[Ranma][Fanfic] Definitions of Hell (Complete)

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Richard Lawson

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Jan 7, 1998, 3:00:00 AM1/7/98
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A challenge was issued a few months ago for everyone to try and write a
fanfic in one hour or less. I decided to do a quick-and-dirty crossover
between my two most popular series, "Thy Outward Part" and "Thy Inward
Love". It took me 48 minutes, and I posted it to the Fanfiction Mailing
List.

The people on the FFML liked it, and requested more. Being amenable, I added
some more stuff. People kept demanding more and more ("I'd like to see
so-and-so meet so-and-so. That would be neat!").

So it grew and grew, and eventually became the second-longest single story
I've written. I present it to you now.

You will need at least a passing knowledge of both "Thy Inward Love" and
"Thy Outward Part" to be able to follow the story. Both series can be found
on my web page (URL is in my sig).

Oh, and I acknowledge the hubris involved in crossing over two of my own
series. :) I can only plead that it was meant to be just a quick joke; it
was other people who made me do this. <waves at Sebastian>

-Richard
ste...@sprynet.com

~~~*~~~
All of my fanfics can be found on my fanfic web page.
http://home.sprynet.com/sprynet/sterman/fanfic.htm
~~~*~~~

DEFINITIONS OF HELL

by Richard Lawson


Ranma leaned against the boulder with a sigh. At long, long last, it was
over.

The creature, whatever it was - black-skinned, vaguely insectoid, one more
arm and leg than humans had - sank into a pool of its own blood. If blood
was bright orange and bubbling, that is. Even as the fire in its metallic
eyes began to dim, it still looked at Ranma with hate.

Ranma grimaced. This wasn't the first time he'd tried to kill an opponent
in combat. Heck, Saffron had survived on a fluke. This was the first time,
however, that Ranma had succeeded.

The creature opened its mouth and, for the first time, spoke. "A curse."

Ranma frowned. Despite the many weeks he'd spent in this country, he still
had a hard time following English. And this creature's mouth, which opened
in four different directions and contained many teeth stuck at odd angles,
didn't seem well suited to verbal speech. "What?"

"A curse." The creature tried to lift an arm, and failed. "I curse you."

Ranma laughed without humor. "You not have magic. All used up, all gone.
Sorry."

"Death. Always magic in death. I use my death to curse you." The creature
was struggling to speak now, making it even harder for Ranma to understand.
"To you, Hell. To Hell with you." The light flickered out from its eyes.

Ranma shook his head. So useless. In the end, it had used the last of its
life to spew invective. No regrets that its life had brought it to such an
end, only a desire to try and lash out.

Ranma sighed. Regrets he had lots of. Five months he'd been running around
the Australian outback. He'd be a while getting out and back to Japan. All
this with Akane pregnant. She was seven months pregnant now, and having to
take care of Nouma on top of that. Not to mention her job. Surely Kasumi,
Nabiki, and the others were helping, but Ranma knew he belonged there.
Needed to be at her side.

There were times when he really, really hated the curse.

Pushing himself off the rock, he staggered down the hill. Time to go home.

---

Ranma walked up to the gates, and stood for a while drinking in the sight.
Almost six months away. He sure hoped the curse didn't try to take him away
immediately. Ranma had had enough for a while.

He opened the gates and walked down the path to the front door. He tested
the door, but found it locked as expected. Akane would be at work, and
Nouma at the after-school day care. Akane planned to work right up to the
time she gave birth, and then would take a month off before going back.

He got out his keys and unlocked the door. The familiar sight of the
interior warmed him. Home. It was *so* nice to be home.

He set his backpack on the ground and walked down the hallway. He came to
the door that led to the back yard. He slid it open and examined the
backyard for a while. He let his mind drift. Peaceful. Very serene...

After a while, he started slightly, glanced at the clock, and realized it
was time for Akane to come home. He smiled and wandered into the kitchen.
He'd fix dinner for her. It would be a very nice way to get back into the
routine. It would also send her a message - that domestic duties would be
his top priority, at least for a while. She would need that reassurance,
especially with the baby due so soon.

He put on one of his aprons - efficient and no more, none of Kasumi's
frills - and began the task of cooking dinner. He lost himself in the
chore, realizing that it *wasn't* a chore, it was *family*, and that was
important.

As he was getting toward the finish, he heard the front door open. He heard
two sets of feet enter, one walking, one running. The running steps
scampered up the stairs, while the walking steps made their way down the
hallway. Ranma felt a huge smile covering his face. Akane was home. Akane
was here. He had missed her, had lain awake at night yearning for her, and
now she was home.

Wiping his hands on his apron in preparation for hugging her fiercely, he
turned towards the door and froze.

He didn't know who was more shocked, himself or the man staring at him from
the kitchen entrance. Ranma felt something cold settle into his stomach.
The man's face was ashen.

"R-Ranma." The man was having difficulty speaking. "What happened?"

Ranma couldn't think straight. Intelligent thought was beyond him at this
point. "What happened to what?"

"T-to th-the..." The man made a visible effort to gather himself. "To the
baby."

Ranma could make no sense out of what was happening. "What baby?"

This seemed to shock the man even further. "My God." He walked up and
gently put a hand on Ranma's shoulder. "Please Ranma, I have to know. Can
you remember?"

"Remember what?" The man's too-familiar touch allowed him to react finally.
He knocked the hand away. "Keep your hands off me, bud. What the hell are
you doing here?"

"Ranma!" The man spoke with real anguish. "I live here, too. Don't do
this."

"You WHAT!" Ranma grabbed his shirt and lifted him off his feet. "Since
when do you live here, jerk?"

The man gently put his hand over Ranma's. "Since we got married, dear."

Ranma was shocked speechless. He couldn't articulate his fury. But he
could express it. He reached back his other hand and made a fist.

"Mommy!" A six-year-old girl ran into the kitchen and hugged Ranma's leg.
She reached up and patted Ranma's stomach. "Where'd the baby go, Mommy?"

The man's shirt slipped from Ranma's nerveless fingers. The man fell back
to the ground with a grunt, but Ranma ignored it. He ignored everything
except the memory of the creature's words in Australia. To Hell, it had
said.

Being married to a man, having given birth to one child and supposedly being
pregnant with another... that quite nicely fit Ranma's definition of Hell on
Earth.

---

In another kitchen, two pregnant women stared at each other.

One gaped at the other in shock. "Since when did you move back in? Where's
Kentaro?"

The other looked very, very angry. She was staring at first woman's
distended belly. "You left me for six months so you could hide *this* from
me?! And now you come back?!"

Mallets and the words, "Ranma no baka" played a large part in the events
that followed.

---

Ranma's head was spinning about. He'd been so looking forward to resuming
life in Heaven - or at least, as close to Heaven as he could possible get on
Earth. Instead, he'd found Hell. And it choked his heart.

The man reached out to touch Ranma's cheek. This shook him out of his
stupor. He moved his hand, fast as lightning, and grabbed the man's wrist.
"I told you, bud, you don't ever touch me again like that. Not if you value
your life. Are we clear?"

The man, Ranma was shocked to note, had tears in his eyes. "Please, Ranma.
Tell me what's happened."

"Don't be angry, Mommy." Ranma looked down to the wide, frightened eyes of
the girl hugging his leg. "Please don't yell at Daddy."

Ranma looked at her for a while. He looked back up at the man - his
husband. The thought filled him with revulsion, but he controlled it. For
the girl's sake.

With a sound of disgust, he flung the man's arm away. He would have stalked
away if it weren't for the girl still clutching his leg. "All right, from
the top. Who are you?"

He saw several expressions flit across the man's face before it finally
settled into a sad but neutral look. "Kentaro."

Ranma looked down at the girl. "Kyoko," she volunteered, happy to provide
an answer before the question was even asked.

Ranma sighed, letting out a lot of frustration and anger. He looked back up
at Kentaro. "Okay. And I take it we- we're..."

"Married." Kentaro looked at him closely. "You don't remember?"

Ranma shook his head. "No, that's not it. It never happened."

"Ranma!" Kentaro sounded shocked, and afraid.

"Oh, shut up." He gently pushed Kyoko off his leg. "Let me finish dinner
while you tell me the history of my life."

He turned and began putting the finishing touches on dinner. The ritual
calmed him even further. He could feel Kentaro's stare at his back, but he
was able to shrug it off.

Finally, he could hear resignation in Kentaro's voice as he asked, "What
would you like to know?"

"How we met. How we got..." the word was still difficult to get out,
"...married. What happened to my wi- er, Akane."

"Um. Does this have anything to do with your curse?"

Ranma considered this as he shoveled the rice into a serving bowl. "In a
roundabout way, yes. I think so. First tell me your story and I'll tell
you mine."

"Uh, yeah." Kentaro took the bowl of rice and carried it out of the room.
Ranma frowned at the domesticity that implied.

Kyoko pulled at his leg. "Do you want me to carry anything out, Mommy?"

Ranma winced involuntarily. "Uh, do you know how to set the table?"

Kyoko beamed. "Yes!" She ran off.

Ranma shook his head. What a stupid question. Of course she knew how; that
was Nouma's job, after all. He wondered what else Kyoko and Nouma had in
common.

He finished the rest of the preparations, Kentaro shuttling the food into
the dining room and looking very uncertain. They all sat around the dining
room and began to eat. Kentaro sat in Akane's place, which made Ranma feel
quite uncomfortable.

Kentaro took a couple of tentative bites, then looked at Ranma. "Okay. Um.
When you were sixteen, you and your father went on a training trip to
Jusenkyo."

Ranma nodded. "The Nyannichuan."

That seemed to bring a measure of relief to Kentaro. "Yes. Good. Um, and
then you came back to Japan and were engaged to Akane." He paused, and
Ranma indicated he should continue. "Um, some stuff happened, and then you
fought someone from China. Herb."

Ranma nodded, then froze. His mind raced. "I was stuck as a girl for a
while."

It was Kentaro's turn to nod. "Six years."

"SIX YEARS!" Ranma broke his chopsticks in half. He stared at them, then
at Kentaro. "I was stuck as a girl for six years?!"

"Uh, yeah. How- how long do *you* think you were frozen in your female
form?"

Ranma shook his head. "Only about a week. Less than that. I mean, it
*felt* like six years, but..." He dropped his chopsticks and leaned
forward. "So, what happened to Akane?"

Kentaro took a sip of tea. "Well, Akane... you and she..." He grimaced.
"You broke off your engagement."

"Oh man." Ranma gripped his head in his hands. Akane. Akane, lost to him.

Ranma tried to focus on the present situation. "Okay, skip our courtship or
whatever, I don't want to know about it. We're married and I'm pregnant?"

"Um, well, yeah." Kentaro put down his chopsticks, too. "Now can you tell
me what happened to the baby?"

Ranma shook his head. "Wait a minute. You didn't seem surprised to see me
as a guy. I mean, you weren't surprised I could become a guy. Did we meet
before or after I got cured of Herb's ladle?"

"Three and a half years before you were cured. We didn't get married,
though, until about three years after you'd been cured."

Ranma had difficulty believing his ears. "You mean I wasn't stuck as a girl
anymore, that I could have gone back to Akane, and we still got married?"

"Dammit, Ranma!" Kentaro slammed his palm on the table.

"Daddy!" Kyoko sounded tearfully frightened. "Don't yell."

Kentaro immediately calmed down. He managed a reassuring smile at Kyoko.
"Sorry, pumpkin. It won't happen again, I promise."

"Okay." Kyoko still sounded scared, but she continued eating while watching
Ranma and Kentaro with big eyes.

Kentaro's eyes swiveled over to Ranma, and while his voice was soft and
gentle, his eyes burned with anger. "What you and I had was special. We
fell in love, and we both discovered that our love transcended, to some
extent, the boundaries of sexual identity. You *were* given a choice - a
choice I stuck my neck way out to give you - and you chose me. Because we
were in love and you and Akane were not. Try not to belittle that choice in
the future. That's not fair to me, and it's certainly not fair to Kyoko,
who wouldn't be here if we hadn't decided to stay together."

Ranma looked over at Kyoko, then closed his eyes and sighed. "All right,
I'm sorry. It's just..." He opened his eyes again. "Okay, time for my
story. It's pretty simple. I was only stuck as a girl for a few days, I
fought Herb and beat him, got the kettle and turned back into a guy. After
that... well, lots of stuff happened, but me and Akane got married. We've
got a boy about Kyoko's age, and Akane's pregnant with another one."

Kentaro stared at him for a long time. Ranma stared right back at him, for
some reason feeling that it was important that Kentaro believe him.

Kentaro slowly nodded. "All right, let's say for a moment that both of our
stories are true. How... what caused the difference? I mean, my story is
more demonstrably true than yours."

Ranma glanced over at Kyoko, and nodded. "Yeah." He thought for a moment.
"Okay, well, a few days ago I fought this creature. It... oh, the details
aren't important. I killed it because I had to, but it cursed me as it
died. It... changed things, somehow. I'm guessing that it somehow... what
is it they say on those sci-fi shows all the time? Changed the time stream?
Anyway, made it so that Herb beat me, and I didn't get the kettle."

"Well, you *did* beat Herb, but not until after the kettle had been buried."
Kentaro looked at his daughter for a moment. "So, if your theory is true,
where's the baby you were pregnant with in this timeline?"

Ranma felt queasy, but managed not to shudder. "How the hell should I
know?" He bit back more invective and tried again. "Okay, well, we gotta
go back and change things."

A strangled gasp escaped from Kentaro's throat. Ranma imagined that he'd
been about to shout, and had controlled himself just in time. He glared at
Ranma before finally standing up. "I... need some air." He walked over to
behind his daughter. "Are you finished, Kyoko?"

She looked up at him. "No. I wanna spend time with Mommy."

Ranma tried to keep his voice as neutral as possible. "I am not your
mother."

Kyoko looked at him, and tears gathered in her eyes. She began sniffling.
Kentaro shot him a look of disgust and loathing before smoothing his
features. "Kyoko, dear, let's leave your mother alone for a bit. She's not
feeling well."

Kyoko nodded and stood up. Together, she and Kentaro left the dining room.

Ranma growled, mostly disgusted at himself. He could have handled that a
lot better, he was certain.

---

"Ow! Stop that!"

"You - how *could* you!"

"How could I what? You're not making any sense. Ow!"

"I can't believe you let yourself stay cursed so you could do *this*! Who
is he? Who's the father?"

"Kentaro, of course. Dammit, stop with the hammer!"

"Who the hell is Kentaro?"

"My husband of course! What's with the pregnant costume anyway? Is that
something your theater company's doing?"

"Costume! I'll give you a costume!"

The hammer swung, except this time it was stopped in mid-swing by a hand
snaking out and grabbing the handle. "All right, that's enough. What the
hell is going on here, Akane?"

Akane glared at Ranma for a long time. The anger seemed to drain out of
her, leaving an expression of hurt that wrung Ranma's heart. "My God,
Ranma, what's happened to you?"

Ranma shook her head, took her hand off the hammer, and took a careful step
back. "I don't know. I mean, I go to Australia for a conference, and I
come back and you go ballistic on me."

"A conference? You told me you were battling some big evil thing. And you
were just at a conference?"

"Big evil thing? I wouldn't call a conference of dojo owners a 'big evil
thing'."

"What?"

"C'mon, Akane, the one you helped me prepare for. Remember? I had a big
presentation on my flexibility training."

Akane lowered the hammer, confusion covering her face. "I did no such
thing. You called me three days ago and asked me to wire you some money so
you could catch a plane home. You told me you'd been wandering the desert
for months, and that you'd tell me the whole story when you got back."

"Months? I was only gone for ten days."

"You were gone for almost six months, Daddy."

Ranma turned at the strange voice. A young boy was standing in the doorway
of the kitchen, watching the scene with wide, serious eyes. He looked
strangely familiar. Ranma blinked and shook her head. "What did you call
me?"

"You're my daddy. Why is your stomach so big? What did you do to your
hair? Are you pregnant like Mommy?"

Ranma blinked again. She had heard the words, but they were nonsensical -
random words that somehow formed a sentence. She looked up at Akane, hoping
somehow she'd take the words and turn them into something meaningful.

Akane was looking closely at Ranma, something like fear in her eyes. "You
know our son, don't you, Ranma?"

"*Our* son?" Ranma reached behind her, felt for the counter, and leaned
heavily against it. "Akane... I mean, the only time we... and... I *know*
you didn't get pregnant. I mean..."

"Ranma, start making sense. We've been married almost eight years now. I'm
pregnant with our second child." Akane hesitated. "You d-do remember,
don't you?"

Ranma felt dizzy. "Akane... we... we're not married. You broke off the
engagement, you didn't want to get married. Remember?"

"What!" Akane's anger flared up. "I didn't! I mean, yes, we both broke
off the engagement a dozen times, but in the end..." The anger sputtered
out, became a pleading tone. "Don't you remember the roof?"

Something froze inside of Ranma. "Yes. I remember the roof quite clearly.
We sat on it and you told me that a marriage between us was not going to
happen. That you didn't love me. You apologized and took all the blame.
You begged me to get over you. You told me that I needed to accept who I
was, and to move on with my life. Well, I did. So don't you DARE tell me
that WE GOT MARRIED BECAUSE WE NEVER DID!"

Akane gasped and took a step back. The boy ran up and hugged Ranma's leg.
"Don't yell at Mommy. Please don't yell, Daddy!"

Ranma was shaking from the force of her emotions. She tried to calm
herself, and found that it was easy to do when looking at the boy hugging
her leg. "W-what's your name, kid?"

The boy blinked through his tears. "Nouma. It's Nouma, Daddy."

Enough irritation remained for the next words to escape her lips before she
could stop them. "I am not your father, kid."

Nouma's lower lip began to quaver. He released Ranma and fled to Akane,
hugging her fiercely and sobbing. Akane reached down and put her hand on
his head, staring at Ranma with a cold fury that made her hammering seem a
mild irritation in comparison. "I don't know you, but whoever you are, get
the hell out of my house."

Ranma was about to protest that it wasn't her house, not any more. The look
on her face, however, stilled her protests.

Ranma suppressed a sigh and moved past Akane and down the hallway. It was
probably best to give them both some time to cool down. In the meantime,
she could track down Kentaro and try to figure out what exactly was going
on.

---

Ranma gave the counter a final swipe and frowned. For Kasumi, there seemed
to be no bad mood she could experience that a little housework couldn't
eradicate. Ranma had found that chores like this only postponed the
inevitable. He'd feel all right while doing the work, but when it was done,
he was right back where he started from.

"Ranma." Kentaro's voice was all business, but Ranma could still detect a
hint of fear underneath it.

Ranma turned to face him. "Yes?"

"We need to talk."

"No kidding." Ranma sighed. "Okay."

Kentaro turned and led them down the hallway. To Ranma's surprise, they
went upstairs to the main bedroom. The bedroom he and Akane shared.

Ranma entered with trepidation, looking around. It seemed almost the same.
There were some minor differences, a statue where a plant should be, a
different painting on one wall.

Kentaro turned around. "All right, first off: Occam's Razor."

Ranma rubbed his cheeks. "What?"

"The simplest explanation is the most likely to be true. Time travel seems
unnecessarily complicated. It seems to me that some sort of trauma
associated with the loss of the child you were carrying is the most likely
explanation."

Ranma thought this over, then reluctantly nodded. "Well, okay, I'll go
along with it. I don't think it's true. I've had people try to mess with
my mind before; I'm pretty sure I'd know if someone were doing it now."

Kentaro spoke in a clinical, detached voice. "Fortunately, there's an easy
test. During pregnancy, a woman's uterus expands beyond the navel, and the
abdomen stretches to accommodate it. This causes reddish streaks on the
abdomen, breasts, buttocks, or thighs."

Ranma blinked. He'd found a book to read on the plane, to refresh his
memory about pregnancy and its aftereffects. The last time, some unpleasant
things had happened, and he wanted to be as prepared as he could. "You're
talking about stretch marks."

"Right. You've got some, and even turning male didn't eliminate them. If
you'd let me examine you, we can easily determine if you've given birth."

Ranma narrowed his eyes, studying Kentaro closely. Kentaro looked back at
him calmly.

Ranma shrugged and took off his shirt. He loosened his pants and let them
fall to the ground.

Kentaro bent down and examined Ranma's stomach carefully. He touched it
with his fingers, and Ranma used all of his willpower to keep from throwing
him into the next district. Kentaro traced the lines of Ranma's lower
abdomen, at one point rubbing lightly with his fingers. He hooked the band
of Ranma's boxer shorts and pulled it down slightly to get a better look.
Ranma reached down and lightly grabbed Kentaro's wrist, not pulling it away
but making sure he controlled how far down Kentaro lowered the shorts.
Kentaro ignored it, instead examining the skin closely.

Finally, Kentaro released the waistband and straightened. He looked pensive
as Ranma rearranged his clothing. Ranma raised an eyebrow as he shrugged
his shirt back on. "So now do you believe me?"

Kentaro looked into Ranma's eyes, then nodded slowly. "Yes. I made the
mistake once before thinking that what you were telling me wasn't real. I
won't ever do that again."

Ranma furrowed his eyebrows. "Sounds like an interesting story."

"Interesting, yes." Kentaro sighed and sat on the bed. "So, Ranma, what
are we going to do?"

"I dunno." Ranma walked over to the window and looked out into the yard.
"I don't want things to be this way. I have no idea who you are, and I want
my wife and son back."

"Instead of Kyoko and me."

Ranma lowered a corner of his mouth, still looking out into the yard. "Hell
of a choice, isn't it? Whose life if more valuable - Kyoko's or Nouma's?"

"Nouma? Your... your son?"

"Yeah. My son that should have been." Ranma slapped his palm against the
window frame. "Dammit, how could I leave Akane? She... she was the best
thing that ever happened to me. My life was nothing until she came along.
How could I ever let that go?"

"You didn't want to." Kentaro's voice was quiet. "She let you go. She...
couldn't marry a woman. And at the time, it seemed as if you were going to
be permanently stuck as a woman."

"No." Gripped the window frame tightly. "It's not possible. She'd never
give up on me, never."

"It didn't happen overnight. She tried, you both tried. For almost two
years you both tried to find a cure for what Herb did to you. The whole
family tried. Nothing worked, and it slowly became obvious that you were
going to be a woman forever."

Ranma turned his head to glare at Kentaro with one eye. "Except it wasn't
so obvious, was it? I got cured, didn't I?"

Kentaro ran a hand through his hair. "Listen, Ranma, don't be so quick to
judge what people did. You've had less than an hour to think about it.
You - that is, the you that I know - and Akane lived it for two years.
There came a point where the misery you were both feeling wasn't worth
trying to hope for something that was extremely unlikely to happen. Akane
moved on, and eventually you did too."

Ranma looked forward again, resting his eyes on the koi pond. "And that's
where you came in."

"We met in college, well after you and Akane had broken up."

Ranma snorted. "And it was love at first sight, huh?"

The chuckle surprised Ranma. "It may have been for me, but you... well, you
didn't quite hate me, but you made it very clear that my attentions were
unwelcome."

"Oh yeah?"

"The first time I asked you out, you threatened to kill me."

"Good." Curiously, that made Ranma feel better. That's exactly how he
would react if a guy asked him out. Ranma smiled, remembering how he'd
reacted to his first kiss. He quickly sobered; try as he might, he just
couldn't imagine himself ever overcoming that revulsion. "So you kept
trying, and I eventually gave in?"

"Not quite. I became your student."

Ranma was genuinely surprised. He turned and examined Kentaro. The build
and muscle tone were right, that of someone who took martial arts seriously.
"Really?"

"Yes. First your student, then your friend."

"And then my boyfriend?"

"Only after an extremely difficult decision for you, one that almost sent me
to the hospital."

Ranma shook his head. "No. I mean, I... I wouldn't ever decide that. I'm
sorry."

Kentaro thinned his lips. "And *I'm* sorry, but you did. I'm not about to
try and relive everything that happened between us - and between you and
Akane - for your benefit. While I'm glad that it ended with us married,
there are things we went through that are too painful to recall. It wasn't
easy, and it wasn't instantaneous, but we fell in love, and you chose to
stay with me even after getting cured, and we've built a life together that
is lovely and wonderful and I want it back so badly, I want *you* back and
carrying our child and happy to see me..."

Kentaro covered his eyes with one hand. Ranma could hear him breathing
deeply in an effort to control sobs.

"Damn," he said softly. Kentaro obviously loved him. As much as that
thought still repulsed him, he still found his heart going out to Kentaro,
regretting with Kentaro the love he'd lost.

And what price was that love worth? What was Kyoko worth? Ranma wanted
Akane and Nouma back with all his heart. He needed to find a way to go back
and change the outcome of the battle between him and Herb, make it so that
the kettle was recovered like it was supposed to be. But he wasn't sure his
sanity was up to paying the price of Kentaro's feelings and Kyoko in the
process.

Ranma turned his eyes away from the sight of Kentaro's misery, and spied a
picture on the dresser. He walked over to it, somehow sure what it was and
not really wanting to see it but unable to stop himself. It was a wedding
picture, sure enough. He was in female form and wearing a wedding kimono.
He was standing next to Kentaro, and they both looked very happy.

He wanted to deny this whole situation, deny that he could ever, ever feel
attracted to a man, that there were *no* circumstances under which he would
ever marry a man. Yet the reality of Kyoko and this picture were hard to
deny.

Ranma swallowed, looking at the picture and not liking what he saw. And
yet, it couldn't be so horrible. The person he was looking at seemed to
like her life.

Suddenly Ranma furrowed his brow. Something was wrong with the picture, and
it had taken him a long time to notice it. He could never imagine himself
doing it, but then again, there were a lot of things he could never imagine
himself doing.

Still, it was worth asking about. "Kentaro?"

After a second, Kentaro lifted his head. "Yes, Ranma?"

"Have I ever dyed my hair?"

Kentaro was clearly surprised. "Er, no. Why do you ask?"

Ranma showed him the picture. "Why is my hair black?"

---

"I'd like to see Dr. Marumoto."

The receptionist raised an eyebrow. "Are you his patient?"

"His wife." Ranma indicated the phone. "His extension is 627. If he's not
there, I'd like him paged, please."

The receptionist raised his other eyebrow, the consulted a phone list. "I
do have a Dr. Marumoto, but she is at extension 646."

Ranma shook her head. "No, Dr. Kentaro Marumoto. He's a surgeon. Here."

The receptionist shook his head. "We have no one on staff by that name.
You may be thinking of Nerima General."

Ranma growled. "Listen, jerk, I know where my husband works."

"Wherever it is, it isn't here, ma'am." The receptionist moved his head to
look at the person standing behind Ranma. "Next?"

Ranma stepped away, grimacing. She'd been expecting this, actually. She'd
called his office and someone else had answered. She'd paged him and
someone else had returned the page. She had needed to come here and find
out for herself.

She didn't want to face the consequences, but they were getting harder to
ignore. Kentaro wasn't here, he wasn't in Nerima. It was just possible
that Akane was telling the truth.

She reached down to touch her stomach, just to make sure the baby was still
there. That much of Kentaro was still present. She pictured giving birth
without him at her side, and shuddered.

She needed to find him, need to know what exactly had happened to him. She
went over to a pay phone and called long distance.

After a couple of rings, a woman's voice answered. "Hello?"

"Marumoto-sama?" She hesitated, then spoke in a rush. "Is Kentaro there?"

"Kentaro?" His mother sounded confused. "No, he lives on his own now. I
can give you the number if you'd like."

"Yes, please." She jotted down the number, thanked her, and hung up. She
didn't want to dwell on the fact that the number was in Okinawa. Or that
Kentaro's mother hadn't recognized her voice.

The phone rang again, and was again answered by a woman. "Yes?"

Fear rose up to choke Ranma. "Um... may I speak with Kentaro please?"

"He's at work. He'll be home this evening." The woman's voice became
suspicious. "Who's this?"

Ranma gulped. "I'm a friend of his from college. I... I was just checking
up on him."

"I see." The woman's voice was definitely cool. "Well, I'm sure my husband
would be delighted to hear from you, Miss..."

"Mrs. Tendo. Uh, well, thanks, I'll call him later." Ranma hung up and
stared at the phone, her heart racing. Kentaro. Was married. To someone
else.

She leaned forward to rest her head against the wall, one hand on her belly,
the other still clutching the phone handle in its cradle. What had
happened? What had gone wrong? Whose baby was she carrying?

She viciously cut off that train of thought. Kentaro *was* the father of
her child, of that she was certain. It was just... something had gone wrong
with reality. Something bizarre was happening, like back in the old days.

Ranma began to get a grip again. The trick was not to let it get her down.
She'd had these kind of problems before, and she had always overcome them.
This time would be no different. Her confidence began to surge.

She felt something stir inside her, and her confidence faltered. She'd
never had to fight any battles while she was pregnant.

---

"See?"

Kentaro's eyes were wide. "Wow." He reached forward to finger Ranma's
hair.

This made Ranma very nervous. She quickly filled the bucket with warm water
and dumped it over her head.

Kentaro shook his head. "That's amazing. I think your eyes changed color,
too."

"They become bluer when I'm female."

"The hair- why red?"

"Well, my mom's got kinda coppery hair. I always assumed it came from her."

"That's not possible." Kentaro stroked his chin. "Red hair and blue eyes
are recessive genes."

Ranma shrugged; he'd heard this argument before. He gave the response that
always brought such speculations to an end. "It's magic."

Kentaro smiled. "Of course." He sobered. "So this must mean that the
point of divergence must have been earlier?"

"What, that I fell into 'Pool of Young Woman with Red Hair and Blue Eyes'
and your Ranma fell into another variation? The curses don't work that way.
I think this is a different world altogether. An alternate universe."

Kentaro frowned. "More science-fiction terminology."

Ranma shrugged. "So, *you* tell me what Autumn's Shaver has to say."

Kentaro smiled for some reason before rubbing his cheek and thinking hard.
Finally, he sighed. "I don't know. 'Alternate Universe' will do until I
can think of something better. I'm a little beat."

"Me too. I just flew in from Australia." Ranma stripped off his wet shirt.
"Think I'll go to bed."

Kentaro looked at him strangely. Then he sighed again. "Okay. I'll watch
over Kyoko until she goes to bed."

"Um." Ranma had forgotten all about her. "Okay." He walked past Kentaro
out of the bedroom and looked down the hallway. "Um, is Kasumi's old room
still the guest room?"

"Yes."

Without another word, Ranma headed towards it. He entered it quickly and
shut the door firmly behind him. He then leaned his back against it,
fighting off a small feeling of guilt.

It wasn't hard. This was an alternate universe. It wasn't *his* world.
There was a place out there, somewhere. In it, Nouma and Akane and her
unborn child waited for him. He'd find them eventually. Of that he was
certain.

Feeling good, he clambered into bed and fell asleep almost instantly.

---

Ranma rested against the wall outside her home. Or what used to be her
home.

It didn't matter how well-maintained her physique was; it wasn't designed to
handle the awkward position carrying a child put her body in. She had
backaches like everyone else, and walking for long periods of time was a
strain. Sometimes she needed to rest. That was it. That was why she was
resting against the wall and not going inside.

Had to be.

Ranma sighed and wondered what Kentaro would say about the rationalizations.
Nothing good, she knew. God, she missed him.

She pushed herself off the wall and walked over to the gate. She reached
over to open it, paused, and pulled her hand away. Was it worth the
aggravation? Akane and the boy - Nouma? - had seemed very upset. Maybe
Ranma shouldn't be putting her own well-being above the feelings of her best
friend.

The baby moved inside her, a none-too-subtle reminder that there were larger
issues involved.

Giving her stomach a reassuring pat, she rang the bell.

The gate opened soon thereafter. Akane didn't look surprised, but she still
looked angry. She eyed Ranma up and down, her gaze lingering on the large
bulge under her shirt. "Who are you, really?"

Ranma sighed. "You know who I am, Akane."

"No I don't. Ranma's hair is shorter, and it's not black when he... when
he's female. Also, Ranma called me three days ago from Australia. He had
me send him some money. *He* did. He was male. Not pregnant."

"I don't pretend to understand what's going on here." The hair thing was
just another weirdness to add to all of the others. "I just got back from
trying to find my husband. He's not where he's supposed to be, his mother
doesn't know me, he's m-married to someone else..." Ranma bit her lip,
hard, the pain focusing her mind. "I am eight months pregnant and the
father of my child doesn't remember me. *That's* who I am."

Akane stared into Ranma's eyes. Finally, her face softened. She stepped
back slightly. "Come on in."

Ranma tried not to feel angry about being invited into her own home. She
followed Akane down the path.

They entered the house. As they sat at the dining room table, Ranma idly
noted that it had been cleared of the dinner she'd prepared.

Akane sighed, and Ranma could hear a hint of desperation in it. "What's
going on?"

Ranma couldn't prevent a growl. "Hell if I know. Can we talk about... what
our relationship is? Talk calmly about it?"

A very similar growl came from Akane's throat. "Okay. Not much to tell.
We got married. I'm pregnant with our second child."

"When did we get married?"

"Right before our senior year."

"In high school?"

"Of course high school. You never went to college."

"Never-" Ranma broke off, stunned. Her college years were precious to her.
Despite how painful the first year had been, the last three years had seen
her finally grow into her own person, had seen her finally come to grips
with who she was, and who she wanted to be. She had made many friends,
grown in self-confidence, and discovered a love of teaching. So much of
what was good in her life had come out of her experiences in college.

Not the least of which was her husband and child. Children.

Ranma drew a deep breath and tried to get her brain to work. "Okay.
Question. Was I a woman when we got married?"

Akane looked surprised and slightly disgusted. "No, of course not."

"What about Herb?"

"Who?"

Ranma's eyebrows shot up. "The guy who froze me in female form."

"Oh, *him*." Her eyes widened. "Are you saying...?"

"How long do you think I was stuck as a woman?"

Akane frowned. "About a week."

"Wow." The baby stirred violently inside of her, evidently as perturbed as
she was.

A week. And then the restriction lifted. How different life would have
been if that had been the case. No months and months of searching for a
cure. No exquisitely painful discussions of the engagement, of the future.
No years spent adjusting, being alone, struggling day to day to find a
reason to go on.

My God. How much things would have changed. Ranma's head swam with the
visions of a life without the pain of losing Akane.

"Ranma." She looked up to see Akane looking at her with concern. "Are you
all right?"

And suddenly, Ranma's vision shifted. With perfect clarity, she could see
Akane as her wife, as someone she'd spent her whole adult life loving, and
it was wonderful. Ranma's breath caught with the beauty of it. Of Akane.

Ranma forced her eyes closed and put her hand on her belly again. She
thought of Kentaro, and her love for him came surging through. While life
after Herb had been extraordinarily difficult, it had allowed her to come to
know an extraordinary person. An understanding, loving, patient man who had
given her a sense of stability, of control. Who had been the perfect yin
for her yang. Or vice versa.

Ranma smiled slightly and opened her eyes, the knowledge of her ten-year
relationship with Kentaro firmly in her mind. Now Akane looked like a good
friend, and Ranma had no regrets.

"Well, okay, we've got something to work on. My memory says that I was
stuck as a woman for six years."

"Six years?!" Akane looked flabbergasted.

This made Ranma annoyed for some reason. "Yeah, six years. And it sure
wasn't fun. Especially at first."

Akane's eyes were still wide. "Wow. I guess so. That was when we had that
conversation on the roof you were talking about?"

Ranma nodded grimly.

Akane shook her head. "So what happened? What changed things?"

"Akane, how many times do I have to tell you I don't know? I don't want
things to be like this, either."

Anger began to cloud Akane's features. "You want us not to be married? For
Nouma not to exist?"

Ranma slapped that table. "Dammit, Akane, let's *not* go there." She
rubbed her eyes. "Damn, I'm tired. Can we just go to sleep and talk things
over in the morning?"

Akane glared at her for a moment, then visibly calmed herself. "Okay."

Ranma nodded and got up from the table. She went upstairs to the bedroom.
She spent several minutes staring at the subtle differences in the decor,
examining the pictures of her and Akane and Nouma. Finally, she put
together her bath things - those seemed pretty much the same - and went to
take a bath.

It was clear that Akane was already soaking in the tub. Ranma stood in the
changing area, considering, before calling out. "Do you mind if I wash up?"

Silence for a moment. "Go ahead."

Ranma nodded, stripped, entered the bath area, glanced at Akane, carefully
sat on the stool, and washed herself thoroughly. She dumped cold water over
her head, shivering under the impact. "Cold."

Akane chuckled. Ranma looked over at her, surprised. Akane smiled. "Some
things are different, but some things are the same. Among them are the
tendency to comment out loud about the temperature of the water."

Ranma grinned. She stood up and walked over towards the tub.

Akane's smile vanished. "Ranma!"

Ranma, about to enter the tub, paused and stared at her. "What?"

"The tub! I've filled it with hot water."

Ranma chuckled. "Not to worry." She slipped into the tub, relaxing against
the side. She blew out a lot of her tension with a deep sigh.

Akane, on the other hand, seemed a little strung out. "H-how is that
possible?"

"Hmm?" Ranma looked over at her. "The hot water thing?"

Akane nodded.

"Well, when Kentaro - my husband - and I decided to have another baby, we
didn't want to go through all the hassle of my first pregnancy. That was
unplanned. So I went to China and found Herb and the Musk Dynasty. I snuck
in, grabbed the Chisuiton and quickly used it on myself before running away.
It was a fun adventure."

Akane still sounded unconvinced. "So you're going to be a woman forever?"

"No." Ranma frowned at the vehemence in her own voice. She mentally
shrugged and moved on. "I already have the Kasuifuu. Once I've given
birth, I can use it to unlock the curse again."

"Oh." Akane sounded uncertain. "So you still want to be a man once in a
while?"

"Yeah." Ranma shifted uncomfortably. "I don't know if you can understand
this, Akane, but I'm not a man anymore. Or a woman. I'm just me, and as
fluid - er, no pun intended - as my gender is, I don't have much of a gender
identity. I spend a lot of time as a woman 'cuz that's how I met Kentaro,
and that's the kind of relationship we've built. But that don't make me any
less of a man, in my opinion."

"Hmm." The sound was a thoughtful one. "That sounds so strange. I just
can't imagine my husband ever being pregnant."

Ranma had a brief vision of Kentaro female and pregnant, and laughed.
"Yeah. That would be strange."

Silence for a while as they soaked in the tub.

"So, Ranma, what do we do now?"

"I dunno. I want to take some time to recover, to try and approach this
calmly and rationally. Trust me, I've had some experience dealing with
problems that had no apparent solution. We'll adjust, one way or another."

More silence.

"Are you saying we should prepare to accept the fact that this might be
forever?"

"Well, we shouldn't try to pretend that it's not a possibility."

"That sounds so... cynical."

"Sometimes being cynical can save you a lot of pain. But we're not there
yet. Let's talk about it tomorrow and go from there."

"Oh God, I miss my husband."

"Me too."

---

Ranma walked next to Akane, sighing in contentment. All was right with the
world. Akane heard, and smiled at him. "I love you, Ranma."

"Love you too." He stopped, turned to face her, and recoiled. A man was
standing in her place. The man - Kentaro, he somehow knew his name was -
smiled lovingly.

Kentaro reached out to him. "You are so lovely."

"Hey, what-" Ranma broke off, and looked down, knowing what would appear.
A female body, but there had been no water - it had just happened with Ranma
noticing.

Ranma shuddered and looked up at Kentaro again. She opened her mouth to
tell him to back off. "You're so handsome." She blinked. What had she
just said?

Kentaro leaned forward to kiss her. Ranma recoiled, but somehow that
brought her mouth closer to his, and as horror washed over her, she found
her lips eagerly tasting his, her arms involuntarily wrapping around him,
and she pressed into him as tears of fear washed down her face...

"No! Kentaro, me! Come to me!" That sounded like her, but it wasn't her,
it was someone else, someone...

Ranma snapped awake. He looked around, wiping his eyes, trying to figure
out why he'd had such a strange dream. As he recognized the guest room, he
realized why that might be.

He got up and wandered down to his bedroom. Or what should have been his
bedroom. This was all so confusing. He paused a moment, then knocked on
the door. He got no reply, so he entered.

The bed was empty; Kentaro must be up already. Ranma went over to the
closet and pulled out a gi. He also spent a minute going through "his"
clothing. It was surprisingly similar. In his universe, he had opted for
clothes that wouldn't look out of place on either gender. This Ranma
evidently believed the same thing. There were some differences; this Ranma
had a dress. And bras.

Ranma fingered the bras, frowning. Evidently this Ranma had bigger breasts
than he did. He felt a strange twinge of jealousy that he tried his best to
ignore. Then he realized - this Ranma was pregnant. Akane was had once
complained to him how heavy and uncomfortable her breasts were just before
giving birth. Ranma could understand why his counterpart might want some
support during this time.

He put on his gi and went outside to the dojo. Kentaro was already there,
working out. He looked at Ranma, smiling almost involuntarily before
sobering. "Good morning."

"Morning." Ranma bowed and entered the dojo. "So you know the School, eh?"

"Yes. Although you've told me that I'm never going to be any good at it.
You've got high hopes for Kyoko, however."

Kyoko. Ranma frowned, wondering about whether or not it was acceptable for
the heir to the School to be female. Certainly Genma would never go for it.
Then again, his counterpart was mostly female and ran the school. Ranma
should really know better than to think that being female meant you couldn't
run a school.

Ranma filed the thought away for future consideration. He began a kata,
watching discretely as Kentaro continued his workout. It was obvious that
Kentaro had indeed been trained in the School.

When Kentaro finished and grabbed a towel to dry off the sweat, Ranma
stopped his kata. "You know, you're not entirely awful."

Kentaro smiled. "High praise. Thanks." His smile faded. "I have to go to
work. What are your plans?"

Ranma grimaced. "Don't really got any. For now, I'll take care of your
daughter while you're at work."

Kentaro looked relieved. "That seems like a good plan. Thanks."

Kyoko ran up to the dojo door, bowed hastily, and ran inside. "G'morning,
Daddy! G'morning, Mommy!" She began some stretching exercises that Ranma
recognized as being of the School.

"Good morning, Kyoko. Remember, though, this isn't your mother."

Ranma shuffled his feet. "She can call me Mommy if she wants. Less
confusion that way."

Kentaro stared into his eyes a moment, and once again Ranma could see desire
and pain mixed together. Then Kentaro turned and left.

Kyoko finished her warm-up and bounded over to him. "Mommy, are you going
to tell me what happened to the new baby?"

Ranma's heart lurched a little. "Uh, yes. I promise. Just not right now.
Maybe after school."

"Okay." She bowed to him, then dropped into a ready position.

Ranma couldn't help chuckling. She was as eager as Nouma. He bowed to the
daughter he never had and began working out with her. Still, he couldn't
quite expunge the self-disgust. He'd never marry a guy. Never.

But then, *he* hadn't. It had been some other Ranma, someone whose psyche
obviously got all screwed up. Nothing Ranma should feel bad about.

Feeling a bit of relief, he focused on training Kyoko.

---

Ranma wandered around, frowning. Everything looked right, but something was
out of place, and she couldn't figure it out. There was something... off.

"What's wrong, dear?"

She whirled and smiled at Kentaro. "Nothing." She took a step closer to
him. Or, more accurately, took a step towards him. For some reason, he
ended up farther away. Ranma frowned and took another step, and saw him
recede even further.

"Kentaro!" She ran as fast as she could towards the ever-dwindling figure.

"Scary, isn't it?"

Ranma stumbled to a halt and looked at Akane. A pregnant Akane. "What?"

"Scary, that he's gone. You should have chosen me while you had the
chance." Akane turned and walked towards the infinitesimal speck that was
Kentaro. As she approached him, she became less pregnant and Kentaro grew
larger. Finally, Akane stepped up to him and turned to face Ranma, as slim
as she had been when she was sixteen. "You don't mind if I take him, do
you?" She put her arm around him and smiled.

Kentaro put his arm around Akane's shoulders. "Sorry, Ranma. You left and
took our baby with you. But you left me Akane. I mean, you had an affair
with her, why can't I? Seems only fair."

"N. N." She wanted to scream, she wanted desperately to scream, but only
half-formed sounds escaped her lips.

"Akane... where are you, Akane?"

Ranma felt the world slipping away. But that voice... it sounded familiar.
It wasn't Kentaro and it wasn't Akane. It was somebody, somebody she
thought she should know, and he sounded as desperate as she felt.

She tried to focus on the voice, but woke up instead.

Ranma shook her head slightly, trying to figure out what that meant.
Whatever it was, it had hurt a lot.

"What's wrong, Ranma?"

She turned to see Akane lying next to her, her face still blurry with sleep.
Ranma's gaze moved down Akane's body to the distended belly, so similar to
her own.

Ranma's heart sank. She'd been vaguely hoping that all she'd have to do was
go to sleep and wake up and it would all be better. No such luck.

"Nothing." She rolled off the bed, glad that Akane had insisted she sleep
there. The mattress was just what her back needed; the hotel beds in
Australia had been quite uncomfortable.

She wandered over to the closet and rummaged through the clothing. Somewhat
similar to hers, actually. Except that the half of the closet usually
filled with Kentaro's clothes hung with Akane's instead. Ranma lightly ran
her hand over them, for the moment overwhelmed by difference. Then she
noticed a bra, and grabbed it. "Hey, Akane, can I use this?"

Akane was sitting on the edge of the bed, swallowing heavily. Evidently she
still had morning sickness. Ranma had gotten over that a couple of months
back; she sympathized with Akane. Akane lifted her head, widened her eyes
slightly, then nodded.

Ranma grabbed a gi as well and changed. She went downstairs and into the
dojo, where Nouma was waiting.

Ranma frowned, wondering about it all. A son. Akane's son, and her son.
They shouldn't be the same person.

Ranma felt her resolve firming up. Nouma didn't deserve to be the target of
any uncertainty on Ranma's part. Until things got straightened out, Nouma
*was* her son. No use denying him.

"Hey, kid." She smiled widely. "Ready to work out?"

"Yes." Nouma eyed her stomach thoughtfully. "Can you still work out like
that?"

Ranma chuckled. "I can still beat you up, Nouma. Let's begin with the
morning kata, and then we'll train a little on how to overcome certain
hardships in fighting. Maybe I'll strap a brick on your back and we'll see
how you can alter your attacks to compensate."

Nouma's eyes shone. "Neat!" He began the kata, and Ranma joined him.

And her mind raced. As much as she might come to like Nouma, she had her
own daughter out there, somewhere, and she would do everything she could to
get her back.

---

Ranma waited. No response was forthcoming. He gently prompted, "Do you
understand, Kyoko-chan?"

Kyoko, in a gesture achingly similar to Nouma, had a finger alongside her
nose as she thought. "So you switched places with my mommy, and even though
you look like her and everything, you're not really her, and the baby is
with her wherever she is?"

Ranma nodded.

Kyoko frowned. "When will Mommy be coming home?"

Good question. "Soon. Soon, I hope."

"You hope." Her voice seemed to indicate that she understood what those
words really meant.

Ranma reached out and put his hand on her hair. "In the meantime, I'll be
your substitute Mommy. If you'll let me."

The eyes of a six-year-old are frightening when they look serious, Ranma
decided. Kyoko's cool regard twisted his stomach.

Finally she smiled. "Okay, substitute Mommy. Just so you promise not to
give up on my real Mommy."

Ranma quirked his mouth. "I promise. Believe me."

"Okay!" She jumped to her feet. "Let's fight!"

He couldn't help it. He snorted and laughed. "You mean work the forms?"

"Nonono, I mean fight! You're the little girl in trouble, and I come rescue
you and beat up the awful boy who's kidnapped you!"

Ranma laughed again. "Does that mean what I think it means?"

Kyoko laughed and pulled him down the hallway. "We haven't played it since
you got pregnant. C'mon, Mommy. The water pistols are in the kitchen."

---

Ranma wandered around and around, the pain inside her growing. Kentaro,
Kentaro *had* to be here somewhere. She gasped as the pain grew worse and
she fell over.

"Don't worry, Ranma, it will be fine." This was Akane, and she was holding
Ranma's hand, and they were in the hospital delivery room, nurses and
doctors all over the place, bright light shining in her eyes, monitors and
displays in her peripheral vision, a steady and fast beeping sounding in her
ears. Ranma tried to remember how she had arrived here.

She looked around. "Kentaro?"

Akane sounded puzzled. "Who's Kentaro?"

"No, no!" She tried to get up, but something squeezed her instead.

"It's coming!" Akane sounded excited. "It's coming, it's..." Akane
screamed in horror.

Ranma wanted to get up, but she couldn't move, her whole body was leaden.
The beeping sound slowed down, became irregular, and stopped.

"No." This couldn't be happening, it couldn't happen, not like this, oh
please not this. "NO!"

Ranma's eyes flew open. She breathed deeply and rapidly, and stared at the
ceiling, cursing her over-imaginative psyche. The details of the dream were
slipping away, leaving behind only feelings of pure horror, and the sound of
beeping that died away.

She sighed and carefully got herself out of bed. Her back twinged, and she
gasped slightly.

"What was your first time like?"

Ranma could hardly believe her ears. She looked over her shoulder at Akane,
still lying in bed. "What?"

"Your first child... was the birth difficult?"

Ranma relaxed. "I... it's hard to describe. I mean, there weren't any
major complications. My OB/GYN was a little concerned because of how short
I am and how narrow my hips are for a woman. He was standing by to do a
Caesarian all during the birth. But it worked out okay. But it took a long
time."

"How long?"

"I think about six hours."

Akane chuckled. "That's how long it took me with Nouma. But that's
nothing, really. Kasumi was thirty-six hours with Kikuko."

Ranma blinked. "Kasumi has a daughter named Kikuko?"

"Yes."

"Wow. Same where I come from. Strange about which things are still the
same."

"Ranma." Akane's voice was quiet and curious. "How was it that you...
decided to have a baby? Your first one, I mean."

Ranma frowned. "Why do you ask?"

Akane lifted herself so that she was sitting up on the pillows. "I'm
just... trying to get a picture. Of you. I can't imagine Ranma *ever*
deciding to have a baby. I just want to understand."

"Hmm." Ranma didn't know what to make of that. She shrugged. "Well, the
first time was an accident."

"An accident?" Akane sounded incredulous.

"Yeah." Ranma tried to fight off the strange uneasiness that was growing in
her mind. "I don't know how long - if ever - I might have gone before
volunteering for the job of mother."

She turned so that she was looking at Akane face on. "But I'm not sorry it
happened. I love Kyoko very much, and I'm glad she was born and I'm glad I
gave birth to her." She paused a beat. "I'm glad that I'm her mother."

Akane looked down. "I'm sorry, Ranma. I didn't mean to imply... I... my
Ranma loves his son, too. He was so excited when I told him I was pregnant
again. He's a good... parent."

That mollified Ranma a lot. "Good." She smiled. "You wanna know
something? You helped. You helped me decide to keep the baby, when I was
unsure if being a mother was what I wanted to do."

"Really?" Akane thought that over. "I... it's so hard to imagine what I
must be like in that world you come from."

"You're pretty much the same. Warm, kind, friendly, tempestuous, uncute as
hell..."

"Hey!" Akane tried to glower, but it turned into a grin. "And you still
can't decide when to keep your mouth shut."

"Always been a problem," Ranma agreed, smiling in return.

Akane tilted her head. "Am I married in your world?"

"Not yet, but you're engaged."

"Really? To who?" She raised her hands. "Never mind, I don't want to
know. It's probably somebody like Ryoga, and I'd have to spend all my time
here staring at him, wondering what it would be like to be married to him,
until it drove me crazy."

Wicked amusement arose in Ranma. "No. It's not Ryoga."

"That's a relief." Akane's smile dimmed. "Any ideas on how to get back
yet?"

Ranma chewed her lip. "I may be coming up with one. Let me sleep on it one
more night."

The hope that lit up Akane's face was almost painful to see. "You can
switch back?"

"I dunno, Akane. Don't get too excited. It may be nothing." Ranma turned
away from Akane. "Trust me. It'll only hurt worse if it turns out to be
nothing."

Akane's voice was sad. "I'm sorry again, Ranma. Didn't mean to put that
kind of pressure on you. I know you're trying your best."

"No need to apologize, Akane." Ranma put her hand on her belly. "I know
what this means to you. We'll all do our best."

---

Ranma reached down and tickled the bottom of Kyoko's feet. Kyoko shrieked
in laughter and began kicking violently, squirming at the same time. Ranma
relaxed her scissors hold slightly, allowing Kyoko to escape. Kyoko
scuttled away, still laughing, before bouncing to her feet and turning to
face Ranma again.

Ranma grinned. This was the second straight day of games with the water
gun, and it seemed a game Kyoko loved. Ranma enjoyed playing with Kyoko,
but found herself hoping that Nouma never developed a desire to play this
way.

Also, playing with Kyoko helped her to drive out the lingering effects of
the disturbing dreams she was having every night.

Kyoko's eyes looked beyond Ranma, and her face lit up even more. "Hi
Daddy!"

Ranma looked over her shoulder. Standing in the doorway was Kentaro,
watching with a slightly pained, slightly wistful look on his face. Ranma
glanced at the water pistols lying in the center of the dojo, knowing that
both of them were empty.

Kyoko, meantime, ran over and hugged Ranma around the neck, looking over her
shoulder at Kentaro. "I played with Mommy today and it was fun! Do you
wanna play, Daddy?"

Ranma met Kentaro's gaze, and saw a flicker of desire in his eyes that made
her slightly nauseous. "I'm your pretend Mommy, Kyoko. Don't forget."

"Pretend Mommy." Kyoko said it like it was an unimportant distinction.
"Wanna play with my real Daddy?"

"It's nearly time for dinner, Kyoko." Kentaro smiled apologetically at his
daughter. "If you get yourself nice and clean, we'll order pizza."

"Yay!" Kyoko jumped from foot to foot. "Olives and 'roni! Olives and
'roni!"

Kentaro's voice was amused and affectionate. "Of course."

Kyoko ran from the dojo, pausing only briefly to sketch a bow at the center.

Ranma slowly got to her feet. She wished Kentaro would go away, but he just
stood there watching her every move. What she wouldn't do for a tea kettle
right now. "Uh, so, like, how was your day?"

Kentaro was silent for a moment. "It was fine. I had a surgery that had
unexpected complications, but we were able to deal with them."

"Uh, that's good." Ranma flicked her eyes around the room, looking for an
escape.

Swallowing, Kentaro stepped back from the door. "I'll go order the pizza."

"You do that," she said with more relief than she meant to show.

Kentaro looked at her for a few more seconds, then walked off.

Ranma waited until he was well away, then ran into the house. She bolted
into the bathroom and nearly ran over Kyoko who was just leaving. Ranma
picked her up so that she wouldn't fall down. She ended up staring straight
ahead into Kyoko's eyes.

Kyoko seemed unexpectedly somber. "Are you going to change?"

"Yup." The answer slipped out before she could think about it. "I, er,
like to be myself as much as possible."

Kyoko turned her mouth down. "I like you better as a girl. You're more
like Mommy that way. Daddy likes you better, too."

"I don't care-" This time, Ranma was able to choke off the words.
"Kyoko-chan, I... I am not the... person that your father married. I don't
want him to... to think that I... I would ever... take your mother's place."

"That's nice, I guess." Kyoko pushed herself out of Ranma's grip and left
the bathroom.

Shaking her head, Ranma took off her gi. She sat on the stool and quickly
and efficiently cleaned off the sweat of the afternoon's play. She then
filled the bucket with warm water and held it over her head.

Kyoko's eyes seemed to stare right through her.

Swearing, Ranma lowered the bucket and dumped it into the drain. She put on
a robe and went to Kentaro's bedroom. She found some simple clothes in the
closet and put them on. She then wandered slowly towards the dining room.

The smell of pizza made her mouth water almost in spite of itself. She
stepped inside the room and sat at the table.

Kentaro looked over at her, his eyes widening almost comically. Using all
of her willpower, Ranma lifted a corner of her mouth before reaching out to
help herself to the pizza.

Her eyes stole over to Kyoko, who was grinning in understanding well beyond
her six years. Ranma grinned back at her, feeling some of her tension
leaving her.

Dinner was good.

---

Ranma wandered around the yard as best she could, faintly bored. She
absolutely hated this part of her pregnancy. No leaping about, no extended
workouts, no smashing things just for the heck of it. At least it was
better than her last pregnancy, when she had been chained to the Tendo home
from which all warm liquids had been banished.

She ran through her options again. No Cologne - this universe's version of
the ancient Amazon had turned out to be quite single-mindedly obsessed with
Ranma's engagement. Which was too bad - the Cologne from her universe had
been quite sympathetic, and had done all she could to try and get Ranma
cured. When all had failed, they had parted on good terms. Shampoo had not
taken it well, varying between teary-eyed pining and irrational bouts of
anger. In the end, she had bade Ranma a formal farewell and freed her from
both the bond of marriage and sentence of death.

Ranma lowered herself on a large rock next to the pond and considered that.
Shampoo. In this universe she had assumed Cologne's position and power, and
was also a force in the Chinese government. Perhaps she had access to
knowledge that might be useful. It was a long shot, but one worth pursuing.

A twinge in her back made her grimace and stand up. She just couldn't wait
for this to be over.

A sudden cold fear washed over her. Somehow, she *knew* that giving birth
in this universe would be a disaster. She didn't know why, exactly.
Something that lingered from her ever-more frightening dreams, maybe.
Whatever the source, she knew she had precious little time to figure out a
way home, or her child's life would be in jeopardy.

A movement made her turn to look at the porch. A woman was standing there,
regarding her coolly. Ranma smiled and took a step forward. "Mom." She
stopped, her smile fading, suddenly realizing that this wasn't *her* mother.
*Her* mother had needed years to get used to the idea of Ranma choosing to
live mostly as a woman. *Her* mother had been violently opposed to her
relationship with Kentaro; Ranma would never forget the tearful, angry fight
they'd had the first time they'd been alone together after she'd found out
about Ranma's curse. *Her* mother had finally rejected Ranma as the son
she'd born, and had recast her as her daughter, unable to deal with Ranma's
choices any other way. This only after years and years, and only after
terrible misery all around.

*This* woman had a faithful son who'd married the woman chosen for him. A
son that sometimes turned into a woman but who never stopped acting manly
even then. This woman had a son she was quite proud of. Certainly not one
who would ever get so obviously pregnant.

Ranma swallowed and tried again. "Saotome Nodoka-san. I am honored by your
unexpected visit."

Nodoka looked harshly at her, then sighed and turned away. "I told you this
would be a bad idea."

"If you want our son back, we need to help her as much as possible." Genma
stepped out into the porch. "Please forgive me, I do not know your name."

Ranma quirked a smile. "Tendo Ranma. Same as your son."

"Indeed?" Genma's face was as impassive as her father's usually was. "You
married a man with that same last name?"

"No." She looked at Nodoka, who was still turned to the side. "When Akane
and I approached my mother and indicated to her that a marriage between us
was not what we wanted, she was quite upset. It was important to her that
the Saotome and Tendo lines be joined, as was promised years ago. We
finally reached a compromise: that I be adopted by the Tendo clan and adopt
their name, even in marriage. I run the school under the Tendo name. When
I choose an heir and pass the dojo onto them, they must also adopt the Tendo
name. In that way do we honor the commitment my father made. Both of my
fathers."

Nodoka didn't move. Genma placed a hand on her shoulder while speaking to
Ranma. "Honor is important to you, then."

Ranma straightened as best she could and spoke in a calm, clear voice.
"Honor is my life. My parents taught that to me."

Nodoka finally shot a look at her, a suspicious, appraising look. Ranma
returned it evenly, wanting very badly to have this woman's respect. Her
mother's respect, no matter what damn universe this was.

Nodoka finally sighed. "When are your wife - I'm sorry, my
daughter-in-law - and my grandson due home?"

"Akane will be home at about six. Nouma will be here right after school; he
should be here any minute."

"Yay!" A girl stepped out from where she'd apparently been hiding behind
Genma. Ranma knew that it wasn't Kyoko, but there were traces of
similarities, enough to squeeze Ranma's heart at the sight of her. The girl
pulled on Genma's pants. "Can Nouma 'n I play in the dojo, Father?"

Genma put his hand on her head and smiled. "Does that mean you want him to
teach you the Art?"

"Yuck!" The girl stuck out her tongue. "I just like to see him do all that
silly jumping and kicking stuff. Sometimes he falls and then I get to laugh
at him."

"Yes, dear." Nodoka smoothly cut off the girl before she could say more.
"When your nephew gets here, you can play with him in the dojo."

The girl smiled. "Thank you, Mother."

Ranma felt like someone had just hit her over the head with a very large
hammer. "Mother? Father?"

Nodoka nodded, studying her intently. "Ranko is my son's sister."

"Ranko." Numbly, Ranma studied the girl. Ranko studied her right back,
clutching Genma's leg.

Her sister. Her mother and father had had another child. A sister. They'd
named her Ranko.

Ranma approached Ranko as if in a dream. Ranko shrunk back slightly but
kept her gaze on Ranma. Ranma sank to her knees a couple of feet from her,
nearly falling over in the process. Concern flitted across Ranko's face
before returning to wariness.

"Ranko." She didn't know what to say. "You know, your mother called me
that for a while."

Ranko nodded.

"I... I hated hiding from her. I hated lying to her. But... but I loved
having her attention. I loved it when she smiled at me and watched over me.
Even when she thought I'd been born a girl, even when she made me dress in
girl's clothing and chastised me for not acting more feminine, I loved her.
I wanted to be her son, more than anything I wanted to be her son, but if it
was a choice between being Ranko and being nobody, I'd've been Ranko all my
life."

Ranko looked down at her belly. "But you're a girl. Are you Ranko now?"

"No." Ranma shook her head firmly. "Ranko was a lie, and I had to stop
lying to my mother. I'm Ranma, I will always be Ranma. But I'm glad
there's still a Ranko. I know my mother liked Ranko, and it makes my heart
feel good that somewhere there still is a Ranko that she loves."

Ranko released Genma's leg and looked more closely at her face. "You kinda
look like my brother, 'cept your tummy's big and your hair's black as a girl
and it's longer."

Ranma smiled nervously. "Except for those things, and some other stuff, I'm
exactly like your brother."

Ranko was on the verge of more questions when the sound of the front door
opening drifted down the hallway. Ranko brightened, turned, and ran.
"Nouma! Nouma!" Her exclamation was met by a welcoming shout.

Ranma rubbed her eyes, finding them surprisingly wet. She sighed and tried
to regain her feet. Genma reached down and lifted her. She looked into his
eyes and smiled. "Thank you, Pop. Uh, Genma-san."

"Pop will do." Genma let slip a small smile. He looked over at Nodoka.
"Shall we help Ranma?"

Nodoka spoke in a small, soft voice. "Yes. Let us do everything we can to
help this young woman return home."

Ranma looked at her uncertainly, unsure how to take that. Nodoka smiled and
reached out to touch Ranma's cheek. Then she turned to enter the house,
followed by Genma and Ranma.

Ranma closed her eyes briefly and smiled, finding tremendous comfort in the
presence of her parents.

---

Ranma screamed and jumped out of his bed. He looked wildly around,
expecting to be attacked by something. It took him a moment to realize that
the nightmare was over, and in that moment he forgot what it was he'd been
so terrified of.

All he was left with was an image of a pregnant woman reaching out to him.
And though he felt like that woman *should* be Akane, he was somehow certain
it wasn't.

He calmed the beating of his heart with an effort. He looked at the
lightening sky, and decided now was as good as any a time to get up.

As he was leaving the guest room, he stepped on a piece of paper. He
frowned and picked it up. He held it at an angle so that the pre-dawn light
fell on it. The note was from Kentaro, who had evidently been paged and was
at the hospital. Ranma was being asked to look after Kyoko in the meantime.

Ranma grimaced. One annoying thing about Kentaro's job was that he was
often called away with little warning, and Ranma was left behind to take
care of things. All the while, he needed to do some research, try to figure
out what had happened and why. But he couldn't do it and leave Kyoko alone.

Somewhere, an annoying part of his brain talked to him about irony. He
hated that part of his mind. It took a lot of the fun out of life
sometimes.

He went downstairs and padded to the kitchen to prepare himself some tea
before his workout. He wanted a moment alone to think.

He didn't get it. Somebody was opening the front door. Ranma frowned. It
wasn't Kentaro; he was already familiar with the sounds he made. Whoever it
was knew the layout of the house, and was walking along the hallway in
smooth, sure steps. Ranma ran through a list of likely suspects before
calling out, "I'm in the kitchen, Nabiki."

The steps paused a moment, then moved towards him. Nabiki was looking at
him thoughtfully. "Do you have telepathy where you come from or just
super-keen senses?"

Ranma shrugged. "Neither really. Who else could it be?"

"Akane?"

"No. I know what she sounds like when she's moving through the house."

"Oh. Kasumi?"

"Nuh-uh. She'd knock first. Common courtesy and all that."

Nabiki grunted. "Tactful as ever."

Ranma lifted a corner of his mouth. "Same as you. What're you doing here?"

She gazed at him. "Kentaro called me. The hospital's been keeping him
busier than usual, and he knows that you need some freedom to figure out
your little problem, so he asked if I could look in on Kyoko for the day."

Ranma raised his eyebrows. "Hey. That was actually pretty considerate of
him."

"He does stuff like that a lot. Makes you want to gag sometimes."

Ranma grinned. "I take it you're not exactly enamored of him."

"Oh, I like him just fine. You and he get along famously. He's just a
little too saintly for my tastes."

Now Ranma laughed. "Yeah. I've seen your tastes. Saintly doesn't exactly
describe Kuno."

Nabiki froze. "What. Did. You. Just. Say?"

Ranma raised his eyebrows. "You mean you're not married to Kuno?"

"Kuno. Kuno Tatewaki, you're talking about."

Ranma was enjoying this more and more. "Kuno Tatewaki. Your husband. You
had your first kid not too long ago."

"Kuno." Nabiki had still moved nothing but her lips. "The obsessive
pompous bokken-weilding samurai-wannabe airhead that I milked for every yen
he was worth."

"Your one true love."

"You're lying."

"Do I look like I'm lying? You once told me that I was a horrible liar,
that you could always see right through me."

Nabiki stared at him for a long moment. Finally, she spoke. "Thank God I
don't live in your world, Ranma."

Ranma shrugged. "You seem happy enough."

"Happy?!" Nabiki but the heels of her hands on her forehead. "How can I be
happy, married to *Kuno*? Good God, I must be as insane as he is in that
universe."

Ranma finally got a little irritated. "Hey, knock it off. You *are* happy.
So's Kuno. He's gotten a lot better since high school. Seems like an okay
guy. Hell, he saved me and Akane from Kodachi." He looked Nabiki in the
eye. "And you don't seem at all different from the Nabiki I know. And that
includes the inability to see that people don't always act like jerks, that
sometimes they can be nice and everything. If you'd only give them a
chance."

Nabiki stared at him some more between her elbows. Finally, she closed her
eyes and rubbed her cheeks. "That tea smells good."

"Here." Ranma grabbed a second cup and poured her some tea.

She took it while looking at him. "Kuno, you say."

He nodded. "Are you married?"

"Was once." She sipped her tea.

Ranma started slightly. "Damn. I keep forgetting that everyone's eight
years older here. Uh, anyway, sorry about the divorce."

"Don't be. I'm not. Only sorry about the marriage."

"Any children?"

"Yes. No. Or were you talking about his maturity level?"

Ranma laughed once. "Anyway, thanks for coming over."

She fixed him with a steely, appraising gaze. "I had planned to interrogate
you about who you really were. I was convinced you were some magical
creature or something that was trying to take Ranma's place and had put a
spell on Kentaro."

"Oh, yeah?" Ranma chortled. "Well, that ain't any crazier than some of the
stuff I've already come across. Go ahead. Interrogate away."

"No need." She took another sip of her tea. "You *are* Ranma. I got to
know him - her - very well. You're younger and not as well-educated and a
bit less mature in some ways, but you're still Ranma." She quirked a corner
of her mouth. "You were the Ranma we were expecting to graduate from
college. I wonder how the story would have went if it had been."

"Don't you already have your answer?"

"Maybe." She gestured to the door with her head. "Go do your workout thing
or whatever you have to do, then go do whatever it takes to find a way back
to where you came from. I'll take care of things here."

He grinned. "Thanks, Nabiki. Something else you have in common with my
Nabiki is this tendency to do these nice things and then get embarrassed
about it whenever anyone mentions it."

She flushed just to prove the point. She hefted her teacup. "Get out
before I throw this at you."

Laughing, he moved towards the hallway. He stopped at the door. "Oh, I
promised Kyoko she could go to the park today."

Nabiki lowered her cup. "Okay. We'll make a picnic of it." Her eyes lost
focus.

Ranma smiled and ventured a guess. "Be sure to pack plenty of food. If I
remember right, I think he loved Kasumi's recipe for seaweed sushi."

"Thanks, Ranma." She started. "Hey!"

He winked and ducked into the hallway.

---

"Tell me more about these feelings you're getting."

"Kinda strange. Vague premonitions. That something bad's going to happen
unless I can get back to my world before the baby's born."

"Anything more specific than 'something bad'?"

"No. Akane says stuff like this happens to me - my other self - all the
time."

"It does." Genma leaned back from the dining room table. He clasped his
hands atop the cloth covering his head and studied the ceiling thoughtfully.
"Ranma learned to trust these instincts of his. I believe we should do the
same with yours."

Ranma mentally shook her head in disbelief. It was hard to picture this man
as her father. Her father had finally found a measure of peace after
Ranma's marriage, but there was always a slightly haunted look in his eyes,
the face of a man who has been over the edge and been slowly dragged back.
Her mother and father had seemed to rebuild their marriage almost to the
point of happiness, although Ranma still had trouble telling exactly how her
parents felt about each other. Certainly she could never imagine them
having another child, even if it wasn't already too late for her mother.

This Genma was much more self-assured. No longer cursed, no longer running
away from anyone or anything, he'd reinvented himself as a wise sensei.
Ranma's heart ached for what her father might have been able to achieve, if
only.

She looked down at the table and reminded herself that her father had stood
up for her in the face of her mother's disapproval on several occasions.
Not easy to do considering her mother's utter contempt for him right after
their reunion. He'd won back her respect, and helped her accept Ranma for
who she was. And Ranma loved him for that.

"Can you feel any link to... to my son? In this other world of yours?"

Ranma shook her head clear of melancholy and looked at Genma again. "No.
That is..."

Genma narrowed his eyes. "What?"

"Well..." Ranma considered. "I've been having... dreams. And... and in
them I... I think..."

"You think you might be able to contact him in your dreams?"

"I don't know." Ranma cracked her knuckles idly. "It's so hard to think
clearly in my dreams."

"Indeed."

"I- I might be able to help with that."

Ranma looked up at the dining room door, wondering in passing if anyone ever
bothered to knock. The sight of the woman standing in the doorway made her
jaw drop open. "Ucchan!"

Ukyo's eyes tightened slightly. She was staring at Ranma's gravid belly in
puzzlement. "You... really are pregnant."

"Yeah." Ranma tried to remember if anyone had mentioned Ukyo. She wondered
how different her history with Ukyo was in this universe. "What about you?
You married? Any kids?"

"Yes, and not yet but we're trying." Her eyes lifted to meet Ranma's. In
them, Ranma could see curiosity, curiosity to ask questions she wasn't sure
she wanted hear the answers to.

Ranma wasn't exactly prepared to give them, either. "So, Ucchan, how can
you help?"

The eyes tightened again. "Um... could you not call me that?"

Ranma blinked. "What? Ucchan?"

"Yes. Please."

Ranma spent a minute wondering what lay behind that injunction. She decided
to let it pass, not wanting to cause Ukyo any more pain than she'd already
caused her. "Sorry. Won't do it again."

Ukyo tilted her head at him in acknowledgement. "I know some meditation
techniques. Stuff I taught you... your other self. You found them useful."

Genma nodded. "I, too, found value in them. My master was not much on
teaching us these kinds of disciplines. Still, Ukyo's lessons helped me to
piece together some of the things Happosai did to increase his own powers of
concentration. Perhaps the three of us should practice these meditation
techniques."

"Sounds good." Ranma slowly stood up under Ukyo's wide-eyed gaze. "I
learned some stuff in Australia, too, that might be applicable."

"First you will eat." Nodoka came into the room carrying a bowl. "Akane
called and said she will be home in a few minutes. That gives you time to
clean and set the table. Round up the children, too. Please dine with us,
Ukyo-san."

"Thank you, Saotome-san." Ukyo bowed her head, then turned to Ranma. "And
you... sit down. Let us handle the other stuff. I think you need to save
your energy, and it takes too much effort for you to move around right now."

Ranma laughed. "Alright, Uc- Ukyo. You always were looking out for me."
She lowered herself back to the floor and began to clear her mind of all the
thoughts it wanted to think that weren't exactly relevant at the moment.
Not if she wanted to get back home.

---

Ranma lay back on the roof and looked at the stars. He blew out a breath,
letting tension go. For the first time in a long while he was intensely
glad to be male. While it had made him feel good to see Kentaro truly -
well, mostly - relaxed for the first time, he had not felt at all
comfortable playing the role of wife. Let that other Ranma do it from now
on; Ranma had had his fill for a lifetime. Several lifetimes.

He shook his head again in incredulity. Married. To a man. Never. Never
never never. Just the hint he'd had this evening had creeped him out to the
max.

It wasn't so bad, something deep in his mind said. You didn't mind it that
much. Otherwise you would never have let Kyoko talk you into it.

Ranma bit down on that thought, hard. Never. Not in a million years.

A grunt came from the edge of the roof. Someone was pulling themselves up.
Ranma ran through a list of suspects, and found several likely ones. No
more telepathy tricks this time; he'd have to find out the hard way.
Whoever it was finally managed to gain the roof and stand upright.

Ranma sat up and looked at the shape. The thin shape, with shoulder-length
hair in mild disarray after the jump. The curve of the hips, the shape of
the shoulders, backlit by the moon. The stance, with arms clasped lightly
in the front below the waist. The face a dark blank, but Ranma could trace
its features with his fingertips if he wanted to.

And every cell in his body wanted to.

"A-Akane?" He was shaking badly.

"Hello Ranma." The voice, the beautiful-when-it-wasn't-angry voice, raising
goosebumps on his arms.

He wanted to fling himself at her, close the space in less than a second,
hug her and never let go. He grabbed his knees and held on for dear life.
"W-what are you doing here?"

"Seeing if I could help." She moved forward a little and sat down. Now the
moon shone on her face, and the features came into focus. A little older, a
little creased around the eyes, but still as lovely as ever.

"Help?" Ranma turned his head violently away. "You can help by... by not
being here."

Silence for a while. "Ranma, I let you send me away once. You told me to
go and I went. To this day I regret that deeply. I will not make that
mistake again. You need help, and I'm going to give it to you whether you
want it or not."

The calm, dispassionate voice, so different from the Akane he knew, helped
calm his nerves a little. He didn't look at her, but oh God, he could feel
her presence on his skin like electricity. "I don't know what you can do."

"I don't know either. Let's try to work it out together, okay?"

He took his time answering, trying to bring his raging emotions under
control. "Akane, what the hell are you doing here?"

"I'm here to-"

"The truth."

A pause. "I... I'm getting married in a few weeks."

Ranma snapped his head around. He'd been told that Akane was engaged, but
somehow the knowledge was different when coming from her lips. "Married?"

She nodded and squirmed uncomfortably. "I felt strange hearing that... that
my other self got married at seventeen, and had a child by nineteen. I'm
thirty-two and unmarried. I... for a long time, I was..."

Akane sighed and seemed to pull herself together a little. She spoke in a
firmer voice. "When we broke off our engagement, it was one of the most
single painful moments of my life, right up there with my mother's death.
But at the time it felt like the right thing to do. Yet, after that, I
drifted through my life, dating other men but never being satisfied with
them. The problem was one of closure. I was profoundly dissatisfied with
the way we had ended our relationship." She looked down at her hands and
began spinning a gold ring around a finger on her left hand. "And... I was
still in love with you."

Ranma spoke somewhat fearfully. "But... but I... I..."

Akane nodded sadly. "You were cured, and you could be a man again, but you
didn't love me anymore. Another painful realization. You went back to
Kentaro and stayed with him. And I drifted through my life again, still
unable to expunge my desire for you from my heart and mind."

She stopped playing with her ring and brought her knees to her chest,
resting her chin on top of them. "Has anyone told you what happened between
us about a year or so before you got married?"

Ranma frowned, trying to sort through the many strange stories he'd been
told, mostly by Kentaro. None of them seemed to mention Akane much. "No."

Akane spoke in a monotone. "We had sex one night. One night after you and
Kentaro had a fight, you came to my apartment and we... for one night, we
pretended we loved each other. For one night, we *did* love each other."
Her voice became almost too soft to hear. "And it was wonderful."

Ranma didn't know how to respond. To hear that his other self had... had
been... unfaithful, even with Akane... it was unsettling.

Akane smiled slightly at his dumbfounded reaction. "Don't worry, it all
worked out for the best. You and Kentaro got back together, and worked a
lot of stuff out, and your relationship became stronger than ever."

Ranma didn't want to think about that. "And you?"

"Me?" The smile left her face. "I was able to finally realize that you
would never love me. Shampoo and Ukyo and Kodachi only took a couple of
years to realize that. It took me most of a decade."

She straightened her legs and sat back, supporting herself on her arms.
"That, too, worked out for me eventually. Knowing that I could never have
your love - not in the way you loved Kentaro - helped me heal. I got over
you. We became dear friends, and I helped you through your first pregnancy,
which was pretty damn rough on you. And I was able to move on with my life.
I met a man, and for the first time I didn't try to compare him to you. For
the first time, he filled an emptiness in my heart, rather than trying to
force out another spirit."

The words were like knives in Ranma's heart. He had to remind himself over
and over again that it wasn't her, it wasn't his wife, it was another Akane
who deserved to have her own life. "Do- do you love him?"

"Yes. With all my heart." She pushed herself up into a cross-legged
position, leaning forward to study Ranma intently. "And then, I heard from
Kentaro about you. About a Ranma from another world, a world where we were
married, and had a family. A world where you loved me. Where *you* loved
*me*." She swallowed. "I had to know. I had to know how I would react.
What I would feel like in the presence of a Ranma who loved me. Loved me
like a wife."

Ranma squeezed his eyes shut. "You had to know if you'd suddenly start
falling in love with me, knowing that I loved you."

"Yes." She sounded deeply ashamed. "I'm sorry, Ranma. I *do* want to
help. I *do* want to be your friend and get you back to the Akane you love.
But... I needed to be sure of myself, and this would be the best opportunity
I'd ever have to test the sincerity of my love for the man I'm going to
marry."

Ranma forced his eyes open and looked at Akane. "And...?"

Akane simply stared at him. Their eyes met each other's across the span of
years, and Ranma saw in her the sixteen-year-old he'd met, that he'd sparred
with on the fateful night. And, in one brief moment, his rationale was
swept away by powerful yearnings, and he desperately wanted to reach over
and kiss her, to mark his stake on her heart in case he should be stuck in
this universe forever.

He held his breath and fought off the desperate urges. It wasn't right. It
wasn't *her*. She wasn't his wife. Nouma wasn't here; neither was the
child resting in Akane's belly, waiting to be born. Ranma's heart wasn't
here, in this universe. It was somewhere else, beating in the minds and
souls of his family.

A strange sort of peace calmed him at last. He felt buoyed by the memory of
his family, and they gave him the strength to resist all temptations, for
nothing could possibly surpass the joy he felt in their presence.

He looked into Akane's eyes, and found a similar understanding being reached
in her mind as well. They smiled at each other, basking in the unspoken
communication that they had each found in their heart the right answer.

Akane was the first to break the spell. "And I think that we need to help
get you back home. How did this come to happen in the first place? Kentaro
mentioned a curse of some sort. Another one, I mean."

Ranma found relief in being able to concentrate on something very different
from where his mind had been a moment ago. "Yeah. A weird bug alien thing
that cursed me as it was dying."

"How'd you find the 'bug alien thing'?"

"Oh, uh, well, it's kind of a long story. Short version: I found myself in
the middle of the Australian desert holding hands with this guy while he
guided me into a dream state. It was there I first saw it. It came into
our world - the real world, I mean - and did some pretty nasty things. It
took a while, but I killed it."

"Hmm." Akane chewed her lip thoughtfully. "And this guy, the one who
helped you attain this dream state. Who was he?"

"Uh, a kind of priest, wise man, something like that. He was a Native
Australian."

Akane nodded. "Any chance you think there's a guy like him in this world?"

"Don't see why there wouldn't be." Ranma grimaced. "You're talking about
me going back to Australia, right?"

"It would seem the logical thing to do. If anyone knows anything about that
alien and the kind of magic it wields here, it would be that same guy, I
think."

"I guess." Ranma suddenly laughed. "You know, I sometimes forget how smart
you are when you want to be."

Akane snorted and punched him in the arm. "Baka."

His smile faded slightly but did not go away. "Thank you for not letting me
send you away."

Akane tilted her head again in acknowledgement, but this time with a
lopsided grin. "You're welcome."

---

Ranma breathed slowly and regularly as she stared at the ceiling. She
wanted to get this right.

Akane muttered some sleepy protest, along the lines of "put a cork in it."
Ranma smiled in spite of herself, and tried to control the volume of her
breathing exercise. Three in the morning was not a good time to awaken
Akane.

The key was in her dreams somewhere, that she was certain. If she entered
into her dreamstate with some of the disciplines Ukyo and Genma had shown
her, she might be able to control it better. The key had to be there
somewhere.

"Ranma."

She looked over at Akane. "Yes?"

"Ranma!"

Akane sounded more desperate. Ranma frowned. "What is it?"

"No! Ranma..."

Ranma realized that Akane's eyes were closed. And that Akane wasn't calling
out to her, exactly.

She carefully turned on her side and reached over to caress Akane's cheek.
"I'm here," she called softly. "I'm here for you, like always."

"Ranma..." Akane clutched Ranma's hand tightly, her eyes still closed.

Ranma sighed and made soothing sounds, and knew that she would be doing no
disciplined dreaming tonight.

---

Ranma struggled, searching. He heard his name being called in desperation.
But he couldn't figure out which direction it was coming from. He was
certain it was Akane who was calling for him. Or Nouma. Or both. Either
way, they needed him desperately, and he had to get to them, fast. But he
couldn't, and the anger and frustration built until tears came and he was
sobbing openly. Oh God, where are you Akane?

He sat bolt upright, gasping for breath, tears still streaming down his
face. He glanced wildly around, slowly taking in the desert around him. He
wiped his face dry before extricating himself from the sleeping bag. He had
work to do.

Ranma shuffled through his backpack and came out with a phone. He frowned
at it. Technology in this world was significantly advanced in several
areas. He flipped open the phone and pushed a button.

After a few rings, a voice floated from the receiver. "Hello?"

"Hey, Kentaro. Dang, these things are good. I'd almost guess that you were
in Australia with me."

Kentaro's voice had a touch of humor. "No, I'm still stuck in Nerima. How
far along are you?"

"I'm almost there. Probably later today."

"Are you sure these people can help you?"

"I'm not sure of nothin'. These people probably don't know me at all. But
I was able to win their trust in my universe. Hopefully I can do the same
here. 'Sides, I got no other leads. Remember, we agreed this seemed the
best idea."

"I know. I just hope... Well, you know what I hope. Good luck."

"Thanks. Say hi to Kyoko for me."

He heard a touch of surprise in Kentaro's voice. "Okay."

Ranma turned off the phone and put it into his backpack. He began packing
the rest of his stuff, his mind racing with how exactly to approach the
people who'd helped him before. He wasn't quite sure yet. It had taken him
a long time to win their trust before, time he couldn't afford now. He had
several kilometers' worth of hiking ahead of him during which he could try
to figure something out.

He put on the backpack, turned, and nearly jumped. A short, dark man in
jeans and a denim shirt was watching him from the edge of the camp. Ranma
hadn't even heard him come up. And Ranma realized he'd have less than he'd
supposed.

---

Ranma cried out as she woke up. The baby was moving violently inside of
her, as perturbed by her dreams as she was. She quickly ran through some
calming exercises, trying to soothe the baby with her thoughts.

"When are you due?"

Ranma looked over at Akane, who was slowly pushing herself up. "In about a
week. Kyoko was two weeks premature, however."

"Nouma was just about on time." Akane sat on the edge of the bed, breathing
heavily. "I'm due in about a week myself."

"Hmm. Wonder if that means anything."

"What, that we're going to give birth at the same time?" Akane thought
about it for a moment, then shrugged. "I can't see anything significant in
that."

"Me neither, except how inconvenient the timing is. I could be going to
China, or Australia, or a few other places I know to try and figure out
what's going on if it weren't for the fact that I'm so damned pregnant."
Ranma felt the baby begin to stir, and calmed her thoughts again.

Akane reached over and put her hand on Ranma's arm. "Don't worry, I'll be
here to help. I've talked to Kasumi and Nabiki, and they'll help, too.
They know how difficult a time this is for you."

Ranma smiled. "Nabiki and Kuno. Who'd have ever thought?" Her smile
faltered. "I... I just got this feeling. That having my baby here would be
a disaster."

"Is that what all your nightmares are about?"

Ranma shrugged. "I dunno. I can't quite make them out." She tried to
remember, but all she got was a sense of desperate searching, of reaching
for something and not finding it.

"Did..." Akane seemed aware of how desperately hopeful her voice was, and
made an effort to control it. "Did you discover anything?"

"Maybe. But I have to try something different. I can't afford to gamble on
dreams any more. Too unreliable. I've got a plan."

"Oh, I must use the bathroom." Akane stood up and waddled over to the door.
She stopped and looked at Ranma. "What's your plan?"

Ranma grimaced. "Something Pop and Ucchan helped me with. I think... I've
got to meditate. Seriously meditate."

"What do you mean, 'seriously'?"

"I'll show you. I'll need to set a couple of things up." Ranma slowly got
out of bed herself. "But first, I'm gonna race you to the bathroom. Last
one there better have a mop."

Akane laughed. Together they made their way down the hall.

---

On his previous visit to Australia, he had somehow been under the impression
that the native people would be living in tents and cooking over a fire. He
had been quickly disabused of that notion. This time, as last, he sat at a
kitchen table, surrounded by the locals and looking across the table at a
wizened old man with glasses and a cigarette.

The man spoke again. "You know my name, stranger, but I've never met you
before."

"Ranma."

"Lamma?"

"Is okay. You also name me 'Walker Between Worlds'."

The man raised his eyebrows. "Why?"

Ranma snorted. "I help you defeat evil that live outside our world. You
look into me, see that I cursed to do this all time, name me so."

"Interesting. I've never come across anything like this before." He looked
around the room at the people gathered there, then shrugged. "Your story
sounds true. We do have a legend of the eater of souls, and how it came
into our world to slay our tribe, and how the Walker Between Worlds came and
defeated it. But that occurred a thousand years ago. Why do you claim to
be the one now?"

Ranma shrugged. "I defeat last week, not a thousand years ago. But, when I
beat, it curse me, send me to this world. This world different, not my own.
Would like to go back, thank you."

"Hmm." The man drew deeply on his cigarette. "And how do you think I can
help?"

"I don't know!" Ranma bit his lip, trying to control his frustration. "I
have dreams, think maybe help. You, me, work together a long time. Often
we sit outside, stare at stars, and you guide me to dream state, where
visions come." Ranma chortled. "I always think useless, until we meet evil
there. You call Dreamkiller. I call monster, alien. I followed it, fought
it, killed it. But it curse me."

"I've never heard such a story." The man was shaking his head. "If you did
defeat the Dreamkiller, it would have been an epic struggle. The
Dreamkiller is the bane of our tribe. Only a powerful one could have
defeated it."

Ranma grinned wickedly. "Hai. Powerful."

"High powerful?"

"Is okay."

The man shook his head in disbelief. "A Japanese man claims to be the
Walker Between Worlds, claims to have defeated our ancient enemy, and asks
us to help him. Nothing like this has ever happened before. Can you give
me any proof of your claims?"

Ranma sighed. He'd been afraid of this from the beginning. "I tell you
truth, no can tell? You always tell me to know someone is to look into eyes
and see their soul. Can you not see my soul? Know that I am telling
truth?"

The man grunted. "That much is true; I can see much of a person by their
eyes. In yours I see desperation and desire. No malice, true, but often
those who make mischief do not intend to do so. I need better proof of who
you are. That you have the power you claim to have to battle the
Dreamkiller. And that you will not bring any evil down upon us."

Ranma struggled for an idea. "Two things I can think of. One, I know your
name. True name, one you only show very few."

The man lifted his eyebrows. "Tell me, then. What is my name?"

"Can't tell; *show*. You show me name out in desert. You and me go walk,
late at night under stars, I show you your name."

The man looked evenly at him. Finally, he sighed. "Perhaps it is enough
that you know how to find my name. And, perhaps in this other world you
claim to be from, my name is different, and shouldn't be shared. What was
the other thing you were going to tell me?"

"Not tell; show." Ranma indicated the sink. "You let me use hot, cold
water?"

---

Akane slid the door closed behind her. "Okay, Nouma and my father are
visiting Kasumi, Nabiki's in the house as emergency backup, and all the
windows are covered. What next?"

"Sit there." Ranma indicated the center of the dojo. Akane complied,
although she had trouble lowering herself.

Ranma turned off the lights. Instantly the dojo plunged into blackness.
Ranma waited a couple of minutes, but still couldn't see anything.
Satisfied, she walked towards the center, touching Akane's head in passing.

"Hey! Is that you, Ranma?"

"Yeah. Sorry, didn't mean to scare you." She sat down and grabbed Akane's
hands.

"How can you see anything, Ranma?"

"I can't. That's the point."

"Oh." Akane sounded subdued.

Ranma kept her voice low and sonorous. "I learned this at the convention in
Australia. We must disconnect ourselves from our bodies. Our bodies are
our anchors but our spirits can roam free. Let your spirit drift."

"This won't hurt the babies, will it?"

"No. Their minds aren't formed enough yet to allow their spirits to
separate from their bodies. And our bodies will continue to provide them
nourishment. For now, we must drift free."

"And what is this going to accomplish again?"

"Well, I hope to find what it is in my dreams that is bothering me. If it's
me - that is, the Ranma you know - then I want you here to help call him
back. And, just maybe, I can cross over there as well."

"They taught you *that* in Australia?"

"Um, no. Ukyo and your father-in-law and I improvised."

"How much?"

"Um... it's like thinking you could use a mirror to travel from one place to
another."

"Oh, *great* Ranma..."

"Hey, it's a place to start anyway. I don't have a better idea right now.
Can we at least try?"

"Okay. Sorry. What now?"

"Just drift. Draw chi from your body but do nothing with it. Chi fuels the
spirit. We can use it to help lift our spirits and allow them to float in
worlds above ours."

"You sound like a mystic."

"Like I don't know that. Why do you think I don't want Nabiki in here?
Think of what *she* would say."

Akane giggled.

Ranma grinned in the darkness, then spoke once again in a soft and dreamy
tone of voice. "Let your mind drift..."

---

"I must tell you, Lamma. I've never seen anything like what you did with
the water in the kitchen."

Ranma grunted. "Try life that way. We ready?"

The man looked around the desert. "This is as good a spot as any. Let us
sit."

Ranma sat cross-legged and began a breathing exercise. The man sat opposite
and smiled. "You *have* done this before."

Ranma smiled. "You taught me."

"Well, not *me*, exactly. But close enough." He reached over to grab
Ranma's hands.

For a while they breathed together in the middle of the Australian desert.

"All right, Walker Between Worlds. I do see hope. In the matter of curses,
innocents cannot be trapped with the curse. If they are, the curse can be
undone. We must use that."

"You say my other part - other Ranma - she innocent?"

"Of that I am not certain. It is entirely possible that she, too, has been
a part of some conflict, had some curse cast upon her that also allowed the
exchange to take place. I honestly don't know about her one way or the
other. I was thinking instead of the life she carries. That one *is*
completely innocent, and through it we must find the key to breaking the
curse laid upon you by the Dreamkiller."

"Ah so. How?"

"As you indicated: through your dreams. I think you and your counterpart
are linked through them. If you are as experienced as you say you are, then
enter the dreamstate with me."

That sat for a while, going through the rituals. The hours passed, the sun
set, and the stars came out.

Finally, Ranma stirred. "There! There it is! I can feel it!"

"Easy, Walker Between Worlds. Do not grab for it too eagerly. Coax it
towards you."

"It's her! It's me! I can feel... something pulling..."

"No, Lamma, wait!"

A flash of orange lit the night. When the man's eyes cleared, he was alone.

He looked around placidly. "Well. That's never happened before."

---

She felt herself drifting. It was a state of consciousness she'd never
attained before. It felt wonderful.

And then something grabbed her and it didn't feel so wonderful.

She was yanked, yanked so hard that her anchor was drawn with her. Her
vision cleared; she seemed to be on a huge, featureless orange plain. She
turned around and froze.

He was there. He was looking at her, the shock on his face evident. They
stared and stared.

As one, they spoke. "Ranma?"

She swallowed heavily. It was *him*. The guy who... who'd married Akane.

She examined him closely. He looked exactly like her. Except... his hair
was different, shorter.

He spoke up. "Your hair looks weird. Feminine."

She flushed, a weird sort of guilt coloring her cheeks. "I... I spend most
of my time as a woman."

He looked down at her stomach, his lip twitching. "Evidently."

Something snapped inside of her. She reached up and grabbed his shirt.
"Listen, jackass, don't you dare judge me. You'd've done the same thing in
my position."

He shook his head. "No, I wouldn't've. I could never..."

She laughed. "Guy, the one person you can't fool is me. I was there, too.
Remember the festival? The one where Mousse performed?"

He winced. "I was just..."

"Yeah, 'just'. You wanted to try it out, try going out as a woman in a
kimono. And you really liked it, liked the looks you got, the way you felt.
Didn't you?"

He grimaced in an abashed sort of way.

She smirked and moved in for the kill. "And what about the Lamp Festival?"

"Uh..."

"The Take-out Food Race?"

"Okay!"

"The ice-cream parlor?"

He threw up his hands. "All right!"

She wasn't in the mood for mercy. "The beach."

"Hey! I couldn't help that!"

She smiled wickedly. "But you *did* enjoy it."

He paused for a second. "Yeah. I did." The look on his face was one of
deep chagrin. "None of that meant I wanted to do it permanently."

"I don't do it permanently. Even when I was stuck with a woman's body, I
was a guy. I still am a guy, in some ways." She released his shirt and
took a step back. "I'm nine months pregnant with my second child and I'm
*still* a guy. And, *you*..." She eyed him critically. "You're the father
of one child with another on the way, and you are still a woman, at least
partially."

He shook his head feebly. "No..."

She grinned evilly. "C'mon, I know that look. It means you know what I'm
saying is right, you just don't want to admit it right away."

He looked evenly at her, a little irritated and a little sheepish. "You
sure seem different from me."

She grunted. "Live my life and see what it does to you. You've got no idea
of the kind of hell I went through."

"I- I can imagine." He stared at her some more. "This is me?"

She nodded. "I think you need to admit it to yourself - that the
possibility exists that you could have made the decisions I did. Trust me,
Ranma-kun - denial gets you nowhere."

"Um... what exactly am I denying?"

"That there's a fair streak of femininity in you. It's hard, I know. I
went through it too. Dad taught us to be so masculine - that women were, by
their very nature, weak and inferior. Then I was stuck as a woman, and I
thought of myself that way - inferior. You don't know how close I came to
killing myself."

He looked shocked. "Really?"

"Yeah. Fortunately, I met this guy. He helped me realize that my
self-worth was not tied at all to my gender. He helped me feel good about
myself, helped me build a life for myself where it didn't matter what my
'true' gender was."

The look on his face was soft with understanding. "Kentaro."

She nodded decisively. "Yeah. Kentaro. Now do you understand why I fell
in love with him? How good he was for me? Why I'd choose to share my life
with him?"

He stared at her for a long time. By doing so, she knew that he was
thinking seriously about it, and that whatever answer he gave her would be
the truth. Finally, he nodded. "Yes. I do see that." He grimaced
slightly. "I... spent some time as a woman around him. I saw... saw what
he was like then, how much he liked being with you. He... I think he's a
nice guy. Real kind, understanding, all that. Tofu without Betty-chan and
the fogged glasses."

She laughed. "I never thought about him like that. But yeah."

"He loves you a lot. I could see it in his eyes."

"I know that." Even so, it filled her with a tremendous glow, to see that
he could see it, too. "And, you know, it was kind of nice to see that life
with Akane would have been so neat if the whole Herb thing had gone
differently. She's so happy. Content."

His face looked concerned. "How's she doing?"

"Pretty well, actually. She wants you back very badly, but she didn't fall
apart or nothing. She was very understanding and helpful."

He raised an eyebrow. "She was?"

"Well, *after* she beat up on me for a while."

They laughed together. It felt good.

She grinned, feeling a kind of relief she'd never expected. "This was good,
this was good for me. Ever since I appeared in your universe, I'd been
feeling defensive. As if for some stupid reason I had to apologize for my
life. Now I know I got nothing to be ashamed about. I am Ranma, and
married to a man, and that's not a contradiction."

He shook his head firmly. "No, it's not. This was good for me, too. I...
didn't realize how firmly entrenched I still was in Dad's way of thinking.
Being a man or woman - that doesn't make a damned bit of difference in
whether you're a good person or not. I thought I knew that, but I was still
thinking you were weak somehow for choosing to marry a man. Sorry 'bout
that."

She grinned and slapped his chest. "As well you should be. Still, lesson
learned and all that. At least you learned it faster'n I did."

"Well, things were a little different for you. For one thing, you didn't
have me around to knock some sense into you."

She rolled her eyes. "Fat lot of good that would have done. I probably
would have tried to take over your body."

"Er, how?"

"I'd've found a way, trust me."

He grinned. "I'll bet. I never knew talking to me could be so fun."

"Yeah. I guess some good came out of this."

"More than some." His eyes lost focus. "Akane... your, uh, sister... she
and I had a good talk. I think it helped her. If nothing else good is
accomplished, I'll feel great about the fact that we worked something out
together."

"Well, that *is* good." She looked around. "So, now that we've got the
bonding part down, what next?"

"Um." He looked around. "I don't know. I was told that the key to getting
back was through your baby."

She felt her belly. "Really? Why? How?"

"Yes, because it's innocent, and I haven't a clue."

"Oh. Not terribly useful under the circumstances."

He frowned and put his hand over hers. She felt his chi began to flow into
her body, towards the baby. She closed her eyes and sent her chi flowing as
well.

And she could see it. A tunnel of light that led from the baby. She could
see where it had come from, and where it yearned to be. *Needed* to be.
And the light... if they could... just...

"No. I do not permit it."

She flung open her eyes to stare at a nightmare. The shape was strange and
alien to her eyes. A mix between a bug and a lizard and something else
again she was certain she didn't want to identify. Its eyes glowed the same
orange color as the plain they were on.

She spoke out of the side of her mouth. "What is *that*? I've never seen
nothing like it before."

"I have." He sounded grim. "I killed it. But it cursed me before it
died."

"Oh yeah? Is that what caused this switching stuff?"

"Yeah. It said it was going to send me to Hell."

"I'm not sure it entirely succeeded. I mean, a lot worse could have
happened. And we seemed to have found a way around it pretty easily."

"Have you?" The creature seemed to be trying to take control of the
conversation. "You are in Hell. My version of it. I will make you suffer
now. In ways you cannot imagine."

He stepped in front of her. "Quick, run. I've fought it before; I can hold
it off."

She shoved him aside. "Run to where? You seem to forget I'm as powerful as
you are."

He looked at her. "But you're pregnant."

She looked up at him and flashed him a confident grin. "I'll adjust. It's
what I do best."

The smile spread to his face. "Yeah. I suppose it is."

Together, they faced the creature.

---

Akane blinked into the darkness. The dojo had suddenly flared orange. Now
it was pitch black again, and Ranma was no longer holding her hands.

"Ranma?"

Silence.

She got up and groped her way over to the wall. She fumbled for the lights
and turned them on. Squinting at the brightness, she was nevertheless
quickly able to determine that Ranma wasn't there.

Her stomach sank. This couldn't be a good sign. She turned out the lights
again and sat down against the wall, trying to clear her head. She had to
use her spirit to find Ranma. Somehow. It would work. It had to.

The dojo door slid open. Akane blinked over at the form of Nabiki. She was
holding a phone. "It's Ranma-kun. He needs money. As usual."

Akane's heart leapt. "*He* needs money?"

Nabiki smiled warmly. "Yes, he. He's in the middle of Australia, and he's
had some interesting experiences that he's dying to talk to you about. I
expect a full report immediately after you get off the phone."

Akane jumped to her feet as best she could. She ran over and almost fell
into Nabiki's arms. Nabiki helped her stand upright, hugging Akane to her.
Akane took the phone from Nabiki in a clumsy exchange and brought held it to
her ear. "Hello?"

"Hey there, Akane." A decidedly masculine voice, sounding tired and full of
love and a little mischief. "Can you send me some more money? I'd like to
go home."

"You *are* home, Ranma." She clutched Nabiki closer to her as she listened
to the sound of her husband's gentle laughter.

---

Kentaro watched his daughter examine the go board intently. She was only
beginning to grasp some of the very basic strategy. Kentaro had left her an
obvious opening, and was watching to see if she would take it. Finally she
did, and looked to him for approval.

He beamed at her. "Very good, Kyoko."

She giggled. "I'm beating you, Daddy."

He nodded. "Yes, you are." He placed another stone, well away from the
threatening position she was developing.

She stared at the position for a moment, then sighed. "Daddy, when's Mommy
coming home? My real Mommy, I mean."

Kentaro suppressed his own sigh. He'd been expecting a call from the
other-universe Ranma all evening. "I don't know. Soon, I hope."

"Yeah, pretty soon."

They both looked up, startled. Ranma - female and pregnant - was standing
in the doorway. She had obviously been fighting, and had bruises on her
neck. She looked very drained, which Kentaro knew meant that she'd been
using chi-attacks despite being nine months pregnant. Which meant that the
situation had to have been dire indeed.

He leapt to his feet and ran to her side. "Dear, are you all right?" He
began to examine her bruise. It looked very painful.

"Mommy!" Kyoko ran up to grab both of their legs at once. "Mommy's home!"

Ranma looked down between Kentaro's hands. "Yes, Kyo-chan. I'm home. For
good."

Kentaro felt something warm build inside him with those words. Trying to
maintain his professionalism, he felt the pulse at her neck in an attempt to
see how strong she was.

Ranma smiled and put her hand over his. "Ken-chan, I do think I need to go
to the hospital, but I'm not on the verge of death or nothing. Can't you
think of any better way to greet me than to give me a physical?"

Kentaro saw the humor and love in her eyes, and smiled with it. "Sorry."

He bent down and kissed her. She kissed back ferociously while Kyoko
squealed in delighted laughter.

~*~

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