He patted his chest instinctively; one could never be too sure what one's gender was in the morning. He was thankful that it was male. Much as he had come to almost like his other half, he still thought of himself as a guy and preferred to remain in that form as much as possible.
He sat up and looked over at his father. He currently took up a lot of the floor space. Ranma grumbled to himself; why Pop would spend so much time as a panda remained an utter mystery to him.
Fortunately there was a cure to that. Ranma got up, put on his workout clothes, and walked down to the bathroom. Everyone was still asleep except Kasumi, whom he could hear humming softly to herself in the kitchen. He entered the bathroom, got a bucket, and filled it with warm water. Returning to his bedroom, he sloshed it around a little, relishing the buildup.
Ranma was about to splash it on his father when he paused. He realized that he wasn't much in the mood for fighting this morning. Ranma shook his head, then set the bucket on the floor in case Pop wanted to use it when he woke up.
Ranma removed his workout clothes and put on his school uniform. Or what passed for a uniform: red shirt and loose pants. He got away with it because the principal had a strange sense of honor. As long as Ranma was able to defeat his nefarious plots, he was allowed a certain leeway. The disadvantage was that Ranma often found himself the target of such plots.
Ranma wandered down the stairs. If he wasn't going to work out this morning, he had a lot of time and nothing to do with it. He heard Kasumi humming again, shrugged, and went to join her in the kitchen.
Kasumi looked up from where she was lightly beating some eggs. "Good morning, Ranma-kun." She beamed at him.
She always beamed, Ranma thought with a smile. "Watcha doing?"
"Preparing breakfast. Eggs and bacon and toast this morning."
Ranma raised an eyebrow. "Western-style?"
"Variety is good, not just for the people who eat it, but for the person who makes it, too."
Ranma nodded. "Yeah." He watched with interest as she took the bowl with the eggs and placed it on the counter. She already had some bacon cooking in a pan, and she used a fork to turn them over. Ranma examined the color of the side of the bacon that had already been cooked, and compared it to the color of the uncooked bacon, filing the difference for future reference.
Kasumi noticed his interest. "Do you want to learn more about cooking, Ranma-kun?"
Ranma shuddered. "No thanks." He couldn't forget what his mother had told him: "Someday you'll make a good wife." That was the last thing he wanted to be.
He quickly turned and practically fled from the kitchen, feeling Kasumi's eyes on his back.
He nearly ran over Akane in the hallway, who was yawning while squeezing Ryoga tightly to her chest. Ranma narrowed his eyes as he glared at Ryoga. He'd been spending far too much time as 'P-chan' lately, using it as an excuse to fondle Akane as much as possible. Ryoga would try to explain it differently, of course, but all Ranma saw was a dirty pig.
"Ranma, you leave P-chan alone." Akane was glaring at *him*. Ranma shifted his eyes to Akane's angry visage. If only she knew. He was so tempted to tell her, but he couldn't. Still, the frustration he felt at times like this was enough to make him want to beat up on something. Or yell at Akane.
He opened his mouth to do the latter when all of his anger drained away. He did not want to get into another fight. He slumped his shoulders and sat down at the kitchen table. Akane, after staring at him in vague surprise for a few seconds, sat down next to him.
The rest of the family arrived, including Ranma's father, still in panda form. Ranma snorted in disgust. Pop ignored him and drank some tea, a somewhat difficult task without opposable thumbs.
Kasumi served breakfast. Ranma noticed that she had placed a strip of bacon to either side of the scrambled eggs, and had put the toast at the top of the plate. It was a pleasing presentation, and Ranma silently congratulated her on it.
He picked up a piece of bacon, bit into it, then turned to Ryoga with an evil grin. "This could be you."
Ryoga's eyes were very wide. Akane growled and banged Ranma over the head with a bokken she'd acquired somehow. "Stop teasing him, Ranma!"
Ranma frowned, not liking the fact that he was in the middle of a disagreement. Before he could think of what to do, Ryoga suddenly squirmed out of Akane's one-armed grasp and ran out of the room.
"Now look what you've done," Akane cried in dismay. She ran after Ryoga.
Ranma frowned, feeling uneasy about making Ryoga and Akane feel bad. He shook it off and finished breakfast.
Akane joined him as he was about to leave for school. She glared at him but didn't say anything. They left the house.
Ranma jumped on top of a fence. After a couple of blocks, he felt silly and jumped down. Akane raised an eyebrow at him. He looked at her and shrugged. He faced forward again just in time to get splashed.
Someday, Ranma was going to have to learn to pay special attention whenever she passed this woman's house. She could almost swear that the woman waited until she came by before washing her walkway in the traditional manner. Ranma tried to glare at her, but couldn't work up the irritation.
Akane tsked at him. "Do you always have to do this to yourself, Ranma? We probably have time to go to Tofu-sensei's and get some hot water for you."
Ranma sighed. "Let's not bother. We don't want to be late again. Besides, everyone at school knows about me anyway." She adjusted her clothes and continued towards school, ignoring Akane's slightly surprised look.
They arrived at school well before the bell rang. Ranma went to her seat and sat down, patiently awaiting the beginning of class. Some of her friends were exchanging crude jokes over by the window, but Ranma didn't feel like joining them.
Hinako-sensei came in and everyone settled down. She smiled brightly. "Test time! Everyone clear your desks."
A soft sigh passed through the class. Ranma contributed; she hadn't spent as much time as she should have studying. She'd had a hard time developing any interest in ancient Chinese history. She mentally shrugged her shoulders and calmly waited for the test to be handed out.
Ranma eventually began answering the questions. It was easier than she'd thought it would be. The answers seemed to flow, and Ranma actually finished ahead of time, something she'd never done before. She looked around the class, wondering what to do.
Hinako-sensei noticed Ranma looking around and walked up to him, shaking her finger. "No cheating, young man!"
Ranma blinked, surprised not only at the accusation, but at being called a man when she was clearly a woman. "I'm not cheating. I'm done."
Hinako-sensei was clearly taken aback. "Really?" She picked up Ranma's test and began flipping through it. She frowned at it.
Ranma was uncomfortably aware at the surreptitious looks she was getting. "What's wrong, Sensei?"
Hinako-sensei looked at him curiously. "Ranma, there was no need to answer the questions in Chinese."
Ranma nearly laughed. "I don't know Chinese, Sensei. My writing must be very bad."
Hinako-sensei tilted her head, considering him, then handed Ranma back her paper.
Ranma looked at it, and gasped. It was covered in indecipherable gibberish. It was definitely Chinese, but Ranma could only make out a phrase or two. As she looked at it, more and more phrases began making sense, until she was comfortably reading everything she'd written.
She stared up at Hinako-sensei, stunned.
Hinako-sensei pouted at her. "I don't know Chinese that well, Ranma. I want you to rewrite your answers in Japanese."
"Y-yes, Sensei." Ranma took out another piece of paper, trying at the same time to figure out when she had ever learned to write Chinese. She looked at the first paragraph she had written, and placed her pencil on the paper. She frowned, for some reason the Japanese phrases escaping her. She concentrated for a minute, and it came to her. She wrote the first couple of sentences, then looked back at her test. She nearly shrieked; it had become gibberish again. She forced herself to calm down and examine the Chinese characters carefully. Slowly, their meaning came back to her. She turned to copy the next part of the paragraph and found that the Japanese equivalent phrases were not coming to mind.
The next few minutes were a nightmare. She'd have to continually shift back and forth from remembering how to read Chinese to how to write Japanese. And all the while, hovering at the edge of her consciousness was fear. She had no idea what the hell was going on.
Ranma somehow managed to finish before the end of the test period. She sat in her chair, utterly exhausted by the effort and the fear.
Akane leaned forward to grab Ranma's arm. Akane looked concerned. Ranma tried to give her a brave smile and shoo her away. Akane examined her closely, but eventually leaned back.
Ranma somehow made it to lunchtime. She practically fled the classroom. She ran outside and jumped high into a tree, not wanting to be disturbed. She had no idea what was happening to her, and needed time to think.
Ranma tried to think in Chinese. As she did, she felt an urge to climb out of the tree and eat lunch in a respectful manner. Ranma shook off the urge, finding that her knowledge of Chinese seemed to drain away with the urge.
Ranma thought about it all through lunch. The most likely answer seemed to be that Cologne or Shampoo had done something to her, made her think like a Chinese person would. If Ranma forgot how to speak Japanese, then Shampoo would be the only choice Ranma would have for a wife. At least, that's how their twisted minds worked.
Ranma nodded, deciding that she needed to pay Cologne a visit. She jumped out of the tree and ran towards the Nekohanten. The rest of the school day be damned; she needed to find out what that old hag had done to her.
She approached the restaurant and slowed. It was closed. Ranma knew that it should be open; lunch was a busy time for them. Ranma made her around the back and found the rear door unlocked.
Ranma entered the kitchen. The first thing she noticed was Mousse, in duck form, sitting in a cage. She expected him to start honking loudly, asking for release. Instead, he stared at her calmly, resting quietly. Ranma frowned at him, then climbed the stairs to the second floor.
She heard Cologne speaking rapidly in Chinese, sounding both angry and distraught. Ranma listened carefully, and soon found that she was able to understand.
"This is not how a warrior behaves. Get over here this instant. You know that Son-in-law can't stand you like this. You don't want to disappoint him, do you? Shampoo!"
Suddenly, with a crash, a door was flung open. Shampoo, in cat form, ran down the hall towards Ranma. Ranma froze, terrified. Shampoo slowed to a halt directly in front of her, and meowed inquisitively.
That was enough for Ranma. She turned and ran down the hallway herself, stopping only when she smashed into the wall. She turned around and stared in fear at Shampoo, who hadn't moved from where she'd been previously.
Cologne, meanwhile, was sneaking up behind Shampoo. Ranma was too terrified to warn her, and Cologne was able to grab Shampoo by the scruff of her neck. Shampoo yowled. Cologne touched Shampoo on the forehead. Shampoo went limp.
Cologne looked over at Ranma. "Son-in-law."
Ranma could only quiver.
Cologne sighed, then produced a kettle of water from somewhere. She poured it on Shampoo, who turned human.
The fear left Ranma almost instantly. She sighed in relief, then looked at Cologne. "Shouldn't you put some clothes on her?"
Cologne stared at Ranma. "What did you say?"
Ranma frowned. "It's indecent to expose her like that."
Cologne looked down at Shampoo, then turned and walked down the hallway. Ranma followed, determined to see that Shampoo was properly taken care of.
They entered what must have been Shampoo's room. Ranma helped Cologne put a robe on Shampoo. Then Cologne began strapping Shampoo to the bed.
Ranma stared at her, aghast. "What are you doing?"
Cologne paused, looked at Ranma steadily for a minute, then continued tying down Shampoo. "If I don't do this, she'll try to turn herself into a cat as soon as she wakes up."
Ranma growled. "Stop it. It isn't nice to do this to someone."
Cologne paused again. "Why don't you make me?" The words were not a challenge, just a simple question.
Ranma blinked, suddenly wondering about that herself. She felt no desire at all to fight Cologne. Just as she'd felt no desire to fight with her father or Akane. "I, uh, just don't think you should."
"I see." Cologne resumed tying Shampoo to the bed. At one point, she indicated with her staff that Ranma should move aside so that Cologne could get by. Ranma grimaced and stepped back.
When Cologne was satisfied, she turned to consider Ranma. "Join me, Son-in- law. We need to talk."
Ranma walked behind Cologne, trying to work up the courage to demand some answers from her. They went back into the kitchen, where Cologne went about making some tea. Ranma examined her closely, watching how she prepared it, trying to make sure she slipped nothing extra into it. She had a slightly different way of making tea than Kasumi did, and Ranma noted the differences and decided she'd have to try it both ways herself and see which worked better.
Cologne offered her a cup. Ranma thanked her politely and began sipping it, watching as Cologne poured herself a cup. They sat at one of the tables in the darkened restaurant.
Ranma sipped her tea, impatiently waiting for Cologne to begin. Cologne was just watching her closely, a thoughtful look on her face. Finally, Cologne spoke. "How do you feel, Son-in-law?"
Ranma drew her head back. "I feel fine. I want to know what you did to Shampoo."
Cologne lowered her eyes. "I suppose, in a way, it *is* my fault. I was the one who suggested we go on that training trip."
"Which training trip?"
"The same training trip you and your father took."
Ranma raised her eyebrows. "You mean the one to Jusenkyo?"
Cologne nodded. "I thought the old legends were just that. I didn't know they spoke of truth. And even then, I still didn't believe all of what the legends said. Now they are coming true, and I've damned my great- granddaughter."
Ranma felt a horror rise in her. "What do you mean? What have you done to her?"
Cologne sighed. "The spirits that created each of the cursed springs did more than infuse the springs with their forms. The infused them with their very essence. I didn't understand all of the ramifications on that until one morning earlier this week, when I discovered Mousse, sitting quietly in his cage, sleeping. This surprised me since I had not placed him there. I turned him human and he performed his required tasks for that day, but when the restaurant closed he turned himself back into a duck and prepared to spend the night in the cage again. I asked him not to, and forced him to turn human and go back to his room. And yet, when I looked in on him in the morning, he had turned himself into a duck again and spent the night sleeping under his bed. I tried insisting that he stay human, and he would become human long enough to perform his duties. But at all other times he would become a duck.
"I stopped worrying about him the morning I discovered Shampoo lapping milk out of a bowl." Cologne closed her eyes, and Ranma saw something she'd never seen in Cologne before: pain. "I was very angry, and turned her human, and told her never to do that again. She seemed embarrassed, and apologetic. And then the next day she came up to me and dropped a dead bird at my feet, purring loudly."
Ranma quivered. "Are... are you saying...."
Cologne nodded. "Shampoo fell into the spring of drowned cat, and is now a cat. Mousse fell into spring of drowned duck, and is now a duck." Cologne opened her eyes and gave Ranma a sad look. "You fell into the spring of drowned woman, and are now...."
Ranma leapt to her feet. "No!" Horror washed up and down her spine, to lodge into her stomach as cold lump. "I'm a guy!"
"Are you?" Cologne, as quick as lightning, grabbed the tea kettle, ran up Ranma, and dumped it on her head.
Ranma flinched. "Whatcha do that for!"
Cologne looked at him curiously. "Do you want me to get some cold water?"
"Yes!" Ranma glared at her.
Cologne simply stared back at him.
Slowly, Ranma realized what he had just asked for. He collapsed back into his chair, trembling.
"As I thought." Cologne resumed her seat. "It seems to be a little different with you, Son-in-law. It's more than you just wanting to be a woman. You're assuming the personality of the woman who fell into the pool."
Ranma blinked at her. "What?"
Cologned nodded. "Do you realize, Ranma, that we have been speaking in Chinese? Not just Chinese, but an ancient dialect?"
Ranma thought back over the conversation. He stared at Cologne, wide-eyed.
Cologne sighed. "It's getting worse. Yesterday morning, Mousse refused to assume human form, even to work. Today, Shampoo has been using all of her skills to prevent me from splashing her with hot water. She is still as intelligent as she used to be; she just wants to remain a cat all the time."
Ranma swallowed, trying to think intelligently. "Why should it have happened to us all at the same time? I mean, Shampoo was cursed a long time after I was. Mousse, too."
"I myself have been wondering that. The legends say that the... change in perspective... takes much longer to happen then it apparently has. Now that I think on it, I can see how it has been changing all of you, very slowly. Shampoo actually never did object to becoming a cat, and seemed to enjoy her cursed form more and more. Mousse actually joined a circus, using his cursed form to perform tricks. And you, Son-in-law... you used to react so violently to being called a woman. Yet, I've seen you spend more and more time as a woman, and no longer do you react violently to being turned into one. In fact, you seem to enjoy it. You've been changing more than your physical form. You've been slowly, very slowly, coming to accept yourself as a woman."
Ranma gulped, wanting to object. However, he could remember all too clearly how he'd spend hours, even most of several days, as a girl, trying to accomplish some task or other. Cologne was right; he'd come to be less repulsed by the thought of occasionally turning female. In fact, he'd come to... like it.
"The rate at which the change - the desire to remain in your cursed forms - has been slowly accelerating, until these last few days have seen you all wish to remain permanently in your cursed forms. As to why it's accelerated so much, and why it's happened to all of you at once, I can only theorize that it is because we have so many curses in such close proximity, interacting on an almost daily basis. You, Shampoo, Mousse, Ryoga, Genma. Your curses reinforce each other, and have come into synch. Perhaps if you were all to separate, you would revert to your base personalities. I think, however, that it is too late."
Ranma drew a deep breath, trying to find some hope. "Do you know of a cure?"
Cologne's eyes dropped to stare at the table top. "The legends say that the curses of Jusenkyo are irreversible and permanent."
Ranma leaned forward onto the table, holding his head in his hands. The horror had given way to something worse: absolute despair.
Cologne spoke softly, sadly. "I will try everything I can, Son-in-law. I want my great-granddaughter cured. I had been grooming her to be my heir in the Amazon tribe. Now her whole ambition is to chase birds and mice. I will try to bring back the Shampoo we both knew. If I succeed, I will use the same techniques on you." Cologne looked up at me. "Will you let me?"
Ranma fought back the urge to say no. "Please try. Even if later I say I don't want you to, ignore me and change me back anyway. I'm giving you permission now to use whatever force you need to." Ranma lifted his head and looked into Cologne's eyes. "Please."
Cologne nodded. "I understand. I hope I can find a cure." Cologne grimaced and looked down again. "I am not optimistic. The legends speak of no cure, and many have been tried over the centuries. I quite frankly don't even know where to begin. For now, I will take Mousse and Shampoo back to China and see if any of the others in my tribe have greater knowledge."
The sound of a horrified shriek cut through the restaurant. The shrieking continued, and Ranma stared at the ceiling. "What's wrong with her?"
Cologne sighed. "Do you remember how you felt, back at Jusenkyo, when you found yourself in a body that was not yours?"
Ranma gulped, remembering the horror and hearing it echoed in Shampoo's screams.
Cologne jumped down from the table. "I had better try to calm her down. I will let you know if I find a cure." She paused, and looked him in the eye. "Good luck, Son-in-law." She left the dining room.
Ranma sat there long enough to hear Shampoo shriek again. Then he leapt to his feet and fled the Nekohanten, carrying the sound of Shampoo's horror with him.
Ranma burst into the dojo, breathing heavily. He'd run all the way to the dojo and had still been unable to escape whoever it was that was inside his head.
He could feel her now, wanting to find some cold water and possibly a nice dress and couldn't she do something better with her hair?
Ranma shouted in frustration and hit the wall with his fist. He buried it six inches into the plaster, and felt shame that he had made such a mess.
Ranma grunted and pounded the wall again and again, trying to ignore that part of him that wanted him to stop and clean up the mess and stop acting so... so...
He fell to his hands and knees. What kind of woman had she been - the one who had drowned all those centuries ago? She seemed to be a Kasumi type of feminine. Passive, doing housework, serving her family, abhorring violence. Ranma shuddered; that was *not* the kind of woman he particularly liked.
He liked Kasumi, though. Everyone did. They respected her and paid attention to her and she made life good and wholesome for everyone. What was so bad about that?
Ranma beat his fist against the ground, using the pain to focus his mind. It was *her* again, trying to make him think what she wanted him to think. He was *not* like Kasumi, he did *not* want to be Kasumi. If he had to be a woman why couldn't he be like... like...
Ranma winced, remembering all the times he had called her unfeminine and a tomboy. What he had overlooked, what he was only now coming to realize, was that she was female in her own way: confident, aggressive, assertive, and expressive. He'd made fun of her for being like that. Yet none of those things altered the fact that she was a woman. Now he knew that Akane was the kind of woman he liked. And he was losing that, losing that part of him that liked Akane that way. Losing the part of himself that maybe even more than liked her.
Ugh, but she was so outspoken. So rude. She didn't keep her place, didn't stay quiet like a woman should. He would have to talk to her, see if he could get her to be a little more ladylike.
Ranma grit his teeth. There she was again, trying to sneak in and alter who he was. He was *not* Kasumi. Even Kasumi wasn't as bad as *this* person was. He was not going to give in to her, not going to become her. He would fight it. He was stronger than Mousse, stronger than Shampoo. He'd hold onto himself until Cologne found a cure.
And yet, he could see it. See himself acting demure and passive. He could see himself wanting it, wondering how he could ever have wanted to act any other way. And as much as that terrified him, he could see his resistance turning to despair. He could fight all he wanted, but it would make no difference. In the end he was going to be... *her*.
Ranma wrenched his mind away from that. Never give up. Never stop fighting. That was the spirit of the School of Indiscriminate Grappling. He would not stop trying. Until the day he died.
He slowly sat up to see Ryoga watching him. Ryoga as a pig. Ryoga as he had been for the past week or more. A sad realization came over him, that he would probably never see Ryoga as a man again.
"You know, don't you?"
"It's happened to you, hasn't it?"
Ryoga nodded again.
Ranma started crying. "Oh buddy, I'm so sorry. I didn't know, this morning I didn't know. I'll never tease you again, I promise. Only, don't you want me to get you some hot water?"
Ryoga warily edged away from him.
Ranma hastily waved his hands. "No, no, I won't, I promise." Ranma tried to stop crying and found that he couldn't. "Oh buddy, I'm losing it. Can you help me? Please, don't forget who I am. This is me, I am Saotome Ranma, I'm a guy!"
Ranma found that he was shouting. He stopped, embarrassed at his outburst. Ryoga looked at him, apparently sympathetic. Ranma leaned forward to peer into Ryoga's eyes. "You won't forget me, will you?"
Ryoga shook his head. Yet at the same time, his eyes seemed to hold a sad knowledge that what he remembered wouldn't matter.
Ranma leaned forward again, to rest his head on Ryoga's. Together, they shared the misery of their curses.
"Ranma, I told you not to tease P-chan!" He felt something strike him and send him flying across the room. He hit the wall and slumped to the ground.
Akane scooped up Ryoga and glared at Ranma. "It isn't enough that you hurt his feelings this morning, now you have to beat up on him?"
He opened his mouth to say that he *hadn't* been beating up on Ryoga. "I'm sorry," he found himself saying instead.
Akane looked at him, slightly disgusted. "Are you crying? From a little hit like that?"
Ranma wanted to explain what was happening to him, and to beg Akane for her help. "I'm sorry," were the only words his mouth seemed to be capable of saying.
Akane's disgust was more evident. "C'mon, Ranma. I hate it when you act all cute and stupid, like you think a girl should be."
"I'm sorry." No, that was wrong, stop saying that. "I'm not." I'm not acting, I need your help. Please Akane, help me. Ranma struggled to get the words off his lips.
Akane grunted and looked around. She spied a bucket of water next to the door of the dojo and grabbed it. "If you're going to *act* like a girl..."
Ranma stared in horror at the bucket. At his damnation. He could barely hold on as he was. Whoever Saotome Ranma was would be lost in that bucket of water. He held his hands in front of him and shook his head, a feeble protestation, the best he could do.
"...you may as well *be* a girl!" The water flew through the air.
Ranma opened his mouth. "NO!" He used the last part of who he was to cry his despair into the air as the water hit him.
And changed him.
She felt her body change and rejoiced. Peace settled over her. At last, she was back to who she was. Who she was *supposed* to be. It had been a struggle to shed the remnants of the awful person she used to be. But he was gone, and she remained, and she would be the best kind of person she knew how to be.
She got to her feet and bowed to Akane. "I'm sorry if I upset you. Please forgive my rudeness."
Akane stared at her quizzically. She said something, gibberish that didn't make sense. Ranma frowned, trying to follow the words. They just didn't mean anything to her. Ranma shrugged. Japanese would probably come back to her eventually. If it didn't, she could learn. She had time.
Meanwhile, she had to clean up the awful mess she'd made. She began clearing away the larger chunks of debris, ignoring the angry and frightened gibberish Akane was yelling at her. Ranma went into the house to get the broom and dustpan she knew Kasumi kept in the closet. Akane followed her, sounding more and more desperate. Poor Akane. Akane would come to understand her, eventually. Then she could begin teaching Akane how to make herself more attractive to men. She would make a good wife, with a little help.
She smiled at Akane, and wondered why Akane was crying.
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