Chapter 6: There's No Place Like Home
Nodoka closed her eyes and sighed. "Ranma."
Ranma looked up at his mother tentatively. "Yeah, Mom?" He and Ranko were kneeling in the dojo, facing their mother with an air of subdued contrition. They'd swapped clothes again, and Ranma had availed himself of some hot water afterwards.
"Your hair…" She gestured faintly with one hand.
Ranma looked confused. "My hair?…" He reached up to feel it, and blushed. "Oops." He removed the hair ornament and handed it to Ranko, then set about rebraiding his pigtail. Ranko bit her lip and started undoing hers, the hair ornament waiting in her lap. They were both done in a minute.
Nodoka sighed once more and looked between the two of them. "Whose idea was this?"
Ranma and Ranko looked sheepishly at each other. "We kinda thought it up together, Mom."
"And what was the purpose?"
The two of them exchanged glances again. Ranko answered hesitantly, "Well… we wanted to help Akane feel like Ranma could be her friend, not just her fiancé. So they would get along better, and so… and so she wouldn't miss me quite as much." Ranko's face tightened; the fact that she would be seeing her own Akane very soon didn't make her feel any less guilty about leaving this one behind. Not to mention her mother.
Nodoka nodded, though she still looked confused. "And?…"
Ranma smiled faintly. "I think it mighta worked. We talked. Actually talked. We ain't never done that before. She nearly flattened me when she found out it was me, but she was happy I wanted to try bein' more like friends." His smile broadened slightly. "I hope we can be."
Nodoka smiled. "I'm glad for that Dear; it's long overdue. But why did you need to be a girl?"
"Well… Akane and me, we kinda fight outta habit, Mom. Since she thought I was Ranko, she didn't wanna fight, and I was too nervous she was gonna find out and kill me."
Nodoka tilted her head. "You're sure there isn't anything else?" Her look said she knew there was.
Ranko and Ranma exchanged guilty glances. Ranma stared at the floor for a minute, then mumbled something.
"What was that, Dear? I couldn't hear you."
"I said, it's… it's… it's easier for me to do stuff like that as a girl."
Nodoka sighed. "I was afraid that might be the case. Ranma, that isn't very manly. I'm not happy about you learning the violin as a girl, either. Do you like being a girl?" She unconsciously fiddled with her katana.
Ranma swallowed, and fears he had thought laid to rest resurfaced. "N-no! No way!"
She seemed to read his mind. "Dear, your father's promise was to raise you to be manly. He did—though more by luck than anything else, it seems. Seppuku was his idea, not mine. I only wanted to see that honor was satisfied. It has been." Ranma sagged in relief.
"However," Ranma looked up, "I'm concerned about the influence your curse seems to be having on you. You seem to spend more time in your girl form than water accidents can account for. Do you want to become a girl for real, the way Ranko did?"
Ranma looked down, abashed. "N-no, Mom."
"Then you should behave in a more manly fashion."
Ranko was shaking her head. "Mother… I… I don't understand. Do you think Ranma is dishonorable, or a coward?"
Nodoka was taken aback. "No, of course not! He's very honorable and brave. More than any mother could hope for."
"Then if he finds his girl form useful, what's wrong with that? It sounds like it really helped him and Akane."
Nodoka shook her head. "I'm sorry. He's a man. He shouldn't be doing things like that. It is simply not appropriate."
"Why not? If it helps him, what's wrong with it?"
"Because it isn't right. I understand what you are saying, Dear, but I cannot accept it. It is a matter of how I was raised. And how I wish to raise my children."
Ranma wasn't sure if his mother realized that she'd said "children," but Ranko certainly didn't miss it. Her eyes flashed, and there was steel in both their gazes to rival Nodoka's blade. Ranma swallowed nervously; he had the uncanny feeling that this family discussion was turning into a duel of some kind. That, or World War III. If he'd had any doubts that Ranko was a woman, the way she and his mother coolly regarded one another erased them.
"Do you know what my mother told me when she found out I was living as a boy?"
Nodoka blinked. It had slipped her mind that it was another version of herself who was Ranko's mother. "I imagine I wasn't happy about it."
Ranko nodded. "You weren't. It hurt you terribly. I wouldn't even believe you were my mother to start with; I just couldn't accept that I was a girl. I rejected you, and I clung to being Ranma—not because I wanted to, but because I was too afraid and ashamed to consider anything else. I hurt you, and I still feel guilty about that.
"But you told me that if I needed to stay a boy, if that was what would make me happy, then you'd accept that. I could tell you hated the idea, but you never tried to push me." She shook her head. "Mother, Ranma isn't going to turn into a girl. I don't think being one particularly makes him happy. But if his girl form helps him through some problems…"
Nodoka shook her head. "I don't know why I feel differently in your world, but I cannot change my opinion on this matter. Ranma must be a man."
"But he is a man. It's so obvious! So what does it matter if he uses his curse instead of just suffering from it? I couldn't stand being a boy any more because I'd been stuck as one for twelve years, but if Ranma can stomach being a girl sometimes, I say more power to him…"
"It is not appropriate. Men should be manly."
Ranko leaned forward, intent, both hands on her legs. "If he weren't under so much pressure to be manly, if he didn't feel like he had to prove himself constantly, he wouldn't feel he needed to be a girl in order to express his feelings or be friends with his fiancée!"
Ranma tried to make himself as small as possible. He had been right; it was World War III, and he didn't think there was a fallout shelter nearby.
Nodoka drew herself up. "It is not appropriate. Do I need to keep repeating myself?" She felt herself losing her temper, something she hadn't done in years. "Neither is your own behavior."
Ranko flinched as if she'd been struck. She stared at Nodoka, shocked, and tears started to gather in her eyes. "My… behavior?"
Nodoka's heart tried to tell her to stop, but the heavy weight of her traditional background overruled it. "Men and women have different roles in life. You need to understand that. Even though some women have careers nowadays, you should not be asking your husband-to-be to perform women's work such as caring for children or making a home. You are a woman. Your own career should come behind that of your husband, and your role as a wife and mother."
Ranko's jaw hung open as she stared at this woman who wore her mother's face. How could this possibly be the same woman who had encouraged her to explore her talents? Who had praised Ryouga for his modern attitudes about raising a family (and had told Akane not to settle for less when she made her own choice)? Who had admired Nabiki for her sharp mind and business acumen?
She tried to speak, but had trouble finding the words. What could she possibly say in the face of such a gap in attitudes? She considered just giving up—she was about to go home, after all—but thought about what would happen to Ranma if she did. And to Akane. She knew her sister was deeply passionate about the theater. What would this version of her mother think of that once Akane was her daughter-in-law? She had to try one more time.
"Mother… I… I know that is the traditional Japanese view, but… but I don't think it's fair to either women or men. Why shouldn't women have careers if they want? And why shouldn't men help raise their own children or run the household? Why does it have to be women's work and men's work? Why do we all have to wear straitjackets? Just because it's traditional? Ranma's straitjacket is strangling him!" Her jaw was set, and her knuckles were white with frustration.
Nodoka raised her voice. "Young lady, that is quite enough! You are forgetting yourself!"
Ranko jerked her head away, averting her gaze for what seemed like an eternity. She didn't speak for a full minute.
When she finally looked back, she seemed to have regained her composure. "I see." She bowed her head deeply and politely. "I must apologize, Saotome-sama." Nodoka gasped at the cold form of address and formal language. "I am afraid I cannot agree with your views, but it was inexcusably rude of me to have been so outspoken with my own." She rose smoothly. "If you will excuse me, I should collect my belongings and return to my own family." She turned to leave.
Ranma looked back and forth between the two women, wanting to do something to stop this but not having any idea what. Tears started to spill down his mother's cheeks as they both watched Ranko walk to the door and put out her hand to open it…
…And pause. She just stood there, her hand on the door, as Ranma and his mother wondered why. Then she seemed to sag, as if she were growing old beyond her years in the span of a few seconds. After a moment more she turned around, and there were tears running down her own face, and her shoulders were shaking.
Mother and not-quite-daughter gazed at each other for an agonizing instant before they surged into each other's embrace, both of them sobbing and whispering "I'm sorry… I'm sorry…" over and over again.
Ranma just sat there with his jaw hanging open. If I live to be as old as the mummy, I'm never gonna understand women…
After a time, they pulled apart, still in each other's arms. Nodoka dabbed at her eyes. "So this is what it's like to have a daughter, is it?" She laughed. "Obviously having a son has not prepared me for it."
Ranko shook her head. "I'm sorry, Mother. It isn't my place to tell you how to run your family. I'm just so worried about Ranma, and… and Akane."
Nodoka rubbed the back of her finger along Ranko's cheek to dry her tears. "I know, Dear. I finally realized that. You reminded me—rather forcefully—that you weren't making these arguments just to be rebellious."
"I didn't mean to be so cold…"
Nodoka kissed Ranko's forehead and pulled her into another embrace. "I know." She sighed. "You're very much like I was at your age. As fiery as our red hair." She sobered. "I assume that in your world, I agree with your views?" Ranko nodded. "Then I, too, have been presumptious. I must apologize as well. I must respect your mother's decisions on how to raise you." She smiled again. "Especially since she is me."
Ranko nodded tentatively. "Mother?"
"Please… think about what I've said. I know you don't agree with me, but…"
"But you never give up, do you?" Ranko blushed, and Nodoka looked to Ranma, who was watching all this with wide eyes. "Just like my son." Ranma blushed as well.
Ranko opened her mouth to plead again, but was disarmed by the look of patient amusement on her mother's face, and closed it again. Her mother was still… her mother.
"And he is my son, Dear. I have his welfare at heart, always. Please do not go home with this weighing on your mind."
Nodoka put a finger to Ranko's lips to shush her. "I know. Dear, I am only 37, and my ears still work just fine. I have heard everything you had to say, and I will try to understand what Ranma is going through." Ranma paled slightly.
Ranko flushed again. "I'm sorry, Mother. Thank you."
Nodoka gently gathered the diminutive redhead into her embrace again. "Don't be sorry, Dear. If…" her voice broke, "if I had a daughter, I would want her to be just like you. I'm very proud of you, every bit as proud as I am of Ranma."
"Mother… I love you."
"I know, Dear. I love you, too."
The family looked up as Ranko and Akane descended the stairs from the second floor, holding hands tightly. Akane had wanted a proper private goodbye after Ranma had hijacked her earlier attempt. Both girls' eyes looked more than a little red.
Ranko sighed. "I guess I'd better collect everything."
Nabiki gestured towards the dining table, where the large envelope Ranko had received from the Bureau of Mortal Affairs lay. "Don't forget that stuff. Have you made your wish yet?"
Ranko shook her head. "Not yet." She had been thinking of taking the coupon home with her, but was starting to worry that it might get lost or disappear. "I think I'll do that right now. I don't want to take a chance on losing the coupon on the way." She went to the dining table, and pulled the coupon out of the envelope, laying it in front of her.
Kasumi ducked into the kitchen, and reappeared with a cup of tea and a pen, both of which she set in front of Ranko. "The instructions did say to sip a nice cup of tea and think about it carefully."
Ranko and Kasumi shared a smile. "Thank you, Oneechan." Ranko took a big sip from the cup, and knit her brow.
"Of course you'll cure your family members of their curses, won't you, child?" asked Genma. Ranma nodded eagerly as well. As useful as the curse was, he'd gladly be rid of it.
"That's just one of the things I'm thinking about, Father." She resumed her deliberations. There were so many things she could do with this. She could wish for happiness for Ranma and Akane, but she had the feeling that would happen anyway. She could wish to cure the Jusenkyou curses, both here and at home, and that was definitely worthy of consideration. She remembered how much she'd disliked hers. Never knowing when you were going to be hit with water, and transformed against your will…
On the other hand, there were many people around the world who suffered far more than Jusenkyou victims, who lived in misery, who lost their lives. Perhaps she should wish for world peace, or a cure for the ills of Mankind. However, she knew that hers was not the only wish that had ever been granted, and she knew she was not the only person who would consider such a wish. Why had none of these worthy goals ever come to pass?
She knew from painful experience that wishes often had unintended consequences. Perhaps such wishes had been made before, and not had the intended effect. Something affecting all of humanity was simply too dangerous; she did not feel she had the wisdom to make such a wish.
She looked around at the faces of her family; all were looking at her with anxious anticipation, wondering what her wish would be. All… except her mother and Akane, who were gazing at her with sad longing, as if to try to glean every last memory of her that time would allow them.
Suddenly, it came to her what she should do. She opened the pen, set it to the paper… then hesitated. Following the form's advice, she took another sip of tea, and tried to think things through one more time. She tilted her head one way and then the other, then her eyes widened, and she nodded. She wrote a few brief lines, and signed the coupon. The moment she lifted her pen from the paper, it vanished in a shower of sparkling lights.
"Well?" asked Genma. "What did you wish for?"
Ranko stood up, smiling, and shook her head. "It's a surprise." Genma dashed out the porch and jumped into the pond—and promptly turned into a panda. It growfed its disappointment, and shuffled into the kitchen in search of a kettle. Ranma lowered his head, and sighed.
Nodoka asked, "But if you leave without telling us, Dear, how will we ever know what it is?"
Ranko smiled at her mother. "If it comes true, then… I think you'll find out." Her mother nodded uncertainly.
Ranko lifted the heavy envelope and headed towards the genkan, the family following her. As they passed the stairs, Akane's eyes widened. "Wait just a minute." She dashed upstairs. Ranko's eyes followed her up, puzzled.
She returned a minute later with the dress Ranko had worn on her birthday, which she held out. "Here. It will never get worn again if it stays here. Take it with you, and wear it on your birthdays if nothing else."
Ranko gasped. "I couldn't! It's so expensive…"
Akane smiled and shook her head. "I bought it for you. I bought it for you, because… I bought it for a female Ranma, and… and that's who you are." She held it out again. "Please. I want you to have it."
Ranko nodded, her eyes growing wet again. "Thank you, Sis."
"Here, Ranko-chan, let me give you a bag for that. You'll have too much to carry otherwise." Kasumi took the dress, folded it neatly, and placed it in a worn canvas shopping bag from the drawer she kept them in. Akane took the matching white heels from the shoe rack, and placed them in the bag as well. Ranko put in the envelope with her forms, and her portfolio; the bag was pretty full.
Nabiki held out an envelope to Ranko. "I have some photos from your birthday with Ranma yesterday. Something to remember your visit by." Ranko reached for the envelope, and Nabiki jerked her hand back. "3000 yen."
Ranko's jaw dropped open. Nabiki laughed, and handed her the envelope. "You're so gullible." Ranko blushed and put the envelope in her purse. She stepped out of her house slippers into the genkan, putting on the loafers she had worn when she arrived. She put on her long navy coat and her beret. She stood before them, dressed for a journey.
She and Akane looked at each other for a long, painful moment, and Ranko thought of the expensive dress in her bag. She suddenly set down the bag and the violin case, and reached to the back of her neck, where her heart pendant necklace was clasped. She started to undo it…
"No!" commanded Akane. Ranko stopped, confused. "I'm betting that was a gift from me to you, right?" Ranko nodded wordlessly. "Then I can't take it."
Ranko bit her lip, then held up the pendant and opened it. She fiddled with it briefly, and the tiny photograph inside slid out. She held it out to Akane. "Here. Mother has the negative. I can get another print."
Akane took the tiny heart-shaped photograph of two little girls with their cheeks pressed together, and tears began to stream down her face. "Th-thank you. This is worth far more to me than the jewelry."
Ranko nodded, her own face screwed up in pain. How could leaving home hurt so much when she was leaving home to go home?
Nodoka, ever the mother, asked, "Now, do you have everything?"
"I think so…"
"Yes." She picked up the case. "I double-checked; this one's mine." It certainly wouldn't do to leave her Lott "del Gesù" behind by accident and take Ranma's rental home instead.
"Let's see… I saw the portfolio go in the bag, and you have your purse." She peered at the redhead's ears. "You're wearing the same earrings… I think that's everything."
No one had anything else to add; the moment had arrived. Ranko looked around once more. "G-goodbye, everyone. Thank you for everything." She turned to Ranma. "Ranma, please take good care of my sister for me."
Ranma nodded. "I will. I promise." He put an arm around Akane, and for once she didn't object.
Ranko looked back to Akane, but it was clear that the other girl couldn't speak any more; neither could Nodoka. She looked around at each and every face one more time, pausing to exchange a wordless message with each of them; tears were leaving shiny tracks down her face by the time she was done.
She clutched her parcels tightly, and took a deep breath. "There's no place like home." She clicked her heels together three times.
Ranko's jaw fell open. "Now what?"
Nabiki frowned. "You did follow the instructions, right?"
"Of course, Oneechan! I have seen the Wizard of Oz, after all…" She frowned. "Maybe I di" she began, and in mid-syllable, simply vanished. There was no flash of light, no sound, not even a gentle breeze to mark her departure. One moment she was there, and the next she was not, as if someone had pulled a plug. There was a kind of negative afterimage where she had stood, but within a second that faded away to nothing. Nabiki shivered; it was a disquieting image.
Nodoka, utterly overcome by the strain of holding them back for so long, burst into tears. Genma, shocked, went to comfort his wife.
And Akane whispered "Goodbye… Sis," buried her face in Ranma's shoulder, and began to sob as well.
Ranko felt like she was in the Wizard of Oz. The part where the house was picked up by a tornado.
This was far rougher than her first ride had been, and she held onto her belongings with all her formidable strength. Please let me not lose Senpai's 6 million yen violin…
There was nothing to see, just a formless, blinding whiteness. Suddenly, her left foot struck something solid, and her body pivoted around violently. She did not have a hand free to brace herself; her head slammed into something, and the whiteness faded to black.
Akane sat on the porch, staring at nothing in particular. It was another gorgeous spring day. The koi were getting quite active now, leaping out of the water from time to time. The birds were in a frenzy of activity, either building their nests or gathering food for their young; their tireless chatter filled the air. The fat buds on the lone cherry tree in the Tendou yard looked ready to burst. An occasional fluffy white cloud drifted by, a calm accent against the deep blue of the sky.
Akane wished they would all just go to hell.
She's not dead, Akane told herself. Somewhere, in another world I can't see or touch, she's with her family. With the man she loves. With me, with all of us. She's home, where she belongs, and she's happy. And I have my own Ranma, and he's her and she's him.
So why does it hurt so damn much?
She knew the answer: losing Ranma, any Ranma, was almost more than she could bear, and she hoped to Kami-sama that it never, ever happened again. Not till she and he were old… old and gray. And she sure as hell planned for both of them to give Cologne a run for her money.
Ranma appeared at her side. "Mom's restin' upstairs." Akane nodded quietly. He sat down beside her. "How're you doin'?"
Akane sighed. "Lousy."
Ranma didn't respond, and after a moment Akane turned to look at him. He was gazing at her, with a serious expression she rarely saw when he wasn't in the midst of a battle. "Ranma?"
"You really miss her a lot, don'tcha?"
Akane nodded. "Yes." Ranma looked sad, and a horrible thought occurred to Akane. "Ranma… you're not jealous, are you? I would miss you just as much. That's why this hurts so much; it's like losing you."
Ranma blinked in surprise. "Of course I ain't jealous, Akane. I'm just sorry for ya. I wish there was somethin' I could do."
She stared at him, her eyes scanning his face intently, as if she were looking for something. After a moment, his eyes widened as he realized what it was. "Akane?"
She started, and dropped her eyes, embarrassed. "What?"
"Would it help if I went and jumped in the pond?"
She blushed scarlet. "Probably… but I don't want to do that to you, and… and I don't want to do it to me, either. I don't want to use that as a crutch if I can avoid it." She looked up at Ranma again, her blush still tingeing her cheeks pink. "I don't need you to be a girl to see her in you. The main reason I love her is because she is you."
Ranma blushed himself, and for a while neither of them said anything. They were both more than a little dazed at how much they had opened up to each other over the last three days.
"Oh, Kami-sama, I feel so bad asking this. Ranma… if… if you find a cure soon… could you… could you maybe wait a year or two before you use it? If that's possible? I'm not ready to say goodbye to that face f-forever yet. I need a little time to mourn, still." She blushed again. "I'm sorry, that's a horrible thing to ask of you. I know how much you hate the curse."
Ranma looked thoughtful for a few moments. "It's OK, Akane. I understand. Sure."
Akane's mouth fell open. "Wh-what? 'Sure'? No argument? No fight?"
"Akane, I told ya. I don't wanna hurt you anymore. I only used to do it 'cause I didn't understand what I was doin'." He sighed. "And I guess… I got used to this curse. It ain't horrible anymore, just… a pain." He grimaced. "'Specially since Mom ain't too fond of it."
"I'm sorry, Ranma…"
"Don't worry 'bout it." He grinned. "I bet you wouldn't cry if I never got cured, huh?"
Akane snorted, embarrassed. "Maybe not."
"Always knew you liked me better as a girl." She jerked her head up to look at him, but he was still grinning; he was teasing her. She stuck out her tongue, and he laughed. "That's better."
They both looked out into the yard. After a minute, Ranma's voice came, quiet and serious. "I kinda wish I'd been a guy when we met, though. We sure started off on the wrong foot."
Akane turned to look at him; he had an almost wistful look on his face. She studied him for a few moments, and an idea came to her. An idea that should have come to her a long time ago.
She cleared her throat and smiled at him. "Hi, I'm Akane," she said. "Would you like to be friends?"
Ranma's brow furrowed in confusion; then his jaw dropped. He stared at her, open-mouthed, until slowly, his surprise changed into a smile. "Yeah. Yeah, I'd like that." They smiled at each other.
A mischievous element crept into Ranma's smile. "You practice kenpo, right?"
Akane's eyes widened. "A little."
"Later on, when you're feelin' better, how's about I show you the dojo, and we can have a little match. I promise I won't hurt ya." His smile widened. "Much."
They both laughed, and Akane suddenly felt better. She turned her gaze back to the koi pond, and found she didn't feel quite so much like filling it in with cement as she had a few minutes ago. Meeting and then losing Ranko would hurt for a long, long time… but she was glad it had happened.
Nabiki hesitated a long moment, then slid open the desk drawer where she filed her photographs. She knew the one she was looking for, but she didn't particularly want to find it.
She forced herself to leaf through the larger prints, until her finger came lightly to rest on the edge of one of them. Gently, she lifted it from the drawer, and held it up. A petite redhead smiled back at her, cradling a violin.
Last month, Professor Murata had asked Ranko to bring him a professional portrait, to be used in the programs that were printed up for the Music department's recitals. Rather than go to a commercial photographer, Ranko had asked Nabiki to do it, explaining that she was more comfortable being photographed by her big sister, and besides… she was used to it. Nabiki held the result in her hand, and smiled at the memory.
She slid her drawer closed, then gazed at the photograph for a minute longer, a sober expression on her face. Reluctantly, she rose and headed downstairs, holding the photograph to her chest with both hands.
Kasumi was waiting for her in the family room, an empty picture frame in one hand. Nabiki stopped and closed her eyes, clutching the photograph a little more tightly. "It's too soon, Oneechan." She opened her eyes; they glistened. "It's only been three days."
"Nabiki," said Kasumi gently, "we're not giving her up for dead. The police told us cases like this can take months, and they find missing people alive all the time. We're just saying that she is in our thoughts and prayers."
"I know," whispered Nabiki. "But… if we put her up there… next to… to M-mom…"
Kasumi smiled. "Mother will watch over her, wherever she is." She held out her hand, and Nabiki reluctantly handed over the photograph. Kasumi slid it into the frame, and turned it over; they both examined the portrait. "It's a beautiful picture, Nabiki. You really captured her personality." They both sighed.
Kasumi walked slowly to the butsudan, the family shrine, and reverently placed the portrait on the shelf, next to one of a smiling young woman with black hair. She stepped back, and they clapped their hands twice and bowed their heads. Kasumi whispered "Please, Mother… please bring her back to us, if you can. And if you can't…" she paused for a long, long time, and when she resumed, her voice was unsteady and heavy with emotion, "And if you can't… then please take care of her for us."
They looked up, and Nabiki gazed at the portrait of her mother. She had been a little girl when her mother had died, and she remembered this photograph more than its subject; it had been the photograph which had watched her grow up. Mom was so young, thought Nabiki. Not that much older than… she didn't want to complete the thought.
Nabiki gazed quietly at both portraits for a while. "Oneechan?"
"You know the police aren't going to find her. She's not a missing person—she vanished, into thin air. In front of eyewitnesses."
"I know, Nabiki. That's why doing this was so important."
Nabiki sighed a long, tired sigh; she knew Kasumi was right. She stared at the floor.
Kasumi eyed her carefully. "Nabiki, Dear, why don't you go out and do something? The weather is beautiful. It will get your mind off it a little."
Nabiki nodded slowly. Akane and Auntie Saotome had gone with Ryouga to the park, just to get out of the house. And the fathers… they'd gone out the previous night to get drunk, and must have succeeded; they weren't back yet. She looked up at Kasumi. "How can you be so calm about this, Oneechan?"
A dark cloud passed over Kasumi's face, hinting at far more. She said simply, "I can't afford not to be." After a moment, the clouds passed. "Are you going to go out?"
Nabiki's eyes strayed to the shrine. "In a little while…"
Kasumi followed her gaze. "I understand. I'm going to go start dinner. If you want company, please come into the kitchen, all right?" Nabiki nodded.
Kasumi went into the kitchen, and Nabiki sat at the dining table, planted both elbows on it, and alternated between gazing at the portraits on the shrine, and looking out the porch towards the koi pond.
She was startled out of her reverie by a loud thud from the direction of the genkan. Kasumi called from the kitchen, "Oh, that umbrella stand has fallen over again. I really need to take it to be repaired. Nabiki, would you mind righting it? You have to fiddle with its feet a bit to get it to stay up."
Nabiki called, "Sure, Oneechan." She took another look at Ranko's portrait, then rose and headed down the hall.
Kasumi was peeling vegetables when she heard a loud scream from the genkan: "Oneechan!"
It had been many, many years since Kasumi had seriously practiced the Art, but somehow she found herself in the genkan faster than she would have thought possible. Nabiki was kneeling over a body which lay sprawled across the floor, items strewn around it. Kasumi caught sight of a familiar beret and a shock of red hair, and shrieked herself: "Ranko?" Her heart hammered in her chest. "Is she… is she…"
Nabiki shook her head. "She's just unconscious." She tugged at the prone form. "Oneechan, help me out here…"
Kasumi sagged in relief, and joined Nabiki on the floor. "Just a moment, before we try to move her…" She called on her limited medical knowledge, and ran her hands lightly over Ranko's neck and limbs. Good; nothing was broken. Her fingers found a large, growing lump on the redhead's skull. "She must have hit her head. I think she'll be out for at least an hour. If it were anyone else, I'd have said two."
The two of them easily lifted the diminutive girl. Kasumi looked over the items scattered around the genkan: one of her own canvas shopping bags, Ranko's violin case and purse. She'd have to come back and clean up; right now, her hands were full.
They carried Ranko into the family room, and Kasumi ran off to fetch a futon. When she returned, she found Nabiki taking Ranko's portrait off the shelf on the butsudan, and she smiled. "You see? We shouldn't have waited so long to ask Mother for help."
Nabiki laughed, and tears started to leak from the corners of her eyes, tears of relief. They both paused a moment to turn towards the shrine, bowing their heads in silent thanks.
They removed Ranko's coat and shoes, and pulled her onto the futon. Kasumi went into the kitchen and came back with a cold, wet cloth, which she placed on the lump on Ranko's head.
She rose, and picked up the discarded outdoor clothing. She had been about to tell Nabiki to stay by Ranko's side, but it was clear she didn't need to: Nabiki was kneeling next to the futon and hovering over their younger sister. Kasumi smiled; ever since Ranko had become herself again, Nabiki had been showing more of her nurturing side.
She went back to the genkan, hung up the coat, and put the shoes back in the rack. She picked up the beret, dusted it off, and put it up on the shelf. She took a moment to run her gaze over the items, and smiled. There, she thought, everything is back… exactly where it belongs.
She stooped to pick up the other things, slinging the purse over her own shoulder. She hefted the canvas bag. Oh my, what does she have in here? It weighs a ton! She frowned. That's odd… I don't remember this bag being missing. She went to her bag drawer…
Nabiki was busy dabbing her eyes with a tissue when a quiet voice came. "Nabiki?"
She looked up; Kasumi was standing there, loaded down. "Do you need a hand, Oneechan?"
Kasumi shook her head. "Look at this." She put the purse and violin case in a corner, out of the way, and brought the canvas bag over to the table. She set it down.
"It's just one of your shopping bags, right? Didn't she take it with her when she left?"
Kasumi shook her head again. Wordlessly, she reached out her other hand, and put another canvas bag on the table, this one empty. Nabiki took a closer look, and her eyes bugged out.
The bags were nearly identical. Every scuff, every stain, every threadbare spot matched. There were a few minor differences, but it was obvious that they were the same bag. There were just… two of it.
"Why doesn't that old lady ever watch where she's tossing the water?"
Nodoka and Akane smiled at Ryouga as she squeezed out the soggy parts of her shirt. The three were on their way home from the park, and Ryouga had just experienced firsthand the woman's uncanny aim. "Maybe she does it on purpose!" teased Akane.
Ryouga snorted. "Maybe. I think she has radar for Jusenkyou victims." She continued to wring out various portions of her clothing.
Nodoka cleared her throat. "Ryouga-kun. Your shirt is sticking to your… ummm…"
Ryouga looked down. "Oops." She pulled the front of her shirt away from her chest, and squeezed it out, too. "Thanks, Mom."
Akane laughed. "I think you may be right about the ladle lady. She always used to nail Ranko when she was Ranma. She never saw it coming, either." Abruptly the smiles on their faces died, and the jocular mood evaporated. Nodoka's face was ashen.
"I'm sorry, Auntie," whispered Akane. "I just can't seem to stop thinking about her."
"It's all right, Dear," sighed Nodoka. "None of us can."
They were silent for several blocks, each lost in thought. At first they'd thought it was a magical kidnapping of some kind, the sort of crazy thing that had plagued Ranko before Happousai's spell was neutralized. But as one day, then another, then a third had passed with no ransom demands, no ultimatums, no word of any kind, they had tried hard to edge away from a conclusion none of them wanted to reach: that something had wanted Ranko dead, and had reached out to swat her like an insect. Had Ranko gone somewhere, or was she… gone?
Ryouga glanced at her two companions, and addressed what was being left unsaid. "Mom, Akane-san… you have to have faith in her. She's the most resourceful, adaptable person I know. If anyone can come back from what's happened to her, she can."
There was a grim look in Nodoka's eyes, as if they were seeing something truly awful. "I know, Dear. It's that 'if' that concerns me."
No one had a response to that.
They turned in the gate of the Tendou home, and Akane morosely eyed the front door as they walked up. The park had been a diversion for a couple of hours, but nothing had changed, really. Behind that door, in every room of that house, lurked memories, waiting to remind her of what she had lost. Visions of a long, quiet evening of dull pain hovered in front of her, and she sighed. She slid the door open, and they all called out "Tadaima!"
Kasumi and Nabiki called "O-kaeri!" in return. Kasumi added, "Auntie, Akane, Ryouga-kun, come quickly!"
Akane blinked at that; her two older sisters sounded… excited? She went to take off her shoes, and stopped cold.
"Auntie… Ryouga…" She seemed quite agitated.
"Look." whispered Akane, and pointed. They all turned their eyes to the hat shelf, where a familiar beret sat.
They practically fell over themselves in their hurry to take off their outdoor clothes. They rushed down the hall to the family room, intent on questioning the elder Tendou sisters.
They didn't need to. The slight girl who had occupied most of their thoughts for the last three days lay on a futon, a light blanket covering her and a wet cloth on her head.
Nodoka whispered "R-ranko?" She took a step towards the futon, then paused and turned to Kasumi. "Is she… is she all right?" Kasumi, who was seated with Nabiki at the table, where they appeared to be going through some documents, smiled warmly and nodded.
Nodoka needed no further permission. "Ranko!" she cried, Akane echoing her. In the space of a moment, Ranko's head was cradled in Nodoka's lap; she held the unconscious girl gently, tears running down her cheeks as she sobbed in relief. "Ranko… my daughter… my baby… thank Kami-sama!" Akane was on Ranko's other side, grasping her hand tightly, also crying tears of joy; her gaze did not leave the face of the girl she thought of as her twin sister.
Ryouga was not surprised to find her face growing wet as well; something about this body drew forth tears even more readily than her guy form. She sank slowly to her knees in profound relief, nightmares of a world without the woman she loved receding into blissful irrelevance. She took a moment to gaze at Ranko's face, drinking in a sight she had feared she would never see again.
Between Akane and Ranko's mother, there wasn't a lot of room around the diminutive redhead, but Ryouga reached out and took her remaining free hand. She rubbed her thumb along the delicate fingers; even when Ryouga was in girl form, they were smaller than her own. They were warm with life, but a little on the cool side, and Ryouga instinctively closed her hand around Ranko's, trying to warm them up. "Who…" she sniffled, drawing smiles from the the others, "who found her?"
"No one did," said Nabiki. "She just… dropped in. We heard this loud noise in the genkan, and found her there, out cold."
Ryouga frowned. "You mean she just came home and passed out?"
Kasumi shook her head. "No, the front door didn't open; I would have heard that. Maybe she came home… the way she left." She paused for a moment, considering that. "She must have hit her head hard; she has a big lump. But she seems all right otherwise. She doesn't have any broken bones, and her pupils seem normal." Kasumi had gained a lot of experience examining unconscious people in the last year, though things had calmed down somewhat recently.
Akane nodded. "I guess we'll have to wait until she wakes up before we find out anything."
"Not exactly," said Nabiki, waving at what was on the dining room table.
Akane turned her head, while still holding onto Ranko's hand; she didn't want to let go just yet. There were two canvas bags, both empty, Ranko's portfolio, a large mailing envelope which had no doubt held the stack of papers Kasumi and Nabiki were going through, and… a folded white dress with a matching pair of white pumps. It looked relatively new, and on the expensive side.
Akane's jaw dropped. "If she vanished for three days to go on a shopping trip, I'm going to kill her."
Nabiki chuckled. "I don't think so." She handed Akane one of the papers to read.
Akane blinked as she read aloud: "Form 939587284-WWU (Revised 1203 A.D.): Cover letter. Greetings, From the Director of the Bureau of Mortal Affairs. Congratulations! You have been selected to serve the multiverse as a mortal auxiliary!" She scanned the rest of it in silence. When she was done, she handed the form to Ryouga, who held it so that she and Nodoka could read it together.
"You know," said Nabiki, "I thought Ranko might have been kidnapped by gods, or demons, or monsters, or some crazed martial arts master or magician from China… but I never imagined that she'd been abducted by bureaucrats from the spirit world." She snorted.
Just then there was a call from the genkan. "Gomen kudasai…"
"Oh," said Kasumi, "it's the mailman. I'll be right back." She hurried down the hall, coming back a few moments later with a handful of letters. She kneeled at the table, looking through the pieces, and stopped, looking over a standard letter envelope. She appeared to be somewhat taken aback.
"What is it, Oneechan?" asked Nabiki.
Kasumi replied, "There's a letter here for 'The Tendou and Saotome families.' From the Bureau of Mortal Affairs." She peered at the envelope more closely, and read aloud, "Mail delayed due to incorrect postal code. Please inform sender of correct information." She opened the envelope, and read further:
March 16, 2000
"That's the day she disappeared!" said Nabiki.
One of your family members has been selected to serve the multiverse as a mortal auxiliary. He/she/it is safe and should return within a few days. This letter has been sent as a courtesy to alleviate any concerns you may have about your loved one's disappearance.
The signature was a collection of seemingly meaningless squiggly lines.
Section Chief, Mortal Auxiliary Support Department, Bureau of Mortal Affairs
Everyone stared, incredulous. Akane snarled, "They put us through three days of hell, because they didn't get the postal code right?" She shook her head. "If I could get my hands on those idiots… It's a shame they're all dead already."
Nabiki grinned. "Feeling violent, kiddo?"
Ryouga cracked her knuckles. "She isn't the only one."
"None of that really matters," said Nodoka gently. "What matters is that she's home… safe and sound." She smiled as she stroked the redhead's cheek.
Nabiki turned back to plowing through the forms, looking for more information. Though most of it looked useless…
Kasumi returned to the kitchen to resume work on dinner. She smiled contentedly as she pulled a few more ingredients from the refrigerator; she would have one more to feed tonight.
And Nodoka, Akane, and Ryouga just sat, and quietly enjoyed the slow, gentle rise and fall of the blanket that covered Ranko.
When Ranko started to shift and moan a little, Nabiki called "Oneechan!", and Kasumi hurried back in. Everyone watched with anxious anticipation as the redhead stirred, shaking her head slightly.
Ranko swam slowly back towards consciousness. Her head was throbbing, and the last thing she remembered was clicking her heels together in the genkan. Had it worked?
Her head, while it felt like it was in a vise, seemed to be in someone's lap, and she felt a hand gently caress her cheek. She slowly opened her eyes, to find her mother smiling down at her. "M-mother?" She winced; her head really hurt. "Did it… did it not work?"
Nodoka's smile faded into a bewildered expression. "Did what not work, Dear?"
Ranko lowered her gaze and looked around. She was in the family room, surrounded by five women, all watching her with great concern: her mother, her three sisters, and… her boyfriend. She smiled, and winced again. Seeing Ryouga-chan could mean only one thing. "It did work… I'm home…" Tears started to trickle down her cheeks, and she grasped her mother's hand tightly.
Nodoka smiled, and tears left tracks down her cheeks as well. "Yes. Welcome home, sweetheart." She squeezed back.
After a time, Nodoka helped her daughter sit up, keeping an arm around her to steady her. Ranko's head swam. "Kasumi-neechan," she rasped, "could you… ugh… could you get me some aspirin? Extra strength…" Everyone winced in sympathy as Kasumi got up and hurried into the kitchen, returning with the painkillers and some water, as well as an icebag. Ranko showed her gratitude with her eyes, and downed the pills quickly. The icebag was placed on her head. "Thanks, Oneechan."
Though Ranko still looked a little shaky, Akane couldn't contain herself any longer; she felt like she was ready to burst. "Sis, where have you been these past three days?"
Ranko smiled, and winced again. "I was right here… except I wasn't." Confused stares abounded. "I was right here in this house, except in a parallel world. I was sent there to fulfill a wish, by something called the 'Bureau of Mortal Affairs.'"
"We know about them," snorted Nabiki. She waved at the forms on the table, and handed the letter to Ranko. "This arrived today, three days late. The postal code was wrong."
Ranko scanned the letter, and sighed. "It figures. They misaddressed my package of forms, too."
Akane didn't really care about that; she was impatient to know what had happened to her sister. She leaned forward, intent. "What do you mean, a parallel world?"
Ranko weakly waved her hand around at her family. "It was exactly identical to this one—almost. You were all there, and you were all exactly the same." Kasumi gasped, and held up the two canvas bags, an unspoken question in her eyes. Ranko nodded. "Yes, the one I brought home belonged to that other you."
Ryouga asked, "How did you know you were in a parallel world if everything was the same?"
Ranko smiled at her. "I said it was almost identical. There was one big difference: in that world, I had been born a boy, and so had Hiromi. They were Ranma and Hirosuke instead." Jaws dropped around the room. "Ranma… he looks just like I did, before. And he has a Nyanniichuan curse, too; his female form looks exactly like me. When I showed up, he was off visiting Hirosuke in Tama New Town, and all of you thought I was him, but had flipped out and was acting like a girl. We got it straightened out eventually, and Ranma came home the next day."
She shook her head, and winced again. "The odd thing was, our lives were just about the same, up until the point where I became a girl again. He was on the road with Father for ten years, not twelve, and he fell in the Nyanniichuan by accident, but everything else was the same: the multiple fiancées, the craziness, the martial arts challenges, everything…" She shivered. "And they didn't stop. My life stopped being like that when I became me again, but his life kept going the same way. Just an hour or so before I came home, someone challenged me, thinking I was him."
Everyone looked around. "This is kind of hard to grasp, Dear," said her mother.
Ranko nodded. "I'll bet. I have some pictures…" She started to rise, and fell back heavily into her mother's embrace. "Maybe if someone could get my purse for me…" Akane fetched it for her, and Ranko pulled out the envelope which the other Nabiki had given her. She slid the photos out, and her family crowded around to look at them.
The first one told it all: it was a picture of Ranma and Ranko blowing out the candles on their birthday cake, the banner wishing them both a happy birthday hanging behind them. Akane and Nodoka could be seen on either side of them.
There was stunned silence as everyone took in the bizarre sight of Ranko sitting next to a male version of herself: the black-haired boy they had already nearly forgotten, whom Nodoka had barely even known. Akane stared also at the girl with short black hair who was another person… but was also herself. She shivered; it was eerie.
She tried to find her voice. "It looks like they made you part of the family while you were there."
Ranko smiled sadly and nodded. "Once they figured out I wasn't Ranma, they did. In fact, you and Mother got quite attached to me, and you were really sad when I left." She sighed. "I felt bad, but I couldn't possibly stay there when all of you were here."
Akane whispered, "I'm glad you came home to us, Sis. The last three days have been hell. I thought I'd lost you… again." Her eyes grew wet, and she took Ranko's hand, squeezing and getting a squeeze in return.
Ranko reflected that while she'd gotten close to that other Akane, in just three days their bond couldn't possibly approach the one she shared with her twin sister, forged in their childhood years together. They just looked at each other for a moment; no words were necessary.
Ranko flipped through more photos, and came to one showing her and Ranma-chan, both holding their violins. Kasumi's eyes widened, and alternated between the photo and the two canvas bags on her dining table.
"Wow…" breathed Akane. "You really are… identical." She blinked. "Does she… I mean, he, play the violin, too?"
Ranko grinned. "He didn't before I got there. He saw me play, and wanted to try it. It turns out he has the same knack I do. He wants to be a martial artist, but he's going to take lessons from Kobayakawa-sensei. You got a violin for him for his birthday, Sis. A rental." She flipped the photos, and came to one of Ranma and Akane.
Akane stared at the photo; something about the way she and this male Ranko were sitting together disturbed her. "Sis… what kind of relationship does this other me have with… Ranma?"
Ranko blushed. "Ummm… they're engaged, like we were."
"That's not what I mean, and you know it."
Ranko hesitated. "They're in love with each other. In a romantic way. They're going to get married."
Everyone looked around uncomfortably. Akane considered that for a long, long time, her lips pursed and her brow furrowed, before offering her verdict: "Yuck." Ranko rolled her eyes and nodded her concurrence, and everyone laughed.
"How about me?" asked Ryouga. "Was I there?"
Ranko's face fell. "Yes, but…"
Ranko sighed. "You were in love with this other girl named Akari, and when you met me you thought I was Ranma and got angry with me, like you used to."
"Did I attack you?" asked Ryouga, worried.
"No, you just insulted me." Everyone laughed, and Ryouga blushed. "You got nicer, though. You left pretty quickly, because you told me you were starting to have feelings for me." She leafed through the photos. "Here you are." Everyone peered at the photo of Ryouga and Ukyou sitting together, laughing over something at the birthday party. Ryouga felt a chill run up her spine.
"Do we know about Ryouga's Nyanniichuan curse there?" asked Akane.
Ranko and Ryouga exchanged glances. "Ummm… no. Not yet."
"Did you tell them all about the two of us?" asked Ryouga.
Ranko grinned. "I didn't tell them about you and me at first, but it came out when you showed up. You and Ranma weren't thrilled about it." Her feelings from that time floated up again, and she continued to gaze at the other girl. "Ryouga?" she asked softly.
Something about Ranko's tone made Ryouga sit up straight, alert. "What?"
"You remember how I told you I was… allergic to engagements?" The girl with the bandanna nodded. "I think I'm… I'm over that. I missed you terribly. I didn't know if I'd ever see you again, and the whole time, I… I wished we were…" she trailed off, embarrassed.
Surprised, delighted smiles spread over the faces of Nodoka and the Tendou sisters. Ryouga grinned. "Really?" Ranko nodded, a frightened look on her face. "Maybe we ought to test you, just to make sure. Allergies can be dangerous, you know." She stood up. "Just a minute, I need to be a guy for this." She went into the kitchen, and returned a few moments later, damp but male. He went to the genkan and returned with the small knapsack he always carried with him; he didn't need the large pack now that he no longer got lost, and he kept his combat umbrella at home most of the time.
"Let's see…" he said, fishing in one of the pockets. "Ahh." His hand emerged with a small box, and Ranko gasped. The amused smiles on everyone's faces made it clear that the redhead was the only one surprised to see it. Ryouga knelt next to her, and opened the box; inside was a ring with a modest diamond.
"How long have you had that?" whispered Ranko.
"A couple of months." He glanced briefly at Nabiki, who grinned. "I'm paying for it… in convenient monthly installments. But I've been holding on to it; like I said, you never know with allergies, and I didn't want to take a chance." He cleared his throat. "So, let's run some tests, shall we?" He pulled the ring out, took her left hand in his, and gingerly touched the ring to the tip of one of her fingers. "How do you feel?"
Ranko's eyes were wide. "Fine."
"Any shortness of breath? Itchiness? Hives?" Ranko shook her head. "So far, so good." He slid the ring onto her ring finger as the rest of the family beamed and Nabiki's camera flashed. "How about now? Any swelling? Rashes? Breathing difficulties?"
Ranko shook her head again.
"Sure looks like you're not allergic any more. So… will you marry me, Saotome Ranko?"
Ranko nodded her head, tears in her eyes, and suddenly they were in a tight embrace as her mother and sisters applauded enthusiastically. She whispered "I love you," into his ear, and he squeezed her tight and whispered "I love you, too," in return.
Tears wet Akane's cheeks as well; to go from thinking Ranko dead to this in the space of a couple of hours was almost too much—in a good way. Her mind drifted back to when she and "Ranma" had been engaged, and she was very glad that that part of their lives was behind them. The two of them had found the way to love each other that was right for them, and so Akane felt nothing but joy that echoed her twin sister's. She glanced at her two older sisters, and found smiles of quiet joy there as well—even on Nabiki.
The couple separated, and Ryouga turned to Nodoka. "I'm sorry, Mom, I guess I should have asked you for permission, first."
Nodoka laughed. "There's no need to be so old-fashioned and formal about it, Dear. It's nearly the 21st century, after all. And Ranko is old enough to make her own decisions."
In the midst of her happy glow, Ranko thought, Oh, Mother, you and I really need to have a chat.
Saotome Ranko lay in bed—her own bed—and sighed happily. She looked around the room, taking it all in: her closet, her desk, her dresser with the family photos on top, her vanity, her music stand next to which sat her wonderful new violin, her posters of accomplished women. And the futon on the floor; her mother would be spending the night with her. She snuggled her toes, burrowing them deep under her comforter, and turned to smile at her dolls and stuffed animals, lined up against the wall as if in review, saluting her return.
Again she felt guilty for having the biggest room of the four young women living in the Tendou home. She had tried a few months ago to get one of her sisters to swap with her, arguing that the smallest person should not hog the largest room, but they had all refused.
She lifted her left hand up, and gazed in wonder at her ring, turning her hand this way and that. She'd been engaged before, of course—multiple times—but this was the first time she'd been engaged as a girl, the first time she'd been proposed to, the first time she'd worn a ring, and most importantly, the first time she'd been a willing participant. It was simultaneously wonderful and scary. She was glad the actual wedding was still years away; she needed to take this one, slow step at a time.
It had made for an interesting moment when her father had finally made it home. He and Uncle Tendou had staggered in close to dinner time, looking like hell. When they'd encountered her with everyone else in the family room, still lying on the futon and taking it slow, Uncle Tendou had started blubbering as usual, but her father had just gazed at her, the look in his eyes expressing far more than Uncle Tendou's fountain of tears. She knew her father loved her—she was reminded of that every time he came in contact with cold water—but as he'd come into the room and she'd seen the haunted, hopeless look in his eyes give way to joy, she'd felt his love in a palpable way.
He'd come to kneel by her side, and taken her hand, which was dwarfed by his own. When his fingers had found the ring, he'd merely raised an eyebrow and smiled, his eyes crinkling, and she'd blushed and smiled back. As with Akane, words were sometimes superfluous. She'd beamed after him as he and Uncle Tendou stumbled off to the bath to clean up. It wasn't until they were eating dinner that she retold her story in detail for everyone.
Over dinner, her family had insisted on going ahead with a belated birthday celebration, though they had agreed to put it off until the next day due to the already late hour and Ranko's bruised head. Kasumi had called all of Ranko's friends and acquaintances, and had been radiant when she was done; it was always wonderful to be the bearer of such good news.
Professor Murata was one of those who had been anxiously awaiting a bulletin, and had insisted on talking to his star pupil directly. He'd surprised Ranko by not once asking after the violin; instead, he'd been quite agitated about her well-being. When she'd volunteered that the instrument was safe, he'd replied that while it would be difficult to replace, it was nothing compared to her. He'd insisted that she stay home and rest the next day, and promised to come visit. He'd also informed her, tongue in cheek as usual, that being spirited off to a parallel universe was no excuse for not practicing, and she'd laughed and sworn that she had.
Thoughts of the impending birthday celebration led her to lift her right hand and examine the charm bracelet given to her by the other Akane. That other world already seemed like a dream; how could it not, when all of her loved ones were here under this roof? Its oddness was already fading from her memory, displaced by the comfortable normalcy of her own life. She knew now what she had found most disturbing about that world: here, she saw herself reflected in the eyes of her family. There, she had been like a ghost, looking into the mirror of their eyes only to see nothing—or worse, someone else.
And yet, the mistaken kanji for her name was a constant reminder that the girl who had given this to her was not her Akane, but rather her counterpart from that other world, now beyond her reach. Ranko closed her eyes, and prayed that the counterparts of Akane and her mother there would not hurt for too long. In their eyes alone she had begun to see her own reflection again.
Just then her mother came in. The older woman smiled fondly as she took off her robe. "Well, you certainly look comfortable, sweetheart." Ranko nodded happily, grinning.
Nodoka came over to the bed and sat down; she took Ranko's left hand in her right, and examined it. She sighed, "I can't believe my little girl is engaged. If only I'd been able to enjoy more of your childhood years. Now you're all grown up."
Ranko blushed. "I'm sorry, Mother."
Nodoka shook her head. "Don't be, sweetheart. I'm very happy. I have my daughter back, and… my daughter has herself back." She smiled.
Ranko's memory was jogged. "Mother… suppose I had decided to stay a boy? What would you have done?"
Nodoka raised an eyebrow. "Having second thoughts, Dear?"
"No!" replied Ranko forcefully, then a little more calmly, "No. I was just wondering."
Nodoka tilted her head and thought. "Well, I would have been unhappy, to be sure, but your happiness comes first with me. If you had needed to do that, then I would have supported you." She peered at her daughter. "There's a reason you're asking me this, isn't there?"
Ranko smiled sheepishly. "Yes. Of all the people in that other world, you were the most different. In some ways, you were even more different than Ranma and I."
Nodoka tugged on her daughter's arm. "Come here and tell me about it."
Ranko sat up and gladly settled into her mother's embrace. "Well, for one thing, you were so… forgive me… stuffy. Very formal, very traditional and old-fashioned. I mean, I know you wear a kimono most days, but I've seen you in other clothes, even a sweatshirt on that day we cleaned the house together. I can't imagine that other you ever wearing a sweatshirt."
Nodoka smiled. "Go on."
"You were so inflexible about Japanese traditions and gender roles. Ranma… he spent more time in his girl form than you were comfortable with. It was useful to him, because he'd been raised in such a rigid way that it was the only way he could express his gentler side. It was kind of sad, actually; I hope he can get better at doing that kind of thing as a guy. But you didn't approve of it; you told him that men had to be manly, and you told me that I shouldn't ask Ryouga to take care of the kids, that my role as a wife and mother should come before my own career. I was really at a loss; it seemed so unlike you. We had a big fight about it. And then there was that seppuku promise I told you all about! I couldn't believe you'd hold Ranma to that!"
Nodoka seemed somewhat shocked herself, and had a faraway look in her eyes. "It's hard for me to say, Dear. My life has gone very differently from hers."
Ranko peered up at her mother, puzzled. "It has?"
Her mother smiled. "Of course. Think about it. She knowingly sent her son and husband on a training mission, when Ranma was… what was it, six?" Ranko nodded. "I don't know how happy she was about that, but she agreed to it, and her husband promised to bring Ranma back; the trust between them was intact." Her face grew grim. "My husband vanished, taking you with him. You were only four and a half, barely more than a baby. I had no idea what had happened, and I felt utterly betrayed." She hung her head.
After a time, she continued. "When I was young I used to be as you described: stuffy and traditional, very old-fashioned and rigid. When your father ran off with you, my life was turned upside down. I felt that I had played the proper role of a Japanese wife, but that tradition had turned its back on me. I didn't think about much except losing you for the first couple of years, but once I got back on my feet I was a much more skeptical person. I decided Japanese tradition was not all it was cracked up to be. I decided I wanted to think for myself, and as an abandoned wife I pretty much had to." Ranko nodded slowly, and Nodoka smiled. "So you could say that your father was the one who made me this way, and I think I'm a better person for it. Not that I'm planning to thank him, mind you."
Ranko sighed. "I guess that explains it…"
Nodoka seemed to want to say more, but hesitated. Ranko inquired, "Mother?"
The older woman blushed. "I thought of one other thing. I wonder if I should mention this…" She paused for a few moments, then sagged. "I suppose there's no harm in it." She smiled sheepishly. "Dear, when I found out I was pregnant, I desperately wanted it to be a girl. I wanted a daughter in the worst way. Looking back at it now, I feel very foolish; I should have been happy either way, and if I had it to do over again I would be." She sighed. "Back then, though, I wanted a girl very badly. So badly that I was worried that if I had a son, I would do a poor job raising him. So I promised myself that if I had a boy, I would try hard to raise him to be a man."
Ranko's jaw was hanging open. "Do you think…?"
Nodoka shrugged. "Perhaps. I got the daughter I wanted, but if you'd been a boy, perhaps I would have been too anxious about making a man out of you. Perhaps that other me fell into that trap, instead of letting her child just be whoever he is." She smiled. "It would be interesting to compare notes with her, the way you did with Ranma."
Ranko's eyes were looking at something in another world. "I wonder… if that's what happened, maybe my wish will help Ranma, too. I hadn't planned it that way, but…"
Nodoka's brow furrowed in confusion. "Wish?"
Ranko nodded. "I didn't mention it over dinner, but one of the coupons I got in my forms package was for a free wish. That other you and that other Akane were so sad about me leaving, I… I wished for them to have their own Ranko."
Nodoka gasped. "That's a big change in their lives, Dear! Think about all the disruptions you caused while you were there, and you weren't even planning to stay. It might cause more problems than it solves. How exactly did you word your wish?"
Ranko beamed. "I actually thought about everything you mentioned. At first I was going to wish for them to have a copy of me, but then I thought that my copy would be just as miserable getting stuck there as I would, and might cause some of the problems I had. So what I wrote instead was, 'I wish that Ranma had a sister Ranko, a version of me who belongs in his world.'"
Nodoka paled. "And did this other Ranko appear immediately?"
Ranko frowned. "Well… no. Not before I left."
Nodoka closed her eyes. "That's what I was afraid of. Dear, did you consider what the most straightforward way of fulfilling that wish was?"
Ranko shook her head, confused. "Umm… making a copy of me with different memories or something?"
Nodoka sighed. "Sweetheart, where do sisters usually come from?"
Ranko furrowed her brow for a moment, then turned ashen. "Oh, Kami-sama… I…"
Nodoka nodded. "Quite possibly. I suppose we'll never know, though."
Ranko looked miserable. "She'll probably hate me."
Nodoka squeezed her daughter a little tighter, and kissed her on the head. "I rather doubt that, darling. I'm sure things will work out for them."
After a time they separated, and Nodoka stroked back Ranko's hair. "It's time for bed, Dear. You need to rest; tomorrow will be a big day, and you're still recovering from that bump on the head." Ranko nodded and lay back; the older woman turned the light out and slipped into her futon.
Ranko was dead tired, and started to fade the moment her head hit the pillow. Her mind turned away from that other world back towards her own. She was very much looking forward to seeing her friends tomorrow—and having them know who she was. To seeing herself reflected in their eyes, no longer a ghost. Her last thought before drifting off was, Glinda was right. There really is no place like home.
Asphalt paths ran all through the large park that lay near the center of Fuurinkan-cho. It was a beautiful late spring day, warm and unusually dry, and the paths were full of people enjoying the weather.
Heads turned as a young woman roller-bladed down one of these paths. She had red hair in a loose ponytail, and striking blue eyes, but her resemblance to the cursed form of a certain martial artist who lived in the area ended there. This woman appeared to be in her mid twenties, and was a foreigner: she had freckles to go with her red hair. She was wearing a tank top, form-fitting bike shorts that left little to the imagination, and had a portable CD player on her waist with button earphones in her ears as she zoomed along.
It was unusual to see a gaijin way out in Nerima, but not remarkably so, and face after face broke into a smile as she passed. Except for the faces of the wives and girlfriends of certain men who were watching just a little too closely, and smiling just a little too broadly. The redhead grinned at the trail of male saliva she was leaving in her wake.
The path wound its way to a less populated part of the park, and the woman rolled to a stop at the mouth of a gravel walk. She looked carefully up and down the asphalt path to make sure she was alone, and then, quite suddenly, she had running shoes on her feet rather than roller blades. She ran in place for a moment, then set off down the walk at a steady jog.
A couple of minutes later, in a seldom-visited corner of the park, she came to a stop beside a large bush. Without hesitation, she reached under the bush, then stood up again, holding a peculiar-looking black and red stone. She grinned. "Long time no see, Willie." She paused for a moment, looking for all the world as if she were listening to someone. "I'll bet. Just a sec."
She once again looked around to make sure she was alone, then placed the stone in the middle of a grassy spot. She gazed at it for a moment, and a flash of something far older than her apparent twenty-five years passed through her eyes, and seemed to gather strength. Suddenly she flung out her arms, arched her back, and chanted to the heavens:
"Living soul, locked in stone, return once more to flesh and bone!"
A glowing aura formed around her, then left her and swirled around the stone. There was a flash of light, and where the stone had lain stood a man. He too had red hair and freckles, and he wore opulent robes of deepest black. His fingers were thick with rings.
Prince Wilhelm Friedrich von Dittersdorf spent a moment flexing his fingers while staring at them, as if he weren't used to it, then turned his cool gaze to the woman. "So. It's been a long time, Margarethe. I'm glad you didn't forget how to undo it."
Margarethe nodded, her gaze equally cool. "Are you mocking me—again?"
He shook his head. "Of course not." The two regarded each other for a moment more…
…before their cold expressions melted. The Prince grinned. "Well, OK, maybe just a little. How are you, babe?"
She giggled. "Not bad, lover boy. And you?"
He spread his hands. "Me? About the only thing I have to worry about is erosion." They laughed. He looked her over once again. "I see you've updated your look." His grin suggested he liked it.
She shrugged. "Medieval is out, Willie. Waaaay out." She eyed him. "You need a makeover yourself, hon. Let's see… what is royalty wearing these days?" She closed her eyes, and his robes were replaced by a dark, expensive Italian suit. She smiled. "Still very dashing—my prince." She giggled again.
He sighed. "You're not going to stop until you've completely made me over, are you?"
She came over to take his arm. "But you're my own personal little fixer-upper! I like to leave my boyfriends better than I find them. Would I have spent so much time on you over the past five hundred years if I didn't think you had potential? I could have turned you into a toad instead of a rock, you know. Besides," she paused, and her cheeks turned the slightest shade of pink, "I don't have any plans to move out of this fixer-upper any time soon."
The jocular mood faded, and they simply gazed at each other for a long moment. "So," he asked, "to what do I owe this honor? It's been over a hundred years since I've been let out like this." He sounded a bit sullen.
She smiled. "I have a message for you from the Section Chief: 'well done.' He really likes the way you handled the Kunou wish. It could have been a disaster, and you turned it into something positive instead. You know he fancies billiards; he said it was like a triple bank shot."
The Prince smiled, and bowed as only a prince can. "I am but your humble servant."
Margarethe snorted. "I'm not so sure about the 'humble' part." She scrunched up her face. "How did you know the Saotome girl would make that wish, anyway?"
His face was an enigma. "The Chief is an expert on billiards. I, on the other hand… am an expert on redheads. A far more fascinating subject." He flashed her a knowing smile, and she blushed a little more deeply than before.
It took her a moment to recover her aplomb; she cleared her throat. "Anyway, that's why I came, to deliver the Chief's message."
He seemed to sag slightly. "I see. So now it's back in the slammer?"
She smiled broadly. "No, Willie." He stared in shock. "You're getting an early promotion, to Strategic Planning. The Chief said he wanted you to work on bigger things."
His jaw hung open. "You mean…"
She nodded, grinning. "Yup. Sentence reduced to time served. I'm here to bust you out of stir, von Dittersdorf." Her smile faded. "Willie…? Are you all right?"
He shook his head. "I'm… I don't know what to say…"
She smirked. "Try, 'Thank you.'"
He laughed. "I have a better idea." He swept her into his arms, and kissed her very, very thoroughly.
A minute later, they came up for air. "Oh, God," she sighed, "I knew there was a good reason I didn't turn you into a toad!" They kissed again.
Eventually they separated, and he asked, "So, when does my new job start? Right away?"
She rolled her eyes. "Of course not! That would make sense, and we can't have that. You know the regulations: new jobs always start on a Monday, and you've already missed Orientation this week." She smiled suggestively. "You've got a week off to celebrate, my prince."
His heart skipped a beat. "Any chance I could get some help celebrating?"
She grinned. "I thought you'd never ask…"
He held out his elbow—as only a prince could—and she put her arm through it. They smiled at each other…
Akane watched the clock in the family room tick off the seconds, and sighed. Auntie should be home from the doctor any minute now… and they would know.
Ranma's mother had been feeling under the weather for weeks now. She often felt a lack of energy; her appetite waxed and waned. Souun and Kasumi, haunted by memories of the beginnings of Tendou Kirara's fatal illness, had begged her to visit a doctor. Nodoka had dismissed their concerns, saying she just had a bug that wouldn't go away.
That morning, though, she'd been sick to her stomach without warning, and they'd finally convinced her to see her physician. And so the two families waited in anxious suspense to hear the verdict.
Akane was afraid; she was still hurting from losing Ranko five months ago, and she was worried that there was a chance, however slim, that she might lose Auntie, too. It's probably nothing, she tried to convince herself. Don't be such a worrywart.
But the expected time of Nodoka's return came and went. An extra fifteen minutes dragged by. Then a half hour. Then forty-five minutes. Then an hour. Then two. Their mood worsened with each tick of the clock; this couldn't possibly be good news.
Finally, they heard the front door open, and heard a quiet call of "Tadaima." Several of them called back in reply; all eyes turned to the hallway. Nodoka appeared, and Akane's heart sank further; the older woman seemed to be in shock. Akane's gaze went to Ranma, and she saw something in his eyes that rarely made an appearance: fear. Please… Please, let Auntie live. I don't want Ranma to have to go through what I did… not yet…
Nodoka sank to her knees at the dining table, laying down her purse and a small bag. Fear blossomed in Genma's eyes as well, and he came over to put an arm around her. "N-nodoka…?"
She glanced around at the assembled family, a dazed look in her eyes. She seemed several times to try to start to speak, but apparently couldn't find the words.
Finally, Akane could stand it no longer. "Auntie… please… tell us what the doctor said!" she pleaded. "Are you… are you…" She couldn't continue.
Nodoka opened her mouth, blushed crimson, then closed it again. She took a deep breath, seemed to steel herself, then blurted out, "I'm pregnant."
Aside from Nodoka herself, there was not a vertical body left in the room.
Genma struggled to right himself. "But… but… Nodoka… That's… that's…"
"Impossible," finished Nodoka. "Yes, it is."
The Tendou sisters exchanged glances. "Why is that, Auntie?" asked Kasumi.
Nodoka smiled faintly. "Dear, about a year after Ranma was born, I became pregnant again. It was an ectopic pregnancy, and when the surgeons finally went in they found that the other tube was already damaged as well. They told me that I could never have another child without extensive artificial assistance, something we could not afford then, and still can't." She shared a pained look with Genma. "We just gave up on ever having another child, resigned ourselves to it. Besides," she looked to her son and smiled more convincingly, "we had our Ranma." Ranma smiled back, a little embarrassed.
Akane furrowed her brow. "So how could you be pregnant now?"
Nodoka seemed not to hear. "Given my history, the doctor insisted on doing an ultrasound examination immediately; that's why I was so late. He said that the pregnancy was normal—even though my tubes are still missing. He couldn't understand how it was possible, but he couldn't argue with the test results. He said the baby is due next March." Suddenly, a small smile appeared on her face. "Mid-March, to be exact. And he said it's a little too early to be sure, but from the ultrasound he thinks it's a girl." The smile broadened. "He may not be sure, but I am."
Nabiki frowned. "How could you possibly be pregnant in that case? It would take a miracle…" she trailed off, then gasped, her eyes wide. "Or a wish…" Several other jaws fell open as well.
Nodoka nodded. "Exactly. I knew, as soon as he told me when the baby was due. I knew why this had happened." Her eyes lost focus. "And I also know that the baby is going to be a girl, and that she will be born next March 18th at 7:23 AM." She smiled at Ranma again. "And I know she will have red hair and blue eyes, and grow up to look exactly like her big brother—when he's her big sister."
Akane's thoughts went to the tiny, heart-shaped photograph she kept in a cameo frame on her desk, and the room suddenly blurred as she felt tears start to drip down her face.
Ranma was slack-jawed. Big brother… I'm… I'm gonna have a little sister… Slowly, his face creased in a smile. His eyes found his father's, and he found similar sentiments there.
There were broad smiles all around the room now as Nodoka continued, smiling herself. "And I know what I must name her, too." She reached into the small bag by her side, and pulled out a bouquet of beautiful flowers. "These were right out in front when I passed the florist on the way out of the hospital. They were sitting there all by themselves, and I knew they were there for me." She closed her eyes and inhaled their fragrance as everyone nodded.
"Orchids," whispered Akane.
End Chapter 6
Saturday, January 13, 2001
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).