Clifford: What seest thou in me, York? Why dost thou pause?

York:     With thy brave bearing should I be in love,
          But that thou art so fast mine enemy.

               Act V, Scene II
               King Henry VI, Second Part
               William Shakespeare

With Thy Brave Bearing

by Richard Lawson

---

The alarm went off. Ranma opened an eye and stared an accusation at it. But there was no real force to it; she had been nearly awake anyway. Somehow, somewhere, in the past six years she had developed the habit of getting up early and on time. That, more than anything, seemed to indicate that her childhood had ended. Dammit.

She sat up, stretched, then got to her feet. Ranma padded over to the sink and washed her hands and face quickly. She'd clean herself more thoroughly later. Good enough for now.

After a quick change of clothing she was ready to leave. She scooped up her backpack and walked across the room to a pile of blankets, books, and light snoring. Ranma frowned down at it. If waking up early was an end to childhood, then sleeping in the same room with someone of the opposite sex who was not a relative was perhaps the end of innocence.

Except, of course, it really was innocence. It was a convenience, since the form currently huddled on the wooden floor often stayed late, studying and whatnot. And while the second-hand futon Ranma had purchased had ample room for two, she had never offered to let this other person sleep in it, and he had never asked to accompany her to it.

Which was mildly creepy. Ranma knew all too well the urgings a young man felt, and was utterly amazed that this particular young man could control himself to this extent. He never asked, never applied pressure, never expressed a desire. At least not verbally; sometimes she could feel his eyes watching her with a particular intensity. If it weren't for those few moments, she'd almost wonder if he was a eunuch.

And, frankly, it would almost be a relief if that turned out to be the truth. If he had ever asked to share her bed, she likely would have had to restrain herself from hitting him. Hard.

The figure stirred, turned, opened its eyes. Dark alert eyes looked up at her and crinkled.

For lack of anything better, she said, "Yo."

"Yo." He smiled slightly. "Off to practice?"

"Yeah. Meet for lunch?"

"Here or at the cafeteria?"

"Cafeteria. I'm out of rice and too lazy to go shopping."

"I'll pick some rice up after lab this afternoon."

"'Kay. See ya."

"See ya."

She looked at his face another moment, then turned and left the apartment. While Ranma greatly enjoyed being with him and being near him, there were still times, still moments, where she simply couldn't bear to be near Kentaro. Just looking into his eyes as he was waking up was enough to creep her out. And yet, she could have just walked past him, left without disturbing him. She'd wanted to look into his eyes, wanted to see him awake and smiling at her.

Stupid conflicting desires. Why couldn't she just be normal? There were moderately strong indications in current research that those with greater psychological health in adolescence would show more improvement in adult psychological health. Dammit, why'd she go to college? She'd been happier when she'd known nothing about nothing.

Ranma sighed and pushed away the melancholy. She had other things to focus on.

The locker room was already bustling when she entered. She got various greetings, which she returned. Ranma made her way over to her locker - in the back, near the showers - and opened it up. The one thing that had not changed over the years was how uncomfortable she felt in a room full of partially clothed and naked women. She had managed to mask the discomfort, though, so she didn't flinch as one of the other women approached her while Ranma was stepping into her leotard.

"Yo, Saotome."

"Yo, Horie."

"Coach thinks I should give up the balance beam."

Ranma thought that over. "You averaged like a seven one, right?"

"six nine five." Horie looked very unhappy. "But I got a seven two in our last match. And if I don't do the balance beam, I can't compete in the overall."

"Hmm. Been working on it off-season?"

Horie blushed. "Uh, a little."

Which meant not at all. Ranma adjusted the shoulders of her leotard. "If you don't work on it, how can you get better? Matches aren't meant to be practices, they're competition."

"I know." Horie sounded very meek.

Ranma clasped Horie's shoulder. "Look, stop by my martial arts class this afternoon. Afterwards we can go through some exercises that will help with keeping your form straight and fluid. Work on it, show it to me in practice, and I'll get Coach to let you stay in the overall. How's that?"

The younger woman smiled. "That would be great. Thanks Saotome." She stepped back, bowed slightly, then ran off.

Ranma slammed her locker shut and made her way to the gym. As she did, another one of her teammates, a senior like herself, fell beside her. "You're too wimpy."

Ranma grunted. "And you're too harsh. No reason not to give her a chance. If she can consistently get seven-two's, we'll do fine."

"Fine, maybe, but we're not here to do fine. We're here to win. We got a real chance at the nationals."

"Maybe." Ranma shrugged. "But there are ways and there are ways. We all get there or no one does. You know that."

"And you know that we can't afford to coddle those that don't really try."

"Hey, if she doesn't shape up then Coach will yank her off the balance beam herself. But we gotta give Horie a shot."

"You'd be surprised what we do and don't 'gotta' do." The woman walked off.

Ranma frowned after her. Some problems were easy to define, others less so. More and more she was coming to understand why her father had lived the way he had. There was a certain... liberation in being able to leave problems behind.

Some things, however, she could never avoid. Some things would always be with her. Dammit.

Again she shook her head clear. She entered the gym and immediately three underclassmen approached her with an animated discussion about who had the best floor program and what props should be used. Ranma refocused her mind and was soon in deep discussion about technical merits and presentation.

Coach Shiozawa entered the gym, and discussion ground to a halt. "All right girls, settle down. Saotome, lead the exercises."

Ranma took position at the front as the women lined themselves up in rough columns. "All right, forward kicks, as high as you can. Ready... begin. One, two. Two, two. Three, two. Four, two. Shiina, don't lift, kick. That's it. Eight, two."

The exercises went on for a few minutes, Ranma feeling completely comfortable leading the way. This part was easy, just like teaching martial arts. It was the unusual personal problems she had to face that made being team captain a completely unexpected challenge. Someone asking for personal advice had been completely foreign to Ranma's existence.

After the group exercises everyone began paired stretching. Ranma walked up and down the rows, offering advice where needed. Shiozawa usually contributed little, merely observing and making notes. Today she was involved in writing on her clipboard and ignored the team completely.

Ranma stopped in front of Horie, who was trying to stay balanced on one leg while leaning forward, the other leg arched over her back and being held by her partner. It was a very difficult and often painful thing to do, but Horie's face looked redder than could be accounted for by exertion. Ranma frowned, and asked, "What is it?"

Without saying anything, Horie looked beyond Ranma.

Ranma slowly turned, knowing what she'd see already. The men's team was practicing at the other end of the gym. Several team members were watching the women quite openly, with various rapt expressions. One by one Ranma met their eyes and they turned hastily away. While she regretted some of the overreactions she'd had in the past, at times like this her reputation was a very handy thing to have.

Nodding in satisfaction, Ranma swept her gaze across the men, preparing to turn back towards her team, when she noticed one man was still looking rather defiantly at her. The leer on his face was quite open, even exaggerated. The challenge was quite evident.

The burden of a reputation was the necessity of having to occasionally live up to it. Plus the guy was annoying. Ranma slowly walked across the gym towards him. His smile widened as she did.

She stopped two feet away. "You got a problem, bud?"

"No problem." The smugness was overwhelming. "You wouldn't mind leaning forward just now, would ya? I wanna see if those are real or just plastic."

There was an uncomfortable shifting away from her challenger. Ranma clenched her jaw, took a step forward and tried to grab his wrist. He spun his arm away, and as she tried to grab it he bounced back a step, assuming a stance. A martial arts stance.

Ranma reassessed. The guy was younger than she was, almost certainly a freshman. He was small for a man but still taller than Ranma. His body was deceptively slight but now that Ranma looked more closely, she could see that his muscle tone was firm and even throughout his body.

She studied his eyes, which were watching her closely, challenge and amusement in his expression. He was enjoying this immensely.

With deliberate slowness, Ranma assumed a stance similar to his. She threw a punch, no real force behind it, directed towards his sternum. He brushed it aside easily. Two more blocked jabs, to shoulder and waist, were followed by a quick foot sweep, which he jumped over. He wasn't counter-attacking, just responding to her attacks and smiling every time he avoided them.

Ranma eased out of her stance. He knew the forms - the very basic, standard forms. He had good control, good reflexes, and seemed capable of quick attacks. But so far she had seen no creativity; he was using what he had learned and using it very well, but had added no style of his own.

"Listen, bud-"

"Chihiro."

She stared at him with a deliberate lack of understanding.

"Tange Chihiro. Learn it, love it, use it."

A few chuckles from some of the other watching men. Ranma didn't spare them a glance. "Listen, Tange... you gotta practice, we gotta practice. Together we represent the university, so each of us has to do our best to get ready. You keep your nose - and eyes - out of our business, and we do the same, and we all get along and win. Don't, and you get trouble. From me. And that you don't want. Okay?"

"Trouble? If you mean whether or not you'll clean my room once I'm done with you, I can handle it. Just make sure you leave right away, I don't want you clinging to me begging for more."

A couple of strained chuckles but mostly the sound of indrawn breath. Ranma narrowed her eyes. The goading was deliberate, almost over-the-top. But dammit, still effective. Right now she wanted nothing more than to blast him through the wall.

Slowly, she again assumed the stance. Then she took a step forward. He was almost bouncing on the balls of his feet, eager to fight. Ranma threw one punch, then another, allowing them to get blocked. She whirled into an elbow jab, which he brought his hands up to block. Ranma never completed the attack, instead dropping to the floor, on her back, and kicking quickly upward.

He tried to jump back but she still made contact. Tange grimaced, staggered, and bent forward at the waist.

Ranma slowly got to her feet, turned her back on the still-wincing Tange, and made her way slowly back to the women's team. They had all stopped stretching to watch, but as she approached they quickly resumed their activities.

Horie smiled at Ranma as she took her turn helping her partner stretch. "I see what you mean, Saotome. Kick, not lift. Much more effective."

Ranma joined in the chuckling. As the women laughed together, Ranma stole a glance across the gym. Tange had one hand over his crotch but seemed to be recovering all right. He was staring daggers at Ranma. She refused to return his look, instead putting her back to him again. Hopefully he was capable of learning. Hopefully he could control himself in the future and not repeat dumb mistakes.

Hopefully, she was forced to say to herself, he was nothing at all like Ranma was at that age.

---

Ranma watched the attack repeat itself and shook her head. "Stop."

Koyasu - a big man who towered over her - stepped back from the woman he had been attacking. "Yes, Sensei?"

"You're using your right hand too much."

Blankly he stared at it. "But I'm right-handed."

"That's no excuse. What if your opponent broke your right wrist? Would you like to be completely helpless then?"

"Er... no, Sensei."

"For the rest of the class, I want you to attack only with your left hand. Mizuki, you do the same. I don't want either of you to become dependent on your main hand."

The woman nodded and brought up her defenses. Koyasu moved in, his left-handed jabs awkward but technically sound. Ranma nodded to herself; with practice, he'd become reasonably proficient.

Another one of her students came up to her. His normally warm, intelligent voice contained a note of unease. "Sensei."

Ranma looked up at him. "Yes?"

"Visitor."

Ranma looked over at the door. There, leaning against the frame, was Tange. He was watching her intently, not leering, just very focused. Ranma frowned. "Let's check it out."

"Very well, Sensei." Kentaro fell in step behind her as she approached the door.

This time she stood a respectful six feet away. "What do you want?"

Tange glanced around the dance room. "Is this your dojo?"

"From four until six on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, it's my dojo. You need some lessons?" Her voice was as bland as she could make it, which admittedly wasn't much.

"Ha." He straightened, his eyes glittering. "How about, instead, I challenge you to a match. For the honor of your 'dojo'. Such as it is."

Ranma studied his eyes, heard the sound of activity behind her slowing to a halt. "Marumoto. Keep them on task."

"Yes, Sensei." Kentaro stepped away and began talking in low tones. Quickly her students resumed their practicing.

Ranma never took her eyes off of Tange. "What problem do we got that you wanna fight over?"

"Who says we have a problem?" Tange smirked. "I just haven't ever met someone who could even begin to match my skill. I underestimated you once; won't happen again."

"You're right. It won't. I don't gotta fight you and I don't think I will. You wanna match, go join a league somewhere. My dojo is about perfecting the art, not letting some stupid punk pick a fight."

"Hah. Don't get all mystical on me. Martials arts is always about fighting. I know it and you know it. So c'mon, let's do what we both want to do. Otherwise, you're just a coward who thinks she can hide behind words and her students."

Ranma felt her hands clenching and forced them open. "Get out. I'm busy here." She turned away and stalked off.

Kentaro was on the other side of the room, watching two of her students sparring and, not coincidentally, with a good view of the door. She walked up beside him, also watching her students. Tange was in her field of vision, and he bowed sardonically before leaving.

Kentaro said nothing for perhaps a minute. Just when she thought he had finally learned to keep his mouth shut, Kentaro said, "He was right."

"What, that I'm a coward?"

"Of course not." His voice was low and reasonable, a distinct contrast from her irritated response. "Just that you really did want to fight him."

"No I didn't, you jerk."

Kentaro didn't respond. Ranma growled slightly and moved on to another pair. She forced them to use nothing but their legs to attack and defend, and managed to put Tange out of her mind.

She didn't say anything to Kentaro for the rest of the class. After she had showered and changed in the locker room, Ranma met up with him outside the building. They fell in step with each other without a word, heading back to her apartment.

After a couple of minutes, she sighed. "Okay, maybe a little."

He responded mildly, as if there had been no pause in their conversation at all. "More than a little. You were almost quivering in excitement."

"Well, he was being such a jerk. That was the guy from practice the other day."

"I figured as much. And I don't think it was just because he's being a jerk. I think you're dying to fight someone nearer your skill level."

Ranma thought that over. Quite likely Kentaro was right. One of the things she missed terribly from her former life was the daily battles with her father. And Ryoga. And Mousse. And all the other weird but gifted martial artists she had known. Of her students, Kentaro was the most capable and only then because she gave him extra lessons. In a real fight she could defeat him in seconds.

She yearned for the fights were victory was uncertain, where attacks would get through her defenses, where she needed to think and act quickly just to survive. Ranma was no longer sure of her edge.

With a sigh, she reached over and took Kentaro's hand, something she seldom did in public, a silent apology she knew he'd understand. He turned his head and smiled at her. She tried smiling back and pulled it off. Truly, it was nice to be able to have someone who knew her well enough that words didn't need to be spoken.

"Him? Really? How could you?"

Ranma spun, dropping her backpack and Kentaro's hand at the same time, assuming a stance. Tange was behind her, a look of disgust on his face. "I saw him practicing. He's no damned good, never will be. You should be with a real man, not that no-talent idiot."

It took Ranma a minute to be sure her voice wouldn't be shaking with anger. "One and only warning. Don't follow me. Ever. Again."

With a leisurely movement, Tange assumed his own stance. "Or what?"

"Or we'll phone the campus police and report you for harassment." Kentaro stepped between Ranma and Tange, breaking their line of sight. "They take a pretty dim view of stalkers."

Tange laughed. "Is that how it, Saotome? Can't fight your own fights? Gotta have your man fight them for you?"

The words set off an explosion in Ranma's mind. She stepped forward and shoved Kentaro out of the way. Tange actually giggled as she stalked towards him. The resolve brightened, became hotter. He'd gotten away easy in the gym.

Ranma felt Kentaro come up behind her and sensed his movement, which was probably all that kept him from being hurled down the path. His hands grasped her shoulders. "Ranma, stop. Not like this."

Using a supreme effort of will she didn't know she possessed, Ranma allowed Kentaro to hold her in place. She trembled once, then spoke in a low tight voice. "You tick off too many people. Someone's gonna answer back, hard, and you ain't gonna survive."

"We'll see about that." Tange relaxed out of his stance. "Any time, Saotome. Your 'dojo', your apartment, or right here. Just once I'd like to see that big mouth of yours backed up by some action. By some serious action. And without lover-boy there interfering."

"Stop trying to make your fantasies come true, Tange, they ain't never gonna, and I won't be a part of 'em." Ranma spun on her heel, shoved Kentaro out of the way, and stalked down the path.

After a moment, Kentaro ran up beside her. "You all right?"

"This would be an excellent time to shut up," Ranma barked.

"As you wish."

Ranma blew out an irritated breath, slowed her pace slightly, and tried her best to let it all drain away. The punk wasn't worth it, wasn't worth getting all worked up over. Ranma slowly calmed down, using images of beating Tange to a pulp to help her relax.

The apartment building loomed. They walked up a set of stairs and down an outside hallway. Ranma dug the keys out of her pocket and unlocked the door. She opened it, pulled out her keys, and walked inside, leaving the door open. Kentaro followed behind her, closing the door after he entered.

Ranma threw her backpack across the room. It landed on the top of her desk, slid across it, and fell off the other side. Ranma growled.

Kentaro laughed. Not much, just a chuckle. Still, she looked at him out of the corner of her eye. He immediately sobered but with a twinkle in his eye that said he wasn't sorry at all. She decided to let it go; the incident was minor, his reaction not unreasonable. And it was her fault for trying to show off a bit; usually she just dropped her backpack to the floor and retrieved it when she was ready.

Ranma walked across the room, her footsteps echoing a bit. So little furniture, and no money to really buy any. The desk was a luxury, and had come at the expense of anything like a couch. All she had was a futon slid against a wall, where with the creative use of pillows she could sit comfortably.

It was there she went now, kneeling and moving the pillows around a bit. She grabbed a textbook - Interpreting Research In Sport and Exercise Science - and opened to a bookmark about three-fourths of the way through. She wanted to finish it tonight, but at the same time she wanted to understand it, which meant taking her time. Despite all expectations, the book was interesting - how to actually understand research reports and derive meaning from them. Written for people who would likely never conduct actual research. Like, for example, Ranma herself.

Kentaro, meantime, was busy preparing himself some tea. Ranma looked up at him, watching to see if he needed any help, but he seemed to be managing all right. She had very little in the way of food and drink to offer - tea in bulk packages as well as rice, with a smattering of ingredients to add to rice to give the illusion of variety. Kentaro, luckily for him, still lived on campus and still ate his food at the cafeteria. Of course, Kentaro would emerge from college with a lot more debt than Ranma would, but at the same time he would likely be better able to pay it off. Ranma herself had no idea where she was going to get the money to open a dojo, much less pay back the financial aid she'd received. She was desperately hoarding the fees she was collecting from teaching martial arts on campus, but those fees were capped by the student activities policy of the university and she wasn't exactly getting rich off of them. After college she'd have to find some other job until she could raise sufficient funds to strike out on her own.

The thoughts were beginning to lead her in an uncomfortable direction and she forced herself to go back to reading her book. She had months still before she really had to worry about it.

Kentaro walked over to the futon and place a cup of tea on a small plastic tray that sufficed as a bedside table. He walked around to the other side of the futon and carefully sat down amidst some more pillows. He took a sip of his tea, then put it down on another plastic tray. He brought out a much larger textbook and began to read it. Ranma flipped a page of her book, mentally chastising herself for paying such close attention to everything he did. There was a kind of electrical awareness between them, full of anticipation on his part and a mild kind of dread on hers.

She managed ten more pages before Kentaro closed his textbook, set it down, then leaned over to kiss her cheek. Ranma didn't visibly react and continued reading. This didn't seem to deter Kentaro, who continued to gently kiss the side of her face.

One of the novels she had been forced to read to meet her literature requirements had a matronly figure telling a young woman that men could find happiness in the pleasure they received, while women could only find happiness in the pleasure they gave. Ranma found it complete nonsense, and had chosen that as a theme for a paper she'd written for the class. It had been very easy to write - mostly she'd ask herself questions and imagine Nabiki answering them. The result was an incredibly acerbic essay that Ranma had felt no inclination to soften. It had felt strange to play the role of feminist, but the professor had proven to be a surprisingly receptive audience. She had scored an 'A-' on the paper, the only mild admonition from the professor being that she had not fully appreciated the intended irony of the passage in the novel.

Ranma knew loads about irony - mostly that she hated real-life applications of it. One such instance was now. While the sensation of having a man press his lips to her cheek was not exactly pleasant, she did find herself growing a little warm at the thought of how much he was enjoying it. Carefully she put the bookmark in place, closed the book, gently placed it on the tray next to the untouched cup of tea, then closed her eyes and turned her head. Their lips met and he began kissing her in earnest.

Immediately her mind slipped into that disassoicated state she often used in this situation. This wasn't a man kissing her, this was a man kissing a woman, never mind which party was which. She could get by like this, and when he parted his lips she found her own lips parting with him. Their tongues tasted each other and Ranma found she liked it - which was good, sometimes she didn't. She reached up, put her hand on the back of his shoulder, drawing him in a little towards her, finding herself truly enjoying this. This had not happened often at first but lately she'd been able to obtain this level of enjoyment with some regularity. A man kissing a woman, and it was good.

Then she felt his hand begin to caress her side, from underneath her arm to her waist, and knew what that meant. The hand would soon begin to wander. She'd only allowed him to do this very recently, and she wasn't sure she liked it - the action left no doubt who the woman was. Still, she couldn't even imagine what it must be like for him - to date a woman for over two years and do nothing more than kiss her. She had to allow this, to get used to this, if she was planning on staying with him.

So Ranma did everything she could not to flinch when Kentaro moved his hand and began massaging her breast.

Ranma let out a breath through her nose, still kissing him but not as forcefully. It actually didn't feel too bad. Strange and alien - that was a part of her body that she hadn't thought of as particularly sensitive. But somehow the manipulation was pleasant.

And then, quite beyond her control, she shuddered. Kentaro immediately broke off the kiss and removed his hand. "Sorry," he said quietly.

"Don't. Don't be." Ranma drew in a couple of deep breaths.

"I know that it's difficult for you."

Ranma smirked. "You keep saying that. I don't know if you truly understand what it means."

"I... I try. I... sometimes imagine what it would be like if... well, if I were in your position."

"Well, let me ask you a question." Ranma stroked his shoulder. "How does it feel to be kissed by a man?"

The question got through, she could see its impact in his expression. He looked down at her shirt - a simple thing with buttons down the front. He reached down, unbuttoned the top one. Ranma swallowed as he moved down to the next button. "To be honest, Ranma, I have never been able to picture you as a man. I know how you think of yourself, and I know the mental adjustments you're trying to make. Rather than try to work through all the complications of dating a man turned into a woman, I've taken the position that I'm simply dating a woman. It's certainly easier for me, and it may even be better for you."

Kentaro had finished unbuttoning her shirt but left it covering her body. He looked down at her, waiting for her to react. Ranma studied him for a minute, trying to evaluate his words. Deciding that they were all right, she closed her eyes and very gently applied pressure to his shoulder. He moved, and his lips touched hers. But he held himself at an angle, and slipped one hand underneath her shirt.

There it was, skin on skin contact. Only the second time, and it was still too much, the pleasure too strong, almost ticklish but not quite.

This time, she felt the shudder coming and was able to stop it. This is good, this feels good, let it feel good. She did her best, let the pleasure come unfiltered, tried to keep from actually thinking. It wasn't too bad, honestly. The strangeness of it all was most of it, but by distancing herself from that aspect, it really wasn't all that great a feeling, like getting tickled just enough to laugh and not enough to hurt.

A little to her surprise, Kentaro stopped kissing her. Ranma let her head fall back a little, her eyes firmly wedge shut, allowing his hands to knead her. Strange to have all that flesh for him to grab on to; strange to have someone enjoying touching her in that area. Thoughts kept trying to form themselves in her mind, and she had to struggle to keep them from becoming coherent.

Kentaro shifted his positioning a bit, and then he was pressing his lips to her flesh, at the base of her breasts, slowly climbing up. The shudder tried to come again but Ranma held it off, trying to feel, curious if it would feel good. It did, to her surprise. As his lips moved towards the apex of her breasts, the sensation got better. And then he was suckling her, using his lips and tongue. And it was a good sensation, very interesting, not a bad thing. Her breath quickened a little, she raised one hand and began stroking his hair. This seemed to drive him on to greater efforts, and then...

Ranma shouted and sat up abruptly. She pressed her hands to her groin, grimacing. Kentaro sat up as well and put his hand on her back. "What's wrong."

"Wow. This is..." Disgusting? She bit off the word. "Uncomfortable."

"How do you mean? In what way?"

Damn his obtuseness. "I... it's like I just wet myself. It's... my body's not supposed to do this. I'm not supposed to be... leaking. It's... weird and unnatural and messy and I don't like it."

"Oh." He shifted slightly. "You've, um, never been this... stimulated before?"

She fixed him with an icy glare. "Kenny, don't ask me those kind of questions."

"Sorry." He bowed his head. "I just... found it surprising, is all."

Of course he did. He thought Ranma was a woman. At that particular moment, she despised Kentaro for his disbelief. Ranma squeezed her eyes shut and spoke in a low voice. "I hate this. I hate my body. I want my old body back. I want... I want to be you, Kentaro. I want to be the one... touching a woman. I was a virgin at sixteen, of course I had all the time in the world, except time ran out and now I can't ever have sex as a man, never ever, and I want to, I want to so badly..."

Her mind was awash with the need, the desire, as overpowering as it ever had been, and she couldn't think of anything else, feel anything else, and she didn't even try to stop it, just let it wash over her again and again until she wanted to die rather than keep feeling this pain.

But, slowly, another emotion managed to arise, a small pole lifting out of the whirlpool of her thoughts, and she kept rushing by it again and again until finally it demanded enough of her attention to allow the maelstrom to subside. And that emotion was curiosity, tinged with a bit of irritation. Why didn't Kentaro say anything? All he was doing was gently rubbing her back through the cloth of her shirt, not saying anything.

Ranma opened her eyes and looked up at him. Kentaro had been staring at the far wall but at her movement he met her eyes. And there she saw it: uncertainty. He wasn't responding because he didn't know how to respond. Kentaro didn't believe she was a man turned into a woman, he thought she was a woman with a weird psychological problem. He had made certain adjustments to accommodate her - how he'd gone over two years with so little in the way of physical satiation was beyond her, she certainly would have left the relationship long ago if the roles had been reversed. But she was forcing him to confront the core of her problems, the one fundamental thing she knew was true with a conviction as strong as his belief that there was no such thing as cursed magical pools.

His eyes shifted focus, back and forth, between each of her eyes, and she saw a decision of some sort reached. "I don't know what I can tell you that I haven't already told you a hundred times before. I can say them again but I'm pretty sure you'd not only find that unhelpful but you'd yell at me for saying it again."

Ranma smiled slightly. "Okay, point to you."

"So... all I can say is that you have to find a way to deal with it. I don't know what that might be. You've managed to get this far but it's not enough. You'll have to find something to take you the rest of the way."

"Yeah, well, that's not exactly an insight."

"I know. I can imagine that you've been through this a million times already." Kentaro stopped, took a breath, plunged on. "So maybe you need some outside assistance. Professional assistance."

Ranma narrowed her eyes slightly. "You mean a psychologist?"

"Yes." Kentaro was proceeding very cautiously, Ranma could tell. Saying each word slowly, tensed for an outburst from her. "Someone who can help you break out of the cycle and get you focused on the goal."

Ranma waited for the anger to surge. When it didn't, she tried to provoke it. "So tell me, how do I find a psychologist that won't try to get me to disbelieve in magic and will instead focus on the problem of someone who was born and raised as a male having to suddenly adjust to a female body?"

A sigh escaped Kentaro's lips. "That I don't know. If I knew that one, I would have suggested this a long time ago. I did some research a year ago, and there are some fascinating case studies of gender disassociation - boys who were castrated in accidents, subsequently raised as girls by their parents, that sort of thing. There are only a couple of psychologists with experience like that in Japan, and they're far too expensive for us. You could go to psychologists who are familiar with dealing with transvestites and transsexuals - there are far more of those. But I was also worried that you'd greatly dislike the base assumptions such psychologists would have."

Kentaro shrugged. "So I don't have an easy answer. Maybe your family and friends in Tokyo will have better luck, given that they've had... exposure... to the same kind of things you have. But either way, I do think you need help, and it's the kind of help I can't give you."

Wow. He'd certainly done a lot of work on this, far more than he had ever let on. She found it oddly touching, and it managed to calm her down. Ranma was fairly certain she'd never go to a psychologist, but that didn't mean the idea was without merit. At the very least he had managed to lodge it in her mind without getting her angry, which was quite a feat. Maybe, just maybe, over time she could even consider it.

Ranma looked down, then slowly began to button her shirt again. Kentaro scooted away and picked up his textbook again. When she glanced over at him he was deep into it, evidently content with having made his point.

Which maybe he had.

With an effort, Ranma picked up her own book, settled back into the futon, and began to contemplate.

---

The class was in good form. Ranma eyed them all as they practiced kicks over and over again, and found that mostly they were doing them right. This was a good bunch, able to do what she told them to do, a bit to her surprise. Long ago she had written off the rest of the world as slow, clumsy, and physically inept. To see that they could learn had shaken some of the pillars of her belief system. In other circumstances it might have been an epiphany, but these days it was just another in a series of reevaluations, each subsequent one losing a bit of luster.

"Okay, enough." Ranma waited until everyone was standing still, watched their breathing, again amazed that they were all doing as she had said. "Now, pair off and practice balancing. Left leg, then right leg. Try to throw some punches and block some attacks while keeping your balance. Don't try to jump and land on that one leg; we'll save that lesson for another day."

The class broke down into its groups, finding partners, being careful to find someone new knowing that Ranma would chastise them for using the same pairing over and over again. Ranma circled the room, watching but not commenting.

Because, frankly, she was preoccupied. Kentaro hadn't shown up yet, which was extremely unusual for him. Being even five minutes late was out of character for him, and class had begun an hour ago. Something had certainly come up, but still, she would have expected him to let her know if he could.

Ranma ran a few scenarios through her head - the most amusing being someone running up and dumping Jusenkyo water on Kentaro's head - only to have it all fly out of her mind by the appearance of Kentaro himself.

He was hurting, clutching the doorframe, barely able to hold himself upright. Ranma gasped and ran over to him. She caught him as he began to collapse and gently laid him on the ground.

Kentaro was covered with sweat and the swellings that would soon become painful bruises. Ranma took off his shirt, unconcerned by modesty at the moment, and began examining the wounds, pressing gently with her fingers.

"Marumoto!" This from a student behind Ranma. "What happened?"

Kentaro looked into Ranma's eyes. "Tange."

Ranma thinned her lips but said nothing, continuing to probe.

"That jerk?" Another student, sounding outraged. "Attacked you for no reason at all?"

"No, that's not it." Kentaro spoke a little louder, so everyone could hear. "He met me on the way here and said things to me. Very provocative things, designed to make me angry."

Kentaro shook his head. "It worked. I attacked him out of anger. He counter-attacked and did this to me. If I hadn't let him get to me, this never would have happened."

"You? Someone made you angry, Marumoto?"

"He knew what buttons to push." Kentaro winced as Ranma probed a tender spot. "And I let him push them. I didn't exhibit good self-control. I was there when he tried to do the same thing to Sensei. He did everything he could to provoke an attack. She simply turned her back on him and walked away. Sensei showed a lot more self-control than I did. Let that be a lesson to you all; just because you have the ability to fight doesn't mean you should. Follow Sensei's example, not mine.

Ranma noticed that he didn't mention how close those provocations had come to succeeding. She finished her examination and stood. "Give me your hand."

Puzzled, Kentaro reached up. Ranma grabbed his hand and yanked it ungently. Kentaro gasped as he lurched to his feet.

Grunting, Ranma gave him a hard stare. "You're fine, Marumoto. He gave you a lot of bruises but nothing debilitating. Just painful. You'll feel them for a long time to come, which is just as well. Change into your gi and do laps around the room as we practice. Do some running before you go to bed and as soon as you get up in the morning. The looser you can keep your muscles, the faster they'll heal."

"Y-yes, Sensei." Making a significant effort to walk without showing pain, Kentaro picked up his backpack and walked down the hallway.

Ranma slowly turned, her expression enough to send everyone scrambling back to resume their practice. Again Ranma circled the room, staring daggers but not offering any comments.

Kentaro soon returned and painfully began his laps. Ranma let him complete a few circuits before she fell in step beside him. He was going very slowly; Ranma could have almost walked as fast.

"So, do I want to know what he said to you?"

"I'll tell you if you want, but I really don't think you want to hear it."

"I can imagine. Did he give you any messages for me?"

"Well, no, other than this beating, which I think was message enough."

"Yeah." Ranma glanced at Kentaro out of the corner of her eye. "I'm really surprised at you."

"That's nothing compared to how embarrassed I am." Even through the exertion, Ranma could see Kentaro's cheek darken a little. "I thought his attempts to goad you into attacking were so childish, and yet I succumbed so easily. You're right. This is no more than I deserve."

"Good that you realize that. But..." Ranma grabbed his sleeve and slowed them to a stop. "Tange should not have done that. We need to find a way to deal with him."

Kentaro nodded. "Yeah. But I'm not sure what we can do. Attacking him... I screwed up badly. Now we can't get campus security involved; he'll just say he was defending himself. Which isn't far wrong."

"Yeah. That's what made me so mad at you. Now we have no choice. We have to give him what he wants."

"We do?"

"It's the only way. Because you're my student and because I'm still annoyed, you get to write up a challenge and present it to him. Friday, here, when my class is supposed to start. Me and him, one on one. We keep going until one of us yields. Or gets knocked out."

"Ranma!" Kentaro looked extremely distressed. "Are you sure? This can't be the only way."

"It is now." Ranma flexed her hands, already beginning to prepare herself. "He wants a fight, he gets a fight."

---

Ranma stood, rigid yet flexible, not moving but prepared to move at any second, off-center in the dance room that doubled as her dojo. Her students knelt at the edges of the room, looking nervous. This was something they had never seen before and they weren't certain what to expect.

Ranma kept her eyes on Kentaro, who stood at the doorway looking out. She saw at the sudden tightening of his stance when Tange came in sight. A conversation, muted and out of Ranma's sight, took about two minutes. Then Kentaro stepped back and bowed slightly.

Tange stepped lightly into the room. He was wearing a dark red gi tied with a black belt. He grinned at Ranma as he took position opposite her in the center of the room. "How ya doing, Saotome."

It took a bit of effort not to respond. She simply bowed, keeping her eyes on Tange. With a chuckle he returned the bow. They straightened at the same time. Ranma assumed a loose, defensive stance and waited.

The grin on Tange's face widened. "I can't tell you how much I've been looking forward to this. When we're done, you'll be worshipping the ground I walk on. You'll dump that loser of a boyfriend so you can hook up with a real-"

"Tange-san," Ranma interrupted smoothly. "I've already agreed to a fight. Stop talking and do it."

"Words I'm sure you'll be telling me again." Tange bounced on his heels and sprang forward.

The flurry was fierce and brief. Tange bounded away, leaving Ranma slightly breathless. The boy was fast. Very very fast. He had hand speed she hadn't seen since Nerima. The horrifying thought that he was faster than she was entered and left her mind; that was simply impossible.

Ranma moved a little to the left to see what he would do. He began circling to his left as well, keeping her opposite. His movement was good, with no obvious openings, no moment of unbalance she could exploit. As she watched his feet, he sprang forward again.

Block, block, duck, spin, block and then he was away. Tange leered triumphantly from across the room. Ranma glanced down and saw that he had managed to loosen her gi. It was open in the front, revealing her sports bra. She had started wearing them during soccer and gymnastics, then started wearing them during her martial arts training because she had found them extremely convenient. The thought of Saotome Ranma wearing a bra had been difficult to accept, and Kentaro had learned one time never to mention it. Now it was available for everyone in the room to see, and Ranma felt heat radiating from her face.

She adjusted her gi, keeping her eyes on Tange who appeared to be waiting. Point to him; he had revenged himself nicely for the humiliation she had exposed him to in the gym. She dropped back into her defensive stance as he grinned and pounced.

Damn, he was fast. His hands were impossible to follow as they moved, and they moved all the time. Ranma gave ground as she blocked the attacks, trying to compensate. She sensed her students getting closer and knew she had to do something.

Ranma suddenly planted her feet and jumped. She whirled in the air and attempted to kick at his head in passing, but she had just a tad too much velocity and missed. Ranma righted herself in the air and landed on her feet just as Tange was turning around.

"Good trick. Gotta try that sometime." And then he was at her, feet and hands a blur. Ranma, reacting on instinct, blocked the blows without giving ground. She wondered how long he could keep this up.

As it was, she was the one who failed first. A jab got through, right between her ribs, forcing an involuntary step backwards. Tange pressed the attack, trying to take advantage of the opening, but Ranma took two more steps backward then regained her defensive rhythm. After another minute Tange backed out.

Ranma studied him. He was breathing heavily, just like she was, but didn't really seem tired. He had stamina, loads of it, and didn't seem on the verge of giving up.

Tange grinned again. "Well, the warm-ups are over. Let's fight for real now. Ready?"

Ranma shrugged a shoulder.

"Excellent." And then he was off, moving more quickly than ever, right at her.

Except she wasn't there when he arrived. Ranma bounded to the side, then tucked and rolled, sprang up, leapt. Tange barely had time to orient before she arrived, feet-first. He blocked but staggered back a step, giving Ranma enough time to land and launch her own attacks.

She had him, she knew it. All his attacks had been utterly predictable, straight textbook, and his defenses were as well. Ranma nibbled at the edges, getting in a jab here, a kick there. After half a minute Tange tried a counter-attack, which failed miserably and earned him a solid punch in the gut.

Ranma stepped back as Tange went down on one knee, holding his stomach. To her enormous satisfaction the grin was gone from his face. "Okay, that was a good one, you caught me off-guard. Getting a little too cocky in my old age. Thankfully I'm not as decrepit as you."

"Thankfully," Ranma echoed, a small smile on her face. "What you are is an undisciplined brat, a jerk that don't know the difference between learning to fight and learning the art. Get to your feet if you're ready for another lesson from the School of Indiscriminate Grappling."

Clenching his jaw, Tange rose. "I don't need lectures from you. Just fight!" He jumped.

Ranma also jumped. They collided in mid-air.

The rain of blows was frightful. Ranma was moving fast but so was Tange. She had defenses ready for his attacks but he was using new ones, not from any form, looking a lot like the ones Ranma had used. He also didn't rely on his defenses any more but instead focused on knocking away her wrists and ankles. It wasn't perfect but it was a start.

Then end result was that they both landed a goodly number of blows before Tange broke off. He had a pretty good-sized lump on the top of his forehead which was going to shine spectacularly. Ranma's right shoulder hurt something fierce, so she knew she wasn't out of the woods yet.

Still, she filled her voice with confidence, and it wasn't hard to do. "Yield?"

"Like hell." Tange wiped the sweat from his face.

"This is just the beginning. You haven't seem me cut loose yet."

"Same here. I don't want to hurt any of your precious students."

Ranma nodded appreciatively. "Noble. But don't worry about it; my students can take care of themselves. Just don't break the mirror."

"That won't be what gets broken." Tange took one deep breath, two, three, then attacked.

Ranma met his attacks head-on and then lost the ability for coherent thought. It was instinct and reaction, block and attack, move or die. She was able to make some half-conscious decisions, to stay away from the reflective surface, be careful of other bodies that scrambled out of her way. Many other things seemed to percolate from her subconscious: he was being especially protective of his head, feint there and jab his abdomen; his attacks were primarily from his right hand and foot, aggresively counter-attack when he used his left-side attacks; he didn't seem to be manifesting chi, so don't use it either.

She was just beginning to feel the edge of exhaustion and knew that soon her attacks would slow and he would have her. Tange's attacks were as fast as ever and showed no signs of abating. Ranma needed to end this, now.

When a left-arm attack came, Ranma didn't block, instead wrapping her arm around his. At the same time she moved her legs between his and there was a sudden battle for position and balance. They both lost and fell over, side by side, her arms wrapped around his left arm and right shoulder, his legs effectively pinning hers.

And as quickly as that, the contest become one of strength. Ranma tried to move her left arm towards his neck while Tange tried for a scissors hold. Tange, damn him, was very strong. Maybe stronger than Ranma, that she was willing to concede. But Ranma seemed to have better experience using leverage, and was able to fight off the scissor hold while her hand inched higher and higher on his shoulder.

With no warning Ranma could detect, Tange rolled on top of her. Ranma instantly turned as well, effectively rolling him completely over to the other side. She used the jarring impact to get a good grip on his throat, but he similarly used it to complete his scissor hold.

Ranma squeezed; Tange squeezed. His legs were insanely strong and Ranma had trouble drawing breath. But so did Tange as she closed his windpipe. Now it was a contest of will, of who could go longer without a breath. Ranma, unable to expand her diaphragm, was beginning to feel the desperate need to breathe. She wasn't sure how much longer she could go on and had to hope that it was just one more second than he could.

Tange looked at her, an expression of sheer disgust on his face, then stopped applying pressure through his hold. He disentangled his legs and left his body limp, a clear sign of submission. Warily, Ranma loosened her grip. He drew in two shuddering breaths, then croaked out, "I yield."

The students burst out in cheering and clapping. From the floor Ranma tried to wave them silent and, after a few more seconds, was able to succeed. Wearily Ranma sat up, her breath still ragged but determined not to keep lying down in front of the class. Tange sat up opposite her, the look of disgust still on his face.

Finally Ranma got enough breath to ask the question. "Why? You weren't on the edge yet, and I was getting there. You might have won if we'd kept going."

"Bah." His voice matched his expression. "I only had a lousy hold. You had me by the throat. If this had been a real fight you could have ripped out my windpipe or my jugular. In the end you were holding back and I wasn't. Even if I'd managed to stay conscious longer, it would have meant nothing. You had me at your mercy and we both knew it."

An interesting point. Ranma had been extremely careful to apply just so much force and no more. With a struggle she rose to her feet and tried to help Tange to his. He refused her assistance, rising a little unsteadily. Looking straight at her, he bowed, and Ranma returned the gesture.

Tange turned and walked stiffly towards the door. On the threshold Ranma called out, "Next class is on Monday."

He stopped, then slowly faced her. "What makes you think I want to take lessons from a woman?"

"Stop that," Ranma snapped. "Stop saying things you don't really mean just so you can get people angry. It's not going to work on me, not any more."

Tange raised an eyebrow. "Is that a challenge?"

"No, just an observation."

"Okay, let me rephrase. What makes you think I want to take lessons from you?"

"Because that's why you've been pestering me." Ranma rubbed her shoulder, which was just beginning to really throb. "People like you and me, we need challenges. Otherwise we grow soft. We were both raised in the art, we both miss the lessons, learning from people who know more than we do."

Tange's eye flashed. "Who says you know more than me?"

"I do. But you also know stuff I don't. That last maneuver, you didn't telegraph it at all, I still can't figure out how you set it up. Look, I'm not saying you should be my student. I'm saying we should have a... a conference of equals. Learn from each other and fight every now and again. Just to keep sharp. I could use it, and I think you could also."

"You don't know anything about me."

"I know enough. You have an odd sense of honor, one that doesn't allow you to physically attack someone unless attacked yourself or challenged. You yielded when a person of lesser honor might have tried to stick it out. And you taught Marumoto a lesson without making it debilitating. You've also done a lot of dishonorable things, but I'd like to focus on these small seeds and see if you and I can take a young fighter and turn him into a true martial artist."

"Bah." He turned away. "Maybe I'll be here, maybe I won't, you'll just have to wait in breathless uncertainty until Monday."

Ranma grinned at his back. "No need. You'll be here."

Tange clenched his hands but didn't reply. Then he strode from the room and was lost from sight.

With a huge release of breath, Ranma sagged back down to the mat, sitting cross-legged. She met Kentaro's concerned gaze. "Okay, we've wasted enough time on foolishness. Marumoto, lead the class through standard warm-ups, then teach them how to grapple while on the ground. Leg and arm holds to begin with. Not all battles are fought on your feet.

Kentaro bowed. The rest of her students rose and also bowed. Ranma tried not to growl at the display, and soon they were beginning their warm-ups. After a few minutes more of recovery, Ranma regained her feet and assisted Kentaro with the lessons.

After the lessons, Ranma decided to forgo the shower, wanting nothing more than to go back to her apartment and collapse into her futon. Kentaro walked with her, saying nothing in a very obvious manner.

Finally Ranma relented. "All right, spit it out. What's on your mind?"

"I just wanted to know how you're feeling."

"Tired and a little sore. I'll be fine by morning."

"No, I mean emotionally."

Ranma blinked. "Uh, fine, I guess."

"I think you're more than fine." Kentaro looked at her as they walked. "I think you're in the best mood I've ever seen you in."

"Oh, come on. I know I haven't been laughing like Kodachi a lot, but I've been all right."

"Well, yes, when you're with large groups of people who know who you are, you relax and open up and can have a very good time. But when you're alone - or with me - you tend to get pensive. I guess I'm saying I've never seen you so relaxed when it's just the two of us."

"Hmm." Ranma mulled that over. "I... I like being with you, it's just..."

"It's just that I'm a man and even after all this time you can't really come to grips with dating a man. I know that, truly. But now, right now, you seem to have forgotten all about that."

"I guess... I'm thinking about the fight. I haven't had a battle like that in ages."

"Felt good?"

"Damn good." Ranma was only now realizing the truth of it.

"I'm glad. And I'm also glad you were wise enough to ask him to come back. I think you need him. Fighting with him is perhaps the best therapy possible."

Ranma laughed. "I gotta admit, in the old days I'd usually feel mellow after a good fight. Nothing like beating your frustrations out on someone. Especially the old man."

"Good. Maybe there's an answer for you in Tange."

"Maybe." Ranma shook her head. "But he's such a jerk."

"Maybe he's the balance you need. You need a jerk like him."

"Man, Kentaro... you're so dumb sometimes." Ranma stopped and turned to face Kentaro. "You know who he reminds me of? Me. That was me, six years ago before I was cursed. I was rude, I was arrogant, and I didn't care what people thought of me. I said mean things all the time and knew that no one could retaliate 'cuz they were afraid of what I could do to them."

"Oh?" Kentaro seemed genuinely surprised. "Well, that's not who you are now."

"Maybe. But I could very well easily been him. If it hadn't been for Jusenkyo, I could have gone to college as Tange."

"Ranma... truly, I don't think so. You can be mean sometimes, sure, but you can be very helpful. You'll bend over backwards to help someone, and I don't think that's something you suddenly decided to do."

Ranma sighed. "Kentaro, you really didn't know me. You can't imagine how different I was. Trauma can really do terrible things to a person's personality."

"Yes. But I don't think the... trauma... could have brought out qualities that didn't exist before. You're a good person now, Ranma, and you wouldn't be such a good person if there weren't these same traits in you before. I think you see the same things in Tange. You see hints of a better person and you're excited to try and bring those out, along with the challenge he offers you in a fight."

"Hmm. Interesting point." Ranma filed that away for future consideration. "Anyway, no matter what, I'll beat the arrogance out of him. That's gotta be good for him."

"And perhaps recover a little bit of your own arrogance." Kentaro smiled slightly. "I think there's a bit of him you needed to rediscover in yourself."

Some of the things Kentaro had been saying began to click in Ranma's head. "Are you saying... you think I should go out with him?"

Kentaro looked to one side. "I'm... not certain you want a guy like me. If... you're going to adjust to being with a guy, maybe it should be someone like him. You certainly seemed to... connect to him faster than I've seen you warm up to any man. If he's what you need to be happy, then... then I'll back away."

"Kenny, you idiot. Stupid, stupid idiot." Ranma struggled with her anger. "Can't you once get it through your head? I don't get attracted to men. Ever. I meet a guy, any guy, and the one thing that never ever enters my head is whether I'd want to go out with them. I thought you knew that by now."

"I know, but... but you made a choice to try... being with a man. And maybe... maybe you need a man you can... relate to better than me."

"What an idiot. What a complete and total idiot." Ranma turned and continued walking down the path. Kentaro didn't walk with her, and after a few steps she stopped and, with her back still towards him, gestured peremptorily at him. After a few seconds, she heard him move towards her, and as he drew even she resumed her pace.

When they were almost at the apartment building, Ranma broke the frigid silence. "Look, I didn't choose to try being with a man. I chose to try being with you. Yeah, you're a man, and yeah, that's something I'm forcing myself to deal with. But I didn't decide to try dating men and chose you out of the pool. I chose to try dating you despite the fact that you're a man. I don't know if you grasp how important the difference is, but what it comes down to is that no other man is ever gonna take me away from you. You're stuck with me until either I decide I can't stand the sight of your stupid face or you decide you've had enough of my weirdness. And if this is your roundabout way of trying to dump me then just get it over with and stop wasting my time."

The stairway leading to her apartment was approaching. Ranma steered clear, walking past it, wanting to finish this first. Kentaro didn't hesitate, just kept following her. After a couple of moments, he spoke cautiously. "That almost sounded like a commitment."

Ranma frowned and replayed what she'd told him in her mind. "That you're stuck with me?"

"Yes."

"I guess. I would have thought you'd have figured that out by now."

"Ranma, as I live and breathe, I still don't know exactly how you feel about me. And when I saw you grinning at him like that, after all he'd said and done to you, it made me wonder that... that you got something from him I couldn't give."

"Well, wonder of wonders. You can't provide every single thing I need in life. What a deep shock to your ego that must have been."

More silence. Ranma blew out an irritated breath. "Look, there are things I still need to work up to. You know that."

"Do I? It's been three years almost. This is our last semester. You've given me no indication what you're planning to do after college."

"Of course I have. Gonna open a dojo, you know that."

"But where?"

"I don't know. I gotta raise some money, get some loans, it'll take some time to work out."

"And in the meantime, I'll be in medical school."

Sudden foreboding filled Ranma, but despite herself she said, "So?"

"So maybe you should look for place to open your dojo near where that will be."

"Ah. I can't possibly survive without Kentaro-sama, is that it?"

"Of course it isn't." He was at last beginning to show some irritation. "I know you can do just fine without me. But you mentioned that I'm stuck with you. I just wondered how stuck that means."

"It means," Ranma growled, "that I'll hang around unless it's inconvenient. Which given your current attitude makes it much more likely that you'll be too annoying to be near."

"So does that mean you won't try to find a dojo nearby?"

"It means it's none of your business where I open my dojo. Shut the hell up."

Kentaro grabbed her hand and stopped. Ranma ripped her hand free but also stopped, facing him. His face was strange, anger mixed with something else. "Ranma, I need to tell you something. Will you listen?"

"I'm standing right here, aren't I?"

"Will you listen?"

"Yes, you pompous jerk, I'll listen! Get it over with!"

"I love you."

Ranma's eyes bugged out. She stared at him, unable to respond.

"I need you to know that," he persisted, his eyes intense. "I want you with me, I want us to be together. During medical school, and afterwards. For the rest of our lives. I need you to know that, and I need to know if you feel anything like that in return."

Ranma began trembling. "I can't believe you, Marumoto. I can't believe you said that."

"Didn't you know?"

As quickly as she ever had, Ranma whipped her hand out and grabbed his throat. "Stop talking. You say too much too often and I am sick of hearing it. You don't talk to me. Maybe never again. Clear?"

Wide-eyed, Kentaro nodded as best as he could.

Ranma removed her hand from his throat and shoved his chest. He staggered back a couple of steps and Ranma stormed past him. Kentaro didn't follow her and this time she didn't care.

Opening the door to her apartment, Ranma threw her backpack across the room. It hit the wall and bounced off to land on a corner of her desk. Ranma glared at it as she slammed the door behind her.

Damn him, hadn't he just heard her say she needed time to work up to things? And there he was being Mister I-Know-Better-Than-You at exactly the wrong time.

Ranma walked over to her futon and collapsed into it, physically sore and emotionally exhausted. Damn damn damn. And damn him again.

Shouldn't he have known? Couldn't have been a bit more patient? He'd waited almost three damn years. Idiot.

Maybe he wasn't as wise and understanding as she'd thought, and that scared the hell out of her.

Ranma rolled over on her side, the words he'd spoken echoing in her head. Not now, she didn't need this right now. A man telling Ranma that he loved her. A man.

Not a man. Not just a man, anyway. Kentaro. Her best friend, the person she needed the most in the world to be on her side. Betraying her years of trust in one statement designed to bring pressure on her when she needed it the least.

"Damn you, Kentaro," Ranma said out loud. She'd needed him here tonight. She'd been working towards something, and he had rushed and spoiled it. She hated him for that.

"I love you," Kentaro's words, still ringing in her ears.

Ranma considered the statement, placed it far out of reach, then slowly began working her way towards it.

---

Ranma jumped, feinted, punched, made contact, and landed. She turned to see a red-clad figure tumble to the ground. It happened rarely enough that she couldn't help smiling.

He saw, and scowled as he got to his feet. "If you wanted me on my back all you had to do was ask."

"Lot of talk for a kid. Talk to me again when you're not a virgin."

"Like you're not?"

"I'm not the one talking it up. When you can find that one brain-dead woman that will show you one act of pity, then you can brag. Until then, I don't wanna hear it."

Tange laughed. "How'd you do that? How can you even shift weight in mid-air?"

"I'm not shifting weight, I'm positioning muscles. It's just that you're trained so much to equate muscle movement with a shift in balance that you forget it means nothing in mid-air. You gotta get away from that conventional thinking of yours, it'll kill you in a real fight."

"Hah. As if." He bounced on the balls of his feet, a sign he was ready to fight again. "How come you teach your students to watch for balance shifts, then?"

"It's a valuable technique, you just have to know when to use it. I also teach 'em how to fight with their eyes closed."

"Ever gonna teach them this jumping-and-fighting thing?"

"Not anyone, not yet. It's a pretty advanced technique and I don't think anyone's up to it."

"Not even your boyfriend?"

Ranma felt her stomach tighten at the thought of Kentaro. A week had gone by and she'd only just spoken to him today - a command to lead the class in exercises while she worked outside with Tange. "He's not my boyfriend."

"Oh?" Tange waggled his eyebrows.

After a week Ranma was almost becoming inured to Tange's antics. "Don't even try it, bud."

"C'mon, I'm better-looking and much more interesting."

Ranma couldn't help smiling. "Maybe. But it ain't gonna happen, not now, not a hundred years from now, deal with it."

"You're no fun." Tange jumped.

Ranma met him in mid-air. She could see him experiment with shifting his muscles but mostly getting it wrong; she rewarded him with a jab between the ribs designed to hurt. Tange landed with a wince. "Man, give a guy a break when he tries something new."

"Why? Would a real opponent?"

"Some of your students might not like that motivational technique too much."

"A good point." Ranma shrugged. "But you're not my student. When I was learning the art, if I screwed up I got hit, hard. I learned very quickly to get things right the first time that way."

"Why do you say he's not your boyfriend? You were like holding hands and everything."

Damn, the boy was irritating. "Look, it's still none of your business."

"You can't keep your eyes off of him. Like every five minutes, you look around to see where he is."

"I always keep track of all my students."

"Yeah, but when you look at him it means something."

The pain in her stomach became slightly more acute. "Like I said, it's none of your business."

"So what happened? He tried to ask you a question and you bit his head off?"

Ranma leaped. Tange jumped as well but was in pure defensive mode, unfortunately blocking all of her attacks. She landed with a grunt. "The damn stupid jerk was supposed to be patient and everything."

"You mean he wanted you to put out and you wouldn't?"

Ranma's jaw dropped slightly opened as she stared daggers at Tange.

He smiled. "I was joking but that's the truth, isn't it? You mean you been going out with him, what, two years I think someone said, and you still haven't given him what he needs? Man, no wonder the guy is so uptight. I would have dumped you a long time ago."

"Well, that's exactly why I'd never even go out with you in the first place, genius." Strangely, his words weren't making Ranma mad. Well, not as mad as she'd usually get.

"Wow." Tange shook his head. "I don't know whether to pity him or admire him. Two years, and you accuse him of being impatient? What's he supposed to be, a turtle? He's a guy, Saotome, we're supposed to be impatient about that kind of stuff."

"I know that!" More than you will ever realize. "Look, did you come here to fight or talk about stuff you don't know nothing about?"

"One of the first things you mentioned is discovering an opponent's weakness. Just trying to find yours." Tange grinned and jumped.

Ranma met him, managing a punch to his chest at the same time his elbow grazed her jaw. She landed and moved her lower jaw with her hand, feeling the extent of the damage, which wasn't much. "Good one," she remarked.

"I know. Got any sisters at home that aren't as uptight?"

"I'm an only child, jerk. Look, gonna go back inside to finish up the class."

"Yeah, yeah." Tange offered a bow, which Ranma returned. "Just tell me one thing. If he's no good at fighting, if he's impatient by your glacial standards, and not even especially good-looking, then why are you going out with him in the first place?"

"I don't know." Ranma stopped outside the door to the dance room, watching as Kentaro was helping one of the students find the right stance for delivering a kick. "Things you wouldn't understand, I guess."

"Hmm." Tange's voice was unusually thoughtful. "Maybe I'd like to."

Ranma smiled slightly. "Maybe one day I'll take you on a training trip to China."

"China?"

Ranma chuckled and stepped inside, leaving Tange to look after her quizzically.

---

The book of research studies was much less interesting than she'd hoped. Mostly they seemed to be proving obvious things, like the fact that lung capacity had a direct tie-in to stamina. Still, Ranma forced herself to keep reading; she needed to find a research paper topic from all this.

"Rice is ready."

Ranma looked over at Kentaro, who was serving himself a bowl of rice from a pot he had just removed from the hotplate. He wasn't looking back at her; this was the first time she'd allowed him into her apartment since their fight, and he was proceeding very cautiously. Ranma put down her book and served herself a bowl, passing Kentaro on the way.

The rice was hot, filling, and reasonably good-tasting. Kentaro had no particular flair for cooking but was adequate. Ranma was probably better, although she approached cooking with no great enthusiasm. For now they alternated cooking based mostly on whoever felt like doing it. Eventually, though, perhaps she should be the one that prepared the food. There were spices she liked to use that Kentaro was never able to quite get the knack of adding in the right quantities.

Looking down at the rice, Ranma wasn't sure she liked where this musing was going. Cooking was so domestic. And she was thinking of taking on that duty for a period of time beyond when she would graduate a few weeks from now. Certain things were beginning to creep into her conscious mind.

Ranma finished her rice and took Kentaro's empty bowl. She took them to the sink and spent a few minutes washing them and generally cleaning up. After she was done, she turned her back and leaned against the counter, watching Kentaro until he looked up and met her gaze.

"Good job with dinner."

"Thank you." He closed his textbook and set it aside, watching her, waiting for her to continue.

Which meant that he was still good at reading her mood, still had some vestiges of patience when it came to dealing wih her. "So, I'm still thinking about where to open my dojo. I'll let you know what I decide."

"All right. Thank you."

"If you don't mind, I think I'm going to go to bed early. You can stay up and continue studying, won't bother me."

"Very well." He got up from the futon, gathering up his books and other things.

Ranma went into the bathroom and chaned into her pajamas - boxers and a t-shirt, nothing special. She padded out to the futon and sat on it, not getting under the cover of the blanket, still studying Kentaro.

He had settled himself against the wall, and was busy writing something into a notebook. Again he felt her eyes and again returned her gaze, waiting.

"You're a good guy," she found herself saying. "I like... I like being with you. It feels comfortable, y'know?"

Gently he smiled. "I know. I like being with you, too."

"The old me, the Tange in me... he would have thought you a wimp and a nobody and never have given you a second look." Ranma waited, but Kentaro didn't respond.

Ranma drew a breath and continued. "Still, I'm... not unhappy... that I found you. You've helped me get by these past few years. But... what you may not totally understand is that I was able to get by before I met you. I would have made it this far without you. I could go on and live the rest of my life without ever talking to you again."

This time she waited until she got a response from Kentaro. "I know, Ranma. I find it simply amazing that you were able to start your whole life over all by yourself. I'd like to think I could do the same thing myself, but I don't know. You have tremendous personal courage, and I respect that immensely. I have no doubt that no matter what, you'll find a way to survive."

Ranma nodded. "Good. But... I like life better with you than without you. I want you to know that, too."

Kentaro swallowed. "Thank you, Ranma."

Rolling her eyes, Ranma got underneath the cover of her futon. "Thank you, he says. Like I'm doling out favors."

There was faint humor and faint admonition in his voice. "'Thank you' is all you'll allow me to say."

With sudden nervousness and sudden determination, Ranma continued, "You know, if you wanna sleep in the futon with me, that's all right."

Kentaro's eye widened almost comically.

"Just sleep. Don't get any ideas." Ranma was glad her voice was firm and full of dire warning.

"Of c-course." Kentaro snapped his mouth shut, apparently to keep it from stuttering some more.

Smiling slightly, Ranma lay on her back and closed her eyes. She amused herself by counting the seconds.

She hadn't yet reached thirty before she heard him stand up. She heard the sound of some of his clothing being removed, then the lights being turned off. And then he was there, beside her, climbing underneath the sheets.

They were both quiet and still, the enormity of the moment overwhelming.

Then he moved a little closer and began carressing her cheek. Keeping her eyes closed, she reminded him, "Just sleep."

"I know." His fingers didn't stop, tracing the line of her jaw, brushing over her lips, passing delicately underneath her eye.

Dammit. He was still impatient and still pushy, but it wasn't always bad and it wasn't always wrong.

"All right," she murmurred. "Maybe a little bit more than sleep. Just don't try for too much, okay?"

"Yes, Ranma," he replied a little breathlessly. He moved closer and began kissing her.

Ranma kissed him back, heard a phrase echo in her mind, and decided that, just maybe, she could accept and embrace that phrase.

Eventually.

~*~

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