Title: Clan Call
“Ranma! You’ll pay!!!”
As he jumped nimly out of the way, Ranma rolled his eyes, “Geez… Are you still mad?”
Ryoga threw a kick. Ranma dodged and returned a punch. Ryoga blocked.
Akane tapped her foot and watched. “Those two…” But she had to admit – she loved watching them. The two top Martial Artists of their age, fighting full out; it was a beautiful sight to see.
Almost falling in mid-air, Ryoga aborted his attack on Ranma and landed lightly, “Yes?”
*Ryoga -- it’s time.*
His face paled to the white of crushed flour, “Not… a Clan Call?” Next to him, Ranma called to him with worry. Ryoga was well aware the others couldn’t hear the Chief, only him. He held up his hand to ask Ranma to hold off for a moment.
*Yes. Honor and Survival.*
“Honor to the Clan – Survival for the World,” Ryoga responded automatically, “Now?”
*Of course now. You remember the Way?*
“Of course. I just meant…” Ryoga glanced to Ranma; Akane had moved over to stand next to him and both were watching Ryoga worriedly, “I’m with friends right now.”
*Ah. You have time to say goodbye. But don’t dwaddle. We’ll see you here.*
The voice faded from his mind and Ryoga was left standing there. Alone. And scared. Whole lifetimes could go by without a Clan Call. And it had come when Ryoga was only sixteen. With a lifetime still left ahead of him. He’d thought. Ryoga closed his eyes.
Ranma and Akane looked at each other. Whatever it was, it seemed to have stopped, but Ryoga didn’t seem any better – worse if anything. “Ryoga?”
He opened his eyes and looked at Ranma and Akane. A lump formed in his throat. “Ranma,” he said, speaking past it, looking at his friend as he’d never looked at him before, “I’m sorry for wasting so much time. I’m sorry for being so angry at you without good reason. I’ve… been a fool. You’ve always been my friend – I know that. I’m just sorry I couldn’t have been a better friend to you.”
Ranma stepped forward, “Ryoga, what are you going on about?” He paused, then added reluctantly, “And of course you’ve always been my friend – it was understood.”
Ryoga shook his head, “Not by me.” He glanced around the park, looking at the trees, the grass, the sunlight filtering through, “I have to go. I’m sorry.” He looked at Akane, “Akane-san…” He felt a twinge of embarrassment but brushed it off – he didn’t have any more time. “All this time… There’s no point in being shy anymore. There’s no need to wonder what will happen if you don’t like me – it doesn’t matter anymore. So, Akane, I want to tell you what I’ve always been afraid of before. I love you.”
Akane’s mouth dropped open. Ranma stood very still. “Ryoga,” Akane whispered, “Why didn’t you ever say anything?” A tear fell down her cheek, “Can’t you stay?”
Ryoga shook his head, “I was scared to. And… and you like Ranma.” Ryoga glanced to his friend, and back at Akane, “Half our fights were always over you, but I always knew it was him you saw in your heart’s eye.” He looked to Ranma, “Will you finally tell this wonderful lady how much you care? Please?”
Ranma blushed beet red and didn’t answer.
“I know that you two resist because of your parents… but… what if you made it a marriage for yourselves? Ranma,” Ryoga fished around in his pocket and then tossed his wallet to Ranma, who caught it automatically, “Go buy Akane-san a ring. And then ask her to marry you. And when she says ‘yes,’ then it will be you two’s idea and not your parents.” He saw Ranma’s glance down at the wallet and grinned without humor, “Take it. I don’t need it anymore.”
Before Ranma could respond, Ryoga turned back to Akane, “Akane-san, there’s one other thing I have to say – though I think you already know it,” He watched Akane’s sad face and smiled with genuine happiness for the first time since the call, “Akane, thank you for taking care of P-chan, for he is really me.”
Akane nodded, obviously not surprised, and worrying about other things, “Ryoga – will you come back?”
Ryoga paused, not wanting to lie. It wasn’t a yes or no answer. The odds of ‘yes’ were astronomical. But if he said ‘no’, it would be to give up before the fight began. Literally. Finally Ryoga shrugged, “If I can.”
Ranma stepped closer again, “If? Ryoga… what sort of an answer is that?”
Ryoga shrugged again, “There are always survivors in a war.”
“Survivors?” Akane’s face went a horrible shade of green-white as she realized what the rest of that said, and she burst into tears, wrapping her arms around Ryoga and holding him tightly, burying her head in his chest. If it was just Ryoga gone, she could still hope; but if Ryoga was dead… She clung to him, not wanting to let him go.
“Urk…” Ryoga took a step backwards, but Akane continued to stick to him. “Akane-san. Akane… Akane, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. Akane…” He patted her back helplessly and looked over to where Ranma was also stunned by Ryoga’s answer. “Ranma…” he asked desperately.
Ranma came forward and took Akane’s shoulders. Between him and Ryoga they got her moved from crying all over Ryoga to clinging to Ranma. Ranma held her close and looked over her head at his friend, “If it’s a war… I can help,” he offered.
Ryoga shook his head, “You can’t go there. The Shadow Paths can only be walked by my Clan, and we can’t take anybody with us.” He looked sorrowfully at both his friends, “Why do we learn the value of what we hold most dear only when it’s too late?” He leaned forward and hugged both Ranma and Akane in one solid grip, then let them go. “Goodbye.”
Turning from them, Ryoga walked a few steps, then shadows swirled up from the ground to envelop him. When the shadows were gone, so was Ryoga. Ranma watched the empty spot, and tears started to fall down his eyes as well, “I wanted you to be my Best Man at the wedding.” He leaned his head against Akane and cried as hard as she was.
Eventually, when the shadows had covered the park and there were no more tears left in their eyes, they went home.
“Good Lord, you two – you look awful! What happened?” Nabiki spotted them as they walked in the door. Kasumi and the dads came over.
Ranma and Akane looked at each other, and Akane found she still had a few tears left. Ranma hugged her close and answered, “Ryoga’s gone.”
“Gone? But—” Nabiki was cut off by the shattering of a plate on the floor.
Everybody turned to look as Kasumi knelt down and started gathering up the pieces. When she’d gotten them all, she stood up smoothly. “Then we’d better get ready.”
“Huh?” They all looked at her, equally baffled. Even Akane looked up.
Kasumi sighed, “If the Shadow Walkers have had a Clan Call, then we must prepare.”
“Clan Call…” Ranma blinked, “That’s what Ryoga called it.”
Kasumi nodded, her response automatic, “Honor to the Clan.”
“Uh…” Ranma and Akane looked at each other, “He also said that, but there was another line…”
“’Survival for the World’,” Kasumi nodded again, “Only the Shadow Walkers have the right to add that line – for it is their Clan’s Honor.”
“Kasumi…” Akane’s voice was pleading.
The oldest sister looked down at the cracked plate. “Let’s go into the dining room.”
They sat down and Kasumi poured them all tea. She raised her own cup and sipped delicately. The others all watched her, including her dad. Finally, Nabiki reached out and picked up her cup and drank.
“The Shadow Walkers are the World’s first line of Defense,” Kasumi spoke softly. “They have the ability to go where no one else can. And they meet the Enemy before they can reach Earth.”
Kasumi sipped her tea again. “The Shadow Walkers have been called at least four known times. Each time, there has been a War between the Walkers and the Enemy. And each time, the Enemy has been driven back. But at a cost. The Shadow Walkers have been reduced to less than a dozen members of the Clan each time.”
Akane started to cry again. Ranma hugged her close and asked his question again, “Kasumi, what Enemy?”
“The second line of Defense are the Religions of the World. Those who heed warnings are able to assist in putting up a Psychic Barrier. What of the Enemy makes it through the Shadow Walkers are rebuffed by the Barrier.”
This time, Ranma held his peace. It was obvious Kasumi was going to tell it in the order she was going to.
“The third line of Defense…” Kasumi looked at Ranma and Akane, “Are you.”
Akane’s head jerked up and she and Ranma stared at Kasumi. “Wha…”
Kasumi sighed, “We don’t tell the Shadow Walkers, so none of them ever know, but those of the Enemy that make it beyond the Barrier and actually appear here on Earth,… well, they’re automatically drawn to the people who were closest to the Walkers. For Walkers have for generations been automatically attracted to those who are the strongest of every generation.”
Ranma put Akane behind him, “No monster is going to touch my Akane!”
Akane shoved her way in beside him again, “Who do you think you’re protecting me from? Kasumi? And I’m a Warrior too!”
The two started to yell at each other and then stopped mid-word as the very real seriousness of this particular fight came to them.
Akane sighed, “Ryoga was right. Why do we learn only when it is too late?”
“It’s not too late,” Kasumi had been waiting patiently, “That is the whole point here. The World can be saved. The World has been saved before. If everyone will do their part.”
Akane and Ranma looked at each other – for once, Kasumi had missed their meaning. She was focused on the Big Picture, and didn’t see their small personal ones. Maybe that had always been Kasumi’s focus.
“Kasumi, how do you know this?” Akane asked her sister.
“And who, or what, is the Enemy?” Ranma got back to his original question.
Kasumi poured more tea, “Father, you haven’t drunk any of yours.”
Mr. Tendo got up from his place, “That’s all right, my dear. I don’t think I’m going to.” He looked down at his eldest daughter for a long, sad moment, “I didn’t think she’d taught you so much.” And then he walked outside to watch the evening stars.
“I,…” Kasumi watched the tea in her cup, “I, and others, are the fourth line.”
“Of Defense?” asked Nabiki incredulously.
“No.” Kasumi sipped her tea, “Of Healing. Of what must follow after the Battle. We must burn the bodies, send on the souls, treat the wounds, heal the earth, and bring what is left of the Walkers back home.”
This time, it was Akane and Nabiki who looked at each other, then they turned back to their sister, “You got this from Mother.” A statement. Not a question.
“Yes,” Kasumi answered softly, “There must always be Healers at the end of a Battle.”