Disclaimer: As you might expect, these characters don't belong to me. Or to you. So there!
Ranma dodged another sloppy punch. "Ya might actually hit me one of these days, P-chan," Ranma opined, leaping back to avoid Ryoga's follow-up roundhouse kick. "But not today."
Ryoga was beyond furious. He was incensed. "Hold still and DIE!"
Ranma chuckled to himself. "Fat chance, pig-boy. Besides, even if I was standin' still, your fist'd get lost on its way to my face."
Akane stood on the Tendos' back porch, a tired and irritated expression adorning her features. "Ranma, stop encouraging him!" She turned to face the Lost Boy. "Ryoga, don't let him make you lose your temper!"
"I'll take care of this, Akane," Ryoga sneered.
"I'm getting tired of this," the youngest Tendo intoned ominously, slouching to seat herself on the wooden slats of the back porch, her shapely bare legs dangling off the edge.
Nabiki stood in the doorway to the house, fanning herself with her hand. "Really? Will wonders never cease!"
Akane glared daggers at her elder sister, but bit her tongue. She watched the two boys fight, a gathering storm of anger visible on her face. "I mean it," she added quietly. "If you two won't stop fighting, I'll..."
Nabiki's ears perked up. "What will you do, Akane?"
"Are you two listening to me?!" Akane demanded, springing to her feet. "Or are you too full of testosterone to listen?"
Ranma smirked as he blocked Ryoga's uppercut. "No, that's you, Akane."
The youngest Tendo bristled, going stiff. "If you feel that way, then I'm sure you'll like what I have to say. If you two won't stop going at it in my backyard like a pair of dogs, then I'll... Ranma, I'll tell my father that the engagement's off and I don't want you here anymore." She paused, to allow this to sink in. "Ever. Again."
Ranma froze. "Wait. What?!"
Ryoga's follow-up move, a right hand uppercut, caught Ranma right under the ribs, and he went flying.
Omigosh, he thought to himself a little hazily as he sailed through the air. He actually hit me. Without a special technique or anything, just a distraction! He frowned. It's all that tomboy's fault...
Ranma realized he was headed straight for the Tendo pond. Wonderful. Instant girl – just add water.
Ranma could hear shouting from far away. Someone was calling his name, but it sure was taking them a long time to get through the two syllables. Why should anyone be shouting his name?
Because you're about to hit the rocks, genius. The rocks that made you think you were a girl last time. The ones which, according to Akane, made you buy white frilly dresses and womens' underwear.
At the last second, Ranma remembered to scream. He tried to turn his head away, managed to look at Ryoga and lock gazes with him. Ryoga was saying something, and had started towards him, one hand extended. A cool flash of light seemed to surround her... she was falling away from Ryoga, faster and faster...
"Ouch!" Ranma sat bolt upright in bed in remembered pain.
Ranma gazed around her. She was in Akane's room, in Akane's bed. "Whoo, I passed out," the martial artist murmured, realizing from the tone of her voice that she must've hit the water after she'd hit her head. "Hmm. Panties. Lace. Steel Magnolias." She massaged the back of her head. "Nope. Seem to be fine."
She swung her feet down and stood. "Whooooo..." she repeated, steadying herself with one hand. She felt dizzy and a little disoriented.
Moving cautiously, she opened the door and made her way down the stairs, running one hand along the wall for something to clutch at in case another wave of dizziness struck. "Hey, Akane!" she called. I know she's a tomboy, but it was nice of her to let me use her room. "Akane!!! Where are you?"
No answer greeted her. "Wonder where everyone is," she murmured, straightening. She already felt a lot better. Still, a cup of hot tea might settle her upset stomach and aching head. "Kasumi?"
No reply. Ranma was beginning to have a very bad feeling. "Uh, Ryoga?"
The living room seemed to be resonating with its lack of noise. "Uhmmm..." Ranma gazed around. "Maybe they're outside?" She moved to the back door. "Hey, Akane, thanks for..."
There was no one there. Ranma was truly becoming creeped. "Would they just leave me up there, passed out?" she wondered. "It wouldn't be the first time, especially if I was takin' my own sweet time waking up." She looked up at the sun. Looks like it's about ten in the mornin'. Guess I must've slept the whole night through!
That made more sense. Obviously, Akane and Nabiki had gone off to school, and both Kasumi and Soun were on some sort of errand.
But then why didn't they wake me up for school? Where's Pops?
Maybe they couldn't. Maybe they'd tried.
Ranma shook her head. No use speculating. Maybe they'd all been abducted by aliens. Until they came home, she couldn't do much but wonder.
"I've had a free day comin' for a long time," Ranma said to herself. "And why not? Anybody who wants ta marry me or fight me is just gonna haveta wait." She grinned and moved to the kitchen to raid the fridge for some breakfast.
Ranma froze on the threshold.
The kitchen had been painted a cool, sophisticated-looking grey green. The floor was tiled with earth brown stone, and there were several pictures of leaves and flowers hanging on the walls. Although the fridge was the one she remembered, the stove had been replaced by a shiny matte grey one. It was all a far cry from the cheerful, homey, but more than out of date kitchen she remembered. Ranma wondered if the eldest Tendo daughter had given Nabiki lease to redecorate.
While Ranma was still taking this in, a small noise sounded from upstairs.
"Someone's home after all," she murmured, beginning to ascend the stairs again. Her dizziness was almost gone, but the headache at her temples was beginning to throb. She let her fingers run along the wall again, more for an emotional sense of balance than a physical one. Ranma knew when her life was about to take a turn for the weird.
The noise seemed to be coming from Nabiki's room. "Nabiki?" Ranma called.
Maybe the middle Tendo girl had just left the radio or her computer on. It certainly didn't sound like her voice on the phone.
Ranma opened the door, then paused to gape.
All right,Ranma said, slamming the door closed and leaning against it, doing her best to get her breathing in order. Try again.
Ranma peeked inside Nabiki's room.
Yup. Still painted rose-pink. Still littered with toys. Crib, check.
Crying baby. Uh huh.
Ranma closed the door again. Crying baby. There was a crying kid in Nabiki's room.
Damn, but the mercenary girl was going to kill whoever'd done this! And who could've done it so fast?
"Waaaaahhh!!!" said the baby.
"WAAHH!" said Ranma.
It was less than a half an hour later when Ranma heard someone moving downstairs. She leapt up from her position perched on the steps and ran to the front door. She didn't know what she wanted or expected to see, but it wasn't Tatewaki Kuno standing at her door with a bouquet of flowers and looking around the house.
"Don't you even knock?!" Ranma managed.
Kuno smirked at her. "No."
Ranma found herself a little taken aback by his confidence. "Well... Akane isn't here."
"Uh huh," Kuno said, handing her the flowers. "These are for you."
Ranma accepted the flowers automatically. "Look, I really don't have time for –"
Kuno cut her off with a wave of his hand. "You swore you'd made the time." He paused. "You couldn't find a sitter for Sachiko?"
"Sachiko," Ranma repeated slowly. "You mean the baby?"
He frowned at her. "If the sitter cancelled on you at the last minute, we can just take her along."
"Take her along where?! I'm not going on a date with you!"
A sudden wail interrupted their argument. "Now look what you've done! She'd only stopped five minutes ago!" Ranma stormed up the stairs.
To the redhead's consternation, Kuno followed her, cool as you please. "If I've done something to offend, please allow me to make up for it," he was saying hurriedly. "We'll go out to a fancy Italian restuarant – the one in Tokyo proper. If you want."
"Just back off, Kuno!" Ranma huffed, opening the door to Nabiki's room and staring at the baby. "I keep looking, but she don't have a dirty diaper, and she don't seem ta wanna eat," Ranma fretted.
Kuno offered her a puzzled look, sweeping the baby out of its crib and expertly bouncing the child up and down as he held her against his chest.
"Hey!" Ranma made an abortive lunge for the child, then paused, wondering why she was so worried.
The baby giggled and burped.
"Well, there you go. She needed to be burped, that's all," Kuno said sagely. He handed the baby off to Ranma, who fumbled for a moment before managing to copy the way she'd seen the kendoist handle the little girl. "Can we go now?"
Ranma pondered this for a moment, playing with the little girl's sparse red hair.
Ranma examined the baby's features. The small child had bright red hair which curled in short little ringlets around her pale face. Her eyes, an intense blue, sparkled as she laughed. "She wanted to be picked up," Ranma deduced, shaking her head in consternation. That had been the last thing the redhead had wanted to try. She didn't know how to hold a baby, although she recalled it was imporant you support... something. Just now, the little girl... Sachiko, Ranma reminded herself... was grinning up at her. Sachiko clapped her hands and bounced as Ranma adjusted her on her hip.
Gosh, Ranma thought, a small smile tugging at the corner of her lips. She is a pretty little thing. Wonder whose she is.
Kuno certainly seemed to know her, and she him. Sachiko reached her arms out to the kendoist, who swept her up again and swung through the air. The small girl giggled again, a sweet little baby laugh.
"She's beautiful," Ranma said softly, then shook herself. She sounded just like Akane, who fawned over any baby she could find.
"Just like her mother," Kuno replied. "I've always said she looks just like you."
Ranma frowned. "Looks like me? I guess, but what does that have to do with it?" She was still staring at Sachiko, who was in the midst of observing the world with relatively new eyes. The tiny redhead reached out and snagged the corner of Kuno's shirt and proceeded to put it in her mouth for a chew toy.
Kuno frowned at Ranma, obviously oblivious of Sachiko's preference for cotton blends. "What does that have to do with what?"
"With her mother?"
Kuno laughed at her.
It hit Ranma like a ton of bricks. "No. No way, man. No effing way!"
"Ranma! What's wrong with you!" Kuno shifted the baby in his grasp. "She's going to start talking any day now! Do you want that to be her first word?"
Ranma began to shake. "That's not my kid!"
"Gee, let's see," Kuno replied blandly. "Red hair, blue eyes, and an already stubborn nature. She's yours, all right."
"No!" Ranma exclaimed. "No, because to have a kid, ya first gotta..."
"I am familiar with the birds and the bees, thank you very much," the young man replied, but his expression was shifting from annoyed to concerned.
"That would mean... you're my...?" Ranma slid down to a seated position. "No! It isn't possible! Where's Akane?!"
"Akane?" Kuno lay the baby back in her cradle, then knelt in front of the redhead. "Ranma, are you all right?"
"You know my name!" Ranma said. "Hey, how do you know my name?"
Kuno blinked. "Er..."
Ranma's brows lowered. "Wait a minute. You know who I am... and you still married me?!"
Tatewaki Kuno froze. "Ranma... Ranma, we're not married."
Ranma slumped. "Oh?"
"Then..." Ranma forced herself to calm down. "Geez, man, I'm sorry. Look, with all that goes on in my life, I thought I'd traveled to some kinda alternate dimension or somethin'." She took a very deep breath. "Know it sounds weird, but it wouldn't be, for me. So, whose kid is it?"
"Yours," Kuno replied. "Look, ah, my lunch break is just thirty-five minutes long. We can't go far, but maybe we could eat at Ucchan's and, er, speak."
"On you?" Ranma was confused, but nothing diminished the lure of free food.
"Uh, yes," Kuno replied.
"Okay then." She leveled him her best disapproving-Akane glare. "But try anything and you'll regret it."
Kuno eyed Ranma like she was the crazy one. "Uh huh."
Ranma edged out the door behind Kuno.
"We can't leave the baby here alone."
"Oh! Right." Ranma returned to Nabiki's room and retreived Sachiko. "Right," she repeated.
Ucchan's was just as Ranma remembered, which did a lot to calm her nerves. Kuno kept tossing her these little bewildered looks which were beginning to drive her crazy.
Ukyo swept out of the kitchen. "House special, ne, Ranchan?" She grinned at the baby. "Hello, sweetness!" she exclaimed.
"This is Sachiko," Ranma said. "Sachiko, this is Ucchan."
Ukyo grinned at the baby. "Oh, we're old friends, aren't we, Sachi-chan?" She looked at Kuno as if to share some kind of joke, but the kendoist shook his head gravely.
"What's the matter?" Ukyo inquired, one hand on her hip. "Sachi, you've been a good girl, haven't you?" she chided.
"Ranma's been having some troubles this morning," Kuno cut in gravely. "She doesn't seem to remember Sachiko at all."
"She doesn't what?!" Ukyo screeched. "Ranma!"
" 'She'?!" Ranma exclaimed. "I'm a boy, damn it! A boy!"
Ukyo froze. "What did you say?"
Kuno was staring at the redhead like she'd sprouted horns.
"Well, I am!"
Ukyo seemed to recover first. "First of all, Ranchan, the term is 'man'. At least, there aren't so many twenty-two year old males who still consider themselves boys..."
"What?" Ranma whispered, clutching at Sachiko, who began to fidget in discomfort.
"Second of all, you're neither a boy nor a man. You're a woman. As evinced by the baby you're holding on your lap." Ukyo's voice was chill.
"No! I'm not twenty-two... I'm sixteen! And I'm a guy, damn it!"
Ukyo slid next to Ranma in the booth, exchanging a long glance with Kuno. "I... see."
"Ucchan, what the hell is going on? One moment I'm banging my head on a rock, the next I wake up and... and everything's different! There's a baby girl in the house, the kitchen's all been re-done, and no-one's around!"
"Are you saying you don't remember anything after that bump on your head back when you were sixteen?!" Ukyo exclaimed.
"Kami-sama," Kuno breathed. "No wonder you were upset."
"Tell me what the hell is going on," Ranma said.
"Ranma... what year is it?"
"Are you kidding? It's 1998!"
Ukyo's voice came in, sensible and quiet. "It's 2004, Ranma. Welcome to the new millenium."
Black danced at the edges of Ranma's vision. She made a futile grab for consciousness, and missed.
Ranma's eyes fluttered open. "Whatta nightmare," she murmured, sitting up and dislodging the cool cloth that had been resting on her forehead. "Mou..."
She gazed about. Akane's room, early evening. The lights were off, and the room was bathed in a pale blue-purple. Damn it, but that had been weird. Sachiko had been kinda cute... okay, so she was the prettiest baby she'd ever seen, but the rest was just plain weird.
Akane entered the room quietly, then turned to see Ranma's open eyes. "Oh! You're awake."
"Yeah. That last kick of Ryoga's really knocked me for a loop, though. You shoulda seen the nightmares."
Akane flinched. "Kick?"
"The kick into the pond," Ranma clarified. "Oh, wait, that's right. It was a punch; an uppercut punch." She stood, stretching her arms over her head. "Guess I musta fallen in the pond, too, 'cause I'm still a girl."
Akane's eyes shimmered with tears. "Oh, Ranma...!"
Ranma softened at the sight of her tomboy fiancee so upset. "We won't fight anymore, Akane, promise. I know it worries ya, and really Ryoga 'n me are too advanced to be fighting one another so serious. Maybe if we talk to him together, we can convince him to go a little easy." Ranma shifted uncomfortably – that would certainly be an awkward conversation, one she wouldn't look forward to. She could see it now: gee, Ryoga, if you could just go easy on me in our sparring matches from now on, I'd really appreciate it! Still, for Akane, she'd do it.
Akane sniffed. "So you're back, huh?"
"Yeah. Ranma Saotome: Man Amongst Men. It's been... what? Six whole years now, hasn't it?"
"Aw, man, not you too! Look, Akane, there's just something wrong with all of you. It ain't been six years, it's been hours! And that kid ain't mine."
"Don't say that about Sachiko!" Akane snapped. "That's your little girl, Ranma, and don't you forget it!"
"She's not mine! Akane, ya gotta believe me! I never saw that little girl before today. All of you are under some kinda spell or something. Maybe a Kodachi potion, but it's probably Cologne. Yeah, Cologne might do something like this. But why?"
Akane flipped on the light switch. "Look, Ranma," she said. "Look."
Ranma stared at her. Of all the people he'd seen, Akane looked by far the most changed. She was holding her long, thick mane of black hair in her hands, she was an inch or two taller, and she had rather obviously become a high-caliber martial artist. Muscles stood out in her arms and lower legs, and she was more slender than he remembered.
"What the hell did you do to yourself?" Ranma blurted.
"Oh. Nice one."
"No, no! I mean... you look good," the redhead managed. "So... uh... it's really been six years, has it?"
She sighed. "Uh huh."
"But what happened in between?"
"That's a harder question to answer." Akane sat down on her bed and patted the seat next to her. When Ranma sat down, she began.
"It's not like it was the time before that," she said.
"The time before what?"
"I mean, when... when I bumped your head," Akane explained, a small blush of embarrassment heating her cheeks even all these years later. "The second time wasn't the same. You didn't think you'd always been a girl. You didn't insist on wearing pink, or shop for bras, or anything like that. You just got... I dunno, all quiet. You wouldn't even insult me." She gave a small, tight laugh. "None of us could get a rise out of you. You just kind of sat there for a long while. We took you to the hospital, but they couldn't find any brain damage - just some swelling.
"Ryoga was sure that you'd had a brush with death of some kind, and he felt responsible for the way you were acting. He stuck around, made sure you were comfortable.
"Daddy and Mister Saotome's plan to help you out was to marry us right away, of course," Akane went on, raising a cool eyebrow with a smirk of amusement.
"What?!" Ranma snapped. "I'm, like, catatonic and they're gonna marry us?!"
Akane shrugged. "This is the point where we look back and laugh, Ranma. It didn't work, of course." Her eyes went faraway and lost contact with Ranma's, her mind traveling back to an earlier time. "You seemed to have lost all interest in me." Akane shook herself and gazed at the other girl intently. "In everyone, as a matter of fact."
Ranma shook her head. "But what was wrong?"
"No one knew." Akane took a deep breath, stirring the wisps of hair that had fallen across her features. "Only one person seemed to be able to get a rise out of you."
Akane's lips compressed. "Ryoga. He used your pride against you. One day he asked you what a manly guy like you was doing sitting around the house feeling sorry for himself like a weak little girl. I remember exactly how he put it, because you laughed then, you laughed at what he'd said, when you hadn't so much as formed a complete sentence in three weeks. I think your father nearly died from happiness."
"Why's that funny?"
"Dunno," Akane replied, "but you sure seemed to think it was. You laughed hard, Ranma, and then you told him, 'thank you'. You stood up and got something to eat of your own volition. I... I was so happy!"
Ranma looked at her to see that tears were gathering in her eyes. "Akane..."
She wiped them away hastily. "I was so relieved, Ranma, and more grateful to Ryoga than I can say."
"So I was back to normal."
Akane shook her head. "No. And most of us didn't realize how far from your old self you'd gotten until much later. When your father wanted to spar with you again, you refused. You ate less, you didn't... I don't know." She sighed. "When you were younger, Ranma, there was always a little bit of spark in you. It pulled friends and enemies alike. That spark seemed to have died. There's no other way I have of explaining it. Kasumi once said to me that you reminded her of Daddy just after Momma died."
Ranma didn't know what to say. As she gazed at Akane, it seemed like the Tendo girl was speaking of a nostalgic time in the far distant past, generations ago. Nothing to do with her.
"Anyway," Akane went on, "you couldn't seem to come out of it. You cheered up a little when Ryoga or your mother came to visit. You had become very polite to the rest of us, but polite was all you were, Ranma. You had no interest in us."
Ranma paled. "I'm sorry, Akane."
Akane waved her hand in the air as though swatting away bad memories. "That was ages ago. Since Ryoga was the only one who seemed to have any effect on you, good or bad, your father began pushing the two of you to spend time together." Akane slumped. "Hell, we all did. There was nothing like seeing an emotion come across your face after almost a full year of... nothing.
"You began to act a little differently. Your appetite picked up again, and you started sparring with your father. But there were other differences. You were more feminine... just not the caricature of a teenage girl you'd been the first time around."
"Like how?" Ranma was beginning to see the end to this story, and she didn't like it.
"You were... sensitive to the mood of things. When someone in the house was upset, you were the first to be aware of it, not Kasumi. You started to be more aware of how you looked before you left the house. Come to think of it, you stayed in girl form more often altogether. I once overheard you say..." She blushed.
"When you were eighteen, I heard you say that you wondered what it was like to be pregnant."
Ranma's cheeks heated. "Damn it, Akane."
"So why didn't you take me out and shoot me like a sick dog?" Ranma pondered half-seriously.
"You don't understand, Ranma! We might have considered that before... but you started acting a little happier around the same time you started behaving in a way that was more feminine. If you'd announced that the only thing that would appease you would be running through the streets naked twice a week, we'd have agreed immediately."
Ranma chuckled despite herself.
Akane shifted a little uncomfortably. "Ranma, I want you to know that I'll always be there for you. I mean it."
Ranma avoided her eyes.
"But you must have guessed what I'm getting at by now. You're married, and you've had a baby with your husband. Do you understand where I'm going?"
Ranma swallowed past the lump in her throat. "I do."
"He's a good man, Ranma," Akane continued, placing a gentle hand on the redhead's shoulder. "As much as I really did want you for myself, what I want now is a little different."
"W-what's that?" Ranma stammered, looking into her eyes.
"Your happiness," Akane replied. "I know you can't remember it, Ranma, but you were happy. You are happy."
"Bullshit," Ranma muttered.
"He's waiting outside," Akane said. "He's waiting for you. Please, Ranma... be kind to him. He's spent the last six years being kind to you. And... he's your husband."
"Kami-sama," Ranma breathed.
"Are you all right?"
"Man, don't let me pass out again... twice a day is my limit..."
Akane began to look concerned. "It's okay, Ranma. In and out. I'm here for you, all right? No matter what."
Ranma tried to protest that she didn't need some macho uncute tomboy's help, but she needed all the air she had for hyperventilation.
"Time to face the music, Ranma-chan," Akane announced. "I'll walk you to the door."
Ranma nodded, breaths still coming quick and shallow. "Mou..." she breathed. In her panicked condition, Akane's bedroom door looked like some kind of ancient portal to hell.
Akane opened it.
As Ranma had expected, Ryoga Hibiki was standing on the other side.
Author's Notes: Don't shoot me. This idea came to be at the borders between sleeping and being awake, and I just had to try it out. Yes, it's finished already. I don't post unless I'm done. I'll be releasing these once a week, every week, barring death or disaster.
Post your reviews here or send questions, comments, death threats and lovings. Even better, visit my website (listed as my homepage on ff-dot-net), livejournal (kirinin-dot-livejournal-dot-com), or forums. THIS story is now being translated into Italian by the clever Franci on efpfanfic-dot-net. My thanks go out to Franci for her hard work to share this story with others.