AN: not my story, I just wanted to expose this story to a wider audience. all credit goes to the author. I only changed the formatting to make it easier to read.

From: "D.F. Roeder" dfroeder Subject: [Ranma][FanFic] Cast a Second Line into the Sea (Category: One-Shot.)

The line between two seasons was drawn, on this day, in the contrasting tones between the slight chill of a breeze and the welcome warmth of the sun. It was a time of transition, caring little for official dates scribed on manmade calendars that decide for one when winter would end and spring would begin. The breeze ruffled the black hair and the sunlight warmed the bronzed skin of a man sitting on a bench, set in from the sidewalk encircling a large traffic square. The square was a meadow of sprouting green in an urban forest of concrete and glass, such structures slowly overtaking even the more traditional and warmer constructions of wood and plaster. The man was, as was his wont, lost, but he'd long since burned out his anger over that state of being, and one traffic square was as good as the next. A stronger gust lifted his hair, the sunlight catching and emphasizing a peppering of gray as he watched the pedestrians go by, content only to observe and not participate. He was far more at home within the small, quieter patch of green. Out of long habit, he jumped at the sound of water splashing on the ground, but he smiled at the familiar but long-unheard shout of an annoyed woman.

"Whaddya do THAT for?! Ba-a-ka!" At least he now knew the name of this stretch of urban forest.

Cast a Second Line into the Sea A Ranma 1/2 FanFiction By D.F. Roeder Ranma 1/2 is the property of Takahashi Rumiko, Shonen Sunday Comics, Shogakukan, Fuji TV, and Kitty (Japan), and Viz Communications, Inc. (USA). This work of fanfiction is for free entertainment purposes only. No compensation has been or will be received for its composition. Many profuse and effusive thanks to T.H. Tiger and Vince Seifert for prereading duties. You guys make me look like a far better writer than I am. Cheers! Comments and Criticism very welcome. Send to dfroeder . This and other fanfiction can be found at ~ .

~~~~~ Spring ~~~~~

Turning his head, he watched the approach of the woman, grumbling sotto voce, her strong, petite hands wringing out her shirt. Like his mop of black, her fiery red hair was also showing its age - an off-center streak of pure white raced in a straight line to the back of her head. As she came level with his position, he called to her.

"Oi! Ranma!" Ranma stopped quickly and looked at him.

"RYOUGA!" Ryouga furrowed his brow at the strange shifting of emotion in her eyes, the perceived effect almost like changes in the angle of the sunlight. She then bounded over and surprised him with a hug, which he awkwardly returned.

"Errr..." he said wittily. Ranma backed up and smiled up at him, embarrassed.

"Sorry, man. I, uh, well... Anyway, where the hell ya been, P-chan? What's it been? Jeez, I lost count!" Ranma sat down on the bench next to him, her petite frame almost insignificant next to his size."It's good ta see ya! Man!"

"That's more of a welcome than I expected, but yeah, it's good to see you, too." He smiled a little. "How's Akane?" Her joy abruptly frozen, Ranma gazed up into his brown eyes with her blues, a controlled stare that made Ryouga shiver.

"Been away a long time, I guess, haven't ya?" she said quietly, finally turning her eyes away and leaning completely against the back of the bench, looking out into the street. Ryouga was silent, steeling himself for whatever the news. "Ryouga... she passed away seven years ago."

"How?! What...?" Ryouga lapsed into silence, staring at the white amongst the red of Ranma's hair. His slightly open mouth quivered and twitched, lips touching to mouth words he'd once longed to say but had long since lost the right. Ranma barked a bitter laugh.

"Same thing that got Mrs. Tendo: cancer. And that after all that Akane and me went through to get together. Parents, Amazons, umpteen fiancees, Herb, Saffron... Ain't that just too rich?" She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "I'm... I'm sorry, Ranma. Oh, kami, Akane!" Ryouga bowed his head, clenching his eyes shut.

"Oh, no... I wish... I'd been here for her... for you both." He opened his eyes and looked down at Ranma. "I know how... how much you loved her."

"Yeah... Funny how that since she died, I don't have any trouble sayin' it." She sniffled. "We all go in for regular screenings now - twice in a row ain't coincidence - and they already caught it way early in Kasumi... I just wish... I wish... I coulda... Akane..." Ryouga was more than a little surprised when Ranma burst into tears, slowly turned, and buried her face into his chest. Again, he awkwardly put his arms around her, her small body quivering, and let her cry it out. It took far longer than he expected, but even after she quieted down, she wouldn't move.

"Ranma?"

"Could... Could ya just, you know... hold me for a while?" Ryouga's eyes widened a little.

"Errr, ummm, are you permanently a girl or something?"

"No. It's just... you're, um, safe."

"Oh." He winced at the stares from the pedestrians. "You, ah, sure have changed a lot... on the inside, I mean."

Ranma chuckled weakly. "Losin' someone like Akane will do it."

He sighed. "Yeah, I suppose you're right."

"If it wasn't for our girls," her muffled voice said, "I probably would've followed her." He only nodded and waited. The pedestrians seemed to increase in number at the top of the hour, continuing to glance their way, and then the stream thinned out again. Ranma finally let him go and moved back to where she'd been sitting. "Sorry 'bout that."

"It's okay."

"I... I never get ta do that."

"What do you mean?"

Smiling again, if weakly, Ranma drew her legs up into a half-lotus and rested her damp chin on an upturned palm. "I think everybody was too afraid I'd turn out like Akane's dad, so they were always saying, 'You got to be strong for your family,' or somethin' like that. Every time I felt like *I* needed to let some of it out, Pops or Momma or somebody'd be pokin' me and sayin' that." Ranma snorted."Kami, I think Nabiki was the worst, and the last one with any right ta say it." She sighed and rested her chin on her other palm. "I got really tired of it, but then I just went numb after a while, I guess." A frown settled on her face. "That seemed ta satisfy everybody."

Ryouga watched a few people go by. "That really sucks."

Ranma laughed out loud, lifting her head and lowering her supporting arm. "Thanks, Ryouga. Heh. That means a lot." She reached up and patted him on the shoulder. "Say, you sure seemed to have calmed down for a travelin' Sunday dinner. What gives?"

He smiled faintly in the pause. "My curse is gone."

She blinked for several seconds. "WHAT?! HOW?! The old ghoul finally told me there wasn't a cure!"

Ryouga's smile dropped. "She was right, in a way."

"Huh?"

He looked at Ranma briefly, and then looked away. "P-chan was getting old. The last year or so that I had the curse, almost my whole head as a pig was gray. I remember that a while later I fell ill for about a week, stayed in my tent almost the whole time, and then I accidentally splashed myself and nothing happened. I guess Shampoo and Mousse probably experienced the same thing. Or if not yet, they will soon."

"Why that nasty old, shriveled-up, witchy... She HAD ta have known about that!"

"Sure, but why would she tell you? It wouldn't have helped you at all."

Ranma turned away and brooded, but her expression relaxed after a minute. "Yeah, you're right. She probably didn't want me ta feel bad. Gah. Sorry 'bout that, Cologne. Rest in peace."

"She's dead?"

"Yeah. At the ripe old age of 133. Shampoo wrote me a letter... Ya know, I miss the old mummy. She was a gas to be around, if nothin' else." They sat for a time, watching the lives of Nerima go by. "Gah. All this dark talk's drivin' me nuts. C'mon, P- errr, Ryouga. I'll fix ya some lunch and you can meet the girls."

"Tadaima!" Ranma led Ryouga into the foyer of the Tendou house.

Ryouga bent to unlace his boots. "Gee, the place sure hasn't changed much."

"Yeah," Ranma said quietly, shucking off her slip-ons and tossing them in with a pile of similar shoes. Her voiced turned slightly bitter. "I think it ends up spendin' half its time as a shrine." They walked down the hall and into the kitchen. Ranma frowned. "Where is everybody?" She pushed Ryouga into a chair at the small kitchen dinette table, one new addition since he'd last been there, and kept her hands firmly on his shoulders. "Sit. Don't get up or move." He surprised her by only nodding and leaning back, making himself comfortable. The chair creaked and groaned ominously.

Ranma stood there for a long moment, just looking at him. "What?"

"Uh, nothin'. Just rememberin' some stuff." She removed her hands and hastily left the kitchen, absently rubbing the top of one breast. Ryouga wondered what was up with his old rival, but he let the thought slide away. He listened to the calls echoing upstairs. A pair of feet pounded down the stairs, through the hall, and out of the house to the doujou. Ranma came in shortly after, followed by two girls. "Hey!" Ranma said. "Meet Kimiko, fourteen, and Nodoka, Jr., sixteen."

*BOP!*

"PAPA! Girls aren't called 'junior'!" the elder Saotome daughter complained, the short hair of her pageboy cut bouncing.

Rubbing her head, Ranma said, "They ALL take after Akane, hittin' defenseless women all the-"

"PAPAAA!" both girls chimed. Kimiko smoothed the long ponytail pulled over her right shoulder, gathered at mid-length by a green bow, re-establishing her demure attitude with some difficulty. Ryouga blinked at the two girls, both with flaming red hair, then started to chuckle. Another set of girls, identical in face to their twin from the first two, came in. There were some differences, other than hairstyle. The older set had cute, compact faces, much the same as Ranma's girl form. The younger pair looked more like Akane with heart-shaped faces. The chuckle quickly rose to gut-wrenching laughter.

"Yeah," Ranma said sheepishly, "two sets of twins, all of 'em redheads and lookin' like my girl form, more or less." Their guest finally regained some control.

"Side effect of the curse, I take it," Ryouga chortled.

"Akane was mighty peeved at me when the second set was born. She got over it, of course... Well, after lots of mallets, stone lanterns, shinai, buckets, bokken..." Ryouga chuckled at the list, remembering other, similar scenes. "Anyway, girls, this is my old pal, Hibiki Ryouga."

The more recently arrived elder twin popped in front of Ryouga's face, making him lean back, blinking. "*THE* Hibiki Ryouga?!" The ponytail gathered tightly at the back of her head quivered in excitement.

"Uh... yeah?" Ryouga said.

"COOL! WANNA SPAR?!" she squealed.

"Uh..."

"Give it up, Pig Boy. When Atsuko wants to spar, you spar. Besides, they don't believe half the stuff Akane and me told 'em. Oh, and the last one ta come in is, er, um, Ranko."

"..."

"Yeah, heh. Akane's idea, would ya believe it?" Ranko, her hair gathered at the bottom of her head in a tight pigtail, rolled her eyes.

"Oh." Ryouga looked at Atsuko, still hovering in front of him."Um, spar? Well... okay." "COOL!"

Two redheaded girls and one redheaded woman sat against one side of the doujou while Ryouga and Atsuko squared off in the center. Ranko finished tying off Atsuko's ponytail with a strip of leather, leaving it in a mangled bun.

"I still say a pigtail's the way ta go if yer gonna fight," Ranko lectured.

"Yeah, yeah," Atsuko answered, checking her sister's work by tossing her head. "I've heard it a million times."

"Remember, Atsuko-chan," Ranma called. "Ryouga's strong as old mountain roots. And if he gets his hands on ya, you're done for. Keep your distance and keep your speed. Aim for soft spots, too, or you'll bruise your hands."

"Hai, Papa-san!"

"GO, NUKU-NUKU!" Ranko cheered as she joined the other members of her family at the wall. Atsuko lowered her hands and made a face at Ranko.

"I'll get you for that!"

"Yeah, yeah," Ranko said blandly, tugging her pigtail. "Less talk, more fight." Giving her one more meaningful look, Atsuko turned back to Ryouga.

"Ready when you are, Hibiki-san." Ryouga smiled and nodded, and they began. The first exchange of blows tested each other's defenses. Atsuko jumped back and wrung her hands a couple of times. "You weren't kidding, Papa-san."

"I've beat my hands on that walkin' boulder plenty. Listen to your old papa on this one."

"She's quick, Ranma," Ryouga said. "It's a little like fighting you."

"Yup." Atsuko charged him, feinted, then tried a hurricane kick to the head. Ryouga caught her foot and simply lifted her off the ground, her arms flailing.

"WAAAAHHH!" Ranma just put her head in her hands and shook both, while Atsuko's sisters started laughing.

Ryouga gently lowered her to the ground. "Well, you've got real promise, Atsuko-chan, but don't go on the circuit just yet."

"Hai," she replied quietly from the floor.

"I haven't had a good workout in ages," Ranma said as she faced off with Ryouga, flexing her hands and making her knuckles crack with a sound like distant gunshots. Her daughters were watching raptly; this was one of their bedtime stories come to life. Ranma noticed this and smirked. She put her fists loosely under her chin and rapidly blinked her large, liquid eyes. "Oh, Ryouga-kun! If you defeat me, I would date with you!"

"Oh, ack, gag. I'd thankfully almost forgotten about him, but you just had to do that!"

"HAHAHAAAA! Kunou's gotten a little better, but not much... Okay, Pig Boy, let's see how flabby you've gotten." All four of Ranma's daughters blinked as the two adults blurred. The machine-gun patter of fist and foot hitting flesh seemed to last but a meager few seconds before the combatants broke and warily circled each other. "Gettin' soft, Ryouga."

"Ha! Not on your best day, Ranma." They engaged again, with similar sound effects, but a bright flash of light sent Ryouga rocketing through the side of the doujou and embedded him in the stone wall surrounding the compound. Four young redheads peered through the man-shaped hole to see Ryouga dusting himself off unconcernedly. He started to walk off, but the girls called to him. He stopped, turned around, and scratched the back of his head. "Heh." Keeping his eyes on the girls, he soon made his way back into the building.

"Are you okay?" Kimiko asked, her gentle eyes looking for injury.

"That little love tap? Come ON! Who's getting soft, Ranma?"

"I always knew your head was harder than granite and just as dense," Ranma quipped.

"Insults, insults. You never change."

"Would you want me any other way?" Ryouga just smiled hesitantly at the innuendo and its odd lack of inflection, and then leapt at his opponent. Another flurry, a gold flash, and Ranma went rocketing out through the same hole, putting a smaller indentation inside Ryouga's. "Oooiii..." Ranma stepped out of the impression and put her hand against the wall. Before she realized it, Ryouga was lifting her chin with his large hand. He looked into one eye then the other.

"You okay?" He held up three fingers. "How many?" Ranma batted his hand away.

"Gah. That little love tap?" She started to walk off, but stopped after one step, reaching around and rubbing the small of her back. "Oooo, I'm gonna feel that in the mornin'."

"That's enough, then. I didn't come here to put you in the hospital." Ranma looked over her shoulder and smirked at him.

"I guess I lose, huh?" Ryouga arched an eyebrow at her. "So where are we goin' on our date?" she said, smiling coyly.

Frowning, he said, "Ranma, what's gotten into you?" The smile left her face, and she looked quickly at her daughters, still peering out of the Ryouga-shaped hole. She looked back at him.

"Tell you later... when the girls are busy... My curse is- *has* been actin' up." Nodding soberly, Ryouga followed Ranma into the house, the girls surrounding them and exclaiming over how fantastic the adults were. Ryouga smiled, enjoying the feel of being surrounded by a loving family, even if it wasn't his own.

"I'm listening." They sat on the roof, watching the light die on the western horizon.

Ranma took her time, collected her thoughts, and then said, "You know, right now, even if ya handed me a cure, I don't think I'd be capable of takin' it."

"WHAT?!"

Ranma turned her head and looked him in the eye. "I guess that's one of the problems with havin' a gender curse - it slowly wears away at how ya behave, how ya think about men and women, and just how ya think at all. Have ya noticed that I haven't bothered to change back since I got wet this afternoon?"

"Well, now that you mention it..."

"I just don't care anymore if I'm a man or a woman." She turned away, biting her lip, then sighed. "Do you think I'm... pretty?" Ryouga halted all movement, filled with the sudden urge to flee. "Oh, come on!" Ranma said, miffed. "Don't freeze up on me! Just answer the damn question!"

"Uh, uh, well... Sure... I guess."

"Gee, so sincere."

"Rannnmaaaa..."

Ranma laughed. "Hey, I kinda missed that!" Ryouga had to smile, and her comment relaxed him a little. "Next question... Do you think I'm handsome as a guy?"

He bigsweated. "I, errr, ummm, it's not really, ah, my job to know."

"Fair enough, Pig Boy."

"Really enough! What are you trying to say?"

She regarded him again. "Am I a man or a woman?"

He dithered for a moment, then said, "I only know about me. Only *you* can answer that."

"Safe answer, but the right answer is... Drum roll, please..." She bored into his eyes with her own, and Ryouga finally got it.

"You don't know either," he said.

"DING! Give that man a cigar!"

"How?! I mean, did something happen?" Pause. "Hey! This isn't some kind of punishment you're putting yourself through over Akane's death, is it?!"

Ranma was silent as she looked out over the town. "I wish it were that easy," she finally said. "There's a solution for that kinda thing, but no, I'm not punishing myself." She laughed the bitter laugh that Ryouga suspected came all too often from her mouth. "Well, Akane's death had something ta do with it, sure, but not the way ya think. The girls were suddenly without a mother, and not at a good age for 'em, if there *is* a good age."

"So you decided to be *both* mother and father."

"Yup. At least the best I could. Hell, it's only a splash away, heh. It was so... unfair. I didn't want 'em growin' up with the same kinda problems Akane and her sisters had. They were pretty much on their own, what with Tendou-san bein' like he was."

"Hmmm... I almost hate to ask, but how did your parents take that?"

"They don't know, really. I don't go outta my way ta hide it, but I don't point it out, neither. Kasumi knows... and Nabiki, unfortunately, but I hamstringed her from blackmailin' me over it. She has her own skeletons rattlin' the closet door, as it turns out." She paused. "But that's not the problem I'm talkin' about, although bein' 'Mom' for my girls may've helped it along." She turned her head and laid it on her knees. "I know I was born male, but I'm not sure anymore if I'm supposed ta stay that way or not. This body has its own agenda, Ryouga, its own hidden thoughts and desires, and they sorta creep up on me and... they've had a long time to work on me. Up until Akane died, there wasn't any problem, really. She was more than enough for all of me." She noticed Ryouga blushing slightly. "Yes, Ryouga, we were intimate with both of my forms. She, er, came to rather enjoy it. I did, too. Sex as a girl has its good points."

"Hey!" Ryouga waved his hands. "I REALLY don't need the details."

She laughed again, but then said, more seriously, "I'm lonely, Ryouga. A big hole was torn outta me, and now... I'm havin' trouble."

"I can understand that."

"No, I haven't told you all of it." She stood and paced once down the length of the roof and back, stopping to look down at him. "I think I'm ready to move on, find someone else, before this body gets me *into* trouble." He nodded. "But like I said, the curse has its own-"

"PAPAAA!" a voice cried from below. "DINNER!"

"Well, family calls," Ranma said wryly, and then shouted down below, "HAAAI!"

He had not eaten so well since... he couldn't remember. The last road had been years long. "Kimiko-chan, did you cook this?" Ryouga asked.

"Hai," she said softly, self-consciously smoothing her ponytail. "Is everything all right?"

"It's fabulous!"

Kimiko blushed. "Arigatou. Kasumi-obachan taught me." Ranko was scowling at her twin, her fist gripping her pigtail, and Kimiko stuck her tongue out at her.

"Girls," Ranma chided gently, a hint of iron in her tone, "not in front of guests."

"Hai."

"Hai."

"Ranko-chan takes after her mother in the kitchen-" Ranma offered good-naturedly.

"PAPA!" Ranko cried as Ryouga paled, Ranko's knuckles whitening as she gripped her hair harder.

"-and after me in the doujou," she finished. Somewhat mollified, Ranko released her hair and grumpily continued her meal.

A knock at the door and a call of "Hey, hey! Starting without me?" interrupted them.

"Nabiki-obachan!" three of the girls cried out.

"I'll get you a plate," Kimiko called.

Ryouga noticed Ranma become very quiet and very controlled. Her face was a study in lack of emotion, and her eating was mechanical, although her aura darkened and began to roil in some negative emotion. Nabiki sauntered in, her hair long and darker than it should've been for her age, and looked around the table, pausing coolly on Ranma for a heartbeat, eyes measuring and weighing, before moving on. She saw their guest and blink-blinked.

"RYOUGA?!" Ryouga nodded to her, smiling. Nabiki looked back and forth between Ryouga and Ranma twice, before schooling her expression and seating herself. "So, what's everybody been up to?"

The girls immediately launched into simultaneous discussions of current events, concentrating on the earlier sparring. Nabiki appeared to listen, but Ryouga thought the majority of her attention was spent watching Ranma, who never looked up to meet her eyes. He grunted softly and resumed work on his meal.

Back on the roof, waiting for Ranma to finish visiting with Nabiki, Ryouga couldn't help but overhear the raised voices coming from the doujou. A few minutes later, he watched Nabiki storm out of the gate and stomp down the road.

"Sorry about that," Ranma said from behind, surprising him.

"Didn't hear you. You've gotten sneakier."

"Heh, thanks."

"I know it's not my business, but... what was that all about?"

"Nah, it's okay." She blew out her cheeks and sat down next to him on the roof peak. "I don't know which was scarier: Mom for suggestin' it or Nabiki for actually bein' interested."

"Hmmm."

Ranma chuckled. "That's what most people said. Pops and Tendou-san were all for it, of course. Probably thought they'd get a grandson out of it this time. Stupid old men." The chuckle had turned into a scowl.

"I take it Nabiki never married."

"Nope. Drained a few guys into the poor house, livin' with 'em, but never made it all the way to the altar. 'Course, after she turned twenty-six, reality hit her like an anchor."

Ryouga nodded. "Day-old Christmas cake."

"Bingo."

"I see... And I assume she doesn't interest you at all?" She gave him a half-lidded stare.

"No," he winced, "I guess not." Ranma grunted in disgust. "I can forgive a lot, Ryouga, and I have forgiven her, but I will never like her, much less love her. And if I remarry for somethin' other than love, it'll have to be for companionship or comfort or somethin' like that. Any of that fit her? "Besides, it's easy ta tell what she wants. Every time she comes by, she's scopin' out the grounds and the house, puttin' little checks on her mental list, addin' up the numbers... Bitch." Ryouga studied Ranma's hair as it shifted in the slight breeze and remembered the intensity of Ranma's demeanor and aura after Nabiki's arrival.

"There's something else, isn't there? About Nabiki, I mean. More than you've told me."

"Yeah... there is." Ranma slid down and lay back against the still-warm roof tiles, gazing up at the city-lit clouds scudding by. "I blame her, Ryouga, for holdin' me an' Akane back. For gettin' in the way so much; that first weddin' wasn't the only stunt she pulled... I blame her for *shortening* Akane's and my time together. I forgave her, but I will *never* forget it."

"She couldn't have known."

"No, and if it had been for a good reason, I could probably forget as well as forgive, but her pocketbook don't count as one, and she'll never understand that."

"Ah."

"Ha! And the icing on the Christmas cake is that I get the strong feeling from her that *I* am what she has to settle for 'cause she waited too long."

Ryouga shook his head. "Ouch, ouch."

"Tell me about it!" Ranma snorted and sat up, yawned, and then stood. She held out her hand. "C'mon, Ryouga-chan, and we'll put you to bed."

He looked up at her in amazement. "... CHAN?!"

Ranma blushed. "Sorry. I still haven't said everything about this curse I wanted to, but dinner got in the way, and I'm too tired after arguin' with Nabiki to go over it now." Ryouga took her hand, and she hoisted him up. "Say, the girls and I were plannin' to go see Akane tomorrow morning. Why don't ya come along? She'd love ta see ya."

He shivered unconsciously; the ancestor-spirit beliefs of his homeland had always unnerved him a bit, but if Akane was really there... "Sure. I'd like that."

The day had dawned as fair as the one before, and Ranma and Ryouga walked slowly down the lane. Ranma's daughters had gone ahead to clean up the site of Akane's grave marker, water down and wash the stone, weed the grass, place fresh flowers, and have their private talks with their mother. Ranma looked up at Ryouga walking by her side and studied him.

"You haven't mentioned Akari once since you showed up," she said offhandedly. Ryouga grimaced and looked away for a moment.

"That... didn't work out."

"Oh? All them pigs get to ya?" There was no humor in her voice, Ryouga noted; just an oddly intense curiosity.

"Truthfully? No. Katsunishiki was really okay in my book. I enjoyed wrestling with him, and he looked out for me when the curse would hit. Nooo... Akari got to me."

"Huh?"

"Let's just say she wasn't there for me in some, er, important ways." They stepped through the cemetery entrance.

"You know you're going to have to explain that." He sighed and laughed Ranma's bitter laugh.

"You couldn't talk to her about important things. She had this idea of how her life should go, down to the last detail. Oh, she made a great show of this sacrifice or that sacrifice she'd made for me, but she always guided everything back to where it was or where she wanted it. She made allowances for P-chan, of course, but that really only made it more perfect for her. Does that make any sense?"

"Yeah, I think I see what ya mean."

"When we got down to the nitty-gritty, trying to accommodate each other, build something together, it really fell apart. Other than the requirement that her husband defeat her champion pig, her grandfather catered to her every whim. He ruined her, really."

"Gah. I think I would've traded Pops for him."

Ryouga laughed grimly. "For about a day, then you'd run off screaming. I did... several times. The old man was just unreal." He looked down at Ranma, considering. "I haven't heard you say anything about Ukyou, either," he said, offhandedly in turn.

"Ucchan's married and livin' back in Kansai," she declared, looking up into the trees over the cemetery path. "Haven't heard from her in ages... not since her weddin' announcement, anyway. Never heard of the guy before. After me and Akane's weddin', she just kinda wandered off."

"Mmmm. Tough business."

"Yeah. I felt bad, but I couldn't satisfy everybody's honor, and there wasn't any other choice I wanted ta make." They sighted the quartet of redheads tending the grounds around Akane's and Mrs. Tendou's graves.

"Where is old man Tendou, anyway?"

"Heh. Livin' with Mom and Pops since Akane passed on. Another generation and *four* girls were more than he could take." She paused, her mouth thinning. "Well, that, but mostly no son... meanin' no heir, in his eyes."

"Oh."

"Don't matter. Whether they like it or not, I'll probably be namin' Atsuko as heir to the combined ryuu; not whatever man she ends up marrying."

"She's got the talent."

"Yeah... she does... but she'll never be as good as we were."

"Oh?"

"No hardships, no toughening, no old Amazon mummies, no Kisses of Death, no chases all over China, no monsters, curses, and the umpteen other crazy things that made us what we are, Ryouga. Well, other than their mother's death, that is."

"Never took her on a training trip, then? No Jusenkyou?" Ryouga added with a smirk.

"That *has* crossed my mind, believe it or not, but with four daughters ta keep track of..." She smiled for her family. "Here we are! Let's say hi to Akane."

"Good afternoon, class." Ranma bowed to the eleven students in her advanced techniques session.

"Good afternoon, Sensei." The class bowed in return.

"I'm a woman today, so ladies, I'll be hittin' ya plenty when we spar." She was greeted with an assortment of chuckles and groans. Ranma smirked at them, and then turned her attention to the side. "We have a special treat today. My old friend Hibiki Ryouga-san is visiting. He and I used to beat each other up a lot when we were kids." Ranma received a round of laughter. "He's the heir to his family's school of martial arts, and he's going to give us a short demonstration of his own particular skills, and then he'll spar with some of you. After that, he and I will give a short exhibition bout when the late afternoon class arrives."

Ryouga walked up and bowed. "Hi, uh... I'm Ryouga." The class smiled at him, and a few snickered.

"Oh, real smooth, Ryouga-kun," Ranma teased, but when he looked at her, he saw only genuine warmth in her eyes.

"Well, haha, I don't really get to do this very often." He scratched the back of his head.

"I think," Ranma smoothly interposed, "that you should do a few of your special kata, then work your way up to the Bakusai Tenketsu. Errr, we should probably skip the Shishi Houkoudan."

"Um, sure, Ranma. Sounds like a plan. I couldn't pull off one of those right now, anyway."

Ryouga's exhibition was well received, and the sparring was instructive, especially for those already thinking themselves strong. The exhibition bout left jaws scraping the ground; they'd all heard the stories and the rumors, but to see things done that should be humanly impossible was sobering. Virtually every student walked out of the Tendou doujou with a fire in his or her eyes. All in all, Ranma was quite pleased with the day.

"Oi! You developed a ki attack based on something other than depression!" Ranma splashed hot furo water at his friend. "What emotion?"

"Would you believe... calm?"

"EH?! Calm is NOT an emotion!" Ryouga studied his fingernails for a moment.

"It... *can* be, under the right circumstances... or looked at in the right way."

"Hmmm. I'm listening." Ryouga fidgeted, looking embarrassed, but then he sighed and eased a little further into the water. He looked across to see Ranma's eyes gleaming at him in great curiosity, the gleam highlighted by the streak of white hair against the black.

"Before we ran into each other yesterday, how would you have described me?"

"Well, depressed... and angry... a lot."

"Close, but you see, after the last time we met, I continued to get angrier and angrier. You had Akane. The situation with Akari had washed out. And I was really, really lost." He rubbed his chin. "And then one day, I found myself surrounded by ice."

"Oh! A Soul of Ice technique?"

"No, I mean *real* ice."

"Oh."

"There wasn't another human soul as far as I could see or sense, I'd just pounded several polar bears so I could steal their catch and eat, and... my feet were cold." Ranma choked off a laugh, but Ryouga just grinned. "I can joke about it now, but then, it just made me worse. I started generating a LOT of depression ki, with some serious, good old Tendou-style anger ki in good measure."

Nodding, Ranma said, "I remember it well... and miss it terribly. Go on."

Ryouga just shrugged. "I laid down on the ice and waited." He didn't say anything more until Ranma prodded him.

"For?"

The lost boy looked up at the other, and Ranma almost gasped at the pain in his eyes. "To die... to burn... to explode... whatever... To finally not have to be angry or depressed any more. I was so tired of it all, I just wanted it to end. I had hit rock bottom."

Thoughtfully swirling the water around with his hand, Ranma asked, "And then?"

"I'm not sure." Pause. "The next thing I remember was being about a hundred feet down in the ice, choking on steam, and looking straight up through a narrow hole."

"Errr..."

Ryouga shrugged. "My best guess is I melted it myself, letting off all that ki gradually instead with a big bang. By all rights, I should've drowned. I don't know where most of the water went, but... something different happened this time."

"Were you still cursed?"

"Yes, but the remaining water was warm and I was still letting off enough ki to keep off the cold stuff. Anyway, I managed to climb out, slowly, using the ki to melt handholds. Now, you have to understand, I *wasn't* thinking about ki anymore; it was just coming out anyway, slow and steady."

"Weird."

"I was... really afraid for a while, but since nothing was happening, I just kept climbing. I finally got out and started walking. My feet weren't cold anymore." Ranma giggled in his male form, causing Ryouga to bigsweat, certain that it wasn't *that* funny. "Um, anyway, several miles later, the ki started dying off. After about another hour, my feet were cold again." This time, Ranma descended into a giggle *fit*. Just like a girl would do, Ryouga thought, if she were trying to-

"S-Sorry, Ryouga, but I haven't had a good laugh in a very long time. Thanks."

"Uh... sure... I think. Are you all right? You're, er, giggling."

Ranma immediately sobered up. "Oh... Ummm, go on with your story."

"Well..." He looked at his friend askance. "I stumbled across an Arctic research station. They were *surprised* to see me and didn't believe me when I said I'd walked there. Oh, well."

"Ha! I can just see that, too."

"Heh. I didn't get lost there, that's for sure. Hard to when it's white every direction but the right direction. I stuck around till the relief plane took the crew and me back to civilization. And then I got lost coming out of the plane." Ranma pointedly laughed, but Ryouga thought it sounded like he'd had to concentrate so as not to giggle. "When I realized I was lost again, I stopped, put my fists up in the air, took in a deep breath to scream, and then surprised myself when I realized I was only doing it out of habit. I didn't *feel* any depression or anger. I *think* I burned it out. I don't know for sure if that's what happened, but all I know is that I've been calm ever since." He looked at his hands. "Maybe... I was calm because I'd finally been ready... to die." He shifted around, uncomfortable."Look, I've soaked enough."

"Sure," Ranma quietly agreed. "Kimiko-chan should have dinner soon."

"THAT I'm looking forward to!" The two men stood and stepped out of the furo. Ranma stopped at the wash faucet, turned it on, and angled the stream of cold water to wash over him. She turned the water off and began to follow Ryouga, but stopped after one step. To his credit, Ryouga wasn't nosebleeding; Ranma's girl-form had never affected him that way, but he was amazed, nevertheless. "Wh- Why did you do that?!"

"Wha-?" Ranma slumped. "I didn't realize I had." She looked up at him. "After dinner, on the roof." Nodding warily, Ryouga followed her to the bathing room door. He caught himself as his eyes started to wander over her form. He wondered what *that* meant, but any further musings were stopped as they ran straight into Ranko and Atsuko in the changing area. The four stared at each other.

"Uh... Papa?!" Atsuko forgot her customary 'san'.

"Atsuko-chan, it's not what it looks like, okay?" "Sure, Papa-san. Whatever you say..." The two girls pushed each other out of the door, looking back over their shoulders with a strange expression on their faces. "Hooo, boy," Ranma sighed. Ryouga simply nodded in agreement.

The second meal Ryouga shared with the Saotome family was vastly different in tone from the first. Hardly a word was spoken, and the tension was almost visible. Ryouga was uncomfortable, but he took the opportunity to make some observations about Ranma and Akane's daughters. Atsuko seemed to be the leader of the group; just the way she carried herself spoke of confidence, and she held her seat at the opposite end of the table from Ranma like a small throne, casting a maternal eye over her sisters, judging their moods and weighing their behavior. The other older twin, Nodoka, was quiet and watchful, like a small bird, her bright eyes taking in everything. Kimiko was a younger Kasumi, Ryouga mused, even down to mimicking her idol's hairstyle, habits, and jobs around the house. She was pretty, demure, and graceful, and hovered over the rice cooker, ready should anyone ask for more. Ranko was the nominal second-in-command, her volatile personality sometimes running over those around her. The tension seemed to be getting to her the most, and midway through the meal, she finally snapped. Ranko stopped eating abruptly and slammed her chopsticks on the table. Ryouga and the remaining sisters jumped, but Ranma continued eating.

"PAPA! What the HELL is going ON?!" Ranko shouted, her pigtail standing out straight. "Are, are you and... Hibiki-san, errr..." Ranma finally stopped and placed her chopsticks gently on the table.

She looked up and surveyed the people around her with tired eyes. "Girls... I guess it's time for a family meeting. Some stuff has been happenin' to me, and I've only talked about it with Kasumi and now Ryouga, but maybe I'm not bein' fair to you four, either, by keepin' ya in the dark. I guess Ranko and Atsuko told ya what they saw." The other two daughters nodded. "So." She sighed and pushed her plate away, rested her elbows on the table and laced her hands together, and then looked up at her beautiful, talented, and frightened daughters. "Since you grew up with it, my curse has always been normal to you. You probably never really think about it much, ne?" Four heads shook back and forth, and Ranma laughed lightly. "Well, imagine being raised to think that ya have to be a 'man among men' and that girls are weak and not good fighters. Did I raise you that way? No, but *I* was raised that way. Then your grandpa took me to Jusenkyou, and after that, everything changed." She paused to sip her tea and to gather her thoughts, glancing across the table at her guest. "Ryouga can tell you what I was like when we finally met back up at Furinkan, not that he was anyone's First Prize. Why don't you tell them what I was like, Ryouga-kun?"

Ryouga cleared his throat nervously. "Errr, well, your father was a, um, loud-mouthed jerk. He had four fiancees-"

"Two and an Amazon-law wife. Kodachi didn't count then, and doesn't count now," Ranma corrected.

Ryouga smirked at her. "Still trying to weasel out of the number four, hey? Anyway, you get the picture. And I... I was in love with... your mother. I hated Ranma for the way he treated her. He insulted her-"

"And she malleted me."

"Well, you deserved it! ... Most of the time. And I couldn't stand the fact that he seemed to take his engagement to her for granted." Ranma's daughters were looking at the woman who was their father with wide eyes.

"That was all true?" Kimiko asked timidly. Their father mused over that for a moment.

"In a way, yes, but your mother had her share of faults, too. I was supposed to be a shinin' example of manliness, and here I was with a curse to become a girl. I sorta, er, overcompensated. Your mother was quick to blame me and too ready with her hammers and shinai to solve her problems. No, kids, we were not a pretty couple. Not at first."

"What changed it, Papa?" Nodoka asked shakily. She'd been absent the most during Ryouga's visit and was trying to take in all the events of the day at one go.

"I had to kill a god to get her back," Ranma said quietly, "and your mother almost died. She might even have been dead for a moment, for all I know. The doll's eyes *had* closed." Both Ranma and Ryouga shuddered in memory. More bedtime stories, but this time, they weren't being told to them in the safe haven of a bed shared with a sister and with a bigger-than-life parent holding them close. The look of remembered horror on the faces of the two adults stripped away the last vestiges of pleasant fantasy. Ranma smiled grimly. "Of course, things went right back to the normal craziness as soon as we got back."

"The trashed wedding Mama always got a little upset about," Atsuko said, nodding.

"Yeah, it was... interesting," Ryouga commented wryly.

"'Interesting' is not the word," Ranma rejoined. "There was a cask of Nanniichuan floatin' around, and all bets were off." Ranma and Ryouga looked at each other, then burst into laughter. "Actually," Ranma said after a moment, "I think Akane was relieved the weddin' didn't happen. She still brought it up from time to time - she loved to hold it up ta me when she was mad about somethin' - but back then, she wasn't any more ready to be married than I was."

"And that CHANGED everything?" Ranko asked, incredulous.

"No, Ranko-chan. It's what came after. Your mother and I eventually came to an understanding that yeah, she and I would marry, but when it suited us, not our fathers. After that, the rest sorta fell into place, give or take a few insults, hammerin's, and foiled weddin' plans, and not always plans for *our* weddin', either." She became serious and looked into each girl's eyes as she spoke. "And never, ever think that I didn't love - and still love - your mother more than life itself. I even wanted to follow her a couple of times, but your Kasumi-obachan always seemed to know what I was thinkin' and talked me out of it before I could slide down too far. That was stupid of me, because I have you four to love and look after, and I wouldn't have missed it for the world. But, but I was hurtin' really bad and I couldn't think straight. So forgive me if I upset you by tellin' you that."

"That's okay, Papa-san," Atsuko said quickly, hoping to keep her sisters' minds out of any dark places. "None of us *could* know what that was like."

"Thanks, girls." Ranko wasn't satisfied because the discussion had digressed.

"And are you thinkin' straight NOW?!"

"RANKO! Don't talk to Papa-san that way!" Atsuko ordered.

"It's a fair question," Ranma said, "even if I don't like the way it was asked."

Ranko sank down at her place. "Sorry, Papa."

"It's a tough time, kiddo. I don't take it personally. Kimiko, would you bring some fresh tea? I need to think about this for a moment." Ranma rose and stepped onto the engawa, leaning back against the wall and staring up at the stars. "Ever since your mother died and I sorta got back on my feet, I've been havin' a problem with the curse that's been gettin' steadily worse. When Ryouga showed up, it jumped a few levels." She sipped her tea. "I like Ryouga. He's been my friend, of sorts, since I was Ranko and Kimiko's age. We didn't always get along, but we understood each other, I think, and that's rare enough, especially for obsessed martial artists." Giggles and one chuckle went around the table. "Hmmm, this is gonna get embarrassin'. When your mother was alive, she, ah... Let's just say that she kept all of me very happy and satisfied, er, includin' my, um, well-"

"Your girl-side?" Atsuko offered with a tiny bit of a smirk.

"... Yeah."

"PAPA!"

"I didn't need to know THAT!" Nodoka didn't say anything, but just stared.

"Hey! It was there! We had fun! Get over it, girls! Your mother certainly enjoyed it enough!"

"ARGH! MAMA NO HENTAI!"

"NO!"

"I'M NOT HEARING THIS!" Nodoka just continued to stare.

"Can you believe this, Ryouga? What a bunch of prudes." Ryouga wisely kept his mouth shut, as Ranma was the recipient of four cold glares. "ANYWAY," Ranma said, ignoring the drop in temperature, "the point is your mother kept me in balance, I guess. Well... that balance is gone, now. And what's happenin' is really very simple: my woman half is causin' me to act funny because it thinks its biological clock has almost ticked its last tick. At least, that's what Kasumi and me believe. Errr, Kasumi also says that as a woman, I'm, um, at my 'sexual peak'... Gah." Ranma had turned scarlet during the last admission.

"What are you saying, Ranma? You need to have a baby?" Ryouga mirrored the others with his blinking.

"No, I'm not saying that-" Everyone sighed in relief. "-necessarily." The tension went back up. "Stop it! And listen, will ya? The POINT is that I need to... find somebody so I can be in balance again. The curse is causin' the problem because along with guy feelin's, I've got a woman's body tellin' me all sorts of stuff because of its different hormones. Do you understand? Hell, it's even carryin' over when I'm a guy! In the bathroom, I was a guy until we started to leave, then without thinkin' about it, I changed myself to a woman!" She stopped talking to allow everyone time to process what she'd said.

"I still don't understand, Papa," Nodoka asked, finally speaking. Ranma sighed.

"You're gonna make me spell it out, huh?"

"Yes," five voices said in perfect unison.

"Gah. I'm... *adjusting* to whoever it is I like at the moment, whether it's a girl or a guy. The curse is keepin' me in limbo. It's forcin' me to hurry up and find another mate because it thinks it's runnin' out of time. It's affectin' how I think, act... and even how I desire." She flashed a look at Ryouga, then turned away. "It's not helpin' that I miss your mother and I'm... lonely." She studied the table in front of her for a moment before looking up. "Sorry, Ryouga. If you wanna leave, I'll understand. Can't be easy, hearin' this."

"Not... yet, but..."

"Yeah. Tell me about it."

"Papa-san?" Atsuko said. "What about Nabiki-obachan? Didn't Grandma and Grandpa say... that..." She trailed off at the cold look in her father's eyes.

"Girls, Nabiki and I... have a lot of history between us and most of it ain't good. I'm afraid she and I don't really get along as well as we act like we do. Your grandparents mean well, but they're a little... blinded by other concerns."

"Well, there are other women around!" Ranko crossed her arms, proud of herself for the solution. Ranma shot her down quickly.

"Yeah, sure, you're right." Ranma flexed her hand, watching her skin move. "And every time I look at one, I see your mother's face starin' back at me." She shivered. "I feel like I'm betrayin' her or somethin'."

"Oh," Ranko said, "I suppose..."

Ryouga sighed. "So... What now?"

Ranma paused. "I don't know."

Ryouga looked to the other end of the table. "Would you pass me the tea, Kimiko-chan?" Wordlessly, she handed the teapot over, and he poured himself another cup. "There's one thing I want to know before I leave or get lost again," he said. "This is important, especially since I sort of know where you're coming from... Look at me, Ranma." He waited until he had her eyes. "Are you at war with yourself on the inside? Male versus female?"

Ranma chuckled and dropped her gaze. "No, and that really, really bothers me, sometimes. I think part of it *is* the curse, but I think that most of it is that like I said, I really miss Akane, and even though my girls are my life, I'm so tired of not havin' a partner. Kasumi figures that's probably left me vulnerable to the female drives."

Ryouga considered that, looked askance at Ranma's daughters, and then said, "And if you do find a, um, *man* to, errr, be with, what happens when those drives go away and you're back to your normal self?" She had no answer to that, nor was one needed.

Nodoka fidgeted, running her hand up the back of her head and rubbing her fingers through her short, red hair, waiting for Ryouga to finish his business in the restroom so she could guide him back to the tearoom. "What is he DOING in there?" she whispered to herself. She knocked on the door. "Hibiki-san? Are you all right?" When she received no answer, she knocked again. "Hibiki-san?" The handle wasn't locked, so she opened the door a crack and put her mouth to the opening. "Hibiki-san?" Nothing. Pushing the door fully open, she saw that the room was empty. "Oh, great."

"I'm sorry, Papa." Nodoka was miserable. To think, someone got lost on her watch.

Ranma laughed distantly and turned back to the television. "It's not your fault, No-chan. Ryouga probably needed to get lost, and when that's the case, a sealed bank vault couldn't keep him in one place."

Still female, Ranma readied herself for bed. Her daughters had disappeared shortly after the dinner cleanup, leaving her alone with the television. That had suited her; she'd had a lot to think about. And she needed to calm herself down from having Ryouga around. She took off her pants, thought about it, and then took off her boxers. Shucking her Chinese shirt, she pulled on an oversized T-shirt to sleep in. She'd gotten used to sleeping in the nude when Akane was alive. Her wife had been a demon in the bedroom and was likely to wake Ranma up in the middle of the night, wanting some fun, so clothing came to be an unnecessary hindrance. Besides, she smiled as she thought, it was far more pleasant to wake up to an act in progress than to a wrestling match with a pair of boxers or panties. Ranma sighed. With a colder bed since, she had compromised by just wearing a long T-shirt and nothing else. She'd further discovered, as she'd gotten older, that she slept better as a woman. She wondered if that was because girls just slept easier than guys anyway - she'd have to ask Kasumi about that - or that as much as Akane enjoyed being cuddled, she enjoyed doing the cuddling, too, and Ranma was smaller than Akane as a woman, and if anyone needed cuddling *now*... Either way, they had been a perfect fit. She started to climb onto the bed when there was a knock at the door.

"Hai!" She stood as her daughters filed in and walked up to her. They were all taller than Ranma's female form, even the younger ones. "What's goin' on, girls?"

Atsuko put her finger to her chin and looked up at the ceiling. "I think this is what they call a kidnapping." Four pairs of arms quickly grabbed one of Ranma's appendages each and lifted her off her feet.

With a bemused smile, she said, "You know, I can easily get outta this."

"Be nice, Papa, and play along," Ranko chided. Ranma laughed and let them carry her out of her bedroom and up the stairs. After a few steps with Ranma's head below her feet, her nightshirt started sliding down.

"Oooo, I'm feelin' a draft. I ain't wearin' no boxers, ya know." Having concerned themselves mainly with carrying, they all instantly looked at their package... just as the nightshirt slid the rest of the way to the bottom of her breasts, giving them an unrestricted view.

"AAAHHH!" Kimiko snatched Ranma's nightshirt and dragged it back up to her knees.

Ranma giggled and said, "This reminds of the time your mother snuck up behind me, splashed me, threw me over her shoulder, and took me upstairs to her old room and did several naughty things to me all at the same time. Boy, was I ever sore the next day, but I never looked at *toys* the same way again."

The girls almost dropped her; they'd been okay until the 'toys' comment. "PAPAAA!" they all cried.

"Hey! That's MY room!" Ranko screeched.

"Yeah, that made it more fun. We had to buy ya new sheets, Ranko-chan; the stains wouldn't come out of the old ones."

"PAPAAAA!" Having thoroughly gotten their goats, Ranma laughed harder and more genuinely than she had in some time.

Sitting in the middle of the three futons spread on the floor of Kasumi's old room, now Atsuko's, Ranma blinked at all of the racy lingerie her elder daughters had brought out and of which they were discussing the relative merits. The younger pair of twins were listening raptly to every word, and Ranma gawked at a particularly revealing set Atsuko was now holding up.

"Tell me, Atsuko-chan, are you datin' anybody that I don't know about?"

"No. Why?"

"Exactly. Why? Why do you *own* somethin' like that?"

Atsuko smiled cutely, holding the lingerie against her body, and fluttered her eyelashes. "You never know when the right guy will come along, and when he sees me in this, he'll feel like he's been *hammered*." Ranma face-faulted, and then joined her girls in laughter.

"Hey!" Atsuko mock-complained.

Wiping some tears from her eyes, Ranma said, "Not that I'm not havin' a great time, but... why are all of ya doin' this?"

Several glances were traded, and Kimiko, the best speaker of the four, got the nod. "We all talked about it," she said, "and we decided that you're being very brave, Papa, and we wish we'd known about some of this, because we would've included you in more, um, girl things." She scratched the back of her head, trying to figure out if that came out the way she wanted it to. "Anyway, we decided we'd have a slumber party to cheer you up."

Ranma was crying again. "Oh, girls... Come here." She tried to hug all four of them at once. "Thank you, and I'm havin' a great time. Your mother would've had a ball. I'm sorry I'm such a mess these days."

After the hug broke and Ranma had had time to compose herself a little, Kimiko continued, more seriously. "Papa, if... if you think that someone like, er, Hibiki-san is, um, what you want, we also decided that it was okay with us... Right, RAN-ko?!"

"Yeah, yeah." Ranko scuffed her bare feet. "Whatever."

"We get to approve whoever it is, of course," Atsuko said, wagging her finger disturbingly like her aunt Nabiki. "Can't let you date just ANY old body off the street, man or woman."

"I wouldn't dream of it," Ranma said dryly, and then gazed warmly at them. "Thanks, girls, but Ryouga had a point. If the, um, urges go away, then I'd be in trouble, so..." She let the thought die away and looked around. "Well, you've shown off your naughty undies, so what's next? *Toooys*?" she said meaningfully with a smirk. \

"AAAHHH!"

"GAAHH!"

"ARGH!"

"PAPA NO HENTAI!"

The next thing was, of course, a tournament-level exhibition of unrestricted pillow fighting.

Atsuko cleared her throat, causing the other two conversations to stop. Ranko sniffed loudly, nursing her sore arm where Atsuko had hit her earlier because she was teasing Kimiko.

"Ahem." Atsuko gave Ranko the eye before turning back to Ranma. "Since you've been so brave, Papa-san," Atsuko said, now a little nervously, "another one of us decided she wants to be brave today, too." Atsuko pulled her twin up and nudged her to the fore.

"Nodoka-chan?" Ranma said querulously. "What do you need to be brave about?"

Twisting the hem of her nightshirt and running her hand nervously through her short hair, Nodoka looked up once, quickly, and then spun around and tried to make a break for it. No luck. The others grabbed her and put her back in place. "Uh-uh, Nodoka," Atsuko warned. "YOU wanted to do this. Now, you tell him or I will."

"Atsuko!" Nodoka hissed. Her twin just glared at her.

"Somebody tell me SOME-thing!" Ranma growled.

"Papa, you're not helping. This is hard for her." Ranko crossed her arms and frowned, her annoyance with Atsuko temporarily forgotten.

Ranma huffed and turned her attention back to Nodoka. "I'm sorry, No-chan. I'm listening."

"Well... I, ummm... I've been, errr, ah, you see, um, *seeing*... somebody... for a while."

Blinking, Ranma said, "Well, what's the problem? You and your twin are old enough. What's his name?" Nodoka's face fell and she burst into tears, turning to Atsuko. "What?! What did I say?!" Ranma asked, looking at everyone.

Atsuko hugged Nodoka and patted her on the back. "Papa," she said tiredly, "it's not a 'he', it's a 'she'. Nodoka likes girls."

Ranma's jaw fell into her lap. "Oh... my... Oh... boy. Your, your, ACK! Your Nodoka-obasama's gonna have a heart attack!"

"We weren't planning on telling *her*," Atsuko said darkly.

"Good plan." Ranma sighed and shook her head. "It never rains but it pours." She watched Atsuko comfort Nodoka for a moment before holding out her arms. "C'mere, No-chan." Nodoka hesitantly separated from her twin and shuffled over to her father. Ranma pulled her down into her lap and cradled her. "No-chan, I'm not angry or disappointed or anything like that. *Surprised*, maybe, but..." She blinked and looked at the others. "Since you all *look* the way ya do 'cause of my curse, are there any more surprises I should know about?"

"No."

"Not me."

"Uh-uh." Careful to be tactfully not relieved, Ranma turned her attention back to the daughter she was cradling.

"No-chan, No-chan. Why were ya afraid ta tell me? Hmmm, not the best question, I guess." She sighed and held Nodoka a little tighter. "If anybody knows how tough it is bein' different, it's me. You got a tough row ta hoe, kiddo - I won't kid ya 'bout that - but I'll always be here for ya. You'll always be one of my precious girls. I will ALWAYS love you, no matter what."

"Paapaaa," Nodoka softly keened, and she turned her head and sobbed into Ranma's bosom.

"Shhh. There, there. Now, are you gonna tell me the lucky girl's name or do I have ta take ya down to the laundry room for a spankin'?" Her daughters giggled, remembering their own spankings long gone.

"She might like it," Ranko quipped, and was promptly buried under the other two sisters.

"Ranko!"

"Ranko!" Atsuko slugged her in the arm again, while quiet little Kimiko yanked her pigtail with a feral grin.

"OW! OWIE! It was a JOKE! GAH!"

"Papa," Nodoka said timidly, "it's, it's Himiko-chan. We went to pre-school together. Do you remember her?"

"Himiko, Himiko, ummm... Wait a minute! SANZENIN Himiko?!"

"H-Hai-"

"Oh, my bleedin' ancestors! She's that jerk Mikado's daughter, right?!"

"... Hai."

"Oh, kami! Oh, your sweet mother in heaven! Does Mikado-baka know?!"

"Errr, we weren't planning on telling him, either." Ranma sighed long and loud, feeling fully justified in doing so.

"Well... I guess ya better bring her around so I can meet her again." She kissed her daughter on the forehead. "Just keep her father away from me, or I'm likely to put him in the hospital... AGAIN! Hmmm, with that example to grow up with, she's probably RELIEVED she likes girls. Gaaah." That statement brought the house down, but Nodoka only sighed happily, enjoying the opportunity to be cuddled by a female parent. None missed her mother more than she. No one noticed the thoughtful expression slowly settle on Ranma's face.

~~~~~ Winter ~~~~~

Picking up a jacket and throwing it on, Ranma paused and looked out his bedroom window at the wind whipping the bare branches of the neighborhood trees. Spring had grown into summer, faded to autumn, and succumbed to winter since that day of so many revelations. He smiled faintly, and adjusted the fit of the jacket before leaving his room and heading downstairs to breakfast. The family that had grown by one was gathered together, each of his five daughters lending a hand at either cooking or setting the table. He took his customary place and greeted the only daughter currently seated.

"Ohayou, Himiko-chan."

"Ohayou, Otousama," she said deferentially, pulling her hands off the table. Her long black hair pooled on the floor behind her. Ranma sighed at the overblown honorific, but declined to address it at the moment. Tipped off, Mikado had returned to his home early one day to find Nodoka and Himiko in bed. He'd promptly disowned his daughter, even over her mother's tears and pleading. He doubted that it had helped that Nodoka was a Saotome. Ranma had heard that the Mikados' divorce had been called off, again; they seemed to go back and forth over the issue of their daughter.

He took another look at Himiko, thinking, then said, "I want you to go somewhere with me after breakfast, Himiko-chan, or did ya have other plans?"

Startled, Himiko said, "Of course not, Otousama. Whatever you wish is fine."

"Ummm... Okay." He helped himself to the miso without his usual gusto. Nodoka had heard the exchange as she entered, bringing out the rice, and she looked worriedly at her father.

Walking quietly, Ranma and Himiko traveled down a lane that was all too painfully familiar to the man. He smiled crookedly, wondering how many others thought the same about this stretch of road. "Do you want to know where we're goin'?" he asked.

"If you wish for me to know, then-"

"That isn't what I asked, Himiko-chan," he said, a bit too sharply. More calmly, he asked, "Do *you* want to know?" "... Hai." "That's better. We're goin' to visit my wife." Startled, Himiko stopped for a second, then hurriedly caught back up. "Gomen nasai."

"No problem." They entered the cemetery and were shortly before Akane's gravestone. "Hello, my love. Everybody says hi. Kasumi wanted me to tell you that she's pregnant again. It was a surprise, and kinda late for her, but she wants it, as if there was any doubt, so... No, I haven't talked to Nabiki. She finally left for America, and I'd be surprised if I ever hear from her again. But if I do, I'll be sure to let you know." He paused and then knelt before the marker. "I've brought someone for you to meet. No, no, tomboy, she's not my new wife, so quit callin' me pervert and child molester." Ranma winked at Himiko, who blushed. He rested his hand on the cold marble. "No, Himiko is Nodoka-chan's... lover. She's also Sanzenin Mikado's daughter... Yeah, I know. I still hate him, too. Mikado disowned her over Nodoka-chan, and I adopted her." He paused, looking up at the sky. "Ya know, there's somethin' weird about that, like completin' a circle, but I'll be damned if I can figure out exactly what." He glanced at Himiko and cleared his throat. "Anyway... Akane-chan, our job is to convince Himiko-chan that she's not my slave or nothin'. She treats me like I *own* her. Gah. No, I don't enjoy that, you macho chick." He sighed theatrically. "So what do I do, Love? I've tried to tell her to act just like everybody else, but she keeps bowin' her head and callin' me 'Otousama', of all things. Quit laughin'. It's only funny if ya ain't livin' it. "Well... I guess that's all. I'll keep at her. Maybe she'll come to her senses and say 'Papa no baka!' like the rest do. Soon, yeah, she'll look me strong in the eye and call me Papa, and it'll make my day. I just needed you ta help me... um, convince her of that." Ranma's mouth moved twice, but no words came. He stared at the stone for a long time. "Himiko-chan," he eventually said, "can I have a few minutes with my wife?"

"Of course... Papa... sama." Ranma laughed raggedly and looked up to see Himiko struggling to keep her eyes up and on his.

"Thanks, kiddo. It's a start." She smiled hesitantly, although it grew stronger, and strolled deeper into the cemetery, casually looking at the names as they went by. She hadn't gone too far when from behind her, she could hear a man's soft words slowly descend into weeping. Shedding a few of her own tears, she wondered why her real father couldn't love like this man. Maybe... maybe he didn't deserve to be her real father anymore.

Ranma was silent in speech and manner as they made their way back up the lane to the doujou. Himiko thought that if she closed her eyes, she wouldn't be able to tell whether he was even there or not. Her real father had been a martial-arts skater, not a martial artist in the strict sense, and what these people could do, and their raw *power*, made her shudder sometimes. She buried that line of thought; it was unworthy of her and dishonorable, considering that the man next to her had shown her nothing but the deepest kindness and maybe the true meaning of the love a father should have for his children. Because of him, she felt better today than she had since... she couldn't remember when. Home had always been just a house to her, until now.

She regarded him out of the corner of her eye, and steeled herself to open her mouth, fighting to hang onto her fragile courage. "I.. I don't remember No-chan's mother... at all, but you must have l-loved her very much."

It was Ranma's turn to struggle, trying to find the words to encompass all of what he and Akane had shared, but finally, after a long while, all he said was: "Yes." It said enough, Himiko thought, and then squawked when she found herself lifted by and then cradled in Ranma's arms. "All my kids had rides, growin' up. You're kinda late to the party, but... HERE WE GOOO!" Ranma bounded to the rooftops and took his newest child on a short tour of the ward. The Doppler effect of her screaming, which turned to screeching laughter, caused a number of heads to turn up or poke out of windows. A few grayer heads smiled fondly, remembering fantastical days gone by.

~~~~~ Spring ~~~~~

The Saotomes were engaged in a fierce battle; the weapon of choice, bulging and fragile water balloons. Remarkably, Ranma had managed to stay dry. He was encouraged in this by the fact that the initial assault had occurred as he was exiting the bathing room, and all he had on was a loosely tied yukata. Alas, he was doomed to a gender shift as his dry state provoked a group assault, other temporary battles suspended to vanquish this one, recalcitrant foe. Even Ranma's speed didn't help, and it was a laughing blow to his pride that the only non-trained person in the group nailed him. Himiko cheered. And Ranko was feeling particularly mischievous. She promptly shucked the yukata off her female father and ran around, displaying her trophy.

"Gah." Ranma looked down at herself. "Hey, girls." She hefted her breasts. "Still no sag. Guess that magic water was good for somethin'."

"PAPAAA!" five voices chorused.

"Mama was right," Atsuko observed. "You never WILL learn any feminine modesty."

"Ha! Who needs it?" A slow clapping from the gate caused six bodies to spin around.

"You never change," Ryouga remarked, smiling.

Ranma cocked one hand on her hip and put the other behind her head, rocking her pelvis to one side and slightly forward. "You like?"

Ryouga finally blushed and turned aside. "Ranma!"

"Papa, you're shameless," Nodoka chided.

Ranma smirked. "Girls, make sure he doesn't get lost again. I'm goin' in and put some clothes on before he and the neighbors die of blood loss." Ryouga turned back as she walked across the yard, and he mentally slapped himself for watching the sway of her hips and bosom before turning away again and reaching up to hold his nose. Consequently, he missed seeing her stumble as she stepped onto the engawa.

"I'm really surprised to see you so soon, Ryouga. It's only been, what, a year?" She poured him a cup of tea. He chuckled and let that pass. His own voice was concerned as he took the cup.

"Something told me it was time to see you. How are you doing, Ranma?" She bit her lip and watched her skin move as she flexed her hand.

"Better some days... The same or worse on others."

"Ah... Sorry."

"Papa, we're going shopping!" Nodoka called as she and Himiko waved from the hall. "Hai!" Ranma called, waving back.

"Who's that?" Ryouga asked after the girls left the house.

"My adopted daughter. Bit of a story there."

"With you? No bet." Ranma smiled thinly.

"I hope you're not prejudiced. She's, ah, Nodoka-chan's lover. Her father disowned her." She laughed sharply. "You'll appreciate this: the father is- *was* Sanzenin Mikado."

"I see. Your first kiss?" Ryouga teased.

"Jerk! Ya HAD ta bring THAT up?!" Ryouga shook his head, laughing. "Well, anyway, Mikado-baka kinda came to his senses a couple 'a months back and stopped by, demandin' Himiko stop disgracin' herself and come home. She stared at him for a long time, turned her back, and marched into the house, slammin' the door. Heh, it was some kinda justice. Oh, and I had ta pound on him ta keep him outta the house. Put him in the hospital... again."

Both of them laughed at the anecdote, and after Ryouga stopped, he smiled and said, "You're a good person, Ranma."

"Heh. Well..." She smiled grimly. "I suppose that explains why I'm punished so much."

His reply was coolly even. "Stop it."

"Sorry." She put her elbows on the table and rested her chin on her fists, her eyes downcast.

"Better be. You have four- *five* wonderful daughters to fill your life."

"You're right. I'm bein' a jerk." Her eyes wandered back up to his face after a moment, and a thoughtful expression settled on her own. "Are you happy, Ryouga?" she eventually asked.

He considered the question during a sip of tea. "How do you mean?"

"I mean, at all."

He shrugged, "I suppose," then smirked at her. "I get to travel a lot."

"Ba-a-ka." Giggling, she wadded her napkin and threw it at him. "What I *meant* was do you want for anything?"

"You can ask me that?" he asked dryly. She arched an eyebrow, and smiling faintly, Ryouga shifted his position to one more comfortable. "Sure. There's a lot I wanted to have by now. I wanted a wife and children. A home. A way to stay in place long enough to have that."

"Yeah," Ranma said quietly, pausing. "I had all of that, and it's worth it. At almost any price."

"Any price?" he asked meaningfully, staring at her.

She looked at him for several heartbeats, and then turned away. She turned her body to follow, and put one elbow on the table, resting her head against her fist and staring out the open shoji. "I don't know anymore, Ryouga. Everything I thought I knew has flown out the window without even wavin' bye."

He took a quiet sip of tea. "Is this one of your better days?"

"It was pretty good..." she said without turning, "until you were lookin' at me all naked and stuff. By the time I got up to my room, I was shakin' somethin' fierce. I... I WANTED you."

"And... if I'd followed you upstairs... and thrown you on the bed?"

Her thoughts held her tense, but then she relaxed, resigned. "I would've spread my legs with no argument. This thing has no reason behind it... it just WANTS."

"And a year from now, when your urges are satisfied... would you be able to look me in the eye?" Silence, and then a soft sob escaped her, but she still had not looked at him. "I won't lie to you, Ranma. I still see you as a man, but I've thought about this a lot since the last time I was here. Yeah, I'm lonely, too, and given what I know about what you're really feeling these days, how, how you're reacting to *me*, I'm *shocked* to think how easily I could change you into a woman in my head." He watched the clouds in his tea as he swirled it in his cup, before lifting his head and carefully examining the woman across from him. "Ranma, I once said that you didn't have it bad with your curse, that it was no curse at all... But I was wrong, it seems. You may end up having had the hardest curse of any of us... barring Tarou, perhaps, but he *likes* his." He shook his head. "Anyway, all I can say now, that has any bearing, is that as a woman, you are and always have been beautiful, and because of that, it scares me how easily I... I could... *want* you. Hell, I already *do*, a little bit."

She barked a cross between a laugh and a sob. "I don't know whether to thank you, pound you, or take you upstairs."

"Well, that's a *semi*-sane answer, at least." He sighed, setting his cup down. "If I thought you wouldn't regret it, that you would genuinely enjoy yourself, be happy, I might consider it, but you have no way of guaranteeing that-" He didn't notice her become very still. "-and without even some real confidence that you wouldn't go mad in a year's time, or... or turn me away, just when *I* couldn't take it, my answer will always be 'No'. I won't take advantage of your state - it would... could destroy you, and maybe me, in the end." She slowly turned and looked at him, and he blinked at the fear and wild excitement in her eyes.

"ANYBODY HEAR ME?!" she called. Kimiko walked in from the kitchen, and Atsuko entered after pounding down the stairs.

"Something wrong?" the latter asked breathily.

"No, but I want one of you to stay with him at all times. I've got to go do somethin', and I don't want him lost before I finish."

"Uh, okay, Papa-san." Ranma jumped up and dashed upstairs.

She frantically dug through boxes that Akane had been the last person to disturb. "Where is it? Where is it? ... Ah!" Ranma held an awkward piece of her past in her hands. She paused and remembered the feelings engendered a lifetime ago by this charmed artifact and the fact that Akane had gone back and retrieved it without Ranma knowing about it, thinking it potentially useful as an antidote or a patch to the various potions and spells that had thronged their early years together. She smiled as she realized that even if they hadn't been able to say it at the time, their love was already driving their actions. A single tear tracked down her face, and she gently set the broken item behind the door to the room, knowing that she needed to talk to a special someone first, even if that someone couldn't talk back. After a quick change into warmer clothing, she paused, looked at the broken rod, and wondered if she really wanted to have it used on her or not. Maybe it was just enough to know that it was there. Or maybe its real magic was that of courage and acceptance. Or maybe... "Ranma no baka," she whispered, shaking her head. She picked up the rod and placed it back in its hiding place, deep in a tall box. "Talk to Akane, and then decide what you want." She softly closed the closet door, her face tense from fighting down her emotions, and then dashed downstairs and out the front door.

Atsuko blinked at Ranma's rapid departure, and then looked at Ryouga suspiciously. "What did you say to Papa-san?"

"Nothing to make him need to go out. I don't think so, anyway."

Gusts of wind crossed the paths that wound through the cemetery. "Akane, forgive me, but I can't go ON like this anymore! This curse is drivin' me nuts without you here! I wish I could really talk to you. I wish I knew if you'd forgive me. I wish so much. Akane... I almost can't live without you! I don't WANT ta live without you! Oh, A-kaaa-neee... Tell me what to DO... I'm so tired... Akane..." She fell to her knees and wept, draped over the marker, drops of moisture darkening the marble of the stone. A half-hour had passed and the moisture had mostly evaporated when next she spoke. "I'm... I'm sorry, Akane," she whispered intimately. "I'll... I'll be stronger. I p-promise." She shakily got to her feet and sighed, wiping her eyes. "I don't know what I was thinkin'. I guess I was just bein' a jerk again." Ranma kissed her fingertips, her lips lingering, and then laid them against the kanji carved into the memorial and into her soul. "I'll always be your baka, and you'll always be my tomboy. I love you, Saotome Akane." Choking off another round of sobs, she slowly turned away. Her eyes blinded by unstoppable tears, she stumbled into a mother and child walking by.

"Sumimasen!" Ranma gasped, backing up hastily, blinking. The woman just nodded and smiled, but her child, short black hair and big brown eyes, scowled up at her.

"Baka. Bakabaka." She threw her stuffed toy at the strange redheaded woman with the white stripe in her hair.

"MIKI!" the woman yelled, appalled. "WHERE did you LEARN that?!" The toy had bounced off Ranma's chest, and she caught it by reflex on its way to the ground... and she stared at it, transfixed. "I'm terribly sorry! I don't know what's wrong. She doesn't usually act this way!"

"WAAAH!" the girl cried, groping for the toy. Ranma blinked and then handed it back to the child.

The woman bowed. "Again, I'm sorry, Mrs..."

"Saotome," she said absently. Then she looked at the woman, grabbed her, and kissed her on the cheek. "Thank you!" she whispered fiercely.

The woman was stunned, but the little girl was *mad*, "BAKABAKABAKA-" and beat on Ranma with her toy.

Ranma bent down and laughingly said, "And thank you, too!" She got a fin in the eye for her trouble.

"MIII-KIII!" Laughing out loud and rubbing her offended orb, Ranma turned back and knelt in front of her wife's grave. A gust of wind encircled her, and she imagined it to be a hug. The mother was drawn to watch; the strange woman was so intense.

"I will always love you, Akane," she whispered, fearful joy lighting her blue eyes. "That will never change, 'cause I ain't gonna let him use the rod; I was bein' stupid again. I'll *talk* him into it. Maybe... in time... it won't matter so much what we were to each other... Just what we are... "Hey, yeah," she said even more softly, "I'm Saotome Ranma, and I always win." She paused and then, barely audible, said, "Even if I have ta change what I'm fightin' for..." She felt the wind push hard at her back, and giggled. "All right! I'm goin'! I'm goin'!" Ranma hopped to her feet and raced out of the cemetery, and the mother gaped at the speed. She shook her head, blinking at the impossibility of it, and then looked down and scolded her daughter. "Now, Miss Bad Temper and Bad Manners! I'll just have that for now!" To her surprise, Miki didn't object to the toy's removal; she still seemed to be staring at the grave marker the other woman had been visiting. The mother shrugged, looked at the toy, and then sighed - she couldn't fit the large plushie into her small purse.

"Come on, Miki-chan. Let's go see your Grandma and Grandpa. And THEN I'm going to have a talk with your older brother!" Miki toddled along, pulled by her mother's hand. She glanced back once, down the lane to the entrance, and smiled, a glint in her eye. The glint vanished as she turned her head forward and loudly demanded her stuffed koi.

"FISHIEEE!" Behind them, the cool wind swirled a pile of last year's leaves, somehow missed by the meticulous groundskeeper. The leaves rose in a dark brown column, hovered for an instant, reaching five feet into the air, and then continued upward, leaping, cavorting, and finally disappearing into the bright blue ocean of the spring sky.

END CAST A SECOND LINE INTO THE SEA