Prologue:

     Nodoka stared out the window at the threatening sky.  It had
been over two hours since Ranma and the others had left to seek out
the source of the demons and close it.  The skies were going to open at
any moment, and if that happened, the children would be in very grave
danger.
     Children.  She kept thinking of them that way, although they
weren't really.  They were more than children, poised precariously
between youth and adulthood, full of vigour and wild emotion and
promise.  And today, that could all end.
     It just wasn't fair.
     Soun continued to pace the limited confines of the room, his
face lined with worry, his dark hair dishevelled from his habit of
nervously running his hands through it.  She had quickly abandoned the
thought of trying to talk to him; he was consumed with worry for his
youngest daughter.  He hadn't even spoken a word to Nabiki or
Kasumi since the others had left.  Those two seemed to be handling the
stress with much more equanimity than their father, but she knew they
were worried as well.
     She thought again of Akane, of the way she and her son had
stood shoulder to shoulder and refused to be separated.  Something
had changed between them, she could tell, and she was glad that they
had finally begun to stand up for each other.  But after the story Ranko
had told them, after knowing that their talents had proved inadequate
against this threat once, dread sank it's dark talons into her heart and
threatened to tear it asunder.  Had they found each other only to lose
everything?
     She sat up abruptly, clutching her katana as she heard Kasumi
gasp in surprise.  Standing, she followed the girl to the front door.
     "What is it, dear?" she asked, worried.  That man, Jack, had
warned some stray creatures might pose a danger to the dojo, and her
senses were frayed from questing for some intangible threat.  Kasumi
reached for the door and she called out a warning.
     "Kasumi, don't!"  But it was too late.  She threw the door wide
and ran outside.
     Into the startled arms of Dr. Tofu.
     Nodoka sighed and lowered her sheathed katana, hearing Soun
and Nabiki running up the hall behind her.
     "Tofu," Kasumi gasped, taking a step back, "I've been trying
to reach you!  I left you a message before the phones stopped working
..."  He looked down at her, his boyishly handsome face sober, no sign
of the giddiness he would normally show around the eldest Tendou
daughter.  Nodoka saw the glimmer of something dark in his eyes and
the dread returned, threatening to crush her heart.
     "You have to go to Furinkan!" Kasumi told him urgently, looking up
into his face.  "The others, they ..."  She trailed off, looking up at him,
noticing his expression for the first time.
     "Tofu?" she asked, her voice small, pleading.  He placed his
hands gently on her shoulders.
     "It's over," he said quietly.  "The others are coming now."
     "Over?" she repeated numbly.  Nodoka felt numb as she
watched the two standing there, feeling the earth teetering on it's axis,
an abyss opening beneath her feet.
     Please, she thought.  Please let them be all right.  All of them.
     Then she noticed a dark stain on the young doctor's sleeve.
     "Dr. Tofu," Nodoka said.  "Tell us."  He looked up at her, his eyes
brimming with barely contained grief.
     At that moment, the skies over Nerima began to weep.
 

A Ranma 1/2 Fanfiction
All Ranma 1/2 characters copyright Rumiko Takahashi
 

CAST A LONG SHADOW
by Mark MacKinnon

Part eight: When Fighting Monsters
 

     They looked up at the top of the wall, the image of Ranko
seeming to hang there in the air, none of them able to move for an
incredibly long moment.  His last words seemed to echo in the still air,
gravid with the promise of the coming storm.
     ("I want to tell you I'm glad I met you all, and I'm glad I had a
chance to say good-bye.  Take care of each other, okay?")
     "NOOOOO!"  The anguished cry broke the spell that had held
them, as Ukyou snatched a double handful of throwing spatulas from
her bandolier and sprang at the wall, heedless of the danger.
     "Uc-chan, wait!" Ranma called, but it was too late.  She
cleared the wall easily and was gone.
     "So much for the plan," Cologne said calmly, earning her a
black look from Ranma.  "Always the noble one, eh, son-in-law?"
     "Are you gonna help or what?" Ranma grated.  With a smug
smile, Cologne hopped over the wall, Kodachi and Shampoo close
behind.  The others poured over until only Ranma and Akane were left,
looking down at the crouched form of Jack.
     "He ... keeps ... *hitting* me," Jack gasped, trying to stand.
Ranma reached down and pulled him to his feet.
     "Can he work that thing?" Ranma asked him.  Jack nodded.
     "Oh, yeah.  It's a simple jury-rigged unit, no safety protocols at
all.  Damn him!  What is he doing?"
     "He thinks it's his fault, doesn't he?" Akane asked softly.  "He
thinks this is because of him and he's trying to protect us."
     "Well, whatever he thinks, he needs us," Ranma said flatly.  "We've
got to help him.  Will you be okay?"  Jack nodded, still hunched over.
     "Go ahead, I'll be there in a second.  Remember, keep the
demons from going back into the link after him.  Go now, quick!"
Ranma leapt to the top of the wall, Akane following, holding her
weapon crossways across her chest.  Jack yanked his gun out of it's
holster angrily and pulled the slide back to chamber a round.
     "Getting stupid in your old age, Jack," he muttered, jumping to catch
the top of the wall.  "Should have seen that coming."
     There was nobody to hear him, though.  Just the rustling of the
wind and the distant sound of sirens.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Ranma knew they were in trouble the moment he landed in the
schoolyard.  The creatures seemed to be coming out of nowhere, things
out of a nightmare, and they were all teeth and claws and glowing red
eyes and soul-chilling screams.  A glowing circle that he guessed to be
the gateway to the link was hanging silently in the air about halfway to
the school's back wall, and Ranko was making for it at top speed,
dodging everything that popped up in his path, trying desperately to get
his precious cargo inside.  As he sprang over a lizard headed creature
with a long tail, he spun to face back the way he'd come from briefly,
and his eyes met Ranma's.
     In that moment, something passed between the two like an
electric current.  Ranma looked into his counterpart and saw the single
crystalline truth at his heart.  Ranko had seen his world die once, and he
would do anything to prevent that from happening again.
     Anything.
     Then the moment passed, the contact was broken, and Ranko
was running again.  Ranma could see that the demons had been taken
off-guard; they were scrambling from the shelter of Furinkan itself to get
between Ranko and the gate.  They obviously hadn't expected to be
discovered so soon.  They probably weren't prepared for a single
person making a suicide run at the gate.
     However, their confusion would not last long.  His forces were
strung out in a ragged line pursuing Ranko, and when the demons
counter-attacked, they'd be cut off from each other.  They needed to
regroup, and fast.
     "THE GATE!" Ranma shouted.  "EVERYBODY FORM A
DEFENSIVE LINE AROUND THE GATE!"  He hoped that this
notoriously anarchic group could manage to fight together.  Now that
he saw what they were up against, he was more worried than ever.
The creatures came in many different guises, all of them lethal looking.
The first mistake anyone made could be their last.
     Ukyou was furthest away, almost managing to catch up to
Ranko before something reared up in front of her.  She hurled her
double fistfuls of throwing spatulas at it, then leapt over the falling form,
only to be brought up short by the lizard headed demon that had tried
to stop Ranko.  She was forced to leap back to avoid its lashing tail,
and Ranko pulled away, now within steps of the glowing gateway.
     Then the light flared and something walked out.
     The something was half-again as tall as Ranko, with three claw
tipped fingers on each hand and huge tusks protruding from its mouth.
Fortunately, it was as surprised to encounter Ranko as he was to meet
it, and fortunately it recovered just a half-second too late.  Ranko
launched himself into the air, hit the thing in the chest feet first, and
launched himself into the glowing portal.
     And was gone.
     The thing howled with rage, wheeling around and preparing to
pursue its tormentor, when its head vanished in a spray of green ichor.
Ranma blinked, then looked back over his shoulder to see Jack
perched on the top of the wall, still sighting down the barrel of his gun,
as the dull report of the shot faded away.  Jack waved at him frantically
and Ranma nodded.  Just as the demons were preparing to close in on
the unprepared group, Jack began hurling grenades into their midst and
sniping, picking off random targets.  Ranma took advantage of the
sudden confusion to try to rally the troops.  Ukyou had engaged the
lizard headed thing until Shampoo and Kodachi had caught up to her.
The thing went down very quickly after that.  The others caught up
quickly, forming a circle around the portal, Jack arriving last, winging a
stray shot at a smaller thing with eye stalks, then ejecting his clip and
slamming in a fresh one.  Ranma looked around.
     "Where the hell are they all coming from?" he gritted.  The yard
seemed to be alive with shadows, although there shouldn't have been
any in the dim half-light of the overcast day, and they shifted and flowed
like things alive.  Alive and hungry.  The things emerged from those
shadows, stalking slowly toward the loose ring that had formed around
their gate.
     "What if another one of those things comes out of the gate
behind us?" Ryouga shouted into the stiffening wind.
     "They'll have to get by Ranko first!" Jack shouted back.  "And
if they do, it's all over anyway!"
     "What are they waiting for?" Ukyou asked, shooting glances
left and right.  Beside her, Akane shifted her grip on her spear and
wondered the same thing.  They were surrounded now by creatures of
all descriptions, and the wind carried the carrion stench of death to
them.
     "They are afraid!" Kodachi crowed.  "Afraid of righteousness,
afraid of the light!"
     "Actually," Cologne said dryly as several of the monstrosities
moved aside, "I believe they were waiting for that."  A thin, almost
skeletal gray being walked into the space between the martial artists
and the monsters.  Compared to the others, it looked almost human,
except for its extremely desiccated skin, its long talons, and its
malevolent glowing red eyes.
     "Well, now, isn't this nice?" it hissed.  "We have visitors.  We
must strive to make them welcome."
     Somehow, Ranma didn't find that sentiment at all comforting.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     My pulse hammered in my ears as I fought to regain my breath.
Seeing those things again had almost paralysed me, and only the
mindless impulse to keep going no matter what had gotten me this far.
Now I had to end this, before the others, who hadn't stayed safe as I'd
asked them to, could be hurt.
     Unfortunately, there was an impediment to my mission, and it
was standing not far away.  If standing was the correct word.
     I was in a strange sort of ... tunnel, I suppose is the best way to
describe it.  Even after I'd decided to be the one to enter the link, I
hadn't given much thought to what it would be like.  I hadn't been able
to ask Jack directly, since I didn't want to arouse his suspicions, but
now I was regretting my lack of knowledge.  The walls of the tunnel
curved up high overhead, and seemed to be shot through with writhing
lines of energy.  Distances were hard to judge, though.  It was as
though perspective kept shifting, making the tunnel seem a hundred
kilometres long one minute, a hundred metres the next.
     I suppose that's why the thing caught me off guard.
     It towered above me, the thick trunk of its body like some huge
worm, curving into a head with one huge, slit-pupilled eye, and a mouth
full of wickedly curved teeth.  Its body was circled with long, serpentine
tentacles, and it was one of these that lashed out suddenly, catching me
off-guard, and slamming me into the wall of the tunnel.  Whatever the
link was, it felt solid.  I bounced off the wall, pain fogging my vision
momentarily.
     And I lost my grip on the sphere.  It bounced away, rolling
across the floor of the link and coming to rest close to the worm-thing's
base.  I watched in horror as a tentacle snaked down and scooped it
up.
     "WELL, NOW" the thing rumbled, "WHAT DO WE HAVE
HERE?"
     I trembled, madness threatening to overcome me, as I watched
our last hope fall into the grip of the monsters.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     The thing faced them, its head cocked curiously.  The ranks of
the monsters stirred uneasily but didn't advance.
     "You are in the way," the thing hissed.  "Leave now, and you
will not be harmed."
     "Liar," Cologne said calmly.  It regarded her, then laughed
gleefully.
     "Why, yes," it said amiably.  "I lie habitually.  And of course,
you will be harmed, but if you leave now, we may not get around to
harming you for quite some time.  Look around you, old woman.  You
don't honestly believe you can stop us, do you?"
     "We can hold you long enough."
     "Long enough for what?"  Cologne just gave the thing a
secretive smile.  It glared at her sullenly.
     "Very well, be that way," it said finally.  "Kill them."  Black fire
began to crawl over its skeletal body as the restless demons surged
forward.  It extended one bony hand and thrust forth a bolt of black
fire.
     Which ran headlong into a curtain of Cologne's chi.
     And the battle was joined.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     The thing raised the sphere up, up, all the way up to the level of its
single eye as I climbed painfully to my feet.  It regarded the small
tape-wrapped sphere suspiciously, turning it from side to side.
     "THIS IS A HUMAN WEAPON?  THIS TOY?" it grumbled
petulantly.  "I HAD HOPED FOR SOMETHING MORE ...
IMPRESSIVE.  WELL, HUMAN BOY, WHO ARE YOU TO
BRING TOYS TO ME?  DO YOU WISH TO PLAY?  IS THAT
IT?  VERY WELL, BOY, COME TO ME.  COME TO ME AND
LET US PLAY."  I stood carefully, summoning my chi, feeling its
energy crawl over my skin, filling me.  I looked up into the eye of the
thing that taunted me, the thing that guarded the gate from my world
into theirs.  I looked it in the eye and at the very end I was not afraid.  I
knew the enemy; it had done its worst, it had taken everything I had,
and once I'd believed that I had nothing left to lose.  But now I knew
that wasn't true.  They could kill my family and my friends again.  They
could kill Akane again.  And again.  And again.  And they would,
unless I stopped them.  Here.  And now.
     I wasn't afraid.  But I was very.  Very.  ANGRY.
     "Yeah," I told it through a fierce grin, "I wanna play.  Let's play
tag.  You can be "it", okay?"  The chi built to the level where it was
almost painful to hold it back.  I saw a tiny bolt arc between my hands,
and I thought again of my last sight of the dojo, my last sight of my
home.
     My last sight of her.
     And I let it all out.
     "SHI SHI HOKODAAAAAAAN!"

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     As they surged forward, Ranma noted almost absently that he
could see, out of the corner of his eye, Kunou's blade blur as he drew
it.  The blade itself appeared to be glowing a deep brilliant blue, not
unlike chi.  On his other side, Akane shifted her stance and set the
spear to receive the charge.  Then he had no time for distractions as the
enemy was on them.
     He danced in, launching a Kachu Tenshin Amiguriken attack on
a large demon with one horn and three eyes, sending it reeling back and
causing chaos in the ranks behind it.  He took advantage of the
momentary distraction to leap straight up, coming down in the middle of
the small knot, lashing out all around him with inhuman speed and
accuracy.  The enemy was scattered, howling with pain, and he
executed a series of neat back-flips to put him back in close to the gate.
     Akane meanwhile feinted high on the one that came closest to
her, dodging its lashing tail by leaping high, then quickly reversing her
grip on the spear's shaft and hammering the creature with a savage
swing instead of the stabbing motion it had been anticipating.  It went
down quickly, and she bounded between two others, then leapt out
quickly, causing them to attack each other.  She had no time to see
how that turned out, though, as she wheeled around, ducked a swinging
claw, stabbed upwards, felt resistance, then drew back and vaulted
over a falling form back to her original position.
     Ukyou flung her throwing spatulas with deadly accuracy,
blinding some of the creatures, disabling others.  Then she cross-drew
her main spatula, bringing it down low, then swinging it up and across
as a large, howling demon with four long arms charged her.  As it
howled with glee and started inside the arc of her swing, she abruptly
changed her stance and her grip and reversed direction quickly,
bringing the spatula down at the junction of the thing's thick neck and
shoulder.  Greenish-black fluid sprayed and it dropped, a surprised
look on its face.
     Shampoo stood, one foot drawn up, her twin bonbori held in a
crossed pattern above her head, coiled, waiting patiently for one of the
creatures to attack.  A two-headed thing obliged her, and she struck
with savage swiftness, beating a tattoo on its body and heads before it
could raise any sort of defence.  Then she flipped over its falling body
and took out the one behind it with equal speed.
     Mousse stood, his arms crossed, hands in his voluminous robe
sleeves, until he had picked out his targets, then he flung his arms out,
dozens of gleaming knives flying outward in a deadly pattern, dropping
several of the creatures in their tracks.  Then he sprang out, dancing
gracefully under an ungainly ogre-like thing, planting a trident in its
back, then spinning to sweep the feet out from under two more of the
things.
     Ryouga had been standing motionless, his head bowed, his face
a study in pain and loss, gathering his strength.  Then, as the line of
attackers was about to reach him, he raised his head and howled, his
hands outstretched, unleashing a Shi Shi Hokodan blast that temporarily
cleared the area in front of him.  Snatching his umbrella up from the
ground at his feet, he leapt straight up into the air, firing off several of his
headband blades at the apogee of his leap before hitting the ground in a
guard position, the umbrella's metal shroud fully spread.
     Jack picked his targets, firing off the last of his armour-piercing
explosive rounds.  He had one more clip, hollowpoints, which would be
much less effective against the horribly vital creatures, and no more
grenades.  And at the rate they were closing in, he wouldn't have time
to reload.  He cursed and fished the grip-shaped object out of his
pocket as the things came closer and closer.
     Kodachi laughed, a high-pitched mad trill, and lashed out with
her razor sharp ribbon, slashing anything unwise enough to venture too
close to her.  She moved with balletic grace, easily dodging claws, tails
and the occasional tentacle as she lost herself in a lethal dance of death
with her opponents.  Her hoop had already been buried in the head of
one of the things, and all that remained of it was a puddle of green
ooze.
     Genma swallowed his fear and jumped at the first creature to come
into range, using his mass to impart extra force to his double kick,
sending the thing rocketing backwards.  He landed, spun, and kicked
sideways into a knee joint, grinning as he heard it crunch.  Even demons
were vulnerable to a cheap shot, it appeared.  He came in low on
another, delivering a vicious elbow strike to the throat, then jumped up
to avoid a spike-tipped tail which caught his unfortunate previous
opponent square in the chest.
     Kunou held his katana high to the right, blade parallel to the
ground, eyes narrowed.  The light of the glowing sword obviously hurt
the things; they were reluctant to approach him.  He did not share their
reluctance, and moved with blinding swiftness to engage two of the
things simultaneously.  The blade created a blue streak as it cut through
the air, the two creatures neatly bisected, falling before they even knew
they were dead, their bodies dissolving into bubbling green pools.  The
other things faltered in their rush, creating an open space around him.
No matter.  He was between them and what they wanted.  They would
come.
     Cologne thrust her staff out, sending a vortex of chi snaking
through her defensive shield at the creature she was engaged with.  It
responded with a bolt of black fire.  The two energies met and, with a
sound like a dying world, cancelled each other out.  The old woman's
eyes narrowed.  She was beginning to dig more deeply into her bag of
tricks than she had in more than forty years.  She knew she had to
engage this creature, obviously the leader and clearly the most powerful
of the lot, herself.  None of the others, not even her son-in-law, would
be a match for its foul magic.
     Ranma spun around, taking it all in quickly.  The old ghoul was
holding off the skeleton thing, and everybody had repulsed the first
wave.  The things were strong, vicious, and pretty fast, but they
depended on fear and strength, not fighting skill, to defeat their enemies.
Ranma knew that they could've won if this was all there was.
     But more were arriving, probably the ones that had been out
wreaking havoc in the city.  And they couldn't move to a more
defensible position, they had to cover the gate.  They would begin to
tire after the initial adrenaline rush wore off, begin to get sloppy.  And
the things just seemed to keep coming and coming.
     He snuck a glance at Akane, who was leaping around like she
had fighting her crowds of suitors when he'd first met her, and he began
moving her way, sparing a glance at the glowing portal behind him.
     What was taking so long?  They couldn't hold out here forever.
Just what the hell was Ranko *doing* in there?

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     I panted, regarding the creature with a feeling of despair.  My
chi blast had torn a large gash in its body which was now oozing a thick
black liquid, but the thing still stood.  And it still had the sphere.
     "OH, MY," it rumbled, "THAT ACTUALLY HURT.  IT HAS
BEEN QUITE SOME TIME SINCE A HUMAN HAS HURT ME.
THIS MAY PROVE INTERESTING."
     Interesting hadn't been the effect I'd been going for.  I checked
out the walls of the link, which seemed to be flashing and sparking in
sympathy with the dying echoes of my chi blast.  The link seemed to
have been affected somehow, but it was still open.  And the fact that
nothing came in after me led me to believe that the others were fighting
a holding action at my back.
     I needed that sphere.  I needed to end this.  The creature,
apparently unaware of the sphere's true nature, dangled it teasingly high
above the ground in one tentacle, a forest of others waving like
seaweed in a gentle tide.
     "COME NOW, BOY.  YOU HAVE COME ALL THIS
WAY TO PLAY, HAVEN'T YOU?  IT'S RUDE TO KEEP YOUR
HOST WAITING."  I took a deep breath, focussed myself, then
sprang.  I used all my skills, all the agility at my disposal, and
leapfrogged from one tentacle to another, using them as steps toward
my goal while avoiding their attempts to swat me from the air.  Jump,
twist, spin, pause, dodge, leap, flip, advance.  It was a deadly aerial
ballet in which one missed step could mean disaster.  For all of us.
     I slid down one undulating tentacle towards my goal, leaping at
the last minute to avoid a striking blur from the left.  I spun, flipped
myself up onto the tentacle holding the sphere, lunged toward it.  Then
something caught me across the back and slammed me to the floor of
the link.  Pain lanced through my chest and gray crept in around the
edge of my vision.  When the ringing in my ears stopped, all I could
hear was a sound like thunder.
     It was laughter.  The thing was laughing.  At me.
     "OH, VERY GOOD!  VERY ENTERTAINING INDEED!
COME NOW, BOY, DO IT AGAIN!  DANCE FOR ME, BOY!
DANCE IF YOU WANT YOUR TOY!"  It was playing with me.  Its
laughter ground in my gut like broken glass, and I pulled myself painfully
to my feet, swaying as I sought my balance, looking up and up to my
goal, being dangled so far away.  I'd decided I had to be the one to do
this.  I couldn't fail them.  Not again.  The pain didn't matter.  All that
mattered was protecting them.
     I gathered myself.
     And tried again.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     They came again and again.  They didn't seem frightened of
dying, or of being hurt.  They all began to blur together.
     Ranma's muscles burned as he kept spinning, moving at top
speed to keep any of the things from getting a clear shot at him.
Something with four of Ukyou's spatulas in its chest charged him, and
he pounded it with four fast kicks, slamming the spatulas in to their full
length.  The thing howled and fell back, hurt but not dead.  He turned,
slamming a smaller horned creature with a series of sharp strikes as he
fought through to where Akane stood.
     Akane dodged another of the things, spinning her spear to clear
some space around her, then bringing it to bear on a snarling thing
covered with lethal looking spines, bringing the butt end of the spear
down and using it to vault up and over the spiny demon.  Landing
behind it, she spun and struck a lightning blow that impaled it through
the chest.  It twisted as it fell, and the spear broke at the base of the
blade.  Akane stared dumbly at the splintered end of the spear, then
snapped around to see a spindly nightmare bearing down on her.
Caught with her guard down, she braced herself, only to see it crumple
under a lightning fast strike from Ukyou's spatula.
     Ukyou didn't have time to acknowledge Akane's grateful smile
as she spun, laying about her with her spatula, sweat coursing down her
back.  The noise was terrible, the smell worse, and there didn't seem to
be time to stop or think.  For each monster that went down, there were
three more to take its place.  She sensed movement out of the corner of
her eye, turning to see a tiger-striped spinning bandanna bury itself in
the head of the thing that had been about to maul her.
     Ryouga turned back from the creature that had been trying to
blindside Ukyou, only to find one of the things charging him.  Its clawed
hand flashed out and Ryouga felt an ice cold shock of pain, followed by
a burning sensation in his chest.  He slammed the thing with a double
open handed strike, sending it reeling, as blood streamed from the
narrow gashes on his chest.  He heard Ukyou gasp as she saw it
happen, but he couldn't stop to check his wounds.  They were
reasonably shallow cuts.  If he stopped, the next time he wouldn't be so
lucky.  The thing that had nailed him recovered from his strike and,
grinning insanely, began to move in again, only to be felled by a large
spiked ball that flew from Mousse's outstretched hand.
     Mousse had no time to see the result of his attack, or to see
how Ryouga was faring.  He turned back, flowing into a low sweep
strike, knocking down two large, burly demons that had been trying to
squeeze between him and Shampoo.  He quickly speared one with a
long curved sword, but the other regained its feet too quickly and he
was forced to back up.  The thing grinned briefly, until a large mace
struck it square on the head, dropping it like a sack of rocks.
     Shampoo spun neatly away from the falling creature, only to be
slammed to the ground by a long heavy tentacle.  Breathless, she lost
her grip on both bonbori as the tentacle wrapped itself around her waist
and began to pull her from the defensive circle and into the unholy
crowd.  Through the spots dancing in her vision she saw a sudden flash
of bright blue light, and she was free.
     Kunou slashed through the tentacle easily, driving the eager
vermin back as Shampoo shakily regained her feet, limping slightly,
casting about for her fallen weapons.  He spun his blade in a gleaming
arc, feeling it bite into the thick hide of one of the beasts, hearing its
outraged howl, and he pressed them, seeing Genma Saotome rushing in
to cover his suddenly vulnerable flank.
     Genma was using every dirty trick he knew to hold off the tide,
but he could see that it was only a matter of time.  Every time they were
pushed back at one point, they surged forward at another.  Thank the
gods that they didn't seem to have any sort of strategy.  The skeletal
one that they old woman had engaged seemed to be the brains of the
group, and it had no time for anything but trying to break her.  He
turned to present a limited profile to a new attacker, only to see it
stumble, greenish ichor spraying from its throat, a high-pitched laugh
rising above the tumult.
     He didn't know whether to be more afraid of the demons or
the Kunou girl.
     Kodachi danced, snapping her ribbon out at anything that
dared to approach her, her eyes gleaming with pleasure.
     "No more hiding!" she crowed.  "There!  And there!  And
there and there and there!"  She punctuated each "there" with a flick of
the razored ribbon, drawing green blood each time she struck, enraging
the beasts.
     Gods, she was having fun.
     Jack squeezed the grip of his power blade and wished he'd
spent more time in hand-to-hand classes at the academy, instead of
chasing what's-her-name from Sub-Dimensional Physics 301.  As he
sighted down the glowing energy blade suspended over the moulded
hand grip, all he could remember was his dour looking instructor telling
the class, "For Christ's sake, whatever you do, don't cut you own foot
off.  That would be embarrassing, not to mention fatal in a combat
situation."  He was pretty sure embarrassing himself was the least of his
worries.
     Saotome was taking too long.  It should have been done by
now.  Something must have gone wrong.  If only he could get away to
check the link, he thought as something lashed out at his head, only to
be blocked by his instinctive parry.
     Ranma punched one creature, spun and kicked another, then
leapt and pummelled a third with another blazing Kachu Tenshin
Amiguriken attack.  Cologne was anchoring their circle at one end, still
locked in combat with the skeleton thing, and nothing could venture
near their clashing chi attacks.  Elsewhere, they weren't faring so well.
Ranko hadn't returned, the link was still open, the clouds were
beginning to darken and spin in an ominous pattern above the gate, and
the defenders were beginning to tire.  They were going to lose if
somebody didn't think of something, and fast.  He needed a plan.
     No.  He had a plan.
     He needed Ryouga.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     I slammed into the ground yet again, my breath forced from my
lungs in an anguished cry.  Slowly, so slowly, I pulled myself to my
knees.  Every attack I made was allowed to proceed almost to the end
before the thing slammed me back to the ground with contemptuous
ease.  I had failed.
     It's true, a dark little voice started whispering in my head.
You're a failure.  You couldn't save your family.  You couldn't save
your friends.  You couldn't save HER.  And now you're going to fail
them all over again.
     "No," I mumbled, trying to stand, then slipping to my knees
again, feeling a sharp pain like fire in my side.  Cracked ribs, blood
running from a dozen smaller cuts, pain screaming through my whole
body.  Oh yeah, you betcha.  We're having fun now.
     Just lie down, the voice urged.  It hurts to much to go on.  You
can't beat this thing, and if you do, what?  You have to lose Akane
again?  You have to leave your home again?  Why is that fair?  Just lie
down, and let the pain go.
     "No," I gasped.
     Just let go.  Just give up.  They're dead out there already, you
know.  You're fighting for nothing.  Give up.
     "Nooooo," I sobbed, my chest on fire.  "Fight, gotta ... gotta
keep ..."
     Lay down.  You did your best.  Lay down and die.  It'll stop
the pain forever.  Don't you deserve some peace?  Don't you?
     I slumped to the strangely warm floor, blood streaming into my
eyes from a cut on my forehead.  I just wanted to rest, to sleep, to ... to
... give up ...
     (Her skin is so pale, her eyes hold mine, and they see
something there.  With her last breaths, she saves me, makes me go on.
     "Ranma.  My Ranma.  Promise me.  You won't give up.
Promise.")
     "Nuh."
     ("Akane ..."
     "Promise."  Her skin is cold, the only life in her eyes, begging
me to let her go.  I shudder, and nod helplessly.
     "I promise."  She smiles then, the sweetest smile, and her fingers
reach up to trail across my cheek, leaving a trail of her blood behind.
     And then she's gone.  Her eyes close and she slips away effortlessly,
away from all pain, and all I want is to go with her.  But I can't.  She
made me promise.  And I'd never break a promise to her.)
     "Nuh-no."
     (I never got to tell her that I loved her.)
     "NOOOOOOOOO!"  It hurt, but I pulled my knees up to my
chest and struggle to stand.  Somehow, I made it to my feet.
     Akane.  I promised.  I won't give up.  They'll have to kill me to stop
me.  Have to.
     Oh gods, it hurts.
     "SO!  MY TOY ISN'T BROKEN YET AFTER ALL!
GOOD!  COME AND ENTERTAIN ME SOME MORE, BOY!  I
HAVEN'T FINISHED PUNISHING YOU FOR MAKING ME
BLEED YET!"  I looked up at the thing, swiping the blood out of my
eyes with one shaky hand.  There was something, an itch at the back of
my mind, something I'd seen.  Come on, Saotome, you cement head,
*think* dammit.  Look around.  What did you see?
     The tentacles lashed the air lazily, waiting for me to renew my
fruitless assault.  Nothing had come through from the far end of the link
since I'd been in there, and I wondered if my distracting the creature
had something to do with that.
     There!  Every time it hammered me with its tentacles, that one
on the far side pulled back!  Yes, thinking back now, I was sure of it.
Why?  I tried to study it out of the corner of my eye, without being
obvious, making it look like I was just catching my breath.  Which was
fairly easy to do.
     There was something clutched in the tip of the tentacle, almost
hidden by the bulk of the creature's body.  I could make out tiny black
bolts of energy dancing around it, seemingly matching the energy pulses
that my chi blast had caused in the walls of the link.
     The key.  The hyperlink key, or whatever Jack had called it.
He said that was what they were using to open the link.  This thing must
be guarding the key while the others crossed over.
     It was concentrating on keeping the sphere away from me.
Fine.  Maybe I could get its attention some other way.
     I took a deep breath, gathering my remaining strength.  I only
had enough in me to try this once.  If it didn't work, it'd be all over.
     Akane, I thought, pain lancing through my chest.  I fought, Akane.
Just remember, whatever happens, I fought to the end.  Because of
you.
     Thank you.
     And then, howling like a banshee, I sprang forward for the last time.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     "RYOUGA!"
     "I'm buuuusy!" Ryouga replied over the din of the battle.
Ranma ducked a claw, countering with a swift side kick.
     "We need space!  Go high on three, chi blasts at six and twelve
o'clock!  Got it?"  He caught another thing in the face with a series of
punches, and it fell, nearly causing him to stumble over the body as the
fighting raged all around him.  He tried to concentrate, waiting for the
signal.  Come on, Ryouga ...
     "Ready!" Ryouga called back finally.  Ranma quickly checked
Ryouga's position, saw he was nearly opposite, and clenched his fists.
     "EVERYBODY READY TO PULL BACK!  ONE!"  He
snapped out a kick, driving a gibbering hunched demon with a long
tongue back into the ones behind it.
     "TWO!"  He faded back, then blinked as Akane slid in front of him,
covering him with a series of roundhouse swings with her staff, jabbing
the broken end at an unwary creature.
     "Please," he prayed, "don't let anything happen to her.  Please."  He
took advantage of the few moments grace to gather his chi, feeling it
build in him, and he tensed.
     "THREE!"  He sprang high up into the air, arcing backwards,
trusting Ryouga to be there.  He was.  They touched, back to back, at
the apogee of their jumps, battle auras flaring angrily, facing at right
angles to Cologne and her opponent.
     "SHI SHI HOKODAN!"
     "MOKO TAKABISHA!"
     The twin chi blasts lanced out into the bunched demons who
were too intent on getting at the defenders to realize their danger until it
was too late.  The blasts tore into them, annihilating the front ranks of
attackers and scattering the rest, creating some breathing space for the
besieged martial artists.  Then Ranma and Ryouga pushed off each
other, arcing down to land in their original positions.
     "Ranma," Akane panted, her staff held in a guard position, a
wild grin on her face, "that was *great*!"  He grinned back.  The things
were slow getting organized again, giving them desperately needed time
to prepare for the next wave.
     And then disaster struck.
     The ground under Cologne's feet erupted, long black tendrils
wrapping themselves around her body, lifting her into the air.  Black
lightning arced around her wizened body and she screamed in pain,
while the skeleton thing began to laugh.
     "It would appear our stalemate is broken, old one," it gloated.
Another burst of black fire shattered the old woman's staff, and she
screamed again.
     "No!"  Ranma shouted.
     "GREAT-GRANDMOTHER!"  Shampoo tried to help, but
the skeleton thing threw a bolt of black fire at her casually, knocking
her to the ground, where she writhed in pain as tiny black bolts of
energy arced through her body.  During its brief moment of distraction,
Cologne struck back.  Blue-white chi flared around her, lancing out to
surround the unprepared demon.  It howled in pain, intensifying the
dark energy around Cologne.  They were locked in a death struggle
now, and with both their defences breached, the loser would be the first
one to succumb to the enemy's attack.  The first one to die.
     "Ranma!" Akane cried.  "They're re-grouping!"  He cursed
under his breath, turning to check the situation.
     "How much longer can we stay here?" Mousse asked,
crouched defensively over the trembling form of a semi-conscious
Shampoo.
     "We can't leave!" Ukyou shouted tersely, hefting her slime-coated
spatula.  "Ko-chan needs us to guard his back!"
     "Jack!  How much longer?" Ranma shouted, his renewed
confidence beginning to falter.
     "He should have done it by now!"
     "Here they come!" Ryouga announced, unleashing a hail of
bandanna blades into the enemy's ranks.
     They set themselves to try to hold the enemy off, knowing that
the end was near now.
     It would all be over soon, one way or the other.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Ignoring the molten pain of each breath, I jumped nimbly from
tentacle to tentacle, drawing them after me, trying to make it appear
that I was making another attempt at the sphere.  And succeeding,
apparently.  The nightmare creature's taunting laughter pounded me like
thunder as it dangled the sphere just out of my reach.  Well, two could
play at that game.  I waited for my chance, my chest on fire from
exhaustion and the pain of the cracked ribs.  Finally, just when I was
beginning to think my plan wouldn't work, an opening presented itself.
     I struck, and struck quickly.  Bounding off a dangerously active
tentacle, I used my momentum to swing around the thing's body,
catching it off-guard and launching a series of punishing Kachu Tenshin
Amiguriken strikes on the tentacle holding the key.  With a roar of pain
and surprise, the creature loosened its grip and I snatched the key
away, feeling its dark fire burn my hand with intense cold.
     "Hey, stupid!  What's this for?" I crowed, leaping off the
tentacle, judging my arc carefully.  If I could just do this exactly right ...
     "YOU'LL PAY FOR THAT, YOU INSOLENT WORM!!!"
the thing screeched in rage, lashing out at me viciously with the tentacle
nearest me.
     Which, just as I had planned, was the one holding the sphere.
     I twisted in the air, striking before the creature could realize its
mistake, punching the sphere free, bracing my feet against the wildly
snaking tentacle, and launching myself down and in.  I knew that I'd be
leaving my back open, but I only needed a few seconds.  Just a few,
and this would be all but over.
     I cocked back my right arm, slipping my thumb over the button.
Ten seconds, he'd said.  The last ten seconds of the rest of my life.  As
I arrowed toward the gash my chi blast had made in the creature's
flank, I sensed rather than saw a tentacle snaking toward my back.
     Too late, hellspawn.  Too late.
     I hammered the button down, and plunged my arm into the
wound, burying it up to the elbow, leaving the sphere embedded deep
inside the thing as the tentacle finally snared me, snaking around my
chest and hoisting me into the air.

                     TEN

     The thing started to squeeze me, and black spots gathered at
the edge of my vision.
     "I TIRE OF THIS GAME, BOY.  GIVE ME THE KEY.
NOW."  I grinned through the pain.  Peace wasn't far away now.  I felt
free, the freedom of a man who knew death was inevitable.  There was
nothing this thing could do to me now.  Soon we'd both be gone, and it
would all be over.  With a dim sense of regret for all the things I'd left
undone, I opened the collar of my shirt and dropped the key inside,
feeling it burn my bare skin with its icy black flames, and spread my
arms wide.
     "Come and get it," I suggested hoarsely.  Jack hadn't said anything
about what the sphere would do to a person when it exploded.
     I wondered if it would hurt.

                     NINE

     As the howling mob of nightmares charged into them again,
Ranma saw the skeleton thing finally crumple under Cologne's
unceasing barrage of chi.  As it crumbled into dust, the tendrils holding
Cologne exploded with dark fire.  She screamed, a terrifyingly
desolate sound,  and fell  limply toward the ground.

                    EIGHT

     Akane clutched her broken spear desperately.  She couldn't
believe it was going to end this way.  She'd never really believed they
would lose.  Not now, not when she and Ranma had finally found each
other.
     It just wasn't *fair* ...

                    SEVEN

     Genma sprang back, leaping to the falling form of Cologne,
arms outstretched.  Then something slammed into him, knocking the
breath out of him and bearing him heavily to the ground.  He felt
leathery fingers at his throat as something began to strangle him.

                     SIX

     Ryouga and Ukyou were surrounded now, fighting back to
back as the things swarmed in, screaming madly.  He heard Ukyou
make a sound that could have been a grunt, or maybe a sob.  He
supposed it didn't matter much now.  Out of the corner of his eye he
saw the flashing blade of Kunou, and Kodachi springing nimbly in
towards the middle of what was left of their defensive circle.
     The middle?

                     FIVE

     The thing was squeezing and shaking.  It was seriously
unhappy.  Well, good.  I'd been unhappy long enough; I had no qualms
about sharing some of that feeling with these things.
     Suddenly, greenish-black fluid sprayed from the tentacle that
was holding me, then I was falling, and another tentacle was wrapped
around me, pulling me behind.
     The things must have broken through, I thought hazily, but it was too
late for them ...

                     FOUR

     Mousse scooped Shampoo up in one smooth motion, leaping
back and sending a rain of sharp metal spikes knifing into the nearest
attackers.  As he twisted, he saw that with Cologne's collapse, they
were on the verge of being overrun everywhere.  And ...
     What the hell was Kodachi doing?

                    THREE

     The creature roared with pain and anger and began to move its
ponderous bulk towards me.  I looked down dumbly, seeing a ribbon
wrapped around my chest, painfully squeezing my injured ribs, pulling
me back towards the gate.
     "Ranma, darling!"  What the hell?
     "Kodachi?"  There she was, halfway into the gate, pulling me
back with her ribbon.  Unbelievable.
     "No, don't!  There's not enough time!" I shouted, but she
didn't stop.

                     TWO

     Ranma hammered a huge, heavily muscled demon with a rapid-fire
combination, trying to see where Akane was.  There were definitely
fewer of the things now, but they were going all out, trying to take back
the gate.
     "Ranma look out!"  He turned, something massive looming over
him, and suddenly the splintered end of a wooden pole was jammed
into its eye, and Akane was beside him, shouting at him to pay
attention, idiot!  He turned, trusting her to guard his back, unable to see
most of the others now ...

                     ONE

     "NO ESCAPE, BOY!  GIVE ME THE KEY!"  It was
coming, moving forward like a tidal wave, and behind it I could finally
see more of them coming from the far side and I stumbled, trying to get
to my feet, then Kodachi tugged on the ribbon sharply, and it *hurt*
but I staggered into her, the key numbing the skin of my chest now
where it rested, and I tried to push her back all the way through the
gate, and ...

                     ZERO

     ... and suddenly a soundless heatless explosion washed over
me, and I was me, and I was fighting outside beside Akane, and I was
in a jail cell wondering what she'd say when she saw me and I was on
the floor with Akane on top of me and I was I was I was Ranma
Ranko Ran-chan I was all of them all of them ALL OF THE
RANMAS at once, their lives pushing in on me, and I could see in
Kodachi's eyes that she could feel it too.
     Then the moment passed and we staggered out into the real
world, and the gate burst behind me like a soap bubble, and it was
over.
     Over.
     Kodachi jerked suddenly, her grip on my shoulders tightening,
and I looked into her dark eyes, startled, seeing an oddly peaceful look
there, a look I'd never seen in her eyes before.  I felt her arms
sliding around my neck with disbelief.  What the ...?
     "Ranma," she breathed.  "Darling."  Then she coughed, and a
thin stream of blood trickled from the corner of her mouth.  I glanced
down, numbly, to see blood spreading from a small point on the front of
her leotard.  Then the point disappeared with a loud sucking noise and
she gasped, falling against me.  I saw a large spike-tipped tail
withdrawing from behind her, dripping blood.  I looked up to see that
the tail was attached to a very large, very ugly demon.
     "BAD THINGS.  CLOSE THE GATE.  BAD BAD BAD
THINGS.  DIE NOW.  YES, MUST DIE NOW."  And it grinned, an
amiable idiot grin full of mucous-stained teeth.  I couldn't move.  I had
nothing left, and I could barely keep on my feet with Kodachi's full
weight leaning against me.  I became aware that there was almost no
fighting going on now, in the wake of the gate's collapse, and in the
sudden lull, I heard a sound, a wailing cry that built and built until I was
sure that it couldn't have been produced by a human throat.
     But it was.
     Kunou.
     The thing realized its danger too late, starting to turn as Kunou
bore down on it from behind, running all out, heedless of his own
safety.  He swept his glowing katana out to the side and flicked it up in
one smooth motion.  The thing looked dumbly as its arm fell to the
ground.  Then the blade swept out again and again, trailing blue fire as it
bit into the demon's tough hide over and over.  The thing howled with
rage and fear and tried to run, but it was being cut to pieces as it ran,
Kunou's anguished howling drowning out the creature's cries as it finally
collapsed, slowly dissolving into a puddle of greenish goo.  Then he
looked for another to turn his wrath on.
     There weren't many candidates.  The gate was gone, their leader
defeated, their casualties were horrendous, and no help would be
coming.
     They broke and ran.  I looked away, stunned by the scene of
destruction, and looked over Kodachi's shoulder down her back.
     That was a mistake.  She was hurt bad, I could see that right
away.  I cradled her carefully, lowering her to the ground, trying not to
hurt her.  Her arms were still locked around my neck, and she was
looking into my eyes with an expression of wonder.  I sensed others
gathering around me as I held her carefully.  I looked down at her pale
face, feeling the blood pumping from the horrible wound in her back,
past my hand which could deliver a hundred punches in a second but
couldn't hold her life in.
    "Kid?"  It was Jack, leaning carefully over my shoulder.  He
lowered his voice and placed a careful hand on my shoulder.  "Kid, if
there's anything you want to say to her, you'd better say it now," he
whispered.  I looked up into his eyes, saw the truth there.  I turned
back to her numbly.
     "Why?" I asked her.  "I was ready to go.  It would have been
okay.  Why did you risk it?"  She met my eyes, smiling.
     "All those worlds, Ranma darling ... did you feel it?"  I nodded.  I'd
felt it.  "All those worlds.  There was a world where you loved me,
Ranma darling.  I saw.  Only me."  She smiled wistfully, then her cold
hands clenched spasmodically at the back of my neck as she gasped
with pain.
     "Ranma," she whispered, "send me off ... with a kiss.  Please."
Blinking back stinging tears, I leaned down to brush her icy lips with
mine.  She held me there with the last of her waning strength, letting her
mouth linger on mine, finally getting the one thing she'd always wanted.
At last, I pulled back and watched her eyes slip closed slowly.
     "Tatchi," she whispered.
     "Here," he said from beside me, his voice raw.  I felt the thump
as he fell to his knees.  She smiled again, a sweet little girl smile.
     "You were wrong.  He is the light.  He's bright, and so warm ..."
She trailed off, and her breathing slowed, her lips still slightly curved in
a smile.  Slowly, her hands slipped from around my neck and fell limply
to her sides.  I heard Akane stifle a sob.
     It wasn't supposed to be like this.  I was supposed to be the only
one to die this time.  They'd been so close to winning, how could she
die now?  And why?
     Why not me?
     Someone knelt next to me, and I noted with a distant sense of
surprise that it was Dr. Tofu.  He felt for a pulse, then lowered her hand
after a few seconds.
     "I'm sorry," he said softly.  He hadn't needed to say anything.
We all knew.
     The Black Rose was dead.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     Akane looked around, wiping at her tears, her body battered
and numb with exhaustion.  She couldn't believe it.  In the sudden
unearthly calm, it was hard to believe that they had been fighting for
their lives only a minute before.  But the turf was torn up and there were
tell-tale puddles of green slime everywhere where dead demons had
dissolved.
     And Kodachi was dead.  Kodachi, who was her age.  Kodachi,
who'd been her rival.  Kodachi, who loved Ranma.  Dead.
     She followed Dr. Tofu's progress as he moved over to where
Ranma's father was crouched painfully over Cologne's body.  She'd
forgotten about the amazon matriarch.  She watched as an obviously
injured Shampoo pushed Mousse away and crawled to her stricken
great-grandmother's side.  Akane felt a shard of ice push through her
gut as she wondered suddenly if Cologne was dead too.  She watched
Dr. Tofu crouch down and check her.
     "Give her to me."  Kunou's voice, raw and edged with madness,
brought her back.  She looked down at where a stunned Ranko still
cradled Kodachi's body.  He looked like he hadn't heard what Kunou
had said.  Kunou sheathed his now quiescent katana and stood to
move around in front of Ranko, where he knelt again.
     "Saotome.  Give her to me."  This time Ranko looked up,
startled.  His eyes met Kunou's and, whatever they saw there, they
couldn't bear to look at.  He looked down and silently held the girl's
body out.  Kunou slipped his arms under her gently, as if she could still
feel, and he cradled her against his chest gently.  Then he stood and
turned to go.
     "H-Hey Kunou, where are you going?" Ranma asked, concern
evident in his tone.  Kunou stopped but did not turn around.
     "I am taking my sister home," he said tersely.  Nobody moved
for a long second.
     "Kunou-sempai," Akane said gently, "maybe you should wait
for ..."
     "I am taking her home," he said again.  "I will tolerate no
argument.  She needs to go home now."  And then he began walking
away.  She turned to Ranma, worried.
     "Ranma, what should we do?  We can't just let him walk home
like that!"  He nodded, sweat streaking his weary face.
     "I'll handle it.  Stay close to Ranko, okay?"  He gave her a
look laden with meaning, and then he dashed off to where Dr. Tofu and
the other group were crouched around Cologne.
     "Everyone okay?" Ryouga asked.  She turned back.  One of
Ukyou's sleeves had been torn partially away and there were some
bleeding gouges on her upper arm and shoulder.  Ryouga had three
parallel gashes torn through his tunic and into his chest, which had bled
a lot but didn't appear to be bothering him much.  Jack's long black
coat was shredded in a few places, but he looked okay.  She hurt all
over, and she was bruised, covered with splotches of green slime, and
sick with old dread and fear and exhaustion.
     But she'd live.
     She crouched down next to Ranko, looking into his face, her
heart catching painfully in her chest.  No matter what she'd told Ranma,
the sight of Ranko couldn't help but affect her.  And Ranma knew it,
but he'd also known that she was probably the only one who could get
through to him.  And he trusted her.  Her heart reeling with confusion,
she placed her hand on Ranko's shoulder.
     "Come on, Ranko.  We'd better go."  He looked up at her, and her
heart broke to see how vulnerable his face was.
     "It should have been me," he whispered, and she blinked back
a sudden rush of tears.
     "Ranko, please.  We have to go now," she whispered.  He closed
his eyes, nodded, and stood.  She supported him, noticing that he
favoured his left side, and was nearly exhausted.  She wondered what
had happened on the other side of that gate, as she led him over to the
others.  Jack followed behind, while she noticed that Ryouga waited
until Ukyou had finished wiping her spatula on the grass.
     As she walked slowly toward the other group, she took a slow
look around at the grounds of Furinkan.  So much had happened to her
there, and now she felt like a part of her had died.
     She wondered sadly if she'd ever be able to see this place
again without thinking of death.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     The others rushed around the Tendou house, preparing blankets and
supplies for the injured, while Nodoka directed the new arrivals into the
largest room in the house.  She took stock of the group quietly.
Mousse was carrying Cologne, who was obviously the most badly
injured.  Ranma was carrying a scared looking Shampoo, who was not
even trying to take advantage of her situation.  He placed her gently on
a futon next to her great-grandmother.  Akane appeared battered but
not seriously hurt, much to Soun's delight, and she led a numb Ranko to
a chair.  Ryouga was trying to fold up his umbrella, which he'd been
using to keep the rain off several cursed members of the party, without
much luck.  The canopy was badly dented from some impact, and at
last he gave up.  Ukyou was trying to convince him to get his chest
looked at, and the stranger, Jack, hung back, watching it all.  She felt
her chest tighten and took a breath to control her voice.
     "Ranma," she said, her voice gratifyingly steady, "where's your
father?"  Ranma looked up, surprised.
     "We sent him to follow Kunou, to keep him out of trouble."
     "You sent your father to keep someone out of trouble?" she
asked archly, trying to hide her relief.  "The man is trouble incarnate!"
Ranma's expression stopped her.
     "What is it?" she asked, suddenly uncertain again.
     "Mom, this isn't the worst of it.  Kodachi Kunou's dead."
She blinked.  That ... girl?  Why, she was only Akane's age!  She'd
been here at the dojo only the day before.  She couldn't be dead.  She
just couldn't be.
     "How?" was all she could think of to ask.  The look on her son's
face chilled her to the marrow.
     One of those things got her while she was helping Ranko."  He
kept his voice low, and she glanced over to where Ranko was sitting,
gazing blankly at the floor.  "It was bad, mom.  We almost didn't make
it."  She took a deep breath to focus herself and began directing the
wounded.  Kasumi assisted Tofu as he began treating injuries.
     "Shouldn't you have taken them to a hospital?  Shampoo and
her great-grandmother, at least," Nabiki said, entering with a basin full
of clean water and some linen strips.  Tofu shook his head absently.
     "Area hospitals are jammed, and traffic is snarled badly.  Even
if we could get to one, we'd be forced to wait.  The entire ward is in
chaos.  We're better off here.  As for Cologne, her physical injuries
aren't the only problem.  Her chi is almost completely depleted.  I'm not
certain what to do for her."  His expression was tight, and Nodoka saw
what that admission cost him.  She moved among the small, quiet
group, giving Ryouga a clean cloth to hold against his wounds, speaking
quietly to Ukyou, then moving past where Ranma and Akane sat close
together to crouch beside Ranko.
     "Are you hurt?" she asked quietly.  He didn't respond.  She
suppressed a sigh and tried again.  "It wasn't your fault, Ranko."
     "I'm just tired," he muttered at last.  "Tired of people dying.
Everything was fine here before I came."  She wanted to argue with
him, but she could tell that in his present state it wouldn't do any good.
Instead, she guided him to an empty futon and urged him to lie down.
She looked at his supine form, his drawn features, with a mother's
concern.  He really was so much like her son, and it hurt her to see him
like this.  Quietly she moved over to Ranma and Akane.
     "I want to hear what happened," she told them, leading them a
little ways away from the others.  "All of it."
     Talking softly, first one, then the other, they told her everything.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     I woke to the dark.  My heart was triphammering, although if
I'd been dreaming, those dreams had vanished like mist, leaving only a
vague sense of dread.  I sat up carefully, wincing at the pain in my
chest.  I was still in the main room of the house.  Dim light filtered in
from the hallway to the kitchen, and I could hear voices there, faint and
quiet.
     I looked around, picking out forms in the half-light, hearing the
gentle susurration of breathing.  As my eyes became accustomed to the
gloom, I could make out Ryouga sprawled in the corner, his chest
bandaged up, snoring away lightly.  Mousse was curled up next to
Shampoo's futon, both of them dead to the world.  And next to me,
leaning against a chair, head resting on her arms, was Ukyou.  Fallen
asleep watching over me, no doubt.  I smiled a little at her sleeping
expression.  Dear Uc-chan.  Someday, if there was any justice in the
world, she'd be happy.
     I eased off of the futon, noticing that my shirt was gone and my
ribs were taped up.  I hadn't even woken when they did it.  And my
various cuts had been tended to as well.  I raised my arms carefully,
feeling the tape tug slightly.  Not bad.  I turned to grab the clean shirt
that had been left at the head of the mattress and felt something digging
against my leg.  I reached down and picked it up, looking at it
curiously.
     It took me a few seconds to realize what it was.  I remembered
shoving the energy-sheathed key down my shirt, remembered feeling it
burn.  Then, after the sphere had detonated and we'd been thrown
clear of the link, I'd forgotten about it.  It hadn't burned and I hadn't
felt it any more.  I turned the thing over in my hand.  It had shrunk, from
being the size of my forearm to being no longer than my middle finger.
It seemed to be made of some kind of bluish crystal, with a loop in one
end and a slight hook in the other.  It actually did kind of look like a
key.
     It must have stayed inside my shirt until they'd opened it, sliding
under me.  I put it in my pocket, not knowing what to do with it, and
stood slowly.  I gently placed my blanket over Ukyou's sleeping
shoulders and slipped into my shirt, padding silently over to the door to
the garden.  I didn't want to face anyone, not yet.  I eased the sliding
door open and slipped outside.
     It was pouring rain, hard solid lines of water that pounded the
hapless ground mercilessly, forming a dim silvery veil.  I moved along
the veranda and eased myself down to sit against the wall, staring out at
the falling rain.  There was little light from the surrounding houses, and
for the first time I realized that the power was out.  The warm light in
the kitchen must have been candles or a lantern.
     "Hey, kid."  I tensed as Jack came up beside me out of the
gloom, water dripping from his coat.  "Mind if I sit down?"
     "Yes."
     "Well, I'll try not to take that too personally."  He sat, leaning
against the wall beside me.  I grimaced.
     "Why are you still here?" I asked.
     "Unfinished business.  What's the matter, kid?  You look a little
depressed."
     "What's the matter?" I asked incredulously.  "Kodachi's
DEAD, for starters, and Cologne's half way there, and it's my fault!"  I
saw him turn to me in the shadowy gloom, the only sound the falling rain
for a long time.
     "You really believe that?" he asked finally.
     "I should have been able to ..." I began.
     "To what?  Save everybody?  Make everything okay?  Listen
to me, Saotome, and for once try to pay attention to what I'm telling
you.  Your friend Kodachi was by far not the only person to die today.
There are several deaths and severe injuries reported in this area as a
result of what the demons did to cover their tracks, and more people
unaccounted for.  The important thing is, the link is broken, the key lost,
and the danger is over.  Oh, sure, some of those things are still hanging
around, but they'll be hunted down.  We're through the worst of it."
     "And what about the people who were hurt or killed?  I suppose
they're acceptable losses, huh?" I asked bitterly.
     "Goddammit, kid!  Why can't you understand?  We've lost
entire worlds to incursions like this!  You managed to stop them with a
bunch of teenaged martial artists, and only one of your group died!
You got off EASY!"  He glared at me.  "You might not want to hear
this, but it's true.  Another five minutes out there and they'd have all
been dead, and you too.  The rest of the city would have soon
followed."
     "It should never have happened at all!" I cried.  "If I hadn't
come here, it never would have!  This was all my fault, don't you get
it?"
     "Ah," he said slowly.  "So that's why you sucker-punched me
and pulled that bonehead manoeuvre with the transit core, huh?
Because this is all your fault?"  I nodded angrily, my throat tight.
     "Kid, you haven't been listening to me, and I'd like you to start.
The only reason any of these people are still alive is because of you."  I
gaped at him.
     "What are you ..."
     "It's true.  You disabled my door and we had to land here.  If
that hadn't happened, I wouldn't have been here to detect the link, and
by the time anybody knew what was happening, this city would have
been lost."  He leaned closer to me, his tone low and urgent.
"Remember what I told you, kid.  By the time the DTF had detected
the incursion, the lives of everybody in Nerima, probably everybody in
Tokyo, would have been forfeit.  You didn't place these people in
danger, Saotome, you saved them.  I'm sorry about your friends, but
you all did what you had to do.  Millions of lives were at stake."  I just
sat, staring at the rain.  What he said sounded true, but I couldn't get
the image of Kodachi's face out of my head as she looked up at me,
love in her eyes.  Love for me.  Love that had ultimately killed her.
     "When we were in the link, when it was breaking up, I ... we
both saw, felt ... I'm not sure how to describe it.  It was like for a split
second I could feel hundreds of other Ranma's, leading other lives ..."
     "That's possible.  This is a strong world string, with hundreds of
variations, and you are prominent in most of them.  That's why we
know so much about you."  I shook my head wearily.
     "I don't want to be prominent.  I just want some peace and
quiet.  I just want to be left alone for a while."  He had nothing to say to
that.
     "How do you do it?" I asked at last.  "How do you watch the
people you love die again and again?  There must be someplace,
someplace where they're all waiting, all well, all happy.  If I could just
go there ..."  Jack started laughing.
     "Paradise Eyes," he said.  I frowned.
     "What?"
     "Paradise Eyes.  That's what we call it.  It strikes the DTF from time
to time.  You see all these variant worlds and start to wonder if the
perfect one for you isn't out there somewhere.  The world where the
girl you've always loved loves you back, or where you're rich, or
powerful, or where you can be what you always wanted to be.  A nice
dream, but it never works out.  Although, from time to time, someone
gets a case of Paradise Eyes and heads out for parts unknown, and is
never seen again.  Who knows, maybe they found what they were
looking for."
     "You don't sound optimistic."
     "This world would be perfect, wouldn't it, kid?  If not for one
small detail, that being that you already exist here."  I frowned.  He was
right, of course.  That was why I'd decided to go.
     "So there's no such thing as paradise?"
     "Kid, what kind of a life would you have if, whenever something
tough happened, you just picked up and went looking for a new world
where things were better?  Paradise is where you make it, I suppose.
Too many choices are almost worse than none at all."  I could see his
point.
     "Would this happen everywhere?" I asked finally.
     "What?"
     "This.  Finding my life already being lived.  All these people ..."
     "No, not everywhere.  This world string has a lot of variations
of this place, but there are hundreds of other strings in this sector alone
on which you might not have ever existed at all.  The further you get
from your native string, the less chance of you showing up."  Well.
That was a relief.
     "Hey, I've been wondering.  Why did you give me that extra
48 hours here?  You could have probably snatched me easily, so why
put yourself to all that trouble?"  He didn't answer for so long that I
began to wonder if he was going to or not.
     "Paradise Eyes," he murmured finally.
     "Huh?"
     "Kid, I'm a Y Rating.  Do you know what that means?"  I didn't, of
course.  He nodded.  "It means I was pulled from a dead world, like
you.  On my world it was a virus that mutated from a limited
bio-weapons exchange.  I have a natural immunity to most diseases,
including the one that killed my world, so I survived."  He frowned
slightly.  "Barely.  They rescued me and put me to good use."  I sat
back, shocked.  I'd had no idea.  He stared out at the rain, tapping
his fingers idly on his knees.  "They do that because they need people,
and their rules don't allow them to just take people from active world
strings whenever they want."  Then he turned to me, his features
indistinct in the gloom.
     "I made a mistake, a few years back.  A very bad mistake.
Someone died because of it.  In the years since, I've come to believe
that I wouldn't have done what I did if I'd just had a chance to settle
things, to put my ghosts to rest.  I figured it would be better to let you
see that there was no place for you here than have it eat at you for
years until you finally did something stupid. Anyway, what's done is
done."  I wasn't sure if he was talking about me or himself with that last
part.  I sighed and leaned back against the wall, wincing at the soreness
of my ribs.
     "So what's going to happen when your back-up gets here?
Am I gonna have to fight them, too?"  Jack didn't turn from the rain.
     "They're already here.  And you're not going to have to fight
anybody, because you're dead."  I sat there for a moment.
     "Huh?" I said finally.  He smiled slightly.
     "You didn't make it out of the link before it was destroyed.  A
noble sacrifice, a very tragic tale.  May you rest in peace."  I continued
to boggle at him stupidly.
     "Huh?" I said again.  He sighed.
     "Saotome, I filed a report.  In triplicate.  Once the bureaucracy
thinks you are dead, believe me, it'd be hell trying to convince them
otherwise."
     "Why?" I asked finally.  "Why do that for me?"  He smiled
enigmatically.
     "Consider it a going away present.  Or consider it an attempt at
redemption on my part for past sins, if you must.  It doesn't really
matter, in the end.  The result is the same."  He turned and stared out a
the rain again.  "Martial artists have a code of honour, right?"
     "Most of them," I replied, still feeling confused.
     "Maybe the DTF could use one.  Some of the things I've had
to do have been logical, and even necessary, but not very honourable.
Maybe I just don't feel clean anymore.  Frankly, I don't think you'd fit
in with the DTF anyway.  It's a big world, Saotome.  Find a corner of it
and make a life for yourself.  You don't belong here and you know it."
He stood slowly, pausing to look down at me uncertainly, looking like
he was debating whether or not to tell me something.
     "I have some last words of advice for you, Ranma Saotome,"
he said at last.  "A wiser man than I once said, "He who fights with
monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.
And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you."
A lot has happened to you, and I can tell you've already spent some
time looking into that abyss.  But if you look in long enough, it comes to
know you by name, and it starts calling to you.  And that call can be
very seductive.  Life's been hard on you, kid, but there's nothing to be
done about that.  Take a step back from the edge, Saotome, or one
night in your darkest moments, in the hours just before dawn, you'll
hear the abyss calling.  And you'll answer."  I just stared, not saying
anything.  For the first time I guessed that he might have some inkling of
what I was going through.
        "That's my advice, anyway.  Take it for what it's worth.  I saw
the way you were looking at young Ms. Tendou earlier.  We both
know what'll happen if you stay.  The past is over, kid.  Find a future."
  And then he was gone, walking away into the rain.  I just
stared, trying to come to terms with what he'd just told me.
     Free.  I was free.  As far as the DTF was concerned, I was
dead.  Nobody would come looking for me.  One of my reasons for
leaving here was gone.  But the other reasons, if I was honest with
myself, remained just as compelling.
     "Heavy thoughts, tough guy?"  I jumped, initiating a spurt of
feminine laughter.
     "Sorry," Nabiki apologized, "didn't mean to startle you."  She
sat down next to me, crossing her legs and propping her chin on her
fist.
     "How long were you listening?" I asked, half angry, half
amused.  She grinned.
     "Long enough.  You learn the most amazing things if you keep
your ears open, you know."
     "You are impossible.  You know that."
     "Uh-huh.  So."  She looked me in the eye, her expression
uncharacteristically sombre.  "How are you doing?"  I sighed.
     "I don't know.  I just feel so ... guilty, you know?"
     "I heard what he said.  If not for you, we'd all be dead now.
Self-pity's not going to help, Ranko.  You saved a lot of people,
including my father and sisters.  Let me be the first to say thank-you."  I
felt my face flush warmly.
     "C'mon, Nabiki.  I didn't save Kodachi, did I?"
     "If you could have, you would have," she said simply.  "I heard
how you pulled that stupid cowboy stunt, trying to stop the link by
yourself so nobody else would be put in danger.  I think that says it all."
She just kept staring at me while I tried to think of some argument
against all her praise.
     "How's everyone doing?" I asked at last.  She clasped her
hands behind her head and hummed thoughtfully.
     "Well, everyone was exhausted, that's for sure.  Ukyou and
Ryouga got bandaged up, they weren't too bad off.  Shampoo was
banged up pretty good, and Dr. Tofu said something about her chi, but
he said she'd be good as new in a few days.  Cologne should live, but
he's not sure how much of a recovery she'll make.  Dr. Tofu is worried
about her optical nerves.  He thinks she might be blind."  I sighed.
Damn.  How much more bad news could this place take?
     Nabiki turned to me, looking worried.  "How was ... how did
Kunou ..."  She trailed off, looking vaguely embarrassed.
     "Not good," I said quietly.  "He was pretty gone.  He just went
walking off, with her in his arms.  I hope he made it all right."
     "He did.  Your ... I mean, Ranma's father got back a little while
ago.  Kunou made it back to the estate.  He's not saying much else,
because the rain turned him into a panda and there's no power to heat
water with."  She stopped, seeming like she was grasping for something
to say.
     "I just can't believe she's dead," she said finally.  I nodded.
     "I know.  I still have trouble believing they're all dead.  I guess
I can add her name to the list."
     "You're leaving, aren't you."  It wasn't a question.  She'd
taken me off-guard with the sudden change of subject, but knowing
her, it was a calculated attempt to find something out.
     "I have to."
     "Even now?"
     "Yeah, even now.  The DTF isn't after me, but if I stay here ...
it'll mean trouble for everyone.  I need to find someplace, build
something just for me.  Maybe then I can come back.  Maybe."  She
nodded as if she'd been expecting that.
     "Do the others know?"
     "So far, I only told Ranma.  Although he might have told
Akane."  She laughed.
     "You've really grown to like him, haven't you?"  I frowned.
     "What's so surprising about that?"
     "Well, I thought you two might be too much alike to get along."
I felt a smile creeping across my face, remembering our disastrous first
sparring match.
     "Well, I guess I can be a bit of an arrogant pain in the ass
sometimes," I admitted ruefully.  "But we managed to become friends
anyway."  She stood then, reaching her hand down to me.
     "Come on in," she said.  "Kasumi and Auntie Saotome are
making some cold supper.  You must be starved, you slept all
afternoon."  I was starved, now that she mentioned it.  I smiled
gratefully.
     "You go ahead.  I want a couple of minutes alone."  I saw the
expression on her face change and chuckled.
     "I'll be along soon," I assured her.  She sighed and turned to
go, then stopped.
     "Ranko?"
     "Hmmm?"
     "We came real close, didn't we?"  I remembered lying on the
floor of the link, feeling like I couldn't go on, the sphere out of reach
high above me.  I'd wanted to lie down and give up so badly then ...
     "Closer than you'll ever know," I said softly.  She turned
silently and went in, leaving me alone with my thoughts and the rain.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     "It's only been two days, Ranko.  I really think you should let
those ribs heal some more," Dr. Tofu fretted.
     "We've been over this, doc.  I'm fine, and I'm going.  Come
on, let's get this over with.  I hate long good-byes."  We walked out
the front door into the brilliant spring sunshine.
     They were waiting.  Ranma's parents, Ranma and Akane,
Nabiki and Kasumi, Ukyou, Ryouga, Shampoo and Mousse.  Cologne
had regained consciousness for brief periods and was out of danger, or
so Dr. Tofu said.  However, her eyes were now the same colour as the
black energy that had enveloped her during the demon's attack.  She
was blind.  Shampoo had cried for hours after being told, even though
Dr. Tofu told her he wasn't sure if it could be cured or not.
     Nobody had heard from Kunou.  Servants were turning
everyone away at the gates of the estate.  Pleas were politely ignored.
The master's instructions, they said.  The family's mourning was not to
be interrupted for any reason.
     So I found myself here, in front of the Tendou dojo, getting
ready to leave.  I had a hard time explaining to the others why I wanted
to leave so quickly.  I knew that it would never get any easier to leave
this place behind, and I knew that I might lose my resolve if I waited
too long.
     So I was going.  I walked slowly down the walkway.  Mousse
stuck his hand out and I shook it, surprised.
     "Take care of yourself, Ranko," he said solemnly.  I nodded.
Shampoo, still moving gingerly, stepped up to me and threw her arms
around my neck.
     "You always be Shampoo's airen," she whispered.  I squeezed
her gently, trying not to look at Mousse.
     "Be good," I said.  She kissed me fiercely, then stepped back.
I blushed.
     Ukyou was next.  I looked at her, feeling my heart clench
painfully at the look on her face.
     "Stay," she mouthed silently.  I shook my head, ever so slightly.
     "I can't," I told her.  She took a quick step and threw her
uninjured arm around my neck, slipping her other one around my waist,
resting her head against my chest.  Suddenly, it hurt to breathe.
     "Be happy, Uc-chan.  Please," I whispered.  I felt her shoulders
hitch silently, then she turned her face up and kissed me on the mouth,
gently, lingering like a summer dew.
     Then she stepped back, and she wouldn't look me in the eye.  I
gathered my resolve and moved on.
     "Are you gonna kiss me too?" Ryouga asked me, putting a wry
smile on my face.
     "Pervert," I snorted.
     "You gotta come back someday, so I can beat you once and
for all."  I grinned.
     "Sure, I'll have my secretary pencil you in."  He held out his
hand, something black and yellow dangling from it.
     "What's this?"
     "A going away present.  It's my lucky bandanna."  I took it
gingerly.  It looked like all his other bandannas.
     "What's lucky about it?" I asked dubiously.
     "Women," he said solemnly, "find it irresistible."  I looked him
in the eye, and we both started laughing at the same time.
     "Moron," I said.
     "Idiot," he replied.  We clasped forearms briefly, then I had to
move on.
     "Geez, tough guy, you didn't even stick around long enough to
get in my debt," Nabiki said dryly.  I looked at her, seeing no sign of
the girl I'd talked to that day, and I acted on impulse.  I wrapped my
arms around her and leaned close to her ear.
     "Nabiki Tendou," I whispered, "I must have you."  She burst
into girlish giggles, punching me lightly on the shoulders.
     "My, how forward," she whispered back coquettishly.
"G'wan, get out of here before I decide to keep you, ya big lug."  I
gave her a grin, glad to see that the girl I'd gotten to know was still in
there, hoping she'd find her way out someday.
     Kasumi stepped up to me, a wrapped box in her hands.
     "I made you a lunch," she said simply.
     "Of course you did."  I took it, basking in her warmth as she
embraced me lightly.
     "Be careful, won't you?"
     "I'll try."  It was as honest as I could be, and I'd never found it
possible to lie to Kasumi.  I moved on.
     "I wish you'd reconsider," said the woman who, in another
reality, would have been my mother.
     "Trust me.  I know what I'm doing."  She hugged me, too, and
I felt a sudden surge of regret that I'd never shared a moment like this
with my own mother.  I pulled back and smiled.
     "Try to keep this lunatic out of trouble, okay?" I said, jerking
my thumb at her husband.  She smiled, surreptitiously wiping at a tear.
     "I'm not a miracle worker, dear," she sniffed.
     "Hey, how about a little respect for the old man?" he retorted.
     "And you behave yourself, you crazy old bear," I said.  He
shuffled his feet gruffly and grinned.
     "Come on back any time you need a decent training partner,"
he said.  I turned to Mr. Tendou.
     "You raised some great girls there, Mr. Tendou.  You should
be proud."
     "I am, Ranko.  I am."
     "You can call me Ranma again."  He smiled.
     "I never properly thanked you for saving Akane's life that time,
son.  If there's ever anything ..."
     "Thanks."  I swallowed hard, moving on to the end.  The
hardest good-byes.
     "Hey."  Akane looked at me, smiling sadly.  "I guess this is it."
I nodded mutely.  I wanted to take her in my arms and hold her, but I
couldn't.  I just couldn't.
     Apparently, she could.  She stepped up and hugged me tightly,
carefully avoiding my bandaged ribs.  I saw Ranma look carefully away
and I hugged her back, lowering my head to breathe her in.  One last
time.
     "I'm sorry," she whispered.  Sorry for not being my Akane.
Sorry for breaking my heart just by being.  Sorry we couldn't both love
her.  Sorry for a million things.  I didn't know which she was referring
to.  All of them, maybe.
     "Me too," I told her, feeling hot tears on my neck as I blinked
back my own.  After all, tough guys don't cry, do they?
     Finally I had to let her go, and I stepped back, looking at the
two of them together.
     "Hey, don't forget to send me an invitation to the wedding," I
said as lightly as I could.  They both blushed furiously, then Ranma
picked up my pack from the ground and handed it to me.
     "Geez, don't you start," he grumbled good-naturedly.  I took
the pack and shouldered it easily.
     "Hey, handsome, walk me to the gate."  He did, and we stopped,
facing each other.
     "One last stop to make?" he asked quietly.  I smiled sadly.
     "You'd do it, wouldn't you?  She saved my life.  I owe it to her
memory to stop and say good-bye."
     "Kunou's unstable.  Just be careful."  I nodded.
     "Well, this is it," I said finally, looking back at the group.
Ranma sighed.
     "I wish ..." he said wistfully.
     "I wish, I wish.  If wishes were fishes, we could walk to China
and not get our feet wet."  He gave me a tiny grin.
     "Take care of yourself, okay?  It's funny, I was just getting
used to having you around.  I always wanted a brother."
     "What a coincidence.  Me too."  We reached out, clasped hands,
feeling, for one last moment, like two halves of a whole.
     Then the moment was over, and with it, my days at the Tendou
dojo.  I set off to make my last stop.
     I resisted the urge to look back, just one last time.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

     The servants, the walls, and the security system didn't even
slow me down.  Neither did the weird paper wards that seemed to be
plastered everywhere.  In the end, I found him in a small sheltered
grove in the estate's lush garden.
     I'd never seen this little grove before.  There were a few grave
markers scattered among the trees and lush green grass.  Kunou was
kneeling before one, his sheathed katana across his knees.  In front of
the obsidian marker was a small portable shrine.  I didn't have to be
able to see inside to know whose picture it held.
     "I knew you would come," he said, his voice expressionless.  I
was surprised.  I hadn't thought he would know I was there.  I eased
out of the tree I was hiding in, walking slowly up to the marker.
Kunou, wearing a white robe, didn't turn to face me.  I tried to think of
something to say.  "I'm sorry" sounded woefully inadequate.  He saved
me the trouble.
     "You will honour my sister's memory."  I nodded, then knelt,
clapping my hands twice and bowing my head.
     I wish I could have saved you, I thought.  I wish I could have at
least liked you.  It isn't fair that you had to die that way.  I swear that
I'll try to honour your memory, Kodachi.  And I pray that you've found
peace, wherever you are.
     I stood, looking at the marker.  Under her name and dates, a
single black rose was carved into the marker.  Under it, a quote.

     "Cowards die a thousand times before their deaths,
     The valiant never taste of death but once."

     Shakespeare probably, knowing Kunou.  I'd never thought of
Kodachi as valiant, but she'd certainly never been afraid of anything
that I was aware of in all the time I'd known her.
     "She always believed you would be her salvation, Saotome.
Instead, you proved to be her doom."  I didn't know what to say to
that.  He still wasn't looking at me.  I noticed the sword he held was the
same one he'd had at Furinkan.  I wanted to ask him about it, but now
wasn't the time.
     "Go, Saotome.  I mourn for my sister.  If I were able, I would
pursue you to the ends of the earth and exact revenge in her name, but
duty will not permit that now.  But know this.  If ever we meet again, it
will be as enemies, and only one of us will survive that meeting."
     "That's not how I want it, Kunou," I said quietly.
     "What you want is irrelevant.  I tell you simply what will be."  I
nodded.
     "As long as you know it was my fault, and not Ranma's.  Remember
that if you want revenge."  He nodded shortly but said nothing.  It was
no use trying to talk to him.  I turned to go.
     "Saotome."
     "Yeah?"
     "All those women," he said sourly.  "I've always wondered.
What is it about you that drives them to any lengths in pursuit of your
love?"
     "I wish I knew," I said bitterly, and I spoke truthfully.  Then I
left him with the memories of the dead, certain that we'd never meet
again.
     I was wrong, though there was no way I could have known it at
the time.  I'd never have guessed what strange and twisted path I was
about to set out on.  I'd never have believed that I'd one day be
returning to this place, or what surprises fate had in store for all of us.
     I headed for the wall where I'd left my pack.  No sign of Sasuke.
That was good.  He might not be much of a ninja, but I still didn't want
to have to deal with him today.
     I retrieved my pack and jumped the wall.  Under my black
shirt, strung on a piece of rawhide, was the key.  Nobody knew I had
it.  I didn't even know if I could make it work.  But I had nothing but
time, no place to go and no time to be there.
     It's a big world, Jack had said.  Maybe, but I was too restless, to
wounded in my soul, to settle for wandering one world.  There were
hundreds out there, maybe thousands.  Certainly enough that I could
lose myself, leave the familiar far behind and start again.
     Paradise Eyes, huh?  Jack had said that every once and a
while, someone went looking for paradise and never came back.
Maybe they'd found what they needed, or maybe they were still
looking.
     Either way, it was okay with me.
 
 

     "This is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end.  It
is, however, the end of the beginning."

     -Winston Churchill
 

The End (for now).

So what did you think -- and more importantly, would you like to see
more?  Drop me a line at emmack@ibm.net and let me know!

Mark MacKinnon
Revised Aug. 8/97
 

     So, there you have it.  My first fanfic, completed.  I hope you
enjoyed it (except for all you Kodachi fans who are even now
sharpening your axes, no doubt).  It changed quite a bit along the way
from the little two-part two Ranmas story I'd originally conceived.  Oh,
well, when inspiration hits, go with it, right?

     This is not the end of this story, as you've undoubtedly guessed
by now.  My plan is to create a series of stories which form links in a
bigger story, which may take me a little while to complete.  Kinda
ambitious for my first project, I know, but what the hell.  As long as
you people keep reading, I'll keep writing.

     I'd like to take a moment to thank all the people who took time
out to read my stories, and to all the people who wrote to me, even just
to say they liked what they saw.  I appreciate it.

     Special thanks are reserved for my two faithful pre-readers,
Krista Perry and Sumire, who not only gave me the praise and
feedback to get me this far, but also got me onto the FFML in the first
place.  Thanks, guys.

     Ciao.  It's been a blast.

Mark