Genma's Daughter

By ClassicalGal

Original concept and parts of chapter 1 by Nesin Evets

Chapter 2: The Girl in the Mirror

Nodoka sat by the window in the living room of her home, idly wondering what was keeping the children. She had just finished making breakfast, and the miso soup, fish, and rice stood waiting on the table. She was not impatient—yet.

She glanced once again up the narrow street on which her home stood. It was a street of modest houses, crowded together and with little yard space. Most of the neighbors, like Nodoka, made an effort to cultivate some kind of garden in the little space they had, and this lent each house a bit of personality. Nodoka liked the neighborhood where she had lived for so many years. A nice shopping street was a couple of blocks away, it was not far from a train station, and the neighbors were all old friends.

She saw two girls, one with black hair and a shorter one with red, walking up the street hand in hand and laughing about something. They turned the corner through the gate, slid open the front door and walked in, dropping their hands in the process. Nodoka lifted an eyebrow but said nothing about what she had seen through the window.

"Breakfast is ready, dears. You got back just in time. Shall we eat?"

Ranma started to protest. "First I wanna go…" she trailed off. "Ah, I can do it later. I'm starvin'!" They all sat down. Ranma turned to her mother. "It looks great, Mom!" After a brief chorus of "Itadakimasu!", they began. Nodoka once again witnessed the spectacle of Ranma eating. After seeing that just once she had known to prepare rather more food than usual, and stared as it disappeared rapidly. She shook her head. This was one habit she wanted her child to break, whether she was a boy or a girl. Now was not the time, though.

She asked, "Ran…ma, dear, did you have a nice walk? What did you think about?"

Ranma stopped eating, and looked slightly embarrassed. Her mind spun as she tried to figure out what to say. Somehow, telling her mother about what was going through her head right now did not seem like a good idea, even if her mother would approve of it. Especially if her mother would approve of it.

"Oh, just her situation, Auntie. Nothing special. She has a lot of thinking to do." Akane answered for Ranma. Ranma looked at Akane with gratitude. "It's a confusing situation for her, and I think it will take her a while to figure it out."

Nodoka had not missed the interchange, but decided not to press Ranma into talking if she didn't want to. Goodness knows she probably had a million things running around in her head right now.

In due time, the meal was finished, and Akane and Ranma rose, Akane helping to clear the dishes. When that was done, Ranma turned to her mother. "Mom? Can we borrow, ummm, some of the things you showed us last night? The video and the photos? We wanna visit Dr. Toufuu and explain, and also show this to the Tendous. I promise we'll bring 'em back tomorrow on the way to school." Ranma omitted the other place they might be going today.

Nodoka was a little surprised, but the request seemed reasonable. "Well, I had been hoping that you would stay a little bit longer before going back to the Tendous this morning." She smiled. "But I guess you're not going to disappear for another twelve years, so I don't mind. I have some documents that you might find useful, too." Akane and Ranma smiled back.

A few minutes later, their packs in hand, and with a flat cardboard box from Nodoka, they prepared to leave. "Thank you for your hospitality, Auntie. I hope to be able to come again?…"

Nodoka smiled. "Akane-chan, you are welcome here any time you want to come."

Ranma smiled. "Thanks, Mom! I promise you'll be seein' a lot more of us!" They turned and left, Nodoka sliding the door shut behind them.

No one noticed that Ranma had forgotten to get hot water after breakfast.

Ranma and Akane walked along one of the larger streets in Nerima. Auto traffic was sparse, but the area was abustle with pedestrians, people shopping or just enjoying the Sunday morning. Women doing the daily shopping walked from shop to shop, bags in hand, accompanied by children. Some rode by on bicycles. Groups of men in twos or threes would wander past, laughing or talking in an animated way. The occasional jogger would trot by every now and then. People were trying to get their business done before the day got really hot.

Ranma looked at Akane again. "Are you sure this is a good idea, Akane?"

Akane glanced over at Ranma. "I know they are hard to deal with, Ranma, but she knows more about the curses than anyone else we know. She has lived next to Jusenkyou for over a hundred years."

Ranma sighed. She hated every time she had to deal with the old ghoul and the others at the Nekohanten. They were crazy. Half the people she knew were crazy. It was depressing sometimes. Besides, she wasn't sure she really wanted answers to some of these questions.

They passed a shopkeeper. "Good morning, ladies! Would you like any fruit today?"

As Akane politely declined, Ranma looked surprised, then chagrined. "Ah, nuts! I wanted to change back before we left."

Akane stopped and looked at Ranma. "Do you want to look for some hot water now?"

Ranma thought for a moment. "We're almost at the N-nekohanten. Let's just ask them for some."

Sun streamed in the windows of the Nekohanten, as Shampoo went about cleaning the tables in preparation for another day. She sighed; it was a beautiful day out. Why did she have to work when all the other teenagers got to relax on the weekends? She did enjoy the work, but it was so omnipresent; a break would be nice now and then. As she went from table to table lifting up soy sauce and napkin dispensers to polish underneath, she reflected that at least it was air conditioned, for the customers of course. That would be a blessing during the full heat of the day. Still…

Shampoo looked up from her work as the chime rang, signaling a customer. That was odd, it was a little early yet for the lunch crowd. She hurried towards the door. "Welcome to Nekohanten, what… Oh, Airen! You come take Shampoo on date?" She rushed over to glomp Ranma, ignoring that she was in her female form. Ranma began to struggle as she always did, but then just stopped, looking at Shampoo in an odd way, as if seeing her for the first time.

Shampoo was so startled she stopped herself. Rather than Ranma's usual struggles, and Akane's angry reaction, both of which made it so much more fun, Ranma and Akane were just staring at her. They both looked as if they were trying to figure something out. It rattled her no end.

She tried to gather her wits. "Airen… come here for reason?"

The strange mood dissipated. Ranma looked down. "Yeah, Shampoo. We wanna talk to the old… umm, to Cologne."

Cologne sighed and put down the chopstick she had been aiming. Why couldn't she just have said it like she always did? Just like Ranma to spoil her fun by not playing the game. She hopped into the dining area on her stick.

"What is it, Son-in-law? What did you want to talk about?" As she came up to him, her senses were alerted. Something about Son-in-law was different. He… She seemed… disturbed about something, and the usual cocky confidence was missing.

Ranma started studying the floor again. Linoleum tile. She was getting to be quite familiar with floors, and imagined at this rate she would soon be able to go into the flooring business. She sighed, and lifted her head. "I… I got some questions I wanna ask ya. A-About Jusenkyou curses."

Cologne raised an eyebrow. This seemed to be odd behavior on Ranma's part. Mousse, who had been working in the kitchen, also wandered in and watched, or at least tried to.

Cologne said, "Perhaps we should all sit down," and motioned towards one of the tables. Akane and Ranma sat on one side, and Cologne and Shampoo on the other. Mousse pulled up a chair, facing the storeroom.

"Now, Son-in-law, what questions do you want to ask?" Mousse noted he was facing the wrong direction, and turned his chair to face the wall.

Ranma became visibly more nervous, and Cologne had to remind herself that despite the martial arts prowess of Ranma and the others, they were all still just teenagers after all. Sometimes they would be vulnerable or emotionally confused. She turned one part of her mind to wondering how to exploit this, while turning the rest of her attention back to Ranma.

Ranma swallowed nervously. "Ummmm… I… I want to know if… if the curses… affect the way the cursed person, uh, feels…" She blushed and lowered her face again. Akane reached her hand over and took Ranma's hand, holding it supportively. Ranma smiled back at Akane in thanks.

Cologne noticed Shampoo scowling out of the corner of her eye. What was the meaning of this? The usual tension between Ranma and Akane appeared to be absent. This was bad. Something was going on, and she was going to get to the bottom of it. If Son-in-law and Akane were progressing in their relationship, it did not bode well for Shampoo.

"What do you mean, Son-in-law? How the cursed person feels? I don't quite follow you."

Ranma blushed again. Kami-sama, but this was hard. "I… I mean about their cursed form."

Cologne could not figure out where this was going; usually she could read Ranma like a book. "Well, typically people resent the curse. Sometimes they find it useful. Eventually, they get used to it…" Cologne trailed off as she noticed Ranma looking at her with fearful eyes.

"You… you mean… the curse doesn't make people like their cursed form?"

Warning signals started going off in Cologne's head, but she wasn't quite sure why; it was just her intuition, after so many decades of life. She noticed Shampoo lean forward as if to hear better. Mousse, uncharacteristically, had put on his glasses, and was watching the conversation intently, finally facing the right way.

Ranma turned to Shampoo. "Shampoo… when… when you're a c-c-cat, do you feel… don't you feel like you wanna… stay that way? Like… like it's easier, and more comfortable?"

Shampoo's anger was turning into confusion. "Cursed form very useful sometimes, but not really like. Shampoo rather be girl than cat."

Mousse added, unbidden, "I have to say the same thing, Saotome. The curse is an advantage to use against an opponent, but I much prefer my human form." He frowned. "What is it you're implying?"

Ranma looked like she was in shock, upset, and deathly afraid of something. The volume of the warning signals in Cologne's head increased. It was time to get to the heart of the matter.

"What is going on here, Son-in-law? Why are you asking these questions? I can tell that there is something you two are not telling me." She spoke calmly, but Ranma could see the determination in her gaze.

Cologne didn't think she'd ever seen Ranma this scared before. She look terrified, as if facing execution. Her face lowered again, and Cologne was shocked to see tears starting to gather in Ranma's eyes. Shampoo and Mousse looked on, speechless. What on Earth was going on here?

Ranma started hugging herself, and Akane moved over and put an arm around her, giving her a gentle embrace. Ranma shuddered and took a deep breath, and Shampoo and Mousse felt like doing much the same thing. Cologne had the feeling that the world had changed, that the rules were not being followed, in fact the rules were being rewritten. Had they woken up in some parallel universe this morning?

Cologne pressed Ranma. "Well, Son-in-law?"

Akane said gently, "Ranma, you are going to have to tell them about your mother, and about… what you found out from her. They're going to find out eventually anyway." Ranma shuddered again, but nodded, her head still hung low. Cologne was astounded to see the distress that Ranma was in. She felt like she had never met the person in front of her before. Was this really Ranma who sat before them? The strong, macho man who took on any martial arts challenge? Mousse, too, shook his head in wonder. Was this the man he had fought so many times?

Ranma lifted her eyes to look at Cologne, whose shock was compounded to see that they were wet. "Cologne… I… I just met my mom again for the first time since I was a little… kid. I was really happy to see her, and she was really happy to see me, too. But… she… she told me somethin' about myself that… that is kinda turnin' my life upside down and makin' me all confused. She… she told me that… told me that…" Ranma lost the ability to speak. How could she reveal all this to the three people in front of her, when she had only just summoned the courage to tell it to her closest friend? People who were always striving not to help her, but to find and exploit her weaknesses in order to make her Shampoo's mate? But she had to.

Shampoo and Mousse were hanging on the edge of their seats. Cologne examined Ranma closely, and realized she was struggling, as mightily as if she were fighting one of her most desperate battles. She surprised herself by gently encouraging Ranma, "She told you what?"

Ranma took a deep breath, and looked at Akane. Akane smiled, and nodded her head slightly, as if to say "I'm here. I'll always be here." Ranma looked back at Cologne, and in a very small voice said, "She… she told me that I'm a girl." Having made the supreme effort, Ranma once again hung her head in misery.

Cologne, Shampoo, and Mousse looked on in stunned silence for several moments, then to Ranma's surprise, they erupted into laughter. "Oh come now, Son-in-law, what kind of fool do you take me for? I suppose you're going to tell us now that you can't marry Shampoo? How transparent! You've tried this once already. What proof do you have for this ludicrous story?"

Cologne was surprised to see Ranma looking deeply hurt. She hadn't thought Ranma was this good an actor. She started to wonder; she knew Ranma wasn't this good an actor.

Akane, wordlessly, reached down to the seat next to her, and placed a small cardboard box on the table. While Cologne, Shampoo, and Mousse looked on with rapt attention, she removed the lid, lifted a handful of documents and photographs from inside, and placed them on the table in front of Cologne. Shampoo scooted her chair over to get a better look, and Mousse looked over Cologne's shoulder. They all peered at what lay on the table.

On top of the pile was an aging photograph: a simple family portrait. In it was a younger version of Genma, whom Cologne knew well. Standing next to him was a young woman who looked like Ranma's female form, whom Cologne took to be Ranma's mother. And standing in front of them…

Standing in front of them was the four-year-old version of the red-headed girl who was sitting in front of Cologne and the others right now. She was wearing a green sundress, and her red hair was in a ponytail, held by a pretty ornament. She had an adorable smile on her face, and clung shyly to her mother.

She turned the photograph over; it was dated July 3, 1987. She turned her attention to the document underneath it. Her control slipped for a moment, and the blood drained from her face. Shampoo gave a little gasp. Mousse looked on, shock written plainly on his face. The document was an official copy, and bore the appropriate seals. It looked to be many years old.

Certified Copy, Certificate of Live Birth

City of Tokyo, Nerima Ward

Place of Birth: Nerima General Hospital

Father's name: Saotome Genma

Mother's name: Saotome Nodoka

Date of birth: March 18, 1983

Child's name: Saotome Ranko

Sex: Female

For a moment she thought it was possible the document might be a forgery, as she knew the middle Tendou sister was… talented, but as she leafed through the documents and photographs, some showing Ranko-chan with a same-age Akane, she knew that there were too many of them for anyone to concoct. She felt a numbness come over her. The rules of the game had indeed changed, drastically; all bets were off. She raised her eyes and looked at Ranma again, whose head was still hung down.

"And how can you explain this? After all, your female form is your cursed form."

Ranma looked up again, her expression still nervous and fearful. Akane's arm was still around her shoulders, giving her strength. She would never have thought she would need anyone else's strength, until the last few days. "Pop… wanted a son. He… he took me to Happousai not long after that family picture was taken, and… and… Happousai… turned me into a boy. When I fell in the Nyanniichuan, it made my cursed form… me." She swallowed. "The real me."

Cologne let out a long sigh. Of course, he would be involved. How typical for him to be responsible for this. Shampoo was still staring at the birth certificate, looking back and forth between it and Ranma, who looked like she was ready to cry. Mousse was staring at Ranma; he didn't want to be that rude, but he couldn't help it. His rival for Shampoo's affections, the best martial artist he knew, was really a girl? Cologne scrutinized the red-haired girl in front of her as if seeing her for the first time; in a sense, she was. Ranma felt very uncomfortable under their combined gaze.

"And what of your engagement to the Tendous?"

Ranma looked at Akane again, who smiled and nodded again, a little sadly. "My mom… she said… she said that there was no way she was gonna let her… d-daughter marry another girl. She said all the engagements are off—Akane included."

That was enough for Shampoo, who put her head in her hands and started sobbing quietly, while Ranma looked on, miserable. Mousse put his hands on Shampoo's shoulders to comfort her, and for once she didn't object; he kept his eyes on Ranma. Cologne nodded; it was no surprise the mother would say that, and a mother's word was sacrosanct. "And what do you intend to do? Are you going to remain male or resume your life as Ranko?"

At this Ranma looked even more fearful and uncertain, if that was possible. "I… I dunno. I'm still tryin' to figure out how I feel about all this stuff. I only found out a couple days ago myself. I… I…" Ranma trailed off.

Cologne leaned forward and pierced Ranma with her gaze. The force of decades of wisdom and experience were behind it. Ranma gulped; she couldn't take her eyes off Cologne. "And the questions about Jusenkyou curses? Why did you ask?" Cologne was pretty sure she knew, but she had to make sure.

Ranma looked like a deer caught in headlights. She shifted uneasily in her seat. She wanted to take her eyes off Cologne, to look somewhere else, the floor, the table, the bottle of soy sauce sitting on the table, anywhere but Cologne, but she couldn't. Shampoo looked up, red-eyed; she and Mousse hung on Ranma's answer. Ranma swallowed again. "I… I wanted to see… I wanted to see if the feelin's I was havin' were… were the curse or… or…" she finally broke her gaze away and looked down, her voice dropping to a whisper. "or… me."

Cologne leaned back in her chair, and sighed. All those months, all that planning… the child had finally defeated her, and the biggest joke was, she didn't even realize it. Cologne didn't know whether to laugh or cry. She happened to glance at Akane. Akane looked back, and smiled a sad smile. So, the Tendou girl was more perceptive than she had thought. She'd figured it out even though Son… Ranma hadn't.

Cologne mercifully didn't pursue her line of questioning. "Very well, Ranma. We shall wait and see how things develop." Her tone softened. "Should you need any assistance in resolving this… crisis, please come and see me. I will try to help."

Ranma looked at Cologne, astonished. Of all the reactions she had been expecting, this was not one she had ever thought she would hear. Shampoo broke off her quiet crying and also looked at Cologne, dumbfounded. Cologne continued to gaze back at Ranma, her face serious but calm.

"Th-thanks, Cologne. I… I really appreciate it. I… Th-thank you." Ranma said earnestly.

Cologne turned to Akane. "And what are your feelings on this, Akane?"

Akane was surprised as well; Cologne rarely addressed her by name, or asked her feelings on anything. "Well, as you can tell from the pictures, Ranko… Ranma and I were very close when we were little. I… I think I knew that, even when she first showed up, even though I didn't recognize her as my childhood playmate. I want to help Ranma through this." She smiled. "She is still my friend; my best friend. Her mother said we were like sisters back then." Ranma smiled back, a little nervously.

Cologne nodded; it was becoming clearer why the two were so devoted to each other while never acting like proper fiancées. "I see. My offer to Ranma applies to you as well, Akane. Should you need help in this, I stand willing to assist you." Shampoo looked like she was ready to pass out from shock. Even Mousse looked surprised.

Akane bowed her head. "Thank you, Cologne." She stood, and tugged gently at Ranma's arm. "Come on, Ranma. We should get going. We still need to visit Dr. Toufuu." Ranma nodded, and got up. Akane collected the documents and photographs, carefully returned them to the box, then closed it and tucked it under her arm.

Ranma turned to Cologne and bowed respectfully, and Akane followed suit. "Thanks, Cologne. I… I guess I wasn't expectin' help when I came here." She looked embarrassed. "Thank you. I really mean it."

Cologne rose. "You are welcome, Ranma. I have no doubt that someone of your abilities will be able to resolve this situation." Ranma nodded, and turned towards the door.

"Ranma?" asked Akane. Ranma stopped and turned back with a questioning look. "Didn't you want some hot water?"

Ranma looked surprised, then vexed. "Oh. Oh, yeah. Hey Cologne, ummm, could I get some hot water?" Cologne nodded, then looked at Mousse, who moved to the kitchen, returning with a kettle, which he handed to Ranma. Ranma took it and a few moments later was male again, if damp. He handed the kettle back to Mousse, thanked him, and he and Akane were on their way.

Cologne watched the back of the black-haired mirage she had been chasing for so many months as he walked out the door, and sighed once more.

Shampoo quickly turned to Cologne, and switched to speaking in Mandarin. "Great-grandmother, what about the engagement? Is it really over?" she asked, clearly upset.

Cologne stood up. "Legally, Ranma is female, and so the Kiss of Marriage does not apply. Amazon law does not require you to marry… her. As for the Kiss of Death, we've already dragged that in front of the Council once, and I see no reason to do it again. You've been punished for that with your Jusenkyou curse. That's over and done with."

Shampoo cast her eyes down, then looked back up. "But… he's still really a boy, isn't he? Can't I still marry him?" Mousse's face fell.

Cologne sighed. "Shampoo, you are supposed to be an heir to leadership. You heard what Ranma said about how she felt. You heard her mother's opinion on the subject. What do you think?"

Shampoo lowered her eyes. "Maybe… maybe he's just confused, and… and he'll stay male. Maybe his mother will come around."

Cologne regarded her for a long time. Shampoo felt as if she were being evaluated, and found wanting. "Shampoo, Amazon law says nothing one way or the other about this. If you continue to pursue Ranma, it's now a purely personal matter. Are you sure you want to keep after Ranma, considering everything we've just heard?"

Shampoo sighed. "I'm just not ready to… to give up… yet."

The sun was ascending rapidly, and Ranma was actually glad he was wet. The evaporation made it a kind of natural air conditioning, and helped ward off the stifling heat of summer. He sighed; it wouldn't last long.

He and Akane were taking a short break at the park on their walk to Dr. Toufuu's. A short spell under the shade of a tree was just the thing for Akane, who did not have the benefit of being wet. Ranma was also grateful for the break. The unending stream of revelations about himself—about his curse, about his identity, about his feelings—was simply overwhelming him. It was almost like it was happening to someone else, and he was just watching.

Even in the heat of the day, there were still children playing at the park, though their running seemed a little less energetic than usual. As hot as it was, some homes were hotter still inside, and it was good to get out. Air conditioning was spreading rapidly but still was not universal. Akane and Ranma sat, and watched the world go by.

"Ranma, what do you think? About what Cologne said about the curses?" Akane turned her head to look at him.

Ranma continued staring off into the distance. "Maybe… maybe it only happens with human-form curses?…"

Akane sighed. "Do you really believe that?"

Ranma didn't move. After a long time, he finally said, in a quiet voice, "No. Not really." His face became angry. "Why? Why me? This can't be happening to me! It just can't! I… I've lived so long as a guy, I am a guy! I'm Saotome Ranma, man amongst men, the best martial artist in Japan! I know who I am!" His voice dropped again, his anger dissipating suddenly, and a bewildered expression appeared in his eyes. "At least… at least I thought I did."

Ranma's eyes were looking in the general direction of the playground, but Akane knew he was seeing something else. "Girls… girls are weak, and stupid, and waste time on all sorts'a dumb stuff… but… but… I wish…" He lowered his head and put his hand across his eyes. "No. I… I can't!"

Akane found Ranma's usual misogyny surprisingly easy to tolerate these days, knowing now where it was coming from. Besides, she fully intended to punish the real source. She wondered what kind of wall ornament a panda hide might make.

After a few more minutes of silently watching Ranma lost in his thoughts, she tugged gently at his sleeve. "Come on, Ranma. I'm sure Dr. Toufuu can help. You know he does counseling too, along with all his medical work." She wiped her arm across the sweat beaded on her brow. "Besides, the clinic is air conditioned!"

Dr. Toufuu leaned back in his chair, removed his glasses, and began to polish them with a cloth he kept on his desk. In the background, the clinic air conditioner thrummed, laboring mightily to keep the clinic cool in the face of the blast furnace outside. Behind the blinds on the windows, intense light flared, as if the heat were trying to break its way in.

On the other side of his desk were Ranma and Akane, and on the desk lay the same set of documents that Akane had displayed at the Nekohanten. He replaced his glasses, trying to keep his expression neutral, but couldn't help sighing. He was worried about Ranma's ability to cope with this.

He had always thought that Ranma's intense focus on martial arts had left him a somewhat one-dimensional individual, without a full range of interests, friends, and activities. Ranma's lack of a well-rounded personality might cause him even more difficulty in working through this challenge to his identity. Dr. Toufuu now suspected that that intense focus was a direct result of the trauma that Ranma—Ranko—had suffered as a child.

"Ranma, I'm truly sorry to hear that your father did such a terrible thing to you. I can't imagine why a father would do something like this to his child, no matter how much he may have wanted a son." Dr. Toufuu's voice took on a hard edge. "I must have a word with Saotome-san when he reappears."

Akane added, "You and me both, Doctor."

Ranma listened silently to all of this. He took a deep breath, as he prepared to talk about his innermost feelings for the third time today. At least it was getting a little easier. He wondered if he would ever be able to regain the stoicism he had had before this crisis… or if he even wanted to.

"Doc… this… this ain't all I wanted to talk to you about."

Dr. Toufuu's eyebrow raised. "I can't say I'm surprised. What else did you want to discuss? I'll try to help, if I can."

Ranma looked at Akane again, and once more drew strength from the quiet smile he found there. Maybe one good thing about this whole situation was that it seemed that the bad parts of their relationship were sloughing off, disappearing, leaving something wonderfully solid behind. "I… even before I found this out, I… I had some feelings… about… about bein' a guy." He swallowed nervously. "Akane says I oughta talk 'em over with you."

Dr. Toufuu gently encouraged him. "Yes, Ranma? Go ahead."

Ranma paused. "Uh, well, uh… I… I told Akane that the reason I was proud'a bein' a guy was… I told her that bein' a guy was much harder than bein' a girl, that it was hard to be manly in all things, the way Pop always said I should be. I… I had told Pop about how hard it was, and he said that's why we can be proud we're men, 'cause it's tough. Akane said, ummm, she… she wasn't sure that… that feelin' that way was… normal?" Ranma looked at Dr. Toufuu, a plea for contradiction in his eyes.

Dr. Toufuu paused for a long moment, as if considering Ranma's words very carefully. "Ranma, I have to agree with Akane. I don't think it's normal at all. Most people are quite comfortable with either being a man or a woman. I certainly don't feel that being a man is hard. I am glad I am a man, and so are most other men."

Ranma's head was buzzing, and he looked down once more. At least he couldn't see the floor, thanks to Dr. Toufuu's desk. He was getting tired of floors. He had been expecting this answer, but that didn't make him any happier to hear it.

"What about your cursed form, or should I say your true form, Ranma? How do you feel about that?"

Akane and Ranma exchanged quick, surprised glances. It seemed that Dr. Toufuu had some understanding of how Ranma felt, even though he hadn't heard the full story yet. Ranma felt better about talking to Dr. Toufuu; it seemed as if it might be something he was familiar with.

"Well, one of the first things I noticed after gettin' cursed was… was how much easier it felt. It didn't feel hard at all, not like bein' a man was. And… after a while… I… I started to like it… and now I feel like… like I want to s-stay that way… and… like I should stay that way. I thought it was the curse makin' me feel like that, but… but we talked to Cologne, and she says… she says it don't work that way." Again he looked Dr. Toufuu in the eye, his gaze questioning, hoping to be rescued from the corner he felt himself being backed into.

Dr. Toufuu sighed. "Cologne is quite right, Ranma. The curse usually causes discomfort, not comfort and happiness. If you are having those feelings, they are because of the way you feel, not because of the curse."

Ranma closed his eyes. He had been afraid this would be the answer, afraid this was the direction things were heading; he had just hoped he was wrong. He opened his eyes again. "But why? Why should I feel this way? I'm a man! I'm proud'a bein' a man! I know I was a girl when I was little, but that don't matter any more! It was years ago!"

Dr. Toufuu shook his head. "It matters a lot, Ranma. You were born a normal girl, and you spent the first four years or so of your life as a girl. Those are very formative years, and you cannot shake off their influence, no matter how many years pass." He looked Ranma directly in the eye. "Ranma, I think the reason you feel uncomfortable about being a boy, and have feelings of wanting to be a girl and finding life easier that way, may well be because you are a girl. You may have been raised as a boy, you may think of yourself as a boy and act like one, but there are many fundamental differences between boys and girls and you can't just grow out of them. Having a normal male body and a normal male brain thanks to Happousai's magic probably helps mask that somewhat, but the influence of your early years is still there. And when you regained your female form, the feelings would be amplified considerably."

Ranma stared back at Dr. Toufuu. "Are… are you sure about that? I barely remember bein' a girl!"

Dr. Toufuu nodded. "Look at Ukyou, Ranma. She has been raised as a boy almost from the same age. Granted, she has always had her female body, but despite all those years of her father pressuring her to be more masculine, she's still a girl, and she still wants to be a girl. Does she like living her life as a boy?" Ranma shook his head. "Ranma, you are in a similar situation. When you are in female form, you are in exactly the same situation."

Fear blossomed again in Ranma's eyes. He looked at Dr. Toufuu as if he were Death incarnate, come to take Ranma's life away, and replace it with… who knows what. "But… but Doc… are you sayin' that I oughta be a girl? Just 'cause I used to be one when I was little? I… I don't think I can do that!" Sweat broke out on his forehead, despite the air conditioning in the clinic.

Dr. Toufuu shook his head. "No, Ranma. I'm saying that the thing you need to do is to decide how to live your life so you will be happy and well adjusted, so you can live a meaningful, full life. Only you can decide how to do that. Given your history, there may well be problems for you either way. All I am trying to do is encourage you to consider all your options." Ranma was speechless as he considered the doctor's words.

Akane turned to Ranma. "Ranma, are you happy?"

He looked at her in surprise. "Wh-what?"

"Are you happy? Do you enjoy life? Do you like who and what you are, are you comfortable with yourself? Do you like what you do every day? Do you have friends who like you for who you are? Everyone needs these things to be happy."

Ranma's eyes were wide, and his mouth hung open. Such a simple question. "No…" he whispered in reply.

"Do you like being a boy? Never mind being proud of it, never mind how noble you think it is, never mind what your father wanted. Do you like it? Are you glad you are a boy, the way Dr. Toufuu says he is glad he is a man? The way I am glad I am a girl?"

Ranma had a haunted look in his eyes, and tears started to collect in the corners. "No…" he whispered again.

Akane turned to Dr. Toufuu again, with pleading in her gaze of a different sort. Dr. Toufuu nodded slightly, and spoke.

"Ranma, have you given any thought to becoming Ranko again, being a girl?"

Ranma was silent for several minutes, his cheeks tinged slightly red. Dr. Toufuu and Akane watched and waited, patiently. Akane couldn't imagine what Ranma must be feeling right now. She felt like crying for him.

Ranma finally spoke. "Yes… Yes, I thought about it… but…" he trailed off.

Dr. Toufuu again gently encouraged him to continue. "But what, Ranma? What do you think about it?"

Ranma looked thoughtful. "Well, Pop always said girls were stupid, and weak, and just got in men's way." He looked at Akane. "I guess… I guess since he lied about so much, he… he probably lied about that, too." Akane smiled. "But… but I thought that way for so long, I… I dunno if I can shake that off. I can't be a girl if I look down on girls. How can I be happy that way?"

Dr. Toufuu smiled. "That's very perceptive of you Ranma. You have thought about this." He sat back in his chair. "Were there other things?"

Ranma dropped his eyes again. "Yes…" he whispered. Dr. Toufuu didn't press, giving Ranma the time he needed to gather his words. Ranma had never said these words prior to the last few days; he had been ashamed to ever utter them. But considering the maelstrom he was engulfed in, he thought… it was probably natural. He hated to admit it, but it was true.

"I'm… I'm scared." He swallowed again. "I'm scared about bein' a girl. I… I don't really know what it's like, even though I pretended a few times. I don't know if I'll like it. I'm afraid everyone I know will make fun of me, that I won't have any friends." Fear showed itself in Ranma's eyes. "What if I become a girl, and it's worse? What could I do then?" He shrank into his chair, his eyes dropping again. Akane scooted over and once more put her arm around him. He let out a sigh; he never would have imagined that could be so comforting.

Dr. Toufuu thought for a few moments. "Ranma, summer break is coming up, isn't it? School will be out for four weeks after this week, won't it?"

Ranma looked up. "Uh, yeah, but…" What was Toufuu getting at?

"You'll have four weeks where you won't have to interact much with your schoolmates. Why not try spending that time as Ranko? Stay away from the usual places you go, try going other places, and you won't run into people you know. Even if you do, you've posed as a girl before, so they'll think you're just doing it again for some reason. Spend four weeks as Ranko, and see how you feel about it, see how it goes. If you don't like it, we can talk more about what else you could do. If you do like it, you can try going to school that way and see how that feels."

Ranma shook his head. "I can't ever imagine goin' to school as a girl! What'll everyone say?"

Dr. Toufuu shook his head. "Don't worry about that now. If you like being Ranko, if you decide you want to stay that way, then I am sure we can work something out. I'll talk it over with you when and if that happens."

Ranma was lost in thought. "I… I still dunno if I can do this…"

Dr. Toufuu smiled. "Just think about it. No one is going to force you to do something you don't want to do. This is all about what you want and what makes you happy. Again, I'm just trying to get you to consider all the options, and not make assumptions based on what your father taught you. It's not his life we're discussing here." Ranma nodded slowly.

Akane added under her breath, "That's what you think."

"And Ranma?"

Ranma gave his full attention to Dr. Toufuu. "What, Doc?"

"Try to work on overcoming some of that anti-female propaganda your father pumped you full of. You're absolutely right, it would make it hard for you to be happy as a girl. Actually, it's a liability even if you stay a man; it would make it nearly impossible to relate to women well." He gave a meaningful glance towards Akane, and Ranma blushed slightly. "You will have to make an active effort to overcome your father's influence if you want to have the best chance at finding happiness."

Ranma nodded his head again, with some confidence this time. "You're… you're right, Doc." He smiled. "Thanks. I… I never expected talkin' about this could help so much. I… I really appreciate it."

Dr. Toufuu gave both of them a warm smile. "You're very welcome, Ranma. I hope that this helps you to be happier than you are right now, no matter what you decide. Now, if you'll excuse me, I think I have a patient waiting. I hope you don't mind if I kick the two of you out?" He grinned, and Ranma and Akane grinned as well.

Ranma felt better about this whole mess than he had since it started. Having Akane and Dr. Toufuu on his side made him feel like maybe this challenge could be met, after all.

With the documents once more tucked away in the cardboard box under Akane's arm, she and Ranma left the clinic, leaving Dr. Toufuu behind, deep in thought. He didn't remember to call in his next patient for several minutes.

The children were definitely flagging in the heat as Ranma and Akane detoured through the park on the way home to the Tendou Dojo. Ranma, feeling a bit overwhelmed by airing his most secret feelings to so many people that day, wanted to take a break before repeating the process with the Tendous.

They had been lucky to find a bench in the shade, next to a small fountain. Ranma eyed the fountain warily, but decided there was no way the water could reach that far. They spent several minutes watching the few hardy souls who still tried to be active in the midafternoon heat. There were a few children left; it was not clear how they avoided collapsing from the heat. Every now and then a runner would jog past, perspiring profusely, their clothes drenched. Once, an elderly gentleman came walking by with his cane, immaculately dressed in a suit. He nodded his head as he passed, and the ghost of a smile passed his lips.

Ranma was oblivious to all of this; he was far, far away. Akane studied his face. Right now he looked as male as ever, but Akane wondered what had been going on in Ranma's head the whole time she had known him. She had thought he was a macho jerk, insensitive, hardly ever opening his mouth except to put his foot in it. But this was a façade, Akane now knew. She still remembered the day they met, when Akane had thought Ranma was a somewhat shy but friendly girl. That image had been shattered in the bath that night.

For a long time, Akane had been furious at the perceived deception, but every now and then—and today in particular—a different person had peeked out from behind the bravado, someone not unlike the girl she had thought she met. Who was Ranma, really? Akane had seen vulnerability in Ranma since this whole affair had started. Was it new, or had it been there all along, hidden away? She wondered what person would be revealed when all was said and done. She was pretty sure that, male or female, it would not be the same Ranma she had known. She prayed that person would be happy.

She waved her hand in front of his face. "Hello! Earth to Ranma!"

Ranma started, then grinned sheepishly. "Sorry, Akane. I… I guess I got a lot to think about these days…"

"Have you reached any conclusions?"

Ranma drooped a little. "Nope. I'm still goin' round in circles."

Akane frowned. "Ranma, are you seriously considering Dr. Toufuu's idea? About trying out life as Ranko?"

Ranma looked sad. "Yeah, well, I guess so, but I still don't think it's gonna work out. I mean, how could someone like me enjoy livin' as a girl? Can you see me wearin' dresses, and goin' shoppin', and gigglin'?"

Akane shook her head. "Ranma, is that what you think life as a girl is about?"

Ranma looked pensive. "I… I guess I dunno, do I? What life as a girl is like." He looked off into the distance again.

"There's really only one way to find out, you know."

Ranma snapped, "Why are you so anxious for me to try it?"

Akane held her temper with some effort. Ranma was lashing out because he was upset. She could not keep a little fire out of her voice, though. "Ranma, if you had said you hated being a girl and loved being a boy, we wouldn't be having this conversation. No matter who you were when you were born, of course you'd live as a boy if you felt that way.

"But that's not how you feel, is it? You said you don't like being a boy, that it makes you unhappy. You said that you feel more comfortable as a girl. I don't understand why you're so reluctant to try it when it sounds like it might make you happy! I don't like seeing you unhappy…"

Ranma turned to look at Akane, and held her gaze for a few moments. Akane saw the uncertainty and fear there. "'Cause if I become a girl I won't be me any more! I'll be someone else, a different person. That's scary, Akane!"

Akane didn't have an easy answer to that.

They both stared at the scenery for a few minutes. A flock of birds, apparently unfazed by the heat, landed on the edge of the fountain and began to take advantage of the cool water.

Akane turned back to Ranma. "Ranma, I… I know it's scary. But, do you really want to be unhappy for the rest of your life for the sake of staying the person you are now? Is it worth it? I am not anxious for you to become a girl. I am anxious for you to be happy. You've already said you aren't. I don't know if being a girl will make you happy or not, Ranma, but are you willing to write that option off without even trying it? Suppose that's the only way you'll ever be happy?" Akane looked close to tears.

Ranma looked contrite. "You're… you're right, Akane. I… I'm thinkin' about it. It just scares the pants off me…" Ranma trailed off while looking at Akane, who was giggling. "What'd I say?"

Between giggles, Akane said "Scares the pants off you?"

Ranma started chuckling himself. "I guess I didn't mean it that…"

Suddenly, there was the sound of young feet running full tilt down the path. A boyish form went flying through the air, accompanied by an incoherent yell of joy; birds scattered every which way in a blind panic, chittering angrily at the rude interruption, and a gusher of water erupted as the small body landed in the fountain.

A woman in her twenties came running down the path moments later. "Aki? Aki, how many times have I told you not to do that! Look what you did to this poor girl!"

The woman turned to the drenched redhead sitting on the bench, wondering briefly why her friend was laughing uncontrollably, and was also curiously dry. "I'm terribly sorry, Miss. Are you all right?"

"Oh," said Ranma in a flat voice, "Oh yes. I am just fine, thank you."

Akane erupted into another laughing fit, and Ranma couldn't help but smile.

It was getting on towards dinner time at the Tendou Dojo, although the sun was far from the horizon. The first hint of a cooling off was starting to be felt. Kasumi was working on dinner, and wondering where Akane and Ranma were; she had expected them long ago based on Auntie Saotome's phone call.

Nabiki was out, no doubt finding an air-conditioned reprieve somewhere. Kasumi was sure she would be back in time for dinner. Father had left on a trip, leaving a note behind.

Kasumi sighed. She didn't quite know what to make of this whole situation. Auntie Saotome's story seemed almost too fantastic to believe, even with Happousai's confirmation. Then again, Jusenkyou had seemed too fantastic to believe at first, hadn't it?

She thought about Ranma. Was he really a girl? He certainly didn't act like one, but Kasumi supposed that was due to his upbringing. Could Uncle Saotome really be so heartless as to have done such a thing to his own daughter? Kasumi knew he had his faults, but didn't think it was possible. She was at a loss to explain any of this. She sighed and turned her attention back to dinner.

Some minutes later, the front door slid open, and Nabiki's call of "Tadaima!" floated down the hall. Kasumi called back "O-kaeri!". Moments later, Nabiki ducked into the kitchen.

"Hey, Oneechan, where is everyone? Aren't the girls back yet?" Nabiki snickered.

Kasumi sighed. "No, I haven't heard from them. Auntie said they left early this morning, right after breakfast. They should have been back by now." She thought a moment more. "You might not want to call them that to their faces. I know they are both a bit confused by what's happened recently."

Nabiki rolled her eyes. "Where's the fun in that?" She went to sit at the table. "By the way, where's Daddy?"

Kasumi paused. "He… he left earlier while I was out shopping. He left a note saying that he was going to try to find Uncle Saotome. I know that Father misses him terribly. He said in the note that he wants to bring him back."

Nabiki considered that. "I don't think it would be very healthy for Uncle Saotome to drop in right now. Even if pandas are an endangered species."

Kasumi didn't think there was much to add to that.

She was still working on dinner, and Nabiki reading a financial magazine, when both heard the gate open and the sounds of two girls talking. A moment later, the front door opened again.

Both called out "Tadaima!" at the same time, and Kasumi and Nabiki responded. A moment later they came into the kitchen. Ranma was slightly damp, which undoubtedly explained why she was a girl at the moment; she was also looking unusually somber. Nabiki looked up from her magazine long enough to say "About time we saw you…"—her eyes flicked in Kasumi's direction for a moment—"guys." She went back to her magazine.

Kasumi turned away from the dinner preparations for a moment. "Where have you two been all day? I was expecting you much earlier. You're both certainly old enough, but it would have been nice to call and let me know you would be late."

Akane turned a little red. "Sorry, Oneechan. We were out visiting some people today."

Nabiki raised an eyebrow but appeared to still be engrossed in her magazine.

"Oh?" said Kasumi, as she turned her attentions back to dinner, which was nearly ready. "That's nice! Whom did you visit?"

Ranma and Akane exchanged glances. Ranma spoke. "Dr. Toufuu, and… ummm… the N-nekohanten."

Nabiki's eyes were still on the magazine, but they were not seeing the print on the page.

Kasumi stopped. "The Nekohanten? Really? Why there? And why did you visit Dr. Toufuu? Is one of you ill?" She was watching both of them.

Ranma and Akane exchanged glances again. Akane shook her head. "No, Oneechan, no one's sick. We… we have a lot to talk about." She looked at Ranma, who nodded uncertainly. Nabiki frowned behind her magazine.

"Oh dear," said Kasumi, "Dinner will be ready soon. It sounds important, but I don't think dinner will keep well. Would you mind waiting until right after we eat?"

Ranma piped up quickly. "Wait? No problem at all."

By the end of dinner, all three sisters' attention was focused on Ranma. The confident, arrogant young man they all knew was gone, leaving someone who seemed lost, in distress, and—unthinkable!—helpless. She sat and picked morosely at her food, and Kasumi knew that something was very wrong: Ranma rarely ate at speeds visible to the human eye, much less showed a lack of appetite. Nabiki looked for the young man she knew in the redhead's eyes, and had trouble finding him. She was anxious for dinner to be over, to find out what had happened today. Akane thought back over all the times when Ranma had rescued her, and prayed that she would be able to return the favor. She had hoped that the familiar surroundings would cheer Ranma, but her mood seemed to darken at unpredictable times.

Eventually, the dishes were cleared, and Ranma felt the moment of her execution drawing nearer. She hoped for sympathy and understanding from Kasumi, but she was not looking forward to the reaction from Nabiki, much less Tendou-san when he returned. She hoped he was unsuccessful in his mission, as she did not feel ready to face her father on top of everything else she was going through right now. She didn't know if she would kill him, or grab onto him and not let go.

Akane stood from the table. "Kasumi-neechan, Nabiki-neechan, Ranma and I have some things we need to discuss with you." She glanced at Ranma, who looked miserable.

Nabiki's pulse quickened. She hated secrets, and she was about to find out what was going on here.

Soon they were settled in the Tendou living room, which was sparsely furnished. A TV stood at one end, and there were cushions positioned in front of it. There was a small sofa, and a couple of upholstered chairs. Some Western art hung on the wall; Impressionist, from the look of it. The shogi table at which Souun and Genma played their games stood mutely in a corner, neglected.

Akane sat on the sofa next to Ranma, holding her hand, the two of them facing Akane's sisters. Kasumi looked sympathetic and supportive, while Nabiki's face showed the same passive expression she always had.

Ranma summoned her courage. "Uhhh… well… when… when we were at my Mom's house, uh, she… she showed us a buncha stuff, videos and pictures and things. They… it… it's pretty clear that when I was born I was a… a girl." She dropped her head. She was already very familiar with the Tendou living room floor, having had her face pounded into it countless times; it was like looking at an old friend.

Kasumi glanced at Nabiki, who retained her aloof expression, then spoke. "Ranma-kun, I… I know this must be hard for you to find out, but does it really matter to you, here and now? After all, you don't even remember it, do you, so it doesn't have to affect your life today. Just because you were born a girl doesn't mean you're not a boy now." She smiled sympathetically, but was surprised when Ranma winced and turned red.

"Ummm… well, I… I kinda do remember it, uhhh, a little, sorta." She stopped. Akane squeezed her hand, and she continued, "Some of the pictures at my Mom's house sorta… sorta jogged my memory. I… I remember bein' a girl, just… just a little."

Nabiki still had the bored expression on her face, but her eyes never left Ranma.

Kasumi was taken aback. "I… I see. Well, still, that doesn't mean you have to change who you are now, does it? I know you are a boy now, and you can certainly stay that way. Just because you were born a girl…" Kasumi trailed off as Ranma's face turned beet red, and she looked horribly embarrassed. Ranma lowered her head again.

Kasumi spoke gently. "Ranma-kun, what's wrong? You can tell us. What is bothering you so much?"

Ranma lifted her head and made an effort to speak, but just couldn't. Akane let go of her hand and hugged Ranma, a move that startled Kasumi, and nearly caused Nabiki's façade to fracture. What was going on here? How had the relationship between these two changed so much so quickly?

Ranma took a deep breath. She said in a quiet voice, "I… I'm not sure… I… I wanna… stay a… boy."

Two hours later, they were all watching Nodoka's home video of Ranko-chan and Akane-chan's tea party. Kasumi and Nabiki watched in rapt fascination, Nabiki losing her battle to keep her feelings hidden. As seven-year-old Kasumi walked on screen, Kasumi started a little. Her eyes began darting between the red-haired girl on the screen, and the red-haired girl sitting in her living room. Nabiki noticed, and watched her continue this until the video reached its end.

There was silence for a few moments. Then, Kasumi spoke. "It… it was you all along, wasn't it? I remember now, just a little. When… when you came here I had this feeling I had seen you before, but I couldn't place where. It was so odd. When your father said you had only had that female form for two weeks, that you were a boy, I figured you must just look like someone I knew." She drew a deep breath. "Oh… Ranko-chan… I… I had no idea it was you…" Ranma looked startled at being called Ranko-chan; there was confusion in her eyes. Kasumi's eyes cast about, as if she were trying to figure out what to do next. "Would, would anyone like some tea?"

There were some quiet replies, and Kasumi went off to the kitchen, leaving everyone to their thoughts. A few minutes later, she returned with a tray. She handed out cups, and poured tea for everyone. She sat and sipped her own for a few moments to compose her thoughts.

"I… I didn't make the connection before, even after your mother called you Ranko, but watching that video brings back memories. Ranko-chan, you… you were so close to us, like a baby sister. Especially to Akane; you two were like twins, inseparable. You slept over at each other's houses constantly, you even shared the same futon. Our parents were so happy that you two continued the close ties between our families."

She paused for a few moments, eyes unfocused, before taking another sip of tea. "I remember, we gave you a little rag doll for your birthday once; I think it had a peasant dress and a straw bonnet. You were so happy, and you named it after me!" Ranma's eyes bulged slightly, but she said nothing.

Kasumi's voice became somber, and tears gathered in her eyes. "Then… then suddenly, your family stopped visiting. Mother and Father never told us why we never saw the Saotomes any more. Akane was beside herself; she cried for you for weeks. N-not long after, Mother's illness worsened, and she died, and we were all swept up in our grief." All three sisters looked grim, and for a short while, no one said anything.

Kasumi sighed, and took another sip of tea before continuing, "We were all so young, and Mother's death was just so overwhelming to us, we… we just forgot about you." Her eyes grew more watery. She glanced over at Nabiki, who had regained her composure and was laconic as always. "Even now, I don't remember very much, and Akane and Nabiki were even younger. The thing I remember most, though, is how close you and Akane were. You couldn't have been closer if you had truly been twins." Tears started to spill down her cheeks. "Oh, Ranko-chan, I'm… I'm so sorry for you."

Ranma was looking back at Kasumi, agony written on her face. Kasumi went over to where she was sitting, and gave her a hug as well. "I'll help you through this, Ranko-chan. No matter what you decide. I'm… I'm so sorry."

To her own surprise, tears were starting to fall from Ranma's eyes, too; this was just too much, too overwhelming. Not just a girl, but like a sister to Akane and the others? Akane's twin sister? Who… who was she, really? Who was this other person she had been? Where had that person gone; was she still inside Ranma, somewhere? She let Kasumi and Akane hold her as she started to cry in earnest, sobbing quietly in their embrace.

What was happening to her? Saotome Ranma, man amongst men, would never have cried like this, would never have opened up his feelings. She felt that in acknowledging her feelings about her gender, she had opened Pandora's box, and things would never be the same. A part of her was screaming to fight this, to hide her feelings, but… but she didn't really want to, and she simply couldn't. Not any more. Kasumi, in her loving sympathy, had unwittingly taken a sledgehammer to her crumbling emotional control.

After a time, she stopped crying, and for a while they just sat, each lost in her own thoughts. Nabiki finally spoke. "So, Ranma, where does this leave us? Are you going to do as Dr. Toufuu suggests?"

Fear blossomed once again in Ranma's eyes. "I… m-maybe. I… I just don't know." She swallowed, but didn't say the words she had said to Akane and Dr. Toufuu. She wasn't ready to say those words in front of anyone else yet. She was still too ashamed to admit that she was terrified, frightened worse than she had ever been in her life, except for the Nekoken training.

Nabiki stood up and stretched. "Well, this has been quite an evening. All this angst has worn me out, and I am going to take a quick bath and turn in." She headed for the bath.

Ranma stood as well. "Akane, I… I think I need to take a walk. I'm too wired to sleep, and I need to calm down." She smiled a fragile smile. "I'll… I'll be back soon, don't worry." She slowly walked to the genkan, put on her shoes, and stepped out the front door.

Akane and Kasumi sat there in somewhat of a daze for a few moments. Kasumi finally spoke. "Akane, I know I seem naïve about some things, but I understand people and their feelings very well. What is Ranko-chan so frightened about?"

Akane bit her lip. "Oneechan, I… I think she really wants to be a girl again. She told you how she feels earlier. But she's terrified. She's been a boy so long, she's forgotten what it's like being a girl, and it scares her; she's so used to being a boy even though she doesn't like it." Tears started to form in her eyes. "And… and it's eating her up! She wants to try Dr. Toufuu's idea, but she's so scared, and she's suffered so much, and she hated being a boy the whole time! The whole time! All those years, and she wasn't even happy! And that damned father of hers was pounding her to be a 'man amongst men' the whole time! What kind of a life has she had? I… I thought I knew who Ranma was, but none of us did. Inside that obnoxious, macho shell, he was hurting, hurting for so long…" She started sobbing, and Kasumi moved to hold her. Akane buried her head in Kasumi's shoulder and cried. "She's so unhappy, and it's tearing me up…"

Kasumi held Akane and stroked her hair for a few minutes.

"Akane," said Kasumi gently, "you know we musn't push Ranko-chan into this. You and I may think we understand what she is going through, what she needs, but we can't be sure, and she has to make her own decisions."

Akane sniffled a bit, and wiped her face. "I know, Oneechan. I… I figured this out this morning, when she told me how she felt about being a boy, and about being a girl. She kept saying she 'had to be a man', not that she wanted to be one. I didn't think there could possibly be any girl left in her after twelve years, but… but I realized then that there is, and knowing that she had spent that whole time that way was just so awful…"

Akane paused for a moment. "I knew I couldn't tell her any of that; it would just frighten her even more. I… I think she knows what she wants to do, but she won't let herself, because it's too scary. It's like those animals who have been caged so long, when the door is unlocked and left open, they cower inside. They're too afraid to come out." She sighed. "I… I hope she figures out how she feels about this soon. She's starting to get really anxious and depressed, and she's having trouble coping. It's like the Ranma we knew is crumbling away, and… and there isn't a new Ranma yet who is ready to stand on her own two feet. I'm sure people are going to notice how different Ranma is when she's… he's at school tomorrow."

Nabiki returned from her bath; it must have been short indeed. She quickly turned the corner and climbed the stairs, quietly calling out "O-yasumi." A chorus of "O-yasumi" followed her up.

Kasumi said, "We'll just have to deal with that as it comes. You'll be there with her, thank goodness for that." She stood up, and took Akane's hand. "Come on, dear. This has been a rough day for both of you. You need to rest."

Akane nodded, "I want to wait up until Ranma comes back. I want to make sure she's feeling OK."

Kasumi smiled, "I'll wait with you, but why don't you go take your bath?" She tugged on Akane's hand, and Akane nodded and headed for the bath.

Twenty minutes later, Akane was sitting in the living room in her pajamas, her hair damp, reading a magazine and waiting for Ranma to come home. Kasumi was doing needlepoint, and noticed that she didn't have one of the colors of thread she needed. She sighed, put down her work, and headed up the stairs to her room to fetch it.

As she passed Nabiki's room, she stopped short. There were soft crying sounds coming from inside. Kasumi stood there for a few moments, then knocked on the door. "Nabiki? It's me, Kasumi." The crying stopped, but there was no other sign from inside.

After a minute, Nabiki opened the door. Her usual composure was in tatters: her eyes were red, her chin was quivering, and misery was written on her face. Kasumi's jaw dropped, but she quickly regained her senses. Taking Nabiki firmly by the hand, she pulled her into the room, closing the door behind them.

She and Nabiki sat down on the bed. "Nabiki, dear, what's wrong? Why are you crying? You seemed so calm earlier!"

Nabiki looked grim. "Horror movies always did make me cry. That's why I stopped going to see them."

Kasumi was confused. "Horror movies? Did you see a horror movie that frightened you recently?"

Nabiki seemed angry. "I saw a horror movie tonight! You know, one of those horrible, unsettling ones where someone morphs into something else, becomes some other thing. Tonight, I saw an obnoxious boy I knew, who I loved to tease and take advantage of, slowly change into a terrified, hurting, lonely girl, while I watched." She gulped. "A girl… a girl I once knew but don't remember, who… who was like a little sister to me." She looked at Kasumi for a moment. "And… and it was all in my head. Ranma didn't really change, but how she looked to me did. And that wasn't the end of the horror movie in my head. I also saw that girl being tortured for over a decade by a sadistic bastard who was supposed to be her father." Kasumi was speechless.

Nabiki drew a shaky breath, and laughed. "I know everyone thinks I'm 'the Ice Queen'. I didn't ask for it, but the reputation helps my business, so it's OK with me. But… but every once in a while, something comes along… like… like Mom dying," she swallowed, "something that overwhelms me, and… and I guess I get a chance to remind myself that I'm still a human being." She shuddered. "I… I didn't think one human being could do to another what Ranko's father did to her. It even horrified cynical li'l old me." She managed a shaky smile. "Don't worry about me, I'll be back to business as usual by tomorrow."

Kasumi moved wordlessly to enfold Nabiki in a hug, and, with a shuddering gasp, Nabiki accepted it and started sobbing again. Kasumi held her for a few minutes, then from downstairs came the sound of the front door and a cry of "Tadaima!", followed by Akane's "O-kaeri!"

Nabiki broke her embrace with Kasumi. "Don't you dare let them see me like this! Tell them I'm asleep already. Go on, I'm all right now."

Kasumi nodded, and quickly left the room. She walked back downstairs, finding Ranma talking quietly with Akane. She took a closer look. Ranma didn't seem much better after her walk; she still had the haunted look about her eyes.

Kasumi spoke. "You both have school tomorrow. Considering how hard today was, I think you should get to sleep. Nabiki is asleep already." Ranma and Akane nodded quietly, and Akane headed for her room, exchanging her good-nights with the others. Ranma walked down the hall to the bath.

After dropping her clothes in the laundry and proceeding inside, Ranma was about to start washing when she happened to glance in the mirror, and froze. A red-haired girl was looking back at her. She had seen that girl hundreds of times, but now she saw something different. That girl had always been a fraud, a mask that cloaked her true, male self. She wasn't a real girl, just an illusion.

Now, with what she had learned about herself in the past few days, Ranma couldn't say that any more. She looked at the redhead, and knew that this person, this girl, was the person she would have been had her father not done what he did. What would she have been like, she wondered. Would she have had girlfriends, including Akane? Would she love to wear dresses and makeup? Would she have a boyfriend? Would she never have learned martial arts? Would she have learned other things instead? What would have happened?

And could it all still happen?

She walked slowly up to the mirror, never taking her eyes from the girl looking back at her. She had abused this girl almost as much as her father had; now, she had to face her as a real person, someone who had had her life taken away from her. "I'm sorry…" she said to her reflection. "I'm so sorry…"

As she approached the mirror, she lifted her arm and reached out her hand towards the reflection. The girl in the mirror did likewise, and their fingertips met at the glass.

"Who are you?" whispered Ranma.

End Chapter 2

Thursday, September 7, 2000

Copyright Notice

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).