*** Earth 0.000, 0.000 (-11.34127 Years)

"Hello."

Ranma looked up from the tattered copy of "Lone Wolf and Cub" he was browsing through to see a boy about his age standing before him in the waiting area. His father had gone off to talk with a few of the doctors he knew here at the Ministry of Science and left him on his own, but he didn't mind, not really. After all, he was almost five years old now and could take care of himself for a few minutes without one of his parents around.

There were only two other people waiting in the room, both appearing to also be about Ranma's age: a boy and a girl. They were each dressed in expensive-looking clothes, the boy wearing a blue kimono of very fine fabrics and the girl a pretty dress. Ranma figured they were either aristocrats or just had a lot of money. The duo kept to themselves over on the far side of the room, sitting very closely together and speaking softly to each other. The girl seemed nervous and scared, her brother appearing to be trying to comfort her.

Ranma found himself envying the pair's intimacy with each other, not having any siblings himself. Seeing them act so close and familiar with each other, he wanted to have a sister too. Although having a twin sister would probably be an even better notion, he mused, being the same age, they could play together as equals.

The manga he held was one of only two available on the waiting room table. He didn't really have much interest in reading the other one. It was called "Cutie Honey" and displayed a buxom redhead with her clothes exploding off her body on the cover. He assumed it was one meant for girls because he wasn't sure why a boy would ever want to read it.

"Hi," Ranma replied back to the other boy's greeting. "Uh, are you here to get a special shot too?" His father had been a bit vague about what was going to happen and why they were here, but he loved and trusted the man. If Genma Saotome said doing this was a good thing, then that was enough of a reason for Ranma to obey.

The sturdy-looking youth with a thick mop of unruly hair nodded back at his question. "Yeah," the other boy affirmed and then said, "My name's Ryoga." He made a fist with his right hand and pointed at himself with his thumb. "Ryoga Hibiki."

"I'm Ranma Saotome." He gave Ryoga a friendly smile back.

Grunting in acknowledgement, Ryoga plopped down into the seat next to Ranma and eyed the selection of magazines, quickly realizing with some irritation that the other boy had already claimed the best one. He grumbled in a bit of annoyance before asking, "You like martial arts?"

"I guess," Ranma replied with a shrug. While he did have some interest, about as much as any boy his age did, all he really knew about the martial arts was what he saw on TV or read in manga and that it was something his mother went off to practice doing with a friend of hers every week. Sometimes she would return home bearing very scary-looking bruises and sometimes even a few cuts and wounds, so it seemed like it must be a pretty painful thing to do.

When he once asked about learning, his father had forbidden him, explaining that fighting only invited trouble. Seeing his mother's injured condition when she returned home from training some weeks, he chose to heed his father's counsel. His interest in martial arts was now limited to the adventures of imaginary heroes.

"My great-grandpa's teaching me." Ryoga leaned back in the chair and looked glum. "But I don't like it all that much. The training is really, _really_ boring. It's nothing like the stuff you see in the movies or TV."

Ranma looked at him, surprised. "Really?"

"Yeah. All I do is jump around on these little poles stuck into the ground and hit sandbags. Great-Grandpa says he's teaching me to be strong, and the old geezer keeps muttering about someone named 'Kuonji' sometimes, all scary like. I asked my Pop, the last time he was home on leave, and all he would tell me was that there's a family with that name living in another valley near our home. He didn't seem to like talking about it though."

Ryoga shrugged. "Maybe martial arts would be more fun if I had someone to spar with. That's actually pretty fun, but there's nobody my age near my house that's learning this stuff, except my cousins." He began frowning.

"They're both girls though. It's just not right to fight a girl, so it's not a lot of fun for me." He rested his chin in his hand, looking a bit disgruntled, and then said, "I've been thinking when I'm older I could go looking for a Kuonji, to see what has Great-Grandpa all peeved about 'em."

"My mom does martial arts," Ranma ventured. "But I don't know if she's ever fought a guy. Probably not. Mom just trains with this friend of hers she's known since high school. She's a nice lady with two kids about our age. Tenchi's okay, but his big sister Ryoko's kind of mean. I hear she likes getting into fights. She's really strong." He grimaced at the thought of the tomboyish older girl and then asked, "You here with your dad?"

"Uh huh, with some help from one of our neighbors waiting outside. I think Pop's off looking for a bathroom, so it might be a while before he gets back." Ryoga eyed the "Cutie Honey" manga on the table with the near-naked redhead on the cover but didn't pick it up. Girls all had cooties, after all, and a girly-looking magazine like that one might also be able to infect him with that most dreaded of all illnesses for young boys. He shivered at the prospect of getting cooties, remembering his solemn vow to himself to avoid icky girls as much as he possibly could.

Well, except for his two cousins, Inoko and Yoiko Hibiki, but he wasn't given much choice there. They were okay, he supposed, even if they were girls. What was weird to him was that he heard his uncle used to have a different last name before getting married. His parents had once tried explaining it all to him, but he still didn't quite understand how this family name stuff worked.

Since they lived right next door to him, it was easy to avoid getting lost going over to their house to play as he was still learning how the guide ropes worked in their village. Their parents ran the only bakery in town, with their home built right over their store, so it always smelled really good there on cake-making days. His younger cousin Inoko was the more annoyingly girly of the pair, so he tended to play more with Yoiko, who was a definite tomboy. He once mistakenly said she was one, thinking it was a compliment, and she immediately decked him for it.

Fortunately, neither of them ever seemed much bothered by getting themselves dirty like most other girls he knew seemed to be. That made it easier to play with them. They mostly just ran around and explored their yards, keeping within sight of their houses. Yoiko really seemed to enjoy a good roughhouse with him too, which was fun as he did as well.

Other kids didn't much like being around any of the three of them, probably because they were Hibikis. Since they were stronger than every other kid their age in town, they usually ended up playing with each other. He absolutely refused to play house with Inoko, but sparring and wrestling with Yoiko was fun, even though she would somehow beat him about half the time. He suspected she was cheating somehow, since girls shouldn't be able to win against boys at that sort of stuff.

Ranma noticed Ryoga eyeing the manga in his hand, seeming too shy to ask him for it. "Here," he said impulsively, handing it over. "You can have it, if you want."

"Thanks." Ryoga smiled, feeling grateful at the other boy's sudden generosity. He eyed Ranma. "Hey, y'wanna be friends?"

Ranma grinned. "Sure!"

The young Hibiki grinned back, each youth confident in the way that all young boys their age were that they had just made a friend for life.

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Quantum Destinies

A Ranma 1/2 Fanfic

By S. Thesken aka Jurai Knight

Ranma 1/2 and its characters are owned by Rumiko Takahashi. This story is inspired by her works and the stories from some of my fellow fanfic authors. Among these are D.B. Sommer's "Shampoo 1/2", Jim Bader's "A Very Scary Thought -aka- Nabiki 1/2", and John Biles' Elseworlds series. All C&C is welcome.

Other chapters of this story may be found at this website, or you can email the author for them.

NOTE: Before reading this chapter, please read the side story "Weekend Trip" that can be found among my other writings.

The list of worlds reoccurring in this chapter:

Earth 0.000, 0.000 - The world of Scholar Ranma (Baseline cluster)

What has gone before in this story (or at least what will help you understand what is going on):

On a parallel Earth that diverged from the standard Ranma timeline over five hundred years ago, the Empire of Japan rules almost half the world and has done so for almost a century. Theorizing that one could travel to alternate timelines by possessing counterparts in them, a young scientist named Ranma Saotome, through use of a device of his own invention, accidentally obtained the skills and memories of a martial artist version of himself.

Bernkastel made personality adjustments to Soun Tendo, rendering him temporarily back to the way he was before switching identities with the Soun Tendo of the "Shampoo 1/2" Earth in order to get him past his telepathic scan at the Mobius Institute. Rika Furude of Imperial Earth was introduced, a girl mentally linked to the time-traveling witch, Bernkastel, showing glimpses of several of the cast of "Higurashi: When They Cry" and how they fared on Imperial Earth. The truth behind Yui Ikari and her friends was shown and how they came together. Ryoko and Perfume fought each other fiercely, but the fight's conclusion was interrupted by Cologne. Shishio, Revy and Roberta encountered Shenhua, and the Taiwanese girl was invited to attend St. Hebereke. Mikado Sanzenin and Asuka Saginomiya were engaged to each other, and they were not very happy about it. Mai Shiranui and the Seer spoke together briefly, revealing more of his role in things and his goals.

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Chapter 35 – A Woman's Heart

The Heart wants what it wants - or else it does not care.

-Emily Dickinson

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*** Earth 0.000, 0.000

"YOU SON OF A BITCH!"

Dean Fuyutsuki quickly pulled the telephone away from his ear as Professor Hiro Fuji, the director of Ohtori Academy and his friend, began venting his extreme displeasure at him, at the top of his lungs.

It couldn't be that he was still upset over the Tenjou girl's loss to Ranma, since that happened many weeks ago. As Fuyutsuki knew the man wasn't that petty, it had to be something new. He waited until the screaming died down, which took a while.

"Hiro-kun, what has you so upset?" he ventured when it seemed safe.

"Miki Kaoru," the other man finally replied. "One of _my_ Adams has decided to leave Ohtori to come to the Imperial Academy. I didn't find this out until just a few minutes ago. I thought it might be your doing, poaching him from right under my nose."

"I was out of town all weekend, visiting Hakone," Fuyutsuki replied sincerely, mildly surprised by the Kaoru boy's action but pleased as well. "This is the first I've heard of it."

There was a pause. "Oh, I see. Um, how is Naoko-chan and her daughter doing?"

"They're both fine."

There was another pause before the other man spoke again, his tone friendlier now. "So, when are you finally going to bed Naoko-chan? All that belligerent sexual tension you two have for each other can't be healthy."

Fuyutsuki blinked, suddenly feeling flustered. "Excuse me? What are you talking about?"

"The way you two always argue with each other so fiercely whenever you're together." Hiro chuckled. "I've never seen that woman get quite so worked up by any other man as she does with you, except maybe when she was studying under Ikari-hakase before his tragic death a few years ago. Now that I think about it, this same sort of thing keeps coming up in the testing group reports, especially when the attraction factors get really high between an Adam and an Eve in competition with each other. I know you've been seeing it with young Saotome and the two Tendo girls. It's in your reports."

"Fuyutsuki-kun, what I'm about to say is advice from a friend and colleague. You and Naoko-chan really need to call a truce, send Ritsuko-chan to visit relatives or something, and then the two of you should bed each other until one of you passes out. It would do you both a world of good."

"I... see." Fuyutsuki realized a bit wryly that his efforts at keeping his romantic relationship with Dr. Akagi a secret was causing the wrong sort of gossip about them among their colleagues. He quickly tried to change the subject. "She was close with Ikari-hakase?"

Fuyutsuki only vaguely recalled the circumstances of the man's death, a fiery car crash down a mountainside about five or so years ago, killing both him and his wife. Dr. Ikari had been a significant contributor to the early research efforts at the Artificial Evolution Laboratories, working closely with Dr. Kashuoh before his departure to found Genom Corporation. However, there had been some rather persistent rumors that Dr. Ikari might be involved with SEELE, which could also explain the tragic circumstances of his death.

"Well, from the stories I've heard, there's speculation he might have been Ritusko-chan's father, but Ikari-hakase always seemed very loyal to his wife. I only mentioned him because he's the only other man I've ever seen get under her skin like you do." There was another pause. "Unless you'd like to confess something to me?"

"We're getting off track here, Hiro-kun. I had no idea that the Kaoru boy would be coming here. It's nothing I did."

There was a sigh on the other end. "It must be due to the Kuno girl then. Ever since Kaoru-san was reunited with her, he's been acting like a lovesick fool. They attended Ohtori's Spring Formal together, you know."

"Yes, that I knew," Fuyutsuki replied. "Several of my students were there. The Saotome boy escorted Tenjou-san, I understand."

"Don't even go there," suddenly huffed the other man. "Losing Kaoru-san is far less upsetting to me than Utena-chan's departure would be. She's my Alpha. You. Can't. Have. Her."

Fuyutsuki smirked. "Well, she seems to be quite smitten with young Saotome, ever since their first meeting. There are rumors going around that they even slept together. It wouldn't surprise me. He's becoming quite a man among men when it comes to getting attention from girls, from what I've seen."

"Yes, the boy may have started off rather slow after returning from Russia, but he's since proven himself to be his father's son and just as adept at charming the ladies as Saotome-hakase was in his youth before he met his wife, based on what I've been reading of Ranma in your reports. However, the boy had better watch himself or Kaoru-san will steal the Kuno girl's heart away from him before he realizes it. While he's far from being the Casanova that Kiryuu-san is, the Kaoru boy can be quite charismatic under the right circumstances, like if you let him near a piano. He's also a very dangerous fighter when he's motivated. Your little prodigy better watch his back."

Fuyutsuki chuckled. "Well, that sounds excellent then. Young Saotome needs some competition from some more strong males, so it seems like dealing with Kaoru-san will be a very good experience for him. Where's the boy going to be staying?"

"I wasn't informed," Hiro gruffed. "Anyway, I understand he's chosen Science as his path of study, likely to be as close to the Kuno girl as he can."

"Then I'll make sure he's placed into her class." Fuyutsuki mused that putting Miki in closer proximity to Kodachi should inspire Ranma to try a bit harder to stay in the beautiful young noblewoman's good graces. While that would doubtless cause conflict between the two boys, they could then begin the process of establishing who was dominant between them.

The two men exchanged some final small talk before hanging up. After taking a few moments to instruct his secretary about where to place Miki Kaoru when he arrived on campus, Fuyutsuki then swiveled his chair around and gazed out the window. Things were becoming more interesting of late, especially now that two more Adams would soon be joining the Imperial Academy. The additions of Ryoga Hibiki and Miki Kaoru to the student body should shake Ranma up a bit, and maybe the girls in the program as well.

Turning back around from his window, Fuyutsuki's gaze fell to the test papers currently spread out across his desk, and he regarded them carefully. Before he was distracted by Professor Fuji's call, the pages had revealed a seemingly impossible thing to him.

Ranko Kuonji had somehow managed to answer every question correctly, something that only one other person was able to achieve since the Imperial Academy was first founded. Rubbing his chin in thought, he began reconsidering the implications that he came up with before the phone call, trying to apply Occam's Razor to them.

The Saotome boy had traveled the world with his father and attended a multitude of esteemed educational institutions. He also possessed various mental enhancements from his participation in Project Phoenix. That combination had yielded a prodigious intellect, the kind that came about perhaps once every few generations.

However, this girl, with an unremarkable education record from some average school and unenhanced genetics, had matched him. At first, he thought Ranko was an undiscovered genius of immense ability, but that supposition didn't sync up at all with her scholastic history, unless she was one of the most unmotivated students on Earth. But if that was so, she wouldn't have had the slightest interest in the type of rigorous schooling offered at the Imperial Academy, so something very strange was going on. He decided to delve deeper into the matter.

Pulling out a copy of Ranma's entrance exam papers from the boy's file, he began his investigation by laying them out next to Ranko's pages for comparison, and he was astonished anew. While he could see there were differences in their handwriting styles, the girl's writing a neater, more precise style, everything else was almost a perfect match. Even her essay answers corresponded with Ranma's, almost word for word. And when Fuyutsuki reviewed the methodologies the girl chose to prove out her math calculations, they were identical to the ones that Ranma had used. Even if the girl had somehow cheated, she would have needed to keep a copy of the test with Ranma's answers on them with her, and that was a highly unlikely scenario given the precautions used to administer the exams.

No, it was as if Ranma Saotome himself had sat in that seat and taken the test again, only as a girl this time. Even after a careful review of the recordings from the security cameras that monitored the testing room, Fuyutsuki could find no signs of Ranko cheating. She had simply sat down and worked her way through the exam questions, not once doing anything remotely suspicious.

He was clearly missing something, but what? Unless the boy was somehow able to transform himself into a girl, it was like there was some sort of mental connection existing between Ranma Saotome and Ranko Kuonji. Having eliminated the more mundane ways she could have done it, those were the only two explanations he had left. He needed more information, so he was just about to pick up the phone and call an acquaintance of his at the Mobius Institute when his secretary buzzed him.

"Sir? Lee-sensei, Sakuranbo-san and a woman named Yumi Kuonji are here to see you."

"That's all right. Show them in." He wondered what the three wanted to talk with him about, and he was actually very interested in speaking with the Kuonji woman. There were some rather pointed questions he wanted to ask about her daughter.

Yumi came in first, her broken nose still bandaged after her fight to the death with Golgo. A few good nights of sleep had left her feeling quite a bit better, but her stab wound and other injuries were still only just beginning their healing process. When she was younger, such injuries would have faded from her body far more quickly than this, a depressing sign to her that she was getting older.

Fortunately, shifting to her male form and staying that way for a day or so would accelerate her healing back to its old level and allow her to fully recover much sooner. She had only held off on doing so due to her stitches, as she knew from experience they might break when her form shifted. After she got back to her restaurant later today, she planned to have Yumi go away for a bit and allow her 'son' to cover things.

Walking in right behind her was Jun Fan Lee and the Academy's new nurse, Sakura Sakuranbo. Fuyutsuki stood politely to receive them into his office. He bowed to them.

"Kuonji-san. Lee-sensei. Sakuranbo-san." Fuyutsuki came out from behind his desk, noting Yumi's bandaged nose with curiosity but deciding to say nothing about her injury, respecting her privacy. "This is a pleasant surprise. Have you come here to discuss Ranma and Ranko's training schedule with me?"

"You haven't heard?" Lee replied with astonishment. He exchanged a look with Yumi and Sakura. The two of them look surprised as well.

"Heard what?" Fuyutsuki looked from one to the other. "Is something the matter?"

"Ranma was in a match a few days ago in the Battledome with a Chinese girl named Shampoo," Yumi answered him with a steady look. "It was a near thing at times, but he won the match in the end, knocking Shampoo out. However, someone hired a man named Golgo to drug him, apparently wanting to fix the fight so the boy would lose. Ranma passed out maybe only a second or two after the girl lost consciousness."

"You didn't overhear anything about this from the students?" Sakura asked. She had been noting a fair number of cadets talking about it in the hallways and out in front of the school. The most common topic of speculation was how someone called "The Iron Bitch" was taking this, and there was also a strong undercurrent of support being expressed by cadets for Ranma to win the rematch. Many them had already bought tickets, which were apparently selling out quickly.

Unknown to Ranma, although Nabiki had been noticing it with a bit of irritation, his escapades in recent months had been gradually winning him a contingent of admirers and fans among his fellow cadets, the battle with the Joketsuzoku girl easily being his most famous to date. Sakura had even heard a few students discussing plans to organize a cheering section for Ranma at the Battledome. They felt he was carrying the honor of the Imperial Academy on his shoulders and wanted to show him their support.

The girls populating the "Ranma Saotome Fan Club" were seen walking around this morning in a state approaching shellshock as the news of his recent battle with Shampoo spread like wildfire throughout the student body. Some rather ugly sentiments could be heard coming from their ranks, a definite impression that no foreign girls should be poaching him, especially not some 'backwoods barbarian bitch' from China. Girls in the club were skipping classes en masse and holding a special meeting today to discuss their plans for dealing with Shampoo, apparently no longer concerned about keeping their club's presence a secret from Nabiki Tendo and her organization.

"I came in rather early today to catch up on paperwork and haven't left my office since," answered Fuyutsuki, now looking concerned. "Is the boy all right? I'm afraid I don't normally follow the Arena fights, so I'm not familiar with this Shampoo girl." He did vaguely recall his secretary mentioning something about members of the press wanting to speak with him when she arrived at her desk earlier, but he had just waved her off, wanting to concentrate on reviewing Ranko's exam.

Yumi answered him. "Ranma's fine, but there were some complications." She sat down gingerly in one of the chairs in front of Fuyutsuki's desk, sitting almost like a man would with her knees together. Lee and Sakura took the other ones, the latter crossing her legs after she sat. "Because of the scandal over someone trying to fix the fight, Ranma has to remain in the Battledome for a week to prepare himself and then fight Shampoo again this weekend."

"But if he defeated her, why bother with a rematch?" Fuyutsuki looked puzzled. "He was the one drugged but still won, you said."

"The Emperor is apparently a huge fan of Shampoo's and was there at the Battledome to watch her fight that night," answered Lee. "I've heard this was a personal request coming from His Majesty, so that the entire Empire could witness a clean battle between them, although I suppose it could be a propaganda effort of some kind. Shampoo has legions of fans around the world, and Ranma's name is rapidly becoming a household word because of what happened."

Lee smiled. "He saved the girl's life, leaping to shove her out of the way before Golgo's falling body impacted right where she was standing. If the boy had hesitated for an instant longer, she'd likely be either dead or critically injured now. There are many calling him a hero after seeing him in action that night, selflessly risking his own life to save a beautiful girl."

Fuyutsuki was shocked by what he was hearing, and it took him a few moments before he could respond. "The Emperor?!" he finally blurted out. "His Majesty requested it?"

"That's right," said Yumi with a nod. "So Ranma will stay in the Battledome for a week, and their rematch will be held this Saturday night."

Lee spoke up. "I've already begun working with the boy while he's in there, and I promise you his training will be especially rigorous in the days I have left, to prepare him for anything the girl might throw at him. Now that Shampoo's taken his measure and seen his capabilities, she'll be an even tougher opponent for him to overcome. And since he's now publicly announced the existence of the "Anything-Goes School of Martial Arts," the press has started to ask me about it, if it was my creation. Ranma is my disciple, after all."

"The Anything-Goes School of Martial Arts?" Fuyutsuki looked a bit thoughtful, and he rubbed his chin with his hand. He recalled his research into that name months ago, finding only a lost school, the founder executed by the Empire many decades ago.

"Yes, Ranma told me the whole story a while ago," Lee replied, nodding. "About this resonator invention of his and using it to mentally visit alternate worlds. He said he acquired his martial arts skills from a different version of himself. It all still sounds like science fiction to me, even now, but I could tell he wasn't lying."

Nobody else in the room spoke for several moments. Lee saw shocked looks suddenly appearing on every other face.

"Wait, what?" said Yumi, the first to break the silence.

Fuyutsuki suddenly had an epiphany, realizing what the connection was with the strange things he had been seeing around the Academy over the past several months. This explained how Nabiki and Ranma could both suddenly manifest knowledge of the same dead school of martial arts. The girl must have used the device too. It all made perfect sense now.

Then he frowned. Genma Saotome had lied to him, straight to his face, telling him that the boy's device didn't work and that no more resources should be wasted on it. Why would the boy's father do such a peculiar thing? He thought they were friends. It wasn't like him at-

No. Fuyutsuki suddenly felt horrified. It _wasn't_ like Genma, not like the Genma Saotome he knew. What if his friend had used the device as well but was somehow far more affected by it than Ranma and Nabiki had been? Why didn't young Saotome tell him anything?

He needed to speak with Soun Tendo at the Security Directorate about this as it involved the new Director's daughter. A full inquiry would need to happen as soon as possible. If Genma Saotome wasn't the man he used to know anymore, who else might have been altered by the stranger wearing his face?

Sitting quietly in her seat while this was all going on, Sakura knew she had to consult with her uncle about this. As they were keeping Ranma's curse a secret for now, she could not involve the Mobius Institute in this yet. Fortunately, the boy didn't seem dangerous, but she didn't know Ranma well and would need to watch him more closely.

At that moment, Bernkastel materialized in the room, shimmering into sudden being. Her magics lashed out at everyone present, freezing them all into place as another of her spells sealed the room, keeping anyone outside from noticing anything unusual. But before she could make any further moves, what she thought was Yumi suddenly vanished in a puff of smoke, leaving behind a small log in her place to land with a bounce in the chair where she had been seated.

A solid kick into the witch's upper spine a second or two later caught her by surprise, and she flew across the room, almost crashing headlong into the wall. With a swift wave of one hand as her other made a sharp gesture, she halted her flight an instant from impact, simultaneously shielding herself before the ninja could attack her again. Five of Yumi's thrown mini-spatulas buried their blades almost to their handles into the barrier less than a moment later, each of them halted only a foot away from the witch's head.

"Hello, Yumi-chan," Bernkastel said mildly, slowly turning to face the ninja. "It's been a while."

"Who are you?" Yumi eyed the strange woman in the blue kimono as she kept herself moving about the room, not stopping once, searching for a weak spot. She hated dealing with magic users.

The witch smiled, tracking the Kuonji woman with her eyes. "Oh, that's right. You and I have never actually met. Not in this world, that is." She paused to smooth out her clothes a bit before curtsying. "My name is Bernkastel."

"What do you want here?" The ninja regretted not having her large spatula with her right now, but she hadn't expected to be in a fight. She pulled out a couple of flour bombs from inside her jacket and hurled them down to the ground, concealing her in a sudden cloud of white.

It dissipated a few moments later at a gesture from the witch, but Yumi was still moving fast, trying to ignore the sharp pains of her recent wounds. She sprang from wall to wall, flashing around the room, then finally bounced down from off the ceiling. The witch's shield appeared weaker on top. Her foot was aimed at the intruder's head.

Looking up, Bernkastel suddenly grinned broadly, her eyes widening with delight. As Yumi's foot struck the witch's shield, cracks appeared in it, radiating outwards from the point of impact, but it held firm, the crazing beginning to heal almost immediately. The witch clapped as if watching a show, looking gleeful.

"Yes, that's it! That's the heroine I remember!" She gestured and one of Yumi's feet was abruptly caught by a tendril of her power before she could evade it, wrapping tightly around the cursed woman's ankle.

Yumi was only able to curse out a single word before her body was abruptly slammed down, impacting hard on her back, the hardwood flooring buckling underneath her. She felt her stitches popping at the bone-crushing collision, and the world suddenly went woozy around her. The next thing she knew, more of the witch's glowing tendrils of magic quickly took hold of her, wrapping themselves around her limbs before lifting her up to face the woman in the blue kimono. Her feet were held bound together, but her arms were kept straight out from her sides as if she was about to be crucified. Blood started dampening her clothing where her stab wound was, the dark stain slowly spreading.

"Now then, before you so rudely interrupted me, I recall you asked me a question." The witch approached calmly, noting Yumi's limbs straining against the tendrils holding her fast, the ninja's hands clenched into fists. "You asked me, what do I want here, right?"

Yumi thought furiously. Her present situation reminded her all too familiarly of how things would often go for her on her missions for the Mobius Institute. She could not count the number of times when she was captured by some crazed megalomaniac and either tied up or chained up, then, instead of her captor immediately killing her like a sensible villain, they would take time grandly outlining to her their scheme before either leaving her to be killed by their minions or putting her into some sort of supposedly inescapable deathtrap and then leaving for some other business. Keel Lorentz had been one of the worst, as the man seemed to love hearing himself talk.

As the witch stalked around the cursed woman, inspecting her body like she was a prize animal, Yumi continued working on a plan for escape. Unfortunately, the glowing tendrils on her arms and legs would not budge, no matter how much pressure she applied. She eyed the other woman when she finally came back into view.

"I'm playing a game," Bernkastel announced suddenly, leaning into Yumi's face, a bit too closely for the ninja's comfort. "You've heard of the Shogun of the Dark, right?"

"I'm familiar with the name." Yumi pulled her face back from the witch's as far as she could manage. "Shadowlaw's bigwigs talk about him, but no one outside their organization's ever seen him. Some think he's just a myth."

The other woman grinned. "Au contraire, ma chérie. The Shogun is quite real, and it is he who I'm playing against, although he doesn't know it and hopefully never will."

Yumi continued testing her bonds as the witch talked. She grunted and then glared at the other woman when Bernkastel suddenly pressed into her stab wound with her fingers. The tendrils holding her refused to budge even a millimeter, no matter how hard she tried.

"Ranma Saotome is my weapon against the Shogun," the witch said with another wild-eyed leer. "He's my champion, although he wasn't my first choice. I actually had others in mind to be the hero for this scenario, but things just didn't pan out. So, I've been working hard behind the scenes to revise my plots a bit and give him the tools he'll need to win. I can't let the four of you blab to anyone else what you just figured out. It would cause me too many problems in the future and derail the narrative I'm trying to create."

"You're going to kill us?" Yumi kept her voice calm as she met the other woman's gaze. It wasn't the first time she had been threatened with death, after all.

"If I must," the witch replied impishly, pulling her face back from Yumi's and walking over to look at the other three. "It would make for quite the interesting locked room mystery, wouldn't it? Other than Lee, all of you are secondary characters to my plans, but I'm sure I could find someone to replace him too, if I needed to."

Yumi grimaced. "You have something else in mind, it seems."

"Oh my, yes!" Bernkastel grinned again. She pranced over to Sakura, who sat unmoving and unblinking, apparently unaware of anything going on. The witch materialized a razor-sharp blade in her hand and held it up against the priestess' throat before looking at Yumi again. "I want you on Ranma's team, ma chérie."

"What?" Yumi looked puzzledly at the other woman, glancing occasionally at the blade still resting on the shrine priestess' throat.

"Oh, you're just going to love this little plot twist." The witch pulled the blade away. "He's Nodoka's little boy, you see. You remember her, right? That redheaded delinquent girl you used to hang out with?" The witch grinned. "The one you deflowered all those years ago?"

Yumi glared. Her hands tightened into fists again.

"I can't recall which one you did first though," Bernkastel mused. "Was it her or the crazy girl from Blackhall? I know you did both, since you could never manage to choose between them. That's why they almost killed each other in their last fight with each other, you know, dueling over who would get you, never knowing that you were really a girl behind your Jusenkyo-given mask." She shrugged. "Ah well, that's all in the past now." The witch giggled.

"Anyway, here's how this is going to go." Bernkastel took the blade away from Sakura's throat again and began gesturing theatrically with it. "You have to make a choice here, Yumi-chan. On the one hand, there's your niece Ukyo's life and on the other hand is yours. So, who do you choose to accompany Ranma when it's finally time for him to face the Shogun and his deadly pack of thralls?" She replaced the blade at the priestess' throat. "Tick-tock. Think fast now. This offer won't stay on the table for long. Unless you decide quickly, I'll slit this pretty lady's throat and let you watch her bleed out."

Horrified, Yumi relented in her efforts to free herself and slumped in her bonds, but her glare at the witch didn't relent. "I'll help him," she replied grimly. "You have my word. You leave Ukyo out of this."

"An excellent choice, ma chérie. You are truly a heroine." The blade vanished from the witch's hand, and she walked back to stand in front of Yumi. She reached into her kimono and pulled out what looked like a small golden flame, burning without fuel, and she touched the ninja's stomach with it, seemingly pushing it into her.

An inferno suddenly flared up inside Yumi, like her guts were melting and twisting inside her. The agonizing sensations quickly spread out as she bit down on her lower lip hard enough that it started to bleed, trying to keep from crying out in pain. It flowed up through her chest and down into her limbs like magma. At the end, it surged up into her skull, a volcanic plume of pain. Unable to hold back any longer, Yumi screamed.

Meanwhile, Bernkastel just stood there, lit by the orange glow as it flamed across Yumi's entire body without affecting her clothing. She bobbed her head in time to the music as she hummed a sprightly tune and inspected her manicure. Once she was done here, she was considering having some lunch.

When Yumi's agonies were finally over, the orange glow flickering out like a dying flame before vanishing completely, she hung limply in her bonds, her strength gone. Slowly raising her head, sweat dripped from her face. Her breath was ragged, as if she had just run a marathon. "W-what d'ya do to me?"

"Oh, nothing much. Call it a little upgrade. You'll figure it out soon enough though." The witch lifted the bloody clothing covering Yumi's stomach, noting that the stab wound was fully healed now, leaving only a faint scar. She nodded. "Let's get you tidied up now, ma chérie."

Gesturing, Bernkastel's power flared again. Yumi's outfit was swiftly cleansed of blood and sweat, the dirt and stains lifting out and then vanishing into fading particles of light. The rents in the cloth healed as if they never happened.

Still breathing deeply, Yumi felt her depleted strength gradually restoring itself. She began straining again at her bonds, but they still refused to budge. Glaring at the witch, she said, "Now what?"

"My favorite part," Bernkastel answered. A lance of light pierced into Yumi's skull. "However, before I rewrite the last several minutes of everyone's memories and refashion your mind just a bit, I'm going to erase some things you really don't need to remember anymore. You've been punished quite enough by them, I think."

"Wha-?" Yumi started to answer. A cavalcade of memories suddenly raced across her mind, ending with two final images she could hold on to for just a few precious moments before they too were ripped away from her.

...Nodoka Himura, standing tall in her St. Hebereke uniform, smiling in Yumi's direction, her red hair blowing gently in the breeze, holding a bokken in one hand, its wooden blade resting on her shoulder.

...Kenseiko Idomo, wearing a yellow summer dress, carrying a picnic basket in her arms as dappled sunlight fell across her smiling face and cherry blossoms drifted down slowly around her.

After the memories faded away, Yumi found herself crying, but she could no longer recall why, no matter how hard she tried to remember. What memory had the witch taken from her? She lifted her eyes slowly to meet Bernkastel's, her gaze as cold as the grave.

"This isn't over," the ninja vowed. "You and I will have a reckoning someday. I swear it."

Bernkastel smiled unconcernedly. Her hand flared with power again, a tendril of magic spiking again into the side of Yumi's skull. "Now let's see what's up here I can work with."

Yumi suddenly found herself back in the moment when Sakura said, "He's very attractive in female form. Is he as handsome in male form too?"

Her observations were cutting a little too close for Yumi's comfort.

"Oh, yes, this will do quite nicely," the witch's voice was suddenly heard. "You've hidden it well. Buried it deep. So noble of you."

Yumi grimaced when the real world appeared to her senses again, the memory fragment dissolving away. "It was just a moment of weakness," she muttered. "I would never act on it." Her voice went even quieter. "He's too young, and I'm too old."

"Hmm, it's not the only time you've felt something for him though, is it?" The witch began probing, examining other memories Yumi had of the pigtailed boy. "Oh, I see. You actually kind of liked him from the very beginning, when your niece first introduced Ranma to you. But you like him much more now, now that he's cursed like you are."

"That's not true," Yumi muttered. She looked away from the witch.

"Oh, I think it is, ma chérie." Bernkastel smiled at her. "You've been alone for so long, having no one who could fully understand you and your curse, and now here is this handsome young man with a beautiful female alter ego. He could be your soulmate."

"Ranma's engaged to my niece," Yumi protested.

The witch regarded her solemnly. "Yes, but the letter she received from your grandfather changes things. You read it too, so you know I'm not lying."

"Yeah," Yumi replied, grimacing. "Stupid old man," she muttered.

The witch grinned, her hand flaring with power again. "Feel honored, Yumi Kuonji. You are one of the very few who have ever met me and remained among the living. I give you this solemn charge to go along with the great gift I've already bestowed upon you, even though you won't remember any of this: protect Ranma Saotome, even though it might cost you your life. Help him. Teach him. Love him. He will need you and the strength of the others in the days to come." The witch's finger touched Yumi's forehead, and the universe dissolved into light.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Yumi blinked and then chided herself for getting momentarily lost in a reverie. If she wasn't being kept so busy managing her restaurant, she would be able to help more with Ranma's training. She made a mental note to speak with Ukyo about taking over running things now and then, so she could begin teaching the boy the secrets of the Kuonji. She was really looking forward to spending time with Ranma, teaching him and talking with him.

Lee said, "I have to leave soon to pick up a surprise for Ranma at the airport and take care of some things. He'll be coming over to your restaurant for training today, Yumi-chan." He saw the ninja nod.

"I can handle things here," answered Fuyutsuki. "It sounds like I'll have the easy part though."

The trio in front of the professor eyed each other for several moments and then Yumi nodded. Lee turned to Fuyutsuki and said, "There's something else we feel you need to know, concerning Ranma. Yumi can explain it best."

"What is it?" He turned to look at her.

Yumi returned his gaze levelly. "Fuyutsuki-kun, I checked your security clearance through some contacts of mine. What I'm about to tell you must never leave this room, not even to the boy's family or any of the girls involved with him. Not even my niece. They aren't cleared for this information, and that also includes Ranma's father."

Fuyutsuki leaned forward and nodded, interested. "Very well."

As a precaution, Sakura got up and swept the room quickly for any listening devices. She crushed two that she found, likely planted by some of the upperclassmen security cadets as practice. When she was satisfied, she nodded to Yumi.

"In China, there is a place, ancient and magical, called Jusenkyo," the Kuonji woman began. "It has numerous pools of enchanted water, and each one carries its own, unique curse. Waters from Jusenkyo were being held in vats at a Mobius Institute storage facility near here, and Ranma fell into one of them." She went on to explain in more detail what she knew about Jusenkyo and its magic.

When Yumi finished, Fuyutsuki had many questions, but he only asked one. He was pretty sure he already knew the answer though. "So, what is it that Ranma turns into?"

"A girl," Lee replied, his expression solemn and serious, but there was an amused twinkle in his eye.

Fuyutsuki nodded. "Ah, I see where this is going." He turned to look at Yumi. "Your daughter?"

"Yes, Ranko Kuonji is really Ranma Saotome, in his cursed form." Yumi shrugged. "We'd hoped to keep it a more closely-guarded secret, but with recent events, Jun-kun and I felt it would be better if there was a staff member at the Academy who knew, other than Sakura-chan. You were the most logical choice."

"I understand," Fuyutsuki said with a nod, his mind already considering the possibilities, trying hard to maintain a serious look on his face when inside he felt gleeful, like a young boy on Christmas morning. "I'll do whatever I can to help Ranma maintain his cover. You have my word."

The professor mused that the boy's curse raised numerous, fascinating opportunities for study in conjunction with Project Phoenix. Ranma was a model Adam before, but a test subject who could be either an Adam or an Eve was of immense value. It would be extremely interesting to see how the boy's magical gender changing affected his interactions with the other youths from the Project, especially since he was keeping it a closely-guarded secret that he could do so.

Yumi smiled. "Thank you, Fuyutsuki-kun." The trio stood up. "We'll keep in touch. You let one of us know if you should need any help here at the Academy with anything. While Ranko isn't really my daughter, I am growing quite fond of her. And him too, of course."

"Of course," the professor replied with a smile. There was a pause, and he suddenly realized who Yumi's 'old flame' was. "Well, I can see now why you refused my offer of a date. You and Lee-sensei do make a nice couple."

Sakura looked very startled at his comment and wasn't sure what to say. She then gave Yumi a suspicious look, jealousy written all over her face. The cursed woman had been at the Battledome that night with Lee, but she didn't think anything about it at the time as she knew they were old friends. Maybe she should have.

"What?" Lee looked stunned and then immediately shook his head. "Oh no. No, we're just friends. Yumi-chan and me? We wouldn't make a very good couple. Not at all."

Yumi felt somewhat offended at the vehemence of his denial. "Setting aside the fact that we _aren't_ a couple," she said coolly, looking at Lee in annoyance, "you needn't be quite so emphatic about it, Jun-kun. I can be a lot of fun on a date with the right person."

"So, go out on a real date with me," he replied casually. "If you think you can make it interesting for me, Yumi-chan." There was a clear note of challenge in his voice.

Sakura immediately grimaced, realizing that Yumi was likely being baited. Her own relationship with the cursed woman was already thorny enough without a love triangle entering the picture. She still wasn't sure what to say though.

"W-wait," Yumi blurted out, blinking in surprise. "Y-you're asking me out? Just like that? H-here? Now?" Her facial expressions quickly cycled between confusion, shyness and shock.

"Well, if you don't think you can handle a date with me," Lee replied with a regretful smile and a shrug.

Standing to one side, Sakura glowered. The cursed woman _was_ being baited. Her right hand tightened into a fist. The urge to hit someone was growing in her now.

Yumi glared at him. He was daring her? A challenge? She debated the wisdom of accepting, especially with Sakura starting to fume, but framing it as a contest made it unbearable for her to refuse. She could never seem to turn down a direct challenge of her abilities, and it had gotten her into deep trouble in the past.

Her mind quickly made up, she stepped closer and poked him in the chest with one finger. "Fine. Name the place and time, and I'll be there."

"WHAT?!" Sakura blurted out in shock and dismay.

Lee and Yumi stood eyeing each other intently. "I'll call you with the details," he eventually said with a solemn expression. "Just make sure you wear something pretty."

"Oh, I'll be wearing something better than pretty, Jun-kun." Yumi laid a companionable hand on his shoulder and gave him a wolfish grin as she looked him in the eyes. "I'm going to show you a night you will never forget."

Lee raised an eyebrow and contemplated her, suddenly feeling wary. He wondered what she had in mind. Despite her curse giving her a masculine form that seemed to reflect her oftentimes mannish personality, she was still an attractive, albeit formidable, woman.

Sakura glared at Yumi, her emotions seething inside her. She briefly contemplated immediately pummeling the cursed woman for being so faithless a boyfriend right then and there.

No, that wasn't right, since Yumi was female now. Sakura pondered her feelings for a few moments, confused.

Girlfriend? No, that didn't feel quite right either, since Sakura knew she was only physically attracted to men (and Yumi's male form).

Amused by the intense glances the members of the trio were passing around, Fuyutsuki concluded that Sakura must be interested in Lee as well. Due to some work the man had done for the Security Directorate in the past shortly after gaining his citizenship, he had a rather high clearance level for a civilian, one of the reasons he could work with the children of Project Phoenix as their trainer. Perhaps his past labors for the Directorate explained the link between them all.

After casually knocking Yumi's hand from his shoulder, Lee smiled at her, then nodded to them all and walked out. The other two bid the professor farewell and left. It was impossible to miss the rage that Sakura seemed to be barely containing.

As Fuyutsuki went back to his desk, the mystery of Ranko Kuonji solved, he finally let himself start grinning. Studying the social dynamics of his test group was going to yield amazing results soon, and he wondered how Nabiki Tendo would respond to her new female competition. There was a strong possibility that the new 'Eve' could surpass the current top student in the Academy's Security Directorate program. That would cause quite a stir among the cadets and those in the test group.

He stamped the exam 'PASSED' and placed it in Ranko's file folder.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

While walking along towards the Imperial Academy with Nabiki, Ryoga tugged absently at his olive-green uniform, finding it a bit snug. It was the one from his old school, his mother having brought it along with her. After all the days he spent trudging across Japan chasing after Ukyo, he was much more used to wearing casual clothes, so the uniform's jacket was bothering him a bit. It felt a bit tighter around his shoulders than he recalled it ever being, wondering if his training had added some muscle to his frame since last wearing it.

"Yo, Nabiki! Wait up!"

Ryoga turned and saw an attractive girl coming towards them at a jog, a slice of toasted bread in her hand and her hair worn in twin braids done up in loops atop her head. She came skidding to a halt near them and took a sizable bite of her bread. An embarrassed-looking grin appeared on her face.

Yohko was silently praying that Nabiki didn't notice any changes in her demeanor since they were last together. She was a woman now and a bit worried that her best friend would quickly figure it out. But those concerns kept getting shoved aside by memories of that wonderful night spent with her loving boyfriend, Kyosuke. They kept occupying her thoughts, making her want to grin like an idiot, finding it difficult to hide her girlish bliss.

She wondered if it would be too soon to invite him over to her house again today for some more fun in her bed. Now that they had gone all the way together, how often should they do it? Every week? Every day? She didn't want to seem too easy to him, not that she was worried he'd ever take her for granted. Still, maybe she would wait a day or two to build up his anticipation a bit, and her own as well.

"Oversleep?" Nabiki teased her.

Dragged back to reality by the comment, Yohko nodded and chuckled a little nervously before finishing off her bread in a few more quick bites. She then noticed the newcomer. Immediately, she dragged Nabiki over to one side, lowering her voice conspiratorially.

"Uh, isn't that the boy that came to our school and attacked Ranma's classroom a while back? Ryo-something-or-other?"

"Yes, it is," Nabiki replied casually. "Ryoga Hibiki. He's living with us now."

"Oh, really? Have you given up on Ranma?"

Nabiki grimaced. "That's not one bit funny. My father is marrying his mother." Her back teeth began grinding together at the thought of the intruding woman who was going to take her mother's place in their household.

"Oh. Sorry, Nabiki. Getting a stepmother and a stepbrother must be a big shock." She paused. "How's Ranma doing?"

"I'm sure he's busy training," Nabiki replied, more grimly now. "He's getting ready to show the whole Empire what he can do." Recalling his public announcement of being the heir to the Anything-Goes School was almost as annoying to her right now as the thought of Shampoo being after him.

"You don't sound at all happy about that," Yohko said sympathetically. "Is he really going to have to marry that Chinese girl if he wins?"

"Yes." Nabiki ground her back teeth again, her gaze becoming lethal. She wasn't sure who she was madder at between Shampoo and Ranma.

"Uh, okay then." The young Devil Hunter went over to Ryoga. "Hi there. My name is Yohko Mano." She gave him a smile and a brief bow. "We were never properly introduced before."

"H-hello," Ryoga replied shyly, giving her a quick bow in reply. "I'm Ryoga Hibiki. I-it's nice to meet you." He then looked away, feeling his old fears at talking to girls come roaring back.

"Nice to meet you too, Hibiki-kun." Yohko then noted the pair was being watched by a couple of serious-looking female peaceforcers, the two eyeing them, one of them a bit more intently than the other. "Uh, I guess we should get going to school." As they started walking, the pair followed along behind them, keeping pace.

Noting that, the Devil Hunter asked, "Uh, why are you being shadowed by a couple of peaceforcers, Nabiki? Is it because of your dad's promotion or something?"

"They're watching me," Ryoga replied quietly, feeling embarrassed. "I-I get lost easily, so they're making sure I get to school okay."

Before Yohko could ask more about that, a car suddenly passed them on the street, and a gout of water from a small pothole hit Ryoga in the face and upper chest, instantly transforming him into a panda. He growled at the receding vehicle.

"H-he's a-" murmured Yohko, staring at the cursed boy.

"PANDA!" yelled the two peaceforcers. That was why they had so much trouble finding him, not knowing their target was a shapeshifter. The two glared at him.

Fortunately, Nabiki was prepared for this. She slipped a thermos and a small towel from her bag and poured some hot water on Ryoga's head, transforming him back into a boy. One of the peaceforcers immediately charged over and grabbed him by the front of his jacket, looking furious.

"I bet you think you're pretty damn clever, Ryoga Hibiki!" Natsumi yelled at him. "Fooling us with that panda shape while we were chasing you through half of Japan! I ought to-!" She cocked one arm back, her hand forming into a tightly-clenched fist.

The limb was immediately restrained by her partner, Miyuki. "Whoa! Simmer down, Natsumi! Take it easy!" She managed to pull the other woman away from Ryoga and began calming her down.

"Huh," mused Yohko into the awkward silence. "You sure know some interesting people, Nabiki."

"Yeah, tell me about it," the Tendo girl grumbled.

Nabiki spent the rest of their walk to school explaining what she knew about Jusenkyo to Yohko, a glowering Natsumi and thoughtful Miyuki trailing along behind them.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Yumi escorted Sakura into the nurse's office, since it was on her way out. When they were alone, Sakura closed the door behind her and turned around. The sudden slap she gave Yumi rattled the cursed woman's teeth and left her cheek aching, a red imprint of a hand there now.

Working her jaw a little to make sure it was still attached to her face, Yumi glared at Sakura while holding one hand to her cheek. "What the hell was that for?!"

"You're going out on a date!"

Yumi nodded, confused.

"With someone other than me!"

"So what?" The cursed woman snorted confidently. "I'm just going to show Jun-kun that challenging me to anything is a mistake. I'm not going to lose to him on this dating competition of his."

Sakura just stared at her for several seconds, appalled. She tried slapping Yumi again, harder this time, but her wrist was caught before her hand made contact. There was a brief struggle, Sakura finding she couldn't free herself from the cursed woman's strong grip, and then Yumi suddenly let her hand go.

"You stupid, arrogant..." growled Sakura, glaring.

The ninja sighed. "You know what I'm like when stuff like this happens, Sakura-chan. I'm just answering his challenge. It's just me going out on one date with him to prove he's wrong about me." There was a pause. "I'm not going to sleep with Jun-kun, so don't worry about that. I don't feel that way about him at all."

"Are you attracted to men, Yumi?" Sakura's voice was suddenly low. She had never dared ask this before, afraid of what the ninja would say.

There was a long pause. "Yeah, I am," admitted the cursed woman, nodding. She looked uneasy, not liking the direction their talk was going. "I also like women. Sometimes. When they aren't acting all crazy. Sakura-chan, just what's this about?"

Sakura muttered something under her breath, her expression grim.

"Huh?" Yumi stepped a little closer, wary of another slap. "What?"

Irritated at having to say it again, Sakura murmured, "You haven't tried to sleep with me yet, not once since we got back together." Her hands closed into fists at her sides, angry at being forced to admit out loud what she said next. "I miss being with you like that, so much. I want that again from you."

"Oh." Yumi looked thoughtful. "You miss... him." Memories of their old arguments came back to her, recalling all the anger and bitterness at the end. She had hoped a year apart would have changed things more between them.

"Is that so wrong?!" Sakura demanded. "I'm sorry I only like men! That I'm attracted to men! Your male form is very handsome, and I like you, when you aren't being an a-" Her voice paused, searching for a more ladylike word than the one she was about to blurt out. "A jerk."

"And there it is." Yumi sighed. "I'm sorry I'm hurting you again, Sakura-chan." She looked away. "I knew it was a mistake to get back together with you, but-"

"But what?" Sakura asked, still angry but softening a little.

"When we kissed that night in my restaurant, I was in male form, and you were wearing that dress." Yumi closed her eyes, knowing she was leaving herself open to another slap but not caring. "When I'm that way, I'm far more easily aroused, maybe because my cursed form is that of a teenaged boy. I don't know. It's been too long since I was last kissed like that, so passionately. Feeling someone in my arms again, the way you wrapped yourself around me, and seeing how you looked in that dress was all really exciting to me."

She opened her eyes and gazed at Sakura. "You don't know what it's like for me when I'm together with a woman while in that form. There's no one who can understand."

As soon as she said it, she knew it wasn't true, and Sakura didn't call her on it. There _was_ one person who could understand. Yumi thought of Ranma and immediately felt the now familiar awkwardness regarding him. He was only a teenager, barely into manhood and undoubtedly going through his own gender confusion issues because of his curse. Thinking of that, her heart ached to help him through his troubles. She fought down a fantasy of what it might be like to be together with him as a couple.

She could not deny that he tantalized her. Ranma was a handsome young man about her height, nicely muscular and clean-limbed, and his buxom girl form was extremely alluring as well. She could not recall another time that she had ever felt so drawn to someone like this.

As she kept thinking about Ranma, Yumi felt the familiar discomfort arising within her again, finding herself regarding him that way, as a potential romantic partner for her. She was old enough to be his mother, and he was also engaged to marry her niece. The strength of her feelings for him had to be due to their inverted curses, her foolish heart yearning to be with someone, anyone, who could truly understand her, having never found that in her life before now.

Even as recent as his own cursing was, she strongly believed Ranma would be able to do that, and it felt so unfair that he was forbidden to her. She ached inside to hold him and be held by him, to comfort him and be comforted by him. Such feelings had been gradually building up within her along with her angst, ever since that first night viewing his cursed form and realizing he was so much like her.

There was also Ukyo to consider. Her niece liked him, was maybe even starting to love him, but would she still feel that way about him after learning she had been lied to, that Ranko and Yu Kuonji did not really exist? It was a mess, and there was also the recent letter from her grandfather to consider, another conflict of honor.

Sakura put a gentle hand on Yumi's arm, unawaredly distracting the other woman away from her guilty desires and concerns. "Yumi-kun, tell me what you're thinking."

The ninja slowly met her gaze and began to speak. "You know what it's like for a woman, the feelings you get when you're with a man, kissing with him, being aroused by him, feeling his hands and lips on your body and those incredible sensations when he's finally one with you. While I haven't been with too many men in my life, I know." Yumi continued looking Sakura in the eyes, recalling her miniscule list of past lovers with regret, and one of them with mourning. She took a sudden breath and sighed.

"But _being_ a man in that kind of situation is different. It's more intense, intoxicating and exhilarating. While it's enjoyable for men, they don't really need much foreplay to get aroused, not like we women do."

"And when it's time for the main event, the urges of the male body are almost overpowering. It's a deeply primal thing, the intense yearnings a man suffers in that moment before his union with a woman, his craving to possess her, to experience the lustful sensations he instinctively knows her body can give him. The male libido is far more powerful than any woman can possibly understand."

"You felt that way with me?" Sakura asked softly.

Yumi smiled. "Yes, Sakura-chan. You're very beautiful. Of course I felt that way with you."

"Thank you." She smiled, blushing a bit.

"But what I'm trying to say is that lust isn't love, Sakura-chan." Yumi looked down, feeling like she wanted to cry. "I value you as a friend, and you know I'm attracted to you physically when I'm a man. But-"

"But you don't love me," Sakura said softly, feeling her heart seem to break inside her as she said it. "N-not like I w-want you to."

"I'm sorry, Sakura-chan." Tears began rolling down Yumi's cheeks. "You deserve far more than I can ever give you. Despite my curse, I'm still a woman inside, mostly, and I want to be with a man someday."

Sakura started to cry, making soft blubbing sounds. When Yumi put her arms around her to try and comfort her, the shrine priestess' sobbing began in earnest, her tumultuous emotions racking her. She felt angry at Yumi, sad for herself and very jealous of her old partner, that the drunken slut had stumbled into a far better romantic life than she had. So here she was, desperately flinging herself at an old flame for the past few weeks in the vain hopes of recapturing something that apparently never was. It wasn't fair.

Yumi stroked her hand down Sakura's back, feeling intense guilt at her pain. She was several years older than the shrine priestess and should have known better that it would end up this way. Impulsively giving in to her loneliness had brought them here, a good friend ending up hurt.

After several minutes, Sakura slowly pushed her away. "Y-you should go, Yumi-kun. I-I mean, Yumi-chan. I'll be fine."

"Are you sure?"

Sakura sniffled and nodded. "I realize I'm at fault here too. Ever since we broke up over a year ago, I haven't been very smart in my choices in men to take your place. So, when I saw the chance, I forced you to take me back, blackmailing you into it because you needed my help. That was wrong of me. I just- I miss being with someone, having someone who cares about me holding me." There was a long pause, and she blushed. "S-since we're both being so honest with each other right now, I-I also very much miss- you know."

Yumi scratched the back of her head, her eyes suddenly widening in understanding. "Ohhh! Uhm, just so you know, even after all we've said, I'm still your friend, Sakura-chan." She paused. "And while I far prefer it as a woman, I also like, also miss, well, being the man sometimes."

An image of Ranma, his male and female forms standing back to back together, suddenly appeared in Yumi's mind, and her yearnings for the cursed boy returned with a vengeance. She asked herself, was it so wrong of her to want someone who mirrored her like he did? She felt her foolish heart pining for Ranma again and chided herself for being an idiot, for wanting something that would never happen.

Unaware of her friend's angst, Sakura smiled and took Yumi's hand shyly, not looking at the other woman's face. "M-maybe you could come over some night this week? Just as my friend? A-as him? If you're well enough for the two of us to do, um, 'that' together, I mean. I know you're injured."

"I-I guess I could," replied Yumi, mentally cataloging her injuries but not feeling any pain from them right now. "So, you're saying you're okay if we're just friends, not a couple, but sometimes doing 'that' too?"

Feeling a little bit better knowing she had not destroyed their friendship after all, Sakura nodded shyly, still not able to meet Yumi's gaze. In the back of her mind, she recalled the taunting words spoken about her simmering desires and suppressed yearnings by the demoness Mara, the hateful creature still locked away beneath the Mobius Institute the last time she checked. The young priestess felt her affection for Yumi rekindle in her heart, replacing the dark, angry feelings from before. They would be friends and sometimes lovers when they felt the urge and weren't involved with anyone else, and maybe that was all she really deserved right now in her life.

Yumi felt her heart lightening as well. She was glad she still had Sakura as a friend, as there were too few of those in her life. They would leave behind the stresses of trying to be in a relationship with each other, but they could also ease each other's loneliness a bit now and then. And maybe indulging the desires of her male libido with Sakura's help would help her stop longing so much for Ranma and his cursed form. They were never going to be a couple.

"I can bring dinner," Yumi suggested.

"Yes." Sakura let go of the ninja's hand and nodded, stepping back and grabbing a few tissues to wipe her tears away. She belatedly realized that she must look an awful mess now, grateful that none of the students could see her. "Would seven tomorrow night be all right?"

"That's fine with me. I can have Ukyo watch the shop until closing."

"Then I'll see you then."

After one last hug, Yumi left. Sakura washed her face in the basin and fixed her makeup, readying herself for the rest of her day. She felt the ache in her heart fading a bit. It was time for her to move forward again.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

When she saw Ryoga through the window of their classroom, she started to get up and wave to him. Then she saw Nabiki appear, taking the Hibiki boy by the hand and guiding him to the classroom door. Her eyebrow twitched at the sight of the Tendo girl being so friendly with him, and her rage at Nabiki seethed inside her. When he kept smiling at her as she walked away, some of that wrath transferred to him.

Just who does she think she is? Wasn't chasing after Ran-chan enough for the greedy girl? And what's with that goofy look on your face, Ryoga-kun? How dare you be so nice to that horrid Tendo bitch?!

When Ryoga finally came in and introduced himself to the class, Ukyo pointedly ignored him and radiated hostility whenever he tried to approach her, and he eventually got the hint. When a few of the girls started whispering amongst themselves about him, looking at Ryoga and smiling, the Kuonji girl's mood became even fouler. She never suspected he was such a womanizer. The embarrassed smiles he gave to any girls looking at him somehow made his inability to detect her true gender after all the time they had known each other even more infuriating to Ukyo.

Just you wait, Nabiki Tendo, Ukyo mused darkly. And you're going to get yours too, Ryoga-kun.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Down in the bowels of the Imperial Academy, a cloaked and hooded figure made its way down a basement hallway. Every now and then, it furtively glanced around, checking for anyone following. With the sheer number of gray-uniformed security cadets lurking about campus, such caution was not unwarranted. Eventually, the figure neared its destination: a little used planning room on the lowermost basement level. The sounds of steam pipes dripping and other mysterious sounds could be heard in the distance.

The figure moved with deft silence, pausing before a door with a guard next to it, a hard-faced girl in a gray uniform. She moved to block the cloaked figure from entry and looked the newcomer over.

"Password," the guarding girl said grimly, her hand coming out from behind her back, having drawn a combat shock stick and looking quite prepared to use it.

"Hunkmeister," the figure promptly replied.

"Wrong." The guard remained standing where she was, but she shifted her grip on the weapon, as if readying it for imminent use.

The cloaked figure paused in thought. "Uh, studmuffin?"

"That was the password last week."

The cloaked figure released a sigh and pulled back her hood to reveal her features. "Look, Miyamoriko. It's me, Saya. You've known me since we were kids. You need to let me in. I'm going to be late for today's meeting, and you know this one's really important."

"None shall pass," Miyamoriko informed her coolly.

"Please?"

"You have to give me the correct password."

Saya grinned mirthlessly. "The password is, 'Stand down and let me in before I beat the crap out of you for annoying me.'"

"That's not the password!" Miyamoriko objected.

Saya kept grinning and began slowly cracking her knuckles. "Well, since I just took the captaincy of the Academy's Women's Karate team, and you're still near the bottom of your class in hand-to-hand combat training so you do the math. I don't think you'd need to be one of those blue-uniformed science geeks to get the right answer."

"You can pass," Miyamoriko gulped and allowed the other girl into the chamber beyond.

Sub-Basement Planning Room 4-B was laid out rather simply, and it had not been used much in the past few years. The walls were a nondescript slate gray and made of pre-stressed concrete. It was wired for sound, with a screen for a projection television unit affixed to the far wall, with the projector designed to drop down from the ceiling as it was now, and it even had a high-speed datanet connection. Several dozen metal folding chairs were set up for the occupants of the room, an almost even mix of girls in blue or gray uniforms. Since every chair was already occupied, some girls were standing against the walls.

Saya tossed her cloak to a girl in the blue uniform of a science cadet, who promptly added it to a sizable pile of similar garments. All the regulars were present, and several clusters of girls made up of those wearing both colors of uniforms were talking to each other. The mood in the room was very grim, which wasn't normal, but the appearance of the Chinese Amazon girl was cause for great concern. Two members of the Go Club were playing a game on a miniature board while they waited for the meeting to start, but their attention was clearly not on it.

At the front of the room, the two co-leaders of the Ranma Saotome Fan Club were discussing something quietly, as they normally did before a meeting. Actually, Nanami Jinai was asking questions and Ami Mizuno was doing her best to answer them, occasionally pointing at something on her laptop's computer screen. It was probably the latest analysis of Saotome's techniques, in their seemingly never-ending quest for a weak spot to exploit.

Noticing her enter, Nanami stopped what she was doing and quickly called the meeting to order. Saya was apparently the last person to arrive, and it looked like the group's membership had grown larger again. Since it was no longer possible to hide their presence from Nabiki Tendo and her cronies because of their numbers, there was no longer any reason to hide.

"Now that everyone is here, we may begin the meeting," Nanami loudly announced. "I know we're all very concerned about the new development over the weekend with that miserable bi- Chinese girl, but I wanted to start off lighter. We managed to get some more excellent footage last week, courtesy of our members from the AV Club." Two girls, one wearing glasses, nodded and smiled. "And Mizuno-san has been working with one of our science cadet members who is studying kinesiology," pointing to a girl with short hair, "to try and improve our levels of accuracy in analyzing Saotome-san's physique in motion. As you know, the major difficulty up until now has been in remaining detached enough to do proper analysis, without getting caught up in how marvelously he moves, ignoring that handsome face of his, and those deep blue eyes that a girl could simply lose herself in, feeling her heart filled with a burning passion and a yearning desire for-"

"Ahem!" Ami Mizuno cleared her throat, interrupting the fantasy before everyone's attention was lost.

"Right!" Nanami blurted out, quite startled to realize that even she was beginning to get caught up in Ranma-mania, and that clearly lacked profitability. She had to maintain a cooler head, and she set her mind back on the matter at hand. "Anyway, despite the temptations of such things, we're improving our analysis of the data. Lights!"

The illumination in the room dimmed and the television projector hanging from the ceiling lit up. Nanami pulled out from her pocket a small laser pointer and snapped her fingers at Ami, who quickly called up a video file from her laptop, complete with a time-date stamp in the lower right corner. The scene was in the hallway near the cafeteria, with Ranma caught in slow motion as he dealt with four girls coming at him at once.

"Here you can see Saotome-san using one of his normal opening patterns to multiple attackers," she started, using her laser pointer to point at one of the girls, which happened to be Saya. "As is his preference, he appears to be applying a minimal amount of force in his subdual techniques, a sign of a gentleman warrior." She smiled as she heard several girls sigh wistfully at that, and she could see a few nodding in the dim light, their attention rapt upon the images.

The video slowed down to one-eighth speed, and Saya's foot could be seen moving past Ranma's face, the pigtailed boy having dodged it without even appearing to look in that direction. One arm came up as his hips and shoulders twisted, his image moving visibly faster than Saya's, and he deftly hooked her limb and redirected it into the face of another girl coming at him. He then allowed Saya to pass over him and take a strike across her ribs from a jo stick meant for him by a third, before finishing up by landing a punch squarely into the fourth girl's solar plexus, and then a kick into the jaw of the third girl. It had the appearance of careful choreography, like Ranma had practiced such moves for years.

"As can be seen, Saotome-san prefers utilizing his attackers against each other, a sensible strategy when outnumbered." There was a murmur of agreement from those in the crowd, and even some side commentaries between the girls as they took notes. "But even a lion can be brought down by enough wolves. Perhaps the secret is in trying to increase the sheer number of bodies coming at him at once and coordinating their attacks better. Even Saotome-san's impressive skills can't keep up with a large group of synchronized attackers." That statement prompted more murmuring of agreement from those in the room, and there were a few knots of cadets whispering to each other about ways that they might work together in an array to more effectively fight him.

"But I think we're starting to lose sight of the objective in all this talk about strategy and tactics," said Nanami, snapping her fingers at Ami. A still image suddenly replaced the one of Ranma in motion, and there was a collective sigh from the assembled girls.

"This is our goal." The scene was taken from the boys' locker room at the Academy, as if looking down from the ceiling. It was a frontal picture of Ranma, naked save for a towel wrapped around his waist, in the process of scrubbing another towel through his unbound hair as he emerged from the shower area. What caught every girl's attention was not the amount of skin being shown, but the hint of more as the towel at his waist appeared to be about to slip off. There was a sudden outpouring of sighs, wolf whistles, and cheers.

"And this is the alternative if we fail." The picture changed to that of Hiroshi and Daisuke, caught in the act of leering in the direction of some faceless, nameless female cadets. This time a loud chorus of boos, groans, and even some rather colorful swear words emanated from the audience in response. Loud cries demanded Nanami go back to the first picture, and she happily complied. It was one she had printed up for sale later, now that the girls interest had been whetted.

"Now that we have renewed our morale, the next step is to discuss the new threat that has suddenly appeared-"

The rest was cut off as the door, and part of the wall surrounding it, suddenly exploded inward. Saya, like many of the girls, reacted immediately, springing to her feet and assuming a combat stance, waiting for the attacker to make an appearance. As the dust began to settle, a bruised and battered Miyamoriko could be seen sprawled in the debris, bleeding a bit, her shock baton broken into pieces, and a pair of silhouettes could be made out in the hole that had once been a doorway.

Could Nabiki and her chief stooge, Yohko Mano, have found them already? But even if it was, Saya maintained her stance, confident the group could handle whoever the trespassers were, at least until the dust settled enough for her to make out their features.

"Gods, no," Saya gasped, her courage abandoning her in the face of the overwhelming power set before her. "What are you two doing here? This isn't your school."

Revy, a lit cigarette in her mouth, grinned maliciously. She was dressed in her preferred casual outfit: a pair of military jungle boots, very short cut-off jeans and a black crop-top that left her belly exposed. Rather than buttoning up her pants all the way, she was using an Imperial Army webbing belt to hold them up instead. Her two training weapons rested securely in a pair of brown leather cross-draw shoulder holsters, and she also wore fingerless black gloves. She was tugging at the bottom of one of them with her fingers as she stood there, making sure it was fastened snugly.

At her right stood Roberta, smiling grimly, the shine of her glasses hiding her eyes and giving her a soulless look. She wore an ankle-length black skirt, a loose, white silk blouse and Mary Jane-style shoes with white socks. Like Revy, her training weapons were held in a pair of cross-draw shoulder holsters, only in black. Her hands were covered in white leather gloves with the knuckle areas reinforced.

Revy sneered, "We heard about your little club. You bitches are losers, and there's no need for you weaklings anymore." The pair then attacked, causing the room to explode in sudden fury.

The entire battle lasted less than thirty seconds before the duo stood alone, everyone else sprawled out unconscious on the floor or laid out on top of overturned furniture in various poses, many them bleeding. The lights were mostly out now, the occasional spark popping from shattered bulbs. Roberta made her way through the prone girls, casually kicking one poor security cadet hard in the face that was starting to regain consciousness and then bent low, brushing aside Ami's hand from where it still clutched limply at her precious laptop. The image of Ranma was still being displayed on its screen, and the pair examined it closely. They then grinned at each other.

"She's got a whole bunch of picture files about him on here, it looks like, so let's see," said Roberta. Poking through the archives, she quickly discovered a folder of video clips, all date-stamped from weeks ago. Curious, she opened one up to play, and both girls immediately gawked at what they saw. Despite their intense, abiding disdain for each other, they immediately crowded their heads together and watched the video in complete astonishment.

"H-holy! H-he's totally plowing her!" declared Revy in shock, her cigarette dropping unnoticed from her lips, never expecting to see what she was looking at, trying to reconcile it with the boy she recently met and failing. She stared fixedly as Ranma, still caught up in the grip of the Nekoken, mated with Tiger in a seething fury of animal lust and primitive passions in the Imperial Academy's dorms, the catgirl clearly enjoying it from her lustful expressions. "D-Damn! Th-the guy's a total beast! An animal!"

Roberta felt her heart beating faster. "H-he's dominating her." She could not seem to tear her eyes away from the scene. "M-making her his woman."

"Oh man! I-I've totally changed my mind on this Ranma guy," Revy said in a husky contralto, her gaze still riveted on to the screen. She absently licked her lips. "Oh yeah, if all these bitches are after him like this, he must be a god in bed. Look at him go! I really want some of what she's getting. He's so going to do me like that!"

Roberta kept staring at the screen in wide-eyed awe. "I-I think you're right." She felt so fortunate that the Cardinal had chosen her for this from among the other novitiates. The room seemed so warm now, she was starting to sweat. Would he be like this her?

"I think you two are in deep shit, and it's getting deeper by the second," suddenly growled an ominous female voice behind them.

Both girls whirled around, seeing the grim figure of Balalaika standing there right behind them, the Russian woman's burned face ominously lit from below by the laptop's screen. Roberta suddenly dropped it in her astonishment.

"OH, FU-!"

Standing outside the room, Cherry calmly smoked his pipe as another explosion of fury occurred, and he listened to the sounds of brutal violence with interest. Now and then, bodies could be heard getting slammed hard into solid concrete along with other wince-inducing sounds of savagery. Then, about a minute later, an ominous silence suddenly fell. Around the corner eventually appeared Balalaika, glowering, dragging the unconscious, beaten bodies of the two delinquent girls behind her, one held in each of her hands. She nodded brusquely to him and then continued on her way, hauling the pair off by their shoulder holsters.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Genma reclined a bit in his office chair and smiled jovially at the person seated on the other side of his desk, the two of them alone in his small office at the Ministry of Science. She was a rather tall, well-built, Chinese woman dressed in a blue, V-necked, qipao-styled dress and low-heeled shoes. When she sat down and crossed her long legs, he could not help but notice their sleek definition, as well as the compact muscle tone of her arms, recognizing a fellow martial artist.

Her card rested in front of him on his desk: Chun-Li Chung. A reporter for the Imperial Times, one of Tokyo's largest metropolitan newspapers, she wrote a weekly column in their sports section, focusing on Arena fighters of note, both here in Japan and abroad. Most reporters who covered this subject were male, but she was very knowledgeable on the subject, being a former champion herself, having won the Emperor's Tournament and her citizenship a few years ago. She was twenty-one years old now.

"Thank you for granting me this interview on such short notice, Saotome-hakase." Chun-Li smiled brightly at him and smoothed her skirt a bit with one hand. "Your son has really made quite an impression in the Arena world, coming out of nowhere like this. He took Shan Pu totally by surprise with that Amaguriken technique. I've never seen that many punches thrown so quickly. Even my own Lightning Kick isn't quite as fast, although it hits harder than rapid-fire punches would."

"I'm happy to talk about my son, Chung-san. What would you like to know? My time is yours this morning."

Activating her recorder with her thumb, she said, "Let's start with the Anything-Goes School of Martial Arts. I did a bit of research on the name. The founder has been dead for decades, so I'm wondering how you and Ranma came to learn of it. Happosai-" She paused, wondering why Genma suddenly looked around so fearfully.

"Saotome-hakase? Are you all right?"

"Sorry," Genma replied, forcing himself to calm.

The Master is not here! The Master is not here!

He repeated that mantra a few more times to compose himself. "My tea must be too strong this morning."

Once he was calmer, he began relating the cover story he had come up with to explain Ranma's fighting abilities. "To answer your question, Chung-san, I discovered several old scrolls among a collection of curios I acquired years ago that detailed the long-lost Anything-Goes style, which is a variant form of Kempo. Recognizing their great value to the world of martial arts, Ranma and I studied them exhaustively and trained to use them, and we eventually developed our own variant: The Saotome School of Anything-Goes Martial Arts."

Chun-Li nodded. "It's a very eclectic and interesting style, but it's definitely strong and reminds me a bit of Lee-sensei's Jeet Kune Do in some ways. I've watched the recording of your son's fight with Shan Pu several times over the past few days, and I was astonished by the sheer breadth of his techniques that he demonstrated during the fight. Ranma must have studied with numerous masters over the years. He appears to be very well-versed in Jiu-Jitsu, Karate, Kung Fu, Muay Thai and a host of other styles from across Asia. It's no wonder that Lee-sensei took such a great interest in him and made him his disciple."

"Yes." Genma nodded, smiling. He took a sip of his tea.

"I'd love to see the scrolls sometime," Chun-Li said brightly. She noted him cough suddenly. "Saotome-hakase?"

"S-sorry, I need to stop drinking such strong tea." He coughed once more into his fist. "Uh, I'm afraid the scrolls were destroyed before we returned to Japan. We were in Russia at the time. Shortly before coming back home, there was a fire."

Chun-Li hummed briefly, sounding unconvinced. Her reporter's instincts were telling her that there was more to the story than she was hearing. Something wasn't adding up. She made a note to herself to interview Ranma at length, and she would use her time with him to verify if Genma's story was accurate.

"Well, that's a shame," she finally said. Shifting in her seat, she uncrossed her legs briefly before recrossing them the other way and resting one hand on her knee. "I'd love to hear more details about his training then. Do you think I might be allowed to interview Ranma as well?"

Chun-Li subtly took a deep breath for good measure and smiled, knowing the distracting effect her figure could have on men, having used it to excellent effect during her fighting days. Shan Pu's skilled use of her femininity reminded her quite a bit of herself years ago. She would have to schedule an interview with the Amazon to see how she was taking all this.

Charmed by the Chinese woman's beauty, Genma nodded. "Uh, any time."

"Wonderful." Chun-Li smiled at him brightly again, relaxing a bit and sitting up straighter in her chair. "Now, getting back to the questions I wanted to ask you..."

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Breakfast with Shampoo that morning had been a tense affair, the two of them barely speaking to each other while they ate together, sitting at a corner booth in the cafeteria. The Amazon had made it quite clear to him before their meal began that she strongly disapproved of his even considering the offer made by Cardinal Synn to train him. This annoyed him since she kept acting like her viewpoint was the only one that mattered, but he kept that opinion to himself, not wanting to make things even worse between them.

He realized later while walking back to his room, after cooling off a bit and thinking about it more rationally while considering other versions of the Chinese girl he knew, that Shampoo's attitude was probably quite normal among the women of her tribe. He would try to make some allowances for their cultural differences for now, but she would eventually have to learn to respect his views better, or any relationship between them would never work out. Her Amazon mindset reminded him unpleasantly of how Nabiki treated him whenever he voiced his opinions to her, expecting him to fall into line and do whatever she decided.

Why couldn't Shampoo understand how much of an opportunity this was for him? She was a martial artist too. His analogs had accepted special training from others to learn powerful techniques and controlling the boost was no different from learning one of those. Besides, he had to beat her in their upcoming rematch as losing a fight had become anathema to him, like it was for any of his martial artist analogs.

They had parted company still disagreeing over the matter.

After stripping off his shirt, Ranma hopped on one foot for a few moments before he could remove his pants. He then caught sight of himself in the bathroom mirror after discarding his outer clothing. On a whim, he began idly doing some muscle poses, dressed in only his underwear shorts.

As he watched himself flexing, a pleased smile appeared on his face. It still astonished him a bit how impressive his physique was now, ever since his plummet into that vat of Jusenkyo water. While he had never really been a scrawny sort before, the muscular, well-defined young man he saw gazing back at him from the mirror made the physique he used to have when he first enrolled at the Imperial Academy seem almost sickly in comparison, unhappily recalling his bitter struggles during those early days of training with Coach Takami.

Ranma's foot lashed upwards in a side kick as his torso torqued over to a position roughly parallel to the floor, ending the maneuver with his legs forming a perfect, vertical line. He could barely feel any strain while holding the split-legged position, one he never would have been capable of doing before, let alone so easily, demonstrating his vastly improved flexibility. It puzzled him though, how he was now like this.

That vat he fell into just didn't fit his understanding of how Jusenkyo water worked, so he was baffled why his male form was so different now. The files he purloined from the Mobius Institute concerning Jusenkyo were still awaiting his review, sitting in one of his private data caches for retrieval, and he knew he should read them once his situation with Shampoo was resolved, to better understand what he was dealing with.

However, he was gradually coming to realize that how he got to be like this didn't seem to matter much to him anymore, which was probably why he felt so little urgency at learning more. Both his male and female modes were blessedly free of the limiters he had once struggled with so much, allowing him to utilize the full repertoire of martial arts skills he possessed without any hindrances.

Even his ability to resist injuries was improved, almost like he was made of iron now or something. Much like his other selves, he could still be hurt, bruised, bleed and even get knocked out if hit hard enough, but getting thrown through a wall, bludgeoned by heavy objects or even plummeting off a building into the ground probably wouldn't cause him to sustain any broken bones or the other sorts of serious injuries that he used to be prone to. His recent fight with Shampoo had exceeded the levels that his past scuffles with Nabiki were like, and he was able to recover from it soon after, far more quickly than he ever had before. The severe beatings he once suffered from the likes of Kinnosuke Kashuoh and this world's version of Ryoga Hibiki probably wouldn't hurt him quite as badly anymore.

While he knew he wasn't superhuman and shouldn't let himself get too cocky, he kept feeling the arrogance of his other selves lurking within him, as if waiting to come out. Even Ranko's memories held some of that same sort of confidence in her fighting abilities. While he seemed to have his mind under much better control now, he still occasionally slipped and found himself thinking and reacting more like those other selves than the more cautious person he used to be. Even so, that really didn't seem to trouble him as much anymore, so maybe he was just adapting to the way things were now, how exciting his life was.

Ever since that day months ago when he first experienced those other worlds, an odd certainty had been arising within him, like an epiphany or something, that he was now the person he was truly meant to be. His emergence from the Jusenkyo water almost seemed like a metamorphosis event, like a butterfly leaving its chrysalis or something. That insight enabled him to begin letting go of wondering how his analogs would handle the weird situations he kept finding himself dealing with nowadays. This was his life and his world, not theirs, but he could use their experiences to help him chart his life's course towards a future that would be wholly of his own choosing.

Setting his foot back down, Ranma stood there for several moments, lost in thought, studying himself in the mirror solemnly. He was aware that it was a bit narcissistic of him to think so, but it gratified him to know for a fact how handsome he was from a female viewpoint, feeling Ranko's 'ghost' lurking in his subconscious and judging him quite favorably. He knew she found him desirable, recalling the erotic dreams he used to have involving the two of them together, dreams he no longer seemed to experience ever since her memories became better integrated into his persona.

Having Ranko's lifetime of experiences within him, the gender dysphoria he once felt so strongly after first gaining his female form had been rapidly fading with time. The deep sense of shame and self-hatred that used to fill him when he first viewed his female body, the existential horror at suddenly being a girl instead of a boy, had echoed the moods of his martial artist analogs. But once the initial shock began wearing off, those negative emotions had begun waning due to her presence in his mind. Her memories were what enabled him to perfectly simulate female speech patterns and mannerisms whenever he chose, without any conscious thought on his part, acting just as a real girl would.

While his cursed analogs gradually learned to tolerate wearing female clothing and improved their mimicry of femininity as they acclimated to having a girl's form, to them it was just a tool they used to get free food, eat something a guy would be too embarrassed to be seen eating, learn a combat technique, or just fool others. They didn't think like a girl would or have any genuine female modesty. Their masculine identities remained fully intact, even while wearing a dress and eating a chocolate parfait. They also loathed being touched or grabbed by any males while female, which usually provoked a violent response when it happened.

However, Ranma realized with a bit of apprehension that this wasn't the case for him in his own adaptation process, one involving his inward self as much as his outward form. There was something happening to him that those other cursed selves never needed to deal with. It was certainly something he had never expected to occur from using the resonator.

He was beginning to notice boys.

Not noticing them as in sizing them up as potential opponents or comparing his male self with them to see who was manlier, like how he had been viewing them the past few months. No, now he was _noticing_ them, reacting to them like a girl would, like how he had once only responded to girls. The sight of a comely woman was still powerfully attractive to him, and even thinking about his own female body right now, recalling the shapeliness of her buxom frame, strongly enticed him. He still experienced such feelings in his girl form, but they seemed a bit more subdued and vague lately.

Instead, seeing a handsome boy was beginning to elicit quite similar reactions inside him, and he wasn't exactly sure when that first began happening. It probably coincided with his gaining a female body. Perhaps that stressful event had caused Ranko's sexual inclinations to become integrated into the region of his subconscious where his libido was, like how his martial arts skills seemed to suddenly possess him while he was fighting with Akane all those weeks ago.

As his gender dysphoria faded, and he became less distracted by those feelings of shame and angst, these new responses and urges gradually took their place. They seemed keener whenever he was female, but he was also starting to feel them when male. Even imagining his own male self could cause a reaction, especially when in his girl form, a hankering for it, an echo of what it was like in the dreams he once had involving her.

Returning to his room after yesterday's training session with Master Lee was when he finally became fully aware of this mental shift, catching himself casually checking out a handsome boy getting Arena tickets for himself and his date. The whole experience had felt quite natural and normal since he was a girl at the time, until he suddenly realized just what he was doing. It was quickly dismissed as a temporary aberration in his thinking brought on by exhaustion, stress and being in his female form all day long. His need for sleep had quickly blotted the awkward situation from his awareness, and he had breezed by the nameless young man and his date without taking another look at him, totally forgetting it by the time he reached his room.

Then it happened again just a little while ago as he was on his way to the elevators after eating breakfast with Shampoo. A Japanese youth about his age in the lobby caught his attention as he was passing by. He didn't say anything to the other boy or even pause long, quickly realizing with shock that he was checking out another guy again.

Now that he was rested, fed and freed of other distractions for the moment, he was considering the two events and the strange new urges and instincts associated with them. Truthfully, he was a little weirded out by it all, but he could also admit to himself that he was experiencing a temptation to explore this aspect of being a girl. He knew his cursed analogs would be utterly horrified by the whole notion if it happened to one of them, but it was only making him feel a bit confused about his gender identity and sexual orientation.

Being male was normal and comfortable, since he had been one all his life. But being female also felt that way now as well, which he knew was due to having Ranko's memories interwoven with his own. He felt no desires to abandon his male self and still thought of himself as being 'Ranma' even when he was female, and he was starting to enjoy the experience of being a girl sometimes, finding it cathartic in some ways. The new perspectives it gave him on the human condition were proving very revealing. Being female just wasn't this horrible burden to him like it was for his analogs, and the rapt attention his female form received from boys was very flattering to his ego.

Ranma wondered if this was anything like it was for Ukyo's aunt Yumi, who had lived with the inverse of his own situation for many years. She eventually chose to accept her curse, willingly spending time each week in her male form and she seemed to be doing all right emotionally. Her example was probably worth emulating, and he should ask her for advice on how he should proceed.

Maybe instead of fretting about his curse and the current state of his masculinity, he should try to accept that half of his being was now female and start exploring all that went along with that. After all, it was a rare opportunity to learn a few things about life that someone limited to a single gender would never be able to experience. And being a girl wasn't all bad.

'Ranko' wasn't a separate entity from him, the Ms. Hyde to his Dr. Jekyll or something, instead she was more like a mask he could wear, and his female self was even starting to develop her own social circle. Only girls so far, since Yumi's male form didn't really count, but it was certain that one or more boys would eventually want to become friends with his girl self someday, maybe even something more. Keeping his male identity secret would allow him to experiment with how females socialized with others without tainting the results, which seemed a valid sociological study. What might he learn from it? Perhaps he could even write a research paper about his experiences someday, if the Mobius Institute ever allowed it.

As attractive as his female aspect was, the day she acquired her first male friend was probably not very far off, so he knew he should prepare himself for that seminal event. The notion of spending time with another boy while he was female was a daunting prospect and yet also a bit illicitly enticing. That realization was causing him to wonder just how far he might allow himself to go in his explorations of the whole female experience. The possibilities were tantalizing, which he knew would horrify his cursed analogs if they were around for him to discuss his upcoming experiment. As it was, the aspects of his personality that were derived from them were quiescent, perhaps in a state of shock that he was considering doing this.

Letting his Ranko identity become a student at the Imperial Academy would subject his female side to the lecherous attentions of his male classmates. As she was unquestionably gorgeous and better built than about every other girl he knew, even Shampoo and Nabiki, there would likely be impassioned declarations of love thrown her way before she even made it past the front gates. He could easily imagine Ranko's locker filling to overflowing each day with love letters. That would be troublesome and would also likely annoy his female classmates, which he didn't want, preferring to fit in among other girls.

Thinking about it some more, he could only foresee a few ways he might mitigate that problem when he was female. The first was the simplest, most direct and most violent: beating up every boy that came near his girl aspect with lecherous or romantic intent. Knowing that different versions of Akane had repeatedly fought off hordes of lovesick boys seeking to date her was enough evidence to him that engaging them here in hand-to-hand combat likely wouldn't work that well. In the worst-case scenario, it might even backfire, drawing a stronger group of macho jerks to attack his female form thinking they could forcibly tame her or something. It would probably end up being a lot like the flock of wearisome girls that kept attacking him at school nowadays, only a bit more challenging.

The second option was also simple but at least had the advantage of being less violent: bluntly rejecting every declaration of love and tearing up every letter given his girl form. That probably wouldn't make the boys go away either and might cause them to try even harder. The absolute last thing he wanted was to be inundated with desperate young men attempting to date his female aspect, which again would make the other girls in his school jealous of their new classmate's sudden popularity. That sort of situation would be very counter-productive to one of his experiment's goals: acquiring a few female friends to socialize with.

While the last way he could think of would likely work best, it created other issues: picking out a boy and having Ranko publicly declare him to be her boyfriend, which would result in her being taken off the dating market. The one chosen for that honor would then effectively act as her shield, fending off all the other boys from bothering her for dates and be an unwitting experimental assistant in exploring what dating and romance was like from the girl's perspective. The main issue in getting this plan off the ground would be picking the right boy for the job.

Ranma's current train of thought brought him to muse about the boys he knew in his different lives; a few of whom were actually girls cursed to turn male. So far, he had encountered analogs of Nabiki and Shampoo who were struggling with their own gender-changing Jusenkyo curses in two other worlds, and Ukyo's Aunt Yumi in this one had eventually ended up making peace with her own curse years ago, having never found a cure. Her situation showed him it was likely he would have his girl form for the rest of his life, and so he probably shouldn't waste a lot of energy hunting for cures, since it could be futile. While the notion of retaining his female aspect really wasn't bothering him very much anymore, likely due to his increased comfort level with being a girl, he realized his analogs would freak out if they thought their curses would never end.

In other circumstances, Yumi's male form would have made for a solid choice as Ranko's boyfriend, since he appeared to be in his late teens. However, as he was officially her brother in this world, most people would find it creepy. Another downside was that Ranma knew he would not get any objective data on how a real boy acted in a dating relationship with his girl form. However, it would be a very good way to practice at it and much safer for his initial experiments, like riding a bicycle with training wheels attached.

The only way it could work would be if they told others that Ranko was adopted, which made sense since Ranma's girl form didn't look much like Yumi whereas Yumi-kun did. This should reduce the creepiness factor quite a bit, and hopefully down to near nil. He made a mental note to speak with Yumi about this, to get her take on his idea. He hoped she would be willing to do it as a favor to him, so he planned to ask her first before he investigated other alternatives.

While there were a few real boys he knew who weren't too horrid, Ranma quickly realized that most of the ones in his peer group at school were lecherous jerks. If he put his girl form out in front of that pack of starving animals without taking some sort of social precautions like he was considering, he'd never be able to get anything done at school in his female form. They'd swarm her every time she showed up for classes, and the more aggressive and suicidal boys might even try to grope her or something, like a certain samurai wannabe he could think of and his scummy womanizer friend. This would force his girl form to employ option one for a while, until the offenders either relented of their own volition or had to be carted off on a stretcher to the hospital.

The Esper boy Kyosuke, Yohko's boyfriend, was the only male friend he really had and one of the few guys in his school he knew well enough to exclude from the jerk category. Kyosuke was kind-hearted, considerate and he was even sort of good-looking. After having thought that last part, Ranma immediately realized he should stop thinking about his friend that way, an embarrassed blush appearing on his face, and he rapidly moved on.

While they weren't friends here, Ranma knew other versions of Daisuke and Hiroshi that were pretty good buddies with one of his analogs, although they could be a bit too lecherous at times. They didn't seem to be much different in personality here, but he knew from comments they made within his hearing that the two boys were jealous of his 'success' with girls. Ranma wasn't sure if having multiple unwanted engagements and being attacked every day by his crazed fan club could really be called a rousing success with girls in anyone's view.

In Ranko's world, numerous boys had immediately declared their undying love for her shortly after her arrival on campus, with that world's versions of Hiroshi and Daisuke among them. However, it was pretty clear to her from the beginning that the boys only wanted to get into her pants or feel her up, not actually get to know her as a person. She had firmly turned them all down, although a few of the more persistent cases required repeated applications of violence to finally dissuade them. Ranko had found their lecherous attentions an unwanted distraction from her studies, one of the reasons she spent most of her time at school in her lab with the door bolted shut.

This had earned her a rather distressing reputation for a girl that she was aware of, learning that her male peers were speculating she was either a lesbian or that she would be a wildcat in bed once she met a strong enough boy. This might be why Nabiki's analog there kept on fighting with her, Ranma mused, the Tendo boy's doomed method of courting her or something. While his female analog didn't consider Daisuke and Hiroshi to be her friends, they were much nicer to her than they ever were to him, so he kept them on his mental list as additional possibilities for his scheme. If one of them ended up being his final selection, it would serve them right to get beaten into paste over becoming known as Ranko's boyfriend.

As undeniably attractive as his female aspect was, probably the biggest hurdle he could foresee having to deal with would be keeping whichever 'lucky' boy was chosen to be his girl aspect's boyfriend from trying to get into her pants or feel her up. That said, in all honesty he could sympathize with that a bit though, since he was an adolescent boy himself much of the time and not quite as prudish as his two cursed analogs. He could admit feeling lust for the girls he knew, which also included the lush frame of his own female analog. What boy wouldn't want to have someone built like she was as their girlfriend and then do naughty things with her?

Ranma shook his head, scattering his immoral notions, blaming his actor analog's total lack of morals when it came to girls for offsetting his more prudish male analogs. So long as he was being brutally honest with himself about things in the privacy of his own thoughts, he could admit that he found his male martial artist analogs could be rather awful people sometimes, frequently thoughtless and maybe even somewhat misogynistic when it came to how they treated girls. He didn't think he was quite so bad when compared to them.

While his male form was very handsome in 'Ranko's' opinion, it would look far too suspicious, be way too difficult to maintain the ruse and cause him numerous problems with his fiancées if his girl form were to declare that there was a romantic relationship going on between them. He shuddered to think how the women in his life would react to that one. It would most likely involve horrific levels of brutality directed at one or both of his aspects. That said, the notion was kind of amusing and even a little arousing as he briefly considered it before eventually abandoning it as a possibility.

Since it was clear to him by now that he was settling on the route that involved picking out a boyfriend for his girl form to use the guy as a shield and unsuspecting experiment assistant, Ranma realized he should probably decide on some criteria for what he was looking for. He gave it a bit of thought for several moments. Ideas started coming to him quickly.

First, the guy should be someone who could take care of at least a modicum of trouble and able to deal with at least one or two punks as Ranko's 'protector' without her needing to get involved in things. However, he also shouldn't be so strong that his girl form couldn't physically dominate the guy if necessary. That would let her easily fend off any unwanted touching or groping from him, as well as kissing. Not that he ever actually wanted some guy to kiss or touch his girl form like that, he hastily amended.

Or did he? Suddenly feeling a bit confused again at his fluctuating penchants, he blushed once more.

Shaking his head, Ranma quickly moved on mentally. As everyone that attended the Imperial Academy received at least some combat training but were all far below him in their fighting ability, that still left plenty of options among the boys for him to choose from. This was a good thing, not wanting to expand his search to the other schools in the area for candidates and add to the complexity of the problem.

Returning to his preferred option, he wasn't sure how strong a fighter Yumi was, but she seemed to be capable, remembering how her male guise had put his female one into a headlock she couldn't break out of before passing out, so she was at least a peer. That said, Yumi struck him as a mature, level-headed woman, so he felt comfortable making an exception for her. Since she wasn't really a teenaged boy, despite how her cursed form looked, he doubted she would ever try anything with his girl form and probably didn't even like girls that way, like the cursed Shampoo of that other world, and much like how his own cursed analogs had zero interest in guys.

However, if Yumi was willing to allow her male identity to be used as Ranko's boyfriend, Ranma knew it would be a safe way for him to begin familiarizing himself with what being someone's girlfriend was like. It would be like practicing for a part in a theater production. They could go out together and do typical dating activities: seeing a movie, going skating, visiting an amusement park, or maybe just eating at some restaurant. It would probably be a bit like how it was on the world where Shampoo had a male curse, although that version of him didn't see the Amazon as anything but his friend.

Ranma knew that having Yumi assisting him would also make certain milestones in dating much less intimidating for him to explore than if he tried doing them with a real guy: the first date, holding hands, hugging, a boy putting an arm around his girl form's shoulders. None of those should be any problem, but what about something more advanced, like his girl half's first kiss? He could only recall a single example of that, courtesy of another world's Mikado Sanzenin, which prompted a sudden shudder of revulsion to wash over him.

He made a quick mental note to seek out this world's Mikado and beat him up again, since he was a sleazebag here as well and totally deserved it. The pigtailed scholar then considered doing the brutalizing while in his girl form, which would make it an even more humiliating experience for the slimy womanizer. Since Ryoga didn't seem to be actively hunting him here, he realized he should probably start seeking out some alternative sparring partners to hone his combat skills on, and the Sanzenin boy seemed like he'd make a rather nicely cathartic punching bag.

Asking Yumi to kiss him when they were both in their cursed forms would probably be pushing the favor though. He knew such a thing should have real feelings behind it to be the most enjoyable, like how it felt for him when he kissed Shampoo the other day. While the cursed woman might be willing to pretend her male identity was the boyfriend of Ranma's female form to fend off unwanted suitors, the pigtailed scholar knew he shouldn't fool himself into believing an adult woman like Yumi Kuonji could ever have any feelings for him like that. None of his other crushes ever had.

Wait. Why am I thinking this way? Do I like her or something? She's just a friend, right?

Ranma had never previously considered Yumi in any of the analyses he had been doing about what he felt for the girls he knew, since the cursed woman was an adult and just a friend. He reasoned it was probably a good idea for him to do so now before asking her for this favor, to make really sure he understood where his feelings were at regarding her. He didn't want to make a fool of himself, so he began mentally appraising what he knew about her.

Yumi Kuonji was an athletic woman in her mid-thirties who had a Jusenkyo curse the opposite of his own. She was a few centimeters taller than he was, somewhat broad-shouldered for a woman and rangy of limb. But she was also unmistakably feminine with a body built much like how Ukyo's might look in a few years, her frame a bit heavier with additional bone and muscle. Her face was square-jawed and could be considered mannish by some, not classically beautiful, but it possessed a solid sort of character that was attractive on its own terms. When she spoke, her voice was a mid-range contralto, but he could imagine it dropping even lower when she was angry. She had shoulder-length brown hair usually worn in a sporty ponytail. Her eyes were turquoise and were quite striking and attractive. She also made frequent eye contact when speaking with someone, which indicated intelligence.

His analysis suddenly trailed off at this point. Evaluating her like this had elicited unexpected emotions in him. That she was a little bit taller than he had also intrigued him.

Huh. I guess I do kind of like her that way after all. How about that?

Like other boys, Ranma had experienced the occasional crush on an older woman after puberty began for him, since he was rarely if ever around people his own age until recently. However, his last such infatuation had faded long before his arrival at the Imperial Academy. If Yumi did agree to do this favor for him, Ranma realized he would have to remind himself now and then that it wasn't a real relationship between them, just Yumi helping him out as his friend, like Shampoo had done on that other world. While they would technically be dating each other, their relationship would be more like social training, nothing more.

He realized he was getting sidetracked at this point and went back to the criteria list he was putting together. For his second standard, the guy should be able to hold up his side of an intelligent conversation. Ranma knew that if he was going to be sacrificing a fair amount of his free time maintaining his secret identity as Ranko Kuonji, he wasn't going to waste it on someone stupid or boring to be around.

While the guy didn't need to be a savant like himself, someone Ranko could play Go with and not totally crush each time would be nice. It had been quite a while since he last played against anyone, and his skills were getting rusty. This began narrowing the field for him.

Third, he needed to be a good-hearted sort. Since Ranma was well aware from his own observations that there were plenty of jerks populating his school, finding a nice guy to be Ranko's boyfriend would probably be the biggest challenge of them all. Of course, if he was genuinely nice, it should also restrain the guy from trying anything lecherous with his girl form, which would be a bonus. This was winnowing down his options to a much more manageable level.

While the guy being handsome or at least somewhat above average in appearance would be a nice additional benefit, Ranma realized he was probably being too picky by this point. He also wondered why he was even considering a boy's looks at all in his calculations. The guy was just going to be a shield to keep the other boys away and use in an experiment to see what a dating relationship was like from a girl's perspective. Maybe he would let the guy hold hands with his girl form, and maybe hug her, since it would look funny if they never touched, but that would be it.

How did girls ever figure out who was good dating material? Ranko's memories were of little help in this area, as she only dated a few times in her life before the download. None of them worked out.

Well, since he hoped to find someone who could play a decent game of Go against him when he was Ranko, the club at the Imperial Academy was probably the best place to start. He recalled briefly considering joining after first arriving on campus, but building the resonator had been more of a priority then. If he had chosen to pursue Go instead, he realized his life would probably be much quieter now, without all the troubles he was dealing with, although he would probably still be getting beaten up by Akane every day. Maybe things were better right now, after all.

Now that he had a better idea what Ranko's boyfriend should be like, Ranma stepped into the shower stall in his room and turned on the hot water full blast. Standing beneath the steaming spray, his mind kept contemplating Shampoo, Nabiki, Kodachi, Ukyo, Utena, Yumi and even Akane as well as his own girl form. He felt his body responding to his errant thoughts, but he couldn't seem to stop fantasizing, his lust awakening, picturing them in different sorts of outfits. In the case of Shampoo, he also kept recalling his recent deep kisses with her, which prompted memories of a more intimate nature from his actor analog. Unable to put off his body's increasing pleas any longer, he took some time to relieve them.

He shuddered when his release finally happened, the sensations intense as it had been a while since he last did this. Still not satisfied, his body kept pleading with him for more. Finding himself still unable to concentrate on anything other than his aroused lust, he did it a second time.

Once finished, he stood quietly for a minute, catching his breath, his palms flat against the wall of the shower as he leaned into the hot water still drenching him. His thoughts were clearer now, and he began to feel a bit guilty about his lecherous fantasies. His cursed analogs were more prudish than he was, rarely if ever indulging themselves in such things, repressing their urges and sublimating such sexual desires into their martial arts training instead.

His deliberations on his sexuality brought to his mind a conversation with his mother shortly after he gained his girl form. He recalled her suggestion to him that he should bed each of his prospective fiancées, to see who was most compatible with him that way. While the thought tempted him, he knew it would be far too dangerous to ever actually follow through on it.

A vivid vision of him beaten into a bloody, mangled hulk for being a womanizing pervert like the sleazy Sanzenin boy flashed across his mind. He was quite certain that the girls he was engaged to would not respond favorably if he ever tried anything like that with them, and Shampoo would doubtless agree with them. His mother's follow-up suggestion, that he ask the girls about their views on polygamy, only intensified his fears of what they would likely do to him if they ever thought he wanted a harem, perhaps taking turns brutalizing him. He shivered in terror at the potential hostility he would suffer, knowing from his analogs how very scary girls could be when they were really angry, since several of his other selves seemed to have a knack for aggravating females into violent behavior.

Aside from the potential savagery directed at him, Ranma could also easily imagine the hurt look he would see in Kodachi's eyes should she ever learn of his lustful fantasies about her. Ukyo, raised as a boy for much of her life, was becoming a good friend he valued very much, and he feared losing their budding comradeship if he ever admitted to thinking of her that way sometimes. And as for Nabiki, he fretted that telling her he felt such things for her would give the Tendo girl a means to control him. However, since he kissed Shampoo and felt her respond passionately to him, he didn't think the Amazon would mind at all to learn he thought of her that way.

His actor analog had encouraged him in a dream to be more aggressive with the girls, but Ranma still wasn't sure he was ready to take that step. While technically he had experience in such amorous activities acquired from that version of himself, he knew he was still a virgin and had never been with anyone that way. There was also the issue that he would have to pick a girl to be his first partner, and that was a lot of pressure to have to deal with.

Taking a deep breath to steady himself, his hand grabbed the handle and twisted it, changing the water temperature to cold, wincing when it started blasting him. The protection of the soap was already long since washed away by now, so the transformation rippled over his body in a single instant. Ranma-chan quickly shampooed her hair and rinsed it clean, wanting to get out of the chilly water as quickly as possible. Grabbing the bar of special soap, she began lathering up her body with it to restore the protection it gave her.

After a few minutes, she stepped from the bath and began briskly drying her skin with a towel before wrapping her body in it when she was done, still shivering a bit. While using the blow dryer on her hair, she began brushing it out to speed drying. Her blue eyes held a distant look, and she was clearly deep in thought about something.

As she finished untangling her tresses, Ranma-chan kept finding her attention drawn to her reflection in the mirror. While continuing to work out the few remaining snarls, she regarded her image in the glass solemnly. Unbound from its usual pigtail, her hair fell loosely, reaching to just below her shoulders.

She felt wearing it like this framed her face rather pleasingly with its lustrous red mane, her hair having lengthened an inch or two since the school year began several months ago. A haircut was due though, she mused, since it was looking unruly. The thought brought a rueful smile to her face, recalling another world's Principal Kuno and his fetish for cutting hair.

When she was done with the hairbrush, Ranma-chan set it down on the sink and reached up one hand to stroke her hair, feeling how much softer it was than when she was male. Idly, she began playing with a few stray locks as she kept gazing at herself. It pleased her quite a lot, knowing for a fact how attractive she was from a male viewpoint, recalling the appreciative looks she received, and the masculine parts of her personality readily confirming this. While a portion of her awareness realized she was being narcissistic again, it was a brief vacation from brooding about the many problems that were going on in her life, so she indulged herself.

Looking back at her from within the confines of the mirror was a buxom teenaged beauty possessing a very cute face with clear skin and wide, expressive eyes. Her limbs and shoulders were trimly athletic, clean of line and compactly muscular without detracting one whit from her womanly charms. Her towel covered her torso from the chest down to the upper thighs, wrapped snugly around her. She saw a smile suddenly appear on her face, and it made her reflection look even cuter to her.

Almost shyly, still absently playing with a few locks of her hair with one hand, Ranma-chan reached out towards the image in the mirror with the other, feeling cool glass when her spread fingers finally contacted the surface. She absently noted that while her hand was now smaller, her nails didn't seem any longer than they were as a boy, just like her hair didn't change its length. She rested her fingers there for several lingering moments as she leaned in a bit to study her face more closely, slowly turning it to one side and then the other. Her expression shifted to a more thoughtful look.

As had happened to her before whenever she saw herself like this, she was struck with a sense of wonder at how desirable she was, even when she wasn't wearing any makeup. While Ranko's memories had given her the knowledge on how to apply such things properly should she ever wish to do so, an occasion needing it had not yet occurred. She didn't even own any, and then she felt a bit odd, finding herself thinking that she should buy some and try out different looks.

Her gaze slowly dropped to scrutinize the rest of herself. A light blush appeared on her cheeks when her eyes beheld the enticingly full swell of her bosom and the deep cleavage partly covered by the towel snugly wrapped around her body. Her eyes traversed away to regard the taut definition of her shoulders and arms, and she flexed them a bit.

No wonder guys stop and check me out when they see me, she mused. I'm really cute. But if they knew the truth about who I am, that I'm really a guy inside this body, would they still be interested in me? Heh. They probably would, since guys do all their thinking with what's in their pants.

That thought gave her pause, belatedly realizing that she was thinking more like a girl now than a boy, looking at males as if from the outside. She barely felt any gender dysphoria now. Being a girl seemed normal and ordinary right now.

Ranma-chan knew from her studies of cognitive physiology that the brain was essentially an organic computer, self-programmed through what it experienced and the choices that person made. The memories acquired from those other selves had been reconfiguring her persona as the new information fitted itself wherever it could into her mind. Some aspects had been absorbed quickly, almost immediately, like her martial arts skills and her occasional flashes of macho arrogance.

The memories from Ranko Saotome, an actual girl, had taken a bit longer to integrate. Due to their presence, speaking like a girl and acting with feminine mannerisms when in her female form had been unconsciously natural in her girl form, not mimicking them like her analogs would, quite poorly at first. Her personality had been fully masculine before being cursed, but that was now no longer true as the more hidden parts of Ranko's identity, her drives and emotional responses, were becoming interwoven into the person that still self-identified as Ranma Saotome.

After some time spent lost in thought on her identity, her hand pulled away from the glass and she released her hold on her hair. Looking down at herself, she tentatively moved both hands to her breasts, pausing at the last moment before taking them in her hands and gripping them lightly. She had felt the urge to do this numerous times before whenever she was alone, a temptation that she finally decided to indulge in and satisfy her curiosity about her girl form.

Ranma-chan felt aroused when she looked up and saw the image in the mirror of her hands holding her breasts combined with the pleasant sensations being generated by simply touching them. Experimentally, she squeezed them gently. An erotic tension began welling up within her as she marveled at the feel, how soft and nice they were to touch, her hands beginning to gently fondle and massage them.

"I'm a guy," Ranma-chan suddenly muttered, almost breaking the spell she had unintentionally cast upon herself, using what had become her personal mantra whenever she was in this form. But even as she said it, she could tell it no longer had the power it once did. Looking at the gorgeous girl she now was, her previous fears and insecurities about this form seemed irrational.

Lifting her gaze back to her face even as she continued with fondling herself, she noted she was blushing a bit brighter now but could not determine if it was due to embarrassment or excitement. It was likely a bit of both. She started to pull her hands away from her breasts, then immediately stopped herself.

What she was doing felt good, and there was no one else around to see, so why stop? Leaving her hands where they were, she went back to enjoying the experience. Ranko's memories of doing such things with herself floated across her mind, and the doubts and angst acquired from her cursed analogs faded to background noise within her thoughts.

"I'm a girl," Ranma-chan whispered to herself, no longer able to deny the truthfulness of that statement in the privacy of her mind. She felt an unexpected sense of relief at just merely uttering the words. After all, unlike her male analogs who dealt with having their own Jusenkyo curses, she also possessed a lifetime of experiences to match this shape.

Still pondering her identity as she continued touching herself, she suddenly couldn't recall why being female had ever seemed dreadful. It was no more wrong than her male form was. Having a female body was a part of her life now. It seemed somehow unhealthy to keep fighting against it, to continue resisting and suppressing the inner changes caused by having her female analog's memories.

Ranma-chan closed her eyes and slowly took a deep breath, then let it out with equal slowness. When she opened them, she saw a serious look on her face. It was time to truly begin accepting this part of herself and learning who Ranma Saotome was now. But she hesitated to take the next step and needed a few moments to collect herself.

"Here goes," she finally whispered.

Swiftly unwrapping the towel from around her torso and tossing it aside, she stood naked before the mirror, dropping her hands to rest them on her hips and regarding her reflection. Her body barely moved except for the steady rise and fall of her chest with each breath as her eyes began studying her nude form, feeling a bit aroused looking at herself frankly like this. Less hesitantly this time, she raised one hand back up to her chest and began tentatively fondling one breast, seeing the look on her face begin shifting to a more lustful one.

Observing that, Ranma-chan blushed and quickly put her hand back down at her side, suddenly feeling very self-conscious. The prudishness of her other selves and her gender dysphoria had held her back from such explorations before, but she no longer seemed to have that resistance now, replaced by Ranko's feminine modesty. It was a strange feeling, to be tempted by her own body.

"I-I should get dressed and go train," she whispered. She turned and headed out of the bathroom, pausing once to look back at herself in the mirror. Shaking her head, she went to get dressed.

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Rolling one shoulder slowly to work out a slight kink, Yumi began stripping off her clothing as she stood outside the bathing area of her home. She needed to clean up before opening for the lunch crowd, since Mondays could often be hectic. The smell of diesel exhaust was on her, having been caught in a belch of black smoke from a truck after getting off the train from downtown. As she was about to remove the sarashi wrapped around her chest after taking off her okonomiyaki seller's jacket, she saw herself in the mirror, and an oddity in the reflection caught her attention.

Something seemed different about her, but it wasn't an obvious thing. She went over closer, trying to figure out what it was. When she could see her face more clearly, she suddenly realized what had changed. Her features looked... younger.

Turning her head from side to side slowly in front of the mirror, she could immediately tell that her face wasn't much different. It still had the same square-jawed look it always did, attractive but almost mannish (if someone was suicidal enough to make that comment to her face). Peeling the bandage away from her nose, she could tell from the lack of pain and bruising that it was apparently no longer broken, but there remained a very slight indentation on the bridge from an older break that didn't get treated as skillfully as her latest injury had been. She thought it gave her a faintly thuggish look, but she knew it made her male form appear more badass, since it was a bit more pronounced when she was him.

Her skin was smoother, a bit less weathered and without a single age line that she could see. Her jowls were also firmer. If she had to guess, she appeared ten, maybe even fifteen years younger now. She realized with a start that she could easily pass for Ukyo's adult, older sister now instead of her thirty-something aunt.

How could this have happened? When did it happen? No one had commented on her appearance during the meeting in Fuyutsuki's office, nor did Sakura afterwards. The only time she could recall ever changing age like this before was due to eating a strange mushroom once years ago, turning her from a teenager into a child. Fortunately, the effects were later countered by another mushroom with a longer stem.

Removing her sarashi, she inspected her bare torso. The same youthening effect could be seen there. The skin on her body now possessed the same girlish suppleness her face did. Her breasts were unchanged in their size, ample enough to more than offset the rather mannish width of her shoulders, but they were firmer now and riding somewhat higher on her chest. She was a little startled to discover that her deep stab wound appeared fully healed now, only a faint scar remaining.

Turning around, she flexed her shoulders and arms, noting the firmness of her body, its taut definition, without a single sag she could see anywhere. While she had worked hard to maintain her physique during her life, not wishing to grow flabby, age had been slowly taking its inevitable toll on her. Somehow, she was now restored to her physical prime.

After stripping off the rest of her clothing and removing the yellow ribbon holding her ponytail in place, she grabbed a washcloth from the stack, still wondering what was going on with her. Holding it at her side, she slid open the door and walked in. The room was lit, so she at first assumed Ukyo must have forgotten and left it on before leaving for school.

Ranma, returned to his male form after the trip over from the Arena, was just standing up from the bathtub when she came in, having not heard her getting undressed outside. The two of them stared at each other in shock for several long moments before either one moved. Yumi at first tried covering herself with the small towel before finally sprinting back into the other room and slamming the door shut, her heart pounding in her chest as she leaned back against it. Ranma felt totally mortified that such a thing had just happened, that she had seen everything of his and he hers, echoing events on other worlds.

"S-SORRY!" Yumi quickly shouted at him through the open door. Her face was bright red, and she struggled to stop thinking about what she had just seen of him.

"S-SORRY!" Ranma answered in a shout at almost the same moment, his face bright red as well. He was trying not to think about the eyeful of Yumi's body he had just received, his eidetic memory forever recording it. In the back of his mind, a small part of him was amazed at how young-looking she was, then he mentally slapped himself for thinking such a thing.

A little while later, the two of them were seated at the chabudai-style table in Yumi's home over her restaurant. Steaming cups of tea sat untouched in front of them. Neither of them could seem to look at the other, both still blushing a little.

Ranma broke the silence first. "Uh, thank you for not hitting me."

Yumi chuckled at that comment. Unconsciously, her hand began moving closer to Ranma's, almost reaching out to hold it reassuringly, but then she backed away at the last moment when she realized what she was doing. She picked up her teacup and sipped from it instead.

"I-it's okay. I-I guess we both got a pretty good look at each other, huh?" She blushed again, wondering why she had made such a stupid comment, mentally smacking herself. "Uh, th-things like that happened to me a lot when I was younger, so I totally understand it was just an accident."

Ranma nodded, looking down. "Thank you for understanding."

The two of them went back to sitting in awkward silence. Ranma took a sip of his tea, looking down at the table. He felt nervous, mirroring Yumi's mood. Both were feeling a pleasant tingling in each other's presence, but the awkwardness they felt mostly masked it.

"Uh, I forgot that you'd be coming over for training today," Yumi said after another sip or two of her tea.

Ranma chuckled nervously. "Y-yeah. Lee-sensei told me he had to pick someone up from the airport, that he has a surprise for me."

"Surprises can be good," Yumi said, looking up and meeting Ranma's gaze briefly before both blushed again and hastily looked down, and she mentally smacked herself some more. Her uncomfortable feelings from earlier came rushing back, and she sipped her tea again.

Ranma flexed his right hand and briefly traced some simple kanji on the table's surface, not even looking at what he was writing. He knew he didn't dare say anything about her more youthful appearance, certain that it would come out all wrong and earn him a brutal beating at her hands. Then he remembered what he wanted to ask her and realized if he didn't say something now, he'd probably lose his nerve completely after what had happened between them in the bathroom. He took a deep breath and blew it out through his pursed lips.

"Uh, can I ask you something, Yumi?" he said, looking back up at her again. "It's kind of personal. Uh, a favor really."

Yumi nodded, hoping to talk about anything other than what had just happened a few minutes ago in her bathroom. "S-sure, Ranma. Ask away."

"I've got this problem with my girl side, and I was hoping you could help me. But I'll understand if you don't think you can." He put his hand on his teacup but did not pick it up.

"Sounds serious." She took a sip of her tea, feeling her blush dying down a bit. Her heart rate maintained its heightened pace.

"Well, after this thing with Shampoo is over with, I'm going to be coming back to the Imperial Academy. And, uh, I imagine my girl form's going to be starting school there too."

"Yeah," she nodded, setting her cup down. "Fuyutsuki-san told me you passed the exam. So, what's the problem?"

Ranma traced a few more simple kanji characters with his finger and somehow managed to maintain eye contact with her. "Uh, well, it's like this... IneedtofindRankoaboyfriend." The last part came out in a rush.

Yumi's elbow slipped off the table, and she almost hit her jaw on it. "E-excuse me?"

"I-I've been thinking about it a bit," he stammered. "I know guys are probably going to start bothering me a lot when I'm a girl."

"Y-yeah, I-I'd imagine so." She felt her throat getting tight. What was he going to ask her to do?

"W-well, would you do me the favor of, uh, well, being Ranko's boyfriend? Your guy side, I mean." Ranma blushed again. "I-it would help me out a lot." He paused. "I mean, you're the only one I know who could understand what this is like for me."

Yumi sat stunned, blinking occasionally as she took this in, what he just said. She felt her foolish heart suddenly seem to seize control of her mouth after a few moments of awkwardness and said while nodding, "Y-yeah! Sure! Uh, n-no problem, Ranma."

The pigtailed scholar experienced a feeling of relief flowing through him, and he let out the breath he had been unknowingly holding while waiting for her answer. He placed his hands flat on the table and bowed to her. "Thank you!"

The smile of appreciation he gave her when his head came back up made Yumi's heart flutter in her chest, and her blush quickly returned. "I-I can show up now and then at your school to check up on your girl form or something," she said. "Uh, but won't it look a bit funny? 'Yu' is her brother according to the family registry."

"I'm adopted," Ranma replied quickly. "Er, I mean, she's adopted. That would also explain why Ranko doesn't look anything like you."

"Y-yeah, that could work." Yumi looked thoughtful. She then felt her awkwardness return as she said, "W-we'll have to act like a couple in public, I guess."

Ranma nodded, feeling an answering self-consciousness, but it was reduced by the relief that Yumi was going to help him out like this. "Oh, th-that's fine. If it's okay with you, I just figured we could do some dating type stuff for show. M-maybe hold hands when we're together or something. We'll also need to talk and work on our history together, so we don't catch each other up if anyone asks."

Yumi nodded back, trying hard not to think about holding hands with Ranma, her hand resting on the table not far from his. She fought down her feelings, telling her foolish heart that this was just for pretend, that he didn't think of her like that. They were just friends. But her foolish heart answered that it would be nice to spend time with him like that, even if she was going to be in her male form and he in his female one.

Now that her initial shock at his unexpected request was fading, she belatedly realized that there was something she needed to discuss with him. She took a sip of her tea, then poured herself some more. She met his gaze.

"Uh, Ranma, there's something I need to talk to you about. It's about Ukyo."

"Is she in trouble?" He met Yumi's gaze, concerned for his friend.

"Well, no, not quite. Not exactly." She took a breath. "Ukyo has another arranged marriage, one that was made when she was a child. She only found out about it recently, after your family already made a contract with hers."

"What?!" Ranma sputtered.

Yumi put one hand behind her head and looked uncomfortable. "Yeah, it was all arranged by our clan's elder, Genji Kuonji, my grandfather and Ukyo's great-grandfather."

Ranma's gaze became flat. "I'm going to take a wild guess that it's Ryoga Hibiki."

"Huh, that's a really good guess," she said with a nod. "He didn't know about it either. I don't know if anyone's even told him yet."

Ranma sighed. "She can't marry both of us." He knew that much about the law.

"Yeah, that's true." Yumi sipped her tea, feeling her blush return a little as an idea suddenly occurred to her, spurred by Ranma's request of her to be his girl form's boyfriend. She set down her cup. "Do you trust me, Ranma?"

He nodded. "Of course. I'm trusting you with my girl half, aren't I?"

An image of the redhead floated across Yumi's thoughts. She smiled at the audacity of his scheme, one reminding her of her own youthful escapades. It promised to be a lot of fun though. She hoped spending time with him in a pretend relationship with his girl side would show her foolish heart if they really were meant for each other or not.

"I have a solution for Ukyo's problem I can employ as a Kuonji. I think it will satisfy honor for everyone."

Ranma looked impressed. Only one of his selves had found such a way to deal with such conflicting engagement promises, by asking Ukyo to give up on the engagement and her being willing to do it. He assumed that Yumi was planning to do something like this on his behalf, which made sense as it was a Kuonji family matter.

"You do whatever it takes, Yumi. I trust you." He smiled at her.

She nodded and sipped her tea. When her cup was empty, she stood up. The 'closed' sign was on the front door downstairs, so no one would disturb them. She could miss one day of business. This was more important.

"Let's begin today's training, Ranma," she said. "But turn back into your girl form first. It will be much easier to teach you about being a kunoichi if you are female."

Realizing she still smelled of diesel exhaust, Yumi sighed, but her heart felt lighter in her chest. Today was proving to be an interesting day, and the future seemed to shine brightly before her now.

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It's been a long time since I last wrote anything, but inspiration has returned and I have the next several chapters in various stages of writing. I hope you liked this one.

To be continued...