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After Black

By Joseph Palmer

The candle flickered hypnotically in the bowl on the edge of the tub. Washing up in the dim light had been a little inconvenient, but the candle's glow enhanced the restful feeling of soaking in the steaming water.

He left the warmth of the water and dried off as best he could before stepping into the laundry room, where another candle burned, standing in for the night light. The candle holder had been set very near the lip of the sink, and he was about to move it, when he remembered the admonishments of the fire patrol. He left it where it was. If an earthquake happened tonight, it would slide harmlessly into the sink and go out.

A dark blue yukata had been left out for him, and under that a clean pair of boxers. He shook his head and smiled. His mother must have planned ahead, and packed them for Akane to bring to the doujo this morning. Ranma paused a moment. Had it really been only this morning? This morning seemed very distant, a month of memories crowding the day. He pulled on the boxers, then the robe. He squeezed some toothpaste onto his brush, then caught the reflection of his grin in the mirror.


He'd said it.


He'd finally found the right time, and he'd finally said it. He felt intensely alive just thinking about it. He whispered the three words again, and felt the emotion return to wash over him.

He slid the door and groped for the light switch. He snapped it twice, with no effect. He slid his hand down to wooden trim rail set into the wall, and walked, guided by the tips of his fingers on the rail. The fingers of his other hand were rubbing his chest where Akane had crushed herself to him.


She'd said it too.


The emotion washed over him again, only this time it was a tidal wave.

As he approached the corner in the hall he saw a brief flash of light, then caught a whiff of sulfur on the breeze. He turned the corner and found Soun standing in the open doorway, his face lit with orange light from the tip of his cigarette. Ranma joined him in the doorway, and followed his gaze into the black night.

"It's days like this..." Soun began. "It's days like this that fill me with such joy..." he paused to take a stuttering drag from the cigarette. "...but it's days like this when I miss her the most."

Ranma's thoughts lingered a while on Soun and his departed wife, then he cast himself in Soun's place, and Akane as...

For a the blink of an eye Ranma thought he knew how Soun felt, but then a twinge of shame passed through him. He didn't really know at all. His feeling was only a passing thought, gone as quickly as it came. But still he wrestled the thought away, fearful it would return to haunt him.

Soun sat in the doorway. "This is my very favorite place," he said, slapping the deck with his hand. "When the girls were little, mother would take them in to get ready for bed, and when they were all clean and glowing from the bath, she'd send them out, one at a time, youngest to oldest." He turned to look down the hallway towards the bath. "Akane would come tearing around that corner and practically knock me over with a hug. Then a little later Nabiki would pretend to pass me by, so I'd pout in disappointment until she returned to plant a kiss on my head. Finally Kasumi would come out. She'd always stop to rub my shoulders a bit, then whisper goodnight in my ear."

Ranma sat on the step next to him.

"Ranma-kun, if you try to hug me, I'll toss you in the pond."

Ranma laughed. "No, no. I wouldn't do that."

"Oh? How about with Akane? I noticed you two earlier. She seemed very happy."

The night hid Ranma's blush. "Uh, yeah. It was a pretty good party," Ranma changed the subject.

"We haven't used those lanterns in years. Back when Akane was a baby we were always hosting some neighborhood event or another. It was such a delightful surprise to find the girls had re-lit the yard this evening." Soun took another drag on the cigarette, then let it out slowly. "Mother would have been so proud."

Ranma left Soun to his thoughts for a while before asking, "Where did you meet?"

"Meet? Hmm. Why, here." He patted the deck again. "She was sitting right here. See, my father had arranged for me to take lessons from her father, and after the first lesson, Sensei asked me to carry some boxes for him from the doujo to the front gate. When I walked past she was sitting right here, sewing. She looked just like an Angel to me. Well, it turned out that lessons weren't the only thing my father had arranged. Within a week we were engaged."

Ranma smiled. "So... what was in the boxes?"

Soun pulled on the cigarette. "Rocks."

"Now I know where you get it from," Ranma laughed.

"That was about the time that your father and I first started training with Happosai. He started dragging us away on all his endless 'training trips', which were more like month long parties for him. Each time we started to make arrangements for the wedding, he'd show up again. He'd come to collect us for a 'weekend' trip, but we'd come back five weeks later. Even after we were married, even after the girls were born..." Soun hung his head and flicked the ash from the his cigarette. "All that time... I kept her waiting."

He took a slow drag from the cigarette.

"Akane's mother and I developed... well, a sort of connection. A part of me was always connected to her. When she was happy, I could feel it. When there was something bothering her, I'd feel that, too. It started before we were married, on the training trips. Your father and I would be huddled in some cave, waiting for the rain to stop, and I'd begin to wonder if it was raining back here, if she was stuck inside watching the rain too. There were mornings when we would get up, and the sunrise would be so amazing, and all I could think about is how much better it would be if I could share it with her." He took another drag on the cigarette, then blew the smoke into the air.

"If I push you two sometimes, it's because Akane's mother and I were very happy together. But the time we had together was too..." Soun choked on his words. "...too short. Ranma, I want Akane to be that happy."

Ranma paused a moment. This was the closest to a serious talk he'd had with Soun. "Y-yeah. Me too."

"It pleases me very much to hear you say that."

"But how can I make her happy?" Ranma asked himself aloud.

Soun had been lifting his cigarette, but his hand froze in mid air. "Huh? What was that? Why, that was like hearing an echo! You know I asked my father-in-law that very question."

"Did he have an answer?"

"Oh yes. Let's see if can I remember his exact words..." Soun snuffed the cigarette in an ashtray, reached his arm back, and slapped Ranma across the back of the head hard enough to knock him off the porch. "YOU IDIOT! YOU CAN NEVER MAKE MY DAUGHTER HAPPY!" he shouted.


Ranma felt as if he'd been stabbed in the heart.


"You're lucky," Soun said calmly. "My father-in-law hit me in the head with a shovel. I'll never forget that moment. We were planting that very tree at the time." He pointed across the yard. "As I lay there, bleeding in the dirt, fearful that he'd just broken the engagement, he pointed to the sapling and asked me, 'So, how would you make this tree grow?'"

"I thought about it for a moment, then I told him. 'Soil'. 'Sun'. 'Water'."

"He picked me up by the collar and pushed my nose right up the root ball and said, 'No, you show me now how you will make this tree grow.'"

Ranma began to get up, and Soun reached out a hand to pull him back onto the deck. "Ranma, you can't make Akane happy, any more than I could ever make that tree grow. But trees still need soil, sun, and water, and you... You must never stop trying."

Ranma sat rubbing his head. He stared at the silhouette of that tall tree across the yard, and sought his connection to Akane.

Soun stretched and yawned. "And now, I'm going to bed, and you should go up too." He got up and fumbled down the dark hallway towards his bedroom.

He stopped, and Ranma heard his quavering voice from the darkness.

"And Ranma... don't keep her waiting."


March 11, 1999

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"After Black" 1999 Joseph Palmer

First Revision — March 11, 1999

Second Revision — August 19, 1999

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When I re-wrote this, I made a sort of Fruedian typo. The line:

The night hid Ranma's blush.

was first typed as:

The night hid Ranma's bush.


Ahem. This isn't that kind of story....