Part Two: Dilemma by Michael Noakes

Slow, reluctant rise out of comforting darkness. Unwilling awakening to dull throbbing pain lurking within his skull. Queasy, empty feeling in the stomach. General sensation of body weariness and irritating tingly sensitivity of the skin. Foul, pasty taste to the mouth, tongue feeling unpleasantly thick. Tentative opening of one eye - then immediate squeezing shut, despite the relative darkness of the room.
Ranma groaned. He felt terrible. He wanted to sleep some more. He turned over onto one side.
"Oh no you don't!" A voice interrupted his suffering. "Time to get up!" A woman. Cheerful sounding, but with an undeniable authoritative edge. There was the sound of curtains being drawn, and annoying, unwanted light flooded the room. "You've slept long enough!"
"No - no," he moaned pathetically. "I don't wanna get up, Mom!" Mom. Mom? "MOM!" he exclaimed, bolting into a sitting position, sheets flying from the sudden movement. Interesting lights flared before his eyes. Fear clutched him, almost strong enough to overcome the redoubled pounding of his skull. Ranma clutched his head in pain while peering, terrified, through a mess of bangs at the tall woman. Nodoka finished drawing back the last curtain, turned around, and smiled.
"Good morning, Ranko!" she said. "Sorry, dear, your mom is not here. Just me."
Ranma blinked up confusedly at his mother, and then, slowly, looked down at himself. For perhaps the first time, the sight of breasts on his chest - still bound in Akane's bikini - comforted him. With a sigh of relief he relaxed. "Oh. Ah, hi. . . Auntie Saotome," he stammered.
His mother kneeled next to him. "How are you feeling?" she asked softly, smoothing back the redhead's hair. Ranma realized that his hair was unbound and flowing freely, and somewhat messily, down his back. He blew a few wayward strands out of his face, which his mom secured behind the ears.
"Ah. . . fi - fine, I guess," he answered. Then seeing the knowing look in his mother's eyes, he grinned weakly. "Terrible."
She nodded as she stood. "I'll get you something to drink which should help to soothe your stomach, Ranko. I will be back in a moment." She stepped away, but paused a moment before leaving the room. "You know, Ranko, it really is not ladylike to drink so much," she said disapprovingly, then turned and left the room.
"Yeah, no kidding," he muttered as she slid the door shut behind her. Ranma slowly lowered himself onto his futon, throwing one arm across his eyes to block out the light. What is she doing here, he wondered. Then a moment later: what am _I_ doing here? Last he could remember was. . . the pool? Diving. Drinking. Playful splashing and swimming and relaxed fun.
There was. . . something else. A girl? A name hovered at the edge of his mind. A bathroom? A snapshot image flashed through his head: counter, rug, curtains, shower, toilet. Was it at Kiyoshi's place? He could not remember. Strange. Normally I'm really good with names and places and stuff, he thought. It's not like me to forget. . . .
Forget. . . . He was forgetting something. He knew it. Something important. His brow furrowed in intense concentration as he forced sluggish thoughts backwards: before swimming, he had stepped into the house, looking for some hot water, and he had bumped into. . . .
Ranma jerked suddenly upright once again, eyes widening in horror. "Oh no," he whispered, suddenly oblivious to the renewed pounding in his head. An angry loud voice echoed through his mind:
"You pervert!
"What kind of _guy_ hangs around other guys wearing a _girl's_ bathing suit?
"Some man, some fiance you are!"
He winced at the memory - at his retaliation:
"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?
"After all, being alone suits you, ne? S'not like anyone _here_ cares if you stay or go. _I_ certainly don't!"
And then, worst of all:
"Let go." Her demand.
"No." His refusal.
And he had pressed down on her wrist. He had inflicted pain upon her.
Ranma buried his face in his hands. Akane's voice, dangerously soft, returned to him, accompanied this time with the image of her face, red and furious and strangely sad: "I hate you," she said, and soon after: "Our engagement is over, Ranma." The words had been spoken with a chilling certainty and finality that left little doubt in Ranma's mind that whatever had existed between them before was irrevocably over.
With a groan he sank back onto his futon.
Soon after, the door slid open once again. "Ranko. . . Ranko, come on now, I thought I asked you to get up?" He turned his head slightly and watched as his mom stepped back into his room. With a sigh she placed a small tray next to the futon. Faint wisps of steam escaped from the spout of the small porcelain kettle sitting on the tray; a cup lay next to it. Ranma could not help but look at the kettle somewhat nervously. "Here," said Nodoka. "This should help. It is a special Saotome recipe, renowned for easing the effects of too much drinking. At least," and she smiled slightly, almost wistfully, "it helped my husband the many times I served it to him." Nodoka poured him a cupful of tea.
Smiling tentatively in return, Ranma accepted her offer. "Er - thanks," he said, raising the teacup to his lips.
"Don't thank me until you taste it, dear," she answered, a slightly mischievous glint to her eyes. Ranma cast an inquisitive look at his mother over the rim of the cup, then took a deep drink.
The liquid was hot, bitter, thick, and thoroughly unpleasant. He almost gagged at the unexpected taste. "No - finish it, Ranko!" insisted his mother forcefully, when, grimacing, he pulled the cup away.
"But. . . ."
"Ranko. . . ."
With a groan, he held his breath and tried a second time. The pungent liquid tasted like something Akane would cook up, he thought wryly, as the last drop finally slid sluggishly down his throat.
"There. That was not so bad, now was it, Ranko?"
"Oh, not at all, Auntie Saotome," he said, leveling an even stare at her and smiling crookedly. "Just. . . wonderful."
Nodoka gave a small laugh. "It _is_ rather terrible, isn't it?"
Ranma nodded emphatically as his mother poured out another cup. "How much of this do I hafta drink, anyway?"
"Depends on when you feel good enough to get up," answered the taller woman, smiling.
"Ah." He took the second cup and sniffed at it, nose wrinkling at the piercing scent. "Ugh. Then I think I'll be getting up soon, then."
"That's the whole point, dear!"
Ranma snorted, but gamely tried another tentative sip. It tasted just as bad as before. "Does it hafta taste and smell so bad?" he asked.
Nodoka giggled, and leaned in closer. "The truth, Ranko?" she whispered conspiratorially. "No!"
"But. . . ."
"I got into the habit of adding a few extra ingredients when I made it for my husband. Oh, how he hated the taste of it! It was just an extra incentive for him to not drink." She contemplated that idea for a moment. "Not, mind you, that it ever helped."
Ranma giggled in turn. Then he looked down at the viscous, dark drink, and shook his head. "Well, I'm certainly not gonna drink again! Ever!"
"The amount of times Genma said that as well!"
No kidding, thought Ranma. Pop sure never gave up drinking after leaving home. At least, he drank enough while we wandered across Japan - a fair bit in China - and it certainly didn't get any better after Jusenkyo. But after last night - no. The fight with Akane, all the stuff he had told his classmates, even the stupid scanty bathing suit he was _still_ wearing: it was all the fault of last night's drinking. Akane. He sighed.
"Is there something wrong, Ranko?" asked his mother, looking down at him with concern.
Ranma shook his head, sighing again. "Ah, gee, Auntie Saotome. It's - it's nothing. . . ." And then, suddenly, "Umm - is everyone else here?"
"Everyone? Or someone in particular, Ranko?"
He looked at her suspiciously, but continued, "Is Akane here?"
Nodoka smiled. "Yes, Akane is here. She was quite worried about you, Ranko."
Nodoka nodded. "And a little angry, too, I suppose," she said. "Although. . . ."
He drooped and sighed. Angry. Of course Akane would be angry. She had every reason to be, especially after what he had said and done. But it's her fault too, whispered a voice in the back of his head. She insulted you first, she blamed you first, she _started_ it. He cringed. No! He was to blame in this. No matter what she had said or done, Ranma knew he had gone too far this time. He had threatened her. He had almost hurt her. He had broken his promise and ruined her night. It had been her evening out, and he had selfishly pushed her aside and made it his own. Ranma's face burned red with shame.
". . . I really can't blame her," continued his mother. "After all, I am fairly angry with you myself, Ranko." A note of sternness entered Nodoka's voice, and the Saotome 'daughter' stared shamefacedly at her futon.
"I. . . I'm sorry," he mumbled. "I didn't mean to. . . ." His voice choked. He was almost surprised at his own reaction; the feeling in his stomach, the trembling, the fear. Everybody knew. Even his mother. What had he done?
A single finger gently lifted his chin up, and caring eyes looked down at him. "Ranko," said Nodoka, still firm, but with added compassion and softness. "I know you did not mean to - but we did expect you to be more responsible. I do not approve of you drinking, but if you do - do you not think that, maybe, you should be a little more careful?"
Ranma looked up at her in surprise. Was that it? What about. . . .
"You were lucky to have Akane there to watch over you," added the elder Saotome. "Really, Ranko, drinking to the point of passing out! I expected better from you! If your cousin had not found you and carried you home, who knows what could have happened! With all. . . ."
"I passed out?" he interrupted. "Akane carried me home?"
"You don't remember?"
He closed his eyes, tried thinking back again. Talking with friends. Hiroshi. Fighting with Akane (he winced unconsciously at that once again). Swimming. And then . . . and then . . . blank. He shook his head. "I . . . no. I can't!"
"What were you thinking, Ranko?"
Ranma looked confused for a moment. "Huh?"
"Drinking like that? With all those. . . those boys around!"
Nodoka looked at him disbelievingly. "A pretty young girl like yourself, drunk, defenseless, dressed like that, surrounded by. . . ."
"Oh, Auntie - I don't think you have to worry about that," he said dismissively, smirking. "Trust me: the guys at the party don't. . . ah, think of me that way. Heh. You could kinda say they think of me as 'just one of the guys'." But that's not quite true, now is it, intruded a voice in the back of his head. Hiroshi sure thought you were hot, didn't he? So did the other guys. The way they were looking at you - they sure don't look at each other that way. The smile slipped, and Nodoka's half- concerned, half-annoyed look deepened.
"Ranko. . . ."
"No, really," he insisted. "Ok, maybe they _do_ look at me kinda funny sometimes, but they wouldn't _dare_ touch me." 'Cus I'd kill 'em, he thought grimly. Besides, they all know I'm really a guy, anyway. Some of 'em may be perverts - but they're not _that_ bad! "Really, Auntie! If they tried. . . ." He inserted a slightly threatening undercurrent to his voice and mimicked throwing a few punches.
His mother smiled slightly despite herself. "You are such a tomboy, sometimes," she said, shaking her head and standing. "Sometimes I despair of ever making a young lady out of you!"
"I'm pretty hopeless, ain't I?"
Nodoka cast a critical eye over her protege. "Well. . . I know one place to start. We need to get you washed up and into some decent clothing."
Ranma wholeheartedly agreed. He looked down at himself, peeked beneath the sheets: he was still wearing nothing more than Akane's bikini. He felt dirty and grimy and, taking a sniff, he noticed that he even smelt funny, too. His mother was right - a nice, hot bath, and. . . . He looked up at his mother and sighed. Well, ok, maybe a not-as-nice cold scrubbing, instead, and he would feel a _lot_ better. The threat of his mother's idea of 'decent clothing' kind of worried him, but he felt he had already disappointed her enough already. Disappointed everyone, really. He had a feeling that today was going to be a very long, very rough day.
"I'll go and make you a light lunch, ok, Ranko?" said his mother, heading for the door.
He nodded, paused, then turned to her. "Lunch?"
"Oh my, didn't you realize? You slept most of the day away, dear. It is already almost three o'clock in the afternoon!" she answered, and left the room.
He groaned once again. Maybe not such a long day after all. His one day off, and he wasted it away nursing a hangover. _Definitely_ the last time he would ever drink, he vowed - it simply was not worth it. Eventually, and with a final sigh, he stood up and headed to his dresser. Grabbing a towel and taking a deep breath, he prepared himself for the inevitable and headed for the bathroom.

Nodoka Saotome whistled a happy tune as she prepared a light meal for Ranko, hands working with unconscious ease. She always felt comfortable and welcome at the Tendos'; it was strange, really, that one place could generate such feeling of both pleasure and profound disappointment. Once again, her son and husband were gone, training. Though she recognized the need for constant diligence and practice - how else would her Ranma truly become a man of honor, a man among men - she still missed them terribly. Every time she visited, every time she discovered that they had already left, she invariably felt depressed. . . momentarily. For on every visit, there was also Ranko.
Ranko. Such a sweet, spunky, vibrant girl; such a tomboy! So beautiful and confident, almost cocky and arrogant, and yet obviously so unsure of her own femininity and insecure in her development. It had never been made clear, but Nodoka surmised that the young girl was motherless; or perhaps Ranko and her mother simply were not on speaking terms. Whatever the reasons, the Tendo cousin obviously needed and sought female guidance - a sort of mother-figure, as it were. And Nodoka - Nodoka was more than pleased to fill that role.
She frowned slightly as she stirred the broth. Judging by Ranko's current condition, it was also clear that that role needed filling _now_. Drinking to the point of passing out? Picking a fight at the party? According to Akane, her cousin had even been flirting with many of the boys there! Unbelievable. Worse, she seemed utterly clueless as to what could happen to a pretty young girl at a party like that. The matriarch shook her head; Ranko and her were going to have a little 'mother' and 'daughter' talk, soon, before she left.
"Mmmm.. . . ." A voice interrupted her reverie. Nodoka glanced back as Nabiki stepped into the kitchen. "Smells wonderful, Mrs. Saotome!"
Nodoka smiled. "Thank you, Nabiki," she said, returning to her soup. Reaching over, she lifted up the pile of sliced green onions on the blade of her cutting knife, and slid them into the simmering broth. "I'm making a soup for Ranko. With her stomach as queasy as it is, I doubt she could handle anything much heavier." As she talked she continued adding to her soup: celery, carrots, leeks.
The middle Tendo daughter stepped up to the stove and peered in. "Looks good," she said appreciatively, but with a slight smirk. Nodoka gave her an inquisitive glance. Nabiki noticed and grinned. "I was just thinking of Ranko. How's she feeling?"
"As well as can be expected, I suppose, since I assume it was her first time drinking." She paused for a moment. "It _was_ her first time, I imagine?"
Nabiki shrugged. "As far as I know."
"Good. And I hope it was her last. It simply is not ladylike to drink like that."
"No kidding. You'd almost think she was a _boy_, the way she drank last night!"
"Now, now," gently scolded Nodoka, "it is not nice to make fun of your cousin like that."
"I know," said Nabiki. "I know. It's just. . . well, you weren't there, Mrs. Saotome. Ranko looked so rough - so _funny_, when Akane dragged her home last night. And she was spouting absolute gibberish, too. It was the first time I've seen. . . Ranko, heh, drunk. Absolutely priceless - and I've got the pictures to prove it!"
The young girl grinned. Nodoka turned back to her soup, hiding a slight creasing of her brow. After all, they were not her children - but sometimes, she found Nabiki to be just a little too brash for her own good. But it was not her place to say anything. Instead, she gave her soup a taste and nodded in satisfaction.
"Almost done," she announced. "Would you like some?"
Nabiki took another sniff, and nodded. "For sure!"
"Do you think Akane would like some as well?"
"Well," answered the Tendo, "She's been out in the dojo all day - which means that she's probably pretty hungry." She paused as if in thought for a moment. "Did you mention whether Ranko was coming down any time soon?"
Nodoka pulled a small stack of bowls from the kitchen cupboard. "Ranko should be down any moment, the poor dear. She said she would eat right after a quick bath."
"In a moment?" said Nabiki, grinning evilly. "I'll go get Akane right away!" The girl turned and quickly strode from the kitchen.

Nabiki frowned as she watched her younger sister finish a kata in the dojo. The piles of shattered cinder blocks were expected; this was not. Akane was completely immersed within her movements, moving with an intensity and - and abandon, Nabiki realized, that was quite unusual for her. And yet, for all her concentration, Akane's form was flawed, uncontrolled, almost sloppy. Even Nabiki could tell. Which meant that something was bothering her sister, something important. It suddenly occurred to Nabiki that, perhaps, something more serious than just Ranma getting drunk and making an idiot of himself had happened at the party last night.
"Hey, Akane," she called out, stepping into the training hall.
Her sister started at the sudden interruption, and completed her technique messily. "Na - Nabiki," she said, giving her head a little shake. "I didn't hear you come in."
"You ok, Sis?" interrupted the older sister. "You look a bit out of it."
Akane flushed slightly as she wiped the sleeve of her gi across her forehead. "It - it's nothing, Nabiki. Just having a bit of trouble concentrating."
Obviously, thought Nabiki, but why? No doubt that idiot Saotome had insulted her or something last night. Akane's recount of the party had been rather sketchy this morning, and her story had been full of holes, leaving large sections of the night unaccounted for. Nabiki had thought nothing of it - what reason had she to be suspicious? If Ranma had done anything to annoy her, Akane could be counted on to let the world know (as she had this morning); and if her sister had been up to anything more. . . serious, like drinking or something, than what of it? Nabiki had had her first experimence with alcohol at the very same party last year, and remembered that night quite fondly; why deny Akane the same?
But, obviously, _something_ had not gone well. Perhaps she ought to give a few friends a call.
"So what did you want, Nabiki?" asked Akane.
"Huh? Oh. Aunt Saotome just made some soup. She wants to know if you're hungry. Smells good!"
Akane seemed to consider it for a moment, then gave a single nod. "Sure. I guess I am," she answered, and fell into step beside her sister.
"So how are you feeling?" asked Nabiki.
Akane shot her a sideway glance. "Fine. Why?"
"You just seem a bit. . . tense. Still pissed off at Ranma?"
They stepped up onto the veranda. "I don't want to talk about it, Nabiki."
"Oh, c'mon, Sis. You sort of glossed over the details - what did he do? Fool around behind your. . . ," prodded Nabiki.
"I said," exclaimed Akane loudly, as they stepped into the house, "I don't want to talk about that perverted jerk!"
Sudden silence greeted their arrival. Looking around, Nabiki realized that they had all arrived at the table simultaneously: Mrs. Saotome, stepping out of the kitchen with a tray laden with bowls; father and Uncle Saotome (in panda form, of course) crossing over from their habitual shogi-playing position; and finally Ranma, turning the corner, wrapped in a towel and carrying his bath accessories.
Tension levels rose considerably.
Mrs. Saotome was the first to break the silence. With a small frown, she turned to Akane and asked, "Are you talking about your fiance, Akane dear?"
The shift in her sister's demeanor was stunning. She was suddenly smiling - though it fell far short of Akane's eyes and was so obviously false and forced to anyone with any degree of perception that Nabiki wondered how anyone could fail to see through it - and she answered in a too-too cheerful voice, "Not at all, Aunt Saotome. I was talking about. . . about some jerk at the party last night.
"Isn't that right. . . Ranko?" And the forced smile, forced cheerfulness in Akane's voice hit a chilling high as she turned to her nervous-looking fiance.
"Ah - ah," he stammered, eyes flicking back and forth across everyone in the room, seemingly unable to meet Akane's steady gaze.
"Say, how are you feeling, anyway, Ranko?" asked Akane, and this time there was a slight, almost imperceptible tremor to her voice, gone by the time she finished. "You looked pretty sick last night."
"Er, ah - yeah. Fine. I feel. . . fine." He took a hesitant step forward. "I was, ah, just going to take a bath, Akane." He nervously crossed the room; Akane stepped back to give him space to pass by; he hesitated once again before doing so.
And as he drew up beside Akane, she asked, "Oh, and I was wondering if you were done with my bikini yet, Ranko." The cheerfulness in her voice suddenly dropped like a rock, words left hard and cold. "Was it worth it. . . Ranko?"
Ranma flinched back as if slapped, then dropped his gaze to the floor. Finally, after a long-seeming moment, he raised his eyes to Akane's, and matched her glare with a look - a searching gaze, an enigmatic glance - that defied Nabiki's attempt to decipher. Another moment, then he sighed and stepped away. Without another word or look back, he stepped into the bathroom.
"Well, I see she's looking much better!" said Mrs. Saotome with honest brightness, serving out the bowls of soup. Father and Panda nodded sagely before tearing into their meal; Akane calmly sat at the table and began eating methodically. Nabiki shook her head. Something was _very_ wrong here, and obviously the adults were too blind to realize it. It seemed a few calls were in order. After lunch, of course.

Ranma very calmly stepped into the bathroom and closed the door behind him. He leaned back heavily. A deep sigh escaped his lips. Something akin to a shudder traversed his body, tremulous hollow wave starting deep within and traveling to his extremities. One weary hand passed across his squeezed-shut eyes; he took a deep breath and forced himself to relax. He held the position for what felt a long time.
Was it worth it? He recalled Akane's question. Slowly, reluctantly, he opened his eyes, let the towel fall away, glanced at himself, at the clothes he was wearing. Had it been worth it?
And yet, deeper within, beyond the frightening painful emptiness centered in the pit of his stomach, there was an insidious sense that, maybe, possibly, it _had_ been worth it. So Akane was mad, whispered a voice, so what, she's always mad. But now - now he was popular, he had friends at school, things would be different at Furinkan, he wouldn't be. . . be alone, anymore. Besides, the fight between him and Akane was not _his_ fault, it was _hers_, that uncute. . . .
"No," he hissed, voice escaping through clenched teeth. No. He shouldn't. . . he couldn't fall back on that, on old insults and easy excuses. This was serious. Passing by Akane, he had searched her face, her eyes, seeking the slightest glimmer of forgiveness. In vain. Only coldness and hard indifference had reflected his pleading, anxious look. And he realized that, up until then, he had still been hoping - no, expecting! - her to let him off the hook.
But it was not going to happen.
With sudden alacrity he pushed away from the door, reached behind and unhooked the bikini top; with a quick wiggle and kick he tore off the bottom. He scooped up both and dumped them in the bathroom anteroom's hamper. There. For what it was worth. . . the bathing suit was gone. A meaningless act, perhaps. . . but a start nonetheless. It left him feeling slightly better.
Actually, he realized, he felt a _lot_ better. Akane's too-small top had been constricting his breasts for, what, over twelve hours now? It felt good to let his chest loose. But then he looked down at his ample bosom, the soft, full flesh that made him something other than what he truly was, and grew angry. It should not feel 'nice' to let his chest loose, he should never have had to bind it up in the first place! One fist convulsed in anger. Damn curse! Stupid, stupid, impossible curse! He glanced through the sliding door, into the bathroom and at the furo itself; light wisps of steam curled up from the ready and waiting bath. Good. Mother or not, he _would_ return to maleness, even if only for a few minutes. He was a man - and he needed to feel like one again.
Decision made, he stalked over to the bath, not even bothering to slide the door shut behind him. His towel lay in a crumpled heap in the middle of the anteroom. It was inconsiderate for him to climb into the bath like this, still dirty, unclean, without scrubbing; he did not care. He wanted his height, his weight, his manhood back. He lifted one leg up and over.
"Oh, Ranko dear. . . ."
With sudden uncanny speed and skill, he brought his leg down and pushed off the ceramic edge of the bath; he caught himself easily as he fell back, hand-springing off the slick floor, twisting in midair; before his mother could even complete her cursory knock, he landed on the little stool in the anteroom and flipped up his bucket of bathing products with one foot. The door opened and in stepped his mother.
"Ranko. . . Ranko? You haven't even started bathing yet?" she asked, surprised.
"Oh, ah. . . not yet, Auntie Saotome!" he answered, forcing a girlish giggle. "I guess I still felt a little tired, and. . . ."
"Are you feeling okay, dear?" she asked, stepping into the room and softly closing the door behind her. "You look a bit flushed. Maybe I should not have forced you up so quickly."
Ranma shook his head. "Oh, it's ok, Mrs. Saotome! I'll be fine!"
"Are you sure?" After laying a bundle of clothing on the counter, she knelt down next to Ranma and brought one hand up to his forehead. "I can take my bath with you, if you like, wash your back for you. . . ."
"No!" exclaimed Ranma, and then again, somewhat less excitedly, "No. I'll be fine, really." He stood up and smiled. "See, I feel. . . ." Then, realizing he was completely naked, he blushed furiously, snagged his towel from the floor, and wrapped it around his female body. "Ah. . . sorry 'bout that."
His mother smiled, but cast a careful eye over her 'daughter'. "Are you sure you feel fine?" When he nodded, she relaxed and turned back to the door. "Well, okay then. Just remember that your soup is getting cold. Don't take too long, Ranko!"
"I won't, Auntie!" he answered.
"Oh, and I left some clothes for you, for after you clean up," she said as she closed the door behind her. One hand pointed vaguely toward the counter where she had deposited the bundle, then withdrew. The door clicked shut.
Ranma watched after her for a moment, then sank back onto the stool with a relieved sigh. Close - too close. He glanced over at the bath again and decided that, maybe, he _could_ accept being female for just a little longer. He released a dry chuckle. To think, he thought, that I actually believed I could have a little _privacy_ in my own bathroom! As if.
Except, of course, it was not his bathroom, nor his house. It was the Tendos', and at any given time, they had every right to interrupt him, intrude on a private moment - or throw him out. Had they not done so a number of times in the past? He was a guest here, he had very few possessions to call his own, and his residence was a perpetual debt hovering over his head. Of course, now, after what he had done last night . . . Ranma shivered. Shaking his head, he trudged over to the taps and filled a bucket with cold water. He then settled down on his stool and started to lather up. Goosebumps rose as the chilling washcloth passed across arms, stomach, chest.
He continued to wash absently as his mind wandered. What was he going to do? Strangely enough, it seemed as if Akane had not yet told their fathers about what had happened last night. Hangover notwithstanding, Pop and Mr. Tendo would most certainly have been banging on his door the moment they found out that Akane had called off the engagement. In the brief time he had seen Nabiki before stepping into the bathroom, she had not seemed aware of what had gone on, either. So obviously Akane had only told part of the story - the parts where he drank himself silly and had a good time. Was that a good thing? Did it mean that, with time, perhaps they could work this through?
An involuntary gasp and sudden start snapped him out of his reverie, as he unconsciously passed the icy cloth a little close to his private regions. Sighing, he turned his attention back to his scrubbing. At the rate he was going, he would never be done. Although, added Ranma somewhat bleakly, why hurry? Things were only going to be worse out there.
Ranma returned to his task. . . and his stomach, after a quick glance down, sank even further. "Ah. . . aw _shit_!" he groaned, and winced. There, on his inner thigh, was a speckling of brownish red. Blood. He looked closer: more staining, nearer his female genitals. It could only mean one thing: his period. And it looked heavier than normal, too. "Great, just. . . just great," he grumbled. It must have started during the night or something, he reasoned. He tried remembering the last time it had hit - whether he had avoided it by remaining male - tried counting the days - lost track and gave up with a scowl. Whatever. He was a guy, dammit, and all that crap was a girl's problem! With unnecessary vigor that stung the flesh raw, he attacked the dried spots.
Just what he needed. On top of everything else - his hangover, his mom, Akane - did he have to deal with this, too? Could this day get any worse?
And as he doused himself with the rest of the bucket of water, and shivered violently under the sudden cold, he remembered the bundle of clothing his mother had carried in. Undoubtably feminine clothing - with frills and pink and bows and stuff like that. Silly him. Of _course_ things can worse, he groused, standing up and reaching for his towel. Now all I need is for Ryoga to show up. . . .

Spin and rise. Momentary flash in the sunlight as it reached its apex. Momentary hang, then downwards tumble. Unconscious swift movement and the bottlecap was snatched out of the air. Replaced in the nook formed between thumb and index finger, and snapped back up.
Ryoga steadfastly walked through unfamiliar Nerimean backstreets, flipping a slightly crumpled cap every few steps. He was not in a good mood. He was not having a good day. But he nevertheless grinned evilly at the thought of making Ranma's day a whole lot worse.

After quickly finishing off her soup in silence, Akane returned to her room. There, away from everyone, from her sisters, her dad, Ranma's parents - away from _Ranma_, that insufferable, unforgivable, insulting _jerk_ - she could release her anger. It was a slow, silent, controlled release; for several minutes after closing her door and sitting on the edge of her bed, all she could do was tremble, whole body taut, hot tears threatening to slip free, hands twisted in the folds of her sheets, fabric clutched violently. Finally, after an indefinite time, her breathing slowed, the shaking eased, muscles relaxed. She took in a deep breath; she released it; she blinked away the wetness in her eyes and stood up.
She walked in a tight circle in the middle of her room. I need to get out of here, she realized. It doesn't matter where. I just have to leave. I can't stand to be in the same house as him. I hate him. I hate him I hate him I hate him!
"It hurts, Akane. It hurts. . . ." Soft, almost whimpering remembered voice, slicing through the haze of anger gripping her mind. Her stomach twisted in a harsh, sickening knot. "S'not your fault," whispered the phantom voice. Akane's angry steps stopped; the earlier shaking returned. She glanced down at her trembling arms, and hugged herself. If you're so angry at him, she unwillingly asked herself, then why are you so worried?
I'm not worried, she insisted.
"Akane. . . ."
Ranma can take care of himself.
Nothing ever happens to Ranma that he can't handle.
"It hurts. . . ."
He doesn't deserve my concern.
He's an insensitive, mean, cruel jerk!
"Akane. . . ."
"I have to get out of here!" she screamed, threatening tears of frustration suspended in her eyes. Without another word, she grabbed a light sweater and stormed out of the room. Her door slammed behind her, the duck sign banging woodenly in response. A moment later the front door to the Tendo Residence slammed as well.

As Ranma walked along the edge of the canal, he found himself wishing that he could be anywhere else - practicing in the dojo, killing time at Ucchan's, fighting with Mousse - than with his mother; but the very recognition that he could think such things about her left him feeling guilty and vaguely ill, and so he drew closer to her.
"Are you okay, Ranko?"
"Yes, Auntie Saotome," he answered.
It was a lie, of course, but she seemed to accept it. They continued walking, his mother gazing as if in silent contemplation out over the slowly moving water. The sun was starting to lay low on the horizon, having already begun its nocturnal decent; the first streamers of red and orange crept across the sky, and the mirror of their color rippled quietly below. A pleasantly warm mid-July wind tickled their skin. Ranma sighed softly.
I oughta be happy to be able to spend some time with my mom, he thought morosely. He tugged at the high collar of the dress he was wearing, squirmed slightly in its constraining bodice. But he wasn't. Other concerns - the party, the fight, Akane - weighed heavily upon his mind, and the wonderful sight of the setting sun, which drew a pleased exclamation of delight from his mother, was entirely lost upon him. He appreciated his mother's offer of a late afternoon stroll; she was right, the fresh air _was_ doing him some good. But the inevitable nervousness that came with being around her, and the impossibility of forgetting the problems awaiting for him when he returned home - to the Tendos' home, he amended - made it impossible for him to glean any enjoyment out of the walk. Problems; Akane. His steps slowed. Images of Akane's face rose before him: glaring at him in contempt as he asked to borrow her bikini; the widening of the eyes, the profound shock and hurt and look of betrayal, as he applied pressure to her wrist; the violent, unthinking rage as she turned on him, struck him, ended the engagement; the cold, emotionless gaze as he passed her today on the way to the bathroom. And then - as he first recalled truly seeing her: half-leaning over his shoulder, long tresses framing relaxed, happily-smiling face, extending an offer of friendship - 'you want to be friends?' It was too much: the tension between where they had started, and where they now were, was great; an empty unpleasant sensation, a discordant echo of feelings admitted to and forgotten last night, arose and twisted his stomach. His steps faltered and he leaned against the railing, one hand viciously gripping the pitted metal. Eyes squeezed shut against imminent tears.
"Ranko?" Tender arms reached for him, offered a comforting embrace.
Ranma shook his head once. He took a deep breath. He blinked, and stepped away.
Nodoka looked momentarily hurt. "Ranko. . . please dear, what is wrong?"
Looking up at her, up at his mother, at her concerned look, sympathetic eyes, he realized that he needed to talk to someone about his problems; he realized that, maybe, the one person he _could_ talk to was standing next to him, offering support, and was more than willing to listen. He would have to be careful, of course, but the sudden possibility of an understanding ear overrode his worries.
"I. . . ," he started, then faltered. He swallowed. "I need your advice, Auntie Saotome. I may have done something really stupid last night. At the party."
His mother looked down at him for a moment, understanding dawning in her eyes. "Ah. This is about you and Akane, isn't it, Ranko?"
Ranma blinked in surprise. "How did you know?"
Nodoka smiled. "A mother notices these things - even one who hasn't seen her son in ten years." Ranma smiled wanly as she continued. "But it was pretty obvious that Akane was angry today - angry at my son, and angry at you. You girls normally get along so nicely! But not today." She hesitated momentarily. "Would you like to talk about it?"
Ranma nodded. "But not here, Auntie Saotome," he said, and took her by the hand. "There's a park not too far away; we can sit down and talk. Would that be okay?"
Nodoka agreed, and the two - mother and son, hand in hand - resumed their walk. But with each step Ranma found it more and more difficult to remain silent. Now that an outlet had been offered, he discovered a burgeoning need to use it arising within. He doubted his mother could give him any easy solutions, but just having someone listen to _his_ side of the story for once was an opportunity he could not ignore. So it was that, even before they arrived at the park and with very little preamble, Ranma found himself opening up concerning the party of the night before.
"I guess it starts with, ah, me, joining Ranma and Akane on their way to the party." It felt weird, talking about himself in the third person, having to describe an event from a different and nonexistent viewpoint. "Ranma and Akane were fighting. Again." He sighed, glanced up at his mother. She was looking ahead, eyes attentive. She nodded for Ranma to continue.
"Akane didn't want Ranma coming along to the party, hanging around her or something. I dunno why." He paused, then hesitantly continued after a moment's thought. "Maybe. . . maybe she wanted to be alone. With her friends. Or. . . or just wanted a night to herself, without me - without Ranma - around. I dunno." He shook his head and shrugged. "I don't. Anyway, when they got to the party, Akane went her way and Ranma went his."
"And you?" interjected his mother.
"Oh. I, er, I went with Ranma."
"Did he seem . . . angry? Disappointed?"
"Ranma seemed. . . ." He wavered. How had he felt? He didn't know - he wasn't used to, didn't like talking about, his emotions. Ranma thought back to early last evening, walking towards Kiyoshi's house with Akane. When she had asked him to leave her alone at the party, to not hang around with her, he had felt . . . insulted. Insulted, and. . . nervous? But he had replied with insults of his own. By the time they had arrived at Kiyoshi's, they were no longer speaking, and their separation at that point had come as something of a relief.
"Oh, sorry Auntie. I. . . I guess Ranma seemed mostly angry." And yes, disappointed, he realized. He frowned. Why should he have cared whether that uncute tomboy wanted him around or not? Only he realized that her rejection _had_ hurt, and in the aftermath of that unexpected pain had been a lingering. . . fear. Eyes widening, he wondered at his own reaction.
"Was that all?"
He snapped back to the present. "I guess so. Ranma doesn't talk much about how he feels. He doesn't like to whine - I think he considers it's unmanly."
Nodoka nodded, a hint of a smile on her face.
"So we wandered around the place a bit, until we bumped into some school buddies of his. We joined up with them, and then sat and hung around a campfire for a while. And talked, pretty much."
"Really? About what?" asked his mother.
"Oh, mostly about girls and all that - you know, guy stuff."
Nodoka raised an eyebrow. "Ranko! And you stayed and listened?"
Ranma had the good sense to blush. "Well - it's like I said, Mrs. Saotome, most of them think of me as 'one of the guys'. It wasn't a big deal or nothin', and I didn't mind. It was fun, kinda." The irony of it suddenly struck him: for while his words were true, he realized that a good part of the previous night's conversation had also concerned 'girl's stuff' - that is, his problems and experiences with his cursed form. Somehow, he doubted his mother would like to hear that he had discussed his period with a bunch of boys.
His mother's brow creased with a slight frown. "I see we will have to talk about this at another time, my dear. But I'm guessing it is here that you started to drink?"
Ranma gave a careful nod. "Errr, yeah. Well, not quite yet - I didn't start until later."
"And did my son drink?"
He actually considered this for several long moments before answering. Technically, he hadn't. Ranko had drunk - had drunk quite a bit, in fact; but _Ranma_ had left the party via a splash of Ryuta's drink by then, and never actually touched a drop. Nor ever would, he vowed. But at this time he refused to deny that he had drank last night - to do so would be too close to lying, and he did enough of that with his mother as it was. "Yeah. Yeah, he drank too." He briefly wondered why he felt reluctant to tell his mother that her son had consumed alcohol.
She nodded, seeming unperturbed. "So what happened next?"
"Well," continued Ranma, "this guy, this real asshole. . . ."
"Ranko! Language!"
"Sorry. This. . . jerk," he amended, "called Ryuta Uehara came over and started to bully some of Ranma's friends. Ranma didn't put up with it - he hates bullies - and, ah, convinced the guy to leave. But the guy didn't clue in: Ryuta came back, drunk and mean and tried to pick a fight with Ranma. Your. . . your son tried ignoring him at first, but then that. . . that _jerk_ started getting personal. He started insulting Ranma's manhood, called him weak and womanly and insinuated. . . other stuff."
"Other stuff?"
"He. . . ." How to put this, Ranma wondered. He treaded forward delicately, carefully choosing his words. "He, ah, insulted me as well - insinuated that I had. . . you know. . . ."
Nodoka looked down, frowning. "This boy. . . ."
"He said that I'd kissed guys; said that I'd. . . had sex with. . . ." He flushed with remembered anger, one hand clenching at his side.
"I see," said his mother, and an undercurrent of anger darkened her voice. "And then?"
"And then. . . well, he pushed and pushed until Ranma simply couldn't take it anymore. But you see, Ranma didn't want to fight - couldn't fight! He had promised Akane at the beginning of the party that he wouldn't ruin her night, wouldn't get into any fights or anything. But he couldn't ignore the insults to his masculinity! Stuck between his honor and his promise, he finally just. . . just snapped." Ranma took a deep breath. He realized that his voice was loud; he was trembling slightly. He looked up at his mother.
"What did he do?" she asked in a soft voice.
"He grabbed Ryuta and beat him up. Beat him up bad," he answered in a subdued tone.
Nodoka stopped walking and turned to her protege. She gently laid her hands on the smaller girl's shoulders. "Do you think my son did the right thing?"
And Ranma desperately wanted to answer 'yes', wanted to justify his own actions; but he knew he couldn't, he needed an honest, unbiased judgement, and so he refrained from giving the easy response. "I don't know, Auntie! He - he promised that he wouldn't fight; but then, the things Ryuta said - I don't see how he could _not_ have!"
"The things this boy said were mean?"
"Mean and cruel and. . . and untrue!" he answered fiercely.
"They slandered my son's manliness?"
He nodded emphatically.
"And my son hurt this boy? He was brutal?"
Ranma gave a slow nod.
"Good," said Nodoka with an air of finality. Her eyes shone with a hard light. She resumed walking. "No one insults my son's manliness."

Akane hugged herself and gazed unseeingly out over the darkly flowing waters of the canal. She stood oblivious, her thoughts as aimless and twisting as the last hour's confused wandering. But at least the urge to cry is gone, she thought. So was her anger. Her concern. She felt hollow, empty. A shiver passed through her, one unwarranted by the warm night air. After a time devoid of thought or meaning, her knees folded below her; she sank down, hands slipping along the smooth bars of the fence, then holding her up as she crouched, leaning back but hunched over, still looking sightlessly outwards. She noticed a muddy spattering in the dirt by her feet. Oh, look, she noted absently, I guess I was wrong. I'm crying. Strange, to shed tears and yet feel nothing.
But no, not nothing, for as she became aware of her tears, she felt the pain well up within. No, she mouthed, no, not here, not now. Not yet.
Hearing a voice call out her name startled her. She blinked, rubbed the back of one hand across her eyes. For a moment she felt surprised to be squatting by the river, unsure of the exact path that had led her here.
"Akane?" repeated the voice, behind and closer.
She stood, legs protesting from the sudden action, creaking and tingly. For how long had she held that unthinking position? No longer a focus, inner pain faded; a dull expansive greyness took its place. Akane turned away from the water.
It was Sayuri approaching her, and as she neared and caught a good glimpse of Akane her expression changed from one of greeting to one of concern. "Akane - Akane, are you alright?"
The youngest Tendo tried forcing a smile to her lips. "Hi Sayuri! Of course I'm okay - really! - why wouldn't I be?" She blinked rapidly to clear her eyes.
Sayuri stepped nearer. For several long moments she gazed at Akane searchingly, before frowning and shaking her head. "No way, Akane. Something's wrong."
"No, really. . . !"
"Sorry," interrupted her friend, grabbing her hand. "But I don't buy it." She proceeded to pull Akane away from the fence. "C'mon, follow me. I think we need to talk."
"But. . . !"
"No 'buts', Akane!" insisted the long-haired girl. "There's a great little kissaten near here. I'll buy you a coffee, and you can tell me all about it. It's about Ranma, right?"
"Well. . . ."
"I thought so," said Sayuri decisively, and led the way. Bemused, and grateful despite herself, Akane followed without another word. Maybe this is just what I need, she thought. Maybe I just need somebody to talk to.

"One moment, dear," interjected Nodoka, interrupting Ranko's narrative. "Why did my son not want to go swimming with the rest of his friends? Did he say?"
It took a few moments for the young girl to answer, and she seemed very hesitant in her choice of words. Something was nagging at the Saotome matriarch: there was a strangeness or oddity to the Tendo cousin's story that Nodoka couldn't quite put a finger on. Something in the way Ranko stammered before every response; something in the way the girl carefully contemplated every question before uttering a word. But why? Could she be protecting Ranma from something? Or was she simply embarrassed by retelling the previous night's activities?
"Well," said Ranko, "I guess - I. . . I'm not sure. I'd like to think it was because he was worried and wanted to check in on Akane. . . but. . . but in all honesty, I don't think that was it." She swallowed; Nodoka wondered if it was out of nervousness. "Part of it was simply because he didn't have any swimming trunks with him - he hadn't planned on swimming. But it's more than that, I think." Again she paused, thinking, and stared off across the park. Nodoka wondered what she could see in the encroaching darkness. When Ranko continued her voice seemed distant. "I think. . . I think he was nervous. Maybe even scared. Not very manly, I realize," and she glanced up at the older woman, "but - there it is."
"Yeah, scared." Ranko gave a vague nod. "Because. . . ." Her voice trailed off, and her face twisted in frustration. "Because - I don't know! I don't know. He just. . . he can't . . . he doesn't know how to . . . relate . . . say what he means to!" The pigtailed redhead took a deep breath. "He doesn't fit in. He doesn't have any friends. And throw him into a situation like that - something social, something _fun_ - and he's. . . scared. He doesn't know what to do." Almost as if expressing herself had proven exhausting, she slumped forward with head hanging low. "There."
Nodoka looked down at the young girl with some surprise. That Ranma was having trouble fitting in was concern enough; that Ranko took it so seriously, so personally, was further matter of importance. Earlier suspicions consolidated in her mind, and an ephemeral inkling of what the relationship between Ranko and Ranma might be formed. "So what did you do?" she asked.
Ranko started. "Err. . . me?"
"Yes Ranko, you. Ranma decided to leave, and I think I can understand some of the reasons why he did so. But did you follow him? Did you stay at the party? Did you try and find Akane and tell her that her fiancee was leaving?"
"I. . . followed Ranma back into the house."
Of course, thought Nodoka. She would, despite - judging by Ranko's own account of the party - having a good time at the party. "And then?"
"And then. . . ." Ranko gulped and seemed to shrink in upon herself. She lowered her eyes to the well-scuffed ground at her feet.
"Then. . . Ranma met Akane."

"And then you met Ranma," confirmed Sayuri.
Akane nodded. She took a sip of her coffee, and felt strangely ambivalent about continuing the conversation. She appreciated her friend's effort to cheer her up, to help her work through the current dilemma; yet, at the same time, there was a. . . resistance within, an urge to not dig too deep into submerged emotions. I need to talk about this, Akane realized, let my feelings out - but what else might I find?
"And then," prodded the girl siting opposite her.
"What do you think? We fought. Like we always do." Akane scowled.
"Not like you always do. . . definitely _not_ like you always do, Akane. I've seen you two fight before; I've _never_ seen you break off the engagement!" Sayuri leaned in a little closer, eyes fixated eagerly on the youngest Tendo. "I heard - well, I heard lots of things, about what happened, about why it happened. Enough to get me worried. What happened, Akane? I'd like you to tell me. . . ."
Akane stared at her friend, uncertain. She turned away, looked outside. It was dark, streetlights dropping small pools of paleness through which she glimpsed intermittent snapshots of passing life. There, two young girls, walking, laughing, probably friends; but as they entered the next circle of light one was frowning, lips pressed tightly together, as the other continued laughing, oblivious to her companion's anger. Then Akane's eyes shifted, and she was no longer looking through the glass, but at it, the dark, herself reflected. With a sigh she turned back to her schoolmate and, still feeling oddly detached from her own words, began explaining.
"Well. . . after you and Yuka and Keiko and everyone else took off to join the guys at the pool, I went downstairs to grab my stuff, right?" Mouth dry, she took another drink. "Well, that's where I met Ranma. We bumped into each other. He was getting ready to leave. We talked a bit, and. . . well, he was being weird." "Weird? How?"
Akane shrugged. "Nice, weird. Almost flirting, weird." Seeing Sayuri's raised eyebrow, she hastened to add, "He was drunk, of course. The stupid jerk." There was a momentary sadness within, the first emotion she recalled feeling in some time. Why did he have to be drunk, or under magical influence, or think he was a cat, to act half-way human around her? And why did it have to be such an infrequent occasion that she viewed any such extension of genuine kindness towards her from him with suspicion? "Anyway. So we grabbed our stuff. But we didn't leave. Just as I thought we were going to, Ranma stopped and asked me if he could borrow my bikini." She paused, slightly puzzled. Strange. Last night, the idea of that pervert borrowing her bathing suit had enraged her; now, aside from a slight residual embarrassment, she felt nothing.
Sayuri nodded. "Yeah, that's right. I wanted to ask you about that. I saw her wearing it at the pool. That bitch was flaunting it off like it was hers or something." Scowling, she spat out a single word, "Pervert!" as if it fully summed up her feelings. It probably did.
For a moment Akane felt an irrational irritation at her friend insulting her former fiance, but quickly reminded herself that Sayuri's assessment was true. He _was_ a pervert and, though she had never thought to apply it to him, did not the other word fit as well?
"So then. . . why did you lend it to her?"
Akane's countenance darkened. "I didn't lend it to him at all, Sayuri. He must have picked it up after we fought. After I left. After. . . ." Knuckles whitened on her mug. "I can't believe. . . I can't believe he actually went _swimming_ after we broke up!" Another emotion joined her repertoire for the evening: anger. "That. . . that insensitive jerk!" She fixated her glare on Sayuri. "Were you there? What did that baka do?"
Smirking slightly, Sayuri leaned back into her seat. "Are you sure you want to know?" She gestured at Akane's claw-like grip of the coffee mug. "You're looking pretty tense as is. . . and I'm afraid this isn't going to make you any happier."
For a moment - briefly, an instant of doubt - she hesitated: did she really want to know? Her anger with Ranma already felt complete; what would it avail her to despise him more? And yet. . . she had to know, _had_ to know, what had happened during the previous night.
She gave a slight nod for Sayuri to continue, and listened attentively as her friend ran through the events of the party after Akane's departure. Sayuri certainly seemed to enjoy the telling, and left out no detail. The narrative was quite damning, and Akane found a whole sequence of emotions passing through her; or at the least, a single emotion building and intensifying within. Ranma, happily swimming; Ranma hanging around with the guys; Ranma, flirting with the girls; Ranma drinking and partying and playing and having a _great_ time, while _she_ wandered, crying, through Nerima. How could he? And she was _worried_ about him? That . . . that. . . .
". . . Saw her one last time," Sayuri was saying, "as she headed back into the house to use the bathroom. You should have seen her - she was seriously messed up. Drunk, big time. To hear her talk! She said. . . ." Sayuri hesitated for a moment. "Well, what she said isn't important. . . but she had trouble getting it out, and Hiroshi and I could barely understand her, her speech was so slurred. That's the last I saw of her that night. Drunker than I think I've ever seen anyone before. It's a wonder she hadn't already passed out!"
The feverish pounding within drained with such speed and suddenness that she felt cold and empty in comparison. Well, she thought. Well. That certainly explains the state I found him in, doesn't it. The idiot got himself drunk - got himself drunk _fast_.
She slowly returned her attention to her friend, who was looking at her with some concern. It took a moment to understand why. Akane turned her attention to her hand, to the remnants of the mug still clutched in her grasp, the jagged ceramic edges cutting into her palm, the warm liquid spattered across her forearm and dripping onto the table. A moment of incomprehension, then she opened her hand. Broken fragments clattered to the floor. She blinked. "Oh. Oh my. I. . . I'm sorry."
"Are you alright?" Sayuri rushed over to Akane's side of the table, grabbed her unresisting hand to check it for injury. Akane barely noticed. With her anger gone, but her mind reawakened from its earlier apathy or denial by the emotion's passage, a host of questions and concerns were suddenly assailing her. She needed to think.
"You're lucky. You didn't get cut, or burnt." Sayuri's words tumbled out. "You - are you even listening to me? Akane?"
"I. . . I need a moment to think, Sayuri," she answered. She glanced down at her hand and absently shook some of the coffee off. "Something just occurred to me."
Sayuri held her friend's gaze for several long moments, before nodding. "I'll. . . I'll get a cloth, tell the waitress what happened, and, uh, go to the washroom, okay? I'll be back soon, and then maybe you can. . . ah, finish telling me what happened?" She got no response. Frowning slightly, she walked off. Akane hardly took note of her departure.

On a bench in a park sat two women, illuminated palely by the light behind them. They sat in silence. To a passing observer, the similarity of look and dress between the two made them appear as mother and daughter: and if so, the younger redhead had done something to terribly anger her older companion, for the taller woman was staring sternly into the darkness, mouth set in a thin, hard line, while the girl kept her eyes locked despondently on the ground, one foot digging nervously at the dirt.
The mother was the first to speak. She did so without turning her head, and her daughter started at the sudden vocalization. "So Akane left the party, alone." It was not a question.
The younger girl nodded numbly.
"And my son did not follow her."
The daughter shook her head without looking up.
"Nor did you."
Again a slow nod.
"Instead you both chose to remain at the party and enjoy yourselves."
For a moment the younger girl seemed to hesitate, perhaps considering a protest, but then mouthed a barely audible, "yes."
"I see. Furthermore, as a result of the quarrel between my son and your cousin, my future daughter-in-law, the engagement between the two - an engagement decided upon by both their parents sixteen years previously - has been terminated."
"Ye - yes."
"And, in the aftermath of this disaster, instead of remaining to face his dilemma head on like a man, my son has chosen to run off?" This time it was a question, and the older woman turned her eyes, stern and seemingly flashing with barely suppressed fury, upon the young girl. The pigtailed redhead met her gaze for a brief moment before flinching away, crimson- faced.
"He - he left, yes, but, but. . . ."
"But what?" interrupted the older woman, and for a moment her restrained anger was clear, her voice lashing out at the cringing girl. "Eh, Ranko? What? What could excuse my son's dishonorable actions?" With sudden vigor she leapt to her feet, began stalking back and forth before the park bench. "That he drank, I can accept. Men drink, often to excess. That he ignored Akane all night, and chose to remain with his male friends, I, too, can understand. Genma has oft done the same to me, and I see nothing unusual in Ranma doing likewise. That Ranma got into a fight with a bully, that my son broke his promise to Akane, I not only accept, but approve of - the slur against both his manliness and your honor took precedence over his oath to his fiancee. And that my son argued with Akane, and fought with her - well, though I am certainly disappointed, I have come to understand that the two do not always get along, and I suppose that a certain tension between the two is not entirely surprising.
"But that my son actually hurt Akane . . . that he willingly chose to inflict physical pain upon her to end an argument, I find both cowardly and weak and unforgivable, and by doing so he makes me question the entirety of the last ten years of his training and the quality of the values instilled in him by my husband. What of all those training voyages? Were they wasted? Did my son grow up to be a true martial artist, or a mere bully no better than the one who slurred his manliness hours previously?"
"No," yelled the young girl, leaping to her feet. "No!" For a moment she wavered there, trembling slightly, seemingly surprised by her own temerity. But before the older woman could recover, she forged ahead. "It wasn't like that, mo - Auntie Saotome! I. . . he, he didn't want to hurt Akane, he never meant to, he felt, no, he feels terrible that he did so, he'd never, couldn't, do something like that again! Ranma Saotome doesn't hit girls!" Her voice sank to a whisper. "Ranma Saotome never hits girls."
"Well my son," the elder Saotome ground out, "certainly seemed to have forgotten that last night."
"It was - it was the alcohol, and the fight, and, and. . . ."
"And that makes it okay?"
Ranko hung her head. "No."
"And now, when the opportunity exists for him to offer some kind of explanation, to make amends - where is he?"
"He's. . . ." Ranko swallowed nervously, looked away as if unable to meet the older woman's eyes. "He's gone on another training trip. After the party, after the alcohol started to wear off, and he realized what he had done, he felt. . . terrible. Guilty. Unmanly and dishonorable. He felt the only thing he could do was to leave, to train, that maybe through his martial arts he could redeem himself. He left very, very early this morning."
The Saotome matriarch looked at the younger girl for several long moments, and then, suddenly, seemed to fall in on herself. The anger drained away, the fire in her eyes dimmed, as her shoulder drooped and she sank down onto the park bench. "Oh, my son - my son," she whispered. "What has happened to you?"
After a brief hesitation, Ranko sat next to her. "Auntie?" she asked timorously.
"Is my son's life truly that bad? Is he really that unhappy?"
Ranko blinked. "Huh?"
"By your own account, he seems a terribly unhappy young man: lonely, socially insecure, desperate for friendship. . . who does he turn to in his moments of weakness? Even a man among men must tire at times."
Ranko tried swallowing in a mouth suddenly gone dry. "I. . . ."
"You seem to know my son well, Ranko. Do you talk to him much? Is he really that unhappy?"
"I . . . I don't. . . ."
"Does he . . . does he miss his mother?"
The girl gave one single quick glance up at the older woman and nodded numbly.
"I see." And then, "Ranko. . . Ranko, are you crying?"
The young redhead shook her head violently. "No! No, of course not. It'd be silly for me to cry, right?"
"Ranko, it's never silly for a young girl to cry." She placed a comforting hand on her protege's shoulder. "Right?"
The girl's mouth twisted bitterly. "Yeah. Of course. For a girl."
Silence descended once again as both leaned back into the bench, seemingly lost in their respective thoughts. Again, it was the older woman who first broke the quiet. "Ranko. . . do you love my son?"
Ranko started upright. "What?"
Mrs. Saotome faced her with the utmost seriousness. "You heard me, dear. Do you love my son? Are you attracted to him?"
"I. . . No! Of course not." Ranko's red-faced blush was obvious even in the relative darkness. "What'd make you ask somethin' like that?"
The corner of the elder Saotome's mouth twitched slightly. "Come now, Ranko, it would certainly explain a lot: the way you seem to know him so well, the way you followed him around all night at the party, the way you seem so anxious to defend him. You understand him, I think, you obviously respect him, and it seems you care greatly for him."
"Well, er, yeah, sure, Ranma's a great guy and all, but. . . but, there's Akane, right? She's his fiancee!"
"And wouldn't that simply explain the obvious tension between you and your cousin? I'm sure that, despite Akane's protests to the contrary, she feels strongly for my son; and if she discovered that you harbored those very same feelings, would she not likely become jealous?"
Ranko smirked. "Akane, jealous? Yeah, I think I could see that happening."
The older woman nodded. "Especially if, as I suspect, he confides in you more than in her. Is it to you that he turns in his times of weakness? Does he reveal his fears and doubts to you? He could never do so to his fiancee, I'm sure - but to you, a friend, a confidant, might he not let his guard down, even if only briefly? Are you his friend, Ranko? His relief and comfort?"
"I never thought of it that way." She sounded puzzled. She looked herself over, as if in wonder. "Maybe you're right. I - he, he does, ah, admit stuff to me, that he doesn't tell anyone else."
"You see? And the step from friendship to. . . something else, is not as great as some think. Especially when the boy is one as manly and handsome as, by all accounts, my son is." A mother's pride had sneaked into her voice, overwhelming much of her earlier anger.
Again Ranko blushed. "Well, Ranma is quite the. . . ." She gave her head a shake. "But, no, I swear, Auntie, there's nothing between us. I'd never get between Ranma and Akane." Her countenance darkened. "If there was ever anything there." She sighed. "And if there was, it's gone for sure, now."
"Now, now, dear," reassured the older woman, standing up and patting her companion's shoulder. "As bad as things are, there is always hope. Now that I have a better idea of what happened, I think I will have a talk with your cousin. She is probably quite upset, and understandably so, but I doubt things are beyond recovery."
"You. . . you think so?" asked Ranko softly, standing as well.
"Of course." Mrs. Saotome took a moment to look around. Aside for a few other individuals taking late-night strolls, the park was still and quiet. "But it is getting quite late. You have school tomorrow, dear, so I believe it is time to be heading back."
Ranko fell in beside the taller woman as they headed off.
"My son, of course, still needs a serious talking to."
"Err, yeah."
"And I am far from done with you, my dear."
"Ah, me?"
"There is still the matter of your infatuation with my son."
"But. . . !"
"And your unpardonable behavior at the party."
A guilty silence.
"And the way you treated your cousin. Remember, Ranko, nothing is more important than family. Not even a boy as manly as my son. Next time your cousin needs help, you should be there."
"Of . . . of course."
"And there's still the matter of your clothes. . . ."
"Mrs. Saotome?"
"You still dress like a tomboy. We'll make a lady of you yet."

As Ranma and his mother approached the Tendo residence, now bantering back and forth on a far more amicable level, a gradual weight seemed to grow upon him. Each step seemed increasingly wearisome and laborious. The time spent with his mother had helped, had provided a certain hope; but now he had returned to the source of his problems. Did Mr. Tendo know that the engagement had been canceled yet - did he know that his son-in-law had hurt his precious daughter? And, of course, Akane was in there.
But, as they approached the front gate of the household, he spotted a single figure approaching from the opposite direction. His steps faltered and his legs seized up as he identified the individual. Akane. He realized he was breathing heavily.
"It's okay, dear," said his mother softly. "Relax."
He noticed that his fiancee - his ex-fiancee, he reminded himself - didn't hesitate in her approach: in fact, he could almost feel her gaze sweep coldly over and past him with complete indifference. He shivered.
They reached the front gate simultaneously: him and his mother, and Akane. A very uncomfortable silence settled between the three. Ranma tried to meet Akane's eyes but found himself unable to: his gaze kept slipping away and finding some fascinating detail in the road, an errant pebble, the stonework of the wall.
"Good evening, Akane," said the Saotome matriarch.
"Good evening, Mrs. Saotome," answered the youngest Tendo.
"Did you enjoy your walk?"
Ranma felt his mother nudge him. He took a hesitant step forward. "Um, er, hi, Akane."
"How are you, ah . . . ."
"Did you . . . ."
"It's getting late, Ranko," interrupted Akane. "We have school tomorrow. Don't you think we should be heading in?"
Ranma slumped his head in defeat. "Yes."
"Oh, come now, girls," said his mother. "It is not that late, and it is a beautiful night. You should enjoy it!" He glanced up at his mother, amazed that she seemed oblivious to the chill Akane was radiating. "Why don't you two stay out here a little longer, talk, enjoy the fresh air? I'll go in and make you some hot cocoa."
"Mrs. Saotome," attempted Akane.
"Now, now, dear, don't worry. It would be my pleasure. You two have not seen each other all day, so why not take the time to catch up? I'm sure you both have lots to talk about." The older woman turned away, smiling brightly, and slipped through the household gate. It closed with a firm thud behind her.
Silence. They both stared at the large wooden door before them.
Ranma had no idea what to say, and so silence reigned between them. He thought he could feel Akane's baleful glare burning into him, but kept his eyes locked steadfastly on the doors. Willing them to open didn't seem to be working, but he kept on trying. What else could he do? I just know, he thought, that anything I say to her is just going to make things worse. Of course, he added a moment later, not saying anything probably isn't helping either.
Just as the silence was becoming unbearable, Akane spoke: "Sometimes that woman can be infuriating." The tone of her voice was far from being friendly or conversational.
"Watch it," said Ranma, turning to face her and speaking with surprising vehemence, "that's my mother you're talking about."
"Ah. So you can talk, after all."
He flushed. "Yeah. Yeah, I can talk."
"But you don't have anything to say, do you?"
"I. . . ." He hesitated, then straightened his posture. He bowed before her, deeply, from the waist. He held the position for a moment before rising. "I'm sorry, Akane. I really am."
"Oh, well, great. I guess that makes everything alright, then, huh?"
"No! No, but. . . ."
"But what, Ranma?"
"I. . . ." But what could he say. The apology had come easily, the stubbornness that so often intruded gone. He really was sorry - but what difference did it make? Nothing he could say, or probably do, would convince her it was honest; and even if she accepted his apology as genuine, did that change the reality that he had betrayed her last night? "Nothing."
He turned away, felt her chilling gaze continue to bore into his back. Damn, but this was stupid. He should just step away, return to his room. Talking with Akane tonight wasn't going to accomplish anything.
"So. . . how'd you feel this morning? Now? Strange?"
He was surprised by the question: sensing something other than cold indifference in her voice was almost as unexpected as the question itself. "Fine. . . better, I guess. A little tired. The queasiness is gone. The fresh air helped."
"So how much did you drink last night?"
Ranma wasn't sure where she was going with these questions. He shrugged. "I dunno. I don't really remember. A lot. Too much." Way too much.
"What did your mom think?"
"About the party? I told her what happened. She's extremely displeased with her son. She wants to have some stern words with him."
"Ah. But he's not around, is he?"
He looked away as he answered. "No. No, he's left on another training trip."
"Ah, I see. It must've been hard packing with a hangover."
"Akane. . . ."
"And what about 'Ranko'? Where does she come into all of this?"
"She, ah, I. . . I followed Ranma around for most of the night."
"Er, yeah. She also thinks I'm in love with my guy-side. And, ah, that you're jealous of Ranko and I. . . er, Ranma and I. . . of the two of us, and that that's why we're not getting along." He gave a short forced laugh; it sounded sickly and unnatural.
Akane answered with a silence that was just long and deep enough to signal her disapproval of his attempt at humor. "And what did she think of your drinking?"
"She wasn't happy. She said it was dangerous, and unladylike behavior."
Akane snorted. "No kidding. What was it that Sayuri called you? Bitch? Slut?"
His face darkened. "Akane. . . ."
"She told me a lot of things tonight. You had a really good time after I left, didn't you?"
"Akane, no-." A memory surfaced: bumping into Sayuri in the swimming pool, an exchange of words. "Listen, Sayuri and I don't get along; I don't think she likes me."
"Ah. So now you're calling my friend a liar?"
"No!" Why do I bother, he thought. I should just shut up.
"So you did have a good time after I left. Enjoy swimming with the guys? Hey, get any compliments on my bikini?"
"Akane, no, listen. . . ."
"I'm glad you had a good time. See, I was wandering the streets, crying. After all, my fiancee had just hurt me, called me a bitch in front of all my friends. . . my engagement was over, and. . . ."
"Dammit, Akane, whaddya want me to say!" yelled Ranma. "Eh? I'm sorry? I'll say it as often as I have to: I. Am. Sorry!" He advanced on her, punctuating his words with wild gesticulations of the arms. "What do I have to do? Bow? Get down on my knees? Huh?" He stood mere feet from her, his words echoing through the street. "What. Do. You. Want?"
Her level gaze cut straight through his desperate frustration. "What are you going to do, Ranma? Hit me?"
He flinched as if physically slapped. "Akane. . . ."
No answer.
"Can't. . . can't we ever be friends again?"
It was an eerie echo of the night before; he could almost hear her whispered plea: 'Aren't I your friend too,' and recalled his response: a silent, steady stare.
A long, deliberate pause. And then, "What makes you think we ever were?"
He turned away, emotionless, hollow. He knew he could expect no better, yet nevertheless felt stunned by her indifferent response. There was nothing for him here: no hope, no chance of redemption. He might as well make the lie to his mother a reality: grab his father and leave on another training voyage - a permanent one. As he trudged away with steps that felt surprisingly heavy towards the house, he realized that there would never now be a joining of the Saotome and Tendo family lines.

Even before the gate doors had closed behind Ranma, Akane felt her self-control slip and the tears escape.
"Ranma," she whispered, but of course it was too late, he was gone. Not that she wanted to forgive him - she was still far too angry with him for that. His words and actions of the previous night had stung her deeply; how deeply, she was just beginning to realize. But she had never intended to lash out at him the way she just had. . . not so callously, viciously.
And yet. . . had she not taken a certain pleasure in seeing her barbs strike home, twist deep? To see him blanch, to watch the life seep from his face. Perhaps, now, he had an idea of how she had felt. . . still felt, when she let her guard down.
But then why, now, did she feel so terrible?
"Akane, are you coming in? Did you and Ranko. . . oh, my, Akane dear, are you alright?" She heard Nodoka approach her, but twisted out of her imminent embrace, hiding her tears. "Akane?"
"I'm fine, Mrs. Saotome. Really."
"Akane. Please. I'm only trying to help."
"I. . . I know. I just don't feel like talking about it yet."
"If it is about you and Ranko. . . ."
The Tendo daughter gave a bitter laugh. "Believe me, it has nothing to do with me and my 'cousin'."
"And Ranma?"
Akane spun on the Saotome elder. "And it's not about your stupid son, either!" she screamed. "Why does everything always have to revolve around Ranma! Always Ranma! This isn't about him - it's about me!" She took a deep breath, forced her voice down to a more neutral level. Yelling at Ranma's mother wouldn't solve anything.
"Akane, I don't understand."
"And neither do I, really. I've been thinking about it all night - but there's so many things swirling through my head, all these thoughts and feeling and things I just don't want to deal with. . . things I can't deal with, not right now. It's too much, too soon. I'm too tired." She gave a pleading look at Nodoka. "Please. I understand you want to help me. Really. But not tonight. Help Ranko, if anyone. I said some mean things to her, things I didn't entirely want to say. I'm okay, really. I'm just. . . tired." Sick and tired. Of everything. Of the way things are.
Mrs. Saotome looked uncertain, but eventually turned away. "If you're positive, Akane dear. Everyone's already retired to their rooms for the night - but if you need anyone to talk to. . . please, come to me."
"I will, Auntie."
"And Auntie. . . ."
"Please. . . please don't tell my father what's happened. Not yet." She wasn't too sure why she didn't want her father to know, but she did know that, if he was to find out, she wanted it to come from her.
Nodoka frowned, but nodded. "I had not decided whether to tell Soun yet or not. The poor man might not take it very well. I'll wait. . . for now, though I don't appreciate the position you and Ranko are placing me in. Maybe I won't have to - maybe things will get better."
Not likely. "Thank you."
Nodoka slipped back through the gate. Akane took a few more moments to stare up at the night sky. It was cloudy and the stars were obscured overhead. "Oh Ranma," she whispered, "what's going on?" There was no answer, nor had she expected one. Shaking her head, she followed after Mrs. Saotome.
The door to the household closed behind her with a resounding thud.

He lay there in the dark, hovering suspended between dream and wakefulness, the breathing of his mother an ephemeral sighing on the edge of consciousness. Sharing a room with her always made Ranma anxious as he drifted towards sleep: what if he awoke a man, still softly encased in the nightgown she had insisted he wear? Why did the lack of his father's deep rumbling snores - whether a panda or human in sleep - make his sleep that much more uneasy? Or was it the constant fleeting recollection of the day's and the previous night's events that unsettled his rest so?
Normally Ranma welcomed sleep - actively yearned for it, in fact. There had been periods of time in his life when he had seen precious little of it. . . little enough so that, when sleep was available, he took full advantage of the opportunity. Like a good meal, you never know when you might have to go without. It was his earnest opinion that one ought to stock up on a good thing whenever possible: it might not be around for long. The main attraction of sleep, however, was that it normally offered an escape from the chaos and headaches of life: in sleep, calming silence and soothing velvet enveloped him and kept jealous fiancees and wrathful rivals at a safe, non-threatening distance. Sleep was peace for Ranma Saotome, and no matter how brief, peace was always gleefully embraced. He saw precious little of it.
Tonight, however, suspended semi-conscious and semi-aware, proper sleep eluded him as his mind roiled and dredged up seemingly unfamiliar memories:
Pale girl with dark hair, deep and painful sobbing, words of importance spoken but now flitting dimly just beyond recollection.
Darkness. Lurching vertiginous momentum. A solitary click; a face made unfamiliar by shadow and alien expression. And. . . .
Ranma started; his body jerked, spasmodic unconscious firing of nerves jarring him awake. Dream-state remembrances flared once in his mind before fading. A moment later he fell back onto his futon with a sigh, wondering what had awakened him. What a day, he faintly thought, as he shifted to one side and tried to relax suddenly taut muscles. Akane hates me, my mother is disappointed with me, I've betrayed those who took me in. I hope that tomorrow. . . tomorrow; in mid, semi-coherent thought, he faded into a sleep that was both deep and devoid of troublesome doubts and worrisome dreams.

*** *** *** *** *** ***

As Ranma Saotome walked to school on Monday morning, enough things had already gone awry since waking up for him to know that, even by his standards, this was likely to be a very bad day. He scowled at the sun shining brightly overhead and wished for the day, if not the week, to end quickly and painlessly. He snorted. When did an entire week ever pass by without varying degrees of pain being inflicted upon his person? Whether from his father, or a rival, or Akane. . . .
No, not Akane, not any longer, he thought, and sighed. Bitterness sank into depression as he continued his path along the canal. Breakfast had proven chilling: everything appeared relatively normal - Mr. Tendo with newspaper, Pop as a panda eating scraps, Kasumi and Mom in the kitchen, Akane sitting next to him at the table - but his ex-fiancee had made it abundantly clear that she wanted nothing to do with him:
"So, ummm, Akane, how did you do on that, ah, History question," he had asked. The question was lame, but it was the first thing that came to mind. "You know, the one about. . . ."
She had turned and leveled a withering glare at him. "I didn't do it. I had too many other things on my mind, for some reason," she had answered. "Although I'm glad you obviously weren't distracted by anything." She had then turned back to methodically eating her meal. So he had returned to his own food, and a few moments later, breakfast not done, Akane had stood up and left for school, early and on her own.
Nabiki, too, had left early, which meant that he was walking alone as well. It was probably better that he was, considering the mood he had been in by the time he left the Tendo residence. He didn't much feel like talking to anyone, anyway. He'd been talking plenty in the last few days, thank-you-very-much. What I need right now, he decided, is a good fight. Burn off some of this frustration. Where's the good 'ole Puzzled Porker when ya need him?
He noted the old woman washing the sidewalk as he made his way along the road. How many times had she splashed him on the way to school? Didn't really matter this morning, though. He was already female, and dressed in a Furinkan girl's school uniform to boot. I love my mother and all, he told himself, but dammit!, could she ever be insistent:
"You don't think you're going to school dressed like that, do you, young lady?"
Ranma, who had been in the middle of dressing - black pants and scarlet shirt, per usual - had stopped with a sinking feeling in his stomach. "What's wrong with what I'm wearing?"
His mother's frown had been quite intimidating. "That is not a proper school uniform, Ranko."
"Yeah, but the principal don't really care!"
"And it's terribly unfeminine!"
"Auntie, please, don't start. . . ."
"Of course, it's probably just another indication of your infatuation with my son. But really, Ranko, wearing his clothes? Comes from a lack of proper female guidance, I'm sure. Well, while I'm here, I'll see to it that you. . . ."
Ranma had simply sighed, tuned her out, and started changing.
Fortunately, he had been able to catch Nabiki just before she left, and convince her to bring a spare set of clothes to school for him. For a price, of course, but at least he would be able to change back to a guy once out of the house. The mere thought helped to alleviate his low spirits: after being female for so long, he was itching to return to his real gender. . . and get out of these stupid clothes. Hopefully he would be able to track Nabiki down quickly and change before too many people saw him: he had been seen at school in woman's clothing before (in both female and male form, much to his embarrassment), but it still wasn't something he particularly enjoyed. At least he had been able to get out of wearing female undergarments - his mother had been satisfied with just the uniform.
Approaching the front gates of the school, he saw with satisfaction that he still had plenty of time before first bell. Loads of time to get to class, providing. . . .
"Lo! My beauty in pigtails approaches! And adorned in such proper, beauteous raiment!"
Ranma sighed. He really had to get out of these stupid clothes.

"Thank you, Anami," said Nabiki, dismissing her informant. That was the third recounting of what had happened at Kiyoshi's party (each slightly different, but consistent enough on the important details to be reliable), and with each version her anger grew and her patience with Saotome dwindled. Oh, but would he pay, she decided, for treating my sister that way. Would he ever pay.
She looked down at the bundle of clothing Ranma had given her this morning, and smiled grimly. If he enjoyed being female at the party so much, why deny him the pleasure of staying that way a little longer? Settling back comfortably into her desk, contemplating appropriate tortures, Nabiki pulled out a pair of scissors and began to enjoy herself immensely.

"Kuno, get offa me! We're gonna be late for class!"
A solid boot to the head provided the incentive Kuno needed to let Ranma go. The kendoist recovered quickly, though, and fell in next to his red-haired love as they crossed the distance from the front gate to the school. Ranma soon noticed that, instead of harassing him as usual, the taller man kept a watchful eye, imperiously casting his gaze about the schoolyard. His bokken was held low but ready. After a few steps with him hovering about, Ranma's patience dwindled.
"Kuno, what the hell are you doing?"
"Guarding your virtue."
"Ah." A moment later, "Why?"
"The vile cretins who populate this school have been spreading lascivious lies about you, my dear. I have already punished a number of them on your behalf. Let them attempt another slander! They shall taste my. . . ."
Ranma halted and pulled the ranting kendoist back. "They've been _what_?"
"Making lewd suggestions against your honor."
"Insulting me?"
"Far worse, pigtailed one, far worse: some have even insinuated you may be a woman of loose morals! But I believe not a word. . . ."
He yanked Kuno down to his eye level, fingers fiercely curling into the taller man's collar. "They've been calling me a _slut_?" he hissed.
Surprised, but undaunted, Kuno nodded.
"I cannot be expected to remember the names of all the scum that slink about the schoolyard, pigtailed one. But fear not, I reprimanded them properly."
For a moment Ranma felt woozy, sick. It wasn't supposed to be like this: he was supposed to be popular, they were his friends now, he'd partied and had a good time with them and opened up to them! They were his friends, dammit, they had to be, otherwise - otherwise, he had lost Akane for nothing. And he wasn't sure he could deal with that, not now. "What else," he asked, and was surprised at how soft his own voice sounded.
"Pigtai. . . ."
"Did they say, Kuno?"
"Ah. Some said you were a drunkard, drinking wildly without restraint." Ranma winced. "Others suggested you were violent, a 'bully' - obviously, they do not appreciate your vibrant personality as I do. One girl unfairly called you flirtatious and wanton, exposing your. . . your assets and bounteous beauty for all and sundry to see! But I believe not a word of it, not one!"
Ranma absently noticed the slight trail of drool escaping from the corner of Kuno's mouth. Were they saying such things about him? But why? I didn't 'expose' anything last night, he told himself, I didn't flirt with nobody. Except for Hiroshi, right? He remembered and suddenly felt ashamed. But that was in fun, I wasn't being serious, I was joking and a bit drunk, and beside, no one knows or saw. Except for Hiroshi. But he wouldn't tell. He promised.
"And then one evil cur said. . . he said that. . . no, it is beyond telling!"
He tuned back in to the flustered kendoist standing next to him. "What?"
"This man, he said - it is a lie, of course, it must be! - he said that you were found. . . ."
"Naked! Your beauty unveiled! Your skin exposed, curves sultry in the dark, your breasts. . . ." Seeing the frenzied look to Kuni's eyes, the froth at the lip, Ranma took a hesitant step back. "Say it isn't so, pigtailed girl! Have your virgin treasures been despoiled by heathen eyes? Say it isn't. . . ."
Anticipating the lunge, the shorter girl was ready when he leapt forward to embrace her. A swift, solid elbow - perhaps a tad more vicious than was strictly necessary - to the side of Kuno's head put him down for the count. He collapsed, eyes open and swirling.
"You don't have to sound so friggin' jealous, you pervert," muttered Ranma, and resumed his walk toward the school. Aw, sheesh, he decided, I was worried about nothing. I shoulda known better than to trust anything Kuno says. He always exaggerates everything.

Despite the troubles with Tatewaki, Ranma nevertheless managed to arrive a few minutes ahead of the final bell. He felt a moment's trepidation before stepping into class: acutely aware of the blue skirt fluttering loosely about his bare legs, knowing Akane was in there, still haunted with vague concerns over Kuno's warning, Ranma had little desire to begin school today. But he could delay for only so long. Taking a steadying breath, he opened the door.
Did conversations halt momentarily upon his arrival, only to resume in quieter tones? It certainly seemed that everyone cast surreptitious glances his way as he moved toward his desk. He gave a quick look for Akane; seeing her, he considered going to her; but a subtle shifting of her posture, a slight turning of her back his way was enough to convince him otherwise. Instead, he sought out Hiroshi and Daisuke. He decided to join the group of guys they were clustered with over by the window.
"Hey, Red, what's happening?" called one guy, Tanaka. A subdued snicker passed through the class.
It took a moment for Ranma to realize that he was being addressed. "Me?" Receiving a nod, he shrugged. "Fine, I guess." What's up with the name, he wondered. Red? Because of my girl-body's hair? But they've never called me that before. . . . When he joined up with Hiroshi's gang, he was greeted with a chorus of "Hiya Red" and laughter. Noticing the uncomprehending blank response, someone added, "It's a nickname, man. Relax!" A nickname? I've never had a nickname before, thought Ranma, well, except for Ranchan, but that's not the same thing. He wasn't sure whether he was pleased or not - but it certainly seemed to confirm his belief that Kuno's dire predictions were full of their usual exaggeration. Taking a deep breath, he tried to let some of the nervousness he felt bleed away.
Then the door opened, and a bundle of yellow-clad energy vibrated itself into the room: Ms. Hinako. "We have a lot to cover today," she said, "so get to your seats, quickly!" Everyone rapidly started to migrate back to their seats in preparation for the beginning of the school day. Before taking a step, Ranma felt a tug on the sleeve of his blouse.
"Ranma, is everything okay?" It was Daisuke, sounding genuinely concerned.
He shrugged. "Yeah, I guess so. Why?"
Hiroshi gestured vaguely towards the girl. "Well - you know. You're a girl."
"No shit. Been this way all weekend."
"What," exclaimed Daisuke, with Hiroshi supplying the "Why?"
"It's 'cus-," he started, and then, sensing Ms. Hinako's ire focusing on him and his friends, decided that the _last_ thing he needed today was another struggle with the overly-eager chi-draining disciplinarian. "I'll tell ya later, 'kay?"
He dashed over to his desk before Hinako had a chance to say anything. He even remembered to smooth down the back of his skirt as he sat down, and then felt a singular embarrassment realizing that he had done so without conscious effort. I love my mom, he thought, and sighed, but she's gotta go. If I hafta stay in this girl body much longer, I'm gonna crack. His only consolation was that, contrary to Kuno's threats, everything seemed relatively normal.

It was breaktime between classes, and before Ranma could step away to find Nabiki and retrieve his clothes, Hiroshi pulled him aside to explain something.
"I don't understand. . . ."
Hiroshi looked caught between fear and concern. "I don't know who started it, but - well, didn't you wonder what they were getting at this morning?"
Ranma shrugged. "I just figured it had something to do with my hair." He fingered his pigtail. "I mean, there aren't that many redheads at Furinkan, so. . . ."
The blond-haired boy shook his head. "No, Ranma; well, not quite."
"Whaddya mean? It's just a nickname, right? I thought it was kinda, I dunno, cool."
"Trust me, it's not. The guys are being assholes."
"I don't. . . ."
Hiroshi sighed. "Listen, Ranma, do you remember what happened Saturday night?"
"At the party? With Akane?"
"No. After that."
"It's - well, it's kinda fuzzy."
"Sayuri and I saw you, once, near the end of the night. You were pretty wasted, and looking for a bathroom. Ring any bells?"
Another shrug. "Not really." Vague echo: girl, long black hair; mirror; some guy throwing up. "Maybe a little."
"Well. . . I didn't see it myself, but some guys found you."
"Found me?"
"Yeah. Passed out on the bathroom floor."
Ranma felt his face burn red. "Oh shit. I guess I kinda overdid it that night."
"Yeah, Ranma, just a bit."
"But what does that have to do with my nickname?" This time it was Hiroshi who flushed. Noticing his fidgeting, the pigtailed girl felt an uneasy sensation settle into his stomach. "Hiroshi?"
"It's - well, you see. . . when those guys found you, you were, well. . . naked. You must have been going for a crap or something, and just fell off the toilet. So when they found you, your, you know, your bottom was down. This morning word spread quickly that you were a, you know, natural redhead."
"I don't get. . . 'natural redhead'?"
"Your hair down there, Ranma," and Hiroshi pointed at the girl's crotch, "is the same as your hair up there. _That's_ what they're referring to when they call you 'Red'." He took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, Ranma. I don't know what to say. Some of the guys can be real jerks - I guess you already knew that - but I didn't think. . . ."
The swelling pounding in Ranma's ears deafened him to Hiroshi's words. He leaned heavily against the lockers behind him. It was hot, suddenly sweltering, breathing labored and school uniform stifling. He closed his eyes against the mass of students surging past him, veiled smiles, smirks, hard glinting eyes and sly whispers; he closed his eyes against the redness suffusing his vision, fierce anger and fiercer self- loathing threatening to overwhelm him. Deep breath. Control.
'I was going to tell them that it wasn't cool, calling you that, but, well, you know, I couldn't. . . .'
Hiroshi's voice seemed far away, but discernible as the hammering in his head lessened. I shouldn't be this angry, Ranma told himself. It's not the first time I've been insulted. Ryoga and Mousse do it all the time. Taro. Happosai. Pop. Even. . . Akane. And it's never been that big of a deal. It's never hit this hard before.
(But he knew that wasn't entirely true. The first time Akane called him 'pervert,' he remembered, it had hurt, stung him deeply, akin to the pain of today if not matching its intensity. Habituation had eased the bitterness of the word; would being called 'Red', one day, no longer arouse these feelings of betrayal and shame? Briefly he wondered if, each time he taunted Ryoga with 'P-chan', his rival felt the same lacerating rage.)
'Just don't take it too. . . Ranma?'
He would bear it, like he had born the many other affronts in his life. Rivals, parents, teachers, fiancees, friends, and the ultimate insult, the curse: he could carry them without complaint. He was a man, outward appearance notwithstanding, and he would bear this new insult like one. Everyone in the school had thought him a pervert at one time or another - the original Ms. Hinako debacle came to mind - but in the end he had succeeded. He was Ranma Saotome, and Ranma Saotome _always_ won, in the end.
If only he knew what he was fighting for.
"Hey, Ranma!"
"Are you. . . so, ah, you're. . . okay with this?"
"Yeah. Sure. It's only a joke, right?"
"Oh. Ah, good." A heavy pause. "So then, weren't you gonna say why you're wearing that getup? And been a girl all weekend?"
Ranma smiled, and if the smile seemed hard and sharp, and fell far short of his smoldering eyes, Hiroshi did a good job of neither commenting upon it nor flinching. "Sure. It's a long story. It has to do with my mom, you see. . . ."

Ranma did not have time to finish his story before the break ended, and realized belatedly that he would now have to wait until lunch to retrieve his male clothing from Nabiki. An incident before returning to class helped him realize that, despite his efforts and tight restraint, he was still very, very angry:
"I don't get it. Your dad signed a contract for you?"
"Yeah. A sort of suicide pact."
"But you were, like, only four!"
"Pop's a few bamboo stalks short of a full. . . ."
"Hey, 'Roshi; hey, Red - time t'get back to class," intruded a male classmate.
The superficial calm Ranma had lulled himself into through talking shattered. That single word, 'red', conjured up numerous intense and conflicting emotions: hot rage, embarrassment, the mental image of himself lying naked and unconscious surrounded by gawking and pointing boys. Briefly he imagined grabbing the boy by the neck and slamming him up against the locker, but he knew that he could not. His classmates were not martial artists. And by the time Ranma took a deep, steadying breath, the boy was gone, anyway. His anger slowly ebbed.
And now, sitting in class, half-oblivious to Hinako's incessant droning, he could still feel that heat lurking within; in a way, it felt more reassuring than the constant depression and hollowness he had felt since confronting Akane last night before the gates to the Tendo household. A quick glance revealed his ex-fiancee intensely focused upon the teacher. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Hiroshi and Daisuke passing notes back and forth: Daisuke had wanted to know the full story of why Ranma was still a girl, but missed out on it during the break; apparently he was now being filled in. Seeing the slip of paper quickly exchanged gave Ranma an idea.
Pulling out a page from his notebook, he quickly jotted down a message: 'We need to talk. Please? At lunch, by the tree? - Ranma.' Folding it in half, he wrote Akane's name on it, then quickly passed it backwards when the teacher wasn't looking. He then concentrated on Ms. Hinako, in the misplaced hope that his attention to her teachings might draw hers away from the letter.
"So we can see," she was saying, gesticulating wildly at the scribble- covered blackboard, "how the text works on multiple layers of discourse. The wild dogs are, of course, an expression of authorial rage (known, of course, in literary circles as the 'Harnum effect') and an incarnation of the _Hortus conclusus_'s naturalistic lashing out as the protagonists invade this sheltered domain. The odd spectral anomaly which defies categorization and definition is the ineffable anthropomorphized; it is our two characters' ultimate inability to understand this projection of the island's essential characteristics that forces them to flee. Their hedonistic lifestyle when removed from the tight constraints of their previous econo-social framework - rendering them akin to childlike Kurtz' on a smoother moralistic landscape - indicate that innocence remains corrupt and the Prelapsarian state lies perpetually beyond their grasp: for them, paradise can not be regained, though hope remains in the form of their unexpected, and uniquely conceived, child. For, though denied them, the island is obviously the original _hortus conclusus_, the primal Eden despite its shadowy undercutting. The text is aptly named, then, as B-."
Ranma desperately stifled a yawn. He remembered why he rarely listened to Ms. Hinako teach literature. Yet a quick glance revealed that his letter had yet to reach Akane. Why was it taking so long?
"There remain, of course, aspects of the text that still require unravelling. What are we to make, for instance, of the first character's obviously gendered construct? Is she integrated Anima, or something other? As Anima, she is well suited to our second protagonist, especially when we consider his predilection for the stick - obviously, an overt phallic symbol suggesting virility but potentially violent and disruptive sexual desires (and one must recall that, though symbolic of hope, the newborn child was delivered amidst violence and portentous suggestions of innate wrongness; the child, therefore, functions as a condensed synthesis of the discordant tensions between these sexual extremes). The spatial dichotomies also give credence to this type of gendered reading: the low- ground waterfall region indicative of the female sphere - one must recall her fondness for fishing, the raft, and water in general - as compared to the raised areas of male-dominance: the sole mountain, the phallic flint- column, the raised abode. The archetypal imagery is noticeably vivid, emphasized, and recurring. Which begs the question. . . ."
A tickling on the back of his neck snapped him out of his near- comatose state. Without looking, he reached back and snagged the letter. He wondered what Akane had to say. Somehow, he doubted she would want to talk to him. Too bad, he decided. He wasn't sure when the determination had come upon him to confront her, but he knew it couldn't just end like this: whether he stayed or left, the Tendos' kicked him out or not, Akane forgave him or not, things would be made clear. If ever, now was the time for honesty.
If only he knew what he felt, wanted to say, simply wanted.
Glancing down at the note, he immediately realized that something was wrong. It was covered in writing, but in a dozen different scripts: and not one of them was Akane's. A dozen responses, all in obviously female hands, but somehow the message had clearly never made it to his fiancee. His ex-fiancee.
"Jerk. Spaz. Pervert. If _I_ had a boyfriend like you, I'd a kicked you out months ago!"
"Loser, you should be ashamed of yourself."
"Stay away from my boyfriend, you flirt!"
"You're ugly."
"Is it that time of the month, or are you always like this?"
"Big bully! Guys like you should be castrated. Oh, wait, you already have been."
And finally, one that stood out, if only because it bore the author's signature:
"Don't you think you've already done enough? Leave her alone. Bitch. Sayuri."
His hand clenched convulsively, crumpling the note. Why were they saying these things? First the guys turned his curse into a joke, made his shame into a name and presented it for everyone to know; and now the girls insulted and mocked him. Two nights ago they had all been his friends, offering drinks freely, talking and joking, swimming and including him into their company. And now it felt to Ranma that they were all excluding him, again; and having tasted, if only briefly, the easy pleasure of being part of the group, this return to being an outsider was more painful than ever before. He had overheard them all, many a time before, insult and curse him. You're a showoff, Ranma. Casanova. Jerk. Bully. You're too violent, insensitive. Stop stealing our girls; stop stealing our guys. Why'd you do that, it's your fault it's broken, it's your fault the school's always falling apart. Never a thanks: for stopping the principal, Kuno, a bully; or for saving student and school alike from any of a dozen lunatics passing through Nerima. Not once had he ever touched or harmed a fellow student - after all, they weren't martial artists - but this is how they treat him?
A sudden intense desire to simply stand up and leave gripped him, and he wondered, why shouldn't I? What do I gain by staying here, what do I care what these idiots think? The Tendos' is no longer my home, therefore neither is Nerima nor Furinkan. He felt the tenseness grow within, muscles taut, sudden possibility of easy freedom singing to his soul, and he lifted unconsciously ever so slightly out of his seat.
Why stay? These people offered him nothing: friendship, wisdom, respect, care, lo-.
"The answer is forty-two, Ms. Hinako."
"Correct, Akane. Glad to see you were paying attention."
The tenseness suddenly drained from his body and he fell back into his seat with a sigh. The crumpled note fell from listless hands and tumbled to the ground.

Lunch arrived and, as quickly as circumstances would allow, Ranma flew from his classroom up to Nabiki's; but upon arriving there, found that she had already left, and was thus denied access to his male clothing. Instead, an all too-pleased Kuno greeted him with an overly-enthused caress, which a solid throw into a wall of lockers put to a quick end. Disgruntled and grumbling over the necessity at remaining female even longer, the pig-tailed girl returned to his locker to get lunch, only to remember that, in the morning's haste, he had forgotten it at the Tendo's. It was all he could do to refrain from tearing his locker door off its hinges out of frustration.
"Hey, sugar, you okay?"
He turned as Ukyou approached. She was dressed in her usual male school uniform, bandoleer of mini-spatulas draped across her chest and main weapon hefted over one shoulder, schoolbag slung over the other.
"Hey, Ucchan. Yeah, I guess so."
"That's a new look for you, ne?"
Coloring slightly, he glanced down at the blue Furinken uniform. "Long story. Not my choice, trust me. I'm stuck like this for a bit."
"Dark magic? Evil demon? Vengeful enemy?"
"Nah, just Nabiki."
Ucchan smirked, and gave him a consoling pat on the shoulder. "Even worse."
He smiled and found, despite himself, his mood lifting. Considering how everyone seemed to be treating him this morning, a few moments with a genuine friend was a comforting relief.
He followed Ukyou to her locker, waited as she unloaded her bandoleer and textbooks, then eagerly accepted the offer of lunch. As they headed outside, Ranma could not help but notice the many and varied looks and comments sent his way. Lewd winks, hostile glares, shouted 'Red!'s, half- whispered insults. He tried to ignore them all and focused on leaving the building without hitting anyone or anything. Once out on the field behind the school, the okonomiyaki chef pulled out her portable griddle and ingredients, and started whipping up some batter as the grill heated. Without looking away from her preparations, she suddenly asked, "Ranchan, what the hell is going on?"
"With those jerks back at the school."
"You don't know? I'm surprised, it's all anyone's talkin' about."
"Hey, sugar, don't forget I've been at work all morning. I just got here. And I don't listen to what half those bimbos hafta say, anyway. Especially when it concerns my Ranma-honey."
Hearing someone come to his defense was heartening, although he wondered what, exactly, those 'bimbos' were saying about him that he wasn't aware of.
"So what're they saying this time?"
"Aw, the usual, you know?" Then he sighed. "No, not the usual. I dunno. It has ta do with this weekend."
"Kiyoshi's party?"
"Yeah." He paused, then it struck him for the first time that he had not seen Ukyou that night. "Hey, why didn't you come, anyway?"
A tremor of subdued disappointment underscored her answer. "I couldn't get away from work - and, well, I guess Kiyoshi forgot to invite me."
"He didn't invite me either, I just kinda tagged along with Akane."
Ukyou poured a droplet of batter onto a coin-shaped puddle of oil, watched it briefly skip and sizzle. "Yeah. I would've gone too if someone had asked me."
He looked off into the distance, suddenly feeling uncomfortable. Some guys were playing baseball, other throwing a football around. Guys and girls were idly drifting in small pockets, talking, laughing, incomprehensible snippets of phrases and giggles drifting to him on the wind. He wondered where Akane was. The smell of cooking okonomiyaki drew his attention back, and Ranma realized that Ukyou was probably still waiting to hear what had happened over the weekend. With some hesitance, he started to explain.
Ukyou interrupted him as she slid his meal onto a plate. "Whoa there, sugar! Uehara did _what_?"
"Threw his drink at me. Then started making fun of my girl-side."
She let out a low whistle. "Not too bright. What didja do?"
He shrugged. "Beat the shit outta him."
"Yeah. Last I saw of him that night. But I shouldn't a done it. He was a bully - not a martial artist. I should've kept my cool."
"No." He punctuated his negative by stabbing a piece of shrimp with his fork. "No 'but's. It was too easy. And I'd promised Akane I wouldn't get into any fights that night."
"Is that why she's not around? She pissed off?"
Ranma gave a mirthless laugh. "I wish. I wish she was pissed off."
She placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. "What happened?"
His gaze dropped. "We fought. Big time. And she killed the engagement. For real, this time." Ranma shook his head. "It's really bad. I think the Tendos are gonna throw me out, and really, I can't blame 'em. I don't know what to do, Ucchan."
After a brief pause in which she failed to respond, he looked up. Something about the sudden predatory glint in Ukyou's eyes frightened him. She sidled over next to him, leaning in close. Her hands found his and held them in what was, he assumed, supposed to be a supportive gesture. It made him nervous.
"Don't worry about a thing, Ranchan. Your cute fiancee will take care of everything: when you get - I mean, _if_ you get kicked out - we wouldn't want _that_ to happen, of course, but, let's face it, sugar, when dealing with the Tendos, you never know _what_ to expect - you can come stay with _me_!"
She silenced him with a finger placed firmly (a little _too_ firmly, he thought) against his lips.
"I know what you're going to say. Don't worry, it's not a problem, really! And if you're worried about the money. . . don't be! You can work at the _Ucchan_ during your free time, after all, you make one hell of a waitress."
"Hey, waita. . . ."
"Oh, this is just so exciting!" She was almost bouncing up and down with glee. "We'll have to figure out what to do with your sack-of-lard father, of course. Maybe a kiddie-ride? We can set up a. . . ."
"Er, yeah. Hold that thought." He jumped to his feet, catching a sudden glimpse of Nabiki off in the distance. "I, ah. . . gotta go." Without waiting for an answer, he sprinted away. Crossing the field, he asked himself, what was I thinking, telling her that? I keep forgetting: Ucchan's not a friend. She's a fiancee.

Dealing with Nabiki, Ranma mused, was somewhat akin to dealing with a cat: though small and relatively harmless looking, her outward appearance belied the terrifying and formidable foe that lurked behind the facade; and just like a cat, she was as prone to simply toy with her plaything - claws retracted and playfully boxing to relieve boredom - as she was to shred her prey once her ire was raised. And like most encounters he had endured with felines, he more often than not came away from Nabiki feeling both drained and humiliated. The difference, of course, was that at least cats usually left his wallet unharmed; not so the middle Tendo daughter. Shivering unconsciously, he tried to banish the persistent image of a languorously stretching Nabiki dressed in a cat-suit from his mind.
Approaching her and the accompanying circle of friends, he couldn't help but feel he was entering into what would be a very difficult and costly battle. He suddenly wondered if, like everyone else, she had heard of what transpired at Kiyoshi's party two nights ago.
One glance at her and Ranma understood that Nabiki knew. She was angry. Normally she kept careful control of her emotions, but as she took note of his approach clear and unmistakable anger swept across her features, washing aside the casual pleasure she seemed to enjoy with the other girls. But whereas they cast hot, hostile looks his way, Nabiki's anger was cold: it glinted glacially beneath narrowed eyes and betrayed itself through a clenched fist, her stiffened back. The girls he ignored with ease; Nabiki's unwavering diffident gaze chilled him. Steeling himself, he walked up to her. Again he railed against the shortness the curse imposed upon him when in his female body: it was hard to feel confident when all the girls, Nabiki included, seemed to tower overhead.
"Nabiki," he started, but was cut off as one of her lackeys - Anami was her name, he remembered - barred the way.
"You have some nerve," she hissed. "You bastard."
"Hey, I-."
Another girl, Akemi, joined her friend. "Go away, you jerk."
He felt himself losing ground. Like in any battle, momentum was everything, and his had been cut away before getting a single word in. He had never been good at confrontations with girls, especially when they didn't involve martial arts. Ignoring an instinctive urge to back away and leave, he ignored the two and called past them. "Nabiki - Nabiki, c'mon, I just wanna talk!"
"Why should she talk to an asshole like you?"
"You get your thrills beating up on girls?"
"Akane wasn't enough, you want to try her sister now, too?"
"You think we're going to let you?"
The sudden and intense anger that roiled and surged up within him must have been apparent in his face, for a flicker of fear swept across the gathered girls and they took a hesitant step back. How dare they accuse me of that? I do _not_ beat up on girls, he thought, but at the same time, _do they really think they could stop me_ flashed across his mind as he unconsciously assessed the fighting ability of the young women before him. That they would suggest he would purposefully hurt Akane, could take pleasure in harming Nabiki, fed his rage; but the realization that he considered - no matter how briefly - actually fighting his way past his accusers was like water on fire, dousing his emotions and leaving him feeling momentarily stunned.
A short, calming breath, and he tried again, a hint of pleading creeping into his voice. "Nabiki, I-."
Anami obviously found enough courage to cut him off again. "You just don't," she started, but was in turn interrupted by Nabiki.
"It's okay, girls. I've been meaning to talk to Saotome, anyway. Now's as good a time as any."
Reluctantly and with evil eyes, Nabiki's friends backed off. The Tendo sister came forward and, without a word, took Ranma by the arm and pulled him aside. With enough distance to ensure a modicum of privacy, she confronted him.
"So. What can I help you with, Saotome?"
"Well. That is. . . I - I'd like my clothes back. Nabiki. Ah, please?"
"Is that all?"
"Umm, yes?"
"No, Ranma, that is not all. Not by a long shot."
Her voice was only slightly above a very hard, very dangerous whisper. He gulped.
"Then, what-."
"What else? There's the little matter of my sister."
"No, Kasumi. Of course Akane, you dolt. There's a lot of rumors going around right now, Saotome. Really nasty stuff. About Kiyoshi's party. About you. You drinking. You and my sister."
"Nabiki. . . ."
"Did you hurt my sister?"
"You don't. . . ."
"DID YOU HURT MY SISTER?" Her voice, loud, angry, sharp, seemed to echo across a schoolyard that was suddenly eerily quiet.
His gaze dropped to the ground, unable to meet hers any longer. "Yes," he whispered.
"Did you hit my sister?"
And now his head snapped back up, shocked at the very idea. "No!"
There was a brief moment in which penetrating, appraising hazel eyes locked with his. She gave the slightest of nods, as if coming to a decision. Some of the tenseness seemed to ease out of Nabiki. "No, I suppose you didn't. That's not like you. You may be a jerk-and-a-half, Ranma, but I don't think you'd hit my sister."
He suppressed a sigh of relief.
"But you _did_ hurt her, and you're going to pay for that." His hand twitched instinctively for his wallet, before he realized that, what with wearing a skirt and everything, he didn't have it on him. The motion was not lost on Nabiki. "Oh no, Saotome. You're not going to get off that easy. You think you can bribe you way out of something like this?" Her eyes glinted. "This isn't some blouse you've stained or some cooking experiment you've avoided or some meal you sneaked off to behind my sister's back: this is family."
She punctuated her statement with a sharp jab of the finger to his chest. Her now-raised voice was easily heard by the numerous onlookers and eavesdroppers. "Family, Saotome. Nobody - not even the 'mighty' Ranma Saotome - messes with a Tendo and gets away with it! Understand? Did you really think _money_ would excuse what you've done?"
Ranma, visibly sweating, swallowed nervously. He hated it when Nabiki got like this. The image of Nabiki-in-a-cat-suit flashed before his eyes again, rearing back and paws ready to strike. Did claws glint in schoolyard sunlight? "No - no! Of course not!"
"That's right, Ranma," she said, stepping forward. "Not money. . . ."
"Then - then what?"
"I expect nothing less than . . . ."
He winced in anticipation.
"A full calendar-style photo shoot! No, make that two! A swimsuit edition and a lingerie edition!"
It took Ranma's brain a moment to recuperate, and Nabiki was there to help him recover from were he lay sprawled on the ground. He was only dimly aware of the laughs and jeers coming from around them; his attention was entirely fixated on her. What was Nabiki up to? She was waving and grinning at her friends and schoolmates as she pulled him to his feet.
But then her grip tightened, surprisingly painful on his arm, and she addressed him in a whisper he knew was meant for his ears only. "I'm serious, Ranma: you're not off the hook. When I'm done sifting through the rumors and exaggerations, I'll know exactly what went on. If what I've heard is true, and Daddy-dearest finds out, you'll find yourself kicked out of the house so fucking fast your chestnut fist'll seem a parlor trick in comparison. You messed up big, Saotome, and it's gonna cost you, big. Silence ain't cheap." She released her grip on his arm.
"Ta ta!" She turned and walked away, speaking to him over her shoulder, voice back to normal. "And we'll set up an appointment for your 'session' later."
It was a testament, perhaps, to how seriously he wanted to return to manhood that, momentarily pushing aside concerns over what she had said, he called out after her. "But, Nabiki - what about my clothes?"
She glanced back and smirked. "What, you think I'm going to waste the rest of my lunch break on _you_? Get real. I heard you had a good time as a girl at Kiyoshi's, so what's one more afternoon?"
Nabiki rejoined her circle of friends. Ranma, after a few moments, trudged off as well. He had no idea where he was going, he only knew that he was heading there alone.

The guys were hanging out behind the school, leaning against the tree and sprawled out in the dirt.
"Yeah, Kiyoshi, that was your best yet!"
"You think?"
"_Definitely_, man."
"Didja invite all those people?"
"Nah. But I figured, you know, invite ten, twenty buddies, they bring their girlfriends, they tell their friends, word spreads. . . at peak, rough count, I'd say over a hundred were there at a time."
"Yeah. But next time. . . ."
"There _will_ be a next time, right?"
"Of course! But next time, somebody's gonna be bouncer."
"Damn straight! I had busted chairs, weird shit floating in the pool, a hole in the basement wall; smashed bottled _everywhere_, and, like, even the fridge got raided! And then, of course, fights. . . ."
"You mean, like Ranma and Uehara?"
"Or Ranma and Akane?"
"Yeah. And others."
"Really? Who?"
"Well, Tanachi and Saeko pushed each other around a bit."
"Was it over that foreign girl again?"
"Yeah. Somebody tangled in my sis's bedroom, too: had to wash the blood outta the sheets and everything - man, was she _pissed_, even threatened to tell my parents."
"Damn. But, I mean, who'd you use? With people like Ranma and Uehara crashing your party, you'd hafta be nuts to be bouncer."
"Yeah, I guess."
"Unless. . . hey, you could ask Ranma or something!"
"You're kidding, right?"
"Well. . . ."
"No way. I mean, I used to think he was pretty okay, you know? A bit weird and all, what with turning into a chick and all that - but, well, still an okay guy. And now? Shit, the guy beats up on his girlfriend!"
"I dunno, man. I thought she just dumped him."
"Yeah, sure, because he came in all hammered and everything, tried pawing at her. But when she pushed him away he got all violent and shit. Threw a punch at her. But Akane, she's a martial artist too, right? Blocked him and dumped him - which pissed him off even more - then took off. Ranma was, like, so flipping out that he almost started beating up the other guys around him!"
"No way!"
"Yeah, Kaori told me! But if you don't believe me, go check Kokichi's neck: he's got the strangle marks to prove it. Or go ask Sayuri, she was there, she'll tell ya what happened."
"Wow. I had - I had no idea. I always thought he was, you know, all things considering, a pretty nice guy."
"Yeah. Me too. But you know, those martial arts types, you just can't trust 'em!"
"I guess. . . ."
"Aw, shit. There's the bell. Let's go."
The group scrambled to their feet and took off at a jogging walk towards the school. A minute later, with some rustling and a flutter of leaves, Ranma Saotome jumped from his perch amidst the branches of the tree. He took a moment to smooth down his skirt and brushed some dirt from his blouse, and then, once Kiyoshi and his friends were out of sight, slowly followed their path back towards Furinkan.

Hiroshi watched in silence from the rear of the class. An ill feeling brewed in his stomach. Having overheard the escalating rumors, the exaggerations, the speculations, he knew that Ranma could not be taking this well. Thus he was surprised when, just before the second bell rang, the pigtailed girl strode into the classroom and took her seat. She seemed calm, face expressionless and placid. Without a word she pulled out her textbook and notepad, placed her hands softly on the desk, and, looking straight ahead, quietly awaited the arrival of the teacher.
Conversation died upon her arrival but quickly resumed. There were numerous verbal taunts and insults that must of reached her ear, but not once did she acknowledge the speaker nor turn in her seat. No one approached her directly.
"She's taking it pretty well, I think."
"I dunno, Daisuke," answered Hiroshi. "I've never seen her like this. Ranma's not the quiet type."
"Aw, heck, she gets teased plenty."
"Not like this, man."
"True. Hey, know what the latest rumor I've heard is? That she's actually buddies with Uehara. No shit! Supposedly she set up the whole fight thing, to look good or something."
"That's such bullshit! This crap's getting out of hand. Know what I heard? That after getting drunk she screwed a coupla guys at the party. It's. . . it pisses me off!"
Daisuke paled. "Oh man."
"She - er, he'll be _really_ ticked off when he finds out about that one."
Then the teacher took his place at the front of the class and, after a quick scurry to their respective desks and the ringing of the second bell, the students were washed over by an incessant droning that was intended to warm their youthful hearts to the wonders of introductory algebra. It failed, and a flurry of secretive note-passing commenced. Hiroshi had little doubt what the subject of the numerous little papers were.
The only two students who appeared to be paying attention, he noted, was the broken couple. That Akane was listening was nothing unusual; Ranma, on the other hand, had never proven to be the best of students. Yet there she was, sitting primly and straight-backed at her desk, diligently taking notes and listening to the teacher with the utmost attention and focus.
Could it be she wasn't aware of the stories going around about her? Or maybe Ranma had simply dismissed them. Some of the tales were, after all, so obviously overblown that only a complete idiot would believe them: Kuno had, over the lunch-break, sworn no less than seven oaths of vengeance, death, and humiliation against 'that vile sorcerer' and 'abuser of women' Ranma Saotome.
Problem was, some of the rumors and insults being passed around were far subtler and contained disturbing snippets of the truth. Minor manipulations of the fight between Ranma and Uehara, twists of Ranma's words from around the fireplace that night, slight embellishments of the incident with Akane: these near-truths promised to wound the martial-artist far deeper than any obvious lie. By turning her self-confessed weaknesses against her - fears concerning menstruation, facets of her youth, hints of unhappiness, aspects of that night - these insults were proving far uglier than any in the past.
And it's my fault, Hiroshi thought. I promised Ranma I wouldn't tell anyone the stuff she told me, she trusted me, she confided in me, and I betrayed her. Without realizing it, he had provided Sayuri with the ammunition she needed to strike back at the man that, for reasons Hiroshi couldn't fathom, she seemed to hate. And so I sit back and let my girlfriend spread lies about my friend, he told himself, and I sit back as the guys call her 'Red,' and the girls call her a red-haired bitch, and the one night Ranma allows herself to relax and open-up gets twisted into another example of why she shouldn't. I sit back and say nothing and don't come to my friend's defense and don't even hang out with him over lunch.
And though he tried to rationalize it - it's partly Ranma's fault, she isn't helping by coming to school as a girl, she _did_ act like an ass getting drunk like that; Akane isn't helping either, staying quiet and keeping to herself - he knew, in the end, the real reason why he didn't say anything: cowardice. After all, he was part of the group, he finally had a girlfriend - a popular one at that! - and he could not bring himself to risk all that with a gesture that would ultimately achieve nothing, anyway.
Feeling sick at his own inability and unwillingness to come to his friend's aid, Hiroshi sank deeper into his seat and awaited the end of class.

Afternoon gym: the period he had eagerly awaited all day. A chance to let off some steam, to work off some aggression. To prove he was the same Ranma as the week before, and the month before that. And, more importantly, the last class of a day that had, even more than anticipated, proven to be very, very bad.
But now, once again, even this simple pleasure was being denied him. Someone had broken into his locker and stolen his gym clothes. Realizing belatedly that he could have worn _those_ if he had turned back into a man this morning did nothing to improve his mood. This loss of another opportunity to return to maleness overshadowed even his outrage at having the privacy of his locker violated. For the umpteenth time that afternoon he took a deep, calming breath and clenched his fist so tight he felt nail dig painfully into calloused palm.
When he opened his eyes he felt another's gaze upon him; and glancing to the side, saw Akane, reaching into her locker, looking at him. Their eyes locked, and for the indeterminable time during which nothing existed but those large, soft, brown eyes, the troubles of the day faded into inconsequentiality. For a moment - the briefest of moments - she even seemed to look at him with sadness, or regret, or sympathy; but then her gaze hardened, and she looked away, and pulling her gym bag from her locker, left without another word.
He sighed and trudged, alone, towards the gym.
His lack of proper clothing did not concern him overly much. After all, school dress regulations had meant little to him in the past, and neither the skirt nor blouse would hinder his athleticism. If fighting with a pig chained to his wrist had taught him anything, it was how to ignore the little distractions when it was time to perform.
Unfortunately, it seemed that, once again, this day would not be going his way.
The boys and girls quickly separated into their respective groups, the former to play soccer and the latter, baseball. Ranma moved to join the other guys when a hand pulled him back.
"Sorry, Saotome, but no-can-do."
He gave the coach a quizzical glance. "Huh? Why not?"
"Aw, c'mon Coach, I've never had to wear a uniform before!"
The teacher scowled at that. "Just because you got away with it in the past doesn't make it right, Saotome! But that's not the reason. I just can't have you running around out there dressed like that."
"But it's no big deal, honest," protested Ranma. "Just 'cus I'm wearing a stupid skirt don't mean I can't play soccer!"
"It's not that. It's your shoes. Mandatory policy: you have to wear proper footwear out there. School's worried you might slip and hurt yourself."
"Not 'buts,' Saotome. I know you're pretty tough, but rules are rules, and _this_ one the principal hasn't excluded you from. You'd be a distraction to the team, anyway, dressed like that. So no soccer." The teacher looked around, them motioned over towards the baseball diamond. "Err, I dunno. Go join the girls, play some baseball."
Ranma opened his mouth, closed it, and, glowering, turned away and stalked towards the girl's end of the field. Improper footwear? Hurt himself slipping on the grass? Distraction? What kind of bullshit was this, anyway? Well, whatever. Although not as enjoyable as a rousing game of soccer, maybe knocking a few balls into the stratosphere would prove as satisfying.
But as he approached the diamond, he knew that would probably prove unlikely. He steeled himself to continue as, upon noticing his arrival, the girls stopped their game and turned what seemed a collective glare his way. The assistant coach came forward.
"Ah, sorry about this, Mrs. Tanaka," he said. "Coach told me to join the girls today. 'Cus of my uniform. Guess it's okay for baseball, tho'."
Tanaka shrugged. "Fine." She gestured towards the bench. "You can join the red team. You'll be up at bat after Yuka."
Ranma sat next to Akane's friend.
"I'm sorry, Ranma." A faint whisper reached his ear, and to his surprise he realized it was Yuka. She didn't look at him but, eyes downcast, spoke softly again. "I really am." And then she stood up and stepped away. After a moment Ranma realized that all the girls in the dugout were moving back, effectively isolating him on the bench. They turned baleful eyes his way and said nothing.
A moment later the assistant coach realized that the game had ground to a halt and, looking up from her clipboard, walked over to the diamond. "What's going on, girls? Why aren't you playing?"
"Because of _her_." Sayuri stepped forward off of first base and pointed an accusing finger at Ranma. "We don't want to play with _her_."
After a quizzical glance Ranma's way, Mrs. Tanaka asked, "What's wrong with Saotome? Err, other than the obvious, I guess." The last was muttered but, to Ranma at least, quite audible.
"Well, she's a _guy_!"
"But she's a girl right now!"
"But we all _know_ she's really a guy - and this is supposed to be a girl's game. I'm sorry, Mrs. Tanaka, but I just don't feel _comfortable_, knowing a guy, even one wearing a skirt, is playing with us."
After a sigh, the assistant coach addressed the rest of the girls. "Does anyone else feel this way?"
About half the hands immediately shot up, soon followed by most of the rest. A few girls seemed reluctant, some even angry, but eventually nevertheless joined the rest of their peers; Yuka, Ranma noted, was the last to raise her hand. To his surprise, however, Akane, standing somewhat back from the other girls and bearing a neutral expression, kept her arms at her side. She spared a quick glance his way before staring out into left-field.
Mrs. Tanaka approached the bench and kneeled next to the sitting redhead. "Listen," she said, softly. "I don't know what's going on here. They're not being fair, but if I let you play, they won't - and it'll go up the ranks that I couldn't control my class, and it'll be on my head. I'm sorry, Ranma. I guess - I guess you'll have to sit this one out. Watch from the sidelines or something."
I almost made it through the entire day, he thought. I was so close.
There was a long moment of silence and absolute clarity.
Without a word, without the slightest acknowledgment, Ranma stood. He spared a long look at the girls gathered on the diamond, slowly scanning across them. The brief surge of contempt he felt for them, though quickly gone, must have been apparent in his face: for some, unable to meet his gaze, looked away. He ended by matching stares with Sayuri. Her lips curled into a sneer of triumph; in response, he smiled, ever so slightly, and watched the sudden uncertainty that flickered across her eyes. Then, walking forward - he took no pleasure, nor shame, from the hesitant steps back some of the girls took at his approach; much to his own surprise, he felt curiously nothing about the situation - he picked up the dropped baseball bat and ball. For a moment he gazed off into the distance, into the clear unspotted sky. He lightly tossed up the ball. For a moment it seemed suspended. With as much strength as he could muster, with all the control and fluidity and power that seventeen years of martial arts training had wrought, he slammed the ball into the distance. It disappeared with a resounding crack.
Lip curling into a thin one-sided smile, he nodded in satisfaction, then softly lay the bat back on the ground. He turned. Walked away. Enjoyed the silence left in his wake and the certainty that a decision made brought.
He was dimly aware, as he strode towards the school in an unhurried but unflagging pace, that the teachers were calling after him; that the students behind had regained their voice; that some were following him; that insults were being hurled his way: but he cared not. Entering the halls of Furinkan, he made his way to his locker. Those who had followed stayed a respectful distance away as he calmly entered his combination, opened the door, removed his schoolbag, closed and re-locked the door. He continued his path through the school.
The crowd of followers grew bigger, as the rest of his class caught up, as extra teachers were called in, as more students noticed the procession. Passing by a bathroom, Ranma halted. He disappeared within, and in his absence uncertainty prevailed: should someone follow him? Before a consensus could be reached, he reemerged, smiling: that smile grew as, taller, more muscular, dark-haired - _male_ - he resumed his march. A minute later, he stopped once more before another locker. The lock on it was of a quality and level of sophistication obviously superior to any other around it. Nabiki's. After a second's thought, he grabbed the door on either side and easily yanked it off its hinges. He felt rather than saw the collective start of those watching as the metal shrieked, bolts popping, and he tossed the locker door aside with a loud clatter. Rummaging quickly through her stuff, he soon retrieved a clothing bag. With a sense of triumph he pulled out his clothes.
His grin flagged slightly when he saw their condition. Someone - Nabiki, he presumed - had taken a pair of scissors to his pants and shirt. There were a number of very unflattering kanji slashed into the fabric. His favorite red shirt and black pants were quite unwearable. With a shrug he tossed them aside. So what, he decided, if I'm a guy wearing a skirt and blouse. Who cares what these people think. They mean nothing to me.
Ranma walked straight towards them, and they stepped aside before his unwavering stride. He did not know what he would have done if someone had actually stood up to him; he figured it would most likely have been quite violent and something that, much later, he might regret. But at this moment, with the sea of blank, insignificant faces parting before him, with all the emotions and passions and memories of the day faded into a dull smothering haze enveloping him, he cared very little indeed.
One face - briefly glimpsed, quickly avoided, utterly unreadable - nearly penetrated that consumptive hollowness: but even Akane's brown, brown eyes failed to reach him.
As he cleared the last of the students and faculty that had followed him, he stopped. Faced them. Again his lip curled up into that enigmatic half-smirk. He cleared his throat, took pleasure in the feeling of his newly-returned Adam's apple bobbing within. Gave a slight bow from the neck.
"I'm Ranma Saotome," he said. "Sorry 'bout this."
Turning his back on them all he left Furinkan High School.

*** Dilemma Ends ***

Continues in Choices: Contemplation