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The Plan

A Ranma ½ fanfic by Tonbo

based on the real life plan created by my 7 yr old brother


     "It was soooooo cute," said Akane, as the family sat around the dinner table one Monday evening.  The late afternoon sun was streaming through the window, filling the dining area with a warm cozy mood that was all too rare in the Tendo household.  Akane had baby-sat a neighbor's children that weekend, and was telling her family about it.  "His sister was explaining how their elementary school gives out 'self-management' awards to anyone who can go ten days without having to be corrected by a teacher."
     "Geez," said Ranma, "you mean stuff like that actually works?  Sounds stupid to me.  Why not just make 'em hold buckets?"
     "As a matter of fact," said Akane impatiently, "it works really well!  Not everyone is as obnoxious as you.  Most people actually try to be pleasant most of the time."
     "Well excuuuuse me," said Ranma.
     "Go on Akane," said Kasumi, "what happened?"
     "Well, she and I were talking about this, when the little boy spoke up and said he was halfway to getting an award."
     "You're kidding," said Nabiki, "that overactive little kid didn't have to be called down even once in five days?"
     The child was famous for making trouble.  Easily bored, the simplest way he had found to cure it was to hit someone, the equation being: instant commotion equals no more boredom.  Ranma, of course, had once found it absolutely necessary to comment that only someone as macho and tomboyish as Akane could keep up with such a child.
     Fortunately, Akane had let that particular grudge go soon after she had clobbered him for it.  He wondered afterward why he had said it, since he had already known he would regret it.  (Not that that ever stopped him, of course.)
     "Well," continued Akane, "his Father and Mother have finally gotten his teachers to understand that he really loves to be loaded down with lots of real hard work.  He's very smart, and that's part of the problem.  He can work great by himself, but gets bored if it's not hard enough."
     "Ah," said Genma, looking up from his plate, "hard work and discipline.  Always good for a young boy.  Load him down with work.  That's the answer."
     Ranma rolled his eyes.  "Yeah, right.  Keep tellin' us all about discipline, Pop."
     "Well, yeah," said Akane, "that, and he doesn't always understand the difference between causing a commotion and hurting someone."
     "Hey," Ranma continued, "maybe that's my problem.  I get bored a lot in class too, ya know?  Maybe I'm just too smart.  Whadaya think?"
     Kasumi smiled.  Nabiki rolled her eyes.  Soun and Genma ignored him.
     Akane, of course, had more to say on the subject.  "I think you're just too stupid to know how really stupid you are!"
     "Hey Akane, how come you're always pickin' on me, but you make excuses for everyone else?"
     "Because other people aren't as obnoxious as you are, Ranma."
     "Well, it seems to me that a kid who hits other kids is pretty obnoxious."
     "Oh, yeah?  How many times did you beat up Ryoga in school, huh?  How many times did you beat up Ukyo when you thought she was a boy?"
     The rest of the table went on with their meal as usual.  They had all heard many versions of this argument before.  "W-well," stammered Ranma, "th-that was different.  That was just for fun."
     "Yeah, and they both came to Nerima wanting to kill you."
     "Nah!  I think Ucchan only just wanted to hurt us real bad."
     "Anyway," continued Akane, deciding to ignore Ranma, "his parents have also been talking with him about other ways to entertain himself besides causing trouble."
     "He does seem rather bright if he can already understand ideas like that," interjected Kasumi.
     "What's so great about that?" asked Ranma.  "Of course it's wrong to hit people.  Just tell him that.  That doesn't take any brains."
     "He's only seven years old!" said Akane.  "And it's not just that hitting is wrong.  It's looking for other ways to deal with his feelings."
     Ranma flashed an evil grin at Akane.
     "What?" she asked.
     "You're right," he quipped.  "That is pretty good.  I mean, you haven't figured that one out yourself, huh?"
     "Ranma," said Akane, clenching her fists and beginning to rise, "you're asking for it ..."
     Ranma quickly raised his hands to defend himself.  "Geez Akane, I was only kiddin'!"
     "Go on with your story," interrupted Nabiki.  Sure, it was fun to watch Akane beat Ranma, but they did that all the time.  This was better because it was something new.
     "Well, okay," said Akane to Nabiki, glaring at Ranma from the corner of her eye as she knelt back down at the table.  She did not believe for one second that he had not meant it, but she did want to finish her story.  "Well, he said he had five points for five days, so I asked him how he did it."
     "What did he say?" asked Kasumi.
     "He said, 'I just followed my plan.'"
     "What plan?" asked Ranma and Nabiki together.
     "Well," answered Akane, "he looked so proud of himself when he said it ... it was just so adorable that I had to keep myself from laughing.  It took me a minute to make sure I could keep a straight face, but I finally asked him, 'What plan?'"
     Akane looked around the table.  Everyone was listening, waiting for her next words.  Good.
     "And he said, 'Be nice.  Don't do anything stupid.  Shut up.'"
     Akane paused dramatically.  Kasumi and Nabiki laughed.  Soun, Genma and Ranma stared at her, still waiting for the punch line.
     "That's soooooo cute!" said Nabiki.
     "What a smart little boy," said Kasumi.
     "I don't get it," said Ranma.
     "Discipline, son.  It's about discipline!" Genma decided aloud.
     Everyone looked at Soun.  Soun stared back, completely at a loss.  "I don't get it either," he said finally.
     "Would anyone like more tea?" asked Kasumi.
     "I'll take some," said Ranma.
     "Daaad, it's cute!" said Akane in frustration.
     "Me too please, Kasumi," said Genma.
     "I'm done.  Please excuse me," said Nabiki, leaving the table.
     "I'll be right back then," said Kasumi, picking up the pitcher and walking off toward the kitchen.
     Akane glared at the three men, especially Ranma, who was now plowing back into his food.
     "Fine!" huffed Akane, rising.  "Excuse me."
     As Akane stomped off, Ranma turned to the two older men.  "What's her problem?"
     "She's your fiancee son," offered Genma, sagely.  "You should be able to figure her out."
     "I still don't get it," said Soun, returning to his meal.
     There was a moment of silence.  Then ...
     "Here's the tea," chimed Kasumi, returning from the kitchen.
     ... dinner resumed.

     "Now that you had coming," said Nabiki, as Akane stomped back into the house.
     Ranma was slowly climbing out of the small carp pond in the Tendo's back yard, as the sun was beginning to drop past the horizon.  "What for?" she asked, "All I did was tell the truth!  Why'd she have to go 'n get all mad about it for?"
     "Because," replied Nabiki, "you told her she was less mature than a seven year old."
     "No I didn't," said Ranma, adjusting her now soaked and clinging clothing to better fit her small form.  "I just said she oughta try takin' lessons from that smart kid some time.  And then she hits me!  Man, she don't know the first thing about bein' nice!"
     "And you do?"
     "I don't go around hittin' people!"
     "Not anymore," said Nabiki, "now you just insult them."
     "Well, all she did was prove I was right."
     Nabiki shook her head and turned to go into the house, dismissing Ranma with a wave of her hand.  "It seems to me YOU'D be better off fol-"
     She froze.
     Ranma had begun to follow Nabiki in.  When Nabiki stopped, Ranma halted also.  "What is it?" Ranma asked.
     When Nabiki did not immediately reply, Ranma walked past her, intending to head straight for the bath.  All she wanted at the moment was a change of clothing and bodies.
     "Ranma," asked Nabiki before Ranma could make it inside, "could you do me a favor?"  She asked the question simply, without the slightest hint of sarcasm or irony.
     Obviously, this meant trouble.  "Yeah, right!" said Ranma.
     "No, really," said Nabiki.  "I need your help with something."
     Big trouble.  Ranma braced herself, not knowing what to expect, but expecting it to hurt.  "What?"
     "Could you teach me something, please?"
     Please?  Huge trouble!  "I don't think ..." began Ranma.
     "But Ranma, it's important!"
     Nabiki was acting so peculiar that Ranma did not know how to respond.  In the end, as usual, habit and upbringing won out over discretion.  She just would not feel like a man if she did not at least try to help out a girl who needed it.  "Okay, whadaya want me to teach you?"
     "A certain martial arts technique that I happen to know you're familiar with."
     "Martial arts?  You?"
     "It's reeeaally important!"  She seemed so totally sincere ...
     ... that Ranma fell for it.  "Okay, I'll try," conceded Ranma.  "Which technique do you wanna learn?"
     "The Breaking Point Technique," said Nabiki.
     Ranma looked closely, but could not see the slightest trace of humor on Nabiki's face.  "Nabiki, you know I can't teach you that."
     "Oh?  Why not?"
     "'Cause I can't do it myself!  That's Ryoga's technique.  Ask him to teach you if you wanna learn it so bad."
     In an award-worthy performance, Nabiki asked with total innocence, "You mean to say that you can't teach something you haven't mastered yourself?"
     Set, and ...
     "Well, duh Nabiki!" snapped Ranma.
     ... spike!
     The evil grin returned.  Ranma stared at the other girl.  Now this was the Nabiki she knew.  Of course, that simply meant it was too late.
     "Then why don't you try that brilliant plan out for yourself, before you go telling other people what they should be doing?"
     And with that, Nabiki Tendo walked into the house, pleased at having scored yet another point on her future brother-in-law and blissfully unaware of what she had just started.

     Ranma sat on top of the house; her clothes almost dry.  She had not changed.  Instead, she had gone up to think about what Nabiki had said.  Well, no point in waitin' any longer, she thought, moving to the edge of the roof and leaning over.  Might as well get it over with.

     Akane was sitting at her desk, wearing her pajamas.  Dinner had ended poorly, and afterward she had gotten into a fight with Ranma.  She had only just gotten over her temper tantrum, and was now ready for bed, when a familiar upside-down face appeared in her window.
     "What do you want now, Ranma?"
     "Umm ..." said Ranma, at a loss for how to begin.  "I guess I was just wonderin' if there was ... well, I dunno ... anything I can do for you?"
     Akane blinked.  What in the world? she thought.  "Ranma," she said, "it's late.  Stop peeking into my bedroom, and go to sleep!"  Reaching up, she slid the window closed and drew the curtains.  That pervert is so stupid, she thought, as she climbed into bed.

     Ranma climbed in her own window and sat down on the floor of her room, crossing her arms.  Well, that's about what I expected, she thought.

-= DAY 00 =-

     "Ranma, you're even sloppier than usual!  Concentrate on what you're doing!"
     "Oh yeah?  Take THAT, old man!"
     The two combatants collided and spun, raining blows down upon each other by the dozen before leaping apart, only to crash together again.  In the end though, it was a short fight.  Ranma's thoughts were elsewhere, and he paid for his absent-mindedness with a trip to the pond.
     "That was pathetic, son," said Genma, standing a sufficient distance away to avoid any water Ranma might decide to splash his direction.  "Weren't you even trying?"
     "I guess you're right Pop.  Sorry," Ranma admitted as she climbed to dry land, "I'm just thinkin' about somethin' I'm gonna have to do later, that's all."
     "That's no excuse, boy.  A real enemy isn't going to let you off easy when you're not paying attention.  You can't afford to let your guard down just because you're daydreaming."
     "I wasn't daydreamin'!"  She finished adjusting her gi.  "I just ... I was thinkin' about somethin' else, okay?"
     "A real man doesn't make excuses.  Now go change and get ready for school.  Practice is over for today."

     Because Genma had let him go in early, Ranma had been able to take his time bathing, changing and joining the family for breakfast.  Everyone was there, and all seemed perfectly normal, except that Genma was managing to steal an unusually large amount of food from Ranma's plate and Ranma seemed too lost in thought to steal much back from him.
     With the meal finished, Genma and Soun settled down at the shogi board for a game, while the three youngest ones present grabbed their belongings and prepared to leave for High School.
     "Yo, Akane ... you, uh, want me to carry your books for ya?"
     Everyone stopped what they were doing, as all eyes in the house turned to observe this inexplicable phenomenon.
     Akane, all too uncomfortably aware of the sudden scrutiny she was under, blurted out, "N-no, why should I?"
     "Oh, I dunno," said Ranma, scratching the back of his head nervously and looking away.  "Just thought I'd ask."
     "Well don't," responded Akane quickly, walking out the door.  "I can do it myself."
     "Fine then," replied Ranma, following her.  "I'm sorry I even bothered!"  Their voices faded as they walked off down the street.
     Nabiki turned from where she was standing near the door and looked at her family and Genma.  "Any of you know what that was about?" she asked.
     Kasumi shook her head and said, "No, but it was sweet."  The two men shook their heads and turned back to begin their first game of the morning.
     Whatever... thought Nabiki as she left the house to follow the other two to school.  "I'm off."

     "Ranma, stop following me!"
     The couple was walking home together after school.  Instead of his usual balancing act though, Ranma was walking beside, or rather, slightly behind Akane.
     "What're you bein' so obnoxious for, Akane?  I'm just tryin' to be nice."
     "Well, cut it out already!  I don't need you hovering over me all the time!"
     "You know, you could try bein' a lot nicer yourself!"
     "What's wrong with you, Ranma?  Why are you worrying so much about me all of a sudden?  What is it that you think's wrong with me, anyway?"
     "I don't think nothin's wrong with you.  Well, no more'n usual."
     "Then, why do you keep trying to do things for me?  'Can I bring you lunch Akane?  Can I get you anything Akane?  Do you want me to carry your books home for you Akane?'  It's creepy coming from you.  I'm not some weak little thing that needs you to do everything for me all the time.  I can take care of myself!"
     "Man, I don't get it.  You're always tellin' me I'm an idiot 'n a jerk, so I try 'n be nice, 'n all ya do is yell at me more.  What's your problem?"
     "All my girlfriends were asking me what happened.  It was so humiliating."
     "Whadaya mean, 'What happened?'  I told ya, I'm bein' nice.  What's wrong with that?"
     "Ranma, you are such an idiot!  They were asking, ..." she held up her pinky finger so Ranma could see it, "... what 'happened,' okay?  Do you get it now?"
     Ranma looked at his own pinky, blushing as he realized what she meant.  To cover his embarrassment, he raised his hands back behind his head, interlaced his fingers, looked up at the sky and said the first thing that came to mind.  Naturally, it was the wrong thing.  "You gotta be kiddin'.  With an uncute tomboy like you?  I think you're just wishin'."
     Akane stopped dead in her tracks.  Ranma knew what the next few seconds would bring.  It was a shame, really.  He had tried so hard.  But at least he was now back in familiar territory.  In a way, it was a relief.
     "WHY  DON'T  YOU  JUST  GO  DIE!?"
     Akane's punch was stronger than usual.  Ranma set a new personal best for hang time.  After touchdown, he lay on the ground in a heap.  Boy, he thought, she must really be weirded out.  That hurt a lot more than usual!
     It took him a few minutes to recover sufficiently to stand.  He oriented himself and limped off in the direction of the Tendo home, turning a corner where-
     -the little old woman finished watering her walkway and turned to go back inside.  Ranma stood fuming; her fists clenched by her sides, her eyes shut tight, strange sounds issuing forth from between clenched teeth.  "Can't she ever even say that she's sorry!?"

     Ranma burst into Nabiki's room without knocking.  She was still soaked and breathing heavily, partially from the run home and partially from sheer anger.
     "Well, aren't you a sight?  And yes, you may come in."
     "I tried, Nabiki!  I gave it all day!  I did my best!  Your stupid idea only made Akane more violent than usual!  Next time, keep your dumb ideas to yourself, 'cause I don't wanna hear 'em!"  And with that, Ranma turned to go.
     "Hold it just a minute Ranma, 'Dear'!  I don't know what you're upset at, or why you're blaming it on me, but if you think you can just barge in here, shout at me and leave, then we'd better get a few things straight right now!"
     Ranma turned to face her.  "You're the one who told me to try that stupid plan out for myself.  You said that I was the one who didn't know how to be nice, but you don't seem to think there's anything wrong with how Akane acts all the time.  It's all your fault!"
     "Plan?  What plan?"  Then it dawned.  "You mean, you tried to be nice to Akane?"
     "Darned right I tried!  Last night 'n all day.  All it's gotten me is yelled at, beat up 'n splashed again!  So thanks a lot!"
     "Hold it!  Wait a minute, Ranma.  I need to catch up.  This is too much."  Ranma stood staring as Nabiki thought about what she had just heard.  This was really interesting.  More importantly, it sounded like fun.  Things had been boringly quiet in her life recently.  Some fun right now would be welcome.  She needed more information.
     "Ranma, come in and sit down.  I'll get you a towel, and you can tell me all about it.  Just stay here, and I'll be right back."  She gestured Ranma to her chair and left the room.  When she returned, Nabiki handed Ranma the towel and said, "I looked into the bathroom to make sure it was ready for you.  As soon as we're done here, you can go change back, okay?"
     Ranma took the towel and tried not to look too surprised at this sudden thoughtfulness from Nabiki.  "Uhh, ... thanks, ... I guess."
     "You're welcome, 'I guess,'" she said, sitting down on the bed.  "Now tell me about this plan."

     Nabiki finally could not contain herself any longer and burst out laughing.  Ranma stood to leave.  "Fine!  Thanks a lot Nabiki.  You're a big help!"
     "No Ranma, wait!  Please!  Really, I'm sorry.  It's just that it's so funny!"
     "You wouldn't think it was funny if it happened to you!"
     "No, of course not," said Nabiki, her laugh subsiding into a simple smile, "but that's just it.  It wouldn't happen to me.  Ever."  She straightened up and tried to assume a more serious demeanor.  "Sit down Ranma.  Don't go.  I can help you."
     "No thanks!  Your help just ruined my day!  I don't need any more help from you."
     "Just listen to me.  I'll tell you what you did wrong.  If you disagree, you can ignore me."  She watched as Ranma thought it over.  "What have you got to lose?  Don't you at least want to know what I have to say?"
     Ranma was not at all sure she wanted to hear what Nabiki had to say.  But she knew she really could just ignore it if it seemed like it would only cause more trouble.  "Okay," she said, returning to her seat.  "Let's hear it."
     "Ranma, your problem is that you just don't have the first clue how to be nice.  You think it means doing a bunch of stuff for Akane that she can do just fine for herself."
     "But I thought that girls liked it when guys did all that kind'a stuff for 'em."
     "Me, yes.  Akane, no.  Look, if a boyfriend ever wanted to carry my books for me, I'd let him.  If he wanted to bring me lunch or hold the door for me or take me to a movie or out to eat snacks or something, that'd be great!  I love that stuff.  But not Akane."  She paused, for a moment, considering.  "Well okay, inside she probably does, too.  But, she also wants to be respected as a martial artist.  She wants to prove she's tougher and better than anyone else around.  And until you came along, she was.  She took on half the boys in school all at once and beat them every time.  Now she's forced into an engagement with the one boy who can put her down and get away with it.  You make her feel weak and inferior.  And then you go and make it worse by telling her that even when you do fight with her you hold back because she's a girl.  And you still beat her.  How's that supposed to make her feel?"  She looked at Ranma expectantly before continuing.  "Of course she's going to misunderstand you.  And she looks for any way that you might be making fun of her, because you DO make fun of her!"
     "I didn't today."
     "One day isn't enough!  Besides, you're acting really weird AND treating her like a weak girl.  Kasumi or I wouldn't see it that way, but Akane does."
     "But, what do I do then?  I'm supposed to be nice, but you're sayin' that'll only make it worse!"
     "That's a pretty good question.  I'm not sure.  Let me think about it for a second."
     "Think all ya want," said Ranma.  "I'm gonna go take a bath."

     Nabiki opened the bathroom door and walked in saying, "Ranma, I've got it figured out!"
     "Yeeooowwww!!!" yelled Ranma, jumping to the side of the tub where he could use it to give himself some cover.  "Nabiki, I'm naked!"
     "Whatever," said Nabiki, sitting down on one of the stools.  "I know what you need to do."
     "But ... but ..."
     "Look Ranma, do you want to hear the answer or not?"
     Ranma could only nod.
     "Okay.  The problem is that you only did one little part of the plan, and you started with the hardest part of the three, 'Be Nice'  But not everyone agrees on what that means.  Akane just thought you were being weird."
     Again, Ranma nodded.
     "So, what we're going to do is switch it around.  We're going to start you off with the easiest one and work our way up to the harder stuff as you master each technique, just like in martial arts."
     Ranma gave Nabiki a disgusted look.  "'We?'"
     "Sure!  Starting today, I'm your new coach."
     "I don't think so."
     "Who else are you going to get to help you?  Ukyo?  Face it Ranma 'Dear,' I'm the only coach you've got because I'm the only one who cares if your relationship with Akane improves or not."
     Ouch.  That almost made sense.  Ranma considered it.  "Okay, I'll listen.  But I'm not sayin' that I'm actually gonna do anything you tell me."
     "Fine.  First-"

     Akane was walking by as Nabiki left the bathroom.  Seeing that Nabiki's hair was dry and she was wearing her normal clothes, Akane asked, "Is something wrong with the bath?"
     "Everything's fine.  I'm just having an interesting day.  I hear you had an interesting day, too."
     "Oh, Ranma just decided to act all dumb and humiliate me in front of my friends.  Actually, it was pretty normal."
     "Really?  Well, that may be changing soon."
     "What's that supposed to mean?"
     "You'll see ..." she said, as she walked off down the hall.
     Akane stood there trying to figure out what Nabiki could have meant.  She was not totally sure she wanted to know.  One could never be sure with Nabiki.  Sometimes it was just safer to be somewhere else.
     Unfortunately, she waited a bit too long to actually BE somewhere else.  The door to the bathroom opened and a wet-haired Ranma stepped out wearing only a pair of workout shorts and a towel draped around his neck.
     The two stared at each other in shock.
     A moment ago she had not been sure.  Now she was.  "I don't EVEN want to know," she said, raising her hands in front of herself.  Then she turned and walked stiffly away.

     "You did exactly right, Ranma," said Nabiki.  "I'm proud of you."
     "But all I did was stand there like an idiot.  I couldn't think of a single thing to say."
     "Exactly!  You Shut Up.  That's the first technique of the Nabiki Tendo Anything Goes School Of Social Skills For Seven Year Olds."
     Ranma face faulted.  "You have got to be kiddin'."
     "I'm serious.  And you're my first student.  Aren't you the lucky one?  I'm not even going to charge you.  I'm just going to use you as the guinea pig to perfect the techniques."
     "I think I just changed my mind."
     "But you've gotten off to such a great start!  You've already begun to practice the first and most important technique; the one upon which all the others will depend.  You just learned to Shut Up.  Now you only have to keep doing it."
     "Nabiki, that's stupid.  I can't just shut up all the time.  How am I supposed to be nice to Akane if I can't even talk to her?"
     "Keep your mind on the lesson, please.  You're not trying to Be Nice.  You're trying to Shut Up."
     "But ..."
     "Ranma, look ... if you were teaching a brand new student how to punch and he started telling you it was stupid because in a real fight he's going to have to do a lot more than just punch, what would you tell him?"
     "I'd tell him that he was gonna have to learn the right way to throw a punch first before he could learn the harder ..."  Ranma stopped.
     "Get it?"
     "Uh, yeah.  I think so.  I'm not gonna have to shut up forever; just for a while."
     "Very close.  You're going to have to Shut Up until you've gotten the hang of it.  That doesn't mean all the time, just most of it.  More than you probably think.  And it's going to be harder than you probably think, too.  But if you are not absolutely certain that what you are about to say is the right thing, then you are just not going to say it.  In fact, if you're not absolutely certain that you know the right thing to say, then you're not going to say anything at all!  Got it?"
     "If you don't know what to say, don't say it."
     "I said I got it!"
     "And then, when I feel you've mastered that one, I'll tell you what to do next.  We'll work on combining techniques until you've mastered two of them together.  Then we'll move on to the third.  There will probably be more to it than that, but we'll figure it out as we go."
     "But you'd better realize that you don't get to stop Shutting Up until that you've mastered all three techniques, understand?  Just because you move on to the second one doesn't mean that you quit doing the first.  You're going to be Shutting Up for a long time to come!  If you don't think you can do it, then quit now, so you don't waste my time!"
     "Don't worry, Teacher.  I can take anything you dish out!"
     Nabiki blinked audibly.  "'Teacher'?"
     "Yes.  'Teacher'."  Ranma was clearly excited.  "Thanks, Nabiki.  I'll see ya later."  And he turned to leave her room.
     Nabiki was confused by Ranma's reaction, until she realized that this was exactly how he was used to being treated.  He had lived his entire life with people speaking harshly to him, challenging him, daring him.  Mostly his Father.  She thought hard and fast!  What was it his Father was always saying to him?
     Ranma turned and looked back at her, surprised by the intensity in her voice.
     "I won't go easy on you."
     Ranma smiled.  Really SMILED!  "Fine.  That's just the way I like it."

-= DAY 01 =-

     That's better, thought Akane at breakfast.  Ranma had not said anything all morning.  The meal proceeded along its usual course, and broke up when it was time for the three high-schoolers to leave.
     That's better, thought Akane as they walked to school in silence.  He's finally leaving me alone.
     That's a lot better, thought Akane as they entered the school grounds.  Now maybe everything will be back to normal.
     What's his problem? thought Akane at lunch, when Ranma still had not said a word to her.
     "Ranma, you are such a jerk!" said Akane, as they walked home that afternoon.
     "What'd I do now?" asked Ranma.
     "Yesterday you wouldn't leave me alone!  Now you're ignoring me like I'm not even here!  If you've got something to say to me, then say it already!"
     Ranma thought about this.  Silently, he repeated his instructions to himself.  If you're not absolutely certain that what you are about to say is the right thing, then you are just not gonna say it.  Then he said aloud, "I dunno, Akane.  I guess I just don't have nothin' to say."
     "Fine then!" Akane said, and walked faster, leaving Ranma behind.
     Ranma stopped walking for a moment and went over the conversation in his mind to see if he had missed something.  I wonder if that's what's supposed to happen? he thought.

     "Come in," said Nabiki in answer to the knock at her door.  She was laying on her bed, reading a comic.  As Ranma entered, she put it down and said, "So, how's it going?"
     Ranma sat down on the floor by the bed and said, "I don't know.  I guess I don't understand the point.  What'm I tryin' to do, anyway?"
     "It's not going too well, huh?"
     "It sure don't seem like it."
     "You're trying to learn a new technique.  Nothing more; nothing less.  Learning to apply it comes later."
     "But how do I know it's even gonna help?"
     "I don't know.  You're the one who decided to do this plan.  Are you wanting to back out already?  Is it too much for you?"
     "Hey!" snapped Ranma.  "I ain't backin' out.  I just don't get what I'm tryin' to do, that's all.  You talk about this like it's martial arts, but it ain't.  In martial arts, the goal is to beat your opponent.  In sports, there's always a goal, too.  But there doesn't seem to be a goal here.  What is Shuttin' Up supposed to get me?"
     "Ranma ... " Nabiki paused and looked a little closer at him.  He really seemed confused.  "Ranma, I'm not sure I can tell you.  But, when you're finished, and you've mastered these techniques, I think you'll be glad you did.  I think you'll find all sorts of ways to use them."
     Ranma looked doubtful.
     Something clicked in Nabiki's mind then, and she continued more strongly, "Yeah!  That's it!  Ranma, the mistake you're making is thinking that this technique is supposed to be GETTING you something.  It's not.  Not yet, anyway.  It's just one technique.  By itself it's not very useful, but, when you combine it with the other two, it will become very powerful.  You've just got to stick it out long enough to master all three."
     "I guess," said Ranma.  "But even just a simple punch accomplishes SOMETHIN'.  This ain't like martial arts at all."
     "No," said Nabiki, "this is harder."

     At dinner that evening, everything seemed normal.  Ranma and Akane were ignoring each other, and everyone else was discussing the day's events.  At one point though, Nabiki asked Genma, "Uncle Saotome, what's the first thing a new student needs to learn when he starts to study martial arts?"
     Nabiki had never asked a question like that before, and certainly not of Genma, so everyone was a little surprised.  But it was a simple enough question, and Genma loved being asked.  He pushed his glasses further up onto the bridge of his nose, crossed his arms and closed his eyes as if concentrating greatly.  "Hmm ... The first thing any true student of The Art must learn is to fall."
     Ranma froze with his chopsticks halfway to his mouth.  Akane stared at him.  What's he so surprised at? she thought.  He should know that.
     "Why?" asked Nabiki.  "Why not something like a punch first?"
     "In order to master any art, the artist must first master himself.  If he allows his passions to guide him, he will surely fail.  A martial artist must learn to receive blows and not flinch, to be thrown and not be hurt, to weather attacks without being damaged.  Only then can he find the freedom to choose his response.  Otherwise, his responses will be chosen for him by his opponents, and he will lose."
     Ranma laid his chopsticks down across his plate and stared at Nabiki as if seeing her for the first time in his life.  She met his gaze and smiled.  Then she looked at Genma again and said, "Thanks."
     "Yeah.  Thanks," said Ranma, looking down at his plate.
     "What's wrong, Ranma?" asked Akane.
     Ranma looked at her.  Then at Genma.  Then Nabiki.
     "Ranma?" asked Akane again.
     "Excuse me," said Ranma to no one in particular.  Then he stood and turned to go.
     "But Ranma, you haven't eaten hardly anything at all," said Kasumi.
     "That's okay, Kasumi," said Ranma.  "It was great.  I'm ... I just had enough, that's all."  And with that, he left the room and went out into the back yard.
     "All right," said Akane, turning to Nabiki, "what's going on?  What's the deal with Ranma?"
     Nabiki gave Akane her patented 'Are You Talking To Me?' look and said nothing.
     "I know something's up.  Now tell me what it is!"
     In answer, Nabiki simply continued eating.  Slowly.
     Akane stared at her sister in anger, then returned her attention to her meal.  She did not last more than a few minutes though, before excusing herself from the table.

     "Ranma, are you up there?"  Akane had gone into the back yard to find Ranma, and since he was not there, she figured he must be on the roof.  "Ranma?" she called again.
     When she got no answer, she went back into the house and up to her room, opened the window and climbed out.  Sure enough, Ranma was sitting on top of the house, just above his own bedroom window.
     "I don't believe you," complained Akane as she moved over to sit beside him.  "Didn't you hear me calling you?"
     "Oh, hi Akane," said Ranma absent-mindedly.
     "I said, 'I was calling you.'"
     "Sorry.  I was just thinkin'."
     "Ranma, is something wrong?"
     Ranma turned to look at Akane for a moment.  "Yeah," he said, looking away, "I guess somethin' really is wrong."
     "Well, what is it?  Tell me."
     He looked at her again.  This time, though, he KEPT looking at her.  "What?" she said defensively.  "What are you looking at?"
     A million thoughts ran through his head.  A million things to say.  A million things not to say.  He looked down at the roof beneath him.  "Akane, I know I'm bein' weird 'n all, but it's somethin' I gotta do right now.  It won't last forever, okay?"
     "Can't you tell me what it is?"
     And again, he looked at her.  It had been a long time since he had really LOOKED at her like this.  She wished she knew what it meant.  It made her feel so ... so ...
     As Ranma was looking at Akane, Nabiki's voice from the day before came again to his mind.  "If you're not absolutely certain that you know the right thing to say, then you're not going to say anything at all!"  He wanted to tell Akane how scared he was to say the wrong thing.  But if he said even that much, she might think he was accusing her of having a bad temper.  And then she'd blow up at him.  He didn't dare say a word.  Lost in confusion, he looked back down at the roof.  It felt all wrong.  Surely he should say something!  This couldn't be right!  But he had to learn to do it.  He had to learn to fall.  He had to learn to Shut Up.  He had to!
     When Ranma did not answer, Akane turned away.  The ... whatever it was ... that she had been feeling mere seconds ago turned to ash.  I can't believe he's shutting me out like this, she thought.  Although she did not want to admit it, it hurt.  To cover that hurt, she did what she always did.  She got angry.  "Fine Ranma!  Do whatever you want.  See if I care!"  And with that, she left the way she had come.
     Ranma pulled his knees up to his chest.  Then he laid his head down on them and covered it with both arms as if to shield it from unseen blows.  This can't be right! he thought.

     Nabiki was startled by the rapping on her window.  She cautiously moved to open her curtains and saw Ranma hanging upside down just outside.
     What on Earth?  She opened the window and said, "Come on in Ranma, and next time use the door, okay?"
     Ranma didn't move.  "Uh, actually Teacher, I'm not stayin'.  I think I need to go say somethin' to Akane, but if I'm supposed to be Shuttin' Up then I don't know how I'm gonna do that.  I thought I'd come ask you first."
     Just then, Akane slid the door open and walked in.  Seeing the two of them at the window, she froze in mid-motion, a look of shock on her face.
     Ranma knew what his assigned task was.  He Shut Up.
     Nabiki said, "Oops."
     Akane stared at the two of them for a moment.  Gradually, the shock was replaced by anger, but not before the two saw just a second of hurt.  "So!" Akane began, "You can't talk to me, but you can talk to my sister, huh?  Is that how it is?"
     "Akane," began Nabiki, "it's not what you think.  It's ... it's ..."  She turned to Ranma.  "Ranma, say something!"
     Ranma hung there silently.
     "FINE!" shouted Akane, and slammed the door as she left.
     Nabiki whirled on Ranma.  "Why didn't you say anything, Ranma?"
     Ranma stared at Nabiki.  In his mind, he repeated his instructions like a mantra.  "If ya don't know what to say, don't say it.  If ya don't know what to say, don't say it."  He didn't know what to say to Nabiki, so he didn't.
     It took a moment for the truth to dawn on Nabiki.  The betrayal she felt was obvious on her face.  It was clear she had never expected Ranma to use the technique on her.  Nabiki rarely showed her true feelings.  This was an exception.  With genuine anger on her face and in her voice, she said, "Okay Ranma, if that's the way you want to play this, then I'll just leave you to it."  And she reached up to close the window.
     "Teacher," said Ranma, "I still need to ask you about Akane."
     Nabiki was so shocked to hear him address her again in that way that she froze with the window only partially closed.  Ranma was never polite.  Well, not with her, anyway.  Ranma didn't give respect away, you had to earn it from him.  She stood there, not moving, not knowing how to respond.
     "Sis," said Ranma a little less formally, "I already needed to talk to you.  This only makes it worse.  I really liked what you asked my Pop.  I need your advice.  You said you'd be my coach."
     Nabiki stood still a moment longer, seemingly staring at the wall.  Finally, she opened the window fully and stepped aside, saying gruffly, "Then come inside where we can talk like normal people.  It's stupid to hang off roofs."

     "Okay, so we agree that it's Stupid to ignore Akane when she asks you a question, right?"
     "And we agree that it's Stupid to call her 'tomboy,' or 'macho,' or 'violent,' or 'uncute,' right?"
     "AND we agree that it's Stupid to try Being Nice yet, right?"
     "So, you will answer her questions, not insult her, and not do things for her, right?"
     "Good!" said Nabiki.  She had decided that telling Ranma simply to Shut Up had been a mistake.  Although she had misgivings about it, she felt that if she did not promote him to the second technique, all he would do is mess things up even more.
     "But what if I don't know what to say?"
     "What do you mean?"
     "What if she asks me a question, and I don't know what the right answer is?  Or if I think the answer's just gonna make her mad again?"
     Nabiki hesitated.  "I don't think you're going to like the answer, Ranma."
     Uh-oh.  "What is it?"
     "In that case, you're going to go right back to the basics."
     Ranma looked at her.  "You mean ..." he began.
     They both finished the sentence together, "... Shut Up."

     At first, Akane just ignored the knocking at her door.  She knew her sister would be worried about her, but she did not want to speak to anyone right now.  But the knocking came again, and after some waiting, a third time.  "I'm coming," she finally said.
     "Nabiki," she said, opening the door, "I'm not in the mood to-"
     "Hi," said Ranma.  "Actually, it's me."
     She looked at him with surprise rather than the anger he had expected.  "Ranma ... I thought it'd be ... what are ... I guess I expected you to come to the window."
     "Yeah, well, uh, Nabiki told me that was Stupid."
     The moment the words were out of his mouth, he knew he had blown his chance and wondered if he would get another.  He knew Akane and how she would misconstrue what he had said.
     The surprise on Akane's face was replaced by disgust.  "Nabiki, huh?  Yeah, I noticed you and she have been getting real CLOSE recently!  How nice for you!  Are you going for a fifth one now?"
     Ouch.  She's really upset, thought Ranma.  Better be extra careful what I say next.  So he began.  "She's been ..."  Then he stopped to reconsider.  He was not sure whether Akane would feel ganged up on if he told her about Nabiki helping him with The Plan, so he decided to try something else.  "She just said that it was stupid for me to try to talk to her at her window, that's all."
     "Oh, but the two of you looked so natural that way!  I guess you must do that often, huh?"  Ranma tried to slip in a denial at this point, but Akane was too fast for him.  "Look Ranma, I already tried talking to you once tonight, but you didn't want to!  So I think it's a little too late now, don't you?"
     The answer was so simple and came so quick that, for a moment, Akane was not sure she had heard it at all.  Caught off guard, she fumbled with her words before continuing.  "W-well ... well I do!  Good night!"  And with that she pushed the door shut with a bang.
     Ranma waited a long time, wondering if knocking again would be Stupid.  He thought about the window, and decided that WOULD be Stupid.  He wanted to talk to Nabiki again, but decided that would DEFINITELY be Stupid right now!  In the end, he went to bed.  I guess it's time to Shut Up again, he thought.

-= DAY 02 =-

     "So Pop, we done yet?"
     It had been a good workout.  Despite the troubles of the night before, Ranma had slept well and found himself more than able to keep his mind on the fight with his Father.  More than that, he was performing unusually well, and had easily scored what had long since become the ritual closing point to their morning practice.
     Genma climbed out of the pond, water dripping from his fur.  "Growwf," he said, waving for Ranma to go on into the house.
     "See ya inside, Pop.  I'm sure Kasumi'll have some nice bamboo or somethin' for ya!" teased Ranma before rushing inside to avoid whatever his Father might choose to do in retaliation for the jibe.  Taunting, too, had its place in the ritual.
     Yeah, things were a mess right now, but they were always sort of a mess anyway.  Considering all he had endured since coming to Nerima, his current troubles really were not so bad.  Besides, he was no longer feeling quite so lost as he had been the past few days.  Nabiki had promoted him to begin practicing technique number two.  That meant he must be doing something right.  He figured he had gotten this Shut Up thing down pretty good.  It wasn't so hard after all.  All he had to do now was Not Do Anything Stupid, and it would only be a matter of time until Akane started appreciating it.  After all, he'd been working The Plan for a whole entire day now!
     He was so lost in self-congratulation as he turned the hallway corner, that he did not notice Akane until they collided.  Startled, he threw his arms up and succeeded only in wrapping them around his fiancee.
     Ranma was not sure which surprised him more, the shout or the slap it came with.  Akane was already well past him before he collected himself enough to yell back at her.
     "Shut up!" Nabiki called quickly from where she stood in the hallway.  Ranma turned to look at her, startled.  She must have seen the whole thing.  She must know he was innocent!  He opened his mouth to protest, but she preempted him again by yelling at him, "SHUT UP, RANMA!"
     He glared at his new teacher with a blend of surprise, frustration, righteous indignation and hatred.  He knew very well she had enjoyed that.
     She stepped closer to him, never letting her gaze leave his for a second.  "I know it's not fair, Ranma.  But it's the right thing to do.  Besides, it could have been worse."
     "Oh, yeah?" said Ranma, "How?"
     "Easy.  It could have been me you bumped into, and her who watched you do it."
     Ooohh.  She had a point there.  And he had almost yelled at Akane.  That would have been Stupid.  "Um, thanks I guess ... I mean I know ... I mean ..."
     "I know, I know.  It's hard for you to say.  Forget it.  I'm not doing this for you anyway."  And she walked away.
     Huh? thought Ranma.  What's she upset at me for?

     Breakfast was tense.  Really tense.  That is, for half of the household.  The other half was doing great.  Kasumi was her standard cheerful self and the two Fathers were oblivious as ever.  The youngest three were silent.
     Until Nabiki asked Genma another question.  "Uncle Saotome, what do you do when you think you've promoted a student too quickly?"
     Before Genma could answer, Ranma slammed the table with his open palm and stood up, glaring down at Nabiki with even more anger than he had in the hallway just a few minutes earlier.
     In the silence of the suddenly-too-small room, only Nabiki was unfazed enough to continue speaking.  Looking up at Ranma, but continuing to direct the question toward Genma, she calmly went on, "I mean, what do you do when a student that you thought had learned a technique really well completely forgets it once you teach him a new one?"
     Genma looked back and forth between his son and his best friend's daughter, not understanding in the least why Ranma should object to Nabiki expressing an interest in the family trade.  "Well, (ahem!) I would drop them back to practicing only the first one again until they had truly mastered it.  To allow them to advance too rapidly would only hinder-"
     "I get it, okay!!?" yelled Ranma, throwing up his hands and stomping out of the room.  Everyone flinched and looked around at each other.  Everyone but Nabiki.  "I'm outta here!!" they heard Ranma yell, as he left the house.

     "I can not believe how you behaved this morning, Ranma!  Honestly, you owe your Father and everyone else an apology as soon as you get home!  I mean it!"
     Akane was berating Ranma on the way home from school.  He had risked invoking Miss Hinako's wrath by slipping into class with no more than a second to spare, and afterward had managed to slip away before Akane could reach him.  She had sought him out at lunch, but he had been nowhere to be found.  It was all perfectly clear what he was doing.  He had successfully avoided her all day.
     But she had finally caught up with him after school.  "I'm not joking, Ranma!  The minute we get home-"
     "No, it's not okay!  They were all really offended by the way you stormed off.  So was I.  I don't know what your problem is sometimes, but-"
     Ranma stopped and closed his eyes tightly, clenching his fists.  Inside he began repeating to himself over and over and over again, "shut up shut up shut up shut up SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP ..."
     Akane, to give her credit, waited while Ranma stood that way.  She was very angry, and had more to say, but would wait until he opened his eyes.
     Finally, Ranma began to calm down.  He took a deeeeeep breath and let it out slowly.  "Okay, Akane," he said softly, opening his eyes at last to look at her.  "I'll apologize when we get home."  To Akane's surprise, he sounded sincere.  "I'll try to find somethin' to say that doesn't sound too Stupid."
     "It doesn't matter what it sounds like," said Akane, turning from Ranma and continuing on toward home.  "You just do it!"
     Ranma stood, watching her go.  After a moment, he followed slowly.  "Right," he said to himself, very quietly.

     "Come in," said Nabiki from her desk in reply to the knocking at her bedroom door.  She turned around in her chair and watched Ranma open her door and step inside, closing it behind himself.  "Well," said Nabiki, "and what do you want?"
     Ranma stood still in front of her door, looking at the floor, then at his hands, and then ... finally ... at her.  "I came up to say ... I'm sorry about that."
     "My yellin' this mornin'.  I'm sorry about it."
     "Ranma, I'm not the one you should be apologizing to."
     "I know.  I already said I was sorry to Pop 'n your dad 'n Kasumi.  I just figured I probably ought'a say it to you too, that's all."
     "You apologized to everyone?"  The note in her voice was not quite shock.  But almost.
     "Yeah, well, it wasn't THEIR fault-" He stopped as he realized what he was saying.
     "Oh.  So it was my fault."
     Ranma's mouth moved in protest, but no sounds came out.  It WAS her fault as far as he could see, but he was sure that was the wrong thing to say.  Not having the slightest clue what the right thing was, he Shut Up.
     Nabiki laughed.  "Ranma, you are just too cute!  You should see yourself right now.  You really do try hard don't you?"  Ranma, having no idea what she meant, decided to keep his peace.  Nabiki moved from her chair to her bed and plopped down on her back, looking up at her ceiling.  "It's okay Ranma, you didn't insult me.  I insulted you.  You and Akane are just so stupid sometimes that I got mad.  This 'Plan' was supposed to be fun.  But no, you just had to go and make Akane angry.  Which is fine with me, really, but I wish you'd leave me out of it.  I don't like getting involved in your squabbles, and I don't like Akane being mad at me."
     "But I'm tryin' to NOT make her mad!  That's the thing!  She gets so upset sometimes that nothin' I do will calm her down!  And she never listens to me.  That's why I need your help!"
     "You need help all right," she said, turning her head to look at him.  "That's for sure."
     "Are ya gonna teach me, or just keep insultin' me?"
     "Oh, don't worry.  I'll help.  But after this morning-"  She sat up.  "Honestly Ranma, what were you thinking?  If I hadn't stopped you, you would have just started up again with Akane like you always do, and right after you and I had that talk last night about Not Doing Anything Stupid!  I wonder if that kid really is more mature than you!  At least he seems to be able to follow a plan!"
     The anger was back, emanating from Ranma's eyes and face.  That's the third time today, Nabiki thought, looking at him with surprise.  He's really caught up in this whole thing.
     Ranma was working to control himself.  He had faced more vengeance-and-love crazed enemies, amazons, fiancees and psychos than any one person should have to deal with, and not had this much difficulty.  He'd been attacked, drugged, enchanted, insulted, ridiculed and blamed for everything from flirting to sorcery, but he'd never felt the struggle going on inside himself now.  He was one of the fastest martial artists he knew; one of the best martial artists in Japan!  He did things every day of his life that not one person in a thousand could even conceive of doing!  His whole life had been built on The Art.  Everything to him was attack, defense or practice.  Yet, staring at Nabiki in that moment, he felt a frustration more profound and paralyzing than any he could remember since coming to Nerima.  How could something so simple be so hard?
     He also felt something else, something more familiar.  Determination.  He was Ranma Saotome, heir to the Saotome School Of Anything Goes Martial Arts.  He had endured the Cat-Fist training, mastered the Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire technique, learned to adapt Ryoga's ki blast for his own use, even faced Cologne herself and survived the Shark-Fist and more threats than he could count.  There was no way he was going to allow himself to lose to a seven year old kid with big ideas!
     Or to a snotty future sister-in-law!  "Okay, so I'm stupid!" he said.  "So, help me, already!"
     "Okay," said Nabiki, gesturing to her chair.  "Class is in session.  Sit down.  We're going to talk some more about all of those Stupid things you do."

     Akane was sitting out on the patio.  It was rare to hear Ranma apologize or admit to any faults, yet he had done it three times today in front of her.  That must be some kind of record!  Four, if she counted the first time.  The time he had apologized to her!  She had been so proud of him ...
     I'm going to kill him! she thought.
     "Hello Akane," said Kasumi, stopping for a moment as she walked by the patio.  "I didn't see you there.  What are you doing?"
     "I'm WAITING for RANMA!  I THOUGHT he was going up to APOLOGIZE to NABIKI, but he's been GONE so LONG that I'm BEGINNING to wonder if he's REALLY up to something ELSE!"
     Kasumi looked at Akane thoughtfully.  "Like what?"
     Akane's eyes grew large, as the rest of her seemed to shrink away.  The thought of actually admitting, of saying out loud the feelings she had been having -- and to Kasumi of all people -- was absurd.  Of course Ranma wasn't really ... w-whatever it was she had been thinking.  There was no way!  No way, surely!  "N-nothing Sis.  I'm sure he's just got a lot to apologize for, that's all," she said, forcing the smile.
     "Yes.  He did seem to be worked up about something this morning.  I'm glad he seems to be doing better now."  And with that, Kasumi went on her way to wherever it was she went, leaving Akane to sit and wonder at the things she had been caught thinking.
     No way.  I mean, he's a pervert and all, but even he wouldn't sink so low as to hit on Nabiki.  And even if he did, she'd never go for an idiot like Ranma, right?  She leaned in the patio door and looked down the hall toward the stairs.  He's been up there an awfully long time, though ...

     "Later, Teacher," said Ranma, as he slid Nabiki's bedroom door open to leave ...

     Akane was reaching for Nabiki's door when it suddenly opened on its own.  For the second time that day, she and Ranma collided.  Startled, Ranma threw his arms up and ...

     "Ranma, you really are pathetic sometimes, do you know that?" said Nabiki, returning from downstairs with a damp washcloth and dropping it on Ranma's bruised face.  "Why do you let her get away with that?"
     Ranma was lying face up on Nabiki's bed.  She had dropped him there after helping him up out of the corner where Akane had knocked him before storming off.  "I don't 'let' her get angry," Ranma said through the moist cloth which now covered his face.  "She just does."
     "I'm not talking about her getting angry," said Nabiki.  "I'm talking about how you let her beat on you all the time.  You're way better than she is.  Why do you let her do it?"
     "Well, I dunno ... she just ... well, I just ..."
     "You're amazing.  You can defeat anybody I've ever seen, but you let my little sister treat you like this.  I guess you really do like her, huh?"
     "Whadaya mean, 'like her?'" said Ranma, sitting up and moving the washcloth, shifting it to cover only the bruised side of his face.  "That uncute-"
     "She's the only one you let hammer on you.  You have one set of reactions for her and another for everyone else in the world.  That means she's the special person in your life.  It's really pretty sick, actually.  Tell me I'm wrong."
     "Well, I don't ... I mean, she don't ... I mean-"
     "See?  You can't argue with me, even if you want to."
     "Well, she's still a macho tomboy," said Ranma sullenly, though without much force.
     Nabiki was still for a minute, looking at Ranma silently.  "Ranma," she began, moving to sit down on the bed next to him, "I really want you to hear what I'm about to say, okay?  You may disagree with me, but I still want you to think about it for a while before you say anything back."
     Ranma braced himself and nodded.
     "It's Stupid to let anyone hit you."
     Ranma looked at Nabiki, waiting for more.  When she stayed silent, Ranma thought, That's it?  That's the whole thing?  "I don't get it," he said aloud.  "I know that."
     "Then why do you let her do it?" asked Nabiki.
     Ranma's mind slipped a gear.  Her?  Who were they talkin' about?  Akane.  Hit him?  Stupid?  He let Akane hit him.  Stupid.  He "lets" Akane hit him!?  No he didn't!  She just ... well, hits him, that's all.
     "You do realize that you could stop her, don't you?"
     Ranma stared at Nabiki uncomprehendingly.  He did not know how to answer.
     "Are you Shutting Up again?"
     "No, I'm just tryin' to figure out what to say."
     "Oh.  Uh, okay."
     Ranma sat in utter confusion, stunned to think that he "let" anyone hit him.  It didn't feel like he "let" Akane hit him.  She just did.
     "How's your face?"
     "Huh?  Oh, it's fine.  I've had lots worse than this before."
     "Yes, I know.  You've had worse from Akane, and you keep letting her do it.  What I don't understand is why."
     "I don't fight girls," said Ranma, falling back on his old standby.
     "Uh-uh.  Doesn't hold up.  You've fought Kodachi.  You've fought Shampoo.  You've fought Cologne.  You've fought Miss Hinako.  Shall I go on?  Okay, so you don't like fighting girls.  But, you still do fight them when they attack you, right?  So, why not at least defend yourself from Akane?  You don't have to actually hit her to keep her from hurting you, do you?"
     After a moment's thought, Ranma finally said, "I dunno."
     "Well, think about it, okay?  Class is over.  Now, go away before she comes back."
     "Thanks Nabiki."  There was not much emotion in his voice.  He said it more for formality than anything else.  Nabiki could tell his thoughts were very much on his inner confusion and not really in the room.  Ranma went over to the door and verrrrrry carefully slid it open and peeked out.  Then he left.  Nabiki looked at her door for a while after he had gone.  Then she shook her head slowly, as she went back to her desk.

     Once in the hall, Ranma stopped.  He did not know what to do next.  Should he look for Akane and try to explain things to her?  Yeah, right!  Next idea ...
     He had a lot to think about.  Nabiki had talked more about Stupid Things before Akane had shown up.  It didn't all make sense yet.  Maybe he needed to go think about that stuff for a while ...
     He headed toward the training hall.

     "STUPID RANMA!"  He heard the yell from the yard.
     SMASH!!  He heard the sound of bricks breaking.  Large ones.
     He turned around and tiptoed back the way he had come.

     Okay, so maybe I'll just stay up here and think for awhile, thought Ranma as he entered his room and sat down in the middle of the floor.
     He lasted almost a minute.  Well, enough of that! he thought, standing and moving to the door.  There he froze, fingers on the handle, ready to open it.  Where am I goin'? he thought.  I really shouldn't be around Akane right now.  Maybe I'll go visit Ucchan.  He moved to the window and opened it.  There he froze again, his hand on the sill, ready to jump out.  What am I doin'!? he thought.  Am I really that stupid?  That's the last place I need to be right now!  Imagining the things Akane might do to him if she was still in this same mood and found out he had gone to visit Ukyo made him shiver.  He closed the window and sat back down on the floor again.  This is crazy!  I can't go anywhere.  I can't do anything.  How do I get myself into these situations?
     The pressure of trying to sit still and do nothing was too much for Ranma, and he moved to the window again.  "I can at least get out of here so I can think better," he said to himself.  He opened the window and stood looking out, motionless for one minute, then two.
     For some reason, he didn't want to be alone.  Maybe it was all the Shutting Up he'd been doing recently, but he really wanted to talk to someone right now.  Not about The Plan, not about anything important ... he just wanted some company.
     Closing the window, he turned and again walked to the bedroom door.  Once more, he paused, hand on the door.  Taking a breath and steeling himself for the worst, he said out loud, "I'll Shut Up.  I won't do Anything Stupid.  I'll try to stay away from Akane, and I'll go find Kasumi or Pop."
     And he opened the door and went out.

     "Oh, hello Ranma.  Dinner will be ready in about an hour."  Kasumi smiled at Ranma as he stood by the kitchen door, and then turned back to her preparations.
     "A-actually, Sis, I was wonderin' if I could help you some."
     "Why, thank you Ranma.  I think I've got everything handled, though.  Why don't you go find Akane?"
     Kasumi went on about her work, as Ranma clamped his mouth shut on the retort he had almost allowed to slip out.  He watched Kasumi for a moment, then sadly turned and left.

     Once outside the kitchen, he stopped.  Maybe I'll go for a walk, he thought, taking a step toward the front door.

     "Kasumi," said Ranma, returning to the kitchen, "I ... really would rather stay here and help you if I could.  I ..."
     Kasumi stood looking at Ranma, waiting for him to finish his sentence.  The look on his face was something no one could miss, especially someone as gentle with people as Kasumi.  "That's fine, Ranma.  It would help me out if you could go ahead and set the table.  Would you mind doing that for me?"
     Ranma looked up at Kasumi, his eyes wide, his face beaming.  "Sure!  I'd love to!"  And off he went.
     Kasumi stood thinking for a moment before turning back to her own tasks.

     With Ranma's help, Kasumi was able to have everything ready for dinner with a bit of time to spare, which was how she had planned it.  "Ranma, would you please go out to the training hall and tell Akane that we'll be ready for dinner any time she wants to come in?"
     Kasumi was facing away from Ranma, so she could not actually see his reaction, but she could imagine the deer-in-the-headlights expression that must have been on his face right then.
     "Uh, Kasumi, I don't think ..."
     "Oh Ranma, I'm sorry," she said, turning toward him.  "I didn't mean to ask you to do something you didn't want to do.  I'm just a little tired and didn't want to walk all that way.  Don't worry, I'll go do it."
     Kasumi never complains, thought Ranma.  About anything!  If she's sayin' she's tired, she must be exhausted!  Ranma quickly put on one of his best smiles and said, "Oh forget it, Sis.  I'll be glad to go get her."  And with that, he flew from the kitchen before Kasumi could take another step.
     Kasumi went to the kitchen door and watched Ranma run down the hallway toward the back of the house and the training hall.  With the slightest of smiles, she went off to find her Father and Mr. Saotome to let them know that dinner would be at the usual time.

     Ranma went to the training hall with trepidation.  It had been over an hour since he had heard Akane venting her anger.  Surely by now, she would have gotten it all out of her system.  He approached carefully and listened.  Hearing nothing, he stepped up to the doorway and peeked in.
     Akane had finished her workout and was cooling down with some stretches, when she saw Ranma stick his head in.  "What is it, Ranma?"
     "Uh, Kasumi sent me to tell you that dinner was ready."
     "Already?  Okay, I'll be right in," she said, returning her attention to what she was doing.
     Seeing that Akane was not apparently in the mood to kill him right at that moment, Ranma suddenly felt much braver and decided to try talking to her.  He straightened up and took a step into the practice area.  "Akane, I-"
     Akane looked up at Ranma angrily.
     "-that is, if this is a bad time, it can wait 'til later."
     Akane rolled her eyes and continued her stretching.  "No, I'm just finishing.  What do you want?"
     Ranma opened his mouth and froze, staring at her.  Akane always looked so ... well ... cute when wearing her gi, and so ... well ... GOOD when sweating.  For a moment he couldn't think.  Self-preservation kicked in quickly, though, and he remembered that he was supposed to be having a conversation.  "Um, I'm, uh, sorry for, uh, that is ..."  He took a breath and forced his distracted attention back to his purpose.  "I didn't mean to ... bump into you.  Really.  I, uh, just, sorta, didn't, uh ..."  He found himself trailing off to a halt as Akane started a new and rather interesting stretch.  "A-anyways," he said quickly, trying to cover his embarrassment, "that's all I wanted to say.  See ya inside!  Bye!" and nearly fell over himself trying to escape.
     Akane looked up, surprised at his sudden disappearance.  Hmph!  That's supposed to pass for an apology? she thought, obliviously.  What a dork.

     Ranma stood outside the training hall for a moment, trying to convince himself that the whole thing Just Hadn't Happened.  It was almost a matter of principle to him that he not admit how attracted he was to Akane sometimes.  He wouldn't know how to act if he ever did that, therefore it just wasn't allowed to be so.  End of discussion.  Thankful that a little awkwardness had been the worst he had had to endure, he returned to the house for dinner.

     All through dinner, Ranma was trying to decide if Shutting Up was a Stupid Thing to be doing right now.  He could not tell.  Dinner seemed to be going okay, but it still was not back to normal.  HE wasn't back to normal.  Not knowing for sure, he chose silence, as he had been instructed.
     For entirely different reasons, Akane had chosen the same course.  She was not completely over her anger.  She would wait and see how Ranma behaved tomorrow.
     Nabiki, though she would not have admitted it, was a bit scared.  Thanks to Ranma, she was now in hot water with her little sister and did not want to make it worse.  She chatted with Kasumi and the others easily enough, being even better than most Japanese at keeping her public face detached from her inner feelings, but secretly, she wished her sister was not so temperamental.
     Kasumi kept the room's mood and conversation light, engaging her Father and the others in talk of the day, but she had noticed that Ranma and Akane had come to dinner separately.  And although they seemed to be civil enough, that was all they were.  But that by itself was not so unusual.  She would keep her eyes open and see how everything developed in the next day or so.  These things usually blew over by then ...
     Genma and Soun ... were Genma and Soun.  They ate.

-= DAY 03 =-

     Akane and Ranma were walking to school.  Nabiki, as usual, had gone on ahead.  Ranma was back up on the fence, and anyone looking at them would have seen nothing unusual about their behavior.
     Akane did though.  Okay, she thought, this is a little closer to normal.  But he's still acting just a bit weird.  He's kind of quiet and almost polite, and all we talk about is boring stuff, but he's not avoiding me or hovering over me.  Maybe things will be back to normal soon.
     Ranma's mind was racing!  This is exhausting! he thought.  Everything he had said, everything he had done since helping Kasumi prepare dinner the day before had been aimed at finding the safe point between Shutting Up and being Stupid.  Nabiki had told him it would take a while to find the balance.  She had said that he had to learn to combine the techniques, and not to worry when he made mistakes or did the wrong thing.  She had reminded him that this was still only practice, and told him he should come and discuss each mistake with her.  She would help him find ways not to repeat each of them.  And she had been right when she had told him was how much work it was going to be.  Akane was like one of Happosai's bombs.  Lit.  Ranma did not know how long he could keep juggling her before she went off.
     So they talked about the weather, school, anything safe.  They did not talk about Nabiki or each other, and they did not talk about the last few days.
     I'll be glad when this is over, thought Ranma.  There was one thought that worried him more than all the others.  When he had complained about how hard it was to do both techniques at the same time, Nabiki had calmly replied, "You think it's bad now, Ranma?  Just wait until we add the third part."

     "So how's it going today?"
     "Okay I guess, but I'm goin' crazy!"
     Nabiki had sought Ranma out at lunch.  She had not heard any news spreading through the school, so she had figured her sister and Ranma could not have been having too bad a day.  Still, she had wanted to be prepared, just in case it looked like she would be coming home to more trouble when school was over, so she had asked to talk to Ranma while they ate.
     "What's making you crazy?" she asked him.
     "I'm tryin' my best, but I know that sooner or later I'm gonna blow it.  You know Akane.  Sometimes, there's no way to tell what she's gonna think about anything.  It's just a matter of time 'til she blows up again."
     "So then, what's the problem?"
     Ranma stared at her.  "Whadaya mean, 'What's the problem?'  I just told ya the problem!"
     "You mean that part about how you know Akane's going to get mad at you again?"
     "So, now that you know it, relax."
     Ranma looked blankly at Nabiki.  He was not following this conversation at all.  "Okay Teacher, I give up," he said, smiling.  If anyone had told him a few days ago that he would be so casually asking Nabiki to clear things up for him, and expecting her to actually do it, he would never have believed them.  But now?  "Explain it to me."
     "Look Ranma, what do you think the odds are that sooner or later Ryoga is going to attack you again?"
     "You kiddin'?  You know he's gonna!"
     "Just like Akane."
     "Well ... yeah."
     "And how much does that worry you.  Ryoga, I mean."
     "Aw, Ryoga don't worry me none.  I can take him in my sleep."
     Nabiki refrained from commenting on the obvious untruth of his bragging, and concentrated on her lesson instead.  "So you know it's going to happen, but you know you're going to survive it, so you don't worry about it.  Right?"
     That made sense.  "Uh ... okay.  Yeah, sure."
     "Same with Akane."  Nabiki paused just a moment to let him get that before she went on to drive it home.  "Look, I know my sister has a temper.  I know sometimes she'd rather hit you than listen to you.  And I even know that it's not always your fault, although I do think you could avoid most of the situations you get yourself into.  Furthermore, we both know that you're not good enough at this Plan yet to keep her from getting angry at you, so we both know that sooner or later she's going to slug you again.  Am I right so far?"
     Ranma nodded.  He honestly could not think how he could have avoided any of the insane things that had happened to him in his mixed up life, but he had learned enough about the Plan to know that it would be Stupid to argue over details right now.  "Mostly," he replied.
     "So we know a whole lot of things, but most of all we know that we're going to survive it all and keep moving forward."
     Ranma blinked at her.  "That was quite a speech," he joked, laughing.
     "Yeah, I'm pretty proud of it, myself," Nabiki said, laughing just a little, as well.  "The point really is this, Ranma.  It's Stupid to keep worrying about the next time you screw up, or the next time Akane thinks you've screwed up.  Sure, it's going to happen, but worrying will only make it happen sooner.  It's smarter to just practice the techniques you're on and learn from your mistakes, okay?"
     "So I should relax, huh?"
     "Yep," she answered, smiling.
     It sounded weird to Ranma, but Nabiki had been making a lot of sense recently.  He had to admit, he couldn't find a flaw in her reasoning.  He could not help but smile back.

     Akane had been looking for Ranma since the beginning of lunch.  He was not at any of his usual lunch time hangouts, and she was beginning to wonder if he had left the school grounds to go get lunch at the Cat Cafe.  Then by accident, she caught a glimpse of him outside the building and across the school yard from where most of the students were gathered.  As she started toward him, she saw who it was he apparently had chosen to spend his lunch with instead of her.  Moving sideways to hide behind a tree, she positioned herself so that she could continue her scrutiny of the pair without being easily seen.
     That was when they laughed.  Akane was stunned!  Ranma and Nabiki, sitting together, sharing lunch and laughing!  Any one of these alone was unheard of, but happening together ...!?  If only she was closer!  She was dying to know what they were talking about!  They seemed to be completely absorbed in their conversation.  Watching them sitting together and smiling at each other, she felt like she could have been standing right between them and they would not even have noticed.

     It was amazing to Ranma how much he could depend on this girl whom he wasn't sure he even liked or trusted.  He wondered how someone so obnoxious could be so insightful.  And why she cared enough to keep helping him.  "Nabiki?"
     "Can I ask you a question?"
     "Why are you doin' this for me?  What's in it for you?"
     Nabiki bowed her head for a moment, thinking about his question.  When she answered, her voice was different; quieter.  "I thought it would be fun," she said.
     "Is it?"
     "No.  I'll be glad when it's over."
     "Me too."
     Nabiki looked up at him.  She did not look pleased.  At all.
     "What?" he asked.
     "You idiot!" she said, quietly but sternly.  "Don't you get it!?  It's never going to be over!  Not for you!  This is basic stuff!  This is all stuff you should have learned a long time ago!  You should have learned this when you were a kid!"
     "Geez, Nabiki," he replied.  "What'cha gettin' so upset at?"  He had seen her angry before, but this was only the second time he had seen her so angry that she got quiet instead of loud.  The other time had been two nights ago.
     "I go out of my way to help you learn this stuff that you should already know ... I even make my sister mad at me, just because I'm trying to help you, and you talk about the day you can quit!?"  She stopped for a moment, then leaned closer to Ranma, practically face to face.  "Listen, Ranma!" she said, even quieter than before.  So quiet she scared him!  "You don't get to just do this for a little while and then drop it when everything gets better!  You'd better learn this stuff and learn it well, because you're going to be doing it for a long time to come!  You're going to be doing it for the rest of your life!!"  And with that, she gathered her things, stood up and walked off, leaving Ranma to wonder yet again how it was he always managed to say the wrong thing.

     Akane watched Nabiki say something to Ranma, then move her face close to his.  For one terrible moment, she thought Nabiki was about to kiss him!  Instead, she watched as Nabiki continued talking, her face mere inches from his!  Then she collected her belongings and left Ranma sitting on the ground, while he stared after her until long after she was gone.
     Stunned, Akane turned away.  She still could not believe what she had seen.  Her sister and fiancee sitting so close, talking so intensely.  What was Ranma trying to pull this time?  But it wasn't just Ranma.  Nabiki had been the one to move closer to him.  Could it be that Nabiki ...?  And what about Ranma?  The way he had watched Nabiki as she left him, staring after her for so long.  What could it mean?  Vividly, she remembered the last time he had looked at HER that way, only two nights before.  What had it meant then?  Lost in fear and doubts, she sat alone, hiding behind her tree, not even noticing as Ranma gathered his own stuff and left.

     Kasumi heard rather than saw the front door shut and the footsteps run upstairs.  Then she heard another door slam.  Knowing that Nabiki would never do such a thing, she had no trouble figuring out what was going on.  "Oh my, it sounds like things didn't get better after all."

     Akane lay on her bed crying.  She had run home from school in order to avoid Ranma or Nabiki.  She did not want to see her Father either, he was no help in situations like this.  Maybe she should go talk to-
     Akane looked up!  Oh no, she thought.  If that was Ranma ...  "Wh-who is it?" she asked.
     "Akane?" asked Kasumi.  "May I come in?"
     Kasumi!  Thank goodness!  "Yes, of course," she answered aloud, wiping away her tears.
     Kasumi opened the door and saw Akane lying on the bed, looking up at her.  Closing the door, she went to Akane's side, sitting down beside her on the bed.  "Akane?  Is something bothering you?"
     "I'm okay," lied Akane, sitting up and trying to act composed.  "I-I just ... I just ..."  Then she fell against Kasumi's breast and began crying again.  I'm such a bad liar, she thought.
     Kasumi knew she could not rush Akane.  Nor did she want to.  What Akane needed first was exactly what she was doing now.  She's so honest, thought Kasumi.
     After a few minutes, Akane's tears began to subside.  As she pulled herself away from her sister, she said, "Thanks, Kasumi.  I'm okay now."
     "That's all right, Akane," said Kasumi.  "Can you tell me about it now?"
     "Yeah, ... I guess so."

     Ranma walked along the fence, just a few feet behind Nabiki below him.
     "You're not listening to me Ranma!  I'm telling you, it's Stupid to talk to Ukyo right now!"
     "She's my friend!  I'm not gonna ignore her just 'cause Akane gets jealous!"
     After school, Akane had been nowhere to be found.  While Ranma had been waiting for her, Ukyo had shown up, inviting him over for a quick snack.  Just as he had been about to accept, Nabiki had suddenly appeared and dragged him off.  Now she was yelling at him again.  It was getting to be a habit.
     "Idiot!  Fine, but I don't want to hear about it if Akane gets upset!  I'm trying to help you, but I'm not going to waste my time if you're not even going to listen to me.  You're supposed to be my student, you know?"
     "Then help me figure out a way to keep Akane from gettin' all angry whenever she sees me with Ucchan.  That's the real problem, anyway!  She's the one who-"
     Nabiki whirled to face Ranma.  He was so startled, he almost slipped and fell.  "You want to know how to keep Akane from getting upset over Ukyo, Ranma!?"
     "Really!?"  Her eyes were almost wild.  "You really want to know!?"
     "Well," said Ranma hesitantly, "y-yeah."
     "Tell her you'll marry her!"
     He slipped and fell.  "W-wh-what!?" he cried, now flat on his back.
     Ranma shuffled backward on his elbows away from Nabiki, as she stalked him, moving closer, glaring down at him, stressing each word as she spoke.  "I said, 'If you want Akane to stop being jealous and upset over Ukyo, ...'"
     Ranma had backed up against the fence and was trying to reach a standing position, the better to defend himself against this deranged woman who had once been Nabiki Tendo.
     "'... then go up to her and tell her that you have accepted your Father's wish and agree to the engagement.'"  Nabiki had closed in on Ranma and now had him backed against the fence.  "But don't you even think about pretending that you're doing it out of honor or obedience or anything else.  You look her in the eye and say to her, 'I WANT TO MARRY YOU!  I WANT TO!!'"

     That was awfully weird, thought Ukyo, after Nabiki had dragged Ranma off.  Usually, I can convince him to come over for something to eat, unless Akane's around.  I wonder why Nabiki of all people wanted to see him so bad.
     Naturally, she had followed them.
     Staying a distance behind, she had seen Nabiki turn and start yelling at Ranma about something.  Too far away to hear, she had watched him completely lose his balance and go sprawling at Nabiki's feet.  Ranchan looks like he's in trouble now, she thought, laughing.  She's probably blackmailing him over something silly again.  How does he get himself into these situations?
     Smiling at her beloved's antics, she watched him retreat in obvious fear from The Great And Terrible Nabiki Tendo, a girl he could break in two without trying.  He could be so cute sometimes.  From her position, she heard only the final words, as Nabiki raised her voice and shouted into Ranma's face, "I WANT TO MARRY YOU!  I WANT TO!!"

-= =-

     "So, you're worried that perhaps Nabiki likes Ranma?"
     "N-no, not really.  I mean, I can't really believe she would.  But, she might be pretending to."
     Akane had told Kasumi all about the last four days: how Ranma had apparently tried one final time to make something work with her, and how she had done nothing but belittle him for it.  Kasumi had listened patiently, as Akane had related how Ranma had since been ignoring her, and had been spending so much time with Nabiki instead.  Akane admitted that all she could think was if she had just been nicer to Ranma the day he had tried so hard to be nice to her, that she might not have driven him away.
     "Nabiki?  Pretending to like Ranma?  Why?"
     "Well, she's done it before."
     "Really?  Why?"
     Do I really want to tell her this? wondered Akane.  It was dangerously close to making an admission she was not sure she was prepared to make.  Still, Kasumi couldn't help her if she didn't give all the facts.  "To make me jealous," she said.
     "I see.  Did it work?"
     Akane looked sharply at Kasumi, but saw nothing apart from her normal open innocence.  She was not accusing Akane of anything, she just wanted to know.  "Yes," Akane admitted in a tiny voice.  Then the crying started again, and she leaned into her sister once more.
     "And it's working again?"
     Akane stiffened and almost pulled away.  She wasn't!  But she knew better.  She was.  So she made the admission.  "Yes."
     "I see," said Kasumi, stroking Akane's hair with one hand, holding her with the other.  "And Ranma, do you think he likes Nabiki?"
     Akane stopped crying for a moment and considered this.  It was hard to imagine, but then, he was always chasing after some new girl!  He collected women the way other boys his age collected trading cards, the jerk!  What was it about that indecisive fool that made him so darn popular?  "I don't really think he likes her.  I just don't understand why he spends more time with her than with me.  He hardly even talks to me anymore!  I'm his fiancee; she's the one who uses him and manipulates him and rents him out for dates to other girls and sells pictures of him to Kuno ..."  She looked up at her older sister.  "Do boys like that?  Do they like mean girls better than nice ones?  Ranma's always saying I treat him mean, but Nabiki treats him meaner!  Shampoo and Ukyo treat him like he's some sort of a prince or something, throwing themselves at him ...!  I don't know what to do.  Sometimes I get so angry at him I just want to kill him.  Other times ..."
     When she did not continue, Kasumi prompted, "Other times?"
     Akane smiled.  "Other times he gets so protective.  He fights over me and rescues me ..."  She stopped, remembering so many things, so many times.
     "And you like that?"
     Akane's face darkened.  "I can take care of myself!  I don't need him butting in and-"
     "But you LIKE it?"
     Akane felt conflicted.  She did not know how to answer, what she felt.  "I don't know.  Maybe.  Sometimes."
     Kasumi smiled and began to rock Akane in her lap.  She had not done that in years, and Akane closed her eyes with nostalgia.  This was not something that words could solve, Kasumi realized.  Akane just needed someone to listen to her, and something to do to keep her mind active so she did not sink deeper into her own imaginings.  Well, the first part had been solved, and she had a solution to the second also.  "Akane?"
     "How would you like to help me prepare dinner this evening?"

     Nabiki had entered first.  Ranma had stayed outside with instructions to count to a thousand before coming through the gate.  Neither wanted to take any chances.
     The moment Nabiki realized who was in the kitchen with Kasumi, she began making plans to go out.  She went to her room and picked up the phone, trying to decide what she wanted to do for the evening and who to invite.  And if she could get anyone else to pay for it.  It did not really matter what she did, just as long as it got her away from home long enough.
     From downstairs came the sound of the front door opening and closing.  "I'm home," she heard Ranma call, followed quickly by Kasumi answering, "Ranma?  Please come to the kitchen if you can."
     Kasumi?  That was odd.  Nabiki put the handset back into its cradle and listened carefully.  She knew Ranma had reached the kitchen when she heard Akane say, "Here Ranma, try this."
     Nabiki put her head in her hands.  It was too late!  Akane was not going to wait for dinner!  Nabiki felt the walls closing in, the mouth of the trap springing shut!  It was all up to Ranma now, and she had no illusions about how likely that was to work out.  The trouble was, after the past few days, she couldn't be sure that she would not get caught in the fallout.  In Akane's mind right now, anything Ranma did was likely to be associated with her.  So she waited, listening, because it was all she could do.
     From downstairs, the words came.
     "What's wrong, Ranma?  Why aren't you eating it?"  That would be Akane.
     "Uh, shouldn't I wait 'til dinner?  I-I mean, I shouldn't go spoilin' my appetite now, should I?"  Ranma.
     Nabiki cringed.  Please Ranma, she thought to herself, just shut up and eat it.  Then say something intelligent and leave!  It was too much to hope for.
     "EAT IT, RANMA!"  Akane.
     More silence.
     Nabiki looked up.  What was happening?  The curiosity was too much for her.  She stood and walked to her door, placing her ear against it, straining to hear any sound at all from downstairs.
     Time ceased.
     The knock on her door scared her more than anything had in months.  With a loud, "Eep!" she jumped back, completely startled.  The knock had not been loud.  In fact, it had been quite soft.  But she had been listening for pins dropping, and by comparison, it had sounded like thunder!
     Opening the door, she saw Ranma standing like a statue, a look of barely controlled panic on his face, sweat drops sliding down his face and off his hair.  "Ranma?" she whispered, then pulled him quickly inside.  He moved like a sleepwalker, unresponsive.  Shutting the door, she turned to him and asked, "What's wrong?  What happened?  Are you okay?"  Slowly his eyes focused on hers.  They seemed to be filled with pleading.  "What is it Ranma?  What do you need?  Speak to me!"
     He was slowly becoming more animated.  He looked around the room.  Spying the wastebasket beside her desk, he became almost frantic!  Springing from her grasp, he leapt across the room and emptied the contents of his mouth into the trash can.
     "Oh, Ranma!" said Nabiki, disgusted.  "That is so gross!!"
     Having completed his purging, Ranma was kneeling on the floor like a man brought back to the surface after coming mere seconds away from drowning.  Gasping for air, he cried, "You got no idea, Nabiki!  I almost had to swallow that!!"
     "Shhhhh!" she warned, coming over to his side.  "You don't want Akane to hear you!"
     He nodded, his gasps subsiding to more normal breathing.  "Sorry.  I didn't know what to do.  Thanks."
     "So what happened?  Downstairs, I mean.  I heard it right up until the last time she told you to eat.  What happened after that?"
     Ranma was becoming more coherent.  Nodding his understanding of her question, he tried to stand back up.  She helped him into her chair, then sat down on the bed facing him, waiting for him to explain.
     Looking at the floor, he began to fill her in.  "She gave me ... somethin' ... somethin' small, and said to eat it.  It was white ... mostly.  I-I-" He looked up at her.  "Kasumi was smilin' at me, so I figured it couldn't be too bad, ya know?  I mean, she's only REALLY dangerous when she's alone in there."  Nabiki nodded.  She understood.  "So, I took it and put it in my mouth ..."  He stopped talking and silently shuddered.
     "Ranma, I know all this!  What happened?"
     "It was awful!  Nabiki, I've got to get out of here!  It's gonna be dinner soon, and she's gonna expect me to eat that stuff!  Ya gotta help me, Nabiki!"
     Nabiki needed more.  "But, what did you do, Ranma?  How did you react?  From up here I couldn't hear a thing!"
     Ranma's mouth worked, moving silently.  Eventually, he found his voice.  "I didn't know what to do.  I wanted to spit it out, but I knew that would be Stupid.  I wanted to run to the bathroom, but I knew that would be Stupid, too.  I couldn't think of a single thing, so I just stood there, tryin' not to faint."
     "But how did you get up here?"
     His voice assumed a hazy, ethereal quality.  His eyes seemed to focus on nothing at all, as he said, "I'm not sure.  That's all I remember.  I must have blacked out.  The next thing I knew, I saw this ... trash can ... floatin' before me ..."  He lapsed into silence for a moment before coming back to himself.  "Nabiki, I'm serious.  I can not eat that food again.  I can't.  Ya gotta help me.  I'm beggin' you, Teacher!"
     "Okay, okay!  Be a man already!  We still have a little time.  I'll think of something."

     Akane was in a rather good mood.  Kasumi had been so helpful, teaching her the new recipe, then letting her do it on her own.  At least someone in this household treated her like she was capable!  She had followed the instructions mostly, only modifying it a little, and it seemed to have come out okay.  Ranma had just sort of smiled and nodded to her after tasting it, quite an improvement over the way he usually carried on!  He'd even gone on his way without so much as a single insult!  Yes, she was in a rather good mood.  Maybe I'll spice it up just a little more, she thought.  That'll surprise him, since he thinks he already knows what it tastes like.
     Then she heard Kasumi say, "Oh, hello again, Ranma.  Can we help you?"
     Akane turned to Ranma with a smile.  "No more until dinner, Ranma.  You'll just have to wait."
     She saw the look of disappointment pass over his face just briefly.  It was funny how disappointment and relief could look so similar sometimes, wasn't it?  Then he smiled hesitantly at her and said, "Uh, Akane?  I was actually wonderin' if you could do somethin' for me."
     "Maybe.  What?"
     Ranma glanced over at Kasumi, who had turned away from them again, and was now concentrating rather intently on chopping something, obviously far too involved in what she was doing to be paying any attention to the two of them.  Then he looked back at Akane.  Now was the time.  This was the moment of truth, the point of no return.  He was about to do something he had never done in his life.  If Nabiki was right, the good would balance the bad and he would survive the experience.  "I was wonderin' if ... you could maybe make some of your curry for dinner."
     THUNK!  "Ouch!"
     Kasumi's knife slipped in her hands, and she let out a small yelp.  Turning to stare at Ranma with a startled expression he had seen her wear only a very few times before, she brought a hand to her mouth and began to suck on one of her fingers.
     "Kasumi!  Are you alright?" Ranma asked, rushing past Akane to see if the older girl needed any help.
     "I'm fine, Ranma," she replied automatically, though in a voice which was quiet even for her.  "Really, I just slipped.  It's nothing.  I'll go wash up and put a bandage on it."
     "Are you sure?  You're bleedin'."
     Kasumi regained composure faster than most, and she was already returning to her normal good humor.  "Don't worry, Ranma.  As much as I work around a kitchen, I've cut myself before, you know.  I'll be just fine.  It's only a small cut."  She looked over at Akane, who seemed to have turned to stone.  Walking past her on the way to the door, Kasumi put her good hand on Akane's shoulder to bring her back from wherever she had gone, and said, "Akane, why don't you begin boiling the water for the rice.  You know where the curry is, and I'll be back to help you as soon as I take care of my finger, okay?"
     Kasumi's voice returned Akane to the present, and she broke into a large smile.  "Sure, Kasumi!  I'll get started right now!"
     As Kasumi left, Akane turned and noticed that Ranma was still in the kitchen.  She blushed as she smiled, looking down at the floor shyly and saying softly, "Th-that's the very first time you've ever asked me to cook anything for you, Ranma.  I'll do my best.  How was the tofu?"
     So that's what it was, thought Ranma.  Okay, gotta say this just right, exactly the way Nabiki made me practice it.  He took a deep breath and said as gently as he could, "Actually, it wasn't as good as your curry, which is why I asked you to make some of it instead."
     The smile left Akane's face.  Ranma counted the seconds, tensely holding his breath, waiting for the storm to break ...
     Akane continued to stare at him, trying to take it all in.  It was just so strange.  He didn't like her tofu, ... but ... he had requested her curry.  And he had said it so ... nicely.  She almost wanted to ask him who he was, and what he had done with Ranma.  "Well, o-okay Ranma," she said quietly.  "I'll make you some curry, then.  S-sorry about the tofu."
     "That's okay, really.  Uh, well then, I'll let you get to work."  It was almost over!  He couldn't believe it!  He was only seconds away from pulling it off!  If he could just get out of the kitchen without Doing Anything Stupid, he might very well live through the evening!
     As he reached the threshold, she spoke.  "But don't you worry, Ranma!  I've got an idea how to make the tofu better.  You'll like it, you'll see!"
     Ranma deflated like a balloon.  Unable to keep the despair from showing on his face, he was simply thankful she couldn't see it with his back toward her.  "Yeah," he said, "I knew you would."
     "I mean ..."  He turned back to her, trying to recover.  "I mean ..."  What did he mean?  "I mean ..."  He stared at Akane, at the knife now in her hand.  Why do you need a knife to boil water? he wondered.
     "What DO you mean, Ranma?" she said evenly.
     "I mean, I'll see ya at dinner," he blurted out, turning and sprinting from the kitchen before Akane could respond to this non-answer.

     At the top of the stairs, Nabiki fell to the floor in relief.

     In the bathroom, Kasumi sat alone, considering what she had just heard.  Up until now, she had assumed she understood what was going on.  Up until now, she had felt this was no more than just another episode in Akane's rather eventful engagement.  Now she knew better.  Making a mental note to talk to Nabiki as soon as possible, she stood up to go.  She knew she had better get back to supervise Akane soon.  There was no way to guess what creative cooking methods she would invent if she were left alone too long.

     "Oh, man!  Who knows what she did to that food before Kasumi got back?  It's gonna be a disaster!"
     "It's okay, Ranma!  You'll still have her curry to eat.  As bad as it can be sometimes, it's almost always edible."
     "Yeah, at least I won't starve."
     "And no comments like that are allowed, got it!?"
     "Yeah, I got it."
     "Good.  Okay, let's not push our luck.  Go to your room, and write down the sentences I told you.  That way you'll remember them later.  You're going to need them, and we won't see each other again until dinner is ready.  Wait until you hear me talking to the others before you come down."
     "Got it," said Ranma as he opened her door to leave.  "Ya know Teacher, I really gotta hand it to you.  She didn't get mad or nothin', even when I told her the tofu was bad."
     "That's the point, Ranma.  You didn't tell her it was bad.  You told her the curry was better.  It's not the same thing.  Remember that!"

     In a small dining establishment in another part of town, a certain chef was having a difficult time keeping her mind on her work.  Her hands moved out of habit and with a skill born of years' training, preparing each new order and deftly tossing it across the restaurant to land perfectly at the proper table, but her mind was elsewhere, raging in crashing waves like those she had flung her fury against years ago!
     Crash!  Ranchan.
     It was obvious he did not share Nabiki's feelings, obvious he had not known how to handle her declaration.  But she couldn't count on that being any help.  He had yet to show sufficient decisiveness to rid himself even of his male suitor, let alone any of his female ones.  If having four women warring for his affections hadn't been sufficient to force him to make up his mind, having a fifth wasn't likely to make much of a difference.
     Crash!  Nabiki.
     That was bad.  That was very bad.  She held the original Tendo claim on the heir to the Saotome School every bit as much as Akane.  Soun wouldn't care, neither would Genma, just so long as one of the daughters married Ranchan.  Plus, Nabiki had not played coy like her sister.  No, she had come right out and expressed her desire as fully as any of the other rivals had.  Nabiki wanted Ranchan bad, and she was as persistent as Shampoo, as devious as Kodachi and cuter than Akane.  Perhaps as cute as Ukyo, herself.  This was bad.  This was very bad.
     Crash!  Akane.
     Why hadn't Akane stopped this from happening?  Did she even know?  Ukyo would rather compete with Akane than Nabiki any day.  Ranchan had openly declared that she, Ukyo was the cute fiancee!  He openly called Akane the uncute one!  She knew she could beat Akane, it was just a matter of time!  But now, because Akane couldn't get along with Ranchan, her sister had stepped forward to claim the right to compete for his hand.  Because she was a Tendo, Nabiki was actually worse than the other two.  Oh, why couldn't Akane have stopped this from happening?
     Crash!  Genma.
     CRASH!!  GENMA!!
     Somehow, some way, Ukyo just knew the old man was to blame for this.  After months of conniving, he must finally have realized he had failed to make Ranchan and Akane fall for each other, and so had found some way to make Nabiki pursue Ranchan.  Ukyo wondered what sort of deal he must have agreed to in order to get Nabiki's cooperation.  Or could it be worse?  Could Nabiki have actually meant it?  What if Genma had found some way to actually make Nabiki LIKE Ranchan?  One part of her wished she had killed him when she had first come to Nerima, when she had first defeated him.  It wasn't too late ...  She knew she did not really mean it.  It would hurt Ranchan too much.  But everyone needed a good fantasy now and then.
     Ukyo had no idea how Akane was taking the new situation.  Did she know?  If not, should she?  She wasn't exactly a friend, but they had fought side-by-side when necessary, and they both wanted what was best for Ranchan, even if they didn't agree on what that was.  Ukyo knew that as violent as Akane could be, she was still a person of honor, unlike Nabiki.  So, she was ... almost a friend.  Ukyo did not have many of those.  If Akane didn't know about this unexpected complication, she needed to.  If only to defend herself from her sister's machinations.
     Ukyo needed to know how Akane was reacting.  Well, she would see about that tomorrow ...

-= =-

     Dinner.  Akane's cooking.  What would you do?
     Ranma was the last one to come to the table.  Before they began, Kasumi announced, "We have a special treat tonight.  Akane made two of our dishes, the tofu and the curry.  Be sure to tell her how much you like them."
     "Here, Ranma," began Akane, "try the tofu.  I fixed it!  I think you'll like it a lot more now."  And she pushed the bowl with the questionable substance toward him.
     Ranma had been steeling himself for this moment.  Nabiki had been adamant that he had to eat at least one piece of it before he could move on to any of Kasumi's cooking, and she had been adamant that "eat" meant "swallow."
     Ranma knew he should say something then, but the dread seemed to be closing his throat, so he just took the bowl from Akane and started to spoon a little -- a very little -- out onto his plate.  He tried to avoid looking at it too much as he did so, but could not completely prevent himself from catching a glimpse.
     It was no longer white.  It was a peculiar blackish-brown color with sinister looking red flakes.  He did not EVEN want to know what they were.
     "Take more, Ranma.  That's not enough," said Akane, obviously wanting him to die a horrible death ...
     Stop that, Ranma told himself harshly!  If you think stuff like that, sooner or later you're gonna end up accidentally sayin' it out loud!  It was a new idea to him that Shutting Up meant not only what he was saying, but sometimes what he was thinking.  He decided he would have to ask Nabiki about it later.  For now, he quickly sorted through the things Nabiki had made him practice saying for the meal, and grabbed what he felt was the best one for the situation.  "Um, could I have some of your curry also, Akane?"
     Soun and Genma stopped what they were doing and looked at Ranma.  Kasumi and Nabiki, prepared for anything now, merely began to pass around the other dishes.  This had the effect of breaking the two men's attention away from the young couple.
     Forgetting completely about the tofu, Akane broke into a huge smile as she reached for the new bowl and handed it to Ranma.  "Sure!  Here you go, Ranma.  Have as much as you want!"
     For the first time in his life, Ranma took Akane's offerings not with hesitation, but with gratitude.  Quickly handing off the tofu to someone else -- anyone else -- he took the dish from Akane, not even having to force the smile.  After taking what seemed a suitable portion, he passed it on around as well.
     As the dishes continued around the table, Ranma could not help but see that everyone had completely ignored the tofu.  He knew that Akane would not even notice.  It wasn't fair!  Why was he the one she singled out every time?  No one else had to eat her cooking, only him!  But then he saw that Kasumi and, surprisingly enough, Nabiki had served themselves small portions of the curry.  Grateful for the small gesture of support from the two girls, he picked up his chopsticks, and said along with everyone else, "Let us eat."
     Soun and Genma were busily diving into their plates.  Kasumi was carefully trying a small taste of the curry.  Nabiki was sitting very still, a tiny sweat drop on the side of her forehead, trying not to be too conspicuous as she watched Ranma from the corner of her eye.  Akane was not even pretending to be interested in eating.  She was sitting next to Ranma, her head turned toward him, a big smile on her face as she waited for him to try his first bite.
     Ranma laughed nervously at her and tried to find something to say to delay the moment when he would be forced to taste the dreaded concoction on his plate.  He had discussed with Nabiki whether he should begin with the curry, so that he would have something in his stomach, or if he should just take the blade in the gut like a man, and eat the tofu right at the start.  They had agreed on the latter.  Get the hard part over with, so he could relax for the rest of the meal.  Besides, it would only make the curry more palatable by comparison.
     Ranma laughed again, hesitantly.  "Go on, try it," she urged.  Resolutely, he turned from her, sitting up straight as he lowered his chopsticks to the dark mass on his plate.  Ranma stole a look at Nabiki, who gave the slightest nod to him.  Then he looked over at Kasumi.  He was surprised to see that she also was watching him.  She gave him a small smile and looked away, pretending not to be scrutinizing him.  But now he knew better.
     Slowly, Ranma selected a chunk of the misshapen stuff that seemed to suggest, "Lesser of Evils," and took it in his chopsticks.  Slowly, he raised it to his lips.  Slowly, he opened his mouth, and slowly, he inserted the food.  There he froze, his eyes glazing over slightly before  s l o w l y  lowering his chopsticks to his plate once more.
     All motion at the table ceased.  Even Soun and Genma paused, as everyone waited for what would happen next.  "Well?" asked Akane, "How is it, Ranma?"
     With an effort that was visible to all save Akane, Ranma turned his head to her ... and smiled.  Then, he began slowly to chew.  As the sweat drops began to form all around his face, he turned back to his plate and took one bite of curry.  As his eyes began to cross, he quickly took yet another bite of yet another item.  It didn't matter which one, didn't matter what it was.  It mattered only that Kasumi had made it.  With his eyes closed, he swallowed the entire mixture whole before proceeding to drink his full cup of tea in one large gulp.
     Nabiki quickly reached for the pitcher to refill his glass.  She was beaten to it by Kasumi, who seemed to have already anticipated his need.  "Here you are, Ranma," she said in her ever-calm manner.  "Have some more tea."
     Ranma mouthed the words, "Thank you," and, although no actual sounds came out, Kasumi answered as though they had.
     "You're welcome."
     Akane turned to her own food with the largest smile she had worn in longer than she could remember.  I did it! she thought.  I made a meal that even Ranma will eat!
     Soun and Genma did not know what to make of Ranma's self-control.  They could only assume that Akane must be learning how to cook better.  Not that they were ready to try any of it themselves, but perhaps it boded well for the future of the engagement.  If Akane continued to apply herself, who knew how many of the proper wifely skills she might master in time?
     Nabiki was breathing normally again.  She truly could not believe that Ranma had done it!  Akane would be so pleased for the rest of the meal that Ranma would be able to eat as much of Kasumi's cooking as his poor abused stomach would allow, and Akane would not likely even notice.  It was a victory of unparalleled proportions!  She decided that if he could do that, she could at least try one bite of the tofu, herself.  Delicately, she took a small bit in her chopsticks and raised it to her lips, gently tasting it with the tip of her tongue ... after which her respect for Ranma rose even higher.  "Kasumi," she gasped, depositing the uneaten morsel onto her plate, "could you please pass the tea again?"
     Akane was happily munching away, just imagining how jealous Ukyo and Shampoo were going to be the next time they brought Ranma lunch at school and he turned it down in favor of the wonderful meal she had prepared for him, when she finally worked her way around her plate to the curry.  After her first taste, she stopped and stared at her food.  She swallowed, then took another bite, experimentally.  Blinking hard, she took a sip of tea and looked over at Ranma.  He looked ill, and was hardly eating anything, almost as if he had lost his appetite or something.  Then she looked at her sisters.  Nabiki was staring off into space, while Kasumi seemed to have found something of utmost interest at the bottom of her cup of tea.  Akane looked back down at her plate.  With growing dread, she took a large piece of tofu in her chopsticks and placed it in her mouth.
     With an effort, Akane managed not to spit her food out all over the table.  She grabbed for her cup of tea as Kasumi, Nabiki and Ranma simultaneously reached over to place their cups before her.  After draining her own and one other, she lowered her hands to her lap, pausing to catch her breath.  "Uh, th-thank you all for the tea," she said, embarrassed.  It was unbelievable!  They must ALL have known how bad it was, and no one had said a thing!  Even Ranma- ... RANMA!  She jerked her head to the side to stare at him, causing him to flinch, backing away from her in fear.  Akane saw only his reaction.  She failed to see that everyone else at the table also flinched at her sudden motion.  "You!" she said, "you ..."  As bad as it had been, he hadn't said a single word!  He had just eaten it, and ... and SMILED at her.  As the tears began to well up in her eyes, Ranma began to babble.
     "Aw, geez Akane!  I'm sorry!  Whatever it is, I'm sorry, really!  Don't cry!  It's okay."
     "Oh Ranma!" she said through her tears, "I'm sorry!  You didn't have to ... to eat ..."  And with that, she rose and bolted from the room in tears.
     Before anyone else could respond, Soun's "Demon Head" had appeared, towering over Ranma, as he demanded, "Ranma!  I think you'd better explain what you've done this time!"
     Pandemonium ensued.
     "What?  I didn't do nothin'!"
     "Father, it's not what you think!"
     "What did you do this time, son?"
     "WELL, RANMA?"

     Upstairs, Akane's sobs were so loud that she did not even hear the first knock on her door.  The second was louder, and was accompanied by a concerned voice.  "Akane?"  Nabiki.  "Akane, are you all right?"
     At first, Akane did not want to answer, wanted her sister to just go away.  But she was touched that Nabiki was concerned enough to come check on her, so through her sobs, she called out in reply, "C-come in."
     Nabiki pushed the door open, and Akane could hear the argument occurring downstairs.  It was not too loud, at least not for the Tendo home, so it was muffled again somewhat when Nabiki closed the door behind her.
     Nabiki saw that Akane was still in full pour.  "Are you okay?"
     "No!" she cried, not even making an attempt to stem the flow of tears.  "I'm humiliated!  I can't even cook tofu!  You know it!  EVERYONE knows it!  Ranma knows it!  Ukyo and Shampoo know it!  I can't do anything right!"
     Nabiki went and sat on the bed beside Akane.  This was awkward.  It wasn't her domain.  But Kasumi was needed downstairs; she was the best at calming down Daddy when he got like this.  So, that meant this task fell to her.  "Akane, Ranma ate your cooking because he knows how important it is to you, and because he wanted to show you that ..."  Uh-oh.  He wanted to show her that ... what?  Nabiki had started talking because it had seemed like the right thing to do, but she hadn't really known where she was going with it.  She wasn't sure what she wanted to say.  She wished Kasumi had come up instead of her.  "He wanted to show you that ... that he ... uh ..."
     "Wanted to show me what?"
     "I don't know!  He just did, okay?  He ate your food and then ate some more.  I think that means something."
     "What does it mean?"
     "It means he likes you."
     "Nabiki?" asked Akane, tears still flowing.
     "You and Kasumi both knew it was bad, didn't you?"
     "Uh ..."  Nabiki looked into Akane's pleading eyes and wished she knew what her sister was wanting to hear.  And why.  "Uh ... yeah."
     "But how?  How could you know beforehand that it was going to be bad?"  Akane brushed away her tears with one hand, her voice growing louder.  "Isn't it possible that I could make something good just once?  Don't you two even believe in me that much?"
     Nabiki cringed.  This was really bad.  Akane was sinking past mere sadness toward despair.  She had to say something!  "Sure you can!  Sure we believe in you!  We know you can do it!"
     "But you KNEW!" she cried, sobbing all the harder.
     "Akane, we both know that you'll make a fine cook someday!  But Ranma told me before dinner that-"  Oops.
     Akane stared at Nabiki, at the way Nabiki's eyes suddenly grew large, the way her mouth froze in place as she realized what she had admitted.
     Nabiki stared back at the way Akane's tears suddenly halted, the way her eyes focused in on Nabiki, as the expressions she wore suddenly ran from grief, through confusion and dawning understanding ... to hatred.
     "GET OUT!  LEAVE ME ALONE!  I DON'T WANT TO TALK TO YOU!"  Akane pushed Nabiki roughly off the bed and then followed, pushing her to -- and out -- the door, then slamming it shut before yelling, "AND DON'T COME BACK!"

     Nabiki heard Akane's final words through the closed door, and realized there was no way to make this any better.  She had failed.  More than that, she had made things worse.  Much, much worse.  Where Akane had been sad before, and full of doubt, she was now angry and sure of a terrible betrayal, a betrayal that just hadn't happened.
     She turned and went back downstairs.

     In the living room, Kasumi had managed to convince her Father and Genma that Akane was feeling sad because she had let Ranma down by failing again, and not because of anything Ranma had done to her.  Once the Fathers had realized Ranma had eaten her cooking in order to be nice, they had changed their tune, if not to praise, then at least to support.
     "The path of a true Martial Artist is full of sacrifice, Son."
     "Indeed young Saotome, we all must make sacrifices for those we love."  Then he heard himself.  He looked at Genma.  "Which means ..."
     The two Fathers moved to stand at each other's side, each with one arm thrown around the other's shoulder; smiles spreading over their features, as tears began to run down their faces.  Raising their free arms high, as rays of light from the Rising Sun appeared behind them and began to fill the room, they lifted their voices in unison, "... OUR CHILDREN ARE IN LOVE!"
     Birds sang.
     Ranma slumped.  Kasumi sighed.  "Well, she's really pissed now," said Nabiki, entering the room.
     The Rising Sun set.  The birds flew off.  Ranma and Kasumi looked up.  The fathers lowered their arms and said, "Huh?"
     "What do you mean?" asked Kasumi.
     "Oh, I guess I said the wrong thing up there.  I just made her feel worse.  I think maybe we ought to leave her alone for a while, okay?  And, uh, Ranma?  We need to talk for just a moment."
     "Don't bother!"  The voice came from behind Nabiki.
     Everyone in the room turned as one to see the source of the declaration.  Akane stood in the entry of the room, a look of tightly controlled fury on her face.  Everyone but Nabiki stared at her in surprise.
     "Oh, my."
     Then Ranma spoke.  "Akane, ..."
     "Don't talk to me.  Don't speak to me.  I don't want to listen to you.  You had your laugh.  I hope you and Nabiki enjoyed making fun of my cooking.  I hope you had a really good time, because I QUIT!  I'M NEVER GOING TO COOK AGAIN, SO YOU'LL HAVE TO FIND SOMEONE ELSE TO MAKE FUN OF FROM NOW ON!"  And she turned and walked out.
     Nabiki stood with her face in her hand.  Everyone else just stared.
     "RAANMAAA," began Soun, his Presence filling the room once more, "PERHAPS YOU HAD BETTER START AGAIN FROM THE BEGINNING ..."
     "Father ..." began Kasumi.
     Ranma burst from the room, out the entryway and into the hall, calling Akane's name, ignoring Nabiki's cry of, "Wait, Ranma!"
     SLAM!  Thump, flop.  The sounds came back from the hall.
     "Oh, Dear!" said Kasumi.
     STOMP, Stomp, stomp ... Akane continued on her way.
     "Not even an 'Ouch,'" said Nabiki in awe, as Soun resumed his more normal appearance.  "She must have knocked him out cold."
     "I'll go and get the first aid kit," said Kasumi resignedly, moving off on her self-appointed errand.
     Nabiki turned to the two men.  "Well, drag him back in here or something.  We can't just leave him in the hallway."

-= DAY 04 =-

     "Ranma, you've got to tell Akane what's going on, and you've got to tell her that she needs to keep cooking."
     "You kiddin'?  She's finally admitted defeat!  Sure she got her feelin's hurt, and yeah I'm sorry 'n all, but let's not mess up a good thing, okay?  She's not gonna cook any more and that's okay with me!"
     Akane had left for school early after skipping breakfast.  Now, Nabiki was taking advantage of the opportunity to brainstorm with Ranma.  She was tired of the whole Plan, and was trying to figure a way out.  So they were walking to school together, Ranma in his usual place above her.  It's only because I'm desperate, she thought.
     "Ranma, I don't think you understand just how upset she was."
     "Nabiki, I don't think you understand just how bad that tofu was!"
     "I'm serious, Ranma!"
     "You didn't have to eat the tofu, Nabiki!"
     Nabiki stopped walking and bowed her head.  It took a lot to make her lose her temper.  Right now, she just wanted to kill someone.  Someone very close.
     "RA-"  She stopped and tried again in a calmer voice.  It was no use letting this degenerate into a shouting match.  She had to fix this so Akane wouldn't be mad at her anymore.  After that, she was history.  Ranma would be on his own.  "Ranma."  There, that sounded calm.
     "Yeah?" he said impatiently.
     "How can you call this a victory when Akane is feeling as bad as she is now?"
     "Listen Nabiki, Akane gets mad all the time.  This is no big deal.  You just never had it happen to you like it does to me.  She'll get over it.  The important thing is, it would be Stupid to do anything that would make her change her mind about the cookin'."
     Nabiki stared at Ranma, shocked to the core.  "How dare you bring The Plan into this!  This has got nothing to do with that.  I don't care if she's mad.  I care that she's hurt!  And so should you!"
     Ranma started to scowl.  It was the first sign of anything other than joy or relief that he had shown all morning.  "I'm tired of bein' the only one that gets in trouble around here.  I've been nice enough.  Heck, I've been more than nice enough, and what's it gotten me?  Why do I always have to be the one to be nice, huh?  Why can't Akane be nice for once?"
     "Because I'm not Akane's coach!" replied Nabiki.  Ranma faltered.  That remark had hit close to home.  He could obviously relate to that.  Nabiki pushed while she had the advantage.  "I can't tell Akane what to do, but I can tell you what will fix this if you'll only listen to me!"
     "Hey!  I did my part!  You're the one who screwed it up this time!"
     Now it was Nabiki's turn to falter.  Ranma was becoming more perceptive if he could come up with a rebuttal like that.  She paused to consider, then continued.  "You're right Ranma, which only shows how much you've learned and how well The Plan is working.  If I had just Shut Up, everything would have been fine."
     Ranma was taken aback.  Such an admission from Nabiki was unheard of!  "Nabiki ..."
     "Look Ranma, just work with me a little bit longer, okay?  Maybe you don't need to tell Akane to cook again right away, but you need to tell her about what we were trying to do.  Just tell her about The Plan."
     Ranma considered it.  "Okay.  I'll tell her that much."
     Ranma knelt where he stood on the fence and grinned at Nabiki.  "I've got a better idea.  Why don't you tell her instead?"  Nabiki almost panicked before Ranma continued.  "It's not so easy dealin' with her when she's angry at YOU, huh?"  Then, he stood and walked away, going on to school.
     Nabiki was left alone to consider how low she had fallen that Ranma Saotome could get the last word on her like that.  "This Plan is getting worse all the time," she muttered.

     Ukyo had not expected to find Akane eating lunch outside alone, but didn't feel like questioning her good fortune.  Akane looked up at her.  Then, seeing who it was, turned away again.  "Yeah?  What do you want?"
     Ukyo was a little surprised at this rudeness.  Akane was usually much more cordial.  "May I sit with you a while, Sugar?"
     Akane looked at her again, this time with an expression of surprise.  "Why?"
     "I want to talk to you about something."
     Slightly confused, Akane nodded.  Ukyo knelt down beside her and promptly said absolutely nothing.
     "What do you want to talk about?" prompted Akane.
     "Um, well, I wanted to talk to you about Ranchan."
     "Baaad timing, Ukyo."
     "This wouldn't have anything to do with Nabiki, would it?"
     "Actually, yes it would.  How did you know?"
     Ukyo felt herself sinking, her worst fears confirmed.  "I overheard them."
     "What!?  They were talking about it in public!?"  Akane looked outraged.
     "Well, I saw them talking yesterday, so I snuck up on them enough to hear."
     So, that's what they were talking about yesterday! thought Akane.  Strange that I didn't see Ukyo around.  Hey!  They didn't even KNOW about dinner yet!  That means they must talk about me all the time!
     Ukyo saw the anger intensify on Akane's face.  Then, Akane began to gather her things to leave.  Before she could get away, there was still something Ukyo needed to know.  "So, where does this leave you, Akane?"
     Akane stopped what she was doing, and said, "It doesn't matter anymore.  I quit."
     Ukyo gasped.  "You quit?  You just quit!?"
     "Yeah.  It's not worth it anymore.  I'm tired of everyone making fun of me.  I guess you wouldn't understand that, huh?  You're such a great cook."
     Ukyo did not understand what being a cook had to do with anything, but that wasn't important.  What mattered was that Akane was not even protesting!  She wasn't even going to fight for Ranchan!  "Akane, I can't believe that you would just give him up this way!  I always thought he meant so much to you!"
     "Ha!  That stupid jerk!  All he does is make fun of me and talk about me behind my back ...  They both do.  I don't see why I should put up with his inconsiderateness anymore!  I've had it!"
     "So, you're just going to let Nabiki steal him away from you without a fight?"
     Akane stared at Ukyo.  "Um, what are we talking about, again?"
     "Nabiki telling Ranchan yesterday that she wanted to marry him."

-= =-

     Nabiki jumped, as her bedroom door was slung open so hard it shook.  She turned and saw her younger sister standing in the doorway, glowing.  "Oops," she said.
     "'Oops?'" echoed Akane.  "'Oops!!?'"
     "What did he do now?"
     "'He?'  What did 'he' do?"  Akane stepped forward into the room and slammed the door behind her.  Nabiki backed up.  She knew she was in trouble.  She had no idea why, but she knew she was in trouble.  "'He' didn't do anything!  'He' is just being his plain old stupid self!  You're the one I want to talk to!  You're the one who ... who ..."  Akane shook her head, trying to collect her thoughts.  "Just what do you think you're doing, Nabiki!?"
     "Look, Akane, I just wanted to help ..."
     "Help!?  By butting into our-" Akane faltered.  As mad as she was, she still could not quiiite bring herself to say the word, "relationship," when it came to Ranma.  "How could you!?"
     Nabiki knew instantly that The Plan was now officially over.  It was the largest failure she had suffered in a long time.  It was time to come clean, cut her losses and try to salvage something from the wreckage.  "He tried to be nice to you, Akane.  He really did!  All you did was treat him like you always do.  After that, he came to me on his own.  He-"
     "Don't try to blame this on Ranma!  Ukyo heard you!  She said you made it pretty clear that you're the one that wanted it, so you can't get out of this that way!"
     "Ukyo?" said Nabiki, truly surprised.  "She overheard us?"  She could have sworn that she and Ranma had been alone the day before when they had talked at lunch.  She could not imagine anyone being close enough to hear their conversation.  Still, Ukyo did hang around that weirdo Tsubasa.  For all Nabiki knew, either one of them could have been the tree she and Ranma had been sitting under, or a nearby bush.  Or maybe they had been behind the fence or on the roof that first night she had spoken to Ranma about The Plan.  Not that it really mattered either way.  "Okay, okay I admit it!  I'm sorry!  I was the one who had to push him.  At first he was hesitant, but I managed to convince him.  So yeah, I'm more to blame than he is, but he likes it now.  He's really into it!"
     Akane stared at Nabiki, dumbfounded!  It was an incredibly cold-hearted admission, even considering the source.  She stumbled for words.  All she found was a disbelieving, "Why!?"
     "I thought it would be fun, okay?"
     "You-!"  Akane took a step forward, then another.  "YOU THOUGHT IT WOULD BE FUN!?
     Nabiki stared in fear at her enraged sister.  Involuntarily, she stepped back toward the corner of her room, raising her hands in front of herself.  For one terrifying moment, she actually thought Akane was going to hit her!  "Akane!  Calm down!  No harm was done, okay?  We were just trying to help, but I'll quit coaching him now.  I was going to quit anyway.  I'm tired of it.  I'm worn out!  He'll probably keep doing it, but I'll stop right now, okay?"
     "What are you talking about!?"
     "The Plan!"
     Akane stopped.  She shook her head.  She shook it again.  It didn't help, she still had no idea what Nabiki was talking about.  "What 'Plan?'"
     "'The' plan.  The plan that kid you baby-sit thought up.  The plan I've been helping Ranma with."
     "I'm not talking about that!" yelled Akane.
     "What are you talking about, then?"
     "You wanting to marry Ranma!"
     Nabiki did a full-body fault, crashing to the floor.  Only her hands showed, making signs as they stuck out of the small dust cloud she created.  Pulling herself back up onto her feet, she screamed in disbelief, "WHAT!?"
     "I'm talking about you telling Ranma that you wanted to marry him!"
     "I don't want to marry Ranma!  Yuck!  How could you think such a thing!?"
     Akane blinked at Nabiki.  "But Ukyo said she heard you."
     "Well then, she MIS-heard me.  I'm telling you, Sis, you can have him.  I don't want him."
     Nabiki was almost back to normal.  "Akane, I've been helping coach Ranma with this stupid Plan thing.  I said something smart to him and he took it seriously and now we're in the middle of this whole mess where you've gotten mad at me and he's acting all weird and I feel sorry I ever even opened my mouth."  Nabiki took a deep breath after that run-on sentence.  Whew!  It was finally out in the open.  It was over.  She could relax.  She looked at Akane.
     Akane was furious.
     Oops, thought Nabiki.  It was the day for it, apparently.  "All right, Akane," she said wearily, "what's the problem now?"
     "Tell me about this 'Plan.'"
     "Well, first he had to learn to Shut Up, then he had to practice Not Doing Anything Stupid.  Whenever he got that part down, we were going to move him on to Being Nice."
     "What!?"  Akane could not believe what she was hearing.  "Nabiki, that's dumb!  That was thought up by a seven year old kid!"
     "Yeah, well, I figured Ranma ought to try it some.  It couldn't hurt.  Or so I thought."
     "So, it was your fault!?"
     Nabiki stopped.  "Huh?"
     "You mean all this time that Ranma has been acting weird was your fault?  You're the one who put him up to that?"
     "Well, no.  I just made the comment that-"
     "Do you know how much trouble you caused with that!?"
     "I didn't cause any trouble.  I just-"
     "All my friends were teasing me about it!  Everyone was wondering what was going on!  They thought Ranma and I had ... had-"
     "What are you so upset about?  He was trying to be nice to you.  You always say-"
     "Don't tell me what I always say!  And stop talking about me behind my back with Ranma!  I don't need you two conspiring against me to get me to behave the way you want me to!"
     Nabiki was shocked at Akane's anger.  This was so unlike her to keep the fight going like this after the explanation.  It was not like they had been malicious or anything.  "Hey Akane, that's not fair.  We're not 'conspiring' about anything.  We just-"
     "What?" interrupted Akane.  "You just what!?"
     "We just wanted to help!"
     "Help?  By making Ranma act so weird I couldn't even tell who he was!?"
     "He only wanted to be nicer to you!"
     "How?  By not talking to me anymore?  By worrying about every little thing he does around me?  By spending time with my sister and avoiding me?  Is that how he wanted to be nicer to me!?"
     "Akane!  You're being unreasonable!"
     Nabiki was about to shout back at her, "YES!" when, somewhere in her mind, something connected.  Somewhere in her experiences of the past few days, one part of her brain finally strolled over and introduced itself to another ...
     ... and she Shut Up ...
     ... as Akane stood fuming, waiting for her reply.  "Well?"
     Nabiki almost answered, "Well what?" purely out of habit, but caught herself.
     "Say something!"
     Nabiki just looked at her.
     Akane was getting tired of yelling.  She wanted an answer from Nabiki, and instead Nabiki seemed to be ignoring her, blowing her off.  She didn't like it at all.  "WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU!?"
     Nabiki felt wrong.  All wrong.  She was not used to letting anyone yell at her, wasn't used to taking without giving anything back.  She wondered if she was doing the right thing.  Surely she should make some reply.  Akane only seemed to be getting madder.
     That was when it suddenly hit Akane.  "Are you shutting up?"  When Nabiki did not even bother to nod her head, Akane lost her temper for real.  "DON'T YOU DARE IGNORE ME LIKE THIS!  I WANT AN ANSWER!"
     Nabiki had no idea what Akane wanted an answer to.  It wasn't like Akane would actually respond well if Nabiki said, "Yes."  Still, Nabiki knew that was not really what this was about.  Akane was just angry, lashing out at a perceived insult.  Everything Nabiki had tried to say to Akane had only made her madder, every answer only escalated the attack.  Maybe Shutting Up was the only way of calling a cease-fire long enough for Akane to calm down.  She hoped so, but she remembered how betrayed she herself had felt the first time Ranma had used the technique with her, how belittled.  She hoped she wasn't making a terrible mistake.
     "STOP DOING YOUR STUPID PLAN AND TALK TO ME, NABIKI!"  Akane took another step forward.
     Nabiki stepped completely back into the corner and raised her hands.  She didn't think Akane would hit her, but she was not anywhere near sure anymore.  This had gotten scary.  Maybe ... maybe she should say something after all.  She opened her mouth and ... and didn't know what to say.  She knew that no matter what it was, it would only invite Akane to continue the conversation.  And right now, the conversation was going nowhere fast!  So, she stood there with her mouth gaping like an idiot, staring at her little sister and saying nothing.
     Akane waited until she became convinced that Nabiki truly wasn't going to answer.  Then, with an angry toss of her head, she turned away and said, "Hmph!  Fine!  If you want to play your stupid game, then I guess that's all we have to say to each other.  But," she said, turning back to look at Nabiki, "leave me out of your 'Plans' from now on!  Got it?"
     Nabiki didn't nod, didn't move, didn't speak.  She only continued to stare.  She did at least finally manage to close her mouth.
     Akane could not believe how childish it all was.  Her big sister giving her the silent treatment.  It was like grade school all over again.  "This is stupid," she said, turning and walking out of the room.
     Alone again, Nabiki sat down on her bed, silent and wide-eyed, and let out her breath.  That was HARD! she thought.  She was good at acting; she enjoyed acting.  Her "acts" were some of her best tools.  But that had not been acting.  That had been all too real!  I had no idea Shutting Up could be so difficult! she thought.  And Ranma's been doing that for days!
     She suddenly felt bad for having called it an easy thing to do.  And after telling Ranma he was not qualified to judge a plan he had not mastered, she now felt foolish for thinking she could give advice about a plan she hadn't even tried.  And had she really told him that he would have to do it for the rest of his life?  Yes.  Worse, she had told him he was less mature than a seven year old because he found it difficult.  Now she wasn't so sure.
     Once, she had told Ranma that the kind of troubles he had experienced when he had first adopted the plan were the kind of thing that would never happen to her.  Ever!  Boy, had she been wrong.  "Wow," she said to herself, softly; no longer sure she wanted to give advice to anyone ever again.

     "Oh, hello Akane," said Kasumi, turning from where she was hanging clothes out to dry in the back yard.  "How are you doing today?"
     "Not very good," said Akane, coming to the edge of the porch and sitting down with her feet on the grass.  "I just found out what's been going on with Ranma and Nabiki all week."
     "Oh?  And what's that?"
     "They've been trying out that 'Plan' I told everyone about.  The one about shutting up and being nice and everything."
     Kasumi paused and considered this.  It made sense.  "Well, that's very nice of them."  She bent and picked up another garment, preparing to go back to her chore.
     "Nice!?  How can you say that?  They're making fun of me!"
     "Really?" asked Kasumi, pausing with the garment still in her hand.  "I don't see how."
     "They won't talk to me.  They've been acting all weird for days.  Ranma was making a big fuss over me at school and making everyone talk.  It's ridiculous!"
     Kasumi was confused.  Akane was obviously upset, but ... "It sounds nice to me," she said.
     Akane stared at Kasumi, a week's worth of frustration and embarrassment making her less reasonable, shortening her already considerably shortened temper.  The adrenaline from her earlier argument with Nabiki had not fully burned off yet, and it came out now, misdirected at the only person around.  "They've been talking about me!  They've been ignoring me!  They've been spending all their time together and avoiding me!  They've been making fun of me!  They've talked about my cooking, how bad I am at it, and who knows what else.  They haven't been nice!  They've been mean!"
     "I think you may be misunderstanding what they were trying to do, Akane.  I doubt they could have wanted to hurt you with this.  It seems to me they just might have made a few mistakes.  After all, Ranma hasn't called you any names for a while, and he did eat your cooking."
     "He told Nabiki it was bad!  They were upstairs talking about how bad it was before they came down for dinner!"
     "But he ate it anyway."
     Akane was trying to make Kasumi understand, but she just didn't seem to be getting through.  Why was Kasumi always so clueless?  It was almost as if she didn't want to understand.  "Why are you taking their side?  Why are you defending them?"
     Kasumi was taken aback by this sudden attack.  "Why are you so angry?" she asked.
     "Everybody's against me!  They're talking about me, you're arguing with me, saying it's my fault!  What's wrong with you?"
     Now Kasumi was genuinely shocked.  "I didn't say you were at fault, Akane.  I just ..."  She faltered.  It had been many years since she had found herself in a confrontation like this one.  And she had never really had many even before then.  She was always the one who got along with everyone.  The simple truth was that she was daunted by the angry girl in front of her.  All of her training, all of her experience, her role in the family, all of it told her she should help Akane to understand better.  But she was failing, and Akane was just becoming angrier.  Kasumi was completely unprepared for this, coming as close to panic as she had since she'd finally realized that her mother would not be coming home again, that it would all be up to her now.  She had given up on panic long ago.  She couldn't afford it.  She had to make things better.  She had to make THIS better!  It was her job now, she had to!  In her own way, she was desperate, clutching at straws.  "Akane, I think you need to see it from their point of view.  They-"
     "Why is everyone trying to blame this on me?  I'm the one who's been done wrong here!  And now Nabiki won't even talk to me!  She's treating me the same way Ranma is!"
     Kasumi stood before Akane, startled into silence.  Still holding the damp garment, but having forgotten for the moment all about laundry, she tried to figure out what to say next.  She just could not see how Akane had been done wrong.  Ranma and Nabiki had apparently adopted a program to try to get along better with her, or maybe just with other people in general, and Akane had for some reason felt that it was a personal attack against her.  It made no sense.  But each time Kasumi had tried to say that, Akane had only become angrier.  Kasumi was not used to dealing with anger, at least not when it was directed at her.  She had cloaked herself in mildness to defend herself from such attacks years ago, and it had always worked.  Always until now.  She truly did not know how to reply.
     When Kasumi failed to respond, Akane suddenly became filled with dread.  "Oh, no!  Not you too!" she cried.  "I can't believe this!  How can you do this to me?"
     What? Kasumi thought to herself.  What is she talking about?
     "Fine, Kasumi!  Just fine!  Be that way!"  Tears began to form in Akane's eyes, the fear, the anger, all of the emotion of the day and of the week finally bursting forth in their purest form.  Wiping them away, she leapt to her feet, turned from the older girl and ran, yelling, "Do that stupid plan along with the rest of them!  Who cares how I feel anyway, right!?"
     Kasumi stepped forward and threw an arm up toward Akane, reaching out her hand as she began to call her sister's name ... but didn't finish.  Standing like a statue, frozen in place, she considered what had just happened.  She simply did not know what to do.  She needed to restore herself first, to find her lost equilibrium before trying again.  She also needed to understand why Akane felt so put upon, why she thought is was all about her.  Slowly, she lowered her arm.  Quietly, she whispered, "Akane."

     Akane ran to the training hall.  She needed someplace safe right now, someplace to be alone.  Everyone in her world, everyone close to her had decided to play this stupid game, to shut her out, to cut her off ...
     ... to abandon her.
     Just like before, when the one she loved had stopped talking, when the one she loved had gone away, just like before, she ran to the safe place, the place where she was allowed to feel, to act, to express, the place she didn't have to be nice, sweet or feminine.  To the one place she could be strong.
     The house had belonged to Mother.  Now, it was Kasumi's.  It held the expectations, the requirements, the demands.  In that place, she had to behave, to keep the rules, to do as her family wished.
     So, she ran to the training hall.  This was her Father's.  Someday, it would belong to her.  Here, she could rage, cry, act out whatever she was feeling.  It was the only place she could be herself, the only place she felt any sense of control.  She ran up the short flight of stairs and into the small building, coming to a halt after entering the main room.
     It was all just like before.  First, Mother had gone away.  Then, they had lost Father to his grief for so long.  Kasumi and Nabiki, far too young for the obligations thrust upon them, had not had the time to do their tasks, fulfill their roles, and take care of a little girl at the same time.  So the confused frightened little girl had learned that in the end, she would be alone.  That there would be no one to care for her, no one to share with her.  That she would have to be stronger if she wanted to survive.  Strong enough that she never needed help from anyone ever again.  And it had worked ... until HE had come ...
     "Akane?" asked the intruder.
     She snapped her head around to look at Ranma.  She had not known he was there, and wasn't prepared to face him, not now, when she had been crying.
     "Akane?  What's wrong?"  He began walking over to her.  "What's the matter?"
     "Nothing!" shouted Akane.  "I'm fine!"
     Ranma came to a halt, surprised by the outburst.  "No, you're not.  What is it, Akane?"
     "It's you, okay!?  It's this stupid 'Plan' that you and Nabiki have been doing!  It's this whole week!"  She had not been able to stop the tears, and now she didn't even bother trying.  "Now you've got everyone else doing the same thing!  Nobody will talk to me!  Everybody's trying to make me act they way they want me to!  Nobody accepts me the way I am!"
     Ranma started moving toward her again.  "I ... accept you, Akane.  I'll always accept you just the way you-"
     "LIAR!" she shouted at him, stopping him in his tracks.  "You want me to be nice, you want me to be good.  You want me to be all those weak little girl things so you can pretend to be the big strong silent man and take care of me!  And if I don't, then you're just going to shut up and leave me!"
     "What?  What are you sayin'?  Akane, I don't want you to be weak.  I'm not gonna lea-"
     "You want me follow you around and wait on you like those other girls do!  You want me to chase you so you can feel so superior and-"
     "That's not fair, Akane.  I'm not doin' any of thi-"
     "Then you're trying to get me to-"
     "I'm 'tryin'' to be better!  You always accuse me of the stupidest things, Akane!  You always-"
     "That's because you're a jerk!" she shouted.
     Ranma closed his eyes.  It was over.  That was as far as he was willing to go.  He knew there was no talking to her when she was like this, and now she was worse than he had ever seen her.  A lifetime of training told him to rush in, to try to fix it for her.  Hidden guilt from a lifetime of accusations told him that somehow it probably was all his fault.  No one had made him start The Plan.  He had done that on his own.  And now Akane was hurt.  Why?  He didn't know.  It didn't matter.  He almost never understood why she got hurt, but he felt sure that if he had only been able to do it better, somehow he could have avoided this.
     But he had started it, and he hadn't finished yet.  It was still too much of a struggle, there were still too many things he didn't understand.  He hadn't even gotten to the third technique yet.  He couldn't quit now!  He believed it would matter, that when he had finished mastering The Plan he would have a powerful secret in his possession, a secret that would help him in ways he was only beginning to understand.  As much as it seemed to hurt Akane, and as much as he didn't understand why, he couldn't stop.  Not yet.
     Days of practice fought against his natural urges, and he did not go to her.  Opening his eyes, he looked at her, silently standing his ground.
     You don't want to talk, he thought to himself.  You just want to yell.  But he said nothing.
     Akane screamed a battle cry, as she raised her fist and charged!  Ranma jumped back, back, back, as she continued to come forward, bouncing away from her until he reached the wall.  Then to the side, then forward, toward the far end of the room, going around her safely and spinning as he went, until he was facing her, moving backward again.
     She turned and stared at him, stunned.  That wasn't right.  Some part of her knew she should have been able to connect.  She could always connect when it mattered!  From his safe distance, he was watching her, waiting ... taunting?  "If you're so good, Ranma," she said icily, "why don't you fight me for real?"
     Ranma only watched her.  For the first time, he realized that Nabiki had been right.  He let Akane hit him.  He was not sure what to do with that information yet, but he knew she wouldn't be doing it today.
     Akane was not willing to pursue again.  She fell into that trap too often.  He would taunt her until she went blind with rage, then he would bounce around her and put her down, telling her she was slow, was clumsy, was ... was uncute ... was ...
     But he wasn't.  He wasn't saying a thing.  He was just standing there.  Akane was confused.  She should either be beating him, or he should be humiliating her.  That's how it always went before.  That's how it always was.  Always.  But ...
     But he was looking at her again.  Just like he had before on the roof.  Just like he had been all week ...
     ... just like Nabiki and Kasumi ...
     ... and somewhere in Akane's mind, something finally connected ...
     ... and she shut up ...
     ... as the two of them stood facing each other in silence.

-= =-

     "Hey Sis," called Nabiki, stepping off the back porch.  "What'cha just standing there for?"
     Kasumi came out of her reverie and looked at Nabiki.  She had not touched a single article of clothing for several minutes.  "Actually, Nabiki, I was wondering if you could give me some advice."
     Uh-oh, thought Nabiki.

     Akane moved to the far end of the training hall and began warming up.  She could not help but notice Ranma watching her, and she wanted to snap at him, "What are you looking at?"  But she forced herself to stay silent and tried to concentrate on her workout.  Ranma watched her for a little while, then went back to his own forms.
     Because Ranma had started his workout earlier, he finished while Akane was only half-way through hers.  Instead of leaving, he sat down in the opposite corner and watched her practicing.  She looked over at him a couple of times, but did not say anything, so he decided it must be all right.
     Akane was concerned.  Why was he staring at her like that?  What was his problem?  Was she doing something wrong?  She really wanted to tell him to stop it and go away, but she had decided that if he was going to play this stupid game, then so was she.  She wasn't going to say a word, no matter how much she wanted to.  It was making her so nervous!  What did he think of her skill.  Was he critiquing her?  Was she doing everything right?  Did he think he could do better?  Probably.  He was always conceited like that!
     "Huh?  Uh, what?"
     She stopped herself.  She was not going to start this conversation.  She was going to shut up if it killed her!  Hmph!  He probably didn't think she could do it.  She'd show him.  She went back to what she had been doing, forcing herself to ignore him.
     Wonder what that was about, thought Ranma.

     "So you see, Sis, I don't think I ought to be telling anyone how to do this Plan anymore.  I only just started it myself."
     Nabiki sat at the table with Kasumi, drinking tea.  They had shared with each other their earlier conversations with Akane, and were each relieved to know they were not the only one who had found it traumatic.
     "But if you're not enjoying it, why do you continue?"
     Nabiki looked uncomfortable.  There were very few people in the world she could talk openly with.  Kasumi was one.  And although they did not talk often, they had always gone to each other, since the death of their Mother, for advice about personal problems or family issues.  The two of them had held the Tendo home together when their Father had been too grief-stricken to function, and although they were both paying prices for their early responsibility, it was all they knew.  With a conscious effort, Nabiki lowered her emotional defenses and confided the truth to her big sister.  "I don't want to lose to Ranma."
     "Ah," replied Kasumi, "if he can do it, so can you."
     "Yeah.  It started as fun, then, when Akane got mad, it turned into damage control.  Now it's a matter of pride.  One thing about Ranma, he never gives up.  Ever.  He's the biggest challenge I've ever met."
     "Perhaps we ought to ask him for his advice, then."
     "I think he has his work cut out for himself already.  I'm afraid we might just be a distraction if he has to think about us too.  Besides," she said, grinning, "I don't really like the idea of asking Ranma for help.  I like being the teacher too much.  I think I'd make a poor student."
     "Well, you seem to be doing a good job with him," Kasumi said.  "I don't think you ought to stop giving advice quite yet.  He probably still needs your help.  And maybe you and I can just talk about it together and help each other out, okay?"
     "Sure thing, Sis.  I'd like that."
     "So, the first technique I should practice is to Shut Up?"
     "Um, actually, I just broke it up like that because Ranma can be so clueless.  The three techniques aren't really so different from each other.  In some ways, they're not really even 'techniques'. They're sort of the same thing.  I don't think you or I need to concentrate on just one or another.  I think we can do all three at the same time."
     Kasumi gave Nabiki her thoughtful look.  Nabiki had seen that look her entire life.  Long ago, she had learned that it usually paid to listen closely to whatever followed it.
     "Don't you think you might be underestimating Ranma?  He seems to be handling Akane as well as you or I, and his recent problems with her really began because he was practicing only the first technique, without the second, right?  In a way," and this she said as gently as only Kasumi could, "that was more your fault than his ... right?"
     Nabiki sat silently.  She had no reply.

     Akane finished her workout and toweled herself off.  Then she looked over at Ranma, still sitting in the corner.  She wasn't going to say anything.  She wasn't going to say anything.  She wasn't going to.  She wasn't!
     Ranma suddenly felt very nervous with Akane staring at him like that.  I wonder what she's thinkin'.  She probably thinks I'm a pervert or somethin' from the way I been lookin' at her.  That's what she always says.  I should probably say somethin'.  Better make sure it's not Stupid.  Hmm ...
     The tension was mounting inside Akane, and she was not sure she could handle much more.  Why doesn't he say something?  What's wrong with him?  What is he looking at!?
     I gotta say somethin', don't I?  I mean, sayin' nothin' would be Stupid, right?  What should I say?  The emotional pressure made Ranma want to blurt out the first thing he could think of.  No, no!  That'd be REALLY Stupid!  I know that'd be wrong!  It always is!  What would Nabiki tell me to do?  "What would I tell a new student?"  Basics.  Start with the basics.  "When in doubt, Shut Up!"  Right.  Okay, we're back to that.
     Knowing what to do is a wonderful thing.  Having made what seemed to be the right decision, Ranma was able to relax.  He calmed down somewhat and continued looking at Akane.  Maybe she'll say somethin' first, he thought.
     Akane saw the faintest hint of what might have been a smile cross Ranma's features, as he seemed to relax.  He looks pretty comfortable, she thought.  He's not going to say anything.  Well, fine!  Then we just won't talk to each other anymore.  We'll never speak to each other ever again, and it'll all be his fault!  And with that thought firmly seated in her mind, Akane turned and walked out of the training hall and back to the house.
     Well, thought Ranma, that went better than I expected.

     "And she really didn't say a word!?"
     "She started to once, but caught herself and stopped."
     Ranma had reported his most recent experience to his coach.  Nabiki seemed to be having a hard time accepting it.
     "Ranma, she was furious!  I've never seen her so mad before!  Kasumi said the same thing!  No one yells at Kasumi, you know that!  But Akane did!  She was completely out of control!"
     "I'm tellin' you, Teacher, she didn't say a word the whole time!"
     "That's amazing!  Do you suppose ...?"
     "I don't know.  I wanted to ask you what you thought."
     "Well, if she has adopted The Plan, then we've won."
     "Whadaya mean?"
     "If she's started Shutting Up, then it can only go uphill from here."
     "Because you two feed off of each other like a plague!  If we can just get the two of you to sit down with each other and spend some time together without saying or doing Anything Stupid ... then we've got it made!"
     "I ... huh?"
     "Ranma, haven't you ever just sat with someone?  Haven't you ever just been silent?"
     "Uh ... no."
     "Well, it's nice.  You just spend time together.  If she really has Shut Up, then all you have to do is just go sit with her and Shut Up too!"
     "That sounds too easy."
     "I don't mean just one time," said Nabiki, "I mean all the time!  I mean stop arguing with her, stop baiting her!  And stop responding to her when she gets mad!  You've been doing okay so far."  Then she stopped.  "Actually ..."  Nabiki hesitated for just a second.  She didn't really want to admit this, but she had to be honest.  This was too important.  "Actually, Ranma, you've been doing really good.  If she can do even half as well as you, then the rest is just a matter of time.  I'm not saying it'll be easy.  I'm not saying it'll be quick.  I'm saying it's working."
     "What if she gets upset at me?"
     "It doesn't matter.  She Shuts Up.  You Shut Up.  How bad can it be?  Even a couple of idiots like you two ought to be able to handle that!"
     "Thanks a lot."
     "I'm serious, Ranma."
     "But ... but, if we don't talk, what ... I mean, that's Stupid, isn't it?  We gotta say somethin', don't we?  I mean, what's the point?"
     "The 'Point' is to Not Do Anything Stupid.  The 'Point' is to Shut Up.  Now, stop arguing with your coach, and do what I tell you.  If she really has Shut Up, then you're one step away from winning.  Just keep practicing The Plan and trust me, okay?  You keep doing what you're doing now, and don't change anything.  She'll probably get upset again over something sooner or later.  But we already know that.  You just keep going, okay?"
     Ranma looked uncertain.  "Well, okay ..."

     A great big sweat drop had been perched on Soun Tendo's head for the last half-hour; a similar one on Genma Saotome's for almost as long.  The table was eerily silent tonight.  After their first few attempts at conversation had been ignored, the two older men had done the only thing they could think of.  They Shut Up.  Aside from polite requests for someone to pass one of the food dishes laid before them, there had been no real speaking by anyone the entire meal.
     At last it was over.  "That was very good, Kasumi," said Ranma with unusual formality.  "Thank you very much."
     "Not at all, Ranma," she replied.  "I'm glad you enjoyed it."
     "Excuse me," said Akane and Nabiki together, both beginning to stand.  They paused in their motion and looked at each other.  Akane turned away first with a toss of her head, finished standing and left the dining area to go out into the back yard.  Ranma, Kasumi and Nabiki all glanced at each other.
     The two fathers, thoroughly confused and not in the least ready to tackle ... whatever this was ... turned to each other.  "Well, Tendo, care for another match?"
     "Excellent idea, Saotome.  Let's go."  And they quickly retreated to start another in their seemingly endless round of games.
     The three remaining people began clearing the table.  Both the girls were surprised that Ranma was helping, but they waited until they were in the kitchen to ask him why.  "Well, I dunno.  I just thought maybe it'd be, ya know, Nice."  Ranma actually looked guilty as he glanced over at Nabiki.  "Or maybe I shouldn't be thinkin' about that yet?"
     After sharing a look with her sister, Nabiki said to him, "I think you're doing great, Ranma.  I officially promote you to begin practicing the Third Technique."  As an afterthought, she added, "Just, uh, don't forget to keep doing the other two, okay?  Especially the first one."
     "Uh, thanks.  I'll do my best."
     "We know you will," said Kasumi.  "You always do."

     Akane sat on the porch, looking out at the back yard.  It was always so pretty, and it was more land than most people in Nerima owned.  She enjoyed looking at the rocks and the pond.  As weird as it sometimes got around here, the house, the training hall and the back yard seemed to stay the same.  In her current confusion, that was the only comfort she seemed able to find.
     "Mind if I sit down?"
     It was Ranma.  What do I say? thought Akane.  Then out loud, she said, "I thought we weren't speaking to each other."
     "Oh, I dunno.  Seems to me like we just did."
     Careful! Ranma thought to himself harshly, that sounded sarcastic.  Basics, basics!  Bein' Nice is fine, but don't say anything unless you're sure it's the right thing.  Then speaking aloud again, he said, "Anyway, do you mind?"
     "Suit yourself," said Akane.  "I don't care what you do."
     Geez, thought Ranma, sitting down on the porch next to Akane, there she goes again bein' all mad!  I can't win.
     They sat in silence for a long time, looking out at the back yard, each one thinking their own private thoughts, each too scared to look at the other, too scared to say a word.  The evening breeze, warm and pleasant, blew gently through the back yard, making small ripples move across the pond.  Occasionally, one of the carp would come to the surface, spreading more ripples and announcing its presence with the mildest of splashes.  All around them, the sounds of cicadas and other insects filled the evening with the symphony of nature, the sounds of life.  In one corner of the yard, a firefly could occasionally be seen, bearing its decorative light, bestowing its tiny magic to everything around.
     The spell woven by these things seemed to cause time to slow down, and the tension to gradually drain from the silent couple, as the evening turned to dusk and began to move toward night.
     After what surely must have been a lifetime or two, Akane turned her head toward Ranma.  He turned to her also, and for a moment, they simply looked into each other's eyes.  Then, needing some way to escape the moment, Akane said, "I'm going in now, Ranma.  I'll see you tomorrow."
     "'Nite," said Ranma, as Akane stood and turned to go.  Just before she went through the door, though, Ranma spoke up.  "Akane?"
     Ranma was furiously repeating to himself, Be Nice, 'n don't say nothin' Stupid.  Be Nice, 'n don't say nothin' Stupid.  Be Nice, 'n don't-
     "What do you want, Ranma?" repeated Akane.
     "Um, I just wanted to say ... I enjoyed workin' out with you today ... that's all."
     Too surprised to know how to respond, Akane simply stood staring back at him.  After a moment of trying to cobble together some sort of reply, she finally decided not to.  Somehow, she made herself move, backing into the house before turning and walking away toward the stairs.
     Watching her leave, Ranma couldn't tell if anything was working or not.  Somehow it just didn't seem to be enough.  Shouldn't they be talking more by now?  Shouldn't it be easier?  It all just seemed to be taking too long.  He brought his knees up and laid his head down on them like a pillow.  "I just don't get it," he said aloud.

     Akane lay on her bed, unable to sleep.  "I just don't get it," she said aloud.  "He ignores me and stops talking to me, and then he goes and says something nice like that.  What's his deal?"  She tried to put it out of her mind, tried to find something else to think about.  But, she thought, a smile forming on her face, he did say he liked being with me.  And she turned over and drifted off into the sweetest dreams she had dreamt in weeks.

-= DAY 05 =-

     "Hurry up, Ranma.  We're going to be late.  Let's go!"
     "What's the rush?  We're not late.  We're way ahead of time."
     It was Sunday morning, and Akane had made plans to meet some friends for a little shopping, followed by a movie.  Ranma was coming along too, and although he was looking forward to the movie, he was not exactly thrilled that shopping with Akane and her friends was going to be the price he had to pay.
     "Well then," said Akane, heading out the front door, "I want to get there early.  So hurry up anyway."
     Ranma finished his breakfast and rushed out the door to catch up with his waiting fiancee.  Side-by-side, they dashed off down the street as if either of them really needed to be anywhere that quickly.
     Nabiki and Kasumi stood at the front door of the Tendo home, watching the young pair speed away together.  "That looks better," said Nabiki.
     "It sounds a lot better," said Kasumi.  "Do you think they can keep it up?"
     "I hope so," said Nabiki, "I really do."  Then, with a small smile crossing her lips, she said, "I guess it's up to them.  I think they've made it through the hard part, though.  If they keep doing what they're doing now, they'll be fine."
     The two sisters glanced at each other.  Then, with a smile and a wink, the middle one said to the eldest, "Well, I'm off, too.  See you later."
     "Take care."
     It was the start of another hopeful day in Nerima.


     Ranma walked up the path from the gate to the door, thinking about the past few days.
     Shampoo was getting to be a real problem.  She just wouldn't quit bugging him.  Mousse was worse.  He couldn't see that eventually this was only going to help him.  But the real problem, as always, was going to be Cologne.  For now, she was merely observing, watching to see how he responded to each new test by Shampoo.  But Ranma knew as soon as she became convinced The Plan posed a real threat to her hopes of marrying him off to Shampoo, that she would intervene somehow.  The problem lay in trying to figure out how.  Well, he would just have to hope he was up to that challenge when it finally came.
     Ukyo had also been a problem.  That hadn't been so easy.  That hadn't been easy at all.  Whatever The Plan was, it was never easy.  He had learned that much by now.  Every step forward seemed to make it all the harder.  He didn't know yet how things would finally turn out with Ukyo.  He'd have to wait and see.
     The Fathers were the strange ones, really.  Things were going well with Akane.  Sure, she still got mad and all, but mostly she just Shut Up and stomped off.  She'd stopped breaking things, and he wasn't letting her beat him anymore.  She had even actually apologized once!  They were spending more time together quietly, not always having to fill the space between them with distracting noise or motion.  But as things had gotten better, their Fathers seemed to have gotten worse.  They fretted about constantly, watching the two fiancees when they didn't think they were being noticed, sneaking out of the house to talk in hushed tones in the back yard.  One would think they'd be happy.  It wasn't working out that way.  They didn't seem to know what to do when their children weren't fighting.
     But that was okay.  Ranma had been enjoying spending more time around Akane.  They were slowly learning to talk more freely without accidentally saying Stupid things, and they were learning to Shut Up when they made mistakes.  But most of all, Akane didn't seem to mind so much these days if he occasionally did something Nice for her.  Just every once in a while.  And oddly enough, he was beginning to find he liked it a little, himself.
     Nabiki had continued to be a great help, especially when it came to applying The Plan outside the home.  Ranma was still amazed at just how much he had come to depend on, and even begun to trust her.
     Ranma reached the door and opened it, walking inside to be greeted by a brightly smiling Akane, as she ran over to show him the object she held in her arms, nestled snugly between her breasts and gazing at him with an expression on its face which could only be described as a gloat.
     A small black piglet.
     "Look, Ranma!  P-chan's back!"
     "Uhhh ... NABIKIIIII!!!!!"

-= THE END =-

-= =-


     For those who may be curious, Kyle, my seven-year-old brother came up with his plan all on his own.  What makes it even more curious is that the words, "Shut Up," and "Stupid" are not words that are allowed nor used by anyone in his household.  Somehow, he apparently decided that it was okay to use them in his own mind and when dealing with himself.
     Incidentally, he did indeed earn his "I'm a Self-Manager" pin, and he kept the right to wear it proudly throughout the semester, which you better believe he did!  When I asked him about it, he looked up at me with deadly earnestness, and informed me, "I AM a Self-Manager."
     If there is such a thing as a semester-long slow-building face fault, my family did it!


     *Many martial artists may not agree with Genma that the first thing they must learn is to fall.  It shouldn't be taken too seriously.  I just had him say something that was useful to the story.


Please send me any type of C&C.
This was my first fanfic and I still want to hear it all!
Tonbo <>
finished 1/31/98
revised 7/26/7