((LEGAL STUFF: Ash Ketchum, Brock, Misty, Pikachu, etc., are all property of whoever owns the Pokemon franchise including Nintendo, Game Boy, and the anime/cartoon version (it's such a large collective I'm not sure who owns what). I don't intend to infringe on anybody's rights, and I'm not getting any money out of this. Ranma Saotome, Akane Tendo, Mousse, Shampoo, and the other Ranma 1/2 characters are property of Rumiko Takahashi (hope I spelled that right). Again, this story is for reader enjoyment only. No profit is being made. Thank you, have a nice day...))
Part 6: Understanding and Courage
Ash found solace once again in Nerima Park, this time at the side of the duck pond. She sat on the earthen bank near the water, hidden from view of the path by some bushy hedgeplants, knees drawn up, crying into her folded arms. There seemed to be no escape from the thick sorrow and gut-wrenching humiliation she felt after having been subjected to Gary's mockery.
When her tears began to subside, there was suddenly a definite presence beside her, and she started a little. Looking around, she saw standing not six feet away a tall teenaged boy with unruly jet black hair, most of which was tied back in a braided pigtail. He wore loose black pants and a red silk Chinese-style sleeveless shirt. He was standing loosely, almost hipshot, with a silent confidence surrounding him, his air of unhurried self-assurance giving the impression that he'd just been standing there for no particular reason.
Ash wiped her face with the back of one hand. "What do you want?"
"Nothin'," the stranger replied easily, not looking directly at her but instead somewhere out on the pond, his voice a youthful, rough tenor.
"Then just go away," Ash said lowly.
"It's a public park, ya know. I got the right to be here, same as anyone else," the teenager retorted, coming nearer to sit about two feet away; a close yet nonthreatening distance. He sat silently for a long time, sensing the youngster beside him fidget, still just staring out at the pond. Still without looking at her, he held out the object he'd had in his other hand. "You left this."
Ash tentatively reached out and plucked her hat from his grip, clutching it close and remaining silent. With a soft sniffle, she watched him out of the corner of her eye, put more at ease by the dark-haired youth's rough, easy speech and quiet, purposeful manner. He didn't seem the mocking, insensitive type.
The stranger cleared his throat. "I, uh, was at the Pokemon battle earlier. I saw what happened."
Ash's head jerked up, staring at the older boy in horror. "You mean...?"
"Yeah. I know."
Ash gritted her teeth, prepared for an onslaught, but the stranger suddenly turned to her with a warm, open smile and an offered hand.
"Hi! My name's Ranma. Ranma Saotome."
"Uh, I'm Ash Ketchum," the young trainer responded hesitantly, shaking the hand. She was struck the first time she saw his eyes; clear, kind eyes, deep beautiful blue, open and friendly. No malice, no mockery, no accusation, no threats...just a person. A friendly, caring person.
"So..." Ranma leaned back on his hands with a sigh. "You're sittin' out here missin' your Pokemon battle, cryin' and scarin' the ducks--and your excuse is...?"
Ash stared at him. Could her first reading of the older boy have been so wrong? Was he really just another Gary? "What do you mean?" she queried, voice rising. "You said you saw what happened! I'm a girl! Everybody saw--Gary saw--they're all laughing at me! Ash Ketchum, Pokemon trainer--a girl!"
"So? What's that gotta do with anything?"
"Everything!" Ash nearly screeched. "Everything I am--everything I was--everything that matters! And Misty--she's a--and I'm--I can't--! And Gary--! Didn't you hear what he said?"
Ranma was wearing a gentle smile throughout the young trainer's spluttering, disjointed tirade. "If I understood whatcha just said, you're upset 'cause you feel like your identity's been changed, like you aren't who ya used to be. You're upset because there's a girl you like, and now that you're a girl ya think she's not gonna be able to like you back the way you want her to. You're upset because a bully called what he saw an' poked your weak spot--the change. That 'bout sum it up?"
Ash nodded, stuttering. "But...the part about the girl--I mean, she's just a friend, y'know, a-and..."
Ranma shrugged and held up a hand to stop her. "I understand, you know. Everything."
"Really." Ash gave a derisive snort. "You couldn't possibly understand how horrible this is."
"Don't tell me what I don't understand, kid," Ranma shot back, his voice suddenly much harder, his face abruptly tightened in anger. "Don't you dare tell me I don't understand."
"How would you know?" Ash demanded. She shied away from his ire but her voice remained high, hot, and loud. "You weren't hit by some zany magic spell that took away everything that you were and made you something else! You don't have to deal with jerks like Gary calling you girly or having your best friend stare at you like you're some--some object! You aren't made to get stuck as something you're not!"
Ranma was nearly nose to nose with her, his voice low and firm as he spoke slowly, deliberately, and clearly. "Yes...I...am."
Ash drew back, eyes widening. "No...nobody's..."
Ranma rolled his eyes with a weary sigh. "Guess I'm gonna hafta show you..." He rose and walked to the pond, Ash right behind, then squatted at the edge and traced a finger in the water. "Don't take your eyes offa me," he warned wryly. "Don't even blink--just watch." He took a great handful of cold pond water and splashed himself with it, soaking his head and shoulders.
At first Ash thought that nothing had happened, but then noticed that Ranma's pigtailed hair had shifted from obsidian black to a red so deep and bright it outmatched even Misty's blazing color. Then Ranma rose and turned, and Ash gasped and stumbled back in shock.
A beautiful red-haired girl stood before her, looking sixteen or seventeen, petite and buxom with alabaster skin and supple form, about the same height as Misty. She had a sort of cheeky charm about her, an almost tomboyish air of silent confidence, a purposeful manner... Ash looked into her deep, beautiful blue eyes...and got it.
"Kinda shocking, ain't it?" the redhead asked, her tone and inflection amazingly familiar.
"R--Ranma?" Ash could only stare. "You...you...shrunk!"
The female Ranma grinned, plucking at her now-baggy clothing as she readjusted her belt to keep her pants up. "Yeah; I've noticed that before." She now stood only a little taller than Ash, fine-boned and slim, yet much more well-curved and filled-out; more mature than Ash.
Ash had a hard time reconciling the tall, strong, dark-haired Ranma with the petite, impudent-looking redhead standing before her now. "How did you do that?" she asked. "Was it the pond? The water?"
"Alla the above," girl-Ranma replied, laughing at Ash's gaping expression. She sat on the grass and gestured for Ash to do the same. When Ash was seated, Ranma turned serious. "D'ya feel okay talkin' to me this way?" she asked directly. "If you're uncomfortable talkin' ta me as a girl I can understand--a lotta boys are--"
Ash was keeping a kind of unconscious distance, suspicion clouding her features. "What are you really? Boy or girl?"
Ranma smiled. "A guy, same as you. That's what I was born as."
"Then...I'm okay with it. I think."
Ranma shrugged. "The body I got right now's what I'd look like if I'da been born a girl. But the fact is the body don't change the mind. I'm still Ranma Saotome, man of martial arts."
"So...how did you do it?" Ash wanted to know right away. "Is it permanent?"
"Yes," Ranma replied, leaning back on her elbows. "It's a curse of Jusenkyo. It's an 'aqua-shifting' curse--I think that's what Doc Tofu called it... Anyway, the gist is this: When you get hit with room temperature or colder water, ya shift to your cursed form. When you get hit with warm to hot water, you turn back to yourself. It's that simple."
"So that's what happened when I got in the shower!" Ash breathed, things beginning to fall into place.
Ash hurriedly explained the events of the previous day, from the encounter with the bottle of ice-cold liquid--now known to be the catalyst--to the shower incident of that morning. By the end of the tale, Ranma was laughing in understanding.
"That's the story of my life," she chuckled. "One misunderstandin' after another. Seems your friends are a little more forgiving than mine."
"Not now," Ash said, her enthusiasm in telling the tale suddenly dampened as she remembered that they were still waiting back at the high school.
"Aw, c'mon. You can't let stuff like that get to you. If I got this upset over every little thing that happened to me, I'd be insane," Ranma said, chucking her on the chin. "Scratch that--I'd prob'ly be dead. My life's hell right now."
"You don't wanna know, and I'm not gonna tell ya," Ranma said with a shake of her head. She certainly wasn't going to spend the rest of the day telling this kid about all her fiancee problems--male and female--and about the rest of the crazed martial artists and other nasties that followed her about constantly. No need to burden a kid like this with that kind of tripe.
"So...how long have you been, uh, cursed?" Ash asked, almost shyly.
"Mmm..." Ranma sat back to think. "'Bout a year, now, I guess. Huh. Didn't stop to think about it before now. Wow...I've been spendin' half-time as a girl for almost a year..."
"A year," Ash breathed. And here I was complaining about two whole days! "How do you live with it?"
Ranma's expression turned slightly painful, somthing quickly covered by a careless grin. "You adjust. You learn to avoid wet situations. You swallow your pride and get over yourself if ya get wet anyway. You learn how to turn guys down--hard n' fast."
Ash gulped. "I'll learn that one quick."
"You're a little young for that...and you don't have to," Ranma said, sitting up straight as if recalling something. "I almost forgot to tell you--your curse is diff'rent than mine."
"You'll only have to live with this fer a little while," Ranma replied, smiling. "What I fell into was the real deal--right'n the middle of Jusenkyo Valley. You got hit with some Suspended spring water. That only lasts for a short time. Three weeks, tops. Maybe shorter; it varies depending on the person."
"Are you sure?"
Ranma chuckled. "I got it straight from the duck's mouth."
Ash didn't have a clue what that meant, but nodded anyway. "I'm glad. But...three weeks..."
"I'm jealous," Ranma said, serious. "I hafta live with this for the rest of my life. Unless by some chance Jusenkyo wears off too, or if I can find a cure someday. So far it ain't happened...but I stay hopeful."
"I wish you luck."
For long minutes they just sat there by the pond, watching the ducks. For a few minutes they were brothers, sisters, kindred--made thus by identical curses and a brief mutual understanding. Then the spell was broken when Ranma turned to Ash with a grin.
"Hey, kid, you got a battle to win, don'tcha?"
"Me? Now? Like this?"
"Why not?" Ranma said with a shrug. "You gotta get used to it anyway. You would not believe what effect it has on guys--fighting like this, I mean. They usually lose."
"But Gary what?" Ranma suddenly laughed mischiveously, but it came out as an almost girlish giggle. "Y'know, if he bothers you, you can always yell at him to stop flirting with you."
"Urk!" Ash turned decidedly green. "But...that'd mean I'd have to..."
"It's like admitting you're a girl, I know--but how d'ya think it'll make him feel? He'll shut up real fast--I promise you that."
"Well, I can't sit 'round chewin' the fat all day, kid. Got stuff to do...an uncute fiancee to report to before she comes lookin' for me..."
"Nothin'." Ranma shrugged. "I'll walk you back to the high school, if you want."
Ash stood up with Ranma. "But...I'm still not sure..."
"Look, I'll go like this, too. It's not like there's anywhere to get hot water between here and the school," Ranma said. She put an understanding hand on Ash's shoulder. "I know it's rough, but you'll get through it. You're tough. Y'know, you remind me of me at that age." She chucked Ash's chin again. "You're a real scrappy kid. I'd hate for you to lose your fire because of a little magic mayhem in your life. You're still Ash Ketchum--and you've got a date with destiny!"
Ash took a deep breath and stood a little straighter. "Yeah, I guess you're right. I'm a Pokemon trainer..."
"You bet you are."
"...and I've got a battle to fight..."
"Go get 'em, kid."
"...and I'm gonna win!" With a renewed grin, Ash plunked her cap back on her head.
"Yeah! That's the spirit I'm talkin' about!" Ranma cheered. "Confidence--it's the best thing in the world for poor saps like us. Never give up."
"That's my motto!"
With that, the two boys-turned-girls hurried up the bank side-by-side, heading back for the high school at a rapid pace.
"Thanks, Ranma!" Ash said as she jogged. "I don't think I could've gotten over this myself."
"Hey, it was nothin'. Oh, by the way, if you're hungry after the battle I know this really great okonomiyaki place..."
To be continued...