Disclaimer: Ranma 1/2 is owned and created by people much more clever than myself. The story below is really a sociological exploration into the Belgium colonization at Midway.

Before we begin, special thanks to:

The whole wit of Asia rolled up into one kamikaze pilot,

Cannibal Who Snacks

Now we begin, mmmm . . .

The kick to his stomach had been hard, but Ranma had taken worse. The fall from the bamboo shoots sticking out over the valley of springs was like a slow-motion picture. On the edges of his vision he saw dancing light, like the opening of a show.

Wind wrapped about his body, pulling his ponytail over his shoulder so it whipped about in front of him as he fell backwards. There was only ten feet of difference between where he was when the panda had attacked him and the water below. Water that had caught his father and returned the animal gloating at him atop another bamboo pole.

Given more time and Ranma might have been able to angle himself to land on solid ground. Without the shock of being drop kicked by a panda, he might not have been falling. If he had taken the kick better he might be able to react right now. But his mind was busy running through these facts that he could not.

And he was submerged beneath the spring.

Ranma thrashed about fruitlessly for a moment, his hand clawing for something to hold on to. No matter how strong his feet kicked, Ranma could not breach the surface. Numbness began to travel through his limbs making Ranma wonder if he was going to die, drowning in this little spring before having seen his mother. No! He would see her! Show her how manly he was and how great in the Art he'd become! Please, just a foothold, something to leverage himself out of the water!

A Stitch in Time

By Michael Fetter

Twenty years ago . . .

A sudden chill ran down her spine and constricted her lungs. Kumiko gasped and clutched her kimono close to ward off the cold. Her eyes were closed as she concentrated on controlling herself. It was like she was catching her breath for the first time. What had happened?

"Miko-chan?"

A hand, rough with calluses, strength controlled to a feather-light touch. Soun wrapped his hand about hers and let her squeeze until the episode had passed. He was a kind and loving man, seeing her through this terrible time in her life. Hopefully it would pass; she feared he would eventually give up on her and she would be alone.

With shuddering breaths, Kumiko opened her eyes and found Soun beside her. He was taller by a few inches, long black hair tied back in a ponytail, clean faced and handsome, and had a certain fire in his eyes. She suspected it had to do with his training in the Art, but those eyes grew brighter as they looked at her. To bathe in their light the rest of her life, what she wouldn't give . . .

She patted his hand and smiled, the pain and panic dissipating. People around them stared, some trying to shush them, as the movie continued. It was a romantic film for couples. Their fourth date in so many weeks, and since they first met a day did not go by without Soun's smiling face at her doorstep. It had been like a crushing hug about her heart when her friend, Nodoka, had introduced them. She knew then it was love.

"Do you want to leave and get some fresh air?" Soun asked, concern clouding his eyes. He did not respond to the man behind them complaining.

Kumiko smiled and nodded in appreciation. He led them through the seat, pardoning them to the other patrons, and out the door. It was late, stars lit the dark sky with the moon's pale yellow glow. The night air caught the steam from her mouth and tugged lightly at her hair. She took some deep breaths, still holding onto Soun's arm as he waited for her nerves to settle.

"Are you feeling better?" He asked hopefully. Under the lamplight Kumiko could see his dark gi with the stitching of the style of martial arts he'd been schooled in; Anything Goes. It had been near a half year since his training had finished and Soun had returned to Tokyo, Nerima Ward with a fellow student and friend, Saotome Genma.

Kumiko gave him a rye grin and tucked her arm through his and kissed him on the cheek. "Better, thank you, Soun-kun."

'Soun-kun?'

Kumiko blinked. "What?"

"What is it, Miko-chan?" Soun asked, noticing her look of surprise.

Kumiko looked about the area. They were near the front of the theater, but it was too late for anyone to buy tickets for anything. She and Soun were alone except for the young man cleaning up in the box office. "Did you hear anything just now?"

Soun leaned his head one way and waited. "No, nothing. What did it sound like?"

"It . ." she shook her head. "Nothing. I'm sure it was nothing." Soun nodded and patted her hand on his arm, escorting her towards the park. It was the easiest way to return to her parents' house. It was also a very romantic conclusion to their evening.

'What's goin on? Where am I?'

Her fingers curled about the fabric of Soun's gi. That voice? It was the same one. Was someone following them? "You didn't hear that?"

Soun tried again to find the origin of the voice she had heard, but again he shook his head. He hadn't heard anything. Maybe it was a nervous reaction to her sickness, he suggested. Soun only remarked on her illness as something temporary that would be gone soon. It made her feel better though she knew better. Three doctors had diagnosed the disease as a genetic problem from her mother's side. There wasn't the science to deal with it when she was growing up and now it was too late to begin treatment. It caused her convulsions, which had so far been minimal and far in between, and the lightheadedness. This would be a first for hearing voices.

"Maybe I'm tired." Soun smiled and nodded, yes that must be it.

'Why can't I move? Where's pops?' The voice began to sound desperate. 'I-I can't feel my body!'

It was terrible. That voice, it was so sad and afraid. Like a little boy crying in her head until she could not help but cry herself. What was wrong with her?

"S-Soun." Kumiko sobbed, tears streaking down her cheeks making the weather feel cooler. "Soun I-I . . S-s-soun."

"What's wrong, Kumiko?" He stood before her, his hands resting on her shoulders as he attempted to look her straight in the eye.

Her lip was quivering. She felt so afraid, so little and frightened. Her cry became full sobs and she buried herself in Soun's chest, wanting, needing, to feel his warm embrace hold her, protect her. "W-What's wrong with me?"

~

Present . . .

"See, Mr. Customer. Curse activate by cold water and vanish with warm." The guide explained as he emptied the contents of his kettle over Ranma.

Ranma sighed in relief as he watched the breasts shrink and his body grow. It was only temporary, thank the Kami. It still felt strange and he was not just a little frightened by the experience. He looked back into his memories and it was like they had been doubled. He remembered chasing his father, now cursed to become a panda, through the springs until he'd caught the lumbering animal and beat it hard with his . . her fists.

It was the guide that kept her from knocking the fat oaf into unconsciousness.

Ranma stared at his larger hands, hands that could break stone, scarred and strong. Part of him had been on the edge of panic, feeling helpless and alone. He shivered at the memory and hoped not to repeat it.

On the way to the guide's hut where he would explain the curses and offer them some dry clothes, Ranma had the feeling of gloom settle over him along with the darkening skies.

"Not long now, Mr. Customers." The guide nodded his head and led them further around the springs.

Thunder crackled overhead.

~

Kumiko sat up quickly as the sensation ran through her spine. It was like cold and electricity over her skin. She ran from her room and into the bathroom across the hallway from where her parents slept. It took her a few tries to catch the light switch then close the door behind her. Her body was trembling with fear. This time the fit had woken her from her sleep. Those were the worst ones.

Her fingers clawed at her scalp as the strange sound that had startled her continued to ramble through her mind. Kumiko tried bracing herself against the sink with both arms and closed her eyes, willing the voices to stop.

There was sudden panic in them and they became coherent.

Frightened more than she had been before, Kumiko stared at herself in the mirror. "Who are you?" Her lower lip trembled and she couldn't hide the quavering in her voice. "What do you want from me?!"

'I don't want anything from you! What's happening to me?! Are you doing this?!'

Kumiko broke down crying as the voice answered her with anger and desperation that throbbed inside her skull like a hammer. What was happening to her?! The doctors said that it may get worse, but they never mentioned voices. Why couldn't she have been born normal?! "I'm not doing anything! I'm just hearing voices! Go away! Please go away!"

Her hands squeaked over the porcelain as they lost hold of the sides and she tumbled to the ground. Kumiko dropped her head into her hands and sobbed. This had happened before, but she had thought it was nothing. It went away for weeks! Why come back now?!

'D-Don't cry!' The voice groaned nervously in her head. 'Ah, geez. I didn't mean to make you cry, but I don't know what's going on either and if it weren't for my pop knocking me into that spring I'd never have this curse that stupid oyagi. Next time I see him I'm gonna pound'em inta dirt and-'

The rambling continued to increase in pitch and pace until Kumiko could not handle it. She could not block it out by putting her hands over her ears because it was all in her head. Frustration and fear were tearing away at her psyche and she felt herself losing control. "Stop! Stop yelling!"

Remarkably the voice stopped on a dime and Kumiko released her ears. It was like standing beneath a waterfall, pounding water all she could distinguish, and then silence so complete she felt alone. Breathing deeply, Kumiko looked in to herself to rationalize what had happened. The voice ceased when she wanted it to. Was it her imagination, a split personality? At least it would listen to her. "You're inside my head and hurts when you scream."

There was a moment of silence while Kumiko slowly picked herself off the ground to stare into the mirror again. Was it over?

'I'm sorry. I . . I d-didn't know.' The voice was sincere and concerned. Kumiko noticed now that it was not her voice like she would've guessed, but a deeper, masculine voice. 'I'm in your head?'

"Yes. You're just a hallucination. This stupid disease is making me crazy." What was she doing? Having a discussion with herself? If she were going insane then it would be better if she could handle the voice at least.

'W-What disease? Yer sick? I'm sorry, but I don't know how I got here. I didn't mean ta hurt ya.'

Kumiko shook her head, then felt stupid since she wasn't certain if that voice would understand her. It was strange though, wouldn't a piece of her know about her condition? "No, I've been sick for a very long time. Just lately it's been getting worse." Silly or no, Kumiko could almost believe the voice was listening to her. "Who are you?"

'Ranma. Saotome Ranma.'

"Saotome?" Kumiko blinked and tried to think back. The name was very familiar. Soun had come in with another guy with whom he'd been training. Maybe she'd made some strange association and given it to the voice in her head. The guy, from what she could remember, was a total slob so it would make sense to name the voice after something she detested. "Isn't that Nodoka's boyfriend's name?"

'Uh, my pop's name is Saotome Genma. You know him?'

"Uh, not . . not really." She didn't know why, but she blushed. The thought occurred to her that she had given the bozo a child without meaning to. Maybe she needed to rationalize with herself. "You're his son? B-But he and Nodoka aren't even married yet!" It was too late at night. She was tired. She couldn't think straight. Kumiko couldn't stop herself before falling further into this hallucination. "That louse has been cheating on No-chan!"

'What are ya talkin bout? Pops and mom are married. More'n sixteen years at least.'

She sighed. What was wrong with her? Kumiko was certain this wasn't part of her sickness. There had to be some rationalization for all of this. Dreaming? Yes! She was still dreaming! Then all she had to do was play the dream through, wake up, and that would be that! Now what had Ranma said earlier? "You . . You were cursed?"

'Hai.'

Pleased with herself, Kumiko delved further. "What kind of curse?"

'It's uh, kind of embarrasin.'

"Please Ranma. It might be important." She didn't know why, but she continued to watch the blue-haired girl in the mirror, almost imagining it was somebody else. Some strange girl that talked to herself.

'Nyanichuan, spring of drowned girl.'

That sounded too weird. Where would her mind have come up with that one? Kumiko pinched her arm hard. The skin snapped back in place as she held off a yelp of pain. Swallowing, Kumiko looked sadly at the reflection again. She wasn't asleep. But was she hallucinating?

That returned her to the strange idea of a cursed spring and the odd name.

'Whatcha thinkin?'

"I-I don't know." Kumiko stifled her quavering voice and looked for a new hope. "But if you aren't a hallucination and you were cursed . ."

'Feh, no doubt about that one. Ain't fun for a guy to lose his manhood every time he's splashed with a little cold water.'

This was the sort of thing people called stretching, but she had nothing else to grab for! "Could it be . . you were sent to me by the curse?"

The voice paused and Kumiko believed it was thinking this idea over. 'Yeah, I guess, but why?'

Well, she was either insane and agreeing with herself, or she wasn't and this incredible situation was really happening to her. Kumiko decided to ditch logic this once and put all her hope in the latter. "I don't know. Maybe we're supposed to somehow help each other."

'Do what?'

"I don't know! Do you think I asked for this?!" Kumiko snapped at the reflection, watching her angry expression stare back at her.

'Maybe you did! I don't even know you!'

Kumiko gasped and reflexively placed her hands over her ears. "Don't yell. Don't yell." She waited a minute, and when nothing happened, Kumiko looked up again and saw herself trembling. "My name is Nitsumi Kumiko. Is that better?"

'Uh, yeah. Sorry fer yellin.' The voice was sheepish, or was it Ranma was sheepish?

"It's all right. If I were in your position I might not have stopped yelling." Kumiko thought back to when this had first happened. It hadn't lasted this long then. "You were the voice I heard a few months ago, aren't you?"

'Months? I got this curse yesterday.'

"Maybe time travels differently through this curse." She speculated. "If you are from the future where Nodoka and Genma are married and have a sixteen year old child then maybe you are being sent back at different times when it is important for you to be here."

'I'd rather not be here at all.'

You and me both, Kumiko thought with a sick feeling in her stomach. "I know, Ranma, but what if the curse isn't really a curse."

'Hey, I've got a girl's body and I was born a guy dammit.'

"Could it be the curse sent you to me so I can help you be a woman?"

Wind blew by the bathroom window as Kumiko waited. 'Ewe! That's gross. Their is no way I'm gonna stay a girl.'

"Well, uhm," Kumiko let go of the sink now that she had let herself become caught up in a conversation with herself. She headed over to the furo at the other end and sat on the lip, her feet planted on the shag carpet just outside of the furo. The water inside would be too cool to sit in now.

Kumiko faced the window, looking out to the neighbor's house and the tree separating them. The limbs swayed only slightly now and the storm seemed to be clearing. "Maybe you had to become a girl to come to me and help me out then."

'With what?'

"I don't know! Why don't you try to think of something!" Kumiko snapped. What made Ranma think she had all the answers?!

'Geez, sorry.' The voice grumbled to itself, 'Girls.'

"I can still here you." Kumiko reminded him flatly.

'Hehe, uh, right. Let's see now. Maybe I'm, uh . . here to . . I don't know.' By the sound of his voice, Kumiko could see the blush riding over the boy's cheeks, though she had no idea what he looked like.

She asked, "Didn't Nodoka teach you anything?"

'Not really. I've been on a training trip with my pops for the last ten years.'

"What about Nodoka? She wouldn't just let her son be taken away from her. Not for that long." Her friend Nodoka was only eighteen like herself, but already she was conforming to a more traditional role. Kumiko knew that Nodoka would never allow some things, and losing her family for ten years was certainly one of them. Although, Kumiko frowned now, Nodoka was seeing that jerk Saotome Genma. "That's it!"

'What? What's it?'

"Maybe you're here to see your mother because something happens to her while you're . . . gone." Her voice fell and she almost kicked herself. Given, she didn't know if Ranma was real, but even still she'd really put her foot in her mouth. "No, I'm just being stupid. I'm sure it's got to be something else, right?!"

'. . I . . I don't know.' Kumiko waited while Ranma seemed in conflict with himself, maybe on the verge of tears. 'I haven't seen my mom in a long time. I hardly remember her face anymore.' Kumiko sighed heavily. 'Nitsumi-san?'

"Yes, Ranma?"

'Can . . Can we go see my mom. Y'know, just in case?'

A small smile, Kumiko nodded though there was no one there to see it. "Sure Ranma. Will you be sticking around for a while?"

'I don't know.'

Kumiko remembered Ranma saying he was only here because of a curse. Maybe he could only contact her at certain times. 'I get pulled back to the present when I'm splashed with warm water. I don't think the other part of me knows what's going on here.'

"Well, we'll just have to hurry then, huh?" She made an encouraging smile. This time Kumiko decided it was for herself if Ranma couldn't see it.

'Thank you, Nitsumi-san.'

"Kumiko, Ranma."

'Kumiko.'

There was a knock at the door that gave Kumiko pause. She hadn't realized it was from the actual bathroom door.

"Ranma?" She searched internally for the feeling of his presence. "Ranma, are you there?"

The door slid open and an older woman with dark brown hair peered in with drowsy eyes. "Who are you talking to, Kumiko-chan?"

"N-Nobody. Just thinking out loud." Kumiko laughed and scratched the back of her head nervously.

"Well, get back to bed or you'll look terrible on your double date with Nodoka." Her mother closed the door and the floor squeaked as she shambled back to bed herself.

Oh, that's right. Kumiko tried to call for Ranma again, but there was no response. She needed to get back to bed if she was going to meet up with Nodoka-chan later this morning.

~

Ranma blinked away the warm water from a kettle the Chinese guide had given him. "I hate this curse."

"Let's go, boy." His father was already at the door with his pack over his shoulders, clothing having been readjusted for his normal form. From his memory, Ranma recalled them returning to the hut and meeting Plum, a little girl, and falling asleep on the floor after a shared meal with the Chinese guide and his daughter.

"Where to pops?" Ranma asked, hoisting another backpack onto his own shoulders. They didn't carry much but the essentials, which alone weighed a good ninety pounds.

Genma led Ranma outside where the guide was waiting. It was late morning and the sun was out over the mountains and pushing away the mist over the cursed valley. With good reason, they had chosen not to spar this morning. "The guide is going to take us to the Amazon village. He thinks they might know how to cure us."

"Heh, sounds good to me!" Ranma smirked and almost skipped after the two men. He could almost hear the word 'Sayonara' with the cure the Amazons will gladly hand over. The double memories nagged at him though. What if he was supposed to help Kumiko and getting a cure now meant trouble later? "Hey pops? You been having weird dreams while you're a panda?"

Genma looked at his son oddly then shook his head. "No. Why? You haven't been thinking about being a girl, have you?!"

"What?! No way!" Ranma glared back at his father for even thinking such a thing. "Just been gettin weird dreams is all."

"Oh. Probably just some shock from getting a curse. I'm sure it will pass. Especially after we get a cure."

Nodding, Ranma strapped his pack on tighter so it wouldn't bounce too much. "Then let's hurry."

~

'Feh! Stupid forest. Stupid water.'

Drowsily, Kumiko yawned and looked around for the alarm clock. It read three in the morning. That wasn't what she'd set it for. Then what was that noise? "Ranma?"

'Who?' the voice sounded startled, then settled quickly, dropping its voice to the whisper Kumiko had been using. 'Oh, hey Kumiko. Why's it so dark?'

"It's the middle of the night, Ranma. Can't you come back later?" She tried to bury herself in the pillow beneath her head and curl up beneath the covers.

'Ain't like I got a choice when I'm a girl or not.' Ranma grumbled. 'Stupid curse.'

The bed shifted and an arm wrapped about Kumiko's waist. She smiled and held the arm closer. "Is something wrong, Miko-chan?"

Kumiko rolled a bit until she faced Soun. He was still mainly asleep, his eyes closed and his breath slow and soft. She could see the beginnings of a beard on his face. He'd been contemplating let it grow out since it would be easier than shaving. It still felt too weird when they kissed for Kumiko to agree.

'Gah! Why's there a naked man there?!'

In the dark Soun couldn't see her wince; he probably couldn't see her anyway. She kissed him on the lips and removed herself from his grasp. "I'll be right back, husband."

She . . They? . . walked down the hallway of her new home with Soun. It was amazing what he had done. Soun's parents were well enough off and he had kept a bank account going while he was training in the Art. Not long after they had met, Soun dipped into those funds to start building a home and dojo where he said he would teach to earn a living, and so far things had been going great.

He contracted builders for everything but the dojo. Soun wanted to build that by hand. She could feel the strength in his arms that built that dojo. It was wonderfully made. He was very careful, picking out only the best supplies and reading through manuals to be sure he was doing everything properly.

The house had two floors, upstairs having four rooms - wishful thinking Kumiko thought - and the downstairs had the master bedroom, furo, laundry room, dining room, kitchen, and a living room that looked out onto the backyard where the koi jumped about in their pond.

Kumiko's hand trailed along the banister as she passed the stairs on her way to the furo. It was just like the one in her parents' house. Sliding the door open she flipped on the lights and strolled in.

'Ack! Yer naked! Close yer eyes! Close yer eyes!'

Gasping again, Kumiko clenched her eyes shut. "Ranma!"

'W-What?'

"Are you trying to give me a migraine?" She asked with some irritation wearing at her tone.

'A what?'

Kumiko rolled her eyes. "A headache. Does your father teach you nothing about manners?"

'Not really. He's just a stupid, lazy panda.'

"Panda?" Kumiko pushed that aside and searched for one the bath stool that would be there. At least she knew now if Ranma could see through her eyes or not. "Nevermind. Are you back in Japan yet?"

'Uh, I was just cursed a few days ago and we're sorta walkin in the middle of the Quinghai province.'

"Where?"

'It's like a hundred miles from the eastern coast of China.'

Kumiko bit her lip. "So you still don't know if your mother . ."

' . . No.'

Sighing, Kumiko sat down on the stool and set her chin down on her hands. Carefully, she opened her eyes, certain she wasn't staring at a mirror or herself. "Well, I can't go see her in the middle of the night and I can't walk around with my eyes closed either."

"Miko-chan? You aren't having another fit are you?" Soun's voice carried into the bathroom from outside the shoji. He'd helped her many times before with only concern for her well being in mind. Such an angel, she thought.

Kumiko made her voice light and pleasant. "No, Soun-kun. Everything is . .," she paused and tried to swallow. Her stomach suddenly churned and she rushed for the waste bin beside the sink. Muscles clenched and Kumiko released the contents of her stomach into the plastic bin. She felt Ranma shiver; they shared sensations as well.

'Oh, gross. I felt that too. There's somethin else wrong with yer stomach. I can feel it.'

The shoji was shoved aside and Soun came charging in. "Kumiko!" He knelt down beside her and put his arms over her shoulders. "What's wrong? Should I call a doctor?"

Kumiko spit the foul taste from her mouth. "No." It still hung in the back of her mouth as she wiped her lips with her hand. "It passed. I'm fine now."

"You look very pale, Kumiko. Are you sure?" Soun turned her to look into Kumiko's eyes. She had just done something disgusting and he only concerned himself with her condition. Was there any question why she loved this man?

An embarrassed smile, Kumiko nodded and brushed his scruffy cheek with her hand. "Yes, I'm sure. Thank you for checking on me."

Soun sighed and pulled her in for a hug.

'Oh, don't hug him!' Kumiko ignored him and gripped Soun-kun about the waist. A new shiver went through her and she heard Ranma making hacking noises. 'That's gross; he's pokin me . . you, us!'

Patting him on the shoulder, Kumiko let go. "Go on back to bed, Soun. I'll be there in a little bit." Her gaze began to wander.

'Ah, man, what are ya-' Ranma's whine turned to panic. 'Don't look there!'

Smiling as she watched a naked Soun leave the bathroom, Kumiko turned on some cold water to wash out her mouth. "Ten years on the road has turned you into a prude, Ranma."

'Whatever. I feel nauseous now.' Ranma remarked sarcastically.

They ended up spending the morning together. After trying to sleep, neither she nor Ranma could concentrate. Having someone living in your mind kept you up. She wasn't certain if Ranma could sleep anyway.

Around five in the morning, Kumiko rose from bed and grabbed some clothing. Ranma nearly went into another one of his panics as she took her bath. Kumiko might have felt guilty if she had placed Ranma in this position, but she hadn't. He was too honorable to threaten her with more screaming so she imagined the long silence signaled Ranma leaving or passing out. Kumiko giggled with the thought of someone passing out inside her head because she was washing herself.

There was little to do so early in the morning. With Soun teaching classes, Kumiko used her schooling to run the dojo. They had been doing well since the dojo opened. Anything Goes was such a strange and exciting name that many people signed up just to say they were students of that exotic Art.

When there were no bills or payments to take, Kumiko kept herself busy with the house and the little bit of Tai Chi Chuan she knew. Ranma knew of this style, odd since Anything Goes did not seem the type to blend in such a smooth and peaceful style. He helped her fix her stances and understand the meanings to each movement. When it was over, Kumiko felt greatly improved and thanked her cursed companion. He was going to be a wonderful teacher.

It was still too early to make breakfast and Soun would not likely be up until seven. Ranma complained, but he didn't have much of a say in whether she decided to clean her home or not. Kumiko kept him distracted with more talk though.

'Workin? Pops? First I ever heard of him doin somethin like that.'

"How do you get the money for your food while you travel?" She was not surprised at Ranma's reaction. The construction work, which paid better than assistant instructor, was actually Genma's third job. He, unlike Soun, squandered whatever money he got on food and sake. So when he and Nodoka started to get more intimate, Genma was forced to make a living to be worthy of her.

'Got me.' Kumiko could almost feel her shoulders shrug in much the same way Ranma's voice suggested he was doing. 'Pops used ta steal stuff or catch somethin in the forests until I could do it and sometimes he just talks ta people, they shake hands, and we're off the next day with plenty.'

Kumiko snorted and dusted the dining room table. "Maybe I can see why your father had to go on a ten year training trip."

'No kiddin.' Ranma snorted in agreement. 'And he doesn't talk about mom much either. Just tells me to go train when I ask or he says it's not manly.'

"Not manly? That's a stupid thing to say." She frowned and wiped harder. The more she heard about this idiot the more she wanted to warn Nodoka against him. Kumiko felt guilty afterwards since she was talking to Nodoka and Genma's son.

'Well, only girls cry cause their weak an stuff so-'

Kumiko's face turned red. "Hey! Where did you hear such idiotic things?!"

'Uh, pops said that girls are-'

"You're listening to him?" She arched her eyebrows. How could Ranma be so stupid? Sure he did grow up with only Genma for ten years, but he had to have some sense. "The guy who's teaching you to steal and probably ran off on your mother?!"

'Uh . .'

They were both cut off by a cough from the hallway. "Who are you talking to Kumiko?" Soun asked.

Kumiko dropped her dust cloth. "Soun! What are you doing up already?"

"I thought I heard you talking to somebody and it's too late to go back to bed." He replied, watching her neutrally. She must have seemed out of her mind to be, seemingly, holding a conversation with herself.

Looking away to avoid Soun's eyes, she found her cloth and finished cleaning the table. "Sorry. I didn't mean to wake you."

'At least he's wearin clothes this time. Don't look down!'

"Well, you made me do it." Kumiko snickered.

Soun nodded hesitantly. "If you say so, Miko-chan." He kissed her on the cheek and headed out the backdoor. "I'm going to warm-up in the dojo for a while."

"All right, Soun-kun."

'Smooth one.'

Kumiko scowled. "It was your fault."

'Was not.'

Whatever. She set back to her cleaning with more vigor. That Ranma could be such a jerk sometimes!

Kumiko moved through the rest of her chores before breakfast stiffly. She would have to be more careful next time. If Soun found her talking out loud to Ranma then he may believe there was something else wrong with her. She didn't want him to be disgusted with her!

With breakfast, Soun had not mentioned anything, sitting down at the head of the table and talking about some of the little things. Kumiko couldn't help but think he was studying her silently, waiting for something to criticize. She sat straighter, acted more attentive, and hoped he forgot about this morning.

She jumped when his hand grasped hers. He repeated the words she'd missed while in her own thoughts. Soun kept his voice calm and low, soothing in a caring way.

Smiling, Kumiko patted his hand. He was worried about her morning sickness. "I'm sure it is nothing, Soun-kun."

"Well, I just want to make sure. Please?" He leaned closer and cupped her cheek to stare into her eyes. A doleful child.

'That's pathetic.'

Kumiko finally nodded. "That's very sweet of you. If it will ease your mind then I'm sure there is no harm in it. It's been a while since I've had a check up anyway." She was not very interested in what Ranma thought was manly and what was not. Most of his views skewed by the lout Genma anyway. This might be why Ranma was here. He needed to learn about the real world and how to deal with people's emotions, socialization.

They kissed.

'. . .'

Soun took her to the clinic only a few blocks from their home. It was a private practice with two doctors and a few nurses, though it was a little crowded when they were all working.

Everything in the clinic was set up to make the patient comfortable. The two doctors could do just about anything short of surgery and people had been going to them for a long time, so they were well known as experienced and caring.

Kumiko sat on the patient's table with Soun pacing back and forth in front of her. He seemed lost in his thoughts, concerned, happy, and scared; it all passed over his features to quickly for Kumiko to understand what he was thinking. The doctor had only come in to ask her how she felt and draw a little blood.

In her head, Ranma complained that he was getting bored, but she didn't dare respond this time with Soun close-by. Her husband was making another pass when the door opened and the doctor entered, smiling pleasantly, the results of his test on a clipboard in his hands.

"Well?" Soun was in the middle-aged doctor's face quickly, anxious.

The doctor nodded. "It's just as you thought, Tendou-san."

"Yatta!" Soun spun around with a wide grin over his face and pointed a mock-accusing finger at her. "You've known about this, haven't you Miko-chan? You were talking to the child this morning!"

'How . . How did he figure it out?'

Kumiko's face paled. He knew about Ranma?! But how could he know that? What was he going to do? Could the doctor help her? Have things like this happened before? There were too many questions; Kumiko could only blink and stammer incoherently. "S-Soun, h-how-?"

"I'm so happy!" He grasped her about the waist and picked her up in a tight embrace.

"Congratulations, Kumiko." She looked down on the doctor as Soun continued to hold her in the air. "You're going to be a mother."

'. . !?!"

~

Ranma paused in his eating as he poured the hot water over his head. Smiling, he chuckled, "Congratulations, Kumiko."

After running through the province of Quinghai, Ranma and Genma came across a small city, mainly farmland with a small center for commerce and government. The dirt roads were dry and dusty and the buildings were mainly wood with a little concrete. The people were too busy with their own lives to bother about two travelling martial artists, even if they were a little redhead and her panda.

Near the center of town, Genma's nose led them to a noodle restaurant. The poor village did not charge them much, a good thing considering how hungry they were. A hungry Saotome consumed vast amounts of food.

During the third helping, Ranma and Genma felt something approaching. Without staying to wonder, they ran from the table and out the door just as the wall by their table collapsed. A young woman with long lavender hair, beads over her ears, and a Chinese dress that fit her like a second skin. She smirked and twirled the bonbori in her hands.

Leveling his breathing, Ranma stood solidly in wait for the warrior maiden.

"Ranma? What are you doing?" Genma asked, looking over his shoulder while running down the street.

Staring at the Amazon, Ranma replied firmly, "I'm gonna fight her. Can't run forever, pops."

"But she wants to kill you, and it isn't manly to fight a girl, boy." Genma reminded him from across the street. He had jumped behind someone's pushcart for the illusion of protection.

Scanning the area with only her eyes, Shampoo settled her gaze on Ranma last. He knew what she was looking for, but she would have to deal with the male version.

"I'm not startin a fight, pops. She is." He frowned as Shampoo stalked up to him and snarled something in his face. The bonbori were left pointing at the ground. Ranma could only postulate what Shampoo was asking. "Too bad I don't speak Chinese."

Seeing the futility in further conversation, Shampoo snorted and stalked off in another direction. Ranma and Genma watched her go, confused and relieved at the same time. She disappeared around the corner and they both slumped under the dropping adrenaline rush.

"Did you win? What happened?" Genma asked by his son now.

Ranma shrugged his shoulders. "Got me, pops. She just started talkin, but she didn't fight me."

A man from inside the ruined restaurant walked out, looking both ways for the Amazon before stepping onto the street. "Scuse, sir. She say she looking for young woman dressed like you. Lucky you not who Amazon after. Amazon not give up easily."

"Do ya know why she was chasin me, I mean, the girl?"

"She say she give Kiss of Death. When Amazon beaten by outsider woman, Amazon must kill them."

"What about if a guy beat'er?"

The man's face turned slightly apologetic, realizing what Ranma was really asking. "Then she must marry."

Genma tapped Ranma on the shoulder and handed the boy his backpack. Jerking his thumb over his shoulder, "Come on, boy. Let's go before she comes back and figures it out."

Ranma nodded quickly and followed his father. "Right behind ya, pops."

~

'W-What the hell is going on?! It feels like I'm dyin!'

"Shut up, Ranma! I know how it feels!" Kumiko screamed with her eyes clenched shut tightly. Her hand was wrapped about someone else's hand, but their fingers felt as if they were being mashed. Kumiko couldn't think about the person's hand with her mind stuck on her own pain however.

"Whatever you say, Miko-chan!" Soun hastily agreed, praying that his left hand still worked when all of this was over. He was dividing his attention between his wife, her dark blue hair matted to her face by sweat and the veins on her forehead pulsing, and the doctor between her legs.

Two nurses were waiting on the side to assist the doctor, one bearing a soft white towel and the other a pair of ties and scissors. Everything that had seemed so white when Soun arrived ten hours ago were fading to beige with pink trim, blue floors surrounded in towels.

'Oh god, oh god, Oh God, OH GOD!'

Kumiko still had her eyes squeezed shut and her teeth clenched with the effort of what she was doing. "Hang on, Ranma!"

After what seemed like hours, the doctor spoke, "And relax."

Kumiko collapsed onto her back with heavy breaths. Her hand was still around Soun's, but the grip was not so strong. The contraction was over, but she still felt like she was being split in half.

"Good job, Kumiko. A few more pushes and that ought to do it." Was the doctor's soft and soothing voice. It was maddening to Kumiko that the doctor should be so calm while she was in such pain. No more traditional births after this.

"You're doing great, Miko-chan, you're almost there." Soun smiled, leaning over her body so that she only saw his face. It helped relax her a little, but she couldn't work up the energy to fake a smile just then. Sweat was rolling down her brow, which Soun wiped away with his free hand, stroking her face softly.

'What's that guy doing between your legs? Is he trying to kill us?!'

"I'm having a baby, Ranma." Kumiko grit through her teeth.

Soun blinked. "Who?" He leaned closer then looked to her swollen abdomen. "Kumiko, who are you talking to?"

"Get ready to push again, Kumiko."

"Oooh." She moaned in tired disappointment.

"And push."

Soun could see her teeth gnash and her face scrunch up with the effort. "Nnnnngghh!"

'We're bein split in two by this kid!'

She relaxed.

"Good job, Kumiko. One more push ought to do it." The doctor didn't look up from beneath the sheet.

Kumiko shook her head and gasped for breath. "I-I can't. I'm so tired."

"You can do it, Miko-chan." Soun tried to assure her, placing his other hand over her smaller one clutching his numb right. "Just think about Kasumi playing in the backyard with her little brother. You can do it." He pat her hand and kissed her cheek.

As if she were searching for divine help, Kumiko looked back at Soun with pleading eyes. "I-I . ."

"And push."

'You can do it, Kumiko-chan.' Ranma urged her on though she could hear the strain in his voice. Shared pain.

"NNNNNNGGGHHH!"

Ranma roared along with her until she couldn't tell who was the one really yelling anymore. 'Keep pushin! Keep- oh, thank god.'

Kumiko dropped back to the table bonelessly, a cold tingle running through her limbs. Her body felt wasted, a heap of useless skin and muscle.

The doctor held the newborn up by its feet and smacked it once.

"Wahh! Wahh!"

"You did it, Miko-chan. I knew you could." Soun smiled merrily and kissed her on the lips.

'I . . I never knew.' There was nothing but sincere respect in Ranma's voice. 'Man, girls are tough.' He shivered as the placenta was removed.

Kumiko laughed into Soun's embrace and grabbed him harder.

One of the nurses held up the clean child to be seen draped in a plump white towel. "Congratulations, Tendou-san. It's a girl!"

"A girl?" Soun asked with a little awe.

Moving her arms only a little, Kumiko looked to her child. "Can I see her?" The nurse nodded and carefully set the baby girl into Kumiko's arms. Kumiko rolled over a little so that her head hovered over the child, it's arms shaking a little and eyes shut. The baby continued to cry with long wails like a police siren. "Ranma, meet Nabiki. My second daughter."

'She's . . She's amazing, Kumiko.'

The nurse returned a minute later to collect the child. "I'm just going to take Nabiki and get her cleaned up and she'll meet you in recovery, okay?"

Kumiko nodded; she understood the routine having been through it once before already. As the nurse disappeared around the corner Kumiko turned back to her husband who was slowly rubbing the ache from his sore hand, also watching the nurse leave. "Soun?" She smirked and snagged a piece of the white gown the doctor made him wear before entering. "Smile like that for too long and you'll strain something."

Soun faced her, the broad grin seemingly plastered permanently on his face.

'Kumiko, I know you weren't expectin me to be in yer head, but . . but I just wanted to thank you fer lettin me go through this with ya.'

Nodding to her unseen companion, Kumiko sighed in a tired voice, her eyes closing again as the exhaustion of the last hours set in. "Thanks for the encouragement, Ranma."

'Hey, sure. Now can we put yer legs down? It's gettin kinda drafty.'

Kumiko glanced down to her legs up in the metal stirrups and sighed. It was getting cool.

'So how long do ya gotta stay here?'

Kumiko sighed and sat back against her pillow in the hospital bed. After a good night's rest, she'd woken clean and refreshed in her white hospital room. It was decorated in light colors to make patients feel calm and the window had been left open, sunlight pouring through, and the feel of a warm summer day. Soun had left a bouquet of flowers and a the book she'd been reading at home, having remembered from the last time. "A day or two. At least that's what they said with Kasumi."

'Man, I can't believe you went through that twice now. How long have I been gone?'

"Almost three years. Are you home yet?"

'Nah, me an pops have been on the run for about a week now. We had to make some detours to be safe.'

Kumiko blinked. "On the run? What has that moron gotten you into now?" She scowled now at the misadventures Ranma had because of his father. How could Nodoka have ever married that fat, obnoxious man?

'We went to this Amazon village cause the guide thought they'd know about a cure. They were having this tournament or somethin and pops started eatin the first prize. To keep'em from killin pops I had ta fight the champion. Piece of cake.'

Nodding, Kumiko had heard Ranma boast over his abilities before and had become accustomed to it. "You must be very good, but I don't understand why you would be on the run."

'No one told us that if an outsider woman beats an Amazon then the Amazon's gotta kill'em.'

"Well, just tell her you were cursed and not really a girl." That's rather simple, she thought. Of course, Kumiko would rather Ranma had left Genma as panda meat for the Amazons.

'Can't. I do that and she'd have ta marry me.'

For a moment, Kumiko looked out the window, chirping birds hopping about the branches of a nearby tree. Calm as she was, Kumiko became very serious. "Ranma, don't let anyone pressure you into marrying someone you don't love, understand?"

'Heck, I ain't even ready to marry no one. But I'll remember.'

The birds continued to twitter until one flew off, quickly followed by the other. Kumiko shifted the position of her arms more comfortably and took a deep breath. "You should really work on your speech, Ranma. I can't think of one person who speaks so poorly."

'Feh, ain't like it's that important. I'm gonna be a martial artist sensei anyways.'

Frowning, "Not like this you aren't. You may become the greatest martial there ever was, but no one will want to entrust themselves to an uneducated sensei." She heard him sigh in exasperation. Let him make all the fuss he wants, but Ranma should know what he needs to do.

'. . . Why are you mothering me?'

"Since Nodoka isn't with you, I think it's my responsibility to do it for her. Besides, Nodoka is a traditional woman, even she wants her son to be educated in more than the Art."

'Yes, Auntie.'

Smirking, Kumiko felt a strange bit of contentment upon hearing Ranma call her that. They'd been together, sort of, for so long that it was probably fitting. Besides, she and Nodoka were so close; their two families would probably meld like one in the close friendship. "How long do you think you'll be this time?"

'Can't really say for sure, but we were walkin in the jungles and hot water is sorta hard to come by. It may actually be a while. Last I remember we were gettin close to some snow.'

After a moment of silence, Kumiko let her mind return to her surroundings. "Were you able to distract your mind enough?"

'Augh! Not anymore. That feels too weird. Doesn't this kid get full?'

Kumiko gazed at the infant suckling at her breast. "She does seem to enjoy sucking me dry."

'Oh, that's a beautiful image.'

~

"Hey pops?" Ranma sat back in the hot spring, resting against one of the smooth boulders with a damp towel over his head.

"Hmm?" Genma didn't bother to look, but kept his eyes closed beneath a damp hand towel of his own.

After more than a week of travel through the mountains, Genma had felt safe that they had eluded the Amazon maiden and could rest. Near the top of one of the snowy peaks they found a hut running with steam. Curious, and hopeful, they went to investigate and found one of the few hot springs in this region of the world. A cranky old woman and her youthful son met them at the door. The boy was the type who would smile so much people would wonder if he wasn't stuck that way. The old woman scowled and demanded something in Chinese. Ranma took a guess that it was money. On this rare occasion Genma decided the price would be well worth it.

Cracking his neck one way and then the other, Ranma felt his body drift away in the warm water. "How d'ya suppose mom is?"

"Nevermind that now. Don't forget Shampoo is still out there looking for you." Genma waved it off quickly, looking at his son then replacing the towel.

"If I tell her I'm really a guy maybe she'll back off." He wasn't really certain. Kumiko had suggested it and it did sound better than being killed, but he decided to ask his father first.

Genma whipped the towel off his face and glared at his son. "Or try to drag you back as a husband! I will not let that happen!"

A moment of silence passed between them, son staring at father. His father seemed to have reacted too violently and that set off warning bells in Ranma's head. "Is there somethin yer not tellin me pops?"

Genma jerked back before turning away. "erh, No son of mine is going to be stolen by a village of backward women! Not after all the training I put into you!"

Considering this, Ranma thought this sounded possible. He didn't want to live in an Amazon village anyway. Besides, he wasn't interested in marriage yet; Ranma's focus was solely on the Art except when he was cursed.

Slowly, He was coming to accept the curse. It hadn't been that long since Ranma had received it, but a larger amount of memories were coming to him from his experience with Kumiko. She was one of his few friends. As little a trade off as most would think that to be for a cross-gender curse; Ranma had little else in his life to hold on to. "Did mom want ya ta train me?"

"Of course, we are a family with a long history in the martial arts."

"So she said it was okay for us to be gone this long?" He asked.

Staring at his son, Genma rung the water out of his towel. "Why are you asking about her suddenly?" When Ranma didn't answer, he took a closer look and decided Ranma would be appeased with a little knowledge. "Yes, she agreed to ten years."

"I don't get it. Why would she do it?" Ranma stared at his hands. "Did she just not like me anymore?"

Understanding, Genma placed a hand on Ranma's shoulder. "Don't worry son." He squeezed a little then stood up to leave the water. "When we return home your mother will see how manly you are and that's all that will matter."

"What about the curse?"

Genma stopped by the door to the changing room. Looking away from his son, Genma's voice was thick and low. "Worry about it later."

"Hey pops?" Ranma looked over his shoulder to the bald martial artist. "Why don't you wear your wedding ring anymore?"

"Hurry up. We need to keep moving." Genma left the room and Ranma to his thoughts.

~

"Thank you for inviting us over for dinner, Kumiko-chan."

Kumiko smiled as she sat down to dinner with her friends. Little Kasumi was in her child seat beside her while Soun cradled Nabiki. "Oh, it's my pleasure, Nodoka-chan. Oh!"

"Are you all right, Miko-chan?" Soun turned at the first sound of her surprise. A shiver ran down Kumiko's back and she held her pregnant belly. It was only a few months along, but after having Kasumi and then Nabiki, the movement had become reflexive. "It's not time already, is it?!" Soun almost panicked and stood up quickly.

Nodoka laughed and waved him back down. "No, it's far too early for that, Soun." She too was pregnant after many attempts with Genma. Nodoka had found her self pregnant near a month before Kumiko and was able to get advice from her friend.

Kumiko also waved Soun off until he was seated again. "It's nothing. I thought I felt a kick though."

"Don't tease, Kumiko-chan." Nodoka clucked as Kumiko smiled innocently.

Leaving her napkin on the table, Kumiko stood up. "Would you excuse me for a moment." She made a short bow and headed up the stairs for the bathroom.

"She seems healthier, Soun. That is good." Nodoka commented, watching her sick friend pull herself up the stairs.

Soun nodded. "Yes, the doctors are coming out with new treatments now. Kumiko will be fine before you know it!"

Smiling, Nodoka nodded until she caught sight of her husband. "Genma!" A quick swat to the back of the head stopped the stoutly built man from consuming everything on his plate. "Really, we're guests here."

Soun smiled and smacked a hand against his knee. "Haha! That's quite all right, Nodoka! Why did I tell you about the time Saotome-kun and I . . ."

The voices downstairs were shut off as Kumiko closed the door to the bathroom behind her. "Ranma?" She stared into the mirror.

'I know you are weaker. What's happening?'

"A side-effect of my medication, I'm sure." Kumiko shrugged, pushing the thought aside. "How are you?"

'Not bad. I don't think my pops ran out on my mom. It sounds like they made a deal or somethin, but pops ain't wearin his ring no more.'

"They could have divorced." She frowned and considered the couple at her table. "That's so sad. After they just got pregnant."

'I never thought about that.' Ranma muttered, though he sounded unsure of how to deal with the idea of divorce. 'Pregnant!'

Kumiko cleared her ears and glared at the mirror. Ranma groaned and muttered an apology. "Yes, you had to come from somewhere after all."

'I know that. It's just . ."

"Strange to think about?" Kumiko smirked.

'Yeah.'

"I'll bet you didn't know that I named you."

'Huh?'

Nodding, Kumiko made a display of polishing her nails. "I suggested Ranma and they both snatched it up. Of course, if you end up being a girl then you would be Ranko." She looked at the mirror queerly for a moment then broke out into laughter. "Oh, what am I saying. I already know you're a boy!"

'Ya got that right.' Ranma snorted then waited while Kumiko stared at herself in the mirror. 'Are ya gonna go back down soon?'

Kumiko nodded and washed her hands. "I just wanted to make sure you were all right and weren't about to start yelling again." Wiping her hands dry, Kumiko made another point in case Ranma was going to be around for a while. "Oh, and if you feel strange cravings it's the child's fault."

'Child?' Ranma questioned, and she felt him examine her condition closer. 'Again!'

Her hand traced over her belly with a smile. "Soun and I are trying again for a boy. He and your father both want an heir to their schools." Kumiko laughed as Ranma groaned, and made her way back down the stairs.

Dinner went well. Kasumi hardly complained except to refuse her onions. She claimed people's breath smelled icky if they ate it. Nabiki cried a little more, but only when she ran out of her formula and demanded more.

They talked about nothing really important. The dojo was doing well and some of the students were beginning to get ready for their black belt test. Not many went that far, but there were always plenty joining up to replace those that had left. Kumiko and Nodoka held a lengthy discussion over the strange cravings they got. Nodoka said that when it rained she had the need for something salty, chips mainly.

Ranma had gotten the sense from his mother that if she weren't pregnant she would barely eat, which probably worked out anyway. Genma was as much a glutton then as he was now. Much thinner, with a full head of dark, mussed hair, Genma went around in his white gi except for special occasions and then he wore a black gi with silver embroidery of his school's logo. He was wearing glasses, but they were not so thick as they are now. Ranma hoped he wouldn't be losing his eyesight anytime soon.

Some time in February Nodoka would be expecting so Kumiko would be in March. For the longest time Ranma had wondered about his birthday. On the road with his father they barely celebrated anything unless they were in a city while it was going on. He only knew he was sixteen because of the year he was born in. After ten years, Ranma had forgotten the exact date and it made him feel a little detached from everything, older than he should be.

After dinner they moved to the living room where Genma and Soun moved to a newly acquired Shogi board. Neither had played much, but they figured they would try it out and see if they liked it. It kept Genma out of Nodoka's hair and made Kumiko feel a little less irritated over his presence.

Ranma's name had been chosen, but Kumiko was still working out a name for her own child. Soun had insisted that if it was a boy they name him Akira. After naming both girls, Kumiko accepted. Akira was Soun's grandfather's name, who had died in the defense of his country while Soun was a young man.

The night stretched on and the children were put to bed. Nodoka and Kumiko shared some tea while they continued discussion. Ranma was running much of it, though Nodoka wouldn't know it. He asked questions and Kumiko would find her way to getting to them. Ranma had been very impatient when Kumiko hadn't jumped straight to the question, but soon understood why. Kumiko had known Nodoka for a long time and just asking something she should know would be strange.

As the week passed, Nodoka and Kumiko would continue to get together if for nothing else than to keep the other company. Genma was busy with work, something Ranma had never thought to hear uttered with seriousness. The slob had somehow gotten a good job training police officers the basics in self-defense, holds, and throws. For someone who just passed high school and had no other skills, it was a great job with decent pay.

Pay enough to let Genma and Soun enjoy a drink once a week at one of the bars.

"T-Tadaima!"

Kumiko looked up from her book and set down the cup of tea as she watched her husband shamble into the dining room. "Soun-kun? I'm in here."

'He's drunk.'

"Ah, m-y wiffffe." Soun smiled merrily and started making his way to where she lounged on the couch. "Aren't you just the cutest thing I've ever seen."

"Even when you're not drunk." She laughed lightly; he only looked at her blankly. "Come on, let's put you to bed." Kumiko stood up to intercept him before he hit the sofa. "What on earth were you celebrating with Genma for so long?" She tried to help his jelly legs by holding one of his arms over shoulder and guiding him to the stairs.

"Tak-aking care of the future!" Soun bent over, wavering for a moment on his feet, and patted Kumiko's stomach lightly. "Isn't that right, b-boy?"

"If you say so, Soun-kun."

Smiling brightly, Soun nodded vigorously. "I do!" His left hand started waving about a small square of white paper. "Seeeeee?" He held it to Kumiko's face and then pulled it away before she could read the scrawl on it. "All sontracted and cigned!" Soun continued heading up the stairs and into their bedroom. "Nothin to murry bout!"

"All right, Soun" Kumiko guided the inebriated man to their bed, skinning off some of his clothing and tucking him beneath the covers. "Now go to sleep."

Blubbering half asleep, Soun reached out and patted Kumiko's arm as he smiled with his eyes closed. "Such a . . such a good wife . . Kumiko. I love you."

Shaking her head at the strangeness, Kumiko combed the hair out of Soun's face as he finally passed out. "I love you too." She looked at the napkin held securely in his hand and shrugged, how important could it be anyway?

'What do you suppose was on that napkin?'

"I'll ask him about it later." She closed the door and started heading back down the stairs to her book and tea.

Ranma left later that night just as Kumiko fell to her hands and knees, her body shaking uncontrollably.

~

On the side of a snow-capped mountain, Ranma-chan followed the short Chinese man into the hut. It was nice and warm inside, a great relief to her bare feet. Somewhere in the storm she and her father had become separated, but they both knew the city to meet in on the other side of the pass. Shaking off some of the snow, Ranma-chan jumped over to the man's stove and pulled off the whistling kettle. "Ack! My hair!"

The man nodded as he watched Ranma-kun grab at the long black locks that grew from his head like a waterfall. "Yes, porridge affect men. Must be girl or lose all your hair!"

Half-hysterical about looking like his father, Ranma ran about the room blindly. "Water!"

~

Kumiko's child was supposed to have arrived almost a week ago, but had chosen to be stubborn. Doctors said there was nothing to worry about right now, just rest and be patient, "It shouldn't be that much longer".

As the days stretched on, Kumiko had decided to rest in the room that would belong to their next child. It was ambiguous at the moment since Soun had not wanted to find out if the child was a boy or a girl. He hoped for a boy, but would happy with a girl.

From this room, Kumiko could look out onto the backyard and watch Soun teaching classes or follow the birds hopping through the tree. It was a bit warm today and a light breeze drifted through the window.

Rubbing her belly with one hand, Kumiko was caught up in her own thoughts that she did not notice the slight chill she got every time Ranma returned.

"Hey willow, willow,

Don't she these tears.

Swing and lets sing . . ." Kumiko frowned as she tried to remember the rest of the words. They were on the tip of her tongue and yet . . .

'What's that?'

She almost jumped when she heard the voice. "Ranma? Is that you again already?"

'Yeah. I had a small problem and needed to check somethin out about my curse.'

"Is anything wrong?" She asked, slightly worried.

'Nah. I got it taken care of, or I will, or I am . . Forget it.' Kumiko nodded and looked back out her window to see Soun going through a lower kata with his beginning students with help from a black belt assistant. 'So what was that song?'

Pulled back to the bedroom, Kumiko smiled as the tune continued in her head. "I was trying to remember something my mother used to sing to me when I was young."

'I think my mom did something like that too. I can't really remember, but sometimes I hear it in the back of my head.'

Kumiko nodded. It had been the same for her. After Nabiki, Kumiko started thinking about her parents and talking to them over the phone. She'd gotten a strange sense of melancholy and got to thinking of what her life had been like when she was younger.

Next to her room, a steady wailing began to echo through the house.

"Nabiki."

Soun jumped out of the dojo and ran into the house. "I'm coming, Nabiki-chan."

'He's taking care of the kid?'

"Soun is learning." Kumiko giggled. Though he'd helped with Kasumi, Nabiki was a messier child and was more demanding of attention. "The life of a martial artist is fraught with peril."

'Heh. How are Nabiki and Kasumi doing?'

"They're both fine. Kasumi is trying to take care of me, such a sweetheart, and Nabiki cries in the middle of the night to be fed still."

'The life of a mother is fraught with long nights.'

"Baka." She snorted and stroked her hands around her belly again.

Nabiki's bedroom door opened and the sound became louder. Kumiko could hear Soun's befuddled voice as he went through the motions of caring for a child. She was not too surprised when her door opened and Soun stood there with the wailing one-year-old in his arms. "Uh, Miko-chan?"

Holding out her arms, she waved him forward. "Hand her over to me, Soun-kun. She's probably just hungry again."

Soun stood unsure as he watched Kumiko open her shirt for Nabiki. "Can I get you anything, Miko-chan?"

"No, I'm fine. Go on back to your students." She smiled as Nabiki quieted down quickly. Soun left the room after another minute and was back in the dojo before his assistant had finished drilling the students through another set of katas. Sighing at Ranma's strangled sounds, Kumiko rolled her eyes. "You should be used to this by now."

'Used to it maybe, but it's still weird.'

"It's not weird." Kumiko laughed and watched Nabiki suckle. "Well, maybe to a guy." She wanted to ask if Ranma had ever thought of having a family when she realized she didn't really know how old he was. Ranma had mentioned it years ago, but Kumiko had forgotten by now. She wanted to know about this young man who'd become her friend though she'd never seen him. "Tell me about yourself Ranma. You've seen just about everything about me, but I know very little about you."

'What do you want to know?'

"It doesn't matter. Just tell me something."

'I don't know. Most of this you probably wouldn't want to hear, the kid especially.'

Kumiko frowned and Nabiki almost seemed ready to complain some more, but clamped her mouth back down over the nipple. "Well, skip the parts that make you uncomfortable for now."

'All right. Just don't forget that you asked.'

Nodding, Kumiko sat back against the pillows Soun had placed on the bed for her and let he gaze fall to the tree. As Ranma's voice drifted past her inner ear, she started to hear her mother's song in the background.

~

Genma and his son stared out over the sea separating them from Japan. They had rested for a day, taking advantage of the time to return to normal, before they would set out for another long swim. "You ready for this boy?"

"No problem, oyagi. Did it once already." Ranma shrugged and tightened the straps on his pack again. It was lighter than usual with less food inside. The important things had already been stored away in plastic.

They walked down the beach halfway when a lavender blur burst out of the tree line.

"Shampoo!"

"Hurry boy!" Genma ran for the water.

Ranma almost ran too, but he stopped and set his pack down. "No, pops. I can't just run from my problems." Tightening his fists, Ranma waited for Shampoo to close the distance. She looked particularly mad this time. Perhaps she had figured it out. "I gotta deal with'em."

Shampoo stopped a few feet away, holding up her bonbori this time, and began to shout quick strings of Chinese.

"Dammit! I don't speak Chinese, you stupid macho chick!"

Shampoo became enraged and snarled, pulling her bonbori back for a hard swing. Ranma moved as well, rolling to the side to avoid the blow. With the sand hampering his speed, Ranma was clipped on the side and twisted about. He made the most of it and flashed out his left leg to catch Shampoo on the chin with his heel.

Rubbing her jaw, Shampoo studied his form more closely and took a deeper stance, ready for a real fight. Ranma would not be caught on the ground this time; he leapt to the air and watched Shampoo follow. The Amazon had no idea how bad of an idea that was.

They exchanged blows for only a few seconds, but in that time Ranma had ducked through two thrusts of Shampoo's bonbori and snuck in a couple of good hits to her stomach and side. One last swing and Ranma kicked free the weapons from Shampoo's hands.

Dust billowed about their feet as they landed in the sand. Ranma stared back at Shampoo evenly and waited. The warrior maiden had almost decided to attack again when the bonbori also returned to the earth.

"Hmm, I didn't think it would be that easy." Genma shrugged and walked back over. Shampoo was lying face down on the ground, unconscious, her bonbori lying beside her head.

Ranma sighed and grabbed one of Shampoo's arms, swinging the girl over his shoulder in a fireman's hold. "I'm not finished yet, pops."

"What about the Kiss of Marriage that she'll have to give you?"

"Don't worry about it. I ain't marryin her. I promised."

Nodding, Genma followed his son back up to the trees. "What are you going to do?"

"I'm gonna show her the curse and hope she forgets about the whole thing." He dropped her onto the ground and started going through his pack for a pot. "At least she won't be trying to kill me anymore."

"All right, boy." Genma set down his own pack. It seemed they would be here another night. He looked around to find something for a fire later. "But let's tie her up just in case."

"Ya got no complaint from me, pops." Ranma pulled out his extra gi and used it to tie up Shampoo's hands and feet. If she decided to rip these he would be down to the green Chinese uniform the Jusenkyou guide had given him.

~

The first thing Ranma saw this time was a little girl, no older than four, jumping up and down and stomping her feet. Her face was scrunched up and turning a little red as she screamed. Blue-black hair was in a short, pageboy cut, and she wore a fresh yellow gi.

Kumiko grabbed a hold of the girl's shoulders and tried to look her in the eye. "Akane-chan."

"No. No. No. No. No." Akane continued to scream, fighting against her mother's hold.

'What's with her?'

"She wants to play with some of the weapons." Kumiko responded, unafraid of Akane hearing her speak with Ranma. The familiar tingle had reminded Kumiko of Ranma's return and so wasn't surprised when he spoke to her.

'What's wrong with that?'

Exasperated, Kumiko finally grabbed the girl around the waist and hauled her into the air and out the dojo doors. "Akane-chan is too young to practice the Art." At least this time it wasn't during one of Soun's classes, the students snickering and offering Akane advice on how to handle the weapons or praising her unarmed skill.

At the moment, Soun was out with Genma on a short training trip with an old pervert who had stopped by a few weeks ago. Kumiko still shivered at the thought of the hentai. At least he had been sweet to her children though he easily cowed her husband and his balding friend.

'I started when I could walk practically.'

"You're not helping, Ranma." Kumiko growled, growing rapidly more annoyed with Akane's constant struggle.

A week had gone by since Soun's victorious return with his friend. Kumiko and Nodoka hadn't been sure what that meant, but the Master wouldn't be bothering them for a long while. Ranma had a feeling he'd be around for a very long while this time around. The snow had been all he could see last he was in his male body. When Kumiko had asked if he was wearing warm enough clothing, his answer had not made her feel any better. Genma shouldn't have dragged his son into China anyway.

Sitting in the living room with Soun, Kumiko watched her husband play a board game with Akane. The girl flip-flopped with her emotions so easily. One moment she would be angry, only appeased with martial arts, and the next a little ray of sunshine beaming a brilliant smile. Neither Kasumi nor Nabiki had Akane's smile.

Little feet stomped into the room followed quickly by a softer padding. Nabiki walked all the way up to her father, having learned that some matters, especially sweets, was better negotiated through Soun. Kasumi stood beside Akane and offered her one of the cookies she'd made in the child oven, a present from last Christmas.

"What is it, Nabiki-chan?" Soun asked as she stood before him, hands and face smeared with little bits of chocolate.

"Kasumi-neechan got more than me!" Nabiki pointed an accusing finger at the surprised older sister. "I got three and she got fo-ur!" She held up her fingers after counting them off to explain.

"What about that one you ate?" Soun asked, eyeing the three in his middle daughter's hands. They were perfect circles of chocolate chip cookies, cut with a plastic cookie cutter.

Nabiki stomped. "That one didn't count, daddy!"

"Here you go, Nabiki." Kasumi held out another of her cookies for a different sister. Akane was busily munching on her own, quickly becoming every bit the mess Nabiki was. "Better?" Kasumi asked with a smile.

Brightening, Nabiki gladly accepted the sweet. "Thanks, Kasumi!"

Chin and shoulder trembling, Kumiko put her hands over her mouth because she thought she might spit out her tea at any moment. Inside, Ranma had not held himself back so well and was laughing with great sobbing hoots.

"Hey willow, willow,

Don't shed these tears.

Swing and lets sing,

Hey willow, willow.

Share with me your dreams,

And I'll tell you mine.

Life more than it seems,

Just see it in time.

Hey willow, willow,

Don't shed these tears.

Swing and lets sing,

Hey willow, willow." Slowly, Kumiko tucked the sheets in around Akane's sleeping form. The girl had her thumb in her mouth and was snoring lightly as Kumiko headed for the door, the lights having already been turned off to help Akane sleep.

One down and two to go, Kumiko thought as she closed the door behind her and went down the hall to Nabiki's room.

"Hi, No-chan!" Kumiko greeted her friend at the door with a hug and a smile. She'd been expecting a visit with Soun and Genma gone once again.

Standing silently beside Nodoka was a little boy only of five, only a month older than Akane was. Kumiko bent down to look into the first pair of blue eyes she'd seen on a Japanese boy. The short ponytail and loose clothing made it obvious how much he enjoyed learning the Art from his father. "And you must be Ranma."

"That's me! Nice to meet you, Tendou-san." Ranma bowed quickly.

Bowing back, Kumiko made a grand gesture for the boy to enter. "Please come in." Ranma did so and looked around the first room expectantly. "Akane, Nabiki, and Kasumi are in the living room. Why don't you go say hi to them too."

"Okay." Ranma ran off down the hall and around the corner, his mother's protest lost in his focus.

Giggling at Nodoka's embarrassed smile, Kumiko bade her enter and walked with her into the living room where Kasumi and Nabiki were playing with a few toys, Nabiki's purple dog charging Kasumi's white pony to enter the imaginary castle.

"So the boys are off again." Kumiko noted as they sat down on the couch. Nodoka sat straight, her back not quite touching the cushions.

"Yes, another week long anniversary celebration to the 'disappearance' of their Master."

Kumiko let herself look disgusted. "If he is half as bad as he sounds, I can understand perfectly." It wasn't until after the Master had been dealt with that Soun explained some of Happousai's ideas of training.

"Indeed." Nodoka nodded and stared off into the backyard where Akane was chasing Ranma around the koi pond in a fit of anger. "They make a cute pair."

"Oh, Nodoka, they're far too young!" Kumiko swatted her friend's arm, but smiled.

" . . For what?"

Kumiko quickly waved the question off. Best that Nodoka not know now anyway. "Nothing, nothing. Forget I said anything!" Her stomach clenched suddenly. Kumiko felt her throat go dry and was having trouble swallowing.

Nodoka noticed the sudden change and put her hand over Kumiko's. "Are you feeling all right, K-chan?"

The feeling eventually passed, but the distraction never left Kumiko's eyes. "Sure." She stood and headed for the kitchen, needing a moment to herself. "Tea?"

Nodoka nodded and watched her go.

'What is it, Kumiko-chan?'

Kumiko stumbled into the bathroom hunched over slightly. She'd been in the kitchen for only a moment to set the kettle on the stove when she felt her limbs begin to shake. "I'm . . I'm h-having . ."

Gasping, Kumiko collapsed to the ground and wrapped her arms around her legs. A pipe beneath the sink was digging into her back as she jerked back and forth, but there was nothing to be done about it. Kumiko barely had the consciousness to realize the pipe was what was adding the extra bit of discomfort while she clamped down with her teeth to skip biting off her tongue.

The episode passed in silence until Kumiko started to relax and was left with only shivers in her arms.

'Has . . Has it passed? Are you all right, Kumiko-chan?'

Kumiko almost nodded when she realized the Ranma inside her head hadn't been the only one to ask. She found the young boy standing in front of her with his knees clasped together as he bent over to look her in the face. "Yes, Ranma-kun. I'm fine." Kumiko took a moment to sit up and then pull herself to her feet with help from the sink. "Were you looking for me for something?"

Little Ranma shook his head and started undoing his pants. "Uh-uh. I have to go to the bathroom."

"Oh, excuse me." Kumiko left quickly, a smile and a giggle helping her to forget the last episode already.

'Oh man.'

Smiling like a Cheshire Cat, Kumiko looked back to the bathroom door before heading downstairs. "Ranma, were you hitting on me? Such a naughty boy."

'Groan.'

~

Ranma and his father spent the night in the forests along the outskirts of Tokyo. With their journey near its end, water was left to boil over the campfire so they could return to their natural forms. Ranma did so reluctantly. He'd become accustomed, even fond of living with Kumiko. She was a friend and shared her family with him; something Ranma sorely missed. Thanks to Kumiko, he knew at least what his own mother had been like in case it was true and something did happen to her.

They trekked through the foliage until they came onto a road that would lead into Tokyo's southeastern border: Nerima Ward.

Formal challenge; that had been his lifesaver.

Back in China, tied hand and foot on the beach, Shampoo had spouted curses in Mandarin at them when she finally woke up. Ranma had frisked her for weapons and came up with only a pair of steel mace bonbori.

Genma still made some protest, but Ranma reasoned that this plan would still be better than having an Amazon continue to track them down in order to kill them.

Speaking slowly and clearly, Ranma pulled Shampoo's ranting to a stop; she stared at the boy angrily for only another moment. Setting the empty cup down, Ranma-chan waited for some sort of response from the Amazon. There was only a word the lavender-haired girl's speech Ranma could clearly understand, "Jusenkyou".

Sighing in what Ranma guessed to be relief, Shampoo struggled to a sitting position and looked at her bonds. She yanked them apart easily, much to Ranma's annoyance, and dug through her top for the small booklet she kept on her. It was the rules and regulations of an Amazon, half written out in Japanese.

The Japanese had to do with a rule about the right to search outside areas for possible husbands. Ranma cringed at that, but made no other comment.

Shampoo pointed him to the proper page and rule. The section was dedicated to challenges. He understood quickly. Ranma had not challenged Shampoo, or she him, and so both were now free of the Kiss of Marriage and she from the Kiss of Death. An Amazon yes, but Shampoo was not a killer, only loyal to her village.

Handing the booklet back, Shampoo made a gesture, an askance, if he would like to challenge her. Ranma shook his head and pointed out over the sea. Nodding, Shampoo and Ranma bowed to each other and parted peacefully. In the background Genma slumped thankfully and watched the Amazon maiden disappear.

They stayed overnight on the beach, going through their supplies and making sure everything was ready for the swim across the sea. Genma and Ranma enjoyed a big meal, which greatly reduced the weight of their packs and fell asleep, rising again in the early morning to set off.

Cold, long, and hard were the best ways to describe the swim. Having done it once, Ranma could better cope with the seas, pushing at her ki to stay warm and keep up her endurance. When they grew tired Genma floated in the water and Ranma-chan held onto him; her slight figure to small to be of any concern to her father.

Over the two days, Ranma let her mind drift off to thoughts about Kumiko and her family. Such a long time they were spending together with only half of him actually realizing it; months had surely passed in the time difference. He thought of the Kumiko's daughters and wondered how they were, if Kasumi still tried to care for Nabiki while her mother was pregnant, how were Soun's students progressing, what the young Genma and Nodoka Saotome doing. He could hardly wait to return to Japan and find some hot water.

Now he had his answers and he felt a peace. His mother, his younger self and Akane, it was all so far away, but the memories were fresh in his mind. Would any of them know him now when he and his father visited?

Three hours traveling through Japan and now they were inside Nerima city limits. Rain was beginning to fall and Ranma felt the change overcome him. What more would she see of her second family, Ranma wondered.

Following along silently, Genma watched his cursed son's thoughtful expression. Over the past few months the boy had changed. He'd worried that it was an effect of the curse that maybe Ranma was being turned into a girl. There was the question before they left Jusenkyou; what kind of dreams was his son having?

More respectful and thoughtful, Ranma's speech was cleaning up and he seemed to be holding back on some great joke every time he looked at Genma. The cursed panda continued to lumber along, having said its piece about the engagement. Ranma had taken the news in stride after Genma had told him the engagement was a matter of family honor. "I thought you would be upset about this Ranma." The panda pulled the sign from nowhere and waved it before the redhead's face.

"Nah, Tendou's a friend of yers. I don't mind." Ranma-chan brushed the sign out of the way. The streets were becoming filled with gawkers, but she didn't mind. No one bothered a girl with a wild animal in her control; one boy hitting on her had been more than enough.

~

'Here again? How many kids are you gonna have, Kumiko-chan?'

"What?" Kumiko blinked and looked about her hospital room. She didn't know how long she'd been there, losing count after the first few weeks or so. The window shades were drawn and the lights were left off to help her sleep, but Kumiko was finding that bliss to be far more rare now. The fits had stopped a while ago, having been resuscitated twice, Kumiko talked Soun into agreeing to a DNR. It was too late for her, skin gone pale and cool, Kumiko's body felt weak. "Ranma? It's been years. Where have you been?"

'I made it back to Tokyo and it started to rain.' Inside her mind, Ranma could feel the degradation of Kumiko's body and she could feel him examining it. She heard him swallow then try and continue without his voice cracking. 'So what did I miss? How are Akane, Nabiki, and Kasumi? Are mom and dad still together?'

Kumiko nodded; she was glad they would have one more chance to talk. There were things she had to tell him, needed to tell him. "Ranma, your parents never split up. Genma wanted to train you, but he was afraid being around Nodoka would make you weak. He made a contract with her that he would raise you to be a 'man amongst men' in exchange for ten years. The two of you stopped by the house about two weeks ago. Genma felt so ashamed that he removed his ring and left it with us because he didn't feel worthy of it. He hoped that with you he would earn it again when you both returned.

"Nodoka doesn't care if you are a 'man amongst men' though. She just had that added to make sure that Genma raised you well. As well as he could anyway. She already misses you; I can tell by the look in her eyes." She was crying. Kumiko weakly brushed away the tears and stared up at her dark ceiling. Soun had left a few hours ago to retrieve her family for another visitation, but he'd seen the look in her eyes and had tried speaking with a doctor.

'Thanks, Kumiko-chan. That means a lot to me.'

"Ranma, there's something else I want you to know." All smile, Kumiko thought back to the time she'd first heard Ranma in her head. He'd been through so much with her, having shared many long conversations, Kumiko would say she hadn't been closer to anyone in her life. "Though I've never seen and you were only with me for a short while, in that time I've come to think of you as a son. I love you very much and hope everything works out for you."

'I-I'm glad I . . got to know you too, Kumiko-chan. I'll remember everything you've taught me; you were like a mother to me, as well as my best friend.'

Something quaked in her heart. Kumiko suppressed a gasp as she felt a tide of fire wash over her chest. "Oh god, Ranma! I can feel it!"

'I know.'

"It's like fire burning inside of me. Ranma," She clutched the hospital gown over her heart and strained her fist until veins appeared over her arms. "I . . I don't want to die! Not yet! Not while I haven't seen my girls all grown up! They're too young to be without a mother! Oh, please let me live to raise them!" She cried desperately, eyes closed in anguish, startling colors flashing through her mind.

The door squeaked open and closed again. "Miko-chan." Soun turned on the lights and gasped. He quickly crossed the room and took hold of Kumiko's hand, letting her know he was there.

"Soun-kun!" Kumiko broke out, her body left trembling in the wake of her last conniption. "I'm sorry. I wanted to stay with you, grow old with you, but I . . I can't! Please forgive me!"

He patted her hand and tried to swallow back the tears. "There . . There is nothing to forgive, Miko-chan." Soun's smile was warm against her face and Kumiko dared to believe he was an angel. "I've treasured every moment we've been together. I'll love you forever, Miko-chan."

Nodding, Kumiko grabbed him around the shoulders and he held her close. "I love you too, Soun-kun."

The door opened again. Kumiko opened her eyes and saw Nodoka's sad expression. Her prim and proper friend seemed ready to burst open with tears. Nodoka had a little girl's hand in her own and was followed in by two others.

"Mommy?"

"Kasumi." Kumiko smiled at her eldest and waved her to come closer. When she had Kasumi in her arms she held the embrace for a few moments, feeling the girl tremble with grief. Kasumi was a strong child. "Be a good girl. Help daddy take care of your sisters." Kumiko pulled back to look at her eldest daughter's face. There were tears running down her face and her lower lip trembled, but she held on for the sake of her little sisters. "I love you, Kasumi-chan."

Kasumi nodded and ran back to Nodoka, grabbing the older woman's leg and hiding her face. Kumiko looked to her other daughters. "Nabiki, Akane." Both ran forward and jumped into her arms without being asked. Nabiki and Akane cried with great sobs that cut Kumiko's heart to hear. "Listen to your father and sister, watch out for each other."

"What's happening, mommy?" Akane asked, grip tightening on her mother's sleeve.

" . . I love both of you. Never forget that." Kumiko sent them to Nodoka reluctantly. She didn't want them to see her when at last she would . . They'd had to see too much already.

"Come on girls." Nodoka ushered the three into the hallway. "Let your mother and father have some time to talk."

Kumiko hugged Soun again until he set her back against the bed's pillow gently. She stared up at the ceiling, unafraid of calling out this time. "Ranma?"

'Yes?'

"Will you do me a favor?" She asked, tears starting to slip down her cheeks. Soun's wiped at her tears and did not question Kumiko's actions.

'Of course, Kumiko-chan."

Lip trembling, "When . .When you return to Nerima . . check up on my family. Make sure they are all right. Please?" More tears, Kumiko's voice began to quaver with sobs. "Promise me you'll look out for them!"

"Kumiko . ." Soun reached out and cupped his wife's cheek.

"Please promise me that you will look out for my family!"

'I promise, Kumiko.'

"I love you, Miko-chan." Soun brought his lips down to hers.

'I love you, Kumiko-chan.'

"I love you too!" Kumiko cried back.

~

The water was warm about Ranma's body and yet he shivered. His entire body convulsed with racking sobs that he could not control. He did not worry how he may look, if it were unmanly, or who may see him. These tears were for his friend. He'd been with her to the very end, felt the last kiss Soun had placed on her dying lips.

This was the first time he'd been forced out of Kumiko's mind by means other than warm water. He'd felt the return overcome him as he'd stood in female form in the Tendou's living room. Soun and his three girls stood there, watching as he slowly curled in upon himself. Genma was stuck as a panda, but even if he had been human he would not have known what to do. The ever-gentle Kasumi came to his aid and took the young redhead by the shoulders and led her upstairs to the furo.

The loss he felt was impossible to express in words and too painful to hold back. Ranma had his arms wrapped about his stomach. The queasiness there was still in turmoil as he pulled himself from the furo. He still had something to do, a promise to fulfill.

'Where am I?'

Ranma stiffened on his descent down the stairs. He was dressed and clean with wet hair from the bath. Seconds passed as he waited for something impossible to happen. With a shaky voice, Ranma reached out for the past. "K-Kumiko-chan?"

'Ranma-kun!?!'

He gasped, startled from head to toe, and then was off like a flash. Ranma dashed down the hallway, jumping the obstacles in his path until he came to a screeching halt at the entrance to the living room where everyone else had gathered. Genma was back to his natural form and was seated with Soun and the Tendou daughters.

He went to Akane first and grabbed her hand. "Please stand up, Akane-chan, Nabiki-chan, Kasumi-chan."

"What?" Akane looked alarmed to see him and tried to pull away from his hands. "Who are you? What are you doing here?!"

Ranma looked past her angry glare with a pleading look to the three. "Please just stand up, please."

Annoyed, Akane stood up to pound the pigtailed boy. Kasumi stood, though she looked simply confused. Not wanting to feel left out, Nabiki sighed and stood up as well; she cast Ranma a calculating look.

"Do you see them, Kumiko? All grown up!" Ranma looked over each daughter, all of whom suddenly blinked and stood still with shock.

'I see them, Ranma! I see them! Oh, thank you for letting me see them!'

"What the hell-" Akane tried to advance with the intent of pummeling the boy, but she was held off as he began to emit a bright light.

Everyone winced as the light flooded the room until all was white. And as quickly as it came so did it dissipate down to a soft glow. When they looked back a small redhead stood before them, brimming with tears of joy. She smiled and nodded, closing her eyes and letting loose whatever control she had over her body. The sisters gasped and took a step back as the young girl began to grow. She grew more than a foot taller, her skin tanning slightly, clothing shifting to that of a light blue kimono, and her hair shifted from bright red to a dark blue that reached her lower back.

As the transformation concluded, the new woman opened her eyes, tears slipping free and cascading down her cheeks.

"K-Kumiko?" Soun stood up on shaky legs. He looked desperate to hold her and frightened to move in case she blew away in the wind.

Kumiko nodded her head and stepped forward. "Soun-kun."

He rushed up to stand before his deceased wife until he was within arms' length. Soun could still not believe what he was seeing. A nervous hand reached out and she caught it halfway. Swallowing, he watched Kumiko bring the hand up to her cheek, kissing the palm.

"Anata."

Soun grabbed his wife in tight embrace warmed by emotion. The smell of her hair, feel of her skin, lilt of her voice, it was all as he remembered it, and was being given a second chance to say goodbye. "I . . I've missed you so much, Miko-chan. I still love you."

"I love you too, Soun-kun." She sighed into his chest and squeezed back. Kumiko pulled back a little to study Soun's face, the lines of age, sad and lost brown eyes, the thicker mustache, and bits of gray flecked along his temples. Still the handsome, loving man she married so long ago.

Seeing her gaze shift, Soun turned halfway, an arm still resting on Kumiko's back. "Your daughters. All grown up."

"Akane-chan, Nabiki-chan, Kasumi-chan? Do you remember me?" she asked hopefully. They had been so young when she died.

Shakily at first, Kasumi nodded and stepped forward, her own tears leaving wet trails across her face. "Mom . ." Kasumi rushed in, followed closely by Nabiki. They buried themselves in her arms and cried harder.

Kumiko watched Akane expectantly. "Akane-chan?"

The youngest Tendou still wasn't sure. What she had seen, what she knew, how her family was reacting . . none of it was making sense to her. Was this . . Could it really be-?

Staring into Akane's eyes, Kumiko took a small breath and began to sing,

"Hey willow, willow,

Don't shed these tears.

Swing and lets sing,

Hey willow, willow.

Share with me your dreams,

And I'll tell you mine.

Life more than it seems,

Just see it in time.

Hey willow, willow,

Don't shed these tears.

Swing and lets sing,

Hey willow, willow."

As she finished, Akane was taking in sobbing breaths and walking closer dazedly. "M-Momma."

Kumiko let herself weep as she held each of her daughters in her arms. Standing behind her, Soun wrapped her again with his arms. The moment was of pure joy, something that would be burned into eternity. Her heart ached with love and longing, but her time was short. She could not stay much longer.

Kumiko slowly drew herself up, gazing fondly down upon her daughters. She kissed each on the forehead and gave them another hug. "I'm so happy I got to see my beautiful girls again. I love you all." She turned to Soun and was captured in another embrace with a soft and passionate kiss upon her lips. Kumiko held it for a moment before stepping out of his arms. Chin quivering, she smiled at each of them together; this was more than she dreamed possible.

"Thank you, Ranma." Tears crawled down her cheeks again. "I knew I could count on you."

Kumiko's skin turned to smoke and unraveled into the air. What was left behind was a young pigtailed man with a sad smile on his face. He looked up to where he believed Kumiko to have gone. "Goodbye, Kumiko-chan."

* * *

Epilogue

Ranma stood looking over the koi pond for a long time. His eyes blurred with memories as he considered his time with Kumiko. The way she laughed or would go on about so many trivial things, he would miss her playing with Akane, making deserts for Nabiki, or teaching Kasumi to help her make those deserts. They were good times, and Ranma was going to miss them terribly.

After the event yesterday, nothing of the engagement was spoken of. Tendou-san was lost in his meditation, relating to Genma some of the many memories he had of them in their youth. The Tendou daughters had each come up to Ranma to offer some comfort, but he turned them away, needing some time to get over the sense of loss he felt in his soul. It was like there had been a section left over for Kumiko to fill while they were connected and now it was empty.

Ranma toured the water, his curse gone he no longer feared changing genders. Kumiko had been right. The curse was a blessing in disguise. Ranma learned a great many things about life that he'd missed while on the road with his father. Society and civilization were still strange to him, but Ranma was coping, knowing better how to deal with others.

In return, Ranma had given Kumiko what she had really wanted. Each of her daughters had grown up to be fine young women. Kasumi motherly cared for her family, keeping up the house and cooking the meals. Nabiki, as in to sweets as she was as a child, had become a cunning mind in the world of business and numbers. Her demeanor was a little cool, but her family came first and she took good care of them. From past experience, Ranma had almost expected to see a larger woman, but Nabiki seemed to be working off any weight she might gain from all of her sweets. Lastly, Akane continued her interest in the martial arts. As her sister sought to better their condition, Akane tried to secure their family's legacy in the Art. A strong martial artist, she only lacked the speed and grace Ranma had received on his ten year training trip. He was hoping to help her with that.

In all, they were the same wonderful family Ranma remembered from his time with Kumiko. Grown up, they each held a piece of Kumiko within them. Ranma's friend was still alive then.

Ranma stopped before the largest stone around the koi pond. This was the one Kumiko had mentioned to him on his flight down the stairs and into the living room. Something had been left there for him. Unsure if she would get to see Ranma, Kumiko had decided to place a gift in the crevice, wrapped in plastic and secure in a box, until he reached the Tendou dojo.

He found the hole where Kumiko must have slid the object, between the rock and the ground. His hand brushed against something and took hold.

Ranma could hear the three girls get up to see what he'd found. On the box was a letter addressed to him. He removed the plastic and set the box on his knees as he opened the letter.

'Dear Ranma,

I hope this letter finds you well. When did you arrive? Have you visited your mother? Are you friends with my family? I wish I could be there to meet you. These days my disease is taking a firm hold on my life as you well know. I don't have much time or energy for anything but memories so I have left you those things you were not around to see for yourself. I still remember the little boy Nodoka brought over on her visits, the innocence and joy in his face; I could still hear it in your voice. You must be a handsome man now.

Look at my daughters Ranma, and every time you do I'd like to think I can see them as well. They are young now, but I can see how beautiful they will be when they are all grown up. Kasumi has learned to cook some wonderful deserts for Nabiki; ask her for one. You'll like it. Nabiki is the wittiest six year old in the world. She can sometimes get into discussions with Soun-kun and win whatever she is after. It is quite a sight.

I imagine you are also quite a martial artist. My Akane will probably also be training even after I am gone. Perhaps the two of you will someday teach together, just be careful of her temper. If she wants something bad enough I don't think the best martial artist could deny her.

A while ago I learned of the engagement Genma and Soun wrote up. Remember the night Soun-kun returned home late and babbling nonsense? I found the napkin in his hand the next day, resting on the floor. He intended to have our families joined. I didn't want to let you know in case you felt pressured by me. But I would not object in the least if you accepted.

I know things don't always turn out the way we want so in this letter I, as mother to Kasumi, Nabiki, and Akane, am granting an annulment of the engagement if you so desire.

The album that you probably have resting in your lap at this very moment, are memories of myself, my family, and yours when we were younger. I could think of no better gift to express my love and gratitude for your friendship.

All my heart,

Tendou Kumiko'

Ranma sat there for a moment, silently reading and rereading the note. He could almost hear her voice behind the words.

From the doorway, he could see Akane, Nabiki, and Kasumi watching him intently. Behind them, his father and Tendou-san were still reminiscing. A breeze caught the girls' hair and pulled it to the side so the bangs were not their faces.

Ranma opened the box and found the album with 'Ranma and Kumiko - Friends Forever' inscribed in silver over the leather binding. A piece of gold also sat on top the album. He rolled this between his fingers and smiled when he realized what it was.

Lighter than he had been, Ranma stood up, the album under one arm and the ring in his hand. The girls stepped aside so he could see his father clearly. "Hey pops."

Genma looked up somberly.

The gold ring was flipped through the air and into the balding martial artist's hand. Genma opened his fist and examined the ring there.

"I think it's about time you found mom. She's waiting for us."

Still staring at the ring, Genma slowly placed it back over his finger, his jaw tightening with emotion. He slowly stood up and nodded to his son.

Ranma took the album out from beneath his arm and looked at it, visible for the girls to see the words written on the cover. Reverently, Ranma opened the book. His first real look at Kumiko; she was holding Akane still an infant in her arms with Soun at her side bearing Nabiki and Kasumi. They each smiled, eyes almost laughing at some joke they had shared.

"Did . . Did you know our mom well, Ranma?" Akane asked, not looking away from the album.

Watching her gaze intently at the picture, Ranma smiled and nodded, "I like to think I did. She was a good friend, Akane-chan."

Akane looked back up at him and smiled. "Could you tell us about her?"

Ranma nodded and guided the girls towards the couch, opening the album for everyone to see. "I'd be happy to." He turned the page and the girls stared at the new photos. Ranma looked up and stared at Kumiko's daughters and smiled, feeling the emptiness in his soul filling. "Do you know how each of you remind me of Kumiko-chan?"

They looked up and waited to hear.

"She was a teenager when I first met her. She was a spitfire, innocent child, and a bright flame all in one. There was a pride she had in caring for her family that carried through her voice and everything that she did. I think your dad got it right on their date. Your mother was an angel."

Ranma started to chuckle as memories began to roll across his mind. "Let me tell you about the first time your father caught her talking to me in the bathroom, it was the day before we discovered she was pregnant . . ."

The End

* * *

'Hey willow' by Michael Fetter, THAT'S RIGHT! IT'S AN ORIGINAL . . . That's why it's so crappy.

I have no idea where this story came from. One night I started writing and the words would not stop. Well, they did stop when I got tired, it was late at night, and this is what resulted. I named Soun's wife Kumiko in another of my stories and since she was sort of an enigma, I created her as something of a melding between Kasumi, Nabiki, and Akane. I had no idea what sort of disease she would have so I left it fairly general.

There are still many diseases, genetic or otherwise, that people can only stall for a time with drugs. The medicine used to ease the pain can often times result with lower levels of good health, low energy, weakened immunity, low blood pressure, infirmity, etc. Support medical research and save future Tendou Kumikos!

Send C&C to jehtek@hotmail.com

Or visit my website at: www.geocities.com/jehtek/

Ja ne.