Chapter 17

Nabiki looked away from the mirror on Akane's closet door to her baby sister as she trudged into her bedroom. The older girl smirked at the pantyhose and ruined clothes fashioned into a modest covering Akane currently wore. “Taro really is in town, huh?”

Too tired to be annoyed that her sister was borrowing her black dress and makeup without asking, Akane sighed and slumped on her bed. She did frown recalling she'd only worn that dress on the one date, and even that was a fake date chaperoning Kasumi and Tofu. Shaking her head she tried to keep up her end of the conversation, “Not anymore. He came, he caused problems, he got beat down, and we threatened him to leave. If he has a brain, he'll be back in one year.”

“So back in a couple months.”

Akane smirked ruefully. “Apparently I like stupid boys.”

Shaking her head, Nabiki held back from the easy quip. “It's no fun if I don't get to make the digs, Sis. And you seem to like the current idiot, are you missing the old one?”

Sticking out her tongue, Akane looked at her sister. “Ug, don't you start, Ranma already had a fit because he thought Taro still has feelings for me and got all jealous. Taro was history before I met Ranma, and he is less than Kuno now. After making that clear to him, I then had to sit and stew as Kodachi gave us a ride home, the whole time ogling Ranma, who was wearing less than this.”

“Kodachi and Taro?”

“Taro stole flowers from her glasshouse. She said she wanted revenge but I think she wanted to help Ranma just cause it would annoy me.”

Nabiki nodded putting on some lip gloss.

“So what of you, big sister? Big date with your own idiot? I didn't see you getting challenged in Love Dome?”

Smirking Nabiki made eye contact briefly, “Actually I had to look farther out than Nerima to find one able to walk and grunt at the same time.”

“He must be something to make you spend such time?”

Nabiki paused, “Lets just say he has something I desire.”

“You know you'll owe me all the details of this guy? It's only fair with what you made me tell you about Ranma.”

Smirking, Nabiki turned to Akane. “Deal, I'll tell you everything, once I see how this plays out and I know where it's going. Course that means if you and Ranma do anything more I get to know first.”

Walking down the street towards the Tendo residence, Hinako Ninomiya shivered against the chill, her legs a bit bare for the winter evening, but the sheer white stockings did look best on her. Especially with the white fur trim of the festive hooded red jacket she wore, ending at mid thigh.

Moving down the street, the sound of her heeled shoes was joined by the distinctive clacking of wooden geta from a shadowed figure across the way turning the same direction as her from a side street. Not that a single dark figure on a dark cold night worried the experienced martial artist and school disciplinarian.

It wasn't till both figures on opposite sides of the road entered pools of light from parallel street lamps that Hinako Ninomiya's eyes met Shika Miyakoji's.

The taping and clacking of their respective shoes stalled for a heart beat, before continuing at the exact same pace to the edge of the pools of street light.

Although both could see each others shadowed figures, the sudden increase in pace of click and clack tore down to the next street light, both sedately continuing their original pace in the light.

Again out of the light, the clicking and clacking raced down the street, by chance the light on Hinako's side of the street was out letting her grain a measurable lead.

Struggling to keep pace in the awkward wooden traditional sandals, Shika's hands flicked out, wooden tea spoons darting into the lights ahead of her, breaking each to clear the way to keep her running pace in the dark as Hinako slowed in the next pool of light.

Hinako frowned and as she left the shaft of light, hopping to quickly take off her pumps, holding them below the bowel with her fighting fish as she just rushed through the next light, ignoring the exposed breaking of decorum, eyes ahead to the Tendo gate at the end of the street.

Tearing ahead with her long stride, Hinako's smile fell as the clacking of Shika's geta vanished, the shadowed figure on the other side of the road now half her height but racing along in the sitting stance of Martial Arts Tea Ceremony.

Before the sign of the Tendo Dojo, hanging proudly over the gate to the Tendo home, beside directions for challengers to go to the rear gate, both women arrived still rushing to be first through the gate, both impacting it hard when it failed to push open.

Inside the Tendo yard, Nodoka Saotome suppressed her smug smile as she lowered her leg from kick bracing the gate against the unannounced guests, straightening her kimono before opening the wooden doorway.

“Good evening, ladies.”

Looking up from the ground, the disheveled pair were forced to wither before the house guest's judging eyes, looking at the ruined hose on Hinako's feet, or the dirty and mucked cloth slippers on Shika's feet, or the splash of lost water lost from Hinako's sturdy fishbowl on them both.

Both would have preferred to glare and face her down, but the dark haired Saotome matriarch had proven she had the skill to resist them physically, and far more sway over Soun than either liked.

Tearing her eyes from the less than half filled fishbowl with the tussling fish in it, Nodoka looked to the women. “I can assume that once you have cleaned up you will show more civility inside?”

Feeling like scolded children, the two women swallowed and agreed.

Nabiki frowned looking at the table in the fancy city restaurant. A plastic clip holding a small marker embossed with a floral 'Reserved' label in the center of the unoccupied table.

Being ten minutes fashionably late herself was no excuse for Jiro Ohata to be even longer and make her wait.

Letting the waiter pull out her chair, Nabiki sat down gracefully at her place at the table, ordering a drink till her date arrived, flashing a questionable ID for proof of age.

She was on a second champaign and a bread stick, before a dead and wilted rose was put on her plate and Jiro Ohata cockily took his seat opposite her. He ignored his date to wave to the waiter for sake.

Nabiki's eyes swept over his formal but meticulously disheveled outfit, from the casually open dinner jacket, tie on but loose, collar behind it unbuttoned. Looking up at his handsome face, she held his eyes and waited for him to speak, expecting either a fake apology for his tardiness or an accusation.

Jiro smirked when his date didn't even blink at his attitude or gift. “It's great to see you, Miss Tendo.”

This time her eyes turned down as a smile creased her glossed lips, “Oh is that what this sulk is about.”

His amusement falling away, Jiro didn't flinch. “Sulk? Never. Just treating you like the fool you thought to make of me.”

“Oh yes, it was all me that led you to fail to stop Ranma after ambushing him where I told you to. Remind me, which of us used worlds greatest swordsman and someone known to give Saotome a run for his money in the past, and blew it by losing control?”

“Don't try to play innocent, Tendo,” Jiro snapped back, embarrassed at having that humiliation thrown in his face.

Nabiki weighed her words a moment too long and the glaring young man continued. “Like I can trust any word you say as you protect your baby sister and her precious fiancé. Oh but I suppose its my fault for not paying you to put out the truth,” he snipped, purposefully letting slip his knowledge of the engagement.

Nabiki rolled her eyes, “Lets ignored the half baked research you've done into me and go back to our first meeting. 'Hi, I'm Nabiki Tendo, Akane's sister.' Would that have made you trust me more?”

A twitch of his lips told Nabiki she had made a hit before he spoke.

“No, but would have gotten you a better compliment about your looks.”

Nabiki smiled indulgently, “So what would have earned your trust better than a lie of omission over a detail that would only hold us back.”

“The trouble with lies is the truth can so easily be found out,” Jiro said taking a sip of his drink as Nabiki did the same. “You could have said your agenda, that still eludes me.”

Reaching out her hand, she lifted the menu from the table, “Right now, it is to sate my hunger with... challenging company.”

Soun Tendo had never been comfortable as the center of attention. It was always his dear departed wife who had drawn attention and he knew she had been too good for him during the short time they had together. Now that he was entering his distinguished years, it seemed that he was drawing the attention and he had none of the grace or congeniality of his late wife to handle the two women currently discussing how he would spend his Christmas eve.

Not that he understood how the western concepts he had gleaned from television, about a fat man in a red coat breaking into children's homes, were in any way romantic.

Looking at the glaring women on either side of the befuddled Soun, Nodoka set down her cup of tea. “Perhaps as this event of Miss Hinako's school is not a date but a chaperoning duty, Soun could accompany you both,” Nodoka suggested tired of the issue already.

The two women appraised each other, the school teacher reluctantly first to move. “I was hoping to get a few more chaperons to oversee the event. The Principal has been reluctant to discus the issue in depth, and his involvement has driven many of the staff to find alternative duties on the night.”

Kasumi looked up cautiously, “My, would it be alright for me to invite a friend to help with the duties?”

Smirking, Akane could see her big sister's desire to show off her catching the good Doctor Tofu around Nerima. As Hinako welcomed the addition to the staff of the evening, Akane spoke up, “Um, with the fiancée issue as it is, Ranma and I are going as part of a double date, chaperoning a couple friends on a blind date on the night”

Taking Nodoka's twitching lips as a good sign, Akane tried to slip the bad news in. “Um, because of a mess of situations, I'm setting up a friend of mine, Akari Unryuu with a friend of Ranma's, Ryoga Hibiki.”

“I'm not sure that's for the best,” Nodoka said evenly, hiding her unhappiness.

Akane looked down before proceeding to explain. “While I heard the stories of Ryoga's accidents and bad choices with you, and then with Ukyo, and then Sakura, I also know Ranma doesn't think he did it to be a pervert, and feels he had had some tough breaks in life.”

“He came to my school lost at a bad time, and to save him from...” Akane stopped to figure the right words to describe the danger Ryoga faced in Love Dome, “being mauled, I had to say I was going to date him. But now I'm with Ranma, I got him to agree to this double date with Akari.”

Ranma frowned recalling Ryoga's looking at Akane on the ride back with Kodachi and Mikado from the water temple, it was a similar look to how the lost boy would look at Ukyo, and with a sinking feeling he wondered how much Ryoga thought this Akari chick was coming to be his date.

Ranma's mother on the other hand glanced to Hinako and Shika, unwilling to show more displeasure in front of them. “And this Akari can handle his curse? It might not be best if she finds out mid date he turns into a piglet?”

Kasumi smiled, “Oh Akari would adore that, she's a pig farmer isn't she Akane?”

A snorted suppressed laugh from Ranma made Akane glare at her fiancé, the mirth obvious in his voice, “Really? A pig farmer?”

“She breeds and raises champion Sumo Pigs, big ones. And yes, she does adore pigs so I don't think the curse will be a problem, but we can show her before the date.”

Slightly embarrassed by her son in front of the visiting women, Nodoka let the matter rest, moving onto the other issue she had with the coming Christmas. “I was hoping that we might spend the night having a western style Christmas dinner, and exchange some gifts. I missed out on my son's life for so long I wanted to spoil him before I lose him again to his future wife. I suppose we could hold an early Christmas dinner before the dance.”

Kasumi smiled, “If I may, I could bake a Christmas Cake and we could exchange gifts with it and tea after the dance?”

General nodding from those around didn't include the nervous Soun, each of his arms held by a different woman, nor Akane wondering what kind of gift she could possibly get Ranma. The Tendo daughter's mood plummeting as her fiancé glanced at her and smirked confidently.

“A western firm? Very bold,” Jiro said over his Kobe Beef dish, referring to Nabiki's application for an internship at a law firm while studying at University.

“Long term there is more opportunities to international branches, avoiding Tokyo's glass ceiling,” Nabiki said, looking away from his eyes as she raised another oyster shell to her red lips and sensuously tilted her tilted her head back to pour it into her mouth.

Jiro nodded, chewing on more of the lightly seared meat. Finally swallowing he sipped from the red wine in his glass. “I've got a similar position lined up at...”

“Daiginkou Corporation, yes?”

Jiro froze for only an instant, “Heh, you really are putting me to shame, you've done a much better job looking into me than I have on you.”

Sipping white wine, Nabiki smiled, savoring the taste of the meal and drink, as well as the praise. “Not really a lot of effort. Can't spend too much time with exams coming.”

Nodding, Jiro used his chopsticks to pick up another piece of meat but looked to Nabiki before taking it in. “So what did I miss, who is the real Nabiki Tendo?”

“Isn't it the point of life to discover who we are? Could you tell me who Jiro Ohata is in simple words?”

Swallowing the morsel, Jiro kept his brown eyes on Nabiki's, drawn to the whites around her iris against her dark eyeshadow. “Then tell me who is the Nabiki Tendo helping her sister and who is the Nabiki Tendo helping me against Ranma Saotome?”

The brown haired young woman looked at her date, dabbing her napkin on her lips, “There's only one me involved. My sister has had more guys than just Ranma fall for her and he isn't her first crush. She's young and pretty, and really she can do better if she tried.”

“That's it? You expect me to believe that you simply don't like Ranma?”

Nabiki frowned, sipping again at the wine. “What was it like to kiss Ranma?”

Glaring distastefully at his date, Jiro Ohata put down his chopsticks, “I was tricked by that freak. It might be magical but he is still a sex changing freak.”

Grinning like a shark, Nabiki leaned in, “There. Exactly, I have nothing against him personally, but how others see him...”

Frowning, Jiro took a moment, then nodded, “The wrong words in the wrong ears and that glass ceiling you fear comes down low. You want to break through it, not have it smashed over your head because of him.”

Reaching again for her drink, Nabiki sipped as Jiro leaned back looking at her. Finally he spoke, “I don't believe you.”

Keeping from showing the flicker of emotion at his direct statement, Nabiki waited and let him continue.

“You would have driven him off well before now if that were the truth.”

Shaking her head, Nabiki put down her glass, a hundred calculations going through her head, evaluating the risks and rewards.

“Be careful Jiro, your ignorance is showing. Being raised an only child has blinded you to the truth of working against family without hurting them. It isn't like I can tell my sister to dump the freak who made love to her before they were engaged, after all.”

With that she threw the last of her wine in his face and stormed for the door.

Jiro Ohata twirled the dead rose in his hand, mulling over the enigma of Nabiki Tendo, and how she was playing him to do her dirty work. That she was wanting him to do what he already most wanted to do, surprised him only in so much as how well she knew he'd want to follow blindly. Still, there was something in the back of his mind crying danger.

Then again, that could just be spending time with a woman almost as smart as himself, he mulled as he walked alone down a dark and cold street.

The tidbit she'd ended on was too good not to use, but not really so risky to herself. Sure it was likely only the family knew if Saotome and Nabiki's sister had been indiscreet, but it would be too easy for the Tendo sister to simply deny telling him such and say he made it up. The rumor of them eloping to dump the other fiancées had already been at school.

-Ring ring-

Smirking, Jiro looked around to see the voluptuous figure on a bicycle approaching, purple hair flickering as she rode under streetlights.

“The Tendo Dojo!” Jiro called before turning from the Amazon girl to resume walking, knowing she would never just ride away without asking what he meant.

With a screech of brakes the bicycle cut in front of him, the obviously tired foreign girl glaring at him, far from the first time given his history with Saotome. “What mean yelling out? Why Coward bother Shampoo.”

Bristling at the accusation in the name Shampoo had been calling him since he swore off the martial arts to deny Saotome from challenging him. Focusing on the cute sweater the Amazon wore against the cold to lift his mood, Jiro forced a shrug, “I just thought you'd like to know where your Ex-husband is staying.”

“Ranma not ex-husband, is husband. Will be father Shampoo children!”

“Oh really? I'm sorry I must have been confused,” Jiro replied with halfheartedly faked sincerity. “I just assumed that since Ranma's is living with his new fiancée Akane Tendo... Urk.”

The clatter of Shampoo's abandoned bicycle was too late to be a warning as the Amazon's hand around his neck and raised Jiro into the air, “You lie. Akane Tendo engaged to one man, Ranma engage to new rival Shampoo no meet and kill yet. Not engage each other, they tell Shampoo.”

Waiting for her to stop shaking him and realize he couldn't reply without oxygen, Jiro gasped for air the moment she dropped him, “Hey I'm just the messenger.”

Reaching into his pocket he pulled forth a small note pad and scribbled down the address. “Here, thats the address for the Tendo Dojo where Ranma is staying, go ask your fiancé who his latest girl is? Go look him in the eye and ask him did they get engaged just because he slept with her?”

Shampoo chilled at the accusation, then snatched the piece of paper away. “Shampoo warn Coward, if lying, you pay.”

Dropping him from her hand, she grabbed up her bike with its empty delivery box and got back on peddling for home. It was too late to go search a new area of the city for this Tendo Dojo tonight, but come sunrise...

Jiro smirked, straightened his collar, raked his fingers through his brown hair, and headed for home, eyes unfocused as he went back to considering Nabiki Tendo.

Early morning Sunday and two teenagers sparred in the Tendo dojo, blows traded back and forth with occasional breaks to refine a move attempted in fighting.

Ranma was sweating slightly but smirked more at his disheveled fiancée who was starting to go quieter and more guarded in her attacks as she ran out of steam.

Twisting around another strike Akane felt her time ebbing, if she was going to try and put him down hard it would have to be soon.

Flipping backwards gymnastically to avoid a spinning kick and create distance, Akane could feel Ranma's intent to press her into the wall and trap her from further retreat, and she had to keep the smile from her face as she led him to the rack holding the kendo weapons.

Snatching up a bamboo shinai and a wooden boken, Akane lashed back at her opponent, Ranma ducking back from the sudden increase in her reach with the weapons.

“Aw, you want to play rough do you?”

Akane smiled and rolled her wrists to twirl the twin practice weapons. “I got a new trick to show you, you ready?”

“I like new tricks, you better not be teasing me with some old move.”

“Kendo Kujaku Umou Tosshin!”

Ranma blinking in surprise as the blurring weapons in Akane's hands moved fast enough to appear as a fan of weapons around her like the 'peacock plumage charge' her attack was named for, the weapons stabbing out with nearly the speed of an Amagurikan punch despite their weight and length.

Pushing herself to keep it up, Akane knew it was a cheat, she stole the move from the queen of cheating Kodachi Kuno herself, but instead of dozens of gymnastics clubs she used nearly two score of boken and shinai, her hands moving so fast as to be nearly invisible to keep control of the stabbing fan of attack.

Darting back against the charging opponent's weapons Ranma, could see himself losing ground and in desperation opened his arms to create room. “Cradle of Hell!”

Pouring his emotions into his ki, love for his mother welling up, the image in his mind changed unconsciously to Akane herself, the love changing too from parent to lover, his mind betraying him recalling her feelings on this move the day before after fighting Taro.

With a mighty clatter Akane lost control of her weapons sending them around the dojo, darting forward to hug onto her fiancé wishing he was a blanket she could wrap around her but settling for trying to en wrap him.

Ranma stood still in shock as just as Akane had said, instead of fleeing before the attack that would unnerve and drive back the boys he had previously used it on, his fiancée was wrapped around him in a glomp that made Shampoo's enthusiasm seem like a handshake.

Akane's face, pressed into Ranma's neck, didn't stop her eyes from seeing the angry feminine long haired silhouette in the doorway of the dojo.

Hikaru Gosunkugi walked nervously down the street in Nerima on a mission he knew could every easily blow up in his face.

He glanced down at the photo in his hand of Akane Tendo and that Chinese jerk Ecchi-baka Taro kissing from Friday morning. He had taken the photos of their battle at the offer of money from the diminutive ninja of the Kuno family Sasuke, but failed to hand them all in, keeping the captured moment where the pervert had pushed his lips on Akane.

Glancing at the photo of them kissing, Gosunkugi sighed still yearning for such intimacy with his first crush, but over the last year knowing they weren't right for each other.

His smile fell as he considered his current 'girlfriend', St Hebereke freshman Kaori Kumayama.

He liked her, and he really liked having a girl interested in him. Having a girl two years his junior humiliate him in the love dome ring for dates and drag him to meet her parents referring to him as 'the one' was scary. Seeing the look in her parents eyes agreeing with her was outright terrifying.

Looking down at the photo of Akane and Taro kissing, he again mulled over how best to use it.

By the rules of love dome, Kaori was challenging him but no one was willing to champion him against the aggressive teenager. Most found it funny since it was a guy being pursued such. Even Nabiki apologetically said she couldn't convince the male champions to defend him against a girl, but he knew Kaori had been paying the Akane's older sister off. He couldn't even get date insurance, Nabiki Tendo willing to take a small sum from the girls against guys they feared might be overly pushy on the date, in return the senior and love dome founder would give a word of warning and promise retribution for ungentlemanly behavior.

He had originally intended to ask Akane to champion him, willing to hand over the photo and negative for not showing Ranma her new fiancé. Now though Ranma's sister Ranko might be a better person to offer the photo to champion him. He wouldn't want Akane thinking he was a blackmailer after all.

Walking along with his mind on his plans, Gosunkugi was caught off when a hand grabbed his arm, turning him to face a Chinese beauty with vibrant purple hair.

“Where Tendo Dojo?” Shampoo demanded, holding a slip of paper with an address hand written on it.

Before Gosunkugi could answer Shampoo's eyes looked down on the photo of Akane and Taro kissing. Snatching it from his hand, Shampoo glared at him, “When take photo?”

“Ah, F-F-Friday,” Gosunkugi stuttered terrified.

Turning around Shampoo left the boy behind as she headed back home, making a single vow. “Coward no trick Shampoo. Coward pay. Pervert girl really engaged to monster boy. No beat Shampoo to husband.”

Sighing in relief as the dangerous beauty strode away, Gosunkugi lamented her taking his photo away with her.

“Gos-chan? Who was that?”

The unnervingly deep voice of Gosunkugi's girlfriend Kaori behind him was accompanied by the unnervingly loud sound of her cracking her knuckles...

Nodoka lead the two fathers into the angry scene in the dojo. The Saotome matriarch had spotted Kasumi's shock at something inside the training hall, but the sound of Akane yelling drew all three parents.

“It wasn't like that Kasumi, it was just sparring!”

Reaching the door, Nodoka surveyed Kasumi calmly berating the pair in the middle of the training hall littered with fallen practice swords. “What kind of sparring have you been teaching my sister, Ranma-kun?” Kasumi quietly demanded, punctuating her words with finger pokes to Ranma's forehead.

“Kasumi, stop that!” Akane shouted, unable to control her volume like her sister.

“Children, what is going on?”

The three young adults in the dojo looked up at the entering parents, Ranma and Akane nervous that Kasumi might let the cat out of the bag on their infidelity of three weeks before, but the eldest Tendo daughter saw more of a chance for allies against the corruption of her baby sister.

“Daddy dear, do you know of a valid martial arts technique which you defeat your enemy by wrapping your legs and arms around a boy without pining his limbs?”

“Kasumi,” Nodoka said to try to reign the moment in and calm the older daughter.

The elder Saotome woman had been not completely surprised at the traditional and innocent young woman's views on intimacy before marriage, what was surprising was the normally demure Kasumi was obviously upset and showing it. Worse even than the incident over Nabiki's massage two nights before, the normally demure young woman was visibly upset to those who knew what to look for, the slight quiver in her calm face and voice, and assertive confronting of Ranma.

Seeking the words to calm her down, Nodoka looked to her side as Soun stepped forward. “Daughter, I'm sure that their sparring just got a little out of hand. Sparring is very physical and a couple in love like them can show a little discrete affection while alone.”

Kasumi glared at her father, “Remember father, Ranma has other fiancées, he has promised to be virtuous to till this mess is resolved, a promise of honor.”

“I promise, it was sparring, it was just that move. The Cradle of Hell,” Ranma stated in as calming a voice as he could muster, still caught off by Akane's reaction to the move.

“The Cradle of Hell?” Nodoka asked. “Your fathers move?”

Nodding, Ranma tried to explain. “When Pop's made that grapple it was awful, because he gave strength to his grapple by using his emotion to hold me like a child again.”

Genma nodded proudly. “A powerful technique, well used on your fiancée, boy,” he put in with a wink.

“Problem was it gives itself away, you can feel that weird hug desire and so I tried to stay away from Pop's when he tries to get me in it. And worse it is pretty useless if you try to use it on just anyone if you don't feel for them. But I figured if I imagined who I was using it on was Mom, the technique worked right up to the actual hugging since I could never hurt Mom.”

Taking a breath, Ranma continued.”The thing is I didn't see the value in the hug, just pushing the emotion out ahead of you, it weirds other guys out to feel it like that. It ah, doesn't weird out Akane though cause we like each other and so she jumps into it not away. That's all this was, I promise.”

When Kasumi failed to look convinced, Ranma opened his arms to her, thinking of Akane in this changed technique as he cried its revised name, “Cradle of Heaven!”


“You pervert!”

Kasumi cried, apparently neither pulled or repelled by his attack, flushing red from sudden emotional attack and looking at her hand shocked that it had reacted such.

Soun watched confused as his eldest daughter stormed out of the dojo, obviously upset, but at least no longer fighting with the equally upset Akane as his youngest looked at the palm print on her fiancées face while berating him for using the move on her sister.

Through all this, Genma Saotome looked thoughtfully at his son before turning to his wife, visualizing the magical dogi he knew she wore under the elegant kimono.

“Saotome Cradle of Heaven!”

Pushing forward with all the love he had for his wife, Nodoka spun into his charging arms, her own hands reaching for him, her lips pursing to kiss her husbands, before without her control the magic dogi lashed up a kick to beat the fat man back.

Nodoka frowned, her hand on her beating heart as she reconciled her reaction and the suits, ignoring the startled looks of the other three in the room.

Picking himself off the floor, Genma Saotome laughed evilly, the light glinting off his glasses. “So, my wife still does love me.”

Akane sighed, Soun looking to the dojo shrine where the photo of his late wife was held still, as Ranma winced knowing what was coming.

“Of course I still care about you, my idiot husband, that has never changed,” Nodoka stated, caught off guard by the warmth and affection that had radiated from her husband when he had attacked her.

“It changes everything, my beloved No-chan. Time to get you out of that accursed suit.”

Blushing, Nodoka stood tall, “No husband, not at this time.”

Pulling off his jacket and gi top, Genma Saotome cracked his knuckles, “I challenge you wife. I'm going to destroy that suit this time.”

Akane looked perplexed as Ranma herded herself and her father from the dojo, slamming the doors shut behind them.

“Pop's ain't gonna take no and Mom ain't gonna not accept. They're gonna fight and somebodies gonna end up humiliated, and it ain't gonna be me.”

Frowning, Nabiki looked around the lunch table, regretting spending her morning studying as events were obviously transpiring and they were more interesting than her calculus revision.

It took no mental effort to work out Kasumi must have caught their baby sister and Ranma in a compromising situation, Kasumi neglecting to fill Akane's plate, as was normal at the table. Her judgmental eyes for the young couple didn't help masquerade her feelings any either.

What was more piquing the middle Tendo daughter's interest was the bound hands of Mr Saotome, as he watched everyone else eat while he waited unable to lift his chopsticks if he did.

Genma was tempted to bend over and put mouth to plate but who knows where his wife might stick those chopsticks.

“Akane-chan?” Nodoka asked, seeing her future daughter-in-law nearly finished eating.

“Yes Aunty?”

“Could I impose on you dear? Your technique from the La Bell France school you used on my son, would you be a dear and use it to help Ranma's father eat?”

Genma frowned, having no idea as to what Nodoka meant, but started salivating as Akane picked up his own chopsticks with her free hand. One point two seconds later Genma's plate was empty and he was trying to stop choking on food shoved down his throat. With a little coughing he managed to swallow it down the right way.

Using the distraction, Nabiki leaned across to the dark haired young man beside Akane and around the corner of the table from her. “What's with his hands?”

Pink cheeked, Ranma leaned to the brown haired girl, “Pop's challenged Mom, he beat the suit last time with a move that needs his hands so the suit knew what his plan would be. He'll be okay.”

Knowing there was more to his story than he was telling, Nabiki went back to eating, planning to get it later.

Seeing her husband finished his lunch, Nodoka glanced to Akane again with a smile. “Thank you, Akane-chan, but there was no need to go so slowly.”

Akane smirked as her future father-in-laws eyes bugged out.

“If I may, Akane-chan, could I get you and Nabiki-chan to do the dishes? I'd like to take Kasumi out with me.”

The three sisters looked up surprised but quickly nodded agreement.

Ranma was the next to speak up, “Um, I gotta head out for a time too, shouldn't take long.”

The way he glanced towards his fiancée told the women at least it was about Akane, or something for her.

“So what are you getting him for Christmas?”

Nabiki’s question brought an awkward smile to Akane’s lips as the pair washed up after lunch. At Nodoka’s announcement of wanting to have a western Christmas with some presents rather than just a chicken dinner and cake, Akane had been troubled.

“No idea.”

Nabiki smirked, “I know you saw that look on his face. He already knows what he’s getting you.”

Akane nodded, she had caught it too before he had gone out. Now he was off who knows where getting who knows what for her for Christmas, something he appeared to have not agonized over deciding was the perfect gift.

“Then again,” Nabiki added, “He might just be getting you lingerie.”

Eyes flashing, Akane glared at her sister’s implication. “His father may be an idiot but he wouldn’t be like that.”

“So if he is getting you something appropriate and romantic,” Nabiki started with a grin, rubbing the ring finger of her hand, “What are you getting him?”

When her sister shrugged again, scrubbing at the plates in soapy water. “Kasumi might throw a fit if you do lingerie. Or Aunty might if you get some for his girl side.”

Rolling her eyes, Akane sighed, thinking about Kasumi’s recent behavior. The older sister’s disapproval was getting old fast.

“So what do you think I should get him?”

Nabiki smirked, her mind bypassing helpful, going straight to teasing. “If you don’t want to spend much, we could do up some photos. Something to remind him what happened?”

Akane’s hands were quicker than Nabiki recalled as soapy water was splashed into her hair and down her back, making her screech.

Sitting in a quiet tea house, Nodoka Saotome looked across at the eldest daughter of her husband's best friend. Sipping at the steaming beverage between them, she briefly considered how to begin this talk.

“I'd like to talk about your feelings of what Ranma and Akane have done?”

Kasumi put down her cup, frowning. “Aunty, I had reservations after I found my sister naked with your son after not even a day together.”

Nodding but keeping her face blank, Nodoka recalled the incident. “An unfortunate accident with confusion over the curse, but even if my son was confident and suave enough to have arranged things to such, what they did months later was still because of his feelings for her.”

“Feelings?” asked, obviously dissatisfied. “Perhaps if we had told them when they are started to have 'feelings' they wouldn't have have ignored their good sense and followed their urges? What if Akane had gotten pregnant? What if she is pregnant?”

“Had Akane gotten pregnant she would have started showing some signs of it by now,” Nodoka said calmly, looking around the empty tables around them to remind Kasumi they were in public. “Had she gotten pregnant we would have a justified reason to dissolve the engagement problems, be preparing for a new years wedding, then helping them find happiness in life. As that is not the case, we will keep to our current plans for the engagement issues, preparing for a march wedding, and then helping them find happiness in life.”

Kasumi nodded and sipped her tea, the simple words not soothing the complex emotions inside herself.

“Perhaps Kasumi-chan, this is less about what Akane did with Ranma and what you feel for Tofu-kun?”

Swallowing a reaction response, she weighted her words. “While I fully intend to wait for marriage, I have felt the same attraction my sister didn't resist.”

The older woman looked directly into Kasumi's eyes, “May I ask dear, how much have you been resisting yourself, and how much you have been resisting the good doctor?”

Swallowing and red faced, Kasumi shook her head, “Tofu is, I'm not sure how interested he is in me like that.”

Frowning, Nodoka shook her head. “I know you had difficulty breaking through to his more mature nature, but has been working himself up in knots over you for years. Men can be so silly. But wasn't it you who initiated the first kiss on your second date?”

Kasumi flushed, “I didn't start that kiss, I simply showed him I was waiting. It would not be appropriate to do the same here.”

“Not appropriate, no,” Nodoka agreed. “Though I don't think that would give you the peace of mind you want in knowing what is in his heart.”

“I couldn't possibly ask him of such things,” Kasumi stated startled.

Sipping her tea to let Kasumi calm herself again, Nodoka considered her next words. “I'm not suggesting you do dear, but perhaps being shown some of your trust in him will let him know he can be more bold, and then you could get your answer about his interest, and let you decide how far things could progress till your own wedding?”

Sipping at her own drink, considering the words of the older woman, Kasumi tried to calm her nerves. “How would I do such?”

Nodoka smiled.

Akane sighed and flopped backwards on her bed.

Though Aunty had decided about this western Christmas with the exchange of gifts, she had no idea what to get Ranma. A teddy bear wouldn't impress him, actually any purchased gift didn't really feel appropriate for her self reliant fiancé.

Worse than the almost zero time she had to think of a gift, it was after lunch on the twenty third, the Emperor's Birthday, and the national holiday falling on a Sunday was moved to the Monday. She had only today to buy any gift for Ranma with the shops closed tomorrow.

With a huff she considered making something, maybe knitting a scarf or the like. She could almost hear his voice mocking her for mistakes she hadn't even made yet in trying to sew him something. Sighing, she wished she had better domestic skills like her sister, or even Yuka who could make those...

Sitting up suddenly, Akane dove for her desk drawer, taking out what she was looking for.

“Thank you sir, and have a happy Christmas.”

Ranma thanked the sales girl and bowed in reply, putting away his lightened wallet and taking the present, wrapped in colorful red paper with a yellow bow and in a plastic bag with the shops logo, from the counter.

Moving out of the store, Ranma walked amongst the shopping crowd in Ginza, lots of desperate people looking to get last minute purchases before the stores shut before tomorrows public holiday.

Trying to recall the way back to the train station, his blue eyes drifted to a group of casual workers waiting in between buildings, some smoking and others chatting and joking against the cold, waiting till close of business, ready to pull down the Christmas decorations and move in the New Years decorations.

Stuck behind a slow moving elderly group, a flash of color on a television monitor drew Ranma's attention and with an inquisitive grin, he entered another store.

Looking at the figure moving on the screen for a long moment, Ranma still felt the pretty sales clerk come along side him.

“Do you like Michael Jackson, sir?”

Ranma grinned, “Ah, do you have some more of this kind of dancing?”

Walking out the back of the clinic, Sena Ono looked for her older brother wondering where he was hiding now. When Kasumi had called inviting him to a Christmas dance he hadn't told her, just getting all giddy as for the first official time Kasumi asked him out.

Having just hung up the phone after chatting with Nodoka Saotome, Sena now knew why he had been giddy. And what she had to say would only make that worse. Nodoka-san had a deft hand at matchmaking.

The blond woman heard the rattling ahead and rolled her eyes, looking in the back room to see her brother dancing his anatomical skeleton around the room to no music. Fortunately her brother could hold a beat.

“So a Christmas dance? I heard you begged out of the Christmas dinner too.”

Freezing in place, Tofu Ono looked up startled, “I-I-I I just thought...”

“You just chickened out,” Sena said directly. “Just talk to Soun, he wants you for Kasumi almost as much as you do. He doesn't care about your age. You're going to have to meet him at the dance, he is going too.”

Seeing him coming up with an argument, Sena shook her head to cut him off. “Be that as it may, it turns out we have the best present for you. I've just heard that because of a silly little bet, Ranma-kun owes Kasumi-chan a full massage, but was thinking he'd prefer you do it instead.”

The rattle of 'Betty Bones' in Tofu's arms came before his shaking was now much more obvious.

“Kasumi would prefer you do it too.”

The rattling got much louder.

“Brother,” Sena huffed, “You do realize that if you held Kasumi as close as Betty there, she would be squeezed against you because there is more to her than just a rib cage?”

With a clunk, the rattling Betty's leg fell off.

Ranma looked at the mailbox to the old two story apartment building. Seeing the family name of 'Oboko', Ranma read the unit number.

Taking the he simple wooden stairs to the second story, he knocked on the door to the simple Nerima residence. He held a nervous smile as it opened, relieved to spot his classmate.

Opening the door, Hiroshi Oboko was surprised to see his new friend Ranma standing there.

“Hey, ah, I need a favor? Can you play these?”

Hiroshi looked interestedly at the cases Ranma held up, frowning seeing they were music videos. He immediately guessed this was part of this strange dancing issue his new friend had started last week with 'Dance Dance Revolution'.

“You want to watch and learn to dance more? Why?”

“Ah, Akane is kind of expecting to dance at this thing tomorrow night.”

“So? Why not just do a basic dance,” Hiroshi asked, holding up his arms to imply a slow dance.

Ranma shook his head, “If I'm gonna make a fool outta myself, I'm gonna do it right. And trust me, even if I mess it up, Akane will be impressed I tried.”

Shrugging and nodding, Hiroshi went to open the door. “Any chance I do this for you, you can set me up with your sister for the dance?”

Wincing, Ranma licked his lips and rubbed the back of his head, “Ah, there ain't no easy way to explain my sister, but she ain't gonna be at the dance even if I could set you up.”

Hiroshi kept his hand on the door, not ready to accept that. “Come on, you can at least introduce me to her so I'm not just another guy hitting on her.”

A sudden thumping on the stairs drew both young men's attention, a jubilant Daisuke running up. “Oh hey Ranma. Hey guys, guess which stud got a date for tomorrows dance?”

“If this is that chick your old man is trying to set you up with?” Hiroshi asked, “His boss's daughter?”

Daisuke's face fell.”It sounds lame when you put it like that.”

“Thread dammit!”

Nabiki smirked hearing her sister complaining in her room as some activity failed to go as easily as she planned, wondering if she was sewing this time, when a knock at the door made the brown haired girl turn and change direction back down the stairs.

Opening the front door, Nabiki smiled seeing a delivery man holding up a cardboard box.

“Delivery for Nabiki Tendo?”

“Nabiki Tendo for the delivery,” Nabiki said flirtatiously, eagerly signing for the prize before claiming the box with both hands.

Saying goodbye and closing the door, Nabiki headed immediately up the stairs, rushing to her room with the surprise gift.

Examining it and finding the return address to be the same Tendo Dojo address as the to delivery, her eyes noted the stamp showing the delivery was placed at a city post office. With a shake failing to let her hear any clues to the contents, she sat on her desk chair and placing it in her lap.

Grabbing her letter opener and clipping through the tape, she found puffy packing material inside, her hands sifting through eagerly, pulling out a smaller cardboard box.

With a frown, she lifted the second box enough to sift one handed through the packing material for a second prize, before discarding it to the floor and grabbing up her letter opener for the second time. She briefly vowed that if this gift was simply a series of boxes in boxes with a frustrating empty inner core she'd get revenge on whoever sent it, part of her wondering who she could send such a gift to for a laugh.

Opening the inner box, she smiled at the cloth wrapped contents, lifting it out and turning to place it on her desk to unwrap.

Finally the last of the cloth folded out to reveal an ornamental box, little bigger than a heavy fiction novel. Classical Japanese style sunbursts and dragons and phoenix were imprinted on the top and sides, a quick check confirming similar underneath.

Her tongue wet her lips as Nabiki tested and wasn't surprised when the lid wouldn't open, finding the traditional style Japanese puzzle box was locked.

Deft fingers found the hidden shifting panels and switches on the ends and side of the box, before she set them back in the starting position and readying a pad and pen.

“He is so transparent,” she muttered to herself before picking up the box and counting the options and writing her observations.

Inside Hiroshi's small bedroom, his parents out for the day, Ranma tried to explain why Ranko would never date his new friend.

“Look, I'll tell you everything later, but trust me, when I do, you wouldn't want to date Ranko.”

Hiroshi frowned, “It isn't like I want to marry her, just date her.”

Sighing, Ranma shook his head. “Why don't you try and get an available girl for this dance rather than a girl I promise you, you would not like that way?”

“It's too late,” Hiroshi lamented, “Love dome isn't open today or tomorrow because the public holiday.”

“So?” Ranma asked, “Just find a girl and ask her out?”

Daisuke nodded, “Not like Love Dome has gotten us more than one date yet?”

Shaking his head, Ranma put his hands on the table, “How many girls actually surrender and go on dates?”

“Well most of the girl's loved the gimmick at first, being in charge, able to pick to surrender to guys they liked or make guys they didn't hate show they really wanted them by fighting a champion,” Hiroshi said. “But now those girls who really like it have started using it to lock their boyfriends into being on recorded dates so they can't see others, or to make their ex's jealous.”

“That's how I got Yuka to surrender to me,” Daisuke added. “I thought it was a good date but now she is off with the captain of the Sumo team.”

Ranma frowned, “Maybe that's the problem, do you think she wanted to surrender to you? A girl's gotta have a little pride.”

The two classmates nodded at Ranma's words, before Hiroshi shrugged, “So what, we challenge girls then surrender? That won't get us dates.”

Scratching the back of his head, Ranma thought if over, “Akane liked hearing how I felt about her, most girls seem to like to be told that. You could just tell a girl you like her and ask the girl out?”

Hiroshi looked horrified.

“Tell you what, if you couldn't do that to a girl you like, no way would Ranko respect you,” Ranma let Hiroshi stew for a bit on that. “Is there a girl you actually like?”

Shrugging his shoulder, Hiroshi didn't answer.

“Mi-chi-ko,” Daisuke in a slow sing-song lilt.

“Who's Michiko?” Ranma asked even as Hiroshi tried to shut his best friend up.

“She lives next door, Hiroshi's had a crush on her for years, she'd be a senior but she quit school nearly two years ago.”

Embarrassed, Hiroshi gave up trying to shut Daisuke up, “She is a year older and runs with a different crowd.”

Daisuke got up and moved for the blind, Hiroshi trying to stop his friend making things more embarrassing but Ranma stood and stopped him from reaching Daisuke before he got to the window.

“He's been watching her for years, her bedroom is right across the way,” Daisuke said opening the blinds.

In the next building, only meters away, a girl in her underwear changing looked back at the three boys. Scowling, her face all the angrier with ear rings, nose stud, and eyebrow piercings, she hadn't closed the blind before the three had seen the artistic tattoos circled around her upper arms, or the bellybutton ring in her taunt stomach. Well aside from Daisuke who was still focused on her black underwear.

Ryoga Hibiki looked at the departing black limousine taking his hosts and trainers on their Christmas trip, half thankful to have a break from their eccentricities, and half nervous as he was left on his own to wait for tomorrow.

Tomorrow Sasuke would lead him to the Tendo Dojo and he would commence to show the beautiful Akane Tendo he was the man for him, where Ranma was a philandering child.

Looking at the picture of her in the black and green tiger print bikini, not doing justice to what he saw just the day before in blue and white stripped underwear... Pulling a tiger print bandanna from his head he wiped at the blood on his nose thinking of more wholesome aspects of the beautiful, smart and understanding young woman.

“Tomorrow Ranma, tomorrow we see who is the real man,” he stated, striding off.

Sasuke ran to the front gate and grabbed the bandanna wearing martial artist and pulling him back towards the mansion.

“Thanks a freaking lot man, now she'll think I'm a pervert!”

Ranma held up his hand as Hiroshi yelled at Daisuke, “You can yell now, or go and get her before you have lost her.”

“What?” Hiroshi asked.

“Trust me, anger is a funny emotion in a chick. Sakura hated my guts the first time we met, then next time she was all over me. Right now this Michiko is gonna be mad with you, but you go apologize now, tell her the truth and it was an accident, you can turn this into a good thing.”

Hiroshi simply looked back at Ranma.

Ranma shrugged, “It's what I would do, and which one of us has five girls wanting ta marry him? Will ya trust me?”

Michiko Chikubiwa swore as her door was knocked on. Storming to the door in a black shirt and sweat pants, she yanked it open, jaw opening in surprise at the pervert next door standing sheepishly there.


“What do you want?” Michiko snapped.

“To apologize, that was an accident. I'm really sorry.”

“Oh yeah, you and two of your friends all looking at my window when you opened the blinds.”

Wincing at the anger, Hiroshi went with Ranma's instruction. “I.. we were talking about the dance tomorrow night and how I don't have a date and Dai brought you up then he opened the window to point at your house. That's all I swear.”

Michiko frowned, brushing her brown hair with faded red stripes from her eyes. “You wanted to ask me to a school dance?”

Hiroshi blinked, wondering if Ranma was some relationship god. “Ah, I, um, always kind of liked you.”

Smiling, her braces on her teeth gleaming similar to the piercings on her ears, and eyebrows, Michiko leaned against the door. “Did you ever spy on my window before today?”

Swallowing, Hiroshi's shoulders fell. “Kinda. I'm sorry.”

“If you eat garlic between now and when you pick me up, the date is off.”

Michiko shut the door.

“Ack! Get off me, I'm a guy!” Ranma complained as Hiroshi hugged him.

“She said yes, she said yes,” Hiroshi stated, still hugging him.

Daisuke knelt down before Ranma. “Master, please take me as a student in your dating ways.”

Ranma shook off one boy and glared at the other, “I'm only here to learn to dance to impress my current date, I'm not a master yet.”

Like eager students, Hiroshi and Daisuke moved the table from before the television cabinet, Hiroshi cleaning away other items while Daisuke put the disk in the DVD player. “Ready to learn, Master.”

Smirking, Nabiki lifted the slip of paper and small soft toy out of the opened puzzle box.

Looking at the clock, she had been at it for all of an hour and five minutes since she had received the box. Well one hour of trying to figure out the intricate latching steps of the box and five minutes of actually opening the box.

Clearing the broken pieces and small wood saw from her desk, she examined the contents, a small mouse toy and a piece of paper with a poem. Discarding the first as simply symbolic, she unfolded the simple piece of paper, and scanning over the simple poem.

'Roses are red, Violets blue, Christmas is coming, and Love is too.

Truly, Your Secret Admirer.'

Tapping her teeth with her tongue, Nabiki considered the choice of words before concluding the author must be really lousy with poetry.

In the middle of a cold Sunday night the bright lights of a school gymnasium shone down on a man in a brighter floral shirt, only slightly less bright than his gleeful big toothed smile.

Among all the other decorations for tomorrows dance, a mock up a western image of Santa's sleigh in a snowy setting sat before a camera tripod, and behind it the entrance to one of the corridors and been dressed up with curtains and had more appropriate romantic lighting hung, signposted as 'Santa's Cave', the exit back into the gym the next set of doors down. A Japanese take on the popular 'Lover's cave' for the romantic seasonal holiday.

Pushing a trolley with two manikins on it, one made up as a young man, the other as a young woman, the man in the Hawaiian shirt put a wig on each of the couple before aiming the trolley into darkened cave and giving it a push.

Waiting for the 'couple' to disappear in the darkness, the well tanned Japanese man held up a remote and hit the red button, crying “Ho ho ho, Brudda,” as the sound of buzzing strikes came from the tunnel.

Turning off the devices with the remote, the man in the Hawaiian shirt leaned down and picked up a rope to pull the trolley back out of the darkness, the manikins now sporting identical much shorter buzz cuts.

“Brudda and his loving wahini should have dem matchin hair cuts! Ho ho ho ma good students!”

“If Nabiki is as smart as she gives herself credit for she'll work out the real invitation is written in lemon juice,” Jiro explained with a self indulgent smirk. “Simple heat will bring it to the surface behind the poem and tell her when to be ready for our date. That is the type of trap we have to arrange with Kounji.”

Jiro Ohata nodded at the table in the small home of his junior 'friend' Toko, eyes looking across from the unhappy looking Ryoga Hibiki. No matter how he helped the foolish twin, he didn't get any thanks from the thug of a martial artist. Admittedly, so far his help had gotten repeated rejections by his love interest and beaten up by an oblivious swordsman.

“Trap?” Ryoga growled, twisting one of his spotted bandannas in his hands.

Still smirking, Jiro took a sip of his drink. “Women are complex, but some traits are nearly universal. Make them work for something, make them react, and they'll want the last word. If we make Kounji work to something about you, she won't just dismiss you, she won't be able to just let it go. That is the trap.”

Ryoga had no clue what Jiro meant. “So how do you suggest we do that?”

“Well as my plans have been rejected I was hoping the guy who loves her would know how to approach her. That he had some understanding of her likes and wants to bait our trap.” Jiro let Ryoga growl some more to make his point before looking steadily at his erstwhile ally. “I do have an alternate plan, but it will not make her happy on your date, you'll have to be very careful in asking her out and from the moment we use it till after your date, you can't bring up Saotome in any way.”

“Huh? Why?”

“Because I'm going to have a friend drop around and let slip about her fiancé and who he is living with right now,” Jiro said smiling darkly. “And after that she may be looking at Ranma's rival and someone Ranma's mother hates in a new light.”

Akane had to sneak past the Shinto temple gates, running to get around the block unseen by the annoying priest before he could come out praising her. Even on a Monday morning she was nervous of the embarrassing attention. With her frustrating efforts of last night, she really didn't need any more problems.

Turning the corner, and rushing down the street, Akane headed for the door of her friends house. Approaching the front of Yuka's house, she could hear a shouting match inside.

“How is that my fault, he is an idiot!”

She was surprised to hear the voice of her other classmate Sayuri inside, “How hard did you try to get through to him?”

Knocking on the door, Akane heard her friends voices quiet, Yuka opening the door, surprised to see her there.

“Hey guy's you can hear you two from my place, what's going on?”

Two red faced girls looked down before Yuka shrugged, “Last weekend I surrendered to Daisuke for a date because I heard that slime ball Kai...”

“The ex,” Sayuri mouthed silently behind Yuka to clarify to Akane.

“... had challenged some St Hebereke skank even before we broke up, and I was not going to let him hook up again before I did. Sayuri apparently liked Daisuke so I did all I could to give the idiot a clue, even getting stuck with Akio from the Sumo team for the dance tonight so Dai would be able to challenge Sayuri. Now it's all my fault that Daisuke wasted time challenging that St Hebereke girl who was running around our school in her underwear and didn't challenge Sayuri, but we found out he found some other girl to take to the dance.”

“He couldn't have been that clueless if you were trying to let him know,” Sayuri accused.

Akane flashed back through the four men she had actually liked since puberty, then looked to Sayuri, “Um, yes, yes they can be that stupid.”

Yuka resisted the urge to hug Akane, glad her words stopped her angry friend. “You could always come along and we can try to block her out and give you a shot at him?”

Frowning, Sayuri looked between Akane and Yuka. “I don't know.”

“I thought you liked him?” Yuka asked rhetorically, knowing that decided it. Moving on, she looked to Akane. “So why did you drop around, Akane?”

Huffing, Akane pulled out the black and red mess she had created.

“How the hell do you make those stupid bracelets.”

Yuka smiled and turned to go and get the tools and clips she used, “Let me get my kit.”

“There's a kit?”

Ranma scratched his head, looking at the near empty table. “Where is everyone?”

Turning from Kasumi, Nodoka sighed and gestured for him to begin breakfast.

“Tendo-kun and your father went to get his hands checked and the bandages removed. Akane-chan said she needed to leave early to see a friend, and I am not sure where Nabiki-chan went. Something about borrowing a friends new sneakers.”

Ranma shrugged at the explanation and dug into the food. “Do you need any help preparing for today?”

“You could wait for our fathers to get back, Ranma-kun,” Kasumi suggested. “But when they are, we have an little plastic tree and some decorations in the attic. We could put it up here in the corner and it won't impede anyone.”

Ranma looked at the frown on his mothers face, then recall something from the day before. “Yeah okay, that corner?” he added, pointing in the corner.

Kasumi looked away from Ranma and nodded, surprised when she looked back that his breakfast had vanished.

“I'm gonna check something and when Pop's gets back we'll get this tree up.”

Ukyo slid another roast chicken okonomiyaki into the microwavable boxes, putting it on the pile even as Konatsu in his waitress kimono picked them up and took them out to the tables out the front of the restaurant.

Konatsu and Junko's plan for getting in on the advertising for chicken dinners for the western celebration and selling fresh okonomiyaki for reheating with Christmas cakes for peoples dinners was working surprisingly well. She had been nervous that bad sales would mean she'd make no profit on the cakes selling them cheap tomorrow. She had never been big on desserts, and Christmas cakes had become so known for surplus being on sale cheap on the twenty fifth and after, many women still single at twenty five or over were called 'Christmas cakes' as a joke at their diminishing prospects as brides.

The ringing of the door bell made Ukyo look up from cooking the next batch, seeing a girl from Ranma's school come in. She briefly wondered why she had a bad feeling about this girl. “Welcome to Ucchans. What can I get you?”

“Hi Ukyo, you're looking cheerful considering. Dumping that cursed womanizer is obviously good for you.”

“Excuse me?” Ukyo demanded, caught by the forwardness of this stranger.

The brunette in the cute sweater faked shock, putting her hand over her chest. “You haven't heard? He hasn't even had the guts to tell you yet?”

Bringing more boxes and cooking supplies to Ukyo, Junko moved gracefully to put them down then stepped up to her boss. “Oh hi Gin. Ukyo, meet Gin, she goes to Ranma's school. Last week I heard she was at a love hotel with Jiro O'Hata.”

Gin gave herself away with a strong blush, “That is a lie,” the older girl hissed, glaring.

The sixteen year old Junko glared back. “I doubt it, but even if it is, you keep lying here to upset Ukyo-kun, I know Natsu-chan uses your Mom's beauty salon and would be more than happy to let things slip.”

Gin seemed about to refute Junko's claim but instead simply glared again and walked out of the restaurant.

“Thank's Junko-chan, I so don't need distractions today. Especially from a liar like Jiro and his idiot friends. Ranma isn't even here and he can't leave us alone.”

Junko nodded, “I better go help Natsu-chan. You okay in here?”

“Sure am sugar.”

Smiling, Junko moved for the front door as well to help with the sales, slipping silently through the door kept closed against the winter chill, Konatsu having given her some ninja tips on avoiding ringing the bell so that it would signify only customers.

A moment later the the ringing of the bell on the door made Ukyo look up, faking another happy smile on her face for her customer till she recognized the young man. “Get out.”

Ryoga Hibiki winced at the simple instruction like he had been slapped, but part of him was overjoyed as it was a vast improvement to the last time he accidentally walked in while lost and she threatened to get his pig formed fixed by a vet.

“Ah, please, just hear me out,” he said, keeping his eyes down and trying to be humble. “I just came to apologize. I'm sorry for bothering you, and for abusing your trust like I did. I didn't ever mean to...”

“One christmas cake,” Ukyo shouted out at the front door, cutting off Ryoga not even looking at him.

Junko came back in, glaring for the boy in the spotted bandanna, a cake box in her hand.

“Give it to the customer please Junko-chan,” Ukyo said, nodding at Ryoga as the customer but her focus on starting another batch of okonmiyaki on the long hot plate.

Ryoga looked confused as the box.

“Ryoga, if you know me at all, you'll know what I want you to do with that cake.”

“Um, shove it in my face?” he asked with a wince.

Ukyo glared at him, “First you pay for it, then you take it outside so you don't mess up my place, then you stick your face in it, and go away not cleaning yourself till you get to wherever.”

“Uh, will that make you forgive me?” Ryoga asked hopefully.

Ukyo glared at him and the unlucky Ryoga Hibiki knew for absolute certain the answer, a definite 'maybe'.

Handing over some coins, Ryoga moved away from the shop and the glaring of Junko and Konatsu, disappointed that Ukyo wasn't watching but knowing they would tell her.

“I'm sorry Ukyo Kounji!” he shouted and shoved his face in the cake.

Walking away, ignoring the looks of people in the street, Toko's voice stopped him.

“Geez, what was that about.”

Ryoga smiled hopefully, “A step in the right direction.”

“Ah that makes sense... with your sense of direction.”

Leaping the fence into the empty shopping malls even emptier service area, Ranma spotted the discarded pile of decorations from the previous sale decorations that the staff would have pulled down the night before.

Grabbing the cleanest tree of the right size, he pulled it up onto his shoulder and leapt back over the fence.

Hopefully his mother would be so used to not asking Genma where things came from she wouldn't ask him.

Akane hugged Yuka tight, looking at the matching bracelets she had helped her make. “Oh you're the best.”

“You're welcome, Akane-chan, I hope he likes his. If you need to resize it, I'll do it at the dance.”

Akane squirmed, “I'm not sure but I think we're doing presents with cake after the dance.”

Rolling her eyes, Yuka shook her head, “Then I'll do it at school. Christmas day isn't a public holiday like overseas.”

Flushing and nodding, Akane looked to change the subject. Sayuri stepped in.

“Um, with tonight, if I am going alone, do I just show up at the school? I mean you both have dates to escort you.”

Grumbling, Akane shrugged, “I wish. If you want to come to the dojo around six, I have to walk with Ranma, Ryoga, and Akari, as well as Daddy and Miss Hinako and Mrs Miyakoji, Ranma's parents, and Kasumi and Doctor Tofu. Their all coming as chaperons, so it's hardly intimate.”

Sayuri nodded eagerly to be included, Yuka brightening, “Um, could I meet Akio there too? It's between here and his house, and if the night goes wrong I can dump him at your gate and run rather than at my door expecting a kiss.”

Akane nodded, Yuka smiled, “I'll have to go tell him. I needed exercise today anyway.”

“I have to get back home and help prepare for tonight too, two families for dinner is a lot of work.”

Yuka and Sayuri wondered if when meeting this crowd at the dojo tonight, they would all be complaining of stomach aches.

Frowning in the winter chill of the calm day, Akane looked at Yuka on her left. “So why are you even dating Akio if you don't like him?”

“He's not bad looking, and I needed someone so Daisuke didn't expect to be dating me for tonight and I wanted it to be better than Kai. The Sumo team has been doing better than the Football team Kai is on this year.”

“How long did you date Kai?” Sayuri asked more for Akane's benefit.

“Three weeks.”

“And you've been broken up...?”

“Three weeks. But that's not the point.”

Akane and Sayuri smirked as the trio reached the end of Yuka's street when they heard an all too familiar gong and cried words of the annoying priest of the shine.

“Hail, the groom of the demon slayer!”

Akane stumbled, part of her groaning, part of her elated that Ranma was near.

“Come bless this man and give him the wisdom to see he celebrates the wrong holy days for his oh so deserving bride.”

Frowning and looking at each other, the three girls moved up the to corner, three heads poking around.

Ranma was lugging a large semi decorated Christmas tree taller than himself down the road on his back, was now red faced trying to shoo off the priest.

Leaning to Akane's ear, Yuka whispered for her to go around the back, before grabbing Sayrui and both girls going to Ranma's aid.

“Ranma, your late,” Yuka said, cutting off the priest's next loud exposition.

“You have to get that tree home now,” Sayuri added.

Seeing the two pretty girls Ranma's age coming to aid the young man in carrying the tree, the priest stood his ground, watching them move on. “Groom of the Demon Slayer, guard yourself against thoughts of infidelity, your bride deserves better.”

Ranma loved to turn around and refute any such thing but Yuka pushed him to keep on forward. “Akane's up ahead,” she whispered.

Turning the next corner, Ranma wasn't surprised to see Akane standing their red faced.

“Uh, nice tree,” Akane said awkwardly, glancing then to the girls.“Thanks for the help.”

Yuka smirked, “So you two have a promise of no kissing or such till you dump the other girls right?”

Akane frowned at the froward question, Ranma standing the tree on its base to lean against him as he nodded. “Ah yeah. If I had my choice I'd be just engaged to Akane.”

“I just thought of a way to pay us back?” Yuka suggested, pointing to a decoration hanging over Ranma from near the top of the tree.

Sayuri looks at the small plant hanging there. “Mistletoe! Me too.”

Ranma looked confused at Akane while his fiancée moved to stop this. “Oh no, no way. He is my fiancé and if I can't kiss him no one can.”

Seeing Ranma's confusion Akane snapped out an explanation, “In the west, not in Japan, you are meant to kiss a person under the mistletoe.”

“Ah come on Akane, it's just one kiss, not like I'm getting any better tonight,” Sayuri said plaintively.

“Same with me, you do owe us?” Yuka added, rubbing her wrist meaningfully at Akane.

“Hey, don't I get a say?” Ranma stated. “I promised Akane no intimacy with any girls after we found out she was my fiancée.”

“It's just a mistletoe kiss, not intimacy.” Yuka pointed out.

Sayuri's eyes narrowed. “Why did you have to add all girls to the no intimacy promise after Akane became a fiancée?”

“Fine,” Akane quickly agreed to cut off that line of questioning. “One kiss, a quick one.”

The girls blushed, Ranma looking unsure at Akane till she pointed at Yuka. “Is this a test? I ain't doing this dumb custom if it is a test.”

“Don't enjoy it,” Akane said and turned her back.

Squeezing her fist closed, knuckles whitening, Akane heard the smack of lips parting, Yuka sighing outrageously. “I see why you like him Akane-chan.”

Ranma's cried in self defense. “I didn't do nothing, that's just a flat kiss from me,” inadvertently making the twitch in Akane's eye more prominent.

“My turn,” Sayuri said in a sing song voice making Akane tremble with great annoyance for her 'friends' and fiancé.

With a similar over done sigh, Sayuri leaned back looking at Ranma's face as the shy young man looked embarrassed. Her eyes widened, “I know you!”

“Excuse me?” Akane demanded swinging around, even Yuka looking surprised at Sayuri's words. Ranma just looked shocked.

Blushing, Sayuri shook her head. “No, not like that!” she cried.

“Then how?” Akane demanded, looking at Ranma who shrugged confused.

“Remember the hot spring?” Sayrui began. “Before Grandfather Happosai started leaving us alone and training you, we were at that women only hot spring? And that pervert appeared in the water with Grandfather near you and you booted him out? That was Ranma, I'm sure of it.”

Three girls turned wary eyes on Ranma, who was looking confused and ready to deny it.

“That guy had a pigtail,” Akane said in a slow accusing voice, Ranma wincing but still not recalling any such event as barging into a womens hot spring.

Akane's eyes narrowed and tried to recall the craziest event of the day.

“And before that we chased off that polar bear.”

The three girls could see Ranma's eyes click with recollection.

“I can explain. I swear it wasn't being a pervert. I was trying to stop the old letch from getting his ultimate technique scroll that was hidden in the spring.”

The three girls looked unimpressed.

“I swear, my Pop's was so scared of that dumb technique that after he failed with the bear thing to scare you off I had to try. I promise I didn't peek at no one.”

Akane frowned and Yuka could see her friend was already preparing to forgive him. “You still were there, and your sister soaked my books when she was doing whatever that destroyed our old school change room,” referring to her recognizing the red head as the suspicious stranger around the women's change room at school the day the water main under it blew up.

Ranma frowned, the tried to smile cutely. “Um, I'm sorry?”

Akane nodded seeing his side of it, Sayuri agreed but Yuka shook her head. “You owe us. And tonight, we collect.”

Akane and Sayuri frowned but when Yuka winked they found Ranma hanging his head in resignation more amusing.

Pushing the tree up, Ranma nodded impressed with the position of the large Christmas tree now dominating a corner of the main room of the Tendo home.

Looking to see Akane moving the low table back, cramping up floor space available for sitting but the gleam in her eyes seeing the tree he had gotten was worth it.

Akane moved beside him, the pair rearranging the decorations to more dominate the front and leave the inaccessible rear barren, but when Ranma stopped, Akane looked up and froze at the mistletoe hanging from his hand.

Eyes met quietly, both wanting to stretch the promise, recalling in detail Yuka's words, 'It's just a mistletoe kiss, not intimacy.'

Swallowing his dry mouth, Ranma watched for any clue from Akane who stood as torn as him, when the door to the hall slid open.

“Oh Ranma,” Kasumi cried. “It's beautiful!”

Blushing, Ranma closed his hand on the mistletoe, moving for Kasumi then sliding past her. “Just needs one thing.”

Frowning at his cryptic words, Akane looked to Kasumi who was clutching her hands in happiness. A moment later Ranma returned, taking a parcel wrapped in red paper and tied with a yellow ribbon and putting it under the tree. His eyes moving to Akane told her it was for her without needing to read the card.

She punched him in the shoulder, leaving him smirking as she ran up stairs. “No fair, my present for you isn't wrapped yet!”

Kasumi smiled at the byplay of the younger couple, taking it and the tree as a good omen for tonight.

To be continued...

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