By: Gabriel Blessing
Author's new notes: Man it's been a while! No major changes to this one. I think it really does come together nicely. Enjoy, and look for my brand spanking new work! It'll be up on my profile if you're interested!
Disclaimer. I don't own any of these people, ideas, concepts, places, or any thing else that might be possessed.
It's a lonely place, where I stand. The landscape around me is gray and flat. A low, ground clinging mist covers the gentle rolls of the land and leeches all the color out of the earth around me.
No, it's not the Gates of Time. Where am I, you ask?
It doesn't really matter what the name of the cemetery is. It's not a name you'll ever recognize or hunt down. It's not where the cemetery is that matters anyway. It's who is in it that does matter.
It doesn't take much effort to move silently. The mists around me seem to drain the surroundings of sound as well as color. I feel like I'm moving through some kind of dream: a nightmare.
It hadn't taken me that long to figure out where Ranko must be. After the story that Hotaru told, I could think of only one place she could possibly go to, really. Getting the name out of the cemetery out of Hotaru had actually been the hardest part of the trip. And now I'm here.
As cemeteries go, this is a pretty good one. The landscape is flat, like I said earlier, and through some trick of agriculture, weeping willows grow abundant despite the fact that they usually only grow by lakes. The grave I'm looking for lays hidden behind a grove of these sad plants. The trees are all huge. Giants among their kind. I can guess just how old they are, and who planted them. Moving so carefully the fog around me remains undisturbed, I slip among the green curtain, and look upon the scene within.
There's only one grave in the grove. Surrounded as it is by a wall of green, the atmosphere within feels other-worldly. The grave itself is simple. Just slab of limestone with two simple words carved on its front: Akane Tendo. It doesn't have any years on it, but if it's as old as Hotaru says it is, then this probably isn't the first grave stone to mark this spot. I turn my attention to the only other person in the grove. My eyes are greeted by black and red silk and black hair. My eyes widen, my breath draws in...
"Ranma!" before I can stop myself. The kneeling man jerks, like he was waking up, and half turns, even as I berate myself. Damn it, losing control like that. If this is anything like the others, he's probably never heard of me. That's not necessarily a bad thing. I can still convince him to have a go with me. It'll be like starting over...
"Setsuna," Ranma murmurs, his eyes hidden from my sight by his bangs. I freeze, and he turns back to his grave. The sky above is gray and heavy.
"Ranma?" I whisper. "You know me?" How? How is this possible? This.. This...
This is great! Maybe I still have a chance with him!
I take a hesitant step towards Ranma, but he doesn't do anything.
Second thought: What is he doing here? Why would he be at the grave of a chick that must have passed away way before his time? The only ones who probably know about this are me, Hotaru, and Ranko. A thought chills me to the bone. What if he and Ranko are an item? That would kill my chances with both of them! Please, let it be any thing else.
"I've lost control of it, now," Ranma says into the silence. I blink, calling my attention back to the man in front of me. "I've been able to do it on my own for so long now that I've forgotten how inconvenient it can really be."
"Control of what?" I ask.
Ranma takes a look at the sky and snorts softly in what sounds like amusement. "You'll see in just a second. It's about to start raining."
I boggle. Raining? What does that have to do with anything?
Ranma continues. "Now that I no longer bear the mantle, my curse is just that once more: a curse."
"Curse?" I ask, confused. "What curse...?" My question cuts short in my mouth when first one, and then another, and then dozens of raindrops fall down on me. Ranma too is struck by the rain, and before my eyes where once he was, there now knelt none other then...
"The curse is very old," Ranko tells me, pushing a strand of now crimson hair that had become plastered to her face back. "Gender changing, with the application of hot or cold water."
"..." I reply wittily. I try to shut my gaping mouth, but I think my sudden face fault had sprained something.
"I suppose you have some questions," Ranko says. "Like who am I, and why did I do that terrible thing to you. Well, I suppose those are fair questions. Let me give you honest answers."
I bring my hand up to my mouth, and push it closed. Ranko continues.
"All those years ago, when you used your forbidden technique, the Time Stop, you died. I'm sure you know that. After all, you have the memories of all those years before, now. I'm sure you also know that that isn't the first time you've used that technique. Through the ages, you have used it many times before, and died each time. I'm sure that every time before, you must have felt like you did it for a good reason. You're wrong. There is no good reason to disturb the very nature of reality for something as petty as your personal goals, or those of some queen you serve."
I want to object, to raise my voice and shout her down, but I can't. I think my jaw is still sprained. Another five minutes rest first.
"You have a very important duty: to protect the Time Gates above all else. As long as you protect them, you have some leeway in what you do with your spare time. You chose to aid some queen to bring peace and prosperity to a war torn system. That is noble. But using the forbidden techniques for that is wrong." Ranko pauses for a second, and then continues. "Forgive me, I'm lecturing. Let me get back on track. You've used the forbidden techniques before. That you know. When you use it, you are removed from the timeline for a period of time before reawakening. That you also know. What you don't know is that while you are temporarily incapacitated, then another must guard the Gates in your stead." Ranko, or Ranma, or whoever it is in front of me turns and gives me a glance out of the corner of his eye.
She's right. I didn't know that. My jaw is working now, but I decide to keep it shut just a little while longer.
"Every time it happens, a different person is chosen to act as kind of a warden to your powers. Someone to hold onto the Garnet orb and the Key to the Gates until you are ready to resume your position. In order to ensure that the warden has no other uses for the Talismans besides keeping them ready for you, they are deleted." My blood runs cold at the word. "Everything about them is removed from the time line. Every trace."
"This must be wrong," I blurt. "Never before..."
"Exactly," Ranko cuts me off. "Every other warden has seen through their task. At the first presentable opportunity, they have awakened you, so that they could be free of the solitude, to start a new life."
"Why?" I feel strange. This whole situation is unbelievable, even for one such as me. "Why was your time different?"
"Because," Ranko says quietly. "It was my duty, and I'm not going to see it done wrong. I realized something, after a couple of years as a warden. I realized that as long as you just reawakened, you would always be able to use the Time Stop again. It was nothing but a delay to you, a minor inconvenience. I had to make it something else. I had to make the very thought of using the Time Stop again painful."
I feel rage start to rise in my gut. "By doing what?" I demand. "Making me have to go through what you did? By loosing all my friends and family? How does that make me not want to use it, huh? How!?" I shout the last bit.
"You're not the first incarnation of yourself between now and then," Ranko whispers to me, and my rage turns to ice. "There have been others. I never awakened any of them. I waited, watching you carefully. Very carefully. All your other incarnations were shallow. They thought only of themselves. They wouldn't hesitate to see their ideals through. After many century of waiting, it suddenly dawned on me. An epiphany, if you will." Ranko trails off.
"What did you discover?" I whisper. "What could you have possibly discovered?" I ask in a more normal tone of voice. The ice inside of me is thawing again, as the flames of wrath start to thaw it.
"Here I was, a fighter and nothing else, waiting for hundreds of years to make sure a task I didn't ask for, and didn't like, was done right. Sticking to it despite the fact that it had cost me everything I held dear. If I wanted to turn the Talismans back over to someone who would do the job right, I needed to turn them over to someone...like myself," Ranko says quietly.
"What?" I gape, startled.
"Your entire life. Your father, friends, rivals, fiancés, everything. It has been a mirror image of my own." Ranko suddenly busts out into a grin. "Except for the curse of course." Her joviality evaporates. "Tell me, Setsuna Meioh, of the Anytime-Anyplace school of martial arts. Too ever use the technique Time Stop again is forbidden. To do it is to sacrifice your honor. Will you? If your queen and your life are in danger. If the only way to save the Silver Millennium is to use it, will you?"
The bottom of my stomach drops out beneath me. I want to shout defiantly. It's impossible. There's no way you could ever have arranged every detail of my life. No way that I would let the queen die if I could save her. Heck. There's no way your life could have possibly have been as weird as mine was. But I can't. To tell him that, would be a lie.
Ranko hears my silence, interprets it correctly, and kills it. "I thought so." Ranko stands up from where she's kneeling in another one of those insanely graceful sudden movements that she uses. "I know you must hate me. But knowing that I have finished my job and did it right, knowing that I've given the Talismans to someone who won't make the mistakes she used to....Well, it makes having lost everything I ever cared about a worthwhile sacrifice." Without turning around, Ranko starts to walk away.
"You're wrong," I whisper, and Ranko freezes. "I don't hate you. Damn it all a thousand times. I don't." I swallow as Ranko turns and gives me another one of those so-intense-it-can-melt-glass-looks. I might have a thousand times more years and memories that even one as long lived as Ranko is, but I still feel like a flushing school girl when I get one of those looks. "Ranko, or Ranma, or whoever you are. What are you going to do now?"
"Ranma. My name is Ranma in both genders. And as for what I'm going to do now..." Ranma trails off. "I guess I'll just go some place peaceful and rest."
"Nah-ah. Nope. No way. Not going to happen," I tell the redhead, and Ranma gives me a bewildered glance. "I'm not just going to let you walk into the sunset. What about Hotaru? Or me, for that matter. Remember? There might only be a couple of people out there who can remember it still, but I did kick Ryaga's ass. You owe me a night on the town at least." I flash a suddenly cocky grin at a now gaping Ranma, and cross the distance between the to of us. Putting one arm around her shoulder, I leer at the now flabbergasted woman who gave me so much trouble.
I guess it's like what Ranma said earlier. As long as I guard the Gates, no one really cares what (or as the case might be, who) I'm doing, right? And since Ranma did his job so well, I no long have an overwhelming urge to go throw myself in front of a train for Serenity (though she'll always have my support, within reason), that leaves me with a lot of spare time on my hands, ne? And I have a feeling that those times are gonna be wild.