Ah My Goddess Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Sailor Moon Fan Fiction ❯ A Tale of Two Wallets ❯ A Rose Goddess by any other Name ( Chapter 83 )

[ Y - Young Adult: Not suitable for readers under 16 ]

A Tale of Two Wallets

(An Altered Destiny)

Written by Jim Robert Bader

Proofread by Shiva Barnwell

A shimmering light painted the empty guest room ceiling as a shower of rose petals swirled and filled the air for a brief moment, heralding the arrival of a womanly form, who glided through the ceiling as smoothly as another might dive into a pool, resolving a moment later into her full manifest glory as she lifted her eyes and slowly scanned the space around her.

Peorth felt odd about visiting the home that she had abandoned a mere decade ago, rather like what one might feel to put on an old set of clothing that no longer quite fit right, but there was little more to be said as she took a moment to adjust to the balance of energies all around her, then opened her eyes again and began viewing the place as something other than a stranger.

Ten years…a long time for most mortals, a blink in the eye of the gods, yet how much history was contained within these four walls, and attendant other chambers? She could remember living it all through the eyes of her host Template, the interminable delays of pregnancy, the pains of delivering the child, followed by the sweet torment of bringing new life into the world and knowing all along that she would one day be forced to abandon it when the time came for her separation. Her decision to linger on a few more years had cost her points with the central office, and yet she regretted not a minute of the time that she had given to Kimiko, being dormant within the woman and yet fully aware of all that transpired, every heartfelt thought and desire experienced by both her and her Template, and the final agony that came when they had to surrender this home that they had made for their husband and children…

No, Peorth corrected herself, not her husband…Kimiko's husband. She could ill afford to think of him as hers, not while fulfilling her present mission took precedence over all else. There was a rift created by her actions, and as a Goddess First Class it was her duty to atone for her transgressions…

"See anything you like?"

"Oh?" Peorth turned around, startled that a mere mortal could sneak up on her unawares, but then the mortal she saw standing there was anything but ordinary.

"You guys aren't real big on knocking, are you?" Nabiki asked with a sardonic expression, "Not that you had to…I had a pretty strong sense that you'd be showing up sooner or later. We need to talk, you and me, and now seems like as good a time as any…Mother."

"Ah…" Peorth wilted slightly before the gaze of the apprenticed Lore Master, but there was no real hostility or accusation this time in Nabiki's facial expressions. Steadying herself with the reminder that this girl was still (at least technically) a mortal while she was a full-fledged goddess, Peorth drew a deep breath then sighed, "I think we do indeed, ma Cheri. Forgive me that I did not stop by sooner but…I've been a bit busy doing research."

"About Akane," Nabiki replied, "Or the changes to this timeline?"

"Oh," the Rose Goddess said faintly, "You already know about that?"

"Urd told me that there had been some changes in chronology," Nabiki replied as she folded her arms and leaned against the doorframe, "I figured you could confirm what she's told me already about…the engagement going to Ranma and…my little sister."

"Akane?" Peorth smiled weakly, "Well…originally that was how it was meant to go, but now that this timeline has established itself and become firmly anchored in this present, there is no likelihood of changing it back to the way it would have been had…certain events not taken place in ways other than they were meant to."

"And you wouldn't happen to know how those changes were made, would you?" Nabiki asked, "Other than me changing my mind at the last instant and accepting the engagement."

"Well, that is the pivotal point of transition," Peorth revealed, "You were meant to have a very different destiny in the original plan, in point of fact you were going to wind up married to a man of the family of Kuno…"

"Tatewaki?" Nabiki could not hide her disgust, "Give me a break! I'd sooner kiss a snake."

"I've kissed worse things in my time," Peorth winced slightly, "Not all of them by choice. I am given to understand that the boy is a bit of a problem, owing to the fact that his mother was a rather unpleasant woman of my…of my Host's acquaintance named Hitome. In the past the Kuno boy was ill favored with a father and sister who were equally mad and drug crazed, and I don't blame you for thinking ill of his past antics, but he's a darling of Raiden, so what can you do about it?"

"You guys choose sides and play us like an Arcade game?" Nabiki asked.

"Oh no, we haven't done that in quite some time," Peorth replied, "In the old days it was customary for the followers of one god to pit their worshippers against one another, but now we all try to get along and abide by the policy of let bygones be bygones. Of course there is that game Toltir is running over several cross parallel timelines, but that's not really important…"

"Tachi's not as nutso as he used to be," Nabiki noted, "If anything he's gained a few dozen IQ points and had taken to running his own affairs like a feudal era warlord."

"I know," Peorth replied, "That's because he has made a pact with a member of the Demon Tribes, those who stand in opposition to our kind."

"Come again?" Nabiki asked, "You're saying Tatewaki is allied with a demon?"

"One who has unleashed his hidden potential and set him on the path that he now follows," Peorth revealed, "I don't have too many of the details, but the crux of it is that demons make bargains with mortals, just as we goddesses are in the business of granting wishes and our divine favors. Our quarrel with them is very ancient, for demons love to sew mischief and anarchy to undermine the system, while we seek to keep and maintain the balance of the established order, mainly under the auspices of Kami-sama."

"Who is like the Chief Executive Officer of the company you work for?" Nabiki asked, putting the matter in terms that she found easier to comprehend.

"Yes, exactly," Peorth confirmed, "Only we're in the business of Life itself. We govern our quarter of Heaven and administer to the needs of those who petition us for redress. Not every mortal is granted a wish, of course…the decision is made by Yggdrasil, the Universal Computer, which decided to grant your mother's request to live long enough to see the birth of her third daughter."

"Which same you extended to last a full seven years," Nabiki concluded for the Goddess, "Which was also bending the rules a bit, which is why you wound up in hot water with your Kami-sama."

"Yes, I admit I did meddle where I should have limited my stay," Peorth's expression softened, "But at the time I did not think that I was overstaying my welcome…not if it allowed me to see you grow a few more years and to enjoy that time with your father."

Nabiki saw the soft petition in the eyes of the goddess and felt her own reserve begin to crumble. Looking away to steady herself she said, "I'm not saying I'm blaming you for the way things turned out, but…couldn't you have found a better way to leave us? You have any idea what Mom's death did to Daddy, me and my sisters?"

Peorth sighed, "Perhaps not, and perhaps I never truly will, but you know it was not my desire to hurt any of you. Call it the law of unintended consequences, or whatever you may like, but believe me when I saw that it hurt me more to leave you than you could ever hope to know, unless you become a parent. You are the children I have never had the privilege of raising on my own…mainly because I…have never quite found the right sort of man…at least a man of my own who did not belong to another…" she glanced away and for a moment her expression was infinitely sad, but finally she managed to say, "In a way I see you still as my daughters, and while I may seem to have abandoned you, I have never truly forgotten what it felt like to tuck you in at night and sing you lullabies. Whenever one of you was sad or skinned a knee or had reason to cry it was as if my own heart was weeping. Think what you will of me, ma Cheri, the memory of what that felt like will live in me forever."

Despite herself Nabiki was affected by the sight of tears in the eye of the goddess, and it was only by steeling herself against the urge to go over and hug the goddess that she was able to say, "I believe you…Mother."

"I…don't really have a right to be called that," Peorth said sadly, "Your mother was my Template, and for a time I lived within her in order to walk among you. Most of the time we goddesses are confined to our own celestial world, which parallels this world on a higher level of being, similar to the Astral plane but more like an Elemental plane of light. I could not begin to describe what it is like living there…it is beautiful beyond imagination…but for all of that there is such wonder to be found among you mortals. If you but knew the potential that lies buried within you…" she paused, then managed to smile at Nabiki, "But then you will know at least that much in time since you are on the path towards becoming a Lore Master."

Nabiki fought for control once again, remembering belatedly her purpose for seeking out the Goddess, "I was wondering if you could confirm something else for me. I did a little…research after my encounter with Urd last night. The names Urd and Skuld come up as two of the three names of the Norn goddesses of Fate in Nordic mythology…"

"Whereas Belldandy is the equivalent to Verandi," Peorth smiled, "Yes, I know all about that, and before you ask about their origins, I will confirm that there is a connection."

"A connection?" Nabiki repeated.

"You have noted that Urd and Belldandy do not appear to be native Japanese," Peorth noted, "While Skuld does. The truth is that they each had different mothers but share the same father, Susanowa the Storm God, the current Kami-sama."

"Come again?" Nabiki asked, "The CURRENT Kami-sama?"

"Not much up on religion, are you?" Peorth smiled, lifting an elegant finger, "The Japanese Heaven is ruled by three Major Gods, each of whom take turns playing out the role of Kami-sama according to a complex schedule of time and season. The first is the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami, the second is her brother, Tsukiyomi, the Moon God, and third is Susanowa, the Lord of Storms and God of the Seas. In the beginning of all things, when Japan was young and freshly conquered from the Ainu, these three divided up the world between them, each ruling their separate quarter as an independent fiefdom, subject to the will of the Celestial Overlord, who is enigmatic and mysterious beyond the ways of Gods and Mortals. Then around about the end of the ancient Feudal period, when Japan had been torn apart by generations of war, and the gods had fought numerous battles against the tribes of the demons, it was decided that everyone and everything would come under the dominion of the triune powers, the Three who would each take turns holding the office of Kami-sama."

"This was in the Tokugawa period?" Nabiki asked.

"Precisely," Peorth smiled as if to reward the mortal girl for being clever, "Iyetsu's reforms were the inspiration for establishing a new system, one that operated on the principal that Japan would remain apart from the world beyond our shores. It was in this time that even we gods came to view ourselves as being at the center of all creation…imagine our surprise when the outside world eventually came knocking back at our doorstep."

"Let me guess," Nabiki said, "You guys had to initiate a new reform to the system."

"Exactly as it was for you," Peorth replied, "In the Meiji restoration period. Unfortunately Hachiman gained prominence shortly after this and launched a period of Militarism that was supposed to make Japan a world power. That period ended during the last Great War, and ever since that time things have been run on a more-or-less business like level."

"And you run things now through the use of a Super Computer?" Nabiki asked skeptically.

"The most powerful ever invented," Peorth replied, "A wonderful timesaving invention, spares us from having to worry ourselves about the tedious day-to-day affairs of watching every leaf fall and attending to the chirruping of every single cricket. The Ultimate Force program keeps things in balance on a karmic level, and day-to-day functions are attended to by separate divisions, freeing we goddesses to attend to those special details that sometimes fall between the cracks."

"So what has this got to do with the origins of the goddesses?" Nabiki persisted.

"Ah yes," Peorth remarked, "As I said they each had different mothers but the same father. Urd was born in a time when the world was in a very violent and primitive state and many things were done that would be unthinkable in our days. Belldandy grew up in more enlightened times when civilization was at a high point and ladies were taught good manners and refinement. In a sense we are close to the same age, and we were even classmates together attending the same rectification course when we both were initiated into the new system. Of course she had a foreign mother, a goddess from the cold North with whom Susanowa was briefly affianced."

"You make it sound as if you people live your lives in direct parallel to the way things are done in the mortal world," Nabiki fathomed.

"An excellent way of putting it, ma Cheri," Peorth smiled, "We goddesses periodically have to renew ourselves in order to remain relevant to the working structure of your world, so in a way we have our own form of rebirth and reincarnation. Of course we are closer to the source of all that governs the cosmos, so things happen in a larger scale, commensurate with the fact that there are only a few thousand of us to several score millions of you."

"So…who was your father?" Nabiki asked.

"I am Tsukiyomi's child," Peorth smiled, "My mother was an Earth spirit of the forest, hence my close association with roses. I have a half-sister named Kagura Rei Rei, who is the patron of lost and forlorn relationships. I myself prefer to become involved in helping mortals achieve their innermost desires…of course I'm both gratified and disappointed to know that I need do little to help you out in that department, seeing as you are far closer to achieving your aims than most young people your age."

"Ah…" Nabiki replied, coloring herself to a pretty rose-cheeked hue.

"As you have noted," Peorth resumed, "The names of the three goddesses closely parallel their Norse counterparts, which is only to be expected as their father believed that filling a niche was important to the new order. Borrowing a page from the Norse pantheon, he gave his three daughters an aspect of the principle of Fate so that one became guardian of the Past while the others are of the Present and the Future. In recent times all three became System Guardians of the Universal Computer, Yggdrasil…however, all three goddesses have found themselves residing on the Earth Plane due to a curious set of circumstances the like of which even I find perplexing."

"How did it happen?" Nabiki asked, "How did Belldandy wind up engaged to a mortal like Keiichi?"

"Morisato Keiichi," Peorth began, glancing away with a somewhat pained expression, "Is a very rare and exceptional fellow…again for reasons that in part escape me. Belldandy's involvement with him was the work of serendipity more than fate. She once traveled through time to meet him centuries before their first official meeting, and this created a paradox that caused them some trifling difficulties. Belldandy, as you may have noted, is an exceptionally bright and obedient young girl, but on this one occasion she did something that she was not supposed to do and used her father's Temporal Mirror to find the one to whom she would one day give her heart. She appeared to the child Keiichi as a young girl his own age and became friends with the boy…all innocent of the consequences, of course. When her father found out he was very angry and ordered her to seal the boy's memories, erasing all trace of her first visitation. It would not be until the modern era that she would see him again, after which time even a goddess's memories could stray, and she fell in love with the boy after he made a wish that bound them both together."

"You have a problem with that, don't you?" Nabiki asked, "You want the boy yourself…is he really that special?"

"You tell me," Peorth replied without looking towards Nabiki, "You've met him."

Nabiki thought a moment before she answered, "I can't say that I see the attraction, other than the fact that he seems to be a pretty nice guy, but on the whole I didn't notice anything exceptional about him."

"That was what I thought too," Peorth gave Nabiki a wistful smile, "When I first met him…but then again, it is always a mistake for us to underestimate you mortals."

Nabiki shook her head, "I don't know…Mom. For beings who are supposed to be so powerful and intelligent…"

"It can be a little humbling to meet us in the flesh, so to speak," Peorth finished for her, "And yet also disappointing. You were expecting something more cosmically dazzling, weren't you? Well, you can thank the Covenant for the fact that you are spared viewing us in all our glorious magnificence. We seal the main bulk of our powers with these," she pointed to the elaborate earrings that she was wearing, "For without them our vast powers might overwhelm the mortal world. By toning things down a bit it becomes easier for us to relate to you, and yet we remain an order of intelligence as far above you as you are above the Chimpanzee…"

"That's debatable," a voice almost identical to that of the goddess mused softly as Silk walked into the room wearing only a plain silk Kimono.

"Ah…" there was an awkward moment of silence as the elaborately dressed Peorth shared looks with the Lore Master who bore her such a close resemblance. Nabiki could not help looking from one woman to the other as if needing to confirm in her own mind that she was not seeing double, but at length the Goddess relaxed somewhat and said, "Silk, isn't it? I vaguely remember running into you once…"

"So glad to see you haven't fully forgotten," Silk replied in a deceptively easy manner.

Peorth inclined her head and regarded her double before smiling as she said, "Remarkable resemblance…of course you don't have one tenth of my beauty…"

"Or your modesty it seems," Silk replied, still effecting pose of relaxed caution.

"And what do I have to be modest about, hmmm?" Peorth mused, "I didn't slink away without telling my boyfriend that I was pregnant. I take it that you're here hoping to rekindle your relation with Soun-chan…"

"Well, why not?" Silk asked, "I had him first."

"Hmph," the Goddess scowled, "Not that it's any of my business, Cheri, but do you think playing on his sympathies for fathering your child and your resemblance to his late wife are sufficient grounds for renewing a relationship?"

"Not at all," Silk replied, "I gave Soun fair warning of my intentions shortly after I arrived here, but he didn't send me away or attempt to discourage me in any way. I took that to mean that he would not mind if I courted him all over. I could well have claimed him at any time merely by effecting to lose to him in a fight, but I would rather the decision is his to make, rather than have that decision be made for him."

"An Amazon with scruples?" Peorth arched an auburn-haired eyebrow, "Now I've heard everything."

"How is that more remarkable than a goddess envying a mortal for his choice of bedmates?" Silk countered reasonably, "Are you here to stake out your own claim? Because if so, then goddess you may be, but you won't have him without a struggle."

"An interesting proposal," Peorth mused, "But you needn't fear, I'm not here to interfere in either of your love-lives. I leave that particular form of meddling to Urd and her potions."

"Good," Silk replied, "Then you are welcome to come visit us as a guest, but have a care that you do not awaken memories of his late wife in Soun-chan. He has barely begun to recover from the grief that drove him into a lasting bout of manic depression."

"Ah…" Peorth wilted a little, "He took it that bad, eh? Well…not too surprising, I am pretty hard to forget…"

"Not that some of us don't try a lot harder," Silk finished for her.

"Grrr…" Peorth snarled, baring her teeth slightly, only to have her expression go blank as a male voice was heard in the hallway.

"Silk, is that you in there?" asked Soun a moment before he stepped in through the doorway.

Nabiki blinked her eyes as she saw the Goddess literally flow through the nearest wall, vanishing from view before her father could detect Peorth's presence. All unknowing and unsuspecting of what had just transpired, Soun turned to Silk and said, "I was wondering if you could help me, I'm trying to locate something that I seem to have misplaced in our room. It's…oh, hello, Nabiki."

Nabiki was not so rattled by the comings and goings of Peorth that she failed to detect the rapid change in her father's expression, as if the elder Tendo were deliberately trying to conceal something from her notice. Soun having an admittedly lousy Poker Face, Nabiki guessed that whatever her father was looking for related to her in some mysterious manner, but at the moment she was at a loss as to how exactly she might go about pressing him for details.

"Oh?" Silk eyed her man with a curious expression, and then a knowing look crossed her elegant features and her smile deepened, "Why of course…I'd be only too happy to help you locate what you are looking for. You should have mentioned it to me sooner."

"What?" Nabiki asked, her curiosity sharply increased by the sense that the Lore Master knew something that she didn't.

"Oh, nothing of any great importance…yet," Silk smiled mysteriously, "But you'll find out all about it later."

"What's wrong with now?" Nabiki scowled in growing frustration.

"Er, nothing," Soun said, taking Silk by the hand and drawing her with him out of the room, "I'll be going out in a little bit, so tell Kasumi to save my part of dinner until later. Don't wait up for me, I'll be seeing you later."

"Later?" Nabiki blinked, "What…?"

"Oh my," said Peorth as she reappeared at Nabiki's side, startling the mortal girl as she cooed affectionately, "My little girls are all growing up and getting married. And to think that I've been denied this part of your lives until now…"

"What the heck is going on here?" Nabiki demanded, trying to conceal her surprise by masking it with her frustration, "Do you know what they're up to?"

"Isn't it obvious?" Peorth regarded Nabiki with a sardonic expression, "I should think even an Apprenticed Lore Master could see from the coy way those two were behaving that it has something to do with you getting married."

"It…does?" Nabiki swallowed.

"That Silk is a fast mover," Peorth sounded almost admiring of this fact, "She already assumed many of the functions of a mother in this whole affair…I hope you're not too resentful about that. I'm sure she means well…for a mortal."

"Ah…okay," Nabiki said with a dubious expression.

"How I envy her," Peorth sighed, "A mortal she is, yet she can start anew, where I am forbidden to reacquaint myself with your father…such a pity. I wouldn't mind at all becoming your mother in fact and not just by proxy. You'll make such a lovely bride when it comes time for you to take your place beside your man at the altar."

"Bride?" Nabiki squeaked, the word causing her eyes to nearly double in size as she looked slightly panicked.

"Ah, developing cold feet are we?" Peorth grinned affectionately, "Perhaps I will petition the Agencies in charge to permit your real mother to make a visitation before the wedding so that she can give you her official blessings."

"My-My M-mother?" Nabiki stuttered, caught herself, coughed to clear her throat and began again, "You…you can…do that?"

"Of course," Peorth reassured her, "I am a goddess, and what's the point of being divine if you can't occasionally bend the rules now and then, especially if it means helping you to find the courage you need to go through with part of this arrangement. Your real mother had a warrior's soul, and she would have liked nothing less than to be with you on the day you officially became a real woman. Consider it partial repayment from me for not being here when you truly needed me. It is the very least that I can do for someone whom I very much wish that I could claim for a daughter in fact. You remind me so much of myself when I was your age…" the goddess fanned herself as she looked away with a far-off expression, "How long ago that seems…hundreds of years, but it's barely a lifetime…"

Nabiki stared at the goddess in silence for a very long time, so much so that Peorth returned her look with a knowing comprehension, but then Peorth looked glanced away and said, "Oh my…how the time flies, and I've almost overstayed my allotment. I came here looking for Akane, would you happen to know where I might find her?"

"Ah…" Nabiki said, "I don't really know at the moment, I don't keep track of her movements…"

"Not your sister's keeper, eh?" Peorth smiled then touched Nabiki's brow with a forefinger, "Not to worry, and just relax. You have abilities that you have yet to learn how to use, and one of these talents can prove quite useful as a location finder…ah! There she is. I'll be seeing you again, Daughter, when you least expect it."

And then she vanished through the floor, fading through a portal of light that formed beneath her feet and vanished as soon as the goddess had departed.

Nabiki blinked her eyes and rubbed her forehead, "That was…weird…"

"Indeed," Lotion observed, eyeing her with mild concern, "How are you feeling, child?"

"Fine, I…" Nabiki paused, glancing over her shoulder, "How soon did you get here?"

"As soon as I sensed the disturbances surrounding you," Lotion replied as she emerged from the shadows, "One doesn't mark the passage of a being like her without caution. I sensed that you had very weighty issues to discuss between you and thought to respect your privacy on this one occasion."

"So you don't know what we just discussed?" Nabiki eyed her mentor suspiciously.

"I didn't say that," Lotion smiled, "So how are you feeling?"

"Weird," Nabiki turned to fully confront her mentor, "You've been holding back on me."

"Oh?" the ancient Lore Master arched a gray eyebrow, "In what way?"

"You've known all along that somebody switched the timelines so that I would wind up with Ranma instead of Akane," Nabiki said in mild accusation.

"Ah," Lotion nodded sagely, "That."

"So you admit it," Nabiki said in confirmation.

"I do," Lotion replied, "But until now I did not think it best to raise the subject, at least not until you were ready. It would appear that Urd was able to get access to your classified records and discovered the temporal phenomenon that has created many subtle and significant changes to this timeline, only some of which I have been able to glean in my meditations."

"Such as?" Nabiki asked her.

"Aside from you losing out with Ranma but finding a love in the man known as Tatewaki?" Lotion replied, "I know that you are not the only one who would have made sacrifices in the pursuit of true love."

"You mean like Ranma and Akane driving each other crazy?" Nabiki frowned.

"Theirs was a love-hate relationship with many stormy moments, yes," the old woman nodded.

"And what about Shampoo?" Nabiki asked with more concern.

"Dishonored and disgraced," Lotion replied, "She was banished from her tribe for failing to obey their laws and had to make her way in the world as a single woman without a husband. Certainly that was a better outcome than on some worlds where she commits suicide to preserve her family's honor."

"SUICIDE???" Nabiki all but shouted.

"You needn't be so alarmed," Lotion said, "That isn't going to be happening here, not as things are progressing on this timeline. It is rather like the case of Kuonji Ukyo, who also would have lost out on love and been forced to undergo years of remorse and regret. On some worlds she picked Ranma up on the fly after he divorced your sister, and in other timelines she finds love in another man's arms…or even a woman in certain timelines…"

"That's not so different from here," Nabiki admitted, "And what about Kasumi?"

"Either she would have married Doctor Tofu or found her way on a different path of destiny, but what matters any of this? Your world is here, and you are well grounded into your future."

"Maybe so," Nabiki said reluctantly, "But I just can't get over the idea that this wasn't supposed to happen. Are you saying that somebody deliberately changed the timeline to make it possible for me to fall for and marry Ranma?"

"I do indeed," Lotion replied, "And I have been studying that question for quite some time now and have arrived at some rather startling conclusions."

"Such as?" Nabiki held her breath in expectation.

"For one thing," Lotion began, "I am positive that the one who changed the past was a Lore Master…and a very powerful one skilled in the art of manipulating the currents of time and destiny, which is a good deal more powerful than even I can attest."

"Somebody more powerful than you?" Nabiki asked in alarm, "Like…who?"

"Like you for one," Lotion's eyes held Nabiki fast as she emphasized the words carefully and precisely, "You are the one who altered the timeline…or rather a version of you who hails from the future."

There was a long pause before Nabiki replied, "You're kidding…ME?"

"And no other," Lotion affirmed with unshakable conviction.

"B-but why?"

"A very good question," Lotion replied, "Perhaps when you meet yourself one of these days you might well ask her. I am certain that it will be a most enlightening conversation…"

Ranma was holding an ice pack to his head as he tried to remember just how he had managed to lose consciousness while taking a bath earlier in the day. He remembered enjoying a good soak in the furo, thinking about changing into his good clothes so that he could pay another visit to the Tendo dojo, and idly wondered what Nabiki might be wearing when she greeted him that evening.

Imagine his surprise when the water had suddenly bubbled and boiled before a circle of light took form, and up through the gap had floated this crazy chick with a mallet?

Okay, it wasn't fair to compare that girl to the tomboy, he admitted, but she had sure acted like Akane when she took a good look at her surroundings, then happened to notice him gawking up at her in amazement. Ranma remembered seeing the mallet grow large before his vision, and then felt an explosion go off in his head as his vision was obscured with trees and planets, and then he lost consciousness and quite possibly was dreaming. He had an odd sense of being in his cursed form while chasing a rabbit down a hole, but from there the details became thankfully hazy. He had a sneaking hunch it was one of those erotic wet dreams that he had been experiencing lately and if he had remembered the details it would most probably have led to a nose bleed.

Ranma opened his eyes, finding the still-unfamiliar bareness of his room greeted his senses. The pain in his head was fading gradually, but as even he knew better than to risk his gray matter with a probable concussion, he decided to take it easy and not sit upright until he was certain that he was ready.

"Damned tomboys and their mallets…" he muttered softly.

"Tell me about it."

Ranma's eyes went wide and he turned his head to see the figure sitting near at hand smiling down at him with comradely affection, "U-Ucchan?"

"Got it in one, Ranchan," the Chef nodded, "Don't bother sitting up on my account. Just rest a bit more and let that legendary Saotome healing factor of yours kick in."

"What are you doing here, Ucchan?" Ranma asked.

"Nice to see you too," she sniffed in reply.

"Ah…" Ranma said a bit lamely, "That…didn't come out the way I meant…"

"Never mind," Ukyo reassured him, "I just came by to talk and your mom said you were up in your room resting. She tends to think of me as a boy, so she said it was all right for me to come up here and take my turn seeing you weren't in a full coma. By the way…who did this to you? I didn't think anybody could lay a hand on the great Saotome Ranma."

"Har-har," Ranma snorted, "I didn't get too good a look at her, but she surprised me while I was in the furo. I…" it suddenly occurred to Ranma that he wasn't wearing any clothing beneath the blankets that covered him as he lay upon his tamati mats, and since Ukyo WAS at the moment a girl he had a sudden urge to remain perfectly still, fearing that to do otherwise would be to risk serious trouble.

"Whoever she was, she must have been pretty good to catch you napping," Ukyo noted, then teased, "I hope she didn't try and take advantage of you while you were at her mercy, but if she did, then you can count on me to avenge your honor…"

"Very funny," Ranma sulked, then blinked, "Take advantage of me…?"

"You think some girls wouldn't attempt it," Ukyo snorted, "Take my word on it, some will!"

Ranma noticed for the first time that his childhood friend was currently sporting a black eye and looked as if she had been dragged through some bushes, and in concern he asked, "Where'd you get the shiner?"

"You like it?" Ukyo indicated the bruise in question, "Compliments of your favorite tomboy and mine over a…misunderstanding we had a little while ago. I don't think she bought my explanation."

"What did you do to get her that worked up?" Ranma wondered before adding under his breath, "Not that it takes much to get on her bad side…"

"Let's just say it has to do with an old acquaintance of mine who dropped into town and made a lot of trouble between me, Akane, and Makoto. It was all a big misunderstanding really, but before I could explain things to my two girlfriends, I got clobbered."

"I know the feeling," Ranma mused, and for a moment the two friends shared a private laugh together.

"So," Ukyo remarked after a moment of silence, "Guess we both know what it's like to be popular with the ladies."

"I guess."

"So how did we get so lucky?"

"Wish I knew, Ucchan," Ranma sighed, "I wish I knew…"

"At least your girlfriends wait to hear explanations," Ukyo winced as she felt along her chin, "Now I've gotta think of a way of making it up to the both of them, and dealing with a certain nuisance who's come back into my life. And here I was feeling sorry for you having to spend two weeks away from the Tendos."

"I appreciate that, Ucchan," Ranma felt good enough to sit upright, so he tried it and found his head did not hurt as much as before, "Wish I could help you out, but it's all I can do to keep up with Shampoo and Nabiki. This whole engagement business has got me to thinking…"

"A dangerous past time, or so I'm told," Ukyo sniffed.

"Yeah, well…" Ranma managed to fold his legs and sit on his bed, only to belatedly remember to cover up his waist as he glanced sheepishly at Ukyo, who pretended not to notice.

"What are you so worried about?" Ukyo asked as she studied the room with an amused smile upon her lips, "I've got one of those too, you know…or I do when I get hit with cold water. I'd even compare sizes with you sometime if you wanna know just what kind of a 'curse' I'm stuck with…"

"Ah…" Ranma swallowed, "No thanks."

"Suit yourself," Ukyo grinned, "Now you were saying?"

"Ah…" Ranma tried to remember what it was that he had been about to say the previous minute, then sighed, "Anyway, I guess the whole thing about this marriage business is that I was never exactly given a choice about it…it was like, 'BANG, you're Engaged, Saotome!' First Pop drags me to meet the Tendos, then Shampoo shows up and like an idiot I went and defeated her…"

"You're sorry about that?" Ukyo looked at him with surprise.

"Ah, no…actually," Ranma colored, "I'm not. Nabiki's great, and Shampoo…" he sighed, "Like you said…how did I get so lucky?"

"You three have been doing the bump and grind for a couple of weeks now," Ukyo noted, "So what does that feel like?"

"It's great," Ranma smiled, then more reluctantly added, "I never knew what it was that made guys go completely nuts over girls, but now I know that I could get used to doing that for the rest of my life. Shampoo's a good teacher, and Nabiki…wow…I can't put it into words. It's like nothing else I've ever done in my life…better even than martial arts…"

"Sex?" Ukyo raised both eyebrows.

"That…and it's just so wonderful holding them both…" Ranma sighed, "I get used to snuggling with a couple of warm bodies sharing a bed that can barely hold one of us. We're definitely gonna have to get a bigger bed when we do it full time, and one that can take real punishment, because I think we wore out the springs the other night…"

"You know that you are making me feel completely jealous," Ukyo said dryly.

"Huh?" Ranma blinked, then belatedly realized what he had been saying, "Oh…yeah…ah… well…"

"I'm teasing you, Ranchan," Ukyo playfully cuffed him, "Don't take everything so literal and serious. Actually…I wanted to ask you something…seeing as we both share similar curses…"

"Uh…yeah?" Ranma asked cautiously.

"Well…" Ukyo began to wring her hands together as she seemed to be searching for the right wording, "You know I've pretended to be a boy for years and I've…never actually…done it with anyone before…I mean, I was hoping to meet the right guy one of these days…and then I met you and…ah, well…that isn't really what I'm here for, so don't worry."

"Oh?" Ranma swallowed.

"I don't want to make trouble between you, Shampoo, or Nabiki," Ukyo assured, "What I want to know is…how do you make somebody happy? Somebody you care about, that is?"

"What?" Ranma asked, "What do you mean…?"

"It just that I've always thought of myself deep down as a regular girl who wanted a man to be my husband," Ukyo began, "It never even occurred to me until lately that I could have a relationship with another girl. I mean…I don't think myself as a pervert or a lesbian just because I'm a…cross dresser…"

"But now you got a couple of girls who are interested in you, right?" Ranma hesitantly asked her.

"Right," Ukyo sighed, "And to my complete astonishment I'm finding out that I can feel the same way about them that they feel about me. Mako-chan came to me earlier and tried to seduce me…and the scary thing is that I almost let her."

"Whoah," Ranma remarked, "That's heavy."

"At first I thought it was because of my cursed form," Ukyo said, "I mean…no offense, but being a guy must be real hell on you. You've got all these emotions and sensations that are so different from being a girl, I don't know how you can control yourselves half the time. No wonder many boys are such droolers."

"I'm not like that," Ranma said quietly.

"Don't take this the wrong way, Ranchan," Ukyo smiled, "But you're not exactly a normal guy, and most boys grow up wanting to ogle and fondle women. I know, I've spent enough time around boys that I've heard all the stories."

"So you're saying being a guy makes you act horny?" Ranma asked.

"No, I mean being a guy makes the horny part a lot harder to handle," Ukyo corrected, "Take me for example…I was seriously drawn to Makoto in a physical sense, but the feelings didn't go away when I changed back into a girl. I still wanted to screw her…just thinking about her now is making me feel so incredibly horny."

"You really like her, huh?" Ranma asked, seeing the fondness come over his old friend as Ukyo talked about Makoto.

"Oh yeah," Ukyo sighed, "I do…lots. Only…there's also Akane to consider, and I don't want to hurt her feelings…at least not anymore than I already have," she touched her eye for emphasis, "I think I've let her get closer to me than either of us imagined we could get, not counting that business with the love pearls. I like her too…which is more than a little scary."

"I'll bet," Ranma said, "Better you than me, though."

"Don't be like that," Ukyo chided, "You're also being mean to Akane, but she's not that bad a person. She tries real hard to make people like her, and just because she has a few problems is no reason to make her out to be some kind of a monster."

"I guess," Ranma replied, "You want her, you can have her. How can I help?"

"Well…you've been where I'm at," Ukyo said hesitantly, "How do you make it work? I mean…how do you keep two women happy at the same time without having them kill each other, and maybe me in the process?"

"Whoah, that is a toughie," Ranma sniffed, "I think it really is up to them, but if you want to know how to please a girl…all I can say is that you've gotta pay attention to them and their needs, but you can't ignore your needs too. It's kind of hard to balance them out, but if you're really into doing something then your enjoyment of it's gonna translate into how well you perform…I mean, if you pay attention to what's making them feel good, then you're gonna know that you're gonna enjoy it too, especially if it's something you know you'd enjoy as a girl…ah…am I making sense with all that?" he wilted slightly.

"Actually," Ukyo blinked her eyes, "That's almost like…profound. I never looked at it that way, but now that you mention it, if somebody were coming onto me…"

"What's this?" a voice asked archly, "WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?"

"Eep?" Ranma started, "M-Mister Tendo???"

It was indeed the Tendo Patriarch standing as large as life in the now-opened doorway, eyes blazing as though he were about to manifest his fearsome "Demon Head" attack upon the half-naked boy whom he found in bed with a woman other than one of his daughters.


"I'm not in his bed, Tendo-san," Ukyo replied, "And we're just making out like lovers."

"URK!" Ranma wilted, looking like he wanted to find a rock to crawl under.

"YOU'RE WHAT???!!!" Soun looked like he was about to blow a gasket.

"Relax, Mister Tendo, I was just kidding," Ukyo straightened up, "I've got my clothes on and I've only just been here for a short time. Nothing happened between Ranchan and me, and nothing was about to happen either. I give you my word as a Kuonji that I wasn't here to try and seduce him."

"Then why are you here?" Soun asked, his tone ratcheted down to the level of simmering suspicion.

"If you must know, I had to ask Ranchan a personal question," Ukyo replied as she headed for the door, her mood considerably more cheerful than anyone had seen in her for a long time, "And now that he's given me his advice I'm gonna go put it into practice. Now please excuse me, Tendo-san, there are some people I need to see, and two of them are my potential girlfriends."

Soun blinked his eyes several times as the chef made her way past him and out into the hallway. He turned a questioning look towards his prospective son-in-law, seeing only a blank look in Ranma's eyes, which prompted Soun to ask, "You gave her advice?"

"Uh…I guess," Ranma said dubiously, wondering what he had just said that could effect such a positive mood change in his friend and fellow curse victim, "You…uh…wanted to ask me a question, Mister Tendo?"

Soun blinked again until his brain hit the "Reset" button and he remembered the reason for which he had come to the Saotome house. He stepped fully into he room and said, "Son…I want to know the truth, do you care about Nabiki?"

"Er…what?" it was Ranma's turn to blink.

"My daughter deserves the happiness that can come from a good and stable marriage," Soun began again, "And it is important for me to know that you will take her to the altar with the intent of providing for her the love and support that she needs from the man whom she will marry. Until now I have been content that you honor the pledge that your father made to me when you were born, a pledge that I am happy to see that you have been willing to honor…but now comes the time when every father must ask seriously if this is your will and not just something performed out of duty."

"Oh…" Ranma replied, feeling somewhat awkward as he returned the look of the older man, then said as solemnly as he could, "It's not just duty, Sir…I do care about your daughter, and Nabiki…she's the woman for me. I didn't know this at first, but in the time since I've gotten to know her, I've decided that I want to go ahead and do this."

"And what about Shampoo?" Soun asked without giving a hint to his mood or pleasure.

Ranma's chin grew firm, "I've made a commitment to her also, sir, and she's having my baby. I won't abandon her, and neither will Nabiki."

"And that's your final decision on the matter?" Soun's tone hinted of anger.

"It's my decision, sir," Ranma replied, his own face showing the stubborn pride of the Saotomes.

"Good," Soun's expression softened, "Then I can count on you to do the right thing with both women. I'm not happy about having a three-way engagement, but you seem to be thriving well enough, and I can see that Nabiki is very happy with the both of you. Your decision does you honor, son, and so I want to give something to you so that you can show Nabiki how serious you are about the marriage."

"Sir?" Ranma asked with a raised eyebrow.

Soun pulled a small object out of his pocket and then approached Ranma, sinking down to his knees before he solemnly bowed and presented the object before Ranma, his behavior like a Samurai giving a gift to a peer rather than an adult to a younger warrior. The object lay there on the floor as Soun eased back and then assumed a sitting posture.

Ranma stared at the object, a small box-like shape whose purpose even he could not fail to comprehend. With great deliberation he reached out to pick up the box, and then he opened it to find a diamond studded ring set in a styrofoam holder.

"It's an engagement ring, Son," Soun explained, "I gave it to her mother, and now I ask that you give it to Nabiki. May it bring you both as close together as it did for my wife and me. I am sure that Nabiki will be proud to wear her mother's ring, and I know her mother would be proud to see her wear it."

"Sir…" Ranma felt an odd swell of emotion that almost brought tears to his eyes, but he fought off the urge stubbornly, unwilling to behave in an unmanly fashion before his prospective father-in-law. Instead he bowed to Soun, momentarily releasing his grip on his bedsheets, though the older man politely gave no hint of noticing, his own eyes full of tears that he did not hesitate to shed as he returned the bow, then straightened.

"I know that you will do everything in your power to make my little girl happy," Soun said before he rose back to his feet, "Choose a good time to give that to Nabiki, one that she will remember well into your twilight years. Remember, the future is in your hands to shape, so guard it well. That's all that I came to say…the rest is up to you…Ranma."

"Tendo-san?" Ranma said, pausing as the older man was in the process of turning away and exiting his bedroom.

"Yes my boy?" Soun asked.

"Thank you," Ranma nodded, "I'll make you proud of me, I promise."

"I already am, my boy," Soun smiled as he made he exit.

Ranma stared for a long time at the ring in his hand, feeling the gravity of everything it represented, and then his resolve firmed and he closed the box and set it to one side. He rose from his bed and got dressed, pocketing the ring box and intending to safeguard it until he could present it to Nabiki.

It was almost time for dinner, but once he ate he intended to be on his way for their nightly rendezvous, which seemed to his way of thinking to be an excellent time to give a ring to Nabiki. He stepped out into the hallway and was almost to the stairs when he heard his father's voice call from behind him, "Ranma?"

"Yeah Pop?" Ranma asked as he glanced back over his shoulder.

The older Saotome tossed something at him that Ranma caught by reflex, which turned out to be a box almost identical to the one Soun had given him. In surprise Ranma found another ring, somewhat different from the first, which made him stare in disbelief at the man who so closely resembled his father, but who could not possibly be Saotome Genma.

"Where did you get this?" he asked in suspicion.

"It belongs to your mother," Genma said, "And I'm giving it to you. It was her engagement ring, and I thought you should have it."

"To give to Nabiki?" Ranma asked.

"No," Genma adjusted his glasses, "I was thinking more that you should be giving that one to Shampoo. I wasn't going to say so in front of Soun, but it's a bad idea to give a present to one girl and ignore another…take my word on that one."

Ranma still was having trouble placing the man before him with the fat fool he had known for over ten years as his father, and he could not keep the suspicion from his voice as he said, "I'm surprised you didn't pawn this thing off, Old Man."

"Not for lack of effort," Genma said, "But your mother was a bit too clever for me and I never could find out where she hid it. She gave it to me about an hour ago and said I should give it to you, and you should know by now that I never do anything that could get me in trouble with your mother."

"Nothing she can catch you in the act at," Ranma clarified.

"Exactly," the light gleamed off his father's glasses as Genma smiled, "That's how I've lived this long. Take my advice and do the same thing with your wives and you'll be a lot more healthy."

"Yeah, I guess you're right," Ranma reluctantly conceded as he pocketed the second ring next to the other, "I'd hate to get Shampoo mad at me…and Nabiki…" he shuddered, remembering the cold glare that he sometimes earned from his iinazuke whenever he did something to displease her.

"You're growing up fast, Boy," Genma said, "But there's a lot of life you've yet to live through, and when you get to be my age you'll finally understand what it means to be a father. Maybe then you won't think so bad of me and what I had to do in order to raise you."

"Maybe," Ranma said, straightening up, "We'll see."

"First order of business," Genma nodded, "We don't keep your mother waiting. After you finish helping her out with the dishes you can go and get yourself properly engaged to your fiancées."

"Makes sense to me," Ranma replied as he headed back towards the stairs, vaulting the entire length in a single bound and landing near-noiselessly at the bottom, feeling the weight of adult responsibility begin to settle upon his shoulders, but with one remarkable difference.

This time he was choosing to shoulder those responsibilities, to do the right thing without hesitation or regret. He may not have chosen his path that his parents had set him upon, but he was becoming an adult now, and with that knowledge he was beginning to see that not all choices were fatal ones, and that whatever became of his future was his to create with his labors.

All he needed to see the future through were Shampoo and Nabiki…nothing else mattered half so much in his life, and upon his sacred honor he intended to make them his…or perish in the attempt. He would not make the mistakes of his Old Man in building his future and he would make everyone proud with his conduct, ESPECIALLY when it came to becoming a father!

If only the mental word "Father" suddenly popping into his head didn't make his knees turn to jelly just as he rounded a corner, causing him to lose his balance as he went tumbling onto the floor, sending him rumbling into the sink area where his collision caused a tumbler full of water to overbalance onto his head, triggering his transformation into his girl form.

"Ranma?" Nodoka turned around, "You should be more careful when you go running in the house. Well, now that you're a girl you can help me by helping toss the salad, after which you can serve the fried noodles to your father. Oh my…this is so much fun having a son who can also double as a daughter…"

Ranma-chan looked up from where she lay in a heap, contemplating the injustices of the universe at large which often seemed to behave as if the Powers that Be had a wicked sense of humor.

If only his dignity could survive the whims of Kami-sama he just might be able to make it through to see his actual wedding…


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