and did her fake sob that usually worked so well when she was trying to control people and said, "so then you don't love me after all! You've been toying with my feelings all along!"

Ranma tried to stutter something, but she was on a roll and cut across him, "you're only using me... to get back at Akane!" She then let loose with the most powerful set of fake sobs she could summon. After she let it sink in for a few moments, she stood up dramatically and said, "if that's how it is... then forget what I offered you earlier! I'm not going to play your little game any more" She trailed off as she turned to where he had been standing, only to find it empty. He'd run for it. She couldn't say she blamed him.

For Akane's benefit she snapped her fingers and said something about a missed opportunity. She honestly had no idea what she actually said. She walked back to the railing and looked out over the city and then up at the sky. It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, and the birds were singing. And she was miserable. She heard the door to the roof quietly open and close behind her, and she smiled sadly to herself.

Don't worry, Akane, you'll have him back soon enough. She thought dejectedly to herself. As she continued to look out at the sky, the bell chimed ending lunch, but she didn't move. She just didn't care at the moment. As the clouds moved over the sky and started to cover the sun a bit, she let a tear escape and roll down her cheek. So much for controlling her moods today as she had set out to do. She had never been more miserable.

Chapter Text

[Mood enhancer tip: listen to Yui's Again, and/or Miwa's ChAngE while you read this one ^_-]


The rest of the day passed in a blur for Nabiki. She walked back to her class after she managed to pull herself together enough to be around other people. She just sat in her desk for the rest of the day, looking at nothing, and saying nothing. Her friends could all tell that something was really wrong with her, and were wise enough to give her the space she needed. Kuno did try to get her attention once, but the baleful glare she skewered him with got through to even him.

When the bell chimed signaling the end of the day, she simply stood up and walked slowly to the door. She hadn't needed to pack up her bag, because she hadn't ever unpacked it. She made her way down the stairs slowly, like she was walking through a fog. She didn't bother waiting for Ranma, she knew he wouldn't want to walk home with her today. Her steps came slower and felt heavier as she walked and thought about how badly she had messed everything up. So much for her being older and more mature. She didn't deserve Ranma. She didn't deserve anyone ... she ... she would just be the ice queen that people liked to call her. Nobody is going to love me anyway, she thought morosely as she walked out of the school into the main courtyard.

She thought she heard someone behind her call her name ... they sounded panicked, but she didn't care. She thought bitterly to herself, it doesn't matte--

She was ripped back off her feet before she could finish her thought as someone yanked her backwards hard while something crashed to the ground in front of her. She landed roughly on her backside and looked back in a daze to see Akane breathing heavily behind her and looking furious, her eyes were blank with rage. But her little sister wasn't looking at her, she had her eyes fixed forward. As Nabiki's mind tried to process what had just happened, Akane disentangled herself from her and stepped out in front of her and spread her arms wide protectively as she screamed something so loud it hurt her ears. Everything ... seemed to be coming from ... so ... far away. Sounds were muting and her vision was blackening around the edges.

As she slumped to the ground she saw Ranma leap over her and land next to Akane as he also spread his arms wide protectively and yelled something too. Oh, good, Ranma's here ... it'll be ... okay ... she thought to herself as she passed out.


***


She woke up later that evening in her own bed in her darkened room. Kasumi was sitting on the bed next to her, and stroking her hair again. Nabiki was completely disoriented and started to thrash around for a moment when she remembered that someone had attacked her.

"It's okay, you're all right." Kasumi said softly in her soothing voice as she lay a cool palm on her forehead that smelled faintly like sweet ginger and gently pressed her back to lay flat on the bed.

"W-whuh happen'?" She rasped out as her eyes came into focus and she was able to read the clock on her night stand. It was several hours after school had let out.

"You fainted." Kasumi said simply.

"T-that's ... ridiculous." Nabiki said as she summoned her strength and sat up and met Kasumi's eyes.

Kasumi just shrugged and said, "that's what Ranma says doctor Tofu said had happened."

"Doctor ... Tofu?" She asked as her head started to hurt and she winced and rubbed it.

"Yes. Akane carried you to him after the fight."

"A-Akane?" Nabiki asked in disbelief.

"Oh, yes, she was quite worried about you. Ranma said that she cried the whole way there carrying you, and wouldn't let him do it."

"She ... she did?" Nabiki asked in wonder. After all that I've done to her? She thought to herself.

"Yes." Kasumi said kindly. Before she could add anything else, there was a knock at the door. Kasumi looked at her, she shrugged, so Kasumi called out, "come on in."

The door opened slowly and Ranma poked his head in. He smiled when he saw that Nabiki was awake. "Oh, hey, Nabiki. Good to see you up again."

"Hello, Ranma." She said dryly. Honestly, they were acting like she had been yanked back from death's door. It was a bit much.

"How are you feeling?" He asked as he stepped all the way into her room. Kasumi looked down at her and smiled kindly as she stood up and walked quietly out the door while Ranma moved to sit on the bed next to her. Kasumi closed the door as she left. He smelled good. Why does he have to smell good too? She thought bitterly as she scooted a little bit away from him, trying to keep him physically distant as well as emotionally distant. He smiled down at her as he looked deeply into her eyes and leaned over and put the back of his palm on her forehead. His hards were warm. He asked softly as he sat back and pulled his hand away, "are you sure you're okay? Doctor Tofu said that you'd fainted because you hadn't eaten enough today, and that you were showin' signs of too much stress or somethin' like that..."

She smiled bitterly to herself as she thought, overly stressed, that was one way of putting it. She took careful stock of herself and decided she had a few aches and pains, and a splitting headache, but overall she felt fine ... physically. Emotionally ... emotionally she wasn't all right, but that wasn't Ranma's problem. Not that it mattered anyway, all that mattered to her right now was trying to fix the mess she'd made. She met his eyes and said in as relaxed a tone as she could, "I think I'm fine. What happened?"

"Oh," he said as he straightened up and tapped his fist in his palm as he realized she hadn't seen what had happened. "It was Kodachi. She's still mad about ... you know ... you bein' engaged to me and all." He said quietly.

"Kodachi ...?" She asked, confused. She would have expected Shampoo.

"Yeah. She was up to her usual nonsense. She swung one of those giant mallets at you. Akane managed to get to you in time and pull you back. Doctor Tofu couldn't find any injuries from it on you." He smiled as he remembered the battle.

"A-Akane... right, I remember her yanking me back. I think I remember her yelling something too before that..." She trailed off as she looked up at him while toying with the idea of suing the Kuno family into oblivion.

He nodded, "yeah, Akane could see her waiting for you in the tree you were about to walk under. She yelled to warn you, but I guess you didn't hear her." He said kindly.

"She did?"

"Yeah, and holy crap, let me tell you, I've seen Akane mad before ... okay, I've made Akane mad before ... but yeah, anyway, it was amazing. She was livid. I've never seen her fight like that. She countered Kodachi's first attack and then she was inside her guard and on her like a sunburn. Kodachi couldn't get another attack in, and Akane broke through her defenses almost immediately. She didn't stop until Kodachi ran off. And when I say ran, I mean limped, and when I say she stopped, I mean I had to hold her back to keep her from chasing after her. Then she picked you up and ran with you to doctor Tofu's office faster than I have ever seen her move before."

Nabiki just looked at him, speechless as the urge to cry hit her like a train crashing into her room. Akane had done that? She crushed the urge with sheer willpower and tried to keep her emotions off her face.

Ranma, oblivious to the affect his words were having on her, sat up straight and held his hand behind his head in embarrassment and said, "yeah, I don't think Kodachi is gonna try to do anything about the change in engagement again, at least not for a long while anyway."

Nabiki frowned at that. Was he just going to ignore what she had said earlier? He still considered her his fiancée? She looked at him quizzically and he just smiled at her. She guessed that after what Akane put him through on a fairly regular basis, what she had put him through so far wasn't all that bad in comparison. Well ... she would have to do something about that, she couldn't keep him, she just ... couldn't.

"Yeah ... about that engagement stuff ... " she said in a weak voice, not really knowing how to say what she needed to say.

As she paused to think of how best to tell him to go back to Akane, he jumped in, "oh, don't worry about it, Nabiki. I know you like to joke around. It's fine, we can talk about it more later."

Why did he have to be so nice right now? Why right now? She tried to open her mouth to tell him that he needed to go back to Akane, but no sound would come out. She could feel the tears welling up inside her.

Stop it! She yelled at herself. Do what needs to be done! She willed herself. She opened her mouth again, and strained against the urge to cry while Ranma looked down at her in concern from the edge of her bed.

He could tell that she was trying to say something and couldn't, so he reached down and grabbed her hand and tried to encourage her, "what is it, are you okay? Do you want me to go get Kasumi?"

Damn it ... damn it, damn it ... damn it! And damn him ... she thought bitterly as she tried and failed to hold back the tears. She turned quickly away from him in a panic as she shook him off her hand to curl up in a ball. She didn't want him to see her cry.

Ranma stood up quickly at that and backed away in a hurry, "I'll get Kasumi, she'll know what to do! Hang on, Nabiki!" He yelled as he dashed out of the room. She turned back around as soon as he got up and thought about getting up to close the door, but she couldn't seem to will her body to get up.

Kasumi ran into the room, took one look at her, gasped and slammed the door after her so hard it rattled the walls, and sprinted to her side. She pulled her up into surprisingly strong arms and held her tightly. She ran her fingers through her hair and rubbed her back as Nabiki let go, and sobbed. Kasumi rocked her back and forth and let her cry.

"It will be okay, ... it'll be okay..." Kasumi tried to comfort her.

Nabiki choked out as Kasumi held her, and she made the most painful decision she had ever made in her life, "no it won't ... no it won't! I've ruined everything."

Chapter Text

Nabiki let Kasumi hold her in her arms until she stopped crying and slumped in exhaustion. She didn't have anything left inside to cry with. She only had grief inside. Her older sister rubbed her back and lowered her down on the bed after a minute had passed and Nabiki hadn't resumed crying. Kasumi smoothed her hair out from under her neck with cool hands and leaned down and kissed Nabiki on her forehead.

"Sleep. I'll come and check on you later," she said as she rose from the bed to leave. She paused after taking a few steps and turned back and said sadly, "it will be all right in the end, Nabiki. Sometimes ... sometimes things happen for a reason. Just be patient, and trust in yourself ... even the darkest night will see the sun rise." With that said she turned softly, opened the door, stepped through it, and closed it quietly behind her.

Nabiki heard Ranma's muffled voice through the door ask, "--asumi ... iki okay ?--"

She heard Kasumi answer him as their voices moved away from her door, "--ust leav ... er be ... she'll be fine--"

Nabiki turned over and buried her face in her pillow and wished desperately that was true as she fell into a dreamless sleep.


***


She awoke later that evening and looked at her clock. It was well past dinnertime, which explained why she felt weak with hunger. She rolled out of bed, stood up and walked slowly to the center of her room. She looked at herself in the mirror.

"Who are you?" She asked her reflection quietly, and with no small measure of disgust. She wasn't the weepy girl she saw standing looking back at her from the mirror. She was strong, independent, calm, cool and collected. She didn't know how this other girl had taken hold of her, but she was done with this. She had been pulled so far off her center that she was certain it would take her weeks to regain it.

She quietly opened her door and walked to the bathroom. She could hear her family downstairs doing what they did every night, eating, laughing, and being together. She intended to regain her place in that. But first, she had to finish what she and Akane had started.

She closed the door to the bathroom, flipped the light on, and looked at herself in the mirror up close. It wasn't as bad as she had been fearing. Her eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot, and her cheeks were a little puffy. But, when she made her face into the dispassionate professional mask that she usually wore, most of the evidence of the day's toll on her disappeared. She forced herself to smile and thought, you can do this. You don't love him, and he doesn't love you. It's best to just walk away from this before someone gets really hurt.

She stared at herself in the mirror for a few more moments, wishing she really believed that. Then, with a sigh, she leaned down and ran the cold water and let it fall over her hands before she splashed it over her face. The cool water would help hide the signs that she had been crying. And it helped to clear her head too.

She stood up straight and grabbed a towel off the shelf next to the sink and dried her face. As she set it down she slid her professional mask into place like a suit of armor, and she wrapped her emotions up behind it. Then she took a deep breath and repeated, you can do this. She stood up straighter and put some steel into her back. She was not going to be bowed or broken by this. She had survived way worse things than this. She would survive this without any problem; and she was determined to come out of it stronger than she had been before. That was what she did, she turned bad situations into wins. She was good at it, she did it all the time, and she was going to do it again.

With a nod to herself in the mirror she squared her shoulders and headed out of the bathroom. She crept back to her room and slid inside without being noticed. In no real hurry, she slid off her school uniform dress and changed into one of her favorite comfortable outfits, a turquoise loose t-shirt and white shorts with a yellow hem. She felt safer and more secure in her old comfortable clothes. Now that she had put on her armor inside and out, she waited in her room until she heard Ranma come upstairs. He had very distinctive footsteps. She listened at her door until she heard him go into his room as he announced that he was going to take a bath to his father.

A moment later she slipped out of her room and headed downstairs to grab some food. She didn't want to face him again just yet. She was happy when she saw that Akane wasn't downstairs either. For that matter, everyone seemed to have headed off to bed or other activities that took them away from the downstairs area.

She walked into the dining room, and was not at all surprised to find Kasumi waiting there for her with a single setting at the table ready for her.

"Eat." Was all Kasumi said as Nabiki dropped into her place at the table.

She ate hungrily, not even really tasting the food. She realized as she bolted the food down that she hadn't eaten since breakfast and she was weak with hunger. That explained her shaky hands. Well, at least she hoped it did. Kasumi kept refilling her rice bowl and plate until she had taken the edge off her hunger and stopped eating. She leaned back from the table and stared away at nothing as Kasumi slipped a cup of tea across the table to her.

She pulled the cup to her and just held it in her hands for a moment as she savored the warmth of it and enjoyed the subtle scent of the tea wafting up. She wasn't particularly cold physically, but she was frozen inside. She didn't know if she would ever feel warm inside again.

"How are you feeling?" Kasumi asked her kindly. Kasumi seemed to always be kind. Nabiki wondered what well of personal strength she had discovered that she could draw from that allowed her do that.

"I feel ... fine." Nabiki said with her professional mask firmly in place and her voice detached and even a bit sarcastic. It was amazing how easily one could slip back into a well-practiced persona like that.

Kasumi frowned at her. Even that amount of negativity from her was more than she usually ever showed. After a moment, she said, "are you sure you're fine ... you didn't seem to feel fine ... before..."

Nabiki forced herself to smirk as she met Kasumi's eyes, "what, a girl can't have an off day?"

Kasumi stared into her eyes for several heartbeats, and Nabiki could tell she was trying to decide if Nabiki was telling the truth or not. Good. If Kasumi couldn't tell, then her mask was properly in place.

"Did you know that Ranma tried to apologize to Akane this morning?" Kasumi asked before she took a sip of her tea and broke eye contact with her.

It took every ounce of Nabiki's self control not to react to that. She calmly set her cup down, arched an eyebrow and asked, "oh?"

"Yes. Apparently it didn't go very well. Akane told me a little bit about it this evening. Mostly in between calling him a jerk." Kasumi said calmly before she sipped her tea again.

"Why do you think it didn't go well?" She asked.

"Knowing Ranma, he probably said something he ought not have. And, knowing Akane, she probably said something because of her pride that upset him." Kasumi said sweetly. It was amazing how even when she was saying something negative, it came out of her like she was describing just a temporary thing that could easily be wiped away with no harm done. She was sure it was an act, but even knowing Kasumi as well as she did, and with her own training in the art of deception, she could never read any ulterior motives behind anything Kasumi ever said. She would never willingly get into a poker game against the girl.

Nabiki wanted to continue the conversation as they were having it, but at that moment she heard Ranma's distinctive footsteps heading down the stairs. It was time to put an end to this.

Kasumi cocked her head to the side as if she was listening to something, then she focused on Nabiki again and asked, "why don't you just give Ranma back to Akane?"

Nabiki blinked at the rather blunt question. But it was the kind of question she could use, so she went with it. She plastered a smirk on her face, and pulled out her sarcastic tone and said, "I want to ... but I can't. The truth is, I always have been in love with Ranma."

Kasumi frowned at that, "you're joking, right?"

"Duh." Nabiki retorted. She could hear him creeping around just outside the dining room. It was time to do what needed to be done. She bit the inside of her cheek to force herself to stay in character.

"You shouldn't tease him like that."

"But it's so much fun!"

"He'll be mad when he finds out."

"Oh, come on, Ranma's a big boy, I'm sure he can take a joke." Kasumi actually grimaced at her when she said that. But, it didn't matter. She heard his footsteps moving away from them a few moments later, and knew that she couldn't go back now, even if she wanted to.

She and Kasumi spent a few more minutes chatting pleasantly about nothing, then Nabiki decided it was time to head upstairs, do some homework, and wash her hands of all of this. She was sure it would be over by morning.

As she walked out of the room, Kasumi spoke again softly, "Nabiki ... sometimes ... things happen for a reason. And ... sometimes ... things don't always turn out the way we planned..."

She didn't turn back to look at her older sister, but she paused in the doorway to listen to her.

"...and sometimes, things work out the way they do, because faith wasn't enough, and someone had to make them happen." Kasumi whispered just loud enough for Nabiki to barely hear her.

She turned to face her and allowed her eyes to widen as she found Kasumi looking into her eyes as earnestly as she had ever seen her look. She whispered back, "have you ever said that to Akane?"

Kasumi nodded once with a sad smile.

"Do you think she knows what it means?"

Kasumi sadly shook her head back and forth once.

All Nabiki could do at that point, without breaking character, was to nod sharply at her. Then she quickly left the room. Kasumi could be frighteningly prescient sometimes.

She slipped into her room and had just settled down at her desk to do some of the homework that she knew she was now very behind on, when she heard a knock at her door as it started to open.

Please don't be Ranma. Please don't be Ranma. Please don't be Ranma. She chanted silently to herself as she swiveled in her chair to face the door and whoever was coming in. It was Ranma. As he cleared the door he smiled at her and said, "hey there Nabiki! You got a minute?"

Well ... damn. She thought to herself as she screwed on her best fake smile and asked, "what's up?" She didn't look him in the eyes.

He sat down on the floor at her feet and smiled up at her before he said, "I'm glad to see you're feeling better."

She didn't say anything to that, even though she wanted to. It was sweet of him to be so concerned about her.

Her lack of a response didn't stop him, he continued in a weirdly eager way, "so, if you're feeling better, would you like to meet me in the park tomorrow after school?"

Oh, she now understood what he was doing. She was surprised he had moved so fast, but fine, if he wanted to press her, she was game. "Are you asking me out?" She asked in her best innocent voice.

"Well, yeah. I figure if we're engaged, we should go out." He replied in a way that was so unusual for him, that if she hadn't been playing along with him, she would have laughed in his face at his transparency. As it was, the words he said made her ache inside.

"I guess so." She said reluctantly.

Ranma grinned and said, "great," enthusiastically as he stood up quickly and dashed for the door and said over his shoulder, "then it's a date! See ya!" And like that, he was gone.

A date? She felt sick. She really didn't want to spend more time with him right now. She was having a hard enough time keeping up appearances as it was. Plus, there was the very real possibility that she would slip and say or do something she shouldn't on a date with him. She needed Akane to take him back, and fast. She muttered to herself as she thought about it, "I really don't know if I can stomach being around him too much." She looked down at the papers in her hand, and made a decision as she said to herself, "maybe it's time to break it off."

She scribbled out a map on a scrap of paper along with a few instructions and hopped off her chair and headed out her door for Akane's room. It's now or never. She thought to herself as she knocked on her door.

She heard Akane yell out to come in, so she opened the door and stepped into her room as Akane turned from her own desk and faced her. They both just looked at each other awkwardly for a moment. When it was clear Akane wasn't going to throw her out of her room on principle, Nabiki made her way over to Akane's bed and sat down.

She looked into her younger sister's eyes, and wondered what she thought about. It was weird thinking of her as a possible rival for a romantic interest. Not that it really mattered anyway. She figured she would thank her before getting down to business. She owed her that much. "So, Kasumi told me you fought someone for me today, and carried me to Doctor Tofu's afterwards. Thank you."

Akane nodded at that and said with a small smile, "you're welcome, but no thanks are required. No matter how mad I may be at anyone in this family, I would never allow anyone to hurt any of you."

Damn it, Akane. Quit being noble when I'm trying to be noble. Nabiki thought with a trace of her old humor as she hid behind her professional mask.

"Well, thanks again anyway, I appreciate it. I guess it's a good thing Ranma won't be my problem for much longer." Nabiki said quietly as she looked at the floor. There was no way she was going to be able to sell this while making eye contact with Akane.

"I don't understand..." Akane replied.

"It's simple, Akane. Ranma came to me and asked me how to fix things with you. I talked to him, and he wants to meet you for a date tomorrow."

"He, said that?" Akane asked incredulous.

"Yeah, he told me he wanted to take you out."

"But...but why?"

"Maybe he wants to apologize, I don't know." Nabiki got up and walked quickly to Akane and shoved the piece of paper into her hand, still without looking her in the eyes. She needed to get out of Akane's room before she lost it. "You're supposed to meet him here." She walked quickly to the door and said over her shoulder as she left, "have fun with Ranma."

She slipped back into her own room thankfully without running into Ranma again. She leaned against the door for a moment and just breathed deeply trying to control the darkness that was welling up inside her and threatening to pull her down into it forever. She could do this! She crushed the darkness under the weight of her determination and pushed herself off the door slowly.

She wandered over to her bed and flopped down on it heavily. She just lay there face down for a few moments as she tried to summon the will to do anything else. There was no way she was doing homework now. With a sigh she reached down the side of her bed and pulled out a bag of cookies and some leisure reading. She opened one of the books and grabbed a cookie and tried to read for a moment as she munched on the cookie, but it was no use. Her mind was swirling with everything that had happened today, and she couldn't even taste the cookie.

With a sigh she thought about Akane, and was happy that her younger sister would be happy again. She deserved to be, and her little switch with the date should fix their issues. Ranma would show up looking nice with a smile on his face, and Akane would show up looking nice and expecting him to be nice to her. There was very little that could go wrong. Ranma wouldn't just turn around and leave her there once he figured out that Nabiki had substituted Akane in her place. And, once he was actually on a date with her, and they were both on their best behavior, everything else should fall naturally into place. She said out loud to herself, "that should take care of everything. You know, sometimes I really am a nice person!"

She added in a whisper, "it's better this way. I want him to be happy with Akane."

Liar. She thought bitterly to herself.

I know.

Chapter Text

[Music tip: I was listening to Yui's Green Garden Pop album when I wrote this. I'm kind of obsessed with her right now. You may get more out of the chapter if you listen to Yui as well (especially Again and Rolling Star) when you read this ^_-]


After a mostly sleepless night, Nabiki rolled out of bed the next morning and stood in front of her mirror again. She looked tired, but at least she hadn't been crying. She cast a critical eye over her body and decided it was high time for a bath, some hair styling, and ... as little Ranma as she could get away with today.

She rolled her eyes at that thought. The boy lived in the same house as her. How was she supposed to avoid him, move out?

Actually, that wasn't such a far-fetched idea. She would be graduating high school in a year and a half. Maybe she should talk to some of her friends about their college entrance exams, and plans for what they would do after high school. Nabiki had always intended to attend the University of Tokyo. She was sure she was good enough to get in. Once she was in, she could live in the dorms, or live off-campus with her friends. Of course, she could live off-campus with her friends regardless of what their college status was.

She smiled at that thought. It would be nice living with her friends and having a bit more control over where her life was going. It would also be nice not to live anywhere near Happosai. She would be sad to be away from her sisters and daddy, but it wasn't like she would be leaving Tokyo, so she could still see them ... occasionally. She wasn't sure she would want to be around Ranma and Akane too much after they got married. If they got married. I don't know if either one of them are going to be able to grow up enough to actually take that step, if they date only each other. She thought sadly.

But, that was Akane's problem, not hers. She still thought things could have been amazing between her and Ranma. But, she didn't want Akane to suffer, and she didn't think Ranma would ever trust her again after the last few day's events. She couldn't say she blamed him. She was fairly certain that he had at least some feelings for her as well, but she doubted he would ever summon the courage to act on them.

With a sardonic smile on her face she walked quietly from her room to the bathroom in her robe and thought about all the things that could have been as she quickly bathed and then styled her hair. When she was done she slipped back out of the bathroom and into her bedroom again without running in to anyone. She closed her door behind her with relief. She wasn't going to go so far as to hide from Ranma, but she would be happy to avoid running in to him at least for the morning. Once he went on his date with Akane later in the day, she was sure things would be back to more or less normal again. Not that things were ever really normal around this house.

She slipped off her robe and changed slowly into her school uniform dress as she watched herself critically in the mirror. She needed to do her exercises and she needed to do something to relax and clear the stress lines from her face. She decided to go out with her friends in the evening after dinner. There were no classes tomorrow, so she could stay out late. Maybe they would do some karaoke or go to a movie.

She allowed herself to feel a little bit happy about that. She was not going to let her feelings for someone rule her life. She was able to find joy outside of being in a relationship. Hell, until recently she hadn't even wanted to be in a relationship. She had been perfectly fine toying with guys, dating them, allowing them to think she liked them, accepting their gifts, and moving on to the next guy. She'd never even allowed one of them to kiss her. She needed to regain her center and get back to being that person again. That was where she was in control. That was where she felt safe. That was where she ... didn't ... get hurt. She bit her lip at that thought, and forced herself to take slow deep breaths to calm down as the tears threatened to come. They seemed to always be at the surface-level lately. But she refused to cry today. Today was going to be different.

She took a last deep breath, took one last look in the mirror, straightened her collar, and then strode purposefully out of her room. She made her way quickly downstairs and headed straight for the front door. She would grab something to eat on the way to school. She was really hoping to avoid running into Ranma.

Of course, the universe rarely worked the way one wanted. As she slid the door open to go outside, she found herself face to face with Ranma, who had been in the act of reaching for the door to open it from outside. He was dressed in his martial arts training clothes. He was obviously coming in from his morning's training.

They both froze and just stared at each other. She saw several emotions flash across his face in rapid succession from surprise, to anger, to determination and ... was that guilt? Then he plastered a silly grin on his face that didn't reach his eyes, which stayed wary, and said, "hey Nabiki. I was about to go see if you were up yet. How are you feelin' today?"

She let go of the door and stood up straight and regarded him for a moment as she decided how she wanted to respond. He just stood there smiling at her, which made it much harder to lie to him, even though she was fully submerged in her professional persona. Finally, she managed to say carefully, "I'm fine, Ranma, thank you."

He nodded and asked, "great, can we talk?" He reached over and grasped her hand gently as he said that. He didn't yank her off her feet or squeeze hard, but he did pull gently to try to get her to walk towards him.

Oh ... please no, please don't do this ... she thought desperately as she allowed him to pull her out of the door and started walking with him. He didn't let go of her hand, and she didn't really want him to.

They walked in silence together as he led her around the house to a secluded corner in the back. When they reached it, he swung her around gently and pressed her softly into the small corner of the house that formed a niche between the walls for the house there and the walkway that led to the dojo. There were a lot of trees and bushes ringing the area as well. It was one of the more private corners on their family's land. He stepped close to her and grasped her hands gently as he shielded her from the view of anyone who might look their way. Her breath was starting to come quickly as her heart beat faster. He smelled good. She hated that. It would have been so much easier to pretend to be disinterested in him if he smelled bad, or he was mean to her, or he was rough with her, or ... or anything.

She looked into his eyes and did her best to ignore everything as she kept her professional mask up and asked, "my my, aren't you being forward today. What's up, Ranma?"

He smiled at her in what she was sure he thought of as his best lady-killer smile. It still didn't reach his eyes, that hurt her a bit. She knew he was trying to get back at her for what she had said to Kasumi. She also knew she deserved it.

He leaned in closer to her and pressed his chest against hers as he continued to hold her hands. She couldn't help herself as she started to blush from head to toe. He tucked his chin in around her neck and brought his lips up against her ear and whispered so only she could hear, "I've been thinkin' about what you asked me for on the roof yesterday if I wanted to stay your fiancée ... "

Her heart leaped into her throat. Oh ... no. Oh no, please .... please no ... she whimpered to herself inside.

He continued after a moment's pause, "... if you were serious, would you like to do that today on our date?" He leaned back after he said that and paused with his nose almost touching hers. She could feel his heart hammering in his chest as he stayed pressed up against her. She was sure he could feel her own heart hammering right back. That was something she just couldn't hide.

It would be so easy ... so easy ... to just lean forward and surrender to what she wanted to do. She could tell that even he wanted to. He might be mad at her, and he might not love her, but she could tell that he at least found her attractive. He wasn't a good actor. He wouldn't be able to do what he was doing if he found her unattractive. At least she had that. Maybe she wouldn't be able to keep him, but maybe she could ... maybe she could ...

No! She screamed at herself. She would not let herself be pulled off her center any further than she already was. Not when she was close, so close, to fixing this whole mess and being able to move on with her life. Akane didn't deserve to be left in limbo any longer, and Ranma didn't deserve to be jerked around, and she ... she didn't deserve to suffer like this. She didn't. She wasn't a bad person. She wasn't! She hadn't meant for any of this to go so far. She just needed to stay strong a little bit longer, then it would be all over.

All over.

All over.

Forever.

She thought sadly as she stared into his eyes and wished that her life had taken a very different path from the one she found herself trapped on.

With a supreme effort of will she pulled her head back from him and whispered, "I think I hear Akane calling you."

He let his gaze stay on her for a moment longer, then he took a step back from her and smiled as he continued to hold her hands. They both knew Akane wasn't calling for him, she wasn't exactly quiet. The loss of the warmth of him against her shocked her as efficiently as a bucket of cold water would have. She cemented her professional mask on her face, and forced herself to smirk at him as she added, "you shouldn't keep her waiting, you know how she gets."

He nodded and let go of her hands and asked quietly, "see you after school?"

"Yes." She whispered just as quietly as she let her suddenly cold hands drop to her sides.

He winked at her and said, "I'm looking forward to it." Then he quickly pivoted on his heel and darted off towards the front of the house again. He didn't look back.

"I'm sure you are." She whispered after him as she bit her lower lip to keep from crying. She was pretty sure she tasted blood after a moment. She slid down against the wall on legs that would no longer support her as the adrenaline rush he had triggered left her feeling shaky and sick as it fled.

Today was going to be ... a long day.

After a minute had passed, she summoned the willpower to stand up, and did so on shaky legs. She brushed the dirt off her backside and straightened her dress with unsteady hands. She would do what she had planned for today for the greater good. Ranma would be back with Akane by the end of the day, and life would go on. She wasn't a bad person. She told herself repeatedly as she gathered her strength to go face the day.

Yes I am. She thought miserably as she looked sadly in the direction he had left and wished more than anything else in the world that he had stayed here with her.

She walked slowly for the front gate and headed for school as she warred with herself over what she wanted to do, and what she knew she was supposed to do. Kasumi's words to her last night echoed in her head over and over again as she walked. She knew what Kasumi had meant, but she didn't dare follow the advice.

The path she had chosen was the best for everyone, and that was all that mattered. It didn't matter what she wanted. Nobody loved her, and she didn't love anyone. She would become the ice queen that so many people called her behind her back. She could feel herself freezing on the inside as she took each step closer to the school and her resolve hardened. It would all be over after today. She just had to hang on. Just ... hang on. She told herself repeatedly as she walked into the school and took her seat in a daze. She could see the worried looks her friends were sending her way, but she just couldn't bear to get into it with them right now. She'd cry on their shoulders afterwards. If she let her resolve slip for even a second today, she knew she'd break, and she didn't think she would ever be able to go through this again. Never again. She promised herself, the heartache just wasn't worth it. She'd rather be the ice queen.


***


She reached the end of the day without remembering how she got there. She didn't remember class. She didn't remember lunch. She didn't remember the empty conversations she had with her friends. She was frozen inside. She made her way home quickly and grabbed her bike to go for a ride. She intended to just ride around the neighborhood and clear her head. She had no intention of going anywhere near the park Ranma would be waiting for her in.

Of course, what she intended to do wasn't what she wanted to do, and somehow she found herself on the street in the shopping district that bordered the park. She'd just take a quick look to make sure Akane met up with him all right. No harm in that.

Her breath caught in her throat when she saw Ranma standing in front of a flower shop a couple dozen meters away. He was buying flowers. Wow, he really was going all out for his little revenge plan. She could see that he was saying something to the shop keeper, and he was standing in an angry stance. As the shop keeper walked away after Ranma paid him, she could tell that Ranma was talking to himself. She was about to ride away to make sure he didn't see her when he started yelling.

"--ank Nabiki?! Yeah right, for what?! Ruining the rest of my life?!"

Well, she knew for sure now. The date was a trap. She wondered what he could be planning? As she rode away quickly before he spotted her, she tapped into her frozen center and said to herself, "well, it doesn't matter ... the poor boy's plans are for naught. It's Akane who's going on the date! Sorry to disappoint you, Ranma!"

She stopped short just down the street as she saw Akane rounding the corner heading towards the park. She was dressed very cutely in her very best dress. She was wearing makeup, and she had styled her hair. She was also smiling happily to herself and humming as she walked. This wasn't good.

With Ranma as visibly angry as he was, and Akane clearly looking forward to a nice date with him, she could see her plan falling apart with every happy step Akane took. She muttered to herself, "Akane... geez... she looks awfully happy." She had to change the plan. Ranma was too angry. She needed to calm him down before she threw him at Akane. If they fought again, she didn't know if she would survive having to go through again what she had been through in the last few days.

She turned around and rode quickly to the meeting place. She spotted Ranma and increased her speed. She needed to distract him and pull him away from Akane until she'd calmed him down. She plastered a silly smile on her face and called out to him when she was close enough for him to hear her. "Ranma!" As he turned towards the sound of her voice she thought sadly, I guess I have to play along with Ranma, for Akane's sake.

Ranma had just managed to turn all the way around when Nabiki reached him and plowed right into him with her bike, running him over. She stopped for a moment and looked back with the best playful smile she could summon from her frozen center.

As Ranma got back up to his feet he sputtered, "Nabiki! You--you--"

She took that as her cue to get him to chase her. She pedaled off quickly as she forced herself to laugh and said playfully, "catch me if you can!"

A moment later she felt the bike frame shudder as Ranma landed on the back of it. It was inhuman how fast he was. He cackled gleefully and said in a forced cheerful voice, "little minx! Gotcha!" He put his hand on her shoulder and said, "you're gonna spend the whole day with me!"

She looked down at his hand on her shoulder and said playfully, "oh? Awfully forward, aren't we?" She then quickly looked left and said, "oh look, there's Akane!"

She could feel him shift his weight as he looked where she had indicated as he asked in a worried tone, "where? Where?"

She took the opportunity to steer under a low-hanging tree branch and knock him off the bike. She had to admit that she resented his guilt towards her sister. She knew she had no right to, but she did anyway. She called out to him as she rode away, "just kidding!" She added quietly in a small voice as a small dragon of jealousy rose up unbidden inside her, "serves you right." She winked back at him as she put distance between them. Now that she had let him vent a little bit of his frustration on her, she tried to send him back to Akane. "Hey, Ranma?! If you're so concerned about my sister, why don't you go back and apologize to her?"

He surprised her by getting back up to his feet and chasing her again. She quickly rode into a nearby hedge maze and ditched the bike in one direction while she went in the opposite direction. She was sure that if she hid from him, he would lose interest in chasing after her. Then she just had to get him to make it to the meeting with Akane before she gave up on waiting for him. Why was everything so complicated?

She jogged up one of the trails in the maze as she doubled back towards the entrance. She figured she'd let him run around in here for a while until he cooled down and then--

She stopped quickly and let out a startled yelp as she leaned back as a hand burst through the hedge to her right and reached for her. It was Ranma's arm.

Ranma called out from the other side of the hedge, "there! There! There!"

She danced backwards out of range and thought in a panic, what is he trying to do ... hit me?! That made her angry, but it also made her happy. If he was that off balance, it should be easy to tip him back to Akane.

Ranma then pushed his head through the hedge so he could see her, smiled angrily and declared, "you can't get away now!" He started walking through the hedge to get to her. Why was he acting so angry? Had she hurt him that bad? Or ... was it something else? He shouted at her as he cleared the hedge, "you've played with my feelings for the last time!"

She needed to calm him down, this was getting out of control. She brought her hands up to her face and assumed an innocent pose as she asked him carefully, "you mean ... when I said I loved you?"

He cracked his knuckles angrily as he walked towards her and growled, "it was all a joke to you, wasn't it?"

Oh, this wasn't going well at all. It would have been better to let him fight with Akane again than to let him get into the state he was in now. Still, she couldn't help be a little happy that he was so obsessed with whether or not she actually loved him or not, and how hurt he seemed to be when he thought she lied about it. She turned away from him and summoned her theatric skills as she said, "Ranma... I'm a girl ... do you think I'd joke about something like that?!"

She ran off at that both to put some distance between them, and to also sell her performance. As she ran off she buried her face in her hands and fake-sobbed, "how could you?!"

Ranma was left standing there with a shocked expression on his face, stammering after her, "H-H-Hey! ..."

Nabiki turned a corner and stopped to catch her breath. She had to admit, the cat and mouse game they were playing was kind of fun. Still, he was terrible at it. She said quietly to herself, "Heh! Amateur! He may be cute ... but he sure is dumb!"

Ranma's voice sounded from above and behind her, "Oh, so!?" He jumped over the hedge and chased her again as she ran away. He yelled after her, "now you're really gonna pay!"

Nabiki was trying desperately to figure out how she could salvage the situation she found herself in. Instead of bringing Ranma and Akane together again, all she seemed to have really done was get Ranma to be openly angry with her. She needed to get him refocused on Akane ...

She blinked as she ran past someone, and realized it was Akane. She came to an abrupt stop and turned around wide-eyed just as Ranma reached through the hedge Akane was running past, and grabbed her, thinking she was Nabiki.

Well ... that's one way to get him refocused on her. She thought in surprised approval as she watched him tighten his grip on her. He would have to realize he was holding Akane in a moment. Her younger sister had a completely different build than she did.

Ranma yelled from behind the hedge, "A-HA!" Akane just yelped in surprise. She probably didn't even realize it was Ranma who had hold of her yet. Nabiki took a couple of hesitant steps towards them. She hoped Ranma realized who he had hold of shortly, or this was going to turn ugly ...

Ranma continued to pull on her sister, dragging her through the hedge as he cackled to himself a bit unhinged and yelled, "I've got you now! You're. All. Mine!"

Okay, well, so much for him realizing on his own that he had Akane. She'd better help him. She shouted across the hedge, "Ranma! What are you...? What're you doing to Akane?!" She put extra emphasis on her sister's name, hoping to snap him out of it. Akane had recovered from her surprise, and she was starting to thrash around in his grip as she fought to pull away from him as she growled in anger.

Ranma continued to pull on Akane, "I told you, I'm tired of your sick little games!" A moment later, he succeeded in pulling her through the hedge, and immediately pulled her into a fierce hug as he practically screamed, "you know something?! I love you!"

Well, that had been ... unexpected. Was that his idea of getting back at her? Lying to her with the same thing she had told him? Pretty weak. She leaned forward through the hole in the hedge and watched curiously to see what would happen when he realized he had Akane in his arms. The dragon inside her that was her jealousy tried to rear up and call out to him that he had the wrong girl. But her ice center froze it in place. If Akane took him back right now, then it would be all over.

Neither Akane nor Ranma moved for a moment. Then Ranma pushed her away from him so he could look into what she assumed he still thought would be her eyes. He called out passionately as he did so, "don't you understand that I can't ever let you go? We'll be together for an eternity!"

When he finally saw that it was indeed Akane he had in his arms, he froze with a shocked look on his face. This was it, the moment of truth. Akane had no idea he had meant to say those things to her. She would take them at face value ... she hoped. If Akane could just ignore the whole pulling-her-through-a-hedge thing, this could be where the whole mess went away. Nabiki held her breath as inside she died a little with each passing second.

Akane looked up at Ranma and blushed from her neck to the top of her scalp.

Ranma stuttered as he also blushed and said, "A-Akane...?" He then looked through the hole in the hedge to see her standing there watching them, and jumped up to bounce around shouting, "No! No! No! No! Noooooo!"

Akane was still looking up at him with wonder on her face. Well, good for her. She deserved to be happy. This should be it then, she could make her exit. She stepped forward and patted him on the shoulder and said, "I'm a witness! I'm a witness!" Then she turned and looked at Akane and said with a smile, "I'm so happy for you, Akane."

She wanted to mean it. She didn't.

Akane looked up at her with eyes shining with unshed tears and said, "Na-Nabiki...?"

Nabiki couldn't handle seeing the rest of this. She quickly turned on her heel and walked urgently away from them as she said, "you two be good! Bye-eee!"

That had been a pretty weak play on Ranma's part. She was mildly disappointed as she thought, that's his idea of revenge? What a lame-o! She meant to leave the park quickly. But the dragon inside her wasn't dead yet. It still had enough heat left to fuel her quick turn around the corner so she could listen to what happened next. She was going to be ... upset ... if they didn't get back together after all this. She couldn't do this again, she just couldn't.

She heard Ranma say, "...like I said, I was just trying to trick Nabiki."

Akane replied in her usual disbelieving tone, "oh, you expect me to believe that?"

Ranma retorted, "hey, I don't care if you don't believe me, but it's the truth."

There was a pause, and then Akane said in a small, cheerful voice, "you know, Ranma ... I'm getting tired of all this. Why don't we just become engaged again?"

The dragon inside her died then as the ice won. She didn't hear anything else they said as the blood rushed to her ears and her world shrank. She swayed on her feet and for a moment she was afraid she was going to faint. Then it passed a few minutes later, and she started to come out of it enough that she felt she could at least walk. There. A broken heart wasn't so bad. She could get through this.

She let a single tear roll down her cheek as she forced herself to stand up straight and turned to walk away, and found Ranma standing there looking at her with a confused look on his face.

Oh God ... please no ... I can't, I can't, I can't, Ican'tIcan'tIca-- she thought in a desperate panic as she backed away from him. She even thought about running, but she knew she'd never outrun him.

He looked at her quizzically and walked over to stand in front of her as he focused on her face. She knew her mask had slipped. She tried to put it back in place, but she couldn't, there were too many cracks in it now. It was a lot harder to pretend when one was dying inside.

When she had backed away to what she felt was a safe distance she stopped and summoned the last of her willpower and asked him, "shouldn't you be with Akane right now?"

He looked at her curiously as if he was trying to piece something together in his mind. He said as he continued to look at her with a puzzled expression, "Akane's on her way back home."

"Didn't you two ... make up?" She was glad Akane was happy again. No I'm not.

"Yes and no. She asked me to be engaged to her again, I gave her the flowers."

"Oh." Was all she could think to say. She tried to turn and walk away, but he moved to stand in front of her again. She looked up and met his gaze with an exhausted one of her own as her lower lip trembled while she tried to smile confidently at him. She didn't have much endurance left in her. She needed to get away from him before it was too late.

She didn't deserve Ranma, but she didn't deserve to be tormented, either. She wished he would let her leave. No I don't.

"I told her I'd think about it."

See, they're back tog--, wait, he said what? She looked up at him in disbelief as her breath caught.

"You see, Nabiki, I think I have you figured out now." He said with a small smile as he reached for her hand.

Oh no! She thought in a panic as she backed up quickly from him and held her hands in front of her face. What was going on?!

"You see, Nabiki, I don't think you've been tellin' me the truth." He said as he walked slowly towards her while looking at the ground, but she could see that he was smiling. He stopped a little bit away from her and said quietly, "You're very good at this kind of thing. You tell a lot of half-truths and leave things unsaid so you can claim you never technically lied. It's been really hard tryin' to figure you out. But, I think ... I think you do have feelings for me, and everything else has been a lie."

Nabiki started to crumble inside. Everything was falling apart. Her family was going to be broken. Akane was going to try to kill her. Maybe she should just let her do it and put herself out of her misery. She locked eyes with Ranma as he finally looked up at her and grinned as he held up a single rose he had saved from the bouquet he had been carrying earlier.

She had to stop this, she had to stop this now. She didn't take the rose. Instead she forced herself to frown and say, "I don't know what you're talking about. You belong with Akane."

Liar.

"Hurry, go catch her and go home with her. That's what's best."

Liar.

"I don't love anyone, especially you, Ranma."

Liar.

As she protested, he dropped the flower on the ground and continued to step towards her while she babbled, never letting his smile slip, and never breaking eye contact with her. She noticed that his smile was reaching his eyes this time.

He stopped when he was less than half a meter away from her and lifted his arm to point at her as he said, "you're lying, Nabiki. I can tell you are."

She blinked at that. If he could read her through her masks, then it was all over.

"You see, that's the thing that's had me confused through this whole thing. We hadn't done much talkin' before this started except stuff anyone would say livin' in the same house with someone. But ... since this started ... and we've been talkin' ... and you've said the things you've said, I have been gettin' all kinds of mixed signals. Your body language would jump all over the place, while your face would say one thing, your words would say another ... but your voice ... your voice I think was the only part of you tellin' the truth. I think ... I think this started out as a game to you, but then stuff you had been hidin' inside started to come out." He walked forward and grasped her hand and asked as he stared into her eyes, "what do you think?"

"I ... I ... I don't ..." she stammered as she shook her hand loose from his and desperately tried to figure out a way to stop this and protect her sister.

"I think you really do have feelings for me."

Yes!

"And you just don't want to, or can't admit it."

Yes!

"I think that maybe ... maybe you wouldn't be as all right with it as you say, if we didn't stay engaged." He said as he blushed.

Yes!

He stopped at that and looked down at the ground as he waited for her to respond.

Her world was spinning out from under her. She knew what she was supposed to say, but she didn't know if she could any more. She leaned back into the hedge behind her and kind of sat in it as she looked at him in shock. How ... how had he managed to figure that all out? Maybe he isn't nearly as simple as he likes people to think he is, she thought as she stared at him, more afraid than she had ever been in her life. She wanted to cry, but the tears seemed to be stuck, everything seemed to be stuck. She had a raw feeling in her throat, and she didn't know what to do. What do I do?! She screamed at herself in despair.

He walked over to her and held his hand down to her as he smiled kindly at her. She reached up with a shaking hand and took it. He pulled her up to her feet then slipped his arms around her waist. Her mask started to shatter.

He held her with his arms around her loosely as he looked carefully into her eyes and said, "you know, you never answered me this morning."

"Answered what?" She whispered in a shaking voice as she avoided his eyes.

"About what you asked me for yesterday on the roof." He replied as he continued to try to look into her eyes. He finally managed to get her to look at him, and smiled as he saw whatever it was he was looking for.

Nabiki desperately tried again to get him to go back to Akane, "you mean the kiss? Ranma, you know ... you know I was just putting on an act..."

"I know ... but you still haven't answered." He pulled her closer.

"But, what about Akane?" She asked in a whisper as she looked away from him and tried to lean back without much of an effort.

"What about Akane? I'm not engaged to her, I'm engaged to you." He said in his own whisper as he held her tighter. He smelled nice, like a cedar wood mixed with some sort of a flower.

"But ... she ... asked for you back ..." Nabiki stammered in a quickly weakening voice.

"You asked me first." He said as he leaned in towards her.

"Ranma ... " Nabiki tried to protest with her last remaining strength. He paused and looked into her eyes, looking for permission to continue, and the last of her strength gave out. She nodded once, fiercely, and he smiled. She couldn't do what she was supposed to do any more. She stopped leaning away from him, and instead pressed herself in to him, as hard as she could, as she wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled herself up to embrace him like he was her only chance of not drowning.

She buried her face in his neck as she held on tightly and the tears started to flow. She was numb. She wanted to die, and to stay like this forever. She whispered into his neck, "...we can't do this..."

He tilted his head down and buried it in between his shoulder and her own face and continued to lightly press in between until his face was right next to hers, cheek to cheek. Her tears were now smeared all over him as she continued to cry as she held on to him fiercely and let go of everything she had been trying to hide for the last several days. He whispered back to her with his lips on her cheek, "yes we can."

A few moments later he pulled her up higher and brushed her lips with his own and lightning struck her through the heart, and a new dragon was born inside her. He pulled back and tried to look into her eyes romantically. But Nabiki was done with that. She lunged forward and kissed him, hard, as he held her. He pulled her in tighter and kissed her right back. It was her first real kiss. It was the strangest and most wonderful feeling she had ever experienced in her life. She was sobbing as she kissed him; her tears were mixing with his sweat, and their lips were pressed together and her mouth was open, and she was trying to devour him. He was warm, so warm, and she felt like she was awakening from the deepest sleep she had ever been in, and the dragon inside her burst into a flame to rival the sun and roared to the heavens in triumph.

And, just like that, the ice inside of her began to melt. The grief went away, the pain went away, and the awful weight lifted from her. She felt herself falling, free and falling forever. And she knew, at the end of that fall, was Ranma.

For the first time in a long time, she felt happy ... really, truly ... happy. As she kissed him with her arms wrapped around him as tightly as she could, she continued to cry tears of relief and thought, God help me, I can't pretend any more. I'm going for it!

Chapter Text

Nabiki clung to Ranma's neck and kissed him until she was exhausted. It didn't take long, she had already been at the limit of her endurance by the time he had come to talk to her. She finally stopped kissing him and let herself slump against him as she buried her face in his neck. She probably could have gone to sleep right there in his arms as he held her in the middle of a hedge maze in the park.

Nabiki wanted to stay in Ranma's arms for the rest of the day. Well, longer than that actually, but she didn't live in a dream world. Even in her blissful state, she knew that. Ranma hadn't said anything since she had kissed him. She wanted to ask him a lot of things, but right now she was fine with the comfortable silence between them. She didn't think she could summon her voice reliably at the moment anyway. Her breathing was coming in ragged gulps as she tried to calm herself down. Her eyes and throat ached from the crying, and her heart was still beating very fast. She could feel Ranma's heart beating in his chest as he held her. Ranma's heart ... she would need to address that soon. She was well aware of the fact that he hadn't made her any promises, and that he had told her sister that he'd, "think about it," regarding getting back together with her. But all of that could wait. Right now, she was just enjoying the moment.

She felt better now than she had in a long time. The last time she could remember feeling so happy was the last birthday she had spent with mom, before she passed away. Of course, it wasn't that she was never happy ... but not like this ... never like this. She tilted her head up to look at Ranma and found him looking down at her as well. He smiled when he caught her eye. She smiled back. A real smile, not a theatric smile, not a smile that was part of a mask, just a smile. It was nice to be able to do that.

She knew that he could stand there all day and hold her. She had seen him lift things weighing far more than she would ever weigh, and swing them around as weapons. If he could do that, he could certainly stand still and hold her off the ground. But she knew that asking him to do that would be treating him like a toy, and she was determined not to treat him like anything but a person. She would have to have a very different relationship with him, now.

She made eye contact with him, then looked briefly down, then back up to him. That was all it took. He gently set her down on the ground right away. Say what one would about Ranma's social skills, his ability to read other people's intentions was in some ways better than even her ability to do so. He was still holding her tightly pressed up against him. But, to be fair, she had her arms wrapped around him as well.

She didn't want the moment to end, because she knew that everything was about to get painful, and complicated, and in many ways ... ugly ... after the moment passed. There was no way that it couldn't. Her mind was already puzzling out ways to resolve some of the issues. She couldn't just snap her fingers and solve his problems, because many of them were because of things he had said or done, or refused to say or do. But, she could help him where she could.

Of course, she needed to find out what it was he wanted before she got too ahead of herself. And then there was Akane ... she did not want Akane to be hurt. There had to be some way out of this that didn't end in heartbreak for her.

She took a deep breath and summoned the willpower to let go of him. He immediately moved with her motions and released his hold on her as well. He was very good at reading her. She was sure it was because of all of his training on reading his opponent in battle. She smiled at that thought. She had done everything she could to fight him finding out about how she really felt. So, in a way, it had been a battle.

She finally looked up at him as he continued to hold her and asked in a very shaky voice, "so, Ranma ... what do we do now?"

He looked down at her and said in a small, one might even say scared voice, "I ... was kinda hopin' you would know that..."

She considered that. She couldn't really blame him, but she wasn't going to make his decisions for him. She stepped back and looked into his eyes as she slid her hands from around him to slide down his arms and end with her holding his hands. She smiled and said, "let's talk."

He nodded hesitantly and followed her as she began walking out of the hedge maze. She had let go with her left hand so she was only holding on to him with her right hand. She led him to where she had ditched her bike, and she reluctantly picked it up off the ground as she let go of his hand. Once she had it righted, she used her left hand to push it along next to her while she held onto his hand again with her right.

Oddly, he seemed to be retreating into himself the closer they got to the exit for the hedge maze. By the time they had left it, he was walking somewhat hunched over, and his hand was loose in hers. That puzzled her. He had been like a different person in the hedge maze. She led him a short distance over to a small pond she liked to come to sometimes. It had lots of trees around it, and lots of bushes and large rocks scattered around. There were all kinds of secluded little areas to sit and relax, read a book, watch the water or study. It was also a fairly common date location. But not in the middle of the afternoon.

As soon as they entered the more secluded area, his body language changed. He stood up taller, his grip firmed up on her hand, and his movements became more fluid and less jerky. She wondered if he was aware he was doing it. She led him to one of her favorite spots by the pond. It had a large tree in front of a huge moss-covered boulder which was surrounded by tall bushes. The only clear view into the area was from the pond itself. She liked to think of it as her little pond-grotto. Ranma gave the water a suspicious glance, but otherwise followed her without complaint. With his little problem, she couldn't say she blamed him for his hydrophobia.

She left her bike leaning against the tree and sat down on the mossy grass. Ranma just stood and looked down at her with a confused look on his face. She sighed and pointed to the ground across from her. He nodded and quickly moved over to it and sat down with an expectant look on his face. She wasn't sure what he was expecting, but she wanted some answers from him at the moment.

She scooted closer to him and held her hand out for him to hold. He did so quickly. She blushed a bit at how eager he seemed to be. He seemed to be expecting her to take the lead. She was more or less fine with that for now, but later they would have to talk about that. She started off with a simple question she already knew the answer to, so she could test how he would respond to her.

"When I was talking to Kasumi last night, did you overhear me?"

He nodded his head slowly while maintaining eye contact with her.

"And when you asked me on a date for today, was it for revenge for what you heard me say?"

He nodded again and his eyes narrowed a bit, but he didn't break eye contact, or take his hand back.

"Are you still mad at me?" She asked, a little bit scared of the answer.

His gaze softened and he shook his head gently.

"Okay, Saotome, I am going to need you to actually speak, please." She said with a small smile. She knew it was easier for him to deal with these kinds of things as passively as possible, but she could only take so much head waggling.

She decided to press him for an answer to a question that she didn't already know the answer to. She licked her lips then asked in a voice she was proud didn't shake, "why didn't you take Akane back when she asked you to?"

Ranma's eyes widened and she could feel him tense up as she held on to his hand, he looked into her eyes and stayed silent for a few moments before he finally said, "I ... I don't know."

She just looked at him and said nothing, encouraging him to elaborate. He finally did so after close to a minute of silence. "I ... I honestly don't know why I did what I did. I was so mad at you that all I really wanted to do today was try to pay you back. But ... when that didn't work, and I grabbed Akane instead of you ... I kept thinkin' that I just wanted to win the fight, you know?"

Nabiki went cold inside. Was he saying what she thought he was saying? Her eyes started to water as she let him talk, hoping he wasn't about to say something terrible.

"I wasn't even really focusing on Akane when I talked to her. I was thinkin' about ... you."

Nabiki kept her eyes on him, but her smile was slipping. He was scaring her.

He smiled at her then and said, "I realized then after Akane had talked to me, that I cared more about my little fight with you, than I cared about all of the fights I have ever had with Akane. There's something about you, Nabiki."

She relaxed a little at that, but not much, and asked, "so ... you think it is more fun to ... fight with me?"

He nodded his head enthusiastically as an answer. When he saw her unamused expression and raised eyebrows, he added, "n-not because I like fightin' you just to fight you. I-It's ... I don't know, it's just that you're challengin', you know?"

She softened her glare at that, but continued to gaze at him with a displeased face. When he didn't add anything more, she asked, "so ... is that what this is, then? Are you still just trying to win?"

He didn't respond for a moment, and he let his hand go limp in hers. Fear began to creep in around the edges of her happiness. He was going to say that he won, and then jump up and go home and laugh with Akane about it.

Oh God. Oh God. Oh God. OhGodOhGodOh--

Ranma's face morphed from shock, to panic and then to outrage in under a second. He pulled his hand away, and looked down at the ground for a few heartbeats, then he looked back up at her and said in an unusually strong voice, "I would never do that. It's one thing when both of us are playing a game and trying to trick each other. It's another thing to mess around with someone like that and use their real feelings against them. I'd never do that!"

Oh ... thank God! She thought to herself in relief as she did her best to keep her nervousness off her face. She would have to analyze his behavior on the subject later, but now wasn't the time. She held her hand back out to him, and he nervously reached out and took it again.

She took a deep breath and stared at the ground again as she finally summoned the courage to ask, "well then, how do you really feel about me?" She could feel him tense up through his hand when she asked. Not a good sign.

When she looked back up after a moment, she found him looking down at the ground as she had been, and red from embarrassment. It was so odd to her that he had almost immediately reverted back to his usual behavior around girls. She decided to be patient and not push him. Inside her, though, a growing sense of dread was deadening the joy she had been feeling. What have I gotten myself into? She thought with a bit of frustration.

He finally looked up at her, smiled shakily and said, "I like you, Nabiki."

Well, it was a start. She smiled softly at him and asked, "all right, and what do you want? Does you liking me mean anything? Or is that it?" She asked softly. She would rather find it out now, and deal with two broken hearts in one day, than let him string her along and end up as yet another one of his suitors. She wouldn't do that. She couldn't do that.

"I ... I don't know ... what you mean ..." He seemed to try to answer as best he could.

She figured she could rephrase it and make it simpler for him, "are you ready to make a choice? Can you tell the rest of them that you have chosen someone else?"

"I .... I ...." he stammered.

"I thought so." She said sadly, as she took her hand back and let it fall limp into her lap.

He looked up at her in alarm and asked in a very small voice, "what'd I do wrong?"

She sighed and said as the tears threatened to come, "nothing. You didn't do anything wrong. It's my fault for letting myself get so emotional. I knew the situation you were involved with, and I chose to let myself get pulled into it anyway."

He replied in such a whisper that she couldn't even hear him, so she simply widened her eyes and turned her head a little bit so her ear was facing him more directly. Again he displayed his remarkable ability to read people and leaned towards her ear and whispered, "what should I do?" He sat back and looked at her with hope in his eyes.

"I ... I don't ... Ranma ... I can't make this decision for you." She said in her own whisper. She added after a moment, "besides, I am not a disinterested third party, I couldn't possibly give you impartial advice." She said with a small smile.

"I ... it's just ... Pop taught me a lot of things, you know?"

She nodded with a confused looked on her face, she didn't see where he was going with this.

"Pop ... taught me the Art. I am only as good as I am, because of his trainin'. He can be scum, and he can be a coward, and some of the stuff he taught me was junk or just stupid, but his trainin' was good, and he taught me other stuff too..." he trailed off as he looked up at her and met her eyes. She nodded for him to continue. She had an idea where he was going with it now, but wanted to hear him say it, he continued, "... one of the things he taught me is something I believe in too ... I ... it just isn't right ... to ... make girls cry." He finished lamely.

Well, that hadn't been exactly what she had been expecting him to say, but it was more or less what she had suspected he was going to say.

"I cried today, because of you." Nabiki said softly. He jerked upright into a nervous sitting position and nodded that he knew. She could tell he felt guilty. She added after a moment, "but it wasn't because you did or didn't do anything. It was all because of me. Does that change anything for you."

He shook his head softly.

"Ranma ... people cry. Girls probably more than boys, but even boys cry too. I saw how upset you were when Akane got super strong that one time eating the old pervert's noodles, and how easily she could beat you after that." She said gently.

He stiffened at that. She knew that because of his dad's nonsense, that implying that he had been crying or that he had any weakness or was not masculine in any way, was a pretty big insult to him. She wondered how he reconciled that with the fact that he changed into an attractive female at least ten to thirty percent of any given day, sometimes as much as all day, depending on what he was up to.

After he hadn't said anything for a while, she added as she tried to bring them back on topic, "if you choose someone, and the rest of the girls cry and then move on with their lives, would that really be so bad?"

He hesitated for a long while as he stared at the ground, then shook his head softly in a motion that was barely perceptible.

She swallowed hard and asked the question she had been dreading, "if you could pick who you wanted, ignoring promises your dad made, and anyone else's ideas of what you should and shouldn't be doing, could you think of maybe one person you could pick over everyone else?"

He nodded very slowly once, as he looked up at her with fear on his face. Raw, naked, fear. He was terrified of this. She wondered why. Was it just because he didn't want to hurt people? Was it because admitting that he preferred one over the other would in a way be losing the romantic, battle -- for lack of a better term, with the rest of them?

She decided to push a little harder and see if she could get him to face some of his fears. "Do you have feelings for Shampoo?"

He shook his head emphatically no. Good, of all of them, Shampoo was the one Nabiki liked the least, and she was the only one Nabiki was afraid of. She was glad he didn't have any feelings for her, because she didn't know any way to handle her other than shutting her out, and possibly taking much stronger measures.

"Do you have feelings for Kodachi?"

He shook his head vehemently no. No surprise there.

"Do you have feelings for Ukyo?"

He paused at that one and looked into her eyes and nodded a very small yes. She had been expecting that, so she had a follow-up question.

"If your dad hadn't engaged you to her and then run off and caused her the trouble he had caused, would you ever have thought of her as anything more than a friend? Would you even have known she was female, or gone looking for her?"

He looked at her sadly, then looked all around them, and she could tell he was also straining his hearing to try to figure out if anyone was watching them. Finally he looked back at her and shook his head in a motion that almost wasn't there. She smiled at that. One down.

Now for the one she already knew the answer to, "do you have feelings for Akane?"

His eyes widened in shock and embarrassment, and he looked at the ground for a long time before he looked back up and nodded. It hadn't hurt as much as she thought it was going to hurt, but she still wasn't happy to see him confirm that he had feelings for her sister.

Finally, with a deep breath, she summoned her courage and locked eyes with him as she asked, "and do you have feelings for me?"

He was much faster in answering her and nodded his head immediately, then looked down again.

"Okay, so, just like I have told Kuno-baby on numerous occasions, I am going to tell you ... you can't keep everyone you have feelings for. You only get to keep one. You're gonna have to choose."

He nodded miserably that he knew. She could see by the expression on his face that he was fighting back tears, probably from frustration. Wow, he really struggles with this, doesn't he? I wonder how much of it is just an ego thing? She thought as she considered what to say next.

However, something occurred to her just then, and she couldn't not ask the question that sprang to mind, mostly because of the reaction she knew it would produce, "... Ranma ... " she asked gently, "... you ... you don't have feelings for Kasumi, do you?"

He actually choked at that one and started coughing. He gulped down air and had to steady his breathing for a moment before he whispered, "what?! No! Why would you even ask that?"

She smiled and said in her teasing voice, "well, I mean, listen, lots of boys like the motherly type, and Kasumi is gorgeous..."

He frowned at her. He clearly didn't like her joking about such things. Well ... tough, if he was going to be with her, he was going to have to get used to her sense of humor. She stuck her tongue out at him and continued, "all right, so, it sounds to me like you just have a decision to make between two people. A decision I can't make for you."

He sighed and nodded. She added, "and I am not like the rest of them, I will not wait around forever for you to make up your mind."

He looked up at her with a slight panic at that.

She stared hard back at him, and he nodded his head after a moment. Then she added, "but I'll tell you what, why don't we make a deal?" He looked up immediately at that with an earnest expression of hope on his face. The poor boy really had no poker face at all. She sat back and hugged her knees to her chest and looked at him for a moment before she continued.

"Here is the deal I am willing to make with you... I will give you one week to make up your mind. In that time, I will be happy to tell people we are still engaged, or you can tell them you switched back to Akane, or you can say you aren't engaged to anyone, up to you. During that time, I think you should date Akane, and me. I would not tell Akane that is what you are doing, if you know what is good for you. Forget the engagement stuff. Figure out who it is you have the best time with, the most fun, and most importantly, who feels the best when they are with you. I don't mean physical stuff, either. I mean, I want you to use that fancy martial arts training of yours to listen to yourself when you are on these dates, and I want you to be honest with yourself. Forget about duty and honor and promises your dad made on your behalf. And forget about what you think everyone else wants from you. That stuff is important too, but you cannot give everyone what they want from you, so you need to first figure out who you are going to choose before you can take care of the needs of the one you do pick. Figure out who you are happiest with, and who makes the best partner for you, and then tell her. After that, you need to tell the other girls too. If you want to tell them beforehand, I don't care. But you can't wait any longer than the end of the week to tell everyone your decision."

Ranma just stared at her, mouth agape and breathing very shallowly. She was afraid he might start to hyperventilate. She waited him out with a hard look on her face. She needed him to know she was serious. Even though she now knew he could see through her theatrics.

Finally, he calmed down enough from the panic she caused in him, and managed to ask, "that is ... a lot of stuff ... " he trailed off not knowing what to say.

So she helped him. "Don't you want to know what you get out of the deal?" She asked gently. He nodded his head eagerly.

She rolled her eyes and sighed as she said, "in exchange for what I am asking of you, I will promise you three things. First, I promise that I will help you end things with the rest of the girls as best I can to try to help you avoid hurting them, and also to help avoid violence. Second, I will promise that I will be truthful with you during that time period -- I will not trick you, lie to you or deceive you in any way. Finally, I will promise that I will not interfere with anything you do with Akane, or the rest of the girls for that matter."

He stared at her with somewhat suspicious eyes and said, "... that's ... very nice of you... very ... unusual."

She supposed she deserved that. It still hurt, though. She sighed and said, "yes, I know. In the past I have lied to you. I have tricked you, and I have manipulated you. I am sorry about a lot of it ... but not all of it. Some of it was just done for fun, and you have to admit, some of those times were damn funny." She said with a grin that he did not return. She was going to have to work on that sense of humor.

"Is this for real?" He asked in a small voice. "Why are you doing this? Why do you trust me to keep my end of the deal?" He asked curiously.

She looked at him sadly and said as she hugged her knees even tighter to her, "I trust you because above all else, the one thing I have never seen you do, is betray anyone, especially Akane. I have seen you take the fall for her time and time again. I have seen you risk your life for her, and then do it again after your reward was a smack to the head. I have seen you keep every single one of the promises you made to her, and go to extreme lengths to do it. Sure, you will do anything to win a fight, including lying to and tricking your opponents. That's kind of expected, really. I mean, the name of the style is anything goes martial arts, right? But, with Akane, and even Ukyo and Shampoo, when you make them promises, or even when a promise is made to them for you, I see you keep them. Over and over and over again. You like to pretend that you don't care. But when Akane needs you, you're there. When Ukyo needs you, again you show up. And even when Shampoo has taken a break from trying to trick or bully you into going back to China with her, when she has asked for your help, you've done your best to help. You're a very honest and caring person, Ranma. In a lot of ways, those are traits that are going to get you eaten alive in this world. But ... they are also traits that a girl can depend on in a relationship."

She looked down in embarrassment. She hadn't meant for that to all come spilling out like that, but she hadn't been able to stop saying it once she had started. She felt very vulnerable right now. I really hate that. She thought in frustration.

After a few moments of thought, Ranma nodded and said, "deal. I promise."

Nabiki was both very happy to hear him say that, and scared to death. She put on a brave face and stared at him for a moment before she replied, "and I promise too."

He nodded happily to her, and they just looked at each other for a while. They both knew that they didn't have anything much left to talk about, and they should get going. But neither one of them was quite ready to leave yet. After a few more minutes of comfortable silence passed, they finally stood up to leave.

She turned around and brushed the grass off her bottom and straightened her dress after she stood up. A moment later, she felt his hand on her shoulder. She looked over her shoulder and found him standing there awkwardly, but looking at her with intense purpose. She cocked her head to the side quizzically, asking the question without speaking.

He stammered and looked at the ground briefly before looking up and whispering, "can ... can we, you know ... like we did before? Before we have to ... go home?"

She smiled at him. She had been absolutely correct when she had considered what getting involved with him would mean a few days ago after he had saved her from the fall from the balcony. She was going to have to teach him some things and be patient with him.  Not ... that she had really all that much more experience than he did to draw from. Sure, she had a lot more social experience than he did. But, the only dates she'd been on had been when she had let Kuno take her out, and that had been purely business -- as far as she was concerned anyway. She also knew plenty of the guys in her class lusted after her, of course. But for the most part, she had never really bothered with any of that, except as a way to get gullible guys to occasionally buy her things or just flat-out give her money.  She had never been ... in a serious relationship before.

Still, she obviously had more self confidence than he did in this area of life. And, even if she didn't, she could always fake it. That was one of the things she was good at, never letting anyone know what she truly did or didn't know. Of course ... Ranma could apparently read through her masks, so she would just have to be honest with him. She smiled at that thought. It was nice having someone she could be honest with.

In answer to his question, she spun around and walked forward, and slipped between his arms to hug him. He immediately relaxed into her, and pulled her in tightly. The dragon inside her was stirring. She didn't know if it was from desire or just pride that he wanted to kiss her. It was nice just letting him hold her for a while. Nobody really ever held her, except Kasumi, and that was only when she was miserable. This ... was different. This was ... real, and scary, and wonderful and dangerous all at the same time.

She could tell he was getting impatient, but if anything that just made it more fun for her. He kept flexing his arms to pick her up, and she kept dropping her body weight just enough to signal that she didn't want him to pick her up. He held her tighter after a while, and she squeezed him back. He ran his fingers through her hair. It felt wonderful. He was really very gentle when he wanted to be. He put his hand on the small of her back as he kept the other at the nape of her neck buried in her hair and tried to lean her back. After teasing him for a moment and pushing back, she let him. She could see his face now as she allowed him to lean her backwards into his arms. He was smiling shyly at her -- not nearly as self assured as he had been earlier. That made her happy. She smiled back at him. He leaned his head down and she tipped her chin up, and he quickly moved to kiss her ... and instead his lips found her finger pressed against them.

He pulled his head back to stare at her in confusion. She smiled at him and whispered, "if you want to kiss me again, you know what you have to do."

She could tell that he really, really wanted to kiss her anyway. But he had very good self control. He smiled at her and said, "fair enough," as he picked her up all the way off the ground and held her in a hug for several minutes. He ran his fingers through her hair, and held her tightly but gently. She relaxed in his arms and allowed herself to feel safe. Even if it was only going to be temporary, it still felt nice.

She had wanted to kiss him too, but she wasn't willing to be a toy for him. But ... the next week was going to be tough. Now that she had experienced her first real kiss, she really wanted another. She looked up into his eyes as he looked down at her and smiled, and she sighed a determined sigh.

I am in very deep trouble.

Chapter Text

Nabiki walked with Ranma in companionable silence on the way back home. The sun was setting on a day that had actually turned out to be pretty wonderful. She was in a good mood and humming quietly to herself. She was still pushing her bike instead of riding it. She preferred to walk next to him. They weren't holding hands any more. They hadn't talked about it, but both of them knew that while there were several girls running around town thinking they owned Ranma, and willing to back up their claims with violence, it was best to just not tempt fate on the open streets. Not that she was worried while she was with him. She could see his eyes constantly moving, looking high and low, watching for threats. She wasn't sure what he was watching for, but she was sure he wouldn't let it hurt her.

They passed a few people in the streets from their school, but aside from some of them giving the two of them knowing glances assuming they were a couple now, nobody said anything to them. She was glad she didn't run into any of her friends -- she didn't feel like putting on her school-friend persona at the moment.

They reached the gates of the Tendo household and paused and looked at each other hesitantly. Nabiki made a sudden decision then and held up a single finger asking him to wait. He nodded and casually leaned against the wooden frame of the gate. She quickly walked her bike back to where it was supposed to go, then headed towards the side of the house they had spoken at earlier in the day. She looked back at him and waved him over to join her. He looked at her with a nervous expression, but jogged over to where she was anyway.

They slipped around the corner and headed for the same secluded area of the house. As soon as they had reached it, Nabiki crouched down to hide behind the trees and bushes. Ranma mirrored her motions with liquid smooth grace. She idly let herself linger on thoughts of that grace for a moment before she got down to business.

"Would you do me a favor, please?" She asked in a very quiet whisper.

He nodded and stared into her eyes very seriously and set his jaw in a determined grimace.

"I'm not asking you to kill anyone, calm down," she felt she had to say in response to the look on his face. He dropped it immediately and looked embarrassed. He really did lead a different life than she did, didn't he? She continued with a bit of a smile on her face, and some humor in her voice, "I just wanted to ask you to go and ask doctor Tofu to come visit us tonight. Try not to ... you know ... attack him or anything while asking him." She teased with bright eyes regaining her mirth.

To his credit, he rolled with it, "hey, you know me, any chance for extra trainin' ... I hear he is really good, wouldn't mind sparring with him." He put a bit of a smile on his face, but it was awkward. She really did need to work with him on his sense of humor.

"Anyway, can you ask him to come, and to come to the back door? I don't want him to see Kasumi and become useless." She whispered.

Ranma nodded and asked, "do you want me to ask him to come right away?"

Nabiki looked around and thought about that for a moment then replied, "yes, please ask him to come as soon as he is able."

"Okay." Was all he said, and he started to stand up to leave, but she grabbed his hand and stopped him.

She whispered, "thank you. I appreciate it," and smiled at him. She knew that not a lot of people ever thanked him for the favors he did for them. She knew about paying off debts; she didn't want him to feel like she was using him. "If you have a favor like this you want me to do for you in the future, just ask, okay?" She offered.

He nodded with wide eyes, obviously unsure of how to respond to her. She smiled and shooed him away. He nodded as relief crossed his features and he quickly stood up, leaped over the wall, and was gone, just like that. She stood up and stared after where he had disappeared, and marveled at how casually he did such things. Their family land was ringed by a three meter tall wall. He just jumped over it like it wasn't even there. It was incredible what Ranma, and daddy, and the rest of them could do with the Art. Not for the first time, she wished she had continued studying it after the lessons daddy had given her when she was a little girl.

Of course ... it wasn't like she couldn't start up again, right? Nothing was stopping her from studying the Art again. Maybe she should talk to daddy. She couldn't have Ranma train her, that would just be weird. And Mr. Saotome and the old lecher were out as well. Akane ... she supposed Akane could train her, but she knew that things were about to get weird between them. Well, even more weird than they already were.

She hugged herself and shivered. It wasn't really cold out yet, but she felt cold inside. With a last look back at where Ranma had disappeared, she turned and hurried inside.

Nobody greeted her when she entered, and she was quietly glad about that. It was too early for dinner, so she headed upstairs to change and put her stuff away. She walked past Akane's room on the way, and paused. She stared at her sister's door for a while and started to reach for the doorknob hesitantly.

Maybe I should talk to her and sound her out, find out how she's feeling? She wouldn't try to influence her, as she had promised Ranma. But she could talk to her, and try to find out how serious Akane was about keeping him. If she didn't grow up in the next few days and make a real effort to try to keep him, she felt at least somewhat confident that her own efforts to win this fight would be successful.

She was afraid what would happen if Akane really went for it, though. She had a much longer and deeper history with him than she did. If Akane really went for it, especially if she laid a guilt trip on him, Nabiki wasn't sure she would win.

She pulled her hand back reluctantly from Akane's door and continued on to her room. She dropped her bag on the floor and slid out of her dress gratefully. It wasn't the most uncomfortable school uniform she had ever worn, but it wasn't that great either. She looked at herself in the mirror and was happy to see that the stress lines were gone from her face. She was still stressed, of course, but it was the kind of stress she could handle. She considered taking a bath, but a look at the clock on her nightstand told her she only had maybe three to five more minutes before Tofu should arrive. So instead of flopping on her bed in her undies and falling asleep like she wanted to do, she grudgingly pulled on her turquoise pants and her favorite off-the-shoulder white shirt.

She headed back downstairs in no great hurry. She knew Kasumi would be in the kitchen preparing dinner, so she went out the front door and circled around to the back door, which was also the door to the kitchen. She hoped Kasumi didn't come outside for some reason. She probably should have chosen a different meeting place. Oh well, it was too late now.

She didn't have to wait long. Ranma came bounding over the wall after just a few minutes of waiting. His face lit up with a smile when he saw her. That was ... sweet. It was nice that it made him happy just to see her. She smiled back at him. As Ranma walked towards her, Tofu also leaped over the wall and landed without a sound. He moved with an eerie grace. Where Ranma moved like liquid animated, Tofu moved like a shadow. When he used his Art, it was like he just slid or shifted and suddenly he was somewhere. She wasn't sure how good he was, but she did know he was good. She was the only person she knew of who had ever seen him use is Art for real.

As Tofu approached the house he started to hide it again. It was amazing. Ranma was pretty much always on -- he obviously wanted people to know that he was a practitioner of the Art. The only time Ranma wasn't obviously a Martial Artist, was when he was stunned from a crying female, or an attractive one making kissy faces at him. Tofu, though, he took great pains to hide his Art. He deliberately capered around clumsily and dragged his feet when he walked. He made wide sweeping gestures, and spoke loudly and with a silly inflection in his voice. And it was all an act. She had seen him use his Art twice.

The first time she had seen it, she had been a little girl and just had happened to be on her way down the street past his clinic when she hid from some much older boys picking on a little boy in front of his clinic. Tofu had come outside the clinic doing his act, and asked the boys to stop. They tried to attack him, and he was ... just a blur. One moment he was standing there smiling at them with his hand behind his head asking them kindly to stop, and then one of them raised his arm with a stick in it to hit the younger boy, while the other tried to punch Tofu, a moment later he blurred, and before Nabiki could even blink, both of the older boys were on their backs nursing suddenly sore wrists and the stick was nowhere to be see. The younger boy had thanked Tofu and run off, and Tofu had just smiled at them, then helped the older boys into his clinic to treat their wounds. She could have sworn that he looked directly at her in the bushes and winked before he went back inside, too.

The second and last time she had seen him use his Art ... was the day mom had died. Daddy had sent for him to come to see mom and try to save her, he had sent Kasumi, the oldest. Tofu had arrived literally minutes later from the fastest time Kasumi could have possibly run to his clinic. He must have sprinted to their house from his clinic with an unbelievable effort.

He had been moving at a speed she couldn't follow with her naked eyes. She had watched from an upstairs window for him to arrive, hoping he could do something for mom. When he had arrived on their street, she had watched him blur around everything on the street, cars, bikes, people, dogs, nothing slowed him down. He just simply went over, under or around it. She hadn't known what the gray streak had been until he had paused for a fraction of a second to open their front door. He had been inside the house and at mom's side in under a second from the time he had stepped foot on their land.

He hadn't been able to save mom, but he had tried, he'd tried so hard. He had worked tirelessly and desperately to save her, he and daddy had stayed by her side for days. When it had been over, as he sadly left, she had caught a look at his unguarded face -- that had also been the first and only day she had seen Tofu cry. Daddy had cried plenty of times since then, but that had been the only time she had ever seen any cracks in Tofu's very carefully worn masks. She was glad that he was a good man, because she would be even more terrified of him than the old pervert if he weren't. She really wished he would get himself together and do something more serious about his obvious crush on Kasumi. She would be thrilled if Kasumi ended up with a man like Tofu.

But, that was wasn't the issue at the forefront of her mind at the moment. Ranma arrived next to her first and smiled at her again. She smiled back tightly. She thought about sending him away so she could speak to Tofu in private, but changed her mind. Tofu had a long history with their family, and she knew him very well. She had gone out of her way to do favors for him ever since she had been able to do anything useful for him. She figured their family owed him. She knew daddy paid him for his services, but he had always been so kind to their family, and all three of the girls, and she just felt like she had a debt to repay with him. It had started at bringing his little notes and gifts to Kasumi, and progressed to her getting him pictures of Kasumi, fully clothed, of course, and helping him to arrange his finances for his clinic, and anything else she could do for him.

She had also talked to him about serious things. Stuff she was worried about and knew she couldn't handle. Tofu had helped her with those fears, and one of the ways he had helped her, was why she had asked for him to come see her. As Tofu arrived to stand right in front of her, he smiled kindly like he always did, and she smiled back.

She could hear Kasumi in the kitchen behind her, and she could tell Tofu did as well. So she started walking away from the door and further out from the house. Tofu fell into step beside her like it was the most natural thing in the world for him to do. Ranma walked curiously behind them, not sure what was going on. As they walked, Nabiki asked, "do you remember those talks we had about ... three months ago?"

He nodded and said, "of course."

"I think we may need to put that one plan into action."

"The one with the ... ?" He asked with a raised eyebrow?

"No, no, the one where you ... " she prompted him.

He smiled widely at her, and said, "oh, sure, that plan. All right, we can do that. When did you want to do it?"

"I'm not sure. Can you just be ready for the next seven days, starting now?" She asked hopefully.

He stopped walking and held her gaze for a moment with his glasses shining as she also stopped. Ranma looked on in complete confusion. Finally, Tofu asked, "is it that serious?"

"Yes, I think so. We're going to need you."

"Should I prepare for the first option, or the second?"

"I don't think we'll need to take it as far as the second option ... but can you prepare for both just in case?" She whispered.

Tofu nodded solemnly, "all right, Nabiki. I will take care of it. Don't you worry about it, it will be all right, okay?"

She nodded hesitantly, and she flinched a little bit as he kindly patted her on the shoulder. She hated asking him for a favor, but she felt she had no choice this time. She wished he would ask for a favor in return, or payment, or something. She felt so bad taking him up on his kindness.

"Is that all, Nabiki? I need to get back to the clinic, I have a late appointment coming in..." he trailed off in his usual jovial voice as he put his hand behind his head in mock embarrassment.

She smiled at him and said, "yes, doctor. Thank you so much." Ranma came to stand next to her and waved goodbye to Tofu now that he was leaving.

He smiled at her and winked as he started to walk towards their front door. Unlike Ranma, he wouldn't leap over the wall again without a reason. If any of the Tendo girls summoned him, he would rush to them in case it was urgent. Once he knew they were all right though, he had no reason to rush. After he had taken a few steps, he turned back to her and raised an eyebrow at her and looked briefly at Ranma and asked, "together?"

She smiled tightly and briefly raised her flat hand palm down on the side of her body Ranma couldn't see in a, stop, gesture. Tofu switched gears smoothly and asked in a joking voice, "what, is Nabiki teaching you how to read the stars now, Ranma?"

Ranma just stared at him blankly and made a confused noise. He looked at Nabiki for help, but she refused to meet his eyes right now. Since he had proved he could read her through her masks, it just wasn't a good idea to let him read her right now.

Tofu got the message immediately and smiled again at them, waved enthusiastically, and then turned and jogged towards the front gates.

Nabiki sighed and started walking back towards the kitchen door. Ranma stopped her with a light hand on her arm. She turned and looked at him warily. She knew he would want an explanation, but it wasn't a good idea for her to explain right now. At least, it wouldn't be good to explain everything, but she could explain most of it.

Ranma asked his question by simply looking at her, and then at the front gates, and back at her with a confused and somewhat suspicious gaze. She sighed, looked away and said, "ever since mom died ... doctor Tofu has watched over all of us when daddy couldn't. He has always been there for us. Always. Like Akane, I've gone to him with my problems, and he's helped me. He and I have worked out some plans for what to do if ... things happen ... that I'm afraid of." She looked back at him and said in a fiercely protective whisper, "doctor Tofu has been like a guardian angel for this family. I trust him. He won't hurt me, or Akane or Kasumi, or you. All right, Ranma? I promise, nothing bad is going to happen to anyone you love, and nothing is going to happen that breaks any of the promises I made to you."

He was still looking at her doubtfully, but his gaze was softening.

She added, "as a matter of fact, I contacted him so that I could start keeping one of the promises I made to you. Can we just leave it at that for now? I promise, I will explain everything to you when it isn't dangerous any more."

Ranma looked at her with still a hint of suspicion, but he reached for her hand anyway and smiled. She looked quickly back to the house checking for anyone looking out of a window. She didn't see anyone, so she allowed him to hold her hand, and gave his hand a quick reassuring squeeze. She leaned in and whispered to him, "trusting each other is one of the things people in a relationship need to do. I trust you, Ranma." She tried to sound like her usual self confident self, but she could tell her voice was shaking a bit.

Ranma looked into her eyes and nodded before he smiled a small smile and whispered back, "I ... I think I trust you too, Nabiki." She could tell he didn't fully mean that, and she knew she hadn't earned his full trust yet. It still hurt to hear him say it like that, though. But, all that did was encourage her resolve to not let him down.

After a moment had passed, she gently pulled her hand out of his and said, "I need to get inside and take care of some stuff. You going to come in too?"

He nodded but said, "I think I'll go around to the front door, so nobody sees us enter together."

"That's not necessary, Ranma. You don't have to hide that you are spending time with me. As far as anyone knows right now, you're still officially engaged to me after all."

He nodded but said, "I know. But I would rather just avoid ... stuff, you know?" He looked away as he said it. She could tell he thought it was the less ... manly ... way to handle things, and that he wasn't proud of it. But she could also tell that he thought it was the best want to handle things. So she nodded and said, "all right, I'll see you inside, all right?"

He smiled and said, "of course." Then he turned and jogged off towards the front of the house. Nabiki watched him go, then sighed and headed for the kitchen door. She wondered how much of all this drama was really necessary.

She entered the kitchen door and stepped into the warm and somewhat humid kitchen filled with the smells of Kasumi's wonderful cooking. She smiled at Kasumi who looked up from the stove and greeted her warmly. "Welcome home, Nabiki. How are you?"

"I'm ... I'm actually all right, Kasumi. Thank you." Nabiki said carefully. She didn't want to say anything careless while in the house. She was well aware that this house had ears.

Kasumi looked at her worriedly, and set the pan down she had been tending as she also turned the heat all the way down to the lowest setting before she walked over to her and put both her hands on her shoulders. Her older sister looked worriedly into her eyes and whispered, "are you really all right?"

Nabiki darted her eyes around her sister looking for eavesdroppers, then nodded her head just a little bit and whispered back, "yes."

"Oh, Nabiki, I'm so happy for you!" Kasumi whispered fiercely as she pulled her into a massive hug. Nabiki tensed up for a moment, then relaxed into it. She hadn't always welcomed Kasumi's motherly tendencies, but at the moment, she decided she was all right with it. She hugged her older sister back just as hard.

A moment later Kasumi let her go but still kept her at arm's length and held on to her as Kasumi intertwined her finger's through her own. Kasumi stared into her eyes looking for signs of deception. Nabiki sighed and dropped her usual defenses and let Kasumi see her as she was really feeling. Kasumi brought both her hands up to her mouth and gasped, "so it's true then. Oh, Nabiki!" She glowed as she regarded her little sister proudly.

Nabiki raised a finger up to her lips and looked pointedly out of the kitchen. Kasumi caught on immediately and mouthed silently, "A-K-A-N-E?"

Nabiki shook her head once sadly.

Kasumi's eyes shined brightly as she whispered, "it will be all right, you'll see."

Nabiki whispered back, "I hope s--"

A large crash from upstairs that shook the house interrupted her. Daddy yelled immediately from the porch, "Akane? ... AKANE?!"

Nabiki's eyes widened and she bolted from around Kasumi and sprinted upstairs as she also yelled, "Akane?!"

Inside she screamed, please don't let this be what I think it is!

Chapter Text

She rounded the top of the stairs and headed straight for Akane's room. She yanked her younger sister's door open and found the room filled with billowing dust. She shouted again in a more panicked voice, "Akane?! WHERE ARE YOU?"

"Down!" She heard Ranma yell from behind her right before he tackled her to the floor. Something sailed over her head and crashed into Akane's room from a direction from outside the house. As she lay stunned on the floor with Ranma laying protectively over her, Nabiki was relieved to finally catch sight of Akane. Her younger sister was laying unconscious on the floor right next to her and she could see the rise and fall of her chest proving she was alive. There was a small scraping sound from the other room, and then a rustle of a breeze, and then silence. Ranma jumped to his feet and ran through the hole in Akane's wall that led to Nabiki's room.

Wait, hole in the wall? What the hell?! Nabiki thought to herself as she raised herself up to her elbows and looked in wonder at the new hole in the wall. Ranma had run through it to her room and was looking out of an equally large hole in the outside of the house that led into her room. The room was a shambles.

Nabiki got up and ran to him just as daddy made it up to Akane's room and fell to his knees next to Akane and started weeping in his usual over-the-top histrionics. Nabiki knew Akane was all right; she wanted to see what Ranma had found. She arrived next to him and asked as she looked around for herself, "see anything?"

"No." Was all he said without looking up as he stood in the hole, flexing his muscles in anger and looking for something to fight. Nabiki looked as well, and saw a couple of footprints in the grass below her room, and a broken tree branch in the tree nearby. Ranma said in frustration, "I thought I heard something moving out there, but it was just a whisper of something. Whatever it was, its gone now."

"It was Shampoo." Nabiki said in a deadpan.

He turned and stared at her in amazement. "How can you tell?"

She smiled tightly and thumbed over her shoulder at her bed, which was collapsed and almost split in two. Resting atop it was a large metal ball on the end of a stick. One of Shampoo's signature weapons.

Ranma grimaced in shame at missing that and said, "oh ... yeah ... I guess that would explain it..." He walked over to it and picked it up with an angry scowl on his face.

She then pointed into Akane's room and the twin of the weapon sticking out of the wall. Ranma nodded and went to retrieve it. Nabiki looked out the window a while longer staring at nothing. She hugged herself uneasily and waited for him to return. A moment later Ranma came to stand next to her and just stood looking out of the hole in the wall clenching one of the weapons in each of his hands so hard his knuckles were white.

She turned and put her hand on his shoulder briefly as she looked him in the eyes worriedly. He nodded. She smiled and left him there standing watch for a moment as she went to check on Akane. She walked over to where Akane was still laying on the ground. She had a bruise over her left eye where a piece of wall must have hit her. That made her angry. These crazy girls after Ranma were out of control, especially the Amazons. She was glad she was going to help Ranma deal with them.

Kasumi was hovering anxiously just behind daddy, waiting to take care of Akane. She knew that Kasumi wouldn't shoulder him aside, so it was up to her to do it. She tapped him on the shoulder and said, "daddy ..." when he didn't even look up, she swatted him on the shoulder and said, "daddy! Move! Kasumi can't take care of her with you in the way."

She rolled her eyes at him as he looked up at her with his big puppy dog eyes and wailed, "Akaaaaneeeeeeee." But he did indeed scoot out of the way. That taken care of, Nabiki walked back over to the window and stood next to Ranma again.

"How is she?" He asked worriedly.

"She'll be all right, just a bump on the forehead." She replied confidently. Akane had been hurting herself way worse than that long before Ranma and the rest of them showed up in town.

"I am so tired of all of this." Ranma said in a strained voice.

"I know. I am too." She replied. Then she added, "Kasumi will need help moving Akane, can you do it?"

He looked at her, then back out the window and clenched the weapons in his hands even tighter as he asked, "but ... what if Shampoo comes back?"

Nabiki smiled tightly and said, "I suppose I can tell you why I asked you to bring Doctor Tofu out here now." She then turned and faced out the window and stuck her fingers in her mouth as she blew out a sharp long whistle, and then two short whistles.

Across the street, Doctor Tofu stepped out of the shadows and waved at them cheerfully. Then in the blink of an eye he disappeared again.

Ranma's jaw fell open in shock. He stuttered, "I-I have been standing here looking for someone out there..." he trailed off in disbelief.

"Doctor Tofu is very good. Very, very good. I think he's a pacifist, or at least, I don't think he would ever kill anyone, but he is very good. If he doesn't want to be seen, he won't be." Nabiki said with a quiet confidence as she hugged herself tightly against the cold air starting to come in from the window as night settled in outside. She looked outside with a mixture of gratitude and unease on her face knowing Doctor Tofu was out there watching over the house. She didn't plan to tell daddy about it, because she knew he would try to help and frankly probably just get in Tofu's way.

Ranma was looking at her in open shock. "So ... so ... what's he doing out there?" He asked.

"This was one of the plans he and I came up with." Nabiki said simply. Ranma looked at her with raised eyebrows, so she elaborated. "I have been afraid of Shampoo since she came into town. She is wild, violent, dangerous, and ruthless. She isn't like Ukyo or even Kodachi. She doesn't seem to have limits. She also doesn't seem to have any respect for any law that isn't her tribe's law. I think she had been willing to just leave you alone after you rejected her when she first came to Japan. The old crone she came back with obviously is the one pushing for her to continue to pursue you. And Shampoo quite clearly cannot stand up to the old crone. I don't know how brutal they are in that tribe of hers, but I can tell when someone is being controlled, and Shampoo is being controlled by that old lady. I am frankly amazed that she hasn't done something like this before now." Nabiki said in quiet anger.

"So ... what was the plan?" Ranma asked.

"Oh, right, well, because so many people seem to be so interested in this house and everyone in it, and we seem to constantly have people eavesdropping, Doctor Tofu and I worked out some code words to describe the plans we would use."

"Oh, so when you said, that it was the plan with the first option, but not the second..."

Nabiki laughed at that. When Ranma looked at her in confusion, she explained, "he actually just made that up on the spot. It was very clever of him. I just went with it. I think he was just trying to see how much you were following, and what you would do, and I think he also threw it up just to confuse anyone who might have been listening."

Ranma just looked at her crossly, so she elaborated, "the code words I said were, "talks ... three... and seven. That told him I was worried about the Amazons and I was asking for him to try to protect the house."

"But ... he said he had to get back to the clinic for a late appointment." Ranma said, confused.

"Yes, that was code too. The code words he said were, "care ... clinic... and appointment." That was the code telling me that he would start patrolling right away.

"But ... the house was attacked ... " Ranma said worriedly.

"Yes, that worries me too. It was probably Shampoo and the old crone, or maybe that boy who is always following her around. I don't know. But if they were able to get past him, they would have had to distract Doctor Tofu and attack from two different directions at the same time." Nabiki said as she puzzled it out as she analyzed everything she knew so far.

"So ... was it Doctor Tofu I heard in here when I was on the ground with you?" Ranma asked. "I heard someone moving very fast in here right after I knocked you out of the way of the weapon; it sounded like it might have been a fight, but if it was, it was over before it began, and he took Shampoo with him when he left."

Nabiki shrugged and said, "probably. I'll have to ask him later. But whoever it was, was obviously struggling," she said as she pointed to the broken tree branch, and the multiple sets of footprints below.

She then paused and grabbed his hand and looked into his eyes with a small smile on her face and said, "and that now makes three times you've saved my life in the last week. Thank you, Ranma." She said in a very quiet and very sincere voice.

He blushed and looked away as he put a hand behind his head and said, "it was nothing, Nabiki. I just wish I could have prevented Akane gettin' hurt too."

Nabiki smiled tightly at that and said, "I know you do. Speaking of Akane..." Nabiki looked down over at Akane then up at Ranma and he nodded and quickly walked over, bent down and gently picked her up. He was really very kind when people weren't pushing his buttons. Kasumi smiled at him and pulled on the sleeve of his arm to guide him where she wanted him to take Akane. She led him to her room. It figures. She'll probably put Akane up in her bed. Nabiki thought to herself with a touch of anger. She knew Akane could take the hit she had received, but it still bothered her that she had taken it at all.

Ranma returned then and stood next to her again, but Nabiki was done standing by the cold hole in the wall. What she really wanted to do was sleep. She looked forlornly at her bed and sighed. She hated sleeping on the guest futon downstairs. But she didn't see any other options available to her tonight. Her bed was salvageable, but with the hole in the wall, it would be freezing in her room, and Akane's room.

Ranma put a hand kindly on her arm and pulled her attention away from her broken bed, and said, "hey, would you like to sleep in my bed tonight?"

Nabiki blushed furiously at that and actually smacked him lightly on the arm in a scold and leaned in and whispered to him, "if I am not letting you kiss me again until you keep your promise, can you imagine how I feel about sleeping with you before then?"

Ranma went white as a sheet and actually took a step back from her in panic. When Nabiki didn't continue, he summoned his courage and stepped back next to her as he waved his hands back and forth and shook his head rapidly side to side and said, "t-that's n-not what I meant! I meant ... you could take my room and my bed ..."

Nabiki smacked her head and muttered to herself, "of course you did. What kind of idiot am I?" It wasn't like the boy was going to suddenly be mister smooth with the ladies, only with her. If he hadn't been able to summon the courage to do anything with Akane except for the rare hug or hand hold with her, then he wasn't going to magically be able to do more with her either. Frankly, I'm amazed he had it in him to kiss me... she thought wistfully.

"Thank you, Ranma, I accept." She said with a smile.

Daddy stood up at that point and stumbled over behind Ranma, gathered himself for a moment, then shouted, "RAAAAAAANMAAAAAAAAA!" Behind him. Ranma jumped a half meter into the air and spun around and backed away from daddy as he made warding gestures and asked, "w-w-what? What'd I do?" He asked in a panic.

Nabiki wondered if daddy was using some aspect of the Art to intimidate people when he did that. To her, he just looked like daddy, if a bit more upset, but she could also tell he was concentrating on something. And, Ranma looked absolutely terrified as he looked at him, and he wasn't looking where daddy's head actually was, but about a meter or so higher. Regardless, she wasn't going to stand for Ranma being bullied by daddy tonight. She stepped forward to stop it as daddy said, "this is all your fau--"

She stepped in between them and held her hands out protectively in front of Ranma and put a stern expression on her face and said, "no daddy! It wasn't Ranma! Ranma saved me! Someone threw a weapon at me, and Ranma protected me! You will not blame this on Ranma!" She could see him warring with the words she had spoken, and he opened his mouth to shout at Ranma again, so she yelled again, even louder, "DADDY! I SAID NO!"

At that, he deflated, nodded, and stepped back and asked in a more calm voice, "so, what did happen?"

"Those crazy Amazons attacked the house." Nabiki said as she thumbed towards the weapons Ranma was still holding in his hands. Daddy's face grew angry at that. Good. She had no problem with him directing his anger at the proper target. She even prompted him, "and what are you going to do about it, daddy?"

To his credit, he said, "tonight, I am going to sit by my little girl and make sure she is all right. Tomorrow ... tomorrow ... I am going to talk to my old friend and maybe the Master, and look into dealing with those people once and for all. Enough is enough." At that, he raised his voice and yelled downstairs, "Saotome, get up here!"

Ranma's dad ran into the room a moment later. He was in his human form, and had a serious look on his face. The man was mostly useless, but even he knew when it was time to stand up and be counted, and she could tell he knew this was one of those times. Before he and daddy could get into their war plans, Nabiki interrupted and said, "if anyone needs me, Ranma has offered me the use of his room, and I've accepted. I'm going to head to bed now." She announced then stepped back to leave the room.

Daddy called out behind her, "no, stop." She raised an eyebrow and turned around to find out what his objection was. She wondered if he was going to offer her is bedroom? He looked at Ranma, and then as her, then over at Mister Saotome and then nodded and said as he turned back to her, "I don't think its safe for you to be alone tonight. Ranma will stand guard in the room with you."

"Daddy ..." Nabiki tried to argue.

"No, Nabiki, it isn't safe. Someone needs to be there with you in case there is another attack." Daddy replied sternly. He then added, "besides, Saotome is going to be walking the house tonight standing guard, so there will be an extra bed in there anyway."

"But, aren't you worried about Ranma in the same room as me while I--" she started to ask as she blushed furiously. She couldn't look at Ranma right now. He could read through her masks, and she was thinking decidedly embarrassing thoughts right now.

But, before she could finish her question, mister Saotome cut across her and said, "that is an excellent idea, Tendo. They are engaged now, after all. It's high time they spent some quality time together."

"Saotome, my thoughts exactly!" Daddy replied as he turned and grasped his friend's arms and they both did their weird fake crying thing.

Nabiki rolled her eyes at their antics and chided herself as she thought, of course they aren't worried about that. Hell, they'd probably be thrilled if they found Ranma and I actually in bed together. We'd probably be married that morning. She had forgotten about all the times they had tried to force Akane and Ranma together. She rolled her eyes and said, "fine, come on Ranma, I'm tired." He nodded nervously and followed her with a bewildered look on his face. She would have to work on his instinctive desire to be complacent in these sorts of situations. Still, at the moment, she had to be honest with herself and admit that she was a little bit excited that she would be sharing the same room as him to sleep. She had no intention of doing anything with him, but it would still be new and exciting.

They entered his room and she shut the door behind them as she followed him. He pointed quietly to his neatly made futon and stayed rooted in place after that. He refused to look at her, but she could tell he was blushing just by looking at the back of his neck. She couldn't help herself, she walked slowly up behind him. He flinched with each step she took. She smiled at how nervous he was. She leaned right up behind him and breathed warmly on his neck and whispered in her best sultry voice, "take me, Ranma, take me now!"

He jumped a good meter at least in the air and spun around and away from her as he waved his hands back and forth rapidly and said in a panicked voice, "what?! No-no-no-no, we can't, Nabiki, we can't, we can't!"

Nabiki grinned predatorily at him as she advanced towards him quickly as he pressed his back up against the wall and continued to plead. My, but how shy he is now, she observed as she grinned. It was sweet how sincere he was. He had absolutely no filters when it came to women, unless it involved fighting.

She continued to grin her predator grin as she leaned in and put her lips right up to his ear and whispered, "Ranma, don't you want me?"

He gulped and said in a shaky voice, "N-Nabiki, it's ... I-I..."

She leaned back and put a pouty face on as she said in her fake sad voice, "so, I'm not pretty enough for you then, is that it?" He might be able to read through her acting, but he clearly had a hard time doing it when he was flustered and rocked back on his heels by something that embarrassed him. She filed that handy information away for future reference and grinned.

He stopped waving at her and narrowed his eyes as he got that she was joking. She stuck her tongue out at him and then smiled at him. She was tired, but this was fun. She thoroughly enjoyed playing with him.

He leaned towards her with a half-hearted scowl on his face and said, "that was mean." He locked eyes with her. She blew a kiss at him and winked before she leaned in and looked him in the eyes as well and whispered back, "no, that was fun." Then she quickly kissed him on the nose and leaned back again. He was still glaring at her, but she could tell he wasn't actually angry at her.

"Wait here, I'll be right back." She announced as she spun on her heel. He nodded as she jogged out of his room to go grab some pajamas from her room, and then dashed across the hall and quickly brushed her teeth. She thought about bringing the pajamas to his room and making him turn around while she changed, just to test him. She was pretty sure he would be honorable and not look, but she also had to admit that she kind of wanted him to look. Still, she had already played with him for the night, and she didn't want the poor boy to stroke out. She'd save that little test for another night. So, she quickly changed into her pajamas and left her street clothes in a pile on the bathroom floor, then jogged back to his room. He was standing exactly where she had left him.

She rolled her eyes as she entered the room and closed and locked the door as she said, "I didn't mean for you to stay exactly there, Ranma."

"Oh." Was all he said as he smiled sheepishly. She had to admit, Akane had him trained. She was going to have to undo some of the responses he had built up from her. She didn't think he was actually afraid of her little sister of course, but he was obviously afraid of upsetting her. She didn't want him to be afraid of upsetting her. If anything, she wanted him to want to push her a bit. She liked to be challenged. Oh well, that was something to work on another day. She climbed into his bed and was already getting sleepy. Ranma walked over to the light switch and turned the lights off, and then took up station in front of the door, hands behind his back, like a sentry.

She rolled her eyes and said, "you can sleep, too, Ranma."

He responded without turning around, "no, I can't, I have to guard you. My dad and your dad said so."

She thought about that for a moment then said, "can't you tell when someone enters the room, even if you are asleep?"

"No. I'm not good enough yet. Ryoga's sneaked in and attacked me while I was sleeping before. I fought him in my sleep, but that was because he was attacking me." He said over his shoulder.

She thought about it again, and asked, "so, what if you were sleeping with me, would you be able to tell if someone was in the room and attacking me?"

"I-I ... sure, I guess... but, Nabiki..." He said nervously.

"I told you, Ranma, until you keep your promise, you don't even get to kiss me. When I say sleep me with me, I mean sleep." She said firmly.

Ranma turned around and looked at her and blushed and said, "but ... I've never slept in the same bed with anyone ... not even Pop... " he trailed off as his eyes slid away from her in embarrassment.

She smiled and said, "there's a first time for everything."

He gulped and asked, "but ... what if I touch something ... when I'm sleeping?"

Nabiki considered that, then smiled and asked, "how about this? What if you go turn into a girl, and sleep with me as a girl? If we're both girls, nothing counts, right?" She blushed a bit as she said that.

Ranma nodded as he listened and actually smiled as she finished and said, "that's a great idea, hang on, I'll be right back!"

He ran out of the room, leaving her alone to think for a few moments. She was really too tired to be all that excited about sleeping in the same bed as him, but this would be interesting. If she was being honest with herself, she was fairly excited about the idea though. Even with him sleeping with her as a girl, this would still be a new step for her. And, even when he had the body of a girl, he was still himself inside. Sleeping with Ranma, no matter what body he happened to be wearing, would still be sleeping with him. She hoped he wasn't a kicky sleeper. She smiled softly to herself. So much for taking things slowly. She thought. It was a good thing daddy was watching Akane sleep, she really didn't want Akane to find them in bed together until things had been settled and he had made his final decision.

Ranma ran back into the room then. He had changed into a girl as promised. And he had taken the extra step of changing clothes into a smaller set of the Chinese clothes he liked to wear that Kasumi had got him for when he was a girl. His head was still wet, and the red hair was clumped together, but he had obviously tried to dry it with a towel first because it was all frizzy. He was clearly going out of his way to avoid getting into bed dripping wet. Probably a problem he had frequently.

Nabiki had never really thought about it before, but it occurred to her that she usually thought of Ranma as male, even when he was in his female body. That would probably make him happy. She wondered idly if she would start thinking of Ranma as female if he stayed in his female body long enough. Probably, she guessed.

Ranma interrupted her thoughts as he came over and stood next to the bed and looked at her uncertainly. She held the blanket open and invited him to crawl in. He nodded hesitantly and moved very slowly, taking great care not to touch her. She rolled her eyes and dropped the blanket back down, reached out and encircled his tiny female waist, and pulled him closer to her. He didn't have sisters, so he clearly didn't know how to do this. He stayed hunched together in a little ball as she tried to pull him closer. She got him to unclench a little and could now feel his breath on her neck and his legs touching hers.

She reached out and her hands found his hands, and she held them in her own. Ranma's girl hands were so much smaller than her own. She breathed in deeply as she tried to relax and realized that Ranma also smelled like lotus blossoms when he was female. Ranma never smelled like lotus blossoms when he was male. The heady sweet smell was subtle but powerful. She breathed him in more deeply and started to relax as sleep crept up on her.

Like when he was male, Ranma as a female was warm. In that way, he wasn't like most of the other girls Nabiki knew; like a guy, Ranma stayed warm in his extremities, even when he was being a girl. She held Ranma's hands in her own and pulled him in closer to her. He let her pull him in closer, but she could tell that he was still holding himself very rigidly.

She sighed, and pushed on the top of his shoulder while pulling on the bottom of his hip to spin him around. With that done, she pulled his tiny girl form into a classic spooning position with her as the big spoon. She used to do exactly the same thing with Akane less than five years ago, when Akane had still been little.

She felt Ranma relax in to her after a few more moments of holding himself nervously rigid. She smiled as she drifted off to sleep with his warm body helping to relax her even faster than usual. She wasn't worried about being attacked during the night. With Doctor Tofu outside, and Ranma inside with her, even the best ninja on earth didn't stand a chance of getting to her.

Tomorrow ... tomorrow she would start taking care of the crazy girls. Enough was enough. She vowed to herself as she fell asleep, I will not let them harm my sisters!

Chapter Text

Nabiki woke up suddenly and jerked upright in fright. Her eyes scanned the room looking for a threat, but found none. She was breathing heavily and her heart was racing. Ranma immediately leaped to his feet from the bed looking for what had scared her. He stood in a combat stance for a few moments as he stood over her protectively. After a moment she realized she had been dreaming. "It's all right, Ranma. Just a bad dream." She said as she reached out and touched his leg to reassure him.

Ranma looked down at her and nodded as he asked, "what time is it?"

She looked at her watch in the dim light in the room and said, "about a half hour before dawn."

"Close enough, I guess." Ranma said as he walked away from the bed, clearly meaning to stay up.

Nabiki wasn't having it, she settled back into the bed and then held the blanket open for him again and said, "nope, get your ass back in bed. I have no intention of getting up before dawn, and you are still on guard duty, mister." He looked back at her with a somewhat confused look on his girl's face, but walked obediently back to her, crouched down, and climbed back into bed with her. She didn't know if cuddling with her all night had loosened him up a bit, or if he was still just sleepy enough not to care, but he wasn't nearly as tense getting back into bed with her again. He slid his girl's body right up next to her and laced his legs with hers as he slipped one arm under her neck, and draped the other around her waist while burying his face into the other side of her neck. He was gloriously warm, and she really enjoyed that. He still smelled like Lotus blossoms. She wondered if he was aware of that. She supposed that in the grand scheme of things, changing one's sex, hair color, and height were much larger changes than simply having a fragrance appear from nowhere.

Ranma nuzzled into her and she hugged him close to her. It didn't feel anything like when they had hugged yesterday. His tiny girl's body felt nothing like him. If anything, it felt like she was holding Akane when she had been little. The only thing that made it interesting was that she knew it was Ranma inside that body.

She wanted to sleep again, but doubted she would. Her heart was still racing from the scare of the dream. She couldn't remember the details of it very well, but she remembered that it had been about the Amazons having her cornered, and they had intended to kill her.

"What's wrong?" Ranma asked in a whisper right next to her ear.

"What do you mean?" She asked, trying to will her body to calm down.

"You're scared, I can feel it." He replied as he hugged her tighter, trying to reassure her.

"It's nothing, Ranma. Just a bad dream. It will go away." She bluffed.

"What was the dream about?"

"I ... it ... I don't remember." She lied.

"Yes you do, what was it?"

"I ... fine, I dreamed Shampoo was trying to kill me." She muttered, feeling silly.

After a moment's pause of silence, Ranma said earnestly, "don't worry, Nabiki, we're going to get this settled." He hugged her tighter as he said it. Without his male body to wrap around her it felt more like one of her sister's squeezing her shoulder in reassurance than a big strong protector shielding her. But that was fine, she didn't need him to be her guardian. She had gotten along just fine so far without one, and she would continue to do so. Even so, she could feel her heart rate slowing down as the fear left her.

Ranma pulled his head back from her neck and looked into her eyes in the dim twilight coming in from the window. She looked back and tried not to look worried. He smiled after a moment and snuggled back up to her and whispered in her ear, "you're still very good at hiding how you feel, but I can still read you, ya know. I can tell you're worried."

"I am worried, I'm worried you're going to get insufferable with your magic people reading abilities and I am going to have to mallet you." She growled at him. She didn't really mean it, of course, but he was bugging her. She also didn't know how to act around someone who could read through her masks. She'd never had to deal with that problem before. She didn't need him to reassure her. She was capable of taking care of herself. She knew he would never let anyone hurt her, but she didn't want him to feel like he was responsible for her. She also didn't want to base a relationship with him on how many times he had saved her. Because she couldn't return the favor, and they had to have an equal relationship for things to work between them.

He ignored what she had said and whispered, "I promise you, Nabiki ... I promise, I won't let anyone hurt you or your family. All right? It's going to be okay, I promise."

Even though she didn't want him to feel like he had to protect her, she appreciated the sentiment anyway. She hugged him tightly to her and whispered back in his ear, "another promise, Ranma? And you don't want one from me?"

He shook his head and said, "joke all you want, but I'm serious. I won't let them hurt you, or Akane, or Kasumi. I'll even protect your dad if he needs it."

She opened her mouth to argue with him further, but decided against it. She loved that he was so loyal, and that he loved her family too. She loved that he was willing to risk his life for them, even if she didn't think it was necessary. So the only answer she gave him was to hold him tightly and wait for the dawn with him. She drifted off back to sleep like that. Warm in Ranma's arms.


***


When she awoke again, the dawn had broken and sunlight was streaming in from the window. Ranma was still in bed with her, and wide awake. He smiled at her as she opened her eyes. She looked at her watch and found that only another hour had passed. Her body was perfectly content to stay in bed and sleep, but she knew that Ranma had been more than patient with her. He was an early riser after all, and he couldn't get up until she got up. She smiled and said warmly to him, "morning, Ranma."

He returned her smile and said, "good mornin' to you too. Ready to get up?" He asked a bit eagerly.

She nodded and he moved to hop out of bed, but she grabbed his wrist and said, "hang on there speedy, we need to plan for today." He nodded and settled back down to listen. She thought about it for a moment, then said, "the most important thing to do today should be to try to get Shampoo to calm down. I doubt we are going to get her to back off, but maybe we can get her to call a truce." He widened his eyes but nodded at her in acceptance. She paused a moment before saying the next thing. Even though it had been her idea, she wasn't wild about it. "And ... I want you to ask Akane out today. Take her on a real date."

"A-ask ... Akane ... um, you sure, Nabiki?" He asked uncertainly.

"Of course I'm sure. That's what we talked about yesterday. You have to keep your promise and make a choice. Unless you're telling me you've changed your mind and want to back out of the deal?" She asked carefully. He shook his head no emphatically. "Are you saying you are ready to make your choice now?" She asked in disbelief. He paused for a moment and thought about it, then looked up into her eyes and slowly shook his head no again. "Well, then, like I said, I want you to take Akane out today. You only have a week to make a decision. Best to get on with it." She said with fake sincerity. She just knew that if Akane really fought for him, that he would probably choose her little sister. She just had to be willing to accept the risk. She wasn't willing to be in a relationship with him unless he had really given his options a fair chance and then made a decision. The fact that she was now in direct competition with Akane for a guy didn't bother her at all. Not. At. All. She thought sarcastically to herself.

He nodded hesitantly and asked, "where should I take her?"

She smiled at him sarcastically and said, "Ranma ... it's considered poor form to ask for dating advice about one girl from another girl one is involved with, especially if those girls happen to be related..."

He gulped and nodded quickly as he said, "got it, sorry."

She smiled patiently at him and said, "that's all right. You're learning, mistakes are allowed." He visibly relaxed at that, so she continued, "now, let's talk about how we are going to handle Shampoo. I think we should do that at the end of the day, that way it will give you breathing room to take Akane out in case it doesn't go well."

"B-but ... what it they attack the house again while I'm out with Akane?" He asked.

She smiled at him and said, "Tofu is still out there, and my daddy and yours are home. I think between the three of them, we should be fine. I will go outside in a little bit and accidentally run into the Doctor, and invite him to breakfast. I'll let him rest inside while my daddy and yours stand watch for a while."

Ranma nodded at that and said, "I guess that is as good a plan as any ... so ... after I go out with Akane, we'll go talk to Shampoo?"

She nodded at him. I have no idea what to say to her, but I'll think of something. She thought with no small amount of fear.

"So ... time to get up...?" He prompted her. She looked over at him and saw on his girl's face the impatience he was trying to hide. It was sweet how considerate of her he was. She wondered if he had slept at all while she had after they had gotten up before dawn. Probably not. She thought with some amusement. He was the kind of guy that was all go-go-go once he was up.

She looked at him and nodded as an answer to his request. While she enjoyed sleeping in, now was not the time for it, and she wanted to go see how Akane was doing anyway. Ranma scooted away from her gently and disentangled himself from her. They both stood after that and just looked at each other awkwardly. Neither one of them knew what to say to someone they cared about whom they had just spent the night with literally sleeping together. Ranma actually beat her to the punch as he put his arm behind his head and said, "well ... thank you for not kicking me in your sleep ... I'll see you later today?"

She smiled and said, "sure, meet me back here at the house once you are done with your date with Akane. We will have more planning to do after that. We should start plans for dealing with Kodachi and Ukyo as well."

He nodded enthusiastically and then quickly walked over to the door, unlocked it, opened it, and was gone. She gave herself to the count of five before she moved. She wanted to get her emotions under control first. She wasn't sure what she was feeling, but she knew she didn't want it on her face for the rest of the family to see.

She poked her head out of the room just as he was entering Kasumi's room. She heard him say, "hey Akane, how're you feelin'? I--" then he closed the door and she couldn't hear the rest of it. She sighed, straightened her shoulders and marched towards the bathroom. Suck it up, girl. This was your idea, so deal with it. She thought bitterly to herself.

She paused and looked back at Kasumi's bedroom door, and thought, but ... what if I'm wrong? She didn't have time to answer her own question because Kasumi exited her room at that moment and caught her staring. She smiled kindly to her and walked over.

"How are you today, Nabiki?" She asked as she put a hand on Nabiki's shoulder.

"I'm fine." She answered a bit more shortly than she had intended. She was bothered that Ranma was alone with Akane now. Which she shouldn't be, as he would be going on a date with her alone later as well. She needed to pull herself together. She forced herself to smile up at Kasumi and said, "I slept well, how about you?"

Kasumi politely ignored the obvious internal struggle Nabiki was having and answered, "oh, I slept fine. Father had me take his bed so he could sit up with Akane. Once I put a dressing on the bump on her head, and got her undressed and into her pajamas and into bed, there wasn't much left for me to do. I was just checking on her now when Ranma came in, so I thought I would give them a little privacy."

"Where's daddy?" Nabiki asked.

"Oh, he's still in there. He's passed out on the floor by the bed, but he didn't move from her side all night. I don't know why he went to such lengths, she wasn't in any danger. She's been hurt far worse than that before. I'm sure she slept through the night mostly just because she got knocked out by those violent lunatics around her normal bed time."

Nabiki smiled at Kasumi's casual insult that she had slipped in to her comment. It always amused her when her older sister let her mask slip and said things like that. She wondered if she did it on purpose, or didn't realize she did it. Regardless, she nodded in response, Kasumi's assessment made sense. But, she knew damn well why daddy freaked out when any of them got hurt, and she knew that Kasumi knew why as well ... mom.

After he had lost mom, daddy had lost all capacity to handle his girls being hurt or sick like one rationally would. Mother's death hadn't just messed up her girls, it had probably messed daddy up the worst. He had loved mom deeply and totally, and he had tried desperately to save her. And he'd lost her anyway. Now all he had left of her was herself and her two sisters. Just thinking about it brought tears to her eyes. The world really was a cold, dark and cruel place. That was why ... that was why she had to be strong. Only through strength and self determination could someone handle the awful cruelty of the world. But Kasumi didn't need her lecturing her, she knew and coped in her own way, so she simply said in reply, "I figured. Akane's strong, I wasn't worried." They both smiled at that, leaving everything else unsaid.

"So ... I trust that Ranma was a gentleman last night?" Kasumi asked carefully as they both turned to head down the hall together.

She looked over at Kasumi and smiled at her gentle probing as she answered in a leading tone, "wouldn't you like to know," she smirked in a way that she knew would drive Kasumi crazy. She knew that part of Kasumi's interest in the subject was just because she tried to mother her younger sisters. But, privately, Nabiki wondered if part of her interest in her sister's love lives was just due to boredom in her own. Doctor Tofu really needed to get his ass in gear and snap Kasumi up before her older sister gave up waiting on him and went after someone else. Speaking of the good Doctor, I should go bring him in out of the cold. They reached the door to the bathroom and she stopped and turned to face Kasumi. She thought a little bitterly to herself, Ranma has been in there an awfully long time, as she looked over at Kasumi's bedroom door while Kasumi said something to her.

"-- you agree?" Nabiki? Nabiki?!" Kasumi broke into her thoughts and she refocused on her and tried to play back from her passive memory what Kasumi had been asking her, but it was blank. That was unusual, she was usually able to tune people out but still get the gist of what they were saying. Ranma really had her off her center.

"I'm sorry, Kasumi, what?" She had to ask.

Kasumi smiled tightly at her in the sternest expression she used these days, and repeated herself, "I just asked if you agreed that father would want a full breakfast, or if I should make something light since everyone will be busy this morning?"

Nabiki doubted that was the only thing Kasumi had said to her, since she hadn't answered her question about Ranma. But she didn't feel like sharing her private moments with Ranma with anyone right now. So, she thought about it a moment, then replied with a genuine smile, "I would say go ahead and make a full one. It isn't like people around here have a hard time wolfing down your food."

Kasumi nodded and started walking towards the stairs. She said over her shoulder as Nabiki started to go into the bathroom, "okay, I will ... we should talk later ... when you're feeling like it. I'd like to know how ... things are." She smiled warmly at her as she disappeared around the corner to the stairs.

I bet you do. She thought to herself with a mixture of pride and resentment as she entered the bathroom. She just stood there for a moment gathering herself and trying to re-center herself. Don't focus on Ranma and Akane. He's keeping his promise, and I need to do the same. I need to figure out how to handle the rest of them. She kicked various ideas around in her head, but kept coming back to the same one. She knew it would work, but she had a feeling it would start a little war in town. There was another option as well, but she doubted Ranma would go for it. She decided to present both options to him when he got back, and let him decide. With that done she took care of her usual morning routine, then gathered up her clothes from where she had left them last night. She looked longingly at the bath, and decided that she had earned it. She turned the water on to run into the bath and then quickly dashed across the hall to her room.

It was cold in the room, and it was weird seeing as much sunlight in the room as the hole in the wall was letting in. There was still debris all over the place from the destroyed walls. Just seeing the destruction again angered her. She didn't think of herself as a violent person, but the Amazons certainly brought it out in her. She wouldn't be at all sad to see them leave town. She shook her head to clear it and walked gingerly on the cold floor of her room as she shivered in her thin pajamas to reach her dresser. She quickly picked out a new outfit to wear for the day, and then hurriedly left the room and closed the door behind her. No reason to let the cold get any further into the house than it already was.

She slipped back into the bathroom and eagerly stepped into the second section of the room that housed the bath. She closed the interior door and reveled in the steam in the air as it leeched the chill out of her. With the shivering stopped, she slowed down and enjoyed the ritual of the bath. She set her clean clothes on the shelf by the door put there for that very purpose, and slipped out of her pajamas. They were silk, so they slid right off her as soon as she undid the buttons. She looked down and saw that her skin was pebbled with goosebumps from the cold, even though she wasn't shivering anymore. While she waited for the bath to fill, she went over to the showering station and quickly washed herself with lukewarm water. She didn't use the hot because she wanted the bath to have priority on that. Once she was done washing she stepped into the rising waters of the bath and slowly sank into it, letting the heat infuse her with its strength. Well, she thought of it as strength anyway. She hated being cold.

Once the bath was done filling, she leaned back in the tub and relaxed as she let her muscles unwind while she puzzled out what to do about the rest of the girls chasing Ranma. She realized after a few minutes that she usually felt sleepy when she was in the bath, but that she didn't this time. She thought about it and realized that she had slept deeply and well last night. I wonder if it was just because Ranma is so warm, or if it is because I felt safe with him there? ... Probably both. She concluded with a smile.

She allowed herself the small luxury of staying in the bath for a good five minutes or so, then reluctantly got out, leaving the hot water for the next person who wanted to use it. She had some half-formed ideas for how to deal with the rest of the girls. But she wasn't really all that worried about them. Shampoo and the Amazons were the ones she was worried about. Kodachi had no real claim on Ranma, she was just crazy. Ukyo had a claim on him, but it was weak, and Ranma had admitted he didn't have feelings for her the way she did for him. I doubt she even has feelings for him the way she says she does. Nabiki thought sadly. So many people chased after love in any way they could, without really understanding what they were really after or if who they were chasing could give them what they wanted. Some people seemed to just drift through life doing what was expected of them, without really examining their actions or their real feelings. Duty to family and society was a pretty big deal here, and it sadly brought a lot of people to places in their lives that weren't very great places to be.

But I won't be one of them. She swore to herself as she stared into her own eyes in the mirror as she got dressed. She took another moment to brush out her hair, then she put her hands on her hips and said to her reflection, "all right, Nabiki, you're ready to face another day." And I am not at all bothered that Ranma is still in Kasumi's room with Akane. Not at all. She thought bitterly to herself. She rolled her eyes at herself as she stepped out of the bathroom and headed downstairs. She headed straight for the front door, braced herself for the cold, yanked it open and let it hit her. Good thing I took that warm bath before I went outside to get nice and cold again. She thought with an ironic small smile on her face.

She walked quickly to the gates of her family's land, opened them, and stepped out to the sidewalk that ran in front of the gates. She looked around and appreciated the pretty sunlight streaming through the clouds, and filtering through the trees. The birds were chirping, and some of the neighborhood dogs were barking. After a moment she cleared her throat, clapped her hands loudly once, then twice, and then a third time.

She felt him behind her before she saw him. She wondered if that was her nascent training in the Art rising up from all of the excitement lately, or if he was doing something to project his presence? It's probably him. She thought cynically as she turned to face Doctor Tofu's smiling face and bowed politely to him. He was one of the few people on Earth she bowed to. He smiled kindly and bowed back to her then stood with his hand behind his head in mock embarrassment. He is so goofy. She thought happily to herself. Just being around him made her feel better. He was one of the rocks in her universe. Always constant, never changing, always there, unflappable, calm, and always willing to help.

"Thank you so much," she said sincerely, then added with a small smile and a twinkle in her eye, "you must be getting slow in your old age, Doctor, they managed to get to the house."

He smiled right back at her and said, "I have a good excuse."

"I'm sure you do, let's go inside and you can tell me about it." She looped her arm through his and pulled him towards the house.

Chapter Text

"So, I take it nothing else exciting happened last night?" She asked Doctor Tofu carefully as she walked with him back towards the house.

He looked around just as carefully, then leaned down and whispered to her. "They tried again later in the night, but I was ready for them and sent them packing."

"Did my daddy or Ranma's see them?" She asked quietly.

"No, I stopped them before they got to within sight of the house the second time."

"All right, we can talk about it in detail later. In the meantime, you could use a rest, and some food." She said as she pulled him into the house. He slowed down and resisted her pull to bring him in.

"Shouldn't I ... stay out there ..." He asked reluctantly as he looked back over his shoulder worriedly at the street. She wondered if he was worried about doing his goofball act around Kasumi, or if he was just worried about there being another attack. Either way, it didn't matter. She knew his thing with Kasumi was just that, an act. As for guarding the house, that would give daddy and mister Saotome something productive to do.

"Don't worry about it, daddy and mister Saotome can stand guard for a while," she said, then added with a wink, "besides, if you are inside with Kasumi and me, you will be able to protect us just fine." She knew he would have to drop his act around Kasumi in a combat situation. She kind of hoped it would happen, if for no other reason than to show Kasumi that it was an act. Maybe her older sister would take the initiative then and ask him out.

She led him to the dining table and sat him down where daddy usually sat. Since he was an honored guest, she didn't feel bad about it at all. "Just relax, Doctor. Kasumi will be in soon with breakfast." She said as she sat down at her usual spot at the table. He nodded politely to her. She could tell he wanted to tell her about what had happened last night, but was holding back until they were alone.

Kasumi bustled into the room a moment later carrying several trays of food. Doctor Tofu immediately leaped up and ran to help her, doing his usual goofy act. She was pretty sure Kasumi knew it was an act, but Kasumi never let on. She watched them together as he helped her put the food on the table with his hands shaking nervously, but still miraculously never spilling anything and never letting a drop of food off any of the trays. Kasumi's smile lit up the room when he was in it. Her eyes stayed on him, and real warmth entered her voice when she spoke to him. Not the false maternal warmth she put into her voice when she tried to stand in for their mother for herself and Akane, but real warmth for a man she obviously had feelings for. It was sweet.

The rest of the family trickled down to the table shortly after that. Daddy and mister Saotome came down together, talking earnestly about their plans for repairing the house and what to do about the Amazons. Ranma came down next and sat in his usual space. He smiled nervously at her, and ... was that guilt on his face? He didn't meet her eyes when she tried to make eye contact. She grew a bit cold with fear at that sign. It's happening already. Akane's fighting for him. She thought sadly.

Akane entered the room a moment later, smiling radiantly. Ranma had obviously asked her out and she had obviously accepted. She watched her younger sister take her usual spot at the table, next to Ranma. She had eyes for only him. She wasn't openly staring at him, but she kept sneaking glances at him. Even with the bruise over her eye, she looked beautiful as she looked at Ranma and glowed with happiness.

The fear tried to grow in her, but she beat it down harshly. She still had a chance. She wasn't going to give up the fight before it even began. She forced herself to plaster a smile on her face and focused on eating. She looked up occasionally and watched Ranma, Akane, and even Doctor Tofu and Kasumi. Kasumi was doing her best to try to pretend that she wasn't giving the Doctor more attention than she gave the rest of the family. Doctor Tofu was eating and keeping his eyes down, trying to eat without looking at Kasumi. Ranma was keeping his head down as well; he seemed to be afraid to look up at her, or Akane. And Akane ... Akane was doing her best to pretend that she wasn't glowing with joy that Ranma had asked her out. She kept sneaking glances at him, and smiling softly to herself. She was actually pretty good at hiding it, but not from her; she knew all of Akane's tricks.

After Ranma finished eating, Akane stood up and put her hand on his shoulder and said eagerly, although she tried to mask it with impatience. "C'mon Ranma, let's get going."

"Okay, how long will it take you to get ready?" He asked as he nodded and stood up.

"Oh, I don't know, maybe a half hour or so." She said cheerfully.

He blinked in surprise at her. "Geez Akane, why so long?"

Akane's smile slipped and a hard glint entered her eyes as she replied with a smile still on her face but with an edge in her voice. "What are you trying to say, Ranma."

Nabiki couldn't help herself, she smiled at that. They were falling into their old pattern. She watched them bicker out of the room and thought, they just can't seem to help themselves, can they? Ranma paused for half a second and looked back at her for just a moment with wide eyes, and she winked at him. Yes, I still have a chance.

She stood up from the table after they left and caught Doctor Tofu's eye. He nodded and stood up as well. Kasumi made noises to feed him more, but she put her hand on Kasumi's shoulder silently asking her to wait a bit and led the Doctor out of the room before Kasumi could protest more. They walked together silently and headed out of the house and into the dojo. She shut the door behind her and went and sat down in the middle of the floor, and patted the floor next to her.

She knew that in the dojo and away from Kasumi, he would be free to be himself. Oh, he wouldn't drop his act, but he wouldn't act goofy either. He smiled and stood across from her for a moment, then crouched down lightly on the balls of his feet. She wasn't surprised that he didn't want to sit down. Even now, she was sure that he wanted to stay ready to spring into combat if needed.

She smiled at him. Aside from Ranma recently, Doctor Tofu was the only person whom she had ever just been herself with. He'd known her when she was a little girl. He had helped raise her and her sisters, and he had stepped in and been the rock she needed after mom had died and daddy had fallen apart.

That didn't mean that she was always dead serious with him, of course. She liked to tease and play with people, that was just who she was. She was only serious when she had to be. He just crouched across from her and smiled, forcing her to speak first. It was kind of a ritual with them. Unless she had been in danger, Tofu had always made her say what was on her mind, and to ask for help before he would help. He didn't just step in and try to solve her problems for her without being asked. That was one of the things she loved about him. So, she took a deep steadying breath and began. "So, what happened last night?"

He looked down and a brief flash of shame crossed his face before he looked back up at her as he spoke. "They hit faster than I thought they would."

"Who was it?"

"Shampoo and Mousse."

"So, he distracted you while she hit the house?"

"Yes, basically. Sorry about that. As soon as I realized what they were doing I rushed to the house and pulled her out."

"Did they hurt you?" She asked angrily.

He looked at her and blinked in surprise before he shook his head softly and smiled. Nabiki smiled back, he was so modest.

"Did you hurt them?" She asked hopefully.

He looked at her reproachfully for a moment before he answered. "Of course not, Nabiki. I'm a Doctor. I took an oath to do no harm."

"Of course, of course." She said with a hand wave, then added, "did you at least make it difficult for them to attack again for a while?"

He smiled faintly and nodded. "I triggered a pressure point in the young man which will take about five to eight days to wear off. He won't be able to walk until it does."

She raised her eyebrows at that, it was unlike him to use such a strong technique on a weaker opponent.

He shrugged as he explained. "I was worried about Shampoo attacking the house. I didn't know where you or Akane were in the house, and she had broken through to your room. I had to neutralize her as fast as possible."

She smiled softly at him. "You did great, thank you."

He looked at her with a melancholy grimace that spoke volumes about his opinion of how he had done last night.

She looked over at the door and towards the front of the house briefly before looking back to Doctor Tofu. She was wondering if Ranma had left on his date with Akane yet. She saw the Doctor notice, but he didn't say anything. So she asked another question. "If you put Mousse out of action in their first attack, did the old lady come for the second one?"

He nodded. She could tell he was being serious, but he still didn't drop his mask with the little half-smile he almost always wore.

She smiled with respect at hearing that he had faced the old woman. Ranma had such trouble with her and the old lecher, they both outclassed him, at least for now. She had to ask. "Did you fight her?"

He shook his head no.

"So, you only fought Shampoo again?"

"Yes."

"Did you disable her too?"

"No, there was no immediate threat to anyone, so I just stood in her path and prevented her from going any further. Her grandmother was watching her fight me, so I didn't want to tip off the style I was using, or what I knew, so I kept it simple. I did tap a couple of points on her wrists though, her arms should be feeling a little heavy today."

"So, if you didn't fight the old lady, and you didn't disable Shampoo, how did you end the fight?"

"I didn't. Shampoo just stopped trying to get past me after a minute or so, jumped back to stand next to her grandmother, and then they both just turned and walked away without a word."

"You know that isn't actually her grandmother, don't you? She's just one of her tribe's elders."

"Of course." He said with a smile.

"Do you think you can take the old lady in a fight if she's being serious?"

He nodded.

"Do you think you could take her and Shampoo together?" She asked, worried.

He blinked at her and then shrugged. "I don't know, possibly. It would depend on what the fight was about, and what was at stake. I would rather not have to split my focus if I had to get into it with the grandmother, though. She's ... formidable." He said simply as he put a hand behind his head in embarrassment.

"All right, well, it sounds like we need to put plans thirty eight and nine into action now as well." She said seriously as she changed the topic.

"I knew you would say that." He said with a smile.

She smiled back with a glint of mischief in her eye. "And I also think you should put plan alpha into effect as well, as soon as possible."

He looked at her blankly and blinked with surprise. "I ... I don't remember that one..."

"That's because I just came up with it." She said with a grin.

"Oh, well, what is it?" He asked with a patient smile.

"It's simple, you need to get started with Kasumi. Ask her out before she gets bored and starts hitting the bars looking for sailors."

He actually lost his balance for a minute and had to catch himself by moving a foot forward. Once he stabilized himself, he asked in a strangled voice, "w-what?!" She smiled at him sweetly, and he scowled at her as he realized she was teasing him. He narrowed his eyes and hissed. "Oh, low blow, Nabiki. I'll have to pay you back for that one."

She smiled and stuck her tongue out at him.

"Speaking of getting oneself into gear ... what's going on with you and Ranma?" He asked kindly.

She had known this was coming. She knew he was really asking, and not trying to get her back yet. That wasn't his style. She hugged her knees to her chest and didn't say anything at first. After a moment she decided to try to get away with not getting into the subject. "Nothing, I've just been teasing him lately." No way he'll buy that. She thought grimly.

"Nabiki..." He said in disbelief.

Knew it. She tried again with a bit more of the truth. "All right, well, the short version is, Akane told Ranma she was breaking their engagement because she was mad at him, and gave him to me. I accepted." She looked down after she said it and blushed.

"Are you just playing with him ... or, do you have feelings for him?" He asked kindly.

"Y-yes." She said carefully. She didn't like to lie to him, so she generally didn't, but she didn't want to tell him everything, either.

"Yes ... what?" He pressed her.

Damn he was good. Most people wouldn't have picked up that she could have been answering either question he'd asked, or both of them. "Both," she answered softly with a small smile, "I do like playing with him, but yes, I do have ... feelings for him."

"Oh, Nabiki, I'm so happy for you." He said warmly as he reached over and put his hand over her hands as she continued to clutch her knees to her chest.

She nodded briskly, not trusting her voice at the moment.

"So ... if he's engaged to you now ... what was going on with him and Akane earlier?" He asked with genuine confusion.

"M-My idea..." she said in a shaky voice. She took a deep breath, then looked up and said in a more controlled tone, "I ... I didn't want to keep the engagement, unless it was for real ... you know? I didn't want him to just treat me like he has been treating Akane, like it wasn't real. So ... I made him promise me to make a choice at the end of a week ... and to end things with everyone else." She whispered.

"Oh ... Nabiki ... " he said quietly as he broke his stance and came to sit next to her. "Are your feelings for him that strong?" He asked softly.

She nodded fiercely, again not trusting her voice.

"Does he know?"

She shook her head slowly, then stopped and nodded once. "Well, yes and no I guess. I don't think he knows just how serious, but he knows I have feelings for him." She said in a shaky voice as she fought the urge to cry. Why the hell do I want to cry all the time now? What the hell is the matter with me?! Pull yourself together, girl! She berated herself.

"So ... why was it your idea for him to be going out with Akane?" He asked.

"I ... it's just ... Akane only gave him up because she was throwing a temper tantrum, you know? She didn't really mean it. Even though I told her when she did it that I would keep him, and even though I gave her a few chances to take him back and she still wouldn't take him back ... I ... I don't want her to suffer. She's suffered enough." She said hesitantly. She only told Doctor Tofu these things. She felt incredibly vulnerable when she did, but he was the only one she trusted with this kind of thing.

"But ... Nabiki ... aren't you suffering?" He asked carefully.

She looked over at him quickly as her breath caught and a lump formed in her throat. She shook her head emphatically and looked away again before she answered. "I-I'm all right. I'm strong. I can be patient and wait a week for him to make a choice." She said with no real conviction in her voice.

He didn't say anything in response to that, just sat in silence with her and put his arm around her. She leaned in to him and successfully fought the tears away. She breathed deeply in through her nose and out through her mouth like daddy had taught her all those years ago. When she had herself under control, she let out a sigh and let her legs go and stretched them out in front of her.

Doctor Tofu got up and crouched in front of her again. He looked at her and waited for her to look up. "You sure you're all right?" He asked when she finally gave in and looked up.

She nodded hesitantly. "So ... any advice?" She asked hopefully.

He shook his head slowly. "I have no right to give anyone advice about their love life, Nabiki. If I did give you advice, I'd probably just make things worse for everyone. You are way smarter than I am on that subject." He said morosely.

She looked up at him sadly and her heart went out to him. She knew that he loved Kasumi, but for whatever reason, he couldn't seem to make himself act on those feelings. Not that she judged him, as she was finding out, acting on one's feelings was ... complicated.

She smiled at him and said as she stood up. "Well, thank you again for protecting us. You should rest and let my daddy and Ranma's watch the house for a while. We'll need you out there again tonight."

He mirrored her and stood up as well. "That should be all right. I can rest downstairs in the dining room. If you stay near that room, I will be able to respond if something happens."

They walked back towards the house together in unspoken agreement. "That should be fine. I just need to sit and think for a while anyway, I can do that anywhere. Are you going to be able to sleep all right in there? I can bring you a futon."

"Oh, I won't sleep. I'll just do a little meditation." He said with a serene smile.

She looked over at him in disbelief, but let it go. Who am I to question him on how he handles all this? She thought to herself as she again considered restarting her own training in the Art. If Doctor Tofu knew some way to use meditation to substitute for sleep that could come in really handy sometimes.

As fortune would have it, or misfortune — depending on one's point of view — she managed to settle down back in the dining room just as Ranma and Akane ran by towards the front door to go on their date. Akane yelled back happily to Ranma as he chased after her. "C'mon, Ranma, I want to see the—" and then they were out of earshot as well as eyesight as they turned the corner and were gone.

She pulled her knees up to her chest again and closed her eyes tightly. She knew Doctor Tofu was watching her sympathetically. She wanted to show him how strong she was, so after a moment of self pity, she forced her legs back down, and opened her eyes. They were watery, but she wasn't crying. There was a lump in her throat, but she ignored it and yanked her note book off the table. She had dozens of them lying around the house.

She buried herself into making detailed plans for what to do about Kodachi, Ukyo, the crazy Amazons, and ... Akane. For the page she had marked for Akane with just a small あ ... she just drew a sad face. She had ... absolutely no plan for dealing with Akane.

Mostly that was because she didn't really believe Ranma would pick her over Akane if Akane in any way fought for him. The smaller reason was that she honestly had no idea what she would do to help Ranma let Akane down easily if, by some miracle, he did pick her over Akane. She knew she had promised to help him do that, and she would ... I will, she corrected herself ... if — if I have to. But, I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. If ... if I come to it. She corrected herself again sadly.

She set the notebook down and stared out into their yard and watched the koi pond as the sun climbed in the sky and waited for Ranma to come back. She forced herself to go over the plans she had decided on for dealing with the Amazons. She wanted to have them ready to go to present to Ranma when he got home. Even if she hadn't made the promises with him, she still would have helped him with them — they were too dangerous to leave running around town for any longer. They needed to be dealt with.

She shivered and thought with no small amount of dread, I just hope ... I am strong enough for this.

Chapter Text

Well, this is a great position you have gotten yourself into. Now what? Are you going to encourage him to try out a honeymoon with Ukyo? Oh ... just stop it ... quit feeling sorry for yourself. If I didn't do this, then I could have ended up as just another fiancée ... and I can't do that. I can't. So ... I just have to wait ... and... Nabiki couldn't bear to finish the thought.

She was sitting in the dining room and clutching her knees to her chest as she rocked back and forth softly as she tried to pass the time while shedding her nervous energy. It wasn't working. Doctor Tofu was sitting in a corner of the room quietly meditating after spending the night guarding their family. Kasumi was bustling around the house doing her usual thing. Daddy and mister Saotome were patrolling the house, on guard for more attacks, and Ranma ... Ranma was out with Akane. Akane ... Ranma's first fiancée, and the one he's going to pick. She thought sadly.

She stood up and started pacing back and forth on the deck in front of the dining room. She saw out of the corner of her eye Doctor Tofu crack an eye open and gaze at her for a moment, before he took a deep breath and resettled into his meditation as he closed it again. She felt bad for disturbing him, but she couldn't just sit still while Ranma was out on a real date with Akane.

If she fights for him ... if she puts aside her pride and her embarrassment and is honest with him ... hell, if she is just mostly nice to him and they don't get into too many fights ... he's going to pick her. She rambled to herself silently as she stared at nothing and walked back and forth. I have to stop this, I'm going to drive myself crazy. Just because I want Ranma to choose me, doesn't mean I want to deny Akane her fair chance. I just ... need to not dwell on it or I'll go crazy. She chided herself.

She stopped pacing and walked out into the yard and stood next to the koi pond. She looked at her reflection in the surface of the pond and smiled tightly to cover up the anxiety on her face. That done, she took another look and thought she looked all right. She was still clearly a little stressed out, but there were no visible signs of sadness or anxiety. See, my masks work fine ... except with Ranma, she thought with a mixture of pride and distress. She was proud that he cared enough to learn how to read her through her masks, but it distressed her that he could. She was having to learn on her feet how to handle that. I guess that's fair though, he is having to learn how to be in a real relationship in only a week, after all. She thought with a small smile.

She looked up at the sky and took a deep breath and tried to settle her nerves. When she looked back down, daddy's reflection was staring back at her from the pond. He was standing behind her and smiling kindly at her. She cemented her mask in place, then turned around and smiled at him. She didn't want him to know exactly what was going on.

He just looked at her for a moment with those large eyes of his. She knew that every time he looked at her and her sisters, he was seeing mom in all of them. "How are you feeling today, Nabiki?" He finally asked after staring into her eyes for a moment.

She smiled in response. "I'm fine daddy. How about you, did you sleep well?"

He shook his head and stiffened his spine proudly. "It is a father's duty to watch over his daughter when she is injured, don't worry about me, Nabiki."

She rolled her eyes in her head but smiled outwardly. She knew what he did and said was out of a genuine desire for what he thought was best for them. She had a hard time holding that against him, even if he was misguided ... frequently.

She focused on him as she stepped next to him and laced her arm through his as she pulled him to start walking. She needed to keep moving, and he obviously wanted to talk. They walked in silence for a while as they circled the edge of their land by walking along the wall. After a minute, he cleared his through and asked her the question she had been hoping he wouldn't. "So ... you're engaged to Ranma now?" He added after a moment's pause, another observation. "It was ... unusual for you to be defending him, like you were last night."

She knew he knew that Akane had changed the engagement. Akane wasn't exactly subtle on that point. It had also been a topic of family discussion for the past few days. He was just trying to get her to talk. She just ... didn't like to talk about these sorts of things with him. It wasn't that she didn't trust him, it was more that she felt he had his own problems to deal with. She answered with a cheerful smile plastered on her face. "Yup, me and Ranma, we're an item now."

He stopped walking and looked at her again seriously. "Nabiki ... I know how much you like to joke and play games, so I have to ask, because this is serious. Do you intend to keep the engagement and go through with it?"

She just stared at him with her mouth agape. How do I answer that? She thought in a mild panic. She finally settled on a half truth. "If Ranma doesn't break the engagement, I promise, I will marry him." She said sincerely as she looked at him calmly.

He didn't look convinced. He stared at her with narrowing eyes and prompted her to expand her answer. "And ... if you marry him ... will you help him carry on our school of Anything Goes Martial Arts? Will you keep the school open, and not sell it?" He demanded.

Oh ... so he'd heard about that? She'd told Kasumi that as a joke a while ago. She smiled and nodded as she answered. "Yes, daddy, we will keep the school open, we wouldn't sell it. I promise."

He looked mollified at that, and began walking with her again, arm in arm in silence for a while. After another few minutes he asked as he walked another hard question. "Are you sure this is what you want, Nabiki? Are you happy with this? Despite what she says, I know Akane has feelings for the boy. I know she'd eventually take him back, even though she handed him off to you. You don't need to do this if you don't want to." He said quietly.

She smiled with a mischievous gleam in her eye as she couldn't help herself from teasing him a bit. "Oh, no, we have an agreement, he only goes up the chain. Now that Akane's passed on him, if I pass, he goes to Kasumi." She knew it was mean, but it was damn funny. Daddy stopped walking again, and twitched as he looked at her with wide eyes.

"K-Kasumi? Really? She agreed to take him?" He asked in shock.

She nodded her head emphatically. "Oh yes, as a matter of fact she said she had dibs next on his, how did she put it? Oh yeah, 'cute little booty,' she said she had dibs on that next." Inside she was dying laughing, but outside she froze her best poker face on as daddy wibbled at that and his eyes darted towards the house. She was sure he was frantic to run to Kasumi and demand to know what had possessed her to say such a thing.

"K-Kasumi ... s-said t-that?" He gasped.

"Oh sure, she thinks she can teach him a thing or two about being a real man. Said she's eager to, 'put him through his paces,' I think was how she phrased it."

His eyes started to narrow as he caught on.

She piled on quickly before he called her on it. "Yeah, she figures she can have him running to the snap of her fingers in about two weeks, depending on how much she has to discipline him." She said as she allowed a huge grin to crack the poker face she had been wearing.

"Nabikiiiiii--" was all he could say as she caved his mind in with that idea about his beloved eldest daughter.

She lost all control at that point and doubled over laughing. She laughed so hard that she actually started crying a little bit, and her abs hurt. She put a hand on his chest and leaned against him as she tried to stay upright while she laughed. She could feel him tense up indignantly while she laughed, and then eventually relax as she poured out some of the stress she had been carrying into her laughter. It felt good to laugh.

She finally lifted her head up as she got herself under control and looked up into his face. He was looking down at her with a mixture of exasperation and impatience. But there was also love on his face. She allowed herself to fall in towards him and hugged him. He hugged her back strongly. She could tell that he knew she was leaving things unsaid.

After a while, he held her back from him at arm's length and looked at her with a mixture of pride and confusion. "I have never understood you very well, Nabiki. You know?"

She nodded.

"You've always been my clever one. You're just like your mother with that. I never understood her either." He said wistfully.

"Oh ... daddy..." She said softly. She hated it when he brought up mom, she always ended up crying.

"Kasumi has always been my hard-working, loyal and soft-spoken one. Akane has always been my fierce, honest fighter. And you, ... you Nabiki, more than any of your sisters, have always been my quick-witted, clever girl who always has an idea, always has something to say, never gives up, and speaks her mind. You're so much like your mother it's like she's still here sometimes." He said softly as he looked into her eyes.

She nodded her head again, fighting back the tears, but she could feel them winning the war to get out.

"Kasumi looks more like her, and Akane fights like her ... oh, Nabiki, if you could have ever seen her fight. I am not sure even the Master could have beaten her when she was really serious. She was deadly grace and cool as ice when she fought..." he trailed away for a moment, then came back to himself and refocused on her and said, "... but she only trained in the Art privately and rarely after you girls were born. She had a new mission in life after that. You all were her life. All of you. I thought she had given her entire heart to Kasumi when she was born. Then you were born, and I saw her double what she gave. Then Akane was born and I saw it increase to triple. She loved you all more than words can ever describe, you know?"

Nabiki did know. She nodded her head roughly, not trusting her voice, as the tears started. Damn it, daddy, why do you always have to be so sincere, especially about mom? She griped to herself as he continued.

"She was a guide to Kasumi who tried to mirror everything your mother showed her. She was an unattainable goal to Akane, who idolized her. She was my wife and companion. And to you, Nabiki, to you, she was your friend and constant challenge. Do you remember, do you remember the word games you two used to play? Do you remember the pun wars and the constant attempts to trick each other into slipping up to say something?"

"I-I remember, daddy." She said as she let the tears fall, and buried her head in his chest. God damn it! Every single time we talk about mom, it's like this. I miss her so much! She thought miserably to herself as she cried.

He was right, he had been Akane's sparring partner, but mom had been hers. With mom, she had learned the benefits of a sharp mind, a ready word, and being quick on one's feet. She had watched mom disarm people in public with a simple turn of phrase or an offer of an exchange of favors. Mom could always take a quick look at a situation and figure out what people's motivations were, and how best to exploit them. She'd seen her turn strangers into friends, and rude people into bewildered people she got the better of with a faster wit and a sharp eye for details. Nabiki had never been worried about anything when she had been out with mom. She'd known that mom knew the Art as well, but she'd never displayed a need for it. Nabiki had loved that about her.

After a minute passed and she allowed herself to embrace her grief at the loss of her mother, she finally pulled herself back to her center and forced herself to stop crying. A moment later daddy held her out at arm's length again and looked at her seriously. "Do you know why I made the promise I made with Ranma's father to marry one of you?" He asked.

She shook her head.

"I made it, because your mother made me swear to her that I would ensure that the Anything Goes Style survived. She had me promise to find a suitable husband for one of you girls, who would be willing to help carry on the school and ensure her legacy and mine."

"M-mom did?" She asked in disbelief.

He nodded emphatically. "Oh yes. She loved the Art as well. That was one of the reasons I married her, you know. She was my equal in every way. It also didn't hurt that she could cook extremely well." He added with a small smile.

"But ... what if Ranma hadn't turned out to be a suitable husband?"

"In that case ... I would have had to break my promise to his father, and keep looking. My promise to your mother takes priority over my promise to him." He said with steel in his voice.

She blinked in surprise. She'd had no idea.

"So, I ask you again, Nabiki, if you marry Ranma ... will you help him carry on our school of Anything Goes Martial Arts and keep the school open?"

She looked him in the eyes and firmly nodded her head. "Yes, I will, I promise," she added as a side note, "of course, Ranma would have to be in charge of teaching." She smiled weakly at him.

He nodded as he put her hand back in the crook of his arm and started walking with her again while he patted her hand. "Of course, of course, at least ... at first." He looked sideways at her and smiled with encouragement. "It's never too late, you know, you could resume your training."

She looked up at him and winked. "Let's cross one bridge at a time, all right, daddy? If we get married, we can talk about that."

"If? Are you saying you don't really want to?" He asked her carefully.

"What I'm saying is, Akane gave him up to me because of a temper tantrum, and she may take him back again if she decides she wants him again."

"What about ... what you want?" He asked as they stopped by the koi pond, back where they'd started. He pulled her around to stand in front of him again, and held on to both her hands as he tried to look into her eyes to figure her out.

Good luck, daddy. I don't think I have myself figured out. She thought with a surprising amount of bitterness. She answered his question sadly. "What I want ... isn't as important as other things."

"So ... what is it that you mean?" He asked.

"Just because I say something, doesn't mean that I mean it. And just because I feel something, doesn't mean I say it, daddy. But to set your mind at ease, if Akane doesn't marry Ranma, I promise you, if he is willing, I'll marry him." She said quietly.

"Can you be happy with Ranma?" He asked with concern.

She nodded earnestly without meeting his eyes.

He teared up at that and nodded, accepting that was the best he was going to get from her in the way of an agreement about Ranma. "Nabiki..." he whispered as he squeezed her hands softly, "...you're a good girl, Nabiki. Your mother would be proud of you."

She didn't know if that was totally true, but she liked hearing it anyway. A moment later he let her go. "Well now, I had best get back to guarding the house." He said gruffly.

She nodded and waved at him as he marched away. He was such a strange mixture of strength and weakness these days.

She stood and looked at herself in the koi pond for a while longer, then looked at her watch, and realized that it was nearing the time that Ranma had planned to be home, so he could go with her to confront Shampoo. She turned around and looked into the dining room, and considered going back there to wait, but decided she needed to still be on her feet and doing something, so she wandered slowly towards the front gates.

I don't want to stand by the front door waiting for him to get home, though. That looks ... needy at the very least, if not desperate. She thought to herself as she approached the gates, and then walked past them. She decided to pace inside the wall and listen for them coming home. She wouldn't rush out to greet them, of course. She didn't want to see them kissing or something. Heh, fat chance. Even if Akane wanted to, she could never do it out on the street where anyone could see her. She thought.

She looked at her watch and hoped she didn't have to wait too much longer, they really did need to be going soon to track down Shampoo and talk to her. She didn't want to be out at night doing that. It was--

She paused, and listened, she could have sworn she heard someone yell something, she listened again and heard, "--he --ell am I no--?!"

Was that .... Ryoga? She raised an eyebrow as she turned around and headed back towards the gates, short circuiting her pacing. She stepped outside the gates, and sure enough, saw Ryoga standing in the middle of the street, shaking his fist to the sky while holding a large map in his hands that looked an awful lot like a map of Australia.

She smiled and walked over to him. At the very least he could distract her for a few moments. And every moment she spent not agonizing over Ranma's date with Akane was a moment she valued. She walked closer to him as he yelled again while looking down at his map then up again repeatedly with a confused expression on his face. "Where the hell am I now?!" He yelled again to nobody.

She leaned in right behind him and yelled as loud as she could, "Tokyo!"

She grinned when he jumped at least two meters straight up in surprise, dropping his map in the process. He landed twisted around so he was nose-to-nose with her and glared.

She ignored him as she picked up the map and looked at it. Yup, it's Australia all right. I mean, I get not having a good sense of direction, but he can read ... can't he? She thought with a smirk as she straightened up. He was still glaring at her, but she didn't care. She knew that unless she provoked him, a lot, he wouldn't do anything to her. Both because he liked to pretend he lived by a code of honor, and also because he had a bad case of puppy-love for Akane, and Akane didn't exactly tolerate people who bullied her family.

"You didn't have to sneak up on me." He growled at her.

"I didn't think I needed to announce my presence to a man who fights with Ranma regularly. I thought you were as good as he was." She replied sweetly as she handed him the map.

"I'm better than he is!" He yelled.

She shrugged. "Of course you are. Isn't that what I just said?"

He looked at her blankly as he tried to process that. It worked every time. Leading statements, half-truths and sideways compliments almost always allowed her to take the balance of people like Ryoga. She didn't really like people like Ryoga. They were usually loud and brash, quick to anger and slow to think and somewhat cruel. The aspect of Ryoga that made her dislike him the most, though, was his insistence to blame his misfortunes on everyone but himself -- usually with Ranma receiving the majority of the blame.

Sure, Ranma could be loud and brash as well, and he didn't always think when he should, and he allowed people to goad him into things by making him angry. But, aside from the whole fiancée thing and his Chinese water curse -- both of which were legitimately not his fault -- she rarely saw him blame others for things that he was responsible for; and he was never cruel. She'd also seen Ranma think things through and plan when he needed to, usually when he was outclassed in a fight by the old ghoul or the old lecher. When push came to shove, she had seen Ranma do the honorable thing time and time again, Ryoga she was less sure about. There was something ... off ... about him that she couldn't put her finger on.

She didn't like Ryoga chasing after Akane, but as long as Akane didn't accept him, she felt no need to intervene. Akane could do much better than him, and she did not want him as a brother-in-law. But at the moment, it wasn't anything to worry about. After a moment passed and he didn't say anything further, she sighed and tried to jump-start his brain. "So ... where are you trying to go?"

He blushed and looked away from her as he replied. "Don't worry about it, I have everything under control."

She smiled and nodded while she put on her friendly mask. "Sure, sure no doubt ... but, if you wanted some directions, maybe I could ..." she trailed off, catching his interest.

He looked back at her with eyes that spoke volumes about his navigational woes. Got you now. She thought happily. Now that she had him hooked, all she had to do was reel him in. He finally replied after an uncomfortable pause. "Well if you must know, I am on my way to mount Hyōno. There's a shrine there that is supposed to make you stronger if you complete their ritual.

Nabiki blinked at that. Well, she supposed he wasn't too far off course, mount Hyōno was in the Hyōgo Prefecture, over six hundred kilometers way. But hey, he was still on Honshu which was the right part of Japan at least. She would love to know why he thought a map of Australia was Japan, but she knew if she brought it up and embarrassed him, that he'd just storm off. She didn't want him to do that yet, he was a great distraction.

She supposed he could take a flight there, and get there in about an hour or so, but she knew he'd never go for that. She doubted he had the money to fly there, and even if he did, he would probably think it was skipping out on his training to not walk there and suffer on the way. She figured with his fitness level and ability to run for long distances, he could probably do about eighty kilometers a day. So, she pointed to the West as she gave him the directions. "You want to go about six hundred kilometers that way. If you head away from the sun in the morning, and towards it in the evening, and you go all day, you should be in the right area in a little over a week.

"Of-of course, I knew that." He said hastily as he shoved the map in his pocket and immediately started heading East, the exact opposite direction of where she was still pointing.

"Ryoga, look where I'm pointing." She said as she rolled her eyes.

He looked up and nodded with an embarrassed jerk of his head. "Oh yeah, sorry." He changed direction, and started walking North.

She seriously thought about letting him go, but she didn't have anything else to do while she tried to avoid agonizing over what Ranma and Akane might be up to, so she called after him again. "Wait!"

He froze and she walked over to him. "I can make sure you leave here heading in the right direction, if you just wait a moment, all right?" She said, bemused.

He slumped a little bit, realizing that he had been heading off in the wrong direction again, and nodded.

"So ... after you get stronger at this shrine you want to visit, then what?" She asked as she walked around to face him. She didn't really care, but information like that about people like Ryoga always came in handy.

He looked up at her with a determined scowl on his face. "I will go back to training on mount Odake to defeat Ranma!"

The boy certainly had a one track mind, that was for sure. She was sure that he had defeated Ranma rather recently when he'd gotten super-strong from that strange drawing on his stomach. And he could have easily beaten Ranma when the old lecher had made Ranma weak with that Moxibustion thing. Of course, neither one of those cases could be described as beating Ranma in a fair fight, but he didn't seem to be all that concerned about that, usually.

"And ... once you defeat Ranma ... then what?" She asked, genuinely curious now.

He stammered for a bit as he looked at the ground as he replied. "T-then I can ask A-A-A ... to ... "

Well, it was no surprise that he was still hung up on her sister. She couldn't really blame him, she supposed. Akane was gorgeous when she wanted to be, and she was very sweet and kind, again, when she wanted to be. She wasn't sure what had gotten him infatuated with her in the first place, but it didn't really matter. She decided to poke him a bit more before sending him packing. "You can ask ... what ... all the girls in your high school out?" She asked with a playful grin on her face. She could feel the heat of his embarrassment even before he answered.

"What?! No! No no no no no!" He said practically tripping over himself in embarrassment. "No! There's only ... only one girl for me!" He clenched his fist when he said that, and looked up into the sky like he was making a covenant with the gods or something.

Wow, melodramatic much? She thought as she cringed inwardly. Having this guy hanging around all the time would be exhausting. But, he'd left her an opening, and she couldn't not take it, so she smiled sweetly at him and cupped her face in her hands as she put on an excited, breathy voice and teased him. "Really? You mean it? I'm the only girl for you? Oh, Ryoga, I had no idea!"

She was sure that if he could have actually died of embarrassment, he would have right then and there. He flushed bright red, and took a step back from her as he waved his arms back and forth in a panic. "No! N-not you!"

She put on a hurt face and took a step towards him. "But why not? Is it someone else? Are you in love with my sister? Is that it? You are, aren't you?!" She said accusatively.

"H-how did y-you ..." He asked in a shaking voice as he continued to step away from her.

She clasped her hands together behind her back and leaned forward with a smile on her face. "Oh, come on now, be honest, I've seen the way you look at her, anyone who sees you look at her knows that ... " she paused to savor the moment, as he cringed. She delivered the knock-out a heartbeat later. "You're in love with Kasumi!" She said sweetly and batted her eyelashes at him.

He actually fell over at that and yelled twitching from the ground as he lay on his backpack like an overturned turtle. "W-what?!"

She grinned down at him as she moved to stand over him. "Just kidding." She said as she stuck her tongue out at him happily.

"Why you!" He growled at her as he jumped to his feet. Then he paused and looked over her shoulder and said in a weak voice, "...Akane?"

"Nabiki, my name is Nabiki!" She said in irritation as he stepped past her and started walking back towards the house.

He had his eyes fixed down the road as he muttered Akane's name again.

She turned around and could see that all the way down the road two people were walking into view. She couldn't make out who they were yet, but she trusted that his obsession with her sister would allow him to recognize her at a distance.

About time they got home. She thought in irritation as she noted the low position of the sun in the sky. Then she put a mental brake on her emotions and pushed them down out of range of her mouth. She needed to not act like a crazy-jealous person right now. She walked slowly behind Ryoga to watch them come home. With Ryoga front-and-center, their attention would be on him, so she would be able to read their body language and try to gauge how their date had gone.

As they walked closer, she realized that Akane had an arm wrapped around Ranma. That made her blood pressure spike. Really, public displays of affection? Already? She thought in surprise. What happened to her embarrassment about that? She thought with some resentment. She walked closer to Ryoga as she tried to stay behind him and observe. She could tell that Ryoga was already getting ready to attack Ranma, he was clenching and unclenching his hands into fists and his shoulders were heaving in anger as he sucked in air sharply. Not surprising, as Akane had her hands on Ranma. In Ryoga's warped little mind, she was sure that meant Ranma needed to die. She rolled her eyes inwardly as she continued to watch them get closer while Ryoga took off his backpack as he prepared to fight.

She realized a moment later that Akane was limping. Oh! That makes much more sense! She thought as she realized that Akane must have gotten hurt somehow and Ranma was helping her limp home. They were both smiling a bit though, that wasn't a good sign. I wonder why he didn't just carry her home? She thought. Not that she minded of course. Those kinds of things were how he kept picking up suitors like Kodachi, after all.

As Ranma and Akane arrived at the gate, he had just enough time to notice Ryoga, and to make quick eye contact with her and widen his eyes in confusion which she shrugged in response to, before Ryoga shouted his challenge. "Ranma, what have you done to Akane?!"

Ranma glared at Ryoga and unwrapped Akane's arm from himself. Nabiki quickly stepped forward to support her sister, who hopped gingerly over to her and eagerly put her weight on her. As she held Akane up she watched Ranma square up with Ryoga. They he yelled back his own challenge. "Back off man, now isn't a good time!"

Oh boy, here we go. Nabiki thought as Akane leaned into her heavily.

Chapter Text

Nabiki backed away from Ryoga and Ranma as they squared off. Akane hobbled with her as Nabiki supported her sister's weight as best she could.

"I'm going to make you suffer for hurting Akane!" Ryoga yelled at Ranma.

Akane spoke up then and pleaded for sanity. "Wait! Ryoga, no! It wasn't Ranma--"

"Ranma, prepare to die!" Ryoga yelled as he leaped towards Ranma. Ranma easily danced out of the way of Ryoga's straight forward attack.

When they landed, Ranma yelled back to Ryoga. "Ah man, what is it with you?! Don't you got nothin' better to be doin'?"

Ryoga launched another leaping attack on Ranma. "Shut up! I don't want to hear your lies!" Ryoga yelled as he careened towards Ranma with his fist extended.

Ranma dodged again and his expression changed from annoyance to anger. "I ain't got time for this, I got things to do man, back off, I'm warning you!"

"Shut up! I'm going to punish you for hurting Akane!" Ryoga growled as he landed in a fighting stance and got ready to charge Ranma again.

Akane tried, once more, to get Ryoga to stop as she yelled while she waved at him, "Ryoga, no! Ranma didn't do anything to me."

Ryoga actually looked back at her at that and replied. "Oh, Akane, please don't cover for him, I ... I can't bear it!" He said to her softly.

Akane raised her hand again, trying to get his attention as she opened her mouth to protest, but he had already turned away from her again, so she closed her mouth and let her hand droop and said in a voice so soft that only Nabiki could hear it. "But ... Ranma ... would never ... hurt me."

Nabiki knew that if Ryoga had heard that, he probably would have stopped. Of course, that would have meant Akane basically announcing her trust in Ranma to Ryoga, which was more or less like announcing her love for him. And, she was obviously still not ready to do that.

Even so, just hearing Akane say what she said, stabbed Nabiki through the gut with fear. All it would take for her to lose to Akane, would be for Akane to outright fight for him. If she does ... it's all over. She thought sadly as she looked sideways at her sister.

She could see Ranma shooting glances to both her and Akane, trying to figure out what to do as he dodged away from Ryoga. He wasn't having much trouble with him, but he had an appointment to keep with Nabiki. She could see him trying to make eye contact with Akane, but she was looking at the ground and lost in her own little world, probably agonizing over what to tell Ryoga. Then Ranma made eye contact with her, and she shrugged. She didn't care how he handled Ryoga. Ranma didn't have time to act on her encouragement though as Ryoga finally managed to land a punch on Rama that broke his eye contact with her, and sent him flying.

He popped back to his feet and went from looking mildly angry to very angry. His total attention was now back on the fight. "All right, now I'm mad," he yelled as he clenched his hands into fists so hard the knuckles popped. She was sure he was probably showing a battle aura. She couldn't see it though. She could feel it, however. It felt likes waves of heat were pouring off him. She was sure Ryoga was putting out a battle aura as well, because she could feel waves of cold coming from him. They had such different fighting styles and personalities.

Her attention was called back to Ryoga who wasn't at all intimidated by Ranma's anger. "That makes two of us!" He yelled as he drove a hard right punch at Ranma while stepping forward.

Ranma stepped back with a hard glint in his eye and blocked Ryoga's punch with his left hand in a clenched fist that he slipped to the outside of Ryoga's arm, that brought Ryoga inside his guard. As soon as his right foot touched down he braced and allowed the momentum of Ryoga's attack to carry him towards his right fist which Ranma was bringing up to punch to Ryoga's ribs. As soon as Ryoga rammed into Ranma's punch and stopped his charge with a heavy oof, Ranma slipped his right hand up from Ryoga's ribs and checked Ryoga's arm that was still extended in a punch. He then slid his right hand down to Ryoga's still-extended wrist, and grabbed it roughly. Before Ryoga could react, he yanked him forward and took his balance as he drove a right roundhouse kick into Ryoga's gut. He landed lightly with his right leg and twisted so that he drove his right knee into Ryoga's left one as he stepped into Ryoga's stance and checked his legs to prevent him from kicking him, then he quickly pivoted as he drove his left knee into the back of Ryoga's left thigh, which drove Ryoga down to one knee, as he shot another punch out with his left hand to Ryoga's ribs at the same time. A moment later he let go of Ryoga's wrist and threw it at Ryoga in a swinging arc designed to keep him off balance as he backed away from him still in a fighting stance.

Nabiki couldn't help but be proud of how graceful Ranma was. He had flowed from movement to movement with a confident liquid rhythm that was impressive to see in action. She looked sideways at her sister, who was frowning in disapproval. Akane didn't approve of bullying the weak ... even when the weak were the ones starting the fights.

Ranma took another couple of steps back from Ryoga then again tried to get Ryoga to stop. "How 'bout it man, had enough? I told you, I ain't got time for this." He did smirk a little when he was done, though. She knew how much he loved to win, and it showed.

"Ranma ... that's enough!" Akane called out to him exasperated.

He looked up at that and protested. "Hey, say that to Ryoga! I didn't start thi--"

"Die, Ranma!" Ryoga yelled as he launched himself into another flurry of strikes while he pushed himself off the ground with his superior strength back to a fighting stance. Ranma danced away again, doing his usual defensive dodges, but he snapped out a few kicks or punches whenever Ryoga left an opening.

"H-hey, I said ... HEY! I said, that's ENOUGH!" Akane yelled, then she added, "leave each other alone!"

"I'm just ... defending myself ... Akane!" Ranma yelled back indignantly as he could in between blocks. Nabiki could feel her sister put her back up at that before she yelled back. "Just stop it, the both of you!"

"Tell him, not me!" Ranma yelled back as he slammed another kick into Ryoga's chest, knocking him back.

"Ryoga, stop, please!" Akane yelled. Nabiki looked at her sideways again. It was unusual for Akane to acknowledge that Ranma wasn't at fault for something.

Ryoga ignored her and launched yet another flurry of strikes at Ranma. Ranma dodged for a bit, then about when he would have to change course or run into one of the walls that lined the streets, he paused, and she could see him watching Ryoga's hands as he worked out the pattern and the timing. She concentrated and could see him line up his hips so that his left would be just to the right of Ryoga's left, as he slipped his right hand up as a parry to the outside of Ryoga's hand, and then stepped hard to the right of the next punch Ryoga threw, which was a left stepping punch.

Ranma threw up a left closed fist block to the outside of Ryoga's arm above the elbow, trapping Ryoga's ability to swing and counter, as his right foot pivoted. He stepped in towards Ryoga with his right hand as an open chop to Ryoga's carotid artery as he closed the distance between them with his left foot, dragging up and collapsing Ryoga's stance as he drove his left knee into the back of Ryoga's knee. He then pivoted his hips and kept his left side's momentum moving as he raised his right arm in a swing while he drove his left elbow into Ryoga's ribs. He immediately pivoted back from the right side and completed the swing with the right hand as he whipped a closed fist into Ryoga's kidney closest to him. He continued the momentum and brought the closed fist up to arrest Ryoga's spin as he fell into Ranma from the force of the blow and checked Ryoga's left tricep as he unwound with his hips and drove a devastating right kick downward into Ryoga's left calf muscle, which drove Ryoga to his knees, hard. Ranma then swept Ryoga's feet out from under him which dropped Ryoga hard to the ground and caused him to bang his head on the ground. Ranma stepped back to a high guard stance and just looked at him. He was obviously done with Ryoga's nonsense.

Ryoga just lay there dazed and muttering. "I'm sorry ... I failed you ... Akane," was all she heard him say, then he passed out.

Akane immediately rounded on Ranma. "You didn't have to do that to him, did you?" She asked in a disapproving tone.

He stared back at her in shock. "What was I supposed to do, just let him wail on me, Akane? I was just defendin' myself."

"You still didn't need to knock him out, though!" Akane countered.

Nabiki didn't understand Akane's logic. From everything she knew about Ranma's past fights with Ryoga, if anyone was more or less an equal to Ranma, it was Ryoga. That, and Ryoga had crazy-high endurance and stamina, so for Ranma to win a fight against him, he pretty much usually had to knock Ryoga out. Seemed logical to her. Additionally, in this case, it seemed more that the ground had knocked Ryoga out more than anything else.

Ranma was obviously getting agitated at Akane's defense of Ryoga. "Listen, I tried to be nice, but he kept attacking me!" Ranma retorted defensively.

Akane opened her mouth to continue arguing when a voice that Nabiki really didn't want to hear sounded from behind the wall behind Ranma. "Is true, husband is too too good warrior. He beat other boy, no problem."

Shampoo popped up from behind the wall to land lightly on the top of it and smiled at Ranma. Nabiki noticed with no small amount of satisfaction that Shampoo was letting her arms hang limply from her sides. What's the matter, Shampoo, arms feeling a bit heavy today? She thought smugly.

Shampoo smiled down at Ranma. "Ranma, you date Shampoo?" She asked with her usual eagerness.

He darted his eyes to her for guidance. This scenario had not been in their plans. She opened her eyes wide to show she didn't know. Then, before anyone else could do or say anything, Doctor Tofu was abruptly there kneeling down next to Ryoga. One moment he hadn't been there, the next moment he was. Shampoo narrowed her eyes at him. Nabiki took note of that with great satisfaction. Not so cocky anymore, are you? She thought.

Tofu bustled around doing his usual act as he fussed over Ryoga. She could tell he wasn't fooling Shampoo, though. She kept her eyes on him and she could tell that she was tensing her legs to leap from the wall. Someone got a little lesson in humility last night, didn't she? Nabiki thought to herself happily.

As the Doctor worked on Ryoga he called out to Akane without looking back at her. "Akane, what did you do to your ankle?"

Her little sister tore her eyes off Ranma and answered in her usual hesitant way she used when speaking with Doctor Tofu. "O-oh, I just twisted it, D-Doctor, nothing to worry about."

He nodded as he picked Ryoga up with one hand and slung him over his shoulder as he started to walk back towards the house with him. "Akane, would you like to go inside with me so I can look at that ankle?" He paused right next to Akane and smiled at her in that disarming way he could.

Akane stuttered nervously in reply. "Well, I ... I was going to ... "

Doctor Tofu just cocked his head and looked at her and waited with that smile on his face. Akane looked at him and then back to Ranma and Shampoo, then back to Doctor Tofu again, then nodded hesitantly. "All right."

Doctor Tofu held out his right hand for Akane to take. Nabiki lowered her sister's arm from around her neck, and let Akane loose so she could hobble over to him. As soon as she was in reach, his hand shot out and steadied her. He had her arm wrapped around his neck and her walking in step with him a moment after that, while he carried Ryoga slung over his left shoulder as he carried him like a sack of potatoes. As he rounded the corner he called out without looking back. "Ranma, take care of Nabiki for me, will you." It wasn't a question. Akane looked back once more with worry in her eyes, and then she was gone as Doctor Tofu pulled her along with him.

As Akane left, Ranma muttered to himself something about they had been having a good time, and he could never catch a break. She'd have to ask him about that later, as she suddenly found herself the subject of Shampoo's cold stare. The Amazon girl was ... unnerving.

She felt a bit naked and unprotected on the street facing Shampoo in the fading light of day. Even if it was on the street right in front of her house, and Ranma was there.

Shampoo hopped down from the wall and started to walk towards her with a malicious gleam in her eye. Nabiki took a half step back before Ranma was suddenly standing in front of her, with his arms spread out protectively.

"Shampoo, no! Nabiki, and all of the Tendos, are off limits! Do you hear me? Off limits!" He said sternly.

Shampoo nodded but continued to advance. Nabiki narrowed her eyes, she knew damn well that Shampoo understood more Japanese than she let on. She knew that part of her broken speech pattern was simply to throw people off into thinking she was stupid. She often got away with things simply because she pretended she didn't understand the rules. It was actually a brilliant strategy. She had filed it away to use should she ever find herself in another country as soon as she'd met Shampoo.

Ranma put some heat into his voice when Shampoo kept coming. "Hey, stop! Stop! What did I just say?! Leave. Nabiki. Alone! She. Is. OFF. LIMITS!"

Shampoo stopped within arm's reach of Ranma, but still outside of any sort of striking range on her. She wasn't worried. Ranma would not allow Shampoo to hurt her. So she just glared at her.

"It was bad enough when you popped up and scared Akane earlier, you've got to stop this!" Ranma said in an extremely frustrated tone of voice.

She filed that away to ask about later. It probably explained Akane's twisted ankle.

"Shampoo no understand!" The Amazonian girl said with her own frustration breaking in her voice. "If Ranma no is engaged to Akane, Ranma should marry Shampoo!"

Ranma shook his head and replied sternly. "I'm engaged to Nabiki now." He indicated her with a nod of his head, but he didn't look back at her. She wasn't really where she wanted him to focus Shampoo's attention, but she knew he was winging this. She hadn't had time to tell him about the plans she'd come up with. Although he was basically carrying out plan one anyway, without any prompting from her. Sure, she could have coached him a bit on what to say, but basically confronting Shampoo about the engagement and asking her to stop had been her first plan, and it had been the one she had been sure he would pick. She hadn't had much hope for the second plan, although that had been the one she would have preferred.

Shampoo glared at Nabiki. "Only reason Shampoo leave Akane alone was thought husband loved Akane. If husband is switch to new girl so easy, then only fair husband marry Shampoo! Shampoo is waiting much longer than sister of Akane is!" She took another step towards Ranma, and he held his ground, still holding his arms wide to protect her.

She thought about speaking up and trying to help Ranma, but she didn't want to throw him off his center, and she didn't want Shampoo to see her as controlling him. That wouldn't make the situation better. So she just continued to glare at her.

Shampoo wasn't looking at her anyway. She was staring deep into Ranma's eyes and had laced her fingers into his as she swayed her hips and stepped towards him seductively as she made soft little hmm and umm sounds. She had to admit, the girl had style.

Ranma stood transfixed at that for a moment, and she couldn't really blame him. Hell, even she had been staring at Shampoo's hips there for a moment, a little bit mesmerized. To Ranma's credit, he took a half step back before Shampoo could press herself up against him, and straightened his arms to push her back to arm's length. "C'mon Shampoo, can't you please stop?"

Shampoo continued to look at him with adoration as she cooed at him and made kissy faces. She could see him wilt a little under the Amazon's attentions, but not enough to be swayed by it. He put a little bit more steel into his voice. "Shampoo, stop. All right? Please, just stop. I aint gonna marry you. I told you this before, I already have a fiancée. It was Akane then and now it's Nabiki, but nothing's changed. And, even if the Tendos kicked me out tomorrow, I would still be engaged to Ukyo too. I can't throw my family's honor away to be with you. Please ... try to understand."

All right, laying it on a little thick there, Saotome. Time to wrap it up. She thought as she sighed. She really needed to teach him how to persuade people with a little bit more subtlety.

"Is ... is husband say ... never?" Shampoo asked with real tears in her eyes.

Ranma nodded hesitantly, she could tell he was really struggling with this. He was swallowing a lot, and she could tell he didn't trust his voice any more. Her hands suddenly felt cold and clammy as she watched him. She knew he had a terrible time saying no to a crying girl. This was the moment of truth. Previously when Ranma had convinced Shampoo he was a girl, she had attacked but had been unable to really commit to the attack, and had broken away from it and fled back to China in tears. Would she attack now, or would she flee?

Shampoo tensed up, and took a half step towards Ranma. He flinched and held his protective stance in front of Nabiki. Then Shampoo stopped and reversed her step and took a full step back. She stared at Ranma with longing in her eyes and cried openly for a few moments. Or, she could just cry instead -- that actually might be more effective on him. Nabiki thought wryly to herself. Then while she continued to cry she shot a hateful glare at Nabiki before switching back to gazing sadly at Ranma. "Fine. Shampoo go." She said bitterly.

Well ... that's not what you want to hear. Nabiki thought to herself as Shampoo turned and hopped up on the wall.

Ranma called after her. "Shampoo, wait."

Both Nabiki and Shampoo turned and looked at him quizzically.

"Did you hear what I said about the Tendos? They are off limits, do you understand?" Ranma asked earnestly.

She relaxed from the sudden clench she had been in when he had called Shampoo back. She had been afraid he wouldn't be able to let any of them go, and would promise her something noncommittal that would keep her hanging around, just to keep her from crying.

Shampoo looked back at him with dead eyes and an expressionless mask on her face as she slid her gaze over to Nabiki and held it there as she replied. "Shampoo heard." Then she bounded away to the next rooftop, and the one after that, and then was gone.

Ranma slumped in front of her as he dropped his arms and muttered to himself. "Well ... that's encouraging." He turned around and smiled at her. "At least we didn't have to go find her, though. One down, right?"

She smiled back tightly at him and reached her hands out to him. He took them and held them gently in his warm hands. She loved how warm he always was. She smiled more broadly at him to encourage him for continuing to keep his promise as she replied. "Yes, good job, Ranma. Not quite the way I would have planned it, but hey, no plan survives contact with the enemy anyway."

He nodded happily at her praise. So she was less enthusiastic to add her next comment, but she felt she had to. "Did you notice that she only acknowledged that she had heard you say we were off limits? She never said she agreed to it." She asked as she tried to keep the fear out of her voice, but she knew it was there.

"Oh, even if she had said she would stay away, I wouldn't have believed her. We're going to have to do something about the old ghoul before they actually stop." He said.

That was what she had thought would have to happen as well. She was amazed at how well he planned and understood strategy when it concerned fighting. When it was a physics problem or a question about how complex political things worked, he just sat there. But if it involved martial arts in any way, then he was totally invested in it. It was a shame that his father had only seen fit to have Ranma value martial skills. But, on the other hand, she knew that part of the reason he was so good was because he only focused on his martial skills. She wondered what he would be like if he had grown up with his mother as well. I guess I'll never know, not that it really matters. She thought as she smiled at him and held his hands.

She nodded at his explanation and turned to walk back towards the house with him and dropped his left hand while she continued to hold his right. She walked with him in silence for a moment then looked up at him and whispered. "We should talk."

Chapter Text

Ranma paused and repeated what she had said as he looked at her with wide eyes. "We need to talk? What ... what'd I do wrong?" He asked nervously. She looked up at him and flinched at the fear she saw there.

He can't ... be that worried about upsetting me, can he? She thought in amazement. She realized a moment later that she had used the dreaded phrase that usually meant a break-up was imminent. She frowned at herself for her carelessness and leaned into him to reassure him. She slid a little bit on the silk of his Chinese shirt, then settled in against him comfortably before she replied. "It's nothing bad, Ranma. I just wanted to plan our next step together, that's all," she said as she nudged Ranma to continue to walk. She could smell his flowery-cedar scent more strongly as she leaned on him; she really enjoyed that. She gave him a small smile, and squeezed his hand as well and the panic fell off his face.

He squeezed her hand back and visibly relaxed. "Oh, sure, yeah, let's do that. Where did you want to..." he trailed off hesitantly. He clearly wasn't sure how to ask her.

She looked up at him and smiled in amusement at his nervousness. It was sweet. "Let's go check on Akane, and help Doctor Tofu get Ryoga out of the house first, all right? Then we can have dinner with everyone, and afterwards, you and I can decide if you want to tackle either one of the other girls next, or do something else."

He nodded eagerly.

"And, we should also ... plan our own date as well ... soon." She added.

He stopped nodding and smiled. "S-sure, I'd ... like that too."

They entered the house together, and Ranma let go of her hand as they stepped inside. She continued to hold onto his hand for a moment longer, then gave it a squeeze and let go as well. She knew he was still nervous about showing affection for people in public, especially in front of her family.

Ranma headed upstairs, but she didn't follow him, she went looking for Akane. She had expected Akane to be sitting in the dining room with a bandaged ankle and pretending that she wasn't injured. Instead she found Akane hobbling around next to Doctor Tofu in the entryway -- pretending she wasn't injured. Akane did have her ankle tightly bandaged though, so she had been right about that. She grinned openly at Akane's predictable stubbornness, then turned her attention to Doctor Tofu. He was tending to Ryoga and ignoring everyone else. She decided to check on Akane first, since the Doctor looked busy.

"How you doing, Akane?" She asked in a quiet voice, not wanting to startle anyone. As she got closer to Akane, she could smell the faint vanilla-lemon perfume that she must have put on for her date. As Akane was moving around and heating her body up more because of her injury, the scent was getting stronger in the air around her.

Akane looked up and smiled. "I'm fine, Nabiki. Just twisted my ankle a bit earlier, no big deal."

"How'd you do that anyway?" She asked as she came to crouch down on the other side of Ryoga from where Doctor Tofu was working, with her back to the door.

"Oh ... um ... well it's silly. We were on our way back home and Shampoo showed up on top of a roof and startled me. I stepped back into a fighting stance and I accidentally stepped off the curb and twisted my ankle. By the time I looked up, Shampoo was gone, and Ranma helped me the rest of the way home."

Well that explained it. She smiled at Akane then turned her attention to Doctor Tofu. Before she could say anything though, Kasumi came into the entryway. "How is Akane, Doctor?" Kasumi asked in a worried tone. She could see Doctor Tofu stiffen as soon as Kasumi spoke as he kicked in his act.

"I'm fine, Kasumi. Honestly, I hurt myself worse practicing." Akane said with a bit of an edge in her voice. She was probably getting tired of people babying her all the time.

"That's good, Akane. And what about Ryoga, Doctor?" Kasumi asked as she came up and put a hand on Doctor Tofu's shoulder.

This should be good. She thought with a rather large grin on her face. Doctor Tofu tightened his grip on Ryoga's ribs, as he had been in the middle of checking him for cracked ribs when Kasumi had entered the room. She was fairly certain she heard at least one rib creak as he squeezed.

Ryoga shot bolt upright at that and yelped with pain as he scooted away from Doctor Tofu rapidly while breathing heavily. It was amazing how quickly pain could sometimes bring someone out of unconsciousness.

Doctor Tofu stayed in the pose he had been in, clutching his now empty fingers at the air. She knew it was an act, but it was still amusing to watch. When he did things like that to Ryoga and other patients, he only pushed as hard as the patients could take. So, Ranma and Ryoga got it far worse than anyone else would. It seemed like Doctor Tofu was willing to use more force with Ryoga than Ranma though. She wondered if it was because Doctor Tofu didn't care much for Ryoga, or if he just thought Ryoga was tougher?

Kasumi smiled at Ryoga as she stood over him. "Oh good, you're up now." Nabiki realized that Kasumi had Ryoga's things in her arms. She blinked in surprise at that.

"Well, we were just about to sit down to dinner now, Ryoga ... so ..."

Was she ... was she dismissing him? That was very unlike Kasumi. Nabiki watched with wide eyes as Kasumi handed Ryoga his things and stood over him politely, but in an obviously unwelcoming way.

Ryoga sheepishly took his things and opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again as he tried to work out what to say.

Akane jumped in to defend him. "Oh, it's okay, Ryoga you can--"

"I'm afraid we only have place settings enough for our family with Doctor Tofu joining us, and I only made enough for them." Kasumi said sweetly as she tilted her head a bit and stared at Ryoga firmly with a smile on her face that did not reach her eyes.

Akane gaped at her in surprise and actually took a step back away from her like she'd just been slapped. Kasumi almost never interrupted anyone, and hospitality was practically her middle name.

Ryoga jumped to his feet and bowed to Kasumi formally. "Of course, of course. I'm on my way to mount Hyōno to train anyway, so I should get going." He said weakly.

"That's nice, have a safe trip." Kasumi replied still in her sweet voice, and still smiling with a smile that did not reach her eyes.

"Akane ... I'll catch you later, all right?" Ryoga said as he started to back up towards the door.

"S-sure, Ryoga. Have a safe trip." Akane said with actual fear in her voice as she looked back and forth between the suddenly implacable Kasumi, and Ryoga.

Ryoga fumbled behind himself for the door handle, opened it, and backed out quickly. He bowed once more to Kasumi, then turned quickly and headed straight for the front gates. Fear seemed to give him additional navigational prowess, as he made it straight to the gates and out of them without incident. Of course, the gates were also within easy eyesight, so it wasn't that much of an impressive feat for him.

The last look Nabiki got of him, he was hurrying towards the gates, and looking back over his shoulder every couple of steps like he was waiting for someone to call him back. She looked over at Akane, and she could see by her sister's body language, that she wanted to call him back. She even raised an arm halfway and opened her mouth to say something, but a look from Kasumi who had turned from the door to face Akane, was all it took to stop her. One simply did not argue with Kasumi about issues like this.

Since Ryoga had left it open, she hopped up and went over to close the door. She then turned around and leaned against the cool frame and just stared in wonder at Kasumi. She wanted to ask Kasumi what that had been about, but Akane beat her to it.

"K-Kasumi ... why did--"

"I don't particularly care for people who attack members of my family, for no good reason, in the street in front of our home. Especially when people are asking them to stop. There is training and honorable fighting in the dojo, and then there is that. I don't care for that." Kasumi said simply as she turned to leave the room. "Dinner will be served in a few minutes." She called out sweetly over her shoulder as she turned the corner, like nothing had happened.

Wow, Kasumi now thinks of Ranma as family. When did ... that ... happen? She thought to herself in wonder as she watched Kasumi go with a half-smile on her face. Kasumi didn't put her foot down all that often, but when she did, her word was law in this house.

Akane opened her mouth again like she was going to argue after her. She took a step to follow Kasumi, then obviously thought better of it and stopped. Her little sister looked at both Doctor Tofu and herself with an expression on her face that screamed what the hell just happened?!

She and Doctor Tofu both just shrugged. She honestly didn't care about Ryoga or for him. She didn't really mind him attacking Ranma though. Ranma liked to fight, and Ryoga challenged him and pushed him to be better. And, as Ranma had clearly just recently demonstrated, if he wanted to, he could shut down Ryoga's persistent attacks pretty hard. At least, at Ryoga's current skill level. She silently corrected herself.

As for Doctor Tofu, she seriously doubted there was any way he was going to set himself against Kasumi, especially over someone like Ryoga.

Akane took their indifference in and sighed as she turned on her good heel and headed upstairs. Ranma just happened to be heading down the stairs at the same time. He stepped to the side of the stairs and made room for Akane to make her way up by holding on to the banister and hopping up them. He was wise enough not to offer to help her as she thumped up the stairs determinedly.

Akane paused when she reached the same step he was on, and smiled at him. They said something quietly to each other, and Akane reached her hand out and put it on his shoulder and smiled happily at him. Then she continued to hobble upstairs and Ranma continued downstairs.

Nabiki wandered into the dining room after Ranma, who sat at his usual place. He looked up at her and smiled a small smile. That made her happy. She smiled back. Daddy and mister Saotome came in a moment later and took their usual seats. A few minutes later Akane returned having changed out of the outfit she had worn on her date with Ranma, and into her usual at-home clothes. Doctor Tofu did not join them. She wasn't all that happy about that. She knew he must have slipped outside to guard the house again. She needed to talk to him about that. He could certainly eat dinner with the family, and he didn't need to be patrolling around the house constantly. Just being in the house should be enough of a deterrent now that he had already stopped the Amazons twice.

She thought about going outside and signaling him to come in, but got distracted when Kasumi came in with the food.

"Oh, where is Doctor Tofu?" That was the first thing out of her mouth, of course.

"Oh, I think he went for a walk." Was the best she could come up with as everyone else just looked around and shrugged.

Kasumi nodded and set a place for him anyway. Good, she'd call him back into the house as soon as dinner was over, that way Kasumi could give him her undivided attention. She smiled at that thought as she ate and observed the rest of the family.

In every way possible, their shared meal together passed as normally as it ever did. Akane and Ranma made polite conversation. She made polite conversation with both of them, although Akane's replies to her seemed a bit strained. Kasumi did her usual hosting thing, and daddy and mister Saotome mostly ate in silence. Everything was normal ... until daddy decided to bring up a delicate topic. He set his bowl down and cleared his throat to get everyone's attention then dropped right into one of his usual speeches.

"Well girls, as you know, we still have a hole in the wall of the house. We are trying to have the wall fully repaired by tomorrow, but in the meantime, we will need to continue to have alternative sleeping arrangements again tonight." They all looked at him expectantly. He looked around the room in his usual melodramatic way before he started issuing orders. "Right, well I don't see any reason to displace Kasumi again tonight. So she can stay in her own room. Akane will take my bed which I have moved to Kasumi's room, and I will guard them tonight. Saotome will be walking the halls again tonight, and I will trade with him halfway through the night. And Nabiki, I want you to stay in the guest room again with Ranma guarding you, same as last night." Everyone had been nodding along until he got to her, then she saw Akane twitch like she had just been slapped.

"Wait, what?" Akane said with wide eyes as she rounded on daddy and raised her voice to a frantic pitch.

"Ranma will guard Nabiki again tonight." Daddy said simply and softly as he met her gaze sternly.

"Again?" Akane echoed him.

"Yes, since they are engaged, it is his duty to protect her first," he looked at Akane kindly, then added when she didn't look any happier, "don't worry Akane, daddy will protect you tonight, those crazy Amazons won't get to you." He had missed the point of her objection entirely, but that didn't surprise her. Daddy was decidedly old fashioned when it came to things like family honor, duty, love and marriage. She was sure that to him it was the most logical thing in the world for two teenagers to sleep together who were engaged to each other due to an arranged marriage.

She watched Akane carefully to see how she would react. Akane could start fighting for him right now, but that would force her to admit that she had real feelings for him.

"No! That's not right!" Akane said as she slapped the table. Daddy winced at that but didn't say anything right away as he tried to figure out what her objection was.

Or ... she could get upset, that works too. She thought as she cringed from the tears she could see forming in Akane's eyes. In all honesty, she didn't really care if Ranma slept with her again. Until he had made his decision, she was determined to try to keep her distance from him, as best she could, and give him the space he needed to make that decision. She knew that sleeping with her, even as a girl, would have an affect on his decision.

So, she spoke up. "It's fine, daddy. Ranma can protect Akane tonight, and you can guard me." She smiled softly at Akane as she finished.

Akane shot her a look that was confused, hurt, embarrassed and grateful all at the same time. We Tendo girls certainly are complicated, aren't we? She thought with an inward smirk.

"I-I didn't mean tha-that..." Akane trailed off embarrassed.

Well, tough, you raised the issue, so now you have to deal with it. She thought somewhat vengefully which surprised her. Let it go. She chided herself as she clamped down on those feelings and hid them.

But, despite Akane's protests and her own assurance that she was alright with switching things up, daddy wasn't having it. "No. It is Ranma's duty as Nabiki's fiancée to protect her. That is the end of it." He stood up to leave but Akane said something that stopped him halfway from his rise and brought him back down to a seated position.

"B-but ... Ranma's not ... "

Nabiki raised an eyebrow at her. This was interesting, was Akane going to try to reassert her claim to the engagement right now? She waited with an outward expression of calm on her face, but inside she was sick with fear. Already? Really? Damn. She thought in a panic as she fought the urge to yell that Ranma didn't belong to anyone.

She sneaked a quick look at Ranma who had a panicked look on his face. He was looking between her and Akane rapidly, and avoiding daddy's eyes entirely. She made eye contact with him and did her best to convey silently that she wouldn't throw a fit if he went back to Akane. That was hard to do silently, but she was pretty sure he got at least some sort of peaceful message from her.

"Ranma's not ... what, Akane?" Daddy asked with surprise in his voice. She knew he was playacting a little bit because they had just talked about this a little while ago. Daddy could be sly when he wanted to.

Everyone in the room turned and looked at Akane, except for Ranma who was now just staring at the table. She stopped looking at him to gaze at her little sister. Now's your chance, Akane, if you claim him, he'll probably go back to you. He hates being put on the spot like this, especially in front of the entire family. He'll go along with whatever just to keep the peace, at least for now. She thought in a strangely numb way. She was already inoculating herself as best she could against the hurt she felt was coming. She realized that in a distant metaphysical way, but it didn't change anything.

Akane struggled to get the words out with everyone looking at her. Nabiki could feel her own heart pounding in her chest with fear as she worked desperately to control her breathing to keep it calm and slow, and not let it spike fast and panicked like she wanted to.

"Ranma's engaged to ... he's my ..." Akane said hesitantly.

She felt weirdly woozy and suddenly tasted bile in the back of her throat as she watched her hopes dying in a slow-motion crash. Akane was doing it, she really was fighting for him!  Well ... crap. It's all over. She thought miserably as she looked at Ranma to signal to him that it was all right. But he still wasn't looking up. His body language was very negative, his shoulders were slumped, and his chin was resting on his chest as he looked at the table. The dragon inside of her was falling out of the sky, having lost the will to fly.

"He's your ... what, Akane?" Daddy asked with a touch of impatience in his voice, which triggered Kasumi.

"Father, please, this is a very sensitive subject. Let Akane say what is on her mind, in her own way." She turned to Akane and smiled kindly. "Go ahead, Akane."

Of all of the times for Kasumi to support Akane, Nabiki really wished it hadn't been now. She shot Kasumi a look of betrayal, and Kasumi met her eyes and quickly ... winked. She did it very fast and without a change in her facial expression, but she had definitely winked. She didn't know what to do with that, but there was nothing she could do anyway. Akane had the stronger claim on Ranma. Akane had put in the time. Nabiki knew both Akane and Ranma had feelings for each other. She hung her head and waited for the axe to fall.

"I, it's just ... Ranma is my ... " Akane stuttered as she stared at the table. She was clearly having a very hard time actually saying what everyone knew she was trying to say.

"Are you saying that you and Ranma agreed to switch the engagement back to you today, Akane?" Daddy asked.

That hadn't even occurred to her. She looked up quickly with wide eyes at Ranma feeling extremely betrayed. He could have at least mentioned that on the way inside earlier--

He looked sideways at her by shifting his eyes towards her just enough so she could tell that he was looking at her, and shook his head no with the smallest millimeter-small motion he could possibly make. Then he resumed looking at the table. Akane hadn't noticed.

She didn't know why it mattered, because Akane was about to pull the engagement back to herself anyway, but she was immensely happy that Ranma hadn't gone behind her back and changed the engagement back to Akane without even talking to her about it. Not that it changed anything; Ranma being officially engaged to her or Akane didn't mean the week was over yet. She still had a chance. It was a slim chance, but she still had her own date to go on with him.  Maybe I can still ... she thought wistfully about ways she could convince Ranma he would be happier with her. But if she was being honest with herself, she couldn't think of anything of substance that she could offer him that Akane couldn't.

"N-no ..." Akane said as she looked at Ranma and then back at daddy. Akane didn't look at her at all, not that she blamed her.

"Ranma?" Daddy asked sternly. Ranma looked up at him using his timid persona. He generally deferred politely to daddy when it came to trouble concerning any of the Tendo sisters. Daddy continued. "Did you change your engagement back to Akane today?"

Ranma shook his head no.

"Are you still engaged to Nabiki?"

Ranma nodded his head yes.

"Well then, this question goes to you girls. It sounds to me like Akane wants the engagement back. So, we should settle this. Nabiki and Akane, what do you want?"

She noticed that he didn't ask Ranma what he wanted. But she knew he didn't care what Ranma wanted, nor did Ranma's own father, whom she noticed wasn't even paying attention to what was going on, as he continued to eat Kasumi's cooking happily.

She looked at Akane and waited while she held her breath. This is it, all she has to say is she wants him back. She thought. Akane was looking at the table and tracing circles on the top of it with her finger as she blushed. After a moment, daddy asked her directly. "Akane, do you want to be engaged to Ranma again? Do you have feelings for him?"

Ranma looked up at that and watched Akane carefully.

"What? N-no! That's not what I..." Akane protested as she blushed even harder.

Ranma's facial expression didn't change from the careful neutral that he had it set to, but she could tell that he hadn't been expecting her to say that. Inside, Nabiki was warming up. She can't do it! She can't say out loud that she has feelings for him! She smiled as the dragon inside her pulled out of its dive at the last moment, centimeters above rock bottom. It was clear to everyone in the room that Akane did have feelings for Ranma, but at the moment, that wasn't going to be enough.

Daddy turned his gaze from Akane and fixed it on her next and asked her the same question. "Nabiki, do you want to be engaged to Ranma? Do you have feelings for him?"

She could feel the weight of the stares of everyone in the room settle on her. They were unbearably heavy. She immediately felt like she was having trouble breathing. Wow, this is actually a lot harder than it looked. She thought with sympathy for Akane. She swallowed nervously. It was one thing to be alone with Ranma and to tell him things. But, saying those things in front of her sisters and daddy was ... a lot harder than she had figured it would be. Making it even worse was the suddenly intense gaze from mister Saotome as he took a brief break from eating to watch her with a critical eye as a new possible future daughter-in-law. She looked over at Ranma as she swallowed nervously while she worked to keep a mask of cool detachment on her face. Sure enough as her eyes settled on Ranma, she found him watching her carefully, just like he had done with Akane.

I am sure this can't be easy on him either, but c'mon, why is all of the pressure suddenly on me? Why does Ranma just get to sit there? She thought indignantly. She sneaked a look at Akane, and saw that she was still looking down at the table and blushing mightily. Not that she blamed her, she could feel the heat of her own blush in her face and neck, she desperately wanted to look at the table too, or anywhere else that wasn't everyone's eyes. Only her years of experience with negotiations prevented her from doing that; she wanted to show strength right now. She let her eyes slide over to Kasumi, and found her beaming at her with sparkling eyes. She could almost feel her older sister sending her cheers of encouragement. She brought her gaze back over to Ranma, and tried to really think of what it would be like to marry him.

I'm not really going to do this, am I? Can I do this? If I do, I will be fully committing to this, I won't be able to back out of it easily. She thought to herself as she gazed into his eyes. Then she mentally slapped herself to snap out of it. What am I thinking about? I was just sitting here worrying about Akane taking the engagement away, and now I am hesitating like some mewling school girl over whether to get the regular or chocolate milk? I swore in the park that I was going to fight for him, so, damn it, that's what I am going to do! She chided herself as she reached down inside herself for her courage and grabbed it as hard as she could as she opened her mouth and answered.

"I ... Yes." She said in as calm a voice as she could, which still shook with the nervousness she couldn't quite hide. She couldn't believe she had said that in front of everyone; she felt like she had just been kicked in the gut. She looked down at the table in shame for a moment, then ripped her eyes back up to see Ranma's reaction.

Ranma smiled a very small smile for her before he hid it again. She could see Akane out of the corner of her eye look up suddenly at her in disbelief, with no small amount of betrayal written on her face. I'm sorry Akane, I gave you all the chances I could. I have to do this. She thought sympathetically for her sister. She couldn't bring herself to look at her, though. She looked over at Kasumi, who was now grinning at her happily. She understood what her wink had been about now. That had been ... a risky little gambit. She had to admit though, it had paid off. Her respect for Kasumi rose a notch.

"Akane?" Daddy prompted her sister one more time. Akane looked back down at the table and stayed silent. Nabiki's heart went out to her, but she didn't say anything. If Akane wanted him, she was going to have to say ... something. Although, in the end, even if she didn't fight, Ranma might choose her anyway -- despite her own hopes -- she concluded glumly.

"Well then, I think that is settled, for now. Akane, my bed is waiting for you whenever you are ready." He stood up and walked past Akane on his way out of the room. He paused next to Akane and reached down and squeezed her shoulder kindly in the way that only fathers did, then continued out of the room. Mister Saotome followed close behind him. Akane never looked up.

Ranma looked up from the table as soon as daddy left the room, and slid his eyes from her to Akane and back again. He opened his mouth to say something, but Kasumi reached over quickly and put a rice ball in his mouth. "Ranma what do you think of my new recipe for this?" She asked sweetly. He looked at her with wide eyes as he chewed quickly and swallowed to prevent choking.

Nabiki raised an eyebrow over that. Ranma had the right to speak his mind about all this. But ... she had to admit that now was probably not the best time. She was sure that as embarrassed as Akane had to be feeling right now, and as hurt as she must be, anything he could say would only upset her. Besides, Ranma was probably a little hurt that Akane had denied, yet again, that she had feelings for him. That would probably color what he would say anyway. She thought about trying to talk to Akane privately as she stood up. She even took a step towards her. But Kasumi cleared her throat and got her attention. She looked over at Kasumi who shook her head very subtly. Nabiki sighed. Kasumi was probably right.

So, she stopped and turned around and walked out of the room without looking back. As she climbed the stairs she thought, well I guess there is one thing I can offer Ranma right now, that Akane can't. She had to admit to herself, as embarrassing as that had been, she was glad she hadn't backed down. She hummed happily to herself as she made her way to her room to get her things for the night.

Chapter Text

Nabiki was in pretty high spirits at the moment. The dragon inside her was swooping around in celebration. Akane had tried to take Ranma back, but hadn't been able to. Ranma was still engaged to her, and he had smiled when she had been put on the spot to say in front of everyone that she had feelings for him.

I did it, I did it, I did it! She thought happily to herself as she turned from her dresser to look at herself in her bedroom mirror and smiled a small, proud smile. She hugged her pajamas tightly to her chest as she looked at herself in the cold of her room. I look stressed out, for sure. But, otherwise, I think I'm holding up pretty damn well. She thought as she assessed the wear on herself she was accumulating from carrying around all of the extra stress from the last few days. She smiled to herself as she headed to the door.

Now, I just have to get through another night with Ranma and th--

Her thoughts dropped off a cliff as she opened her door. Ranma and Akane were down the hall together, standing very close and talking quietly. They were holding hands, and he was nodding while Akane did most of the talking. She could tell that Akane was upset, because there were tears in her eyes, but Akane was also smiling and sending a very strong message of desire to Ranma.

She doubted Ranma was fully aware of what Akane was doing, but she could tell. Akane was standing as close to him as she could without actually touching him. She had one of her hips angled forward and tilted down as she stood so that she was partially in profile to him. She was holding his hands in hers down below her waist and she had her hands pressed together with his, which enhanced her bust in profile. Akane was also constantly smiling and shifting her eyes from his eyes to his mouth and back again, a classic signal.

She knew Ranma would be aware that Akane was showing that she wanted to be nice to him. But she doubted that he would know that Akane was trying to tell him non-verbally what she hadn't been able to say at dinner. He might be picking up on some of her signals but--

Oop, then again, maybe he might know. She thought in surprise as Akane lunged forward and hugged him tightly and buried her face in his chest. He tensed up at first, then relaxed and returned her hug. He didn't pick her up off her feet as he returned her hug. He just leaned down and hugged her. She didn't know why, but that detail mattered to her.

However, she was now immediately uncomfortable standing there watching them. She wanted to clear her throat or otherwise interrupt them. But she had promised him that she wouldn't interfere with what he did with Akane during the week of their promise. Because I am an idiot. She scolded herself. But, a promise was a promise, so she wanted to get away from them. She didn't want to retreat to her room, though, as it was cold in there. So, she quietly closed her door and stepped softly across the hall. She watched Ranma out of the corner of her eye as she crept towards the bathroom. His back was to her, but she could see by the small twitch of his head that he heard her. Well, there wasn't anything she could do about that. She had promised not to interfere, she hadn't promised to flee if she saw him doing something with Akane, or creep around the house silent as a ninja.

She quietly opened the door to the bathroom, and closed it behind herself without looking back, mercifully blocking off any view of them. She just stood there as moment after moment passed, hugging her clothes to her chest and breathing shallowly.

To occupy the time, she set her clothes on one of the shelves and washed her face and brushed her teeth. She didn't want to change her clothes yet, because she still had to go outside and bring Doctor Tofu in. After a suitable period of time had passed, she figured Ranma and Akane couldn't still be standing in the hallway hugging anymore. Even if they were, she couldn't just stay in the bathroom pacing all night. If they were still out there, she would just quietly slip by them and go bring the Doctor inside.

She reached her hand out to the door handle and held it there for a moment as she gathered her courage. Come on, girl, it's not like they were stripping down and going at it, Akane was only hugging him. Snap out of it. She chided herself. She nodded and took a deep breath and pulled the door open slowly.

Ranma was standing there facing the door, looking sheepish with his hand raised to knock. His arm wasn't swinging though, so who knew how long he had been standing there like that. Even so, it took every gram of her self control to keep from yelping in surprise. Her hands did dart to her mouth though, she couldn't control the reflex.

Ranma looked at her with mixed feelings in his eyes as he lowered his hand and tried to explain. "So ... about that."

Oh, no no no no no, don't want the details! She thought in a semi-panic as she immediately held up a finger to shush him. "Listen, Ranma, I told you, I want you to date her. I want you to see who feels best with you and make a decision. I wasn't naive enough to make that promise with you and think that you wouldn't try kissing her or hugging her, or whatever. But ... I don't really want to hear about it, all right? I am understanding ... but only to a point." She said in a tone that she could tell he noticed was strained with a bit of ... negativity. The dragon inside her was staring out of her eyes with its own decidedly green eyes.

He threw an arm behind his head in embarrassment and looked down as he jerked his head up and down in an apologetic nod.

She forced herself to cram her feelings of jealousy down as far as she could push them into the basement of her mind, and she kicked the door closed behind them, locking them away for now. He wasn't going to respect her if she didn't keep her promise to him. She needed to keep things under control.

He was still just standing there, looking guilty, so she sighed and pushed him gently on his chest. "I have stuff to do, Saotome, so move it. I'm not mad at you."

He looked up at her hopefully. "Really?" He asked quietly.

She nodded and made herself smile at him. "Really. Now, I am going to go bring Doctor Tofu inside for his own good, if you want to use the bathroom." She knew he could see through her fake smile, but it was the best she could give him at the moment. It was a delicate game they were playing, and people were going to get hurt. But she couldn't back out now. She had committed to play, and she played to win.

Ranma nodded at her again, still hanging his head down guiltily. She rolled her eyes and stepped towards him and lightly reached out for his chin. She lifted his head up gently as she ducked down to look into his eyes while pulling him backwards into the bathroom with her. Once she had pulled him all the way inside, she looked at the door, and he absently reached backwards and closed it. Then, she pulled him upright while she continued to stare into into his eyes, took a deep breath, and tried to ease his fears. She leaned very close to him to put her mouth next to his ear. She saw out of the corner of her eye that he briefly raised his arms like he was going to hug her, before he realized what she was doing and put them back down nervously. That made her happy.

"I promised you that I wouldn't interfere, Ranma. I also promised that I would be honest with you. So, listen to me, I mean it when I say I am all right. You are keeping your promise, and I am keeping mine. You have a full week to make your decision. I appreciate your concern for my feelings, and I appreciate your concern for Akane's feelings. But, you need to make your choice, and that means these kinds of things are going to happen. It's okay." She whispered into his ear. Even in the relative privacy of the bathroom, she had to be careful saying things like that in the house. She could feel the heat of him standing so close to him, and it was affecting her, making her want to ... do things ... with him. So she took a step back and took another deep breath and looked at him. Something about him seemed ... off ... to her senses, but she couldn't put her finger on it at the moment.

He seemed much more calm now. He nodded to show that he understood her, in a less panicked way. His eyes still looked guilty, but his body language was warming up. She smiled at him. "All right, well, now I really do need to go bring the Doctor inside. I will see you in a few minutes." She didn't wait for him to reply as she dodged around him, pulled the door open quickly, and almost jogged down the hall.

That is getting ... harder to do. She thought to herself as she headed down the stairs. She forced herself to put her mixed emotions on hold while she gathered herself to look for Doctor Tofu. She hoped he would be close enough that she could signal him and bring him in quickly. She didn't want to be outside in the cold long. But, if she was really being honest, she didn't want to leave Ranma upstairs alone with Akane for long, either. She bit her lower lip guiltily as she acknowledged her bias, at least to herself.

Once she was down the stairs, she immediately headed out the front door to look for Doctor Tofu. She didn't have to go far. He was standing just behind the gates to their property with his hands clasped behind his back -- like a soldier. She shuddered a bit thinking of him like that, and hurried over to him.

She knew he had to hear her coming, but he didn't make any indication that he did until she was about a half-meter away from him and she slowed to a walk.

"Hello, Nabiki." He said in that peaceful tone he almost always used.

"I swear, Doctor, one of these days I am going to figure out how you do that without looking." She groused at him with familiar warmth in her voice.

He turned and looked at her and smiled kindly. "I'm sure you will." He said warmly before he turned back to staring out of their gates.

She reached over and grabbed his upper arm gently. "Come on, come inside. There's no reason for you to stand out here in the cold again all night. As long as you're in the house, they won't attack again."

"What if they do?" He asked quietly without turning around.

"If they do, then you and Ranma and daddy and mister Saotome will beat the ever living crap out of them." She said with a grin.

He turned around again and looked at her with a look that tried to be stern, but fell apart into a huge smile almost immediately as he laughed. "You do have a way of phrasing things, Nabiki." He said happily.

"I know, daddy tells me I get it from mom." She said proudly.

He nodded enthusiastically. "Oh yes! Yes indeed! You are very much like her in that way. She had the same sense of humor and fast mouth as you, Nabiki, no doubt about that." He said as his eyes unfocused as he thought about her mother. She smiled tightly at that. She missed mom terribly, but she loved that so many people had loved her.

She tried to prod him to move again. "Come inside out of the cold, eat your dinner that Kasumi has waiting for you, and just be in the house. That will be good enough for tonight with daddy guarding Akane and Kasumi and Ranma guarding me." She said as she pulled him to start walking with her inside. It was like pulling on a tree. He didn't seem that big or strong, but if he wanted to be rooted to the ground, she couldn't move him. He looked at her and drew his eyebrows together in concern for a moment, then smiled and nodded. And just like that, she was able to move him, and they started walking back towards the house together.

"What's this about Ranma guarding you?" He asked.

"Don't worry about it." She replied glibly.

"What should I tell your father about why I am here?"

"Tell him the truth, you are worried about the family, and want to help. He'll set you up in any room in the house you like, and tell you that just having you there as an honored guest will be more than enough. It won't matter. As long as you are in the house, it should be fine."

He nodded in agreement with her. She walked with him to the dining area, and left him there with Kasumi. She smiled as she listened to Kasumi fuss over him happily to serve him dinner while he did his usual nervous and stuttering act. Those two had their own delicate game they were playing, just like her and Ranma.

With that thought, she headed upstairs to resume playing the game. The door to the bathroom was closed when she got upstairs, so she wandered into the guest room looking for Ranma. He wasn't in there either. So it must be him in the bathroom. She walked back into the hall and stared at Akane's closed door. She was probably in her room changing or getting clothes to change into in Kasumi's room, same as she had done a little while ago. She seriously considered going in and talking to her. She wondered how Akane was feeling at the moment. But she had a feeling her younger sister wasn't going to be too receptive to her presence right now. She couldn't really blame her.

Her thoughts were interrupted by the bathroom door opening and Ranma walking out into the hallway. His eyes locked onto her and he smiled as he walked over to her. As he got closer something in her mind told her something was wrong again. He stopped in front of her and put his hand behind his head to ask how things had gone outside. She replied with a simple answer as she put her brain on autopilot while she tried to figure out what was making her uncomfortable. A moment later it hit her when he reached his hand up and waved it in her face trying to get her attention.

"Hello. Nabiki. You all right?" He asked.

With his hand in her face, she finally could put her finger on what was wrong. She leaned back away from him and frowned.

He let his hand drop sheepishly. "What's the matter, Nabiki?"

"It's just ... you still smell like her..." She said quietly as she leaned back to a neutral position. "You smell like Akane's perfume." She added when the light didn't immediately go on in his eyes.

"Oh ... oh!" He said as realization hit him. He sniffed the air around himself, but clearly didn't smell anything. He shrugged. "I was gonna take a shower anyway before I changed into a girl tonight, that should fix it, right?"

"Not a cold shower, I hope?" She joked. She felt bad making it clear to him that she didn't like him smelling like Akane, but if she had to sleep next to him ... it wasn't an unreasonable request, was it? Of course not. Akane would be the same way if the situation was reversed, I'm sure of it. She reassured herself.

He shook his head no and smiled. She returned his smile. "Well, before you start, let me go grab my pajamas and I will change in the guest room while you do that." She said with more cheer in her voice.

He nodded and stepped to the side, still sheepishly holding his hand behind his head. She dashed into the bathroom and grabbed her clothes, and winked at him as she headed to the guest room. "Don't take too long, Ranma, I get lonely." She said as she closed the door to the guest room, leaving him alone in the hall.

Once she was behind the closed door, she leaned her forehead on the frame and berated herself. What was that?! Is that not interfering? Get yourself under control! She grimaced and lightly tapped the side of her head with her fist.

She sighed and turned away from the door and started to change. She slipped into the pajama bottoms first, then slid her top off and was just sliding the pajama top down when she heard the door open behind her. The door shut again quickly and she heard a hesitant knock from outside the door. She smiled as she finished slipping the top on and turned around and walked over to the door and opened it.

Ranma couldn't even look at her. He had his eyes on the ground and immediately launched into an apology. "Sorry. I ... sorry ... I'm so used to staying in this room, I ... I was wasn't thinking. I was gonna tell you something and I just ... forgot. I didn't see anything, I swear! Your back was to the door, I promise!" He bowed formally to her and held the bow until she said something.

She sighed. Patience, Nabiki, patience. She encouraged herself. "Ranma..." when he didn't look up, she touched his shoulder and said his name a bit more strongly. He looked up at her then, but still didn't rise from the bow. She could see the wince on his face as he waited for his punishment. She sighed again.

"Ranma, stand up." Once he had done so, she gestured for him to enter the room, then closed the door behind him once he had stepped inside. He still smelled like Akane, but one thing at a time. She pushed her left hip out and rested her hand on it as she smiled sternly at him. It was hard to look imposing while wearing pajamas, but she could do it if she wanted to. Instead, she settled for impatient. She wanted him to see by her body language that she didn't like this. She kept a smile on her face though.

"Ranma, there's no reason to apologize and bow and shrink away from me like you're afraid of me. You're right, this is your room. I should have locked the door, and anyway, like you said, my back was to the door. Big whoop. And frankly, if you had walked in on me stark naked by accident, sure I would have been embarrassed, but it wouldn't be a major incident. I mean, yeah, if you keep accidentally walking in on me naked, then we are going to have to have a talk, but a sincere accident? No big deal. All right?" She asked him in a tone that made it clear she wasn't asking. She loved her little sister, but she had her own set of rules she used for dealing with guys. Akane was welcome to her own rules, but that didn't mean Ranma had to follow those rules with her.

He nodded his head rapidly with a look of relief on his face.

"So, now that that is out of the way, what's up?" She asked as she leaned back against the doorway.

"Oh ... oh yeah, um, Kasumi came up and told me that the hot water isn't workin' in the bathroom, so I can't take a bath or a hot shower. So I just wanted to let you know it's gonna take me a bit longer to get ready."

"Oh, well, in that case, you don't need to worry about smelling like Akane tonight, Ranma." She said with a false smile on her face. She, in fact, really didn't like him smelling like Akane, but it would be unreasonable of her to ask him to go bathe in cold water just because of that.

He smiled and shook his head no. "Well, I mean, I did fight with Ryoga earlier, I don't really want to go to bed all sweaty and stuff. It's fine, I'll put a tea kettle on the stove and I'll splash myself warm as I wash. I've done that sort of thing before in the woods with Pop while trainin'. Just wanted to let you know it would take longer because I'll have to wait for the kettle to heat." He smiled self-consciously and jogged out the door before she could respond to that.

She closed the door behind him and thought to herself. I wonder if Kasumi ... no. She has Doctor Tofu here right now, I'm sure she doesn't have her mind on what Ranma and I are up to.

She walked slowly away from the door and sat on the soft bedding laid out on the floor. She had kind of unofficially claimed the bed closest to the door, which was Ranma's bed. Not only did it feel right to her to be in his bed, she really didn't want to sleep in his father's bed ... ever. As a matter of fact, she was pretty sure she wanted to burn his father's bedding if he ever left.

The bedding in the guest room was great stuff, just as good as the western-style beds she and her sisters used. As the bedding warmed under her from her body heat, she gathered her courage to talk to him about the other thing on her mind. In addition to their plans about the rest of the girls, she actually did have something more to talk with him about. Daddy's talk at dinner tonight had planted the seed of it in her mind, and she couldn't just leave it alone now. It wasn't going to be an easy talk, but ... since she had been put on the spot tonight, it seemed only fair that he share that with her, at least a little.

She could hear Ranma run the water in the bathroom a little while later, and she could tell by the change in pitch of the water, when he was stepping in and out of it to splash himself with his tea kettle. She smiled at the thought of him doing that. It was such a silly thing to be doing.

Many minutes later, she heard him turn the water off. She gathered her courage and put it on like a suit of armor. Any moment he would come in the door and she had to talk to him. It might actually help that he would be a girl while she did it. She smiled despite herself. He was cute and little when he was a girl. She knew he wouldn't appreciate being thought of as cuddly, but he was when he was female.

She heard him open the bathroom door. He didn't come right to the guest room. Instead, she heard him yelp in surprise in the hallway as he greeted someone.

"Hey there, oh, Kasumi -- oop, look out!" That was followed by a clatter of something dropping to the floor, a startled little scream from Kasumi, and the clank and splash of what sounded like a tea kettle hitting the floor.

She jumped to her feet and ran and yanked the door open. There in the hallway was Ranma. He was holding Kasumi in his arms just centimeters from the floor, like he had just caught her before she fell. He was soaking wet in his pajamas, and male. His tea kettle was indeed on the floor behind him. And, behind Kasumi, there was a stack of books.

Before she could say anything, Akane yanked her own door open with her eyes wide in panic. She had obviously been in the middle of changing, because only the bottom button of her pajama top was buttoned. She was still wearing a bra, so it wasn't a huge deal, but she could still see Akane flush with embarrassment when she saw Ranma looking at her. Then she flushed a deeper shade of red when she processed that Ranma had Kasumi in his arms.

Chapter Text

Well, this should be interesting. Nabiki thought as she leaned up against the door frame. What made this even more fun was that Ranma's left hand which was at the small of Kasumi's back, had slipped under the bottom of her shirt a little bit when he had caught her. Innocent enough, but not to Akane's eyes, she was sure. No way will Akane hit Ranma after their date though, not after she had been trying to be so nice to him earlier, especially not while he is holding Kasumi. She thought as she watched those thoughts flash across Akane's face like she was reading an open book. Then her little sister screwed a smile on her face and reached up and started to button the top button on her pajamas nonchalantly as she walked over to them.

"Hey Ranma ... um ... what's going on?" Akane asked him in a sweet voice that was obviously strained.

Ranma's brain re-engaged and he jerked upright with Kasumi and quickly set her down on her own feet again. He did tend to kind of go into low-power mode when he was in unexpected close contact with a female, didn't he? I wonder why that is? She thought.

Kasumi answered for Ranma as soon as he set her back on her feet. "Oh, I'm afraid it's my fault, Akane. I wasn't looking where I was going with that stack of books I was bringing downstairs to show Doctor Tofu. Ranma had to jump out of the way, and got splashed because of it, and then he saved me from falling when I stumbled." Kasumi said sweetly.

"Kasumi, what did you, wha--" Akane stuttered.

But she couldn't complete the thought because Daddy entered the scene at that point with mister Saotome right behind him charging up the stairs.

"Don't worry, Kasumi, Daddy's coming!" He yelled as he cleared the landing and jerked to an abrupt stop finding nobody attacking his girls, and everyone just standing around awkwardly in the hallway.

So, of course, he looked suspiciously at Ranma. "Saotome, what are you up to?" He growled.

"Yeah, boy, what'd you do now?" Ranma's dad added.

"I didn't do anything!" Ranma protested.

"It's true, Father, it was my fault. I ran into Ranma and made him drop his kettle. He saved me from falling when I lost my balance from the books I had been carrying." Kasumi said with a bit of an edge to her voice as she stepped in front of Ranma.

Akane noticed the change in Kasumi's mood and took a full step back from her. All thoughts of going after Ranma for any perceived wrongs to her sister had clearly fled her head.

Well, now we'll never know what would have happened. She thought to herself glibly as she leaned against the wall and watched it all with a smile. She noticed that Doctor Tofu hadn't come charging to the rescue. He was good enough to know the difference between the sounds of a real attack and the sounds of someone running into someone accidentally. Had it been an accident, though? She eyed Kasumi suspiciously.

It had become clear to her at dinner that Kasumi wasn't fully acting as a neutral third party. She didn't know if Kasumi just wanted the Ranma thing sorted out one way or another once and for all, or if Kasumi had someone in mind for Ranma specifically. Either way, it was awfully ... convenient that Kasumi had told Ranma the hot water was out, and then Kasumi had somehow been involved with Ranma ... accidentally being changed back into a boy again after going to the trouble of washing up with cold water and changing into a girl. She raised an eyebrow at Kasumi but didn't say anything.

The family was breaking up now. Daddy and mister Saotome were heading back downstairs; and Akane was following Kasumi to her room, after helping her older sister pick up the dropped books. Akane did pause and lean over and whisper something to Ranma as she passed him, though. She watched her little sister with no small amount of annoyance. The dragon inside her glared at Akane while she tried to shush it. Akane closed the door to Kasumi's room slowly, with her eyes locked on Ranma. It had not escaped Nabiki's attention that Akane had never once looked at her the entire time she had been in the hall with her. She would have to try to resolve that soon. She didn't want Akane to hate her.

She sighed. So many problems, not enough time. She thought as she looked at her dripping-wet fiancée and sighed again. "What am I going to do with you, Ranma?" She asked with a slow grin and a deliberately overwrought tone of voice.

He frowned at her. "I don't know, but can you do it quick? I hate being wet." He said miserably.

"Well, come on then, come change into dry clothes." She said sarcastically but with a warm tone and a smile on her face as she swept her hand towards the room. He hesitated for a moment, then nodded and entered the room. She followed close behind him and closed the door. He walked a wide berth around the bedding on the floor to reach the clothes dresser on the other side of the room. He pulled out a new set of pajamas and turned and looked at her sadly.

"I wasn't that cold stayin' a girl either, because I had been usin' the kettle to warm up as I washed." He sighed regretfully. "Be right back, I'll go change into a girl and then put these on."

"Hold on, Ranma." She said as she stayed in front of the door and held a hand out in the classic palm-out stop hand signal.

He froze in place with a confused look on his face.

"It's all right ... with me ... if you stay a guy, Ranma. I trust you. I'm not worried about you attacking me in the night or anything." She said as gently as she could. She knew this was a sensitive subject for him.

"Yeah, but ... Nabiki ..." He protested with his hand behind his head in embarrassment.

It was funny, as often as Ranma was accused of being a pervert, in reality he was actually a bit of a prude. She smiled at him. "But, what, Ranma?" She asked. She knew what he was going to say, the same as last night. But, at least this time he couldn't say he'd never slept with anyone before.

"I ... it's just ... you know ... what if somebody--, or what if I--" He stammered.

"All right, worst case scenario, what is the absolute worst thing you think could happen if you stay the night in the room with me as a boy?" She asked with a raised eyebrow.

"I guess ... um ... I guess if I touch somethin' I shouldn't when I'm sleepin' ... oh, um ... I guess worse than that would be if I did that and someone saw, like Akane or your dad." He said as he flushed red and stared at the ground.

She smiled a confident smile as she replied. "So what?" She asked.

"Well ... Akane would be really mad, and your dad would probably try to have us get married that morning, I don't know what Kasumi or Doctor Tofu would do. I'm sure Pop would go along with whatever your dad wanted. I ... I dunno know what you would do..." he trailed off, still staring hard at the floor.

Nabiki cracked a more genuine smile and cleared her throat, and waited until he looked up at her. Then she started ticking points off on her fingers. "One, we'll lock the door, which we should be doing anyway just for security reasons. That is the whole reason you are supposed to be in here with me anyway, isn't it? For security?" He nodded, so she continued. "Two, if, despite the door being locked, Akane saw you sleeping with me in an ... awkward situation ... she might indeed get mad. Nothing I can do for you there other than to remind you that it wouldn't be like you were actually doing anything wrong. Three, I can handle my daddy, don't worry about it. And your dad certainly can't make me marry you tomorrow morning, or at any other time. As for Doctor Tofu and Kasumi, again, don't worry about it. They are far more interested in each other than they will ever be in us." She smiled at him encouragingly.

"And ... you, Nabiki?" He asked as he looked up into her eyes uncertainly.

She had been wondering if he would pick up on the fact that she had skipped herself. There's hope for you yet, Ranma. She thought in approval before she answered. "As for myself, I can tell when I am being groped or not, Ranma. If it is an innocent thing done while you are sleeping, or just a mistake done in the dark, then it never happened." She smiled at him, then added with a hard edge in her voice. "However, if you repeatedly make the same innocent mistakes night after night, I may ask Kasumi to only serve you broth until you behave."

Ranma swallowed nervously at that, and nodded earnestly.

"All right then, if that's settled, why don't you get changed, and we can talk about our plans for tomorrow and ... other stuff before we go to sleep." She suggested.

"Oh, s-sure, I'll just run to the bathroom and--" he said as he approached her. But she hadn't moved from in front of the door.

She thought about insisting that she just turn around and he could change in here, but she knew that if she pushed him too hard, he wouldn't be able to handle it. She sighed and stepped away from the door. He smiled gratefully and hurried through it. He ran back into the room wearing the dry clothes about ten seconds later, and closed and locked the door behind himself.

She nodded in appreciation. Say what you will about Ranma, when he wants to, he can pay attention to detail. She thought as she went to go sit down on her bedding and patted the bedding next to her to indicate she wanted him to join her.

When he had settled, she smiled at him. "I have two things to talk to you about."

He nodded and waited patiently. Like a student waiting for a teacher to tell them what to do next. That isn't good. He can't rely on me for all his answers. She thought absently and resolved to try to wean him off his sudden dependence on her for guidance, to a more healthy level anyway.

"Well, first let's talk about plans. Shampoo kind of forced our hand today for dealing with her. I never even got to tell you the plans." She said bemused.

"Plans?" He asked as he picked up on the plural.

Oops. She thought, chagrined. Since it was a moot point now, there wasn't really much point in going over them, and she was kind of embarrassed by the second plan she had come up with anyway. She tried to change the subject. "Yeah, but don't worry. What you did was basically the plan I figured we would use anyway, the direct confrontation. Now, about tomorrow--"

"What was the other plan?" He interrupted her curiously.

Damn. She thought as she looked at him hesitantly. Why did I have to promise him to be honest this week? She thought, embarrassed. If he hadn't proved that he could tell when she was lying, she would lie right now. She sighed. "Fine, well, if you must know, the second plan was ... for you and I to run. We could go to Paris or Hawaii or somewhere else, and just duck out of all of this." She blushed as she said it. It had seemed more reasonable when she had been thinking about it while he was on his date with Akane and trying very hard not to have a nervous melt down.

"Oh ... I ... um ... " He stammered.

"Don't worry about it, Ranma. I didn't really think you would pick that plan anyway." She said as she looked at her hands nervously.

"It's just ... I don't know if I could run from everything, you know?" He said carefully.

"You ran from Shampoo in China." She reminded him.

"T-that's true ... but ... it was different then." He said quietly.

"I know, Ranma. I know. Just ... forget about it, all right? It wasn't the best example of a plan I could come up with. I had plan one worked out much better." She said as she continued to stare into her hands, embarrassed.

She heard him shuffle his weight next to her, and a moment later his warm hand was on hers. She looked up at him, and found him smiling at her. "It would be fun... to take a trip with you, though." He said quietly.

She smiled at him, grateful that he was being so kind about it, and not mocking her. "Maybe ... after this is all over?" She asked haltingly.

He nodded as he sat back down on his own bedding and let go of her hand. She felt the loss of his warmth more keenly than the situation really called for, and took a sharp breath to steady herself.

Come on girl, get it together. She berated herself as she turned to him and pulled their conversation back on track. "So, anyway, for tomorrow, did you want to deal with Ukyo or Kodachi? Or do you want to take a break?"

"Can we ... can we take a break?" He asked quietly.

She nodded. "Of course. How all of this gets handled is up to you. I just promised to help you do it."

He nodded. "All right, well after today with Akane and then Ryoga and Shampoo, it would be nice to take tomorrow a little more slow. At least for a day. Besides, I'm worried about what Shampoo is gonna do next. I don't want Ukyo or Kuno's crazy sister trying to kill me if Shampoo is after us as well." He said.

She smiled. "Fair enough. But, when tomorrow is over, who do you want me to have a plan ready for?"

"Ukyo." He whispered with pain in his eyes. "Can you ... can you figure out a way for her to be happy?" He asked in a miserable tone.

"I'll try, Ranma. I'll try." She said with as much confidence as she could muster. He wasn't exactly asking her to go get groceries. He was asking her to help him break someone's heart and have them be happy about it. She locked eyes with him and tried to communicate what she was feeling as best she could, silently. She could tell at least a little bit of it was getting through to him. That made her happy.

"So what was the other thing you wanted to talk about?" He asked quietly.

Damn, he doesn't miss much when he's paying attention, does he? She thought as she tried to decide if she was going to go through with it tonight after all. Things were good between them right now. Really good. Incredibly good. Why am I such an idiot?! She yelled at herself silently as he watched her.

She just sat and looked at him for a moment, wanting desperately to ask him what he was thinking, how his date with Akane had gone, if he loved her, really, anything to delay what she felt she needed to do. Stop it! She scolded herself. Do what must be done. She sighed inwardly and knew she had to. She wasn't happy about it though. It's like I am trying to throw him back to Akane. She thought bitterly as she took a deep breath and locked eyes with him.

She smiled gently at him. She had to tell him, but she wanted to phrase it in just the right way. So she began with a question. "Ranma, what do you think one of the most important parts of a relationship is?" She looked down as she waited for his answer. Wow, this already hurts more than I thought it would. She thought in surprise as an ache of dread started to blossom in her chest and her heart rate increased as her breaths started to come more shallowly. She knew he would pick up on it, but she couldn't control it.

He spoke up after a longer pause than was comfortable had passed. "I ... I don't know, Nabiki."

She looked up at him and found him staring at her with expectant eyes. She smiled and figured she could give him this one, considering all of this stuff was just her opinion anyway. What was important to her wouldn't necessarily be important to someone else. "Trust," was all she said in answer to him. He continued to look at her expectantly, so she elaborated. "I want to be able to totally trust you, Ranma, and I want you to be able to trust me."

He smiled and reached for her hand, which she gave to him to hold. Feeling his warmth on her again made her shiver a bit with happiness. "But, I do trust you, Nabiki." He said as he smiled at her like he had just said something worthy of high praise. She supposed in a way that was true, as he was learning all of this on his own, and very quickly. He certainly hadn't learned it from his dad.

But why do you trust me? I don't deserve it. Is it just infatuation? She thought to herself. Until recently, because he had been engaged to Akane, and hadn't been her responsibility or a real part of her life, she had frequently teased him and even exploited him. Well, his girl form anyway. She had put the brakes down hard on that behavior, but that had been very recently. He had no real reason to trust her. So, she gave voice to her fears. "Why ... why do you trust me?" She stared him in the eyes this time as she waited for his answer. This was important.

He looked off into space for a while as he thought about it, then shrugged. "I just do. In the past I didn't. But lately ... when I look at you, all I get from you is ... I don't know, it's hard to put into words, you know? All I know is, I don't think you would betray me."

Damn him and his magical people-reading abilities. She groused to herself. Unfortunately, his new found faith in her was going to make what she needed to say next, much more difficult. "That's great ... I'm glad you trust me, Ranma ..." He could obviously hear the unspoken but in her voice as she trailed off, because he winced. She summoned the strength to continue from the same pit she was pretty sure Kasumi was able to pull her endless smiles from. "Ranma ... you have been keeping your promise to me, and that makes me very happy. I want you to know that I am working on keeping my promise to you as well..."

He nodded to show that this wasn't exactly news to him.

She continued doggedly. "Ranma ... I don't want you to feel like you are bound by honor or duty to us. To any of us. It isn't fair to you ... or us." She said it quietly, in a voice just barely above a whisper. Her voice was shaking and he was looking at her and looking crestfallen, but she kept going anyway. "Ranma, since I hold your engagement right now, it's my responsibility. I want you to know ... that I release you. Nobody owns you, Ranma." She could barely get it out. Her voice seemed to be giving out on her to fight to prevent her from saying it, but she managed.

He just stared at her in confusion with hurt written all over his face. Finally, he asked the obvious question. "But, you said earlier you weren't breaking up with me... and you just said at dinner--"

She smiled sincerely at him as she interrupted him. "You didn't do anything wrong, Ranma, and I am not breaking up with you. What I am saying is that just because my daddy says one of us has to marry you, doesn't mean that has to happen. What you want and what we want, also matters. Whether Daddy engaged you to Kasumi, or Akane or me wouldn't matter. Since none of us asked you, and you didn't ask us, it isn't a real engagement, it is a business transaction."

She could see the understanding growing in his eyes. So she pressed on quickly to get it all out before he interrupted with more questions. "So, what I am telling you is that if you want to marry me for real, you have to ask me, for real. Akane or Kasumi might have been fine with just the arranged marriage, but I'm not."

"Now, that being said," she held a hand up as he opened his mouth to say something, "as I told you earlier, I am happy to continue telling people we are engaged. I told you earlier that I would only do that for this week. But I have changed my mind on that. I will tell people we are engaged for as long as you want. However, if you want to switch the engagement back to Akane, well that will be between you and her. And ... if you want to switch it to Kasumi ... you're probably going to have to fight Doctor Tofu at some point."

She said that with a small smile and enjoyed watching his eyes bug out a little bit at that thought. She wondered if it was from the idea of thinking of Kasumi romantically, or from the prospect of fighting Doctor Tofu for her.

"And, if neither Akane or Kasumi will take you, and you never ask me, then yes I will still agree to marry you -- but it will be as a business transaction only. I would help you run the school, but we would lead our own separate lives."

"Nabiki-- " He said, confused.

She smiled at him and interrupted him to get the rest of it out before she lost her nerve. "So, if you want to marry me and not have it just be a business transaction, then you need to show me that you've figured out what you want, and ask me, and ask me in a way that shows that you mean it, and aren't just asking me for the sake of the arranged marriage. I can tell the difference. It isn't enough to just tell the rest of the girls to stop hanging around and chasing you. At least, it isn't enough for me. I would bet that Akane would prefer it as well if you actually asked her to marry you. But I can't speak for her. As for me, those are my terms. I will still help you end things with the rest of the girls as I promised. I will still be honest with you, and I will still refrain from interfering with anything you do with Akane or any of the rest of the girls while you decide -- unless you ask me to interfere, of course. But afterwards, as far as I am concerned, we won't actually be engaged unless you ask me for real, and I accept."

She looked at him worriedly. He was just sitting there looking at her with a panic-stricken look on his face. I just keep making his life more difficult, don't I? She thought sadly to herself. She squeezed his hand to reassure him. "That's all. I just wanted to let you know that. I wanted to be clear what I expect. If you want to actually be in a real relationship with me after this week is over, and not just tell people we're engaged to get them to leave you alone, then that is what needs to happen. Regardless, I think you should be free to choose, and I also think you should actually ask the person who you want to marry. If you want to leave it as a business transaction, that is fine too. But if that is the case ... I would suggest you look harder at Akane or Kasumi then, as they might make you happier." She said the last part in a whisper as the dragon inside her tried to strangle her to shut her up.

He let go of her hand then, and she immediately used it to help her other hand pull her legs up to her chest so she could rest her chin on her knees and watch him. Her heart was hammering in her chest as she waited for him to respond. He was silent for several minutes as he looked down at the floor.

Finally, as the urge to cry peaked inside her as the silence grew longer, and she became convinced she had just ruined everything, he spoke in his own shaky voice. "I ... don't know what to say, Nabiki." He said hesitantly. He was still looking down at the floor. "You're right ... I think. But ... that's a lot to take in. A lot of stuff is changin' right now, ya know?"

She did know, but she stayed quiet and let him work it out. All she could do now was trust and hope. She had made it clear to him that Akane was going to be a much easier way out of everything for him, than she would be. He would have to work to be with her, but Akane, as far as he knew anyway, was just a word with Daddy away. He could be re-engaged to Akane tonight and that could be the end of it for him. She smiled bitterly at her own foolishness.

"I ... I have a hard time with this kind of thing. A-Asking someone to marry me ... I ... I dunno if I'm ..." He said quietly after a few more moments had passed as she silently went crazy waiting for him to tell her if she had just killed her chances with him.

She jumped in then and tried to encourage him. "What about in the hedge maze the other day? You seemed pretty brave then."

He nodded at that and looked up. "You're right. I felt like a different person then. I don't know exactly what was going on, but I think it had to do with trying to get you back, ya know? I was tryin' to say the kinds of things you'd said and tryin' to get you to feel like I had felt. It was kinda like a battle."

She nodded eagerly at that. "Yes, exactly, Ranma. Love is like a battle. You have to fight for the one you want. And, you know what they say, all's fair in love and war." She could tell she had grabbed his attention by phrasing it that way. The only way she could have been more leading was to say that Anything Goes in love and war. She watched him carefully after she said that, and was happy to see him thinking hard.

"So, are we okay? You aren't mad at me, are you?" She asked after a minute had passed. Oh please, oh please, oh please. She chanted to herself as she tried desperately to keep her nervousness off her face.

He looked up at her and smiled. "No, Nabiki, I'm not mad at you. I'm learnin' a lot from you. Do you ... do you want to plan our date now?" He asked quietly.

She unclenched her hands from around her knees and let out the breath she hadn't realized she had been holding as she willed herself to keep from leaping on him and covering his face with kisses. "I would ... like that a lot ... actually." She said in a raw, shaky voice tinged with relief.

Chapter Text

[Here's a Holiday present for you all. Whatever you celebrate, I wish you peace and happiness. Thank you for reading ^_-
Soundtrack for this one was the album Launcher by LiSA ^.^]


Nabiki's heart was racing, and her breath wanted very much to come in ragged gasps. It took her every gram of her iron willpower to prevent herself from doing that. She could tell she was shaking a bit as the adrenaline left her now that she had finished telling Ranma that she didn't really consider them to be engaged. Ranma was sitting across from her on the bedding in the guest room and looking at her as he patiently waited for her. He had asked her if she wanted to plan their date together. He had understood and accepted what she had told him she needed from him. She loved him for that.

She knew that setting terms for him to be in a relationship with her probably seemed to him like she was being overly demanding. But she wasn't willing to marry him for real just because of an arranged marriage. If push came to shove, she would keep her promise and marry him for the arranged marriage. But it would be a loveless marriage. If that happened, then as far as she was concerned they wouldn't actually be married, and she would lead her own life separate from him.

She didn't know if Ranma had it in him to be brave enough to not only choose just one person, but to also ask someone to marry him. In a lot of ways he was still very ignorant about feelings and social rules and proper behavior among people he wasn't fighting with. She knew she was asking a lot from him. But, this was the only way she knew how to do this.

So, while her nerves were frayed, and she was having to make an effort to control her breathing and heart rate, she was happy she had told him about her fears, and about what she needed from him in order to be with him.

Mom had told her, just a little bit before she got sick, that she trusted Daddy. She had talked to her about boys that day because she had told Mom that she thought one of the guys in her class was cute. She couldn't even remember which boy, but she remembered what Mom had said after she had told her.

"Nabiki, that's wonderful. Is he a kind boy? Do you trust him?" Mom had asked as she had sat next to her and rubbed her back and stroked her hair while they had talked.

She'd told Mom that she didn't know, all she knew was he was cute. Then Mom had frowned at her and told her the rules to use for boys. "Boys, and later when you're older, men, can be a wonderful part of your life, Nabiki. Always remember though, that you should be searching for your partner, your equal. Cute is good, cute is nice. But cute isn't enough. The boy that will be for you will be someone you trust, completely. He will be kind to you. He will be the person that you want to be there when you are sad and when you are happy. He will be patient with you when you are angry. And while he may get angry with you, he will never say hateful things to you or be violent. He will be your friend, your confidant, the love of your life, and your rival."

She'd asked Mom why he had to be her rival too.

"Because, sweetheart, the boy for my Nabiki is going to have to challenge you. I know you. Cute will be nice for you for a while, but in the end if he doesn't make you think, if he doesn't keep you guessing, if he can't hold his own with you and think on his feet and go toe to toe with you, then he will never be able to go the distance with you. You, my special girl, are too clever for just any boy. You are going to need a special boy. One who will cherish you, love you, honor you, and challenge you."

She had told Mom that she didn't think the boy in her class was all those things. Mom had laughed and told her that she would have been shocked if he was. She had asked Mom how she would know when a boy was the right one. Mom had leaned down and pulled her up into a hug and then held her out at arm's length as she had looked into her eyes and said words she would never forget.

"You will know, because you will know. It is as simple as that. No magic test. No shooting stars. No signs from the heavens. You will just know. After I met your father, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was for me. The feeling grew over time, as I got to know him. I had been friends with lots of boys back then. I was dating a few of them, on and off. And quite frankly, I didn't think much of your father at first. I would tease him, and I would play games with him. He was very serious most of the time. Training, he was always training. But, over time, as we grew closer, my interest in the rest of the boys faded, and I found myself looking hard at your daddy. I realized that at some point I had started looking forward to when I would see him again. I had started looking for excuses to be with him, even though I still teased him. I would pretend to trip in front of him, just so he would catch me and hold me. I knew. I knew more certainly than anything else I had ever known in my life. It's that simple, baby. You'll know when you know."

She looked up into Ranma's eyes, and she played Mom's words back in her mind. And she knew. At least, she thought she knew. It scared her how much of what Mom had said applied now. She was pretty sure she knew, and it really was as simple as that.

She was exhausted. She normally stayed far away from all of this emotional type of stuff. As she was growing closer to Ranma, things were changing inside her. She was more emotional lately. She had cried more in the past few days, than she had since Mom had gotten sick. She didn't know what was going on, but she did know that she knew that Ranma was right for her.

Her heart wasn't racing anymore, and her breathing was under control. She knew it had been over a minute since she had said anything to Ranma. He was watching her carefully, like he was afraid of her. That made her unhappy.

She waved him over. "Ranma, can you come here, please?"

He nodded and scooted over next to her, and sat next to her nervously.

She reached over and pulled him into a hug as she rose up halfway on her knees so she would be a little bit taller than him. He flinched and then slowly relaxed into her. She closed her eyes as she sat next to him and hugged him. She rested her chin on the back of his neck and whispered to herself. "I just know."

"What do you know?" He whispered back.

"I know what my mom was talking about when I was a little girl." She whispered as she leaned against him and breathed him in. He was warm, and he smelled like flowery cedar wood. It was ... addicting. She wanted more of him, but she didn't know how. She was afraid to open herself up more than she already had. She felt like she was on the edge of something, and it scared her. Mom's words told her she should leap from the edge and trust him. She wanted to be able to do that. She wanted to so badly it was making her dizzy.

"Y-your mom? What did she talk about?" He asked quietly.

"You."

"Me? Did she know me when I was little?"

"I don't know. Maybe she did. I don't think so."

"Then how ... ?" He asked, confused.

She didn't answer him. She just hugged him and rocked back and forth with him for a while, and let herself be happy. He was very patient with her. He just sat there and let her hug him.

After a long while, she had no idea how long, she pulled away from him and pulled his head up gently by his chin so he would look at her. He stared up at her with his kind blue eyes. He was obviously flustered. But he just sat there and waited for her to say what was on her mind.

He was so near, and so warm, and so kind to her, and she trusted him. She felt herself falling into his eyes. She leaned forward to kiss him. The dragon inside her was perched on the edge of the cliff and had its wings spread wide to fly.

He leaned back from her gently with his eyes open wide.

She stopped and looked at him, hurt.

"Um ... but ... what about the promise? Don't I have to earn ... that?"

God damn it! Why did I say that?! She screamed at herself. Her dragon turned back from the cliff and frowned at her, unamused. She pulled herself back from him shakily. "You are absolutely right, Ranma. Sorry, got carried away. Not feeling right." She smiled weakly at him.

"Want me to go get Kasumi?" He asked, worried.

Oh, good going, real appealing, now he thinks you're sick. You idiot. She berated herself.

"N-no, not sick, Ranma. Just ... feeling odd, you know. Like my center shifted out from under me, and I'm trying to find my balance again." She said with as much confidence as she could muster.

"Oh, like if your opponent goes for the leg sweep and you hop back to dodge it and land on something you didn't expect to move, and it does?" He asked eagerly.

"Yeah, sure, exactly like that." She smiled at him as she hooked some of her hair back behind her ear nervously. She was proud of him for honoring the promise even when she had obviously been perfectly willing to break it. What is wrong with me?! She yelled at herself.

She wanted to change the subject, so she smiled at him and teased him. "You're too honest to be a master of the Anything Goes style, Ranma. You keep your promises too well."

"W-what?" He asked, as he scooted away from her and narrowed his eyes at her.

She smiled calmly. "Don't masters of the Anything Goes style have to be devious?"

"N-not, necessarily. I mean, sure, in a fight, you do what needs to be done to win. But ya don't have to be that way all the time." He said with confidence.

"Shouldn't you practice though, just like the rest of your moves?"

"Who says I don't?" He smirked at her.

"I do." She said as she stuck out her tongue at him.

"O-oh yeah?"

"Yeah." Then she added a challenge for him. "Go ahead, Ranma, lie to me, deceive me. Let's see a future master of the Anything Goes School of Martial Arts in action." She didn't know why, but it was really important to her that he be able to do this. She put her chin in her hand, and braced her hand against her knee and watched him expectantly. She put up as calm a face as she could, but inside she was churning.

He flushed red for a moment, then ducked his head down in a nod, and looked back up at her and smiled. "I'm not sure I can show you secrets from our Order, Nabiki ... I'm not sure it's allowed..." He trailed off with a weak voice.

"I trained with my daddy from when I was a little girl, until I was twelve, Ranma." She whispered. She didn't like people to know that.

"O-oh, I didn't know ... well, I mean, you aren't a student right now though, but ... I guess its all right. You're part of the Order if you were a student." He said as he looked around the room nervously.

She smiled impatiently and waited for him to continue.

"A-all right, well, um ... let me think ... there's this one trick Pops taught me a while ago, before we went to China. I can use it to make the lights go out. I guess it could really help during a battle if done at the right time."

She nodded and waited. It was really rather fascinating to her that all of these things could be done by normal people who just trained hard and knew what to do. Ranma looked at her earnestly and smiled happily as he talked about his Art. He was in his element when he talked about the Anything Goes style.

"So, I just have to stand still for a moment, hold my hands like this, and gather my fighting energy into a ball in my hand. Then I ... push ... I guess is how I would describe it, and if I concentrate on the energy of the lights, my fighting energy should cancel it out, and the lights will go out." He finished simply. He had been waving his arms around and making complicated gestures with his hands as he explained. It had been very detailed. She hadn't been able to follow it very well because he used terms she wasn't familiar with. She didn't know if a trick that made the lights go out qualified as deception, but at the moment she was more curious to see it in action than she was invested in making him deceive her.

"Show me." She whispered.

"All right." He said confidently as he stood up in the middle of the room. He stood with his hands at his sides and breathed deeply. Then he started waving his arms around like he had done earlier, but with more controlled purpose this time. She couldn't see his aura glow, but she could feel it. She felt waves of warmth streaming off him as he flowed gently in the pattern he had described earlier. It was really more like a beautiful dance than anything else.

He abruptly jabbed his hand straight up in the air and clenched his fist and uttered a little sound and stood there proudly.

The lights were still on.

"Um ... Ranma ... " she said gently, embarrassed for him.

"Yes?" He asked without looking at her.

"The lights are still on."

"No they aren't." He said with absolute confidence.

"Yeah ... they are." She said with a touch of annoyance. Some trick.

"I don't see how it could be more dark in here." He said like he was explaining that water was wet.

She sighed and got up and walked over to the switch on the wall. "Like this." She then flicked the switch, and the room flooded with darkness.

"Got you." He whispered right behind her as he touched her lightly on the back of the head.

She couldn't help herself, she jumped in surprise and twisted around fast as she yelped. He put his arms around her waist in the dark and held her loosely. She found her voice a moment later. "What do you mean you got me? Your trick failed. I turned off the lights."

"Really? It failed? What did I tell you I could do?" He asked with quiet confidence. She could feel him smiling smugly at her.

She played back what he had said in her mind. "You said you ... could use a trick ... to make the lights go out." She said as her jaw fell open in shock. He'd tricked her. She couldn't believe it.

"Yup." He said as she felt him nod.

"But, then ... what was with all that moving around? And I could feel you using your battle aura for ... something." She asked, curious now.

"I dunno, Nabiki. Two secrets in one night? You're gettin' kind of demandin'." He said happily as he pulled her in closer to him. Oh god, he was so warm!

"Well, since the first secret was a trick, it would only be one secret still, wouldn't it?" She poked his nose as she said it, to tease him.

"I guess so." He said hesitantly. Then she felt him lean his head down and lay it on her shoulder. A moment later he whispered directly in her ear. "That ... was the Saotome school of Anything Goes Martial Arts ..." he paused, letting her dangle on the hook, she couldn't help herself, she was actually anxious to hear what it was now, "...clothes drying technique." He finished in a serious tone.

Her brain hit a brick wall. "Wait, what?" She asked.

Ranma dissolved into laughter. He kept his head on her shoulder, and ... laughed quietly. She could feel him shaking with the laughter. It was infectious. She started to laugh with him. They both did their best to keep quiet, though. The walls in the house weren't that thick.

I'll just know.

After several happy minutes passed with them giggling in each other's arms, she finally pulled herself back to the here and now. She couldn't believe it. Ranma had lied to her face, and she hadn't caught it. He'd had her so distracted with his tales of martial arts mastery, and his fancy hand motions, that she realized she hadn't even been watching for the usual signs of someone lying. She played the moments back in her mind, but as hard as she tried, she couldn't remember him giving any clues that he had been deceiving her. She was beyond impressed. He had come up with that on the spot, and had done exactly as she had asked, and tricked her.

I'll just know.

She leaned forward into his arms and looked at him. Her eyes had adjusted to the darkness enough that she could see him roughly. He was looking at her and smiling. Oh god, this was serious. She couldn't stop grinning though. She had never been happier in her life to have been lied to.

I'll just know.

"Ranma?" She breathed in a whisper even she could barely hear.

"Yes?" He asked quietly. Now that he wasn't talking about martial arts again, he was back to nervousness. That was all right, she could work with the raw material he had shown her.

"Let's plan our date."

"All right." He said in a happy tone of voice.

I'll just know.

She put her hands on his chest and gently pushed on him, signaling him to let her go. He did so instantly. She leaned over on unsteady legs to the wall switch, and turned the lights back on, and turned back to face him. He was standing there with his hands behind his back, looking impish. He obviously enjoyed playing with her.

She swallowed nervously and walked over to him on wobbly legs she felt would give out on her at any moment. She took his hand and led him back to the bedding, and sat down with him. She couldn't help herself, she leaned over and breathed him in again. "You smell nice." She whispered.

"And you ... smell ... great, Nabiki." He said nervously.

She looked up at him and smiled radiantly. She wasn't wearing any perfume or anything scented. He was just smelling her. So he was either lying, or he was ... very special.

I'll just know.

She looked into Ranma's eyes for a moment, and just allowed herself to be content. She didn't know how everything was all going to turn out, but so far it had been a hell of a ride.

He looked back at her with uncertainty written all over his face.

She sighed and laid back into the bedding and closed her eyes for a moment. It was very tiring playing the dangerous little game they were playing. She called out to him softly without opening her eyes. "Ranma, can you turn the lights out, please?"

"Oh ... s-sure, Nabiki." He said as she heard him jump up and walk over to the wall and flip the switch.
She felt the darkness descend on the room and smiled peacefully. She waited until he had returned to his own bedding before she spoke again. She didn't need to see his face right now, she wanted his imagination to be free, and whispering to him in the dark was the simplest way she could think of doing that.

"H-how ... did you want to sleep tonight?" He asked.

She thought about it for a moment, and tried to come up with a way that he would be near enough to her that he would be able to react if she was attacked in the night, but in a way that still kept things innocent between them. She wanted to try to keep herself detached from him until he made his decision.

I'll just know.

"How about this..." She began as she spoke quietly into the darkness. In the dark, she could imagine him being much closer to her than he was. She could smell him, and it was like he was all around her. She smiled peacefully to the ceiling. "How about ... we put our beds right up next to each other, and you hook your ankle with mine. We'll still be sleeping in separate beds, and you should be able to feel it if something is wrong if you have your ankle around mine." There, the perfect solution. Nothing is sexy about ankles and feet. We'll be in separate beds. Perfectly innocent and detached. She thought happily.

He answered her by rustling around with his bedding next to her, then he pushed his bed next to hers and laid back down in it silently. She smiled. Once he was settled in, he hesitantly poked his right foot over and laid it gently over her left ankle.

She grinned and hooked her left foot up and wrapped it up next to his foot so they were twined together. She knew she would never be able to hold that position while she slept, but she wasn't worried. She had absolute faith in Ranma when it came to such things, she knew he would figure out a way to make it work.

Once they were settled in, and she had pulled her blanket over herself, she asked into the darkness a simple question. "What would you like to do during our date? Where do you want to go?" While she waited for him to respond, she imagined what it would be like to have him lying right next to her.

His voice came floating out of the darkness a moment later, closer than she had thought he was. "Well, anywhere is good. All I have planned so far is a surprise for you, but I can give it to you anywhere."

"Ooh, I love surprises. What is it?" She asked eagerly.

"I ... I thought you just said you liked surprises? You won't be surprised if I tell you now." He said, flabbergasted.

"All right, let me rephrase, I love finding out what surprises are." She said happily as she stared up into the darkness.

"Well, tough. You're just gonna have to wait until our date to find out."

"You're mean." She pouted, playing with him.

"I am not!" He said defensively, but she could tell he wasn't being serious. She smiled. Then he asked her a followup question. "So ... what would you like to do, Nabiki?" He asked curiously.

"I want you to have fun too, Ranma, I don't want to pick everything." She replied quietly.

"Okay, well what if I pick something and you pick something?" He asked hesitantly.

"Sure, are we going to go out to eat, or just do stuff?"

"Um ... let's do both." He said with a small smile.

"Okay, then I know a little place in the Chuo ward we can go."

"That's kind of far away." He said.

"I know, it's perfect, hopefully we will be able to escape the circus for a while." She said with a smile.

"All right, and I get to pick what we do after?" He asked.

"Yes ... but keep in mind, if it involves leaping over things, I am not going to be much fun." She said with a small smile that he couldn't see, but she trusted he could sense her mood from her voice.

"Don't worry, Nabiki, I think you'll have fun." He said confidently.

She smiled happily into the darkness. "Do I get to know what it is before we go?" She whispered.

"No, I want it to be a surprise."

"Another surprise? Or the same one?" She asked with a lazy smile on her face as she got closer to sleep and she stretched out luxuriously in her bedding. Ranma kept his ankle entwined with hers while she stretched. That made her very happy.

I'll just know.

"Another one." His voice said from the darkness.

"All right Ranma. That sounds like a date to me. When do you want to go?" She whispered sleepily.

"Two days after tomorrow?" He asked her tentatively.

"You want me to wait that long?" She asked in a fake pout with a sleepy voice. Her eyelids were getting heavy.

"I need to pick up my surprise for you first. Then we can go. It'll be worth the wait. Trust me."

"I trust you, Ranma." She whispered into the darkness happily.

She was warm, and happy. She had a date with Ranma, and Ranma ... was ... very special. She was drifting off to sleep, safe next to him.

I'll just know, indeed.

Okay, so I think I found him, Mom ... now what?

Chapter Text

Nabiki woke up slowly the next morning. The first thing she realized was that she was warm, very warm, almost too warm. The second thing she realized was that Ranma was wrapped around her and sleeping soundly. He had to be the source of the heat. He was also the source of the cedar and subtle flower scent she smelled all around her. She was sure she smelled like him now. That made her happy.

She enjoyed that he was so warm. She took stock of their sleeping situation without moving or changing her breathing pattern, so she didn't wake him up. She was under the blanket she had gone to sleep with. Based on how warm she was, she figured that Ranma had to be under his own blanket as well, as no heat was escaping anywhere. So, at some point in the night, they must have merged somehow.

Well, she had told herself that she had faith that Ranma would figure out how to make the sleeping arrangement work so he would know if she was attacked. I ... wasn't wrong. She thought with a smile. Her head was positioned higher in the bedding than she usually slept.

Ranma was resting his head in the middle of her back, so he must have slid down a bit during the night. He had his arms encircling her around her hips with his left hand resting on the flair of her right hip, and his right on her left. He had his left leg draped over both of her legs, while his right was pressed up close against her. His hands were resting on her bare skin, as her pajama top had also slid up a bit during the night, but not too far.

Well ... so much for keeping this all innocent and detached. She thought to herself nervously. She wasn't nervous about him. She knew he would never hurt her. But, despite what she had told him last night, she actually was a little bit worried about being found in a position like they were in at the moment. She considered waking him up and making sure nobody saw them like they were. But the dragon inside her growled at her.

She was warm and happy, and it was peaceful and quiet in his arms. She didn't get moments like this very often. So she relaxed her muscles and lay still in his arms, enjoying their time together. She tried to imagine what it would be like to be married to him.

She couldn't really enjoy those thoughts that much at the moment though, because her worry about Akane overshadowed all of that. Not only was she still worried that Ranma would eventually choose her younger sister, but she was also extremely afraid of what it would do to Akane if Ranma didn't choose his first fiancée.

Why does everything in life have to be so complicated? She thought miserably. I mean, sure, their situation really wasn't that complicated, lots of people want what they can't have. They will cry and move on. But, for Akane ... Ranma was her first love.

Ranma wasn't just some random high school boyfriend. Because of Daddy's meddling, Ranma had been promoted directly to fiancé and skipped over the boyfriend stage entirely. The weight of that title, that he hadn't earned from her, made everything so much more serious and hard to dismiss.

To top things off, Akane and Ranma had walked in on each other in the bath on the very first day they had met. That had set the embarrassed and strained tone on their relationship from the start. It hadn't helped that Ranma had been insulting about it, nor had it helped that Akane had overreacted to it.

The biggest problem between the two of them had been a combination of Ranma's lack of proper social training coupled with Akane's inability to be honest about her feelings. That plus the fact that both of them had fairly high levels of pride, and their relationship was pretty much guaranteed to include bickering like children ... or siblings. She didn't have any brothers, but she had friends with brothers. And Ranma certainly acted like her friend's brothers a lot, especially with Akane, especially when he was trying to annoy her and provoke a reaction out of her.

With her and Ranma, though, it was different. They hadn't started out on the wrong foot. They also hadn't started out thrown together and engaged against their wills. And, while she did have her own pride, she didn't let it control her life. She knew about Ranma's social issues, and she made allowances for them. Oh, she knew Akane did as well, but Akane seemed to forget about them when Ranma was annoying her.

Not that she blamed Akane, sometimes Ranma was annoying. If one was to stoke the fires of Ranma's immaturity, one could quick see that he had definitely been raised by his father, almost exclusively. Additionally, Akane didn't know it, but she had her own social issues as well. Mom's death had messed Akane up and made it very hard for her to be honest about her feelings.

Why am I thinking about Akane so much? She wondered. To quiet her mind, she leaned back slightly in Ranma's arms, and gloried in how right it felt. She knew that Ranma wasn't perfect. She knew that he wasn't her soulmate or any other such nonsense. But she also knew that she felt good when he was with her. She liked to think that he was happy to be with her as well. At least, I hope he does. She thought. She didn't get to luxuriate in his arms for long though, because she felt him starting to stir behind her.

As he stirred, he called out from his dreaming. "—kane! Hang on! Akane! ... Akan— hold on!" He was getting more agitated, and she could feel his legs flexing like he was trying to run. So she quickly spun around in his arms and wrapped her own arms around him and tried to calm him down. Not only was she genuinely worried about the noise he was making, but she also didn't like that he was dreaming about Akane being in trouble. She rocked side to side with him and whispered soft nonsense noises to him to quiet him.

He did stop yelling almost immediately. But, she could tell he was waking up. Oh well, nothing lasts forever. She thought wistfully. She relaxed a bit before she realized that he now had his face buried into her navel, and his hands had shifted from around her hips to under her top and on her back. He nuzzled her as he slept and sighed deeply and contentedly as he held her even more tightly than he had been.

Well ... sure ... this is keeping things detached and innocent. Nothing anyone could raise an eyebrow to here or anything. She thought sarcastically to herself as she blushed. She knew he wasn't doing anything on purpose, but this was the most intimate she had ever been with anyone since she had been a little girl being held by her parents. And this was a completely different kind of intimate.

His breath on the hairs of her navel was tickling her. She really wanted to squirm, but she knew that would wake him up all the way, and when she thought of doing that, the dragon inside her looked back at her and scowled with an extremely disapproving face.

OK, well, I mean, this is nice and all, but it doesn't even count if he's asleep, and now my top has ridden up even further, and he has his face buried in my tummy. I really am going to have to marry him if Daddy sees us like this. She thought worriedly as she stroked his hair and held him.

It crossed her mind that he might be faking being asleep, and just using that as an excuse to nuzzle her. But, she really didn't care. It wasn't like he was groping her, he was basically just hugging her ... sideways. She smiled at that thought. And swatted the dragon inside her aside and willed it to behave itself as she started to stroke Ranma's hair more deeply as she rocked with him a little less soothingly as she brought him up gently from sleeping.

She knew immediately when he had woken up, because he stiffened in her arms like he had suddenly found himself standing at the edge of a cliff. In a way, he had. He was certainly standing at the edge of a new frontier with her. Although what he was probably the most afraid of was imagining Akane or Daddy's reaction to the position they were in. She was very happy they had locked the door last night. She decided not to say anything first, to see how brave he would be. Several moments passed with him not saying anything as she continued to stroke his hair and rock with him.

"I have no idea what's goin' on, but I'm sure I'm in trouble." He finally mumbled into her soft skin.

She smiled happily at that. She liked that he had chosen to respond to the situation with a joke. "You're not in trouble, Ranma." She said softly to him.

"All right ... well ... why are we— what am I—" He stammered with his face still pressed into her skin softly. The vibrations from him speaking with his lips pressed against her tickled, and now that he was awake, she let herself squirm happily.

She looked up to the ceiling and smiled lazily as she decided what to do, then shrugged and pulled on his jaw to lift him up higher. As she did so, she wiggled downward so they could more or less meet in the middle. She let go of his head then and pulled her top all the way back down so she wasn't showing her tummy any more. Ranma was now at her eye level. He still had his arms around her, and they were still in bed together.

So, you know, all in all, a net positive. She thought happily to herself.

I'll just know.

He looked into her eyes with a trace of confusion and embarrassment on his face, but it was fading. "How did we..." He trailed off as he shifted his eyes from hers and looked at her chin in embarrassment. It was sweet that he couldn't even get the words out.

She answered his unspoken question. "I don't know. I woke up with you wrapped around me." She couldn't help herself, she had to go for the joke. "You're quite the little Romeo." She added with a small smile as she reached up with one hand and poked him in the nose teasingly.

He frowned at her as he looked back into her eyes. "I am not. I ... " He looked away again and blushed.

"You ... what, Ranma?" She asked gently as she smiled. She knew she shouldn't enjoy it so much when he was flustered, but she did.

"I ... I didn't mean to ... I'm so—"

She interrupted him. "You don't need to apologize, Ranma. Do I look mad?" She asked him with a trace of annoyance. She had been hoping he was going to say something ... else.

He shook his head no.

"I would like you to explain one thing, though." She added in a playful tone.

He nodded nervously.

"Why do you dance while you're sleeping?"

"I ... I dance?" He asked, incredulous.

"Yes." She said in a deadpan voice as she held his gaze. "It was very entertaining. I thought about taking pictures."

"I...I...I... I dunno. Pops never said anything about me doin' that I—"

He trailed off as she started laughing. It was a quiet laugh, but he clued in then that she had been joking. He scowled at her. "I'm gonna have to get you back for that." He promised.

She grinned at him for an answer. You'd better. She added silently.

"Well ... should we ... get up?" He asked softly.

She sighed and nodded. Then she added a request, mostly on a whim, but also just because she was curious if he could do it. "But you have to hold me until you're standing."

He looked at her blankly and blinked in surprise. Then he nodded. "Sure," was all he said. Then she felt his arms tense around her as he quickly shifted his weight under himself. She was briefly in a sitting position as he pulled her into his lap while he moved his arms so one was under her legs by her knees and the other was wrapped around her back and shoulders. Then he popped up to his feet effortlessly and stood there proudly while holding her. He was very strong. She smiled gleefully and kicked her legs like a kid at an amusement park and squealed happily. "Again, again!"

He smiled at her but didn't move. The cold morning air in the room was hitting her skin now, and she shivered. But it was all right, because he was holding her, and his warmth was making the transition less abrupt than most mornings usually were. She turned in his arms and looked at him and shivered again. But not because she was cold.

I'll just know. She kept repeating Mom's words to herself as she looked at him. She was scared, and she was happier than she could ever remember being.

He set her down gently but kept his arms around her waist. She reached up languidly and wrapped her arms around his neck and leaned into him as she sighed happily. She didn't want the moment to end. She knew that Daddy was going to have the wall of her room fixed today. So last night had been their last night together. Unless ... he chose her. She bit her lower lip as she looked up at him and tried to control her fears. She shook her mind away from those thoughts. Those thoughts led to doubt which led to pain. She didn't want to dwell on her doubts, she wanted to be in the moment and to make memories with him. That way ... that way when he chose Akane, at least ... at least she would have her memories.

Good job not dwelling on your doubts. She chided herself. She knew her emotions were flashing across her face, despite her efforts to hide them from him. He could read her, so she didn't even know why she bothered. He was looking at her with worry etched on his face.

"You all right?" He asked her as he pulled her in a little closer.

"I'm fine. Just don't like getting up in the morning." She lied. She could tell he knew she was lying, but he was gracious enough to leave it alone. "Well ... shall we?" She asked, as she readied herself to face the day and loosened her arms from around him.

He mimicked her movements, and loosened his own grip on her. Both of them took a step back and their hands slid down until they were just holding hands. The dragon inside her was pushing frantically up against the back of her and determinedly trying to make her kiss him, but she ignored it.

Finally, she sighed and let her hands drop from his. He looked at her curiously. She knew he was trying to figure out what she was thinking. Mentally she stuck her tongue out at him. He might be able to read her when she was showing signs on her face and with her body language. But, he couldn't read her mind.

Good thing too, or the poor boy would probably go blind. She thought with a smirk which she let appear on her face. Ranma just looked at her, even more confused. She was all right with that. Always keep them guessing. She said to herself. It was one of her personal mantras.

"See you at breakfast?" He asked he as she stepped backwards from him.

"Of course, and we can walk to school together, if you want." She said with a small smile on her face. He nodded to her. She continued to smile as she backed towards the door, reached behind herself and fumbled for the lock, then opened it, stepped through, and slowly closed it. She didn't break eye contact with him until she closed the door between them.

Perfect. She thought to herself happily. That had been a perfect moment. It had been sweet, and full of promise and desire and everything else she didn't have words for yet. She smiled happily to herself and turned around to go to her room to get clothes for the day, and froze.

Akane was standing in the hall looking at her with a crestfallen face. She had obviously been crying. Her little sister was frozen in place in the position she had been in as she had been exiting the bathroom. She was still in her pajamas and she was positioned like she had been walking back to Kasumi's room.

Well ... crap. She thought as she swallowed nervously. She knew she had to have a talk with Akane, but she didn't know what to say. She had made a promise to Ranma not to interfere with him and Akane during the week of their promise. Anything she said to Akane would be tainted not only by Akane's resentment and jealousy, but also by her own desires for Ranma to pick her.

Still, she thought she should try to at least help Akane calm down. "Akane ... I—" She started to say.

"How could you?" Akane whispered, interrupting her, while obviously fighting to keep herself from crying. Before she could react to what Akane had said, her little sister spun on her heel and walked quickly to Kasumi's room. She opened and closed Kasumi's door quietly, and didn't look back at her.

She stood in the hallway for a moment just staring at Kasumi's door sadly. Well ... that could have gone better. She thought, chagrined. Then she shook herself mentally and physically and forced herself to walk to her own room. I love you, Akane, but I can't stop now. If you want him, you are going to have to take him from me. She thought with iron resolve.

She took a deep breath and steeled herself to brace for the cold in her room, then yanked her door open. Even though she was ready for it, the cold still took her breath away. She shuddered and hurried into the room, yanked open her dresser, grabbed a clean school uniform, her underthings and a shirt, and hurried out of her room. She kicked the door closed behind her as she continued to hurry across the hall with her things. She wanted to get into the bathroom before she ran into anyone else again.

"Nabiki?" She heard Kasumi's voice just as she reached the door to the bathroom.

So close. She lamented to herself as she seriously considered pretending she didn't hear, as her hand met the cold metal of the doorknob. Then she sighed and turned her head slightly to face her older sister. Kasumi was hurrying over to her, but didn't look overly concerned or alarmed. She didn't say anything to her, she just raised an eyebrow and waited for her older sister to speak.

Kasumi stopped and stood right behind her with a strained look on her face. A moment passed and neither of them spoke as her older sister's eyes scanned her face. Finally, Kasumi said what was on her mind. "Akane isn't ... doing so well." She said quietly.

She nodded. "I know."

"It's about Ranma."

"I know." She said with a frown. Kasumi wasn't really going to try to ask her to give him up, was she? Especially after what she had done at dinner last night?

"I ... I just thought, you should know ... Akane ... hasn't given up on him."

"I know." She said, sadly. "Is she going to fight for him?" She whispered.

Kasumi shrugged. "We talked last night. A lot. She cares for him ... deeply. She doesn't want to let him go. But, she is still afraid of talking about her feelings publicly."

"Her words, or your words?" She asked carefully.

"My words. But the sentiment was there." Kasumi said softly.

"Well, thanks Kasumi, but I already knew that Akane wasn't over him." She smiled and turned her head back to the door to enter the bathroom. She stopped when she felt Kasumi's hand dart out and rest gently but firmly on her shoulder. She didn't turn back around to face her, but she stopped to listen.

Kasumi leaned in and put her mouth next to her ear and whispered. "If you love him, it's now or never. Don't let up, and don't back down. Fight, fight like its your life on the line. I ... I made the mistake of not fighting for the one I loved years ago, and I don't think I'll ever get the chance again that I had then." Her sister whispered sadly to her.

She turned back and looked at Kasumi. Her sister's smiling mask was still mostly firmly in place, but it had slipped around her eyes. She saw pain, dread, longing and regret in Kasumi's eyes.

"Akane loves him too." Was all she could think to say as she whispered back.

Kasumi shook her head emphatically at that and whispered with heavy emotion in her voice back to her. "Not like you, Nabiki ... not like you. I can tell the difference between puppy love, and real love. I remember it from watching Mother with Father. And I've felt it myself, once, when I missed my chance."

She recoiled at that and looked at Kasumi with entirely new eyes as she turned around again from the door. She was sure the love Kasumi was talking about was Doctor Tofu ... wasn't it? But what chance was she talking about that she had missed? She had never heard anything about that. She wanted to ask Kasumi about it, but out in the hallway outside the bathroom was neither the time nor the place.

"I plan to fight, don't worry." She whispered and gave her a wink. She started to turn towards the bathroom again, but Kasumi's voice stopped her.

"Mom used to say ..." she turned back and looked at Kasumi, "... Mom used to say to me that it would be easy to tell when I had met the right person. She told me—"

"—That you would just know."

"—That I would just know." Kasumi finished as she said the same thing with her. Kasumi's eyes widened. Her older sister must have realized she was quoting Mother as well.

She shivered as the meaning hit her. Mom had been training them to help them find the right person. It made her very happy that Mom had given her the same advice that she had given Kasumi.

"That's right, Nabiki. That's what Mom used to say. Did she tell you that too?"

She nodded quickly. She didn't trust her voice with the emotions running through her right now.

Kasumi smiled. "I didn't know what Mom meant when she told me that. And then I forgot about it. By the time I remembered, it was too late. I had known, but I missed my chance by playing games and waiting for signs and doing other foolish things." She whispered sadly with tears in her eyes. "Mom ... never got to tell Akane that. At least, I don't think she did. I should have ... I should have told her, when she was much younger..." Kasumi's voice caught as she fought to stop herself from crying.

She looked at her in a panic. Kasumi didn't cry. Kasumi never cried. She felt the rock that she had built her world on starting to crumble a little bit. Kasumi looked down for a moment and took a deep breath. Then she looked back up and her mask was firmly back in place. It was even covering her eyes again.

"I should have told Akane, before she reached junior high. Just like Mom did for me, and, for you too."

She nodded her head. She had been in second grade when Mom had told her the rules for boys.

Kasumi smiled. "Mom must have only given her advice on boys when she thought we needed it. I was in fourth grade when Mom told me. I had just told her I had a crush on a boy in my class."

She looked up at Kasumi sharply then, which startled her sister into silence for a moment. That had been ... exactly the time period that Mom had told her the same thing, and under almost identical circumstances. Had mom known she was running out of time? Had Mom known even then?

Kasumi continued her sad whisper. "I ... I failed Akane. I have to make it right."

She shook her head. "You didn't fail her, Kasumi. It wasn't your responsibility to raise us."

"If not me ... then who?" Kasumi whispered back with unshed tears swimming in her eyes.

She couldn't take it any more. She dropped her clothes and pulled Kasumi into a fierce hug. Kasumi hugged her back just as fiercely. "Thank you, Kasumi ... for trying. Mom would be proud of you." She whispered to her older sister.

Kasumi shuddered in her arms as she fought back the tears. A moment later she whispered back to her. "Mom would be proud of you too, Nabiki. You never give up." Kasumi stroked her hair as she held her.

"I love you too, sis." She said as she hugged her older sister.

"I have to tell Akane what Mom told us."

"I know."

"Things might change..." Kasumi replied in an uncertain voice.

"That's all right, I can handle change."

Can I? She thought in trepidation as she slowly came to terms with the idea of Akane fighting hard for Ranma.

"You smell like Ranma." Kasumi added in an approving tone.

"I know." She said happily in her older sister's arms.

Chapter Text

Nabiki was off her center. But, that was nothing new. She had been off her center since Akane had broken the balcony and she had ended up in Ranma's arms. After her talk with Kasumi she was more certain than ever that she was on the right path, she just had to keep fighting.

Akane is going to fight too. Her doubts reminded her.

That's all right, I'll fight harder. She promised herself.

He loves Akane more than you. Her fears taunted her.

I don't know that. He might, but I can't just give up. She thought sternly.

He's going to pick Akane. Her insecurity predicted.

Enough! She yelled to herself silently as she sent in her dragon and had it sweep her thoughts clean.

She was gripping the edge of the sink in the bathroom staring at herself in the mirror. She looked well rested. She looked young and beautiful. Just as young and beautiful as Akane. She thought defensively.

What is the matter with you?! Akane isn't even a whole year younger than you. She's ten months younger. Get a grip, you freak. She berated herself as she sucked in a deep breath through her mouth and slowly let it out through her nose.

She looked at herself in the mirror again and thought she looked good, damn good. Even though she was incredibly nervous to have to fight against Akane for Ranma, she couldn't stop smiling. She kept replaying Mom's words in her mind as her certainty grew about the path she was on.

The fact that Mom had told Kasumi the same thing at roughly the same time told her that Mom hadn't just been telling her something to make a silly little girl calm down. Mom had been training them. It had been important. She was sure of it. Unfortunately, Mom had been taken from them before she could complete the training. She knew what to look for to find the right person. But ... she didn't know what to do once she found him.

I guess I'll just have to wing it ... like I always do. She thought, determined.

She tucked her hair back behind her ears, and smiled. She felt like she was glowing. If she concentrated she could almost see a very faint little shimmer of a golden light surrounding her. She was sure it was her imagination, but she liked the idea of it. She had read the romance books just like the rest of the girls had. She had always said they were ridiculous. But secretly ... secretly she had always wanted to love someone so much that she glowed with happiness. If she felt like this now as her feelings for him grew, she couldn't even imagine what it would be like if he loved her back. She shivered with fear and longing for that to happen.

She scrunched her nose up as she stared at herself in the mirror, and stuck her tongue out at herself.

First, date. Then the circus. Then, if he picks me, the rest. She ordered herself.

She nodded smartly to herself and headed to the shower. She washed up quickly as she planned for the day. She felt a bit sad that she was washing away Ranma's scent, but there was nothing for it.

He'll just have to hold me again so I can get it back. She thought happily.

She dried herself and dressed quickly, and styled her hair. She even put on lip gloss and a little eye liner. She was feeling like being a bit done-up today. Then she tossed herself a smile in the mirror and headed downstairs.

Daddy and Mister Saotome were asleep in the room off the entryway, laying across each other. Doctor Tofu was meditating in the dining room. Ranma was outside training in the yard like he usually did in the mornings. Kasumi was fussing around in the kitchen like she usually did.

Akane was not doing what she usually did. She was standing out in the yard by the koi pond, watching Ranma. She was wearing her school uniform already and had her hair styled as well. She looked very cute. Her younger sister was standing with her hands clasped behind her back and watching Ranma peacefully with a small smile on her face.

Ranma was ignoring everything and just working on his training. He was doing his usual routine of alternating punches and kicks on a post wrapped with rope. She knew that doing that built up stamina and endurance, not to mention toughness of his hands and feet. But, she really couldn't imagine doing that to herself.

I suppose if I started off with something softer and built up to it. She thought as she considered it. It was funny, she was now looking at what Ranma did as something she was going to do instead of something she used to do.

She walked to the edge of the porch of the dining room and watched him as well for a little bit. He was very graceful, and powerful. Akane never took her eyes off him. She thought about going over and talking to her, but she didn't think that now was the best time.

She sighed and went and sat at the head of the table so she could keep an eye on the yard. With Daddy passed out from staying up all night, she didn't feel bad taking his spot.

Kasumi served breakfast a few minutes later. That brought Ranma into the house almost immediately. Akane followed him and sat opposite him at the table. As she passed her, Akane smiled and greeted her warmly. "Good morning, Nabiki." Akane seemed like she meant it, she couldn't detect any sarcasm or anger in her tone.

"Morning, sis." She replied with a cautious smile.

I wonder why Akane is in such a good mood. She thought as she watched her settle in and begin to eat.

She decided not to dwell on it, and bolted down her own breakfast. When she was done she just sat there and watched Ranma eat and tried not to fidget nervously. He was eating rather leisurely today. He was also keeping his eyes down on his food for the most part. He did glance up occasionally at her and Akane, though.

I wonder if he is enjoying this, or if this is super awkward for him? She thought as she watched him eat and tried to avoid staring.

She didn't have much time to think about it, though, as Ranma set his bowl down at that point and looked up at her.

"Ready to head to school, Ranma?" She asked him. He nodded at her without looking at Akane.

She could see Akane looking at him out of the corner of her eye, and she had to admit she was happy that Akane was being shut out. She was also ashamed that she was reveling in her sister's pain.

She brushed those thoughts aside as Ranma stood up. He smiled and walked towards the front door where his satchel was. She followed him on light feet. Akane stayed behind at the table. The dragon inside her wanted her to stick her tongue out at Akane. She ignored it.

A moment later she was jogging behind Ranma to school. He was setting an easy pace, which she appreciated. He was also running along beside her instead of up on the fence, which she also appreciated. It was a symbolic thing, but she had to admit that it did matter to her.

She was starting to pant a little as they continued to jog. She didn't have the kind of endurance that he or Akane had. She was thinking about asking him to slow to a walk as they rounded the next street corner, and she gasped.

Standing in the walkway was Shampoo and the old ghoul. Shampoo was smiling longingly at Ranma, but the old ghoul had eyes like carved glass, and no hint of any kindness showed on her face.

Ranma immediately stepped fully in front of her and threw his hands out wide in a defensive posture as he started backing up and herding her away from them.

She knew he didn't want to fight both of them, especially if he had to protect her at the same time. For the millionth time since she had accepted the engagement to him, she wished she hadn't stopped training in the Art. Feh ... while I'm wishing for things, I would also like the Swiss bank number of Minister Murayama. She thought sarcastically.

She couldn't help herself, she had to say something. "Shampoo, could we please talk about this later? Preferably over a nice cup of tea?" She honestly didn't understand why all of these things seemed to need to be solved with fighting.

Shampoo looked back at the old ghoul, who nodded very slightly. Then without warning Shampoo launched herself at her. Before she even realized what was happening, Shampoo had dodged around Ranma and had thrown a hooking punch at her head. Ranma leaned and slapped back hard and grabbed Shampoo's hand out of the air and held it in a clenched fist before it hit her. She could tell he was squeezing Shampoo's fist tightly, because his knuckles were white.

Shampoo didn't show anything outwardly that she felt what he was doing as she continued to strain against him to get to her. She stuck her tongue out at the Amazon. She knew it wasn't the most mature thing to do, but she couldn't help herself. The whole situation was ridiculous and very frustrating.

Whoops, that was a mistake. She thought immediately as Shampoo's face changed from a blank mask to an enraged rictus. Shampoo switched from trying to overpower Ranma's hold on her to trying to throw a punch with her other hand.

Ranma responded by throwing the hand he had caught down as he brought his other hand up and parried the new attack while he snapped a kick out to the back of Shampoo's knee out and drove her to the ground in a spin. At the same time, he pulled her back with his other arm out of harm's way.

He wrapped her close to him and she ended up basically hugging him as he leaped backwards and landed on top of the fence next to the canal they had been walking next to. She just clung to him, there wasn't much else she could do. She could tell by the feel of him that he was gathering his strength to run. With her with him, he had no hope of taking them both on.

Shampoo slowly regained her feet. When she looked up again, her blank mask was in place again. When she looked at Ranma, though, it cracked as her longing for him showed quite easily to anyone practiced at looking for the signs. She was one of those people. Shampoo took a few steps towards them, then stopped abruptly when the old ghoul snapped her fingers.

A moment later the old lady was perched on top of the fence just outside of striking range of Ranma. The sudden position change shocked her, and she grabbed on to Ranma tighter in a fright reflex. How the hell do they move so fast? She thought incredulously. She felt Ranma twitch his muscles briefly as he registered the old ghoul's position change as well, but he didn't change his position. He had obviously determined that the old crone wasn't trying to attack them at the moment.

The old woman held her hand up with a closed fist, and she watched with raised eyebrows as Shampoo bowed, then bent her knees and leaped to the nearest roof and continued onward and away from them. Shampoo locked her eyes on Ranma sadly as she jumped away. Nabiki recognized the pain in those eyes. She had felt that pain.

"Well ... grandson-in-law ... it seems like things have changed." The old woman said softly, which brought her attention back to the tribal elder. If they had been standing on the sidewalk, she would have insisted that Ranma put her down by now. But since they were still standing on top of the fence there weren't better options. Well, okay, he's standing, I'm being held, she groused to herself.

"Things haven't changed that much." Ranma replied carefully.

"Oh, but they have." The old woman said in a voice completely without warmth. "Since you have switched your engagement to a different member of the Tendo family, the leeway I was willing to give you with regard to your defiance of the laws of the tribe has all but run out. Shampoo had talked me into letting her try to woo you, since she had been convinced that you had been in love with the youngest Tendo, and she with you."

She paused for a moment and shook her head in disapproval. "For the Joketsuzoku it is ... frowned upon ... for an Amazon to take a man from another Amazon, if they are in love. Shampoo had convinced me to extend to the littlest Tendo an honorary classification of Amazon in this case. While Akane would not do well at her current skill level in our tribe, I agreed that she does have the heart of a warrior and she fought like one. I also agreed that it was obvious that she and you had feelings of love for each other. The fact that you both protested your love made it easier to grant Shampoo's request. Surely if you ever had broken up, you would then have done the right thing and married Shampoo according to our laws."

She stared hard at Nabiki for a moment before she continued addressing Ranma. "The fact that you not only have broken your engagement to Akane, but that you have simply traded her in for one of her weakling sisters, and ignored Shampoo's honorable claim on you, has broken my patience with this whole situation."

"Your patience?!" Ranma jumped in, clearly aggravated.

"Yes, my patience." The old woman said in a mocking tone mirroring Ranma's. Nabiki was getting furious. The old woman continued before she or Ranma could interrupt again. "I am not willing to extend honorary Amazon status to any of the rest of your suitors, son-in-law, including the rest of the Tendo girls. I will give you to the end of today to come to terms with that. I would like to see you at our restaurant this evening. You may bring your current fiancée or any other ... friends ... you wish. I am granting you forty eight total hours of time to think carefully about everything, starting now. During this time, I will guarantee that no Joketsuzoku will attempt to do any harm to you or the Tendos, on pain of death to that person, should they disobey me. However, after your forty eight hours are up, my patience will be completely gone, as will the guarantee of safety.

She felt the fence they were standing on shudder as something impacted it. The elder Amazon looked past Ranma for a moment and frowned, then returned to addressing Ranma as if nothing had happened.

Someone else must be here. She concluded. Maybe Daddy? She thought. She wanted to turn and look, but she didn't want to unbalance Ranma right now.

"Think carefully on your choices in the coming days, son-in-law." The Joketsuzoku Matriarch stated in a flat tone as she stared at him hard for another few heartbeats, then she was gone, just like that. Her peripheral vision picked up a trace of blurred motion along the same path Shampoo had used as she left, and then even that was gone.

Ranma's head followed the elder Amazon's motion for a bit longer before he unclenched and hopped down from the fence with her. As soon as they landed, he let her down so her feet touched the ground. She was still pressed up against him as he held her, though. He had his shoulder turned in the direction the Amazons had left and he was cradling her in a protective hold with his chin tucked down over her head.

She encircled his waist with her arms and leaned her head against the silky shirt on his chest and closed her eyes and allowed herself to be scared for a moment as the heat of him enveloped her. Then she summoned her willpower and put steel in her backbone.

"I'm not worried about them, Ranma." She said confidently as she looked up at him while still resting her head on his chest.

"Really? I am." He said in a nervous tone into her ear. His mouth was very close to her ear in the position he was in with her.

"You scare too easily." She said as she nuzzled his chest and closed her eyes again.

"Yeah, I notice that you're still holding on to me." He said softly.

"Shush, you." She said with a false scolding tone. She leaned her head back and looked at him crossly. "Don't you know it's impolite to point out when a lady is lying?"

He stuck his tongue out in answer to her. She loved that he was starting to feel comfortable enough with her to tease her and be flippant with her. She wanted to encourage that behavior, so she leaned into him and sighed happily as she smiled up at him. She wanted to send him very positive signals when he did things she liked.

I'll just know.

He smiled back at her nervously. She knew he didn't like to do these kinds of things in public. So she leaned her body back from him so she was just standing loosely in his arms again in a casual hug.

Now that she had done so, she could lean over and see who had arrived. It was Doctor Tofu. He was standing on top of the fence a few paces behind where Ranma had been. He was looking in the direction the Amazons had headed off towards. He looked like he normally did, kind and smiling face, relaxed body position and neutral stance. The only things different were his eyes.

His eyes had a dark glint in them. His eyes spoke of someone who was ready, willing and able to run to the edge, leap into the abyss, and keep fighting, no matter the cost. His eyes showed someone who had seen the abyss looking back at him, and didn't care. She had never seen his eyes look like that.

A moment later his eyes cleared as he registered she was looking at him, and he softened his gaze and returned hers with a smile.

"Don't worry, Nabiki. Everything is going to be okay." He said kindly in a low tone.

She nodded. She knew that with Ranma and Doctor Tofu guarding her, even the Amazons would have a very hard time getting to her. It made her crazy that she had to be guarded though. She both wanted to start immediately training again herself, and at the same time to call the police and just let them handle the Amazons.

But what are the police going to do? These people can move faster than my eyes can follow. And I've had at least some training in the Art. If I can't follow them when they move fast, the police would have no hope of aiming at them with a gun or a net. Better to just let Ranma and the rest of them handle them. She concluded glumly.

Although, I could call immigration and have their little restaurant shut down. She thought darkly and felt better, even though she knew it wouldn't solve anything. If anything, it was helpful that there was a known location that they had a high degree of confidence of finding the Amazons at or near.

"Aren't you two going to be late for school?" Doctor Tofu asked, interrupting her thoughts.

She looked at her watch and grimaced. "He's right," she said with mild alarm. Compared to staring down a pair of angry Amazons, being late for school just didn't pack the same punch.

"I guess we should get going." Ranma said carefully.

"Don't worry, you two, you have more friends than you may realize. Things will be fine. Now get moving, I asked Akane to wait to leave for school until I could take her, I need to get back to her so she can get there on time as well."

They both nodded. Tofu immediately bounded away back towards the house, while she and Ranma turned towards the school and started jogging again. Instead of just jogging next to her, though, he was now holding her hand as well.

I'm sure he can justify that with some Martial Arts reason, if I asked him. She thought happily.

They reached the school in what felt like no time. They weren't even tardy. They slowed to a normal walk once they passed the gates. She looked over at him cautiously, wondering if he'd let go of her now that they were in school. He didn't. She blushed a little bit at the public display of affection, but she certainly wasn't going to make him let go. She could see plenty of people noticing them together and whispering excitedly about it, but she didn't care

She even smiled radiantly when two of her friends, Riko and Yui passed them and raised their eyebrows at them. She knew it was a little thing, and she knew in Ranma's mind he was holding on to her to help protect her. But it was still very nice to have him essentially proclaiming his interest in her at the school.

They walked up the stairs together and stopped at the landing near Ranma's classroom.

"You going to be okay?" He asked her with concern in his voice.

"Sure I will, Ranma. You're not that far away from me, so I'm positive you would hear it if someone was after me. Plus, you heard what Doctor Tofu said, we have more friends than we might think. Doctor Tofu doesn't say things like that for no reason. I'm sure things will be fine." She smiled at him as she reached for his other hand and held both of them together as she swung them back and forth happily.

"Okay ... just yell if you're in trouble." He said in a worried tone.

"Trust me, Ranma. If someone is trying to kill me, I am going to make some noise." She said with a wink. "Would you like to eat lunch with me and my friends today?" She asked in a voice she hoped didn't sound too hopeful.

"S-sure, Nabiki. I can guard you wherever you want to go." He said agreeably.

"Not guard, just eat. If you want to go eat with your friends or with Akane, or even by yourself, that's fine too. You don't need to spend every moment with me, and you don't need to guard me at school. I have resources here I can use if I need to." She said confidently.

Now ... how fast those resources could get to me ... that's another thing entirely. She admitted to herself. She didn't want to tell him that though. She didn't like him thinking the only reason to be with her was to protect her. It was sweet that he was so loyal and protective, but they had to have more than that to build a relationship on.

"Oh ... okay ... sure, yeah ... sure I can eat with you and your friends. It's not like I had any plans for today or nothin'." He said with a growing tone of confidence.

"All right then, I'll see you at lunch out by the smaller tree back by the sports fields. You know the one that overhangs the bench?"

"Oh, yeah, I know that one." He said with a smile and nod.

"Great, see you then, Ranma." She said as she started backing away from him. Their hands stretched out and went horizontal as they kept their grip on each other as long as they could before they both finally let go. She walked backwards for a few steps and kept her eyes on him as she tried to control her expression. She didn't want him to think she was anguished to be parting from him. Mostly because she wasn't, but also because she didn't want him thinking of her as some fawning silly school girl who was obsessed with him.

A moment later she turned around as he reached the door to his classroom and went inside. She turned the corner and found Riko and Yui waiting for her. Both of them were giggling and hiding their mouths behind their hands as they looked at her with moony eyes and fluttered eyelashes.

She grinned at them. "Jealous?" She taunted as she hooked arms with both of them and almost skipped to her own classroom.

"Oh, totally. You need to start sharing, Nabiki, like, immediately." Riko said as they walked.

"I won't tell you everything, but okay ladies, here's the story." She began happily as she walked to class with her friends.

Chapter Text

Nabiki arrived first at the little tree she and her friends ate lunch under. She hadn't run there. But she had power walked. She couldn't help it, she was excited.

She sat down on the bench and waited there as calmly as she could as she kicked her feet under the bench playfully. The breeze was blowing a bit, and it carried the scent of grass and flowers on it. Her heart was pounding, but she didn't know why. She'd eaten lunch with her friends under this tree since starting at Furinkan. And she'd eaten with Ranma plenty of times.

But I've never done both at the same time, have I? She thought nervously.

She didn't have much more time to worry about it, because she could see Riko and Yui heading her way now. Riko was her oldest friend. She had known her since she had first started school at age five. Riko was her only friend who had ever met her mother.

Yui was her second oldest friend. She had met Yui when she started Middle School and the friendship had carried over to high school. Yui had never met Mom, but Yui probably knew about as much about her mother as Riko did, owing to her infrequent talks about Mom when the subject came up.

They arrived and stood looking at her impishly. Of all of her friends, she loved these two the most. Riko and Yui both had more or less the same sense of humor that she did. They both thought almost everyone took almost everything too seriously. They both had fast mouths, quick wits, and sharp tongues.

Riko was about her height, and about her build as well. Riko's hips were maybe a little bit wider, and her bust was maybe a little bit smaller than hers, but overall, Riko looked very similar to her. Riko's hair was the natural deep Japanese black. Riko kept her hair long and silky and usually tied back into a ponytail. She liked to say that since most Japanese girls dyed their hair, she was being different by not dying it.

Yui was the shortest of all of her friends. She was trim and athletic and petite. She had her hair dyed brunette and she usually kept it clipped back in place with lots of little clips she picked up everywhere. Yui also tended to wear the most makeup and jewelry of all her friends. She tended to jingle a bit when she walked. Unlike a lot of high school girls, the pieces Yui wore were real. Her parents were pretty well off, and she was their only child, and they doted on her.

Both of them were grinning like fools as they stood under their tree and looked at her. She grinned right back.

"So, how long do you think it'll take your man to run screaming for the hills?" Riko asked in a deadpan.

"I don't give him more than a few minutes at most." Yui added.

Riko looked her up and down and winked as she responded to Yui. "Well, he does live with Nabiki after all, he has to have built up at least some immunity from that.

Yui considered that for a moment then nodded. "All right, I'll stretch it to five minutes, but that's as far as I'm willing to go." She also held her deadpan voice.

"Both of you are hilarious. Let's not go too hard on Ranma when he gets here, all right?" She said playfully.

"Oh, but Nabiki-chan, it is our right, and sacred duty, to screen all of your suitors. As your best friends we can't approve him before he passes the tests." Riko said as she walked over and sat down next to her on the bench to her left. Riko always smelled like gardenia flower perfume, she loved gardenias.

"Test?" She asked curiously.

"Tests." Yui corrected her as she sat down to her right. Yui always smelled like either lychee accented rose perfume or a crisp peony with osmanthus perfume depending on her mood for the day.

"Oh no." She said with a smile on her face as she leaned into Riko and smiled as she closed her eyes contentedly. "And what are these tests?"

"He shall have to face the challenges." Yui said sternly. She cracked an eye open and looked at Yui.

"They are five-fold." Riko said. She craned her neck back so she could look up at Riko as she opened her other eye.

"Uh oh." She said, as her smile grew wider.

"First he shall have to pass the test of humility." Riko said in a serious voice as she pulled her head down into her lap and began stroking her hair softly.

"Then he will have to pass the test of perseverance." Yui said as she leaned over and hung her head over hers so she was looking into her eyes.

"Then the test of righteousness." Riko said with an evil grin. "I'll be handling that one ... personally."

"Oh dear." She said. She knew exactly what Riko meant by that. Poor Ranma.

"Next will come the test of honesty." Yui added.

"And finally, he shall pass through the fire of the test of jocoseness." Riko said with solemn dignity.

"Jocoseness?" She asked.

"Whimsy." Riko clarified.

"Ooh, good word!" Yui chirped happily. "I need to write that one down." She said as she whipped out her notebook from her pocket.

"Hurry up, he'll be here soon." Riko said.

"Too late." She said as she turned her head in Riko's lap and spied Ranma making his way over to them. He was walking with purpose but she could tell from his gait that he was a little trepidatious.

You'll do fine, Ranma, don't worry. She silently encouraged him. Once he reached the edge of their little gathering he slowed to a half-walk, and then stopped.

Both Riko and Yui straightened up and looked at him like cats eying a toy to pounce on. She groaned inwardly and squirmed quickly out of Riko's lap. She popped up to her feet and hurried over to him and hugged him.

"Ranma! You made it!" She said loudly as a cover. Under her breath she whispered as she hugged him. "Just relax, and have fun. Okay?" She felt him relax in her arms a little bit and he nodded almost imperceptibly.

She stepped back from him and took him by the hand and led him to their bench to make the introductions.

"Ranma, this is Riko." She said as she nodded to Riko, who waved at him and smiled. "And this is Yui." She nodded at her as well." Yui winked at him and smiled. "They are my oldest and best friends and my chief lieutenants."

"N-nice to meet you." Ranma said as he nodded his head to each of them as she introduced them. She was glad he hadn't tried to formally bow to them. Giving either one of them an opening like that would just make them more naughty.

She swung him around with a smile on her face and plopped him down on the bench in between both of them. If we're going to do trial by fire, then we might as well get on with it. She thought happily to herself. She knew Ranma would do just fine with them, although he might need a little encouragement.

"Shall we eat?" Yui asked.

"But of course!" Riko chirped happily as both of them snuggled up to Ranma. She rolled her eyes at them as she watched Ranma's hands tighten on the boxed lunch he was carrying from home.

She sat down on the grass in front of the bench and opened her own lunch while her friends mirrored her. Ranma took a few more moments, but eventually followed their example. They all ate quietly for a few moments, but she could see her girls sizing him up and forming plans. They were very efficient.

Surprisingly, Ranma asked the first question. He turned to Riko as he finished bolting down his own lunch. "Why did Nabiki call you her lieutenants?"

"Ooh, good question!" Yui piped in from behind him while Riko nodded.

"Should we tell him?" Riko asked as she leaned forward to look around Ranma to see Yui.

"I'm thinking no. That is privileged information, after all."

"Agreed. Sorry Ranma, you'll have to be in the club longer before we can tell you that." Riko said with a smile.

"Fair enough." He said as he sat back.

"So, Ranma, how are you liking Furinkan High?" Yui asked.

"Oh, it's nice here, I like it." He replied as he turned to look at her.

"Thinking of going out for any of the sports teams or clubs next year?" Riko asked.

"P-probably not ... that kinda stuff isn't really my thing." He pivoted to look at her. It was pretty amusing to watch them pulling him left and right. He probably didn't even realize they were doing it on purpose.

"What about the debate team or student government?" Yui asked, piling right on.

"Oh, yeah, student government would be amazing! You're so popular already, you could totally win President if you tried for it!" Riko said excitedly.

"Um ... well ..." He said with a bit of a panicked look on his face.

"Ranma is too busy working on becoming a master of the School of Anything Goes Martial Arts." She chimed in. "He doesn't have time for clubs or sports or student government. Besides, I'd be careful what you wish for, if Ranma was student body president, martial arts practice might replace gym class." She said gleefully.

Both Yui and Riko grimaced at that while Ranma's eyes opened wide.

"Oh, hey, yeah, that would be much better than gym class! Could I actually do that?" He asked her with real interest in his voice as he leaned forward towards her eagerly. Yui and Riko both waved their arms frantically behind him to ward her off. She grinned. This is what you get for poking the bear, ladies. She thought as she nodded at him.

"Of course, Ranma. The student body President actually has a lot of power here at Furinkan. You would just have to pass the motion in a general session, and draft the plan and submit it to the school council for approval. They pretty much always rubber stamp things like that. You could probably have it changed no later than two weeks after you were voted in. Maybe only one week if I helped you draft the plan." She said sweetly. She could see his interest growing by the second.

"Could I teach the Anything Goes style here at the school?" He asked eagerly.

"I don't see why not." She said happily. It was fun seeing him get so excited. The fact that Yui and Riko's eyes were bugging out of their heads was just a bonus as far as she was concerned.

Mess with the bull, ladies, and you get the horns. She thought happily.

"So, anywaaaaaaay, Ranma..." Riko said as she pulled on his shoulder and brought him back level with herself and Yui. Riko promptly wrapped herself around his arm and laid her head on his shoulder as she blinked up at him and smiled prettily. "I hear you have a date planned for my little Nabiki."

"Yes Ranma, we need details. Can't have you taking our girl just anywhere." Yui added as she put her hands on Ranma's shoulder and shook him gently, which caused both he and Riko to sway back and forth.

"Ranma and I have a very nice date planned, don't we Ranma?" She prompted him.

"Y-yeah, we do." He said with growing confidence. "We're gonna go to the Chuo ward for our date."

"Oh, nice! Take me there next, okay?" Riko said enviously.

"Yeah, me too, me too!" Yui chimed in as she shook him by the shoulder again.

He looked over at her and she smiled at him. He was doing great. She could tell he wasn't quite sure what on Earth was going on, but it didn't matter. He was interacting with them nicely. Now all he needed to do was--

"Uh oh, here comes trouble." Riko said as she pointed across the field with one hand while she continued to clutch Ranma's arm with her other.

She craned her neck to look at what Riko was pointing at, and saw the unmistakable figure of someone wearing traditional Hakama and a Kendogi while carrying something long in their hand that was probably a wooden sword. They were about as far away as they could be and still be visible, so she had some time. But, they were clearly headed her way, so she didn't have a lot of time.

"Yup, you're right, we do have trouble coming." She confirmed as she sighed inwardly. Of course Kuno has decided to come talk to me right now. She groused to herself.

"He's your trouble, Nabiki." Riko said as she stuck her tongue out while she swayed with Ranma as Yui continued to shake them for no other reason than she seemed to find it fun.

"Hey, just because he insists on paying me to mess with him, doesn't mean I'm responsible." She protested.

"Yeah, but Nabiki, what if he ever figures it out?" Yui asked as she finally stopped shaking Ranma and turned to look at her.

She blinked in surprise. "I will be giving my acceptance speech at the Sublime Saints of Charitable Giving Awards, before that happens, Yui."

"Tickets to that, please!" Yui laughed.

"Ooh, I'll take that bet!" Riko said gleefully.

"Sure, sure, odds are one will get you twenty." She said absently as she watched Kuno approach.

Yui stood up partially and stared hard into Ranma's eyes with a semi-serious look on her face. "What about him? Do you still mess with him?" She asked as she stared intently into his eyes.

She smirked at Yui. "No, Ranma has a get-out-of-sass-free card right now, he's out of bounds."

Riko's face went into an immediate pout as she jerked her eyes off watching Kuno approach to stare at her in shock. "Aww, come on, Nabiki! Ranma is the most entertaining thing that has ever happened to this school!"

"EVER!" Yui piled on as she sat back down next to him and stared at her in disappointment. "You can't take him away from us, we need this!" Yui added in a plaintive tone.

"Um ..." Ranma said, clearly bewildered.

Riko nodded eagerly. "Oh, totally! I plan my day around watching what he'll do next." Riko stared at Ranma with an over-the-top dreamy smile while she patted his chest fondly.

"H-hey..." Ranma managed to get out. She could tell he didn't know what the rules were and didn't know what he could or should do. Unfortunately for him, his discomfort was the kind of fuel that Riko and Yui fed on mercilessly.

Riko perked up immediately as she heard his tone and plopped herself into his lap as she wrapped her arms around him, and cooed to him like he was a baby bird. "You said it! Nabiki has herself a steal with this one. I would never get tired of playing with him!" She said happily as she wrapped her hands around his neck and leaned back away from him and sighed as she let her hair hang down towards the ground as she hung from him.

She scowled at them but didn't come to his rescue just yet. She was really hoping he would rise to the occasion and start showing her that he could handle himself in her world. She had a half smile on her face as she watched her friends tease him. She had to admit, it was both cute and very amusing to watch him squirm under their attentions. Five challenges, indeed.

Yui followed Riko's lead and leaned herself up against him as well and sighed theatrically. "Oh, for sure!" Yui turned to face her and grinned mischievously. "Hey, Nabi, I'll give you five thousand for him for the weekend!"

Ranma was starting to twitch as they teased him. She decided to help him out, a little bit. She rose to her feet and sauntered over to him confidently. She really liked that she could claim him right now, and everyone else would have to back off. Even though her public claim on him was that stupid arranged marriage, as far as everyone else was concerned, it was valid and had weight behind it.

She shooed the girls away from him, and they hopped up and stood to the side with silly grins on their faces. She sat down next to him and turned to face them. "Sorry ladies, he's off the market." Then she leaned into him herself and whispered into his ear. "C'mon, they're only playing with you, you can play too, it's okay, I'm not going to get mad." She prompted him.

He turned into her arms, which he hadn't done with Riko or Yui, so he was basically hugging her. She could see both of them notice this and raise their eyebrows with respect. He leaned his head in towards her ear and whispered back to her. "I ... I don't know ... I never..."

She smiled into his shoulder where he couldn't see it and whispered back. "Well, figure it out. A master of the Anything Goes style has to be quick not just with his fists." He leaned back away from her and nodded. She winked at him.

Riko and Yui were watching them intently now, trying to hear what they were saying to each other.

Riko jumped in first. "Ooh, what's she whispering to you, Ranma? Sexy stuff?"

"Oh, I doubt it, Riko, he wouldn't know what to do with a girl if one dropped naked into his bed." Yui said with a wink.

"I ... I would so!" Ranma protested.

"That's actually happened before ... multiple times." She said with a frown and a sigh.

Riko smirked and ignored her. "Oh yeah, Ranma, ... what would you do?"

"Well ... if that girl was anything like you ... I'd have to wait another hour or so before I did anything until she ... stopped talking." He said as he blushed hard and forced himself to look at Riko. She could tell it was hard for him, but he did it.

She grinned. Atta boy, Ranma! She silently cheered for him. He was doing it!

Yui laughed, pleased with the shot Ranma had gotten in. "Ooh, Nabi must be serious about him, she's teaching him to be her junior smartass!"

Riko grinned. "Oh, I don't know, without Akane around to shut him up, maybe he's just finally getting a chance to get a word in edge-wise."

She frowned. "Hey, leave Akane alone." She said a bit sharply. She didn't like people picking on Akane.

Riko changed the topic without acknowledging her rebuke directly. "So ... Kiki-chan..." Riko began as she turned to address her and paused for a moment. Ranma looked up sharply at her when he heard Riko's pet name for her, and grinned like he'd just discovered free money. She moaned silently to herself and briefly closed her eyes in annoyance. Riko continued after a pregnant pause to allow the pet name for her to sink in with Ranma. "So ... does he have like ... crazy-good stamina for ... stuff?" Riko asked breathlessly.

Wow, she wasn't kidding when she said she was going to put him through a trial-by-fire. She thought, chagrined. She blushed, but didn't look away.

Yui took the opportunity to pile on. "Ooh, yeah, he's so strong, I bet he can get ... creative ... with stuff..." Yui gazed longingly at Ranma and blushed brightly. It was amazing what that girl could make herself do when she was acting.

She smirked at them. "I have got to get you ladies some dates."

Riko pouted. "Aww, come on Kiki! I told you about what Kenta and I did on our dates!"

"That's true, she did." Yui confirmed with a helpful and enthusiastic nod.

"Um ..." Ranma tried to interject.

She grinned and leisurely draped herself across him before she answered them. She wanted to send a clear signal to him, and them. "Well, there's two differences between that and this, ladies." She held their gazes for a moment then held up one finger. "One, you two never really did much ... of anything."

"Also true." Yui said with another helpful nod. Riko scowled at her.

"And two," she paused as she held up a second finger and they looked at her, "Ranma is right here! Kenta wasn't there when you talked about him, be nice." She scolded.

Riko stuck her tongue out at her then looked over her shoulder and smiled. "Doesn't matter anyway, your boy-toy is almost here."

"Boy toy?" Ranma asked with raised eyebrows.

She looked back at him and smiled as she stood up. "Not like that, she just means I mess with him."

"Oh." He said with a nod.

She turned to face Kuno and took a half step away from Ranma on the bench.

She heard Ranma say Kuno's name darkly to himself and saw him rise to his feet out of the corner of her eye. She turned around and held a hand palm down and pushed it towards the ground as she locked eyes with him sternly. "I can handle Kuno, Ranma. Trust me."

"But--"

Riko read her body language and immediately plopped herself into his lap as he started to hesitantly sit back down, and wrapped her arms around his neck. "Don't worry, Ranma, she was handling Kuno well before you arrived in town."

Yui responded to her as well and settled herself into his lap also. She pushed Riko over so they were each sitting on one of his legs with Riko's arms around his neck, and Yui's around his chest. "True story, just sit back and watch the master at work." Yui encouraged him.

"Um--" Was all he could get out.

"I can definitely see why Kiki likes you, and why Akane kept you around." Riko purred happily as she snuggled into him.

"Oh, I know, right? Why can't any of the losers chasing me be built like this?" Yui sighed as she ran her hands over his chest happily.

Ranma was looking back and forth between them with alarm on his face. "Um--" he tried again.

"Shh, the show's about to start." Riko interrupted him.

She smiled at them all and turned to face Kuno, who had almost arrived. She turned just enough so she could face Kuno, while still keeping Ranma and her friends in her peripheral vision. She could still hear them easily as well, since they were only a half step behind her.

Damn, I wish I had popcorn." Riko said.

"I could go get you some." Ranma supplied helpfully.

"Nope," Yui said as she tightened her hold on him, "we have to keep an eye on you while Nabi is busy."

"Yeah, and I am also pretty sure I am drafting you to be my new official hand warmer, I'll pay Kiki to rent your warmth." Riko said happily.

"Here we go!" Yui said gleefully as she shook Ranma back and forth with excitement.

She rolled her eyes internally at her silly friends' antics as Kuno did indeed arrive.

"How now, Nabiki Tendo?" Kuno said in his usual overly-confident baritone.

She smiled at him. "Hey, Kuno-baby, what's up?"

"I have need of your services. Prithee, I beseech thee to grant me an audience with the pig-tailed girl! I need--"

"All right! This one ends poorly!" She could hear Riko say as Kuno droned on.

"I love it when he wants her!" Yui chimed in.

Ranma just sighed.

"He still has no idea she's you; I think he's the only student in the school who still hasn't figured it out yet." Riko said in a stage whisper.

"Too many shots to the head, loosens up the gray matter." Yui added as she knocked the side of her head comically.

She had to fight to keep herself from laughing as she listened to them while Kuno talked.

"Y-yeah," Ranma said as he started to catch on to their rhythm, "Kuno really doesn't know how to duck, he--"

"For sure, oop, he's done pontificating, hang on." Yui said as she put her finger across his lips as Kuno finished up.

She turned her full attention back to Kuno. "Oh, Kuno-baby, are you still after her?"

"Prithee, peace, I dare do all that may become a man. Who dares do more is none."

"Whatever you say, Kuno-baby, but I don't think the pig-tailed girl is ever going to go for you--" she said on auto-pilot as she launched into the same speech she always gave him while she listened to her friends.

"Here it comes!" Riko said excitedly as she talked.

"I'm so excited!" Yui faintly squealed.

It's amazing Kuno doesn't hear them. He probably does and just ignores them. She thought as she finished her speech and transitioned to explaining her terms.

"-- so, if you want to reach her, I can make it happen, but it will cost you. I have to cover expenses, after all. You ready to do this?" She asked him. She didn't really care if he accepted or not. She wondered if he ever noticed that she raised the price by a thousand Yen for his pig-tailed goddess chasing favors every time he came to her with them?

"I dare to do only what is proper for a man to do." Kuno said confidently.

"Right, well, for only one hundred thousand Yen, I can give you a phone number to call her at tomorrow. Then you can ask her out yourself."

"Oof, no hook!" Riko hissed in disappointment.

"No way, she's got him, here comes the reel." Yui said confidently.

"One ... hundred ... thousand..." Kuno repeated slowly as his eyes widened.

She gave him a hard stare. "That's my price, Kuno-baby. I am not going to give out that number cheaply. A girl's got to protect her resources."

"Frailty, thy name is woman! That price is outrageous!"

"If you are wasting my time, then I do desire that we might be better strangers." She said, using his own terminology. That sometimes helped when dealing with Kuno.

He perked up immediately when she did that, like he always did. Then he waved her away with imperious dismissal written all over his face. "Feh, you are a tedious fool, to think I would pay such a price for a mere phone number." He turned his shoulder like he was going to leave.

"He's not bluffing." Riko said.

"I'll take that bet, odds?" Yui challenged her.

She had to fight herself not to turn around and lay odds with them.

"One'll getcha three." Riko said absently.

"Done." Yui said as she handed over a thousand Yen note.

Ranma was looking back and forth between them rapidly with wide eyes.

"Look, Kuno-baby, if you want a phone number where you can reach the pig-tailed girl, that's my price. Certainly ... a great and noble house, like the Kunos, can afford such a small sum? Are your funds running low these days?" She taunted him. She knew that would either goad him into paying, or annoy him enough to make him go away and leave them alone. She was fine either way.

Kuno scowled at her. "I should cut out your tongue than endure such falsehoods!"

"'Tis no matter, I shall speak as much wit as thou afterwards, little Troilus." She taunted him.

"Ooh! Nice one!" Yui said in appreciation.

"Where does she find the time?" Riko asked in awe.

"Nabiki is the hero we deserve, and my personal role model." Yui added in a hushed voice.

"Wow ... she is really good, isn't she?" Ranma said in a louder voice than her friends. He obviously didn't understand stage whispering. She blushed lightly at his praise anyway.

"Come, come, you wasp, you Katherina; call me Troilus doth thee? I' faith, you are too angry." Kuno said as he took a step towards her and narrowed his eyes.

She didn't back down. "If I be waspish, best beware my sting." She said as she stared him down.

"Fine then! I shall pay thy ransom!" He said with exasperation as he dug into his Kendogi for money.

Yui held out her hand to Riko with a smug smile on her face. "Pay up."

"Damn, I thought for sure a hundred would have been his breaking point." Riko said as she leaned back from Ranma a little bit to dig in her own blouse for money; she rubbed her chest on Ranma while doing so. Nabiki knew it wasn't an accident, but she didn't care. Riko wasn't hitting on him, she was just like that with people she liked and people she was teasing. And it was good for Ranma to have to deal with women and their bodies without it being yet another romantic catastrophe.

Ranma was looking at her with very wide eyes while he held his hands out to his sides as best he could with both of the girls sitting on him, trying to show he wasn't doing anything. She nodded imperceptibly for anyone except Ranma. She knew he'd pick up on it and understand that she knew.

Kuno held a roll of ten-thousand Yen bills out to her which she snapped up and deposited into her hip pocket as she smiled at him. "All right, Kuno-baby, here you go, now don't lose this." She said as she leaned over and grabbed his hand as she pulled a marker out of her other pocket and wrote a phone number down on his wrist. The marker was purple and scented with a candy-grape smell. That made it extra fun for her.

Kuno nodded to her sharply then pulled his hand back gently, almost reverently, and did an abrupt about-face as he walked away proudly while he blew on the marker to dry it.

She rolled her eyes at him. "That man from children, nothing differs." She said quietly as he walked away. She turned around and smiled as she sauntered back over to Ranma, shooed the girls away again, and sat happily in his lap. The girls vacated his lap, but kept their arms wrapped around him.

Ranma let out a little oof as she plopped down on him. "That was ... impressive ... Kiki." He said with a slow smile.

"Ooh, I don't know if I can let you use that one yet, Ranma." Riko said as she grabbed his chin and pulled his head around to stare into her eyes. "Not sure you've earned it, copyright and all that." Riko said as she stared hard at him with a thin frown on her lips.

Ranma didn't back down. "Hey, if you want to use me as a hand-warmer, then I get to use that name." He declared with defiance in his eyes.

She blinked at him in surprise and happiness. She couldn't believe he was going toe-to-toe with Riko!

Riko stared him down for a few more moments then squealed, "Deal!" She immediately stuck her hands into his shirt which caused him to yelp as her cold hands found his warm skin. "So waaaaaarm!" Riko purred happily with her best imitation of a happy cat's face plastered on her face.

"Shoulda seen that one coming, Ranma." She said to him with a grin.

"Give him time, he's a smart boy." Yui chimed in.

"No I'm not, Nabiki's the smart one." He protested as he tried to wiggle Riko's hands out of his shirt unsuccessfully.

She ignored his self-deprecation. "You bet he is, I've seen him learn extremely complicated things in a day or less, and master them. If Ranma wants to, he can learn just about anything." She boasted proudly.

"Oh, great! How do we get him to learn history? I need a tutor." Riko said in a sing-song voice.

She smiled happily. It's happening, it's happening! She thought excitedly to herself as Ranma played with them. He probably didn't realize that was what was happening, but it didn't matter. He could do it!

"Aint gonna happen." Ranma shot back to Riko.

"Nabi could pay you with naked pictures, have any good ones, Nabi-chan?" Yui asked.

"Nah, I got out of that business." She deadpanned.

"Besides, if I want to see a naked girl, all I have to do is take a cold shower." Ranma said in a tone that was both embarrassed and proud.

"Ooh, listen to him, so ... experienced." Riko said as she cooed and leaned into him.

"I know, right? But, um, Ranma, cold showers aren't really a girl's friend, ya know? That's a pro-tip from me to you for date nights." Yui said with a wink.

"I know ... its like it makes me ... a different person." He replied cautiously but with a tinge of laughter behind his voice.

Both Yui and Riko rocked him back and forth with glee as they laughed real laughs and dispensed with their theatrics.

She smiled proudly at him.

I'll just know.

The warning bell to return to class chose that moment to ring. She scowled in the general direction of the school buildings. Things were just getting interesting! She looked around and saw the vast majority of the students within eyesight starting to slowly drift towards the buildings.

"Well ... I guess that's it for today. Same time tomorrow, ladies?" She asked sadly.

"You know it! Who knew Ranma could have a sense of humor?!" Riko said as she stood up, pulled her hands out of Ranma's shirt, and leaned in and planted a wet kiss on his cheek with a loud smacking sound.

"Seriously! We should bring Chihiro & Nanami tomorrow!" Yui said as she disentangled herself from Ranma and stood up next to Riko and casually bumped her hips into Riko's to push her off Ranma. Riko scowled at her then grinned and bumped her own hips into Yui's which made Yui stumble sideways a bit with a startled whoop. It was one of their favorite games.

She stayed in Ranma's lap while Riko and Yui started to walk away as they waved cheerfully to them both.

"See you in class, Kiki! And Ranma, I'm trusting you with that name! You're gonna have a crisis on your hands if you spread it around!" Riko said with a laugh as she linked arms with Yui.

"Bye you two lovebirds, be good!" Yui called after them as she sauntered away with Riko.

A moment after they were out of earshot, Ranma looked at her with a dazed expression on his face. "Wow."

She smiled at him. "Wow indeed."

"Kiki?" He asked her, clearly curious about the name.

She frowned at him. "You don't actually get to call me that unless Riko's around."

"Why not?"

"She named me that mostly to annoy me."

"But it's so cute."

She looked at him coyly and fluttered her eyelashes at him as she considered it. She nodded her head when she came to a decision and leaned in to whisper it in his ear. "Fine, but only when we're alone. And if you ever tell Akane, I will spike your food with something nasty that I will pick based on how annoyed I am with you, and I reserve the right to come up with my own name for you."

"Deal," he said as he stood up with her and shifted her from sitting in his lap to sitting in his arms. "Should we get to class?" He asked hesitantly. She knew he had no strong desire to return to class, but he also knew that she wasn't exactly blasé about her own studies.

"I guess so." She said wistfully. She cared about her studies, but she was having so much fun with him. She didn't want the moment to end.

He looked at her quizzically. "So ... what number did you give Kuno to reach me?" He asked.

"Our home number, of course."

"So ... you tricked him?"

She blinked at him. "Not at all." She said as she wiggled in his arms to indicate she wanted to be put down. He did so immediately. "I gave him exactly what I told him I would give him, nothing more and nothing less."

She could tell he wasn't quite following her with the look he was giving her. So she waved him back over to the bench. "Have a seat. Now is as good a time as any to start training you for this sort of thing. Can you tell me what I promised him?"

"Sure, you told him you would arrange a date with him and the pig-tailed girl, and setup a phone call for that." He said as he sat back down.

She frowned and shook her head at him. "That is not what I told him. Details are very important in contracts, Ranma, including verbal contracts. You have to pay attention to words, and the order they are used and how they are used."

She began to tick points off on her fingers as she explained. "What I told him was, verbatim, one, if he wanted to reach her, I could make it happen. Two, for one hundred thousand Yen, I could give him a phone number to call her at tomorrow. Three, with that number he could then ask her out himself. And that is exactly what I gave him."

"Yeah, but Nabiki--" He started to argue with her.

"Are you the pig-tailed girl?" She interrupted him.

"Well, yeah."

"Do you live in our house?"

"Sure."

"So, if the phone rang and you answered it tomorrow, or someone went and got you, will what I gave him have satisfied the agreement I made with him to provide a phone number where he can reach the pig-tailed girl and ask her for a date?"

"I guess." He said reluctantly.

"Then the agreement was made in good faith, and I upheld my end of it. I never promised that you would be home, be in female form, would agree to the date, or would even answer the phone. That was what he wanted, but it wasn't what I said I would do. And that, Ranma, is the essence of contracts. The letter of the agreement trumps the spirit. Anything goes." She whispered as she finished.

He smiled at that. "I can see I have a lot to learn about this sort of thing."

"Well, you should get to class to study, then." She said with a soft smile.

"Meet you after school outside my classroom?" He asked.

"Of course, we have to go over our plan for meeting with Shampoo and her grandmother don't we?"

"Oh ... I wasn't actually gonna go to that, do you think we should?" He asked.

"I think forty eight hours of guaranteed freedom from their attacks is worth meeting with them for a few minutes, yes." She said patiently.

"A-all right, then yeah, we should come up with a plan before we go see them." He said as he stood up and started to walk towards the school buildings.

"I am already working on one." She promised him.

He nodded and trotted off towards the building with his classroom in it. "See you in a few hours." He called back to her, then paused and looked back. "Coming?"

"In a moment."

"I'll wait with you then." He said as he started back towards her.

"Go. I'll be right behind you, just want to enjoy the view for a few more moments before I go back in."

He looked at her doubtfully. "But, Nabiki--"

"Go." She said, more firmly. He nodded and jogged off towards the building his classroom was in. He looked back at her a couple of times as he did, and she waved each time he did.

She stood there for a few moments and allowed herself to be immensely happy with how well Ranma's first encounter with her friends had gone while she simultaneously planned for how to deal with the Amazons.

A cold voice behind her startled her out of her happy thoughts just as she felt a presence behind her.

"Proud of ourself, are we, Nabiki Tendo?"

It was Kodachi's voice.

Chapter Text

Nabiki went cold inside. She was alone. Kodachi was behind her. Ranma was just disappearing into the school building in the distance, and the few people she could see were very far away and rapidly entering the school buildings as well.

Stall? Stall. She asked and answered herself.

She took a full slow step forward towards the school buildings and away from Kodachi as she turned away while she clasped her hands behind her back and put on her innocent and friendly schoolgirl persona.

As soon as she could see Kodachi she sighed inwardly as she realized that the unhinged gymnast-girl must have matched her stride when she stepped, as the crazy girl was practically nose-to-nose with her. Kodachi was wearing her trademark leotard and was clutching that ribbon of hers in her left hand.

Her mind had partitioned itself to work on several problems at once. The main thing she was working on was trying to figure out how to stall Kodachi. She was also trying to spare as much of her thoughts as she could to try to remember the fighting skills Daddy had taught her. She was also gathering her strength to run as she continued to back slowly away from Kodachi.

"Where are you trying to go, my dear?" Kodachi said in a falsetto-sweet voice as she smiled widely at her with a smile that didn't reach her eyes.

She must have read my body language. She thought as fear entered her core and she started to go numb. Adrenaline was flooding into her and it was helping, but the fear was still taking control. She wasn't trained for, or used to, physical confrontations. She had heard that some people reacted to panic by freezing up. She had never thought she'd be one of them.

I'm just full of surprises today. She thought sarcastically as she backed away from Kodachi and brought her hands from behind her back and held them up in an open handed peaceful I-don't-want-any-trouble gesture.

Kodachi matched her step for step as she kept the fake smile on her face. She was sure Kodachi could tell she had brought her hands up into a guard position, even though it technically didn't look like one, but there wasn't much else she could do. Kodachi clearly seemed to want to fight.

"What do you want?" She asked Kodachi as she continued to slowly back up towards the school buildings.

I am only going to get one good shot in, I need to make it count. She thought as she let her eyes casually travel Kodachi's body as she searched for the best place to hit her.

Her mind flashed back to lessons Daddy had given her back when she had only been six years old.

"This is important, Nabiki. Pay attention. If someone attacks you on the street, odds are they won't be trained. Even if they are trained, they won't be expecting you to put up a real fight. This is what I want you to do." He'd shown her a quick and brutal series of motions that involved a blocking strike, a quick shuffle in and an elbow to the nose. The motions were short, easy to remember, and designed to cause maximum damage and to knock an attacker back on their heels. It was all Martial, no Art, Daddy had told her. They were motions intended to save her life, not to win against another martial artist. "Stop or duck their attack, close the distance fast and hurt them as much as you can, then run away, baby. Don't try to win the fight, just get away."

She continued to take small steps away from the crazy girl and towards the school buildings. She figured every step closer to the buildings she was when Kodachi got tired of toying with her and attacked, would be that many steps less she'd have to run.

"What I want, dearie, is for you to leave my darling Ranma alone." The crazy girl said with a manic gleam in her eye.

"All right, I'm sure we can work something out." She led the girl, hoping she could distract her with negotiations.

"Oh ho ho, I'm sure we can too, dearie. I've always found that the fastest way to solve little problems like this is through a spirited exchange--"

Here it comes. She flexed as she prepared for the attack.

"--of ideas!" Kodachi finished as she lunged at her with some kind of club clenched in her right fist as she drove it towards her face.

She didn't have time to think, she just reacted. She stepped forward with her right foot inside Kodachi's stance while she hammered both her fists into Kodachi's arm. Her left fist struck the side of the gymnast's forearm where one of the nerve clusters was. Her right fist hit hard into Kodachi's bicep muscle. The combined affect was that she deadened her attacker's arm in two places while also effectively blocking the attack. Daddy had always told her one of the hallmarks of Kenpo was that every block was also a strike.

She immediately shuffle-stepped forward and drove her left elbow hard into Kodachi's nose as she traced a path along the gymnast's extended arm. The impact jarred her elbow and hurt as she snapped the crazy girl's head back. She continued straight forward and Kodachi dropped as she drove her elbow through the space she had targeted. She did it just like Daddy had shown her, and made her practice on him over and over again when she was little.

Thank you, Daddy. She thought as she began to sprint towards the school. She knew she should yell for help, but she just couldn't bring herself to do it. It was so undignified, weak and pitiful.

I'll just run and find Ranma, he'll-- "oop!" her thoughts were interrupted as her feet were yanked out from under her and she crashed hard into the ground. She was dazed for half a second then she threw herself backwards and rolled her head back as she kicked her feet over her shoulder and away from the attack she knew was coming. Her feet were tangled in that stupid ribbon Kodachi was always waving around. She felt the ground shudder as she regained her feet and shook the ribbon off and looked where she had been laying a moment before.

Kodachi was in the process of discarding the mallet she had embedded in the ground where she had been. The crazy gymnast was now standing between her and the school.

The fear was still present, but she was able to force herself to start circling Kodachi as she held her hands up in a full guard position, just like Daddy had taught her.

Okay, now I'm in trouble. She thought as she eyed Kodachi warily.

The unhinged gymnast was circling with her now. There was a small trickle of blood streaming from her nose, and there were leaves and grass in her hair.

"Well well, it seems I underestimated you." Kodachi said with a sneer.

She didn't answer, she wanted all of her attention on her defense.

When she didn't take the bait, Kodachi tried again. "I see that you have stolen some of Ranma-darling's moves. You foolish girl, you can't hope to think that makes you worthy of being with him, can you? At least your younger sister is somewhat competent. You, on the other hand, have nothing of substance to offer him. He'll realize that soon, you know." Kodachi said in a low voice dripping with contempt, while she walked into a tighter circle with her and readied another attack.

She couldn't help it, Kodachi's words were getting to her. She was getting angry. She could feel the heat of her anger replacing the cold fear that had taken hold of her earlier. As she circled with Kodachi, she felt her muscles loosening and warming up. She felt good. Her muscles remembered all of this. Sparring with Daddy had been just like this. Of course, she had known Daddy wasn't going to really hurt her. She had no such delusions about Kodachi.

"Time to teach you a lesson, dearie. You need to learn to stay out of the way of your betters, and to keep your hands off of those who don't belong to you." Kodachi taunted her as she tensed her muscles to attack.

She felt herself blazing with anger. She knew that Kodachi was trying to goad her, but she didn't care. She was angry.

How dare she! Who does she think she is?! She thought as she curled her open hands up from parrying hands into fists. Her mind had shifted from defense to offense. She wanted to hurt this arrogant brat!

Kodachi smiled a smug smile as she moved in to attack. She had a moment to read Kodachi's hips and shoulders as the crazy gymnast darted in. She couldn't tell what the attack was going to be so she threw her left hand low and her right hand high as she stepped back with her left foot.

She felt an immediate sharp pain in her left forearm as it impacted with the kick Kodachi had been aiming at her legs. A split second later she felt a terribly painful impact in her right forearm as she managed to block whatever stupid toy Kodachi was swinging at her. Her eyes immediately blurred with tears as the pain made her suck in her breath.

She tapped into her anger and let it fuel her while she yelled and moved to counter attack as she forced herself to ignore the pain in both her arms. She knew where Kodachi's arm was, because she had just blocked an attack from that arm. So even though her eyes and mind weren't able to follow or plot the motion, she could feel it. She slid her right arm down and squeezed her hand into a fist as tight as she could as she brought her left hand up to the side of her head in a cross-guard. She felt her right fist impact something on Kodachi's head. It was hard and hurt to hit it, so it was probably her chin or jaw. As soon as she knew where her target was, she lashed out with her other hand and punched again. She felt it impact on something soft. She hoped it was Kodachi's neck.

She didn't let up. She stepped hard into her opponent's stance and punched as hard as she could, just as Daddy had shown her all those years ago. Her muscles remembered how to do it, like those sparring sessions had been yesterday.

Her vision was clearing, and she could see Kodachi's face now as she pressed the attack. At least half of her punches were getting through Kodachi's own guard. She was landing solid straight and hooking punches to Kodachi's face and temples. Kodachi had a look of utter surprise mixed with outrage on her face as she backpedaled from her attack.

I can do this, I can win! She thought as she blazed with the heat of her anger which was quickly shifting to confidence. I can b--

Her thought were interrupted as Kodachi took a solid step back and planted her weight and popped a side kick out which caught her unprepared in the gut. She stumbled backwards with the wind knocked out of her and sank to her knees as she gasped for breath.

She tried to think of something sarcastic to say, but she was drawing a blank. Her confidence had evaporated. Her anger was still there, but it was losing to the fear which was growing as Kodachi stalked towards her with dead eyes and dropped a club into her palm.

Kodachi was obviously both surprised, and furious. The crazy gymnast walked leisurely towards her as she triggered a switch on the club and spikes popped out of the head of it.

"That's enough of that, time to finish this." The crazy girl said in an emotionless voice as she raised the club to strike.

She summoned all of her strength and lurched to her feet as she hopped back out of the way.

I'll be damned if I am going out on my knees, especially from this crazy girl. She thought determinedly.

She tried to run, but her legs wouldn't obey her. The best she could do was to stumble backwards as she still tried to breathe properly.

Kodachi raised the club to strike almost lazily. "Time for your lesson, girl!" She snarled as she swung.

She squeezed her eyes shut as she pulled her hands up to block and tried to summon the strength to endure the pain she knew was coming.

A heartbeat later she felt herself get pulled backwards abruptly, as she heard a heavy thunk of something solid impacting something not as solid. Weirdly, she didn't feel any pain.

She opened her eyes, and there was Ranma. He had caught the club in his bare left hand. He had his right hand on her shoulder pushed underhanded behind himself. He must have reached me from behind and yanked me back as he stepped into my place. She marveled as she watched him squeeze the club with an iron-solid grip while a tiny trickle of blood dripped from his hand. She almost fainted with relief.

Ranma had come for her. She was going to be all right. The ice of her fear fled and was replaced with the warmth of her confidence in him.

"ENOUGH!" He yelled at Kodachi in a voice ringing with emotion. He sounded ... very angry.

Kodachi's face had gone white from the shock of injuring him while also being caught in the act of trying to injure her.

Before anything else could happen she heard an enraged female voice scream from behind her. "NO!"

Ranma moved instantly. He pivoted on his heel and yanked the club away from Kodachi and threw it away at the same moment that he wrapped her up in his arms as he pulled her to the ground and spun away from Kodachi.

She saw someone in a girl's school uniform sail over her head as she landed on top of Ranma. He had spun her in the air so he would take the impact of the fall, and had her cradled in his arms. The girl Ranma had pulled her out of the way of landed and she caught a flash of short hair and realized it was Akane. She watched from between Ranma's arms as Akane laid into Kodachi, hard.

Her little sister was obviously furious. She had known for a long time that Akane had surpassed her own training in the Art long ago, but the point had never been more clear than it was right now. She watched Akane fight the same opponent she had just been losing against and absolutely dominate her.

Akane slapped Kodachi's defenses down in three quick motions, then stepped into Kodachi's stance, grabbed her hair, and pulled down and forward and yanked Kodachi off her feet. Kodachi hit the ground hard but popped up again. Akane was on her immediately and started hitting her with solid strikes that doubled the crazy gymnast over and quickly dropped her to her knees. Ranma unwound himself from her and left her breathing deeply on the ground looking straight up at the sky. She heard heavy thudding coming from the direction of the fight as Akane pummeled Kodachi.

"All right, she's had it." She heard Ranma call out.

"Akane, she's had enough." Ranma said a little more urgently.

"Akane! Stop!" Ranma said more sternly. A moment later the impact sounds ceased.

She sat up painfully and saw a bizarre sight. Akane was straining powerfully in Ranma's arms and digging her feet into the ground. Akane was actually leaving little trails of plowed dirt under her as she strained against him while she made a keening sound.

Akane's eyes were blank but her face was drawn into a snarl. Ranma had grabbed both of Akane's wrists and was holding her firmly as he stood between her little sister and Kodachi. Akane was using every gram of her strength to try to break his hold and get to Kodachi. She could actually see Ranma's chest, arm and neck muscles straining as he worked to restrain Akane's tremendous strength.

Kodachi was crumpled on the ground, unconscious. The crazy gymnast was curled into a ball and had clearly been clutching her gut before she passed out. Other than that, there were no major injuries obvious on her. Akane was still straining against Ranma to get to Kodachi.

"Akane! Akane, no! Come on, Akane, that's enough! Akane, that's not our way!" Ranma yelled at her as he tried to calm her down.

Finally, after a few more seconds, Akane slumped into Ranma's arms and stopped fighting him. Akane sank slowly into his arms and let out several shuddering breaths as she calmed down.

While Ranma calmed Akane down, she sat all the way up gingerly and took stock of herself. Her stomach hurt, as did both of her arms and hands. Her nose was full of dust, and her clothes were filthy. Despite all of that, she felt strangely exhilarated.

A moment later Akane was kneeling down in front of her and grabbed her head gently as she tilted it side to side and front to back. "Are you all right, Nabiki? I'm so sorry I didn't get here sooner." Akane said softly in a shaking voice full of guilt. Her eyes looked normal again, but there was still a trace of rage ghosting around the edges.

"I'm ... okay." She found herself saying. Sure, she was hurt, but she still felt sort of excited too. The fear had left her, as had the adrenaline, and she was shaking a bit from the after affects of both. But, overall, she actually felt kind of giddy. She was sure it was just euphoria from having survived the fight and a little bit of pride at how well she had done.

Thank you, Daddy. She thought again gratefully as she closed her eyes briefly and thought of all of the training Daddy had made her endure in case she was ever attacked. You were right, and I was wrong. She thought an apology to him. She made a mental note to tell him about this, and to thank him properly. She knew he would insist she start training again and ... she was all right with that. Can't let Akane have all the fun, now can I? She thought glibly.

Akane was running her hands over her body now, looking for wounds. She brushed her sister's hands away as she tried to stagger to her feet. "I told you, I'm--"

Whoa! She thought in surprise as her legs gave out from under her, halfway into her attempt to get to her feet.

Akane's arms whipped out and caught her before she had fallen more than a centimeter.

"Ranma, come help me!" Akane called out in a panic. Ranma ran over and encircled her in his strong arms and pulled her up to her feet easily, and then he kept lifting her and a moment later she was sitting in his arms. She looked wryly into his eyes and summoned a smirk to cover her embarrassment.

"Getting kind of handsy, aren't you, Saotome?" She asked dryly.

"But ... you're hurt." He replied.

"Not that hurt. I can walk, just make sure I don't fall, okay?" She said as she wiggled in his grasp to be let down.

"All right..." he said hesitantly as he set her back down to her feet. Akane appeared on the other side of her and grabbed her hand. She looked down and smiled at that. She also noticed that Akane had grabbed Kodachi's ribbon, and it was sticking out of her sister's pocket at the hip.

"Nurse's office?" Ranma asked on the other side of her. Akane nodded her head seriously.

As they led her away, she noticed that all of the toys Kodachi had brought were now broken. The spiked club was now a pile of splinters piled in front of Kodachi, where she couldn't miss them when she woke up.

When had Akane done that? She figured she'd ask about it later as she walked gingerly with them to the nurse's office.

They arrived in what felt like no time at all. She was pretty sure Ranma had been lifting her a bit as they walked.

They entered the nurse's office and Ranma laid her down on one of the examination tables on that crinkly wax paper they put on them. She could still feel the cold fake leather under the paper though. The nurse's office had that sickly-sweet antiseptic smell that all doctor's offices and hospitals seemed to have. She knew some people found it comforting, she found it slightly nauseating.

Ranma leaned down and smoothed the hair around her forehead gently with his right hand. His left he kept down by his side. She looked over at Akane who was shifting her weight from foot to foot and looking anxious. A moment later Akane stopped fidgeting and calmed down. A heartbeat after that, she saw why.

The nurse was one she didn't recognize. She was a young woman, probably not much older than Kasumi. She moved with a quiet grace that was eerily similar to something, but she couldn't put her finger on it. The nurse was suspiciously fit for the profession.

"What do we have here? Are you all right, Miss?" The nurse asked gently as she stepped over to her side.

"She was attacked!" Akane said for her, before she could open her mouth.

"I see, well, I can take care of that." The nurse said as she wheeled over a privacy screen. "Young man, I'll have to ask you to wait in the next room." The nurse said firmly.

She thought about making an issue out of it and insisting he stay, by right of being her fiancé. But, frankly she didn't want the first time he saw her undressed to be in this setting, so she kept her mouth shut.

Akane came and stood by her side and held her hand.

The nurse looked at Akane and back to her. She nodded. "It's all right, she's my sister."

"I know she is, you still have the right to have her leave if you'd prefer." The nurse said kindly.

She could feel Akane's hand stiffen around her own in displeasure at hearing that. Akane seemed to really need to be with her right now.

"No, it's fine, she can stay."

"All right, well, tell me what happened." The nurse said as she checked her arms and legs, and then lifted up her clothes and ran her hands around looking for cuts and other wounds.

"I was attacked by some crazy girl who thinks she owns my fiancé." She felt Akane stiffen again when she called Ranma her fiancé, but there was no helping that.

The nurse listened to her heart and lungs and checked her blood pressure then returned to checking her arms. After a few more moments she turned and looked at her and smiled. "You have a bone bruise on your left Ulna and another on your right Radius. The surrounding tissue above and around the blunt force trauma impact points are also quite bruised. You also have a minor bruise on your abdomen. Overall, you'll be fine. I have some pain pills I can give you, I'll be back with them and then I'll go treat your fiancé's hand." The nurse said with a calm smile.

She again had a feeling like she should be recognizing something. She tried to concentrate, but Akane interrupted her.

"I'm so sorry, Nabiki!" Akane blurted out as she leaned over her on the examination table and draped herself over her chest and hugged her tightly.

"Akane..." She said gently as she reached up and hugged her sister in return.

"Oh, Nabiki! I was so scared!" Akane said in a shaking voice. She could tell her little sister was barely holding back tears. She didn't understand why Akane was so upset, it hadn't been that bad. Had it?

"It's all right. I'm all right. Everyone's all right." She said as she made soft shushing noises and stroked her sister's hair.

The nurse chose that moment to reappear and announced her presence by sliding a chair up behind Akane and pressing it against the back of Akane's knees, which collapsed her legs and kind of forced her to sit down and loosen her hold.

"If you cry all over your sister, then I'm going to have to get her a change of clothes." The nurse said kindly.

"Of-of course. S-sorry." Akane said, embarrassed.

"Never be embarrassed for caring for others, dear. Especially your family. You hold on to them tightly." The nurse admonished Akane as she moved to her other side and handed her a steaming cup of tea on a saucer. There were two small white pills on the saucer.

The heat of the tea through the silky ceramic of the cup felt good on her hands. She let the heat warm her hands for a moment as she breathed in the creamy subtle aroma of the tea. The nurse began cleaning and bandaging the minor scrapes and cuts she'd gotten on her knees, palms and elbows. As the nurse worked, she sipped the tea with one hand and took the pain pills. She then put the saucer down on the table.

Akane had her left hand clenched tightly between both of her own hands. She smiled at Akane as she enjoyed the calming taste of the tea. She let the tea stay on her tongue for a moment with each sip, and then gently glide down her throat. It was very therapeutic.

Akane watched the nurse with eyes shining with unshed tears. She tried to distract her little sister from watching her getting bandaged up. The silliness of her trying to make Akane feel better about injuries she had gotten, did not escape her.

"Don't worry, Akane. I'm fine. It looks worse than it is. I've hurt myself worse falling off my skates."

Akane jerked her head in a short nod, but didn't say anything. Her sister obviously didn't trust her voice right now.

"You and Ranma got there just in time, everything is fine." She reassured Akane.

"If we'd been just a little bit later, you--"

"How you doin' back there?" Ranma's voice called out from outside the room, and interrupted Akane.

She sighed. "I'm fine, Ranma." She called out to him.

"Can I come see you now?" He asked. Akane was visibly twitching as her little sister looked in the direction of his voice through the screen.

"Sure, Ranma." She said with a shrug. The nurse was done examining her, and was just bandaging her already exposed skin anyway.

The nurse raised at eyebrow at her but didn't say anything. Ranma appeared around the edge of the screen a moment later. He just stood at the foot of the table and watched for a few moments. He had several emotions running across his face, but the one that kept showing the most was frustration. She decided to let him be for a while and continued to sip her tea.

A minute or so later the nurse finished bandaging her and turned to Ranma. "Would you like me to take care of your injury?"

"What injury?" He asked in a confused tone.

The nurse pointed to his hand which was still dripping a little bit of blood. "That injury."

He looked down at his hand and shrugged. "Feh, that's nothing, barely even a scratch." He said as he wiped his hand on his pants. The bleeding mostly stopped at that. Then he clenched the hand into a fist and it stopped entirely. "See, no problem." He said confidently.

"It might get infected." The nurse pressed him.

"I'll put some ice on it later, don't worry about it." He said.

The nurse stared into his eyes for another moment, then shrugged. "All right, well, don't come crying to me if you get an infection and end up losing the hand. I tried." She could tell the nurse wasn't being all that serious, but that there was a bit of a real warning in the nurse's voice.

She made a mental note to make Ranma sit still and have Kasumi look at his hand later.

"If you'll excuse me, I have some other things to attend to." The nurse said as she made her way past Ranma and around the privacy screen.

She started to get up from the table then stopped when the nurse turned around abruptly and skewered her with a hard stare. "Sit tight, dear. I want you to finish that tea and rest for at least a quarter hour, all right? I want to make sure you come out of the shock and adrenaline rush properly, before you go, okay? I'll bring you something to eat in a little bit. You'd be surprised at the energy your body uses when you go through something like you just did."

She sat back down and nodded. It was probably a good thing anyway, she had felt faint as soon as she had tried to get up. She didn't think Akane had noticed it, but she was sure Ranma had seen the shake in her arms and legs.

"Yeah, Nabiki, listen to the nurse." He said as he walked to her side and tried to help her sit back.

She couldn't explain it, but his tone and the way he was trying to coddle her just rubbed her the wrong way. Before she even knew what she was doing she'd shaken his hands off her. She spilled a little bit of the tea on the table as she did it. He stepped back like he'd been slapped.

She tried to soften her rejection of his mothering a little. "I'm fine, Ranma. You too, Akane." She said as she lifted her hand out of Akane's hands. "I think I did all right today. I was happy to have you stop the fight, but I don't need either of you babysitting me, all right?"

Akane nodded and smiled a little.

Ranma, however, got a hurt look in his eyes. "I was only tryin' ta help, Nabiki."

"I know, Ranma. But I don't like either of you treating me like I can't take care of myself." She said stubbornly.

Ranma's eyes narrowed. "It seemed like you needed my help earlier."

She sighed. "I was doing all right against her until she started to fight dirty. But you're right, Ranma, I did need your help then, I don't now."

Akane stayed silent and looked at the floor.

Ranma opened his mouth to say something else, then closed it again. Then he opened it with a determined look in his eyes.

Here comes the real reason he's upset. She thought as she watched him warily.

"You told me ... you'd yell for help ... if you were in trouble. I never heard you yell, Nabiki." He said in a voice that was a mixture of accusation and hurt.

She immediately felt guilty about that, and also resentful that he was bringing it up while she was still in the nurse's office recovering. She felt the resentment push to the front and take control of her response.

"I was a little busy trying to figure out how to deal with a crazy girl attacking me. I didn't have time to be screaming for help. Besides, if I had yelled for help, she would have attacked me right away. I was able to delay her for a while and get closer to the school buildings by playing along with her." She said defensively.

Akane stayed quiet, but her little sister did look up into her eyes briefly to give her a supportive look. She knew that Akane was used to arguing with Ranma, but she wasn't. It felt surprisingly bad to have him being negative towards her.

"I shoulda stayed with you and taken you back to your classroom." He pressed. He obviously felt guilty. She could understand that, so she tried to reassure him.

"That was my fault. You're right, I shouldn't have split up from you." She smiled at him with a tiny smile. It was about as far as she was willing to go right. She knew she needed protection right now, but she didn't like being treated like an invalid or a prisoner.

Instead of Ranma softening his own response to her, he just piled on. "You're right, you shouldn't have. It was a stupid thing ta do. Kodachi could have really hurt you. What were you thinking trying to take her on, I--"

"Ranma." She interrupted him in a falsetto-sweet voice that she usually reserved for people she was about to eviscerate financially. He paused and looked at her with wide eyes with his mouth still open to argue with her.

"Ranma ... you're hurting my feelings. I know I didn't handle things all that well, but I don't need you making me feel worse about it right now. I would like you to ... please leave." She said in as controlled a voice as she could.

She wanted to scream at him, and argue right back with him. But, she had seen Akane do that with him over and over again to no productive end. Clearly when his fighting instincts were engaged, nothing positive could be accomplished. So, she overrode her desire to yell at him.

He just stared at her dumbfounded for a moment, then closed his mouth and his eyes as he tried to gather control of himself. "I ... I'm sorry." He said hesitantly.

Akane looked up at her sharply. She could tell by the expression on Akane's face that her little sister had never considered just telling Ranma that he was out of line.

She kept her little smile on her face and the falsetto tone in her voice. "I'm sorry too. Can you please leave me alone with Akane now?" She asked in a voice that was shaking a bit. She didn't want to send him away, but she wanted to fight with him even less.

He took a step back away from her. He looked like a puppy that was being put into a crate. Then he opened his mouth to argue again. "But, Nabiki, I need to--"

"Akane is right here, Ranma. Why don't you head back to class?" She interrupted him again. When he didn't move after a moment, she sighed. "I will meet you outside your classroom at the end of the day, as we discussed."

"I ... all right, Nabiki." He said as he hung his head and scooted around the privacy screen and was gone. She listened to his footsteps recede. He walked a few steps, then paused, then walked a few more, then paused longer, then a few more, and then he paused for a very long time. She simply waited as Akane stared at her wide-eyed. After half a minute had passed, she finally heard his footsteps continue out of the nurse's office and leave her hearing range.

"I am going to go run some errands." The nurse said, as she appeared out of nowhere to stand next to her. She jerked on the examination table in fright away from the nurse as her hands darted up involuntarily into a guard position. That had startled her.

She glared up at the nurse as she put her hands back down. The nurse smiled back at her and continued speaking kindly to her as she laid a plate of cookies in her lap, and another plate that had rice balls on it. "Finish your tea like a good girl, then I want you to eat before you leave. I brought you the rice balls because I am supposed to, but nobody will judge you if you only eat the cookies." The nurse said with a wink.

Before she could even think of anything to say, the nurse was sashaying away from her and disappeared around the privacy curtain. She looked at Akane with wide eyes. Akane opened her mouth to speak, and then it was her younger sister's turn to jump as the nurse popped her head around the screen again. "I'm going to lock the door to the office. Nobody will be able to get in, but you will be able to leave if you are ready to do so before I return. If you do, please make sure the door is fully closed when you leave." The nurse smiled at them, then was gone again.

She and Akane looked at each other wide-eyed again, and both of them held the look as grins started to creep up their faces. They managed to hang on until they heard the door close and lock. Then they both lost it. She laughed so hard she dumped the contents of both her plates of food into her lap. Akane slid down in the chair she was in, and ended up on the floor.

She ended up laying down on the table and gasping for breath as she tried to get her breathing under control. She was glad she had set the tea down when the food had arrived. As it was, she had to pick up the food from her lap and put it back on the plates. Luckily, that wasn't a very messy job.

When she was done, she set the plates aside and looked at Akane, who was gathering herself back up into the chair and smiling sheepishly at her.

"She isn't a ... normal ... nurse, is she?" She asked Akane.

Akane shook her head. "She can't be. Nobody could do things like that unless they were an expert in the Art." A light dawned in Akane's eyes. "Oh! She must know Doctor Tofu! Maybe she's a student of his, or they study under the same master or something." Akane said with confidence.

"What makes you think she knows Doctor Tofu?" She asked curiously. "Just because she knows the Art doesn't mean she knows Doctor Tofu. He can't be the only doctor in Japan who practices Martial Arts." She said doubtfully.

"That may be so, but she was the one who came and got me out of class and said I needed to go to you, that you were in trouble."

"Really?" She asked. "Well, maybe she does know Doctor Tofu. He did tell me I had friends here watching over me." She said pensively. "I wonder if the nurse told Ranma as well?"

Hooray for plan thirty eight. She thought with relief to herself.

"Probably." Akane said in a smaller voice.

She looked up at the ceiling and sighed. "You know sis, I have to be honest. When you were engaged to him, I used to judge you for how much you two fought ... I get it now. It took all of my willpower not to yell at him earlier."

Akane didn't answer her, she just made a small mmm hmm noise.

"I know I need to be patient with him, but it can be really hard when he is acting that way you know? I don't know how you put up with it for so long." She joked.

Akane made a half-choking, half-gasping noise that snapped her out of her reverie.

She sat up and looked at Akane. Her little sister was sitting on the edge of her chair with her hands pressed together tightly between her knees. Akane was clearly barely holding it together.

"Akane, what's wrong?" She asked, worried.

"Nothing, I'm fine." Akane said, as tears started to leak from the corners of her eyes.

"You're not fine." She said carefully.

"I'm fine. Everything's fine." Akane said as tears began to stream down her cheeks.

"Oh, Akane. I'm so sorry. Was it because I was talking about Ranma?" She asked hesitantly.

Akane didn't answer her, she just smiled back at her as the tears streamed down her face and little shudders shook her body.

"Akane, I'm sorry. I won't talk about Ranma anymore. All right?" She said rapidly, trying to calm her down.

"W-Why...." Akane tried to say, then had to stop and take a deep breath as she fought the tears back.

Before she could respond, Akane tried again. "W-Why ... are you doing this to me?" Akane whispered as she squeezed her eyes shut, opened her mouth, and let out the soft wail of a cry of a broken heart.

Chapter Text

Nabiki looked at her little sister hunched over and crying in her chair. Akane looked so small right now. As she looked at Akane, she couldn't not see the little girl Akane had been not that long ago.

Akane was still trying to hold it together, but she could tell her little sister was just barely holding on. Her small frame was shuddering as she fought back the tears.

"Oh, Akane, come here!" Nabiki said as she set her plates aside and held her arms open for her.

Akane half collapsed out of the chair and half dove into her arms. Akane wrapped her hands around her waist and buried her face into her chest; then her little sister let go and cried harder than she could ever remember her crying.

After many minutes had passed, Akane whispered to her with her face still buried into her chest. "I've been trying ... I've been trying ... to not care. I've tried to get past it. I've tried to ignore you two. None of it's working. It hurts so bad, Nabiki! Why ... why are you doing this to me? Is it for money? Were you being serious back when you asked for money for him? I'll ... I'll pay..." Akane said in a weak voice. She had never heard her sister sound more defeated than she did right now.

Tears sprang into her eyes as she held her little sister and tried to comfort her.

What the hell do I tell her?

I promised not to interfere!

Should I give her advice to get him back?

Should I help her get over him?

Her thoughts crashed into each other as she tried to figure out what to say. A lot of jokes jumped into the front of her mind, but she ignored them. She didn't think Akane would appreciate any of them.

"I ... don't ... want money, for him, Akane." She said as carefully as she could.

Akane pulled back from her so she could look her in the eyes. Her little sister's makeup was smeared. Tears were streaming down Akane's cheeks, and her eyes were red. Akane's mouth was open as she gasped for breath while she sobbed. She felt terrible. She had never, ever, wanted to hurt Akane like this.

"W-what do you want, then? What is this all about? Why are you doing this to me?" Akane asked in between sobs as she looked into her eyes.

She swallowed hard and opened her mouth to answer Akane, but no sound came out. She tried again, and pushed harder, and still nothing. She took a deep breath and reached down into her core and grabbed hold tightly to her courage and tried again. "I'm not trying ... to do anything ... to you, Akane." She said as gently as she could.

Akane screwed her face up into an even worse cry and dropped her head back down, and bawled. She was extremely grateful that the nurse had locked them in the office together. The nurse had probably seen this coming, if she actually was a friend of Doctor Tofu's.

She honestly had no idea what to say to Akane, so she just held her and rocked side to side as she stroked her hair and rubbed her back. Eventually, Akane calmed down enough to ask another question.

"A-are you serious about him? Or is this just a big game to you?" She asked with her face still buried into her lap.

"I ... I'm serious." She said hesitantly. She knew the truth was going to upset Akane, but she had nothing else left to use. She had promised not to interfere. So she couldn't give her advice or coaching. But Akane deserved some answers, and the only way she could do that and keep her promises to Ranma would be to tell Akane the unvarnished truth.

"I... I don't understand ... why Ranma?" Akane asked as her breathing slowed a little. Her little sister's frame was still shuddering from the sobs trying to get out, though.

"It's ... hard to describe, Akane. I've kind of ... always ... had a thing for him." She said, embarrassed. She didn't like talking about her feelings with anyone except Doctor Tofu or Kasumi, and only when she was alone with them. Telling Akane her feelings made her feel more vulnerable than she could feel even if she was staring down a dozen copies of Kodachi while stark naked.

"But ... why Ranma?" Akane asked as she clenched her body in her arms and more sobs shook her as she let them out.

She stroked Akane's hair for a long while before she answered. "I ... can't really tell you why. I was very excited to see Ranma when Daddy first told us he was coming. The fact that he appeared to be a girl at first threw me off a little. When we found out about his curse, I kind of panicked."

"You and Kasumi said he should be engaged to me." Akane said weakly but insistently.

She nodded. "That's true, we did. And ..." she braced herself to tell the truth, "I have kind of regretted that almost since the day I said it." She said as honestly as she could. Akane didn't say anything to that, so she continued. "Ranma is ... very special, he--"

Akane interrupted her in a pleading voice. "But ... you're so beautiful, Nabiki. You're smart and talented and funny. You could have any guy you wanted--"

"Oh, Akane ... come on, you're just as beautiful, and smar--"

"Why does it have to be Ranma?!" Akane shouted as she pulled her head back from her and interrupted her. "Can't you ... can't you leave me Ranma? All I have is Martial Arts ... you can have whoever else you want ... please ... please, Nabiki ... please ... don't do this to me." Akane said in a strangled voice as tears streamed down her face.

She could tell Akane was beyond desperate. Akane seemed to be panicked, out of control, and completely adrift. She needed Kasumi, or Doctor Tofu, or even Daddy here. She wasn't equipped to handle this level of heartbreak.

"Please?" Akane whispered again as she buried her face into her chest once more and continued to cry.

Her heart broke.

She frantically scooted to the edge of the table, and moved Akane with her as she slid down to the floor with her as best she could. She rested her back against the base of the examination table. Then she wrapped her little sister up in her arms and pulled Akane's head up to her shoulder like Kasumi had done with her, and rocked with her as she whispered soft shushing noises to her as she sobbed right along with her.

I don't know what to do!

I don't know what to do!

I don't know what to do!

She would have given a lot for the nurse to come back and help her help Akane. Hell, she would even settle for Kodachi attacking again, at least that would distract Akane.

As Akane's sobbing quieted down as the minutes passed, she decided she was safe to tell Akane as much of the truth as she could. It felt like a white-hot sword was stabbing her in the heart right now. The dragon inside her was hiding.

She knew she was about to get very close to interfering with Akane and Ranma's relationship, but she had to help Akane. She couldn't live with herself if she left Akane as miserable as she was right now. She wouldn't tell Akane what to do about Ranma, so it would be minimal interference, and she would tell Ranma she had done it, and accept the consequences of the broken promise from him.

Even if that means he calls the whole thing off. She thought sadly.

She couldn't ... she just couldn't leave Akane adrift like she was. "Akane?" She asked softly as she continued to rock back and forth with her and stroke her hair.

Akane responded by nodding her head into her shoulder. She could feel her sister clenching her body and trying to control the tears as more squeezed out hot onto her neck and shoulder. Her dress was damp in multiple places now.

"Akane, listen to me, all right?" She said in her own shaky voice. Akane nodded again. "Did Kasumi talk to you about Mom's advice on boys?" Akane nodded.

"Do you know?" She whispered.

Akane looked up at her and locked eyes with her and slowly shook her head back and forth, then stopped and nodded once, hesitantly.

"Well, the best I can tell you is, if you think he is the one for you, if you look at him, and you know he is for you, then you should ask yourself what you are going to do about that."

"But ... you're engaged to him, Nabiki." Akane whispered. Her little sister closed her eyes and shuddered as she tried to control her body which clearly wanted to continue crying.

"I don't own Ranma, Akane." She said hesitantly. She was about to tell Akane something that skated dangerously close to the edge of what she felt was absolutely private between just her and Ranma. "Ranma is free ... to choose you, or me, or Kasumi, or Ukyo, or whoever he wants." She said in a shaky voice.

Akane looked up at her with eyes shining with tears. "But, he's with you..."

She shook her head. "That stupid engagement thing Daddy came up with, doesn't matter. If you know, then you should ask yourself what you should do about that. I can't ... I can't tell you what to do." She said carefully.

"But ... I fight with him all the time. He can be so ... so ... careless, you know?"

She did know, but she didn't want to get into this with Akane. She felt that if she did, she really would start to interfere with Akane and Ranma's relationship. So, she smiled and nodded, but stayed silent.

"But, he can also be ... sweet, and he's so loyal, and and and ... " Akane broke down into tears again. She just held her little sister and waited.

"I'm sorry. Okay?! I'm sorry, Nabiki! I'm sorry I got mad and was immature and gave his engagement to you!" Akane said in between gasps as she cried in her arms.

"It's all right, Akane. It is." She said as she rocked her back and forth and whispered soft shushing sounds to her.

"I'm sorry ... I ... I didn't mean to ... can I ... can I have him back?" Akane asked, heartbroken.

If her heart hadn't already shattered for Akane, it would have again at that. She thought about bending her promise to Ranma even farther, and to give Akane some advice.

"I can't give him to you, Akane. He isn't mine to give. If you want him, you should think about how to make that happen. Is he even aware of how you feel?" She asked, carefully.

"But ... what about you, Nabiki?" Akane whimpered.

"I ... have already told him how I feel, Akane. I love you, but ... I ... think I love him too. I can't stop now. It was one thing when I was pretending not to like him before all this. But I've gone too far now to just simply stop." She said carefully. She hated doing this.

"But I ... I can't--" Akane protested weakly.

She interrupted her. "Akane, don't you have feelings for him?" She asked as she made up her mind about giving advice.

Akane nodded miserably.

Don't do it.

"Well, if you have feelings for him ..."

This is interfering, leave it alone.

"...if you have feelings for him, then tell him."

Stop, you're going to ruin everything.

"I don't think ... I can, Nabiki." Akane whispered sadly.

"In the end, Akane, in the end ... I won't hate you, or him, if he chooses you. And I hope ... I hope you won't hate me if he chooses me. But, Akane, if you want him, you are going to have to tell him. He isn't mine to give to you." She said quietly.

"But ... I can't..." Akane whimpered into her shoulder as her little sister clutched at her hard as the tears came again and she laid her head back down on her.

"Akane ... Mom told me something when I was very little." She said over Akane's crying. "I don't think I had even started school yet when she told me. It's helped me make decisions over the years, maybe it will help you." She paused and waited for Akane to look up at her, which she did a moment later with red-rimmed eyes. "She told me, Akane, to speak the truth, even if your voice shakes. I have never been one hundred percent sure what Mom meant by that, and I'm pretty sure she was quoting something. But, what I think it means is, sometimes, if something is worth doing, if something is worth having, then you have to take the risk, Akane. You have to force yourself to be brave and to do what needs to be done. Even though ... you may fail." She whispered to her.

"I'll ... I'll try, Nabiki." Akane said weakly as she started to cry again.

She held her and rocked with her for a very long time. She had no idea how much time had passed, but she knew it has been much longer than the quarter hour the nurse had told her she needed to wait before she left.

Slowly, slowly, Akane started to come back to herself. She stroked her hair and held her, and waited. Eventually, Akane pulled her head back from her and looked at her with very sad eyes. She could see in Akane's eyes all of the things that her little sister was too afraid to tell Ranma, or even herself for that matter.

She decided to try to distract her. "Akane, can you tell me something?" She asked gently. Her little sister nodded as she sniffled. She reached into one of her pockets and pulled out a tissue and handed it to her as she continued. "Why did Ranma have to hold you back from Kodachi? Why were you trying to hit her after she was down?"

"Ranma ... had to ... what?" Akane asked in confusion.

"Don't you remember?" She asked, curious.

"N-No. I was running towards you, trying to get to you before Kodachi hit you. I guess Ranma must have been coming from another angle, because I didn't see him until he appeared in front of you and stopped her right before I got there. Then ... I don't know, I have no memory of anything after that. I saw a lot of ... white. I ... everything is fuzzy. When I try to remember, it's like I have a memory of staring into the sun. I remember turning to you on the ground and going to check on you. But I don't remember anything between Ranma arriving and stopping the club, and when I went to check on you." She said in a shaky voice.

"Why ... do you think ... you can't remember?" She asked, very curious now. She made a mental note to ask Ranma and Doctor Tofu about it. Maybe it was something about the Art?

"I ... I don't know. I just remember being scared, and trying to get to you ... before it was too late, before you were ta..." Akane trailed off.

"Before I was what?" She asked gently.

Akane shook her head rapidly as she scrunched her face up into tears again. She sighed and pulled her back into a hug. Clearly Akane wasn't in the right frame of mind to talk about it right now. So she just went back to holding her. In the back of her mind, she was aware that her legs were going numb, and her back was starting to hurt, and her bottom was cold sitting on the floor. But none of that mattered right now. Akane needed her.

A long while later they both jumped when the end-of-school bell rang. They had been in the nurse's office for hours. Akane sat back out of her lap and looked at her with an expression that was a mixture of gratitude and sorrow.

She had no more words for Akane that would make her feel better, and she could tell Akane didn't know what to say to her. They both stood on shaky legs and looked at each other uneasily.

She was uneasy because she knew Akane wasn't better, and it was basically her fault. She knew Akane was uneasy because she was the source of Akane's pain, but she had also tried to help Akane. It was a strange situation.

She grabbed the cookies off the plate the nurse had given her, and handed half of them to her little sister. Akane looked down at them, then at her and sniffled before she was able to talk. "Shouldn't ... shouldn't you take them, Nabiki? The nurse said for you to eat all of them."

"No, the nurse said she wouldn't judge me if I only ate the cookies." She said as she grabbed a rice-ball and wolfed it down. Now that she was standing, she actually did feel quite hungry. She grabbed another and ate that one too and smiled at Akane. Akane smiled back and took the cookies.

"I love you, big sister." Akane said with tears in her eyes.

"I love you too, little sister." She replied.

They both made efforts to make themselves more presentable to the general school population, but it was a lost cause for both of them. Akane had red eyes and ruined makeup along with tear-stained clothes.

As for herself, she was dirty from her fight with Kodachi, as well as having red eyes and tear-stained clothing. She was sure her makeup was ruined too. Both of them were a mess; they'd probably scare people in the halls. She smiled at that. She liked the idea of the Tendo sisters both walking down the halls like badasses scaring people away from them. Of course, they would look more like badasses if they didn't look like they had been crying.

She sighed and put the cookies in her pocket as she walked with Akane towards the exit. Akane followed behind her by half a step. Akane didn't say anything else, or look up.

Poor Akane. She's probably trying to figure out how she can bring herself to tell Ranma how she feels. She thought. I wonder if she is going to try to tell him as soon as we get to her classroom? She looked sideways at her little sister and tried not to feel jealous. If Akane told him, then that would just give Ranma all that more of a fair choice. If, by some miracle, Akane told him, and he still ended up picking her over Akane, then she wouldn't ever have to doubt that he had just picked her because Akane hadn't seemed like a viable option.

She opened the door to the nurse's office, and froze for a moment. The nurse was standing there, across the hall, with her hands in her pockets as she hummed to herself. She had obviously been standing guard over the door. She felt a surge of affection for the nurse then.

As soon as the nurse saw Akane, she clicked her tongue in worry and hurried over to Akane and pulled her into a hug. It was a mom-hug. It was the kind of hug Kasumi gave, and that she remembered Mom giving.

Akane didn't say anything, but she did sink into the hug. After a few moments, Akane seemed to sag into the Nurse as she let something go. A few moments after that Akane buoyed up again and stood back away from the nurse a little taller.

"There now, that's much better." The Nurse said as she reached over and wiped a tear away from Akane's face then patted her on the shoulder. She smiled at that. She was glad someone could comfort Akane after the mediocre job she had done.

The nurse then turned and swooped over to her and pulled her into a hug as well. She couldn't explain it, but some power in the nurse pulled out some of the anguish inside her, and got rid of it. After a few moments, she felt lighter. She didn't feel like skipping through the halls and whistling, but she felt a little bit more like better times were ahead.

She leaned back from the nurse and stared hard into her eyes. "You're no ordinary nurse, are you?" She whispered. The nurse shrugged. "Do you know Doctor Tofu Ono?" She asked.

The nurse smiled slyly with only a corner of her mouth. "Maybe." Was all she said.

"Are you even a real nurse?" She asked.

The nurse grinned. "Let's just say, I can fill in for a nurse with no problem."

She smiled back softly. "What's your name?"

The nurse thought about that for a moment, then smiled again. "You can call me, Miso."

She smiled at that. "Well, Miso, thank you so much, for ... everything." She said softly.

Miso locked eyes with her, reached over and grasped her forearms gently as she rubbed them kindly with her thumbs. "It was my great pleasure." Miso's eyes shimmered with kindness as she put heavy emphasis on the word great.

She nodded shakily. She suddenly didn't trust her voice to speak.

Akane jumped in then. "Yes, thank you. Will ... will we see you again?"

Miso smiled kindly at them both as she stepped back. "You'll see me, if you need me. I have a great many debts to pay off yet. Don't worry. While you're here at the school, you're being watched over. Now go, I'm sure Ranma's waiting for both of you."

She and her sister both nodded, and bowed politely to Miso, then turned to head back to the main hallway that connected to the small hallway the nurse's office was located at. She could already see crowds of students in the main hallway.

She turned back to say something else to Miso, but nobody was there. She smiled at that. Just like Doctor Tofu. She thought to herself.

She walked with Akane hand in hand back towards Akane's classroom. They were heading against the flow of students streaming towards the exits. Nobody came within more than half a meter of them, though. She guessed nobody wanted to get involved with two tear-stained girls, one of whom was still dirty from rolling around on the ground earlier.

As they got closer to Akane's classroom, Akane drifted from right next to her, to slowly behind her. When they were only one corner away, she felt Akane stop. She turned and found Akane standing motionless behind her, still holding on to her hand, and looking down at the floor. The stream of students continued to flow around them, but she barely noticed them.

"Akane...?"

"I ... I can't."

She nodded and let go of her little sister's hand. "See you at dinner?" Akane nodded again, then looked up at her and met her eyes. Akane had in her eyes all of the things she still couldn't seem to say. It made her ... very sad.

Without another word, Akane turned around, and melted into the crowd. She lost sight of her almost immediately. She watched the crowd for a few more moments after that and sadly tried to think of ways to make her little sister feel better. She couldn't think of anything.

With a sigh, she turned around again, and turned the corner into the hallway where Ranma and Akane's classroom was located. Ranma was standing against the wall opposite to the door of his classroom. He had his back to the windows and was watching the corner she rounded. She saw him notice her immediately. He smiled and bounded over to her quickly. It made her ... happy ... that he was so eager to see her. The crowd parted for him too. She didn't think it was for the same reasons they had avoided her and Akane. She was pretty sure the crowd stayed away from him because they both respected and feared him. Not to mention the fact that Ranma tended to get attacked all the time, everywhere. It was wise to keep one's distance from him.

She didn't want to be wise. She ran into his arms and tackled him. He caught her and swept her up into a massive hug. She laid her head on his shoulder and smiled. She knew people were gawking at them as he held her in the middle of the hallway outside his classroom. She didn't care.

"I'm so sorry, Nabiki. I didn't mean--"

"I'm sorry, too. Emotions and adrenaline, you know?"

"I know. I was just ... I was so scared. When that nurse person came and stopped me in the hall and told me I had to get to you right away, that you were in danger ... it was like the world stopped. I don't even really remember runnin' to you. All I remember was the nurse tellin' me ta get to you, and then stoppin' Kodachi. Everything else is a blur."

"I'm so sorry, Ranma. I promise, I'll yell in the future if I am attacked when I am alone." She whispered into his ear.

"You'd better ... not that I want to let you be alone again." He whispered back.

She smiled. She knew what he was really saying to her. Loyalty and guarding her were some of the ways Ranma showed how he felt.

As the crowds died down, she stayed in his arms. Eventually, she stirred and whispered to him again. "Ready to go buy ourselves some time?"

"I'll go with you anywhere you want, Nabiki."

She smiled radiantly at that and laid her head back down on his shoulder. "I may hold you to that." She said happily.

"Should we get going?" He asked softly.

She shook her head. "Five more minutes." She whispered. "It's been a long day."

Chapter Text

Nabiki walked in companionable silence with Ranma towards Shampoo's restaurant. There were still some students here and there in the streets. Many of them noticed them, a few even pointed and whispered as they passed them. She ignored them. She was sure Ranma didn't even notice them. He was walking next to her, and holding her hand, and alternating between looking around them like he was scanning for danger, and staring at her. Well, he was trying hard to pretend like he wasn't staring, but he was. He kept swinging his gaze around like he was just looking around, but it kept lingering on her, a lot.

It was actually making her blush how much he was looking at her. On some level, she thought she should probably tell him to stop. His open display was attracting attention, and people were talking. But that wasn't the level she was listening to right now. She was living in the level of herself much closer to her heart these days. And that level ... loved ... that he was so interested in her. The dragon inside her was curled up and purring with happiness.

She fluttered her lashes at him the next time she caught him looking at her. He blushed. "You live with me, you know. Haven't you seen enough of me by now?" She teased him.

He looked away then looked back and smiled. "No, I guess not." He said quietly.

Her heart soared. She knew that physical attraction was only one tiny part of a relationship, but she still enjoyed it. It wasn't just that he was good looking and interested in her. She had known he was physically attracted to her almost since the day he moved in. What made her happy was that he wasn't just physically attracted to her. He knew her. He'd seen her at her absolute worst. He had seen her when she was sick. He'd seen her in her pajamas walking around with a toothbrush in her mouth before showering for the day. He'd seen her fight with Akane and Kasumi. He'd even been the recipient of some of her bad behavior.

And yet ... and yet ... he was still sneaking glances at her, and trying to pretend he wasn't. It was because of that, it was because he knew her, had a history with her, and he was still so interested in her, that she was so happy.

She hummed a little bit to herself as they walked. He noticed her humming and smiled, but didn't say anything about it. As they got closer to their destination, he did finally ask her a question, though.

"So ... what's the plan?" He asked quietly. It was clear he had absolute faith in her ability to handle things like this. She supposed that was fair. She had absolute faith in his ability to handle matters involving Martial Arts, after all.

"The plan is pretty simple. We get in, we talk terms with them, endure Shampoo feeling you up, and the old woman's threats. Maybe we grab a bite to eat if they are being reasonable, then we get out." She said softly.

"Do you think they'll attack us?" He asked in a serious tone.

"I doubt it. Shampoo seems to be more or less unrestrained when she is working towards a goal. But the old woman seems to have her own sense of honor. We've seen her in the past do some pretty obnoxious things, but in the end she did keep her promises to you, although she made you work for it. I think the offer of two days free from their attacks was genuine." She said confidently.

"Good." Was all Ranma said.

She smiled and elbowed him playfully in the ribs. "Don't drop your guard, though, Ranma. Just because I am pretty sure they won't attack, doesn't mean I can't be wrong." She teased him.

He squinted at her, then stuck his tongue out at her. "I never drop my guard." He said sternly.

She thought about teasing him about all the times Ukyo, Kodachi and even Akane had managed to smack him, but decided against it. She didn't really want to bring up the rest of the girls with him right now.

So she decided to change the subject to today's events. "So what did you think of--"

She stopped talking abruptly as they walked through a residential neighborhood and a splash of water jumped out of the pathway to one of the houses on their right. Since Ranma was walking to her right, it hit him fully. It only splashed her a little. She actually gasped as the cold water hit her, though. Not only had it been surprising, being randomly hit by cold water was ... disruptive ... to say the least.

Ranma just sighed and looked over at her with world weary eyes. He was now a she, and dripping wet. She had to put a hand over her mouth to keep from laughing at him. She knew he didn't find it all that funny, but just the expression on his face alone was amusing.

She leaned around him to see where the water had come from. She saw a little old lady scooping water from a bucket with an ancient-looking ladle and spraying the ground with it. It was a very old practice from generations past. The odds of someone doing it in town at all were very low. The odds of someone doing it and hitting Ranma with the water were infinitesimally lower. She looked back over at him as they started walking again and poked him on the shoulder and grinned.

He looked back over at her and frowned. She couldn't keep herself from teasing him. "Hey, shouldn't you have been able to dodge that, or something?" She asked sweetly.

He scowled at her, well, up at her, actually. His female form was shorter than she was. "Believe me, if that old mummy gave off any signs that she was out doing that, I would avoid her. I don't know how, but she keeps getting me. I'm pretty sure she was a ninja when she was younger." He groused.

"You sure do get splashed a lot, don't you?" She asked cheerfully. She loved that he changed into a girl. It didn't bother her at all. She found it fascinating.

He nodded. "That's one of the reasons why I try to always wear silk. It dries fast." He said quietly.

She put her arm through his arm and marched them towards Shampoo's place. "Well, let's get this over with, then we'll get you home and into a proper bath, all right?" She said sweetly to him. He sighed and nodded in agreement.

They reached the Neko Hanten a few minutes later. Her right sleeve was now wet from holding on to him. She didn't care. She looked down at him in his cute little female form and smiled at him. He smelled like lotus blossoms again. She could actually smell him more strongly than the delicious smells coming from the restaurant. She loved that.

"You ready for this?" He asked her in his female voice. She had to keep herself from smiling down at him. It was very weird to see him in his female form while he was acting protectively of her. It was only because she knew what he could do, even as a female, that prevented her from cracking a joke.

She nodded. "If I am with you, nobody can touch me." She said confidently.

"I ... yeah, I guess so." He said with a small smile. "Besides, we have backup." He said with a small nod towards the shadows across the street.

"Who?" She said with curiosity.

"Your guardian angel." He said with a smile.

T-O-F-U? She mouthed silently to him. He nodded and she smiled. She felt even more secure knowing he was here with them. He must have made his presence known to Ranma. She thought wryly. Of course, she had missed the signs that he was there, entirely.

"Ready?" He asked her. She looped her arm through his again, and nodded.

"Don't worry, I have a secret weapon." She whispered to him. He looked at her with wide eyes, but didn't ask her about it, which was good because she wouldn't have told him anyway. This secret was one she didn't want anyone to know at the moment.

He smiled at her and reached out and slid the door open. Shampoo immediately called out from the kitchen for them to come in. The restaurant was mostly empty. There were just a couple of guys sitting at tables near the kitchen who were watching Shampoo with lovesick eyes. The restaurant was full of the delicious smells of her cooking. Ranma led her to a table along the righthand wall, and sat her in the chair with its back to the wall. He was just pulling out a chair for himself when Shampoo must have realized who it was who had come in.

"Airen! You came!" Shampoo squealed happily as she bounded out from the kitchen to greet him. She rolled her eyes at the young Chinese girl's antics. But she didn't begrudge Shampoo's affection for him. She knew it was an honest affection. And, after hearing this morning that it had been Shampoo who had gotten the Amazon Matriarch to give Akane immunity from the Amazons, she was much more inclined to be charitable to her.

Shampoo dove into his arms and cooed at him happily for a moment. Then the young Chinese girl pulled back from him and frowned. "You is girl again." Shampoo said with disapproval. "Wait, please." Shampoo said as she scampered off back to the kitchen. A moment later she reemerged with a kettle and splashed him with it.

Even though she watched carefully, she still didn't see the transformation actually happen. One moment Ranma was a female, the next he was male and soaking wet. He looked over at her and sighed again. She smiled at him happily. She knew he wasn't amused by his curse, but she was.

Shampoo reached up to the ties on his shirt and tried to undo them. He stepped back and patted her hands away. "Quit it, Shampoo." He said, exasperated.

"But ... you is all wet. I take and dry, is OK?" Shampoo asked, sweetly as she reached up to him again.

He shook his head and backed away from her. "It's fine. Leave my shirt on. I'll dry out on my own." He said sternly.

Nabiki knew that he wasn't embarrassed about his body, so he probably just didn't want Shampoo pawing at him. She smiled at that. She wondered if he'd let her take his shirt off to dry it? She seriously thought about trying it right now, to rub Shampoo's nose in it. But she knew that wouldn't be productive towards their goals for the meeting. So, instead, she got right down to business.

"We're here to see your grandmother, can you get her, please?" She asked, as she reached over casually and grabbed Ranma's hand and pulled him into the chair next to her. It was a subtle gesture, but it wasn't lost on Shampoo. The young Chinese girl narrowed her eyes at her and held the stare briefly. Then Shampoo nodded and abruptly spun around and walked off quickly, without a word.

Ranma looked at her with relief. She smiled quickly to him and patted his hand. She knew he was happy to have her take the lead in these kinds of situations. She didn't have time to talk with him about it, though, as the Amazon Matriarch came bounding out of their back rooms a moment later, with Shampoo following meekly behind her.

The old woman glanced briefly at the still-open door to the street, then back at them. She had seen the old ghoul's eyes narrow very slightly when she had looked out at the street. She would have been willing to bet money that Doctor Tofu's presence was known. She was sure he had deliberately made his presence known to the Elder Amazon as a warning.

The old woman spoke quietly to Shampoo in Mandarin with an order for privacy. "关上门。"[1]

Shampoo nodded and moved quickly to close the door. Nabiki didn't follow her with her eyes. She didn't want to betray that she understood them. Nobody knew she understood Mandarin. It was one of her secret weapons.

The old woman looked Ranma up and down, and ignored her completely. She was fine with that. It gave her more time to gather information. She darted her eyes to Shampoo as the young Amazon returned and stood behind her tribal Elder obediently.

"可能我再试试?"[2] Shampoo asked hopefully from behind her grandmother, with her face hidden from herself.

Her grandmother answered her kindly. "你可以,如果你想。不要让您的希望太高了,孙女。"[3,4] The Amazon Elder was a master actor. She kept her tone hard and her face implacable. Only her words to her granddaughter were soft. She greatly respected that. She knew firsthand how hard it was to do that under pressure. Of course, the Elder Amazon probably didn't feel under pressure right now. She likely had no fear of Ranma or even Doctor Tofu, and she certainly didn't fear her. And they were in her restaurant where she held all of the advantages.

Shampoo bounded out from behind her grandmother and plopped herself into Ranma's lap. She had known it was coming, so she had to force herself to react with surprise once Shampoo did it. She blinked and then scowled as Shampoo snuggled into Ranma. She was acting, but not much, it did legitimately irritate her to see another girl in his lap. Her friends fooling around was one thing, this was something else entirely.

It was only her long years of experience using the secret skill she was using at the moment, which prevented her from reacting when the Amazon Elder spoke next. "我们可以杀死她,并带他。"[5] She kept her attention on Ranma and Shampoo, and forced herself not to react to the old woman's suggestion that they kill her. Since she wasn't supposed to understand what they were saying, she would have no reason to jump or look over at the Elder Amazon.

Shampoo shook her head as she replied sadly. "不,如果我们杀了一个他爱,他将永远,永远,爱我。"[6]

"还 有更多比爱情岌岌可危,孙女。"[7] The old Ghoul admonished her granddaughter, still in the same breezy tone that she had been using all along. If she hadn't understood them, she would have had no idea they were talking about killing her.

"我 ... 我知道。"[8] Shampoo admitted sadly. The old woman didn't say anything to that, she simply sat atop her staff and waited while Shampoo snuggled into him.

Ranma was alternating between looking at her with wide eyes, and trying to gently pry Shampoo off of himself without touching her anywhere ... inappropriate. Shampoo's clothes were getting wet all down her front from his wet clothes, but she didn't seem to mind. Ranma's attempts to get Shampoo off of him were a task the young Chinese girl was making more difficult. Shampoo kept squirming around in his lap and deliberately angling her body so he would touch her where he was clearly trying not to touch her. She wondered how much of it was just a game to Shampoo, how much of it was a desperate attempt to interest him, and how much of it was just a way to try to annoy herself? She didn't react to any of it. She knew Ranma and Doctor Tofu would protect her if the Amazons attacked, but she saw no reason to escalate the meeting into combat.

Finally, the old woman switched over to Japanese and addressed Ranma, still ignoring her. "So, future grandson-in-law, have you thought about what I said to you this morning?"

Ranma gave up on dislodging Shampoo and just put his hands on her hips to more or less hold her still. Shampoo stopped squirming around as much now that her grandmother was speaking. She could see that the young Amazon enjoyed having Ranma's hands on her, even if it was just to hold her still. Shampoo was looking up at him with adoring eyes, as she lay her head on his chest and breathed deeply. She idly wondered if Shampoo enjoyed his scent as well.

Ranma answered confidently. "I didn't need to give it any thought. Nothin' has changed. I was engaged to Akane, now I'm engaged to Nabiki. I've never been engaged to Shampoo. That was all her idea."

"How is an arranged marriage between your families any different than the marriage laws of the Joketsuzoku?" The old ghoul prodded him. "You were not directly involved in either decision. In fact, of all of the girls claiming you, only Shampoo's claim in based on law and not simple family agreements or wishful thinking. Neither the Tendo's nor the Kuonji's claims rise to the level of law, and that deluded girl from the rich family doesn't even have family agreements to back her claim, she just wants you."

Ranma looked to her for help, so she jumped in. While it would have been more ideal for Ranma to handle all of it, she knew he needed her to help right now. She was sure they would ignore everything she said as an interested party, and an outsider, though.

"You are correct, honorable Elder." She said as she jumped in. Shampoo didn't react at all, but the Amazon Elder did shift her eyes to herself. "But, family honor and one's own personal desires must play a role in marriage contracts as well, shouldn't they?" She asked politely. She knew taking an aggressive edge with the old woman wouldn't get her anything but hostility. Honest respect would at least let her be heard.

"We are talking about law, Miss Tendo, not feelings or honor." The old woman said as she swung her attention back to Ranma.

She jumped in again. "That is true, but Japan has its own laws, honorable Elder. Do they count for nothing?" She asked innocently. She knew what the answer would be, but she needed the answer to setup her next attack.

"Of course not, we do not recognize your laws." The old woman said in exasperation.

She smiled and pounced. "Ah, but if that is the case, honorable Elder, why should we respect your laws? Ranma didn't even know of your laws when he defeated Shampoo." She said sweetly.

The Elder Amazon narrowed her eyes at her and leaned closer to her from her staff. "You should respect our laws, because I say so, Miss Tendo." The old woman hissed.

She blinked at the Elder Amazon. "But, honorable Elder, would not my father say the same thing about our own laws?" She kept her face neutral. She knew she was pissing the old woman off, so she needed to stay non-threatening, or this really would end up in combat.

Shampoo's grandmother narrowed her eyes again, then pulled back up to her perch on her staff and looked back at Ranma. "Enough of this. We are chasing around in circles. I will make this very simple, future grandson-in-law, our laws require you to marry Shampoo, return with us to China, and to join our tribe. This is not negotiable. Your family agreements don't matter to me. Your honor doesn't matter to me. Your feelings don't matter to me. As an Elder of the Juketsuzoku I am required to compel you to obey."

Ranma frowned at the old woman. "And if I refuse?" He asked simply.

"Then ... I am sorry, future grandson-in-law, but I will be required to use force to compel your cooperation."

"What ... do you mean by that?" He asked with rising heat in his voice.

She looked at him with wide eyes and got him to briefly look at her. When he did, she shook her head a millimeter. Now was not the time to get into a stand-off.

"What I mean, is that I will use additional resources of the tribe to force you to do what the law requires."

Ranma looked away from her and back at the old woman and scoffed. "Look, I've beat both you and Shampoo before, I can do it again. You're not forcin' me to do anything!"

She sighed and closed her eyes briefly in exasperation. He was playing into their hands. She jumped in and tried to defuse the situation. "I am sure Ranma means no disrespect by that, honorable Elder. He is a fighter by nature, please excuse him."

The old ghoul looked at her and smiled a smile that did not reach her eyes. "Of course he means disrespect. That is part of the reason he is required to marry Shampoo. He is a fighter, he will sire more fighters. He will make our tribe stronger. I will see to that."

"Listen, I don't care about marrying anyone, and I don't care about your tribe. Just leave Nabiki and the rest of the Tendos alone, all right? Nabiki can't defend herself like Akane can, she has to be off limits." Ranma said quickly, before he got cut off again. Shampoo scowled up at him as he spoke.

"My point exactly, grandson-in-law, she isn't worthy of you." The old woman said. "You'll see that, eventually. You don't know what you are doing."

"And you don't know who you're foolin' with. I'm tired of getting pushed around. I've been getting controlled my whole life. I'm warning you, just take Shampoo and go home, and nobody has to get hurt. Leave the Tendos alone. Don't test me on this." Ranma growled as he tensed to fight.

The Elder Amazon sighed and rolled her eyes. "You fool. Aside from your basic speed and strength and your general knowledge of the Art, you have two advanced techniques, and I taught you both of them. Do you honestly think those are the only advanced techniques I know? I've shown you only a tiny fraction of what I know. I haven't even taught Shampoo more than I have taught you. There are elder Joketsuzoku who haven't seen all I know. You do not want to face me unrestrained.

The situation was starting to get out of control. She was trying to think of something to say to diffuse it. Before she could think of anything, the old woman snapped her fingers and called out in Mandarin for someone, "来这。"[9] She fought to keep herself from raising her eyebrows. She wondered who the old woman was summoning. She doubted it was Mousse, he wasn't exactly imposing.

Another young Chinese girl emerged from the back rooms. She was gorgeous. The girl looked to be about two to four years older than Shampoo, and looked very similar to Shampoo; she was dressed in simple matching white silk Chinese pants and a top, and had her hair pulled back into a simple ponytail. The girl came and stood obediently next to the old woman. She noticed that the side the older girl chose to stand on, was the side closer to herself, and not Ranma. Despite her plain appearance, the girl screamed danger to Nabiki. She could tell Ranma was alarmed as well, as he had sat up straighter, and she could see he was tensing his muscles to throw Shampoo off of himself to get to her side if needed.

Shampoo's grandmother took their reactions in calmly and then spoke again. "This is Kondishonā. She is Shampoo's older sister. I called her here to help ... encourage ... Ranma to see reason and obey the laws of the tribe."

The older girl didn't react in any way. The new girl just stood there calmly next to the old ghoul and stared straight ahead, like a soldier. It was freaking her out. She had to fight to keep herself from sucking air in through clenched teeth in worry. This was ... not good news.

Ranma, however, did not seem impressed. "Yeah, okay, whatever. You can bring her here, and all of the rest of the family. I ain't marryin' nobody!" He said indignantly. She winced at his tone. It wasn't helping. She saw the older girl twitch her hand like she wanted to strike at him, then stop. That worried her.

The old woman sighed theatrically then leaned down towards him from her staff and spoke to him softly but in a very serious tone. "Listen to me carefully. I am giving you a chance to end this peacefully. All you have to do is agree to marry Shampoo, and come back with us to China. It's that simple. You have another day and a half to get your affairs in order, say your goodbyes, and come with us willingly."

"I ain't goin--"

"And, should you continue to violate our laws ..." the old woman interrupted him, "then after your grace period is over, I will start taking steps to force you to obey. Eventually, if I have to, I will take from you every reason you have to stay in Japan. I don't want things to get to that point, but I will if I have to. Kondishonā is here as proof of that."

"I ain't--"

This time she cut him off as she stood up abruptly. "Well, thank you very much for the warning. May we leave now?" Both the older girl and the old woman had twitched when she had stood up, Ranma had too. She had done it deliberately to throw off the energy in the room. A perceived threat, even when not real, tended to throw the mind into the defensive, which was where she wanted them.

The old woman narrowed her eyes at herself. She was sure the Amazon knew that she was using negotiation tricks against them. It couldn't be helped, she had to use the tools she knew how to use.

"Yes, you may leave. Thank you for coming." The old woman said in her false sweet voice. Then she simply pivoted on her staff and hopped away from them, dismissing the meeting. She called out over her shoulder as she hopped away to Shampoo's older sister. "跟着。"[10]

Well, she assumed the call was for the older girl, because that was the only person who moved to quickly follow the old woman out of the room. The older girl had not said a word, or even looked directly at her or Ranma. They were alone in the dining room again with just themselves and Shampoo.

Shampoo's eyes followed the older girl, and she scowled after her. Nabiki had to wonder what Shampoo thought of the old woman calling the older girl in. She scanned the caf顡nd saw that is was empty now. She wondered when the guys crushing on Shampoo had left? It spoke to how seriously she had been paying attention to that meeting, that she hadn't noticed their exit.

Ranma stood up and pushed Shampoo away from himself and set her on the ground. The front of Shampoo's clothes were damp now. Shampoo made a motion to jump on him again, but Ranma danced backwards and put his hands up into a guarding position. He wasn't in a fighting stance, he was just making it clear he didn't want her on him any more. Shampoo sighed and stayed where she was and hung her head.

"Is Kondishonā really your sister?" Ranma asked.

"Shona." Shampoo corrected him with a soft smile and a nod. "She go by Shona. Not like name. Yes, she my sister."

"Same parents?" She jumped in curiously.

Shampoo looked over at her and blinked then replied slowly, like she was speaking to a child. "Yes, same parents. Is why I say she is sister."

She still genuinely wondered if their tribe had terms and concepts for same biological parents making sisters real sisters. Or if their terms simply meant maybe the same mother, and the father didn't matter, and so the concept of sisters was a bit more fluid. It wasn't really all that important though, so she didn't press the point.

Ranma walked over to stand next to her, and put his arm around her gently. It was a small but powerful gesture. She tensed a little bit as he did it, she knew that he was making a point of choosing her over Shampoo to drive home his position. Shampoo stared at them for a moment, then looked down again sadly.

She looked at Ranma and angled her head towards the door. He nodded and they pivoted to leave. As they reached the door, Shampoo called out to him in an anguished voice. "It's ending, isn't it?"

Ranma turned his head and looked at Shampoo. She did too. Shampoo was still standing where she had been, but the young Chinese girl was looking up at Ranma again, with tears shining in her eyes. Ranma nodded slowly.

"You're serious this time, aren't you?" Shampoo whispered. Ranma nodded again.

Shampoo looked away sadly, then back at him with eyes shimmering with tears. "I ... I thought ... I had ... more time." Shampoo said sadly.

He looked back to her blankly. She was sure he didn't know what to say to that. She didn't know either, so she shrugged softly. Ranma looked back to Shampoo and tried to say something comforting. "I'm sure there are plenty of guys back in--"

"Not like you." Shampoo interrupted him as she shook her head sadly. "Not like you." The heartbroken Chinese girl whispered with a catch in her voice, it was clear she wanted to cry. He stopped trying to talk and just nodded. She was sure he had no idea how to proceed from here.

"Well ... we should probably get going..." She interjected after a few moments had passed with neither of them speaking. Shampoo darted her eyes to her and she caught a flash of a glare, then it was gone as Shampoo plastered a fake smile on her face. The fake smile actually unnerved her more than the glare had. She had also noticed that Shampoo's Japanese had suddenly gotten suspiciously much better than usual. She wondered if Ranma had noticed.

Ranma had caught the glare too, and frowned as he stepped so he was between Shampoo and herself as he tightened his arm on her waist. She reached back and carefully opened the door behind herself. She knew that they were standing on a powder keg, and one wrong move could set it off. As soon as the door was open, she stepped backwards through it, and pulled Ranma with her since he was still holding on to her waist. As soon as Ranma had cleared the door, she reached past him and slid it shut again.

Ranma finally looked at her again once the door blocked his sight of Shampoo.

"Well ... that was intense." She said after a deep breath before she smiled at him.

He smiled nervously at her. "Yeah ... it was."

They turned without discussion to head back to the Tendo household. Ranma kept looking back over his shoulder for a while, then stopped and kept his attention to the sides and straight ahead. He didn't say anything, but she figured the reason he had stopped watching their backs was because he knew Doctor Tofu was trailing them now. She sighed and tried to ignore it all. She had known how crazy the circus surrounding him was, but it was one thing to know something intellectually; it was another thing to have to deal with it for real.

She grew tired of walking with him quietly after a while. So she asked a question that had been floating around in her mind since lunchtime. "So, what did you think of Riko and Yui?"

He looked at her and smiled. "I thought they were ... interesting."

She frowned at that. Interesting could mean a lot of things. "Did you have fun?" She pressed him.

He nodded and smiled. "Oh, yeah ... once I got used to them, they were actually a lot of fun. Very funny." He said quietly.

She was happy about that because it opened the door for her to invite him again. "Would you like to come eat with us again tomorrow?" She asked. She tried not to sound too eager, but she knew she did anyway.

"I dunno, Kiki ... twice in one week..." He said with a smile.

She smiled back, she loved that he was starting to tease her now. "Yes, twice in one week. How else are you going to learn more names that annoy me?" She asked sweetly.

"It's too bad it annoys you ... I think it's kinda cute." He said softly.

She smiled at that. She wasn't sure how serious he was being, but it was a nice sentiment anyway. "I already told you that you could use it when we're alone." She said happily.

He nodded with a small smile on his face. "But, yeah, anyway, of course I'll eat lunch with you and your friends. I gotta stay close to you until this is all over anyway." He said seriously.

She sighed. She really wanted him to want to be with her because he wanted to, and not because he felt he needed to. "Hey, I held my own against Kodachi today for a while. I'm not as helpless as you think I am." She said in the deepest, meanest voice she could make as she punched him lightly on the arm.

He looked over at her with wide eyes, and she laughed at his expression. He smiled. "You did. I saw you, I saw the last few seconds of the fight as I was running to get there. You had a battle aura and everything." He said in an approving tone.

She stopped walking. She did it so abruptly that he actually had to stop short and double back to her. He gathered her up in one of his arms protectively as he scanned all around them looking for threats. "What's wrong? You all right?" He asked as he raised his free hand into a guard position.

She pushed him back and shook her head. "Nothing's wrong. I'm just shocked. Are you sure, really sure that I had a battle aura?" She whispered.

He looked at her with a look of confusion on his face and nodded his head. "Of course I'm sure. I would know a battle aura on anyone." He said confidently.

She looked down at the ground. "But how? How is that possible?" She whispered.

"You studied until you were like twelve, right?" He asked her.

She nodded without looking up. Her mind was racing. She should not have been able to use a battle aura. She wasn't trained to do it. She could see Daddy and Akane's auras occasionally, when they were strong. But she shouldn't have been able to make one of her own. Should she?

"Kiki ... you all right?" He asked her. He still had his arm on her waist, even though she had pushed him back a bit. He was very protective of her. That both annoyed her and delighted her.

"I ... I'm fine. I just ... I always thought only people like you and Daddy could make a battle aura..." She whispered as she looked up at him.

He smiled a genuine smile at her. "And what makes you think that you aren't someone like us?" He asked her kindly.

She shook her head emphatically. "Come on, be serious. I'm not even as skilled as Akane is." She said with a frown as she pulled on him to start walking again.

He settled into step with her and was quiet for a moment then answered her unspoken question. "A battle aura is ... different ... than trained skill. It's ... it's hard to explain, actually." He said as he put a hand behind his head awkwardly.

She just looked at him and waited. She could tell he was thinking about it, so she left him alone to his thoughts as her own thoughts churned. If I can produce a battle aura ... that means I can really do it. If I trained, I could ... she thought to herself as the ideas bounced around in her head. It would be .... nice ... not to have to be protected all the time.

"Okay, it's like this..." Ranma announced as he finished thinking about how to explain it to her. She looked over at him expectantly. "Your battle aura is just your Ki energy that you're usin' when you fight. The more you know how to use and the more of it you use, the brighter and stronger your battle aura will be. But that's only one way Ki is used. Everyone has Ki energy. Everyone uses their Ki, especially when they're scared or angry, and also when they are really happy. Pops says that adrenaline brings it out in people much easier than other times."

She just listened and nodded.

"Ki is just what we call somethin' none of us really understand. It's ... part of the energy inside you that makes you who ya are. It's also in nature too. Lots of people think there's a push and pull between what is inside you, and what's outside you. The Anything Goes school doesn't care about that. We teach about Ki only as an energy source to power our attacks. But ... I've looked into it more than Pops has, and probably your Dad as well. I think ... it's more than that. Doctor Tofu is kind of livin' proof of that. I think he's a Master of Ki manipulation. That's why he can be so sneaky, and he can hit so hard, yet he seems to be so nice." Ranma said in an excited voice.

She smiled as he talked about the Art. She loved how passionate about it he was.

"And besides, you've had real trainin'. I don't know how your dad trained you, but I've seen him fight. He knows what he's doing. I'm sure he must have showed you how to use your Ki. All students of the Anything Goes style have to know how to use it." He said earnestly.

She thought back to the days she had spent training with Daddy. She remembered sparring him. She remembered practicing the self defense techniques. She remembered lots of long talks about the Art, and duty and honor, and frankly the stuff that had bored her and made her want to quit. She didn't remember anything about Ki or battle auras. She shrugged at him in wordless defeat.

He shook his head at her and smiled. "No, you must have. Even an untrained person can use their Ki energy. But it takes trainin' to produce a battle aura. You don't remember that you remember, but you must. Would you ... would you like me to try to help you remember how?" He asked softly.

She looked at him and thought about it hard. She should probably ask Daddy, he was the one who had trained her. But ... he was also not the same person anymore. The other major reason she had stopped training was because after Mom died, once Daddy had been able to train her again, it hadn't been the same. He had just mostly stood there and sadly looked around the dojo purposelessly. He didn't coach her like he had before Mom had died. He mostly just set her tasks to do like one hundred punches on each side, and katas over and over again.

She'd grown to hate it, and had stopped not long afterward. Come to think of it, she didn't think she'd made it to twelve, she had probably been more like ten or so. The memory was fuzzy. By the time she'd quit, Daddy hadn't even been motivated enough to come and get her for training any more, she had been having to go get him for training on the days they'd trained.

Akane had continued ... mostly on her own. That was one of the main reasons Akane spent a lot of time on strength and endurance training. It didn't require coaching or even another person. But breaking bricks and lifting weights didn't really make someone better in the Art, it just made them stronger. Akane did make Daddy spar with her though, and occasionally Daddy would snap out of it enough to even coach Akane every now and then. He had gotten better over time after Mom's passing. But she had quit long before then.

She looked over at Ranma and saw someone who could really teach her again. Yes, it would be complicated because they were involved. But, she realized that she had been missing it. She hadn't really wanted to quit. She had quit because it had become unbearable. And Ranma was here, and could teach her, and seemed to want to teach her. Why shouldn't I? She thought stubbornly as she nodded eagerly. "Yes. Yes I would like that." She whispered excitedly.

"Let's do it, then." He replied, just as excited.


--------------

1. "关上门 (Guān shàngmén - close the door)"

2. "可能我再试试 (Kěnéng wǒ zài shì shì -- I may try again)?"

3. "你可以,如果你想。(Nǐ kěyǐ, rúguǒ nǐ xiǎng. -- You can, if you wish.)"

4. "不要让您的希望太高了,孙女。(Bùyào ràng nín de xīwàng tài gāole, sūnnǚ. -- Do not get your hopes too high, granddaughter.)"

5. "我们可以杀死她,并带他。 (Wǒmen kěyǐ shā sǐ tā, bìng dài tā. -- We can kill her, and take him)."

6. "不,如果我们杀了一个他爱,他将永远,永远,爱我。 (Bù, rúguǒ wǒmen shāle yīgè tā ài, tā jiāng yǒngyuǎn, yǒngyuǎn, ài wǒ. -- No, if we kill the one he loves, he will never, ever love me)."

7. "还 有更多比爱情岌岌可危,孙女。 (Hái yǒu gèng duō bǐ àiqíng jíjíkěwéi, sūnnǚ. -- There is more than love at stake, granddaughter)."

8. "我 ... 我知道。 (Wǒ ... Wǒ zhīdào. -- I ... I know)."

9. "来这 (Lái zhè -- come)."

10. "跟着 (Gēnzhe -- Follow)."

Chapter Text

[soundtrack for this one was: Shatter Me Featuring Lzzy Hale, by Lindsey Stirling]


"Kasumi, can you come here?" Nabiki called out as they arrived home. She put an arm around Ranma and held on to him. She didn't want him bolting away.

"Coming." She heard her older sister call out from somewhere deeper in the house. Ranma looked over at her, but didn't say anything, she could tell he knew she was summoning Kasumi for him, but he seemed to be enjoying her holding him anyway. She smiled at him playfully.

Kasumi walked serenely into the entryway with her hands clasped in front of her. She had a feeling Kasumi was feeling pretty good these days with Doctor Tofu around all the time. "Yes, what is it, Nabiki?" Kasumi asked.

"Ranma hurt his hand earlier, can you look at it?" She said in a voice she tried very hard to make not sound like she was telling on him.

He looked over at her and frowned. "I'm fine." He then looked over at Kasumi and repeated himself. "Really, I'm fine."

She shook her head. "The nurse thought it could get infected. He wouldn't let the nurse look at it. He caught a spiked club in his bare hand, and it was bleeding."

"I'm tellin' ya, I'm fine, it's nothin'. I don't need no--"

"Ranma ... " Kasumi interrupted him sweetly as she moved over to put a hand on his shoulder. When Kasumi stood very close, the very faint rose petal scent she smelled like from the sachets she kept in her dresser, were noticeable. She knew from experience that Kasumi's hands were warm, even through clothing. She had a feeling that was because Kasumi worked so often with her hands.

"Y-yes?" Ranma asked, suddenly losing his bluster.

"Will you be able to do your duty and protect my sisters if your hand gets infected?" Kasumi asked him, still in her sweet voice, but with a hint of an edge of steel behind it.

"S-sure, I could fight with just one hand if I--"

"Would you be able to fight as well, and protect them as well, with only one hand? Would you do as well against multiple opponents?" Kasumi pressed as she let the steel seep into her voice a bit more.

Ranma hung his head and deflated. "No. I wouldn't." He admitted.

"May I look at your hand and treat it?" Kasumi asked, again in her sweet voice.

He nodded, defeated. She grinned at him. "Oh, come on, Ranma. Worst case scenario is you have to endure some rubbing alcohol, then you get a pretty bandage to make it all better." She said cheerfully. He glared at her, but she could tell he wasn't actually mad at her. She switched from a one-armed hug to wrapping herself around his right arm to try to make it up to him. She felt him sag into her a bit as he relaxed. "Come on, let's go let big sister Kasumi look at us, all right?" She said in a sing-song voice. He scowled at her, but let her lead him to follow Kasumi to the kitchen.

She sat him down at the table, and took the chair next to him. She changed from hanging on him to just holding his hand. He frowned at her again, but sat obediently in the chair and waited while Kasumi grabbed one of the first aid boxes from the cupboard.

Kasumi came and sat down opposite Ranma and opened up the box and started pulling out antiseptic wipes, cotton balls, and bandages, and laying them out in the lid of the box. When she was done she looked expectantly at him.

When he didn't move, Kasumi narrowed her eyes at him. He sighed and pulled his left arm up from below the table and laid it on the table. His hand was still closed into a fist though.

"Come on, open up." Kasumi said sweetly. Ranma sighed, and obeyed.

She looked along with Kasumi. He had a small puncture at the base of his palm along the meat of the part that connected to his thumb, there was a tiny scratch that led away from it to the edge of his palm. The source of the bleeding had been the puncture wound. It wasn't really any worse than what he would have gotten if he'd accidentally grabbed a rose stem the wrong way and jabbed himself with it lightly. It wasn't bleeding any more, but it was red around the edges.

Kasumi tsked at it and began lightly swabbing the area with the disinfectant wipes. They came away mostly clean, with just traces of red. Kasumi then reached into the kit and pulled out a little bottle of rubbing alcohol, and held one of the cotton balls over the mouth of it as she tipped it over and soaked it, then repeated the cleaning process. "Just to be safe." Kasumi said as she reached for his hand again. Ranma nodded.

She could tell that it actually did sting him, but she knew he would never flinch or admit he was in pain to the two of them. His father had drilled into him too hard that he had to be a big strong man. She decided to not joke about it right now, considering he was only enduring the process at all, because of her. She was also feeling slightly queasy from the sharp and sickly-sweet smell of the rubbing alcohol, which put her into even less of a joking mood.

Once Kasumi was done with the antiseptic cotton ball, she put it to the side, and used a couple more cotton balls to pat the wound dry. Then her older sister made her day by holding up two bandages. In Kasumi's left hand was a bandage with little baby chickens on it, in her right hand the bandage had rainbows and smiley faces on it.

Ranma frowned. "Can't I ... just leave it as it is?" He asked with disapproval.

Kasumi shook her head. "You have to keep it clean for a while to let it heal and close up the wound. Pick one."

He sighed and pointed to Kasumi's left hand.

She grinned but again held her tongue. She'd tease him later once the sting of the indignity of the whole process had worn off.

When Kasumi was done a moment later he quickly yanked his hand off the table to hide it again by his side. Kasumi smiled at him and reached over and ruffled his hair affectionately. "There now, that wasn't so bad, was it?" Kasumi asked softly.

He shook his head at her hesitantly. She knew his pride was hurting more than his hand was. He focused on her and clearly tried to change the subject. "Did you want to go to the dojo now and work on your battle aura?" He asked her quietly.

She shook her head. "Not yet, I need to do something first. Meet you there in a few minutes?" She asked.

He narrowed his eyes at her. She knew he didn't like splitting up from her. She sighed. "I'm home with you, and Doctor Tofu, and your Dad, and my Daddy, Ranma. And I promised you I would yell if I needed help in the future." She whispered.

He sighed as well, then nodded. "All right, I'll go wait for you in the dojo." He then stood up from the table, and walked quickly out of the kitchen. He kept a wary eye on Kasumi as he exited. She smiled at his eagerness to get away from Kasumi.

Kasumi smiled after him as well then looked at her and raised her eyebrows. She knew Kasumi wanted to talk to her about everything that had been going on. She still wasn't ready to though. So she smiled weakly back at Kasumi and hurried to follow Ranma's example of fleeing the kitchen.

She paused at the doorway though, and looked back at Kasumi, who was still watching her patiently. "Where's Daddy?" She asked.

"Father is getting some rest in his room. Doctor Tofu made him after he finished repairing the wall today." Kasumi said in a tone that suggested she leave him alone. She nodded and turned to leave. She had to do two things right now that she didn't want to do, but felt she had to.

As she made her way up the stairs she decided she would just pop in and see Daddy real quick and do what she had to do. She wanted to do it before she lost her nerve. She arrived at his door moments later and paused. She always felt weird about going into his room. That was the room he had shared with Mom. Mom's things were still in there. It was a ... private place.

"Daddy?" She said as she knocked on the door frame as she entered his room. His door had been left open.

He sat up immediately out of his futon and look at her in alarm. "What is it? Attackers?" He asked as he started to rise out of bed.

She hurried over to him and took his hand and held it between hers. "No, everyone's fine, it's all right." She said soothingly as she pushed on his shoulders to get him to lie back down as she knelt down next to him. Her hands were already shaking.

He sank back on tense muscles. She could tell he was exhausted. "You can relax, Daddy. The Amazons have called a two day truce. Shampoo's grandmother promised it this morning." She whispered to him soothingly as she stroked his hair back from his forehead.

He squeezed her hand gently and smiled as he closed his tired eyes. "That's good. It's not good for you to be so worried, baby." He said softly.

"I'm not worried, Daddy. I have you to protect me." She whispered in a voice that was breaking.

He cracked an eye open. "You will always have me to protect you, baby." He said. "Have faith in Ranma too. It is part of his duty to protect you as well." He added.

She smiled. She knew, she just knew in her heart that Ranma would die before he allowed her or her sisters to be hurt. He had never said that to her specifically, but she knew it was true. "Don't worry, Daddy, Ranma is being a good boy." She said weakly. She wasn't here to talk about Ranma.

"Good ... good, nothing is going to happen to you girls. Don't you worry, baby." He said sleepily.

"I'm not worried. After all, you trained all of us to fight." Her voice broke more as the emotion hit her and she tried to will herself to not cry. Her whole body was shaking now. "You trained all of us ... how to survive being attacked. Even though some of us might have complained at the time." She said in a voice heavy with emotion. She was about to lose control, she couldn't see anymore, her vision was blurry with tears. She sank back on her heels as she started to lose the battle against the emotion.

He looked up at her in alarm as the tears started to stream down her cheeks. She was reliving the fear from when she had been attacked in her mind in a delayed reaction to what had happened to her. "Nabiki, what's the matter?" Daddy asked her urgently as he started to sit up again.

She lost control then and fell into his arms as she wrapped her hands around his neck and let herself cry. "Thank you, Daddy! Thank you so much! You saved my life today!" She managed to get out in between shuddering gasps as she cried and shook as she let the fear from earlier hit her. Akane and Ranma were always brave when they were attacked. She had felt she needed to be brave too. She had made herself ignore it and be brave. But here, alone with her Daddy, she could admit how scared she had been.

Her Daddy scooped her up into his strong arms and sat up with her as he pulled her into his lap and held her while he rubbed her back and stroked her hair, just like he had done when she was little. "Nabiki ... what ... I did what?" He asked softly, in confusion.

She didn't answer him right away. She let her breathing calm down first as she tried to regain control of herself. "I ... I was attacked today." She finally said. She could feel him tensing in anger under her. She was sure he was about to demand to know where Ranma had been. "I was ambushed." She added quickly. "Ranma and Akane both came and helped me as soon as they knew." She reassured him.

"So ... how ... did I save your life, then?" He asked as he relaxed again.

"Do you ... do you remember that drill you used to make me practice every day for over a year when I was very little? The one you told me was all Martial, and no Art?"

He nodded. "Of course I remember, baby."

"It works." She said simply in a shuddering voice.

He didn't say anything for a moment, then he slowly brought his arms up to cradle her neck and back as he pulled her into a much tighter hug and buried his face in her neck. He was crying.

"I'm so glad, baby. I'm so glad! I had hoped ... I had hoped you would never need to use it, but I am very happy you could use it to get away from danger." He said as he clutched her to himself.

She nodded fiercely. She was going to cry again if she tried to talk. A minute or so passed as her Daddy rocked her back and forth and held her to him as she allowed herself to do something she almost never did, and dropped all her masks and was just herself for a while -- a young girl who loved her Daddy and was thankful for what he'd done for her.

As she regained control she did something else she almost never did, admit she had been wrong. "You were right, Daddy ... and I was wrong, and foolish. I should have continued my training." She whispered to him.

He was silent for a while as he held her. After a few moments had gone by, he finally responded to her. "It's not too late, you know. You could pick up where you left off." His voice was shaking.

She nodded. Then she began to tell him about the attack, and how she had used the training she had remembered. She told him of the practicing she still did, and all of the details she could remember of the fight. He listened and gave her tips, and nodded when she told him about everything. It was the closest she had been to him in a long time. She even told him about the battle aura Ranma had seen on her.

When she was done and it was time to go, she got up from his lap and made her way softly to the door. Daddy laid back down in his bed, still exhausted. She paused at the door when he called her name, though. "Nabiki..."

"Yes, Daddy?"

"I'm proud of you." He whispered.

She looked back at him and smiled. "Thank you, Daddy. Get some sleep. I ... I'm going to go train." She whispered.

"That's my girl." Daddy said sleepily. "Proud of you." He said again as he drifted back to sleep.

She made her way to the dojo on light feet, but with a heavy heart. That was just the first of the two things she had to do that she didn't want to. The second one was going to be much harder.

She found Ranma waiting for her in the center of the dojo. He was kneeling calmly and watching the door for her. His eyes lit up when he saw her. He quickly got to his feet as she approached him.

She smiled at that. It delighted her that he was so happy to see her. She made her way over to him as he stood up and reached his hands out for her. He seemed to need to touch her a lot more now. She loved that.

"Ranma, before we start, I have to tell you something." She said reluctantly, then bit her lower lip as she met his eyes. She was dreading what she was about to do. She could already feel herself starting to shake as the reality of what she was about to do settled in on her.

She could tell that he picked up right away from her voice that she felt guilty about something. His eyes narrowed. "What?" He asked guardedly.

"Can we sit and talk for a minute?" She asked carefully as she tried desperately to keep her emotions off her face. Even though he wasn't glaring at her, it still really made her feel bad to have him look negatively at her. He nodded and let go of her hands to sit down at her feet. He looked up at her with expectant eyes. She followed his example and sat down where she was standing and met his eyes as she took a couple of calming breaths.

"What's goin' on? You're freakin' me out." He said quietly.

She smiled at him and reached a hand out for him. He took it and wrapped it up in his warm hand. That made her feel a little better. She took another long slow breath then met his eyes again. "I kind of broke one of my promises to you today." She whispered to him.

His eyes narrowed again, and she looked down, ashamed. She felt him tense his hand like he was going to yank it away from hers. She relaxed her hand to let him, if that was what he wanted. A moment later he whispered back to her. "What do ya mean by, 'kinda'?"

He hadn't taken his hand away ... yet. She took another deep breath and met his eyes again. He wasn't glaring at her, but he did look disapproving. She knew that he knew that she was well aware that he had been keeping all of his promises to her. She began slowly. "Akane and I talked after you left the nurse's office today." He nodded as if that was obvious. "She ... she started crying because I was talking about you. She's ... very upset that you haven't taken her back yet." Ranma face changed from disapproval, to worry.

"What did you do?" He whispered in an alarmed tone.

"I ... I told her the truth, well ... as much as I felt she was entitled to hear, anyway." She paused and looked into his eyes again. He wasn't scowling at her, or looking worried or disapproving, he was just ... waiting. She sighed and pushed onward. "Akane asked for me to give you back; I told her you weren't mine to give. She was ... very upset by that." She whispered. Ranma's hand tightened on hers, but his eyes gave nothing away about what he was feeling. He still wasn't saying anything. "She ... asked me if I was just playing games, I told her ... I wasn't." She admitted in a very small voice.

He nodded at that and finally asked a question. "When did you break a promise?"

She grimaced and blurted out the rest of it before she lost her nerve. "I interfered with your relationship with Akane. Akane was ... in a really bad place. She needed me to say something, anything to help her. So, I gave her some advice." She said gingerly. He raised an eyebrow at that, but didn't say anything as he waited patiently for her to finish. "I ... told her ... she needed to be honest about her feelings if she wanted to get what she wanted." She whispered as she looked down again.

Silence stretched between them for a few moments. It was a silence that hurt more with every passing heartbeat. She could feel him drifting away from her. She'd broken her promise, and now he could end their deal, and everything was falling apart, and she was so stupid! Why?! Why did I do it?! Idiot! Idiot! Idiot! She berated herself.

"Is that all?" Ranma finally said as he broke the silence.

She looked up at him and found him looking at her expectantly. She swallowed hard and nodded.

He smiled at her, and grasped her hand more firmly. "That's not breakin' your promise. Interferin' would be showing up on a date and causing a problem, or lyin' to her and telling her I said stuff I didn't, or things like that. All you did was tell her to be honest. You didn't break your promise as far as I'm concerned." He said calmly.

She felt a huge weight lift off her that she hadn't realized she was carrying. She was suddenly able to breathe easier. She nodded at him in a jerky head bob as she fought to hold back the tears that wanted to come. She didn't know why she felt like crying, but she did. He squeezed her hand again and she looked up at him.

"Want to learn about battle auras now?" He asked cheerfully as he started to stand up. She could tell he was also hurrying back to Martial Arts to pull her attention away from her worries. She was sure that had more to do with his uneasiness around crying girls than anything else. It still made her happy though.

She nodded her head eagerly. "Yes!" She said as she rose to her feet on shaky legs as he reached down and helped pull her up. She just stood there after that and waited while she looked at him.

He smiled and put his hands behind his back. "Want to try to make your own battle aura by yourself first?" He asked.

She shrugged. "I can try, but I don't think I can. I don't remember how." She said.

"You know, your body remembers. You can't have trained in the Anything Goes style for as long as you did, without learning how." He said confidently. She just stood and looked at him doubtfully. He smiled at her. "Trust me." He whispered.

She nodded. "All right, well, show me how." She said.

"Give me your hand." He said as he held out his own hand.

She reached out and put her hand in his warm palm.

"Now close your eyes." He said softly.

She did so.

"Listen to the sound of my voice." He said softly in a slower cadence than he usually spoke in. "Concentrate on my voice, I'm gonna help you look inside yourself."

"Okay." She whispered. She was strangely excited.

"Imagine my voice as a warm summer breeze."

She nodded.

"The breeze is on your face. It's moving your hair. You're breathing it inside you. Can you feel it?"

"Yes." She whispered. She really could, she could feel his words moving around in the air around her, and she was breathing them in now.

"Great. Now, imagine that inside of you is a sun. It isn't your heart, or your gut or anything else. It's just you. It's warm, and it's there for you to reach for, you can grab hold of it, if you focus."

She gasped. He was describing what she did when she needed courage to do what had to be done. Her mind skipped back to when she was a little girl. She was standing in this very dojo, doing an exercise very similar to this with her Daddy.


"Reach inside yourself and grab hold of it, Nabiki. That's my girl. Now, open your eyes, and hold on to it."

She had, and she had seen her very own little battle aura dancing on her skin. Daddy was glowing too. And ... so was Mommy. Mommy was standing against the wall and watching. Mommy was glowing with pride! Her own little aura had gotten brighter as she saw Mommy being proud of her.

She could do it, she could do it!

And she had. She had held her focus on the power inside herself and drilled with Daddy while Mommy had watched, and called out corrections for her footwork, and encouraged her.


She gasped again and snapped back to the present. She opened her eyes and looked at Ranma. He was staring at her wide-eyed. She looked down and saw that she was flickering with a little blue battle aura. It wasn't anywhere near as big as what Ranma or even Akane could produce. It was about the same as the one she had been able to make when she was a little girl.

Ranma stared at her in shock for a little bit longer, then smiled.

"See, I told you that you'd remember."

She nodded fiercely as she fought back tears. For some reason, she felt like crying when he praised her about it.

"I didn't even talk you through tapping into the power or focusing it to make the battle aura. You did that all on your own." He said, sounding impressed.

"I...I...I remembered. I remembered... Daddy, showing me how to do this." She said. She lost focus then, and her aura flickered out. She realized that at some point she had let go of his hand.

He smiled gently and reached his hand out for her again. "Want to try again?" He asked. She nodded enthusiastically. "I'm not going to walk you through it this time, let's see if you can bring it out on your own." He said with confidence.

She nodded and closed her eyes as she breathed deeply and reached inside herself. She found the center of herself easily enough. It was what she always went looking for when she needed courage. She grabbed hold of it, and pulled and opened her eyes again. Her flickering blue aura was dancing on her skin again. It was the pull and the focus on making it do something that she usually didn't do, when she needed to be brave. Usually just having a hold on it was enough for her to be brave enough to do what needed to be done.

Ranma nodded at her slowly as he smiled. "Very good. The more you practice it, the easier it will get. Once you can produce it, and hold it while you fight, then you can start using it to power your attacks, and your defenses." He said happily.

"When will I be able to see other people's battle auras?" She asked, excited.

"How about right now?" He asked with a smile.

She nodded eagerly. She hadn't realized how much she wanted to be able to do this until now.

"Okay, well let's start with the simple test." He said as she suddenly felt waves of warmth start pouring off of him. "Can you see anything?" He asked.

She shook her head, disappointed. "No, I can feel the heat of it, but I can't see anything."

He nodded. "All right, well, at least you can feel it. That's something. Not everyone's battle aura is warm, by the way. Ryoga's is always cold. Mine is cold when I use the Hiryū Shōten Ha." He said.

She nodded. "So, now what?" She asked.

"Take my hand." He said softly as he closed his eyes.

She followed his example and closed hers.

"This will be the same idea, but you'll need to think of it differently now. I can guide you better now though, because it's my battle aura you're tryin' ta see." He said quietly. His voice was low and slow enough that it was almost hypnotizing.

She nodded.

"Now, listen to my voice again. It's a warm breeze still, but it's comin' to you from far away."

She nodded.

"You're standin' on a cliff feeling the warm breeze reach you. But the winds on the cliff are cold. You want to stay with the warm breeze. Stay with it." He whispered.

She nodded.

"Follow the warm breeze back to the sun that's makin' it." He said urgently.

She nodded.

"Step to the edge of the cliff. Focus on the warm breeze from far away. Feel it around you, trace it back to where it's comin' from."

"I can feel it." She said. She meant it. She could feel what he was describing.

"Jump off the cliff, Nabiki. Follow the breeze." He said softly.

She took a deep breath and nodded. In her mind she didn't jump so much as fall off the cliff into the breeze. It lifted her up and carried her along with it. "Open your eyes." He whispered.

She did, and gasped. She could see it, she could see his battle aura! It was yellow, and huge. It was glowing around him at least a meter in every direction. She could now match up the waves of heat from him to the flicker and pulse of his aura. It didn't look quite right, though, like it was transparent or something. That disappointed her.

"I can see it, but it's faded. It doesn't look solid like when I see Akane's or Daddy's." She said, frustrated.

"Of course it does, we haven't finished focusing you yet." He said calmly, still in his slow, hypnotic tone. "Ready to focus it?" He asked.

She nodded, eager now.

"Keep your eyes open, now, and listen to the sound of my voice." He said as he matched the pace of his voice to the pace of the waves of the heat from his aura. "My voice is a trail of smoke from a fire. Follow it to the fire." He said.

"Okay." She said, she felt as if she was falling into some sort of a trance.

"Tell me when you find the fire." He said calmly, then started to repeat that same phrase over and over again as he matched pace with the waves of heat streaming off him.

She focused and tried to imagine his voice as smoke from a fire. She was frustrated, it wasn't working.

"Remember, you have a sun inside of you. You can use it to light the way." He said, still in the same cadence.

She nodded and focused on his voice again as he switched back to the repeated phrase. She focused on the sound of his voice, and reached down inside herself and found her core and grabbed hold of it again. She imagined his voice as smoke from a fire, and tried to smell it. She could almost smell ... something. It wasn't smoke from a wood fire though, it was more like burning ozone from superheated air inside an oven. She followed it. She realized almost immediately that it was drawing her down towards Ranma. She closed her eyes and listened with the senses from inside herself, what she thought of as her core.

She felt ... something. She couldn't really even describe it to herself, but it felt like part of her core was reaching out to the bright center inside him. It felt ... warm ... like fire.

She opened her eyes a little bit and whispered, "I think I found the fire."

"Excellent. Now, hold on to it, fix the location of it in your mind." He said softly, still in the same slow, low tone.

She nodded and did what he said. In her mind she was floating in the warm breeze, and looking down at a bright spot on the ground. It wasn't a fire so much as like catching a glimpse of the sun through the leaves of a tree.

"Now ... the sun inside of you, focus on it." He said calmly.

She nodded and did so.

"Pull on it, take threads of it and pull them to the surface, wrap them around yourself." He said softly.

She concentrated, and did what he said. In her mind, she grabbed hold of her core, and pulled at it. It wasn't a sun though, it was more like a warm, fuzzy ball of yarn. She yanked threads out from it and pulled on them until she had a lot of them. Then she just kind of held on to them while she spun into them and wrapped herself in them. They didn't stay threads, though, they just kind of melted into her and shimmered around on her skin like pools of liquid warmth.

"I ... I think I did it." She whispered.

"Perfect. Now, focus on my fire, and reach out to it. Grab threads of it. You should be able to grab it now that you have your own threads wrapped around you." He said with a happy tone in his voice.

She reached out to the heat of his aura, the fire of the center of it, and found that the power of it almost leaped into her hands. In her mind the heat of it rose up and almost overwhelmed her. She pulled back in fright and gasped.

"Easy ... easy ... just a little at a time. Think of it like trying to scoop a rock out of a bowl of water that's almost full. If you just jam your hand in there to get the rock, you'll overflow the bowl. You have to just stick two fingers in there gently, grab it, and pull gently so you won't overflow the bowl." He said, still in his soothing, soft voice.

She nodded and pulled more strength around herself from her core, and eyed the heat of the fire of his aura more warily now. She reached out gingerly in her mind and extended just her little finger. Immediately the heat of his aura flowed to her own power, and joined with it. She gasped again, with delight. It was like having a direct connection with him. She could feel him. Was this how he was able to read her? She felt a part of him agree with her through the link they now shared. She smiled.

"Now, pull gently on the thread. Wrap it around yourself and control it with your own threads. Control it, and make it part of you." He said calmly.

She did as he said and suddenly felt lighter, and heavier at the same time. She felt like a power inside of her was making her able to do things she wouldn't normally be able to do. At the same time, the weight of that made her feel like she shouldn't dare move, and the connection to him was overpowering everything else.

"I'm ... I'm scared ... " She whispered with a tremor in her voice.

"I know, I was too the first time I did this. You're doin' great, Kiki. Don't worry, none of this is dangerous. I wouldn't be much of a teacher if I let you get hurt in your very first lesson, now would I?" He said calmly. She also felt him send what felt like soothing thoughts to her. "Ready to finish the focus?" He asked quietly.

She nodded as she forced herself to relax and trust him.

"All right, now close your eyes again. Now that you have the threads from inside you wrapped around yourself and you have a thread from me controlled and part of it, think of the threads turning to water. Think of them covering you like you just got out of a bath, or like you're standin' in the rain, or however you want to imagine it."

She was already imagining her threads as pools of liquid warmth shimmering around her, so it was easy for her to shift that to what he was describing. "Okay, I think I am doing it." She whispered.

"Great. Now, pull on the power of the sun inside you and push it into the water around you. Make the water into steam, and push it around you so that it surrounds me too."

She concentrated, and found that the power inside of herself was only too eager to be pulled to the surface. She didn't know how to use it though, so she just imagined it as heat and pushed it around her and imagined the water turning to steam. She pushed on it until it was around him as well.

"Open your eyes." Ranma whispered. He sounded like he was whispering right in her ear.

She opened her eyes and blinked in wonder. She could see his battle aura as clearly as she could see Akane's. It was like they were in a little bubble she had created around them. The rest of the world around them seemed muted, dark, and lifeless. Only here in her bubble did she feel alive, unbelievably alive. It took her breath away, she wanted to sink to her knees in awe.

"Can you see it?" He asked. He still sounded very close to her, even though he wasn't that close.

She nodded. His aura was very bright now. He was standing across from her in a relaxed stance. His clothes and hair were ruffling around him like they were being stirred by an unseen breeze. She was glowing as well, and there was a bridge between them now. A tiny stream of her blue energy was entwined around a tiny stream of his yellow energy. Wherever their two streams touched, they merged to make a bright jade-green. She looked down and saw streams of his yellow aura dancing around on her skin, mixing with her blue.

"What do you think?" He asked warmly.

"Wow." Was all she could think to say.

He smiled enormously with eyes shimmering with happiness.

She was breathless. She could feel herself on the verge of hyperventilating. She couldn't believe how alive she felt right now. She felt like a little girl again. She felt like laughing, skipping, jumping, rolling around on the ground and giggling madly for no reason whatsoever.

"Ranma ... I ... wow! ... I can't ... what do you ... how does this ..." She tried to say as multiple questions rose to her mind at the same time.

"It's intense the first time, isn't it?" He whispered. He sounded very happy. He also still sounded like he was literally right next to her. Even though she could see him in front of her.

"It's ... wow! ... Ranma, wow! Is it ... is it like this for you all the time? Is this how you see the world?" She whispered, awestruck as tears streamed down her cheeks. She wasn't sad, she was blown away by emotion. She felt herself resonating with him in a way that was making her shake. She'd never felt anything like this before. She felt closer to him now than she had since she had known him. She couldn't even fully wrap her mind around how special the moment they were sharing was. Something inside her was straining. With every passing moment she spent with him, she wanted him to be part of her even more strongly. She felt like everything she was awakening in her core was shifting things inside her. She could feel something deep inside her straining to the point of almost cracking. She felt wonderful and ... ached at the same time.

He smiled softly at her. "No, not all the time. Only when I use my Ki to see, like you're doing now." He whispered.

She didn't know why, but it felt like whispering was required right now, like it would be sacrilegious to speak in a normal voice right now. He seemed to agree with her, because he was also was whispering.

"Do you have to go through that exercise every time you want to use your Ki to see?" She asked, curious.

She felt him laugh through the connection they were sharing. He pushed warmth to her and smiled as he shook his head. "No, it gets easier once you know how." He said with a bit of mirth in his voice.

"How are you doing that?" She asked, curious.

"Doing what?" He asked calmly.

"I can feel you pushing feelings and other stuff to me." She whispered.

"That's how you're able to see with your Ki right now, it's kind of a guided tour. This is how Pops taught me. You can feel me sending you things, because you're seeing through me." He said softly.

"I'm, wait, what?" She asked, confused.

He smiled at her. "The exercise I took you through is known as the Fractal Ki Mirror. The student draws on the power of their Ki and wraps themselves in it. Then the student connects to the teacher, and the teacher then helps the student to see through their own Ki by helping the student to focus through their shared connection on an infinite number of reflections of the student's own Ki surrounding them."

"What happens if the connection breaks?" She asked, worried.

"If you concentrate, you'll still be able to see my battle aura, but the bubble will break, and most of the heightened senses you feel right now will fade. You may be able to hold it on your own for a while, or it may collapse almost immediately." He replied calmly.

She wanted to try. She also really, really wanted to stay in this bubble with him ... forever. She looked around a little bit longer in wonder, then looked at him and nodded. "I'd like to try to hold it on my own. How do I do that?" She asked.

"Simple. Continue doing exactly what you're doing. Believe that you can see, stay connected to your own Ki, and focus on seeing the world around you as you draw on your Ki." He said.

That didn't sound all that terribly simple, but she nodded and tried to do what he described. When she was ready, she took a deep, shuddering breath and nodded again. "Ready." She whispered.

He nodded and a moment later she felt him withdraw his own presence from her. She immediately felt the sensation of being heavy and light fade. The bubble shattered a moment later then faded away, and the giddy euphoria went with it. She concentrated, and pulled on her own power as she gasped as the power of their connection let go of her. She looked at him, and was relieved to see that she could still see his battle aura. It didn't seem quite as bright as before, and she didn't have all of the extra perceptions of him that she'd had when she had been seeing the world through the power of his Ki, but she found that she was getting little tiny bits of those perceptions on her own. He smiled widely at her.

"Very good." I lost it almost the moment Pops broke the connection the first time we did that drill.

"I think I have ... a better teacher ... than you did..." She breathed her reply as she struggled to maintain her focus. A moment later, she lost it and it all faded.

She sank slowly to the floor of the dojo on legs that wouldn't support her any more. She was exhausted and shaking with emotion. He came over and sat down next to her. She didn't feel any heat from him any more.

She looked up at him, and found him smiling at her. "You did very, very good. A lot better than I was expectin', actually. Your Dad had to have trained you to do at least some of that. There's no way you should've been able to do that like that as an absolute beginner. But, I don't think he ever showed you seein' with your Ki, and you did very good with that too. So, I dunno, maybe you're just a natural." He said with a grin.

She smiled at him as she breathed deeply and tried to regain her energy.

"Here, eat this." He said as he handed her a little round ball and sat down next to her.

"What is it?" She asked as she popped it into her mouth. It was like a cookie, but it had like a jam or something similar filling.

"Pops says it's Mom's recipe. He calls them energy balls. I have a feelin' Mom's actual recipe isn't named something dumb like that, but it's too good to not be hers. Knowin' him, he probably swiped it when she wasn't lookin'. But it's good, isn't it? I keep some on me when I can for moments like these." He said quietly.

"When ... when do you make them?" She asked, shocked that he baked. She also noticed that she was starting to feel better, and stronger.

He smiled. "I try to make them when I'm home alone. It doesn't happen very often, so when I'm home alone, I try to make a couple batches of them, and then I hide them around the house. If I know I'm gonna need some before I'll be home alone again, I just make 'em really late at night. It's hard to do though, because Kasumi's a light sleeper, and baking smells wake her up. I figured out that if I use a fan and open a window though, she doesn't smell 'em baking." He said softly.

She just blinked at him in shock. She couldn't believe he had this side to himself. "You're ... a complicated guy, aren't you?" She asked with a smile.

He smiled. "You're one to talk." He whispered.

She had to agree with him on that. She probably hid more stuff about herself than he did. She resolved to share some more about herself with him on their date. It was only fair.

"So, what did you think of seeing with your Ki?" He asked her.

"It was ... amazing, especially when I was seeing through yours. Holy crap, Ranma, I had to fight myself to not just stay like that forever. The way you can see the world ... it's amazing." She said.

"And now you understand why I love the Art so much." He replied.

"Well, I mean, there's looking at the world like that, and then there's having someone try to kick your head in. Two really different things there, Ranma." She joked as she leaned into him happily.

She was about to make another joke when she heard a noise. She looked up at the same time Ranma did. There was someone watching them from the hallway that joined the dojo to the house.

It was Akane.

Chapter Text

Akane had tears in her eyes as she looked at her and Ranma sitting on the floor of the dojo together. Her little sister opened her mouth to speak, then closed it, then opened it again. Finally, after several failed attempts, Akane managed to whisper the message she had come to tell them. "Kasumi told me ... to tell you ... that dinner's almost ready." Akane said, despondently.

Before Nabiki could say anything, Akane spun on her heel and ran back towards the house.

"Go after her, Ranma. Talk to her." She said urgently.

"But—" He started to protest.

"You don't have to tell her anything you don't want to, you don't need to promise her anything, you don't need to do anything you don't want to. But, I know she would really like to talk to you. Can you just go and talk to her, and listen to her?" She whispered. When he didn't move after a moment, as emotions warred across his face, she asked him again. "Please?"

He looked at her as he made up his mind, and nodded, then immediately jumped up and ran after Akane.

She stared after him for a moment, then got up on shaky legs to head back to the house. She caught a glimpse of him following Akane out to the courtyard as she walked down the walkway to the house. She deliberately kept walking and didn't linger to watch them. She softly wiped her cheeks with the backs of her hands as she walked. Even though they had been tears of wonder, she didn't want to have to explain them to anyone.

I have to trust him. Akane is going to try to take him back. If he goes back to her ... then it was never meant to be. I just have to ... believe ... that he'll choose me. She thought to herself with stubborn determination that she tried to use to mask her fear.

She wanted Akane to be happy, and she knew Akane was hurting right now. Talking to Ranma might make her sister feel better. Of course, knowing the two of them, and his tendency to put his foot in his mouth, it could make Akane feel worse. She shrugged as she walked. There was only so much she could do to help.

She turned the corner as she entered the house, and almost ran into Kasumi, who was standing in the shadows of the doorway and looking out at the courtyard. She knew without turning around that Kasumi was watching them.

"Hello Kasumi. Akane said you had dinner almost ready?" She said, deliberately trying to ignore what was going on behind her.

Kasumi didn't take her eyes off where she was looking. "It was very kind of you to send Ranma to her." Kasumi said, ignoring what she had said.

"I ... well ... " She stammered.

"Are you sure it was wise, though?" Kasumi asked with an uncharacteristically harder edge in her voice as she kept her gaze on the courtyard.

She shrugged. "They are going to have to talk at some point. It might as well be now." She said as she admitted defeat and talked about it.

Kasumi looked at her then and fixed her with a watery stare that had a lot of pain behind it. "Just ... be careful that you know what you're doing. Let him know that you care, don't play games with him. Don't let him slip away..." Kasumi said softly.

She knew her older sister was talking about Doctor Tofu. "You know, Doctor Tofu is here ... why don't you try to talk to him?" She suggested.

Kasumi smiled a small, one might say bitter, smile. Silence stretched between them for a handful of moments. Finally, Kasumi responded as she turned to head back to the kitchen. "What makes you think I haven't been?" Her older sister said sadly as she walked back to the kitchen. "Dinner will be ready in a few minutes."

She stared dumbfounded after Kasumi for a moment, before she shook her head and wandered towards the dining room. The delicious smells from the kitchen were wafting on warm air from the kitchen into the hallway and mixing with the cool air from outside. It was an invigorating tease on her senses. She found herself getting eager to be at the dinner table and enjoying Kasumi's food.

However, before she made it to the dining room, she found Doctor Tofu sitting in the entry way just staring at the front door. The expression on his face snapped her out of her reverie. He looked exhausted and pensive at the same time.

"Waiting for someone?" She asked softly.

He looked up at her and smiled. "Not particularly. Just thinking."

"You can sleep tonight, so can Daddy and Ranma's Dad. The Amazons have called a truce for the next two days. It'll end the morning after tomorrow morning." She said happily.

He nodded. "I thought Shampoo's Elder might do something like that. It's good news, though. I could use a break. We should probably stay on guard though, just in case." He said calmly.

She shrugged. She knew Ranma was going to protect her, even if he had to sleep outside her door, or over her window on the roof to do it. She'd try to stop him, but she knew she wouldn't be able to. She smiled despite herself. Even though she didn't want him suffering for her, she couldn't help feeling flattered and special from his loyalty and devotion. He was a throwback to a different time, when a lot more men behaved like he did. She knew he behaved the way he did, because his dad had trained him to be that way, and the only reason his dad had done so, was because of the promise made to his mom. So, in every way that counted, she had Ranma's mom to thank for how wonderful he could be.

"I'm not worried about it." Was all she said to Doctor Tofu.

He smiled at her. "I'm sure you're not, especially with Ranma following you around everywhere." He said kindly. "I'll talk to your dad about what he wants us to do with regard to guarding the house tonight, just in case." He added.

She nodded as she sat down next to him. They sat in companionable silence for a little while. She shot glances at him occasionally as she tried to read him. As per usual, she couldn't read him. It was odd, sometimes when she was around Doctor Tofu, but he didn't know she was there, sometimes she felt like she almost could read him. He definitely let his shields down when he thought he was alone. But, as soon as he knew she or one of sisters was around, he slammed his shields into place quickly. She wondered why he was always so guarded? Was it just around them, or did he just have his shields up whenever he was around people?

She looked over at him, and weirdly felt something in herself straining. Doctor Tofu had always been there for them, since she was a little girl. She had known him when Mom was alive. And, after Mom had died, Doctor Tofu had suddenly been around a lot. For the first few weeks after Mom had died, during the worst of those dark times, he had been there every single day. She was sure of that. Oddly though, she couldn't remember any details from that time. She had a vague sense of that time period, but most of that time was oddly empty in her mind. It was like she had a photograph of that time in her mind, but no video. She had the essence without the substance.

Thinking of those old memories jarred her memory of more recent events into the front of her mind. She tapped her fist into her palm and smiled as she turned to him to ask about Akane's behavior from earlier in the day.

"Doctor Tofu, have you ever blanked out when fighting?"

"What do you mean?" He asked kindly as he smiled and turned to her, and gave her his full attention.

"Ranma had to hold Akane back today, to keep her from hitting an opponent after she'd won."

He frowned at that. "How so?"

"Well, Ranma could probably explain it much better than I can, but from what I saw, when Akane ran to help me when I was attacked today, she lost ... herself. She was fighting on instinct I think. Even after she'd won the fight, she kept fighting. I don't know what she would have done, if Ranma hadn't stopped her." She said quietly.

"But Ranma was in control?" He asked.

She nodded. "Yeah, Ranma was his usual self. Akane was gone, though. I could see in her eyes that she wasn't there. I don't know where she went, but she was checked out. It almost seemed like her body was on autopilot." She said as she tried to explain something that she had experienced mostly as a series of emotions, and filtered through her own very strong emotions she'd been experiencing at the time.

He nodded. "What you are describing is not ... uncommon. It isn't common either. But it isn't anything to be particularly worried about, I don't think. I will talk to Akane about it though, and see if I can help her understand it a little better, so she can maybe stay in better control the next time she is feeling like that." He said with quiet confidence.

"So, what was it?" She asked, curious.

"There isn't really an official name for it. Martial Artists, Soldiers, Police Officers, Paramedics, and others who regularly experience adrenaline and intense, high pressure situations that spike stress levels and push the body to the limits, all can sometimes experience what you are describing. My own Master refers to it as whiting out." He said quietly.

"Wait ... you have a Master?" She asked, wide eyed.

"Of course I do, a very good one." He said with a smile.

She didn't know why, but it had never occurred to her that Doctor Tofu would have his own Master. In some ways, that kind of ruined the perception she had of him. In other ways, though, it made her feel better about him. It was creepy how good he was at so much stuff. She was happy that there were at least some things that even the mighty Doctor Tofu needed help with.

"Well ... why does your Master call it that?" She asked as she dragged her mind back to the topic at hand.

"I don't know why it is called that. I don't even know if my Master is the one who named it that. But, what you were describing sounds like a white out to me."

"Not a black out?" She asked.

"No, when one blacks out, one tends to lose consciousness. Not always, but usually. A white out is different. You will still be in full control of your body, you won't lose consciousness, but the part of your mind that controls your higher order functions, such as reasoning and inhibitions will be suppressed under the strong emotions causing the white out."

"Strong emotions?" She asked, confused.

He nodded. "Yes, white outs are usually triggered by an intense amount of fear or anger coupled with adrenaline. It has to be one of the primal instinct emotions that will trigger the fight-or-flight instinct, and it has to cause an adrenaline dump, and all of it has to be strong. The run of the mill bouts of anger or fear from a fight or something similar won't do it. The person in question has to feel like if they don't act, something terrible will happen, or they have to be reliving past trauma. Soldiers who have been in combat can sometimes white out under the right conditions, so can victims of past traumas of a more mundane nature. The conditions are different for every person, but if they happen, then a white out could be triggered." He finished calmly.

"Is it ... dangerous?" She asked, worried.

"Well, yes and no. The physical aspects of the condition aren't dangerous to the person experiencing them, if that is what you mean. But a person under the influence of a white out has lost their capacity to reason and they are acting on instinct and training. Whatever their trigger was, will need to be dealt with, before they will come out of it on their own. If they don't come out of it on their own, then only being knocked unconscious will stop them, or being allowed to lose consciousness on their own, if that is a possibility. A person who is whited out won't have any regard for their own safety, either. I have heard about it happening to people like Fire Fighters who go charging into a burning building to save just one more person, and they end up dying as well. In that respect, it is very dangerous. When humans are operating on their base and primal instincts, they can accomplish incredible things, but they can also be a danger to themselves and others." He said quietly.

"Akane was ... protecting me ... when it happened." She whispered. "Would that be enough?" She asked.

He looked at her without the usual mirth on his face, and nodded.

She didn't know what to say to that, so she just sat and thought silently for a few moments. He resumed looking at the door absently. Since she was already sitting and talking with him, she decided to see if she could plant some of the seeds needed to get him to resolve whatever issues he and Kasumi had.

"Doctor Tofu..." She hesitated, she wanted to help, but at the same time she wanted to leave it alone. She felt that, based on Kasumi's behavior, the topic she was about to touch on, was sensitive, to say the least.

"Yes, Nabiki?" He said, without looking back at her. He had resumed using his cheerful voice, though.

"You ... you like Kasumi, don't you?" She asked carefully. Kasumi wouldn't thank her for driving him further away, she needed to be very delicate with this.

"Of course I do, I like all of you." He said warmly.

"No, I mean really like her... you know?"

"Nabiki ..." He said in a tone that could either be a warning, or sadness.

"If you like her, why aren't you with her? Did something happen between you two?"

He popped up to his feet and his glasses shimmered as he assumed the absurd poise he usually used in his act around Kasumi. "I'd love to keep talking, Nabiki. But I need to get the fish out of the bookcase before the mailman gets here." He stuttered with a goofy smile on his face.

She stared at him open mouthed, in shock.

"Talk to you later, Nabiki, keep in touch!" He said cheerfully as he wandered out of the room while randomly staring at the walls and talking to houseplants.

She had always assumed his act was because of shyness. He had only ever done it around Kasumi, whom everyone knew he was attracted to. It had never occurred to her that his act might be a defense. Could it be that he did the goofy act whenever he didn't want to think or talk about his past with Kasumi?

If he's defending himself against me now, just for bringing it up ... what the hell happened between them? She thought in consternation as she watched him leave with her jaw hanging open in shock.

With a sigh, she got up and made her way into the dining room. It didn't surprise her that Doctor Tofu wasn't there. He had probably slipped away somewhere to reset as soon as he had been out of her sight.

She wandered past the patio doors on her way to sit at the table. The doors were only partially closed, and she realized she could hear a voice on the other side of the doors. It was Ranma's voice.

"—it was nice, Akane. I did have fun ... our dat—"

She stepped closer to the door to listen. She knew she shouldn't, but she couldn't help herself. This was an opportunity to find out how serious he was about Akane.

She could tell that Akane was talking to him, but her sister's voice was too quiet for her to hear. Ranma's was just loud enough for her to hear most of what he was saying.

"Yes ... we're goin' out a little later this week." Ranma said.

"—t about us?" She heard Akane say, a little louder.

"What —bout us? All —v'r done ... fight." Ranma said softly.

There was a pause then. She seriously considered backing away from the door at that point, in case they were walking towards the dining room. Then she head Akane again.

"—e don't have ... fight ... —ould ...—rt over..."

"Akane..." Ranma said seriously. She couldn't hear Akane's response, but he continued a moment later.

"—just us, not ... Dads anym— ... —can't say ... forced us—"

"Okay." She heard Akane say weakly.

"—you sayin'... —ave feelins' for—" Ranma asked.

"N-no ... —ust wanted..." Akane stammered.

"What? ... —o back ... —ay things were?" He asked in a neutral voice.

"Y-yes." Akane said in a longing voice.

"—on't know if ... can—" He said.

"...—aying? Would you ... —tay with Nabiki?" Akane said in a small voice.

"I ... —on't know." Ranma said in an equally small voice.

"Ranma?" Akane said urgently.

There was another pause, she couldn't hear his response. She didn't care if she got caught anymore, she had to hear the rest.

"—ou have feeli—... me?" Akane asked in a shaking voice.

Despite the fact that Akane might very well be in the process of taking him from her, she silently applauded her little sister. Damned if she didn't do exactly what I told her to do. She thought with a mixture of pride and dread.

"—asked ... —irst." Ranma replied in a voice that was both happy and tired at the same time.

"Can't you—" Akane started to say.

She didn't hear the rest of what they said, because she heard footsteps coming into the dining room. She had heard enough to know that she at least still had a fighting chance. She hurried away from the doors and made her way to her usual spot at the table.

Kasumi entered the room a moment later and busied herself setting plates and utensils on the table. They both smiled strained smiles at each other but didn't say anything over the clink of the utensils being laid out.

The doors to the patio slid open a moment later, and Ranma entered the room first and took a seat next to her. Akane followed him a few moments later. Her little sister looked both happy, and sad. Akane sat down across from him at the table.

Daddy did not join them for dinner, neither did Ranma's dad. Doctor Tofu did enter the room a little while after Akane had, and he sat at the opposite end of the table from Daddy's spot, leaving Daddy's spot open.

She looked at him, and he smiled at her in his usual way, but he in no way acknowledged the awkwardness between them from earlier. She also noticed that he was doing all he could to not interact with Kasumi. It seemed that as his contact with Kasumi increased over time, he went from doing his act whenever she was around, to only when he had to interact with her. She really felt that she needed to talk to Kasumi about what had happened, if for no other reason that to satisfy her curiosity.

A few moments later everyone was seated and eating. Ranma was still sneaking glances at her. She noticed that Akane was sneaking glances at Ranma as well. Ranma did a good job of hiding it, but she caught him at least once looking in Akane's direction as well. She felt a coldness building up inside herself, but she ignored it. The dragon inside her was snorting nervously and trying to get her to do something more aggressive to take him back. She ignored it.

She had promised not to interfere, and she was going to do her best to keep that promise. If Ranma went back to Akane, then she would just have to find a way to live with that. The dragon inside her rolled its eyes at her. She sighed and continued to eat. It helped that Kasumi's food was so good. There was nothing like a home-cooked hot meal, it was one of the greatest things on Earth.

When they had all finished and thanked Kasumi for the meal, Doctor Tofu surprised her by clearing his throat and drawing attention to himself. He smiled at all of them gently.

"As I am sure you know, your father finished repairing the walls for the bedrooms today. Your father asked me to tell Nabiki and Akane that they are free to sleep in their own rooms again tonight." He announced softly.

She had known in the back of her mind that it was coming, but it still stung to hear it. She didn't know how she had managed to get so attached to sleeping with Ranma in such a short amount of time, but she had. It felt really ... bad ... to think of going to sleep alone in her bed, by herself in her room ... alone.

She looked over at him and found him looking at her as well. She couldn't read his expression, though. He could be feeling sad or relieved not to be burdened with her any more. He—

"Additionally..." Doctor Tofu interrupted her thoughts. "Additionally ... your father asked me to remind Ranma that he is still responsible for guarding Nabiki during the night, as her fiancé." Doctor Tofu's tone made it clear that he didn't approve of the order he was relaying from Daddy.

Her center immediately warmed with happiness. Ranma was going to sleep with her, in her room! She wouldn't be alone after—

Akane interrupted her thoughts as she looked up sharply at Doctor Tofu and shook her head rapidly. "No ... no! That's not right!" Akane protested as she slapped the table in frustration. Her little sister's hair had come out from behind her ears and was splashed across her face in disarray. She could almost feel how distressed Akane was. On a certain level, she could sympathize with Akane. She would be just as upset if Ranma was being ordered to sleep in Akane's room.

Ranma looked at her and seemed to shrink into himself. He was deliberately hunching himself over and trying to get as small as possible. She smiled at him. She knew that he didn't want to hurt Akane or herself, and so he would just try to avoid the issue entirely. As for herself, she put on her best impassive mask, and just waited and watched.

Akane was doing her best to stare Doctor Tofu down, as he was the de facto authority figure in the house with both Daddy and Ranma's dad out of action. Doctor Tofu just shrugged and accepted Akane's hard stare impassively as he tried to calm her down. "I am just telling you what your father asked me to tell you all. It ... is not my place ... to question his orders in his own home. I am not going to force anyone to do anything, though. You are all old enough to handle this yourselves. If you want to argue the orders, you will have to take it up with your father."

"Maybe I will." Akane said as she stood up from the table.

"Akane ... please sit down." Kasumi said in a quiet voice. To an outsider, it would seem like a simple request from an older sister. In their family though, coming from Kasumi, a request like that was an irrefusable order.

Akane collapsed on shaky legs and meekly took her place back at the table.

As for herself, she watched her older sister warily with a raised eyebrow. Akane was still young enough to obey Kasumi like she would have obeyed Mom. For herself, she was more or less willing to go along with Kasumi heading their household as well, but when it came to her love life, she wasn't just going to blindly obey Kasumi just because her older sister had taken on the maternal role in their family in Mom's absence.

Doctor Tofu looked down at the table and, like Ranma, did his best to disappear from the conversation. She knew that he disapproved of the entire situation. She knew he would indeed say something against the idea of Ranma sleeping in any of their rooms, if they had been in his clinic. She smiled at that.

Kasumi looked around the table calmly, and finally rested her gaze on Ranma. Ranma flinched away from it. Kasumi pressed him anyway. "Ranma, what do you think should be done?"

Poor Ranma. She thought as she watched him wilt under Kasumi's steady gaze. Putting him under the spotlight was a very direct way of solving the problem, but she knew Ranma wasn't ready to make a choice yet. He was more likely to run for it than to openly choose Akane or herself in front of the other right now.

"I ... um ... I..." He stammered.

Kasumi simply stared at him, and waited.

Sheesh, she's being pretty brutal with him. She thought as she gathered herself to come to his defense. It wasn't fair for all of this to be put on him. She opened her mouth to speak, when he surprised her.

"I ... I think that Nabiki does need to be guarded at night." Ranma said softly.

Akane looked up at him with betrayal written all over her face. Kasumi smiled softly but didn't say anything. Doctor Tofu continued looking down at the table and pretending like he wasn't there. And she did her best to try to keep her happiness off of her face. She didn't dare look at Akane right now. She knew she wasn't doing the best job of hiding her happiness. He had chosen her! He'd chosen her in front of everyone, he—

"—but I don't have to guard her in her room. I can stand guard outside her door, or I can sit up on the roof and watch her room." He said in a slightly stronger voice.

Way to kill the party, Ranma. She thought sourly to herself. She knew he was just doing his best to be diplomatic and to not hurt Akane, but it still ... distressed her ... to think of not sleeping with him again. She didn't know why she felt so strongly about it, but she did, and she couldn't help it.

"No Ranma, you're not sleeping on the roof. That's out of the question. You don't need to suffer just to do your duty." She said gently. "If you insist on being noble, the hallway will suffice." She said firmly. She wasn't going to stand for Ranma being made to suffer just to satisfy people's honor and frankly their own selfishness.

He looked over at her and flashed her a grateful smile before he turned to look back at Kasumi again, and shrugged. "I guess that will work." He said agreeably.

"And what about Akane?" Kasumi asked gently.

She looked at her older sister with wide eyes. What was Kasumi doing? Was she deliberately agitating the situation out of spite, or was she trying to push Ranma to a resolution of some sort?

"Doesn't Akane need to be guarded too?" Kasumi pressed.

"I can take care of you and Akane." Doctor Tofu spoke up without looking up. She could tell that he hated the whole situation. She was sure if he had his way, they would all camp out together in the dining room and he would just watch over all of them. That was probably the most logical way of handling the situation, but it wasn't the way she wanted the situation handled. She knew it was selfish, but she didn't want to share Ranma with ... anyone.

Doctor Tofu's offer of protection for Akane was an honorable way out for everyone. She sighed with relief. If Doctor Tofu was offering to protect Akane, then Akane no longer had much of a leg to stand on. She looked at Akane and waited.

"I ... I guess that ..." Akane struggled to say. She could tell Akane was desperately trying to figure out a way to force the situation to resolve in her favor.

"What if Akane slept in Nabiki's room with them?" Kasumi suggested softly.

She looked up sharply at Kasumi with an audible gasp as Akane did the same thing. Ranma had gone back to trying to be invisible.

"Wait a minute, let's not get—" She started to say.

"—Yes!" Akane cut her off as her little sister agreed to Kasumi's proposal enthusiastically.

She clamped her jaw shut in shock. She knew that Akane was doing her best to get him back, but she never would have expected Akane to agree to such an idea. She locked her eyes on Akane in open surprise, but Akane was staring determinedly at Ranma.

"Ranma, can you protect both of them?" Kasumi asked sweetly.

"I don't need him to protect me." Akane said indignantly.

"Then why do you—" She started to ask.

"—you know why." Akane said in as agreeable a tone as she was sure her little sister could pull off at the moment. Akane was fighting for him, hard.

"Ranma?" Kasumi pressed him as she and Akane locked eyes and tried to stare each other down.

She didn't want to get into a fight with Akane, but she wasn't willing to back down over Ranma, either. It was clear that Akane was gearing up to play for keeps. She sighed inside, she really had herself to blame for the whole thing, at least partially. She broke the staring contest first and refocused on Ranma as he stammered and tried to answer Kasumi without openly picking either of them.

"I ... I, yeah, sure, Kasumi. I can protect 'em both." He said in as confident a tone as he could. She could tell he was extremely uncomfortable though.

"Akane, is that what you want?" Doctor Tofu spoke up quietly.

"I, um ... well ... I guess?" Akane said in a tone that struggled to match Doctor Tofu's calm tone.

Doctor Tofu looked up then, but he didn't look at herself or Akane, he looked at Kasumi. "Just make sure, that you know what you want, and you are being honest with yourself. Nobody is forcing you to do anything." He said quietly.

She gasped quietly as she realized what was going on. This was a battle. Kasumi and Doctor Tofu were using the situation as a proxy war for whatever had happened between them. She ... didn't approve of that ... at all, if it was true. She narrowed her eyes and alternated between staring at Kasumi and Doctor Tofu, but neither of them would meet her gaze.

Finally, Kasumi stood up in her usual serene way, and ended it. "All right, well then it's settled. If Akane wants to, she may sleep in Nabiki's room with Ranma and Nabiki. Otherwise, Akane will be protected during the night by Doctor Tofu. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have things to take care of." Kasumi glided out of the room before anyone could respond to that.

Doctor Tofu hopped up a moment later and started collecting dishes and utensils to bring to the kitchen. That left the three of them, alone in the dining room, sitting uncomfortably together.

She spoke up first and tried to resume control of the situation. "Ranma, meet me up in my room in a few minutes?" She asked in a tense voice. He nodded without looking up.

"I'll see you in a few minutes too, Ranma, save space on the floor for me, all right?" Akane spoke up as well. Her little sister wasn't backing down. Ranma again nodded mutely.

All three of them stood up and stood awkwardly together for another handful of moments, before Ranma finally turned around and started walking slowly towards the stairs. He never looked up once. She really, really wanted to get him alone before Akane joined them in the room so she darted after him without saying anything to Akane.

By the time she rounded the corner though, he was already gone. Damn, that boy can move fast when he wants to. She thought in mild irritation coupled with amusement as she stood on the cold wooden floor in her bare feet and tried to decide what to do next. He was probably hiding, so hunting for him wouldn't do much good. The best she could do would be to go wait in her room and hope she could get at least a small talk in with him alone. She really wanted to know how he was feeling.

With a sigh, she trudged up the stairs and quickly took care of her nighttime ablutions in the bathroom before she hopped across the hall and into her room. She then quickly changed into her pajamas and sat on her bed and waited.

She didn't have to wait long. There was a small knock on her door a moment later as the door opened. It was Ranma. She smiled at him as invitingly as she could, and waved him inside. He nodded and his head ducked out of the door then her door opened wide as he entered carrying his futon set from the guest room.

She popped up from the bed and moved quickly to shut the door behind him as he busied himself setting up his bed on her floor. She noted that he had chosen to set his bed next to her bed. That made her happy.

She leaned her back on her door and waited for him to finish. When he did, he sat on top of his futon and looked up at her with slightly panicked eyes. She knew he had to be uncomfortable about this.

"Ranma are you—" She started to ask, then three sharp raps on her door signaled the arrival of most likely Akane.

She reached behind herself and locked her door. A moment later the handle jiggled and she sighed.

She tried again quickly. "Ranma, are you sure you're—"

"—Nabiki? Your door's locked." Akane said from the other side of the door in a voice that was trying to be innocent, but was clearly accusatory. She sighed and unlocked the door and stepped away from it as Ranma looked down at his bed. She moved back to her bed and sat on it before she called out to Akane.

"It's open now, sorry." She said in a voice she tried to keep even, but she knew had some anger seeping into it.

Her door opened slowly, and Akane entered her room with her eyes on the floor. Her little sister knew she didn't belong there.

She wasn't proud of it, but she was glad Akane felt that way. She knew it wasn't fair, but she thought of Ranma as hers now. Especially at night. There was something about the darkness that did something to people. They wanted to be close to their loved ones. They wanted to be held. They wanted to whisper to their partners in the darkness ... preferably without their little sisters in the room.

She sighed and tried to be nice. "Would you like the bed, Akane?"

Akane shook her head and pointed out the door. "No, I brought the other futon set from the guest room. I'll just set it up ... next to Ranma's." Akane said quietly but determinedly. She could see that Akane was blushing.

It would have been funny to her that Akane had pushed for this situation to happen in the first place, considering her little sister's issues with boys in general, and Ranma in specific, especially in a sleeping situation. But it wasn't funny now that it was happening.

Ranma just sat on his bed and didn't look at either of them. She really wished that she could have gotten him alone for a little while to talk. But she hadn't been able to make it happen. So, she had no idea how he felt about the situation he now found himself in. She knew from what she had overheard of his talk with Akane, that he wasn't over Akane. And she knew from her experiences with him the last few days, that he had feelings for her as well. He had to be feeling, at the very least, a little trapped.

Some guys would be ecstatic to be in the situation Ranma was in. Sleeping in the same room alone with two girls who were interested in him, with no parental supervision? They'd be tripping over themselves to sign-up. Of course, the very fact that a guy would be drooling over a situation like that, was precisely why most girls would never agree to such a situation.

Ranma was ... different. Part of it was that he was shy, but another part was that she knew that he genuinely didn't want to hurt her or her sister. It was because of that, that she was willing to have him sleep with her alone, and she was willing to share the room with him with Akane present, instead of making him sleep on the roof or outside her door to guard her. She wanted him nearby. She felt that if she didn't keep him as close to her as possible, that somehow he was going to slip away from her. She was determined to not let that happen ... even to Akane.

She eyed her little sister without any mirth, as Akane setup her bedding next to his. At least Akane had enough restraint to keep from laying out her bedding right next to his. Akane had included a little walkway between them of about half a meter. Ranma's bedding was already laid out on the ground next to her bed, with a tiny walkway between his futon and her bed. She was sure he had set it up that way in case either of them needed to get up during the night.

"Well, shall we get to sleep?" Akane asked quietly once she was done setting up her bedding. It was clear that the reality of what Akane had thrown herself into, wasn't as ideal as what her little sister had probably been imagining at the dinner table. Akane seemed very uncomfortable. She couldn't help but think that it served Akane right, she was uncomfortable too because of it.

Ranma nodded, still without looking up. She nodded as well. "Hit the lights?" She asked Akane, who was the only one still standing. Akane locked eyes with her for a moment, then nodded. She hadn't been able to read Akane's expression very well, but Akane had seemed ... peaceful. She had to admit that made her feel a bit nervous.

Akane shut off the lights, and the room plunged into darkness. While she was still light-blind, she heard the rustling of both Ranma and Akane settling into their bedding. She continued to sit on her bed. Once her eyes had adjusted to the darkness with the little bit of light coming in from the window, she eyed the two of them and sighed.

Ranma was laying perfectly straight on top of his bed. He was clearly trying to not provoke either one of them. Akane was buried in her bedding, and had her head turned so her eyes were looking away from both of them and towards the door. She could smell Akane's perfume. It wasn't an unpleasant scent, and it was barely there, but to her, it was a sign of an invasion. She frowned as she warred with herself over her desire for Ranma against her distaste for Akane suffering. She was in uncharted waters and didn't really know which way to go next.

She sighed and spent a minute trying to get Ranma to look at her, mostly by staring at him and willing him to look at her. Sometimes that worked, especially on people like Ranma. But he either wouldn't look at her, or didn't realize she was trying to get his attention. So, she eventually gave up and laid back down on her bed and sighed again. She wasn't that used to sleeping with him, so she was sure she would get used to his absence next to her as quickly as she had gotten used to his presence.

"Goodnight, Ranma." She said sweetly. She didn't say anything to Akane. Ranma mumbled something that sounded like 'night.

There were a couple of moments of silence after that, then Akane spoke up. "Goodnight, big sister. Night, Ranma." Akane said in her own sweet voice. Ranma again replied with a mumbled reply. He was either very sleepy and already drifting off, or he was deliberately being vague to avoid getting into anything while sandwiched between them.

Smart boy. She thought with a smile to herself in the dark. It hadn't escaped her notice that Akane had said goodnight to her as well, and that her little sister had listed her first. In some ways it made her look bad, but she didn't care right now. She was still irritated that she didn't get to sleep with Ranma alone tonight. She wasn't sure why she felt so possessive of him, and why she was feeling the emotions she was feeling so strongly, but she couldn't help it. It was like the events that had been set into motion the last few days had let something loose inside her. Every passing day seemed to make those feelings grow stronger. Already she was feeling terrible laying alone on her bed without him. Her body was fine, but emotionally she needed him to be with her. She had no rational explanation for it. Logically, it didn't make sense.

She lay on top of the blankets on her bed, not moving, for a long while. Eventually, she got under the blankets and curled up into a ball. The bed under her was soft and warm with smooth, clean sheets. Her blanket was heavy and warm and slightly rougher than her sheets. Normally she loved being in her bed. But right now, she didn't feel right. She felt off, not just off her center, but unbalanced, like a critical part of her was missing. She felt his absence very keenly. She wanted him in bed with her. She thought very seriously about just reaching down and grabbing him and pulling him up to her. But she knew without a doubt that Akane would notice that, and there would be ... an incident.

She sighed and grabbed her pillow from behind her head and clutched it to her chest. It was a poor substitute for him, but it was all she had. It didn't help that she could hear him breathing in her room, and she could smell his usual flowery-cedar smell, albeit from a distance. She could feel herself drifting off to sleep. She knew it wouldn't be a restful sleep.


***


She woke up with a sudden sharp and cold feeling that something was wrong. It was still nighttime. She reached out for Ranma but there was nobody in bed with her. She felt cold inside, empty. The pillow she had been holding earlier was still in her arms, clutched there tightly. Her body was warm and wrapped in her own blanket in her own bed, but it wasn't the same as having him with her. Nothing would be. She opened her eyes partially and there he was.

He was standing near the window at the foot of her bed, with his hands clasped behind his back, like a sentry. Just like he had tried to do the first night they had spent together. He had turned his shoulder from the window and was looking over it at her. She immediately felt better just seeing him. She darted a quick glance over at Akane, and saw only her sister's back. Akane was rolled onto her side and seemed to be asleep. She looked back at him and almost whimpered out loud.

She ached to have him hold her. She knew he couldn't with Akane in the room but, oh God, she wanted him to anyway! He raised his eyebrows at her in a silent question, so she waved him over. He nodded and stepped silently over to her bedside.

As soon as he reached the side of her bed, she reached her hand out of the blanket for his. He took her hand gently in his warm and somewhat rougher hands. She pulled him down so he was leaning right over her. His breath was warm on her neck. It sent shivers up and down her spine to feel it.

"What's wrong?" He whispered softly with his lips right next to her ear, so softly even she could barely hear it.

"Lonely." She whispered back, just as softly.

He didn't say anything to that. He did reach his other hand up gently and stroke her hair though. His touch made her arch her back with happiness, and she sighed contentedly as she closed her eyes.

"... Akane ..." he said nervously.

"I know." She whispered with only a touch of disappointment in her voice. She then pulled harder on his other hand until he was basically laying on her. She could feel him straining with his arm muscles to keep his full weight off her though.

"What're you—" He whispered urgently.

"Miss you." She replied in her own urgent whisper. She didn't know why she was being so aggressive, she just knew that she wanted him to be with her. She couldn't help it, she was addicted to being held now.

He shook his head gently as he pushed himself off her slowly. She was sure he was trying to avoid making noise as much as he was trying not to hurt her. "I ... um ... Akane..." He whispered.

She sighed and nodded. Then she pulled on him again insistently. She wasn't strong enough to force him to fall back down towards her if he didn't want to, but after a moment he relented and leaned his head back down towards her. As soon as he was close enough she whispered to him. "Sleep. Don't stand guard all night. I seriously doubt the Amazons will break the truce, and even if they do, Doctor Tofu is watching the house, and it isn't like Akane and I would be silent if we were being attacked."

"Yeah, but—" He started to protest.

"Sleep. You can't protect us as well during the day if you are exhausted from standing guard all night." She insisted. She knew invoking what he thought of as his duty would get him to comply, even though she thought of it as him doing them a favor, and not his duty.

"Okay, I'll sleep." He said grudgingly.

"Promise me, Ranma. Swear on your honor that you'll actually sleep, all night, and not just for an hour or something." She insisted.

"How did you know I—" He started to say with an incredulous tone.

"You forget who you're speaking to, Saotome." She said with a smirk she knew he couldn't see. "Now, promise me." She insisted.

"I ... all right, Nabiki, I promise, I swear." He said in a resigned tone.

The urge to kiss him rose up in her so strongly that she had to bite her lip to keep herself from acting on it. His scent was swimming around her strong enough that she could taste it, and the heat of his body was seeping into her. She wanted him so badly she could barely stand it. She could feel him pause as well as he struggled with whatever was going on in his head. After a tense few seconds he finally straightened up again and looked down at her with eyes that spoke of his own longing. He stepped back from her slowly.

She let one of her hands slide off his, but her hand closest to him she held on tightly with. He smiled at her and sank slowly down into his bed. She had his left hand clutched tightly in her right hand. She scooted over to the edge of her bed so she could keep her grip on his hand as he lay all the way down.

He rubbed the back of her hand with his thumb and squeezed her hand reassuringly as he settled down to sleep. He kept his grip on her hand as well. She smiled and started to drift off to sleep as well. She was okay. Ranma was holding her.

Chapter Text

Nabiki woke up slowly the next morning with the cool nighttime air still filling her nose, and the sunlight streaming in from her window gently. She was warm in her bed, but she still immediately felt the absence of Ranma in bed next to her once she was awake. It was amazing how used to him being next to her, and wrapped around her, she had grown in the short amount of time they'd had together. Her hand was still hanging off the bed from holding hands with him last night. He wasn't holding her hand any more. She opened her eyes partially and looked towards the window to find him. She expected to find him standing there again, standing watch over them, despite his promise to sleep.

He wasn't in front of the window. That surprised her a little bit, but she was glad. She shifted her gaze down to the floor and stiffened as a cold fist grabbed her heart and squeezed. Ranma was laying in his bed as she had asked him to ... and Akane was wrapped around him, sleeping soundly. Ranma wasn't holding Akane, but he did have his arm around her.

He was fully in his bedroll, while Akane was completely out of hers. Her little sister's silky hair was cascading around his neck and shoulder as she rested her head on the upper part of his chest. Akane had her right arm thrown over his chest, and the other was tucked under his neck. Her right leg was wrapped around his legs, and her left leg was pressed right up against him. Akane was sleeping soundly, and breathing evenly and softly, with a large smile on her face. Ranma ... seemed to just be sleeping. He had his left arm up over his head and his right arm was under Akane's shoulders.

I want to find this amusing, and wait for her to wake up and react, but I can't. It isn't funny ... at all. She thought as she tried to control the urge to scream or throw something, or to do both. She hadn't just lost hold of him during the night, Akane had taken what she'd lost. He was slipping away from her literally and figuratively. She couldn't help but feel betrayed. Logically, she seriously doubted he had gone over to Akane in the night, picked her up while she was sleeping, and draped her on himself.

She knew that Akane had to have done it either consciously or unconsciously. It frankly didn't matter. What mattered was he was slipping away. She knew that getting into a knock-down, drag-out fight with Akane over him wouldn't accomplish anything though. That, and Akane would wipe the floor with her. So she controlled her anger impulses. That was the one thing she could bring to the table that the rest of the girls couldn't — maturity.

She knew damn well she wasn't that much more mature than the rest of them. But, she was just mature enough to be able to arrest the emotional response she wanted to use in a situation like she now found herself in. So, instead of reacting emotionally, she decided to apply logic and reason to try to achieve her goals. Ukyo, Shampoo, Kodachi, and even Akane had been fighting each other over him for a long time now. It hadn't swayed him into making a choice, at least not openly. However, her own efforts with him had already produced some small results, and those efforts had been based on being honest with him, and applying her brain to the problem.

She rolled back flat on her bed and forced herself to regulate her breathing. She needed to get her emotions fully under control before she could act logically. Her heart was hammering in her chest. She was angry, very angry. Ranma is mine, he's mine, he's mine! She ranted to herself. The heat of her anger was surprising, even to her. She was already regretting the advice she had given to Akane. She clenched her fists at her sides and flexed every muscle in her body that she could, while she sucked air in through clenched teeth. She seriously thought about tapping into her Ki like Ranma had re-trained her to do, and venting with her battle aura. But she didn't.

She knew that anger was an appropriate reaction to seeing him in the arms of another woman, even if that woman was her own sister. But she also knew that acting on that anger would only drive him further away, or worse, put her into the same bickering camp as the rest of the girls. Since she had already decided that she wasn't willing to stay in that camp, that would mean she would lose him forever.

She eventually relaxed her muscles as the urge to scream receded. It was still there, right at the surface, but she felt she could control it better now.

Think, girl, think! What do I do? She forced herself to start applying logic to the situation. She knew if she confronted Akane about it, there would be a fight, and Ranma would duck out of the way. Likewise, if she confronted Ranma about it, he would get defensive and probably flee. Akane was likely to jump in on that as well, and there might still be a fight.

She knew that Ranma wouldn't want to be caught in the position he was in with Akane, either by herself, or the rest of the family. He was still doing his best to avoid openly choosing between her and Akane, and to avoid conflict. She latched onto that idea, and came up with a plan.

She settled back into her bed, and spent a few more full minutes calming her breathing down, and doing her best to slow her heart rate and other visible signs of her anger, and also of being awake. Once she was reasonably sure she had reduced the worst of it, she arrayed herself in a sleeping position on her bed, and grabbed one of the small stuffed animals she still had on her bed from when she had been a little girl.

She raised the toy up over her head, and tossed it as hard as she could at the window. It had the desired affect of smacking the window with enough force to make it sound like something had hit the window.

She quickly lowered her hand and assumed her full sleeping pose and closed her eyes almost all the way. She was rewarded an instant later with a startled sound from the floor in Ranma's voice. She heard a very gentle rustling sound and then Ranma popped to his feet in her peripheral vision off to her right side.

He was in a fighting stance. He crept closer to the window and looked out of it, then he pressed his face to the glass and looked down and up and to either side as best he could. She watched him through her eyelashes as she maintained the fiction of being asleep. He finally looked down at the ground and then he looked over at her with a confused look on his face.

My, he is a smart boy, isn't he? She thought in a sudden panic, as she worried that he was going to call her out for her ploy. Instead he bent down and then stood up again with the stuffed animal in his hand. He looked over at her again with a suspicious gaze, then shrugged and reached over and put the toy on the shelf of her bookcase.

She would have breathed a large sigh of relief, but she was still pretending to be asleep. She watched him through her eyelashes and wondered what to do next. He seemed to be sitting at the same crossroads. She saw him look down at the ground, then over at her, and then back out of the window multiple times. He finally settled back into the same sentry position he had been in last night, and stared out the window with his hands clasped loosely behind his back.

She smiled to herself. Of all of the options available to him, including climbing back into bed with Akane, or with herself, he had chosen the noblest option of standing guard over them. He could have simply left to go get breakfast, or he could have woken them up. But instead, he chose to let them sleep and to watch over them. He really was very special.

She chose to simply ignore Akane's efforts with him, and how they made her feel, and to focus on her own efforts. She didn't want to risk getting into a fight with Akane, or pushing him away. Akane was fighting for him, that was fine ... she would just have to fight that much harder than Akane.

She waited another few minutes, and continued to act like she was asleep, as she watched him through her eyelashes. He didn't move during that time, except for the slow in and out motion of his chest as he breathed.

When she felt she had waited long enough to maintain her plausible deniability with regard to the window, she started to go through the motions of waking up. She closed her eyes for real and counted down from ten. When she finished counting, she breathed in deeply, then stretched languidly. She followed that up with a yawn, then cracked her eyes open. As expected, Ranma was looking at her. She smiled at him as warmly as she knew how to.

He smiled back, but in a somewhat more guarded way. She wondered if he still suspected her of making the noise with the window, or if he felt guilty because he'd woken up with Akane cuddling him, or if he simply didn't want to risk smiling warmly at her with Akane in the room.

There was another reason he might have been holding back, and it involved him being annoyed at her for interrupting his time with Akane. She pushed those thoughts out of her head immediately, though. She didn't dare pick at those threads for fear of unraveling the whole careful tapestry she'd woven up to now.

Instead, she held her arms out to him and hoped fiercely he would still come to her. He briefly looked down at the floor, and she followed his gaze. Akane was still asleep, or at least, appeared to be asleep. Her little sister wasn't back in her own bed. Instead, Akane was laying in the space between the two beds, and covered with a blanket as well.

She had no idea if Ranma had moved her and covered her when he'd gotten up, or Akane had done it herself after he'd gotten up. She also didn't care.

She looked back at him at about the same time he lifted his gaze up as well, and smiled again as she continued to hold her arms out for him. He met her eyes and smiled back, a little more warmly than the last time. He nodded and made his way carefully over to her. Inside, she was squealing with happiness. If he would still come to her, then she still had a chance.

He reached the side of her bed, and as soon as he was in range, she lunged out and grabbed him around the waist and pulled him down to her. In the state of mind she was in, she not only didn't care if Akane saw them, she hoped Akane did see them together.

Ranma cushioned his fall so he barely made any noise and didn't actually land on her. Instead he ended up just leaning over her at an acute angle. He smiled nervously at her as she held on to him. He was warm, he was always warm. She absolutely loved that.

As soon as he was close enough to her that she could smell him, she started to lose control. She breathed him in deeply, one might even say greedily, as she slipped her hands from his waist to his arms. She leaned back as she did so, and slid her hands down to his. Then she pulled his hands behind her and scooped them on to her hips before she reached back up and buried her own hands under his shirt, to rest on the strong muscles of his back.

The part of her that was still the professional Ice Queen was staring at her with its mouth hanging open. She was about three moves away from starting something with him she was sure he wasn't ready for. She knew she wasn't ready for that either, and she certainly wouldn't do that with Akane in the room, regardless. What was wrong with her?

He was staring into her eyes with very wide eyes of his own. He was frozen in place and hardly breathing. It was clear he would stroke out soon if she didn't calm down.

She smiled at him and whispered to him softly. "Morning, Ranma."

He looked at her, still in shock, and managed a weak smile back to her, before he replied. "Morning ... Nabiki ... I didn't stay up all night, I swear." He whispered.

That is what he is worried about? She thought incredulously as she squinted at him is disbelief. He's worried about that tiny promise over everything else? She looked up at him in exasperation. Then she smiled and decided to tease him.

"What if I don't believe you? What should be your punishment?" She asked in a low, growly whisper while she clawed playfully on his back.

His eyes opened about as wide as they could go. He tried to look over at Akane in worry, but she held on to him firmly. He smiled at her nervously as he blushed and stammered a defense. "I-It's true, I slept, like I promised. You can feel my bed, it should still be warm, I only got up a few minutes ago."

I bet it is still warm, especially from two people being on it. She groused to herself as she smiled at him before she replied. "It's okay, Ranma, I believe you."

He smiled nervously at her and, after a moment, moved his hands on her hips. She had placed his hands on her hips so that they were outside her clothing, but wrapped behind her so that she was laying on his palms. She thought for a moment that he might actually be trying to make a move with her, then sighed when his hand shuffling resulted in nothing more than him freeing his hands.

She could still feel the heat of him on her hips. She licked her lips with desire but obliged him and mirrored his motions by removing her hands from his back. As she slid back, she grabbed his hands and held him again.

His hands were softer than one might think they would be, on his palms anyway. His knuckles and the rest of his hands were rough, hard and calloused. But his palms were mostly soft. They weren't as soft as hers were, but they weren't like a man's who worked with tools all day, either. It made sense in a way, he was very physical, but most of what he did with his hands involved a closed fist.

She smiled at him and breathed him in again. She knew she was being extremely aggressive, but she didn't care. She hadn't been able to cuddle with him last night, and Akane had. That annoyed her, greatly.

He simply looked at her and waited for her to say what was on her mind. She thought about what she wanted to say for a moment, then grinned a feral grin that would make Riko proud, and whispered to him.

"Before we go to school today, we need to make a plan."

He nodded at her.

"I think we should consider talking to Ukyo today."

He nodded again, a little more slowly.

"And tonight..."

He looked at her.

"...for sleeping arrangements..."

His eyes got wider.

"...I don't care how you do it..."

He started to purse his lips nervously.

"...but I want you to sleep with me tonight ... alone." She whispered to him fiercely. She didn't ask him to promise, because it wasn't something he could promise. She was just telling him what she wanted, and being honest with him, as she had promised.

He stared at her like a spooked rabbit for a few heartbeats, then nodded hesitantly. It wasn't a nod of agreement, she could tell. It was a nod that showed that he understood her. She inhaled deeply one last time, then sighed and let go of him. He stood up nervously and immediately turned his head to check on Akane.

She lazily turned her head to check as well. She wasn't in quite the same devil-may-care mood that she had been in before she talked to him, but she still wasn't all that worried about Akane. She was still feeling flashes of irrational anger and hadn't calmed all the way down.

Her eyes found Akane almost exactly where she had been before she'd pulled Ranma down too talk. Akane seemed to still be asleep, however ... her little sister wasn't in quite the same position she had been in before. Akane's hair was tucked back behind her neck now, and her head was now angled more towards the bed. Akane's hands weren't also in the exact same positions.

It was entirely possible Akane had just shifted in her sleep. It was also possible Akane wasn't asleep at all, and had been holding herself up on her hands and craning her neck to watch them. Either way, what was done was done. If Akane knew and had chosen to feign sleep to avoid a fight, then fine, that just made things easier. If Akane really was asleep, that was fine too, and made things even easier.

Ranma stood up straight and put his hand behind his head in embarrassment. He walked a few paces away from her bed, then froze when Kasumi's voice sounded from the hallway with a knock on the door.

"Breakfast will be ready in ten minutes." Kasumi called out in a sing-song voice that faded away.

Kasumi almost never roused people for breakfast. It was surely no coincidence that her older sister was doing so now with the three of them in her room.

She looked over at Akane and found her little sister had her eyes open now. Akane was looking up and smiling at Ranma. Ranma was doing his best to look at neither of them. She sighed and sat up in her bed. The spell of the morning was broken.

"Good morning, Ranma." Akane said softly. "Good morning, Nabiki." Akane added a moment later, without looking at her.

She sighed and played nice. "Morning, Akane. Did you sleep well?"

"Mmmm, I don't know, I guess I slept all right. Haven't slept in a futon in a long time. They're ... cozy." Akane said with a small smile directed at Ranma. He steadfastly refused to look at either of them, and was busy examining the books in her bookcase.

She didn't say anything to that either. She knew if she headed down that road, she would end up in a fight with Akane, and that wouldn't help her get what she wanted.

Akane stood up a moment later and stretched before she spoke again. "Is it all right if I leave the futon where it is, Nabiki? For tonight?"

She frowned at that. Now she had to say something. "Actually, I would appreciate it if the futons were put away for the day, I may want to use the floor space for something after school." She said as nicely as she could. She didn't look at Ranma while she said it. She and Akane both knew she was setting the stage for a showdown over sleeping arrangements for tonight. But as long as she didn't outright admit that it was to fight over him, then Akane really couldn't object without appearing childish.

Akane smiled an insincere smile at her and replied in a sweet voice. "Of course. I will come back up and put it away as soon as I can, before I leave for school. All right?"

She nodded at that. She would be the one who appeared childish if she wasn't willing to accommodate small conditions like Akane had asked for. With the major issue resolved, both she and Akane just simply stared at each other. Neither one of them seemed to want to make the first move to leave. She knew she certainly didn't, and Akane probably didn't want to either, for the same reason. She was hoping Akane would leave first and give her some time alone with him. And she was willing to bet Akane was hoping to delay long enough so he would leave with her to get dressed, and Akane could steal some time alone with him.

Ranma finally broke the stalemate by speaking up hesitantly in a small voice. "I...I'm gonna go get dressed for breakfast." He still wasn't looking at either of them, he now had his gaze fixed solidly at the door.

She sighed. She had nothing she could use to object to him leaving, so all she could do was smile at him. Akane grinned and walked quickly towards the door.

"Me too." Her little sister chirped happily as she reached for the door and opened it. Ranma nodded and walked quickly to the door. He kept his eyes on the floor as he moved.

She was getting fairly frustrated with his shy and timid act around them. She wanted to just have it out with him and Akane, ask him for a decision, and be done with it. She was also terrified to do that and end up with the answer that would break her heart. So, instead, she just watched him go and smiled faintly after him as he followed Akane out of her room and shut the door behind himself.

She just had to hope that if she kept working at it, she could help him get strong enough, and mature enough, to be able to make the decision, and to face the consequences of it without running away. If she pushed too hard, he would break and run. If she didn't push hard enough, he wouldn't think of her as a serious contender. It was a very delicate position to be in, which was actually fairly amusing considering how indelicate he was in almost every other way.

She sighed and stood up from her bed and walked over to her window and looked out of it. It was a beautiful day. It was a new day. As with every new day, it was full of possibility and the promise of something better. She filled herself with the will to push forward as she watched the rays of the sun peaking out over the housetops to illuminate the world in its warmth and light.

She smiled and quickly set herself to the task of dressing for the day. She then hurried to the bathroom and took care of her morning routine before she made her way to the dining room for breakfast. Ranma was already seated at the table and eating. Akane wasn't. She took her usual place near him, and smiled at him. He looked up and smiled at her as well before he resumed eating.

She began eating her own breakfast and finished just a bit after he did. Akane still hadn't joined them at the table. She jumped on the opportunity to get him alone. She stood up and looked down at him and put on a cheerful face. "Ranma, can we go back to my room and plan for today?" She asked in a tone she tried to keep breezy.

He nodded and stood up to follow her. They passed Akane on their way back towards the stairs. She had to fight to keep herself from showing any sign of her self-satisfaction on her face. Akane played it cool as well and simply watched them walk by without saying a word. Her little sister looked very nice. It was clear Akane had put more effort into her looks than she usually did. She could smell Akane's perfume strongly now. She was sure Ranma could as well.

She had thought about dressing up nicely again as well, but had decided against it. Ranma had seen her across her entire spectrum, from sick and gross to dressed up and pretty. He had never seen her fancily dressed up, but he would for their date. In the meantime she didn't want to waste time with careful hair styles and makeup. She wanted to spend that time with him instead.

They entered her room, and she was pleased to notice that Akane had already returned and put away her futon. She closed and locked the door behind her as she followed him in to the room. Ranma seemed to notice Akane's missing futon as well, and stooped down to pick his up too. She put a hand on his arm and stopped him.

"You don't need to put yours away, Ranma." She said with a wink.

He blinked up at her, nodded, and stood back up. He had dropped his shy and timid act. He wasn't being flirty with her or anything, but he was at least meeting her eyes again. She grabbed his hand and led him over to her bed. She sat him down and sat down next to him. She sat close enough so she could continue to hold his hand, but not so close as to make him nervous. She wanted him to think, and she had noticed that his mind worked much better when she wasn't being too aggressive. She found herself wishing she had put on at least a little makeup, or some perfume at least. She could still smell Akane's lingering scent on both of them. She wanted her own scent to be lingering on him, not Akane's.

He looked at her expectantly. She knew he was waiting for her to take the lead. She decided to wait him out and force him to take the lead. She needed to help him work on his confidence with women, and her in particular. She smiled gently at him, and waited. After more moments than was comfortable, he finally said something.

"Um ... didn't you want to talk?"

"I sure did." She said with a smile.

"Um ... well ... why aren't we..."

"I want to know what you think." She said simply.

"About what?"

She thought about being flippant, or teasing him, but she decided to keep him focused where she wanted him focused, and to reward him for taking the lead with confidence in him. "About what we should do today."

"Oh ... well, since we have the truce goin' on, we can just go to school like we always do. And I think you're right, we should try to talk to Ukyo today. And ... I ... I dunno, that's about it I guess." He said sheepishly. It was clear that outside of coming up with a battle plan for a fight, he wasn't used to tactical planning. She tried to push him just a little bit more to see if he could latch on to the basic idea.

"And how should we talk to Ukyo? Did you want to try to catch her before school? During school? After school? If after school, where? Should we invite her somewhere? Go see her at her shop? What?" She asked gently.

"Um, well ... Ucchan goes to school from the opposite direction from us, so finding her before school would be hard. And durin' school, I already said I'd eat lunch with you 'n your friends today, so we can't do it then. So, I guess it will have ta be after school." He said.

"Okay, where?" She said as she tried not to show how happy she was that he was actively thinking of spending time with her at lunch.

"I guess ... at her shop? If we invite her somewhere, she's gonna think it's a date, or a trap. If we go see her at her shop, then at least she won't get the wrong idea." He said with a bit more confidence.

Atta boy, Ranma. She thought with some pride. He had arrived at the same conclusion she had as well. It had taken him a bit of prompting and a bit more time, but he'd gotten there. And he got the boost to his confidence of it now being at least partially his plan.

She smiled at him. "Sounds good to me. I do have a plan for her once we get there. We can get into that after school." She said happily.

He nodded and looked towards the door, then back at her. "So ... should we get going?" He asked.

She could tell he was worried Akane would come back and find the door locked. She was almost tempted to try to keep him in her room with her until exactly that did happen, but she knew that wouldn't earn her any points with him. So, she sighed and nodded.

He smiled and bounded to his feet, but surprised her by continuing to hold her hand. Her heart rate quickened at that. It wasn't much of a statement on his part, but it was something. It was his way of showing his attachment to her. Or, at least, it was his way of showing that he liked her.

He led the way to her door, and she let him. It was good for him to take the lead occasionally. He continued to hold her hand out into the hall, down the stairs, and out the door. He hadn't even stopped when they had grabbed their book bags by the door.

She followed behind him almost in a daze. She was watching the back of his head and happily holding his hand and feeling the sun on her face and the wind in her hair, and generally loving life. She was having a hard time understanding why she was so upset last night, and so angry this morning. Everything was fine, Ranma obviously had feelings for her, and he was doing his best to show them to her. She never saw him walking around holding hands with Ukyo, Kodachi, or Shampoo after all. Hell, he barely did anything like that with Akane either. He settled into an easy gait next to her and they walked side-by-side in a comfortable silence to school.

They reached the school grounds before she even realized it. It was amazing how time passed when one wasn't focused on its passing. Ranma walked with her calmly at her side, and continued to hold her hand. She could hear several students calling out appreciative comments, cat-calls, and even some condemnations of him spurning Akane for an older woman.

She ignored all of it. He shot little glances her way occasionally. He was playing the same game he had been playing yesterday on the way to see Shampoo's grandmother. She smiled softly at that and began batting her eyelashes at him whenever she caught him looking. He was clearly more comfortable playing little games like he was doing now, than with heavy heart-to-heart talks. That was all right. While she would prefer to have those heavy talks with him, she was nothing if not flexible. Affection was affection, no matter the form it took.

She smiled and mentally ran through her plan for Ukyo as they walked towards the building their classrooms were in. As with Shampoo, her plan for dealing with Ukyo was simple and easy. Unlike Shampoo, it required resources, considerable resources. She had already called in the favors to make it happen, lots of favors. She didn't care though. If her plan worked, Ukyo would bow out of the contest for him, and that would mean one less person in the circus to be—

"Ran-chan, hi!" She heard an enthusiastic female voice behind them say.

Well, speak of the devil. She thought to herself as Ranma looked over his shoulder, smiled, and stopped. She kept her hand in his. She was happy to notice that he made no move to hide that he was holding her hand. She didn't mind him speaking to Ukyo, but the visual reminder that he was attached to her would be good to get across to Ukyo.

Ukyo stepped close to him and smiled. She noticed that Ukyo's eyes darted to their hands, but the young chef made no mention of it. Instead Ukyo looped her hands around his neck and pulled him towards her, almost as if to kiss him. She stiffened at that. Would Ukyo really be so brazen as to—

"How have you been, silly? You haven't stopped by for an after-school snack in a while now." Ukyo said breezily.

She could see some small muscles in his neck straining. She smiled at that. Whatever Ukyo had been planning, Ranma had stopped it. Ukyo ignored it, though and charged onward.

"You should stop by today after school, we should catch up."

Ranma nodded. He was actually managing to play it very cool. She couldn't see any sign of guilt or any or any acknowledgment that he had planned on doing exactly that anyway. For her part, she kept her eyes on him, and didn't look at Ukyo. Ukyo would expect her to have eyes only for him anyway, so it worked well, and she didn't have to act that way.

"Sure, Ucchan, sure, but ... um..." He paused and looked at her.

Ukyo sighed and nodded. "Yeah, you can bring Nabiki. I don't care." Ukyo said in the false-sweet voice that she was pretty sure every female on Earth could produce.

"We'd love to, Ukyo. You are the very best Okonomiyaki chef in town, after all." She said sincerely. She wasn't even acting. She had never had a better Okonomiyaki than the ones Ukyo made.

Ukyo smiled tightly at her, then ran her hands from Ranma's neck to caress his cheeks as she stepped back away from him and smiled. Then before either of them could say anything else, Ukyo bounded away with a wave.

"See you after school then! I'll make you something special, Ranma-honey!"

Ranma waved after her, then looked over at her and grimaced. "Sorry about that." He said in a sincere voice.

She smiled at him. "It's no big deal, Ranma. They've been chasing after you for a long time. This is going to take time." She said calmly.

He seemed relieved that she wasn't upset. Inside, she actually was fairly annoyed at both Ukyo, and the situation. She certainly understood how Akane could be moved to the point of smacking someone after enduring it for months on end. But she could certainly endure it stoically for a week and not show how annoyed it made her.

They walked hand-in-hand together to his class without further incident. She lingered with him in front of his class. She had peeked inside, and Akane hadn't arrived yet. That made it easier to leave him the way she wanted. She leaned into him and slid her arms around his silky shirt and pulled him into a hug. She heard quite a few of his classmates hoot and holler about it, but she didn't care. She knew he cared, but she needed him to be strong and mature enough to not care either.

She let his warmth sink into her for a little while. He held her loosely at first. She could tell he was embarrassed. She wanted him to pick her up. She didn't know why, but it mattered a lot to her that he picked her up. She squeezed him more tightly and buried her head into his chest. After a few more moments he squeezed back and stopped holding her so loosely. She squeezed even tighter and held her breath. He responded and flexed his arms and picked her up and held her.

She was almost giddy with happiness. She knew it embarrassed him, but it meant the world to her right now that he was willing to hold her anyway, even in front of his classmates. She would stay in his arms as long as he was willing to hold her. That turned out to only be a few moments more, then he set her down again. But that was okay. It had been enough. She could feel herself deflating as a lot of the worry that had been accumulating inside her fled as he held her.

She slumped up against him and breathed in his flowery-cedar scent. She would have to ask him some day if it was a cologne, or something about his clothes or soap, or if he just smelled that way. After a few more moments, he stepped back away from her and held her loosely again with his hands around her waist.

She looped her hands around his neck and pulled him down insistently towards her. Unlike Ukyo, he didn't resist her. His eyes widened as she pulled him towards her, she was sure he thought she might be pulling him in for a kiss. But, instead, she pulled his head to the side of hers and rested her cheek against his.

"Thank you." She whispered to him.

"For what?" He whispered back.

"For being brave." She said with a small smile. She knew that would confuse him, but she was okay with that. She stepped away from him then and let her hands fall loosely from his neck. He mirrored her motions, as he always did, and released her as well.

They smiled at each other as he waved and stepped backwards into his classroom. She sighed and turned around and walked towards her classroom as well.

When she reached her own class she found Riko and Yui standing across the hall from the door, giggling and joking while drinking their morning coffee, like they always did. Unlike the vast majority of the last few days, she actually did feel like playing with them again. So she went to join them.

Riko looked her up and down and grinned ear to ear. "Oh my, look at you."

"What?" She asked, suddenly self-conscious.

"Oh, Nabi-chan, you little minx, you." Yui said happily as she set her coffee down in the window sill before she hid her mouth behind her hands in a mime of embarrassment.

"I ... what?" She asked, as she started to get embarrassed. She ran her hands around her body searching for a button that was open on her blouse or a part of her dress tucked into her underwear or something equally embarrassing.

"So ... you and Ranma..." Riko said in a leading tone of voice.

She clued in then. Riko was implying that she and Ranma had really gotten to know each other. She shook her head rapidly as she felt the heat of a blush rise up her neck and spread to flush her cheeks.

Riko looked at her with a knowing glint in her eyes and a smirk on her face as she nodded sarcastically. "Suuure, nothing going on at all, huh? Then why are you glowing?"

"I am not." She said in a happy tone.

"Normally I wouldn't agree with Riko, just on general principal." Yui said, to which Riko stuck her tongue out at. "But I have to admit, Nabi-chan, you're glowing."

"I am not." She protested with a smile.

"Fine, Kiki, don't tell us, we'll just pry it out of Ranma. That'll be more fun anyway." Riko said with a mischievous smile as she took a sip of her coffee with a wink. Then Riko reached a hand out for her as she set her coffee down as well.

She let Riko take her hand and pull her in between the two of them. Yui immediately draped over her left side and started playing with her hair. Yui smelled like lychee accented rose perfume today. Riko kept her close but stared into her eyes instead. She stared back blankly with a half smile on her face.

"Just tell me this." Riko said softly as she held her gaze. "Is he gentle with you?"

She blushed and nodded. "It isn't like that, but yes, he's very gentle." She said sincerely.

Riko's eyes shimmered for her. "I'm so happy for you, Kiki. He could be the one we've always talked about, you know?"

"I think I do know." She whispered, then repeated herself happily. "I think I do."

Chapter Text

Nabiki sat through class and did her best to pay attention. It was hard, but she tried. She was starting to feel like her old self again. Things weren't back to normal, at all. But, a lot of the chaos and turmoil that had kicked off when Ranma saved her from the collapsing balcony, were starting to settle down. She was starting to pick up a rhythm with him. She didn't have everything figured out yet, but she was starting to get enough control over the situation again that she didn't feel quite so off-center and out of control any more.

She knew that things weren't fully resolved with any of the girls in the circus following Ranma. And with Akane now actively fighting for him, it was only going to get worse. But, he was holding her hand, and picking her up in front of his classmates, and doing what he could to show her that he cared. Or, if he wasn't showing that he cared, he was at least showing that he wasn't indifferent.

She was learning how to be with him in his world, and it wasn't as bad as it sometimes looked. And he was making great strides to understand her world. They could do this, they could make their connection blossom into a full relationship. All it would require would be patience and effort — well, that, and getting rid of the circus following him.

She sighed at that thought and was then startled out of her reverie a moment later by the ringing of the lunch bell. She looked down at her notes and found that she had trailed off about an hour ago during Math. Oh well, she was paying better attention now that she had been since everything started. Once everything was settled, she would be able to fully resume the proper attention to her studies. Riko and Yui stopped at her desk and grinned at her as she stood up.

"Nanami and Chihiro will be joining us today." Riko said with an impish smile.

"That's great, I love it when they can do that." She said happily.

"Do you think Ranma will actually come back for another round?" Yui asked softly. She knew Yui was both kidding, and asking a real question. It wasn't uncommon for the guys in their lives to not be able to keep up with them and to fade away once that was realized.

She smiled at both of them. "Ranma hasn't broken a promise to me yet, I don't see why he would start today with something as small as spending time with me at lunch. I am going to go get him now." She said confidently. Inside, her doubts and fears swam up to the surface and made her dread finding him missing from his classroom, and having to go back to her friends and tell them that she had been wrong. But she ignored it.

She had faith in Ranma. He was a lot of things, and some of those things weren't the best things. But he didn't betray people or break promises. That was the rock she had built her faith in him on. If that rock ever broke, she didn't think she would be able to continue a relationship with him.

She could tell her friends were reading her thoughts on her face, and both of them we sending her encouraging signals from their own facial expressions. Riko even grabbed her hand and held it supportively. They really were the best friends she could ever ask for. She smiled at them and stepped towards the door.

"I will see you two at the usual spot, just as soon as I get Ranma. Okay?" She said as she walked towards the door.

They nodded, and Yui made an OK sign with her hand and winked. "We'll save you a seat!"

She nodded and then stepped through the door and was out of their eyesight. As soon as she was, she sagged a bit and let her nervousness show a little. She clasped her hands together and tucked them under her chin as she walked towards his classroom. She was doing her best to ignore the fear and doubt inside of her that was roiling to the surface. She would be terribly embarrassed if she had to go back to her friends and report that Ranma had ditched—

"Nabiki, hi!" Ranma said from the hallway outside his classroom. He was standing next to the door waiting for her. Akane was nowhere to be seen.

She let out the breath she hadn't known she had been holding, and smiled at him. "Hello Ranma. Ready to go have lunch with me and my friends again?"

"Sure." He said with an easy smile as he settled in to walk beside her. She did her best to keep her professional mask in place as they walked the halls together. It wouldn't do for the general school population to get the idea that she had gone soft. But inside ... inside she was melting.

He kept his promise. He waited for me. He cares, he cares, he cares! She thought happily to herself. It was a small thing, but it mattered to her. She found that she was now the one who was sneaking glances at him as they walked.

They exited the building and began to make their way towards the special spot she and her friends ate lunch at. The air smelled like whatever blossoms were blooming in the trees at the moment, and she could hear the happy voices of the students floating on the wind as they called to each other while they played games, talked, and did all of the other normal things high school students did.

She walked next to Ranma and tried very hard not to grin foolishly. She was so happy that Ranma was willing to hang out with her and her friends and to be seen in public with her. She knew he had his own friends he liked to spend time with. She knew he didn't understand, but she liked being able to show him off to her friends, and to allow her friends to get used to him and to tease him and test him.

As they approached the tree that she and her friends had claimed as their exclusive area, she could see that Riko and Yui were already there. Both of the girls' heads perked up when they saw her coming with Ranma in tow. Riko smiled predatorily. Nabiki knew that Riko really enjoyed teasing guys in general, especially shy ones. It would be good for Ranma to be around someone who was aggressive like Riko, but in a safe environment where everyone knew it was all just friendly play.

"Ranma! You came back!" Riko exclaimed while beaming happily at him while she kicked her feet under the bench like a little kid.

"Wow, I'm impressed, not a lot of people can do a repeat with Riko." Yui added cheerfully.

"Hey! Feelings! I have them!" Riko said in mock indignation.

"That's very true, Riko can be ... a little too enthusiastic." She piled on with a smile.

"Ranma! That's not true, is it?" Riko asked in a silly voice that was supposed to sound desperate.

"Um ..." Ranma stammered with his hand behind his head in embarrassment.

Riko leaped to her feet and clenched her hands under her chin in a classic pleading pose. "Say it isn't so, Ranma!" Before he could respond, Riko ran and jumped into his arms and clutched at him. Ranma caught her, but was just off balance enough that he ended up sitting down heavily with her ending up in his lap as a small oof escaped his lips.

"Case in point." She said with a smile.

"Exactly what I'm talking about." Yui added.

"Oh shush, you two are just too timid, that's your problem." Riko said as she stuck her tongue out at them while she snuggled up to Ranma.

"Um..." Ranma said, clearly uncomfortable.

Riko faced him and nuzzled him as she wiggled in his arms. "You ... are much more comfortable ... than Kenta ever was." Riko cooed.

"He's also not yours." She said with a frown and a raised eyebrow.

"I'll fight you for him." Riko growled while fixing her with a challenging stare.

She opened her mouth to respond, but Ranma beat her to it. "You'd lose." Ranma said quietly, but confidently. Everyone looked at him in surprise.

He continued quietly. "Nabiki's tougher than she looks. She's had trainin', and she was good at it, I can tell. Any student of the Anything Goes Martial Arts style can beat any untrained opponent, even if they've only had one lesson." He declared.

She could feel herself blushing. Why was he calling out her martial arts skills?

"Ooh, is that true Nabi?" Yui asked in an excited voice.

"Are you a super-secret ninja badass? How could you keep that from me?! I have so many people I need you to punch!" Riko asked in an excited yell.

She patted her hands down towards the ground in a calming gesture. "Now now ladies, let's not get excited." She tried to deflect while she shot Ranma a warning glace. But he either didn't notice it, or chose to ignore it.

"Don't be so modest, Nabiki. I bet you could even handle Kuno." He proclaimed while he simultaneously tried to lift Riko off of himself, to no avail. Riko wasn't moving.

I wonder why he isn't bringing up Kodachi? She thought in confusion before she answered him in a way she hoped to use to put an end to the topic. "I do handle Kuno, easily." She said with a frown.

"No, I mean handle Kuno like I handle him." Ranma said with conviction.

"Oh, eww, Ranma, no, not you and Kuno? You can do better." Riko chirped happily as she picked up on the double entendre.

She sighed with relief. She was glad the conversation was moving away from a discussion of her martial prowess. The last thing she needed was a reputation spreading that she was a fighter. Not until she had actually gotten her training back on track anyway.

"Oh god, I hope not?" Yui asked as she covered her mouth in disgust.

"Pray with me, Yui." Riko said happily as she started doing mock Shinto prayers. Yui joined her gleefully.

"Say it isn't so, Ranma!" She piled on, happy to play with Ranma again.

Ranma frowned at all of them. "That's not what I meant!" Ranma protested in an embarrassed tone.

"It's okay Ranma!" Riko said as she hugged him enthusiastically. "This is a safe space, we still love you! Say what's in your heart!"

"Yeah, if you want Kuno, I'm sure Nabi can hook you up with him." Yui said with a huge grin as she tried to contain her laughter.

Ranma glared at all of them. "None of you are as funny as you think you are." He groused as Yui and Riko started laughing uncontrollably.

"Oh, well, Ranma, I mean, come on, that just simply isn't true." She added as she let herself laugh as well. It was a lot of fun to play with him. Now they just needed to work on him having fun as well.

Riko and Yui were still laughing. Riko was laughing so hard she was leaning back in Ranma's lap with her hands around his neck and shaking him as she giggled.

"Observe the evidence." She said as she pointed to her giggling friends.

"It's Riko's fault, she corrupted us." Yui managed to say as she regained control.

Riko shook her head vigorously as she sat up and brought her giggling under control as well. "That's true, I absolutely did."

"And I had nothing to do with it." She added with a smile.

Riko nodded her head happily. "No, nothing at all."

"Oh, you're not doing that again, are you?" Yui asked in disgust.

"Me? Never." Riko answered with an emphatic nod of her head.

Ranma blinked at Riko in confusion.

"She likes to sometimes try to get people to copy her to shake their head for yes, and nod for no. She considers it counter-culture warfare." She explained for Ranma's benefit.

"And the problem is, sometimes it works, and I look like an idiot!" Yui growled.

"Well now, that could never be true." Riko said with a large, exaggerated nod.

"I hate you." Yui said with scowl as she reached up and physically held on to her own head, presumably to prevent herself from unconsciously copying Riko. Riko grinned widely at that.

"No you don't." Riko said with a wink and a nod.

"Just you wait, I'll get you doing something some day." Yui said with a shaken fist to the sky.

Riko shook her head sadly. "Fool girl, you don't have the willpower to best me."

Yui craned her head around then smiled. "Nevermind that, here comes Nanami and Chihiro!"

"Oh, excellent!" Riko said as she hopped up from Ranma's lap and looked down at him chastisingly. "Now, no more pawing at me in front of Nanami, she is my girlfriend after all." Riko said in a scolding tone as she wagged a finger at him.

Ranma looked back at her with wide eyes. "R-really?" He whispered.

She shook her head then winked at him. Riko and Nanami weren't actually going out, but they were very good friends, and frequently liked to get ... cuddly with each other. Not all that usual in Tokyo, but not unusual, either. She figured she would just let him observe and understand on his own.

Two more girls arrived then. One was a little bit taller than herself, with her hair dyed blond. She had a thin and wispy build and an easy-going smile on her face, and she almost always had a camera on a strap around her wrist. The other was a bit shorter than herself, with hair dyed red, a medium build and a slightly larger than normal bust. The red-head usually wore her hair in wild styles. Today the style was actually fairly tame, it was some sort of a layered flair to one side.

The red-head was affecting a very shy pose and was keeping her eyes on the ground. Nabiki knew both of them were wearing masks. Both of them were as outgoing and aggressive as Yui and Riko. They both just tended to play their cards close when meeting new people. She wasn't quite as good friends with them as she was with Riko and Yui, but along with Riko and Yui, the four of them were her very best friends.

She did the introductions. "Ranma, meet Chihiro." She said as she nodded towards the blond. "And Nanami." She said as she nodded to the red-head.

Riko squealed with delight. "My Crimson Goddess!"

"My love!" Nanami answered in an equally enthusiastic voice as Riko dove into Nanami's arms and they sat down to cuddle together very ... enthusiastically. She actually blinked in surprise as she watched them, they were more in to it today than they usually were. It probably helped that they had a new audience to confuse.

Ranma looked over at her again with a confused expression on his face. She winked at him again in reply. He dragged his gaze back to Riko and Nanami in obvious confusion. Riko would be delighted.

"So what are we up to today?" Chihiro asked the group as she sat down next to Yui and ignored the antics of the other two.

"Oh, Ranma was just telling us how much he burns with the passion that dare not speak its name for his Kuno-Sempai." Riko announced happily in a muffled tone from under Nanami.

"What?! No!" Ranma yelped.

Chihiro eyed him up and down and frowned. "It'll never work. You aren't short, you don't have cropped hair, and you aren't a feisty athletic sort. You're more of a mellow athletic sort. Of course ... he does like red-heads, as you well know. Maybe if you dye your hair?" She suggested.

Ranma scowled. "Did Nabiki put you up to this?" He asked suspiciously.

"I swear, Ranma, this is just how they are." She said as she laughed and held her hand over her heart to swear her innocence.

Ranma frowned at her then stuck his tongue out at her before he returned his attention to Chihiro. "Well, nice to meet you. How do you know Nabiki?" He asked.

Chihiro got up from the bench and walked over to sit down in front of him and looked at him seriously. "What do you think, girls, is he worthy of the truth?" She called out over her shoulder.

Riko got up and walked over and grasped his chin in her hands and pulled his eyes up to stare into them seriously, and held his gaze for a few moments before she stepped back.

Nanami went and sat next to Chihiro and stared at him quietly without comment.

Yui walked over to him and cupped the back of his neck with her hand as she brought his nose to hers and stared deeply into his eyes without blinking for a long moment before she too backed up and sat next to Chihiro and Nanami.

Yui and Riko leaned together and whispered intensely to each other for a moment, then nodded their heads and leaned in to whisper to Nanami, who listened to them and shrugged.

Ranma sought out her eyes and looked at her with worry etched on his face. She was sure he was panicking that he had gotten in way too deep for something that had seemed to be a safe question to him. Unfortunately for him, with her best friends, no question was safe, if they didn't feel like treating it as safe. She smiled at him reassuringly, but didn't say anything.

Nanami put her hand on Chihiro's shoulder and pulled her back to whisper to her while Nanami nodded.

Yui met Chihiro's eyes and nodded as well.

Finally, Riko smiled, shook her head, and raised a fist to the sky. "He is worthy!" She proclaimed.

Chihiro nodded once and glared at him for a moment, then leaned forward and whispered to him. "I know her ... from our class. She sits next to me." She said in a very serious tone.

Nanami chimed in. "Me too!"

Ranma twitched and fell over on the grass.

She sat down on the bench and did her best to suppress her laughter. Ranma was the perfect straight-man.

Ranma pulled himself up and looked at Nabiki with a long suffering expression. She couldn't help it, she had to let it out. She lay down on the bench and dissolved into giggles.

"Ooh, she's open, get her!" She heard Riko say.

"Tickle attaaaaaaaack!" Chihiro yelled with a war-whoop before they converged on her and tickled her. She writhed on the bench in giggly glee. She lost sight of Ranma as all four of her friends tickled her.

Riko stopped first and held her hands out to stop the rest of them. "Wait wait wait, what are we doing? We should be tickling the interloper!" Riko declared sternly.

The girls nodded and turned around in eager stances, ready to pounce on him. But he wasn't there. They looked all around in confusion.

She laughed and pointed up into the tree. Ranma was standing over them looking down with a panicked expression on his face, safe in the tree.

"Oh, come on, no fair!" Riko protested in indignation.

"Come on, Ranma, play nice." She called up to him.

He nodded and darted into motion and was standing next to her a moment later. She had barely been able to follow his movement with her eyes, and that had only been because she had been expecting it.

"Well ... I mean ... sure, I could do that too, if I wanted to." Yui said in a tone that she could tell was envious.

"Get 'im!" Riko whooped gleefully as she charged at him.

Ranma responded by doing what he usually did when he wanted to play with someone who was attacking him that he considered to be no real threat. He dodged around Riko and the rest of the girls with his hands behind his back, flipped over them, and generally just floated away from them. He was smiling while he did it, though. She hoped he was actually having fun and not just smiling to be polite.

"Come back here!" Yui shouted as she chased him.

"You're only making it worse, Saotome!" Riko promised as she chased him back the other way.

Chihiro and Nanami were too busy trying to circle around him and trap him in a pincher movement to call out battle cries. It didn't work, though. He simply ducked and slid off to the side when they tried to trap him.

"Get 'im! For the glory of my Crimson Goddess, he must be caught!" Riko bellowed happily.

"You're wasting your time, if he doesn't want to be caught, he won't be. He's like a jackrabbit on steroids when he gets like that." She called out to them with a smile.

"Ooooh, is he like that at night too? Speaking from experience, Kiki-chan?" Riko asked happily as she gave up and came to sit at her feet. The rest of the girls gave up then as well, and came to sit back down. Ranma followed them at a distance and circled around behind the bench to stand behind her.

She smiled at him, and he smiled back nervously at her. She patted the bench next to her and held her arms open to invite him in. He nodded warily as he eyed the girls with suspicion before he sat down. As soon as he was sitting next to her she put her arm around him and held him for a moment before she slipped her hand up and tickled him.

He jumped up immediately and went back to standing behind the bench and out of reach of everyone. She grinned at him. He scowled at her. "That was a dirty trick." He grumped.

She shrugged. "I can't catch you. But there are more ways to tickle a jackrabbit than chasing after him." She said happily. "Take notes, ladies." She added with a smile to her friends. Yui actually nodded and whipped out a tiny notebook and scribbled something. She rolled her eyes at that.

"Speaking of jackrabbits, Ranma, fess up, you had something to do with our Kiki-chan's happy glow this morning, didn't you?" Riko called out to him.

She sighed and smiled softly. She knew Riko wouldn't have let it go, but it was still embarrassing. She could feel the heat of a blush creeping up her neck to her cheeks already.

"I, wait, what? Nabiki was glowing?" He asked, confused.

"Men, am I right? No attention to detail." Yui groused.

"I wouldn't know." Nanami said with a happy sigh as she twirled Riko's hair around her fingers. Riko looked back at her and blew a kiss.

"Ranma pays attention to a lot of details. Give him a break." She said as she came to his defense.

Ranma was darting his eyes around to all of them, clearly trying to figure out what they were talking about. She really didn't want him to clue all the way in, because she knew it would embarrass him ... possibly to the point of him running away.

"Come on, Ranma, spill it. You and our little Kiki-chan have become ... special friends ... haven't you?" Riko pressed him.

"I ... um ... well..." He stuttered.

She opened her mouth to shut the conversation down, but he interrupted her.

"Of course Nabiki's special. I'm engaged to her after all." He said quietly. That got Riko's eyebrows to climb up almost off her forehead.

"Leave it alone, Riko. Ranma is special too, let's just leave it at that, all right?" She said with a hard stare in Riko's direction.

Riko sighed and nodded. "Fiiiiiiine. But I'm watching you, Saotome." Riko said with a stern frown in his direction. Ranma just looked at Riko blankly. She honestly couldn't tell if he was doing so to stare Riko down, or if he really was just completely clueless to what Riko was suggesting.

Yui, however, wasn't done with it yet. "Yeah, but what about at night? Is your little jackrabbit special at night?" Yui asked as she stared at him with a goofy grin.

When Ranma didn't answer for a moment, Nanami chimed in. "Well, Saotome?"

"I barely know you!" He protested as he blushed.

Nanami blinked at that. What would you like to know?"

Ranma opened his mouth but clearly had no ready comeback for that sort of question.

"Come on Saotome, you're suppose to ask her something juicy!" Chihiro chided him.

"Suppose to!" She repeated gleefully to mock her. The rest of the girls laughed happily.

Chihiro's shoulder's slumped as she sighed. "EVERY time. Suppos-ed to ... suppos-ed to! You happy? Gramming is hard okay?" She said with a pout.

She grinned at Chihiro and winked. She saw Ranma deflate a bit as the attention moved off of him. She waved him over and he looked at her suspiciously. She brought her hands up into a prayer pose then crossed her heart with her finger in a silent promise not to tickle him again. He nodded and came over to sit down next to her on the bench.

As he got in range, Riko and Yui both tensed to leap on him, but she waved them off. She'd promised. They made sad faces but backed up. She wrapped an arm around him and casually held him. She was very happy right now.

"Well Ranma, so now you have met all of my Chief Lieutenants. What do you think?" She asked.

"Nice to meet ya. What do you do for Nabiki?" He asked Nanami.

"You can think of us as the angels of light and dark. I'm light, she's dark." Nanami said as she pointed to herself and then Chihiro.

Ranma raised his eyebrows at that. "But ... that's not ..."

"We don't feel bound to follow your silly rules or logic, mortal. I can be an angel of darkness with light hair, and Nanami can be an angel of the light with dark hair." Chihiro said sternly.

"As for what we do for Nabiki, you haven't been in the club long enough yet. But stick around long enough, you'll find out." Nanami said with a wink.

Ranma nodded and sat back on the bench. She could tell he was out of questions for the moment. He seemed to want to fade out of sight next to her, and just observe.

"They can be pretty intense when they're all together. You're doing great, Ranma, hang in there." She whispered in his ear. He nodded in response.

"Hey, Riko, are you going to Megumi's party this weekend?" Chihiro asked.

"Oof, no. No more parties, they all suck." Riko said with disgust in her voice.

"But you're so funny when you're at them! Pleeeeease?" Yui pleaded.

"True story, last one you were at, you kept telling all the guys your name was, 'you wish'." Chihiro added with a smirk.

"That's because Nanami is my true love!" Riko announced as she turned around and leaned into Nanami's arms.

Nanami nodded vigorously to this and enthusiastically cuddled with her.

"Wait, what about Kenta?" Yui asked with a mischievous smile.

"MUST you keep reminding me about him?" Riko said with a frown.

"You did date him! We all saw it." Chihiro said sternly.

Riko sat up straighter in Nanami's lap and held her hand over her eyes theatrically as she responded in a swoon. "A moment of silence please for my reputation." After a moment had passed she pulled her hand down and stared at them earnestly. "Do any of you know what kind of soap washes out shame and bad decisions?" Riko asked in a remorseful tone.

"Nanami soap?" Chihiro suggested.

"Mmm, you know it." Nanami said as she licked her lips and pulled Riko in closer to her. "If I don't have carpet burns in the morning, Riko wasn't tryin' hard enough." Nanami said as she traced loving lines along Riko's jaw with her fingers.

Riko craned her head around to stare at Nanami with wide eyes. "Damn it, woman, secrets! Secrets!" Riko chastised.

"You were wonderful last night." Nanami said with a wink and a blown kiss.

Riko eyed Nanami suspiciously for a moment, then addressed everyone else. "WAIT, time out ... did I begin and finish last night with pants on?" Yui, Chihiro and herself all shrugged. "Come on girls, buddy system! Yui, watch her for me!" Riko ordered as she locked eyes with Yui. Yui nodded seriously and saluted.

"You can't contain me Yui, don't fight it, I am unstoppable." Nanami growled at Yui with a feral grin on her face.

"Well ... once you've had your morning coffee anyway." Riko chimed in.

Nanami glared at Riko for a moment before responding. "What kind of mutant gets up before the sun anyway? There's something wrong with you."

"Hey, I had important boy stalking to take care of, back when I still thought Kenta was redeemable. And one must get up early to avoid the crowds. I was on a mission from God." Riko said as she smacked a fist into her palm righteously.

Yui grinned. "You might be unstoppable, Nanami, but Riko is a force of nature." Yui said with a wink.

"Damn straight, I'm amazed they haven't named an element after me yet." Riko said indignantly.

"Oh! The mind reels! What would they call it?" She chimed in.

Riko thought for a moment then framed the sky with her hands while she squinted to look through them like a director on a movie set. "I was thinking Riko-Is-Awesomeium."

"Not Nanami's-Cuddle-Bunny?" Nanami asked with a pout.

"Well, that will be the common name for it, of course." Riko said placatingly.

"Oh, you're so sweet! C'mere!" Nanami said as she pushed Riko off her lap and dove on her to kiss her playfully on the grass.

Ranma looked over at her with wide eyes again. She winked at him then went back to watching the silly antics of her friends.

"Come on Nanami, keep it in your pants, you're going to frighten the boy." Yui said in a disapproving tone.

Ranma scowled at Yui. He obviously didn't like being called a boy. She filed that information away for later. It was always good to know what to avoid when teasing someone.

Nanami popped up off Riko and sucked in an exaggerated deep breath like she was coming up for air from a deep sea dive, and made a show of making herself presentable. "Can't have that now." Nanami said with a wink.

"Hey! Some of us were BUSY!" Riko protested from the grass.

"You TOLD me to watch her for you! Remember, buddy system?" Yui protested right back.

Chihiro burst into laughter. "Hoist on your own petard, eh Riko?"

Riko scowled at Chihiro. "I have not yet begun to hoist." Then she turned her attention back to Yui and pointed her fingers to her eyes, then to Yui, then back to herself. "Focus, woman! Buddy system is for parties only, not lunchtime snuggles. Capisce?" Riko growled.

Yui nodded and saluted again. "Well then, carry on, by all means."

Riko nodded in satisfaction and turned back to Nanami and grinned impishly.

"But ... but I just made myself all pretty again." Nanami said in a prim, feminine voice.

"Fiiiiine, but later..." Riko trailed off suggestively as she pointed to herself then back to Nanami and winked.

Nanami nodded eagerly and blew kisses to Riko.

"Well ... now that we've all had our minds broken by ... whatever that was, and Yui, remind me to NEVER travel with those two, I have to say, Nabiki, your Ranma is quite a trooper. Kenta had already invented homework that was on fire to leave by this point when Riko brought him around." Chihiro said in approval.

"We only wanted to put makeup on him ... it would have washed off ... eventually." Riko said grumpily.

"There there, come to Nanami." Riko nodded in an exaggerated sad way and came over and sat gently in Nanami's lap and laid her head on her shoulder as she made fake sniffling noises. Nanami rubbed her back soothingly.

"Well, Ranma does live with me, you know. He's kind of used to me." She said with a grin and a wink to Ranma.

"That true? You used to her? She getting boring already?" Chihiro asked him.

Ranma shook his head shyly without looking at her. She smiled at that.

"TALK!" Chihiro ordered as she reached over and poked him repeatedly in the chest with a twig.

"I ... it's just ... you all talk really fast ... I don't want to inter—" He started to say.

"Oh, we interrupt each other all the time, especially—" Riko chimed in and cut across him.

"True story, all the time!" Yui said with a gleeful smile as she cut Riko off. Riko scowled at her, which prompted Yui to stick her tongue out at her.

Ranma took it all in with his mouth still open and his eyes very wide.

Chihiro ignored the other girls and stayed focused on him. "C'mon, get it out." She encouraged him in a sweet, sing-song voice, like she was talking to a puppy.

Ranma scowled at that, but responded anyway. "No, I'm not sick of Nabiki." He said softly, again without looking at her. She could see a blush creeping up his neck. That made her incredibly happy.

"Aww, see, that's love for you." Yui said as she hugged her knees to her chest as stared at him dreamily. "He puts up with her friends, lives with her, and endures her family. That was the problem with Kenta, Riko. No endurance in that boy." Yui said.

"True ... but he was kind of cute." Riko said wistfully.

"Ranma's cuter." Yui said with a sigh.

She nodded happily. "He's also very strong, and he's smart too!"

"See, Riko, you just need to find someone good like that." Yui said soothingly.

Nanami cleared her throat loudly at that. "Um, excuse you? She has someone good." Nanami said with a frown as she did air-quotes to emphasize the word good.

Yui grimaced and put her hand over her heart and blinked at Nanami. "Let me begin my three part apology by saying you are a wonderful human being."

"Mmm hmm, see if I share candy with you at the movies next time we go." Nanami said as she stuck her tongue out at Yui.

"So, Nabiki, when are you two going out on your date?" Chihiro asked, again pulling the focus away from Riko's antics. Chihiro was good at that.

"Tomorrow after school." She said happily.

"And you're gonna treat her right, eh, Ranma?" Riko said as she squinted at him and shook her fist in his direction.

Ranma nodded coolly. "Of course."

"And you'll bring her home safely?" Nanami pressed him.

Ranma sat up straighter and set his jaw firmly. "I would never let anything happen to her." He said earnestly.

She smiled at him. It was very sweet how loyal he was.

"And you'll treat her right, and say sweet things to her, and give her a proper groping, right, boy?!" Riko piled on.

She scowled at that and jumped in before Ranma could get riled up. "Reign it in, Riko." She chided.

"What?" Riko blinked at her and flashed a beatific smile. "I'm just making innocent date suggestions." Riko protested.

She narrowed her eyes at Riko. "Kind of playing it fast and loose with the word innocent, aren'tcha?" She asked.

Riko grinned with an evil gleam in her eye. "Wouldn't you like to know." Riko said sweetly.

"Yeah yeah yeah, Riko's a degenerate, but, answer the questions, boy!" Chihiro said with her own shaken fist. Riko swung her gaze over to Chihiro and narrowed her eyes at her in disapproval.

"Yeah, I need to know if I need to up my game with Riko or not." Nanami piled on. Riko blinked and pulled her focus off Chihiro to eye Nanami suspiciously.

"Of course I'll be nice to her, don't worry, we'll have fun." Ranma responded sincerely. She smiled at that.

"Details, boy, we need details! I have weekend plans for Riko that involve helmets and screaming, I need to know if I need to include fire." Nanami pressed him.

Riko opened her eyes wide and blinked at Nanami with worry. "Come on Nanami, if you’re going to start planning my demise again, at least give me some sort of warning."

Nanami smiled and blew a kiss at Riko. "Consider yourself warned." Nanami said with a loving growl.

Riko frowned and stared suspiciously at Nanami.

"What about you, Nabiki? Have any naughty plans for him once you have him alone?" Chihiro asked in a sweet tone.

She smiled at that. "I can neither confirm nor deny allegations related to any plans, naughty or otherwise, at this time." She said in her best politician voice.

"That means yes." Riko announced confidently. Yui nodded her head vigorously in agreement.

Chihiro rolled her eyes. "Fine, but I expect an after-action report." Then she fixed her stare on Ranma. "And I expect her to have something interesting to tell me in her report." Chihiro growled at him as she held the stare. Ranma blinked at her nervously and nodded.

"Now, aside from that, what are we going to do about getting Yui a date?" Chihiro asked as she swung her gaze over to Yui.

Yui grimaced. "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it, or burn it. Either way, we save that for later. I'm more interested to hear about Ranma's thoughts on being a girl from a guy's point of view." Yui deflected.

"Oh yeah, he was telling us all about his alter ego yesterday and his sexy shower-time antics." Riko chirped happily.

Ranma stared at Riko wide-eyed.

"See what happens when you tell them stuff?" She said to him with a wink.

Ranma nodded. "I'm startin' to." He said with a frown.

"I have just one question for you, Ranma." Riko said seriously while holding up a finger.

He sighed and nodded for her to go ahead.

"What brand of pad do you use?" Riko asked gleefully.

"Riko!" She said with a surprised noise that was a mix between a gasp and a laugh. Ranma was turning bright red.

"Hey, come on, fair question! He's a girl too, at least part of the time." Riko protested.

"True." Yui confirmed helpfully.

"Yeah Ranma, tell." Chihiro pressed him.

He looked down and shook his head rapidly. She knew this was an area he just wasn't going to joke about, especially not with people he barely knew. She made a mental note to ask him about it later and got ready to force them to change the subject.

Riko was grinning from ear to ear. "You know you want to, look into my eyes, you are in my poweeeeeer." She said in an exaggerated slow voice.

"Look out, Ranma, she's an Esper ... or so she says anyway." Nanami warned in an amused voice.

"Oh, god help us all if Riko was an Esper." Chihiro piped in.

"You don't want to doubt me, that isn't the path for winners. Be a winner Chihiro." Riko said with a silly nod of her head while continuing to try to get Ranma to meet her eyes.

"Oh, good grief. You see what you started now, Ranma? She's on her Esper thing now." Yui complained to him with a sigh.

"I ..." Ranma trailed off in confusion.

Nanami sighed and poked him in the leg. "Louder! Some of us are further away than Nabiki is."

"Careful, you might scare him away like Kenta." Chihiro cautioned.

Ranma looked back and forth between them as a stubborn expression rose up on his face.

Riko wasn't done, though. She affected a German accent, sat up, grabbed his cheeks and stared into his eyes, and tried again. "You are being foolish, boy. We haf vays of making you tok!"

Every single one of them, herself included, lost it at that and dissolved into giggles. Ranma looked around at them in confusion.

"Old joke, I'll explain it later. Let's eat, shall we ladies?" She announced.

Riko smiled and shook her head back and forth happily. "Yes, yes, I decree it to be eating time, and also public safety lady time!"

"What does she..?" Ranma whispered to her in confusion.

"Just watch." She replied in her own whisper as she smiled.

They all settled down to eat, and Riko started calling out bad come-ons and pickup lines to the girls. All of whom took turns responding to them.

"Where have you been all my life?" Riko asked Yui.

"Anywhere you weren't." Yui shot back.

"Haven't I seen you someplace before?" Riko asked Chihiro.

"Yeah, I was the one running away from you." Chihiro said casually.

Riko turned and purred to Nanami. "Your body's like a temple."

"Sorry, I just converted to paganism. Temple's closed." Nanami replied with a wink.

"So... they're practin' ..." Ranma whispered to her.

"Yup, they're practicing shooting down bad come-ons. She said with a smile.

Riko turned and fixed her with stare and winked. "I'd go to the end of the world for you."

She laughed. "Great, please stay there!" She said as she stuck her tongue out. Riko winked in reply and continued playing the game.

"Why are they..." Ranma asked.

She looked at him and grinned as she shrugged.

"I want to give myself to you." Riko said to Yui in a breathy voice.

"Sorry, I don't accept charity cases." Yui said breezily.

"How long do they practice this?" Ranma asked as Riko continued peppering out bad pickup lines in the background.

"I think if we let her go on, Riko could probably do it all day. She has this freaky knowledge of like, every terrible pickup line ever uttered in the history of the world. She even knows them in different languages."

"Wow." Ranma said in an impressed tone.

"I SAID, I'd go through anything for you." Riko broke in, loudly.

She looked over at Riko and found her staring impatiently. She grinned and shot back. "Awesome, let's start with your wallet!"

Riko laughed at that one and the game was over.

Ranma took the opportunity to jump in. "Why are you practicing shooting people down?"

Riko smiled at him. "We're not practicing shooting people down. We're practicing shooting scumbags down. If you want a date, talk to us like fellow humans, not like morons who swoon at goofy pickup lines. Besides, fast comebacks are great to keep the mind agile. It's mental training." Riko insisted.

Ranma sat back and nodded at that. He could appreciate training in any form.

Chihiro smiled at him. "It's the same as you practicing your martial arts, right? Gotta keep those skills sharp." Chihiro chimed in. "A sharp mind can come in handy for school, dating, and helping your friends." Chihiro added firmly.

"Speaking of friends, why are you friends with Nabiki?" He asked.

Chihiro looked down as she replied. "Nabiki ... helped me out a lot when I needed it, she made me a promise and she kept it, I've never forgotten that. How could I not be her friend after that?" Chihiro said softly.

She knew it was hard for Chihiro to admit even that much. It was a great sign of Chihiro's respect for Ranma that she'd told him even that much. She made a note to tell him to tread lightly on that topic in the future.

"What did she help you with?" Ranma asked in a curious voice.

She winced inwardly as Chihiro looked away. She berated herself for not telling him which topics weren't good conversation topics with him before she brought him over. She reached over and put her hand on his and shook her head gently. He nodded and looked away from Chihiro.

Unfortunately, he hadn't picked up that that line of questioning wasn't a great idea. He'd only picked up that he shouldn't press Chihiro on it. He swiveled to the other newest person he had met and repeated his question to Nanami. "Okay, well, what about you, Nanami? How do you know Nabiki?"

"I met her here at Furinkan, I told you that. Pay attention." Nanami said as she stuck her tongue out.

"Okay, but, why are you her friend?" Ranma pressed her.

"Because she's funny as hell, and crazy-interesting, and one of the only people in this sorry town able to keep up with me ... and she helped me when nobody else could or would." Nanami added quietly. Riko reached over and took Nanami's hand gently in hers. She saw Nanami squeeze it gently.

Her eyes darted back to Ranma. He was busy looking at all of her friends suspiciously, as he tried to work out what the favors thing was. He finally turned to her and asked her directly.

"How many favors do people owe you?"

She smiled at him but didn't answer. The truth was she didn't know the exact amount off the top of her head, she'd have to check her books for that.

"A lot, Ranma. Like, she could raise her own army if she wanted to, kinds of numbers." Riko said happily.

"Why not just charge money?" He asked.

"Sometimes I do. It depends on what the favor is, whether it is for a good cause or not, whether I like the person or not, whether they can pay or not, whether I think they would be worth more as a favor owed, versus cash in the pocket. A favor owed can be far more valuable than money."

"Do you ever not charge?" He asked.

"Only for family and very close friends." She said with a smile as she got up and walked over to sit next to Riko on the grass. Ranma followed her with his eyes and she patted the grass next to her and invited him to join her. He nodded and got up and followed her.

They mostly finished eating in a comfortable silence for a few minutes after that. Riko and Nanami kept whispering to each other, and Yui was muttering to herself as she ran though her notes for class.

She wasn't feeling particularly hungry and she was idly running her hand through the cool grass, and ruffling some of the wild flowers growing in it. She picked a few of the flowers and held them up and looked at them. They were small and inconsequential, kind of a metaphor for her life. She sighed and stuck one of the flowers into her hair, tucked behind her ear. Then she smiled softly as she reached over to Ranma and stuck a flower into one of the ties on his shirt. He looked at her with a raised eyebrow, but let her do it. She smiled a bit more and stuck one of the flowers into his hair. He narrowed his eyes at her. She knew his manly image of himself didn't want to be adorned with flowers. That just made her smile more. She scooted to the back of him and started weaving one of the flowers with a longer stem into his pig-tail.

Chihiro noticed her putting the flowers on him, and smiled softly as she slipped her camera off her wrist and started taking pictures of them together. Once she was done putting the flowers on him, she climbed into his lap and just cuddled with him. He held her loosely and familiarly. It really was true what they said, the best relationships could be made with people you were already friends with. Ranma hadn't been her friend before this had started, but he had known her, and lived with her. That still allowed them to skip the awkward getting-to-know-each-other stage.

She leaned back into him and sighed happily. She wasn't the happiest she had ever been in her life, but she was very close to it. She knew they would have to break the happy spell of their lunchtime gathering in just a few more minutes. But she was all right. Most of her fears had fled from earlier. Ranma obviously cared about her. She didn't know if he loved her. But she knew he cared. That was enough for now.

They all stood up minutes later as they got ready for the bell to ring. Yui walked up to her and started asking her about solving differential equations with the new technique the teacher had showed in class today. At the same time, she saw Ranma wander over to Riko next to her and strike up a conversation. He was bold, she'd give him that. She heard most of what they said to each other in between her math conversation with Yui.

"...hat's with all the favors?" He asked.

Yui then asked her something about their upcoming test and her mind slipped back to talking about math.

"...e all owed her something in the past, and she took care of us, and paid it forward. She calls us her chief lieutenants, and she thinks that the favors matter to us. They don't. We all love her. We'd do anything for her, favors or no." She heard Riko say as she tuned back in to what they were saying.

Yui could tell her attention wasn't on the math discussion, so she smiled and drifted away to go talk to Chihiro with a promise to revisit the math discussion at a later time. She nodded and tuned back in to what Riko was telling Ranma.

"...ut what did she—"

"It isn't important, Ranma. All you need to know is that if you're loyal to Nabiki, she will take care of you. Of course, if you betray her ... run." Riko said in a jovial tone.

"I don't betray people." Ranma said in a dead-serious tone.

"So I've heard." Riko said, then added more loudly. "Hey, Kiki-chan, who's that? Looks like trouble coming."

She started to turn to gaze where Riko was pointing, and frowned. "Is it Kuno again?"

"No, new chick." Yui said as she walked over and looked where Riko had pointed as well.

"She's heading right for us."

The girl Riko had pointed out was indeed heading right towards them, and she had a trail of followers behind her. She frowned at that. The situation had all the signs of a major problem about to start.

"What's with all the girls following her?" Chihiro asked in a suspicious voice.

"Probably paid them." She mumbled as she assessed the girls incoming, and noted the features of all of them for later.

"What's—"

"Not now Ranma, not much time until she gets here." She said gently to Ranma as she turned to Riko. "Code green, okay?"

Riko nodded and saluted. "Got it, be right back." Riko said sincerely as she ran off in a sprint.

Ranma watched her run off with confusion etched on his face. "Code green?"

"Don't worry about it." She said to him with a wink. "Shall we, ladies?" She said as she turned to the rest of them.

The girls all voiced their agreement and walked over to stand around her in a tight group.

Ranma just watched them with wide eyes. For someone who was so tuned into fighting, he still hadn't picked up on the signs that a fight was brewing.

She smiled at him. "Can you go see what she wants? Stall for time?" She asked.

He nodded and walked out towards the approaching girl with tentative steps that he tried to make look confident. He looked back at her a couple of times. She smiled at him to encourage him.

"So, what do you think her problem is?" Yui whispered.

"I don't know, but she's clearly after Ranma. So, this chick is about to pick the wrong fight." She said with steel in her voice.

Chapter Text

Ranma stopped about a dozen paces away from Nabiki and her friends. He absently brushed his hands through his hair and removed the flowers she had put there. He didn't knock the flower in his shirt loose, though. Whether that was an oversight or deliberate, she didn't know. She did know that it made her very happy.

She watched the girl who was headed straight for Ranma, and braced herself mentally for a fight. Everything about the girl screamed confrontation. The girl's face was pressed into a tight frown. Her hands were clenched at her sides, and her eyes were fixed and hard on Ranma. The girl was also trailing several additional people, all female, with similar expressions on their faces. They were clearly her backup.

The girl in the lead had long black hair, a trim figure, and a cute aristocratic face. She was wearing the standard blue dress that was the girl's school uniform that most of the schools in the area used. As the girl got closer, she could see an intense frown on the girl's face. The expression of outrage on the girl's face marred her otherwise attractive features, and that outrage was directed at Ranma.

As the girl got close enough to Ranma that he could speak to her, he walked forward a few steps and smiled. He was trying to do what she'd asked and stall her. Ranma said a few things to the girl quietly enough that she couldn't hear them. The girl didn't respond to him. It was clear the girl was waiting for a larger crowd before she began.

She watched the girl with a very critical eye. The girl's opening salvo would determine how she would respond to the situation, if at all. Since the girl had brought backup, she seriously doubted the confrontation was going to be about money owed or homework.

"What do you think? New fiancée?" Yui asked gently from her left side.

"No, my money's on paid assassin." She responded absently as she sat down a little bit away from the confrontation. She was close enough to hear them, but not close enough to stand-out. A crowd was starting to form around the confrontation, drawing people from all around. Crowds always loved drama, especially when it concerned Ranma. She saw Akane and her friends join the edge of the crowd. Akane looked ... troubled.

Riko returned at a jog a few moments later. A dozen or so additional students trailed behind Riko, all of them female, and loyal to her. She could see more of them making their way over in the distance. The ones who had arrived all silently joined the group sitting around her. Riko took her rightful place at her right side.

She interrupted her evaluation of the girl staring Ranma down, for a moment, to nod her thanks to Riko. Riko smiled and reached over and squeezed her shoulder. She noted the presence of the rest of the girls who had come when Riko summoned them for her. All of them she counted in the ranks of her most trusted lieutenants. She didn't say anything, but she did sweep her gaze over them briefly and gave them a tight smile. They all either nodded, winked or smiled back. She nodded and went back to watching and assessing the threat while more of her lieutenants continued to stream over to her from around the school as the moments ticked by.

Part of her mind wanted to analyze what she had heard Riko telling Ranma just a little while ago. On some level she had always wondered why Riko and the others had stayed with her. Their initial meetings had been business transactions that had just snowballed. Riko was the only one of them who had started out as a genuine friend. She hadn't been in the business of doing favors for people in primary school.

It frankly shocked her to learn that Riko and the others didn't care about the favors. She had always thought that at least some of their loyalty to her was due to those favors. That was part of the reason why she never cashed in the favors they owed to her. She loved them too, and had wanted to help them when they'd needed it. She had wanted them to stay with her and be her friends, so she had never asked them for payment for the favors she had done for them.

If Riko hadn't been yanking Ranma's chain, then ... all of that time she had spent trying to make sure they had owed her favors so they would stay with her ... had been silly time wasted. She could feel herself starting to tear-up as the urge to cry rose up in her. Maybe ... maybe others, like Riko, hadn't thought of her as the Ice Queen like she had thought everyone did. She couldn't afford to get weepy right now though. So she clamped down viciously on the feelings rising up inside her, and vowed to deal with them later. Right now, Ranma needed her.

The girl who had marched straight up to Ranma was now standing in front of him and glaring at him with her hands on her hips. The girl's half dozen backers arrayed themselves behind her and fanned out to partially surround him. All of them had their arms folded and looked angry. She only recognized about half of them. She was fairly sure the rest didn't actually go to their school. She was positive the lead girl didn't go to their school.

When a large enough crowd had gathered, the lead girl started yelling as she pointed at Ranma. "He's the guy! He's a pervert! He groped me behind the girl's locker room earlier!"

The crowd gasped and started murmuring about Ranma being a pervert, and out of control, a womanizer and various other common names he was called.

Riko and Yui both put their hands on her shoulders comfortingly. She nodded her thanks but didn't break her focus. She wanted to wait until this girl had laid all her cards on the table before she called her bluff. It was rapidly dawning on her what this really was, and who had to be behind it, and she vowed to seek revenge later. But, at the moment, she was busy formulating a defense for Ranma.

"He's a pervert! He should be punished! He should be thrown out of school! Someone call the police!" The girl cried out indignantly as she pointed at him angrily.

And that's your first and second mistake. She thought icily to herself. Don't worry Ranma, this kind of fight is one I can protect you from.

Ranma tried to stammer a denial. "I didn't, I didn't. I wasn't anywhere near there, it musta been someone else!" Ranma said with both shock and fear in his voice as he waved his hands back and forth. If there was one way to get to Ranma that was almost guaranteed to fluster him, it was to force him into an awkward situation with a female. She sighed inwardly about that and promised to keep helping him work on that. Riko was actually the perfect person for that. Ranma needed all the exposure to Riko he could get. She idly considered bringing Riko home to hang out with him, then discarded the idea. Riko mixing with Akane or even Kasumi ... wouldn't end well.

"Oh come on, you're a well known pervert. Your own fiancée calls you a pervert all the time." The girl said haughtily as she swung her gaze over to Akane in the crowd. "Isn't that right, dear?" Ranma's accuser asked. Akane had been watching the whole scene with a detached look on her face. Now that the focus was on Akane, her little sister blushed mightily and looked down at the ground.

Well, I guess I have to give this chick points for doing some research, incomplete research to be sure, but she may have just asked the wrong people. There is no way a paid assassin would know about a fiancée of his at all, without at least some research being done. She acknowledged to herself as she watched how Akane would handle being singled out.

"What? Oh, um, well. Ranma's not ... you don't un... it's ... um ... " Akane stuttered as she blushed under the intense stares of the crowd.

"See, his own fiancée won't even vouch for him. Nobody believes him." The girl smirked, clearly thinking she had Ranma on the ropes.

"All right, that's enough." She said softly as she nodded to her lieutenants, who nodded back. They stood up as one as she shouted, "I BELIEVE HIM!" Her lieutenants started to ring her, many of them were wearing stone-faced masks to hide their feelings. She decided to keep her own feelings hidden behind her professional mask, for now. Yui, Riko, Chihiro and Nanami didn't bother to hide their feelings though. They looked just as pissed as she felt. They may not have been involved with him romantically, but he was one of them now. He'd gone through his trial-by-fire, and they looked after their own. That was one of the reasons she loved them.

Ranma's accuser looked over her shoulder and sneered at her. "And who are you, girl?"

She smiled back in return, a special, predatory small smile, that didn't reach her eyes. Several of the guys in the crowd took involuntary steps back when they saw the look on her face. They knew that look. They feared that look. She started walking to put herself in between Ranma and his accuser. Her lieutenants formed up into two lines of a loose wedge in front and to the sides of her.

She walked calmly between the two ranks of her lieutenants as they parted the crowd before her like water. Her lieutenants on the leading edge actually brushed up against some of the accuser girl's backup, and she could see her lieutenants brace to fight, but the accuser's backups retreated after a brief staring match.

She very rarely called up favors like this, especially with her own most trusted lieutenants, but she was angry and Ranma was being threatened, and she wanted to make a point of the kind of power she could wield. Ranma wasn't the only one who could save people. And not all fights had to be done with fists.

As she neared Ranma's accuser and looked at her, she realized she was more than angry, she was furious. She had to call on her deep pool of willpower to keep her professional mask in place and not just leap on the girl and claw her eyes out. She could already feel herself flushing with heat and her breathing rate increasing as her body prepared to fight.

She could see Ranma out of the corner of her eye looking at her with wide eyes. She had to ignore him for now and take care of business. She wanted to run over to him and hug him and tell him it was going to be all right. But that would actually hurt his defense at the moment. She needed to be strong and not show any weakness right now.

She looked around at the crowd and made eye contact with several people before she smirked and snapped her fingers. One by one, some of the largest Martial Artists in the school came out of the crowd and lined up and stood behind her with their arms crossed, looking extremely imposing. Over a dozen of them quickly gathered and stood behind her. Ranma eyed them warily.

Ranma's accuser took a cautious step back as she repeated her question in a much shakier voice. "W-who ... who a-are you?"

She didn't answer right away. She looked left and right to her ranks of her most trusted lieutenants, and smiled that special smile again. It was a remorseless smile. Then she looked the girl up and down dismissively before she scanned the crowd. She could already see some of the rabble-rousers who had been yelling for Ranma's head slinking away with their tails between their legs. They knew the fun was over. Her eyes rested briefly on Akane. Her little sister was looking at her with a mixture of resentment and appreciation.

Oh, Akane ... if you care about him so much, why does it embarrass you so much to say so openly? She thought sadly for her little sister. She widened her eyes and tilted her head a millimeter towards herself, inviting Akane to come out and take the lead. Akane actually took a step towards her, then hesitated and stepped back. Her little sister looked down and hung her head and didn't look up again.

Sorry, sis, Ranma needs me. She thought sadly as she swept her eyes back to the girl who'd made the accusations against Ranma and put her hands on her own hips. She stared at the girl with dead eyes, like a soldier who had seen too much and didn't care what happened next. She answered Ranma's accuser in an icy voice. "I am someone you really, really don't want to mess with. Am I, ladies?"

"NO!" Her lieutenants thundered in a chorus so loud and abrupt that most of the girls backing Ranma's accuser actually jumped in a startled reaction. She smiled a real smile briefly at that. She loved her lieutenants. It hadn't escaped her notice that the lead girl who had made the accusation hadn't jumped in fright. A conditioned response against fear indicated training. This was no simple school girl.

A moment later, she watched in satisfaction as some of Ranma's accuser's supporters quietly stepped back and tried to sneak away unnoticed. They were the girls she was fairly sure attended their school. She saw the accuser's resolve waver for a moment as her supporters fled. She noted all of their faces to deal with later. Ranma's accuser looked around in surprise for a moment, then gathered herself and clearly decided to fight. She could tell by the girl's stance and facial expression.

That's your third mistake. She thought with satisfaction that she kept hidden behind her professional mask.

"Well, I don't care who you are, or how many people you have with you. I have the truth on my side, and I want to see this pervert punished!" The girl yelled.

Fourth mistake. She thought as she got even more angry. "All right, I am going to stop you now, because you are only embarrassing yourself and you are also frankly harming women everywhere with your bullshit. It is because of vile little prevaricators like you, that real victims have a hard time getting justice for real crimes against women. How dare you lie about something like that just to try to hurt Ranma? I won't stand for it!" She yelled as she dropped her hands from her hips into fists and felt herself blaze with anger. She could feel the heat of it rising off her. The dragon inside her was spitting in rage and trying to claw its way out to get to the girl. She could feel the heat of that anger in the center of her chest, and it was getting worse by the second.

The rest of the girl's backers stepped back then, and started to turn their backs and walk away. Now Ranma's accuser was alone. The girl looked around in disbelief as they abandoned her, before she answered. "W-what are you talking about? Everything I said is true." The girl protested indignantly but with a bit of a waver in her voice. Most people would have missed it, but she didn't.

"Really? Where are your witnesses? They all seem to be fleeing the scene of the crime." She bit off each word angrily as she said it, and took several steps towards the girl. To the girl's credit, she could tell Ranma's accuser had realized she was beaten. The girl actually took several steps back from her and visibly prepared to run.

She normally would have let her go, but she furious. She snapped her fingers again and flicked her hands out, then closed her fists to signal her lieutenants. Her lieutenants responded instantly and sprinted out and away from her, and then charged inward quickly, as they linked their arms and closed ranks to encircle them close enough so that they were literally standing hip to hip and shoulder to shoulder. That trapped the girl and forced her back into the center of the circle they had formed around them.

She snapped again and waved a single finger in the air in a circle, and the guys she liked to think of as her brute squad moved quickly and loosely encircled her lieutenants and again took up positions with their arms folded and scowls on their faces. Ranma was outside the circle now, along with Akane. The rest of the crowd had been pushed back as well. Some of them started to wander off, but most of them just stood on their tip-toes or did little hops every now and then to see better. Crowds were like that, especially in high school.

"W-what ... what are you doing? Who are you?" The girl asked as she put on a brave face and tried to act haughty, but she could tell the girl was thinking that she hadn't been paid enough to face something like this.

Well, tough, you take the job and try to slander Ranma, and I have to destroy you. Anything goes when you mess with my family, girl. She thought in disgust.

"I, as you clearly don't know, am Ranma's fiancée." She said calmly, but with anger still burning in her voice.

"W-what? No! That girl is." Ranma's accuser said, as she pointed to Akane.

Akane shook her head but didn't look up or say anything.

Ranma's accuser looked back at her with real panic in her eyes now. She had moved on her target with bad intel and an incomplete grasp on the assignment, and she would pay the price for it now. And she was sure whoever had given her the job would be paying as well, later.

"All right, well, so what? It doesn't change anything. He's still a—" The girl started to say.

"Shut up! Just shut up!" She interrupted as she actually took a step forward and raised her hand to slap the girl, and had to force herself to stop. After she had regained control, she slowly lowered her hand while she stared at the girl with eyes blazing with cold fury.

She looked down at the ground for a moment, and took a couple of deep breaths before she trusted herself to speak again. She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply. She focused on the scent of the grass and the dust in the air and tried to control her anger. When she looked back up, she found the girl backed as far away from her as her lieutenants would allow.

The girl wasn't pressing into her ring of lieutenants, but she was sure she wanted to. Her lieutenants were watching all of this with impassive faces, although some of them, like Riko, Yui, Chihiro and Nanami, who had spent time with Ranma, had anger in their eyes.

As for herself, she felt herself burning with the anger. It was melting her icy facade, and she knew cracks were appearing in her professional mask. She didn't care. The dragon inside her was stalking back and forth as it glared at the girl and flexed its paws to pop its claws in and out, as it readied itself to tear the girl apart. She laid into her, speaking mostly for the crowd now.

"You know, Ranma really doesn't like being called a pervert, and I don't like hearing him called one. It would be one thing if he actually was one. Or if he was at least a bit of a shameless romancer. But even that isn't true. Ranma is actually very shy. He is also very nice, and he does a lot for this school. Doesn't he?!" She yelled.

Her ring of lieutenants all nodded their heads, as did several heads in the crowd. She piled on as Ranma's accuser flinched away from her as she continued to yell.

"Ranma has saved this school, multiple times! Ranma has protected this school from actual perverts like that dirty old underwear thief! Ranma has protected many of the students at this school, many times, including myself and my sister! He might have some personal problems, but his problems are our problems, aren't they?!"

"Yeah!"

"That's true!"

"Leave Ranma alone!" Several people cried out from the crowd as she jogged their memories. She let her gaze wander into the crowd again, and found Ranma looking around wildly at everyone in disbelief as he blushed at the praise. Akane was looking up again as well. Her little sister had tears streaming down her cheeks and was staring at her. She watched Akane carefully and saw her mouth the words, thank you, silently to her. She winked at her sister then refocused her attention on the character-assassin.

Ranma's accuser was staring at her with a mixture of awe and loathing. She decided to give her one last chance to back out of this before she destroyed her. "Now, do you want to take back what you said, and apologize?" She asked with steel in her voice.

"N-no." Ranma's accuser said as she visibly gathered her courage. The girl stood up straighter and pointed at Ranma and yelled. "It doesn't matter if he's done nice things in the past, he should be punished for being a—"

"I told you!" She interrupted Ranma's accuser sharply. She paused for a moment for effect, then said more quietly in a deadly tone, "I told you, Ranma doesn't like to be called that. So, unless you have some actual proof of anything, I am going to have to really insist that you not call him that."

"What kind of proof would I have of him groping me?" The girl asked, incredulous.

She grinned. Fifth mistake. She thought smugly as she pressed the girl harder. "Tell me, where was Ranma standing when he was supposedly groping you?" She asked as calmly as she could, but her voice still shook with anger.

"Behind the girl's locker room, near the window." The girl said indignantly.

She let her special smile slip into a full grin. Gotcha. She thought as she walked forward and began ticking points off her fingers loudly to the crowd. "Your third mistake was deciding to stick to your story after being called on it, when you and I both know it is a lie. Your fourth mistake was doubling down and wrapping yourself up with a claim of truth being on your side when you knew you couldn't back it up. And your fifth mistake was not thinking your story through and thinking about the trail of evidence and any proof that might be searched for."

Then she pointed at Ranma's feet. "Ranma wears very unique shoes he got in China. Nobody else in this school will leave footprints like his. How much do you want to bet his footprints won't be found outside that window? I'll give you one to ten million odds."

The girl didn't say anything, but she could tell Ranma's accuser was beaten. She didn't care, she'd given the girl a chance to back down, and she hadn't, now she was going to destroy her. Don't start fights you can't finish. She growled to herself.

"I need a volunteer!" She yelled to the crowd while she kept her eyes on the girl. Several guys and girls raised their hands eagerly. They smelled blood in the water, and were eager to see her make the kill. Normally she wouldn't indulge them, but today she would. She picked one of the girls at random, whom she didn't know. "You there, can you please go over to my fiancé and ask him to lift his foot so you can see his footprint?" The crowd waited silently while the girl nodded and did exactly that. Ranma obliged her while looking embarrassed.

Don't worry Ranma, this will be over in a minute. She thought with granite resolve. Her volunteer looked over at her and waited for more instructions.

"Okay, now that you know what his footprint looks like, can you please run over to the girl's locker room and check the back for that footprint? Please come back and tell us what you see there." The girl nodded and jogged towards the locker room. The crowd watched her go quietly. She decided to rile them back up again.

She pointed her finger at Ranma's accuser and sneered. "You know she isn't going to find anything. Ranma is innocent, and you know it."

Ranma's accuser shook her head urgently. She was pretty sure the girl was in denial at this point, not able to fully appreciate how badly she had miscalculated.

"How dare you. How dare you accuse someone innocent of something like that. That is the kind of thing that can follow someone around their whole life. Ranma is my fiancé, and I won't stand for it. He isn't perfect, but he is a good, and kind person. He cares about people. He's saved the life of my little sister so many times, I've lost count. He protects my family. He goes out of his way to try to keep people from being hurt. He has never done anything to deserve being called a pervert, and I WILL NOT ALLOW IT!" She yelled in a voice that was verging on a scream, she could feel herself rapidly losing control.

The crowd cheered in response to her. Riko, Yui, Chihiro and Nanami cheered the loudest, and nodded their heads enthusiastically. Even her brute squad guys were nodding and smiling. A part of her was watching herself do what she was doing, and heard what she was saying, and had its mouth open in shock. Even she didn't fully understand why she was doing it.

She pulled her mind back to the task at hand, and watched the crowd and frowned. She found crowds to be weird things. The same crowd could be whipped up into a murderous frenzy and then turned around and brought to praise the same person they had wanted to kill just moments before, depending on how one played them. They were almost like living organisms.

She rounded on the girl and stepped fully in front of Ranma, and blocked his accuser's line of sight to him as she held her hands out to either side of herself protectively while she yelled. "Do you understand?! Ranma is my fiancé. If you try to slander him, I'LL RUIN YOU." The crowd erupted into cheers as well as oohs and aahs and many side conversations rapidly discussing her new revelations about her feelings for him. She had never done anything like this for anyone in the school before. Even her lieutenants were letting their masks slip as they blinked at her in surprise.

She held her hands out for quiet and rounded on the girl and glared at her. "I have a feeling I know who put you up to this. When you see them again, tell them that Nabiki Tendo will not tolerate people coming after her family. You want to take down Ranma, or Akane, or anyone else in my family, you have to go through me. Ask anyone at this school you want, they will all tell you that is a bad idea." She growled.

She turned away for a moment, then turned back and said in a quiet voice that the crowd immediately quieted down to hear. "Oh, and in case you were wondering, your first mistake was not knowing who I was, and that Ranma is engaged to me. Everyone in the school knows about it. The fact that you didn't, tells me you aren't even a student here. And your second mistake, and the most fatal, was you didn't even check your target before you struck."

"W-what do you mean?" The girl asked timidly but with a hint of her paid assassin's actual personality starting to peek out. She had clearly roused the girl's professional interest.

She looked at her and smiled. "If you had bothered to watch your target before you attacked, you would have known that Ranma was with me and my friends all during lunch today. We can all vouch for him, can't we ladies?" As one, Riko, Yui, Chihiro and Nanami all nodded and glared at the girl.

"S-so what? It's still your word against mine." The girl stammered.

"So what, indeed." She said as she savored the kill. She stared into the girl's eyes for a moment, then asked the crowd a question. "Can anyone tell me what is in the middle button of Ranma's shirt?"

"A little pink and blue flower." Someone called out.

"Yup. A flower." Someone else confirmed.

She smirked and pointed to Chihiro. "Do you see the camera hanging on the strap on her wrist over there? That's my friend Chihiro. She just so happens to like taking photos, and she was with us at lunch today. I can guarantee you that she has pictures of Ranma and me on her camera, and Ranma will have that flower in his shirt. You can ask anyone in this school, Ranma never walks around with flowers in his shirt. The only reason it is still there is because you ambushed him and he forgot about it after I put it there."

She paused for a moment, then saw the girl who she had sent to check for footprints coming back. "Checkmate," she said under her breath with a smile.

Ranma's accuser looked up where she was looking, and shattered. She could actually see the will to fight drop out of the girl as she slumped down as her mask slipped and full panic showed on her face as she turned and tried to run away.

Her lieutenants just stood there as the girl pressed frantically against them and tried to break out from their ring. She waved everyone off and called out to the guys in the back ranks to let her go. As soon as her ring of lieutenants stepped back, the girl sprinted away like her ass was on fire.

She couldn't help getting in one last shot as the heat of her anger died down. "You're a disgrace!" She yelled after her.

She then turned back to face the girl who was running back to the crowd, looking excited. As soon as the girl was in earshot she began shouting. "No footprints. No footprints. I didn't see anything!"

At that, Ranma deflated with relief, and the crowd cheered. She didn't cheer with them. She actually had nothing but contempt for most of those in the crowd who had been willing to go along with that girl's charade just because they liked a good spectacle, and quite frankly because a lot of them were jealous of Ranma. Her brute squad also cheered.

Only her lieutenants also refrained from cheering. She knew that, aside from her friends, most of their loyalty was bought. Well, at least, she thought it was bought. Riko's comments to Ranma were causing her to question everything she thought she knew about all that. But, regardless, her lieutenants were loyal to her, and she could count on that.

She smiled her thanks to Riko, Yui, Chihiro and Nanami, and the rest of her lieutenants as they dispersed. Many of them hugged Ranma as they left. Both Riko and Yui were so excited, they kissed him full on the mouth. Riko actually jumped into his arms to do it. She rolled her eyes at their antics. At least they'd kept their mouths closed while they teased him. She looked for Akane but didn't see her.

She imagined her sister had probably faded away from the crowd as soon as she knew Ranma was safe. She wanted to talk to her later, but what would she say? 'Sorry I had to jump in and protect Ranma because you wouldn't, how you feeling about that?' Yeah, that would go over really well. She thought to herself. Still, she could only imagine how much her sister must be hurting. She knew she would be very upset if someone else jumped in and defended Ranma because she couldn't.

Poor Akane. She thought sadly. It was funny. Earlier in the day she had been extremely worried that Akane was succeeding in taking him back, and now she was worrying about Akane feeling bad about losing him. Her emotions were all over the place right now.

As the crowd cleared, she found Ranma looking over at her with an expression of open bewilderment mixed with awe and appreciation for her. She was sure he would want to know how she had arranged that. Maybe she would tell him some of her secrets on their date. She thought about that and smiled. It would be nice to share some things with someone she could trust.

He made his way over to her, and took her hand in his and whispered. "Thank you, thank you so much."

She smiled at him. "That's one less I owe you now, Saotome. You'll have to save my life again if you want to bring the count back up." She winked at him playfully.

"I'd rather you not have your life in danger, at all." He said softly.

"I know ... I know." She looked at him and smiled softly.

"Nabiki?" He said in a smaller, more playful voice.

"Mmm?" She replied as she started to lean in to him. He smelled like Riko and Yui's perfume, but she didn't care. He also smelled strongly of his own cedar and flower scent, probably because he had been sweating nervously during all that.

"You ... can be ... kind of terrifyin' sometimes ... you know?" He whispered as he stepped closer to her.

She nodded and pulled him closer to herself, and wrapped his arms around her. Unlike this morning, he responded immediately and pulled her into a strong hug.

"Mmm hmm, and don't you forget it, Saotome." She mumbled as she relaxed into his arms. Her limbs felt a little shaky now that the adrenaline was wearing off, but it didn't matter since he was holding her anyway. Her breath was coming in shorter, more urgent little gasps. She didn't know if that was an after-affect of the confrontation, or if he just had that affect on her now. But it was all right, she could already feel her breathing slowing as he held her in his warm arms. He was always warm. She loved that about him. She buried her face into his chest, and grinned happily where nobody could see. "Ready to go back to class, Ranma?" She mumbled into his silky shirt. She didn't care what anyone might be thinking of their public display at the moment.

"Not yet." He said as he lifted her off the ground and hugged her even more tightly.

He's picking me up! She thought excitedly as she buried her head into his chest and nuzzled him. She knew what that meant.

Chapter Text

Nabiki packed up her bag in a daze at the end of the day. The rest of the day had passed in a blur after the incident at lunch. She remembered clearly Ranma holding her after it was over, and she remembered walking hand-in-hand with him to her classroom. They'd hugged again then, and after that he'd needed to go back to his own class.

She also clearly remembered Riko arriving and jumping on her and being very excited about everything that had happened during lunch while Yui, Nanami and Chihiro looked on and smiled.

She didn't remember much clearly after that. She had a vague memory of Kuno asking her for something, but she'd ignored him. She knew the lessons in class had gone on, but they were a blur, although she had noticed when she put her things away, that she actually had managed to take notes today. She didn't remember any of it, though. She had been very happy after the incident, and she still felt somewhat happy, but it was fading under the weight of her worries.

The majority of her mind was now occupied with going through the plan for Ukyo, and anxiously trying to make sure that she hadn't forgotten anything. The rest of her mind was replaying and analyzing what had happened at lunch and what she had done, and what she was going to do in response to it. She was worried about Ukyo, and angry about the attack on Ranma. At the moment though, her worry about Ukyo was her dominant focus.

She got up slowly, said her goodbyes to her friends, and made her way to Ranma's classroom. People passed her in the halls in a constant stream, as they hurried on their way. Some of those people even called out to her, either to comment about what had happened during lunch, or just because they knew her. She ignored all of it.

She didn't know why, exactly, but she was starting to feel bad. Well, not bad exactly, she felt ... dread. Yeah, dread was the right word. She felt like something awful and final was about to happen. Like she was walking towards her own execution. She shook her head violently and tried to force herself to stop dwelling on it.

Everything was fine. Ranma obviously had feelings for her. He couldn't seem to bring himself to say it, but he could show it. But ... that was the real problem, wasn't it? She needed him to be able to say it. He had to say it, and act on it, before the week was out, or it was all over. She had told him that in order to be with her, he had to pick just one person, and he had to do it by the end of the week. She blew out an exasperated breath and looked up at the ceiling as she sighed. I am such a freaking idiot. She berated herself.

What was I thinking? He was with Akane for months, and they barely made any progress at all. What made me think I could get him to resolve everything and openly pick me in a week? A week? I am so stupid. A year, maybe. She thought angrily to herself as she neared his classroom. She wanted to change the conditions she'd given him, but it was too late now. They'd made the promises, she couldn't alter the deal now.

This isn't going to work. Getting him to tell Shampoo to go away was fairly difficult, and he doesn't even like Shampoo. Now I am trying to get him to go tell his oldest friend on Earth to go away today? There is no way he is going to be able to do it! She has a much longer history with him, she can cook, and she's gorgeous. What the hell can I offer him that she can't? She asked herself bitterly as she slowed her walking down.

It's all going to blow up today. We're going to go see Ukyo, and then he's going to freeze up, and Ukyo will call him one of her pet names for him, and remind him of their shared history, and ply him with tasty treats, and he'll look at me with those puppy dog eyes and ask himself why I am being mean and making him get rid of her. And ... the only answer I can possibly give him is ... I don't want to share him. She thought sadly to herself as she slowed her steps more and more as she got closer and closer to his classroom.

She reached the hallway that contained his classroom, and stopped. She was standing in the middle of the hall and she was completely frozen in place. She was scared. Every time they touched on the subject of the rest of the girls chasing him, she felt pulled off-center. She was so far out of her comfort zone, she felt that she no longer had tools ready to use for what might happen. She didn't know how to handle what would happen if everything fell apart, and that was what she was dreading. She was in new territory in her life, she was trying to change how she lived her life, and it was difficult.

Being the Ice Queen had been easy. It had been a very easy role to play. It was essentially selfishness personified. All she had needed to do was exploit people and situations for her own personal gain, and not care at all what the consequences of that exploitation were. Oh sure, she had used the power that she had accumulated from the years and years of favors owed to her, to help her friends and family. But, for the most part, she had been a remorseless, pitiless corporation of one. She had been Nabiki Corp. People had known exactly what to expect from her, and what the rules had been, and it had been easy.

It had also been lonely.

Even with Chihiro, Riko, Nanami and Yui being her constant companions, she had kept them mostly at arm's length. Only Riko had been allowed to share in her private, personal feelings from time to time. And that was because Riko was the only one who had known her before the Ice Queen had been born. Riko had been her friend before she had gotten into the favors business. Riko had met Mom. Riko was the real thing, and she absolutely trusted Riko.

Everyone else ... she didn't really trust, not completely. Even Yui wasn't fully trusted. She loved her friends, but she had to protect herself. That had always been job number one, protect herself. She had kept everyone at a distance, and never invited them in to help warm her up and ease the loneliness. The trade-off for that had been that nobody could stab her in the back or hurt her. She had always felt that the trade-off had been worth it. Eventually, she had stopped noticing that she had been lonely. That had worked for her for a long, long time. She couldn't even remember when she had started doing it, or why. All she knew was that it was all she had ever really known, for a very long time.

And then ... and then ... Ranma had picked her up and carried her safely to the ground that night, and everything had changed.

"Everything changed." She whispered to herself as she stared at the doorway to his classroom.

Ranma had held her, and protected her, and cared about her. He'd reminded her what having someone close to her could feel like. He hadn't done it because he'd owed her a favor, or because he was being paid. He'd done it because he was a decent human being who didn't want to see her hurt.

The sad thing was, if Ranma had grown up in her town, she didn't think he would have done it. He probably would have been one of the many people who would have laughed their asses off to hear that she had fallen off a balcony and been hurt.

She had a lot of enemies out there, a lot. Plenty of them were just bitter and jealous of the success she had achieved, where they had failed. But many of them were people she had stepped on or exploited to achieve that success.

She wasn't ashamed of what she had done. It had been survival. She had done it to protect herself and by extension her family. In Japan, especially for a woman, most especially for a woman who wanted to enter the cutthroat world of business high finance, she needed to be hard to survive. She had known from a very young age that to make it in that world, she was going to have to be ruthless. For her to succeed, others would have to fail. That was the only way it could be. Nobody wanted to hire a woman in upper levels of management in Japan anyway, and they certainly didn't want to hire one who wasn't the absolute, very best. In order to get where she wanted to be, she had to remove every single choice from them. She had to be the only candidate. The only person who could make the company succeed. If they had any other choice, they would take it.

So she had started out small, and built up her empire. She had embraced the Ice Queen persona, and she had thrived. She smiled a small smile. Riko had been joking at lunch, and she was sure Ranma had taken it as a joke, but the inside joke was, Riko had been joking about something that was actually true. She easily could raise her own army with the funds and favors owed to her. She had actual members of the House of Councillors on her favors owed lists, and she knew people in the Royal Family's household. She had CEOs and members of the Boards of Directors of very powerful companies who also owed her favors.

The funny thing was, because she usually operated in the shadows, most of the people who owed her favors, had no idea they owed them to a teenage high school girl. If they had known that, many of them would have tried to get out of paying, and she would have had to destroy them, and that would not only burn bridges and waste a favor, but could get messy. It was much easier to do a lot of what she did through intermediaries.

She had always operated her favors business in the gray area of the law. Nothing she ever did or procured or arranged, for anyone, was illegal, or against anyone's will. She made sure of that, and she viciously punished anyone who ever broke that rule in her name.

But in areas that weren't expressly illegal, or were just frowned upon in society, that was where she had thrived. She had walked the line between the light and the darkness for so long now, she didn't fully know how to walk around openly in the light any more. In a lot of ways she was relying on Ranma to lead the way, which was probably silly because he had even less experience than she did in social skills.

However, he didn't have the baggage weighing him down like she did. He was more or less innocent of a lot of things. She wasn't innocent, by a long shot. She wasn't a villain, but she couldn't honestly say she hadn't harmed anyone. She did her very best to only step on those who deserved it, or those who were directly in her way on her climb up the ladder — preferably both.

And now, here she was asking him to commit to her, and to get rid of his oldest friend, who happened to be in love with him. Ukyo would be yet another person she had stepped on to achieve what she wanted. The truly terrible thing was ... she wasn't all that sorry about it. Ukyo was innocent, and didn't deserve what she was about to cause to happen to her. But she would encourage Ranma to do it anyway. It was business, and Ukyo was in her way. On a personal, human, level, she felt bad for Ukyo. But she never made business decisions on that level. The Ice Queen was in charge of all business decisions.

She sighed and eyed his classroom door, and dreaded what was coming. The similarity between what Akane had done yesterday, and what she was now doing, was not lost on her. Like Akane, she was standing alone in a sea of people, all of whom were streaming around her like she wasn't there, while she stayed rooted to the spot in fear.

Unlike Akane, she prided herself on being able to do what needed to be done, and having a inexhaustible pool of willpower. She could make herself do just about anything. She nodded sharply to herself and reached into her core, grabbed tightly, and pulled. She immediately felt better, and more at peace with herself. Using her Ki allowed her to calm her mind, and ease her fears, if only a little bit. She had always thought of it as her courage, and in reality, she hadn't been wrong. After all, most of what Ranma did with his Ki was based on his courage and confidence, wasn't it?

She nodded to herself and took a hesitant step forward and noticed a flickering blue light out of her peripheral vision. She looked down and realized she was putting out a battle aura. She hadn't even realized she had done it. She must have focused and shaped her Ki into a battle aura in response to her own fears. In her mind, what was coming up was going to be a battle — a terrible one.

Several people who passed her in the hall looked at her with a bit of worry in their eyes as they passed her. She knew that the people who were looking at her with concern, were Martial Artists. She hurriedly let go of her core and extinguished her battle aura. Then, in shaky steps, she forced herself to walk, as best she could, to the door to Ranma's classroom. Before she could reach out and open the door, it opened on its own, and she found herself face to face with Akane.

Akane blinked at her and for a moment she saw surprise, anger, resentment, jealousy, determination, and even fear flicker across Akane's face. Then Akane pulled a mask over her face and set her expression to one of cheerful friendliness.

Akane's eyes darted into her classroom and rested on Ranma for a moment, then darted back to herself. She nodded. She was here to see Ranma. He was standing next to his desk talking to his friends as he packed up his bag.

Akane set her shoulders and stared at her with determination as she opened her mouth to say something. Inside, she winced as she braced for Akane to come down on her for making a scene at lunch.

Akane's mouth stayed open for a second or so, then her little sister slowly closed her mouth and lowered her eyes. She blinked at Akane, confused. It was unlike her fiery younger sister to be at a loss for words when speaking to her.

Akane opened her mouth and tried again, but again no sound came out. Akane's eyes darted over to Ranma, and she followed Akane's gaze. Ranma was quietly watching both of them now. When she and Akane looked at him, he lowered his gaze in embarrassment.

Akane looked back over at her and raised her hand to gesture at herself, then turned her shoulders towards him, like she was going to point to him, but the gesture died in mid-air.

Akane turned back to face her and sighed as she looked up at her with tired eyes and a weak smile. Her little sister was still hiding behind her mask, but the message she was getting from Akane was more or less clear enough. Akane was both grateful that she had defended Ranma today, and also upset with herself that she hadn't at least said something in his defense. But, in true Akane fashion, her little sister couldn't seem to bring herself to say the words.

She made eye contact with Akane, and slowly nodded that she understood. Akane nodded back, sharply, and looked away. Then her little sister walked forward and resettled the straps of her bag on her shoulders as she did so. Then Akane raised her arms up like she was going to hug her, but stopped, and sighed again. Instead, Akane stepped to her side, and gently put a hand on her shoulder for a brief moment, before she walked away, without ever having said a word.

She pivoted on her heels and watched Akane slowly melt into the crowd, until she lost sight of her, then she sighed and turned back to look into the classroom. She found Ranma still standing by his desk, and smiling shyly at her in his usual easy-going way. She smiled back nervously, and held her hand out to him. He nodded and bounded over to her and took it.

"Ready to go see Ukyo?" She whispered.

He looked over at her, and she could see him wilt a little bit, but he nodded at her and gripped her hand a little more tightly. She nodded back and they set off together.

The students in the halls gave them plenty of room. She would have been hard pressed to answer if they were more afraid of her, or him. But, either way, it was nice not to be crushed in the crowd. Things usually got a little tense on campus for a day or so after she reminded the student body of the kind of things she could do. So she was used to it. Ranma didn't seem to notice at all. He probably expected to be given a lot of space just because of the frequency he was attacked, if for no other reason.

They made their way out of the school, and down the streets that led to Ukyo's shop. They traveled together in silence. It wasn't quite as comfortable a silence as it had been when they had gone to go see Shampoo's Great Grandmother. She kept looking over at him and trying to catch his eye, but he stayed stubbornly looking straight ahead with downcast eyes. She could tell he was ... distressed. All that did was increase her own nervousness. There were so many ways their upcoming meeting with Ukyo could go wrong — including Ranma backing out of it and canceling the whole thing. But there was nothing she could do about it now, she was fully committed to their plan. All she could do now was worry as she walked with him. She wanted to sit down and hug her knees to her chest and rock back and forth and try to calm down, but she couldn't.

She tried to take her mind off her worries as they walked by focusing on what was going on around them. The late afternoon breeze felt nice in her hair, the sun was shining, and Ranma's hand in hers made her feel a little bit better. But, for the most part, she was barely holding it together as the icy core of her worry spread out to her limbs. Her steps got a bit slower, as she felt her icy worry slowing her down. Ranma slowed his pace to match hers, but didn't say anything. After many minutes of that, they finally arrived next to the street Ukyo's shop was on.

"Are you ready to do this?" She asked him gently, as they stopped at the intersection that connected to Ukyo's street. Ukyo's shop could now be seen in the distance. She looked over at him and found him staring in the direction of Ukyo's shop with an unreadable expression on his face. The wind changed to a cooler breeze, which chilled her a little bit more. Ranma didn't seem to notice it. "Ranma?" She prompted him again.

He sighed and nodded slowly without taking his eyes off Ukyo's shop.

"We ... don't have to ... if you don't want to..." She said softly. "We can stop now if you want." She said as she squeezed his warm hand and held it gently in her own chilled hand.

He squeezed her hand back, and shook his head softly. "No, I'm ready, let's do this." He said quietly.

"She may cry. Are you ready for it?" She asked him. She wanted him to be really certain he knew what he was getting himself into.

"I ... I know. I hate this." He replied in a haunted tone.

"I do too." She said sadly. She was both lying and telling the truth. She actually loved that he was willing to finally end things with the rest of the girls for her. But she took no joy in hurting the girls to achieve her goals. She wouldn't feel guilty about it, but it wasn't something she was proud of, or enjoyed doing.

He looked over at her then and smiled a very small smile as he breathed in deeply and squeezed her hand tighter. "I'm ready. What's the plan?" He asked.

"The plan is to let me handle it. It will actually be best if you don't know what's coming, so your reactions will be genuine. No offense Ranma, but your acting skills are terrible." She said gently but with a teasing tone.

He scowled at her. "Hey, I can act when I need to." He protested.

She grinned at him. "Yes, you can, especially when Martial Arts are involved, but when you are dealing with matters of the heart, or Martial Arts aren't involved ... your acting skills are ... lacking." She said with a laugh.

"You won't ... hurt her, will you?" He asked in a scared voice.

She wondered why he was so afraid. It was never an easy or fun thing to tell someone they weren't right for you, and that there was no future between them and you. Well ... it wasn't easy or fun if one wasn't a sociopath, anyway. But there wasn't really anything to fear about the process. It was a necessary evil of the human condition. Dating and romance were some of the most complicated things most people did in their lives.

"I ... can't guarantee that she won't be hurt, Ranma. But I will try my best to not hurt her." She said gently. He looked at her with anguished eyes. "I have come up with a plan that I think will give her an honorable way out of the situation she finds herself, and I really do think the plan will allow her to be happier in her life." She hurried to add. He continued to look haunted as he looked at her.

"But she'll still be hurt?" He asked softly.

"I ... I can't say. I am hoping that the plan, as it is presented to her, will turn her onto a different path. She will have to realize what taking that path will mean for her, though. And she won't be able to take the path and hold on to you." She said in her best soothing tone of voice as she reached for his other hand and pulled him so he was facing her and holding both her hands loosely.

"So ... it would be more like she was giving me up?" He asked hopefully.

She nodded. "Yes, more or less. She may not go for it though, Ranma. If that happens, I don't have a fallback plan besides what you have already done with Shampoo. It will be rough, but that's all I have in reserve." She looked into his eyes as she tried to figure out how committed to this process he was.

She really, really wanted him to go through with it, but she couldn't force him to. But she also had her own week-long deadline staring her in the face and egging her on to get things sorted out. She was afraid of what would happen if things didn't get settled before time ran out. She knew how very easy it would be for everyone if things just settled back into the status quo they had been in. Easy ... for everyone, except her.

She knew that at the center of everything that was happening, was her selfishness. She didn't want to share him, and she didn't want to be constantly fighting for him or wondering if he would pick her some day. She couldn't put her life on hold to wait for him to make a possible future decision.

She wanted him to make a commitment to her, or ... to let her go. She didn't know how she would get over it if he wasn't able to commit to her, and she really didn't want to think about it. But she knew that he was doing everything he had been doing, for her, and only her.

She idly wondered if he would have started the process to commit to Akane, if Akane had ever asked him. Of course, for that to have happened, Akane would have had to admit her feelings for him. She felt a great wave of sadness for her little sister.

It wasn't Akane's fault that Mom's death had messed her up so badly. It also hadn't helped that Daddy had checked out after that, and then all of the mess with the guys at school had started up on top of that. Ranma had walked into her little sister's life with all of that having already happened to Akane, and with his own issues as well. It was no wonder that they fought all the time.

Hell, she had to keep catching herself to stop herself from saying things that she knew could start a fight between them. He frequently did and said things that either annoyed her, were casually insulting, or just careless. She knew he wasn't trying to be deliberately offensive though. He just needed time to figure out the social graces. Time was something she was willing to give him ... if he committed to her.

Ranma finally nodded. "All right, let's try the plan, and hope it works." He said with a pained smile.

"You sure? We can wait until later, if you want." She said quietly.

"I'm sure. It's like you said, it can't keep going on forever. I really hope she goes for your plan though. I'm not sure I can say to her what I said to Shampoo." He whispered.

"What if you have to?" She asked, insistently. She didn't want to corner him on this, but she needed to know what she was getting into before they went in there.

"If I have to ... then ... I will." He said sadly.

"We can always come back and deal with Ukyo later." She whispered.

He shook his head softly. "Who would we talk to instead? Akane?" He asked in a tone she couldn't read.

She changed the subject quickly. She knew as well as he did, that she had no plan for Akane right now. "Ranma?" She asked, and waited for him to meet her eyes before she continued. He looked sad, and uneasy. She pressed on as best she could. Her voice was shaking, though. "Ranma ... do you know how rare it is for two people to meet, fall in love, and be happy together for the rest of their lives?" She whispered.

He shook his head softly. "It almost never happens." She whispered sadly. "Most people just settle for a good enough match, and try to make it work, or they settle for a bad match and just try to endure. Some don't ever find any kind of match at all. Real love, true love, if I can believe what the romance books say, is one of the most rare things in the world. It's more rare than the perfect business opportunity at the right time with funds in hand. It's more rare than straight A's in school, or hitting a home run, or making it as a musician." She said in a voice that rose in intensity as she went on. His eyes widened as she spoke.

"That's why ... that's why I think they are holding on to you so tightly. I think Ukyo, and Shampoo, and even Kodachi see in you a match that isn't just good enough, or one they can endure. I think they see in you a match that is perfect for them, for their own reasons. I don't think they are going to give you up easily, Ranma. And ... I don't blame them." She said with a soft smile.

"What about ... Akane?" He whispered with downcast eyes.

She smiled sadly. "Akane too. I can't speak for my little sister, but it seems to me like she also thinks you are a match for her worth fighting for."

He nodded and drew in a shaky breath. Her little speech seemed to have had the desired affect of steeling his resolve a bit. He now had a better focus for the kind of fight he was walking into.

She looked into his eyes, and sighed inwardly. He was trusting her to help him ends things with all of them, as she had promised. Promises and trust were very important to her. And she knew he knew damn well that as far as Akane went, she had no plan yet. She kept trying to come up with one, but she couldn't. Everything she thought of, hurt Akane badly, and broke their family apart.

He looked hard into her eyes, and she read in those eyes the anguish he was trying to rise above. Ending things with the rest of the girls was hurting him. That ... scared her. Feelings, even weaker feelings than the ones he might have for Akane or herself, were powerful forces. Empathy was both the greatest asset humans had in dealing with each other, and it was also one of the biggest causes of suffering between people. It was very easy to get pulled down into someone else's pain and have their problems become your problems.

"Well ... let's go talk to Ukyo." He said simply. "I trust you, Nabiki." He added in a slightly more positive tone.

She nodded firmly and turned to face Ukyo's shop as she slid her hands out of his and shifted so her arm was linked with his.

"All right, let's do this." She said with as much bravado as she could as they started walking again.

Chapter Text

Nabiki walked nervously arm-in-arm with Ranma to Ukyo's restaurant door. Not that anyone would know she was nervous if they looked at her. She had her professional mask up and firmly in place. As far as most people were concerned, the Ice Queen was alive and well, and to be feared.

They paused for a moment before they went in. The smells coming from the restaurant were heavenly. She could smell frying dough, sweet ginger, tangy onion, and grilling meats. She hadn't even been hungry, but she was now. Ranma looked over at her, and she smiled and nodded. He nodded back and led the way into the restaurant. As he did so, he slid his arm out of hers discreetly as they ducked under Ukyo's Noren curtains. It didn't surprise her that he did it, but she still didn't like it.

"Welcome, come'on i— Ranma-honey, hello!" Ukyo interrupted her standard customer greeting when she realized who it was as they entered the much warmer interior of the restaurant, compared with the windy streets.

She nodded to Ukyo by way of a silent greeting. Ukyo's eyes met hers briefly, and the young chef gave a micro-nod in her direction, then resumed her attention on Ranma.

Well, we're off to a wonderful start. She thought sarcastically.

Ranma walked over to the counter casually and sat down. She was sure it was second nature to him by now. She trailed behind him and watched Ukyo's reactions to him. The young chef's eyes lit up when looking at him. Her body language was open and inviting as she immediately began making him one of his favorite recipes.

She sat down on his left and watched quietly as the little ritual between them played out as she settled into the comfortable padding of the stool. She had seen it before, of course, back when he was engaged to Akane. She understood a little better now how annoyed Akane had been by it. Ukyo was obviously enamored with him. The young chef said it with every motion of her head, every gesture with her hands, and with the shy longing in her voice. How could someone who was engaged to him look at the interaction between them and not feel jealous? She could feel a bit of jealousy burning in her chest, but she ignored it.

Intellectually she knew that Ranma wasn't romantically interested in Ukyo. He was interested in her as the friend he'd had when he was a kid, and as a chef who made amazing food he loved. In a lot of ways, Ukyo was perfect for him. The only problem with their potential romance was that Ranma had Ukyo fixed firmly in his mind as his childhood friend. His male childhood friend. She was sure he knew intellectually that Ukyo was female, and that his childhood friend was romantically interested in him. But force of habit and nostalgia could be powerful forces. Given that Ranma wasn't romantically interested in Ukyo, it was easy to see how he could gravitate to her anyway. Ukyo was a taste of home, both literally and figuratively.

Ukyo's cooking used the same recipes he remembered from when he was very little. And Ukyo was the person he had been friends with back then as well. They had a shared history, a connection that nobody else could have with him, like she had with Riko.

Ranma had grown up on the road, away from his mother, away from friends, away from regular schooling. All he'd had was his father and the constant training. Ukyo was one of the only anchors left to him from his past and his childhood. He had his father as well, but that was small comfort.

She watched the two of them together, and sighed. It was sad and pathetic in a lot of ways, and it was also very sweet, and very heart rending. She could tell from Ranma's relaxed body language, his easy tone and his happy smile and appreciative eating noises, that the small taste of home, family, and childhood that Ukyo represented, was a welcome break for him. If she wasn't already fully committed to the plan that was already in motion, she would have hesitated on executing it. But she was committed. She had to destroy Ukyo's link with him, and Shampoo's, and Akane's, if she was to have any hope at all of getting him to fully commit to her. I really can be the Ice Queen sometimes. I'm not even sorry. She thought sadly to herself.

Ukyo had done absolutely nothing wrong. Her only crime was loving Ranma. While the plan was, in a lot of ways, something that could end up being really great for Ukyo, it would still have the end result of removing Ukyo from Ranma's life. Ukyo would have to choose between continuing to chase after him, and taking the new path that was going to be laid out for her.

She decided to go ahead and order something to eat while she waited for the time to start the plan. She tried to catch Ukyo's eye so she could order, but Ukyo had eyes only for Ranma at the moment. So she resorted to waving to get her attention. Ukyo sighed and looked at her.

"Can I get the small mixed-grilled okonomiyaki, please?"

"Only Ranma eats for free here."

"Don't worry, I can pay." She said sweetly. They both knew she had more than one Thousand Yen note in her possession that had come from Ukyo.

Ukyo shrugged and nodded and set to work preparing her order. Despite everything else, Ukyo was first and foremost a consummate and professional chef.

As Ukyo worked to prepare her order, she noticed that while the young chef was making a great effort to maintain her bubbly and cheerful demeanor for Ranma, there was fear in Ukyo's eyes whenever her gaze rested on herself. Ranma seemed to be oblivious to it. He was mostly busy eating what Ukyo had served him, although he did look up and smile at Ukyo occasionally.

After a few moments, Ukyo announced something in a voice she could tell the young chef was trying to keep casual to hide nervousness.

"So ... Ranma-honey ... I ran into Shampoo today..." Ukyo said in a small voice.

"You did?" He answered in a tone she couldn't read.

"Yeah ... she seemed .... upset..." Ukyo said in an even smaller voice. She watched Ukyo carefully and saw that while her attention was on Ranma, her eyes darted in her own direction once.

Oh, well that's just perfect. OF COURSE she talked to Shampoo, why WOULDN'T she talk to Shampoo? It's not like they have been fighting each other almost the entire time they've known each other. She thought to herself somewhat bitterly. She watched Ukyo even more carefully and picked out some very subtle tells in her body language. Ukyo was letting her gaze hang on him a little too long. Her hands were fumbling a bit as she worked. Her voice was shaking just a little bit when she spoke.

She knows. She thought nervously. And it is too late for me to abort the plan. She thought as she glanced quickly at her watch. When she looked back up, she found Ukyo's eyes on her for a moment. The young chef stared at her briefly, then went back to working to prepare the food.

She decided to try to strike up conversation both to help pass the time, and to try to distract her. She just needed to buy a little bit more time before the plan started. "Tell me, Ukyo ... how did you manage to open a restaurant at your age? It is a very impressive accomplishment." She asked.

Ukyo didn't look up from her work as she answered. "My family put up the money to send me to school here in Tokyo, and to open the restaurant." Ukyo said quietly.

"That was very nice of them." She said in a sincere tone.

"And yes, it was a loan, if that's what yer wonderin'. We didn't have as much left in reserve after Genma ran off with the family's okonomiyaki cart." Ukyo said in a defensive voice. She saw Ranma look up with a bit of alarm at Ukyo's tone.

She tried to side step the topic as fast as she could. "Well, I am sure you'll be able to pay off that loan very fast. After all, your cooking is some of the most popular in this town." She said in a forced cheerful tone. Ranma nodded eagerly in agreement. She smiled a tight smile at that. It was very cute how surface-level he was. She was sure he had no idea that Ukyo was on to them, and that she and Ukyo were basically fighting.

"I'm not worried about payin' off the loan. When Ranma-honey marries me, I'll have all the help I'll need to set things right." Ukyo said in a quiet but determined voice.

She locked eyes with Ukyo for a moment and didn't blink. Not only did Ukyo know, it was clear Ukyo was ready for a fight. Well ... that's just wonderful. She thought with a sigh. Ukyo looked away first, when the cooking needed tending to.

Ranma had retreated back to his eating. She was glad that he hadn't jumped in to argue Ukyo's stated intention to marry him. He was leaving it to her and her plan, as she had asked. She looked at her watch again nervously. She wanted to bounce her leg up and down nervously on her stool, and had to stop herself from doing it with pure force of will. She just had to stall Ukyo a little longer before the plan should kick in. So she decided to engage with Ukyo a bit more, and to feel her out.

"And what will you do with Ranma once your debts are paid off? What's the big plan?" She asked.

"I ... I don't ... there is no ..." Ukyo replied quietly.

"Are you going to be happy in this little restaurant forever?" She pressed.

"Little?" Ukyo said with a note of anger creeping into her voice.

"Well, you have to admit, compared to some of the larger okonomiyaki places in Tokyo or Osaka, yours is on the smaller side." She said.

Ranma's hand flashed out in front of her face and caught something that impacted his hand hard enough to move it back a millimeter and touch her nose. It was an okonomiyaki. She narrowed her eyes.

"Oops, silly me. Sorry about that. You know how it is in these small places, sometimes things just get away from you." Ukyo said in a sweet voice.

Ranma lowered his hand and dropped the okonomiyaki back on to the grill. "Play nice." He growled.

Ukyo smiled radiantly at him. "I always do, Ran-chan."

She glared at Ukyo. Then she forced a smile on her face and pressed onward. On one level, she actually respected Ukyo for fighting so hard. She didn't really approve of the attempts at physical violence, but she respected Ukyo's fighting spirit. She glanced at her watch again, and suppressed her reaction. The plan would start at any moment.

Ukyo slid a plate with her okonomiyaki on it in front of her, along with various condiments. She glanced down at the grill and saw the one Ranma had caught was still sitting there simmering away where he'd dropped it. At least Ukyo hadn't tried to serve her that one. She also respected that. Even with someone who was basically her enemy, Ukyo was professional about the food she served to her customers. She smiled and slid a Thousand Yen note across the counter to Ukyo, who pocketed it.

Ukyo Withdrew a couple of smaller notes and slid them under her plate for change. She might have been willing to leave the change as a peace offering for all the money she had gotten out of Ukyo. But Ukyo had just tried to fling food in her face. So she absently tucked them into her pocket as she ate. Her focus immediately moved to the food. Ukyo's cooking was, as always, excellent. Her okonomiyaki was savory with a hint of sweet. It was cooked well, and had good texture, and the ingredients were fresh and complemented everything. The sauces were obviously homemade, and they were wonderful. She savored every bite of her savory-sweet meal and almost forgot where she was, and why she was there while she ate.

Ukyo went back to ignoring her as she moved over in front of Ranma at the counter and made a show of cleaning the grill, but in reality she was mostly just staring at him. She sighed. This was just ... not going to be pleasant. Ukyo was—

Her thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of a young man in a black suit who entered the restaurant. Ukyo tore her eyes off Ranma and called out her usual greeting. The young man bowed politely and remained standing. He looked around with obvious approval at Ukyo's restaurant and breathed in deeply the aromas from Ukyo's cooking. Ukyo eyed him out of the corner of her eye for a while, and eventually turned and faced him and indicated a seat at the bar.

"Please, have a seat, and let me know when you're ready to order, honey." She said in her usual professionally sweet voice.

The young man smiled faintly and stepped forward and took the seat Ukyo had indicated at the end of the bar. He set his briefcase down on the counter and looked over at the menu on the wall. He smiled and placed his order. "One large Osaka-Dotonbori okonomiyaki, please."

Ukyo smiled at the order, and nodded. "Comin' right up, I love making that one. You want a soda or something, honey?" Ukyo asked as she began preparing the order.

"Of course. It wouldn't be Osaka style without a beer or a soda, now would it?" The man said cheerfully.

Ukyo beamed at him. "It sure wouldn't!"

She smiled softly to herself, then quickly hid it as Ukyo busied herself at the grill and the young man sat and watched her work with a critical eye.

Ranma had finished eating already, and was eying the grill hungrily. She knew he could happily sit at the bar for the rest of the afternoon and eat Ukyo's cooking. She was still working on her own order. She wouldn't be able to finish it. It was far too much rich food for her to eat in a single sitting. She eventually laid her chopsticks down in their rest and gave up after only finishing about a third of it. Ranma looked over at her and she grinned and nodded as she pushed her plate over to him. He beamed and immediately began attacking the food. She smiled at how happy he was. It did not escape her notice that Ukyo scowled at him briefly at his display of being willing to share food with her. It wasn't something people who weren't close did, especially not in public.

Ukyo sighed and finished up the order for the young man and served it to him with her usual flourish. The man grinned and dove into his food with almost as much enthusiasm as Ranma had. Ukyo smiled at the obvious appreciation for her cooking as she wandered back up the grill to be closer to Ranma. She saw Ukyo absently begin fixing another of Ranma's favorites. She was sure Ukyo would continue to feed him as long as he was willing to stay and spend time with her. Poor Ukyo.

Things settled into a comfortable silence after that. The young man in the suit ate enthusiastically, as did Ranma. Ukyo continued to feed him, and she watched it all with the patience of someone who routinely had to play the long game in her life.

Eventually, the young man in the suit slid his empty plate back towards the grill with several Yen notes tucked under it and announced that it had been excellent. He stood up and beamed at Ukyo and bowed politely to her again. Ukyo smiled and bowed back.

"Thank you so much. Please tell your friends about me. Most of my business is by word of mouth." Ukyo said what she assumed was the young chef's standard goodbye to new customers.

"Would you like that to change?" The young man in the suit asked with a wide smile on his face.

"What do ya mean, honey?" Ukyo asked as she leaned against the counter and watched him with an amused smile on her face.

"I mean, I'm a talent scout for Chibo International, the largest okonomiyaki chain in Japan, now with several locations worldwide." He said with a large smile.

"Wait, what?" Ukyo said in a less amused tone.

"You will find my card with the payment for my most excellent meal." The young man said confidently.

Ukyo walked over to the man's plate with a look of mild curiosity on her face. Ukyo probably figured the man was joking with her.

She watched the young chef slide the man's plate to the side and pick up the small stack of Yen notes and pocket them. But her right hand slid something off the top of the stack first. It was indeed a business card.

"Mr. Yamashida, Chibo International..." Ukyo read off the card in a voice that shook with disbelief.

"That's me." The young man said.

"Chibo..." Ukyo said in a shocked voice.

"Surely you've heard of us? I can tell from the way you cook, and your accent, you're Osakan. We're headquartered there after all."

"Osakan, born and raised." Ukyo confirmed as she pocketed the card and stared hard at the man before she continued. "Which is why I know Chibo doesn't hire chefs who are still in high school. Who put you up to this? What's the joke?" Ukyo asked in a voice that was turning frosty. She saw Ukyo's eyes dart to her briefly.

"Oh, this is no joke, Miss Kuonji. And you're correct, Chibo doesn't normally hire chefs as young as you are. But we've received a lot of reports about you, Miss Kuonji ... you wouldn't be related to Hirohito Kuonji, would you, by chance?"

"He was ... my Grandfather." Ukyo whispered.

"He was a gifted chef. One of the best. I had the honor to have some of his cooking when I was very little." The young man said.

Ukyo waved her hand in front of her face like she was trying to wave away his words. "Yeah, yeah, yeah, all right so my name is linked to a famous okonomiyaki chef. That isn't exactly hard ta figure out, sugar. But I still don't believe you. Chibo doesn't hire chefs as young as me." Ukyo said in a more confrontational tone.

She watched Ukyo square off with with young man in the suit, almost like she was getting ready to fight him. She widened her eyes at that. It would be ... bad ... if Ukyo attacked him.

The young man simply smiled at Ukyo and shook his head. "Oh no, you misunderstand, Miss Kuonji. Chibo is not interested in you as a simple line-chef. We want you, the whole package, we want the Ukyo Kuonji brand. We would like to buy out your restaurant, and bring you on as the head chef at the Chibo Ebisu Garden Place Branch in Tokyo to start out. You would be given complete freedom to run the kitchen as you saw fit. You would set the menu, and hire the line-chefs to work under you, and to train them to cook to your specification. Once you have done that, we will take you national, and eventually, international. We would like you and your cooking to be the new face of Chibo. Your style and your brand of okonomiyaki, along with our classic style. We want you to lead our charge to capture the next generation of diners. Will you do it, Miss Kuonji?"

Ukyo's jaw went slack, and she staggered back like she had been wounded to rest her palms up against the rear wall, like she needed to hold on to something real to keep herself grounded in reality. She could see that Ukyo's legs were shaking.

"You what? You want me to what?" Ukyo asked in a tone that was a mix of utter disbelief coupled with abject shock.

She risked a quick glance away from Ukyo to check out Ranma's reaction. As she had hoped, he was grinning happily for Ukyo. She darted her eyes back to Ukyo and continued to watch nervously as she chewed on her lower lip.

"We want to bring you on as the new head chef at the Chibo Ebisu Garden Place Branch in Tokyo, and eventually have you help shape the menu, taste, experience and everything else at Chibo International." The young man in the suit said with a smile.

"I ... I don't ... this is everything I ever ... this can't be real." Ukyo whispered.

"Oh, it's very real. If you'd like to verify I am who I say I am, and that the offer is real, please, call our headquarters tomorrow morning. Here's their number." The young man said as he handed her another card.

Ukyo pocketed it in a numb silence. Then the young chef grinned, and stared hard at him. "Of course! It's an old Osaka game to mess with people by giving them fake business cards ... is that what this is?"

The young man grinned back. "Feel free to get the number from any source you like and call it, Miss Kuonji. I am not playing with you. You're a fellow Osakan, after all." He said sincerely.

Ukyo shook her head back and forth, like she was in denial. Her chest was puffing up with pride though. The young man in the suit was getting through to her. "This can't ... this can't be real. Your offer would be amazing, but..." Ukyo looked over at Ranma, and deflated.

The young chef kept her eyes fixed on Ranma and after a moment spoke again to the young man in the suit. "If I take your offer, and you buy me out and move me into downtown Tokyo ... will I have time to make it back into Nerima for personal reasons?" She asked softly, still with her eyes locked on Ranma.

The young man shook his head softly. "I'm sorry, but no. We need you to start immediately. You'll be working very long hours for at least the first few months. We'll need you to train the new chefs, plan the menu, teach our procurement people how to order the proper ingredients for your recipes, help plan the decor, and many other things. Once that's done, you'll be needed to oversee the restaurant and to help run it daily. After all of that is done, we will be moving you to our original location in Osaka, and you'll be repeating the process there. And then on to the next major location, and on and on and on. We will have you booked solid in Japan for at least a few years, and then you will be needed to visit some of our international locations as well. Eventually, if all goes according to plan, we could free up your schedule and let you pick the restaurant of your choice to run and manage for your day to day operations. Then you will be able to enjoy the perks of your salary and your well earned free time again." The young man said with a soft smile.

"I ... I see." Ukyo said in a small voice, still with her eyes locked on to Ranma.

"Is ... is that a problem, Miss Kuonji? The contract would be a fairly standard head chef contract, and the working conditions will probably be about the same as what you are doing now here as a sole proprietor. Once you work your way up to the national level, we will renegotiate your contract to make you part-owner, and eventually you will be able to join the Board of Directors."

"That's ... amazing." Ukyo said in a voice that was excited but soft. "Could ... could I bring someone with me? Would there be living accommodations for two?" Ukyo asked in a weak voice as she stared at Ranma. Ranma was gazing back at his oldest friend with a kind smile on his face. He seemed to be genuinely happy for her.

"I'm afraid not. Initially you'll be placed in the women's dorms with the rest of the chefs for the Tokyo area while we finalize your contract and get everything setup. Then we'll place you in company housing. I'm afraid it's single occupancy only, for right now. Once you finish the training and setup part of your contract, and pick the restaurant of your choice to run and manage for your day to day operations, you would be provided with housing large enough for a family if you like. That would be in several years, though. I am afraid that is the standard offer from the company. You could try to negotiate it, if you like, but I have very rarely seen the company be willing to renegotiate on standard terms like that. " The young man in the suit said kindly.

This was it, the moment of truth. Ukyo had obviously figured out what was going on. The question now was, could Ukyo give up everything in Nerima, to pursue her dream? Ukyo had to know she was being given a once in a lifetime opportunity. It was the kind of opportunity most chefs who dreamed of making it big never got. It was the kind of opportunity that would make Okonomiyaki-Ucchan a household name in Japan. It had also cost her a fortune in favors and cash to make it happen for her. And, even after she had struck the deal, they had still insisted on sending the talent scout to make sure Ukyo could do what she had told them Ukyo could do. Ukyo had had no idea how important the meal she had just served, had been.

All totally worth it though, if she goes for this. She thought to herself as she watched Ukyo carefully, and held her breath.

"I see." Ukyo said in a small voice that shook as the young chef kept her eyes on Ranma. "Can I think about it? When do you need an answer?"

"Tonight if possible. But if you would like to call tomorrow morning and verify everything, that is fine too. But we will need an answer by tomorrow morning, no later than ten."

"That's ... really soon." Ukyo whispered.

"I'm afraid so, Miss Kuonji ... if you can't do it, we at Chibo will be sad to lose you, but we will understand. The position we are looking to fill is a demanding one. Not everyone is ready to step into the role of a head chef." He said softly. That got Ukyo to snap her eyes up from Ranma.

She tensed for a moment and prayed Ukyo wasn't about to attack him. Instead, Ukyo balled her hands up to fists at her sides and almost shouted as she replied. "I'm ready! I am! I've been working my whole life to get where I am, and I can do it, I can be a head chef!" She protested.

"Excellent! That's what we want to hear! Are you ready to sign the contract now? I have a copy with me in my briefcase." The young man said happily as he reached to open it.

Ukyo took a step back and darted her eyes over to Ranma, and shook her head nervously. "N-not ... yet." Was all she said.

The young man in the suit sighed, smiled and nodded. "Of course, of course. You need some time. Well, please do consider our offer, Miss Kuonji, we can only hold the spot open for you until tomorrow morning, then we will have to go with our second choice. We are on a tight schedule. We think you and your skills would be absolutely perfect for the role. We sincerely hope you will accept the offer."

Ukyo just stared at him in slack-jawed shock then nodded once, slowly.

"Here, please take my personal card and call me if you are ready to accept and sign the contract. It has all of the numbers to reach me, at any time of day. I am staying just five minutes away from here, I can be here with the contract on very short notice." He said as he took a step forward and handed Ukyo a card he whipped out from his suit jacket and handed to her with a small bow.

Ukyo nodded again, a little more quickly as she looked at the card and then set it down carefully behind her counter.

The man in the nice suit smiled a kind smile and looked around the restaurant again and breathed the air in again as well as he nodded in approval. "Good day to you, Miss Kuonji. Please do call me." Then he smiled again, and ducked out of the restaurant, and was gone. He'd never once looked at her, or betrayed that he knew of the plan. Because he didn't know. The favors she had called in to make the visit from Chibo happen, had been called in at much higher levels than the on-the-ground talent scout level.

Ukyo stood stock still for several moments and just stared at the doorway with her mouth hanging open. She looked over at Ranma while Ukyo was doing that, and found him looking at herself with wide eyes. She nodded at him a millimeter nod to confirm that that had indeed been the plan. Then she went back to watching Ukyo.

"You set this up, didn't you?" Ukyo finally said in a cold, shaky voice, as she continued to stare at the door. There was no question whom she was speaking to.

"Does it matter?" She asked calmly.

"I don't suppose it does, you have me backed completely into a corner. I don't really have any other options at this point."

"Take the offer, Ukyo. It sounds like a good deal, and it could make you famous as the best okonomiyaki chef in Japan, and rightly so. You could get everything you've ever worked for." She said.

"Almost everything." Ukyo countered bitterly.

"Every deal has a price, Ukyo." She said.

Ukyo fixed Ranma with a stare that was verging on tears. "Well, aren't you going to say anything?"

He smiled at her. "I think it's great, Ucchan! You've always talked about wantin' ta be famous and to become the best okonomiyaki chef in the world. It sounds like you're gonna make it, Ucchan, like I always knew you would." He said warmly.

"Don't you care? Don't you understand what it means if I take the offer?" Ukyo asked in a wounded tone as she rounded on him and stared at him. She could see now that Ukyo's hands were clenched into fists at her sides again, and they were shaking.

He swallowed nervously and looked away from Ukyo. He avoided eye contact with herself too. Ukyo stared at him for a few more moments, then prompted him again. "Ran-chan ... do you think I should take the offer? Do you think I should leave and do it?" Ukyo whispered to him.

He looked up at her then and nodded a very small nod, then smiled nervously. "C'mon, Ucchan, how can you pass it up? This is what you've been trainin' for your whole life." He said in his usual confident way.

Ukyo looked away from him as she took a step back, like she had been slapped. She could see that, more than anything else, Ranma's refusal to ask her to stay, hurt Ukyo the most. Ukyo stepped back even further from him and looked down at her grill as she brought her hands up to clasp them tightly in front of herself. The shaking stopped.

"The worst part is ... the worst part is ... Nabiki's right, it is a good deal, and I would be a fool to pass it up..." Ukyo whispered as she stared at her grill. Neither she nor Ranma moved or made a sound as they waited for Ukyo to finish speaking. "Your new fiancée is as clever as they come, Ranma. Be careful with her. She may be too clever for you too. She's manipulatin' you, ya know? What happens if, after she's gotten you to throw everyone away who's ever loved you ... she throws you away too, after she's bored with you? What happens then? Where will you and your father go with no Tendo Dojo to inherit? What will you do then? Think carefully about that. You still have time ... you still have time to ... at least until ... at least until tomorrow morning." Ukyo whispered to him in a heartbroken voice, in the suddenly painfully quiet restaurant.

She found herself looking down at the counter top. She didn't like watching people suffering, and Ukyo was suffering. Ranma didn't seem to understand how much Ukyo was hurting, but she did. She'd gone through the process of trying to give him up, and then thinking she had lost him. She knew exactly how it felt, and it was awful. She clenched her own hand into a fist, under the counter, and told herself to just hang on. She couldn't let Ukyo's misery sway her. I knew walking in here that this was the likely outcome. It's her or me, there's no other choice! She berated herself.

"Come on, Ucchan! It's not like that! Honest." Ranma protested as he hopped down off his stool like he was going to go over to her, but Ukyo fixed him in place with an angry glare. Then the young chef turned her gaze to herself for a moment, in silence, and ignored him. She returned the stare calmly.

Ukyo looked away from both of them then, and stared at the floor. "I hope to God she's worth it, you jackass. Get out." Ukyo said in a voice shaking with emotion.

Ranma opened his mouth like he was going to say something, but she shook her head urgently at him and tilted her head at the door. He closed his mouth slowly, and nodded once, with sad eyes. They hurried out of Ukyo's restaurant and were out on the chilly street again a moment later.

As soon as they had cleared the Noren curtains, they both heard Ukyo start to sob.

He looked at her sharply, with disappointment clouding his eyes. She immediately felt like the ground was dropping out from under her, as a feeling of helplessness rose up in her, cold and tight, and centered in her chest. The cold sensation spread out to her arms, and froze her breath as her heart struggled against it. The weight of his disappointment in her was ... palpable.

"You said you wouldn't hurt her." He said quietly, with betrayal in his eyes.

Chapter Text

"Try, Ranma. I said I would try not to hurt her." Nabiki said in a shaky voice as she felt tears well up in her eyes. She could feel how disappointed he was in her. It was radiating off of him. It wasn't fair of him to place all of the blame on her! She had asked him if he was ready! She had told him that she had no backup plan if the first one didn't work. She had told him Ukyo might take it badly. She had given him a chance to back out! There was nothing else she could have done and actually still have gone through with the plan.

"Let's just ... let's just go home, all right?" He said softly as he looked away from her and started walking rapidly away from Ukyo's.

"All ... All right." She replied as she fell into step behind him. It was clear he wanted to put as much distance between himself and the sobs they could both still hear coming from Ukyo.

He walked very briskly away from Ukyo's restaurant, and she had to struggle to keep up. He wasn't quite running, but his fast walk had just enough of a long stride to make her need to almost jog to keep up with him. It was amazing how many guys didn't understand that. Well, she hoped he didn't understand, and he wasn't just doing it spitefully to make her hurry to keep up.

After they had covered several blocks, her breathing was starting to become audible as she strained to keep up with him. He looked back at her with an unreadable expression on his face, then slowed down dramatically. When she reached him, he hesitantly reached his hand back towards her and waited until she took it. Then he set off again towards home, with her in tow. She wondered if his hand was a gesture meant to reassure her, or if he simply wanted to help hurry her along.

He didn't resume his brisk pace, though. His stride was much slower now, and she was able to keep up with him without having to strain. She was still embarrassed at how out of breath she was, compared to him. So she used a combination of holding her breath and breathing shallowly through her open mouth to cover how out of breath she actually was.

He didn't look back at her again as they made their way home. He kept his eyes down and forward. His hand in hers was limp and lifeless as well. She could tell he was in distress, but because he wasn't talking to her, she didn't know what, exactly, he was upset about. Was he upset about the plan? Was he upset that Ukyo had cried? Was he upset about losing Ukyo? Was he upset with what Ukyo had said about herself? Was he upset with her for making him promise to end things with the rest of them? Was he ... was he sick of her? Was she too cold and calculating for him? Had Ukyo's words to him made him realize that?

They reached the gate to her family's lands, and she tugged on his hand to get him to stop. He did so, rather reluctantly. But he didn't look back at her. She bit her lip to keep herself from crying, and tugged on his hand again a bit more urgently. He was acting like he was angry with her, and it was causing her to panic. He sighed and looked back at her with cloudy eyes.

"Ranma ... I'm sorry, all right? That was the best I could do to help you end things with her. I tried, I really did try to make it something that would be good for her." She whispered.

He nodded but didn't say anything, and he kept his eyes downcast.

"If you had known that was what the plan was, would you still have gone through with it?" She asked sadly.

He looked at her for a moment, then shrugged. Then, after a moment he eventually nodded a small nod and looked down again.

"Then I'm not sure what else I could have done. If you had known of the plan beforehand, you would have tipped her off, and the whole thing probably would have collapsed. Ukyo can read you really well. Your reactions had to be genuine for her to believe it." She said desperately.

He nodded at that.

"I didn't want her to be hurt. But I told you back when we made our promises to each other, that they would probably cry when you broke things off. There just ... isn't much I can do about that. The only way they could be unaffected when it happened, is if they never had any real feelings for you in the first place. I did my best to protect Ukyo from the pain, and I tried to make it as easy for her as I could. I tried, all right?" She whispered fiercely to him as a tear escaped and slid down her cheek.

She was right on the verge of losing control. She hated, she absolutely hated having him upset with her, and the silent treatment was the absolute worst. She knew, because she did it to people all the time.

She knew she wasn't acting strong right now. She knew that she wasn't living up to the cold, untouchable persona she had crafted for herself. And she didn't care. This was more important to her than appearing strong in other people's eyes.

He looked up at her then with less cloudy eyes, and smiled tightly at her and squeezed her hand. "I ... I know ya did. I just ... I need some time to think, okay? This is hard for me. Can you ... is it all right ... if Doctor Tofu watches you and Akane tonight?" He whispered as he looked away from her again.

Her heart froze. She searched his face for the Ranma she knew. She wanted to see her friend, her guardian, the young man whom she trusted. If it was over, she would rather break it off now, rather than have him punish her for a while, grow more distant, and then break it off. He seemed so ... angry. He was pretending like he wasn't, but that was just making it worse. She reached for his other hand, and tugged on both his hands urgently and eventually got him to look up at her again.

She sucked air in through her teeth and shivered involuntarily. She could see it in his eyes. Her Ranma was still in there, but he was buried under a lot of darkness at the moment. He was faking a smile for her, and looking at her because she wanted him to, but she could tell he didn't really want to look at her at the moment. Her Ranma wasn't gone; she could see in his eyes that the spark was still there, it was just muted, and going dark. Her pride warred with her passion for a second, then she threw herself into his arms and hugged him fiercely as she buried her face into the silky shirt on his chest.

He caught her and held her loosely in his warm arms, even more loosely than he had in the morning. She wanted to sob, but the hot ball of pain inside her was caught in her throat. The best she could do was open her mouth and kind of make a choking sound. After a few moments, his compassion kicked in and he held her a little more tightly and rocked back and forth with her as she shuddered with emotion.

"I'm sorry ... I'm sorry, all right? I tried, I tried to help you end things with her as well as I could. There wasn't anything else I could think of to make it easier!"

He nodded, but didn't speak.

She braced herself and tried to come up with something to say to fix it. "If ... if you want ... you can go back and talk to her ... I'll ... I'll stay here. You can, maybe make it better? If you talk to her? Or ..." She pulled in a tremendous breath and clutched the back of his shirt tightly as she summoned the willpower to say it, "... or ... you could go tell her not to go. That will make her feel better." She whispered to him. She had nothing else left to say, so she just held on to him with shaking hands atop shaking legs, and hoped it wouldn't be the last time she did so.

After a long while, she had no idea how long, he finally whispered to her. "I'm not gonna go see her. You were right, it can't go on forever. I just ... I just need some time, okay? I need ta think ... by myself ... for a while." He said as he stepped back and held her out at arm's length. He still wasn't looking at her.

She sniffled and wiped her nose on her sleeve and nodded. There wasn't anything else she could do. She wanted to ask him if it was over, but she couldn't. Her pride would only allow her to bend so far, and ... she was also terrified of the answer.

He looked at her briefly and smiled a weak, half-smile at her, as he stepped back and let go of her arms. She returned his weak smile with her own fake smile, and let her hands drop to her sides. She wasn't defeated yet, but she didn't know what to do next. She'd never before been in the situation she was in now. She'd never been in a relationship before now ... well, not one where she cared about her partner anyway, not a real relationship. She didn't know how to handle a romantic partner being upset with her. He'd asked for space, and time to think, so that was what she would give him, not that she had a lot of options open to her at the moment.

He stepped back away from her again, and she smiled as bravely as she could, and nodded at him that it was all right for him to leave her. He nodded back, and stepped back again. She couldn't stop herself from trying one last time. "If you ... if you change your mind, I'll leave your bed out for you." She whispered to him. He nodded again without looking at her, then stepped through the gate, and was gone. She didn't know if that had been his way of ending things with her or not. She started to hyperventilate as she tried to fight back the tears as her vision darkened at the edges.

We never even went on our date. She thought miserably as she gave in and finally let the tears escape. She leaned heavily up against the cold wall to her family's lands, slid down it to the cold ground, and cried silently as she covered her face with her hands and propped her elbows up on her knees. She didn't know how long she sat there on the cold ground while she shuddered as she made every effort to let the tears out while she stayed silent. Eventually, some time later, she felt someone's presence next to her.

Normally she would have done something to mask how she was feeling. But considering what she was going through at the moment, and that she was facing the very real possibility that her brief relationship with Ranma was over, she didn't care if someone caught her crying right now.

She looked up to her left and found Doctor Tofu standing next to her, and looking down at her with sympathy on his face. She didn't know why, but she felt an irrational surge of white-hot anger at the sight of him. Something inside her ached. Doctor Tofu was always so kind to her though, it just wouldn't be appropriate for her to vent on him. So, she sealed the impulse away and prevented herself from shouting the hateful words she wanted to shout for him to go away and leave her alone. Instead she just said a single word to him in a cold voice.

"What?"

That was was all she could muster to say in the state she was in right now. She surprised even herself by how angry her tone of voice sounded, even with the controls she had placed on it to try to hide how she was feeling.

It didn't seem to faze him. He smiled down at her and then crouched down to sit next to her. He didn't say anything for a long while. And she didn't care. She wiped her face with the backs of her hands, and in turn wiped her hands on the rough cotton of her school dress. With that done, she looked up at the sky above the rooftops, and watched the last rays of the setting sun coloring the sky, and tried to regain her composure.

"It never gets any easier, does it?" He asked her after a long while.

She didn't know what he meant, and she still didn't feel like speaking, so she didn't reply.

"Would you like some advice?" He asked her gently.

She felt the anger flare up in herself again, and this time she gave into it a little bit. "Didn't you tell me just the other day that you had no right to give me advice about my love life?" She said in a low, dangerous voice as she bit out each word slowly. She was getting close to be being out of control. She knew that. She also knew it wasn't fair for her to direct her anger at Doctor Tofu, but she couldn't seem to help herself.

He was silent for a while after that. When he spoke again, it was in the same tone of voice he always used, but she could tell by his inflection that she had struck a nerve in him. Oddly, though, the inflection seemed to be in deference to herself, and not the righteous indignation she had been expecting.

"You're right, I did say that. And I still have no right to give you advice about your love life. I wasn't suggesting I give you any." He said quietly, in a very gentle tone. "Would you like the advice?" He asked again.

She kept her eyes straight ahead, and pulled in deep breaths as she tried to bring herself back under control. Once she had done that, she shrugged in reply.

He was silent again for many minutes before he spoke again. "What I will tell you is this ... men ... have feelings too. And, sometimes ... men will act emotionally, instead of rationally. That isn't romantic advice, if anything it's medical advice." He said softly as he stood up.

She didn't look at him, or speak. But she did nod. She felt his presence leave a few moments later, and she breathed in deeply, then ran through some breathing exercises to help calm herself down. She then examined what he had told her with the intellect she was so proud of.

I have a pretty good idea of what he meant by that. Could it be ... could it be this is just Ranma's way of ... mourning? Maybe ... maybe he isn't upset with me, at all? Is that it? She thought hopefully to herself as she stood up and brushed herself off. She was grasping at straws, but it was all she had left. She couldn't just give up. It wasn't in her nature to give up.

She walked through the gates towards the house, and found Doctor Tofu standing there, with his hands clasped behind his back, like a soldier. He had been giving her the space she needed, while still standing guard over her while she sat outside the walls.

She nodded at him and walked past him. She still wasn't ready to speak to him. She decided to walk around the land around the house for a while and try to calm down.

Doctor Tofu gave me the space he knew I needed ... just like Ranma asked me for. Is that it? Will it be okay, if I just leave him alone tonight? She mused as she walked.

She found herself behind the house near the rear doorway by the kitchen. She thought about going inside and trying to talk to Kasumi, but couldn't seem to make her feet walk towards the door. She sighed and kept moving. She rounded the corner of the house, and froze in the shadows.

Ranma was sitting out near the Koi pond and staring blankly into the waters. His back was mostly facing her where he was sitting, but she could see a small sliver of his face as well. His jaw was set, and his eyes were glassy. He was obviously upset.

She wanted to go sit next to him, and just keep him company, while he worked through whatever he was working through. She even took a step to do it, but stopped herself. He had, specifically, asked her for time to think, and for space. She had to respect that. She sighed and took a step back to retreat to the rear door to go inside, then froze again.

Akane was walking towards Ranma with purpose in her stride. She felt anger stirring in her chest again. Akane stopped and stood next to him and said something to him that she couldn't hear. Ranma looked up at Akane and said something in reply.

Akane then sat down next to him. Very close to him, actually. They sat that way for a while in silence, and she again considered retreating. It did no harm for Akane to sit next to him. If Ranma would allow Akane to sit next to him, but not her right now, that hurt, but it wasn't that terrible.

A moment later though, it all changed. He leaned his head down against Akane's shoulder, and she could see his body shudder. Was he ... was he crying? Ranma didn't cry ... was he just shaking from emotion? She didn't know. What she did know was that he was leaning on Akane for support and not her. Akane tensed up at first, then put her arm around him and held him as he leaned on her. She covered her mouth with her cold hands and leaned back against the rough bark of the tree she was standing under and closed her eyes. It took every ounce of her strength that she had left not to scream in rage and heartbreak at the scene unfolding in front of her.

The dragon inside her let out a growl that turned into a whimper. She forced herself to open her eyes and watched them together for a moment longer, then pushed off from the tree and retreated slowly into the shadows back towards the house. She couldn't watch any more. She was angry and sad at the same time. She wanted to rush out there, kick Akane away, grab him, and shake him, and demand to know why he could lean on Akane for support, but not her! Akane hadn't protected him yesterday, she had! Akane hadn't been able to say she wanted to be engaged to him in front of the family, she had! It wasn't fair!

She felt the tears coming back, as she turned her back on the disturbing scene in front of her and rushed to the back door of the house. She was doing everything she could to keep her composure until she was inside the house. She could feel the pressure of the sobs that wanted to come at the back of her throat, and her eyes burned with unshed tears.

She yanked the door to the kitchen open, and was surprised to find the kitchen empty. There were pots simmering on the stove, but Kasumi was absent. She didn't waste time wondering about it, though. She rushed through the kitchen and into the hallway that led to the stairs. The only thought on her mind right now was to get to her room so she could have some privacy when she lost control.

When she entered the hallway, she froze when she saw Kasumi at the other end of it. Her elder sister was looking out towards the dining room. If the doors to the porch were open, then Kasumi could see Ranma and Akane together. She didn't want to know. Instead she turned towards the other end of the hallway and hurried towards the stairs. She paused again a moment later when Kasumi spoke.

"Let me know ... if you feel like talking." Her older sister said quietly to her back.

She nodded but didn't turn around, then hurried up the stairs to her room. As soon as she was inside the four walls of her bedroom, she let the emotions she was feeling pull her mouth into a wordless open-mouthed grimace as she breathed in heavily and clenched her eyes shut as the tears came again.

She slumped down to the floor right where she was standing, and leaned against the door, and released the controls on her emotions. She slumped even further to the ground a moment later, and lay on her side as her small frame shuddered from the sobs she was allowing to come, even as she labored to keep them silent. The last thing in the world she wanted was for Daddy to hear her and to go charging out to force Ranma to her side. She'd break it off with him before she allowed that to happen.

She also didn't want Ranma to hear her, feel guilty, and come up to see her while pretending things were all right, out of his sense of duty. She lay her head in the crook of her arm and let her tears run down her elbow to the carpet. As she cried, she ran her mind over the problem she was facing, and tried to come up with a solution.

He told me that he would have gone through with the plan anyway, even if he had known what it was going to be. He hasn't said anything to me about being upset with me, aside from telling me he thought I had said I wouldn't hurt Ukyo. But he's obviously upset, and at least a little of it has to be because of me. And he's going to Akane for support. So ... what do I do? She didn't have any answers for herself.

Then a thought struck her. An awful thought. She curled up into a ball and berated herself as she thought it over. I am such an idiot. He's going to go back to Akane, and I've already helped clear the field of the only other two serious obstacles that were in Akane's way. Was that ... was that Akane's plan all along? Wait until I did the dirty work, and then swoop in and take him back? What have I done? She thought darkly to herself as a small wail escaped her lips and her crying got less quiet.

She stayed that way until she was finally able to wrestle control of herself back from her emotions. She then forced herself to stand up on shaky legs and walked over to her bed and sat down. She just sat there and stared at nothing for a while, as she thought. She had all sorts of plans forming in her mind, but most of them were centered on revenge. In the face of what seemed to be almost certain defeat, she was falling back on what she knew, and that was the Ice Queen.

After a while, she took a deep shuddering breath and forced herself to abandon that train of thought. She stood up, and took multiple slow, deep and purposeful breaths as she tried to center herself. When that was done, she forced herself to move on shaky legs and to run through the Kenpo drills she knew how to do. That made her feel better. She knew the light aerobic exercise was just helping her body release serotonin, which was making her feel better, but it didn't matter. What mattered was she was regaining control.

She had no idea why she was in the state she was in. A week ago, she would never have dreamed of herself being in the emotional turmoil she was in now, and yet here she was. Ever since he had caught her and saved her from falling, and made the connection with her, she had been off center. Everything was changing, inside of herself and outside. She didn't think she could stop everything that was happening, even if she wanted to. What she did know was that she could only ride it out now as best she could. It wasn't in her to give up.

She nodded to herself. If Akane's plan had been to wait until she had done the dirty work, and then to try to take him back, that was fine. It didn't mean he would go back with Akane. And she certainly wasn't going to make it easy on Akane by just giving up. She nodded again then settled into a training horse-stance and focused on herself. After a moment, she reached inside to her core, grabbed hold of what she still thought of as her courage, and pulled.

Once she had hold of the energy inside of herself, she focused on it and worked to make it into a battle aura. She watched her skin, and was happy to see little blue waves of energy begin to dance around on it. She held it as long as she could until her focus slipped and she lost it. Then she did it again, and again, and again. Each time she learned a little bit more about the process, and got better at holding on to it. After a while, she was able to hold on to it, and move around. Then she ran through her drills again, while holding on to her Ki and producing a battle aura. She noticed, as she moved through the drills, that this time she felt like there was a purpose to her motions. She felt that when she was using her Ki, everything she did was sharper, had more power behind it, and flowed together better.

When she had finished with that, she focused again and let her aura slip as she worked on the focusing techniques Ranma had shown her for being able to see other people's battle auras. She was just dropping down into the state of mind he had shown her where she would be able to tap into her Ki to see when a knock sounded at her door.

"What?" She called out in irritation as she worked to keep her focus from breaking.

"It's me, may I come in?" Came Doctor Tofu's voice.

She felt a small surge of anger again, but ignored it. "Yeah, I guess." She called out as she continued to try to hold her focus.

The door to her room opened slowly, and he poked his head in. She saw his eyes rest on her face briefly, before he wisely moved on with his visual scan of her and her room. "Is everything all right? I could have sworn I felt something up here." He said quietly as he leaned up against her door.

She really didn't feel like talking to anyone at the moment, but she didn't want him hovering around her room either, so she let go of the focusing she was trying to do, and sat down heavily on her bed. "That was me. I was practicing my battle auras."

"Ah, I see. Did Ranma teach you?" He asked quietly.

"No, my parents did, actually. He ... just helped me remember what I had learned." She replied in a measured voice. She wanted to get this over with and get back to practicing. She wanted to take her mind off of everything, and forcing herself to focus on her Ki was as good a way to do that as anything else.

"All right. Well, anyway, I came up to see you because I wanted to talk about sleeping arrangements for tonight. May I come in and shut the door?" He asked her in a formal tone.

She looked up sharply at him and nodded. He smiled gently at her and stepped all the way into her room, and shut the door behind himself. Then he came over and sat down on the floor beneath her bed. She backed up and sat on the bed, then she just watched him and waited. She didn't know what to expect, so she didn't dare let herself hope for anything.

When he was settled, he looked up at her with unreadable eyes. "Ranma came to me a little while ago, and asked me quietly if I could watch you tonight, without letting your father know. Are you aware of this?" He asked her gently.

She nodded again and bit the tip of her tongue to keep from tearing up. It was really happening. She seemed to be losing him. Everything she had been doing to try to regain her center now seemed like a foolish waste of energy. She could feel the weight of it all settle on to her. She didn't know if she would be able to get out from under it this time.

Doctor Tofu continued, oblivious to her internal struggle. "You know I don't really approve of your Father's insistence that he sleep with you girls alone at night to protect you. So I am fine with this ... if you are. I can keep it from your father that Ranma isn't watching you tonight, and I am more than capable of watching you in his place. Are you all right with that?" He asked her kindly.

She just stared at him. She couldn't, she just couldn't bring herself to say yes to that, or to nod, or in any way indicate that she was all right with it, because she WAS NOT all right with it. She could feel her lower lip begin to tremble and there wasn't anything she could do about it. Her body was betraying her.

He looked at her with kind eyes for a while, then spoke again. "Would you ... like me to tell him that I can't do it? That if he wants to avoid what your father thinks of as his duty, that he will have to talk to Soun?"

She looked down and put her hands on her knees and pulled in a deep breath. She held it for a moment, then let it out slowly as she shook her head no. She was not going to force Ranma to do anything he didn't want to do. And she certainly wasn't going to use Daddy to get what she wanted from him. The very idea was repulsive to her.

She couldn't bring herself to look up at Doctor Tofu again, though. She had managed to keep herself from openly crying, but she knew it was showing on her face now. So she kept her eyes down and waited for him to leave.

A few moments later, she heard him stand up. "All right, Nabiki. I will tell him that I will watch you tonight. And I will keep your father from finding out about it." He said kindly, in a soft voice. Then she heard his footsteps recede from her as he walked to the door. She heard him put his hand on the doorknob, then he paused for a moment. "Oh, and Kasumi told me to tell you that Kuno called earlier. He said he would call again tomorrow morning, though."

She nodded again. She couldn't care less about Kuno right now. He could be on fire and needing someone to put him out, or he could be standing outside to give her a Million Yen. She didn't care. She didn't care about anything right now. She heard her door open and close, and as soon as it did, she laid back on her bed, curled up into a ball, and cried.

Had it been a mistake? Had she ever had a real chance with him? Had he even been honest with her? What if everything that had been happening was really just his revenge for what she had put him through before the hedge maze? She didn't know.

After a while, when she had no more tears left, she stood up robotically out of her bed and went through the zombie-like motions of getting ready for bed. She stripped off her clothing slowly, without any real care or process to what she was doing. Everything ended up in a pile on the floor. She would bathe in the morning. She changed into new lingerie as she popped a few cookies into her mouth from one of her stashes. She didn't feel like facing the family right now to go downstairs for dinner. Then she threw on a robe and walked woodenly across the hall to the bathroom and quickly brushed her teeth and washed her face.

She returned to her room without having seen anyone. In some ways, she was sad about that. She wanted to talk about her fears. But she couldn't bring herself to seek someone out to talk to about it. She sighed and went back into her room and closed the door. She eyed the futon that was still on the floor where she had told Ranma to leave it that morning. Everything that had happened then seemed like it had happened a lifetime ago. She decided to leave it out because she had told him she would. She didn't want to admit, even to herself, that she also didn't want to put it away, because it meant she would be giving up hope. She couldn't do that until she knew for sure that it was over.

She thought about putting on pajamas over her lingerie, but couldn't summon the energy to do it. It doesn't matter anyway, nobody is going to be sharing my room with me tonight. She thought bitterly as she curled up into a ball on her bed under her blanket and clutched her pillow to her chest. She seriously thought about getting out of bed and grabbing Ranma's pillow from his futon. It would smell like him. But that was just so pathetic, it made her want to cry just thinking about it.

So she settled for her own company, her own pillow, and her own smells. She had already cried out all the tears she was going to be able to summon for the night, so there was nothing left to do but go to sleep. She found her mind unusually difficult to shut down, but eventually she managed, and could feel herself drifting off to sleep. She was already forgetting what it had been like to have him hold her while she slept.


***


That night she dreamed restless dreams of darkness, anger, loneliness and despair. Ranma featured prominently in most of them. In some of them he let her fall to the ground when the balcony had broken, and then stood over her and laughed with Akane in his arms. In others he left her standing alone in the hallway outside his classroom, never meeting her when he had promised to do so, while everyone pointed and laughed. In another dream he got up from sleeping with her and said he'd rather sleep outside than with her. And in one sad dream he stood silently in her room while she slept, and just watched her for a while before going to sleep next to her and holding her hand. That one was the worst one, because it was what her heart wanted desperately to happen.

Chapter Text

[There is a forum for this story. I may post things you might find interesting there, occasionally. Forum is at: https://www.fanfiction.net/topic/186761/144854128/1/Discussion
This is kind of a double update. You'll see why as you read, it all needed to go together.
THANK YOU to those of you who are reviewing, or sending me PMs with your feedback. YOU are the people I am posting this for, because you are actually helping me achieve my goals with this experiment ^_^]


Nabiki realized she was awake the next morning, because the pain came roaring right back. She had mercifully gotten away from most of it while she slept, but it hadn't gone anywhere. She felt like hell. She had a lead weight sitting on her chest left over from last night, and the muscles in her arms and legs were actually sore from trying to keep herself from shaking last night. She felt emotionally drained. Her eyes and throat ached from crying, her cheeks felt raw from rubbing them, and she was cold.

She wasn't cold physically, but inside she could feel the ice she was so familiar with, creeping back to freeze her. The ice had been a constant companion for so long, that she had been used to it ... until Ranma had caught her, and everything had changed, and she'd started to thaw inside.

Now, the feeling of the ice growing back wasn't like returning to the way she was before. Instead, it felt like she was being detached from her humanity, and herself. She wasn't indifferent to the ice any more. She had liked feeling the warmth of human attachment again after so long.

And she had liked cuddling with Ranma, and having his warmth in her bed. It wasn't even a sexual thing for her. OK, it was kind of a sexual thing, she had to admit. But, mostly it was a human thing. Like Ranma, she had no real experience with her sexuality. But she had really enjoyed the very small, tentative steps she had taken with him to explore it. Her feelings for him, finally realized, had given her back a sense of herself which she had lost somehow. It was something she hadn't felt in a very long time.

She hadn't even realized it had been missing, until he had made the connection with her. She felt a tear trickle down her cheek as she thought about it all. She wasn't frozen enough inside yet to stop the tears ... not yet anyway. And while she wasn't physically cold she could feel the difference in her bed when he wasn't with her. Her own body heat was a small candle in the wind compared to the furnace that was his body heat.

She didn't want to do anything today. She didn't want to see anyone, or ... feel anything. She shifted in her bed to roll over and go back to sleep as she seriously thought about staying home from school for the day and claiming she was sick.

Her thoughts were interrupted when she couldn't complete her roll, because her right hand was caught on something. She made her sleepy mind focus as she forced her eyes open and looked at her hand. It was hanging off the bed. She leaned over the edge of the bed, and gasped.

Ranma was lying asleep in the futon she had left out for him, sleeping soundly. Her hand wasn't caught on anything. Ranma was holding it while he slept!

Wait, that was a dream ... wasn't it? She thought in disbelief as she laid slowly back down in her bed.

She looked back over the side of her bed in disbelief. It was indeed Ranma. And this time there was no Akane draped over him! She lay back again and tried to control her breathing. She wanted to do two things at the same time. She wanted to throw herself into his arms, and beg him to take her back and to promise him she would do anything to make that happen. She also wanted to roll off the bed and elbow him in the face and beat him to within an inch of his life for making her go through what she had gone through last night.

If he's here, in my room, and holding my hand, after he arranged for Doctor Tofu to secretly watch me last night ... then he HAS TO care. If he was only worried about doing his duty and guarding me, arranging for Doctor Tofu to watch me would have satisfied his honor. Even if he had still felt duty-bound to watch me personally, nothing but his own feelings would have caused him to hold my hand. She thought to herself as a rising tide of excitement lifted her spirits. She knew her breathing was getting more rapid, and her pulse was quickening. She had a pretty good feeling that he had to be awake now.

She leaned back over the side of the bed, and found his eyes seeking hers out. She saw all over his face that her Ranma was back. Her Ranma who was her friend, and her guardian and the person she trusted, was back. The darkness in his eyes had cleared and his eyes looked normal again. It wasn't just in his eyes either, it was written on his face with the easy-going smile on his face, and the interested tilt of his head that was no longer listless and wandering. He seemed genuinely happy to see her.

"You came back!" She whispered to him, in an excited voice that she was proud only shook a little bit.

He nodded. "Yeah, I finished thinkin' faster than I thought I would, so I came to bed." He said sheepishly.

"You came back!!" She whispered fiercely as she sat up in bed and stared at him intently. She wanted very much for this to be real, and not another dream. She bit her lower lip to test if it was a dream or not. The small pain she felt was worth it when he didn't dissolve into a dream illusion.

She saw his eyes travel down her body, then urgently back up to her eyes, where he locked them nervously. What was he ... she looked down and blushed. She was only wearing her underwear, and they were actually rather skimpy. She had forgotten about that. She thought about covering up, then smiled softly when another idea came to her mind. She knew it probably wasn't the wisest idea, but she was feeling very unbalanced at the moment, and didn't care.

She smiled impishly at him as she pulled her blanket all the way off herself. Ranma dutifully kept his eyes on her eyes the entire time. She slid her legs off the bed while she maintained her grip on his hand, then sank down next to his bed in the walkway between her bed and his. She was doing her best to keep her movements smooth and leisurely. She was fighting her urge to throw herself at him, wrap him in a death grip, and cry hysterically. He looked up at her with panicked eyes as she picked up the corner of his blanket and slid softly into bed next to him.

She pulled the blanket all the way over both of them when she did so, including their heads. Then she let go of his hand and snaked her right arm under his neck, threw her left arm across his chest, and draped her left leg across his legs. For a moment after she did that, she experienced pure ecstasy. Her legs actually quivered and she got goosebumps on her skin as the pleasure hit her.

The desire had been building in her for so long now to hold him and be in bed with him, that to finally be able to do it again was beyond a relief and more than satisfying. She let out a soft, contented sigh as she relaxed into him. He was so warm! Inside his bed with him, it was easily five to ten degrees warmer than her own bed had been. She could easily have gone back to sleep right away, but she wanted to be with him at the moment. She could feel parts of herself straining inside as she tried to figure out how to be with him like she wanted to be. She wanted more and more and more of him. She didn't know how to do that with the relationship she had with him, but she was determined to try to figure out how.

Ranma, for his part, lay shock-still and as straight as he could make himself. He kept his hands rigidly at his sides. His shirt had ridden up a little bit when she had climbed into bed with him. She was really enjoying the feeling of his bare skin against hers, even if it was just her tummy, arms and legs. She wanted to rub herself up and down against him, but stopped herself. There would be plenty of time for that kind of thing later, if he committed to her.

For the moment, she wanted to get a few things straight with him. She had taken care of her urge to throw herself into his arms, now she needed to take care of the urge to smack him. "You can't do that to me, ever again!" She whispered to him with real heat in her voice as she buried her face into his neck.

"Do what?" He whispered back, obviously confused and a bit flustered.

"The silent treatment! It's terrible! It's almost the worst thing a guy can do to a girl." She replied in a strained tone. This was harder than she had thought it would be. But she was determined to do it anyway.

"But ... I wasn't tryin' ta give ya the silent treatment. I ... I just needed to think, that's all. You ... you thought I was mad at you?" He asked hesitantly.

She nodded into his neck and fought back tears. She had no idea if they were tears of anger, sadness, frustration, or happiness. What she did know was that nothing felt more right to her than being in his arms and sharing his body heat with him. Nothing.

"Aw man, I'm sorry! I ... that's just what I've always done when I was growin' up with Pop, ya know? Whenever I was stuck on something, I would go off and think about it until I got ... unstuck, I guess." He said quietly as he hesitantly brought his arms up and encircled her waist.

He smelled strongly of his flowery cedar scent. It was intoxicating. The combination of the heat and tactile sensations from being in bed with him, and the heady smell of him, was making her dizzy. She both loved it and was also somewhat uneasy with how strongly he could affect her. She had no intention of stopping, though.

"But, you seemed so angry ... and I saw you leaning on Akane..." She whispered to him as she tried to get her emotions under control.

"I ... I was angry. But ... not at you. I was just ... angry, ya know? Mostly at Pop, I guess. Ukyo never woulda been hurt like that, if Pop hadn't made that stupid deal with her dad. I guess I was also mad at myself for lettin' it go on as long as it did. I didn't mean to hurt her." He said quietly.

It had not escaped her notice that he had neatly sidestepped her bringing up that he had leaned on Akane. She decided to let it go, for now.

"You hurt me too." She whispered to him.

He didn't say anything to that for a little while, but he did tense up under her. She was growing concerned that something was very wrong, and was about to prompt him again, when he finally whispered a response. "I didn't mean to."

"Well you did!" She whispered back, a little more strongly.

"I ... I'm sorry. You can hit me if ya want." He said in a small voice.

She lifted her head up from his chest and looked him in the eyes with exasperation. "I don't solve my problems that way, Ranma." She whispered to him.

"Don't worry, I can take it." He said in a voice she could tell he was trying to make jovial.

She raised an eyebrow at him and frowned. "I know you can. I still don't want to hit you." She said simply.

"Well, how can I make it up to you?" He whispered to her.

"You can ..." she trailed off without a good reply to that. She leaned back away from him a little bit to look into his eyes in the dim light under the blanket then sank back down into him softly as a suitable punishment for him came to mind. "You can ... tell me why you did that to me. We're supposed to be dating, even if we aren't actually engaged to each other. I don't understand why you pushed me away like you did, and hurt me like that. I should have been the one you turned to when you needed support." She whispered to him as she held him tightly.

She didn't have anything else to say after that, so she just squeezed him more tightly and snuggled into him while she waited for him to respond. It took him a while, which she liked to think was mostly due to his sensory overload from her being in bed with him in her underwear.

But eventually, he did reply. "It's ... it's just ... all I've ever known is people who're enemies, or family, ya know?  I don't ... I don't know how to handle people who aren't ... either of those things. And the only family I've had until I came here, was Pops ... and you've seen what he's like."

She nodded into his chest, but didn't reply yet. She was content to stay warm in his arms and wait while he worked it out. She was more than content, actually. She was happy. She could feel herself relaxing more and more as the stress left her and the ice inside receded when confronted with his body heat. The warmth from him was working its way into her tired and stressed out body, and soothing her while she lay next to him, where she felt she now belonged.

Ranma continued in a pained voice. "Ukyo's the oldest friend I have. I knew her back when I was really little. Aside from Pop, I think she knows me better than anyone. I didn't know she was a girl back then, but we were still friends. Havin' her back was ... nice." He said sadly.

She tensed up at that but didn't say anything. "It wasn't like I wanted her to be chasin' me, or nothin', it was just ... nice to have someone around from back then, ya know?"

She thought about Riko, and nodded. She did know. She still didn't say anything, though. After another few moments of silence he spoke again, quietly.

"Its just ... man, I wish you woulda just hit me, I dunno how to say stuff like this ..." He said in a plaintive tone. She smiled at that, but stayed silent. She was glad the form of punishment she had chosen for him was teaching him a lesson. He waited for close to a minute before he continued again. "I dunno why I feel like I need ta do that when I'm stuck. I dunno why I didn't wanna ... I was just ... I dunno, I needed to just go think about stuff, lots of stuff." He said quietly.

"Did it at least help? Did you make any decisions?" She whispered to him.

He didn't move or say anything for a while, so she picked her chin up to look him in the eyes again. He stared back at her for a couple of heartbeats, then slowly nodded while holding his breath.

She decided to take that as a good sign, considering what he was doing at the moment. She didn't know what, exactly, he had made decisions about, but she had to hope she was part of them. Neither one of them had much more that they were willing to voice to each other after that, but she wasn't done cuddling with him. She stayed wrapped around him for quite a while. She knew time was passing just because her room was getting brighter as the sun broke out over the rooftops and the dawn fully arrived and shone through her window. Ranma just held her patiently and waited for her to make the next move.

She knew that between the two of them, she would be the one more worried about getting to school on time. He would be more than willing to be late or even miss school if she provided him a reason to do so. She sucked in her lower lip and seriously considered trying to keep him in bed with her all day. She held on to that very happy thought for several moments, then released her lip and sighed. She knew that if she tried that, Daddy, Akane, and probably Kasumi would eventually get involved, and things would get complicated and awkward.

So, with a sigh, she pushed up from him so she was bracing herself with her right elbow under his neck, and her left she straightened to support her weight on his chest. Even with her putting about half her full body weight fully on him, he didn't seem to notice it. She didn't weigh a whole lot, but she knew if she did something like that to Riko or Kasumi, they would yelp in pain. She looked into his eyes and smiled. He smiled back nervously and kept his eyes locked on to hers. She knew that laying in bed with him in her underwear was something that Kodachi or Shampoo would do, and that he was very nervous about it.

One one level, she regretted being so forward with him. But on another level, she was kind of enjoying punishing him by making him squirmy with her body. That was the least she could do to pay him back for last night. She grinned at him and shifted her body weight so she was briefly in a push-up position with her arms planted above his shoulders, and her legs straddling his. He didn't move a muscle, and he kept his eyes rigidly locked on hers. She looked into his eyes for a bit longer, then slowly sank down so she was laying fully on top of him, and wrapped her arms around his neck slowly.

He flinched as she settled into him and again lay with his arms rigidly at his sides. She was growing a bit tired of his nervousness though. So she decided to hurry him up by deliberately shifting her weight quickly to the side. She started to slide off him like she was going to fall. Sure enough, his arms whipped up and caught her around the waist, and arrested her fall. She smiled at that.

"I can always count on you to catch me if I fall, can't I?" She whispered to him as she lay her head down on his chest softly. He didn't say anything, but she felt him nod his head. She smiled again, and enjoyed being in his arms for just a little bit longer. The hurt she had gone through last night now seemed like a distant memory, and like something that hadn't been as serious as she had thought it had been at the time.

It was time to get up. She seriously considered asking him to stand up with her in his arms again, like she had the other morning. She decided against it for two reasons. She didn't want to treat him like a toy any more than she wanted him to treat her like a toy. And, she also was a bit worried that she would pop out of her underwear if he moved too rapidly with her in his arms. She wasn't embarrassed for him to see her body, but she knew they weren't at that point yet. So she sighed and pushed herself up off him again.

He immediately released his arms from around her. She smiled at him and then rolled off him and stood up as the blanket fell away around her. She looked down at him and caught his eyes traveling up her body briefly before they landed on her eyes again, and didn't move. She winked at him and walked over to her desk chair where she had left her robe, and wrapped it around herself. When she turned around, he was standing up as well.

"So ... are we OK? Do ya ... do ya forgive me?" He asked quietly.

She tilted her head at him and looked at him quizzically before she walked over to stand in front of him. She looked him in the eyes for several moments, then sighed and leaned into him. He wrapped his arms around her immediately. Now that she wasn't just in her underwear, he seemed to be much more willing to hold her again. She rolled her eyes at that. A moment later she answered his question with one of her own.

"Do you understand that what you did last night hurt me too?"

He nodded.

"And do you understand why it hurt me?" She asked. He didn't move for a few moments after that so she leaned back to look into his eyes. He stared at her unblinking for several moments, then shook his head. She sighed and leaned into him again. "All right, that's fine, we can talk about that later on our date today. You ... still wanted to go on our date today, didn't you?" She whispered to him. He nodded enthusiastically at that.

She smiled and stepped back away from him a bit so his arms were extended but still holding her. "While we're at it, we can work on getting you to actually speak more." She said teasingly.

He smiled at that. "I'll try." Then he looked down for a moment, then back up at her with worry in his eyes. "You sure you're OK?"

She smiled at him and stared at him in silence for a while before she shook her head and looked down at the floor. "No Ranma, I'm not OK. If you want me to be totally honest with you, here it is ... ever since you caught me when the balcony broke, I haven't been OK. Everything is changing, and it is kind of scary." She whispered to him. She felt his arms tense around her as she said it.

She looked up again at him and raised one of her hands in front of his face and pointed at his nose to emphasize her point. "But, if you promise me that you won't ever do to me again what you did last night, then yes, we're OK. Deal?" She said in a forced cheerful voice.

He nodded earnestly and smiled at her. She sighed. "I mean it, Ranma. I can't go through that again. It was awful. Talking, and even hitting you wouldn't fix it, if it happened again." She said as she playfully balled her hand into a fist and thumped him on the chest.

He looked down at her fist with comically wide eyes. "Did a butterfly just land on me?" He asked teasingly. She growled at him and thumped him again with her other hand. "See, it makes you feel better, doesn't it? It's a good thing for me that you hit like a girl, though." He said with a grin. She knew what he was doing, and it made her break a little bit inside. He was trying to draw her out, and get her to fully let go of what had happened last night. She loved that he understood that, even if he couldn't seem to say it. And he was right, she was still hanging on to some of her hurt from last night. She growled at him and thumped his chest with both her fists a little bit more strongly.

"There you go, keep it up and eventually you'll be able to close a door with that strength." He said softly. She growled deep in her throat and hit him again, and again, and again with her fists as the dam inside her broke and the rest of the hurt came out as she gasped in pain. When she didn't feel like she had any more hurt left to get out, she slumped against him with both her fists trapped between her body and his, and let out a shuddering breath as the wave of emotion passed.

"I ... I thought I'd ... lost ..." She whispered to him.

"And I thought you said you didn't want to hit me." He said as he leaned back from her and rubbed his chest comically and grinned at her.

She frowned at him. She wasn't in a joking mood. He read her mood quickly and moved to wrap his arms around her and held her gently. She heard him open his mouth and start to make a sound like he wanted to say something, but nothing came out. She stayed in his arms for several minutes as she recovered from letting go. He held her patiently while she did it.

For a guy who has very little experience with social skills and other people, he seems to be very intimately acquainted with how to deal with emotional pain. She thought to herself. Considering how he grew up though, that wasn't all that surprising to her.

She finally stepped back from him and broke his grip on her as she let out a shaky breath and looked into his eyes. "Are you ready to start the day?" She asked him. He nodded.

"All right, well I call first for the bath today. I'll see you downstairs in a little while for breakfast?" She asked. He smiled and nodded again.

She walked across her room to her door, opened it, stepped into the hallway, and closed it. She pulled in a deep breath, and let it out slowly as she leaned back against her door. Why was everything so convoluted concerning him? She could smell the welcome smells of Kasumi's cooking wafting up the stairs and that brought her out of her reverie. The smell of good food cooking reminded her that she hadn't eaten a proper meal since lunch yesterday. She was suddenly looking forward to breakfast quite a bit.

She marched quickly across the hallway, and pulled open the door to the bathroom and closed it behind herself with a quiet click. She hung her robe on the hook next to the inner door for the bathtub, then opened that door as well. She paused briefly when she saw that Akane was already in the tub.

Her younger sister looked up at her from the tub. She could see Akane's eyes traveling down her body and taking note of her skimpy underwear. Then Akane's eyes slid off her and back down to the water. She sighed and decided to just ignore it. She undressed and showered without speaking. Akane was still in the tub when she was done. She wasn't going to let Akane being there keep her from the inviting warm water, though. So she stepped quietly into the tub and sat down on the other side. They both met each other's eyes briefly, then they both looked at the surface of the water again.

Well ... this is awkward. She thought as she tried to come up with something to say to Akane. I am pretty sure she doesn't know Ranma slept in my room last night, and she doesn't know I saw her with Ranma either. So ... what, should I ask her about the weather? She asked herself sarcastically.

Akane surprised her by going first. "You all right?" Her little sister asked in a small voice. She raised an eyebrow and looked over at Akane, who was looking at her sympathetically.

"I'm ... fine, how are you?" She asked slowly in reply.

Akane smiled softly. "I'm ... okay, actually ... thanks." She said in a somewhat happy voice.

What is she ... oh, of course! She thought as she tried to figure out Akane's angle. As far as Akane knows, Ranma was upset last night, and pushed me away, and went to her for comfort. I guess I would be feeling pretty good about that too, if I was her. She mused as she forced a fake smile on to her face.

She decided not to say anything to correct Akane's perceptions, and just sat quietly in the warm water with her, in a companionable silence. Akane got up and left first. As her younger sister passed her on her way out, she briefly laid her hand on her shoulder kindly and looked into her eyes as she smiled at her.

"Let me know, if you want to talk." Akane said softly. She smiled back at her and nodded. Akane walked away with a nod of her own.

What is it with both of my sisters offering to talk to me lately? Its not like either one of them have everything together, either. She thought to herself sardonically as she rose from the tub herself. She quickly toweled off, and put her robe back on as she tossed her lingerie into the laundry and exited the bathroom. She found Ranma standing there holding his bathing stuff as he chatted softly with Akane, who was standing very close to him, and smiling shyly. She smiled at both of them as she passed them and headed to her room. She had no idea what they were talking about, and didn't care. She and Ranma were okay for the moment.

She dressed for school quickly, and exited her room to pop downstairs for breakfast. She was ravenous. She was just sitting down at the table, and had started eating, when she heard wet footsteps clomping down the stairs. She leaned her head towards the doorway and saw Ranma in female form tromping towards the front entryway. She set her breakfast aside and got up from the table to follow him curiously.

She joined him in the entryway, and found him rummaging in his school bag and muttering to himself.

"What are you—" She began to ask.

"Forgot my soap." He answered in his female voice. She smiled at that and his obvious frustration with himself. It was no fun to be cold and wet as a girl. She turned back to go to the breakfast table, and was halfway through the door, when the phone rang in the entryway. She looked back as Ranma looked up and reached over to grab it.

She smiled as she remembered what Doctor Tofu had told her last night, and tried to warn him.

"I wouldn't answer that, if I were you." She said as he picked up the phone.

He covered the mouthpiece with his small female hand, and tilted his head at her in confusion. "Why not?" He asked as he placed the phone next to his ear and said hello. Almost immediately he held it away from his head again.

"That's why." She said with a laugh as she saw his face drop into a frown of disgust.

She couldn't hear most of it, but she heard enough to hear that it was indeed Kuno, calling to make the date with his pig-tailed girl whom he had bought the phone number for, from her, with Ranma present. She wondered if Kuno even realized he was calling the Tendo home.

Ranma's expression got more and more horrified as he half-listened to Kuno's ravings. Then he slowly removed the phone from his ear, and reached down and put it back in the cradle as Kuno's voice kept going until he hung up. She was having to lean up against the wall to stay on her feet, she was laughing so hard. God, it felt good to laugh after last night! Her sides ached, and she was having to gasp for breath, but it felt wonderful!

Ranma eyed her with a decidedly unamused expression on his petite female face, then stuck his tongue out at her. "If he calls here for me again, I am putting you on the phone with him." He groused.

She nodded but kept laughing. She didn't care if she had to deal with Kuno, she had never had any trouble keeping him in line.

Just as she was winding down and Ranma finished getting the soap out of his bag, the phone rang again. They both looked at each other. She grinned and waited.

Ranma sighed and nodded. "Fine I'll answer, but you're dealing with him." He said as he reached over and picked up the phone. "STOP CALLIN' HERE, KU— ... oh, hi Ucchan..." Ranma said softly as he immediately changed his voice from the loud and angry confrontational tone to a much more conciliatory one.

She stopped laughing and smiling, and simply watched as he nodded his head softly and kept repeating the words okay and yes over and over again as Ukyo said whatever it was she was saying.

He hung up the phone a moment later by setting it down softly and looked over at her with a haunted expression in his eyes. "She ... wants me to come see her, as soon as possible. She ... she said it's okay if you come too." He said.

She nodded. "Well good, because I would have come anyway. Meet me here in a few minutes? You need to finish bathing, and I need to finish eating. I'll have Kasumi pack up your breakfast for you as well, all right?"

He nodded and jogged out of the entryway and back up the stairs. She watched him go then spun on her heel and did exactly as she had said. She popped her head into the kitchen and was about to ask Kasumi to pack up his food, but before she could open her mouth Kasumi handed her two bundles with a smile.

"Here, both your lunches for today, and Ranma's breakfast." Kasumi said softly with a smile. They smelled strongly of her wonderful cooking.

She smiled back and set them down on the table before she quickly threw herself into Kasumi's arms and hugged her fiercely. Kasumi hugged her back just as fiercely. "You about ready to talk yet?" Kasumi whispered to her.

"Almost." She replied in her own whisper.

"I'll be ready when you are." Kasumi said as she held her out at arm's length and looked at her approvingly. Then her older sister winked at her and pointed out the door. "I'd get moving if I were you. He should be done bathing and getting dressed in a minute or so. You have to be hungry." Kasumi prompted her.

She nodded, picked up the bundles, pivoted and jogged out of the kitchen, and went back to the dining room where she bolted down her breakfast in record time. She was just setting down her empty bowl when Ranma poked his head into the room and smiled at her. "Ready?" He asked.

She nodded and stood up as she gathered the bundles into her arms. She walked quickly over to him and handed him the bundle that contained his breakfast. "Here, Kasumi wrapped your breakfast for you. I'll put the lunches in my bag." She said as she moved to quickly do just that before she stood up and shouldered her bag to follow Ranma out the front door as he slid it open. Ranma finished opening the door, then froze. She craned her neck to look around him, and sucked air in through her teeth in surprise.

Shampoo was standing in the middle of the walkway that led to their front door, with Doctor Tofu standing behind her and off to the side. Doctor Tofu was watching Shampoo intently with hard eyes as he stood in a very military posture. Ranma stepped hesitantly through the front door, and waved her to stay back behind him. She nodded and kept to the doorway.

"You told me the truce didn't end until later this morning, so I let her through. She said she just came to talk." Doctor Tofu said in a neutral voice.

Ranma nodded as he walked slowly over to Shampoo, who was standing motionless and watching him carefully. The Amazon girl was wearing a simple outfit of white silk pants, a pink silk shirt with long sleeves and a traditional Chinese clasp near the neck, and a simple flower pattern in pink and red. Shampoo's hair was tied back into a ponytail, and she wasn't wearing makeup. Both of those things were unusual for Shampoo.

As Ranma approached her slowly, Shampoo carefully turned her hands over from where they had been resting loosely at her sides, to show that she was unarmed. Ranma nodded and stopped walking once he was within a few paces of her.

"What do you want, Shampoo?" He asked in a voice that wasn't warm, but wasn't cold, either.

Shampoo just stared at him for a moment. She could tell that the young Chinese girl was fighting something in herself. There was no way this visit was sanctioned by Shampoo's elder. Finally, Shampoo spoke.

"Ranma ... things is ... getting bad soon. Great Grandmother no wait any longer."

"I know, the truce ends today." Ranma said calmly.

Shampoo shook her head. "Is more than that. Many bad thing to be happening soon. Great Grandmother very serious."

Ranma simply shrugged. "I ain't afraid of her."

Shampoo walked slowly towards him with her hands raised palms forward and out to her sides to show she wasn't attacking. He flinched backwards, but didn't retreat. Shampoo reached him and grasped his hands loosely. "Please ... please come back China with Shampoo. You no have to love Shampoo, just ... please come back, satisfy honor, and nobody has get hurt."

"I ... I'm sorry, Shampoo, I ... can't do that." He said in a weak voice.

"Marriage just for honor! You come China, we do wedding, then Great Grandmother no longer care what you do. After few weeks, we find reason leave, and you come back Japan. Shampoo okay with this. No have love me, no have stay with me. I no want see you get hurt!"

"I'm not gonna get hurt, Shampoo."

"I no want see you family hurt!"

"Nobody is hurting anyone, Shampoo. I won't let them."

"You no understand! You no understand! You very strong, but you no can win everyone! Great Grandmother will bring many many fighter here. You cannot win all them together!"

"I'm not scared of that old ghoul, and I'm not scared of anyone she brings to fight me. I'm sorry, Shampoo, the answer's still no."

Shampoo sank slowly to her knees as she dropped his hands and encircled his legs with her arms as tears started to fall down her cheeks and she lost all semblance of control. The young Amazon's desperation and panic were naked on her face now as she clutched at him and begged him in a rising voice that was reaching hysteria levels quickly. "Please! Please listen me! I trying help you! I no want see you hurt! I no want see you family hurt! Please, PLEASE come back with me China! It be fake wedding, I no tell anyone. You protect everyone that way, and nobody be hurt!" Shampoo begged frantically as she sobbed against his legs. Doctor Tofu took a few steps forward to assist, but Ranma waved him away.

"Shampoo, c'mon, let me go. I said no." He said sternly.

Shampoo looked over at her sharply then, and switched over to Mandarin and begged again. "请......你明白我的意思。請告訴他!逼他明白了!他不明白這將是多麼糟糕!"[1-4]

She looked blankly at Shampoo as she did her best to plaster a mask of confusion and non-comprehension on her face. But she was worried. Shampoo was frantic. If Shampoo was this worried about the impending end of the truce, it couldn't be good.

Shampoo raised her voice and continued in rapid-fire Mandarin. The young Chinese warrior could obviously express herself much better in her native language when she was upset. "這將是一場戰爭!他可能會被殺死!你......會被殺死。請!請,迫使他明白!" [5-9]

She widened her eyes and nodded to Shampoo in a sub-millimeter bow. Shampoo was fully hysterical now and had tears streaming down her cheeks as she begged for her to intervene. If Shampoo was this worried, that was bad news. But she still wasn't willing to tip her hand and reveal her secret skill. She did want to know how the hell Shampoo knew she could understand her, though. Is she just guessing, or does she know? She thought as she widened her eyes comically and shook her head as she shrugged to present body language to Shampoo that she didn't understand her. Shampoo narrowed her eyes at her and bit out an insult in an exasperated voice. "你是個傻瓜。" [10]

Ranma was reaching down gently to Shampoo now, and trying to get her to let go of his legs. He wasn't able to hold his stern posture with Shampoo so obviously upset. Shampoo eventually let Ranma remove her arms from him as she got her breathing back under control. The young Amazon then sighed deeply, looked up at Ranma with anguish in her eyes, stood up, and walked out of their front gate without another word or another backwards glance.

She watched Shampoo go as she tried to figure out how to warn Ranma, while Doctor Tofu eyed her with suspicion. Wait, Doctor Tofu understands Mandarin as well, doesn't he? That's perfect! He'll translate for Ranma what Shampoo said, and I won't have to give up my secret! She thought as she waited for him to do exactly that, while she worked to keep her face an unreadable mask. She had a strong idea that Doctor Tofu now also suspected she understood Mandarin as well. Oh well, he's pretty good about keeping secrets, it should be fine. It isn't exactly a topic of conversation he would bring up anyway. She thought as she watched him to see what he would do. Ranma turned and looked at him as well.

Doctor Tofu smiled and translated for Ranma, just as she had known he would. "She said that you don't understand how bad the end of the truce will be. She said it will be a war, and that you may be killed, and that Nabiki probably will be killed. She was desperate, and I think she was sincere. Do you want me to go bring her back?" It hadn't escaped her notice that he had left out the parts about Shampoo insisting she understood her and therefore could translate her more articulate words in her native language. Doctor Tofu's crafty when he wants to be. She thought with respect as she watched Ranma absorb the news.

Ranma looked back at her, then over at Doctor Tofu, then back at her. She shrugged. She was relying on him and Doctor Tofu to protect her from the Amazons. She had to trust to their judgment on this. Ranma looked at her for a few more moments, then shook his head. "No ... there isn't anything that bringin' her back will do. I'd still have to go with her and marry her to get them ta stop, and I ain't doin' that." He said quietly.

"Understood." Doctor Tofu said with a small smile as he nodded at her then leaped up to the top of the roof of their house and was gone. She assumed he was resuming guarding the house. With that settled, there was nothing left to do but continue on the errand they had set out on.

"Ready?" She asked Ranma softly as she moved to stand next to him.

He looked over at her and shook his head softly then looked down at the ground. "It's about to get bad with the Amazons I think. I don't think they're bluffin', Nabiki. Are ya sure ya wanna go with me? It's gonna be bad at Ucchan's too." He said softly.

She set her spine firmly and nodded. "Where you go, I go. I can't think of anyone I would be safer with, than you, Ranma." She said with confidence. She meant it to. Doctor Tofu was probably better than Ranma, but she knew that Ranma would do everything he could to protect her, and that was all that mattered to her.

He nodded at her, and held his hand out to her, and she took it gladly. They set off at a fast walk after that. Ranma spent the entire walk there eating his breakfast out of one hand, and sweeping his eyes everywhere looking for threats. She spent the entire trip bracing herself for dealing with Ukyo again. She could only imagine how last night had been for Ukyo. If her night had been rough, Ukyo's had been probably the worst that the young chef had ever endured in her entire life. This won't be easy. She thought sadly to herself as they arrived faster than she would have liked.

They turned the corner on to the street where Ukyo's restaurant was, and immediately spotted the young chef standing outside her restaurant. Ukyo was standing with her hands clasped loosely behind her back as she stared towards the rays of the rising sun peeking out from behind the rooftops. A mild breeze was tugging on her hair and causing the long coat of her chef's uniform to flutter about. Ukyo called out to them without turning to face them. "Good morning you two." There was a hard edge to Ukyo's voice, but there was also an element of exhaustion and other darker emotions weighing it down as well.

She looked at Ranma, and he nodded at her. They walked together towards Ukyo, hand-in-hand. Ranma made no effort to hide what he was doing. Weirdly though, she kind of wanted him to. She could tell just by looking at Ukyo, that the young chef was not in a good place.

When they were close enough to Ukyo to speak without raising their voices, she immediately noticed the tear streaks etching Ukyo's cheeks. There were also dark circles under her eyes. Ukyo had clearly been up all night crying, soul searching, and making her decision. She didn't flinch away from the heartache she was indirectly responsible for, but she wasn't proud of it, either.

Ukyo dragged her gaze from watching the sun rise, to rest on Ranma, and smiled weakly at him. "Do you remember, Ranma? Do you remember when we were kids and we used to get up early and help our fathers with chores, and then we'd watch the sun rise together while eating okonomiyaki?" Ukyo whispered in a shaking, miserable voice as she smiled a fake smile at him.

"Yeah ... I remember." Ranma said in a quiet, reserved voice.

"I've been waiting for you to come back and take your place next to me at the morning table ever since you and your father left me behind. You never came back." Ukyo said with a catch in her voice. It was clear the tears were very near to the surface for Ukyo at the moment.

"Ucchan ... I—"

"Let me finish! You owe me at least that much!" Ukyo snarled abruptly.

Ranma snapped his mouth closed and nodded quickly as he looked down sadly.

"I know you didn't make the promise to marry me. I know it was your horrible father, and my horrible father who did it. I know, okay? I know that it wasn't your idea. I also know that you didn't even realize I was a girl back then. Well, I know now anyway. But you know something? It doesn't matter. I loved you back then. I did. I loved you! You were my friend, my constant companion, and someone I could trust. You were nice to me, you played with me, and you were so interesting. You were perfect. You were strong, and focused, and driven, and I knew, I just knew that we were destined to be together." Ukyo said bitterly as tears streaked her cheeks again.

She found herself starting to tear up a bit as well, but clamped down on it. Now was not the time to bow to empathy for Ukyo or any of the other girls. So she set her face in stone and just watched.

Ranma, she could tell, wasn't on the verge of tears, but he was very sad. He didn't seem to be able to bring himself to raise his head to look at Ukyo at all.

"We were destined to be together, and I still think that's true. I think you're making a horrible decision, and you're allowing yourself to be manipulated by her." Ukyo said in a low, angry voice.

She narrowed her eyes at Ukyo. She didn't like where this was going.

Ranma still hadn't looked up again, but he shook his head softly in disagreement.

"This ... this girl ... comes out of nowhere, takes you from her sister, and suddenly she has you ending things with Shampoo and now me? Just because? Just like that? I don't buy it. She has some hold over you, Ranma. She can't be trusted. I should just ... I should just ... " Ukyo growled as her hand tightened on one of the small throwing spatulas in her bandoleer.

Ranma moved immediately to stand in front of her with his hands spread wide protectively. He still hadn't looked up at Ukyo, though.

"Come on, Ucchan, don't ... please." Ranma said sternly.

Ukyo sighed mightily and let her hand fall loosely to her side as she locked her eyes on Ranma. "Look at me. Look at me, you coward! You're responsible for this, at least have the courage to face me!" Ukyo shouted at him.

Ranma nodded and dragged his eyes up. He immediately flinched back when he saw the heartbroken look on Ukyo's face, and the tears streaming down her cheeks.

Ukyo held his gaze for longer than was comfortable before she finally spoke again in a whisper. "If you never had any real feelings for me, why did you string me along?"

"I didn't! I—"

"YES YOU DID! All you had to do was just tell me that it could never happen, and I would have moved on! Instead, you named me your cute fiancée and started spending time with me, coming to eat my food, and hanging around me. That certainly made it seem to me that I had a chance. Why do that to me?! Why not just be kind and tell me right away that I had no chance?! WHY COULDN'T YOU DO THAT FOR ME?! WHY DID YOU GIVE ME FALSE HOPE AND SET ME UP TO SUFFER?!"

"I ... I'm sorry, Ucchan, I—"

"Don't! Don't call me that any more, you jackass! You have no right to call me that anymore! It's Miss Kuonji to you, Mister Saotome." Ukyo said darkly.

Ranma hung his head and nodded meekly for a moment, before he dragged his eyes up again to look at Ukyo, as she'd ordered. Ukyo fixed her with a dark stare then. She met it calmly.

"Well, are you happy? You're getting what you wanted. Your two families have taken everything from me now." Ukyo asked bitterly.

I can't show weakness right now. Ukyo wants to have it out now, and to have closure. That much is obvious. And she's decided I'm the villain here. Well, so be it. I have played that role before, I can certainly do it again. I am not going to bring up the fact that I am also responsible for giving her the opportunity of a lifetime at great personal expense. That won't help her get the closure she needs right now. She thought calmly as she met Ukyo's stare and shrugged as she put a small smile on her face to give Ukyo what she wanted, someone to blame. As angry as Ukyo appeared to be, she would have been nervous, if Ranma wasn't with her. But he was, so she could afford to play the villain role like Ukyo wanted her to.

Ukyo swung her gaze back to Ranma and seemed to break a little bit more. "WHY HER?! WHY IS SHE THE ONE WHO FINALLY GOT YOU TO MAKE A DECISION?! WHAT'S SO SPECIAL ABOUT HER?" Ukyo screamed, barely in control any more, as she looked back at herself and balled her hands into fists.

"I should knock that smug smile off your— " Ukyo said angrily as she took a step towards them.

Ranma twitched his hands up into a guarding position to protect her if needed. Even with everything else going on, he was watching to protect her.

Ukyo sighed and nodded as she stepped back. "It's over. Maybe Akane still has a chance. But I don't." Ukyo looked over at her and smiled bitterly. "Good game, Tendo. You outmaneuvered me masterfully."

She nodded in reply and dropped her fake smile. "If it helps at all, the Tendo family will stand up for you, and back you up fully should anyone ever question your honor. I give you my word." She said carefully.

Ukyo looked blankly at her for a moment, then jerked her head into a brief nod of respect before she resumed her attention on Ranma. Ukyo looked at Ranma longingly for a much longer moment, then took a deep breath and unclenched her hands as she pivoted and took a step away from them. But Ukyo paused after only a step, and asked over her shoulder, "Can I give him a goodbye kiss?"

"Thousand yen." She joked.

Ranma's childhood friend nodded and spun around and lunged for Ranma, and threw herself into his arms. Ukyo's hair splashed around him like the sea breaking around a rock. The young, heartbroken, chef simply held on to him for several moments and sobbed as she twined one hand into his hair, and twisted the other into the fabric of his shirt over his chest. He held her loosely, and uncomfortably. She was suddenly very uncomfortable as well. She didn't like watching people suffering. She also wasn't wild about anyone else being in Ranma's arms. She decided to endure it though, if it meant that Ukyo really would give him up. She took several steps backwards, out of respect, and just watched as she forced herself to clamp down on her jealousy.

Ukyo kept her face buried into his chest for many long moments as she cried. She heard her mumble several times, "I loved you, I really did. I loved you, I loved you, I loved you!"

Ranma nodded and continued to hold her loosely and awkwardly. Ukyo pulled her hands up and reached for his face. He allowed her to pull his head down, and she rubbed her cheeks up against his and whispered something to him in between sobs. Ranma nodded to whatever she had said. Ukyo held his face next to hers, cheek to cheek, and sobbed for a long time. Her tears were obviously those of someone who had no hope left.

She knew that for sure, because she had experienced those tears not that long ago, when she had thought she had given Ranma back to Akane in the hedge maze. She looked away in respect for Ukyo's shattered heart.

She looked back when she heard them shifting position. Ukyo had pushed his head back gently and was resting her forehead against his as she sniffled and tried to get herself under control. She could just see a little bit of Ranma's face, and she could tell he was just barely holding it together. Warring emotions of anguish and panic were dancing around on his face.

Finally, after what seemed like hours, but was probably only a minute or so, Ukyo pulled him down with hands that were shaking uncontrollably and met his lips with her own. The beautiful young chef kissed him softly on the lips, once, twice, then again and again, softly and sweetly, but with increasing urgency. Ukyo's kisses increased in tempo as she reached up and dug her hands into his hair and pulled him towards her fiercely as she opened her mouth and drew him in. Ranma stumbled forward as Ukyo closed her eyes and kissed him hungrily. It did not escape her notice that when Ukyo had pulled him forward, Ranma had recovered his balance by wrapping Ukyo up in a proper embrace that was no longer awkward.

She watched them kiss, and didn't look away this time. There was respect for personal anguish, and then there was watching someone try to devour the guy she wanted to marry.

Ranma did his best to show that the kiss wasn't his idea, and that he wasn't enjoying it. But that was hard for him to do while he was holding Ukyo. She took some solace in the fact that he wasn't holding Ukyo as tightly as he held herself, and he hadn't picked Ukyo up either. He did kiss Ukyo back, though. She bit her lip and endured it. If Ukyo went away after this, and let him go, then suffering through one kiss would be worth it.

Ukyo kissed him for far longer than even a we'll-never-meet-again farewell kiss would be expected to last. Ukyo had her mouth open, and was kissing him with what were obviously years and years of pent up emotions. He was kissing her back less urgently, but still with some obvious emotion behind it. Ukyo had stepped into his stance and was pressing her entire body hard up against him as she worked her jaw and kissed him frantically. It was clear that Ukyo felt she had nothing to lose, and she was pouring everything she had ever felt into this last chance effort to sway him. It dawned on her that Ukyo wasn't just kissing him goodbye, she was trying to get him to kiss her hello. The young chef slipped her right hand down to the small of his back, and her left she wrapped around his neck strongly with the elbow around the back of his neck as she pulled him into her desperately.

The dragon inside her was screaming at her to break it up before Ranma gave in and decided to go to Ukyo instead. Before she had to do anything though, Ukyo seemed to wilt, and slowly, very slowly, pulled herself back from him. Their lips parted with a wet smacking sound, and Ranma's oldest friend held on to his arms loosely. Ukyo stared into his eyes silently, as Ranma stood there and visibly tried to recover from what had just happened. Finally, Ukyo slid her hands down his arms and grasped his hands. She swung them back and forth a few times, almost playfully, as she cried silent tears. Then she slowly stepped back and let him go. His arms dropped immediately to his sides. Ukyo's stayed outstretched for a handful of heartbeats like she was waiting desperately for him to lunge for her. When he didn't, Ukyo slowly let her hands drift to her sides and took a deep, shuddering breath.

"I loved you, I really did. I hope you're happy with her, Ranma, I really do. This is farewell. Maybe we'll meet again someday, but I doubt it. Have..." Ukyo had to pause as her tears overwhelmed her ability to speak for a moment before she could continue. "Have ... a good life, Ranma. Goodbye." Ukyo said in an anguished voice. Then the young chef spun around on her heel, picked up a bag that was sitting outside her restaurant, turned a sign around on the door of her restaurant, and walked off without a backwards glance or another word, with her head held high. She and Ranma both watched her leave, and then stared at the empty street she had disappeared down, long after she had gone.

She looked over at the door and found a hand-written note scrawled on a piece of paper in Ukyo's handwriting. It announced cheerfully that Ukyo was closing the restaurant, and her loyal customers should seek her out at the Chibo Ebisu Garden Place Branch in Tokyo. It ended with a smiley face. It would have seemed like a very cheerful, successful note — except for the tear splotches all over the paper that had smeared the ink.

She looked back to Ranma and waited and hoped that he wouldn't go running after Ukyo. Ranma's lip was trembling as he turned to face her. He unballed one of his hands and opened it to show a thousand Yen note crumpled up in it. Ukyo must have slipped it to him. She sighed and stepped forward and closed his hand around it. "Keep it, as a memento. She was your friend."

He nodded and shoved the note into his pocket then continued to stare in the direction Ukyo had disappeared in, without speaking to her. "Are you ... are you okay? Are you mad at me?" She asked carefully, giving voice to her fears.

Without speaking, he answered her by reaching back his hand for her. She let out the breath she had been holding and eagerly stepped forward and took his hand. He pulled her slowly towards himself, and wrapped his arm around her in a hug from the side as he continued to stare in the direction Ukyo had left, and let out a shuddering sigh. Then he turned to face her, wrapped her up in a hug with his other arm, and lay his head down on her shoulder. A moment later she felt tears dampening her shoulder and the nape of her neck as she held him while he shuddered and dealt with the enormity of what had just happened.


———————

1. "请......你明白我的意思。 (Qǐng...... Nǐ míngbái wǒ de yìsi. — Please ... you know what I mean.)"

2. "請告訴他! (Qǐng gàosù tā! — Please tell him!)"

3. "逼他明白了! (Bī tā míngbáile! — Force him to understand!)"

4. "他不明白這將是多麼糟糕! (Tā bù míngbái zhè jiāng shì duōme zāogāo! — He does not understand how bad it will be!)"

5. "這將是一場戰爭! (Zhè jiāng shì yīchǎng zhànzhēng! — This will be a war!)"

6. "他可能會被殺死! (Tā kěnéng huì bèi shā sǐ! — He may be killed!)"

7. "你......會被殺死。 (Nǐ...... Huì bèi shā sǐ. — You ... will be killed.)"

8. "請! (Qǐng! — Please!)"

9. "請,迫使他明白! (Qǐng, pòshǐ tā míngbái! — Please, force him to understand!)"

10."你是個傻瓜。 (Nǐ shìgè shǎguā. — You're a fool.)"

Chapter Text

Nabiki was both sad and happy. She was also physically straining. Ranma was leaning on her and trying to deal with the aftermath of Ukyo's departure. Unlike previous times he had leaned on her, he was actually putting a little bit of his weight on her now. He wasn't that much larger than her, but he was much heavier with muscle than she was. Still, she was very happy that he wasn't pushing her away this time. So she just stood there with her arms around his waist as his weight pressed down on her shoulders, and breathed in his flowery-cedar scent, and waited in his warm arms until he was ready to move on. His body heat felt nice pressed against her in the cool morning air, especially since the girls' school uniform was a dress. She was happy to stay pressed up against his warmth and his silky Chinese shirt for as long as he wanted.

He lifted his head up a few moments later and leaned back from her a bit as he took his weight off her. He kept his arms around her, and looked into her eyes as he leaned back. He didn't say anything, but he didn't have to, she knew what he was going through. She dropped all of her masks and let him see in her eyes and on her face what she was feeling for him. He nodded and lay his head back down on her shoulder as he let out a long sigh. He didn't put his weight back on her though. She squeezed him tightly and tried to help him feel better. She would be just as miserable as he was if she had needed to say goodbye to Riko forever. He responded by squeezing her back just as tightly. She sighed into him. She felt guilty about it, but she was enjoying that he was in her arms and seeking comfort from her.

A moment later he flexed his arms and lifted her off her feet as he buried his face in her neck. She was glad he couldn't see her face, because she was grinning now. She thought about asking him if he was ready to move on yet, but decided to let him set the pace. When he was ready to move on, he'd let her know. She didn't have to wait long. A moment later he gently set her down and whispered to her with his face still buried in her neck. "I'm sorry."

She knew that what he was sorry about was showing weakness in front of her. She sighed inwardly at that and just reached up and stroked his hair as she smiled at him. She didn't reply directly to what he had said, because she had nothing positive to say about the warped value system his father had given him. She could help him adjust it to come into line more with normal social values, if he committed to her. It wasn't a project she could just pick up and resolve in a weekend.

He smiled nervously at her, then looked over her shoulder at the sign Ukyo had left behind. He then looked back into her eyes before he spoke. "Would it be a bad idea ... if we went to see her at her new restaurant sometime?" He asked in a small voice.

She smiled tightly at him. "What do you think?" She asked.

"Yeah ... all right." He said softly as he turned away from Ukyo's shuttered restaurant. She could tell by his body language that he wanted to get away from Ukyo's closed restaurant, and the lingering smells of her cooking, as fast as possible. He needed to move on, and she was more than happy to move on right beside him.

She stepped right next to him and held her hand out for him. He looked down at her hand and nodded as he grasped it tightly and started walking. She matched his pace easily, and they walked in a comfortable silence in the cool morning air, as they made their way to school.

As they walked, Ranma's eyes drifted over to her occasionally, but for the most part he kept his eyes moving while he scanned the tops of buildings, and every other possible ambush location for threats. She knew he was worried about the Amazons. Shampoo's warnings couldn't just be ignored, even if they had just been a ploy. She didn't think they had been, though. She had been sure that Shampoo had been sincere earlier, and Doctor Tofu had agreed. She hated to admit it, but she was afraid of the Amazons.

Based on what Akane and Ranma had told her of them, and what she had seen with her own eyes, they were dangerous. Sure, when Shampoo had been trying to woo Ranma, they had been on their best behavior. But apparently that had only been because Shampoo had managed to convince her elder that Akane was an honorary Amazon.

Now that Akane was no longer officially engaged to Ranma, and the honor of Amazon status hadn't been given to herself, things were back to how they had been when Shampoo's elder had first arrived in Japan. She remembered clearly the old woman flatly telling Daddy that Ranma's prior engagements didn't matter, and that they would just have to broken. The Amazons didn't care about any law but their own, and they were good enough to back up their bluster. Only other world-class fighters like Ranma could stand up against them.

But if Ranma is worth three or four Shampoos, or even a dozen ... what happens if they send several dozen, or a hundred? She worried as she sneaked a glance over at him. He caught her looking and smiled at her kindly as he squeezed her hand reassuringly. She knew that he was probably going out of his way to make sure that she knew that although he was upset, he wasn't upset at her. At least my little talk with him this morning got his attention. She thought with no small amount of satisfaction.

She decided to shelve her worries and just trust him. Even if the Amazons did attack with a hundred fighters, they would still have to catch him, and he was very fast. He could get her to the safety of Daddy, Mister Saotome and Doctor Tofu. Between the four of them, even a hundred Amazons would have a hard time getting to her and her sisters. She wished she was as strong as they were, so she could help fight. But she wasn't. She was not, however, without resources. And she would call them up and use them if it came to that. If it did, though, then things would have gotten much more serious than they were at the moment.

She sighed and deliberately derailed her current thought process, and decided to focus on the rest of the day. Today was the day she would be going on her date with Ranma. She had to admit that she was excited about that. Ranma had already taken Akane out, and now it was her turn. She had been dying to ask Akane how Ranma was on an official date, but obviously she couldn't do that.

She hoped that he had at least a few things up his sleeves that would be different than just hanging out with him at school. But she didn't want to get her hopes up. Hell, even if he is just the same as he always is, at least I won't have anyone else vying for his attention. And we won't be around anyone he will feel he needs to hide his feelings from, so those two things together will make the date worthwhile. She thought happily as they arrived at the school.

They made their way at an easy pace into the building their classrooms were in. They stopped in the hallway outside his classroom, across from the door, by the window. He spun to face her and held her hands loosely. She smiled at him and leaned in to his body heat and just stood there for a few moments enjoying that. On impulse she lifted herself up on her tiptoes and planted a tiny kiss right at the base of his jaw under his ear where it joined to his neck. He stiffened a bit but didn't say anything immediately. She leaned back from him and smiled softly with a twinkle in her eyes. She was feeling a bit light-headed and very devil-may-care.

"I thought we couldn't do that until the week was up?" He asked her quietly.

She grinned at him. "No, what I said was, if you want to kiss me again, you knew what you had to do. I never said anything about me kissing you." She said happily. That wasn't what she had told him the other night when her control had slipped and she had tried to lean in and kiss him for real, but she just didn't care at the moment.

"Man ... I really have to pay attention to what you say, don't I?" He asked with a hint of a laugh in his voice.

"You have no idea." She said happily as she slid her hands back so they were only grasping his fingertips.

"See you at lunch?" He asked.

"Of course. You want me to pick you up, or do you want to be gallant and pick me up today?" She said with an easy lilt in her voice.

"I'll ... I'll come get you, sure." He said with a bit of a flush creeping up the base of his neck. It amused her greatly how easy he was to embarrass.

"All right, then I'll see you then, Ranma." She said with a soft smile as she let go of his hands and moved to walk past him and continue to her classroom.

"Wait." He whispered to her urgently as she reached his side.

She looked over at him with quiet amusement. "What, forget your lunch or som— oop!" She started to say but was interrupted when he darted in and swept her up in a hug, and picked her up in the process. She found herself in his arms facing the doorway of his classroom.

Her body clenched in surprise, but that only lasted for a half a second, then she let herself melt into him as she rested her chin on the silky shirt covering his shoulder. She breathed in his subtle cedar and flower scent and smiled. It wouldn't do for him to know just how much she craved exactly what he was doing. At the moment nothing, absolutely nothing made her happier than being held by him. She was sure that if he knew that, he would get flustered and not do it as much. So she just enjoyed it and sighed with happiness.

It wasn't all that usual at all for students to show such open displays of affection for each other in Tokyo schools. Her eyes followed several passing students who eyed them with various levels of appreciation or disapproval. She didn't care. None of them would dare cross her, and they were all afraid of Ranma. She lay her head down on his shoulder and found her eyes resting on the doorway of his classroom. Akane was standing in the doorway and watching them with an unreadable expression on her face.

Her little sister was posed with her right foot in the doorway, and her shoulders turned towards the classroom. But Akane's left hand was clutching the door frame as she craned her neck to look at them. She couldn't read Akane, but if she had to assign an emotion to Akane it would have been either confusion or longing.

She sighed and buried her face in Ranma's shoulder and took her eyes off her little sister. There just wasn't anything she could do about Akane right now. Not that I have a plan for dealing with her ... at all. She reminded herself bitterly. She was officially out of time. With Shampoo and Ukyo dealt with, only Akane was left. Kodachi had never had an official claim on him, and she knew he wouldn't want to formally break things off with her. She would ask him about it just to make sure, but she seriously doubted he would want to do that. If anything that would just lend legitimacy to Kodachi's delusions. That, plus she had a feeling Kodachi wasn't going to want to be around him in the future much anyway.

Ranma set her down a few moments later and buried his face in her hair. His warm breath tickled her neck and ruffled her hair. She heard him inhale deeply and assumed he was smelling her hair. It's a good thing I washed my hair this morning. She thought to herself with a bit of her old flippancy creeping back in to her thoughts. She was finally starting to unclench from the terrible stress she had been under for the last few days. She could see the light at the end of the damn tunnel now. She just had to figure out a way for Ranma to break things off with Akane, and then it would be over. Sure, just a small thing like getting Akane to be all right with Ranma leaving her, but staying in the same house as her. No problem. And right after that I'll solve Cold Fusion for kicks. She thought sardonically to herself as Ranma stepped back and looked into her eyes.

He smiled shyly at her as he let his arms drop from around her. She could tell that turning his back on the hallway had helped his courage enormously. She filed away that little fact for possible use later.

"See you at lunch." He whispered to her as he turned slowly and walked into his classroom. She stayed rooted in place while she tried to control her body's strong response to him. He turned back once and smiled at her again as he reached the doorway. She returned the smile softly, and then he was gone.

She pulled in a shuddering breath and hurried up the hallway towards her own class as she tried to ignore the urgent signals her body was sending her to go jump on him and do things that would, for sure, get her thrown out of school. Every single student in her path rushed to quickly get out of it. News of her actions yesterday were still fresh in everyone's minds, and she was sure they didn't want to get on her bad side at the moment. She smiled at that thought.

She reached her own classroom and found Riko and Yui in their usual place by the window, drinking their morning coffee and chatting. She sighed with relief to find a safe harbor to hide in while she pulled her emotions back under control. She walked straight up to Riko and leaned her whole body up against her oldest friend and laid her head down on Riko's shoulder as she sighed mightily and closed her eyes while to tried to get her legs to stop shaking.

"Oh wow, you've got it bad, don't you, Kiki-chan?" Riko said happily as she set her coffee down in the window sill and pulled her into a side-hug.

"I have no idea what you're talking about. On an unrelated note, if you move I may fall over." She said with a repressed smile and her eyes still closed.

"Mmm hmm. Right..." Riko purred in a knowing tone. "I bet that I could take a certain item of clothing off you right now and throw it against the wall and it would sti—"

"Riko!" Yui interrupted in shock with her mouth and eyes opened wide.

"I'm just saying ... I bet our little Kiki-chan feels a bit like Monsoon season is starting early." Riko said with a grin.

"Riko! I ... I can't even look at you. What is the matter with you?!" Yui said as she buried her face in her hands.

She could feel herself blushing but refused to rise to Riko's bait. She knew the teasing would never end if she did. Besides, Yui's mortification on her behalf was amusing to watch.

"What? A girl knows these things. You'll notice Kiki isn't contradicting me." Riko protested.

"We need to put you into therapy, there's something wrong with you." Yui muttered.

"Everything about me is right, Yui. The sooner you accept that, the sooner I can set you free." Riko said happily.

"They'll probably need to use electroshock on you." Yui said with her lips pursed into a thin, disapproving line.

"Well, regardless, you aren't allowed to test your theory. But yes, Ranma has been a good boy today." She said to Riko with a smile as she continued to lean on her. She opened her eyes and found her oldest friend staring intently at her with a huge grin on her face.

"C'mon, Kiki, tell, what's Ranma doing now to get such a response out of you?" Riko asked in a heavy, seductive voice.

"That's classified." She whispered with a small smile.

Riko slid her arm down to her waist and pulled herself even closer as she started to move. "Walk with me Kiki, tell me about the wonders of the world you've discovered. Yui, guard my coffee please." Riko said as she pulled her away from the window and down the hallway.

"I am not your maid!" Yui yelled after them as she shook her fist at Riko.

"I'll give you a cookie!" Riko yelled over her shoulder.

"Six!" Yui yelled back.

"Done!" Riko yelled back with a grin.

Yui saluted to both of them as Riko turned the corner with her and she lost sight of her. Riko didn't say anything to her for a few moments as they walked together. Riko still had her arm around her waist and she was holding her tightly and looking over at her with a mixed expression every few steps. It was weird to her to have someone else holding her now. She didn't really understand it, but she felt the most right when Ranma was holding her now, and only Ranma. That didn't make much sense. Of everyone in her life allowed to touch her, Ranma had been around the least amount of time, and he had only been promoted to a physical relationship with her very recently. Riko, Akane, Kasumi, Daddy and even Doctor Tofu had all spent far more time in her life touching and holding her. But, for whatever reason, in her mind it was Ranma's touch that felt the most right now.

As she walked in step with Riko, her mind was now telling her that was wrong too. Riko wasn't warm enough. Riko's arm wasn't strong like Ranma's. Riko didn't smell like Ranma, and Riko didn't have Ranma's length of stride. In fact, Riko's stride matched her own, which felt weird to her now, because she was used to making her stride try to unevenly match his much longer one. It made no logical sense, but her mind wasn't in an agreeable mood to debate the subject at the moment.

Riko led her to a nondescript door down the next hallway that looked like every other door in the area. Except it wasn't a classroom, and it had no sign, and Riko had to use a key to open it. Once they were inside, Riko smoothly unwrapped herself from around her as she closed the door behind them, and relocked it. They were in one of the old rooms that had been a teacher's lounge and was now one of their unofficial club rooms. She had bought the key for, and secrecy about, the room from the school's janitor. Only she, Riko, Yui, Nanami and Chihiro knew about the room, and had keys to get into it. It wasn't much of a room, but it did have an old sofa in it, a small table, a fridge, a microwave and a small window. It smelled a bit musty, but it was clean. Compared to some of the official club rooms on campus, their little secret room was much better in a lot of ways.

Riko led her directly for the sofa and sat her down on it while she sat down on the small table in front of the sofa. Her oldest friend waited until she was seated comfortably while she held her hands and looked into her eyes earnestly. After a long pause, Riko broke the silence with a soft voice. "Are you okay?"

"I...I don't know." She answered, not sure where Riko was going with this.

"Are you sure? You're reacting so strongly to him ... it's like you're playacting ... or he has some kind of hold over you. You ... made me promise a long time ago to intervene if I think you're being blackmailed ... what's he have on you?" Riko asked softly as she squeezed her hand reassuringly.

"Nothing, he doesn't have anything on me." She said in a warm voice as she realized what Riko was concerned about.

"Look, I like Ranma, he's a lot of fun, and he's gorgeous, but ... I mean ... come on, you're not acting like yourself, Kiki. You're calling in favors and spending money, you're showing attraction in public. That isn't like you ... at all." Riko said nervously.

"I love you too, Riko." She said with a smile. "I know I haven't been acting like my old self, but that's because I don't want to act like her any more. I want to try things a little different now." She said happily.

Riko eyed her suspiciously for a moment before she spoke again with narrowed eyes. "Have you ever seen a dragonfly as beautiful as the ones at dawn?" Riko asked in a serious tone. It was one of their code phrases. The dragonfly one was their duress code. It was a way for one of them to ask if someone had some power over one of them, and they couldn't openly say anything about it, because they were being controlled or monitored.

She smiled and responded. "I have, but I'm all right with the butterflies I have right now, they aren't as hard to catch." S