Part One: The Party by Michael Noakes

Burning embers floated high on the night wind to flicker briefly among the stars before flaring, fading, dying. Their dizzying dance twirled amongst the smoke and raucous laughter of boys as they drifted into the sky. As Hiroshi watched, one particular particle of glowing ash was carried away, then reversed direction as it was caught in an unexpected eddy. It alighted upon a bare arm and was unconsciously brushed away.
"You sure you don't want one?" he asked, offering a bottle.
Ranma glanced at the bottle with distaste and shook his head. "You know I don't drink," he answered. Hiroshi shrugged and kept the beer for himself, not entirely surprised. The mere fact that Ranma had showed up was amazing enough in its own right; to expect him to actually have a good time was probably asking too much. Not that his attitude made any sense: what was the point of Ranma coming to Kiyoshi's party - easily the biggest, best party of the year - if he wasn't going to relax somewhat and have some _fun_.
Hiroshi settled comfortably into his seat by the fire. Must be nice, he thought, to be this rich, to have parents as well off as Kiyoshi's obviously were. Their house was absolutely huge: built on slanted ground, the basement opened up onto the rear through patio doors that led onto an attractive terrace; a beautiful porch was suspended above it and gave a great view of the carefully landscaped yard. The property was fantastically expansive - at least, it was to a boy like Hiroshi whose idea of a backyard was a square plot of earth with just enough room for his mother to grow a few flowers. There was even a low stone wall surrounding the whole piece of land. Ultimately, though, the most important aspect of their house was, of course, the outdoor pool. It was - unsurprisingly, considering the uncommonly warm weather - currently the centre of much of the activity at the party.
Whatever Kiyoshi's parents did for a living to afford this level of luxury, it also kept them very busy - meaning that on a weekend like this, nearing the end of another year of studies, madness, and chaos at Furinkan High, with both adults gone, Kiyoshi's place became _the_ place to have a whopping huge party. Classmates, male and female, from Furinkan and elsewhere, were standing and chatting, and presumably drinking, in groups, both inside and outside the house; others were dancing and jumping about, music blaring; many were already taking advantage of the outside pool and were swimming and splashing wildly, bubbly laughter and joyful shrieks punctuating their fun. But he would go swimming later, he decided. Right now, Hiroshi was content to just sit around by the convenient fire-pit set in the backyard, shoot the shit with his buddies, and enjoy the contrast of the fire's heat on his front, the refreshing wind on his back, and the cold beer in his hand. Yes, thought Hiroshi, this is turning out to be a beautiful party. Kiyoshi had another hit on his hand - everybody was having a great time.
No, not everybody, he amended, looking sideways at Ranma, who was absently brushing away another ember from the turned-down sleeves of his usual red Chinese shirt. At least one person is not enjoying himself. Not drinking, not talking, he was just . . . sitting there.
"Hey, Ranma?" Hiroshi leaned towards his friend. "What's wrong? You're just, you know, sitting there."
Ranma shrugged. "I dunno. Guess I'm just not in a partying mood," he answered. Picking up a stick, he poked idly at the fire.
"Ah." After a moment, he tried again. "Hey, didn't you come with Akane? Where is she?"
"How should I know?" muttered Ranma. He gave the log a sharp jab. "Stupid tomboy."
Ooookay, thought Hiroshi. Obviously Saotome was not in a very good mood tonight. Probably another falling out between him and his fiancee. Again. But if they were fighting, why did he bother coming to the party with her? Especially if he was just going to sit there and sulk?
Actually, he thought as he glanced around for Daisuke (his friend having left for the house to grab a few more drinks from the fridge), it was surprising enough that Ranma had come at all. He never showed up at any of the little get-togethers his classmates organized. Understandable, perhaps, considering the active lifestyle he led, but, still, if he was going to bother coming out, he could at least try to have a little fun. Ranma must have read his thoughts, because a second later he turned to Hiroshi.
"I didn't really even want to come," said Ranma. "It was my stupid pop's idea . . . and Mr. Tendo's, of course. They found out Akane was coming to this party with some friends of hers . . . so they thought it only natural that her fiance oughta accompany her." He scowled. "Like I even wanted to go to some stupid party, anyway. Especially after she didn't even ask me. Especially after she told me she didn't want me hanging around with her! Like I'd want to hang around with a kawaikunee like her!" He gave another fierce poke at the fire.
So that was it.
"Here ya go, bud." His thoughts were interrupted as Daisuke plopped down next to him. His friend passed a few bottles over before glancing across at Ranma, who had returned to staring sullenly at the fire. "Hey. . . what's with him?" he whispered to Hiroshi.
Hiroshi suppressed a smile. "Another fight with Akane," he answered. "She told him to leave her alone."
"Again? Sheesh. Is it just me or have they been fighting worse than usual, lately?"
He shrugged. "Probably. Who can tell?" He popped open another beer and took a drink. "Hey, by the way. . . what took you so long?"
Daisuke glanced around, then smirked. "Heh. Almost got into a little tangle."
"Huh? How so?"
"Well. . . I was grabbing a coupla beers from the bar fridge, and when I stood up, I bumped into Ryuta, and. . . ."
"Ryuta? Not Uehara. . .?"
Daisuke nodded.
"Shit! Who invited him?"
"Does it matter? He probably invited himself."
"Yeah. So what happened?"
"Nothing much, really." Daisuke shrugged. "I accidentally knocked his drink onto him. He wasn't impressed. Threatened to kick my ass if I didn't get him another drink."
"So did you?"
"Yeah. Gave him a few bottles," he nodded. "But when he wasn't looking, I swiped a couple of his bottles of sake." With a grin, he tossed over one of said bottles. "Serves the jerk right, threatening me over an accident!"
Hiroshi looked down at the bottles with a small frown. "Shit, man, if he finds out. . . ."
"What's he gonna do, eh?"
"I already _told_ you what I was gonna do, you little shit," growled a deep voice from behind.
With a surprised 'eep!', Daisuke spun and leapt to his feet. "Ah, hey. . . ah," he stammered.
Hiroshi watched as the other guy stepped into the firelight. It most certainly was Ryuta: one of the local Furinkan bullies, one of the few that had managed to survive after the various martial artists had arrived and the regime of Miss Hinako had begun. Big guy, strong, tough, his face somewhat resembling something chiselled out of granite, he was known for having a rather nasty temper. Not the kind of guy whose bad side you would want to get on (not, mind you, that he had a good side anybody knew about, thought Hiroshi), and not the kind of guy Kiyoshi would invite - but that had never stopped Uehara from crashing a party before. Somewhere in the back of his mind Hiroshi wondered if any of the bully's usual friends were hanging around, but his immediate concern was on the nasty feeling growing in the pit of his stomach at the prospect of impending pain.
"Hey, listen, it was a little joke, you know?" tried Daisuke, as the larger youth grabbed him by the front of the shirt and hauled him forward.
"Yeah, sure, just a joke." Ryuta sneered as he tightened his grip. "Funny." Daisuke paled slightly.
Well, this certainly sucks, mused Hiroshi. Trust an idiot like this to ruin a perfectly good party. With a sigh he started to stand up to help his friend, noticing that some of the other guys around the fire were getting up as well. This is probably going to hurt, he decided.
"Sit down!" said the bully, eyes flashing, upper lip curling with scorn. "Or do I gotta beat the lot of you wimps up, too?" Hiroshi had no doubt that he could, too - the guy was a nasty brawler, always getting into scuffles with goons from other schools. . . and usually winning. Resigned to a whole lot of pain, Hiroshi hesitantly raised his fists in something hopefully approximating a fighting stance.
"Ummm. Listen. Couldja, you know. . . let him go?" stammered Hiroshi, despite his best effort to sound tough.
"Oh, so you want it first?" demanded Ryuta, tossing Daisuke aside and turning to his friend. With a contemptuous glance at the boy on the ground, he took a step towards Hiroshi, one hammy fist rearing back. . . .
. . . there was a sudden blur that zinged by, and a metallic 'ting'. . .
. . . and suddenly the big guy was clutching his shoulder in unexpected pain. "What the?"
Hiroshi opened his eyes, surprised he was still standing, wondering what the delay was. And suddenly, he knew, and grinned. Ryuta Uehara had chosen the _wrong_ group to threaten this time. With a narrowing of eyes, the bully took another step forward.
Something zinged by again. Again Ryuta let out an exclamation of pain, rubbing at his thigh. "Hey! Who's. . . ."
Hiroshi smiled and stepped aside, revealing the attacker still sitting calmly by the fire.
"Why don't you just go away?" asked Ranma, bored.
Ryuta peered at the pig-tailed boy. Maybe he could not make out who it was. Maybe he did not care, or actually did not know. But Hiroshi watched as the larger youth flushed in anger. "You gonna make me, you little piece of. . . ."
There was an audible sigh from Ranma, and then his hands became a blur. Things - Hiroshi still could not tell what - snapped from his fingers.
"I'm gonna. . . ouch!" exclaimed Ryuta. "You. . . ouch! Ouch! Dammit. . . ouch!" He tried to take a step forward; something pinged off his knee. Then his chest. Then his thighs, shoulders, arms, and finally his forehead. He staggered back, a small trickle of blood beading from the small cut between his eyes. He glared at the group. "I'll get. . . !"
This one bounced off his groin. His eyes bulged, briefly, before he twisted away, moaning, and stumbled ungracefully in the general direction of the house.
A small cheer went up around the fire as everyone sat down again. Hiroshi turned to Ranma, Daisuke - who hadn't yet moved from where he laid sprawled - scrambling to his feet and falling in next to him. Their friend looked up at them and grinned. "Not too smart, is he? Still, good thing he left when he did," he added, opening his hand. "I was running out of ammunition." Sitting in his palm was a single beer bottlecap.
"You. . . you were flinging beercaps at him?"
"Yup. Saotome School of Anything-Goes Special Attack: Cap-oeira Strike; just one of the many moves that make up the style known as 'Bar Fly Do'."
Hiroshi and Daisuke stared at him for a moment. "You're kidding, right?"
"Scarily enough, no." With a snap of his fingers, Ranma sent the last bottlecap tearing off into the night. "It's a style my pop developed while 'studying' in a string of bars across China. Uses all the usual bar accessories - mugs, stools, bottles, beer nuts - as martial art weapons. Pop always said it's meant as a supplement to drunken-style Kung Fu." He shrugged. "I figured he was just looking for an excuse to hang out at the local bar - and a way to get out without paying the tab."
Daisuke looked at Hiroshi, who simply shrugged. Tavern-based fighting styles, drunken wandering fathers, trips across China - it was all part of a lifestyle he simply found impossible to understand. Ranma seemed to take it all for granted; somehow, Hiroshi was not so sure that he would be able to do the same.

The small metal disk winged its merry way through the Nerimean sky. Eventually, it began its rapid descent. With a loud 'ting' it bounced off a late-night pedestrian's head.
With a growl, he reached down and picked up the crumpled cap. He did not know where it came from. He did not know how it came to bounce off his head. But somehow, Ryoga Hibiki knew that Ranma Saotome was to blame.

"Are you sure you don't want it?"
Hiroshi watched as Ranma sighed and shook his head. "Yes, I'm sure," he answered, pushing away Daisuke's offer. "Listen. . . you don't gotta thank me for helping out. That guy was asking for it; can't stand jerks like that. I hate bullies."
Daisuke looked a little disappointed, but nodded and sat down next to his friend. With Ryuta gone, the conversation was starting to pick up again. Hiroshi looked around the fire - mostly people he knew, guys from his classes, or a grade above or below him, but a few strangers that he guessed were from different schools. Coming around the circle, his eyes came to rest upon Ranma.
"Hey, by the way - thanks."
Hiroshi blinked and turned to his friend. "Huh?"
"For, you know, standing up for me," supplied Daisuke. "Against that asshole."
He shrugged. "What're friends for, eh?"
There was a momentary pause, before Hiroshi continued in a low voice. "Hey, Dai-."
"Have a look at Ranma there."
"Yeah? And?"
"What d'ya figure he's doing?"
"I dunno," answered Daisuke. "Looks like he's just sitting there. Why?"
"That's just it - he's just sitting there!" said Hiroshi, and fell silent. Daisuke gave him a quizzical glance, shrugged, and returned to drinking and talking. His friend remained fixated on the pig-tailed boy's actions, or lack thereof. He's just kinda pulled back, Hiroshi finally concluded, out of the group, out of the circle. Why? Why not join in the conversation? After fighting off Ryuta - without even standing up! - they probably _wanted_ him to join in, and certainly would not refuse him! But he didn't. Maybe he thought he was too good for them? Maybe he was bored? Maybe he simply did not care, did not even _want_ to be part of the gang? But then he saw Ranma glance up, give a sad, almost envious look at the guys as their voices rose in mirth and mock argument, and Hiroshi knew that that could not be why. Well, whatever the reasons, Hiroshi decided that, like it or not, Ranma was going to have a good time tonight. Already, Ranma, who looked like he had come alive somewhat while driving away the bully, was withdrawing into himself, returning to his earlier sullen demeanor. Now, how to break him out of it?
"Are you NUTS?" exclaimed a loud voice from across the fire, distracting him for a moment. Hiroshi recognized Toshi, a friend from one grade up. "Keiko's better looking than Hiromi? Are you blind, man?"
"No! Are you? There's, like, no comparison!"
"You're right! Hiromi's a hell of a lot better looking!"
Getting drawn in despite himself, Hiroshi had to agree. Sure, the red-headed Keiko was cute, but the body on Hiromi was. . . impressive. Very impressive. Besides, the one guy _had_ to defend Keiko - he was dating her. "Sorry, man, but I gotta agree with Toshi," he said, addressing Keiko's stalwart defender. "Just _look_ at Hiromi!"
Somebody gave a little laugh. "Yeah, right. Wonder what he's looking at, eh?"
At which point somebody else added: "Hey, should you even be lookin'? Ain't you and Sayuri, you know. . . ."
"Hey! It's none of your business!" exclaimed Hiroshi. "We've just gone on a few dates, that's all!" Well, maybe not _all_, but he did not see any reason to share his personal life with these guys. Friends are friends, but some things you simply don't share. Besides, Sayuri would kill him if she ever found out.
"Sorry, bud," added Daisuke from next to him. "But I can't agree with you, here. Keiko is _definitely_ better looking."
"Ah, hell, you're both wrong!"
Soon, a lively argument was underway. As he listened (and added the occasional comment), the conversation quickly grew to encompass the largest part of the female population of Furinkan High. Seemed everybody had an opinion on who was the hottest babe in school. Hiroshi noticed that a couple of the girls walking by gave them dirty looks, but he did not really care. Looking down at the empty bottle in his hand, he realized that he was starting to feel. . . rather good. Grinning without any good reason, he turned to Ranma - suddenly remembering his earlier decision - and noticed that, though not adding anything, his friend had drawn a little closer to the group, was listening avidly to everything with a slight smile and attentive eyes.
"Whaddya think, Ranma?" asked Hiroshi, and smiled. "Who's the best looking girl?"
The group fell quiet, all eyes turning to Ranma. And then: "Yeah? Who d'ya think, Ranma? C'mon!" Ranma paled slightly.
"Well, ah. . . you know. . ." he stammered.
Daisuke nudged him. "C'mon, Ranma. . . you gotta have a favourite. . . maybe that friend of Nabiki's, the one with the pig-tail? Eh?"
"What? No! I. . . ah, you know. . . ." He stopped when he realized everybody - or at least those who knew him - were grinning. "What?"
"Guess it wasn't really a fair question," said Toshi.
"Yeah," added Hiroshi. "What with him having Akane and everything. . . ."
"HEY!" protested Ranma. "Akane? No way!"
"No! That tomboy? Ha! She's. . . ."
"KAWAIKUNEE!" chorused the crowd, and laughed.
After a moment, Ranma grinned sheepishly. "Yeah. That's right," he said. "And it's not like I 'have' her, either!"
"Really?" asked someone Hiroshi did not recognize. "You don't love her?"
"What? No!" cried Ranma.
"Oh? So you wouldn't mind if I asked her out on a date?"
"WHAT?" yelled Ranma, jumping to his feet. "Akane's my fia. . . ." He stammered to a stop as everyone burst into laughter. Blushing in embarrassment, he sat down again. "Fine. Ask her. See if I care," he muttered, but cracked a little smile. Leaning forward a bit, he asked a question of his own. "So, what, do _you_ guys think she's good-looking?"
There was a brief and somewhat awkward silence around the circle, which Hiroshi was the first to break. "Ah, Ranma? I don't think anyone's gonna touch that one. But. . . just remember. Before you showed up here, Akane had to fight off about thirty guys every morning. What do you think?"
"Yeah, I've still got the scar on my arm," muttered someone.
"Ok, ok," said Ranma. "Well, then. . . what about. . . Ucchan?"
"Yeah, you know - Ukyou?"
"Isn't he a boy?" asked Toshi.
"Nah - just dresses as one," answered somebody else. "Actually, I've kinda wondered what she's like, under. . . ." But he petered off as Ranma glared at him.
"Ranma? I don't think you're gonna get an answer on that one, either. She's another one of your fiancees. That makes her off-ground for us, you know?" said Daisuke.
"Oh," said Ranma.
"Well, what about. . . ," started someone else, and the conversation took off again in a new direction. Hiroshi leaned back again and cracked open one of the bottles Daisuke had appropriated. As the conversation turned slightly raunchier - now the guys were giving their frank appraisal of what women liked, or why they did the incomprehensible things they did - he noticed that Ranma drew in even closer, avidly following every thread of the discussion, though adding little or nothing himself. Hiroshi wondered why; if anyone here had the slightest clue on how to attract women, or how they think, it was Ranma! The guy had three fiancees and hordes of women always chasing him! And, of course, there was the small matter of the curse. . . .
"Hey! Why don't we ask Ranma?" suddenly asked Toshi's friend, Kenji. "You gotta know what the women like!"
"Me?" Ranma started at his sudden inclusion in the conversation. "Why me?"
"Well, gee, maybe 'cus you've got three fiancees?"
"And all those other girls chasing after you?"
"Heck, you've been living with two of the best looking girls in the school for, what, a year now?"
"Whoa!" interrupted Ranma, raising his hands. "I didn't _ask_ for any of my fiancees, or any of those other girls! They just. . . happened!" He paused for a moment, as if in thought. "Although, I guess, I was partly responsible. . . what with my devastatingly good looks and charming personality, and all. . . ."
"Oh, please," gagged someone.
"And, of course, there's the Saotome art of Making-Women-Fall-In-Love- With-You, which, being a family secret, I'm not at liberty to share."
"I'm gonna be sick."
"And, of course, the martial arts. Chicks dig the martial arts."
"Yeah, right. Of course they do."
"But. . . really. . . I don't have a clue how I do it!" He gave a grin - half arrogant, half playful - and shrugged. "I guess some of us are just naturals."
"Gee, thanks a lot, Saotome," grumbled Kenji.
"Seriously, though, guys," continued Ranma, shuffling in a little closer. "D'ya think if I knew what made women happy, I'd always be fighting with Akane? I may live with her - but I certainly can't figure her out!"
"Oh." There was a momentary pause, and then a curious Kenji forged gamely ahead. "But. . . still. You must've had more experience then most of us, right?"
"I mean. . . well, between Akane, and Ukyou, and, ah. . . you know, that purple-haired one, whatzername-"
"Yeah. Shampoo. I mean, we've seen how they throw themselves at you. . . ." He turned to the other guys for support. "Right guys?"
Ranma gave an expression somewhere between a grimace and a grin. "Akane? Throw herself at me?"
"Ah, right. Well, the other two, then," amended Kenji. "They sure seem to, well. . . like you - especially that Shampoo."
"Yeah? So?"
"So? So you must've, you know. . . ." He left the statement dangling.
Ranma totally failed to pick up on it. "What?"
"You _know_. . . ," he repeated.
The pigtailed boy remained blank. "What?"
"I think what he's insinuating," supplied Daisuke, leaning in and grinning, "is that you must've had sex with at least _one_ of them."
There was a moment of stunned silence on Ranma's part, and then a very odd look - something between disgust, annoyance, and outright panic - crawled across his face. "WHAT?" he exclaimed. "NO! I didn't! I haven't!"
There was a round of "Yeah, right!"s and "C'mon!"s and "As if!"s, and disbelieving cries all around. Hiroshi did not bother adding his own voice - he knew better, and actually believed Ranma, although having seen Shampoo around campus a few times, could not help but wonder how his friend resisted the temptation. Probably a fear or love (or both) of Akane, or something - or maybe just a curse-induced lack of testosterone.
"I'm serious!" insisted Ranma. "I already told ya - I didn't ask for any of 'em! I sure ain't gonna. . . you know. . . with them." He flushed a bit at the idea. "Besides, if I _did_, and Akane found out. . . she'd kill me!"
"What if she was the one you did it with?"
"That would be even _worse_!"
Hiroshi snickered and patted his flustered friend on the back.
Kenji looked a bit disappointed for a moment. "So, uh, you're a. . . ."
"What? Virgin?" said Ranma, sounding a little angry. Not defensive, just upset. "Yeah. What's the big deal?"
"Nothing!" Kenji raised his hands placatingly. "Nothing. I - ah, we - just figured that, with all those girls, you would've. . . ."
"Well I haven't." Ranma seemed to insert an air of finality into his words, yet continued a moment later. "Listen. I spent, what, the last ten years on the road. The last few months before coming to Nerima were spent wandering across China. Training. That's where I met Shampoo." He stopped for a moment, as if in reflection. He smiled slightly. "But all she wanted to do was kill me. So, yeah, I didn't have much time to think about that kinda stuff - what with running for my life and everything. And when I got here, and moved in with the Tendos - well, things've been kinda. . . busy, you know?
"Heck, I haven't even had a real kiss from one of 'em, yet. Shampoo did, twice: but one was the Kiss of Death - which was on my girl-body to boot - and the other was the Kiss of Marriage, so they don't count." He shrugged.
Kenji looked at him disbelievingly. "You mean, with all these babes throwin' themselves at you, you haven't even had a real _kiss_ yet?"
"Well. . . ," Ranma started to say, then hesitated. A odd look crossed his face: he seemed to remember something, momentarily, that made him look slightly ill; then, his face flushed and he suddenly seemed upset. "No," he said curtly. "I haven't done anythin' like that - with anyone." Seeing the unexpected, restrained anger, Kenji decided to let the subject end. Hiroshi was glad he did. He could not fathom what had upset Ranma, but it was obviously a touchy subject.
There was a brief lull as the sound of bottles being opened all around rang out. Daisuke leaned forward after taking a drink. "So. With all that said - you're saying you don't know more about the way women think than the rest of us guys?"
"Nope." Ranma shook his head. "Why should I?"
"I think," growled a voice from behind Hiroshi, slightly slurred. "I think they're askin' 'cus. . . 'cus you're a girl yourself!"
There was a sudden frigid silence around the fire, and all eyes turned to Ranma. Under their scrutiny he stiffened, face hardening. Hiroshi had a bad feeling about this - a very bad feeling. There were certain subjects you simply did not raise around Ranma: his curse, his masculinity or lack thereof; and you never, ever, called him a girl.
"Excuse me?" the pigtailed boy asked, voice dangerously cold.
"I said, you'd know. . . 'cus you're a girl."
"That's what I thought you said." Slowly and smoothly, Ranma rose to his feet and turned towards the intruder. "I. Am. A. Guy. Got it?" He glared as the figure approached. "You got that, Ryuta? Or are you stupid?"
Ryuta stepped closer, striding arrogantly up to Ranma. The bully was, at a quick comparison, the more intimidating of the two. He was certainly taller, and thicker set, with coarse, rigid features, and a drunken wildness to his eyes that was decidedly uncomfortable. But a glance at Ranma, at his intensity, at the sudden deceptive looseness with which he held himself, made it obvious to those who knew, who was the one to fear.
"Oh, yeah, sure, a guy," muttered Ryuta. "My mistake."
"I'm glad we got that cleared up," Ranma said, still glaring.
"Yeah." Ryuta turned away, then paused. "It's just that," he started. "You sure _look_ like a girl!" Ranma hopped back as Ryuta spun around and punched forward; he avoided the strike with ease - but the contents of Ryuta's glass hit him full in the face.
Hiroshi groaned out loud.

"Just a 'sec, okay?" she said, and turned away from Sayuri as a friend hurried up with a concerned look on her face. "Yes? What is it?"
The girl came to a breathless stop. "Akane! There's. . . it looks like there's going to be a fight outside!"
Akane's countenance darkened. "It's Ranma, isn't it?"
The girl nodded.
"That idiot," she growled. And after I made him promise not to fight! Could she not have at least _one_ night to herself, one night where her baka, unwanted fiance did not get himself into a fistfight? Well, she would show him! "Where is he?"
"I think he's with Hiroshi and the guys - over by the fire."
"So what's it about this time?"
"I don't know - I think the other guy started it - but he's not alone. . . ."
The other guy started it? Not likely, considering Ranma. Well, she would set everything straight - even if she had to beat up both involved parties to do so!

Ranma wiped the liquid from her eyes. It was not water - it was slightly sticky and smelled sweet, and stung a little - but obviously it had been enough to do the job. With unconscious ease developed over innumerable accidental encounters with cold water, she tightened the belt around her waist and adjusted her clothing.
"See what I mean?" mocked Ryuta. "You _are_ a girl!" Ranma berated herself for not dodging the splash, and proceeded to eye her opponent critically. The guy obviously knew how to fight; not as a martial artist, perhaps - he lacked that unconscious air of calm confidence and discipline - but most definitely as a brawler, with an intensity that only experience brings. Big, strong, and probably pretty tough; drunk, too, which never helped - enough fights with Pop after he would come home after drinking too much, yet stubbornly insisting on training, had taught her what to expect. Not that it mattered: after one got used to fighting the likes of Ryoga, chumps like this simply failed to measure up. There was only one problem: the promise to Akane. She would not go back on her word; she could not, even though every instinct was screaming at her to beat the shit out of this jerk.
"So, c'mon, Ranma." Ryuta stepped forward. "What's it like? Eh? What turns a girl on - what's it feel like?"
The redhead took a deep breath. She would _not_ be baited into a fight. This was. . . training, like for the Hiryu Shotenha; she just had to keep a level head, and stay cool. "Go away, Ryuta. . . ." Ranma forced her voice to stay calm, though there was a slight tremor she could not avoid. "I'm not interested in a fight."
The larger boy ignored her and moved closer. Ranma noticed that he was not alone; the bully had brought along a few of his bully friends, two of them flanking their leader and the other making a pathetic attempt at sneaking up from behind. "You telling us you don't know? You telling us you've never. . . experimented?"
"No. I haven't," said Ranma, anger starting to grow. "I'm not some kind of pervert!"
"I find that hard to believe. C'mon, what's it like - having your breasts felt up?"
"I wouldn't know."
"No? Maybe you've gone further. . . maybe tried it with a guy, eh, you little sex-changing freak? What's it like, feeling some guy inside of you, huh? Grinding away at you, thrusting, his hands all over. . . ."
Ranma felt the blood pounding in her ears, her rage building, the leash restraining her anger slipping. The presence of the crowd thrust itself upon her awareness, their whispers coming to her peripherally: some of the guys she'd been chatting with, who knew her, wondering why she hadn't taken Ryuta down yet; others, who hadn't been there, but recognized her, unsurprised that she'd started a fight - "oh, look, it's Ranma, fighting again, big surprise. . . ," they said; and the others, the curious, the surprised, wondering "who's that girl" or "shouldn't we do something, she's going to get hurt," but no one actually doing anything, after all, it wasn't any of _their_ business, and Uehara was a really _big_ guy. And then the other whispers, the ones that hurt: "Do you think she's telling the truth?", "Maybe Ryuta's right," "I always knew he was a pervert!" So she spoke to drown out the voices with her own, words half- choked with fury and shame, louder and shriller than she would have liked. "Don't. . . don't, Ryuta. Don't push me. I - I promised I wouldn't get into a fight tonight - don't make me break my word. Don't." A deep shuddering breath, an attempt to regain control. And then, "I'm a man."
Uehara swaggered a step closer, sneering down at the diminutive girl, close and towering over her. "I always knew it," he stated in a cold, hard whisper, drunkenness fading before sudden meanness. "Scared. You're all lies and reputation. A joke."
"You're the joke, Ryuta." she replied evenly. "You're just a pathetic bully."
To her surprise, he nodded. "Maybe I am. But at least I'm honest about it."
Her eyes narrowed. "What?"
"I'm a bully. Sure. I know it. But so are you - but you lie to yourself, hide from the truth. Who's the one who's pathetic?"
"I am _not_ like you!"
"Yeah? Funny. I've seen the guys you hang around with. You ever think twice about grinding them down? Humiliating them and hurting them whenever they even slightly annoy you? 'Course not!" He made a sudden, wide gesture, taking in the silent, straining crowd surrounding them. "Now look around. Look at those wimps, those little shits. They're afraid of me, of what I can do, and they do what I want 'cus of that fear. Now do you _really_ think they fear you any less? Idiot. You're kidding yourself. Did you think they were your _friends_?"
"They _are_ my friends!" insisted Ranma.
Ryuta stared down at her for a long moment, before one corner of his smile twisted up in a sneer. "I just realized how well that body suits you. You're a coward, Saotome."
"Am I? Challenge me and find out, asshole!"
He looked at her for a moment, then laughed. "I couldn't. I don't fight girls," he said, loudly, and turned away.
The words resounded through Ranma's mind, Ryuta's patronizing laugh a taunt, his turned back an insult. She felt her fist clench convulsively by her side. "I'm a MAN!" she yelled after him. "You hear me? I'm more a man than you'll ever be!" No one turns their back on her, her mind screamed, not while she was still standing, not after insulting her like that - not Ryoga, not Mousse, not Kuno, and most certainly not a pathetic, weak, _lying_ little bastard bully like Ryuta Uehara! "Come back here and face me like one! I'll show you how much of a man I really am!"
He paused, and after a beat, slowly turned around to face her. Ranma could feel the tension around her, everyone holding their breath. And then he smiled, and gave her the most infuriatingly condescending look. "Cute, ain't she?" he smirked. "Must be that time of the month."
Sudden shame possessed her, so intense it nearly brought tears to her eyes. It quickly transformed into anger and hatred. She flowed forward, riding the fury, feral grin and furious eyes lighting her face, animalistic gleeful snarl escaping her lips. Her tormenter could not follow, he was slow, far, far too slow to react in time. His tentative guard was knocked away, yanked forward, her other hand latching onto his armpit, fingers and thumb digging into muscle viciously, leg hooking in, snapping straight, breaking his stance. She could smell the alcohol clinging to him, the sudden fear, feel as he tried to pull away, see the surprise and pain rise in his eyes as he stumbled forward, and then the sudden wince, the eyes almost rolling completely back, as she buried her knee into his crotch. He curled up and collapsed, but still she held him; her grim smile tightened as she smashed her fist forward, downwards, the rush of adrenalin proving that she was a _man_. . . .
Her fist froze, bottom three knuckles flush against the arc of Ryuta's nose. A sudden coldness and dread seized her stomach, almost painful in its intensity. She glanced down at the arm still held in her right hand, relaxed her hold, saw the line of red jagged marks in the wrist left by her tight grip and nails. Absently releasing the limb, Ranma turned to face Akane.
"A- Akane."
"What are you DOING?" she demanded, stalking forward.
"It's not my fault!" Ranma protested.
"How can you _say_ that? Look at you - bullying that guy!"
"Bull. . . bullying?" Ranma stepped over Ryuta's crumpled form, her anger shifting to Akane. "The jerk started it!"
"Like I'm going to believe that! Like I care! You promised me - no fighting!"
"I didn't want to! What could I do!"
"Ignore him! Walk away!"
"What?" Ranma cried. "Are you stupid? You didn't hear. . . ."
"What did you call me?" Akane yelled.
"Oh, so you listen to me _now_, huh?" She yelled back. "Stupid tomboy!"
"You jerk!" she screamed, her hand lashing out. Ranma felt the all- too familiar pain explode in the side of her face, and staggered slightly. "You just had to ruin my night, didn't you! Everything was going fine, and you just had to screw it up!"
"But I - I. . ." But what can I say, thought Ranma, and the anger suddenly drained away. Akane was right. It was unfair - totally so - but Akane was right. I broke my promise; I've ruined Akane's night. A groan displaced her attention: Ryuta, clutching his groin, one foot scrabbling in the dirt and vainly trying to stand, to push away. The fight had never been about who was stronger, Ranma suddenly realized. Uehara must have known he could never beat Ranma in a fight. But the fight he had initiated - the real fight - Uehara had won hands down. I shouldn't have lost my temper, she berated herself. But what else could I have done? Ryuta had pushed, pushed too much and too far. Ranma was surprised she had managed to hold back as long as she had. She looked around: the other bullies were backing off, obviously frightened now that their leader was down; Hiroshi and the guys were staring at her and Akane, mixed glances of curiosity, amusement, and annoyance; the others watched with surprise at the sudden violence, victory, and words of the strange and small girl, or still in shock as the curse was revealed to them for the first time; and, buried just beneath the surface of it all, did Ranma detect just the slightest glimmer of fear at the unexpected viciousness of her attack - was Ryuta right?
And then, turning back to the source of the new conflict, he saw the girls who had followed Akane: Sayuri, glaring at Ranma like she was some kind of bug, the cause of all their friend's problems; the others, obviously annoyed and tired of the whole thing; and finally Akane, disgusted, enraged, sick of her fiancee and angry as usual. Everything was so quiet, everyone looking at Ranma, the party disrupted, the fun ruined. She was not wanted here. She did not belong here. Ryuta was right.
"Fuck this," muttered Ranma. "I don't know why I bothered."
She turned her back on them all and walked away.

"Ranma," whispered Akane after a moment of shock, taking a hesitant step toward the pig-tailed girl.
A hand fell on her shoulder. It was her friend, Sayuri. "Don't bother, Akane," she said. "There's no point. You'll just end up fighting, you know you will. Give her a chance to cool down."
"But. . . ."
"Didn't you come here to have a good time?" Sayuri waited a moment, until Akane nodded glumly. "Well, it's not going to happen if you chase after Ranma. This is your night out, isn't it? Then let her sulk! Maybe she'll come back and apologize - though I doubt it - but why worry?"
Akane looked after Ranma's retreating form. She could hear the whispering around her; maybe it had not been Ranma's fault, after all. But Ranma had promised! And yet. . . and yet, he had seemed so tired, so sick of the fighting and the arguing, so open and hurt right before turning away. Should she go after him?
"Hey, look!" Sayuri's hand suddenly grabbed Akane's. "My friend from Tomobiki just got here! C'mon, you just gotta meet her! I know you'll just get along great!" Akane found herself being dragged back into the house.
She spared a last look outside after Ranma; he was already gone.

When he caught up, she was already stepping out onto the street, heavy iron gate about to clang shut behind her. She paused for a moment and stared down at the ground, one hand holding the gate open; then, with a shaking of her head, she seemed to come to a decision. She moved away from the house.
"Ranma! Wait!" shouted Hiroshi.
The redhead hesitated for a moment, and stopped. She did not turn around, but allowed Hiroshi to catch up, stopping the gate from closing with one foot.
"Ranma," he started, slightly winded.
"What do you want?" she said, and sighed, sparing him a brief glance. He was surprised at the look on her face - never had he seen Ranma like this, never seen a depressed nor tired side to her. Was this what she was like outside of school? Or at home? I really don't know much about her, he suddenly realized.
"I. . . don't go, Ranma," said Hiroshi. "You don't have to leave."
"You're right, Hiroshi. I don't _have_ to leave." She turned away from him. "I _want_ to leave."
"But. . . ."
"But what?" she interrupted in a tired voice. "What's the use of staying? So I can start another fight? Piss off Akane again? Maybe ruin the night for everybody else, too? Yeah. Good idea, Hiroshi, just great." She gave him one last look through the bars of the gate, then stepped away.
Hiroshi watched as his friend left. Damn, but it wasn't fair, he thought. For once, it really had not been her fault; for once, everybody _wanted_ her to beat up the jerk. If she had not been there, Ryuta would have doubtlessly started the fight with somebody else - and probably won as well. Maybe the party had been disrupted, a bit, but at least no one had been hurt! No, decided Hiroshi, Ranma was not going to leave that easily. She deserved to have fun, too, once in a while. He slipped through the gate and ran up behind his friend.
She tensed as Hiroshi pulled her back with a hand on her shoulder. "What do you think you're doing?" she demanded.
"I'm stopping you from leaving, Ranma. What happened back there wasn't your fault, no matter what anyone says! If you hadn't been there. . . well, Ryuta probably would've beat up Daisuke earlier, and picked a fight with someone else, anyway!"
Ranma shrugged her shoulders. "Probably. So what? I'm not leaving 'cus of the fight, Hiroshi. I'm not even leaving 'cus of Akane." Hiroshi noticed her face darkened as she spoke the last name.
"You're not?"
"Nah." She shook her head, and sighed. "But I realized something, right after. I looked around, Hiroshi. Looked at everybody, looking at me. And Akane. And I realized - I didn't belong there. Maybe Akane does - she grew up here, she's gone to Furinkan all along, she grew up with these people - but I don't. The way everybody was looking; not like I was their friend, but. . . but like I was some kinda freak." Her gaze dropped to the ground. "Like some kind of _dangerous_ freak."
"Hey!" protested Hiroshi. "That's not true!"
"Isn't it? Maybe. But if not that. . . then I was the guy who's always fighting. Or causing trouble. I'm the cross-dressing pervert, or the Casanova, the guy who's always arguing with his fiancee. Akane and I aren't even a real couple - we're a sideshow to keep you guys amused." She let out a deep breath and leaned against the outside wall of Kiyoshi's residence. "I just don't fit in, Hiroshi. Those guys in there, everybody. . . they're just not my crowd, I guess."
"Then who is?"
"I. . . don't know, Hiroshi. I really don't know."
He stared at his friend in disbelief. Was Ranma. . . lonely? Hiroshi had trouble reconciling that idea with the attractive young girl before him. Ranma had everything: the good-looks (as both guy and girl), the skill, the strength, the charisma; she had three fiancees, and other gorgeous girls chasing after her; she was engaged to, arguably, the most popular girl in school, and Ranma, herself, was arguably the most popular guy. How could Ranma possibly be depressed? She could have any girl at school, if she wanted, or, for that matter, probably any guy. Try as he might, Hiroshi could not understand. But whether he did or not was not important; his friend was feeling down, and it was his job to cheer her up.
"Listen, Ranma," he said, after a few moments of silence. "I don't know about all that; maybe you're right, maybe not. But I do know that, before Ryuta came along, you were having a good time. Weren't you?"
She seemed a little surprised. "Ye. . . yeah, I guess so. . . ."
"Did you feel out of place? Like you didn't fit in? Didn't seem like it, to me at least. We were talking, you were talking, hell, everybody was laughing and drinking and having a good time! I don't see what the big deal is!"
"But. . . ."
"But what? So you had a fight with Akane! So what? You think any one of those guys sitting around the fire hasn't had at least one argument with a girlfriend? So yours are a bit more violent, a bit more. . . vocal; that's just the way you and Akane are!"
"But. . . ."
"No," stated Hiroshi, grabbing Ranma's wrist and pulling her towards the party. "No excuses. You're coming back with me. You're having a good time tonight, no matter what!"
"Hey! Waitasec!" The girl easily slipped her wrist free from his grasp. "Listen, thanks, I appreciate it, but I just _can't_ go back with you!"
"Why the hell not?" he asked, a little confused.
"Well, just look at me!"
He did so. He liked what he saw. "Yeah, so?"
"I'm a girl, stupid! That group around the fire - they're all guys. It's an all-guy thing, Hiroshi, and I'm a girl. I don't belong."
With a snort of disgust he grabbed her wrist again and yanked the gate open with his other hand. "That's a pretty lame excuse, Ranma. You're a guy - we all know that! We don't care what you look like! And we can get you some hot water from the house, anyway." He noted with some satisfaction that this time, at least, she allowed herself to be pulled forward. She had a thoughtful look on her face, and the slightest of smiles.
"Ok. Fine," she said. "I'll stay for a little while. But forget the hot water. Akane's in that house - no way in hell I'm risking bumping into that kawaikunee, violent. . ."
"Tomboy?" supplied Hiroshi.
"Yeah. I'll just stay like this."
"'kay," agreed Hiroshi, leading the way.
"Oh, and, bud. . . thanks. I appreciate this."
"No problem, Ranma."
"And, Hiroshi. . . ."
"Yeah." "Would you mind letting go of my hand?" He grinned. "Oh. Sorry." They rounded the corner of the house. Before them, the party was once more in full swing. The pool was splashing, the music was blaring, and the guys were sitting around the fire. With a nod in their direction, Hiroshi led the way. "C'mon, Ranma. You won't regret this! We'll make this a night you'll never forget. . . ."

Releasing a sigh, Akane stepped out onto the second floor balcony, looking out over the backyard and the festivities. Damn, she was trying, but she simply felt unable to relax! Stupid Ranma - leaving like that, leaving her all tense and stressed out and. . . and worried, she added with a frown.
Why? Why did she let him get to her like that? It was not fair - he starts the trouble, yet she was the one left feeling guilty. The jerk was probably over at Ukyou's, anyway, eating okonomiyaki, complaining about his 'kawaikunee' fiancee to his 'kawaii' fiancee. Her grip tightened on the railing. Stupid jerk! She glanced back into the house, towards the party noises and her school-friends: the balcony led into the master bedroom, and she noticed for the first time the silhouette of a couple making out on the bed. She blushed and turned away, but for some reason the afterimage remained with her. Akane suddenly realized that she felt. . . envious, of that unknown couple on the bed. Kissing, hugging - what is it like, she wondered, to be _close_ to someone, a friend, someone who cared for her? But I hate boys!, she reminded herself, but it did nothing to alleviate her melancholy. She tried to imagine her and Ranma in a similar situation, and gave a mirthless laugh. Not likely. Stupid baka.
Maybe she could go for a swim, she thought, trying to distract herself, then remembered that she would likely drown if she did. She looked down at the pool enviously. One day, maybe. Wandering eyes carried her gaze to the scene of the fight. The fight. What had happened? Had it been Ranma's fault? Whatever had happened, it had left him furious - she had seen the intensity, the savageness of his assault. Whatever. She did not want to think about it, about Ranma. Sudden movement caught her eye: someone joining the group sitting around the fire the guys had claimed as their own. Rather unfair of them, she thought. But. . . wait! She narrowed her eyes, trying to make out who was sitting by the fire. It was hard, the light was directly behind them, but. . . was that a flash of red hair?
And then a cry rang out, a chorus of 'KAWAIKUNEE!', and the figure glanced back nervously. Their eyes met - it was Ranma, laughing. Upon recognizing Akane, his smile faded. A moment passed, and then Ranma frowned and looked away, turning his back to Akane.
Akane growled in frustration. Here I was, worried!, she thought. And there's the jerk, yukking it up! Well, fine! If he can have fun - then so can I! With an indignant sniff, she spun away and stormed back into the house, ignoring the motions on the bed as she passed them by.

"Quiet," hissed Ranma. "You tryin' to get me killed?"
The guys looked at each other for a moment, and as a group, shouted: "KAWAIKUNEE!", which quickly degenerated into a fit of somewhat-drunken giggling. Hiroshi watched in amusement as Ranma, laughing as well, glanced around nervously. For a moment she froze, staring up at the house; Hiroshi followed her gaze and thought he caught a glimpse of Akane. When Ranma turned back to the fire, she was frowning.
"Hey, what is it?" he asked, nudging her. The conversation carried on without them, Daisuke desperately trying to convince the guys that _he_ had dumped his ex-girlfriend, and not the other way around.
"Nothin'," muttered Ranma in response. A moment later she turned to Hiroshi with an intense look in her eyes. "Listen. . . do you have any of that beer left?"
"Uh, yeah, I guess," he answered, surprised.
"Would'ya mind if I borrowed some? I'll pay you back, I promise."
"Don't worry about it." He pulled one out, but hesitated before handing it over. "Are you sure you want one?"
She nodded. Almost reluctantly, he gave Ranma the beer. She immediately popped it open and sucked down half the bottle in a single swig; it seemed Ranma drank the same way she did everything else - wholeheartedly. When she came up for air her face wrinkled in a grimace.
"What, you don't like?" asked Daisuke, leaning over. She shrugged and took another drink.
"Say. . . you ever drink before, Ranma?" asked Hiroshi, still a little worried. He had the sudden feeling that maybe Ranma was not in the best of moods to be drinking.
"Yup," she answered. "Remember that stupid Romeo and Juliet play from way-back?" Hiroshi and Daisuke, and a few of the other guys who were listening, nodded. "Remember that bottle of sake Kuno poured down my throat?"
"Oh yeah!" said Daisuke. "So, what, that was your first time drinking?"
"Well, as a girl, anyway," answered Ranma.
Daisuke looked at his friend and shrugged. It was not like Ranma needed him to look after her or anything - she could take care of herself, realized Hiroshi. He was not too sure why it was bothering him; it was just that he had this nagging feeling that maybe she should not be drinking - at least not until she got things squared with Akane. That brought a grin to his face; if Ranma waited for _that_, she would _never_ get to drink! With a shake of his head he decided to let it go, and instead of worrying he sat back comfortably and drank a bit more, and listened. The name of Kuno had come up, and everyone was taking potshots at the oh-so- well-respected Blue Thunder. Ranma, in particular, had some rather caustic things to add, growing in vehemence as she started her second beer (this one donated by Daisuke). Seemed she was quite tired of being groped by him, fondled by him, and having flowers sent to her. When asked why she did not just tell him who she was, or tell him she was not interested, or just beat him up, she responded that she had tried all three, several times, sometimes simultaneously - but he just refused to understand. There was a general laugh at Kuno's expense, and the conversation moved on.
The time flew quickly. They talked, they laughed, they drank, wood was piled on the fire as it started to burn low. From time to time someone would leave, or someone new would join, and in a few instances the newcomer was not from Furinkan; Ranma would draw a few odd stares from them, but they quickly learnt that this lone girl was 'one of the guys' and that there really was no reason to treat her differently from anyone else sitting around the fire (in fact, she rather vehemently insisted that they did not). One stranger actually made the mistake of hitting on her; _that_ had been good for a laugh, as Ranma (once she figured out what the guy was doing) shifted from extreme embarrassment to righteous anger and promptly booted him away. There were brief lulls, occasionally, especially after someone mentioned something particularly deep or moving (or what passed as such after a few drinks), but eventually conversation would start up again. And no matter what range of topics they passed through - be it school, teachers, parents, sports, martial arts (initiated by Ranma, of course), Nerima, plans for the future - they would always invariably return to the opposite sex. And so they talked, and drank.
One particular comment caught Hiroshi's attention. Kiyoshi - the party-thrower himself - had joined the group for a moment, and was complaining loudly about his girlfriend, Kaori. He was not all that popular of a guy, aside for his parties, but since he was the host, everyone listened politely.
". . .and so she cancelled on me! Just like that! Broke the date! And do you know why? I can't believe this - she ruined a perfectly good date I'd been planning for weeks, and I lost the reservation money and everything! - she said she couldn't come out because of cramps! - because of her period! She said it hurt too much!" he said, ending by mimicking a girlish whining voice. "As if! I know girls hafta deal with that crap, but as if it hurts that much! If she just didn't want to go out with. . . ."
"Oh, shut up!" interrupted Ranma, sounding disgusted. "You don't gotta clue what you're talkin' about, okay?"
"Huh?" responded Kiyoshi, obviously wondering, somewhat drunkenly, who had interrupted him.
"If Kaori said it hurt that much, believe her, 'kay? 'Cus it does - it can. Sometimes it ain't so bad - and some other times, well. . . it is. You ain't never felt it, Kiyoshi - it bites, man. It really, really sucks."
"And how would you know, huh?"
Ranma glared at him evenly. "Think about it, moron."
He did so, for a moment, and his eyes widened. "Oh. Ohhhh, oh yeah. I. . . forgot," he ended lamely, and soon left. An uncomfortable silence was left in his wake, during which Hiroshi leaned towards Ranma. She was staring down at the ground, blushing furiously, perhaps suddenly realizing that maybe she'd admitted a bit more than she'd cared to.
"So, you mean, you, ah. . . ."
She nodded mutely.
"And it, ah, hurts?"
"Yeah. Sometimes."
"Sheesh. I never, ah, realized that, you know. . . ."
She shrugged. "It's not something I like to talk about, obviously. It's. . . it's kinda embarrassing; I'm a guy, but I gotta deal with that crap." With a depressed sigh she drooped a bit, finger tracing an abstract doodle in the dirt. "Hell, if it was just the pain, it wouldn't be so bad - I'm used to pain, I can take it no problem; it's the other stuff. The blood and other shit. Or the way it makes me feel, right before. It really sucks."
"My girlfriend says that sometimes it makes her cry, for no reason," supplied a classmate from across the fire. "Well, sometimes, anyway."
Ranma raised her head and glared at him. "I _don't_ cry!" she insisted. "Men don't cry." Then she softened slightly. "But, yeah, I've seen Akane act that way a few times. Really had me confused 'till I figured what was wrong with her - 'till I felt it myself. Well, kinda - it doesn't hit me that way; but I can still tell, I know it's affecting me, I find myself acting. . . weird, sometimes, reacting in ways I know ain't normal for me. It scares me."
Hiroshi looked at his friend with some surprise, as Ranma returned suddenly unseeing stare to the dancing flames. He had had no idea about any of this; everyone knew that Ranma hated turning into a girl, was desperate to do anything to get rid of the curse - but it had never occurred to Hiroshi that it affected her this deeply, so profoundly. . . that it _scared_ her.
"That's when it really hit me. . . ." Hiroshi suddenly realized that Ranma was still talking, hardly above a whisper, more to herself than anyone. He doubted that anybody else could hear. "When it happened the first time. I was still in China, and there hadn't been any hot water for a while. When the cramps started, I ignored them - I figured it was the strange food, or something. And if I was a bit short tempered, or depressed - well, I figured I had every reason to be. But then the bleeding started. It freaked me right out. Pop wasn't much help, either: first he was ashamed of me, and then, when he actually explained it, he messed it up and ended up scaring me worse. But that's when I first truly realized it - I was a girl. In every way. Every month, it reminds me of what I am - every month, it scares me, and makes me wonder if I'm a little less a man, if a little more of me has slipped away, has. . . has bled away." And then suddenly Ranma was looking right at him, eyes burning in the firelight, very serious. "I don't know why I'm telling you this, Hiroshi. But I'm trusting you, man. I. . . I don't want anyone else knowing about this stuff."
Stunned, Hiroshi could only numbly nod his head. He was not sure how he felt. Did he even want to know about all this? But he could not help but feel a little honoured that Ranma would share something this deep, this personal with him. Sure, the alcohol had probably been largely responsible, but this still meant something. He wondered if Ranma had even shared these feelings with Akane - if she even could.
When he looked back up, Ranma was answering another question. That moment, that look, when she had been whispering and baring her fears to him, was gone. There was the same slight roughness, that cocky self- confident if somewhat discomfitted attitude that he used with the other guys.
"Sheesh. Can't we just let it drop?" She was saying. "Yeah, I learnt to keep track of that stupid cycle - my stupid cycle. I had to suffer through a crash course in feminine hygiene, how to use all that stuff and clean myself and everything. I think I woulda died if it hadn't been Kasumi doin' the teaching. Can you imagine Akane showin' me?" Ranma gave a grim chuckle and took a drink - a long one.
"What about your mom? My mom showed my sister all that stuff," asked someone.
Hiroshi was not sure if anyone noticed the flash of pain that crossed her face, or the sudden tightening of her grip on her bottle. "No," she answered in a voice that sounded strained. "My mom. . . isn't around."
There was a moment's silence. Someone elbowed the guy who had asked the offending question, and there was a hurried exchange of angry mutterings. Ranma did not seem to notice, submerged in a sudden melancholy. Then she snapped out of it and forced a smile to her lips. "So. Yeah. There ya have it. The bottom line is: it sucks. Tho' I've got it easier than most girls, I guess - after all, if I can get my hands on some hot water, it all just goes away." Then she muttered something about stupid rain, stupid curses and stupider fathers, and took another drink.
A hesitant question interrupted her complaining. "So. . . ah. . . what does, you know, it feel like?"
She opened her mouth to answer, then closed it. She ended up just kind of waving her hand around uselessly in a gesture meant to convey something she could not explain. "I. . . I don't know. You couldn't understand. It's well. . . well, you feel it in. . . damn. You just don't got the right bits, you know?" A couple of the guys suddenly looked queasy at that, and finally let it drop. But Hiroshi had one last question, which he asked in a subdued voice.
"Ranma, if you have, you know. . . ."
"Then I guess that means that, as a girl, you've got, you know, all the. . . parts, right?"
She stared at him for a moment before nodding. "Yeah."
"So that means that, ah, theoretically speaking, you could, you know, get. . . ."
"I don't like to think about that," she said, glaring at him. "And neither should you."
Hiroshi wisely decided to drop the subject. It took several moments for everyone to pick up again, but eventually people were talking, obviously trying to not think about Ranma's little admission. She seemed all too happy to let it go and drink some more. She did not stay quiet for long, however, as Toshi, who had disappeared for a while, returned and sat down.
"So, Ranma. . ." he asked from across the fire, his speech slurred. "You never. . . you didn't tell us. . . which girl it was you liked. . . thought was cutest!"
The redhead blushed, her face already rather flushed from drinking and her last contribution to the conversation. She had a slightly glazed look to her eyes. She looked at the ground in embarrassment, and mumbled something unintelligible.
"Huh?" asked the guy next to her, prodding her. "We didn't get that."
"Ah. . . aka. . . Akane," she muttered, then glared defiantly (if somewhat unsteadily) at everyone.
"I knew it!" cried the group, more or less in unison. "She _does_ like her!"
"Hey!" she exclaimed. "I didn't say that! I didn't! I only said she was cute!"
"Sure, whatever!"
"No! S'true! And only when she smiles! And 'specially not when she's chasin' me and tryin' to beat me or cook me somethin'!" Her protests were overridden by laughter, and after a moment of false anger, she joined in. Around that time Daisuke plopped down heavily next to Hiroshi.
"Hey man, where were you?" asked Hiroshi, dropping out of the conversation. Ranma was still protesting loudly his feelings for Akane.
Daisuke smiled. "Just checkin' on something. For later," he said, then nodded towards the group. "What's up?"
"Nothin' much," smirked Hiroshi. "Ranma just admitted that she likes Akane."
"What!" cried Daisuke. "And I missed it! Shit!"
"Yo, Daisuke!" called out Ranma, drawing both guys back into the talk. "What about you? Which girl you like? Which one you think's the cutest?"
Hiroshi watched as his friend blushed, looking away. He was curious himself - Daisuke never really spoke about it much. Except. . . Hiroshi caught the brief, momentary sideways glance that his friend tried to hide, and suddenly, he knew. He had almost forgotten, actually: all the little looks Daisuke secretly threw her way, the occasional subdued comment, the mild infatuation he seemed to have. He could not help it - Hiroshi burst out in laughter.
"What? What is it? You know?" asked Ranma.
"Oh yeah! I know!" he chortled.
"Oh, good choice, my friend!" he said, slapping his friend on the back. "Excellent taste in women, I must say!"
"Who is it?" asked Kenji, echoed by the others. "She good looking?"
"You betcha! You even know her - she's at this party!"
"Really?" The guys started craning their necks, looking about to see what had clued Hiroshi in. "Where is she?" Next to him Daisuke was shaking his head, a slightly panicked look on his face, but Hiroshi ignored him.
"Oh, she's closer than you think. In fact - you could say she's right here. . . sitting with us!"
There was a brief silence, and then everybody's eyes slowly turned to Ranma. She looked around in confusion for a moment, then down at herself, then back up at the group. Her eyes widened in shock. "What, me?"
The guys looked among themselves for a moment, then shrugged. "Hell, Daisuke's got a point."
"Yeah. Cute face."
"A redhead! With long hair!"
"Nice legs."
"Hot bod."
Ranma stared for a moment in disbelief as they laughed. The oddest expression crossed her face, profound embarrassment struggling with a certain perverse pride. Apparently, ego was the stronger of the two as a glimmer entered her eye. "What? Guys. . . I'm. . . I'm hurt!" she said, arching her back slightly, reaching down and cupping her breasts, lifting them a bit. "You forgot to mention how stacked I am!" She grinned and took a drink.
A couple of guys spurted out their drink when they saw her response; a few looked a little uncomfortable, squirming slightly, as Ranma lifted her hands behind her head and showed off her curves, still grinning. For a moment no one seemed to know exactly what to say, until Hiroshi lifted his bottle. "Uhhh. . . yeah." he said, but then after a moment's thought he smiled wickedly and added: "She's got a point! We weren't doing her justice!" He turned to her and bowed slightly. "On behalf of everyone here, I apologize." Then, returning his attention to everyone else, he continued. "And on that note, I think we have a winner, don't you think?"
There was a brief exchange of glances, at first confused but quickly clearing up, and soon everyone's grin matched Hiroshi's. There was general nodding all around, except from Ranma who appeared somewhat confused. "Huh? Winner? What for?" she asked, stopping her impromptu modelling.
Hiroshi smiled as he explained. "Well, you see. . . every year, when Kiyoshi throws this party of his, there's a tradition we guys follow ('tradition?' someone added, 'it's only the second time!'): after much deliberation ('and drinking!' someone else added), we, the men of Furinkan High, declare the official hottest babe of Furinkan. And you, Ranma, by unanimous vote, have been declared that babe! Congratulations!"
There was a round of applause, and then Daisuke stood up. "Well, that's done," he declared. "Time for a swim, I think." There was a quick chorus of agreement, and everybody leapt to their feet, some more unsteadily than other. They were halfway to the pool change-room before they realized they had left Ranma behind, still sitting stunned by the fire.

"The guys are going swimming! Let's go join 'em!" exclaimed Sayuri, turning from the window and back to her friends. A small group of them - Yuka, Hiromi, Keiko, Akane, Akemi - were lounging around one of the rooms of the house, loud and annoying pop music blaring from the far end of the room (but changing every few minutes as two guys clustered around the stereo continuously switched the CDs). The current topic died as they responded with vigorous nodding.
"You coming?" asked Yuka.
Akane shook her head. She sank back into the sofa, feeling strangely depressed and out of place. Somehow, her friends' conversation had seemed less interesting, the gossip dull, their problems and complaints relatively minor. Why? What had changed in her life, that these classmates, friends for years, suddenly became less appealing to her? All she knew is that suddenly, at one point, she found herself wishing that Ukyou - of all people! - had been able to come.
"Why not? Didn't you bring a swimsuit? I thought you brought that red one. It looks good on you, you know. Very sexy! Red is definitely your colour! Akane?"
Akane sighed. Yuka was a good friend, but, as she had recently discovered, annoyingly talkative when drunk. Most of her other friends were a little drunk by now as well; Akane was the only one who had refused anything to drink. She wasn't too sure why. She had never really experimented with alcohol much in the past and, somehow, tonight had not felt like the night to start - problems with Ranma notwithstanding. "Yes, Yuka," she answered. "I did bring it - you kind of forced me to, remember?"
Yuka giggled and nodded. "That's right!"
"But I don't think I'm going to go swimming. I. . . don't feel like it." I don't feel like drowning or embarrassing myself, she mentally added.
"Aw, c'mon, Akane!" begged her friend. "You haven't even had a chance to show it off!"
Another sigh. "I'm sorry," she said. "I guess I'm just not in a partying mood." She gave a slight grin. "Maybe I can get Ranma to model it. . ."
"That's mean!" Her friend giggled again, then frowned mockingly. "But. . . she'd probably look better 'an us! We can't have her drawing the guys away, now can we?"
"No, I guess not." She suddenly felt annoyed at the idea that Ranma probably _would_ look better in the red two-piece than she would. Now there was a problem her friends probably never had to deal with - having a boyfriend who looked better in your clothes than you did! She frowned. As for drawing the boys away - heck, he had spent the whole night with them, not even bothering to stop by and check up on her once. That jerk. She spends the night worrying about him, hoping to catch him sneaking in for some hot water, and he never even bothers to show. He must have found his water elsewhere - would he have remained in his girl-form all night, even with all those guys around? Even he's not that much of a pervert, she decided.
"So, you're coming?" This time it was Sayuri, pulling off her top. She was already wearing her suit beneath, a nice blue one-piece with a black stripe across the chest, the midriff left bare. It accentuated her body nicely.
Akane stood up from her place on the couch. "Thanks, really," she said. "But. . . no. I'm feeling kind of tired." She looked around at her friends. She felt a small hurt when she realized that none of them looked all that surprised, or disappointed. Had she really been that much of a drag all night?
"You sure?"
"Yeah." She nodded. "I. . . I guess I'll just head home. See you on Monday?"
They nodded. After a moment of hesitation she turned away, somehow feeling that she had missed out on something tonight.

"Hey! I might be drunk - but I'm not _that_ drunk!" exclaimed the pig-tailed girl, maybe a little too loudly. "You perverts just wanna see me without my top on!"
"Aw, c'mon, Ranma!" insisted one of the guys crowding around her, while a few others snickered. They were all changed into swimming trunks and were headed for the pool, towels wrapped around waists or hanging over shoulders. It was Hiroshi who had first noticed that Ranma, with a slightly disconsolate and wistful look, was not following them. When asked why she was not coming, it turned out that for obvious reasons she had not thought to bring a girl's bathing suit - and was not about to go swimming in her clothes, or without a top (despite several lewd suggestions to that effect).
She gave a crooked little smile but shook her head. "Sorry guys. I guess I'm out."
"Are you sure, Ranma?" asked Hiroshi, nodding in the direction of the pool. "Sure looks tempting, ne?" The party was still going strong, but the pool had quieted down slightly since earlier in the evening. Already a few of the guys, shrugging, had left the discussion and made their way over to the water. With a drunken howl Toshi launched himself off of the low diving-board and cannonballed next to a small group of girls calmly talking by the edge of the pool, eliciting a few outraged shrieks. Giggling, he fled from their ferocious retaliatory barrage of splashing.
Ranma gave a sad nod. "Yeah. But that doesn't change anything." She gave a small sigh. "Listen. Hiroshi - don't worry about it. It's not the first time I miss out on somethin' 'cus of my curse, 'kay? I'm used to it."
"But. . . ."
"Nah. Listen. It's not a big deal, really. It's getting late, anyway. Maybe I oughta just head home." She glanced down at the mostly empty beer bottle in her hand. It was her third - no, fourth. Fifth? "I've probably drunk enough as it is."
"Couldn't you just, you know," tried Hiroshi, gesturing around the party, "just, ah, borrow a bikini or a t-shirt or something from one of the girls?"
"Bikini?" asked Ranma, raising an eyebrow.
"Uhhh. . . you know what I mean!"
"Right." She tried a grin - one that almost, but not quite, masked an odd sadness lurking in her eyes - and placed her hands on her hips. "I think you're just trying to keep Furinkan's 'best babe' around!" And then, a moment later, suddenly serious, she asked, "Why are you tryin' to keep me around, Hiroshi? Not that I don't appreciate it, but. . . why do you care?"
"Because you're a friend, dammit!" exclaimed Hiroshi. "What do you think?" They were alone standing by the change-rooms, all the other guys having already moved on to the swimming pool. A small halogen light flickered from its hook on the wall, a moth sending disproportionate shadows scuttling across them. "I'm just trying to look out for you, man! You've never come out with us before, I just wanted you to have a good time - to be one of the guys!"
She smirked and glanced down at herself. "One of the guys - with these?" she said, gesturing at her breasts.
"Enough with the curse already! I already told you - it doesn't matter!"
"But it does matter, Hiroshi."
"No, it. . . ."
"Yes it _does_," interrupted Ranma. "Maybe not to you, Hiroshi! But to them, the other guys, the girls at this party, to almost _everybody_, it does! Sure, most of them know that I'm a guy, that I'm really a man, but they don't _care_. Maybe you don't notice - can't notice. But they act differently when I'm a girl. They do! When we were all talking, sure, they tried, they pretended I was just 'one-of-the-guys', but they didn't believe it; I didn't either, even though the beer helped. I could see it in their eyes, the way they looked at me, looked me over - not as another guy, but as. . . well, as the 'best babe'! No - it's worse than that. The guys here at the party, those who don't know I'm really a guy, that I'm cursed, at least they're honest! They really think I'm a girl, and treat me like one, approach me like one. But the others, those who know what I am - they _still_ look at me that way. Sometimes I think they're more interested in my girl-body simply _because_ they know I'm really a guy. Maybe they see somethin' in me that they. . . oh, I don't know! Maybe they think it makes me more of a challenge, or somethin', to them: which guy'll be the one to get Ranma in touch with his feminine side?" She gave a little snort of disgust.
"That's not true!" retorted Hiroshi.
Ranma shook her head. "Ah, hell, Hiroshi. Look at me! Of course they're interested! You heard 'em back there! I'm hot! A babe! Sure, maybe they were joking, maybe it was all in fun, but they still meant it! Every word. A joke? Maybe - but I was just startin' to really feel like one of the guys, for maybe the first time, until you pointed out Daisuke's little interest. It just reminded me: I'll never be 'one of the guys', not as long as I've got this curse. And you don't know what it's like, man. Having guys look you over: breasts, legs, hips, butt, sizing you up. Have you ever had a guy talk to your chest, had a man stare at your ass when you walk buy? I'm almost used to it now - which kinda scares me - but it still makes me feel queasy when I notice." She sank down onto a convenient bench with a sigh, beer bottle dangling limply from one hand. She passed one hand tiredly across her face. When she looked back at Hiroshi, her eyes glimmered with - something, some emotion. Hiroshi could not tell what. They certainly could not be tears - not from Ranma.
"I can hear 'em, too, you know," she continued. "I've heard the guys talking over the last year. Some think I'm a jerk. Fine. At least they're talking about _me_. It's when they start referring to my girl side that it bothers me. When they refer to it. . . rudely." She shuddered. "I've even heard 'em say they'd be happy if I _never_ turned back to a guy, if I was stuck like this forever." Her fist clenched spasmodically. "They. . . they would just curse me, leave me like this, without. . . without. . . ."
She let out a deep breath. "Ah, shit, I'm sorry, Hiroshi. I don't mean to lay all this on ya. I'm not even sure why I'm talkin' about it. I'm exaggerating. It doesn't really bug me that much. Really." Her head sank back until it rested against the smooth wood of the changing room wall. Her eyes flickered, closed, and she sighed.
Hiroshi slumped onto the far end of the bench, one arm draped over the edge. A certain awkwardness fell upon him. This was a whole new side to Ranma, a vulnerable, pained side that, he suspected, very few had ever seen. But what could he say? How could he possibly understand what the curse felt like, what it felt like to change into, to _be_, a girl? A certain guilt gnawed at him: Ranma had excluded him from her generalization concerning guys, and how they treated her - but was he really any different? Even now, looking at her - laying on the bench, slightly turned towards him, smooth curve of the neck, slight straining, pulling, tautness of the shirt across rounded breasts, a slight glimpse, maybe, of flesh where a tie had come undone, knowing that beneath she would not be wearing a bra - he felt a familiar stirring, similar to what he would feel gazing at any attractive woman. No. He gave his head a firm shake. This was his _friend_, a man, just like him, it was the alcohol making him feel that way, making her seem so defenceless; and yet the urge was there, the image, of leaning over, drawing her into a comforting embrace, allowing her to release her pent-up sorrow, and then. . . .
"Is this what most parties are like?"
He started. "Ah. . . huh?" He felt the blood rush to his cheeks. Her eyes were open, half-lidded, staring upwards. They flicked his way, briefly. Sounds of merriment floated over from the pool.
"Just askin' a question. Are most parties like this?"
"What do you mean?"
She sat up slightly, turning to face him, drawing one leg up beneath her. "Well. . . like this. Just two guy. . . er, two people, sitting around, talkin'."
Hiroshi smiled. "Yeah. Well, the good ones, anyway." He swirled the little bit of sake left in his little bottle, then downed it in a gulp.
"Yeah." He nodded. "The dancing and group stuff and partying is all fine, but for me, any good party has a time when a guy and his friend - maybe a few buddies - just kinda break away and talk, you know?" He chuckled. "Bond, I guess. It's what guys. . . ." He hesitated. "It's what we do."
Ranma finished off her drink, then proceeded to idly twirl the bottle at the tip of one finger. "Ah," she answered. After a moment, she added, "It's just that, you know, I haven't really been to too many parties."
"Not even on your birthday?"
"Nah. Not for the last few years. Training."
"That sucks."
She shrugged. "I guess."
Silence, contemplative. Ranma spun her bottle a few more times before snapping it into the air with a flick of her wrist, deftly snagging it, and setting it down on the ground. She sighed again and pulled her legs up to her chest. She wrapped her arms around her knees and hugged them close. She shivered.
No, decided Hiroshi, it was just too difficult. Ranma was a friend, a guy, a buddy; she was also a damn good-looking girl, cute, and seeing her curled up in the corner of the bench, he felt this stupid urge to offer her his jacket or something. Dammit, he berated himself. Just forget it. You're here to help her. She trusts you. Don't betray that trust. He gave his head a shake and decided that, for now, just looking away might be a better idea.
But when he glanced back, Ranma had leaned forward a bit, chin resting on one knee, gazing at him speculatively. It was a cute pose, attractive. A curious half-grin played across her face. "You can't do it, can ya?" she asked.
"Uh. . . ah, huh?" he stammered.
"See me as a guy." She shrugged. "Don't worry 'bout it, pal. It's not a big deal."
He shook his head unconvincingly in denial. "No, but. . . of course I know you're a guy!"
"Really?" she breathed. Ranma snaked forward smoothly, uncurling, sliding across the bench towards her friend. Her eyes burned with a sudden passion; their mesmerizing half-lidded sultriness ensnared Hiroshi. He sat, frozen, surprised, heart pounding in his chest. With a sinuous, swift movement she rose above him, artificial light silhouette, one hand resting firmly against the back of the bench for support, the other held loosely behind her neck. Her back arched slightly, top tie of her shirt slowly, accidentally unravelling; she peered down at him, lips curved in a pouting half-smile. "What," she purred huskily, "you don't find me. . . attractive?"
"I. . . I. . . ," stammered a flustered Hiroshi.
"See?" She giggled, eyes clouding momentarily, and she drew away, pulling her legs up again and scooted back to her end of the bench. Her gaze drifted off into the distance for a few moments, contemplatively, and when she turned back to her friend, her voice was serious. "Listen, Hiroshi," she said, "don't worry about it. The only guys I know who can ignore my curse are the ones who wanna kill me. I'd rather have a confused friend than an indifferent enemy." She seemed to debate whether to add something, but fell silent.
After a moment's indecision, staring at the girl across from him, he hung his head. "I. . . I'm sorry, Ranma." A slight queasiness formed in his stomach. Though he may academically understand that Ranma was really a guy, his body had had a pointedly physical reaction to her sudden closeness - one he was still shamefacedly trying to conceal, shifting uncomfortably in his seat. If I'm attracted to him, he thought worriedly, what does that mean about me? Hiroshi suddenly had an inkling of what Ranma must feel every time she underwent a change, every time a man looked her over and deemed her attractive.
There was a rustling as Ranma uncurled and sat up straight. "Ah, c'mon man, I said don't worry about it! S'not your fault I'm such a hot little number!" she said, smiling wryly.
Hiroshi returned the grin. "You know, egotism like that can get you hated."
"Bah. Who cares? I've already got plenty of rivals - what's a few more?"
"If you say so." Hiroshi gave a little laugh. "Hey, you know, I just realized something."
"Yeah. If I'd been talking to any other girl for this long - especially alone like this - Sayuri would've killed me for sure!" He grinned. "See! People might treat ya a bit different. . . but, heck, they know you're not a _real_ girl!" Pretty lame consolation, but it was something. Beside, Hiroshi was starting to feel good again. He hopped to his feet. Looking over at the pool, he saw that some of the girls had joined the gang. Sayuri was lightly stepping around the edge of the pool, avoiding the good-humoured threatening splashes of her friends. He turned back to his friend, who once again looked slightly disconsolate. "Ranma, I'm. . . ."
She smiled and nodded. "Yeah. Go swim, Hiroshi. Have fun."
"You sure I can't convince. . . ."
"I think I understand why, now," he said.
After a moment, she gave a slight nod. "Maybe you do."
He took a few steps away when her voice called him back. "And Hiroshi. . . ."
He gave her a long, serious look. "Any time, man." He placed an emphasis on the last word. "Any time."
"Thanks." There was a pause. Hiroshi almost stepped away again. Ranma's voice made him hesitate. "It's just. . . I don't know what's with me tonight. All this talking. Whining. It's not me. I _never_ complain like this."
"It's not whining, Ranma," said Hiroshi.
"Whatever. But it's not me."
He shrugged. "Ah, gee, Ranma, you've been drinking! You're just a bit drunk, is all."
"Really?" One foot prodded the empty bottle sitting next to the bench.
"Yeah." He looked at her. "You've never really been drunk before, have you?"
She shook her head. "Aside from that play? Not really."
"Then don't worry about it. Some people get violent. Some people get silly. You - well, you seem to get melancholy, or kinda serious, or something. Introspective. Heck, you might as well enjoy it!" Another splash and shriek escaped from the pool. Someone had just picked up and thrown Sayuri into the pool. Ranma noticed his glance.
"Listen, you go," she said. "I'll see ya on Monday at school."
Hiroshi nodded, flashed her a smile, and stepped away. He thought he heard her whisper something, before the splashing and laughing and talking drowned her out: "I don't like being drunk; I don't like thinking."

She curled up into a ball again, alone. Chin resting on knee, eyes closed, Ranma's mind wandered. Hiroshi was right. Something about the slight fuzziness she felt, the detachment brought on by the alcohol, relaxed her, left her. . . open. More likely to talk. Not good. It was a weakness, something she knew one of her many rivals would probably use to their advantage. Ryoga, if he ever found out, would probably try to embarrass her in front of Akane, try to take her away. She smiled mirthlessly. Amazing, how easy it was to admit that she liked her, when drunk. No, she decided, I really don't like drinking.
Yet there was so much more she had been tempted to mention and say, things a little nagging voice in the back of her head had forbid. This same voice warned that consequences would follow from what she had already foolishly told the guys - come Monday and school, there was bound to be teasing, ribbing, mocking, laughter, locker-room pranks and menstruation jokes. Somehow, it had been easy to ignore the admonishing voice back then; worse, she knew with another beer or two, other topics - deep- grounded fears for her masculinity, of her sexuality, her true feelings for Akane - would no longer arouse its anxiety. She shivered.
She stood up suddenly. A sudden wave of dizziness struck her, but she overcame it quickly. She grinned. I guess I'm not all that drunk after all, she thought to herself, heading back toward the house. There was a slight numbness, a pleasant tingling through her as she walked; it seemed, when she turned her head quickly, that the world took a moment to catch up with her eyes. People passed her by, and smiled, and she smiled back without recognizing most of them. But everything was fine, she was warmly happy, she felt good. . . .
She shivered again, and her steps faltered, smile slipping. The patio doors leading into the house were right before her; instead, she stepped aside, leaned against the cool brick of the wall and slowly slid to the ground. What was I _thinking_, she asked herself, why did I _do_ that? Joking with Hiroshi, leaning over him playfully seductively - it had been spurious, a spontaneous act, Hiroshi had seemed so serious and worried. And then. . . .
Hiroshi had, comically, instinctively, flinched away from her advance. His arm had skipped back, leaving the feathersoft brush of fingertips across the back of her hand. No doubt he was unaware of the contact, but. . . . There had been a. . . jolt, discomfiting pleasure shooting up arm, through chest, rushing to, ending at, in, between her, her. . . . A quick tremulous breath helped her hold down the shaking that threatened to overwhelm her as she recalled the encounter. In the wake of that fleeting electric sensation, she had become aware of a. . . sudden rush? flush? warmth? tingling? through her, dangerously pleasant, and far too. . . female in nature for comfort. It had been there, passively, a soft expansive hum throughout the entirety of her body for some time now; she had mistaken the warmth of drunkenness for the warmth of arousal. She shuddered. Arousal. How - why? That feeling - nebulous indefinable wash - she had felt once or twice before in the past. It terrified her. But that shock, jolt, the resonating escalating glow that followed, enhanced, the echoing pulse in her breasts - her breasts! - was new, worse, impossible!
Even now, cool evening air brushing by, solid wall behind her, she was aware of the strange, exhilarating, troublesome sensation fading, dulling, but still present, threshold prickling of the skin and mind. It was too much - brief, perhaps minor, but new, alien - too much, too much. She had barely hidden her shock from Hiroshi, forcing a small smile and then quickly withdrawing. Odd, though, that even then, after a moment's hesitation, she had felt tempted to mention what had just transpired within her to Hiroshi; something else the little voice had fortunately clamped down upon.
Ranma sighed, closed her eyes. That moment of arousal was not the only thing disturbing her. Immediately after, while trying to bury the unwanted sensation, she had become aware of the small. . . problem, that Hiroshi had faced. How could she not? She knew exactly what Hiroshi had felt, had felt it herself often enough. He had been aroused, and had found it somewhat harder to conceal than she had her own experience. Releasing a whisper of a breath, an outward gasp, she slumped against the wall, head back, turning, cheek pressed lightly against the cool, rough surface of the brick, and shivered. I have that effect on _men_, Ranma realized: at that moment, Hiroshi no longer saw me as a man, a classmate, a troubled friend - he saw me as a sexual object, as sexually exciting, as a _girl_, possessing something he wanted, desired, yearned for, with his. . . body. Her skin crawled at the prospect, something deep down inside, the pit of her stomach, hurt, she felt like curling up in a tight ball around the queasy ache. What did that _mean_? That she could excite Hiroshi physically - worse, than he could excite _her_, physically, as well? It was something she had been aware of before, an ability she had even used to her advantage against her many male opponents - but never had she realized the full import of what it entailed. No, not true. She had never _allowed_ herself to be aware of it, deliberately blocked out the realization, the acknowledgment that, while in female form, she was something men were attracted to, no, an object they _desired_. And was she. . . was she attracted as well to. . . .
"Hey. Hey there, you ok?" interrupted a voice. She glanced up and saw a guy, her age, probably from a different school, looking at her curiously, smiling, the patio door open behind him. "You drink too much? Huh?" The guy smiled.
Her eyes narrowed. "I know what you're doing!" she growled at him. "I know what you want!" She stood, glared, and brusquely brushed past him into the house. Enough of this. Drunk or not, this isn't me, she berated herself, I don't sit around and moan, whine and complain. The heir to the Saotome School of martial arts _confronts_ her problems, deals with them. No. _His_ problems, he emphatically insisted: this body isn't me, these breasts and hips and. . . and other parts aren't me - and I know a sure fire solution to all this crap. If he was not going to go swimming, he decided, if he was going to leave the party, then there was no point in remaining female. Time for some hot water; time to be a man again!
Only, looking back, hesitating, brushing the bangs of red hair from his face, he realized he really would have liked to join his friends.

After fifteen minutes of fruitless searching upstairs, Akane remembered that she had left her jacket and bag with her swimming suit and towel downstairs. Tired, annoyed, melancholy and anxious to get home, she quickly hopped down the stairs. She turned out of the sunken staircase - and solidly slammed into someone. Her victim stumbled back and Akane fell, hitting her rump on the bottom step.
"Watch it!"
"I'm sorry," she quickly started to apologize, lifting herself off the stairs. "I. . . Ranma?" Her eyes widened as she realized who she had run into.
"A. . . Akane?" answered the redhead, equally surprised.
An awkward silence for a moment.
"You're still. . . ."
"What are. . . ."
They both stammered to a stop. Ranma placed one hand nervously behind his neck; Akane wondered if she ought to be annoyed or not. She was, from the slight pain, for having bumped into him, for being responsible, and for Ranma ignoring her all night; on the other hand, she felt strangely glad to see him again.
"A girl?"
"You doing?"
They both tried to finish at the same time. They both tentatively giggled and relaxed slightly. "You first," offered Akane.
He smiled. "Oh, er, yeah. I, ummm, was just wondering what you were doing. In a hurry?"
Akane shrugged. "Not really. I'm just tired of the party. I want to go home."
"Ah." Ranma nodded. Akane thought there was something a bit odd about him: his eyes seemed a bit bloodshot, face a bit flushed, stance slightly wobbly. Almost like her friends upstairs. "Ah," he repeated. "So, errr, you're leaving?"
"Yes." She stepped away from the stairs, beckoning for Ranma to follow. They wove their way through the rec-room, several partiers already passed out uncomfortably (and uncaring of the fact) across the floor, on couches and chairs. Surprisingly soft music was drifting from speakers in the corner; a few subdued whispered conversations added to the background noise. They navigated by the pools of light slicing through the curtains from outside, eliciting the occasional muffled grunt when they stepped too close to a sleeper.
They stopped outside the door to Kiyoshi's sister's room, Ranma reaching out and tapping her on the shoulder. The redhead nodded back at the minefield of exhausted partiers. "You ever been to somethin' like this, Akane?" he asked, smiling slightly.
"No," she answered. "Not really." Seeing his curious look, she added, "I mean, yes, I've been to parties my friends have thrown - but none of them were like this. With drinking and everything, I mean. . . ."
"Ah," said Ranma. "But - why not? You were at Furinkan last year, right? The guys said Kiyoshi threw this thing last year - why didn't ya come?"
Akane's expression darkened. "Dad wouldn't let me," she grumbled. "He didn't like the idea of all these boys and alcohol around. Neither did Kasumi. They couldn't stop Nabiki, but they could stop me! I was so mad! That's why I wanted to come this year so badly, especially after my friends told me how good of a time they had!"
"So why was it ok to come this year?"
"Because," she felt a familiar annoyance and flash of anger, "because you came, too. After all, who'd try anything with my 'fiance' around?" When would her father learn that she could take care of herself? She did _not_ need Ranma to look after her, she could take care of herself! She could handle any _boy_ who tried anything with her! With an angry huff she turned away, not caring to see the inevitable cocky, egoistical expression bound to cross Ranma's face.
Instead, much to her surprise, the girl's hand fell on her shoulder, softly. "I'm. . . sorry, Akane. I guess that's why you didn't want me coming, right? I didn't know. Really." There was a brief hesitation, then a slight squeeze from the hand. "I'm, ah. . . sorry." Akane's eyes widened.
The pigtailed girl gave his head a little shake. "Er, nothing."
"Did you just. . . ."
Ranma smiled. "Of course not. C'mon, lets get your stuff."
After a slight prodding, a confused Akane slid into the dark bedroom, her fiance following close behind. "We piled all our stuff on the bed," she hissed. "Can you see it?" The pigtailed silhouette shook a negative. It took Ranma tripping over a stack of discarded coats on the floor to finally locate Akane's possessions. She grabbed her coat, Ranma took the bag, and the two silently left the room. They politely ignored the couple making out on the bed.
With a giggle, Ranma clicked the door shut. "Didja see," he started to ask.
Akane blushed. "You pervert!" she exclaimed, giving him a slight shove. "You were looking!"
". . . my jacket?" he finished, grinning. "What were _you_ thinking about, Akane?"
"You didn't bring a jacket, baka!" Akane said, but smiled slightly. Then she shrugged and brushed past the girl. "Maybe I was just taking notes - you never know when it might come in handy." She left the stunned redhead behind, glad that the darkness hid the sudden redness of her own face. It took Ranma a moment to recover.
"You -"
"I what?"
"For. . . ."
"Forget it, Ranma."
"Wouldja please shut up?" mumbled a voice from around foot level. Their discussion had carried them through to the centre of the impromptu sleeping hall. Ranma shrugged and turned his attention to rummaging through Akane's bag.
"Hey!" she exclaimed. "Get your nose out of there!"
He looked up, grinned, and continued. "Hey," he said a moment later, "where'd you get this?" Out came Akane's new and (for her) daring crimson bikini. He held it up to the faint light filtering in from outside. Slate- blue eyes widened at the smallness of the ensemble; the colouring, though - a fiery orange-red at the top of each piece, gradually darkening to a deep crimson, almost burgundy by the bottom - he seemed to approve of. "Haven't seen this one before - kinda sexy, ne?"
Akane blushed. "Gimme that!" she whispered, grabbing the bag and its contents from Ranma's grasp. "It wasn't my choice. Yuka and Sayuri kind of forced me to buy it. I didn't really want it."
"Really?" said Ranma. "That's too bad. I think you'd look great in it. . ."
For some unknown reason, her heart beat just a little bit quicker at those words. "You really think so?" she started to say.
". . . though I'd look better, of course!" Ranma finished.
"You jerk." She glared at him and spun away.
"Aw, c'mon, Akane!" exclaimed Ranma, hopping over a sleeping figure and catching up a few steps later. "I was just kiddin'! Can't ya take a joke?"
"Hmph," she responded, slightly disgruntled by the fact that she knew it was true. Well, whatever. At least she had finally found Ranma; now, the two of them could head home. She was a little anxious. The party had not been everything she had hoped for, although she blamed Ranma for some of that. But, she grudgingly admitted, that was not entirely fair. The last year had changed her - changed her a lot - and she simply did not have as much in common with her friends as she once had; or, maybe, there had never been as much there as she had supposed. Either way, she was tired and home was still a fair walk away. "C'mon, let's go," she finally added. "You ready?"
"To lea. . ." she started to say, then looked at Ranma. They were standing by the patio doors now. The doors were slightly open. A cool breeze swirled around their ankles. Faint, cheerful laughter and sounds could be heard from outside. The redhead was gazing outside, a wistful look in his eyes. "Ranma?"
Ranma was silent for a moment, staring into the night. Then he turned back to Akane. "You, ah," he started nervously, oddly, "you're goin' home, right, Akane?"
Her brow creased. "Yes. . . ." She noticed a thoughtful look on Ranma's face. He was looking at the bag in Akane's arms. "What?" Akane asked suspiciously.
"So you wouldn't mind if I borrowed your bathing suit, would you?"
"Well, I wanna go swimming with the guys, and. . . ."
The sudden, fierce feeling of betrayal and anger that seized Akane shocked and confused her. Ranma kept talking, but the youngest Tendo was oblivious to the words, trying to understand, restrain the sudden fury that filled her. He was gesturing towards the outside, relaxed, half-grinning, happy. It was too much. She failed to understand, but expressed her hurt in the best way she knew how. "You pervert!", she hissed, eyes flashing.
She immediately regretted the words. The sudden twisting, torturing of his features, hardening of soft facial lines, the way the easy pleasure faded from the eyes, the immediate tenseness of body, cut her deeply - even as it gave her an unpleasant bitter joy. Ranma spun back to her, surprised, and this one time her trademark insult seem to have struck him hard.
"Wh - what?" he whispered, voice pained and devoid of the jocular tone he had bantered with since bumping into Akane.
"You want to stay, don't you? What kind of _guy_ hangs around other guys wearing a _girl's_ bathing suit?" As the words escaped her mouth she knew she should stop, let it drop, apologize even - but she did not. Her unexpected anger still simmered within, pushed her. "A pervert! That's what kind!"
The pigtailed girl's eyes narrowed, face flushing unpleasantly, the look of bewildered, stunned hurt turning ugly. He took a step - almost threatening - towards her. "I'm a pervert, am I?"
And, surprisingly, Akane no longer felt like continuing the argument. That sudden burst faded as quickly as it had come, leaving her feeling ill and frightened and terrible. But - but everything would be fine, she had called him a pervert countless times before, why should it bother him _this_ time? "I. . . I just want to go home, Ranma," she answered softly, bowing her head. Please, Ranma?
"Fine then. Leave," he hissed coldly. "But you'll be going home alone."
She glanced up at him in shock. "But - but you're supposed to walk me back! Father said so!"
"Hey!" he exclaimed angrily. "You wanted to come here, alone, right? Well, fine. Then you can leave here, alone, too! You didn't want me hangin' around you at the party? Fine! Then why should I hang around you _after_ the party?"
"Ranma, don't. . . I'm sor. . . ," she whispered.
"After all, being alone suits you, ne?" He threw his arms up wildly, expressively. "S'not like anyone _here_," and he gestured about the room, "cares if you stay or go." He gestured at himself and leaned forward. "_I_ certainly don't!"
And the anger returned in full.
"You jerk!" she howled, and punched forward, target blurred by watering in her eyes, not that it mattered, she never missed Ranma, not when he deserved it. Only this time, she did miss; no, she registered a second later, he had blocked her, effortlessly deflecting the wild swing aside.
"I don't think so, Akane," he said. "Not tonight."
It took her a moment to overcome the surprise and irritation, to think rationally again, to respond. How dare he have the gall to actually stop her righteous retaliation to his words? "Yeah," she sneered. "I wouldn't want to mess up that pretty face, would I? That smooth, feminine complexion of yours. Might stop the men from chasing after you, and you wouldn't want _that_ now, would you?"
"At least I _can_ attract 'em, unlike a certain kawaikunee I know who'll never get a guy unless he's forced ta be engaged to her!"
She ignored the barb, attacked the first statement. "That's right! You _can_ attract them, you pervert! And you _like_ it, don't you, Ranma, don't you?" She advanced on him, punctuating the statement with a jab of her finger. "Some man, some fiance you are!"
Ranma's face flushed an ugly red, and he glared up at Akane before spinning away, falling against the glass of the door with one arm, clenching the frame fiercely. "I _am_ a man!" He grinded the words out through clenched teeth.
With a snort of derision, Akane thrust the bikini in his face. "What kind of man _wants_ to wear this, huh?"
"You know I - I can't just wear guy's shorts when swimming, I. . . ."
"Swimming? Why, huh? Not done flirting with Hiroshi yet?" And she knew that last one was unjustified, did Ranma and Hiroshi even spend that much time together tonight? But it struck and hurt its target, and the pigtailed girl flinched. "Maybe you _want_ him to make a pass at you?"
Ranma turned away, stalked back into the room. Akane followed, heady with success and released frustration. But when she came up behind him, she suddenly decided that enough was enough. She softened her voice, or at least lessened it, though without sacrificing an authoritative tone. "So are you going to stay here? Like a girl?" She held the bikini out to be taken. "Because, fine, here's my bikini. See if I care, maybe you really _are_ a girl. Or. . . or are you going to get some hot water, change back, and walk me home - like a man?"
Back still turned, crimson pigtail hanging limply, Ranma gave no response, beyond, perhaps, a stiffening of his back.
"Ranma?" she prodded.
Still no answer.
"Ranma?" she tried again, this time louder.
Again, without a word, he ignored her.
"RANMA!" she screamed at his impassive back.
No answer.
"Will ya answer the stupid bitch," muttered some boy laying at their feet. "Some of us are tryin' to sleep here. . . ."
This time he responded. Turning quickly, smoothly, he reached down and snatched the speaker by the throat, hauling him to his feet, grip tight and bruising. "That's my fiancee you're insulting there," he intoned. "If anyone's gonna do that, it's me." He gave his victim a shake. "Understand?" Receiving a frightened approximation of a nod, he tossed the guy aside. All around, people were standing, waking up, propping themselves up on elbows to observe the argument.
"Ranma. . . ," whispered a surprised Akane. But when he finally turned back to her, and she saw his eyes, she knew that he was angry, far angrier than he had ever been with her before; and she knew that there would be no simple reconciliation for tonight's fight, that she had somehow injured her fiance badly - and that the worst was yet to come.
"And, man, is she _ever_," he exclaimed, gesturing widely, speaking to the sudden audience. He advanced on Akane, eyes narrowed, cold, voice colder as he addressed her evenly without inflection. "A bitch, that is."
Stunned, her breath caught in her throat for a moment; she hissed it out between tight lips, blood pounding, intense wrath reddening and contorting her visage. "What did you call me?" she demanded.
He actually hesitated, uncertainty clouding his eyes. Akane stepped closer. "Ranma? What. Did you. Call _me_?" Her voice rose with each word, unpleasantly shrill and loud to her own throbbing ears by the end. The front of Ranma's Chinese shirt twisted in her grasp, fabric likely drawing painfully against his breasts as it bunched in her hand. He glanced down at her hold, then slowly met her inflamed glare with steady eyes.
"You're violent. You're ugly and mean and cruel. The name fits, ne?" he said. With casual deliberateness he laid both hands over Akane's. "I think you'd better let go, Akane." Eyes peering from beneath red bangs hardened.
Her own widened. She knew the technique. A small twisting of her hand, a half bow at his waist, light pressure applied to the wrist - simple, painful, and he would drive her to her knees. The Child Worships the Buddha. Never. "You wouldn't dare," she whispered.
One eyebrow arched. Fingers trembled but tightened lightly over the hand. For a moment his steady stare cracked, begged her to let go; when her fingers tightened in the folds of the shirt, the weakness disappeared, determination resolved itself in his features. With an utter lack of haste he slowly started to twist her wrist. "Let go," he demanded softly.
"No," she responded.
He twisted further. Twenty, thirty, forty-five degrees: the first phantom spasm of pain. Again, briefly, the pleading in his eyes, quickly covered up. "Akane," he whispered.
"Do it," she hissed. "You can't."
Continue turning, wrist bending, forearm unwillingly following the turn; ninety degrees, her grip now awkward, but shirt still grasped fiercely in hooked fingers. His grip on her hand solid yet oddly shy and tremulous. A final exchange, unflinching stares. And then, a sad, almost apologetic sigh, soft release of breath; the shivering left Ranma's hold. She felt him push down.
She released his shirt.
He released her wrist.
"I hate you," she said. She turned, stepped away. An unpleasant emptiness filled her as she massaged her tingling hand. Something was gone, a certainty, a foundation, torn away by his newfound willingness to force her down. Ranma was drunk, she now recognized the shift in his demeanor, the earlier unusual looseness; but his threat had been perfectly lucid. Inexcusable. "I HATE YOU!" she cried, spinning back.
"I'm sorry," he answered tonelessly. "I. . . ."
"No!" She stormed back, towered over the shorter girl. "No excuses!" She blinked, unwanted tears returning. "You bastard!"
"I wanted to stay, Akane. With my friends. Why couldn't you just let me stay?"
"Your friends?" She nearly yelled. "Your friends?" And then, almost a whisper. "Aren't I your friend too?"
He simply levelled a silent, steady stare at her.
"Thanks," she said after a long moment. Voice heavy, eyes hot, throat thick, she pushed past him towards the stairs, pausing as she passed by. "Thanks for totally ruining my night, Ranma." She thrust the bag, the bikini within, into his unresisting hands. It fell to the ground when he failed to grab it. "Here. Enjoy. I hope it was worth it." Wiping the back of one hand clumsily across her face, she mounted the first step.
"Akane, no, wait," she heard from behind. A hand fell on her shoulder.
"Don't you dare touch me!" she howled, spinning savagely, arm swinging, dead weight slamming Ranma upside the head. He fell back with a cry, surprised, hurt. "Don't you _dare_ ever touch me. Never again!" She pointed an accusing finger at his fallen form. "You. . . I can't. . . no fiance of mine would ever _think_ of hurting me like that!"
"Who said I ever _wanted_ to be engaged to you?" His voice cracked strangely as he spoke. He knew where this was leading, she knew as well, they saw it in each other's eyes, but the challenge had been thrown, the words released.
"You're right, Ranma," she said softly. A voice inside her, buried deep, cried out, begged her to stop. Don't, don't, not like this, don't - but she was long used to ignoring that little voice, and the hurt Ranma had inflicted tonight easily drowned out the pained sobbing from within. "You're right. Fine. Fine. Our engagement is over, Ranma. You're free. Go snuggle up to Hiroshi, or some other guy, or girl, I really don't care, I never want to see you again." She turned away and slowly walked up the stairs. "Goodbye, Ranma. Have a good night."

Hiromi watched stunned from her seat on the ground, her boyfriend wordlessly holding her hand. Akane and Ranma had just split up. Again. But this time - this time it was different. Somehow she knew this was not going to be resolved by Monday.
As she watched - as the whole room watched, silently - Ranma stared up the stairs for a long, long time, or so it seemed. Finally, without a sound, she picked herself off the ground, reached down and looked in the bag lying by her feet. Ranma pulled out a red-hued bikini and simply looked at it. She glanced once more up the stairs, back at the clothing in her hands, once outside towards the pool. She bowed her head, staggered slowly in the direction of the patio doors.
And then, as she walked, a trembling overcame her, grew, violently, till she was forced to stop, whole body shaking spastically. With an explosive release of breath she nearly doubled over, clutching herself in a fierce shivering embrace, a moan, escaping, sounding nearly like a tortured word - Akane; and then, uncurling, nearly incoherent keening scream ripping from her throat, she smashed her fist into the wall.
Ranma gazed dumbly at the hole in the wall for a moment and then slowly withdrew her hand. Without another sound she shuffled off in the direction of the pool change-rooms.
"Shit," breathed Hiromi's boyfriend. "Shit."
She nodded, feeling weak before the sudden show of violence, left drained as overly high tensions and emotions faded from the room. Whispers, murmuring, louder commentaries and gossip and discussion erupted all around. Shaking her head, Hiromi stood. She had to find Sayuri and tell her what happened. She would want to know what had just happened to Akane.

"Anything-Goes Special Manoeuver: Mirthful Otter Springing Double Board Dive of Death!" cried out a voice breathlessly.
Hiroshi spun in the water towards the source, unconsciously treading to keep from sinking. "Is that. . . ," murmured Sayuri in his arms, as a red-bikini clad girl cleared the fence in a single jump and bounded towards the diving boards, pigtail streaming behind her. With a yell the newcomer leapt onto the low board; she sprang off, hurtling straight up, flinging up and over the high board; she landed at the very tip of the second platform, and it bent, curved beneath the sudden weight, almost to the breaking point; for a second she seemed suspended there, frozen; and then, with a savage snap, the board flung her high up over the pool. For a moment she actually disappeared from sight in the darkness overhead, her gleeful scream the only sign of her presence, and then, her spinning, flailing, twisting, plunging form reappeared, speeding towards the water. People desperately pushed themselves away from where they thought she would land as her compact form hurled towards them, and then, at the last moment, she started to uncurl, and. . . .
There was a thunderous, gigantic slap and spout of water as she slammed into the pool's surface. "Ranma?" chuckled Hiroshi, disengaging from Sayuri's hold and drifting towards his friend, pushing through the waves caused by her entrance. "Yeah, I think so."
Ranma slowly drifted to the surface, face down. After a moment she rolled over, exposing skin almost as red as the bikini she wore. "Ohhhh," she moaned.
"Nice bellyflop, buddy," smirked Hiroshi. "Impressive move. Methinks the 'Mirthful Otter' might wanna practice that a bit more."
"I shouldn't have tried for that last twist," she groaned. "That HURT! She allowed her feet to sink and slowly treaded water, turning to face her friend. Her skin was still a delicate pink beneath the water's surface. Hiroshi had a nice view of her as she moved away and drifted towards the pool's edge, breasts just hovering half-submerged at the waterline. That crimson bikini - where on earth did she get it from! - looked just fabulous on her: simple design, a little too small and a little tight around the breasts; the colouring suited her perfectly, complementing or accentuating her hair. He found himself staring at her shapely rear as she pulled herself from the pool, water cascading down her back, material glistening wetly, bottom part of the bikini tightly and firmly conforming to her shape.
"Getting a nice eyeful?" hissed a voice at his side. Sayuri glared at him. "Done ogling her yet?"
He raised his hands in defence. "Hey, hey! I. . . C'mon, it's Ranma! She, er, he's my buddy!" In response she dunked his head and paddled away, scowling. He grinned at Sayuri's retreating back, which, while certainly attractive, did not have that healthy, lithe beauty which Ranam possessed. Wiping the water from his eyes, he shrugged, acknowledging that, yes, he _had_ been looking. For some reason that fact no longer bothered him. Perhaps it had something to do with the couple of bottles of sake he had shared with his girlfriend in the last half hour or so, or maybe it was simply a result of that last conversation with his friend. Whether or not Ranma was really a guy or a girl. . . she looked damn fine in that bathing suit. He propelled himself to where she was standing at the water's edge.
"Isn't that Akane's suit?" Yuka had apparently wasted no time in confronting Ranma after her arrival. "Where did you get it? Did she lend it to you? Where is she? Hey, you know, it _does_ look good on you! But, really, should you be wearing your fiancee's clothes like that? Isn't that a little perverted? Do you share other. . . ."
Ranma fell back beneath the barrage of questions and comments, desperation in her eyes. Opting for a quick escape, she dived backwards into the pool, and, with a few, strong kicks of her legs, sliced underwater towards the middle of the deep end. Sighing, Hiroshi kicked off the edge and followed. Yuka merely snorted at the retreating figure that had ignored her and turned back to her friends.
"So you made it!" he said when he finally caught up to Ranma.
She nodded. "Yup."
"So. . . is that really Akane's bikini?"
A momentary blush, a momentary frown, and then she answered. "Yeah."
"It, ah, looks good on you."
"Thanks," she answered, and grinned. "I think." Hooking a finger beneath the material that bound her breasts, she tugged uncomfortably at the top. "S'bit tight, though."
Hiroshi grinned. "Yeah, I noticed," and made an exaggerated leer at her.
"Hentai!" she smirked, and splashed him. They hovered in a circle for a moment, Ranma scoping out the pool and company, until she noticed a few guys and girls heading towards them. One was Daisuke, who looked pleased to see Ranma; the other was Sayuri, who did not. "Uh oh," Ranma said. "I'm in for it now."
Hiroshi noted the angry expression on his girlfriend's face. "What. . . it's your fault she's mad?"
"Probably," she said, nodding. "Me and Akane. . . ."
"You mean. . ."
"Yeah, we got in another fight." She sighed. "Sayuri must've heard 'bout it."
"Not again!"
She nodded. "Yeah. Oh well, shit happens."
"Hey, I'm tired of always treading on eggshells with her, man!" A passionate, heated undercurrent filled and raised her voice. "I'm not gonna live my life watchin' every word! I - I don't know why I put up with her!"
"I though you said it was because you loved her?" Hiroshi smiled.
The smile was not mirrored, and she stared angrily at the water directly in front of her as she muttered her answer. "Yeah? Well I was drunk when I said that, 'kay?"
They turned as the newcomers finally floated up alongside them. "Hey, Ranma!" said Daisuke, voice rather slurred and sounding quite cheerful. "How's it. . . ."
"Where's Akane?" interrupted Sayuri. There was a sharp, accusing edge to her voice.
The pigtailed girl looked at Hiroshi's girlfriend for a long, hard moment before answering in a strong, level voice that left little room for argument. "Don't wanna talk 'bout it," she said. Ignoring Sayuri's incensed stare she turned back to Hiroshi. "Hey, bud, you got anything else to drink?"
"Don't you think you've had enough?" demanded Sayuri.
Ranma turned back to her, face hardening further. "Bite me," she said. She held Sayuri with her gaze a moment longer, and then turned her back and swam off, flicking her pigtail in the girl's face. The small splash from her departure caught Sayuri straight on.
"I'll, er, go check on her, okay?" said Daisuke, made an apologetic glance at the girl, and took after the redhead. "Hey, Ranma, wait up!"
Hiroshi floated up to his girlfriend, who was rubbing the water from her eyes and trying to glare after the retreating pigtailed girl. She appeared very upset, and returned no affection as he gathered her into his arms. "Hey, you ok?" he asked softly.
"That bitch!" she snarled.
"What?" he exclaimed, surprised, a little taken aback by her vehemence. "You mean Ranma?"
He tried a tentative smile. "I don't think that's quite the right," he started to say, then petered off when she gave him an unimpressed glare and pushed away, turning her back to him. "Aw, c'mon Sayuri. What'd I say?"
"I just knew you were going to try and defend her," she grumbled.
"What? But I - I'm not tryin' to. . . she's just a. . . ."
"Buddy. Yeah, I know. So it's Akane's fault, right?" Sayuri spun on him. "Typical. You guys always back each other up!"
"What, first she's a bitch, now she's a guy?" His voice he purposefully kept light, but nevertheless felt himself coming to the defence. After all, why should it be Ranma's fault? Akane was the abusive, violent one in the relationship; sure, the guy could be a bit insensitive at times, but she was the one that kept flying off the handle at the slightest provocation.
Sayuri's eyes narrowed. Without another word she paddled off.
"No, wait!" exclaimed Hiroshi. He slid in front of her, rested one hand soothingly against her shoulder, played his finger softly up and down her moist arm. "I'm sorry, ok? Listen, honey, I'm not trying to take sides here. Really. I don't even know what happened."
She softened slightly. "It's. . . well, I didn't see it myself. But I heard that Akane ran off crying. Ranma said some really mean things to her - mean enough that she killed the engagement."
"Yeah. Big stuff. That jerk." Her lips curved in a tight smile. "Or, as I prefer, bitch."
This time it was Hiroshi who refused to respond. Twisting to see his friend, he saw Ranma and Daisuke engaged in conversation. They both appeared happy, smiling; but now, he wondered if Ranma's smile was hiding a deeper sorrow. "Poor guy," he murmured.
"Poor _guy_?" asked Sayuri incredulously. "What about Akane? She was the one who was hurt!"
"So was Ranma."
"Yeah, right."
"He was!" he exclaimed, turning back to her, taken aback by the volume, the strength of his own voice. "She was!" Seeing the surprise on her face, he calmed himself. "You didn't hear her tonight! She's hurting - she feels alone and depressed and. . . ."
"Ranma?" she said skeptically. "That Casanova? As if!"
"No, she does!" he insisted. "I - Listen, I also thought that way, but, but she doesn't have it as easy as we thought! She's tired and confused! She's. . . she's scared!"
"The mighty Ranma, scared?"
"Yeah, scared! Him. . . her - whatever. Her too! Like. . . like - like how'd you feel when you had your first period, huh? Think it went any easier for her? And at least you're a. . . at least you had your. . . ." And then, seeing her shocked, blushing face, suddenly realizing what he'd said, he stammered to a stop. "I, I mean, she. . . ." Shit, Hiroshi thought, I just betrayed her trust, I couldn't keep her secret for even a single night.
The little 'o' of surprise on Sayuri's face twisted into a nasty, pleased grin. "She's had her. . . and it _scares_ her? Oh, that's just too rich!"
"Hey, hey, no, wait!" he said, slightly panicked. "I promised her I wouldn't tell anyone how she feels about that stuff - you can't tell anyone, Sayuri, you can't!"
"Oh, relax, Hiroshi," she said. "Everybody probably already knows about her little 'problems'. It's not like you guys were all that quiet talking about it."
"No, no, you don't understand! Sure, she told everyone about her. . . her 'girl' problems, but the other stuff, like that she was scared and confused, and, and, really worried about it - that she only told _me_. She asked me to keep it a secret! If you tell anyone else, she'll never trust me again!"
Sayuri's countenance darkened slightly. "Yeah, and we wouldn't want _that_ to happen, would we?" she said, a slight bitterness to her voice.
"Nothing." Without another word she presented her back to him, arms crossed.
"No, not nothing!" He pulled on her shoulder; she resisted, but the water provided lousy support and she spun anyway. "Something's bothering you. I want to know what."
"You should be able to figure it out on your own!"
"Oh, don't give me that, Sayuri! How can I?"
"Well, gee, it's only been bugging me all night!"
"Yeah, but I've been with the guys all night, and with Ranma all. . . ." Seeing her arch one eyebrow he stopped, and grimaced. "Oh. Er, you mean. . . ."
"Yeah, I do. I don't care if you spend some time with them, but, dammit, Hiroshi, you could've at least passed by a few times!"
"I, ah, I'm sorry?"
She floated a little closer to him. "You don't seem very sorry. . . ."
"But I am," he said, reaching up and wiping away a few droplets from her face, smoothing back a wayward strand of hair behind her ear with a delicate touch. "How can I prove it to you?"
"You'll have to think of that yourself," she answered, smiling, drawing closer, wrapping her arms around his waist. Hiroshi responded in kind, arms lying comfortably around her neck.
"Is this on the right track?" he asked softly, laying a soft line of kisses along her neck.
"I'm not quite convinced you mean it," she said, legs curling around his torso, water buoying her up. One of his hands played along the open back of her swimsuit, tracing the seams, the length of her spine; the other treaded water.
"This any better?" The next kiss was on her ear, a brief nibble, then lightly across her face, where small drops of water still glittered against her skin. Finally his lips brushed gossamer soft against hers. "Hmm?"
She sighed softly, lips parting slightly, eyes half closed. "Yes," she breathed, and embraced him tighter. He felt her breasts press up against his chest, the sleekness of her suit, her damp, clinging hair brushing against his hand now clasping her back; the smell of chlorine, her wetness, moist hair, the night wind filled and aroused him. Pressed fully against him, shifting her hips against his a little, she smiled and repeated, "Yes."
His lips brushed against hers again, parting a bit more. She responded, their tongues flicked, touched briefly, but, as he pushed forward, she drew back teasingly, eyes closed, smiling. Hiroshi growled in the back of his throat, moved his hand from her back to her neck, held her head, tilted slightly, kissed again; this time they met, breath hot on each others cool, wet face, embrace tightening, the pair spiralling slowly in the pool, tongues meeting once more, and. . . .
"KIYAAAAA!" Sudden water and strong waves doused them. Sayuri lost her hold on her boyfriend, but, anchored to him by her entangled feet, was unable to disengage; with a surprised cry she fell back and sank beneath the water, one leg still hooked around Hiroshi. Wiping the water from his eyes, he gasped and reached for her, yanking her back up above the surface. She gasped in surprise, coughing, clawing clinging hair from her eyes, blinking and looking angrily around for the disruption. Said disruption surfaced between the two.
"Oops!" giggled the redhead. "I, ah, didn't mean to land so close to ya!" Ranma stuck out her tongue at Sayuri and kicked off before the furious girl could retaliate. "Hey, Dai! You were right! She's pretty pissed!" she called out as Sayuri, furious, spitting up water, glowered in rage.
"Ohhhh. . .That, that. . . _bitch_!" Sayuri exclaimed, and swam off angrily.
Hiroshi sighed, glanced between his girlfriend, and his friend who currently happened to be a girl, and wondered which one he ought to talk to first.

Water cascaded off of her lithe form as she effortlessly lifted from the pool, pulling herself up and swinging smooth, curvaceous legs over the edge of the deep end. The redhead unconsciously tugged at the strings of her top as she stood and talked animatedly with a classmate, gesticulating expressively. After a few moments she shrugged, accepted an offered drink and stepped away, laughing, obviously enjoying herself.
"What'cha lookin' at?"
Sayuri glanced up as a rather drunk Daisuke plopped down next to her. Looking away, she muttered, "Ranma," and nodded towards the girl as she clambered up the ladder to the high diving board once more.
"Ah, yes. Lovely, ain't she?" Daisuke grinned and leaned back.
She glowered at him for a moment. "Yeah. Whatever."
They both watched as she hopped off the board backwards, opting for a simple, direct dive devoid of fancy twirls or spins, cutting effortlessly into the water with only minor splashing. Of course, being the showoff that she was, Ranma then leapt out of the water, probably pushing off the bottom with inhuman strength, and _then_ performed a flashy somersault as she rose above the surface.
"Just look at her," Sayuri muttered. "She just _has_ to be the centre of attention."
Daisuke nodded, still grinning, but replied by saying, "Aw, relax, will ya. She's just having a good time, ya know? Heck, if I could do that stuff, I'd flip and jump around, too." Slicing back into the water, Ranma started to cruise back and forth on her back, legs propelling her quickly through the waves. "Heh. She's like an otter or somethin' out there."
"Whatever," she sniffed, turning away.
"What the hell is your problem?" demanded Daisuke, and his voice lost some of its lightness. "Let up on her, okay? What's she ever done to you?"
She levelled a cold look at the drunken boy. "Nothing, ok? Nothing." Sayuri turned away further, back to both Ranma's antics and Daisuke's annoying prodding. "Just leave me alone."
There was a brief silence, but then his voice piped up again. "Oh, hey, look. She's just jumped off the diving board again. Oh, splashed Yuka with that one! And Yuka retaliates! They're splashing each other; oh, Keiko just joined Yuka's side, and, yup, Akemi evens things out by coming to Ranma's rescue! Gee, _they_ sure seem to be having a good time!" Sayuri felt Daisuke return his gaze to her. "The other girls don't seem to have a problem with Ranma," he said. "So what crawled up your ass and set up nest?"
"Shut _up_," growled Sayuri. "Go away."
"Nah," said Daisuke, and returned to his running commentary of Ranma's actions. She felt her irritation rising with each word, worsened as the little group floated by close enough for her to hear their joyful cries. She almost screamed when Daisuke called out to them, and they answered with a spout of water, splashing her accidentally. Just as she was about to spin and tell Daisuke off for good, Sayuri saw Hiroshi emerge from behind the bushes and head towards her.
"Oh, wow, _that_ feels better," he said, smiling, adjusting his swimming trunks. A moment later a look of concern flashed across his eyes. "Hey, what's wrong?" he asked, kneeling down before his girlfriend. "You ok?"
Despite herself, Sayuri smiled slightly. Whatever other faults Hiroshi might have as a boyfriend, being attentive and caring was not among them. Maybe not the most attractive guy she had ever dated, but certainly one of the sweetest and gentlest. And - her smile grew - a damn fine kisser, too. She shook her head. "Nothing," she said, and took his hand and pulled him up. Smiling he rose and settled in next to her, cuddling up, and she ruffled his blond, curly hair.
"Oh, ok," he said, and hugged her with the one arm. He smoothed back her still-damp hair and kissed her on the cheek. "You havin' a good night?"
"It's getting better now that you're back," she started to say, turning into the kiss, when Daisuke interrupted.
"Yo! 'Roshi! Check this out!" he exclaimed.
Hiroshi twisted away from an annoyed Sayuri and looked over at the pool. "Hey, cool," he said, and glanced once at his girlfriend. "Hey, Sayuri, lookit this! Ranma's. . . ."
"Ohhhhh," she cried. She leapt from her foot and stamped one foot angrily. "I've had _enough_ of that stupid redhead!" Without waiting for a reply she stormed away, ignoring the surprised cry from behind her. Only once she escaped the confines of the pool area did she slow, hugging herself against the growing, chill wind, pulling her towel tighter around her. She shivered.
A moment later a pair of arms encircled and drew her into an embrace from behind. "Hey. What's wrong?" Hiroshi. For a moment she considered ignoring him, or breaking angrily away; instead, after a sigh, she relaxed and fell back against him. His chin rested gently on the top of her head and he hugged her tighter.
"I. . . oh, I don't know," she finally said. "She just irritates me! Something about her just bugs the hell out of me!"
A silent moment, and then she felt him nod slightly. "Ok." Still holding her from behind, he gently led her towards a nearby pair of chairs left sitting out by the patio doors. After another tender squeeze they separated and sat. He looked down at the ground and shuffled his feet slightly - a little habit of his when deep in thought that she found endearing - and finally focussed his attention back on her. Hiroshi looked quite serious, and concerned, and remarkably sober; Sayuri realized it had been a while since he had touched anything to drink. "Why?" he eventually asked, reaching and holding one of her hand, rubbing its back gently.
Sayuri shrugged. "I don't know!" she said. "Really. I guess - I guess it's just the way she just waltzes in here, I mean, she didn't even grow up with any of us, she's been here less than a year, she never even hangs out with us. . . but she just walks in and becomes the centre of the whole stupid party. I mean, she's not even a real girl! But, dammit, she steals the guys' attention away, she steals _my_ friends away - hell, she even drives Akane away, and no one seems to care!"
To her surprise, Hiroshi actually smiled slightly at her comments. "Heh. I think you've finally got an idea of how us guys feel about her. I mean him." He shook his head. "Oh, whatever."
"No, no," she answered. "It's not the same! I mean. . . ."
"Of course it's the same!" he said. Hiroshi pulled his chair a bit closer. "You're jealous!"
He shrugged. "Of course you are! Hell, he, errr, she's, better looking than you! Heck, the guys voted her 'Best Babe of Furinkan High' tonight - and, let's face it, with good reason! How can any of you hope to compete with legs like hers, a chest like hers? Ranma's in top shape without looking gross, she's got great curves in all the right spots, she's a great athlete, we know she can cook, and that she can. . . ."
"Hi - ro - shi," Sayuri growled, snatching her hand away.
"No, wait!" he said, raising his hands placatingly. "Hear me through! The guys feel the same way about him! Hell, he's better looking than us, judging from the way you girls react; he outdoes any of us, easily, in any sport; he's in better shape that we'll _ever_ be, and could kick the crap out of us if he ever wanted to - but he doesn't because, despite everything, he's really not that bad of a guy. A bit arrogant, sure, but why shouldn't he be? Anytime a new girl shows up, she gravitates towards him; and anytime there's a serious problem, he gets to be the hero and fix it." He shrugged. "Of course you're jealous. _I'm_ jealous!" And then he smirked slightly. "But you know what? I don't envy the guy, not really. Not after tonight. The shit that comes along with all that is too much. The price is just too high."
A cool wind blew by once more, and she shivered unconsciously. There was something about his words that rang true, and she could see where he was coming from; but despite all that, Sayuri found that she still greatly disliked Ranma. Maybe it was not an entirely rational feeling, but then again, feelings rarely were. But she could tell the subject was important to Hiroshi: he cared for her, obviously, but Ranma was his 'buddy', and Hiroshi obviously hoped that his friend and his girlfriend could at least get along. So, with a sigh, she decided that, for tonight at least, she might as well let go of some of her hostility. She nodded. "Maybe you're right," she finally said, and then, leaning forward, added, "You're sweet, you know that?"
"Yeah," he answered, smiling, pulling her off her seat. She settled into his lap and cuddled up to him.
"I'm still a bit miffed about that comparison thing," she said. "You sure I'm not better looking than her?"
"Yup," he answered, voice teasing.
She pulled back and pouted. "I'm hurt!"
"The difference is," he said, pulling her back, "is that with Ranma, if I tried this," and he laid a gentle kiss on the soft curve of her neck, "or this," and his hand played along her back, sliding rather low over the surface of her bathing suit, "or, most certainly, _this_," and, as he brought his lips to hers, his other hand smoothly passed lingeringly across her breasts, "I'd get killed." He squeezed one breast softly through the slippery one-piece, as lips parted and his tongue slid into her mouth.
Several moments later when they finally broke the kiss, she let out a pleased sigh. "Ah. I guess it's ok, then." She playfully tweaked his cheek. "Pretty daring tonight, aren't we," she said, clasping the one probing hand to her chest.
Hiroshi had the decency to blush. "I, ah, I. . . ."
"Don't worry about it," she murmured huskily. "It felt kind of nice."
"It, it did?" he said, voice a little squeaky. She smiled at his nervousness; the earlier confidence possessed during talking seemed to have evaporated. Probably had something to do with his obvious excitement, judging from the unsubtle newfound bump in her shifting seat. This was a step forward in their relationship, Sayuri realized. Sure, they had kissed before, hugged, held hands - but nothing very physical beyond that; and it was a hesitant step for herself, as well. No boy had ever touched her with the intimacy she was about to allow Hiroshi.
"Yes." This time being the gentle one, she took the hand from her chest and brought it to the area of her midriff that the bathing suit left exposed. His touch was slightly clammy against her skin. Fighting down her own nervousness, she led his fingers to the edge of her suit and slid the tips of his fingers beneath the taut bluish material. "But I can't really feel you through this," she added, rubbing the cloth, then pushing his hand further in, fingers approaching her breasts, voice slightly trembling.
With slightly terrified eyes he leaned in closer. Their mouths met once more, deep, passionate kiss, she felt his hand slide fully beneath her top, reach and caress the bottom of her right breast, sending a pleasant, fiery tingle through her; and then, breath heavy on each other's face, the embrace tightened, kiss deepened, fingers anxiously yet curiously massaging her chest, thumb pressing in, rubbing against her nipple, strange and rough but nice presence of a boy's touch upon her, wonderfully pleasant sensation rising, and. . . .
"Hey, yo, Hiroshi, what'cha. . . Woopsy!" intruded a decidedly unwanted female voice.
She pulled back, growling in frustration and extreme annoyance. If Ranma - if anyone! - interrupted them _one_ more time, she would scream! Hiroshi seemed a bit miffed, too, as he turned to the intruding redhead. "Ranma, please," he snapped.
"Hey, hey!" she said. "No prob! Just headed for the can, anyway!" she said, grinning. Ranma had pulled on her red Chinese shirt, leaving it hanging open over the still damp bikini. She leaned in close. "I can't just piss behind the bush like the rest of the guys, ya know?" The reek of alcohol wafted from the girl, riding her breath.
"Ugh, gee, Ranma!" Hiroshi exclaimed. "How much have you been drinking?" he said, pushing her away.
She looked hurt - for all of a second - then shrugged and giggled. "I dunno!" A half-filled glass with some amber liquid was raised in mock salute. "I don't even know what this stuff is! People've been really nice, ya know?" Again she pulled in close, voice dropping to a loud conspiratorial whisper. "S'cus they know me 'n Akane broke up." She sniffed. "She was right ta dump me, ya know. I almost hurt her. But I didn't. I's bluffin'. I could never hurt her, I'd never hurt her, I'll _kill_ anyone who tries ta touch her. . ." and her voice grew vicious and loud by the last, then immediately died to a whisper, "but she don't know that. And now she's gone." She sniffed once more, glanced at her glass, and threw it all back with a single gulp. Ranma rose to her feet - swayed slightly - then grinned wildly. "Gee! That last drink of Daisuke's tore right through me! I gotta go potty! Bai bai!" She waved and stumbled off, passing through the patio doors.
The couple looked at each other after Ranma left.
"Wow. She's pretty messed up," said Sayuri.
Hiroshi nodded wordlessly and stared back into the house.
"You going after her?" she asked, almost in a sigh.
And, to her surprise, he shook his head. "Nope," he said. "What can I do? This - this is her problem. She's gotta deal with it herself. Besides, it's Ranma, she'll be fine." He stared off in the direction she went for a moment longer, then turned back to his girlfriend. With a goofy lecherous grin, he tugged her tightly up against him. "Besides," he whispered, "I'd much rather continue here. . . it's, um, a _lot_ more interesting. . ."
With a blissful smile she reached for another kiss, and quickly picked up where they had left off. No one bothered them this time and, quite some time later, Sayuri decided that tonight had turned out to be a damn fine party after all.

With weaving, woozy steps, the drunken pigtailed girl wound his way through the house. Somehow Ranma found his way upstairs, only stumbling once on the way up. Uncertain steps brought him to a couch, which he sank into gratefully. A moment's blurry rest, and then the increasing pressure on his bladder reminded him of why he was in the house in the first place, and he staggered back to his feet. He looked around dazedly, not actually knowing where the washroom was. The few people still awake in the room looked at the redhead curiously and then returned to their hushed discussion. They were sitting by the stereo and listening to soft music, nursing glasses of what was apparently water.
Shrugging and still grinning stupidly, he chose a direction at random and wandered off. I wonder if this is what Ryoga usually feels like, Ranma thought to himself, and giggled. Hurried, unsteady feet carried him through the kitchen - past cluttered, messy counters covered with dozens of dirty glasses, bottles, and cups scattered among spills, blobs of chips and dip, upturned salt shakers and little lemon wedges - into an empty dining room, and finally down a hallway to the bedrooms.
"Ya lookin' for the bathroom?"
Ranma stopped, suddenly noticing the girl leaning against the wall next to a closed door. He nodded. "Yeah. S'this it?"
"Yup. But yer gonna hafta wait - s'busy!"
The girl smiled and stuck out her hand. "Megumi. Tomobiki."
"Ranma. Furinkan." He took the offered hand and shook. Loud, hacking retching sounds emanated from behind the door. The two girls winced.
"That's my Seiji," said Megumi, looking slightly annoyed. "Never knows when to stop."
"Ah," said Ranma, and hesitated, unsure of what else to add.
A few moments passed until the sounds died out from within. The girl shook her head. "Stupid baka," she said, then turned her attention back to Ranma. She gestured at the bikini. "Went swimming?"
"Yeah." Ranma nodded.
"Nice bikini. Red suits ya."
Ranma blushed. "Er, ah. . . thanks." He looked Megumi over, feeling he ought to return the compliment. Long, straight raven hair that fell to mid-back, striking against her pale skin, was pulled away from her forehead and kept tucked behind small, pierced ears. Dark eyes, large and friendly- looking, gazed from a thin, angular face; then she smiled casually and it softened her features, and Ranma decided that she was cute. She seemed a bit older, closer to Nabiki's age, or even Kasumi's, than to his own. She was also tall - well, _everyone_ seemed tall to Ranma when he was in girl- form, he groused - and slender, short black skirt leaving her legs bare. "Nice, um, blouse," he added, indicating the simple, loosely-fitting white shirt she was wearing.
"Ain't it?" she asked, grinning. "Seiji bought it for my birthday. That your boyfriend's shirt?"
"Well, it's kinda big for ya, ne? I figured he lent it to ya or somethin'." Megumi shrugged. "Sorry if I. . . ."
"Ah, no, no, you - you're right." Ranma flushed, feeling a bit awkward and embarrassed, but not up to getting into a detailed explanation of his life. Besides, he decided, it was kind of nice to talk to a girl who was not interested in marrying him, or hurting him, or who even knew about the curse. "S'my boyfr - er, yeah, s'his."
Megumi looked around for a second. "Yeah? So where is he?"
Ranma's countenance darkened. "Gone. We had a fight. Sh - he took off."
The dark-haired girl's eyes widened in surprise. "Oh! Oh, I'm sorry! I didn't mean. . . ."
"No, no, s'ok," started Ranma, shaking his head. But it was _not_ ok, and a savage pain that the alcohol had totally failed to drown returned. Akane, Akane, why? An image of her whirling, face twisted with rage, deservedly hitting him and screaming at him and leaving him, reared up in his mind; taking a deep shuddering breath he leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes.
A moment later he felt a comforting arm embrace her around the shoulder. "Aw, shit, I didn't mean to - listen, Ranma, I'm sorry."
He desperately shook his head, summoning all the resolve he could muster and pushing down on the emotions that threatened him; he took a bitter pleasure in reducing the overwhelming wash of depression to a mere trembling of his lower lip. "No, no," he said, feebly trying to get Megumi to release her grip. "It's - s'nothin', really."
"It's not _nothing_, girl," the taller girl insisted, and merely hugged him tighter.
"No - I - please, just let me go," he begged, feeling his control erode, the last thing he wanted right now was compassion, he _deserved_ what Akane had done, every insult and punch, she was right to have broken the engagement, and now she was gone and there was no way, no _way_ things could be patched up after this argument, not after what he had done. "You - you don't understand!"
"Tell me."
And, for some reason Ranma could not understand, he did. Somehow he managed to avoid revealing his true gender, and Akane's; or, if he did, Megumi glossed over it, or simply did not care. He started hesitantly, not even sure where to begin, but soon the words began to tumble out quickly and desperately. Most of what he said was no doubt incoherent, or muffled and slurred beyond recognition, and Ranma realized that it was not important, that merely _speaking_ them was a relief. Self-recrimination and loathing oozed from every word; anger and fury at Akane's barbs underscored them. And then at some point Ranma started crying without realizing, tears freely running down his face and blurring his vision; but he kept talking, and talking, and as he wound down, words emerging in hot, gasping sobs, he found his face buried in the girl's shoulder, kneeling on the ground, held in her arms, and felt weak and tired. "And, and," he tried to add, face burning, not with shame at his collapse, but with release.
"S'okay," assured Megumi, soothingly petting down the redhead's hair. "S'okay." For a long moment Ranma remained huddled there, slowly relaxing and calming down, drawing some strange strength from the girl's embrace until, finally, he was released and fell back. "You feel better now?"
Ranma nodded. He wondered if he ought to be ashamed. This was exactly what he had been afraid of - he had felt his normal inhibition drop from drinking, had been afraid of what might happen if he drank more - but _this_, this total loss of control, this collapsing into a stranger's arms, girlish sobbing and crying, so unmanly and. . . and _not_ embarrassing, he realized. He knew he should be, but he was not. The pain was still there, the ache and feeling of loss, but the tension had been released. For now, anyway. Wiping the tears from his eyes and peering blearily at his unexpected friend, he tried a tentative smile and gave a slight nod. "Ye - yeah," he sighed.
"You - you really love him, don't you?" asked Megumi tentatively.
And for once, slumped on the ground, bitter tears of loss and anger still drying on his face, the tight, stabbing pain still nascent and very much real, Ranma could not, would not deny his feeling. Maybe it was too late, maybe his stupidity and stubbornness had cost him Akane, but at least once, now, to this complete stranger, he would speak the truth. "Yes," he said miserably.
"First one?"
Ranma nodded his head sadly.
"Aw, gee, that sucks," she said sincerely. "But, listen, don't worry 'bout it. I won't lie, it's gonna hurt for a while, but it'll get better, eventually. It will! Maybe you'll get back together. Maybe you won't. But it's not the end. . . ."
This time Ranma shook his head despairingly. "No - you, you don't understand," he started.
Megumi kneeled down before the distraught girl, laying a comforting hand on one shoulder. "Yes, I do," she said. "Really. I've been through it - most girls have. It sucks, it hurts, but it happens. And if he's stupid, and doesn't come back, then screw him! He's an idiot!" She grinned and an uplifting note filled her voice. "Heck, look at you! You're cute! You're attractive! If he doesn't come back, or waits too long - heh, well, I don't think you'll have too much trouble finding another guy, ne?"
He smiled wanly, not entirely thrilled at the prospect, but at least appreciative of the girl's efforts. Oddly enough, though, her comment was true: there were, after all, three other fiancees waiting in the wings. But - but they were not Akane. "Yeah, I guess," he muttered.
"That's the way," she said. "Feel better now?"
Ranma nodded.
"Good," she said, and stood up. "I think you needed that."
"Uh-huh," he agreed. He tried standing but still felt weak. "This cryin' stuff's tiring," he said, reaching towards Megumi. With a kindly smirk she reached down and helped the exhausted girl up. After finding his somewhat wobbly feet he decided that maybe he had drank just a tad too much and leaned weakly against the opposite wall. His newfound friend resumed her position across from him.
"I - thanks," added Ranma after a moment. "I - that was - I. . . ."
"Don't worry 'bout it," insisted Megumi, waving it off. "Shit happens. Hey, maybe you'll be there for me when this bozo," she jerked her thumb at the bathroom door, "dumps me."
Ranma shook his head. "He won't dump ya," he assured her, "not if he's got half a brain."
Megumi grinned, and so did Ranma. A moment later, his smile wavered and fell.
"What?" asked the tall girl, as Ranma's expression turned to one of concern and pain. "What's wrong?"
"I - I kinda forgot with all that mushy stuff," said Ranma in a strained voice, "but now I _really_ hafta go to the bathroom!" Megumi smiled and turned to the bathroom door. She rapped on it with some force, while crying out, "Hey, Seiji! Ya almost done in there?"
Fortunately Seiji _was_ done, and the door opened. A tall lanky boy that Ranma recognized from Furinkan stumbled out, looking slightly green and wiping the back of one hand across his mouth. His girlfriend caught him and helped keep him upright. The redhead dashed by into the bathroom, but hesitated at the threshold. "Megumi - thanks. You really helped me here. I swear, I promise, if you ever need my help - just ask. Ranma Saotome always remembers a friend."
"Hey, ya don't hafta be so serious!" she said. "I was glad ta help!" And then, glancing at her partner, she added, "But, yeah, see ya later, 'kay Ranma? Think it's time Seiji and I head home. Bye!" She waved, and Seiji added a floppy gesture of his own that could be loosely interpreted as a wave, and the two stumbled away. Ranma watched after them for a moment, and then, nature repeating its rather forceful demand, he ran into the bathroom, slamming the door shut behind him.

The party was very nearly over. The swimming pool, aside for one last couple slowly twirling together in the middle, was empty. A few guys were still softly talking by the dying embers of the fire, and a few girls were discussing life in general out on the porch. Gleefully passed out people were scattered everywhere, most of them purging excessive amounts of alcohol from their systems as they slept. Those still awake enough and sober enough were gathering their possessions and preparing to walk home, and designated drivers were finally getting to do their thing. Most of the partied-out students would have congratulated Kiyoshi on another excellent party, but he had disappeared into his bedroom hours ago. Throughout the house a peaceful, slumbering silence settled, broken only by the occasional grunt, whisper, or snore.
Hiroshi and Sayuri slowly, reluctantly, separated, still cuddling out on the patio. With silly, blissful grins they leaned back into their seats, still holding hands, and quietly stared up at the night sky. With a sigh, a drunken, disgruntled, and somewhat more relaxed bully waved his friends off and staggered towards the house, occasional twinge of dull pain throbbing from his groin. A resigned and accepting Megumi, meanwhile, shoved her boyfriend into the backseat of a taxi and took the easy way home. Their drive along empty streets passed by a short-haired young girl sitting on a bench, head held despairingly in her hands.
She looked up as the car went by. She was obviously depressed, eyes brimming with tears, hunched over in her seat. With a sniff the girl wiped a sleeve across her face. For a long time she remained still, staring into the clear Nerimean night as if in thought, and then, slowly, a look of resolve hardened her features, and with a determined frown Akane Tendo leapt to her feet and stormed back the way she had come.

With a sigh of immense relief Ranma leaned back on the toilet and answered the call of nature. As he settled back on the seat he began to relax. Eyes slowly closed as a warm fuzziness spread throughout his body, a deep lethargy settling into his limbs. It was so enjoyable, comfortable, and the temptation to simply give in and fall asleep was almost overpowering. Except - except that, somehow, he had to get home. Had to find Akane. Had to - apologize, or tell her how he felt, or. . . something. Whatever doubts and concerns had assailed him tonight, this he knew beyond a doubt: he had to talk to Akane. He _would_ talk to her. Only - only he was so tired, and the toilet was so surprisingly comfortable. . .
No. He shook his head. He had something to do. Blinking, Ranma opened his eyes, letting go of the soft darkness. Looking around the washroom he realized that it resembled the Tendos' considerably. Well, except that the Tendo's toilet is on the first floor, he remembered. Or was that the second? Sheesh, he thought wryly, I must be pretty drunk if I can't even remember where the toilet is. Next I'll be forgetting where my bedroom is. He noticed the full length mirror hanging on the back of the door across from him. Who puts a mirror in a place where you can see yourself shit, he wondered idly. He disliked the image the mirror reflected: a young redheaded pigtailed girl peering drunkenly, face blotchy, eyes and nose red and puffy, her bikini bottom tangled loosely around her ankles. The bikini peeking through her loose Chinese shirt made it look like she was wearing a bra, and for some reason that angered her terribly. Damn stupid curse, he swore, everything that's happened tonight is its fault. This, this - woman's body, is nothing to take pride in - it cost me Akane, it cost me my friends. . . hell, I can't even piss outside like the rest of the guys!
With something akin to shame he remembered a night from long ago, early after the trip to Jusenkyo: the day that Ranma and his father had left the training grounds, they had, of course, been immediately rained upon. Grumbling, still secretly horrified and alien to his new body, he had slowly become aware of a pressing concern - the need to urinate. Only - he had had no idea how. The normal parts were gone; would it work the same way now that he was a girl? He had held it off as long as he could, desperately holding back and hoping to stumble across a hot spring or something. Finally, though, the urge had became too great and, grabbing a roll of toilet paper from his backpack, he had disappeared behind some trees. Quickly tearing off his gi pants, he had then learnt that, yes, he knew how to pee; at least, the pressure was great enough that the body did so on its own. But it had been an intensely shameful experience: not only frightening and uncomfortable, it had also forced him to confront the newness of the parts between his legs for the first time, something he had despairingly tried to avoid. Worse, though, was not knowing what to expect, or even how to stand; squatting, half-naked and miserable in the Chinese wilderness, his own urine dribbling down his leg, had left him feeling humiliated and degraded, while wiping himself down afterwards had forced closeness with feminine parts he had never seen nor felt before, and he could have cried, but back then he was stronger, still a man despite everything, he never cried, unlike now.
For now he knew how to pee like a girl without any problem whatsoever, and that very knowledge scared him and shamed him as much if not more than the original experience ever had. There were so many things he knew how to do like a girl now: he could piss like one and shit and bleed like one, and wear makeup and dresses and sit with crossed legs like one, and talk and look and act like one, so well that you would never know he was anything else _but_ a girl, and. . . . Enough!
Vivid anger at his own weakness temporarily overcame his exhaustion of mind and body. Enough of this crap. There was no use in feeling sorry for himself. Despite all the shitty things that had happened tonight - way too much thinking, and feeling, and talking, and. . . and that thing with Akane - the night had not been _all_ bad. Ranma had enjoyed some parts of the party: talking with the guys and, if even only for a short while, feeling like part of the gang; stepping aside with Hiroshi, 'bonding', even though the conversation material was decidedly uncomfortable; and especially the time spent swimming and the fun in the pool. For the first time he could remember he had felt like part of a group - part of a group whose only bond was _not_ martial arts, or revenge, or marital desires. If only everything else could have turned out better.
Ranma looked up at the bathroom sink sitting flush against the wall. Hot water. If this body is such an annoyance, he might as well get rid of it. Besides, a thought in the back of his head suggested, maybe he would be better able to fight off the effects of the alcohol as a man. Hours ago (or so it seemed) he had entered this house with the intention of turning into a man; since then he had fought and swam and cried, and despite everything that had happened he was still a girl. Well, now he could finish what he had started way back then. Who cared if he ended up looking like a total idiot, male and wearing a girl's bikini. Although, he realized glancing down, it might be a little. . . tight, and a bit uncomfortable once he changed back. He shrugged. Whatever. He just wanted to go home. Assuming he still had one.
Desire suddenly crystalizing into motion, he lifted off the toilet, already reaching for the faucet. But then his legs, his arms and body failed him. With a queasy lurch his legs turned to rubber beneath him and with a strangled yelp he collapsed forward. Unexpectedly weak arms refused to respond, and he pitched forward, head knocking painfully hard against the edge of the bathroom counter. Ranma slumped dazedly to the ground.
Well this certainly sucks, he thought groggily, laying sprawled on the washroom floor and seeing stars, as encroaching darkness snuck in at the edges of vision.

Darkness. Numbness. Silence and sensation of floating.
Unfamiliar voices:
"Hey, c'mon man, lets go!"
"Yeah, just a sec'. Gotta go piss."
Fumbling at the door, it creaked open.
"Hurry, will ya?"
"I'll just be a. . . shit! Man!"
"Come see this!"
"There's some chick passed out on the floor!"
A brief pause.
"Oh, wow, it's. . . ." A brief snicker.
"Hey man, I can see her. . . ."
"Hey! You pervert!"
"Yeah, like you weren't staring too!"
This time a contemplative silence.
"So what do we do?"
"I dunno. We can't leave her there."
"Errr. . . maybe someone oughta, ah, you know, pull her bikini up?"
Now an awkward silence.
"Um. Sure."
Another pause, and then nervous fumbling at his feet. Feeling of the bottom being drawn up along legs, then left at the waist, slightly twisted and uncomfortable.
"Ah. . . is it up?"
"I dunno. I ain't lookin'. Can't you see?"
"Nope. Ain't lookin' either."
Sound of shuffling feet.
"Good enough. Now what?"
"I guess we haul her outta here. Dump her in one of the bedrooms?"
"Guess so. Let her sleep it off."
Movement. Hands grabbing him by the feet, and beneath the arms. Sudden lurch, and effortlessly supported in the air, being carried. It felt like flying.
"You know, I can't stand it when girls can't hold their liquor. You'd think they'd learn their limits and not count on someone ta look after 'em."
A chuckle.
"Nothin'. I'll tell ya later."
A few more lurching steps.
"Ya know, she's pretty cute. I'm surprised she don't have a boyfriend lookin' after her. I mean, leavin' a girl like this, like that, it's not. . . ."
Another chuckle.
"Heh. Trust me, no boyfriend. No guy'll ever go out with her."
"What? Why not? I mean, I'd. . . ."
A laugh.
"No, no you wouldn't. Trust me. Her name's Ranma."
"So? Odd name, but. . . ."
"You're not from Furinkan. I'll tell ya after. Hey, can ya get the door?"
"Uh, sure."
Disorienting swaying, feet dipping, awkward handling of a door. It creaked. Movement resumed.
"I'm surprised she's so light."
"Why? She's not that big."
"Yeah. It's just. . . ah, forget it. There. The bed. We'll just dump her."
Brief moment of no support, queasy spinning falling, then bouncy yielding impact. Perfumed floral comfort and sinking rest.
"Think she'll be ok?"
"Man, she must've drank a load."
"Yeah. She got dumped tonight. Guess she took it pretty rough."
"Dumped _her_? Idiot."
Again a laugh. "Let me tell you a few things about this delightful redhead, my friend. . . ."
Soft, definitive sound of the door being shut. Ranma was left in the darkness, alone.

Spinning. The world was spinning, yet Ranma remained still. Everything was dark and quiet. He felt pinned to the bed. Incessant debilitating vertigo tugged at him. A slow dizzying tilting and turning of the bed threatened to throw him to the ground. The feeling grew worse with time, as did the precariousness of his hold on the sheets. He tried to grip the bed tightly, but it felt as if his hand was a mile away, a numb tingly lump far away stuck at the end of the unresponsive leaden weight that was his arm, fingers and thumb moving sluggishly and twitchingly as he let out an unconscious nauseous moan, room twirling and whirling. Both eyes fluttered open, and he was thankful for the darkness. It masked from his sight the world spinning around his still body. Eyes slowly closed and he sighed. The sickening rise and fall within would not stop.
This feels like Akane's cooking, he decided, or like Kodachi's love. Wait. Could love be felt that way? Could he feel love? Was this love, this queasy painful bitter feeling inside, this sharp bitter emptying rising feeling as his stomach twisted and his body heaved and his throat gave a spasm. . . There was no confusion for his body, which responded quickly despite its sluggishness, heavily turning on one side, mouth coughing open and splattering stream of reeking acerbic fluid spewing out. Several moments of feeble hacking and thick drooling later he collapsed back onto the bed. Oh, he thought, it wasn't love, I was just sick.
But with the painful partial purging accomplished the swaying and surging subsided. The bed softened and opened and accepted him into its embrace, and Ranma gladly sank into the welcoming comfort. Yet as eagerly expected and desired sleep approached, the warmth and padded depths closed in, became cloying, smothering, claustrophobic, and with sudden violent intense physicality he wanted free, wanted escape, and one arm actually responded, flailing wildly before falling to the mattress with a dull thump, muffled slurred cry choked by the darkness and pressing, closing walls. . . . Squeamish sickening sensation slowly returned as a very slight spinning inexorably resumed and again forced him onto the bed, forced him deeper into its now unwelcome clutches. He would have cried out again, but what was the point? He was alone. Sick and alone in the dark.
Where he belonged, as he deserved. He was a man, he had threatened Akane, she had been harmed, it was his fault, real men never hurt girls. He was a man. Despite the curves of his body, the hated softness over once- hard pectorals, roundness of unmanly hips and rear, round soft curve between legs, he was a man, he had arrived at the party as a man, had escorted Akane here as a man. Don't you hang around me, he heard her say, I don't know why you came, the last thing I need is a perverted unwanted fiance hanging around me at the party. They were walking on the sidewalk, the sun just beginning to dip beneath the horizon, fiery highlights glimmering in her hair. Don't worry, you uncute tomboy, he answered, it's not like I'd want to, and she responded with a hit, and it hurt, he could almost feel the blows land on stomach and head and arms, knew it was useless trying to apologize but gratefully whispered her name as the pain subsided and faded and the bed softly pushed him back up to the surface and the awful lurching slowed.
If only she would come back. But why should she, and how could he possibly return to the Tendos after what he had done? Even Kasumi would fault him, would be unable to forgive him, and rightfully so. Was there any forgiveness or understanding for him out there? Hiroshi. Hiroshi would understand, he had understood everything tonight, had been a good friend and knew far far too much about him now, how could he be trusted? Because you're a friend, dammit, exclaimed Hiroshi. What do you think? Playful jumbled sounds drifted in the background, flickering halogen light sharpening features and flaws. He could hear the odd beating of large wings. What do I think, answered Ranma, I think I would like to have a friend.
Hiroshi smiled. I just want you to have a good time, he said, we'll make this a night you'll never forget, and Ranma smiled as well, snaking forward, rising sinuously before Hiroshi, breasts thrust forward and hips swaying and hands playing in her hair, unravelling it so that it fell in crimson locks about her face, and she fell with the cascading curls, collapsing back into the bed, Hiroshi's eyes burning into her and staring at her face, at her breasts, and then fading into the dark. Why, he moaned, how can Hiroshi be my friend if he thinks of me that way, was there anyone who could see past the curse and be a friend with _him_, not with the man, not with the woman, but with Ranma?
Aren't I your friend, asked a voice, and the tremulous bilious lurching faded. He smiled at the sound. Yes. Yes. And he relaxed. But then his friend approached and Ranma twitched, something was wrong and he felt afraid and weak, and let out a soft whimper, writhing and tangling with the sheets and scrabbling feebly into the mattress. Thanks for totally ruining my night, Ranma, the voice whispered, drawing back, taking with it the fear but also leaving him alone. Don't leave me, he sighed, all I want is to belong.
Like at the pool. Cool nurturing welcoming water rushed up to meet him as he plunged towards the flowing blue; thunderous splash and deflected impact as he sliced into the depths. Everything was subdued: sounds were softened, downward pull gone, harsh edges to sight and senses reduced. Comforting pressure pressed in and supported him from all sides, pushing against stomach and legs, beneath arms and teasingly pulling at hair, and prodding, feeling, rubbing at breasts. . . Breasts. Always his body betrayed him, he could not even remember what it was like to swim as a boy, unashamedly topless and free to walk without being ogled. But this once, did it matter? For as he surfaced, people were waiting for him: Furinkan schoolmates, talking and joking with sparkling eyes and easy laughter, accepting his presence and drawing him into the group. An unconscious smile grew and his body relaxed as the water pulled away and carefully deposited him dry and limp back upon the bed, light sounds of casual and friendly chatter still filling his ears. A contented giggle escaped his lips as the internal roiling faded and the warm expansive lethargy took its place, leaving Ranma lying wonderfully at ease. A caressing wind blew tentatively across his body, leaving tingling faint lingering touches across his body, over thighs and lips and neck and breasts. Then the voices distorted, became mocking and unpleasant; the pleasant contentment he had enjoyed slipped away, leaving a vague discomfort and creeping growing fear. He was _too_ relaxed, too at ease - when had he ever been this relaxed as a girl around others? The mocking, snide laughter grew, grew, reached a cacophonic crescendo within his pained ears. . . . He whimpered, hands clasped tightly over ears but achieving nothing. . . and then the noise faded as on a current of air.
The wind grew colder. Now it was clammy, chilling, and unwelcome, and Ranma curled up into a ball, shivering and lips trembling. With stuttering shaky movements he tried to burrow beneath the sheet, but the welcome lethargy of a moment ago now constrained him, limbs weak and lifeless once more. Acidic sharp taste rose in his throat again and he moaned. Of course he was cold, he realized. He was wet and it was cold and all he was wearing was a stupid bikini. Swimming was fun, joining classmates was fun, but at what cost? Something was thrust into his hands, and he looked as a voice echoed within, Here, enjoy, I hope it was worth it. A bikini; as he recognized the swimwear, it leapt from his grasp onto his body and tightly conformed to his female curve, as the voice continued scornfully, What kind of man _wants_ to wear this, huh? With burning spreading shame - so intense it banished the numbing cold - Ranma knew it was true. Wearing this proved what he was: a girl, for how could she be a manly man and yet be wearing women's clothing? This shred of clothing, everything it represented, had cost her too much, still bound her in orange- red strings, and she desperately wanted it off, to be free of it. As she clawed at her clothing, fumbled weakly within the constraints of her shirt, tugging awkwardly at clasps and ties, the voice continued mockingly, See if I care, maybe you really _are_ a girl. . . .
I'm not a girl, I'm not, she cried, still struggling with his clothing, aren't I, am I a girl? And a suddenly vivid voice whispered in his ear, yes, yes, Ranma, you are, please be a girl; but Ranma ignored the familiar voice and attacked the ties behind her back. I'll prove I'm not a girl, she insisted, I'll discard my femininity, I'll peel it off as I do this bikini; and now the task seemed much easier, almost as if she was being helped. The top came off quickly and was flung aside; with much wiggling and a final kick the bottom was yanked free. Ha, he cried, I _am_ a man, and collapsed exhausted on the bed, numb but finally free of hated femaleness. Ranma smiled. At last.
But if he was free and happy, why did he feel so sick and scared? Don't be scared, whispered a voice, I would never hurt you. I love you. The voice was Akane's, had to be, had to be: for he now knew that he loved her, and that she must love him, after all, had she not come back to him, even after all the terrible things he had said and done? Was she not tending his wounds, healing him with bandages and words, curing the bruising of his ego and the loss of something precious? The hard floor of the dojo was beneath them, a dozen smarting wounds stinging his body, and Akane was kneeling across from him. Do you love me, she asked, would you kiss me? This time he got the answer right: If. . . if you don't mind, he said, looking up shyly, then I don't, and he sat up in the bed and embraced and kissed her and told her, yes, I do, more than anything, and the final liberation of those words was greater than anything, it sent a resonating escalating glow that followed, enhanced, the echoing pulse in his breasts. They fell into each other and it seemed to Ranma that they were as one, holding and kissing and touching one another, and the passion was so great and consuming that he could not sustain it and after an indefinable confused time he collapsed back, unmoving and spent on the bed, but no longer alone.
I'm sorry, Ranma, I'm so sorry, whispered the voice, and there was sudden, vicious pain, the wonderful awaited and accepted oneness becoming too much for him, the presence too much, it overwhelmed him in his sickened weakness. But as soon as it began, it ended and pulled away, and the pain of the separation was as terrible as the consuming, it carried away a certainty and a unity, and he released a moan, No, but already the voice, the presence, Akane, was gone. . .
. . . and Ranma was once again alone in the dark and the cold upon the crumpled sheets, burning bile and rising stomach, spinning room, tilting bed, approaching darkness, and falling, falling, falling into painless nothingness. . . .
Nothing. . . .
Until a voice once again intruded, with painful light piercing swollen eyelids and surprised, looming face. "Ranma? RANMA!" Akane. She had not left him after all, she had come back for him, and he smiled at her, glad to have told her how he truly felt and shared that moment with her. He fell back down into the darkness and softness and her waiting arms, her name on his breath.

*** The Party Ends ***

Continues in Choices: Dilemma