This story started when I wrote some outtakes for "Genma's Daughter," in which Ranma and Ranko appeared together. I had so much fun, I wanted to try a story along the same lines. I thought it would be a short story, but it wound up much longer. You don't need to have read "Genma's Daughter" to appreciate this story, though it would probably help.
This story was also partly inspired by "Definitions of Hell" by Richard Lawson. In tribute, there are a few hidden references to Richard's story in "Equal Halves."
Once again, I'd like to express my deep appreciation to my prereaders: Nesin Evets, Nightelf, Zen, and Jamie McLeod. They gave me lots of excellent suggestions, and the story is better for it.
Chapter 1: Over the Rainbow
God, it was dull being a rock.
He hadn't always been a rock, of course. Hundreds of years ago, he'd been a prince. A prince, but certainly not a prince among men; in fact, he'd been a real whirling bastard, a jerk par excellence. Heavily taxing his impoverished people to finance his own dissolute lifestyle, torturing anyone he took a dislike to; the whole nine yards. Until he'd made the mistake of taking a dislike to a certain sorceress. As a result, he found that his existence now gave new meaning to the phrase "stony silence."
Not that he was complaining, mind you. The old witch (well, she'd been young and rather cute, actually) had done him a favor. For he was not just an ordinary rock; he was a rock who could grant people's wishes. And that was his road to redemption: he had to grant two hundred wishes within a thousand years, and he'd be allowed to graduate to a position in the spirit world that was a touch more lively than his current one. That didn't sound like much of a task, but when people had to pick you up and make a wish while holding you, it made opportunities a little scarce.
And he'd found that as he granted those wishes, as he observed the plight of those he helped, as he brought a little good into those people's lives, he'd actually developed a conscience, and sympathy for his fellow men. He was becoming a better rock, which he supposed was the point of the whole exercise.
At first, he'd been rather lackluster about granting wishes, and fallen far behind the rate he needed to graduate. But as his heart had softened (in a purely figurative sense, of course), he'd gotten into the spirit of it, and now rather enjoyed the work. He'd been getting consistently good Spiritual Performance Reviews for the last couple of hundred years now. There'd even been talk of halving the time of his penance: time off for good behavior.
And so, when he saw a tall, handsome Japanese boy wearing a hakama and carrying a bokken walking down the path which passed by the bush under which he had spent the last three years, he brightened and got to work. Pick me up… Pick me up… Pick me up… he thought furiously.
The boy was mumbling something about a "foul sorcerer," and the rock wondered briefly if he'd had a bad run-in, too. He ceased his rantings as he stopped beside the bush. "How odd," he said. "Suddenly I am taken with the urge to pick up a stone."
Yes! gloated the rock. Under the bush… under the bush…
The tall boy stooped down, and peered under the bush. Wow, thought the rock, this one's really susceptible to suggestion. It isn't usually this easy…
The boy reached under the bush, and stood again, a peculiar-looking black and red stone in his hands. He turned it this way and that. "How unusual! Perhaps I should take it home for display in my personal museum."
The rock was aghast; he couldn't grant any wishes in a display case! No, no, make a wish, then put me down. Make a wish, make a wish.
The boy's eyes lost focus. "Today was truly a dark day for the Blue Thunder of Fuurinkan High School. For the noble act of praising the beauteous pigtailed goddess, I was mocked! That foul sorcerer Saotome has poisoned the minds of the entire student body, for they laughed at me and repeated the vicious lie that the pigtailed girl and Saotome are one and the same." He snorted. "What a preposterous notion! That such a fair flower of womanhood could be the same person as that evil lout!" He sighed. "I only wish that they could see the truth as I see it." He placed the stone gently back on the ground and strolled off, seemingly having forgotten it.
The stone grinned mentally; this would be a lot easier than the wishes he sometimes got: no endless riches, ruling over mankind, etc. A piece of cake! He set gleefully to work, tapping into WGIN (Wish Granter's Information Network). He looked up the dossiers on the people involved… and moaned in horror.
No. Not him. Not that boy. He'd heard the name whispered in terror many times, for many promising afterlife careers had been derailed by Saotome Ranma. And now it looked like his might be another hash mark on that ghastly record.
He now understood why the tall boy had been so easy to influence: he was an idiot. And he had made an idiot's wish, for the impossible. He had wished for people to see the truth as he saw it, when the truth was something he couldn't see when it hit him square between the eyes. How could he possibly grant this wish without doing more harm than good?
He ran over his options: he could split Ranma into his male and female halves, but he was pretty sure he wouldn't be able to put the lad back together again once he became two separate people. Besides, Ranma in girl form was hardly "a fair flower of womanhood." Scratch that. He could engage the entire student body of Fuurinkan High School in a mass delusion to match Kunou's, but he was sure that would cause more than a few cases of permanent madness. Wouldn't that look great on his next Performance Review.
He wished fervently that he still had fingernails to bite (too bad he couldn't grant his own wishes). Come on, he thought, you're supposed to be able to think outside the box. What I need is for Ranma to be two separate people, a boy and a girl, without splitting him in half. How can I do that?…
Suddenly, he slapped himself (mentally). Of course! He looked up a few more articles on WGIN, and exulted. No one would be harmed by this—not permanently, anyway—and if things went right, he might even be able to do a little good. If he could pull this off, it would be quite a coup. He double-checked everything, metaphorically crossed his fingers, and set things in motion. He relaxed, glowing with pride.
You da rock, man, you da rock.
Ranma weighed this week's copy of "Shounen Jump" in his hands. "Naaah. It's just an overnight trip. I'll be too busy anyway." He put it back on the dresser.
Akane sat on Ranma's bed, and watched as he went about the room, collecting items to stuff in his gym bag. She bit her lip. "You're sure you'll be back tomorrow?"
Ranma turned. "Yeah." He smiled. "My birthday's in two days. I sure ain't gonna miss that. I'll be back tomorrow night at the latest."
Akane nodded and brightened. "That's right! I'll be baking a cake for you."
"Hey, I wanna live past 17, you know!"
Akane glowered. "Very funny! Maybe you should just have your birthday at your cousin's house instead." She stared at the floor.
Ranma snorted. "Maybe." He kept packing, as Akane fumed. He finished, and zipped up the bag. He paused a moment, his hand still on the zipper, and flushed slightly. "But I… wanna have it here."
Akane looked up, her heart skipping a beat. She just barely caught a glimpse of a shy smile on his face before it disappeared. She looked away again, blushing. Neither said anything.
It had been several weeks since the failed wedding attempt, and they'd been like this the whole time. They'd reached a new stage in their relationship. They couldn't really pretend indifference to each other any more—not after Jusendou. But neither were they ready to actually progress to open affection. They were in a kind of limbo, each still warily regarding the other, though they pretty much knew how things were going to turn out. They still bickered constantly, but at the same time, glances passed between them, glances that said things they were still too afraid too say out loud.
Tonight, Ranma was packing to go visit his cousin. Since his mother had reentered his life, she'd set about reconnecting him with the rest of his family, and she'd put Ranma in touch with her sister's son Hirosuke. They were similar ages, and Ranma found that though his cousin had only a passing interest in martial arts, they shared a love of sports in general, and hit it off pretty well. He'd been to visit them in their home in the western suburbs of Tokyo once before, and was spending the night this time. Their junior year at Fuurinkan had just ended, and their senior year was due to start in a couple of weeks, in April. The perfect time for a little trip.
Akane had oscillated between expressing indifference and hovering over him as he packed, and he had wavered between seeming not to care and the urge to say a proper goodbye. After Saffron and the wedding debacle, they were a little reluctant to be out of each other's sight.
He hefted his gym bag and looked out Akane's window at the beautiful blue sky; spring was just a few days away by the calendar, but the world apparently couldn't wait. The weather had been gorgeous the last few days. "I guess I oughta get goin'. I promised to be there for dinner."
Akane nodded and rose. "I'll walk you to the station."
"I ain't Ryouga, you know." He'd meant it as a joke, but somehow it hadn't come out that way.
Akane pursed her lips in anger, and looked away. "Fine. Go by yourself, then."
Ranma looked like he wanted to say something, but just stood there for a moment, kicking himself mentally. Finally, he turned silently and left.
Akane watched his departing back, and opened her mouth as if to say something… then closed it, and bowed her head. She blew out her breath, and put her head in her hands. She knew—they both knew—that they loved each other, but you certainly wouldn't know it to look at them.
Mothers escorting their children from the station to the zoo in Ueno Park smiled at the young woman they passed heading the other way. She was carrying a violin case in her right hand, which she swung cheerily back and forth as she walked, and she had a portfolio cradled under her left arm. She wore a full-length dark navy coat against the mid-March chill, and a knit beret perched jauntily on her fiery red hair. The passersby all smiled at her, for she had a huge smile on her own face.
She paused for a moment, taking in the flower beds which were just starting to bloom, the azure sky, the crisp air, the buds getting ready to open on the cherry trees in a few weeks. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Mmmmm… smells like spring…" Saotome Ranko took another look around, sighed happily, and resumed walking.
She was on her way home from her private lesson with Professor Murata of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. The University was on the opposite side of the park from Ueno station, and so she always walked through the park on the way there and the way back. The park was always abustle with people, and this walk was one of her favorite times of the day. Normally, she was only here twice a week, but with school being out she'd been here every day. Professor Murata wanted as much of her time as she could give, and she was more than willing to comply.
Her mood was extra bright, for her 17th birthday was coming up in two days, on Saturday, and today she'd received an early present: a new violin. Professor Murata had told her that someone of her caliber needed to work with an instrument of equal worth, and had presented her with a concert-quality violin, a wonderful instrument that was nearly 150 years old. She had been shocked to hear that it was a counterfeit: an instrument created by the Englishman John Lott, Jr., to be passed off as the work of the great Italian violin maker Giuseppe Guarneri del Gesù. Lott had made a specialty of such counterfeiting. She'd been even more shocked to hear that this fake was worth over 6 million yen, being a magnificent instrument in its own right. Apparently, Lott's work had transcended mere forgery.
She'd protested mightily, but the professor had waved his hands in dismissal, saying she could pay for the instrument later. The current owner, a former student of the professor's, had switched to another violin, and was happy to loan this one to her until she could pay for it. The professor's students seemed to have their own little network within the cozy world of classical music, and looked out for one another. She knew she'd return her senpai's favor eventually by helping someone else.
She reached the station, and fumbled in her purse for her round trip ticket, feeding it through the automatic gate. Getting a commuter pass wasn't worth it if she was only here two days a week, and so she simply paid the full fare. Doing that five times a week was a little painful, but school would start again in a couple of weeks and she'd be back to her usual schedule.
She hurried through the crowds to the platform for the Yamanote line, and just managed to sneak onto a train bound for Ikebukuro before the doors closed. It was still mid-afternoon, and rush hour hadn't started in earnest yet, so she was able to get a seat. As she looked out the window over the streets of Tokyo and watched them flash by, her thoughts drifted back to her birthday.
This would be a very special birthday, for it would be her first birthday in thirteen years as Ranko. Her last birthday as Ranko had been when she was four years old; she'd actually seen it on a video her mother had shown her. In between she'd been Ranma, an identity she had been forced into after a horrible bungle by her father and Happousai had transformed her into a boy when she was four and a half. Discovering her past, and who she really was, had been a harrowing journey, and this birthday would be as much a celebration of that as of the passing of another year.
The train slid into Ikebukuro station, and she disembarked and descended the stairs to the subway platform for the Ikebukuro line. This was her only transfer, and would take her to her destination: Fuurinkan-cho station in Nerima ward. She had to wait some minutes for a train, and when it arrived she found it was standing room only. No matter; it was a short ride. She spent the time thinking about her birthday; how she would spend it with her parents, her three sisters… and her boyfriend. It would be her first birthday with him, too.
She blushed, and smiled. She still couldn't believe that Hibiki Ryouga, of all people, was the boy she'd fallen in love with. Their relationship was now five months old, and growing stronger all the time. They'd begun to talk seriously about marriage, and had decided to put the commitment off until Ranko had finished her studies under Professor Murata. She had a handicap, having started violin so late in life, and needed to focus all her energies on her studies to catch up. Meanwhile, they had each other, and both were content to wait for the formalities.
The PA system blared "Fuurinkan-cho, Fuurinkan-cho is next," and Ranko shook herself out of her daydreams. The doors opened, and she stepped out onto the platform, carried along on a sea of commuters. She headed for the stairs and started down. Her eyes caught a man in a station uniform at the bottom, smiling up at her, and she smiled back; Hisa-san was waiting for her, as usual.
He was a Fuurinkan parent who worked here at the station. He was also a classical music buff, and had been there when she had had her first recital at the Fuurinkan talent show last December. Ever since, he'd made a point of greeting her when she passed through the station. When she'd casually mentioned in January that she was having a small recital the next week with some of Professor Murata's other students, he had shocked her by traveling all the way to the University just to hear her. He'd joked that he was her first groupie, and they'd shared a laugh.
And he always made sure he was near this particular staircase at this time of day, just so he could wave and smile at her as she came home. She thought it was kind of cute.
She was just reaching the bottom of the stairs when she seemed to be enveloped by a blinding flash of light. She was overcome by a wave of vertigo, and felt the world spin around her and away from her. She was falling, falling, and she clutched her violin tightly to her chest even as her portfolio slipped from her grasp…
Suddenly, she was in someone's arms. She shook her head to clear the cobwebs, and looked up; Hisa-san had caught her. She smiled weakly.
"Easy there, Miss. Are you all right?"
She paused for a moment, then nodded. The odd vertigo had passed. "Yes, Hisa-san, I'm fine. Thank you; I don't know what came over me." She looked about for her portfolio, which had her music in it; it lay on the floor a short distance away, and she knelt down to pick it up. She stood up again, to find Hisa-san scratching his head.
"I'm sorry Miss, I must be getting old. You know my name, so I'm sure we've met, but I woulda thought I'd remember meeting a girl as pretty as you." He bowed, embarrassed. "Forgive me."
Ranko blinked. Was he joking with her? Probably; he had a wry sense of humor. "Ummm… that's all right, Hisa-san. I'm sure it will come back to you." She bowed herself. "Thanks again for catching me just now."
He still looked confused. "You're very welcome, Miss. You take care, now, OK?" She nodded, and continued on her way.
Her gaze roamed over the crowd in front of her as she tried to decide which exit to head for. Suddenly, she gasped; her eye had stopped on a young man who was walking away from her…
A young man wearing a very familiar outfit: red silk sleeveless Chinese shirt and black pants. She couldn't see his face, but a black pigtail hung down his back. He was carrying a gym bag. She felt an icy chill crawl up her spine, and her heart started to hammer in her chest.
She transferred her portfolio to her other arm and rubbed her eyes, and when she opened them again she had lost him; he'd disappeared into the crowd. She shook her head. I must have imagined it. I was thinking about the old me on the train, and I saw someone who looked a little like that, and my mind filled in the rest. And I just had that dizzy spell, didn't I? I must not have eaten enough for lunch or something.
Well, she knew the sure cure for low blood sugar: chocolate. She grinned as she headed for the exit which led to her favorite candy store.
Ranko pressed her nose against the window pane, trying to ignore the growling in her stomach. She couldn't see much through the soaped-up windows, but she could see enough: the place was empty.
She'd just been here three days ago! How could they have gone out of business so quickly? She couldn't see anything inside: the counters, the candy bins, the register—all gone. She looked up; even the sign had been taken down.
"Wow," she remarked to herself, "I know the economy is bad, but this is ridiculous…" She shook her head and sighed sadly; she'd been looking forward to a chocolate fix. She hoisted her violin again and turned to head home…
And found herself face to face with Sayuri and Yuka, who were staring at her, their mouths making two round little o's. "Hi guys… what's with the funny look?" They kept staring and didn't say anything.
Oh, right, the candy store. They'd been fond of it, too. She tilted her head towards the empty storefront. "Can you believe this? Three days ago they were in business, then poof!" She sighed again, and said wistfully "I really needed some chocolate, too."
Sayuri and Yuka looked at each other, blinked, and turned back to Ranko. They still didn't say anything.
Ranko was starting to feel a little intimidated. "Uh, guys? Is something wrong? Are you feeling OK? It's just a candy store, after all."
Sayuri swallowed. "Us? Oh… no… no, we're fine." She peered closely at Ranko. "How about you? Are you… are you feeling OK?" They seemed to be hanging on Ranko's answer.
Ranko nodded, smiling. "Never better! You know, I was a little dizzy on the station stairs a couple of minutes ago, but I feel fine now." She held up her violin case. "Guess what? I got a new violin today! Professor Murata got it for me as a surprise; it's a top-quality instrument. It's a hundred and fifty years old! I can't wait to play it at home tonight for Akane and Mother." She blushed. "I think I'll call up Ryouga and ask him if he wants to come over and hear me play it, too." Her smile turned a little dreamy.
Yuka suddenly leaned heavily on Sayuri's shoulder. Ranko leaned forward, concerned. "Are you guys sure you're feeling OK? Yuka-chan, you look like you're ready to pass out. You're awfully pale."
Yuka and Sayuri looked at each other again, then turned back to face her. "I'm fine, really," said Yuka. "Ummm… you… you haven't suffered a blow to the head recently, have you?" Sayuri nodded in concurrence.
It was Ranko's turn to blink. "Of course not! Why would you think that?" She noticed the clock in the window of the jewelry store next door. "Guys, it's getting a little late, and I really ought to be heading home. I'm sorry, I don't mean to be antisocial." She turned to leave. "I'll see you at my birthday party on Saturday! Ja ne!"
Once again, Sayuri and Yuka looked at each other. "Are… are we invited?" asked Sayuri, tentatively.
Ranko paused and turned back, confused. "Of course you're invited! What a silly question! I sent you invitations, didn't I? Why wouldn't I invite two of my closest friends?"
"Oh… I must have forgotten," said Sayuri, weakly. She seemed to think of something. "Do… do you mind if we walk you home?" Yuka looked at Sayuri and nodded once, emphatically.
Ranko was starting to get an uneasy feeling about this afternoon; her danger sense was being tickled, and the hairs on the back of her neck were starting to stand up. "No… of course not. Isn't it out of your way, though?"
Sayuri replied "No!", a little too quickly, and Yuka vigorously shook her head in the negative.
As they turned onto the street where she lived, Ranko wondered how a day that had been going so well could have turned out like this. She'd tried to make small talk with her friends as they walked, but Sayuri and Yuka seemed to alternate between staring at her and looking anywhere but at her. They'd mostly kept silent, and when they did speak Ranko was pretty sure they were just humoring her. They were acting almost like they didn't know who she was—and yet clearly, they did. She felt less like she was walking with friends than like she was being escorted by guards.
She tried again to strike up a conversation. "Sayuri-chan, how are your piano lessons coming along? I have a professional interest, you know." She giggled, which caused both the other girls to start, as if she'd snuck up behind them and yelled "Boo!" Ranko sighed.
Sayuri was staring at her. "I'm not taking piano lessons… but I did when I was younger. How… how did you know? I haven't ever told anyone at Fuurinkan about that."
Ranko felt a headache coming on. "Sayuri-chan, we took the music course together last term. You've been taking piano lessons with Kobayakawa-sensei."
Sayuri looked like she was getting a headache, too. "Music course?…" She had a blank expression on her face, and turned to Yuka, who shrugged. They clearly had no idea what Ranko was talking about.
Ranko's danger sense was no longer being tickled; it was screaming at her. Hisa-san hadn't recognized her; her favorite candy store had vanished; two of her closest friends were acting like she'd just stepped off a flying saucer, and seemed to both know her and not know her. She didn't know why this was all happening, but she felt a queasy sensation in her stomach that was all too familiar.
Her life was getting weird again.
After Happousai's spell on her had broken, the chaos and weirdness which had ruled her life had disappeared as well. For the last six months she'd been living a pretty normal life, the kind she'd always wanted to live. She'd been spoiled, lulled into a comfortable sense of security. Apparently, she'd been premature in her complacency.
As they turned in the gate at the Tendou Dojo, Ranko felt a sense of dread come over her. She had the feeling that what had happened so far was only the beginning. She hoped desperately that she was wrong, and this was all a prank, but somehow she doubted it. She'd never been lucky that way.
They paused at the front door. Ranko turned to her two friends, and a wry smile crept onto her face. "I think I can find my way inside." Her two friends blushed in embarrassment, and for the first time Ranko saw the ghost of a smile pass over Sayuri's face. "Do you want to come in?"
As she expected, they looked at each other for a moment, then shook their heads. "N-no, thank you," said Sayuri, "we've got to be getting home."
Yuka looked Ranko over carefully. "I'll… I'll call later to see how you're feeling, OK?"
Ranko smiled; they might be acting strange, but they were clearly concerned for her. "OK."
The two girls nodded, said "ja ne," and turned to go.
Ranko called out "bai bai," and went inside. She didn't notice that both girls had stopped dead in their tracks.
They looked at each other. "Bai bai?" whispered Yuka.
Ranko hung up her coat, and took off her beret and put it up on the shelf. She took off her loafers and put them away, then stepped up into house slippers. She called out "Tadaima!", and heard Kasumi's "O-kaeri nasai." She wondered what was going to happen next. Maybe everything would be normal, but somehow, she doubted it. She walked down the hall towards the kitchen.
Kasumi heard a familiar voice call out "Tadaima!", and called out in reply. That's odd, she thought. He should be on his way to Tama by now. He must have gotten splashed and come back to change. She ducked out of the kitchen, saying "Ranma-kun, what happened? I thought you were…" Her voice trailed off, and her jaw fell open.
Ranma was in her female form, which was not unusual. What was unusual was that she was wearing a teal v-neck top, a long jean skirt, and a heart pendant necklace. Her red hair was unbound, and Kasumi could see an ornament gathering it together into a long train which spilled down her back. The rest of it fell over Ranma's forehead in neat bangs. Kasumi's eyes widened when she saw the silver earrings dangling from each of Ranma's earlobes, and the hosiery visible below the hem of her skirt. She was also carrying a violin case and a portfolio.
Ranma was looking back at her sadly, and said "Oh, Oneechan… not you, too. Why is everyone staring at me today? It's like none of you have ever seen me before." Kasumi realized her mouth was still open, and closed it.
Ranma's face took on a bewildered look, which Kasumi imagined must match her own. "Wait a minute… did you just call me 'Ranma-kun'?"
Kasumi's already considerable alarm jumped another notch. She opened her mouth to reply, and realized she had no idea of what to say. She finally managed, "Was… was I not supposed to?" She winced, and wished she'd come up with something better.
Ranma, to her further astonishment, looked hurt. "Oneechan, you haven't called me that for seven months." She looked down. "You know my name is Ranko."
Kasumi swallowed nervously, and decided she'd better play along. "I'm… I'm sorry, Ranko-chan." Kasumi noticed that Ranma winced at the suffix. That was normal, but she was confused; if Ranma didn't like "chan", why was she dressed as a girl and asking to be called Ranko?
Suspicion took form in her mind. "Ran… Ranko-chan… did… did you hit your head on something?"
Ranma stared back at her. "Why is everyone asking me about my head? Sayuri and Yuka asked me the same thing." She sighed. "No, I didn't hit my head." She bit her lip. "I did have a dizzy spell on the stairs at the train station, though. But it only lasted a moment."
He must have had a spontaneous relapse or something, thought Kasumi. What a bad time for this to happen, just when the two of them are starting to open up to each other. Things are going to get sticky when everyone else comes home, too. She noticed Ranma's glum expression and decided she'd better do something to defuse the tension. "Ran… ko-chan, would you like to come in and talk over a nice cup of tea?"
She was gratified when Ranma looked up and smiled a tentative smile. "Oneechan, that's the first sensible thing anyone has said to me since I got off the train today." Kasumi smiled back.
Then she blinked. Wait a minute… "Oneechan"?
Kasumi regarded the redhead who sat across the dining table from her, clutching a teacup. She scanned the girl for some sign of the boy who was engaged to her little sister, and found none. Ranma's appearance, body language, and speech were feminine, and Kasumi would not have given her a second thought if she hadn't known this young lady was really a young man.
She decided to continue to play along with Ranma's "Ranko" persona for now, rather than confront her with reality. Ranma was clearly deep into this, and right now looked too upset and tense to deal with a frontal assault on her delusions. Kasumi guessed that getting Ranma out of this was going to be a difficult process. She sighed as she realized that that approach would probably go out the window once Akane and Auntie returned, which would be any minute now.
She took another sip of tea. "Ranko-chan, why don't you tell me about your day? Start from the beginning, and tell me if anything unusual happened."
Ranko stared into the depths of her teacup, looking for answers but not finding any. "Well, I got up this morning and sparred with Akane and Father like I always do. I made myself a sandwich around 11, and ate it while I chatted with you. Then I headed over to the University."
Kasumi raised an eyebrow. "The University? You mean Musashi University?"
Ranko bit her lip. It was clear no one had the slightest clue about the details of her life any more. It was eerie; it was like she had been erased from people's minds, but not completely. She would have suspected the Amazon memory-erasure technique, but she knew her close friend Shampoo wouldn't do something like that now. Besides, there were too many people involved. "No, Oneechan, the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, next to Ueno Park downtown."
Kasumi blinked; she'd heard of the place. It was the most prestigious fine arts school in Japan, akin to the Juilliard School in New York. "Really? Why did you go there?"
"For my violin lesson with Professor Murata." She wanted to add "of course," but it was clear that she couldn't make any such assumptions today. Maybe volunteering information would help. "I usually leave school a little early twice a week to go there, but since school is out right now I'm going every day."
Kasumi nodded, and decided to explore Ranma's sudden study of the violin later. "And after that?"
"I came straight home. The only unusual thing that happened was when I was coming down the stairs at Fuurinkan-cho station. I got very dizzy for a moment, and fell. Hisa-san caught me."
"He's someone I know who works at the station." She looked down. "He didn't know who I was, though." She sighed.
Kasumi was worried; this was far worse than the first time Ranma had thought he was a girl. That had been the only problem then; now, she seemed to be living in a delusional world, one that bore no relationship to reality. This was very serious.
She was about to encourage Ranma to continue when she heard the sound of the front door opening, and two voices calling "Tadaima!" She called "O-kaeri nasai," and bit her lip; Akane and Auntie were home. She looked back to Ranma again, and blinked; the teenager had her head bowed and her eyes squeezed tightly shut. "Ranko-chan, what's wrong?"
"Here we go again," whispered the redhead.
Ranko opened her eyes when she heard the sound of something heavy hitting the floor. She turned to the hallway, and saw her mother and Akane standing there, jaws agape, their shopping parcels lying at their feet. Of course, she thought.
It didn't take long for Akane's expression to turn from shock to anger. "What are you doing here? And what on Earth are you doing in that getup?"
Ranko didn't really want to play along with this, but what choice did she have? She stood up. "What do you mean, 'getup'? Is there something wrong with my outfit?"
Akane's mouth moved, but no sounds came out. Nodoka had a mixture of shock and horror on her face.
Akane's anger grew, and she found her voice. "I mean, what are you doing dressed like a girl? You were going to your cousin's house!"
Ranko frowned. "What do you mean, 'dressed like a girl'? How else would I be dressed? And why would I be going to see Hiromi? She lives all the way out in Tama New Town."
"Your cousin is Hirosuke, not Hiromi! He's a guy, and so are you!"
Ranko's face turned ashen. "Wh-what do you mean, I'm a guy? I haven't been a guy in seven months, you know that! And Hiromi has never been a guy—I wish I'd been so lucky!" Nodoka gasped.
"We'll just see about that!" yelled Akane. She stalked off into the kitchen, and returned with a kettle.
Ranko eyed the kettle, and sighed. "What do you think that is going to accomplish?"
"This!" said Akane, and poured it over Ranko's head.
Ranko counted mentally: 1… 2… 3… There was a loud clang as the kettle joined the shopping parcels on the floor. She looked around. The other three women were in shock, even unflappable Kasumi.
"Ranma… your… your curse… what happened?"
Ranko felt like she was having one of her nightmares, except she seemed to be unable to wake up. "I don't have a curse, Sis. I haven't had one since last August, when I became a girl again."
Suddenly, Nodoka stepped forward swiftly and slapped Ranko across the face. Ranko stared up at her mother in shock and pain.
"Ranma, what is the meaning of this?" fumed her mother. "I expect better from my son!"
A chill ran up Ranko's spine. "M-mother, I'm not your son, I'm your daughter!"
"Ranma, that is not funny and no way for any son of mine to talk."
Ranko looked around at everyone's faces, and finally, everything made sense. The reason they were all acting this way was because… they all thought she was Ranma. A guy. She shivered, and her calm finally fled her. "Mother… I'm a girl. I'm not a guy, I'm a girl. I'm your daughter, not your son!" She looked around again, tears starting to run down her cheeks. "What is wrong with all of you people?"
Nodoka stared wide-eyed at the girl in front of her. Kami-sama… she's not joking. "Ranma," she whispered, "what has happened to you?"
Akane gasped. "Kami-sama, it's happened again!" She turned to Kasumi. "Did he hit his head or something?"
Kasumi shook her head. "No, but he said he had a dizzy spell at the train station."
He, he, he. Ranko cringed at the pronouns.
Nodoka looked between Akane and Kasumi. "What do you mean, 'it's happened again?'"
Akane explained. "It was about seven months ago, Auntie. He hit his head on a rock in the pond, and he thought he was a girl. He snapped out of it when he hit his head again." Kasumi refrained from adding that Ranma had hit his head on the rock because Akane had punched him into it.
Ranko listened to all of this with wide eyes, her heart pounding. This can't be happening…
Nodoka pulled Ranko in a tight hug. "Oh, my poor son. I'm so sorry I slapped you. I didn't know…" Smothered in her mother's embrace, Ranko didn't see Akane's face light up, nor did she see what was coming…
Akane dispersed her ki-mallet, and watched sadly as the redheaded girl slid limply to the floor. "I'm sorry, Ranma," she whispered, "but you'll be yourself again when you wake up."
Kasumi sighed. Yes, that went about as I expected.
"Waaahhhhh!" wailed Souun. "My future son-in-law thinks he's a girl! Now the schools will never be joined!"
Nabiki rolled her eyes, but didn't say anything. Complaining about Daddy's outbursts was about as futile as complaining about the Japanese government.
The whole family was assembled in the common room, including the unconscious redhead ensconced on a futon which Kasumi had thoughtfully fetched for her. Kasumi, Akane, and Auntie Saotome had filled the latecomers in on Ranma's latest fling with womanhood.
The consensus was that he had had a relapse of his previous episode, but after listening to everything and observing the prone form of the girl in question, something was nagging at Nabiki's mind. She had the feeling she was missing something.
She ran her eyes over the items which had been in Ranma's possession. They were arrayed on the table like evidence from a crime scene: a purse, a portfolio, and a violin case. "Oneechan, you say he was different this time?"
Kasumi nodded. "Yes. The last time this happened, he thought he was a girl, and he acted very feminine—too feminine, actually—but otherwise he seemed in touch with reality. This time, he was talking about all these events that never happened. He said he'd been a girl for seven months. He said he was studying the violin with a professor at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music." Nabiki raised an eyebrow in surprise that Ranma even knew the place existed. After all, it had nothing to do with martial arts.
"In fact, he described what he did today, and it didn't match what we all saw ourselves. He said he left the house at 11, and we all know he was here until just an hour before he came back as a girl." She frowned. "He also said he wasn't cursed any more, and that didn't even make any sense. If he weren't cursed, he would be a boy, wouldn't he?"
Nabiki nodded. "What was his behavior like? The last time he was acting ridiculously feminine, wanting to do household chores, flower arranging, that sort of thing. He renounced martial arts. What did he do this time?"
Kasumi tilted her head and thought. "You know, now that you mention it, he was acting… normal. Not overly feminine, just as a normal woman would. And he claimed he'd sparred with Akane and Uncle Saotome this morning, and that he did it regularly."
Nabiki's intuition was tickled even more, and she frowned. Ranma was generally clueless about women, and typically came across as a stereotype when he tried to pose as one. That had been just as true when he'd believed himself to be one. Why would he act like a normal woman?
Akane offered, "Maybe when his curse got locked, the strain pushed him into a relapse?"
Nabiki shook her head. "That didn't happen with Herb." She found her eyes drawn back to Ranma. "Maybe whoever locked him as a girl brainwashed him or something." She frowned; that just didn't sound right to her. She had the feeling something was staring her in the face, and she was missing it. She wandered over to the table, and fingered the violin case.
"Nabiki," chided Kasumi, "you shouldn't rifle other people's belongings."
Nabiki hesitated. "If we're going to figure out what's going on here, we have to look at everything." She opened the case, and blinked at the violin inside; it looked like a fine instrument. She picked it up and turned it over in her hands. A label inside caught her attention, and she held it up to the light. "del Gesù…" she read aloud. She shrugged; the name didn't mean anything to her. Maybe she'd look it up later.
Suddenly, there was a moan from the futon, and Nabiki put the violin back in the case, closed it, and turned to look, as did everyone else.
Nodoka went over and stroked Ranma's forehead. "How are you feeling, Dear?"
"Mama… I had this awful nightmare… everyone thought I was supposed to be a boy, even you!" Ranma shuddered, and a sigh ran through the room. Akane bowed her head in frustration. "And I have a headache…" Akane's face turned crimson.
Nodoka and Kasumi looked at each other, and Kasumi shook her head. Nodoka nodded in understanding. "Why don't you sit up, Dear, and we'll talk about it." Kasumi hurried into the kitchen.
Ranma sat up with her mother's assistance, and Kasumi returned with some aspirin and a glass of water. The redhead smiled. "Thank you, Oneechan…" She downed the painkiller.
She looked around at her family, and noted their expressions. "It wasn't a dream, was it?" She sighed.
Nodoka put an arm around her. "No, Dear, but let's try to figure out what's going on, shall we?" She glanced at Akane. "Calmly." Akane blushed again.
She turned back to the girl she was holding. "You say you've been a girl for seven months? So you were a boy before that?"
Ranko bit her lip; it looked like she was out of synch with everyone else, and this kind of interrogation was probably the best way to sort things out. "Well, yes and no. I had a boy's body, and I thought I was a boy, but I never liked it, and when I found out I was really a girl I realized that I was happier this way."
"And how did you know you were really a girl, Dear?"
"You told me, Mother. When we met again, you told me I was a girl. You showed me photographs and videos from when I was a little girl; you showed me my birth certificate. And then I remembered being a girl myself." She sighed; that had been painful.
Everyone was staring at her in shock. "You mean, you were a girl when you were born?" asked Akane.
Ranko nodded. "Yes. My name is Ranko." She looked around. "Your… Ranma was born a boy, wasn't he?" Several people nodded, and Ranko shivered slightly.
"If you were a girl, then how could you have been a boy? What happened?"
"Well, when I was four and a half, Father and Uncle Tendou got really drunk one night. Since neither of them had a son, and they kind of wished they did, they thought of going to ask Happousai if there was anything he could do. He said he could help if they each brought him a daughter, and they were too drunk to realize what that meant. Uncle Tendou never made it back with Akane, but Father took me to Happousai, and he turned me into a boy using a magic spell." She fumed. "A really bad magic spell."
She shook her head. "Anyway, when Father sobered up and realized what had happened, he was too scared to go home and face Mother, so he ran away with me and raised me as 'Ranma.' He looked for twelve years for a way to fix things up, and when he found out about Jusenkyou he took me there."
Suddenly, everyone's gaze was on Genma. He shrank from the hostile stares, and said, "Hey, I had a son, not a daughter! I don't know what she's talking about." Everyone blinked and nodded.
Nabiki continued the questioning. "So when you found out you were born a girl, you just became one again?"
Ranko lowered her head and whispered, "No." She paused for a moment. "It was really hard. It was one of the hardest things I've ever done. I didn't like being a boy, but it was all I knew. I was terrified." She sighed and looked up again. "But it was the right thing to do. I'm much happier now."
"What about your curse?" asked Akane. "Why is it locked?"
Ranko shook her head. "I told you, it's not locked. It's gone. While I was trying out being a girl to see if I liked it, Cologne locked my curse for me with some kind of magic water she had. It was from something called a Chi… Chiisui…"
"Chiisuiton," whispered Akane.
Ranko nodded. "That was it. It turns out Happousai had used a really cheesy spell, and the extra magic made it fall apart. When that happened, my Jusenkyou curse disappeared, too. I'm just a normal girl again. Cologne said it would have happened anyway just from the Nyanniichuan, but it would have taken longer."
Akane fumed. "So you were born a girl, but you got turned into a boy, but then you fell in the Nyanniichuan and were cursed, but then you turned back into a girl all the time? What a ridiculous story!"
Ranko shrugged. "It's what happened."
Nabiki bit her lip. Either Ranma was trapped in an elaborate delusion, or… she was telling the truth. The last time Ranma had thought he was a girl, he hadn't even worried about how to explain it. He didn't strike Nabiki as the type to invent a fantasy world like this. Also, it was a complex story; too complex. But what else could it be but a delusion? What Ranma was saying didn't match the facts as she and several others knew them. She scanned Ranma's face, and again had the strong feeling she was missing something, something painfully obvious.
Kasumi noticed the clock. "Oh my, look at the time! I haven't even started dinner!"
Nodoka smiled. "We've been busy, Dear. Why don't we just order something in?"
Kasumi pondered that. "Maybe some ramen from the Nekohanten?"
Nabiki watched as Ranma winced at the name, and tugged nervously at her earlobe. Suddenly, she gasped.
All eyes turned to her. "What is it, Oneechan?" asked Akane.
Nabiki didn't answer but walked over and knelt next to… the redheaded girl. "Ranko… would you mind pulling your hair back so I can look at something?"
Ranko eyed her doubtfully. "I guess not…" She pulled her hair aside.
Nabiki examined Ranko's earlobes. "When did you get your ears pierced?"
Ranko looked bewildered. "Last September. Why?"
Nabiki turned to Akane. "Were Ranma's ears pierced this morning?"
Akane's jaw fell open, and she shook her head. Nodoka and Kasumi gasped. Nabiki turned her gaze back to Ranko's earlobes, and the clean, completely healed holes from which her earrings dangled.
Ranko sat at the table, quietly eating her ramen, and trying hard to ignore the stares of the rest of the family. Nabiki's observation about her pierced ears had generated a torrent of questions, but Kasumi had insisted firmly that they eat first. Shampoo had delivered dinner, while Ranko was hiding upstairs. The Chinese girl had inquired after her Airen and had been told, truthfully, that he'd left that afternoon for an overnight trip to his cousin's. Nabiki had thought to order several extra bowls rather than just one, to avoid arousing Shampoo's suspicions, and they'd explained that everyone was really hungry.
Of course, Ranko didn't realize that everyone was staring at her because of the neat, polite way she was eating. Well, as neat and polite as you can be eating ramen.
After the dishes were cleared, Nabiki asked "Ranko, do you have any other evidence of your story with you? Anything we could look at?"
Ranko thought for a moment, then nodded. She fetched her purse, and started looking through it. She pulled a card out and handed it to Nabiki.
It was a student ID, from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. It had the name Saotome Ranko on it, the address of the Tendou Dojo, and a photograph of the young lady sitting in front of her. There was a little box for the gender, and it had the Japanese character for "female." Nabiki felt a little tingle of uneasiness. "Anything else?"
Ranko pulled out a photo wallet, and handed it to Nabiki. Nabiki's eyes bugged out as she looked through the pictures. Most of them had Ranko in them, together with… all of them. Her heart pounded as she stared at a photograph of her, Kasumi, Akane, and Ranko, all standing together, and all smiling. A photograph Nabiki knew had never been taken. And she recognized that most of these photographs had been taken with her own camera. By her. They were composed in the way she tended to take photographs.
She came to another photograph and gave a little gasp. Everyone looked at her, concerned. "What is it, Oneechan?" asked Akane.
Nabiki tried desperately to school her features. "It's just these pictures. They're disconcerting."
Suspicion clouded Akane's face. "Let me see them!"
Nabiki tried to think of a dodge, but couldn't. She winced as she handed over the wallet. This was not going to be pretty.
Akane flipped through the photographs, her jaw hanging open, then suddenly she gasped as well, and sank to her knees. Her face was pale, and she was trembling. "How could you…" she whispered.
Ranko's danger sense was tingling again. "How could I what?"
Akane handed the open wallet to Ranko, her thumb on the photo in question. Ranko looked, and couldn't help smiling. It was a photograph Nabiki had taken a few weeks ago, of her together with Ryouga. She had her head leaning on his shoulder, and it was a really beautiful picture…
She turned back to Akane, who had tears in her eyes. She tried a smile. "Sis, you have to remember, I'm a girl. Is it really a surprise for me to have a boyfriend?" Everyone gasped; Genma was white as a sheet, and Souun's mouth was opening and closing. Tears started running down Akane's cheeks.
"Sis, what's wrong? Why is this upsetting you so much?"
"But… but what about us?"
Ranko was confused. "Us? We're still sisters, just like we've always been."
Ranko nodded, and took the heart pendant of her necklace in her hand. She opened it, and held it up for Akane to see. Akane noticed the tiny photograph inside, and moved closer to peer at it.
There were two little girls, who looked to be about four years old. They had their arms around each other and their cheeks were pressed together. They were grinning, mugging a bit for the camera. Akane recognized herself from her baby pictures. The other girl was a redhead—the redheaded girl who was sitting in front of her right now. That's me… and her, too… but it can't be! This never happened!
Akane wanted to take her eyes off the photo, but couldn't. The love between the two little girls was more than obvious, but… the picture was impossible! How could they be sisters? She tried to find some flaw, to tear apart this disturbing scenario. "How can you say we're sisters? We have different parents."
Ranko nodded. "I know. We aren't sisters by blood, but we were raised together and that's how I feel about you." She looked to the older Tendou sisters and smiled uncertainly. "It's the way I feel about Kasumi-neechan and Nabiki-neechan, too." She looked back to Akane. "My mother and Kasumi-neechan say that you and I have always been like twins."
Akane felt a wave of horror rise up. She shook her head violently. "No! I don't want to be your sister! I'm not your sister! I'm your fiancée!" Her temper erupted even as tears streamed down her face. "You're a guy, not a girl! You can't be! If you're a girl, then… then we…"
Ranko's eyes widened. Akane… wanted the engagement? Was in love with her, rather than loving her as a sister? She shivered and felt her stomach churn. It's possible. To her, I'm a guy. "Sis… I…"
"Don't call me that!" yelled Akane. She turned and ran upstairs.
Ranko stared after her. Her closest friend, her sister, her twin… now thought of her as a man. A man she was in love with. "Akane…" she whispered, and tears started to stream down her own cheeks. Their feelings for each other no longer fit together, and that was pushing them apart.
Shell-shocked, Nodoka picked up the wallet from where it had fallen, and found the offending photograph. Her mind reeled somewhat, but on top of everything else it was just one more thing. She observed the girl who was kneeling in front of her, tears running silently down her face, and sighed. This girl wasn't her son, that much was clear… but she knew what she had to do. She put her arm around Ranko. "It's all right, Dear, we'll figure this out somehow."
With Nodoka's embrace, the frustration, fear, and confusion Ranko had been buffeted with all day finally rose up all at once and overwhelmed her. "Mother… this is all just too much… my own family doesn't even know who I am… and Akane…" She started to cry in earnest, and buried her face in her mother's shoulder. Nodoka wondered as she held and comforted the daughter she'd never had. Everyone else watched in silence.
After a time, Ranko sighed, and her mother released her. She gathered her photos and her student ID and put them back in her purse. She looked around the room at her family; they all appeared to be in shock, to one degree or another. "I… I really need to unwind. Would you all mind if I practiced my violin?"
Everyone looked blankly at one another, then shook their heads. Ranko went to her violin case, opened it, and took out her instrument. She started to tune it, plucking the strings and listening as she turned the pegs. She looked up briefly, and noted wryly that she had a rapt audience, even though she hadn't played a note yet.
A thought occurred to Nabiki. "Ranko, I looked at your violin earlier, while you were knocked out. It says 'del Gesù' on the inside. Is that who made it?"
Ranko laughed. "Good grief, no. I could never afford one of those, they cost a king's ransom. They're second only to ones made by Stradivari. This is a fake. It's a counterfeit del Gesù, made in the nineteenth century. My professor gave it to me today. It's on loan, and I'll have to pay for it eventually."
Nabiki smiled. "It must be a lot cheaper than the real thing." Something Ranko had said was nagging at her, but she wasn't sure what it was.
Ranko nodded. "Much cheaper. It's only worth about six million yen." Ranko turned her attention back to her violin, and didn't notice that Nabiki and Genma were both rigid.
"That much, for a counterfeit?" asked her mother.
Ranko nodded. "It's still an excellent violin."
"But how will you ever pay for it?"
Ranko blushed. "Professor Murata says I won't have any trouble." She ran over her pieces in her mind. She should really work on her new assignments, but she was too stressed out. She didn't want to stumble over the music, she wanted to flow through it so she could regain her equilibrium. She'd get back to the new stuff tomorrow.
She smiled, for she knew what she wanted to play. After she had played a small part of the Bach Partita in E Major at the school talent show, Professor Murata had wanted to move on to other things, but Ranko hadn't been content with just the three minutes. She'd pestered the professor to let her learn the whole Partita, and he'd agreed. She knew it by heart, and liked to play it when she needed to relax. She lifted her instrument to her chin, raised her bow, and began.
Akane was sulking in her room when beautiful violin music began drifting up from downstairs. What a stupid time to put on a CD, she thought. She had to admit it sounded awfully nice, though. Almost like it was a live performance, rather than a recording…
Suddenly, she gasped, and raced out her door and down the stairs. She skidded to a halt outside the family room, her eyes bugging out. The source of the music she was hearing, the music she had thought was a CD, was Ranko, who was playing her violin. Everyone was watching her, their jaws hanging open, even Nabiki. Akane realized her jaw was hanging open, too.
Ranko was not just playing her violin, she was playing it expertly, beautifully… exquisitely. Her eyes were closed, and emotions flashed across her face as she swayed to and fro, her arms and hands flying.
No one moved for the twenty minutes it took Ranko to finish her piece.
Finally, she lowered her bow and her violin, and smiled a huge smile. Her playing had lifted her spirits, as it always did. And this new violin was wonderful… she'd managed nuances in the Partita that she hadn't been able to pull off before.
Akane whispered, "You're not Ranma, are you? You can't be."
Ranko turned around. "Well… I guess not. Not the way you think of Ranma."
Nodoka found her heart bursting with pride, even though this girl wasn't the child she knew. "That was beautiful, Dear. Why, you could play professionally!"
Ranko nodded. "I intend to. I'll be going to the University full time after I graduate from high school." Her shoulders sagged. "Assuming Professor Murata even remembers who I am."
Genma swallowed. "But aren't you going to be a martial arts sensei? How can you do both?"
Ranko winced; this hadn't been fun the first time. "Father… I had to choose between dedicating my life to martial arts… or to the violin. I still practice the Art, but my violin is more important to me." Genma stared in disbelief.
Akane shook her head. "You're not Ranma. Ranma would never give up martial arts. Never."
Ranko bit her lip and didn't reply.
"How many years have you been studying, Ranko?" asked Nabiki.
Ranko blushed. "I only started studying in September." Everyone's jaws dropped again.
Nabiki boggled. "You picked all that up in six months?"
Ranko blushed again. "I've always been a fast learner. And actually, I was able to adapt my martial arts skills and the Amazon techniques Cologne taught me." She smiled. "It is 'Anything Goes,' after all."
Akane stared in wonder. "You are Ranma." She shook her head. "Even though you're not."
"Then what happened? How did the Ranma we know become you?"
Ranko slowly shook her head. "I don't know. To me, I've been me all along. To me, it's everyone else who has changed."
Nabiki's brow furrowed, and then her eyes widened. That was it; that was what was bothering her. "Maybe the Ranma we know didn't become Ranko."
Akane blinked. "What do you mean, Oneechan?"
"This has been bugging me for a while. Ranko has a history, memories. She has skills Ranma didn't have, like playing the violin." She grinned. "And knowing how to coordinate an outfit." Everyone laughed. "She even has a violin her professor gave her. If someone or something turned our Ranma into her, why would she have this prefabricated life? What's the point? She'd just be our Ranma, but a girl." She turned to Ranko. "Did everything seem normal to you earlier today? At the University?"
Ranko tilted her head and thought. "Everything was fine this morning. I sparred with Akane and Father. After I washed up and got dressed I came into the kitchen to make a sandwich, and I ate that while Kasumi-neechan was making lunch for everyone else, and we had a nice chat." Everyone looked at each other; it was eerie, hearing Ranko describe things they didn't remember in such a matter-of-fact tone.
"After that I went to the University. Things were still normal then. I had my lesson, and Professor Murata gave me my new violin. After that I started home."
"What's the first thing you remember that seemed out of place?"
"I think it was when Hisa-san caught me after my dizzy spell, and didn't recognize me."
Nabiki nodded. "I want you to tell me every detail you can remember leading up to that."
Ranko furrowed her brow. "Well, I got off the train. I headed for the stairs, and started down. I saw Hisa-san at the bottom, and he smiled at me…" she trailed off. "He smiled at me… He knew who I was, and he smiled at me like he always does! When I was at the top of the stairs. When he caught me after my dizzy spell, he didn't know who I was!"
Nabiki leaned forward, intent. "Describe it for me. Coming down the staircase, and your dizzy spell." Everyone hung on Ranko's answer.
"I was coming down… and, all of a sudden, there was this bright light all around me, and I couldn't see anything. Everything started to spin around me; it was like the whole world was spinning. Then I was falling… falling down, and away."
"Away from what?"
"I don't know. Just… away." She bit her lip. "Then Hisa-san caught me."
"And now he didn't know who you were." Ranko nodded.
Nabiki steepled her hands over her mouth and thought. "I don't think Ranma turned into Ranko. I think Ranko came here from… somewhere else. Some sort of parallel world. It just doesn't make sense that Ranma would turn into Ranko, complete with all these memories, skills, and a detailed, intricate history."
Ranko put her head in her hands. Her family… the boy she loved… would she ever see them again? The people here were close analogues, but they weren't hers. This Akane didn't love her as a sister; instead, she found her disturbing. This Nodoka and Genma had a son. And Ryouga… she shuddered. She could imagine what his feelings would be towards a male Ranma. She'd experienced them. "Will I be able to get home? Everyone who knows me and loves me as me is there, not here." Kasumi and Nodoka exchanged glances.
Akane drew in her breath sharply. "And what about Ranma? Our Ranma? Where did he go? Did he go to Ranko's world when she came here?" Her eyes became teary. "Will I ever see him again? Where is he?"
Kasumi offered, "Maybe he's at his cousin's house."
Akane snorted. "Oneechan, we're talking about interdimensional travel here. Ranma wouldn't…" she trailed off, and everyone looked at one another, jaws agape.
Nabiki was kicking herself mentally, over and over again. "Of course. They were expecting him. They would have called if he didn't show up!" Everyone nodded.
"What?" asked Ranko.
Nabiki was still looking chagrined. "Ranma—our Ranma—went to his cousin's house in Tama New Town. His cousin Hirosuke." Ranko's eyes bulged slightly. "He must have gone through the train station about the time…" she trailed off; Ranko's face was pale. "Ranko?"
She said faintly, "I know. I saw him."
Everyone's eyes were on Nodoka as she held the telephone to her ear, waiting for an answer. She drummed her fingers impatiently. Suddenly, her eyes focused. "Oneechan? It's me, Nodoka." Her eyes widened. "He did? Yes, he has a big appetite." Everyone sighed in relief. "Could you? I'd… I'd like to speak to him." Akane's eyes were glued to the telephone receiver.
Suddenly, Nodoka sagged and closed her eyes, a smile on her face. "Hello Dear… No, I just wanted to make sure you made it there safely." She laughed. "Yes, I know I shouldn't worry about you taking a train ride." Her eyes found Akane, who was still staring. "I think someone else would like to speak to you."
Akane surged to her feet and rushed over, and Nodoka handed her the receiver. She nearly dropped it in her haste, but managed to get it to her ear. "Hello?"
The voice she longed to hear came from the other end. "Hey, Akane. How's it goin'?"
Akane smiled, and tears came to her eyes. "Wonderful. Just wonderful."
There was a long pause. "Y'know… this afternoon… it didn't come out the way I meant. I'm sorry 'bout that."
Akane shook her head. "It's OK." Her voice broke a little.
"Hey, you OK? You sound a little wound up."
"I'm fine, now. I… I'm just glad to hear your voice."
"You sound like I took a trip to the moon or somethin'. I'm just at Hirosuke's house." Akane could almost hear the grin on the other side. "Don't tell me you were worried about me?"
Akane huffed. "Of course not!"
"Then how come you were so glad to hear my voice?"
Akane scowled. "I just wanted to see how your evening was going!"
"Baka!" She slammed the phone down.
"Well," said Nabiki drily, "I see everything is normal."
Akane sighed. "At least he's OK." She sagged. "I was so worried, and all for nothing! He's right where he should be… and he's not a girl." There was a murmur of agreement from the rest of the family.
Akane shook her head. "What an evening! I'm glad everything turned out OK."
There was a sniffle, and suddenly, all eyes turned to the redhead sitting in the corner, staring at the floor. She was kneeling with her hands clasped tightly in her lap, her shoulders hunched. "Yeah. Everything is great." Tears started to drip slowly down her cheeks. "Just peachy."
Akane found herself staring at the other girl. When she had thought Ranko was Ranma, Akane had been frightened that Ranma had become lost in his curse. Now, Ranko was something more frightening still: another Ranma, a bizarre doppelgänger. One who was a real girl—had been born a girl—rather than just cursed to turn into one. Something about that idea gave Akane the creeps. And that made her feel horribly guilty.
Nodoka sighed. Even though she knew where her son was, even though she knew that Ranko was not really her child, her heart had other notions. It told her that this girl was hers, and she couldn't ignore that. She went and knelt by Ranko, and put an arm around her.
"I'm sure we'll find a way to get you home, Dear. And if the worst comes to pass and we can't… I promise, you will have a mother, at least." Ranko looked up at her mother, and smiled.
Nodoka gave Ranko another squeeze, which was gratefully accepted. "It's been a long evening. I think we should all go to bed."
In a small voice, Ranko asked, "Where am I going to sleep?"
Kasumi smiled. "Why don't we put you in with Akane?"
Akane shrieked "What?," then blushed in embarrassment.
Ranko cringed. She hadn't realized just how much her presence was bothering Akane. Her heart sank. Akane was an anchor in her life, someone she had come to depend on. It sounded like she couldn't count on that any more.
Kasumi looked back and forth between Akane and Ranko, confused. "But Akane, she's a girl. And she can't sleep in Ranma's room, since he'll be back tomorrow."
Akane and Ranko stared at each other, and Akane could read the hurt on Ranko's face. The redhead bit her lip."It's OK. I… I can just roll out a futon in the Dojo or something." She looked down, and Akane's heart lurched.
Again, she felt horribly guilty, even as she felt horribly uncomfortable. "No… no, that's OK." She paused for a long moment. "You can sleep with me."
Ranko tried a tentative smile. "Thanks, Sis." Akane winced, and Ranko's smile faded. She turned to Kasumi with a quiet sigh. "Oneechan?"
"I only have the clothes I'm wearing. I don't have anything to wear to bed, or tomorrow. Akane is the closest to my size, but her clothes don't fit quite right. Of course, R-ranma's girl form is my size, but he's a real b-boy, not like I was." She shivered; the very concept made her queasy. She laughed, a little nervously. "I'm sure he doesn't have any female clothing!"
There was a deafening silence.
Ranko looked around, confused. "What?"
Ranko looked over the array of boxes in Ranma's closet, somewhat stunned. "What does he need all this for if he's a guy? I mean, I wanted to be a girl, and I had less than this!"
The other women in the family, who were kneeling around her, all looked at each other in varying degrees of discomfort. Nodoka cleared her throat. "Well… part of it is my fault. Ranma didn't want me to know he was cursed, and so he pretended to be 'Tendou Ranko' whenever I came to visit." She smiled at the irony; there was a genuine Ranko sitting in front of her right now.
Unbidden, feelings that had been dormant for months bubbled to the surface again, and Nodoka firmly pushed them back down. She hoped she could keep them there; it would not be a good idea to get too attached to this girl if she were going to go home. It helped a little to know that Ranko would be going home to another version of Nodoka herself, one who loved her daughter.
She tried to recover her train of thought. "Anyway, I always thought 'Ranko' was too much of a tomboy, and I kept dragging her out shopping to try to get her to dress more like a lady." She laughed. "Naturally, 'she' wasn't too keen on the idea." She nodded at the boxes. "Most of these are things I bought that couldn't be returned."
Ranko nodded slowly. "Oh, I see. That never happened to me, of course. I mean, you took me shopping after I decided to try out being a girl, but I wanted to go, and I actually needed the clothes." She frowned. "Why didn't Ranma want you to know about his curse? Was he that embarrassed? It seems a little extreme to hide from your own mother."
Again the women all looked at each other, while Ranko wondered what family problem she had put her foot in. Just then, the phone rang, and Kasumi hurried downstairs to get it.
Nodoka used the distraction to choose her words carefully. "Well, he didn't want me to think he wasn't manly. It was very… important to both of us." Ranko saw Nabiki roll her eyes, and decided not to press further.
She looked over the boxes again. "First things first… do you know if he had any girl's pajamas?"
Nodoka shook her head. "If he does, he doesn't wear them. I have to admit I don't quite remember everything we bought." She laughed, a little embarrassed.
Ranko nodded slowly. "Well, there's only six or seven boxes here. It shouldn't take too long to look." She took the closest box, opened it, and pulled out… a translucent baby doll nightie.
She blushed furiously. "Ummmm… Mother… did you buy him this?" Nodoka shook her head wordlessly.
Akane quickly piped up "That's for when he needs to lure Happousai."
Ranko smiled in relief. "Oh, so this is his 'Happousai collection.' I had one of those, too, when I was Ranma." She rummaged briefly through the box. "Yeah, I have some of the same stuff in mine. I don't use it any more; once I started thinking of my girl body as 'me', I actually developed a sense of feminine modesty." She grinned, and Akane smiled wanly, even as she felt a chill.
Ranko closed up the box. "I don't want to wear any of this even just to bed." Her cheeks turned slightly pink. "I'm saving my 'Happousai collection' for my honeymoon." She smiled softly, and the other women's eyes glazed over slightly.
At that moment, Kasumi returned with the phone. "Akane, it's Yuka-chan. She was calling to check up on… Ranma. I didn't know if you wanted to tell her what's going on."
Akane and Ranko glanced at each other, and Ranko shrugged. "They both saw me. I think it's better to tell them what's going on than have them try to guess. We can at least ask them to keep it quiet." Akane nodded, and Kasumi passed her the handset.
"Hello, Yuka-chan… Ummm, yes, actually… believe it or not, that wasn't Ranma… No, I am not trying to pull a fast one… She's kind of another Ranma, from a parallel world, except she's really a girl. Her name is Ranko… I do see your point, but after everything that's gone on around here for the past year, can you really say that?… Yes, I know… Yes, she's still here. We still have to figure out how to get her back where she belongs… I don't know, let me ask her." She lowered the handset. "Yuka wants to come over and meet you tomorrow. And apologize." Ranko nodded uncertainly. "Yuka-chan? She says OK… OK, see you then." She hung up, and put the phone down. "She'll be over around lunch time." Ranko nodded, and turned back to the boxes.
Akane looked away to hide her shame. Her friend Yuka was being nicer to Ranko than she was herself. She couldn't help herself; she loved Ranma, loved him deeply in a romantic way, and consequently she found she didn't quite know how to deal with Ranko.
Akane had spent a year with Ranma, a very intense year, and she had come to know many different aspects of the man, all the little backwaters and byways of his character. As a result, she could recognize a lot of Ranma in Ranko, and that confused her terribly. One moment, Ranko would say or do something that reminded her of Ranma, and the next, she'd be as much a girl as Akane or any of her friends. To Akane, it was a very disturbing mixture.
Kasumi was staring at the phone on the floor. "Auntie, Akane… I don't think either of you told Ranma what is going on. It's really too late to call now… we'd better call in the morning, before he heads home."
Nodoka nodded. "Yes, Dear, I'll take care of it."
Suddenly there was a cry of triumph from the redhead. "Luckeeee! Just what I was looking for." She pulled out a pair of green pajamas with satin trim. "Oh, this is just like my favorite pair back home!" She hugged the pajamas to her, eyes closed, as if they were a long-lost friend. Akane felt dizzy.
Ranko stood up, still clutching the pajamas. "I'll look through the rest tomorrow morning for something to wear. I don't want to keep everyone up." She looked thoughtful for a moment. "I need a toothbrush, too, and… oh, do any of you have a pair of studs I can borrow?" She tugged at her earrings. "I can't wear these to bed, and I can't sleep without earrings yet."
Akane said, a little weakly, "I think I have a pair I can loan you."
Ranko beamed. "Thanks, Sis!" Akane winced, and Ranko's smile vanished. "Oops. I keep forgetting. I'm sorry about that." Akane winced again.
Ranko peered at her. "Are you OK? You seem a little wound up."
Akane closed her eyes and sighed.
Kasumi paused at the door to the bath. "Ranko-chan is our guest. She should go first." Nabiki and Akane exchanged glances, sighed, and nodded.
Ranko shook her head. "Oneechan, don't be silly! It's late enough already. The tub is plenty big enough for all of us." She smiled.
Her smile faded as she looked around at the open jaws of the Tendou sisters. "Is that a problem?"
Nabiki managed to find her voice first. "You… you want to bathe with us?"
Ranko shrank somewhat from the intensity of Nabiki's response. "You don't have to if you don't want to. I was only saying that I don't mind."
Akane boggled. "You don't mind?"
"Of course not! I'm a girl, why should I?" She examined the bewildered faces looking back at her. "Just which locker room do you think I use at school?"
The Tendou sisters' jaws dropped again. Ranko looked around once more, sighed, and went inside.
After a moment, Nabiki shrugged. "Works for me. I want to get to bed." Kasumi nodded, and they both followed Ranko in. Akane was left standing in the hall by herself.
She's a girl. She's a girl all the time. Of course she bathes with other girls! She pursed her lips. But… but she's Ranma. And… I don't want Ranma to… to… see me.
Her mind continued to chase its own tail in this fashion for a minute or two, until finally she shook her head violently. I'm being an idiot. Determination slowly settled over her features, and she made her way inside. After dropping her clothes in the laundry, she proceeded into the bath proper. She found her sisters washing their hair, and Ranko already in the tub. She was leaning back with her eyes closed, a neutral expression on her face. She looked like she was trying to relax, and having mixed success.
Although Akane had seen Ranma in female form in a hot bath once before, when Herb had locked his curse, it was still a rare sight, and more than a bit unnerving. Knowing that this wasn't her Ranma didn't really lessen that. It was hard to look at this petite redhead, whom she knew so well, and not see her fiancé. Maybe when Ranma came home tomorrow and she saw them side by side, she'd be able to sort this all out. She fervently hoped so.
She went to a stool and started to wash. She heard Ranko's voice from behind her. "I'm glad you decided not to wait, Sis." There was a pause. "Sorry, Akane. I keep forgetting."
Akane's eyes were squeezed shut against her shampoo. "It's all right. I understand, I guess." She made quick work of her short hair, and rinsed off. She turned around to find Ranko observing her quietly, a serious expression on her face. Nabiki had already joined her in the tub, while Kasumi was still working on her hair.
Akane felt a little unnerved by Ranko's examination of her. "What is it?"
Ranko shook her head. "I've done this so many times. Taken a bath with… with my sisters. I could almost pretend I was home." She sighed and looked down. "But I'm not."
Akane pursed her lips, and went over to climb in the tub. Ranko noted that she sat as far away from her as possible. Nabiki sat silently and watched.
Akane's curiosity was piqued. "So, what are we like in your world? Kasumi-neechan, Nabiki-neechan, and I? How are we different?"
Ranko shook her head. "You're not. You're all exactly the same. If you hadn't reacted to me the way you did, I would never have known I wasn't home." Depression settled over her features.
"Ranma and his father stayed with us because he and I were engaged. But you're a girl, so why were you staying with our family?"
Ranko turned beet red. "Actually… you and I were engaged, too. The day that Father and I arrived, if you can believe it."
Akane's face turned a sickly pale color. "You mean our fathers engaged us even though they both knew you were really a girl?" Ranko nodded, embarrassed. "What on Earth for?"
"They said it was to make up for turning me into a boy." She sighed. "It was a really stupid idea."
Nabiki put her hand over her eyes. Why am I not surprised?
Akane was still in shock. "You weren't engaged to anyone else, though, right?" Ranko turned bright red again. "D-don't tell me… Ukyou?" Ranko nodded. "And did Shampoo?…" Ranko nodded. "And Kodachi?…" Another nod.
Nabiki snorted. Apparently, Genma was the same in this other world, too. Kasumi joined them, her hair wrapped up in a towel.
Akane was feeling dizzy. "And how did you feel about that?"
Ranko replied, with feeling, "I hated it. They were all girls. It made me terribly uncomfortable, even though I didn't know I was a girl then." She shuddered. "Every time Ucchan or Shampoo or Kodachi threw themselves at me, it made me so uncomfortable I was practically paralyzed." She laughed nervously. "You used to brain me for letting them hang all over me." Nabiki's eyebrows shot up.
Akane swallowed nervously; this was all frighteningly familiar… and it ought not to be. "So… so did you tell us all that you weren't interested?"
Ranko shook her head. "I didn't want to hurt your feelings, and I didn't want to admit that I felt like a girl inside."
Nabiki shivered despite the warmth of the bath. Let's hope it's just the first one for Ranma.
"And what about the two of us?"
Ranko smiled. "Well… we both knew we loved each other, but we didn't like being engaged. We fought a lot. It was actually a big relief when my mother showed up and canceled the engagements. Once you found out I was a girl, we grew close again really quickly, just like when we were little."
Suddenly, Akane found her heart was pounding, and she was gripped by irrational terror. She averted her eyes. What is wrong with me?
Ranko, having no idea what she had said, bit her lip, embarrassed.
There was an uncomfortable silence. Kasumi finally said, "Ranko-chan, aren't you going to wash your hair?" Akane looked back, and Ranko's hair was indeed dry.
Ranko shook her head. "I usually wash it in the mornings after I spar." She frowned. "Maybe I should have washed it. I don't know that I'll be sparring while I'm here… unless…" She paused abruptly, her eyes unfocused, and her voice dropped to a whisper. "Unless I wind up… staying." Her lips were a thin line.
Kasumi tilted her head. "Why is that, Ranko-chan?"
"Well… I need a sparring partner… and…" Her gaze fell.
Kasumi turned to Akane, her eyebrows raised.
Akane tried to gain control of herself, and cleared her throat. "Would… would you like me to spar with you?" Kasumi beamed at her.
Ranko looked up, her feelings plain in those startling blue eyes. "Would you?" Akane nodded slowly, and Ranko seemed to brighten, a smile creeping onto her face.
The eyes, thought Akane. The eyes, and that unsure little smile. They're the same. Exactly the same. Again, she felt a sense of profound unease crawl through her. "I… I think I'm going to go to bed!" She climbed out, a little too quickly, and went for a towel.
Ranko stared after her, her nascent smile gone, as the two older Tendou sisters exchanged glances. They all watched as Akane exited the bath post haste.
Kasumi turned back to the crushed redhead. "Ranko-chan…"
Ranko sighed, and rose from the bath. "I guess… I ought to get to bed, too."
Akane stared at the wall and listened to the quiet whirring of her electric clock as each minute turned over. She'd spent a lot of time listening to that sound tonight.
She rolled over on her other side and stared at the futon on the far side of the room, and the form outlined there. She'd put the futon as far from her bed as possible. Ranko hadn't said anything, but she'd paused for a moment when she came in, just looking from the futon to Akane's bed and back. She'd continued on to climb in after murmuring a quiet good night.
Unlike Ranma, Ranko didn't sprawl in her futon; she was curled up on her side, facing away from Akane. Akane couldn't be sure, but she had the impression that Ranko was not being any more successful at falling asleep than she was.
There was a quiet noise and Ranko shifted in her bedding. Suddenly, Akane's suspicions were aroused and she strained her ears; had that been a sniffle? She whispered, "Ranko? Are you awake?"
There was a pause, another motion, then, "Yes. I'm sorry, am I keeping you up?"
"Of course not. Are… are you feeling all right?" Like I have any right to ask.
Another pause. "Me? I'm fine."
What a rotten liar. Just like him. "This must be hard on you."
Akane expected the usual dismissal, and was surprised when Ranko replied, "Yes, it is. I have no idea how I came to your world, or why. I don't know if… if I'll ever be able to get back h-home. And all of you… I'm a stranger to you…" She stopped speaking abruptly, and Akane heard another suspicious noise.
She sighed. "You're not a stranger. I think it would be easier if you were. I see too much of my Ranma in you to think of you that way."
"Then… why? Why am I making you so uncomfortable?" Ranko was trying to keep her voice even and calm, but Akane could hear an undercurrent of hurt and accusation slip through.
Akane bit her lip, and didn't reply for a while. "Because you're Ranma, and… you're a girl." She hesitated; it felt strange confessing this to Ranma, even if it wasn't her Ranma. "He's the man I'm going to marry. The man I l-love. You're him, but you're a girl. A woman."
Ranko replied quietly, "Doesn't he have a curse?"
"Yes, he does." Akane laughed softly. "But that's just on the surface. He doesn't really understand women, even though he turns into one. Even when he thought he was a woman that time, he acted like a stereotype. You act like a woman. You are a woman." She pulled her comforter a little tighter around her. She didn't want to say this, but maybe it was time she was honest. Ranko wasn't being fooled, anyway. "I find you a little frightening."
It tooks Ranko a long time to reply. "Why?"
"I don't know!" snapped Akane, irritated. She sighed. "I haven't figured it out yet."
They were both quiet for a long time, though Akane was pretty sure Ranko wasn't asleep. Finally, she ventured "Ranko?"
"How… how do you feel about me?" Ranma would never answer this question, but Ranko seemed to be much more open with her feelings. She didn't seem to have the barbed wire which Ranma kept around topics like this.
Ranko took a minute to respond. "You're my closest friend, Akane. I've known you since I was a baby. You're like a sister to me, my twin sister. We share everything. We have no secrets." Except about a certain piglet… Her voice grew thick. "I love you, Sis." She didn't say anything more.
Akane squeezed her eyes shut. And I'm treating you horribly, just for being yourself. Is it really so bad to have another Ranma around, one who's a girl? She sighed; she still felt uneasy. I need to figure this out.
After what seemed like an eternity, she heard quiet breathing from across the room, and sagged in relief; at least Ranko was sleeping. Akane turned over again, and tried to sleep herself.
She passed in and out of a fitful sleep for a few hours, incoherent, unsettling dreams flashing by only to be forgotten. Finally, she was roused by an increasingly urgent need, and rose shakily from bed to stagger down the hall.
When she returned and quietly opened the door to her room, the hall light shone on Ranko's face, and Akane smiled. The other girl had a peaceful expression on her face. Akane wondered if Ranko was prone to nightmares as Ranma was. Probably; judging by her reactions earlier, she too had been subjected to the Cat Fist training. At least she wasn't having one tonight.
Suddenly, Akane's eyes narrowed, and she peered more closely at the sleeping redhead. Ranko's peaceful face was covered with dried tears, and she had the heart pendant of her necklace clutched tightly in her hand.
Akane slunk back to bed, her face hot with shame.
End Chapter 1
Thursday, January 11, 2001
The characters and stories of Ranma ½ are Copyright © Rumiko Takahashi, and are used here without permission or license.
No claims to the above copyright are made by the author of this work.
This work is for non-commercial use ONLY, and is produced for the enjoyment of fans only.
This work is the expression of the author and the depiction of the Ranma ½ characters herein are in no way represented to be a part of Ranma ½ as depicted by the original author and copyright holder(s).