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The Contract

Chapter Text

12 years ago...

"We're finally here..." Tears filled the young martial artist's eyes as he surveyed the amazon village below. The sins of his grandfather would finally be made null and void. His exhausted wife approached him from behind, holding fast to their daughter's hand. Of all three, this journey had taken it's toll on the young mother the most. Each mincing step she took seemed more strained than the last. One wondered why she'd decided to wear a kimono for the trip, but there was no convincing her otherwise.

Genma frowned, pushing his glasses up on his nose. He patted the weathered and well-worn scroll tucked beneath his shirt to be sure it was still there, and hadn't been inadvertently swapped out during his last encounter with their former landlord. Some people could get really sneaky about getting their money. Luckily they'd fled the night before rent was due. Even worse, if Genma should have dropped it somewhere, he rather doubted Nodoka would be able to make a second trip around China to re-trace their steps to find the scroll again...not that the 'contract' didn't always find it's way back to the Saotome family anyway.

This was a solemn moment for the family. The final step of their terrible journey. "No-chan, I truly wish I could have spared you all of this pain," He told her as stepped closer to his wife and prepared his lips for a tender kiss.

"Genma-san, darling..." Nodoka began, smoothing her kimono as she spoke. She then smiled warmly at their little girl standing beside her, who looked as if she already knew what was going to happen.

Even Genma felt a little wary, noting a certain tone in his wife's voice that didn't usually bode well for him. Particularly in the backside region. They both desperately loved each other, but in recent months the strain of their daughter's future prospects had begun to wear on them both.

"If you were truly sorry," Nodoka stated, her eyes seeming to glow with a shining white light as she glared at her husband, "you'd have told me our daughter was going to be engaged to marry a demon before you married me!" She shouted, pulling out the sword she'd strapped to her back, still sheathed.

"Now, No-chan, we've discussed this before. You already agreed this isn't my fault!" Genma stammered, raising his hands and stepping back. He felt small rocks slipping from beneath his sandals and skittering down the steep drop-off behind him.

"Genma Saotome, I love you. I love you more than anyone else in the world.-other than our baby, of course." Nodoka looked down at Ranma and smiled again, seeming to switch gears instantaneously when it came to the child. Ranma, for her part, smiled back and proceeded to glare at her dad as well. She didn't really know why they were in China, what the word 'engaged' meant, or even why her mother was so mad, but it was always fun for the child to watch a good fight. Unlike most little boys or girls, seeing her parents go at it didn't really upset her at all. She just thought this was how people acted when they loved each other, which would likely prove to be a major problem later in life.

Nodoka went on, her voice taking on a dangerous edge to match her eerily-glowing eyes, "if this wise Amazon witch you've been yattering on about can't solve our problem," Nodoka swung the sheathed sword around behind her like a baseball bat. "You're going to be in big trouble!" She yelled, knocking Genma into the air. The martial artist went sailing across the landscape, and for a moment appeared to be just a twinkle in the sky, before he finally landed flat on his face in a large vegetable garden at the very edge of the village. There were no leafy survivors.

She took her time to re-wrap the cloth around her sword and shoulder the burden of the Saotome family legacy.

Kneeling down, Nodoka spoke to her daughter very firmly, but tender as she drew up a hand to smooth back the little girl's hair, "Ran-chan, I want you to promise me something."

"Yeah?" Ranma stuck a thumb in her mouth, innocent eyes staring back at Nodoka in wonder.

"I want you to promise me you will never strike at your father in anger, now matter how much he may deserve it, if there is the risk of property damage. Do you understand?"

"What's poperty?" Ranma asked, supremely confused.

Her mother sighed and stood up, holding our her hand, "you'll understand when you're old enough to take him on in a fight. Your father loves you, and everything he does for us is in his own misguided way, done with love. Except, of course, when he steals from your plate. You can hit him when he does that," Nodoka joked as Ranma happily took her mother's hand.

The little girl yawned, rubbing her eyes and nodding. "Sure, mom. I'll try." Even as young as she was, she had an odd feeling she was making a promise she would never be able to keep.

"12 years," the old woman intoned. She stuck her pipe in her mouth, and solemnly observed the young couple's reaction to her news. Even as the words passed her lips, their world looked like it had been shattered.

"Why only 12 years? Why can't this be permanent?" Asked the man, placing a hand upon his sleeping child's head as her mother cradled her. The little girl stirred, as if sensing in her sleep that something very terrible was about to happen. Judging by the indentation in her garden, Cologne couldn't really say Ranma Saotome wasn't well-acquainted with that feeling of dread. Genma seemed to be a man who invited chaos into his life.

"I can not break this contract, I can only buy you time. Perhaps it will be enough time to find a permanent solution," the old woman continued tapping at the table in front of her with her cane as she indicated a weathered scroll. It was faded and yellowed, the words written in eloquent script far beyond the skills of your average calligraphy hobbyist. It appeared to have been cut, burned, and torn in a thousand places, only to be somehow haphazardly mended. How Genma and Nodoka must have despised that piece of seemingly harmless vellum. It reeked of demon magic. She would have to purify her quarters after this transaction.

Nodoka Saotome held her daughter closer and silently wept. This was not the news they had been hoping to hear. "We've tried destroying it in every way we could think of, but it just keeps coming back," she explained, "you're absolutely sure there's not a spell of some sort to nullify the magic?" It was difficult to see the look of hope she'd arrived with crumble into absolute despair.

As for Cologne, it hadn't been the news she wanted to give either. They deserved the frank and direct truth, however, for all the trouble they'd been through trying to find a solution to their problem. The only one she could even offer, too, came at a dreadful price.

"A deal with a demon is sealed in blood. Do you know why this is?" She asked, leveling Genma with a very grave expression. The man could only shift in his seat on the infinitely valuable Chinese rug. Clearly, the answer to that question was beyond him. His bearing was that of a skilled martial artist, but not a genius.

"I'll tell you why. Because blood is the strongest bond a person can offer of their soul. Blood reaches the heart, the brain, and the very essence of one's being. Blood is binding, and blood is the strongest connection one may have to another. When your grandfather signed away Ranma's hand in marriage for-" she glanced down at the scroll, clearing her throat, "fish, rice, and two pickles-he bound it in his blood. The same blood that runs in your family's line. The same blood pumping through Ranma's veins. That anyone could make such a foolish trade is beyond me."

"So what you're saying is that there's nothing we can do," Nodoka whispered. "We can just put off the inevitable, and then we lose our child forever to the spirit world?"

Cologne shook her head, "no. As I said, a solution may be found, but even I don't have all of the answers that magic and wisdom may provide..." she trailed off. Somehow, finishing that sentence with 'I'm only human' didn't seem like it would contribute much to the conversation.

"And what is the price for these 12 years of protection?" Genma asked hopefully. "I can offer you my strength and charm, but I have nothing else to give you. I am a poor man, Cologne."

The old woman looked reluctant to answer his question, and even more reluctant to accept his ridiculous offer, but she could not remain silent forever. Taking a long pull from her pipe, she released the smoke into the air as she finally replied, "I'm sorry to say, but she will have to spend those years as a boy."

The hut fell silent. Ranma stirred only slightly in her mother's arms, nuzzling her face into the warmth of the well-worn kimono.

"Will she-" Nodoka finally spoke, squeezing her child a little tighter, "will she remember-what she was?"

Cologne shrugged, having no satisfying answer to give, "perhaps in time. We will come to that when it becomes a problem. 12 years is a long time. For now I can only tell you that the magic I am about to invoke will take a heavy toll on all three of you, and it will do as it pleases, but it can be done. It must be." With those final words, she tucked her pipe into her mouth and hopped onto her staff.

The couple gave a good long look at their little girl, and knew without speaking what they were going to do. The only thing they could do.

"Thank you, Cologne," Genma intoned, grasping one of his wife's hands tightly. They appeared to have a tension between them, but there was genuine love. The affection of two desperate people who wanted to protect their child. At all costs.

Present day

Ryoga sat up on his bedroll, clutching at his chest and gasping violently. His heart was beating a mile a minute. He could hardly breathe. How long had it been this time since he'd felt this awful pain? It was the same each time he found himself close to meeting Ranma again. Like an inner compass without the guidance, or some kind of biological divining rod, but inner compasses didn't exist. His life experiences had proved that a thousandfold.

Fuming, he wiped the sweat from his brow and tried to center himself. Saotome had made him feel like that since their very first encounter in middle school. In fact, it seemed his whole world came apart whenever that pig-tailed jerk was concerned. Ryoga knew he needed to calm down or else he'd never be able to consistently beat Saotome in a fair fight, but it was difficult. It seemed like the only thing that could keep his impotent rage at bay where Saotome was concerned was a tender look from Akane Tendo.

Ryoga grew teary-eyed at just the thought of her, and the happy moments she saw him as a pig instead of a man. If he weren't a pig, she'd be able to see him for who he really was. This curse was all Saotome's fault!


He mentally growled, standing up and deciding he wasn't going to get any more sleep that morning. Lately it seemed as if the pain of waking with thoughts of Saotome was getting worse. Ryoga didn't really want to admit it to himself, but even being around Ranma for a short period of time made his sense of direction seem to spiral out of control even more. Granted, it had always been pretty awful, but at least before middle school he'd taken only half the time to find his own backyard.

Things were going to change tonight. At long last. Ryoga's rage-filled vows transformed into manic laughter. Once he'd managed to calm down, he set to work strapping his bedroll to his back with his parasol on top. Oh yes, things were definitely going to change. All thanks to the aid of a dried old herb, too. He just had to steep it in a bit of hot water and be extra careful not to splash himself with it before the kettle boiled. That was what the instructions said, anyway. Just steep in boiled water. Usually when it came to tinctures and things he bought from China, though, things didn't turn out so well. It didn't matter. This time it would be different. Much different.

"Ranma Saotome! I will finally defeat you!" Ryoga called into the night. Thunder rumbled and a streak of lightning crackled through the sky. The forest around him seemed to thrum with his joy.

Meanwhile, a little old lady peeked through the curtain of her back porch window. She frowned. "Edgar, that silly boy is camping in our apple orchard again," she creaked, looking over at her husband.

"Ranma!" Genma cried out, striking a dramatic pose in the backyard as he stood majestically on a large rock by the koi pond.

"Yeah, what is it, old man?" his son crossed his arms, un-phased by Genma's usual theatrics. This happened every morning, he was quite used to it by now.

Genma pointed a finger at Ranma with the force of a man who truly believed his hand could easily substitute for a gun. "Ranma, you shame the school of 'Anything Goes' martial arts! How dare you insult your father like that? Have you no respect for your elders?!" he continued, rolling out the usual spiel.

Soun Tendo and his daughters relaxed in the house, occasionally glancing over at the pair outside. By now they had begun to spar, with the usual threats of destroying any innocent scenery in their path, when a punch or kick went in the wrong direction. Often, Nabiki found herself mentally stressing over the amount of lumber and fresh paint they'd had to invest in over the course of the past several months since the Saotomes had taken up residence with them. This morning was no different.

"12 years," Soun mumbled to himself gravely, the only change in his features to betray his emotions an anxious twitch of his mustache.

"What's that father?" Kasumi asked, carrying a tray of tea into the room and gently placing it on the table.

Nabiki reached over and grabbed a cookie from the tray, giving her father a bored glance before directing her attention back to her favorite soap opera in the backyard. The life and times of the Saotome family. She pondered for a moment if maybe it was time to graduate from selling photographs to videos, but immediately dismissed the idea. It was much more difficult to make Ranma look feminine when she started talking in her girl form. Best to keep the illusion with still photography, so Ranma's obnoxiously 'manly' nature didn't cut into her profits.

"Daddy's been like that all morning, you won't get any sense out of him," Nabiki remarked, shaking herself from thoughts of her business and taking a quick bite out of her cookie.

"Akane," Soun turned to his youngest daughter. She looked back at him curiously even as Ranma nearly sailed into the wall of the dojo behind them before regaining his balance just in time.

"What is it, dad?" She asked, bowing her head thankfully as Kasumi poured her a cup of steaming hot tea.

"Akane, how do you feel about Ranma?" Soun asked her, looking for once like a man asking a legitimate question rather than pressing for an answer he desperately wanted to hear.

"Uh..." Akane trailed off, taken aback. When she wasn't in the heat of a fight, she had absolutely no idea how to answer that question. So she avoided it. "Dad, I've told you a thousand times how I feel about Ranma, but we're not even fighting right now. Why do you ask?" She looked at him warily, hoping he didn't have some silly scheme to pull a priest out of the floorboard right then and there. He'd done it once before, after all.

"How would you feel if Ranma-" Soun took a deep breath, repeating himself "how would you feel if Ranma was no longer your fiancee?"

This caused all of the daughters to look straight at Soun in shock. Even Nabiki hesitated to take another bite of her cookie.

"Father, are you feeling well?" Kasumi asked, concerned as she stepped towards Soun to check his temperature in that motherly way she had for everyone within a five mile radius.

"Nothing, nothing," Soun waved his hand rapidly and took a cup of tea from Kasumi. He laughed, tossing his head back. "Nothing to worry about at all. Soon you'll both be married, after all. Then you won't be fiancees anymore!"

Akane frowned. Kasumi looked bewildered. Nabiki quirked an eyebrow. Ranma screamed. Just your usual morning at the Tendo household-so far.

"You didn't have to hit me so hard, pops!" Ranma complained, walking into the house and heading straight towards the bathroom.

"How do you expect to carry on the Saotome school of 'Anything Goes Martial Arts' if you can't defend yourself in a real battle?" Genma demanded, even as he sat down for a game of Shogi with Soun.

"Oh Ranma, I wish you and your father wouldn't be so rough on each other," Kasumi admonished, placing a hand to her face even as she served breakfast to the family. The uncomfortable atmosphere of Soun's oddly-worded joke completely forgotten.

"Saotome," Soun began, glancing over at the girls.

"What is it, Tendo?" Genma asked, glaring down at the Shogi board and frowning pensively.

"Saotome-what day is it?" Soun inquired, swallowing nervously. It was a question he well knew the answer to, and was desperately trying to drop the hint.

"It's Friday, Tendo. You asked me that this morning," Genma harrumphed. It looked like Soun was well on his way to winning this round of Shogi and the older Saotome didn't much like it.

"Trying to distract me from beating you, eh, Tendo?" Genma wiggled his eyebrows and chuckled. He was clearly trying to bluff. Soun knew the look of 'here's a distraction while I move some pieces around' well, but now was not the time to point out his superior Shogi skills to his old friend.

"It's April 15th, Saotome." Soun stated quietly.

"Yeah, and?" Genma asked, sounding slightly irritated. Soun, after all, refused to look away from the board.

Soun cleared his throat, "Saotome, when did you go on your second 'honeymoon'?" He hopes he would get through to his old (but sometimes slow) friend.

Genma dropped his Shogi piece, facing Soun with a look of complete and total dread.

For the second time that morning, Ranma screamed. And it was still the scream of a young girl.

"April 15th," Genma finally replied, looking guiltily towards the direction of the bathroom. Today would not be a pleasant one.

"Kasumi, we may need some hot sake," Soun told his eldest daughter, not quite ready to face what was ahead.

Ryoga couldn't believe it. The herbs had worked! Tears flowed down his face and he clenched his fist, staring up at the morning skyline. Recalling that night was not a terribly pleasant memory, but most of Ryoga's life seemed to be one terrible thing after another interspersed with the occasional wonderful moments he was able to spend in Akane's presence. If Ryoga had been more like the 'Blue Thunder of Furinken High', the night he'd made that tea...all of Japan would have been on fire with all the lightning he might have dramatically created in the process.

The night in question...

Perching in front of a pile of crackling logs, Ryoga had a near death-grip on his teapot. "Okay, Ryoga, you can do this. Just put the kettle on the fire," he told himself, trying to remain calm and failing magnificently. He was absolutely terrified. One wrong move and Ryoga Hibiki would have to spend the next half hour as a pig until he could get his water to boil. Sadly, it tended to be a habit of his to stumble into his cooking pot when the water was still cool. Or he ended up the victim of a rogue senior citizen tossing water into the street. Or he managed to find the one knee-deep puddle in the middle of a drought during his hikes. The list went on. Ryoga had terrible luck in general with cold water.

"Heat warta-water..." He squinted at the packet of herbs as he read the instructions. They were blurred somewhat by all the tears of joy dripping from his chin as he fantasized of the curse-free future he had ahead of him.

"Okay, got the water heating," Ryoga said aloud, as he was often given to speaking to himself when no one else was around. It helped keep him sane. After tonight, however, he happily fantasized he would be spending much more time around Akane Tendo-because he wouldn't be stumbling off in the wrong direction anymore in the middle of a conversation (or a fight with Ranma.) A part of him wanted to blame Saotome for this problem too, but Ryoga reluctantly admitted he couldn't just lay the blame at Saotome's door for all of the humiliation and misery he'd suffered over the years. Just 85% of it. Sometimes just a little more.

"When water is-hot," Ryoga squinted at the writing, holding the packet closer to the fire to read it, "put in herbs and drink-ike tea. This is tea, after all, you idiot. Most people don't need a manual."

He blinked several times, re-reading the last line. What kind of jerk put something like that in an instruction list?! After Ryoga finished with Saotome, he decided whoever wrote this herb packet would be next on his list. Not for once did Ryoga ponder why he created vendettas so easily. He was too focused on the task at hand.

"This is it, I'm finally going to be able to find my way home whenever I want!" Ryoga crowed, resisting the urge to jump up and dance, knowing that would definitely be a bad idea around an as-of-yet un-boiled kettle of cold water. It was a difficult lesson, but one he'd eventually learned.

The old couple inside had not yet fallen asleep, distracted as they were by the noise in their orchard.

"Edgar, you really should tell that boy to leave. Last time he almost burnt down our herb garden!" The woman worried. Her poor rosemary still hadn't recovered from the stress.

Ryoga shook his head from the memory, feeling a twinge in his stomach at the thought. That tea had gone right through him, and at the same time left him retching all night. It was foul, fresh, sour, and sickly sweet all at the same time. He'd been terrified he might have inadvertently taken poison instead of an herbal cure for his problems. Ryoga had survived the night, however, and his presence here today was evidence that he'd made the right decision.

For once he had found what he was looking for. For once he stood outside of the Tendo Dojo on purpose, and he actually knew where he was. This was almost too good to be true. He was afraid to believe it. Ryoga Hibiki had a sense of direction!

He would have spent the next half-hour waxing poetic about dreams coming true, about Akane Tendo's future embrace, about destroying Ranma Saotome for all the humiliations he'd suffered as a man and as a pig. All of that would have to be put aside for now, because a familiar foot came hurtling right for his face. Ryoga was immediately knocked to the ground as his assailant disappeared over a nearby rooftop.

He sat on his back in a heap, his arms and legs drawn up as if he were a dead spider with a very angry red footprint on his cheek. It almost seemed like birds and stars were chasing each other in his vision.

"Ranma!" Ryoga shouted, sitting back up and glaring after the fleeing figure. That was odd. Normally Ranma only left the Dojo as a boy. And-had he been crying?

"Ranma!" Genma echoed Ryoga's shout, trampling over him and leaping after his son.

"Ranma!" Akane shouted, running over Ryoga and sailing down the street, innocently oblivious of what she'd done.

"Ranma! Saotome! Akaneeeeee!" Soun cried out, and once more Ryoga found himself the doormat of unwelcome visitors. At that point, he gave up, expecting several more to follow, but none did, and soon he heard a familiar voice.

"Ryoga?" Nabiki asked, walking over to the no-longer-lost boy and crouching down beside him.

"Ohhhhhh..." Ryoga moaned, still somewhat dazed.

"Why do you always show up at the worst times?" She continued, moving to pull Ryoga to his feet. He needed a bit of help, but eventually managed to straighten himself and recover.

"What happened?" He asked, and then clenched one of his fists angrily as he looked off in the direction Ranma had gone.

"Ranma!" He shouted, making a move to follow the Saotome-Tendo parade of chaos. Nabiki grabbed his sleeve before he could take a step, pulling him close.

"Listen, Hibiki, you don't want to do that right now. Trust me, you're only going to make things worse." Her eyebrows were raised, and she looked very much like all of the insanity that assaulted the Tendo household on a daily basis was finally starting to affect her. Though Ryoga didn't know the middle Tendo sister that well, he knew her enough to realize this concerned attitude she was displaying was not normal.

"Oh my!" Kasumi exclaimed, standing at the entry to the Dojo as Nabiki pulled Ryoga after her like a dog on a leash.

"What happened?" Ryoga asked again, growing a little uncomfortable. Somehow this wasn't exactly how he'd expected his final confrontation with Ranma to go.

"You're gonna want to sit down for this," Nabiki advised, leading Ryoga to their dining table. He complied, giving her a suspicious glance. He couldn't make sense of anything right now.

"I don't have any money, Nabiki," he told her before she could pull out any incriminating photographs for him to use as a possible weapon against Ranma, or some blackmail to extract cash from his empty wallet. Even if she did have something he wanted, there was no way he could afford it after spending everything on those cleansing herbs.

"Oh my!" Kasumi repeated at the entry, still looking out after the rest of the fleeing family. She was no longer referring to what happened, but stuck in her own loop of shock and wonder. Nabiki sighed, visibly exasperated.

"I don't want your money, Hibiki. I want you to leave Ranma alone today." She told him, grabbing a cookie from a tea tray on the dining table. Even if she appeared disturbed, her appetite didn't seem like it had been affected .

"What's going on, then?" Ryoga demanded, thumping the table with his fist. He only received a quirked eyebrow in response, which made him apologetically look down at his lap, thoroughly quelled with one look.

"This took about half an hour to explain, and I'm not going to go into detail about it, but basically here's what went down: Ranma is a girl, Akane and any other girls aren't her real fiancees, and daddy apparently knew the whole time."

Ryoga frowned, looking back up at Nabiki in frustrated confusion, "I know Ranma's a girl, the Jusenkyo-" He cut himself off, realization suddenly hitting him, "did you say Akane isn't his fiancee?" He asked, blushing wildly as immediate thoughts of wedding bells and churches sprang to mind.

"No, she's not-"

"Sh-sh-she's not marrying R-Ranma?!" Ryoga continued, by now lost in his own little world. He could just see Akane now smiling shyly back up at him from beneath a wedding veil, while he took her hands in his and made his eternal vows. "Akane," Ryoga stated her name, "Akane Hibiki..."

Nabiki sighed, taking a gulp of tea and rolling her eyes. She waved a hand in front of his face, raising her voice just a little, "it has nothing to do with the cursed springs. Well, it has a little to do with them. I didn't really get the whole thing, but Ranma was actually born-Hibiki, close your mouth and listen to me."

Ryoga jerked to attention, shaking thoughts of possible baby names from his mind.

"Ranma was actually born a girl." Nabiki paused, taking her time to enjoy the rest of her cookie while Ryoga waited impatiently for an explanation, "she was turned into a boy when she was 4 to protect her from some kind of curse or contract or something. The details weren't too specific there. The spell was only going to last for 12 years, and Cologne-" Nabiki stopped short when Ryoga drifted off into another fantasy. She grabbed his shoulders and gave him a few good shakes to snap him out of it. He had a lot of trouble paying attention too long when Akane was on his mind.

"Ryoga. Ranma. Is. A. Real. Girl." Nabiki very clearly and very firmly stated.

"What?!" Ryoga shouted, "how?!"

Nabiki sighed, pressing a hand to her face.

Tears stung at his. Her. His-her eyes, as Ranma hopped from rooftop to rooftop, trying to run from everyone and failing to escape the thoughts that chased after her.

How could they do this to me?!

She took a deep gulp of air and jumped faster. She could hear the footsteps of her father behind her, trying to catch up.

Pops is so stupid. Even Mister Tendo was in on it! Even mom! The old hag too!

Her heart was breaking with each leap and bound. The heart she'd always thought was a man's heart, through and through. Something she'd grown up knowing in her heart as a fact, her unshakable knowledge that no matter what she was a real man. All of it shattered in one instant, when the hot water washed over her that morning, and nothing happened!

No. None of this could change who she was! Ranma frowned, jumping down from a building and crouching down in an alley. She needed to breathe, and that was hard enough right now without playing balancing acts on rooftops.

She stared at her hands and flexed them. These were her hands. They would always be her hands, and apparently up until she was four years old they had been her hands. It wasn't fair. It just wasn't fair. Ranma punched the wall in front of her, eyes open wide with an almost desperate edge hiding behind them. Like any moment she hoped she'd wake up from this waking nightmare. None of this was possible. Ranma Saotome was still a man. Still macho. Even if she was a stupid-girl!

"Ranma!" Genma shouted, and jumped down into the alley.

"What do you want?" She asked, glancing over at him with a look of pure resentment. Not just the normal bad mood from a morning spar. This was an expression that verged on hate.

"Ranma, this was the only way we could protect you. Myself and your mother. We didn't have a choice."

"Protect me?! From what, puberty?!" She shrieked, trying with all her might not to punch him in the face then and there. In this state, she knew she'd break a few teeth,if not his jaw. Honestly, it was tempting.

"To protect you from marrying a demon!" Genma shouted, trying to reach forward to pull his daughter into a hug and failing miserably. If he wanted to start doing that kind of stuff, he should have done it a long time ago.

"A demon?" Ranma repeated, raising her voice, "a demon?!" She tossed her head back and laughed. This wasn't genuine laughter of joy or even a sarcastic chuckle. This was hysteria, and in no time it shifted into tears and wails. She punched the wall beside her again and again, until brick began to crack and her knuckles were raw with scrapes.

That was when Genma finally took her into his arms without a struggle. As much as they fought, he had never wanted to do this to his child. He had spent every day living in desperate fear of telling her the truth, and now when he let his cowardice get the best of him, he finally realized any lies he might have strung together for Ranma to protect her had only ended up making everything worse.

"I'm sorry," Genma whispered into his daughter's bright red hair. The same hair he'd been overjoyed to see for the first time in years when she'd fallen into the cursed spring. "I'm sorry for everything."

Ryoga stared at Nabiki, dumbstruck by the wild story he'd just heard. Of course it was ridiculous. Who'd believe a lie like that? She must think he was a complete idiot.

"What are you trying to pull on me, Nabiki Tendo?!" Ryoga demanded. He stood up, glaring down at the bob-haired girl, absolutely incredulous that she thought she could get money out of him simply by telling him some kind of wild fairy tale.

"Believe me or don't, Hibiki. I don't really care, but I'm telling you now is not the right time to start one of your famous fights with Ranma. Not to mention, you still haven't compensated us for the last time you wrecked our backyard. Do you have any idea how expensive decent landscaping is? Especially when it comes to koi ponds," she drawled as she picked up another cookie.

Ryoga snorted derisively and shrugged, "why do you think I'm here to fight Ranma, anyway? I could just be stopping by for a friendly visit. I'm not always-" he was cut off by a very dry and very un-amused stare.

"Okay, fine, I was going to fight him. I'm sorry about what I did to your yard last time too, but he had it coming," Ryoga pointed out, "he tore my shirt!"

"Hibiki, you need to take a good long look at your life. I'm saying this as a-what's that word? Friend? You devote entirely too much of your time to chasing Ranma around for one reason or another. If I didn't know better, I'd think you were just using fighting as an excuse to be close to him."

That did it, Ryoga wasn't going to stand for this! To prove his point, he spun around and stalked out of the dojo.

"I'm not always fighting him," he fumed in his head.

"Even when I am, he usually starts it with his stupid big mouth," Ryoga continued to grouch. All the while he didn't notice where his feet were carrying him, which altogether wasn't too unusual, but pretty soon his mental rant was interrupted by a very welcome sight. Akane standing at the end of the street with her father, looking for all the world like they were just as lost as he usually found himself. Ryoga beamed, immediately shaken from his bad mood.

"Hey!" Ryoga called, jogging up to the pair with his hands firmly gripping his pack straps.

Akane blinked, only now noticing his presence, "oh, Ryoga!" She exclaimed in surprise. It was just as well. He didn't really want her to feel bad, and as sweet and pure as Akane was, surely she'd feel completely miserable if she knew she'd trampled over him just a few minutes ago.

"Ah, Hibiki," Soun clapped a hand on Ryoga's shoulder.

"When did you get here? Looking for some other place, no doubt," Soun chuckled heartily. Funny how that joke wasn't so bad coming from Mister Tendo, but absolutely rage-inducing if Ranma said it. Actually, come to think of it, when Ranma said anything, it tended to upset him. Ryoga didn't really want to think about the implications of what Nabiki had said earlier, so he shrugged the thought away and blushed as he looked at Akane. Honestly, how could Ranma treat her the way he did?

"Ryoga, have you seen Ranma?" Akane asked, frowning. "He-Sh-Ranma isn't feeling well," she seemed to stumble over the words, picking them very carefully.

"Ah, don't worry Akane, I'm sure he'll show up. He's probably off doing something crazy, if I know Ranma," Ryoga replied, hoping perhaps to steer the conversation in a different direction. Like maybe to a possible dinner date, hopefully without Mister Tendo involved, of course. The man was standing uncomfortably close to them right now.

"So," Ryoga stumbled over the subject. "Is school out today?" Even as he said it, he immediately regretted doing so. Akane quickly flushed pale and looked at her father.

"Oh no, I'm late for class!" She wailed.

"Akane, I think it best you perhaps miss school today," Soun advised, putting an arm around his daughter's shoulder.

"But what about Ranma?" Akane looked behind her, almost as if she were wistfully searching for him beyond the next lamp-post.

How beautiful she looked, even with her mind a thousand miles away. Ryoga smiled at the sight. Even if she was thinking about that jerk, he never failed to appreciate how sweet Akane looked whenever she was concerned. She had the purest heart.

"I bet her soul is delicious," Ryoga suddenly thought. Wait, where the heck did that come from? He frowned. That was weird.

"Here, Akane, if you really want to go to school, I-I-I can walk with you," he offered. Akane nodded and looked over at her father sadly. "Waiting around for hi-for Ranma isn't going to do any good. She'll come home when she's ready."

It didn't escape Ryoga's notice when Akane referred to Ranma as a girl, but he reasoned with himself it was because that's how he'd left the house. There was no way Nabiki was telling the truth about him.

Ranma pulled away from her dad and glared up at him with red-rimmed eyes. It was stupid to cry. Ranma Saotome never gave in, not even when he was feeling at his worst. Everything was just so different now. For one, he was a she, so-Ranma couldn't really refer to herself as a he anymore, could she?

"You're an idiot," she tried to glare at Genma. The effect was somewhat startling, given how raw and pained her face looked. He'd never seen Ranma like this, not even when they'd had to leave her mother behind after the incident that caused this whole mess.

"Yeah, Ranma, I know. I never meant to hurt you," Genma replied, stepping back from his daughter to give her some air. She looked so fragile right then. Even if there was fire in her words, the spark of them failed to reach her eyes.

"Why did you do this to me?" Ranma repeated, not for the first time that day, as she leaned back against a wall for support.

"Ranma, if there had been any other way to protect you, believe me, I would have done it. I would have laid down my life. Your mother almost did."

"Why didn't you ask me first?" She leveled him with a very severe glare. Much like her mother used to, Genma realized. In fact, a lot of Ranma's expressions matched Nodoka's. Even when she was a boy. It was so difficult sometimes to even think about Nodoka, because that only brought on other feelings and pipe dreams about a life they might have had.

"You were 4 years old. What could I have honestly said to you that would have convinced you it was the right choice? You didn't even listen to reason when it came to bathing! I couldn't get you to sit still in the bath until you were 6, for crying out loud!" Genma protested, knowing immediately he'd said the wrong thing.

"So instead, you decided it would be best to raise me into some kind of freak!" Ranma shouted, on the verge of leaping up and getting as far away from him as possible. Genma didn't want to see that happen, but he was at least glad to see that this time the fire did reach her eyes.

"Ranma Saotome, you are not a freak. I raised you to be strong. I raised you as a boy, yes, because I knew that any day you would turn back into a girl and then there was nothing I could do to protect you on my own! I figured at least if you thought you were a boy, at least if you had 12 years to live a normal life, maybe," Genma paused just a little longer than was necessary,"maybe you could take on that demon in a fight, using the skills you learned from the Saotome School of Anything Goes-" he was cut off by a swift punch to the face as Ranma used every bit of willpower she had not to send him skyrocketing over the next building.

She drew back and cracked her knuckles, watching her father stumble back grasping at his face. He recovered swiftly.

Genma re-adjusted his glasses, dabbing at his bloodied nose with a handkerchief he pulled from his trouser pocket as he spoke, "okay, okay, I might have gotten a bit worked up on that speech, but I honestly didn't know what else to do, and when everything was said and done, I couldn't reverse it. It was too late."

"And why did you decide I needed nearly half a dozen fiancees in the meantime?" Ranma demanded, dragging up a thousand thoughts to the foreground about Genma's lousy parenting. Usually she could just dismiss them and say 'pops is just an idiot', but with this new information revealed to her in such a horrible way, all of the things he'd done to her became a thousand times worse.

"Well..." Genma trailed off, trying to find the words. What could he honestly tell his daughter? 'I'm an idiot, and I had a bunch of crazy plans that didn't pan out, so I figured I'd just keep throwing stuff at the wall until something stuck before you turned back into a real girl?' Wait, on second thought-

"I'manidiot,andIhadabunchofcrazyplansthatdidn'tpanout,soIfiguredI'djustkeepthrowingstuffatthewalluntilsomethingstuckbeforeyouturnedbackintoarealgirl," he breathed the whole sentence out in one go.

"That answer isn't good enough!" Ranma shouted, on the verge of tears again. Why couldn't she stop crying?! Was it this stupid body, or was it that for the first time in her life, she actually realized what a sorry father Genma had turned out to be?

"The whole fiancee scheme was Tendo's idea," Genma protested weakly. He really didn't know what else to do besides shift some of the blame away from himself. After all, Soun did know about this the whole time, so in a way he was partially to blame too. On the outside. Still, Genma felt like he'd let his daughter down in so many ways now that he couldn't count them, and it was awful.

Chapter Text

12 years ago.

Through the small window in Cologne's hut, Nodoka absent-mindedly watched her husband chase a very bare Ranma across the lawn, and then around the side of the hut. Bath time was always a trial with that child. It had always been a nagging concern at the back of Nodoka's mind that this stubbornness of her daughter's would pursue her into womanhood. It was a bittersweet realization that she could rest assured that would no longer be a problem.

She drew her eyes away from the window to examine a froth of bubbles nestled on the surface of her teacup. She wondered what the leaves would look like at the bottom when she finished. Would her future be a pleasant one? She took a sip from the cup and glanced back up at Cologne, who was busily grinding several pungent herbs in a small mortar. The older woman may have been small, but she was quick and spry. Nodoka had no doubt she must have been formidable in her youth. Judging by her speed, she very likely still was.

Nodoka lowered her cup, worrying at her bottom lip before she spoke, "Cologne, are you sure there isn't some other option?" She set her teacup aside and snatched up a well-worn handkerchief she'd placed in her lap, twisting it between her fingers to calm herself. Since she'd discovered this whole mess from her fool of a husband, it seemed the handkerchief had gotten a lot of punishment in his stead.

"Dear," Cologne rasped, hopping up to carry the well-ground mortar of herbs to a boiling kettle in her fireplace, "you asked for my help, and I already told you what I could do. The only other option would be taking your daughter's life." She turned back to Nodoka, eyes drawn into half-slits.

"Is that-" Cologne began to ask, but grew quiet when she saw the young mother's expression. Nodoka didn't doubt her desperation was hanging about the hut like an oppressive miasma. She could feel it weighing down on her chest in contrast with the wild protests outside as Genma very likely had finally wrangled his daughter into her clothes.

Cologne listened to the grumpy four-year-old shouting outside, a slight understanding smile curling her time-worn lips. "She'll become a handful in the future under your husband's guidance."

"Ranma Saotome, get over here and wash. Your. Hair!" Genma shouted outside, amidst the clatter and crashing of pots. There was a bit of shouting from some of the tribe members, and Cologne might well have flinched if she were far younger and less formidable. The shouting was followed by a loud splash, and the gleeful laughter of a naughty little girl.

"Didn't catch me, pops!"


Nodoka looked towards the door of the hut. She wasn't about to have an argument with her husband in front of a bunch of Chinese Amazons. Some things were best saved to be done in private, when she could properly angle the family sword for a severe enough blow to knock some sense into him. Sometimes she got the distinct impression he used her frustration as some sort of training tool.

It wasn't until Nodoka's tea had gone cold, and the angry sounds of women outside making space for the unruly pair, that she realized she'd been lost in thought long enough for the kettle to whistle.

"She must be quite the trouble-maker," Cologne observed, hopping back to the fireplace to retrieve the kettle and pour the contents of it into a large ceramic bowl. She did not seem phased by the heat. Her palm wasn't even turning red.

Nodoka smiled to herself. "She takes after both of us, I suppose." The smile soon faded, however, to be once again replaced by a look of worry and fear. "What exactly are you going to have to do to her?" She finally asked, having pushed the question off for as long as she could. Let Ranma have one more happy day. Let them all have one more happy day.

"It is a very ancient and very powerful spell," Cologne replied, hopping back to the small table Nodoka sat at and setting the bowl down to cool. "All ancient magic is," Cologne added grimly, her eyes focused on the task at hand as she settled into her seat. "When any sort of spell or curse is crafted, there are usually ingredients that have to be steeped and prepared, but ancient magic is altogether different. The very words themselves have steeped, simply by being so old. This one in particular is very rarely used because of how unpredictable it is. It makes its own choices. It will get the job done however it sees fit."

"Not nearly as unpredictable as having your husband tell you the story of Rumpelstiltskin on your wedding night," Nodoka remarked bitterly. How was she supposed to know he'd been trying to use fairy tale as an analogy for something so incredibly stupid his grandfather had done? Especially when he'd added in the detail about weaving straw into rice and pickles.

"This is a curse of misdirection, my dear. It is not a fairy tale," Cologne stated very firmly, only giving one quick glance towards the door of her hut when Genma came rushing in with a struggling 4-year-old, both soaked to the bone and covered in soap.

"Genma," Nodoka glared at her husband. "You are supposed to remove a child's clothes when you bathe her, not put them back on."

Not long before preparations for the spell had begun, little Ranma snuck out of the hut window with her favorite stuffed pig and a meat bun she'd stolen from her father's pack. No one was going to make her take baths for the rest of her life! She might have made it quite far for a four-year-old, if she hadn't been stopped by a very angry looking girl not much taller than herself with dark purple hair and what looked like a beach-ball on a stick.

"You run away from grandmother's hut! You must be evil thief!" The girl barked, striking a somewhat clumsy pose as if she were about to attack.

"I ain't no thief!" Ranma shouted back, just as upset as she shoved the meat bun in her mouth and hefted up her stuffed pig like a deadly weapon. In the hands of a Saotome, anything could be lethal.

"Then why you running away?" The girl asked, smirking.

"Because I ain't gonna take any baths!" Ranma spat, just barely remembering to grab her meat bun before it fell out of her mouth.

The girl lowered her funny-looking weapon, confusion dawning on her face, "You take no baths?"

Ranma nodded, "Yeah! Baths are for suckers!"

"Why you want smell bad?" The other girl asked, leaning forward to sniff at the air warily.

"What? No! I-"

"Ranma!" Genma shouted from inside the hut. This wasn't the sound of his general anger, it was edged with something more. Fear?

Ranma looked back at the window, surprised, hesitant to speak. "Pops?" She called back. Maybe she'd gone too far this time. She'd taken the very last meat bun, after all.

"Ranma!" Nodoka cried, chiming in with her husband. Oh boy. Now she knew she'd gone too far. Pops was a push-over, but mom on the other hand-Ranma felt real bad when she made mom upset.

"You go inside now, no running away." The little girl advised, pausing before she decided to add on one last piece of advice, "also take bath." Seeming satisfied with that, she spun around and hopped off into the shadows. For a small child, she was quite nimble. Ranma rubbed the back of her head and watched the girl leave.

"Man, that was weird..." she trailed off, looking back at the window and sighing. So much for her big escape plan. Ranma hurriedly finished her meat bun, disposing of the evidence of her theft. "This sure stinks, Mister Porker," she remarked to her best friend, squeezing it just enough for the cotton-stuffed pig to squeak in agreement.

"You said it."

Shampoo hadn't run off into the darkness. In fact, she'd only gone far enough so the weird girl who didn't like baths couldn't see her. She would keep guard outside of her grandmother's hut tonight, just in case anything funny happened. There was no telling what strange outsiders could do in the village if you weren't paying attention. That was what her grandmother always preached, anyway. Shampoo wrinkled her nose. Sometimes outsiders brought weird and stupid little boys, too, which was a grave sin in Shampoo's mind. That dumb Mousse never left her alone.

That night when Ranma slept, Cologne directed Nodoka to lay her on a mat and draw a chalk circle around the girl. The young mother reluctantly complied. This all seemed so wrong. How could they even consider doing this to their baby girl? From what she'd gathered, it seemed far more dangerous than taking their risk with the demon when he came to claim his bride. At least Nodoka knew she could probably stun him a few hundred times so they could run away. It wasn't a pleasant future, but it seemed like the safer option over unpredictable ancient magic neither of them understood.

Genma, meanwhile, sat on his knees and solemnly watched his daughter was nestled on her tatame mat. Funny, that kid seemed to sleep through everything. It was honestly the easiest way to give her a bath, now that he thought about it. Much less fighting. Genma smirked. Maybe it was better the other way. They couldn't start their mornings without a good fight. It kept both of them on their toes.

"If I am to craft the perfect curse of misdirection, this circle must be unbroken," Cologne advised, using a fan to waft sweet-smelling smoke rising from a bowl in her hand and yet simultaneously managing to perch perfectly on her cane at the same time.

"Everything in your daughter's life will be misdirected. Her gender, her path, and most importantly her memories. For 12 years, they will be locked away. She will live and act as if she always had been a boy. In time, the curse will begin to wane. Layers will peel away. Then she will be as she should," Cologne paused, looking down at the sleeping child, "and perhaps a better solution will be found." By the time she'd finished wafting the smoke about them, only her sharp little eyes could be seen through the haze of gray and white.

It was strange how the smoke didn't seem to have any sort of fragrance anymore, when the herbs Cologne had mixed in her bowl had been so pungent before. Nodoka didn't even feel the need to cough, she marveled. This truly was beyond her. In fact, all of it was. She was a fish out of water, or more aptly, a fish out of water and into a demonically-cursed frying pan.

That was when the panic finally began to set in, and her eyes darted towards Ranma sleeping in the chalk circle. Already there seemed to be a change coming over the little girl. Her vibrant red hair had lost some of its color, strands of it darkening with each passing second as the smoke settled over her.

Nodoka tore her eyes away, screaming in her mind, "No, we can't do this! There must be some other way!" Nodoka panicked, unable to face the idea of losing her baby girl for 12 years to something she didn't even understand!

"NO!" Nodoka wailed, diving towards the circle.

At the same time, both Genma and Cologne tried to stop her, but it was too late. The air crackled with energy, and time slowed even as Nodoka's bare foot crossed the line of chalk. Genma was pushed back with a great rush of wind into the wall of the hut, and even Cologne struggled to stay put, raising her fan once more to waft the smoke even faster. It was too late to stop now, she had to finish the spell or something far worse would happen.

Nodoka was rendered unconscious, right beside her sleeping child, barely close enough to touch her. The smoke was now taking shape, encircling them both to match the shape of the chalk. By the next morning, Nodoka would not wake, and Ranma was now a boy.

On that very same night, in a small house in Japan, a tearful couple happily swung their son around in the air. For the first time since he'd learned to speak, he finally called them mom and dad. For the first time since he'd learned to speak, he'd finally stopped insisting he was a demon bent on conquering the world. For the first time since he'd learned to speak, his fangs no longer seemed as terrifying. Neither of them noticed a waft of smoke dissipating on their son's bed.

Genma placed a cool washcloth on his wife's head, hoping against hope she would be okay. What was he thinking, allowing this to happen? Even if he hadn't reacted in the same way, his heart had sunk into the pit of his stomach watching those curls of vibrant red disappear and become replaced by inky blackness. She was still his beautiful little girl in Genma's heart, but he was going to have to push that aside. If he didn't, the next 12 years would be unbearable for both him and the little boy he was going to have to raise.

"She'll be just fine in a few days," Cologne rasped as she hopped across the room to grab a sachet of crushed tobacco hanging on the wall. To the outside observer, one would think the old woman was being pretty callous about this whole situation. "You should leave now," she added, opening the sachet and stuffing some of the tobacco into her pipe.

"What?!" Genma exclaimed incredulously, looking down at Nodoka. He could swim to China with a struggling toddler, but with a catatonic wife?! That was pushing it a little.

"You and the boy, before she wakes up. I can nurse her back to health and send her on her way. It will be easier this way," Cologne continued, brooking no arguments with her tone.

"She's already lost a daughter, I can't take her son away from her too!" Genma argued, looking down at Nodoka with a calculating expression. Could Cologne be right about this? After all, the old woman was wise and small. Genma had enough experience with short elderly martial arts masters to know that perhaps it was best not to question them, unless women's undergarments were involved. Even then, he was better off turning a blind eye.

"She won't remember her daughter. Not for 12 years," Cologne stated gravely, hoping over to Nodoka's side and looking down sadly at the young mother who had already endured more than any parent should. Her husband's idiocy aside. Cologne hadn't known the young man very long, but already he seemed a bit theatrical and foolish from her point-of-view. Not very good son-in-law material for anyone.

Genma hesitated, "she won't-" he cut himself off with a sharp gulp, dabbing at his forehead with a handkerchief, "-she won't remember Ranma?"

Cologne turned back towards him, shaking her head, "she'll remember Ranma. She will simply think he has always been a boy. She may even be proud of the fact." Cologne hopped towards the door and pulled it open, "think about it," she advised. He didn't really seem like the type to think before he acted too often. That was why the tribe had almost pummeled him into the ground when he showed up with his wife and child, trampling over the community radish garden and demanding aid as if it were something given by force. He was lucky Nodoka had been there to explain their intrusion. Even luckier that she didn't join in on the trampling.

Ranma crouched outside, poking an ant pile with a stick and grumbling to himself. When he'd woken up that morning, everything felt all funny. He didn't know why, but even walking was weird. All pops did was tell him to 'go outside and play', and mom wouldn't even wake up to make breakfast. Something was wrong and he just couldn't seem to figure out what. He scratched at his blue cotton shirt and shifted on his feet to avoid a line of angry ants bent on vengeance for the destruction of their ancient home.

"Who you?" came a familiar voice. The same one from last night. Ranma jerked up to see that same little girl, a bit less angry now, still wielding her beach ball on a stick.

"We met last night, stupid." Ranma retorted, hopping to avoid another drove of ants.

The girl flushed. "We no meet! You liar! Where stinky girl?" She fumed at him, stomping her foot.

"Stinky girl?" Ranma exclaimed as he looked up at her, "I'm not a stupid, stinky girl!" He protested angrily. "Jeeze, can't you tell boys from girls?" He drawled, standing up and crossing his arms.

"You is no girl. Shampoo met girl last night," Shampoo argued, raising her beach ball.

"Shampoo? What kinda name is that?"

"Is proud Amazon name, stupid," it was her turn to insult him now.

"Well-well..." Ranma was embarrassed. He shoulda known that. "Well, I'm Ranma Saotome!" He struck a pose, changing the topic.

"Ranma?" Shampoo asked, squinting back at him.

"Ranma!" Genma shouted, stepping outside. He had his pack, and looked ready to run off like he'd skipped out on a huge bill. So pretty much like he always looked.

"What is it, pops?" Ranma asked, glad for the distraction.

"Ranma! It is time we begin our training so that you can some day take over as my heir to the Saotome School of Anything Goes Martial Arts!" Genma threw Ranma's pack towards him. The little boy just barely caught it in time.

"But pops! What about breakfast? What about mom?! What about breakfast?!" Ranma sputtered, his stomach growling. Genma's growled in response.

"You can stay for breakfast," Cologne called out from behind Shampoo. Ranma spun around and stared. Jeeze, where did she come from?

Shampoo didn't much like the grumpy boy, especially since he and his stupid father kept hogging all the rice, but she knew there was something very weird about him. She couldn't stop staring at the little boy over breakfast. Shampoo was SURE he'd been a girl last night!

"Shampoo, stop staring." Cologne chided in Mandarin, taking a pull from her smoking pipe and letting out a long curl of smoke. Genma watched her warily, munching on a pickle. Smoke, where this woman was concerned, had begun to make him very nervous. She tended to have that effect on outsiders.

Shampoo frowned, pointing at Ranma, "grandmother, he was a girl when I saw him last night!" Shampoo protested, speaking in mandarin as well so the others wouldn't know what they were saying.

For his part, the little boy didn't really like when people talked about him in funny languages, so he snatched a piece of fermented fish from her plate when she wasn't looking as vengeance.

"Be that as it may, he's a boy now, and some day he will come back here as a girl again," Cologne explained very calmly.

"What?! How?!" Shampoo asked, dumbstruck.

Cologne placed her pipe aside and gave her grand-daughter a very serious look, "Shampoo. Someone very bad is going to try to hurt this boy some day. I did not want to let that happen. Do you understand?"

"Not really..." Shampoo trailed off. She was only 4, after all.

Patiently, Cologne placed a hand over her grand-daughter's as she spoke, "I have done something very bad to this child to protect him, and some day will have to make amends for my sin. Our family honor demands it. Some day when you are older, I will explain it better." Cologne realized she was probably telling Shampoo too much already.

The purple-haired girl looked at her grandmother pensively, and then at the little boy. Sure, he didn't like to bathe, and he was really mean, but she wouldn't want to be a boy. She would sooner turn into a cat, or something worse. Never a stupid, stinky boy. For the first time since they'd met last night, Shampoo's heart went out to Ranma.

"Grandmother, I will help you." Shampoo vowed, before looking down at her plate and frowning. It was very empty, and the unwanted guests both looked suspiciously satisfied with their meal.

"Why can't we take mom with us, pops?" Ranma asked, trying his best not to break out crying. Ranma didn't ever let himself cry.

"Because, Ranma," Genma looked down at his son, hopelessly searching for some sort of excuse.

"I must raise you to be the greatest martial artist the world has ever known. In order to do that, we must train alone, without women to distract us." God, but that was a poor reason to abandon his unconscious wife. Genma felt like a louse even saying it.

"Genma? Ranma?" A voice called weekly from inside the hut. Genma immediately tore off inside. Nodoka had finally woken up. Ranma looked after him, confused. This whole thing didn't make any sense at all.

"Ranma!" Shampoo called, running up to him with a small package in her arms.

"Yeah, what is it?" Ranma asked warily. Since breakfast, the girl with the bizarre name was acting even stranger. She was probably still sore about the rice and pickles. And fish. And fish sauce. She was probably still sore in general that there wasn't anything left to eat.

Shampoo thrust the package out to Ranma. It was wrapped up in brown paper with string.

"Is this some kinda trap?" Ranma asked, afraid to take it from her. Just last night she'd been ready to attack him.

"Is no trap!" Shampoo shouted, shoving the package into his hands. "Is gift," she added giving him a very weak smile.

Ranma slowly began to unwrap it, ready to drop the dangerous parcel at any second should it begin to move, but it didn't. In fact, to his surprise, inside was a really awesome silk shirt. It was a familiar shade of red he couldn't quite place, with gold buttons. "What's this for?" Ranma asked, holding the shirt up and letting the wrapping fall to the ground.

"Is so can know you," Shampoo said. "If you come back."

Ranma began to take off his ratty cotton shirt, happy to have a comfortable replacement. He smiled, looking back at her, "gosh. Thanks." He slipped the shirt on and began to button it. "I really like it," Ranma added, seeing Shampoo in a different light.

"Ranma, if you forget Shampoo, she always remember you." Shampoo promised, pulling him into an unexpected hug. Ranma didn't see the tears in her eyes.

Even if Shampoo didn't understand what happened, she knew some day the black-haired boy who was once a girl would need a friend, because that's what grandmother had told her. She would try to figure out a way to be one for him.

Genma stepped outside, looking even grimmer than he had that morning before breakfast.

"Ranma, it's time to go. Your mother understands," he told his son, tossing the boy's pack to him once more. This time Ranma was better prepared. Honestly, the silk shirt seemed to make it much easier, like it made him faster or something.

As the pair walked away together, Cologne hopped up to her grand-daughter and sighed. She'd heard the exchange inside and frankly thought the man had only made his problems worse. When Nodoka remembered the truth, she was certainly going to do something much worse to her husband than force him to commit Seppuku.

Chapter Text

Ryoga walked alongside Akane down the sidewalk, unlike his rival and counterpart who always seemed to prefer the fence. It was nice being near her, especially when he didn't have a curly tail and snout to deal with. Sometimes he wondered if the times he spent as a pig in her company were truly worth it, when he felt just as much pain as joy, conflicted as both Akane's favorite pet when he was a pig and 'friendly acquaintance' when he was a man at best. Shrugging those thoughts away, Ryoga concentrated on how wonderful it was to see Akane in the morning light, because she was breathtaking. Akane was always beautiful.

"Oh Akane, if only I could tell you the truth," Ryoga thought. There was no way she could ever accept him if she knew he was secretly snuggling her every night pretending to be her little P-Chan. Perhaps if she came to love him as a man first, he would come clean. He would tell her the truth, and she would accept him whole-heartedly as her one true love. He really wished he could just tell her now.

"What kind of man am I?'" He mentally chastised himself, not for the first time. "So," Ryoga tried to come up with something interesting to say, putting a hand behind his head and looking up at the sky, searching for the right words. The words that might make her forget about Ranma for a few minutes and see Ryoga for what he really was: desperately in love and willing to do anything for her. Much better husband material than Ranma Saotome.

"What is it, Ryoga?" Akane looked up at him. When they made eye contact, hers glistened. Was it just his imagination, or did she look like she was about to start crying?

"Um, uh, that is-" Ryoga stammered, fiddling with his fingers. "Is everything okay? You seem pretty upset today, and so did Ranma. If there's anything I can do-"

Akane cut him off, shaking her head, "it's not really my place to tell you." She reached up to wipe at her eyes with the cuff of her white sleeve. It hurt to see her like this.

"Oh. Well. I understand," Ryoga replied. He didn't understand at all. Nothing seemed to make sense today. Maybe when he'd performed that cleansing ritual with those herbs, they'd just made his bad sense of direction into a bad sense of reality. Either the world was going crazy or he was. He didn't like either option.

They walked in silence from then on, until Furinken High came into view ahead. Something normal. A distraction from anything even remotely Ranma-related.

Akane finally broke the silence, "I don't even know why I'm here." She looked down at her feet and watched a bit of water hit the concrete below. She tilted her head back up towards the sky and held out a hand as if she expected rain. For Ryoga's part, he recognized the drop for what it was. A tear.

Ryoga clenched his fists. What did Ranma say to her this time?! It must have been pretty awful. Akane was one of the happiest people he knew, and generally only showed her sadness when she was alone with no one to comfort her but her pet P-chan. The fact that she was very nearly crying in front of him, knowing who he was, enraged him. He just barely managed to restrain himself to demand how she'd been hurt, though, because he knew it would do him no good. Akane would have told him what was wrong by now if she had really wanted to.

"I guess this is where we part ways," Ryoga mumbled. What he'd hoped might turn into a romantic walk together, possibly a date later, seemed to just devolve into incredibly uncomfortable silence. Pain blossomed in his heart just watching Akane suffer silently like this.

"Listen, Ryoga. There's something I have to ask you," Akane looked up at him as she spoke, wiping her eyes and taking a deep breath to compose herself.

"Y-yes?" Ryoga resisted the urge to gulp. This is it. Akane's sad because of all the wasted weeks and months we've spent apart. She's finally going to confess her love and ask me on a date. Oh Akane, I will! I will go out with you! I'll go out with you every night until the day we-

"Come to the dojo tonight. If you can make it, that is," Akane added, not wanting to make fun of Ryoga's absolutely abysmal sense of direction. It wasn't his fault, that was just how he was.

"Of course! Yes, Akane! I'll be there right when the sun goes down, I promise!" Ryoga nearly shouted. Of course, he also wanted to cry.

Akane took one of his hands, squeezing it gently before she spoke, "thanks, Ryoga. Ranma really needs a friend right now."

He remained still as she let go of his hand and turned to leave. A rush of conflicting emotions washed over him, and he wasn't sure which one to address first. So he picked the easiest route, and decided to go with resentment. He resented Ranma Saotome with every fiber of his being, and seeing how upset Ranma made Akane that day for whatever reason made the resentment a little bit more bitter than usual. Especially because for some reason she'd been convinced Ranma needed him as a friend. Ryoga spun about and decided exactly what he was going to do, ruthlessly ignoring the nagging voice in his mind that pointed out just maybe Akane was upset for Ranma for once, and not at him.

"Ranma Saotome! I'll teach you to upset Akane like this!" Ryoga declared aloud, striking a battle-worthy pose. As it turned out, both Ryoga and Akane were both right. It had been a tear that hit the concrete, and a raindrop. Within seconds of making his declaration, a sudden downpour struck the city. Caught in the midst of it were Ryoga, Ranma, and Genma, in their respective locations.

Watching the rain drops assault the giant panda in front of her, Ranma might have laughed on a normal day. Not that any day in her life could be described as 'normal', but they were certainly closer to a semblance of it than today was turning out. "Guess I don't have to be scared of cold water anymore," she mumbled, turning away from her father and striding down the alleyway. Genma followed at a distance, seeming to get the hint for once in his life that she needed space.

Watching the darkening skyline, Ranma couldn't help but smirk at the thought of how eerily similar this day was to when she and her father had both arrived in Nerima. The only minor differences being that she wasn't being lugged around like a suitcase, and she didn't have the comfort of knowing a hot bath would make everything all better. At least then she'd known who she was. So now what?

Ranma turned back to look at her father, pausing mid-step as she spoke, "I'm not much for feelings and stuff, but this really stinks." The will to fight him had completely dissipated. What was the point? She brushed her wet bangs back from her face, unsure where the rain began and the tears ended, "why did you even get me engaged to so many girls, huh?" There was no point in asking, but she had to throw that out there anyway.

Genma pulled out a sign with the words 'I will explain' scrawled hectically across it, somehow resistant to the downpour.

"Oh yeah, as if anything you say to me is going to make it all better. You really screwed up my life, you know that?" She spat, turning away from her father once again and striding purposefully down the sidewalk towards the Tendo Dojo. He'd had 12 years. 12 years to break this whole mess to her, and now here she was finding out in the worst way possible. All because the old man was such a stinkin' coward.

Perhaps the rest of the morning would have been fairly uneventful, if they had just continued walking in the rain alone. But knowing Ranma's luck, that just wasn't how her life worked.

A sudden ring interrupted their morning soap opera, followed by the whir of bicycle wheels, and a loud giggle.

"Nihaooooo Ranmaaaaa!"

Shampoo descended from the sky only a few feet away from the pair, holding a take-out container and an umbrella, all while balancing on her bicycle and smiling from ear to ear.

"I'm not in the mood this morning, Shampoo," Ranma told her, trying to step around the bicycle.

"Why Ranma sad?" Shampoo asked, leaning forward with a curious frown and tilt of her head, careful not to let water touch her from beneath her umbrella. She maneuvered her bicycle to block Ranma's path.

"It's nothin'," Ranma lied, stepping around Shampoo again to continue walking. She just didn't have it in her to deal with any Chinese Amazons that morning. Especially if the Amazon in question just so happened to be the great grand-daughter of the woman who-Ranma's eyes grew wide and she spun around to face Shampoo.

Clenching her fists in anger, she leveled Shampoo with a stern glare, "Shampoo! Did you know?!" She usually felt some measure of annoyance at her worst towards Shampoo, and fondness at her best, but the sudden idea that she could have been involved in anyway with Cologne's scheme-it hurt. It really hurt.

"What Ranma talking about?" Shampoo asked, tilting her head to the side curiously, still managing to move her bicycle just enough so Ranma couldn't walk away. Not that she was trying anymore.

Ranma hesitated, raising an eyebrow before she spoke, "so you don't know?"

"Know what? Ranma want ramen? Make extra special bowl at home, no charge!" Shampoo pressed the topic on to something much less disturbing than the implications of Ranma's question.

"You did know I'm a girl!" Ranma shouted, on the verge of actively attacking Shampoo for the first time since they'd sparred in China. Only this time, the reason was far more important than food.

Shampoo relaxed a little, lowering the Ranma as her facade of cheer seemed to crack, "of course Shampoo know."

Those words hurt more than Ranma had been expecting.

"Is Nyannīchuan curse, yes?" Shampoo looked lost, and desperately confused.

"No, that's not what I mean," Ranma spoke slowly. If Shampoo was oblivious to the whole lie, at least she'd feel nominally better. Not that she loved Shampoo, but certainly cared enough for her as a begrudging friend to feel a deep sense of betrayal if Shampoo really did know.

Shampoo shook her head and shrugged. "Shampoo no understand. Ranma is upset?" She scooted her bike forward and peered into Ranma's eyes, a flicker of a frown crossing her face before it was replaced with a happy smile once more. For just an instant, it almost seemed like she did know what Ranma was talking about. "Is Ranma wanting Ramen?" Shampoo repeated her earlier question, hinting strongly that perhaps Ranma should accept the invitation.

The pig-tailed girl looked back in the direction of the Tendo Dojo, then at Shampoo. "Yeah, sure. I've got a bone to pick with the old hag anyway." It hadn't taken much thought, really. The dojo was one of the last places she wanted to be right then, after how she'd torn out of it earlier like a-like a weeping girl!

Shampoo gave a cheer of joy and spun around to head back towards the Nekohanten at breakneck speed. She seemed to have no doubt in her mind that Ranma and Genma were following. Shampoo never questioned a choice to come or leave whenever she wanted, she just did as she liked and expected others to follow. Ranma vaguely wondered if that was what Mousse liked about her. She felt somewhat numb as she endeavored to push more troublesome thoughts out of her mind for the moment, because that was what a great martial artist did.

Great grandmother was right. Is day Ranma finally knows truth. Shampoo thought to herself sadly. Honestly, she'd hoped their scheme to get her hitched to Ranma would have worked. Now it was too late, and it truly hurt to know that soon Ranma would hate Shampoo for the lie she'd helped keep a secret for far too long.

She had no idea a small pig was watching them from the shadows.

Something isn't right here, and I'm going to get to the bottom of it. Ryoga ruminated, trotting after them. It was nice to be able to follow someone in the right direction for once, but there was a strange feeling building inside even then as he followed them, concentrating on Ranma. Ryoga was going to be in for more than a few surprises that day.

A great storm had begun to kick up outside, and Cologne was smart enough to realize it went beyond the mere whims of a spring shower. Pulling her pipe from her mouth, she watched the smoke rise to the ceiling. She thought back to the day she'd cast a spell that broke up a family and threatened to destroy a small girl's life. Today, the consequences of her actions would come to roost. She remembered that day very well when Ranma showed up with her father in their village, Genma having acquired a curse of his own along the way. The spell she'd cast seemed to have made some interesting choices over the years, and even she had been shocked when she discovered the method in which it had decided to ease the girl back into her proper womanhood.

Perhaps things might have been different these past several months if Cologne had realized who Ranma was when Shampoo gave her the kiss of death. Emotions always seemed to run so high when outsiders interrupted Amazonian fights. Cologne was not all-knowing, and hadn't recognized the girl that day. She certainly didn't recognize Genma, with the few hundred extra pounds of fat and fur. She'd only discovered Ranma's identity when Shampoo first returned to their village, heartbroken, weeping for the girl who turned into a boy. From there, Cologne had finally begun to connect the dots. In time, Shampoo did too. When Cologne prompted for more information, and her great grand-daughter suddenly recalled seeing Ranma in 'his' favorite shirt. It would seem Ranma's memory was not nearly as good, but as a boy or a girl, she had never been too terribly bright. At least in Cologne's estimation. She suspected part of that problem was due to Genma's parenting skills, of course.

The old woman tapped her pipe against the table she sat at in the darkness of the Nekohanten. How dramatically fitting that the power had suddenly been knocked out.

"Grandmother!" Came a worried shout from outside. Cologne had sensed Shampoo's approach long before she reached the cafe, and the others as well. But there was someone else too; familiar, yet different at the same time. Cologne's eyes drew into a deep scowl. Already it seemed the final layers of the spell would be peeling away soon, so there was not much time left to do what must be done.

The door to the Nekohanten was flung open, and in stepped Shampoo, carefully shaking her umbrella so that the water on it wouldn't splash back and turn her into a cat. Ranma glumly followed, tailed by a panda who really should have known the door was going to be a tight fit. Cologne had little sympathy for him when he found himself stuck.

"Ranma," Cologne greeted solemnly. The absence of the term 'son-in-law' was not lost on Ranma, and only served to stoke the flames of her awful mood. She didn't ever have any intention of marrying Shampoo, but she also didn't want to be reminded that her whole life had turned out to be a ridiculous masquerade. All thanks to this woman, her father, and she supposed her great grandfather.

"What is it with these jerks and pickles?" Ranma mentally fumed, not offering to assist her father through the door. Let him figure it out. The dope.

"Old hag," Ranma greeted bitterly.

"Ranma, you no should talk to great grandmother like that, she is help you," Shampoo chided.

"So you do know what happened to me!" Ranma rounded on Shampoo, who turned away sadly.

"Ai-ya." Shampoo sighed, walking towards Cologne and taking a seat beside her. "Ranma, you is listen, yes?" Shampoo asked, looking far more serious than usual. She resembled Cologne at that moment, in a weird way. All pretense of forcing Ramen down Ranma's thoughts forgotten.

Meanwhile, Ryoga crept into the very narrow bath left beneath Genma's legs, and hid in one of the more prominent shadows of the darkened cafe.

"What's this all about?!" Ryoga squeaked quietly in pig-anese. He was growing more and more frustrated by the minute, trying to figure out this whole mess. What were Ranma and his dad doing at the Nekohanten? What was going on? "Oh no," the brick wall that was Ryoga's denial finally seemed to begin to crumble, like a scene from Children of the Damned. "Ranma really IS a girl?! Nabiki wasn't joking?!" Lucky for him, the rest of the group did not notice the little black piglet having a major life crisis beneath one of the tables in the corner of the room. He would have been quite a sight.

"Saotome," Cologne directed her attention towards Genma, who looked as if he'd grown comfortable in his trapped position. She nodded at Shampoo, and the purple-haired girl hopped up to grab a kettle of boiling water from seemingly nowhere. Without further ado, and little sympathy for just how hot it really was, she dumped it on the old panda. He didn't look terribly excited about the process, nor did he seem to want to be able to speak once the hot water had transformed him into a sopping wet man. He waved his arms wildly, making non-descript panda sounds of protest.

"Stop making a fool of yourself and sit down with us," Cologne directed, and gestured for her grand-daughter to return to her seat. Shampoo quickly complied and folded her hands on her lap.

Genma sighed and joined both Cologne and Shampoo. The old woman gave Ranma a quirk of her eyebrow, which only earned her an angry glare and crossed arms.

"I'll stand, thanks. If you got anything to say ta me, I don't have ta be sitting down to hear it." Behind her anger that Ranma displayed was a much deeper sadness, but she'd regained enough composure to hide it better than she had been doing in the alleyway earlier.

"Ranma, what would you have done if instead of spending 12 years as a boy, you spent 14 of them waiting to be wed to a demon?" Cologne asked her frankly, never having been the sort to coddle a person in a poor mood.

"Well..." Ranma trailed off. She looked away, not apparently sure how to answer that question. "Well, at least-at least I woulda known what I was! I wouldn'ta spent my whole life thinking I was a guy when I really wasn't!" She snapped, glaring back at Cologne.

"I never said what we did to you was right, Ranma." Cologne stated firmly, meeting Ranma's gaze. The young girl was startled to find she could actually detect a little bit of sadness in Cologne's eyes, which was just about as unusual as seeing pigs fly, and so far she'd yet to see Ryoga grow a pair of wings.

"12 years is not such a long time," Cologne reasoned, "I myself am more than 7 times that and then some."

"Couldn't you have done something else?" Ranma asked, grasping at straws. She was very much within her right to be upset, even to hate everyone in the room. Even so, she was struggling to come up with arguments, other than the one. "Or maybe at least asked me first?" Ranma's thoughts echoed in her mind like a mantra at that moment, "I'm not gonna cry. I'm not gonna cry. I'm not some stupid gir-well, I'm not a stupid one, at any rate."

"There wasn't time," Genma finally spoke, pushing his glasses up higher on his nose.

"And why's that, huh? You said I woulda been waitin' around 14 years! That's plenty better than 12, if you ask me," Ranma argued.

Cologne shook her head sadly, explaining in a quiet voice, "the demon was going to come for you sooner or later, and once he found you he would have kept you imprisoned until those 14 years had passed. We had to make a decision before you were found."

"It seemed to be the right thing to do at the time," Genma added, a pleading tone in his voice. Even if Ranma hated him right now, that didn't mean she completely hated him. So a little bit of her anger ebbed, but not much.

"Oh god, Ranma's been a girl this whole time. And I treated her like some kind of MONSTER, just because she ate a lot and nearly drowned me," Ryoga mentally wailed. He had every right to be mad about the near-drowning and inadvertent curse Ranma was partially responsible for, but Ryoga couldn't imagine spending his life thinking he was one thing, and then finding out he was another! For the first time in his life, he actually felt bad for Ranma. Maybe, just maybe, this was the first step in not wanting him-er, her dead. Maybe.

It really was a wonder that nobody in the cafe had seemed to notice Ryoga yet. He was pacing beneath the table now as he watched them, overwhelmed with all of this new information.

"So my 12 years are up, what does that leave me with, huh? 2 years to get better at being a girl, then I get to marry some random hell-spawn against my will? Jeeze, pops, you coulda at least held off on getting me a bunch of fake engagements!" Sh turned around, pointing a finger at Shampoo, "and you! You-you were in on this! You pretended to be my fiancee-"

"Was no pretend," Shampoo insisted.

Cologne held up a hand to quiet them both, "it's true, she was not pretending. Much like your father, Shampoo came to the mistaken conclusion that marrying you first might void your contract, but the magic of the contract itself prevents any of those marriages from happening."

"What do you mean?" Ranma asked, running a hand through her hair. This was getting real confusing. For the first time since she was about 6, she wished she had Mister Porker to comfort her.

"What she means is," Genma began, pausing for effect as usual. No matter the situation, he could always throw in a pause or two. "What she means is," he stood up as he spoke, tears streaming from his eyes as he clenched a fist in front of his chest, "that no matter how hard we tried, fate conspired to make any wedding attempts of ours to save you fail!"

"Well, how do you think I woulda felt if they worked, huh?" Ranma demanded, stomping her foot, "I'd be married to a girl, thinking I'm a guy, then one day I wake up and then what? That would be a real fun story to tell my non-existent grand-kids!"

"You have the right to be upset, I don't blame you. But what's done is done, and now we must move forward." Cologne spoke, gesturing patiently for Genma to sit down. She took a long pull of her pipe before continuing, "as I said before, it's only a matter of time before he finds you. I can weave an illusion to distract him for a short time, but you'll have to leave Nerima."

As if everything that Ranma had learned that morning already wasn't bad enough, hearing this final shoe drop was the perfect exclamation mark to the worst day of her life. Next to the one she'd been turned into a guy, of course. "And why's that, huh?" Ranma retorted.

"Because solution may be in China." Shampoo chimed in.

Ranma looked at her, surprised. Tears were welling in Shampoo's eyes. Did she really love Ranma the whole time? A problem for another day, Ranma reminded herself, focusing her mind again on the issue at hand, "when do I have ta go?" She asked, more than happy to at least put some distance between herself and the old man until she was ready to forgive him. It would take a hell of a lot longer than 12 years.

Chapter Text

That evening, the Tendos and Saotomes shared perhaps the most uneventful and yet tension-filled dinner they'd ever had. There were no flying tables. No signs of unexpected rivals or fiancees bursting in through the double doors. Ranma picked at her food morosely, and even Genma didn't devour his meal with quite as much gusto as usual. Everyone's discomfort, especially the guilty Genma's, could be cut with the dullest of butter knives. Perhaps even a spoon.

For his part, Soun was focused on his youngest daughter, Akane. She seemed to share the same bird-like appetite as Ranma that evening. As much as he had shamelessly pressed for a relationship between the two, Soun had never realized just how devastating it would be if-well, if the marriage hadn't taken place. They'd all dragged their feet far too much. The very day Genma and Ranma had arrived at the dojo, there should have been a priest waiting for them with wedding bells in the doorway. Now Soun would have to pay for his foolish mistake whenever he saw the devastated look on Akane's face.

Even if Ranma couldn't see it, and even if Akane wouldn't admit it to herself, Soun knew his daughter well. She had loved Ranma the day he arrived in Nerima. Of that, Soun was certain.

"Please excuse me," Akane whispered, standing from from the table and bowing to the group. "I think I'm going to go to bed early," she added, turning and departing from the room.

Kasumi watched her leave, her lips drawn into a slight frown. It was an uncommon sight, and one that Soun took immediate notice of. He would have said as much if not for the somber look she directed at him before she spoke, cutting him to the bone, "father, you were both very wrong." She wasn't alone in her sentiments.

Soun sobbed pitifully, drawing up an arm to cover his face. "Oh, even my dear Kasumi hates me now!" He cried. Genma copied his gesture, which was honestly quite a silly image, given that between the events at the Nekohanten and arriving at the Dojo, he'd become a panda again and hadn't bothered to change back. It didn't help matters.

"Father, you know that isn't true, but really, how could you both do something like this to poor Akane? Or Ranma?" Kasumi admonished.

Seeming to come back to herself for the first time since she'd returned with her father after their fight that morning, Ranma placed her hands on the table and pushed herself to her feet as she spoke, "I'm going to go talk to Akane."

"Ranma," Soun spoke up as she left. She didn't stop to listen to his apologies, and certainly not her father's emotional grunting and growling. Soun couldn't blame her.

Nabiki waited for Ranma's bright red pigtail to disappear down the hallway before she spoke up, raising her tea to her face while she patiently closed her eyes and inhaled the fragrance of warm jasmine, "daddy," she said, "you're both idiots."

"Can I come in?" Ranma peeked through Akane's bedroom door. The youngest Tendo was laying on her stomach in nothing but a top and panties, having discarded her skirt by the side of the bed. Ranma didn't really know how to react to the sight. On any other day, Akane might have been pretty mad too.

But there just wasn't any heat in her eyes when she turned her face slightly to look over at Ranma in the doorway.

"Yeah, sure." She didn't move to cover herself or even make a glib remark about Ranma's comprehension of the word privacy.

"Listen, Akane, I'm sorry," Ranma apologized. She didn't really have anything to be sorry for directly, but that was pretty much how Ranma always had to deal with Akane when she was sad. Half the time Ranma had no idea what she'd done wrong, and half the time she knew she'd messed up bad. This situation didn't fall into either category, but old habits die hard.

Akane blinked several times, as if seeing Ranma for the first time.

"Why are you sorry?" Akane blinked back tears. "None of this was your fault, Ranma."

"Yeah, I know...but I mean...Akane, I don't want you being all sore because we're not getting married anymore, y'know?"

Akane frowned, sitting up and crossing her arms.

"What makes you think I wanted to marry you anyway? I tell you every day I don't want anything to do with you, Ranma!" Old habits seemed to die hard for her too, and Akane felt bad even as the words left her mouth. But for Ranma's part, she was almost glad to see Akane acting a little more like her usual self.

"Look Akane, you know I didn't mean it like that, I-"

"Yeah, I know Ranma. I'm sorry." Akane turned her head away and un-crossed her arms as she took a deep breath. "I didn't mean it like that either."

Ranma stepped further into the room and sat down as Akane pulled her legs aside to make room for the pig-tailed girl.

"So how did you mean it?" Ranma asked, perhaps more serious than Akane had ever really seen her. She had a sharp look in her eyes, as if she was trying to pierce right through Akane, kind of hurt.

"I mean...I meant it how I always mean it, but..." Akane squeezed her hands into her thighs, closing her eyes tightly to press back the tears that wanted to come anyway. Everybody seemed to be a faucet today, the way they were all crying.

"But what, Akane? Did you want to marry me or didn't you? It's a simple question..."

"If it's so simple, why can't you answer it, huh?" Akane demanded, turning to glare at Ranma. For a moment, they were both quiet.

"Akane..." Ranma trailed off.

"Kiss me, Ranma." Akane stated quickly, and seemingly without much thought.

"Wh-what? What for?!" Ranma pulled back, startled.

"I have to know. I have to know if...if the feelings I had for you are real, or just because of some stupid Amazon spell." Akane explained quickly. She felt a bit lighter, having all but confessed one of her deepest secrets.

"Feelings? You have feelings for me?!" Ranma gawked.

Akane, for her part, glared.

"Like it wasn't obvious, Ranma! Why are we always fighting, if I don't...or didn't have feelings for you, huh?"

"That's a funny way to show you care-" Ranma was interrupted by a quite sudden move, which by all rights she should have seen coming. Akane quickly leaned forward and pressed her lips to Ranma's mouth.

Akane closed her eyes and slowly raised her hands, hesitatingly at first and then picking up speed until her arms were wrapped around Ranma. Oh god, Ranma...this is awful. I do love you! Akane mentally shrieked, desperately holding on just to prolong the feeling of the kiss. The tears in her eyes had not ceased to trickle down her face, but instead seemed to grow more forceful. Whether Ranma was a boy or a girl, a jerk or a sweetheart, Akane finally allowed herself to think what she'd always known and denied furiously.

This was their first real kiss, and it felt...good. More than good. The only other time they'd come close to something resembling one, Ranma had thought he...she was a cat. Ranma's lips were soft and warm, and just as nice as she'd remembered, no matter her gender. But Akane couldn't think of any other girls she'd ever known in the same way, and she'd still been attracted to Ranma as a boy. So maybe...

Maybe this doesn't change anything...Akane thought desperately. But even as the words popped into her head, she felt Ranma pull away. It was like stepping out of a warm bath into a cold morning, and she squeaked slightly in protest.

"R-Ranma?" Akane asked, examining Ranma's face from bleary eyes.

"I..." Ranma began, placing a hand to her lips where the feeling of Akane's seemed to linger. But she didn't finish the sentence, she simply stood up from Akane's bed and quietly walked towards the door.

"Ranma?" Akane repeated, reaching out to her former fiancee. Ranma didn't stop, she simply opened the bedroom door and closed it behind her. Akane stared after her for several minutes, heart hammering in her chest.

Come back, Ranma. Please, come back! I need to hear you say it!

Ranma did not come back. Did not call out to Akane. Did not even peek through the door later that evening to see if Akane had fallen asleep. Had she done so, she would have seen the youngest Tendo daughter crying desperately into her pillow, gasping for air that didn't seem to be there.

"Why didn't you say anything?" She sobbed, crouching into a fetal position, pillow held tight to her stomach as a poor substitute for the boy and girl she now realized she'd always loved.

Had Akane gotten up to check the hallway, she might have seen Ranma crouching in front of her bedroom door, staring glumly at her feet.

"I'm sorry, Akane...I don't feel the same way. I don't know if I...ever did..." Ranma whispered to herself, before standing up and heading out towards the roof of the Tendo Dojo to enjoy her last sunrise in Nerima.

Ryoga, for his part, was already there waiting, with his umbrella at the ready and his pack slung over his shoulder.

"Long time no see, Saotome," Ryoga whispered. Ranma sighed, getting into a fighting stance.

"Bring it on, pig-boy." Good, at least now she was going to be able to work out a LITTLE of her frustration on someone besides the old man tonight. She was glad it had stopped raining. Fighting a pig wouldn't have been nearly as satisfying.

Thunder rumbled in the sky, threatening Ryoga's dramatic appearance with the possibility of pig-time. But the rain did not begin to fall, so the fanged boy did not flinch. Instead, he slowly and steadily lowered his umbrella.

"Ranma, do you have any idea why I'm always fighting you?" He demanded, and Ranma raised her eyebrows in response. It seemed like no matter how crazy her world got, she could always rely on good ol' dumb Ryoga to give her a long-winded (and pointless) speech. Oddly enough, she was actually relieved. At least someone was acting normal today.

She tossed her head back and sighed, "same old story you always ramble on about, Ryoga. I ruined your life over some stupid bread you were too slow to catch, I didn't show up for our 'duel' for you to avenge yourself...that's how you usually put it, right? Avenge yourself? Oh! And I knocked you into a cursed spring...from then on, the real nightmare began, and you vowed once more to make me pay for destroying your life. I leaving anything out?" She was particularly vicious with her last sentence, practically begging Ryoga to launch an attack at her. She really needed it, actually.

"So..." Ryoga tilted his head back and half-smirked. "You're finally admitting you ran out on our fight!"

"You were 3 days late!" Ranma protested, hackles raising. So what if everything else in her life up till now had turned out to be one big lie? this was real, and it felt great. The rivalry she unwillingly had with Ryoga was actually real. And besides that, I don't feel like a girl, so really...I'm still a guy inside. And that's how Ryoga's always gonna see me.

She might have continued on that train of thought if Ryoga hadn't just then launched himself into the air headed in her direction.

"Hey!" Ranma shouted, backing away. The fanged boy landed a few feet away, half-smirking.

"So are you ready for a fight, then?" Ryoga asked, not moving to raise his umbrella.

"Well...yeah, that's what we usually do, right?"

"Is that what you want?"

"Yes, that's what I want!"


"Ryoga, quit wastin' may time if you aren't going to fight me. What's wrong with you?" Ranma glared, raising her arms and getting back into a fighting stance.

"I don't feel like it," Ryoga replied, stretching and placing his arms above his head.

"Oh, I get it. Spar me when I don't wanna, and now when I actually wanna, yer just gonna let me stand around lookin' stupid?" Ranma grouched, beginning to suspect that even Ryoga was acting all weird.

"I don't feel like it, Ranma, because you left Akane in her room crying her eyes out." Ryoga responded coolly. "And you aren't worth fighting if you can't even be man enough to apologize for whatever it is you did to her," he added.

"So you were watchin' us? Waiting for the coast to clear so you could sneak into her bed, pig-boy?" Ranma retorted, crossing her arms. She couldn't deny that it did hurt when he put it that way. would be worse to tell her the truth. If that was the truth. She still wasn't sure...things were all different now. She did like Akane, at least when she wasn't being all crazy.

"What's the matter, Ranma? Can't own up to being a jerk?" Ryoga asked, his smirk melting into a frown. He didn't really want to talk like this anymore to Ranma, but he didn't know how else to act. At least he wasn't outright trying to kill her, which he usually did. But if he started acting different, he was pretty sure she'd go crazy. That's what he'd do if he found out one morning that he wasn't actually cursed to be a pig, but really a pig the whole time in disguise as a guy...

"Ryoga? Earth to Ryoga?" Ranma raised a hand in front of Ryoga's face. It looked like he was on another planet, the way he was staring into space like that. So pretty much the usual Ryoga.

"Listen, Ryoga, I didn't mean to hurt her. I really didn't...but what was I supposed to do? She k-..."

"She what?"

"She kicked my kicked my favorite punching bag. And broke it. She kicked my favorite punching bag and broke it, that's what she did," Ranma lied dumbly. She might have wanted to fight Ryoga, but if she told him they were kissing...Ranma didn't have a death wish. And just wasn't as strong when she was in her girl...

Ranma blinked, looking down at her hands again, and nearly panicking. She only then realized that more than losing her old self...she'd lost one of the things that made her practically the best martial artist in the world. Now Ranma may not have been the very best, but she wasn't about to admit she wasn't at least in the top 10.

"Ranma, that's a lousy lie, and you know it. You don't even own a punching bag." Ryoga told her calmly, without even a trace of anger in his voice. Just...disappointment? Well, that was a bit odd. Big surprise there. Everything was odd.

"Okay, fine. You want the truth, Ryoga? You really wanna know why Akane's crying down there? She's crying...she's crying because..."

"Because what, Ranma?" Ryoga questioned impatiently. Just tell me, Ranma. Tell me the truth. He didn't know why he was playing this game, when he could just as easily tell Ranma he already knew she was a girl. But if she didn't want to come out and say it, that was her business. Besides that, he actually was upset to see Akane like that.

Ryoga had been fortunate enough to miss the kiss.

"She's crying because I've been sealed in this body until I can find the treatment for it in China!" Ranma blurted. Wow, even she hadn't seen that lie coming. But it was kinda true, in a way.

"So you're a girl now?" Ryoga asked, raising his eyebrows. This was going to be an interesting story to watch her come up with. If the situation wasn't so sad, he'd probably laugh.

"I'm not a girl!" Ranma stabbed her chest with her thumb. "I'm Ranma Saotome, heir to the 'Anything Goes School of Martial Arts', and I am a boy! I just gotta go to with this stuff...and...I'll get my old body back for good!" That's it! A sudden thought struck Ranma. Cologne had told her the answer might be in China, with an old hermit on Bijia mountain. If he could deal with a demon, he could probably deal with her girl problem too! She could be a real guy again!

"So you're not a girl," Ryoga replied, rubbing his chin. "You sure look like one."

"Shut up!" Ranma threw a punch at the fanged-boy, and he managed to dodge out of the way.

"So you're going to get your old body back," Ryoga added, dodging another punch from Ranma and stepping back.

"Yeah!" She shouted back, sweeping her leg low to knock him down. She caught his ankle, and Ryoga just barely managed to flip over and fall into a crouch. He tossed back his hair and looked up at Ranma.

"Then I'm going with you. But you've got to apologize to Akane for whatever it is you did to her, first."

Ranma stopped, staring at Ryoga. Going with me?! What the heck is wrong with him?!

"If I go with you, maybe I can get rid of my curse too," Ryoga added as he stood up, voicing Ranma's un-asked question. She calmed down and crossed her arms.

"What makes you think I want some dumb pig with poor directions tagging along and slowing me down?"

Ryoga shrugged. "You owe me."

She'd wanted to just hang out on the roof for the rest of the night until the sun rose, and make her break for it, but somehow Ryoga had managed to talk Ranma into getting some sleep first.

"After all," he'd said "you'll need your energy to keep me from wondering off." She'd been so surprised he actually made a joke at his own expense, she didn't argue. But she also wasn't going to sleep in the old man's room either, so instead Ranma crept into Akane's room.

It had been a couple of hours since their incident earlier. Ranma had spent them debating over whether or not she was strong enough to enter the furo and take a hot bath...knowing nothing was going to change. Ultimately she'd decided she'd rather smell like soap the next morning than sweat and self-pity, which was a good thing. Padding into Akane's room with her hair down, Ranma could at least enjoy the feeling of not keeping it tied up for a few hours. In the dim glow of the moonlight shining through Akane's window, she caught sight of the youngest Tendo sleeping. Not happily. But sleeping. She was still clinging to her pillow, the upper portion of it pressed against her face thoroughly soaked with tears.

Akane, Ranma thought miserably, stepping to the side of Akane's bed and sitting down. Dressed in her boy's underwear, she was sure she made quite the sight staring at her former fiancee over the edge of her mattress.

You were never uncute, Akane. I want you to know that. I may have said it all the time, but that's just cause I liked to watch you blush...

Ranma felt an unwanted tear splash onto her own knee as she crouched.

Because...even if I never felt like I wanted to marry you or nothin', I liked you as a friend. Maybe even more than a friend. I don't even know what you are to me, but I can't marry ya if I'm a girl. I just can't.

She lay down, not breaking eye contact with Akane's face.

I thought I'd love you some day. Heck, I was sure I would, with pops and Mister Tendo on us all the time about getting married. Maybe if I can just fix all this stuff...

Ranma yawned, closing her eyes. We can try again...

Though she only slept for a few hours, they were the most peaceful hours Ranma had spent since that morning. When she woke up, she mentally promised she'd leave Akane a note. At least that might fix things, for a little while.

Chapter Text

While Ranma slept dreamlessly in Akane's room, Ryoga had decided to sleep in her old spot near Genma. He was a fairly loud sleeper, but somehow Ryoga managed to find some semblance of sleep. He'd rested through much worse.

Normally he didn't dream, but tonight was different...

He found himself walking into a small tea room. In front of him was a table with a steaming kettle and place settings for two people. "Wh...where am I?" Ryoga asked out loud, his voice echoing in the tiny space in much the same way it might if he were shouting into a well. This place feels familiar...but I can't remember. He frowned in deep thought, trying to drag up the shadow of a memory. It slipped away like a fish in water.

It seemed like one of the place settings at the table was waiting for him, so Ryoga saw no choice but to kneel there and wait for whoever planned on joining him. The minute he settled down, the steam from the hot kettle ceased, and the door to the room was dragged open.

"You're finally back," came a voice that sounded much like his own. Except...there seemed to be even the hint of friendliness in it. Whoever spoke sounded incredibly bitter, and more than a little cruel.

"Back?" Ryoga jerked up to look at the person's face, which remained shadowed in the doorway.

"It's been a long time, Ryoga."

"How do you know my name?" Ryoga's hackles rose. This was way too creepy, the whole situation was way too creepy.

"That's a stupid question," the voice sneered, and the man stepped into the room. Ryoga's eyes widened in fear as he realized who stood before him. It was...

"You're me!" Ryoga exclaimed, pointing at his twin. The only difference between them was that his twin wore black, and his eyes...they were empty. Devoid of...anything. Ryoga found himself terrified of those eyes. And to scare a martial artist is quite a feat.

"I guess you could say that," the dark Ryoga responded, crossing the room to take a seat opposite Ryoga. He poured them both two small glasses of tea.

"What kinda nightmare is this?" Ryoga asked suspiciously, glaring down at the tea. He didn't really trust it, even if it may just be a figment of his own imagination.

"Oh, it's not a nightmare, Ryoga." His twin leaned in and half-smirked.

"You're actually here. We're actually here. In a manner of speaking," after he spoke, he raised the tea to his lips and downed it in one gulp. The heat of the liquid didn't seem to phase him.

"I don't understand. You're crazy." Ryoga replied.

The dark Ryoga shook his head and chuckled, a laugh without any humor in it. As if he were imitating what he thought a laugh sounded like. "I'm not crazy at all, Ryoga. You're the one who woke me up, and you start flinging insults at me?"

Ryoga blanched. "I didn't wake you up!" He snapped, growing more and more agitated by the second. He didn't like this place, and he didn't like this second Ryoga. Not one bit.

"Taste your tea," the dark Ryoga suggested, raising an eyebrow.

Ryoga hesitated, "it's not poison, is it?" He poked at his cup.

The dark Ryoga shrugged. "Even if it is, you're only dreaming...aren't you?"

Ryoga frowned, and shook his head. What kind of coward was he, afraid to drink a cup of tea in his own nightmare? Grabbing the glass, he gulped it down...and immediately blanched. "This tastes like-"

"Like the cleansing herbs." The other Ryoga finished. "Yes, funny how that works. You know, you really shouldn't mess with stuff you don't understand."

"What are you going to do to me?" Ryoga's heart began to hammer in his chest, as he noticed smoke creeping into the room from the corner of his eye.

"Me? I'm not doing anything to you. Like I said, you woke me up." He pointed at the tea. "And that's how you did it."

"Well then...go back to bed, you weirdo!" Ryoga stood up and clenched his fists. It wasn't as if the other man was slinging insults at him, or even threatening him. But just the way he...said things...with Ryoga's own voice. No, the fanged boy didn't like it one bit. Not one bit.

"I'm afraid I can't do that. You see, I'm awake now, and I don't much like the idea of going back to sleep. We've shared this body for a long time, and I think I'd like to take control again. I think I've earned it, the way I've watched you through these years making an idiot of yourself and ignoring every single thing I tell you."

"Tell me?!" Ryoga exclaimed. "I'm not crazy, and you're not real!" He protested.

"Oh please," the other Ryoga seemed to be growing irritated himself. "Every time I tell you to turn somewhere, you act as if you can't even hear me."

"Because I can't!"

"Whether you can or can't, that's all about to change, Ryoga. Next time you go to sleep, this body will be mine again, and there's do." He seemed to have grown bored again, and so he filled his glass with tea once more.

As for Ryoga, he wasn't about to go down without a bit more of a fight.

"You can't have my body!" He jumped forward to attack, and suddenly the room faded away into the miasma of smoke that had slipped in. Then there was no room, no table, and no twin. Just Ryoga staring into a swirling fog, and the peal of that awful fake laughter ringing in his ears.

Nothing I can do? We'll see about that. Ryoga clenched his fists and frowned. Then...he woke up.

Ranma was crouching over him with her head tilted to the side.

"I was beginnin' to think you were just gonna sleep all morning and make me have ta say good-bye to everyone," she remarked, standing up and crossing her arms. It looked like she'd had plenty of time to get dressed and packed. For Ryoga's part, his head felt absolutely awful. Like he'd been drinking sake all night and trying to nail a hammer into wood with his own skull. He rubbed his temples gingerly.

"What's the matter with you?" Ranma asked, watching him.

"It's nothing," he pushed aside her question and stood up. He hadn't bothered to get un-dressed, so all Ryoga had to do was pick up his pack and sling it over his shoulders.

"You look like hell," she remarked, turning to walk towards the doorway.

"Gee, thanks." Ryoga sneered, following her. He pulled to a stop mid-step, when he saw her turn back to stare at her dad.

"You know, he's not all bad." She sighed, placing a hand on the door frame. "Maybe when this is all over, I'll be glad he did it..." She scowled. "And if not, I'll just kick his butt a bit harder than usual."

For Ryoga's part, he feigned obliviousness. "Is it his fault you got sealed in your girl body then?" He asked innocently. Ranma blinked and looked back at Ryoga thoughtfully. "Yeah. Yeah, it is."

They stood in the room for a minute more, just silently while Genma slept. They might have continued, Ryoga gazing at Ranma while she in turn gazed at her dad. A funny thought popped into his head just then, but it was so absolutely ridiculous that he didn't even give it credence. But it wasn't as if he hadn't thought of it before. Even when they first fought, Ryoga admitted Ranma's girl body was attractive. But thinking that now...well, thinking that now would open up a whole new world of complications. So he waved it aside and shoved Ranma through the door.

"Hey!" She hissed, not quite ready to leave.

"If we don't get going now, you're probably going to stick around for breakfast, and maybe even longer. Come on, Ranma," Ryoga insisted.

She knew he was right of course, but Ranma Saotome didn't like being pushed around.

"Watch it, pig-boy," she growled, though she didn't stop walking. Ryoga smirked. He hoped they'd be able to tolerate each other long enough to make it to China. For his part, even if she really was a girl...Ranma was still Ranma. A jerk through and through. He was actually grateful that hadn't changed. Otherwise he'd feel much more guilty about that urge he still had to pick a fight with her.

As they left the dojo together, they didn't notice the fog creeping up behind them and snapping at their heels.

"You sure you're going to be able to make this journey, P-Chan?" Ranma looked up at Ryoga, wiggling her eyebrows. He was relieved she seemed to be in a better mood this morning. Ryoga didn't know if he could handle a sobbing Ranma all the way to China.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Ryoga knocked her on the head with his elbow. It wasn't going to be easy getting used to being so much taller than Ranma...24/7 at least.

"I dunno, you're always tryin' ta kill me, or somethin'. I just don't know if you got the stamina to keep up with me, carrying all that angst around," Ranma joked.

"If that's the case, Ranma, I'd be more concerned about you being able to make the trip," Ryoga replied, taunting her in turn.

"I can take you on any time, pig-boy, and don't you forget it..."

It was kind of weird talking to Ranma like this, like they always had...but maybe with less punches thrown in. Maybe when all of this was said and done, whether Ranma ended up as a boy or girl, they could actually be friends. Not that they weren't already, in the way a rival tends to be. But Ryoga couldn't see himself trying to learn another Bakusai Tenketsu-esque technique to try and deal with Ranma anymore.

"You know something, Ryoga...I think this is the beginning of a beautiful frie...will you get your elbow off my head already?!" Ranma snapped, pushing Ryoga's arm away. The fanged boy grinned.

Further down the street, an old man stretched to greet the dawn, and noticed the pair walking. He watched in fascination as the fog behind them swallowed the pair up...and dissipated into nothing. The old man gasped, placing his hand on his chest. "I didn't know there were spirits in Nerima!" He rasped in awe, making a note to tell the boys about this at their weekly Kaidan meeting.

Several strange things occurred in Nerima that morning, which by Nerima standards might not be considered too terribly strange at all. Still, they did not go unnoticed...

An impish old man migrating across the city skyline laden with lacy treasures was interrupted from his joyous cries.

"What a haul! What a haaaaaul, what a hau-" It would seem the captured frilly things in his bag were struggling to get free. To his surprise, the brown fabric of the sack tore open right down the middle and several dozen pairs of glorious panties flew away through the air, flapping their sides like wings. He could only watch in misery and disbelief as they sailed off into the sunset. Tears tickled his eyes, and he crouched down to cry pathetically into the shreds of his dignity...and bits of brown bag.

Elsewhere, a lovelorn kendoist waxed poetic in the wee hours, pouring his purple prose of passion into a perfume-drenched letter, only to find the ink of his sonnets marching about the paper like coal-colored soldiers, stopping only when every line the kendoist wrote had morphed into a terrifyingly awful pun. It was an improvement, but still very disconcerting.

"Sa...Sa...Sasuke!" Tatewaki Kuno wailed.

The short, ugly, but loyal ninja was no sooner beckoned than he appeared in Kuno's doorway.

"Yes, Master Kuno?"

"Inspiration! The muse of my inner soul has taken flight through my pen, and dubbed the stationary upon which I craft my words of passion..."

"Uh...yes, Master Kuno. I am sure it is a most thrilling read. In fact, I daresay both the pig-tailed girl and Akane Tendo would be most impressed."

"Deliver it thus upon the Tendo doorstep!" Kuno demanded. He wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. If his letter wanted to write itself, and do a better job than him, who was Kuno to argue?

At a humble clinic, not too far from the Dojo, a pleasant (but at times very silly) doctor found his skeleton responding to one of his corny jokes with an amused chattering of teeth. If he hadn't just had a conversation with Kasumi over the phone, he might have even noticed.

Countless other things happened that morning, both good and bad, to the people in Nerima. Most note-able of all, however, was at the Nekohanten. Cologne, perched upon a silk pillow, found herself disturbed from deep meditation for the first time in over 50 years. Gasping into an empty darkness that surrounded her, she placed her pipe in her mouth and puffed.

"So that's how it's going to be, eh?" She spoke aloud, looking up at the ceiling. Whoever she may have been speaking to would most assuredly not miss the note of threat in her tone...

"Ranma," Akane called out groggily as she sat up in bed. For a moment, in between waking and dreaming, she could have sworn Ranma was in her room. Akane could even smell the fragrance of fresh soap linkering in the air. Ranma always smelled like he'd...Akane mentally faltered. Like she'd just showered, the youngest Tendo corrected herself.

At least with the long night behind her, she was confident she could summon up the appearance of false indignation. If she accused Ranma of initiating that stupid kiss, they could just fight and forget about it. That was how they always worked out their problems.

A sinking feeling in the pit of Akane's stomach reminded her that this might be the first time a fight wasn't going to change anything. But she had to try.

"For both of us," Akane stated resolutely as she stood up from her bed.

But when she went downstairs, she did not see Ranma eating breakfast with the rest of the household, nor fighting outside with her dad, nor even bathing in the furo.

Soun, Nabiki, Kasumi, and Genma watched Akane warily as she finally gave up and sat down at the table to join them.

"Akane, Ranma isn't here," Soun stated quietly. He was not looking at his newspaper as he normally did at this time. In fact, his eyes looked just as red as hers must have last night after she'd...Akane's lower lip trembled. As she'd cried herself to sleep...

"Where is h...she?" Akane asked, still struggling with the idea that Ranma was a girl. It just didn't make any sense. It probably never would.

"On her way to China, no doubt." Genma stated solemnly.

"WHAT?!" Akane shouted, standing up from the table.

"So now we're not getting married, you just decided to throw her out?!" Akane fumed, far more upset than she'd ever been with Ranma.

"Akane, calm down. You know I wouldn't do that," Soun said quietly, gesturing for Akane to sit back down. And just like that, her fury dissipated.

"I'm sorry, dad. I shouldn't have yelled at you like that..." She looked down at her lap where her fists remained clenched.

"Akane, you have every right to be upset." Her father leaned forward, holding out a hand. Akane stared at it, and then put her hand in his. He gave her a reassuring squeeze.

"Cologne suggested there may be a way for Ranma to get out of her marriage contract, if she finds an exorcist in China," Genma explained, looking away.

Normally, any fury or sadness the middle-aged martial artist demonstrated was an act, or at least dramatic enough to look like one. But he actually seemed genuine. Even Kasumi appeared shocked. As sweet as she was, she knew half of the things Genma said were performances. More than half.

" what am I supposed to do now?" Akane asked hopelessly. "Just go on with my life, pretend I never met Ranma, pretend we were never engaged?" She choked. It was no use. She just couldn't pretend this new bit of information didn't devastate her even further than the failed kiss.

"Well, Akane, I see two options here," Nabiki chimed in. Everybody turned to stare at her. They hadn't expected the bob-haired girl to even be remotely interested in the topic at hand. Sometimes she just...seemed like an outsider looking in. An audience member.

"What do you mean?" Kasumi asked, glancing at her younger sister with wide eyes. This was all a little too much information before lunch. She hadn't even gone grocery shopping yet.

"You can mope around here, fume, yell at daddy that he ruined your life-...sorry daddy, but you and Mister Saotome didn't make things very easy on her..." Nabiki glanced apologetically at Soun, who didn't argue.

"Or you can go after her." Nabiki added, meeting Akane's eyes.

"Why...why would I go after her?" Akane asked, already knowing the answer to her question. That was exactly what she was going to do.

"Well, I guess you're the only person who knows, Akane." Nabiki trailed off, sticking a lollypop in her mouth as if she hadn't just given a piece of sage sisterly advice at no charge. Sometimes Nabiki's love was painfully obvious, and it felt good to notice.

"I'll have to think about it..." Akane looked at her breakfast and bit her bottom lip.

"Well, while you think about it, I'll call your principal. Saotome, you can help us pack," Soun looked over at Genma.

"!" Akane blurted.

"Why of course, Akane. I don't want my youngest daughter wondering off to the wilds of China alone. We're all going with you!" Soun released his daughter's hand and laughed. Somehow that triggered off a chuckle from Kasumi, and even a surprising titter from Nabiki. Fairly soon, the whole group was laughing. Laughing to get rid of the tension they'd found the house wound up with, and laughing because it didn't seem like anything had really changed after all.

"Where are we, Ranma?" Ryoga asked, looking up at the trees around them. No sooner had they stepped outside of the city street, they'd seemed to wonder into a forest. But...Ryoga didn't remember anything like this, and he'd been all around Japan.

"I dunno, I haven't seen this place before..." Ranma was in awe. This didn't make any sense...they'd been walking in the direction of Furinken high, they should have at least passed that before stumbling into any kind of wilderness. She paused in thought, doing her best not to lose it.

"Hey, your bad sense of direction contagious?" She looked over at the fanged boy. He frowned back, forming fists at his side.

"What's that supposed to mean?!" He squawked.

"Exactly what it sounds like. This shouldn't be here. WE shouldn't be here. Your bad sense of direction rubbed off on me! You broke my inner compass!"

"Shut up Ranma, you don't have an inner compass."

"Not any more, I don't!

Ryoga sighed and rubbed at his temples.

"Listen, Ranma, this is going to be a lot tougher if we start fighting. You know I can't just break your 'inner compass' by being around you, if you really have one. Maybe we just took a weird turn. Everybody does that once in awhile, even if...even if they're not as bad at it as me." Ryoga mumbled the last part. He could have sworn the herbs had worked...he'd been so careful. Maybe he'd wretched them up in his sleep, and that was why he'd dreamed about tasting them again. It was really gross to think about, and never mind the fact that he didn't wake up covered in it...but he honestly couldn't think of any other explanation.

Ranma watched him pensively, tucking her hands into her pockets.

"Ah, look. I'm sorry, Ryoga. I guess I've just gotten used ta makin' fun of you. I'll -try- to be nicer. Maybe you're right, maybe I just took a wrong turn by accident. But we've been walking around for over an hour, and I haven't seen anything I recognize," Ranma squinted through the fog. It was finally fading, and the trees stood out much more starkly in the early morning light.

"It''s okay." Ryoga replied, letting his fists relax. "I guess I shouldn't be so sensitive. I just don't really know how to talk to you, Ranma, without getting mad."

"That make sense," Ranma shifted onto her left foot and became absolutely fascinated with her slipper. "I mean, I did steal your bread and all..."

"A mortal sin," Ryoga agreed jokingly.

"Much worse than trying to find someone's breaking point," Ranma added.

Ryoga shrugged and smirked.

"You're not so bad, Ryoga. A bit dumb sometimes, but not so bad," Ranma continued, walking forward.

"You too, Ranma."

They walked along making idle chatter. It was surprisingly easy, given how much they had in common: martial arts and cursed springs. Not a lot of people in Japan could say they'd had first hand experience with both.

"You were right earlier," Ranma remarked, leaping over a fallen branch.

"What about?" Ryoga asked, following suit.

"...About Akane. I do need to treat her better."

"Heh...I guess when you fix this girl problem, you can just apologize, huh?" Ryoga asked. Normally he would have felt a twinge of pain, thinking about Ranma and Akane together. But considering the fact he knew she was actually a girl, the idea didn't seem to have much substance anymore. Unless...

"Ranma, do you like girls?"

"WHAT?!" Ranma exclaimed, both upset and taken aback at the same time.

Ryoga stumbled for the right words, not wanting to let on what he knew.

"I mean when you're a girl, of course. Do you like girls when you're in a girl body?"

"I dunno, Ryoga, do you like pigs when you're in a pig body?"

"No..." Ryoga trailed off. "But I also can't eat pork anymore."

"" Ranma looked up, sighing.

"I don't think I could handle that...I love pork!" She joked. Ryoga couldn't help but smile.

She never did get around to answering his question, though.

Chapter Text

That morning, as Tatewaki Kuno feverishly practiced suburis with his bokken, an odd chill struck him from the top of his neck to the base of his spine. Whirling about, he found himself faced with a very nervous Sasuke. Even more troublesome, Kuno noticed a letter gripped in his servant's hand.

"What is this?!" Kuno exclaimed, horrified that his loyal page seemed to have failed in the simplest of tasks.

"M-master Kuno, I have very grave news. Neither the pig-tailed girl, nor Akane Tendo, nor the evil Ranma, nor any member of the Tendo household...or the panda...can be found at their home. When I arrived there this morning to deliver your most urgent message, I found a sign on the door that read 'Gone to China'." Sasuke looked down at his feet, deeply ashamed that he had let his great master down.

"Hmmm..." Kuno replied, sitting down and crossing his legs, careful not to poke himself in the face with his bokken.

"This is troubling news, Sasuke," he whispered. Though he had said his servant's name, Kuno was very much in the mode of launching into a personal soliloquy.

"Ah! I have it!" Kuno poked his finger into the air.

"Saotome, the wretch, must have ensnared the entire dojo and lured them away so that the beautiful Akane Tendo could not be made aware of my affections this eve," he intoned gravely, and continued talking in a much more angered tone, "Yes, I see it all now! He has taken them all to China so that he may force Akane Tendo to marry him, and also keep my pig-tailed goddess ensnared in his evil trap. Sasuke! Prepare my things! We must go to China and rescue them both, before the foul sorcerer can have his evil ways with them!"

A streak of blue lightning crackled through the sky outside, nearly missing a very nervous-looking cat that had just then begun to ponder the wisdom of living so close to a house where lightning always seemed to strike.

Ranma and Ryoga plodded along through the woods, which was pretty thirsty work for a normal person, and hungry work if they hadn't eaten. Unfortunately for Ranma, not only had she eaten little the day before...she'd also forgotten to grab something from the kitchen before they headed out. Her stomach verbalized this fact quite rudely.

"Aw, man, I'm starving!" She complained, looking about. Normally when her and the old man were traveling, they had enough food from tricking someone or had at least made plans to catch something before they got too hungry. It was going to be ages before she'd be able to fix anything proper.

"Yeah, I know how you feel," Ryoga agreed, signaling the truth of the matter when his own stomach chimed in.

"Don't you have anything in your pack? Like dried fruits or something?"

"I'm not a vending machine!"

"Well, you're always traveling all over Japan! Are you telling me you didn't pack breakfast this morning?!" Ranma exclaimed, ignoring the fact that she very well could have done the same.

"Not that you've even thought about it with that hard head of yours, Ranma, but you're the one who woke me up. I haven't even gotten a chance to step away from you since we left the dojo this morning. The way I see it is this: it was your responsibility to bring some food for us. Or you could have at least given me a warning before we got this far. Now we're going to have to forage or hunt on empty stomachs."

Ranma sighed and crossed her arms.

"Well, what do ya wanna eat?"

"We're in a forest. Not a refrigerator. We'll have to eat what we can find."

"I know that! I've been on a couple of training trips, myself, ya know. You're not the only person who gets around!" Ranma snapped.

'It's funny,' Ryoga thought to himself. 'It doesn't even feel like this is a real fight right now.' And it honestly wasn't. There were times in between their more vicious bouts when both Ryoga and Ranma actually enjoyed bickering with each other. Not in the same way he'd seen her fight with Akane, either.

With Akane, it always looked like Ranma was just sticking her foot in her mouth. But when Ryoga fought with her, they kind of walked into their conversations ready to have a shouting match beforehand.

'There are so many things I always resent you for, Ranma. But I guess I never thought about how much I actually like this part.' He mentally smirked.

'Of course, when we're married, she'll have to be far more docile. I can seal her mouth shut if I have to...' A much nastier voice cut into Ryoga's musing, and he paled. It was becoming a familiar one, now. He recognized the tone of those words from his dream.

"Ranma, why don't you find somewhere to fish or something while I try to get some berries?" Ryoga suddenly suggested, wanting to be far away from her while he cooled down with himself and got his thoughts back in order. Ryoga really didn't want to find out he was going nuts.

"Oh, I get it, make me do all the hard work," Ranma sneered, removing her pack and setting it down to massage her shoulder. They'd only been walking for a few hours, but she'd had less practice lugging around too much heavy stuff in her girl it seemed to be wearing her down a bit faster than she was used to.

"Well...if I try catching something in cold water, you know what will happen," Ryoga grumped, with more bark in his bite than he felt.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Ranma replied, stomping off through a clearing in the trees.

"I think I hear running water over here," she tossed back behind her, "a pig's not gonna be much use on this trip anyway, so go find some roots or something and make yourself useful!" Ranma shouted, as she put more distance between them.

When Ryoga felt she was far enough not to hear him, he slunk down to the ground and whimpered.

"I really shouldn't have bought those herbs..." He was beginning to think that maybe...maybe the herbs didn't have anything to do with what was happening to him. But this place...wherever it was...made him feel really funny.

"Maybe it's just my imagination," he reasoned. After all, neither he nor Ranma had much to eat in the past couple of days. Ryoga had been too busy spying on the weird goings-on with his former rival to even think of snacking.

Just as Ryoga felt he was beginning to calm down, and ready to start foraging...the wind around him began to pick up. Though it thankfully cleared any remainder of fog or mist, it brought with it something very strange. Picking through the trees, heading in Ryoga's direction...was a broom. Not just a broom, but a very busy one, sweeping uselessly at clods of dirt and leaves that came in it's path.

Ryoga's jaw dropped. "A HAHAKIGAMI?!" He exclaimed, recalling the word from deep in his memory bank. A word he probably shouldn't have known.

'I hate those things...' The unwanted voice in his head grumbled.

'But I guess I should have expected one, after I brought us to the spirit world...'

Ryoga blanched.

"SPIRIT WORLD?!" He shouted. In the process, he scared the poor broom ghost away. It fled on it's bristles, though still occasionally stopping to sweep up a particularly large stick or tuft of moss.

"SPIRIT WORLD?!" Shampoo exclaimed, eyes darting about in embarrassment as she noticed several customers looking in her direction.

"Grandmother, what you talking about?" She hissed, not doubting for a moment that Cologne was absolutely correct.

"Ranma has been taken to the spirit world, Shampoo. I sensed it this morning. A door has been opened in Nerima, and will soon close. Haven't you noticed the strange things happening in the cafe?" She inquired, lowering her eyebrows. Cologne tried to guide her grand-daughter, teach her the ways of the world and how to look for signs of unnatural things in order to protect herself. But one couldn't teach wisdom, it must be acquired on one's own.

"You mean Mousse?" Shampoo asked, looking over towards her unwanted suitor. He was busily wrestling with several utensils and a tea kettle that had become magnetized to his head.

"Mousse always doing weird things," she reasoned. "He stupid."

"Be that as it may, it wasn't my point. Shampoo, you must honor your vow," Cologne chided.

"You want Shampoo kill girl Ranma?" Shampoo balked. Even if they may not be able to marry now, the very idea pained her.

"You know very well you made a much different vow as a child. The earlier one cancels out the kiss of death, which we both know no longer applies anyway."

"Ah yes, protect Ranma. Shampoo remember," he looked away sadly.

"Hard to look at Ranma so much now..."

"Granddaughter," Cologne sighed, tucking her pipe into her mouth and hopping closer to stand by Shampoo so that she could place a tiny hand on the purple-haired Amazon's shoulder.

"Love comes when we don't expect it, and leaves long after we try to brush it away. Believe me. This old girl has experienced it first-hand."

"But no can love Ranma now," Shampoo protested.

"Maybe not as you did, but some day you may learn to feel that love in a different way. As it is, you can not break your vow. Otherwise, what would stop Mousse from challenging you again and using under-handed means to defeat you in a fight?" Cologne teased, knowing very well the duck-minded man had absolutely no chance at hurting Shampoo. He likely didn't have it in him, Amazon law or not, to even put half of his strength into it.

"By Amazon law, you must do your duty. The door to the spirit world lingers open now, but by mid-day it will have closed...and Ranma will have no one with her to help."

Shampoo sighed, holding her tray close to her. Despite the events of the previous day, she'd been working hard at the Nekohanten since it opened.

"You is sure love will change?" Shampoo asked hopefully.

"Well, not entirely. Nothing is certain."

"Then Shampoo try hard anyway. For Ranma!" She tossed her tray behind her. It went sailing through the air and stuck fast to Mousse's face. He groaned and slid to the ground, knocking over a bucket of mop water, and changing into a duck covered with dishes.

"Take Mousse with you. He'll make a mess here without you to look after things." Cologne advised. Shampoo didn't doubt it.

In no time, Shampoo was pedaling furiously down the street, a dazed duck-Mousse with a metal tray for a hat nestled in her basket. The sun was rising higher in Nerima, and she didn't have much time left to find the door to the spirit world.

"Grandmother say not much time left, must find door to Spirit world!" She shouted unnecessarily. Mousse quacked in agreement, though he really didn't know what was going on. If Shampoo was taking him on a trip, though, it must mean she was reconsidering one of his many proposals. His heart soared. Staring at the skyline, Mousse silently thanked Ranma Saotome. Because this probably had something to do with him, and even if Mousse would very likely try to kill him later and get him out of the way...this was a golden opportunity to grow closer with Shampoo.

Ukyo Kuonji stood outside of her Okinomiyaki shop sweeping the store front. The fog that had rolled into Nerima that morning seemed to make everyone a late sleeper, because so far she'd yet to encounter even one customer.

"I guess it's just one of those days," Ukyo mused aloud. At it very well might have been, if a purple-haired Amazon hadn't gone sailing by on her bike with an entirely too happy duck in tow. Ukyo jerked to attention and frowned.

"I don't know what she's in a hurry about, but it probably has something to do with Ranma-honey." Ukyo tossed her broom aside and flipped the open sign to closed on the door to her restaurant. She smirked to herself.

"There's no way I'm letting her get the upper hand on me, if that's what she's planning to do today!" She was almost grateful to have a day off from boredly cleaning and organizing her store-front. Ukyo sailed down the street as quickly as her feet could carry her, grinning. Today was going to be an exciting one after all.

"Daddy, couldn't we have rented a car for this?" Nabiki inquired, her neutral tone belying the sense of agitation she felt at the idea of walking to the coast of Japan, and possibly swimming to China. She just didn't have the stamina for that sort of thing. Nabiki was a business woman, not a martial artist.

"It does seem a little difficult, father. We aren't as fit as Akane is," Kasumi remarked in agreement. Even so, she carried a fairly large backpack of supplies for their journey. One couldn't risk going without a proper breakfast, lunch, or supper. Kasumi knew very well that they would all feel grateful later that she'd considered this.

"Don't worry, girls, we're going to rent a car, I just figured we could save time if we all walked there together so we don't have to come back and gather the family," Soun replied cheerfully, looking up at the skyline. 'This reminds me of the good old days, when leaving the city for a good training exhibition was as simple as snapping my fingers.' He thought to himself, smiling.

"Tendo, where did you say this rental place was again?" Genma inquired, looking ahead with a somewhat concerned expression.

"Just up ahead, Saotome, wh..." Soun trailed off, halting in his tracks. The others followed suit. Up ahead was a practical wall of fog, receding from the city. It was thicker than he'd ever seen the likes of, and the hairs on the back of his neck rose.

"This reminds me of an old story I once read...a young girl was whisked away by a great wind storm," Genma began, solemnly. "...into a strange land of oddly small people, terrorized by an evil witch who brought terror and misery to the land...until the girl was given a pair of magical slippers..." Saotome continued. The rest of the group looked somewhat unimpressed.

"Mister Saotome, we've all seen 'The Wizard of Oz'," Akane remarked, doing her best not to offend him.

"Oh my, I hope there aren't any mean apple trees in China!" Kasumi exclaimed, concerned.

"Be that as it may," Genma continued, "I don't think this is any ordinary fog. There are more things in heaven and-" his dramatic speech was interrupted by a bicycle wheel grinding into his head and knocking him to the ground.

"Nihao!" Shampoo shouted, waving at the group.

"Shampoo, what are you doing here?!" Akane exclaimed. More than anybody, Shampoo should know Ranma couldn't possibly be on the fiancee market anymore. Not as a husband anyway.

"I was about to ask her the same question!" Came the cry of Ukyo Kuonji, dashing down the street in their direction. She looked determined, and ready for a fight if need be. Akane frowned, thinking to herself she should have known that even if Ranma changed on the outside...everything else in their lives would remain the same.

"Nice to see you again, Kuonji," Genma weakly called from beneath the wheel of Shampoo's bike. She didn't appear to be ready to move any time soon.

"Now I know it's gotta be around here somewhere," Ranma mumbled, looking about. The sound of the running water was growing louder, but it was soon cut into by an even stranger sound. Someone was singing...

"Shall I wash my Azuki beans?" The voice came through the clearing, high and reedy. Like an old talking doll with a broken voice box.

"Shall I wash my Azuki beans...shoki shoki. Or shall I catch a man to eat? Shoki shoki..."

Ranma blanched. "What kinda freak..." She mumbled, breaking through the trees to find herself standing near the shore of a large river. The water was oddly dark, babbling and quick, with strange films of white breaking above the surface like clouds of steam.

"Shoki shoki..." the voice continued. "Shoki shoki..."

"Hey, who's singing?!" Ranma shouted, looking around. "Shoki-" The voice was cut off, and she suddenly saw a rustling near a bush across the river. She only caught a quick glimpse before the strange man disappeared through the trees, but it was enough to know he looked an awful lot like Happosai.

"Jeeze, this place is weird..." She observed grumpily, her mood not improving with the sound of her screaming stomach.

"Well, better get started!" Ranma rolled up her sleeves and clapped her hands together. Crouching down in front of the river, she grinned.

"Deta! Hissatsu Tenshin Amaguriken!" She shouted, though there really hadn't been any need. There was no audience. Just like that, her hands flew through the water at the speed of lightning, flipping fish into the air, flapping to the grass behind her. She didn't know how hungry they'd both be, but she was going to catch plenty just in case. And who knew how good Ryoga was at foraging. Knowing him, probably just as good as he was at finding his place around Japan. Ranma smirked to herself, shaking her head.

"He's so stupid sometimes," she remarked aloud. It was kind of funny. Kind of cute. Wait, cute? Ranma frowned, focusing harder on the task at hand. She was a guy, thinking girly stuff like that was only going to get her in trouble. Ryoga Hibiki was just a dumb guy with brute strength, usually a rival, and maybe even a friend on a good day. But he was not cute. Guys weren't cute, they just weren't.

As she thought that, she felt something bony and slimy grab her hand and give her a good jerk.

"WHAT THE?!" Ranma exclaimed, taken off guard, and falling into the river. She struggled against a hand that held tight to her wrist, and pulled back her free arm, ready to throw a solid punch. The task was much more difficult suspended in water, however, so Ranma wasn't going to have an easy go of it in this blind fight.

"GRAAAAGHHHHRRRBBLL..." Ranma shouted, her words garbled by a mouthful of water.

Ryoga sat in front of a small pile of sticks and leaves he'd fashioned, striking two pieces of flint together. "The spirit world? We can't be in the spirit world..." He told himself, frowning. The voice hadn't come back to bother him again, but Ryoga was becoming fairly convinced that wouldn't last too long.

He grinned as a spark caught, bringing some of the leaves to a blaze. Quickly tossing more on top to keep it alight until the sticks caught on too, he began to think. Which, for Ryoga Hibiki, could be a dangerous thing.

"So...if this really is the spirit world...and there's some kind of voice in my head telling me I'm going to marry Ranma..." The cogs in his brain began to turn. "Does that mean...I'm the demon!?" He exclaimed. The voice didn't come back to agree, but Ryoga was sure it would bother him his dreams.

"But it's impossible. I mean...I'm human. Aren't I?" Ryoga asked himself, reflecting on his past, his memories, and his family. "I went to school, I grew up, I had parents...and my dog always liked me. Dogs don't like demons, do they?" Ryoga continued to toss leaves into the fire, gathering a few handfuls of twigs in the process.

"Do you mind if I join you?" A raspy voice inquired, and a stranger appeared from the shadows of the trees. An old man stood there, dressed in tattered robes. He was hunched over, with a large hump tucked under the back of his robes, and his nose was...tremendously long.

"Wh-wh-who are you?" Ryoga asked, trembling. If this was the spirit world, Kami-sama knew what this man really was. Possibly something that ate people. Half of them did, from what he could recall of the stories his mother used to tell him.

"Me?" The stranger asked, stepping closer. He didn't look like he was about to attack, but who knew how the minds of spirits worked?

"I'm just an old man, seeking to rest my feet by a warm fire for just a moment before I move on," the stranger replied.

Ryoga stared at him, frowning. If he said no, something bad would probably happen. If he said yes...something bad would probably happen. So...what did he have to lose?

"Yeah, sure. Take a seat," Ryoga shrugged. He would try to feign disinterest. Maybe even pretend he was a spirit too...'I mean...if I am the demon, then I guess I'm not pretending?' Ryoga didn't know what was worse...going crazy, or finding out he was some kind of monster bent on marrying Ranma Saotome.

"Forgive an old man for asking," the stranger rasped, sitting down with the ease of a man half his age. "You look upset. As I am a stranger to you, and likewise, perhaps I can help." He suggested, gazing at Ryoga solemnly.

"Uh, well...It's nothing. I'm always like this." Ryoga replied.

"You are not what you seem, are you?" The old man suddenly inquired, with his piercing eyes. Ryoga frowned, leaning back a bit as he continued tossing leaves in the fire. Had the old man already figured him out? Could he take him in a fight, if he had to? A thousand thoughts rushed into Ryoga's head at once, and though he didn't betray it on his face...he was in full-blown panic mode.

"You don't even know what you are, do you?" The old man added, smirking.

"Wh-what kind of question is that?! Of course I know what I am! I'm just a guy making a fire, that's all I am."

The old man shook his head. "Nobody knows what they really are, my son. That is the journey we all find ourselves taking in life. Yours is just a bit more challenging than most."

Ryoga frowned and glared at the old man. "How do you know so much about me?" He immediately regretted the question, half-expecting the old man to turn into a giant head and try to eat him, or a cackling spider bent on wrapping Ryoga in it's web for lunch.

Chapter Text

"So what's this all about? Is there some kind of party going on out here I wasn't told about?" Ukyo sarcastically inquired, crossing her arms. The okinomiyaki chef didn't seem too pleased about the congregation, and was sincerely concerned at the absence of Ranma.

"You go home, stupid boyish girl, no can help!" Shampoo retorted, leaping into the air with her bike and landing beside the Tendos with a flair. Mousse flapped his wings and shook his head, finally releasing his metal hat to fall to the ground. "Wenk wenk wenk!" He snapped, agreeing with Shampoo...because Mousse always agreed with Shampoo, if it would make her happy.

"Shampoo, I don't see anything wrong with Ukyo coming to help us. Ranma needs our help, and he...she'll need all the extra hands she can get!" Akane defended Ukyo, separating herself from the group and taking a fighting stance. If the Amazon was going to start a stupid fight like this, Akane was going to make sure it ended quickly.

"You think we should bring whole city to spirit world, then?" Shampoo asked, frowning at Akane and giving her a piercing glare. Genma slammed a fist into one of his hands, feeling self-satisfied that he'd at least had a good idea something was wrong with the fog.

"I just knew there was something wrong with this fog!" He hissed his thoughts aloud to the Tendo family. They all took it in with very little surprise. After all, Ranma was engaged to a demon. Clearly strange things were afoot.

"She does have a point, Akane," Nabiki remarked, breaking the silence, and popping a lollypop into her mouth. Nobody knew where she'd gotten it, but the nature of Nabiki's snacking was a strange and mysterious phenomenon that none questioned.

Ukyo waved a hand in the air, dismissing Shampoo's bad attitude. "Look, if you don't wanna answer my question, fine. But I'm not going to sit by here or go back home and wait around if Ranma-honey's in trouble." She paused. "Wait...repeat that. Spirit world?" She blinked, Shampoo's last remark finally taking hold in her mind. She nervously frowned. "You mean the kind of place with ghosts and evil demons? Why is Ranma in the spirit world? DID YOU SEND HIM THERE?!" Ukyo reached for her spatula, ready to give Shampoo a good beating if need be. Kami-sama knew the Amazon was always doing funny things to get him to marry her, if anyone was behind this...Shampoo was a pretty safe bet.

"Girls, girls!" Soun finally interrupted. "Ranma is in the spirit world because she...well, I guess she took a wrong turn. Now, it may not be a good idea to bring more people with us, but we've got to think of Ranma. If you just stand around here bickering, who knows what will happen to her."

Ukyo rubbed at her temples and released the handle of her spatula. "Wait...her? Why are you calling Ranma-honey a girl? Did he wonder off when he got splashed with cold water?" She was desperately trying to make sense of this whole mess, but growing more and more confused by the second.

"It like this. Ranma really girl. Ranma supposed to marry demon. Ranma try to go China to fix things, end up in spirit world because demon open door here in Nerima. Understand?" Shampoo asked, frustrated. They didn't have much more time before the door closed, and already the fog had receded several feet since Ukyo had arrived.

"Okay, okay. Where's this spirit door you're talking about?" Ukyo asked, beginning to...kind of grasp at the situation.

Shampoo jerked her head towards the fog.

"So...okay, that's the...'door'? Well, what if someone decides to go jogging or something? Aren't they going to end up in the spirit door too? I mean...what if there's like a marathon, or somebody has weekend detention at Furinken?" Ukyo asked, crossing her arms.

Shampoo paled. "Shampoo no think of that..." She paused to consider. "Someone have to stay behind, make sure no one pass until fog gone."

"Well, I'm not doing it. What if someone won't take no for an answer?" Nabiki made a good point.

"And I don't think I would feel comfortable fighting a young girl, should the need arise," Soun agreed, crossing his arms.

"I don't believe in fighting." Kasumi added.

"Well...I'm not going to just stand here if Ranma needs my help!" Akane shouted, turning away.

"Shampoo only person who know anything about spirit world, and Mousse is useless duck," Shampoo tossed in her two cents.

Genma didn't need to say anything, he wasn't aloud to stay behind. He was Ranma's father, after all. He was obligated to save her.

"So that leaves us with me," Ukyo finally sighed. "Fine. I'll open up my stall here, and I guess if food doesn't work...I'll have to fight. But you'd better hurry back as soon as possible with Ranma-honey." Ukyo decided. "And don't make jokes about him being a girl, it's not funny." Clearly she wasn't going to be able to accept that piece of news until she saw it for herself. So it was agreed. The Tendos, Genma, and Shampoo said their reluctant good-byes to Ukyo. And as for her, she prepared herself for what would prove to be a very long morning. Perhaps she should have stayed at her restaurant after all.

What happened next was a sight she'd likely never forget. The group departed, passing through the swirling fog. Though it didn't grow thicker, even seemed to be fading more, no sooner did they pass through the brink, she could no longer see their shapes. They had disappeared.

The old man smiled warmly, and strangely enough...Ryoga's distrust of him evaporated. There wasn't even a hint of malice or deception in the stranger's eyes. It was like he was talking to his own grandfather, whom he hadn't seen since he was a child attending the man's funeral.

"I know nothing about you, I only know what I see. A young man haunted by the shadows of a past and future he does not understand. Know that all parts of the whole are just One bad piece of a man does not make the rest of him evil. You are not soup, and whatever is haunting you is not a piece of rotten pork." He stood up slowly, this time moving in the same way Ryoga would have expected a person of his age to. The old man nodded and winked at Ryoga, turning about.

"Wait! Aren't you still cold? Don't you want to sit by the fire a bit longer?" Ryoga called out, pointing to the roaring blaze that had finally become stable enough so that he didn't need to toss any more leaves onto it.

The old man did not respond. He simply kept walking. Ryoga was left feeling even more conflicted than he had before the stranger joined him. But then, at just the right moment, he remembered Ranma's absence...and realized the pig-tailed martial artist should have been back by now.

"Ranma!" Ryoga shouted, jerking to his feet and dashing off in the direction he'd seen her go. 'Ranma, I just know you've got to be in some kind of trouble!' He thought as he headed towards the sound of rushing water. 'Dead or alive, she's still my bride. It doesn't make a difference to me.' The voice spoke again, breaking Ryoga's mental silence. "SHUT UP ALREADY!" He himself.

Ranma's punch just barely missed the creature grasping at her wrist, and as she squinted in the water she was able to discern a strange shape. A long, thin...frog thing. That was the best way to describe it. With a froth of wiry black hair wafting about it's head.

"GREEEEEEEEEE!" Ranma garbled again, desperately trying to claw her way to the surface of the river to get some air. The creature gave her this much freedom, but held her wrist even tighter, sending a harsh pain into Ranma's arm. Now she was mad!

"TAKE THIS!" Ranma shouted, diving back beneath the water and delivering a kick right into the creature's stomach. It clearly hadn't expected her to be that skilled, or quick in the water, and opened it's thin and lipless mouth in a silent gasp. It also released her wrist, which gave Ranma the chance to grab the thing by the neck and haul it to the side of the riverbank and throw it onto the grass in one swift motion. Climbing out, Ranma glared and clenched her fists, ready to have a proper fight now that she was on solid ground. But the creature didn't seem to appreciate the situation anymore, and recovered enough sense to crawl quickly back to the water, kicking it's way to the bottom and disappearing before Ranma could grab at it.

"Yeah, you'd better Run!" Ranma shouted after the frog-thing. Nobody tried to drown Ranma Saotome. Nobody. She was only disappointed it didn't put up more of a fight, because she really needed one right now.

"Jeeze, I don't think I can handle much more of this weird stuff," Ranma mumbled, stripping off her shirt and wringing it out. Her lack of feminine modesty made the motion a quick one, so she didn't take the time to survey her surroundings. And neither did she notice Ryoga standing behind the shade of a few trees, staring dumbstruck at the sight.

Before, when Ranma was...well, a boy...seeing her as a girl did phase him. But not in the same way. It was like seeing a guy wear a really convincing costume. And now he knew...she actually was a girl. He didn't know how to process the sight, and furiously blushed, hoping maybe she'd put her shirt back on soon so he could make his presence known without getting an earful. He'd been standing there far too long to rescue himself from being dubbed a 'pervert'.

"Man, we shoulda just taken a bus or something. What was I thinking, trying to talk to Nagasaki?" Ranma grumped, shaking out her shirt and watching the water spray on the grass.

"And now I'm getting all these funny feelings about being around that stupid Ryoga, just because I'm stuck as a girl right now," she added. "Stupid girl body...gonna be glad when I'm a guy again. Stupid stupid stupid..." She trailed off, her angry ranting devolving into expletives about life in general. "GRAH!" She finally yelled, giving her shirt one more good squeeze.

If Ryoga had been a robot or computer, he very likely would have blown a fuse or had a processing error at that exact moment. 'Funny feelings?! What kind of funny feelings?!' He mentally squawked.

And then something even stranger happened. Ranma stopped frowning and grumbling...and then broke into a big grin. "Hey! Maybe that green thing in the water was the demon that's trying ta get hitched with me?" She put her fists on her hips and laughed. "I guess that means my contract's over!"

'Fat chance.' The darker voice in Ryoga's head intoned, but he was a little too distracted to get mad at it. "Funny feelings?" He repeated quietly, looking up at the sky. Maybe Ranma was going crazy too. Oddly enough, his mind didn't once stray towards Akane at that moment, which if very well may have the day before. "Funny feelings?!"

"Hey? Who's over there?" Ranma called, turning towards Ryoga and frowning. She was still holding her shirt, and didn't look ready to put it on any time soon.

Chapter Text

Ryoga shook his head rapidly and took a deep breath to calm himself. If Ranma was having funny feelings about him, they were probably just...bonding feelings. Yeah, that had to be it. The feelings of two rivals coming to terms with a sense of mutual respect. It all made sense, he realized. Ranma was such a brash and rude jerk all of the time, that acknowledging someone else's strengths was just something she wasn't used to. After all, her only 'role model' was her old man, who everyone in Nerima (possibly even everyone in Tokyo itself, the rest of Japan, and parts of China) knew to be someone with very little to recommend himself besides decent skills in the martial arts and an affection for long cons.

The formerly lost boy could be quite good at self-denial when he tried. "Uh..." He cleared his throat, stepping out from the clearing to reveal himself to Ranma. "I was just looking for you, figured you'd want some privacy while..." he pointed a finger at Ranma's shirt hanging in one hand.

"C'mon, pig-boy, you've seen me with my shirt off loads of times!" She jeered. "Don't tell me you're starting to have feelings for me?" She wiggled her eyebrows, finally slipping her damp shirt back on and grinning. Jeeze, Ranma really didn't have any concept of modesty.

"Listen, Ranma, it's not like that!" Ryoga protested weakly. "You've got girl parts right now, okay? Whether they're yours or someone else's, that's still what they are! Besides, if it were me, you'd probably act the same way!" And if you're going to admit it or not, those girl parts are definitely yours. Ryoga mentally added. It was becoming increasingly difficult to keep up the act that he still thought Ranma was a guy.

"Yeah, yeah, I getcha. What you're sayin' is that you're a real pervert, and you just wanted to get a better look till I noticed ya, is that right?" Ranma smirked. Normally that might have sent Ryoga into a rage, but he had a strange feeling she was just teasing him.

"Whatever, Saotome. Just get all those fish you caught so we can have lunch...breakfast. Whatever you want to call it," Ryoga directed, turning on his heel and stalking away through the trees. Ranma, for her part, had almost forgotten about her hunger after that little fight by the river with the froggish demon thing. She grinned ear to ear. "At least that's one problem taken care of..." She mused, scooping up several slippery fish with no small level of difficulty. She shrugged and took her shirt off again to use it to bundle them up. She had a spare one in her pack, anyway.

Ranma began whistling, throwing her make-shift fish satchel over her shoulder and heading back the way she'd seen Ryoga. It was kinda funny, had he found her so quickly?

"Oh, come on!" Ryoga shouted, looking up from the fire he'd begun to stoke with a broken branch. Ranma had appeared with her shirt once more off, and apparently carrying what he could only assume was a rather large armful of fish in it.

"What? I didn't have anything else to carry them with!" She snapped, dumping all of the fish onto the grass in front of her and shrugging. She shook her shirt out and reached over to grab her pack so she could dig around for another shirt to wear.

"You're enjoying this, aren't you?" Ryoga grumped, standing up and edging over towards the fish. He pulled a knife out of his pocket and crouched down so he could get to work preparing them to be cooked. Ryoga wasn't too fond of fish guts, and he doubted Ranma was much of a fan either.

"Who? Me?" Ranma batted her eyes and gave Ryoga an innocent look. At least she was in a good mood now.

"You always do this. You get yourself dressed up, pretend you're some girl in love with me, and then play these crazy games just to get a rise out of me!" Ryoga grumped.

"That's not true. I usually do it for a reason," Ranma insisted, finally getting hold of another shirt in her bag. It was her yellow top with the bow tie, which really wasn't her favorite. She'd have to wash the red one before they got moving again. For some reason, Ranma always felt more comfortable in it, like it made her faster or something. She didn't remember where she'd got it, but she'd had it as long as she could remember. Come to think of it...the shirt always seemed to grow with her. She shook her head, and pulled on her other shirt. There were plenty enough weird things going on to worry about her favorite clothes.

"Besides, I'm not pretending to be 'some girl in love with you', I just got my clothes wet. I can't help that I've got a great figure like this!" Ranma stuck out her tongue.

One of two things could have happened. Ryoga could have chosen to just ignore her, or he could have grumbled her name and challenged Ranma to a fight for all of the humiliation he'd suffered over the years because of her. But neither of these two things happened...instead, Ryoga's shoulders began to quiver as he feverishly worked on preparing the fish in front of him, tossing pink parts to one side, and fillets to the other.

"Ryoga?" Ranma asked warily, dropping her pack and stepping over to him. "Ryoga, what's wrong? You know I was just kidding..." She ran a hand through her hair. "Look man, I didn't mean ta make you cry or nothin..."

"Cry?" Ryoga squeaked, looking up at Ranma. "Cry?" He squeaked again, very obviously holding back his laughter. "Ranma, you're such a jerk!" He gasped, finally, releasing with it all of the laughs he'd been holding in.

"Hey!" Ranma snapped. "Stop laughin' at me, will ya?!" She stomped her foot petulantly, the girlish nature of the very action escaping her. It only made Ryoga laugh even more. And laughter...was contagious. Pretty soon they were both chuckling together, and a little of the stress they'd been carrying around since the previous night seemed to have released itself. Bit by bit, they were beginning to really get along.

By the time the fish was ready to cook, and speared on several thin sticks, Ranma and Ryoga were sitting together around the fire, occasionally chuckling a bit, but otherwise silent.

"So..." Ranma wiped a tear from one of her eyes with her palm, grabbing the first stick and thrusting a fillet into the fire. "How did you find me?"

"Wh-what do you mean?"

"I mean at the river. I woulda thought you'd be miles away by now, if you'd tried to start lookin' for me."

"I don't know. Lucky guess?" Ryoga supplied, a pitiful lie. Ranma raised an eyebrow in a very Nabiki-like fashion and waited for him to come out with the real answer.

"Oh, all right," Ryoga blushed under her gaze. "Remember how I showed up last night? I mean, like I'd already been looking for you?"

"Well, duh. It was just last night," Ranma retorted, flipping the fillet over and passing a stick to Ryoga.

"Well, you see, the last time I was in China...I found these herbs. Some kind of witch was selling them at a street stall, and I figured it couldn't hurt to try them. She said they'd solve my 'misdirection issue'. I'd forgotten about them for awhile, but when I came back to Japan, I found them sitting at the bottom of my bag after I'd made camp one night." Ryoga grinned sheepishly. "I only realized after I'd made them into a batch of tea and drank them that I was sleeping in an old couple's apple orchard..."

"So they worked?" Ranma asked, shocked. Who'd have thought some crummy tea would solve Ryoga's life-long issue in one day?

"I guess. So far." Ryoga shrugged. "But then again, look where we are. Something went wrong, otherwise we'd have passed Furinken high by now, and probably not be out in the middle of some weird forest."

Ranma was silent, pulling her fish from the fire and testing the texture with her fingers, before taking a large bite. Slurping up a good piece of the fillet, she grinned. "It wasn't your fault, Ryoga. I was leading the way..."

"Ranma, are you okay?" Ryoga asked, leaning forward, concerned etched deep in his face.

"Whadda ya mean?" Ranma pulled back, turning red. It was getting kind of weird, being this close to Ryoga. He smelt like spices and forest, and she didn't much like the idea that it was kind of nice.

"Saotome...that was practically an apology. I think hell just froze over!"

"Shuddup!" Ranma snapped, punching the fanged boy in the shoulder. He feigned injury and laughed, knocking Ranma on the head in response.

Ukyo yawned, stretching her arms above her head as she sat on the sidewalk curb, keeping an eye focused on the street ahead. She should have asked them to wait so she could actually go grab her stall, but she'd only realized her mistake when they disappeared.

"You're going to be here all morning, Kuonji," she sighed, rubbing her eyes. She frowned, as a sudden chill ran down her spine. It had suddenly gotten cold, and quite windy. She looked around suspiciously. The fog had almost completely faded by now. So it couldn't be coming from that direction. She held a hand to her forehead to keep her hair from fluttering in her eyes, and looked the other way.

There, towards the end of the street, a hazy figure became visible. It was tall, lean, and determined. And...were those red rose petals in the air, or were her eyes playing tricks on her?

"Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art – not in lone splendour hung aloft the night, and watching with eternal lids apart..." The figure intoned, immediately dropping a hint on Ukyo's head like a sack of rocks as to the identity of the person.

"Hey, Kuno, I'm not in the mood for Keats right now!" Ukyo shouted, even as he became fully visible a mere ten feet away. The wind seemed to have died down, and the kendoist drew his bokken.

"You, are you not the one known as Kuonji Ukyo?" He demanded, leveling his bokken at her like a pointer on a map. Ukyo sighed, pulling out her spatula and spreading her legs in a fighting stance.

"Yes, that's me. I'm afraid I can't...oh wait, how did it go? Oh, yeah...'you shall not pass'." Ukyo intoned, almost amused by Kuno's display. He was always good for a laugh whenever she witnessed his bizarre exchanges with Ranma-honey and Akane. His reputation preceded him.

"Can it be then that you are in league with the foul sorcerer in order to deprive me of my two great loves?" Kuno demanded, frowning.

"What?" Ukyo blinked several times. This guy was hammier than Ryoga. "Kuno, have you ever considered auditioning for one of the school plays? Maybe as comic relief?" She added, knowing he would probably be a shoe-in for the role.

"Ah, yes, I see it now. Let me pass so that I may rescue Akane Tendo and the tree-born kettle girl!" Kuno shouted, leaping forward with his bokken raised. Ukyo stepped aside and whacked him very firmly in the back with her spatula...which unfortunately sent him sailing into the last of the fog.

"Oh no..." Ukyo whimpered. "I hit him too hard!" She shouted, dashing after Kuno and disappearing along with him. This was definitely not good.

Meanwhile, as everyone seemed to be joining together in the Spirit world, Cologne was once more interrupted from her meditations. This time, it was by a shriveled old man with glowing eyes, and tatters of what appeared to have been a brown sack grasped tightly in his tiny fingers.

"I was wondering when you'd show up, Happosai." Cologne kept her eyes closed, pulling her pipe from her mouth and letting smoke rise into the air.

"You've got some explaining to do!" Happosai snapped, pointing a finger at Cologne. She turned towards him and opened her eyes, smirking. "I'm surprised you haven't figured it out already. But I guess you don't know much about martial arts or magic if it doesn't relate to women's underwear."

Chapter Text

Swirling like a freshly-stirred broth, the fog engulfed the Tendos, Shampoo, Genma, and Mousse. Each in their turn became separated from the others, and stepped into a nightmare. It was in this way that the remaining morning hours were consumed, as the group lost all concept of time...

"Father? Akane?" Kasumi called through the mist, a hand to the side of her mouth to help her project. "Nabiki? Mister Saotome?" She continued, looking about. "Oh dear..."

Kasumi placed her hand to her forehead and frowned slightly, shaking it to clear her mind of a quickly growing headache. As she blinked away the pain, she found that she was no longer walking the streets of Nerima, nor was she trapped in a maze of white...but standing in the kitchen at home.

"Well, that was very odd." Kasumi remarked, turning towards the fridge to begin preparing breakfast. Dawn had not yet begun to break, so she had ample time to prepare a nice Sunday meal. It was very pleasant to have these quiet moments in the house, before anyone was awake or dropping by to visit. Even Ranma and Mister Saotome were rarely around in these wee hours to disturb her peace.

"That's not very nice, Kasumi," she admonished to herself. "They're only doing what comes natural to them," the oldest Tendo daughter continued as she gazed into the fridge. "Now...where are those eggs?" She couldn't seem to find them...perhaps she hadn't gotten them at the grocery store the previous day.

"But I could have sworn Akane picked some up for me..." Kasumi sighed, closing the fridge. "I guess I'll have to make something else," she continued, pulling open a cupboard to grab a mixing bowl. Reaching around the baseboard, her hands only grasped at plates. There was not one bowl. "Oh dear...did I forget to wash one?" That wasn't like her to forget something so important. Kasumi never left dishes in the sink overnight. Turning around, she crossed towards the sink and frowned even deeper.

"It's...empty..." Things were getting very strange this morning. She spun about and leaned against the counter, taking a few calming breaths. Things rarely upset Kasumi, and often she was able to remain silent even when they did. She had to. It was what was expected of her, as the oldest child and the mother figure of the household.

"What on earth is going on?" She placed a hand on her chest and looked up at the ceiling. If she couldn't even gather a few things to make a proper breakfast, she'd be letting everyone down. Just like she'd let them down soon after mother died, before she'd truly learned how to look after the family. Tears welled up in Kasumi's eyes against her will, and she bowed her head to gain her composure.

Without a proper kitchen, without a proper meal, Kasumi was useless. She was just the well-behaved Tendo daughter, who blended into the woodwork when she wasn't needed. If she couldn't even make a meal, it would just be another reminder to everybody that mother was gone. Would always be gone...

Kasumi felt a sharp pain in her hands and calves. Looking down in surprise, she realized they looked like they were beginning to merge with the counter behind her. She was disappearing, very slowly. And would anyone notice? Would anyone realize she was gone, if the only thing she was useful for stopped mattering? Did she even care?

"Honey, I think I found a good place for our anniversary vacation!" Nabiki called out, reclining on the Victorian couch in the family parlor. It had been years since her wedding day officially made Nabiki 'formerly Tendo' one of the richest women in Japan. Every day she discovered new levels of delight with all of the riches she was showered with. Life was absolutely...wonderful.

"Dear, did you hear me? I said I found a good place for our anniversary vacation!" Nabiki called out again, surprised to find there was no immediate answer. Frowning, she threw the magazine she'd been holding onto the tacky (but lavishly expensive) diamond-studded coffee table in front of her. What game is he playing at? She mentally griped, standing up and straightening both her silk gown and ermine-trimmed coat.

Nabiki glided out of the parlor into a phenomenally large hallway, the likes of which may have seemed more proper in the home of a giant than a human being.

"Where on earth are you?!" Nabiki called again, this time struggling to maintain her normally dry composure.

"I'm in hear, Nabiki." A soft, raspy voice finally responded.

"Well it's about time! I've been calling out to you for at least a minute," Nabiki snapped, opening the door to the dining room...only to find a very large table laden with a sumptuous feast, surrounded by some of the fanciest people she'd ever seen.

"Oh...I'd forgotten about the supper party..." Nabiki trailed off. They had them every night, entertaining all manner of royalty and nouveau riche alike. How could she have forgotten?

At the very end of the table, practically a mile away, sat her husband.

"I have to speak with you, darling!" Nabiki shouted, as the table seemed to grow longer. She must be more tired than she realized...they hadn't bought an extending table. Or had they? Sometimes it was hard to remember everything she bought on a daily basis to keep herself entertained.

"Then speak with me! We're among friends here, Nabiki!" He called out, his voice fading and growing more distant. Nabiki hitched up her skirt in a somewhat inelegant fashion and began marching in the direction of her husband. The further she walked, the more distant he seemed to grow.

"Darling!" Nabiki shouted, growing impatient as she picked up her pace. But the distance grew even more. Each short step created a foot of space, each long one created a meter.

"I'm over here, sweetums!" Her husband called out, beckoning Nabiki. Soon, she was running, panting furiously. The distance and floor stretched like an accordian.

"Darling..." His voice grew even more faint. Nabiki squinted, watching him fade into the distance. Meanwhile, she looked over at the guests sitting at the table, and they seemed to have turned into origami people crafted from paper currency. Nabiki gasped, falling to her knees as she slipped in her million buck heels. What good was being this rich if she couldn't be near the man she loved?

"HIYA!" Akane shouted, pummeling a punching bag that hung from the ceiling of the Dojo. She couldn't believe that jerk, Ranma, acting like it was okay to parade around Furinken high with Shampoo and Ukyo literally attached to him! How could he honestly think getting himself fused into a three-person body was going to make their reluctant marriage in the future any easier?

"Ranma, you jerk!" She shrieked, swinging around to deliver a good kick. He wondered why she was always mad at him! Even Ryoga looked like he wanted to fuse with them, like it was a normal thing to do! RYOGA!

Tears hit Akane's clenched fists, and the angrier she got...the more wild her thoughts about Ranma became. Like what he'd done was becoming a more elaborate story, even as the punching bag in front of her received the brunt of Akane's primal rage.

The punching bag, meanwhile, seemed to be taking on Ranma's shape...taunting her.

"I'm never gonna love an uncute tomboy like you, Akane!" The punching bag Ranma jeered, as the chain above it descended from the ceiling and shaped itself into a metal pigtail.

"RANMA!" Akane screamed, leaping at the punching bag. It stepped back and out of Akane's way.

"You're such an idiot, Akane. Do you honestly think anyone would ever love you?" Punching bag Ranma added, reshaping once more to take on a more feminine appearance.

"Shut up! You were supposed to love me, Ranma! After all we've been through!" Akane snapped, throwing another punch that only managed to hit air.

"Honestly, if it had been any other girl, I would have loved you. But face it, Akane, you might as well be a guy." Even as it taunted her, Akane spun around to look at a large mirror dominating the wall of the dojo. In it, she didn't see herself anymore. She saw a male version of herself, the exact opposite of beautiful...and the exact opposite of handsome. She was ugly...and she couldn't even put up a proper fight...

Akane fell to 'his' knees, slamming his fists on the ground in anguish.

"You're unlove-able, Akane." Punching bag Ranma-chan repeated. "Even if I was still a guy, I'd rather kill myself than ever marry one will ever love you, when they get to know the real Akane. No one at all..."

Mousse stared aghast as Shampoo and Ranma waltzed together, laughing like two people desperately in love. He couldn't believe his eyes! "Ranma Saotome, I wenk wenk wenk wenk!" Mousse grasped at his throat, panicking as he began to shrink. He hadn't even been splashed with cold water! Could it be that his curse was becoming permanent? Was he becoming a real duck? "SHAMPOOOWWWWEEEEEEENK!" Mousse stumbled forward towards the couple on the dance floor. The newly-married and overjoyed couple.

"Oh, look Ranma! We have wedding supper!" Shampoo chirped, grabbing Mousse by the neck. "You have special Peking duck with Shampoo, yes? Is great recipe!" She cooed, smooching her husband deeply and passionately. Mousse wailed as only the most miserable of ducks could. There honestly wasn't much more depth to his nightmare...he just really loved Shampoo.

A pair of Chinese amazons watched Shampoo walking through the village square, laden with rusted cookware and a solemn expression

"You see that old woman over there?" One of them hissed.

"What, Shampoo?"

"Yes, Shampoo. She used to be the best fighter in the tribe...but then she got engaged..."

"She was rejected."

"After he found out she couldn't bear any children..."

"So she's not even a true Amazon warrior, is she?"

"No, she's just a sad, pathetic old woman..."

It had been years since Shampoo's miserable return to the village, and every day was a struggle to survive both the dishonor and embarrassment of acknowledging her disaster of a life. Even stupid Mousse didn't want anything to do with her anymore, after he'd found another Amazon with a Jusenkyo curse. She was a duck too.

"Why does she even bother sticking around here?"

"Doesn't she know she's unwanted?"

"Doesn't she know she's empty inside?"

"...Doesn't she know she's worthless?"

The hissing of the voices around Shampoo grew louder, soon becoming a roar...and the poor old woman, burdened with her own emotions and empty past...broke down into a crumpled heap.

Soun watched his youngest daughter climb into a waiting taxi cab, and sighed to himself. He was alone in the house now. Even Saotome was gone, having fled to China years ago when his wife came calling.

"You're all alone now, Tendo," he told himself, sitting down in front of an empty Shogi board. But at least he still had his own memories to comfort him...his own memories...

Soun jerked his head up and looked towards where he kept the family photo albums on a bookcase nearby. He dashed over to snatch the album up, almost afraid to see what he knew he'd find inside. Flipping open the cover, Soun was greeted with pictures of his daughters...without faces. He rubbed at his eyes and flipped the pages. Pictures of the Saotomes...with blank faces.

Feverishly, Soun flipped through the photo album again, again and again...forwards and backwards...until he found the most precious picture of all. The last picture of his wife and children together, before she'd passed on.

Soun dropped the album and fell to his knees. He couldn't even remember what his own wife looked like...glancing over at a mirror on the wall, Soun wasn't surprised to see his own empty face in his reflection. Not even a pair of eyes stood in their hollows to see with.

Genma happily crunched away at his meal in the bamboo thicket, reflecting on how overjoyed he'd been when he was finally able to let everything go and acknowledge his true nature: Genma Saotome was...and always had been a panda.

Ranma wasn't his child. Nodoka wasn't his wife. Soun wasn't his lifelong dearest friend...and Happosai was not his master. The only thing Genma lived for was his precious mealtime, and good night's sleeps. Life was idealistic, once he'd managed to release the last shreds of his false humanity. He was at one with nature. Just a panda in the wild.

Of course, a part of him couldn't help but feel a little pained, imagining the life he might have had if he'd spent his twilight years as a human being. Even if it was a charade. Thankfully he had his panda wife to distract him. All she did was do panda things all day with them, as she cared for their young cub.

It was unfortunate that they'd soon have to seek aid from a Chinese panda witch, to protect their panda cub from a panda demon who wanted to panda marry her. The redundancy of it all escaped Genma's simple panda mind. He didn't even have enough humanity left to write his thoughts onto a wooden sign.

Genma jerked to attention, when the flash of a metal sword caught his eye. He spun around and found himself faced with his panda wife, glaring at him in righteous panda rage.

"Graoooowwwgrrr!" She shouted, lunging for panda Genma. He supposed he deserved it...

Through the mist and fog, a stick bedecked with paper squares slashed the air. Wards sailed through the morning sky, and each member of the group stumbling in their strange nightmares was pulled back into a semblance of reality. Two pairs of glowing eyes watched the daze clear, and Kasumi was the first to notice through her years, that the fog was finally disappearing.

Standing in the clearing in front of them were two familiar and very old figures: Happosai and Cologne.

"I hope you all enjoyed your little spirit journeys," Happosai rasped.

"Sorry we couldn't be here a little sooner," added Cologne, letting her stick of paper squares fall to her side as she chuckled.

"How did you like your little spirit journeys?" The old woman inquired, tucking her pipe into her mouth.

Chapter Text

Ranma sailed through the trees, leaping from branch to branch with nimble feet, overjoyed to feel the wind rushing through her hair. Crossing from left to right, she made a crisscross pattern with Ryoga, who for his part seemed to be enjoying himself as well. Neither could believe they hadn't thought of doing this earlier to cover more ground and get a better view of where they were going.

"You know, you're not half bad at this, pig-boy!" Ranma shouted, glancing over at Ryoga. He frowned at her.

"Why do you always have to throw insults around, Ranma?!" He shouted back.

"Hey, I was complimentin' ya!" Ranma stuck out her tongue, and nearly slipped. She just barely caught herself with one hand tightly grasped onto a thick branch. Ryoga slowed down and hopped to a tree several feet away, posing quite a lot more gracefully than she looked at that moment. He crossed his arms and smirked.

"Hmph. Maybe you should pay more attention to where you're going, eh Ranma?"

"Aw, shuddup." Ranma pouted, pulling herself back onto the branch and getting in a standing position. She leaned back against the trunk of the tree and took a deep breath. "Just let me...relax a bit," she waved a hand at him.

"Getting tired already? Man, Ranma, you're really out of shape!" Ranma shouted over to her.

"I'm not outta shape!" Ranma snapped, her pigtail curling up into the air in her agitation.

"The Ranma I know would keep going. But maybe I was wrong about you?" Ryoga leaned forward, just barely keeping his own footing. He straightened back up and tried to look as if nothing had happened.

"Look who's talking, mister 'can't even stand on my own two feet'." Ranma sneered. She tossed her head back and grinned wickedly, a feigned seductive expression on her face. "Or maybe I'm in better shape than you let on, eh Ryoga?" She posed and batted her eyes.

Ryoga blushed and looked away. "Quit joking around, will ya?" Ryoga grumped, turning to glance back over the treetops. "And why are you always teasing me, huh? If I didn't know better, I'd think you liked flirting with guys." He added, and immediately regretted his words. Given the circumstances...questioning Ranma's sexuality was not a good idea.

For a split second, her face smoothed over, and she looked pensive...but it was immediately replaced with a frown. "Yeah, whatever. Trying to change the subject just to make me look like a pervert doesn't change the fact that I'm sexy and you know it."

"...Ranma..." Ryoga sighed. It was getting tougher to talk to her, like walking through a mine field. Whether she'd admitted it or not, even if Ranma was 'acting the same'...she'd changed a lot in a very short time.

"What is it, Ryoga?"

"I'm...I'm sorry."

"About what?" Ranma blinked, dumbfounded. "We always talk like this, Ryoga. Just cause I'm stuck in a girl's body right now doesn't mean...doesn't mean I'm not guy. I'm way more of a man than you'll ever be." She paused, and they gave each other a good long stare. Ranma looked as if Ryoga's response would break her if he answered wrong...and Ryoga, not really sure how to smooth the whole mess out. For a moment, Ranma's illusion of confidence flickered, and the fanged boy saw a glimpse of the conflicted person beneath the surface. Not a man. Not a woman. Just a person.

"'re such a jerk," Ryoga finally sighed, struggling to look as mad as she needed him to be.

"Jeeze, you're sensitive today," she added, shaking her head. Ranma took a deep breath and leapt to another tree, ready to continue their trek. For Ryoga's part, he cursed himself for reasons he couldn't quite understand.

'Don't worry, Ryoga. Sooner or later, we'll put her in her proper place.' The voice whispered. Ryoga hopped after the pig-tailed martial artist to distract himself from his unwanted thoughts.

'Do you really think you can ignore me that easily?' Ryoga squinted in the distance, hoping against hope they'd find some kind of trail back to Nerima, or at least out of this weird place. He still hadn't told Ranma where they were.

'I can take full control whenever I like. I'm just waiting until the time is right. If you anger me, Ryoga, I might just have to do it a bit earlier than I'd planned...' The voice threatened, causing the fanged boy to flinch.

"Hey, Ryoga!" Ranma shouted, perching on the very tip of a supremely tall tree, while it bowed under her weight.

"What?" Ryoga shouted, rushing to catch up with her.

"I think I see smoke!" She called back, pointing ahead. Ryoga gave a sigh of relief. Maybe whoever was the source of that smoke knew a way out. He hoped it wasn't a group of Oni preparing for a barbecue, though...perhaps, on second thought, sleeping outside wasn't such a bad idea. Before he could pursue that avenue, however, Ranma was off faster than ever, heading straight for the smoke.

"RANMA! WAIT UP!" It would appear the decision had already been made for him. No surprise there.

"Spirit journeys?!" Akane exclaimed, feeling her figure just to make sure it was normal and...female.

"You mean it was all...what? What was it?" Kasumi asked, placing a hand to her face. Akane looked at her oldest sister, and was struck by a sudden realization that she'd never seen Kasumi look so least, not for many years.

"Most people don't get to experience it in the flesh, like you all did. You should be grateful, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity!" Happosai exclaimed, leaping towards Akane.

"Oh, how I've missed you all these past few hours!" He shouted, quickly receiving a knock on the head from Cologne's staff for his troubles. Luckily for Akane, he didn't quite reach the cuddly destination he was aiming for, and instead landed roughly in the dirt.

He jerked to his feet, tears in his eyes. "Why'd you have to go and ruin our beautiful reunion for?" He whined, receiving a frown from Cologne, and an even angrier glare from Akane as she covered her chest to guard it from any other midget attacks he might have planned.

"Master, why did you follow us here? And what's Shampoo's grandmother doing with you?" Soun asked, having recovered enough from his experience in the fog to speak again.

Happosai suddenly changed his mood and stood up, looking very 'wise' and 'grave'. "Genma, Soun, I knew you two would get yourselves in trouble today. As your master, I sensed the fingers of the spirit world creeping in to Nerima this morning before any of you even was my duty to make sure nothing bad happened to my patsies...uh, favorite disciples."

"Oh master, you are so gracious!" Genma gasped, mentally wondering if they could figure out some way to trap Happosai in this place so he'd be out of their lives once and for all. But who was he kidding? If trapping the old goat in a cave for several years didn't work, nothing would.

"Grandmother..." Shampoo finally spoke up, staring at her own feet and looking much more...somber than any of them had seen her before.

"Shampoo, we will speak later. If you saw something in your vision that upset you, it is only to be expected." Cologne looked around at the group, growing far more serious. "Each and every one of you were just faced with a challenge. It is not for me to know exactly what you went through, but it was important that you experience this before moving on to find Ranma. The spirit world is a treacherous place, the likes of which no human being can properly face unless they first defeat their inner demons."

"Well...well now, that's not so bad..." Genma remarked, knowing very well he wasn't a panda. Obviously he'd just been spending too much time as one. As for the others, he was sure their own experiences were just as silly as his own.

"Cologne," Happosai cleared his throat and crossed his arms. "I think it best we seek shelter for the night at some sort of inn. It wouldn't be wise to sleep outside," he advised.

"I couldn't agree more, you old goat," Cologne replied...and the rest of them were left wondering where the heck they were going to find an inn...and what on earth kind of inn would you find in the spirit world?

"Wait, it was just morning a few minutes ago," Kasumi voiced everyone's thoughts aloud. She seemed much calmer now, slightly red-rimmed eyes the only indicator that anything had been amiss.

"Time passes much differently when one is in a spiritual trance," Cologne replied. "Especially if it's in the other world. To you, it may have seemed like only a moment or two went by. For Happosai and myself, we had to perform an exhausting ritual in order to seal the door behind us...which brings me to another thing, Shampoo. You really ought to study harder, you should have done that yourself the minute you all walked through the fog." Cologne chided her grand daughter.

"Shampoo forget," the purple-haired Amazon apologized. In truth, the vision of a future she was terrified to see come true had distracted her, and she'd never really gotten the chance to learn the ritual Cologne spoke of anyway. That was why she'd left the boyish chef to guard the door while it closed on it's own.

"Never mind about that, I wanna go to an inn! I wanna to take a bath! I wanna to see some pretty ladies!" Happosai pouted. None of them had forgotten the incident with the cursed brassiere. Obviously the old fool was hoping to encounter another one just like it...

"Well, I'm not paying for it," Nabiki remarked. She seemed the least phased of the whole group by their incredibly confusing day. Or perhaps, Akane wondered...perhaps she was just a better actor. Even Mousse, devoid of a human face at that moment to express his distress looked as if he were molting from anxiety, and clung a little bit more desperately than usual to Kasumi's leg. No doubt he'd mistaken her for Shampoo.

Just then, two shapes barged into the group and interrupted their reunion. One was a tall, lean monster with an octopus for ahead...and the other was a rather frazzled-looking Okinomiyaki chef.

It seemed like the day had gotten away from them, because neither of the pair realized just how late it had gotten by the time they reached the origin of the smoke. Ranma was ecstatic that it turned out to be a very quaint little cottage. Ryoga was even more unnerved than he'd been when he thought it would be something far more gruesome. Probably because it made much more sense to run away from a tribe of gigantic cannibal spirits, but not a tiny house. Unless said house had chicken feet, which Ryoga didn't see.

"Uh, Ranma...are you sure we should bother them? The people who live here?" Ryoga asked, looking about nervously. This felt like a trap...

"What, and miss the chance of sleeping in a warm bed if they've got one? What's the matter with you, Ryoga?" Ranma gave him a quizzical look, crossing her arms.

"...No. But...well...what kind of martial artist is afraid of camping outside? Not to mention, it's the perfect chance to get some training in," Ryoga threw out, crossing his arms as well, in a much more stubborn fashion.

"Ryoga..." Ranma trailed off, caught by surprise when a sudden downpour drenched them both.

"Weeeeeee!" Ryoga angrily squeaked at the heavens, knowing he had much less say in what they did if he couldn't even reach Ranma's eye-level.

The pig-tailed girl smirked and leaned down to wink at Ryoga before she picked him up by the scruff of the neck with one hand, and his pack with the other. "Still wanna sleep outside, P-chan?" She questioned, receiving an angry glare in turn. Ranma snickered, spinning about to lightly tap at the door with her foot, which wasn't as occupied with holding anything.

'!' Ryoga mentally wailed, struggling in her grasp.

"Cut it out, Ryoga, we're gonna stay here tonight and that's final. I don't wanna deal with setting up a tent in a thunderstorm," Ranma gave the little piglet a good shake to drive her point home. In the mean time, no one answered the door.

"Maybe they didn't hear me..." She said, placing Ryoga on her shoulder so she had a free hand to knock with. Again, there was no answer...but this time, the door swung open after the slightest pressure.

"Uh...hello? Anybody here?" Ranma called out. It was a fairly small cottage, with just one wide living space and not even a bathroom attached to it.

"Jeeze, this place looks like it's outta the stone age or somethin'..." She stepped inside and shook her pigtail out, releasing the dragon's whisker so she could run a hand through her hair. At least she didn't have to worry about cutting it.

"Guess nobody's home," Ranma mumbled, looking down at Ryoga with a slight smirk.

"And you thought we'd be intrud-" she stopped mid-sentence, when something caught her eye. Not too far from where she stood, Ranma realized there was a table laden with the most delicious looking feast she'd seen since fighting Shampoo back in China.

"Well, would ya look at that!" She cheered, striding forward. "Hey, if nobody's home, might as well enjoy their hospitality..." She reasoned with Ryoga, who hopped down from her shoulder onto the table top and spun about to face her with a furious expression.

"Don't give me that look, pig-boy. There's plenty of food here for both of us!" She snapped. Ranma Saotome took after her father in many ways, and especially when it came to enjoying other people's things when she was sure she couldn't get caught.

"Weeeeee!" Ryoga screeched again, giving an extra snort or two for emphasis.

"Okay Ryoga, I promise you we'll make it up to whoever lives here...we can chop wood or something..." She looked over at a roaring fireplace on the opposite end of the cottage, and a small but comfortable looking bed not too distant from it. That was just about was the most spartan home she'd ever seen, if she ignored all the yummy-looking food.

Ryoga snorted and sat down, looking away from Ranma, frustrated. While she dropped both their packs and leaped over to the table do dig in...with very unlady-like manners.

If Ryoga had been capable of talking at that moment, he would have told her he didn't care if it was rude to eat other people's food, or even stay in their house without their permission...he cared that the consequences in the morning would probably get them both killed. The voice in his mind was strangely silent, but Ryoga could only assume it was enjoying the show.

Ranma licked her lips, grabbing a large avian looked an awful lot like roasted turkey, but the bird would have had to be a record breaking size. "Wow!" Ranma drooled, taking a large bite and grinning as she slurped up a hunk of toasted skin. "Y'know Ryoga..." Ranma smacked her lips, continuing to eat while she spoke. "You should have somethin'. It beats more fish and berries," she cajoled, picking up a scrumptious-looking plate of shrimp shumai and using her turkey leg to waft the steam from it towards the angry piglet.

Ryoga sighed and slowly walked towards the plate as Ranma set it down in front of him with a very self-satisfied expression. What she didn't know was that the only reason he was giving in was so they could both be in the same boat when the inevitable disaster eventually followed. But...the first shumai was the best one he'd ever had...and each ensuing dumpling just the same.

"Hey, Ryoga, you think there's a version of Goldilocks with a pig in it?" Ranma joked, taking another bite of turkey. It didn't escape Ryoga's attention that she may have been eating just like an actual pig, but she also wasn't taking all the food for herself. Ranma was, in her own odd and rude as hell way...being nice. Despite his fear of whatever may come to pass the next day, it actually made him feel good. 'Sometimes're alright...' Ryoga thought to himself, though he couldn't resist frowning when she let out a loud and disgusting belch. 'But you're never going to be a real lady...'

To illustrate Ryoga's mental point, Ranma snatched a clear bottle from the table without even checking to see what it was, and began to guzzle it down. The little pig flinched, able to pick up the scent of alcohol before it even touched the girl's lips. He'd probably hear about this in the morning...

Ranma stretched her arms above her head, tossing her shirt to the side and collapsing on what had to be the most comfortable twin-size mattress the world had ever seen.

"Gahhhhh...that feels AMAZING," she gasped, rolling around just enough to make sure the covers were thoroughly out of order. For Ryoga's part, he perched on the pillows watching her quietly.

"Oh, so you think I'm just gonna let you sleep with me? In my bed?" Ranma asked sarcastically, pretending to reach for the pillow to flip him over. But she paused in the process, and just let a small and private smirk creep onto her face.

"I guess I could, just for tonight. I don't want you wondering off and doing something stupid in the morning," she paused, remembering the herbs he'd told her about. "I mean like...not getting lost, but still doing something stupid all the same." She quickly added. If Ryoga didn't know better, he'd think Ranma was trying to spare his feelings for once.

The black piglet did what could only somewhat resemble a shrug, given that his arms didn't really bend up that way, and lay down on the pillow to get more comfortable. If he'd been a cat, Ranma probably wouldn't have been able to tolerate being this close to him.

"Besides," Ranma yawned, pulling the blanket up to her neck and turning over to face Ryoga.

"I used to have a friend who looked just like you," she stifled another yawn, closing her eyes. "Course he was just a stuffed animal, but he helped me through some tough times..." her voice was getting slurred. Ryoga blinked a few times, watching her. "sss...suppose I always knew something...was wrong with me...when we left mom behind..." She mumbled, and those were the last coherent words that came out of her mouth before she began to snore.

The embers in the fireplace had begun to dim, and Ryoga was left awake, just watching Ranma sleep. This was obviously still the same Ranma he'd tried to physically injure dozens (if not hundreds) of times in the past. Same bad manners. Same attitude. Same foot-in-mouth syndrome. Ryoga slowly closed his eyes, almost afraid that if he opened them again...she'd be a guy again. It really shouldn't make much of a difference to him, though. He loved Akane, after all, not Ranma. But...with her hair down and still somewhat damp from the rain...her cheeks tinged pink from sake she'd had at dinner...the pig-tailed rival...or former rival of Ryoga Hibiki...was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen.

Over the course of their very short night together, a night that stood in stark contrast to the absolutely abysmal one of the previous day, somehow the pair found themselves snuggling close together. Perhaps for warmth...or perhaps because side-by-side...they both felt more at peace than they'd been in a very long time. Even if one of them was a little black piglet, and the other a young woman with a serious gender identity issue. Unfortunately for Ryoga, the very last hour before sunrise would prove to be a deeply troubling one.

Chapter Text

"Don't just stand there staring! Grab him so I can knock that thing off!" Ukyo shouted, chasing the slender man with the octopus head.

"Knock his head off?!" Akane exclaimed, quite upset at the very idea. How was she to know this wasn't some innocent octopus yokai who just happened to be a little energetic...perhaps even terrified of the okinomiyaki chef who'd decided to start chasing him.

"Akane..." Ukyo took a deep breath, sighing. "That isn't his head, it's some kinda octopus trying to TAKE HIS HEAD!" She leaped towards the man, who tripped and began to roll around on the floor, managing to trip her in the process.

Cologne watched, with an almost amused smirk on her face. Reaching beneath her sleeve, she pulled out a brassiere and tossed it into some bushes nearby. Two things then happened...the octopus released Kuno's head and scrabbled in the direction the brassiere had flown on very wobbly legs, leaving the delirious kendoist with both a slimy face and hairstyle, and Happosai dived towards the bushes. What then followed was the sound of a rather violent scuffle.

"Master!" Soun pretended to shout with a more than zealous grin on his face, leaning forward to try to get a glimpse of the carnage he couldn't see.

"Master!" Genma chimed in, looking identical to his close friend...but unfortunately for both of them, the old man climbed out from the greenery with both a dead octopus under one arm and a bra under the other. He rubbed the negligee against his face with a rather cheerful expression.

"What a lovely bit of lace..." He cooed. Sometimes they all wondered why Happosai didn't just marry a bag of women's undergarments...but then again...he'd probably cheat on them with another bag.

Cologne chuckled and shook her head. "There isn't a day that goes by I don't regret marrying someone other than yourself, you old goat," she remarked, turning on her cane and hopping away. Not one person questioned the idea of following Cologne. Least of all Kuno, as he had Nabiki dragging him by the collar after them.

"You really are hopeless, Kuno-baby," she mused, looking down at him. He only laughed, somewhat oddly. Of them all, nobody doubted Tatewaki had likely enjoyed the most bizarre spirit journey that day. As for Ukyo, Akane watched her with a fascinated expression.

"Hey, Ukyo...what happened when you two...came here?" She asked, tilting her head.

"I don't know..." Ukyo looked at Akane, frowning. "But I could swear you were there..."

"Really?" Akane blinked, looking up towards the treetops. "Did you turn into a guy? Did Shampoo challenge you to a battle to the death over the hand of Mister Saotome? Did Cologne turn into an elephant?! Did...did I have three heads?"

Ukyo jerked, looking at Akane. "Why the heck would you have three heads?!" She wasn't even going to try to tackle the rest of those questions.

"Well, I had a spirit journey, right?"

The okinomiyaki chef sighed, placing a hand on her forehead as if she had the mother of all headaches.

"Akane, I really don't understand anything happening right now, and I'd rather not even think about what just happened to me. If spirit journey is code for something, I honestly don't have a clue."

And the youngest Tendo didn't doubt her words. Of all of them, Ukyo was the one with the patchiest knowledge of the events they'd experienced. She'd probably be pretty upset too...though she still was upset anyway for entirely different reasons.

"Long..." Ukyo glanced at Akane, squinting.

"Wh-what?" Akane asked, hoping Ukyo hadn't just gone off the deep end. That was the last thing anyone needed this evening.

"Long. You should grow your look good when it's long."

Akane smiled. "Did I ever tell you how I got it cut?"

"No, I don't think so...but did it have something to do with Ranma-honey?" Ukyo quirked an eyebrow.

"How did you-"

"The more I think about it, everything seems to have something to do with him...before and after I came to Nerima." She sighed. "I mean, I guess it's because I'm in love with him..."

"...But you don't really know why?" Akane asked, a glimpse of understanding in her eyes.

"Y...yeah, I guess so..."

"Tell me about it!" Akane exclaimed, stretching her arms above her head and sighing.

Both girls began to pick up their pace just then, realizing they'd slunk back a little too far from the rest of the group. Neither wanted to get lost without Cologne in the spirit world to protect them. There was no telling if she'd be able to do it again, or if they could handle something quite like what they'd been through either.

At the head of the group, Cologne hopped alongside her silent grand-daughter, who held Mousse in her arms, almost tenderly. No telling how the stupid duck was going to get himself hurt if he didn't have someone being extra careful to keep him secure. Even if she didn't love him, she didn't want him to die.

For the purpose of their conversation, they decided to speak in Mandarin to protect their words from the rest of the group.

"Grandmother, are the things I saw going to come true?" Shampoo asked, unsure whether she could handle such a future.

"It isn't for me to say. If you decide to live a life that leads you to a future like that, then of course it may come to pass. Unless you saw something of a stranger nature..." Cologne raised an eyebrow. "Somehow, I suspect you didn't..."

Shampoo held back tears that threatened to form, and held tighter to Mousse. He would have quacked in protest, but he desperately hoped she was trying to hug him in some...oddly uncomfortable and violent way.

"I saw everyone back home. Their grandchildren, grown up...and I saw myself. Old. Alone. Sad. Broken. I do not want a life like that, grandmother!" She glanced at the rest of the group and tried to smile in a silent way of assuring them their topic wasn't a serious one.

"Shampoo," Cologne called her grand-daughter's attention ahead. "You really think something like that could happen to someone like you?"

"What...what do you mean?"

"You may make bad choices sometimes, but that's only to be expected. You are young, Shampoo, and a far more worthy bride than any of the girls present," Cologne informed her, and the purple-haired girl knew her grandmother was not using false words of comfort. She truly believed Shampoo would not die alone.

"But...what about Ranma?"

"I'm not telling you to rush out and be defeated in battle by some random boy right after we get back to Japan, you silly girl!" Cologne jumped down and knocked Shampoo on the head with her cane, then hopped back up to continue their progress forward.

Shampoo rubbed her head tenderly and nodded. "But I don't think this pain will ever go away..." Shampoo insisted. She couldn't even begin to imagine a life without Ranma as her fiancee. The dream had become too close to reality.

Cologne glanced back at Happosai and then forward once more. "We never think the pain of a broken heart will go away. If we try our best, it will heal like anything else. Perhaps even stronger than before," she whispered.

"Cologne," Soun called, looking a bit nervous when she looked back at him with a somewhat bored expression. That woman was intimidating by no small stretch of the imagination. He cleared his throat and lowered his eyebrows so that he presented a more mature image, and not the look of a man being led along like a sheep.

"Uh, that is, Cologne...I'm not sure if we're going to find an inn out here. Before I saw didn't see anything but fog and trees. I don't see how-" he was cut off by the sudden appearance of a very nice-looking building ahead. It rather resembled an inn from an old Kurusawa picture, and Soun was nothing if not a die-hard fan of Akira Kurusawa (though he kept this fact to himself.)

"That's the funny thing about the spirit world, Tendo..." Happosai intoned, hopping onto Soun's head and sitting down as if he were prepared to meditate. He still held the brassiere to his face.

"Whatever you seek, you ultimately find. It's like a convenient form of supernatural GPS." Happosai nodded as he spoke, as if agreeing with himself. Because he was just making it up as he went along.

"Prepare yourselves," Cologne interrupted, frowning. "It's rude to stare...and you'll be tempted to do so...mark my words..." Even as she spoke, a large blue dragon emerged from the front door, garbed in a plain white suit, and looking for all the world like he was either about to go hunting for a meal or head to some sort of office for a long evening of hard work. He was, in short, quite scary.

Cologne nudged Mousse's beak closed, which had dropped open in shock. "Watch it, Mousse. People with curses here who take the forms of delicacies are prized, and I don't want to have to worry about keeping you off the dinner table..." She paused. "Does anybody have some hot water with them?"

Chapter Text

This wasn't like the last dream. He wasn't in some familiar house, drinking tea with himself. He was somewhere much more upsetting...and his thoughts were not his own. Ryoga was formless, sightless, and very much the opposite of living. In the deep crushing blackness of this other place, his mind rushed through events and memories too fast for the little sliver that was Ryoga Hibiki to even comprehend.

"They think they can just trick me like this?"

Wisps of white smoke pierced the darkness, beckoning him to follow.

"I've waited too long to leave now! One generation means nothing to me! I'll wait a hundred years if I have to for the Saotomes to have a daughter!" He rushed away from the smoke, further into the comforting shadows of empty space. There he could gather his strength, become more powerful, and hold on to the part of him that was still inhuman.

"How does it feel?" His thoughts broke out into words, and Ryoga was brought back to himself, in a way. He was able to understand that the bitterness and anger he possessed was not his own, but...perhaps what the other part of him felt.

"Yes, it is..." He spoke to himself. "Every day since I...since we were nearly destroyed by that witch."

Ryoga tried to swim away from himself, to grasp out in the darkness and gain purchase on something, anything to use as a weapon. But it was difficult, without arms or legs...or any kind of body to speak of.

"Let me show you something, Ryoga...maybe then you'll understand what we are..." His darker half told himself, dragging the fanged boy into a new vision, very much against his will.

He was in a blindingly white room, surrounded by doctors and medical equipment. In front of him, Ryoga could see his own mother on the operating table. He didn't know much about medicine, seeing as he wasn't a surgeon or anything of the sort...but Ryoga had an inkling of what was happening.

"That's right, we're about to be born..."

"Why are you making me watch this?"

"Because you have to see it for yourself! Maybe then we'll stop fighting, and become one again..."

"What the heck do you mean? We were never one in the first place!" Ryoga argued with himself, becoming more and more distressed at the sight of his mother in pain, and the fact that he was having one of the most disturbing nightmares he'd ever conceived.

The image in front of him suddenly blurred, and Ryoga was no longer in the OR. He was in the lobby, watching his father cry into his hands, a man Ryoga had never once in his life seen shed a tear (though admittedly they didn't seem to have much contact nowadays.)

"What's happening!?" Ryoga began to panic. Had his mother just died?! Was this thing inside him showing Ryoga some kind of sick vision of the future?

"Not the future..."

Ranma opened her eyes, and yawned softly, turning her head over to look at the little black piglet nestled in her left arm. She blinked, surprised. When had that happened?

"Man, we must be pretty heavy sleepers..." She mumbled, trying to extricate herself from him...but...not really wanting to. She didn't want to wake him...he'd probably be pretty upset when he saw how they were sleeping together.

"Jeeze, Ryoga, I'm the one who should be mad," she whispered, as if he'd already woken up and gone into a righteous fit of anger. She smirked sleepily, poking at his head.

"Hey, wake up!" But it was no use. He was dead to the world.

Maybe I should tell him the truth...

But...what was that going to accomplish? Knowing him, he'd either think she was making up some kind of crazy story to trick him in to doing something for her...which Ranma sheepishly admitted to herself was usually the case if her girl half was involved. It wasn't really a half though, not least not for now. She still hadn't changed her mind about fixing this problem. Anyway, even if he didn't think she was joking, he'd probably get all nervous and shy around her. Ranma Saotome was not some delicate flower, and she never would be. That reaction would actually upset her a heck of a lot more than him thinking she was a scheming villain.

"...You know, I think we've probably got along better today than we ever have before," she quietly mused, looking up at the ceiling. Her left arm was still wrapped comfortably around Ryoga, but the other was slung up over her shoulder. This was probably the only way she'd be able to come out with the story to him...with the poor fool peacefully unaware of his surroundings.

"I've got to tell you something, Ryoga...get it offa my shoulders already." This felt good...pretending to confide in someone. Even when she'd try to tell pops about her emotions throughout her life, she never seemed to be able to get through a whole thought before he laughed her off or punched her and told her to 'be a man'.

Ranma wrinkled her nose at that. 'Be a man.' What did the old man know about being a man? No, wait...that wasn't fair. She was beginning to understand something about him...seeing as this had been the only topic on her mind for the last 24 hours. Her dad was trying to keep her the only way he knew how.

"You're lucky you probably don't have a family like mine, Ryoga. I haven't seen my mom since I was a little kid, and pops...I think he did more harm than good, in the end." She looked down at Ryoga and sighed.

"I'm sure you don't even care about much of this stuff. Seeing as you're usually trying to kill me or somethin' else. But...I guess you're one of my best friends..." She paused. "Seeing as the others are always trying ta marry me. Now don't get mad or nothin', Ryoga...but I gotta tell ya what Akane did the other night..." She spent much of the next hour telling him about the morning before when hot water didn't change her anymore, when she'd torn off into the streets in a rush of hysteria, and then been brought to Cologne to learn about the weird contract her grandfather had signed. Each word made the events seem more real. She hadn't realized before how dream-like the previous day had truly felt until just then.

Looking back up at the ceiling again, Ranma closed her eyes, and...didn't really feel the need to cry anymore. Didn't feel the need to lash out. Maybe she'd just gone into full-blown shock, finally. Or maybe she was just too tired to do much but think and talk.

"'s not like I don't care about Akane or nothin'. Sometimes I thought she was real cute...okay, a lotta times. I still do. Her and Uchaan are probably two of the cutest girls I know. And even when Shampoo's been a pest, she's got her moments." She paused. "I don't hate any of them, Ryoga. I like them."

"Did I ever tell anybody that? 'I like you'?" She asked the sleeping pig, who for all the world looked much more at peace on the outside than he was in his dreams.

"Maybe...maybe I have. But even pops, y'know...I've never said I loved him. It's not like I don't. I kinda gotta..." Ranma rubbed her face, frowning. "You just don't go around telling your old man things like that, do you?" It wasn't what men were supposed to do.

These weren't questions Ryoga would have been able to answer. He had too many problems of his own, at that moment. Namely...his own death...

"Is my wife alright?"

"She is asleep, Mister Hibiki, and we all think it for the best right now."

"...And my child? Is it a boy or girl?"

"...Your child...was a boy."


Ryoga watched his father hear the news, and his heart went out to the older Hibiki, wanting desperately to comfort him...though it was silly.

"Dad, I'm not dead! I'm your son, Ryoga! I'm right here in front of you!" Ryoga mentally shouted, unable to form real words without a mouth to speak.

"Just watch..." His other self advised, and the walls of the waiting room faded away. The fanged boy felt himself rushing through it like tearing into rice paper. Beyond that, another wall, and would have been dizzying, if he had a body. But then, he was in another white room, where a nurse carried a small bundle. She was clearly upset, and Ryoga recognized her as a family friend.

The one who'd...saved his life? That was what his parents had always told him...

"You were a miracle, Ryoga. You were born dead, and they thought you would stay that way...but when Inatsu was carrying you down the hall..." The words of a story his mother had proudly told him many times came rushing back into Ryoga's mind.

Behind the nurse, he saw a black cloud approaching fast.

"Watch out!" Ryoga wanted to shout, to rush forward and stand between the fog and the young woman. But he couldn't...and instead he was only a witness to the bizarre scene of the fog enshrouding the bundle in the nurse's arms...and when it faded...the bundle began to stir.

"What just happened?!" Ryoga shrieked in his head.

"You still haven't figured it out? We were just re-born!" Those words echoed in Ryoga's mind over and over again, followed by cruel and almost insane laughter. He wanted to lash out, to attack the other voice, tear it to shreds...

"What I'm trying ta say, Ryoga..." Ranma began, almost too afraid to say it...

"I think, maybe...if I can't find a way back as a guy, I could start to like-" Just then, in the middle of her heartfelt explanation of her possible feelings, Ranma was rudely snapped back to reality when Ryoga burst from her arms squealing in the rage-filled way only a truly deadly martial artist turned non-kosher could...and then proceeded to try to tear her face to shreds with his hooves.

Obviously he had to spend the rest of the night outside...and when Ryoga realized what he'd done, he couldn't hold it against Ranma for pummeling him a little bit rougher than usual. The voice, meanwhile, continued to laugh...just as it had in his dream.

Chapter Text

"At last, a place to rest and gather our strength for the coming journey!" Soun exclaimed, stepping forward towards the inn. He was held back by the raised arm of his close friend, Genma.

"I don't think it's a good idea to go over there, Tendo," the balding man advised, pushing his glasses up on his nose and bowing his head grimly. "There's no telling what might happen to us..."

Cologne glanced back at Genma and smirked, turning to show her profile to him. "For once, Saotome, you've said something intelligent. There is no telling, but we must do what we can. Otherwise, far more dangerous things could be lurking outside anxious to devour innocent travelers. Now...about that hot water?"

"Well, I don't think I have any hot water..." Kasumi trailed off, sitting down in the grass delicately and sliding her pack to the ground. Of them all, it appeared to be the most organized and somehow feminine bag. She had a talent for homemaking, and it apparently extended to traveling homemaking as well. Gingerly picking through the top of her back, it seemed she found what she was looking for in less than a minute...and with a loud 'THUMP' she dropped a small, portable cooking stove on the ground in front of her. The rest of the Tendo family tear-dropped. Somehow, Akane realized she should have expected Kasumi would be prepared for any and all situations, even for an unexpected trip to the spirit world.

"Here..." Genma pulled out a kettle already filled to the brim with water, out of seemingly nowhere. "I brought it just in case we had to make a fire, and it seemed easier than bringing bottles too..." He explained. Akane wondered, if a little unkindly, whether he'd really just had plans to turn into a panda if they ended up in a situation he might be able to sneak out of.

"Thank you, dear Kasumi, for being such a skilled daughter," Soun felt tears rolling down his eyes, as he sat beside her to watch her prepare.

"Father, you know I don't like it when you stand in the kitchen while I'm cooking. Please give me some space," Kasumi asked him quietly, and without any sound of the slightest irritation in her voice.

"Oh, yes, of course..." Soun backed up quickly to stand beside Genma. In a matter of minutes, Kasumi had the kettle steaming, and Cologne quickly snatched it up with the tip of her cane to pour on Mousse. Unfortunately for him, he hadn't brought any clothes to prepare himself for the situation.

"Mousse, why you so stupid?" Shampoo asked, dropping the naked (and very red) boy to the ground. "I-I'm sorry, Shampoo! We left the Nekohanten in such a rush...I just didn't..."

"Mousse, I think I have a solution..." Nabiki cleared her throat, smiling. No one doubted it would be a solution that both cost the boy and embarrassed him. And it was true, after he'd handed over the appropriate amount (somehow, even without clothes, he was able to hide an astonishing amount of weapons and items on his person)...Mousse found himself dressed in a frilly concoction of lace, complete with a shepherd's crook.

"This appears to be somewhat tight..." Mousse felt the clothes. He couldn't really tell how feminine they were with his glasses pushed up over his head, but he was grateful that Nabiki had at least brought something he could wear. Walking into an Inn naked would have just drawn more attention to the crook.

"Nabiki!" Akane snapped, frowning at her sister. "What kind of solution is this?!" She pointed to Mousse, frowning.

"Hey, I didn't see anyone else with a spare set of clothes," Nabiki remarked boredly, flipping through her newly acquired stack of yen.

As they entered the building, they grouped together quite closely so that they wouldn't brush up aside anything or anyone...though Cologne still seemed to be a little bit less fearful, as she quickly hopped towards a rather normal-looking girl at the front desk. She had long black hair tied up into an elegant bun, pinned with ivory combs, and her dress was the style of an American housewife circa 1954. She was somewhat less than intimidating.

"Greetings, madame! Welcome to the Inn of Lost Hope, is there anything I can help you with?" She smiled, tilting her head slightly.

"Lost hope?" Cologne asked, warily.

"Why yes! We've been the most popular inn of Japan's spirit world for 356 years and counting, so we're fairly new with all of the latest amenities. We were established when hope became lost here one day looking for a place to sleep, and..." She proceeded to tell them a very unneeded explanation about the history of the building, the locals, the embodiment of the Greek spirit of hope, and a general laundry list of what she'd no doubt memorized as an employee, just so she might not have to answer any questions later.

"Yes, well, that was a very lovely story. My family and I are members of the recently deceased, you see..." Cologne swept her arm towards the rest of the group.

"Recently deceased?" Ukyo hissed in Akane's ear, paling somewhat.

"I don't think we're dead, Ucchaan, I think she's making it up..." Akane replied.

"Shampoo, I just want you to know that I am infinitely joyous to know that we will be sharing a room together..." Mousse whispered into Soun's ear.

"Son, I don't have any interest in sharing a bed with a teenaged boy." Soun replied, paying close attention to the conversation Cologne had with the girl at the desk.

After a strange exchange, in which Cologne did not hand over a stack of money, but a large bag of seeds, she re-joined the group.

"Okay, I managed to secure a few rooms for us. Akane and Ukyo, you two will be sharing a room together. Nabiki, as it does not appear the boy you're dragging behind you has regained his senses, I think it best if he rooms with you so that you can make sure he doesn't wonder off in the middle of the night and get himself eaten. Kasumi, you will share a room with Happosai."

Akane and Soun were taken aback. "You can't mean it!" Akane snapped.

"Just think of what the old...of what the master might do to my poor daughter!" Soun added, almost slipping into an outright critical assessment of the old man's character while he was still within hearing range (which was a very dangerous thing.)

"I don't mind," Kasumi stated pleasantly. "Grandfather Happosai has always been a gentleman to me," she explained, looking down at a very offended looking martial artist standing beside her.

"Thank you, Kasumi dear. At least I know someone respects me enough to treat me like a man!" He grouched.

"Listen, you old goat, I only put you in a room with her because you'll be right across the hall from me. I also know very well if you try to pull anything, you'll never get a decent meal in the Tendo household again," Cologne warned. Happosai couldn't help but concede her point.

"Now, if you will let me finish, obviously Soun and Genma will be bedding together. Shampoo, you'll be with me."

"Wh-what about me?!" Mousse exclaimed, looking about frantically. He didn't want to spend the night alone in a place with so many funny-looking people, some of whom could probably bite his head off or turn him into a pile of azuki beans.

"Obviously you will be sharing our room, you fool. We're the only people here who know to look after you without having you cause some sort of mess," Cologne told him, and Shampoo walked to stand by her grandmother to support her decision.

"Stupid Mousse always make trouble for us, is only choice. Still much better if you Ranma, but worry about that later," the purple-haired girl informed him. Rather than feel offended, like any normal young man would have at this point, Mousse jumped to the conclusion in his mind that this could only mean...that she...

"Oh Shampoo, you really do love me!" Mousse threw himself forward and embraced Genma.

"...Sh-Shampoo, have you been putting on a little weight?" Mousse asked, squinting up at Genma.

"I'm not fat!" Genma snapped, causing Mousse to jump back in shock. The older martial artist crossed his arms and frowned. "This is clearly the muscle of a well-seasoned fighter," he explained. Soun kept his mouth shut, not wanting to offend his friend of over twenty years.

Cologne turned to glance out of a window in the lobby, and frowned. She had best not call anyone's attention to the gigantic skeleton walking outside. It would likely ruin the mood...but she did note with some satisfaction that it looked like it had begun to rain. They'd found a dry place to sleep just in time...

"Oh Kami-sama!" Soun exclaimed, pointing forward at the desk clerk.

"What's wrong, da-" Akane paused mid-sentence, when she saw what the woman was doing. Her neat bun had unfurled itself and formed into three long black tentacles of hair, which she was using to pick at a bento box in front of her, and shoving into the back of her head...from which they could all hear loud smacking sounds, occasionally interspersed with a rather loud hiccup.

"Oh, excuse me!" The girl exclaimed, grabbing a napkin and dabbing at the back of her head. "I hadn't eaten lunch today, I'm afraid I can be a little overzealous..."

"...H-how long do we have to stay here again?" Genma asked, moving to turn towards the door.

"I wouldn't go out there, if I were you," Cologne advised.

"And why is that? I'm a martial artist with several years of world traveling under my belt, I'm not afraid of some rough camp-" Genma was interrupted by the loud chattering of enormous teeth, when the large skeleton outside crouched down to stare through the window with one of it's empty eye sockets.

"Oh, yes, Sanzo-san! Your meal will be ready soon!" The woman at the desk called out, waving to the eyehole.

Aside from Happosai and Cologne, there was not one person in the group who had not paled considerably.

"You know, I had doubted you were all deceased, but now I can clearly see my eyes were playing tricks on me... " the girl at the desk bowed apologetically.

"Forgive me for making such a silly mistake."

Chapter Text

Ranma sat on the edge of the bed, infuriated. Not only was her face scratched up, but the stupid pig had managed to ruin her moment of self-revelation or whatever. But it didn't really matter, because...well, she was just talking. Venting a bunch of thoughts that didn't really have any substance behind them.

"Yeah," she insisted out loud. "It was that sake talking, is all..." She glanced towards a window at the front of the cottage, and only felt a tiny pang of guilt when lightning cracked outside and seemed to make the whole building shudder.

"He's getting what he deserved, messin' up my beauty sleep like that..." Ranma paused. "Not beauty sleep or nothin', really. My 'manly strength' sleep...yeah. That's what he ruined..." It escaped her at that moment how ridiculous she sounded, but it was easier to be mad than something more troubling. She'd had enough of the sad routine now to last a lifetime. Melancholy did not suit a Saotome.

"Wheeeee!" Ryoga squeaked pitifully outside, scratching at the door.

"Cut it out, ya curly-tailed freak! You're sleepin' outside!" Ranma shouted at the door, turning her head away. The scratching continued, and she squeezed her eyes shut. She wasn't going to let him back in until morning, and it was more than he deserved.

"You know, Ryoga, I thought we were gonna try and get along on this trip!" She snapped, clenching her fists on her knees. "And then you decide to just jump up and try ta kill me because you caught me off guard?!" How long had the jerk been listening to her ramble on about a girl. Like a stupid GIRL!

Ryoga became silent, and the scratching outside ceased. Ranma listened for a moment, and sighed aloud. "Don't think you can just trick me into letting you outside or somethin', cause I ain't doin' it!" She grabbed a pillow from the bed and threw it at the door to illustrate her point.

There wasn't a response on the other side. Nothing but the hiss of rain thumping against the cottage roof.

"Ryoga?" Ranma called warily, standing up from the bed. "Ryoga, quit playin' around!" She yelled, somewhat nervously. "I told you, your tricks ain't gonna work!"

There was still no answer. So Ranma did the only logical thing that came to mind...she walked towards the door, scooped up her pillow, and went back to bed. Ryoga may have been in a pig's body, but he was more than capable of taking care of himself. She hugged the pillow close to her body and kept an ear open. She told herself inwardly that it was only because she wanted to make sure the stupid pig-face didn't try to sneak into the cottage and catch her unaware. But really, she just wanted to make sure he was still alive...the next two hours drug on like eight. And Ranma only finally managed to close her eyes to breathe again, when another pathetic squeal echoed from outside. He was okay...

"Get some sleep, stupid!" Ranma snapped, going back to sleep...reluctantly.

Nabiki reluctantly tucked Kuno into bed, extra sure to wrap a couple of chains around him as well, just in case...

"Knowing you, Kuno-baby, you'll try to go to the bathroom and end up getting yourself enchanted by a vengeful geisha's spirit..." Nabiki stood up, dusting off her hands and putting them on her hips with a satisfied expression. The chains should hold for the night, Kami-sama willing.

"By the way, I'll expect payment later for this. Since this is basically the second time I've pre-preemptively saved your life today..." She remarked, walking towards her bed at the opposite end of the room and sitting down.

"Nabiki Tendo," the kendoist spoke in a very firm tone, as he turned his face towards her and put on his best stoic expression.

"What is it, Kuno-baby? You want a glass of water? That's gonna cost you..." Nabiki pulled out a calculator with an amused expression. This dummy was her best cash cow in Japan.

"I wonder if you might explain to me what's going on, and why I was attacked my an octopus," he lowered his eyebrows and frowned. "Could this be the work of the foul sorce-"

"I'm not in the mood for this conversation," Nabiki held up her hand. She really didn't want to hear a ridiculous speech about her younger sister, Ranma, and Ranma's girl side...or boy side, really...she'd had enough Ranma talk for one day.

"Nabiki Tendo, if you were in my situation, surely you would expect something of an explanation..." Kuno pleaded, struggling to make sense of anything since he'd stumbled into that strange curtain of fog.

The bob-tailed Tendo placed a hand on her forehead and closed her eyes. "I'm not going to get any sleep tonight if I don't tell you something, am I?" She asked, though she knew the answer. He would lay there in the dark and figure out a new way to phrase his questions, becoming more and more purple with his prose until he painted the air around him a deep violet hue. It would be more than even Nabiki could tolerate.

"...No." Kuno replied, the hint of a near-threat hanging in the air.

"Okay, I'll make you a promise," Nabiki held up an index finger as she began to launch into her compromise. "I'll tell you a story, like a fairy tale, to get you to sleep. But I won't finish it until tomorrow, and only then if you let me sleep tonight when I'm done. Is it a deal?" She quirked an eyebrow. This was clearly the best offer she was going to make him.

"...Do you think I'm a child, Nabiki Tendo, to be swayed so by such an offer?" He scoffed, turning his head away from her. "Oh, my pig-tailed goddess...Akane be abused so by your own family. How the fates conspire! Tis such a-" Kuno was silenced by a finger on his lips. Nabiki had practically leaped across the room to make him shut up.

"Listen, Kuno-baby," Nabiki spoke through gritted teeth, becoming even more threatening than even the idea of Kuno waxing poetic all night, "you take my deal, or I'm not telling you ANYTHING about where we're going, what happened to the...'tree-born kettle girl'...and we're going to make sure you're stuck here. Do you understand?" She was bluffing, but Nabiki was nothing if not the world's greatest poker player.

Kuno watched her, frowning, glancing down at the finger on his lips. "Frighn..." He spoke, though his speech was somewhat muffled.

"Okay, that's better..." Nabiki tossed her hair and sat down beside Kuno on the bed, smirking.

"Once upon a time, there was a princess, and she was cursed to marry a demon..."

Despite his earlier protest...Kuno loved romantic stories. His diary was full of he stayed quiet, and he listened to Nabiki's fairytale (loosely based on fact). When she talked of the princess cursed to be a prince for 12 years, he cried. When she got to the part about the foolish king living half of his life as a panda to avoid his royal duties, he laughed. When she spoke of the other princesses, his emotions were stirred by each of them: desire to aid the princess who never ceased cleaning her castle, sympathy for the middle princess who tried her best to keep the castle well-kept despite constant battles taking place on the royal grounds, and great sorrow for the princess who seemed to have come to love the cursed one.

When she got to the point about a misguided knight trying to win the hand of the cursed princess, he grew angry. Not at the story, but at the knight himself.

"What kind of fool is this knight?!" Kuno protested, wanting to teach the character a thing or two about how to treat a lady. The irony of the story escaped him...

Maybe there's hope for him yet...Nabiki mused.

"You know, for an otherworldly place with 'Lost Hope' in the title, this place isn't too shabby..." Ukyo remarked, placing her large spatula on the ground near Akane's pack and stretching.

"Yeah...I guess you're right..." Akane looked around the room, amazed at how similar it looked to her own. Maybe there was some kind of magic at work? She shook her head, having an odd feeling that trying to make sense of anything in this place was going to give her a headache at best, and drive her mad at worst.

Ukyo glanced over at a pair of twin beds and walked over to sit down on one of them and began removing her slippers. "So I guess you guys weren't kidding when you said something about Ranma-honey being a girl?" She asked, not meeting Akane's eyes. Her tone was casual, but...a little too casual. Akane tilted her head and frowned slightly.

"Yeah...Um, I think it's not really my place to tell you everything. Cologne could probably explain it better...but I guess none of us is going to have worry about marrying...her...anymore..." She looked down at her own feet and frowned. It still hurt to say. But then again, it hadn't even been a full 48 hours since the whole thing began...and since she really did love would probably hurt for a lot longer than that.

"Ah..." was all Ukyo said, beginning to undress, looking for all the world like it was the most fascinating process she'd ever gone through. Akane looked over at Ukyo and crossed her arms. "You can cry if you want to." I did...

"No, I'll be fine. I don't really like to cry," the okinomiyaki chef shrugged, pulling the covers on her bed up to her shoulders and laying down.

"Ukyo..." Akane walked slowly towards the other girl, and tried her best to smirk. "Ranma was, and always will be a jerk."

Ukyo jerked up at that and frowned. "Don't say that about my Ranma-honey! Just because he didn't want to marry you, doesn't mean he-" She stopped, biting her tongue. "You're trying to make me fight you, aren't ya?" She gave Akane a smirk of her own, and it would seem she was far quicker on the uptake than Ranma had ever been.

Akane shrugged. "Was I that obvious?"

"...A little."

Ukyo drew her knees up to her chest and crossed her arms over them. "Why don't you sit down?" She nodded towards the space she'd made on the bed, and Akane plopped onto the top of the cover, laughing.

"Man, it feels good to sit on something soft! I've been on my feet all day." She explained, realizing how silly she must have looked just then. Ukyo grinned and shrugged in response. "I don't know why Ranma-honey always calls you un-cute. That was pretty funny!"

"I think she just says it because she likes to tick me off," Akane crossed her arms in false anger...before dissolving into giggles. "She's such a jerk!" She added, giggling even more.

"Well..." Ukyo looked away. "Maybe when she skips out on the bill. You know how much food I've made for her out of love? I'd go bankrupt if I didn't have other customers!"

Sharing a room together, without the general rivalry that hung unspoken in the air, Akane and Ukyo spent the night talking. They had a lot more in common than either had realized.

"So, Kasumi dear," Happosai cleared his throat as he hopped into their shared bedroom. "Do you need help getting changed at all? Your old grandpa knows his way around a nightie or two..." He hinted suggestively and his eyebrows wiggled like two thin caterpillars.

Kasumi laughed, shaking her head. "Grandfather Happosai, you really do no better. No, I know you can be the perfect gentleman when you want to..." Kasumi knelt down to be eye-level with the old man. "After all, I think I'd be far too upset to ever make your favorite sukiyaki dish again if you didn't!" She added cheerfully. Kasumi never threatened, and this was no by any means a threat. It was a reminder, one she actually brought up every time they found themselves alone together.

Despite what it must have looked like to any observer, Kasumi knew how to take care of herself. As for Happosai, he liked Kasumi and her cooking too much to even put on an act of pitiful depression...but he did sneak out later that evening to check out the other rooms at the inn, just in case his beloved Yohkihi was hiding somewhere. He licked his lips as he closed the bedroom door behind him and straightened a kerchief over his bald pate. If the spirit world thought it could steal HIS undies, it was gravely mistaken.

Crouched in the darkness of their room together, Soun and Genma seemed to be meditating on their future plan of action. Neither had really come up with beyond just catching up with Ranma. Certainly the complications that had come up over the last day certainly made things more difficult.

"Tendo, I must make sure that nothing terrible happens to my daughter. Though she is a skilled martial artist, she has much to learn."

Soun nodded quietly, his arms crossed, his eyes closed. "I agree, Saotome. Your daughter has much to learn. And you also owe me a son-in-law now," he glanced up at Genma.

"Tendo! This is no time for joking!"

"Uh, yes," Soun cleared his throat and coughed into a hand to cover up the chuckle that had just barely begun to form. "The thing is, Saotome, I'm not really sure where we should go from here...years ago, when you brought your child to my doorstep and told me of your misfortunes in China...I was the one who had proposed 'he' might marry one of my daughters before a demon could get in the way. So, as I see it..." Soun's eyes flashed. "It is your turn to come up with something...I can't do all the work..."

"Tendo! As my oldest and dearest friend, surely you don't think I can't come up with a way to save my daughter from a union with the damned?!" Genma exclaimed.

"Now, now, Saotome, that's not what I said...I just think..." Suddenly, Soun grew silent...and his eyes flashed. They flashed with the same light Genma had seen in them once, many years ago...when he came up with the first plan.

"What is it, Tendo?!" Genma grabbed Soun's shoulder and shook him. "Have you come up with something?!"

"...W-w-w-" Soun stammered, trying to gasp out between shakes. "Womanhood!" He shouted.

"Wh...what?" Genma pulled back, thoroughly confused.

"Womanhood. Don't you see?! WOMANHOOD!"

"No, I'm afraid I don't, Tendo. I don't think there's a way to turn her back into a man...if that's what you're thinking..."

"No, no, no, Saotome. Listen to raised your daughter to be the greatest of male warriors, did you not?"

Genma crossed his arms and nodded gravely. "Yes, I did my best. I was doing an amazing job, if I do say so myself, before...this..." Tears formed in his eyes. "My poor baby girl! To never regain the joys of being a true warrior!"

"Saotome, your daughter is a great male warrior!"

"...Come again?"

"Listen, here's my idea...and it's a brilliant one..." Soun leaned forward and whispered into Genma's ear. Each second that passed as he spoke seemed to make him more and more joyous. Thrilled, in fact.

"Yes!" Genma shouted, standing up and striking a fist into the air. "YOU'RE RIGHT, TENDO! IT WILL WORK! RANMA, YOUR DADDY IS GOING TO SAVE YOU!"

In the next room over, Cologne shook her head grimly. "Those idiots never learn..." She grumbled. She had incredible hearing, and the plan was even more ridiculous than their first one. "It will never work."

She frowned, looking ahead, and resuming her meditation. 'This demon is much stronger than any of us illusion I crafted to deceive him was destroyed before Ranma even left the city...'

Mousse sat nearby, sharing a pot of tea with Shampoo, and looking for all the world like he'd been born to celebrate tea parties with little girls.

"Mousse, when you take stupid dress off?" Shampoo asked, looking up at him. He looked like he'd become far too comfortable in the pink concoction frilly lace.

"So, Shampoo...I think I've figured something out," Mousse said, seemingly deaf to her question. "It should have been obvious all along, I guess...but I've just realized...I think really a girl."

Shampoo shook her head in frustration. He was far too slow on the uptake sometimes.

"Mousse, Shampoo serious. In morning, we change your clothes. They probably have something in gift shop here."

"...Can I keep the crook?"


Chapter Text

A lazy sun peeked through the morning mist, sending a rude beam right through the window straight into Ranma's face. Sitting up, she frowned and rubbed her eyes, blinking several times to banish the last of her sleepy haze. "Stupid jerk..." Ranma mumbled, finishing up a thought she'd had before she'd fallen asleep. Looking down at her shoulders, she noticed a spill of red on both sides. She'd forgotten taking her hair down...

Ranma frowned, reaching around for the dragon's whisker she'd set aside.

"Not gonna remind that dummy I'm a girl," she told herself, rather foolishly. It wasn't the color or style of her hair that made her gender obvious to onlookers...but she was grasping at any straw she could to maintain some sense of normalcy.

When she'd finally managed to pull her hair into it's normal pigtail, Ranma decided it might be a good idea to clean herself up. Looking towards the fireplace, she had begun to wonder how long it would take to heat up enough water...when she suddenly noticed something that hadn't been in the cottage the previous night. Near the table was a large basin of steaming water just large enough for a petite girl.

"Well, wouldja look at that..." She remarked in wonder, for a moment pondering if this place was some kinda magic faerie hut that granted meager wishes to travelers...but quickly banished the idea. Ryoga had probably just managed to get inside that morning after he became a guy again, and was trying to get on her good side again.

"It's not gonna work, pork-breath..." She growled, even as she stripped off her clothes and walked towards the basin to take a well-deserved soak. But, unfortunately, as she settled into the only served as another reminder of her little problem.

She sighed, tilting her head back and sinking a little bit lower.

This stinks...

Outside, as Ryoga stumbled back from the lake, having taken a quick cold dip and heated some water to return himself to his rightful shape...he had a thought of his own, when he raised his hand to wrap on the front door of the cottage.

This stinks...

"Yeah, what is it?" Ranma called, sounding possibly even angrier than she had last night.

"R-Ranma? Can I come back in?" Ryoga called asked sheepishly, hoping she'd cool down enough before they left that she didn't try to kill him for attacking her in his sleep. Honestly, it wasn't like he'd realized it was Ranma he was trying to claw to shreds! Even if that might have been the case a couple of days ago...things were kinda different now. She was a girl, and he was going nuts.

"I dunno, P-chan, can you keep your trotters offa my face?" She snarled, and Ryoga heard the sound of water splashing.

He tested the doorknob and began to push the door open, only to find himself smacked in the face with a wet cloth.

"GET OUTTA HERE! I AIN'T DECENT!" She fumed, and Ryoga slammed the door closed, blushing furiously.

"I...I'm sorry. I didn't mean-..." he paused. "You know, yesterday you were fine with me seeing your chest..."

"Oh, I get it, so now you think you can just get a good look whenever you want? LIKE I'M SOME KINDA FREAKSHOW?!" She shouted behind the door, and Ryoga truly struggled not to yell back. He just kept repeating a mantra in his head: She's going through a tough time right now. She's going through a tough time right now. She's going through-

"First you sleep with Akane whenever you get the chance, and probably get some good looks at her whenever she gets changed in the morning, then you try and catch me bathing! Ryoga Hibiki, YOU ARE ONE SICK PERVERT!"

"Alright Ranma, that's it!" Ryoga shouted, snatching up his umbrella and closing his eyes as he opened the door again. Another wet cloth hit his beet red face, but he didn't flinch. He just pointed his umbrella towards where he assumed Ranma was.

"Five minutes! You and me! OUTSIDE! WE'LL SETTLE THIS LIKE MEN!"

"Fine with me!"




They repeated the same word back and forth throughout the entire five minutes it took Ranma to get dressed and head outside. Their shouting echoed throughout the forest, alerting any oni, spirits, and all manner of creatures nearby to their presence. Including a group that had gotten themselves dressed far earlier and had set out in search of Ranma...



Akane jerked around, adjusting her pack.

"Did you hear that? It sounded like Ryoga..." She remarked to the others, listening more carefully to the sound.

"And...PIG-TAILED GIRL!" Kuno shouted, dashing ahead of the group with his bokken drawn.

Nabiki sighed and rubbed her temples. She'd forgotten to tell him the rest of the story that morning...she knew there was something she was supposed to do...

As Genma, the Tendos, Mousse, and Shampoo rushed to find the source of the yelling, Cologne glared ahead of her with a look of extreme concentration.

"So it's Hibiki, then..." She said aloud, immediately recognizing the bandana'd boy's voice. "I really hoped it wouldn't be...but I suppose I should have seen this coming..." She hopped after the others, already knowing what she'd have to do, and feeling quite unhappy about it. Yet another person's life was about to be destroyed, and another layer of the spell peeled away...

"Grandmother, you coming?" Shampoo turned back towards Cologne, gesturing for her.

"I'm coming, child, hold your horses. No need to rush. I'm not young anymore, you know..." Cologne hopped to join the rest of them, and Shampoo gave her grandmother a very suspicious look. She could outrun anybody in Nerima any day of the week...

Ryoga sailed towards Ranma, his umbrella raised to deal a pretty rough blow. The redhead rolled out of the way just in time for Ryoga to leave a large crater in the ground beside her. Hopping to her feet and brought her leg up to sweep and trip him. He growled, and yanked his umbrella up, using it to block her leg.

"YOWCH!" Ranma shouted, pulling her leg back and jumping several feet back.

"Ranma, I'm tired of listening to you whine and brood about your problems, and I'm not going to put up with it all the way to China!" Ryoga shouted, leaping up to a tree branch to gain some height for his next attack.

Ranma did likewise, preparing herself in a defensive stance. "Look who's talking, you stupid pig! When did I whine or brood even ONCE since we left Nerima?! You're the one who likes to tell everybody about your crummy life every five minutes!" She squawked. After all, she hadn't been aware of the times Ryoga was listening in on her little monologues.

Ryoga was seething...boiling with rage now. Even if Ranma was a real girl, she still hadn't learned anything about treating people better. If anything, she was becoming even moreagitating.

"What'sa matter, P-chan?" Ranma taunted as she placed her hands behind her head and smirked. "You know, I think I'm gonna tell Akane about you when we get back. She'd probably be real happy to know she's been sleeping with a bigger pig than she even-"

"BAKUSAI TENKETSU!" The fanged boy shouted, diving forward to slam his index finger into the trunk of the tree Ranma stood on. She wavered and slipped as it rumbled beneath her, and the group that had finally arrived in the clearing found themselves showered with splinters of wood.

"Pig-tailed girl!" Kuno exclaimed, as Ranma fell through the air. He raised his arms wide and came rushing towards her, prepared to save his fiery beauty from falling to her certain doom. Never mind the fact that he'd seen her recover from quite a lot of falling-related incidents without his help.

"Keep out of it!" Akane yelled at Kuno, pulling out her mallet and flattening him into the ground. She glared down at the insensate kendoist. "Kuno, you really need to learn how to act!" She snapped at him, tucking her mallet away into the mysterious realm from whence it came.

Nabiki crossed forward and hoisted him up, putting one of his arms over her shoulder. "One of these days, Akane, I'm sure you'll shake something loose from Kuno-baby's thick skull," she remarked, passing him over to Kasumi. She'd had enough of dragging him around for one week.

"Oh dear, really should be more gentle when you play with your friends..." Kasumi sighed, looking at the kendoist with no small measure of sympathy.

Meanwhile, Ranma had managed to recover as expected, before she even hit the ground. It took a bit of jerking around, but she did manage to land on her feet.

"Why do ya gotta pull out your nasty tricks every time we fight, huh?" She shouted at Ryoga, leaping towards him to land a good punch across his face. Ryoga stumbled back, holding his jaw and glaring.

"You fight like a girl, Saotome," he bit out. Ryoga's temper was never the kind to keep him from saying the worst possible things. He had that in common with Ranma.

"Ranma, be careful!" Akane admonished, rushing into view. Somehow neither of the martial artists had even been aware of Kuno himself when he'd tried to make his appearance.

"Akane, what're you-" Ranma turned towards her ex-fiancee, only to receive a sharp kick in the stomach from Ryoga that sent her sailing off into a tree.

"Uh...Oh...Jeeze!" Ryoga exclaimed, having forgotten he wasn't actually trying to kill her today, just teach her a lesson. He'd fallen back into his old ways of attacking Ranma his hardest when she was even momentarily distracted.

"Ryoga!" Akane shouted, stomping her foot and spinning on him. "How could you treat her like that?!" She demanded, glaring.

"He knows very well what she is, too..." Nabiki interjected. She hadn't forgotten their exchange, and had no doubt Ryoga figured out the truth of it by least, he should have if he was even half as smart as she gave him credit for. Admittedly, the bar was pretty low, but even Kuno could probably have figured it out if he spent two days with the pig-tailed martial artist.

"Oh, so you decided to take advantage of her when she isn't herself?! Ryoga, how could you?" Akane was beyond shocked, stepping back from Ryoga as if she'd been burned. From her point-of-view he'd always been somewhat of a friend to Ranma. He'd even tried to help Ranma cure her 'curse' at the risk of looking like a pervert to all of Japan when they'd been trying to break into the girl's locker room. Was it all some sort of elaborate trick, just to catch Ranma at her worst?

"Akane, that's not it!" Ryoga held out a hand to her. "I just...well, you know Ranma. She pushed me too far, and we just decided to blow off some steam...I didn't mean to-..." He looked up, snapping to attention. Ranma should have jumped down by now and bit out another retort or tried to get him back...but she hadn't.

"Ranma?" Ryoga called out, leaping towards the tree he'd sent her flying in to.

Akane looked after him and put a hand to her forehead. No, Ryoga wouldn't have intentionally tried to hurt Ranma like that...he did have a temper, she recalled. But...she'd seen him use the breaking point, and wasn't that also the technique he'd tried to learn to actively destroy Ranma once? Her head hurt just trying to think about it. Akane honestly didn't know if Ryoga and Ranma were friends or enemies. It seemed to change every day.

"They sure are a funny pair, aren't they, sugar?" Ukyo stepped forward, looking upwards to where the martial artists had disappeared.

"I just hope Ranma's okay," Akane replied, crossing her arms.

"No son-daughter of mine could be defeated in just one kick," Genma made his appearance and strode up to the pair.

"No, Saotome, you're absolutely right. Ranma's probably just gathering her energy for an ultimate attack...there are many in the Anything Goes arsenal which could be used in just such a manner..." Soun added.

"You know, a girl ought to wear a lacy brassiere." Happosai joined in, hopping onto Genma's head. "Your daughter..." he licked his lips, "would look very nice in a little pink number with pretty bows and frills..."

"Master, this is really not the type to discuss my child's underwear!" Genma protested. If he could honestly take the old goat on in a fight, he'd have made sure Happosai ate those words.

Chapter Text

Ranma sat nestled between two branches, not quite visible to the others she didn't really feel quite so motivated to keep up her masculine front. She tilted her head back until it smacked into the body of the tree and closed her eyes. The knock had hurt, but even more...being caught off guard and sent flying proved two things two her: as a woman, she just couldn't be as good at the arts as she was when she'd been a man...and pain was a lot tougher to ignore. She wanted to cry, right then and there, she wanted to cry once more for everything she'd lost and everything she knew she'd never really had.

"Why do I even bother? There's no way I'll ever be a guy again..." She looked up at the leaves shrouding her view of the skyline. Maybe if she just stayed there, nobody would bother her. Maybe she could just...disappear forever. The Ranma that had never been, and the Ranma that knew it was too late to be anything but a joke.

"Ranma?" Ryoga landed at the edge of one of the branches her right leg was slung over.

"What is it? Come to show off? Gonna give me some speech about ending it all, getting your ultimate revenge because I'm not a true warrior anymore? Huh?" She spat out.

Ryoga quirked an eyebrow and crossed his arms, not saying anything.

"I thought we were done with this, Ranma. I thought we'd decided we were going to try to be friends," Ryoga finally broke the silence, when it became clear that Ranma herself was not about to begin a conversation with him.

In response, she turned her head away and frowned even deeper. "Why bother doing anything, Ryoga? I've lost all that really counts. I've lost my manhood, and I've lose Akane, and I've lost..."

"You've lost what?"

"I've lost..." She paused and looked back over at Ryoga, squinting. "You didn't sound too surprised when I said I lost my manhood. Do you think I'm going to be locked like this forever, or-" sudden recognition dawned on her face, followed soon thereafter by pain and anger.

"You knew what happened the whole time." She stated flatly.

"Yeah. I knew."

"And you just kept quiet about it. You pretended to believe me, and followed me here..."

"You wouldn't have let me come if I told you the truth," Ryoga replied...though he did feel a pang of guilt at the accusation in her voice. And the hint of betrayal.

"Why did you do it, Ryoga? So you could pummel me when I wasn't paying attention? Because clearly you got your wish there!" She snapped, struggling to pull herself into a sitting position so she was crouched on one branch, rather than spread between two.

"Ranma Saotome, you weren't in a good place yesterday, or the night before. I followed you because I wanted to make sure you didn't get hurt."

"Great job doing that then, pig-breath..." Ranma glared up at him and place her hands on her knees.

"Just tell me the truth. You followed me for this moment. You were just saving it up until I began to trust you, so you could shove everything in my face and gloat. You think this is just some big funny joke, and now you're free to marry Akane because now I'm nothing. I'm nothing, and you're a MAN!"

Ryoga edged closer to Ranma, and she didn't bother leaping away. There wasn't any point.

"Ranma..." The fanged boy lowered his eyebrows and crouched down. "I came with you because we're friends."

"And you lied to me-"

"I didn't lie to you, you're the one who lied to me." He replied flatly.

" lied by not lying!"

"That doesn't make any sense, and you know it."

"...Shut up, Ryoga." She gave him a warning glance.

"Look, Ranma," Ryoga sat down beside Ranma, leaving about a foot between them so she could still have some space. "I didn't want you to think I saw you as anybody else but who you are. If I told you I knew you were really a girl-"

"I'm not. I'm a guy!" Ranma stabbed a finger into her chest for emphasis, which ultimately had the exact opposite effect due to two very soft protrusions.

"...Right, you're a guy. But if I told you I knew everything, that you couldn't be couldn't be the 'same' as you were before, then no matter what I'd think I was treating you differently."

"You have been treating me differently."

"Yeah, because I've been trying to get along with you, you jerk!"

Ranma smirked at the insult. "...You've got a stupid way of showing it." She paused. "You've got a good right hook, though, Ryoga. Not as good as mine...but pretty good."

"And you've still got a good kick too, Ranma. Does it really matter if you're one thing or the other?"

"Wh...What's that supposed ta mean?!"

"I mean...if you're Ranma Saotome, macho type and all...if you're a 'man amongst men' like you put it when your head is at it's biggest...then you should be able to handle having a girl's body. You should look at it as an opportunity to prove you're more of a guy than anybody else, because having breasts can't stop you from being a real man." Ryoga explained, though his argument didn't really sound like it held water. It seemed like at that moment, it was what Ranma needed to hear.

"Yeah...I guess you're right," Ranma looked towards the ground. Akane and her father were standing at the trunk of the tree, looking up at them now with worried expressions.

"Is there anything else you're hiding from me, now that everything else is out in the open?" Ranma glanced over at Ryoga, wryly.

The fanged boy shrugged. "A few things. I think I'm going crazy, but...I guess we can talk about that later." He paused. "So...Akane is up for grabs now, right?"

Ranma punched Ryoga in the arm and jumped down from the tree afterwards. The fanged boy rubbed his shoulder and smirked after her. "I'll take that as a maybe!" He shouted, before leaping down to join everyone else.

"...Ranma?" Akane stepped towards the pig-tailed girl, uncertain what she should say.

"Hi, Akane..." Ranma trailed off, failing to meet her former fiancee's eyes.

"Nice to see you again, Ranma," Nabiki drawled, breaking the semi-romantic tension in the air. Though whether it was between Akane and Ranma, or Ranma and...Hibiki...she wasn't sure. 'Interesting...'she thought to herself. A little flash of her opportunistic business mind wondered if perhaps she could profit from whatever seemed to be going on.

"What're you all doing here?" Ranma looked around, even as the rest of the ragtag group stepped into the clearing and joined them.

"Well," Soun trailed off, unsure how he should address Ranma at this point...then he remembered he could just use her name. "...Ranma...we decided we couldn't just let you go to China on your own. After all, we're family now, in a manner of speaking," he patted Ranma on the shoulder, and she gave him a somewhat accusatory glare. She hadn't forgotten when her father mentioned the fiancee debacle was partially his idea in the first place.

"P-p-pig-tailed girl..." Kuno mumbled, managing to push himself away from Kasumi long enough to stand. In his somewhat dazed state of mind after Akane's harsher than usual hammering, and the residual effect of yesterday's was fair to say he did not look like he was at his best.

"Are you sure you should be standing on your own?" Kasumi asked, concerned. "Akane, you really don't know you own strength sometimes..." She looked over at her youngest sister, chiding her. From her perspective, Akane tended to be somewhat violent towards many of the young men she came into contact with, except perhaps with Ryoga.

"Kuno-baby, remember that story I told you last night?" Nabiki sighed, deciding to go ahead and come out with it before Akane did even more damage to the delirious kendoist, or Ranma decided to finish the job.

"The story of the princesses?" Kuno shook his head, and his eyes darted towards Nabiki. "What of it, Nabiki Tendo?"

"True. All true. We're princesses, including your precious pig-tailed girl." She said flatly.

"Nabiki, what're you-" Ranma sputtered. A headache was coming on, now that it looked like the wheels of her chaotic life were about to start turning again. Who'd have thought getting lost with Ryoga still didn't get her away from it all.

"Listen, you go off and have a little chit-chat with each other, I'm sure you have some catching up to do. I have to take care of something..." Nabiki waved at the others and pulled Kuno aside. He followed like a lost puppy, hanging on to her every word. She'd struck at his poetic weakness, and it looked like this was the best distraction anyone had come up with for him to date.

"Jeeze..." Ranma ran a hand through her hair and looked at the others. "...What made ya think I couldn't take care of myself, huh?" She dived back into the topic at hand. Namely, the fact that they were basically all using her gender and marriage issues as an excuse for a vacation.

"Ranma..." Happosai leapt down from Genma's head, which he had been perching on throughout the entire exchange. "We have to talk..." He spoke gravely. It would appear he was about to say something pretty important, but was cut off when a long walking stick landed on his head and knocked him to the ground. At the top of the stick was none other than Cologne herself, and she was not looking at Ranma at all. She was glaring, pointedly, into the eyes of Ryoga Hibiki.

"Show yourself, demon..." She growled.

"What?!" Ryoga backed away, too stunned for speech. "Wh-what are you saying?!" He blurted, looking frantically back and forth between Cologne, Ranma, Akane, Genma, Soun, Kasumi, the unconscious Happosai, and a weird-looking bit of brush on the ground that just so happened to look like it was listening in on their conversation too.

It was safe to say that when the laughter started up in his head again, Ryoga officially felt like he was having a far worse week than even Ranma.

"What're you talking about, ghoul?" Ranma demanded, putting one foot forward and putting up a fist as if she was about to leap to Ryoga's defense.

"Do you need glasses or somethin'? That's Ryoga!" She snapped. No one ever thought they'd see the day Ranma Saotome defended anyone but herself. Much less the boy who attacked her every other week over meat buns or tea kettles.

"What's going on?" Kasumi called, several feet behind them. "You've known Ryoga for months, haven't you? He's a perfectly normal boy..." She was beginning to wonder if perhaps she should have stayed home after all. It was one thing to face daily battles in the safety of your own home, but even Kasumi was beginning to feel the stress of this trip.

"Grandmother, this stupid boy with bad fashion sense, not demon," Shampoo added in her own two cents.

Ranma glanced over at the Chinese Amazon, almost astonished that she seemed to be contradicting her elder for the first time since she'd met them. She was also astonished that Mousse was dressed like a Shaolin monk, but Ranma didn't know about the limited selection of clothes at the Inn of Lost Hope's gift store, and she frankly had bigger things to worry about.

"I won't ask you again. Reveal yourself, demon. I invoke the peeling of my own spell, and command you to speak!"

To Ryoga's shock and distress, the laughter ceased in his mind...and became quite audible to everyone else, as it started to come from his own mouth.

"Ryoga, what's wrong with you?!" Ranma squawked. From her point-of-view, it looked like he'd finally snapped.

Chapter Text

"Ryoga, you're scaring me! Stop laughing!" Akane panicked, stepping back from the now un-familiar person in front of her.

"That isn't Ryoga anymore," Cologne intoned, and surveyed the rest of the group over her shoulder.

"I would advise you to step back a bit, just in case things get ugly..." Her eyes darted towards Ranma. "You too, former son-in-law."

Ranma crossed her arms and glared. "No way! I ain't doin' nothin' till you fix what you broke!"

"...I beg your pardon?"

Ranma shoved a thumb at Ryoga, who's laughter had slowly began to fade. "You broke him!" She fumed. "He's laughing like some kinda nutcase, and you hop in here with your stupid Amazon 'wisdom' callin' him a demon..." Ranma shook her head. "Fix him."

"...My dear," Ryoga cleared his throat, putting a hand on Ranma's shoulder and squeezing it reassuringly. "I assure you, I am most certainly not broken..."

Ranma's pigtail stood on end and she jumped back several feet, drawing back her arms in surprise. "The heck, Ryoga?!"

"Do forgive me, I haven't been myself for quite some I'm sure you well know," Ryoga glanced over at Cologne. In his eyes, she saw little of the passionate but foolish boy she had once trained not too long ago to master a technique he thought would destroy her son-in-law.

"Quite the trick you've pulled, inserting yourself into our lives," she rasped, almost impressed. "Even with the spell, you somehow still found the Saotomes..."

'Ryoga' shrugged, straightening his back and changing his stance. He looked far less beleaguered by the traditional depressive aura that had followed him around a majority of his life. In fact, other than his physical body...second by second, it seemed Ryoga's personality was fading entirely even in the way he held himself.

"Pure serendipity, my dear. If it weren't for that contract..." He leveled a finger at Genma, who looked suddenly very nervous, as the light of the scroll tucked beneath his gi began to glow. "I doubt my other half would have even met Ranma Saotome, much less kept us so close."

Cologne closed her eyes and nodded in understanding. "I should have known there was more to it than just the binding of blood. So it's the mere presence of the contract that drew you to us?"

"Well..." 'Ryoga' trailed off, glancing over at Ranma, who looked for all the world like she herself was about to go crazy. "That...and the fact that by the very nature of their family, they draw chaos in like a black hole..." He licked his lips, and it looked as if his tongue had become somewhat more...snake-like. "That's what prompted me to strike my bargain in the first place."

" hold on just a minute!" Ranma shouted, gathering up her nerves to speak. It was somewhat difficult for her to keep her mouth shut for extended periods of time, if she wasn't focused on a fight. "You can't seriously expect me to believe that you...Ryoga Hibiki...the...the dumbest pig in Japan AND China...are some kind of monster?!" She had a pleading note to her voice. Oh Kami-sama, Ryoga, just tell me this is some kind of crazy plan you got the old goat in on! You can't be a just can't!

Beyond the mere thought of being deceived for so long by so many people, if for one moment Ranma believed that even Ryoga...even he was in on some kind of plot to destroy her life...she was fairly confident she would be the next person to go nuts and start laughing like a maniac.

"Monster is a harsh word, Ranma," Cologne remarked. "The vessel he's using is perfectly human...or should I say the prison?" She raised an eyebrow, and if she weren't so would almost believe there was a bit of self-satisfaction creeping into her tone.

"I can leave this shell any time I want!" 'Ryoga' snapped, for a moment looking like his old self, but immediately smoothing out his temper with seemingly little effort. "Once the nuptials are spoken...of course..." He glanced over at Ranma and grinned.

"Uh-uh, no how, nothin' is gonna convince me to marry a jerk like-" Ranma protested, only to be immediately silenced by a long strip of cloth gliding from beneath Ryoga's sleeve and wrapping itself around her head to cover her mouth. She gave a muffled shout of protest, trying to pry it off, but the gag was as solid as iron.

'Ryoga flexed the arm from which the cloth had originated, and grinned. "Already, my power seems to be coming have no idea how many times I've wanted to shut her up since we first met," he glanced up at Cologne and smirked.

"Ryoga! This isn't you!" Akane suddenly spoke up, though Ukyo held a hand on her shoulder to keep her from rushing towards the pair. "If he can do something like that to Ranma...we need to be careful, sugar..." She whispered into Akane's ear. But giving the youngest Tendo any kind of advice tended to guarantee she would do the opposite.

Akane pushed Ukyo's hand off her shoulder and glared at her. "Ranma is in trouble! Ryoga is too!" She snapped, a look of utter hurt flashing across her eyes. "I thought you cared enough about Ranma to do anything to protect her!" She gave Ukyo an accusatory glare and dashed towards Ranma to try and help her with the magic gag. Ranma was so focused on getting it off at that moment, she wasn't even paying attention to Cologne and Ryoga anymore.

"...Do you share your prison, demon?" Cologne asked, quietly drawing energy into herself as she spoke, should the need to use it arise.

"What do you mean?" 'Ryoga's' eyes narrowed into slits, and he seemed to grow guarded.

"I am merely curious to know whether you possessed a living boy's body when the spell of misdirection was cast, or whether you took on one who had recently passed," Cologne replied innocently.

"Grandmother! That awful!" Shampoo gasped, placing a hand to her mouth. She desperately wanted to aid Ranma with the cloth, but trusted her grandmother's advice to keep her distance from the pair. Besides...if the demon wanted to marry Ranma, he wasn't very likely to kill her too.

"You should know better than anybody else what you did to me..." 'Ryoga' spat, looking again as if his old self was returning. "Your spell of 'misdirection' split my consciousness into two pieces! You drove half of me into darkness, while the weaker side was forced to live and grow as a human. That part of me was driven mad within the first few days, and I even managed to forget who I truly was..."

At least he hasn't lost his ability to complain...Ranma thought bitterly, slapping Akane's hand away when she tried to tug on the gag, and ended up grabbing a fistful of Ranma's hair on accident.

"Let me help you!" Akane yelled at the pig-tailed martial artist, who merely shook her head and pushed Akane away. She mumbled something inaudibly through the gag, but Akane was familiar enough with Ranma's snappy attitude to realize it was probably an insult and an attack on her femininity as well as appearance, possibly even her cooking skills.

"Ranma!" Akane stomped her foot, leaping at Ranma so she could tackle her to the ground and help whether the red-head liked it or not. For all their scuffling at that moment, both privately admitted it was nice to have a little bit of normal chaos amid everything that was happening at the moment, and their private bickering was a pleasant distraction.

"Demon, you should be grateful for what I did," Cologne reasoned, still drawing more energy into herself as she spoke, "without my spell, you might never have learned what it was like to be human. You'll get along much better with your future wife if you know-"

"I don't care about 'getting along' with a harridan like that! When we are wed, I will ensure that she's quite docile," 'Ryoga' replied smugly. As for Ranma, she grew even more enraged at the very idea. '


"Ranma, if you don't quit struggling, I'm going to pull out more than your hair!" Akane snapped, pulling Ranma's attention away from Cologne and 'Ryoga' once more.

"Mffghnnn, frrggle blmph!"

"What did you say?!"

Genma, Soun, Nabiki with her camera, Kasumi, semi-conscious Kuno, Happosai, Mousse, and Shampoo watched from the sidelines. They didn't really catch much about what was going on with Cologne and 'Ryoga' any more, as it looked like the scuffle between Akane and Ranma was a far more entertaining option.

For Ukyo's part, she didn't even blink, she merely watched Cologne...and pondered about the strange blue light that seemed to be flowing towards the old woman. 'What is she planning?' Ukyo bit her bottom lip, hoping against hope that Cologne knew what she was doing. She just had to...

"You must have been awfully bored," Cologne remarked, looking suddenly disinterested.

"What do you mean?" 'Ryoga' asked, tilting his head and looking somewhat suspicious.

"Well, being trapped in your own vessel for so long, being forced to witness yourself playing the part of a muscle-bound fool for 12 years, not once being able to exercise even an ounce of your inestimably large pool of power...that would drive even me mad, sonny-boy..."

"I am several hundred years old, the name 'sonny-boy' does not apply to me. Yes, of course I was bored. I don't see what that has to do with anything, witch..."

'Hook, line, and sinker...' Ukyo smirked, watching the pair. She could tell when someone was being baited, and the old amazon was nothing if not an expert in the art. After all, she'd trained Shampoo to be one of the most formidable rival fiancees Ukyo had yet to encounter. 'I don't know what she has planned...but I'll do anything to save Ranma-honey...'

"If you both are quite finished, I have something to say that is about to concern all of us," Cologne glanced over at Akane and Ranma, who paused this point they were both thoroughly messy with dirt and bits of grass, Ranma's hair looking like half of it was in a pigtail...and the other half was turning into a fluffy array of tangled feathers at the side of her head.

"Go on..." 'Ryoga' prompted, by now quite curious as to what the old woman was going to say. This was the most excitement he'd had since he began to torment humanized side in his dreams.

"Soun, Genma...perhaps it would be best if you tell the demon what you had in mind..." Cologne raised her eyebrows at the middle-aged men...who had very sadly begun to take bets between each other whether Akane was going to be able to get Ranma's gag off or not.

"Uh...right..." Soun straightened up and cleared his throat. "Saotome, perhaps it's best if you explain..." He clapped Genma on the back, causing the balding man to stumble forward.

"Well...that see..." Genma suddenly looked very anxious. He didn't really have much experience talking to demons. Certainly not ones his family had become experts at cheating for multiple generations.

"I think it best if you have a go at this, Tendo!" Genma stepped back and clapped Soun on the back, causing the moustachiod man to stumble forward this time.

"No, Saotome, I think you're the one who's better at this sort of thing..." Soun clapped Genma on the back again. It went on like this until they were both a mere two feet away from 'Ryoga', and he looked quite ready to lose his temper.

"Get on with it!" 'Ryoga' snapped, showing his fangs. They had become somewhat sharper.

"M-Manhood..." Genma stammered out.

"...What?" 'Ryoga' asked, appearing somewhat confused.

"What Saotome means to say, is that Ranma...though she may not look it right dripping with concentrated manhood, thanks to a diet of strict parenting and the masculine philosophies of 'Anything Goes Martial Arts'," Soun provided, making just about the same sense as Genma had, though he may have used more words to say it.

Even Cologne appeared to be growing testy, which was a rare sight. "On second thought, perhaps I should do the talking after all. Demon, I suggest you consider what you'd like in a bride. Ranma can clearly only carry out one of those desires at best," she glanced over at the pig-tailed girl...who didn't know whether to be righteously offended or deeply confused, so she decided on a combination of both.

"Granted, I had hoped for a wife with a more...feminine...nature..." 'Ryoga' conceded.

"Then it's settled. We'll place a wager. Together, we come up with 5 tests of womanhood that Ranma must pass in order to be eligible as a bridal candidate. If she passes, she's yours. If she doesn't, well...we get to take her back to Nerima, and the contract is null. Is it a deal?" Cologne asked, smirking.

"It's a deal." 'Ryoga' agreed. Because as everyone who knew anything about demons was well aware...none of them could turn down a bet.

But beneath the layer of cruelty and power, the real Ryoga lurked. He watched this whole scenario unfold with distress, and couldn't honestly say he was very happy with the results. For one thing...he didn't want to marry Ranma Saotome!

Chapter Text

'Please don't do this to me!' Ryoga pleaded inside, trying desperately to claw his way to the surface. But the demon was in control now, at everything seemed pretty hopeless. Especially since the whole idea behind the bet Cologne had just struck would require Ranma to lose, and he knew better than anyone...that Ranma Saotome was far too prideful, not matter the cost, to let herself lose any kind of test or competition if she could help it. Heck, that was why she still hadn't shed Shampoo as one of her fiancees until she was basically turned permanently into a girl! Not that she technically hadn't been one already, but she didn't know it at the time.

Cologne cleared her throat and pointed over at Ranma. "Now, if you expect her to agree to this wager as well, I think it might be a good idea to undo the little gag you conjured up..."

The demon outwardly sighed and crossed his arms, gesturing with one finger towards Ranma. The cloth gag wrapped around her head quickly unravelled into Akane's hands (because Akane had still been tugging on it even as the bet was struck.) The blue-haired girl smirked, in a self-satisfied way. She was sure the gag had mainly come off because of her own effort, and not just the demon's will.

"AGH!" Ranma gasped, taking in full gulps of air and rubbing her reddened mouth and cheeks. "Jeeze, man, what the heck is wrong with you?!" She exclaimed, pushing Akane off of her and frowning angrily. "And what makes any of you think I'm gonna agree to act like some kinda lousy, weak housewife just to-" she drew to a stop and darted a glance towards Kasumi. "Ah, know I don't mean it like-"

Kasumi held up a hand and smiled warmly. "It's okay, Ranma. I know what you meant. You just aren't the best at thinking before you speak," she didn't even vaguely sound as if she was hurt. Kasumi was made of tougher stuff than most people realized. Even as Ranma accepted this answer and turned with a glare towards her father, Kasumi pondered what the red-head had said. 'weak'...the word reverberated in her mind. Keeping her face pleasant and cheerful, she wondered if perhaps that was true. The vision she'd had in the woods came back to her...and she was forced to push it back, and lock it away. This was not about her, but about Ranma. On some levels, it was about Akane too...and even Ryoga, whom...well, he was a nice boy. Kasumi looked over at the demon inhabiting his body.

"I hope he comes back to himself," she thought. It must be a terrible feeling to find out half of you was evil, and the other half an illusion crafted by some kind of spell. Surely as the years must have passed, though, the good part of him had become more and more real?

"Penny for your thoughts?" Nabiki leaned towards her elder sister, eyebrows raised.

"Nabiki, I'm fine. Really now, I know Ranma didn't mean what she was saying."

"...Right. Well, just so you know...if you need to talk about it...I'm right here. Daddy and the others may be dumb, but I'm not. I can tell when your feelings have been hurt, Kasumi."

"Nabiki!" Kasumi exclaimed, surprised she'd been read so easily. She lowered her head and smiled again, clearing her face into the docile expression she'd always meekly retained. "Now really isn't the time."

The bob-haired Tendo shrugged, and turned back towards the drama unfolding in front of them.

"RANMA!" Genma dived towards his daughter, right on cue, grabbing her shoulders and squeezing tightly. He was back to his melodramatic old self, it would seem. Ranma hadn't forgotten that chip she'd seen behind the silly behavior only a few days ago, when she'd been crying in the it was somewhat more difficult to work up the normal response she might have displayed before. She merely continued to glare, and watch him silently.

"You are a man, Ranma! Maybe you would have been a woman, once upon a time, but too many years have passed for that to change now!" He shouted, and Ranma almost drew back in surprise. Had the old fool gone into denial again?! Clearly she wasn't a man anymore! wait, she was. Right? That's what she'd been telling herself since yesterday, when they'd set out from Nerima. She was a guy!

Ranma's lip twitched, and she didn't really want to consider the fact that those feelings were beginning to change. It was too freaky, and way deeper than she was ever willing to think. "What are ya tryin' to tell me now, old man?" She retorted, remembering herself. Now, more than anything, she had to act normal...she just had to.

"I raised you to be the greatest male martial artist in the world some day, I can't just turn back the clock and switch that to training you to be the greatest female martial artist, can I?" Genma quickly seemed to be devolving into a babble. The others watched in wonder, as he seemed to be making less and less sense.

"What's the difference?" Ranma retorted, crossing her arms.

"Well..." Genma poked her chest.

"Jeeze!" She shouted, pushing her father away. "Why is it whenever anybody wants ta make a point about what body I'm in, they gotta touch my chest?!"

"Listen, Ranma...the point is..."

"The point is," Soun jumped in, grabbing Ranma's shoulders this time. "...former but soon-to-be re-instated're a boy. That's just how things have turned out. We can't change that now. But what better way to prove that you just...well, you just can't marry another man...than by proving no matter what, inside you aren't suitable bridal material?" He grinned widely, very proud with himself now that he had finished explaining the plan between them that was apparently going to save Ranma.

Just as she was prepared to send them both flying sky-high with a firm punch, Akane jumped forward and grabbed her arm.

"Wh...Akane, what're you doin'?" Ranma snapped, spinning around on her.

"Ranma...They're right. You aren't a girl. I mean...are you?" Akane asked, practically pleaded.

"...I..." Ranma looked away, finding words harder and harder to find. "I don't know. I don't think, I'm definitely not a girl. I'm a guy!"

"Then maybe this is a good idea?" Akane asked, letting Ranma's arm ago. "I mean...what other chance have we got?"

"You see, Ranma? Your fiancee Akane deeply cares for you, and as your future wife...she knows best!" Soun piped in, and Genma firmly nodded in agreement.

As for Ukyo...she was still calmly watching Cologne, and frowning. The odd glow of energy collecting around her seemed to be fading...but the okinomiyaki chef didn't doubt Cologne still had something up her sleeve.

"So..." Happosai joined in, licking his lips.

"You mentioned something about...womanhood. What kind of tests is Ranma going to have to go through?" Visions of panty races and brassiere buckling competitions flashed through the dirty old man's mind, and he couldn't help but wonder (and hope) that all the other girls were going to join in so there'd be someone for Ranma to compete with.

"Well," Cologne narrowed her eyes, smirking. "Seeing as Ryoga himself doesn't want anything to do with Ranma...I think he'd be the best person to come up with what exactly she needs to do to prove herself. But of course...that would mean you'd have to give him control over his body again, for the next few days..." She informed the demon quietly.

He didn't appear too happy with the idea, but mentally conceded before nodding. "Even if you do come up with good tests, of course, I'll be cheating. But I won't let you say anything..." He whispered in his mind to his other half, who was both happy that he might have found a way out of this, and distraught that he might be 'sealing the deal' as it were...if the demon managed to find a way to cheat.

"And enjoy it while you can, Ryoga. When the marriage happens...I'll be consuming your consciousness back into mine. We'll be whole once more, and the old you will be gone forever..."

Chapter Text

Ryoga was having an awful week. If he'd ever waxed poetic before about his misery, this whole series of events would take the cake. It didn't surprise him that Ranma was partly to blame, though he couldn't really hold it against her. She couldn't help being born...and in a way, she was the reason he even existed. It didn't seem real, any of this. He felt as if he were stumbling about in some kind of crazy dream after bumping his head one too many times in a knock-out drag-out fight with his pig-tailed rival. He really hoped that was the case...and in a few minutes, he could wake up and continue hating Ranma for everything 'he' had done...

Ryoga glanced over at her, and stared pensively at the red-head.

"What is it? What're you staring at?" She snapped, having had quite enough of everybody's opinions and plans revolving around her personal life to last a good few decades. Somehow, Ryoga realized, he was sympathizing with her despite how much easier it might have been to just go on hating the very same person who'd driven him to travel the world seeking vengeance for silly slights. He frowned, and shook his head quietly.

"I guess I'm just trying to figure out a good way to get rid of you for good, Saotome," he grumbled. His heart wasn't really in to it, though, and the general angry facade he'd been trying to keep around her seemed to be chipping away. Or worse...maybe Ryoga himself was chipping much longer did he have before he ceased to exist, and there was only the dark creature inside him?

He half-expected it to respond, but there was no answering laugh or snide remark in his mind. For the moment, Ryoga could be himself. He'd savor these moments...he had to.

"Ryoga, are you...are you Ryoga?" Akane asked, stepping towards him and smiling faintly. 'Akane...what must you think of me now?' He mourned, taking a few steps back from her to keep his distance. He didn't trust the thing inside his body to let him maintain control indefinitely. When he thought back to how it had spoken about devouring her soul a few days ago...a chill ran down his spine.

"Ryoga?" Ranma called, walking up behind Akane. She was still scowling, but there was a slight flicker of concern in her eyes. Of all people right now, though...she should hate him the most...shouldn't she?

"I'm fine. It's just...I don't understand anything that's going on right now," he replied, putting his hands to his head and closing his eyes to center himself.

"You're not to blame," Cologne spoke, hopping closer to the former lost boy...who it seemed was lost in an entirely new way. He'd honestly prefer to just have a lousy sense of direction, if it meant avoiding this whole mess he'd gotten himself into.

"What do you mean? I'm a monster..." Ryoga darted a look in Cologne's direction, dropping his hands.

"No, you're not, you can't help...I can't..." Ranma stumbled, trying to figure out what to say, and finally shrugging. "You're not a monster." She stated firmly, crossing her arms. "You're just an idiot,"she quickly added. If it was an attempt at humor, Ryoga honestly couldn't see anything funny about it at the moment.

"Hibiki, as far as we're concerned, you're the same boy you always just have a problem or Ranma. I promise we'll figure out a way to fix you when she fails to pass the tests of womanhood," Soun joined in, putting an arm around his daughter's shoulders.

"You were born the day your darker half was locked away, Ryoga. That makes you just as real as him, and just as strong...because you are two halves of the same whole," Cologne explained firmly. It was odd almost hearing a compliment from the same old woman who'd been so rough on him when he'd learned the breaking point technique.

"I don't know about all that stuff, but I'm not going to let you marry me, Ryoga. I'm a guy, and I wouldn't marry someone who can't beat me in a fight anyway!" Ranma insisted, punching him in the shoulder. Ryoga raised his eyebrows, looking at her.

"'re worse at counseling than Principal Kuno," Nabiki remarked dryly, sticking a lollypop into her mouth.

"Nabiki...where did you..." Akane glanced at her older sister, and then just shook it off. Nabiki was a magician of snack food...

"Aya!" Shampoo gasped, taking a bite of takoyaki and smiling joyfully. "You is good cook, why you no work for Cat Cafe?" She glanced over at Kasumi, who shrugged and smiled politely back.

It didn't make sense to keep walking, since they didn't have a destination anymore, but it made a lot of sense for Kasumi to prepare lunch for everyone. She was astonishingly quick, and made enough food to keep the whole group happy. Cologne privately wondered if the oldest Tendo girl didn't have a few martial arts tricks up her sleeve no one else knew about...she'd never paid the girl much attention.

Even Kuno seemed to have calmed down enough to enjoy himself. He wasn't insane 24/7, after all. That didn't stop him from trying to sit as close to Ranma and Akane as possible, but his tender head was enough of a reminder at the moment not to get too romantic. Clearly his two great loves were going through much pain this morn, and it was best that they silently bask in his presence and worship of their beauteous forms.

"Where's my diary?" Kuno mumbled to himself, patting his clothes down. That last sentence was too good not to write down for a future occasion...

"So..." Ryoga popped a takoyaki ball into his mouth, pausing in thought (and also trying not to speak with his mouth open.) "...5 trials of womanhood...that Ranma wouldn't pass under any circumstances..." He continued, looking up.

"What about cooking? She never cooks much..." Akane suggested, trying to be helpful. Of anyone in the group, she was the last person who should be criticizing other's skills in the kitchen...but...

"Yes, cooking...I think that's an excellent idea. There's no way you'd pass, boy!" Genma patted his daughter on the back, grinning.

"Whaddya mean about that?!" Ranma snapped, glaring at her father.

"I mean you can't possibly rival our lovely Kasumi's skills, can you? As far as I'm concerned, anyone with less talent at the stove as Kasumi simply isn't worth marrying. A man has to have standards, after all..." Genma explained. Somehow Ranma managed not to pummel him.

Akane had a private smile, happy that her suggestion seemed to have some weight with them, even if it did look like Ranma was a little irritated.

"Is no good cleaning, too! Never help out at Nekohanten when eating Ramen. Only make mess, all around Nerima!" Shampoo added helpfully. Never mind the fact that most of the messes she referred to were the result of her own violent actions when other women got too close to her former fiancee.

"Shampoo, you're right! Ranma is a complete slob! Cleaning is the absolute LAST thing he could do right!" Mousse chimed in, grasping at his prayer beads in excitement.

"...Mousse, why did you have to buy those too?" Akane glanced at him, noting he accessorized a little bit more thoroughly than needed.

"It came with the clothes, and I left all my weapons at home!" Mousse insisted, tucking the prayer beads into his sleeve to keep them safe. "I mean...except for a few knives, spikes, a chain or two, a 2-ton cannonball, and a series of laced darts...but that's hardly enough to last me more than a few hours," he added.

"Stupid Mousse, you have problem," Shampoo huffed, still irritated that she'd even brought him.

"So...that's two trials...what about a third?" Nabiki asked, scooping up a pickled radish slice with her chopsticks and popping it into her mouth.

"Let's think about all of Ranma's faults, and put our heads together..." Soun stated calmly, his eyes closed as he savored a takoyaki ball.

"Faults?! Jeeze! I'm Ranma Saotome, and I ain't got nothing wrong with me!" Ranma fumed, growing more and more agitated with the conversation at hand.

"Pride! That's it!" Akane cheered. "Ranma has such a big head, she'd never make a good wife! I mean, the perfect Japanese housewife needs...she needs to be timid. Quiet. Reserved...she's got to have manners, poise, and the ability to reveal her feelings to others without harming their feelings. Ranma can't do any of that!" She clapped her hands together, smiling.

"You're so uncute right now...just so you know. I really want you to know that,'re uncute. Completely, and without a doubt, the most uncute tomboy on the planet," Ranma grouched, receiving a glare in return, though it quickly melted into a teasing wink.

"I think you guys are right," Ryoga looked around at the group, smiling hopefully. Maybe this would work. Knowing Ranma, the demon would be too obvious if he tried to cheat to get her to pass all of these tests. "...I don't think she'd listen either. That goes with her big she wouldn't be very obedient. And...and..." He paused. "...I can't think of anything else..."

"It looks like our well is running dry," Nabiki remarked, looking over at Ranma and quirking an eyebrow. "Maybe you're more of a woman than we realized, Ranma."

"Hey, shut up!" By this point, Ranma was beet red. Who did they think they were, talking about her like this?!

"Motherhood..." Happosai finally spoke raspily, as he sipped at a cup of green tea poised in his hands. He looked as if he'd been in deep meditation throughout the whole meal.

"Master, I hardly think getting Ranma pregnant and seeing if she knows how to take care of the baby is a very practical test," Genma replied nervously. There was no way he'd let his daughter-son have a child at this age. She hadn't even finished her training!

"Obviously not, you fool. But the motherly instinct in every woman should be deep. Firm. Squishy..." He looked to be getting a little too excited with his own idea. "We'll need a surrogate baby, of course. Someone small, needy, child-like, youthful..." He glanced over at Cologne.

"I nominate myself!" The old man crowed, diving towards Ranma...who automatically elbowed him in the head. Falling to the ground, he scowled up at her, rubbing the bump quickly forming on his skull.

"You see what I mean? She'd make a terrible mother!"

Chapter Text

"I suppose that only leaves us with the most important thing of all...who's going to judge all of this?" Genma asked the group, stoically. "It will have to be a disinterested party, with nothing to gain if Ranma wins or loses, of course..." He added, which pretty much counted out nearly everyone present. Crossing his arms, he silently mused on their options. Would the demon be able to catch them if they used the final technique? It couldn't hurt to try...

However, before Genma could invest in using the dreaded tactic of bravely running away, Kasumi interjected.

"I think I should be a judge..." She took a bite of pickled radish after she spoke, chewing on it slowly before finally continuing.

"I do care about Ranma," she added, "but I never had plans to marry her. heart isn't as invested as it might be for others..." Kasumi seemed to be trying very hard not to glance at her youngest sibling.

"I think that's a pretty good idea, sis," Nabiki agreed, nodding. "I'd be a good choice too, since I can't see any way of making money out of this situation." She paused. ", still nothing. Thought I had an idea for a moment there, but nope. For once I'm drawing a blank on how to gain from Ranma's loss."

Ranma scowled at Nabiki, but quickly allowed it to fade when she registered a secret smile on the girl's face. Apparently she'd been joking.

"Traditionally there are three judges in competitions such as this," Cologne glanced around at the rest of the group. "So who else is willing to volunteer? Shampoo, you obviously can't. Neither can Akane, Ukyo, Mousse, Genma, or Soun...which leaves us with..."

"Verily, I think it a worthy cause. I would do anything to protect my pig-tailed goddess, and her feminine beauty is so prevalent in her very nature, I doubt I could ever lie," Kuno spoke up, agreeing without being asked. The only other choice would have been Happosai, but it would seem he was far more interested in posing as a baby at the moment than watching the contest from the outside.

"So I'm about to take five stupid tests of womanhood to avoid marrying Ryoga, you three are judging my skills, and I have to treat the old perv like my baby for the next day?" Ranma spoke, angrily shoving a fistful of takoyaki in her mouth and smacking loudly. "I think it shtinks," she grumbled between bites.

"Don't worry about it, Ranma-honey. You won't pass the tests. We'll try to make them so tough nobody could get them right," Ukyo comforted, smirking at the frustrated redhead. She placed her chin on her hand and sighed, wondering how exactly they were going to do it. She may not have ever lived with her former fiancee, but she knew her well enough to understand sometimes Ranma was so focused on winning anything she set herself to...she rarely thought about possible consequences. Would Ranma let herself fail? Would she even be able to?

It seemed the safest place for them to go in order to begin setting up for the contest was the Inn of Lost Hope, as terrifying as the gigantic skeleton and desk clerk with the mouth on the back of her head had been. At least she was polite...and they would be safe at night as long as they stayed inside. They weren't likely to find any normal inns in the spirit world anyway.

"We could go back to this cabin me and Ryoga stayed at last night, it had food and everything...even a bath ready in the morning when I got up!" Ranma suggested as they trekked towards the inn with Cologne hopping at the lead. Ranma didn't much like the idea of meeting more weird things that day, and she hadn't met anything strange at the cabin...

"Former son-in-law, if you stayed at a cabin with mysterious food at the ready and a hot bath waiting for you when you needed one...have you considered a spirit might have been lulling you into a state of relaxation, so you'd be nice and fat for his dinner?" Cologne called back to Ranma, who immediately paled at the idea.

The old woman then tossed her head back and laughed. "Oh, I'm just kidding. You look so funny when you're scared, former son-in-law!" She continued to chuckle. It seemed no matter the situation, Cologne could always find a way to be amused at Ranma's misfortune. 'She's probably enjoying this...' Ranma thought bitterly.

"It rude to over-stay welcome," Shampoo snuck up on Ranma, wrapping her arms around the redhead's shoulders in a quick hug.

"Shampoo!" Ranma protested. "I'm not even a guy anymore!" She grumped, trying to pry the amazon off to no avail.

"Feelings not inconstant like moon face, Ranma," Shampoo informed her...attempting to replicate a Shakespearean quote, but failing.

"Uh...right. Inconstant moon face..." Ranma tried to nod in understanding, but the meaning of Shampoo's words escaped her.

"Oh swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon, that monthly changes in her circled orb..." Kuno chimed in, slipping in-between Shampoo and Ranma with a helpful smile.

"Thanks, please back the hell offa me!" Ranma bristled, shoving the kendoist aside. Nobody wanted to carry him back to the inn this time, so it an agreement had been made not to knock him out under any circumstances...even if perhaps he might have deserved it.

Akane fell to the back of the group, clasping her hands behind her back and matching step with Ryoga. He'd been pretty quiet, since they'd finished eating.

"Penny for your thoughts, Ryoga?" She nudged his shoulder, smiling. The fang-toothed boy jerked, clearly lost in his thoughts. Not matter how big or small the issue, his mind was where he always felt most comfortable.

"Ah...Akane...I'm fine. I just...I'm just thinking of a lot of stuff..."

"...Ryoga, you're not fine. You may say that, but nobody here is fine. Maybe Kuno. Maybe even Happosai...but definitely not Ranma, myself, and especially you."

Ryoga looked down at Akane and frowned, unable to even feign the weak smile he always wore in her presence to keep her from feeling concern for his well-being. She was so sweet, it hurt to think what he could do to her any moment if the demon decided to come out again. He had to distance himself from Akane as much as possible, and he didn't know how.

"Akane, I don't know how to tell you what I'm feeling. I don't know how to tell anyone what I'm feeling...I'm so confused. I'm scared. I'm mad. I'm pretty sure any day now I'll completely lose myself to this thing inside me, and...and I don't want to marry Ranma. I really don't. She's rude, snappy, self-absorbed, inconsiderate..."

"...and probably the bravest person we both know." Akane finished for him, smiling weakly and slipping an arm through Ryoga's against his will. He didn't pull away, because he didn't want to hurt her feelings. But neither did he lean into it with the tender excitement he always felt at Akane's touch. Things were just too different now, after everything that had happened in the last few days. Too different for everyone.

"But you're just as brave, Ryoga. You know what?" She tilted her head and met Ryoga's startled gaze.

"...I...I am?" He stammered.

"Of course you are! You could have just run away and hidden until that demon took over again, but you're with us and walking. You're pushing forward, because deep down you do hope and you do fight. You're fighting this. You're brave, Ryoga. Ranma may have to deal with being a different gender right now, and I may have to deal with..." Akane swallowed, "...with knowing that...Ranma is a girl...but you? You're a completely different species! Anybody in your shoes would be terrified. Anybody in your shoes would run away. Don't give up, Ryoga, and don't surrender to that thing inside. You are a human being, and a good person, Ryoga, and don't let it tell you otherwise."

Ryoga was dumbstruck. "A-Akane..."

She put a finger to his lips and shook her head. "Keep fighting. Don't give up, no matter what. Don't give up on yourself..and don't give up on Ranma. You're her closest friend, you know. Even if neither of you really sees it, I do. I've seen it every time you get into any kind of fight." She looked down at her feet and smiled weakly. "I see it, because you and her fight a lot like she fights with me. The only difference is that she doesn't love me..."

"...A-Akane, she doesn't love me either. And...And I don't love her! I love-" Ryoga trailed off. Even in the face of losing himself, he was still too much of a coward to come out and say what he felt. Akane would never know how much she meant to him.

His eyes darted towards the head of the group, and Ryoga frowned when he saw Shampoo wrapping her arms around the red-head's waist. He was sure he was angry on Akane's part, and even if a little voice in his head insisted it was jealousy...that didn't really make any sense any more. Ranma wasn't Akane's...and Akane wasn't hers.

"Shampoo, wouldja get offa me?!" Ranma shouted, shrugging the amazon away and glaring furiously.

"Oh Ranma, you no have to fight! Shampoo know you truly man!" Shampoo insisted, apparently believing with all her might that the red-head truly was the same boy she'd always appeared to be...even if she of all people should know the truth better than the rest of them. Then again, even Ryoga was struggling with the idea that Ranma...wasn't the same Ranma anymore. Not in the least.

Chapter Text

Time passed in their journey far differently than it had before, in Ukyo's opinion. It was as if the hours shifted with a mind of their own. That morning, they had awoken and practically stumbled upon Ranma and Ryoga less than an hour after departing from the inn, but in their return...nightfall approached far quicker than anyone would have expected. Uneasy, though she knew she was fully capable of looking after herself (especially with her trusty spatula and cooking implements), Ukyo wondered if there were perhaps some things in this strange place that could not be fought off with deadly Okinomiyaki-making skills, or the more traditional punching and kicking her traveling companions were more well-versed in.

"Keep close," Cologne squinted ahead, glancing back grimly at the group. "There are things here which can not be deceived. I sense them in the air...the spirits of the vengeful dead."

A shiver ran up Shampoo's spine and she clung to Ranma's arm tightly. "Grandmother is no joking, is very bad aura here..." she whispered into her unwilling companion's ear. As for Ranma, ever fearless in the face of anything but a cat, she gave a quick snort of disbelief.

"I can take whatever it is this place can dish out, so bring it on!" The redhead brandished her fists to illustrate her point.

"Ranma!" Genma hissed at his daughter, creeping close behind her and gripping her shoulders tightly.

"You forget yourself, boy, this is the spirit world! We've got no idea what-"

"Don't worry, Shampoo, I'll protect you!" Mousse announced, slapping an arm on Genma's back and receiving a very disgruntled look from the older man in turn.

"Cologne and your father are right, Ranma. The spirit world is incredibly dangerous!" Soun chimed in, even louder than Mousse.

"Dad, she told us to keep quiet!" Akane shouted, immediately blushing when she realized she was making even more noise than him now.

"Fear not, Akane Tendo! I, Tatewaki Kuno shall protect thee from these vile creatures that inhabit this land!" Kuno brandished his bokken threateningly in a mist that had begun to gather about their ankles.

Ukyo remained silent, watching the knee-jerk reactions of everyone in the group. They were bound and determined to bring trouble wherever they went. She smirked, glancing at Ranma. Sometimes the redhead caused her own problems, but she definitely had a bit of extra help from her family and friends.

No sooner had she thought this, than the ground beneath them began to shake. Mousse clung to Kuno for support, whispering words of comfort to his dear Shampoo.

Cologne sighed outwardly, casting her accusing gaze at each and every other person who'd made a sound after she'd warned them not to. "You only have yourself to blame now," she rasped, exasperated.

As the ground shook about them, the sound of rattling and scraping became apparent. Through the fog, Ukyo squinted and stared ahead at the source of the noise. Strange white shapes took form in front of them. An army of the ancient dead, clad in rusted armor and bearing weapons stained with dried and browned blood. The meat on their forms had long since rotted away to nothing but bleached bone.

But they were not approaching the group, thankfully. They were joining together in a strange battle. There were no strikes or cries, only the eery rattling of their bones and creaking of their armor. These weren't just the warriors from battles long past in Japan, but all around the world. Grenadiers, long bowmen, the small forms of drummer boys struck down before they'd finished their songs, tribal braves, and any manner of man who died defending his people. It was quite a surreal sight in many ways. And as they marched towards each other into a large mass, their armor crumpled away into dust scattered on the wind. Their bones melded together. Soon, there was no distinguishable form from the next, and instead before them was amassed the gigantic skeleton they had seen the night before at the Inn of Lost Hope.

As it straightened to it's enormous height, two great flames became alight in it's skull, and it glared down at them, or perhaps smiled. Ukyo couldn't tell, since there were no lips or muscles to go off of.

"Welcome back," it spoke in a voice that was reminiscent of the marching skeletons, hissing and rattling from a mouth without a tongue.

"It's so good to have you again at our wonderful Inn of Lost Hope!" The girl at the front desk chirped, clapping her hands together and letting her gaze sweep across the group.

"But what's this? More visitors?" She asked, eyes widening when she took in the somewhat ruffled appearance of Ranma and Ryoga. They had been sparring that morning, after all. But there was something more to the glint of surprise in her eyes, something akin to...hunger.

"My lord! What an unexpected surprise!" She gazed at Ryoga, and her grin became impossibly wider. Just so that she resembled a human woman less and less by the second, and more like a doll with an irregularly long set of lips.

"W-what?" Ryoga became confused, looking back and forth between the girl at the front counter and the others. Since the demon had returned control of his body back to the young boy, he looked no more out-of-the-ordinary than any of them. Sure, he still had one long front tooth, but that was the only irregularity. And he'd had that all his life.

The girl bobbed her head in a swift bow as she clasped her hands in front of her waist. "If I'd known we were going to entertain someone as esteemed as yourself, my lord, I would have made sure the preparations had been taken care of! As it is, I do hope you will not mind resting in the dragon suite this evening. It is, of course, not nearly adequate enough to accommodate you...but it is sadly the best we can offer at the moment. Perhaps if your trip is extended, we can have the heavenly grotto available tomorrow..." She looked at the rest of the guests present, eyes lingering just a little on Ranma before it slid to Akane.

"And which of these young ladies is your bride to be?" She inquired sweetly, licking her lips. What had seemed like genuine politeness from their first arrival the previous evening was gradually shifting into something far more disturbing. Ukyo scratched the back of her head on impulse, remembering the sight of the girl feeding lunch to the mouth at the back of her skull. 'Things are getting weirder here by the second,' she mused. Not for the first time, Ukyo felt like the odd man out, and she was tremendously confused by this turn of events.

"Well it's not me, that's for sure!" Ranma exclaimed, interrupting Ukyo's thoughts. The okinomiyaki chef smirked, glancing over at her somewhat impulsive ex-fiancee. Leave it to Ranma to break the mood.

"I understand. Yes, it would not make sense for such a grand creature as yourself to wed a woman in trousers..." The girl at the front desk tittered at Ryoga, nearly earning a protest from Ranma. Luckily the redhead realized how silly it would be to debate the fact, when she didn't even want to marry a guy in the first place.

"Ranma's not that bad," Ryoga replied, looking back at Ranma. Not that he was defending her. He didn't want to marry a girl-boy, after all. He wanted to marry Akane, and preferrably without a demon inside his head calling all the shots. But it kind of irritated him that this woman who didn't even know them was acting as if he was someone special, and Ranma wasn't. Again, he reasoned, only because she didn't even know Ranma. Who was she to say whether someone she'd never met was 'worthy' of him or anybody else?

He didn't notice Cologne watching him out of the corner of her eye, the gears turning in the old woman's head even as they spoke. But Ukyo did. 'What is that old woman thinking?'Ukyo wondered silently, vowing to speak to her when they'd had their rooming arrangements set up.

They walked silently together, both of them growing more and more flustered with each step they took. An impossibly long hallway stretched ahead of them, and just barely in the distance they glimpsed what appeared to be a door built of flames...where both Ranma and Ryoga were expected to spend the night together.

"This doesn't make any sense," Ranma finally spoke up, crossing her arms as she stalked behind Ryoga. Frankly, it was a relief that one of them had finally decided to break the uncomfortable silence.

"You're telling me!" Ryoga snapped back, possibly even more upset than her. After their last night together, in which he'd been thrown out in the rain halfway through, Ryoga couldn't reason why everybody decided it was a good idea for them to share a room together. Especially if the demon inside him could pop out at any second, ready to...attempt to ravish Ranma in some bizarre (and certainly uncomfortable) fashion. Ryoga's nose wrinkled at the very idea.

"That old hag has some nerve, telling us where we gotta sleep without even asking us," Ranma continued complaining as they continued walking. Frankly, the door up ahead was almost as intimidating as the idea of sleeping in the same room at this point.

"Well, she's gotten us this far, Ranma. Maybe she has a plan?" Ryoga asked hopefully.

"Ryoga...this is the same woman who turned me into a guy for 12 years! This is the same woman who tried to get me to marry her nutjob grand-daughter! This is the same woman who-"

Ranma was too distracted by her bad mood to notice a pipe flying through the air to smack her a little too sharply on the back of the head.

"YOWCH!" Ranma protested, ducking down and rubbing her skull.

"That's no way to talk about your elders, former son-in-law," Cologne rasped, hopping towards them both with a knowing smirk on her face. Ukyo was not far behind, and even she looked a little happier than anyone would have expected.

"You really should keep your mouth shut when you're within hearing distance at least, Ranma-honey..." Ukyo smirked, winking at them both.

"So...what's going on here? I mean, what are you two planning?" Ryoga asked, relieved that he might not have to sleep in the same room as Ranma tonight after all.

"Ryoga, I'm really sorry about this. No hard feelings, right?" Ukyo hopped towards Ryoga, throwing her arms around him before he knew what was happening, and landed a very rough smooch right on his lips. Before he could react, whether good or bad, black spots began to fill his vision...and he collapsed to the ground, unconscious.

"...The heck?!" Ranma exclaimed, eyes darting down to Ryoga's unconscious form, back to Ukyo, and then Cologne. "The heck is going on?! ARE YOU TWO NUTS?!" She blurted.

"Don't worry, Sugar, we've got a plan," Ukyo wiped her lips on the back of her hand after she spoke, and glanced down at a light shimmer of purple that remained from the crushed herbs Cologne had given her to gloss her lips with. Those Amazons really didn't mess around when it came to 'seduction' tactics. Honestly, she'd never used any of Shampoo's tricks before, but maybe she could get a few tips from her after all this was over.

Chapter Text

Ranma gazed up at the ceiling in awe, her eyes transfixed on a peculiar scene. Where she'd expected to see a roof, she only saw stars. Between the stars, birds made of fire leaped from constellation to constellation, as if the stars linked together formed some kind of cosmic tree. She wondered, momentarily, if Ukyo might have drugged her a little bit too.

"Ranma-honey, pay attention!" Ukyo urged, grabbing the red-head's pigtail and tweaking it.

"Ow! Alright, alright, I'm listenin'..." Ranma rubbed at the back of her head and frowned, looking over at Cologne. They were all seated at the bed in Ranma and Ryoga's suite. Ryoga was thoroughly out of commission at the moment, and would be for (hopefully) the rest of the night.

"Why didja do that to him?" She asked, poking at Ryoga's shoulder.

Ukyo shrugged, smirking. "I didn't want to kiss him, but it was the only way this was gonna work without drawing attention to us. I figured people might look at me funny if I used my spatula to put him to sleep."

"...Again, why?" Ranma raised her eyebrows.

"Because, former son-in-law, if Ryoga is asleep..." Cologne narrowed her eyes and smirked. "So is the demon."

"Okay. That's good. I mean, not that I wanted to sleep in the same bed with him or nothin'," Ranma poked at Ryoga's shoulder again. She'd planned on making him sleep on the floor if he got any weird ideas or tried to go full crazy pig on her again. But this plan she only vaguely grasped seemed like it was a good one, too.

"We need to talk, Ranma." Ukyo placed a hand on Ranma's shoulder, drawing her attention back away from Ryoga.

"Yeah? Bout what?" Ranma frowned.

"The bet, you foolish girl!" Cologne knocked Ranma on the head with her staff, and the red-head rubbed at her head, yelping.

"Jeeze! Why do ya gotta hit me like that? I was just asking questions. You're always hitting me!" Frankly, she was beginning to grow more weary of the old woman's company as of late. Maybe it was all the hormones she wasn't used to dealing with for so long, or maybe it was just the fact that Cologne was one of the key factors in basically destroying Ranma's semblance of a normal life. Whatever the case, she'd be more than happy to try and take the old ghoul on in a fight right then and there...if she didn't know she'd definitely lose.

"Ranma. You need to lose. There is no possible way we're going to be able to save you if you aren't willing to set aside your pride for once in your life about winning." Ukyo narrowed her eyes at Ranma.

"Lose? You mean marry the pig?!" Ranma snapped, pulling away.

"What? No! I mean lose as in prove that you're not an ideal wife. Lose the actual competitions, Ranma." Ukyo was becoming exasperated. As much as she loved her former fiancee, both as a person and as a friend...Ranma didn't always seem to catch on to things too quickly.

"Oh. Yeah, course I do..." Ranma trailed off. Not that she wasn't a good cook or nothin', or she couldn't take care of babies, or be pretty and sweet if she had to...Ranma was fully capable of doing all of those things. She didn't want to, though, and it wasn't like she wanted to marry a demon either. Or a pig. Or Ryoga. Or a combination of the three. But.BUT...why did she have to lose something in order to win? It just didn't make sense. Ranma always won competitions. She was Ranma Saotome, the goes school...she was beginning to confuse herself now.

Cologne knocked her on the head again, drawing Ranma's angry attention from her own thoughts to the older woman.

"So here's what we're going to do, former son-in-law. We're going to keep a very close eye on you. If it looks like you plan on winning these competitions at any point, because of that silly little self-destructive streak you seem to have-"

"-Whaddya mean by that?!" Ranma snapped. Cologne waved the staff threateningly, which shut her up.

" I was saying, if it looks like you plan on winning any of them at any point, one of us will step in and make sure that you can not. If it means maiming, embarrassing, confusing, harming, angering, etcetera...etcetera...we'll just have to do it. So keep that in mind. We'll all be doing it for your own good, Ranma."

The redhead frowned, crossing her arms. She was beginning to get really irritated at the 'for your own good' philosophy all of her friends and family seemed to have. She glanced down at Ryoga and her lips twitched a little. Even if he was a least he never tried to force her to do stuff she didn't want to do. Aside from challenging her to stupid fights every other Tuesday. Or Wednesday. Or whenever he managed to somehow stumble into Nerima when he was looking for something else halfway across Japan.

"Alright, fine, whatever. But I'm going to lose-win. Not win-lose. There's no way I'm marrying anybody any time soon, you both got that? I'm Ranma Saotome, and I never lose!" She paused. "I mean...I never the big know what I'm trying to say, so stop looking at me like that!" She glared back and forth at Ukyo and Cologne, who looked incredibly amused.

"'Sides..." Ranma's voice softened. "I'm not a girl, okay? Even if I look like one right now. I'm a guy. I am a guy. And...I's not like Ryoga wants to be a demon or whatever. Plus, I know he don't wanna marry me or nothin', when he's acting normal. So..." She sighed. "I'm doing this for him, too."

It was odd to hear Ranma talking like that, but Ukyo shoved the thought aside. She knew her Ranma-honey was a good person, and just doing what she always did...the noble thing. Sometimes she was a little rough around the edges, maybe even said the wrong things to women (especially Akane), but she really could be a selfless person when she needed to. Ukyo smirked privately as she and Cologne left the suite together.

"You know, it's really crummy having feelings for someone who doesn't love you back in the same way." Ukyo sighed.

"My dear, I loved someone for a very long time...and he decided that his true love would always be a bag of panties over myself. Trust me when I say I completely understand how you feel."

Ukyo raised an eyebrow. "I...thanks? I guess?"

Cologne chuckled and hopped away. As for Ukyo, she began to walk towards the room she was sharing with Akane. She smirked, thinking about the girl who pretty much shared the same bed with her right now in more ways than one. There was the literal bed in the room, and then there was the fact that they both pretty much loved someone who wouldn't love them back. Ever.

"Well, Kuonji...what are you going to do now?" She asked herself aloud, pushing the bedroom door open. Akane was sitting on the bed in a pair of yellow pajamas with fish cakes printed on them. Both girls smiled at each other.

"Hey Ukyo, where did you run off to?" Akane cocked her head.

"Just trying to let someone go, I guess." Ukyo shrugged.

The dark-haired girl smirked knowingly. "Let me know when you figure out how to do that, okay?"

"You got it," Ukyo laughed and closed the door behind her.

"Hey, do you have any extra pajamas?"

Ranma hovered over Ryoga's unconscious form, trying to decide what she was going to do tonight. Douse him with cold water so there'd be more room on the bed? But then half the mattress would be wet...maybe she could just shove him off? Nah. He was a jerk, but he didn't deserve that. He'd already had to sleep outside the night before. As mad as she'd been then, she didn't think he deserved something like that two nights in a row. She didn't have Akane's temper.

A lock of his hair had fallen over his forehead, so Ranma mindlessly leaned over to brush it away. When her hand was pressed against his skin, she belatedly realized what she'd just done. Straightening, she let a shiver run down her spine.

"Get a grip on yourself, Saotome. This is Ryoga. He's a dude. You're a dude...kinda. No, not are a dude. Guys don't brush each other's hair, and they don't freak out when they have to sleep in the same bed, cause they both know nothin' is gonna happen." She nodded, gaining confidence in the speech she was giving herself.

"Plus...he's not waking up anytime soon. So what's it matter if we're sleeping together, huh?" Ranma began to unfasten the clasps on her shirt and pulled it off to toss it to the ground. She then removed her pants, and was standing there in nothing but her boxers and tank top. She'd put up with this tonight, because she had to. That didn't mean she was gonna wear any girly nighties or nothin', though. If pig-boy woke up in the middle of the night, then he'd just have to deal with it. She may let him sleep on the bed, but she was notgoing to lay on the ground tonight.

As she finally nestled beneath the covers, she simply gazed up at the strange moving pictures on the ceiling and waited for sleep to happen. Above her, a lady in an upside-down throne was accosted by one of the fiery birds, and she angrily kicked it away. The bird morphed into a shooting star and flew across the ceiling. Ranma smiled dreamily as she scene unfolded, almost unaware of a shifting on the mattress beside her, when a strong arm wrapped itself around her torso.

"Hey, get offa me!" Ranma protested, struggling to push Ryoga way. But he was dead weight. It was probably that stupid umbrella. She turned her head to glare at Ryoga's sleeping form. Without even realizing it, she let the features on her face soften as she examined his eyelashes and let her gaze trail down the rest of his face.

"I'm going to kick your butt in the morning, you jerk..." She yawned, snuggling into the mattress. She was a guy. There wasn't nothin' wrong with this if she just reminded herself that. Guys hugged all the time. Of course, it was another story in the morning when Ryoga would wake up to realize he was spooning her, but right now...Ranma was too tired to get angry again. Her last thought before she drifted off to sleep was a vague feeling that this actually felt kinda nice. Probably those stupid hormones she wasn't used to. Or somethin' like that.

"Goodnight Mister Porker," Ranma whispered, closing her eyes.

Chapter Text

Akane stretched, rubbing her eyes and doing her best to stick one leg into her skirt, but with little success. She'd had the best sleep of her life the night before, but she was still unbelievably groggy. Glancing back at the bed, she wondered if maybe she just liked having someone beside her. It made sense. When she was little, she used to climb into bed with Kasumi all the time during thunderstorms.

The bedcovers were crumpled, the bed empty, because Ukyo had probably gotten up long before to go seek out breakfast downstairs. She hadn't felt the girl leave, but she'd also been terribly exhausted after their journey the previous day.

Akane smirked to herself when she finally managed to wiggle into her skirt and zip it up. Everyone was probably awake by now. She didn't normally sleep this late, but since she didn't have to worry about school at the moment...or early morning wake-up calls per the brutal training sessions of the Saotome family...she hadn't really seen the harm of just relaxing for once. Granted, in a dangerous realm of spirits and demons...but who cared about Oni when there was such a wonderfully comfortable bed to sleep in?

"Akane?" Ukyo knocked on the door.

"Come in..." Akana stepped towards the door and shrugged on her shirt, a light yellow to go over her navy blue skirt. An outfit she'd packed for the journey, in case she had to dress formally. Who knew what sort of people you'd meet in the spirit realm, after all?

"Hey, sugar, they're getting ready for the first test downstairs..." Ukyo pushed the door open and gave Akane a lazy half-smirk.

"Ukyo, do you think I should really compete in this?" Akane asked nervously, straightening out her skirt.

"What do you mean?" Ukyo pulled back and frowned, standing in the doorway.

"Well...I cooking...I try. I really do try. Believe me. And Ranma's always a jerk when she tells me it's awful, but she's right, you know?" Akane bit her bottom lip.

"You're not the only one cooking today, hon. Why are you so worried?" Ukyo stepped into the room and closed the door behind her, folding her hands behind her back as she did so. She had a strange expression on her face. For a moment, Akane wished she was a mind-reader.

"Well..." Akane put her hands to her side and clenched her fists as she took a deep breath. "My's awful, Ukyo. I can admit that now, with so much on the line. It''s terrible. Inedible, even, on my best days. And I always start with the best intentions; I try really hard, too! But somehow, every matter how many things I put into a dish to fix my tiny mistakes, it only seems to make them worse. There's so much riding on making sure Ranma is a terrible cook today, I just..." She looked up at Ukyo, tears of frustration forming in her eyes. "I don't want my dish to turn out to be so bad, comparison...everyone else looks like a five star chef."

"So what you're saying is..." Ukyo stepped a little bit closer to Akane, unclasping her hands and stretching her arms above her head. "...You don't want Ranma to win by default? And therefore, technically lose, because that gets her a little closer to having to marry Ryoga?" She asked, a slight twitch of a smile on her face.

"...Well...yeah..." Akane looked at her, a hopeless expression plastered on her face until she noticed the hint of amusement on Ukyo's.

"You're not taking this very seriously," she frowned, hurt.

"No, it's not that, Akane-chan," Ukyo waved her hands, as if she was trying to bat away Akane's poor mood in the process.

"Then why are you smiling?" The blue-haired girl demanded, almost on the verge of getting mad. It just tended to be her go-to emotion when she felt like she was being made fun of.

"Look, I wasn't born knowing how to make amazing okinomiyaki! Heck, sugar, you've heard the story. I trained...years. Years! I fought against the ocean itself, with nothing but a griddle and a spatula! I shed my gender for years in order to focus on my training. I gave up a lot to learn how to cook. And you know what? It didn't make a difference anyway, because I'm still not marrying Ranma. Y'know, at the end of the day, we're in the same boat." She stepped even closer to Akane, putting a hand on the other girl's shoulder, and this time Akane felt like the smile Ukyo gave her wasn't one of amusement or ridicule, but friendship. And she smiled back.

"When did you get so smart?" Akane asked.

"...I'm not Ranma-honey, Akane. Just because I know how to cook and kick butt doesn't mean I don't use my brain," Ukyo laughed.

Akane shook her head. "I guess I need to talk to you more often. You've got a pretty level head on your shoulders."

Ukyo pulled her into a hug and smiled over Akane's shoulder. "You do too, sugar. You just have to have more faith in yourself. And maybe...when you do make a mistake at the stove...don't try to cover it up with crab flakes, soy sauce, and ice cream sprinkles?"

Akane pulled away from Ukyo and sighed. "I only did that once. I thought the sprinkles were salt..."

"Okay, then maybe just try not to think at all. You might make something pretty tasty," Ukyo touched the end of Akane's nose and stuck out her tongue playfully. They laughed, and left the room together, hand-in-hand. Neither of them thought much of it. They were friends now, after all. Maybe even best friends, considering what they were going through together.

Ukyo, Akane, Ranma, and Shampoo stood in a line in front of a long table laden with all manners of strange vegetables and animals none of them had ever seen before. The lobby of the inn reserved specifically for large gatherings and strenuous competitions had been prepared for them, thanks to a few words from Cologne the previous night.

"Why do I gotta wear this too?" Ranma plucked at an overly-frilly apron tied around her waist, to match what the other girls wore. It wasn't like she actually cared if she got stains on her clothes. This just made her feel more girly, which was absolute last thing she wanted to be at that moment.

"In order to truly understand the zen of the kitchen, a woman must be completely at home in her surroundings. The budding rose can not truly flourish in a field of salt, and the tender butterfly can not nurture an iron garden..." Kuno nonsensically explained from across the lobby. He, Nabiki, and Kasumi were seated at a small judge's table, with piles of score cards at the ready.

"Kuno-baby insisted," Nabiki shrugged, crossing her arms and leaning back in her chair.

"It's very becoming on all four of you," Kasumi politely added, smiling.

"Well, I think it stinks!" Ranma complained, tugging at the apron and trying to shift it down a little.

"...How are we supposed to cook with this stuff?" Ukyo picked up a strange-looking fish with three heads and one crab claw, sniffing at it and frowning slightly as she set it back down on the table. She may have prided herself in the kitchen for all of her hard-earned skill and technique, but this...this was an altogether new kind of challenge.

"It even edible?" Shampoo poked at a bubbling bowl of blue goop, and jumped back when an eyeball formed on the top of the mass and winked at her before sliding back down into the mass and disappearing.

The rest of the members of their party sat on benches that lined the walls. Genma and Soun had even managed to make shirts for the occasion, somehow, with 'Team Not Ranma' scrawled in black ink and poorly-drawn images of Ranma's with her tongue stuck out on the back. Mousse fiddled with his prayer beads, beaming in Shampoo's direction...which really was Kuno's direction, but he couldn't seem to tell. Cologne and Happosai sat on opposite sides of the group, both in deep thought. Ryoga was pitifully nursing a headache with an ice pack, and casting confused looks every so often in Ukyo's direction, because he still had no idea what had happened the night before when she kissed him and he passed out in the hallway. He was nervous around girls sometimes, but not that nervous. And certainly not with Ukyo. Luckily, the voice inside his head remained silent on the subject.

Taking a deep breath, Ryoga whispered a silent prayer to whoever would listen. Could listen to a guy with a demon inside him. He glanced over at Ranma and frowned, watching her begin to prepare her food at a small table as the judges signaled for each girl to pick her ingredients and begin.

"Ranma, please...for the love of all that is holy...Lose. This. Competition!" He thought to himself, desperately. Willing her to somehow read his mind. The funny thing was, though, as he watched her separate several peculiar pink vegetables into a pot, was...she actually looked kinda cute in an apron. He set his cold compress down and shook his head. Now was not the time to start getting weird thoughts about Ranma. Because he loved Akane. Akane was the one who looked cute in her apron...not...Ranma.

Crab claws flew one direction, bits of pancake and cabbage flew another, several eyeballs flew behind her, and Akane feverishly worked as best she could to save Ranma from herself, and hopefully save this dish...from...well...Akane. She bit her lip and gave a loud groan, drawing Ukyo's attention from across the room as the okinomiyaki chef calmly set her grill on a table-top to adjust the temperature just so.

"I can do this. I can do this. I CAN DO THIS!" Akane shouted, slicing through a squid...thing...looking for all the world like she was facing her greatest enemy. And she pretty much was.

"Hey, Akane!" Ranma called out, waving a strange-looking bird in the air, half-plucked.

"WHAT?! I mean...what?" Akane turned on her former fiancee, trying to wipe the look of extreme frustration off of her face, and failing. Her hand itched to pull out a large hammer to illustrate her bad mood, but she managed to restrain herself. She couldn't do stuff like that to Ranma anymore. Cooking always brought out the worst in Akane.

"...G...good luck..." Ranma blanched, setting her bird back down and blushing as she busied herself plucking the feathers.

Akane's face smoothed out, and she looked down at her cutting board, sheepishly. "...Thanks Ranma..." With that, she took a deep breath, and continued to work. This time, though, she found it was a little easier to calm herself. Glancing towards Shampoo, she noticed the Amazon was using a little bit of extra flair with her chopsticks and fact, quite a lot. Enough to be a fire hazard, actually...

Wiping a bit of sweat from her brow, she looked back towards Ukyo, and found the other chef had gathered up a small spatula and bowl, but wasn't really focusing so much on her preparation anymore. She was looking directly into Akane's eyes and smiling.

"You can do this," she mouthed the words. And somehow...Akane knew she was right.

Meanwhile, Ranma desperately struggled to force herself to 'accidentally' spill half a bottle of pepper into her dish...and it was one of the greatest challenges she'd ever faced, realizing she really was going to have to force herself to lose something. For her own good.