Author's Note: Okay, I'm gonna lay it on the line right up front and be the first to say that this is probably not my best work thus far. The idea that formed the basis of this idea is one that came to me during film class Junior year (about two years ago), and it rattled around in pieces in my brain and on my computer for a long time after that. Only recently did I manage to knit the pieces together so that they actually made a cohesive story. I, however, can still see the seams. In other words, the through-line of the piece doesn't feel as solid as I would like it to be.
That being said, I still think it certainly has its good points, and its cute moments – so I'm posting it, and leaving it to you folks to judge. Sound good? Good.
The story, as you have most likely already realized, is sort of an adaptation of the whole It's a Wonderful Life idea. Technically, however, this is ultimately a canon-universe fic. Okay, 'nuff said – read on…
Ranma stepped into the entryway out of the rain to discover that the massive puddle that had consumed the kitchen floor that afternoon when the pipes burst had migrated down the hall as well. He heaved a heavy sigh of frustration, pushing his damp red hair back from his forehead and making his way down the hallway toward the kitchen to investigate, heedless of the water sloshing at his feet – at this point, he was past caring.
"What the hell is going on?" he questioned his wife rather irritably when he reached the doorway. "I thought you said you were going to take care of it?" He grabbed the spare kettle they kept on the stove and poured the warm water over his head absently.
She glanced over her shoulder from her place at the sink before turning back to the carrots she was peeling and saying, "I tried – but it took me all afternoon just to patch up the hole and get the water to stop flowing. The plumber can't make it until tomorrow morning."
"But what are you doing peeling carrots when there's still water all over the floor?"
"I'm making dinner, what does it look like?" she snapped back. "And if you say one word I'm turning this peeler on you, Ranma."
He closed his mouth against the reproach he'd been about to impart, deciding that serving his bad mood wasn't worth the risk of being skinned alive with a potato peeler. Besides, it was quickly becoming evident that the day wasn't much better inside than it was outside. "Fine – whatever," he said impatiently at last, throwing up his hands and turning to wade back out to the living room.
A moment later, a concerned Akane followed him, wiping her hands on a dish towel. "What is it, Ranma?" she entreated.
"What's what?" he snapped back at her.
"Nothing," he replied shortly, turning away.
Akane took a step toward him. "It is not 'nothing.' Come on, Ranma, please – let me help. Tell me what's bothering you."
"I said it's nothing, alright? Leave me the hell alone."
His wife tensed angrily at his words. "Fine, Ranma – don't tell me. Just lock it all up and bottle it away somewhere. That's what you're best at, isn't it? Shutting me out? Making sure you never appear vulnerable, even to me?"
"Oh, right," he countered scathingly, "Like you're such an open book, Akane. Who is it that always takes out her frustrations on me, rather than talking to me, huh? You wanna talk now? Fine – you start. What's bothering you, Akane?"
"Don't you try to turn this back on me – I'm not the one who's been storming around like a madman all day, snapping at anyone in his path—"
"So it's my fault then? Of course! Because everything is my fault. I'm just one big walking disaster, aren't I?"
"Ranma, you're being—"
"Never mind that I've saved your life more times that I can count. Never mind that I have problems of my own. And of course, you've never overreacted to anything – never been wrong, never seen something that wasn't there. Nope. Because you're Akane, and Akane knows everything, and I'm Ranma, and I'm just the pervert you got stuck with all those years ago."
"Stop putting words in my mouth – I never said—"
"The hell you didn't!" he interrupted.
"Will you shut up for a minute and let me talk?" Akane burst out. The silence between them was stretched thin, almost to the breaking point. "Maybe you're right – maybe I do blame you more often than I should, but that's not the issue here. I'm not saying that you're responsible for everything—everything that's gone wrong here," she motioned vaguely at the space around them – but both of them knew she was talking about more than just the mess on the floor. "I'm just asking you to let me in. Just for once, let me in—let me help. I feel like there's this distance between us that was never there before – even when we hated each other, I could still read you like a book. Now…"
"There you go again, turning it back on me. What about you, Akane? What about you?" Ranma bit in reply.
Akane drew a furious breath in through her nose. "Well forgive me for caring about you – for wanting to share you life with you. Maybe I misunderstood the wedding vows, but I thought that was what this was all supposed to be about."
"Yeah, well sometimes a man has to have his privacy too."
"Half a man," Akane replied scathingly, but she clearly regretted her words the moment they left her tongue.
Ranma's angry expression turned to stone, and Akane hastened to repair the damage, "Oh Ranma – I'm sorry. I didn't mean that…"
He merely continued to stare at her for a moment, as though looking at a stranger. Then, without a word, he turned and left the house, slamming the door behind him.
Ranma walked purposefully through the rain, though he had absolutely no destination in mind. He merely followed his feet wherever they chose to take him – every street and alley looked equally gray and blurry. Heavy drops of the clear, life-sustaining, hell-making liquid cascaded down over him relentlessly, and for once he made no move to stop them. Once upon a time he had felt in control of his life. He had been a martial artist in training, whose primary goal in life was to achieve control – control over his own body, the finest movements of his muscles, the delicate balance of his weight; control over his mind, using his emotions to feed his technique and yet never letting them overcome him; control over his situation, always keeping himself at an advantage over any potential opponents. For a long time, it had worked – he'd always been one step ahead of the game, comfortable yet conscious of his advantage. Then, in a moment where his human fallibility had reared its ugly head, he'd gone for a swim in the wrong pool – and that was when the rest of the world began to catch up with him.
He'd managed to give his troubles the slip countless times even after that, his outward confidence never wavering, but inside he knew he was no longer in control – he was only riding a wave, giving the impression that he had harnessed its power, when in reality it was the wave that had captured him. As time went on he felt himself gradually losing the battle. He spent his life trying to catch rainwater in his cupped hands – and the more he tried to hold on to it, the faster it slipped away.
Soon Ranma found himself upon a small stone bridge overlooking the canal. He stopped midway across it and came to rest against the edge, gazing down into the fragmented surface of the water below, which was rendered opaque by the disturbance of the raindrops. But he needed no reflection to see the familiar unfamiliar face that would have gazed back at him. These days even his own male face seemed unfamiliar at times – as though his real self were somewhere else, and he was no more than a copy, a shadow, a place-holder. How had it come to this? Had any of this ever really been his idea, or had he merely become so used to it that challenging it was no longer an option? Was it possible to drift into life?
In combat, every move was made specifically, with full intention and purpose. Certainly they were sometimes wrong – otherwise no one would ever lose – but even wrong moves were made with conviction. Life, on the other hand, was not so simple. Choices could be made passively, or never really made at all – and yet, life would continue, and something would come of even indecision.
Was it really supposed to be this hard? If they were meant to be together, if they truly loved each other, than why did they still fight so much? He'd always assumed, somewhere in his brain, that once they'd gotten past all the things that stood between them – fiancées, grudges, mutual pride – it would be smooth sailing from here on out. But it had been three years since their wedding – all the fiancées were either gone or married, the grudges had cooled, and they had overcome their pride and admitted their love for one another – and yet they still fought. Was it possible to love someone and hate them at the same time?
Raindrops slipped from the end of his nose, and from the curling tendrils of red hair surrounding his face. He watched them join the water in the canal one by one. The Curse – the ever-present bane of his existence. Sure he had gotten used to it by now, and it had indeed come in handy from time to time – but nonetheless it haunted him perpetually, like an annoying brother you grudgingly love even though you know he steals from you when he comes to visit. True, his determination to find a cure had lessened somewhat since his marriage to Akane. The fact that she loved and accepted him in spite of his curse had been one of the things that had made him fall in love with her in the first place, and once they were together, the necessity of finding a cure had seemed to lose some of its importance.
But then there were times like tonight when he wondered if he was merely kidding himself.
"Half a man…" Her words, spoken in anger, rang in his ears. She had tried to take them back – but the fact that she had said them at all told him that some part of her, at least, believed them.
For a long time he stood there, seemingly impervious to the chill, thinking about Akane and his curse, and wondering just exactly when his life had slipped so far from his control. Finally, when the rain had lessened to barely more than a mist, he trudged home once more, all of his thoughts having run out.
Slipping silently in the front door, he crept upstairs to the bathroom to douse himself with hot water – they always kept a couple of spare kettles around these days, just in case. That done, he crossed the hall to their shared bedroom, where he found Akane asleep, a troubled expression on her face. He paused a moment, watching her: She was beautiful – but try as he might, he couldn't see it. All he could see was an opponent, an enemy, the other half of the perpetual battle that his life had become. Part of him loved her more than he could say, wanted to sit by her side and smooth the wrinkles from her brow – but another part of him kept the distance between them, for reasons that even he could not name.
He removed his wet clothes and changed into his boxers and tank top, finally sliding into bed beside Akane – though he lay on his side, facing away from her and into the darkness.
He thought he heard his wife murmur his name plaintively in her sleep, and glanced back at her over his shoulder – but she appeared to be sleeping perfectly soundly, so he settled back to his original position. As his mind slipped into the twilit realm between sleep and wakefulness, he thought, If only I had never been cursed…
Just as he drifted over the edge and into oblivion, he thought he heard a voice whisper within his mind, Granted…
Ranma rolled over in his bed, his mind beginning to drift upwards out of sleep, though he didn't really feel like letting go of unconsciousness just yet. His arm looped naturally around the waist of his wife, drawing her closer to cuddle against her.
"Ranma," she said drowsily, still half-asleep herself. He registered vaguely that her voice sounded slightly different somehow, but the thought disappeared as carelessly as it had come.
"Hm, 'Kane," he replied sleepily.
The body beside him stilled unnaturally, and all of a sudden Ranma could sense that something was very wrong. "Well that's a new one," the voice said again, this time darkly, without the faintest trace of sleepiness. One thing he was sure of now, however, was that the voice was definitely not Akane's.
He opened his eyes to see the back of a head of long, dark brown hair attached to the body he had his arms wrapped around. Heart racing with panic, he rolled the woman before him onto her back so that he could see her face.
"Ukyo…" he whispered.
"Well at least you got it right on the second try," the woman replied bitterly before rolling back away onto her side, refusing to look at him.
"Oh my god," he murmured, more to himself than to her, as he pushed himself into a sitting position and began to take in his surroundings. The room was small, dark, and unfamiliar, an attic that had apparently been converted into a studio apartment of sorts. The only pieces of furniture in the room were the bed, a small, round wooden table with a couple of old mismatched chairs, a Formica-covered plywood dresser that appeared to have had a hole kicked in the side of it at one point, and a little refrigerator squeezed into the corner. The place was a mess: Shards of broken glass and ceramic were scattered across the floor, clothes were strewn about, and one of the chairs was lying haphazardly upon the floor as though it had been knocked over – or thrown, perhaps. The only light in the room was that which shone through the moldy, faded lace curtains that hung over the open window on his side of the bed – though there was an unlit bare bulb with a pull-chain hanging from the ceiling.
"Holy shit…" he whispered, scanning the place for any signs of alcohol, or anything else that could have caused him to end up here without remembering why or how. "Oh my god…what have I done?"
"The same thing you always do, you jackass," Ukyo replied scathingly, still refusing to look at him. "Where did you meet this one? Down at the bar? Or maybe you've moved on to scoping out the schoolyards these days, looking for fresh meat…"
Ranma stared at her back in horror. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"You know exactly what I'm talking about," she snapped back fiercely, at last twisting around to face him propped up on one elbow, fire in her eyes. "Dammit Ranma – I can't trust you at all anymore, can I? I mean, I know we have our problems, but I though we were doing better. And after what happened last night…"
"Yes, Ranma, problems," she replied firmly, apparently mistaking his confusion for derision. "That's always the trouble with you – you just don't get the fact that problems can be dealt with. You always just get fed up and cut and run to your little girlfriends. But that's not how relationships work – the only way we're going to make this work is if you're willing to give it a real shot. But I can't keep living like this, with half of you here and the other half out of my reach."
"Um…okay…" Ranma replied, his brain still working overtime to make sense of what was going on – with little success, at that.
"I know I'm not perfect either," Ukyo said quietly, taking one of his hands in hers and lacing their fingers together, "but I'm still your wife – and, god help me," she gave a wry laugh, "I love you Ranma."
Ranma blinked. Something was very wrong here.
"And I know that…at least at one time…you loved me too." With that, she climbed out of bed and retrieved some clothes from the dresser across the room, getting dressed in silence. Ranma stared at her, nonplussed…until she dropped the sheet she had wrapped around herself, at which time he quickly averted his eyes, thinking instinctively, Akane would kill me…
But then again, if Ukyo was to be believed, she was his wife. How could that be? If he hadn't known better, he'd have thought all of this was some sort of elaborate scheme to trick him into marriage – after all, "the Horde" had gone to some pretty amazing lengths to try and snag him at one point in time. But all of that had ended when he'd married Akane. Well, alright, not exactly when he'd married Akane – in fact he still had a scar or two from his encounter with Kodachi's pet alligator a couple of weeks after the wedding, and to this day he was careful not to eat any food said to have a "special ingredient" from the Nekohanten – but eventually things had settled down somewhat as people grew to accept his and Akane's choice. True, their lives weren't exactly what one might call "normal," but there was at least a sort of peace among the residents of Nerima.
As Ukyo finished up with the last few ties on her chef's outfit – which, Ranma noted gratefully, looked blessedly familiar to him, unlike everything else he'd seen since he awoke – she turned back to him and tilted her head with a softened, if somewhat wry, expression. "Look – we both said some things we didn't mean last night; but it ended well, didn't it? Just like it always does…"
Ranma's gaze turned slightly sideways at the hint of innuendo he detected in her voice.
"Let's just put this all behind us for now and get on with our lives, alright? I'm late for work," she finished.
Releasing a cleansing breath, she stepped over to the bed and leaned in to kiss him briefly on the lips – but she straightened again with a mild frown when he jerked away instinctively.
"Is something wrong?" she questioned, confused.
"Ahh…no. I—had a weird dream, that's all," he invented.
She didn't look convinced, but she accepted his explanation nonetheless, apparently unwilling to exert the effort it would take to pry the truth out of him. "Alright – well, I'll be home at six. Bye, Ranchan."
Ranma's eyes followed her until she disappeared through the doorway that apparently led to the stairs. Listening to the boards creak beneath her feet as she descended to the floor below, he murmured, "At least I hope it's a dream…"
With nothing to distract him now, he gave free reign to his confusion, staring unabashedly around the unfamiliar apartment that was, somehow, his home. There had to be some sort of explanation – some clue to indicate to him where he was and how he had gotten here. He slid off the bed and pushed himself to his feet, taking a few tentative steps across the cold wood floor as he glanced around for…something. Anything.
A door stood open to his left, and peaking around its edge, he saw that it led to a tiny closet with a toilet, a sink, and a showerhead in it – a bathroom of sorts, but just barely. He turned back to reenter the main room of the apartment – such as it was – and noticed a rumpled mass of gray material hanging from a hook on the back of the bathroom door. He pulled the cloth down warily, feeling as though he was snooping through someone else's belongings, and discovered that it was a set of coveralls. Up near the lapel was sown a patch embroidered with the name "Ranma."
His eyes widened slightly at this, bewilderment and a fresh wave of creepiness sweeping over him. This was his? Impossible. He'd never worn anything like that in his life. He tossed it aside and moved back out to the main room to begin rifling through drawers with renewed fervor. This was wrong, this was all wrong – there had to be something somewhere that would clue him in to what had happened. Had he hit his head? Probably – after all, he was Ranma – but since when had something as simple as that caused him any lasting problems? Well, there had been that one time he'd hit his head on a rock and thought he was actually a girl for a few days – but aside from that, nothing. What else could it be? A spell? Another curse? Had he fallen through some sort of tear in the space-time continuum? At this point in his life, he had learned that anything was possible…
He was in the process of tossing the contents of the third drawer in the dresser all over the room in search of clues, when the phone rang. Without even thinking, he answered it.
"Saotome, is that you?" demanded an unpleasant voice on the other end of the line, causing Ranma to jump in surprise.
"Yes," he answered tentatively. "Who's this?"
"What the fuck do you mean, 'Who's this?'" the voice yelled back, forcing Ranma to move the phone away from his ear slightly. "Who the fuck do you think it is, the fucking goddamn Prime Minister! You were supposed to be here two hours ago! Get your ass the fuck down here this second, or you're fired!"
Utterly bewildered, Ranma answered, "Uh – where would that be again?"
"Oh, you think you're real cute, don'tcha?" the angry man replied sarcastically. "You. Sanitation Department. Now!"
"Sanita—" he repeated, confused. And then his eyes grew round and darted back to the bathroom as he remembered the jumpsuit he'd discovered. "I'm a garbage man!" he exclaimed involuntarily, appalled.
"Not for long if you don't get the fuck to work on time for a change! Now for the last time, get—"
"Uh, I don't think I can make it in today, Mr…uh…Mister," Ranma interrupted. "I've got a…uh…emergency. Gotta go. Bye." He hung up quickly, ignoring the other man's furious spluttering.
"I'm a garbage man?" he repeated again, the words sour in his mouth. "What the fuck is going on here…"
He looked around the now even messier little room, trying to gather his thoughts together. He'd torn the place apart, and he was still no closer to figuring out what had happened. He needed someone to talk to, someone to bounce ideas off of at the vary least – but who? How could he possibly explain this situation to anyone without merely garnering a few sideways looks, and no help at all?
And then it occurred to him: the one person who might understand, who might not think he was crazy, who might be able to help him. He needed to talk to Akane.
Quickly sorting through the piles of clothes he'd created on the floor, he located a pair of jeans and a t-shirt – not exactly his usual style, for none of his trademark Chinese clothes seemed to be here, but these would do. He got dressed in record time and dashed down the rickety little stairs two at a time, pushing his way out through the front door and onto the street.
He didn't recognize this part of town. The whole area looked rather rundown, though not exactly to the point of being a ghetto – just a low-rent, student/artist sort of neighborhood. Or apparently in their case, a chef/garbage man neighborhood. Anyway, he could see a busy-looking street – possibly a retail area – a few blocks down; hopefully he could get his bearings from there.
It took him awhile to sort out where he was exactly, but once he'd managed to wander his way into an area he knew, he set off toward his destination without delay. Within minutes he was standing outside the front door of the Tendo Dojo, his knuckles poised over the doorframe, about to knock.
He hesitated slightly. There was no telling exactly what he'd find. Would she remember him? Would she know who he was? What if she wasn't here? What if somehow, in this foreign world in which he'd found himself, the Tendos no longer lived at the dojo at all?
Only one way to find out…
Silence. And then, footsteps approaching. He heard the latch on the door opening, and then the door itself slid back to reveal…Akane.
The first thing he noticed was that her hair was long, the way it had been when he'd first met her. It was pulled into a loose braid, which rested on the shoulder of her baby blue dress, reminding him inexorably of Kasumi. Of course, the fact that she was wearing an apron as well probably helped the image.
"Can I help you?" she asked with a polite smile. Her expression was kind, yes, but that of a stranger. She didn't recognize him. Only then did he realize that part of him had been sorely hoping that somehow she would – that she too would remember the life that he remembered.
"Sir?" she prompted curiously, and he realized he'd been silent for far too long.
"Uh, yes," he began, though all of a sudden he had no idea what he had intended to say. "I mean…uh…well, the thing is…"
What the hell was he doing? This was insane. You couldn't just show up at someone's door and say "Hi there – I was your husband in another reality. Could you by any chance help me get back there?" Even Akane wasn't that understanding.
"You know what, I think this was a mistake," he amended, "Sorry to bother you…"
He was just turning away to head back to the street when a familiar voice called out from inside the house. "Ranma? Is that you?"
Ranma turned back. "Ryoga?"
Sure enough, Ryoga Hibiki stepped forward into the doorway, a wide, bemused grin spreading across his face. "Ranma Saotome – well this is a surprise! How have you been? I haven't seen you in ages…"
"Uh…fine, fine," Ranma answered carefully, utterly bewildered. Akane didn't remember him, but Ryoga did – how could that be possible?
"Well come on in!" Ryoga invited happily, and Ranma did so with some trepidation, following the other two into the living room, which looked much the same as he'd always remembered it. "This is my wife, Akane."
Ranma stopped in his tracks at that, startled, but Ryoga didn't seem to notice his surprise, for he was already taking a seat on the couch. Akane, meanwhile, greeted him with a smile. "Nice to meet you, Ranma – Saotome, was it?"
He had to shake himself internally before he could respond, his eyes locked too closely on her face. "Uh—yeah, Saotome. Nice to meet you as well…Akane."
"Please, have a seat," she offered, indicating the chair across from the couch as she took a seat beside her husband.
Somewhat awkwardly, Ranma began, "So…how long has it been, exactly? Do you remember the last time we saw each other?"
"Oh, gosh – junior high, I think," Ryoga answered, furrowing his brow in thought. "During the bread wars, remember? We were supposed to have that duel in the vacant lot, but you chickened out and ran to China."
"You were four days late!" Ranma exclaimed before he could stop himself. Then, getting ahold of himself again, and reminding himself that finally he'd found someone who remembered something he remembered, he refocused on his goal. "But anyway, that's water under the bridge. What did you…get up to after that?" he asked carefully, hoping to get a better idea of what had happened.
"Well, I went after you at first – I guess I was a bit of a grudge-holder in those days – and I almost caught up to you too; but when I heard about your father, well…I decided to lay off. I headed home from there."
Ranma frowned curiously. "Heard what about my father?"
Ryoga frowned back, glancing at Akane briefly before answering, "You know – about how he…passed away."
His breath seemed to evaporate in his chest at the words, but he tried his best not to let the shock show in his face. It was a moment before he was able to un-stick his tongue from the roof of his mouth, but he forced a smile and nodded, as though he ought to have known better than to ask such a stupid question. "Of course – I just didn't…of course. Right. Listen, it's been great to see you…both – but I have to run."
"Oh," Akane said, startled at his abruptness. "Well, ah, you're welcome to come back any time – any friend of Ryoga's…"
"Right," Ranma nodded, cutting her off. His eyes lingered on her face perhaps a moment longer than they should have, but he couldn't help himself. His Akane, married to Ryoga? To Ryoga, of all people…
"Right," he said again, snapping himself out of his daze and nodding a goodbye. Turning to walk to the front door of what, in another lifetime, had been his house, he made his way quickly outside, anxious to get as far away from this bizarre situation as possible.
He continued walking briskly along the street. None of this seemed to add up. The bread wars, Ryoga's grudge – those things were familiar. But his marriage to Ukyo, Akane's marriage to Ryoga, his father's death – what had gone wrong? What was the connection?
All of a sudden, a bucketful of cold water hit him from the side, and he stopped in his tracks, berating himself for not thinking to avoid this route – did the little old lady just sit by the window all day, waiting for him to come by so she could splash him, or what? She got him every time.
"Dammit," he grumbled, pushing his wet bangs back from his eyes.
But something wasn't right. He wrinkled his brow curiously – yes, there was definitely something distinctly wrong with this picture. What was it?
Tentatively, he tried his voice again. "Dammit…" Yes…it was much too low. And the bangs in front of his eyes…they were black.
His hands moved of their own accord to his chest experimentally—it was flat.
"Holy shit…" he whispered, hardly daring to believe what his senses were telling him.
Without thinking, he whirled around and marched up to the old lady's front door, banging on it in a panic. "Hey! Water lady, open up!"
The old woman did so, a puzzled expression on her face. "What's the matter young man? And why on earth are you so wet?" she questioned.
He didn't even think about bothering to answer her. "I need you to splash me with cold water again – right now! It's an emergency!" he demanded.
The old woman looked affronted. "Well I never! Goodness me, you look like such a nice young man – I wouldn't have guessed you were such a pervert."
He barely had time to open his mouth to argue before the door slammed in his face. He stood, stunned, for a moment, his mouth hanging open. Then he closed it, disgruntled, muttering to himself, "Do I just have that stamped on my forehead? Is that what it is?"
No time for that now. He tore off in search of a canal, a koi pond, a bucket – anything. He had to make sure.
As he ran, he murmured wryly to himself, "Oh sure, there's always water around at the worst possible moments, but the second I actually need some, it's nowhere to be found…"
Finally he reached the canal, and leapt up on top of the chain link fence that surrounded it with ease. "This is it…"
He dove in.
He was almost afraid to surface again, lest it turn out not to be true – but when he finally did, he was still as male as they come. The curse was gone.
"I don't believe it," he panted as he dragged himself up onto the gravelly embankment beneath a nearby bridge that crossed the canal. He rolled over onto his back and simply lay there, soaked through and through, staring up at the underside of the overpass. "I just don't believe it – how? It's impossible…"
Just then, a memory of the previous night, which had been utterly forgotten in the face of the strangeness of the day, began to surface.
'If only I had never been cursed…'
Could it be? Could it be that somehow, someone or something had heard his request? That would explain his curse being gone – but what about everything else? What about Ukyo and his father and Akane? What about…
But wait – what had his exact words been? 'If only I had never been cursed…' Never – not just a wish for the curse to go away, but for it never to have been placed upon him in the first place.
It was the only explanation. Somehow, whatever had changed in his past to prevent him from being cursed had altered the entire course of his life as well. And it must have happened sometime after he'd left for China with his father, because Ryoga's memories corresponded to his up until that point.
Ranma spent the rest of the day wandering the streets of Tokyo, trying to figure out how to handle this situation. Part of him was eager to simply find a way to return to his previous life and wash his hands of this place – but another part of him was beginning to wonder whether that was such a good idea. After all, in this life he didn't have to worry about his curse, or about grudges or enemies or former fiancées. Sure, being a garbage man wasn't a glamorous job, but it was a living, and it was a lot simpler than his previous occupation had been.
And as for Ukyo, well…she had always loved him, and he had always felt guilty for turning her down. If it hadn't been for Akane, he'd always been sure he would have ended up with her – and come to think of it, this situation had proven that theory. And, though he hated to admit it, considering the way his relationship with Akane had been lately – in his old life, that is – perhaps both of them would have been better off without each other. Ryoga was a nice guy, and he adored her; she deserved to be adored.
When he finally returned home, long after the sun had set, he had even fewer answers than he'd had when he started.
The moment he rounded the corner into their apartment, Ukyo whirled around to face him, fists on her hips. "Where have you been?" she demanded, her expression a mixture of anger and anxiety.
He was somewhat taken aback by the sudden ambush, but managed to answer haltingly, "I…uh—out? I went out to…run some errands…"
"What sort of errands? You don't have any packages," she snapped. "And why the hell are you out running 'errands' when you should have been at work? We barely get by as it is."
"I'm…sorry," he answered lamely. How could he possibly explain this? "I'm…not quite myself today. I don't know what it is but—I just went to see an old friend, that's all."
She narrowed her eyes shrewdly. "What's her name?"
The astuteness of the question startled him – for he had, in fact, originally gone to see Akane – but he managed to catch himself in time to avoid digging himself any deeper. "His name," he emphasized, "is Ryoga Hibiki. We went to junior high together. He lives over in the Nerima district."
"Oh," said Ukyo, deflating slightly – apparently she hadn't seen him falter. "Well, you should have at least told me you'd be late – I was worried."
He smiled sheepishly. "Sorry – I'll remember next time. Listen," he pressed onward, getting an idea, "can we talk for a bit?"
Her brow furrowed curiously. "What about?"
"About…about how we met," he answered.
Her expression grew even more curious. "How we met? What do you mean?"
"Well, not really how we met, actually, because I remem—ah, I mean, that's…not what I'm talking about," he fumbled. "What I mean is, well…just, tell me about how we got together."
By now she was giving him a very strange look indeed. "What for? You were there," she said, giving a bemused laugh, "don't you remember?"
"Of course I do," he lied, "I just…want to hear your version of it."
"My version of it? What is this, a deposition?" she joked.
"Come on Ukyo – just indulge me, will ya?"
She eyed him sideways a moment longer, but then shook her head and said, "Alright…whatever you say. Here," she indicated a chair at the table behind her, "I brought home some okonomiyaki from the restaurant for us for dinner. We can eat while I…talk."
"Great," Ranma answered, breathing a sigh of relief and taking the seat she'd indicated. As they both dug into their meal, Ukyo began to speak.
"Well…I'd been following you and your father for years, waiting for the right moment to take revenge on him for stealing my family business and deserting me. The two of you were headed for the training grounds at Jusenkyo, and I followed you, of course – in fact, I nearly ended up at Jusenkyo myself. But luckily, when I reached the fork in the road that would have led me there and I stopped to ask for directions, one of the locals informed me that the two of you had headed off in the other direction, toward the next village. Classic male behavior – if the two of you had only stopped and asked for directions like I did, you might have gone the right way. But then again, I heard later that the springs at Jusenkyo are supposed to be cursed, so maybe it was a good thing you didn't get there…"
Ranma eyed Ukyo briefly over a bite of okonomiyaki, but she wasn't looking at him.
"Anyway, I finally caught up with you a few days after that – but of course, by then, well…your father had had his accident. I wouldn't have even thought of keeping up some silly grudge at a time like that, so I decided I would do whatever I could to ease your pain." Her expression had grown distant, somewhat wistful, now that she was lost in the memory. "I'd always been in love with you, ever since the days when we used to play together as children. I'd never dreamed you could feel the same about me – but after you got over the shock of finding out that I was a woman…you fell in love with me too…"
Ranma was now staring at Ukyo openly, his food forgotten. She'd always been in love with him. She was beautiful, that was for sure – and he'd always felt a certain affection for her. And she could cook circles around Akane, no contest. But somehow the last words she'd spoken, "you fell in love with me too," seemed…unlikely. Unreal. Untrue.
As much as he did indeed love her, Ranma just couldn't feel himself being in love with Ukyo.
Of course, he said nothing of the sort to her. Instead they finished their meal in silence, each lost in his or her own thoughts, and then they turned in for the night.
The next morning, Ranma feigned illness and excused himself from work again, assuring Ukyo that he would be fine at home on his own, and that there was no need for her to stay and take care of him. After all, they couldn't afford to lose an entire day's profits from the restaurant, could they? Especially if he wasn't getting paid for the day either.
But the moment Ukyo was out the door, Ranma listened carefully to her retreating footsteps as he slipped out of bed and began to get dressed. He'd thought about this late into the night: He had to see her.
From what he had observed the other day, as much as it irked him to think it, Akane and Ryoga seemed to be quite happy together. They certainly appeared to be a more harmonious couple than he and Akane had ever been – and Ranma knew that Ryoga had a gentleness in him, a willingness to express emotion freely, without restraint, which Ranma himself had never possessed. Wasn't that what she was always saying – that he was too closed off? Too insensitive?
He had to know the truth, had to know whether she really was better off without him. And if she was…well, then perhaps the best thing to do would be to accept his new life without complaint. He'd probably quit the garbage man job as fast as he possibly could, but…perhaps it really would be better to leave things as they were.
Now that he new how to get there from the apartment, he arrived at the Tendo residence in record time.
"Oh—it's you," Akane said, mildly surprised, as she answered the door. "Well…what brings you here?"
"I…" Ranma began hesitantly, not exactly sure what he had intended to say. "I'm sorry – I should have called or something…"
"No, no – don't worry about it," Akane assured him, "Would you…like to come in?"
"Yes, thanks," he answered, stepping awkwardly inside. "I was just…well…I thought, if you're not busy, maybe we could talk awhile, get to know each other." Then he added quickly, "I mean, since you're married to Ryoga and all…"
She cast him a look that indicated she might be wondering about his sanity – which was not unjustified, for at the moment he was wondering the same thing – but she merely smiled politely and said, "Sure, that sounds…nice. I was just in the midst of preparing lunch – we can talk in the kitchen, if you don't mind. And you're welcome to stay for lunch yourself if you'd like."
"Ah…" Ranma waffled apprehensively as he followed her back to the kitchen. But since he could detect no toxic odors on the air, and saw no evidence of her usual destructively fervent cooking attempts, he decided to give her the benefit of the doubt for a change. "Thanks – that would be great."
He leaned against the counter to watch her as she returned to chopping a carrot into neat little slices. For a moment he merely watched her patient, measured movements, once again reminded strongly of her eldest sister.
"So," he began, trying to think of the best way to get the ball rolling, "this is a nice place you have here."
"It's my family home – my father passed it and our family training hall on to Ryoga and me when we got married. Ryoga runs the school now."
Ranma frowned. "Ryoga does? What about you?"
She looked up at him in mild surprise. "Me? Oh, I don't practice the martial arts."
He couldn't quite hide the concern from his voice when he answered. "You don't? But you always—that is, you seem…like you would be good at them." She raised an eyebrow at him questioningly, and he elaborated lamely, "I mean, you use such precision, uh…cutting those carrots."
"Well, I used to study when I was younger, but I gave all that up when I met Ryoga. I take it from the way you talk about it though that you're a martial artist yourself?"
"Hm?" he mumbled, having fallen slightly behind the conversation as he wondered why Akane, of all people, would ever have given up martial arts, "Oh, yeah, I am. In fact, that was sort of how I met Ryoga."
"Right – of course, the duel you two mentioned yesterday."
"Yeah…right. So, speaking of Ryoga," he transitioned slyly, "how did you two meet anyway?"
"Ryoga and me?" she laughed lightly to herself. "Well, it's actually sort of a cute story. See, my father was going through a bit of a rough time – he'd just received word that an old friend of his had passed away recently, which was made just that much worse by the fact that his friend's son was supposed to have been engaged to one of us and take over the dojo."
Ranma's heart tripped in his chest as the sense of déjà vu gone awry flooded him and ebbed away.
"Anyway, since we had no way of reaching the son – we didn't know where he was or how to find him – and he still didn't know about the engagement, father knew that he needed to find someone else to take over the dojo. Then, one day, Ryoga showed up at our front door asking for directions to Kyoto station," she snickered good-naturedly at that. "We told him he was in Tokyo, and invited him in for dinner. Anyway, dinner became a bed for the night, and a bed for the night became a permanent room, and before we knew it, he and I had fallen in love."
Her hands slowed in their chopping, and her gaze drifted upward to the sakura tree visible outside the kitchen window, a small smile on her face. Ranma merely watched her silently as she reflected.
Then her head tilted slightly to the side, and her expression turned mildly curious. "I've always wondered what ever happened to that other boy though – the son of my father's friend."
Ranma remained silent for a moment, even after she shrugged and returned to her cooking. Then he asked quietly, "Why did you give up the martial arts?"
She paused a moment, unnerved at the directness of the question, but then she continued, still trying to sound casual and offhand. "I don't know – it just didn't seem right to keep practicing them after I got engaged. I had so much to learn about taking care of a home before my sisters moved away, and I wanted to be a good wife for Ryoga. Something had to go."
"Being a good wife doesn't have to mean giving up the things you love just to wait hand and foot on your husband. You never—" he stopped himself just in time to avoid making a reference to his life with her, which she, of course, would not understand.
She regarded him searchingly. "I never what?"
He wanted to answer – for a moment he even considered it. "Nothing – I was just…thinking of someone else I know. Someone who reminds me of you."
"What about her?" Akane asked quietly.
Ranma hesitated, but supposed there was no harm in telling her as long as she thought he was thinking of someone else. "She…was my wife. She used to practice martial arts regularly – we ran a training hall together, in fact." Allowing himself a wryly affectionate smile, he continued, "She never did learn to cook – everything she ever attempted ended up with half of it being toxic and the other half all over the walls. And she was sort of a…tomboy, I guess. Far from being the perfect wife, she could barely keep the house together – the last time I saw her there was a puddle the size of the Sea of Japan in our living room. And it's not as if I was exactly the perfect husband either – I'm not really what you'd call the sensitive type, and I tended to attract a lot of trouble. Nothing too serious, but lets just say things were certainly never boring around our house. Both of us had tempers like powder kegs, and we fought a lot. But I loved her – I still love her."
Akane watched him throughout his musings, entranced. "What happened to her – did she…pass away?"
He met her eyes at that – eyes of a stranger. "You could say that, yeah."
Her expression turned sympathetic. "I'm sorry – you seem to care about her deeply."
He smiled somewhat wryly. And then, after only a moment's pause, he whispered. "She's you."
Akane's brow lowered into a frown. "I don't understand."
Now that he had begun there was no turning back. Who had he been kidding anyway? He couldn't live without her, curse or no curse – and he'd seen the look in her eye when she'd thought back to her days in the martial arts. She and Ryoga might make the perfect couple on the outside, but the real Akane was still in there somewhere, screaming to get out. What was the use of living a life without their constant clashes if it also meant losing the parts of each of them that made them feel alive?
He gripped her shoulders. "I know this won't make any sense to you, and you probably think I'm insane right now, but I have to say it. I'm love you Akane."
"You love me?" she spluttered. "What is this, some sort of joke? You met me yesterday!"
"No – I met you ten years ago, Akane, when my father and I returned from China, and you and I were engaged."
Her eyes widened as he spoke. "Then you're the…but no—no, that's not what happened…"
"Yes it is – it is what happened. Only like an idiot I made a wish that changed everything, and now I'm the only one who remembers the way things used to be—the way they ought to be."
"But…but that's impossible…Ranma, you're scaring me…"
"I know – I know, and I'm sorry, but you have to believe me. I love you—I can't lose you…" And with that, he pulled her to him and pressed his lips to hers, seeking refuge in her touch.
But, understandably, she pushed him away, slapping him across the face. "What on earth are you doing!"
Those words finally brought him back to his senses. What was he doing? Did he expect her to just suddenly throw herself into his arms simply because he told her that in another life they had been married – a story which was a bit tough to swallow in the first place? This was ridiculous – he wasn't solving anything here. All he was doing was molesting his best friend's wife.
"You're right…" he mumbled, beginning to wonder if he actually was going insane. "I'm sorry. I'll—I'll show myself out."
And thus he made a hasty exit, leaving her standing bewildered in the kitchen of the Tendo residence. The moment his feet hit the pavement, he broke into a run, and didn't stop moving until he'd reached the little stone bridge upon which he had stood the night he had wished to have his curse erased from his life.
Gazing down at the dark-haired reflection that stared back at him from the smooth, sun-dappled surface of the water below, he murmured to himself, "Those people who say 'Be careful what you wish for' really know their shit…"
"Seen enough?" a smiling voice questioned from behind him, and he whirled around to face the familiar bespectacled figure.
"Pop? Is that you?"
Genma spread his arms and grinned jovially. "The one and only."
"I thought you were supposed to be dead," Ranma said, amazed that he could still be surprised by anything at this point.
The older man crossed his arms and said wryly, "Well that's gratitude for you…"
His son, however, was growing impatient. "Come on, seriously Pop – what the hell's going on? Why are you here?"
"Well, someone had to explain things to you eventually, and since I'm dead in this universe, they figured they might as well send me."
He frowned, still confused. "They? Who's 'They'?"
Genma shrugged. "Oh you know – gods, angels, aliens…irrational numbers. Depends on what you believe. For me they're a harem of belly dancers, but to each his own…"
"And people say I'm a pervert…" Ranma grumbled. Genma ignored him.
"Look, it's really pretty simple," the elder Saotome explained. "You were in a bit of a rut, and you were starting to lose that old fighting spirit of yours, so the Powers that Be decided to give you a little perspective."
"Perspective," Ranma repeated. "Okay—so just what am I supposed to do now? How do I get back?"
"Not so fast. You see, that's just it – you're always looking for the quick fix. But life doesn't work that way, son. When it comes to the things that matter, not giving up doesn't just mean barreling through all opposition, but learning to accept the fact that even when you lose, you can still win. If you don't let life's little setbacks keep you from the person you love, that's a victory in itself."
Ranma, however, was still skeptical. "This from the man who once sold his son for a fish…"
"Hey! That was a long time ago, okay?" Genma defended. "And besides, death provides the ultimate perspective…"
They were silent for a brief stretch, but then Genma spoke again, more seriously than Ranma could ever remember hearing him speak. "Look, take it from someone who knows: It's easy to run away from your problems, easy to say 'I did it for her own good'—but it's never easy to forget what you've left behind. And once you really leave it behind, you can never completely get it back."
In that moment, Ranma saw his father in a new light. For once he wasn't just the idiot who'd sold him for a fish and engaged him to every eligible female from here to China – he was also just an ordinary man. Ranma had always missed his mother, but it had never occurred to him to wonder if his father had missed her too—if maybe the reason he had hid from her for so long wasn't only because of Ranma's curse. Maybe he had been afraid to look into her eyes and see a stranger—the way he had seen Akane today.
"Does that mean I'll get a second chance?" Ranma asked.
Genma smiled. "Granted…"
He blinked against the cool morning light that reflected off the walls of the bedroom, letting his eyes adjust and gradually come into focus. There, just inches away on the other side of the bed, her face smashed up against the corner of her pillow, and her short, dark hair horribly rumpled and mussed from sleep, lay Akane.
Ranma was quite certain she had never looked more beautiful.
He brushed a lock of hair away from her face, and her brow furrowed as she drew a breath in through her nose, stirring in her sleep, though not waking. He must have lain there for nearly a half an hour, just watching her sleep, until at last her breathing changed its pattern and her eyelids cracked open sleepily.
Her face scrunched, and she rubbed a hand across it to wake herself up – an then, at last, her eyes beginning to clear, she noticed her audience and regarded her husband with a curious frown.
"Morning, Akane," Ranma said quietly.
"Morning," she replied with some trepidation, clearly recalling the less than good terms they had been on when they had gone to sleep the night before.
He let a beat pass in silence before speaking again – but when he did, he looked her directly in the eyes and spoke softly, sincerely. "I'm sorry…"
"For what?" she questioned.
Smiling somewhat wryly, he replied simply, "Everything."
She smiled back, and her hand found his beneath the covers, their fingers lacing together naturally, as though they belonged to one body. "I'm sorry too."
"God, I love you," he marveled in a whisper. "I forget sometimes just how much…"
Akane's smile trembled slightly at the sincerity in his voice – a rare gift from one so prone to detachment. "I know," she murmured quietly, giving his hand a gentle squeeze, and he moved forward to press his lips to hers in a gentle, lingering, Saturday-morning kiss. His kisses trailed down her neck to her collar bone, and she wrapped her arms loosely around his neck.
As he made love to the woman who was his wife, his rival, his confidant, his measuring standard, his advocate, his accuser, and his friend, Ranma had only one thought in his mind: It really is a wonderful life…
A/N: See what I mean? I may perhaps go back and re-edit this story again someday to try to smooth out its rough edges – but for now I'm done with it…