Trial by Fire

By Edward Simons

Based on characters and situations created by Takahashi Rumiko. Ranma 1/2 and characters copyright Shogakukan, Kitty Animation Circle, and Takahashi Rumiko. Fire Tripper copyright Shogakukan, Kitty Animation Circle, and Rumiko Takahashi This story written 2005 - Edward A. Simons

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"Alright, I'm here!" Ukyou called. "Not that I've got time for a challenge," she grumbled. "And what kind of an idiot decides to have fight in the woods behind the school?"

She heard a rustling, and a slender man stepped out the underbrush, though with the shadows, she couldn't make out more than that. "Who are you?" the girl asked. "I got the note, but you didn't sign it or explain why you wanted me to come. If this is a trap…."

"Well, you're one of the few people around here who understands the advantage of picking the field of battle." The man smiled, but there was no joy in his voice.

"So it is a trap. Catch me where there isn't room to use my battle spatula." She pulled a double handful of throwing spatulas. "Well, even if I lose, I'm going down fighting!"

The stranger sighed and raised a hand, palm forward. "Everything's a fight these days, isn't it? But this isn't a trap. It isn't even a challenge."

"Then what's going on?"

"I need to explain something," he replied. "No, I need to explain a lot of things and you're the only one who might understand."

"I haven't got the time for this, whatever this is." She spun on her heel and called back over her shoulder. "For all I know, those idiots are already trying to force Ranchan into getting married again!"

"But you had time to spend ten years looking for him." The stranger's voice was firm and clear. "What happened to that patience?"

She stopped in mid-step, tension obvious in her stance, then slowly turned to face the man. "Nerima happened to my patience," she snapped. "And how do you know that much about me? Just who are you, anyway?"

"A stranger who you've known for a long time."

"That doesn't make any sense. You're talking in riddles."

"And I used to be so direct. I'm sorry." The man sighed. "I'm not doing a very good job of this. I will tell you who I am, but I need to explain a lot before I can do that." He smiled ruefully. "I promise this will take a lot less than ten years."

Ukyou raised an eyebrow. "Okay," she replied cautiously. "I suppose I can listen. For a little while, anyway."

"You expected this to be a challenge, that you'd have to fight again," the man stated.

Her tone was matter of fact. "Of course. That's the way things work around here."

"Have you ever wondered why life in Nerima has been so chaotic?" he asked. "Why every time you turned around there was another fiancée, another rival, another battle?"

The girl shrugged. "I suppose I just got used to it."

"What if I told you that was my fault? It's better than it could have been, so much better." The man fell silent for a moment, staring at the ground. "But this wasn't how I wanted it to be."

"All of this was your fault? You really expect me to believe that? And even if it's true, what gives you the right?"

He raised his eyes, looking straight at her. "The words are inadequate, but I am sorry. I didn't think it would end up like this. I had the best of intentions, but we know what road is paved with those."

"I don't understand." She paused a moment, scrutinizing the stranger. There was something in his voice, in the way he carried himself. "Step out of the shadows, where I can see you."

"It's about time I did that." He laughed softly, and moved forward. The man was tall and slender, but dressed in a simple dark martial arts outfit. The face seemed familiar, though, and she noted the glasses and the short ponytail. "Wait a minute, you're the guy who told me the Saotomes were in Nerima, staying at the Tendo dojo. You gave me the address and directions to Furinkan High."

He nodded, but there was a subtle sadness in his expression, a hint that he'd expected more. "Yes, I did. You weren't the first. Nor the last."

"You'd better start explaining."

He gave a faint smile, though it didn't reach his eyes, then looked serious again. "That's what I'm trying to do, but I'm not sure where to start."

"How about at the beginning?" she responded dryly.

"But which beginning?"

She sighed. "You're talking in riddles again."

"Sorry. I thought this would be easier, but there are too many memories and the whole thing is unbelievable."

"My fiancé turns into a girl sometimes. His dad turns into a panda. I've even seen magic spatulas. How much stranger can it be?"

The man chuckled. "Why don't I start with the earliest time I arrived in Nerima. It was about the time you were born, but I was seventeen. I found a job, finished my schooling, and eventually opened a business here in town. More importantly, I listened, I remembered, I planned, and I searched."

"Searched for what?" she frowned.

"Rivals, fiancées, threats great and small, here and other places. But first I contacted the Tendo family, got to know them, and became their family physician. Unfortunately, my plan began to come apart before it even started. I hadn't counted on the oldest and youngest girls falling for me. At first I thought Kasumi was only interested in medicine and in many ways she reminded me of…no, I shouldn't dwell on my past."

"She reminded you of someone?" the girl echoed.

"A little, but she wasn't the one she reminded me of. And she's more observant than people give her credit for. I couldn't afford to let her get too close, just like I couldn't afford to dwell on my past or be distracted from my goal. I wish I'd thought of a better way, but I played the fool when she was around until she tired of the foolishness. She's the first person I hurt by my actions. She wouldn't be the last, but in a way she helped me. If I could hurt her, the closest thing I had to…." His voice trailed away. "If I could do that, then I had the strength to continue with my plan."

"Akane shared my interest in Martial Arts," he continued, "but she was just a child. I didn't realize she had a crush on me, not for quite a while. Fortunately, it wasn't long after that Tatewaki Kuno provided a distraction, if not a solution, to that problem."

"And then Ranma arrived," the girl stated.

"Yes, though he wasn't quite the way I'd expected him to be. If I'd thought about it more, I'd have realized my plan had already failed. But I was too worried that he might leave again, seeking his cure. I couldn't let that happen. I needed him here, in Nerima, where people could find him and fight him." Lips curved into smile, but the man's eyes were empty. "It was amusing to hire Genma, if a bit risky, but it was another way to keep him and his son here. People were so oblivious; they never wondered why I accepted his panda curse without an explanation. I even joked about not knowing he was related to Ranma, but no one got the joke."

"I tried a different approach with Ranma, or actually I tried two. First, I showed him a hint of what I knew, a level of chi control he hadn't mastered yet. But he didn't respond. I hid my disappointment, but it made me think. He didn't know what was coming. He didn't know how he had to get better as soon as possible. And he thought I'd always be there." The stranger looked downcast for a moment. "It's a mistake we all make when we're young."

"Actually, I understand a lot about someone not being there," the girl said softly.

The ghost of a smile crossed his face. "Yes, I suppose you would. The second thing I tried was something small, a few words and a brief use of pressure points to sooth things between Ranma and Akane after their disastrous first meeting. It was just a gentle nudge; no more of a change than throwing a pebble in a stream. I knew it wasn't enough, that it wouldn't last, that I needed to direct other people to Nerima before he could try to leave again. There were things more important than a cure at stake."

"I found Ryouga first, though I was lucky to find him," the stranger continued. "I gave him a map and directions. Ranma hadn't asked about learning my techniques, but I knew Ryouga's pigheaded persistence would drive both of them to improve and they and others were going to need every ounce of skill to survive what was coming."

"More riddles," the girl sighed. "What was coming and how did you know?"

"I'll get to that, I promise. And I always keep my promises. I'll even tell you why and hope you feel my reasons are worth the cost, that you'll forgive me, just like…."

"Are you okay?"

"I…I don't really know." His lips curved in a self-mocking smile. "Yes, I know that's another riddle, but I'll explain it, too. After I gave the map to Ryouga, I gave Shampoo information, a job, and a place to live. The sooner she arrived and stayed, the sooner her great-grandmother would follow."

"So much for my plan," he sighed. "Shampoo left Nerima suddenly, without telling me why. I didn't know what to do. Without Cologne, who was going to teach the Amazon techniques to Ranma, Ryouga, and anyone else willing to learn? Luckily, both Shampoo and her great-grandmother returned, and they brought some guy named Mousse, yet another rival for Ranma to battle."

"Then you told me Ranchan was here."

"Actually, I freed Happosai first. That was a lot easier than finding the old lech in the first place. You don't know how many years I spent looking for the cave he was sealed in."

"You what!" The girl's eyes flared in anger. "Why? How did you even know about him? And do you know what he almost did?"

"Didn't I say I befriended Soun? That's how I heard about Happosai and how powerful he was. He was another master, another potential teacher, another source of conflict to force Ranma to become better. I never dreamed he'd used the Weakness Moxibustion to steal Ranma's strength, but I wasn't worried. In my travels, I'd been fortunate enough to find the temple that had the cure."

"But when Ranchan and Akane and I got there, it was gone," the girl snapped. "That stupid little bastard Happosai stole it!"

The stranger nodded glumly. "Ranma was weaker, not stronger. Everything was ruined. But even though Happosai and Ranma's other enemies opposed him, all of his friends tried to help and somehow that was enough."

"Barely," she growled. "And how come I never saw you?"

"There were reasons."

"I'm getting sick of all this reasons and riddles and plots and plans. Why do you have to explain it this way?"

"I'm sorry, I'll tell you why you didn't see me in a bit. As to why I did it," the man continued," Ranma was going to need all his friends and his enemies. I knew you'd stand by his side. I knew that Shampoo would as well and Ryouga when it really came down to it. Even Akane would try to help, though heart couldn't replace skill. I knew the old furball and Cologne would provide advice and training. And I knew that Ranma had enough enemies to keep him from getting lazy."

"He won, even when I feared he wouldn't; that's one reason I left Nerima right afterwards. If Ranma could achieve that, there were other, bigger threats I needed to send his way. And I couldn't afford to let myself be that close again, couldn't take the risk that I'd step in and try to solve Ranma's problems for him. That wouldn't push him into getting stronger. I think it's the same reason that Genma seldom offered more than advice. Ranma would resent us stealing his glory; I know I would have when I was his age. More importantly, he wouldn't learn to solve things on his own; he'd become dependant on us and there's no guarantee we'd be here forever."

"There were other reasons that staying had become a bigger risk than I could afford. Even though I wore glasses now and could mask my chi, Cologne or Happosai could have figured out who I really was and what I was really doing. And it wasn't just them, you or Ranma or Genma might have guessed it as well."

"Leaving was a different kind of risk. After Happosai, I could gauge what kind of threats Ranma could handle, but a lot happened while I was gone. Just where did all this stupid magic stuff come from? I didn't realize Kuno was that desperate to win. The stupid wishing sword could have ruined everything."

"But I didn't find out about it until later, just like that Gambler King mess. That didn't end like I'd expected, either. At least Ranma was still in Nerima, but that's about the only good thing that happened."

"So what were you doing while you were gone?" the girl asked.

"Making sure invitations to a Hot Springs Race got to the right people. Going to France to let the Chardins know where Soun Tendo lived. Visiting China to let Tarou know his target was Japanese. Those last two would have made it to Nerima anyway, but the sooner they arrived, the sooner everyone would be forced to improve their skills."

"Why?"

"Have you ever had a fever?" he asked.

"Of course. What does that have to do with anything?"

"Roughly speaking, a fever is your body working harder, trying to burn away the disease. But maybe that's not the best example. When you're working with metal, trying to make it harder and stronger, you need to heat it until it's molten, need to burn away all the impurities, burn away anything that would weaken it. I had to do the same thing to Ranma and as many other people as I could, had to force them to be as strong as they could. In China, I got my biggest break. When Herb went to Japan, he wouldn't have stopped to visit Cologne if I hadn't suggested it."

"Too bad I never got one," the girl replied, "a break, that is."

"I mailed a brochure about the Cursed Tunnel of Love," he said sadly. "I mailed a letter to Principal Kuno recommending Hinako Ninomiya as a teacher. I mailed another telling Soun Tendo about the Battle Dougi. I told Ryu Kumon that Genma was in Nerima so he got there sooner, too, and I told him about Ranma. I even helped a bear escape."

"But why did you do all this? What could you possibly gain?"

"This is about what I'd already lost, not what I planned to gain. It was so long ago, but I can't forget. My friends, my fiancée, and I were fighting for our lives." He shuddered involuntarily. "A…phoenix, a being of flame." He closed his eyes. "Sorry, this is…recalling it…it's harder than I thought." He swallowed and opened his eyes, but he didn't look at her. "The others, they all died. My father and my friends were incinerated before my eyes. My fiancée had been reduced to a dying dehydrated doll because she saved my worthless life. Then we were engulfed by flame."

"I don't understand. Nobody died at Phoenix Mountain."

"Not this time. But when I went to Phoenix Mountain, we weren't ready, we weren't strong enough. Ryouga, even with the Invincibility Tattoo, wasn't immune to fire. Ryu, Motoko, Ryouga's poor girlfriend…." He shuddered and closed his eyes briefly. "I can still hear Akari's screams. They died…they all died because I wasn't strong enough. And I should have died with them, but I didn't even get that chance. I'd heard the stories, stories of a many times great-grandmother who traveled to the past when she was engulfed in a fiery explosion. I never believed them, but there at Phoenix Mountain, I found I'd inherited that gift."

He laughed, a short and bitter laugh. "It felt like a curse. They were gone and I was alone, except for the dehydrated body of my fiancée. I cursed Saffron and flung the Gekkaja, the magic staff of cold, burying it in his chest. Even dying, he engulfed me in flame, but I was denied the chance to die, the chance to be with the girl I loved. I found myself kneeling in these woods, cradling her limp body in my hands. I…" he swallowed, clearly suppressing a sob. "I buried her here and I swore that I'd use this second chance to make sure she and as many others as I could survived, no matter what it cost my younger self or anyone else."

"You…you mean you're…."

"And it cost more than I expected," he continued. "People became stronger, but only in battle. The relationships, after all that stress on them, they were hard, brittle. They aren't like what I remembered. People hadn't grown; in some cases they'd gotten even less mature. That whole wedding disaster proved it."

"So why did you ask me here, to Akane's gravesite?"

"I'm not quite done explaining," he sighed. "I didn't want to admit it, but this wasn't my world, something went wrong when I was hurled back in time. I'd traveled to the past, but it wasn't my past. Even as a child, I'd worn martial arts clothing and tied my hair back in a ponytail. This Ranma wore Chinese clothes and tied his hair in a pigtail. In the end, my actions saved this world's Akane, not the girl who died for me at Phoenix Mountain."

"What?"

"Follow me. It's not that much farther." They walked in silence. The foliage grew deeper, but a well-worn path was clearly visible. It ended in a small clearing.

"This is why took so long explaining." The man gestured towards a small, white stone, though he didn't look at it. "I needed to tell you, but this is why I had to take my time telling you. I saved everyone from this world, but this isn't my world, it can't be. My fiancée, my father, my friends, they're still dead and I'm alone, a stranger in a strange land. Still, I asked you here so my Ucchan, the one I made the promise to, could see I'd saved you; I'd saved this world's version of Ukyou Kuonji, even though my blundering probably cost her this world's Ranma Saotome."

"You... you mean... it was me?" Her voice was barely more than a whisper. "But…" Numbly, she stared at the simple marker stone, saw her own name staring back at her. "What? How?" She dropped to her knees, still staring at it. "She…I died at Phoenix Mountain?"

"And I was too weak to save you," he replied bitterly.

Ukyou looked at him, saw his head was turned away, his eyes downcast. A bit of moisture glistened on his cheeks. "Ranchan?"

He shook his head. "I don't have the right to be called that, not anymore, not after the way I've failed."

"But…."

"That's who I used to be, but I'm not your Ranma Saotome. They call me Tofu Ono now."

"Are you sure that this isn't your world, really sure?" she asked.

He shook his head. "I've never worn my hair or my clothes like this world's Ranma."

"Yes, but they're like what my Ranchan wore when we were both kids."

"What?" He spun to face her.

"You heard me," Ukyou answered. "He wore his ponytail longer and his martial arts outfit was lighter than what you're wearing, but he never wore Chinese clothes or braided his hair. Maybe…maybe you're just as much my Ranchan as the one with the pigtail. Maybe more, you didn't let your Dad make your decisions for you and he didn't try to change the world for me."

"Only because he didn't have to," Tofu replied. "You know I…he…we always tried to protect all our fiancées."

She swallowed. "It wasn't an accident I didn't go to Phoenix Mountain at all this time."

"I…" He dropped to his knees as well. "No, I couldn't take that chance."

"But you still went."

He blinked in surprise. "Of course. I'd wanted to see that bastard Saffron pay from the moment I arrived in this world. But I knew what rashness had cost. I wanted to do it myself, but I wasn't strong enough by myself; I wasn't strong enough even with allies. The only people I knew in this world, like Soun or your father, had no reason to believe me. Even if they didn't dismiss me as a madman, they weren't as powerful as the next generation would be. And if we failed, there'd be no one left to train their orphan children and someday they'd die with even less chance than my friends had."

"So I had to wait, and I had to prepare this world's Ranma as best I could. I knew his friends would follow him straight into the fires of hell, but there was no reason for them to follow me. There was only one Gekkaja, he was going to need it or he'd just get flung in time. Without it, I couldn't afford to get anywhere near that bastard Saffron, or I'd end up back in the past myself."

"And I didn't how far back in the past I'd be thrown the next time. Even when my ancestress used the exact same fires, she wasn't thrown the same distance through time. If I was thrown back seventeen years again, I'd have another chance; but I had no guarantee I wouldn't end up seventeen hundred years in the past this time."

"It's the hardest thing I've ever done, letting someone else fight my battles, even though they were his battles, too. But I wasn't going to rob him of the chance to be the hero…the hero that I couldn't be. And if he failed, I'd have a second chance to strike while Saffron was weak. And then each of us might have another chance if we weren't flung too far back in time."

"So I returned to Phoenix Mountain. I couldn't let the others see me, there wasn't time to answer questions, and with the perfected Umisenken techniques I knew they never would. But I could thin the warriors of Phoenix Mountain down behind the scenes and give the others more of a chance."

"But I didn't go," Ukyou stated.

"Like I said, I couldn't take that chance. Not again."

She smiled hesitantly. "Thanks, Ranchan."

His eyes widened. "What?

"It's what you needed to hear, isn't it?"

"Like I said, I'm not your Ranchan," he insisted.

"I haven't heard anything that convinces me otherwise," she replied. "I think you are, at least you could be my Ranchan."

"Even…even if that's true, I'm twice your age now."

She laughed softly. "So what? That's better than you being weak and helpless or us being poor. And this way my second best friend and I don't have to fight over our fiancé anymore. This way my best friend doesn't have to hurt either of us by deciding. None of us have to choose between love and friendship. It could be a lot worse."

He shook his head. "It's too much, too fast. I'm not sure this is the answer."

"I'm not sure there's a better one. And we won't know if we don't try."

"I'll have to think about it," he replied.

She smiled faintly. "So will I."

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This began as an idea to explain Tofu's disappearance. I noticed that in addition to that oddity, he dressed a lot more like pre-curse Ranma than post-curse Ranma did, he demonstrated an ability Ranma didn't learn until the Ryu Kumon story, they both liked to tease people, and he never met Ukyou even though both were very involved in the Weakness Moxibustion story.

Also, in the manga Ryouga is first shown with a better map than he's ever drawn, asking for Furinkan High. Ranma didn't know he'd be going to the school until after he arrived at the Tendo home, which leads to questions about how Ryouga knew. The simple answer is Rumiko Takahashi screwed up. Hopefully, my answer's a little more interesting.

In the Rumic Word story used in this crossover, Fire Tripper, the main character, Suzuko is never flung the same distance through time, even when she uses the exact same fire, with the differences varying from a few weeks to over a decade. She can carry one other person with her, though if she loses her grip that person will travel a different amount through time.