Even past midnight, the train from Shinjuku to points west rarely empties out entirely. Salarymen eager to prove their devotion to the job skulk around the office until ridiculous hours of the night, only leaving once their boss has turned out the lights; the bosses, for their part, can usually be found just a few blocks over in Kabukichō, dropping yen by the tens of thousands for attractive young women in cocktail dresses to pour them drinks and pretend to be interested in their desperately barren existences. The hostesses themselves, of course, often have to hitch a ride back home to the suburbs. Then there are the students and carefree twenty-somethings, spent from a night out at the downtown bars and nightclubs. As much as Ranma Saotome might have imagined himself at this point in his life enjoying the nightlife like those students—hell, he'd probably even take being the salaryman right around now—it is to his chagrin that the outrageousness of the preceding months has slotted him (or, at this exact moment, her) into the unenviable position of hostess at Shinjuku's Cabaret Club Love Star. An uneasy haze of inebriation and distaste still hangs dimly over her as she snatches a corner seat on the train to Nerima. Quickly following suit, another woman with bobbed brown hair and sharp fringe sidles up next to her. Decked out in casual, comfortable wear, and with the faint remains of a full face of makeup, the two of them cut a familiar figure.

"Ahh man, thank god that's over with," Ranma exhales with something between relief and aggravation.

The woman in the seat next to her giggles lightly. "You say that after like, every weekend, Ranma."

"Well, yeah, and I mean it every weekend! Jeez, Mariko, not like I'm gonna say 24 hours of dealin' with those drunken letches ain't more'n enough for a week."

"Can't argue with the payday though," Mariko replies with an impish grin.

"Well, it stands to reason, I guess. I mean, they call it work cause they gotta pay you to do it. Still…" Ranma grumbles, tugging uncomfortably at the hem of her jacket. Her expression of exasperation mixes with something Mariko can't read entirely but seems suffused with an unfamiliar glumness. "I dunno, you an' the girls at the club are great and all, and god knows I needed the hand that I got when I was starting out, but do ya ever sit there and wonder, how the hell did I get my life into such a mess?"

Mariko's smile fades, and her demeanour shifts into thoughtfulness as her eyes meet Ranma's. This time it's Ranma's turn to be surprised. "Aww, honey, I think everyone has their reasons they pick up a job like this. Even if the reason is sometimes like, 'I'm hot and want to make more money'," she says, allowing herself a small, self-effacing laugh. "I don't get that sense from you, though, Ranma. Even if I can tell you don't really want to be working there, I don't think that means your life is a mess."

"Yeah, maybe," Ranma answers, clearly dissatisfied but lacking a way to express everything she wants to. Feigning a yawn, she stretches her arms and shrugs noncommittally. "Ah, it's probably nothing, I'm just tired and cranky, lookin' for a reason to harp on about my good-for-nothin' old man."

"He's a pain in the neck, huh?"

"Hah, oh god, if only you knew the half of it…"

In truth, more often than not, these days she feels the restriction of silence heavily on all sides, but as a woman she not only has to live a double life, but also put up an additional false front to boot. Sometimes Ranma marvels at the fact that the number of people fully aware of the insanity of her life can be counted on a single hand, when the deepening split between her two halves infringes further and further on her capacity to lead something approaching a normal life. And yet, when it comes down to it, Ranma knows there's really only one person to blame for this mess. Like so many of the other messes in her life, it all began with her father…

Genma Saotome was a proud man. There were reasons why he merited some allotment of pride—after all, he was a man devoted to his craft, having spent a lifetime refining his skill and knowledge of martial arts, a long history of success in assorted tournaments throughout his childhood and adulthood, and now, approaching middle age, though his own body was beginning to feel the effect of the years, he had a son to follow in his footsteps, a young man who had inherited the moral rectitude and code of honour of his mother, the quick thinking, slyness, and stubbornness of his father, and the mastery of a constellation of martial arts from them both.

"Boy, quit your lazing around! There's work to be done!"

Yet there were things that probably did not merit such consistent displays of pride. For example, his conduct with his wife—ex-wife, rather—or his conduct with his son, or for that matter, his conduct with anyone. Ranma figured it probably wasn't fair to say that Genma intended to be self-absorbed and self-serving, any more than it was to say that a scorpion intended to sting. At this stage in his life, he'd grown used to his father's various antics; having failed on multiple occasions to turn the idiosyncratic form of kempo he practised into the "Saotome School of Indiscriminate Grappling", his father often relied on get-rich-quick schemes, confidence scams, petty theft, and similar contrivances to keep ahead of his rent payments. His ability to skim by like this was hardly harmed by the Saotome School's devotion to subterfuge, camouflage, and of course, bluffing.

On the other hand, it did mean that whenever Genma mentioned "work", it meant that he expected Ranma to do something for him. And today, fighting off whatever kind of fever or flu seemed to be going around town seemed a lot more important to Ranma than appeasing his dad's latest harebrained plan to bring glory to the Saotome School.

With a sniffle and his features hardly shifting from a deadpan, Ranma issued a flat refusal. "Try your luck some other day, old man. It's Sunday and I ain't gettin' out of bed."

"What is this weak-willed nonsense, child? I trained you better than this." He pauses, seeming to wince briefly, before righting his face and grunting. "You've been spending too much time with your mother. In your younger days you would have jumped at the opportunity to bring the glory to the Saotome School that it deserves!"

"Y'know, Pops, that kind of guilt trip would have a whole lot more bite if Ma weren't the one with the real dojo and the sixth-dan ranking."

"Feh, insolent boy. Not only are you making excuses for your slothfulness, but you slander the school of your very namesake."

Ranma sighed with a weary resignation, lacking his usual motivation to trade barbs with his father. "Look, if you really want me to tag along on whatever crazy idea you've gotten today, the least you can do is go out and get some proper medicine. And none of that ibuprofen nonsense neither, I'm all clogged up and that's not gonna cut it. Hell, I can't even do kata work if I can't breathe right. So if you get something strong, and if it fixes this up, then I'll do whatever. Till then, I ain't movin'."

Genma Saotome was not a stupid man. Foolish, perhaps—even he might admit that his ideas could fail to come to fruition—but not stupid. Though he had lived his life feeling the oppressive constraints of mundanity, even as the world around him accepted those limitations, there was some deep-seated part of him that understood that the world had more to it than there appeared to be. At times, when deep in meditation, or in the midst of the intricate katas of the Saotome School, he felt it, the flash of the supernatural that would inspire the power of the divine.

Many would balk at what they would term superstition, even those who would claim themselves to be martial artists. But there were others who appreciated such possibilities and powers. And if Genma was going to snap his wayward son out of this mood of lethargy and lackadaisy, then by god, he wasn't going to rely on the vagaries of modern medicine. What use was twelve-hour rhinitis relief when what the boy really needed was a sharp dosage of supernatural vim and vigour? Yes, a pharmacy wouldn't do in this circumstance…and to his fortune, he knew of a traditional Chinese herbalist not too far from Shakujii Station.

As he entered the medicine shop, he felt bolstered in his resolve. Beyond the cheap trinkets in the front of the store, many rows of traditional remedies lay in neatly-marked aisles. Now, there was the small matter that most of the labels were in Chinese, leaving him only halfway-equipped to even understand what he was buying. But to Genma Saotome, this was a triviality, and whatever minor issues might be encountered due to the language barrier would be mere trifles compared to the benefits that it would bring.

This righteous belief in his own convictions was what led him to a small selection of bottles with labels of varying colours, but each prominently featuring the same name: Zhòuquán Healing Waters. Picking up one of them, he scrutinized the label that accompanied this one: "Zhòuquán Healing Waters: A Maiden's Heart". The Chinese characters seemed mostly familiar to him, though a few gave him some pause. Nevertheless, it was clear that it was spring water of a sort—medicinal, to be sure, and from the looks of it, magical, as well. Below its Chinese explanation, in broken English and Japanese, the back of the bottle listed off the capacities of the medicine: "healing all imbalances of the zàng organs: heart, liver, spleen, lung, kidney, and restoring the inner vigour and energy. Additionally, its power aids the drinker in resolving difficulties in romantic life." Thinking back to the boy's childish pace in his courtship of the Kuonji girl, Genma wondered idly whether a kick in the rear—perhaps even another suitor or two!—wouldn't return Ranma to his usual animated state; this potion would be perfectly suited to solving the boy's recent malaise. And if he wasn't just malingering, then it couldn't hurt at clearing out his lungs.

Come to think of it, as much as Genma hated to admit it, he hadn't been feeling in the highest of spirits either, and a worsening stomach flu had placed some limits on his own abilities. After browsing the rack for a few moments, he came across another bottle that seemed suited to his needs. "Zhòuquán Healing Waters: Bear's Strength": this one promised to heal the fǔ organs, including his ailing stomach, and give the drinker strength beyond a normal human. Taking both bottles with him to the register, Genma was soon on his way back to his apartment, where the magic spring's waters would surely stoke the boy into action. Really, he figured, anything other than the tendency he'd developed over the last few days to laze about the house would be an improvement.

"Boy!" Genma bellowed as he entered the apartment, kicking his shoes off carelessly at the door as he entered his usual refrain of heckling his son.

"Y'know, you can just say 'I'm home' like a normal person," Ranma quipped drily, clearing his throat as he shifted on the couch. The light from the television scattered blurred figures from the screen back onto the window, and muffled yells punctuated what seemed to be some kind of action movie.

Genma just grunted. The boy's mother was a good and honourable woman, but he wondered sometimes if she had let him get soft in the head. "There's no need to coddle you with my language, boy. If you can't even stand up to words, how will you possibly stand up to the blows of an opponent?"

"You sayin' you want me to sock you in the face instead, Pops? Sheesh." Ranma rolled his eyes. "Look, did you get the medicine or not?"

"I have it right here." Setting down the plastic bag on the countertop, Genma searched the kitchen drawers for a pair of measuring cup. Uncorking the bottles, he poured out some for himself and some for his son.

Shrivelling up his nose, Ranma eyed his father with displeasure. "Yech, couldn't find anything that didn't smell like something died in it? Well, I guess they call it medicine for a reason. Bottoms up." Shrugging with resignation, he put the cup to his lips and quickly downed the mixture, his father quickly following suit.

Though Ranma immediately felt something slightly different, he didn't give it much thought. If anything, it was good news, since it meant that the medicine was taking effect. It wasn't until a few minutes later, after enduring Genma's expectant gaze, that Ranma announced abruptly "Ah, to hell with it, if you're just gonna sit there and stare at me until I do whatever crazy idea you've come up with, then I might as well get ready."

Ranma trudged off with a pout to the bathroom, where Genma heard a few seconds of the faucet running, a few seconds of silence, and then what could only be described as an unmanly, bloodcurdling shriek.

"Ranma!" shouted Genma. For once, genuine concern could be heard in his voice as he rushed to his son's side. The vision he encountered, though, was not one that he could have possibly envisioned, as a short young woman—every bit the spitting image of his ex-wife Nodoka, down to the reddish sheen of her hair—fulminated with a rage that seemed to have barely crested.

"YOU," the girl—god, no, Genma realized, there was nobody else that it could be but Ranma—stormed towards him with righteous fury. Gripping his shirt, she spat invectives as far as her voice would carry. "You…you colossal idiot, what the fuck did you do to me?"

"Now, just hold on, b-boy," Genma stammered. The immediate reminder that at this moment, she was not a boy, only incensed her further, and Genma could see it. "I swear on my own honour, it was just medicine!"

Barely paying any mind to her father's justifications, she burst out of the bathroom and back into the kitchen, eyes locked on the bottles that sat innocently on the tabletop. Her eyes scanned the first few lines, and she started reading off the characters as best she could. "Jusen…Jusengo? Jusenkyo? 'Cursed Springs Water of Transformation'? This what ya call medicine!? You better have a damn good explanation for this, Pops."

"You mean…it's not 'Magic Springs Healing Waters'? But that name…"

"You illiterate old fool! Whaddaya think noroi means? It means curse! I let ya go off and buy one thing for me, and I end up with a Chinese curse. Just great."

"Now, son, don't lose your head off this. I'm sure there's a way to resolve this quickly…"

"Says you, you're not the one who—hey, hang on, you took some of it yourself. See how ya like this!" Ranma yells, quickly filling a cup with water from the sink and pouring it on her father. As quickly as her own transformation, black and white fur quickly sprouted from every point on Genma's body, and within a few seconds it was clear that Ranma was standing face to face with a panda bear.

"That…what…Pops?" Ranma said, her own incredulity at her own metamorphosis briefly suspended from the sheer shock of witnessing a transformation occurring in front of her. "Oh god, this can't be real…"

Genma, lacking any kind of way of responding verbally, merely made a vague gesture with his hands—paws?—as he looked down at himself.

"Well you've really fucked it up this time, old man," Ranma said, the shock in her voice fading and giving way to a colder, more incisive anger. "For once in your life, maybe you can clean up this mess. I'm gonna go to Ma's." She marched off to her bedroom, emerging a few minutes later with a duffel bag and a winter coat, leaving the giant panda sitting helplessly in the middle of the apartment.

Nodoka Saotome had had a relatively peaceful morning, preparing herself a light breakfast and some tea before practising a sequence of iaido katas. She'd given little thought to what do with the day; though she would frequently see her son when they set aside time to hone their skills in kendo or iaido, he'd been more withdrawn as of late, and she hadn't expected any visitors on what was otherwise a quiet Sunday. So she was briefly jarred from her routine when she heard a telltale jingling of keys and rattling of the door to her home. Quickly sheathing her sword, she nevertheless carried it with her as she approached the opening door. In all likelihood it was Ranma, but she wouldn't want to be unprepared if some thief had mistakenly believed her home would make for an easy mark.

Instead, as the door opened fully, neither of those seemed to be true. A young woman, one Nodoka didn't recognize but who nevertheless looked strangely familiar, turned her half-lidded eyes up to face Nodoka directly. They were a deep, vivid blue, just like her own, though they seemed as conflicted and ill-fitting as the girl's clothing.

"Er, miss, can I help you?" Nodoka asked, assuming a vaguely defensive position. "You seem to have my key, but I think you may be at the wrong building number."

The girl's face screwed up in thought. "Uhh, I dunno how to explain this, Ma, but I'm Ranma."

Clearly taken aback, Nodoka searched for words. "I don't know if this is your idea of a practical joke, but Ranma is my son, not my daughter."

"Look, I don't know how to prove it to ya, but before you ask, you can blame it all on Pops. I know I don't exactly look it right now, but I'm your son, Ranma Saotome," she said, pinching her nose and sighing. "Sorry 'bout all this."

For a time, Ranma had managed to convince himself that this curse wouldn't be such a big deal. The only trigger was cold water, right? How hard could it be to just avoid cold water? The trademark Saotome bravado permitted him to hold this impression for all of a few days before realizing just how many mundane elements of his life could now threaten not only to tee up a cascade of humiliations, but also potentially threaten to get his curse revealed, whisked away by some government society and subjected to study.

The first and most pressing matter was the weather. Rain, not typically something that Ranma would have considered enough to scare him off from anything, quickly became a barometer of his own tolerance for the world to judge him on the basis of a very different set of criteria than he was used to. Forecasts subsequently quickly became tea leaves, a kind of proxy divination for whether he would be leered at by the cashier at the convenience store across the street. Worse still, his father developed a paralytic fear of the outdoors, refusing to leave the apartment on all but the clearest, driest of days.

Worse, though, was the matter of food and drink. Through a bit of experimentation, Ranma found that the shift from water cold enough to trigger the curse and warm enough to reverse it was around body temperature, making every meal something of a complicated process of navigation. Given what was quickly becoming an exhaustive need to remain hydrated, any day he left the house in one form or another, a laundry list of dietary requirements followed along with him. Any day blocked off for his male side meant no picking up a canned coffee at the corner store; a rainy day where he left the house was a day where soup or hot tea were off limits.

This was ridiculous enough as it stood for Ranma, whose valiant attempts at assigning some kind of discipline to his days earned him a headache about as often as they earned him a day without switching back and forth, but with only his mother and father in the know of his fantastical curse, he was either left risking the peril of discovery, or letting things resolve themselves decidedly in the direction of disaster.

There was the matter of Ukyo Kuonji, Ranma's girlfriend of several months, and with whom things were going just fine until his father decided to make the feminine yin of his zàng organs, well, a little too feminine. Or, more to the point, there was the fact that he had stood her up three times in a row due to a spat of spring showers, and then there was the fact that Ranma wasn't exactly the best at making excuses to begin with, and then there was the other fact that Ranma began recoiling from Ukyo's hand if she'd so much as touched the condensation on a cold glass of water. So when Ukyo showed up unannounced at Ranma's apartment, only to be greeted by an unfamiliar woman, it maybe wasn't the biggest surprise that weeks of her suspicion went implicitly confirmed. "So that's what he's been doing! Sleeping around for weeks without so much as the shame to hide it! And you," she said, prodding Ranma in the chest, "mark my words, you redheaded robber. I won't let your man-thieving ways go unpunished! And don't think your two-timing boy toy is going to get away scot-free either…"

Things with Ryoga, meanwhile, were better only by comparison.

"Ranma, you coward, you can't just keep skipping out on our practice sessions like this. Or have you finally learned that all you're good at is running away?"

"That's awfully rich comin' from the guy who's showed up late to every practice session we've ever had. If you were any worse with directions, you'd be so late you'd end up showing up on time for the next one."

"Don't go trying to turn this around to somehow make this my fault. You broke a vow between men!"

"Look, don't make this out to be a bigger deal than it is, man. Ya think I'm gonna duel in the middle of a thunderstorm? Maybe I really have hit you one too many times over the head…"

"What kind of excuse is that, Ranma? You're scared of a little rain!? I'll show you rain—"

Before he knew it, Ranma had been pelted in the face with an open water bottle. It was a small mercy that the two of them were in sufficiently private quarters that his 'little secret' wasn't immediately exposed to the world, but Ryoga could only gape in silence as Ranma spontaneously transformed.

"Listen," she said, her voice thin and raw with impatience, "I swear there's a good explanation for this."

Yet somehow, life proceeds apace. For all his faults, Ryoga is trustworthy when it comes to keeping secrets, and his life, however discombobulated from its previous state, begins to take a more predictable contour. Though he's faced it with a bleak resolve, lacking any kind of legal identity or employment history for his female half, and lacking the ability to keep himself from transforming on a hair trigger, he secures a job at, of all things, a hostess club, where his natural talent for acting can at least let him fleece a bunch of lonely, horny old men out of a couple thousand yen per hour, wasn't exactly a challenge.

And as much as Ranma hates to admit it, her life is approaching something like a rhythm, something like a balance. And if it isn't exactly the kind of balance she's thrilled by, involving a half-panda leeching away her only source of savings and weekends full of drunken slobs making comments about a pair of boobs she's owned for all of a couple months…well, there's something perversely refreshing about the fact that she's managed to wrest some degree of freedom from her father's scheming.

There's a lot that remains unanswered in her life—after all, "balance" can be the calm before the storm as often as it implies any kind of stability. She wonders if she'll ever be able to explain matters to Ukyo, or if her own fears over the curse have already shattered the trust between them. She wonders if she or her father will even come by a way to rid themselves of the curse, when everything she knows about the world suggests it should have been impossible to be subject to this magic in the first place.

And if not? A shallow blanket of terror fills her at the thought. Would things continue as they are now? Her father spending his days lounging around the apartment, bitterly whining about the weather, aimless but for the dream of a cure? Her mother, decrying her father's recklessness while at the same time seeing in Ranma the closest she can get to a daughter? That would leave her, in the middle, splitting her life between her parents' homes, her parents' worlds, and the two spheres of her existence.

Lolling her head against the train seat, Ranma perks up her head briefly to listen to the announcement: Shakujii Station. Standing up and stretching her legs, she wishes Mariko a quick goodbye and steps off the train. "Alright, where to," she mutters, but though she presents the option to herself like it's a choice, Ranma knows the lie of it. As much as her father has been more subdued as of late, she'd rather know for sure, at least for tonight, that her father isn't going to wake her up with a shinai to the face at 4 in the morning, just to put out a bunch of flyers on the street advertising his new pyramid scheme, or his stolen yatai, or his "Indiscriminate Grappling Advanced Kempo" lessons. It's much easier for her to provide for him in the abstract, and though she knows she'll have to go back and face him again sooner or later, to do more than just drop off food or money, tonight isn't the night.

Tonight she'll go back to her mother's home; it had been a source of comfort for her in these last few weeks during a volatile time. Her father, on the other hand, would be free to wallow for a few days longer. Maybe he'll be angry, but as far as she's concerned, he could do with a bit more introspection. What was it he always liked to say whenever Ranma complained about being dispatched on those "character-building missions"? Right. "The life of a martial artist is filled with peril."

Language notes:

咒泉乡 Zhòuquánxiāng: The Chinese transliteration of Jusenkyo. While the second character, 'spring', is a common character that is immediately identifiable in Japanese, the third is a simplified character that doesn't exist in Japanese, and the first is an obsolete variant of the more common 呪 noroi, meaning "curse", which explains some of Genma's confusion.

脏腑 Zàngfǔ: A division of the body's organs according to traditional Chinese medicine between yin organs (zàng)—heart, spleen, lung, liver, kidney—and yang organs (fǔ)—small intestine, stomach, large intestine, bladder, and gall bladder.