By M. Zephyr

Disclaimer: Ranma 1/2 is a trademark of Rumiko Takahashi and VIZ Communications, and its characters have been borrowed without permission. This story was written for non-commercial purposes only.

Ranma x Akane. Two teenagers, strangers to one another, find themselves forced more closely together than they could possibly have imagined.

Chapter 6. Together Interchangeably

It was the morning of Ranma's first day at Furinkan High School, and of Akane's first day back after her injury. Ranma and Nabiki were running toward the school, with Ranma carrying Akane on his back. The cursed couple were in their proper bodies, thanks to a quick visit to Doctor Tofu's clinic, but they hadn't had time to wait for the poor doctor to recover from his confusion at seeing Akane and Ranma appear to swap bodies. They were already running late, quite literally.

As they ran, Ranma asked, "That Doctor Tofu, he's a martial arts master, isn't he?"

Akane responded in surprise, "Huh, how could you tell? It's true. He's very good, even though he doesn't look like he would be."

Ranma nodded as she confirmed his guess. "It was the way he snuck up on us. He somehow managed to mask all sense of his presence. That takes a lot of skill." He then frowned slightly and said quietly, so Nabiki wouldn't overhear, "I'm surprised you didn't tell me more about him in China. In fact, you didn't tell me anything about him in China."

Akane looked a little guilty, and embarrassed, but didn't say anything.

Nabiki called over her shoulder, "Hey, Ranma, the school gate is almost in sight."

Ranma came to a stop, calling "Thanks, Nabiki." He was a little surprised that she didn't stop as well. As he set Akane down he shrugged, figuring that Nabiki just wanted to hurry to her classroom for some reason. Ranma accompanied Akane as she slowly walked up to the school gate.

Akane was feeling very awkward. She was quite accustomed by now to charging this gate, screaming her hatred of boys, prepared to battle the dozens of idiots who would attack her. None of that would happen this morning. Instead, she was walking calmly toward the gate with a boy beside her. It was even stranger to think that she would not have to face Kuno this morning.

Akane rocked back on her heels in surprise when she stepped through the gate to see a large crowd of girls waiting. It looked like every girl from her homeroom was present, and at least an equal number from other classes. They quickly moved to surround the pair, with her friends Yuka and Sayuri in the front.

"So this is your fiancé," Yuka remarked, winking at Akane.

Sayuri was circling the nervous boy, commenting, "Akane, you lucky, lucky girl."

Several other girls in the crowd were making similar remarks, or even worse. Some were asking for details on how they had gotten engaged, and where Akane's ring was. Both Akane and Ranma were trying to protest that they weren't engaged, that it was just a crazy idea of their fathers, but nobody seemed to pay any attention.

Yuka dragged her attention away from the sweating boy, and looked Akane up and down. "What gives with the clothes, Akane? I mean it's cute and all that you want to dress like your fiancé, but aren't you worried about getting into trouble for being out of uniform?"

Akane stammered out, "I've, uh, got permission. From the principal. It's because of a side effect of, uh, the injury, or the recovery from my injury. I'm gonna have to wear clothes like this for a while."

Yuka gave her a weird look. "That doesn't make any sense."

Akane couldn't look her friend in the eye, so studied her toes instead. "Even if it doesn't make any sense, I do have permission. Look, the reason is, um, really embarrassing. I don't want to talk about it, at least not out here, right now. Maybe I'll invite you and Sayuri over later and explain. Can we please avoid the subject for now?"

Yuka smiled. "Okay. But I'm really looking forward to hearing that explanation."

At that point the warning bell rang, and they were all forced to go inside or risk being late for class. Ranma stuck near Akane, ready to catch her if she stumbled, but she made it to the classroom without any mishap. She did execute an almost uncontrolled fall into the chair at her desk, but without hurting herself. When Ranma looked around the room wondering where he should sit, Sayuri slyly pointed to the desk immediately to Akane's left, despite the fact that it was only one of four unused desks in the classroom. Figuring that she knew best, he took the suggested seat.

When the teacher walked in seconds after the next bell, the students quieted down immediately. He looked over the class, a small smile appearing when he first caught sight of Akane. "It is good to have you back with us, Tendo-san. We all hope that you have recovered fully from your injury, and that you will be able to catch up quickly on the work which you missed. Our new principal has already informed me that he has waived the uniform requirement for you and our new student sitting beside you." He frowned, remembering that odd conversation. The principal had not been entirely forthcoming as to his reasons. The man shrugged. It was far from the strangest thing he had ever encountered at this school. "In any case, would our newest student care to stand up and introduce himself?"

Ranma stood and turned, looking at all of the faces looking back at him. "Uh, my name is Ranma Saotome, and I'm a martial artist, the heir to the Saotome School of Anything Goes Martial Arts. My pop and I have just returned from a training trip that took us to China. We're currently staying with the Tendo's because my pop and Tendo-san are old friends."

Someone, Ranma didn't see who, called out, "You forgot to mention that you and Akane are engaged."

He scowled, trying to pinpoint the speaker. "We ain't engaged. Our fathers tried to force us to be, but we didn't agree so that means we ain't."

"That will be enough Saotome-kun," the teacher said wearily, recognizing that the new student was working up to losing his temper. He didn't really care about the various rivalries and relationships among the students as long as they didn't interfere with his lessons. "Please resume your seat. If you get into an argument, you'll find yourself standing out in the hall holding a bucket." Ranma sat back down, scowling. The teacher began the lesson.

Morning classes went about as expected. Akane paid careful attention to the teachers, trying to pick up on where they were now and figure out things she had missed during her absence. Ranma vacillated between paying attention to classes in which he had a mild interest (such as history) and allowing his mind to wander for those in which he was not only uninterested but had insufficient background (like math). He found himself nodding off during the latter subjects. The morning ended with Ranma holding a bucket in the hall because he started snoring.

At lunchtime, Akane chose to remain at her desk to eat, not wishing to exert herself to go elsewhere. The other girls in the class remained there as well, clearly intent on grilling her further. Ranma had thought about eating with Akane, since she was the only one he knew in the school other than Nabiki, but when he saw the girls gathering around her, he decided to find another place to eat. When he saw the boys converging on his own position, Ranma grabbed his bento and hopped out through a classroom window. There was a startled gasp from everyone present, and a group rush for the window, but they all saw him calmly walking across the lawn as if he jumped out of third floor windows every day. The boys looked at one another, then headed out the door in a group, determined to hunt the new guy down and ask him some things.

They found him sitting under one of the trees, calmly eating his lunch. Gathering together, the boys arranged themselves in a semicircle around Ranma, three rows deep. He eyed them a touch warily as he continued to eat. One of the boys started the interrogation with, "So are you and Tendo-san really engaged?"

Ranma only managed not to choke because he had been expecting the question. "No! We are not. Our fathers are trying to tell us we are. That we have to be. But neither of us have agreed and until we agree, we aren't, plain and simple. We don't want to be engaged." He sighed as he saw the mass of disbelieving looks gazing in his direction.

A boy sitting immediately to Ranma's right said, "You expect us to believe you wouldn't want to be engaged to Akane Tendo? She's the hottest babe in school! C'mon, tell the truth, what does she look like with her clothes off?"

Ranma reached over and grabbed the boy by the collar, tightening it around his neck, and dragging his nose to within twenty centimeters of Ranma's own. He watched the boy's face slowly start turning blue. In a quiet, menacing voice Ranma asked, "What the hell makes you think I would have seen her undressed? For that matter, what the hell makes you think you have the right to ask a question like that?"

A boy on the opposite side, apparently unheeding of his own safety, said, "Oh come on, Saotome! You can't blame us for being curious. Have you two gone all the way yet?"

Ranma glared at the new speaker, not noticing the first boy trying to use his eyes to beg for air. Until the rather frank tutorial Akane had given him in China, Ranma would not even have made the connection between the slang expression and the act to which it referred. He now fought to prevent himself from blushing at the thought. To help cover his embarrassment, Ranma growled, and then announced, "I've trained all my life at martial arts. I can, and have, cracked boulders by punching them. Now I am going to continue eating my lunch. The next person who asks me a question about Tendo-san, I am going to hit, very hard." He picked up some food with his left hand and stuffed it into his mouth.

The last boy to have spoken swallowed a little nervously, but managed to find his voice as he pointed. "Er, maybe you should let go of Hiroshi there? I think he's about to pass out." Ranma looked in surprise at the boy he was still holding and then let go, allowing him to fall to the grass. The other boys started eating their lunches as well, and quiet reigned.

Meanwhile up in their classroom, the other girls had begun their interrogation of Akane. "Okay Akane, spill. What's he like?"

Akane finished chewing what was in her mouth and swallowed. "Ranma? Well, he's a really good martial artist. He doesn't know how to deal with other people very well because of the way his father raised him. On the other hand, he's not a pervert like most boys. He has a strong sense of honor."

The other girls sighed in annoyance. This wasn't exactly the sort of thing they were looking for. "Have you kissed him yet?" one of the girls asked.

Akane stared at her, speechless, as she remembered how Ranma had revived her. Yes, they had kissed, but it hadn't been romantic. Or at least it hadn't started that way, she thought guiltily, as her mind insisted on replaying the moments when she had started kissing him back. Her classmates naturally put their own interpretation on her silence.

"Ooh, you have!" another girl exclaimed. "Is he a good kisser?"

"It's not like that," Akane tried to protest.

The other girls were looking a little more eager. Yet another girl said, "It looks like he has a really hot body. Have you seen him undressed yet?"

Akane blushed as she remembered the furo incident, not to mention numerous viewings while her spirit had been living inside his body. Then her mouth opened itself and betrayed her, "I didn't mean to!" Akane groaned inwardly as she saw all of her friends leaping to erroneous conclusions. "You don't understand," she tried again to protest, though it sounded weak even to herself.

"Wow, Akane," exclaimed the one who had asked if she had kissed Ranma. "You sure move fast for someone who only a couple of weeks ago was screaming about how she hated boys."

"Yeah," said another. "I sure wish I could trade places with you."

Sayuri eyed her increasingly embarrassed friend, and her gaze took on a wicked gleam as she decided to see how far Akane could be pushed. "So, Akane, you've seen him naked. Have you touched it?"

Akane looked in stupefaction at her friend, and her mind was forced to remember how she had examined her own cursed body after the furo incident. She stuttered, "N-n-not exactly." Then she started screaming at herself for sheer idiocy, and added, "No, of course I haven't!" The look everyone was giving her told her that this absolute denial had come far too late.

Akane looked down at her bento, her face as red as a beet. "I'm not saying anything else," she declared. The girls continued to ask her various questions, but Akane ate on silently in grim determination, trying to ignore the additional blushes which some of those questions raised. She knew that if her intent had been to convince her classmates that she and Ranma were not a couple, that she had just failed miserably.

The end of the school day took much too long to arrive as far as Akane was concerned. The looks she had been getting from the other girls ever since lunch had been mortifying. She also hadn't cared at all for sitting on the sidelines during gym class and simply watching everyone else. Akane had already known that she wanted to regain her strength as soon as possible. But now this determination crystallized into something like solid steel.

When Akane and Ranma stepped out the front door of the school, they found Nabiki waiting for them. She turned to regard her little sister and their houseguest, and arched her eyebrow at Akane. With a hint of a smile, she told them, "I've been hearing some interesting rumors about the things you two have been up to in your spare time. You really should be more careful how you phrase things, dear sister." She was rewarded by seeing a deep flush suffuse Akane's face, while Ranma looked on perplexed.

They walked through the school gate and started home, both Ranma and Nabiki keeping a close eye on Akane. As soon as the younger girl's legs started to tremble, Ranma put a hand on her shoulder stopping her. Akane turned to look at him, knowing why he had stopped her, then looked past him to where some of their classmates were walking along the same street. She turned a beseeching gaze on Nabiki, but the latter only smiled and shook her head negatively. Akane sighed, but nodded, and with Ranma's cooperation she climbed up onto his back. She closed her eyes, not wanting to see the looks on the faces of the people watching them.

Partway home, Akane reminded Ranma she had told Doctor Tofu they would stop by to explain about the curses. Nabiki wished them luck, saying that she had to get home to take care of some things. They went their separate ways, and a couple of blocks later Akane and Ranma arrived at the clinic. He set her back on her feet just inside the door, where they exchanged their shoes for slippers and then asked the receptionist if they could speak to the doctor. She asked them to take a seat for a little bit, as he was busy with a patient.

A quarter hour passed before an elderly gentleman emerged through the door in the back, and then Doctor Tofu appeared in the door behind him. He beamed on catching sight of the two teenagers. "Ah, Akane and, uh, Ranma Saotome, correct?" Tofu recollected the disturbing encounter earlier that day, and Akane's promise to stop by to explain. He looked for and spotted Akane's healing wound to make sure that he had them straight this time. "That incident this morning ... I really did see you two exchange bodies?"

"Er, not exactly," Akane replied. "Something like that. We both have these curses, you see ..."

Tofu held up a hand. "Why don't we go back to my office?" He gestured for the pair to join him, and left the room.

As they sat down in his office and Tofu poured some tea for everyone, he got another look at the side of Akane's head. He stepped over beside her and asked, "Before you tell me about your, er, curses, why don't you let me have a look at your injury, Akane?" He brushed her hair back and examined the healing tissue carefully. He continued to speak while doing so.

"When I heard about what happened I offered to consult, but the doctors caring for you seemed to have everything as well in hand as possible. I did visit you while you were in the hospital, though of course you didn't know I was there." He finished his examination and stepped back around the desk to sit down. "During my visits I observed an apparent absence of chi in your body. It was frankly rather disturbing, as it suggested, well ... I did not speak of my fears to anyone, and I'm exceedingly glad to see that I must have been mistaken."

Akane closed her eyes, wondering if she dared tell the truth to this man, but decided against it in the end. She went so far as to say, "Well, I did feel like I was ... somewhere else."

He nodded, then said, "Just a moment." He went to a cabinet, and moved some things around for a few seconds before returning with a small jar. "This salve should speed the healing process. Rub a little on the injury each night before bed, and each morning before school."

"Thank you Doctor Tofu," she said shyly as she took the jar from his hand.

The doctor settled back into his own chair once more, then asked with a great deal of restrained curiosity in his voice, "I believe you were saying something about curses this morning, and a few minutes ago?"

Akane turned to the boy beside her and said, "Perhaps you should do most of the explaining, Ranma. After all, you're the one who was cursed originally."

Ranma winced, then nodded and cleared his throat. "Right. Uh, my pop and I have been out on the road for about ten years now, training me in martial arts. Several months ago we swam over to China ..."

"Swam?" asked the doctor, a little incredulously.

"Uh, yeah, pop was too cheap to pay to go by boat. Of course, he called it training. Anyway, a couple weeks before I showed up here, about the same time Akane was injured as near as we can tell, my pop and I went to a place called Jusenkyo Valley."

The doctor interrupted again. "Jusenkyo?" He tried to chase down a stray thought. "I could swear I've heard that name somewhere before. Something I read, probably. Um, sorry, please go on."

Ranma did so. "The floor of the valley is covered by all these pools of water, and if you fall into one you get cursed. We started sparring, and I knocked my pop into the 'Spring of Drowned Panda.' When he climbed out, he was a panda bear, and he knocked me into the 'Spring of Drowned Girl.' Now, whenever we get splashed with cold water, he turns into a panda bear and I turn into a girl. Hot water changes us back."

Ranma looked over at Akane. "The puzzling thing is that when I change into a girl, I look just like Akane here. Except that I don't have that mess on my noggin, and my hair is still in a pigtail. On the other hand, I've noticed that when I change, my hair turns the exact same color as hers. If you look close right now, you'll see that even though we both have black hair, the color ain't quite identical."

Akane looked a little surprised. "I hadn't noticed that." She looked over at him. "You hadn't mentioned it either."

Ranma shrugged. "Didn't seem terribly important, I guess. Well, pop decided it was time to come back to Japan, so we did so, and he told me we were going to look up his old friend Soun Tendo. What he didn't bother telling me until the last minute was that he and Tendo-san had an agreement where two of their children were supposed to get married." Now Ranma was looking a little angry, and Akane was looking grim as well.

After the silence had lasted for several seconds, Tofu ventured, "I see. But surely there's more to the story. Akane seems to have the same curse?"

"Uh, yeah, sorry," Ranma said, then continued. "Well, when I arrived I saw a photograph of Akane and realized that she looked just like my cursed form. We explained the curses and showed them what I looked like. Nabiki seized on the idea that the resemblance meant there was some sort of magic that would let me revive Akane. So they dragged me over to the hospital and, uh, well ..." He finished in a rush, "... told me to kiss her."

Akane looked embarrassed, while Tofu smiled. "I see. And the kiss of the handsome prince awoke the sleeping princess?"

Ranma groaned. "Oh man, not you too? Yeah, that's the idea Nabiki had in mind. Akane woke up, but then when she got splashed by her dad it turned out that she was cursed also, except she turns into a guy that looks just like me."

Tofu shook his head, trying not to chuckle at their obvious discomfiture. "I imagine at that point you found it just about useless to argue with your fathers about the two of you being engaged."

Ranma groaned even more loudly, and Akane joined him this time. Ranma admitted, "You got that right, doc. They ain't listening to us at all. We haven't agreed to this, but everybody else keeps insisting that we're engaged."

Tofu smiled but sympathized. "I'm sorry to hear that. I promise that for my part I'll avoid referring to you as each other's fiancé unless you change your minds about it. Now, would it be too much for me to ask if you would demonstrate the curse for me again, now that I'm a little better prepared for it?"

Akane and Ranma looked at one another, then shrugged mutually. "I guess not," Akane told him. They both got up. Ranma picked up the pitcher of water that was on the counter and brought it back to his chair. Akane returned to the room a minute later with some hot water and a couple of towels.

Doctor Tofu focused on observing the flow of chi in their bodies, and was pleased to notice that Akane's was indeed flowing strongly again. As first Ranma and then Akane poured the cold water over their heads and triggered the transformation, the doctor grunted in amazement at the rapid realignment of chi from male to female form or vice versa. However, a flash of something else caught his eye as well, and he focused on Akane's left hand.

Yes, there was indubitably a pulsing red string attached to the smallest finger of Akane's left hand. Trying not to grin, he followed it to its further end on Ranma's left hand. They might protest the engagement now, but the doctor felt confident that they would one day come to accept it. As the pair poured hot water on themselves, he watched their chi realign once more to their original forms, and also watched in fascination as the red string between them seemed to gain slightly in solidity.

"That was truly fascinating," Tofu told them. "I am sure that the change is physically complete, as even the flow of chi in your body changes to the form expected for male or female, as appropriate. I can also foresee some awkward cases of mistaken identity in future, particularly if you two continue to dress in a similar fashion."

Akane gave him an evil smile. "I'm counting on it. If people are going to refuse to listen to us about the engagement, then I think I have a right to extract a little revenge on them."

Tofu chuckled, while hoping they would pass over him in their plotting. He told them, "I will see if I can remember where I heard of Jusenkyo before, or what I may learn of it. Perhaps there is some means to help you gain a measure of control over the curses. Please feel free to come and see me anytime if you find yourselves having some difficulty in consequence of your curses, or if you just need a sympathetic ear."

"Thank you Doctor Tofu. That's very kind of you," Akane told him warmly. She and Ranma stood and bowed, then left the clinic again. Once outside, Akane suffered herself to be carried the rest of the way home.

Later that afternoon, both Yuka and Sayuri showed up at the Tendo's front door and were escorted back to the family room by Kasumi. They entered the room to find Akane sitting on the couch, reading over some of the schoolwork she had missed. She looked up at them with a trace of surprise. Yuka answered her unspoken question. "Hi Akane! You said that you would invite us over to explain the clothes and everything later, so we just decided to invite ourselves instead and save you the trouble."

Akane tried to look indignant, but failed when she couldn't suppress a snort of laughter. Deciding that she really didn't want to hide the truth from her two best friends, she said, "Kasumi? Could you ask Ranma to join us? I think he's out in the dojo. And could you please bring some hot and cold water?" Kasumi nodded and walked out, leaving Akane's two friends giving her some very strange looks indeed.

"What in the world is the water for?" Sayuri asked curiously.

"You'll see," Akane told her mysteriously. "But I want you two to promise that you'll keep this secret. I mean, everyone else is bound to find out eventually, but I'd like a little time to ... get accustomed to ... things myself ... before they do."

Yuka regarded her with head tilted to the side. "Ah ... just what are we promising to keep secret?"

Akane smiled grimly. "You'll see, if you promise. But I want you to promise first."

With a build up like that, they had to know the secret, and quickly gave their promises. Shortly after, Ranma entered the room wearing a gi and looking puzzled. Akane patted the couch at her side, and he sat warily. A few seconds later, Kasumi entered the room, put a pitcher and a kettle on the low table, then left again. Akane took a deep breath and began the explanation.

It was pretty much the same story which Ranma had told to Tofu, except that they demonstrated his curse as soon as they reached the part where he and his father fell into the pools. Both girls were understandably very shocked, and watched him warily as the story continued.

When they reached the part where Ranma awoke Akane with a kiss, both Yuka and Sayuri adopted expressions with their lips pressed firmly together, clearly indicating that they were trying not to break into broad grins. Then they reached the part where Akane had been cursed as well, and demonstrated. Both of the other girls fell flat on their backs, mumbling incoherently, as they tried to come to grips with this development.

Eventually the pair sat back up again, staring at the two nearly identical boys sitting on the couch. "Is ... is that really you, Akane?" Yuka asked, very tentatively.

The boy with the ribbons in his hair nodded, and in a rich baritone voice said, "Yes, Yuka, it really is me." He picked up the kettle, poured some hot water over his head, and suddenly Akane was sitting there once more.

"Oh boy, that is really gonna take some getting used to," Sayuri complained. "Will anyone he kisses be cursed like that?"

Both teenagers on the couch scowled, and Akane said, "No, we're sure that won't happen." She giggled suddenly. "If it did, then Nabiki would be seriously unhappy. Before we even knew I was cursed, Nabiki was so excited when I woke up that she kissed Ranma." Akane smirked. "You should have seen her face when it occurred to her that she might have been cursed herself because of that kiss. But she wasn't. We're pretty sure that I'm only cursed because of the magic involved in waking me from the coma, and because his cursed form is my twin." It would have been even more convincing to explain that she had been present in spirit when Ranma was cursed, but she wasn't going to tell anyone that.

Yuka winked and suggested, "Perhaps, just to be sure, you ought to ask for volunteers from our class to kiss him and confirm it." She then hid her face from the black look that Ranma shot her. For that matter, Akane was also glowering at her.

Sayuri decided not to press Akane as to why she was upset at Yuka's suggestion. She cleared her throat, drawing attention away from her friend. "So this is why you weren't wearing the uniform today?"

"Yeah," Akane admitted. "We've explained about the curses to the principal. We never know when we're going to get splashed. I tell you, these curses almost seem to attract water. So we need to wear something that'll be suitable whether we're boy or girl."

"Is there any cure?" Yuka asked plaintively.

"Not that we know of," Ranma answered her. "At least, nothing that's very safe or sure. We could try using one of the other pools at Jusenkyo, but we'd be just as likely to make things worse instead of better."

Sayuri shook her head. "That really sucks." She looked back and forth between them, and a grin lit her face. "So prince charming woke you with a kiss, and the two of you change into each other. It's obvious to me that it's destiny. You two are meant to be together."

Ranma groaned, while Akane weakly protested, "Please don't say that." Her two friends laughed. Ranma growled and told them that if the demonstrations were over, then he was heading back out to the dojo, and before anyone could say anything one way or another, he was gone.

As soon as he left, Sayuri asked, "So what's it like having a boy's body? Does it really hurt as much as they claim when you get hit between the legs?"

Akane shook her head in resignation at her friend's curiosity. "I wouldn't know about that yet, so far I've managed to avoid that sort of accident. Given the way the boys acted when I, uh," she started blushing, "kicked them there myself, I'm not in any hurry to try the experiment." She then gave her friends a quirky grin, unlike any expression they were accustomed to seeing on her face. "The weirdest thing so far is being able to pee standing up."

Both of the other girls looked a little shocked, and Yuka blushed. Then a thoughtful look crossed her face, and she pointed out, "You must change into a guy when you bathe. That means you know exactly what Ranma looks like with his clothes off. Is that what you meant at lunch?"

Akane nodded shyly, and Sayuri piped up, "Oh boy! That means he also gets to see your body whenever he bathes. Man oh man, you two don't have any secrets from each other, do you?"

Akane squirmed in her seat, "It's ... only our bodies. We don't suddenly have each other's memories, or know what the other person is thinking, or anything."

"Doesn't it bother you, though?" Yuka asked seriously.

"Yes!" Akane admitted, with more volume than she intended. "Of course it bothers me! But there's nothing I can do about it. Or that Ranma can do about it."

"You've changed, you know?" Sayuri said consideringly. She blushed as the others stared at her in amazement. "I mean, besides the obvious," she quickly stammered. "Before, the thought that any boy might have seen you in any sense would have made you explode. Now it just 'bothers' you. You even seem to be willing to see things from Ranma's point of view, and acknowledge that he's not at fault."

Akane bit her lip and looked up at the ceiling for inspiration. "He and I ... have been through a lot together, in a short time. We've both got these curses, and we understand how each other feels about them, in a way that no one else really can. It helps that he's not a pervert, and merely a sometimes jerk, not a full time perverted jerk like the other boys."

Yuka looked sly. "Coming from you, that's practically an admission of love. You sure you don't want this engagement?"

"Yes, I'm sure!" Akane protested hotly, while her friends laughed. The three continued to talk for some time, the conversation shifting to things which had happened while Akane was in the hospital. Eventually Yuka and Sayuri left, and Ranma returned to help Akane do some more exercises.

In the evening after supper, Akane went out to the dojo and started walking through a slow kata, trying to build her strength up. Ranma wandered out there and watched her, making a suggestion or two from time to time. When she finished, Akane sank down to the floor and looked over at him.

"So, have you given it much thought yet?" she asked him.

Ranma looked confused. "What do you mean? Much thought to what?"

Akane frowned and spoke in serious tones. "Helping me to become a better martial artist, of course. At the hospital, you said you needed time to think about it."

Ranma had been thinking about it, but the idea of putting any girl through the training he had gone through, let alone Akane, bothered him enormously. "Do you really think you need to improve?" he asked weakly, looking for an out. "I mean, I'm here now. If any problems come up, any challengers or whatever, I'll take care of 'em."

Flames started to burn within Akane's eyes. "And why shouldn't I take care of them? This is my home, my dojo! Are you trying to tell me that I'm not good enough to train? Your female form is identical to my body! My cursed form is identical to yours! So don't try to tell me that you're any better than I am for any reason other than the amount of training you've had!"

Ranma was unable to look her in the eye. He suddenly burst out, yelling, "Do you got any idea what it was like? What my pop put me through? It was sheer hell, Akane! There were times I was in constant pain! Having boulders thrown at me! And worse things! Falling out of trees and off cliffs! Standing for hours in freezing rivers! Do you think I want to put you through that?"

Akane looked taken aback for a moment, but then spoke quietly and firmly, "I have the same bodies as you, Ranma. You already know that they can take it. Or is it just that I'm a girl?"

"Yeah, you're a girl!" Ranma half-shouted. "And you're a friend! I don't wanna see you looking at me with eyes full of pain and know that I caused it! I don't want you to hate me like ... like you would," he finished weakly.

Akane tried a different tack. "That's physical pain, which I'm ready to face. How about emotional pain? How about being told that I'm not allowed to reach beyond my current level, because you can't deal with what I'd have to go through? Don't you think that hurts? How would you have liked it if your dad had told you that, a few years ago?"

Ranma looked stunned. Akane pushed some more. "Besides, we both know your dad's an idiot. I bet if you put your mind to it, you could find ways to train me in what you learned, without using methods as dangerous as his."

Ranma was now shuffling his feet, feeling embarrassed. Her words were making sense, but they were grinding against a world view that his father had spent years instilling in him. He took a deep breath. "Uh, look, maybe you're right, okay? I, I dunno. This ain't easy for me. I said I needed time. I still do.

"Tell you what, though. There's some stuff I'm sure I can do." He paused a moment before continuing. "Right now, you need to stick to the basics, until you get your strength back. You know, practice your kata, gradually build up your speed and endurance. Before you think about the complex stuff. If ... if you want, I'll keep an eye on you while you work, and make suggestions if I see something I think you should do differently. Like I was doing earlier."

Akane gave him a long, measuring look, wanting to go over and pound him for not agreeing with her immediately. However, she couldn't help remembering what she had learned of his father during their time together, which allowed her to guess dimly at what was going on behind his eyes. She really wanted to give in to her anger, but ... something held her back. Ranma had made a concession, if only a small one. She wanted, needed to become a better martial artist. Becoming angry with Ranma would ... not help. If she agreed to his suggestion, then later she could push him to do more.

"Okay, Ranma, that'll do for now." Her voice was grim, but Ranma felt relieved to hear it, trying not to think about the future.

As the days passed Akane recovered her strength, until she was able to walk the full distance to and from school by herself. The other students became accustomed to seeing her in the clothes she wore. There were a few close calls at school, but so far no one else had guessed their secret. The salve Doctor Tofu had given her was working beautifully. The wound was healing swiftly, with almost no scarring.

Akane was rapidly improving at her kata as well, especially with Ranma's help, and each day she pressed him to do a little more. The day after their argument, she talked him into placing his hands on her arms and legs to help position them exactly as he thought they should be. The day after that she had convinced him to stand still in the dojo as a sort of "living" training dummy, as she tapped him with controlled blows. However, he steadfastly refused anything which would involve striking or blocking her. The situation was proving a severe test of Akane's control over her temper.

On Friday night at dinner, Nabiki gathered everyone's attention to deliver some unwelcome news. Looking thoroughly disgusted by the words she was forced to say, she informed them, "Tatewaki Kuno's lawyers have managed to get him released."

"What!" said Akane. "How? I thought he was going to jail!"

"Money and influence mostly," her sister told her, "together with the fact that you got better. The word is, they used the argument that you must not have been as seriously injured as was initially claimed. They said because of that, Kuno doesn't deserve a punishment so much in excess of what the other boys received. Apparently they managed to convince a judge, and rammed through a deal to get him out."

"So what will be done to my daughter's attacker?" Soun asked grimly. Nabiki forbore to point out that he might have tried being as upset about the attacks before Akane was injured. After all, she herself bore considerably more guilt on that score than did her father.

So Nabiki swallowed the thought and simply reported the facts. "According to my source, you should be getting the details on Monday, but ... he'll be on probation like all of the other boys. He won't be permitted to return to Furinkan, or to set foot on the school grounds. He has to transfer to another high school. He's also not permitted to speak to Akane or even come within a hundred meters of her."

Akane snorted, then commented bitterly, "Yeah, right. Anyone want to take any bets on how likely he is to leave me alone?"

"Not me," Nabiki answered her grimly. "Just make sure you take him out hard if he does try anything, and we'll see what we can do about getting him locked up for violating the terms of his probation. I wouldn't hold out too much hope for that either, though."

On Saturday afternoon, they had a session in the dojo in which Akane had talked Ranma into running through the complementary kata to her own, though without any forceful contact. When they finished, Akane was pleased with how she had done, even though she was sweating hard and Ranma was still as fresh as when they'd started. She caught his attention, then pointed to her temple.

"Ranma, I was checking this in the mirror this morning after I put the salve on, and it looks to me like it's barely noticeable any more. What do you think?"

Ranma squinted as he examined what he could see. "Yeah, you're right. You don't even seem to have much of a scar. That salve must be pretty potent stuff. What is there is pretty well hidden by your hair."

Akane nodded, and a light came into her eyes. "Okay, after we wash up, we're going to see Kasumi. We'll have her cut our hair to match. Oh, be sure to stay female after you wash so we can take the dragon's whisker off safely."

"You sure about this?"

"Uh huh, positive!" Akane's smile was downright mischievous.

After Ranma finished with his bath, he changed back into a girl. At his signal, Akane came in, untied the dragon's whisker, and unbraided the pigtail. She retied it in a loose ponytail, with the dragon's whisker near the bottom. Then they went looking for the oldest sister.

Not unexpectedly, they found Kasumi in the kitchen. "Oneechan?" Akane called as they entered the room. "Ranma's decided to change the way he wears his hair. Could you help to fix it up?"

"Certainly," came the cheerful response. "Let me see. Er, Ranma-kun, why are you a girl instead of a boy?"

"Oh, uh ... didn't notice," stammered Ranma. "It's, uh, not like it matters. I have the same hairstyle either way."

Kasumi shrugged. She untied his hair once more, gathered it back up a little more skillfully than Akane had done, and retied it. She then took the scissors Akane handed her, and trimmed his hair to provide a point to the tail. She also trimmed the rest of his hair a little more tidily while she was at it. Akane nodded appreciatively when her older sister was finished.

Akane then pulled up a chair beside Ranma's and sat in it. "Now, Kasumi, would you please cut my hair to match Ranma's?"

"What?" Kasumi was more than a little startled. Despite how she and everyone else could see what a good match the young couple made, Akane and Ranma had been resisting the engagement from the beginning. Now Akane seemed to be asking for something which would make them appear to be even closer.

"Please, Kasumi?" Akane asked again.

"Are you sure, Akane?" Kasumi sounded bewildered. "I mean, with your curses, if we do that ... it could get rather confusing. It would be hard to know which of you is which."

"Yes, I'm sure." There was a sharp edge to Akane's voice as she responded. "Since everyone seems to want us to get together anyway, I don't care if none of you can tell us apart."

"Oh my," Kasumi gave her trademark response, as she envisioned moments of confusion in the future. All the same she considered the task before her. Their bangs were already nearly the same. She shortened Akane's hair along the sides to match Ranma's, then cut it in the back to a little longer than the necessary length. She tied the ponytail at top and bottom as Ranma's was tied, then shaped the bottom to match Ranma's. Finally it was done.

Kasumi stepped in front to check the result. She shook her head in worry. "You look identical," she moaned. "Except for that small scar on your head ... and that's barely visible!" The impact was made all the greater by the fact that Akane had selected her clothing to match Ranma's.

"Now let's test how we look the other way," Akane announced. She stood and poured herself a glass of cold water, then dumped it over her head, becoming male. She had Ranma do the same with hot water. Beckoning him to stand beside her, she asked Kasumi, "How do we look?"

"Oh my!" There was real feeling in the two words. Kasumi blinked several times. The two boys might as well have been twins. She was entirely unable to distinguish between them except, again, for the faint scar. The older girl shook her head in concern. "It's truly unbelievable, Akane. This could cause a great deal of confusion. Are you one hundred percent certain you wish to do this?"

"Oh yes, one hundred percent," Akane confirmed gleefully.

That night at dinner, two Ranma's sat down at the table. Akane had used some makeup to hide the scar. Nabiki's, Soun's and Genma's jaws all dropped at the sight. As Kasumi served the food, Akane made an attempt to eat as fast and furiously as Ranma, in order to enhance the image.

Genma growled. "What's the meaning of this boy?" Then he shifted his glare to the other one. "Er, boy?" Then he looked back to the first again. "Which one are you, anyway?" Matching grins appeared on both faces.

"Can't you tell who your own son is, pop?" Akane said.

"Hah, I knew it was you all along," he said while facing the one who just spoke. "You can't fool me, you know."

"Funny thing to claim considering she just did," Ranma said with a smirk.

Genma's head snapped back. "Boy, is that really you?"

Akane laughed. "I thought you could tell, pop."

Genma gave another growl, then shot out both arms, launching a punch at each face. Both of them started to duck, but Ranma also blocked the punch heading for Akane. "Hey, old man, watch it! You almost hit her!"

His father sneered. "Hmmph. At least now we know which one of you is which." The meal continued uncomfortably, but without further incident.

In the dojo that evening, Ranma offered to help Akane to improve her speed and ability to dodge. His thoughts did not go beyond trying to prevent a repetition of what had happened at dinner, but Akane smiled inwardly, reasonably pleased with the outcome regardless.

Monday morning, as Nabiki, Akane and Ranma neared school, a figure stepped out of a side street just in front of them. He was carrying a bokken in one hand and holding a rose near his nose with the other. He seemed to pose in order to give them the best possible view of his profile.

"So my fierce tigress," he declaimed, "I was informed that you had recovered. Has your heart now recognized that we two are destined for one another? Ah, how my heart did cry in agony as I held your bleeding head 'gainst my breast that day! Come my love! Let us be away and plan our future together!"

Ranma turned to Akane. In a voice dripping with contempt, he said, "This just has to be Kuno, right?"

Akane smirked and nodded. Then she turned and glared at the other boy. "Kuno, aren't you risking arrest for talking to me like this?"

"T'is but a petty concern, fair one," he replied airily. He turned and pointed his bokken directly at Ranma. "But you! You are being quite familiar with Akane! Who are you? Ah, but it is the custom to give one's own name first! Fine then! Mine shall I give!"

Kuno drew himself up straighter. "My name is Tatewaki Kuno. Undefeated new star of the high school fencing world. My peers call me the ... Blue Thunder!" He looked around curiously. The weather was not cooperating for some reason.

"Never heard that name before," Nabiki remarked snidely. "Who did you say calls you that?"

Ranma introduced himself, giving no attention to Nabiki for the moment. "My name is Ranma Saotome, and I'm the heir to the Saotome School of Anything Goes Martial Arts."

Before he could add anything else, Nabiki cut in with, "and he's Akane's fiancé."

Ranma barely managed to jump over the bokken as it swung across horizontally, apparently in an attempt to cut him in half at the waist. In a blazing fury, Kuno ground out, "Never! I shall never accept the engagement of a cur such as yourself to the fair Akane Tendo! Never!" He swung down in an overhand blow, which cut a large groove in the wall Ranma had been standing by, but missed the boy who had jumped out of the way.

Before Kuno could swing again, Ranma was in his face, so fast that the other three pairs of eyes all blinked in astonishment. "Now listen here! Akane and I aren't engaged! That's just some idea of our families!"

"So you would dare to cast aside the beauteous Akane? Thou art no man!" Kuno took a step backward and swung again, but connected only with air. Suddenly Ranma dropped on him from above, striking Kuno in the forehead as he tried to raise his bokken in time to block. As Ranma's foot touched the ground, he delivered kicks with the other foot to the taller boy's chin, chest and solar plexus. The kendoist dropped like a felled tree.

"Wow, you're fast Saotome," Nabiki commented, surprised and impressed by the display of physical prowess. She caught herself calculating odds on his next fight with Kuno, and gave a massive shudder. ‹No!› she whimpered mentally. ‹I promised myself! Never again!› She took a deep breath, regaining her poise.

Akane nodded matter-of-fact agreement concerning Ranma's speed before asking, "What was that attack to his forehead?"

Nabiki stepped forward and looked down at Kuno's face, then snickered. She turned back to Akane and said, "He's got a bruise here that's supposed to spell 'buffoon'. Only Ranma didn't get it quite right." Akane grinned and stepped over to see for herself, while Ranma looked nonplused that his little practical joke hadn't come off exactly right.

"Don't you think we'd better get on to school?" Ranma suggested, hoping to avoid a spelling lesson.

"Sure." Akane turned to him, then frowned and traced a finger along his neck. "You've got a bruise here. Did Kuno manage to hit you after all?"

Ranma touched his neck gently himself. "No, he never touched me. It must have been from the air pressure of the blow. You know, that's not too bad."

Akane shook her head. "You don't have to compliment him. Come on, or we're going to be late." The three of them ran off, leaving Kuno to wake up on his own a short time later.

The school day passed without serious incident, except that Ranma had to see one of the teachers after the last class to explain his failure to do an assignment properly. Nabiki was also staying late that day, to do some research in the school library for an upcoming report. Akane started home by herself.

As she was walking along the sidewalk, not paying very much attention to her surroundings, Akane suddenly yelped as water cascaded across her body. She turned to see the old woman with whom she and Ranma were becoming much too familiar, holding a ladle and giving her a funny look. Akane sighed and continued on. She patted her chest to confirm that she was once again male.

A few minutes later, an all too familiar bokken-wielding jackass stepped out in front of her. "Hold, Saotome! You may have overcome me this morning by sorcery, but I shall defeat you now! And when I have won, my tigress shall be free to admit her love for me!" He swung and Akane jumped backward.

"Hang on, Kuno, you baka! It's ... oh yeah." Akane suddenly remembered whose face she was currently wearing. She blocked his next strike and landed a solid kick in his gut, but he was immediately back on her, swinging again. As she wove around his strikes looking for an opening, it began to dawn on Akane that Kuno was fighting with more skill than he had ever shown in their morning bouts. She slowly began to grow worried, the more so as she had not yet fully recovered her strength or agility.

A strike tore through the side of her shirt and the sports bra underneath, leaving a bruise on her skin. Akane spun away, and tried to turn the spin into a kick, but the bokken blocked her kick painfully. She almost fell when her foot came back down, it hurt so much to stand on that leg. With a good deal of her maneuverability diminished, Akane raised her fists for a desperate defense.

"Hmmf," Kuno grunted. "You are a less worthy opponent than I thought this morning."

A sudden blur of a dark-haired girl flew past Akane and swept Kuno's legs out from under him. Stiff fingers jabbed into the boy's solar plexus, and the edge of a hand cracked against his temple. Akane saw herself standing up from the now unconscious Kuno, and realized that Ranma had arrived in the nick of time. She started trembling in delayed reaction.

Ranma looked her up and down, assessing the two obvious injuries. "Come on Akane, let's get you home. The leg at least could use some ointment and massage. It's probably hard for you to put weight on it at the moment, right? Go ahead and lean on me if it helps."

Akane felt hot shame pouring through her that she had needed his help, and worse that the help had come when he was wearing her body. She almost lashed out at him, but managed to fight her emotions down. She said nothing through her gritted teeth, but did reach out a hand to place on Ranma's shoulder and limped home with his aid.

Later in the dojo, after Ranma had worked on Akane's leg and she had worked through a couple of kata to test it, she turned to Ranma and asked, "Ranma, do you know why Kuno attacked me this afternoon?"

"'Cause the guy's a certifiable lunatic?" Ranma suggested.

Akane gave a half smile. "Well, yes, but more importantly it was because he thought that I was you. He wanted revenge for what you did to him this morning, and for some reason he thought that defeating 'you' would free 'Akane' for him."

Ranma scowled. "Man, I knew it was a bad idea to make us look so much alike."

Akane walked over to Ranma, grabbed his chin gently, and made him look directly at her. She gave a single shake of her head from side to side. "No, Ranma. With Kuno it wouldn't have mattered. He seems to exist in some little world inside his own head. Even without the matching clothes and hairstyles, I'm sure he still would have thought that I was you, and still would have attacked just as fiercely."

Ranma gritted his teeth, pulling back from her hand. "Yeah, well, I guess I'm just gonna have to keep a sharper eye out then. Can't have him hurting you 'cause he thinks you're me, after all."

Akane gave an exasperated huff. "You're planning to stick that close to me at all times? When I'm window shopping downtown? When I'm going over to Yuka's or Sayuri's or someone else's? When I'm walking somewhere with them? Do you honestly think I'll let you stick that close to me, all day, every day?"

Ranma turned his head aside and took a couple of steps away, not looking at her.

Akane went on, "What about the next person who holds a grudge against you? What if someone else from your checkered past shows up, and I happen to be in my cursed form and they attack before asking questions? If they're going to attack me thinking that I'm you, then shouldn't I be able to defend myself as if I'm you? Or at least something close to it?"

Ranma still wasn't looking at her. His voice was a little desperate. "It's my duty to defend you."

"Why?" Akane asked. "Because you're supposed to be my fiancé? You don't accept that. Because you're a martial artist? Damn it, I'm a martial artist too! Don't I have the right to defend myself? How can I call myself a martial artist if I have to have someone fight my fights for me? Would you be able to respect a martial artist who has to have someone do that? A male martial artist?"

Ranma spun back toward her, face twisted in pain. "Damn it, I don't wanna hurt you!"

Akane's face softened. She walked up to him and put a hand on his shoulder. His face was still twisted in a tight grimace, but was looking down rather than at her. "Ranma, we've discussed this. You say you don't want to hurt me. I can understand that. But would you rather see me lying in the hospital in a coma again? Or even dead? If you had been a few seconds later today, that might have happened. I know you wouldn't prefer that."

Ranma looked up at her again, anguish clear in his eyes. "Akane, I've already told you some things about the price I've paid, still pay, to get as good as I am. Can you really ask me to be the one to make you pay the same price?"

"Yes Ranma, I can," she told him sincerely. "I'm a martial artist, and I understand the price. I'm ready to face the pain, the bruises, the risks. My two bodies are identical to your two bodies, and you already know that those bodies can handle this. As my friend, I am asking you to help me. ..."

She took a breath and added, "Because the alternative is even worse."

Ranma looked down again, and a deep shudder passed through his body. When he looked up again, there were tears on his face. He wiped them away quickly, trying to pretend they were never there. His voice sounded hollow as he told her, "Okay, Tendo-san, you win." He gave her a smile which didn't look particularly happy. "I'll teach you everything I can, and I'll do what I can to help you through the rough patches. I still don't think you fully understand what you're letting yourself in for, but somehow we'll see it through together."

Feeling overwhelmed with happiness at his answer and not really thinking about what she was doing, Akane stepped forward and pulled Ranma into a hug. She wanted to reassure him that this was what she wanted, and to try to let him feel how happy his agreement had made her. She blushed slightly as she realized that it felt pretty good to hold him like this, but for once decided to ignore her embarrassment and held on.

Ranma slowly relaxed into her embrace, putting his arms around her as well. He allowed himself to take comfort from the feeling of reassurance he was getting from Akane. He had given his word now, and he would live up to that word. Ranma found himself filled with an odd mixture of desire both to protect her from all harm, and to help her achieve her wish. He would get her to the point where she could take on all threats by herself, while silently promising that if he had anything to say about it, she would never face anything of the sort by herself.

Late that night, Ranma sat up on the roof watching the stars, at least those bright enough to show themselves through the city's glow. This sky didn't hold a candle to the starry nights he had seen while growing up and camped far from civilization, but he was content nonetheless. He was more than happy with the trade he had made for the sight of the stars. He now lived in a nice house with a great dojo, good food, and a good friend as well.

A smile lifted his lips as he thought about Akane, who was probably asleep in her bed at this moment, pretty much right underneath where he was sitting. There was no doubt in his mind that she had quickly become the best friend he had ever had, although he ruefully acknowledged that he had been permitted damned few of those in his life. He shook his head in wonder, remembering the sheer joy she had radiated while hugging him earlier, all because he had agreed to put her through hell. Despite everything his pop had ever said about girls, the only possible explanation was that she truly loved the art as much as he did.

‹Akane.› He spoke her name silently in his mind. They had been together in one body for a time. They were still linked somehow by their strangely mirrored curses. Now he knew they shared a love of the art. He wondered what the future had in store for them.

Whatever the future might bring, he thought to himself, one truth held firm; he had found a friend. "A real friend," he whispered, and his eyes widened as the heavens responded to his words with the streak of a shooting star, its trail glowing for several seconds. He thought about friendship, the warmth of her body as she had hugged him, the scent of her hair. Gradually it dawned on him that maybe, just maybe, his old man hadn't done such a stupid thing to bring him here after all.

And in the room below him, another pair of eyes watched the fading glow left by the meteor. Its light had sprung into existence just as she was reflecting on the young man who had somehow, against all odds, become her friend. Her hand reached out and tugged the curtain closed. With one last smile toward the faint sound from the roof overhead, Akane climbed into bed and gave herself over to her dreams.


Author's note:

This ends Togetherness, but the story continues in the sequel, tentatively titled Side by Side. The sequel will carry on into the history of the manga, with an open-ended structure for which I plan to post chapters irregularly and probably infrequently. I greatly fear that it will be a few months, at least, before the first chapter of the sequel is posted.

I had originally promised myself that I would hold off on the final edit and posting of this chapter until after I finished my taxes. However, I wasn't going to work on those on a Friday night anyway, and decided instead to make one last huge push and get this chapter out. So here you are, and I hope you enjoyed the story.