Oh yes, I'm the great pretender
Pretending that I'm doing well
My need is such
I pretend too much
I'm lonely, but no one can tell

Oh yes, I'm the great pretender
Adrift in a world of my own
I play the game
But to my real shame
You've left me, to dream all alone

Too real is this feeling of make believe
Too real, when I feel,
What my heart can't conceal

Oh yes, I'm the great pretender
Just laughing and gay like a clown
I seem to be
What I'm not, you see
I'm wearing my heart like a crown
Pretending that you're still around


Saotome's Choice
by JP Buckner
ajaff@srv.net
http://onewest.net/~ajaff/manff.htm

Chapter Seven - A Shock to the System


Ranma 1/2 is the legal, creative and intellectual property of
Rumiko Takahashi and all pertinent companies.

"The Great Pretender" lyrics by Buck Ram
"Yesterday" lyrics by Lennon and McCartney

NOTE to Fanfiction.net and Mediaminer.org readers. This is an
incomplete draft of chapter seven. Though there are still a
number of scenes left for this chapter, I haven't updated for
so long, I figured those of you who have been chomping at the
bit should have a little something to see this story has not
yet been abandoned. This incomplete draft will end, abruptly,
in the middle of a scene. Sorry about this.




Night crept along the Tendo home like stealth cockroach, quiet
yet nearly indestructible. It was the time of dreams, and those
dreams were trying their best to make their presence known.

One sister found herself in a funhouse mirror room. Kasumi looked
around at the various mirrors, seeing different and conflicting
reflections on their panes.

Standing off to one side of the mirrors, was the carnival barker.
There was something about his face that seemed familiar to
Kasumi. The man pointed to the mirrors, and asked her, "Who are
you?"

Kasumi looked around at the various images of herself. In one,
she saw herself in her favorite apron. In another, she was
wearing a bridal kimono. There she was in an artist's smock, or
in another, a businesswoman's suit. In yet another, she saw the
image of herself with a look of loneliness on her face. One image
followed by another, and yet another. She shook her head in
dismay.

"I do not know."

The barker nodded, then pulled out a playbill, which he used to
write something on the back of.

"What is your quest?"

Kasumi watched, as the barker seemed to... change. Now, in his
place, was a samurai warrior? Looking down at herself, she
noticed that she was wearing some kind of warrior's garb herself.
Bringing her head back up, she saw that where the mirrors once
were, now stood a number of paths, each heading in its own
direction.

Lowering her head, she answered, "I am not sure."

Looking up towards the samurai, she watched him nod, then noticed
him write something on a scroll.

"What is your favorite color?"

Kasumi blinked as another change occurred, this time turning the
warrior to a doctor. Her doctor. Now Kasumi understood why the
man had looked so familiar. Slowly, Kasumi began to replay, in
her dream, her first therapy session.

Other dreams were being played out in the Tendo home. In one
room, Soun was dreaming about his late wife. The dream was a
pleasant one, of when he had first met her, during his travels
with his Master. He relaxed in his sleep, for the memories were
of a finer time, when his life changed for the better. If only it
could have been forever.

In yet another dream, Nabiki found herself in a courtroom. She
sat in the defendant's chair, with her lawyer by her side.
Looking up, she saw that her lawyer was... Kuno? Doomed, she told
herself, I am doomed. Glancing off to the side, she saw the
prosecutors standing there, one male, one female. Both were
Ranma. The trial began to start. She turned towards the front,
and watched as the judge entered. She nearly wanted to scream
when she recognized the face of the judge. It was a face she saw
in the mirror far too often. Shuddering to herself, she knew this
was not going to be a snap to get out of.

Elsewhere in the Tendo home, the youngest member of the household
was also lost in the visions of sleep. Akane began tossing and
turning in her bed, as the dream played out.

Abruptly, she sprang up, awake and breathing heavily. Catching
her breath, Akane closed her eyes, and muttered, "No, please, not
now. Not now."

****************************************************

Ranko sat down on the grass. She had just completed yet another
morning workout in the backyard, and sat alone with her thoughts.

"Sweetheart, are you all right? You seem awful quiet."

Turning her head, Ranko saw her mother standing in the doorway,
watching her. Trying her best not to show how nervous she was,
Ranko answered, "I just got some stuff on my mind, Mom. I got a
lot to think about."

Nodoka walked over, and sat down next to Ranko. "Anything you'd
like to talk about?"

Ranko shook her head. "No, Mom. I can't talk about this. Anyways,
I ain't that good about talkin' about things."

"Why not, dear?"

Ranko looked up towards the morning sky, feeling the warmth of
the rising sun's rays. Shaking her head, she replied, "It was the
way I was raised, I guess."

Nodoka gently guided Ranko's head, so she could look the young
girl in the eye. "What do you mean by that, Ranko?"

Her mother's gaze froze Ranko, filling her with courage. "Well,
father raised me like a boy, and he would always tell me that
boys had to constantly show strength to everyone, that it would
be a sign of weakness to talk about feelings, and stuff like
that. It's always hard for me to talk about things."

Nodoka slowly nodded. "Your father is partly correct, dear. It is
important for men to be strong, and to show strength to the
outside world. But, dear, it is also important for men to be able
to talk to someone, to have someone to share these things with."

Ranko's eyebrows shot up at that. "It is?"

Nodoka gave Ranko a reassuring pat on her arm. "Yes, dear, it is.
Genma, your new father, it is true to the outside world he would
need to show strength. When we were alone, Ranko, he would feel
free to express his feelings to me. I know to you, it may sound
odd; you only know the public face he puts up to everyone. But as
his wife, I knew things about him, about his heart, that no one
else knew.

"Everyone needs someone to confide in, dear, it is just not
healthy to keep everything inside all of the time. Sometimes, I
think that is the greatest responsibility a wife has for a
husband, to share the aspects of his life he can't share with the
rest of the world."

Ranko began to chuckle, and turned her head towards the ground.
"You're right, it's hard to see Father like that. But what you
said about a wife and all, that just sounds so, so..."

Nodoka interrupted Ranko's thought. "So old-fashioned, dear?"

Ranko nodded in response.

"Perhaps it is old-fashioned. Perhaps it is a very traditional
way of looking at things. But sweetheart, do not look down on the
traditional way of things. The way of tradition, the way of
honor, has kept our people, has kept our way of life strong over
many years. I know you are young, and you think old ways are
antiquated, and have no bearing on the world today. Just remember
this, Ranko. The ways of tradition have worked this long for a
reason. It is important to follow the old ways, even if you do
not understand them as yet. One day, you will see that this is
true. To ignore what has gone on before is to invite sorrow and
pain into your life."

"I hear you, Mom, but I just don't know. I just don't think I can
talk about this."

"Give it time, dear. If not me, then you need to talk to
somebody. Just like I hope that Ranma is able to talk about his
feelings with someone."

Ranko shook her head. "Ranma ain't that good about talkin' things
out either."

Nodoka studied Ranko carefully. "Not even with Akane? She is, or
was, his fiancee. I would hope that he would have been able to
talk to her about things."

A frown crossed Ranko's face. "No, Mom, Ranma couldn't talk to
Akane about things. He wanted to, he just had problems doing so."

Nodoka grasped onto Ranko's hand, and squeezed warmly. "How do
you know this, dear?"

"Well, um, Ranma told me."

Nodoka's face fell in surprise. "Ranma told you?"

"Yeah, he would talk to me from time to time about how hard it
was for him to talk to Akane and stuff."

Nodoka's mind was in free-fall. Ranma talked to Ranko about
things he wouldn't talk to anyone else about? Even Akane? I
wonder if, perhaps... yes, it is a thought. I'll have to talk to
Ranma about this when I finally see him again.

Nodoka stood up, and guided Ranko to her feet. "Come on inside,
dear. Your breakfast is ready, and I know how important..."
Nodoka stopped as she was standing in front of thin air. The
mention of food had sent Ranko inside so fast, all Nodoka saw was
a blur. Moving inside herself, at a much slower pace, Nodoka
wondered to herself, that child is so full of life, she has such
a spirit. How could Ranma not be drawn to such a spirited young
girl? Yes, Ranma and I will definitely have a talk about this.

****************************************************

Nabiki and Kasumi looked out at the faces of their guests. Once
more, Nabiki found herself relating the tale and this time it was
a little easier. For one, the people she was telling didn't have
as much of a stake in Ranma as Cologne did. For another, Kasumi's
mere presence helped Nabiki's peace of mind. As she told the
story, she watched as the guests ate from the snack tray that
Kasumi had prepared and set out before them. Leave it to Kasumi,
Nabiki thought, to try to make a story like this more palatable
with food. Good food, Nabiki had to admit.

Ending her tale, Nabiki studied the four sets of eyes across the
table from her. She knew it was important that these four deal
with this okay, after all if the closest friends of Ranma and
Akane at Furinkan couldn't handle it, how would the rest of the
student body deal with the problem?

Sayuri, Yuka, Hiroshi and Daisuke just sat still, their eyes wide
in total shock. Slowly, words came to Sayuri's lips. "No
wonder... no wonder Akane has been acting the way she has. She
must be besides herself."

Kasumi nodded. "She has been getting better, but this has hit her
real hard. I don't know what was worse, his leaving, or the
thought of his believing she hated him."

Yuka closed her eyes, and tried to find her voice. "I can't
believe that part myself. It was obvious to all of us how much
Ranma meant to her. I can't believe he couldn't see it."

Nabiki gave Yuka a grin. "Oh, come on now. How many teenaged boys
do you know that are aware of how girls really feel about them?"
With that, Nabiki's eyes quickly darted towards the two young men
in the room.

Yuka turned towards Hiroshi and Daisuke and noticed the blank
look on their faces. Suddenly, she began to giggle. Turning back
towards Nabiki, she gave a quick wink. All four girls began to
laugh.

Hiroshi cleared his throat. "Okay, now what? What do we do now?"

Kasumi's eyes sparkled as she replied. "Well, now that you know
the truth, we want your help."

The four quickly shared glances, and nodded. "Okay," Daisuke
asked, "how can we help our buddy?"

Nabiki raised her hand to get the others attention. "The four of
you are the closest friends Ranma and Akane have at school.
Between the five of us, we should have a pretty good idea of how
everybody gets along with them."

Nabiki made a dramatic pause, noticing she had their rapt
attention.

"Let's face it, not everybody at Furinkan is going to be
sympathetic. Some have not been very friendly towards Ranma. Some
are not exactly close to Akane. There will be some that would use
this as an excuse to start the moronic daily challenges to Akane
all over again. She is going through enough right now. I don't
want that crap to start all over again. That is the last thing
Akane needs."

Catching her breath, Nabiki continued. "I've worked out a cover
story to tell Kuno. I figure there are some at Furinkan it would
be prudent to use the same cover story on. So now what the five
of us need to figure out is, whom do we tell the truth to, and
who gets the cover story? This is going to be tricky, the people
who know the truth are also going to have to know who else knows,
and doesn't know, the truth. Luckily, we have some time before
school starts again to figure this all out. Of course, if Ranma
comes back before then, all bets are off."

Sayuri leaned over and asked Nabiki, "Okay, but what's the cover
story?"

Kasumi gave the answer. "Ranma is sick. He is very ill, and is in
a hospital in another part of Tokyo seeing a specialist. This
will explain his absence, as well as Akane's behavior. Plus, it
should keep any other boy from hounding Akane, knowing that Ranma
could be back soon and deal with him."

Nabiki nodded. "Except Kuno, of course. Alas, not even Ranma's
presence keeps him from bothering Akane. Ranma's absence will not
deter him either."

Yuka stroked her chin. "That should work. If Ranma comes back,
then he made a recovery at the hospital. If he doesn't..." Yuka
stopped, not wanting to complete the thought.

Everyone stayed quiet for a few moments. Eventually, Daisuke
raised his hand and said. "Umm, there is one thing I have to ask.
If Ranma is now living as a girl, and all, I was wondering..."

Nabiki studied Daisuke carefully. "Just what are you wondering?"

"Well," Daisuke continued, "I was wondering now that Ranma's a
girl, do you think it would be okay if I asked her out on a
date?"

Yuka blinked, hard. Her eyes began to glow red. Reaching over the
table, she picked up the snack tray, got to her feet, and walked
behind Daisuke. A split second later, she brought the tray down
on top of the young man's head.

"Idiot!"

Hiroshi looked down at his friend, who was doubled over half
dazed. What Hiroshi said next gave the Tendo sisters a strange
case of deja vu.

"No complaints, buddy. THAT you had coming."

****************************************************

Ranko sat at the table, nervously awaiting her mother's report.
She had spent a lot of time these last days trying to improve her
study habits, and she felt there was some progress. Now that her
mother was looking over a quick quiz she had prepared for Ranko,
soon she would have her answer.

Nodoka looked up from the papers, and noticed Ranko fidgeting.
"Dear, don't be too nervous now."

Ranko tried her best to calm down, and smiled a little. "I just
want you to be proud of me, Mom."

"Sweetheart," Nodoka replied reassuringly, "I couldn't be more
proud of you. Despite everything that has happened in your life,
you have turned out to such a fine young girl. Now, just relax,
and let me finish looking over this test."

Ranko nodded, and tried to relax. It wasn't easy, especially
after being called a 'fine young girl,' but she tried. It has
been, what, just over a week since I came here, and still I
cringe when she calls me a girl. Well, what was I expecting?

Ranko continued to watch her mother, and wondered, what am I
going to do? I've got to figure something out, and soon. Do I
risk telling her the truth? I mean, I got guts and all, I just
don't want to see them. How would she respond if I told her the
truth? Surely, she wouldn't ask me to do that. I gotta be sure, I
just gotta be sure.

"Mom?" Ranko whispered.

"Ranko, please, let me finish this."

"Mom, it's important."

Stopping her task, Nodoka looked up, and noticed what appeared to
be a frightened look on Ranko's face. "All right, dear, what is
it?"

"Well, umm, would you really, I mean if, well, you know."

Nodoka closed her eyes, and tried to gather her strength. "No,
dear, I don't know. What do you mean?"

"Umm, I mean, umm, ya know, about Ranma. Would you really?"

"Would I really what, dear?"

Gather yourself, Saotome, you can get through this. Ranko tried
her best to compose herself, to ask what may be one of the most
important questions of her life.

"If something happened, ya know, to Ranma, and you felt that
he... that he..."

Putting down the papers, Nodoka reached over and grabbed Ranko by
the hands, to give the young girl some strength. "It's okay,
Ranko, please, what about Ranma?"

That's odd, Ranko told herself. Just having Mom hold my hands
like this. It's like, I feel calmer now. I know I can do this.

"If something happened, and Ranma wasn't really a man-among-men,
it wasn't all his fault and all, but if something happened to
him, would you... could you... would you still ask him to commit
seppuku?"

Nodoka looked at Ranko with deep concern. "Are you saying
something happened to my son? Are you saying he isn't manly?"

"No!" Ranko screamed out. "I'm just asking, what if. I gotta know
if you would ask that of him. If you could ask that of him, being
your son and all."

"Ranko, please, why..."

Ranko jumped up, and headed towards the far wall, her head turned
away from her mother. Lowering her head, she tried once more to
find the words.

"If ya felt he didn't live up to the pact, could ya really ask
that of him? Of your own flesh and blood?"

Nodoka went towards Ranko, stopping just a step behind her.
Slowly, she reached out and turned the young girl around so she
could look at her. Grasping the girl's shoulders, Nodoka slowly
nodded her head.

"Yes, if I felt he did not live up to the pact. I would. There
would be no other way. Honor would demand it."

Ranko froze in horror. No, she screamed to herself. No! Her worst
fears were coming true.

"Mom, I don't understand. He's your son! I know how much he means
to you. I know how much you mean to him."

Nodoka looked deep into Ranko's eyes, and saw fear there. I have
to make her understand, Nodoka thought. She MUST understand.

"Sweetheart, it's all about honor. Yes, he's my son. Even though
I haven't seen him in a long time, he holds a special place in my
heart, in my life. But I can't let my feelings get in the way of
my duties. Of the way things must be."

Seeing confusion in the child's face, Nodoka continued. "Dear, if
it came down to that, asking Ranma to commit seppuku would be the
hardest thing I've ever done. I've had nightmares, horrible
nightmares, where I see myself using the family blade, completing
the act. It is one of my greatest nightmares."

Ranko gritted her teeth, and nodded slowly. She had remembered
that night, when she watched her mother perform the ritual in her
sleep. That single sight was one of the most frightening things
she had ever witnessed, and she had seen plenty in her life. Only
when her father had put her through THAT training, only that
frightened her more.

"This is important, Ranko, so please try to understand. Honor...
honor is not something you turn your back on because it is
inconvenient. It is not something you bypass because it is too
hard, or too personal. Face it, if you only followed the path of
honor when it was easy to do so, what is the point of having a
code of honor? It is when it is most difficult, when following
the path of honor is the most painful, that is when honor is most
important.

"I know this doesn't make sense to you right now, but the way of
honor, the way we have tried to live by for generations, is what
makes us strong. It is what defines us. If we do not follow the
way of honor, we risk losing everything that is important to us.
Trust me on this, sweetheart, I know this is true. It is the way
is has been done for generations. It is the way is must be done."

Nodoka watched as emotions of fear and great pain found its way
onto her daughter's face. Grasping her hard, she engulfed Ranko
into a full hug. "I don't know why you're asking me this, dear. I
know my son is a fine man. From what you and your cousins have
told me about him, I do not understand your worry. I know Ranma
is a man I can be proud of. Just as I am proud of the woman you
are becoming, Ranko. Now stop this nonsense, and let me finish
looking at your work."

Ranko broke up the hug with her mother, trying her best not to
show her fears, but she knew it wasn't working. She gave her
mother a little smile, and watched as the older woman headed back
towards the table. Standing still, her mind was working overtime.

Now what do I do? She would ask that of me, she would! If the
curse didn't give her just cause, all the lying would. I mean,
what kind of man lies to his mother the way I've been lying to
her all this time. I can't tell her, there's no way. I should
have told her from the start. At least then, I'd only have the
curse to worry about, not all of the lying.

Trying to calm herself down, Ranko continued with her inner
debate. I can't go. I can't stay. I don't know what to do. Man, I
should never of come here. This was the stupidest thing I've ever
done, but yet...

But yet it has been so great to just be with her, to be around
her. That's what makes this so hard. I love being with her.
Still, I can't, not for much longer. If only I had been honest
with her from the beginning.

"Stop thinking that way, Saotome. It will drive us bonkers."

Great! Of all the times for THAT voice to come back, why now?

"Because you need me to talk to you now, that's why."

Trying to keep calm, so not to worry her mother, Ranko screamed
loudly inwardly to her voice. "Get out of my head, you... you
voice you!"

Ranko heard familiar chuckling from within. "Sorry, couldn't do
that even if I wanted to. And there have been times I've wanted
to. Let's face it, you're not always the sharpest razor in the
kit. Honestly, sometimes I wonder if I really am a part of you or
not."

"And what part would that be? The super annoying part?"

"No, THAT would be your ability to speak before you think. If you
think. As for what part I am, well, that's for me to know and for
you to figure out. When you're ready."

"Enough babble. Any thoughts of what I do now?"

"Plenty, but it's your choice. It always has been."

Ranko silently fumed. "Again with the choices."

"There's always choices, Saotome. When you make one choice, you
face two more in front of you. As long as you have choice, you
have life. In my book, if I had one of course, life would equal
choice.

"Look at the choices in front of you now. You can tell your mom
the truth, and hope she sees you as a real man. You can stay, and
try to avoid hot water. You can leave, and become Ranma again.
Or..."

"I won't! I'm a guy! There's no way I could live as a girl for
the rest of my life. No way in hell!"

"That's up to you, that's your choice. Choices aren't always easy
to make. Sometimes the hardest choices to make are the most
important ones. Just make sure you choose well, Saotome. Your
life, OUR life, depends on what you do next. You have to ask
yourself, what is most important. You have to decide what you
really want. None of the choices in front of you is perfect.
All have their drawbacks. Some involve risk. Others mean giving
up something important, your mother or your manhood and your
identity. I wish there was an easy out here, but I don't see one,
do you?"

Ranko pondered in frustration. "No, I don't. If only..."

"No if only, Saotome. No what ifs. What ifs are for losers. You
can't change what happened, only what can happen. Deal with what
is, not what could have been. You're a martial artist. You deal
with a fight as is progresses. You look at the moves as they
happen, and work out moves that are forthcoming. You spend too
much time on the moves that were, and you've already lost the
fight. This is the same thing. Deal with what you should do now,
not what you should have done before."

Turning her head down, Ranko noticed her hands begin to shake.
I'm so scared, I know I'm not supposed to be afraid, but yet I'm
so scared. I have to do something, and soon. But what?

Ranko turned as she heard her mother's voice ring out.

"Dear, I've finished looking over your work. Come on over, and
let's talk."

Catching her composure, Ranko headed back to the table, gearing
herself up for what was to come. Maybe this will help take my
mind off of my problems. Doubt it, but maybe. I just wish I knew
what to do.

Nodoka saw the nervous look on Ranko's face, and smiled to try to
ease it. "It's all right, dear. I have some good news."

"Ummm, yeah?"

"Yes. I am very proud of you, Ranko. You have improved a lot in
many of your subjects. You still aren't quite up to scholar level
yet, but the improvement is incredible. I told you that you could
do it."

"Really?"

Nodoka nodded enthusiastically. "Yes, dear. In most subjects, you
have made amazing progress. Alas..."

Here it comes, Ranko thought. "Alas what, Mom?"

"While you have shown great improvement in most of your subjects,
you seem to still be having a problem with history."

Ranko shook her head. "History. I just don't get the point. I
mean, I sorta understand why I have to deal with math, and some
of those other things. But I don't get why I should care about
history. I mean, what's knowin' all these dates and stuff got to
do with me?"

"Ranko, you're missing the point. History isn't just about dates
or facts. It's about people.

"Take Tokugawa for instance. Forget about when he became shogun,
and made Tokyo, then Edo, the capital. Tell me, just what kind of
a man was he? What led him to do the things he did? What can we
learn from that in how to deal with our life now? When a man does
something that changes the lives of people around him, that
moment becomes a part of history. It could apply to you, or me,
or Ranma or the mailman as easily as it applies to Tokugawa. It's
all history, Ranko."

Ranko shook her head. "I... I just don't understand."

A mischievous smile crossed Nodoka's face. "I may have a way to
help you understand. I have some special books; books that might
just help you see what I am saying. I think you should try
reading these books, dear, not as a part of your normal studying,
but maybe at night, as something to read before you go to bed.
Are you willing to give this a try, dear?"

Ranko nodded her head in affirmation.

"Then let me go get a couple for you. It will just take a
moment." Slowly, Nodoka rose from her seat, and headed towards
her room down the hall. Ranko sat and wondered just what kind of
books her mother was referring to. I haven't spent that much time
looking at books, but I sure don't recall ever seeing any books
like that.

Ranko's curiosity continued as her mother returned to the table,
carrying a couple of small books in her hand. She placed the
books in front of Ranko, and broke into a smile.

Ranko looked down at the books in front of her, and nearly went
into a fit. No, she couldn't mean, but there they were, sitting
in front of her. She gingerly picked up one of the books, and
glanced at the back cover, reading the summary printed there.
Slowly she began to shake.

"Mom! These aren't history books! These are romance novels!"

Nodoka winked at her daughter. "Actually, dear, they are historic
romance novels. Now you said you'd give this a try. You're not
going to back out now, are you?"

Ranko slouched down, in resignation. "I guess I'll give it a try.
I said I would."

Hours later, Ranko sat in her bed, reading one of her mother's
books. Man, she thought, I can't believe I got myself roped into
this. It wouldn't be that bad of a story, if it weren't for all
of the girly stuff. I mean, a noble samurai, trying to follow the
path of honor, helping a small village from a group of bandits.
Not too bad. Now all of the stuff about the village maiden, whom
the samurai falls in love with, big yawn. Still, she is pretty
strong and not the normal type of weepy girl I'd expect in a
story like this. Yeah, she's pretty okay, I guess.

Yawning, Ranko turned to look at the clock, and stopped in shock
when she noticed the time. I've been reading this THAT long? No
way, the clock must be busted or somethin'. There ain't no way I
could have gotten into this that much

Slowly, she placed the book on a nearby desk, and lay back,
trying her best to find some sleep.

****************************************************

Home. I am finally home.

She stood before the building. There was nothing special about
this place, nothing truly more special about it than any of the
other places she had lived over the years. For years, she had
been focused on just one thing, preparing herself for the time
she would see THEM again. During all of that time, no place, not
even her family house, had seemed like home. Until now.

A smile crossed her face as she thought of him. It was because of
him, and him alone, that this place was home. For the first time
in many years, she wasn't angry. She wasn't focused on revenge,
not anymore. After she had seen him again, after an initial bout
of hostility, all of that hatred burned itself away, as if it
were never really there. What replaced it was hope. The hope for
a happy ending to a hard life.

Kuonji Ukyo closed her eyes, and thought of him. She envisioned
his face, and lost herself in the sight of his eyes. It was those
eyes, more than anything, which changed it for Ukyo. It was after
they had first remet, and he had called her cute. For a second,
she stopped, unsure of what to think. Then she looked into those
eyes. What she saw there changed everything, for she saw not the
eyes of the bastard she had prepared so many hard years for, but
the eyes of the boy she once wanted to marry. The eyes are the
windows of the soul, Ukyo once heard, and that glance into his
eyes had confirmed the old adage for her. There was so much in
those eyes, so much that he never showed the world. Ukyo had
hoped one day to get close to the soul she had seen in those
eyes.

The okonomiyaki chef opened her eyes, and once more allowed the
sight of her restaurant, her home, to fill her sight. Home, Ukyo
thought, home is where my Ranchan is.

Slowly, she walked inside, eyeing each piece of furniture, each
speck of dust, as though they were old friends. Funny, she
thought, ever since I came here, my life has become so bizarre.
No, scratch that. Even more bizarre. I thought things couldn't
get any stranger than they had been. I was wrong. Won't I ever
live a normal life? Do I want to?

Ukyo felt odd, as if there was something wrong. Her instincts
were trying to tell her something, but what? Scowling, she tried
to figure out what was wrong, before it was too late.

"Ukyo!"

The scowl deepened as she heard THAT voice. Quickly, she loosened
her giant spatula, and deftly swung it hard, in the direction the
voice carried from. A smile crossed her lips as she felt him leap
hard into the blade; narrowly missing being touched by that...
that... that creep.

Pulling her spatula away, she saw him, dazed by the impact. He
was wearing a fuku, Ukyo wondered if the boy had overdosed on
Sailor Moon during her absence. Damn, why does he have to look so
much like a cute girl, when I can't? Ukyo wasn't sure of what the
worst thing about living as a boy was, but Tbusaba was definitely
near the top of the list.

"Ukyo," he muttered, still groggy, "you're home. I'm so happy
you're home."

Ukyo grunted, not taking her eyes off of him for a second. No
reason to give him an opening.

"I'm soooooo happy. I thought you might be gone for good. I guess
that strange Chinese girl was right."

Shaking her head in disgust, Ukyo responded, "Right about what?"

Tbusaba began to cry. "Wahhh, I'm so happy! I was sooooo afraid
you had run off with that disgusting Ranma person."

Ukyo's eyes began to glaze over at the very thought. "One day,
maybe one day it will happen." Shaking herself out of her dream,
Ukyo studied Tsubasa closely, and asked, "Now why would you think
that?"

"Well, ummm..."

Tapping her foot in impatience, Ukyo shot out, "Well? Out with
it!"

Seeing her eyes, Tsubasa began to sweat. The glare he saw
triggered his survival instinct. "Well, you see, Ranma, he,
well..."

Ukyo's glare hardened, and Tbusaba felt he was one step closer to
a one-way trip to parts unknown.

"Well, he disappeared about two weeks ago. I was afraid..."

A smirk came to Ukyo's face. "No, we didn't. Not that it's any
business of yours if we did. He's probably off on a training
trip. or some other fool scheme that idiot father of his cooked
up for him."

"Well," the expert of oft-kilter disguises answered, "His father
is gone as well."

"See. Told you. Nothing to worry about."

"Of course, Akane's been acting kinda of strange lately. And that
Shampoo didn't seem to know where he was either, and then she
goes and leaves too."

The smile on Ukyo's face immediately changed directions. "What
did you just say?"

If Tsubasa's internal security radar system wasn't on full alert
before, it was now. The danger levels that Ukyo was radiating
forced said system to reach Defcom 2. If this gets any worse,
Tsubasa thought, I hope they can identify me by dental records.

"Shampoo left. So did the rest of the Amazons. About a week after
Saotome disappeared."

A snarl found its way to Ukyo's face. Quickly, she heaved her
spatula in Tsubasa's general direction. Fortunately for the boy,
he had been ready for this, and barely managed to move, narrowly
avoiding sudden impact.

"Jackass! Don't you see what's going on here?"

Tsubasa gulped. Hard. Quietly, he said, "You're having a nervous
breakdown?"

"Say what?"

Shaking in fear in front of the woman of his dreams, Tsubasa
quickly added, "Umm, no, haven't got a clue."

Returning her spatula to its place, Ukyo sighed, "Ranma hasn't
gone on a training trip. That Chinese hussy kidnapped him, and
spirited him away to China. Yes, it would be just like her to do
that when I'm gone. I never should have listened to Father. And
those Tendos, they let that slut steal my finance away without a
fight!"

"Umm, I don't think so, Ukyo. Shampoo was totally clueless to
Ranma's whereabouts when I talked to her..."

Shaking her head fiercely, Ukyo reached over and lifted up
Tsubasa, bringing him up to eye level. "Fool! She was lying to
you. You are so gullible sometimes. Haven't you forgotten when
Ranchan tricked you, and you fell for him, thinking he was a
she?"

Tsubasa's face began to flush, and he cast his eyes downwards,
not wanting to look his love in the eye. "Please, don't remind
me. I felt so... dirty. Falling for a guy." Forgetting himself,
the boy stuck out his tongue in disgust, in a very unladylike
manner.

Dropping the cross-dresser to the floor, Ukyo rushed towards the
exit. "I swear, I'm heading to the Tendos, and if they let MY
fiance go without a fight, well I'm going to make sure Akane
makes a decent meal. As the main ingredient."

Tsubasa watched as the chef left the restaurant. Part of him
wanted to follow, and offer his support and understanding. The
other part of him desired self-preservation in case things went
wrong.

He ended up staying put. After all, it might be difficult to win
the heart of the woman he loved if she killed him first.

****************************************************

Free! Like this, right now, without all of the problems nagging
at my brain, I feel so free! Man, if it could only last.

Ranko was out in the streets of her new neighborhood, once again
jogging. Her daily trip to the park had been invigorating,
especially with everything on her mind. Odd, how sitting by a
pond for a period of time can relax one so. Did I feel
comfortable at the Tendos because of the pond, or did staying at
the Tendos guide me towards ponds? Ranko thought she'd never
really know the answer to that question.

Still, it was a very nice day, and her jog was going smoothly
without complications. What could possibly go wrong?

A frown came to Ranko's face as that question was quickly
answered. One of those boys that camped out and watched her had
apparently gathered a backbone. She watched him separate from his
friends and head towards her direction.

Ranko steeled herself for what was to come. If a beating were
going to be in the cards, she would be ready to start dealing.

The young man made his way to Ranko, and tried his best to
display a charming smile. Nervously, he spoke up, "Ummm, hi
there."

"Get lost," Ranko spat out. She turned her head, and tried to
resume her routine.

The young man quickly moved back into Ranko's field of vision. "I
don't mean to bother you. It's just, well, I've been watching you
jog by here every day, and I figured I'd at least introduce
myself, darlin'. My name is."

In a flash, the young man found himself face down on the
pavement. He felt the young girl's knee in his back, and heard
her speak sharply in his ear.

"Now listen, and listen good. I ain't your darlin'. My name ain't
cutie, sweetie or doll-face, and there's only one person who can
get away with callin' me sugar or honey. And if you, or any of
your pervert friends, dare call me a goddess, you'll find your
insides all over your outsides. Do I make myself clear?"

"Crystal," the boy gasped out. A second later, he found himself
pulled to his feet, face-to-face with the young girl, noticing
fire in those beautiful blue eyes.

"Good, now get back to your friends. I ain't gonna stop ya from
lookin', but if you or any of your friends try more than that,
trust me, ya ain't gonna like it."

Nodding furiously, the boy began to back away, heading towards
safer waters. "No problem, no problem at all."

Ranko watched in satisfaction as the boy quickly rejoined the
other boys. She felt elated as she watched him whisper to his
friends, and reveled in the looks in their eyes afterwards. I
don't care what they may think, just as long as they leave me
alone.

"That was a little harsh, don't you think, Ranko?"

Turning her head towards the voice, Ranko quickly recognized one
of her new neighbors, a woman just slightly younger that her
mother, who seemed to drop by every other day.

"Oh, hi, Mrs. Kurasawa."

The older woman smiled. "I know that boy, sure he can be a tad
annoying at times, but a young girl like yourself should find
other ways of dealing with situations like that."

A sideways grin came to Ranko's face. "Nah, I much prefer the
more direct approach."

"Does the direct approach always work?"

Ranko paused for a moment, thinking about Kuno and some of the
other jerks from her past. "Nah, but it sure makes me feel
better."

Mrs. Kurasawa brought up her hand to her mouth, and quietly
laughed. It didn't take long for Ranko to begin laughing as well.

"My, my," the woman gaily noted, "aren't you quite the scamp.
Now, Ranko, can I ask you a favor?"

Ranko quickly nodded.

"I'm making some lunch, and I need some ingredients on the top
shelf, where I need a stepladder to reach. However, I've been
feeling a little dizzy today for some reason." The woman grinned,
and immediately began to pat her stomach. A slight grin came to
Ranko as she noticed the bulge there. "Dear, would you mind
getting it for me?"

Ranko instantly beamed. "Sure, no problem! Be glad to help ya."

Quietly following the woman inside, Ranko was escorted into the
kitchen, where she noticed a stepladder by some cupboards.
However, her attention was focused closely on a pot of water
heating up on the nearby stove.

"The spices are on the top shelf. I don't use this one that
often; or else I'd have it a little lower down. Sorry about
this."

"No problem, ma'am."

Mrs. Kurasawa eyed the young girl. "My, oh my. Each time I see
you, I have so much trouble believing you're not Nodoka's flesh
and blood. The resemblance is so amazing."

"Ten yen!" Ranko blurted out.

At Mrs. Kurasawa's questioning glance, Ranko explained. "Mom was
so amazed from all the comments, she set up a change jar in the
kitchen. Now any time somebody talks about how we look alike, one
of us puts a ten yen coin in the jar. It's sorta become of a game
now."

A gleam came into the eyes of the older woman. A second later,
she reached into her purse, pulling out a ten yen coin. "Here you
go, this one's on me. So tell me, how full is the jar getting?"

"Pretty dang full. Mom is already talkin' about settin' up
another jar."

As the two share a laugh, Ranko focuses on the task at hand, and
slowly begins to ascend the stepladder. However, as she was about
to reach her destination, she failed to notice one step was a
little slick. In a flash, she slipped, and suddenly began falling
towards where the pot of heating water was awaiting her.

"Oh no!" She screamed, frantically moving her arms around, hoping
to somehow avoid the watery fate ahead of her.

****************************************************

The Tendo family was relaxing as best they could. They had their
eyes glued to the television.

"And here you have it folks, our intrepid photographer has given
us a shot of the legendary Ryugenzawa monster."

Akane blinked for a moment, studying the scene on the picture in
front of her. "Hmm, that's odd. Ryugenzawa. Why does that some so
familiar to me?"

Soun began to laugh. "Come on, Akane. Surely you don't believe
the wild stories of monsters there, do you?'

Akane shook her head. "I don't know. But somehow, that place
sounds so familiar, almost like I've been there."

Kasumi slowly sipped her tea, as a thought came to her. "Oh my. I
remember, we all spent some time there, many years ago."

Arms folded in front of her, Nabiki raised her eyes in thought.
"Oh, yeah, I remember. Hey, wasn't that the place Akane got
herself lost?"

"I wasn't lost!" Akane shot back. Pausing for a second, Akane
continued on, "Oh, yeah, I remember now." Shuddering to herself
as the memories returned, Akane began to shake. The dream, she
mused, that's the dream I've been having. It's telling me to go
there. But I don't want to, not right now. Not now. What am I
going to do?

"You don't honestly believe the stories on monsters in
Ryugenzawa, do you?" Kasumi asked.

Nabiki shook her head. "After everything WE'VE seen, nothing
would surprise me anymore. Who knows, perhaps Happosai set up a
summer home there?"

Soun's face turned ghostly white. "Not even funny, Nabiki."

Nabiki was about to respond, when all of a sudden the door
crashed open. Ukyo stood among the door's wreckage, steam rising
from the top of her head.

"Two weeks without any major repairs. Must be a new record."
Nabiki muttered. "At least when she crashes in, she uses the
door."

"Where's my Ranchan!" Ukyo demanded.

Akane leaped up, and found herself face to face with the
okonomiyaki chef. "What do you mean, YOUR Ranchan! Ranma's MY
fiance!"

Kasumi sighed, and asked, hoping to defuse the situation. "Ukyo,
how nice of you to visit. Would you like a nice cup of tea?"

However, Ukyo was not to be so easily distracted. Her eyes
sauntered down, locking themselves in with the hard stare being
given her by Akane. "So, the uncute fiancee finally admits it! No
matter. So, sugar, where is he? Please tell me you didn't let
that bimbo drag him off to China."

Noticing the tension levels rising, Soun got up and headed
towards what was left of the door. "I think I need to spend some
time practicing in the dojo."

Nabiki shook her head, and continued to watch the fireworks
playing out in front of her. It seemed to her that Akane was
about to match Ukyo's steam output. Quietly, she wondered if
anyone had ever looked into a way to harness this type of energy.
If so, Nerima could end up becoming a major energy source for
greater Tokyo, if not all of Honshu. One day's royalties alone
from such an enterprise would put all of her past efforts to
shame.

Akane was so incensed, that she failed to notice her father's
departure, or anything else for that matter. Sternly, she
answered Ukyo's query. "Shampoo did not whisk Ranma away. Like
it's any business of yours to begin with."

Nabiki began to worry as she watched Ukyo's weapon hand begin to
twitch. Great, this is the LAST thing we need right now.

"Now listen here,' Ukyo spat, "Ranma's MY fiance, which makes
him, and anything involving him MY business. If you have a
problem with that, fine, let's deal with it, here and now!"

"Suits me just fine!" Akane shot back.

Nabiki quickly positioned herself between the two of the members
of the Ranma fiancee club (Nerima division). "Whoa, you two. I,
for one, could care less what you do to each other, but I would
like to keep our home intact just a little bit longer."

Sliding her eyes towards her younger sister, Nabiki continued,
"Just back off, okay Akane? Let me deal with the guerilla
griller."

Ukyo began to snort. "Hmmm, bet you can't say THAT ten times
fast."

A gleam came into Nabiki's eye. "You're on. So, what are the
stakes?"

Ukyo's mouth gaped open as her eyes went wide. "What? Stakes?
You're joking, right?"

Nabiki slowly shook her head. "Please. I don't joke when it comes
to wagers. Now let's see, how can we make this interesting?"
Nabiki brought her hand up to her face, idly scratching her chin.
"I think I've got it!"

Slightly narrowing her eyes, Nabiki focused her attention on
Ukyo. "Okay, if you win the bet, the Tendo family will cover your
expenses for all of the free food you've given Ranma since you've
arrived in Nerima. Plus, I'll come over to the restaurant, go
over your books, and see if we can make Ucchan's more efficient.
Sound okay by you?"

Ukyo stood there frozen, as still as a victim of Medusa.

"Well?" Nabiki asked.

"Alright," Ukyo finally replied, "and if you win?"

A hungry smile came to Nabiki's lips. "If I win, first you owe me
10,000 yen, up front. Plus, you'll come upstairs to my room and
listen to what I have to tell you without any kind of scene.
Okay?"

Ukyo returned Nabiki's grin with one of her own. "Make it 5,000
yen. I'm just a poor businesswoman, after all."

"Fair enough by me. Now let's see if I remember this right. I
called you a guerilla griller, and you said `I bet you can't say
that ten times fast.' That sound right to you?"

Ukyo nodded.

"Okay then, here goes." Nabiki then paused, and settled back,
clearing her throat. Finally she spoke.

"That ten times fast."


Slowly, but surely, Nabiki brought her hand, palm up, towards
Ukyo, waiting. Ukyo stood there for the longest time, before an
agonized look came over her face. Checking her pockets, she
eventually found five 1,000 yen notes, and placed them into
Nabiki's outstretched hand. The chef quietly muttered, "I can't
believe I fell for that. I should know better than to play games
like that with you."

A wicked grin came to Akane's face. "You're not the first person
to fall for that. Of course, the last time she successfully
pulled that on me, I was just 5 years old."

Nabiki began to head towards the stairs, briefly turning around,
beckoning Ukyo. "Come along, now. A deal's a deal."

Ukyo followed, shaking her head in disgust during the entire
journey to Nabiki's room.


****************************************************


Nodoka gaily hummed a festive tune, as she steadily made quick
work on her household chores. It had been a long time since she
had taken such simple pleasures from the mundane; but then again
it had been so long since her existence had been more than just
herself. Sharing a life, whether with her husband, her son or her
new daughter, had meant so much to her. What a difference one
person's presence can make.

Pausing to look over her efforts, she inspected every inch for a
possible infraction of the cleanliness she desired. A smile came
to her face as she noticed just how perfect her home looked to
her now.

Home. For so long, home had been just a place, a place to wait
for her family to return to her. The letters, the many letters,
Genma had written her on the training trip had meant so much, but
even the best intended letter cannot replace a smiling face, or a
tender hug. Still, the letters were a comfort, for they allowed
her know in her heart that her family was safe and sound. At
least, until the letters stopped coming. When those letters
stopped, Nodoka's world descended into free-fall. All of her
worries, all of her worst nightmares, began to gnaw on her mind.

Closing her eyes and sighing, Nodoka thought about the last
letter, the last one sent before communication was broken. A
letter informing her of her family's upcoming journey to China,
and a place called Jusenkyo. That letter, which Nodoka had read
countless times, worrying her to no end.

For a long period of time, Nodoka lived in abject fear, fear that
something terrible had happened. Only after visiting her
husband's old friend, were her fears put to rest. The Tendos said
Genma and Ranma were just fine. Even after visiting. that place.
Nodoka shuddered as an old memory came to mind. A part of her was
still worried; worried that something was being hidden from her.
Something important.

A wide smile came to her face. She thought of her first visit to
the Tendo home. The time she first met Ranko, the young girl whom
now shared her life.

Strange, she thought. Almost from the very beginning, from the
moment I saw her in the canal, I knew. I knew there was something
special about that girl. And then she put herself on the line to
help me. She has been a part of my thoughts ever since. Even with
the rest of my, no our, family out there, I feel so much more
complete now. The fear, the loneliness that has haunted me so, is
just a distant memory.

Nodoka stopped, as she heard noises from outside. Visitors,
someone is coming, I should go and check to see who. She moved
towards the door, and as she opened it she spotted two people
approaching the house. It was her neighbor and friend, Kurasawa
Sakura, with Ranko by her side. She was surprised to watch the
expectant mother gently guiding Ranko along. Ranko's face was
blanched, and she moved mechanically, as if she was in shock.
Nodoka thought she made out the sounds of Ranko muttering to
herself, but she could not quite make out the words.

Eventually, Mrs. Kurasawa and Ranko reached the door. As they
did, Nodoka thought made out what Ranko was muttering.

"I can't hold out much longer. It wants me. I can't hold out much
longer. It wants me."

Nodoka shook her head, as Ranko kept repeating this over and over
again, like some freaky mantra.

Sakura smiled at Nodoka, and spoke up. "Nodoka, let's get her
inside. She almost had the most horrible accident."

Nodoka nodded, and helped guide Ranko into the house. Pulling out
a chair, Nodoka led her daughter to it, and coaxed her to sitting
down.

"What happened?"

The young mother-to-be sighed, and answered. "She was helping me,
when she slipped off of my step-ladder, and fell towards a pot of
water I was boiling. I don't know how she did it, but she somehow
managed to stop herself from falling into the pot. She grabbed
the rim of the pot with her hands, and balanced the rest of her
body straight up from that. If she hadn't, she would have been
badly burned. I am so sorry, I should have been more careful."

Ranko continued to stare ahead, eyes frozen wide open. Her mantra
seemed no end to stopping. Nodoka was deeply concerned about her
daughter's state of mind. She quickly thanked her neighbor, and
guided her towards the door, explaining she needed time alone
with her child. Once alone, she knelt next to Ranko, and took her
hands, hoping to calm the girl down.

A few moments later, Nodoka began to notice a change. Ranko's
face began to relax, just a little. The glazed look in her eyes
began to dissipate, and her facial features soften just slightly.
Ranko began to take deep breaths, and her body slumped down,
unlocked, and the girl began to shake just a little.

Nodoka took her hand, and began to gently stroke her daughter's
head, just slightly above her eyes. "It's okay, dear. You're safe
now. You're home, and you're safe."

Ranko drooped down in the chair, clenching her eyes shut, trying
to find what strength she had. Taking deep breaths, she tried her
best to find her control, to find her center.

"I can't take this anymore, mom. I just can't. I don't know what
to do."

Nodoka tenderly grabbed Ranko, and brought her into a warm
embrace. "There there, dear, everything's going to be fine. I
promise you, everything is going to be fine."

Her breathing becoming more regular, Ranko noticed that she began
to feel a little calmer. Just sitting her, being held by my
mother, I'm feeling so much better. If only it were forever. But
it can't be, I know that now. It can't. Slowly, Ranko began tense
up yet again.

"It's no good, mom. It's just no good. I can't stay. It's gonna
catch up with me sooner or later. I wish I could stay, but I
can't."

Nodoka tried her best to hold back the sadness she felt at those
words. "What's the matter, dear? Don't you want to stay?"

Ranko nodded slightly, with her head cast downwards. "I wanna
stay, mom. More than just about anything. I wanna stay so bad.
But I can't."

"Why can't you stay?" Getting out those words without the sadness
she felt was one of the hardest things Nodoka had ever done. But
she had to, for Ranko's sake. "Why?"

Bringing her head up, Ranko stared Nodoka straight in the eyes.
The older woman swore she saw tears there, tears she was sure the
young girl was fighting hard to keep inside.

"Because if I stay, I'll become someone I'm not. I'll be turning
by back on who I am, on the person I was."

Each moment, Nodoka found it harder to keep her emotions in
check. Something was definitely troubling her daughter, but we
need to keep this calm, we have to keep control.

"And this is important to you?"

Ranko nodded vigorously.

"If," Nodoka found it harder to fight back her own tears, "if you
feel you need to go, then go, Ranko. I won't stop you."

Ranko turned her head away, as if in shame. "I wish it were that
easy. I don't wanna leave you alone. I don't wanna leave you,
period. I'm just so confused."

"Don't stay because of me, dear. If you stay, or if you go, don't
worry about me. I'll be fine. Do what you feel you need to do.
But Ranko?"

"Yes, mom?"

Nodoka caught her breath, reaching down into herself for some
strength. "This person, this person you are afraid of losing.
This person you were. Tell me, was this person happy? Were you
happy?"

Ranko sat there in complete silence.

"Well?" Nodoka asked.

"Sometimes." Ranko whispered. "Sometimes. But then sometimes."

"Yes?"

Ranko pursed her lips together, finding these words hard to come
by. "Sometimes, most times lately, my life has been so outta
control. Like I'm facing a real hard battle, one I can't win.
Cause the opponent ain't some martial artist, or anythin' like
that."

Ranko tried hard to collect her thoughts before continuing. "So
much of my life lately has been so crazy, and I have no control
over my own life. I have no friends, no control, no future, and
no hope at anything close to a normal life. I mean, I like a
little excitement and all, but not all of the time. I hate being
used by people. I hate being hated by people. Most of the times,
I hate my life. But I can't complain, oh no, Pop would call me a
little girl, Akane would say I was a pervert or somethin'."

"Why would she call you that, dear?"

Ranko's head turned aside, almost ashamed to shot her face to her
mother. "Because I'm a freak! I'm a walkin' freak show! It ain't
no wonder that Akane is always callin' me a pervert! It's no
wonder she blames me for everything. Even now, I can't do
somethin' right. I came here to feel better, and now I'm gonna
hurt you when I leave. I don't wanna hurt you, mom, but I just
can't stay anymore."

Nodoka took a deep breath, and worked on finding her center. She
thought of the most important people in her life, those she
hadn't seen in many years, and the one sitting in front of her
now. Slowly finding her calm, Nodoka slightly moved, so that
Ranko's face was back in line with her.

"Dear, you are NOT a freak. I know your life has been not been a
normal, run-of-the-mill life, but you are not a freak. For Akane,
or anyone else to think such things about you is criminal. You,
Ranko, are a wonderful, extraordinary young lady, who has become
something special despite having so much go against you in your
life. If Akane, or anyone else can't see that, than they are the
freaks, not you.

"Ranko, if you wish to leave, I will not try to stop you. But,
please, think about it. You are welcome here, for as long as you
like. You can stay here, with me, and I promise, I will never see
you as a freak. I will do everything possible to help you in
whatever you need. I don't want to change you, dear. Well, not
too much anyway. I just want to be your mother, and help you
become the finest person you can be."

Ranko leaned over, and embraced her mother in a fierce hug. "Mom,
I'm so confused. I wish I knew what to do, but I don't. I'm
trapped, mom, I'm trapped, and I don't know the way out."

Mother and daughter stayed in each other's arms for the longest
time, losing all track of time. Neither wanted to end the moment,
each afraid it might be the last time.


****************************************************

"You have just got to be kidding!"

Ukyo gave Nabiki a blank stare. She had listened quietly to all
the middle Tendo sister had to say, but she couldn't hold it in
anymore.

"Ranchan would never! He would never!"

Nabiki slowly raised an eyebrow. "Would I lie to you?"

"Yes!" Ukyo shot back. "In a heartbeat!"

A slight smile came to Nabiki's lips. "Would I lie to you when
money wasn't involved."

Ukyo opened her mouth, about to reply, when she stopped dead
cold. "I still don't believe you," she eventually whispered.

"Believe what you will. Makes no difference to me. However, it
could make all of the difference to Saotome." Nabiki crossed her
arms, and stared at the chef, almost daring her to disagree.

"But. But Ranchan's a man! Every bit of one, despite his curse!
There's a greater chance of his no-good excuse for a father
becoming a Shinto priest than this! Now you are trying to tell me
he's living as a girl, of his own free will? No, he wouldn't do
that. Even if it was for a short period of time. Not even to
spend time with his mother."

Nabiki's lips curled up, positioning themselves into a smirk. Her
eyes shone brightly, as she went in for the kill.

"Oh, is that a fact? Come on now, Ukyo, you of all people should
understand exactly WHY Ranma would do such a thing."

Ukyo continued to stare at the girl in front of her. "Oh, really.
And why would that be, sugar?"

"Stand up," Nabiki quickly demanded. "Stand up and stand right
there." Nabiki suddenly pointed to her left, where a full-length
mirror stood.

Ukyo just sat there, frozen in her own disbelief.

"Well?" Nabiki asked. "We don't have all day."

Ukyo shrugged, and slowly got to her feet. In spite of her better
judgement, she headed towards the mirror, and stopped just in
front of it.

"Good. Now look into the mirror and tell me what you see."

Taking a quick glance into the mirror, Ukyo responded, "I see me.
So?"

"Sorry, wrong answer. You don't get the grand prize, you don't
even get a lovely parting gift. I asked you WHAT you saw, not who
you saw. Now, try again."

Ukyo's eyes flared at Nabiki, fire dancing lightly within them.
Once more, she turned her attention towards the mirror, and
spoke. "I see a teenaged girl. So?"

"Are you sure about that? Let's just say you were a stranger, and
you passed yourself on the street, knowing nothing about you or
your past. What would your answer be then? What would that person
see?"

Ukyo's eyes shot down, unwilling to glance at herself in the
mirror. She answered in a slight whisper, "I would see a young
boy."

Nabiki nodded slightly. "Yes, and why is that, Ukyo? Why are you
dressed that way?"

If looks could kill, the glare Ukyo immediately gave Nabiki would
find itself facing a criminal charge. "You know the answer to
that as well as I do."

(SORRY IT CURRENTLY ENDS IN THE MIDDLE OF THIS SCENE. WITH ANY LUCK...)