This story deals with themes that may be triggery for some, including child abuse and abandonment, and many of the associated emotional complications. Gender issues are explored as well, and I think to the degree that it might be triggering for some.
Chapter One: Lesson
The cuts didn't just hurt anymore, they burned.
Ranma had long since stopped calling for his father; he'd figured out that his daddy wasn't going to come until nightfall after the second day. The scratches had been bad, and that night he'd dreamed of eyes glowing like lamplight in the dark, but that moment when his father had pulled him out had been so confusing and also so good.
Ranma's daddy had pulled him close and told him how proud he was, how strong a martial artist Ranma was going to grow up to be. How if Ranma could just hang on a little longer, the cats would teach him an incredible lesson.
Ranma was already a martial artist, used to things hurting in the short term and paying off in the long term, so he dried his tears and snot against his father's gi and nodded. He could spend more time with the – the – those things. He could: he was strong; he was a big boy, like his daddy said. It was only another day, and after that he'd get to feel those big strong arms around him, comforting him, telling him that he'd been good, that he'd done well, that he was going to grow up to be a Man Amongst Men.
One day more. He could do anything for one day.
Only, when night fell, his daddy didn't come.
Ranma didn't dare to sleep because that was when the cats awoke. Some of them, maddened by the nighttime and the confined space, darted from one side of the pit to the other without ceasing. Some began to fight, to bite, kick and scratch at one another. Still others began to yowl.
Ranma put his hands over his ears and curled up with his back to the dirt. A kitten made its way over to him and butted its head against his hand. Ranma scooped it up and held it close. It was a baby, and Ranma knew he should protect it from the grown-up cats, who were bad.
As the sun rose, the cats finally settled down, found a darkened spot and began to slumber. Only then did Ranma drop off to sleep.
When he woke again, the slant of the light told him it was late afternoon. Ranma was clever, or so he'd been told: not many little boys could tell what time of day it was by looking at the position of the sun, or knew so much about the night sky as he did. Surely, his father would be back by now.
There was no reply.
Nothing. Ranma knew better than to try again. His last shout had been plenty loud enough. If it was time to get out of the pit, his father would come for him. Until then, he just had to be patient, and wait. Sometimes his daddy did silly things, like pretend to leave him places, but he always came back. Maybe this was a game like those games.
When night approached, Ranma felt himself grow increasingly fidgety. The kitten had woken several times, and so had some of the other cats. That was fine: when only one or two of them were active at a time, Ranma found this to be acceptable. But now they were awakening again, stretching, making pitiful mewling noises.
Ranma figured they were hungry, just like him. He clutched the kitten to him: they were not going to get to it. His daddy always told him to protect the weak, and the kitten was the weakest of every living thing in the pit. He had to make sure to keep it safe. It was what a real martial artist, a real Man Among Men, would do.
Throughout the night, Ranma's eyes were wide as he clutched the kitten which, in a bout of common sense odd for a cat, had decided to stick with the small boy. At one point in the darkest part of the night there was a strangled-off yowl from the other side of the pit; Ranma did not move to investigate.
In the morning he was glad he hadn't. One of the cats had died, and its corpse was nearly picked to pieces.
Ranma was a well-traveled child; he'd seen plenty of animals killed for food. He'd seen a hawk take a hare once, just swoop straight out of the sky only a few meters away from their camp in the mountains. But this was different. The day before, that creature had been a living thing. He imagined that it had talked to the other cats. He wondered what it had said to them. And then they'd – done what they'd done, and –
Ranma buried his face in the kitten's fur. "No," he said. "No. No! I don't wanna be a martial artist anymore, daddy! Please come get me! Please, I want out! Please – HELP!"
Some providence must have been on Ranma's side; or perhaps it was his inherent disobedience, as he'd been told to keep as quiet as a mouse. Whatever it was that caused him to shout at that particular moment, it saved his life.
A young man happened upon the hole dug into the ground. He peered down and winced. "Shit," he hissed under his breath. "Oh, shit."
(He was not, actually, the sort that swore, around children least of all. But it was hard not to, for many reasons.)
Ranma looked up. "Hello? Could you find my daddy for me? He left."
The young man shook his head. "Jesus, sweetheart," he breathed. "I'm gonna get you out of there. But first I want you to go up against that side. All the way, all right? Press up against that wall."
Ranma was puzzled. For one thing, no one had ever called him a sweetheart before, and he was worried that the young man thought from such a distance that he might be a girl. The very idea was anathema to him. It was very important he become a Man Amongst Men. Now that rescue loomed on the horizon, he forgot how rapidly he'd renounced martial arts. "I'm waiting for my daddy," he said stubbornly. "Have you seen him?"
The young man shook his head, but something about the motion didn't look precisely like a negation to Ranma.
"No, but we need to get you out of there now, do you understand?"
Ranma nodded. "I'm hungry," he said.
"I have some things to eat," the young man said.
That decided it. "This wall?" Ranma said.
"That wall is as good as any other."
Ranma pressed himself good and hard against the dirt wall like the young man said. "What are you gonna do?"
"I'm going to bring down this side. It'll allow enough dirt to break away that you'll be able to clamber up."
Ranma nodded though he wasn't sure how that was going to work.
The young man took a deep breath, then struck the ground on the opposite side of Ranma's pit with one extended finger. To Ranma's amazement, a crack spread through the rock and dirt until it created a tiny landslide.
Unsurprisingly, the cats leapt out far before Ranma, screeching and wailing in their attempts to escape. For an instant Ranma felt bad for them. Maybe they weren't evil. Maybe they just didn't like to be down in a pit without anything to eat. Daddy couldn't even tell them that it was for their own good so that they became stronger cats, because they were too dumb to understand him. It was no wonder they were so mean to each other and to Ranma.
Then the young man was descending, which was good because Ranma felt a little shaky on his feet. Not that he'd say so to this stranger, but he wasn't sure he could make it out without help.
The stranger kneeled down in front of Ranma. "Is anything broken? Any bruises too bad? Did you bang your head?"
Ranma shook his head at all of these silly questions. All the while, the young man tilted Ranma's head left and right as though examining his face, then felt along his ribs in a way that kind of tickled.
"No? Good." The young man swept Ranma up in his arms, then paused. "What have you got there?"
Ranma clutched the kitten tighter to him. "I need to protect her."
The stranger clucked his tongue. "Guess so," he said, eventually. "It's a big, scary world out there."
Ranma nodded, solemn as he was able, while the young man clambered up out of the hole.
"Can you drink some water for me?"
Ranma wasn't sure why he'd be doing this for the stranger. He badly wanted that water. "Yes, please."
The young man withdrew to a pack on the ground and, after rummaging through it for a moment, produced a canteen.
Ranma's eyes followed it greedily. It made an amazing sound as the stranger withdrew it: a metal-on-liquid swishy noise that was very enticing.
"Listen to me, Ranma," the young man said in the commanding sort of voice that drew Ranma's eyes to his. "You're going to have to take just one, tiny sip. Can you do that?"
Ranma puffed out his chest. Another test! No wonder the stranger had phrased his question about water that way. But this was really easy, not like the last one. He nodded. "Yessir."
"That's good. Here you go."
On second thought, it was tougher than Ranma would have thought to lower the canteen after one, tiny sip, but he managed.
"Very good," the young man praised him. He rummaged through the pack again and found something that sounded like wind through fall leaves – a package of rice crackers, Ranma realized, mouth watering. The young man broke off a tiny piece of cracker and handed it to Ranma. "Chew slowly. Then take another small sip of water."
Ranma did both of these. Then his tummy jumped unexpectedly, and he pushed both away.
"That's all right," the young man said. He didn't sound but so disappointed with Ranma, so maybe it was. "We'll try that again later." He found a bowl and tipped a small amount of the water inside. "For your kitten," he explained, reaching out.
Ranma was surprised to find he'd clutched the kitten closer than ever. He didn't really think the young man was after his kitten. The stranger had been super-nice so far, nicer than almost anybody Ranma'd ever met. But somehow he couldn't seem to make himself let go.
"It's all right, sweetheart," the young man said, and Ranma's gaze jerked up to meet his own. There it was again, that sweetheart, as though Ranma were – well, maybe not a girl, maybe that wasn't right. But it sounded strangely personal, like the stranger thought he was really something special.
The stranger pried at each of Ranma's fingers individually, and the kitten dashed away.
For a moment, a tightness clutched at Ranma's throat and he felt a hot prickling behind his eyes. But then he saw that his kitten had run for the nearest bush. The kitten was probably just as thirsty and hungry as Ranma, but was too frightened to stay out in the open.
The stranger gestured to Ranma and together they crept a bit away from the water. They lay flat on the ground, quiet as mice, and eventually the kitten came creeping forward. Eventually it dashed for the water. Ranma would have stood up, but the young man put a cautioning hand out. Ranma and the young man watched the kitten lap at the water until its tiny shoulders eased a bit. The young man took a bit of cracker and handed it to Ranma, who broke off a piece.
The kitten's head snapped up at the noise, and Ranma could see her small, pink nose work. Maybe cats didn't normally like cracker, because when Ranma offered it to her she licked at it with one pink tongue and made a face. But apparently beggars couldn't be choosers, and the kitten had soon crunched through an entire cracker and was peaceably seated on Ranma's lap and begging for more.
"See?" the young man said, with a strange smile. "She's going to be okay."
"Mmm," said Ranma neutrally, but on the inside he was delighted at the progress he'd made with the kitten, and in a sort of cautious awe at the way the stranger had handled her. The kitten now seemed perfectly content to crawl all over the young man's trousers as he sat; she also apparently enjoyed gnawing at his fingers. Ranma's daddy had told him not to talk to strangers, and a stranger calling him sweetheart reminded him of those strange places with red lanterns daddy told him to walk through really fast. But Ranma decided then and there that someone who knew how to handle a kitten couldn't really be all bad. "My daddy would like you," he proclaimed.
"Is that so?"
Ranma wasn't sure why the young man said this through lips that seemed that they barely moved, upper and lower teeth pressed together. So, "yeah!" he exclaimed, taking another tiny sip from the canteen under the stranger's watchful eye. "Wait 'til you meet him!"
The young man frowned. "We can't wait here for him."
Ranma's eyes widened. "Why not?"
"He's been gone awhile, hasn't he?"
Ranma paused, thinking on this. "He did say he'd be back sooner. But he says that a lot, so that's okay. He wants me to be a Man Amongst Men!"
"I'm sure he does."
There it was, that teeth-clenchy thing that looked awfully uncomfortable. Ranma took a tiny bite of cracker, chewed carefully, and swallowed. "He's gonna come for me, an' then you can meet him," he went on.
"I don't think so," the stranger said, and for the first time Ranma began to worry.
"You won't take me away from my daddy!"
The young man paused. "What's your name?" he finally asked.
"Saotome. Saotome Ranma."
"That's a good name," the young man said. "I'm Hibiki Ryoga." He paused again, this time for longer. But the look on his face said that there was more he wanted to say, so Ranma kept looking up at him. "So we're not strangers anymore, all right?"
Ranma frowned at this thought. They'd eaten together, and Hibiki Ryoga had gotten rid of the cats and helped him up out of the hole and taught him how to feed his kitten. So this was true: they were no longer strangers.
"And Ranma, I need to have a look at those cuts. They've got to be disinfected –"
"Nooooo!" Ranma wailed dramatically.
Hibiki Ryoga leaned forward and tapped the side of Ranma's nose. "Your daddy already taught you, didn't he – that sometimes you have to hurt a little bit to feel better in the long run?"
"Like with the cats?"
Hibiki Ryoga's features crumpled for a minute. "Not like that, Ranma. Like – when you stretch a muscle and it hurts at first, but then that means you don't cramp it up, later. Disinfecting the cuts is like that. Hurts at first, but you won't get an infection, later."
Ranma blinked. Grown-ups didn't usually talk to him like that. In fact, that was the most complicated explanation he'd ever received, for anything.
"It's not just the cuts, though. After your stomach settles a bit more, you need to eat to stay healthy. And then you need to sleep – all the way through the night. We can't do any of those three things here. We can't wait for your father to come."
Ranma's eyes widened. This was unacceptable, the idea that he might miss his father – that his father might believe he'd abandoned the quest to become a Man Amongst Men. That he'd never see his father again… "No!" he shouted, pushing the young man away.
Hibiki Ryoga didn't look surprised, but a faint line of worry did appear in between his dark eyebrows. "Sorry, Ranma. Hey, I've got an idea. What if we leave a note for your father saying where you've gone? That way he can follow us when he comes around again." He withdrew some paper and ink from his pack and scribbled words that even Ranma recognized – Saotome Ranma has gone to stay with Hibiki Ryoga at the Tendo Dojo – and dropped it in the pit. Ranma figured it could only blow around so much, and wouldn't escape the pit's confines.
Ranma thought this sounded sensible for a moment, but then he shook his head. "I can't leave; my daddy will be here any minute…"
"Here's the thing, Ranma," Hibiki Ryoga said, leaning in very close. And now Ranma saw that he had big eyes and they were very green and very kind. "I can't leave you here because you're pretty beat up, and not just for a kid – for anybody, you see. And I'm not the kind of guy that could leave someone looking this bad."
" 'M fine!"
Hibiki-san rolled his eyes and grinned. "Sure thing! But I'm going to take you to someone who will have better luck at making sure. Come on, now, this isn't a request." He extended one hand and looked meaningfully towards Ranma.
Ranma scooped up the kitten. "Can I take kitty with me?"
"Yes, the kitten can come along. Now, you're going to have to get a good grip on her; there you go, that's good. And I'm going to have to get a good grip on you. Now, you mustn't be alarmed, but I travel a lot faster than most people."
Ranma was surprised to be swept up into Hibiki-san's arms again, kitten and all. He'd thought that was a one-time thing to help him out of the pit, and he hadn't minded it then because he felt so weak. Still did, really, but the water and crackers had made him feel a bit more human again. "I can walk on my own," he tested.
"I figure you can," Hibiki Ryoga said, clutching him all the tighter, "but this is always a little bumpy. We're going to travel a special way now, and I don't want you to be scared."
"I ain't scared of nothin'," said Ranma.
"Really? That's pretty impressive; I'm scared of lots of things," Hibiki Ryoga said. "Now hold on tight."
A/N: Well. This story is going to kind of be like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, because I'm really depending on readers to tell me what they would like to happen, next. I have so many different ideas for how this story could work, and I just started getting bogged down in them. So! I had a let-the-readers-decide moment. I'm aware I'll probably only get responses from author subscribers for the first few chapters, but that's okay. It'll be nice to hear from you guys again. :)
Moreover, I think it'd be a fun challenge to write to someone else's specifications rather than my own.
This is not going to be a true Choose-Your-Own-Adventure; I'm not writing out the results of every suggestion, just the one that I think I'll be able to write the most entertainingly. I'd try for a real CYOA, but for some reason they're not allowed on ff-dot-net? Ah, well.
The central question for the next bit is: who is Ryoga? Why is he so much older than Ranma, here? Yes, he has the power to consciously travel, but that does not necessarily mean he is HM's Ryoga... though that's one of the possibilities. He could also be a Ryoga who just discovered his abilities, or a Ryoga well into his powers... I made his description purposely vague so that all you get is that he's significantly older than Ranma and knows where the Tendo Dojo is and that Ranma belongs there.
So - ideas?
Thanks for helping me out! I think this could be a lot of fun. :D