Authors note: ** 09/20/2018 ** My, where has the time gone? It's so easy to set a story down and walk away. Well, I'm back. I won't be as fast at writing this stuff out as I used to be (doubling your work schedule and getting into grad school tends to take up a lot of time). That being said, while I re-familiarize myself with my own story, I'm going to be going back through it like I did with this chapter and make edits to correct errors/expand short sequences for better clarity. For those of you just coming to the story, welcome aboard and pardon the rampant abuse of ellipsis in my un-edited chapters. I was going through a phase.

**09/24/2018** Condensed chapters 1 + 2 together.

12 years ago...

"We're finally here..." Tears filled the young martial artist's eyes as he surveyed the amazon village below. The sins of his grandfather would finally be made null and void. His exhausted wife approached him from behind, holding fast to their daughter's hand. Of all three, this journey had taken it's toll on the young mother the most. Each mincing step she took seemed more strained than the last. One wondered why she'd decided to wear a kimono for the trip, but there was no convincing her otherwise.

Genma frowned, pushing his glasses up on his nose. He patted the weathered and well-worn scroll tucked beneath his shirt to be sure it was still there, and hadn't been inadvertently swapped out during his last encounter with their former landlord. Some people could get really sneaky about getting their money. Luckily they'd fled the night before rent was due. Even worse, if Genma should have dropped it somewhere, he rather doubted Nodoka would be able to make a second trip around China to re-trace their steps to find the scroll again...not that the 'contract' didn't always find it's way back to the Saotome family anyway.

This was a solemn moment for the family. The final step of their terrible journey. "No-chan, I truly wish I could have spared you all of this pain," He told her as stepped closer to his wife and prepared his lips for a tender kiss.

"Genma-san, darling..." Nodoka began, smoothing her kimono as she spoke. She then smiled warmly at their little girl standing beside her, who looked as if she already knew what was going to happen.

Even Genma felt a little wary, noting a certain tone in his wife's voice that didn't usually bode well for him. Particularly in the backside region. They both desperately loved each other, but in recent months the strain of their daughter's future prospects had begun to wear on them both.

"If you were truly sorry," Nodoka stated, her eyes seeming to glow with a shining white light as she glared at her husband, "you'd have told me our daughter was going to be engaged to marry a demon before you married me!" She shouted, pulling out the sword she'd strapped to her back, still sheathed.

"Now, No-chan, we've discussed this before. You already agreed this isn't my fault!" Genma stammered, raising his hands and stepping back. He felt small rocks slipping from beneath his sandals and skittering down the steep drop-off behind him.

"Genma Saotome, I love you. I love you more than anyone else in the world.-other than our baby, of course." Nodoka looked down at Ranma and smiled again, seeming to switch gears instantaneously when it came to the child. Ranma, for her part, smiled back and proceeded to glare at her dad as well. She didn't really know why they were in China, what the word 'engaged' meant, or even why her mother was so mad, but it was always fun for the child to watch a good fight. Unlike most little boys or girls, seeing her parents go at it didn't really upset her at all. She just thought this was how people acted when they loved each other, which would likely prove to be a major problem later in life.

Nodoka went on, her voice taking on a dangerous edge to match her eerily-glowing eyes, "if this wise Amazon witch you've been yattering on about can't solve our problem," Nodoka swung the sheathed sword around behind her like a baseball bat. "You're going to be in big trouble!" She yelled, knocking Genma into the air. The martial artist went sailing across the landscape, and for a moment appeared to be just a twinkle in the sky, before he finally landed flat on his face in a large vegetable garden at the very edge of the village. There were no leafy survivors.

She took her time to re-wrap the cloth around her sword and shoulder the burden of the Saotome family legacy.

Kneeling down, Nodoka spoke to her daughter very firmly, but tender as she drew up a hand to smooth back the little girl's hair, "Ran-chan, I want you to promise me something."

"Yeah?" Ranma stuck a thumb in her mouth, innocent eyes staring back at Nodoka in wonder.

"I want you to promise me you will never strike at your father in anger, now matter how much he may deserve it, if there is the risk of property damage. Do you understand?"

"What's poperty?" Ranma asked, supremely confused.

Her mother sighed and stood up, holding our her hand, "you'll understand when you're old enough to take him on in a fight. Your father loves you, and everything he does for us is in his own misguided way, done with love. Except, of course, when he steals from your plate. You can hit him when he does that," Nodoka joked as Ranma happily took her mother's hand.

The little girl yawned, rubbing her eyes and nodding. "Sure, mom. I'll try." Even as young as she was, she had an odd feeling she was making a promise she would never be able to keep.

"12 years," the old woman intoned. She stuck her pipe in her mouth, and solemnly observed the young couple's reaction to her news. Even as the words passed her lips, their world looked like it had been shattered.

"Why only 12 years? Why can't this be permanent?" Asked the man, placing a hand upon his sleeping child's head as her mother cradled her. The little girl stirred, as if sensing in her sleep that something very terrible was about to happen. Judging by the indentation in her garden, Cologne couldn't really say Ranma Saotome wasn't well-acquainted with that feeling of dread. Genma seemed to be a man who invited chaos into his life.

"I can not break this contract, I can only buy you time. Perhaps it will be enough time to find a permanent solution," the old woman continued tapping at the table in front of her with her cane as she indicated a weathered scroll. It was faded and yellowed, the words written in eloquent script far beyond the skills of your average calligraphy hobbyist. It appeared to have been cut, burned, and torn in a thousand places, only to be somehow haphazardly mended. How Genma and Nodoka must have despised that piece of seemingly harmless vellum. It reeked of demon magic. She would have to purify her quarters after this transaction.

Nodoka Saotome held her daughter closer and silently wept. This was not the news they had been hoping to hear. "We've tried destroying it in every way we could think of, but it just keeps coming back," she explained, "you're absolutely sure there's not a spell of some sort to nullify the magic?" It was difficult to see the look of hope she'd arrived with crumble into absolute despair.

As for Cologne, it hadn't been the news she wanted to give either. They deserved the frank and direct truth, however, for all the trouble they'd been through trying to find a solution to their problem. The only one she could even offer, too, came at a dreadful price.

"A deal with a demon is sealed in blood. Do you know why this is?" She asked, leveling Genma with a very grave expression. The man could only shift in his seat on the infinitely valuable Chinese rug. Clearly, the answer to that question was beyond him. His bearing was that of a skilled martial artist, but not a genius.

"I'll tell you why. Because blood is the strongest bond a person can offer of their soul. Blood reaches the heart, the brain, and the very essence of one's being. Blood is binding, and blood is the strongest connection one may have to another. When your grandfather signed away Ranma's hand in marriage for-" she glanced down at the scroll, clearing her throat, "fish, rice, and two pickles-he bound it in his blood. The same blood that runs in your family's line. The same blood pumping through Ranma's veins. That anyone could make such a foolish trade is beyond me."

"So what you're saying is that there's nothing we can do," Nodoka whispered. "We can just put off the inevitable, and then we lose our child forever to the spirit world?"

Cologne shook her head, "no. As I said, a solution may be found, but even I don't have all of the answers that magic and wisdom may provide..." she trailed off. Somehow, finishing that sentence with 'I'm only human' didn't seem like it would contribute much to the conversation.

"And what is the price for these 12 years of protection?" Genma asked hopefully. "I can offer you my strength and charm, but I have nothing else to give you. I am a poor man, Cologne."

The old woman looked reluctant to answer his question, and even more reluctant to accept his ridiculous offer, but she could not remain silent forever. Taking a long pull from her pipe, she released the smoke into the air as she finally replied, "I'm sorry to say, but she will have to spend those years as a boy."

The hut fell silent. Ranma stirred only slightly in her mother's arms, nuzzling her face into the warmth of the well-worn kimono.

"Will she-" Nodoka finally spoke, squeezing her child a little tighter, "will she remember-what she was?"

Cologne shrugged, having no satisfying answer to give, "perhaps in time. We will come to that when it becomes a problem. 12 years is a long time. For now I can only tell you that the magic I am about to invoke will take a heavy toll on all three of you, and it will do as it pleases, but it can be done. It must be." With those final words, she tucked her pipe into her mouth and hopped onto her staff.

The couple gave a good long look at their little girl, and knew without speaking what they were going to do. The only thing they could do.

"Thank you, Cologne," Genma intoned, grasping one of his wife's hands tightly. They appeared to have a tension between them, but there was genuine love. The affection of two desperate people who wanted to protect their child. At all costs.

Present day

Ryoga sat up on his bedroll, clutching at his chest and gasping violently. His heart was beating a mile a minute. He could hardly breathe. How long had it been this time since he'd felt this awful pain? It was the same each time he found himself close to meeting Ranma again. Like an inner compass without the guidance, or some kind of biological divining rod, but inner compasses didn't exist. His life experiences had proved that a thousandfold.

Fuming, he wiped the sweat from his brow and tried to center himself. Saotome had made him feel like that since their very first encounter in middle school. In fact, it seemed his whole world came apart whenever that pig-tailed jerk was concerned. Ryoga knew he needed to calm down or else he'd never be able to consistently beat Saotome in a fair fight, but it was difficult. It seemed like the only thing that could keep his impotent rage at bay where Saotome was concerned was a tender look from Akane Tendo.

Ryoga grew teary-eyed at just the thought of her, and the happy moments she saw him as a pig instead of a man. If he weren't a pig, she'd be able to see him for who he really was. This curse was all Saotome's fault!


He mentally growled, standing up and deciding he wasn't going to get any more sleep that morning. Lately it seemed as if the pain of waking with thoughts of Saotome was getting worse. Ryoga didn't really want to admit it to himself, but even being around Ranma for a short period of time made his sense of direction seem to spiral out of control even more. Granted, it had always been pretty awful, but at least before middle school he'd taken only half the time to find his own backyard.

Things were going to change tonight. At long last. Ryoga's rage-filled vows transformed into manic laughter. Once he'd managed to calm down, he set to work strapping his bedroll to his back with his parasol on top. Oh yes, things were definitely going to change. All thanks to the aid of a dried old herb, too. He just had to steep it in a bit of hot water and be extra careful not to splash himself with it before the kettle boiled. That was what the instructions said, anyway. Just steep in boiled water. Usually when it came to tinctures and things he bought from China, though, things didn't turn out so well. It didn't matter. This time it would be different. Much different.

"Ranma Saotome! I will finally defeat you!" Ryoga called into the night. Thunder rumbled and a streak of lightning crackled through the sky. The forest around him seemed to thrum with his joy.

Meanwhile, a little old lady peeked through the curtain of her back porch window. She frowned. "Edgar, that silly boy is camping in our apple orchard again," she creaked, looking over at her husband.

"Ranma!" Genma cried out, striking a dramatic pose in the backyard as he stood majestically on a large rock by the koi pond.

"Yeah, what is it, old man?" his son crossed his arms, un-phased by Genma's usual theatrics. This happened every morning, he was quite used to it by now.

Genma pointed a finger at Ranma with the force of a man who truly believed his hand could easily substitute for a gun. "Ranma, you shame the school of 'Anything Goes' martial arts! How dare you insult your father like that? Have you no respect for your elders?!" he continued, rolling out the usual spiel.

Soun Tendo and his daughters relaxed in the house, occasionally glancing over at the pair outside. By now they had begun to spar, with the usual threats of destroying any innocent scenery in their path, when a punch or kick went in the wrong direction. Often, Nabiki found herself mentally stressing over the amount of lumber and fresh paint they'd had to invest in over the course of the past several months since the Saotomes had taken up residence with them. This morning was no different.

"12 years," Soun mumbled to himself gravely, the only change in his features to betray his emotions an anxious twitch of his mustache.

"What's that father?" Kasumi asked, carrying a tray of tea into the room and gently placing it on the table.

Nabiki reached over and grabbed a cookie from the tray, giving her father a bored glance before directing her attention back to her favorite soap opera in the backyard. The life and times of the Saotome family. She pondered for a moment if maybe it was time to graduate from selling photographs to videos, but immediately dismissed the idea. It was much more difficult to make Ranma look feminine when she started talking in her girl form. Best to keep the illusion with still photography, so Ranma's obnoxiously 'manly' nature didn't cut into her profits.

"Daddy's been like that all morning, you won't get any sense out of him," Nabiki remarked, shaking herself from thoughts of her business and taking a quick bite out of her cookie.

"Akane," Soun turned to his youngest daughter. She looked back at him curiously even as Ranma nearly sailed into the wall of the dojo behind them before regaining his balance just in time.

"What is it, dad?" She asked, bowing her head thankfully as Kasumi poured her a cup of steaming hot tea.

"Akane, how do you feel about Ranma?" Soun asked her, looking for once like a man asking a legitimate question rather than pressing for an answer he desperately wanted to hear.

"Uh..." Akane trailed off, taken aback. When she wasn't in the heat of a fight, she had absolutely no idea how to answer that question. So she avoided it. "Dad, I've told you a thousand times how I feel about Ranma, but we're not even fighting right now. Why do you ask?" She looked at him warily, hoping he didn't have some silly scheme to pull a priest out of the floorboard right then and there. He'd done it once before, after all.

"How would you feel if Ranma-" Soun took a deep breath, repeating himself "how would you feel if Ranma was no longer your fiancee?"

This caused all of the daughters to look straight at Soun in shock. Even Nabiki hesitated to take another bite of her cookie.

"Father, are you feeling well?" Kasumi asked, concerned as she stepped towards Soun to check his temperature in that motherly way she had for everyone within a five mile radius.

"Nothing, nothing," Soun waved his hand rapidly and took a cup of tea from Kasumi. He laughed, tossing his head back. "Nothing to worry about at all. Soon you'll both be married, after all. Then you won't be fiancees anymore!"

Akane frowned. Kasumi looked bewildered. Nabiki quirked an eyebrow. Ranma screamed. Just your usual morning at the Tendo household-so far.

"You didn't have to hit me so hard, pops!" Ranma complained, walking into the house and heading straight towards the bathroom.

"How do you expect to carry on the Saotome school of 'Anything Goes Martial Arts' if you can't defend yourself in a real battle?" Genma demanded, even as he sat down for a game of Shogi with Soun.

"Oh Ranma, I wish you and your father wouldn't be so rough on each other," Kasumi admonished, placing a hand to her face even as she served breakfast to the family. The uncomfortable atmosphere of Soun's oddly-worded joke completely forgotten.

"Saotome," Soun began, glancing over at the girls.

"What is it, Tendo?" Genma asked, glaring down at the Shogi board and frowning pensively.

"Saotome-what day is it?" Soun inquired, swallowing nervously. It was a question he well knew the answer to, and was desperately trying to drop the hint.

"It's Friday, Tendo. You asked me that this morning," Genma harrumphed. It looked like Soun was well on his way to winning this round of Shogi and the older Saotome didn't much like it.

"Trying to distract me from beating you, eh, Tendo?" Genma wiggled his eyebrows and chuckled. He was clearly trying to bluff. Soun knew the look of 'here's a distraction while I move some pieces around' well, but now was not the time to point out his superior Shogi skills to his old friend.

"It's April 15th, Saotome." Soun stated quietly.

"Yeah, and?" Genma asked, sounding slightly irritated. Soun, after all, refused to look away from the board.

Soun cleared his throat, "Saotome, when did you go on your second 'honeymoon'?" He hopes he would get through to his old (but sometimes slow) friend.

Genma dropped his Shogi piece, facing Soun with a look of complete and total dread.

For the second time that morning, Ranma screamed. And it was still the scream of a young girl.

"April 15th," Genma finally replied, looking guiltily towards the direction of the bathroom. Today would not be a pleasant one.

"Kasumi, we may need some hot sake," Soun told his eldest daughter, not quite ready to face what was ahead.

Ryoga couldn't believe it. The herbs had worked! Tears flowed down his face and he clenched his fist, staring up at the morning skyline. Recalling that night was not a terribly pleasant memory, but most of Ryoga's life seemed to be one terrible thing after another interspersed with the occasional wonderful moments he was able to spend in Akane's presence. If Ryoga had been more like the 'Blue Thunder of Furinken High', the night he'd made that tea...all of Japan would have been on fire with all the lightning he might have dramatically created in the process.

The night in question...

Perching in front of a pile of crackling logs, Ryoga had a near death-grip on his teapot. "Okay, Ryoga, you can do this. Just put the kettle on the fire," he told himself, trying to remain calm and failing magnificently. He was absolutely terrified. One wrong move and Ryoga Hibiki would have to spend the next half hour as a pig until he could get his water to boil. Sadly, it tended to be a habit of his to stumble into his cooking pot when the water was still cool. Or he ended up the victim of a rogue senior citizen tossing water into the street. Or he managed to find the one knee-deep puddle in the middle of a drought during his hikes. The list went on. Ryoga had terrible luck in general with cold water.

"Heat warta-water..." He squinted at the packet of herbs as he read the instructions. They were blurred somewhat by all the tears of joy dripping from his chin as he fantasized of the curse-free future he had ahead of him.

"Okay, got the water heating," Ryoga said aloud, as he was often given to speaking to himself when no one else was around. It helped keep him sane. After tonight, however, he happily fantasized he would be spending much more time around Akane Tendo-because he wouldn't be stumbling off in the wrong direction anymore in the middle of a conversation (or a fight with Ranma.) A part of him wanted to blame Saotome for this problem too, but Ryoga reluctantly admitted he couldn't just lay the blame at Saotome's door for all of the humiliation and misery he'd suffered over the years. Just 85% of it. Sometimes just a little more.

"When water is-hot," Ryoga squinted at the writing, holding the packet closer to the fire to read it, "put in herbs and drink-ike tea. This is tea, after all, you idiot. Most people don't need a manual."

He blinked several times, re-reading the last line. What kind of jerk put something like that in an instruction list?! After Ryoga finished with Saotome, he decided whoever wrote this herb packet would be next on his list. Not for once did Ryoga ponder why he created vendettas so easily. He was too focused on the task at hand.

"This is it, I'm finally going to be able to find my way home whenever I want!" Ryoga crowed, resisting the urge to jump up and dance, knowing that would definitely be a bad idea around an as-of-yet un-boiled kettle of cold water. It was a difficult lesson, but one he'd eventually learned.

The old couple inside had not yet fallen asleep, distracted as they were by the noise in their orchard.

"Edgar, you really should tell that boy to leave. Last time he almost burnt down our herb garden!" The woman worried. Her poor rosemary still hadn't recovered from the stress.

Ryoga shook his head from the memory, feeling a twinge in his stomach at the thought. That tea had gone right through him, and at the same time left him retching all night. It was foul, fresh, sour, and sickly sweet all at the same time. He'd been terrified he might have inadvertently taken poison instead of an herbal cure for his problems. Ryoga had survived the night, however, and his presence here today was evidence that he'd made the right decision.

For once he had found what he was looking for. For once he stood outside of the Tendo Dojo on purpose, and he actually knew where he was. This was almost too good to be true. He was afraid to believe it. Ryoga Hibiki had a sense of direction!

He would have spent the next half-hour waxing poetic about dreams coming true, about Akane Tendo's future embrace, about destroying Ranma Saotome for all the humiliations he'd suffered as a man and as a pig. All of that would have to be put aside for now, because a familiar foot came hurtling right for his face. Ryoga was immediately knocked to the ground as his assailant disappeared over a nearby rooftop.

He sat on his back in a heap, his arms and legs drawn up as if he were a dead spider with a very angry red footprint on his cheek. It almost seemed like birds and stars were chasing each other in his vision.

"Ranma!" Ryoga shouted, sitting back up and glaring after the fleeing figure. That was odd. Normally Ranma only left the Dojo as a boy. And-had he been crying?

"Ranma!" Genma echoed Ryoga's shout, trampling over him and leaping after his son.

"Ranma!" Akane shouted, running over Ryoga and sailing down the street, innocently oblivious of what she'd done.

"Ranma! Saotome! Akaneeeeee!" Soun cried out, and once more Ryoga found himself the doormat of unwelcome visitors. At that point, he gave up, expecting several more to follow, but none did, and soon he heard a familiar voice.

"Ryoga?" Nabiki asked, walking over to the no-longer-lost boy and crouching down beside him.

"Ohhhhhh..." Ryoga moaned, still somewhat dazed.

"Why do you always show up at the worst times?" She continued, moving to pull Ryoga to his feet. He needed a bit of help, but eventually managed to straighten himself and recover.

"What happened?" He asked, and then clenched one of his fists angrily as he looked off in the direction Ranma had gone.

"Ranma!" He shouted, making a move to follow the Saotome-Tendo parade of chaos. Nabiki grabbed his sleeve before he could take a step, pulling him close.

"Listen, Hibiki, you don't want to do that right now. Trust me, you're only going to make things worse." Her eyebrows were raised, and she looked very much like all of the insanity that assaulted the Tendo household on a daily basis was finally starting to affect her. Though Ryoga didn't know the middle Tendo sister that well, he knew her enough to realize this concerned attitude she was displaying was not normal.

"Oh my!" Kasumi exclaimed, standing at the entry to the Dojo as Nabiki pulled Ryoga after her like a dog on a leash.

"What happened?" Ryoga asked again, growing a little uncomfortable. Somehow this wasn't exactly how he'd expected his final confrontation with Ranma to go.

"You're gonna want to sit down for this," Nabiki advised, leading Ryoga to their dining table. He complied, giving her a suspicious glance. He couldn't make sense of anything right now.

"I don't have any money, Nabiki," he told her before she could pull out any incriminating photographs for him to use as a possible weapon against Ranma, or some blackmail to extract cash from his empty wallet. Even if she did have something he wanted, there was no way he could afford it after spending everything on those cleansing herbs.

"Oh my!" Kasumi repeated at the entry, still looking out after the rest of the fleeing family. She was no longer referring to what happened, but stuck in her own loop of shock and wonder. Nabiki sighed, visibly exasperated.

"I don't want your money, Hibiki. I want you to leave Ranma alone today." She told him, grabbing a cookie from a tea tray on the dining table. Even if she appeared disturbed, her appetite didn't seem like it had been affected .

"What's going on, then?" Ryoga demanded, thumping the table with his fist. He only received a quirked eyebrow in response, which made him apologetically look down at his lap, thoroughly quelled with one look.

"This took about half an hour to explain, and I'm not going to go into detail about it, but basically here's what went down: Ranma is a girl, Akane and any other girls aren't her real fiancees, and daddy apparently knew the whole time."

Ryoga frowned, looking back up at Nabiki in frustrated confusion, "I know Ranma's a girl, the Jusenkyo-" He cut himself off, realization suddenly hitting him, "did you say Akane isn't his fiancee?" He asked, blushing wildly as immediate thoughts of wedding bells and churches sprang to mind.

"No, she's not-"

"Sh-sh-she's not marrying R-Ranma?!" Ryoga continued, by now lost in his own little world. He could just see Akane now smiling shyly back up at him from beneath a wedding veil, while he took her hands in his and made his eternal vows. "Akane," Ryoga stated her name, "Akane Hibiki..."

Nabiki sighed, taking a gulp of tea and rolling her eyes. She waved a hand in front of his face, raising her voice just a little, "it has nothing to do with the cursed springs. Well, it has a little to do with them. I didn't really get the whole thing, but Ranma was actually born-Hibiki, close your mouth and listen to me."

Ryoga jerked to attention, shaking thoughts of possible baby names from his mind.

"Ranma was actually born a girl." Nabiki paused, taking her time to enjoy the rest of her cookie while Ryoga waited impatiently for an explanation, "she was turned into a boy when she was 4 to protect her from some kind of curse or contract or something. The details weren't too specific there. The spell was only going to last for 12 years, and Cologne-" Nabiki stopped short when Ryoga drifted off into another fantasy. She grabbed his shoulders and gave him a few good shakes to snap him out of it. He had a lot of trouble paying attention too long when Akane was on his mind.

"Ryoga. Ranma. Is. A. Real. Girl." Nabiki very clearly and very firmly stated.

"What?!" Ryoga shouted, "how?!"

Nabiki sighed, pressing a hand to her face.

Tears stung at his. Her. His-her eyes, as Ranma hopped from rooftop to rooftop, trying to run from everyone and failing to escape the thoughts that chased after her.

How could they do this to me?!

She took a deep gulp of air and jumped faster. She could hear the footsteps of her father behind her, trying to catch up.

Pops is so stupid. Even Mister Tendo was in on it! Even mom! The old hag too!

Her heart was breaking with each leap and bound. The heart she'd always thought was a man's heart, through and through. Something she'd grown up knowing in her heart as a fact, her unshakable knowledge that no matter what she was a real man. All of it shattered in one instant, when the hot water washed over her that morning, and nothing happened!

No. None of this could change who she was! Ranma frowned, jumping down from a building and crouching down in an alley. She needed to breathe, and that was hard enough right now without playing balancing acts on rooftops.

She stared at her hands and flexed them. These were her hands. They would always be her hands, and apparently up until she was four years old they had been her hands. It wasn't fair. It just wasn't fair. Ranma punched the wall in front of her, eyes open wide with an almost desperate edge hiding behind them. Like any moment she hoped she'd wake up from this waking nightmare. None of this was possible. Ranma Saotome was still a man. Still macho. Even if she was a stupid-girl!

"Ranma!" Genma shouted, and jumped down into the alley.

"What do you want?" She asked, glancing over at him with a look of pure resentment. Not just the normal bad mood from a morning spar. This was an expression that verged on hate.

"Ranma, this was the only way we could protect you. Myself and your mother. We didn't have a choice."

"Protect me?! From what, puberty?!" She shrieked, trying with all her might not to punch him in the face then and there. In this state, she knew she'd break a few teeth,if not his jaw. Honestly, it was tempting.

"To protect you from marrying a demon!" Genma shouted, trying to reach forward to pull his daughter into a hug and failing miserably. If he wanted to start doing that kind of stuff, he should have done it a long time ago.

"A demon?" Ranma repeated, raising her voice, "a demon?!" She tossed her head back and laughed. This wasn't genuine laughter of joy or even a sarcastic chuckle. This was hysteria, and in no time it shifted into tears and wails. She punched the wall beside her again and again, until brick began to crack and her knuckles were raw with scrapes.

That was when Genma finally took her into his arms without a struggle. As much as they fought, he had never wanted to do this to his child. He had spent every day living in desperate fear of telling her the truth, and now when he let his cowardice get the best of him, he finally realized any lies he might have strung together for Ranma to protect her had only ended up making everything worse.

"I'm sorry," Genma whispered into his daughter's bright red hair. The same hair he'd been overjoyed to see for the first time in years when she'd fallen into the cursed spring. "I'm sorry for everything."

Ryoga stared at Nabiki, dumbstruck by the wild story he'd just heard. Of course it was ridiculous. Who'd believe a lie like that? She must think he was a complete idiot.

"What are you trying to pull on me, Nabiki Tendo?!" Ryoga demanded. He stood up, glaring down at the bob-haired girl, absolutely incredulous that she thought she could get money out of him simply by telling him some kind of wild fairy tale.

"Believe me or don't, Hibiki. I don't really care, but I'm telling you now is not the right time to start one of your famous fights with Ranma. Not to mention, you still haven't compensated us for the last time you wrecked our backyard. Do you have any idea how expensive decent landscaping is? Especially when it comes to koi ponds," she drawled as she picked up another cookie.

Ryoga snorted derisively and shrugged, "why do you think I'm here to fight Ranma, anyway? I could just be stopping by for a friendly visit. I'm not always-" he was cut off by a very dry and very un-amused stare.

"Okay, fine, I was going to fight him. I'm sorry about what I did to your yard last time too, but he had it coming," Ryoga pointed out, "he tore my shirt!"

"Hibiki, you need to take a good long look at your life. I'm saying this as a-what's that word? Friend? You devote entirely too much of your time to chasing Ranma around for one reason or another. If I didn't know better, I'd think you were just using fighting as an excuse to be close to him."

That did it, Ryoga wasn't going to stand for this! To prove his point, he spun around and stalked out of the dojo.

"I'm not always fighting him," he fumed in his head.

"Even when I am, he usually starts it with his stupid big mouth," Ryoga continued to grouch. All the while he didn't notice where his feet were carrying him, which altogether wasn't too unusual, but pretty soon his mental rant was interrupted by a very welcome sight. Akane standing at the end of the street with her father, looking for all the world like they were just as lost as he usually found himself. Ryoga beamed, immediately shaken from his bad mood.

"Hey!" Ryoga called, jogging up to the pair with his hands firmly gripping his pack straps.

Akane blinked, only now noticing his presence, "oh, Ryoga!" She exclaimed in surprise. It was just as well. He didn't really want her to feel bad, and as sweet and pure as Akane was, surely she'd feel completely miserable if she knew she'd trampled over him just a few minutes ago.

"Ah, Hibiki," Soun clapped a hand on Ryoga's shoulder.

"When did you get here? Looking for some other place, no doubt," Soun chuckled heartily. Funny how that joke wasn't so bad coming from Mister Tendo, but absolutely rage-inducing if Ranma said it. Actually, come to think of it, when Ranma said anything, it tended to upset him. Ryoga didn't really want to think about the implications of what Nabiki had said earlier, so he shrugged the thought away and blushed as he looked at Akane. Honestly, how could Ranma treat her the way he did?

"Ryoga, have you seen Ranma?" Akane asked, frowning. "He-Sh-Ranma isn't feeling well," she seemed to stumble over the words, picking them very carefully.

"Ah, don't worry Akane, I'm sure he'll show up. He's probably off doing something crazy, if I know Ranma," Ryoga replied, hoping perhaps to steer the conversation in a different direction. Like maybe to a possible dinner date, hopefully without Mister Tendo involved, of course. The man was standing uncomfortably close to them right now.

"So," Ryoga stumbled over the subject. "Is school out today?" Even as he said it, he immediately regretted doing so. Akane quickly flushed pale and looked at her father.

"Oh no, I'm late for class!" She wailed.

"Akane, I think it best you perhaps miss school today," Soun advised, putting an arm around his daughter's shoulder.

"But what about Ranma?" Akane looked behind her, almost as if she were wistfully searching for him beyond the next lamp-post.

How beautiful she looked, even with her mind a thousand miles away. Ryoga smiled at the sight. Even if she was thinking about that jerk, he never failed to appreciate how sweet Akane looked whenever she was concerned. She had the purest heart.

"I bet her soul is delicious," Ryoga suddenly thought. Wait, where the heck did that come from? He frowned. That was weird.

"Here, Akane, if you really want to go to school, I-I-I can walk with you," he offered. Akane nodded and looked over at her father sadly. "Waiting around for hi-for Ranma isn't going to do any good. She'll come home when she's ready."

It didn't escape Ryoga's notice when Akane referred to Ranma as a girl, but he reasoned with himself it was because that's how he'd left the house. There was no way Nabiki was telling the truth about him.

Ranma pulled away from her dad and glared up at him with red-rimmed eyes. It was stupid to cry. Ranma Saotome never gave in, not even when he was feeling at his worst. Everything was just so different now. For one, he was a she, so-Ranma couldn't really refer to herself as a he anymore, could she?

"You're an idiot," she tried to glare at Genma. The effect was somewhat startling, given how raw and pained her face looked. He'd never seen Ranma like this, not even when they'd had to leave her mother behind after the incident that caused this whole mess.

"Yeah, Ranma, I know. I never meant to hurt you," Genma replied, stepping back from his daughter to give her some air. She looked so fragile right then. Even if there was fire in her words, the spark of them failed to reach her eyes.

"Why did you do this to me?" Ranma repeated, not for the first time that day, as she leaned back against a wall for support.

"Ranma, if there had been any other way to protect you, believe me, I would have done it. I would have laid down my life. Your mother almost did."

"Why didn't you ask me first?" She leveled him with a very severe glare. Much like her mother used to, Genma realized. In fact, a lot of Ranma's expressions matched Nodoka's. Even when she was a boy. It was so difficult sometimes to even think about Nodoka, because that only brought on other feelings and pipe dreams about a life they might have had.

"You were 4 years old. What could I have honestly said to you that would have convinced you it was the right choice? You didn't even listen to reason when it came to bathing! I couldn't get you to sit still in the bath until you were 6, for crying out loud!" Genma protested, knowing immediately he'd said the wrong thing.

"So instead, you decided it would be best to raise me into some kind of freak!" Ranma shouted, on the verge of leaping up and getting as far away from him as possible. Genma didn't want to see that happen, but he was at least glad to see that this time the fire did reach her eyes.

"Ranma Saotome, you are not a freak. I raised you to be strong. I raised you as a boy, yes, because I knew that any day you would turn back into a girl and then there was nothing I could do to protect you on my own! I figured at least if you thought you were a boy, at least if you had 12 years to live a normal life, maybe," Genma paused just a little longer than was necessary,"maybe you could take on that demon in a fight, using the skills you learned from the Saotome School of Anything Goes-" he was cut off by a swift punch to the face as Ranma used every bit of willpower she had not to send him skyrocketing over the next building.

She drew back and cracked her knuckles, watching her father stumble back grasping at his face. He recovered swiftly.

Genma re-adjusted his glasses, dabbing at his bloodied nose with a handkerchief he pulled from his trouser pocket as he spoke, "okay, okay, I might have gotten a bit worked up on that speech, but I honestly didn't know what else to do, and when everything was said and done, I couldn't reverse it. It was too late."

"And why did you decide I needed nearly half a dozen fiancees in the meantime?" Ranma demanded, dragging up a thousand thoughts to the foreground about Genma's lousy parenting. Usually she could just dismiss them and say 'pops is just an idiot', but with this new information revealed to her in such a horrible way, all of the things he'd done to her became a thousand times worse.

"Well..." Genma trailed off, trying to find the words. What could he honestly tell his daughter? 'I'm an idiot, and I had a bunch of crazy plans that didn't pan out, so I figured I'd just keep throwing stuff at the wall until something stuck before you turned back into a real girl?' Wait, on second thought-

"I'manidiot,andIhadabunchofcrazyplansthatdidn'tpanout,soIfiguredI'djustkeepthrowingstuffatthewalluntilsomethingstuckbeforeyouturnedbackintoarealgirl," he breathed the whole sentence out in one go.

"That answer isn't good enough!" Ranma shouted, on the verge of tears again. Why couldn't she stop crying?! Was it this stupid body, or was it that for the first time in her life, she actually realized what a sorry father Genma had turned out to be?

"The whole fiancee scheme was Tendo's idea," Genma protested weakly. He really didn't know what else to do besides shift some of the blame away from himself. After all, Soun did know about this the whole time, so in a way he was partially to blame too. On the outside. Still, Genma felt like he'd let his daughter down in so many ways now that he couldn't count them, and it was awful.