Time Never Did Assuage

---

"Sir, I'm terribly sorry."

Ranma blinked coffee out of his eyes. The anger quickly cooled to a mild irritation. "That's all right."

The man - no more than a boy, really - stepped off his skateboard and retrieved the now-empty paper cup. "I'm sorry, there's a bump in the pavement, I didn't mean-"

"I said it's all right." Ranma used his napkin to dry himself off, looking around for the food server. With both indoor and outdoor tables to attend to, getting her attention seemed problematic.

The skateboarder stood there, uncertain. "You know, for a moment, I thought-"

Ranma looked up sharply. "Thought what?"

"Uh, never mind. Sorry." The young man hopped back onto his skateboard and took off.

Grunting, Ranma continued to try and dry himself off. The shirt looked terrible now; a dark brown stain on yellow.

"Ranma?"

"Yeah?" Ranma looked up and instantly realized his mistake.

She stood there, looking very much the same as when he'd last seen her all those years ago. But also very different: the face was a little softer with wrinkles around the eyes and the figure perhaps a little more filled out. Ranma had a sudden clear image of the woman in front of him undressing in the darkness, and he felt slightly flushed.

Her eyes were a bit wide as she stared at him. "I'm sorry, I thought you were someone else."

Ranma felt a bit of panic setting in. "Uh, sorry, I was just... keeping her seat warm. Sit down, she's expecting you. Let me, uh, go find her."

At that, her eyes narrowed. "Find who?"

"Ranma, of course." He jumped to his feet. "Please, sit down, she'll be right out, I swear."

Looking at him dubiously, she sat.

Ranma sprinted down the sidewalk, his eyes roaming the street, desperately looking for a clothing shop. He passed people who looked at him strangely. Ranma ignored that. It was easy to do; he'd had long practice at it.

---

Ranma hefted the duffel bag over her shoulder and looked out over the large, well-manicured lawn. People were sitting, laughing, chatting, playing. For the life of her, Ranma could not understand why.

Tentatively she looked down at the map she was carrying in one hand along with a bunch of other papers, trying to match blocky numbered outlines with buildings.

"Help you find something?"

She looked up. A guy, thin with no muscle tone, was looking at her, smiling widely. His gaze, however, did not quite reach her eyes.

"No thanks." She turned away from him even when the building she wanted to go to was behind him. After a few steps, she began moving to the left, taking a circuitous route to her destination.

If she'd taken the time to look at each of the buildings in her field of vision rather than study the map, Ranma would have been able to figure out where she needed to go. A large number of people about her age were streaming in and out of a building somewhat older than the others around the lawn. Ranma readjusted the duffel bag and began walking very briskly - not running but moving rapidly, an economy of motion she could excel in when she put her mind to it. Which, lately, had not been too often.

At the front entrance, large signs clearly pointed her to where she intended to go first. The line was long, and with a sigh Ranma stepped into it. It moved fairly quickly, however, so almost before she was ready she found herself stepping up to a counter. On the other side, sitting in a tall chair, an elderly woman peered at her through thick bifocals. "Name?"

"Saotome Ranma." Ranma extracted a letter from the papers she was clutching and slapped it on the counter.

The woman glanced at it, already tapping into her terminal. She leaned forward, frowned, looked down at the letter, picked it up, read it, glanced at the monitor again, then finally affixed Ranma with a penetrating gaze. "You are Saotome Ranma?"

"Yes."

"Not an acquaintance or relative, perhaps?"

"No." Ranma unslung her duffel bag and unzipped one of the side pockets. She reached in and pulled out a plastic laminated card with her picture and FURINKAN HIGH SCHOOL emblazoned along the top. Ranma glanced at it in passing. It listed her as a senior and had a portrait of Ranma that she seldom looked directly at. With a quick flick of her wrist, the card flew in the air and landed in front of the woman behind the counter.

She didn't deign to pick it up, instead rotating it so she could read it. "So." The woman sounded irritated. "There's clearly been a mistake. Our records have you listed as a male."

"There's no mis-" Ranma clamped her jaws shut. She shuddered, just once, then slowly allowed her jaw to relax. "I mean... do I look like a male?"

"Well, we had you housed in a men's dormitory. We'll have to change that." The woman began tapping quickly, her very mien one of sufferance. After a few minutes, during which Ranma fumed, the woman looked up at her again. "All right, come back this afternoon. We have no current openings in the women's dormitories but you are third on our list of alternates, and we will likely have enough cancellations to accommodate four or five stragglers."

Ranma nodded once, then grabbed the letter and ID from the counter. She whirled and stalked away, at this moment wanting nothing more than to blow the building apart with a few well-placed chi blasts.

Her second destination was in the same building, and again the way was clearly indicated. She found herself in a large cafeteria that had been cleared of most of the furniture and was now full of milling students. Many tables dotted the perimeter, with large paper signs taped on the wall over each of the tables. Ranma scanned the placards, standing on her tiptoes in an attempt to see over the crowd. She looked down at the papers she still clutched, shuffled through them until she found a list she had labored over for many hours. She ran through it, then looked back up at the signs. The closest one that matched her list read "SpSt 1701 - Introduction to Sport Studies". Ranma strode towards the line underneath it, which was relatively short.

As she did so, she walked past two guys who had evidently been staring at her. To her great annoyance they followed her, standing right behind her as she stopped at the end of the line. "Hey," one of them said by way of greeting. Ranma ignored it.

"Yup, Sport Studies, just my thing. I'm big into sports, y'know."

Ranma glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, saw a man who was about thirty pounds overweight and on his way to greater excess, and looked away as the other man snickered.

The overweight man made an annoyed grunt. "Well, I like watching 'em anyway. I, uh, I could become a boxer, y'know, if I tried. I'm stronger than I look."

The other man's amusement increased. "You'd have to be just to carry that gut."

The overweight man hissed in a whisper that could only be heard a mile away, "Shut up!" Then, in a more normal tone of voice, "I don't know why they make us stand in line like this. They should computerize registration. This is, like, so archaic."

"Wow, you used three words of three or more syllables in one breath," the other man said. "That's a personal best, isn't it?"

A scuffle broke out behind Ranma that she completely ignored. Instead she stepped up to the table as the student in front of her moved away.

A short man - barely taller than Ranma - sat in front of her. His face was deeply lined, indicating his age, but his body was all muscle and sinew. Ranma found herself admiring his physique from a purely aesthetic viewpoint. Here was someone who worked hard every day to keep his body in shape.

The short man looked up at her. Instantly his eyes roamed over her and Ranma had to repress another shudder. They all did that, all the men, even the older ones, and while she had become slightly inured to it, today it was becoming a little overwhelming. Finally his eyes stopped on her face. "Name?"

Ranma, with extraordinary effort, kept her voice even. "Saotome Ranma."

He scribbled it on a list. "ID number?"

"Um..." Ranma shuffled through her papers again. "99100."

"Very well." He looked up at her again. "You going to be majoring in Kinesiology?"

She'd had to look up the meaning of the word when she'd been poring over the catalog. "Yeah, I guess."

"Hurm." He looked her up and down again. "You on an athletics team?"

"Er, no. Hadn't thought about it." Kind of a lie, but easier than telling the truth.

"You should. Will help your chances of admission into the program."

"Uh, okay." Probably wanted her to be on one of his teams so he could keep looking at her. She very much wanted to tell him off, but he was going to be her professor and she had to control it, just this once. "Thanks for the advice."

"You're welcome, Saotome." He held his gaze on her for a moment, then looked beyond her to the next person in line.

Ranma gratefully fled the table. She wanted to run off and take a long hot bath, but she didn't have a dorm room yet, and hot baths had a very painful association that would still rise up to stab her gut. Steeling herself, she found the next line to enter.

She managed to get through the rest of her registration. She got the other courses she'd wanted - General Psychology, Introduction to Sociology, and the course she was looking least forward to, Precalculus. What this all had to do with Physical Education she had no idea, but she supposed they had their reasons.

The worst part had been the lines. Invariably she would find herself standing in front of or behind men, and they would always try to talk to her and when she endeavored to ignore them, they took that as permission to stare at her. Not one of them realized how close they came to serious bodily harm.

After escaping the cafeteria, Ranma weighed her options. She couldn't unpack because she didn't have a dorm room yet. She supposed she could get some books, but right now she was sick of crowds. So instead Ranma grabbed a hot dog and some tea from a pushcart vendor and sat on the lawn in the open sun. She used her duffel bag as a large pillow, reclining against it as she ate. Ranma was doing her best not to wolf the food down; her financial aid package included a meal card that would provide fifteen meals a week, but she hadn't received it yet. So for now meals were paid for out of her own pocket, and she had very limited amounts of money.

"Hey there. New to the school?"

Ranma looked up. A tall man stood over her, a smile on his face. She glared at him. "Yeah, I'm new."

"Well, need a guide?" He began to sit down. "I-"

It took very little effort for Ranma to move one of her legs and interpose it between his in just the right manner. He fell over backwards, hard, while Ranma swiftly extricated her foot. He looked up at her, startled. Ranma moved her eyes away from his, staring off into the distance, continuing to eat her hot dog.

The man stood up. He muttered something just beyond Ranma's ability to distinguish - which was probably just as well. He walked off angrily.

Ranma sipped her tea, fighting down a bit of shame. She shouldn't have done that. It wasn't right to use the art in such a fashion. But, dammit, it was rude of him to sit down without asking. Especially since his intentions were all too clear.

The hot dog was gone. Ranma quickly downed the rest of her tea, stood up, gathered her belongings, and began walking around the field. If she made herself a moving target she was less likely to be bothered.

She decided, for lack of anything better, to familiarize herself with where her classrooms were. Psychology and Sociology were in the same building, Precalculus was in another building close by. Sport Studies was in the athletic building on the far side of campus. Ranma meandered on over, careful to avoid any boys she saw along the way.

The athletic building was surrounded by playing fields. Right now it looked as if there was a track team practicing. Ranma stopped and watched, but found little to interest her - running and jumping was boring and took no skill at all. She went into the building and wandered around. There were several padded rooms for wrestling or dance - or martial arts. Ranma stopped and studied an empty room. One wall was essentially a large mirror but the other three were padded, as well as the floor. Ranma looked up and was disappointed that the ceiling was only ten feet up and not padded. Still, the room could be used as an ersatz dojo if she was careful.

Ranma continued her self-guided tour. The smell of chlorine indicated a pool in one direction. She heard the sound of people engaged in a physical activity of some sort and followed it to a gymnastics room. Here students were bounding around doing various things - swinging on parallel bars, vaulting over pommel horses, tumbling along mats. Two women were practicing twirling ribbons in the air, which made Ranma grunt in amusement.

She took two steps into the room and made her way along the wall. She stopped at two large rings suspended beneath a horizontal rubber pole. A student was grasping the rings and attempting to pull himself up so that his arms were perpendicular to his body. He was trembling as he attempted it, though, and came up short before falling to the mat. Another student stepped up and jumped to grab the rings.

"May I help you?"

Ranma turned to see an older woman, obviously the coach, standing next to her. Ranma inclined her head slightly. "Sorry if I'm interrupting. Just wanted to see what you all were doing."

"What we are doing is preparing for our first match in two weeks." The coach considered her for a brief moment. "Are you interested in joining the team?"

The words slipped from her mouth almost before she could stop them. "Yeah. I mean, I could do that easy." She gestured at the student who was now holding himself in the cross position, his brow glistening with sweat.

"Perhaps. But the still rings are part of the men's program." The coach gestured at the other end of the room. "Many of the same skills are used in the uneven bars, however"

Ranma shuddered. The men's program. Only men were here waiting their turns at the rings. Ranma looked at the other side of the room. Women were practicing there. Wearing leotards that exposed everything from thigh to ankle and left no mystery at all about the shape of the rest of their bodies. Even now, even here, Ranma could see some of the waiting men were staring pretty fixedly at the practicing women.

The shudder returned in greater force. Ranma whirled and stalked out of the room, past the startled coach. Uneven bars, hell. Leotards. Skin-tight leotards. What she could do seemed to be secondary to whether or not she could be ogled. She could wear shorts and a loose t-shirt and do routines on the rings that would make all of their heads spin. Damn them all.

Ranma found herself outside, her eyes blinking in the bright sun. Idiot, she heard a voice saying in her head. You've worn a leotard before, what's the big deal? Ranma squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head; the voice belonged to someone she desperately did not want to think about. Not today.

After she'd obtained a relative equilibrium, Ranma opened her eyes again. The sun, dammit, was still bright and cheerful. She moved back towards the campus lawn. Time to actually get her stupid dorm assignment.

It was late in the afternoon by now, and the line in the housing office was considerably shorter. Luck was with her as a dorm room had, indeed, become available. Ranma took the keys and left the building in a hurry. She just wanted to be by herself for a while, get this whole stupid day behind her.

The dorm was on campus and not too far away. As she drew close, Ranma could see women streaming in and out of the doors. That made Ranma feel both relieved and a bit wary. She made her way inside and checked the map. Her room was on the second floor of the three-story building. Ranma found the stairs and bound her way up, taking the steps three at a time. It hardly counted as exercise and she reminded herself to work out after she unpacked.

Pulling open the stairwell door, Ranma found herself in a surprisingly noisy hallway. Music blared from various sources, almost drowning out the sound of voices brightly chatting. Ranma stood for a moment, taking it all in, before heading down the hallway. She found the door to her dorm room and tested the handle. It wasn't locked, so she pushed it open.

Several things vied for her attention at once. One was that the room was smaller than she'd hoped. The second was that there were two beds in the room. The third was that a woman was lying in one of them, looking at her over the top of a book.

Ranma decided the latter was the most important thing to focus on and tried to smile. "Hi."

"Hello." The woman smiled back. Her eyes fixed on the duffel bag. "Are you Yuka's replacement?"

"Um... I don't know who that is. I'm supposed to stay here. I didn't know I'd be sharing a room."

"Oh." The woman looked at Ranma for a second. "Well, I took this bed, if that's all right."

"Uh, yeah, sure. I'm Ranma."

"Ranma?" The woman frowned. "Really?"

Ranma blinked. "Yeah, really."

"Oh. Well, I'm Maaya. Welcome to the dorm." She smiled again.

"Thanks." Ranma stepped inside, closing the door behind her. She dumped her duffel bag on the bed. She did a quick survey of the room and found a set of drawers that appeared to have been built directly into the wall. Next to that was a small wardrobe. Ranma opened it, found it large enough to hang a few clothes in.

Ranma went back to the duffel bag and opened it. She grabbed a handful of shirts and shoved them into one of the drawers. The pants were also able to fit with a bit of stuffing. Socks and underwear went into the next drawer. Her gi she threw on the desk next to the bed. What was left was toiletries, which Ranma shoveled into the top drawer, by reflex paying as little attention as possible to some of the items. Ranma patted the pockets of the duffel bag and removed the rest of her paperwork, which she also tossed onto the desk. Satisfied, she threw the empty duffel bag into the otherwise-empty closet and closed the door.

"You know," Maaya said from the other side of the room, "I don't believe I have ever seen a woman unpack that quickly."

And you still haven't, Ranma very nearly said. It took considerable effort to keep from making other very familiar and frustrating protestations. Instead, Ranma shrugged out of her shirt, her back still towards Maaya. She put on the gi, tied it, then stepped out of her pants and put on the trousers. The whole process took all of twenty seconds, Ranma having perfected the technique of changing clothes while keeping skin exposure to a minimum. From her own eyes as much as anyone else's.

Ranma scooped up her clothes and hesitated. Normally she'd take them down to the bathroom and dump them into the hamper. But, of course, that wasn't an option here.

"You can put them with my clothes if you want, in the closet."

Ranma looked at Maaya, then over at the closet on the other side of the room. She opened the door and found that underneath the hanging clothes was a large handbasket half-filled with clothes. Ranma dumped hers on top, then closed the closet door. "Thanks."

Maaya was eyeing the gi. "Are you a martial artist?"

"Yeah."

"Black belt?"

"Nah, my school doesn't use that stuff."

"You look strong," Maaya commented. "You work out every day?"

"Yeah, pretty much." Ranma grabbed her keys. "See ya."

"Welcome to the university, Ranma."

Welcome, ha. "Thanks." She fled the room.

The lawn was still full of students, although there seemed to be less urgency to their meanderings. Ranma began a quick jog back towards the athletic building. It seemed as if every person she passed stopped to stare at her, especially the boys. She did her best to ignore it and increased her speed to a full run. She got some mild amusement out of using the students as an obstacle course, dodging around them, causing a startled outcry or two.

The athletic building was still open, and she quickly found the padded room she'd uncovered before. Thankfully it was empty. Ranma stood in the center of the room, facing away from the mirror, waiting for her breathing to slow. Mentally she went through a list of possible exercises; nothing seemed right. A kata would be the right thing to do, maybe, but she'd much prefer going at it with the old man and tossing him around a bit.

Except that was probably never going to happen again.

With an irritated shake of her head, she decided to improvise. Ranma jumped straight up, lazily, barely a foot. She landed and bounced up, a little harder, getting five feet in the air. The next time she touched the ceiling. The fourth time she jumped, spun in the air, crouched for a split-second on the ceiling until her momentum was overcome by gravity, and pushed off violently back towards the ground. She flirted with the idea of just hitting the mat with her head - a concussion would probably do her some good right about now - but instead she tucked and rolled, springing up to punch at an imaginary target.

Ranma continued in that manner for a while, bouncing off the walls and ceilings and attacking the air. It wasn't a disciplined workout and probably wasn't really furthering her knowledge of the art at all, but it was still somewhat satisfying. However, she had no bruises at all at the end. Used to be, she'd know if it had been a good workout by the amount of pain she was feeling. This time all she had was a mild cramp from her left hand, which had been clutching her keys the entire time.

With a sigh Ranma left the room and made her way outside. It was getting towards evening, right at the beginning of dusk. Ranma would have preferred a little less light; people were still staring at her. She felt an urge to run but deliberately held back. She should definitely not get into the habit of running everywhere she went.

The dorm was just as noisy as before. As Ranma made her way to her room, she could see a group of women collected together in a lounge at the far end, talking, drinking, and generally being loud. Ranma watched without expression for a moment, then entered her room. Maaya was gone, thankfully. Ranma needed a nice long bath. She wandered over to the door that she assumed led to the bathroom and opened it. It revealed a fairly small room, with a large mirror, sink, and a glass-encased stand-up shower. Ranma looked around, as if hoping a bath would suddenly appear. None did. She did see a door identical to the one she had just opened on the opposite wall and realized that this bathroom must be shared with the students next door.

With a sigh, Ranma turned and went back towards her drawers. Quickly she stripped, hanging her gi up in the closet. She rummaged through her toiletries, grabbing a toothbrush, soap, shampoo, and a couple of towels. She turned back towards the bathroom, entered it, and closed the door. Ranma opened the door and found a spot to put her shampoo and soap. She hung her towels on a nearby rack, then, holding her breath, reached in and turned on the shower, twisting the handle almost completely. As she withdrew her hand, the first streams of water, cold, hit her hand. Soon, however, steam began rising, fogging up the mirrors.

Ranma stared at the waiting shower. Always, with every bath or shower, there was an aura of expectation. That this time, Ranma would enter the hot water and feel the change happen. Surely the effects of the ladle would wear off eventually, surely there was a time limit on Chinese curses, surely this was all just a dream and the hot water would wake Ranma up. Every time, entering the water would do nothing but get Ranma wet, and a cold dark depressing knot would settle into her stomach and blackness would descend over her mind. Day after day, weeks stretching into months, Ranma would experience the same sensation over and over again. Repetition had dulled the sensation somewhat, but never entirely. Every time, a small spark of hope would rise, irrational as it was, that would end up being crushed.

Ranma felt the steam rolling over her, felt its heat. She inhaled it deeply, experiencing a sensation that seemed like the first step towards drowning. There she held her breath and closed her eyes. Once, just this once, don't expect a thing. You came here to get on with it. Everyone is telling you to accept it. She told you to accept it. So, dammit, start actually trying to accept it. Realize that nothing is going to change - not here, not now. Maybe tomorrow someone will contact you and say they have a cure, a real cure, and then you can believe. But not today. Not now.

She repeated that a couple of times, then, her eyes still closed, stepped into the shower. The water was hot, very hot, almost dangerously so. It hit her square in the chest and she felt it running down her stomach, covering her legs, falling to the floor. Her body was encased in hot water and she did everything she could to feel every part of her body reacting to the hot water, concentrating purely on physical sensation and not giving her mind any time to think.

After perhaps a minute she let out her breath and opened her eyes. Ranma stared blankly at the shower wall, probing her mind for disappointment. She didn't think she found any, although she could feel the beginning of something that could become a profound depression. It would be a quick and easy thing to let it loose and overwhelm her. Indeed, it was almost tempting; she didn't want to go through this ritual every time she took a shower. This time, though, she held the depression back using whatever reserves of will she possessed.

Closing the shower door behind her, Ranma got on with the business of washing herself. She'd forgotten to unbind her hair and she did so now, letting it fall free and get thoroughly soaked. Everything was accomplished quickly and efficiently, Ranma carefully guarding her thoughts, not letting her mind think too much about anything. When she was done Ranma twisted off the water, opened the door, and toweled herself off. Her hair was still quite damp and she quickly bound it up in a pigtail again, not caring much how heavily it hung against her neck. Wet hair she was used to.

Back in her room she put on her boxers and a t-shirt. Ranma looked at the bed, feeling not the least bit tired. She shifted her gaze to the door leading out to the hall. After a moment she opened a drawer and extricated a pair of pants. She put them on and walked out into the hallway.

Everything was as active as before. Most of the other doors in the hallway were open, and with students wandering in and out of them at will. There was still a gathering at the lounge. Ranma tentatively made her way there, stopping just at the outskirts.

About ten women were seated on the couch, chairs, or floor. A few had bottles of beer they were drinking out of, and there seemed to be at least a couple of conversations going on. Ranma looked around and spotted Maaya sitting on a couch. Maaya noticed her at the same time and smiled. "Come join us, Ranma."

One of the conversations died down as nearby women turned to look at Ranma. She gulped and walked across the room. Maaya scooted over and patted the empty space next to her, and Ranma sat in it.

Another woman, a tall faux-blonde also sitting on the couch, tilted her head. "Is your name really Ranma?"

"Uh, yeah. My dad chose it, kinda a tradition in my family."

"Oh, weird. Why don't you change it?"

Ranma frowned. "It's my name."

"Oh, whatever. I hope you don't name your children that way, though."

Sharp irritation flared. "I ain't gonna have any children!"

"Oh, well, excuse me." The blonde turned away and began talking to someone sitting in a chair on the other side.

Ranma fumed, staring down at her lap. Dammit, calm the hell down. They don't know, none of 'em know, cut them some slack.

"That's not a good thing to do," Maaya said quietly.

"What? What isn't?" The irritation was still there despite Ranma's best efforts, and she clenched her fists to try and suppress it.

"To tie your hair up like that." Maaya reached up, fingered Ranma's pigtail. "It hurts your hair and causes split ends. And wow, your hair is warm. The water was way too hot for you to be washing your hair with, you'll dry it out."

Ranma flushed slightly. "I like hot showers."

"Then wear a shower cap," a woman sitting on the floor said. "Turn the temperature down when you're ready to wash your hair. Do you really need to wash it every day?"

"She's wearing her hair straight," Maaya said. "She should wash it every day, that'll make it gleam. But not like this, of course, you can't even see it."

Ranma did her best to unclench her jaw. "Loose hair gets in the way."

"When you're working out, sure. But you can use a hair clip or tie it in a knot, you don't need this... what is it, twine?"

"Yeah." Ranma shifted uncomfortably. "Been wearing it this way for years, don't need to change it."

"Well, whatever," the woman on the floor said dubiously. "You've got nice hair, seems a shame to waste it that way. Maaya, what classes are you taking?"

Maaya began answering while Ranma tuned out the conversation. Her face was burning and she desperately wished someone would attack her.

Another student walked into the lounge, a puzzled expression on her face. "This is gonna sound strange, I know, but... is one of you named Ranma?"

"Yeah," Ranma spoke up over the sound of some tittering. "What's up?"

"Oh, hi Ranma. There's a phone call for you."

Ranma shot to her feet. "Where?"

"Down at the end of the hallway, by the stairs."

"Thanks." Ranma ran out of the lounge and down the hallway. She screeched to a stop at a pay phone that was evidently also used for incoming calls to the floor. Ranma quickly picked up the receiver. "Hello?"

"There you are. Hi."

The voice sent shivers down Ranma's spine. "You found me."

"Yeah, you weren't at the other dorm. Took me a while to track down where they'd put you."

"Good job." Ranma swallowed, unsure what else to say.

That appeared to be a problem at the other end of the phone as well. "So... how's it going?"

"Fine, I guess. Got all my classes."

"Good. How's your dorm room?"

"Small, gotta share it with someone."

"Oh. Does... are you going to tell anyone?"

Ranma snorted. "What do you think?"

"Uh, no, I guess that was stupid."

"No it wasn't. Maybe-" Maybe it was stupid for me to come here.

Silence stretched on for a while. "So... are you going to be okay?"

No, I'm not going to be okay. All you have to do is say the word, give me one hint, and I'll leave and come running back. I don't want to be here, I don't want to do this, I want it all to be the way it was, just tell me to come home. Please. Ranma gripped the receiver tightly. "I think so."

"I'm glad. Do well. We're rooting for you."

We? We're rooting? Why did you say 'we'? Why not just you? "Thanks."

"Bye, Ranma."

"Bye." Ranma gently replaced the receiver but held on to it, her eyes fixed on nothing at all.

Slowly, carefully, Ranma removed her hand from phone and walked back to her room. Mechanically she took off her pants and tossed them onto the chair in front of her desk. She turned out the lights, got into bed, and stared up at the ceiling.

Not long afterwards, Maaya entered the room. She was humming a song but stopped when she saw Ranma lying in bed. Silently she began to strip, and Ranma found herself watching almost despite herself. Maaya had a nice figure - not too well toned, but not terrible. As Maaya began to remove her bra Ranma suddenly closed her eyes and rolled over until her back was to Maaya. Sharing a room with a woman was going to be a peculiar kind of hell. Women were now people wholly desirable and forever beyond reach. One woman in particular.

She heard Maaya enter the bathroom and turn on the shower. Ranma listened to the soothing sound of the falling water and, despite all expectations, soon fell asleep.

---

Ranma stopped at the doorway, her newly-purchased backpack slung over her shoulder. Students sat at honest-to-goodness desks, much like high school. Most were just sitting, reading or writing, waiting for class to start. A few large well-muscled men who clearly all belonged to an athletic team stood chatting in the back.

Some of them glanced her way. Ranma quickly averted her eyes and made her way to the nearest desk, in the front by the door. She dropped her backpack to the floor, opened it, took out a notebook and a used textbook. She flipped through it - "Foundations of Physical Education, Recreation, and Sports Studies". The table of contents showed a surprising variety of topics. Evidently there was more to this than she thought.

The door to the classroom was closed. "Greetings. I am Coach Iwao. You can call me Coach."

As expected, it was the short older man who had taken her name. Ranma once again found herself admiring his physique, which was as perfectly proportioned as she had ever seen. Iwao looked around the classroom, his eyes coming to rest on Ranma. She immediately looked down, remembering his roving eyes from before. This was going to be a long semester.

Iwao walked slowly back and forth in the front of the room, his voice crisp and authoritative. "Who can tell me what kinesiology means?"

Next to her, a thin boy who looked two years too young to attend college raised his hand. "The study of the anatomy, physiology, and mechanics of-"

"Too many words," Iwao cut him off. He looked around the room, and immediately Ranma regretted sitting in the front row. She knew what was coming as soon as his eyes reached her. "Saotome, isn't it? What do you think it means?"

Ranma swallowed. "The study of movement."

"Human movement, yes." Iwao continued pacing, his eyes fixed on the classroom. "This program is, at its roots, the study of how the body moves. Every sport can be broken down to a series of specific muscle movements and how our minds control those movements. Remember that. We'll be broadening our focus significantly, of course. This course will cover topics such as self-image, the economics of sports, and even how media coverage affects sports. But still, at its essence, it comes down to how you move your body."

"But, Coach." This from the scrawny guy. "What does economics have to do with your body?"

"Tanaka, right? Stand up. Come over here. Saotome, you too."

With extreme trepidation, Ranma stood up. Tanaka didn't seem the least bit nervous and was looking at Iwao with frank curiosity.

"Face forward. Raise your hands over your head." Iwao demonstrated.

Ranma followed suit. This caused considerable shifting underneath her shirt, and she was quite certain every guy in the classroom was staring at her chest. She clenched her jaw and prayed for the hour to be over.

Iwao's voice was right behind Ranma. "Okay, you two, relax."

Ranma, with an effort that was easy from long practice, relaxed her body, made it ready.

"Very good," Iwao said, his voice directed at the class. "See the difference?"

There was some mild chuckling. One of the guys in the back called out. "Yeah. Saotome doesn't know the meaning of the word 'relax'."

There was more chuckling while Ranma scowled. She turned her head to look at Iwao, hoping he would let her go. This was ridiculous.

He wasn't looking at her, instead sweeping his gaze around the classroom. "Does it seem that way? Did it occur to you to ask Saotome why she didn't lower her arms?"

Ranma glanced at Tanaka, saw that his arms were at his side. Her scowl softened into a thoughtful frown.

"When Tanaka relaxed, he dropped his arms. What Saotome realizes - and what the rest of you jokers evidently do not - is that it actually requires effort to move your arms from one position to another. Lowering her arms would require that she contract several muscles while expanding others. To her, relaxing doesn't mean expending energy repositioning herself."

"But, Coach." Tanaka seemed to like that phrase, Ranma noticed. "Doesn't keeping her arms over her head require more effort than letting them drop to her side?"

"Does it?" Iwao grunted. "I think you'd be surprised at how little effort it takes her to stay in that position. But if I kept her up here long enough, still under orders to relax, eventually she would lower her arms into a more maintainable position. There is a tradeoff. Short term, it takes more energy to lower her arms than keep them raised. Long term, it will cost her too much energy to keep her arms up, and she'll be forced to lower them. I'll let you decide whether or not this has any parallels in economics."

Tanaka frowned and didn't say anything.

Iwao waited a few seconds, then clapped his hands together. "Okay, sit down."

Ranma lowered her arms and returned to her seat. She picked up her pencil, stared at the paper a few seconds, and scribbled some notes.

Iwao went on to discuss similar analogies, then talked more about the course specifics. The hour went surprisingly quickly. Ranma had never much enjoyed class time in high school, but found that this stuff wasn't so bad.

When the hour was over, Iwao ground to a halt. "Okay, you know what to read, be ready on Thursday. Dismissed. Saotome, stay here a moment."

Ranma's stomach twisted. She put her notebook away while the rest of the class hurried out, many looking at her as they walked by. She would definitely have to choose a different seat next time.

Iwao waited until the students had left, then stood in front of Ranma. "I heard you disrupted the gymnastics team practice."

A bit of temper flared. "I did not! I was just watching."

"And stalking out on Coach Shiozawa. That wasn't very smart, Saotome."

Ranma bit her tongue, mostly because what he said was probably true. "Sorry," she murmured.

Iwao waved it off. "I'm not here to get you to apologize. I just want you to shape up. Do you know that in thirty years of coaching I've never seen a student arrive at college in your physical condition? I have no doubt you could outperform anyone on the gymnastics team, including the men."

Ranma found herself meeting his gaze. She had never found anyone who had so accurately assessed her physical prowess at first glance. Almost despite herself, she found a bit of respect growing for Iwao.

He shook his head. "You also have a chip on your shoulder the size of this island. Very few students are as openly suspicious as you seem to be. I don't know what's happened to you to make you act this way, but you better stow it, fast. You could have a fine career here if you don't alienate the entire faculty in your first week."

Her own gaze faltered and she looked down at the desk. "Okay, Coach. I'll try not to do stuff like that anymore."

"Good. My office hours are two to four, every day but Friday. You ever need any guidance, I'm available."

Sure you are. And I bet that 'guidance' would extend to after-hours as well. Ranma got to her feet, picked up her backpack. "Sure thing, Coach. Can I go?"

Iwao looked at her for a moment, then stepped back. "Go on." He sounded disappointed.

Ranma had every intention of keeping him disappointed. She quickly moved out into the hallway.

Several of her classmates were lounging outside, talking to each other. One guy looked over at her, then leered. "He kept you late? Keeping up the old grade point average, are you?"

Something exploded inside of her. Ranma dropped her bag, leapt at the guy, grabbed his shirt, and swung him around so that he smacked into the wall face-first, hard. Not giving him a chance to recover, she grabbed his wrist and ratcheted his arm up his back until he cried out in pain. "You say anything to me again, ever, and you'll never be able to use chopsticks again. Clear?" She dug her fingers into his wrist, applying an additional pain hold.

He cried out and managed a nod.

A hand grabbed her shoulder. Ranma released her hold and spun, glaring. The hand was very quickly withdrawn, and the wielder took two steps back, fear on his face. Ranma shifted her glare from person to person. There were mixed looks of surprise, fear, and anger. No one made a move towards her.

Ranma walked stiffly over to her backpack, scooped it up, and walked quickly down the hallway. She was shaking slightly and her chi flickered at the edge of visibility, ready to ignite in an instant. She had never felt so angry and ashamed in her life. And it was only her first class.

She found an empty dance room and moved in. Ranma threw her backpack to the ground and moved to the center of the room. With a shout she let loose a series of attacks on an imaginary opponent, channeling her energy into making the attacks come as quickly as possible. She blurred through the room, maintaining enough rationality to stay away from the walls and ceiling lest one of her attacks caused damage to the room itself.

Time became meaningless and it was only when she was bordering on the edge of total exhaustion that she began to slow her attacks, then finally come to a halt. In the end she stood facing the mirror, watching the reflection of a small woman with dark hair matted with sweat, her chest heaving as she gulped in air, her damp clothes plastered to her skin. No matter how hard she worked, no matter how much effort she put into the art, at the end of the day the reflection remained the same. It would always remain the same.

Turning away, Ranma walked over to grab her backpack. She turned towards the door and stopped. Several students stood watching her, including some of her recent classmates. She wondered how long they'd been there. Or what might have happened to them if they'd tried to enter.

Gathering herself, she moved towards them. A path cleared in front of her, for which she was grateful beyond words.

"Hey, Saotome." This from one of her classmates. "What Yokoyama said... that was out of line. You ain't like that, I know."

What the hell do you possibly think you could ever know about me? Ranma stopped dead in her tracks, not looking at the speaker, trying to decide how to react. Experimentally she offered, "All right. Thanks."

"Sure." The voice sounded relieved.

Interesting. Ranma continued on, heading towards the exit, feeling curiously relaxed. Amazing what a good thorough workout could do.

---

Ranma glared at the paper in front of her, which was covered with various scribblings. Why the heck anyone would care so much about triangles and circles she had no idea. Secant this, cotangent that, all of it was madness. With a frustrated sigh she crumbled the paper in front of her, tossed it into the wastebasket, put another blank piece of paper on her desk, and began again to try and determine why cosine two theta equaled cosine squared theta minus sine squared theta. It was easy to understand, according to her math professor, if you drew out a picture of a right triangle inside a circle. All Ranma got when she did that was a series of pictures that looked vaguely like cat faces, which did not help at all.

The door opened and Ranma looked up. Maaya came in, carrying a basket full of folded laundry. She set it on Ranma's bed, lifted out half the contents, and placed them on the bed. She then took the basket to her closet and began to hang some of her own clothing inside.

Grateful for an excuse to stop working on trigonometry, Ranma got up and began putting away her clothes. She was intensely grateful that Maaya had volunteered to do laundry for the both of them. Ranma tried to reciprocate by keeping the entire room clean, including giving the bathroom a thorough scrubbing every so often. They had no formal agreement - in the past several weeks they had not really spoken much - but Ranma took Maaya's continued clothes-washing as a tacit acceptance of the pact.

Putting away her clothes, alas, only took Ranma a few seconds. Resignedly she sat back at her desk and stared fiercely at the pages in her textbook, daring them to become comprehensible.

"Have you ever thought about buying clothes?"

Ranma turned in her seat, startled. Maaya hadn't initiated many conversations. "Er, no. What I got works fine."

"Two pants, four shirts, and your gi." Maaya was shaking out a dress, smoothing the wrinkles. "Don't you think a little variety would do you good? This would look good on you, I think. If you wore a bra, which I have yet to see you do."

Ranma frowned slightly. "I don't need anything like that. I get by just fine."

"Yes, I suppose you do 'get by'." Maaya hung the dress in her closet. "Don't you ever want to do more than that?"

"Not really." Ranma turned back to her homework. "Getting by is all I got."

She worked on her geometry some more, determinedly drawing out two triangles in a circle. Then she drew in some symbols and examined the figure intensely. The answer was here somewhere.

"What happened to you?"

Ranma lifted her head but didn't turn around. "What do you mean?"

"Something happened to make you this way, so depressed all the time. What is it?"

None of your business, she came very close to saying. She struggled for words, then finally, dropped her pencil and pulled out one of her psychology textbooks. A ribbon marked a place in the book and she let it fall open. She began reading out loud. "Feelings become intense and sometimes are unpredictable. The victim may become more irritable than usual, and mood may change back and forth dramatically. The victim might be especially anxious or nervous, or even become depressed. Recurring emotional reactions are common. Anniversaries of the event as well as reminders can trigger upsetting memories of the traumatic experience."

Maaya had stopped whatever she was doing; Ranma couldn't hear any movement behind her. Finally, Maaya spoke in a soft voice. "Are you saying you're a victim?"

"I'm only reading out loud from a book. Look, there's more. Interpersonal relationships often become strained. Greater conflict, such as more frequent arguments with family members and coworkers, is common. Alternatively, the victim might become withdrawn and isolated." Ranma closed the book firmly, put it back on the shelf above her desk. "Just interesting reading is all."

She picked up the pencil and stared at the figure again, although right now it was a bunch of lines without any meaning. Behind her, Maaya took a step forward. "Were... were you raped?"

Ranma laughed once, harshly. "Nah. No one could possibly rape me. I'd break their arms and legs, and then I'd go to work on them."

"So what was it?"

"Nothing. Absolutely nothing." Ranma felt her eyes burning a bit. "But you know what scares me? There's another passage in the book. Depression, it says, allows the victim to process mentally hurtful and potentially harmful material and paves the way to acceptance."

"Why would that scare you?"

"I don't know. They haven't written books about that yet." Ranma began drawing another figure on the paper, two right triangles and a circle. Cosine squared theta minus sine squared theta.

Maaya called her name once, gently, but Ranma ignored her. After a while, Maaya left the room. Ranma felt relief and regret and then figured out what the triangles were trying to tell her and went from there.

---

The lounge was full of students again, but with an entirely different purpose. All were reading or writing, and the atmosphere was very quiet. Whatever conversations that took place were done in a hushed tone. With finals coming up, everyone was doing their best to get ready or at least catch up.

Ranma, for her part, was still scribbling diagrams. Some people in her math class seemed to just know stuff. They could remember complex formulas and derive solutions seemingly from thin air. Ranma couldn't think that way; she had to see it to understand it. Right now she was borrowing the notes of a relatively friendly but very serious woman named Enomoto, trying to see if what she wrote was easier than what the textbook said. Enomoto was all about logic and deriving stuff from formulas, and her proofs were pretty clear and easy to follow. But Ranma still struggled with the fundamental "why" of it all. Thus she needed more drawings. This time they were of squiggly lines in a graph.

"Saotome. Phone."

Ranma looked up, surprised. Only her second phone call of the semester. She stood up, handed the notes back to Enomoto, stuffed her own notes into her backpack, and walked down the hallway towards the phone. She didn't know how to feel and wondered what her reaction would be.

The receiver was on top of the pay phone. Ranma picked it up and held it gingerly to her ear. "Hello."

"Hey there. How's school?"

"Oh, it's you."

"Yeah, me. Sorry I'm such a crushing disappointment."

"I didn't say that. Whaddya want?"

"Ever the charmer, you are. Look, I wanted to talk to you about your finances."

"My... finances? What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong, in fact you've spent almost no money at all after you bought your books. Are you getting everything you need?"

"Yeah. School provides a lot of stuff."

"But not everything. What about some new clothes?"

"Dammit, is the whole world conspiring to try and get me into a dress?"

"Yes, we are. The committee called me today and told me it's my turn to try."

"Knock it off."

"You first. Look, I didn't say anything about dresses. All you took to school was what you could fit in one duffel bag. I pray to heaven that you've been washing those clothes regularly. Don't you think that, perhaps, after several months of being washed over and over again the fabric may be getting a little worn out and maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea to get some new ones?"

Ranma took a few deep breaths before speaking. "All right, you're saying I have enough money to buy some new clothes in case my old ones wear out. Anything else?"

"Yeah. Look, at my college most of the seniors are forced to live off-campus. There just aren't enough rooms for everyone. So you have to start planning for that. The money you've got isn't enough to cover that kind of expense. So you should start thinking now about how you're going to deal with that. It wouldn't hurt to see about getting a part-time job and saving the money."

"A job?"

"Yeah, those things where you perform work and people pay you for it."

"I told you to knock it off. What am I supposed to do?"

"C'mon, you've worked before, I saw you work as a food server and other stuff."

"Not for money and not for long."

"Well, learn to adapt. Look, you don't have to do anything this very instant, we're talking three years down the road for you. But the sooner you start earning some money, the better off you'll be."

"Okay, okay, I hear you. I'll think about it."

"That would be a first." A pause. "So, really, how's it going?"

"Fine. I gotta study for finals."

"All right, I can take your extremely unsubtle hint. Let me know if you need any help."

"Okay. Bye."

"Bye."

Ranma replaced the receiver. She stared an accusation at it, then sighed and turned towards the stairwell. Casually she leaped over the rail, eliciting a startled shriek from two women in the process of climbing up the stairs. Ranma landed and sauntered towards the front doors, determined to leave but not anxious to arrive.

Two blocks from the campus was a shopping mall that derived most of its business from the university students. Ranma wandered inside. She'd been here a few times, mostly just to the grocery store to pick up some necessities. Now, however, she ambled from storefront to storefront, looking at the window displays. One store seemed much the same as the next, so Ranma eventually picked one more or less at random and went inside.

No sooner had she stepped inside than a thin woman, a year or two younger than Ranma, stepped up to her and bowed. "Greetings, Miss. How might I assist you today? We have some new dresses that would look just lovely on you."

Ranma glared at her. "Why the hell does it always have to be dresses?"

The thin woman blinked, evidently with no idea what to say.

Growling, Ranma stepped past her. There were quite a few different dresses in different styles that Ranma absolutely had no idea how to categorize. She ignored them, started looking at the shirts. They were all frilly decorative things that made her skin crawl.

Ranma stopped in front of a headless mannequin. It showed a female figure wearing a light blue blouse and silver skirt. The blouse was shaped to accentuate certain curves, with an emphasis on the décolletage. Ranma cocked her head as she studied it. She tried to imagine herself wearing it and was completely unable to. The image of herself would slip right off the mannequin. She could put other images there, picture other women wearing the clothes. Certain other women would look beautiful dressed like that.

With an effort, Ranma turned away from the mannequin. Her eyes fell on another display and she quickly made her way over. This was only half a mannequin, again headless, displaying a purple sweater. The sweater hung somewhat loosely, and the curves underneath were not quite pronounced. It was heavily knit and had a full turtleneck that would go up the wearer's chin.

Suddenly, all was well with the world. This was clothing she could wear and not feel self-conscious or ashamed. And, evidently, it would not be unfashionable for her to wear. Perfect in so many ways.

Ranma quickly grabbed a purple sweater and another white sweater. She brought them up to the front register and dumped them on the counter. The thin woman, who seemed a little afraid of her, rung up the sale and accepted Ranma's check. Ranma left the store, the sweaters in a large bag, feeling vaguely foolish, hoping no one would see her.

She began the journey back to her dorm room, a strange mix of emotions running through her. A threshold of some sort had been crossed, but in which direction she had no idea. All Ranma knew was that she was carrying a bag emblazoned with the name of a women's clothing store with sweaters she was planning on wearing and she didn't know how to feel about that.

It had been so different, before. She'd worn a kimono, for crying out loud, had her hair done up and everything, walked around with people looking at her and basking in it. But then it had been a game. It hadn't been serious, it hadn't been real. Now it was too damned real, too damned serious, and she couldn't live with the consequences.

That started her thoughts down another frightening yet seductive path and she desperately tried to veer away. Ranma yearned for a workout and began by jogging the rest of the way back to the dorm. She'd change into her gi and run to the padded mirrored room and do the forms and jump and kick and punch until all her worries were subsumed or she keeled over dead.

One or the other, it was both the same to her.

Shoving that thought viciously aside, Ranma increased her pace.

---

Ranma stepped into her room, closed the door, dropped her backpack, and fell face-forward onto her bed. She'd have much preferred fighting a flying bull. Martial arts was easy; finals were hard.

Maaya's voice drifted from where she sat at her desk. "So, are you done?"

"Yeah." Ranma turned her head to talk. "I didn't even get to all the questions on my math test. They should kick me out right now."

"If they kicked out everyone who didn't answer every single question on a final, enrollment would be in the double digits." Maaya shifted in her seat. "So, will you be coming back next semester?"

"I guess." Ranma pushed herself up and turned to sit on the edge of her bed. "I think I did okay on Psych and Sosh, and Sports was a breeze."

Maaya blinked. "Sports?"

"Sports Studies. It's a requirement for a Phys Ed major."

"Oh. I didn't know you were planning to major in Phys Ed." Maaya sighed. "Anyway, I just wanted you to know that I'll be rooming with Houko next semester."

Ranma felt like she'd been punched in the stomach. "You are?"

"Yes." Maaya couldn't look Ranma in the eye. "I talked with some of the other women. There's a single on the first floor. It's not very popular because it's right next to the stairwell, which makes it noisy sometimes, and it doesn't have a window. Still some women prefer having it all to themselves. We thought maybe you'd be one of those."

"One of those." Ranma still felt in shock. "One of those what... loners?"

"Ranma... you've made it pretty clear from the beginning that you want to be left alone. You won't let anyone talk to you, you don't try to talk to anyone else, you keep averting your eyes from everyone you walk by... we thought this would be what you wanted."

Biting her lip, Ranma looked down at her lap. Everything Maaya said was true. She had made no friends, had never engaged in any social activities. She heard about the occasional party but had spent her weekends studying or working out. She'd just been trying to adjust to college, just trying to stay afloat.

Hadn't she?

"Fine. I'll take the single. Should I move out now?"

"The next semester isn't for three weeks. You can wait until then."

"Great." Ranma walked over to her closet, pulled it open, grabbed her gi.

Maaya watched as she changed. "I'm sorry, I truly am. I, I don't know how to help you."

Ranma tied her belt, giving it a final savage tug. "I don't want any help."

"Yes, well, I figured that would be your response. For what it's worth, if you ever do decide you need some help, I'm here."

Without saying anything else, Ranma stalked out of the room. She walked stiffly down the hallway, half-hoping to bull over somebody in her way. But the hallway was empty and she made it outside without incident.

The day was cold and overcast, with rain threatening. That used to be a major concern, but of course it didn't matter now. Let it rain. Let clumsy people spill cold water or hot tea on her. It didn't matter. None of it mattered. Not a damn thing in the damn world mattered. Including herself.

The dance room was empty as she stormed into it. Immediately she faced away from the mirror and began to attack the air. This time it was power, pure strength, swinging with enough force to destroy a small dojo. As always, she was careful to stay away from the walls. Which was frustrating, because she wanted to blow up something, punch something, reduce something to rubble. Anything at all. Maybe even the whole damn university, which instead of being a new life had become the same old miserable life amplified a hundred-fold.

Ranma was getting no satisfaction. The strength blows - with nothing to actually make contact with - were actually hurting her form more than anything. She stopped in the middle of the room, trembling with exertion. This wasn't helping, she needed something else, something new. Perhaps a kata. Those still required strength and balancing, but most of all required precision and control, which was really what she needed the most at the moment.

But she was in no mood to try it. Ranma turned and walked out of the room, feeling like she had accomplished exactly nothing. In the past hour or the past semester.

She went back to her dorm room, found that Maaya was gone, which was a blessing. Ranma almost ripped off her gi and underwear, grabbed a towel, and ran into the shower. With a quick twist she turned on the shower, setting it to scorching hot. She stood outside it, naked, still trembling, feeling too acutely the weight of her breasts against her chest. She wanted to rip them off her body, a craving she hadn't had since the first few weeks. The water beckoned to her, the steam rising.

Defiantly, Ranma shouted "Change!" and stepped into the shower. That hot water cascaded off of her but her breasts remained. With an inarticulate cry she pounded against the wall of the shower, even now being careful not to damage anything. She leaned forward, her arms crossed in front of her on the tiled wall, head resting against her forearms, the water spilling off of her back. She was shuddering, drawing great gasping breaths. Perhaps even sobbing, she wasn't exactly certain of the source of all the hot water running down her body.

Finally, with a supreme effort, Ranma lifted her head and let the hot water hit her square in the face. She gasped and nearly swallowed a lungful of water. She coughed and turned, and by the time she had finished spitting out water she felt calm. At least she wasn't trembling any more.

Mechanically, Ranma unbound her hair and finished her shower. She toweled herself off, went over to the mirror, and began to bind it up. Halfway through the process she froze, studying herself in the mirror. She pulled the twine loose and let her fair fall down. All semester Ranma had yet to get a haircut, and hair was just beginning to fall down over her eyes. With an effort, Ranma moved her hair slightly, bringing some of it forward so that it covered her forehead, letting the rest fall down the sides and back of her neck to her shoulders. It was long, longer than it had ever been. Well, except once.

Ranma turned her head to either side, examining her hair. Maaya was right, the black did seem to gleam just a little bit. Of course, it was still damp. It would be interesting to see what it looked like after it had dried.

Entering her room, Ranma grabbed one of her new sweaters from where it was hanging in the closet. She held it up, then proceeded to put on underwear and pants along with the sweater. Ranma studied the result in the full-length but narrow mirror that hung next to the door. Her breasts, alas, were a little fuller than the store's mannequin's had been and were more prominent than she'd hoped. But otherwise it didn't look too bad, and her black hair seemed to contrast nicely with the white creamy color of the sweater. She wondered if contrast like that was good or bad. She had no idea.

Drawing a breath, Ranma reached for the door. Her hand gripped the doorknob and stopped. Where was she going? What was she supposed to do once she stepped in the hallway? Go to a party? Go pick up men? The very concept made Ranma feel queasy. Just what the hell was she trying to accomplish?

With a quick motion, Ranma released the doorknob and pulled the sweater over her head. She hung it back in the closet and grabbed a t-shirt instead. Ranma put it on, pulled her chair over to the window, and sat to stare outside at the gray clouds until night overtook them.

---

Ranma walked nervously outside. She stopped, waiting to be swarmed, waiting for everyone to stop and point and laugh. No one did. No one really even glanced at her, which was a welcome switch. Of course, standing here outside a women's dormitory wasn't exactly going to make her the center of attention.

People were buzzing about, the second day of classes in the new semester. The lawn was covered once again with students on various chores. Ranma had stayed on campus during the semester break, using the opportunity to move to her new room and get settled in. The two weeks had been pretty boring. She hadn't done much except work out and read. She had decided what classes she was going to take and had purchased the textbooks ahead of time, deciding already that she needed as much ramp-up time as possible. Her grades had astounded her: A in Sports Studies, B's in Sociology and Psychology, and a B- in Precalculus. Ranma Saotome with a GPA of greater than 3.0 seemed a contradiction in terms. Next term was likely to be as tough or tougher. Already her head was spinning with the new topics to be covered in Precalculus II. How could negative one have a square root? It was fundamentally impossible.

Ranma herself had no classes today, so had nothing special to do. Almost nothing. One thing she wanted to do. Was trying to work herself up towards doing.

The wind, which was blowing constantly but erratically, suddenly gusted around her body. Her hair went flying all over the place, whipping about her face. With an annoyed grunt she threw it back, contemplating for a moment tucking it into her turtleneck. But that would look silly, she knew that. So she let it hang there for all the world to see.

One step, two, and she was walking down the lawn. Her eyes kept darting here and there, looking at people, gauging reactions. Women mostly ignored her. About half of the men did, with the other half turning their heads to watch her or flashing a smile if they caught her looking at them. No different than before, really. It didn't matter how she dressed or how she wore her hair - people responded exactly the same way. It was quite disappointing, really.

Ranma wandered towards the athletic fields, passing people sitting and chatting on the lawn, throwing footballs or frisbees, a few men with naked chests trying to show off for her as they dived nearby to catch some thrown object. Stupid jerks. She wished she could be one.

Finally she arrived at her destination. On a field, a group of women were listening to Coach Iwao. They were all dressed alike, in short-sleeve shirts with large numbers on the back. They all were also wearing shorts, ones that seemed to hug their hips, not loose at all.

After a few minutes, Iwao blew his whistle. The women separated into groups and began kicking balls back and forth to each other. Ranma watched closely, almost hungrily. It was such an easy thing to do, to kick a ball where you wanted it to go. But she could only do it if she exposed her legs to the thigh and wore a shirt that hugged her chest.

"Dammit," she muttered to herself. "You did this before. You didn't have any problems with it before. Do it now."

Articulating the words didn't bring acceptance. Ranma took a few steps towards Iwao, who was moving from group to group, making suggestions. Her eyes slid across the field, to see people - men - watching. A dozen or so scattered about in clumps, not too many, each ogling the women with their eyes, each one of them desperately communicating a need to own, to possess, to use. Ranma shuddered and stopped, imagining that multiplied by a hundred, a thousand, during a game.

"Damn you, Saotome," she said with some vehemence. "You fought in a leotard in a ring with hundreds of people watching. You wore a cheerleading outfit and fought in that. This is no damn different. Suck it up and do it!"

She spoke more loudly than she intended; Iwao looked over and saw her. He looked surprised and began to walk towards her. Ranma quickly averted her eyes and fought desperately with the urge to flee.

"Saotome. It is good to see you again." Iwao stopped ten feet away, a soccer ball under one arm. "Have you considered trying out for the women's team?"

Ranma gulped; if only he hadn't used that word. "No, I was just watching," she mumbled.

"That seems to have been all you've done so far is watch." Iwao tossed the ball to her; Ranma caught it with both hands. "Isn't it time you stopped watching and started doing?"

Ranma stared somewhat cross-eyed at the ball in front of her. Experimentally she let it drop. She quickly brought up a knee and struck the ball, sending it skywards but without much velocity, catching it again with her hands. Twice she repeated the action, then just held the ball in front of her. "Would I have to wear those stupid uniforms?"

"Yes. It is the required athletic wear for this team."

Her eyes lifted from the ball, met Iwao's. "It's required to have all of us show you and all the other men what our legs look like?"

"Long pants would trap in heat, and you'll be using those legs all during a match. Even you will end up sweating a lot. And fabric could interfere with your ability to redirect the ball. Not all contact is with your feet and knees." Iwao looked at her strangely. "Is that all you're afraid of?"

"I..." Ranma didn't know how to say it. She tossed the ball back at him. "I don't want people looking at me."

"Ah." His eyes showed understanding. How Iwao could possibly understand Ranma's problems she couldn't possibly guess. Quite likely he was guessing something and guessing it wrong, like Maaya had. "Saotome, I'll say this once and once only: people will always be looking at you. You can't control that. What you can control is how they look at you. You join us, you try your best, you put the same effort into the team that you put into my class, and people will look at you with respect. And you may just find that to be not quite as much of a burden as you suppose."

With a small bow, Iwao turned away and went back to the women on the field.

Ranma clenched her jaw. Damn him for trying to manipulate her. He just wanted to see her legs. They all wanted to see what her body had become, wanted her to display it for them, wanted to touch her, fondle her, use her. She knew because it was what she had wanted. Before.

Spinning on her heel, Ranma walked back towards her dorm. The wind began blowing strongly again, and Ranma slowed, stopped, closed her eyes, felt the breeze on her face. This was just like last semester. She had started by confronting a coach and walking out on them. People who, just maybe, were trying to be helpful. Would the whole rest of the semester be the same? She wasn't sure she could handle that.

Opening her eyes, Ranma changed direction slightly and headed off campus.

---

The door to her old dormitory room was open. Ranma stood just outside, looking in. Maaya was sitting at her desk, chatting brightly with Houko, who was dressed in a t-shirt and sweatpants and dancing back and forth to the sound of a song on the radio. Ranma had her own judgment about how effective a workout technique that was, but kept it to herself.

Maaya looked up and her face registered surprise. "Ranma, hello."

"Hi Maaya. Hi Houko." She rocked on her heels a bit. "Can I ask you something?"

"Sure." Maaya shared a look with Houko before gesturing. "Come in. What is it?"

Ranma took a deep breath, steeling herself. "You said I could ask you for help."

"I did, and I meant it." Maaya sounded increasingly concerned.

"Good." Ranma held out her hand. "Can you show me how to use these?"

Maaya peered at what she was holding. "Hair sticks?"

"Uh, yeah. To, uh, hold my hair in place when I work out. So I don't have to tie it in a pigtail."

Maaya blinked at her. "I... I don't think hair sticks would work too well. They'd fall out. The pigtail is just fine."

"Oh." Ranma felt her face turning red. She withdrew her hand quickly and turned to go.

"But they're useful for other times!" Maaya leaped from her chair, grabbed Ranma by the shoulders and guided her into the room. "Sometimes it's nice to just bundle up your hair to get it out of the way while you're studying, and the pigtail's not the best way to do that. I can show you how."

Maaya brought Ranma up to Houko, who was watching everything with wide-eyed curiosity. "Can we use your hair?"

Houko smiled. "Sure." Over the course of the last semester her hair had gone from blonde to red to white. Now it was a kind of metallic green. Ranma couldn't help wondering what was wrong with simple black.

Maaya gently took the hair sticks from Ranma's hands. "Okay, watch. First, twist your hair like this - see? - then fold it up this way and kind of wrap it around. Shove one of the sticks in like so. If that's not enough, stick the other one in like this. You should only need one - your hair's not that long - but it may take two at first until you get the hang of it."

"Okay." Watching Maaya use the hair sticks had been like watching someone use a martial arts technique, an observational technique that Ranma was very good at. Ranma extricated the sticks from Houko's hair and watched it spill back down. Not stopping to think, Ranma reached back, twisted her hair, and performed the same maneuver she'd seen Maaya do. When she was done she lifted her hands away. "So?"

Maaya blinked once, twice. Then a smile began to slowly spread across her lips. Silently she turned Ranma around until she was facing the mirror by the door. The reflection showed an amorphous blob of hair resting on top of Ranma's head, with the two hair sticks poking up like antennae.

Ranma burst out laughing. Maaya and Houko joined in as Ranma reached up to remove the hair sticks. "Okay, that wasn't my best effort."

Laughter was still evident in Maaya's voice. "You just twisted too much of it, all the way up the roots, you don't need that much." She lifted Ranma's hand up and place it at the top of her neck. "About here."

"All right." Ranma repeated the procedure, this time using much less of her hair. This attempt looked much better; the hair sticks were not too prominent and Ranma couldn't feel any hair on her neck. Ranma gave her head an experimental shake, testing how stable the construct was.

Maaya nodded approvingly. "You know, Ranma, I believe that's the first time."

Ranma looked at Maaya's reflection. She didn't care much for conversational gambits like the one Maaya had just used. It was as if Maaya was afraid of sharing an observation and needed Ranma's permission to do so. Which, Ranma was forced to admit to herself, was probably a good idea given how Ranma had responded to other similar observations. "The first time what?"

"The first time I've heard you laugh." Maaya's expression was serious and a little sad. "I was wondering if you could ever be happy. About anything."

The comment shocked Ranma. She tried to think back, remember the last time she had laughed humorously. She couldn't, she honestly couldn't remember the last time she'd laughed. Had it truly been... months? Years? Had she laughed since China? Ranma was certain she had... she just could not recall a specific incident. And that was truly frightening.

Swallowing, Ranma tried to move past it all. "Do you think I should wear my hair this way all the time?"

"Heavens, no." Maaya seemed relieved to focus on a new subject. "This is just a comfort thing. But you shouldn't just let it hang all over, like it was when you walked in. Maybe you should try using a scrunchy."

"A what?"

"You don't know what a scrunchy is?"

"No, I don't." Irritation began to flare, and Ranma did her best to beat it down. "I don't know all the latest fashion trends, sorry."

"A scrunchy is hardly the latest fashion trend," Houko said slightly disdainfully. She picked something off her desk that looked vaguely like a frilly wrist band. "Here."

Ranma took it uncertainly. It was elastic; Ranma could easily stretch it with her fingers. She'd seen many other women - at high school and in this dorm - wearing similar things in their hair. Seen it without really registering it. Ranma reached back, pulled out the hair sticks, then gathered her hair up in one hand. With the other she held open the scrunchy and with just a hint of awkwardness forced the hair through. It hung down in a manner where she could feel something brushing a spot high on her back, right at the base of her neck, but couldn't feel any hair on her neck at all. Ranma flipped the ponytail a couple of times, trying to get a feel for where the scrunchy should be positioned.

Maaya adjusted it slightly higher, then looked at Ranma's reflection. "That's pretty."

Pretty, hell. "It doesn't seem any better than the pigtail."

"It's better for your hair. And it will look a lot better if you had your hair professionally cut. The ends are too uneven and your bangs are all over the place."

"It's terrible, really it is." Houko reached out and fingered Ranma's hair. "Who cut this, a gorilla?"

"A panda," Ranma said automatically.

Maaya and Houko laughed again, and Ranma smiled, able to find the humor with them.

"Well, if you want, I can cut it for you." Houko held strands of Ranma's hair between her fingers as if preparing to begin the operation that very instant. "Have you ever thought about a different color?"

"No!" Ranma brought her voice down a level. "Black is fine."

"Well, let me know and we can arrange something. Maaya, what do you think, would my red dress look good on her?"

"I have a chambray that I thought would be perfect for her. She's certainly got the figure for it."

"A chambray? Really? I'm not certain that's quite her look." Houko turned towards her closet. "Now I've got something in silver that would look fabulous. Give her some blue eye shadow and she'd be stunning."

"Stop it!" Ranma reached up, grabbed the scrunchy, and pulled it off her hair. "Stop trying to dress me up like some kind of doll!"

The mirror perfectly reflected Maaya's and Houko's expressions of shock. And anger. "What is the matter with you?" Houko said crossly.

You have no concept at all. Ranma met Maaya's gaze in the mirror. She looked sad and disappointed now. Pity, the damn pity, Ranma thought she could get away from it but it had followed her here.

"Thanks for the help with the hair sticks," Ranma said stoically.

She was just beginning to shift her weight prefatory to leaving the room when Maaya blurted, "Answer the question."

Ranma turned around, tired of seeing reflections. "Nothing is the matter with me. I just don't want to be..." How to say it? "I don't want to be what you want me to be."

"Who says we want you to be anything?" Houko snapped.

Maaya reached out to place a hand on Houko's arm, keeping her eyes on Ranma. "What we want you to be is not so lonely. You're cutting yourself off from everyone, even though... well, you want us to like you and talk to you. It's like you're trying to reach out but you don't know how. You're trying to adjust but can't figure out which adjustments to make. All we want you to do is help you fit in."

"All you want is to make me into one of you," Ranma couldn't keep from saying.

"One of what?" Maaya shook her head. "I can't figure out what it is you're trying to avoid. Being the same as everyone else? Ranma, you are going to stand out in a crowd no matter what you do. I certainly have never met anyone like you."

"Me neither," Houko said, still clearly irritated. "You're bull-headed, stubborn, resentful-" Houko stopped abruptly, probably in response to a squeeze on her arm from Maaya. She sighed and continued. "You're also one of the hardest working people I know - you concentrate fiercely on your studies and your martial arts, which sometimes makes me feel like I don't study as much as I should. You've got great natural looks, too... maybe it's the martial arts, I don't know, it certainly doesn't hurt."

"And none of that will be altered by what you wear or how you style your hair," Maaya said in a reasonable tone of voice. "So don't be afraid of the things we suggest. We're not trying to change you. Just help you."

Ranma looked back and forth between Maaya and Houko. Maaya looked sincere and concerned, Houko looked annoyed and curious. Ranma played with the hair sticks in her hand, moving them around like throwing knives, unsure how to react. "Look... all I want is to go around and not have people look at me like a freak or like someone they want to go to bed with."

"Well, we can help with the first thing." Maaya looked over at Houko, who looked backed, shrugged, and nodded. "But... well, if you were to wear rags and were covered with dirt, I suspect you'd still get those leering looks. That's normal."

"Normal?" Ranma held the hair sticks stiffly, one step away from hurling them. "It's normal to have every man look at you... *want* you... want to do things... you don't want them to do?"

Houko's brow furrowed. "What are you, a lesbian?"

"No!" Ranma scowled. "I just... don't want... men to look at me like that. Ever."

"I don't understand you," Houko spat. "Do you know how many women long to be admired like you are? Do you have any concept of how many women would kill for your looks? And yet, you behave like a petulant child. 'Oh, I'm too beautiful, I can't stand it!' Bah."

"Houko, stop that." Maaya drew in a breath. "Ranma, it isn't such a bad thing to be looked at. And yes, men will look at you and desire you. I don't know your life story, so I'm guessing you were in some isolated place while you were growing up and this is your first time interacting with men. Men looking at you, staring at your breasts... I mean, yeah, it's not exactly fun sometimes, but it's normal. And we do our own share of looking back. It's human nature to admire physical beauty."

"And it's human nature to want to make out with other people." Houko tossed her head, letting her hair fly a bit. "Maybe you don't know that. But ninety-nine percent of the world likes doing it with each other. And a large percentage of those folks like doing it with people of the opposite sex. So yeah, men are going to look at you, and yeah, men are going to want to have sex with you. Deal with it."

Ranma ground her teeth. "Never. I'll never... never accept that."

"Then you're dooming yourself to being hostile to men forever. Look." Maaya rubbed her cheek, evidently trying to organize her thoughts. "I think you've got some view of men as sex-starved creatures that will pounce on you if you give them the slightest opening. And that's not true, not for most of them. Just about every man will find you sexually attractive, but just about every man will be able to put that in the background and deal with you honestly. That, I think, is what you're missing. You're so... fixated on what you think men want to do to you that you can't think of any other reason why any man would talk to you."

"Or woman," Houko interjected. "You seem to think we're in some sort of secret society where it is our job to make you want to be wanted. Guess what? It's not. Like men, like women, or live life as a nun, I don't care. Just get over yourself, that's all I'm asking."

Ranma bit her lip to keep from returning Houko's snide remarks with some of her own. She couldn't think of anything to say that didn't sound vile or crude, even to her own ears, so she spun and stalked out of the room. She was certain the very instant she was gone they would start gossiping about her, making fun of her, telling each other what they could do next to get her into a dress.

She didn't feel like going back to her single room so Ranma left the dorm. While crossing the lawn she threw the hair sticks at the ground where they stuck with a satisfying thud. She continued on and found herself at the student center. For lack of anything better to do, she decided to get food.

It was near noon and the line was long. Ranma found herself between two men. The one in front was reading a book, and the one behind was talking to some friends. It was a blessed relief to be free of their gazes. Ranma reached the food and realized that she had no appetite at all. She decided on some sushi. She gave the cashier her food card, then found an empty table and plopped down in it. She took a nibble or two but found that really had no interest in eating. A damned waste of her food card.

A damned waste of her life.

What the hell was she doing here? Did she really want to turn into Maaya? Into *Houko*? Had she honestly expected this all to help? Everywhere she went there would be men who wanted her and women who wanted her to become them. And that would never change, ever ever ever. Her whole life loomed before her, a daily repetition of hell, and it frightened her nearly to the point of tears.

"Hello. Would you mind if I joined you?"

Dammit. Not now, not freakin' now. She looked up at one of the man who she should have known would eventually bother her. He was standing there, a pleasant look on his face, holding a tray of food. His eyes, looking at her, seeing her alone, thinking that he could use that, use *her*. It was probably just as well she wasn't still holding the hair sticks, although the chopsticks were a tempting alternative. "Go." Before I pull your damned eyes out of your damned skull. "Away."

The pleasant look was blasted away from his face, leaving an expression of surprise and hurt. The smile he forced onto his lips hid none of that. "I apologize for disturbing you." He bowed slightly and left.

Ranma sighed and looked down at her sushi. You've got some view of men as sex-starved creatures that will pounce on you if you give them the slightest opening. You're so fixated on what you think men want to do to you that you can't think of any other reason why any man would talk to you. You're cutting yourself off from everyone even as you want them to like you and talk to you.

Just get over yourself, that's all I'm asking.

Slowly, with reluctance bordering on revulsion, she pushed herself away from the table and stood up. Her eyes scanned the room, found the man, his back to her as he sat at another table. She came up behind him, clasped his shoulder. He looked up, and his eyes widened slightly as he saw her.

Ranma remembered the last time she had touched a man. She had sent him crashing into a wall and had come quite close to wrenching his arm out of his socket. That student and many of his friends had never spoken to her again. If she wanted to continue and try to alienate every single person on campus, she was off to a good start in the new semester.

There were many things about her new life she wasn't sure about, but one thing she was fairly certain of, and that was she didn't want any more people to hate her.

"I'm sorry," she finally got her mouth to say. "Nothing personal, okay?"

The man looked at her for a second, his face showing something almost like wonderment. "Okay."

Good. She nodded at him, then withdrew her hand and left the cafeteria. Ranma headed back towards her dormitory and her old room there. She had one more apology to make.

---

Ranma stood outside the door, gathering her courage. She couldn't seem to find any. It was annoyance that finally got her to raise her hand and knock on the door.

A voice from inside said gruffly, "Enter."

Gingerly, Ranma twisted the door and stepped inside.

A short, older man looked up at her from where he was writing something on his desk. He straightened as she came towards him, eyeing her quite frankly, interest in his eyes. "Saotome. What is it?"

Ranma looked back at him, trying to judge the source of his interest. Her eyes strayed around the desk, found a picture of woman holding two boys. Another picture showed one of those boys, now a young man, holding a baby girl that was waving at the camera. She absorbed these facts and looked back at Iwao. It didn't mean anything, infidelity was not unheard-of, especially with a man who was in a position to take advantage of vulnerable young students.

She drew a breath. "I am going to be applying for the Kinesiology program next year."

"Yes, I remember you telling me that." Iwao gestured for her to sit. "Yet you haven't joined any of the athletic teams."

"No, I haven't." Ranma sat in the chair opposite Iwao, not taking her eyes off of his. "But my grades are good, I got a 3.0 last semester, and-"

"Saotome. You needn't give me your resume, you haven't applied yet. Your grades are above average for people who want to enter the program, so that won't be an obstacle. It's just very unusual to find anyone who enters the program who isn't on a team already."

"Yeah. Well." Ranma tried to keep her mind on her purpose. "I was kinda thinking of learning what I can here to help me open my own dojo. After I graduate."

"Oh." Iwao nodded. "That seems reasonable. Too bad we don't have a judo club. The gymnastics program, though-"

"Yeah, that seemed reasonably close. But it's only half the year, and it's not an academics course." She shifted in her seat. "I don't really know the best way to learn what I gotta learn. I do know that I need to select a program advisor. Someone who'll help me decide what courses to take and what to concentrate on."

She waited, but Iwao seemed determined not to make this any easier for her. "So?"

"So." Ranma tried to bring moisture back into her mouth. "I was kinda hoping that maybe you could become my advisor."

Iwao looked back at her evenly. The silence stretched on, which shifted Ranma's emotions from nervous anticipation to irritation. "Well? I can ask someone else."

"You could." Her anger seemed to wash right over him, leaving him unaffected. "Because if I advise you, I'll be doing things like advising you to join some of our sports teams, where men like me will be able to look at your legs."

Ranma flushed, looked down and up. "Okay, I'm a bit weird about that. I hate to hell having to wear those things. But if you think it would be good for me, I'm... uh, I'm prepared to listen."

"Will you?" Iwao leaned forward. "From the very beginning you have seemed like someone who is not at all interested in what other people think, and clings to certain views with a stubborn tenacity. Will you ever be able to truly accept my advice without thinking... other things about me?"

There it was, as bald-faced as it could be. An honest question, one which forced her to judge who he was and what he wanted from her. When she was certain she had it figured out, she met Iwao's gaze straight on. "As long as you're straight-up with me, I'll try to trust you. That ain't - isn't - easy for me. Try anything with me, once, and you'll be walking funny the rest of your life."

"Understood. And I heard about the incident with Yokoyama. I won't say he didn't deserve it, but you have to understand that physical threats are not an appropriate response to insults, imagined or otherwise. If I hear of you making a threat like that again, to anyone, I will cease to be your advisor."

Ranma brought her brows together. "You saying I can't protect myself if some guy comes at me?"

"If people are obnoxious and not responding to reason, that's a different story. I imagine you'll come across a student or two that won't take no for an answer. In such instances, certain minimal applications of force can be effective. But resorting to physical confrontation every time you find yourself in disagreement with someone is an inappropriate use of your art. I don't know what your sensei taught you, but I'm telling you now - I won't condone it." Iwao's eyes glittered. "Understood?"

Ranma met his eyes and, for the first time, saw nothing predatory in them. "Understood, Coach."

"Good." Iwao visibly relaxed. "All right, get out of here. Come back when you're ready to fill out your application to the program, I can help you with that."

"Thanks, Coach." Ranma rose and, again for the first time since she arrived at college, bowed to a man and meant it. He inclined his head back at her, a small smile on his lips.

Ranma turned and walked out of the office. For the first time, she had put herself into a position to trust a man, at least a little bit. It felt weird. But it didn't feel wrong. And that, she decided, was a very good thing.

---

Ranma dropped her backpack to the floor and entered the dance room. She only had an hour until her meeting tonight and she wanted to work some of the forms. This evening, at the behest of Iwao, she was attending a meeting of the Sports Club. She had avoided it as just an excuse for male athletes to preen in front of doe-eyed women. Iwao had assured her it was nothing at all like that, and that she should give it a try with an open mind.

Given that her schedule was getting a little busier, she had opted to stuff her gi into her backpack and switch clothes in the bathroom rather than trudge all the way to her dorm and back. The locker room had a place to store clothes and even offered a shower, but Ranma wasn't quite ready for that. She'd just wear her gi back to the dorm and shower there before leaving for the club meeting.

She stood and faced the mirror. Looking back at her was the image of a young woman, her hair in a pigtail. Ranma studied it for a while, then began a kata. The kata seemed to be better at helping her look at the image without flinching.

Tiger-Attacks-Prey became Dog-Snarls-At-Cat. Ranma felt her muscles flowing strongly and smoothly from position to position and felt pleased. Her control was good today, and her body in top condition. She'd almost forgotten how pleasant it was.

From Customer-Avoids-Check to Man-Flees-Police. As she moved her arms into a position that looked like either she was about to throw a punch or was pumping her arms while running quickly, she became aware of someone in her peripheral vision, watching her from the doorway. That was not unusual, people - men especially - would often watch her work out. She usually responded by keeping her back to the door as much as possible. Today, she decided not to let it bother her.

As she moved into Cheering-The-Escape, the man watching her entered the room and sat against the wall. This was a first and annoyed the hell out of her. Did he have no respect for her privacy? If only she had chosen to do something a bit more aerobic, she could have accidentally kicked him or something.

But she was doing a kata and she kept her mind on the forms. One-More-Sake became Drunk-Falls-Down-Stairs. Just as well she wasn't articulating the forms where the man could hear them. She should think of new names for them. Maybe even develop a new series, although that would take a lot of time and effort.

Deciding what the new series would be like was a pleasant enough diversion to keep her mind off the man. She continued through the kata and finally brought it to an end with Panda-Atop-Bamboo. Ranma stood on one leg, her hands pressed together in front of her, staring at the reflection in the mirror. A woman looked back at her, in perfect form, not moving a millimeter, her face serene. Ranma envied her tremendously. If only she could truly feel what that woman seemed to be feeling.

Both she and the woman lowered their legs at the same time, ending the kata. Ranma turned away from the woman and found her eyes resting on the student that had entered the room. Her irritation flared anew. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

The student had a vaguely familiar look of awe on his face. "That was beautiful."

Ranma glared at him, her anger growing. Beautiful? If he'd seen her do it two years ago, would he have thought it 'beautiful'? "Hell no you wouldn't have, jerk," she mumbled quietly. Ranma stalked towards her backpack; she had to hurry back to her dorm.

The student scrambled to his feet. "Could you teach me that?"

Now that was funny. "Not even. I've been training all my life in that kata. If you were to devote every waking moment of your life for the next twenty years, maybe you could do it half as well as me."

He didn't seem to be able to take a hint. "Then could you begin to teach me what I need to know? If it takes me twenty years or more, I'd sure like to be able to move like I saw you move."

Enough was enough. Ranma slung her backpack over her shoulder and headed towards the door. Abruptly she stopped, feeling a sudden pang. All her martial arts were done alone, had been done alone since she'd left her father and even a little before that. It felt wrong, it felt unnatural, it always had but she'd adapted after a fashion. Now, out of the blue, here was an opportunity. A chance to work with someone on the art. In teaching him, she could improve herself.

She turned to study him. He seemed to blanch slightly under her gaze but didn't drop his eyes. She studied his body, found that this was someone who lifted weights but was inconsistent about it; there were underdeveloped muscle groups all over the place and his conditioning did not appear good. Still, he at least made an effort, which already placed him in the top five percent of people at the college.

But he was a he. He was a man. He'd stopped to stare at her, and all consideration about the forms aside, she was convinced he would not have tried to talk to her if he hadn't seen her as an attractive woman.

However, maybe his interest in the art was genuine even if it had sprung from a desire to be with her. One thing was certain; the art would pound any such extraneous desire out of him. If he wasn't totally committed to the art, it would destroy him.

She'd enjoy seeing that.

With an effort, Ranma temporarily let drop a barrier she had worked very hard to build. "What the hell. I've never had a student before. 'Bout time I had one. Need to pass on the art I guess."

A smile split his face. He looked entirely too pleased with himself.

Ranma decided to begin addressing that right away. She stepped towards him, invading his personal space. "I ain't gonna go easy on you. We start tomorrow morning at dawn. I'll meet you at the track. I can see how bad your conditioning is, and we can go from there."

Dawn, ugh. Why had she said dawn? It had sprung out, probably designed to make things as difficult for him as possible without consideration for how inconvenient it would be for herself. The student - her student now - seemed to take it in stride, unfortunately. "Great! May I know your name?"

She smiled savagely. Oh no, nothing's that easy. "Of course. My name is 'Sensei'. Don't you forget it."

His smile dimmed and vanished. "I won't forget, Sensei."

"Good." She looked at him for another second, wondering if she should ask what his name was, then decided she didn't care. First she'd have to find out how serious he was about the art; then she could decide if she want to bother learning anything about him as trivial as his name. "Dawn. At the track. You're late once, I don't teach you anything ever again."

Ranma walked quickly out the door, not waiting for his response. She felt... weird. Of all the things that could have possibly happened to her this semester, that last thing that would have ever entered her mind was acquiring a student in the art. Which was kind of surprising, really. This was what she was at college to learn how to do, after all. Why not begin with some hapless guy she could turn into a physical wreck with no compunction whatsoever? His fault for asking her in the first place. His fault for letting his hormones get in the way of his judgment.

She found her way to her dorm room and dumped her backpack on the only bed. A glance at a clock on the desk showed that she didn't have much time until the club meeting. Quickly she undressed, thinking about how to start with her student. Different forms were considered and discarded. She couldn't begin by teaching him a Moko Takabisha. She couldn't begin by teaching him how to jump and kick at the same time. She grabbed a towel and her toiletries and padded into the bathroom, reaching into the shower to turn the faucet. It couldn't even be just punching and kicking; his muscles wouldn't take it. No, it would have to be very basic, baby stuff. How to run, how to stand, how to move his arms, legs and body. She lathered up, washing the sweat off of her. Sweat, she'd have to make him sweat really really hard. Find something to push his endurance to the maximum right away. Maybe-

Ranma froze, her washcloth halted in the process of vigorously washing her chest. She'd entered the shower, felt hot water hitting her... and hadn't even noticed. More than not expecting anything to happen, she hadn't even remembered to not expect anything. Stepping into a stream of hot water had seemed a perfectly natural, mechanical, everyday thing to do. It hadn't even interrupted her train of thought.

What did that mean? Was she coming to... accept it? Was her psyche at last caving in to reality and adjusting to the way her body was now?

That was truly, truly frightening. Terror washed over along with the hot water. Something her psychology course had taught her was that there was a vast difference between wanting something and actually obtaining it. For months other people had been telling her to accept what had happened to her. At the end she'd found herself agreeing, at least intellectually. But at the core of her being was someone who stubbornly refused to accept this. That someone was shouting in rage, now. This is not who you are. This is not what you were meant to be. You are Saotome Ranma, heir to the School of Indiscriminate Grappling.

You are not a woman.

You never will be.

So don't you dare accept it.

Damn you.

Ranma never made it to the meeting. Instead she sat in her room, wet hair bound in a pigtail, staring at a picture she had kept hidden away, of two teenagers, a boy and a girl, laughing at something nearby, represented in the picture only by a wet, black, furry paw. The picture filled her eyes and mind until the room plunged into blackness.

---

Ranma felt the sweat on her brow. She ignored it, tried to keep focusing, concentrating. This enemy was particularly vicious and she had to give it her absolute best shot or it would destroy her. And she couldn't allow that, not with all these people looking at her.

She reached out and made several slashing movements, completing the square, then immediately breaking it down. Finally, she turned. "The real part of the answer is that zed equals nine point two."

The professor nodded. "And the imaginary part?"

Dammit, her arch-nemesis. She turned and frowned at the white lines. "Three point nine."

"Well done, Saotome. I'm pleased you remembered your trigonometry. Does everyone follow how she converted the tangents here?" The professor used a long pointer to tap at some of the markings on the chalkboard.

Ranma took the opportunity to flee back to her seat, relieved beyond words that that the ordeal was over. The professor went on, calling on other students to answer other questions; he seemed to be content to let students teach the class for him. Or something. It was unlike any class she had ever taken, but she found that constantly working through examples was very helpful for her.

Class ended, and with relief Ranma shoved her notebook into her backpack and fled the classroom. She made her way into the late afternoon sunshine. Mentally she debated whether to do her homework or work out for a while. The thought that she would be called upon again to perform in front of the classroom decided it for her. Besides, she had already spent two hours this morning with her student. It wasn't a complete workout, but it was enough to get by on. Tomorrow she'd have to make certain to work out by herself.

The women's dorm loomed. Ranma went in and past the front desk, towards her room which was close by. The single had some conveniences that helped offset its disadvantages.

"Saotome."

Ranma blinked, turned. The student behind the front desk was waving a piece of paper at her. "There was a call for you earlier."

Frowning, Ranma walked up and took the paper. A thousand possibilities flashed through her mind, from love letters to notices of expulsion. With trepidation, she read it. "Meet tomorrow Bresti Cafe 5pm. Akane."

The written words hit her as hard as any fang-toothed boy ever had. She stood there, staring down at the words, her stomach churning. Ranma looked up at the woman who had given her the message. She was looking at Ranma, surprised by Ranma's expression. "Friend of yours?"

Ranma shook her head, then turned and walked back to her room. The world faded around her, voices muted and sights dimmed. All she could see was the door to her room. She fumbled with her keys, unlocked it, entered, quickly shut the door, then slid to the ground with her back to the door.

*She* was coming. Coming here. For what? Why? To bring her back? To reconcile? Ranma's mind reeled with the possibilities.

Ranma replayed the last phone conversation she'd had in her head. Then she replayed the last time they had talked face-to-face. She ended up spending the whole night replaying their entire relationship, at the end feeling such longing and sadness that she thought she'd die. And almost wishing she would.

---

Ranma sat down in an empty booth. A food server came up and smiled brightly. A man seated himself in a booth behind her. Ranma ordered tea from the former and decided to continue to ignore the latter for now.

The tea arrived quickly, and Ranma poured herself a cup. She stared down into it, feeling her hair fall forward. Annoying stuff. Shoulda brought the hair sticks. Or a scrunchy. Shoulda shaved her head years ago.

Go ahead, she said to herself. Think of anything but her.

"Hello, Ranma."

The voice splintered her mind into fragments. Ranma looked up to see a woman with short dark hair and a very pretty face looking down at her. Ranma had seen the face screaming mad, crying in frustration, smiling in warmth. What she saw now, though, was nervousness and apprehension hiding behind a weak façade of pleasantry.

Ranma swallowed and nodded. Akane sat down and allowed Ranma to pour her some tea. Akane took a sip and then said, very tentatively, "How are you doing?"

How the hell do you think I'm doing? "Okay."

"How are classes?"

"Fine."

Akane seemed to falter at that. Ranma felt the old emotions raging again. Anger at Akane for treating her this way. Frustration at herself for not being able to respond normally.

It continued for a while. Banal questions, safe answers. Through it all Ranma couldn't keep her eyes off Akane. She was here, she was beautiful, and she was treating Ranma like someone to be kept at a distance. Whatever nascent hope she'd ever had was dying, and Ranma soon found herself yearning for the fall of whatever axe Akane was intending to yield.

It came soon enough. Akane, holding the tea cup with both hands, staring directly at Ranma, the words delivered in an even cadence. "I have a boyfriend."

Ranma locked gazes with Akane. In the pit of her stomach a scream tried to force its way out of her mouth and Ranma fought it down. The final, irrefutable evidence. Akane felt nothing at all towards Ranma. The acceptance of that knowledge felt like a barrier giving way, and pain and self-loathing built up inside her, the force of it nearly palpable.

Akane's apprehension seemed to be growing. "Please, tell me what you're feeling."

Something snapped inside of Ranma, and the pain turned to anger. "Feeling? What do you think I should be feeling? My fiancée is dating another person."

Akane responded with anger of her own. "The engagement was broken off six months ago. Even you said it was the right decision. You knew this would happen eventually. You even told me that I should find someone else."

I said that. I said lots of things. You were supposed to know which ones I really meant. "So you've given up on me?"

"Is there anything else that can be done? You've tried everything you could think of. Talked to everyone you could talk to. Will things ever change?"

Ranma stared blankly. There was so much she wanted to change. She wanted her body to be different. She wanted her mind to be different, to accept that *being* with a woman wasn't revolting. She wanted to go back to the day at the pools, to stop what was going to happen, to talk some sense into her father and herself. She wanted Akane to change the way she looked at Ranma, wanted Akane not to have pity tinged with revulsion in every interaction they shared.

Of all the things she wanted to change, that last was the one she wanted to change most of all. "I... I don't know." I don't how to change you, to change *us*, back to what we had before. It should have been possible, we should have been able to keep it together, why couldn't we?

"Look." And Ranma knew that Akane was about to give the speech, one she'd heard a thousand times before, variations on a painful theme. "We meant something, once. Even if we had trouble admitting it. But it's over, we have to move on. You have to move on. You have to accept it, or you'll wither and die. Please, accept it."

Damn you. Is that all you can say? Is that all you can feel? The anguish rose in her, stronger than it had ever been before. "I'm trying. It's so hard. It isn't me. This... isn't me. And you... I never knew how good I had it until you were taken from me. All those wasted opportunities, and now I'll never get another chance."

Akane swallowed, and Ranma realized that she had just given *her* speech, her own mantra, the only thing she could say to the woman in front of her. Akane's voice trembled slightly. "I know. We've been over this and over this so many times. No matter how much we wish it, we can't change what's happened. We can only change where we're going, what we're doing. Please understand. I can't... I can't be your fiancée anymore. I'm sorry."

Ranma looked down at her tea again. And they were back to the beginning again. Akane repeating, in yet another variation, that she felt no love for Ranma at all. The conversation was going nowhere. It had gone nowhere for months. Years. Lifetimes. "Go away."

"What?"

"Go away!" Ranma couldn't lift her head. "Just get out! It hurts too much to see you."

Quickly Akane got to her feet. Her own anguish came through strongly. "If... if that's the way you want things. I'd still like us to be friends."

Damn you again. Did you have to fall back on the oldest lie? Ranma couldn't bear the pity and squeezed her eyes shut. Eventually Akane left.

Ranma waited until she heard the door to the diner open and close before allowing her eyes to flutter open. The tea was cooling down in front of her. Akane was gone. She would quite likely never see her again. It was her worst fear come to life, her deepest anxiety made real. Despite all she had done, despite all she could ever do, Akane was lost to her.

Breathing heavily, Ranma waited. Waited for the depression to come and crush her. Waited for her mind to crack and splinter, her sanity to slip, her hands begin to long for the feel of a blade in them.

For some reason, it didn't happen. She sat there, surprisingly calm, not understanding why she wasn't feeling worse. Ranma replayed the conversation in her head, and came to a strange realization - that she had felt absolutely horrible during the conversation, but that before and after she had been relatively all right. That Akane had been a source of pain to her.

And that another nearby presence had been a source of comfort to her.

That realization was damned frightening. But, she was forced to admit to herself, it was also worth pursuing.

Deliberately, Ranma set down the teacup and stood up. She waited for revulsion to overcome her. It didn't. Taking that as a good sign, she turned and quickly slid into the booth behind her, where a college and martial arts student named Kentaro sat holding a hamburger.

---

Something was horribly wrong with the alarm clock.

It beeped, loud beyond bearing. Ranma groaned and reached for it, having trouble making contact with the off switch. With an annoyed grunt, she grabbed the clock and yanked it viciously until it was unplugged from the wall. Ranma let it drop to the floor, where its fall was broken by something soft. Probably the pile of clothes she had left there last night.

Ranma sat up and her head promptly exploded into several fragments. Ranma gasped and tried her best to hold the various parts of her skull in place. They cooperated grudgingly, shooting a deep aching pain throughout her head and body as punishment.

A timeless interval later Ranma decided that her cranium was in as stable a state as it would ever be. Carefully she dropped her hands. Moving as calmly and smoothly as possible, she stood. Her head complained vociferously about this deliberate treaty violation and proceeded to tilt the world at an odd angle. Using every ounce of physical skill she possessed, Ranma remained upright and moved to the bathroom.

Grabbing the edge of the sink, Ranma peered into the mirror. A horribly ugly woman peered back at her. Ranma would have quickly moved away from the mirror if she hadn't been afraid her head would fall off. So with no other choice, she looked woefully at the woman's image.

Had... had *that* woman gone to a party with a man last night? *Danced* with a man last night? Ranma wasn't quite certain she believed the images that were stuck in her head.

He's just a friend, you tried to be friends with him, you went to do something social in your life for once, and it felt good to do it with a friend. And the dancing, heck, that didn't matter, it was just a physical activity, you've done much more physical things with him during training. You were just doing this to have fun.

Ranma ran that around her head a few times and it stood up under scrutiny. She began to nod to herself but stopped just in time. She pushed herself away from the mirror and went back into her room. The closet door was closed and she managed to get it open, to see the gi hanging there.

His arm around her shoulders, his face a few inches from her.

Ranma slammed the closet door shut. The image faded in and out, and Ranma wasn't sure she wanted to remember this.

Grimly she dug it out... falling to her knees, the pain of her life too much to bear. Him kneeling beside her, trying to comfort her, tell her that she was a good person and had things to live for. Hearing his words, taking comfort from him, from his nearness.

Damn it all to hell.

Slowly Ranma opened the door again. She grabbed her gi and put it on. The anger was helping her to focus, to push the throbbing of her head aside.

Why had she done that? Why had she opened herself up to... to a man? Maaya had said several times that Ranma could come to her with problems, but Ranma had shied away from that. But this guy... she'd opened up to him in a way she'd never opened up to anyone before. Anyone. Why?

Stupid man getting her stupidly drunk, making her vulnerable in ways she had never imagined. Damn him for taking advantage of her.

Except... she'd opened up to him, there in the booth at the café, and she hadn't touched a drop of beer.

Shaking off that annoying observation, Ranma made two new resolutions: she would never drink alcohol again, and during all future martial arts lessons her student was going to suffer horribly.

Grinning widely, Ranma left the dorm and made her way out into the slowly-brightening day.

---

Ranma flopped down against the wall and opened her backpack. The lounge was crowded and she counted herself lucky to have found an open spot. She pulled out her notebook and began flipping through pages filled with chaotic scratches. If she never again had to find out the limit as something approached something else, she'd die happy.

With a sigh she looked around, spied a classmate. "Enomoto, can I-?"

Wordlessly Enomoto handed over a notebook. Gratefully Ranma took it and flipped through it as well. She shook her head as she did so; anyone who could write as neatly and quickly as this woman did while listening to a lecture had to be inhuman.

Silence reigned as everyone read or wrote. Ranma struggled with one particular proof - one over one squared plus one over two squared plus one over three squared repeating infinitely for one over 'n' squared... somehow that all added up to pi squared over six. Ranma tried to follow the proof that Enomoto had written, but she still couldn't *see*. She let out a grunt of dissatisfaction.

Enomoto looked up. "What's wrong?"

Ranma shrugged, embarrassed. "Just can't get this in my head. You can't add infinite numbers, it's impossible."

Enomoto grinned. "Toss me back my notebook, please."

Frowning, Ranma closed the notebook and spun it gently through the air. It fell in Enomoto's lap.

She laughed. "That was good. Okay, how did I get this?"

"Uh, I threw it at you."

"But consider Xeno's Paradox."

"Who?"

"In order to get to me, the notebook had to travel half the distance between us."

"Er, yeah, of course."

"And then it had to get halfway between *there* and me. Follow?"

Ranma ran that through her head, and nodded. "Yeah. And then it had to go halfway between that spot and you."

"Brilliant. So, whenever it gets to some point, call it 'x', between you and me, there's another point, 'x' over two, that still exists between us, and it must travel to that point as well. So, the paradox is, if there's always another halfway point to which the notebook must travel, how did it ever reach me?"

Blinking, Ranma pondered the question. "Because even though it's an infinite series, it has a finite sum."

"Bravo. Does that help?"

"I think." Ranma brought her forefingers in front of her face, pointed at each other, and brought them slowly together and apart a few times. "Yeah. Thanks."

"You're welcome." Enomoto smiled and went back to her reading.

Ranma spent a minute picking up her pencil and dropping it onto the pages of her notebook. She almost expected it slow and stop before it ever reached the pages. But it didn't, and a light was slowly dawning in her mind.

She lifted a pencil to drop it once again. This time, a woman sitting next to her whose name she didn't know reached over and wrapped her hand around the pencil. "Stop that."

"Sorry." Ranma put the pencil down as the woman released her grip.

"Honestly, it's no wonder you room by yourself."

Ranma froze, her eyes on the woman next to her.

"Omi!" This was Maaya from across the room.

"Well, you should know," the woman continued. "You couldn't stand living with her also."

Real anger was evident in Maaya's voice. "That's not fair, Omi."

"Whatever." Omi went back to reading her textbook.

Ranma's eyes had never left Omi's face. Omi seemed quite conscious of the gaze but was studiously ignoring it. After a couple of minutes, Ranma looked around. Many of the women were watching her. Once again, Ranma could see it, feel it. The pity. Even Maaya had it written all over her face. Poor little unhappy Saotome Ranma.

Clenching her jaw, Ranma shoved her notebook into backpack. She stood up and stalked from the room.

"Ranma!" Maaya, behind her. Ranma ignored it.

There was the sound of movement in the lounge, someone saying "Ow!", and then running footsteps. Ranma resolutely continued striding down the hallway until the footsteps caught up and a hand grabbed her arm. "Please, stop."

Ranma resisted an urge to send the arm flying away and instead turned to stare at Maaya. "What?" The word was an accusation but she didn't care.

Maaya flinched slightly. "Look, Omi's being mean for no reason, she's like that sometimes. Don't pay any attention to her."

Ranma barked a short vicious laugh. "Why not? Everything she said was true. No one could stand to live with me. Even you."

Maaya seemed stung by the words. She opened her mouth but no words came out. After a few seconds she withdrew her hand.

Good. Ranma spun and left the dormitory. Off-campus housing, that had to be the answer. Very expensive, don't have money. Get money. Anything to keep away from those women, that dorm, that life.

Her stomach twisted. Did she really want to be so completely and utterly cut off? The people at the dorm had at least not been the kind to stare at her chest. She had thought... almost thought... that she had found acceptance there. Or at least a kind of truce. But clearly they all hated her.

Ranma stopped and breathed in the night air. Clearly she was overreacting. She needed to settle down. Find some peace.

Looking around, Ranma spied one of the other dormitories. She had at least one friend. Within strict limits, she had allowed her student in the art to become her friend as well. Maybe it was time to seek him out.

She started towards the dorm, realizing as she did so that she was experiencing a sudden eagerness. No matter what the reason, it felt good to have someone who was always glad to see her. Ranma needed that, and with a sudden pang she realized she'd be losing that, soon, over the summer break. Five weeks seemed like an eternity all of a sudden.

Still, they could work around it. As long as he stayed within the limits, it should work. It had to. She had nothing else.

Feeling suddenly buoyant, Ranma entered the dorm.

The men's dormitory was just as subdued as the women's dormitory had been. For some reason she'd expected more rambunctiousness. When Ranma had first moved to the Tendo home, she'd spent almost no time at all studying. Only in her senior year had she truly taken it at all seriously. She wasn't entirely certain whether this had set up some expectation that boys thought homework was a joke and only girls worked hard at it. Then again, there'd been very serious male students in high school, who seldom took part in anything fun because they were spending every spare moment studying. She'd had other reasons why she'd felt comfort in burying herself in books.

Shaking off that memory, Ranma stepped up to the front desk. "Hey. Can you tell me what room Marumoto Kentaro is in?"

The student at the front desk didn't even lift his eyes from his textbook. "One fourteen."

"Thanks." Ranma wandered down the hallway, finding the room in short order. Like many of the rooms, this door had a small whiteboard on it where people could scribble notes. Ranma read them, found that most were aimed at Kentaro's roommate. Kentaro evidently wasn't one to attract a lot of attention. Her mind could easily imagine him slipping through college without making many friends but without really being bothered by that, either. He'd find a few people to associate with, and that would be sufficient. Quite possibly he could live his whole life like that: self-contained, orderly, boring.

Even here and now, Ranma wasn't certain whether she was on her way to becoming someone like that. Before, whenever Pop had dumped her into whatever school they happened to be camped close to, Ranma had come to know lots of people, made lots of friends and just as many enemies, and had interacted with dozens of people on a daily basis. It had led to a lot of chaos, of course, but that had suited Ranma just fine. She'd enjoyed life like that.

So far at college she'd done a wonderful job of making enemies. She needed a friend right now.

Ranma knocked on the door. She heard someone moving inside, then the door opened. She found herself studying his face intently, looking for signs of pleasure. He instantly smiled, and his eyes seemed to light up a bit.

Suddenly, Ranma felt slightly timid. "I, uh, was wondering if you wouldn't mind a study partner."

Kentaro seemed slightly surprised by the request, but quickly he stepped back into the room. "Of course. Come in."

Ranma entered, looking around. The place was, to her mild shock, quite a mess. Dirty clothes covered much of the floor, and one desk was entirely covered with papers, empty take-out cartons, and textbooks that looked little-used. She raised her eyebrows slightly. "Never been here before. I pictured that it would be... neater, somehow."

Kentaro's lips quirked. "You try living with the human landfill. There's not a lot of room here..."

"Don't worry." Now that Ranma looked at it the right way, the room seemed roughly split in two, with most of the mess on one side. The bed next to the desk Kentaro had been studying at was neat - actually made, which Ranma seldom did with her own bed. "This is good enough."

Kentaro seemed a little embarrassed as Ranma took the books out of her bag. "Need anything? Got some pop in the fridge."

"I'm fine, thanks." With trepidation she opened up her Precalculus textbook. The limit as this approached that. Still, Enomoto's insight had helped. She dug into one of the problems with renewed gusto, in her mind watching a notebook spinning through the air.

After a moment, Kentaro sat back at his desk. Ranma finished two problems through to completion, feeling like she finally had a handle on this. Then she looked up at Kentaro. He was reading a large textbook and making notes on a pad of paper. Ranma wondered what purpose that served; he wouldn't be able to use either the book or the pad during his finals. Maybe it was just like what she was doing with math, writing things down to make certain she understood.

Finals. Her stomach twisted in a knot suddenly. Finals were coming. "Kentaro?"

He looked up. "Yes?"

"What are you going to do over the school break?"

He shrugged. "Go home. Do some work for my father, probably."

With a bit of chagrin, Ranma realized she knew very little about his life before college. "Where's home?"

Kentaro turned slightly in his chair, giving her more of his attention. "Okinawa."

"Really?" She'd had no idea. He didn't talk like someone from Okinawa. Then again, Ranma wasn't certain what people from Okinawa were supposed to sound like. "That far away?"

"Yeah. Mom's from there. Dad moved there after they were married."

"Oh." She bent back down to her textbook, trying to digest all that. Kentaro wasn't from anywhere near here or Nerima. Ranma had never really considered exactly what she'd been going to do over the summer. Going back to the Tendo house didn't seem appealing, and suddenly she found no great desire to hang around here, either. Spending four weeks in utter isolation seemed too painful to contemplate.

She looked up again, trying to find an opening, any opening. One came easily to mind. "Are you going to give up training?"

Kentaro made an exasperated noise. "Ranma, I need to study. So do you. Let's talk about this some other time."

The words stung unexpectedly hard. And following quickly on the pain was anger. "Fine." She stood up and began repacking her textbooks, wanting to get out of this room as quickly as possible.

"Wait, Ranma." Kentaro sounded genuinely distressed. That was enough to get her to pause and look up at him expectantly. Kentaro rose to his feet, taking a step nearer to her but still maintaining a distance. "What is it you want to talk about? You've obviously got something on your mind. If we can get it out of the way, perhaps we can both concentrate on our studies."

Dammit, why hadn't he responded that way the first time? Now she'd backed herself into a corner, and either had to pursue this to its conclusion or back off like a coward. And she was sick to death of being a coward. Damn him for making her feel like one. "I just want to know if you're going to give up your training."

Kentaro frowned, obviously perplexed. "No, I think I've learned enough to at least keep myself in form until next semester."

"You sure?" Ranma paused, then plunged on. "I could maybe make my way over to Okinawa a couple of times just to make sure."

Kentaro's expression cleared. Suddenly he looked dreamy, excited. Suddenly he looked like his roommate had during the party a few weeks ago. Suddenly he looked like every guy on campus when they thought there was some possibility that they could have their way with Ranma. "Well, if you can afford it, I'd appreciate having you come."

"Dammit, Kentaro." You weren't supposed to react like this, you stupid jerk. Ranma held back the words with difficulty, substituting a more mild, "Can't you just be my friend? Do you always have to get that look in your eye?"

His face fell, almost exactly as it had in the cafeteria that one day. "I'm sorry, I can't help it. There's... there's so much to like about you. I... I want to be more than friends."

Incredibly, he wasn't backing off like he had before. "I'm a guy. Can't you get that through your thick skull?"

"You're a person. It's the person I'm attracted to. Your outward form is only secondary to the person you are underneath."

"Oh really?" That was feeble. She'd thought that he was smarter than that. "Let's say I became a guy again. Would you still be in love with me?"

That seemed to stop him in his tracks. He said nothing for a minute, looking steadily at her while inside his mind the wheels turned. Ranma found that she had no curiosity at all about what he was going to say. He'd disappointed her on so many levels already tonight; what more could he do?

"What's your sexual preference, Ranma?"

Ranma's mouth dropped open. Amazing. Somehow Kentaro had managed a new low to sink to. "What?"

His voice was steady even as nervousness etched his features. "Do you like girls or guys?"

The anger inside her grew, became fury. "I am not gay."

"You mean lesbian?"

Ranma clenched her fists both an effort to control herself and the first step towards launching an attack. "You are three seconds away from having your stomach shoved into your spine."

"You're a woman, Ranma. I don't know what you were before you came here, but from what you've told me, you're going to be a woman for a long time to come."

The boy absolutely could not take a hint. He wasn't stopping, he would not stop. "Two seconds," she tried.

"As I see it," he said with apparent obliviousness, "you have three options here. You can prefer to date other women. That will severely limit your options, of course. I think you've learned that already with your ex-fiancee. You can try dating men. That has the advantage of being the most socially acceptable, and increases the likelihood that you'll find someone compatible."

She brought herself within his threat range. From here she could launch a million attacks and he'd never seem them coming. He had to know, he absolutely had to know that this was forbidden ground, she'd made that clear from the very beginning, even before he'd been her student. In his lust-induced blindness, he was ignoring every signal she was sending, every rule she had ever established with him. "One second."

"Or," Kentaro continued evenly, "you can continue as you have been: yearning for something you can never have, keeping everyone at a distance while you wait, and ending your days whining, miserable and alone."

Her mind exploded in rage. Never had she imagined Kentaro capable of such cruelty, intentional or otherwise. Never had she imagined that he could hurt her so much. All she could think about as she grabbed his shirt with one hand was to inflict just as much on him as he had on her. Ranma pulled her fist back, prepared to break his nose for starters.

What stopped her was outrage of an entirely unexpected form. Kentaro didn't bring up his defenses, didn't try to break her grip on his shirt, didn't try to get away at all. He just closed his eyes and stood there, arms at his side. Hadn't she trained him better than that? Hadn't he grasped the basic fundamentals of blocking she'd been teaching him? Was he so panicked that all she'd ever taught him had fled his mind?

But he didn't look panicked. He didn't look like he was enjoying this, to be sure, but he seemed... accepting. As if whatever she did to him was no more than he deserved. As if... as if his words had been deliberately said. As if he'd known full well the impact the words would have on Ranma. As if he'd felt so strongly about what he'd said that he was willing to accept any punishment she dealt out.

A part of her could almost respect that. Almost. If only what he was saying was so despicable and contemptible.

She wasn't even aware of how much time had passed until Kentaro opened his eyes and looked warily at her. That finally prompted Ranma into action. She released her hold on his shirt and stalked out of the room. Blindly she stormed across campus, unable to see anything but rage.

Her door had something taped on it. Ranma ignored it. Fumbling, her hands trembling, she opened the door, stepped through it, slammed it shut, and threw her keys against the wall. Not too hard, couldn't damage the wall. Growling, Ranma unshouldered her backpack - she didn't even remember picking it up again in his room - and threw it to the ground. Not as hard as she could, the textbooks were expensive.

Shaking, Ranma looked around, wanting to destroy something, to break something, to hurt it. Chi flickered around her and she wanted to focus it and let it loose in the biggest Shishi Hokodan this college had ever seen.

She didn't, she couldn't do any of it, which just frustrated Ranma all the more. Dammit, when the hell had she learned self-restraint? She'd picked a lousy time to develop it.

Ranma walked around the room, unable to stand still, the anger too much to contain. Anything, gimme anything, anyone, to beat on. Have a Chinese Amazon burst through the wall and attack, Ranma would welcome the sight.

I don't know what you were before you came here, but from what you've told me, you're going to be a woman for a long time to come.

I know that, you stupid jerk. You think I need some sanctimonious all-knowing pantywaist to tell me that? You think that hasn't been constantly on my mind for long before you ever met me?

Your outward form is only secondary to the person you are underneath.

Like hell. If I'd fallen into Spring of Horribly Disfigured Old Woman you'd never have taken a second look at me. Get the hell over your damn hypocrisy and leave me the hell alone.

Or you can continue as you have been...

Damn you, do you really and truly think I want to be miserable? That I chose this agony? Do you?

Ranma stopped and stared at the woman in the mirror. She hated that woman more than ever now. The woman was glaring at her, boring the questions into Ranma's skull. Do you want to be miserable? Do you choose to be in agony? Do you?

"Shut up!" Ranma walked up to the mirror and grabbed the edges, prepared to rip it from the wall. She stopped at just that point. Damnation, she was really going to have to work on this stupid self-control. She longed for the days when she and her father had reduced dojos to piles of splintered wood.

He'd done it, he'd finally done it. Stepped beyond the limits. She'd warned him quite forcefully and he'd ignored her. She'd thought better of him, thought that of all the boys she'd had any interaction with since the ladle, he'd been the one who appreciated Ranma for being Ranma, a martial artist and college student, not a woman to be fondled and other things.

Damn you. Damn you for doing this to me. For taking away the one friend I thought I'd made this year. Was it worth it, you stupid jerk? Were your damn hormones worth destroying the one good thing I'd been a part of since coming to this accursed college? I hope it hurts, idiot. I hope it hurts a lot.

The sound of women running down the hall, laughing, was not unprecedented. Ranma had no patience for it, though, and walked over to the door and yanked it open, prepared to scream at them. Unfortunately they had entered the stairwell and were running up it. Ranma trembled at the verge of chasing after them, of shouting at them at the top of her lungs. Instead she took a step back and prepared to slam the door shut a second time when something caught her eye. An envelope, with her name on it, taped to the door. Almost gleefully Ranma grabbed the envelope and tore it open. Here was something she could get angry about, here was something she could yell at someone about.

    Saotome,

    There are people who want to be liked, and there
    are people who want everyone to be like them. I
    think you want to be liked, but you also want to
    be who you are, which is someone entirely unlike
    anyone else I've ever met. Some people don't like
    people who are different. Those are mostly small
    minded people who are not going to end up very
    happy. Maaya chose not to live with you because
    she sensed you were uncomfortable with her, not
    because she didn't like you. She does like you.
    I like you, too; no one else I know tries as hard
    as you do to understand things you don't necessarily
    want to understand. I respect that, and I respect
    you. Please don't think the comments of one
    stuck-up woman reflect the viewpoints of us all.
    More people like you than you perhaps realize, if
    you'd only give them the chance.

    Stop by if you want to talk. You are always welcome.

    Enomoto

Ranma crumbled the letter and held it to her forehead, taking a few deep breaths. It was too much, she was too overwrought, any little thing would cause her to explode and woe to anyone that got in her way. She'd already lashed out at Maaya and she had nearly attacked two women for the sole crime of being happy when she was not. And it wouldn't go away, not without a release of some sort, and she didn't have that kind of release, not anymore.

She needed to get away from here.

Ranma took a step back into the room and closed her door. She turned and scanned her bookshelf. She found it; a student guide to the university and its policies and procedures. Ranma grabbed the book and flipped through the pages, trying to find the section on early withdrawals.

---

It was difficult to get lost without money.

Ranma had been increasingly frugal with her life's savings - which consisted mostly of a parting gift from a family that hadn't known how to deal with her. She had watched closely how much of her money was being drained by the necessities of college - gauging rates of change, which forced Ranma to admit to herself that there were maybe a few useful applications to math after all. If she could live on campus all four years, she could probably get by. If nothing came up. And if she wasn't forced off-campus.

What she couldn't afford was extravagant expenditures, like, for example, a train ticket to any destination that was as far away from college as possible. As Ranma watched the passing scenery, she felt something else mixing in with the anger and horror. Something that felt like buyer's remorse.

"Hey. Mind if I join you?"

Ranma looked up. A man, perhaps a year or two younger with long black hair and a slightly off-center nose, stood smiling politely, a backpack over his shoulder. Ranma looked him up and down, then shrugged. "Sure."

"Thanks." He stowed his backpack and sat down. "Where ya headed?"

Ranma looked down at the ticket she still held clutched in one hand. "Aomori."

"Oh, all the way there. I'm just headed to Tokyo. Gonna visit the fam, do the whole summer break thing."

Making a noncommittal sound of appreciation, Ranma turned back to stare out the window.

Silence for a few minutes as the trees rushed past.

"So what you gonna do in Aomori?"

Ranma turned to consider him. She wondered what his nose would look like bent at an angle. But there was no anger behind that, no malice at all. It was as if all of that had been drained out of her in the past few days. She'd had to focus past it while working on her finals, shunt it aside until she could deal with it, and now it wouldn't come back. She'd had to engage the rational side of her brain to get past her finals. And while it held sway, her rationality had finally made the sobering observation that in order to deal with the hurt and anger, she was going to have to make a fundamental, life-altering decision of some sort. That scared the heck out of her.

It also kept her from really feeling anything at all. She felt like she should be angry, she felt like she wanted to be sullen, but she simply couldn't manage it.

"I don't have any specific plans," she found herself saying. "I'll decide what to do when I get there."

"Oh?" His eyes shifted slightly; Ranma could almost see the gears turning in his head. "Well, y'know, if you got no special reason to go there, you could stop in Tokyo instead. I know the city, I could show you around."

Give them an inch. "I... appreciate... the offer. But I'd rather be alone. No offense."

Disappointment registered in his eyes and voice. "Oh, none taken. Want me to switch seats?"

"That's not necessary." She turned away.

Perhaps fifteen more minutes of nothing.

"You look sad. Boy problems?"

A smile managed to make its way to the surface. "Of a kind you couldn't possibly imagine."

"Wanna talk? Strangers can make good listening boards sometimes."

Again she turned to look at him. His voice had been soft, gentle and not too insistent. His expression was calm and sober, his eyes on her face and not drifting downward.

Well, I'll be damned. Perhaps he hadn't been as unique as she'd thought. Perhaps there are other guys like him, ones that can act nice if they aren't yelled at right away. Maybe they'd been there all along if she'd given them the chance.

She bowed her head. "Truly, I thank you for the offer. Truly. Right now, though, I just need to think things over on my own."

"Of course. Hope you work it out." He smiled at her, and it seemed sincere. Then he reached into his back pocket and pulled out a worn-looking book. He flipped open to a page and began to read.

Interesting. Ranma turned back towards the window. He had expressed interest, she had turned him down, and nobody had hurt feelings or bodily injuries afterwards. Quite a different outcome then what might have happened if, for example, she'd lifted him off the ground and threatened to kill him.

Sometime soon she'd have to remember to get angry about all of this. Right now she just didn't have the energy. Instead she looked out and waited for the train to take her wherever it wanted to go.

---

Aomori had its nice places, but this wasn't one of them. The street looked run-down. Not quite a slum, but perhaps just a few years from becoming one. Ranma, though, was not one to judge. She'd often slept under bushes growing up. Up until she was sixteen, any place that was warm and provided a cover against rain was considered a luxury.

Still, her standards - her needs - had changed somewhat in the past few years. So instead of trying to find an out-of-the-way piece of grass to pitch a tent on, she'd searched the local phone books to find this place. It didn't look like a hotel; it looked like a house. Ranma eyed it skeptically and went to the front door. A sign on it displayed cute talking animals that invited her to come on inside. Ranma felt her lips twitch slightly, then opened the door.

A woman was lounging behind a desk, reading a newspaper while a television blared in the background. She looked up and smiled widely. "Hello! It's good to see you!"

Ranma felt herself smiling in return. The woman was probably a couple of years older than Ranma and was very attractive. She had short dark hair and was wearing a tank top and shorts. Her body was in relatively good shape, and Ranma tried to judge whether she was a martial artist. Probably not; certain muscle groups had not been developed well, especially around the neck. Still, she was in excellent shape. Her very cheerful greeting, which seemed completely sincere, was also quite disarming.

"Hello," Ranma tried in return. "I'm looking for a place to stay for the summer."

"Search completed! You have arrived at your destination!" The woman folded her newspaper and dropped it over the television. "I'm Maria, and I live here too and sometimes help the owner out, he's a nice guy but doesn't stop by too often, and I came to stay for the summer once and that was two years ago and he asked me to help him out, and I do and he even gives me money for it so it works out. What's your name?"

Ranma felt like she should be out of breath on Maria's behalf. "Saotome Ranma."

"Wow, what an interesting name. Like a horse? Here fill this out, we go by the day and it's three days in advance. Do you like cycling? I cycle all the time and it's perfect weather for it, if you ever want to come along I have a spare bike. I know it's weird that I have two bikes but it all depends on where I want to go and what I want to do. Cycling is a very moody sport, did you know?" Maria beamed. "I think we're going to be good friends, don't you?"

Ranma had been trying to stifle a smile while filling out the form. Maria's breeziness was infectious, and Ranma found herself enjoying the distraction of Maria's monologue. "I hope so. Is cash all right?"

"It's what we live by. We'll worry about that later, let me show you around." Maria leapt from her seat and grabbed Ranma by the arm in a very friendly manner. "So, this is the common room, feel free to borrow any of the books or manga, just return them here when done. Keep the volume on the television down after ten, nobody's really fussy but it pays to be polite. Here's the kitchen, prepare your own food, don't borrow other people's food unless you ask, most of them don't mind, two of the guys fix dinner for everyone a couple of times a week as a treat, which is cheaper for you! Bathroom is this way, just the one I'm afraid, flip the sign over if you want to use it so the guys don't come in, and don't go in when the sign says men, although I don't think the men would mind! This will be your room, lucky lucky you at then end of the hall with *two* windows. Once a week put the sheets in the hamper by the bathroom and they'll get washed, no sneaking in clothes, though, you have to do those yourself, there's a place where you can wash 'em two blocks over." Maria looked at Ranma and beamed. "Any questions?"

Feeling slightly dizzy, Ranma mutely shook her head, uncertain if she should be amused.

"Okay, settle in, come back to the front when you're ready to make your deposit, you can even prepay the whole stay, some people do that so they don't spend the money on something else." Maria hugged Ranma. "Welcome! I am so glad you're staying, let me know if you want to go cycling."

She smiled and left. Ranma felt as if the room dimmed visibly after Maria left. Seldom had she met anyone so determinedly happy. And she was very cute as well. Ranma felt an old longing resurface and painfully, reluctantly beat it down. She couldn't afford those urges, not now. Still, her body quivered slightly from the impact of the woman's hug.

The memory of her confrontation with Kentaro came on suddenly strong and suddenly painful, wiping away any good feelings that might possibly have begun developing in Maria's wake. With a resigned sigh, Ranma began unpacking.

---

Ranma scribbled on the pad. "Anything to drink?"

"Just water." The middle-aged man handed her a menu and smiled.

She took it with a small bow, not returning the smile, and headed back behind the counter. Ranma ripped a page from the pad and hung it on a rotating holder. "Small roni," she commented.

A man wearing a red and tan apron spun the holder, grabbed the paper, nodded, and hung it over a large stove. Expertly he grabbed a handful of dough and began kneading it between his hands.

Ranma watched with not much interest in the activity. "So, my break is almost over."

"Yes, I know," the man said gruffly. He wasn't very pleasant to be around but he allowed her to take a pizza home with her at the end of each shift. "Think you'll be around next break?"

"Probably not." No matter what she decided to do next, this was definitely not an experience she ever cared to repeat.

"Well, don't let me keep you. I suppose you want to be paid now?"

He always paid in cash; Ranma suspected that she wasn't appearing in any payroll records. Which was just fine with her. "End of my shift is good enough."

"Damn slow today anyway." He slid the pizza in the oven. "Make one more pass and then I can take it from here."

"All right." Ranma grabbed a towel and looked around. One table had just been vacated; she went to it and bussed it quickly and efficiently. While she did, she felt the eyes of the middle-aged man on her. She was conscious of him, aware of him, but never looked at or acknowledged him. After four weeks of this, of deliberately making subservient contact with people over and over again on a daily basis and having them use that as permission to stare at her, it was becoming background noise.

She brought him a glass of ice water, asked the only other occupied table if they needed anything, then took off her apron with profound relief. She went into the back room and threw it in the hamper right next to the owner's office. He was just at this moment pulling money from a safe and counting off a few bills. "Here."

Ranma took them, counted them quickly. "You gave me too much."

"Call it a bonus. You did good work here."

"Thanks." She bowed to him, to which he responded with a grunt. She turned and walked out of the restaurant, never looking back.

The hostel was about a fifteen-minute walk away, which wasn't too bad really. The evening was pleasant and Ranma did her best to enjoy it.

The television was on when she entered the hostel, everyone watching a popular anime. Maria was sitting on the arm of the sofa, and she waved cheerfully at Ranma. Ranma smiled back, then went down to her room. She hadn't often joined in any community activities in the hostel and had spent much of the evenings either working out or just staring at the wall and thinking. The thinking wasn't necessarily productive but it was better than becoming deeply depressed, which had happened more than once during her weeks here.

Inside her room, Ranma stripped out of her clothes which, as usual, smelled strongly of garlic. She threw them in the corner of her room designated the hamper and put on a t-shirt and a fresh set of boxers. Ranma then sat on her futon and began staring. The new semester was only a week away and she had some things to sort out still.

There was a knock on her door. Ranma looked at it, then ventured, "Come in."

Maria entered, smiling. "Hi, hope I'm not bothering you, I know you like sitting around being quiet, that's something I could never do in case you didn't notice! So I thought that between the two of us we could almost be a normal conversation."

Ranma smiled slightly. She'd had more than a few conversations with Maria, which mostly consisted of Maria prattling while Ranma provided the occasional prompt. Despite all expectations, Ranma enjoyed those talks. While Maria could talk until her tongue fell off, it wasn't quite all inane. She found interesting things to talk about, and the observations she made were often pointed and insightful. There was a bit of intelligence behind the prattling and the cheerfulness that Ranma found more than a bit attractive. She could spend all night just watching Maria talk and find it satisfying.

Without ceremony Maria slid the door closed and dropped into a cross-legged sitting position opposite Ranma on the futon. "So you gonna be leaving? I know your classes start soon, I did college once you know, three years but then I asked myself what's the point? Being educated for the sake of being educated serves no purpose, I need to figure out what I wanna do first, besides being the first woman to win the Tour de France, except that's not gonna happen, the mountains would kill me, and you don't need to go to college to be murdered by mountains. So once I decide, then I'll go back and maybe I'll go to your college, we could graduate together wouldn't that be fun!"

"Yes, I suppose it would be." Ranma put her chin in one hand. "I'm going to major in Kinesiology. You could too."

"Do you think? But what would I *do* with it? I know how bodies move just fine, thank you very much. But maybe I could help someone else out, y'know, maybe help *them* run a business. I'm a great partner, just not a great initiator. I don't have ambition, I have other people's ambition, and really I know that makes me sound *so* co-dependent but you have leaders and you have followers, and I'm a great great follower, just ask! Give me someone else's vision and I'll follow it to the hilt, better than anyone, I'd be the *lead* follower!"

Ranma grunted in amusement. "So all you have to do is determine which vision to follow."

"Yeah, and that's the tricky part. Gotta find a leader you respect, someone who will stick with their vision. Someone like you, Ranma, you seem like someone who knows what she wants. Do you like me?"

Ranma blinked at the suddenness of the question. "Uh, yeah, I guess."

"You guess? I've been guessing too, and I've been guessing yes because I see the way you look at me. Lotsa people have looked at me that way and they've always tried to take over the conversation, to move it a certain way and hope I go there, but I don't and usually I just move the conversation away and away until they get the hint and stop. But not you, you just like to watch and listen, and for the first time ever I've been hoping someone would *try* to move the conversation that way. That someone would be you, of course, except you don't, and I realized today that you might never, and that you're going to be going away to college and that if I waited you'd go away, so I thought that just this once I'd start it."

She paused, and Ranma frowned slightly. "What conversation?"

"You don't know? But then, you haven't been trying to play the game, have you. Here, let me give you a hint." She leaned forward, gently grabbed Ranma's chin, and kissed her.

Ranma jerked away and scrambled to her feet, backing away from Maria, panic choking her.

"Oh, I think I guessed wrong." For the first time, Maria frowned. "Well, I think I'll go back and watch television, come join us if you want. I was hoping... but never mind, I just need to find a different vision, and I have lots of time, I'm only a quarter of a century old. We still have time before you leave to go cycling, let me know!"

Maria quickly rose, smiled shakily at Ranma, then left the room, sliding the door closed behind her.

Ranma just stared at the door, her mind numb. Again. An attractive, smart, and vivacious woman had kissed her. It should have been everything Ranma wanted in a sexual partner, and instead Ranma had felt deeply repulsed. She just couldn't get her mind to accept kissing someone of her same physical gender.

Ranma stared down at her feet, feeling her body begin to tremble. Couldn't stand dating men. Couldn't bear the thought of two women being physically intimate. So where did that leave her? Whining, miserable, and alone?

Damn you. Damn you damn you damn you.

A woman, a very attractive woman who also found Ranma attractive. Willing to be with her, where Akane had not been.

A man, a nice guy in some ways, one of a thousand who also found Ranma attractive. But unlike the others, he was her student. Her friend, even. He had never made any overt come-ons until she had forced the issue, dragging out into the open what she maybe should have left hidden.

It wasn't too late, Maria had invited her to come cycling, a clearly opened door she had merely to step through. The thought of that sustained cheerfulness always within reach was very pleasant.

During perhaps the nadir of her emotional roller coaster in college, one person had been at her side, doing his best to lift her spirits, not - she was forced to admit - attempting to take advantage of her vulnerability but genuinely trying to make her feel better. Not many had made that attempt with her, and even fewer had succeeded. A rare gift, and she wasn't sure whether he was really that good at reading her thoughts or if she had been broadcasting that openly. Perhaps it had been some combination of the two, and through serendipity she had found someone closely attuned to her thoughts and feelings.

All she had to decide, the one simple and clear choice she had to make, was which of those two people would disgust her the least while kissing.

Spending the rest of her days alone was beginning to sound more and more like her best option.

Ranma bent down, reached into her duffel bag which had been substituting as a bureau, and pulled out a clean pair of pants. She stepped into them, quickly donned a fresh set of socks, then opened the door and walked rapidly down the hallway. Trying to be as unobtrusive as possible, she scooped up her shoes from the foyer and left the hostel. She walked a good half-block away before she stopped long enough to put the shoes on. Ranma felt a strong desire to leave everything behind and head to Nerima. To find her mother and be Ranko to her for as long as she could make the deception last. To just admit her identity out loud and get the seppuku over with.

Instead Ranma wandered the city. It was actually quite pretty. Lots of trees. The city was said to be popular romantic getaway during cherry blossom time. Ranma supposed she could understand why in some vaguely abstract way.

She found herself following a couple, clearly still in high school, walking slowly arm and arm. The woman was leaning her head on the man's shoulder. Ranma maneuvered herself so that she got a good face-on view and they both looked very happy.

Ranma wanted to hate them. She wanted to be jealous. She wanted to admire them. But the truth was she felt nothing. She had felt nothing for four weeks now. It was as if she had forgotten to pack her emotions, and that if she returned to college she'd find them waiting for her.

Which was, perhaps, more true than she cared to admit.

The kids entered a movie theater. Ranma glanced up, idly wondering if she should go see something. The money she'd made this summer had barely covered expenses, but she had a few discretionary yen. Nothing on the marquee appealed to her, though. She couldn't think of any activity that appealed to her.

Ranma continued down the street, full of shops that would be open for another hour or so. Ranma glanced with little interest at the store displays, which were becoming a bit dimmer as dusk threatened. One store had a very large glass window filled with mannequins. Ranma studied them, saw a woman walking amongst them, and stopped.

The woman also stopped and turned to look at her. She was small with a pretty face and a nice figure, discernable even beneath the loose-fitting shirt and unremarkable pants. Her hair was bundled up behind her head and held in place by a hair stick, although Ranma imagined it would fall to just between her shoulder blades if let loose. The woman's expression was sober and thoughtful, and the blue eyes contained a hint of sadness.

As Ranma and the woman looked at each other, the door to the store opened. Out walked an older woman, obviously an employee of the store. She approached Ranma. As she did, her twin approached the woman inside the glass. The twins bowed at the same time. "Greetings, Miss. Do you see anything that catches your eye? We are having an end-of-summer sale."

Ranma gave the woman in the glass one last despairing look, then adjusted the focus of her eyes slightly. Every mannequin was wearing a dress. Naturally. The woman suggesting she wanted to buy one should send her blood pressure skyrocketing.

Except it didn't. There was still a layer wrapped around her emotions, not lifting in the slightest. She was as numb as the day the train had pulled into the city.

Perhaps she should try and shock her emotions back into life.

Quickly her eyes darted about. "Do you have the white one in my size?"

"I'm certain we do." The salesperson grabbed her arm in a friendly fashion and guided her to the door. "You look like a six."

"Six what?"

A few minutes later Ranma stood in front of a mirror. That woman was looking back at her. She had on a white cotton dress that hugged her waist and hung off her hips. The shoulder straps seemed inadequate to hold the top of the dress high enough to keep the woman's breasts from spilling out. The dress was certainly designed to attract attention, and the woman was doing an admirable job of allowing it to fulfill its purpose. There were certain... hygienic matters the woman had to address before wearing the dress in public, but keeping her arms pinned to her side hid the necessity.

Ranma studied the woman's face. It was still neutral, without obvious emotion. As Ranma continued to stare, something cracked, began to give way. You're a woman, Ranma. You're going to be a woman for a long time to come. Or you could continue as you have been: yearning for something you can never have, keeping everyone at a distance while you wait, and ending your days miserable and alone.

Ranma was pretty sure the woman in the mirror didn't want that.

In a world where she had only a choice of evils, she was left with making the choice that would make her feel the best about herself. There was one man, one person, who had done all he could to make her feel good. He'd tried to help her deal with the problems that were facing her. Perhaps that was the least evil choice. To make that choice, though, she'd be forced to come to a reconciliation of some sort with the woman looking back at her.

There was no getting around it; she'd have to take that woman with her back to college.

Ranma turned to the salesperson. "I'll take it."

Soon she was walking out the store, a paper garment bag slung over her shoulder. She now owned a dress. An honest-to-goodness dress. The committee had done its job. Ranma allowed herself to smile at the joke.

And that was something, a positive emotion, a pinprick in the dam surrounding her mind. Maybe enough to become a torrent. If she gave it a chance.

To do that, she'd have to wear the dress at least one more time. For one more person. When she saw that person, she'd *know*.

While she wasn't sure how she'd react, she was fairly certain that when she could feel again, mixed in with whatever other emotions that raged would be relief. At last she would stop trying to straddle two worlds and settle down in one.

Ranma oriented herself and realized she was walking the wrong way. She turned around and headed back. As she passed the display with the mannequins, she could see that woman walking amongst the mannequins, carrying something over her shoulder. The woman smiled reassuringly, letting Ranma know that the world behind the glass really wasn't so bad.

Another pinprick let loose a ray of hope. Ranma basked in it and hurried back the way she'd come.

---

Ranma unlocked the door and stepped inside. The room was stark and empty, just like last time.

She dropped her duffel onto the bed and hung the paper garment bag in the closet. Her unpacking went quickly and efficiently, possibly setting a new record, maybe not - hanging up the garment bag had taken five extra seconds.

Still, it was different. She had a few books and other things in storage in the dorm's basement. At this point she had perhaps more personal items in her possession than at any other time in her life. It was a slow process of accretion that Ranma wasn't certain she was comfortable with. There was a certain freedom to stuffing everything she owned into a duffel bag and taking off. A certain pain, too.

Ranma turned and walked out the door. She paused in the process of closing it, and left it open. Many of the other women left their doors open constantly, a few even while they slept. Ranma wasn't entirely certain why.

She went to the front desk, where the student on duty gave her a key. Ranma used it to open one of the storage lockers in the basement. Inside she dragged out two heavy boxes. Grunting, she lifted them and walked back upstairs. Stopping in front of the desk and unwilling to set the boxes down, she dropped the key towards her foot and kicked it onto the desk in front of a wide-eyed woman.

Ranma backed into her room and dropped the boxes onto the floor. Flexing her fingers, she began ripping open the top box.

"Ranma?"

She whirled, surprised more than alarmed. Behind her, sitting on the chair in front of the empty desk, was Maaya. She looked mildly apprehensive.

Which probably described Ranma's own feelings. "Hi. Back early too?"

"Yeah. I was kind of hoping..." Maaya trailed off, then seemed to gather courage. "I wanted to see you before school started."

"Oh?" Ranma looked around, sat on the bed. "Why?"

"Because you left so suddenly... I was afraid you weren't coming back." Maaya's eyes, Ranma was shocked to notice, were beginning to water. "Because of me."

"What? That's stupid." Ranma winced. "Sorry, didn't mean to call you stupid."

Maaya laughed, once. "Sure you did. It's one of the things I like about you, Ranma, is that you're never afraid to share your honest opinion."

"Well... it's not exactly made me a lot of friends."

"More than you might suspect." Maaya used her fingers to wipe her eyes. "We talk about you sometimes."

Ranma suddenly felt cold. "Do you."

"Yeah. We talk about lots of people." Maaya looked ashamed. "Some people have said... said things that weren't nice. But other people have... spoken well of you. I mean, some people think you're so stupid because of the way you talk and act, but you have better grades than a lot of people. And... and I've never heard you say one bad thing about anyone behind their back."

"Heh, well..." Ranma lifted a corner of her mouth. "That's cuz... because I tend to say bad things to them to their face."

"Yes, you do. Sometimes." Maaya smiled. "It's not the worst thing in the world. I desperately wish I'd made more of an effort to talk to you when we were roommates. Then maybe... maybe I wouldn't have... deserted you like I did."

Ranma shook her head. "I wasn't feeling very talkative at first. I still don't like to talk much about that kind of stuff. But I don't... need to be so prickly about it. Maaya." Ranma looked steadily at the woman sitting at her desk. "Don't feel bad about anything's that happened to me. I did it all to myself, it's not your fault. You cared about me more than anyone else did. Who else woulda shown me what to do with hair sticks?"

Another laugh. "Again, you'd be surprised at how many women here are dying to accessorize you."

The garment bag suddenly weighed quite heavily in Ranma's mind. "Well... I don't think I'm ever going to let people play dress-up with me. But... I mean... if I ever want more help with that kind of stuff... would you mind if I came to you?"

"No. I'd love it." Maaya looked very relieved. "I was so afraid you hated me."

"Hated you? No." Ranma looked down, spoke quietly. "Myself sometimes. Never you."

Maaya stood, walked over to the bed, squatted down on her haunches, and grabbed Ranma's hands with her own. "If you ever want to talk - about anything - please feel free to talk to me. I'd like to help you if I can."

Ranma squeezed Maaya's hands. "You already did. I'm getting over it. I'm feeling better. I ain't about to jump off a bridge, don't worry."

"Good. Now let go of my hands, that hurts."

"Oh." Sheepishly Ranma loosened her grip and took her hands away. "Sorry, I do that sometimes without realizing it."

"That's okay." Maaya stood, smiling, shaking her hands a little. "I wish I had your strength."

Ranma grinned. "You know what's funny? There were times - like when you were so calm and cool even when you had three papers due in twenty-four hours - that I wish I had yours."

Maaya laughed. "Want to go out for dinner? My treat."

"Sure. Gimme an hour to unpack and grab a shower."

"All right. Meet you at the front desk."

Maaya left, and Ranma went back to unpacking her books, feeling strange. Strange that, somehow, she had been able to move a woman to tears. Strange, too, that she could go out with a woman to dinner and not consider it a date. Maaya had changed. Changed from being an attractive woman that Ranma used as a symbol for her own sexual frustration to a friend that Ranma could look at without feeling wistful and depressed.

Ranma idly wondered how Maaya had managed that.

Dumping one load of books on her desk, Ranma went to unpack some more things that would help guide her through the times ahead.

---

The morning air was cold, and Ranma shivered even underneath her sweater. Tomorrow was supposed to be warmer but that didn't help her now.

She would also probably be shivering even if it had been warm outside.

The athletic building loomed and Ranma studied its familiar lines. Two of her classes this term would be in that building. And, perhaps, she'd soon be finding more reasons to go there.

The hallways were empty. Of course they would be, no one got up this early in the morning unless they had to. Ranma smiled at herself; it had somehow been easier to make someone else get up early than to be forced to get herself up by someone else. It would have made an interesting topic for her Psych course last year. Still, thank goodness she was done with that.

One of the offices had light coming from it and the door was open. Ranma stepped up to the door, knocked lightly on it. Inside, a middle-aged woman looked up from her computer. She eyed Ranma skeptically, then said, "Yes?"

"Coach Shiozawa. I was wondering if I might try out for the gymnastics team." There, that wasn't so hard.

"Oh? And you'll do the uneven bars and not the rings?"

"Yes, Coach."

"And you won't walk out on practice?"

Ranma hesitated. "Not without good reason. I don't plan on... being as touchy as I was last year."

"Hmm." Shiozawa considered her for a minute. "Do you have a leotard?"

"Yes."

"Very well. Practice is in fifteen minutes. Join us there and we'll see."

"Thanks, Coach." Ranma turned, not sure if she was relieved or disappointed.

She walked down the hallway, turned, walked a short distance, then was presented with a choice. The word "MEN" was painted on the wall, with an arrow pointing left. Nearby, "WOMEN" was emblazoned with an arrow pointing right. Ranma looked longingly towards the left, then with a small sigh took the right passageway.

The locker room was empty. Ranma looked around, noted that none of the lockers actually had locks. A trusting bunch, these guys. Ranma moved towards one in the back, close to the showers. Tentatively she opened it, found it empty.

Ranma sat and stared into it. There were hooks for hanging clothes. A shelf for storing things on. Perfectly normal locker in every respect. Ranma couldn't figure out why it frightened her so.

Two voices, at first barely distinguishable, suddenly got louder. Two students had just entered the room, chatting amiably about something. Ranma was gripped with a sudden sense of urgency. She dropped her backpack into the locker and extricated her new leotard and slippers from it. Reaching up, she gathered her hair up and put it through a scrunchy - a simple black band, nothing frilly. Quickly she took off her sweater, pants, shoes, and socks, then stepped into the leotard. It was just as snug as she remembered. A flash came over her - standing in the center of the ring, smiling and waving, her name being blared over the loudspeakers. That had been a good, fun moment. She tried to hold on to that memory, keep it in the center of her mind.

Ranma dumped her clothes into the locker and shut it firmly. She stepped resolutely around the locker towards the door and nearly bowled over a half-nude woman. Ranma stopped just in time as the student looked at her in surprise. "What are you doing?"

"Sorry." Hopefully they would interpret her blush as embarrassment over the near-collision. Keeping her eyes downcast, she walked quickly out of the locker room.

The gym was right next door. Ranma entered it, already saw some students doing limbering exercises. A few glanced her way, including a couple of guys whose eyes seemed to linger a bit. She met their gaze straight on and they quickly looked away. Good.

Coach Shiozawa was standing near one of the mats and Ranma moved over to her. Other women were gathering nearby. Ranma could put a couple of names to faces and she nodded at them. Several of the women were looking at her with open curiosity. One, whose name she didn't know, sidled up to her. "You're Saotome?"

Ranma blinked. "Uh, yeah."

"You're a martial artist, I hear."

"Uh, yeah." Evidently word got around.

The student was examining Ranma quite closely, which she found slightly uncomfortable. "You're not as... muscular as I'd thought you'd be."

Ranma frowned. All during the summer she had continued to work on the art and had found no signs that her strength and conditioning had diminished. "What do you mean?"

"I don't know. I guess I'd thought you'd be... bigger. Bulkier, y'know?"

Ranma smiled. "If I wanted to be strong for the sake of being strong, then yeah, I'd have bigger muscles. But the art is about developing strength for a purpose. Flexibility is just as important, and big muscles get in the way of that."

"Really?" She sounded genuinely interested. "Is that something you can teach? I hear you've got a student."

Ranma blinked. People knew a lot more about her than she'd thought. "Well, I can. It ain't... it's not a simple thing to teach. Takes a lot of time and effort."

"I see." The woman crossed her arms. "How much?"

"Oh, lots. I mean, my student, I make him work out two hours a day, seven days a week, and he's gotta do other exercises outside of that. And-"

"No. I mean, how much do you charge to give lessons?"

Ranma found that her mouth was stuck open in mid-explanation. Slowly she closed it, then opened it again. "Let me get back to you on that."

"Okay. Is it really fourteen hours a week?"

"Uh, let me think about that, too."

"Okay. I guess we'll see each other at practice."

"Yeah." Ranma numbly watched as the woman rejoined her friends. The implications were staggering. Despite the fact that she was here at college to learn how to run a dojo, having someone actually offer her money to teach them the art gave her a weird sensation. Someone wanted Saotome Ranma to teach them the art - and that someone had no designs on Ranma at all.

"Okay, girls." Coach Shiozawa spoke in a loud voice that somehow wasn't too commanding. "Let's settle down."

The women all stopped talking and oriented themselves towards Shiozawa. Ranma looked around, somewhat surprised at how many there were - perhaps two dozen altogether. She wondered if everyone would be on the team.

"Welcome to the women's gymnastics team. Here, you will learn to be performing athletes. We emphasize the mastery of dance and acrobatic choreography, presented with feminine grace and artistry. Over the next few weeks we will develop routines that are both demanding and appealing. Saotome, you don't agree."

"Oh." Ranma eased the frown on her face. "Sorry Coach."

"Don't be sorry." Shiozawa's eyes were flashing. "Do you have an issue with our goals?"

"No. Well... I mean, not all of them. I mean..." Ranma felt herself getting in deeper and deeper and had no idea how to get herself out. "Look, being artistic and acrobatic, yeah, that's good stuff, I can go with that. But what's that got to do with being feminine?"

Shiozawa looked Ranma up and down. "You are female, aren't you Saotome?"

She'd had to ask *that* question. "Coach, I can be acrobatic and maybe even flamboyant, and ain't none of that depends on... on my gender. Look." Ranma ran to the mat, jumped, twisted in the air, landed, launched herself backwards, tucked, did two somersaults in the air, kicked out just as the mat was approaching her head, pushed off with her hands and sprang upright, her arms upright at a slight angle to her body, her wrists rotated so her palms faced outwards. "Tell me what any of that had to do with being female."

All of the students were staring at her with something like amazement. It was the woman who had approached her earlier that spoke. "But, Saotome... you look very feminine right now."

Ranma glanced down at herself. Her current position certainly made her breasts quite prominent, and there was, of course, the matter of her legs being exposed to the hip and the newly-smoothed skin under her arm. "Okay... maybe I do." She had nearly choked to death getting the words out. "But that's incidental. I just learned how to be nimble and strong, and I let other people decide if that makes me feminine or not."

There was a vague murmur of appreciation from the women. Ranma found her eyes moving towards Shiozawa's, and suddenly a cold unpleasant sensation settled into her stomach. This had not been the smartest thing she had ever done.

Shiozawa considered Ranma for a moment. "Come over here, Saotome."

Dropping her arms, Ranma walked back across the mat, feeling like she was heading to her execution.

Shiozawa's face was expressionless. "Can you do that again?"

Ranma shrugged. "If you want me too. Let me get warmed up, though, so I can do something that ain't... isn't so simple."

The coach didn't seem to be breathing. Instead she just stared at Ranma blankly. "All right, Saotome. We'll help you find your own form of presentation. If you don't mind some suggestions that would... incidentally... accentuate your femininity."

Ranma flushed slightly. "Okay, Coach."

"Okay." Shiozawa looked around, as if suddenly aware of the other women. "Let's being by stretching. Seki, lead the exercises."

One of the students stepped forward, then turned to face the others. They began to loosely separate, keeping a measured distance between each other. Ranma moved amongst them, finding her own space as some of the women smiled at her.

Practice went on for an hour and a half. Ranma, to her surprise, discovered she had a lot to learn about gymnastics. There were evidently nuances to scoring that she had been completely unaware of, and already she could tell she'd have to make quite a few adjustments. Every athletic move she made was predicated on the assumption that someone might attack her from any angle at any second, which meant she kept herself loose and adaptable at all times. Here, though, she would be judged on her ability to keep herself rigid and unbending. It went so against her grain that mentally she kept balking at some of the requirements. What was the *point* of keeping her legs together - did they have any idea how vulnerable that made her to a leg sweep on landing?

She toughed it out, deciding she'd have to practice this a little later on her own. When practice was done she practically sprinted to the locker room. Using every speed technique she knew, she was able to finish showering and changing back into her clothes while most of the other women were still changing out of their leotards. Keeping her eyes on the floor, Ranma fled the locker room. There was more than one adjustment she was going to have to make. She'd never been able to completely relax when showering with other women unless a tiny old man was attacking her.

"Saotome."

Ranma almost jumped at the sound, her mind drifting back to times that felt like eternities ago. She turned her head to see Iwao standing in the doorway to his office. "Have a moment?"

"Sure, Coach." Feeling apprehensive, she followed him inside and sat down on the chair opposite his desk.

Iwao sat on the corner of his desk closest to her, his eyes watching her. "I am glad to see you back. Everything all right back home?"

Damn, she'd nearly forgotten the story she'd told of a family emergency. Too many lies in her life, too hard to keep track of them all. "Yes, thanks for asking."

He just looked at her. Ranma felt heat rising to her face but kept her gaze on his steady. Finally, she cracked a little. "I... had a bad situation arise. I wasn't sure I could handle it. I spent the summer thinking it over. I think I can, now. Anyway, I'm going to try."

"I see." Iwao frowned, then picked up a paper from his desk. "As your official advisor I was sent a copy of your grades. Have you seen them yet?"

"Er..." Ranma's mail had piled up over the summer, and she hadn't gone through it yet. Mostly she was afraid of what their contents might be. "No."

"Two B's, two C's. A bit of a downturn. Frankly I was disappointed, Saotome. I was expecting better."

Ranma winced. "Well, I wasn't exactly in the best frame of mind when taking my finals. I'll do better next time." She paused, terribly afraid to ask, but unable to wait for the answer any longer. "Did... did that mean I didn't get into the Kinesiology program?"

A corner of his mouth lifted up, which flooded her with relief. That was not the expression of someone about to deliver bad news. "I take it if you hadn't seen your grades, you also hadn't seen the acceptance letter we sent. You have one of the higher grade point averages of all our applicants, actually."

Smiling, Ranma inclined her head. "Thank you, Coach."

"You're welcome, but that is not why I called you in. You're a... unique person, Saotome. You're very indecisive about many things, but once you've made up your mind, you try harder than any other student I know. I just want to see that effort rewarded."

"Yeah, well..." Ranma struggled for words. "I... I have some issues, you know that, Coach. I've been trying to get past them, and it ain't always been easy. I... I think I can say that... well, I'm gonna do what I can to make sure they don't affect me again this semester."

"I can see that you're trying. Joining Shiozawa's team is a very positive sign." Iwao leaned forward slightly, look at her intensely. "Whatever you're trying to fight, I just want you to know you don't have to fight it alone. I can assist. I hope you can come to me if you need any help this semester. With anything."

All these people, popping out of the woodwork, offering to help her. Where the heck did they come from? Ranma studied Iwao's face. Strange; here was a man leaning in towards her, staring at her quite frankly, and she found nothing leering about it. It really did seem like a concerned person offering to help. Something had changed from the day she had walked up to him in the cafeteria and signed up for his class. She didn't want to pursue exactly what had changed, but she had to acknowledge that it was a relief to deal with a man and not think there were any sexual overtones at all. It was with a feeling of déjà vu that she responded, "Thank you, Coach. I will, I promise."

"Good." He leaned back, stood up, and walked around behind his desk to sit in his chair. "I expect better grades out of you this year. Let's set a goal of a straight 'B' average and see if we can get there."

Ranma felt a grin spread across her face. "Is that all? I think I can do better."

"I have no doubt of it. I just wasn't sure you knew it. Let's start with the 'B' average for now; we can think about raising the bar next semester." Iwao gestured to the door. "Now, get out of here, I have to get ready for my own practice. I just wish I had a dozen men like you, Saotome. It would make my job a lot easier."

That was about the only thing he could have said that would have deflated her mood. Ranma would do anything to be the man Iwao wished he had on his team. "See ya, Coach." She stood up and walked from the room.

With nothing else scheduled for that day, Ranma took her time getting back to her dorm room. Her mind was flooded with melancholy bordering on depression, which irritated the hell out of her. Too many things could set her off; too many perfectly innocent remarks could destroy her mood. It was about damned time she got over it.

One way or the other.

Ranma sighed loudly. She'd made a good start to her sophomore year. But she had one more thing she had to do. One more person she had to confront. And then - and only then - would Ranma be able to decide, once and for all, what kind of person she was on her way to becoming.

She could only hope that she'd like being whoever that was.

Shaking off that thought, Ranma quickened her pace and headed back to the dorms. She had some questions she wanted to ask Maaya.

---

The alarm clock went off - a gentle beep that would grow increasingly louder over time. Ranma didn't need it. Immediately she reached over to turn it off, then got up.

The room was still dark, which Ranma preferred. Slowly she took off her clothes and grabbed a towel. Normally she took showers only after she worked out. Today was different.

Fortunately her next-door neighbors were not up yet, so she had the bathroom to herself. Ranma twisted the shower handle, feeling the water on her hand until it became hot. She stepped into it, closing the shower door behind her, and stood still, feeling the sensation. Her mind was neither numb nor stressed. She felt... equanimous. All was well, all was as it should be.

Or as it was expected to be, at any rate.

Ranma washed her body and her hair, not in any rush. She reached for the razor she kept on one of the ledge in the shower. Shaving was something she'd always known she'd have to do as an adult; the target areas had simply shifted a bit. Ranma completed the process, still feeling self-conscious about this new addition to the routine.

Finishing up, Ranma twisted off the water and dried herself off as best she could. She'd done a wonderful job of distracting herself, but now her mind started dancing towards areas she dreadfully wanted to avoid. But she couldn't, not any more.

Resolutely she entered her room, flicking on the lights. Her eyes immediately fell towards the closet. She put on some fresh underwear, then reluctantly opened the closet door. It hung there, a white accusation, damnation in one hundred percent cotton.

Slowly, carefully, Ranma put it on. This had been easier in the dressing room, with the salesperson helping her. It was awkward to manipulate, but after a couple of attempts she managed to get it right.

She looked into the mirror next to the door. Everything looked all right from the neck down, but her hair was still damp. Ranma looked around, spied another recent purchase, picked it up, pointed it at her head, and turned it on. Warm air blasted her. Belatedly she remembered to pick up a brush and combed out her hair constantly as she moved the dryer around. Not for too long - she remembered Maaya's admonitions. After a few seconds she turned it off. The hair was now not so damp and hung neatly to just the top of her shoulders. Setting down the dryer, Ranma brushed her bangs forward. They looked all right, she didn't care what Maaya said about curling irons. She set down the brush and picked up a stream of yellow fabric. Ranma gathered her hair up with one hand and held it loosely. With the other she wrapped the ribbon round it, then used both hands to tie the ribbon off. It held the hair in place, but not as tightly as a scrunchy would. It didn't look as good as when Maaya had done it - the ribbon had been a little less conspicuous - but it looked all right.

Ranma studied the woman in the mirror. She looked very pretty. The dress was nice, the hair was fine, the figure was gorgeous. The face, devoid of makeup despite some impassioned pleading, still looked appealing, the big blue eyes certainly helping out quite a bit. The woman was very attractive.

Ranma held that thought while looking at the woman in the mirror. She's very attractive. Call it pretty, call it sexy, call it whatever, there's no denying it - she's attractive.

I'm attractive.

Her chest tightened suddenly. Spinning away, she quickly put on a pair of sneakers - some things she was absolutely *not* going to attempt - and fled the dorm room.

She'd dawdled too long; the sun had already risen. Ranma began running, the stupid cloth making the procedure more difficult than it should have been. She reached the wide expanse of the lawn, slowed, and stopped. Coming around the athletic building, from the direction of the track, was a lone figure dressed in a gi. Ranma clasped her hands in front of her, overwhelmed by a rush of feelings. Relief, anxiety, doubt, happiness, dismay, and fear. Most of all fear.

He stopped. He'd seen her. His face was a blur in the distance, but he stood rock still, the shock evident that way. After a few seconds, he began walking towards her. Deliberately. Inexorably.

The fear rose, choking her. Get out, run away. Don't do this. Don't let this happen. This is a man, a damned man, and if he sees you like this he'll think things, *do* things, that you can't possibly allow to happen.

He was getting closer, had reached the halfway point, his face becoming distinguishable, his expression one of wonder and hope.

See that? He wants your body. He wants to kiss you.

He was getting closer, halfway between halfway and here.

Wants to touch you, touch your breasts, fondle them.

Halfway again.

Wants to have sex with you, wants to... penetrate you. Do have any idea what that means?

Halfway again, and another halfway, every detail clear, his whole body screaming with unbridled lust.

Anything is better, anything in the whole damned world is better, just don't allow this disgusting perverted thing to happen.

And then the halfways became too much for him and he stopped, a foot away. Thank goodness for Kuno's Paradox.

Ranma found her gaze locked with his, found her weight balanced perfectly for a quick and sudden retreat. What this man in front of her represented was vile and nauseating and terrifying and dammit dammit why was she wearing a dress why was she here run run get away run.

"You're not dressed for training."

The words, a non sequitur, but not really, commenting on the dress, why was she wearing it why why? "I know. We'll need to reschedule our training sessions. I've joined the gymnastics team, and they begin their workouts at about this time. Tomorrow, just before dinner. We can see just how soft you've let yourself become over the school break."

"And next semester, you'll be joining the soccer team?"

Huh. Good guess. "Uh, yeah. Probably."

"The women's gymnastics team. The women's soccer team."

And there was the crux of the matter. As always, he had slipped right to it, as easily and as gently as he always had. And just like that, she realized why she was wearing the dress and why she was here. His voice, she had missed it, the calm even tones that even her worst anger had been unable to alter. The eyes, intelligent and penetrating, always on hers, always focused on her, accepting without judging. And most of all, the steady personality, the one that was yielding without being compliant, determined without being stubborn, honest without being cruel. The personality she had found herself becoming more and more dependent on over the semester, the personality she had missed all summer.

It wasn't a man in front of her, it was *him*. And that distinction was important. She wanted *him* to be with her. If it entailed some kissing and the... other things... perhaps that was a small price to pay to have him stay with her. If it meant she could always hear his voice and see his eyes whenever she wanted to, perhaps the tradeoff was worth it.

The realization robbed her of words and she could only nod in response. An affirmation.

"You look beautiful."

That snapped her out of her daze. He had started it, started the process that led to the things that a large part of her mind was still quailing about. The anger rose, but she tempered it with the memory of who he was and what he had done for her so far. And she still remembered finding her own image attractive, so she shouldn't be mad that other people - him especially - would agree with that opinion. "Thank you."

His words were halting, almost quavering, dripping with hope and anticipation. "Does this mean what I think it means?"

Ranma gathered herself, and to her amazement actually spoke the words. "It means I'm willing to give it a try." As quickly as that, her resolve wavered. "No promises. If that damn kettle appears, I use it in a flash." Dammit, stop saying that kind of stuff, give him something more to hold on to. "But I... I'm not holding my breath any more."

And she saw it, the joy that seemed to radiate from him, his every dream coming true. "I'm glad."

Ranma drank it in, felt his joy, tried to use it to ignite... something, anything, inside of her. Her mind was a whirlwind of emotions and she needed to settle down on one emotion, any emotion, that would tell her if this was a good thing or not.

He reached forward, put his hands on her shoulders. And the fear and panic rose in full force as she realized what he intended to do. And he began to move in towards her, getting ready to devour her whole, and she pulled away with a shriek. Immediately he backed off, unable to repress a sigh.

He wanted to... he wanted to... with *her* he wanted to... but, isn't this why you wore the dress? Isn't this why you came here? Stop resisting what you think is right, dammit. Give it an honest try for once. Just once, and see what it's like.

Ranma took a step forward, getting close to him. "This is very difficult for me. You can't imagine. Guys... I just can't imagine being with guys in that way. I'm only willing to try because it's *you*. You've been a good and patient friend, and you've helped me with some difficult times. You even had the courage to say some things to me, things I needed to hear. I couldn't hear them when Akane said them, or even when I said them to myself. Somehow, it was different with you. I don't know why. I'd like to find out. If... if you can just continue to be patient."

His smile was wide and gentle and compassionate and wanting. "I've got all the time in the world, so long as you're here."

Ranma smiled. That was the first truly sappy thing he'd ever said to her. But it was meant with sincerity, and Ranma could appreciate it for that.

Do it now. Before the fear comes back, do it now.

She closed her eyes and raised her chin.

Too soon, way before she was prepared, something was touching her lips. The pressure on her lips was gentle yet insistent. An invitation to part but not a command. Ranma found her mouth responding in exactly the opposite manner; lips firmly pressed together and almost shying away from contact.

This went on for a few seconds, then the pressure vanished. Ranma waited for the pressure to return, and when it didn't she opened her eyes.

The face was calm, the eyes thoughtful. Ranma tried to figure out what the face was feeling. It wasn't too difficult, really - triumph, she was certain. Exultation. Joy.

She should be feeling one of those things, shouldn't she?

He reached up to stroke her cheek in what he probably thought was an endearing gesture. "You okay, Ranma-chan?"

She looked at his hand without moving her face. "Do me a favor. Just call me Ranma."

"Duly noted." He let his hand drop back to her shoulder, which alas maintained the skin-on-skin contact. Stupid dress.

"So," he said.

Damn him, he was going to make her answer the question. "It's still too strange to come to terms with right away. I can't believe I'm doing this, I can't believe I'm doing this with a guy."

"All right. When you're ready."

"Thanks." She looked around. The lawn was still empty, no one getting up quite this early. What did people do? When they were, like, a couple? Besides things with lips that Ranma wasn't quite ready to pursue vigorously. With a sigh she turned and began walking slowly down the lawn. He immediately fell into step with her, matching her stride. Walking very close to her. Possessively. Damn him again.

Ranma closed her eyes and reached out her hand. It found his and clasped it. He instantly returned the pressure, and for a brief instant she felt an urge to test his hand strength. It subsided, she opened her eyes again, and they just walked for a bit, hand in hand.

"So, what did you do this summer?"

Ranma shrugged. "It's not important."

"Ah. Meaning you don't want to tell me."

"No, meaning it's not important, jackass!" She glared up at him. "Just because you can occasionally guess what I'm feeling through sheer blind luck doesn't mean you've become my Gestalt therapist."

"Your what?"

"Never mind!" Ranma fumed.

A bit of silence. "I'm sorry. I really don't know you as well as I'd like, and I shouldn't pretend that I do."

"You'd better not." Ranma looked up at him, realizing that she'd finally had an emotional reaction that had been persistent and undiluted. She'd just been angry at him. And not an all-consuming anger fueled by depression. An annoyed anger that came with familiarity. The kind of anger she'd felt once before, at one other person, not realizing then what it had meant. Until it had gone forever beyond reach.

Abruptly she stopped and turned towards him. "Do it again."

"I... I thought you told me I'd better not."

"Idiot." She closed her eyes and raised her chin.

After a few seconds the pressure came again... a little more gentle this time, just barely brushing her lips. She tried to feel it, to accept it, to let it touch her.

After half a minute the pressure went away. Ranma's eyes fluttered open to see him looking at her closely. "Was that any better?"

"Not really," she admitted. "You're still a guy."

He smiled. "That's not likely to change."

Ranma laughed. Genuinely. "I can't believe you just said that to me."

Because she was looking for it, she saw the quick parade of emotions: puzzlement, comprehension, embarrassment. "I'm sorry."

She tilted her head. "You still don't believe me."

She could see him trying to come up with a good answer. In the end, all he managed was another, "I'm sorry."

Which was probably good enough. "Don't worry about it," Ranma said, pulling his hand and continuing their journey along the lawn.

"I'm trying, I really am," he continued. "It's just... going to take some time for me to..."

"I told you, don't worry about it. You talk too much sometimes, you know?"

Laughter. "I think I'm being educated."

"Good. If you can learn to shut up, you can learn anything."

Wisely he didn't respond. They walked around the lawn, not saying anything to each other. Ranma looked around, seeing people beginning to emerge. One person she recognized, a guy who had taken Precalculus with her last year. He saw her, saw that she was holding hands, looked at the man next to her, then back to Ranma, all in the space of a second. He lifted a hand. "Yo, Saotome."

He'd never done that before. "Yo," she said back, nodding at him. He went on by.

Ranma mulled that over in her head. Was because she was with a guy that now suddenly everyone treated her as 'normal'? She was inclined to think not - all the customers in the restaurant had also responded to her normally even at her most stoic. The difference, she was forced to admit, was that she wasn't glaring at everyone or deliberately avoiding eye contact. Maybe the island-sized chip on her shoulder was shrinking to more manageable levels.

Maybe.

Ranma tugged his hand, brought him to a stop. "Okay, I need to get back and get ready for class. Want to meet for lunch?"

His eyes lit up at that. "Yes. Noon?"

"Noon." Seeing how much he was looking forward to being with her still made her uneasy. But, also, a little bit happy. She was looking forward to being with him as well.

He leaned forward and quickly she closed her eyes. The kiss was quick, less than a second, and he began to move off. Her eyes still closed, she tugged his hand a bit insistently. The pressure came again, went on for a few seconds. With an almost convulsive effort she puckered her lips slightly and applied a bit of return pressure. Instantly she stepped away, released his hand, and opened her eyes. "See you later."

Blessedly, his smile showed no hint of amusement, his eyes no hint of frustration. "Later, Ranma."

Ranma turned and walked quickly away, heading towards her dorm. She kept waiting. Waiting for the shock and horror to settle in, waiting for the disgust and self-loathing to overwhelm her. However, while she still found echoes of all of that in her soul, they were all deeply submerged, with no real strength. Instead, there was mostly... contentment.

Perhaps, Ranma reflected, the problem was that she had been approaching the situation from the wrong angle the whole time. She had tried to work towards a sudden, total acceptance and found that there were parts of her psyche that could never allow that. What she needed was to cross half the distance towards acceptance, adjust, then cross half the distance again. Keep getting infinitesimally closer but never truly accept. And perhaps as time approached infinity, adjustment would approach acceptance until the two were indistinguishable.

Smiling, Ranma broke into a run, thinking about what other limits she could evaluate in the next semester.

---

Ranma released the hug with a grin. "It's very good to see you, Maaya."

"It's good to see you too, Ranma. I swear you haven't changed a bit."

Ranma laughed and lifted a hand to hair that was now held in place by a hair stick. "Don't tell me you can't see the gray?"

"It might just be highlights." Maaya sat down. "Although I have to admit, I can't imagine you with highlights."

Ranma sat, adjusting the newly-purchased sweater a bit. "I never could work myself up to dying my hair the same tints that Houko used."

Maaya smiled. "I saw her once a few years ago. Her hair is short and black now. Your hair is more daring."

"That I'd like to see. It would almost be disappointing to not see her with green hair."

"Age mellows us all." Maaya's smile dimmed. "There was a man here when I arrived. He acted very strangely."

"Yeah." Ranma thinned her lips. She had a hundred stories she could tell but found herself unwilling to lie to Maaya. "I'm sorry I was late."

Unfortunately Maaya wouldn't let it go. "Who was he? He answered to your name."

Sighing, Ranma fumbled for the words. "There are some things about myself I never told you. Not because I didn't trust you, but it was a secret of a nature that... would have made life almost impossible at college. And life was pretty hard already."

"I saw you really struggle in the beginning," Maaya mused. "It just didn't make sense at the time. You're saying that guy had something to do with it?"

"Yeah." Ranma shifted in her seat.

"Is he your old boyfriend?"

That actually made Ranma laugh. "No, that's not it. I'm still happily married, y'know."

"I didn't, but I'm glad I do now." Maaya grinned. "But I want to know more about who that guy was."

Ranma dropped her eyes. "Are you sure, Maaya? Trust me when I say there are some things you're better off not knowing."

Maaya sat silent for minute. "Here we haven't seen each other for years and years, and right away I'm pressing to know your most intimate secrets. I'm sorry, Ranma. I just... you were so happy by the time you graduated. Sometimes I couldn't believe you were the same woman I roomed with during our first semester. I know you had to make some kind of adjustment. It squeezes my heart to think... to think that your personal demons might have caught up with you again."

Lifting her eyes, Ranma smiled reassuringly. "No, nothing like that. I'm still happy, believe me. All that is in the past. The only personal demons I have are my children."

Maaya laughed. "What, the children you swore you'd never have?"

"And don't think I didn't regret it. Here, I have some pictures." Ranma dug around in a pocket of her briefcase.

"Regretted it so much the first time you did it again?"

"I'm a slow learner. The girl is Kyoko, the boy is Akio."

Maaya beamed as she examined the pictures. "They're beautiful."

"Yeah. Annoying, but beautiful."

Maaya laughed again. "Oh, this makes me feel so good. To see that you've had such a good life."

"Oh, it's had its ups and downs." Ranma shrugged. "Life hasn't been exactly idyllic. But... well, if college taught me anything, it was that any problem I faced I could eventually overcome. Or learn to live with."

"Ah." Maaya nodded. "That's not an easy lesson to learn. I'm not sure I ever did."

"Heh, well, you certainly helped me to learn." Ranma smiled broadly. "I'm not sure I ever thanked you enough for that. You were a good friend."

Maaya looked mildly unhappy. "I'm not certain I was a good friend. I... did some things I'm not proud of."

"I didn't say perfect. Just good."

Maaya laughed, and Ranma joined in, and it felt very nice.

"Well, I guess I don't have to know *everything* about you." Maaya handed the pictures back to Ranma. "I'm sorry I pressed. If you say it's nothing to worry about and that you're still happy with your life, I'll believe you."

Ranma sat back and looked up at the sky. So much of her life had gone in such strange directions. From the moment she'd been born, it seemed, chaos had ruled, starting with leaving home with her father when she was three. Nothing, but nothing had gone according to whatever tenuous plans she had ever bothered to construct. And this, her first meeting with Maaya since college, had also not gone according to plan.

But, sometimes, good things happened as a result of that. Very good things. And maybe this was an opportunity to see if something else good could happen.

Ranma focused on Maaya again. "Okay, let me start from the beginning. When I was sixteen, my father took me to China on a training trip."

The next hour was somewhat painful, but Ranma got through it. When she did, Maaya was still there, and Ranma felt the pain of passage was worth the friend she had found again.

~*~

They say that 'time assuages,'--
    Time never did assuage;
An actual suffering strengthens,
    As sinews do, with age.

Time is a test of trouble,
    But not a remedy.
If such it prove, it prove too
    There was no malady.

         -Emily Dickinson

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