All around Happosai there appeared to be nothing but an endless void. It was not as though the master were truly afraid, but it reminded him all too much of the cave he had been sealed in for nearly a decade. In many ways it was worse. There was an absence of everything. There was no noise, nothing to touch, and no other physical sensations. He couldnít even smell anything. It was just the lack of any stimulus at all that was boring him to distraction.
The only pleasant thing about the experience was the flashbacks heíd had. The beautiful women of the past had been so numerous that even he had lost track of how many cuties there had been throughout his life. And then there was his second passion: the lingerie. Silky beauties had flooded his memories as well, several of his favorite pieces standing out in his mind. Teaching martial arts hadnít been so bad either. Especially when it came to fondling his favorite pair of breas… rather, he meant teaching his favorite pupil, Ranma. It was such a joy that a man in his twilight years could have so many bringing such happiness into his life.
He paused in his reminiscing to try to figure out why he was in the void. The last thing he remembered was saving all of the cuties in the world by screwing up Maelstromís wish. Then he had had a heart attack and the flashbacks began.
"Why of course!" he said, smacking his fist into an open palm. "That must mean Iím—"
"Dead," a sultry voice called out from Happosaiís left.
The old one turned in the direction of the voice to gaze upon his unexpected companion. His eyes nearly popped out of his skull when he saw the beauty before him. She was ravishing and tall, with skin as white as alabaster and a long main of flowing white hair that cascaded over her shoulders and down her back. She wore a tight black top and bottoms that covered only as much as a bikini. Tiny skulls adorned several places on both, and she wore black boots that molded themselves perfectly with her long, shapely legs. And the proportions of the woman were inhuman, from her enormous bust and narrow waist, right down to her washboard flat stomach. And those pupiless white eyes stared at him as though he were the only being in existence, looking upon him with a smug glare.
Happosai composed himself. "I am dead, arenít I?"
"Indeed," the woman answered him.
He glared and pointed an accusing finger at her. "That means youíre…"
"Death," she finished for him. "And that means you are in my—"
"—cleavage." ĎLadyí Death looked curiously at the creature now nestled in her generous bosom. "What do you think youíre doing?"
"So soft, so cold, yet so wonderful," was Happosaiís only response as he moved his head up and down, making as much surface contact as he could.
Death now looked at Happosai in confusion. "Donít you understand? I am the conceptual entity in charge of taking souls to the realms beyond. A thing of vast power. One of the primal forces in the universe. And you are… groping me."
"Donít worry," Happosai murmured happily from his position. "I wonít hold it against you."
Death looked down at the spirit that continued clutching her bosom. "God was right. You are the greatest pervert that has ever lived."
"Thanks," he said as he continued to glomp away.
Death sighed, making Happosai all the happier at the expansion. That pleasurable sound was all she needed to make her next decision.
"I think youíve adapted to the idea of being dead quite well," Death said as a gateway of light appeared before her. "Itís lucky for you Heaven understands sacrifice. Otherwise you wouldíve gone somewhere less… nice. Off you go."
Happosai didnít even bother to pry his face out of the cleavage.
"I said you can go."
He still didnít move.
Happosai at last pulled his face out of her bosom and turned to look in the light. It had been no lie. Before him lay clouds filled with some of the most beautiful creatures he had ever seen. He was gone in an instant.
"Help! Iím being molested!"
"Ahh! Weíre being invaded by demons!"
"Call out a squad of Spawn Hunters! Weíre under attack!"
"It looks more like a bug to me! Let me at him!"
"Nice shot, Skuld."
*SNIFF* "Is that anyway to treat a kindly old man?"
"Oh, no! You are an old man. Iím sorry! I thought you were a bug."
"Thatís okay. A sweet little creature such as yourself should… HOT MAMA!!!"
"Urd, there seems to be a pervert attached to your chest."
"Hmm. He seems kind of familiar. Happosai, right?"
"Wait a minute! I know you! Back around twenty-eight, wasnít it?"
"Yes, it was. And do you remember what I said I would do to you if you ever came near me again?"
"You said youíd—"
Death closed the gateway at that point, shutting out the cries of pain that followed. Maybe Heaven was closer to Hell for Happosai than she had thought. At least the matter was thankfully out of her hands. All the problems now belonged under Heavenís jurisdiction, allowing Death to wonder if that realm was ready for the situation. Certainly it was unlikely that it was prepared for a pervert of that magnitude.
With a sigh, she turned away. Maybe it was time to get an avatar, like so many other conceptual entities seemed to possess, and avoid a lot of hassles. And thinking of which, there was someone with whom she was going to have to put in a Ďpersonalí appearance when she visited…
"The Protector has been saved," The Seer informed Lord Alderan.
It took every ounce of restraint he possessed not to hug the revered figure before him. So long as the Earth remained intact, the one who was prophesied would come at his appointed time and save the empire. At least that was what all of the religious texts claimed. And with The Seer herself backing up the claim… well, that was good enough for him.
The Seer turned towards the form of the prostrated man before her and spoke. "I will wait in my chambers until I am ready to cross The Great Divide once more." And with that she turned on her heel and left the room.
She continued on to the place set aside for her own personal use. Her path was straight, never meandering or pausing to look down some side passage. She went from Point A to Point B, just as she had always done for all but thirteen years of her existence. She knew all that could happen, so why consider paths she could never take?
The Seer entered the plain, stone chamber, sat down upon the simple rock chair that had been built specifically for her own form, and waited. In one weekís time she would rise and travel to a place called Ranoth. Her destiny was to inform a simple farmer to leave his fields and take up the sword for his people. In twenty years time he would train the boy who would most likely unite his planet under one rule, at least he would when she returned to that world forty-five years later. Such was the path that lay before her as she tried to ensure the course that would most likely prolong the most possibilities of Fateís web.
She sat unmoving, aware of the fact she would have visitors, at most, three times before she left. The first that could make an appearance would be in four days time, depending on what he told his wife at dinner the next evening. Being aware of everyoneís destiny left no room for surprises.
"There are questions I need answered, Seer."
The Seer fell out of her chair in shock. She turned to see a nine-foot tall figure, adorned in completely black robes, standing behind the chair as though it had appeared from out of nowhere. The hood was pulled forward so that its entire face was shrouded in impenetrable darkness, like the upper portions of the Seerís own face. The only thing that was different was the two red glows that were at the place were eyes should have been.
"Wh… who?í was all she could get out.
"Can you not guess?" it said in a raspy voice.
The voice, despite its menacing tone, served to relax her. She now knew who her mysterious visitor was. It all made sense, really. Conceptual entities, as well as their agents, had the ability to mask themselves from Fate, and its tool, the Seer herself, when they so chose.
A smile filled with hope erupted in her face. "Is it at last my time?"
"No," Death answered. "Your time will come when it comes."
Her shoulders slumped forward in defeat. How tragic that she could see anyoneís possible end but her own.
"I have questions for you," Death said bluntly as he looked into her eyes, piercing the darkness few others could.
"Why donít you ask Fate directly?" she said aloud. Death certainly had the ability to do that. Any conceptual entity could confront another one. Technically Death ranked higher than Fate in the hierarchy, making it highly unlikely any request would be denied.
"Because I choose to talk to you," Death responded, and the Seer knew she would have to answer the questions as best as she could.
"Why was I not informed of the possible resurrection of Xian Pu?"
So that was what the meeting was about. At least she had an answer for that. "That was an oversight. Recent events had caused quite an upheaval with Fate recently. With the survival of the Shogun of the Dark, Maelstromís reawakening had become a distinct possibility. If Maelstrom had successfully awakened and made his wish without interference, the odds were very good that he would have survived the next five thousand years and made another wish. The second wish would have made him a true god, however he would not have dealt with his newfound abilities very well. He would have been driven insane from the experience in less than two thousand years. After that point there was a substantial chance he would have obliterated the entire universe within the next twenty thousand years. There was a six percent chance of total obliteration. A terrible risk that could bring about the end of Fate itself."
Death nodded his head, as much an indication she should continue as in understanding.
"Fate had to take steps to ensure that path would not come to pass." The Seer let out a sigh of relief. "The best chance to prevent it was to somehow engineer the death of the Shogun of the Dark. To this end I employed many different schemes to insure such a course, including the most useful, the magical lifeform called Jusenkyou."
"I know that thing," Death informed her. "It died recently."
"Yes. That was its irrevocable fate after the Great Grondís death. Long ago I gave it the ability to see all of the paths that might affect its existence. In turn, it provided a means for which to prolong most of the pathways that aided in preserving existence. One of those paths it was supposed to take was influencing the death of the Shogun of the Dark. There was less than a one out of a thousand chance of the Shogunís survival."
"But he survived until a little while ago." Deathís voice carried no emotion as it simply stated facts once again.
The Seer hesitated. The fact that there was no indication that this conversation should even be taking place disturbed her. She was supposed to know everything. "Yes. Well, unlikely things happen all the time."
"You still have not told me about Xian Puís survival."
"I was getting to that." The longer the conversation went, the more uncomfortable the Seer felt. Best to finish up as quickly as she could. "When Jusenkyou realized the Shogun survived, it employed a number of curses to affect those that might disrupt the plans of the Shogun. All had poor chances of success, but one of the worst was one that, while not enabling Jusenkyou to survive, could avenge its destruction afterward. So it cursed Xian Pu on the offhand chance she would be in the right place at the right time to prevent Maelstrom from gaining his power. It really was the last chance to change the course Maelstrom was trying to set for himself before his wish. Any attempts at preventing his second wish for power would have been even more dismal. It all came down to her knocking Gemma into the pit, which then assured that Happosai alone would be present with Maelstrom and ruin any chances of achieving ultimate power. If she had failed, Happosai would have been incapacitated, the Shogun would have still been alive upon completion of the spell, and he would have been the one the Dragon King talked to, ensuring Maelstromís rise to power.
"But that did not happen, as impossible as it seems. The odds of Xian Pu making it that far were extraordinary. There were more than a dozen times it would have been far more likely that she would have been prevented from traveling to China or killed before arriving at Mount Phoenix and her inevitable death. There were even a couple of occasions where her path was obscured by an area of gray and I could not see what would happen. I have yet to figure out that unexplained phenomena, but in spite of that she somehow ended up at Mount Phoenix anyway. Quite astounding, really."
"You still have not yet told me why I was not informed of her resurrection," Death reminded her.
"Sorry. The Web of Fate rarely lends itself to simple explanations. As terrible as the chances were that Xian Pu would arrive at Mount Phoenix to die, the odds of Ranma Saotome actually succeeding in reviving her were infinitesimally smaller. That he should have survived his fight with Gemma, resolved himself to try to bring her back, used the Focus in such a way as to allow it to find the Heart of the Earth, not be consumed by the power he wielded, and that his love for her was strong enough to be willing to risk everything was as near to impossible as could be. It was so obscure that Fate did not deem it worth mentioning since so many other plans had to be laid to prevent Maelstromís rise to power."
"Yet it did happen," Death said, the voice taking on a more hollow quality.
"Ah, yes. It did, didnít it?" The Seer answered nervously.
The red glow from under the hood seemed to bore straight into the Seer. "I will be informed of every possible resurrection, no matter how small the chance will be. I will not be caught off guard again. Releasing an essence back to life is bad enough, but to have to do it unprepared is unacceptable to me."
The tone Death used brooked no argument. The Seer would inform Fate of the command.
"By the way," Death said in less menacing tones. "The gray areas were caused by Oblivionís agent, the thing calling itself Mr. Domino. It has been making a nuisance of itself of late by passing through my realm. No doubt it was trying to shift the Web of Fate towards universal obliteration."
"I donít see how," The Seer said doubtfully. "Oblivion should have no knowledge of its part, save when Fate informs it of when the pattern has already moved to a course which allows Oblivion to act."
"Nevertheless, that appears to be what happened." Death turned away. "Unless the Almighty himself has authorized it, Oblivion overstepped its boundaries. There will be a price to pay for that."
And with that Death vanished, leaving the Seer alone with only silence as her companion once again. However the situation was going to be dealt with was beyond her concerns; the forces of the universe did as they willed. The only thing that truly bothered her was Oblivionís seemingly detailed knowledge of the Web of Fate. The boundaries were clear between the conceptual entities, and technically only opposites like Chaos and Order, or Eternity and Death could Ďdisagreeí with one another as each vied for control over its realm of influence. Oblivionís opposite was Infinity, not Fate, so how had it gained access to what could be?
It mattered little. What would be would be, and she had to travel in a week. After four thousand years through a mind that gauged time as any mortal would, it would pass far more quickly than she cared. Then it would be on to the next destination. And then the next. And then the next…
The Realm of Oblivion:
The thing that called itself ĎMr. Dominoí peered into the vast nothingness that was Oblivion. He had come back from that lack of existence to serve that which had destroyed him when he had been, well, non-obliterated, for lack of a better term. He had believed that having a form was everything, then he learned what it meant to cease to exist, and now quite willingly served that force which had gone on to claim him. Now he was an avatar of one of the forces that made the universe work. He was an elaborate tool, just like he had been when he had truly been alive. The more things change…
The only reason he had been allowed to exist again was because he had a use to the conceptual entity. A unique viewpoint on the totality of the future that only he and one other that still lived held. All the others that came before him, all of those others that had been given the dubious Ďgiftí he had been granted, were dead. Now there was one alive that possessed it, and no other. He should not still have had the vision, but he did. No doubt some kind of loophole in the way the universe worked.
Obliteration, ironically, gave him a second chance, and now that leftover talent served one who could conceivably destroy everything. It didnít matter though. What Mr. Domino did now was not all that different from what he did before, save that he was more powerful.
Yes. Being The Seer in his previous existence had been difficult. Being an agent of Oblivion was far easier. Until now. When he would have to explain what had happened.
"Iím afraid the plan didnít work after all. Two of the pawns on the board managed to overcome the king," he said to the void before him. His mind pictured his form of communication as speech, but that wasnít true. It was just his interpretation of how he passed the information to Oblivion. Speaking was somehow reassuring. And as to the Ďpawns,í meaning Shampoo and Happosai, and the Ďkingí, meaning Maelstrom, Oblivion understood that as well.
"We shall have to try again," he continued. "There wonít be an opportunity as hopeful as this one in a while, but we do have as much time as we need to achieve your desires. There will be other chances."
Oblivion must not have been too displeased; Mr. Domino still existed.
The Ďgameí involving Maelstrom might have been over, but Domino had made one final move before moving on to start another game somewhere else across the universe. He cleared his throat to mention it to his master. "I will let you know that, in a gesture of petty vengeance, I have probably engineered the death of two of the crucial elements that foiled the plan. I couldnít work in obliteration for them, but neither of their paths take them near any such possibilities. Sorry."
Still he existed. Oblivion was obviously not displeased with that action either. Of course, Mr. Dominoís assistance in directing Herbís future course of action might be irrelevant. After all, that was just one thread that the agent of Oblivion had helped to influence. There was a good chance that Shampoo and Ranma would die on their own, without Dominoís interference. It seemed the odds of their lives being intertwined with the possibility of death were plentiful. In fact, they were in the middle of one such junction now. Life on one path, death on the other. An even chance in this case. It all fell to who made the Ďcorrectí choice. Would it be Shampoo and Ranma, or would it be…
"Gemma!" Ranma shouted out in shock and anger.
Chapter 40: The Breaking of the Circle
A Ranma ½ story
by D.B. Sommer
Disclaimer: Ranma ½ and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video.
All comments and criticisms appreciated. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
"Surprise." Gemma grinned in return.
The surprise of whom her opponent truly was left an opening for Gemma to exploit. He was on Ranma-chan in an instant with a series of fists and kicks into the smaller girlís body. Ranma-chan felt each blow impact painfully into her ribs and chest. The few blocks she managed were inconsequential, as Gemma used his superior strength to power through her defense. Just as quickly as the attack had begun it stopped, leaving a horribly beaten Ranma-chan to stare at the space where her attacker had been. Immediately she saw why the Devilís attack had stopped so abruptly.
Shampoo-kun had regained his footing and tried to attack Gemma. The first couple blows landed solidly and were delivered with enough force to catch Gemmaís attention. Like Ranma-chan, Shampoo-kun was still drained from coming back from the dead. He moved far too slowly, and the pain from Gemmaís initial strikes hurt more than they would have under any other circumstances. The high kick he leveled at Gemmaís head was easily caught, and the Devil used his superior leverage to throw the Amazon into the floor with enough force to break several of the floorboards.
Ranma-chan fought through her own pain and connected with a punch into the kidneys. The redhead was quick enough to avoid the first backfist thrown at her, and followed up with a kick into Gemmaís stomach. Far from enough to slow him down, Gemma struck out once again, catching Ranma-chan fully in her left breast with a punch. There was no chance to follow up as Shampoo-kun was upon him again, trying to punch him in the throat.
Gemma blocked the attack and hit the Amazon in the face once more. He was delighted to see blood flowing from a cut above the eye from one of the first attacks with the metal rod. He pulled his punch as he struck Shampoo-kun in the same spot that the open wound was, intending not to knock his opponent out, but to simply cause the blood to flow more freely. The more blood spilled, the better.
Gemma stood back a moment to evaluate the condition of his two opponents. Both were little more than pale shadows of the duo he had fought in the halls of the mountain. He probably need not have bothered with disguising himself, but it had been such a joy to see the look of shock and defeat in their eyes from the ineffectual nature of the Ďcursed water.í Now he had a chance to revel in his victory over his opponents. They were going to know true pain before he killed them.
"Youíre probably wondering how I survived that mountain being blown up." He allowed Shampoo-kun to hit him once in the face. No need to crush hope too quickly. "It wasnít easy. I was falling quite a ways, and having Zakuraís heart blow up once I hit probably would have kept me from reforming for close to ten minutes, and thatís not to mention how annoying it would have been to be buried alive."
He allowed Shampoo-kun to connect two more times, interrupting the explanation, before kicking the Amazon in the chest and throwing him against a far wall once again. "I had no intention of being buried one moment longer than I had to. I already went through that particular pleasure once. Never again." He dodged a kick by Ranma-chan and afforded her a few blows. "I realized as I was falling, that it would be far better to get rid of that heart beforehand. So rather than impact with it, I threw it to the bottom of the pit before I crashed. The explosion actually served to slow down my decent somewhat. And more importantly, it blew up a side of that damned pit. The hole was large enough to allow me, once I healed the broken bones, into the corridors of the mountain itself. By that time I sensed something was going wrong, and chose to exit the mountain rather than risk being buried alive."
He snapped a punch to Ranma-chanís head, getting her out of the way just in time to deal with the returning Amazon. "By the time I got out of the mountain, I saw the energy storm above it. I decided to gain some distance until I could see what was really going on. I was several miles away when the mountain itself exploded. Quite impressive, really." He said the last through gritted teeth and struck Shampoo-kun with a number of punches and kicks. Gemma took note of how pathetic the Amazonís defenses were. Both he and Ranma-chan were little more than insignificant gnats now, and each was getting slower by the second. They didnít even have enough left to retort to his bragging.
Anger began to fill his veins. It was time to really punish them, for their deeds. He ignored Shampoo-kun for a moment to strike Ranma-chan with a combination of blows that left her prone on the floor.
Gemma then turned to his remaining opponent with his full anger; the one truly worthy of all of the pain he was about to inflict. "You managed to destroy everything! I could have ruled Japan!" He deflected the painfully slow combination of blows aimed at him from the Amazon. "You are the one responsible! If you hadnít tackled me into that damn abyss, I would have crushed the heart, blown all of you up, the Shogunís plan would have gone off without a hitch, and Iíd be lording it over the fools in charge there now. But no!" He unleashed a full strength punch at Shampoo-kun, powering right through the attempted block and causing the Amazon to go down to one knee. "You ruined everything! Now Iíll get my pound of flesh."
"Shogun… mad," Shampoo-kun got out through a nearly broken jaw. "Wanted… everyone dead."
"Then allow me to admit you did me a favor and repent my ways." Gemma bowed before Shampoo-kun, surprising the Amazon for a moment. Had Gemma really believed him, as impossible as it seemed?
What obscure wishes he had were answered when Gemma unleashed yet another blow into Shampoo-kunís chest. He delighted at the expression of pain the youth gave at the blow. "For some reason I find that difficult to believe. And even if it were true, I would have dealt with him in time. But now weíll never know, since you killed him!"
The upraised fist Gemma had never connected with its intended target as a pair of hands slammed into both sides of his head, directly over the ears. The pressure change caused his eardrums to explode, stunning him for a moment.
"Iíll kill you!" Ranma-chan spun Gemma around, unleashing a savage attack. She tried not to think as she reached up and drove her finger into Gemmaís eyes, then brought a fist into his throat, crushing his windpipe. She concentrated on what the last Devil of Kimone was doing to Shampoo-kun. No mercy. Ranma-chan knew she had to show no mercy. The animal didnít deserve any. But when she caught sight of his injuries she paused for just a moment, disgusted as she saw the ruin the Devilís face had become.
That opening was all Gemma needed as he blindly lashed out and struck Ranma-chan in the side, driving her back and allowing him the moments he needed to heal the wounds. "Thatís it," he said as he brought about a series of attacks that left her nearly unconscious on the floor.
"As to what I am doing here." He paused a moment to look over his handiwork. "It was nothing more than luck that I came across that Guide on his way from the mountain. When I asked him what he was up to, he was kind enough to explain the situation to me, with a little persuasion, anyway. He was so informative I decided to let him live. And once I heard about the curses, I knew it was you he was getting the cure for. So I took his place and substituted ordinary water in the stead of the magical. Surprising, wasnít it?"
It was time to finish things up. Once more he turned to Shampoo-kun and picked him up, hurling the boy into a pile of shelves, which then collapsed on top of Shampoo-kunís nearly unconscious form. Weakly, the Amazon tried to move the shelves, but they wouldnít budge. Gemma allowed the boy to see the grim smile that grew on the Devilís face.
Once again Gemma moved to Ranma-chan. He picked her up by the throat, just as he had done in the mountain before. The smaller girl fought back weakly, but Gemma shook the blows off with little effort. He looked to Shampoo-kunís struggling form as the girl in his grasp continued to struggle.
"Watch as the love of your life dies before your eyes while you lie there, helpless. Know that in defeating me, you assured a painful death for you and your loved ones. Iíll hunt them down and kill them all one by one. Thanks to you, I now have the time to do it!"
He could have broken Ranma-chanís neck with ease, but the death had to be delivered slowly. Shampoo-kun had to be made to watch his lover die by inches. Gemma had to show him the pain he felt at being denied his dreams of conquest.
Ranma-chan struggled helplessly in Gemmaís grasp. Slowly the vice that was Gemmaís grip grew tighter, cutting off the flow of air into her lungs. It was exactly like back in Mount Phoenix, only worse. She was out of strength and too weak to mount any kind of offense. There was no leverage to be had, no way of forcing Gemma to release his grip. Hopelessness began to overwhelm her.
Inspiration flashed as it occurred to Ranma-chan that there might be a chance. Her own chi was practically gone, but she had managed to draw chi from the earth before. Perhaps it would work again. It was the only option she could think of.
As she tried to remember what it was she had done before to gain that power, spots began to dance before her eyes. Oxygen deprivation was beginning to take its toll as her concentration began to falter. She was uncertain of exactly what she was doing, but her senses seemed to shift as she began to feel all of the chi around her. From the land itself was nothing more than a dull glow, but from Gemma, that was an altogether different case. He was bursting to the seams with chi, appearing almost like a shining star to Ranma-chanís altered senses. It made sense, considering Gemma could regenerate almost instantly from any wound. His chi had to have been what Ďfueledí the ability. But there was a sense of unchecked fury to it. It ran wild and uncontrolled through his body.
There was hope then. If Ranma-chan could steal some from Gemma, she might have a chance. There was one point on the Devil that was brighter than the others. It was hard to tell if it was real or if it was one of the spots coming from the lack of oxygen. She had precious few moments before there would be no strength left to act. Then darkness would follow, a darkness that would never end.
Concentrating was becoming impossible, so she focused her chi in such a way that she believed it might somehow transfer some of Gemmaís into her. She focused the power on her right hand and brought it forward, trying with what little strength remained to hit the spot in the middle of Gemmaís chest. The first blow struck home, yet nothing happened. Instinctively Ranma-chan knew it had not been powerful enough, so she tried harder, the palm thrust connecting on target. Still nothing happened.
It was useless. Without any leverage she would never be able to hit with enough force to affect Gemma. And as that last thought went through her mind, the world went back.
A cry of pain cut through the darkness and oxygen flooded Ranma-chanís lungs once more. Vision returned as she found herself slumped on her hands and knees to the ground, gasping for more air. The cry had come from Gemma, whose arms were clutching at something on his back.
The move left Gemma wide open for the attack. Ranma-chan summoned all of her remaining strength, forcing the remaining chi she could spare to her hand as she thrust forward, hoping to hit the spot and reenergize herself.
For the third time the blow hit the mark. She left her hand on Gemmaís chest, waiting for the flow of chi to go from the large man to her…
…and received a backfist to the face for her troubles, sending her sprawling next to Shampoo-kun.
With a grunt of pain, Ranma-chan regained her feet, placing herself between the still pinned Shampoo-kun and Gemma. There was nothing else she could do now. She had no more strength left to even throw a punch. There were no more options.
Gemma at last stopped writhing and removed the cause of his pain. It was a long metal spike, the kind that was used to stake things to the ground, that Shampoo-kun had thrown from his prone position. The move that had served to release Ranma-chan from the Devilís grip now served only to add fuel to the Devilís anger.
Gemma held the spike before him as he brought his hand up to the spot Ranma-chan had struck. "Since you like to spear things so much, I think Iíll use this to pin you to the ground," Gemma threatened. "Then you can watch as I break your girlís limbs one at a time. Wonít that be ni—"
Gemma stopped abruptly as he began to scratch wildly at the spot Ranma-chan had struck him. At first he had not realized he had been itching at it, but now minor irritation had been replaced by a burning sensation within the chest itself. It took Gemma a moment to realize what the cause of the problem had originally been.
"YOU!!!" he shouted. "What did you do to me?!"
Ranma-chan was at a loss. What she had tried to do didnít work. So what was Gemma complaining about?
Gemma took a step forward, pure rage smoldering in his eyes. "You will undo it now. Or Iíl—" the rest of the threat was cut off as by a scream of pure agony as blue fire suddenly erupted from Gemmaís chest.
Ranma-chan and Shampoo-kun both looked on with a mix of revulsion and fascination. The blue fire slowly increased in size, causing Gemma to howl out even louder as he began flailing around, out of control. Both of the youths could see that the flames were increasing in size and spreading outward, and that the hole that was starting to eat away at Gemmaís chest was not healing as had so many other injuries from the past had.
"What did you do to him?" Shampoo-kun asked, his eyes riveted to the spectacle before him.
"Iím not sure," Ranma-chan said as she continued to stare at Gemmaís mad dance of suffering at the far side of the cabin. To her, it felt surreal, as though she were watching the terrible scene through someone elseís eyes. "I hit him in a spot to draw off chi from him to me, but I was only guessing at what I was doing. I think maybe I messed up. Maybe instead of drawing it off, I reversed it and pushed it inside of him and somehow fooled his body into thinking his chi was being drained off. Now heís trying to replace stuff that—"
"Isnít going anywhere, which is overloading him, burning him out faster than he can heal it," Shampoo-kun finished as he continued to watch the scene. That explanation sounded right to him, even if it was only a guess. And, in truth, what difference did it really make? Gemma was dying a well-deserved death, and that was all that mattered.
The duo noticed Gemma had grown quiet, somehow containing his screams even as the fire ate away at his body. They could see tears of pain streaming from his eyes as he scratched at his chest, burning his hands even as he attempted to quench a fire that could not be put out. His hands fell away from the rising chi fires and Gemma arched his body back in continued agony. Through the flames there was now a hole clear through the Devil, allowing both of the youths to see right through him. Despite the sickening sight, both continued to watch on, transfixed. They, like Gemma, knew it was over. His own powers, which had saved him on occasions too numerous to mention, were now responsible for his death.
Gemma almost seemed to fly as he hurled his burning body into a pile of firewood that was stacked next to the fireplace, opposite from where Ranma-chan and Shampoo-kun were. Grunts of pain issued forth from Gemma as he seemed to burrow through the pile, as though it would grant him some form of relief. The duo watched on, wondering if Gemma had finally gone mad from the pain, when a cry of triumph came from the Devil.
The couple witnessed the absolute madness in Gemmaís eyes as he lifted two small barrels, that he had dug out from their hiding place in the pile, high above his head. "YOU MAY HAVE DEFEATED ME, BUT YOUíLL NEVER LOOK UPON THIS DAY WITH ANYTHING OTHER THAN SORROW!!!"
Ranma-chan stared on in confusion, but Shampoo-kun understood immediately what Gemma had meant. "Ranma! The barrels! Theyíre—"
The rest was cut off be Gemmaís shout of insane triumph. "I SWEAR UPON MY DYING BREATH THAT YOU WILL BE CURSED FROM NOW UNTIL THE DAY YOU DIE!!!"
With his curse delivered, he brought the barrels of Nynnaiichuan and Nanniichuan together, splintering them into a thousand pieces and sending their contents spilling to the ground. Immediately the waters trickled through the floorboards and were absorbed into the earth below, disappearing from sight forever.
Gemma fell over, crashing to the ground, motionless. His eyes stared off into nothingness as the blue flames continued to consume his entire body leaving nothing, not even ashes, behind.
The remaining couple stood in mute horror at the scene before them. Neither spoke nor moved as they stared at the shattered remains of the barrels. Long after the last of Gemma burned away they continued to gaze at the scene of carnage.
How much time had passed, neither could say. It was Shampoo-kun who at last broke the silence, asking Ranma-chan to help free him from the fallen shelves. Ranma-chan shook her head once, finally snapping back to reality.
Once the shelves were removed, the shorter girl took a moment to examine her companion more closely. There was little in the way of outward signs of injury, in spite of the beating he had suffered. "Are you all right?"
"Yes. I donít think anythingís broken. How about you?"
"Fine," Ranma-chan said distantly.
Shampoo-kun became concerned at the girlís behavior. That Ranma-chan was disturbed by the loss of Nanniichuan was certain, but there seemed to be something else underlying that as well. Instead of looking at where the barrels had crashed, she was staring at where Gemma had been before being disintegrated by the flames. The Amazon thought about it, and was sure he figured out what it was. "You had to do it, Ranma."
Slowly the redhead nodded. "He was going to kill you. Kill us. He almost did. There wasnít any other choice. He didnít leave me any other choice."
"And even with that, it still bothers you," Shampoo-kun said sympathetically.
Ranma-chan got a strange look in her eyes. "Yeah, but not as much as I thought it would. I mean, you know, killing someone. There have been times when I thought about when it might happen, after all of the fights Iíve been in you canít help but be afraid of a mistake. It almost happened a couple of times." Including that occasion with Kodachi and the poison. He had almost done it then. If she hadnít cured Shampoo, he might have gone through with the threat. He wasnít sure then. "I kind of thought Iíd be more, I dunno, sad about doing it. But Iím not. I think maybe that scares me more."
Shampoo-kun placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "Great Grandmother told me that so long as you are afraid of not caring, then you have nothing to fear. When you lose that fear, then you have lost everything."
The black-haired boy stared at where Gemma had fallen. "He was insane, hungered for power, nearly indestructible, and all of his rage was directed against us. If you hadnít stopped him now, he would have come after us later. If we sealed him away somewhere while he was still alive, he would have broken out eventually; Happosai showed us how successfully someone like Gemma could be contained. Even if it took a hundred years, he would have eventually gotten out. We would have been doing nothing more than giving the problem to someone else. He had to be stopped, Ranma. Otherwise he would have killed many others, and those deaths would have been our responsibility because we could have prevented them. Would you want the deaths of others on your hands?"
"I donít want any deaths in my hands," Ranma-chan answered softly. "But youíre right. I had to do it. I just wish there had been some other way. I just got to deal with it once it sinks in."
A hand found its way into hers. "Iíll help you deal with it."
Ranma-chan looked into Shampoo-kunís eyes, an understanding finally taking place within the girl. Until then she had always taken the point of view she would be there for Shampoo when the Amazon needed help, but now she realized it worked both ways. Ranma-chan really had someone that would be there for her as well, no matter what. It was a comforting thought that helped ease some of the pain.
She took a deep breath, looking over the hut one last time. No. There were no other barrels lying around, not that she had believed there would be. The Guide had said that there was only one barrel of each kind of spring in storage.
"We need to get out of here," she said abruptly. There was now a need to leave the place where she had killed someone, no matter the fact that there had been no other choice. "We gotta tell the others what happened here. About Gemma not coming back, and," he gave a pained expression towards Shampoo-kun, "about how we ainít cured." That was probably some kind of buffer against too much self-recrimination over his actions. Gemma had ruined the cure, taking an opportunity to hurt Ranma-chan one last time before the end.
Shampoo-kun nodded sadly, taking one last look around the hut as well. There was no longer any reason to stay, and now some final decisions were going to have to be made. He silently cursed Gemma for ruining everything.
"Iím never going to be able to go back to my people," Shampoo-kun said softly.
Ranma-chan saw the pain in the Amazonís eyes. That cut through her own pain. She hadnít really considered how not getting the cure would affect Shampoo-kun. Something to cheer Shampoo-kun up occurred to her. "Yeah, maybe, but you got me instead. Iíd say thatís a better than even trade."
Shampoo-kun shot a look towards Ranma-chan. She had been serious. He could tell by the way her hands were interlocked behind her head and by the satisfied look she had on her face. If that highhanded statement had come from anyone else, he would have thumped him in the head. But from Ranma-chan…
Ranma-chan appeared confused by the statement. "Hey! I was serious! Iím a great guy to hang around. You know that. I bet I can make you forget about all that Amazon stuff. You know. After a while."
"Iím sure you can." Somehow she had managed to cheer Shampoo-kun up, at least for a little while. The two set out to the ship once more.
It was almost three hours later that Ranma and Shampoo had arrived at the ship, to consider what had to be done with Cologne. The two thought they had come up with the only solution that would work under the circumstances. It wasnít an easy decision, and many things could possibly go wrong, but there seemed to be little choice in the matter.
Cologne listened to the full details of what had happened. All three of them began to discuss the future, and what other options they might have had. Further ideas were traded back and forth. Plans were thought of and discarded. It was not until the later hours of the evening that one course of action was settled upon. It was similar to the one Ranma and Shampoo had though of, and not very satisfactory, but it was one that afforded Shampoo the protection she needed.
As Ranma and Shampoo made their way into the room they now shared, trying to get at least several hours of rest before confronting the others, they stopped to fully reflect on what they were about to do.
"We donít have any other choice, do we?" Ranma asked, already knowing the answer.
Shampoo hopped into bed, refraining from patting the vacant spot next to her. For all of his seeming lack of interest at times, Ranma voiced no apprehension about sleeping next to her. A step in the right direction, at least. "No. None I can see."
He slipped in beside her without hesitation. "Well, then, I guess itís settled."
"As much as it will be." She snuggled up next to him, pleased that he neither tried to squirm away nor said a word about it.
"Too bad we ainít got more time."
"Thereís never enough time." She yawned, and felt the edges of sleep claim her. At the moment between sleeping and wakefulness, she felt Ranmaís arm embrace her at last. He was right, but it went farther than what he meant. There never was enough time.
And then she was asleep.
In the early morning, one by one, Shampoo and Ranma visited each of the friends and companions that had traveled with them. There were several exceptions. Cologne would deal with Perfume. There was no point in making the matter potentially worse in visiting her, not with what was going to happen. She needed as much culpable deniability as she could manage. Kasumi would talk with Akane. Ranma avoided Mousse, leaving him to Shampoo. Ranma spoke alone with his parents last. After that confrontation, which left little resolved, he felt like speaking to no one else.
Once they were through, everyone understood what had to be done and agreed to the handful of requests concerning what others, specifically the Joketsuzoku, might ask of Shampoo. A series of half-truths and evasions, lies if it proved necessary, but all agreed to them. The motivations for following were as diverse as the people that were asked the favor, though. Kodachi agreed only because she knew if anything happened to Shampoo, Mousse would be devastated (and Kodachi knew she had at last won him. The wicked harriden could never break them apart now. OHHOHOHOHO!!!) It wasnít likely the crew would say anything to anyone, especially since the plan was to leave that very day. (But, as Aki pointed out, how often did things ever work the way they had planned? At least if the ship got lost this time, it wouldnít be her fault; not that it ever was.) Kunou was lost in deep contemplation, barely paying attention to the request. But in the end the result was the same: Agreement from all.
While Shampoo was in the shower, Ranma did take the time to go by Akaneís room one last time to think about all that had happened in the time he had first met her. Too many mistakes. Far too many. Maybe in time things would work out. Actually, he did have faith that they would; optimism was a trait that had yet to be extinguished in his bosom. However, any satisfying resolutions would still take a while. At least he was going to get that time, so maybe their decision was for the best.
"Good-bye, Akane," he whispered under his breath, then went once again on the path he had chosen.
Shampoo had already packed the handful of things they would be taking with them, including winter clothing. The temperature had plunged another twenty degrees overnight. Never had it been that cold in that part of the country at that time of year. Cologne had confirmed that. Ranma also again proclaimed, quite loudly, that it was not his fault.
"Itís time to go."
Ranma nodded in agreement to Shampoo. Those were the words his father had spoken many times in his life, and despite his misgivings about what they were about to do, he felt a certain joy in him. It had been too long since he had truly felt the road beneath his feet. Sometimes he wondered how much more Ryouga had really traveled than himself. After all, Ranma had been going from place to place, without staying in any one spot for any real length of time, almost his entire life.
As they made their way, the couple found every step increasingly difficult. Each one meant they were getting closer to a change each would be making again, but it had to be done. There was no other way.
When they reached the deck they saw the handful of people waiting for them: Cologne, Kasumi, Ryouga, Kyoko, Minami, and Aki.
"No Ukyou?" Shampoo asked Ranma.
"She didnít want to leave Aiís side. I told her it would be all right, so we said our own good-byes there. She sends her regards to you, too. I hope Ai gets better, both for her sake and Ucchanís." Ranma scrunched his face a bit. "Still seems kinda weird. I mean the idea that Ucchanís going to have a, yíknow, girlfriend."
Shampoo sniffed a little. "I got accused of that all the time at school. At least everyone thought my girlfriend was cute." She then gave Ranma a mischievous grin.
"Watch who youíre calling a girl." His voice carried a serious tone, but she could see the glint of impishness in his eyes.
Seriousness replaced humor. "Your parents arenít here either."
"Theyíre being stubborn jerks. Both of them." Ranmaís voice now carried a hint of anger. "Well, Pop more than Mom, but sheís beiní stubborn too. Maybe weíre leaving just in time. Itíll give them a chance to think things through and let them see the obvious." His voice dropped a little. "I hope." The discussion was going down paths he did not want to deal with at the moment. He decided to change the subject. "Whereís Mousse? I figured nothing short of death would keep him from coming."
Shampoo shrugged. As much as it pained her to admit, she could not really care about his absence. He had been there for far too many years and caused too many problems, especially of late, in her life for her to ever truly miss him. A sad and horrible truth. "He couldnít bring himself to come. And I gathered from what he said, Kodachi is going to be staying with him for a while."
"Ha!" Ranma found his humor returning. "Couldnít happen to a nicer pair."
Shampoo wondered how her people were going to deal with an off-the-wall martial arts gymnast and her delightful Ranma-Eating Plants. Her gut feeling was that, for Mousseís sake, he had better figure out a way to make her at least an honorary Amazon before she got there. Otherwise Kodachi would end up on the receiving end of a Ďkiss of deathí before the end of her first day.
Shampooís heart sank a little as she turned her attention to the people that wanted to see them off.
Ryouga stepped forward to shake Ranmaís hand. "So youíre really leaving, huh?"
"Yep," Ranma responded. "Maybe thereís a cure for Shampoo and me out there somewhere. Since she canít go home, and a lot of people arenít exactly too pleased with some of the choices Iíve been making lately, itís probably best we leave for a while."
"Whoís going to keep me in shape by ruthlessly pounding my fists with his face?" Ryouga asked.
"Last time I checked, you were always the one that was horizontal at the end of our fights," Ranma shot back. "At least all of the times I didnít bury you headfirst in the ground, that is."
"In a weird way, I am going to miss you, Ranma. Youíve been one of the driving forces in my life. Try to find that cure soon. Okay?"
"Yeah, yeah. Just donít get all sentimental on me," Ranma warned. "I donít think I could take that from you."
"I could hit you if it would make you feel better," Ryouga offered.
"Iíll pass today," Ranma assured him. "Next time for sure."
It was Akiís turn, sort of. She looked sadly at the pair. Given that she had lived the life of a sailor, she was used to leaving people she knew behind all the time. Still, it never got easier. "You sure you canít go back to her village? I mean, I had the lawyer we got chained in the brig look their book of laws over. Thereís some sort of exceptional circumstance thingy. Maybe you could use that since you took out the big dragon."
"With all thatís gone on before and how long sheís had the curse, there ainít no guarantee theyíll go along with it!" Ranma suddenly came to life as he snapped at Aki. "And if they donít that means theyíll kill her! I ainít going to let that happen! Weíll find a cure!"
"And even if we donít, that just means I wonít be able to go back home." Shampoo beamed a smile at Ranma. "Someone showed me I can live with that, now. Itíll be sad, but I can think of lots of worse things to live without."
Ranma suddenly felt very awkward under Shampooís gentle gaze. He still needed some time to get used to certain things.
"Why do you have a lawyer chained up in your brig?" Kasumi asked Aki.
Aki just gave her a blank stare. "I just told you, itís a lawyer."
"A wise decision to isolate it," Cologne agreed, then turned back to the two people that were going to leave soon. "As far as everyone back home is going to know, Shampoo is dead. I myself will tell them I saw her form, pulverized by rocks, and with no chance of survival. She was dead, Iím sure of it."
Ranma involuntarily shuddered at that statement. There were other things that were still going to haunt him for a while as well. A change of scene was probably going to do him more good than he had originally thought.
Cologne continued. "None of our people have seen Shampoo alive since the mountain exploded. In fact, the others saw me return without you. That will help in the… half-truths we will tell. Even Perfume has not seen you since your return. And if you should happen to find a cure, you can return and Ranma can tell them of his actions on top of the mountain. Technically all I will say is true to the letter, if not in the spirit. No one should refute me." It had been fortunate that circumstances allowed her to effectively cover up what had happened, and that only Silk and Perfume were aware of Shampooís continued survival made things all the easier.
"Guess what?" Kasumi suddenly perked up. "Iím going to be staying in the village for a while."
Everyone but Aki and Cologne looked at her in surprise. Shampoo was the first one to speak. "Why?"
Kasumi just gave her perpetual smile. "You made your village sound so interesting I thought Iíd visit it for a while. I havenít ever really taken a vacation in years, and certainly not on my own. Since I already know your great grandmother and Perfume, I thought it would be nice. And Iíll get a chance to meet the rest of your family, too. I think itíll be a lot of fun."
"Iím more than happy to have the company," Cologne said and gave a wide toothy grin. "And Kasumi is so pleasant to have around. Besides, itís the least I can do for what aid sheís rendered to Shampoo."
"Yeah, but what about everyone back home?" Ranma brought up. "I mean, without you there to kind of help out, it might be a little rough for them."
Kasumi looked somewhat wistful at that reminder. "Actually, Miss Silk is going to be staying there for a while. A long while, I think. She said sheís not even going back to her home. Sheíll just have her things sent over to Japan later. I think itís so wonderful that she and Father still get along so well, even after all that time. I told her she could have my room while Iím gone."
"I think thereís someone elseís bed sheíd rather keep warm," Cologne mumbled under her breath. Little doubt Silk would, too. The way she had been skipping around was shameful for a woman of forty-plus years. She was behaving like a little girl, except for the raunchy suggestions she had been making around Soun, nearly causing the man to pass out like Ryouga. She had even moved DíAmour to tears when he made the mistake of asking for some clarification on what she intended to do to her lover. She then moved him into unconsciousness with her staff when he implied he would have a much better performance than Soun and tried to demonstrate said skills.
"She seemed very happy to help out," Kasumi continued. "And as for my family, well, Iíll miss them very much, but itís not like Iíll be in China forever. Itíll be just for a while."
To Shampoo, it appeared that Kasumiís smile was just a tad forced. Certainly the purple-haired Amazon paid closer attention to her than others, and would notice something like that first. But Shampoo also knew that she worried too much at times, and that with everything that had gone on and was about to happen, she could have been mistaken. "You have a good time. Great grandmother will take good care of you. Watch out for my mother though. Sometimes sheís very… emotional."
"Not like that doesnít run in the family," Ranma muttered under his breath.
Shampoo let it slide for the moment. Now was a time for farewells, not angry words exchanged for something Ranma didnít really mean. He just didnít think before opening his mouth.
Besides, she would have plenty of time to get payback later. It wasnít like there was anywhere for Ranma to run anymore.
"Sheíll be fine, Shampoo. Iíll let everyone know sheís under my protection." Cologne reassured her.
"Hey, old ghoul." Ranma cleared his throat. "Since you said you and Mr. Tendo were going to take care of the old lechís funeral, I gotta give you these, anddonítshowthemtoanyone!" He stuffed two photos into the diminutive womanís hands.
Cologne examined the two pictures. They were of Ranma, in his girl form, and Shampoo, both in lingerie. She looked at him in surprise.
"He did save us all, and it was part of the deal." Both he and Shampooís expressions showed living up to their end of the bargain was about as pleasant as trying to cure a headache with a mallet to the head.
"That he did," Cologne agreed. Happosai would have a good funeral. He deserved at least that for what he had done at the end. And as for Tarou, since there was nowhere else for him, Akane had requested that a funeral be held in Japan and that he be Ďburiedí alongside the Tendo family plot. Since he had essentially died trying to protect Akane, not a voice was raised in disagreement. True, there were no longer any remains to bury, thanks to the mountain being destroyed, but they could at least have a symbolic funeral.
Everyone remained silent then, just staring at one another for several minutes. Of all the people, Ryouga was the first to speak up. "It feels like the end of something, doesnít it?"
As one the group nodded their heads.
"A breaking of a circle," Minami quietly admitted.
Cologne raised an eyebrow at that. "An unusual saying, child."
Minami just shrugged. "When you travel in the magical paths like I do, you hear lots of things. But it seemed appropriate. Besides, the breaking of a circle isnít so bad. It usually means all of the different parts find themselves cast into other circles." Minami realized how that sounded. "Look, itís just a saying. Donít look at me like Iím some kind of philosopher or something. It was the first thing that came to mind."
"I think itís kind of right," Ranma suddenly said. "Even if we were to come back next week, I donít think it would ever be the same."
"It is sad," Kasumi said, now with a melancholy in her own voice.
"There are no ending or beginnings, just a continuation of a single steady stream of time. The old ways of our past are abandoned to allow the new ones of our present to take over. In time, those self same new ways become old, and the process repeats itself again. What happens here happens to all everywhere. We all need to change in order to risk bettering ourselves. It is both a blessing and a curse."
Kyoko noticed that everyone was now looking wide-eyed at her.
"Iím sorry," she said meekly as her face turned beet red. "That was a stupid thing for me to say. Iíll shut up now."
Ryouga placed a hand on her shoulder to keep her from leaving. "Actually, it sounded pretty good. I think." He turned to see everyone nodded in agreement, even Aki.
"I guess we canít wait any longer. We should get going before that Hunt Pack comes back and makes all of this kind of unnecessary." Ranma shouldered his pack to emphasis his words.
Shampoo followed suit as once more both shook hands and gave their good-byes to all that had come to say farewell.
"We promise to stay in touch," Shampoo pledged as she took the gangplank down to the shore. Ranma quickly followed suit. And it was absolutely not because he thought he might cry. He didnít do things like that just because he was saying farewell. He didnít even really get along with everyone that was there. Not everyone.
"There they go, riding off into the sunset," Aki commented with the slightest hint of sadness in her voice.
"The sunís not setting. Itís still early morning."
"Thanks for clearing that up, vacuum brain," Aki said to Kyoko in the same tone she had just used in describing Ranma and Shampooís departure.
No argument erupted between the two; each was too sad over the farewells. Everyone watched the couple begin their journey in the direction opposite of Joketsuzoku, all feeling varying degrees of depression at their departure. It was as Ranma had said; everything had changed. They could all feel it, and everyone wondered what tomorrow would bring.
It was as the group began to head back into the ship, that the words drifted to them, unbidden.
"Ranma, when do you think we can get married?"
"MARRIED!!! Who said anything about getting married?!"
"You said you loved me."
"Uh… yeah, I did. And I do. But love and marriage are two different things. And I never said nothing about no marriage!"
"After what happened on top of that mountain, I consider that a proposal."
"WHAT?!!! Where do you get off putting words in my mouth?! I save your life… I mean, I beat Death for you and you take it as some kind of lifelong commitment! Thatís so…"
"I was gonna say, ĎThatís so like a womaní!"
"Of course. You make it sound like thatís some kind of an insult."
"Only an Amazon would take that as a compliment. And I ainít said nothing about no marriage, therefore we ainít getting married… for now. I mean… maybe someday. Probably. I think. I guess. I donít know. But I do know we ainít getting married now."
"HEY!!! You dumb Amazon! Whyíd you hit me?!"
"We fight now."
"I ainít fighting you!"
"Whyíd you hit me again?!"
"We fight now!"
"I told ya once, I ainít fighting—"
"Why the heck do you keep hitting me?! I mean, they donít even hurt and you arenít putting any force into them. Itís almost like… HEY!!! Youíre trying to goad me into fighting you so I can beat you and you can say weíre married by them dumb Amazon laws!"
"Theyíre perfectly good laws and thatís not what Iím trying to do. I just want to show you how slow you really are!"
"Slow, am I? Well if Iím so slow, why is it Iím going to stay out of your reach until weíre out of Amazon lands? Youíll never marry me then!"
"Are you saying that if I catch you before weíre out of Amazon lands youíll marry me?"
"Yeah! Right! Like you can catch mYAH! HEY!!! When did you get so fast?!"
"Youíd be amazed at how fast I can get when Iím properly motivated. Now stand still and I promise you wonít be sorry!"
"Ha! Ranma Saotome will never be caught by some violent Amazon chick!"
"Ohhh! Just for that Iím going to write those words on our wedding cake!"
"Now if thatís not a case of puttiní the horse before the cart, I donít know what is! WHOOPS!!! Close, but no cigar! Looks like youíre going to end up an Amazon old maid!"
"Thatís what you think!"
"Nyah! Nyah! Catch me if you can!"
"Silly Ranma! No matter how far you run, Iíll catch you in the end!"
"Weíll see about that!"
It wasnít until the couple was out of earshot that the collective sweatdrops disappeared from behind the group's heads.
Aki looked to the others. "Who wants to bet she catches him?"
Ryouga just shook his head. "Ranma wonít let himself be caught until heís good and ready."
Cologne nodded in agreement. "Shampoo knows that and will wait, though Iíd wager sheíll make Ranma ready for it sooner than he thinks."
"Iíll agree with you there," Minami said. "Ranma underestimates anything that isnít him. And they still got a ways to go, not that I have the slightest doubt theyíll end up together, not after what theyíve been through. Iíd say a year, minimum."
Kyoko gave it some thought as well. "Two years. Ranma likes to drag his feet and getting him to make a commitment is like trying to keep Ryouga-kun from passing out when you neck with him. Youíd be better off trying to get blood from a rock."
"Especially since Iíve got a spell for that," Minami added. "And youíre right, I think they get a perverse enjoyment out of chasing one another. Two years, minimum."
"So everyone agrees that theyíll get married in two years?" Kasumi asked, already mentally tallying what she would need to prepare for the occasion.
"Thatís how long itíll take for the engagement to become official. Not that they arenít all but engaged already," Ryouga commented pensively. "Tack on six months after that."
"Make sure you invite me," Aki added. "That means send the invitation at least eight months in advance if you want any chance for me to make it."
"Right," Kasumi said, writing down everything on a piece of paper. There were so many preparations to make. At least she had plenty of time.
Kyoko jumped up and down to get everyoneís attention. "How long do people think itíll take Ryouga-kun to propose to me?"
"Till Hell freezes over," Aki said dryly as she observed her cousinís unconscious form.
"Iíll get you a copy of the ĎAlmanac of Tartarusí to see when the temperatures get that low," Minami offered as Kyoko began dragging Ryougaís unconscious form behind her. Idle talk began about who else would get married to whom and when.
And somewhere in the countryside, a young Japanese man was still being happily pursued by a young Chinese girl.
Author's notes: Well, thatís the main story, but fear not, there are still several epilogues left to help wrap things up (how many remains to be seen. Three? Four? Another forty? Would you like to make the call? ^_^).
Additional note: Ranmaís little phrase about Ďputtiní horses before cartsí isnít a typo, in spite of the way it sounds. Congratulations if you can figure out the word play there. (And thanks to Bloodblade for making my mistake into something useful. Heh. Got to give credit where credit goes.)
And of course, special thanks to that great prereading crew, who made this fic all the more readable and enjoyable:
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