A Ranma 1/2 fanfiction by Brian Randall, with help from CAKE.
Disclaimer: Ranma 1/2 is the property of Rumiko Takahashi. Cool Blue Reason is the property of CAKE. Characters and lyrics are used here without permission.
Notes: To music. Time counts down, except when it's looking back over its shoulder. There are two threads, and they go in different directions. There is also a continuity error in the second scene (which, chronologically, would actually be the first) and some of the final scenes. Don't let that throw you off. I wrote this in a single day while fevered and delerious. Also, no spellchecking or anything like that. WOOO, CAKE!
[cool blue reason
Light trickled down, pooling in his hand. It was always that way.
Squinting, he tilted his head upward, trying to see out, to where the light was coming from. Stone ... brightly lit. Probably from the sun. Too bright to look up through and make out what lay beyond.
He cracked a smile, half-unwilling. "Here," he croaked out, wincing at the dryness of his voice. "Here," he said again, more clearly. He stood, dizzied momentarily.
"Sensei, are you alright?"
The light. The voice came from the light. Shielding his eyes with one hand, he craned his head upward. Still just brightness and stone. "Masamichi?" he asked.
"I'm still here, Sensei!"
"Is there a way down?"
"I don't... I can't..." The sounds of rocks sliding about, then. Heavy dust shuddering free from the stone ceiling. The sound of something larger, grinding through the shattered stone blocks. "Sensei! I shouldn't... I can't get down this way."
He laughed softly, shaking his head. Eyes opening as he dislodged the dust that had settled on him. "Don't worry," he coughed. "Hey. How about this?"
"Sensei?" The voice was worried, confused. Sinking to the ground, he easily found a small stone. One powerful toss sent it up the tiny shaft. "Ah! It's through -- I don't have anything that will fit, though!"
"Don't worry," he sighed, rubbing at his temples. "Got something I need you to hang onto for me." He spent a moment loosening the wedding band from his finger. "Just for a bit." He watched the band wink upwards, through the shaft, momentarily blinding him again with the reflection...
[empties on the page
"No one knows," she whispered, giving him a tortured look of patience, longing ... and love.
He glanced at her, briefly. It was hard, though. This situation ... this...
The man before them, holding the book, cleared his throat expectantly.
"I do," he finally told the man. He turned to look at her and smiled. "I ... do."
"Then," the man pronounced, "I pronounce you man and wife."
He embraced her, fumbling the wedding band into place. "Til death do us part," Akane whispered.
"Then, let's make every moment count," he said, smiling, before he kissed her.
[your colleagues are in prison
"Sensei!" The boy sounded indignant.
He was still sitting beneath the light, eyes closed as he let it sweep across him. Even though his closed lids he could feel it dimming; the sun moving on. "Just hang onto that for me," he called upward. "I'm not giving it away."
"I..." A moment of quiet. "Sensei, I'll hang onto this for you. But how are you getting out? I could come in, and-"
"No," he said sternly. And he couldn't, either. The entrance was sealed. Blocked in, collapsed. The stone mazes were a warren, though. There were undoubtedly other ways in, other ways out. "I'll find a way out." He opened his eyes and peered around, until the light vanished from above. The sun had moved on; so should he. Eight more hours to go, then.
"Keep an ear out," he ordered, rolling to his feet. "Keep your eyes open, too."
"Sensei! If I see Kotobuki, should I-"
"Don't you worry about that bastard," he tossed back. "Whenever there's an airshaft, I'll call for you, alright?"
"Understood, Sensei." Then the distant noise of stone sliding around above, as the student moved away.
"Good boy," he murmured, feeling his way through the dark. From his small three meter by three meter chamber, there were five passageways. Two could be walked down, one was a vertical shaft. The remaining pair would require crawling. The shaft was where he'd come from. One of the crawling passageways tended up, another down.
After a moment of deliberation, he went with the one leading down, relying on the place's perverse and twisted nature to ultimately lead him closer to the surface. If he had Ryouga's strength, he might try to send his son away and pummel his way out.
Of course, not even Ryouga had Ryouga's strength, anymore.
[and your enemies enraged
Masamichi's distant figure flowed from form to form, his upper-body movements neatly choreographed -- perfected. Then he worked on the lower-body movements, and those were just as flawless.
Ryouga put one hand over his eyes, heaving a shuddering sigh. "And you thought," he finally said, more tossed over his shoulder, "that somehow I wouldn't notice?"
Ranma bowed his head, swallowing the pride of a lesson well-taught with a dose of neccessary humility. "I'm not going to lie to you," he said, straightening up. "He came to me for training. Ryouga, you're my best friend, you know that."
Some of the anger leaked away from Ryouga. "I wasn't good enough," he whispered.
"It's not your fault," Ranma said quickly. "A...and, now that we're here, we've come to this point... If you're not happy..." But there he choked. It was the right thing to say. He'd needed to get help from Kasumi on finding the words. But now they wouldn't come. He couldn't say he'd stop, for Ryouga's sake.
He seemed to know, somehow. With both hands, he turned his chair around to face his friend. He shook his head with a sad smile. "Fine," he said, shaking his head. "I can't train him anyway, not like this."
Ryouga's eyes fell to the folded over and neatly pinned cuffs where his pants ended, a few inches above where his knees once were. "I shouldn't be bitter," he said quietly. "It doesn't help. And shouldn't I be happy? In a chair, it's so much harder to get lost..." Then he raised his head. "But I am. And I still want vengeance. That's..." He pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes, boring into Ranma. "A young man shouldn't grow up with a vendetta in his heart. Look at us, and then..."
Ranma closed his eyes and nodded solemly. "He's a good boy, Ryouga. He wants to do you proud. I never told him about Kotobuki Jun, and what he did to you."
"And is this because of that?" Ryouga asked darkly. Ranma's eyes shot open. "Because of what he did to you?"
[cool blue reason
The downward sloping passageway looped around in a spiral, and then upwards, as Ranma had hoped. But crawling through the passageway until it finally opened up into another chamber didn't leave him with any real sense of advancement. No noticably fresher air, no giveaway sounds.
Feeling around, he knew there were three exits, here. Another shaft, leading down. No way to tell how far. Another crawlway leading upwards, vaguely. Two passageways led in opposite directions, tall enough to walk through.
A dim splotch of light showed another of the gaps that let air in through the cieling. "Masamichi?" he croaked out. He was getting dry ... his canteen was empty. Maybe if he could just find some water...
"Sensei?" the boy called worriedly, from above. "Have you found an exit?"
"No," he coughed. "Not yet. How close am I to the river?"
"Um... About fifty meters, Sensei."
"How far away was I last time?"
He snorted, shaking his head.
"You're moving east. It's ... um ... forty minutes after noon."
"Good boy," Ranma rasped. "Let's see if I can't find my way there, eh?"
That upper passageway was tempting enough.
[comes into your world
"Look, it's not that hard! I know you know how to-"
"Yeah, you do know that!" He was interrupted by the boy in front of him, glaring sharply and shaking with barely restrained anger. "I don't want to. Teach Kimiko, but I don't care!"
He felt his own anger rising at that; how could the boy fail to respect the family's martial tradition? He was the heir to the dojo, the legacy that he and Akane had labored for so long to build. "You don't want to?" he asked, trying to force his temper down.
"I don't want to!"
"Well, fine," he said, crossing his arms over his chest. "What is it that you do want?"
"I'm gonna be an architect! You only know how to smash things down -- I'm going to learn how to build them better." For an instant, and only an instant, fear shone in the boy's eyes, before defiance took its place.
Ranma closed his eyes and took a deep breath, one hand going to his forehead. He sank to a sitting position smoothly. "Saotome Kintaro," he said quietly, voice shaking, "if that's what you want, then fine. Put away your training clothes."
"Go," he said again, this time more insistantly.
"Y...yes, Father." Footsteps, leading away. Then silence.
Complete silence. The only giveaway was the slight tremor through the mats on the floor. Sighing, he flowed to his feet, eyes opening.
But it wasn't what he'd expected; Kimiko, trying to sneak up on her father with quiet feet, or maybe even Kintaro, apologetic and shamefaced. Instead, it was a boy of Kintaro's age, rough, a bit bedraggled, and with all-too-familiar pronounced canines. He blinked slowly, surprised. What had Ryouga said the boy's name was ... Masamichi? Forcing a smile, he asked, "What can I do for you, Boy? Lost?"
The boy shook his head quickly. "I want a teacher," he mumbled, looking away shyly. "My dad can't keep up with me anymore."
"I've had really bad luck with students," Ranma said with a sigh.
"I'll be better, Sensei! I promise!"
[there's two more dead in gunma
It had taken some exhausting work to squirm into the narrow ceiling passage and then worm his way upward, but the passageway twisted about as he knew it would have to, ultimately sloping down to another of the innumerable chambers, though this one was without the tell-tale splotch of light that would show him the location of an airshaft.
The floor was smooth, uninterupted. No shaft leading down into the central chamber, where...
He pushed that thought from his mind and lay down, catching his breath and closing his eyes. How long, how long, now? Those years ago, before...
[and it's probably your girls
He held her to his chest, tears filling his eyes. "Why didn't you tell me?" he demanded in a whisper. "I could have helped!"
She gave a weak, apologetic smile. "S...sorry, Ranchan," she breathed. "Hadda... Hadda try an... Ah... Shan... Shan-chan?"
"She's..." He closed his eyes and forced a smile; she had died first, only a minute or so ago. "Don't worry, Ucchan."
"Huh... Hurts... S...sorry..."
"Don't apologize," he said, hitting the pressure points that would rob her of feeling -- and take away the pain. "It's my fault. You... You wanted to be my students, after..." He shook his head. "Oh, Ucchan..."
"Hey," she said sleepily, "s'okay. S...alright. One ... promise?"
"Yeah, sure," he said, a nervous laugh escaping. "Anything, Ucchan."
"N...next time, could we...?" But that was as far as she got before she coughed weakly, unable to say anything else.
"We... Anything you want, Ucchan. You and Shan-chan both, yeah? I promise. This time, for sure."
It was silent, but she gave one last, happy smile ... and then her eyes closed.
[cool blue reason
No time to delay, he chastened himself again. He had to find water, and soon.
This time, a walkway. He had lost orientation in the diziness, the twisting ... so he chose the passageway on the left. 'Sinister' meant left handed, after all. And this place was nothing, if not sinister.
He almost smiled at that; all of the pain had simply mingled to the point where he just didn't feel it anymore.
The passageway was straight -- for once, and he slowed. One cautious, probing foot showed him the truth of the matter.
No water, here. Just a straight and sudden drop into the unknown.
He slumped, sinking to sit on the floor, catching his breath. If he could give himself some light...
[wraps around your throat
"Eight hours," he whispered in a tight hiss.
Ranma glowered, but in this arena, couldn't approach. Not without leaving his family vulnerable. "Alright, Jun," he snarled. "What's the deal?"
"No deal," Jun hissed, grinning. "Just a choice. Your future? Or your past?"
"Behind you ... your children. Behind me ... your parents. Your future. Your past."
The shadows about him rippled, and Jun's grin widened, pulling his lips tight against his bared teeth.
"One of them ends."
Trembling with fury, Ranma narrowed his eyes.
"Neither can be replaced, 'Sensei'," Jun continued in a mocking voice. "Your wife is dead. No new future. Your parents... Which will it be?"
"You're no student of mine," Ranma snarled. He didn't know if he could save his parents. But he knew he wasn't about to let his children be hurt -- not by Kotobuki Jun.
[the minutes change like seasons
No time, no time... He backtracked to the dark chamber, choosing another walkway. Was that last crawlspace a switch between levels of the maze? Was there some pattern to it?
This walkway zigged and zagged, only carefully feeling his way kept him smashing his face into sudden walls. Eventually this passageway opened out into another chamber. The familiar splotch of light on the ceiling didn't tell him much, however. Still, he peered at it, standing to one side of the shaft leading back down. "Masamichi?"
He hunched over, falling to the floor away from the shaft as he coughed; the attempt at speech was nothing more than a racheting wheeze. He coughed a few more times, then tried again:
He almost laughed; the boy was right on target. "Where, now?"
"About ... one hundred and ten meters away from the river, Sensei. Did you already reach it?"
He shook his head. "Never saw it," he replied. "Wrong way?"
"Ah, too far, Sensei."
He blinked, considering that. The maze, of course, would have to extend further than the river. And even cross beneath it. Somehow, he wasn't surprised, and he doubted he really even cared anymore. "Alright. I'll be out, soon," he rasped, choosing another of the room's exits. "One way or another," he mumbled.
[only 8 more hours to go
"The problem," Tofu said slowly, carefully, "is that poisoned chi is not poison."
"Yeah?" Ranma asked, rubbing his chin. "'Kay, let's start with the basics. How does regular poison work?"
Tofu removed his spectacles and rubed the bridge of his nose, shaking his head and laughing uneasily. "That's... Well, commonly, poisons are substances that enter the body and change how things work."
"They don't just kill people?"
"They... They can, but it's usually not so simple as 'they make people die'. They ... they make it so people can't breathe, or, or so that hearts stop, or they cause strokes, or other lethal symptoms." The doctor tilted his head back and stared at the ceiling. "So, if poison enters the blood, then, it can get from there to anywhere in your body."
"So ... to treat it, you would just ... uh ... clean the blood?"
"Y...yes, if you could. For example, in snake bites, you might remove the venom with suction. But that's only really viable for injected poison. In the case of inhaled poisons, or ingested poisons..."
"But they've got antidotes, right?"
"Some do, Ranma. But ... not all. Poisons we're not particularly familiar with ... there's nothing."
"And chi poisoning?"
"Quite honestly, this is something entirely new. And this poisoned chi ... it does just kill people. That's all it's meant to do."
"I've seen chi attacks," Ranma said, shaking his head. "Lots of 'em. This is much more complex than just making someone die. Why bother?"
"I can only answer that it's sadism," Tofu said quietly. "And that's why," he said, hands trembling as he folded them in his lap, "that everyone lives exactly eight hours after they're hit."
Ranma's stomach lurched, his jaw dropped. "All of them?" he asked weakly.
Tofu's trembling hands moved up to his shoulders, until the doctor was convulsing with sobs. "I couldn't save one of them, Ranma. Not even one. I could only take their pain away until it ended. A...accupressure. Three fingers, base of the spine. Two, top of the spine. No pain." He shook his head. "That's all I could do."
Ranma nodded, commiting the points to memory. "That's all anyone could do," he assured the doctor. "It's not your fault that all of those people..." He swallowed, looking away. "It's not your fault."
Silently, he added, 'It's mine.'
[cool blue reason
Another chamber, though this one seemed larger. Rather than search it by hands, since the telltale light was missing, he gathered his strength and put one hand out. A light blossomed from his palm; blue and radiant, piercing the darkness.
This chamber was larger; he'd passed through it on his way down. Countless passageways led off of either side, and then the much wider passageway to his left led to the entrance. The one to his right led back down to the main chamber, just like all of the shafts probably did, eventually.
Or... Or maybe it was the other way around, actually. It didn't matter; he needed to find another way up. In the light, he could see a standing haze of dust, filling the entire chamber. How large had it been?
Two ... three hundred meters long? He'd stood at the entrance side and gathered his chi, throwing a massive bolt of it -- like lightning -- at Jun.
He looked around, found the shattered stone where his charge had impacted. Considering his options, he sighed, heading down, deeper into the maze.
[comes into your life
"Nihao!" The call made him sit up, spinning quickly about, panic taking control. Dust flew out about him, low to the ground; one good chi-stomp would make for a screen of concealing dust. His throughts flew in a million directions, the first of them being the children. The children!
But he stilled his anxiety; these presences were familiar.
"Shampoo," he managed, relaxing from his ready stance. The young woman standing there in her traditional outfit -- pants, shirt, no visible weapons -- and her waist-length purple hair somehow set him at ease. She'd grown up, no longer the teeneager she was when they had first met. She'd gotten a little taller, and put on a fair bit of muscle, too.
"Good to see you," she said, raising her eyebrows. "Also ... I am very sorry for your loss. I came to say 'hello', and also to say ... that ... if you'll take me, I'm done wandering."
He blinked slowly. "Shampoo... I can't. Not right now."
She laughed at that, shaking her head and tossing her hair. "Not like that," she giggled, before she became suddenly solemn. "That's not it. We..." She shook her head. "I know you made your choice. That's not what this is about. I came to you ... to learn."
"What?" He shook his head, running his hands through his hair. "You... What do you think I can teach you? Is this about me owing you for..." He trailed off with a wince.
"No," she said with another toss of her hair. "Though, you could look at it that way, if you like. I'm not part of them, anymore. Removed from the tribe for failure, right?"
He nodded silently.
"Well. I want to be your student, now. I'm going my own way, and there's not much left for me to learn ... except with maybe a better teacher. Like you."
"Oh." He furrowed his brow, then rubbed the back of his head. "Y...yeah, okay. I guess I can see that."
"Also, I brought a friend."
[there's one more dead in Kansai
Down the ramp from the hallway was where the battle had begun in earnest. He glanced up, one hand still holding the chi-flame. No reason to deny it now; it would get darker before there was light. Behind the entrance was the descent.
The maze was huge, a labyrinth. And old, too. The true extent of the forbidding place had only become apparent here.
He paused at the begining of the spiraling ramp. From here, a shaft opened up, a hundred meters across, easily. The ramp descended into depths that he hoped never to visit. The smooth stone ramps led ever downward, weaving in and out of complex supports that appeared carved out of the ancient walls themselves.
Last time, he'd been too busy slipping through the shadows, avoiding the dark flash of his foe's chi attacks. Scores and craters pocked the ramps, betraying the course they'd taken last time.
[and it's probably your wife
A vacation had seemed like a great idea. After the threat of Kintaro's expulsion, it had been Nabiki's idea, too.
Somehow, that made everything worse to him, once he'd come back to the hotel room. Everything came in flashes, sudden realizations. There was blood on the bed. The floors, too.
The door had been torn open; his fault. It didn't open fast enough. Half-eaten breakfast on the side-table by the bed. He knelt, looking at the carpet, searching for the observation that would make everything fit together.
Nothing there. No blood, even. A slight movement, and he was on his feet, leaning over the ruined mess on the bed. "Hey," he breathed, afraid of upsetting a fragile balance, extinguishing that fragile spark. "Help is on the way."
"Jun," the once-beautiful lips spat out, somehow. A single dark eye speared into him, singling him out. "I t...told him," a pause for a tortured gasp, "was ... mom. Kids ... mine."
He blinked. One half of her mouth tugged upward slightly in a smile, and the light in her eyes vanished. Her sister burst into the room, then.
"I brought the medics! I..." A tearful, heart broken silence. "She..."
"I'm sorry, Akane," he managed, rising slowly.
Her eyes went distant, looking at Nabiki's final repose. "The children," she said distantly. "They're fine."
"It was Jun," Ranma said quietly. "It... But he never knew you. I think that ... Nabiki told him that she was ... you. To throw him off. To protect you."
[cool blue reason
Three revolutions around the cavern, then into one of the side galleys. Here he was balked again; the galley entrance had been smashed, a pile of rubble sloping down to the ramp. Squinting at the block, he shook his head.
No going back there ... not that he'd wanted to. Backtracking, then, until he found another entry. Up the spiral to the next galley. The entrance was ominous, difficult to make out until he concentrated, brightening his chi-flame.
His vision wavered, reminding him of why he'd been fumbling in the dark in the first place. A shake of his head as he dismissed the thought, walking into darkness -- back into the labyrinth.
[i'm just talking to myself
"No, Jun!" he snapped, rubbing at his forehead. "That's not why you came here to learn!"
"Isn't it, Sensei?" the dark-haired young man returned, raising an eyebrow.
"Well, that's where you're wrong, Sensei. You know what you want to teach, but only I know what I came here to learn." The gleam in his eye sharpened as he allowed a hungry smile to show. "I have learned quite a bit.
Ranma's eyes narrowed. "Well, then I think we're done, Jun. I think it's time for you to leave."
He left, marching out of the dojo and allowing one last glance over his shoulder before he vanished.
"Damn," he swore, rubbing at his eyes.
[cool blue reason
He stopped, looking around. This room was identical to the room where he had first encountered Jun. Another entryway? No ... too low. And the blocked gallery looked the same, too.
He turned around, replaying the fight in his mind, imagining it here, instead of in the rubble below.
"Jun!" he cried, leaping through the entryway, chi-flame boiling from his aura, burning back the threads of dark chi that his one-time student had woven. "Today it ends!"
"A choice, Sensei!" Jun returned, on the defensive, dark chi flying about in all directions.
He shook his head, returning to the present briefly. "Never got through to that boy," he muttered. Or tried to. Too long without water; his parched tongue refused to cooperate.
Another weary shake of his head, and further into the maze.
[I'm just rearranging hell
"Look," he growled, fighting back tears, "you two... You cause trouble, okay? You mess things up. I don't want to have to do this!"
"Then don't," Ukyou pleaded, her eyes brimming with tears of her own. "I've lost everything else; I don't have a family, my dowry's gone... I gave up on vengeance, so I can't get loans from my father! The cost of setting up somewhere else would break me!"
"Is a misunderstanding!" Shampoo echoed, her sorrow hidden behind anger. "Don't trust your new student; he is bad news. Make us look bad!"
"I wish we could have worked things out," Ranma said shakily. "But there's a lot of people angry over this. A lot of people hurt."
"It wasn't me!" Ukyou cried.
"And I am not stupid enough," Shampoo added.
"It doesn't matter! People are angry -- people got sick. Tofu says that some might die." They fell silent then, allowing him the time he needed to breathe, to find the right words. "I don't think it was you," he added quietly. "You're both too good of cooks. But no one's just going to look the other way after this 'cause I say you're my friends.
"A...and... And there were exploding dishes," he said quietly. "I mean..."
"See how it is," Shampoo said, then. And her mask of anger had shattered, giving way to a deep grief. "You say ... be friends. But you only mean that until you wife gets tired of us."
He closed his eyes. Ukyou's sudden indrawn breath made him wince.
"She put you up to this," his childhood friend whispered. "You..."
He opened his eyes slowly, and the three looked at one another in silence.
"Well," Ukyou finally said, looking down. "Only reason to stay in town was because I thought I had frie...friends here." She almost kept her voice from breaking. "Let's... Let's move on, Shampoo. I think we're wasting our time here. We can still look out for one-another, right?"
"Shampoo can keep a promise," the Chinese girl agreed, giving Ranma one last, unreadable look before she turned away.
[i'm just talking to myself
The far end of the galley was a dead-end. A floor below, he'd found a way back to the upper levels. Not that it had done any good. And it was fully dark now.
He'd released his chi-flame, laying on the stone and closing his eyes.
It was probably dark above, too. Masamichi was a good boy, but he knew his instructions. If Ranma hadn't returned by sunset, he was to go and alert the authorities.
So he was alone, wandering beneath a maze of passages leading nowhere.
One chamber above the ruin where his first student lay buried.
[cool blue reason wraps around your throat
Ranma looked at the officer doubtfully. "You want me to train a kid?" The dojo taught many students, but none of them were really his students, as much as students of the dojo. He'd been very careful to avoid that commitment until he found a worthy successor. Kintaro might be it, some day, but he was still too young to learn.
"It's like that," the officer agreed. "More complicated, though. Ah ... he's a teenager, and a martial arts prodigy. The only thing is, when he was in Hokkaido with his family, something happened -- we don't know who's behind it, but everyone in his family was poisoned. It was an extended affair -- all of his siblings, his parents, aunts, uncles ... all dead. He's got no more next of kin."
"So you need someone to protect him, not teach him."
"Both, actally. It's a tricky thing, though. We want to minimalize his contact with the outside world -- we don't know who destroyed his family, and he might still be a target. So you'd train him alone, ideally. Until we can guarantee his safety, he wouldn't even meet your family."
"Alright," he said with a reluctant sigh.
"I'll meet him, at least. What's his name?"
"Kotobuki Jun. This way...?"
[the minutes change likes seasons
He felt his breathing slow, his skin growing cool. He'd stopped letting himself feel pain as soon as he'd been struck. No reason to give Jun the pleasure.
He'd even thought of trying to find a way to fight it off, but when he looked back... He'd had happiness with Akane. He loved his family.
But in Kotobuki Jun, he'd unwittingly aided a monster in growing to power. He thought, in the balance, that he'd finally made up for unleashing him upon the world.
And, anyway, even Tofu hadn't managed to figure out a way around it. Ryouga had tried, but didn't have the strength to fight anymore. Or the legs; it had taken that for even someone as tough as him to survive.
He felt somehow peaceful, back to the time before the balance had been upset. Thinking of his wife, still safely hidden, he allowed himself a smile. "I love you, Akane," he murmured. "G...good ... bye."
[only 8 more hours to go
He never knew how she'd already known, when he got there. The news reports showing the collapse of the complex afterwards -- the bottomless-seeming pit that ate up the entire island, leaving a murky, sunken pit beneath the crashing waves... That came later.
But for all that he'd raced back to his sensei's house, the wise teacher's wife already knew.
He entered the back door without knocking, only barely remembering to kick off his shoes. "S...Saotome-san?" he asked in a shaky voice, the ring feeling ready to brand a circle into his palm.
She looked weary, worn... Gray hairs stood out at her temples. "I know," she said quietly.
Reluctantly, he set the ring on the table, sliding it towards her.
"Oh," she sighed, a pair of tears trickling down her cheeks. "Oh, Ranma..." She bowed her head and sighed, then sat up, suddenly businesslike. "You've been running all night," she reprimanded. "I'll make you some tea. You'll have to tell me everything, and then sleep."
"Y...yes, Saotome-san," he agreed, nodding his head. He pursed his lips, squinting at the table thoughtfully. "C...can I ask you a question, first?"
"Where... Where do you think he is now?"
"Happy, I hope. Surrounded by friends."
The light faded, leaving him feeling relaxed. He glanced to his side, and was somehow unsurprised to see Ukyou there. A tree had grown on the side of the road, and she was sitting on the ground, arms crossed behind her head as she grinned up at him. "'Bout time you showed up."
"Yeah," he mused, scratching his head as Shampoo popped into sight, dangling from an overhead branch. "Took the scenic route, I guess."
"Well," Shampoo said, flipping to her feet. "Now what?"
"I kind of wish," Ranma said, glancing up the road, where a small village peeked between the trees, "that we could have been happier."
"Next time," Ukyou agreed. "After all, you promised."
"I... I made a lot of those," he sighed. "Maybe too many."
"Could be," Shampoo mused. "You did the best you could. As they say ... better luck next time, hum?"
"I'm almost positive," Ukyou added, smirking. "Ranchan here promised to be with Akane until he died. By my reckoning, that makes him availible!"
Ranma snorted, shaking his head. Glancing down the path, away from the village, the road diminished into wavering light, unformed and shapeless. "Race you there," he declared.
As it begins, so to does it end.