Years after his defeat on Mt. Horaisan, a cursed martial artist climbs another mountain to once again confront the one who defeated him...

*****

Never give up...

A work of fiction set in the Ranma 1/2 universe created by Rumiko Takahashi

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I was pretty close to exhaustion and dimly wondering if I was about to die of exposure when the big man dropped silently onto the trail in front of me. I didn't have to look to know that his smaller companion had done the same thing behind me - his battle aura announced his presence better than a shout. I felt a brief moment of exhilaration mixed with stark terror. Meeting these two meant that I'd come to the right place, but reaching my ultimate goal would depend upon whether or not I survived this encounter. These guys weren't known for talking before they swung. I swallowed, and tried to compose my face into a semblance of a smile as I greeted them.

"Hello boys. Long time no see."

The guy in front glared at me through slit-shaped pupils. "Who are you who dares approach the stronghold of the Musk Dynasty?"

"Oh Lime, I'm hurt. I know it's been sixteen years, but don't you recognize me?"

I could almost see the mental gears turning in his head. "Ranma? Is that you?" He asked, disbelievingly. I nodded, too tired to work up more of a response. Both of them came on guard, the air around me practically crackling with battle aura.

I raised my left hand in a warding gesture. "Please, guys, I can't face you now." I dropped the hand; it cost too much effort to hold it up. "I've just come from a bigger battle then even you two could give me." The mere effort of speaking was enough to make me sway on my feet. "I'm not here to fight, boys. I'm too tired."

"Then why are you here?" His companion snarled from behind.

I unzipped my jacket. The cold mountain air was like a knife in my breast. "I need to talk to Herb, Mint. About our...mutual problem." They looked dubious. "And there's this, too." I loosened the upper folds of my garments and showed them what I meant. That got to them, I could tell by their eyes.

"Why should we care?" Mint asked, uncertainly.

"Because you do care." I told them as I re-fastened my clothing. "Because any decent man would care. Let me pass." I swallowed. "Please?"

Their battle auras faded. They wouldn't try to block me now. All I had to do was continue my way past them up the mountain - if I could get my legs to cooperate. I tried to take a step, and stumbled. Strong arms caught me before I hit the ground; bore me up like a baby. My pride tried to order me to shrug him off, but it felt too good not to struggle anymore. Shame flittered around the edges of my consciousness as I laid my head on Lime's shoulder, but it couldn't find a place to take hold; I was just too tired. There'll be plenty of time to be ashamed of my weakness tomorrow, I decided, after I got some sleep.

~***~

I sat staring out the window. The air was cold at this altitude, but the fire and the blanket around my shoulders made the hut comfortable enough. Even if it wasn't, I wasn't about to go anywhere. Yesterday's ordeal had eaten up the last of my reserves. It was about all I could do to sit up in this chair. I didn't bother turning my head when the tall woman strode through the door. I didn't have to; I'd know that aura anywhere.

"Hello Herb. Please forgive me for not getting up."

"Ranma," she spat, making it sound like a curse. "You, of all people, have a hell of a lot of nerve coming up here. I ought to kill you now."

Posturing, I hoped. "Maybe, but you won't."

"How can you be so sure?" She asked dangerously.

"The same reason I saved you on Mount Horai-san, Herb. We...you or I... could never allow a honorable opponent to die needlessly."

She looked down on me. "What on earth possessed those two idiots to bring you here?"

I snorted. "I found my opponent's weakness and exploited it, Herb, just as I always do." I couldn't help smiling a little as I continued: "I used special techniques they're not trained to withstand."

"And what would those be?"

My smile broadened into a grin. "I asked them nicely. Then I fainted. Not that I planned on fainting, mind you, I've just always been very good at taking advantage of my opportunities." I shook my head. "They're such sweet boys. They just can't resist a pretty girl. You really need to change your child-rearing practices, Herb. If you were any closer to Joketsukozu, the Amazons would eat you alive."

She acknowledged this last with a grimace. "Why have you come?"

"To talk, Herb. And to beg a favor of you."

"Beg? You have lost your honor, Ranma, if you came to beg. Why would you want to talk to me, anyway?"

"I've had to learn new definitions of honor, Herb, over the past few years. As for why I'd want to talk to you, it's because you are the only other person in the world in my situation. Who the hell else is there to talk to?" Herb's eyes flashed and she stepped forward, summoning Chi and raising her hand. "You don't want to do that, Herb. I don't think you could live with the consequences." With an effort, I shrugged the blanket off of my shoulders and revealed my naked torso.

She lowered her hand slowly. "You're still shameless, Ranma."

"Yes." I agreed flatly. "I am entirely shameless. Do you know why? Because I've realized that I have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. There is absolutely nothing shameful about being a woman."

"So, you see yourself as a woman now?" The contempt in her voice was almost palpable

"Damn you, what other choice do I have? You yourself took my choices away sixteen years ago with that goddamned ladle of yours. Do you have any idea of the hell I went through after that?" I felt tears in my eyes. "Damn you, I lost everything: my gender, my identity, my family, my friends. Even Akane. Do you remember Akane? Your mistreatment of her started our fight in the first place! I always thought our love would survive anything. Well, love does not conquer all, Herb."

I looked up at her, still crying, only now they were tears of anger. "You've had it easy all these years, hiding on this goddamned mountain of yours where you can pretend you're still a man. Try living in the real world sometime, Herb. You'll see how far that gets you." I turned back to the window, brushing angrily at my tears. I think I would have been ready for any response other than the one I got.

"It still hurts, doesn't it?" She sounded wistful, thoughtful.

I looked up at Herb sharply. The anger in her eyes was gone, replaced by something I couldn't quite identify. I swallowed. "You of all people should know. That's why I came up here, Herb. To talk to the only other person in the whole world who knows how much it hurts."

Herb closed her eyes. "I used to hate you, Ranma. Do you know that? Not only because you prevented me from recovering the Kasuifuu, but also because you saved my life and forced me to live with my shame." She dropped to her knees so she could look me straight in the eye. "It wasn't until years later, after I was, uh...forced to grow up a little, that I finally admitted to myself that I'd caused the fight in the first place. And ever since, I've wished that we'd just teamed up to seek that damned kettle together. There was no need to fight over it, after all. Weren't we both in the same boat?"

I smiled painfully "Ah, but that wouldn't have been the 'manly' thing to do." I shifted in my chair, trying to find a more comfortable position. "How about you, Herb. How did you deal with it?"

"Denial, at first. But over time, it just became the way I was. I honestly can't tell you that I remember what it felt like to be male. Still, I can't see myself as a woman. Not the way the outside world defines a woman, anyway."

"So the Musk Dynasty ends here." I breathed.

Herb shrugged. "Perhaps. I just couldn't let go of my honor."

"Honor." I snorted. "I had that hang-up for years. What did it buy me? Nothing but misery. I've redefined my idea of honor, Herb. I've decided to honor my parents with grandchildren."

Herb shuddered. "How can you do that with any man?"

"I can't," I told her honestly, "do it with just any man. I can only do it with one. The one who helped me rebuild my place in the world. The one I...love. Love is universal, Herb. It doesn't have a gender."

We sat there in silence for a while. Finally, I cleared my throat. I was about done in; I had to finish this quickly. "Now we come to the begging part." Herb looked at me impassively. "Did you know that Jusenkyo curses can be inherited, under certain conditions?"

Herb showed no reaction. I pressed on. "I need the Chiisuiton again, Herb, to ensure that no child of mine will ever have to face the hell I went through."

Still no reaction "Damn you Herb, You owe it to me! Please don't make me beg for it."

That finally drew a response. "The old Ranma wouldn't have begged for anything."

I closed my eyes in exhaustion: "The old Ranma was a cocky, arrogant boy. He never had anyone more important than himself to live for. He's not here Herb. He never would have been willing, or able, to make this climb. Please, I'm begging you."

Herb seemed to make a decision. She went to the door and beckoned to someone outside. "Jasmine, bring the Chiisuiton." We waited in silence for what seemed to be a long time before a girl of about ten entered with a towel over her shoulder, carrying the magical bucket. Without saying anything further, Herb took the ladle and slung water on me where I sat. Then she took the towel and gently dried me as the girl bustled about locating a dry comforter. After Herb was finished, I gently shifted my newborn daughter to my other breast and leaned back. My mission was accomplished. I could sleep now.

"Jasmine" Herb said to the girl. "Stay here. Render all assistance you can, and allow no harm to come to the little one." The girl nodded obediently.

Herb turned to leave. "Herb?" She turned back to me. "Thank you."

"Tell me Ranma. What would you have done if I had refused?"

"Don't know. Don't have to know, now." My eyelids were getting heavy. "I would have thought of something, though. Never underestimate the power of motherhood."

Herb crossed back to me and brushed the hair back from my face in a surprisingly tender gesture, smiling for the first time. "Of course not, Ranma. Never." She turned back to the child. "Keep them warm, my dear."

"Yes, Mother."

~***~