Insert standard disclaimers here. Completely for non-profit. All characters except the ones I create are owned by Takahashi-sama and Co.

Chapter 1

Ranma was still annoyed about the fight with Akane. He thought about all the times that she called him a baka. Sure, he thought, she does get better scores than me, but mine aren't too far behind hers now. A few months ago, he took the entrance exams for college to please his mother and was pleasantly surprised when he passed. The more he thought about the fight, the more it seemed like she was taunting him, challenging him, in fact. He never backed down from a challenge in the past and wasn't going to start now. In haste he decided to go to university.

Ranma felt sure his mother would be thrilled, but his father would not be happy. Genma and Soun expected him to start teaching in the dojo right after high school, but he did't see why Akane could go to college and have all the fun while he was stuck at home working. That was just not fair. Well, when had he ever cared what his father thought in the past three years? And he could just tell Soun that he owed it to Akane to be her equal, not to mention he could "protect her" while at school. Soun would buy that, anything that made it seem he was looking out for her. Now, just to decide when and how to tell them.

* * * *

"Surprise!" People jumped out from behind furniture, walls, appliances, floors and hammerspace and streamers and confetti flew everywhere. Akane and Ranma face-faulted, then regained their composure. Soun, Genma and Nodoka walked up to the graduates with huge, stupid grins on their faces. Soun was still blubbering. "Ohhh my last little girl is finally a grown woman!!! And Ranma, you are a man now, you two shall marry immediately now that you've graduated." Nabiki, home on break, simply glared at their father. Kasumi was beaming.

Akane, on the other hand, was not happy. "Dad, what is all of this? I thought I told you I didn't want a big party! And you promised you would stop bugging us about marriage. We're only 18 still!" Ranma just stood still and watched; he was preoccupied with his own plans to really notice what was going on. Fortunately, Nodoka stepped in.

"Now Soun, Genma, you promised you wouldn't bother them anymore. I plan to keep you to that promise," her eyes glancing back to the corner where she placed her katana. Soun and Genma bowed low. "Gomen nasai," they whispered and backed away.

"Good, now we can eat!" Kasumi smiled and began bringing out food.

* * * *

Ranma looked for Ukyou during the party and spotted her in a corner by herself. She seemed intent on analyzing the linen under the punch bowl and looked not at all comfortable being there. The last time she was in the dojo was at the failed wedding attempt that she helped sabotage. After months of Ranma pointedly ignoring her, Ukyou realized how her misplaced jealousy caused her to almost lose his friendship, which was more valuable to her than anything in the world. She finally came to terms with the fact she would always be just "Ucchan", never Mrs. Saotome. It was Akane that forgave her first and persuaded Ranma to talk to her. She was thankful for Akane's forgiving nature, and from that new beginning the two forged a solid friendship. But Ukyou's friendship with Ranma was never the same; guilt still ate at her soul and she never felt as comfortable around him as she used to. She simply didn't know where she belonged.

"Hey Ucchan! Congratulations to all of us!" Ranma smiled and slapped her on the back.

She hung back, feeling rather awkward. "Hi Ran-chan," she said looking down.

"What's wrong? We've graduated! Smile!!" Ranma stuck his tongue out and wiggled his ears at Ukyou to make her laugh. The next thing he knew he was kissing the dojo floor.

"Baka," Akane said, grinning from ear to ear. She turned to the okonomiyaki chef, "You think he'll ever grow up?" Ukyou finally smiled, then giggled and shook her head no. Akane laughed back, "Neither do it. Come on," and the two walked to the middle of the party, both smooshing Ranma further into the floor.

"What did I do to deserve this?" he asked picking himself off the floor. He turned around to catch up with the two women and ran into Kasumi who accidentally dumped her punch on him.

"Oh my!! I am so sorry Ranma-kun. Let me help you clean up." Kasumi whipped out paper towels from. . . perhaps the same place Akane keeps her mallets, and proceeded to pat onna-Ranma's front.

"Ahh, thanks Kasumi, it's not that big of a deal. I'll just get some hot water from the house." The redhead stomped off, grumbling under her breath. She passed by Akane and Ukyou, mumbling about how kami-sama must really have it in for him.

"What's wrong with him?" Akane asked.

"What's always wrong with Ranma?" Ukyou giggled.

Ranma soon returned in his male form and joined the party, more or less. He interacted with the guests, answered questions, but otherwise seemed inattentive and disinterested with the festivities. Akane noticed and approached her fiancee.

"Ranma, are you OK?"

"Oh. Yeah, but I have something I gotta talk to you about." Akane's eyes lit up. "And I gotta talk to Ukyou too." Her eyes dimmed and her brows began to knit together. "But I gotta talk to you first. Alone. Do you think anyone would miss us if we left for a bit?"

"No, I don't think so, as long as we're not gone too long," she answered, her curiosity piqued. It was rare for Ranma to want to speak with her privately over the past few weeks.

"Good." He grabbed his fiance by the hand and ran out of the dojo. He scooped her into his arms and sprang to the roof. Akane's heart was pounding and she lay her hand on his chest feeling the muscles move and ripple as he held her. What did I do to deserve this? she asked herself, smiling softly.

Ranma set her down gently but kept his hands on her waist. She was staring up into her face intently and the look in her deep brown eyes made his stomach tie itself into knots and his head feel light. "Ahh . . . Akane. I have, umm. . . something I need to, ahhh. . . tell you," he said, stumbling for words. Whenever she looked at him like that, the power to form sentences was lost. Kami-sama, I sound as stupid as Ryouga, he thought.

Akane's heart skipped stopped . . . Could he say it? Could he actually tell me he l-loves me?

Never in Ranma's life had an enemy ever frightened him into inaction, not even Saffron. As he had often bragged, if it had martial arts in the name, he could do it and be the best. But was there such a thing as "martial arts self-actualization"? Probably not. If he bothered to stop and think, he would have realized that he desperately wanted Akane's approval for his decision. "Umm, do you remember what we talked about a few weeks ago, about what we were gonna do after high school?" Akane looked perplexed. This didn't sound like a declaration of love to her. She thought back and figured out what he was talking about and nodded but the confusion in her eyes spoke volumes to Ranma. He felt his stomach clench from the fear and worry that she would be angry simmered just below his control. He took a couple deep breaths and plunged on. "Well, I changed my mind. I decided to go to university after all." He then slouched and waited for the mallet to fall.

Akane stood still after Ranma's proclamation, she didn't know quite what to make of it. "You're planning on going to university? When did you decide this? How? Why? Where are you going?"

"One question at a time, jeesh. My mom gave me the idea. She thinks a man should be educated. I started thinking about it and I thought about taking, like, teaching classes and physical education stuff to help me be a better instructor. What were the other questions?"


"A few months ago, but I didn't make up my mind until after our fight."

"Why then?"

Ranma grinned sardonically. "You challenged me, didn't you?"

"I did?" Akane asked, looking confused.

"Yeah, you said you thought I'm stupid. I'm not. I'm going to university."

"I didn't say you're stupid!"

"You're always callin' me stupid!" he shouted.

"That's because you're always acting STUPID, stupid!" she shouted back.

Ranma bristled, but for once, the angel of his better nature won out and decided that he didn't want to fight. "Never mind then. I don't want to fight with you, not today. OK?" Akane felt the wind go out of her sails from surprise since her fiance rarely backed down from a fight. "Hai. Please go on," she said.

Ranma was just as surprised by her actions as she was of his. Hey, for once we're actually talking and not fighting, he thought, then smiled warmly. Her heart did a peculiar little loop-de-loop at that smile. "Anyway, I'm planning on going to the same university as you. It would be nice to know at least one person there, even if it is a violent tomboy." Oh, damn, just when things are going well, I gotta insult her. He ducked his head waiting for her fist to connect with his face.

Akane's eyes narrowed at the insult then went wide when she understood the implications of what he said. He's going to college. With ME. He's not staying here with Ukyou or Shampoo. Maybe he wants to be with . . . ME. Then, for the first time she had known Ranma, she got his joke. "It would be nice to know someone too, even if it is an arrogant baka," she joked back. He looked at her surprised; it was the first time she ever got his jokes. The young woman then unconsciously imitated Ranma's intake of breath for courage, "I'm glad we're going to university together." She blushed brightly and stared at her toes.

Ranma imitated a deer caught in headlights for a minute. Then he smiled, the look in her eyes causing something to overcome his fear of rejection. That something being the same instinct that has caused the human race to propagate for thousands of years. The smile he wore broadened and his heart started pounding. He gently brushed aside a lock of errant hair from her eyes, absently thinking how large his hand was compared to her delicate face. The same hand caressed her cheek, wondering at the softness and warmth. At his touch, Akane's eyes became limpid dark pools and Ranma felt himself drowning in them. He leaned closer to her face and could momentarily feel her warm breath on his skin. She couldn't move and the same thought ran in her head over and over again, Omikami-samahe'sgoingtokissme.

"As Kasumi would say, 'oh my'. I knew I'd find you two up here, but quite like this."

The couple jumped two feet apart and turned to face a very smug Nabiki smirking at them. She was standing on a ladder with her head resting on her fist. Her expression was something akin to the cat that ate the canary and got away with it. "Wait till Daddy hears about this."

With a bound faster than the eye could see, Ranma leapt to the edge and hauled Nabiki to the roof. "How much is it gonna cost me?" he growled.

Nabiki deadpanned. "Oh Ranma, whatever do you mean? How could you think I could keep such wonderful news from Daddy and your father?" Meanwhile Akane, feeling used and rejected, was emanating a pale blue aura.

"Come on Nabiki, you're going to such me dry for this one."

Nabiki dropped the innocent act and reverted to her business face. "For a secret this big fifty thousand yen."

Ranma face faulted. "NANI??!! You know I don't have that much money."

"OK, how about a payment plan? Twenty thousand yen and you pay two thousand yen per month at 1.5 interest, since you're almost family."

"Deal." In Western fashion, Ranma stuck out his hand and as Nabiki was about to grasp his hand, Akane slapped his it. She was glowing bright blue and trying to suppress the tears from falling. Just a moment ago he was going to kiss her, now he was paying off her sister so no one would know about it.

"Ranma NO BAKA!!" He swiveled around and wondered what he did now. "Why? How could you?" she cried with tears brimming in her eyes.

"What? What did I do now?" He tensed up waiting for the mallet to fly. Damn that Nabiki. He didn't have to wait long. Air Akane sent him flying over the dojo heading towards, of course, the koi pond. While in mid-air he continued cursing Nabiki. Why is it when things get going good, someone always butts in? While fishing herself out of the pond she felt arms wrap around her from behind and heard a cry of "Osage no onna!!"

"Get. Off. Of." Ranma clenched her fist and sent Kuno flying. "MEEE!! Kuno hadn't even felt the strike; his hands still tingling with desire from his ill-gotten grope. She dragged herself out of the pond to find Ukyou waiting with a teapot. She doused Ranma and watched as he changed back. In the three years since she found him she never did get tired of watching him change.

"C'mon sugar, people are wondering where you are." Ukyou grabbed him by the shirtsleeve and dragged him back to the dojo. "Akane's pretty pissed again. What did you do this time?"

Ranma's face was a picture of indignity, but tinged with a slight blush. "I didn't do nuthin'! You know her, she's always jumping to conclusions. Nabiki snuck up on us on the roof when I was telling her about going to university with her." He turned when he heard a gasp to find a pale Ukyou.

She had stopped dead in her tracks as she felt realization crash around her like a thundering waterfall crashing on the rocks. Ranma was going off with Akane. To university. The two of them. Together. High school was over. Life was changing so fast that she couldn't keep up. She had meant to tell him of her plans to attend university too, but the topic just never came up. She planned to close down Ucchan's and set up a yatai at school to earn some extra money on the side. But he didn't know of her plans, he only knew of Akane's. And Nabiki walking in on them? Walking in on what, exactly? There must have been something going on to make him so embarrassed, something romantic with Akane. For a split second, her mind screamed out, "But I'm the cute fiancee!", then she reminder herself, not anymore. The last vestiges of hope and girlish dreams were washed away. All those thoughts ran through her mind in a matter of seconds.

"Ucchan, are you OK?" Ranma asked, concern for his friend clearly showing on his face. "I'm sorry, I meant to tell you in a different way."

Ukyou gathered her wits quickly and hid her thoughts behind a vapid smile. "That's great Ran-chan! I'm going to the same university as you two!" But underneath the happy words, hopefully for the last time, her heart broke.

A more perceptive person would have noticed how bright and wild her eyes were and would have seen how tightly she clenched her fists. But, as always, Ranma was oblivious to the signs and was simply glad his news was taken so well, and excited that Ukyou would be accompanying him and Akane. "That's cool! It'll be great having Akane and my best friend at university." His face turned somber. "Now I gotta find a way to tell mom and oyaji."

Ukyou watched Ranma's broad back as he walked to the dojo. 'Akane and my best friend.' The fact that he put Akane first with no title and herself second as best friend was not lost on her, even if it was subconscious on Ranma's part. "Goodbye Ran-chan," she whispered, saying goodbye to the remaining hopes and dreams. She then smiled, feeling better about herself than she had all day and ran to catch up to Ranma.

In the dojo, the parents had Akane and Ranma standing behind a table with a huge sheet cake. Kasumi was dabbing her eyes, Tofu-sensei was talking to the punch bowl, Soun was bawling his eyes out per usual, while Genma had miraculously remained human. Genma's form probably had something to do with his wife standing quite close in front of him with her katana strapped to her back. Akane and Ranma looked suitably uncomfortable, but no too unhappy, given the occasion. It was also apparent that she had cooled down.

Ranma stole a quick glance at his fiance and took a deep breath. "Excuse me? I have an announcement to make." All eyes turned to rest on the young man. The martial artist had never had so many people focused on him when he was not fighting. "Umm...some of you may not like what I'm going to say."

"Get to it boy," Genma growled. He wanted to eat the cake.

Ranma glared at his father, but continued. "Anyway, I've been thinking lately."

"That's new," Nabiki said acerbically.

He shot her a hard look, but knew better than to get into a verbal sparring match with the Queen of Cool. "I am going to university with Akane," he finished with his eyes still on Nabiki. There, he thought, I'm going to university, let her call me stupid now.

Genma and Soun started yelling. "What about the dojo?" "What about the marriage?" "The boy shouldn't go." "You are supposed to take over!" "My baby is leaving!" "Boy, did you forget the promise you made?" Then a calm, quiet voice cut through the fathers' whining, "My son, that is a good idea. A man ought to expand his mind and horizons. Not to mention you and Akane can be together and help each other." The fathers stared at Nodoka, her words falling on their ears like an indomitable force.

Soun tried to glare at Nodoka, then turned to address her son. "Ranma-kun, you have an obligation to the dojo. Honor demands you keep your word. You cannot run off to university."

Ranma had been expecting this type of reception from their fathers and had his answers ready. "Mr. Tendo, I'm going to be taking teaching classes and phys. ed. stuff so I can become a better martial arts instructor, which would help the dojo in the long run. Isn't that more important?" Soun grudgingly nodded. Ranma continued, deftly casting out and reeling Soun in. "Besides, I'm going to the same university as Akane and I can protect her there. You never know what may happen to her in a strange city."

"That's right my boy! I always knew you had your heart in the right place. You keep an eye on my little girl." Nabiki raised her eyebrow at her father, then looked at Ranma critically. He manipulated their fathers rather well, not quite as well as she could, but better than she expected of him, not to mention getting into university. Maybe he wasn't such a dumb jock after all. Akane, on the other hand, was displaying emotions exactly the opposite of her father. Her head was bowed, her bangs covering her eyes, and her fists were clenched tightly against her body. The other revelers were oblivious to her state.

Ranma finally clued in to her anger when he noticed her rigidity. "I do not need a protector." The words were spoken so softly that he could barely hear her even though he was standing next to her. He knew he'd have to defuse her anger. He reached out his hand to grasp hers. He didn't try to loosen her fist, but merely gently placed his hand against hers.

The touch was enough to interrupt her negative train of thoughts and her anger ebbed slightly. Akane lifted her head and directed her smoldering eyes on her father. "Dad, I do not need Ranma to protect me. I am a martial artist, too." Every word was spoken distinctly, quietly but with force. Nodoka appraised the young woman, appreciative of her tone and strength. The girl is learning, she thought.

Akane's words had their desired effect on Soun, at least temporarily. "But Akane, weíre only looking out for you," he said trying to sound reasonable, then the tears started. "Donít you want Ranma to protect you? Youíre just a little girl! You need someone to watch out for you at university from all the other boys! WAHH!!"

Akane ripped her hand out of her fianceeís and slammed it on the table making the cake jump. "I am so damn sick and tired of you people telling me what I need! Iím an adult Dad; I can decide that for myself. All of you just leave me ALONE!" A blur flashed as she ran out of the dojo to the house. Soun was stunned into silence, his tears stopping.

"What are you waiting for? Go after her, boy!" Genma shouted.

"No. Sheís right," was all Ranma said and stomped out of too, in the opposite direction.

"Never thought Iíd live to see Ranma agree with Akane," Nabiki said smugly. She secretly enjoyed watching her little sister tell their father off.

"I think we should cut the cake now," Kasumi said and started dishing out pieces of cake.

* * * *

Ranma was lying on his back on the Tendoís roof watching the sun go down. The party had broken up quickly after the couple had stormed out. From his perch, he watched Kasumi and his mother clean up the mess. The sounds from inside the house indicated that Genma and Soun had started drinking their sake. The fatherís felt they deserved to celebrate, regardless of the outcome of the party. It hadnít changed the fact their children had graduated from high school and were on the verge of adulthood. In short, they were celebrating, in their view, their brilliant parenting.

Akane had not left her room since she left the party. Ranmaís ears perked up when he heard the porch door slide open. He hung himself over the edge to see her walk towards the koi pond. He swung his body over and jumped down.

Akane had stopped in front of the pond with her eyes lifted to the horizon. Ranma walked up and stood beside her. "Hey," he said. She looked up acknowledging his presence then looked back. "You OK?" he asked.

If her fiancťe showed concern for her well being a year ago, she would have been suspicious of ulterior motives; for that matter, there were times when she still was. But it occurred to her while sitting and thinking in her room that he put up with a lot from her. It also made an impression on her that he left her alone earlier. She wasnít oblivious to their fatherís badgering of Ranma for him to go and plea their case. Akane was pleased that he refused, understanding that she needed to be alone. While she was standing there, she realized that a year ago she would have malleted him, but now she was glad he was here. Perhaps Iím growing up, she thought.

"I hate being treated like a baby, as if I were a china doll, or something," she said at last. Ranma didnít say anything; he didnít trust his mouth not to get him clobbered. "Iím glad Iím going away to university. Iíll finally be on my own."

"Your own?" he asked warily. He didnít like the sound of where she was going.

"Yeah, my own." Akane turned to face her iinuzake, a look of dread seriousness in her eyes. "You have to stop treating me like Iím a china doll too. Iím not a defenseless little girl. I can take care of myself." Her voice was soft and warm, but had a bite. Ranma carefully chose his next words for once.

"But weird things always happen to us. Youíre always getting kidnapped, or Shampoo or Ukyou or Kodochi trying to attack you. We just worry about your safety, Akane. I, er. . . umm, your family doesnít want to see you get hurt."

"We?" she asked.

"Well, yeah. I mean, your dad and your sisters, and well. . ." Ranma started blushing.

"Baka," she whispered and leaned against his arm, her hand entwining with his. "Ranma, let me fall, let me make mistakes because theyíll be mine to make."

Akane was quiet for awhile, staring at the sunset. This is nice, she thought, leaning against him. Ranma wisely kept his mouth shut, but his thoughts werenít that far from hers. Finally, she spoke again. "It meant a lot to me that you didnít come after me even with our parents bugging you."

He merely shrugged. "I know what itís like when everyone else is trying to run your life," he replied, letting out a soft sigh of frustration and just stood there, living in the moment, luxuriating in the feel of the woman beside him. He could faintly smell the perfume of her hair and it was quite intoxicating.

Akane looked up at the young manís face, his gray-blue eyes reflecting the surroundings. She noticed how well his eyes acted as mirrors and moved to stand in front of him trying to see herself better. Ranma looked curiously at the young womanís actions and found himself lost. Then an instinct took over, an instinct as old as life itself. It commanded the lower brain and glands, and purposefully disconnected the higher brain functions. Ranma started bowing his head, moving it ever closer to his fiancťeís face, while hers began tilting upward. Somewhere in between two sets of lips found each other and the emotional gulf that divided them narrowed. It was just the slightest touch, a butterfly kiss. Then they drew back and looked at each other. Unbeknownst to them, the sky flamed orange and crimson and purple as the sun slipped beyond the edge of the earth.

"Akane." "Ranma."

Was all that was said, and their lips met once more and parted. The second kiss deepened and unconsciously their arms wrapped around the other. Ranma felt smooth arms wrap around his neck and small hands get lost in his hair. Akane felt strong arms encircle her waist pulling her closer.

Nothing was said when they broke the second kiss. Akane rested her head upon Ranmaís chest while he drew her closer still. The couple stood like that till the stars came out and neither said a word.

Maybe some things do change.

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