The Nature of Love

 

by Richard Lawson

 

---

 

Kentaro stood, relaxed and poised.  Although he was breathing heavily and sweating profusely, he didn't feel tired.  He could do this for more hours if he needed to.  Three years ago, he would have been in the hospital by now.

 

Most of the other people in the room were in similar condition.  They were all in top shape, the result of a rigorous training program.  They all had expressions of grim satisfaction.  Anyone who could get this far could count themselves among the best-conditioned people on campus.

 

Sensei walked up and down the rows of people, stopping to look each student in the eye.  Her expression was very serious, her gaze penetrating.

 

Sensei's expression didn't change when she reached Kentaro.  Her eyes seemed to ask him if he was content with his progress in the school.  Kentaro felt that he had done all right, and tried to put that confidence into his bearing. Sensei nodded, satisfied, then gave him a quick smile before returning to the front of the room.

 

"I had not expected so many people to be here today.  You all honor me with your presence."  She bowed deeply, then straightened.  "As you know, this is the last class I will be teaching before next week's graduation.  I hope to open a dojo soon.  When I do, I'll post a message on the college's web site. I'd like to continue training you, of course.  And if you know of anyone looking for training, you might send them my way."

 

She shook her head.  "Enough advertising.  Think upon the lessons of the School of Indiscriminate Grappling.  We do not hold ourselves to one way of doing things; we do not fall into the trap of depending on one set of moves to help us in combat.  Rather, we continue to grow and adapt.  To learn from what happens around us, and use the knowledge to better ourselves.  The School's first and most revered precept is this:  Keep your mind open and your body ready, and there is no enemy that can overcome you."

 

Sensei looked around the room, her face very serious and commanding.  There was quite a bit of pride there, as well.  Finally, she used her head to indicate the door.  "Dismissed."

 

Kentaro and the other students bowed to her deeply, most holding the position far longer than normal.  Finally, everyone broke ranks, with most of the students going up to Sensei to exchange thanks and good-byes, many with promises to spread the word of her dojo once it opened.

 

Kentaro hung around the back of the room, waiting for the crowd to disperse. The dojo was a sensitive subject between him and Sensei.  Where and how she was going to open the dojo was something Sensei had refused to provide specifics on.

 

The last of the students left.  Sensei came up to him, a peculiar look on her face.

 

Kentaro had come to know her well enough to know that something was bothering her.  "What is it?"

 

She tilted her head to the side, considering him.  For all that she showed no fear during her martial arts, as well as in gymnastics and soccer, she could be incredibly indecisive at times.  This was one of those times.  Kentaro knew that it was best to just be patient with her and let her get it out in her own way.

 

Finally, she smiled.  "Who says you're done training today?"

 

Kentaro sighed.  As her first student and heir-apparent to the School, he didn't have to pay her for lessons.  At the same time, his training went well beyond the regularly scheduled classes she gave.  She was quite likely to spring out of nowhere and insist on giving him a lesson or two.

 

Kentaro followed her to the middle of the floor.  They turned and bowed to each other.  He assumed the ready position, while she just stood there, her hands behind her back.

 

"Okay, this is a simple test.  You just have to hit me.  I won't counter-attack, and I'll keep my hands behind my back.  You may begin."  She smiled slightly.

 

Kentaro frowned.  This was new.  He considered how to accomplish it.  Sensei was incredibly fast and extremely agile.  This could prove difficult.

 

He took a cautious step towards her.  She didn't move.  He took another step, then threw a punch at her head.  She moved her head aside as his fist flew past, then moved it back.  She was still smiling.

 

Kentaro threw another punch at her head with his left hand, then quickly followed with a right.  She moved her head aside to avoid his left jab, and leaned back to avoid the right.  As his fists retreated, she sprang back upright.

 

Kentaro frowned.  She could be so damned irritating sometimes.  She got away with it, of course, because she was better than him at the Art by several orders of magnitude.

 

He tried a sweeping backhand, as quickly as he could.  Sensei ducked under it. He followed with a foot sweep, and she jumped over it.

 

Kentaro grit his teeth, and launched a furious offensive.  Punches, kicks, combinations, as fast as he could, advancing as quickly as he could.  She avoided them all, as hard to touch as mist in the morning.  When her back was almost to the wall, she leapt high into the air, twisting her body and landing directly behind him.

 

He was about to try twisting and attacking with his elbow when she grabbed him.  His first thought was to protest against this obvious rule violation. Then he realized that she was hugging him, her body pressed against his, her head nuzzling the back of his shoulder.

 

"Kentaro..."  Her voice sounded quiet and strange.

 

"Yes, Ranma?"  He was having a little difficulty thinking clearly.  She seldom showed this kind of affection, and he couldn't help feeling exhilarated when she did.

 

"Kentaro..."  He could sense her gathering her courage.  "I love you."

 

Kentaro spun in her grasp and looked down at her with shock.  "What?"

 

She smiled nervously at him.  "I love you."

 

His mind boggled.  In the three and a half years he had known her, their relationship had proceeded in fits and spurts.  They had started as teacher and student.  That had quickly become a friendship that Kentaro sensed Ranma had desperately needed.  She had been quite lonely.

 

Unfortunately, Kentaro had not been content with mere friendship.  Their relationship had come to a critical turning point at the end of their freshman year.  Kentaro had finally admitted to Ranma that he couldn't go on being just her friend.  Ranma had responded by at first retreating completely from the world.  She had disappeared during the school break, never contacting him, leading him to believe he'd never see her again.

 

When she'd come back, she'd been willing to try a deeper relationship with him.  Kentaro felt a little guilty about the circumstances that forced her into that choice; he had pressed the issue at a time when she had been the most vulnerable.  As lonely as she had been, it had been a terrible decision, especially since her sexual preference was not for men.

 

Several things had changed in Ranma after that summer.  She had started becoming an active part of the college, joining the gymnastics and soccer teams as well as offering instruction in martial arts.  Her circle of friends had grown wider and wider, and Ranma had actually become quite popular on campus.

 

She had also allowed Kentaro to date her, and parts of it hadn't been easy.  Their physical relationship, especially, was part heaven and hell.  Their first few kisses had been very stiff, with Ranma being unable to do so much as part her lips or apply pressure.  It had taken most of a semester for Ranma to be able to kiss him back, and even then she would frequently shudder and break it off. Over the course of the years, she'd allowed him to proceed, with each new stage reached only with the greatest reluctance on her part.  Occasionally Ranma would still shudder, and every physical act was done with her eyes closed. Kentaro knew this was so Ranma wouldn't have to see that it was a man doing those things to her.  They hadn't yet had sex, and Kentaro had begun to wonder if she would ever be able to.

 

The other parts of their relationship had been wonderful.  She was as good a friend as he had ever had, and they shared things with each other, communicating in a way he had never imagined.  They spent a lot of time together, eating, training, studying, or just talking.  In three years of seeing Ranma almost daily, he had yet to grow tired of her presence.  Each moment spent with her was a joy.  Ranma had admitted similar reactions to his presence. It just felt right for them to be together.

 

With graduation looming in the horizon, a peculiar pressure had been brought to their relationship.  Kentaro was planning on going on to medical school, and quite possibly becoming a surgeon.  Ranma's degree had been in Physical Education, and she was planning on opening a dojo.  It had seemed logical to Kentaro that she open the dojo close to where he would be attending medical school for the next few years.  When he had spoken that thought out loud, she had become angry.  She refused to say why, and had steadfastly refused to discuss the subject.

 

Kentaro had felt more than a little irritated himself.  He'd finally said out loud the words that had been implicitly forbidden in their relationship.  He'd told her that he loved her, and was quite interested in spending the rest of his life with her.  The words had driven her to a white-hot fury. She'd stormed away, and they hadn't spoken for a week.  She'd finally acknowledged his presence during a martial arts class, and their relationship had returned to a semblance of its old form.  But a threshold had been crossed, and their relationship threatened to crumble unless Ranma made a decision of some sort.  With graduation getting closer and closer, there had been a time limit as well.

 

Kentaro sympathized with the choice she'd been forced to make.  Staying with him would mean partaking of a sexual lifestyle that was repugnant to her. Leaving him would mean admitting that she couldn't be part of a heterosexual relationship.  Curiously, however, Ranma was a little homophobic, something Kentaro didn't quite understand.  She didn't much care for the idea of two women having sex together, and it wasn't something she could imagine herself being a part of.

 

It was a fascinating psychological complex she had.  She explained it to herself with an elaborate fantasy of having been born a man and magically changed into a woman.  Kentaro had listened to her tales of being a magically cursed martial artist.  The stories were quite entertaining:  sometimes funny, sometimes scary.  The final story had been one of tragedy, where she had been frozen in a female body and the means to a cure had been buried under a collapsing mountain.

 

Kentaro knew that she believed those stories completely.  He had tried to believe them, too.  There was a part of his mind that he had set aside to accept her stories as given and to respond to her as if they were true.  The largest part of his mind knew that it was all just a fantasy, one that would have to be dealt with eventually.

 

Ranma wasn't fooled.  She knew that, deep down, he didn't believe her.  She kept threatening to introduce him to her father, who apparently would change into a panda when splashed with cold water.  What prevented that meeting was her very real fear that her father would try to attack him if he realized the relationship Kentaro had with Ranma.

 

Sometimes, late at night, Kentaro would lay awake at night thinking about everything associated with Ranma, and for a moment he would believe, with all of his mind, Ranma's story.  That belief would always be washed away by a flood of rationality.  He kept trying to hang on to the belief, but it kept eluding his grasp.

 

He sometimes wondered if Ranma wasn't more trouble than she was worth.  Not only did she have a serious gender identity and sexual preference crisis, she believed in an elaborate fantasy world that kept her true past concealed.  Yet, the moments he spent in her presence, when they would walk around the campus quietly holding hands, when they would kiss and there was no hesitancy in her, when they fought mock battles in training and she would laugh out loud for the sheer joy of it - those moments were well worth dealing with her idiosyncrasies.

 

Now, at long last, she had admitted love to him.  There was a joy rising in his heart, one that he had never felt before.  Suddenly, he could come to believe that a future together with Ranma was attainable.  That filled him with a peace and happiness he had never known.

 

Kentaro found that his eyes were watering.  "Ranma.  I've loved you for the longest time.  Thank you for returning it."

 

Her smile grew wider and somewhat tremulous.  "I've been returning it, Kentaro.  I just couldn't admit it to myself until now."  She drew his head down and kissed him.

 

The kiss was deep and passionate.  Ranma had never initiated anything like this with Kentaro before; he'd always had to be the one to start anything physical between them.  His excitement grew as he grabbed her as tightly as he could.

 

After a long moment they separated.  They stared into each other's eyes, and Kentaro tried to burn this image of her into his mind.  He never wanted to forget this moment, the first time he had seen unrestrained love in her eyes.

 

She took his hand in a gentle grip and said in a soft voice, "Let's go back to my place."  She began to lead him out of the room.

 

Kentaro's pulse quickened.  All seniors were encouraged to live off-campus, given the perpetual housing shortage the college had.  Ranma had used the money she earned teaching her martial arts classes to find a small studio apartment not far from campus.  It was the one place she allowed him to do anything more than hold her hand.  Her passionate kiss just now, coupled with her admission of love, gave Kentaro reason to hope that something new was about to happen.

 

They walked to her apartment building, neither one speaking.  Kentaro found that he was shaking a little, both a reaction to her words and in anticipation for what might be about to happen.  Ranma noticed, and tried to give him a reassuring smile, but she looked much too nervous herself for it to be very effective.

 

They climbed the outside stairs that lead to her third-floor apartment.  As they turned the corner to the outside hallway that lead to Ranma's room, she froze in place.  Kentaro glanced at her in surprise, then looked to see what she was staring at.

 

A woman was standing outside Ranma's apartment.  She saw Ranma, and smiled. "Ran-"  She broke off as she saw Kentaro, and a shocked and slightly angry expression settled into her face.

 

Ranma released Kentaro's hand and took a step forward.  "Akane!  What are you doing here?"

 

Kentaro started.  He stared at the woman.  She was a little taller than Ranma, with shoulder-length hair and a beautiful face.  She was wearing a blue dress and a white, wide-brimmed hat.  He couldn't help noticing that she was in very fit condition, obviously a martial artist herself.

 

Akane.  Ranma's ex-fiancée.  An intimate part of all the adventures Ranma had gone through before coming to college.

 

Akane was looking back and forth between Kentaro and Ranma.  Finally, she settled her gaze on Ranma.  "Uh, can we talk, Ranma?"

 

"S-sure."  Ranma seemed to be rattled.  "Let's go inside."  She went up to the apartment door, unlocking it and stepping inside.  Akane followed her right in.  Kentaro hesitated a second, then entered as well.

 

Ranma was holding the door open, waiting for him.  Their eyes met, then Ranma closed the door and turned to Akane.  "Would you like some tea?"

 

Akane was looking around the studio apartment.  She turned back to Ranma and was clearly surprised to see Kentaro standing there as well.  "Uh... tea, no, thank you Ranma."

 

Ranma appeared at a loss for how to act.  With a sigh she indicated the floor.  "I don't have a lot in the way of furniture.  This is the best I can offer."

 

"It's fine."  Akane knelt on the floor.  Kentaro sat cross-legged about five feet away from her.  Ranma stood for a second, than placed herself halfway between them, perhaps shading a little towards Kentaro.

 

This was not lost on Akane.  Her eyes flashed.  Then she made a deliberate effort to school her features.  "Ranma.  I've come here on behalf of your family."

 

"Oh?"  Ranma frowned.  "You mean Pop?"

 

Akane's voice hardened.  "I mean your family."  She stopped and made another effort to control herself.  Kentaro remembered Ranma's stories that anger made up a large component of Akane's personality.  "Okay, listen up.  I think we may be able to cure you."

 

Ranma went rigid.

 

Kentaro frowned, a little confused and more than a little concerned.  "Cure? Cured of what?"

 

Akane shot a look of disgust at Kentaro.  "Cured of being female."

 

The words shot through Kentaro like a bullet.  Ranma's ex-fiancee, matter-of-factly stating that Ranma could be turned into a man.  Cured of being a woman.  The implications struck him dumb; all he could do was gape at Akane.

 

Akane dismissed him to turn back to Ranma.  Ranma seemed to be no better off; she was staring wide-eyed at Akane.  "How?"

 

Akane chewed her lip.  "I didn't mean... here, let me tell the story right." She drew a big breath.  "About six months ago, your mother went to our house to once again try and find you."

 

Ranma flinched and looked down.

 

Akane ignored her and continued.  "She didn't find you, of course, but she did find your father.  He was a little drunk, and didn't get out of her way in time.  Your mother went ballistic, demanding that he tell her where you were. Your father refused to answer.  In a panic, he jumped into the pond - in full view of your mother."

 

Ranma groaned and put her hand to her forehead.

 

Akane nodded.  "Like I said, he was a little drunk.  Your mother was, to say the least, surprised.  She turned to Dad and demanded an explanation. Unfortunately, he was no better at providing answers.  She finally drew her sword and threatened your father.  He tried to run away, but he was still in his panda form, and still drunk."

 

Kentaro's mind was still reeling.  Panda form.  Akane said that in such a matter-of-fact tone, as if Ranma's father had simply changed his clothes.  It was simply a part of her reality. A part of Ranma's reality.  Kentaro quivered as his psyche tried to figure out if this was supposed to be a part of his reality, too.

 

Akane was paying no attention to Kentaro.  She continued her narration.  "Things might have gotten out of hand, but fortunately Kasumi came by for a visit."

 

Ranma blinked.  "Kasumi doesn't live there any more?"

 

Akane's brow furrowed.  "No one lives there but our fathers.  The three of us - me, Kasumi, and Nabiki - stop by at different times to help them out. Kasumi and Tofu-sensei were married two years ago.  They're expecting their first child in a few months."

 

"Oh yeah.  She invited me to the wedding.  Pregnant, eh?"  Ranma stared off into space for a second, smiling slightly.  Then she focused on Akane again. "So Kasumi calmed everyone down."

 

Akane had waited for Ranma's attention.  "Yes.  She sat down with your mother and told her everything."

 

The blood drained from Ranma's face.  "Everything?"

 

Akane nodded grimly.  "From Jusenkyo to Ranko to Herb.  Kasumi said it was time that all the lying was done with."

 

Ranma began to shake a little.  "Wh-what did Mom have to say about all that?"

 

Akane shook her head.  "Kasumi won't tell us exactly how your mother reacted the first time she was told your story.  I take it that it went rather badly. Your mother finally insisted that the entire Saotome and Tendo family be brought together to discuss your situation."

 

"R-really?"  Ranma managed to control herself, but still looked pale.  "What did she want to talk about?"

 

Akane spoke just a little more gently.  "First of all, she said that she was not going to force you to commit seppuku.  Being cursed was not your fault, and that you always behaved 'manly', even as Ranko."  Akane shot a glance at Kentaro.

 

Ranma turned to look at Kentaro for a second, then looked back at Akane.  "And Pop?"

 

Akane looked grim.  "She said that seppuku was something only honorable warriors did.  Since your father was without honor, she was not going to hold him to the contract."

 

"Oh God."  Ranma closed her eyes and hung her head.

 

Akane leaned forward and touched Ranma's hand.  "If it helps, Tofu-sensei has been working with him a lot, trying to help him rebuild his self-esteem and honor.  It's gone surprisingly well."

 

Ranma opened her eyes and looked at Akane, with a bit of hope and fear.  "What... what about Pop and Mom?"

 

Akane shook her head, a sympathetic look on her face.  "You mother has been focused on other subjects."  Akane leaned back.  "Your mother also wanted us to bring you back to her.  She wanted you to be part of both of our families again."

 

Ranma drew a breath.  "She... doesn't mind that I'm a girl now?"

 

"I'll get to that."  Akane paused a moment to collect her thoughts, then continued.  "Anyway, Nabiki pointed out that you were a few months from graduating, and that perhaps we shouldn't dump all of this into your lap where it could possibly affect your studies.  Your mother eventually agreed."

 

Ranma thought it over, then nodded.  "I... I guess I'm glad for that.  I... don't know what it would have...."  She trailed off, looking once more at Kentaro.

 

Akane glared at Kentaro, then spoke to Ranma.  "Can we speak privately?"

 

Ranma's eyes widened, still staring at Kentaro.  She looked very confused.

 

Kentaro tried to bring some order to his thoughts.  He began to get up.

 

Ranma reached out and grabbed his arm.  "Kentaro has a right to hear anything you have to say, Akane."

 

Kentaro sat back down, grateful.  He looked into Ranma's eyes, trying to smile at her.

 

Akane scowled, then smoothed her features and leaned forward once again, this time taking Ranma's hand into her own.  "Ranma."

 

Ranma looked back at Akane.

 

Akane had a very serious expression on her face.  "Your mother called on me to honor our families' agreement for us to be married."

 

Ranma's mouth dropped open.

 

Kentaro, on the verge of recovering his wits, felt his mind go numb again. Ranma... marry Akane?  What about...?  His mind couldn't think clearly.  In total shock, all he could do was listen.

 

Ranma began to shake again.  "But... we can't..."

 

Akane broke in.  "Nabiki felt the same way.  She pointed out that forcing two women to marry wasn't going to do either family any good.  This sparked off an intense debate between Nabiki and your mother.  Your mother said that you were a man.  Nabiki pointed out that you had a woman's body.  Your mother said that it should have been the family's duty to try and find a counter to the magic that had cursed you.  Nabiki said that the family had tried, for almost two years.  Your mother despaired that the family had ever stopped trying.  Nabiki said that there came a point where all options had been explored, and no new leads were available, and that everything humanly possible had been done to get you cured.  She said that eventually you and I realized that there was no point wishing for something that wasn't going to happen, and that we decided to move on with our lives.  Your mother said that honor had no time limit, that we were required to keep looking for a cure, even if it took the rest of our lives.  Nabiki asked if your mother's definition of honor meant that we should remain miserable forever."

 

Akane drew a deep breath.  "Nabiki went on to catalogue all that had been done to try and cure you.  How frustrated you became when each lead turned up empty.  How miserable it made you feel.  How our relationship changed. The pain that seemed to permeate the household.  I've never heard Nabiki speak so eloquently or passionately.  She said that forcing you back into that kind of existence would be torturous, not just for you but for the whole family.  Nabiki said that there should come a point where honor gives way to compassion and love."

 

Ranma spent a few moments absorbing this.  "How did Mom react?"

 

Akane raised her eyebrows briefly.  "At first, after Nabiki finished speaking, your mother did nothing but stare at her for a long time.  Nabiki stared right back; you know how she is.  Finally, your mom sorta hung her head.  She said she wanted you to be happy, that she would never want you to be miserable.  But your mother also didn't want to give up.  Her honor was important, too.

 

"We all talked about it for a while.  Eventually we came to an understanding. Your graduation was six months away.  The Saotome and Tendo clans would spend those six months looking one last time for a cure.  If none could be found, then our engagement would be nullified.  Honor would be satisfied."

 

Ranma looked over to Kentaro, then back to Akane.  "And you found one?"

 

Akane tried to put on a bright, happy face.  "Nabiki did.  For all that she argued against forcing us to married, no one worked harder than she did to find you a cure.  While we were all concentrating on looking for other magic to reverse what had been done to you, she looked on trying to recover the Kaisuifuu."

 

"The damned kettle."  Ranma spoke with excitement.  "Did she find it?"

 

"She thinks so.  We may have trouble getting to it.  Do you know how to do Ryoga's exploding rock thing?"

 

"Bakusai Tenketsu?"  Ranma frowned thoughtfully.  "I probably could do it if I had to.  It's always struck me as a silly move to learn, but I think I've seen Ryoga do it enough times."  Ranma chewed her lip thoughtfully, then nodded.  "Yes.  I could do it."

 

"Good."  Akane smiled.  "The plan is to go to the mountain after your graduation and dig it up.  If we can get to it, and it works, our engagement is on again."

 

Ranma looked at Akane thoughtfully.  "What about you?  Don't you have a boyfriend?"

 

Akane's smile faded away.  "I've had several boyfriends.  Although they were all nice, none of them could ever measure up to you.  It... it made me realize what a special person you are.  If, if we can get you cured, I... I would have no objections to... becoming your fiancée again."

 

Kentaro watched Ranma closely.  She was staring at Akane with a blank look on her face.  Ranma turned to look at Kentaro, then she flushed and looked down.

 

Akane looked surprised and a little hurt at Ranma's reaction.  She looked at Kentaro again, with such hostility and anger that Kentaro actually leaned back, reeling under its impact.

 

They remained in that tableau for a long time.  Akane glaring at Kentaro, Kentaro returning her gaze with a look of shock, and Ranma staring at the floor.

 

Finally Ranma looked up again.  "Akane, I need some time.  There's a lot to think about.  Can we talk about this after I graduate?"

 

Akane looked at Ranma, her face softening.  "Uh, well, I came here to bring you home.  The family's coming together again to celebrate your graduation.  Your mother wants to see you very badly.  She waited patiently until the last of your classes was over with, and now she can't wait any more.  She... she misses you terribly, Ranma."

 

Ranma sighed sadly.  "Mother...."  She looked over at Kentaro, held his gaze for a moment, then turned back to Akane.  "Okay, I'll come on one condition. Kentaro comes too.  Like I said, he's as much a part of this as anyone else. I won't have him left out of it."

 

Akane scowled, and seemed to inflate, her face turning slightly red.  Then, biting her lip, she calmed down.  She looked around.  "Do you have a phone?"

 

Ranma nodded and pointed.  Akane got up, gave Kentaro another glare, then went over and made a call.

 

Ranma and Kentaro looked at each other.  Ranma looked a little frightened. "Tell me what you're feeling."

 

Kentaro trembled.  "I... I don't know.  I... she, Akane believes it, I mean, unless this is some, some elaborate game..."

 

Ranma looked surprised.  "Is that what you think?  That Akane and I are play-acting?"

 

Kentaro felt his chest tighten.  "No."  The force of that one admission turned his mind to jelly.  "No.  She, she believes it too."

 

"Yeah, she does."  Ranma looked a little angry now, which in a way made Kentaro feel better.  Ranma flabbergasted was beyond his experience; Ranma annoyed he was well used to.  "She believes it, I believe it.  Tell me, Kenny-boy, what do you believe?"

 

"That..."  Kentaro forcefully swallowed.  "That maybe, maybe it really is real."

 

"Maybe, he says.  What a jerk."  Despite that, her face softened slightly.  "Truth is, if someone told me the story I told you, I'd laugh in their face and write 'em off as crazy.  You did a lot better, accepting my story and never treating me as nutty for believing it.  I mean, yeah, I wish you could have believed me just a little.  But I can't blame you for not really believing, and I'm glad you showed as much patience and understanding as you did."

 

Kentaro looked into Ranma's face.  She was smiling now, showing sympathy and bemusement and maybe something more.  Kentaro smiled back, grateful for her words and presence.

 

For one second, he was able to shut off the outside world and share a look with Ranma.  He loved her, and she loved him, and that should be all that mattered.

 

Then someone cleared their throat.  Kentaro looked up to see Akane glaring at them both, gritting her teeth.  "Your mother," Akane spoke in a tight voice, "is not happy.  However, if you insist, we can have him sleep in the dojo."

 

Ranma nodded.  She looked at Kentaro, her face troubled again.  "Uh, I suppose I should pack."  She got up and began to rummage through her things.

 

Kentaro stood up, watching Ranma.  Something grabbed his arm, and he felt a voice whispering in his ear, so quiet he could barely hear, but filled with an intensity that made him flinch.  "You can't have him.  He's mine.  You have no hold on him.  Your relationship with him is obscene.  Don't cause us any trouble or I will hurt you."

 

Kentaro turned to look at Akane as she leaned away.  Her face was mask of cold fury, and her eyes glimmered with a promise of violence.

 

Kentaro gulped but held her eyes, trying to show a measure of his determination.  Somehow, though, it melted in the face of her anger.

 

"Ready."  Ranma appeared in front of them, a backpack slung over her shoulder. She smoothly stepped between them, breaking their eye contact.  "Let's get over to Kentaro's coop.  I'm sure he'll need to pack a few things too."

 

Kentaro looked at her gratefully.  He began to reach over and take her hand. Before his hand had moved more than an inch, Ranma moved briskly off to the door.  "C'mon."

 

Kentaro sighed.  As his mind slowly began to work again, he caught a glimpse of what the next week was going to be like.  It was very likely going to be the most difficult week of his life.

 

***

 

They walked from the train station, the uncomfortable silence surrounding them as it had throughout the three-hour train ride.  Ranma had strategically placed herself between Kentaro and Akane, her hands clasped in front of her. Kentaro had understood, even if he was a little upset that he couldn't hold her hand.

 

They came up to a house surrounded by a wall.  They stood at the front gate. Streamed across the top of the gate was a banner which cheerfully proclaimed, "Welcome home, Ranma".  Ranma grimaced when she saw it.  She stood for a while, evidently gathering her courage.  Then she opened the gate.

 

Akane and Kentaro followed behind her.  Kentaro looked around.  The yard was lovely, and the house very nice.  A little better than he had expected of a home inside Tokyo; he wondered if some of his provincialism was showing.

 

The front door of the house was flung open.  A middle-aged woman stood there. She had coppery hair and a very happy look on her face.  Kentaro saw the resemblance immediately, and knew that this was Ranma's mother.

 

Ranma was breathing heavily.  Her voice was a little tentative. "Mom?"

 

"Ranma!"  The woman ran down the path.  Ranma allowed herself to be swept into her mother's grasp.  They hugged for a long while.  Ranma's mother was sobbing. Ranma was trying to comfort her, despite the fact that tears were flowing from her eyes.

 

Kentaro's breath caught in his throat.  He had glimpsed the depths of Ranma's loneliness during that first year in college, and knew how much she missed her family.  It was wonderful to see them reunited.

 

Finally they separated.  Ranma looked up at her mother, then bowed.  "Mother, I'm so sorry I hid from you, that I didn't tell you."

 

"It- it wasn't your fault, Ranma."  Ranma's mother was wiping ineffectually at her eyes.  "I understand.  Please do come inside.  There's so much we need to talk about."

 

Ranma's mother tried to guide her into the house.  Ranma kept her place. "Mother, I would like you to meet Marumoto Kentaro.  Kentaro, this is my mother, Saotome Nodoka."

 

Nodoka locked her eyes on Kentaro.  Kentaro found it interesting how her face turned from happy and loving to antagonistic and glacial in the space of a second.  He bowed to her nonetheless.  "I am honored to make your acquaintance, Saotome-sama."

 

Nodoka merely nodded.  Then she looked back at Ranma, her face softening a bit. "The rest of the family waits for you inside, including your father.  Come, my son."

 

Ranma looked at Kentaro and gave him a small smile of apology.  She then followed her mother into the house.

 

Akane looked at him, sniffed, and went inside as well.

 

Kentaro stood there for a moment.  Part of him wanted to run back out the front gate before it was too late.  "My son," Nodoka had called Ranma.  There was either a very strange sickness or a very strange magic awaiting him inside the house, and stepping foot inside would mean getting sucked right into it.  However, Kentaro was still very much in love with Ranma, and he needed to go inside if he was going to fight for her.

 

He went into the house, taking off his shoes.  In another room, he could hear people exclaiming loudly.  He slowly walked down the hallway, stopping just short of the dining room entrance.  Ranma was currently hugging a tall, beautiful, pregnant woman.  The woman was crying almost as much as Nodoka had.  They separated, and Ranma smiled at her before turning to another woman, who gave Ranma an appraising look with one eyebrow raised before breaking out into a grin and hugging her.

 

Kentaro looked around, trying to put names to faces.  The pregnant woman was Kasumi, the one currently hugging Ranma was Nabiki.  The man with long hair was... Soun, that was it.  The heavyset, bald man with glasses was Ranma's father, Genma.  The tall, good-looking man with glasses Kentaro had no idea, and guessed him to be Kasumi's husband.

 

Kentaro stood silently, waiting for Ranma to make the rounds.  The last person she went up to was her father.  They stared at each other for a long moment while the rest of the family watched quietly.  Finally, Genma reached out with one hand.  "Ranma...."  Then they, too, were hugging each other, and Genma's eyes were glistening.  Genma was saying, "I'm sorry" over and over again.  Finally, Ranma broke the hug and punched her father in the shoulder. "Shut up, Pop.  You want to make it up to me, you start training with me again.  Looks like you've gone a long time between workouts.  It's going to be fun whipping you back into shape."

 

Genma gulped.  "Son-" He grimaced, and continued. "Ranma.  It would be my greatest honor to train at your side again."

 

They bowed to each other.  Then Ranma turned around, smiling, to take everyone in.  Her eyes found Kentaro, and her smile dimmed just a little bit. "Everyone..."  She licked her lips, evidently having great difficulty speaking.  "This is Kentaro."

 

Almost as one, everyone turned to look at Kentaro.  He blanched under their combined hostility.  Nabiki looked as angry as Nodoka or Akane.  Kasumi had a very small frown on her face.  Soun was scowling, and for a moment Kentaro caught a glimpse of some other-worldly visage.  Tofu was the only one who looked even a little sympathetic.

 

This all paled before the reaction he was getting from Genma.  Genma began by looking angry.  That grew into a white-hot fury.  Finally, with an incoherent cry, he sprang at Kentaro.

 

Reflexes Kentaro didn't know he had took over.  He stepped back and grabbed Genma's out flung arms.  He spun in the hallway and threw Genma through the door opposite, which led into a yard.

 

As he let Genma go, rational thought returned.  This wasn't a dojo or a gym classroom, with mats on the floor and walls.  Genma was likely to get hurt. Kentaro tried to grab Genma again, but it was far too late.  Fortunately, he landed in a pond in the yard.

 

Kentaro took a step towards the pond and stopped.  A panda emerged from the pond, glaring at Kentaro and taking a step towards him before collapsing, apparently having gotten the wind knocked out of him.

 

Kentaro's mouth went dry.  It was one thing to intellectually acknowledge the possibility of magic.  It was quite another to actually witness it.  The last of his doubts fled his mind, leaving his rationality without much to support it.  He stood and quivered slightly, trying to catch his breath.

 

It was real.  It was really real.  And what that meant about Ranma... Kentaro's mind couldn't quite comprehend it all.  Instead, he just blankly stared at the large lump of black and white fur.

 

"Takes a bit of getting used to, doesn't it?"  The voice was dry and just a touch hostile.  Kentaro turned to look at Nabiki, who had her eyebrow raised again, staring at him quite frankly.

 

"Leave him alone, Nabiki."  Ranma's voice wasn't mad or threatening.  She spoke in a quiet, even, almost respectful voice.  Nabiki arched her eyebrow a little higher, glancing at Ranma, before turning back into the dining room.

 

Ranma came up to Kentaro, a sympathetic look on her face.  "Sorry 'bout that."

 

Kentaro nodded.  "It's okay.  I... I guess I understand.  A little more than I did yesterday, anyway."

 

Ranma harrumphed but said nothing more.  She looked over at the panda - her father, Kentaro forced himself to acknowledge - before taking Kentaro's arm and guiding him back into the dining room.  She had him kneel at the dining room table, then positioned herself at one end, where she was sitting near but not next to him.  Akane immediately sat opposite Kentaro, as close to Ranma as he was.  The rest of the family sat around the table, except for Tofu who was taking a kettle of water out into the yard.

 

Ranma looked around at everyone again.  "All right, what's this about getting that damn kettle back?"

 

Nabiki reached behind her, grabbed a folder, and put it on the table.  She opened the folder, hesitated, and looked at Ranma.  "I want you to understand how much time, effort, and money went into preparing for this.  It was the culmination of months of hard work, just so we can find 'that damn kettle'."

 

Although she was staring at Ranma, somehow Kentaro felt that he was the focus of her attention.  Ranma seemed to understand that as well.  She returned Nabiki's gaze calmly, refusing to be ruffled.  "And what did you find out?"

 

Nabiki drew a corner of her mouth down, then shook her head and continued. "I had a classmate in college.  Real nerdy guy, but real smart.  Into computers and geology.  I had him do some computer simulations of the mountain's collapse.  We knew where you were when you fought Herb, and we have an approximation of where the chasm was, and how deep it went.  He was able to call up records of how the mountain looked before and after the crash, and was able to look up all of the seismological recordings of the collapse.  He plugged this all into a computer and came up with several likely locations for the kettle."

 

Nabiki flipped through the papers in the folder.  "I was able to get him access to some university equipment.  Stuff that uses sound waves to take pictures of what's buried in the rock.  He used it to make some models of the areas he thought likely to contain the kettle.  Geologically, the whole area is a real mess, so accurate pictures were hard to extrapolate. However, in one of the areas he was able to detect something a lot denser than the surrounding rock... and this."  She slid a picture over to Ranma.

 

Ranma held it so that Kentaro could see it too.  It looked like a very grainy black-and-white line drawing.  To one side of the picture, a dark shape could conceivably be interpreted as a kettle's spout.

 

Ranma looked up at Nabiki, who nodded.  "It looks good.  Obviously no one's ever done a study on how magical kettles react when buried under tons of rock.  Still, it seems to have kept its shape.  The kettle is perhaps one hundred meters from the surface."

 

"A hundred meters?"  Kentaro spoke in spite of himself.  "Through solid rock?"

 

Ranma looked at him and smiled.  "Don't worry, that's nothing.  There are things you can do with the Art that you haven't even begun to scratch the surface of yet."  She looked back over at Nabiki.  "You have a strategy for digging it out?"

 

Nabiki nodded and held up some more papers.  "If you can do that Ryoga thing, I think we can get to it fairly safely.  I had my friend do several simulations, based on what I could tell him about the blast potential.  It helps that the area is still very unsettled; lots of rock should give way quite easily."

 

Ranma nodded thoughtfully and looked at the picture one more time.  Her eyes flicked over to Kentaro and back down to the picture, so fast he almost didn't notice.

 

"Ranma."  Nodoka spoke from where she sat at the opposite end of the table. She paused while Genma and Tofu came in and took seats at the table, Genma not so much as looking in Kentaro's direction.

 

Nodoka started over.  "Ranma, it's time we talked about you taking your proper place in the family.  I... regret the circumstances that led you to leave this house.  That led you to remove yourself from all contact with those that loved you.  No matter what has happened to you, you are still my son.  You will always be welcomed by me.  Always."  Her breath caught a little bit, and she paused to gather herself.

 

Nodoka spoke a little more forcefully.  "As my son, you have certain obligations.  The first is that you are to wed Akane and unite the Saotome and Tendo families.  You are to take over the dojo from your father and father-in-law.  You are to carry on the traditions of the School of Indiscriminate Grappling, and to provide your own heirs."

 

"All of which, of course," Nabiki smoothly interjected, "is dependent on getting Ranma's condition cured."

 

Nodoka flashed a look at Nabiki, then grudgingly nodded.  "That was a condition we set, true."  Nodoka looked back at Ranma.  "Assuming that we can find this kettle and it works on you, are you prepared to honor these obligations?"

 

Ranma slowly put the picture she was holding on the table.  She stared back at her mother, a carefully neutral expression on her face.

 

Several minutes went by.  No one dared breathe.

 

Nodoka spoke again, sharply.  "Or will you join your father in dishonoring yourself and the Saotome family?"

 

Again, silence.  Ranma wasn't exactly rigid, but neither did she speak or move.

 

Kentaro's heart was beating very rapidly.  A terrible foreboding was hovering at the edge of his consciousness.  Honor was important to Ranma. Kentaro knew that no matter how she felt, she would have to do what honor told her was right.

 

Kentaro grasped for something, anything to forestall the inevitable.  "Point of order."

 

He could hardly believe he had spoken out loud.  To judge from the shocked and angry looks he got from some people, they couldn't believe it either.

 

He tried to put some moisture back into his mouth.  "Akane and Ranma formally broke off their engagement four years ago, with the blessings of both the Tendo and Saotome families.  It seems to me that those agreements are no longer binding."

 

Silence.  Kentaro wondered if he was going to be ignored, and what, if anything, he would be able to do about it.

 

Finally Nodoka spoke, her voice enough to freeze water.  "I was not consulted on that matter."

 

Kentaro drew a breath.  "Nevertheless.  The senior member of the Tendo family, Tendo Soun-sama, and the senior member of the Saotome family, Saotome Genma-sama, agreed.  Perhaps more importantly, Akane and Ranma agreed.  The engagement was ended, and all agreements having to do with the engagement also came to an end."

 

"My husband," Nodoka spat, "was in no condition to make any agreements on behalf of the Saotome family.  As I understand it, he spent much of his time as a panda, and drunk."

 

Kentaro shook his head.  "Nevertheless.  He agreed."

 

Nodoka almost growled.  "Then we make new agreements.  Akane and Ranma will wed and run the dojo.  By our honor!"

 

That brought Kentaro short.  Checkmate.  He couldn't think of a way out of that.  If the families agreed, Ranma was honor-bound to go along with it.

 

"Urp."  The sound came from Ranma.  She looked extremely embarrassed, and guilty.  Kentaro examined her closely.  He knew all the signs of Ranma wanting to say something important and trying to work up the courage.

 

Apparently, Akane did, too.  "Out with it Ranma.  What are you trying to say?"

 

Ranma gulped and looked down.  Then she raised her head and looked around the table, speaking tentatively.  "Uh, when, um, I was moving out..."  She paused, licked her lips, and continued.  "Pop and I, we... got in a fight. He, uh, was unhappy that I was leaving.  He, he got angry, and, and he'd been drinking, and we were both so mad at each other..."

 

Ranma clearly was trying to get to the point, but was unable to.  Akane leaned forward to stare into Ranma's eyes.  "C'mon," she said with surprising gentleness.  "It's okay, you can tell us.  We're your family, Ranma."

 

Ranma looked at Akane.  She opened her mouth, but nothing came out.

 

"I told him that, when he registered at college, I hoped that he wouldn't give his name as Saotome Ranma, because I no longer considered him my heir."

 

A shocked silence followed while everyone stared at Genma.  He was looking down at the table top, his face a mask.

 

Knowing that he was setting himself up as the bad guy, Kentaro still felt the point needed to be spoken out loud.  "So, if Ranma was disowned by the head of the Saotome clan, she is not bound by any agreements they might make on her behalf."

 

As expected, a lot of hostile glances were sent his way, none more so that Nodoka's.  "This is intolerable.  My husband was speaking from anger and alcohol, and clearly didn't mean what he said.  My son still calls himself Saotome, and is still a member of the family."

 

Kasumi's voice, gentle and slightly wistful, was like a breath of spring air warming the iciness of the atmosphere around the table.  "Perhaps we should look at this from another angle.  Rather than debate these issues of duty and obligation, let us ask Ranma-kun what he wants to do."

 

Once again everyone looked at Ranma.  Once again, she looked back at everyone with evidently no idea of what to say.  Kentaro sighed silently; once again, he was forcing Ranma into making an unpleasant choice.  Maybe it would have been better if he'd stayed silent.  But then Ranma might have been forced into an unhappy marriage.  That's the rationalization that most easily came to Kentaro's mind, anyway.

 

Finally, Tofu spoke up.  "We may be putting the cart before the horse here. We have no idea if the Kaisuifuu is there, or if it's whole, or if it's going to work.  Why don't we wait until after the attempt to recover it before we pressure Ranma-kun into a decision?"

 

There was another, shorter pause while everyone considered Tofu's words. Finally, Nodoka nodded.   "You speak wisely, Tofu-san.  Son, I will speak with you later."  She stood up and glared at Genma.  "Husband, I will speak with you now."  She turned and left the dining room, heading out into the yard towards the dojo.  Genma stood as well, still wearing a neutral expression as he followed his wife with all the enthusiasm of a man walking to the gallows.

 

Another silence followed.  Finally, Kasumi rose.  "It's been far too long since I cooked in this house.  I think I'll make dinner."  She turned to Akane.  "May I have your help, Akane-chan?"

 

Akane frowned at Kasumi, glanced at Ranma, and glared at Kentaro.  Finally, she sighed.  "Okay."  She stood up and followed Kasumi into the kitchen.

 

Ranma sighed, then leaned forward to briefly touch her forehead to the table.  Then she straightened and stood up.  "Kentaro, we need to talk." She waited while he stood, then led him out into the yard.

 

The yard was very pleasant.  Kentaro had not had time to notice while he had been throwing his girlfriend's father into the pond.  He tried to will that image from his mind and instead let the yard fill him with serenity.

 

The peace was shattered by a shout from the dojo - Ranma's mother, yelling angrily.

 

Ranma grimaced, then turned to Kentaro.  "Let's go."  She put her arm around Kentaro's waist, grabbed him tightly, and jumped.

 

Kentaro gave a slight yelp as they hurtled skywards.  They landed on the roof of the house.  Ranma let him go and looked around.  "Been a while since I've been here."  She sighed and sat down, facing the yard.

 

Kentaro tried once again to gather his wits.  Ranma was strong, there was no doubt about that.  She did these amazing things as easily as she breathed. It was one of the things he loved about her.  Still, sometimes it was... unsettling.

 

He sat beside her.  He began to put his arm around her, then hesitated.

 

Ranma sighed and leaned into him, allowing him to complete his motion.  She stared out at the dojo.  Her mother's voice rose from the dojo, and this time her father's voice responded in kind.

 

Ranma shuddered.  "You've had parents all your life."  Kentaro knew what she meant; most of her life had been spent with no knowledge of her mother. "Did they ever fight?"

 

Kentaro nodded.  "Of course."

 

Ranma looked up at him.  "How did it make you feel?"

 

"Horrible.  Like something inside of you is dying with every angry word spoken."

 

Ranma winced and nodded.  She looked back out in the yard.  Tofu and Kasumi were standing outside the dojo, talking quietly to each other.  Then they entered.  A couple of minutes later, Kasumi emerged with Nodoka, who was walking stiffly, her cheeks bright with anger.  Together they went inside the house.

 

Ranma let out a small sigh of relief.  When she spoke again, her voice was full of sorrow.  "Kentaro, I'm sorry I wouldn't hold your hand earlier."

 

Kentaro felt his own bit of relief hearing that.  "It's okay.  I understand."

 

"Do you?"  She turned her head once more to look at him.  "Do you really?"

 

Kentaro looked into her eyes.  "I... I think so."

 

"Good."  She had an apologetic look on her face.  "I'll probably do it again.  I think that during the next few days I may kinda avoid you while I work things out.  I need to put some distance between us so that I can make a good choice.  Can you understand that?"

 

Kentaro's heart sank into his stomach.  He tried to rally and answer bravely.  "Yes, Ranma.  I'll try, anyway."

 

She smiled.  "I knew I could count on you."  She turned her body, wrapped her arms around him and, for the second time in the almost four years he had known her, initiated a passionate kiss with him.  Kentaro found himself unable to truly enjoy it, even as he responded in kind.

 

After a while, they separated.  Ranma's eyes glistened.  She seemed to be on the verge of saying something.  After a while, though, she disentangled herself from him, walked to the edge of the roof, and jumped.

 

Kentaro let out a shaky breath and lay back on the roof.  His mind tried to grapple with the fear that he was about to lose Ranma.  The concept was very painful, almost unthinkable.

 

And somehow, almost inevitable.

 

***

 

The opening of the dojo door woke Kentaro.  Blearily, he saw a woman in a white gi bow and enter the dojo.  His heart soared; even if Ranma was going to avoid him, at least she was still going to train him.

 

Then he realized that it wasn't Ranma at all.

 

Akane was glaring at him - in fact, Kentaro had yet to have her look at him any other way than angrily.  "Get out.  I need to practice."

 

Kentaro sighed, rolled off the sleeping mat he'd set up in one corner of the dojo, fumbled in his suitcase and emerged with his gi.  A workout sounded like a good thing, even if he had to do it outside.

 

"Ranma tells me that you're his student.  His 'heir'."  Akane made it sound like an accusation.

 

Kentaro shrugged.  "I've always thought that being the inheritor of the School was just a temporary thing, until someone better came along.  In the back of my mind, I was always thinking..."  He trailed off, realizing that this wasn't a good thought to complete.

 

Akane frowned.  "Thinking what?"

 

Kentaro shook his head.  "Never mind.  If you will excuse me, Tendo Akane-san."  He bowed to her and walked to the dojo door.

 

"Wait."  Akane crossed her arms.  "I, too, am a student of the School of Indiscriminate Grappling.  I would like to ascertain for myself how worthy the heir to the School is."

 

Kentaro sighed.  He'd been training for three and a half years.  Akane had been training most of her life.  He had no illusions about his ability to stand up to her in combat.  "Are you sure that's the whole reason, Akane-san?  You wouldn't be trying to carry out the threat you made to me back in Ranma's apartment?"

 

To his surprise, she smiled widely.  "Oh good.  You question my honor as well.  Now you will challenge me if you have any sense of honor at all."

 

Kentaro hung his head.  He took a few deep breaths, then walked to the center of the dojo, standing opposite Akane.

 

They bowed.  Then the fight began.

 

It was over almost instantly.  Akane attacked.  Kentaro tried to fend off her attacks, but she simply overpowered him.  She was strong, and skillful, and knew how to break down his defenses.  Within thirty seconds he was sent crashing into the wall.  He fell slowly to the floor, dazed and trying to breathe.

 

Akane walked up to stand over him.  "We're not done yet.  Get up."

 

Kentaro took a few seconds to get his breath back, then he stood up and sent a glare of his own at Akane.  "Yes, we are done.  If you have a problem with my status in the School, bring it up with Sensei.  If I have insulted your honor - and I don't think I have - it's been satisfied.  Most of all, I am not going to let you assault me just because you're angry.  I don't know why it should shock you that Ranma decided not to pine over you for all eternity, but I also know she shouldn't have to apologize for that.  And I'm not going to apologize, either."

 

Akane let out a shriek of anger and threw a punch at him.  He ducked under it, sprang forward and did a rapid series of somersaults to end up by the dojo door.  He stood, turned, bowed to the center of the dojo, locked gazes with Akane's angry visage, and left.

 

The air of the yard was surprisingly crisp.  Kentaro walked slowly around the yard, letting the air cool his temper.  He hated being angry.

 

He came to the pool and looked down into it.  Some carp could be seen swimming around it.  Ranma had once mentioned how amazed she had been at the koi's durability, considering the number of times bodies fell into the pool. Kentaro smiled at the memory of her stories.  He trailed his hand in the water, wondering what it would be like to live in fear of being drenched in water.

 

He also wondered what it would be like if his fear manifested and stayed with him for the rest of his life.

 

Kentaro grimaced, then stood up.  In one part of the yard, a board with rope tied to one end had been driven into the ground.  Kentaro went up to it and began punching it, trying to improve his speed.  Once, Ranma had shown him something of her hand speed.  Kentaro had wondered why there hadn't been a sonic boom as a result of her hands flying through air.

 

He worked out for quite a while, letting the discipline of the Art settle his mind.  If only he could find a way to work out all day.

 

"Kentaro-san, breakfast."  Kasumi's pleasant voice drifted into his ears. He stopped his current exercise to look up at her on the porch.  Kasumi was smiling, her expression pleasant.  Although Ranma had seldom spoken of life in the Tendo home, Kentaro had gotten an impression that Kasumi had been something of a mother figure to Ranma.  He could see some of that now.

 

"Thank you, Kasumi-san."  He walked up to her, then frowned.  "Is there a place I can rinse myself off?"

 

Kasumi pointed to a spigot surrounded by buckets and soap.  "You need only wash your hands, Kentaro-san.  Ranma and his father were always coming to the table right after their workouts.  No one will think less of you for not giving yourself a thorough bath before breakfast."

 

Kentaro chuckled.  "They couldn't think less of me anyway."  He began to move towards the spigot.

 

"Kentaro-san."  Kasumi's voice changed a little bit.  Although still pleasant, it contained a hint of seriousness that somehow demanded Kentaro's attention.  "I know it's been difficult for you.  Please understand how difficult it's been for us as well.  For six months, the family has been doing everything in its power to get Ranma cured, and to bring him back to the family.  We all assumed that Ranma would be overjoyed at the thought of regaining his male form and marrying Akane.  That didn't happen, and it's easy to blame you for that.  Not one of us - myself included, much to my shame - thought that Ranma would fall in love with someone else. Right now, everyone wants the old Ranma back, and you're seen as the biggest obstacle to that happening."

 

Kentaro considered her words.  "Something I reinforced by arguing with her mother yesterday."

 

"I know that you love Ranma.  Oh my."  Kasumi's hands fluttered.  "It sounds strange to say that.  I still think of Ranma as a man."  She stilled herself. "It's going to take some time for everyone to adjust.  Some will adjust sooner than others.  Please be patient with us.  This is a good family.  They will come to know you for the decent, respectful, patient man that you are. In time."

 

Kentaro studied Kasumi.  She was smiling gently at him.  Somehow serenity seemed to radiate from her and settle into him.  He found himself smiling back at her. "Thank you, Kasumi-san."  He bowed.

 

She returned the bow, then went back into the house.

 

Kentaro blew out a breath. He went to the spigot and washed his hands. Akane came up behind him as he did so, and he tried not to look like he was bracing for an attack.  She merely used the spigot herself when he was done. Kentaro hesitated for a second, wondering whether to try and talk to her. He decided it was too soon after their last encounter, and breakfast needed to be eaten.  And he was a coward.

 

Smiling in self-deprecation, he went into the Tendo home, followed closely by Akane.

 

He sat down with the door to his back.  The whole family was already at the table except for Ranma and Genma.  Everyone began eating silently.  Kentaro wondered whether or not to try and start a conversation, then decided against anything that might be taken as ingratiating.

 

There was a loud shout and a crash from upstairs.  The shouts continued, following a trajectory that led from upstairs to the yard behind Kentaro. A rather large thump was followed by immediate sounds of fighting.

 

Kentaro's first reaction was to be quite alarmed.  He was about to jump up when he was brought short by the reactions of the other people around the table.  They all had expressions of amusement and affection, from Kasumi's small smile to Nabiki's wide grin.  Even Nodoka was smiling and shaking her head.

 

Kentaro turned in his seat to see Ranma and her father fighting around the yard.  Kentaro blinked, awed.  He could see them using some of the moves he had been taught by Ranma, but mostly they did things quite beyond his capability.  They liked to jump around a lot, attacking in mid-air, something Kentaro couldn't even conceive of himself doing.  It reinforced Kentaro's belief that he would never be a worthy heir to the School.

 

Ranma seemed to be wiping the yard with her father.  Genma's few attacks were easily avoided by Ranma, while her attacks connected or forced Genma to retreat.  Finally, Ranma landed a blow that knocked Genma high into the air. He seemed to be headed for the pond, but Ranma bounded over next to the pool and grabbed Genma before he could land in it.

 

"Ain't got room at the table for pandas, Pop."  Ranma's speech patterns were quite rough, something she slipped into sometimes when she was working out or particularly stressed.  "Damn, you're out of shape.  You may wanna work on your conditioning before our evening session.  I plan to beat the hell out of you then, too."  She grinned at him.

 

Genma grunted.  Ranma set him on the ground.  They made their way to the house.  Just as they were stepping onto the porch, Genma grabbed Ranma's gi and sent her flying across the yard.  She hit a tree rather hard, bouncing off of it to land in a heap on the ground.

 

Kentaro's eyes grew wide in alarm.  Ranma, however, bounced to her feet almost immediately, looking at her father.

 

He had turned to follow her flight.  "If you plan to get the better of me, Ranma, you'd better remember to never let your guard down."

 

Ranma chuckled.  "Point to you, Pop."  She took two running steps and sprang at Genma.

 

Genma merely stepped inside the house, turning to enter the dining room. Ranma landed on the porch, cursed Genma good-naturedly for his cowardice, then entered the dining room.  She took a place at one side of the table, next to Akane.  Kentaro couldn't suppress a twinge of jealousy even as he realized that it must have been her normal seat when she lived in the Tendo home.

 

Ranma's presence seemed to break the ice.  Conversation began to flow, mostly questions to Ranma about college life and the upcoming graduation. Ranma responded cheerfully, talking about all the things she'd done during her storied career at the college.  Kentaro kept out of it, and Ranma made no special effort to include him in the conversation.  Kentaro didn't mind so much; it made him feel good to see Ranma so happy.  A part of her family again.

 

That thought dampened his spirits.  Her family.  Which seemed to include the Tendos.  That would only happen, of course, if she married into it.

 

Everyone finally reached a point where breakfast was more or less over. People began to leave the table.  Kentaro's offer to help clean up was politely refused by Kasumi. Nodoka touched Ranma on the shoulder.  Ranma sobered, and together they left the dining room.

 

With nothing better to do, Kentaro wandered back out into the yard.  He sat down on a rock next to the pond.  He spent an hour thinking.  His thoughts were going around and around in circles.  As frustrating as that was, he couldn't break out of it.  There was an awful lot that was going to be decided in the next few days, regarding subjects he still had trouble accepting as the situation Ranma was in.

 

Someone sat down next to him on the rock.  He turned to see Nabiki giving him a critical look.  She was holding up a photo album.  "Thought I'd show you some pictures."

 

Kentaro blinked in surprise.  He wondered what Nabiki was up to.  "Sure."

 

She put the album in his lap and opened the front cover.  The first picture was big, taking up the entire page.  It seemed to be an informal family portrait, taken in the Tendo yard.  Kentaro examined the faces.  They looked pretty much the same, just younger.  Akane, especially, looked like she had matured significantly in the years since the picture had been taken. Her hair was shorter, too.

 

He studied another face, trying to place it.  It looked vaguely familiar.  "Who's that guy standing next to Akane?"

 

Nabiki snorted.  "Who do you think it is, Kentaro-san?"

 

Realization exploded in Kentaro.  Suddenly he had trouble breathing. Numbly, he examined Ranma's picture.  She was quite handsome as a man.  She was wearing a red silk shirt that showed her muscles to good effect.  She was grinning confidently, a look he knew very well.  The way she stood next to Akane, even if they weren't touching each other, showed familiarity and a touch of possessiveness.

 

Ranma.  A man.

 

Kentaro lifted his eyes from the photograph and stared into the sky, his heart beating rapidly.  This was the Ranma everyone else knew.  Her female form had merely been a disguise that hid this man.  That's why everyone still referred to Ranma as "he"; it was this face they saw when they looked into her eyes.

 

It was how Ranma saw herself.

 

And Kentaro began, for the first time, to doubt the personal pronouns he used when referring to Ranma.

 

"There's more."  Nabiki reached over and flipped the page.

 

Kentaro didn't want to look down but couldn't help himself.  There were more pictures of Ranma and Akane.  Walking to school together.  Sitting at the table together.  Despite himself, he turned the pages.  Ranma and Akane at the beach.  There, Kentaro saw the Ranma he knew well.  Even wearing a woman's bathing suit, she sat next to Akane on a beach towel, grinning.  Ranma fighting some guy with an umbrella while Akane watched in the background. Another picture of Ranma as a woman, wearing a kimono of all things and walking with Akane at a festival.

 

More pictures of the same, all featuring Ranma and Akane.  It was a skillfully crafted monologue, each picture highlighting the relationship Akane and Ranma had once had.  The last picture was one taken apparently unawares.  In it, Ranma was stepping around Akane in a school hallway.  Ranma had her - his - hand on Akane's shoulder, and the look on both of their faces indicated they were aware of the touch, and that it meant something to them.

 

Kentaro sighed and closed the album.  He turned to look at Nabiki.  "Well done.  Did you spend all night putting this together?"

 

The way her eyes flashed told him that he had scored.  "Do you understand the point?"

 

Kentaro nodded.  "Ranma and Akane were once in love."

 

"Still are in love, even if Ranma can't recognize it."

 

Irritation rose in Kentaro.  "What makes you so sure, Nabiki-san?"

 

She was becoming angry herself.  "Because I know Ranma.  He can't ever hide his feelings from me.  He still loves my sister.  You see the way he looks and acts around her in those pictures.  He's still doing it."

 

Kentaro raised an eyebrow.  "And how does Ranma look and act around me?"

 

Nabiki grimaced.  "Okay, Ranma has some feelings for you, I grant that.  But that's only because he's stuck in that body.  Once we get him cured and Akane becomes a viable option, he will choose her.  You can count on that."

 

Kentaro drew an angry breath.  "There's more depth to our feelings than you're giving us credit for.  I didn't see Ranma rushing to accept her engagement to Akane.  Do not make the assumption that Ranma's feelings for your sister are stronger than her feelings for me.  I was there for her when she was struggling to find a reason to keep going.  I didn't see Akane anywhere."

 

"Akane wanted to be there for him.  He drove her away.  After they agreed to end their engagement, Ranma withdrew more and more from the family.  He just stayed in his room studying for the entrance exams, and finally moved away to college.  He ran away from us, even if we still wanted to be his family."

 

Kentaro shook his head.  "You pushed her away as much as she ran away.  You all treated her like she'd been given an incurable disease.  Akane stopped loving Ranma, unable to deal with what had happened to Ranma and unable to overcome her homophobia."

 

"Don't you DARE!"  Nabiki's shout blew in Kentaro's face.  She growled and continued.   "Don't you dare judge my sister.  It was very difficult for her. You can't imagine it."  Her eyes narrowed.  "Can you, Kentaro-san?  If Ranma gets cured, will you still love him?  Will you want to marry him?"

 

Kentaro stared into Nabiki's eyes.  The moment dragged on for hours.  The fury slowly left her face, but she was still looking at him critically.

 

Finally Kentaro brought himself to answer.  "I don't know," he whispered painfully.  He continued in a slightly stronger voice.  "I want to say that my love for Ranma knows no limits.  But there are limits, much as I hate myself for them.  I don't judge Akane harshly.  I can't say that I wouldn't - and won't - react the same way in that situation."

 

It was Nabiki's turn to try and respond.  Slowly her face softened to the point where she looked almost sympathetic.  "I'm... I'm sorry about all this.  You seem like a nice guy.  You probably don't deserve what we're putting you through.  But please realize, our first priority is Ranma.  We want to do everything we can to make him as happy as possible.  The point I was trying to make here was that such happiness may not include you."

 

Kentaro opened the album and examined one last time a picture of Ranma and Akane together.  "I want Ranma to be happy too, Nabiki.  But I'm also going to do my best to make damn sure that Ranma makes the decision she wants to make, not the decision her family wants her to make."  He closed the album and offered it to Nabiki.

 

Nabiki looked at him again.  He saw a bit of begrudging respect creep into her features before she bowed her head, took the album, got up and walked away.

 

Kentaro looked back into the sky, wondering if the conversation had helped him make any progress at all in his internal debate.  He went through the arguments another time, and found that nothing had changed.

 

Except one thing.  Now, whenever he thought of Ranma, he saw a picture of her as a man, and that picture frightened Kentaro.

 

***

 

Graduation was three days away.  The intervening days had not been good for Kentaro.  He hovered at the edge of the family, watching and not making an effort to participate.  They, in turn, ignored him, even Ranma.  She seemed to be having a wonderful time reintegrating herself into the Tendo home.

 

There were still tensions running throughout the family.  Genma and Nodoka barely spoke.  Kentaro didn't know what had happened between Ranma and her mother, but occasionally they would look at each other and their faces would sober.  Akane and Ranma danced around each other, playfully recalling memories of days gone by, while at the same time Ranma kept a careful distance between them.  Akane was, to her credit, patient and understanding. She didn't get mad at him when he pulled away, just waited and tried again.

 

Genma and Ranma had gone through intensive training.  Kentaro would just watch in awe at the things they could do.  He could see the intimacy between them.  No one, not Akane or Kentaro or Nodoka, was as close to Ranma as her father.  Even as they pounded on each other each morning and evening, Kentaro knew that they were reestablishing ties whose severance had caused them both a lot of pain.  They were both very happy as a result.  It seemed that the best times had come after Ranma and Genma had finished training and spread the rough joy they felt around the family.

 

Kentaro was now sitting in the dojo on his sleeping mat.  It was early evening, right after supper.  Soun and Genma had started a public shogi match, with the rest of the family gathering around and shouting strategy advice.  There also seemed to be a concerted effort by everyone to both help and hinder cheating, with the result that the game had started to resemble a real-life war.  Even from the dojo, Kentaro could hear the laughter.

 

The dojo door slid open.  A figure entered, and Kentaro struggled to control his racing heart.  This was not going to be fun.

 

Nodoka bowed to him.  "May I join you, Kentaro-san?"

 

Kentaro rose and bowed back.  "I would be most honored, Saotome-sama."

 

They knelt on the mats, facing each other.  Nodoka had a carefully neutral expression on her face.  "I apologize for my rude behavior when greeting you earlier.  You are an invited guest, and deserve more in the way of our hospitality."

 

Kentaro gave a humorless smile.  "My presence disturbs the harmony of the household.  I apologize as well."

 

Nodoka looked at him for a moment.  "My son tells me that he loves you."

 

She made it seem almost like an accusation.  "I love Ranma as well."

 

"Do you...."  The words seemed difficult for her to say.  "Do you intend to marry him?"

 

Kentaro grimaced slightly.  "I had hoped to spend this week speaking with Ranma about our plans for the future.  I was going to suggest that marriage would have some benefits that were well worth considering."

 

Nodoka twitched an eyebrow.  "Not a very romantic proposal."

 

Kentaro nodded.  "I have to tread lightly with Ranma on these kinds of subjects.  She tends to have strong negative reactions to them, which I am only now fully beginning to appreciate."

 

Some of Nodoka's composure left her.  "How can you ask this of my son?"  She wasn't exactly barking the questions, but it was close.  "He was born and raised as a man.  Very much a man.  How can you ask him to be a wife?"

 

Kentaro spoke slowly and carefully.  "The Ranma I know is a woman.  As far as both of us knew, she was going to be a woman for the rest of her life.  She had made certain concessions to her situation.  One was the ending of her engagement to Akane.  Another was deciding whether to keep her sexual preference in the rather unique situation she was in.  She decided to try a new lifestyle with me, because we had become good friends and because I was willing to be patient with her."

 

He shrugged.  "It seemed to go all right.  Even if our relationship proceeded very slowly and was very difficult for Ranma, it's deepened to the point that we've acknowledged love for each other."

 

Nodoka shook her head.  "Love?  You truly love Ranma, knowing full well he is a man?"

 

That particular subject had loomed large in Kentaro's mind these past few days.  "I... I am in love with the personality that is Ranma.  I'm still struggling, trying to figure out how that love would change if she became a man.  As long as she remains a woman and wants to try to live her life as... as a woman who loves a man, then I will love her, too.  I will ask her to take the next logical step in our relationship, a step that's widely accepted and offers many advantages."  He stopped there.

 

Nodoka was still angry, he could tell.  "If you love Ranma so much, why don't you let him become a man again and go to China to acquire a woman's body for yourself?"

 

Kentaro winced.  "I've thought about it."

 

Nodoka's anger was washed away by surprise.  She silently considered Kentaro.

 

Sighing, Kentaro continued.  "It depends on what Ranma wants.  If she loves Akane and wants to marry her, then it doesn't matter.  If she loves me and is willing to stay with me as a woman, then again it doesn't matter.  If she... if she wants to become a man and... and still wants me, then...."  He trailed off, his emotions threatening to overwhelm him.  "Then I don't know," he finished lamely.  He preferred not to think too much on that subject.

 

Nodoka looked at him, a curious look on her face.  "You really do love my... Ranma."

 

Kentaro nodded.

 

Nodoka lowered her eyes.  "I came here hoping to convince you to step aside in favor of Akane."  She looked up at Kentaro again.  "I'm wasting my time, aren't I?"

 

Kentaro nodded again, simply unable to speak.

 

Nodoka stood up, bowed, and moved towards the dojo door.

 

"Saotome-sama?"

 

She turned to him.  "Yes?"

 

Kentaro wondered if this was wise, but decided to see it through.  "If Ranma chooses to remain a woman, or if the kettle cannot be found or is destroyed, will you object to our relationship?"

 

Nodoka examined him thoughtfully.  "Ranma asked me the same question.  He made it very clear that he has strong feelings about you, and does not want to be placed in a situation where he has to choose between you and me.  The answer I gave him is this:  I don't know.  I have found my son after many, many years.  I do not want to lose him again."  Her face began to fall, and she appeared on the verge of tears.  "I love him.  Her.  Ranma.  And yet, there are parts of me, parts that were shaped by the very traditional manner in which I was raised and accepted as my own, that cannot condone your marriage should it take place.  I hope that I am not placed into the situation of having to make that choice.  I cannot know how I would answer, but I greatly fear what the answer would be and what it would do to me and Ranma."

 

She turned away once again, and left the dojo.

 

Kentaro tried to breath normally.  It was difficult.  He was coming to realize how selfish he was being.  He wanted his own happiness, and damn whatever that cost anyone else.  As long as he got Ranma in the end, nothing else mattered.  All's fair in love and war.

 

He tried to argue with himself.  All he was doing was making sure Ranma was given a choice.  If she chose to give him up, that was all right, he could accept that.  He just wanted to ensure that Ranma was not forced....

 

He just wanted to ensure that Ranma was given every opportunity to choose him.

 

Kentaro lurched to his feet and staggered to the door.  It was stifling in the dojo.  He stepped outside and drew a deep breath, letting the cool night air enter his lungs and wash over him.

 

He wandered around the yard and around the outside of the house.  The darkness matched his mood.  He didn't know what to think about, or how to feel about the situation he was in.  He found himself by the front gate, and he stared for a while at its doors.  Then he turned and began to make his way around to the back yard.

 

He stopped when he heard a noise.  Someone landing on the roof of the house.  Kentaro stood in the shadows of the side of the house, trying to figure out who was up there.  It had to be Ranma.

 

As if in confirmation, Ranma's voice came floating down.  "Always liked this view."

 

Another voice answered.  Akane.  "I've always liked coming up here just to be with you."

 

Kentaro pressed himself against the side of the house.  Eavesdropping had been something Ranma had warned him never to do again.  He really should walk away and let them have their talk.  But he couldn't, he simply couldn't.  He needed to know what they were going to say to each other.

 

Ranma was continuing in a slightly amused voice.  "Really?  Seems to me that half the time I spent up here was because you'd put me here."

 

Akane laughed.  "Most of the time, you deserved it."

 

"Maybe."

 

A silence, broken by Akane.  "Have you decided yet?"

 

"I... I don't need to, yet.  Gotta graduate first, find the kettle second. Then I'll make a decision."

 

Akane spoke in a serious tone of voice.  "That doesn't mean you should avoid the question, Ranma."

 

Ranma sounded serious as well.  "I know.  I've been pretending that I do have a choice, and thinking about what I'll do.  I don't know yet."

 

Akane sounded a little accusatory.  "You like being a woman?"

 

Silence for a long time.  "Well, you see, it wasn't a matter of liking it. I had to accept it, to move on as if it were going to be permanent.  I remember you telling me that on this very roof."

 

Silence for a while.  Then Akane spoke.  "You've got a somewhat feminine hairstyle."

 

"Yeah.  I wanted to keep the pig-tail, but you told me once that it wasn't very attractive on a woman.  I thought about different hair styles."  She chuckled.  "I thought about growing long bangs and using the same hair style you did.  Then I realized that doing that wouldn't be me, it would be me imitating you.  I didn't cut it short for the same reason.  So I kept it simple.  Tie the damn thing off in a pony tail, let my bangs grow just a little bit, and now no one hassles me over my hair and it's easy to maintain."

 

"Who hassled you over your hair?"

 

"Some women in my dorm, early on.  It's not worth going in to."

 

"Hmm."  Akane sounded skeptical.  "Did they hassle you over your clothes, too?"

 

"No.  Pants and shirts were sexless enough not to cause too much in the way of comments."

 

"Do you have any dresses?"

 

"One.  I've worn it twice."

 

Three times, Kentaro thought to himself.

 

"Three times," Ranma corrected herself almost instantly.  "The funny thing is, I wore women's clothing much more often before... before Herb.   Now I... wear the dress only when... when I start yearning too much to become a man again. It's sort of a reminder to myself that I'm a woman now.  It makes me feel weird, though.  I think that, no matter how long I continue to be a woman, I'll never be able to do certain things."

 

"I would have thought those 'certain things' would have included falling in love with a man."

 

Kentaro kept himself from drawing a big breath, waiting for Ranma's response.

 

"I would have thought so, too."  Ranma spoke in a light, casual voice, much to Kentaro's shock.  "Isn't that what you wanted me to do, Akane?  Isn't that what you meant by 'accepting' and 'moving on'?"

 

Silence for a while.  "I... I guess I never really thought about it.  I... just thought that maybe...."  Akane trailed off.

 

Ranma's voice contained just a hint of accusation itself.  "You thought that I would become a nun, living in celibacy until you came waltzing back into my life."

 

This silence went on for a couple of minutes.  Kentaro found his hope rising. This sounded like it was going in his favor.

 

When Akane spoke again, she sounded as if she was ready to cry.  "I'm sorry, Ranma.  I've treated Kentaro horribly, and for no good reason other than the fact that he dared to fall in love with you after I ended our engagement. I just never stopped loving you, Ranma, in some way.  Now that a cure is in sight, I want you back.  And, and it's just... right that you choose me over him.  It's more... natural, more true to the way you were born.  With me, you'd never have to struggle with yourself, never try to be something you aren't.  You'd be able to relax and be yourself."

 

Ranma spoke after a short pause.  "Akane, what will you do if we can't find a cure?  Will you still want me?  Want to marry me?"

 

"That's... that's not going to happen.  We'll find the kettle and you'll use it to return to your old self."

 

Ranma's voice hardened.  "Answer the question, Akane.  Will you still love me if I'm a girl for the rest of my life?"

 

"Ranma, I... I told you that I... I never stopped loving you."

 

"But you couldn't marry me.  Whatever love you felt for me, it changed into something that made you break our engagement.  Now it's evidently changed back into the marrying kind of love.  Will it change again if the kettle is destroyed?"

 

Kentaro was certain that Akane was crying.  "Ranma, please.  This isn't a question we need to consider.  The kettle is there, it'll work, you'll be a man again."

 

"Dammit, Akane."  Ranma sounded angry.  "Do you know the number of times I was sure I had found a cure for my condition?  Each time, the 'sure' thing turned out to be a bust.  So I want to know:  if it doesn't work, will you want to marry me?"

 

Akane began to sob.  The sobs were muffled after a few seconds, either because she was covering her face with her hands or Ranma was holding Akane to her.

 

After a few minutes, Akane spoke up again.  "I'm s-sorry Ranma.  I'm weak, I know that.  I w-want you as a man.  I want to marry you when you become a man.  I'm sorry that I can't... do the things necessary to love you as a woman.  But p-please, don't disregard me because of this.  Would Kentaro be able to love you if you were a man?"

 

Ranma sighed.  "I'm not gonna get into that conversation with you.  That's between me and him.  And I'm not counting you out, Akane.  This isn't a contest between you and Kentaro, no matter what everyone seems to think. It's more a question of who I am, and who I want to be."

 

Akane's crying seemed to have stopped.  "Then... who are you, Ranma?"

 

"I'm a guy!"  Ranma spoke sharply, quickly.  "No matter what adjustments I've made in my current life, my image of myself is still a man.  It's who I am inside.  Not a day has gone by in the past six years that I haven't wished that I could be a man again.  Since you mentioned the possibility of a cure, I can't stop thinking about it.  About how much I want to be a man again. Every day, every hour, every second, there's a part of me that's thinking about how great it would be to be a man."

 

"Then... that means that if we find the kettle..."

 

"Don't jump to conclusions.  There's also a part of me that's in love with Kentaro.  I don't know what to do about it.  I can't just cast him aside.  He means a lot to me.  But he may not have a place in my life if... if I make certain choices.  The part of me that's so excited to be a man is also repelled by the feelings I hold towards Kentaro.  I've done a good job so far of walling that part of me off, but now that a cure is possible, that part of me threatens to break down the walls and make me fall out of love with Kentaro."

 

The hope Kentaro had been feeling crashed down into the pit of his stomach.

 

Akane spoke tentatively.  "And... and is there a part of you that... that has any feelings for me?"

 

"Hell, yes.  When I saw you outside my apartment, it suddenly felt wrong to be holding Kentaro's hand.  I felt... guilty.  Like I was cheating on you. I've been wondering about that.  I realized that I never really let you go.  I walled off my feelings towards you as well.  They're beginning to break out of their prison.  Every time I see you, the walls crack a little more.  It's getting to be like before, when sometimes just seeing you made me feel good."

 

"Oh, Ranma."  Akane's voice sounded close to tears again, tears of an entirely different nature.

 

"Akane, don't.  Remember what I said about conclusions.  Kentaro's done a hell of a lot for me in the past three years.  There's a big part of me that hates to think of living the rest of my life without him."

 

Ranma sighed, audible even from where Kentaro stood.  "It's a hell of a mess. I keep playing games of 'what-if'.  What if Nabiki and her friend hadn't been able to track down that damn kettle.  What if the battle had gone just a little differently with Herb, and I could have recovered the damn kettle before it was buried.  What if I had never gone to China.  What if I had been born a girl in the first place.  What if I'd never been born at all."

 

"Ranma!"  Akane sounded shocked.

 

Ranma chuckled.  "Don't worry, it's nothing like that.  It's just mind games. I decided that 'what-if' is a game you can't possibly win.  I think I learned that lesson three years ago, with a little help from you and Kentaro.  But the game's changed to 'now-that'.  Now that a cure is possible, what to do.  Now that my mother knows, how to deal with her.  Now that you've expressed a desire to marry me, how do I feel about you and Kentaro.  It's a fascinating game.  Unfortunately, the damn consequences are all too real."

 

"Ranma."  Akane sounded incredibly sad.  "We were just trying to make you happy.  Give you what we thought you wanted.  I'm sorry that we ended up torturing you like this."

 

"Don't be."  Ranma sounded firm.  "I'm glad.  At long last, I've got a choice. If - and this is a big 'if', don't forget - if we can find that damn kettle, I can finally choose to live life the way I want to live it.  No matter what kind of hell it puts me through now, in the long run it'll be better, healthier for me to have been given a choice and to have decided for myself. In the long run, I'll be happier."

 

There was a pause before Ranma spoke again.  "I hope."

 

After yet another long pause, Akane spoke quietly, so softly that Kentaro barely heard her.  "I love you, Ranma.  No matter what, I love you."

 

Kentaro held his breath waiting for an answer.  When it came, it was thankfully non-committal.  "I know."

 

No more words were spoken.  Kentaro stood in the shadows, standing absolutely still despite the discomfort it caused him.  In a way, the pain was helpful. It distracted his mind from the more painful things it was thinking.

 

Finally, after perhaps thirty minutes, Kentaro heard movement from above. Then there came a thump from the back yard, and the sound of people walking on the porch and entering the house.

 

Kentaro stood for another couple of minutes, very afraid that Ranma would search for him and yell at him for eavesdropping again.  Eventually he could ignore the pain no longer, and walked quickly to the dojo, stretching muscles along the way that were perilously close to cramping.

 

He prepared for bed in the darkness of the dojo.  He lay on his sleeping mat, staring up at the murky heights of the ceiling.  His mind was still buzzing.  More and more, a sense of doom was pervading his thoughts.  He had a very strong feeling that this was a battle he could not win.  Ranma wanted to be a man again.  She was reforging ties with people who thought of her as a man.  Ranma was rediscovering a love that Nabiki had shown Kentaro was quite strong.  And there was a part of Ranma, the part of her that was still a man, that was repelled by Kentaro.

 

That hurt.  A lot.

 

He had to be fair, though.  He knew that his best chance of staying with Ranma lay in the chance that she would be deprived of the choice she so desperately wanted.  There was a dark part of his mind that hoped she wouldn't get a choice, that the Kaisuifuu was destroyed.  That depressed him as much as anything else.

 

Kentaro had no idea how much time had passed when he heard the dojo door slide open.  He looked up and was able to make out a shape in the darkness. He knew that shape in an instant.  "Ranma."

 

She slid the door closed behind her.  She walked silently over and knelt next to his sleeping mat.

 

Kentaro raised himself on one elbow, trying to make out her face.  "Ranma?"

 

She leaned forward and stroked his hair.  She brought her head to his and, for the third time, began a loving kiss with him.  Kentaro was surprised and delighted.  He reached his free arm over to hold the back of her head.

 

The kiss went on forever.  Finally, Ranma broke the kiss, reached for the blankets covering Kentaro, hesitated for a few seconds, then slid underneath them.  She pressed herself against him and began kissing him again, with a ferocity he'd never experienced before with her.  He found himself responding in kind.  He rolled on top of her, and she put her arms around him, stroking his back and playing with the T-shirt he wore when sleeping.  She began to move it up his back.

 

Suddenly a sense of wrongness cut through the fog in Kentaro's brain.  He snapped his head back and rolled off of her, throwing off the blankets and springing to his feet.  He was breathing heavily and shaking horribly.

 

Ranma seemed to be having trouble breathing herself.  "Wha- what's wrong?"

 

He looked at her, at the very desirable shape lying in his bed.  "Why are you here?"

 

"Huh?"  She sounded quite surprised.  "Why... why do you think I'm here?"

 

Kentaro felt the doom again.  "Have you decided not to go after the kettle after all?"

 

"No!"  Her response came very quickly.  She paused, and continued in a calmer voice.  "I haven't made up my mind yet."

 

Kentaro's heart began to sink again.  "Then why are you here?"

 

He could see her shake her head.  "Because... because I've missed being alone with you.  Because I love you.  Because I think you need my company right now."

 

"Because you think that in a few days I may be deprived of your company? Because you think maybe I need a going-away present?"

 

He stared at the shape that was Ranma.  It didn't move.  After long minutes, it got silently out of his bed and moved towards the door.

 

Ranma opened the door, then turned to face him.  "Kentaro, I'm sorry."

 

Kentaro wasn't sure how to respond so he didn't.  After a moment, Ranma turned and left the dojo.

 

Kentaro sank to the floor, his back to the wall of the dojo.  He moved his eyes to the sleeping mat where Ranma had been only a moment ago.  He touched his lips, remembering how they felt pressed against Ranma's.  He spent the rest of the night realizing that he would almost certainly never taste her lips again.

 

When dawn came, he began packing.  It didn't take long.  He walked out into the yard, taking another look at how beautiful it was.  He entered the house, wanting to leave a note.  He felt a bit of relief at seeing Kasumi walking down the hall to the kitchen.  Talking to her seemed less cowardly.

 

She heard him enter and turned to face him.  Her eyes widened slightly at the sight of his suitcase.  "Oh dear, are you leaving, Kentaro-san?"

 

Kentaro nodded.  "My parents and older sister are coming for graduation.  I need to prepare for their arrival.  Please, tell Ranma that... that I will see her at graduation."

 

Kasumi nodded gravely.  "Will you be coming with us to find the Kaisuifuu?"

 

"I..."  He had thought that he wouldn't, but found himself reluctant to say it out loud.  "I don't know."

 

"Please do, Kentaro-san.  Ranma depends on your presence for so much. Whether or not we find the kettle, Ranma will need you to be there."

 

Kentaro couldn't help smiling slightly.  Ranma had always told him that the one person she had never been able to resist was Kasumi.  Kentaro was beginning to understand why.  "Okay, Kasumi-san, tell Ranma I will be going with you to the mountain."

 

Kasumi's smile was like a bit of light trying to illuminate the blackness he was feeling.  "Shall I give Ranma your love?"

 

Kentaro actually gave a single laugh.  Ranma had also told him how Kasumi would try to subtly guide the people around her.  This time, it was a little obvious.  "You'd better not.  This... isn't the right time."  He bowed to her.  "Thank you for your hospitality, and thank the rest of the family as well.  I apologize for my abrupt departure.  Please, tell everyone... tell everyone that I'm sorry for having been such a disruption."

 

Kasumi's smile faded away.  "I will do no such thing.  The disruption did not come from you, Kentaro.  Never apologize for being in love.  The only things we can judge you on is your actions, and they have been exemplary."  She paused for just a second, then plunged on.  "If it comes down to it, I think you and Ranma would make a good match.  I would be happy to see you married."

 

Kentaro couldn't help the genuine smile that spread across his face.  "Thank you.  That means a lot to me."  He bowed one more time, then turned and left before Kasumi could do any more damage.

 

Kentaro left the Tendo home.  Most of him did, anyway.  He left a large part of his heart behind.  The emptiness inside him grew the further away he got from the house.  He never looked back.

 

***

 

Graduation came and went.  What should have been a highlight of Kentaro's life was instead one of the most depressing times he had ever experienced.

 

He tried to put on a cheerful face for his family, but they weren't fooled. It wasn't hard for them to figure out the source of his depression, either. Ranma had been a frequent visitor when Kentaro had spent his semester breaks in Okinawa.  The entire family had come to like her very much, and it had become traditional for them to ask about she was doing when they called him. The past few times, his mother had made suggestions about Ranma's future that Kentaro had been very glad Ranma hadn't heard.

 

His family had been very supportive, giving him comfort and avoiding the obvious blunders like, "You'll find someone else."  They had instead tried to distract him with discussions of graduate school, and how much money he was going to make when he became a surgeon.  Kentaro was grateful for their presence.

 

He managed to avoid meeting Ranma or her family most of the time.  While filing in with the other graduates, he thought he saw Nabiki pointing a camera at him.  He'd watched as Ranma walked across the stage to pick up her diploma.  She received a big cheer, being captain of both the soccer and gymnastics team, as well as being renowned for the martial arts classes she taught.  She smiled and waved at the crowd, and Kentaro felt a warm glow inside him.  No matter what happened, seeing her happy always made him feel good.

 

After graduation, while everyone was milling around the lawn saying their good-byes, she walked up to him.  They stared at each other for a moment, each with neutral expressions.

 

Finally Ranma spoke.  "We're leaving tomorrow around eight.  From the train station here in town.  It's a bit of a journey, of course.  We'll probably be a couple days getting there and back."

 

Kentaro nodded.  "Okay.  Eight, then."

 

They looked at each another moment.  Ranma began to turn away.  Kentaro practically flung himself at her, and they hugged each other tightly.

 

"Congratulations on your graduation," Kentaro whispered.

 

She tightened her grip, threatening to crack his ribs.  "You too."

 

They separated.  Ranma ran away, and Kentaro watched as she disappeared among the press of people.  He wondered whether he should have said or done something differently, and decided that everything had already been said and done.  It all depended, now, on what happened the following day.

 

He told his family that he was going to stay behind for a couple of days, and that he would meet them in Okinawa.  They understood, and each wished him luck.

 

Kentaro got absolutely no sleep before arriving at the train station.  The entire Tendo and Saotome clans were already there.  Judging by Ranma's looks, she hadn't gotten any sleep either.  Nor had Akane for that matter. Kentaro and Akane exchanged neutral looks, and once again he got the feeling that there was nothing more to be said.  They were past all that now, past the hostility and moralizing.

 

The train ride was completed in silence.  At the train station closest to the location of the Kaisuifuu, Nabiki filled a thermos with hot water, muttering something about "Just in case".  Kentaro wondered why but found no energy to ask.

 

Kasumi remained behind with Tofu, her condition making a hike up unstable rock unwise.  They went to secure lodging for the night, Kasumi first giving Ranma a hug and wishing her luck.

 

The hike was another good couple of hours.  Light mist warred with the sunshine for dominance.  It seemed to match Kentaro's rapidly fluctuating moods.  A side-effect of the battle was a rainbow that arched over the remains of the mountain in front of them.  Kentaro tried to find some sort of symbolism and failed to come up with anything compelling.

 

Finally they reached a spot where Nabiki stopped them and examined some photos.  She turned to show one picture to Ranma.  "Okay, this is it.  We need you to do the Ryoga thing here and here.  If that doesn't work, here as well."

 

Ranma examined the picture and the terrain carefully before nodding.  She sent everyone well to the side.

 

The rain had stopped.  The air was clear, and the wind was still.  Kentaro got the feeling that the world was holding its breath in anticipation of this moment.

 

Ranma stood over a point on the rough terrain.  She cried and struck the rock.  Nothing happened except that some flakes flew from the surface. Ranma frowned and tried again.  This time a small crack appeared.

 

Ranma took a step back.  "Damn.  It looks so easy when Ryoga does it." She probably didn't mean for her words to be heard, but they carried well in the still air.  Ranma took position once again and struck the rock with another shout.  The crack got a little wider, but nothing significant happened.

 

Ranma blew out a breath.  "Come to think of it, he always was stronger than me, even before."  She made a fist and held it in front of her face, studying it closely.  Then she lifted her first two fingers and held them rigidly in place.  After a moment, she looked down at the rock, examining it intently.  She took a couple of practice swings at the rock, her extended fingers brushing the surface, then nodded.  She drew her hand back, held it in position, then struck the rock with her loudest shout yet.

 

This time the effect was dramatic.  Chunks of rock flew everywhere.  Kentaro ducked reflexively, then looked in alarm for Ranma.  She was curiously untouched by any of the shrapnel.  She was standing in the center of a large crater.

 

Ranma nodded to herself in satisfaction, then leapt out of the crater.  She landed about ten meters away.  She looked around and changed her position slightly.  She looked over at Nabiki, who was examining the photographs. Nabiki gave her a thumbs up.

 

Ranma shouted and struck the rock.  As before, nothing happened the first time.  Ranma drew her hand back, shouted, struck.

 

And the mountain gave way.

 

Kentaro fell backwards onto his seat.  It felt like an earthquake.  He managed to catch Nodoka as she fell towards him.

 

The rocks below and to the side were sliding away from the rest of the mountain.  Kentaro looked for Ranma and couldn't find her.  His heart started pounding, fear for Ranma greater than any fear he felt for himself.

 

The landslide ended sooner than he expected.  The ground stilled, and Kentaro quickly set Nodoka on her feet and examined the jumbled terrain.

 

"Ranma!"  Kentaro's voice was echoed almost perfectly by Akane's.  They glanced at each other, and Kentaro saw his fear reflected on her face.

 

They quickly made their way to the landslide.  Kentaro and Akane began working their way through the rock, working together to get over some difficult parts.  Other voices upslope were shouting Ranma's name, and Kentaro strained to hear a response.

 

He heard another shout, and the sound of more rock exploding.  He glanced at Akane, sharing a measure of relief with her.  They worked further down the rock.

 

Rounding a particularly large boulder, they found Ranma working her way into a newly-formed chasm.  She disappeared from sight, and Akane lunged after her.  Kentaro sprang after Akane and grabbed her just before she went into the chasm.  Akane shoved him off, but stayed on the chasm's edge.

 

Kentaro looked down with her.  Ranma had dropped to the floor of the chasm, about three meters down.  She was digging at the floor.  Ranma growled and swung her fist back.  Before Kentaro could tell her to be careful, she shouted and struck the rock.  The ground exploded, and Kentaro looked frantically around for signs of the rock slide starting again.  Some of the boulders shook, but stayed in place.

 

A cry of triumph cut through the air.  Ranma pulled something out of the loose rubble at her feet.  She shouted again, incoherently, a sound of pure joy, of desire fulfilled, of wish come true.

 

Ranma leapt out of the chasm.  She barely glanced at Akane or Kentaro as she continued to leap upslope.  "Nabiki!"  She disappeared from sight.

 

Akane and Kentaro glanced at each other.  Once again, he could see the shock he felt in her face as well.  They began retracing their steps, trying to get back to the main group as quickly as possible.

 

Rounding the big boulder again, Kentaro could see Ranma holding an old, dusty kettle in front of Nabiki.  Nabiki had opened the thermos and was pouring water into the kettle.

 

Akane ran towards the group.  Kentaro stopped where he was, unable to accept what he was seeing.  The bad part of his mind took over, hoping against hope that whatever Ranma was about to try didn't work.

 

Nabiki took the thermos away.  Eagerly, Ranma lifted the kettle, the spout over her head.

 

Kentaro wanted to shout, to stop her, to tell her he loved her and that she didn't need to do this, that they could be happy forever and ever and that the kettle didn't exist and that magic didn't exist and all that mattered in the whole world to him was her and that life would have no good meaning without her and that he loved her and please don't...

 

Before he could force his mouth open, water came out of the kettle's spout and drenched Ranma.

 

And Ranma... changed.

 

She grew taller, bigger, wider across the shoulders, narrower across the hips.  Her face became more rugged, angular.  Her chest, no longer encumbered by certain secondary sexual characteristics, showed good muscle.

 

Kentaro fell to his hands and knees, unable to breathe.  The shouts of happiness and joy from the Saotomes and Tendos washed over him.  Nothing existed but the image of what the woman he loved had become.  The shock of it tore at his sanity.

 

Tears fell from his eyes and splashed the rock below him.  Ranma was gone, lost to him.  She'd made her choice.

 

He tried to calm himself down.  You knew this would be her choice.  You knew this was what she wanted.  You saw it three days ago; why should it surprise you now?

 

His body began to shake with the force of his sobs.  Ranma had been so happy. So excited.  So eager.  The three years of their relationship had not even been worth a second of hesitation as she had lifted the kettle over her head. Kentaro had thought that he had meant more to her than that.

 

A lie.  All a lie.  The talk about being unsure what she would choose.  The uncertainty she'd shown at the dining room table that first night back at the Tendo home.  Maybe she'd only been lying to herself.  But when she found the kettle, she knew what she wanted to do, and had cast him aside as easily as one throws away a pair of pants that no longer fit.

 

My God, Ranma.  I loved you.  How...

 

He would not be bitter.  He would not disparage their entire relationship so. What they had shared had been wonderful, good, enjoyable.  It had just not been able to compete with her desire to become a man again.  He should be able to understand that.

 

To hell with understanding.  He just wanted Ranma back.

 

Still crying, he got to his feet.  He turned and began to run down the slope, not much caring whether or not he fell and broke his neck.

 

"Kentaro!"  An unfamiliar voice, shouting his name with concern.  Her voice.

 

*His* voice.

 

Nearly choking on his own sobs, Kentaro fled.

 

***

 

Kentaro flipped through the textbook.  He felt like a freshman again.  Back to the basics, to required courses before being able to branch out into subjects that interested him.  He was expected to learn a lot, quickly.

 

He sighed and let the textbook fall closed.  He looked around the apartment. It was actually fairly decent.  A bit of a ride from school, but that was a small trade-off.  The bigger problem was that it was quite expensive.  He'd been hoping that Ranma would be able to share expenses.  He'd made some unwarranted assumptions, and he was going to pay the price.

 

Kentaro grimaced.  Thoughts of Ranma crept up when he least expected them. Six weeks had not been nearly enough time to get over her.  It had to be, however.  He needed to focus on school, get to his internship in relatively good shape, learn to control his feelings.  Things were going to be rough.

 

It would have been nice to have someone to share the rough times with.

 

Kentaro shot to his feet so quickly the chair fell over.  He grimaced and set it back on its feet.  He needed control.

 

He stood in the middle of the room and began a kata.  A simple one, mostly just to show balance and control.  Never mind that she had taught it to him; it still was a great way to relax and focus his mind at the same time.

 

Kentaro went through the kata three times before he reached a sense of relative equilibrium.  He looked around the apartment again, cataloguing the many small jobs he still had to do today to make the apartment more livable.  Many of the packing crates were still being used as ersatz furniture and storage units until he could somehow scrape up some money to afford the real stuff.  He could at least rearrange it all to make it somewhat more aesthetically pleasing.

 

He began shuffling the boxes towards one wall, with the thought of making a kind of bookcase out of them.  He was interrupted by a knock at the door.

 

Kentaro sighed.  He was not in the mood to deal with people today.  He thought about ignoring it, but they had almost certainly heard him moving around.  He didn't want to be thought of as a rude recluse.

 

Kentaro went to the door and opened it.

 

It was one of those moments where his brain simply could not accept the sight his eyes were relaying.  He'd had plenty of those moments in the past few months, and thought he was above them now.  Evidently not.

 

He did manage to keep from gaping.  After a moment of staring, he stood back from the door.  "Would you like to come in, Akane-san?"

 

"Thank you, Kentaro-san."  She stepped in, not taking her eyes off of him.

 

Kentaro closed the door.  He wondered what was going to happen.  Oh no, not a personal invitation to the wedding.  He didn't think his sanity could handle that.

 

Akane got to her knees, leaned forward and touched her head to the ground. "Marumoto Kentaro-san, I offer my humblest apologies.  I treated you disrespectfully and dishonorably.  It was unworthy of me, both as a member of the Tendo family and as a disciple of the School of Indiscriminate Grappling.  Do with me as you will, for it is no less than I deserve."

 

Kentaro couldn't help feeling irritated.  She was carrying graciousness in victory a little too far.  With considerable effort, he schooled his thoughts and emotions.  "Please get up, Akane-san.  I accept your apology, and I ask that you put this misunderstanding behind us and think no more of it."

 

Akane rose.  To Kentaro's surprise, she was smiling.  "Ranma said that you were incredibly patient, understanding, and forgiving.  I can see that, too. Which makes your behavior back at the mountain so hard to understand."

 

Kentaro's jaw dropped open.  He was flabbergasted.  "My behavior?  In what way was....  How could you...."  He stopped, started again.  "What the hell are you talking about?"

 

Akane was examining him closely.  "Nabiki thinks it was because you didn't know."

 

Kentaro's mind raced, trying to figure out what he 'didn't know'.  "Okay, I give up.  What was I supposed to have known?"

 

Akane spoke slowly, carefully.  "That the Kaisuifuu did not remove Ranma's curse.  It simply unlocked it.  He still becomes a woman when splashed with cold water."

 

Kentaro gasped.  Horror washed over him.  "Y-you mean she... she hadn't made her choice yet?"

 

Akane nodded, curiously satisfied by Kentaro's reaction.  "It had always been his intention to return to manhood if he could.  For him, it was simply a matter of choosing how to spend his life after getting the curse unlocked."

 

Kentaro sat on a nearby crate.  All the horrible things he'd thought about Ranma, how he'd been shaken by the apparent ease of Ranma's decision - he should have remembered that nothing was decided that quickly by Ranma.

 

Kentaro began to shake with realization.  By a simple matter of miscommunication, for not stopping and letting Ranma explain herself, he had left Ranma with no choice but Akane.

 

Just when he thought he couldn't feel any worse.  He got up, stumbled to the kitchen, and poured himself a glass of water.  He drank it down quickly, trying to steady himself.  It didn't help much.

 

Akane had followed him.  She was leaning against the door frame, eyeing him critically.  "It's another thing I have to apologize to you for.  When Ranma saw you running away, I didn't give him a chance to go after you.  I grabbed his face and gave him the most passionate kiss I could."

 

Kentaro put the glass into the sink.  "I... I guess a student of the School learns to... take advantage of any opportunity."

 

"Oh, shut up.  Get off the cross, Kentaro, somebody needs the wood."

 

Kentaro was surprised, not only by the words but by the good-natured, teasing way in which they were delivered.  He shook his head, unable to understand what was going on.

 

"Listen.  Just listen."  Akane smiled sadly.  "When I kissed Ranma, at first he didn't respond.  Then he began to kiss me back.  Then he shuddered."

 

Kentaro blinked.  "What?"

 

"He shuddered."  A look of pain crossed her face.  "He broke it off and stared at me in the strangest way.  I couldn't tell you which of us was the more shocked."

 

Akane looked down.  "I need to explain this to you, Kentaro-san.  Need to tell you what happened.  We walked back down the mountain, and Ranma stayed in a state of shock.  He kept rubbing his lips and staring off into space.  I'd expected him to be happy, exulted.  Instead he was pensive.  Shocked.  Like he'd fallen into a cursed pool all over again."

 

Akane sighed, filled with emotions Kentaro could appreciate.  "When we got to the motel, he and I shut ourselves in his room and talked.  He tried kissing me again.  He didn't shudder, but he didn't exactly get into it, either."

 

Akane looked up, and her eyes were wet.  "It... it took him... it took us a month to figure out what was wrong.  And what it came down to was that he wasn't in love with me anymore.  Too much had changed in him.  He wasn't the person he was six years ago."

 

Kentaro nodded almost unconsciously.  He remembered Ranma's confrontation this past year with Tange, and her assertion that he was what she used to be.  Whatever the truth of that was, it certainly wasn't what Ranma was now.

 

"He likes me a lot, but... but he doesn't love me."  Tears began to fall down Akane's cheek.  "He couldn't get past the feeling of being abandoned.  He understood the decision I made, and even agreed that it had been the right thing to do given the circumstances.  But he couldn't just pick up again and pretend like it had never happened."  She quirked a corner of her mouth.  "Besides, there were... other considerations."

 

Kentaro hardly dared breathe.  He didn't want to think anything, didn't want to make any assumptions.  Tentatively, he tried to help her out.  "Are you all right, Akane?"

 

She gave him a brave smile.  "I will be.  There was a lot that was wrong with my behavior.  Ranma pointed out to me before we went on our little expedition how self-centered I was being, just assuming that he would fall for me once I made myself available.  This experience is probably good for me. I learned quite a bit about anger, arrogant presumption, and self-control." She chuckled.  "I also learned a heck of a lot about love and sexuality, although I don't see much application for it outside of other Jusenkyo-cursed people."

 

Kentaro grunted.  "Yeah."  He paused, and spoke regretfully. "Akane-san, I-"

 

"Don't apologize, Kentaro.  You behaved fine.  You fought for your love in a way that managed to impress everyone in the family.  Even Ranma's mother, which is no small feat.  You know no blame for my lost opportunities."  She managed another smile.  "In fact, you're helping me a lot.  You set an example for me to follow."

 

Kentaro shook his head.  "I didn't set a good example back on the mountain."

 

Akane snorted.  "Kentaro-san, cut yourself the same slack you give everyone else.  You didn't know all of the facts, and made some logical assumptions. Ranma understands.  You should, too."

 

Kentaro drew a shaky breath, no longer able to refrain from asking.  "What happened to Ranma?"

 

Akane looked at him thoughtfully.  "Well, after he and I had several long, painful talks, we approached our parents and told them we had agreed that there would be no marriage between us.  His mother took it poorly, because she had so wanted our families to be united.  After a day of arguments, his father suggested a compromise: that the Tendo family formally adopt Ranma and name him as the inheritor of the dojo."

 

Akane chewed her lip thoughtfully before continuing.  "I won't bore you with the long discussions that followed.  I had the best claim on the dojo, but I'm not particularly interested in it.  I've got my own job, my own apartment, my own career.  I kinda gave up on totally focusing my life on martial arts when Ranma first showed up, anyway.  In the end, everyone agreed and Ranma's mother was even somewhat happy with it.  Ranma is now a Tendo, and is planning on taking over the dojo very soon."

 

The Tendo dojo.  In Nerima, a good three hours by train from Kentaro's apartment.  Possible, anyway.

 

He chastised himself again for making assumptions.  "How soon?"

 

Akane smiled, this time with warmth colored with amusement.  "As soon as he's decided what to do with you.  He's waiting outside to speak with you."

 

Kentaro's heart skipped a beat.  Despite himself, he began to hope.

 

Akane's smile widened.  "I take it that look means you wouldn't mind talking with him.  I'll go get him."  She straightened, wiped her eyes, and bowed.  "I look forward to meeting you again, Kentaro-san.  Perhaps we can train again together, now that I'm not so... annoyed with you."

 

Kentaro chuckled.  He bowed to her.  "You are a good person, Akane-san.  Ranma has always spoken so highly of you.  I can see why she fell in love with you.  I, too, look forward to continuing our friendship.  Yours is a friendship, I think, that should be highly prized."

 

They held their bows for a moment.  Finally, Akane straightened and moved towards the front door.  She opened it and spoke in a low voice with someone just outside.  She smiled, with a lot of warmth and friendship.  She then said one more thing before moving out the door and away.

 

Kentaro held his breath, waiting.

 

Ranma stepped in.  He was carrying a duffel bag over his shoulder.  He closed the door and looked evenly at Kentaro.

 

Kentaro fought to maintain his composure.  This was Ranma in front of him. He was the... person Kentaro loved.  Yet, Kentaro had trouble getting past the fact that this was a man in front of him.  A man.  The person he wanted to marry.  Kentaro tried to get those two facts to stay in his head at the same time and found that he was unable to do so.

 

Ranma smiled slightly.  He wrinkled his nose.  "Is that smoke I smell?"

 

Kentaro gaped at Ranma.  Then he began laughing.  Ranma joined him, and they chuckled together for a few seconds.

 

Kentaro sobered.  "Damn, Ranma.  It is you."

 

"Yeah.  Me.  I always told you I was a guy, and that if the kettle ever appeared I would use it in a second."

 

Kentaro frowned.  "You told me that three years ago.  I had hoped that things had... changed a little in the meantime."

 

Ranma shrugged.  "Maybe a little, but not much.  I am a guy.  That's who I am.  I ain't much willing to let it go."

 

Kentaro felt his heart begin to sink into his stomach.  Again.  "Even for love?"

 

Ranma looked Kentaro in the eye, his face deadly serious.  "Do you love me, Kentaro?"

 

Despite how much Kentaro's mind was reeling, he had an easy answer.  "Yes. Yes, I do love you, Ranma."

 

Ranma maintained his serious expression.  "Well, I love you too."

 

The world stood still for a moment.

 

They stared at each other.  Kentaro felt an oppressive weight on his shoulders such as he'd never known before.  For all his thoughts about love transcending the limits of sexuality, for all that he had asked Ranma to change her - his - sexual preference, Kentaro found himself unable to accept a relationship where both he and Ranma were men.

 

Kentaro tried to work moisture back into his mouth.  "So what do we do about that?"

 

Ranma raised an eyebrow.   "I don't know what 'we' do about it.  But here's something to think about."  Ranma set the duffel bag on the floor and opened it.  He pulled out a small cask of water.  "While I was trying to get myself cured six years ago, I went on an expedition to China.  It was me, Ryoga, Mousse, Shampoo, and Pop.  We found Jusenkyo, and Ryoga, Mousse, and Shampoo got themselves cured. Unfortunately the magic of the ladle was stronger than the magic of the springs - they didn't work for me.  Pop for some reason chose not to get cured."  Ranma grimaced when he said that.  "Mousse and Shampoo stayed in China.  Ryoga came back with me and Pop.  I brought some Jusenkyo water with me, just in case I might need it."

 

Ranma set the cask on the floor, then tapped it with his fingers to open it.  "This contains Nyannichuan - Spring of Drowned Woman.  If someone were to drench themselves with it, that person would turn into a woman when splashed with cold water.  That person could still become a guy when doused with hot water, so it wouldn't be like that person be giving up their current gender forever."  Ranma crossed his arms and stared at Kentaro.

 

Kentaro began to shiver.  What price love?

 

Kentaro tried to imagine being a woman.  He shuddered despite himself.  He couldn't.  He was a man.

 

And yet, it was what he was asking of Ranma.  To become a woman for him, to submerge her - his - male half.  How could he expect Ranma to make a sacrifice Kentaro himself couldn't make?

 

It was easier for Ranma, though.  She - he - had been years stuck in her - his - female form.

 

Kentaro shook his head.  That was unfair.  It hadn't been easier for Ranma. In fact, Ranma had suffered tremendously before finally regaining male form. Kentaro should be able to understand that Ranma wanted to keep that form as much as possible.

 

Kentaro bent down and picked up the cask.  He held it in front of him, staring down at his reflection in the turbulent water.  What price love?

 

He thought about Ranma, about the woman he had come to know.  The grace of her form, the openess of her character, the integrity and honor that earned the respect of everyone around her.  The patient teacher, the understanding friend, the fun buddy - even the reluctant almost-lover.

 

Kentaro wanted that person in his life.  He needed that person, and he would not lose that person again, not if there was anything he could do about it.

 

Before he could think any thoughts that might argue otherwise, Kentaro closed his eyes and dumped the water on himself.

 

His mind and body went numb.  The first thought to cross his mind was:  What have I done?  He'd just cursed himself.  The school had accepted a man into their graduate program; how would they react to a woman showing up?  What about his parents, his family?  He supposed he could be a guy when we went to school and went to see his parents, and be a woman at home for Ranma.  What about marriage?  Could he get his parents to ignore what gender he was at a wedding ceremony?  And - what about children?

 

Kentaro tried to come to grips with what he'd just done to himself, and failed utterly.  He was panicking, and beginning to wonder if it hadn't been a horrible mistake.  Ranma.  Ranma would get him through this.  He'd done this for her.  Him.  It had to be worth it.

 

Kentaro slowly opened his eyes.  Ranma was grinning widely at him, showing equal parts amusement and affection.  Kentaro couldn't help feeling a little irritated.  What the hell was so funny?

 

Bracing himself, he looked down.

 

He blinked and looked again.

 

He was still a he.  Still a man.

 

Kentaro looked up at Ranma, too stupefied - and relieved - to be angry.

 

"I'm sorry I lied to you."  Ranma tsked and shook his head.  "And frankly, I'm disappointed in you, Kentaro.  Really, what possible reason could I have for bringing Nyannichuan back with me?  So I could curse someone out of spite?"

 

Kentaro finally got his brain to work.  "It was that other stuff.  Spring of Drowned Man."

 

"Nannichuan.  What a difference a letter makes, eh, Ken-chan?"

 

Kentaro looked at Ranma.  "You brought this back with you in case your curse got unlocked, didn't you?  Wouldn't this have... made your male form permanent?"

 

Ranma nodded.  "Yup.  Before this day was out, you were going to use it... or I was."

 

Kentaro stared at Ranma.  His brain had had enough for one day and decided to shut down.

 

Ranma grinned and took the cask out of Kentaro's frozen hands.  He went into the kitchen, where Kentaro could hear it being filled with water.

 

Ranma walked out of the kitchen to stand very close to Kentaro.  "You've already made a mess on the floor.  May as well try to keep it all in one place."  He dumped the water over his head.

 

Kentaro was glad that his mind was not working right at the moment.  He had a feeling it would have not appreciated seeing the change one more time in reverse.

 

And then, suddenly, a different part of his brain did start paying attention.  It noticed that something had changed.  That there was now a woman standing very close to him.  That woman was someone he loved, who also, incredibly, loved him back.

 

As other parts of his mind began to function, he suddenly realized that Ranma had made a choice.  That she had given up something that had once been very valuable to her.  All for him.

 

His spirits began to soar, in a way they hadn't when Ranma had, as a man, admitted that she still loved him.

 

Kentaro's mind worked at high speed, trying to figure out why it was so different now that Ranma was female.  The feelings should be the same no matter gender Ranma was.  Yet there was something he'd held back when Ranma had been a man just now.

 

Kentaro explored it a little further, and realized it wasn't the gender so much.  He hadn't been sure what Ranma had expected from their relationship now that she'd had her curse unlocked.  Now, after weeks of uncertainty, he had his answer.  Kentaro knew that a future with Ranma was possible, in terms they both could accept.  It was that knowledge that was lifting his spirits right now.

 

"Oh Ranma."  His voice was a dangerous whisper.  "Are... are you sure about... living like this?"

 

She smiled at him.  "As sure as you were about trying to live this way, too.  I think we both needed to know that."

 

Kentaro tried to work that out.  She had him there.  "Why both of us?"

 

"Me, so that I know you're willing to make concessions to our relationship.  So far I've been the only one making sacrifices.  I needed to see if you were capable of giving something up as well.  Also to make sure that you truly understood what I went through.  You need that knowledge too, so that you never have cause to doubt my love for you."

 

Kentaro paused, considering that.  There was a lot of wisdom in that.  He might have come to question how Ranma could love him as a woman when she was born and raised as a man and had a male form she could take.  By undergoing the process that allowed him to reach the same decision, he would never have cause to believe she was incapable of loving him.

 

Yet, he still had to ask.  "You said that you thought of yourself as a guy, that that was your identity.  Was that a test, too?"

 

Ranma shook her head.  "No, it's true.  I have a very strong identity as a guy.  However, the image I have of myself when I'm with you is that of a woman.  And I like myself.  I like myself very much when I'm with you. Enough so that I'm willing to spend almost all of my time as a woman, just so that I can be that person.  I hope you can understand that sometimes I need to be a guy.  That if I do become a guy once in a while, it doesn't mean I love you less."

 

Damn, she was very wise, too.  There were still things to discover in her.  Now, at last, he would get the chance, free in the knowledge that this was what they both had chosen, and that there were no lingering regrets, no yearnings for things that could never be.

 

Then he looked into her eyes, and saw the love there, and every other thought was banished.  He began to lower his head.

 

Smiling, Ranma drew her head back.  "Akane thinks you want me to have children."

 

Kentaro blinked.  "Huh?  Where'd she get that idea?"

 

"Well, you were talking about how you were only the temporary heir to the school, and you started to say where you thought the true heir would come from.  You stopped yourself and wouldn't tell her.  She thinks that you were going to say that our children would be the ones to carry on the School's teachings."

 

"Um... well, yeah, that's what I was thinking.  I, uh, had planned to bring it up in a slightly better fashion."  He looked at her closely. "What do you think about it?"

 

She grimaced.  "Well, we'll have to talk about it.  For now, I think the thing we need to work on is getting Mom to accept our marriage."

 

Kentaro nodded.  "Yeah, she and I talked a little about that.  It is going to be difficult, but I think if we work together and are patient with her, we..."  He trailed off, suddenly realizing what Ranma had just said.  "What?"

 

Ranma chuckled, a low throaty chuckle he'd never heard from her before.

 

Then she reached her arms around him and kissed him.  It was the fourth time she'd been the one to start something physical between them, and Kentaro realized that it was time to stop counting, that the events of the past few weeks had obviated the need for such counting.

 

Ranma broke off the kiss after a moment and stared into his eyes. "Hmmm..." Her voice was low, husky.  "I like this.  I think I definitely like this. It's so much more enjoyable now that it's something I've chosen to do, rather than something I'm forcing myself to accept.  I can do this for the rest of my life, as long as you're the one I'm doing it to.  There's no damn koi on my breast, either.  It must really be love."

 

Kentaro stared at her in confusion.  "Koi on your breast?  What-?"

 

She shut him up in the one way guaranteed to get his attention.

 

~*~

 

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