Genma's Daughter

By ClassicalGal

Original concept and parts of chapter 1 by Nesin Evets

Chapter 1: Ranma

This story uses a mixture of Japanese and English terms of address.

I'd like to express my deep appreciation to my prereaders: Nesin Evets (of course), Jamie McLeod, Zen, and Nightelf. They made "Genma's Daughter" far better than it would otherwise have been.

The sun beat down upon the panda that lounged next to the pond, fanning itself with a wooden signboard. Saotome Genma, master of the Saotome School of Anything Goes Martial Arts, was downhearted. It was too hot today to stay outside as a panda, but it was far too dangerous to stay inside right now. Genma rolled off his back and onto his feet, then waddled slowly into the cool water of the pond. He sat on his haunches in the middle of the pond and idly chewed a bamboo shoot.

On the porch he could see the reason for his exile from the house. Souun was sitting at the table, sipping tea and chatting with the woman who sat opposite him. The woman was in her late thirties, but looked years younger. Her dark copper hair was bound tightly into a bun, and she wore an elegant kimono, decorated with flower blossoms.

Genma sighed. Even after twelve long years away, Nodoka's face still haunted his dreams—and his nightmares. Now, to have to sit and watch his wife from hiding tore at his soul. Of course, it would be much, much worse if Nodoka were to actually discover him and his son. He was just glad that Ranma was still at school when Nodoka came calling. He'd have to take the boy on a nice, long training trip tomorrow.

Kasumi stepped into the room and placed a small tray of sweets on the table. Nodoka lowered her head as she asked Souun a question. Genma couldn't hear their conversation, but he saw Souun shake his head slowly. Nodoka reached down to the wrapped bundle which lay at her feet and clutched it in her lap, then lowered her head to her chest. Genma was so busy staring at his wife that he missed Souun glaring at him.

Suddenly, from the street outside the gate, Genma heard the pounding of feet and the usual cacophony of shouts and insults which followed Ranma around. Let the boy be a boy, let the boy be a boy, he chanted mentally. Heaven help him if Nodoka saw Ranma in his girl-form.

Suddenly Ranma bounced over the wall, her pigtail fluttering in the wind as she flew through the air. As she landed she swung her body about swiftly, her right foot cutting through the air to catch Kunou as he appeared over the wall, his body stretched out in mid-glomp. Caught by Ranma's kick, Kunou was launched heavenward, out cold.

Snorting at the kendoist's flight, Ranma turned towards the house, ignoring the panda in the pond. She pulled her shirt up and twisted it out, trying to remove at least some of the water which had thoroughly soaked it. Mumbling, she stepped up on the porch and headed towards the stairs.


Ranma continued towards the stairs, ignoring the stranger who was speaking to Souun. The woman stood and walked quickly to the door of the room, and watched as Ranma climbed the stairs.

"Ranko?" the woman asked again, her voice trembling.

Ranma paused and turned to look down at the woman. She was standing at the bottom of the stairs now, staring up at Ranma with desperate hope in her eyes. Ranma shifted her weight uncomfortably, fidgeting under the woman's unnerving gaze. Behind the stranger, Ranma could see that her pop had entered the house and was busy flashing her signs telling her not to talk to the crazy woman.

Ignoring her father, Ranma spoke. "Sorry, lady. My name ain't Ranko. It's Ranma."

The woman looked at Ranma carefully before speaking. "Are you the daughter of Saotome Genma?"

Ranma shifted her weight again. She didn't like to lie, but it was probably easier to just say yes than to try and explain about the curse. "Well, yeah, I'm his kid," Ranma answered cautiously.

Suddenly the woman surged up the stairs and grabbed Ranma, holding her tightly and sobbing softly. Ranma found to her surprise that she was comforted by the close contact. She couldn't even remember the last time someone had held her like this. Unsure of what to do, she held her arms stiffly at her sides and tried to pull away from the woman. "Umm… do I know you? Pop didn't promise you I'd marry your… uhhh, son or anything, did he?"

The woman looked down at Ranma and ran a hand across her cheek, cupping Ranma's chin. "Don't you remember me?"

Ranma shook her head; the woman looked hurt by her answer. She looked deeply into Ranma's eyes, and gathered herself before she spoke. "I'm Saotome Nodoka, Ranko. I'm your mother."

Ranma looked closely at the woman as her mind struggled to take it all in. "M-mother?"

Nodoka nodded and hugged Ranma again. Ranma, though still somewhat uncomfortable with the close contact, couldn't help responding. Tears trickled down Ranma's cheeks as she hugged her mother. "Mom," she whispered. She felt strangely moved; it felt as if some missing part of her life had finally been restored. Ranma noticed that her father was scurrying out of the house with his pack in hand, but was too shocked by meeting her mother to do anything about it.

Nodoka cradled her child's face and kissed her forehead before pulling her into another tight hug. "Finally, after twelve long years, finally I've found you, my daughter." Nodoka combed Ranma's hair back with her fingers, a contented smile on her face.

Nodoka's words finally sank into Ranma's brain. "D-daughter? Don't you mean son?"

Nodoka looked curiously at the red-haired girl in front of her. "Ranko, you're my only child. Of course I mean daughter!"

Ranma's face was beginning to show panic. "But… but I'm a guy!"

"Ranko, that is not funny and no way for any daughter of mine to talk."

"But I'm a guy! I'm your son, not your daughter!"

Nodoka stared wide-eyed at the girl in front of her. Kami-sama… she's not joking. "Genma," she whispered, "what have you done?"

Ranma pulled away from Nodoka's relaxed grip and stumbled down the stairs. "Pop! Pop!" she screamed as she rushed for the door. Nodoka followed her slowly, still trying to make sense of Ranko's odd words. She heard another voice call out briefly in greeting, followed by a loud crash. Turning the corner towards the genkan, she saw her daughter sprawled face down on the floor with another girl about her age standing over her. The new girl was holding a hand to her head and grimacing.

"Ranma, you baka! Watch where you're going!"

On the floor, Ranma stirred and struggled to stand. The red-haired girl wobbled briefly and shook her head before she stumbled out the door with a lurch.

"Ranma! Where are you going? Aren't you even going to apologize to me?"

Nodoka, who had walked towards the two girls as Ranma had charged out the door, softly placed a hand on the new girl's shoulder. The girl turned around, her eyes meeting Nodoka's. "Akane-chan?"

Akane probed her head carefully, wondering if the knot was going to be very large. It was just like Ranma to run her down in the doorway and then leave her to face a complete stranger, who he was probably running away from anyway! She shook her head to clear the remaining cobwebs. "Yes, Ma'am?"

Nodoka searched Akane's eyes for some sign of recognition; there was none. The sound of footsteps in the hall behind her caused her to turn again. Souun stood there, Kasumi beside him. He started to speak, but apparently couldn't find the right words. He settled, instead, for successfully fighting back his ever-present tears.

Kasumi stepped forward to gently grasp both Nodoka's and Akane's arms. "Why don't we all go sit down and have a nice cup of tea? I'm sure Ranma will be back soon."

Nodoka nodded, bewildered, and allowed herself to be led back to the living room.

Noriko sighed as she turned the stroller into yet another path through the park. Let's see, she thought, this makes the third time past the lake. She peered into the depths of the stroller, and her one-month-old daughter Miki peered right back at her. The infant's face was bright, calm, and alert—and didn't show the slightest sign of being sleepy. Noriko sighed again, and wondered if she'd been drinking too much coffee. She turned her eyes to the path ahead, and kept walking. At least I'll work off that pregnancy weight…

Her eyes preceded her up the path, and stopped on a teenage girl sitting on a bench. The girl was dressed in some kind of Chinese clothing that seemed to be several sizes too large for her and was damp to boot. She looked like a little girl playing dress-up with clothes that were too big for her. Her fiery red hair, unusual for a Japanese, was tied back in a pigtail. She looked rather morose, and her chin rested on her chest. She'd been there the last two times past the lake, too.

Noriko and her daughter rolled up and stopped. If she was doomed to wander the park like the Flying Dutchman (Flying Mommy?) tonight, she might as well try to do something better than just kill time. This girl looked like she could use a friendly face.

"Hello," ventured Noriko. The teenager didn't respond. "Hello?"

The petite redhead looked up, revealing startling, clear blue eyes and a perfect mouth set in a delicate, classic face. The girl was simply beautiful, the kind of beauty that seemed warm and approachable rather than haughty and remote.

She looked over Noriko and the stroller, and seemed to shrink a bit. "Uhhh… Hi." She had a lovely soprano voice, but it seemed curiously flat for a girl.

"It's a nice evening, don't you think? A bit sticky."

The girl seemed distracted. "Yeah." She eyed the stroller again. "Takin' a walk?"

Noriko was taken aback; the girl's odd attire, loose posture, and rough, masculine speech made a jarring contrast with her looks and voice. She tried to collect herself. "Yes." She smiled and shrugged. "My new daughter doesn't want to go to sleep. My mother suggested walking her around in the stroller."

The girl seemed to grow more morose at Noriko's words; she didn't respond for a while. "Oh. Is it workin'?"

"Not at all." Noriko laughed, and the redhead managed a chuckle. "How about you?"

The teenager looked down again, and sounded dispirited. "I… I was lookin' for someone. Didn't find him. I looked everywhere, too." Her fine eyebrows knit in tension.

Noriko studied her carefully. "It sounds like you've been at it for quite a while."

The redhead nodded. "Two, three hours, at least." She raised her head again and looked around, seeming to notice the gathering darkness for the first time. "I guess it's gettin' late."

"Shouldn't you be getting home to your mother and father soon?"

The girl stiffened visibly, and closed her eyes for a moment. "Uhhhh… I guess. My mom and pop. Yeah."

Suspicion started to grow in Noriko's mind. "Are you going to be all right? You… you do have someplace to go, don't you?"

The teenager blinked in surprise. "Oh, yeah. I'll be fine. I… I live with the Tendous." She seemed to brighten as she mentioned the name, her lips relaxing into the hint of a smile.

Noriko relaxed, her worries dissipating. "I'm glad to hear that." She paused. "I know Kasumi-san; I see her sometimes at the market." She smiled; if this girl lived in Kasumi's household, then she was being cared for. Come to think of it, Kasumi had mentioned once that they had houseguests…

The girl was still sitting there, hunched over on the bench. "Is… something wrong?"

The redhead sighed. "Yeah." She straightened up a little. "But… sittin' here ain't gonna help. Guess… guess I oughta go home and deal with it." Her expression hardened. "Runnin' away ain't the answer." She stood up.

Noriko smiled. She seemed like a good girl, despite her rough manners. "That's the spirit."

The teenager smiled in gratitude. "Thanks, lady."

"Not at all. Whatever it is, dear, good luck." The girl smiled again, and headed off.

Noriko watched her leave. In contrast to the way she had sat on the bench, she walked gracefully, but with an odd gait that had a hint of the masculine about it. Her posture was erect even as her shoulders slumped in depression, and her feet almost danced and seemed not to touch the ground; she made no sound as she walked. It was a little eerie.

Noriko shook her head slowly; the girl seemed like a living, walking contradiction. She wondered if she'd encounter this pigtailed enigma again.

Daring to hope, she looked back to the stroller. Two tiny, alert eyes regarded her, and blinked once. She sighed in resignation as her own shoulders slumped, and she wearily started to roll the stroller down the path once more. She wondered who was going to be the first to pass out.

She was halfway to the lake when she stopped short. Hadn't Kasumi said it was a boy and his father who were staying with them?

Ranma slipped back over the wall of the dojo, trying to keep her damp shirt from sticking to her chest. Even in the warm, humid summer evenings, a wet shirt rubbing against her chest was too much of a reminder of the curse. Her clothes had been thoroughly soaked that afternoon, and chasing after her father had left her no time to dry off.

As she walked towards the house, she could hear voices. Peering across the pond into the living room, she saw Souun, Akane, and Kasumi sitting at the table with the woman who had grabbed her that afternoon.

In the pit of her stomach Ranma felt the queasy, bubbly sensation that only seemed to occur when her life was about to get worse. Given that the old panda had just run out on her, she had no doubt that one of his schemes was falling apart, and was most likely about to explode in her face.

Gritting her teeth, she quietly entered the kitchen. On the stove she found the kettle of warm water Kasumi kept for her, and prepared to pour it over her head. She would face this like a man, if nothing else.

When Ranma stepped into the living room from the kitchen, all eyes turned towards him. Souun was the first to speak. "Did you find him, Ranma?"

Shaking his head, Ranma sat at the table in his usual spot, next to Akane. "No, he had too much of a lead." Sensing Akane's glare, he turned and stared back. She was probably still mad about the butting heads thing. "But I would'a caught him if you hadn't been hoggin' the doorway, Akane!"

Akane's face darkened. "I was not hogging the doorway! And you should watch where you're going!" Ranma stuck his tongue out at her, and suffered the slap to the back of his head in silence.

Souun's cough brought their attention back to him. "Ranma, I would like to introduce you to Saotome Nodoka."

Ranma looked at the woman in question. This afternoon she had claimed to be his mother. Or rather, her mother. That meant she couldn't be his mother. Ranma was surprised at the sense of loss he felt. He couldn't remember his own mother, and so he hadn't thought that it would bother him this much anymore. Part of the reason he'd avoided coming home was the disappointment.

Nodoka, for her part, glared at him. This handsome young boy in the damp clothing had the same name that her daughter had used this afternoon. Frowning, she started to say something, but Souun spoke before she could.

"Nodoka, this is Genma's son, Ranma." Nodoka narrowed her eyes and looked the boy over more closely.

Akane watched the silent battle of wills between Ranma and Saotome-san. She was pretty sure that Ranma would fail to make the appropriate connection between this afternoon's events and the woman's name.

"Ranma," she said urgently, tugging on his shirt sleeve. She frowned when he jerked it out of her grasp, but she continued anyway. "She's your father's wife!"

Nodoka nodded. "Indeed, I am Saotome Genma's wife. But I do not have a son. I have a daughter, who was in this house this afternoon." Her eyes hardened. "Who is your mother, young man?"

Ranma shook his head. "I… I don't remember my mother. It's always been just me and Pop." He tried to ignore the woman's harsh glare. "Besides, if I ain't your son, then you can't be Pop's wife." Ranma returned Nodoka's glare with equal intensity. "He may not be a great person, but he wouldn't cheat on his wife. You must be married to some other Saotome Genma." Ranma turned to Souun for confirmation, but was not surprised to see tears in his eyes. No help there. Kasumi was looking thoughtfully at her cup of tea, and Akane seemed confused.

Nodoka leaned across the table, her gaze intensifying. "No. I am married to Saotome Genma, student of the Anything Goes school of martial arts, who trained under Master Happousai with his friend Tendou Souun—this gentleman sitting right here. But I have no son. Just a single daughter! The Tendous all told me that you know where the girl I saw this afternoon is!" Nodoka rose and leaned across the table towards Ranma. The cloth wrapped around her bundle slid down to reveal the hilt of a katana. Ranma couldn't help swallowing at the sight.

Surprisingly, it was Kasumi who broke the impasse, gently chiding Ranma with her eyes. "Ranma-kun, you really should explain everything to Saotome-san. She deserves to know."

"Aw, come on Kasumi. You don't believe all this, do you? I mean, you know I'm a guy." He looked at the eldest Tendou daughter. She was considering him with a confused look on her face and seemed to be taking an awfully long time to answer. "Right? Right? I'm a guy!"

The cold water poured over his head caught Ranma by surprise, and she turned a baleful gaze on Akane. The other girl looked at the floor, her cheeks red with embarrassment and an empty glass in her hand.

Nodoka, who had been leaning across the table when Ranma changed, shrieked and swiftly clapped her hand over her mouth. Still leaning towards Ranma, she stared as the girl turned towards Akane. "Ranko?… what…"

Ranma turned back to the woman. "I told you, my name is Ranma. Not Ranko."

"But… but you were a boy a second ago! How… You are Ranko, aren't you?" Her quivering voice, filled with both dread and hope, tore at Ranma's heart. The red-haired girl ducked her head, unable to look at the woman.

Nodoka seemed to gather her wits, and turned to Akane. "What did you do?"

Ranma answered before Akane could. "It's an ancient Chinese curse. Me and Pop fell in these cursed pools in China. When I get splashed with cold water I turn into a girl. Hot water changes me back."

Nodoka stared at her for a moment, then shook her head. "You must be her! You are my daughter, Saotome Ranko." Nodoka looked at Souun, her eyes entreating him to say something, anything. "Tell her, Souun! You know Genma doesn't have a son! You and Kirara were there when I gave birth to Ranko!" Souun remained silent, retreating further into his shield of tears. Akane fumed at his cowardice.

"Hey, like I said before, I'm a boy!" Ranma objected.

Nodoka looked at Ranma evenly. "You are my daughter! Your hair is almost the same color as mine was at your age, and I'd know those blue eyes anywhere. How many Japanese girls are redheads? And your birthday is March 18, 1983, is it not?"

Kasumi nodded. "That is your birthday, isn't it Ranma-kun?"

Ranma jerked her head in response. "Yeah, but so what? She can't be my mother if she had a daughter. I've been a boy my whole life!"

Nodoka pointed at Ranma's chest. "How can you possibly say that you're not a girl?"

"I told you, it's a Chinese curse! It's magic! I was born a boy. The curse changes me into a girl. Just like Pop's a man and the curse changes him into a panda. If I'd been born a girl, the Nyanniichuan wouldn't have any effect on me." Ranma smirked. That should prove that she was a boy. The red-headed girl was his cursed form, not his male body. How could she possibly have changed from a girl to a boy? Ranma had been a boy as long as she could remember!

Nodoka stared at Ranma. "You claim that the panda I saw earlier was Genma? I don't believe you!"

"Yeah, but you believe that a boy can change into a girl don'tcha?" Ranma couldn't help sounding smug as she responded.

Akane gazed thoughtfully at Ranma. "Or that a girl could change into a boy, Ranma. Maybe there's something here we don't know." Ranma glared at her, but Akane wouldn't stop. "She does know your birthday, and she's right about your hair. And… and I don't know if you noticed, but… when you're a girl, you look an awful lot like Saotome-san." Kasumi blinked, and started looking between the two redheads.

"Hey, this hair is the hair of some Chinese girl from 1500 years ago! And… and lotsa people look alike without bein' related!"

Akane had turned to her father. "Daddy, is it true? You know Saotome-san, don't you? Is she Ranma's mother?"

Souun continued to stare at the table, tears crawling down his face.

Ranma grinned. "See, it's not true!"

Akane punched her in the arm. "He's not denying it either, you baka. And you know he would if it wasn't true. He'd never let some stranger break up our engagement."

Nodoka gasped. "You are engaged to Akane?"

Ranma blushed. "It was all Pop's fault! He, ummm, didn't stop at Akane, either… he engaged me to Ucchan, too…" She turned a deeper red and wondered if she should have mentioned that.

"How could Genma engage you to a girl? Worse, to two?" Nodoka's brow furrowed in anger. "Absolutely not! I will not permit it! It would be scandalous for a daughter of the Saotome family to marry another woman. No daughter of mine is going to marry another girl! Souun, how could you and Genma do this to our children?"

As she waited for Souun's answer, Nodoka heard Ranma shriek. Quickly looking back, she saw two tiny hands groping her daughter, and a small, bald head nuzzling her neck. Nodoka's eyes widened. "You!" she gasped.

Happousai looked around the room, smiling. "Family reunions are so touching. I'm glad you finally met your mother, Ranko."

Ranma grabbed the twisted old freak by his neck and held him against the table. "What do you mean, 'Ranko'? My name is Ranma!"

Happousai nodded enthusiastically. "Oh, of course, of course. Your name is Ranma." He smirked. "Silly me."

Nodoka gasped at the twisted little man's words. "You knew!"

Ranma tried to throttle him again, but the tiny pervert easily slipped from her grasp.

Leaping after him, Ranma screamed "It's not true!"

"Well, of course it's true, Ranma. And I should know. Who else do you think Genma and Souun would come running to once they found out they'd never have sons to carry on the families' schools?"

All of the people in the room stared at Happousai in shock. Nodoka drew her katana in one swift motion and waved it threateningly. "You helped that… that bastard do this to my beautiful baby girl?" The point of the katana hovered around Ranma's neck, causing her to flinch away from Nodoka.

Akane's temper was starting to flare. "Daddy, what does he mean, 'Genma and Souun'? You didn't help him do something to Uncle Saotome's daughter, did you?"

Kasumi looked crossly at Souun, who retreated further into his veil of tears.

Ranma protested again. "I'm a guy! Why does everyone want me to be a girl?"

Happousai turned his gaze across the room. "Well, I wanted her to be a girl. I saw how cute she was, and I knew that my darling little Ranko was going to grow up to be a fine, healthy young woman." Here he gave the young woman in question a lecherous grin, causing her to snarl at him.

He sighed. "But how could I turn my boys down? I was just glad to find out the lad had fallen into that spring at Jusenkyou."

Ranma lunged for him, but he bounded out of the room, barely ahead of her. Charging for the door, Ranma was brought up short by Nodoka grabbing her shirt.

"Ranko! Stay away from the Master! No good ever comes to any girl who goes near him!"

Ranma rounded on Nodoka. "That's enough! How many times do I have to say it? I ain't a girl!" Grabbing the pot of tea off the table, Ranma poured it over herself.

Nodoka gasped and flinched from the transformation, clutching her katana tightly to her chest. "Ranko… why… what did they do to you, to make you feel this way? To want to be a man?"

Ranma tried to match the woman's gaze, but its intensity forced him to look away. "I am a man. I ain't your daughter."

The room suddenly descended into silence. Ranma briefly looked back to Nodoka's face, then turned away again, unable to confront the broken heart he saw there. The strained silence wasn't much easier to take.

Nodoka stood staring at the young man, the young man she knew must be her daughter. "I am sorry for having disturbed you. I… I should go." Gripping her sword tightly, she bowed to the girls and Souun at the table, then departed.

Ranma looked up, only to see Nodoka's back as she walked quickly out the door. "I'm sorry," he whispered to her as she left.

Akane stalked across the room towards him. "How could you do that to your own mother, Ranma? After all the years you've been separated, how could you do that to her?"

Ranma looked at Akane, a sullen expression on his face. "What do you mean?" He looked across the pond at the moon breaking through the clouds. "She ain't my mother. You heard her, she says she has a daughter. I'm a guy. I don't know why she thinks I'm her daughter."

"You don't? Let's see, you just happen to look like her, and she just happens to have a red-haired, blue-eyed daughter who was born on the same day as you?"

"I'm a guy. It must be a coincidence."

"And she's married to a Saotome Genma?"

"Must be a different one."

Gathering the dishes at the table, Kasumi glanced at her father. "She was here all afternoon, Father. Is she really Uncle Saotome's wife?"

Souun looked at the table as he answered. "Yes." Looking at Ranma, he spoke again. "She is your father's wife, Ranma."

Ranma paled. "She… she can't be my mother, can she?"

Souun stood from the table, and reached into his gi to pull out a pack of cigarettes. "Only Genma can answer that question." Tapping the pack, he pulled out a cigarette and stepped out on the porch.

Ranma turned to the stairs, shaking his head. "I've had it. Goodnight."

"You're just going to go to bed?" Akane shouted after him.

Ranma turned around. "Yeah. That's exactly what I'm gonna do."

The next evening found Ranma following Akane through an unfamiliar part of Nerima ward. A twenty minute walk had been spent in silence, and Ranma could hardly believe that he had let Akane talk him into coming at all. They had argued about it for most of the day.

They were still at it. "I still can't believe that you're draggin' me to see her, Akane. What gives you the right to butt into my life like that?" He scowled. "You even told her we might stay the night!"

Akane stopped suddenly, and Ranma almost ran into her. "Akane?…"

She turned around to face him, cold anger on her face. "Ranma, not a day goes by when I don't think about my mother. She died when I was four, and I can't even remember her. I'll never see my mother again, except at the cemetery." She paused a moment and closed her eyes, and Ranma swallowed.

Akane took a deep breath. "Your mother is alive! You can see her! You have to see her! How can you throw her away?"

Ranma was irritated again. "Yeah, but if she was my mother, I'd be a girl. I ain't a girl, Akane. So why do I have to see a stranger?"

"What if she is your mother, Ranma? How do you think you're making her feel?"

Ranma bowed his head in guilt, and tried to think of a reply. Before he could, Nodoka's voice came. "Akane-chan, is that you?"

Ranma and Akane looked up the street to see Nodoka standing in the gate to a well-kept house. She was watching the two teenagers intently. "Hello, Akane-chan, Ran-" Nodoka swallowed. "Ranma."

Ranma sullenly bobbed his head in response.

"I heard voices, so I came outside… I have to admit I'm surprised you called. I thought after last night, that…" The older woman paused, and looked to the two teenagers thoughtfully. "Won't you come inside? I will prepare some tea for us."

Akane smiled and dragged her reluctant companion to the gate of the house. "Thank you, Saotome-san." She frowned at Ranma when he failed to greet his mother. Finally he relented and mumbled a greeting as well.

"Please call me Auntie, Akane-chan. I knew you very well when you were little." They followed her inside.

The inside of the house was hard for Akane or Ranma to describe. It felt almost like a shrine, well kept and well loved, but with the sort of omnipresent weight that made you want to speak in whispers.

As Nodoka entered the kitchen, Ranma and Akane moved to sit on a couch, both of them carefully making sure that they were far enough apart so that they wouldn't accidentally touch one another, but still close enough to feel each other's presence.

Ranma leaned his head close to Akane's and whispered, "This is spooky. It feels so quiet."

Akane nodded. "She must be very lonely. She's been living here by herself for twelve years, thinking about her lost family." She gave Ranma a pointed look.

Although Ranma could be dense at times, he didn't miss the meaning of Akane's stare. "I told you, she can't be my mom. She's got a daughter, and I'm a guy."

Reaching to the table at the end of the couch, Akane picked up a picture that she had seen when she sat down, and handed it to Ranma. In it a young woman sat wearing a wedding kimono of the purest white. At her shoulder stood a young man in a splendid gray kimono. The woman was almost the spitting image of Ranma's girl form. The slim man was clearly Genma. Half his hair was already gone.

Ranma held the picture as he looked at it for a long minute. As he stared at it, Nodoka returned to the room, carrying a tray with a pot of tea and three cups. "Oh, I see you found my wedding photo."

Akane nodded as she took her cup of tea. Ranma continued to stare at the picture, and tried to ignore the icy feeling that was starting to crawl up his spine. Nodoka sat a cup of tea in front of the boy, and quietly took a sip of her own. "I am sorry for my actions yesterday, Ranma."

Ranma looked up at the woman with a blank expression on his face; she stared back at him. After no one spoke for several seconds, she dropped her eyes and continued. "I know that you don't believe that you are my daughter, and I must admit that I find it hard to accept your curse. But when I saw you walk into the Tendou's home yesterday afternoon, when I looked into your eyes, I knew that you were my child." Nodoka looked up and caught Ranma's eyes. Akane looked back and forth between the two.

Nodoka set her cup of tea on the table. "Would you like to see Ranko, my daughter? I… I pulled out my home movies when I came home last night." Ranma tried to look neutral at the offer, but Akane nodded eagerly.

Nodoka stood and walked over to the TV in a corner of the room, and opened a door in the cabinet below it. There were several rows of tapes stored there. Nodoka ran her finger along the labels, finally tapping one lightly. "I think you'll like this one, Akane-chan."

Akane blinked. "Really?"

"It was taken at Ranko's fourth birthday party, just a few months before she and Genma disappeared." Nodoka slipped the tape into the VCR, pressed play, and turned the TV on. She took her seat again, and the three listened to several seconds of static before the picture began to clear. "You'll have to forgive me if the tape is a little scratchy; it's a copy of the original, and I view them… quite often. Oh, here we go."

On the screen, a young, smiling Nodoka waved from the kitchen door as the person holding the camera played with the zoom. Again, Akane was struck by just how much she looked like Ranma's girl form. Finally settling down, the cameraman panned around the room, showing balloons floating above a small pile of presents, and a table set with festive napkins and flowers.

The doorbell rang, and the camera advanced to the genkan, the bell ringing a second time before a hand came into focus and pulled on the door, sliding it open.

Outside a smiling family stood. In front was Souun, obviously, with his characteristic mustache and brown gi. In front of him, with his hand on her shoulder, was a young girl with long brown hair in a ponytail, smiling up at the camera. Another girl with her hair in pigtails stood hiding behind his legs, holding tightly to the back of his pants.

"Saotome! Good to see you!" Souun exclaimed, trying to step up into the house, but tripping with the girl holding his pants. "Nabiki, please."

The little girl shook her head furiously and hid her face behind her father. Souun grinned resignedly at the camera. Digging into his pockets he pulled out a coin. "I'll give you ten yen, if you come inside and be nice while we are at the Saotomes'."

The girl reached out her hand, and Souun placed the coin in it. She giggled and ran in to join Kasumi. Souun shrugged with a smile, and stepped in as well.

As they watched her family on the TV, Akane had reached out and taken hold of Ranma's hand, squeezing it tightly. For once, Ranma didn't say anything, sensing her mood. After they watched Souun enter the living room they were sitting in now, Akane gasped at what was revealed behind him.

A pretty young woman in a blue dress, with long black hair, was walking into the genkan on the TV. She was holding a little girl—Akane—in her arms. Ranma felt Akane's hand squeeze his tighter, until it was almost painful. "Mother," she sobbed once, and wiped the tears from her cheek with her free hand.

Ranma awkwardly scooted over closer to Akane, and she looked at him briefly, and produced a teary smile. "It's… it's OK. It just caught me by surprise." Ranma nodded, and together, they watched the video as it played out before them. As the next scene started, Ranma's face turned ashen.

On the screen in front of them two little girls were having a tea party. One of them was the young Akane they had just seen in her mother's arms, and the other was… was a little girl with red hair, blue eyes, and an eerily familiar face: Ranko. Ranko-chan was wearing a frilly green sundress, her lush red hair done up in a loose ponytail. She had two flowers in her hair, doubtless in honor of her birthday. Akane-chan was wearing a yellow cotton dress, and the two of them sat at a small play table with their tea set. On the larger table behind them, Nabiki was playing shop with a toy cash register. Occasionally, a seven year old Kasumi would come in from the kitchen, where she was apparently helping her mother and Nodoka.

Akane-chan and Ranko-chan had filled the empty chairs at their table with dolls and stuffed animals, with whom they carried on intricate conversations. Akane-chan was particularly fond of a large stuffed pig in the chair next to her. Akane was struck by how well the two little girls got along.

Nodoka seemed to read her mind. "You and Ranko were so close, Akane-chan. You were just like sisters." Nodoka sighed, Akane nodded in wonder, and Ranma shuddered.

She could hear Ranma speaking to himself softly, denying what he saw on the television in front of him. She squeezed his hand and felt him give her a little tug in response. It was unsettling to her, too. How could Uncle Saotome have done such a horrible thing to his wife and daughter? How could her own father have engaged her to a girl? She had no doubt that the little redhead on the TV was Ranma—or at least, his female form. What on Earth had happened? She now understood Ranma's rude behavior towards his mother: he simply could not deal with this. He was denying every shred of evidence put before him.

As the tape ended, Nodoka clicked the TV and VCR off. "Would you like to see her room?"

Ranma and Akane looked at each other. Akane nodded encouragingly and Ranma haltingly replied "S-sure." Nodoka led them up the stairs down the hall to a door just past the bathroom. On the door was a wooden cat with the name "Ranko" carved into it. Ranma shuddered at the sign. Once the door opened, he stepped through quickly.

Akane, following him, bumped into his back when he stopped. "C-c-cats," he stuttered.

Akane could see that the bed was covered with stuffed animals, many of them cats. The walls were hung with pictures of cats and dogs. The walls were pink, and the window was covered with lacy white curtains. The room had a sad, musty air, like a museum: it was too neat, too orderly. She suddenly felt close to tears, as she imagined what it must have been like for Auntie to come into this room over the last twelve years.

Akane walked across the room to the dresser, and surveyed the framed pictures on top. One showed Ranko-chan and her parents, one showed a huge tomcat sleeping in the sun. In the last picture, Ranko-chan was holding the cat, which was almost as long as she was tall, to her chest.

Amongst the pictures were several smaller items: a tiny music box, a small figurine. The remnants of a little girl's life. Akane felt a deep, cold hatred for Saotome Genma wash over her; he had killed that little girl, his own daughter! What kind of a monster could do that? As she examined the relics before her, Akane heard Ranma come up behind her. She turned to make a comment, to let him know how she felt, but she never got the chance.

Ranma was looking past Akane at the pictures on top of the dresser, looking very much as if he'd seen a ghost. His eyes were wide, and there was something in them Akane wasn't used to seeing: desperate fear. Ranma looked like a trapped animal. His head moved slightly from side to side, as if saying "no", but his eyes never left the photographs on top of the simple pine dresser.

He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. His arms came up and he hugged himself. Breaking his eyes away, he abruptly turned away towards the bed, and after gingerly pushing the stuffed cats to one side, as if handling some dangerous substance, sat down heavily. Akane leaned on the dresser, while Nodoka regarded both of them from the door, not quite sure what was going on. Ranma still had the trapped look on his face.

Akane was really worried; this wasn't like Ranma at all. "What is it, Ranma? What's wrong?"

Ranma looked to Akane, then to Nodoka, then down to the slightly worn cream-colored carpet, which he studied intently. It showed its age, but was spotless, no doubt thanks to his mother. "I… I…" he stopped, then tried again. "I… remember. Th-that c-c-cat. And the… dr-dress. M-mom was always tellin' me to not pick him up, 'cause I always got c-cat hair all over"—he swallowed—"my dress. That picture's the first thing out of all the stuff I've seen and heard that I actually remember myself. I guess… I was too young to remember very much, but I remember that." He shivered. "Oh… oh, Kami-sama, I'm… I'm… really a girl." He put his head down on his knees and hugged them, trying to curl into a ball.

His head was spinning. He had been denying this conclusion ever since he was first reunited with his mother. He could deny his mother's words, he could deny Happousai's account, he could deny the photographs and videos he had seen. But he couldn't deny his own memories. And he had memories—fragmented, fuzzy, and few, but memories nonetheless—of being a little girl. The dam he had built in his mind against the implications of what his mother was telling him—and against other things—abruptly gave way, and from behind the dam came a flood.

Akane looked on, her heart aching in sympathy. Ranma seemed to be starting to accept his past. What that meant, she didn't know, and she was afraid that the strong, confident person she had known was falling apart before her eyes. She felt pity, and wondered that she would ever feel such an emotion about Ranma. The following weeks and months were going to be hard on him, and she resolved to put aside all the bickering and be Ranma's friend, for he was surely going to need one. She had made such resolutions before, and failed, and this time vowed to put all her will and strength into it. She moved towards Ranma.

Ranma felt numb, as if he were freezing to death. The room seemed to fade away as his senses shut down. The simple fact that he, Saotome Ranma, man amongst men, was a girl, a girl named Ranko, occupied his entire universe, crowding everything else out. Time seemed to slow down, as this fact rolled over and engulfed every truth he had held about himself. His view of who he was was disintegrating, replaced by an enormous gulf of questions and uncertainty. He felt Akane sit next to him on the bed and put an arm around him, and murmur soothing words… comforting him… as if he were… he were…

No! That was the past! That was when he was a small child. It didn't matter now! He had to be a guy! His head came up in defiance, and his eyes met his mother's. The hope mixed with concern that he saw written there nearly washed away his determination, but he forged ahead anyway.

"M-mom… I guess… I guess I am your… d-daughter. But, I spent most'a my life as a guy! It's all I know now! I can't… be a girl! I gotta be a man…" He trailed off as he saw the hope drain slowly from his mother's face. His head started to spin again…

His mother stood silent for a few moments, then spoke carefully, her emotions under tight control. "Ran… Ranma. Dear, all I want is for you to be happy. You have to live in the way that is most comfortable for you and makes you happy. If you… if you decide that means staying a boy, then… then I… I just want you to be happy… I'm just glad that you are back in my life. I won't ever lose you again!"

Ranma knew she meant it, but he also saw the tears gathering in the corners of her eyes, and knew that she wanted her daughter back, more than anything else in the world. She had shown as much by searching for her for so many years. His resolve faltered, and the numbness started to return. Something in his mother's words nagged at him, but he shoved that aside, as he always did.

Nodoka sighed, a long tired sigh, and seemed to grow a little older in that moment, sagging against the door frame. She rubbed her eyes. "If you children will excuse me, this has been a very long day, and I need to rest. Akane-chan, there is a futon all laid out for you in the spare bedroom." The mundane conversation broke the tense mood in the room. Akane nodded and stood up from the bed.

Ranma, still somewhat disoriented from his epiphany, and by the fact that he hadn't gotten the arguments he was expecting from his mother, asked "Mom? Ummm, what about me?"

Nodoka raised her eyebrows in query. "Why, of course you're sleeping in here, dear. Why?"

Ranma's eyes darted to the pile of cats pushed to one side of the bed. "With them?"

Later that night, the stuffed cats safely banished to a cardboard box in the closet, Ranma lay in a little girl's bed—his bed—and stared at the ceiling. His mind was swirling with half-formed thoughts. The entire foundation of his life, the basis on which everything else was built, had given way. If he wasn't Saotome Ranma, man amongst men, who was he? What was he? If he was really a girl, what did that mean? How did he feel about that?

Quickly, a litany of insults streamed forth from his memories of his father—"weak" "stupid" "silly" "a distraction from the Art" "less than a man"—and quashed that line of inquiry. These attitudes had been drilled deep into him for twelve long years on the road. The idea of being a girl made him feel as if he were every one of those things. But he now knew that everything the old man had taught him was suspect, tainted; if he had lied about and corrupted Ranma's very identity, he could lie about anything, twist any truth to suit him. Did that include even the Art itself? Was that a fraud too?

Ranma didn't know what to believe in any more. He didn't know what to feel about his father; what the man had done was so horrible, Ranma couldn't quite grasp it. So much of what he was he owed to his father. And it was all a lie, a lie on a colossal scale. Was he a lie, too? If he remained a man, was he an accomplice to Genma as well as a victim? Did he join his father in this crime? But how could he possibly do anything else?

As he lay there, he suddenly noticed a barely audible sound coming from down the hallway. He strained his ears, sensitive from years of running away with his father in the dead of night, and heard soft, muffled sobs. He quickly turned over on his side, towards the wall, hiding from the sounds, his eyes suddenly shut tight, tears threatening to force their way out. It was his mother, and he knew she was grieving for the daughter she might never see again, even though her child had returned.

Ranma lay there for a time, feeling miserable and low; how long, he didn't know. For years he had longed to be with his mother; he hadn't even known she was still alive. Now they were together again—and he was breaking her heart. He didn't know if he could do what his mother wanted, what his honor told him he should do. He didn't even know how he felt about it.

Finally he sighed and opened his eyes, and found himself face to face with a cheerful rag doll; there hadn't been room in the closet for anything but the cats. The doll had a big smile, eyes that laughed, and was dressed in a peasant dress and a straw bonnet. He couldn't help but smile for a moment, but it soon faded and he regarded her seriously. "What am I gonna do? I can't let Pop get away with what he did. I can't stand seein' Mom like this, and me bein' a guy makes it worse. But I can't be a girl! I just can't! At least…" He trailed off. The doll kept on smiling, impervious to Ranma's troubles. He regarded her for a few moments more, then rolled over on his back to look at the ceiling once more. "Reminds me'a Kasumi…" he sighed, and tried once again to sleep.

Akane turned on her side, trying to keep the morning sun from her eyes, but it was too late; she was awake. Unlike Ranma, it took very little to wake her up. She sighed, rolled back over on her back, and looked around the room.

Since the Saotomes had had only a single child, there was little in the room in the way of furnishings. Having never had a real occupant, its contents were sparse; odd cast-offs and older pieces from other rooms in the house, items intended for storage or disposal. No one had ever been in the room long enough to imbue it with a soul. Akane found the atmosphere kind of sad. The room needed someone to live in it to give it life; maybe Auntie would let her do something with it if she were going to be staying here often.

She had been too tired last night to think about all that had happened, but she found her thoughts quickly returning to Ranma. There was no doubt now that Ranma was Ranko, that he had been born a girl and spent the first few years of his life that way. She knew they shouldn't have doubted Auntie Saotome to begin with, but the idea had been so fantastic, so impossible, that she and Ranma had clung to their doubts until the last of them was forcibly removed. Ranma had remembered his own girlhood, and there was no arguing with that. And Akane found that the bombardment of images and stories from that time were starting to dislodge a few, faint memories of her own.

She hadn't remembered anything of what they had seen in the video, as she had been sitting there holding Ranma's hand, but there were tantalizing hints of… sitting… she remembered sitting… sitting with a little girl with a red pony-tail… playing with her in a sandbox while their mothers looked on—

Akane gasped. She had never managed to remember her mother before. Until now, she hadn't had a single shred of a single memory of the woman who had died when she was a little girl. The simple glimpse of her mother in the video the night before had been a wonderful gift. She grabbed at the memory, straining to extract every last bit from it that she could, to know her mother in a way she hadn't been able to. But few details came. Her mother had been, well, her mother: a fixture, a constant in the universe, part of the background, not a new and interesting object to be examined in detail, poked and prodded. She couldn't recall much.

She sighed in frustration, and tears came to her eyes… tears… she was crying… and… and… "My shovel broke, Mommy! It broke!" Her head was buried in her mother's lap, her mother's hand stroking her hair, then… what? Another shovel? Akane thought hard; another shovel? Where did that come from? A hand, holding it towards her, offering it; her mother's? No, a child's hand… the little red-haired girl's hand. And words that, for a change, were clear:

"Please don't cry, 'kane. You're my bestest friend!"

Akane couldn't quite believe this. She had been carrying this memory in her head for almost as long as she had been alive. It had been utterly lost, until recent events had pulled on a thread, which had pulled on another thread and yet another, until finally she stumbled across this fragment of her past. Did she and Ranma… Ranko… really go back that far? Had they been such close friends—like sisters—so long ago? What did it mean?

Akane's thoughts drifted back to the night when a red-haired girl had arrived on her doorstep, carried by a panda. How had she felt then? It was just a few months ago, and her memories were clear, but could she remember her feelings?

She remembered the shock of a panda strolling in the front door, almost overshadowing the red-haired girl with it. They had been expecting a boy, and when the others started poking at Ranma and making comments, Akane had leapt to her defense, jumping to protect her. "Hi, I'm Akane," she had said, "would you like to be friends?" Ranma had smiled back, somewhat shy, and something had passed between them. She had felt an unexpected closeness to that red-headed girl. When she had found out that Ranma was a boy, she had felt utterly betrayed, almost violated; that boy wasn't a real girl, couldn't be the friend she had thought she had found. Had taken away the friend she had thought she had found.

That she had found again?

Akane sat up slowly from her futon. She knew she had a deep connection with Ranma which kept them together despite the fighting, the insults, and the arguments. She had thought it signified that they were meant for each other, meant to be together as man and wife. And yet, the idea of being engaged to Ranma had always grated on her; she felt like she was being pushed into something she wasn't comfortable with, and she was pretty sure Ranma felt the same way.

She had thought that she would be ready, in time, but that feeling of unease had persisted. They were both uncomfortable with the engagement and with expressing affection, though they cared deeply for each other. It had never seemed to her like the way she thought the love between a man and a woman ought to be. And Akane found herself losing her temper at Ranma constantly, getting angry at him over and over again, mad at him for being such a jerk… such a… boy. Losing her temper came easily to her, but she lost her temper more with him than with anyone else she knew; it made her feel bad, but it kept happening.

Akane pulled her knees up with her arms around them, rested her head on them, and sighed. Was this the root of her attraction to and repulsion from Ranma? Had she somehow been ready for a red-haired girl to walk back into her life? The almost-sister who had been stolen away? Was that why the idea of being engaged to him seemed so uncomfortable?

She thought of the handful of times they had actually kissed. There had been the pleasure of sharing something special with him, but there had always been that discomfort… a discomfort that, she found, was now starting to blossom into a feeling of true queasiness. Despite the schoolyard taunts, Akane was not interested in girls, not that way, but her feelings about Ranma had left her concerned about her own sexuality; why had the idea of intimacy with him disturbed her so much? Had she at some level been aware that Ranma was her childhood "bestest friend"? Could she now view him as anything else?

She fell back on the futon with her hands behind her head. It certainly seemed as if that might be the case. She knew she cared deeply for Ranma, and the hurricane of information and memories about their childhood had made things more clear. Ranma had been like a sister to her, but being married to her sister, or even her brother for that matter, was not something she really wanted. It was just as well Auntie had canceled their engagement.

She felt the love she had for Ranma, and knowing it for what it was made her more comfortable with it, happier about it, than she had ever been before. She felt some of the tension and discomfort that had started with Ranma's arrival finally begin to ease. She couldn't help feeling sad, too: she had had dreams of being with Ranma, of raising a family together, and those dreams seemed unlikely to come true, now. But she also felt secure in a way she never had, because she knew that if their bond had survived for so many years, it was impervious in a way that romantic love often was not. No okonomiyaki chefs or glomping Amazons or psychotic gymnasts could come between her and Ranma, could take Ranma away from her, the thing she had feared most. She knew now why she felt that way: she had already had Ranko taken away from her once. She wouldn't ever let it happen again.

She felt a warm feeling as months of confused emotions seemed to solidify into something coherent and enduring. Maybe, just maybe, having a friend as close as Ranko… Ranma… was worth letting go of a dream that had never seemed to come to fruition anyway. A dream that had been based on a fraud, and had in some ways kept them apart.

She shook her head. This was all so confusing, so overwhelming. She hoped Ranma felt as deeply about their friendship as she did, because he was going to need an anchor to hold on to in the coming weeks. She prayed silently to Kami-sama that she would have the strength to be a friend and help him, even when he acted like a jerk, which could be relied on as surely as the sun rose each day.

The brightening sun and traffic noise from outside the window finally shook Akane out of her reverie, and she started to get up. She took off her pajamas and quickly put on the clothes she had laid out next to her futon the night before. The pajamas went in her pack, the futon was carefully folded and put out of the way, and Akane went off to see what the rest of the family was doing.

It was still a bit early, but not terribly so, and Akane was not surprised to find Nodoka awake and in the kitchen, preparing breakfast. The Saotome matriarch seemed to have recovered somewhat from the strain of the previous evening, and Akane was greeted with a bright smile as she entered the kitchen.

"Good morning, Akane-chan! Did you sleep well?"

"Very well, Auntie. Just not long enough…" Akane smiled ruefully.

"I'm sorry, did we wake you up?"

"Not at all, Auntie, I just wake up easily… wait a minute, did you say 'we'?"

"Yes, Ranko… Ranma was up before I was." Her smile faltered slightly. "She… he looked as if he hadn't slept very well. He went out when I came down, saying he had to do some thinking. He said you'd know where to find him and bring him back when breakfast was ready."

Akane was stunned. Ranma, up early, on a Sunday? He must really be disturbed. "I think I know where he means, Auntie. When do you plan on serving breakfast?"

"In about half an hour, I think."

"I'll bring him back by then." She turned to leave, then paused. "Auntie?"

"Yes, dear?"

"Last night you said Ranma… Ranko and I were just like sisters. What did you mean, exactly?"

Nodoka smiled. "You spent so much time together, and you got along so well. You just adored each other." She paused a moment, lost in memories. "Actually, one day, the two of you just decided you were sisters, and nothing either I or your mother could say would change your minds." She laughed. "You two were pretty stubborn."

Her mind awhirl, Akane nodded, and left.

The early morning joggers didn't pay much attention to the morose-looking redhead who sat next to the Ikebukuro line bridge. This bridge carried the tracks over one of the many drainage canals that snaked their way through Nerima ward. After a few weeks of the heat of summer, the waterway was mostly dry, but a small stream flowed down the center. Even with the train line overhead, it was a relatively quiet, peaceful place—for Tokyo.

This was the place where she came when she wanted to be alone and think.

As she sat there, an early morning train moved out over the span, its electric motor humming and its wheels clattering on the tracks. Ranma couldn't see into the train from her vantage point not quite underneath the bridge, but she knew that this early it likely held workers who were unlucky enough to have to work on a Sunday. Come tomorrow, it would be packed with salarymen and O.L.'s on their way to work in downtown Tokyo.

Her gaze turned to a group of children playing on the wide flat space on the opposite bank. Their mothers sat nearby while they ran about and screamed in delight, playing games she couldn't quite identify from this distance. The boys and girls congregated in different groups, each playing their own games, and the mothers watched while chatting among themselves.

Ranma sighed and turned her attention from the outside world back to her feet.

A soft noise caused her to turn around. Akane was standing there, a few yards behind her at the top of the bank, regarding her with an inquiring gaze. She slowly descended the slope, and sat next to Ranma. Ranma turned back once more to her minute examination of her shoes.

"Auntie says breakfast will be ready in about a half hour, Ranma. What are you thinking about?"

"Nuthin' I wanna discuss with an uncute tomboy like you!" came the tart response.

Akane's mallet hand itched. She glared at Ranma, and was about to respond as she always did when she remembered her vow. As she fought to control herself, she remembered Ranma's distress from the previous evening. Ranma was inept with other people in the best of times, and these were hardly the best of times. Right now, she looked sullen and unhappy, and there were dark smudges under each eye; she clearly hadn't slept much last night. As Akane examined the girl in front of her, her mind suddenly flashed back to the little girl in the video last night, and her anger seemed to dissipate.

"Ranma, calling me names isn't going to make me go away." The redhead sagged a bit. "Why are you angry? I just want to help you."

Ranma started to retort that she didn't need any help from a klutz like Akane, but stopped, and thought. Usually she was the one doing the helping; she relied on no one, carefully hiding her feelings from view.

But… this was not just another martial arts battle, where she was in her element and knew she could win. All the martial arts in the world were not going to help her with this. She had been going around in circles in her mind, chasing her own tail. Maybe… maybe it was time to open up, to share her feelings, to have someone else… help.

For some reason, she couldn't think of anyone other than Akane she was willing to share these feelings with. And she realized, she did want to share them with someone; she was weary of fighting these demons herself, and since last night, they were starting to overwhelm her. She had to open up to someone, or she was going to go crazy. Who else could she talk to?

Ranma cast her eyes down again, and was silent for a while. Akane bade her time, waiting for Ranma to get around to speaking. She was glad she had kept her temper; it looked like Ranma was going to open up a little.

"I… I'm still havin' trouble with the fact that I was born a girl. It really shook me up."

Akane looked over at the children at play across the canal. "Do you want to talk about it?"

Ranma was silent for a few moments. "I know how Mom feels, and what Pop did was awful, but… I… I gotta be a man! I haveta! Or my whole life is nothin', a big waste." She swallowed. "I can't throw all that away."

Akane turned to look at Ranma, who was fiddling with the drawstring on the light windbreaker she had worn against the morning chill. The windbreaker looked a little damp, and Akane imagined that Ranma the water magnet had had a close encounter of the wet kind on the way here. She focused on what Ranma was saying.

"What do you mean? What would you have to throw away?"

Ranma swung around to face Akane. "My manhood, Akane! I've worked so hard to be a real man, someone Pop could be proud of, and I was proud of too! And… and I don't wanna be stuck as a girl, where I can only be a housewife or an O.L. or somethin'! I haveta be a martial arts sensei! The Art is my life!"

Akane was a little confused about Ranma's train of thought. Something didn't mesh quite right, but she couldn't put her finger on it. "Ranma, I know Japan is a little backwards about women's rights, but even here there are lots and lots of choices available to women, and being a sensei is certainly one of them. Being a girl wouldn't keep you from doing those things, though I have to admit it would make it harder…"

"What are you tryin' to do, Akane, turn me into a weak, stupid girl like you?"

Akane felt her blood start to boil. Weak? Stupid? I'll show him!… Except… Ranma had been born a girl, too, and she knew that herself! Akane's anger became mixed with confusion. Why would she say that now that she knows?… Again her mind flashed back to the little girl in the video—a girl who had seemed to have a sweet, happy disposition, and who had gotten along famously with her friend Akane. How could that sweet little girl grow up to be such a jerk? As she glared at Ranma, suspicion started to dawn, the suspicion that there was more to Ranma's rude behavior than she had thought. Her anger faded. I've got to stop letting her get to me, or I'll never be able to help her…

"No, Ranma, I'm not. I'm not trying to force you to do anything. I'm trying to help you figure out the best way to be happy. You are my friend, and I want you to be happy. All I was saying was that if you did decide to be a girl, you could still achieve a lot. Do you actually think girls are stupid and weak, or are you just saying that for another reason?" Akane gave Ranma a piercing look, not angry, but questioning.

Ranma blushed and looked down. "I'm… sorry, Akane. I know you're tryin' to help." She looked up again, up the drainage canal, at the line of buoys that sat beached on dry land at the point where the canal curved out of sight. Anywhere but at Akane.

"Even… even if you're right about that, I'm still a guy! I've gotta be a guy! Bein' a real man is one of the hardest things I ever done! I can't just throw it away!"

There it was again. Akane didn't know why, but the hairs on the back of her neck were starting to stand up, and she had a chill even in the growing warmth of the ascending summer sun. "Ranma, what do you mean? What's so hard about being a guy?"

Ranma looked at Akane as if she were an idiot. "It's hard to be a guy! It's really tough! That's why Pop was so proud'a me, and I was proud too! Bein' a man is way harder than bein' a girl! And then there's the damn curse, too!"

Akane was really confused now. "You find it hard to be a guy?"

Ranma glared at Akane. "Well, duh! Ain't that what I just said? I didn't know you were this dumb!"

Akane's hand twitched, and her aura flickered. In her hand, the ghostly outline of a mallet appeared, shimmering, as if trying to take form. Her vow! She squeezed her eyes shut and breathed deeply. She counted to 50. She had to stay in control; Ranma was lashing out because she was confused and deeply disturbed. Her hand trembled slightly, and the ghostly mallet faded away. She let out her breath with a sigh as she gained control of herself.

When she opened her eyes, Ranma was watching her with wide eyes. Suddenly, Ranma looked terribly ashamed, and buried her head on her knees. Her muffled voice emerged. "I'm sorry, Akane… I'm sorry… I'm just so messed up right now… I'm… I'm scared…", this last almost a whisper.

The last traces of Akane's anger evaporated, and she examined the redhead closely. It's a wall, she thought. She's trying to keep me from getting inside. She tries to keep anyone from getting inside. All you have to do is push past it. Why didn't I ever notice before? With some shame, she knew the answer: I never paid enough attention, because I was too angry at her…

"It's… OK, Ranma, I understand. I… just please try not to insult me so much, OK? I don't deal with it well, even though I know you don't really mean it." She smiled. She had gotten further with Ranma today than ever before, and was proud, though she knew that most of it was the clarification of her own feelings about Ranma. Still…

Ranma looked up, and her eyes might have been a little wet. She gave a tiny smile. "I'll… I'll try."

They both watched the scenery quietly for a while.

"Ranma, when you say it's hard to be a guy, what do you mean? I honestly don't understand you."

Ranma thought for a while. "Well, it… it just ain't easy, y'know? I gotta try so hard to be manly all the time, I gotta remember to be a man in all things. It just ain't easy. But it's like this for every guy; it's just harder than bein' a girl."

Akane was still terribly confused. "What makes you think that every guy feels that way?"

The redhead looked surprised by the question. "Ummm… uhhhh… Y'know, I'm not sure I remember where I heard it. I've known it for a long time. When I was younger I used to tell Pop how I felt, and he would yell at me to be a man, that it was like this for all men, that he felt that way too! He said just grit your teeth and be a man, 'cause it's somethin' to be proud of! 'Cause it's so hard."

Akane was starting to get angry again, but not at Ranma. "Ranma, have you ever tried talking to a man other than your father about this?"

Ranma looked embarrassed. "Ummm, no… It's just too… private. I always felt ashamed of it, even though Pop said it was normal."

"Ranma, I don't think it's normal at all. Maybe we need to go talk to Dr. Toufuu about this—you trust him, don't you?" The redhead nodded uncertainly. Akane sighed. "What were you saying about the curse?"

Ranma looked terribly embarrassed and ashamed. She looked at her feet for a long time, as Akane waited patiently. "I… I ain't never told no one this before. Not even Pop. It… it was hard enough bein' a man before. But once I started turnin' into a girl, and I really saw how much easier girls had it, it was even harder. The curse… it… it…" Ranma mumbled something inaudible and once again buried her face in her knees, trembling.

Akane was amazed. What could Ranma possibly be so ashamed of? "What did you say, Ranma? What did the curse do?"

Ranma slowly raised her head, still not looking at Akane. "It makes me feel like I wanna be a girl", she whispered, "like I wanna stay this way." She turned away in shame.

Akane felt a chill run up her spine. Ranma… felt drawn to her female form? Wanted to be a girl? She never told anyone before, but she was willing to tell me?… "Ranma… I… I had no idea…" Ranma seemed to withdraw a little further into herself at Akane's words.

Akane felt like she was tantalizingly close to understanding something, but still couldn't quite grasp it. "How… how does the curse make you think girls have it easy? What do you mean?"

Ranma eventually looked up, her face still showing deep shame. "After I had the curse a while, I started noticin' that when I was a… a girl, I was more… comfortable. It just doesn't seem as… as hard as bein' a guy; in some ways, it… it ain't even hard at all. I know about how hard it is bein' a man, though, so… so I understand that."

Ranma seemed to grow more upset, and her voice took on a frightened tone. "But then… then I started enjoyin' bein' a girl! I… I hate myself for bein' so weak! I'm supposed to be a man! But… but it just… just f-feels like that's what I… I wanna be. A… a girl… A w-weak, useless girl…" Her voice broke, and she pursed her lips, her brow contorted in pain, unable to speak. Akane stared, not even noticing the put-down; Ranma seemed to be overwhelmed by her feelings.

After a short pause Ranma continued, "I know it's gotta be the curse, tryin' to get me to stay this way, so I fight it. No man should feel like this! But it's so hard sometimes…" her voice trailed off to a whisper again, and she squeezed her eyes shut.

Akane was starting to make connections, and was afraid of the picture she was putting together. "Ranma, have you talked to Mousse or Shampoo about how they feel about their curses? What makes you think that you feel that way because of the curse?" Akane couldn't quite believe the blind spot Ranma was displaying, but she was pretty sure she knew who was responsible for Ranma having it.

Ranma looked even more unhappy. "No… no, it's just too embarrassin'. I didn't even tell Pop, I… I just couldn't. You're… you're the first person I ever told. I'm so ashamed of it. I hate myself…" She looked downright miserable.

As Akane looked into Ranma's haunted, tired eyes, she suddenly had one brief, terrible moment of lucid insight. The universe turned a cartwheel, and everything fell into place. She stared at Ranma, eyes wide, shaking her head ever so slightly. Ranma looked confused. "Akane?…"

Tears formed in Akane's eyes, and she squeezed them shut tightly. She buried her face in her knees, hugging them to herself. A small sob escaped her.

Ranma was starting to worry. "Akane? Akane, what's wrong? I…" Her face fell. "You… you think it's sick, don'tcha?" She looked miserably ashamed.

Akane looked up at Ranma, and knew she could never again see her with the same eyes she had before. She really doesn't understand, does she? thought Akane. Oh Kami-sama… the poor thing… all those years… that… that… monster! If she doesn't kill him, I will! The sudden expression of rage on Akane's face made Ranma even more uneasy, and she shied back, expecting a mallet at any moment.

Akane tried desperately to gain control of herself; she simply could not tell Ranma her thoughts. Ranma had to figure this out for herself, or she would never, ever understand or accept it.

She took a deep breath. "No, Ranma, I don't think you're sick at all. I think… I think I just understand you a little better, now." She smiled. "I'm glad you trusted me enough to share this with me." She thought for a while. "Maybe later today, we can get some answers to some of these questions."

Ranma looked nervous. "Q-questions? T-today?"

"About being a man. About the curse. Don't you want to know more?"

The fearful, trapped look from last evening reappeared on Ranma's face. "I… I dunno… It's so… so embarrassin'…" She looked at her shoes again, blushing.

Akane sighed. "Ranma, this problem is not going to get resolved unless you really make an effort to understand how you feel. It sounds to me like you have some unanswered questions that need answering." She looked at Ranma sympathetically. "You can't really expect to solve this problem if you hide from it, can you?"

Ranma looked up at Akane, sheepishly shook her head, then looked down again. "I guess the Saotome secret technique won't work this time, huh?" They both laughed.

The rails on the bridge started to sing as another train approached, and Akane looked at her watch. "Ohmigosh! We need to get going or Auntie will be waiting for us." She stood up quickly, and Ranma joined her.

Ranma smiled a tentative smile at Akane. "Thanks, Akane. I'm… I'm glad you're willin' to help."

Akane smiled back. "That's what best friends are for." As if moved by the same thought, they turned for a last look at the children across the canal. Akane noticed Ranma watching the girls at play, an unreadable expression on her face. She moved to get Ranma's attention…

Ranma was looking across the canal when she saw movement out of the corner of her eye. Akane was holding out a hand in invitation, fingers spread, a smile on her face and a slightly mischievous look in her eye. Ranma stared at her for a moment, then smiled back and took her hand. They turned and headed up the bank, as the train began to clatter its way across the bridge.

End Chapter 1

Tuesday, September 5, 2000

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The characters and stories of Ranma ½ are Copyright © Rumiko Takahashi, and are used here without permission or license.

No claims to the above copyright are made by the author of this work.

This work is for non-commercial use ONLY, and is produced for the enjoyment of fans only.

This work is the expression of the author and the depiction of the Ranma ½ characters herein are in no way represented to be a part of Ranma ½ as depicted by the original author and copyright holder(s).