Ranma stared at the ceiling, wondering why the hell it had to be her. She'd tried really hard for so many years to be the man among men her father kept pushing her to be, tried to live up to the man her body was growing into. It hurt all those years, acting macho, playing tough, though she had to admit, the Art made everything worth it, in those times when she felt at one with it. When meditation and motion brought her to that place where there was no sense of self, just flowing energy and form.

Still, part of her longed for... if not a normal life, a life where not only did other people accept her for who she was, but she could accept herself. And then one day, out of the blue, the "curse" found her, and it seemed like all her long repressed dreams and desires were suddenly given to her.

But nothing was solved. The first person to offer real friendship in years, at the first place she felt like she could settle down rather than move on after a few days, still thought her a freak and a pervert when the truth came out. To make matters worse, that Kuno jerk sent her some kind of challenge via message tied to an arrow, and set the time so late that if she didn't finish the fight quickly tomorrow evening, she might be late for supper. At least he wanted to fight her girl side.

To add insult to injury, her dad insisted she sleep as a boy, and since they had to share a room, she couldn't pretend she accidentally got changed in the night. Sleep claimed her slowly and reluctantly.

*****

Tuesday began pleasantly enough, with a flurry of punches kicks and throws above the Tendo family's koi pond. The idea was to achieve a perfect balance of speed, power and accuracy in midair, without disturbing the gentle fish or placid waters. Ranma was tempted to allow herself to lose just to have an excuse to spend time in girl form without alerting her dad, but she decided she just wasn't willing to let the old man think he beat her. So just as Kasumi announced breakfast, she landed a solid kick that sent her father into the pond. Unable to help a little boasting, she was hit entirely by surprise when the tub of water nailed her mid-laugh. Not that she minded much.

She sat next to Akane as was expected of her, but the pair never met eyes or spoke to each other during the meal, and everyone could feel the tension. Their fathers tried to play it off as just a period of adjustment, but that only intensified the mood, so they left the table to play shogi for a while.

Ranma, in boy form, walked the fence above Akane on the way to school, and about halfway there, Akane broke the silence.

"Listen, Ranma, I'm... Well, okay, I... It's not that I think you're a bad person. Just, I've never met anyone... like you. I don't know how to react. I mean, any boy at school who had your curse would use it as an excuse to do the most disgusting perverted things. Have you seen the books they bring to school and look at when they think no one's looking? And they expect girls to act like that, like the women in those disgusting things. And those fights every morning... That bunch are the worst. If one of them could actually beat me in a fight, I think I'd rather just die." Ranma shivered and almost fell off the fence.

"So that's why you were actually hurting them instead of just knocking them out." Ranma reflected.

"What, you think I'd fight like that if I didn't have to? You know I sent a guy to the hospital with a broken jaw a few weeks ago. But they won't stop, because of Kuno." Akane almost growled the name, and Ranma could tell she was psyching herself up for another fight for her life. As they neared the gate, the warning bell rang, apparently the pair was walking slower than the day before, distracted by the conversation. Ranma ran with Akane, delivering her own blows, firm but not seriously damaging. The mob fell even faster than the day before, but with fewer serious injuries.

Then Kuno reappeared, once again wielding his bokken.

"Ranma Saotome, how dare you flee from our fight, leaving that gi-ACK!" In spite of the fact that he'd been looking right at Ranma, the kick caught him by surprise.

"Shut up, you moron, we're late!"

Akane almost jumped into the fight she saw as hers, but instead watched in awe as Kuno recovered and began to strike, faster than he'd ever attacked her. Shards of concrete broke off of the wall behind Ranma, from just the air pressure of Kuno's attacks. Ranma however, slipped between the wooden weapon like a snake, doing a handspring to avoid a high strike before lashing out with her foot, kicking faster than the eye could track, and launching Kuno across the courtyard to land in a heap against the wall. Cartwheeling back to her feet, Ranma grabbed Akane's hand. She yanked her hand out of the larger masculine hand.

"Come on, Akane, we only have a few seconds!" Akane snapped out of her moment of rage at being grabbed by a boy, and hurried after Ranma to class. Ranma stopped for a few precious seconds to splash herself at a water fountain, only to step into class moments after the bell rang. Once again she stood in the hall with a water bucket. She didn't mind too much however, at least Akane wasn't late, so didn't have a reason to be mad at her.

Lunch time seemed surprisingly calm compared to what Ranma remembered school lunches were like, only a few small scuffles broke out and everything settled down for people to eat within a few minutes of the line slowing to a trickle. She found herself grateful to Kasumi for sending a bento so she could avoid the line and eat in the shade under a tree in the courtyard. Everyone seemed to be giving her a wide berth, and she started to wonder if maybe Akane was telling everyone about her. Angry at the thought, she stared menacingly at the grass in front of her, completely missing the signs of someone approaching from the side.

"So, are you gonna sit out here and sulk, or are you gonna sit with the rest of us girls?" Ranma managed not to jump at Akane's voice.

"What do you mean? Why would they want to talk to me?"

"Oh come on you big baby. I'm trying to deal with this, but you have to meet me halfway." Akane looked around to be sure no one was close enough to hear.

"If you're serious about being a girl, get up and act like it, socialize. But I swear, if I catch you staring like some pervert in the locker room before gym..." Ranma's face went pale.

"...Locker room?"

*****

After lunch, as they returned to class, Ranma tried to assimilate the things she'd heard. She couldn't for the life of her understand how Akane could listen to all of that and still think boys were the perverted ones! She'd never heard such frank and direct talk about such personal issues in her life. And whatever disease a period was, she hoped she didn't catch it, because the way Sayuri was holding her stomach, Ranma was surprised she hadn't left school to see a doctor.

School passed at an incredibly slow rate, punctuated by boring droning from teachers about things Ranma only half understood. She did her best to stay awake though, because the first time she fell asleep, she woke to a not-so-gentle poke in the ribs, and a note from Akane pointing out none of the other girls were sleeping in class.

Gym class was nothing like a real workout. Where were the boulders to move and cliffs to climb? It was just a light jog around a track and some aerobics that were less difficult than basic Tai Chi forms. Ranma was surprised to find out how little of a deal the locker room was. She found herself embarrassed, surrounded by girls changing, but no one else seemed concerned, so she just kept her eyes down an tried not to blush herself to death. The showers were tricky however, hot water was everywhere, and by the time she escaped her nerves were shot.

Later in the evening, she returned to the schoolyard according to the letter of challenge delivered the day before. The fresh-cut grass gave off a wonderful scent in the warm air, but no sign of Kuno presented itself. Just as the sun touched the horizon and Ranma's patience failed completely, Kuno's voice floated from the shimmering setting sun.

"Now is the moment when the sun is at its most beautiful."

"Hey, what's the big idea, making me wait so long?" She noviced the absence of his favored weapon, the wooden training sword. "Where's that stick yer' always wavin' around anyway?"

"I have no need of it." Something seemed a little off to Ranma, this wouldn't be much of a fight if he was taking a handicap.

"Pretty sure of yerself, huh?"

"Sure enough to give you this!" She caught the thrown object perfectly, only to be showered by red rose petals. He'd thrown a bouquet at her!

"Pigtailed girl... I love you." Kuno turned to face the setting sun and melted into its glow as she stood there, dumbfounded.

*****

The dress was perfect. White, flowing satin in a cloud around her. He took her arm, whispering "I do" and suddenly they were kissing. A shower of deep red rose petals poured over them. Suddenly they were in bed, his arms around her, his body warm and strong over her. She felt safe and comfortable in his embrace, and as he entered her fireworks explode in her head. Then there were babies. Lots of babies, and she was caring for them all while he left for work with a kiss, his wooden practice sword bumping her hip as he turned.

"I love you, Ranma."

"I love you, Kuno."

Ranma jolted awake, gasping for breath in the cool early morning air. He was in boy form and for a moment the thought was comforting, it had to have been a dream, just a nightmare. Even so, his heart was pounding and he could still feel the touch of Kuno's lips, and other things even creepier. The thought of falling in love with Kuno made him shiver in revulsion.

A soft knock at the door disturbed Ranma's spinning thoughts.

"Ranma? May I come in?" Kasumi's voice drifted through the thick paper sliding door.

"Umm, alright." Ranma wasn't sure he wanted to be seen like this, but he couldn't deny Kasumi, she was always so reasonable and open. She slid the door open and padded to his futon, kneeling by the pad.

"Are you alright? You seem a little... frightened."

"It was just a nightmare. That jerk Kuno said he loved me yesterday and it's messing up my dreams." Ranma tried to act like it was no big deal, but Kasumi placed a soft hand on his shoulder.

"You're right you know, it is just a dream. You're not ready to be in love, and neither is that boy that's always chasing after Akane. Especially him. These kind of dreams are normal, so don't let them upset you too much, okay?" She hugged him gently for a moment. He really did feel better, just from her comforting advice.

"Thanks, Kasumi. You're a great big sister. Akane and Nabiki are really lucky. All I ever had was the old man."

"Ramna, you can call me big sister if you like. You can always talk to me abut anything, okay? Now, I need to go make breakfast, and your father will be waking up soon. Why don't you go clean up." Ranma blushed and nodded, as she left for the kitchen.

The panda lying on the next futon over snored noisily.

*****

First thing in the morning Ranma and Akane met the crowd of boys seeking to defeat and date Akane as a team, plowing through them with energetic abandon. They already had a bit of a late start, and neither wanted to get stuck holding buckets in the hallway again. Ranma in particular felt a need to do some damage, though her mood didn't allow her to be grateful to the boys for providing a needed vent for her tension.

Kuno stood at the back of the group, perhaps expecting a chance to wax poetic and challenge one or both, but was stuck by the beauty of paired flying kicks from Ranma and Akane (or perhaps the expanse of leg such a move tends to show, in a school regulation skirt). The pair left him in the dust and managed to reach class just in time, sharing a grin of triumph.

After school, Ranma and Akane left the gates just in time to see a strange boy with a wild look in his eyes and a black and yellow bandana set one of their classmates down and read the school sign. The frightened boy who'd been held up by the front of his shirt pointed their direction, and the crazy-looking guy turned and walked toward them, pulling a red bamboo umbrella from his large traveling pack.

"Friend of yours, Ranma?" Akane quirked her brow. The guy looked dirty and kind of menacing, and she tensed for a fight.

"I dunno, he looks a little familiar..." Ranma chewed her lip in thought until he reached them.

"Where is Ranma Saotome?!" the boy growled, with a glance back to where the boy he'd asked a moment before disappeared. Akane offered Ranma a sour look.

"Umm, that's me, what'cha want?" The wild boy growled.

"Don't play games with me, where is he? Because of him I've seen hell, and I'm going to make him pay!"

"What'd you do to him, Ranma?" Akane still stood ready for a fight, but up close this guy looked like a monster, all muscle and callouses, he even had fangs!

"Don't look at me, I don't reme... Wait a minute... Umm, you're Ryoga something, right? Listen, umm, I don't know what I did to ya, but I haven't seen you in years. Don'tcha think it's time to let it go?"

"What are you talking about? The Ranma Saotome I'm looking for is a guy!" Ryoga looked kind of confused by this point.

"Listen, Ryoga. I know this may be hard to understand, but I'm Ranma, and I'm a girl. Now that I think of it, we fought over bread, right? I can get you plenty and we'll call it even, okay? You were pretty good, maybe we could spar sometime. I could use a real workout."

"You're a girl? But... It was a man to man fight... I chased you for years... Whatever, it doesn't matter now. Die!" Ranma was caught by surprise and almost nailed by the spinning umbrella. She shoved Akane one way and she dodged the other, but the edge of it sliced her arm slightly.

"Hey, watch it!" she leaped as a fast and VERY hard kick passed right below her. She landed on the wall just in time to watch the umbrella to zip back into Ryoga's hand like a boomerang.

"Stand still and fight like a... well, stand still!" He charged the wall and she hoped the the ground behind him as he charged right through it and kept going, into the horizon..

"Where's he off to?" Akane watched through the hole as Ryoga disappeared into the horizon.

"Oh yeah, he has a terrible sense of direction too. I forgot about that. I used to walk him to and from school."

"Hey, Ranma?" Ranma turned back to Akane just in time to catch a nasty slap.

"That's for pushing me. I can fight my own fights." Ranma held her cheek and watched, confused as Akane pulled bits of grass and dirt out of her school uniform.

"He's better than he was in junior high, too. I wonder what's got him so pissed off?" Ranma mused to herself as they headed home.

Later that evening, Ranma was practicing in the dojo. She'd convinced her father to ignore her practicing in girl form rather than complain at her, with the excuse that she needed to practice her skills to compensate for the changes in her reach and power. She was sure that the fact doing nothing was much easier than putting forth the effort to bother her had nothing to do with it.

"You really are good, you know. If you were really a boy, I think I might hate you for being better than me." Ranma stopped mid-kata to face Akane who stood in the doorway.

"Ya know, you're not so bad yourself. Did your dad train you? You got all the basics of Anything Goes down, but it seems like you don't know any of the advanced techniques. Ya can't just practice the same moves over and over and expect to be the best forever."

"Yeah, well, Dad taught me until Mom died... he never really had much focus for it after then. I kept practicing though, and working out. Excuse me for not traveling all over training on the road."

"Yeah, well, it's not just that, I'm the best there is! Still, if you want, I could show you more of the stuff your pop woulda if he kept training you. I'm no teacher or anything, but I can walk you through the easy stuff, and practice with you."

Akane stared at her for a moment, and Ranma couldn't tell if she was going to get mad or cry. Or worse, both.

"Ranma... Thank you."

"Hey, don't go all mushy okay? We have training to do."