Side by Side
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. Sequel to Togetherness. Alternate universe story in which Ranma and Akane are cursed to change into duplicates of one another.

Brief recap of what has gone before - On the morning before Ranma was cursed, Akane slipped during her morning bout with Kuno and was struck in the head, leaving her in a coma. Her spirit found itself sharing Ranma's body, and with him experienced being cursed, getting Shampoo's Kiss of Death, and the accident with the dragon's whisker. The magic of Jusenkyo, looking inside Ranma for the best pattern on which to construct his female form, caused Ranma's cursed form to look just like Akane. During the two weeks before the return to Nerima, Ranma and Akane got to know one another fairly well, even to the point of becoming friends.

Meanwhile back in Nerima, Nabiki has reformed due to her role in Akane nearly dying, Tatewaki Kuno was arrested, Kodachi Kuno was shipped off to live with other relatives, and Furinkan High School gained a new principal and vice principal.

When the Tendo family learned of the resemblance of Ranma's curse to Akane, they decided that he was magically destined to revive her from her coma, which he did with a kiss. A side effect of Akane being present in spirit with Ranma when he was cursed is that now Akane also bears a Jusenkyo curse, which transforms her into a copy of Ranma's male body. Feeling somewhat more light-hearted after her near brush with death, Akane has decided to adopt a clothing style similar to Ranma's, and for the two of them to share a hairstyle, to make it difficult for people to distinguish between their cursed forms and the other's original body. Kuno was released from prison, and Akane convinced Ranma to train her more thoroughly in martial arts.

Chapter 1. Practicing Pranks

It was early on a Tuesday morning, so early that the birds were still twittering in the dawn chorus. Ranma Saotome awoke, as he had on too many occasions in the past, to find himself flying through the air. As he sailed out through the window of the Tendo guest room which he shared with his father, Genma Saotome, he heard his old man's irritating voice shouting. "Time to wake up, boy!"

Cursing, Ranma righted himself to land feet first, noting as he did that his old man was jumping through the window after him. With a groan he saw that he was going to land in the koi pond rather than on the lawn, but that was only to be expected. Genma had naturally aimed himself at the grass well short of the pond, far enough back to escape the large splash when Ranma hit the water.

Spluttering, the young martial artist leaped out of the water, barely noticing his transformation into the black-haired twin of Akane Tendo, the girl whom everyone insisted on calling his fiancée. With a snarl, he called out, "Dammit, pop! Whaddya go and do that for? I got other plans this morning!"

"Stop whining!" Genma demanded, launching a kick which his son ducked. "You sound ..."

"... like a girl," Ranma finished. "Can't you think of any fresh insults? That one just sounds stupid since I am a girl right now."

"Oh, to think that my own son would call himself a girl," the older man complained, while launching several rapid punches in succession. "I'm so humiliated!"

Ranma leaped over the last of the punches, did a handstand on Genma's head, then dropped behind his father and kicked him in the back. Genma went flying into the pond, the cold water of which instantly activated his own curse, transforming him into a panda bear. The bear sat in the water for a moment, struggling to draw breath back into his lungs.

Ranma smirked, arms crossed in front of his chest. "If you ask me, you should be more worried about the humiliation of being beaten by this 'girl'." Pointing his thumb at his chest he continued, "Now like I said, I got other business this morning." With that Ranma spun on his heel and marched back into the house.

He got inside just in time to meet Akane, his alleged fiancée, coming down the stairs. Akane was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, with a peaceful look on her face until she caught sight of her damp mirror image striding toward her. One eyebrow twitched menacingly.

"Ranmaaa ..." she growled through gritted teeth.

"What?" He looked around innocently, unable to determine the cause of her anger.

Akane clenched her hands into fists. "Listen. I'm more or less used to the idea that your curse changes you into my double. But ..." Her hand swept out, gesturing to the vicinity of Ranma's chest, indicating the soaking wet t-shirt which very clearly had no bra beneath it. "If I ever catch you flaunting yourself again, when you look like me, I will pound you flat! Do you understand?"

"Cool down, Akane," Ranma replied weakly, not wanting to deal with her temper this morning. "Pops threw me into the pond like this. Wasn't my idea. So if you're gonna pound anyone flat, it oughta be him." He gave her a quick look up and down. "Speaking of pounding, why don't you go change into a gi? I want to have a workout with you before breakfast."

Akane drew back in surprise, her irritation forgotten. "A ... a workout? This morning? I ... I was thinking of starting up my morning jogs again. You really mean it? We're going to train this morning?"

Ranma's lips curved up in a lopsided smile. "Yeah. I gave you my promise that I'd train you, and I'm gonna keep it. Don't worry about the jogging, I'll have you doing plenty of running. To and from school to start with, and up on the fences before long."

"Oh," Akane responded, in a quiet voice.

Ranma nodded, smiling reassurance as he told her about the plans he'd been making. "I still need to work out with my pop every day, so I'll train with you this morning and spar with the old man this afternoon, then we'll switch it around tomorrow and every day after that. You and I will do more training after dinner. And on weekends. I'll do more sparring with my pop on the weekend, too. Once I have you up to a point where I think you can handle it, you'll join me and pop for our workouts. 'Fraid that might be a while, though."

"Oh," Akane said again. She gave a small nervous laugh. "It's just ... I worked so hard to convince you to train me, and now you're planning to spend more time on it than I ever expected." She cocked her head to the side. "Are you sure that your dad will be willing to spar with me? He's got a pretty low opinion of girls, you know."

Ranma couldn't help the snort which exploded from him. "Yeah, I do know. And I expect it'll take some time for me to wear him down and talk him into it. On the other hand, it's not like you'll be ready for it right away, so it probably won't matter. As for how much time we'll be spending on the training ..." Ranma paused and shook his head. "I wish we could spend even more time on it.

"Think about it," he continued. "You've convinced me I have to try to train you up to something approaching my level. I've promised I'm gonna do it. But you know by now how hard my pop worked me, day after day, for the last ten years. You're getting some things, like my strength as a male, pretty much for free. But it's still gonna take an awful lot of work."

Akane flushed. "I'm not that bad ..."

The boy standing before her sighed and shook his head. "You're not bad at all. You're damn good, in fact. But you gotta face the fact that you ain't nowhere near my level. You gotta face that in order to do something about it, and we have to get your skills up closer to mine. You were right, after all. Somebody might come after you, thinking you're me."

Akane sighed, then smiled. "Guess I'd better go get into my gi then. It is what I asked for, after all. Though something tells me I may have bitten off more than I realized." Still smiling, she turned and ran lightly back up the stairs.

Ranma followed more slowly, to change out of his wet underclothes and to get dressed. "You sure have," he whispered. "I tried to warn you, but ..." he smiled, "I guess we're both committed now."

Ranma and Akane entered the family room and knelt at the table to eat their breakfast. They were dressed identically, in black slacks and blue Chinese shirts, and each had a long black ponytail hanging down behind his or her head. Thankfully for the peace of mind of the other people around the table, they were in their proper genders, instead of looking like either male or female twins who were difficult to tell apart. Or at least, everyone assumed they were in their proper genders. It was always possible that both of them were in their cursed forms.

Akane was groaning softly, her muscles still protesting the treatment Ranma had given them in the dojo that morning. Despite the fact that Ranma was busily defending his food from his father, he still spared a glance for the girl as she finished and prepared to stand. Reaching out to stop her, Ranma said, "Take another helping of rice and soup, Akane. I'm gonna have you burning off a lot more calories than you're used to."

Genma took advantage of the momentary distraction to nab a pickle slice. However, as his son's words sunk in, his features twisted in confusion, and Ranma seized the opportunity to steal the pickle back. "What d'ya mean by that, Ranma?" he asked. Then his eyes widened in enlightenment, and he slapped his son on the back. "Well done, m'boy! But we'll have to have the wedding right away. You shouldn't be doing that before you're married."

The two teenagers stared at him blankly, but Akane's father projected his aura in the form of a demonic head. "You slept with my baby girl?!" he hissed.

Akane and Ranma both turned red, and spluttered indignantly. "Of course I haven't!" the young man shouted. "Where the hell did you get that idea?!"

Nabiki was trying not to laugh. "I think it was your comment about helping Akane to burn off calories, Ranma-kun."

The boy stared at her for a moment, then turned to glare at his father. "I was talking about training her, you idiot! In martial arts. That's what we were doing this morning. Out in the dojo. She needs to get better, fast!"

Genma turned an interesting shade of magenta. "D'you mean to say that you walked out on our morning exercise so you could waste time training a girl! What the hell is wrong with you, boy!"

Akane grew even angrier than she had become at the accusation of having slept with Ranma. In chopped tones, she queried, "Tell me, Saotome-san, how many people have you pissed off in the past, who might show up someday to get even?"

"I?" Genma replied haughtily. "I have always been a model of virtue. It isn't my fault if people misinterpret my noble intentions. In any event, that has nothing to do with ..."

"Just answer the question," hissed Akane, interrupting. "How many?"

"I suppose there might be five or six I parted with on poor terms," admitted Genma innocently.

"More like five or six dozen," muttered Ranma.

Akane nodded sharply. "And just what's going to happen if they show up here, decide to take it out on your son instead of you, but I happen to have been hit with water and they see me instead?"

Soun paled as the implications suddenly struck him. Kasumi and Nabiki also started to look worried.

Genma merely sneered. "And whose fault is it that you look just like him? You're the one who decided to wear the same clothes. You decided to wear your hair just like his. You wanted to play a prank on us, and now you're complaining 'cause it might get you into trouble you can't handle."

"Stupid pop," murmured Ranma, letting Akane carry on the argument. She heard the quiet mutter, and barely avoided rolling her eyes at how Ranma had conveniently forgotten the difficulty she had faced convincing him to give her this training.

The young woman now looked at Ranma's father in scorn. "Oh, right," she sneered in turn. "Someone with a grudge against you from a couple of years ago is going to show up, see 'Ranma,' and then he's going to stop and say, 'Oh, wait! Those aren't the clothes that Ranma is supposed to be wearing. That isn't the hairstyle that Ranma is supposed to have, that I have no way of knowing about since I haven't seen him in two years. Goodness me! It looks exactly like Ranma, but obviously it can't be him!'"

Genma's face darkened further at her mockery. "It isn't my fault you're cursed to look like him! And it's Ranma's duty to protect you! He'll deal with any riff raff who show up!"

Akane leaned forward, not backing down at all. "It doesn't matter whose fault it is, although I might point out that you're the one who dragged Ranma to Jusenkyo. But Ranma can't be beside me every minute of every day!"

She looked ready to continue the argument, but her father Soun suddenly stood up. He was looking very worried. He grabbed Genma's elbow and walked out of the room, forcing the other man to go with him. As they went through the doorway, Soun was heard to say, fiercely, "I need to talk with you, Saotome-kun."

As the men left the room, Nabiki turned to Ranma and cleared her throat. Her eyes were full of concern, but her voice was like drawn steel. "Forget everything your idiot father said, Ranma-kun. You'd better do the best job you possibly can training my little sister, or else. I almost lost her once. It better not happen again and especially not because someone was after you instead. If it does, then you'd better find a very deep hole to hide in. And you better pray that I never find you."

Ranma swallowed nervously. Akane just said, quietly but firmly, "Nabiki ..."

Kasumi cleared her own throat, causing the eyes of the others to turn to her. The oldest of the sisters looked Ranma in the eye, and in a terrifyingly quiet voice stated, "Pray that neither of us ever find you."

The young man cast his eyes down, and hoarsely said, "Look, I promised her I'd train her the best I can. I keep my promises. From what I saw this morning, there's a few quick things we can do immediately, some adjustments in her forms, that will give Akane a big boost over just the next couple of weeks. But after that it's gonna take time. I didn't get to be as good as I am overnight, y'know!"

Akane laid a hand on Ranma's wrist. "It's okay. We're both going to work hard. Don't worry about my sisters."

Nabiki gave Ranma a hard look which said without words, "Believe me, you had better worry." Seeing that the message was received, she swallowed the last of her coffee, then announced, "I've got to be going. Unlike you two, I prefer to walk to school in a leisurely fashion. I'll leave the sweating to you." She stood and left the table.

Akane sighed, saying wistfully, "I suppose we should be getting ready to go too."

Ranma's hand reached over to stop her once again as she prepared to rise. "You still haven't had your extra helping. Go on. Eat up."

She pouted. "Are you sure? I don't want to get fat."

Ranma laughed. "Don't worry, the way I'm planning to work you, there won't be any danger of that." He stopped to look her over critically, causing Akane's cheeks to color lightly. In a measured tone, he told her, "If anything, you don't have enough fat. Hadn't really thought about it before. Lots of solid muscle, but you ought to have a bit more padding. Oh well, not much to be done about it right now."

Akane stared at him incredulously, not quite certain how to take that. Ranma reached over and served her the additional helpings himself. It was only when he threatened to start feeding her that Akane forced herself out of her trance and began eating. As she ate, the two fathers reentered the room, Soun looking stern, and Genma appearing frazzled. Nothing else was said about Ranma training Akane. The two youngest finished their meal quickly, and then went off to get their school bags.

They met again in the upstairs hallway. "So, we're going to run all the way to school?" Akane asked for confirmation.

"Yep," Ranma answered. "You set the pace this morning. Run as fast as you can, at a speed where you think you can get to the school without being winded. Keep in mind you're not fully recovered from the two weeks your body was stuck in bed. After I see what you think you can manage, I'll start setting the pace and expect you to keep up."

Akane nodded, determined to show him that she could manage a strong speed despite his words of caution. At the same time, she was feeling a little bothered by the way that he was making all of the decisions, bossing her around. Yes, she wanted him to train her. But she didn't want him to think that she was the sort who would meekly do everything she was told.

On the other hand, she didn't want to raise objections to his ideas regarding the training. At least not yet. It had been hard enough convincing him to do it in the first place. It would probably be best to even hold off on making suggestions about the training for the time being. But that meant she had to find some other ways in which to take the initiative. Now then, what ... Akane's mouth slowly smiled, as they headed down the stairs.

"Ranma?" she addressed the boy beside her.

"Yeah?" he asked, as they took the bentos Kasumi handed them and headed out the door.

"You remember we talked about playing pranks on people, swapping places and that sort of thing?"

"Okay, yeah." Ranma eyed her speculatively.

Akane shrugged. "I was thinking that we ought to start simple. Nothing elaborate. Just swap places and see if we can keep anyone from noticing. It shouldn't be too hard since no one, or almost no one, at school knows about our curses."

"So, just switch places for one of our classes? That what you mean?" Ranma inquired, making sure he understood.

Akane nodded. They had reached the gate, and she broke into a fast trot, then sped up a bit more. "I was thinking we could stop by Doctor Tofu's clinic on the way to school for some water to switch places. We sit in each other's desks for History, then slip back out between classes and switch back. Nothing major."

Ranma thought about it, then shrugged and nodded, seeing no harm. Or at least, figuring that if they couldn't manage this, they certainly wouldn't get away with anything more elaborate. "Sure, I'm game. Just remember not to act too smart."

Akane smirked. "And you try to remember not to fall asleep. At least History is the one subject you don't seem to be too far behind in. So you shouldn't make me look too bad if you're called on."

Ranma stuck his tongue out at her, and they fell silent, concentrating on running.

It was almost too easy, Ranma thought to himself. Tofu had looked at them with resignation as they poured water on themselves and appeared to switch places. In the schoolyard, the boys had greeted Akane as "Ranma" and Akane's friends had welcomed him. Yuka and Sayuri had noticed nothing, even though they knew about the curses. They had sat at each other's desks, and even congratulated themselves on remembering to swap school bags back at the clinic, so no one would notice they had each other's notebooks. Pretending to be Akane was a piece of cake.

"Tendo-san! Are you paying attention?"

Ranma sat bolt upright from the slumped position he had been sliding into. "Yes, sensei! I've heard every word."

Most of the other students were staring at him in surprise, and then a wave of tittering broke out. Ranma flushed. Okay, so "Akane" had been called out publicly for daydreaming, was that any reason for everyone to react so ... then it hit him. When he answered the teacher, he'd used the pronoun that he was accustomed to using for himself. Not merely masculine, more than merely informal, it fit the tough guy image he liked to project. It was not something that the real Akane would ever say, especially when talking to a teacher. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Akane, in his form, bury her face in her hands.

The teacher couldn't resist a small dig. "I suppose that the clothes really do make the man. Or the girl. Try to stay awake, Tendo-san." He returned to the lesson, and Ranma forced himself to stay more alert.

When the first period finally came to an end, Akane and Ranma both ducked out to take advantage of the short break between classes. Stepping into restrooms appropriate to their current genders, they poured themselves cups of hot water, ignoring the stares from the other students who had also stepped into the restrooms between classes. Carrying these cups back out into the hall, they found a deserted corner and splashed themselves, switching back to their true forms.

Akane gave Ranma an exasperated look. "Baka! You've got to be more careful. Watch your language! And try not to get me into any more trouble."

The boy hung his head. "Yeah, yeah. Guess it ain't as simple as I thought it'd be."

The sight of his chagrin softened her emotions. The girl stopped berating him and sighed. "I suppose we really ought to practice before we do this again. It's probably just as well that the teacher didn't call on me in class. I think that I'd at least have remembered what gender I was ..." Akane paused to shoot him another exasperated look, then shook her head. "But I probably wouldn't have managed to talk the way people expect you to."

"So you think we should practice talking like each other?" Ranma asked, unconvinced.

Akane nodded. "Yeah. I still want to be able to pull this off. Let's spend some time on it tonight after training. We each try to talk the way the other would, and correct each other. Then we can try changing places again tomorrow."

Ranma shrugged. "Okay. History again?"

She shook her head. "No, I don't want to do the same class every time. Why don't we try English tomorrow? Right after lunch."

Ranma agreed, and they hurried back to class before the bell could ring.

"Okay, I'm gonna set the pace this time. You ready?" Ranma asked.

"Mm-hmm," Akane hummed, as she placed her school bag on her back the same way that Ranma had his.

With that, Ranma took off running through the school gate. Akane followed right beside him. He was setting a strong pace, but one that she could maintain without becoming winded. The pair raced together down the street.

They didn't head straight home, as Ranma wanted the run to be a bit longer than the direct route. They ran up the stairs to a pedestrian bridge, and back down on the other side. They diverted through a park, where she and Ranma leaped over several benches as if they were hurdles. They ran up the long flight of steps to the public library, only to turn right around and run back down them.

Ranma was keeping a close eye on Akane. He decided it was time to start for home, and turned the next corner to head in the proper direction. She was still right there at his side, her breathing still under control, though perspiration was glistening on her forehead and upper lip.

Akane's eyes suddenly widened. Turning his own eyes back forward again, Ranma gave a small groan as he recognized the figure of Tatewaki Kuno on the sidewalk up ahead. He and Akane turned down the next side street, but it was too late. Kuno had already seen them and was giving chase. On his own Ranma was sure he could have lost him, but he didn't want to press Akane that hard yet. Resigning himself to the inevitable, he turned to face the crazed kendoist. A corner of his mind paused to wonder why Kuno was carrying a bokken while walking around the city, and whether that wasn't a technical violation of his parole. At least he wasn't wearing hakama, which would have looked even more strange.

Tatewaki paused to strike a pose, holding the bokken in an explicit threat. "Stand and fight, enslaver of the fair Akane," he demanded forcefully. "I shall fell thee, and so free her!"

"You really need to get a grip, man," Ranma responded tauntingly. He dodged the first strike, and kicked Kuno hard in the chest. As the latter fell backward, several stiff rectangles flew out of his shirt pocket.

Somewhat startled, Ranma plucked the objects from the air. They turned out to be photographs, showing Akane in gym class. Most of them seemed to be scenes from a volleyball game, which he remembered the girls were playing in class yesterday. As he continued to study the photos, Akane's voice suddenly shouted, "Look out!"

Ranma looked up to see the bokken thrusting straight at his face. He jumped backward, letting the blade slice the air above him, as he rolled along the sidewalk and came to a rest at Akane's feet. She looked down to see him looking up at her.

"Pay attention to the fight, baka!" she hissed at him. "Kuno is too skilled to let yourself be distracted!"

Ranma looked up along Akane's legs and to her face beyond. She was right but he didn't want to admit it. For some reason this prompted him to tease her. "You know, it's a good thing that you wear pants to school these days. Otherwise, I'd know the color of your panties right now."

Akane's face reddened and flames lit in her eyes. "Go back and die!" she yelled, and kicked him in Kuno's direction.

As Ranma fell toward Kuno, he saw the other boy grin manically, eyes practically glowing. Suddenly, the bokken was thrusting out, over and over again, with Kuno crying, "Strike! Strike! Strike!" Ranma twisted in midair, barely avoiding the blows, feeling the wind of the near misses tearing at his clothes.

Akane watched with huge eyes, springing to the side, as the mailbox on the sidewalk beside her crumpled from the air pressure of the thrusts. Ranma witnessed this out of the corner of his eye, and turned his face back to call, "Dummy! Stay out of the way of the fight!"

Ranma somehow knew in that moment that Kuno's bokken was about to strike him in the side. He didn't question the knowledge, merely allowed his body to instantly react and bend out of the way, just as Akane shouted, "Eyes front, baka!"

The dodge caused the blade to miss him by millimeters, leaving Tatewaki momentarily exposed. Ranma kicked several times in less than a second, striking Kuno repeatedly. The taller boy blinked a couple of times, then toppled over like a felled tree.

Akane walked up to join Ranma, the two of them ignoring the stares of the pedestrians who had stopped to watch the duel. Starting for home once more, Ranma carefully stepped upon the prone body of his fallen opponent in passing, and Akane followed suit. In fact, she carefully placed one of her feet where it would cause the greatest pain for Kuno once he awakened.

As they walked, Akane looked over to the boy beside her and remarked, "I didn't think you were going to be able to dodge that last blow. I didn't think I warned you in time."

Ranma shrugged. "I don't think you did. I must've seen something in your eyes, I guess."

Akane let it pass. Out of simple curiosity, she asked, "What was it that distracted you during the fight?"

Wordlessly, Ranma reached into his pocket and pulled out the photographs, showing them to her. Akane looked at them, growing puzzled. "Why do you have pictures of me playing volleyball?"

Ranma shook his head. "Not me. Kuno had 'em. They fell out of his shirt when I kicked him."

Akane paled. "B-but ... Nabiki said she stopped selling him pictures of me. She ... how could she, after everything that happened, everything she said?"

"Maybe they're from back before you were hurt?" Ranma suggested, trying to calm her.

Akane shook her head, becoming upset. She pointed at one of the photographs, showing her spiking the ball right in front of one of the other players. "I remember that from yesterday," she whispered angrily.

As soon as they got home, Akane confronted Nabiki. The older sister took the photographs and studied them.

"I can understand why you'd be angry with me," Nabiki told her sister softly. "If I had taken these. But I didn't. I'm not the only one with a camera, Akane. Now that I'm not selling him photos, Kuno must have found another supplier."

The anger faded from Akane's eyes as she realized that she believed Nabiki. In fact, she felt relief as a tension which had gripped her stomach disappeared. She frowned and asked, "Who took them, then?"

Nabiki shrugged, not knowing the answer. "There are plenty of people at school who take pictures. Most of them are perfectly legitimate, like the members of the yearbook committee, or just people who want their own memories. If you'd like, I can try to find out who's selling to Kuno, but I can't promise how quickly I can do it."

Akane sighed. "Thanks anyway, oneechan. And if you do find out, let me know. I'd like to ... talk to him. Or her."

Her sister nodded. "Will do. I might have a talk with him myself." Nabiki thought to herself that it might be a good idea to do something to remind people that she wasn't to be taken lightly. She might have shut down her old, shady business practices, but she had started some new, more legitimate ventures - information consulting, for example. She was steadily establishing a new power base, and it would be good if people were aware of that.

In English class the next day, the two tried it again. Akane, in male form, was trying to walk the fine line of paying attention to the lesson, while simultaneously trying to act like she wasn't. It was harder than she'd thought it would be to keep alert without taking notes. Akane allowed herself to slump a little further down in her seat, the way she thought Ranma would sit. Looking sideways through narrowed eyes, she could see that he was sitting upright, at her desk, although his eyes did seem to have a slightly glazed look to them. Akane allowed herself a small, internal gloat. Pretending to be Ranma was trivial, as long as she didn't have to talk.

The girl allowed her thoughts to drift away from the class, which after all was entirely in character for the boy in whose shape she currently resided. After the fight with Kuno yesterday afternoon, she had watched Ranma training with his father. It had taken an effort not to feel envious of the skill he displayed. Ranma really was quite a sight to see, working out like that.

They had enjoyed another training session in the dojo after dinner, although this time Ranma had Akane concentrate on her kata, with some basic speed training exercises thrown in for variety. When they finished, they had remained out in the dojo and practiced acting like one another. It had actually been fun, despite the need to occasionally stop to make corrections, although her concentration on the task had wandered now and then. For example, at one point Akane had lost the thread of the conversation while watching a bead of sweat roll down Ranma's neck and disappear into the V at the front of his gi.

The young woman shifted uncomfortably in her seat at the memory, and decided to think about something else. In doing so, Akane remembered Hiroshi thrusting something into her hands, thinking she was Ranma, just as they entered the classroom after lunch. She had shoved it into the desk without noticing anything more than to identify it as a manga. With a snort she remembered how Ranma had confessed to her that he had decided to accept Hiroshi's offer of friendship despite the fact he had said something stupid on Ranma's first day of school; that he seemed to be an okay guy aside from being a bit of a pervert. Akane was able to accept that since, in her opinion and with the possible exception of Ranma, every boy at Furinkan was something of a pervert.

She didn't want to think about perverts. Instead, she considered indulging her curiosity about the magazine. Akane decided it was wholly natural for Ranma to read a manga during class and she was, after all, supposed to be Ranma right now. She pulled the comic back out of the desk and slipped it between the pages of her English textbook. Looking at the cover, she saw that it was a doujinshi based on Sailor Moon. Akane smiled. She had loved Sailor Moon back when she was twelve.

Akane settled herself to read, hoping that the author had captured the flavor of the original. Upon opening to a random page near the beginning, Akane's eyes bulged, her mouth fell open and she felt her cheeks burst into flame. She had never imagined Usagi doing something like that with Tuxedo Mask! At least not like that! And with Rei! She quickly closed the textbook, barely avoiding slamming it shut. She looked around a bit wildly, seeking normality, trying to banish the images from her mind. This attempt utterly failed.

The abrupt movement attracted some attention. In particular, Ranma looked up at her from where he was sitting in her form, his eyes wide with inquiry. Akane's imagination substituted his male head for Tuxedo Mask and hers ...

With dawning horror, Akane realized that her pants were suddenly feeling tighter. She tried shifting position, but that did nothing to stop the definite tent which was forming in her lap. The current-boy sat up swiftly in her seat, and leaned forward, trying to hide what was happening. Her resolution suddenly much greater, Akane turned her thoughts away from the manga, and toward anything else. English, martial arts, hiking through the Bayankala Mountains. In desperation, even Tatewaki Kuno.

None of it seemed to do any good. She couldn't seem to get her mind off the incredibly stiff feeling in front of her, and it seemed determined to remain like it was. Looking down at the desktop, Akane thought that alien thing felt so enormous that everyone around her must have noticed and be smirking in her direction, not that she dared to look. She prayed that the bell wouldn't ring before this "problem" went away.

"Saotome-kun, could you please tell me the past tense of the English verb 'go'?"

Akane gritted her teeth, wondering if something might be wrong with her male body, that it seemed stuck like this.

"Saotome-kun, answer the question, please. The past tense of 'go'."

‹Come on, Ranma!› Akane snarled mentally. ‹This one's easy. Just answer the damn question!›

"I'm speaking to you, Saotome-kun! Or do I need to send you to the board to write down the full conjugation of the verb?"

With a shock of understanding, Akane remembered whose body she was currently wearing, and that the teacher was therefore speaking to her. The threat of being sent to the board in her current state caused her to panic. "Went!" she shouted, at the top of her lungs. Managing to reign her voice back in, she clarified, "The past tense is 'went,' sensei!"

"That's correct," the teacher replied, then sighed. "There's no need to be that enthusiastic about it, however."

"S-s-sorry!" Akane responded, and melted in relief as the teacher turned to another student. Then a broad smile crossed her face as she realized that the problem had disappeared without her even noticing. She caught sight of Ranma staring at her again, out of her own face, one eyebrow raised, obviously puzzled about what was wrong.

The bell finally rang, and Akane leaped to her feet, more than ready to return to her natural gender. Ranma had trouble keeping up as she fled the classroom. They slipped into the home ec classroom, currently empty but the location of Akane's next class, and quickly switched back to their true forms.

"So what was all that about, back in class?" Ranma wanted to know.

Akane blushed. "N-nothing. Just forgot who I was supposed to be, for a moment."

Ranma cross his arms and eyed her skeptically. "Didn't sound like it to me," he proclaimed. "You'da just been embarrassed, in that case."

"I said it was nothing!" the girl replied with some heat. "Now unless you're planning to stick around for home ec, you'd better get moving." Just at that moment, several other girls drifted into the room, and looked at Ranma in surprise.

He emitted a low, muttered grumble, and gave Akane a look which clearly stated his disbelief in her claim that it was nothing. Nonetheless, she was right that he was going to be late for his own class if he didn't get moving. With one last look back, he headed out the door. Akane surreptitiously wiped some sweat off of her forehead.

"Oof!" Akane grunted as Ranma's heel struck her in the gut. She fell backward and collapsed to her knees, struggling to breathe as her sight dimmed. Ranma suddenly appeared in front of her, looking anxious, one hand on her shoulder.

Ranma had sparred with his father before breakfast that morning, so it was Akane's turn now. She and Ranma had arrived home from school less than half an hour ago, and had been training in the dojo ever since.

"You okay, Akane?" he asked, his voice tinged with worry.

She gave a nod, and managed to gasp, "In ... a ... moment."

After a few seconds she was breathing more steadily, and the sunlight streaming in through the windows of the dojo was bright once more. Ranma looked at her seriously, then said forcefully, "Dammit, the block you should have used against that kick was straight out of the kata we practiced earlier. It should have been automatic. Why are you so distracted this afternoon?"

Akane's face was already flushed from the effort of recovering her breath. Now her color deepened. There was no way she could tell Ranma what was wrong. He'd never let her live it down. Just as he'd made his move, she'd had a sudden, vivid memory of the pictures from Hiroshi's perverted doujinshi, and she had paid the price for letting her concentration waver.

"It was nothing," she told him airily, "just woolgathering, that's all."

"Nothing, huh?" Ranma repeated with some asperity. "Like whatever happened in class was nothing? Seems like you're getting distracted by a lot of nothing today."

Akane's blush deepened. "Yeah, well ... blame it on that jerk Hiroshi. He gave you, meaning me, a hentai doujinshi." She gave him a severe look. "I thought better of you than to read stuff like that!"

Ranma snorted. "Yeah, I told you he was a bit of a pervert. I usually just throw that crap away when he hands it to me."

Akane gave him an evil glare, then cocked an eyebrow. "Usually?"

Now it was Ranma's turn to blush. "Hey! Sometimes I'm a little curious ... 'Sides, this ain't about me. We were talking about what's on your mind. You telling me you ain't paying attention to training 'cause you're still thinking about what you saw in that thing earlier?"

She dropped her eyes. "It's not that."

Ranma refuse to relent. "Okay, then what is it?"

Akane bit her lip. She really didn't want to talk about this. On the other hand, even if they didn't switch places on purpose, she was going to find herself stuck as a boy from time to time. Such an incident might happen again. Ranma at least should be familiar with the way his body worked, and might know what to do about it. Unbidden, her mind summoned up a memory from a month ago, when she had explained some of the more intimate details of what it meant to be female to the freshly cursed Ranma. As embarrassing as it might be, perhaps it was time for the favor to be returned.

In a slow, halting voice, Akane began, "Well, uh, you see, what happened was ..."

A short time later, both teens were scarlet and looking anywhere else except at each other. The worst of it, from Akane's point of view, was that Ranma hadn't been able to offer any advice other than the practical, "think about something else." Which of course Akane had tried, useless as it had proved.

Ranma's voice came out mildly hoarse, though not from having talked too much. "So, uh, does this mean you want to stop switching places?"

Akane thought about it. "No," she finally said with a sigh, looking down at the floor, then back up at him. "Someday I might find myself in a situation where I have to pretend to be you. It only makes sense to practice first when it's under our control. Besides, even if we don't do it on purpose, that's not going to stop us getting splashed by accident."

The young man in front of her grimaced. "Suppose so. Still, you want to wait another day, or maybe 'til next week?"

Akane shook her head. "No, we'll try again tomorrow. But I think we'll try gym class at the end of the day. That way I'll be too busy to think about anything other than what we're doing in class."

"Oh maaan ...," Ranma complained. "I've seen what you girls wear in gym ..."

Akane couldn't help a little laugh. "Yeah, I know. Bunch of perverts running the school." She gave him a little pout. "Pleeease?"

Ranma turned away. "Urrrgh. Okay, okay!" Then a thought struck him. "Uh, what about the locker rooms?"

The girl's mind froze. No way was she going to change in the boys' locker room, even if she was a boy at the time! "Uh ... uh ... I guess ... we hide out until everyone else has changed. We can say we had to use the restroom. We each check that the coast is clear before we go in the locker rooms to change." She grimaced. "No. We get our clothes and take them with us to the restrooms and change there. But we wait long enough that we can get away with letting people think we changed in the locker rooms."

Ranma tilted his head, considering. Maybe it would work. "What about after?" he asked.

"We wait outside and talk," Akane answered. "Act like there's something important we have to discuss. Keep it up until we're sure everyone's finished in the locker rooms. Then grab our clothes and change in the restroom again. After we change we get some hot water and switch back. Or ... we could just wait until we get home to switch."

The boy sighed. "This sounds like a lot more trouble than History or English."

Akane grinned. "I agree, but I still want to try. Maybe after we try it this way, we can figure out a way to manage better next time. If not," she gave him a wry grin, "maybe we'll agree not to try again."

"You mean, you'll agree not to try it again." Ranma took a deep breath. "All right, we'll try gym tomorrow. Now, if you think you're ready to focus, can we get back to training?"

Akane jumped back to her feet, eyes dancing. "Yes, sensei."

Ranma climbed to his feet more slowly, grumbling. "Don't call me that. Makes me feel old."

In gym the next day, the girls were playing baseball. From where the boys were working out on the horizontal bars, Akane looked over to see Ranma, looking like her in very short shorts, standing in the outfield. Her lips twisted up into something approaching a smile at the sight of the shorts. Ranma had seen no reason to hold back on expressing his feelings about having to wear them. Turning back to the task at hand, she jumped up to grab hold of the horizontal bar, feeling the strength of Ranma's body in her arms. Moving with increasing speed, she swung herself around and around the bar.

While Akane was busy on the horizontal bar, several boys in the class watched the baseball game instead of "him." Or more accurately, they watched the girls playing the game, most of them drooling over the person they thought was Akane. As Akane finished her routine on the bar and dropped off, she walked over to join them to see how Ranma was handling being in the girls' class. She sank to a cross-legged position between Hiroshi and Daisuke just as Ranma caught a fly ball and his team headed in for their turn at bat.

Daisuke leaned in close to Akane. "Hey, Saotome, you gotta stop putting us off about Akane. People want to know."

Hiroshi also leaned in, and put a hand on Akane's shoulder. "Yeah, so come on and level with us. How far have you two gotten?"

Daisuke added, "After all, you are her fiancé, right?"

Akane was turning red, and only barely controlled herself from giving her identity away. "No we're not! Besides, Akane's a decent girl and wouldn't do that sort of thing, even if I was enough of a pervert to try!"

Hiroshi chuckled, "Oh, yeah, like we're gonna believe you haven't tried anything. I'll bet you've ..." He leaned over and whispered in Akane's ear.

Akane became even more red. "No I haven't!"

Daisuke sneered. "Liar. Have you ..." He also leaned over and whispered in Akane's other ear.

Akane choked, shouting "No!" She was forcing her fists to remain in her lap, telling herself that she had to pretend to be Ranma, and couldn't just pound these two perverts into the ground. It never occurred to her that others would consider it perfectly believable if Ranma were to do just that to them.

There was a crack in the distance as Akane turned to Hiroshi and through gritted teeth told him, "Look, Akane's a nice girl and she and I ..." Whatever else she was going to say was lost as a baseball smacked into her cheek.

Hiroshi stared at Akane, who was sitting there looking dazed. "Hey Saotome, you've got karate reflexes right? I mean, couldn't you have dodged that ball?"

Akane worked her sore jaw for a few moments before fixing the idiot beside her with a high intensity glare. "Guess I had something else on my mind," she ground out.

Ranma came running up in Akane's body. "Er ... um ... sorry 'bout that."

Akane sighed, glad that at least she was wearing Ranma's body at the time, since she had already learned that it was a lot tougher and could shrug off blows like this more easily. Ranma had told her that his training would toughen up her female body as well, but that they had to work up to it slowly. Akane wanted to yell at Ranma for his carelessness but was concerned about how it would look to lose 'his' temper with a 'girl.' Not to mention that 'Akane' would likely stand there meekly instead of reacting the way that 'she' should. With difficulty, the real Akane swallowed the incipient outburst and just muttered an irritated, "Apology accepted." She reflected that lately she was getting a lot of practice at controlling her temper, a lot more than she really wanted.

The boys' gym coach came over and examined Akane's cheek. "That's a nasty abrasion Saotome-kun. It's bleeding a little. You'd better go see the nurse and get something put on it." He turned to Ranma. "You're his fiancée, right, Tendo-san? Would you please go with him and make sure he really does go see the nurse? I've already noticed he's a bit heedless of his health at times."

Akane smirked at this description of Ranma. Ranma just grunted and said, "Yeah, I'll see that he gets there." He took Akane's elbow with his hand and helped her to her feet, then the two of them set off together toward the school building.

Ranma was feeling a bit self conscious now that his mind wasn't on the baseball game. The shorts he was wearing really were incredibly tight, and showed off far too much in his opinion. At least, that was his opinion while he was the person inside of them. Trying to distract himself, he turned to Akane and told her, "I really am sorry. About the ball. Y'know I wasn't aiming or nothing? It was an accident."

Akane grimaced but replied, "I know it was an accident. I just wish we hadn't traded places for gym. I'd rather that I had hit the ball, and you were hit by it."

Ranma smirked. "Gym class was your idea, not mine." He glanced at her, but then turned back again. It was going on three weeks since Akane had awoken from her coma to find herself cursed, but it was still rather unnerving to see himself walking beside him.

Akane growled, "I still think it was a good idea. How was I to know you'd hit me with a stupid baseball?"

They arrived at the nurse's office, where the nurse put a little ointment on the injury, and then taped a pad over it. She told them, "There, that should hold for a bit, but I think you should have a doctor look at it. Just in case."

By the time they left the nurse's office, all of the other students had finished changing in the locker rooms. At Akane's suggestion they did not yet switch their identities back, since it might give the game away if Akane were seen leaving the school in her true form with a bandage on her face. So they both simply changed back into their usual clothes and then left the school together to walk over to Tofu's clinic.

When they reached the clinic they were surprised to see a panda out front, sweeping the walk. Ranma asked, "Pop, what are you doing here?"

The panda looked up and regarded the person who had spoken, and who was therefore presumably his 'son.' He held up a sign on which he had written, "Boy, why are you walking around as a girl?"

Ranma looked down at himself, having forgotten that he was in his cursed form and had traded places with Akane. "Eh, guess I forgot. We were playing a prank. Besides, you're one to talk, panda-san. Anyway, we need to see the doc. Keep on working, old man. 'Bout time you did something useful." He ignored the bear's growl as they walked inside.

A few minutes later Doctor Tofu ushered the couple into an examination room. As he did so he took a closer look at the one wearing Ranma's face and scowled, then stepped back out of the room. He came back in with a kettle of hot water and said, "How about the two of you return to your proper bodies?"

Each of them sheepishly poured some water on themselves, restoring their true forms. Ranma apologized with, "Sorry doc. We were backwards when Akane got hit with the ball. If we changed before leaving school, someone may have noticed that Akane was wearing the bandage instead of me. So we decided to wait till we got here before switching back."

Tofu just grunted and peeled the bandage off of Akane's cheek. He examine the bruised skin and said, "I have a balm that works wonders. Just a moment and I'll fetch it." He stood and left the room again.

While they waited, Akane turned to Ranma and spoke acidly, "By the way, I just remembered. Just what do you and your perverted friends talk about when I'm not around? Do you have any idea what they were asking 'you' about 'Akane' while we watched the game?"

Ranma shrugged. "How could I know when you were the one over there talking to 'em. But yeah, you're right, they are perverts, aren't they? I've admitted as much before. They're not so bad once you get past that, and I usually start making threats when they go too far." Ranma cocked an eyebrow at her. "Why were you letting them go on about it, instead of defending 'Akane's' honor?"

Akane got a little red, and kicked her feet where they were hanging over the edge of the table. "I didn't want to look like I was overreacting. I figured you let them talk like that."

Ranma shook his head. "Nah. Next time, threaten to punch 'em if they don't shut up, and go through with it if they keep it up. They won't have any trouble believing I'd do that." He then gave her a calculating smirk. "And as long as we're on the subject of friends asking perverted questions, just before my turn at bat Sayuri sort of leered and asked me if I've 'touched it again, yet?' I'm kinda curious what 'it' she's referring to, and a hell of a lot more curious to hear the explanation of the word 'again.'"

Akane was sure that her blush extended all the way to her toes. Like a gift from heaven, the telephone chose that exact moment to ring. "Um, Ranma," her choked voice managed to force the words out. "Maybe you should answer that."

The young man looked for a moment as if he were contemplating not letting her get away with this evasion, but then realized it might be useful to him later to set certain precedents now. He stepped out into the hallway, and Akane heard the phone stop ringing and the soft murmur of Ranma's voice. A moment later he came back into the room and said, "That was Kasumi. She wanted to let Tofu know that she's coming over and she has something to give him."

Ranma was wholly unprepared for the look of terror which shot across Akane's face. "Go get Tofu and tell him to hurry up with that balm!" the girl demanded. She reached a hand out to Ranma's shoulder and pushed. "Go, go! We need to get out of here!"

"What's the rush?" Ranma wondered in a bewildered tone, hesitating at the door.

"Please, Ranma," Akane begged. "Doctor Tofu ... gets a little strange around Kasumi. It's dangerous to be here when it happens."

The boy gave her a disbelieving look, and his mouth dropped open but no words came out. Shaking his head, he left the room in search of the doctor.

Ranma came back in, holding Tofu's sleeve, practically dragging the doctor along. "Now Ranma," that man was saying, "I don't see why you're in such a hurry."

He sat down beside Akane, setting aside the jar he was holding for a moment, and began another examination of her injury. "You said that a ball did this? A baseball, right? I can see the impression of the stitches."

"Yeah, that's right," admitted Ranma sheepishly, dragging a toe along the floor. "I'm afraid I hit it really foul."

Tofu regarded Ranma with a small flash of anger in his eyes. "Are you saying that you did this to Akane? Why weren't you more careful?"

"Please, doctor," Akane pleaded. "It was an accident. I was lucky, too. Since I was in my cursed form, it didn't hurt as much as it would have otherwise."

"Mmm," Tofu grunted noncommittally. He picked up the jar once more and said, "I'm going to put some of this on now. You should apply some more before bed, and again tomorrow morning. I think you'll be fine after that."

At that moment the door to the examination room suddenly slid aside, and Kasumi stepped in, carrying a box. Her sprightly voice called out, "Good afternoon, doctor!"

Akane jumped off of the table in panic, landing on the other side of Ranma. Tofu's glasses fogged up as he stuttered, "K-Kasumi." He reached out across the table and grabbed Ranma's head. "Now hold still, Akane" he said sternly, and there was a cracking sound, as Ranma's head was unexpectedly tilted at a sharp angle.

Kasumi put her hand to her mouth, while saying, "I though I just heard something ..." She and Akane tilted their heads, studying Ranma's angled features, and Kasumi asked, "Are you okay, Ranma-kun?"

Tofu laughed in a silly way, and responded, "Oh, he and Akane just stopped by because of a little baseball accident, ha ha!"

"Um, doc?" Ranma wheezed.

Continuing to stare vaguely over Ranma's head toward the older girl, Tofu asked, "What ... uh ... what brings you here?"

Ranma watched bewildered as Kasumi attempted to present the doctor with a plate of cookies, only to have the man first think that she was giving him the cloth cover as a mask, then that the plate was meant to be eaten. As he attempted to get the doctor's attention again, Akane clamped a hand over his mouth, whispering, "Shh! You'll only end up worse."

Tofu turned to his skeleton and politely requested, "Excuse me, Saotome-san. Could you bring some tea for Kasumi?"

The panda, who had appeared in the doorway, whipped out his sign and wrote, "Hey! Over here!" He then shrugged and stepped back out to get some tea.

Kasumi turned toward Akane, who was standing with her back to a wall. She remarked to her younger sister, "Tofu-sensei is so amusing, isn't he?"

Akane grimaced, then put on a false smile. "You think so? He's never this way when you're not around." Trying to keep the smile pasted on, she grabbed Ranma's arm and the jar, then tugged him toward the door. She was whispering, "Come on, Ranma. We've got to get out of here while we're still in one piece."

When they stepped through the gate and into the street, they had to push past a crowd of people who were staring in through the gate. As they left, Ranma heard the people muttering, "Wouldn't get near that doctor now!" "Right, Kasumi's in there." "Yeah, an exam could mean your life." "And he's usually such a good doctor!"

"I see what you mean about him being dangerous," Ranma complained. "I wish we'd got out of there faster."

"Yeah," Akane mumbled, looking at the ground. "He likes Kasumi so much, he goes insane whenever he's around her."

"Wow!" Ranma exclaimed, regarding the road ahead of them from his tilted perspective. "Good thing your dad didn't try to engage you to him instead, huh? With him so crazy for your sister?"

He was unprepared for the high intensity glare Akane turned on him, or the book bag which slammed into his head, smashing him into the wall. By the time he climbed back to his feet, Akane was already some distance down the street. He felt the lump on the side of his head, then experimentally moved his head back and forth a couple of times. Ranma grinned at the realization that his neck was no longer stuck at an angle. He ran to catch up to Akane.

When he finally reached her, Akane had turned off of the road. She was sitting on the bank of the canal, watching the water flow past. With the level of the road well above her head, it was a more private location than might have been expected.

Wondering if she was still mad at him, since he wasn't sure what he had done, Ranma asked hesitantly, "Mind if I sit here?"

Akane, sitting there with her arms around her knees, didn't answer. She did, however, shake her head negatively to indicate that she didn't mind. Ranma sat down beside her. Neither spoke for a while as they continued to watch the water. Any passerby who stepped close enough to the slope to see them would probably have stopped and stared, given the sight that the two teenagers presented in their matching Chinese clothes and with their hair in the same style.

After several minutes, Ranma noticed the jar that Akane was still holding. Pointing to it, he asked, "Aren't you supposed to put that on your face?"

Akane shrugged, not seeming to care.

"Want me to do it for you?" he asked, still wondering what was bothering her.

Again Akane didn't answer, but the hand holding the jar tilted very slightly in his direction. Ranma took the jar and unscrewed the lid. Scooping out some of the mixture with two of his fingers, he started gently smoothing it into the injury on Akane's face. He saw her wince once or twice while he worked, but tried to be as gentle as he could.

Akane sat there and felt her emotions seething within her, like waves crashing back and forth, battering her from the inside. She had long known that Doctor Tofu loved her sister Kasumi and would never feel that way about herself, that he saw her as a girl, not a woman. But there was a difference between knowing something and admitting it. For a long time she had tried to avoid seeing Tofu in the same room as Kasumi. Now she felt unable to hide from the knowledge, and it hurt. On the other hand, it didn't hurt as much as she expected, and that was bothering her a lot as well.

The other thing that was disturbing her, more than she cared to admit, was the boy sitting beside her. The boy who was tenderly applying the medication to her face. The cream itself felt cool and soothing, but the tracks left by his fingertips seemed to burn. She felt unexpectedly aware that her father wanted her to marry Ranma, something that she had no intention of contemplating at this time. She was also troubled by her familiarity with what he looked like undressed, knowledge gained first by sharing his body and then more recently from her curse.

She also wondered if he was as troubled by his similar but reversed knowledge of what she looked like. Somehow, Akane felt unable to muster the outrage to regard him as a pervert for that. She had come to know him too well, from the inside-out as it were, to think that. Furthermore, she was uncomfortably aware that her own thoughts along those lines might be more perverted than his.

"Akane," Ranma spoke quietly from beside her, as he slowly screwed the lid back on the jar. "Can you tell me what I said that got you all mad?"

Akane hung her head, feeling a little guilty. After all, Ranma hadn't known that those words would hurt her. Maybe it was time to relieve herself of some of the distress roiling her gut, like lancing a wound. In a very soft voice, almost a whisper, she began.

"When I was twelve years old, a new doctor opened a clinic in town, Doctor Tofu Ono. Kasumi took me there one day when I sprained a wrist while breaking boards. He was so nice. I really liked him.

"I got injuries pretty regularly while training, so I saw a lot of him. He was always treating me for something or other. He was kind, and gentle, and he showed a sympathy, a concern, for my troubles. The sort of concern that daddy hadn't shown us for years. I guess I sort of fell in love with him. I suppose most people would say it was a ... a crush." Akane sighed.

"Kasumi usually came with me, and I saw the way that Tofu-sensei looked at her. It made me so jealous, because I wanted him to look at me that way." Akane reached back and patted her hair. "I started growing my hair long because Kasumi had long hair, and I thought maybe that was what the doctor liked. I kept hoping that one day he would notice me, in that way.

"Then high school began, and the boys started attacking me in the mornings. Suddenly it seemed like all of the boys my age were perverted jerks who thought I would be attracted to someone who fought me, who could overpower me. After that, it seemed like Tofu-sensei was the only male I could safely think about in that way. I built up elaborate fantasies of how he would propose to me, and I'd parade him around in front of the idiots at school, and tell them this is how a man behaves. I built him up until he was the only man I could imagine ever loving. And I pretended to think that he might fall in love with me someday because he always treated me so sweetly and gently whenever I saw him."

Ranma for once made the right decision, and kept his mouth shut, letting Akane pour out her heart to him.

"And I ... I was so ... very, very careful never to stick around when Kasumi and Tofu were together. As long as I avoided any chance of seeing him look at her, any risk of seeing that silly grin spread across his face, then I could continue to imagine that it might happen.

"Until this afternoon ...

"I couldn't pretend anymore. There's no hiding from the fact. Doctor Tofu is madly in love with Kasumi, that's why he starts acting so crazy around her."

Ranma couldn't keep silent. "That's ... people don't act like that around someone they love. Do they? That's nuts!"

Akane smiled weakly. "That's ... Doctor Tofu. I think that maybe, just maybe, he can't admit it to himself. That he thinks it's wrong because she was still pretty young herself when he started feeling that way. I couldn't stand seeing it, I had to get out of there. Then you started joking about my father engaging me to Tofu."

Ranma cleared his throat. "Er, ah, sorry 'bout that. I didn't know ..."

Akane reached over and laid a hand on top of Ranma's, quieting him, then put her hand back around her knee. "I know. I'm not really blaming you, though I couldn't help getting angry at that moment. That's why I sat down here, to try to sort out my feelings. Maybe let go of my fantasies. It hurts, but he doesn't love me like that, and he never will." She hugged her knees more tightly, studying the water as a way not to look at Ranma. "You wanna know what's bothering me even more? It doesn't hurt as much as I expected it too. As if ... it really was just a crush, and I started getting over it, and I didn't even notice."

She fell silent, and they were both quiet for a time. Eventually the peace of the moment, combined with the sad look on Akane's face, got to be too much for Ranma. He reached over and tweaked her nose. Taunting her with "Gotcha!" he jumped up and ran off.

Akane screamed, "Raaanmaaaaa!" then leapt to her feet in hot pursuit.

Ranma gave her a sporting chance by not running flat out for home. Instead he jumped upon and ran along some walls, twirled around lampposts, and jumped over mailboxes and similar obstacles. He ended up taking one chance too many however, when he leaped over the gate at the Tendo home. Kasumi was just on the other side and he was forced to twist around acrobatically in midair to avoid knocking her to the ground. He ended up doing a handstand beside the startled girl just as Akane came through the gate. That minor delay gave Akane all the opportunity she needed, and with a solid kick she sent Ranma hurtling into the koi pond.

Akane smirked as she watched her own features rise from the pool, water streaming down the girl's face. As Ranma blew water off of his lips, Akane haughtily remarked, "Serves you right. Why'd you go and tease me like that when you knew I was feeling depressed?"

Ranma climbed out and shook water off of himself like a dog, causing Akane to jump back hurriedly so that she wouldn't transform as well. A jump which took her closer to the edge of the pond. Ranma looked at her, and one corner of his mouth lifted. He stepped closer, locking gazes with her, and Akane shifted nervously.

"I was tired of how glum you looked," Ranma explained. "I'd rather see you happy than sad or angry. Y'know, you look really cute when you smile."

Akane stared at him, jaw hanging a little. Sure, he'd said one or two nice things before, but she had never heard quite so ... definite a compliment from him. She wasn't quite sure how to react, and her mind seemed to shut down for a moment.

Ranma reached out a finger and pressed against Akane's forehead, causing her to tip over and fall into the pond herself. As his true form's twin rose up from the water screaming, Ranma called "Gotcha again!" then took off running. Akane chased him for several laps around the house and dojo, before they finally collapsed with laughter on the lawn.

Kasumi brought over some lemonade and a couple of towels, which they both accepted with thanks. A little breathlessly, Akane informed the current girl sitting nearby, "I'm going to ... get you back ... for that later ... when we spar."

"Promises, promises," Ranma replied cheerfully.

Later that night when Akane returned to her room from a bath, she fell back onto her bed while thinking over the events of the day. Most especially, Ranma's words from earlier kept running through her mind, "you look really cute when you smile."

‹Did he really mean that?› Akane asked herself. ‹Or was he just trying to distract me so he could push me into the pond?›

She stood and went over to her desk, picking up a small mirror which lay there. Looking at her own face, she gave a bright smile, trying to decide if Ranma had been telling the truth. She tried a few more times, but just couldn't make up her mind, not being accustomed to vanity concerning her appearance. Then she thought about how Ranma had looked in her body while she chased him around the house, laughing and smiling. A more natural smile graced her face as she recalled how cute he had looked then, even if she hadn't been in a state of mind to appreciate it at the time.

Outside in a tree, Ranma had frozen when the light came on in Akane's room. He was worried about being seen and his position misinterpreted as an attempt to peek into her room, when really he had only climbed up there to get away from his father. Upon seeing Akane smiling at herself in the mirror, he had felt a strong temptation to jump over to her window and tease her about it, but something had held him back. The smile that appeared on her face after putting the mirror back down surprised a soft, breathy, "Kawaii ..." from him.

Still unaware of the young man's presence outside, Akane picked up a book and lay down on her bed to read. Ranma took advantage of this opportunity to escape from the tree unseen. He slipped away quietly, giving one last backward glance toward the lit window above.

The next morning, a bewildered looking teenage boy stopped a pedestrian coming out of a grocery store to ask, "Excuse me, ma'am. Could you tell me where I am?"

The woman looked at the boy over her shopping bag with a mixture of curiosity and surprise. "Why ... you're in Tokyo. Nerima to be more specific."

The boy pumped a fist in the air. "At last!" he cried in triumph. Pulling himself together, he turned back toward the woman and politely asked, "Have you heard of a boy my age by the name of Ranma Saotome?"

The increasingly befuddled woman replied, "Do you know how many hundred thousand people live in ... wait, actually ... I do believe I heard that the Tendo family have some house guests by the name of Saotome."

His grin broadened still further. "Could you tell me where I could find their home?"

She shook her head. "Well, yes, but if he's your age, then he should be in school right now. I assume he is attending the same school as Tendo-san's daughters. Furinkan High School. It's about a kilometer that way." She freed one hand momentarily and pointed down the street.

"Thanks!" the boy shouted over his shoulder, as he sprinted off down the street.

"Wait!" the woman called out after him. "Where are you going? I said it was the other way!"

Author's note:

Well, here's the first chapter of Side by Side, the sequel to Togetherness. Not much action yet, but the stage is set for Ryoga to find Ranma in the next chapter.

I intend to follow a modified version of the timeline on my web site for this story. Modified, since Side by Side takes place in an alternate universe. Much will be different, and some events may not take place at all. Still, if you're interested, that will give you some idea of the sequence of events, and approximate dates when they may be expected.

As I've warned in previous statements about this story, I'll be writing it as I go along, unlike my other stories which have all been finished, at least in first draft form, before I started posting them. Of course, I've already done a fair bit of planning for where I intend to take this.

I also intend to continue working on other stories at the same time. This means you will need to console yourself to longer waits between chapters than usual. Sorry 'bout that.

Just so we all understand, my take on her character from reading the manga is that Akane is already a highly skilled martial artist, though not very close to Ranma's phenomenal abilities. She's a bit inferior to Shampoo, much better than Kodachi (who never managed to lay a finger on her throughout the manga), and though it's less clear, probably roughly on par with Ukyo. Since that's how I see things, that's the starting point for this story. Of course, that's going to be changing, given that Ranma is actively training her.

The bit in the story about Ranma's use of a masculine, tough guy pronoun - I hope I wrote it in a way that made it reasonably clear that, despite the fact that I'm writing in English, he used a Japanese version of the first person pronoun "I" which Akane wouldn't have used. In particular, the pronoun I had in mind was "ore," which Ranma does in fact use in the original Japanese version of the manga, even when he is in female form.