Before anyone starts getting upset that I've disappeared for a month, allow me to explain:

1. My grandfather has been very, very ill. The whole family has been worried for about six or seven months, but the last one was the worst. Three days ago, my grandmother called an ambulance to take him to the hospital. Yesterday, he finally got the surgery he needed.

2. There have been several birthdays in my family, which has taken quite a bit of attention from my writing.

3. About three weeks ago, my family adopted a new puppy. As I am the one who spends the most time at home, I am her primary caretaker, and I cannot long afford to take my eyes off her to write, since she will utterly destroy anything she can sink her teeth into. Cute, though.

4. I got a Wii U recently, and I've been spending a lot of my (admittedly, rare) spare time playing around on that. Not really an excuse, but there it is.

So, there it is. Number 3 will be the biggest impediment to my writing from here on out, I should think. The puppy is actually asleep just behind me at the moment, which is the only reason I'm daring to take my eyes off her in order to post this. I'll try to write whenever I can steal a few moments, but my schedule these days is a bit unpredictable.

Disclaimer: I do not own Ranma ½ or anything associated with it. All rights to Ranma ½ belong to Rumiko Takahashi and the other proper entities.

Summary: Sometimes a small shift makes all the difference. This is the world of Ranma ½ if the engagement hadn't been forced on them straight away, and Ranma, Akane, and their assorted suitors and rivals had actually been reasonable. "Against Genma's wishes, Soun had decided to wait and see which one the boy seemed the most suited to before he engaged one of his daughters to him."

Rating: T, for language

Genre: Friendship/Romance

Pairings: Ranma/Akane

A Shift In the Wind

Chapter Six

Rumours, despite Akane paying Nabiki a good half of her allowance to squash them, were flying rampant at Furinkan High. According to at least a third of the school, Ranma was Akane's secret boyfriend, who had been traveling the world learning martial arts in order to prove himself worthy of her. Others believed he was a paid bodyguard that Akane's father had hired in order to make sure nothing happened to her during her morning fights. Another, and perhaps more disturbing, rumour was that he had come to seduce Akane or one of her sisters into falling in love with him so that he could marry one of them and get at their dojo.

Ranma, however, was unaware of this final rumour, and Akane did not plan to tell him about it. It was bad enough that Kuno had also somehow found out that Ranma was staying with the Tendo family, and, considering this with the rumours flying around the school, had decided that Ranma had set his sights on 'wooing the beauteous Akane Tendo', announcing in front of the whole school that he would never, ever permit it. She was forced to wonder just how many other idiots in her school had overactive imaginations if they could come up with that sort of crap.

She was on classroom duty with Sayuri on Wednesday afternoon, but her mind kept wandering down to the soccer field. That morning, after Akane had beaten the hoard of boys into submission yet again, Kuno had presented Ranma with a formal challenge for after school, announcing that Ranma's tricks would not work on him again. Clearly, he had not learned the previous morning, or the one before, when Ranma pounded him into submission before the final morning bell. It irritated Akane that Ranma was taking over her fights, but she had to admit it was nice to have a few minutes to repair any damage to her hair or clothing before rushing to her classroom.

Ranma had accepted with a 'whatever you say, Kuno', sidestepping a swing of the bokken on his way to class. Yuka had announced that she was going to stay behind and watch the fight with the rest of their class while Akane and Sayuri cleaned up. The latter grumbled that she wanted to watch too, but Akane had shrugged with an 'I've seen them fight already', and had even gone so far as to place a small bet with Nabiki that Ranma would win.

Despite her outward calm about the situation, Akane sped through her duties that afternoon. While there was no question as to which of the two was more skilled, a lucky hit was always a possibility. She wasn't worried. She wasn't.

But by the time she and Sayuri had finished and made it down to the school gates, however, Yuka was already waiting for them. "You missed the whole thing!" She chirped as the three of them started toward the Tendo house; they had made arrangements to work on a group assignment that afternoon to be turned in the next morning. "Of course, everyone missed most of it. You should have seen them!"

"What happened?" Sayuri asked eagerly.

"They sort of fought their way off the field. A couple of seniors had to make a run for it." Yuka was all enthusiasm. "I didn't see what happened, exactly, but Kuno chased Ranma all the way to the pool. We heard this great big splash and some yelling, but by the time we got around there they were already gone."

Akane had started at the mention of a splash. Now she was worried. Knowing Ranma and his propensity to attract cold liquids, he had changed, and news of the curse would likely spread rapidly though the school. She shuddered, not wanting to contemplate the rumours that that little tidbit of information would set off. "Then what happened?" She asked, with some trepidation.

"No one knows." Yuka shrugged. "A couple of kids found Kuno out cold by the trees. When he came to he kept saying that Ranma had run away, and then muttered something about a girl in pigtails. I think maybe Ranma might've hit him too hard. There was no girl." Neither of them noticed Akane breathe a sigh of relief.

"So Ranma won, then?" Sayuri chirped. "Excellent. I had a thousand yen riding on that."

Ranma muttered darkly to himself as he turned into the gate of Tendo compound, still in female form. Damn his stupid curse, anyway!

Of course, he reflected bitterly, of course he would end up changing right in the middle of a fight. He rubbed his right breast, wincing; he was going to bruise. That bastard hadn't needed to squeeze so damn hard! He felt dirty, and not just in the sweat-soaked, fallen-into-a-pool-and-had-to-hide-in-the-trees-until-everyone-left kind of dirty. He needed to bathe.

He heard the girls on the engawa before he saw them, giving him ample time to check that the coast was clear before slipping into the changing room. Kasumi was already inside, sorting the laundry into colours and whites. She looked up with a smile when she realised she wasn't alone. "Oh, good afternoon, Ranma!" She greeted brightly. "Akane told me you might need to bathe when you got home. I've already filled the tub for you."

"Thanks." Ranma made a mental note to thank Akane later, when her friends had left. It wasn't the first time she'd gone out of her way and arranged to get him hot water when his curse had taken effect. Twice already, she'd forced him to make a pit stop at Doctor Tofu's clinic on the way to school after some old lady got him with a ladle. The good doctor had been shocked to learn of Ranma's curse, but had taken it all in stride; they'd almost ended up late to school after explaining it to him, and he'd given them a vaguely-worded note to give to their teacher to avoid getting into trouble just in case.

He stripped off his clothes, not bothering to mind about the older girl in the room, even going so far as to personally dump his clothes in the hamper behind her. In this body, he had nothing she hadn't seen before.

He hesitated to open the door to the bathing area, pressing his lips into a line as he inspected the skin on his right breast. He could see the beginnings of what were promising to be lurid purple bruises starting to show, and thought about what his old man would say if he found out about what had happened.

"Is something wrong, Ranma?" The girl paused her chore and turn to face him. Seeing how red his face had become as he tried to find the words, she leant against the dryer. "You're home late today."

"Um," Ranma couldn't look at her. He fixated on his feet. "Um, I got into a fight today." He said rather redundantly. That much was obvious; he had knocks and scrapes all over his arms and legs.

"Are you injured?" Kasumi was all concern. "Oh, my, your chest!" She had noticed the hand-shaped bruise, and Ranma's face burned scarlet. "Did that happen during the fight?"

He nodded, turning to show her the bruising properly, despite his mortification. If it were anyone else, he'd have told them to get lost—but he'd found over the week he'd known her that he just couldn't say no to the oldest Tendo. He found himself spilling his guts before he even thought about it. "We ended up in a pool in the middle of it, and the guy, he—he sorta, grabbed me, as he was trying to stop me getting away. I don't think he realised it was me, though. He kept ranting about how I'd run away."

"Oh, Ranma." He was surprised to hear pity in her voice. He looked up sharply, to see her watching him with sad, cautious eyes. "Are you alright?"

He shrugged. "A bit bruised, and I think I'm gonna scrub myself red," he tried to cock a grin, but felt that it was coming off somewhat lacking. "But I'm okay. More or less. You should see the other guy."

"Did you need anything?" Kasumi had switched into her mother-hen mode. He'd been the recipient of it a few startling times since he'd come to stay at the Tendo home. "I'll start making some tea, if you want. Or maybe some chocolate milk?" She offered, having discovered his love for the beverage the previous morning.

He shook his head. "I don't need none of that. It's just," he paused, trying to order his thoughts. This was more humiliating than he'd thought. "It's not the first time it's happened." He hesitated again. Kasumi waited patiently. "I ain't even told my old man about it, though. I don't want him to know." He looked up into the thoughtful eyes of Akane's older sister. Funnily, he just noticed for the first time that they were gray; not the same colour as Akane's.

Kasumi hummed thoughtfully. "Well, you have my word that I wont tell him." She promised. "And if you find yourself needing someone to talk to about it all, Ranma… I'll listen." She offered. "I may not be able to relate, since I've never been a man, but… it might help for you to have someone to talk to."

If it were possible to blush more right then, Ranma would have. "Um, thanks. I guess." The idea of talking about his curse made him feel nauseous. It was something that he tried to avoid at all costs—and he doubted that Kasumi would be able to help him with very much, anyway. "I'm gonna…" he jerked his thumb over his shoulder toward the bathroom.

"Of course, Ranma. Enjoy your bath."

Nabiki grilled Ranma for the details of his scuffle with Kuno over dinner; Genma had laughed heartily with a 'that's my boy!' when Ranma had told them in clipped tones that he'd won. He refused to go into any detail about the fight itself, earning a glare from the middle Tendo sister.

The conversation turned from there to everyone's day. Her father had been out on some City Council business, and had dragged his friend along. Kasumi mentioned her book club meeting before Nabiki began to talk about the profit she'd made on Ranma's fight. Apparently, not nearly as many students as Akane had thought had bet on Ranma. After today, though, she had a feeling that Ranma's reputation would spread to even those who weren't concerned with the martial artists of the school; anyone who could beat Kuno was someone that no one would want to piss off.

"That reminds me," Nabiki was saying as dinner wound to a close. "I have something for you, Ranma. Let me go and get it."

The 'something' turned out to be a letter of challenge, addressed to Ranma's female form. Kuno asked for the 'pigtailed girl' to meet him on the field behind the school at six o'clock the next evening. Nabiki laughed that Kuno didn't know that he-Ranma and she-Ranma were the same person.

"Kuno-baby's a sore loser. I'd watch yourself." She warned, and winked at him before she left.

Akane re-read the letter over Ranma's shoulder. "Maybe you'd better not go?" She offered. "You could beat the crap out of him as a guy, no question, but I dunno about as a girl."

Ranma scoffed. "I could beat him as a girl with both hands tied behind my back."

Akane rolled her eyes. "Of course you can." She scoffed. "Now, am I gonna have to force you to do your homework?"

"Yeah, yeah. Keep your pants on, Tomboy."

Akane glowered at the nickname. He'd started using it regularly, and she despised it. As was her new custom, she replied with, "Jerk."

Apparently, Kasumi hadn't actually gotten around to doing his laundry yet, and the next day's was Ranma's last set of clean clothing. Of course, he'd somehow managed to spill half a can of soda over himself on the way home, ruining them for the rest of the afternoon. This had resulted in him running around the house an hour before he was due to meet Kuno, in cursed form, wearing nothing but a towel wrapped around his chest and a pair of boxer shorts while the three Tendo daughters chased him.

"I ain't wearing no girl's clothes!" Ranma repeated, back to the wall.

"I'm sorry, Ranma, but all your clothes are in the wash." Kasumi did sound apologetic. "They'll be dry in time for school tomorrow, but if you want to make your duel tonight you're going to have to borrow something."

"No way!" Ranma protested.

Akane crossed her arms and fixed Ranma with a glare that made him feel about two inches tall. "Ranma, you are a guest in this house." She reminded him. He shrank against the wall. "You cannot run around half naked."

"It's only for today." Kasumi promised. "You'll have your own clothes back by tomorrow morning."

Ranma shook his head violently.

"Ranma," Nabiki's voice was dangerously soft. He'd learned to be wary of that voice. "Do you realise how much our gas bill has gone up since you and your father came to live with us?" She asked archly. "The two of you keep running hot baths to change back, instead of simply heating a kettle. That is uneconomical—did you know that?"

Ranma hadn't really thought about it. "I—I didn't." He admitted with a sinking feeling.

"You are costing us more than your father pays for the two of you to live here." Nabiki informed him. "And you're refusing to do this for us? Do you know how unsettling it is to have a half-naked girl running around the house? In the bathroom is one thing, but in the family room? In the garden? You're making Daddy uncomfortable, at least." At this, her look sharpened. "You will borrow some clothes."

Ranma slumped his shoulders, defeated. "Okay, fine. But nothin' too girly!"

Nabiki grinned; she looked almost evil. "That shouldn't be a problem. I'm sure Akane would have something suitable."

"Wait, why my clothes?" Akane demanded as Nabiki grabbed Ranma's wrist and started dragging him up the stairs.

Nabiki shrugged. "Me and Kasumi are too tall. Our stuff would never fit."

"But Akane only ever wears skirts!" Ranma protested. "I ain't wearin' no skirt!"

"Oh, Akane has other things as well." Kasumi said placidly as they reached the door with the duck plate on it, immediately heading for Akane's closet. "I'm sure we can find something for you."

Akane and Ranma were pushed aside as the elder two began to raid the clothing. Ranma watched in rising despair as dress after dress was considered before being shoved aside; he felt obliged to point out several more times that he would not wear anything with a skirt. The whole situation was infuriatingly ridiculous. If it weren't for his duel with Kuno that evening, he'd just have wandered around in his gi as a guy, but it was not fit to be seen outside of a dojo. It had several stains, some of which were blood, others mud and various other things, gathered over the few months that he'd owned it. He'd embarrass his hosts if anyone had seen him in it.

"I found it!" Nabiki cried with triumph, pulling out a set of—Ranma's eyes widened—pink overalls. It had 'China' written across the front in English. "Akane, where's the shirt you wear with this?"

Just minutes later, after many complaints and more cursing than strictly necessary, Ranma had been stuffed into the outfit. The Tendo sisters stepped back to evaluate him. "It fits perfectly!" Nabiki blinked, astonished.

"The chest is too tight." Ranma complained. "It hurts."

Akane reached up to his shoulders and adjusted the straps. "That's 'cause it's adjusted to fit me." She snapped, a little annoyed. She knew he wasn't really making a crack about her chest size, but she couldn't help it. "How's that?"

Ranma rolled his shoulders around, throwing a few punches into the air in front of him. "Better."

"And the waist?" Nabiki asked.

Ranma shrugged. "Bit big." He pulled the excess material out to display what he meant. "But it'll do. Thanks, Akane."

Akane, who had been about to snap at him for the 'big' comment, instantly deflated. "Uh, sure." She fidgeted. "Just, um, don't make a habit of borrowing my stuff."

Ranma wrinkled his nose. "Don't plan to. Anyway," he glanced at the clock on Akane's desk. "I gotta go."

"Ruin my clothes and I'll kill you." Akane warned.

"Yeah, yeah. Be back later." He waved her off as he left the room, closing the door behind him.

The three girls looked at each other. "How did you know that bit about the gas bill, Nabiki?" Akane asked skeptically.

The middle Tendo shrugged. "I didn't. It's not due for another two weeks. But it got him dressed, didn't it?"

Shortly thereafter, Ranma had reached the school, as Kuno's letter had instructed. He was still embarrassed about the indignity he'd suffered in being forced to wear Akane's clothes; he'd been stewing for the walk over that it was all his old man's fault, and was looking forward to knocking the stupid panda's ass around the yard when he got home. But first, he had to deal with Kuno.

The bruises that had come up where Kuno had grabbed him had transferred to his male form, as well, giving Ranma a strange star-patterned bruise that he'd refused to explain to his father the previous night. In fact, he thought grimly as he arrived at the school and rounded the building to the field where Kuno had said to meet, he wanted to kick the shit out of Kuno for grabbing him in the first place.

Kuno was late. Ranma grumbled to himself as he debated waiting any longer; he had better things to do. But, just as he was about to give up on waiting and go home, he spied Kuno in the distance, a hand held behind his back. Planting his hands on his hips, arms akimbo, Ranma glared at the older boy. "You're late." He snarled.

"I apologise, Pigtailed One." The boy said loftily. "However, I am glad to see you have come."

"Where's your sword?" Ranma cocked an eyebrow, wondering if Kuno was going to fight bare-handed. That would be interesting.

Kuno scoffed a little. "I have no need of a weapon."

Ranma scowled. "Well, ain't you a confident one?"

Kuno smirked. "Confident enough to… give you this!" He threw the thing he'd been holding behind his back, so fast it blurred. Ranma caught it on reflex, not noticing until it came to a halt in his hands that he was clutching a bouquet of roses. His mind went blank as he looked back up at the older boy with his mouth half-open. Turning away, Kuno looked back over his shoulder and cleared his throat. "I love you." He said simply, and then continued on his way, Ranma staring after him as his mind tried to come to grips with exactly what had just occurred.