Equal Halves

By ClassicalGal

Chapter 3: It's My Birthday and I'll Cry If I Want To


Akane bit her lip and looked down. "I want to believe him, but… what you told us is so eerily similar to all the things he's done." She looked up at Ranko, fear written plain in her eyes. "He… he did that whole thing with Tsubasa, just like you said. Even… even the bunny suit…" She trailed off.

Ranko nodded sympathetically. "Go on." Dinner had ended on a rather shell-shocked note, and they were both sitting on Akane's bed, having fled upstairs for a private chat.

"I mean, he says that all the time. That he's a guy, that he hates his curse. But he poses as a girl so often… and there was that time he hit his head. He may have acted like a stereotype, but he was so happy. So relaxed. J-just like you; that's why I thought it had happened again. Does… does he really want to be a girl?"

Ranko felt an uneasy sense of deja vu. She wouldn't wish what she had had to go through on anyone, even though it had been the right thing to do for her. It was too painful. She hoped fervently that this Ranma was not in the same boat she had been in when she had been a boy. But then, why would he be acting the same way if he weren't?

"I don't know, Sis. He's probably the only one who can tell us for sure. Maybe he doesn't even know himself. I certainly had trouble figuring out what was bothering me."

Akane clutched at Ranko's arm. "Ranko, I'm… I'm scared. I've been scared of losing him to his curse for a long time now. That's what my nightmare was about last night. And I think you symbolized that; that's why I was so uncomfortable with you." She suddenly noticed what she was doing, and smiled sheepishly. "I guess I'm over that." They both shared a quiet chuckle.

"And that's another thing… I know I don't want him to be a girl, but we definitely get along better when he is one. We don't fight as much. I don't know why."

Ranko nodded, but didn't say anything. The same thing had been true for her; she and Akane had gotten along better when she had been "Ranma-chan." She didn't think mentioning that would help right now, though.

There was a knock on Akane's door. "Akane? It's me, Kasumi."

Akane went to the door, Ranko behind her. "What is it, Oneechan?"

"It's getting a little late. If you want to work on that birthday cake, shouldn't we get started?" Kasumi noticed the little twitch in Ranko's eyes at the word "birthday."

Akane looked back at Ranko reluctantly. "I guess so… Maybe we can talk some more later?"

Ranko smiled. "Sure. Do you want me to come help with the baking?" Akane held her breath.

Kasumi shook her head. "No, Ranko-chan. You've already done enough in the kitchen today. You were so tired earlier, and you should rest."

Ranko nodded slowly. "Well, if you're sure…" Kasumi nodded, and Akane blew out her breath in relief. She didn't want Ranko to see what was going on in the kitchen tonight.

Of course, Ranko didn't really want to see what was going to happen in the kitchen tonight, but she'd felt guilty about leaving Kasumi to deal with it all by herself. Maybe her mother would help. Anyway, she'd offered and so had a clear conscience.

Kasumi turned to leave, and Akane followed her. Ranko watched them go down the stairs. Then she said quietly, "They're gone. You can come down now."

Ranma winced and dropped from his hiding place; he had been clinging to the ceiling. "Howd'ya know I was there?"

She laughed softly. "I spent twelve years running away from unpaid bills with Father. I learned to be aware of my surroundings." Ranma snorted, and they shared a chuckle, then sobered.

"I take it Kasumi-neechan surprised you while you were eavesdropping?"

Ranma nodded, and looked down. "I… I wanted to see how Akane felt about all the stuff you talked about at dinner. She seems to have an easier time talkin' to you about this kinda stuff. And… I wanna understand why she has an easier time talkin' to you. Me an' her, we can't ever seem to just have a nice quiet talk the way the two of you do." Again, he fought down a pang of jealousy.

Ranko nodded. "I see. And how do you feel about what I talked about at dinner?"

Ranma averted his eyes. "I don't know why everyone thinks it's got somethin' to do with me."

Ranko sighed. "Oh, please. Save the evasions for everyone else, and remember who you're talking to. You can't BS me, Ranma."

Ranma winced and blushed crimson, and didn't say anything for a minute. Ranko tugged on his sleeve. "Come on. The hall isn't a good place for this conversation." He hesitated. "What's wrong?"

Ranma mumbled, "Just a minute…" and went off. A minute later, a damp redhead returned. She answered the question in Ranko's eyes: "It's easier to talk about feelin's'n stuff this way."

Ranko nodded warily; she'd done the same thing herself. The two of them went into Akane's room. As they closed the door, Nabiki's opened.

Ranko sat in Akane's desk chair, and swiveled around to face her double sitting on the bed. "Well?" she asked simply.

Ranma sighed. "Yeah. I guess I did all the same stuff you talked about." She looked Ranko in the eye. "But I meant it. I'm a guy. I don't wanna be a girl."

Ranko raised an eyebrow. "If you don't want to be a girl, why are we having a girl-to-girl chat right now?"

Ranma winced again. "I told you, it's easier to talk about some things this way. Guys aren't supposed to talk about their feelin's'n stuff like that. That don't mean I like bein' a girl."

Ranko regarded the other redhead carefully. "Do you like being a guy?"

Ranma looked confused, and said earnestly, "Of course! Why wouldn't I?"

Ranko closed her eyes momentarily in relief, even as she felt a little queasy. The idea of a male version of herself was still a little disquieting, though she was getting used to Ranma. "All right, I think I believe you."

"Nobody else does. You heard 'em."

"I have to admit, I don't understand it at all. I don't know why you do so many of the things I did, if you feel like a guy. After all, you were born a boy, so you didn't have your father beating you over the head incessantly to be a man, be manly, be a man amongst men…" She trailed off at the confused expression on Ranma's face. "Wait… did Father do all that to you, too?" Ranma nodded vigorously. "But why? What was the point? You were a boy already!"

Ranma was staring back at her. "You don't know, do you? I guess you wouldn't, since you're Mom's daughter in your world, and Pop ran off with you without tellin' Mom."

"Know what?"

"About the promise Pop made to Mom."

Ranko was utterly bewildered. "Promise? What promise?"

"When he took me away on our trainin' trip. She wasn't keen on not seein' me for ten years. To talk her into it, Pop promised he'd make me a 'man amongst men.'" Ranma shook her head. "And to prove he meant it, he wrote up this contract that said if I wasn't, we'd both commit seppuku."

Ranko laughed nervously. "Be serious, will you? Even Father… wouldn't…" She trailed off at Ranma's expression. "Oh, Kami-sama…" She turned pale, and gripped the arms of Akane's chair tightly.

She needed a few moments to regain her composure. "But… you were a child… how could you even sign it?"

"He tricked me into puttin' my handprints on it."

"But surely Mother wouldn't take something like that seriously…" Ranma nodded sadly. "No… no… not Mother. She's not like that… She's not an idiot like Father is… Mother… how… how could you?" Tears were running down her cheeks. How could her mother, a wise, sensible, tolerant woman, a woman Ranko idolized, do something as loony as that?

Ranma looked on uncomfortably, her fingers tapping nervously on the comforter. "I'm sorry. It bugs me, too."

"But why? Why would Mother do something like that?"

Ranma sighed. "She's real old-fashioned and traditional."

Ranko shook her head. "My mother is certainly a lady, but that's just the style she's comfortable with. She would never take something like that contract seriously." Again she wondered why her mother was different in this world. She tried to regain her composure. "Anyway, so you had this stupid contract…"

"Pop was terrified Mom'd call him on it, I guess, so he was always poundin' on me to be manly. When I fell in the Nyanniichuan, he really got frantic. When Mom started visitin', we hid as 'Tendou Ranko' and her pet panda."

"So what did Mother think when she found out?"

"She thought 'Ranko' was already plenty manly enough. She didn't care what my body looked like, it turns out. I guess we were lucky."

Ranko nodded thoughtfully. "So if you don't want to be a girl, why do you pose as one so much?"

Ranma looked off to the side and thought. "I guess… it's handy. It's good for disguises, it confuses opponents and throws 'em off." She grinned. "I do it to Ryouga constantly, and I fool him every time." Ranko suddenly turned pale. "Hey, you said you did that once, right? So you got Ryouga in your world."

Ranko fidgeted. "Ummm, yes."

"I bet he really freaked when he found out you were a girl. He probably apologized and got more friendly, right?"

"Uhhh… you could say that…"

Ranma nodded. "Anyway, like I said, I can also do stuff I can't do as a guy. Talk about feelin's, be friends with girls, eat ice cream parfaits." She blushed and looked down. "Talk to Akane a little better."

Ranko frowned. "Why can't you do those things as a guy?"

Ranma looked at Ranko as if she were an idiot. "Guys don't do stuff like that!"

Ranko was thunderstruck. Apparently, being raised by Saotome Genma was enough to screw anybody up, girl or boy. "So, Ryouga never talks about his feelings?"

Ranma looked confused. "Well—"

"And Uncle Tendou is unmanly because he cries?"

Ranma fidgeted uncomfortably. "Ummm—"

"OK, bad example. And Dr. Toufuu was unmanly because he was kind?"

"'Course not!"

"And Hiroshi and Daisuke are unmanly because they're friends with me?"

"Heh… I didn't mean it that way…"

"And Father wouldn't eat an ice cream parfait if it was sitting in front of him?"

Ranma frowned. "Pop would eat anythin' if it was sittin' in front of him."

Ranko nodded. "Ranma, I used to think the same way you do. But over the last seven months, I've learned that it is OK for guys to do things like that." She leaned forward. "I found out from Father that even he didn't believe all that nonsense about manliness. He was just telling it to me to try to reinforce my manhood. It backfired, of course, but that's kind of par for the course for Father." She regarded Ranma carefully. "The real question is, do you think you're manly?"

Ranma spluttered, "'Course I am!"

Ranko shook her head. "No. Don't give me the canned answer. I used to say the same thing." Ranma blushed. "Tell me how you really feel. I swear I won't tell anyone else. On my honor as a martial artist."

Ranma looked down, and was silent for a long time. Ranko went over to the bed, sat next to her twin, and took her hand. Ranma winced, but didn't object. "You can tell me. It's OK. After all, you're just talking to yourself, right?" Ranma smiled a tiny smile.

Finally, she looked up, her face crimson with shame, and spoke in a small voice. "Pop is always tellin' me I act like a girl, and now I got this curse. And I keep hurtin' Akane. How can I be manly?" She poked herself in the bosom. "Does this look manly?" She looked down again, her lips a thin line.

Ranko thought for a while. "Ranma, what does being 'manly' really mean, anyway? Is the curse that important? Akane told me you fought and killed a god to save her life." Ranma nodded. "That doesn't sound to me like a person who's unmanly, who should be ashamed of who they are. You're a good person. You're a great martial artist. Isn't that what really counts?" Ranma looked pensive. "Just be yourself, and don't worry so much about whether you're manly."

Ranma whispered, "But I'm a guy. I'm supposed to act like one."

Ranko nodded. "I know. But you don't have to be macho all the time to be a guy. When I was a macho guy, I wasn't really a man; I was a fake." She sighed. "Men have feelings, you know. Men cry sometimes. Men even eat ice cream parfaits." She grinned, and Ranma smiled faintly. "You can have a girl's body and still be a man. It sounds like Mother understands that."

"But Pop keeps sayin'…"

"We both know he'll say whatever it takes to get what he wants. And if he thought you needed to be as manly as possible…"

Ranma thought about that. "Well… he is pretty desperate about that seppuku pledge." Ranko nodded emphatically. "I dunno… maybe… And what about Akane? How come we get on better when I'm like this? How come she gets along so well with you?"

"I haven't really watched the two of you, and I don't remember that well from when I was a guy, so I'm not sure. I did get along better with Akane when I was in my girl form, but I'm not sure why. I didn't really get along well with her until I stopped insulting her and acting like a macho jerk."

Ranma glared. "She insults me, too, y'know!"

Ranko shrugged. "She stopped insulting me when I stopped insulting her, and tried to be her friend." She paused, remembering something that had happened right after she had learned she was a girl. "You know, I had a talk with Dr. Toufuu when I was trying to decide whether to be a girl again. He told me that my sexist views about men and women made it difficult for me to relate to women well, and he was right."

She smiled a very Kasumi-like smile, catching Ranma by surprise. "If you really care about Akane—or any woman—you need to start trying to change that. You'll never be able to get along with her until you do. If you're going to marry her and make it last a lifetime, you need to be her friend, Ranma—not just her love interest."

Her smile changed to a wry grin. "Believe me, I understand the female viewpoint on relationships a lot better now. And I understand Akane a lot better. She's a lot like me, and that means she's a lot like you, too. If you start treating her with respect, and as a friend, I think you'll be amazed."

Ranma looked very unsure of herself. "I… I dunno. I guess that all makes sense, but… I'll… I'll think about it." She looked Ranko in the eye. "What about Mom?"

"If she can deal with you having a girl's body sometimes, I think she can deal with you eating an ice cream parfait or expressing your feelings. I don't notice her pulling her katana on Uncle Tendou." Ranma nodded but didn't otherwise respond.

Ranko's eyes narrowed. Besides, I think she and I need to have a little chat, too.


Akane turned over on her side and peered at her temporary roommate, curled up in the futon on the floor. Tonight, she was just a few feet away, not on the other side of the room. She'd already been in her futon when Akane had stumbled in from her culinary Vietnam in the kitchen. "Ranko?" she whispered.

"Mmmm?"

"You're still awake? It's nearly midnight. I thought you were tired."

"I am tired. I was tired last night, too." She sighed.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"I just feel… really homesick. I'm fine during the day; everyone is close enough to my family that it feels familiar. I hardly even think about it. But at night, lying here trying to go to sleep, I think about home. About my Akane. My mother and father. My big sisters. And… and my… boyfriend." She bit her lip, suddenly wondering why she hadn't wanted to be formally engaged; she wished she could have called him her fiancé just now. "I miss them, and I wonder what's happening to them. I've been gone for a day and a half now, and they must think someone murdered me for my violin or something." There was a long pause. "I want to go home." There was a sniffle.

"Ranko… I'm sure we'll get you home. And we may not be the family you know, but we're still your family. What Auntie said goes for all of us, I think: if you do get stuck here, you've got a family. A family that will love you." Maybe… some of us already do. "Hang in there, OK?" Ranko made a noise that sounded like agreement, and another sniffle.

Akane really wanted to continue the conversation about Ranma from earlier that evening, but now didn't seem like an appropriate time. She'd have to wait until tomorrow. "There must be a reason you were brought here. If we can figure out what it is, maybe we can figure out how to send you back." Again, Akane felt a little tinge of uneasiness.

Ranko took a while to reply. "Maybe. But so far, we don't have any clues. If whoever or whatever brought me here didn't leave any, I don't know how we'll figure it out."

"Maybe we could go see Cologne. She always seems to have some idea or suggestion."

Ranko brightened a little. "You're right. She helped me a lot when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do."

"We could even go see her tomorrow. Maybe she'll be able to give us some leads we can follow."

Ranko grew subdued again. "Yeah. Tomorrow…"

Akane glanced over at the clock. "Later today, actually. It's after midnight. I guess we really ought to get to sleep."

Suddenly, a muffled sniff emanated from the futon, followed by soft crying noises. Akane got out of bed and knelt next to her roommate, putting a hand on her shoulder. "What's wrong?"

The other girl's head shook back and forth. "It's just… I… I really wanted to get home before… before… now."

Akane bit her lip. She'd wanted to surprise Ranko in the morning, but she needed a little TLC right now. She started rubbing the redhead's back. "Come on now, we can't have the birthday girl in tears."

Ranko turned over to face Akane, her wet eyes wide with surprise. "You… you knew?"

Akane smiled and nodded, and was startled when Ranko started to cry even more. She sighed and gathered the smaller girl into her embrace. "Tell me what hurts, OK?"

"It… it was going to be my first birthday in thirteen years as myself. My first birthday in thirteen years with Mother, and my sisters, with cake and presents and not having to fight Father for campfire rice as if it were any other day of the year. My first birthday with… with Ryouga. It was going to be so… suh… special…" She sobbed into Akane's shoulder, while Akane kept rubbing her back and making soothing noises.

"I know it's not home, but we'll try our best to make it special, OK?" Ranko nodded wordlessly, her face still in Akane's shoulder.

Eventually, the crying stopped, and Ranko's breathing became regular. Akane gently lowered her onto the futon, and covered her up. She gazed at the sleeping redhead, and smiled. Sometimes a hug can do wonders.

She watched the covers gently rise and fall for a minute. Ranko was so similar to Ranma, but so different, too. Both were emotional, but Ranma guarded his feelings carefully, while Ranko's were out in the open, on full display—and thus unshielded. If Akane hadn't known just how passionate Ranma was behind the studied indifference, she would have had a hard time believing that he could become this girl.

She smiled, bemused. She didn't want Ranma to be a girl, but it might not be a bad thing if he opened up a little more. If he cried every once in a while.

Akane climbed back into bed, and plotted birthday ideas until sleep overtook her.


Cheep.

Akane suddenly became aware of morning light beating on the other side of her still-closed eyelids as the outside world slowly started to seep back into her consciousness.

Cheep. Chitter chitter.

The sounds of the birds outside her window made their way through her ears and added to the barrage of sensory information. There seemed to be some kind of convention going on out in the garden.

Cheep cheep. Chitter.

She became aware of the pressure on her side from lying on it too long, and rolled over on her back. She felt and heard the rustle of the sheets, the creak of the bedsprings. The comforter tickled her nose. She sighed; she was awake.

She rolled over on her other side and found herself looking at a familiar face surrounded by a riot of red hair. As she watched, the eyes squeezed shut a little tighter, and there was a faint little "Mmmm" of protest at the boorish avian conventioneers outside.

She smiled. "Happy Birthday."

There was another "Mmmm," which might have been a sound of pleased acknowledgement.

"Does the birthday girl want to spar, or sleep in?"

The birthday girl gave an emphatic "Mmmm!" and pointedly buried her face in her pillow.

Akane laughed softly. "I see. I'll come roust you later."

There was no response. "I'll take that as an OK." She rose, dressed quietly, and slipped from the room.

A few minutes later, as she approached the family room, she heard Kasumi's voice. "Maybe a little higher on your side, Auntie?"

"Yes, I think so, Dear."

Akane smiled as she came into the room; Kasumi and Ranma's mother were on stepstools, each holding one end of a long string from which hung cutout characters saying "Happy Birthday Ranma and Ranko!" They were fastening the ends near the ceiling. "Good morning Auntie, Oneechan." The two other women responded in kind.

"Where is Ranko, Dear?"

"She wanted to sleep in this morning. I'll go prod her in a little while."

Nodoka stepped down and surveyed their handiwork. "It looks nice, Kasumi-chan."

Kasumi beamed and stepped down as well. "Thank you for your help, Auntie." She started to fold the stepstools.

"Not at all, Dear; after all, it's my son's birthday." She paused for a moment, and added thoughtfully, "And… my daughter's."

Suddenly, from outside, there came the sounds of a crash, followed by an enormous splash in the koi pond. They rushed to the porch to find a rather peeved-looking panda sitting in the pond. It held up a sign. "Show more respect for your father, Boy!"

They looked up to Ranma's window; a redheaded girl was leaning out, wearing pajamas. Akane blinked; this was getting really confusing. The redhead shouted, "I told ya last night I wanted to sleep in on my birthday, not spar! You didn't haveta use a bucket on me!" Definitely Ranma, not Ranko.

Another sign. "You're getting too soft!"

"At least I ain't soft in the head, like you!" She slammed the window shut. The panda started to extricate itself from the pond, and the three women turned back inside, where they found themselves face to face with… a redheaded girl wearing pajamas. She was rubbing her eyes. Akane blinked again.

The panda came up behind them and flashed another sign. "So, you've come to your senses?"

The redhead stared, confused. "Come to my senses about what, Father?" Suddenly, Akane noticed the unbound hair. This one was Ranko.

The panda flipped its sign. "Oops. Wrong redhead. Never mind." It headed into the kitchen.

Ranko yawned hugely. "What was all the racket? I wanted to sleep some more."

Nodoka smiled. "Your father and Ranma were having a disagreement about training, Dear. Oh, and Happy Birthday."

Kasumi nodded and smiled. "Happy Birthday, Ranko-chan."

Genma reentered the room, somewhat sodden. "Yes, Happy Birthday, child."

Ranko looked around and smiled, a little teary. "Thank you." Her eyes found the banner, and her mouth opened in surprise. "You all knew, didn't you?"

Kasumi laughed. "We managed to figure it out."

Nodoka smiled. "Are you going to spend your birthday lounging around in your pajamas, young lady?"

Ranko blushed slightly. "I forgot to get something out of Ranma's closet before I went to bed last night, and I didn't want to disturb him this morning."

Akane grinned. "Today, I've got something for you that isn't in Ranma's closet." Ranko raised her eyebrows in query. "Come on." She took Ranko by the hand, and led her back up the stairs.

As they reached the head of the stairs, they came face to face with another redhead, wearing Chinese clothes. Akane and Ranko chorused, "Happy Birthday, Ranma." Akane added, "I thought you wanted to sleep in?"

Ranma fumed. "I did, but I couldn't get back to sleep after the old man woke me up and got me all wet. Now I gotta go change back." She moved to go past Akane. Akane didn't budge.

Ranma looked up. "What?"

Akane cleared her throat. "It's someone else's birthday today, too." Her eyes motioned in Ranko's direction.

Ranma stared blankly for a second; then her eyes widened in understanding. "Oh, yeah. I guess that makes sense. Happy Birthday, kiddo." She grinned. "I guess this time 'round, we're twins." Ranko smiled and nodded. Ranma went downstairs in search of hot water, and Akane continued on into her room, Ranko right behind her. Ranma stopped at the bottom of the stairs, suddenly lost in thought. Twins…

Akane sat Ranko down on her bed, then went over to her closet and started rummaging. "It's in here somewhere…"

"Is this one of your outfits, Sis?" Ranko bit her lip; Akane's clothes never really fit her quite right.

"No, it's something I got for Ranma."

Ranko blinked. "For Ranma?"

Akane laughed. "That sounds a little strange, doesn't it? It was that time when he hit his head and thought he was a girl. Hmmm, what's the best way to explain this?" She paused for a moment, thinking. "You see, I was trying to force him… well, her, I guess, at least for that one day… I was trying to force her to stay in her guy form, hoping she'd get back to normal. She came shopping with me, and was running around checking out all the clothes and the lingerie—remember, this is while she was a guy. We were getting all sorts of stares. Finally, she needed to use the restroom, and I tried to make her go to the men's room. She was in tears and just couldn't do it. I finally took pity on her and poured some cold water on her, but she was still upset. I felt so guilty I bought her a dress she liked to cheer her up." Akane blushed slightly, remembering. Ranko's jaw was agape at all this.

Akane collected her thoughts. "Anyway, once she was a he again, he didn't want it, and I couldn't return it because he… she had worn it. I honestly don't know what I was thinking when I bought it." She sighed. "It was 35,600 yen."

"35,600 yen?" Ranko shook her head. "So how did he get back to normal?"

Akane blushed again, more deeply this time. "Umm… a blow to the head." Ranko decided she wouldn't press, but she had a pretty good idea how that had happened.

Akane brightened. "Ah ha!" She reached back into the recesses of her closet and pulled out a dress. It was a white sundress, with ruffles on the straps and along the hem of the billowy skirt. It had a white bow on the bodice. She held it up for Ranko's inspection. "So, what do you think?"

Ranko stood up and came over to get a closer look. "Hmmm… well, it's a little frillier than what I normally go for, but…" her eyes came up and met Akane's, "it definitely says, 'Birthday Girl!'" They grinned at each other.


"Akane! Ranko-chan! Breakfast is ready!" Kasumi peered up the stairs; the two had been upstairs for a half hour.

"Coming, Oneechan…" Kasumi smiled and walked back down the hall, then stopped and blinked. Had that been Akane or Ranko?

A couple of minutes later Akane and Ranko entered the family room, and Kasumi exclaimed "Ranko-chan, you look wonderful!"

Everyone turned to look, and Nodoka's heart caught in her throat. Ranko was wearing a very feminine white sundress, one she hadn't seen before among her son's female wardrobe. Her hair had been brushed until it shone, and was carefully gathered together with an ornament. Though Ranko wasn't wearing a trace of makeup, Nodoka was struck by what a beautiful young woman she was. She looks so much like I did when I was that age…

Their eyes found each other, and Ranko smiled a shy smile, a smile which asked, "Do you like it, Mother?" Once again, Nodoka felt herself losing her battle to keep from thinking of Ranko as her own daughter. She knew it would cause her pain when Ranko returned to her own world, but she couldn't help herself.

She shook herself and smiled back. "You look lovely, Dear. What a beautiful dress! Is that one of Ranma's? I don't remember buying it." Kasumi chimed in her agreement. Nabiki was thinking how much Kunou would pay for photographs of his pigtailed goddess in this dress, and resolved to take some before the day was over. Genma was musing that maybe… maybe it would have been nice to have a daughter as well as a son…

Ranma himself was busy staring at the dress; it looked familiar, and he was trying to remember where he'd seen it before.

Akane and Ranko exchanged glances. "It's one I bought for Ranma that time he thought he was a girl, Auntie." Ranma, his memory jogged, turned slightly pink.

Nodoka merely raised an eyebrow and nodded. Ranko and Akane went to sit down, and Ranko caught her father watching her silently. She smiled at him, and a smile crept onto his face as well.

After they had started eating, Nodoka turned to her son. "So, Dear, have you thought about what you are going to do on your birthday?"

Ranma looked off to one side. "Not really. I dunno, probably just work out a bit, and hang out here, with… my family." Again, he blushed slightly. "Kasumi, you said everyone was comin' over this afternoon for the party?" Kasumi nodded.

Nodoka turned to Ranko. "And you, Dear?"

Ranko and Akane exchanged glances. "Actually, we were planning to go visit… umm, Cologne." Akane nodded agreement.

A hush fell over the table. "Really, Dear? Why?"

Ranko blushed slightly. "Akane and I talked about it last night. We thought she might have some idea what happened to me, and how to get me home."

Nodoka tried hard to ignore the twinge of uneasiness she felt at that last. "That sounds like a good plan. She seems very knowledgeable about magic and such."

Ranko turned to Ranma. "Ranma? I was kind of hoping you would come along."

That brought Ranma up short. "Huh? Me? What for?"

"It would save a whole lot of explaining. When I told my Cologne that I was a girl, she didn't believe me at first. Please?"

Ranma sighed. He wasn't exactly keen to see Shampoo after the wedding debacle. "Sure, I guess."

After breakfast Akane, Ranko, and Ranma headed for the door. Ranko scanned the shoe rack and pursed her lips. "Ranma doesn't have anything that goes with this dress. My loafers don't really go either, but I guess they'll have to do."

Akane thought for a moment. "Wait a second, I'll be right back." She scurried up the stairs, and returned a minute later with a shoe box, from which she pulled a pair of white heels. "We bought these at the same time." Ranma looked rather uncomfortable.

Akane frowned as a possible problem occurred to her. "You can handle heels, right?"

Ranko snorted. "When you're my height, it's a good idea to learn." Akane giggled. They donned their shoes, and left.


As had been the case for the last few days, the weather was gorgeous. The sun shone brightly from a sky which was clear save for a few high, thin clouds, and the air, while crisp, was warm enough to be comfortable, though Ranko's sleeveless dress left her feeling a little chilly. She sighed; seven months as a girl had taught her that the price of looking pretty was often discomfort of one kind or another. She was grateful for the warmth of the sunshine.

As they walked along the main Fuurinkan-cho shopping street, the trio noticed that they were on the receiving end of a fair number of stares. The three of them were astonished; it seemed as if they were running into most of the student body of Fuurinkan. It was almost like someone had arranged it.

Sadly, one of them was Kunou. He did a double-take, he blinked, and then he smiled triumphantly. "I knew it! Thus is the vile lie exposed!" A crowd of their classmates started to gather around them. The owner of the produce store they were gathered in front of sighed and put his head in his hands.

Ranko and Ranma blinked at each other. "'Vile lie'?"

Kunou pointed his bokken at Ranma. "Surely, Saotome, you do not deny your part in propagating the foul rumor that you and this fair flower of womanhood—who is looking particularly lovely today, I might add—are one and the same? Now it is exposed for the baseless falsehood I have always known it to be!"

Many of the students were staring, and murmurs started to run through the crowd. "But… but… I've seen him change!" "D'ya think it was special effects or somethin'?" "Baka! Special effects are only on TV and in the movies!" "Geez, maybe we can date her after all…" Ranma rolled his eyes at this last.

Kunou took a step forward, striking a threatening pose with his bokken. "Now, fair maiden, I will free you from this evil sorceror's grasp once and for all! He has had his way with you for the last time!"

Ranko gagged at the mental image, but it gave her an idea. She leaned towards Ranma and whispered, "Will you follow my lead? My Nabiki came up with a good idea, and I think it'll work for you, too."

Ranma shrugged. "Why not try it? Nothin' else works with this moron."

Ranko didn't respond, but grabbed Ranma's arm and glared at Kunou. "Senpai, how dare you say such disgusting things about my big brother! The very idea… that he would… with his own little sister…" She looked away, blushing deeply. Akane and Ranma's jaws dropped.

A bewildered look came over Kunou's face. His brow furrowed as his brain labored mightily to assimilate Ranko's words. "Your… big… brother?…"

Ranko nodded. "We have the same parents. We were even born at the very same time." She smiled. "He came into this world before I did, though." Akane stifled a giggle.

Kunou—and all the other students, for that matter—seemed to be in shock. "T-twins?"

"Yes. Saotome Ranma and Saotome Ranko. And I don't like the way you've been treating him!" She clutched Ranma's arm a little tighter. "I'm very fond of Oniichan and you haven't been very nice to him."

Ranma and Akane looked at each other; Akane shrugged. Ranma turned to Kunou. "Yeah, and I don't like the way you're hittin' on my little sister all the time. She's already told ya to buzz off."

Ranko smiled up at Ranma. "Thank you, Oniichan."

Ranma smiled back. "Any time, kiddo." Akane rolled her eyes.

Kunou's mouth was opening and closing, but no sound emerged. Finally, he managed, "Indeed… now that I see you beside one another for the very first time… there is an undeniable resemblance…" He shook his head; sadly, this didn't unjam any of the mental gears that had been rusted solid for many years now. "Beauteous Ranko, I… I must apologize for making such an… unseemly allegation. It should not have come from the lips of a gentleman such as I." He glared at Ranma. "There is much that I cannot forgive your brother, but it seems that in one respect I have been mistaken." He inclined his head the slightest amount. "I most regret the pain it has caused you, my fair flower."

He regarded both Akane and Ranko. "I shall never abandon my efforts to bring true happiness to your lives through your association with my own august person, but I must meditate on what I have learned today. Ladies, Saotome, adieu." He bowed stiffly, and walked off.

In an instant, Ranko and Ranma were surrounded by a crowd of Fuurinkan students. "Hey, Ranma, you were holdin' out on us! And you told us she was your cursed form…" "Hey beautiful, you doin' anythin' tonight?" "So all that Jusenkyou stuff was just a load'a BS?" "But… but… but… but… I saw him change!"

The latter student grabbed the hose lying on the rack of vegetables at the front of the produce store, and turned it on Ranma, who shouted "Hey!"

The buzz of conversation died instantly as two redheaded girls now stood in the center of the crowd. Everyone stared silently, except for the student with the hose, who said, "I told you I saw him change!"

Finally, one of the students asked, "What's goin' on, Ranma? Why are there two of you? And… and which one is the real one?"

Akane forced her way through the crowd. She put her hand on Ranma's shoulder. "This is our Ranma." She put her other hand on Ranko's shoulder. "This is Ranko. She's another Ranma from a parallel world, except she was born a girl, and she doesn't have a curse." Ranko's eyes spoke her gratitude to Akane for omitting the messy little details about her past. "They're both 'real.' Ranko showed up the day before yesterday. She doesn't know how she got here and we're trying to figure out how to get her back home."

All the students stared for a moment; then, the one who had asked the question said, "Oh, is that all? OK. I guess that makes more sense than Kunou bein' right." Several students nodded, and the crowd started to disperse. One more boy tried to ask Ranko for a date, and a few of the girls expressed their sympathies for her predicament, but soon the three of them were alone again, feeling slightly dazed.

Ranma shook her head. "Y'know, I ain't sure what just happened, but it says somethin' pretty sad about my life." Ranko and Akane sighed in agreement.


Shampoo squinted at the napkin dispenser, and tsked. There was a spot of… something on it. She grumbled to herself. I'm an Amazon warrior, and I'm cleaning napkin dispensers. She went after it with her rag, and in short order it was spotless and shiny. She sighed, and proceeded to the next table.

The door chime rang, and she looked up. There was a redheaded girl standing in the doorway, who was just starting to open her mouth in greeting. Shampoo bounded over and attached herself in her usual airtight fashion, glad for the distraction. "Airen! Shampoo so happy to see you!" Shampoo smiled at her Airen, then blinked. She was looking extremely pale and uncomfortable, which was normal. She was also wearing a dress, a hair ornament, and had pierced ears. That definitely wasn't normal. Well, the pierced ears, anyway. "Airen… go little bit overboard, no? Pierced ears is for keeps." And… it felt like… yes… her Airen was wearing a bra, too. Hmmm. Shampoo wondered about her Airen sometimes.

The redhead struggled to find her voice. "Shampoo… could… could you please let go of me… now. Please." Shampoo merely smiled and adhered to her Airen a little more… thoroughly. The redhead turned a sickly pale color.

There was the sound of a throat being cleared, and Shampoo looked up from her Airen… into the eyes of her Airen. She blinked. This one looked normal: pigtail, Chinese clothes. No pierced ears. She noted that Violent Girl was also present, and looked dangerously angry. Too bad.

The Airen she was glomping said faintly, "Please… let… go… of… me." She looked like she was turning slightly green.

Shampoo shrugged and released her; she sagged against the wall in relief. Shampoo looked back and forth between the two redheads, and smiled. "If two Airens, Shampoo get one?" The redhead in Chinese clothes sighed, and the one in a dress started turning green again.

Cologne, who had been watching all this in silence, smiled and shook her head. And to think I was considering going home. She cleared her throat. "Well, this certainly looks interesting, Son-in-law." She looked back and forth between the two redheads. "Errr… and which one of you would that be?" Ranma sheepishly raised her hand. Thank goodness for that, thought Cologne. "I assume this situation has something to do with your visit?"

The other Ranma nodded. "Yes, Great-Grandmother. I need your help."

Cologne was shocked, which was quite an accomplishment considering her years. "What did you call me?"

Shampoo clapped her hands together in delight. "Shampoo knew she get one!"

The redhead in a dress glared. "You are not 'getting' me! I'm a girl, for goodness' sake!" She turned to Cologne as Shampoo glared right back at her. "I called you 'Great-Grandmother,' because that's what I call you… back home."

Cologne nodded slowly. "I see—I think." She motioned towards a table. "Perhaps we should all sit down. I believe this may take a while."

A half hour later, Cologne was nodding again, while Shampoo stared at Ranko, in shock from all she had heard. "Fascinating. It's a rare opportunity indeed to have a chance to contact a parallel world, to see how a difference like this changes some things—and doesn't change others." She smiled. "I'm glad I had a chance to meet you, my dear. Please tell my counterpart in your world what you saw here—I know she will be equally fascinated." And you've helped me to understand Son-in-law's feelings just a little better, as well. She glanced over at Ranma, who had availed himself of some hot water from the kitchen while Ranko told her tale.

Ranko brightened. "Does that mean you know how to send me home, Great-Grandmother?"

Cologne sighed and shook her head. "I'm sorry, child. It takes powerful magic to effect what has happened here. The Nanban mirror could do it, but it is destroyed. There are other artifacts of similar power, but they are all equally dangerous, and none of them are in my posession."

The redheaded girl sagged miserably. "How am I ever going to get home?"

Cologne leaned forward sympathetically. "Ranko, some agent brought you here. Someone, or… something. It couldn't have happened by accident; the magic required is too powerful. At some point, that agent will show its hand. When that happens, we'll have more to work with." She reached her hand across the table and placed it gently on Ranko's. "I promise, I will do my best to get you home." Ranko smiled back at her, and she felt a brief pang of jealousy for her counterpart in Ranko's world. As an Amazon, she couldn't help wondering occasionally what Ranma would have been like had he been born female. And here was that person, sitting in front of her.

Plus, Ranko had given her at least one good idea. Cologne had despaired of Shampoo ever achieving her full potential as a leader, but hadn't considered sending her to school here in Japan. It might be just the thing…

She turned her attention back to the conversation. "Meanwhile, go and enjoy your birthday. Enjoy your visit here in our world, and make the most of it; only a handful of people in history have had similar opportunities. When you learn more of how you came here—and you will—then come see me again."

Ranko nodded, and she and her companions rose. "Thank you, Great-Grandmother." She smiled. "I knew I could count on you. Akane was right."

Cologne raise an eyebrow. "Akane?"

Akane looked embarrassed. "It was… my idea, actually. To come here." Cologne merely smiled.

Shampoo suddenly blurted out, "Shampoo no understand!"

Everyone looked at her, surprised. "Understand what, Shampoo?" asked Cologne.

"How you can give up martial arts? Give up warrior's path? Airen not Airen without that!"

Ranko bit her lip and was trying to think how to reply when Ranma shocked them all by doing it for her. "I thought the same way, Shampoo, but her violin… I dunno… it's kinda the same thing. I mean, it's different, but I watched her play, and the stuff she does is still the same stuff I like about the Art. I think one'a the things I like about the Art is… it ain't just fightin'. It is an art—to me, anyway. 'Sides, she uses all sortsa stuff from the Art to play." He grinned. "Includin' stuff you guys taught her."

Ranko nodded. "That's all true, but my violin also lets me express myself—my feelings—in a way I just can't through the Art. I use all of me when I play the violin. After… after not really being myself for so many years, that's very important to me. And as I became more myself, and I understood my own heart better, I discovered that I just couldn't enjoy fighting any more." She smiled sadly. "I guess it was a double-edged sword."

Shampoo shook her head, still confused. "How can give up being warrior for stupid music?" Ranko glared.

Ranma blushed, and stammered, "Uhhhh… Shampoo, I ain't gonna give up the Art for anythin', but… but I like music, too. I always have. It ain't stupid. After seein' her play, I… I'd kinda like to try it. Just for fun."

The three girls' jaws dropped. Ranko asked, "Do you really mean it?" Ranma nodded, cheeks still pink with embarrassment.

Cologne watched, rapt. So different, and yet so alike. Seeing how the same basic traits—the vibrant pigments of Ranma's personality—manifested on the subtly different canvases of male and female was utterly fascinating. Just a little more emotional, a little more sensitive and caring—and a warrior becomes a violinist. Amazing.

She spoke up. "Shampoo, always remember that the warrior exists to protect the other elements of the human spirit. A true warrior should spend some time appreciating those, to understand what she is fighting for. There have been many great warriors throughout the ages who have been great artists as well. Some of them lived right here in Japan." Shampoo looked a little shell-shocked; Ranma looked thoughtful.

Ranko faced Cologne. "Great-Grandmother, thank you again." The matriarch nodded, and the three of them turned to leave.

Shampoo rose hastily from her chair. "Airen come see Shampoo again soon? Take Shampoo on date, yes?" Akane started to seethe, but Ranko put a hand on her arm, and she seemed to calm down.

Ranma blushed and stammered, "Uh… we gotta go now… see ya!" He made a hasty exit, followed by the two girls. Shampoo's face fell.

Cologne sighed. She had known for months that Shampoo had a snowball's chance in hell of winning Ranma for herself. Her behavior at the failed wedding had merely been the last straw. Cologne knew Ranma and Akane loved each other—she had been a woman for all of her very long life, after all. Hearing Ranko's description of her own relationship with Akane in her world, and watching Akane and Ranko together here for even just a short while, had cemented that certainty in Cologne's mind. Ranko was a fascinating lens through which to view Ranma's personality, and Ranma and Akane's relationship.

However, one of the most important attributes of a leader was judgment, including knowing which battles were worth fighting. Cologne had kept her views to herself, and was still waiting for her great-granddaughter to reach her own conclusions on the matter. She continued to be disappointed. Yes, school seemed like a good idea indeed.


"Akane?"

Akane blinked and turned away from her contemplation of the koi pond. She'd been lost in reflection on the interesting exchange that had taken place at the Nekohanten. "Yes, Oneechan?"

Kasumi smiled. "Lunch is nearly ready. Would you go and call Ranma and Ranko for me? I haven't seen them recently."

Akane nodded. "I will in a minute, Oneechan." Kasumi smiled again, and turned back to the kitchen.

Akane turned back to the koi pond, and resumed her ruminations. Once again, she mulled over Ranma's admission of interest in the violin, and his defense of Ranko's choices in life. Ranma would certainly leap to protect someone if they were in physical danger, but she'd been pleasantly surprised to see him using words for a change. And Ranma, interested in music? She supposed it made sense in hindsight, given Ranko's passion for it, but she never would have suspected.

Could it be that Ranma was more sensitive, more thoughtful, than she gave him credit for? She sighed and wished for the thousandth time that he wasn't such a jerk sometimes. It made it rather more difficult to appreciate his good qualities. Then again, considering how he'd been raised and by whom, maybe he hadn't turned out so badly…

She shook herself, rose, and set about looking for her fiancé and her… her… Akane didn't quite know how to complete the thought.

She looked upstairs in the bedrooms, but they weren't there. She cast about the first floor, but found no sign of them; she even looked in the bath, chiding herself a little for considering the idea. She was passing an open window when she heard a raucous screech float in from the dojo. That had sounded like Ranko's violin, but Ranko wouldn't play it that badly, would she?

Suddenly she gasped in realization, and headed out the door and down the connecting walkway to the other building. As she drew closer, she heard voices. Or more precisely, the same voice twice. It was like listening to someone talking to herself, and it was more than a little eerie.

"…less pressure. You need a delicate touch. You use the speed of the Chestnut Fist, but you need fine control, like picking up a single grain of rice with chopsticks. And be gentle; that violin is 150 years old!"

"Alright, gotcha. Lemme try it again."

A single, beautiful note emanated from the dojo, but mutated into something thin and rather scraggly at the end.

"Much better! You weren't pressing hard enough at the end. Try for more even pressure."

"OK. I think I understand."

This time, the note repeated, ending crisply.

"That was great! You got it!"

"Hey, I did!" There was the sound of two palms slapping.

Akane slid the door open. Two identical redheads turned and blinked at her. One was wearing a white sundress; the other was wearing Chinese clothes, and holding a violin and bow. Akane's jaw dropped. Ranma blushed and looked like she'd been caught with her hand in the cookie jar.

She looked vulnerable, and Akane would normally have taken the opportunity to puncture her arrogance a little, but for some reason, the thought didn't even occur to her. Instead, a smile slowly spread over her face. "Is someone taking violin lessons?" Ranko grinned.

Ranma realized there was no point in denying it, and her blush deepened. "Yeah. I… I wanted to try it out."

"And…?"

Ranma smiled uncertainly. "It's kinda… fun. So far."

Akane's smile broadened. "I'm glad. I don't know what your father, Mr. 'nothing but martial arts,' will think, but… I don't care, either." She winked, and they all laughed. Ranma felt strangely relieved, as if she had expected something bad to happen, but it hadn't.

Akane suddenly realized something and blinked. "Why are you doing it as a girl?"

Ranma blushed again. "I tried it as a guy to start with, and I wasn't gettin' anywhere. Bein' this way made it easier to copy what Ranko was showin' me." She held up her petite hands. "And it's easier with these tiny little things. I finally found somethin' they were good for." She laughed. "I figure after I get the hang of it this way I can probably do it as a guy, too."

Akane nodded thoughtfully. "So, are you getting the hang of it?"

Ranma looked embarrassed, and hesitated a long moment before replying. "Maybe not. It took me a couple tries to even hit a note right."

Akane stared in wonder; usually, Ranma never said a word about his prowess at anything except to brag. If he wasn't good at something—like school—he tended to dismiss it as useless. For him to admit weakness of any kind was nearly unheard of. What was going on here?

Ranko smiled ker Kasumi smile again. "When I picked up a violin for the first time, it took me a couple of tries, too." Ranma looked relieved, and nodded. "That's when my teacher told me it took most students weeks to hit a clear note." Ranma's mouth hung open, and Ranko put a hand on her shoulder. "It looks like you have the same talent for this that I do."

Akane was in shock all over again; unbidden, an image of Ranma playing the violin as expertly as Ranko flashed through her mind. "I… I guess that makes sense." She glanced at Ranma, who looked thunderstruck, and gently teased, "So, are you going to give up martial arts and become a violinist, too?"

Ranma shook her head vehemently. "No way! But…" She fell silent for a few moments, then spoke again. "I've been thinkin' about what the old ghoul said this mornin' about bein' a true warrior. When I used to tell Pop I liked music, he'd just whack me on the head and tell me to not think about anythin' but the Art." She paused again, and her expression grew thoughtful. "I ain't sure what I wanna do about this yet, but… I think I wanna keep tryin' it some more."

Akane nodded slowly, amazed. Ranma, not just interested in music, but seriously considering learning an instrument? The idea made her feel… proud, oddly enough. She shook herself. "I almost forgot why I came looking for you guys. Kasumi says lunch is nearly ready."

Ranma nodded, and handed the violin and bow back to Ranko, who set about putting them away. She gazed earnestly at her twin. "Maybe… after lunch…?"

Ranko smiled. "Sure, though I think the party guests will be coming soon. Maybe I can teach you a scale first, though. I guess I'll have to do my own practicing tonight."

Akane laughed. "It sounds like you guys are going to be fighting over that violin pretty soon!"

Both redheads chuckled, and Ranko playfully clutched the violin case to her bosom. "No way! This one's mine. Get your own!"

They all laughed, and turned to leave. Akane watched thoughtfully as the two twins headed down the walkway in front of her. Ranko had given her an idea…

More than that, though, something about what had just transpired in the dojo—and earlier at the Nekohanten—had opened her eyes. When Ranko had first arrived, Akane had been struck over and over again by her similarity to Ranma. She had been astonished to see so much of Ranma in Ranko. It had been frightening.

But today, for the first time, she was starting to notice the converse as well. She wasn't sure that he was actually changing; maybe he was just opening up to a new opportunity. Maybe she had just been blind to it before. Regardless of why, she was starting to see Ranko in Ranma.

And instead of fear, she felt hope.


As lunch ended, Ranko helped clear the dishes, following her mother, Kasumi, and Akane into the kitchen. When Kasumi and Nodoka saw what she was doing, they tsked their disapproval, and Nodoka summarily relieved her of the stack she had been carrying. "We'll have none of that, Dear. It's your birthday."

Ranko shook her head. "I don't mind."

Akane added, "It's just as well you came in; I needed to talk to you. Ranko, I have a last-minute birthday idea for Ranma, but I need your help."

Ranko raised an eyebrow. "Of course, Sis. What is it?"

"How much is a violin? Not a professional one like you have, just a simple model for a beginner?"

Kasumi and Nodoka stopped what they were doing. "A violin, for my son? Why, Akane-chan?"

Akane smiled. "It turns out he's interested in music, too. After he saw Ranko play, he wanted to try it himself. Ranko gave him a little lesson before lunch, and he said he liked it and wanted to continue with it. Ranko said he has the same talent for it she does." Kasumi and Nodoka's eyes went to Ranko, who nodded in confirmation.

Nodoka frowned. "He's to inherit the dojo, and carry on the Saotome School of martial arts." She was too preoccupied to notice Ranko's glare.

Akane blushed. "I know, Auntie, and he says he wants to. He doesn't want to be a violinist. The violin is just something he wants to try for its own sake."

Nodoka was still frowning. "Well… as long as it doesn't distract him from his obligations…"

Akane nodded vigorously. "When we visited the Nekohanten today, Cologne said that a true warrior has to appreciate the other elements of the human spirit, to know why he fights."

Nodoka brightened. "Yes, that's true. It seems appropriate, then."

Akane turned back to Ranko, and blinked; the redhead looked ready to explode, and was making a visible effort to control her temper. My God… that must be what I look like when I'm getting ready to lose it… She shivered. "Ranko?"

The shorter girl closed her eyes for a long moment. When she opened them, she seemed to be in control. "Yes?"

"Ummm… about a violin?"

Ranko nodded. "I'm afraid a halfway decent one costs twice what this dress did, Sis." Akane's face fell. "But don't give up. You can lease one for about 4000 yen a month. Eventually you wind up owning it. If he's not sure whether he wants to pursue it or not, that's actually probably better. If he does decide to stay with it, he can always buy it outright at any point. I know a music store on the main shopping street that does that; it's where I get some of my sheet music." She frowned. "Assuming it exists here."

Kasumi piped up. "I think I know which one you mean, Ranko-chan. I pass it often. Next to the bookstore, right?"

The redhead nodded. "He'll need a sensei, too, but I can do that while I'm here." She walked over to the phonebook and flipped through it; her face lit up as she found what she was looking for. "Here it is: Kobayakawa. I recognize the address and number." She turned to the other women. "Kobayakawa Yuriko. She was my sensei when I was just starting out. Assuming she also teaches music in this world, she's a wonderful sensei. She gives private lessons—or at least, my version of her does."

Akane looked hesitant for a moment. "Ranko? Would you be willing to… to go pick out a violin? By yourself? I'm afraid if Ranma sees me going with you, he'll figure out I'm up to something. I really want this to be a surprise. I'll give you the money."

Ranko smiled and nodded. "Sure, Sis. I was going to teach him scales after lunch, but I can make some excuse."

Kasumi held out one of her canvas shopping bags. "We'll say I needed someone to run to the store for something, and you volunteered. You can hide the violin in this when you come home." Ranko nodded and took the bag.

Akane was beaming. "This is great! He'll be so happy!" Ranko's mood couldn't help brightening at this, and her residual anger faded away.

Akane ran off to fetch her purse, and soon Ranko was putting her white heels back on in the genkan, getting ready to leave. Ranma came up behind Akane and asked, "Where're you goin'? I thought we were gonna do scales after lunch."

"I'm just running off to the market to get something for Kasumi. I should be back in forty-five minutes or so. We'll still have time."

"Oh." Ranma nodded, then hesitated for a moment. "That sounds like a lotta groceries. You want me to come with ya, and help carry stuff?"

Ranko panicked for a moment. "Ummm… no, no that's OK. It really won't be that much."

"Then why're you gonna take so long?" Ranko froze up.

Akane thought fast. "I asked her to pick up some pantyhose for me at the lingerie shop, too."

Ranma blanched. "Uhhh, OK. I… I'll see you later, then." He disappeared rapidly down the hall.

Ranko blew out her breath and relaxed. "Sis?"

"What?"

"You don't have to worry. I don't think he's a girl." Both of them burst into giggles.


Ranko smiled as a familiar bell jingled, announcing her arrival. She closed the door behind her, and looked around the shop. It was a bit old and dilapidated, having more the air of a curio shop than anything else. Wooden and metal cabinets were everywhere, and racks displayed sheet music in no discernible order. Artwork of musical instruments and musicians decorated the walls.

Companionable chaos reigned. The place looked like a disaster area, but she'd made many a find here. Besides, coming here was just plain fun.

She looked around; there were several other customers in the shop, browsing about. She glanced over to the counter, and found a familiar face surrounded by a shock of graying hair. She smiled a bittersweet smile; she and the proprietor were good friends, but it was a sure bet he wouldn't have any idea who she was. She walked slowly over.

"Nishi-san?"

Nishi Seiya looked up from the pile of disorganized sheet music he was attempting to sort, to find a rather stunning young woman with red hair looking up at him with an inquiring gaze. "Yes, young lady? What can I do for you?" She seemed to know his name, but then again it was on the sign out front.

The redhead sagged slightly, as if she were somehow disappointed in his response. "I'm interested in leasing a violin. Do you have time now?"

Nishi grinned. "I can always make time for a lovely young lady like yourself." She blushed and smiled. "Do you play?"

"Yes, but it's not for me. It's a surprise gift for someone who's interested in learning."

Nishi smiled broadly. "What a thoughtful idea! Still, if it's for someone else, it would really be best to bring them in and let them try the instruments in person."

Ranko bit her lip. "Ummm… it's for my twin sister. I can try it out for him… uhhh, her." Ranko winced slightly.

Nishi looked slightly askance at her. "If you say so…" He led her over to a locked cabinet. "Would you like a three-quarters size? You're a bit on the petite side."

"No, I'd like a full size, thank you."

He nodded and unlocked the cabinet. "I have two or three instruments suitable for a beginner. Why don't you have a look? I'll go fetch a bow and be right back." He moved off.

Ranko turned over and examined the instruments. Compared to her own, they seemed like toys. Experimentally, she put them to her chin and plucked the strings, pizzicato. One of them stood out a little; it reminded her of her first violin.

Nishi returned with a bow. "You certainly know how to hold the instrument, my dear. How long have you been studying?"

"About six months."

Nishi smiled. "It's always wonderful to see young people interested in taking up an instrument. Sometimes I think the only people left who are interested in classical music are broken-down old fossils like me." He handed the bow to Ranko as they both laughed.

Ranko spent a minute tuning the violin, plucking the strings. Satisfied, she drew a few notes with the bow. "Hmmm. I don't know…" Without further ado, she launched into the first few bars of the Bach Partita in E Major. She stopped, her brow furrowed. "I'm not sure about this one…"

There was no response. She looked up to find Nishi staring at her, not to mention all the other customers. "Nishi-san?"

Nishi swallowed. "You know, you might give an old man some warning. Did you say you'd been studying for six months? Not six years?"

She blushed. "Yes, it's been six months." Nishi shook his head, and a murmur ran through the shop.

"Did you say this violin was for your twin sister?" Ranko nodded. "Give me that… thing." He held out his hand in a peremptory fashion. Ranko meekly handed the violin over, and Nishi stuffed it back in the cabinet, locking it again. "Come with me."

He led her to another cabinet, and unlocked it. "Try one of these."

Ranko looked over the price tags and blanched. "Nishi-san… I'm not sure we can afford these. I was really hoping for something in the 4000 yen per month range…"

He shook his head. "These are 4000 yen per month for someone who can play like you… or for her twin sister." He smiled. "But I demand an additional payment as well."

Ranko regarded him warily. "What's that?"

"After you select a violin, you must finish the whole Partita. I'll not have cheeky young ladies tormenting my customers in this way." There were nods and a "Hear, hear!"

Ranko blushed. "All right… it's the least I can do if you're going to be so generous." She turned her attention back to the violins in the cabinet, picking them up and examining them carefully.

"If I might ask, what instrument do you use, Miss…?"

"Saotome Ranko, Nishi-san. I play a Lott 'del Gesù.'" She heard a whistle, and added hastily, "It's on loan, and I won't be able to pay for it for many years."

Nishi nodded, as if he'd expected no less. "Then, perhaps… this?" He lifted an instrument from the case.

Ranko hefted the instrument; it had a nice feel, not unlike her own. She turned it over. "Hmmm…" She lifted it to her chin and plucked a few strings, then smiled. She started to tune it up. Nishi smiled himself.

Ranko lifted the bow and started to play, losing herself almost immediately in the Bach Partita. It wasn't even close to her own instrument, but it was quite nice; better than her first.

She blinked when she realized she had come to the end of the Partita; had it really been twenty minutes? It must have been, for everyone in the shop broke into enthusiastic and prolonged applause.

When it had died down, Nishi said, "Well now, I'd say you've chosen your instrument, haven't you?" Ranko smiled and nodded. "Why don't we take care of the bureaucracy?" She giggled and followed him over to the counter.

Nishi pulled a form out. "What is your sister's name?"

"Saotome Ranma." Ranko bit her lip as she realized that she'd just condemned Ranma to having to come here as a girl to make the monthly payments. Well, if he can wear a bunny suit in public, he can certainly handle this.

"An unusual name for a girl. I take it she's as lovely as you?" He grinned roguishly.

"Ummm, she is my identical twin, but… she's quite a tomboy, actually."

"Ahhh," said Nishi, as if all were now clear. He continued on to ask Ranko her address, phone number, and the other pertinent details. Ranko hoped that the phone number at the Tendous was the same in this world; she hadn't thought to check that.

When they were done, and after Ranko had paid the first installment, Nishi got out a case, and placed the violin and bow inside. Ranko lifted the canvas bag to the counter, and the violin was placed gently inside.

Nishi smiled at her again. "I hope we will get a chance to see you here again soon, Saotome-san?"

Ranko wilted. "Nishi-san, I'm so sorry… I love this place, but I live far, far away from here. I'm just visiting my sister." Nishi sighed in disappointment. "But… there's a shop back home that's very similar. I think I will have to go visit as soon as I get home; I'm great friends with the proprietor." She smiled. "He's a lot like you."

"Lucky devil," muttered Nishi; they both laughed. "Well, I'll have to content myself with your twin sister. I can only hope she'll be at the same level in six months. It's been a pleasure, Saotome-san. Best of luck with your career." She hadn't said she was planning to play professionally, but then again she hadn't really needed to.

"Thank you so much for everything, Nishi-san." Ranko bowed low, then turned to go. She opened the door to the accompaniment of the little bell, then turned just outside the doorway to once again take in the whole place. She waved. "Goodbye, Nishi-san!"

He nodded gravely. "Goodbye." He sighed; somehow, he knew he'd never see her again.

Ranko let the door close, turned, and promptly ran into someone who had been walking past the shop. She somehow managed to hold onto the canvas bag holding the violin.

She bowed, mortified. "I'm so sorry! Please forgive me!"

A familiar voice replied, and Ranko's heart stopped. "No harm done, Miss. Maybe you can help me; is this Tokyo? I'm looking for the Tendou Dojo."


End Chapter 3

Saturday, January 13, 2001

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The characters and stories of Ranma ½ are Copyright © Rumiko Takahashi, and are used here without permission or license.

No claims to the above copyright are made by the author of this work.

This work is for non-commercial use ONLY, and is produced for the enjoyment of fans only.

This work is the expression of the author and the depiction of the Ranma ½ characters herein are in no way represented to be a part of Ranma ½ as depicted by the original author and copyright holder(s).