Equal Halves

By ClassicalGal

Chapter 2: Two of a Kind?

By the side of the koi pond, Akane moved slowly and gracefully through the stages of her kata. It was a beautiful morning, and she felt joined not just to the Art, but to Nature itself. The wind breathed as she breathed; the trees swayed in time with her movement. The stages of her kata were the passage of time.

Suddenly, she noticed a familiar figure watching her: Ranma. He was standing there holding his gym bag, watching her quietly with a serious expression. He must have just walked through the front gate. When he saw her notice him, he smiled that uncertain smile of his.

Akane felt her heart skip a beat, and she stopped her kata. For the longest time, she'd thought Ranma was nothing but an insensitive jerk. As she'd gotten to know him, though, she'd found that when it really counted, he was one of the bravest, kindest, most generous people she had ever known. She'd come to know his heart, and some of the secrets he had hidden there. To her surprise, one of them had been the love he held for her. Now she couldn't imagine spending her life without him, for she had come to love him, too. Very much so. She vaguely remembered that there were some problems, but she couldn't quite recall what they were at the moment.

For a long moment, she just gazed at him. Ranma, her handsome fiancé. Then, she ran over and threw her arms around him, resting her head on his shoulder. "Ranma, I'm so glad you're home. I've missed you!"

Ranma snorted. "I was only gone for a day, y'know." He hugged her back. "But I missed you too, Sis."

A chill ran up Akane's spine. "Wh-what did you call me?" She pulled away from the embrace, and found that Ranma was in female form. She was wearing a denim skirt and a teal v-neck top, and her red hair was neatly styled. The gym bag had become a violin case.

She smiled. "I called you 'Sis.' What else would I call my sister?"

Akane's heart hammered in her chest. "No… Ranma, you're my fiancé… you're a guy! You're not my sister…"

Ranma shook her head. "I'm not a guy any more. I think I like being a girl much better. I'm happier this way." She tilted her head. "Besides, don't you like me better as a girl too? You're the one who said 'Would you like to be friends?'"

Tears started to spill down Akane's cheeks. "No… no… please… Ranma… please don't become a girl… I… I love you!"

Ranma gazed back at her, all concern. "Oh Sis… there's no need to worry." She embraced Akane gently. "I love you, too."

Akane screamed "Nooooooo!" and sat bolt upright in her bed, breathing heavily. Morning light streamed in through the windows, and the chittering and singing of the birds made a disorganized symphony outside.

Across the room, Ranko stirred groggily. "Huh? Whazzamatter, Sis? Bad dream?"

Akane screamed, "Don't call me that! I'm your fiancée, not your sister!" The two young women stared wild-eyed at each other for a few moments, while the fog of sleep dispersed.

Then both sighed a long, heavy sigh, and said "I'm sorry" in unison. They blinked.

The door opened, and Nabiki was standing there, rubbing her eyes. "Do you guys think you can wait until it's a decent hour to start yelling at each other?"

Akane blushed. "I'm sorry, Oneechan. I had a bad dream."

Nabiki nodded and yawned. "I'm going back to bed. I'll be getting up for those 8 AM freshman classes soon enough." She closed the door.

Akane turned back to Ranko, and winced; she looked stricken. "Ranko, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to yell at you. I was still half-asleep."

Ranko said quietly, "Your nightmare was about me, wasn't it?"

Again Akane felt guilt form a cold lump in her abdomen. "Kind of yes and kind of no. I'm sorry. It's not your fault." The redhead nodded and sighed.

Akane put her head in her hands. What a way to start the day. At least Ranma will be home tonight. She felt a warm hint of anticipation, but it was accompanied by a lingering sense of dread from her dream. It's silly, she thought. There's no way Ranma would ever want to be a girl. No way. He hates his curse. She yawned; she was exhausted after a poor night's sleep.

So why am I having nightmares about it?

Nodoka looked up from her morning tea at the two young women who stumbled into the family room, each wearing a gi. She smiled. "Good morning, dears."

Ranko blearily mumbled "Mornin'," while Akane muttered something incoherent. They both sat down heavily at the table, and Nodoka wordlessly pushed the coffee pot at Akane. She knew the teenager needed something to get jump started in the morning.

Akane poured herself a cup and downed it in the space of a couple of minutes. She turned to Ranko, who appeared ready to doze off while sitting up. "OK. I'm ready." The sleepy redhead nodded, and they both stepped outside to start their warmups next to the koi pond. Nodoka took her tea with her to the porch to watch.

As the two went through their katas, Ranko finished waking up, and she was soon moving with lithe grace and power. She looked almost like a dancer. Once again Nodoka found her heart filled with pride. Clearly, Ranko still practiced the Art.

Akane watched Ranko out of the corner of her eye as she warmed up. She obviously still spent time on martial arts, but if she wasn't focused on them she couldn't be as good as Ranma. Maybe… I actually have a chance. The thought of actually being able to hold her own with Ranma, or—unthinkable!—even land a blow, sent a little thrill through her. Even if it was another version of Ranma.

Ranko finished her katas, and found Akane waiting for her. "Are you ready? How do you want to do this? Just general sparring?"

Akane nodded. "Sounds good to me." They bowed to each other, and assumed their stances. Nodoka leaned forward, watching carefuly.

Akane attacked, and in the blink of an eye found herself sitting on the ground, her side smarting sharply from a blow Ranko had landed. Nodoka gasped; she'd barely been able to see Ranko move.

Ranko's hands flew to her mouth. "Sis, are you all right? I didn't expect…"

Akane said in wonder, "You hit me…"

Ranko kneeled next to her. "I'm so sorry! I don't like to hurt people when I spar. Sometimes I'll hit hard enough to really smart, but usually I try to score just by hitting hard enough to sting a little. I expected you to dodge a little urk!" Ranko was cut off when Akane threw her arms around the shorter girl and squeezed her as if her life depended on it.

"You hit me! You actually hit me and it hurt! Thank you! Thank you thank you thank you!"

Akane let go of the bewildered redhead and noticed her expression. "Ranma won't ever really hit me. He just dodges." She sighed. "He doesn't really take me seriously."

Ranko's eyes widened in understanding. "I'm sorry…"

Akane smiled and shook her head. "It's not your fault."

Ranko bit her lip. "It is, in a way. I used to do that to you when I was Ranma. There are very few things I did when I was Ranma that I'm ashamed of, but that is one of them. I'm sorry your Ranma is doing it to you." They both stood up.

Akane scratched her head. "You're still way faster than me. How much did you say you practice?"

"An hour every day, with you and Father. I'm sorry I hit you so hard; I expected you to be as fast as my Akane and dodge better."

Akane's heart leapt. "You… you mean your Akane is a lot faster?"

Ranko laughed. "You can't train with me and Father for an hour every day without being fast." She looked off to one side as she thought for a moment. "You know, I hadn't really thought about it, but you have improved a lot since you and I started sparring for real, and especially since we started training together with Father." She looked back and blinked; Akane was staring at her with desperate hope in her gaze.

"Would you… would you train me? While you're here?"

Ranko nodded slowly. "Of course, Sis." She winced. "I'm sorry, I keep forgetting."

Akane smiled. "If you'll spar with me for real, you can call me anything you want." They both laughed.

Nodoka watched as the two of them began again, Ranko moving more slowly this time. The shorter girl kept the intensity just high enough to seriously challenge Akane, giving her a thorough workout. Ranko jumped and flipped a lot, trying to exercise her own skills without overwhelming Akane. Soon both girls were smiling broadly, with an occasional laugh of delight. Akane was clearly enjoying this immensely, and Ranko seemed genuinely happy, as she'd been when playing her violin last night.

Nodoka sighed. Why couldn't her son show his fiancée this same level of respect? He loved her, but he didn't treat her as an equal. Nodoka had been raised in a very traditional way, but she knew that girls these days thought differently. The youngest Tendou bristled when Ranma treated her as an inferior—which he did all too frequently.

Which reminded her… she had a phone call to make. It was late enough in the morning now to call, and Ranma needed to be warned about the situation that was waiting for him here. She rose and went to the telephone.

She dialed, then waited as the phone rang.

"Hello, Aomori residence."

"Oneechan? It's me, Nodoka. I hope it's not too early?"

"No, not at all. Why did you call? Is something wrong?"

Nodoka bit her lip. "Not exactly, but there's something I need to tell Ranma before he comes home. May I speak to him?"

"Nodoka, I'm afraid he's left already. He felt there was something wrong with Akane-chan when she spoke with him last night, and it bothered him no end. He decided he wanted to go home first thing in the morning, so he went down to catch an early train. He should be there any minute, I would think."

Suddenly, from outside, came two blood-curdling screams, one male, one female: "Aaaaaaaaahhhhhh!"

Nodoka closed her eyes and sighed. "He just arrived."

Ranma bit his lip as he walked up to the front gate of the Tendou Dojo. Ever since he'd spoken to Akane last night, he'd been trying to figure out why she was so upset. His mother had sounded a little emotional, too. He didn't think they were in any danger, but even he could figure out something was up. And after Jusendou, he was very jumpy about anything that affected Akane.

As he walked through the gate, he heard the sounds of sparring, and looked off towards the koi pond. He smiled; Akane was sparring with another girl. They both seemed to be having a great time, and Ranma felt a warm glow inside; seeing her happy made him happy. He could never get enough of that smile of hers.

He couldn't quite recognize who the other girl was from this distance, but she seemed to be pretty good. It's good Akane found another girl to spar with, he thought, someone on her own level. He looked more closely. Actually… she's better than Akane; she's holdin' back. Not as good as me, of course. Wonder who she is? I thought I knew everyone around here.

As he watched the action, his eyes narrowed: the other girl was practicing Anything Goes! There were very few people who knew that style, and he thought he'd known who they all were. Great. Pop did somethin' else he never told me about. Or maybe the old freak.

The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. Not only was she using moves from Anything Goes… they were from the Saotome school. Definitely Pop. As he drew closer, he finally realized why the moves looked so familiar, and his blood turned to ice water.

This girl was using his moves. Sparring like him. And he still couldn't see her face, but… she had… red… hair…

The two girls had paused, the redhead with her back to Ranma. She was shorter than Akane—quite petite, in fact—and had delicate hands, currently hanging relaxed by her sides. Very familiar looking hands. He swallowed, and his heart started to pound. It can't be… It can't be…

Suddenly Akane noticed him over the redhead's shoulder, and her eyes went wide, her face ashen. "R-ranma?…"

The redhead stiffened, then slowly turned around. And Ranma found himself face to face with… herself.

There was no question: it was him. Her. The face he, or rather she, saw in the mirror.

The two of them took one, long, good look at each other. Then, as one, they screamed: "Aaaaaaaaahhhhhh!"

The rest of the family stampeded onto the porch in short order, Nabiki still in her pajamas. They stared back and forth between the two Ranmas, their jaws hanging open. Even though they'd expected it, it was… surreal.

Ranma tried to regain control of himself; he had to stay on top of the situation, though his danger sense was silent. He racked his brain for some explanation, and his eyes grew wide. "It's that demon! She's back!" He readied himself for a fight.

The demon seemed to be calming down herself, and her face took on a bewildered expression that was decidedly un-demon-like. "'Demon?'"

Ranma grew uncertain; was she trying to trick him? Suddenly, he had an idea. The demon had been able to mesmerize his male form, so…

Akane and Ranko both blinked when Ranma dropped his bag, then ran and jumped in the koi pond. Ranko swallowed when an exact duplicate of herself sprang out. Well, exact except for the unflattering hairstyle…

"There!" said Ranma. "Now you can't hypnotize me like you did the last time!" Suddenly she paused, confused. "Wait a minute… the demon was my girl form." She scratched her head. Nabiki sighed and put her hand over her eyes, shaking her head.

Akane tried to speak. "Ranma, she's—"

Ranma pounded her fist in her open palm. "I know! The mirror clone! Right? How'd she come back?"

The mirror clone looked to Akane. "'Mirror clone?'"

Akane sighed. "It's a long story…"

Ranma looked between the two of them. "No?" The two other girls shook their heads.

Ranma stepped forward. "OK, then, who is she?"

Nabiki spoke up, hoping to end the confusion. "Ranma, she's… you. Another you from a parallel world."

Ranma frowned, confused. "Parallel world?"

Nabiki nodded. "A whole different universe, very similar to ours, except there, you're a—"

Ranma interrupted, speaking to the other redhead. "So you're another me? What're you doin' here? Why are you in your girl form? Goin' easy on Akane?"

Akane and the other Ranma fumed, and Akane tried again. "No, Ranma, she's—

Ranma asked, "Then why dont'cha just change back?"

The other redhead had had enough. "Would you please just shut up and listen?" Ranma's mouth closed.

Ranma's double marched up to her. "I don't have a Jusenkyou curse any more. I'm a girl!"

Ranma looked her up and down. "I can see that."

Ranko rolled her eyes. Was I like this? "No, I mean I'm really a girl, like Akane and her sisters. A woman. My name is Saotome Ranko."

Suddenly, Ranma noticed the little details that had escaped her before. This other her had styled hair, currently gathered into a loose ponytail by one of those stretchy fabric things women used. She had bangs. She had pierced ears. She was using female speech.

She was Ranma's worst nightmare, come to life.

Ranma suddenly found that her throat was rather dry, and a chill ran up her spine. "Wh-what happened?"

"What do you mean, 'what happened'?"

"You used to be a guy who turned into a girl with cold water, right?" Ranko blushed and nodded. "So… why ain't you a guy now? Did Herb…?" Ranma knew her victory over Herb had been a close thing, and maybe, in another world, she'd lost the Kaisuifuu. She shuddered; if she had, would she have turned out like this?

Ranko shook her head slowly. "Herb? Who's that? What do you think he did?"

"He locked my curse for a while. If it wasn't him, who locked your curse?"

Ranko blinked. "My curse isn't locked. I don't have a curse any more. It's gone."

Ranma's icy fear was tempered with confusion. "If your curse is gone, why ain't you a guy?"

Ranko realized she had omitted an important detail. "Because this is the real me." She pointed at herself. "I was born a girl."

Ranma's eyes bulged slightly. Ranko was him, but born a girl? "Then how could you have had a Nyanniichuan curse? Why were you a boy?"

"I was enchanted. When I was four, by Happousai. He turned me into a boy. I… I looked just like you did before you jumped in the pond."

Akane piped up. "You know how you always say you look like the girl who drowned in the Nyanniichuan, and your mother says she thinks you look like who you would have been if you'd been born a girl? I guess she was right. When Ranko showed up yesterday we were sure she was you."

Ranma stared at the familiar face which was staring right back at her, and her head started to spin. She hadn't wanted to accept her mother's theory about her girl form, despite the obvious family resemblance, because it brought the curse to a whole new level of discomfort. Better to turn into some girl she didn't know than a female version of… himself. But now that hypothetical person was standing in front of her… and she was identical to Ranma's current form. That made the curse a far more intimate invasion of her identity than she'd wanted to accept.

I don't wanna think about this. "S-so why did the old freak do that to you?" Suddenly, all eyes were on Genma, and Ranma knew the answer. Figures…

Genma folded his arms. "I told you, I had a son! It was her father!" No one was impressed.

Ranko laughed nervously. "It was an accident. Father thought Happousai was going to give him a son, not turn his daughter into a boy." She looked down. "I was a boy for twelve years, until Father took me to Jusenkyou."

Ranma nodded. Par for the course. Pop is such an idiot. "So somethin' happened, and you can't turn back into a boy any more. Man, that must suck."

Ranko shook her head, confused. "Well, no, actually. I wanted to be a girl again. Even before I knew I had been born a girl. It was a big relief to be me again; I've been much happier as a girl. The day my curse disappeared was one of the happiest days of my life."

Ranma scratched her head. "Why would you wanna be a girl if you could be a guy?"

Nabiki sighed as she recognized the danger signs in Akane, the signs that Ranma always seemed to be blind to: the tense posture, the furrowed brow, the lips a thin line. Then she blinked; Ranko was showing similar signs.

Akane opened her mouth, but Ranko beat her to it. "Just what are you trying to say?"

Ranma spread her arms, palms up. "Why would anyone wanna be a girl if they had a choice? Girls are weaker than guys, and they can't fight as well. And you can only be an O.L. or a housewife or a teacher or somethin' like that."

The other two girls were seething, but Ranma continued, oblivious. "I mean, why would anyone choose that?"

That was enough. Akane began to summon her ki mallet, when something amazing happened. Ranko shouted "Ranma no baka!" and moments later Ranma was on the ground, twitching. Akane's own ki mallet fizzled as, slack-jawed, she watched Ranko disperse hers, righteous anger written on her face.

"My God," breathed Nabiki, "she is Akane's twin sister!" Everyone was in shock from the mind-boggling spectacle of Ranma malleting himself. Herself. Whatever.

Akane whispered, "Where did you learn to do that?"

Ranko herself was a little shocked at what she had just done. "Ummm… you taught me, Sis."

A small smile broke out on Akane's face. "Well, not me, exactly. But close enough." She peered more closely at Ranko; the redhead was biting her lip. "What's wrong?"

Ranko shook her head. "I shouldn't have done that." She sighed. "I had no right to do that."

Akane blinked. "Why not? He had it coming."

Ranko nodded. "He did. But I used to say the same things, when I was a boy." She laughed in embarrassment. "I'm really starting to understand how you felt back then." She averted her gaze. "I can't believe I used to be like that."

Akane hesitated, then walked over and put a hand on Ranko's shoulder. Now that Ranma was home, Ranko seemed a little less… frightening. A little more approachable.

The shorter girl looked up at her, her eyes questioning, and Akane smiled. "But you're not like that any more, right? You've… reformed." Akane's smile broadened into a grin.

Ranko grinned, too. "I guess I have." They both started laughing, and Ranko felt more relaxed than she had since this whole mess had started. Her eyes fell on her double, who was just starting to stir, and the germ of an idea took root in her mind. Hmmmm…

Ranma sat at the breakfast table, impatiently tapping his fingers. Everyone was there except Ranko and his mother, but Kasumi and Akane had insisted that they wait for "our guest." Ranma had protested that since Ranko was just another version of him, she wasn't really a guest, but it had fallen on deaf ears. His stomach growled quietly, and he wished once again that he had accepted Auntie Aomori's offer of breakfast.

He still wasn't quite sure how to feel about Ranko. The novelty of the situation had worn off quickly; after the last year of his life, this was pretty tame. He had faced doubles of himself before, both male and female. This wasn't even the first truly female double he'd met: his mirror clone had been a girl, and an outrageous flirt to boot.

But Ranko wasn't a mirror clone or a demon, both of whom had been rather imperfect copies of himself. She was him—except she was a girl, a real girl. Of that he had no doubt; she'd proven it by her uncannily Akane-like reaction to him. The idea that a version of himself could actually be a girl—and worse, be happy about it—tied his guts in knots. Even worse, she'd actually been a boy, like him, for twelve years, and was still happy about being a girl now. She'd chosen to be a girl. Ranma got goose flesh just thinking about it.

Footsteps sounded on the stairs, and shortly thereafter Ranko and Nodoka entered the family room. Ranma cringed slightly; Ranko was wearing a dark green print dress with puffy sleeves and a white bib. Her hair was held in place by an ornament, and she was wearing dangly silver earrings. Seeing any version of himself looking so feminine made him uneasy. He glanced surreptitiously at his mother, but she was smiling.

Ranko smiled at the family. "Sorry to keep everyone waiting—I wash my hair in the mornings, and I had to find something to wear." Ranma rolled his eyes. "You should have gone ahead."

Kasumi offered a bright smile and shook her head. "Don't worry about it, Ranko-chan. My, you look nice!" Nodoka beamed.

The redhead blushed. "Thank you. It's quite a bit dressier than what I usually wear, but I had to find something from Ranma's cast-offs." She laughed.

Ranma blinked. "That's one'a mine?" He looked the dress over again. "Y'know, it does look kinda familiar…" He scratched his head.

His mother smiled. "It's one I bought for 'Tendou Ranko,' Dear. At least a real Ranko is going to get a chance to wear it!"

Ranma nodded nervously, and wondered just how his mother felt about this girl version of himself."Uhhh… not that I mind or nothin'—it ain't like I'm gonna wear 'em—but… why're you borrowin' clothes?"

Ranko and Nodoka sat down, and Kasumi started to serve. Ranko paused a moment before replying; conversing with this male version of herself was unsettling, in no small part due to the unpleasant memories it stirred up. She shivered slightly. "When I came here yesterday, I only had the clothes on my back. Those are all in the wash now. Mother said you wouldn't mind if I wore the clothes she bought for you when she thought you were a girl."

Everyone paused for a quick "Itadakimasu," then began to eat. Ranko's eyes widened as she watched Ranma vacuum up his breakfast, fending off Genma's chopsticks all the while. She'd forgotten what meals used to be like. She did not miss it in the slightest.

Frustrated by Ranma's expert defense, Genma eyed Ranko's breakfast, and his chopsticks darted out in her direction. Ranko scrambled to defend her food…

…Until a katana cleanly sliced Genma's chopsticks in half. Genma's eyes bugged out as Nodoka resheathed her weapon. "She's a guest, Dear. Keep your hands off her meal. Besides, how can she possibly eat like a lady if she has to defend it?" Nodoka smiled at Ranko, who nodded uncertainly, and wondered if this version of her mother really was exactly the same.

Wordlessly, Kasumi passed Genma another pair of chopsticks, and he morosely set about eating his own (and only his own) breakfast.

Even with the greater size of his breakfast, Ranma's speed enabled him to finish ahead of everyone else. He looked around, and his gaze latched onto Ranko as she ate neatly and politely. He shivered again.

Akane spoke up. "Ranko, I really enjoyed our sparring session even though it got cut short. I was surprised by how skillful you still are. You made it sound like you hardly practiced at all any more, but you're still way beyond me."

Ranko smiled. "Thanks, Sis. I enjoy martial arts too much to give up on it altogether. I have to admit I don't practice intense fighting any more, though, just sparring. If I got in a real fight with a skilled martial artist, I'd probably be in trouble." She looked down. "Father keeps trying to convince me to train as a warrior, but… I really don't like that any more." Ranma's and Genma's jaws were hanging open; they followed the conversation with rapt attention.

Nodoka raised an eyebrow. "Why is that, Dear?"

Ranko blushed. "I don't like to hurt people. You always told me that I was a sensitive child." Nabiki, who had been drinking her tea, suddenly started choking. Everyone looked at her, concerned, but she seemed to be all right except for the coughing.

Ranko continued, "I can do it if I have to defend myself, like against Happousai or Kunou, but I have a hard time doing it to people I care about, so I don't get a lot of practice in hostile combat. Father and I have agreed to disagree about it."

Nabiki observed, "You didn't seem to have a problem with malleting Ranma this morning." She coughed again.

Ranko blushed deeply. "Well, I do lose my temper sometimes." She glanced at Akane. "Sometimes I wonder if I should have learned that move. It's too easy to use." Akane sighed and nodded. Ranko turned to Ranma. "I'm sorry about that."

Ranma was still focused on one thing. He blurted out, "But… but what about bein' a great martial artist? Don't you care about bein' the best?"

Ranko replied with a cold glare. "Yes, I do care. My whole life used to revolve around being the best martial artist in the world. I don't need to be the best in the world any more, but I do need to be the best I can be. And I've decided that I want to do my best at something else. Something I enjoy more than martial arts."

Ranma's mind tried to parse this last sentence, and drew a blank. How could you like something more than martial arts? It was like saying something was higher than up.

He was about to ask what that could possibly be when Akane directed a glare of her own at him. "Ranko agreed to train me while she's here. She says I'm much faster and more skilled in her world, where she and I spar with Uncle Saotome every day." She folded her arms. "Too bad I can't find someone in this universe who's willing to do that."

Ranma sighed. "We've been through this, Akane. I'm way past your level. It just wouldn't be fair."

Akane fumed. "Ranko is way past my level, too, but she knows how to hold back while still giving me a challenge."

"Yeah, but she's obviously nowhere near where I am."

"Oh yeah? I'll bet she could give you a run for your money!"

Ranko shook her head. Thanks to her daily training sessions, she was better than she had been when she fought Ryouga on the beach in Ibaraki. However, she was under no illusions about how she measured up to her former self. "Sis, he'd probably cream me." Ranma and Akane ignored her.

Nabiki raised an eyebrow. Ranma—any version—showing humility? Apologizing? Did Ranko being a girl really make that big a difference?

Ranma smirked. "Not a chance. She used to be me, but she ain't spendin' as much time on it. Besides, she's a girl now." Ranko glared at him, unnoticed.

Akane bristled. "You're just afraid to fight a girl who might be as good as you!"

Ranko tried again. "Uh, guys…"

Neither Akane nor Ranma were paying attention to her. "Oh yeah? You're on!" Ranma turned to Ranko. "C'mon, let's spar after we're done with breakfast. I promise I won't hurt ya."

Ranko sighed in exasperation. Mouuu! And I just washed my hair.

"OK, are ya ready?"

Ranko eyed Ranma doubtfully as they both stood by the side of the koi pond, he in his Chinese clothes and she in a borrowed gi. Akane and the rest of the family sat on the porch, watching. Ranko had considered declining, but the looks on both Ranma's and Akane's faces told her that was a futile idea; they wouldn't let her rest until she'd sparred with Ranma at least once. She could have bowed out with the excuse that she had to get to her studies at the University, but it was a sure bet that the Professor Murata in this world had never heard of Saotome Ranko. She'd have to practice on her own until… until she managed to get home. She bit her lip. I'll get home… I have to.

She put those thoughts out of her mind and nodded her assent to Ranma's question. She was sure this would be over quickly; she wasn't even as good as she'd been when she first learned she was Ranko, and she was sure this Ranma hadn't stood still. Still, it would be fun to see just how long she could make the fight last. If she could dodge fast enough, and maybe get in a hit or two, she would be pleased with herself. Her reflexes and conditioning might not be what they once were, but her mind was as agile as ever, honed by twelve years on the road with her father. And she did have one advantage: she had a much better idea of how Ranma thought than most of his opponents did.

They both appeared to simply relax, standing in place. Ranma grinned his approval as he saw Ranko masking her stance in the same way he did. She smiled back.

Suddenly, Ranko barely detected the beginnings of a movement on Ranma's part, and she instinctively dodged. She was flabbergasted when a strike from Ranma passed through the space she had occupied an instant before. Kami-sama, he's fast! This might be over a lot quicker than I thought.

She backpedaled a little to put more space between them, give her a little more time to react. This was not looking good; this Ranma was far faster than she had been.

Ranma relaxed again and slowly circled, almost looking like he was ambling. Her retina caught the barest trace of movement again, and again she dodged. This time she took a chance and lashed out with a quick jab, using the speed of the Chestnut Fist. She was rewarded with a hit, but it cost her one in return, a glancing blow as she flipped out of the way. Glancing though it was, it hurt like hell. Automatically, she added a little more distance between them.

Ranma nodded and grinned, and Ranko couldn't help smiling; she'd won a little bit more respect from him. Casually, they circled each other, looking for all the world like they were out for a Sunday morning stroll.

Ranko had already given up hope of any kind of offensive, and was hoping she could just get in one more hit like the one she'd already managed. She waited for Ranma to attack again.

But rather than leaping, he brought his hands together in a curious gesture, and seemed to concentrate. Ranko frowned. What is he doing?

Suddenly Ranma shouted "Mouko Takabisha!" and a bright ball of energy shot towards her at blinding speed. She was already in motion before he released it, but he tracked her like a target, and it caught her a glancing blow in the side, blasting her several meters. She landed rolling and sprang instantly into her ready stance, trying to ignore the pain, narrowly dodging another leap by Ranma. I'm in way over my head. He's gone far beyond where I was. She sighed. How did I let myself get talked into this? I don't even know any ki moves! Wait a minute… it's hardly elegant, but it might just work…

Akane gasped. She'd been so blinded by her anger at Ranma's arrogance, she'd pushed Ranko into a very uneven contest. She turned to Nodoka. "Auntie, maybe we should stop this…"

Nodoka shook her head. "He promised not to hurt her. He keeps his word."

Ranma seemed to be just circling; maybe he needed to recharge a little to fire off another ki blast? Ranko watched warily and waited. Suddenly, he made the hand gesture again, and Ranko acted; as Ranma shouted "Mouko Takabisha," she shouted "Yougeki Kizuchi!" A ball of energy shot towards her once more…

…and collided with the ki mallet she had thrown. They both disappeared in a noisy flash of light.

Ranma stared in disbelief, then burst out laughing. His laughter was cut short as he felt a hard kick to his side. He stumbled for a second as he watched Ranko land and turn to face him again, backing up quickly to open some distance. She'd used his distraction to land one blow. She had a huge, proud smile on her face.

Ranko felt Ranma's gaze fall on her, measuring her anew. Again, she'd gained respect from him.

Ranma's eyes narrowed. OK. Time to end this.

Ranko gasped; in the blink of an eye, Ranma came at her, launching a furious Chestnut Fist. She countered with her own as best she could, but he was much faster than she was, and blow after blow made it through her defenses. She strained herself and managed a little more speed, but it wasn't enough; her body howled in protest at the punishment it was receiving. Finally a heavy blow landed and sent her flying… straight at the large rock by the pond.

Ranma reacted instantly, and put on a burst of speed as Ranko sailed through the air. Just before she struck the rock, a red and black blur intercepted her, and they both landed in the pond with a large splash.

A redheaded girl wearing Chinese clothes cradled her identical twin wearing a gi as they both sat in the water. "You OK?"

Ranko smiled weakly up at her. "Yield."

Ranma laughed; then her expression turned serious. "I underestimated you. Yeah, you don't practice nearly as much as me, and you don't know all the moves I know, so I overpowered you pretty quick. But you got the most outta what you had. And it was pretty damn good."

Ranko nodded and smiled. "And I hit you twice!"

Ranma snorted, and a smile came over her face again. "Yeah. You sure did."

"Y'know, she ain't bad."

Akane turned to regard the redheaded girl sitting next to her on the porch—her redheaded girl. The other one, after loudly inquiring of the entire family whether anyone else wanted to spar with her this morning, had gone off to wash up—again. Ranma was waiting her turn at the bath; after sitting in the pond, it seemed like a good idea. Naturally, bathing with Ranko was out of the question, despite Ranma's current female state.

Akane's eyes scanned the redhead, who was indistinguishable from the girl who'd slept in her room last night. The only physical differences were the hairstyle and the pierced ears. Oh, you could tell them apart in other ways: Ranma's body language was masculine, and when she opened her mouth there was no doubt who it was. But if Ranma could act like Ranko, and brushed her hair out? Or if Ranko put her hair in a pigtail and acted like Ranma? You would never be able to tell them apart. Even identical twins differed slightly; these two were identical, at least when Ranma was a girl. It was eerie.

She focused on Ranma's words. "Oh? Even though you beat her so easily? Even though she's just a weak, silly girl?"

Ranma blushed slightly at the dig. "Yeah." Physically, Ranko wasn't even at the same level as Shampoo, but her tactical skills were not far below those of Ranma herself. She had shown the same inventiveness that was Ranma's own trademark; adapting Akane's ki mallet as a defense against the Mouko Takabisha had shown that. Clearly, Ranko had the same gift for martial arts that Ranma did—but was choosing not to pursue it. A terrible sin, from Ranma's point of view. "If she still followed the Art the way I do, she could be almost as good as me."


Ranma snorted. "Maybe she could be as good as me. Maybe." The idea that a girl could possibly be as good as Ranma herself made her uneasy—even if that girl was another version of herself. She found she was having trouble selecting a mental pigeonhole for Ranko. She was obviously a girl, but she was also obviously Ranma, and as talented. Those two categories were incompatible in Ranma's view of the world. "She'd have to go through all the stuff I did, includin' Saffron." They both sobered at that, and sat in silence for a couple of minutes.

Finally, Ranma said softly, "It's a shame she ain't followin' the Art any more. It's a waste."

Akane sighed. Why couldn't Ranma ever feel this way about her and the Art? "I wouldn't be so sure."

Ranma raised an eyebrow. "What d'ya mean?"

"She didn't tell you what it is she does instead, did she?" Ranma shook her head. "She's studying to be a violinist. A classical musician."

An odd mixture of pleasure and horror washed through Ranma. She had a great fondness for music, though she'd never really done anything about it—her life on the road with her father had made that impossible. But to give up the Art for that? Ranma couldn't understand it; not for that. Not for anything. "Well… that's nice, I guess. I can't see givin' up the Art for it, though."

Akane was surprised; this was the nicest thing Ranma had ever said about anything that wasn't related to martial arts. Usually anything else was beneath his notice. "Wait until you hear her play before you decide it's a waste." Ranma snorted, but didn't say any more.

Another couple of minutes passed, and they turned to each other and simultaneously said "What do you think of her?" They chuckled.

"You first," said Akane.

Ranma nodded, and took some time to gather her words. "She sure seems nice enough." She looked around; they were alone. "She kinda gives me the creeps, though. I mean, she's me, but she's a girl. And she's happy about it. That really bugs me. I guess it ain't her fault, but…"

Akane's eyes widened. "I feel the same way, though I'm starting to get used to her. I see so much of you in her, it's a little frightening. And I'm so used to your girl form, I can't help seeing her as you, and that's really disconcerting. I feel bad, because I… I like her… but… you and I…" she trailed off, blushing, and looked away.

Ranma swallowed nervously. "Akane… you… you like her?…"

Akane sighed in exasperation. "Not that way, baka. As someone I care about. I do care about her, the… the same way she cares about me, I guess. I… can't help caring about her. Because… because she's you." She blushed again.

Ranma's heart skipped a beat. Akane was rarely even this direct about her feelings, and it was exhilarating when she was. She couldn't think of how to reply, so they sat silently for a while more.

They heard footsteps behind them, and turned; Ranko was standing there, dressed as she had been at breakfast. A small smile came over her face. "The bath's all yours, Ranma." Akane blinked; Ranko seemed a little more relaxed around Ranma than she had been earlier.

Ranma nodded, and rose. "I won't take long. Don't haveta do my hair and all that stuff." She ventured a grin, and Ranko smiled. Ranma headed off towards the bath, and Ranko sat down next to Akane in her stead. Akane's head spun somewhat from the transposition.

Ranko waited until Ranma was out of earshot, then said softly, "You know, he's really good. He's so far beyond where I was even when I was… Ranma myself. I was expecting him to be better, but I was amazed."

Akane sighed. "A lot has happened in the last seven months. He's faced a lot of challenges, a lot of battles. Not too long ago, he… he had to kill someone who was a half-god, to save my life."

Ranko's jaw dropped. "I thought my life was weird when I was Ranma, but I never had to face anything like that." She shivered. "If I had kept on being Ranma, I wonder if that would have happened to me. I wonder how I would have done." She shook her head. "I'm glad I didn't have to find out, especially with your life at stake."

Akane nodded slowly. "And that was just the latest in a long series of challenges and opponents. He's been busy." She shook her head. "He's become so skilled, it… puts distance between us." She looked over at Ranko, who was staring off into space. "What do you think of him, now that you've met him?"

Ranko tilted her head and thought. "Well, he seems nice enough, aside from his views on women and his big mouth. Actually, I wasn't expecting those. I was like that when I was a boy." She hugged herself as if she had a chill, and something about her words left Akane feeling uneasy again. "I feel bad saying this, but… he kind of gives me the creeps. I mean, he's me, but he's a boy. And he seems happy about it. That really bothers me. Of course, it's not his fault, but…" Akane's eyes bugged out.

Ranko continued, "I was a boy, too, but I hated it. When Ranma is in his boy form, that… that brings back memories. Bad memories. I find his girl form easier to take." Akane nodded; that was why Ranko had seemed more comfortable just now.

Akane was struck by Ranko's mirror of Ranma's point of view. She'd been thinking of Ranko as an alternate of the "real" Ranma, almost like some kind of… mutation. But who was to say which one was the real Ranma and which was the alternate? Ranko's world was just as real as Akane's own, wasn't it? She had a brief vision of hundreds—thousands—millions of alternate worlds, and felt a moment of vertigo. Thinking about this was enough to give anyone vertigo; she put it aside. She was glad she had her Ranma, annoying as he could be.

That led to another thought: Ranko seemed to share her view of Ranma's irritating points, but also seemed to understand them. She didn't seem to have any of these problems, but it sounded like she had in the past. Perhaps she could help Akane understand Ranma a little better. She was about to ask Ranko if she was willing to talk about what it had been like for her, being Ranma, when a voice called out from the genkan: "Gomen Kudasai…"

They looked at each other, and said "Yuka-chan…" simultaneously. They smiled, and rose to go greet their guest.

Guests, as it turned out; Sayuri was with her. Both girls' jaws dropped when Ranko and Akane walked up together to greet them.

Akane smiled. "Come on in, guys." They donned slippers and followed Akane and Ranko into the family room, where they all sat around the table.

Sayuri and Yuka just sat there, staring at Ranko, at a loss for words. Finally, Yuka managed, "You're… you're really a girl?"

Ranko smiled and nodded. "My name is Saotome Ranko."

Sayuri continued the interrogation. "And you're from some kind of parallel world?" Ranko nodded. "And… yesterday… you said we were close friends?" Another nod. "So all of us are in that parallel world of yours, too?"

"Yes. That's why I couldn't figure out why you were staring at me like that yesterday. Now that I know about Ranma I guess I can understand."

Sayuri and Yuka looked at each other, and blushed. Sayuri said, "I'm sorry about that. We thought you were Ranma, but… you know… with a screw loose or something." Ranko laughed, and Sayuri and Yuka seemed to relax.

Sayuri looked over Akane and Ranko again. "So where's Ranma? Is he in this other world?"

A voice came from the hall. "Naahhh. I don't like takin' long trips." Everyone turned to find Ranma standing in the hall, wearing a fresh set of his favorite Chinese clothes. Sayuri and Yuka boggled, looking back and forth between Ranko and Ranma.

Yuka blinked and rubbed her eyes. "This is so weird." She laughed. "I feel like some of Kunou-senpai's insanity is rubbing off on me."

Ranko and Ranma looked at each other and rolled their eyes. Ranma went over and turned on the TV, but mostly kept his attention on the conversation of the four young women.

Sayuri was observing Ranko carefully. "Since you said you didn't realize you'd come here, I'm guessing you don't know how it happened, right?" Ranko nodded. "Do you know how to get back?" The redhead's face fell, and she shook her head.

Yuka piped up, "Didn't you say everyone was the same here, too? Doesn't that help?"

Ranko shook her head slowly, her mood suddenly much more somber. "It does help, but… everyone's not quite the same." She lowered her gaze.

Something in Akane's heart twisted a little every time she saw Ranko feeling this way. "Why don't you tell us about your world?" Maybe talking about it would help Ranko to feel better.

For the next half hour, Yuka, Sayuri, Akane, and—surreptitiously—Ranma listened to Ranko talk about her life. About how she had been Ranma, until her mother had found her again, and she had learned that she was really a girl. How that revelation had been the last straw for her waning ability to tolerate her male existence. About how she had painfully found her way back to something approximating her original self. About Akane, about Nabiki and Kasumi, about her parents and their rocky relationship, about her many friends at school, including Yuka, Sayuri, Ukyou, and… Shampoo, of all people. Especially about Akane, and how close they were; she opened her heart pendant and showed the picture inside to Yuka and Sayuri. About her violin lessons with Professor Murata, and her plans to be a violinist. About her friend Noriko and her daughter Miki. About everyone but one special person…

By the time she was almost done, her eyes were wet, for she wasn't sure she would ever see any of her family and friends again, and she was feeling terribly homesick.

Akane again realized she hadn't been seeing things from Ranko's perspective; to Ranko, her own world was the "real" world, and Akane's world was the strange alternate, where things weren't quite right. Maybe getting Ranko to talk about home hadn't been a good idea. Her heart ached for the redhead.

She was close to tears herself, and knew that the barrier she had tried to erect between them was crumbling. Ranko still made her uneasy at some level, but her nightmare had left Akane with the distinct impression that it wasn't Ranko herself who she was uneasy about. And that uneasiness simply wasn't enough any more.

For a long time now, Ranma had been able to reach out and touch her heart, and Ranko was simply following the same well-worn paths. The key of her personality, though different, was a close enough fit to open many of the same doors, as well as some different ones—Akane knew she cared for Ranko in a different way than she did for Ranma. But care for her she did. How could she love Ranma and not feel something for Ranko?

Finally, Ranko came to the person who was causing her the most anxiety. Everyone else was fairly similar to their versions back home, except… She lowered her voice nearly to a whisper. "And… there's a boy… he and I…" She squeezed her eyes shut and didn't say anything more, but she didn't need to; everyone understood in an instant. Ranma swallowed nervously at this revelation; it made sense, but somehow, the idea had never occurred to him. He wished fervently that it had remained that way.

Yuka felt ashamed for her earlier question. "Ranko… Ranko-chan… I'm sorry. I'm sure you'll be able to get home. Ranma and Akane have overcome so many incredible challenges I'm sure they'll be able to help you with this one." Ranko nodded, still overcome.

Sayuri ventured, "Who is your boyfriend? Is he in this world, too? Would seeing him help?"

Ranko and Akane locked gazes, and Akane shook her head the tiniest bit, motioning towards Ranma with her eyes. Ranko nodded slightly. "I don't think you'd know him, and I'm pretty sure he doesn't exist here." It was only half a lie: the Hibiki Ryouga she was planning to marry was almost as different from his previous self as she was from hers. They'd both had to change before they could find each other. She imagined that "Ranma, prepare to die!" was probably still an oft-heard phrase around here.

Sayuri hadn't missed the interchange. They're hiding something. They don't want Ranma to know who it is. Hmmmm. I'll have to see if I can get it out of them later. "I see."

Kasumi came in from the kitchen. "Would you all like some lunch now? Akane told me you were coming, so I made something."

The four young women responded enthusiastically, and Kasumi retraced her steps. She paused, and turned back. "Akane, weren't you planning to bake a cake tonight, for Ranma's birthday tomorrow?" Akane nodded. "Would you like me to pick up the ingredients when I do the dinner shopping?"

Akane nodded and smiled. "Thanks, Oneechan." Kasumi smiled and went back into the kitchen. Ranma turned a slightly pale color.

Something nagged at Sayuri's mind. Hadn't Ranko said… Her eyes darted over to the redhead, and found her biting her lip and looking very, very subdued. So, she hasn't told anyone, and they haven't figured it out… She stood up. "I think I'd like a glass of water; I'll be right back." She followed Kasumi into the kitchen.

Kasumi looked up from jotting on her shopping list, surprised. "Sayuri-chan, what is it? Do you need something?"

"Kasumi-san, did any of you know that tomorrow is Ranko's birthday, too? Yesterday, before she knew what was going on, she told us she would see us at her party on Saturday."

Kasumi turned pale and clapped a hand to her mouth. "Oh, my! I never even thought of that! Of course they would have the same birthday! Oh, the poor thing…" She paused a moment to gather her thoughts. "We'll have to do something… have a party for both of them…" She furrowed her brow in concentration for a few moments. "I'll have to let Auntie and Uncle know, and Akane, too." She looked up at Sayuri. "Sayuri-chan, thank you so much for telling me. I would never have forgiven myself if Ranko had had to sit through Ranma's birthday tomorrow. I'll take care of it." She eyed Sayuri. "I don't know if you were planning to come tomorrow for Ranma's birthday, but would you…?"

Sayuri smiled. "I'd love to. I'm sure Yuka will, too. I'll tell her later." She frowned. "Ranko said her other close friends were Kuonji Ukyou and… Shampoo."

Kasumi thought hard about that. "Well, I think Ukyou-chan is coming already, but I don't know about Shampoo-chan. That could be… difficult. I'll have to think about it." This, of course, was Kasumi's way of saying, "You have got to be kidding."

Sayuri nodded, then had a flash of inspiration. "Say, maybe Ranko would like to see that boy she likes, too. Do you know who he is?"

Kasumi shook her head. "I didn't see the picture from her purse. Akane, Nabiki, and Auntie Saotome did, though." Sayuri bit her lip in disappointment.

She looked over to the table, where sandwiches were piled up. "Would you like me to help bring lunch out?" Kasumi beamed.

Soon they were all arrayed around the table munching on sandwiches, and the conversation flowed freely. Ranma came over to join them, and listened silently to the chatter among the four young women. As Akane and Ranko laughed about something, he felt a pang of jealousy. Why couldn't he and Akane get along this well, this easily? Was it because Ranko was a girl? Hmmmm… maybe I should ask Ranko about it. Maybe she understands Akane better…

Ranko was talking about her violin. "I hope you don't mind, but I have to practice after lunch. I have to practice for several hours every day."

Akane chimed in. "She's really good, too. She played last night." Ranko blushed.

Yuka asked, "Would you mind if we stayed for a while and listened?"

Ranko shook her head. "Of course not! You can hear my new violin." She winked. "I think I'm in love with it." They all laughed.

Suddenly, Sayuri's mind flashed back to the previous day, when Ranko had told them about her new violin. She had said something, something which hadn't sunk in due to the shock Sayuri had been in at the time. "I can't wait to play it at home tonight for Akane and Mother. I think I'll call up Ryouga and ask him if he wants to come over and hear me play it, too." Sayuri's sandwich slipped from her nerveless fingers and landed with a plop on her plate.

Everyone stared at her. Akane asked, "Sayuri-chan? Is something wrong?"

"No, nothing," said Sayuri as she retrieved her sandwich. As long as Ranko's boyfriend doesn't show up…

Kasumi hummed a cheery tune as she turned the corner and through the front gate of the Tendou home, toting two canvas bags full of groceries. She had a heavier than usual load today. With so many mouths to feed—some of them rather voracious—meals were always a major production for her; no one but Auntie really understood just what it took to keep such a large household running. And now they had one more mouth to feed, and on top of that two birthdays to celebrate tomorrow. Or maybe one, depending on how you looked at it.

Kasumi sighed slightly, as she was pretty sure she'd be living in the kitchen for the rest of the day. Between dinner, preparation for tomorrow's celebration, and trying to keep Akane from committing a crime against the culinary arts, she'd have her hands full. Auntie would help, but it would still be a busy evening.

As she slid open the front door, her cry of "Tadaima" died on her lips; Ranko was still practicing her violin, and Kasumi didn't want to disturb her. The teenager had been at it for over three hours now, and still seemed to be going strong. As Kasumi walked down the hall, she marveled at the difficulty of the pieces Ranko was working on, and the virtuosity she displayed. She hoped that Ranko would make it home to her own world soon, but wished wistfully that somehow, she could still follow the petite violinist's career. She was sure it would be something to see.

Before ducking into the kitchen with her bundles, she took a peek into the family room, and blinked. As expected, Ranko was still kneeling at the table as she played, her music sheets spread out on it in lieu of a music stand. However, Akane and Ranma were also still sitting where they had been an hour and a half ago, when Kasumi had left to do her shopping. Sayuri and Yuka had left when she had, and she hadn't expected her little sister and her fiancé to still be listening when she got back.

They were watching Ranko intently, utterly absorbed. Kasumi smiled, and went to put her groceries away.

A half hour later, as she was starting to get the dinner ingredients in order, she heard Ranko lose her way in a passage, and stop. She started again, but a few minutes later the same thing happened, and there was an irritated exclamation: "Mouuu!" Kasumi went out to check up on her.

She had put her violin down on the table, and was rubbing her eyes. "I think that's all I can do for now. I didn't sleep well enough last night." As if to punctuate her statement, she yawned suddenly. "Oh, excuse me."

"Ranko-chan, dinner is at least an hour away. Do you want to take a short nap?"

Ranko thought about it. "No… I think I'll just go to bed a little earlier." She eyed Kasumi in return. "Do you need any help in the kitchen, Oneechan?"

Oh, bless you. "Thank you, Ranko-chan. I'd love your help."

Akane piped up, "I'll help too, Oneechan!"

Kasumi and Ranko locked gazes, and an unvoiced sigh passed between the two of them. Ranko put her violin back in its case, and her music back in her portfolio. "Let me just put these up in Akane's room and I'll be right back." She headed upstairs, and Akane followed Kasumi into the kitchen.

Ranma remained at the table, staring off at the koi pond. He had a slightly stunned, but very thoughtful look on his face.

Kasumi turned to Akane as soon as they were safely inside the kitchen. "Akane, there is something I needed to tell you in private. We'll be celebrating two birthdays tomorrow."

Akane looked blank for a moment. "Two?" Suddenly her eyes widened in understanding. "Ohmigosh! It's her birthday, too, isn't it?" Kasumi nodded. "Trust you to figure something like that out, Oneechan."

Kasumi blushed. "I wish I had. Sayuri mentioned it, because Ranko told them yesterday that she'd see them at her party. Sayuri and Yuka will be coming tomorrow, by the way."

Akane was frowning. "And we don't have any presents or anything for her…" She looked up. "Oneechan… would you mind if I went out shopping instead of helping you with dinner? I'd like to get her just a little something, so she doesn't feel left out."

Kasumi tried hard for her "how thoughtful of you" smile, rather than her "I'm so relieved" smile. "I think that's a wonderful idea, Akane. I told Auntie earlier, and she said something similar; perhaps the two of you could go shopping together?"

Akane beamed. "I'll go ask her! Thanks, Oneechan." She left.

Ranko came in a few minutes later, to find Kasumi chopping vegetables. "Where's Akane? I thought she wanted to help." She went to rummage in Kasumi's apron drawer.

Kasumi paused briefly. "She remembered an errand she had to run."

Ranko turned from the apron drawer to look Kasumi in the eye. "Oh." A smile slowly spread over her face, and Kasumi smiled in return.

The redhead turned back to the apron drawer. "Ah-hah!" She pulled out an apron with fishcake spirals on it. "My favorite." She turned it this way and that. "It's a lot cleaner than my version… I guess this one hasn't been used as much."

She put it on, and went to join Kasumi. "What would you like me to do?"

"Well, let's see… I already started the rice, and I have pickles already made. I'm making vegetable tempura, a little bit of yakisakana—they had some nice mackerel at the market today—and miso soup. Do you feel up to any of that?"

"Oh, sure. I'm still learning, but I help you and my mother all the time, and I make dinner all by myself one night every couple of weeks or so, just to give you a night off. Do you want me to make dinner tonight?"

Kasumi tried hard to get her heart started again. "Ranko-chan… that would really be an enormous help to me. Would you?" The teenager smiled and nodded, and Kasumi hugged her on impulse. "Thank you!" She stepped away from the cutting board, and Ranko took her place.

The redhead looked over the vegetables. "Let's see… for tempura. These are already washed, right?" Kasumi nodded. "OK." Ranko picked up the colander holding the vegetables in one hand, and the knife in the other. Kasumi closed her eyes, knowing what was about to happen. Apparently, being a girl didn't stop Ranko from taking Ranma's approach to certain problems.

She heard a whirring sound like an electric fan, and the sounds of many small objects landing with a soft plop. She opened her eyes; the colander was full of neatly sliced vegetables. Ranko grinned. "My Kasumi-neechan doesn't like to watch that either. But it's just… so much faster." She set the vegetables aside, and started collecting the ingredients for tempura batter, then stopped. "Whoops, better get the soup started."

Kasumi watched for a few moments more, but Ranko did indeed seem to know what she was doing, so she went to work on the snacks for tomorrow: o-nigiri and mochi. Thanks to Ranko's help, she wouldn't be up late tonight, as she'd feared.

Akane and Nodoka ducked into the kitchen. "Oneechan, how long do we have before dinner?"

Ranko turned around. "Oh, I'm cooking tonight. About an hour, I think." Akane and Nodoka's eyes widened at the situation, but they merely nodded and left.

Ranma was still sitting at the table in the family room; he looked up as his mother and Akane hurried down the hall and out the front door. He wondered briefly where they were rushing off to, then turned his gaze back to the yard, and his mind back to… Ranko.

Her match against him that morning had already left Ranma somewhat surprised at her ability, and after watching her practice her violin, he was in shock. He'd recognized right away that she had adapted her martial arts skills—his martial arts skills—to the violin, and had watched her practice intently, the way he would watch a rival or a student spar.

He had to admit that if you viewed her violin through the eyes of a martial artist, she was extraordinarily skilled; every bit as skilled as he was. And that rocked Ranma's view of the world for two reasons: first, she was a girl, and second, there was something other than martial arts to which it was possible to apply the natural talent they both shared. In fact, after watching her for a time, he'd felt some part of himself echo in response to her playing and the music. A part of him that wanted to pick up that violin and try it himself, a part he hadn't known was there. That frightened him.

If Ranko, who was just as much a girl as Akane, was as talented as he was, if the violin could be as challenging—and rewarding—as martial arts was, then… then… that implied things Ranma wasn't ready to accept. Things that went directly against the way he'd felt for as long as he could remember. Yet he couldn't deny what he'd just spent nearly four hours watching.

Ranma felt his boundaries being pushed, and he didn't like that feeling one little bit. He felt like he had left his frame of reference, the way medieval sailors went off the edge of the limited maps of the time. He was in terra incognita. And like those sailors, he now had no idea of where to go next.


Ranko watched as the dinner she'd just worked so hard on started to disappear at high speed. She'd cooked dinner back home many times, but then she didn't have Ranma to vacuum it up back home. Her father, as the only "Anything Goes" eater left in the family, had slowed down considerably in the absence of someone to battle with at the table. She sighed. You'd think they could at least take the time to enjoy it.

Souun was somewhat more appreciative. "Excellent as always, Kasumi."

Kasumi smiled and shook her head. "Ranko made dinner tonight, Father. I hardly had to lift a finger."

Several people blinked in surprise. Souun beamed at the redhead. "Ranko, I'm impressed. You're an excellent cook."

Nodoka nodded. "It's very good, Dear. I'm sure you'll make a fine wife for… that young man of yours." Ranma winced slightly.

Ranko blinked. Again she had the odd feeling that this version of her mother was slightly different. She couldn't remember her own mother ever making such a… well… sexist comment. She was actually a bit of a liberated woman by Japanese standards, even though her manner was very proper. "Thank you, I hope so. We're planning to split the chores, though, so I have time for my career." She smiled. "He's been very understanding about that. He's planning to run a dojo, so he'll be able to watch the children when I work or travel." Nodoka frowned slightly, but didn't say anything.

Nabiki had stopped eating. "You mean, you and R…" her eyes flicked briefly in Ranma's direction, "your boyfriend are already planning to get married? You're engaged?"

Ranko blushed. "Well, we're not formally engaged. He knows I'm kind of… allergic to that. But yes, we are planning to get married, when I finish my training at the University." Her face fell. "If… if I can get home, that is."

Akane chimed in, "I'm sure we'll be able to get you home, Ranko. Ranma has never let me down when something like this happens." Akane felt a brief twinge of uneasiness, but wasn't quite sure why. She put it aside.

Ranma felt proud, irritated, and more than a little queasy at the conversation, but a fourth emotion won out: curiosity. "So, your boyfriend is a martial artist? Anyone I know?"

"Yes, he's a martial artist, but I don't think you've ever met him." It's true. You've never been to my universe, so you've never met him.

Ranma wasn't that easily dissuaded. "What's his name?"

Ranko's eyes shot to Nabiki, and silently uttered a single word. Help.

Nabiki smiled and held up two fingers: 2000 yen. She was shocked by the hurt look on Ranko's face, a look that spoke of trust betrayed, a look that said I expected better from you. It flew like an arrow through the emotional armor Nabiki wore, straight to her heart. She flinched, and felt horribly guilty, though she wasn't exactly sure why. Kasumi could do this to her, and sometimes Akane, but Ranma? Ranko had caught her by surprise, again. Nabiki didn't like being off balance this way.

She decided to satisfy her nagging curiosity and bail Ranko out at the same time, by changing the subject. "Trust me, Ranma, you wouldn't recognize Ranko's boyfriend. I didn't." Because he looked happy. "Ranko, there's something I've been meaning to ask you. I've noticed that you behave a little differently from our Ranma. You're modest, for one thing—"

"Hey! I'm plenty modest!"

Nabiki rolled her eyes. "You're considerate of other people's feelings, and you apologize when necessary." Ranma was glaring at Nabiki. "Is it just because you're a girl? Were you always like this, even when you were a boy?"

Ranko shook her head, and blushed. "No, I was different when I was a boy. But I had… a lot of problems then."

Akane's curiosity was piqued. "Like what, Ranko? Do… do you mind talking about it?"

Ranko's gaze traveled around the table; they were all familiar faces. The faces of her family. Akane was smiling at her gently, encouragingly.

She hesitated for a long moment, blushing. "I… I guess not." She paused to gather her thoughts. "Well, I think it was a combination of who I was and the way I was raised. Father raised me on the road for twelve years, and practically all he ever told me was that I had to be manly, that I had to be a 'man amongst men.' He thought he was doing me a favor, trying to help me cope with being a boy. But I didn't feel like a boy inside, and so it just made me feel miserable and inadequate instead, like I was a complete failure who'd never measure up to his expectations. I was very insecure about my manhood. So to me, martial arts became the way to prove to myself and to Father that I was a guy." Akane nodded sympathetically.

Ranko blushed and looked down. "Since it was the only way I could feel good about myself, I had a really unhealthy attitude about it. I didn't just want to do my best; I do that now with my violin. I wanted to win, no matter what it took. I was obsessed with winning." She laughed. "You wouldn't believe some of the things I did."

Ranko was still looking down, embarrassed at the confession she was making, and so didn't notice that everyone else was looking as if they'd seen a ghost. Akane swallowed. "Like what?"

Ranko turned a brighter red. "Well… Ucchan knows this pest named Tsubasa, a cross-dressing boy who's always trying to hit on her. Maybe he exists here, too. Once, he challenged me to a contest selling okonomiyaki to see who would 'get' Ucchan; he thought I was a girl at the time. Now of course, Ucchan wasn't interested in Tsubasa, and I didn't care about Ucchan except as a friend. But I couldn't walk away from a challenge, no matter how stupid it was. Tsubasa looked really cute and all the boys bought okonomiyaki from him, not knowing he was really a boy. But they thought I was a boy, even though I wasn't really, and so they avoided me. It's kind of funny if you think about it. And then Tsubasa told me I was… homely."

She paused for a long moment. "Now, since I felt like a girl inside that really, really hurt. And I couldn't stand the idea of losing. So I dressed up in a… a…" she trailed off.

You could have heard a pin drop in the Tendou family room. If you had a vivid imagination, you might have thought you heard the sound of someone slowly turning to stone. "In a what?" asked Akane, her voice a hoarse whisper.

In a tiny voice, Ranko continued, "In a bunny suit, of all things. Can you believe it? It's so embarrassing to talk about it now." She sighed. "Well, it worked. The boys swarmed me like flies on honey, and I won. So here I am trying to prove to myself I'm a man by winning, and I do it by dressing up as a girl, and an easy girl at that." She shook her head. "And that wasn't the first time I did it, not by far. I had already worn the bunny suit when I fought Mousse for the first time. I pretended to be Ryouga's fiancée once to break up a date he had with Akane, because I didn't approve of him. Now that's ironic." She laughed. "Anyway, if posing as a girl would help me win, I did it. I'd do anything."

Ranma wished he could find a hole to crawl into, though he wondered briefly why breaking up that date between Ryouga and Akane was ironic.

"I posed as a girl so much, I'm sure I was partly doing it because I wanted to. So I could express some of the feelings I had bottled up inside."

If it were possible to make a martial art out of cringing, Ranma would have managed it just then.

"And that wasn't all. Since I was trying to prove myself all the time, I always got mad when people tried to help me in my fights. Especially a girl, like Akane. And because I was so insecure, I bragged all the time, and put women down. I insulted Akane constantly." She bit her lip. "I'm really ashamed of some of the things I did. They hurt Akane, a lot." She stopped talking.

Ranma was moving beyond cringing into catatonia.

Nabiki tried to wet her lips, which were quite dry. "So… so what changed?"

Ranko's lips formed the hint of a smile. "I found out I was really a girl. When that happened, I felt like this huge burden had been lifted. I didn't have to prove that I was a 'man amongst men' any more. I stopped caring about it, even while I was still a boy, before I became a girl again. I stopped being obsessed with winning, I stopped bragging all the time, and I started getting along with Akane a lot better. I started caring about things other than martial arts, like school, and having friends. It was such a relief, not to have to bear that cross any more."

She blew out her breath. "So all of that was just because I was so desperate to prove I was a man. I've talked it over with… my boyfriend, and he tells me many guys are a little insecure that way, but I was really over the top. He and I laugh about it now."

There was a long silence, and Ranko finally looked up. She found everyone staring at Ranma, who was staring back at Akane. They both had a rather wild look in their eyes. Ranko looked around, bewildered. What was going on?

Akane's heart was racing. Everything Ranko had said… it all fit. But did that mean that… that Ranma felt like a girl inside, too? Her heart sank as she remembered incident after incident where Ranma had posed as a girl. He'd even gone out to teach his mirror clone how to pick up guys! Her mind flashed back to the day when Ranma had actually thought he was a girl; had he just been acting out his inner desires?

And… when Ranma was in his girl form, the two of them usually got along better. No question about it. Her nightmare came back to her full force, and she felt ill. Now she understood: Ranko had made her uneasy because she was the embodiment of some things about Ranma that had bothered her for a long time.

Ranma knew exactly what everyone was thinking. "It ain't true! It ain't like that for me! I'm a guy!" He swallowed when he saw a hint of pity creep into Akane's gaze along with the fear, and his mother unconsciously fingering her katana. Genma and Souun were rigid with shock.

"Methinks the lady doth protest too much," drawled Nabiki.

"It ain't true! What do I haveta do to convince all of you?"

Ranko's jaw was hanging open. If she was understanding all this correctly, then… Ranma acted like she had when she was a boy. Why on Earth would he do that, unless… unless… Oh, Kami-sama…

Nabiki raised an eyebrow. "So Ranma, if it 'ain't true,' then why did Ranko just describe you to a T when she talked about the way she used to be?"

Ranma frowned. "I… I dunno. But I ain't a girl!" He looked Akane in the eye again. "Akane… I'm a guy. I don't wanna be a girl. You gotta believe me." She nodded uncertainly, her eyes a little wet.

Ranko's head was awhirl. If Ranma was really a guy, what could possibly make him act the same way she had? Father wouldn't have pushed him unmercifully to be a "man amongst men," because Ranma was already a guy, right? What reason could he have had?

And why did Mother keep fingering her katana?

End Chapter 2

Thursday, January 11, 2001

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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).