"Allow me to apologize once again for the interruption, Miss Tendou," said the white-haired man as he turned to Nabiki. "I'm sure you understand that it was necessary."
"That's ok," she said while walking to the counter, "I was pretty much expecting it." Upon reaching her destination, she began pulling bundles of yen notes from her book bag and stacking them on an empty spot near the cash register. By the time the man joined her, she'd just finished placing the last bundle. "Here it is, old man: all fifteen million."
The man glanced at the pile of money, and with a solemn nod, said, "Very impressive, Miss Tendou, but, then again, I never doubted your success. Now, are you ready to return to your old self?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"I said no. The only thing I want back from you is the Art."
"I ... see," said the man, sounding a bit taken aback. "I should be able to do it, but if you don't mind, I'd be very interested in hearing why you want this; when you were first transformed, you seemed quite adamant in your desire to regain your form."
Nabiki let herself relax slightly; she'd been afraid the man either wouldn't or couldn't restore just that one part of who she'd been. As for his request, she had to admit that she sort of wanted to explain her decision—it would feel good to get it off her chest, and it wasn't as if she'd be able to discuss it with anyone else. Leaning against the counter, she began to speak.
"You're right. When I first changed, I was desperate to get turned back. Not much I could do about it, though, other than write down everything important I could remember about my last year as Ranma—especially what lead up to my first visit here—and try to get used to being Nabiki. Even with all the new memories I had, it wasn't easy keeping everyone from thinking little Nabiki had gone crazy." She chuckled. "I think I really spooked poor Kasumi—for the longest time, she kept giving me strange looks when she thought I wasn't paying attention. Still, after a while, they got used to the 'changes' in me, and I—I got used to being a part of a family.
"Do you know... that was the first time I remember ever feeling like I was in a real family. I'm sure I must have felt that way before going on that training trip so long ago, but even when I was Ranma, I didn't remember that far back." She sighed and shook her head. "It's a good feeling, old man—really good. Sure, we didn't have a mother, and our father may have been a card or two short of a full deck, but we all cared for each other, and there was something that was just never present with the Saotomes. Maybe it was acceptance—we never tried to force each other to be perfect, or 'the best', or even normal.
"That was probably the start of it. It wasn't enough to make me stop wanting to be Ranma—and a guy—again, but it did make me realize that being Nabiki wasn't necessarily so horrible. But, you know, after a couple of years, I stopped caring so much about being a guy, too. You see, this time around, instead of suddenly being turned into a girl at sixteen by a cursed spring, I grew up as a girl, with two caring sisters to support me. It makes a world of difference. Mind you, I don't think that I'm a girl, body and soul, now, or anything like that; I just know that I'm me, and whether I'm a boy or girl isn't all that important.
"Anyway, life went on: I built up my network of associates and informants at school, found out what services people would pay for, started up betting pools, and threw in a bit of blackmail where appropriate." With a frown, she added, "I did a lot of things I didn't really want to and that I'm not proud of, but it was the only way I had any chance of getting enough money. You see, it didn't take me long to realize daddy would never give me much money without an explanation I couldn't give him, and considering what I wanted it for, it just wouldn't be right to ask, anyway. Even with all of my schemes and operations, though, I wouldn't have come close to making what I needed if my little ace in the hole hadn't finally come over from China. Everyone either loved or hated Ranma, and I remembered how most of his fights would go.
"That right there was one of the reasons I treated him so bad—it was how I remembered being treated, and I was afraid if I behaved differently, it'd change things enough to negate my advantage. And like 'I' said on my way out earlier, I didn't have to feel guilty when it was myself I was taking advantage of." Nabiki sighed and ran a finger along the edge of the counter. "I wish those had been the only reasons. Stupid as it may be, I was punishing him—myself—for having the Art when I didn't and being arrogant, gullible, and clueless about what was going on around him. Look, I'm sorry—you wanted to know why I changed my mind, and here I am giving you my life story..."
"Oh, no, I'm finding this really quite fascinating. Please, continue."
"Ok... Ranma. I guess what disgusted me most about him was how he let everyone use and abuse him. It didn't seem like such a big deal to me when I was living through it the first time, but it looked so much worse when I could see everything from the outside. All his life, he's been either a pawn or a prize to others—hell, just look at his own family. His father wanted to make him the world's greatest martial artist, no matter what the cost—especially if Ranma ended up being the one to pay it. And then there's Genma's endearing habit of selling off his son whenever it would make things easier for him. Nodoka was better, of course, but still—sending him off for a decade with a death threat hanging over him..."
Nabiki paused to shake her head. "My family wasn't any better, of course. Daddy insisted he marry Akane, whether he wanted to or not, regardless of other commitments, and blamed him whenever anything happened to threaten the union. Akane... well, she just blamed him for everything; and then punished him for it. The strange thing is, I think she really does love him, but her jealousy and insecurity make her push him away and lash out at him. Kasumi, on the other hand, was actually pretty nice to him. And you know about me.
"Other than that, there were the assorted fiancées, rivals, and mythological beings, but now that I think about it, they're really not worth the time it'd take to talk about them. Let's just say they all took turns trying to take over, disrupt, or destroy his life, and Ranma found himself unwilling or unable to put his foot down and take control of things. I can tell you that I wouldn't have put up with that, which I suppose finally brings us to the point of this monolog: I'm not Ranma, not any more. What I've lived through, how I had to think and act, along with being smarter and seeing my old self from a different point of view, has made me an entirely different person.
Really, why would I want to go back to living his life, anyway? To be a Saotome again? Or maybe I miss the constant harassment and abuse from a swarm of fiancées who never gave a damn how I felt. Except Akane..." Nabiki sighed. "Sure, out of them all, she treated me the worst, but she's also the only one who really cared about my welfare, at least some of the time. And I loved her for it. Feh, I was as bad as Ryouga: the first time someone showed some real concern for me, I fell in love with her. Coming back to her was one of the main reasons I was determined to get restored." She shook her head and smiled wryly. "But after having her as a sister for five years, I can't love her as anything else. Oh well—she probably would have ended up killing me, anyway.
"And that's pretty much it, old man. So, if you can give me back my Art, I'll just stay like this, thank you—smart, a member of a loving family, and in control of my own life. Hell, I control other people's lives more than Ranma ever controlled his own. Now you have your story, so can we get on with it already?"
"Just about, Miss Tendou, but tell me, if it turns out that I can't restore only your martial arts skill, do you still wish to remain as you are?"
Frowning and slowly shaking her head, Nabiki said, "No... if the only way for me to get it back is to be Ranma again, I'll be him—in body, at least. You can bet I'd be making some major changes in his life, though."
"I understand. Now, to avoid any misunderstandings like those we had with the smart pill, please tell me exactly what you want."
"All right. I want you to restore to me all of the skill, knowledge, and ability—excluding the neko-ken—I had of the martial arts as Ranma immediately prior to taking this form, without changing me in any other way."
The man nodded and said, "I'll do my best," before walking over to an antique combination bar and liquor cabinet and carefully measuring out the contents of several crystal flasks. Nabiki watched from the counter with interest as the man proceeded to mix various liquids and powders, until several minutes later, he paused with a measuring spoon halfway to its destination and called, "Ah, Miss Tendou, I'm afraid that I must make one additional change to you if I am to fulfill your request."
With a slight frown, Nabiki asked, "And what would that be?"
"I will need to improve your physical conditioning to the point where it can support your martial arts ability."
"Will it make me look different?"
"Not to casual glance, certainly, but someone able to get a good look at your body when it isn't concealed by clothing will notice changes if they have seen you in such a state previously."
Nabiki crossed her arms and gave the man a hard look. "Excuse me if I'm not reassured, old man, but with those qualifications, you could turn me into an hermaphrodite with tentacles growing out of my armpits."
The man coughed in embarrassment and said, "Ah... yes, I see your point. Let me assure you that the changes would be limited to what could reasonably be expected from exercise and training."
"Fine. Go ahead, then."
The man went back to work, and a few minutes later, he walked over to Nabiki with a flask of red liquid in hand. "Here it is," he said solemnly. "Just drink this, and your martial arts skills, excepting the neko-ken, will be restored."
Nabiki gave him a long look, then took the flask and drank the contents. "Tastes like cherries," was her only comment.
"That would be the cherry syrup," the man said proudly. "It would taste quite horrid without it."
Nabiki nodded absently and shifted her weight slightly to improve her balance and allow for quicker movement. When she realized what she was doing, a smile slowly spread across her face, and breath quickening, she walked to an open spot, where after a moment of stretching, she began one of the many katas she once again knew. Within moments, she lost herself in the glorious sensations that had always felt to her like a cross between flowing like water and flying. The memory of that sensation was all that she'd retained of her martial arts over the past five years, and it had tortured her like the memory of the taste and feel of water to a man lost in the desert. Now she was experiencing a torrential downpour over the burning sands.
When she regained awareness of her surroundings at the end, it was to the sound of applause. "That was amazing!" the man enthused, still clapping. "I can't recall when I've seen such a display of grace and control—I now understand why you were so determined to reclaimed your aptly named Art. I have to admit—oh, dear... is it that late already?" he said with some dismay as his gaze fell upon a grandfather clock.
"What's wrong, old man," asked Nabiki, her face still bearing a joyous smile from performing the kata, "got a hot date?"
"No, but I'm afraid my next customer is due any minute, and there are still a few things that need to be said between us," answered the man as he began to quickly stash the pile of money Nabiki had brought behind the counter. "I really am terribly sorry, but would you mind waiting in the back room again? As before, so long as you remain behind the curtain, you will not be noticed. However, since this customer is a completely separate person from you, I must ask for your word that you will not interfere with this meeting in any way."
"All right, you have it," said Nabiki as she took her bag and walked to the curtain. She wondered what had happened to the man's insistence on keeping his customers' secrets, but decided it wasn't in her best interest to bring up the subject. After all, knowledge was power.
Once in the back room, she turned and watched the man go to the front door and open it, less than a second before an angry boy wearing a yellow and black bandanna around his head stormed in, loudly declaring, "This is all your fault!"
"I beg your pardon?" asked the man with some surprise. "I wasn't aware I'd done anything to you."
Nabiki mentally added the word, "Yet."
Ryouga stopped and looked around in confusion. He could have sworn he was outside. Focusing on the man, he rubbed the back of his neck in embarrassment and said, "Sorry... I was talking about Ranma."
"Oh, you know Mister Saotome?" asked the man as he closed the door and started walking back into the shop. "He was just in here a while ago. We were discussing the possibility of a cure for a curse."
"You-you can cure curses!" cried Ryouga, hurrying after the man.
"Perhaps. It depends on the situation, really. But where are my manners—we can discuss this further once I get you something to drink. Would you prefer tea or ice water?"
"Tea," answered Ryouga automatically; he'd learned long ago not to press his luck with cold liquids. The man nodded and invited Ryouga to look around before leaving to make the tea. Ryouga wandered over to the counter with the antique brass cash register, his mind focused more on the possibility of a cure than on his surroundings. If he could be free of his curse, he was sure he'd be able to muster enough courage to declare his love for Akane! Yes, that would prove Nabiki's ridiculous theory wrong. How could she even think he could l-lo... have feelings for Ranma! That the only reason he'd fallen for Akane was to stay close to him...
No! It was obvious that Akane was the one he loved. With a sigh, he rested his elbows on the counter and dreamed of his true love. He pictured her caring face all the times she'd shown compassion for those in need, whether they were a helpless piglet or lost, solitary, wandering martial artist. How he loved to bring a smile to that face. Not like Ran... other people who seemed to take perverse delight in insulting and enraging her. No, Akane deserved far better than ... other people. With a scowl, he forcibly dragged his thoughts back to Akane and Akane alone—she was the one he loved, after all. Yes, beautiful, smart, caring, bold, and fearless Akane—perfect in every way... "Well, except her cooking," thought Ryouga immediately before going into a fit of coughing as his tongue tried to escape down his throat. Quickly shifting his thoughts back to his true love's good points, he scooped up a few of the small green candies from the silver box on the counter and popped them into his mouth to ease the coughing. They tasted horrible but did the trick, as they made Ryouga's tongue realize it wasn't being exposed to anything nearly as bad as Akane's cooking. Still, they weren't anything Ryouga wanted to continue tasting, so he swallowed them.
A few minutes later, the man walked back into the room carrying a silver tea service. As he walked to the counter with it, he began to wonder what had happened to his customer, but the prone form lying beside his destination answered his question quite nicely. "Oh, dear," he said with dismay as he set down the tea and knelt beside the unconscious young girl. After checking her pulse and breathing, he attempted to revive her with gentle pats to the back of her hand. When the girl's eyes slowly fluttered open, he gave her a reassuring smile.
"W-what happened?" she dazedly asked as she tried to sit up.
"You collapsed while I was getting the tea," he said, helping her up. "Did you hit your head? Can you tell me your name?"
"I don't think so—it doesn't hurt. And my name, it's..." she trailed off, staring into space for a long moment. "It's the strangest thing—it's on the tip of my tongue, but I can't think of it right now..."
"Here, have some tea; maybe it will help," said the man as he rose and poured a cup. When he turned back around to offer it to his customer, he found her standing beside him and staring at her reflection in the polished side of the cash register.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, raising a hand to her cheek, "I'm Akane! I mean, my name is Tendou Akane." With a frown, she walked over to a mirror and studied herself critically. "How strange... for some reason, I thought I was older..."
"Please, Miss Tendou, do sit down and have some tea—you did collapse just a few minutes ago," implored the man as he brought a chair over to the counter.
"Oh, all right," said Akane as she walked over and sat down. "But I'm tougher than I look, you know—I'm a martial artist."
"Of course," said the man as he sat down on the other side of the counter and prudently put the smart pills away. "Still, I am somewhat concerned about your memory lapse; would you mind telling me about yourself?"
"Well, I live in Nerima and have two older sisters. I'm sweet, caring, pure, and—" She suddenly broke off and blushed bright red as she realized what she was saying. "I mean, I'm a martial artist! And... um, I help people who need it. Yes, that's it. I like animals and hate bullies. Um, what else..." She took a sip of her tea, then got up and started pacing as she tried to recall more. "Mm, I'm good at school and—aah!" As she picked herself up off the floor, she glared at the man and said, "You know, that's a really stupid place to leave a backpack."
"I'm sorry, Mister Hibiki must have left it there. Do you know him?"
"Hibiki...? The name sounds familiar," she softly said, her gaze distant and unfocused, "but it seems to be slipping away from me, like a dream I can't quite remember..." She shook her head and seemed to come back to herself. In a firmer voice, she said, "No, I'm sorry. I don't remember him."
The man nodded, as if he'd been expecting that answer. "Don't worry about it, Miss Tendou; I was merely curious. How are you feeling now?"
"Better," Akane said, after thinking about it for a moment, "but it's still hard to remember things..."
"I'm sure everything will come back to you in time. Perhaps familiar surroundings and some fresh air would help. Allow me to call you a cab to take you home."
"Oh, you don't have to do that—I can walk."
"If you're sure..." sighed the man as he stood up. "At least allow me to show you out." When Akane smiled and nodded, he gestured for her to follow him and led her to a door at the back of the shop.
As he opened the door to reveal the same rainy afternoon it had shown Ranma, Akane stopped dead in her tracks, then took a half-step back, faintly saying, "M-my umbrella... I need my umbrella."
"Ah, I believe these are yours," the man said as he picked up a book bag and blue umbrella that were leaning against the wall nearby and offered them to her.
"Thank you," she said as she gratefully accepted the items, and opening the umbrella, stepped through the doorway. The moment she was outside, she froze in place, standing motionless for several seconds, before turning to the man with a radiant smile on her face. "You were right! The fresh air was just what I needed—it's all coming back to me!" Suddenly adopting a serious manner, she gave the man a formal bow and said, "Thank you very much for your help and hospitality." Straightening up, she exclaimed, "I have to go home now, or my sister Kasumi will worry. Bye!" And with a last wave to the man, she ran off.
In the room behind the curtain, Nabiki leaned against a wall and considered the concept of Ryouga being Akane in both body and mind, with no conscious memory of her past life. It was bizarre. It was ridiculous. It ... explained a lot, actually: Akane's quick temper and freakish strength when she was truly enraged; her love/hate relationship with Ranma; why she always trusted Ryouga and took his side, and her strange inability to figure out that he and P-chan were one and the same. It even explained why she expected to be a good martial artist when she never practiced or put in the necessary time and effort—subconsciously, she knew she had done all that and stubbornly refused to do it over.
Shaking her head, Nabiki walked back into the main shop and approached the man. "So, all along, Ranma was Nabiki and Ryouga was Akane. I guess we've just been chasing our tails all this time..."
"Oh, I wouldn't put it like that," said the man as he turned to her. "I see it more like a fugue: a piece of music played several times in turn by different instruments, each one influencing and interpreting the music in its own unique way."
Nabiki tilted her head thoughtfully as she considered the idea. "I suppose that make sense." As she crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow, she added, "Especially when you throw in the psych. definition—wouldn't you say, old man?"
"Er... yes. I must say, you do have a rather impressive vocabulary, Miss Tendou."
"I get by," said Nabiki dryly. "Now, why don't you tell me what you're really up to. You don't actually expect me to believe that Ryouga and I just happened to end up as sisters? And while I may not have been able to recognize a set-up five years ago when I was Ranma, I had no trouble noticing it this time through. So, come clean, old man—what's this really all about?"
"Unlikely as it may seem, I truly did not expect Mister Hibiki to take the smart pills." At Nabiki's skeptical snort, he shook his head and bemusedly said, "I honestly thought I would have to sell him a 'cure' to transform him into Miss Tendou. Of course, even if I weren't seeking such an end result, once he took enough pills to make him truly believe himself Akane, I had no recourse other than to send him back in time and weave his thread into the tapestry so he would have the appropriate memories."
The man sighed, then fixed Nabiki with a serious look. "Very well. I engineered your and Mister Hibiki's transformations to fulfill someone else's request. A little over five years ago, a young Tendou Kasumi—"
"Kasumi?" exclaimed Nabiki, "Who's she—the panda? A Kunou? Wait, I know—she's really the old pervert!"
"Please calm yourself, Miss Tendou; Kasumi is the same sweet girl she always was. But after her mother passed away, she became very lonely and depressed tending to her distraught father. Such a loving child, selflessly giving up her own life to care for the man who should have been caring for her... How could I resist giving her the one thing she felt would brighten her life and make her feel like a member of a real family once again? How could I deny her wish for—"
"—sisters," Nabiki finished with him.
"Yes," the man said while nodding. "I must admit, I was impressed both by her giving nature and her wisdom in knowing better than to ask for her mother back."
Nabiki spent several moments digesting what she'd learned; finally, she asked, "Does she remember how things used to be?"
"Oh, yes; she wouldn't be able to appreciate the gift fully, otherwise."
"I see," Nabiki said with a nod, "that does make sense. Now, why don't you tell me the real reason for all of this."
"I assure you, Miss Tendou, what I told you is—"
"Yes, yes, I'm sure it's all the literal truth," Nabiki said with a dismissive wave of her hand. Suddenly fixing the man with a piercing stare, she continued, "But it isn't why you manipulated Ryouga and me specifically. Now, since you've gone through so much trouble to make sure I saw and heard enough to figure out something deeper was going on, why don't you just tell me."
The man silently studied her for a long moment, the quietly said, "I underestimated you, Miss Tendou. It's true I expected you to ferret my true motive from me, but I did not expect you to realize you were being guided to do so." As a genuine smile spread across his face, he said, "It's a refreshing change. Very well, I will give you your answer; it's rather simple, really. If we imagine reality as a tapestry once again, just as with actual tapestries, some patterns are intrinsically more pleasing than others. I consider it my responsibility to make minor alterations to the tapestry to ensure a better pattern. In this case, a much more desirable reality results from replacing Mister Saotome and Mister Hibiki with you and your sister."
Dozens of questions ran through Nabiki's head. What made a pattern 'better'? How many other people were out there 'making alterations'? What right did they have to rewrite other people's lives? She looked at the old man patiently waiting for her to ask him something and suddenly realized that the real question was whether she wanted to stay there and be drawn deeper into his affairs or leave now and finally get on with her life. It only took a moment's thought to arrive at an answer. "See you around, old man," she said, grabbing her book bag and heading for the front door. "Thanks for the water," she added, tossing him a casual wave.
The man sputtered in surprise for a moment at her sudden departure before breaking into peals of laughter. "Ah, Miss Tendou, it is truly a joy to converse with you! So long as my shop is here, the door will always be open to you."
Nabiki paused, feeling slightly warmed by his statement. "Thanks, old man. Say, do you have a name?"
"Oh, several," the man replied with an affable smile. "Would you you like to purchase one?"
"No, thanks," she said with a snort, as the warmth abruptly flowed away, "I'm happy with the one I have." And with that, she walked out of the shop and back into the sunlight.
Free. She was finally free... Free from having to make earning money the focus of her life. Free from keeping everyone at arm's length because they'd be distractions she couldn't afford. Free from the stomach-clenching worry over whether she'd make enough money in time, and eventually, who she'd be going home as once she paid the old man. And finally, she was free of that damned sense of déjà vu that had been plaguing her almost every day since a girl and her panda arrived from China.
She turned to take a last look at the shop that had been the beginning and end of her five year trial and froze in surprise at what she saw. Or what she didn't see, to be more precise—where the small building had been nestled among its taller neighbors was now a vacant lot. Quickly recovering, she just shook her head, and with a smirk, said, "So long as the shop is here, the door will always be open, huh? Crazy old man." With a mental shrug, she turned her thoughts to more important matters as she began walking to school.
Now that she didn't need to devote herself to making money, she could finally relax and let people discover who the real Tendou Nabiki was. She had to admit, she was quite interested in finding out, herself. Maybe she could finally make some friends; maybe even a girlfriend... She wouldn't make the mistake of focusing too much on the Art, like Ranma did, even if it was one of the most important things in her life. Nabiki smiled as she considered the endless possibilities before her—for the first time in either of her lives the future was wide open.
End of Fugue
Author's notes: First, I'd like to thank the following: Takahashi Rumiko, for creating Ranma 1/2; my two beta readers for making my story better than it otherwise would have been; and everyone who read my story, especially those who left reviews. I had thoughts of continuing the story or eventually writing a sequel about what happens next but decided either one would probably end up just detracting from the story. I'm not completely ruling out a sequel if a great idea comes to me, but I wouldn't count on it happening. I hope everyone who's reading this far enjoyed the story. If you did, you might want to consider rereading the story now that you'd understand the cryptic lines in the earlier chapters—I'm told it's fun. Anyway, thanks again, and as it says in my profile, while only some of my stories will be posted on this site, all of them can be found on my homepage. (1/13/06)