"Do you know what your problem is, Ken?"
Kentaro sighed. The grass was tickling his neck; he sat up and looked out across the huge lawn. "I'll bet you're going to tell me."
"No bet." Komatsu crinkled his eyes. "You need a girlfriend."
Kentaro snorted. "Yeah, right. Like college isn't complicated enough, you're going to find another way to drain my wallet and take away my study time."
"You work too hard. I don't know what the hell you're doing at this third-rate college." Komatsu waved his arm to indicate the buildings surrounding the yard. "You could have gone anywhere."
Kentaro shrugged. "Father went here. He did all right."
Komatsu shook his head. "So you feel some strange kind of obligation? You're in the wrong place. You spend all your time with your head in a book, and not enough time enjoying yourself. All work and no play and all that."
"There will be time. We're only nineteen, Komatsu."
"Yes!" Komatsu lifted his bulk from the lawn and stood imposingly over Kentaro. "That's my point exactly. We're young! We'll never be nineteen again. Soon we'll be twenty and - God forbid - twenty-one, and life will have passed us by. We need to find women now!"
Kentaro lifted an eyebrow. "A woman isn't a thing you find."
Komatsu rolled his eyes. "Oh please, stop the sermonizing. That turns off women as fast as anything I could do to them."
Despite himself, Kentaro laughed. "Touche." He glanced at his watch. "Better get to class. Do you have a one o'clock?"
Komatsu looked over to the athletic field. "Nope. Think I'll go watch the women's soccer team work out."
Kentaro shook his head slightly. "You do that." Kentaro followed his friend's gaze. The women were just warming up, wearing the somewhat skimpy outfits that Komatsu loved to ogle.
Kentaro began to move his gaze away when he noticed another woman, standing at the edge of the field, also watching the soccer team. She was dressed in normal clothes - pants and a sweater - and seemed to be talking to herself. His initial impression, from this distance, was that she was quite attractive. Black hair reaching just past her shoulders - arrayed somewhat gracelessly, but that could be the wind. Small frame, fit figure. From a purely aesthetic viewpoint, she was nice to behold.
Kentaro wrenched his gaze away before Komatsu could notice him doing his own form of ogling. "See you later."
"Later." Komatsu began to wander over to the athletic field.
Kentaro took one more look at the woman. She had taken a few steps closer to the players and seemed to be talking to herself with greater animation. Kentaro briefly flirted with the idea of going over to her and asking if he could help. The reminder that he had class was enough to squelch the thought.
Reluctantly he ran off to one of the buildings, wondering if perhaps he wouldn't mind having a girlfriend after all.
Kentaro examined the various dishes the cafeteria had to offer. Nothing seemed particularly appetizing. He settled on some vegetables and rice. He gave the cashier his food card, then took his tray and looked around the tables for a place to sit.
He didn't know what he was looking for until he found it. The woman was sitting at a table, by herself, morosely picking at some sushi.
Kentaro quickly looked at himself. Not a stud by any means, but he kept in shape and had a flattish stomach. Not tall, but not short either. He wondered if it would be enough to stir the woman's interest enough so that she could find out what a great guy he was underneath.
Kentaro smiled at his own conceit. He certainly wasn't the one to judge. His last girlfriend had certainly found her own reasons for not liking him, although he thought her primary motivation had been the availability of that varsity baseball player. Kentaro felt good enough about himself. No reason why the woman wouldn't like him if she gave him a chance.
His mind made up, he made his way over to the table. The cafeteria was just crowded enough to make his question not terribly imposing. "Hello. Would you mind if I joined you?"
The woman looked up and Kentaro nearly flinched. Unconcealed hostility radiated from her. Her voice was tight and full of anger. "Go. Away."
Kentaro forced a smile. "I apologize for disturbing you." He bowed and turned away.
He found another table, hoping no one could see how his face was burning. Rejection was never easy. Still, nothing ventured et cetera et cetera. He grabbed a history textbook out of his backpack and lost himself in its pages while shoveling rice into his mouth. If he did this for enough hours, he might almost forget her.
A hand clasped his shoulder. He looked up, startled. The woman was standing over him, a strange expression on her face. She seemed to be trying to speak, but had difficulty forming the words. "I'm sorry," she finally managed to say. "Nothing personal, okay?"
He gulped; her touch was doing things to him. He tried to work through the daze that threatened to descend upon him. "Okay." He was relieved to note his voice was firm.
The woman nodded, removed her hand, and strode quickly from the cafeteria.
Kentaro finally managed to stop looking in the direction she had left. He knew nothing about her. He didn't even know her name. He had no idea why she was having this effect on him.
He smiled to himself. Nineteen. That was the answer. Once he turned thirty he'd have no sex drive at all, and he could start being attracted to women based on their personalities and intellectual qualities rather than their appearance. Until then, he was trapped in this hormone-saturated body that wanted that woman desperately.
Kentaro turned back to his history book, making a mental note not to judge Komatsu harshly. Well, maybe a little harshly. It was hard, though, to get the image of the woman out of his mind.
Kentaro released the bars of the weight machine and let out a breath. He'd been a little lax in his workouts of late, and was now paying the price. He'd have to remember to come here more often.
He smiled. He forced himself to realize that his primary motivation had been the woman he'd been watching from afar for a week now. If he could keep his figure trim and athletic, like hers was, he might stand a chance. If only he could get through her wall. Although he wasn't stalking her exactly, he did keep his eyes open for her at all times. Every time he did see her, she was alone. All that he had been able to gather about her was that she was a freshman, same as him.
He picked up his towel and wiped the sweat off. Enough for one day; he had homework to do. He left the weight room and walked down the hall of the athletic center.
Passing one of the dance rooms, he caught a flash in a mirror and stopped. He turned around, walked back to the door of the room, and looked inside.
It was the woman. At first he though she was doing a slow, rhythmic dance. It took him a while to realize it was a kata. It was enchanting. She was dressed in a white gi that did little to hide her figure. Entranced, he entered the room and sat against the wall, watching her. She ignored him, continuing her kata for some time. In the end, she stood on one leg, her palms pressed together in front of her, staring off into space. She held that pose for a couple of minutes, before relaxing and fixing Kentaro with a gaze similar to the one she had given him in the cafeteria. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
Kentaro decided to ignore the question. "That was beautiful."
She glared at him some more. She muttered to herself and went over to get her backpack sitting on the opposite side of the room.
Kentaro panicked. She was going to leave. He asked the first question he could think of. "Could you teach me that?"
She gave a humorless laugh. "Not even. I've been training all my life in that kata. If you were to devote every waking moment of your life for the next twenty years, maybe you could do it half as well as me."
Thinning his lips, he decided to see it through. "Then could you begin to teach me what I need to know? If it takes me twenty years or more, I'd sure like to be able to move like I saw you move."
Her backpack slung over one shoulder, she began to move out of the room. At the doorway she stopped. She stared straight ahead of her, then turned to glare at him for a moment. He kept his face calm, hoping she wouldn't see how nervous he was.
If he hadn't been watching her so closely, he might have missed it: a slight relaxing of her muscles, an ever-so-subtle softening of her features. "What the hell. I've never had a student before. 'Bout time I had one. Need to pass on the art I guess."
He smiled and tried to hide his exultation. At last, he would get to know her.
She turned and stepped right into his face. "I ain't gonna go easy on you. We start tomorrow morning at dawn. I'll meet you at the track. I can see how bad your conditioning is, and we can go from there."
Dawn, ugh. Still, it was worth the price. "Great! May I know your name?"
She gave him a hard smile. "Of course. My name is 'Sensei'. Don't you forget it."
Kentaro gulped down his disappointment. "I won't forget, Sensei."
"Good." She looked at him for another second, then turned away. "Dawn. At the track. You're late once, I don't teach you anything ever again."
"I understand," he said to the empty doorway. Kentaro stood in the room, uncertain. He wasn't sure if this had been a good idea or not. He'd find out soon enough.
"One. Two. One. Two. Don't lose the count. One. Two."
Kentaro plodded around the track. He'd done three circuits already and wasn't much looking forward to the other seven he had to do. This would be a lot easier if Sensei wasn't perched on top of his head.
"One. Two. One. Two. C'mon, you can do better. One two. One two." She increased the pace. Kentaro gritted his teeth and tried to keep up.
Many agonizing minutes later, he completed his last lap and fell face down on the track. He panted for air and tried to will the ache in his neck and shoulders to go away.
"Well, what a guy. Does ten simple laps and now he's all worn out." Sensei's voice was disgusted with just a touch of humor. "Don't you have any energy left?"
Kentaro, using all the willpower at his disposal, turned himself over so that he was lying face up.
She tsked. She jumped high into the air, her gi shining brightly in the sun, her hair - bound tightly in a kind of braid - flying out behind her. Sensei shouted and came down, her fist pointed directly at his face.
Kentaro's eyes widened. He quickly rolled to the side and sprang to his feet just as Sensei landed, her fist striking the track surface hard enough to dent it.
She stood up, not showing any signs that she was hurt at all. "Oh, so you're not completely worn out after all. Good. Let's run to the athletic center."
Without waiting for a response, she turned and began to jog slowly away. Kentaro groaned, then stumbled after her. It was a little easier without her weight on him.
As he drew even, she quickened her pace slightly. He managed to keep up with her. "Who... who stands on your head, Sensei?"
She looked at him out of the corner of her eye. "No one needs to, do they?"
"I... I suppose not. What... what school do you teach?"
"My family's own special school." They reached the athletic center. Sensei allowed him to simply walk down the hallway as they reached the dance room.
Sensei had him stand in the middle of the room while she walked around him a few times. She grabbed his leg and moved it, then hit his back to force him to stand straighter. She wrenched his left arm almost out of its socket moving it to a new position. He quickly positioned his right arm so that it mirrored the left one. Sensei grunted her approval, then stepped back to eye him critically.
"Not bad. Not good, but not bad. I can work with this. Remember that stance; I don't want to have to show it to you again. I won't be so gentle the next time."
Kentaro's shoulder twitched. He nodded at Sensei.
An hour or so later he could barely move. He was back in the stance, and she was again watching him closely. A lot had gone on in between, and every muscle in his body ached, including ones he didn't know he had.
She watched him for a while, then gave him an evil smile. "You still want to learn this? We're just doing baby stuff. It gets harder from here on."
Once again, Kentaro groaned. He couldn't help it. He immediately followed it with, "Yes, Sensei. I want to continue to learn from you."
"I think your body says otherwise." She pursed her lips. "Very well. Tomorrow at dawn."
"Yes, Sensei. Dawn." He swayed on his feet.
This time, her smile was full of humor. "You have my permission to collapse."
His pride wanted to object. His body had other ideas, and slipped gratefully to the ground.
Sensei laughed. Her laughter faded, and when Kentaro found the energy to look up, she was gone.
The alarm buzzed. Kentaro looked up at it. Even after two weeks, he couldn't get used to getting up this early. Grumbling, he turned it off and sat up in bed.
From the bed opposite, a hand emerged from underneath the covers. It grabbed some dirty laundry from the floor and, with amazing accuracy, threw it at him. "Dammit, Ken, no woman is worth this."
Kentaro chuckled. "Depends on the woman."
A head emerged from the covers. One bleary eye looked him up and down. "Are you in love, Ken? That just ruins the whole thing, you know."
"I am not in love!" Even as he said it, he felt his chest tighten just a little. Well, maybe he wasn't completely in love.
"What do you see in her, anyway? I mean, yeah, she's a looker. But all she does is beat you to a bloody pulp every day. While that can be fun too, I don't see you as that type."
Kentaro grimaced as he put on his newly-acquired gi. "I don't know. She's... frank. Open. Honest. Honorable. Always lets you know what's on her mind. No pretenses, no disguises. No games. She knows who she is, and is comfortable with that. And the way she looks when she's doing a kata... her face is peaceful, her body is flowing, sweat is glistening on her face..."
"Oh gawds, it is love. You're doomed, Ken. Doomed. She's got her claws in you good and tight. Break free while you still can."
Kentaro glared at Komatsu. "Oh, go back to bed." He was genuinely angry. It was nothing like that.
Komatsu shrugged. "No problem there." He pulled the covers over his head. "You might ask her out to the party tonight. Just so you can find out if she likes anything besides martial arts."
Kentaro ignored him and made his way out of the dorm. Komatsu had it wrong. Sensei was not trying to dig her claws into him. In fact, she had shown no interest in him whatsoever. She had just patiently taught him the rudiments of martial arts. Her style was rough - very rough - but she was always willing to show him things over and over again until he got it right. He had learned just enough to know how much he didn't know. Sensei was right; it would be many years - if ever - before he could begin to do the things she did.
Kentaro was making little progress in breaking down her walls. He still didn't know her name. Her 'Sensei' persona was all business. Once in a while, some humor would show through. A rough humor, true, but still a pleasant change. If he was going to make any headway with her, he would need to be just a little more aggressive.
May Komatsu was right. Maybe the party tonight was the way to go.
He arrived at the track. His shoulders twinged at the sight of her next to the track. He was doing fifteen laps now, and his body still hadn't adjusted to the abuse he was putting it through. He steeled himself as best he could and offered her a genuine grin. "Good morning, Sensei."
She didn't answer right away. She seemed to be looking beyond him. Her face was quiet, troubled. He hadn't seen her like this since seeing her watch the soccer team that very first day. Something was upsetting her. Upsetting her a lot.
His grin faded. "What's wrong, Sensei?"
She finally focused on him. "Nothing." She jumped and he braced himself. She landed on his shoulders and stepped onto his head. "Twenty laps today."
He suppressed a groan and began the laps. He was always amazed that she could keep her balance. She had very little purchase, and his head was bobbing despite her weight. Yet she stayed on top of him as if she were attached.
They completed five laps before Kentaro realized that something was missing. She wasn't counting out loud, setting the pace. She was just brooding quietly on the top of his head.
Kentaro weighed risks versus benefits, before deciding to take a gamble. "Is there anything you'd like to talk about, Sensei?"
It took a few seconds, but eventually she replied. "What do you mean?"
"You seem awfully... pensive this morning."
"Hmm." He waited, but she said nothing more.
He took three laps gathering his courage. Finally, he managed to get the words off his lips. "Maybe you need some cheering up. There's this party at my dorm tonight. You know, beer, dancing. Would... would you..."
Something shifted on the top of his head. Sensei jumped and twisted in mid-air to land in front of him. He came to a halt just as she grabbed his gi. She lifted him off the ground, no small feat consider she was much shorter than he was.
"Listen to me, Kentaro. You never ask me out on a date. Never. Not if you value your life. Are we clear on this?"
Kentaro was very, very afraid. Her eyes were angry, ten times as angry as they had been in the cafeteria. Her face was a mask of fury. She looked to be on the verge of punching him.
After having been on the receiving end of her training for the past couple of weeks, he had no illusions about his ability to withstand her assault.
He tried to put moisture back into his mouth. "Very clear, Sensei."
Slowly, the anger left her face. It was replaced by sadness... and fear. This more than anything shook Kentaro.
She dropped him. "We're done training." She spun on her heel and began to stalk away. After a short distance she stopped, spoke over her shoulder. "Tomorrow at dawn."
Amidst the swirl of emotions he was feeling, a bit of relief percolated through. "Tomorrow, Sensei."
Sensei turned a little more over her shoulder to look at him, then faced forward again to move rapidly if not angrily away.
Kentaro took several deep breaths, trying to control his racing heart. He had no idea what had just happened. Obviously his timing had been lousy. Something was bothering her deeply, and he needed to know what. He just needed to know.
He thought about it for a long while. He considered, then decided. He ran back to his room.
The diner was a small one. Kentaro slid quietly into a booth, hoping he wasn't noticed by Sensei in the other booth. The booths were high enough that he couldn't see over them, much to his relief.
He'd been following her all day. He'd skipped two classes to do it. She seemed to have skipped her classes as well; after changing into the pants she always wore and a light blue shirt, she had spent a lot of the day walking around the campus, staring at the ground. At one point, she'd reached behind her and unbound her hair. When the tower clock had struck five o'clock, she'd looked up at it, then made her way to this diner.
Kentaro heard her order a pot of tea and two cups. When the server came over to his booth, he pretended that his throat hurt, and silently ordered tea and a hamburger. Not that he was at all hungry, but it would give him a good excuse to hang around.
After a while, a woman wearing a yellow dress went by his booth. He thought nothing of it until he heard her speak a greeting behind him. Kentaro hadn't been expecting it, and it was spoken quietly enough that he couldn't quite make it out. He carefully leaned his head back, trying not to look too much like he was eavesdropping.
For a moment, silence. Then the new woman spoke. "How are you doing?"
After a moment, Sensei answered in a quiet, controlled voice. "Okay."
More silence. "How are classes?"
"Fine." Still without inflection.
The woman in yellow spoke in a falsely bright tone of voice. "I'm glad you made it to the second semester. I know some people who never thought you'd get this far."
"School's easier without all the distractions." There seemed to be a little bitterness in Sensei's voice.
"I'll bet." The first woman faltered, then continued. "I see you're wearing your hair down."
"You said it would be a good thing to do."
"I know, but..." She trailed off again.
After more awkward silence, Sensei spoke in a disinterested tone of voice. "How's stuff at your college."
"Just fine. I've got a part in a theater production. A small part, I'm only a sophomore. It's a start though. I think I'll add a minor in business administration, so that I can have more options when I graduate."
"Hmm." Sensei said this in the same tone of voice she had used this morning.
Another minute went by, during which Kentaro got his hamburger. He nodded his thanks and was grateful that the server quickly went away. He picked up the hamburger for appearance's sake and continued to listen behind him.
The woman in yellow spoke, finally, in a serious, sad, and wary tone of voice. "I came here to tell you something."
Sensei picked up on the tone. "What?" Her voice was wary, too.
"I have a boyfriend."
Silence continued for long moments. Evidently this was a big deal.
The other woman spoke again. "Please, tell me what you're feeling."
"Feeling?" Sensei's voice made the hairs on the back of Kentaro's neck stand up. "What do you think I should be feeling? My fiancee is dating another person."
Kentaro's mind went numb. Fiancee?
The other woman began to sound angry. "The engagement was broken off six months ago. Even you said it was the right decision. You knew this would happen eventually. You even told me that I should find someone else."
"So you've given up on me?"
"Is there anything else that can be done? You've tried everything you could think of. Talked to everyone you could talk to. Will things ever change?"
Another long pause. "I..." Sensei's voice was frightened, sad. "I... don't know."
The anger left the other woman's voice. "Look, we meant something once. Even if we had trouble admitting it. But it's over, we have to move on. You have to move on. You have to accept it, or you'll wither and die. Please, accept it."
Sensei's voice was so quiet that Kentaro could barely make it out. "I'm trying. It's so hard. It isn't me. This... isn't me. And you..." Kentaro couldn't be sure, but it sure sounded like Sensei was crying. "I never knew how good I had it until you were taken from me. All those wasted opportunities, and now I'll never get another chance."
The woman in yellow sounded close to tears herself. "I know. We've been over this and over this so many times. No matter how much we wish it, we can't change what's happened. We can only change where we're going, what we're doing. Please understand. I can't... I can't be your fiancee anymore. I'm sorry."
Sensei mumbled something.
Evidently not even the other woman could hear it. "What?"
"Go away!" Sensei's voice was angry and sad at the same time. "Just get out!" She paused, spoke in a quieter voice. "It hurts too much to see you."
Kentaro heard the woman in yellow stand up. "If... if that's the way you want things." She sounded hurt. "I'd still like us to be friends."
Silence. Eventually, the woman left the diner.
Kentaro stared at the hamburger in his hands. Some pieces were falling into place. Sensei was obviously a lesbian. That's why she objected so strongly to Kentaro's advances. Sensei had evidently once been in love with this other woman, to the point that they had agreed to be married. The other woman had called it off for some reason.
Kentaro shook his head. There was a lot that didn't add up. There were too many holes that needed filling in. Still, he'd begun to make some sense out of Sensei's behavior.
Almost without him noticing, Sensei slipped into the booth with him. "This one time only I will forgive you, mostly because I think I wanted you to be here. Never, ever make the mistake of thinking you can follow me without my knowing about it."
Kentaro dropped his hamburger into his lap.
They stared at each other. Sensei's eyes were red, but her expression was controlled, serious. Kentaro had no idea whether she was sad, angry, or what. At the same time, he felt that her walls were down. She was as open as he had ever seen her.
Kentaro licked his lips. "Sensei, I'm... sorry. You seemed so upset, I... I thought that, if I could find out what was bothering you..."
Sensei snorted. "Well, I guess it's okay. It's not like I haven't done a couple dozen stupid things like that myself. Just don't do it again, all right?"
Kentaro nodded. "Fair enough."
Silence. Sensei seemed to be waiting for something. Kentaro worked up his nerve again. It helped to think that she wanted him to ask this question. "Who was that woman you were meeting?"
Sensei's eyes dropped. "My fiancee. Ex-fiancee."
Kentaro drew a breath. "An unusual engagement."
Sensei looked at him sharply, then gave a humorless laugh. "You have no idea." Sensei leaned back in the booth. "I tell you this, you tell no one else. If I find you've been gossiping behind my back..."
"I understand, Sensei." Kentaro felt his pulse quickening. There was a mystery about to be unraveled here.
She studied his face for a moment. Then her face settled into a thoughtful, sad expression. "My name is Saotome Ranma."
She waited for a reaction. Kentaro floundered for one. "An unusual name."
Sensei nodded. "An unusual name for a girl, you mean."
"I guess so."
"Well, you see, that's the whole point. I'm not a girl."
Despite himself, Kentaro's eyes were drawn to her chest.
She looked down herself. "Yeah, I know. I've got a girl's body, but..." She considered her words. "Okay, short version. My dad took me - you gotta remember, I'm a guy - to China for some training. I fell into a cursed pool. Turned me into a girl when I was splashed with cold water. I went back to being a guy when I was splashed with hot water." She waited for another reaction.
Kentaro didn't know what kind of reaction to give. The story was ludicrous, of course. Yet she told it with such conviction. What he did know of her told him that she wasn't playing some sort of joke on him. Very likely she believed what she had just said. That was scary. It appeared as if Sensei had some mental problems. Kentaro worked to keep his face calm and accepting. Best to play along for now.
He didn't fool her. "You don't believe me."
Kentaro considered giving her a reassurance that he believed her and wanted her to continue talking. However, she had been completely honest with him. He didn't want to lie to her. "I... I'm sorry, Sensei. If it helps, I believe that you believe it."
She considered his words, then slowly nodded. "Good enough for now. Anyway, I came back to Japan with that curse. Short version, I had a lot of stuff happen to me. Then I met someone else with the same curse as me."
Kentaro's eyebrows shot up. "There's more than one person with this curse?"
"Oh, you'd be surprised." Sensei smiled briefly. "So, this guy, his name was Herb. He had this special ladle. If you were splashed by water from this ladle, it locked you into your cursed form. There was supposed to be this kettle that cured you. I found it, but Herb did, too." She seemed to be struggling to speak, as if each word spoken caused her pain. "We fought. A big fight. Too big. Landslides, the mountain breaking open. The kettle. Falls into a chasm. The mountain collapses. On top of it."
She was quivering slightly. "It was gone. I spent a year and a half searching for it. If it isn't destroyed, it's buried under so many tons of rock even Ryoga can't get to it."
Kentaro didn't know what to make of this story. It had elements of truth in it - there had been that mountain that had collapsed a couple years ago, without a corresponding earthquake. Seismologists had called it a geological fluke. Sensei had somehow incorporated it into her fantasy.
Somehow, though, her story sounded right. Sensei certainly believed it. It explained her violent reactions to being asked out. It explained why that woman had been her fiancee, and why the engagement had been called off. Most of all, Kentaro felt real pain from Sensei. People usually didn't create fantasy worlds that caused them such misery.
He tried to make his brain accept Sensei's words as true. His brain revolted. There was no way it was possible. Sensei believed it. Sensei was delusional. But Sensei was not delusional, she was open and honest and not the type to create such a dream world. Things like that didn't happen, though. Magic wasn't real. There are more things in heaven and earth, Kentaro, then are dreamt of in your philosophy.
Sensei was smiling sadly. She wrinkled her nose. "Is that smoke I smell?"
Kentaro's eyes bugged out slightly, then he laughed. "I'm trying, Sensei, truly I am. Can... can you give me a little time?"
She shrugged. "Take all the time you need." She slid out of the booth.
"Wait!" He reached over and grabbed her arm. She glared at him, but didn't break his grip. "I'm sorry, I'm not being very supportive. It... it must be hard for you, to know that... that you can't marry your fiancee anymore. Seeing her must have been hell. If you... you want to talk some more, I'll listen."
Sensei looked at him evenly. Finally, she gently twisted her arm out of his grasp. "This ain't easy for me. I went to college to get away from it all. From the pitying looks I got. From my father, who couldn't stand the sight of me. From my mother, who doesn't know and will never know that I'm her son. From Akane, who stopped loving me because I'm stuck in this body. From everyone who knew what my problem was."
Kentaro sighed. "You're afraid that I'll want nothing to do with you now that I know some of your secrets? Sensei..." He stopped, started again. "Ranma. Real friends don't run away just because you're hurting. I feel bad that your family and fiancee reacted badly to... to your tragedy. I'm here, though. I'd like to help. If you'll let me."
Ranma considered him for another long moment. "Friends. Just friends."
Kentaro drew a breath. It wasn't what he wanted, exactly. Despite everything Ranma had just told him, he thought of her as a woman, and was no less attracted to her. Still, it was a step closer to her than he had been before. "Just friends."
Ranma nodded. "Don't think this means I'm gonna go easy on you during our training."
Kentaro smiled. "Of course not."
Ranma smiled back. "Okay. You mentioned a party. Been a while since I've been to one."
Kentaro's heart skipped a beat. "Yeah!" He jumped up out of the booth. Whatever good impression he was trying to make was somewhat spoiled by a hamburger falling out of his lap.
Ranma began laughing. Kentaro blushed, but chuckled himself.
A step closer, indeed.
The party was crowded and noisy, as expected. Kentaro and Ranma fought their way through the crowd. They had both changed into slightly more festive outfits, although Ranma still wore pants and had her hair bound in a pig-tail. Occasionally, as they moved through the crowd, parts of Ranma's body would press against Kentaro. He tried to ignore that. He wasn't entirely successful.
They eventually found a relatively open area. Kentaro turned and shouted so that he could be heard. "Can I get you a beer?"
Ranma frowned. "A martial artist doesn't poison his body with that stuff."
"Ah, c'mon. What's a liver for?"
She laughed. "Well, it's not like I haven't had a drink before. Okay, one beer."
Kentaro smiled and indicated that she should wait there. He made his way towards the keg.
A hand grabbed his shoulder. "You scored! All right!"
Kentaro turned and considered Komatsu. It sure looked like he had been to the keg a few times already. "We're just friends."
"Friends, eh? Well, you wouldn't mind if the old Komonster puts a move on her then, would you?"
Kentaro felt a twinge of jealousy. Then he smiled. "Go for it, man!"
"Really? Wow, you're a pal, roomie." Komatsu began to weave his way towards Ranma.
The smile stayed on Kentaro's face as he reached the keg and poured himself a couple of beers. The smile didn't waver at all as he heard a shout and the crash of a body hitting the floor. He went back over to Ranma, who now had a bit more space around her as the nearby men eyed her with just a bit of trepidation.
Kentaro stepped over Komatsu and offered Ranma a beer. She looked annoyed, but took the beer and drank from it. She made a face. "Ugh. This tastes awful."
"It's supposed to. That's how you know it's good."
She frowned, then shrugged and took another sip. She looked around. "Is this what college parties are like? A bunch of people standing around and drinking while music is played so loud you can't think?"
Kentaro quirked his mouth. "Only the good parties are like this. At the bad parties, there aren't any women."
Ranma snorted. "There don't appear to be a lot of them anyway."
"They just don't appreciate how charming these get-togethers can be."
They continued drinking. Komatsu was dragged off, and people kept a respectful distance while the guys gave Kentaro envious glances. He felt a certain amount of pride mixed with guilt. If only they knew.
Ranma finished her beer. She looked over at where some couples were moving somewhat to the rhythm of the music. "Let's dance."
"Huh?" Kentaro's mind boggled.
Ranma grabbed his arm. "Standing around is boring. We need to work off these beers anyway. And if guys see you with me, they'll leave me alone."
Kentaro allowed himself to be pulled to the dance floor. They reached the center. Ranma let him go and began moving to the music.
Kentaro did his own approximation of dancing, keeping his eyes on Ranma. She was beautiful. The music moved her, and she flowed with it, moving at a somewhat frenetic pace. She was smiling, her eyes closed, yet somehow avoiding everyone else on the dance floor. Her body seemed attuned to the music, her hips thrusting to the beat, her arms doing a graceful counterpoint, her legs creating their own melody, her head moving from side to side.
It was an incredible turn on. She fairly radiated sexuality, all the more so because it wasn't forced.
Kentaro flushed and tried to remember that she was a guy. For a moment, he imagined a man dancing like Ranma was dancing. Surprisingly, it wasn't hard. It would look natural for a man, too. The sexuality came from Kentaro's own perceptions of her movements, coupled with her incredibly attractive body.
Kentaro let out a breath. No matter what he came to believe about her, he would never be able to think of her as a man. This was a woman in front of him, a very desirable woman in more ways than one. He wondered if it would ever be possible for them to be more than friends.
A couple of songs later, the music slowed down. Ranma immediately opened her eyes and stopped dancing. "Any more beer?"
"I think there's enough beer here to fill a bathhouse." They made their way over to the keg.
This continued for several hours. Dancing, a beer, and more dancing. There wasn't much in the way of talk. Kentaro sensed that Ranma was trying to put the events of the afternoon behind her. He respected that, and didn't press.
Besides, watching her dance had become his favorite thing to do in the world.
Finally, the party began to break up. People drifted away, and the music became slow and romantic. Other couples were entwined and swaying on the dance floor. Ranma frowned at them, then at Kentaro. "Let's go."
Kentaro nodded. They left the social room and headed for the doors. Kentaro was feeling just a little woozy and just a little too happy with the world. He knew he was slightly drunk. He looked at Ranma and noticed that she, too, was swaying on her feet. She had matched him beer for beer, but her lighter mass meant that it had to be affecting her more.
They stepped outside. Kentaro looked around. "Where do you live?"
Ranma frowned and tried to focus on the buildings around her. "That way, I think." She set a leisurely pace, humming softly to herself.
Kentaro followed, walking side by side with her. He desperately wanted to take her hand, but retained just enough common sense not to want himself to be thrown halfway across the campus.
Ranma stepped around a building and frowned. "Uh... this way." She moved off in another direction. "Damn, I've turned into Ryoga."
Kentaro ventured a question. "Who's Ryoga?"
She shrugged. "A guy." She stopped and turned to face him. "I'm a guy, too. Don't forget that." She poked his chest.
Alcohol made him brave. "Not any more, Sensei. You're a woman now, and if what you told me is true, you're going to be a woman for the rest of your life."
"Shut up!" She grabbed his shirt, and Kentaro braced himself for flight. Eventually, she let his shirt go. "You sound just like her. I'm a guy."
She turned, took a step, and fell to her knees. "I'm my father's son. He wanted a son to carry on the art. Not a weak, stupid girl. He doesn't want a woman to be his heir. He wants a man."
Kentaro frowned and went to his knees beside her. "You're not weak or stupid, Ranma."
Ranma's voice sounded sad. "Tell that to Pop. He stopped training with me. He just stayed in his panda form most of the time. He's ashamed of me. He hates who I've become."
Panda form? Kentaro decided to ignore that. "Then he doesn't know you, Ranma. Who you are shouldn't depend on what form your body takes."
"Tell that to Akane." Tears began to fall from Ranma's eyes. "Tell that to my fiancee. It changed between us. I could feel it change and I couldn't do anything about it. All because of this." She looked down at her body.
She fell forward so that she was now on her hands and knees. Her voice was a strangled whisper. "Sometimes I want to just take a blade end it all. Then I'll be rid of this body forever."
"Ranma!" Ken grabbed her shoulders and lifted her into a kneeling position. He put his arm around her, giving her a little shake. "Please don't say that." He floundered for a reason for her to go on living. Somehow, professing his undying love didn't seem like the right thing to say. "Who will teach me the art if you're gone?"
"The art." Her voice sounded wistful. "That's what's kept me going. I can always fall back on the art. There are some things I can do better in this body. I can forget the world, forget who I am and what's become of me. The art is pure. It doesn't judge you, it doesn't ask who you are. As long as you can strive towards perfecting the art, the art accepts you."
"Well, I would greatly appreciate it if you could keep showing me the art."
Ranma looked up at him. Her eyes were still wet, but her face was thoughtful. "It feels good to have a student. Someone who needs me for something. I know you're attracted to me, and I hate that. But you let me teach you. Even when I made things tough on you, you came back for more. You don't know how much I've come to depend on our training sessions."
Ranma clutched at his shirt. "Please don't stop coming, Kentaro. I need you to be there every morning. I have a purpose again. I'm doing something good, rather than hiding. I need that."
Kentaro swallowed heavily. "I promise to be there for you each morning." He was trying not to take advantage of the fact that her mouth was about ten centimeters away from his.
She seemed to suddenly notice this, too. She let go of his shirt, rolled her shoulders out from underneath his arm, and stood up. "It's, uh, this way. Definitely this way." She quickly walked away.
Kentaro stood up slowly and watched her retreating form. He remembered telling Komatsu how comfortable Ranma was with who and what she was. How wrong he had been.
Kentaro stumbled after her, hoping to help make it right.
Komatsu slammed his book closed. "Well, enough of this. Open party at the frat house. Decompression and all that. I'm gone."
Kentaro frowned. "You have a final tomorrow, don't you?"
Komatsu took off his shirt and shuffled through the pile of dirty laundry beside his bed. "I've reached the point where reading more books ain't gonna help me. I'll think better if I've let off all of this built up stress." He pulled out a shirt that was evidently less dirty than the others in the pile. "Don't wait up."
Kentaro tried to put a warning into his voice. "Komatsu..."
"Shut up, Mom. I'll do okay." He put on the shirt, opened the door, turned to wink at Kentaro, then closed the door behind him.
Kentaro shook his head. There was a good possibility he'd need a new roommate next year. Komatsu might be irresponsible, messy, and lazy, but Kentaro had come to appreciate his good humor and folksy if somewhat misguided wisdom.
Kentaro returned to his books. He had two finals tomorrow and one the day after. When they were done with, he could think about having fun.
He was still immersed in the books when he heard a knock at his door. Frowning, he stared at the door. He got up and opened it.
Ranma stood there, wearing her normal pants and an orange shirt. Her hair was once again bound tightly behind her. She had a backpack over her shoulder. "I, uh, was wondering if you wouldn't mind a study partner."
Kentaro considered. They had none of the same classes in common. Studying together would be no different than studying apart. At the same time, he welcomed any chance to be in her company. "Of course. Come in."
She did, looking uncertainly around. "Never been here before. I pictured that it would be... neater, somehow."
Kentaro smiled. "You try living with the human landfill." He looked over at the collection of books, paper, trash, and clothing that Komatsu euphemistically called his desk. "There's not a lot of room here..."
"Don't worry." Ranma sat on Kentaro's relatively neat bed and pulled out her books. "This is good enough."
"Uh, sure." He looked around. "Need anything? Got some pop in the fridge."
"I'm fine, thanks." She opened up a math textbook and flipped through several pages. She took out what looked like a practice test and began to work on the problems.
Kentaro watched her for a second. While admittedly he had fantasized about having Ranma in his bed, this was not how he had imagined it. Still, it was great just being in the same room with her. Wrenching his mind away from thoughts it shouldn't think, he sat back down at his desk and began to study again.
Unfortunately, his mind kept drifting back to Ranma. Their training had continued throughout the semester. Kentaro was now in the best shape he had ever been in. Ranma had given him a small amount of praise about his progress. She was brutal in her appraisals - she told him that he would never be in her class, and would probably never even be as good as her ex-fiancee had been. But he would do all right. Soon she was going to actually teach him some punches. Up until now, it had all been conditioning, strength, and balance. Baby stuff, as she put it. The real lessons would commence soon.
Their friendship had proceeded differently. He saw her often at the cafeteria, and they had gone to a couple more parties. Never had the discussion returned to the subjects covered on the day of her ex-fiancee's visit. Any attempt by Kentaro to steer conversation in that direction had been cut short by Ranma. They kept their friendship at a very superficial level.
He suspected that a large part of the reason for that was his continued attraction to Ranma. He couldn't help it. The more time he spent with her, the more attraction he felt. He knew this made Ranma feel uncomfortable at best. Occasionally she would become irritable and hostile, and he learned to tread carefully around her then.
He gave his head a slight shake and tried to focus his eyes on the words in the textbook. It took a great deal of effort.
Damn, her voice was cute when she wasn't barking training instructions at him or sniping at him for something-or-other. "Yes?"
She was lying on her stomach, the math book in front of her. She had her head propped in her hands and was regarding him with a curious expression. "What are you going to do over the school break?"
Kentaro shrugged. "Go home. Do some work for my father, probably."
It was the first time she had asked him anything remotely personal. "Okinawa."
She looked surprised. "Really? That far away?"
He nodded. "Yeah. Mom's from there. Dad moved there after they were married."
"Oh." She bit her lip and looked down at the textbook again.
Kentaro closed his eyes and grit his teeth. He used all of the discipline he had learned under Ranma's tutelage to force his mind to concentrate on studying. He opened his eyes and looked at the book again.
"Are you going to give up training?"
Kentaro let out a frustrated breath. "Ranma, I need to study. So do you. Let's talk about this some other time."
Ranma looked angry. "Fine." She sat up and began stuffing her things into her backpack.
Kentaro felt something sink into his stomach. "Wait, Ranma." She looked up at him, her face angry but something in her eyes he couldn't understand. "What is it you want to talk about? You've obviously got something on your mind. If we can get it out of the way, perhaps we can both concentrate on our studies."
Ranma glared at him for a minute, then dropped her backpack on the bed. "I just want to know if you're going to give up your training."
Kentaro frowned, trying to figure out where this was going. "No, I think I've learned enough to at least keep myself in form until next semester."
"You sure? I could maybe make my way over to Okinawa a couple of times just to make sure."
Suddenly it came to him. Kentaro remembered how much Ranma had said she depended on their early-morning training sessions. She was going to lose that very soon.
It would be great to have her come visit him. "Well, if you can afford it, I'd appreciate having you come." His mind raced, thinking of all the things he could show her.
"Dammit, Kentaro." Ranma's eyes glinted. "Can't you just be my friend? Do you always have to get that look in your eye?"
Kentaro came crashing to earth a little. "I'm sorry, I can't help it. There's... there's so much to like about you. I... I want to be more than friends."
"I'm a guy. Can't you get that through your thick skull? I was born and raised as a guy."
Kentaro's mind raced. "You're a person. It's the person I'm attracted to. Your outward form is only secondary to the person you are underneath."
"Oh really?" Ranma raised an eyebrow. "Let's say I became a guy again. Would you still be in love with me?"
That brought Kentaro short. Ranma had made an excellent point. If she was a man, he'd have no interest in her. Well, not in the way he was interested in her now. She must feel the same way towards him.
This was a delicate subject. He chewed his lip and tried it from another angle. "What's your sexual preference, Ranma?"
She gaped at him. "What?"
He continued in a firm tone of voice, despite the fact that his knees felt weak. This was a dangerous topic. "Do you like girls or guys?"
She flushed. "I am not gay."
"You mean lesbian?"
Ranma was quivering with anger. "You are three seconds away from having your stomach shoved into your spine."
"You're a woman, Ranma. I don't know what you were before you came here, but from what you've told me, you're going to be a woman for a long time to come."
She stood up. "Two seconds."
"As I see it, you have three options here. You can prefer to date other women. That will severely limit your options, of course. I think you've learned that already with your ex-fiancee. You can try dating men. That has the advantage of being the most socially acceptable, and increases the likelihood that you'll find someone compatible."
She took a step closer to him. "One second."
"Or you can continue as you have been: yearning for something you can never have, keeping everyone at a distance while you wait, and ending your days whining, miserable and alone."
She shouted in rage and grabbed his shirt with one hand. Kentaro closed his eyes and braced himself. This was going to hurt.
Nothing happened. He slowly opened his eyes. Ranma was frozen in place, her fist pulled back and her expression furious. For a moment he wondered if some magic had taken hold of her and turned her into a statue.
Finally, she released his shirt. Her expression turned cold. She spun, picked up her backpack, and stormed out of the room.
Kentaro fell into his chair, too weak to remain standing. He sat there for an hour, trying to figure out what had happened. He had never intended to say those kinds of things to Ranma. At the same time, he knew things could not have stayed the same between them. He was too attracted to her. He couldn't have stayed just friends, not for very much longer. It was best that it had come out into the open.
What he was afraid of, what gripped his heart and twisted his stomach, was that all he had accomplished was to drive Ranma away from him.
Finally, he turned to his books. While he was able to read the words and derive a measure of meaning from them, the majority of his conscious and subconscious was devoted to thoughts of Ranma.
The door to the room burst open. "Well, hell, another year of parties and women. Damn, college is fun."
Kentaro turned away from his unpacking with a smile. "As I recall, there was an awful lot of the former and precious little of the latter. How you managed to pass any of your classes is a mystery that defies logic."
Komatsu dumped his suitcases on the floor. "It comes, Ken, from knowing exactly as much as you need to know." He came up and clasped Kentaro's shoulder. "From what I understand, you're in the top ten percent of the class. I will see what I can do to relieve you of that awful curse."
Kentaro laughed in spite of himself. He grasped Komatsu's arm. "I missed you."
Komatsu smiled warmly for a moment. "Well, I did not miss you. Getting up at freakin' dawn every morning and spoiling my sleep." Komatsu looked at him curiously. "Whatever happened to that girl?"
Kentaro looked down, his good humor fleeing him. "I don't know." After their abortive study session, Ranma had not shown up for the next morning's training session. Kentaro had taken his finals and waited the following morning at dawn. Finally, he had inquired at her dorm, to find that she had taken some of her finals early and left the campus, citing a family emergency.
He had thought about her all during the break, hoping she would show up. He had kept up the training program, keeping himself in top shape, praying that, without warning, she would jump on his head and order him to do laps. It had never happened.
A hand grabbed Kentaro's chin and lifted his head. Komatsu looked sympathetic and understanding. "I know it's rough, Ken. I've had my heart stomped on a number of times. I saw you two together, though, at those parties. She stayed with you, and, shall we say, rejected everyone else." His eyes crinkled for a moment. "She liked you, Ken. She'll come back. If she doesn't, she's an even bigger idiot than you are."
Kentaro chuckled in spite of himself. "Thanks, Komatsu."
Komatsu shook him and let him go. "Now, I say we get some beer and pizza and have a welcoming party. We've got a lot of freshman to indoctrinate into the college way of life. It's an enormous responsibility, one that only I am willing to undertake." Komatsu opened the door, stepped into the hallway, and began shouting. "Everyone, get your butts out here! We got a lot to do and not much time to do it in. Who's got a CD system?"
Kentaro smiled and continued unpacking. He wasn't hurting any less, but at least Komtasu had given him a way to get his mind off of Ranma, and that helped.
Kentaro counted Komatsu's snores. About five every minute. Varying in decibels, but mostly only loud enough to rattle the windows. It had taken him a while to get used to it last year. Hopefully he'd adjust a lot sooner this year.
Kentaro forced himself to be honest. It wasn't Komatsu keeping him up. He looked out the window. There was ever-increasing light coming from the east.
Silently, he got out of bed. He found his gi in the closet and put it on. He left the dorm and made his way out to the track.
He sat on the track, watching the sun rise. As it did, he found that he was sitting almost directly on a small dent. He smiled, remembering how it had come to be.
He sighed and looked around. No one was in sight. He thought about doing his laps anyway, but it would feel hollow and empty without her. He waited another few minutes until the sun was fully up. Then, with regret and sadness, he stood up and walked off the track.
He approached the large lawn that separated many of the buildings around campus. He looked across the grass and froze, his heart in his throat.
It was Ranma, he knew her in an instant. Her hair was down around her shoulders, the wind tossing it lightly. It was kept in place by a ribbon she'd tied in her hair. She was wearing a white sundress, which ruffled to the side, accenting her figure. She was standing there, her hands clasped in front of her, watching him from a distance.
Kentaro finally got his legs to work. He started walking towards her, his heart racing. As he got closer, their eyes found each other, and she filled his sight as he came up to her.
Neither one of them seemed to know what to say. Finally, Kentaro managed a few words. "You're not dressed for training."
Ranma flushed. "I know. We'll need to reschedule our training sessions. I've joined the gymnastics team, and they begin their workouts at about this time. Tomorrow, just before dinner. We can see just how soft you've let yourself become over the school break."
Komatsu blinked, and finally understood. "And next semester, you'll be joining the soccer team?"
She looked surprised. "Uh, yeah. Probably."
Komatsu looked at her steadily. "The women's gymnastics team. The women's soccer team."
Ranma simply nodded.
Kentaro smiled; then it faded away. "You look beautiful."
Her eyes glinted. Then she seemed to steel herself. "Thank you."
Kentaro had trouble getting the words out. "Does this mean what I think it means?"
Ranma licked her lips nervously. "It means I'm willing to give it a try. No promises. If that damn kettle appears, I use it in a flash. But I... I'm not holding my breath any more."
Kentaro felt something rising in him, a kind of exultation he had never felt before. "I'm glad."
The looked at each other for more long moments. Finally, Kentaro couldn't contain it any longer. He stepped closer to her, put his hands on her shoulders. An extremely frightened look came over her. He looked into her eyes a moment, then lowered his head.
Ranma shrieked and stepped back, breathing heavily.
Kentaro sighed, the disappointment tasting bitter.
Ranma seemed to gather herself and stepped forward again. "This is very difficult for me, Kentaro. You can't imagine. Guys... I just can't imagine being with guys in that way. I'm only willing to try because it's you. You've been a good and patient friend, and you've helped me with some difficult times. You even had the courage to say some things to me, things I needed to hear. I couldn't hear them when Akane said them, or even when I said them to myself. Somehow, it was different with you. I don't know why. I'd like to find out. If... if you can just continue to be patient."
Kentaro smiled gently. "I've got all the time in the world, so long as you're here."
Ranma smiled nervously. Then she closed her eyes and raised her chin.
Kentaro moved his lips towards hers, and this time she didn't pull away.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: I first wrote this story about ten years ago for an anime fanfic mailing list called the FFML. It prompted a very long and wide-ranging discussion, and if you wish to discuss any of the particulars, feel free to email me - version underwent a minor rewrite, mostly just reshaping some of the sentences and getting rid of the odd grammatical error.
This story stands best by itself, but unable to recognize that at the time I wrote about ten sequels. I probably won't be posting those here anytime soon, but if I ever get my website functional I will post them there for people to read.