Elegy for a Golden Youth
by Reid Carson

As I sit down to write these words, it has been more than five years since the events of which I shall tell. At the time, I would never have thought of such a thing. The pain was too new, too fresh; and what need could there be to write down a record of a time that I could never forget? And yet the memories have begun to fade. Even my fiancée has forgotten the strange happenings of that time, happenings in which she was much more closely involved than I. From my conversations with others I know that I am the last person left who still remembers what occurred. I am writing this in the hope that it may serve, in future, as a reminder of those days, should I also chance to forget, and, in some measure, to fulfill Ranma's last command to me. Between this tale, and the plan I have initiated, I can only trust that somehow, wherever they are, they will know that someone remembers them. Perhaps, as well, setting my observations down on paper will aid me in the decision that lies before me.

The school day had not yet begun at Furinkan High, and Ranma was fighting Tatewaki Kuno again. Some of us wondered why Kuno kept on pursuing his twin obsessions, despite all the evidence that neither of them wanted him. It was often attributed to the dementia apparently endemic to the Kuno family, and yet.... We should have known that was too facile an explanation. Look at the way we had all been obsessed with Akane. So many boys hurling themselves into futile combat, day after day, seeking the affections of one who was clearly uninterested in us, and unlikely, had we stopped to think on it, to look kindly on those who sought to lay violent hands upon her. Of course, we didn't stop to think. Instead, a legion of boys assaulted her, day after day, until Ranma came.

When Ranma came, everything changed. In a matter of days, the boys stopped their recurring attacks. They said it was because they knew they had no chance against Ranma, but those words rang rather hollow. They had had no chance against Akane either, yet that had not stopped them. I think it was rather that everyone recognized that, in Ranma, Akane had finally met her match, in all senses of the word. I say everyone, but of course, there were a few, more stubborn than the rest, who persisted in yearning after her. One was Kuno. Another, I must confess, was I myself. I cannot condemn Tatewaki, when I myself was guilty of the same folly. Indeed, mine was greater. There was no chance at all that I could ever defeat Ranma, no chance that I could ever do anything to win Akane's regard, and in my more lucid moments I knew that. Those moments, however, were rather rare. Ah well. If you didn't know Akane, you'll never really understand. There was something about her, some spark, impossible to define, and impossible to resist.

That spark burned in Ranma too, and he had his full share of admirers, both male and female; but his case was different. You could admire him, you could be his friend, but you couldn't cross over into his world. He seemed - unattainable, while Akane - we all knew Akane. We had grown up with her. It was difficult for some of us to accept the fact that, once she entered Ranma's orbit, she was lost to us, like a photon crossing the event horizon of a black hole.

But I digress. Ranma fought Kuno, and the fight ended as those fights always did. Before the victorious Ranma could rejoin Akane and enter the school, a voice came from the gateway into the schoolyard. "Boy! You with the pigtail! What is your name?"

Ranma turned. "I'm Ranma Saotome, if it's any of your business. Who are you?"

The speaker stepped forward from the shadow of the arch into the sunlit yard. When we saw him clearly, we all fell back a pace or two. He was of middling height, dressed in ornately embroidered Chinese robes, a rather nondescript man, save for two features: his hair, which was as red as fire; and his eyes, which WERE fire - he had no eyeballs, just two holes in his face in which lurid flames danced and flickered. I might have thought the waves of heat that seemed to pour off him nothing more than illusion, until I saw the grass shriveling and dying around him. His voice crackling, the stranger said, "I am one who has come to challenge you, Ranma. That is all you need to know."

Ranma too had stepped back at his first glimpse, but his discomfiture was only momentary. "I don't know who the hell you are, or what, but if you want a fight, you got it. I'll meet you after school - you name the place."

The stranger smiled. "No need for you to waste your time in the classroom, my boy. You're going to need the rest of the time available to you to put your affairs in order and say your good-byes. Don't worry, I'll see to it that you're excused from school." With those words, the stranger pursed his lips, then breathed out a huge ball of fire that flew toward the school, barely missing Ranma as he grabbed Akane and leaped aside, and smashed into the building. Instantly the school fire alarms went off, and people scrambled to evacuate the edifice, which was rapidly engulfed in flames. Fortunately, most of the students, and teachers too for that matter, had been outside watching the fight, so it seemed likely there would be few or no casualties. Indeed, that later turned out to be the case.

Those of us in the yard weren't worrying about that then. Our eyes were glued to the laughing stranger who had so easily ignited the conflagration. He stood, admiring his handiwork for a moment, then looked at Ranma. "Meet me in the grassy field that lies in the direction of the sunset. When the solar disk reaches its zenith, I will be there to kill you. Let me warn you: if I have to hunt you down, I will kill everyone in my path, everyone in this city if need be, until you face me. Until then." His form shimmered, and changed, into a vast, scaled, bat-winged apparition more than fifty feet long. I've seen representations of dragons that made them look benevolent, or comical, or simply ugly. Nothing I had ever seen had prepared me for the terrifying sight before me. It was a great, winged predator, with cruel claws digging deep gouges in the sidewalk and gleaming fangs, and eyes agleam with a cold, inhuman intelligence. To a creature like this, humans must be simply a lower life form, mere animals. If he took our form, it was simply to mock us. The heat that emanated from him increased tenfold, until it felt as if we were standing next to a blast furnace. The dragon flapped its wings, and lifted into the sky.

Everyone stared as the reptilian horror dwindled into the distance; then, as one, all eyes swiveled to the pig-tailed boy in our midst. Akane seemed the only one capable of speech. "Ranma, what was - was - THAT about?"

"I DON'T KNOW!" the harassed teen cried out. "I ain't never seen anything like that in my life!"

"What are we going to do?" Akane asked, her voice trembling slightly.

Ranma, his face as pale as hers, fought to master himself. The sound of approaching sirens seemed to help him regain his focus. "First thing, we gotta make sure everybody's out of the school. Then," he paused, "I guess we better head to the Nekohanten."

I could tell that Akane was upset when she made no reference at all to Ranma's desire to see Shampoo. When the fire fighters arrived and took over, the two of them ran off to the Chinese restaurant run by Cologne, the Amazon matriarch. I followed after.

Why did I go? I'm not sure I can answer that. I wasn't part of the inner circle, not even as much as Tatewaki was. I had been involved a handful of times, always with embarrassing results, and had even been lunatic enough to challenge Ranma once; the outcome had been quite painful, and yet Ranma afterwards accorded me more respect than he ever had before. Everyone else in the class thought my attempt to use the War Suit an act of complete idiocy, especially not reading the fine print beforehand. In Ranma's eyes, the fact that I was willing to put myself on the line to achieve my revenge gained me more stature than almost anything else I could have done. Perhaps, then, it was an unexpressed desire to live up in some fashion to the regard he had shown me that prompted me. Perhaps it was simply idle curiosity. At all events, I followed.

By the time I got there, Ranma and Akane had already told Cologne what happened. As there were no customers at this hour of the morning, Shampoo and Mousse were listening as well, both obviously concerned. The lines of worry engraved on Cologne's forehead stood out even on her wrinkled face as she said, "You seemed to have attracted the notice of one of the less benign dragons. The first thing we need to do, son-in-law, is to determine which dragon has become your enemy. We may then be able to learn why, and more importantly, how you may defend yourself. Can either of you remember any more details that you haven't told me? Perhaps the exact characters embroidered on his robes?"

As Ranma and Akane both shook their heads, I raised a diffident hand, perhaps forgetting for a moment that I wasn't in class. "I recognized some of them, Cologne, uh, ma'am."

Cologne's eyes fixed on me, as she asked sharply, "And who are you, young man?"

Before I could speak, Ranma interjected, "That's Hikaru Gosunkugi. He's in our class. What's up, Gos?"

I cleared my throat and said again, "I recognized some of the signs. I've, ah, studied magic for a while," I didn't see any need to mention my singular lack of success, "and I've encountered them before. Others were at least similar to some that I know."

"Then tell me everything you recall of them."

After I had complied, she frowned. "From what I remember, that should be the Dragon of the Valley of Twilight. He's very powerful, but has little to do with humanity. He's not actively hostile, but not at all sympathetic either. I seem to recollect that he does leave his valley every few centuries to kill a selected enemy, but I can't imagine why he would have chosen you."

Ranma's brow furrowed as he said, "I don't know. It's probably Pop's fault somehow. I'll have to beat it out of him. So's there any way to fight this thing? I ain't felt heat like that except when I fought Saffron, and there at least I had the Gekkajan to protect me. Man, I could really -" his voice broke off as he caught sight of the horror spreading across Cologne's features. "What is it?"

"Ancestors, no! Let me be wrong about this," she groaned, in a tone freighted with dread, and hurried from the room, leaving us staring at each other in confusion.

After a few moments, Shampoo scampered over to Ranma and threw herself into his lap. "Don't worry, airen. Great-grandmother find answer," she said with false cheerfulness, as if she were trying to convince herself. "And Shampoo fight with you."

A muscle in Akane's cheek twitched, but it was Mousse who reacted first "No, Shampoo!" he cried, springing to his feet. "You can't. You'll be killed!"

Shampoo gazed back at him coldly. "Shampoo Amazon warrior, not child. Amazon not hide under bed when husband in danger."

Before Mousse could find the words to respond, Ranma spoke up somberly. "Go sit down, Shampoo. I don't need this right now." Shampoo's face fell. I recalled that something of a rift had sprung up after she and Ukyo had blown up Ranma and Akane's abortive wedding. Obviously that rift had not yet healed. After Shampoo reluctantly resumed her seat, Ranma continued, "He's right, Shampoo. You didn't see this thing. Anybody gets hit by one of those fireballs is gonna be dead. This thing wants me for some reason, but I ain't gonna let anyone else get killed over this."

Forgetting her pique, Akane said hotly, "You can't be serious. You can't face something like this alone. You've got to have help."

"Son-in-law is correct," Cologne broke in, coming back into the room carrying a torn and dusty scroll. "He is the only one who stands a chance." She sat down across the table from Ranma and looked at him silently for a time, a variety of emotions warring on her countenance. Finally she said sadly, "I'm sorry, Ranma. My foolishness has brought this danger upon you."

"What do you mean?"

She dropped her gaze to the table, unable to meet his eyes any longer. "I never heard the full story of your fight against Saffron," she began obliquely. "You mentioned using the Gekkajan against Saffron, opposing his heat with its cold. Did you at any time use the power of the other staff, the Kinjakan?"

"Yeah," he said slowly. "I had it for a while until Kiima used the Akaneniichuan to disguise herself and stole it back. Why?"

"And were you at any time exposed to the water of Jusendo, before it had reached the springs at Jusenkyo," she persisted.

Ranma paused, and replied, "Yeah. After I beat Saffron, I smashed the Dragon Tap so I could use the water to cure Akane, and both of us got wet."

Cologne closed her eyes wearily. "That explains it. Do you remember the Full-Body Cat Tongue?" she asked.

"I ain't likely to forget," he snorted. "You fixed me so I couldn't change back, 'cause I couldn't stand any amount of heat .. at all," his voice trailed off.

"Yes. To cure it, I eventually let you have the Phoenix Pill, which increased your ability to withstand heat. That is the core of the problem," she said quietly. "It was prophesied long ago that someone who had taken the Phoenix Pill would kill the Dragon of the Valley of Twilight. Only such a person, in whom the power of the Pill had come to full fruition, could possibly survive the Dragon's fire long enough to kill him."

"But that's nuts!" Ranma protested. "I almost got fried fighting Saffron."

"That's because the Pill had not achieved full potency," she responded drearily. "The one who takes it must be exposed to the water of Jusendo, and the powers of the Kinjakan and Gekkajan. After that, the full power of the Phoenix Pill will begin to manifest itself. Eventually, you would become immune to the greatest extremes of heat and cold, and even be able to wield them to some degree. It is similar, according to this scroll, to the process by which the original Lord Saffron gained his powers. Unfortunately, it seems the Dragon can sense when someone in the world begins to receive the power, and emerges from his valley to kill such a one before he or she can present a challenge."

"But I never even heard of this Dragon," Ranma demurred. "I never would have run into him if he'd just left me alone."

"The Dragon is apparently not willing to take that chance." Cologne sighed. "The whereabouts of the two staffs has been unknown to the Amazons for centuries. It never even occurred to me that there might be a problem with giving you the Pill."

Ranma waved a hand impatiently. "That don't matter now. How can I fight this thing? Will the Pill protect me?"

"It should provide you some protection, at least from the damage the fire may inflict, although it will still cause you pain - perhaps great pain," she warned. "You will need to try to keep the Dragon in human form - his power is lessened."

"How am I supposed to do that?"

The old woman managed to smile slightly. "I think you can guess when I tell you that, in dragon form, his power is so great that he cannot help giving off tremendous amounts of heat."

"Of course," Ranma said, smacking the table. "The Hiryu shoten-ha!"

Cologne nodded. "Indeed. The technique even received its name from the fact that it was developed to fight dragons."

"Will that stop him?"

"Unlikely," Cologne said with a grimace. "Against a lesser dragon, perhaps. But your opponent will almost certainly survive, though it should force him to remain human for the duration, or you would be able to kill him."

Ranma bit his lip. "Do I have to kill him? I mean, if I beat him, and let him live, wouldn't he agree to leave me alone?"

"I doubt it," Cologne said flatly. "If you proved yourself better, he would be more determined than ever to kill and eat you, to secure himself against the chance that you might change your mind in the future."

"EAT him?" Akane said, her voice rising to a squeak.

Cologne nodded grimly. "Most dragons do not particularly relish human flesh, but the scroll mentions that humans who have taken the Phoenix Pill are considered something of a delicacy. Additionally, the Dragon likes to make sure that there is no chance of anyone escaping and coming back later on."

Akane and Shampoo looked horrified, and even Mousse had a sick expression. Although he had come to Nerima as an implacable enemy, I knew that over the ensuing months, especially since the fight against this Saffron, he and Ranma had become almost friends. "Is there nothing we can do?" he asked.

"No. Ranma is the only one with the chance to survive even the first encounter. If you attempted to interfere, your weapons would be puddles of molten metal in seconds, as the fury of the Dragon's fire incinerated your flesh and charred your very bones."

Ranma clasped his hands together as they rested on the tabletop and fixed his eyes on them. "What other good news you got for me? I remember Prince Herb was descended from a dragon. Is that what I got to fight, somebody like Herb who can breathe fire? If that's the case I might as well make out my will right now."

Cologne scanned the ancient scroll, pondering the fading writing. "There are few accounts of a fight with this Dragon, since he has always won, and always devoured the loser. Do not forget that Herb was the human descendant of a transformed dragon, who had inherited some of the draconic abilities. The Dragon of the Valley of Twilight is a true dragon, who can assume a human form at will. When he has chosen for some reason to fight in human guise, he does not appear to be a very skilled fighter. Presumably he has never seen the need to learn. As a human, he possesses enormous strength and stamina, perhaps on the order of Lime of the Musk Dynasty. His speed would appear to be somewhat inferior to yours, so you have that advantage. Finally, if all else fails, he will attempt to simply snuff out your life force."

"I don't get it. You mean some kind of ki attack?"

"Not as you know it." Cologne hesitated. "Accounts are unclear, but it seems that it involves a technique known as 'reflective resonance.' You attempt to synchronize with the flow of your opponent's ki, setting up a devastatingly destructive feedback. This is my best guess, at any rate."

Ranma closed his eyes and considered this. "But if the guy you were fighting managed to match your ki first, wouldn't that hit you with the feedback?"

"Yes, if your opponent figures out what's you're doing and is sufficiently versed in manipulating his ki. Since the Dragon has the experience of thousands of years behind him, and, being nonhuman, presumably possesses a ki flow pattern unlike anything his opponents might have encountered, he always wins."

"And I'm supposed to have a chance at this?"

"I don't know. Your curse may aid you here. Since you are physically both male and female, you are at least potentially balanced between yin and yang. If you can accept your dual nature, and work with it, you could present the Dragon with a situation unlike anything he has faced before. That is the best hope I can offer you."

"Just what I need, pop psychology," Ranma groused. "'Accept your feminine side.' What's next, finding the child within? And how am I supposed to accept my curse? Put makeup on half my face? Get engaged to a couple of guys to balance things out? Gahh!" He stood up. "Thanks, Cologne. Maybe it'll help. I only got a couple of hours, and there are some people I need to talk to. It'd probably be smarter to stay away, but if you guys want to see it, I'll be in the park west of the school at noon. I gotta go talk to Ucchan, and then see my mom. Might not get another chance."

Akane stood up also. "You talk as if you expect to lose. Did you leave your ego at home this morning?" she said, in an attempt at lightness.

He shrugged. "You saw that thing. He could gobble up Taro's monster form and still have room to snack on me for dessert. I ain't giving up, but I gotta tell you," he paused, and stared into the distance, "I gotta bad feeling about this. I'm still alive because I'm damn good, and because I'm lucky. Except where women are concerned. Well, I think maybe my luck just ran out. Come on, let's go."

I watched as the two walked out of the restaurant. Shampoo watched them go, with an expression of naked longing on her face so poignant I was forced to look away.

"Great-grandmother," she said softly, her voice barely rising above a whisper, "is there chance?"

The aged matriarch said nothing; her desolate expression was enough. At that moment she seemed every year of her century and more. I wondered how often she had been forced to watch her children and grandchildren precede her into death. I remembered something my mother had said, on the only occasion when she had ever spoken of the daughter who had died before I was born. "There is nothing in this world worse," she had told me, "than a parent having to watch her child die." Looking at Cologne, I understood that, whatever Ranma had been to her when she came here, he was a son to her now.

Seeing the look on her ancestor's face, Shampoo bowed her head. Her dark locks fell forward to shroud her features, but did nothing to obscure the tears that splashed soundlessly on the table. For the first time I could see the resemblance between the two Amazon women, who differed in so many ways. Mousse sat between them, bearing silent witness to their grief.

Realizing that I was intruding, I rose to go. Cologne looked up and said quietly, "Thank you for your help, boy. Your observations have at least given him a chance."

I bowed to her, moved by a blend of respect and pity. "I can only hope it'll be enough." As I said it, I knew, with some slight surprise, that I meant every word. Even if I had still regarded Ranma as my enemy, I could not have wished upon him the fate that seemed to lie in store. I walked out into the bright sunshine.

It seemed strange that the rest of the world was following its daily course, completely unheeding of the events transpiring in our little corner of Tokyo. I walked slowly down the sidewalk, watching the people bustling along. None of them knew that in a couple of hours, a boy would be fighting for his very life against a creature out of myth. I felt caught in a dream, or a nightmare. I wanted to shout at them, "Don't you know what's going to happen? Somebody we know is very likely going to die! Don't you care?"

Perhaps it wouldn't have mattered that much to them. Perhaps they would have said, "People die every day. Sometimes it's tragic, sometimes not. There's nothing we can do about it." Old Mr. Fujiwara there across the street. He'd lost his wife and two of his children before I was born. What was the death of a boy he scarcely knew to him, who had already lost so much?

I shook my head. It mattered to me. No one I had ever known, personally, had died. Academically, I knew it would happen one day, but I was ill prepared to face the reality of death. I strolled along aimlessly, trying to come to grips with it, trying to decide what to do. I knew that there was nothing I could do to affect the outcome of the coming confrontation. Logically, I should go home and stay out of harm's way. If my parents had heard of the fire at the school, they would be worried about me. Somehow, though, I just couldn't do it. I felt the need to be there. Was it simply ghoulish curiosity, and nothing more? I hoped not.

After wandering the streets for some time, I stopped at a telephone and called my mother to reassure her. I told her that I would be studying at the library for a time, and she accepted it. Evidently she had not heard any of the more outre details of the fire. I hung up the phone with a twinge of guilt; I didn't like lying to her, but I didn't think the truth would be very helpful in this case. I walked over to the park to wait for noon.

I sat on a bench and thought about Ranma. I remembered the first time I saw him, and how jealous I was of him. I remembered my attempts to find out his weakness. I remembered trying to compete with Ranma at playing Romeo, and the incident with the paper dolls. I remembered all the stories I had heard about Ranma's adventures. Some of them had been hard to credit at the time, but after what I had seen today, I could believe almost anything.

I thought about all the conversations at school I'd listened to, and taken part in, about Ranma and his fiancées. The boys envied him; the girls admired him; both blamed him for his treatment of Akane. To our minds, Akane was his rightful fiancée; Ranma was either too indecisive, or too much of a playboy, to make the obvious choice. The way Shampoo pursued him was shameless, all because of some ridiculous custom; the girl was certainly no better than she should be. Even Ukyo came in for her share of criticism. The way she dressed, the way she had sought Ranma for ten years - the poor girl should have gotten over her juvenile crush long ago. As for Kodachi - well! Did anything really need to be said about the inappropriateness of her behavior? Thus went the consensus at Furinkan High.

The scene at the restaurant was forcing me to rethink some of the things I "knew." That expression on Shampoo's face - she truly loved Ranma, and she was truly suffering now. I tried to imagine myself in Ranma's position. If a beautiful girl like Shampoo, or Ukyo, looked at me like that, what would I have done? I snorted. I'd have done whatever she wanted me to. If I were in Ranma's position, I'd have done a worse job than he did. Then I sighed. It would be nice to have just one girl looking at me like that.

I sat there, lost in thought, for some time. Finally, I looked up, to see people gathering in a large open field not far from me. I stood up and walked over to join them.

Ranma was there, with Akane, Ukyo and Shampoo clustered around him. He was talking to his father and a sad-looking woman I guessed to be his mother, from the marked resemblance to Ranma's female form. I bit my lip indecisively. I didn't want to intrude, but I didn't know most of the people here very well. Glancing around, I spied Ryoga Hibiki conversing with Mousse and Konatsu, and a pretty girl I didn't recognize. Miss Hinako must have encountered some delinquents, for she was in her fully adult form, though uncharacteristically subdued, as she clung to Soun Tendo's arm while he stood with Kasumi and Nabiki. Dr. Tofu stood silently a small distance off, his hands in his pockets, not far from Cologne, who was talking quietly to Happosai. I approached the good doctor hesitantly, but it seemed the gravity of the situation was helping him keep himself under control.

He glanced up and said soberly, "Hello, Hikaru. Unable to stay away?"

I nodded. "I saw the - thing - at the school. Somehow I just felt I - well - had to see. I don't really know why."

"I understand." He said nothing more.

As I waited, I looked at the quiet conversations going on around us. Finally, I said, "I recognize most of the people here, but who is the girl with Ryoga? And is that Ranma's mother?"

Never taking his eyes off Kasumi, Dr. Tofu replied, "The girl is Akari Unryu, Ryoga's girlfriend. I understand she and Akane have become friends, and Akane had previously invited her to stay with the Tendos' for a few days. She hasn't brought her sumo pig Katsunishiki, I see - probably a wise decision, since it's possible the Dragon would be unable to resist eating him. That is indeed Mrs. Saotome with Ranma." He shook his head. "She's only had a few weeks to get to know him."

I looked with some interest at Ranma's mother. I'd heard some stories about her, and the odd promise Ranma and his father had made. At the time, it had simply seemed part and parcel of Ranma's strange life. Now I saw her with new eyes. I saw the same grief on her face that I had seen on Cologne's. Her son, her only child had been taken from her when he was only three. She had missed seeing him grow up. His triumphs and his failures, his sorrows and his joys: she hadn't been there to share any of them. Soon, he might be taken from her again, this time for good. I shook my head. Things had been a lot simpler before today. I had known Ranma had problems, but those problems, and Ranma himself, had seemed almost unreal to me, and to a lot of the other students at Furinkan. They were a source of entertainment more than anything else. Now everything was much too real.

"It was a lot easier when it all seemed like a game," I muttered. I didn't realize I had spoken aloud until Dr. Tofu responded.

"It always is. Eventually, no matter how charmed a life you may lead, reality rears its ugly head, and things are never the same. All part of growing up, I suppose," Dr. Tofu said quietly.

I grimaced. I always hated that answer. It trivialized what you were going through, what you were feeling, and reduced it to the level of your friends' complaints about tests. It was probably true, but I don't suppose that fact has ever endeared the observation to anyone.

Apparently he noticed my expression, for the doctor grinned at me sympathetically and said, "Sorry! I remember how much I hated it when my parents said things like that to me."

Suddenly, a shadow fell over us. I glanced up to the vast bulk of the Dragon blotting out the sun. It seemed even larger than it had this morning. Slowly it spiraled in until it came to earth some distance from us. It settled down and folded its tail around its body like some kind of unearthly cat and gazed at us dispassionately. "If you have come to witness this boy's death, you may do so. If you have come to join in his death, you may do that also. The choice is yours." I might have expected some great booming voice from a creature that huge, instead it seemed no louder than a winter wind blowing through the bare trees, but much, much colder.

Ranma stepped forward. "It's just me, Dragon. First, is there any way to avoid this fight? I got nothing against you. I can swear I'll never attack you or nothing."

The Dragon laughed humorlessly. "You know little of the workings of fate, child. Even I, with all my power, am nearly helpless against the machinations of destiny. It is decreed that we shall fight, sooner or later. I choose that it shall be now."

"If that's the way it's gotta be," Ranma shrugged. Abruptly, he was motion, running toward the Dragon so swiftly that he seemed a blur. If he had hoped to catch the Dragon off guard, he failed, for it simply breathed out a searing blast of flame at him. Ranma barely had time to dodge to one side. The Dragon simply turned its head and breathed again, forcing Ranma to continue running almost at a right angle to the Dragon.

"How can he even get close to the Dragon, when all it has to do is breathe on him?" Once more I didn't even realize I had spoken aloud until Cologne responded.

"So far everything is going according to plan," the old woman said calmly. "The Dragon is giving off a great deal of heat, and son-in-law is running around him, slowly spiraling in. Soon he will be able to strike."

At that moment, Ranma stopped and threw a punch at the Dragon while shouting some words I couldn't make out. I wondered for a second what he was doing, since he was much too far away to hit his opponent, but I got my answer almost immediately. A huge wind sprang up as a glowing tornado formed around the startled Dragon. The roaring twister drowned out anything the Dragon might have said as it hurled the great reptile high into the sky.

I knew Cologne had said the Dragon would probably survive, but at the moment I couldn't see how that would be possible. Looking around, I voiced a question that had occurred to me during the Dragon's initial appearance. "Why aren't there huge crowds around us? I mean, we've got a Dragon landing in a city park and a big fight ending in a giant tornado - you'd think that would attract some attention."

Dr. Tofu said dryly, "You'd be surprised how easy it is for people to ignore events that don't fit into their personal views of the world."

"Even in Nerima? I mean, we've seen some pretty strange things here recently."

"Even in Nerima, son," the doctor said, a little sadly.

Before I could ask him what he was talking about, a body came tumbling from the sky and landed near Ranma, creating a large crater. It was the Dragon, back in human form. The figure lay unmoving at the bottom of the hole.

"Is that it?" I asked.

It wasn't. The man - the Dragon - stirred and rose to his feet before climbing out of the crater. He looked at Ranma expressionlessly. "I have heard of that technique, but never witnessed it. Impressive, and spectacularly painful. Now there is no doubt that you must die."

Without speaking, Ranma leaped at him, and the battle was joined. I wish someone else could write of that fight. I didn't know enough of martial arts to appreciate it, and both combatants were moving so swiftly that I could barely grasp what was happening. It seemed that Ranma was indeed faster, striking most of the blows, until the Dragon must have caught him with a powerful punch, for suddenly Ranma was sent flying backwards.

He hit the ground hard, but jumped back into the fray immediately. The Dragon had made good use of the opportunity, though, and caught him with an immense blast of fire. Ranma screamed as the flames engulfed him, but to my amazement he came leaping through apparently unharmed, although most of his clothes were burned away. He hit the Dragon full on the chin with a powerful kick that snapped his head back and sent him staggering. The Dragon glared at him and snarled, "Time to end this, boy!" Ranma's hands blurred toward the Dragon, who barely managed to catch his wrists. Then, suddenly, the two just stood there, unmoving.

I blinked, and looked toward Cologne. "What's happening?"

Her eyes remained fixed on them as she replied, "The Dragon is attempting the 'reflective resonance' technique. We will know in a few seconds if Ranma can master it swiftly enough to have a chance."

I watched Ranma and the Dragon stand motionless as the seconds ticked by. Presumably they were engaged in a life-or-death struggle, but there was no evidence of it. Except - I noticed a low-pitched humming noise on the very edge of audibility. I couldn't pinpoint it at first, but as it rose in pitch, I noticed a faint glow appearing around the two fighters. "Are that glow and that humming caused by what they're doing, ma'am?"

Cologne turned and looked at me, her eyebrows rising in surprise. "You can actually see it, even without being attuned to sensing ki? Amazing. The energy level must be even higher than I thought." Her brows contracted as she added, "The die is definitely cast, now. At this point, the discharge would kill at least one of them, even if they tried to disengage."

The glow grew brighter, and brighter still. Now something else was happening. Ranma's figure began to flicker, as he started changing spontaneously from male to female and back again. The period between transformations grew shorter, until Ranma seemed to be caught in a strobe light, even as the glow became almost too painful to bear. Suddenly a flash of light brighter than the noontime sun left me trying to blink away the afterimages burned into my retinas. When my vision finally cleared, everyone was running toward a solitary figure lying on the ground. When I got there, I found Ranma's fiancées kneeling by him, tears streaming down their faces. Catching a glimpse of him, I understood why. By some irony, cruel or kind, his face was untouched, but below.... His legs were so badly burned they seemed mere lumps of charcoal. The flesh on his chest had blackened and cracked to expose his ribs. The smell of charred meat was so strong I nearly gagged. By some miracle, he still breathed, though how his lungs could work I was unable to imagine, and after a few moments he even managed to open his eyes.



"Ran-chan! Are you -" Ukyo choked, unable to go on.

"Am I what, Ucchan? Okay?" Ranma said with the ghost of a chuckle. "Not so's you'd notice. I guess I'm in shock, which is good, because when I start feeling again, I'll be dead in no time. Now listen up, everybody, I ain't got much time. When I was linked with the Dragon, we got real close. He learned a lot of stuff about me, and I got even more from him. When he knew he was going to lose, he decided to go out with a bang by letting his heart's fire go all at once. I had to stop him, 'cause it would have taken out a couple square miles of the city. Using the Phoenix Pill, I was able to keep that from happening. Only problem was, I had to absorb it all myself. I did learn a lot of stuff, though, and I gotta tell somebody before it's too late. One thing first."

His eyes shifted to me, a depth in them that I had never seen before. "Hikaru."

"Y-yes, Ranma."

"Remember." That was all he said to me, but I thought I knew what he meant.

"I will," I promised him. At the time, I thought it would be hard for me to do anything else.

His eyes left me, and roamed the circle of faces around him. "I should probably make some big speech, with something to say to each one of you, but frankly, I ain't gonna live that long. I need to talk to a few people alone now. Happosai, Cologne, Akane, Ucchan, Shampoo, Mom and Dad, hang on a sec. The rest of you, all I can say is goodbye, and thanks for being my friends."

We left them alone, and stood a small distance off. I watched as he talked to Cologne and an unusually subdued Happosai first. After a few minutes, the two old martial artists left and walked back toward us. When they approached, Ryoga asked, "What was it? What did he tell you?"

Cologne didn't even look up as they passed us, but Happosai glanced toward us long enough to say, "We're going to make preparations for Ranma's funeral."

I watched them go, chilled by his bleak pronouncement. It wasn't supposed to be this way, was it? Ranma had won. Things could go on the way they always had, right? No. Nothing would ever be the same, I was beginning to realize.

Now Genma and Nodoka Saotome approached. Mr. Saotome held his wife's arm to guide her as she stumbled along, for she was blinded by the tears spilling down her face, though she made not a sound. His face bore a stunned expression, and he seemed twenty years older than before.

I looked back to the girls kneeling around their fallen fiancé, in time to see Ukyo lean over and kiss Ranma's lips gently. Shampoo followed suit, and finally Akane kissed him. They paused a moment, their heads bowed, then stood up, and I knew that Ranma was dead.

The three girls came toward us. I don't know what I expected - a storm of tears, wailing, hysterics perhaps, anything but what I saw. They walked in a line, Akane in the middle, flanked by Shampoo and Ukyo, all wearing the same remote expression. Even when they stopped and looked at us, I had the feeling none of them really saw us; all their attention was focused elsewhere.

"Ryoga, Mousse," Akane said quietly. "Please bring Ranma back to the house." Turning to the rest of us, she said, "The funeral will be held this evening at our house. You are all invited, of course. Hikaru, perhaps you could invite the Kunos."

I nodded numbly, and reflected on life's little ironies. Not long ago the fact that Akane had spoken to me would have sent me into transports of delight, but then, not long ago, I would have rejoiced at the thought of Ranma's demise. Now, confronted by harsh reality, I felt bereft and diminished.

I left then, unable to bear the sight of the two boys about their grisly work, and went home in a daze. I told my mother that I was going to study at a classmate's house that evening, and left her pleased that I was finally making friends. If only she knew, I remember thinking. I sat at my desk, an open book before me, and stared blindly into space the rest of the day. I can't tell you what I thought about; rather I could, but it would take far more time and space than any of my thoughts would merit. So passed the afternoon.

As evening approached I roused myself for the trip to the Kunos. I had put it off until the last moment because I was not looking forward to it at all. It was as bad as I had feared. Tatewaki, although he expressed his sorrow at his rival's end, could not contain his elation at the thought that both his loves would now be free to return his affection.

"I must make haste to stand beside them, in this their hour of need," he nobly declaimed. "Too long have I let concealment, like a worm i' the bud, feed on my damask cheek. They must know that there is one who waits to comfort them, who has long worshipped them from afar. Now is the time to make clear the depths of my devotion!"

I felt physically ill. Had I ever been that obsessed, that blind? I hoped not, though I feared so.

As for Kodachi....

"You lie!" she hissed, tightening her grip upon my throat. "Ranma is not dead! This is all some trick of those three sluts to keep him for themselves! Ranma can't die!"

I was feeling light-headed now from lack of air, but I managed to croak out, "I was there. I saw it. If you go to the Tendos', you can see for yourself!"

She let go of me and I dropped to the floor with a painful thump. I glared at them both as I got up. Normally I would never have had the nerve to stand up to them, but I was really annoyed at their idiocy, and still in shock from Ranma's death. "Listen to me, you two! We're going to a funeral now, and you'd better behave. However you felt about Ranma, whether you loved him or hated him, he meant a lot to the people there. Kuno, if you're fool enough to start hitting on Akane at the funeral of her fiancé, you deserve whatever happens to you, and I can guarantee it won't be pretty. Kodachi, you'd better watch yourself around those three. They all loved Ranma in their ways, and I don't think they'll take too kindly to any of your nonsense."

When I realized what I had said, I cringed, expecting to be in severe pain at any moment. For some reason, though the Kuno siblings both gazed at me in utter astonishment, they said nothing more, but went and got ready. I stood in the hallway and waited for them, marveling at the fact that I was still alive, without even any broken bones. When they finally returned, garbed in suitable attire, we set off.

Tatewaki strode ahead, doubtless rehearsing the speeches he would make to woo his darlings. At least he spared us a preview. Kodachi and I trailed along behind in silence. After a time, she said to me, "Is it really true?"

I nodded somberly.

She walked a little further. "We only ever went on one date," she said forlornly. "I knew he didn't love me, but I always hoped that one day...." She looked at me. "I'm not really a bad person, am I? He could have come to love me in time, couldn't he?" she asked, her voice breaking.

My hesitation was only momentary. "Yes, I think he could have." And the sun might rise in the west tomorrow, I thought. I didn't say it, though. In her own confused way, she had loved Ranma, too. She would be in enough pain this evening, without my adding to it. The fact that it kept me from suffering any more pain also figured into my discretion.

We arrived at the Tendos' house just as the sun began to set, and were ushered into the backyard by Kasumi. There I was surprised to see Ranma's body laid out on a pyre built of fragrant woods sprinkled with various type of incense. The aroma was powerful without being cloying. The same group that had witnessed Ranma's death was present here, all standing quietly together gazing at the body. Akane, Shampoo, and Ukyo stood together near the pyre bearing burning torches.

I looked around uneasily. This was an ill-assorted group for anything as serious as a funeral. Some here had loved Ranma; some had tried to kill him. None of them had been immune to his strange fascination. Yet all stood together, with the same air of muted sorrow and something else - a feeling of waiting, almost - expectation.

When Tatewaki caught sight of Akane, he headed straight for her. "Akane," he began.

He got no farther, for the three girls raised their eyes and looked at him, a look such as I hope never to see directed at me. It stopped his oratory in mid-word, and brought him to a standstill. It was not a look of anger, or reproof. It was more the way a scientist might examine a mildly interesting though rather ugly new species of beetle.

"Please go stand with the others," Akane told him calmly, in a voice so devoid of expression I felt a chill just hearing it. Kuno flinched visibly, and complied. Twice today his self-absorption had been pierced, I thought. I wondered if that had ever happened before.

Akane turned her gaze to Kodachi, but it was a warmer, more sympathetic one. "Kodachi, you may join us if you will," she said, holding out a torch. As one in a dream, Kodachi walked slowly to the pyre and looked down on Ranma's face. She reached out a hand and touched his cheek once, her hand visibly trembling, then turned and took the torch from Akane. The four girls stood round the body, one on each side of the pyre, and waited.

I found myself standing next to Dr. Tofu again. I murmured, "Is this actually legal? I mean, are they really going to cremate him right here?" The whole scene was so bizarre, and everyone was treating it so matter-of-factly.

Dr. Tofu glanced at me and said with an air of calm assurance, "Oh, yes. It's what Ranma wanted."

I blinked. That was his answer?

"No one will interfere tonight," he continued, "and in a few days it won't matter anyway." He gave no explanation for this interesting statement, and I did not get a chance to inquire further.

Nodoka Saotome stepped forward and gazed at us all silently as the setting sun dyed the sky in brilliant tints of crimson and gold. Her face was pale but composed as she said, "Someone once wrote, 'Heaven gives it favorites - early death.' I don't know if my son was one of heaven's favorites. I do know he died as he would have wished," her voice faltered, then continued, "though far sooner than all of us would have wanted. Don't grieve for him too much."

Her voice strengthened as she went on, "As the poet said, 'Nothing is here for tears, nothing to wail Or knock the breast, no weakness, no contempt, Dispraise, or blame,--nothing but well and fair, And what may quiet us in a death so noble.'

"Remember Ranma, until the turning wheel of fate brings us all together again." She bowed her head, and Akane nodded to the other torchbearers. They held out their torches and lit the pyre before stepping back a few paces.

I assumed we would all leave then, since the fire would burn for quite some time, but everyone remained where they were. I found out why when the pyre flared up all at once in a massive conflagration. I could only wonder if they had doused it with gasoline or something, and also why none of the neighbors were calling the fire department. In a few short minutes, to my amazement, the fire had completely burned itself out. The wood had apparently burned completely up, leaving nothing behind. The only thing left where the pyre had stood was a small heap of white ashes where the body had been. I couldn't understand what was happening. I knew that any normal cremation left bits and pieces of bone and such. Any fire intense enough to render a body to ashes as quickly as that should have set fire to the Tendos' house. Certainly we would have been unable to get anywhere near it. Yet I had felt no more than a momentary wash of heat such as you might get from opening an oven briefly. I looked around. Didn't anyone else find this as strange as I did?

Kuno appeared stunned, apparently still reeling from the look Ranma's fiancées had given him. Kodachi didn't seem to see anything for the tears filling her eyes. Everyone else bore the same look of abstraction I had noticed on the girls earlier that day. I shivered involuntarily and wondered what I had gotten myself into.

Akane, Shampoo, and Ukyo pulled out tiny whiskbrooms and swept up all the ashes into a small urn, which Akane then presented to Mrs. Saotome with a bow.

The three girls now approached us, still with that strange, remote expression. "The ceremony is over," Akane said quietly. "Thank you for coming." Then she paused, and the three looked at Kuno. It was not quite the same withering stare they had bent upon him earlier, but I still noticed beads of sweat breaking out on his brow as they held his gaze for a time, before they somehow released him, and he literally staggered back a few paces.

"Time for you to go," Shampoo said coolly. "You not ready - Shampoo think never be ready." Kuno turned and wordlessly departed, visibly shaken.

Next the three girls looked at Kodachi. She stared back bravely, but I noticed her fingers beginning to tremble. After a longer period of time, Ukyo said, almost sadly, "Time for you to go, also, Kodachi. You don't know yourself well enough. Seek your own peace." The younger Kuno hesitated a moment before leaving, a troubled expression on her fair features.

Finally, as I had expected, the three looked at me. Immediately, I understood why the Kunos had had such difficulties. Their gaze seemed to go right through me, searching out the hidden parts of my heart. My fears, my hopes, my fond dreams and my petty jealousies, all were revealed, it seemed, to those piercing eyes. I remembered a great many things, including much that I had tried to forget. How long it lasted I cannot say. After a moment or a year, the intensity of their regard slackened, and Akane said to me compassionately, "Time to go, Hikaru. A sacrifice is pointless if you don't understand what you may be sacrificing."

I felt a strong compulsion to depart, but resisted. Everyone was acting so oddly. I wanted to find out what was happening. "Akane, tell me something. What's going on? The way you three looked at us. The things you said. The way that fire burned.... And no one here is acting much like a mourner. You all seem more distracted than anything else, as if you were waiting for something. What am I missing?"

Akane looked at me for some moments; then her mouth twisted in an odd smile as she said,

"Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep."

I looked at her in confusion. "I don't understand."

Her smile turned sad as she said to me, "Perhaps you will in time. Now please excuse me, there are many things left to do. Goodbye, Hikaru." I could resist no longer. I went home, puzzling over the things I had seen, and mourning, in my own way, the death of Ranma Saotome.

That was the last time I saw Akane Tendo. Two days later, I heard that her father had sold the house and the dojo, taking quite a beating since he insisted on an immediate sale. The reason for the haste became apparent when it was found that the Tendos and the Saotomes had moved out, and disappeared, no one knew where. Nor were they the only ones. It was soon learned that Cologne, Shampoo, and Mousse had shut down the Nekohanten and gone. Ucchan's was closed as well, and Ukyo and Konatsu were not to be found; neither were Dr. Tofu and Miss Hinako. I don't know whether Ryoga and Akari left as well, or Happosai, but certainly no one has seen them, or any of the others, in Nerima since that day.

Astonishing events certainly, and I would have thought they would have been the talk of Nerima for many months afterward. Indeed, at first they were. I noticed as the days wore on, however, that gradually people talked about Ranma and the others less and less. When I would mention Ranma or Akane to one of my classmates, he or she would look at me in confusion for a few seconds before the metaphoric light went on. As time passed, that blank look lasted longer and longer. After a few months, people began complimenting me on the amusing stories I made up about our mythical former classmates. Soon, I stopped speaking about anything related to Ranma or the Tendos to anyone but the Kunos.

Yes, I was spending a fair amount of time with the Kunos. I was the only one willing to put up with Tatewaki's lamentations for Akane and the pig-tailed girl, and Kodachi's wild ramblings on the wonderful life she would have with Ranma when she found him again. I found it a relief to find two people who remembered things the way I did. Eventually, even this refuge failed me. Their father had moved back home, a much changed man. He still wore Hawaiian shirts, but he had lost his obsession with haircuts, and actually seemed like a fairly pleasant man. His children's behavior began to moderate as well. By the time a year had elapsed, Tatewaki was dating Mariko Konjo, now simply a cheerleader with no martial arts training, and was generally the most admired boy at school. He was much less pompous, and a good friend.

Kodachi - well, somehow I ended up dating Kodachi. I'm not sure how it happened - the best answer I can come up with is that as the Kunos forgot about Ranma, they needed some explanation for the time I'd been spending at their house. Somehow, it was decided, (how I have not a clue), that I'd been over there so much because I cherished a secret passion for Kodachi, a passion that she eventually came to return. Needless to say, this came as something of a surprise to me. I'd been rather afraid of Kodachi before, but now - well, she was quite beautiful, and there was a sad, lonely, somewhat bewildered air to her now that pulled at me. She knew that something was missing from her life; she just didn't know what. I seemed to help fill part of the void she was dimly conscious of. In short, she needed me, and I'd never been needed before. It didn't take long before I fell in love with her. I was worried for a time that she'd tire of me as she adjusted to her changed circumstances, but if anything our relationship only grew stronger, to the point where we got officially engaged upon our graduation from high school.

We went off to the same college together, and we've generally been very happy. It was somewhat stressful at times - her temper tended to be rather volatile, and she was subject occasionally to some alarming mood swings. At first, whenever we had a fight, I would still worry that this time would be the last, that this time she would leave me. When she realized this, it incensed her even more, and eventually I came to understand, with my heart as well as my head, that she truly cared for me, and that, whatever the basis of our relationship, it was solid enough to withstand the normal difficulties and upsets that came our way.

By this time I was the only one who remembered anything of Ranma, Akane and the others. Sometimes I wondered if I had dreamed it all, it seemed so improbable. Still, when I needed convincing, all I had to do was look at my photo albums, and the pictures I had taken that year. They appeared to be the only hard evidence left. By trading shamelessly on my relationship with the principal's daughter I had managed to get in to check the school records, and found that there was no information about Ranma, Ukyo, or any of the Tendos. I rather imagine that if I could have gained access to government files the result would have been the same. I remember wondering what would happen if I were to go over to China in an attempt to find Jusenkyo, or the village of the Joketsuzoku. Would I find nothing there at all, not even myths? Or would I perhaps find a simple, ordinary village, with more women on the local council than usual, and a small resort nearby famed locally for the healing properties of its water? I supposed it didn't really matter. All in all, I thought the whole business over and done with. As time passed, however, I noticed some things that concerned me.

Kodachi, for one. If I'd ever thought about what Kodachi Kuno would study in college for instance, I might have guessed chemistry, or perhaps botany. Instead, she took up art. She dabbled briefly in several different media before settling on painting. She was certainly talented, but her choice of subjects bothered me somewhat. She specialized in the still life - fruit and flowers in a bowl, that sort of thing. There was always at least one rose present, with large, dangerous thorns dripping blood. The paintings became more and more outre as time went on.

I recall one day in our second year, when Kodachi showed me her latest work. Menacing roses twined about a glass bowl, their dagger-like thorns leaving scarlet trails on the clear surface. The fruit within the bowl glowed in unearthly hues: emerald green raspberries; bright crimson grapes; and stranger objects with shapes and colors unlike anything in my experience. As I studied it, I noticed that a new element had been added. In the background, sketched in so faintly in the shadows as to almost escape notice, was the figure of a spectral horse.

Gazing raptly at the painting, Kodachi asked my opinion.

"It's beautiful," I replied honestly. "Your technique is wonderful."

She looked at me and raised an eyebrow. "But?" she said. "You seem to have something more to say."

I grimaced. She was getting to know me too well. "Well - I've been wondering - why are the roses dripping blood? Why is the fruit so strange? Where did the horse come from? Is this the way you see things, or is there some symbolism I'm missing?"

She looked surprised. "As for the flowers and the fruit, I just like the way they look. When most people paint a still life, they portray the stillness, but they fail to convey the sense of life. I try to show that even these humble things are teeming with life."

Teeming with life - yes, she conveyed that all right. Those roses in particular seemed to be writhing madly before my eyes. "What about the horse?"

As she turned her attention back to the painting, her face softened with a look of - yearning? "Horses symbolize so many things, don't they? The ocean, life, the male principle.... The shadow of a horse could also stand for just the opposite." She looked at me and smiled winsomely. "And I've always liked horses. My mother used to take me horseback riding, sometimes, before she died." Her smile drooped slightly. "I guess, after she died, that it reminded too much of her, so I stopped."

A pang of remorse ran through me at her expression. I'd mostly overcome my fear that she'd leave me anytime something went wrong, but I just couldn't bear seeing her unhappy. "Perhaps we could go riding sometime. I've never been, but," I said, putting on my best foolishly optimistic look, "it's probably not much different from riding a bike, right?"

As I'd hoped, her expression cleared, and she even laughed aloud. "I'm sure you'll have no trouble at all," she said impishly. Then, still smiling, she put her hand to my cheek and said softly, "Thank you, Hikaru. I'd like that very much." The surge of joy that rushed through me overwhelmed my fear that I might have gotten in over my head.

I generally try to forget our first few times at the riding academy. I didn't fall off - too much - but I was sore all over for weeks, and frankly I didn't see the appeal. Give me a bicycle any time; it'll do what you want it to without any coaxing. Kodachi, though - she took to the saddle as if she'd never been away. Even when I finally got the hang of it, she could ride circles around me, and did - literally. I didn't mind, nor did I mind the aches and pains when I saw how happy it made her. I nearly changed my mind, though, the first time we stayed out on the trail late in the afternoon.

We were riding along together, talking inconsequentially of the doings of the day, when Kodachi looked up and saw the western sky mantled in scarlet. She gasped and sat rigid for a moment, then spurred her horse and rode madly off toward the setting sun. I gaped at her for a few seconds, then rode in pursuit. I endeavored to keep her in sight, but I might as well have tried to outrun the oncoming night. I finally caught up with her at the fence marking the western edge of the academy's property. She was staring at the darkening sky with a look of such heartbreak that at first I was unable to speak. We sat side by side, the panting of our horses the only sound breaking the eerie stillness that sometimes envelops one at the end of the day.

Finally, I managed to say, "What's wrong?" My voice sounded so loud and jarring that I winced, but Kodachi didn't react at all.

I thought at first that she hadn't heard me, until she said, in a voice so low I had to strain to hear her, "I don't know. When I saw the sunset, it seemed that there was some place I needed to be, something I needed to find, and it was the most important thing in the world."

"Riding towards something, eh? That's a relief, I guess. For a little while I thought you were just riding away from me as fast as you could." I had intended the words as a joke and was startled to realize the genuine hurt that underlay them. Even now, the expression on her face tore at me. The sorrow, the neediness - there was something seriously wrong, something I had been oblivious to.

She turned and looked over at me, surprised and concerned. I had obviously revealed more of my feelings than I'd intended. "I'm sorry, Hikaru. I didn't mean to upset you. I wasn't even thinking. Believe me," she said, taking my hand, "the last thing I want to do is lose you. Then I really would have nothing," she concluded bleakly.

I returned some fairly innocuous answer, and we rode back together. After that, we generally made sure to end our rides before dusk; for some reason, it was only on horseback that she heard the sunset's siren call. I worried about it, of course, but what bothered me most was her statement to me afterwards. Why should someone with all Kodachi had feel that she had nothing? I considered talking to her father to get her some counseling, but in the end I did nothing. Even then I suspected that no ordinary therapy would get at the root of Kodachi's problem.

I might not have made quite so much of Kodachi's behavior, had it not been for what was happening to me. After we'd been at college for a while, I began having strange dreams; at least, I believed that to be the case. Now and again, I woke up of a morning, shaking with fear and longing, yet remembering nothing of the vision that had left me with those feelings. I placed pencil and paper on my bedside table at one point, hoping to be able to jot down something before the details faded completely from my slowly waking mind. The experiment was not an unqualified success. At first, I got nothing but illegible scribbling for my pains. After several weeks, I awoke one morning to find the following paragraph written down.

"I saw Tishnar again last night. I was crossing the Mountains of Arakkaboa, when I found myself pursued by Immanala, even Immanala and her nine-and-ninety hunting dogs sought me across the shadows. I fled from them, hearing always behind me the harp of Noomanossi, the Third Sleep. Thus did I run, in terror and despair, until, amidst the eternal snows, I saw her, gliding across the ground, clothed in robes of palest purple, her dainty feet shod in sandals of silver. She walked on, her face downcast, pale locks shrouding her features, as I stood transfixed, heedless of my pursuers. Then she stopped, and my heart beat strongly, strangely, within my breast, as slowly she began to raise her head. I trembled lest I should meet her gaze. I trembled lest I should not. The stars in their courses stood still as her eyes met mine - and then I awoke."

Evocative, perhaps, but not terribly informative, though it does recall the timeless instant when I gazed into Akane's eyes after Ranma's funeral. Still, it didn't tell me what disturbed my slumber that night, and all the others. I tried one other time and ended up with a sheet of paper with three words written on it, over and over: "Duke Aubrey returns." After that, I abandoned the attempt, and eventually, the dreams became less frequent, to the point that I have not had my sleep thus disturbed in five months.

I asked Kodachi once if she had had any odd dreams; at least, that was my intent; I actually said something like, "Did you sleep all right last night?" Unfortunately we were in the cafeteria at the time, my question was overheard and immediately misconstrued, Tatewaki heard about it and began threatening me with grievous bodily harm for defiling his sister, and so on. By the time everything was cleared up, I had firmly resolved never to bring up the subject of sleep or any activities that might take place during or in the stead of sleep until we were safely married.

Things eventually settled down. As I said, my dreams became less frequent. Kodachi gradually lost interest in riding - we still went out, but only once a month or so. Her paintings changed too over time. She still specialized in still lifes, but they came to look much more normal. The roses stopped dripping blood, and the shadowy horses faded away as well. I would have been somewhat more reassured if it hadn't been for one remaining oddity: in each picture, there was always at least one element left out or distorted. A table might be missing a leg. The perspective might be strangely skewed. Kodachi herself seemed all right, if perhaps a little more subdued than I was accustomed to. I didn't worry about it too much - I had to consider the decision that lay before me as we approached graduation.

After some vacillation, I had chosen to study foreign languages. I seemed to possess a certain aptitude; indeed, I became quite fluent in both Chinese and English. I found the study of other languages fascinating, especially trying to understand the differing cultures and world-views associated with them. As well, it was gratifying to find something I was good at - no, something that I excelled at; for the first time I really came to understand something of the way Ranma and the others had felt about the martial arts.

Although I enjoyed my studies for their own sake, with the encouragement of my instructors I began to consider my prospects for future employment based on the abilities and knowledge I had acquired. As I pondered my situation while we were back home for the break before beginning our final year, Kodachi's father asked to speak to me.

He greeted me in his study, and spent some time showing me his collection of Hawaiian souvenirs and artifacts while I made polite noises. After asking me to sit down, he began genially, "It's kind of you to humor an old man, Hikaru, my boy. I didn't really ask you here to bore you to tears with my little hobby. No, no," he said, holding up a hand to cut off my pro forma protests, "it shows your heart's in the right place. I'm glad to see you and Kodachi are getting along well; she withdrew into herself after her mother died, and you've managed to bring her out. Still, if you're planning to marry after you graduate, you need to consider how you're going to support her. From what she tells me, you're doing very well in your language studies. Now, though I wouldn't call our family wealthy, we do have a certain amount of influence in some of the companies we invest in, enough to help get you a job with one of their foreign subsidiaries, if you like."

I flushed slightly. "Thank you, Mr. Kuno. Kodachi mentioned that she thought you might be willing to do that. I really appreciate the offer, and I'll give it serious consideration. I should mention that I also have an offer from one of my professors to help me get a job with the government, in the Foreign Service."

He looked at me, eyebrows raised. "Interesting. Well, it's always a good idea to have more than one string to your bow. I can see that my daughter's future is in good hands. Please, let me know if there's anything I can to do to help."

So there was my decision. A job in industry, or a career in public service. One would pay better, certainly, with greater opportunities for advancement. The other, perhaps the chance to do some good, with more travel likely to be involved. I talked it over with Kodachi, but she wasn't much help.

"Which would you rather do?" she asked, turning my question back upon me as she frowned at the canvas she was working on. She'd cleared her collection of plants out of the sunroom for use as a studio.

I shifted a bit on the stool I was sitting on as I watched her paint. "I don't know. The one would mean more money. I might not be able to keep you in the style to which you've become accustomed," I said, managing a slight smile, "but I could come close."

"Hikaru!" she said, transferring her frown to me. "I don't want you worrying about that. As long as we have enough to get by, I'll be content. If we're going to quote cliches here, I'll just say that money can't buy happiness. And no one knows that better than I," she concluded with a melancholy air.

Her unusual docility slightly unnerved me. "Well, it's just that there's a good chance we might end up living abroad for a while. I'm worried about you, cut off from your family and friends, not speaking the language. It's a lot to ask."

Kodachi shrugged. "'Whither thou goest, I will go,'" she said softly. "I'll miss my family, but I've never really had any friends to speak of. Although," she put down her brush as her eyes seemed to focus on sights far beyond the confines of the room, "I have vague recollections of friends I had once, people who meant a great deal to me."

I stared at my fiancée, my mouth dry. When I had regained control of my voice, I croaked out, "What do you remember about them?"

"Nothing really," she said, in a distant voice. "Impressions more than anything else. I think they must have been some imaginary friends of mine from the period after my mother died. It's silly, I know," she apologized, coming back to earth, "missing people who never even existed."

"Not so silly as you might think," I muttered.

"At any rate," she continued, "you don't have to make up your mind immediately. My family's well off, and they could certainly support us for a while. We could even wait until," her voice faltered, and she blushed, "after our honeymoon."

I blinked. Smiling, I got up and put my arms around her. "I'm not sure that's a good idea," I said gravely. "If I don't have a job to get back to, I might never want to come back from that honeymoon."

She smiled up at me, and what happened after that is none of your business.

Kodachi's words stuck with me, though. As our last year wore on, I found myself prey to a growing dissatisfaction, none the less real for being rather nebulous. All I knew was that it was connected somehow with Ranma and the others, and our old high school days. Finally, I did something I hadn't done for nearly a year. I pulled out my old photo albums.

Up to this point I had thought I was immune to the strange forgetfulness that had affected everyone else. Now, however, as I looked through my photo albums, I found that I couldn't clearly remember the circumstances under which I had taken some of the pictures of Ranma and Akane. In addition, there were empty spaces in the album, where some photos had apparently been removed, by what or whom I could not guess. I found it difficult to recall the details of some of the adventures I had only heard about, and even the ones I had witnessed seemed to take on an aura of unreality in my memory. I didn't know what was happening, or what it meant, but for the first time, I feared I wouldn't be able to keep my promise to Ranma. It might seem odd to you, that I should worry so much about a one word command issued by a dying boy; all I can tell you is that, somehow, with that one word, Ranma had changed my life. Whatever I have, I feel I owe in some measure to him, and I would do almost anything rather than default on the task he charged me with. Therefore, after much thought, I evolved a plan.

I wrote to a certain manga creator I admired, and told her the outlines of the story of Ranma, describing it as a dream I once had. She agreed to consider a manga based on the ideas I mentioned to her. I asked for nothing in return, simply saying that I felt an odd compulsion to see this story in print. I have given her as much of the history of Ranma and the others as I can recall. Perhaps seeing the tales of those days in print will help keep them fresh in my mind. If not, I can only hope Ranma and Akane, wherever they are, will know that Hikaru Gosunkugi did his best to remember them, and to ensure that their story was not lost.

As I think back over the times that are gone, I wonder a little at the sadness that fills me. I'm happier now, in my 'normal' life. Kodachi and Tatewaki are happier too, I think. Even so - there was something in those days, some tang or savor, which is missing now. Maybe it's just part of growing up. (Maybe using phrases like "it's part of growing up" is a sign you're growing up.) The years of your childhood are usually golden in retrospect, right?

No, it's more than that. Ranma's coming had changed my view of the world forever. When the rain begins to fall, and there is no longer any chance that the person you pass on the street will become a panda, or a cat, or anything but wet, the whole world is diminished, a more lackluster and ordinary place, whether it knows it or not. With Ranma died much of the world's mystery for me.

Back then, I knew magic, real magic. Those were days of miracles and wonders, and I didn't realize it. I didn't appreciate it. Now they were gone. Did anyone else feel that loss? I did. Kodachi missed them, without even knowing what it was she missed.

And yet, if I could have those days again, would I? Even if the price was all that I have gained? For some things have become clearer in my mind, as my memories have dimmed. I think I understand what Akane was trying to tell me. There is a price. There is always a price.

Why do I worry so much about it? The past is gone, after all. The moving finger writes, and all that. Perhaps. I don't think that's the end of the story, though.

When I think back upon those final days, I can't help wondering about one thing. Ranma had taken the Phoenix Pill, and before he died it had come to full potency. Was it just a coincidence that they burned his body on the sort of pyre that - no, it sounds mad even thinking it. Yet I remember that Akane and the rest bore up under their grief very well. Could it be -? I don't know, and perhaps I never shall. But it may be possible to find out, if I dare, if I've pieced the clues together properly.

I ponder these things as I stand atop a small hill on the campus, beside a large fir tree, looking out over the town as the sky slowly darkens to a deep, velvety blue, and the lights below come on one by one. Standing there, I hear a voice behind me.

"So this is where I find you! You'd rather stand here gawking at the sky than spend time with a beautiful but lonely woman! Now I see how you really feel about me!"

Turning, I see Kodachi, as regal and imperious as ever she had been in her "Black Rose" days. I cringe as I recall, too late, that I had promised to meet her - gods, half an hour ago! "Uh, sweetheart, I'm so sorry, you see..."

She breaks down giggling, unable to maintain her haughty demeanor any longer. "Hikaru, you should see your face!"

I grin sheepishly. "Well, I really am sorry. I was just standing here, lost in thought, and I didn't realize how late it was getting."

"What are you thinking so hard about," she says, slipping her arm through mine. "Trying to decide what you're going to do when you grow up?"

"Hmm? Not exactly. Or at least, not just that." I hesitate. I need to talk to her about this, but how can I do it, when she wouldn't even understand what I was referring to?

"When we talk about leaving school," I finally say, "we say we're going out into the real world. That one out there," waving my hand toward the lights below us. "If you think about it, though, that's not really the real world, any more than school is. They're both a part of it, sure, but the world is a lot bigger place than that. On the other hand, isn't that necessarily true for anybody? Everybody has to choose a world to live in, and it's all those worlds together, plus many more, that make up the 'real world.' Is this making any sense, or am I just babbling?"

"And you wonder what world you should choose," she says quietly.

"It's not just me," I say. "This choice affects you too. Do I have the right to make that choice for you? Not even knowing what the outcome might be?"

We stand together in silence for a few minutes. I look over at her, and see that she has turned slightly to gaze at the sunset. Finally she says, "You have that right because I've given it to you."

Still watching as the reds and oranges deepened to purples, she goes on, "All we know of the world is what our imperfect senses tell us. None of us can really know the world in any other way. I think the thing to do is to choose the world where you can be happy."

"And what about you?"

She glances back at me, and smiles. "I'll be happy if you're there, no matter where we are."

I feel a tightness in my chest as those words drive my dilemma cruelly home. Will I be there? Will she?

"Two roads diverged into a wood," I murmur. Three, really, but two of those paths are basically the same. The third... take that path, and who knew what would become of us? Or what we would become? I sigh as I think of what was happening to me, of what has happened to Kodachi over the last couple of years. What would become of us if we took the more traveled paths? Time doesn't stand still. There are no answers, no guarantees, but then, there never are, for anyone.

I remember what Akane said. I know now, Akane. I know what I could be sacrificing. Do I have the right to make this decision by myself, for both Kodachi and me? If I do nothing, though, I'm still making the decision.

As the last arc of the sun descends below the horizon, its rays briefly illumine some far off object, which shines back for a moment with a silver flash as the twilight envelops us.

I wonder if Kodachi would like to honeymoon in China. Say, the Qinghai province.

The End

I'd like to thank the members of the Fanfic Mailing List who were kind enough to critique the initial versions of this story.

Authors quoted include, but are not limited to, Shakespeare, Milton, and Lord Byron. Works referred to include "The Three Mulla-Mulgars" by Walter de la Mare, "Lud-in-the-Mist" by Hope Mirrlees and "Battle Angel Alita".

Praises be to the great Rumiko Takahashi.