Free Spirits -- Prologue

Disclaimer: The paints belong to Takahashi Rumiko (Ranma 1/2), Miyazaki Hayao (Spirited Away), and Akamatsu Ken (Love Hina). I'm just a peasant with an easel.

Notes: This is a crossover primarily between Ranma 1/2 and Spirited Away. The elements of Love Hina in this story are so abstracted and obfuscated as to hardly be relevant, but they are disclaimed, despite the fact that this is not listed as a crossover with that series. For a better explanation, refer to the Love Hina fanfic, 'Sky and Shore', written in the same continuum as this story. If you wish to read 'Sky and Shore', you can find it on my website.

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The first thing he was aware of was the sky.

It was black where he looked; light bled into it from beyond the horizon in every direction he could see.

There were no stars, only a muted, dark gray patch of cloud overhead. More came into focus as he looked, the edge of a roof above him, wooden and worn. The horizon itself, littered with myriad tiny houses in the distance, closer things being obscured by trees, and before that a railing.

"What..." The word was sluggish, as if spoken by someone drunk, or exhausted to the point of passing out. It took a moment to realize that he was the one who had uttered it.

"Don't try to talk."

He couldn't see who the speaker was, merely get a vague impression of him. His eyes refused to cooperate, not even blinking. Somehow, despite all of that, he was given the image in his mind of a man, genial in appearance, with hair a few centimeters long, and the glint of light reflecting off his glasses. More light than he could see from his vantage. Nothing else came to him beyond that.

The sound of a rasping inhalation reached him, though he wasn't able to tell where it was from, until he heard an exhalation, and a lazy stream of smoke passed before his eyes. The smoke began to curl into indistinct shapes, resembling the surface of a stormy sea before it faded, seemingly into nothingness.

"You're too numb right now. I'll make it simple, for you."

He tried to make a noise, and became aware of his lips, nearly numb, only able to moan weakly.

"I can hear you just fine," the voice assured him, warmth and concern entering the tone. "Unfortunately, child, you died."

His mind whirled, trying to come to grips with this. The entire afterlife was standing on a wooden deck, staring at a black sky while some man stood behind him and smoked?

"Not hardly. This is ... a halfway house, I suppose. A piece of the mortal realm, somewhat closer to the kami-plane than you could reach normally."

There was silence, then, until the next exhalation brought another stream of smoke before his eyes. This time, his unblinking eyes took in the shapes wrought from nothingness -- a house, perched on a hill. Faces emerged from the roiling mass, as the house vanished. Smiling girls, a bashful boy.

"Potential, at the moment. Worry about yourself more."

The faces melded into a single ball, which reshaped itself to a cloud, then scooting quickly out of his sight.

"Yes ... there is a reason I brought you here. My domain is the sea, of course ... but that's not important at the moment."

Another puff of smoke became a young man, grinning rakishly, and running across the top of the cloud, which had rushed back into view.

"I have a friend... A friend who is tired of what he is, and wishes to retire."

The young man on the cloud began to stumble, his grin fading into a look of grim determination, one hand going to a sword at his side that hadn't been there before.

"You've probably guessed what I am, seeing as I'm talking to you, and you are ... at the moment ... dead."

The young man vanished, merging with the cloud. A new puff of smoke pushed the others away, forming a tall cliff, and with the aid of another puff, pools, each of which had a number of smoky bamboo poles standing within them.

"Now, my friend, who wishes to retire, is too noble to do so without making sure that there's an adequate replacement for him."

Even though nothing changed on the scene before him, he sensed, somehow, a smile.

"His daughter has her own destiny to follow."

He wished he could close his eyes, or at least look away. Obligingly, the smoke before him melted into a matronly woman's smiling face, somehow managing to catch a hint of hope in her eyes.

"Hmm... Sorry."

The image vanished, replaced by a prowling smoke-dragon, which flew in a lazy figure eight before him.

"Anyway, you can guess what happens next, can't you?"

He could, he thought. An offer to trade something -- probably his soul -- for the right to live again.

"In a sense."

The dragon laughed silently, dissolving into nothingness.

"It's more than that, though. You see... You will retain your soul. It will be yours. You will, however, if you accept, become a replacement for my ... friend."

He considered that, wondering if it were an elaborate lie, or a plan to otherwise ensnare and destroy him.

"Considering you can't move, I could do that anyway."

The humor was quickly draining from the voice, and he raged silently, hating his inability to do anything other than watch and think.

"Calm yourself. I won't. I don't plan on harming you."

The rage slowly lessened, until only despair was left. Another puff of smoke formed into the matronly woman again, and the despair intensified. He was completely at the whim of this being, who ... or whatever it was.

"I'm not terribly good at this."

Again the woman was banished, replaced with a pair of smaller smoke dragons, which chased one-another's tails.

"To the point. If you accept the offer, you will live again, as a servant to my friend, who wishes to retire." Another sucking inhalation. "You will spend the rest of your mortal life doing as you see fit, within what is acceptable for your position and training. When you die ... or sooner, should you wish it, your mortal life will end, and you will take the position my friend wishes to vacate."

The dragons merged with yet another puff of smoke, reforming the pools and the cliff.

"And if you choose not to accept, you will be returned where I found you, drowning in a cursed pool ... though for kindness, and your time, I'll make sure your soul isn't trapped there. You will still be dead, of course. And do whatever it is that dead mortal souls do."

He sensed a note of scorn, the pools and cliff before him somehow seemed more vibrant and real.

"It's your choice. If you'd like, I can show you who you would be serving, who you would follow after, before you decide."

The pools melted into the young man who ran across the top of a cloud.

"His name is Ida-Ten."

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"Boy!"

His eyes fluttered weakly, taking a long moment to open. When they did, his sight was blurred, unfocused. He had the image of a man, smoking a cigarette, but it vanished when he blinked it away.

"Pops?" he asked, his voice harsh, and at the same time, much softer than he thought it would be.

"Boy? I ... thought I lost you there," the voice said.

He focused his slow eyes on the man before him. His father, of course.

"What happened?" he asked, struggling to a sitting position, aided by the older man.

"Fell into the pool and didn't come back up," the man said gruffly. "Thought you were staying down to trick me ... I ... we got you out, though. Don't worry about the curse, with some hot water you'll be back to normal."

"Curse?" he asked, one hand going to his chest, as a faint pain shot through his heart. His ... soft... ample ... female chest? "Crap," she said weakly. "Well ... beats being dead."

"Yes," her father agreed fervently. "Now, Ranma, you must thank the man who saved you."

Ranma climbed slowly to her feet, and took in her surroundings. The pool ... the cliffs... Jusenkyou. The guide stood a distance away, wide-eyed and unmoving. Between the guide and the pools, however, was a man who looked young, but radiated a sense of age. He wore a pristine white hakama and uwagi, a long wooden staff in his hand.

"Ida-Ten?" she asked, cocking her head to one side.

"Indeed," he intoned, stepping towards her and smiling softly.

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Author's Notes: I think I originally wrote this in '03 or '04.