"Put me down!"

            A young girl was being carried down the street on the back of a hulk of a man.  "We'll be there soon enough," he soothed.  "Quit struggling."

Though that did not comfort the watching Nerimans any, indubitably you yourself, dear reader, are familiar with this scene: an irate, beautiful redhead beating on an old man's shoulder, speaking to her father in a quite uncharitable tone and using the least respect possible without calling him names.

            "Stupid old man!"

            Ah—and there we go.  You could sing this song in your sleep, could you not?

            Boom.  "Suck on that, old man!"

            Yes, another day, another oft-repeated scene. 

            "Come on Joi[1]," the redhead snapped angrily, and a smallish dog, coming up to her knee at the shoulders, scurried after her.

            This will not be a comedy.  I have decreed it.  Needless to say, I have been wrong before.

CHAPTER ONE: The Redhead and the Dog

            Joi barked angrily as the old man reclaimed the redheaded girl, and the three entered the Tendo home.  A particularly successful nip from the small animal's jaws and Ranma twisted free, breasts bouncing unmistakably as she landed.  "Excuse me!" she called out, bowing before the four stunned figures ahead of her.

            Joi now barked at the new people enthusiastically before scurrying behind Ranma—before realizing that put him in front of Genma.  He quickly found a convenient corner and viewed what he was certain was impending doom with watchful eyes.

            Three girls and an elder man who had to be their father blinked almost simultaneously.

            "Er… excuse me for intruding in your home?" Ranma attempted formally. 

            "Ranma?" the man remarked intelligently.

            The redhead nodded.  "Yeesss…"

            He peered behind her.  "But Genma, you said you had a son!"

            "I said I had Ranma," Genma corrected dryly, "who's hardly a man, as you can see…"

            "You're just repaying me for that black eye, you big jerk!" Ranma exclaimed angrily.

            Joi bristled and barked.  The youngest Tendo girl smiled and knelt carefully on the floor.  He walked up to her, tail wagging, and she patted him on the head.  "Hi," she said softly.  "I'm Akane.  Want to be friends?"

            Joi went into a frenzy of tail-wagging.

            "Well.  Huh, he likes you," Ranma said, smiling a little bit.  "He usually hates new people, doesn't he?"

            The small dog moved to the middle sister and sniffed her disinterestedly, moving on to the eldest.  His tail wagged a bit more.

            People watched dogs the same way they watched small children, as if they existed for nothing more than to do something adorable.  Everyone in the room was paying attention to Joi.

            "I'll be," Ranma continued, smiling openly now.  "He usually just hides behind me!  And he hates pops."  The redhead frowned a moment in confusion, then smiled even wider as she watched Akane scratch the area behind Joi's ears.

            "Perhaps you and Akane can spar while Saotome-san and I talk some things over," Soun said loudly.

            Genma nodded.  "That would be a wonderful idea, Tendo."

"We'll see how our girls measure up, eh?"  They laughed companionably.

            The youngest Tendo abruptly lost interest in Joi, who whined and butted her hand with his nose.  "I really don't think—" she began hesitantly.

            "Nonsense, Akane," Mr. Tendo continued in that same jocular tone of voice that nonetheless broached no argument.  "There's nothing wrong with a little sparring session, is there?"

            Akane frowned, but rose, grabbing Ranma by the wrist.  "Come on," she said roughly.

            Ranma was impressed in spite of herself.  The dojo was beautiful, immaculately kept and shining.  A simple message was hung on the wall: 'The Fundamentals'.  A large pile of dust stood in one of the corners, rather obviously from a recent brick-breaking, but other that that, the place was terribly well-kept.  For a moment, Ranma felt a shiver run through her as though she was an unwelcome stranger on some kind of hallowed ground.

            The redhead shook that off deliberately.  She was the best martial artist there ever was—and would not be intimidated by the obviously rarely-used dojo of a city girl.  Still, she refused to fight women, or even spar with them.  Unless, of course, on those all-too-rare occasions when they were out to kill her.

            "I don't fight—" she began hesitantly, but Akane broke in before she could finish.

            "You don't either?  Thank goodness!"

            Ranma blinked as Joi trotted into the dojo.  It was unlikely he was going to let Ranma out of his sight in a new place for long.  "Huh?" the redhead managed.  "You—I mean—"

            Akane hung her head in something like shame, and for the first time, Ranma let herself take in how pretty she was.  "It's… I don't like to fight at all," Akane said softly.  "I'm glad you don't want to, either."

            Not want to?  That was something of an alien concept.  Why… everybody practiced, didn't they?  There were just degrees of skill.

            Akane appeared to notice her consternation.  "Well… I mean, I used to, obviously."  She beheld the dojo with something like disgust.  "Just not anymore.  It makes Daddy so discouraged, so I try to make like I still fight…"

            Another foreign concept.  "You… you're doing this 'cause of your dad?"

            Akane nodded.  "So… would you really mind if you just said we had a pretty good fight?"

            Ranma considered this, scratching her head.  Somehow it seemed sort of dishonorable or something.

            "I'll say you won," the dark-haired girl tacked on.

            "It was a draw."  Ranma didn't know she was going to say it until it was already hanging in the air.  Maybe something in the dark-eyed girl's expression made her do it—the Tendo girl did look pretty harried.  Joi nuzzled her with his nose, sensing her distress, and she patted him absently.  "Since neither of us fought, it was a draw."

            Akane's expression lit up.  "Thanks a lot," she said.  "You're really cool."  Then she blushed, as though she thought she had seemed a bit too enthusiastic.

            Ranma was blushing, too.  No one had ever directed an admiring gaze to her before.  Akane was really grateful.  "But why don't you wanna?  Are you hurt?"  She still couldn't quite seem to understand the other girl's position.

            The dark-haired girl winced.  "Uhm…"

            There was a long pause in which Ranma wished she hadn't said a word with every passing second.  She hadn't known that being with somebody could be this awkward.  Her only experiences with other beings had mostly been with Joi, who protected her as best as his cowardly nature would allow, and Genma, whose sole wish seemed to be to meld his son into a top-notch martial artist—unless you counted his seemingly insatiable desire for food and drink.[2]  In neither experience was there room for much of this kind of delicate conversation.  Ranma was searching for another topic of conversation other than martial arts—and coming up alarmingly blank—when Akane finally responded.

            "I hurt someone else.  Nobody thinks it's a big deal but me.  It was this guy I go to school with," she continued, her hands patting Joi still, beginning to go a bit more quickly from nervousness.  "He was always bugging me about dates and stuff."

            Ranma blinked.  "Bugging you?"

            Akane seemed to realize she had an audience all over again.  "I didn't like him, much.  He was kind of conceited, real full of himself.  He made me very angry, always assuming I wanted him; he even got a lot of other guys interested in me, the way he talked."  She shivered and a look of revulsion crossed her pretty features.  "I'd always been really good at martial arts," she added sadly, as though this was a truly terrible thing.  "Took to it kind of naturally.  I'll show you some trophies later."  She said this with the air of somebody announcing they were going to visit the grave of a loved one.  "This one time he just plain annoyed me too much.  He tried to grab me."  Akane closed her eyes, as if she were forcing herself to see it all over again.  "I broke his arm and his leg."

            The redhead sighed, still not quite understanding.  Akane had overestimated her opponent, that was all.  Ranma had done it before.

            The other girl's eyes shimmered, though she didn't let any tears drop.  "The sound," she announced, as though that said it all, "of bone cracking.  It's something else, you know?  After that, I didn't really have the same taste for it anymore, martial arts."  She wound down, her breathing slightly heavier than normal, like a panicked animal's.  Joi was being patient with her, even though she had a hand tightening on his fur in what had to be a painful way.  Akane's eyes met hers.  "You ever hurt someone really bad?"

            Ranma considered.  Oddly, she had not.  "I've been hurt bad," she replied.

            Akane shook her head, then shrugged.  "Anyway, Nabiki—that's my middle sister—she just thinks old Kuno got what he deserved.  And Kasumi, my other sister, just said it wasn't very ladylike to fight in school."  She snorted, to show what she thought of that.  "Daddy was… proud.  Nobody was upset but me, and if I try to show it, they just all get impatient.  It almost feels like I'm nothing but a means to an end—just a way to carry on the Tendo School."

            It all snapped into place in Ranma's brain almost audibly, like gears shifting in a lock.  "I know what you mean," she said.  At times, Ranma had wondered whether her father would have cared if she were any different, provided she could still fight.  The answer was somewhat scary, especially when Ranma considered the Catfist.  Ranma could have died, or gone permanently insane; but Genma was ready to risk him on the altar of the martial arts he seemed to love more than his own flesh and blood.  The redhead felt a deep pang and hung her head.

            "You don't want to fight, either, then," Akane confirmed.

            "I just don't fight…" she fumbled.  Girls, she thought.  "…unless it's serious."

            "Well, yeah," Akane replied.  "If my family was in danger, I'd fight 'til the end."  Her eyes sparked briefly.  "But for fun—or to show some guy you're bigger and stronger—it's just bullying.  And that's weak.[3]"

            The redhead considered this, trying to incorporate yet another almost dizzying piece of thought into her framework.  "I guess…"

            Akane waved her hands in a friendly manner.  "Oh—I don't want to make you feel like you have to agree!  I'm just saying what I think… but maybe I do that a bit too much sometimes.  I hope I haven't bored you or anything…"

            Ranma shook her head quickly.  "No way!"  She considered, then added a smile.  "You're cool, too, Akane.  Even if we think different on some things."

            The other girl smiled widely, pleased.  "Do you want to be friends?" she inquired.

            Ranma gulped at Akane's open, disarming expression, and smiled.  "Uh… it's been awhile since I've had one… I've been on the road… and I don't know how to…"

            Akane looked mildly surprised.

            "And friends are supposed to tell each other… everything.  Right?"

            The youngest Tendo paused.  "Well, most stuff anyway," she replied.  "But if you wanna wait and tell me later, or think about it," she began.

            "No," Ranma cut in abruptly.  "I, ah, don't wanna make you mad."

            Akane's eyes shimmered.

            "No!  I don't mean 'cause of what you said, I just mean I don't wanna make you upset… see?  I'm terrible at this!"

            Akane shook her head.  "Maybe Nabiki's right—I'm too sensitive."  She sniffed.  "Well, we girls have to stick together, you know—so out with it."

            "Eh heh… well, it's kinda about that…"

            "Tomboys?  Emotions?"


            Akane nodded.  "Yeessss?" she drawled.

            "I'm not one."

            Akane blinked at Ranma, double-checked the redhead's chest to be absolutely certain, and made her way back to Ranma's blue eyes.  The entire time, her bland expression did not alter.

            Then she began to laugh hysterically.[4]

            "Hey—hey!" Ranma protested while the other girl giggled helplessly. "I'm serious!"

            Akane's chortles died down and an air of seriousness settled over her almost abruptly.  "Listen, Ranma, I know how you feel there, too… but we're martial artists, not guys—and just because we can fight well doesn't mean that we're any less female.  Plenty of guys have characteristics that are considered traditionally female, and it goes the opposite way, too…"

            But Ranma was shaking her head, taken by the incongruity and absurdity of the situation.  She'd never thought she would ever be trying to have to convince anyone she was male, and she didn't think anyone would have as small a chance of success as she did just now.  She knew she could get up and grab some hot water from the kitchen and watch Akane's indulgent smile slip right off of her features, but something in that scenario disturbed the redhead.  It would mean getting up, for one thing, and she found herself awfully comfortable sitting cross-legged on the dojo floor with Akane, in more ways than one.  "That's not what I mean," she replied.

            "Then what do you mean?" Akane demanded.

            The redhead took a deep breath.  "I mean I'm a guy.  Honestly."

            "Okay, so you're honestly a guy.  Want to get married after all?"

            She was humoring her!  A brief aura flared around Ranma's female form before she pulled it under her control.  "I'm being serious!" she exclaimed.  "And you're making fun of me!"

            "Okay, okay; I'm sorry," Akane replied nervously.  "I believe you."

            They blinked at one another for a moment.  For some reason, Ranma felt her lips twitching into a smile, but maybe that was because Akane was smiling, too.  Joi laid his head down on his paws, looking up benignly at the two of them.  And then they were grinning, and then they were laughing almost uncontrollably, hanging onto one another.  "Okay… so it sounds like I'm nuts," Ranma finally wheezed.  "But I swear…"

            "I know, I know.  And I said that I believe you.  So you're a guy."

            And she did.  Ranma viewed her.  She was willing to take Ranma on faith.  Her eyes were not condescending, even though they were slightly doubtful.  If Ranma wanted, Akane would indubitably call her 'he'.  She had no idea what to say.  "Th-thank you."

            "This is enough time for at least three sparring matches," Akane announced suddenly.  "Let's go back inside, okay?"

            Ranma nodded and stood.  "Three bouts.  You won the first one, I won the second one, and then we tied."

            "Thanks for telling me your secret," Akane said softly, slipping an arm around Ranma's shoulders in a half-hug.

            A dozen emotions warred in Ranma at once.  A long-suppressed part of her wanted to kiss the youngest Tendo girl, but that was buried so deep it hardly had a voice.  A surprisingly strong part of her wanted to lean into the embrace, however—and an almost equally intense need to push her away made itself felt as well.  A mind-numbing confusion was threatening to kick all the other emotions out on their asses; no one had touched Ranma in a friendly manner since Ucchan used to hold his hand way back when.  (He did not really remember the nice old lady who had originally eased him out of the cat-fist.) 

            "You're trembling—are you cold?" Akane inquired solicitously as they strode to the dojo door.

            Ranma nodded slightly, and Akane responded to the other girl's unspoken wish by drawing her closer.  Ranma's confusion escalated to the point where she actually wondered if she might pass out.

            Perhaps unfortunately, Ranma wasn't made that way.  Her brain continued to function quite actively, though it was becoming a bit hazy from endorphins.  At least she'd managed to stop shaking—how embarrassing!  If pop saw her like this—

            That put a bit of steel in her spine.  She couldn't think of a way to shrug Akane off without hurting her feelings, though, so the pair continued to walk to the house as they were, Ranma nearly blushing hard enough to set the taller girl's shirt ablaze.  The arm draped loosely over her shoulders began to feel like a red-hot brand; Ranma could not get away, and soon everybody would see

            The pair slipped inside the house, and Akane removed her arm casually.  "Good fight," she added.

            "Yeah," Ranma added loudly.  "Uh, very good."

            "But who won?" Soun demanded.  Genma viewed the close proximity of the pair warily, although nobody else seemed to think it was odd.  Ranma carefully stepped a bit to the side.

            "It was a tie," Akane replied.  "Ranma, want some soda, or some water?  I'll bet you're thirsty after all of that."

            "Thirsty?  Yeah, er, real thirsty."  The redhead considered.  "Anything cold."

            Engrossed in their play-acting, neither girl noticed Genma's face turning an interesting shade of puce.  "WHAT?!" he exploded, startling Akane into dropping her can of soda all over the floor.   "YOU WERE BEATEN BY A GIRL?!"[5]

            Akane's gaze flickered to Ranma speculatively for a bare instant before it turned on Genma in a cold fury.  "I didn't beat him, we tied."  Her voice was deceptively soft, and her eyes were lethal.  Suddenly Ranma began to see how this girl might have gotten angry enough to break bones; watching the muscles cord in her right arm as she clenched her fists in anger, Ranma could also see that she could probably manage it casually.  For all of this, Ranma managed to miss Akane's pronoun.

            "Yeah pops, don't get all tied up in knots.  Akane is…"  Ranma coughed.  "…real good.  Amazing, really.  A natural.  I was…"  she coughed again.  "…Hard-pressed."

            "Hard-pressed!" Genma exclaimed again, quieter but more angry.  "You were hard-pressed after I took you through China, risking my life and your own to gain both experience and ancient technique… and you lose… to a Tokyo GIRL?!"

            Soun had a hand on his old friend's arm.  "Come now, Saotome.  Akane was always amazing at martial arts as a child; barely had to teach it to her.  Just because she and your girl are of a level—"

            "They wouldn't be of a level if Ranma had some hot water," Genma breathed.  "Kasumi—would you mind heating up some water for tea?"

            The eldest Tendo daughter moved into the kitchen.

            "Hot water?" Soun demanded.

            "Yes—I'm afraid the time has come to tell you of Ranma's true tragic story…"

            Ranma paled, suddenly feeling panic approaching.  "Pops, I don't think that—"

            "… when we were in the wilds of China, something terrible happened…"  He shook his head as though sadly disappointed at the hand that fate had dealt him.  "Perhaps you should call in Nabiki as well…"

            Ranma felt Akane slipping away from her.  She remembered the look of half-terror half-hatred that had crossed Akane's features when she talked about Kuno and the boys that liked her at school.  And her pops was going to make Akane look at her like that.  She needed to stop it all, somehow.

            Ranma felt bone-weary.  She just wanted to stay in one place for more than a moment or two, maybe make some friends.  She remembered with tired fondness her very early childhood and then her full year of junior high, when she'd had time to make friends and go to school.  Those were her happiest times; she wanted a happy time again.  Akane liked her.  If Ranma could manage to keep her trust, then things would somehow be okay, she knew it.  "Pops, why don't you get Nabiki?" Ranma queried.  "I think I saw her go upstairs."

            Genma eyed his child warily, while Ranma returned the look coolly.  She tried to look like she wanted to get it all over with, like she wanted her curse out in the open.  Finally, the old martial artist lumbered away.

            Ranma was not the child of Saotome Genma for nothing.  Her mind had whipped up a relatively cunning and underhanded plan at a speed that startled even her.  She sniffled.  "Mister Tendo, I'm so sorry about this," she said sadly.

            "About… pardon?"

            Ranma winked at Akane out of the corner of her eye.  "It's just that I'm sorry I'm not a boy for you and your family.  It's just too bad we're all girls.  And poor pops…"

            Akane stared at him.  "What's wrong with your father?"

            "Well, you heard what he thinks of girls.  He raised me as a boy and now he…" she paused.  "Seems to think I am one."  Ranma gulped, hoping she wasn't going to get herself murdered and wondering what was possessing her.  Akane's arm on her shoulder...  "I wouldn't be surprised if he still wants to marry me to one of your daughters."

            Soun gaped.

            "I've been trying to get a chance to tell you about it, but—"

            A sound on the stairs halted all conversation abruptly as Genma returned with Nabiki in tow.

            "This had better be good," she said lazily.  "You're interrupting my stock purchases."

            Genma nodded, and launched into the tragic tale of Jhusenkyo, complete with the faulty guidebook and the way Ranma's curse was activated.  "Luckily I avoided becoming cursed," he finished quietly, melodramatic tears streaming down his face.

            For a long time, there was silence.  Ranma sat still, looking dejectedly at the pattern on the tabletop.  Then she sighed—a sigh that spoke volumes.

            "Well old friend," Soun said consolingly.  "That's really too bad."

            "I just want a normal life," Ranma said suddenly.  Her eyes blinked rapidly.  She hadn't realized how true this was until she'd said so.

            Soun's eyes filled with sympathy.  The poor girl had to deal with her deranged father, out on the road, him treating her like a boy the whole time… when she only wanted to go to parties and date boys like all normal girls did!

            Except his Akane-chan, of course.

            "You can stay here as long as you like," Soun announced paternally.

            "Father!" Kasumi exclaimed, surprised and pleased.

            "Daddy!" Nabiki added, surprised and less pleased.

            "Yatta!" Akane exclaimed, not surprised in the slightest.

            Ranma smirked.  Ha!  Suck on that, you old schemer!  Now we won't be wandering the globe anymore…

            "That's perfect," Genma replied, causing Ranma to blink in wary surprise.  "Kasumi, dear, would you mind getting that tea water?"

            "I'll get it," Akane said.  She went into the kitchen and emerged carrying the kettle with a potholder.  "Who wants tea?"

            With a sudden motion, Genma poured the tea water over his child's head.

            There was absolute silence.  Ranma closed her eyes awaiting the change… waiting for Akane's eyes to turn cold on him…

            Cold.  Ranma blinked.

            "What did you do that for?" Akane demanded.  "I wanted tea!  And now Ranma is soaking wet!"

            Ranma looked down.  Soaking wet… and female.  Akane put cold water in the teapot.  Akane put cold water in the…

            Genma sputtered blankly for a moment, then passed out.

            "I need a bath," Ranma said wearily.

            "Me too," Akane added calmly, as though old martial artists passed out on her floor every day of the week.  The pair disappeared up the stairs.

            "Poor Ranma!" Kasumi breathed.  Nabiki could only nod in wonderment.

            When they reached the top of the steps, Ranma realized she was going to have to say something now.  There was no way she could say she had some kind of pathological fear of hot water or anything at this point; besides which, Akane seemed to really believe her.  "You switched the water," Ranma said softly on the landing.

            Akane nodded.  "Why'd you lie to my folks?"

            Ranma almost flinched at the way she put it; Joi trotted up the stairs behind her, Ranma's ever-present shadow, and looked up at the redhead as though awaiting her answer.  "Let's talk about it inside, okay?"  The fact that Akane was ready to side with Ranma in tricking her own family either said a lot about Ranma or a lot about Akane's relationship with her family—Ranma wanted to know which.  Maybe it was both.

            Akane nodded, and they entered a modestly large bath.  Joi whined, but stayed behind, hating bathrooms ever since he'd been washed and shampooed in one by an enthusiastic younger Ranma.

            "First of all…"  Ranma turned the furo onto its hottest; it only took a couple of moments until the water was warm enough for Ranma to transform.  A splash later and a tall, dark-haired boy stood where a tiny buxom redhead had been.  Ranma kept his eyes closed for a moment as thoughts and impressions swirled around him confusingly.  Briefly, dizziness assaulted him—which had never happened before.

            When he opened his eyes, Akane was staring at him frankly, a blue aura flickering on and off around her tense figure.  Steam was slowly filling the room; and the sound of the still-running hot water filled Ranma's ears.  Suddenly he had the feeling she was going to hit him.

            Instead, she approached, examining him even more minutely.  Her blue aura flickered out entirely, and her gaze became frank and appraising.  Deft fingers moved Ranma's damp hair away from his eyes and she peered unabashedly into them.  "Gosh," she breathed.  "It really is you, after all!"[6]

            Ranma let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding.  "Yeah," he replied.  He smiled tentatively.

            "Weird," Akane opined, poking at his chest, briefly, then drawing her finger away as though it had been stung.  "Where'd they go?"

            Ranma blushed, then chuckled, taken by the sincerity and oddity of the question.  "Don't ask me."

            "And if you did the same thing with cold water…"

            Ranma turned the cool faucet on in the sink and dunked his head under the running water.  Abruptly he shrunk a foot, his hair flared to scarlet life, and his bosoms expanded under his shirt.

            Akane blinked again, then smiled wonderingly.  "So you're really a guy, though?"

            Ranma was taken aback by the question.  "Like I said," he replied gruffly.

            "Ah."  Akane's voice was still oddly appreciative.  "But you're gonna stay a girl while you're with us?"

            Ranma paused, letting that sink in while the steam thickened around them.  "I guess… now I've put pops in the hot spot, anyway."

            Akane's features suddenly became serious.  "Then there's some stuff we're going to have to discuss."

            While the furo filled, Akane rose and locked the door.

            Ranma became abruptly aware of her position: alone in the bath with a lovely girl whom she was coming to like very much.  Her face heated, but she prayed Akane would think it was the steam.  "What?" she inquired, surprised to find that her voice had leapt an octave higher than her usual contralto.

            Akane seated herself on the bench usually reserved for washing.  Ranma seated herself cautiously on the edge of the furo.  "How much do you know about girls?"

            Ranma blinked—not what she was expecting.  "Oh!  Well, I can act like a girl, it's easy, you just make your eyes big and—"

            "No, no," Akane said—thankfully, before Ranma could complete the beginning of an enormous faux pas.  "I mean… what do you know about being one?"

            The redhead considered this.  "Are there…"  She paused and cleared her throat.  "Is there some kind of secret stuff about being a girl?"

            Akane's eyes flickered, and Ranma wondered if she was suppressing a giggle; but Ranma's question was genuine.  She didn't know anything about girlhood except the rough samples of men's behavior towards her new form; as far as she knew, all guys were perverts and wanted some—except she herself, of course—and she could therefore get any guy to do whatever she wanted if she pouted enough or showed enough leg.  That was about it.[7]

            The youngest Tendo shook her head finally.  "There's nothing quite secret about it—you can find it in any health book."

            Ranma froze, a rogue thought taking hold of her mind.  "Akane… you can't think… I'd never get pregnant… I'm not that type of—"[8]

            "Not what I meant!" Akane exclaimed, though there was something like relief in her eyes.  "Ranma—do you know how a girl becomes pregnant?"

            "Well of course I do!"  Ranma had a vaguer idea than most, but sensed that Akane was absolutely certain on this point and that she should appear to be as well.

            The dark haired girl put her head in her hands.  Wordlessly, she rose, opened the cabinet under her sink, and withdrew 'feminine products'.  Just as silently, she handed them to Ranma.

            The redhead examined them for a moment.  "What are these?"

            Akane's left eye twitched; it was obvious she was going to have to be more explicit.  "Ranma, do you know what a period is?"

            That did it.  The other girl paled even further than her milk-white complexion allowed; her blue eyes darted from Akane to the package in her hands, which suddenly dropped from nerveless fingers.  She shook her head and mouthed something that looked like 'no way'.

            Akane shrugged.  "Maybe it won't happen to you, Ranma, but I kind of doubt that.  Your dad said you got this curse less than two months ago, right?"  Her eyes were warm and slightly pitying.

            Ranma nodded.  "R-recently," she replied shakily, still staring at the package on the floor with the loathing and wariness one usually reserves for poisonous vipers.

            "It never hurts to be prepared," Akane stated blandly.  "Here, watch."  Akane ripped open a package and threw away the wrapper.  Quietly and efficiently she demonstrated its relationship to panties.

            "Oh," Ranma replied quietly.  "So if—oh."

            "You tell me if it happens, okay?  There's lots of other stuff, but I don't want to scare you until we know for sure."

            "I ain't afraid…" Ranma's voice quavered a bit at the end.  "…much."

            "Good for you… I was terrified about mine."

            Ranma slowly took this in as Akane reached over to the nozzle of the bath and halted the stream of water flowing into the tub.  They faced each other, Akane's features open and warm, Ranma's doubtful and nervous, until Ranma's began to match the other girl's.  She wasn't sure how to feel, but it was hard to look at Akane smiling and not smile back.

            "Here," the dark-haired girl said companionably.  "I'll scrub your back if you get mine—"

            Ranma froze.

            Thirty minutes later, a much paler looking Ranma-chan emerged from the bath with a large white towel wrapped around her body, followed closely by a giggling, blushing Akane. 

            Meanwhile, Genma was wondering what, exactly, had gone wrong with his sob story.  He'd always been quite good at sob stories—not having a natural talent for them, but rather building up his skills as the years went on.  However, his most recent actually true sob story had obviously fallen on deaf ears.  It was unbelievable!


            Perhaps the curse became permanent after a certain period of time?  Oh, his poor Ranma, to be taken from him so—

            Nodoka; kami-sama above.  With the curse permanent, Ranma would have no reason whatsoever to be judged a man amongst anything.  And back at the home of the Tendos, Genma and his son-turned-daughter had decent odds of simply running into the woman, who lived nearby.  It was time to accept the precept #37 of Anything Goes: A Moving Target is Harder to Hit.[9]  Of course, he really had meant to marry his son off, this time—get his son off his hands and a dojo bearing his name in one fell swoop—return to Nodoka in triumph, perhaps the only way she would ever have him.  But desperate times called for desperate measures, of course.

            Genma stood, the gleam in his eyes signifying incipient action, one fist clasped to his chest.

            "What is he doing?" Nabiki whispered to Kasumi behind her hand.  Both of the two Tendo girls had been staring at the older man for the last twenty minutes as he gestured and mumbled to himself.

            "One never can tell," Kasumi replied tartly, annoyed at this man's presence in her home. 

            Looking at the two of them, it was hard to see neither had had this much fun in quite awhile.

            "Hi, oneechan," Akane announced, making the two girls jump.  "Need any help with dinner?"

            Kasumi shook her head quickly, moving to the stove.

            "Guess I'll start in on getting Ranma settled, then.  Where's the extra futon?"

            Nabiki blinked.  "You mean she isn't staying in your room?"

            Akane shook her head.  "She said she wanted to be in the same room as her father—"

            "Nonsense!" Kasumi exclaimed primly.  "A grown girl like that, sleeping in the same room as her father does?  It's improper!"[10]

            Akane chewed her lower lip nervously.  "It's what she's always been doing, oneechan—I don't think she'll be so comfortable with me—"

            "All the more reason to get her started," Kasumi replied in a voice that brooked no argument.  "Did you see what Ranma-chan was wearing?  It's time she started acting more like a proper girl, Akane, and the three of us can help her."  Light illuminated her silhouette for a moment, perhaps a trick she'd picked up from Kuno-san.

            "Oh dear," Akane breathed quietly. 

            "Not our business, Kasumi-oneechan," Nabiki replied dryly.  Enthusiasm of any kind made her itch.

            "But surely the two of you must see that—" Kasumi began.

            Ranma's arrival down the stairs abruptly halted that conversation.  The redhead was wearing a pair of boxer shorts and a sleeveless top, looking incredibly sexy in an utterly unconscious way.  "Hi," she announced cheerfully, grinning charmingly.

            "Hi!" Akane returned in kind.  "Why don't we go upstairs while Kasumi finishes dinner—I'll show you where you're going to sleep."  Her tone was a bit defeated; she snuck Kasumi one last pleading glance before slinking upstairs, the redhead trailing behind her.

            Akane slipped into her bedroom and Ranma took a good look around.  In many ways, it was a typical girl's room: the wallpaper was yellow with a pretty, feminine pattern, and the bedspread matched.  A small, stuffed piggy sat on her bed.

            There were many ways, however, in which the room was somewhat schizophrenic as far as gender was concerned.  Barbells (20 pounds each) sat untidily in the corner of the room, crossed slightly over one another.  A couple of manga—Fushigi Yugi and DBZ—littered the desk, along with some half-finished homework.

            Ranma, who had noticed the 'Akane' duck nameplate on the door, was beginning to wonder if she was supposed to be sleeping with Akane.  Fiancées was one thing, but honestly!  Perhaps the girl was thinking of getting a little too friendly.  She was about to speak, but Akane beat her to the punch.

            "My sister insists you stay here with me," she said.  "Sorry, but I couldn't explain without giving you away.  So…"

            "I'll sleep on the floor," Ranma offered.

            "Don't be ridiculous," she snapped.  "You're my guest—I'll sleep on the floor."

            Ranma paused.  "But you're the girl—you should sleep in the bed."

            Akane's arm muscles tensed the way they had when Genma had exploded at Ranma's being 'beaten by a girl'.  "In case you haven't noticed," she said, her voice still even and reasonable, "you happen to be in the same condition yourself."

            "But I'm a boy!" Ranma countered.

            "Riiight."  Akane sniffed.  "You have a girl body right now—which, by your reasoning, should not sleep on floors.  Unless you're implying that girls are somehow mentally unequipped to sleep on hard surfaces?"

            For a moment, Ranma blinked at her; a drop of water from Ranma's wet hair dripped down past her eyes and onto the floor.  Then, she began to giggle.

            Akane's serious expression only lasted for a heartbeat longer; her lips twitched and she began to smile.  "Well," she declared defensively, a bit of humor in her tone, "it's true…"

            "The travails of sleeping on the floor are utterly incomprehensible to the female mind," Ranma intoned pompously, hands on hips.  "I claim the floor in the name of all manhood."

            Akane began to giggle helplessly.  "Riiight.  You look so manly now, too.  Your breasts especially."

            "So what are we going to do?"

            Two pairs of eyes, one blue, one brown, regarded the bed warily.

[1] Joi is pronounced in the Japanese way, and is not the American "Joy" variant.  Basically Joh- ee.  An actual dog.  J

[2] Luckily, debauchery is not included in Genma's list of vices—or he would have left enough daughters and sons behind him to make Ranma's fiancée problem seem a small thing.  Happousai must've beaten it out of him.

[3] A lot of people are going to question the liberties I've taken with Akane.  Seriously injuring somebody is certainly enough to make a naturally violent person question her worldview, even if the injured person happens to be Kuno.

[4] And wouldn't you?

[5] "It's back to the Catfist training for you, boy!"

[6] No rip-off of Disney's Beauty and the Beast intended.  Honest.

[7] Sadly, many honest-to-goodness girls believe this is all they need know.

[8] "—girl!"

[9] Genma had long since forgotten precepts #1-36 and so invariably…

[10] "Especially since it's Genma!"