Disclaimer: All characters and other thingies within belong to their respective creators.

At the End of the Tunnel

Chapter 1 - Death

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In a way, Ranma supposed, it's actually pretty funny. He'd once made it through arcane flames produced by a self-proclaimed phoenix god, and come through them relatively unscathed, albeit with the help of a magical artifact. Now it looked like he was going to be brought low by a common house fire.

His clothes were burnt almost to ashes, and the only thing that kept his skin and hair from sharing their unfortunate fate was the tightly gathered matrix of frosty blue ki that enveloped his body. It flickered fitfully, and an angry hiss sounded through the air every time a stray flame touched it. Ranma's breathing was labored, and his lungs burned from lack of oxygen. Carrying numerous unconscious children through a burning building and delivering them outside had taken its toll on the martial artist, Soul of Ice or not. Abruptly, he paused for a moment and looked around, his eyes unfocussed and glassy.

Ever since his battle against Saffron on Phoenix Mountain, Ranma had found himself able to vaguely sense the presence of people around him. A discreet talk with Cologne had revealed that he had been unconsciously blanketing the area around him lightly with ki, letting him 'see' his immediate surroundings - at least, living beings whose energy reacted to his own. It had come in handy more times than he cared to count, warning him in advance of any approaching fiancees or rivals, and now he used it to search for children trapped in the burning building.

No kids left inside, he thought to himself, doing his best to see through the stinging, acrid smoke. This is the third floor... No time to take the stairs. I'll have to go out a window. With that thought fixed firmly in mind, he sprinted towards the nearest room.

Two heavy beams had fallen halfway across the window, blocking the way out.

A half-uttered curse tore from Ranma's lips as he looked around. The ominous creaking coming from the flaming floor indicated that it was due to collapse at any moment. Can't move to the next room, he thought, gritting his teeth. One snap decision and a muttered prayer later, the pigtailed martial artist lashed out with a solid kick that reduced the offending beams to so many chunks of flaming wood. The next instant his body was blurring forward, his blue aura winking out of existence as he diverted the remainder of his weakening ki reserves to his legs.

A stray spark, kicked up by the heavy impact of his feet against the floor, found its way into Ranma's eye. He stumbled, catching up against the window sill. Half-blind and almost fainting from pain and exhaustion, the martial artist struggled to regain his center. A sharp crack from above caught his attention, and he looked up with his good eye to see the ceiling coming down, no longer supported by the half-fallen beams.

This is gonna hurt, Ranma thought, and crossed his arms over his head as the world came crashing down around him.

---

I hate the rain.

Don't get me wrong. I used to love rainy days. Some people just don't like getting wet. They stay at home when it rains, looking out their windows, waiting for the water to stop falling from the sky so they can come out and start their lives again. Me, I used to run outside whenever it started raining, letting it soak me to the bone. Never mind the cold I always ended up catching. Even on my training trip with Pops, rain never really was a bother to me.

It took the curse to change that.

People think I hate the curse because it turns me into a girl. They think I wanna be a manly man or something, and while that ain't exactly false, it ain't the real reason I jump for any chance of a cure. What really gets to me is that feeling of me not being myself. Everything changes when I turn into a girl. Everything. Not just my height, or my center of balance. My entire perception of the world around me changes, becomes something strange and unknown.

Ah.

Wetness on my face.

It's raining.

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Ranma opened his eyes, and was greeted by a stormy grey sky. He sat up, absentmindedly brushing the water off of his face with the sleeve of his shirt. Getting to his feet, the martial artist took note of his surroundings: he had been lying in the remains of what had once been a burning building. There seemed to be nobody around, which was good, Ranma supposed - it meant that all the kids had been taken to the hospital. A wry grin turned his lips upward. Guess they couldn't spare one for me, huh?

He cautiously patted himself down with his hands, just to make sure nothing was broken or busted. Though he couldn't feel any pain, it never hurt to make sure, after all. An involuntary sigh of relief escaped his lips as no mind-snapping suffering, no incredible agony assaulted him. He took a few experimental deep breaths with his hands flat against his chest and frowned, a look of confusion entering his eyes. He could have sworn the smoke had done some serious damage to his lung-

His chest.

The martial artist's gaze snapped downwards at speeds which would have made Cologne proud, focusing on his cold, wet, male chest. A quick peek down under proved that he had, indeed, stayed male throughout the downpour. He could feel a huge, manic grin spread across his face, and did nothing to stop it. There was no room in his mind for why or how, just the pure, undiluted joy of the cure. No more feeling of wrongness, no more subtle dread when the sky clouded ov-

"There you are," someone said from behind him. Before the words had even registered properly in his head, Ranma had whipped around, his hands clenched into fists and his body coiled tightly like a spring, ready to block or dodge any incoming attack. The euphoria of his curse's cure was lost in a rush of adrenalin as he prepared for a fight. Inwardly, he berated himself for letting his guard down so completely. He'd come to rely on his ki sense far too much; a single mistake like that could have cost him his life.

All those thoughts flashed through his head in the blink of an eye, as his eyes focused on his potential opponent. Black jeans. Black vest. Black shirt. Incredibly pale skin, though somehow it didn't seem as unnatural as it should have. Umbrella in one hand - a quick double-take revealed that it probably wasn't meant for use as a bludgeon or other kind of weaponry, although after his high school reunion with Ryoga Hibiki, Ranma would never completely trust the rain-stopping tools again. A strange cross with a loop at one end, cast in silver, hung on a chain around her neck.

She was smiling at him.

The sheer open, unguarded warmth of that smile stopped Ranma cold. His arms dropped limply to his sides as he stared blankly into the girl's eyes, lost in them.

"Hello, Ranma," the girl said at length, propping her umbrella up against her shoulder. Her smile turned into a mischievous grin, and a roguish twinkle entered her eye. "Finished checking me out yet?"

"You got it all wrong!" Ranma blurted, backpedaling as fast as he could, his arms extended in an instinctive I'm-not-a-pervert-please-don't-hurt-me position. The martial artist continued to make excuses, all too aware of the incriminating blush on his cheeks. "I wasn't staring at nothing, honest!"

At length, he peeked out from behind his outstretched fingers to see the girl still standing where she had been before, a slightly bemused expression on her face. Seeing she wasn't about to administer divine retribution with a mallet, a giant spatula, or any other anti-pervert weapon, Ranma cautiously lowered his arms. Despite himself, he felt a sheepish grin spread across his features. With no beatdown imminent, something came to Ranma's attention.

"How'd you know my name?" he asked. "Ranma Saotome" wasn't exactly an unknown name in Nerima, but this girl didn't look like she was from around the neighborhood... or even from Japan, for that matter.

"We've met before," the girl said simply, gesturing vaguely with one hand. "A while ago, although you probably don't remember."

Ranma's brow furrowed in concentration. Not from around here, he thought, and we've met before... One plus one came together in the martial artist's head; this could only mean...

With an exasperated sigh, Ranma pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling a headache coming on. "All right. How much was it this time?"

The pale girl blinked, frowning quizzically. "Beg your pardon?"

"How much did the old man get for me, this time?" Ranma explained.

Understanding dawned in the girl's eyes. Here it comes, Ranma thought with a mental groan. A part of him idly wondered what style of whacky martial arts she practiced. Maybe something to do with umbrellas? No, maybe it's some weird art that uses silver crosses-

"I'm not one of your fiancees, Ranma."

An awkward silence stretched for what seemed like an eternity as Ranma's mouth opened, closed, opened again. At length, the impromptu goldfish act ended.

"What?" he said intelligently.

"I'm not one of your fiancees," the girl in black repeated, doing her best - and failing miserably - to keep the smile off of her face.

"Oh." The sheepish grin came back with a vengeance, bringing along its friend, the incredibly fake-sounding laugh. "Eheheh. I shoulda known," Ranma said, scratching the back of his head. Inside his head, he searched frantically for something - anything - to change the subject.

What he finally managed to blurt out was, "So... uhh... Who are you?" As soon as the words came out of his mouth, he blanched inwardly. Ranma was no master of tact, but even he knew that blunt questions like that weren't good.

Luckily, the pale girl seemed to take no offense. "You know who I am," she said cheerfully. "I told you before, didn't I?"

Ranma blinked, confusion written across his face. "You did...?" Suddenly, he found that he did, indeed, know who the girl was. Memory of a talk long ago - at his birth, in fact - came rushing back to him, and he gasped. "You're... Death."

Death smiled again. "That's me."

"Wait," said Ranma, slowly shaking his head. "That means that I'm..."

"Uh-huh," Death replied to his unspoken statement. "You might have survived the fire, but the lack of air did you in." She blinked owlishly at him. "Do you regret it?"

The martial artist shook his head firmly. "Nah, I died saving kids. Ain't no better way to go out, I think." He shrugged, looking up at the rainy sky. "Guess that's why I'm not changing, huh? Well..." A long sigh. "It was a decent life."

Death shook her head, saying, "You're not changing because you don't have a physical body anymore, Ranma. the only reason you're standing on the ground and getting hit by the rain is because that's how you expect yourself to interact with your surroundings."

"So..." Ranma blinked once, shook his head once or twice, trying to fully understand what the girl was saying. "You're saying I'm only getting wet because I think I should be getting wet?" A nod. "Well if that's so, then why ain't I changing because I think I should be changing?"

"It's called a curse for a reason, Ranma," said Death. "It only affects you when the conditions for activating it are fulfilled, not because you or anyone else thinks it should. After all..." She trailed off as Ranma's eyes started to glaze over, losing their perspective.

As soon as the barrage of long words stopped, Ranma snapped out of it, like a person awakening from deep hypnosis. "Sorry," he said apologetically. "Did you say something?" Death sighed, rolling her eyes.

"Well," she started to say, then paused, as if remembering something. She shifted her umbrella to rest against her other shoulder. Producing a silver stopwatch from her vest pocket, she flipped it open, took a look, and frowned at what she saw. "Shoot. We're late."

We're late?

Before Ranma had time to express anything but minor disconcertment at this sudden development, Death waved her free hand once, and a hole of solid black appeared in midair. It seemed to not so much reflect light as refuse it; it had no shine whatsoever. She turned to Ranma and looked at him expectantly. "You ready to go, then?"

Go?

Alarmed, eyes widening, Ranma stammered, "H-hey, I know I did some pretty bad things in my life, but I ain't gonna-" He stopped as Death chuckled, narrowing his eyes. "Is something funny?"

"No, no," she said, waving her hand in denial. "It doesn't lead to hell, silly. Not even remotely close."

An involuntary sigh of relief escaped Ranma's lips. "That's good," he said. He paused for a moment, considering what he'd been told.

"Uh, so where are we going?" Ranma asked warily. The martial artist would be the first to admit that he wasn't always the brightest bulb in the box, but something about that inky black door screamed 'danger' to him in mile high flaming letters. Death turned and winked at him, waving one finger in his face.

"That," she said cheerfully, "is a secret."

Ranma groaned and rolled his eyes. "I didn't know that Death watched Slayers."

"She doesn't," Death said, still grinning. "But the priest is a nice guy, once you get to know him." She laughed and took a step into the dark opening, then turned to look at Ranma. "Aren't you coming?"

"You know, I ain't afraid of the dark or nothing," he said, slowly, doing his pathetic best not to look nervous. "But I really don't like the looks of that door."

Death made a face at him. "I was just kidding, you know." She waved her hand and the blackness disappeared in an instant, replaced by a gloomy, dull landscape that was only slightly more reassuring. The smile still on her face, Death took Ranma's hand and pulled him in. "We're going to meet the family."

Before Ranma had time to even think of what Death's family might be like, or ponder the implications that arose from the idea that Death even had a family, a cold, queasy feeling enveloped him as he passed through the gateway, into the realm of the Dream King.

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Next Chapter: Dream