Curses and Blessings
Chapter 1 - Transformation
Amawa Hibiki stared moodily out of the train window as the scenery outside blurred past. He travelled by train because it was affordable and practical, but it wasn't his preferred mode of transport. Ever since he'd left Ginchi-sou he couldn't help but be reminded of Kuzuha running along beside the train he'd left on. It wasn't exactly a bad memory, Hibiki thought, but it was hardly surprising that travel by train had a tendency to put him in a melancholy mood. In an attempt to distract himself he turned his attention to the letter Auntie had sent to the hostel he'd been staying at. It was short, cryptic and to the point.
'Go to Nerima Ward in Tokyo. You might see something interesting.'
For the hundredth time Hibiki wondered what exactly the crafty old woman had planned this time. He knew from experience that there was much more to her than appearances suggested, regardless of her own declamations. They'd communicated intermittently as he'd wandered haphazardly across the country after her first surprising letter had reached him at a cheap boarding house. He still had no idea how she'd found out his temporary address. The irregular morsels of good humoured advice he'd received from her had been invaluable, even more than the seemingly endless stream of 'contacts' she'd provided him with, all of whom seemed to have casual work and accommodation for an itinerant like him. His reflections on his travels occupied Hibiki's thoughts until he was shaken out of them by the sensation of the train slowing down. With a start he realised that the train was now passing through a much more urban area and a station was visible in the distance. It looked like he might be seeing 'something interesting' fairly soon, Hibiki decided.
Hibiki walked through Nerima ward more or less at random, looking around himself with mild curiosity. After the rumours he'd heard Hibiki had expected all kinds of insanity, but so far it seemed just like any other city suburb. That impression lasted until the teenager who'd just slipped past him was splashed by a passing car driving through a puddle and changed from a boy to a girl in front of his eyes.
It didn't register at first. For a few seconds Hibiki wasn't even consciously aware that anything strange had happened, as though his mind had been so outraged by what he'd just seen that it simply refused to acknowledge it. Then he stopped dead in shock as his brain began to process what he'd just witnessed.
That . . . that can't be. I didn't just see that. I can't have just seen that. But he had just seen it. In fact, he was still seeing it. The young, pretty redhead who'd been a young man just seconds ago was standing a scant few feet in front of him complaining about being cursed - and wringing out her shirt in a manner that showed a remarkable lack of modesty a corner of his mind noted. Hibiki shook his head muzzily, trying to straighten out his thoughts. Most people, he reflected wryly, would have trouble believing what they'd just seen solely because of the sheer impossibility of it. He, on the other hand, was having trouble believing it because he didn't dare hope that what he was seeing was real.
Never mind that right now, he told himself, you have to find out what's going on here!
"Ah, excuse me, miss," Hibiki began, stepping forward to tap the young woman, or man, on the shoulder, "but-"
"Not interested," she told him flatly, cutting him off without ever looking up from her shirt.
"What?" Even in his disturbed mental state Hibiki was caught off guard by the non sequitur.
"I said," she replied exasperatedly, looking up to fix him with an angry pair of bright blue eyes, "I'm not interested."
"Um, I don't think you understand-" Hibiki began, amazed now for an entirely different reason. This might be the most important conversation of his life and she thought he was propositioning her!?
"Oh I understand just fine, buster," she told him grimly.
"You want to take me out to lunch and then maybe dinner and after that-"
"No!" Hibiki exclaimed with some annoyance. "I want to know how you did that!"
Now it was the girl's turn to be confused.
"Did what?" she asked cautiously.
"That! You, you, you changed! From a boy into a . . ." Hibiki trailed off helplessly, his agitation tying his tongue in knots, and gestured at her body.
"My curse?" she asked him with a suspicious frown.
"My curse," she repeated flatly. "What's going on here anyway? Why're you freaking out over this? I mean, I get that it's weird, but most people don't-"
"You have a curse," Hibiki repeated to himself thoughtfully, barely paying attention to what the girl/boy was saying. "I wonder . . ."
"Hey, hey, HEY!" Hibiki looked up to find her/him waving a hand in front of his face.
"I'm sorry, I kind of got distracted . . ."
"I'll say," the redhead snorted. "Listen, I don't know what-"
RUMBLE! Hibiki's eyes bugged out at the volume of the sound emanating from the stomach of his new acquaintance.
"I tell you what," he said slowly. "How about I buy you lunch and you tell me about this curse of yours?"
"So what do you want to know?"
They were sitting at a window table in a nearby ramen joint that Ranma knew from past experience had a surprisingly good all-you-could-eat-buffet. After changing back with the application of a glass of hot water provided by a friendly waitress - which had elicited a gasp of shock and some very intense stares from the guy who'd identified himself as Amawa Hibiki - he'd consumed half a dozen heaped plates of noodles while the other man sat and watched in steadily mounting disbelief.
"How do you get one?"
Ranma was so shocked that he spat out his mouthful of noodles. He stared at the man sitting across from him in utter shock, his expression suggesting that he thought Hibiki was crazier than every other person in his life combined.
"You want to be cursed!?"
"You actually want to be cursed!? Why?"
And the whole story came spilling out. Hibiki found himself telling Ranma about his attempts to get a job, the cross dressing disguise auntie had suggested, the continuation of the lie and finally his unveiling and its aftermath.
"I know, I know," Hibiki replied to Ranma's expression of disbelief. Ranma shook his head.
"I can't believe you actually want to . . ." Ranma's voice trailed off and a moment later his head snapped up in realisation.
"Hey! I know who you can talk to! Cologne!"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Cologne!" Ranma said again. "She's this old - ah, nevermind. You'll understand when you see her."
"Cologne is a person?" Hibiki asked doubtfully. Ranma snickered.
"More or less. Come on, let's go."
Hibiki frowned as he looked up at the sign which hung over the small building's doorway.
"The cat café?" he asked Ranma dubiously.
"Trust me" Ranma replied with a wry grin "we're in the right place."
He pushed the door open and Hibiki followed him inside.
"Hey granny," Ranma called out, "I wanted to talk to you about something."
Hibiki got his second shock of the day when what appeared to be a hunched over monkey on a pogo pole came hopping out from the back room.
She looks just like auntie . . . Hibiki thought in disbelief.
"What did you want, Ranma?" Cologne asked after glancing briefly at Hibiki.
"Well, y'see, it's about my curse . . ."
"What about it Ranma? This isn't a terribly good time and I can't believe you've come looking for a cure again."
"Um, no, the thing is . . ." Ranma paused, took a deep breath, and said in a rush, "this-guy-here-wants-to-know-how-he-can-get-a-curse."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I heard what you said," Cologne said sharply, "but I have trouble believing that you said what I think you did." Cologne hopped over to Hibiki and peered intently into his face, causing him to lean back a bit in discomfort. "Heh, don't worry boy, I don't bite. My, you are an interesting one, aren't you?"
"I beg your pardon?" Hibiki asked uncertainly.
"Since Ranma brought you here, I assume that it was his curse you saw. And that means that when Ranma says you want to be cursed, what he actually means, even if he doesn't realise it, is that you want to be a woman."
And that, Cologne thought, with some amusement, makes you more than a little unusual. Not that there hasn't been the odd male in the village who felt the same way . . . never mind that now. But I can hardly believe it's a coincidence that Ranma has brought you here now, of all times.
Hibiki gulped. Put that way, stated so bluntly, it made him sound utterly insane, if not worse. But the old woman's tone had been matter of fact and now she was looking at him expectantly. An answer was expected, Hibiki realised.
"It's a little more complicated than that," he replied quietly.
"It always is child," she replied, equally quietly, her tone oddly sympathetic. "Well then," Cologne continued a moment later, "this is most interesting, especially in light of recent events."
"What're you talking about granny?" Ranma asked, frowning a little. When the old hag got cryptic it usually meant trouble for him. Cologne sighed.
"Come into the back room and I'll explain." She turned to Hibiki. "You wait here," she told him, in a voice that brooked no argument.
"Alright, what's going on here?" Ranma asked impatiently after he'd followed Cologne into the small room.
"Ah youth, always so impatient," Cologne mused. "Calm down and let me explain, Ranma."
"Well get on with . . . hey, wait a minute . . ."
Cologne smirked to herself. So he'd finally noticed, had he?
" . . . how come you're not calling me 'son-in-law' like usual?"
"That's part of what I needed to explain," Cologne replied. "You see, young man, your defeat of Saffron was unprecedented. When the other Matriarchs heard about it they were somewhat . . . distressed."
Distressed is an understatement. They panicked. We wanted you in the tribe boy, but that was when we were still sure we could control you. Now though . . .
"Whaddya mean, distressed?" Ranma asked with typical bluntness.
"Even the thought of a mere male being that powerful would make an Amazon uncomfortable," Cologne told him. "The reality . . ." Cologne sighed before continuing, "the reality scares them. They know from my reports how wilful you are and the thought of accepting into the tribe someone that powerful when they could not be sure of-" Cologne halted abruptly, but she'd already given herself away.
"Controlling," Ranma said bluntly, ending Cologne's sentence for her. "They don't want someone they can't afford to lose control of." His expression was suddenly hard and Cologne cursed herself for the slip. Ranma was dangerously easy to underestimate, but naïveté, no matter how bad, was not the same as stupidity.
"Essentially, yes," she admitted. "But in case you haven't realised, the Amazons have given up on you boy, so you've no cause for anger now."
Don't get me wrong boy, this old woman's still got a few tricks up her sleeve. Cologne thought, her thoughts wandering a little as she watched Ranma's expression go through a series of changes. But for pure skill you're unmatched. Some of the things you can do now I didn't learn till I was twice your age - and this body is taking more and more energy just to keep together. You'd never fought all out before, had you? All those challengers, all the adventuring, you'd always held back. Amazons know about ruthlessness. When two fighters of equal skill face off the most ruthless one always wins. Always. Now we know just how dangerous you can be when you don't hold back we're disinclined to put ourselves in a position where we'd be your target. Frankly, I still think we've got a chance at you so long as we don't cross certain lines, but I've been overruled. It's almost worth your loss to see some of those old crones running around like frightened hens. But the situation may not be a total loss.
"You mean . . . I'm free?" Ranma asked, awe and disbelief in his words.
"I wouldn't have put it quite like that," Cologne returned acerbically, "but yes."
"Oh man, oh man . . . I can't believe this. But what're you gonna do now? And what about Shampoo?" Ranma's question carried more than a little suspicion, Cologne noted, but there was some genuine concern there as well. At least he counted her as a friend.
"Since the council has ruled that you cannot be brought into the tribe there is no dishonour in her giving up her pursuit of you. That does not mean that she is not heartbroken," Cologne added as she saw Ranma's expression brighten.
The girl loves you, law or no. You could at least show a little sympathy.
"But still, you are free. The question is, what are you going to do about it?"
"What will be nature of your relations to the Chinese Amazons now?" Cologne asked him, letting just a little irritation seep into her voice. "You could just walk away, but how honourable would that be?"
And that is another reason I am not particularly happy with the decision my peers have made, young man. You were an investment, expensive but truly worth it? But now? Hmmph. Well, let's see if I can't salvage something from this mess.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Ranma asked warily. If Cologne thought she could suck him into some new scheme . . .
Cologne read his expression all too well. Ranma may have grown up surprisingly well despite his father's influence, she thought, but the fat fool had still managed to pass on some of his less impressive character traits. Among them was a certain lack of gratitude.
"It is not as though you have not benefited from your association with us," she pointed out curtly. "Free food, assistance with various . . . difficulties . . . not to mention martial arts techniques that are the sole preserve of the Amazons."
Ranma paled as the implication of her words sank in: You owe us. It was true, too.
"Whaddya want old ghoul?" he asked grimly.
"Nothing as bad as what you might be thinking, boy," Cologne told him, humour creeping back into her tone. "Just a friendly arrangement."
"Become an ally of the tribe, sworn to come to our aid in times of peril." Ranma looked at Cologne uneasily. He was still reeling from the revelation that he was free of the engagement to Shampoo and now this! But Cologne had a point - if the Amazons simply left now he would have taken advantage of them. For all the crap they'd put him through they'd helped as well and that meant a debt was owed.
"An ally to the tribe, huh?"
"Yes. We would have the right to call upon you for support against any sufficiently great threat to the tribe. And this arrangement would not be without benefit to you."
"Put aside your scepticism child. If you are our ally why shouldn't we continue to help you? And in the short term this may prove more beneficial to you than to us."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Only that you may finally be able to free yourself from Jusenkyo's curse," Cologne smirked.
"WHAT!" Hibiki winced at the volume of Ranma's shout.
What on earth is going on in there? he wondered. The subdued looking purple haired girl who'd brought him a bowl of ramen - on the house - looked nearly as worried as he felt.
"Aiyaah," she murmured forlornly to herself, "it no sound like Ranma happy. Shampoo wonder what great grandmother say that make him so upset."
"Maybe I should go see . . ." Hibiki began uncertainly, beginning to rise from his seat but the girl pushed him back down with a surprising strong grip.
"You no interfere," she told him, "is tribe business. Outsiders no stick their noses in."
"Right," Hibiki muttered uncomfortably, wishing he understood what he'd gotten himself involved in. He'd followed Ranma here without the faintest idea of what he was getting himself into. Hell, he didn't even know what he thought he was doing here.
Don't lie to yourself Hibiki. You know why you're here. You just don't know if you're willing to go through with it.
"So . . . you're saying . . ."
"Yes," Cologne replied, "a Jusenkyo curse can be transferred to another individual under the right circumstances." Ranma stared at Cologne in disbelief.
"Why the heck didn't you mention any of this before!?" he exclaimed suddenly as the import of what the Amazonian matriarch was saying finally hit him. "Are you telling me you coulda got rid of the curse any time!?"
The glare Cologne shot him was sufficient to stop him in his tracks.
"Were you listening to me at all? This is not a simple little task, child! Transferring a Jusenkyo curse is powerful, dangerous magic. Not to mention the ramifications which have nothing to do with the magic. Of course I could have gotten rid of your curse. All it would have taken was a boy who wanted to become a girl! Or would you have been willing to force someone else to take your curse!?"
Ranma winced as comprehension dawned.
"No, I didn't think so," she observed in a milder tone as the expression on Ranma's face changed. "And now, I think perhaps it would be a good idea if we discussed this with your new friend." So saying, Cologne hopped out into the front room. A moment later she returned, bringing a nervous looking Hibiki behind her.
"Uh . . . may I ask what's going on?" he said tentatively as Cologne gestured for him to sit down.
Where to begin, where to begin, Cologne thought to herself as she looked Hibiki over.
"Tell me, young man, do you believe in magic?"
"What?" Hibiki asked in disbelief. He didn't know what he'd been expecting but it hadn't been this. The strange old woman in front of him sighed.
"Magic. Spells, potions, spirits and especially," she said with a significant glance at Ranma, "curses." Hibiki stiffened as he realised where this was going.
"I . . . well . . ."
"You saw Ranma change, didn't you? What would you call that if not magic?"
"But do you really expect me to believe . . ." Hibiki trailed off as Cologne got up and left the room. A moment later she returned holding two glasses of water, one of which was steaming.
"Would you mind if I demonstrated, Ranma?"
"I guess not," the young martial artist replied.
"Good. Now, I assume you've already seen this," Cologne said to Hibiki, "but I have a point to make. The Jusenkyo curses - triggered by cold water!" With a flourish Cologne tossed the first glass of water in Ranma's face. Ranma's form seemed to shimmer and suddenly there was a short redhead in his place. "Reversed by hot water!" Cologne declared firmly as she tossed the other glass of water at Ranma. A moment later he was male again.
"Magic?" Hibiki asked weakly.
"Magic," Cologne affirmed. "Ranma had the misfortune to fall into a spring at a place called Jusenkyo. The springs there absorb the essence of the first creature that drowns in them and then imprint it on any other living creature unlucky enough to fall in."
"Are you serious?" Hibiki asked. Cologne eyed him thoughtfully. His tone suggested that the question was halfway between an expression of disbelief and a genuine enquiry.
It will certainly help if he is open minded, Cologne thought, assuming they decide to go through with this at all.
"Magic is a mix of science, nature, common sense, willpower, symbology and chance. Don't expect it to make sense when viewed through ordinary society's preconceptions, young man." Hibiki considered Cologne's statement against some of the recent events in his own life and was forced to admit to himself that the old woman had a point. He knew from personal experience that life was a lot weirder than most people would credit.
"Alright," said Hibiki, taking a deep breath. "What does that mean for me?"
"That, young man, depends on why you've come here," Cologne replied, her voice oddly gentle. Cologne may have had conflicting feelings about what the boy was contemplating, but she could appreciate the difficulty surrounding Hibiki's decision and the courage it took to face it. "What is it you actually want, child?" she asked softly.
"I . . . I . . . I'm not sure," Hibiki replied quietly. "I've spent so much time thinking about it but I never imagined anything like this . . ."
"Of course you didn't," Cologne replied soothingly. "Nonetheless, you do have a choice to make. Now that you're faced with the reality, is it what you truly want? Being cursed by Jusenkyo is to occupy an in between state. You would be neither and both were you to choose this path."
Actually, Hibiki reflected wryly, that might not be so bad.
"Um . . . that's not really the problem," he said slowly. "It's just . . . well . . . I need to think about this. Even if I decided to I'd still have to go to this Jusenkyo place and find the right spring and everything."
"Actually, you wouldn't," Cologne said with, making a noise that sounded suspiciously like a chuckle. "After all, I can simply give you Ranma's curse."
Ranma stiffened in shock as Cologne spoke. It was stupid of him, he knew. It should have been obvious to him from the moment Cologne had raised the possibility of transferring the curse. After all, he'd come here with a guy who seemed to want the curse he had . . . or was at least thinking about it. But somehow it hadn't sunk in until just now that the guy sitting next to him might actually be willing to take his curse for him. After all this time . . . Ranma turned to look at Hibiki with an expression the mixed confusion, disbelief and gratitude. Hibiki, in turn, just looked confused.
Cologne watched the interplay between the two with carefully concealed amusement. Despite the seriousness of the situation there was some humour in what was happening. Of course this young man Ranma had come across - one Amawa Hibiki according to Ranma - had no idea of the difficulties Ranma had gone through and the part the curse had played in them, but that wouldn't make Ranma any less grateful. That was assuming gratitude would be his only feeling on the subject.
"Kami . . ." Ranma breathed. Suddenly the possibility of actually losing the curse actually seemed tangible, more so than it had been just a few minutes ago. More so than it had been in a very long time. Hibiki was, in his own way, just as shocked. For all the thinking he'd done about what had happened to him and what he'd done nothing like this had ever occurred to him. It was almost too good to be true, in some ways, but it forced him to view every thought he'd had in a completely new light and that was hard to adapt to.
"Will I look the way Ranma does now?" Hibiki asked suddenly, frowning a little sounding somewhat hesitant.
"Hey! What's wrong with the way I look!?" Ranma exclaimed, as much startled by the sudden question as annoyed by its implications. Cologne interrupted before things got out of hand.
"I suspect Hibiki's point was that he could hardly be a teacher as a young girl," she pointed out, more than a little amused by Ranma's expression of hurt pride.
"Oh," said Ranma, his ire fading.
"And to answer your question," Cologne continued, turning to Hibiki "you won't. Jusenkyo curses, with a few exceptions, work by turning you into whatever kind of a creature you would have been had you been born as one. To put it in modern terms they . . ." and here Cologne paused briefly as though she disliked the words she was about to speak, "extrapolate; I suppose you could say, from your own DNA."
"Are you sure?" Hibiki asked her.
It was the hope in his voice which he hadn't quite been able to suppress that finally decided Cologne on her course of action. Even if he didn't know it himself yet, this was what Hibiki wanted.
I'm tempted to ask him why, but I don't suppose it matters. In any case, such things are private.
"I've seen it happen several times in my own lifetime, young man. The transfer of the curse from Ranma to you will not carry any of Ranma's characteristics with it."
The two young men looked oddly similar, Cologne thought, wearing identical expressions of intermingled hope and worry.
"I think," she said slowly, "that you both need some time alone to think this over."
Ranma sat on the side of his favourite bridge, his preferred thinking spot after the roof of the Tendo home. It was true, for a long time he'd hated his curse. It had made his life miserable sometimes too. The number of messes it had gotten him into. . . Kuno, Shampoo's kiss of death, Herb and the locking kettle and of course that first misunderstanding with Akane . . . And yet, in some weird way, he'd grown attached to it. It had been a learning experience, that was for sure. Ranma stiffened as a new thought occurred to him. Cologne had said once that Jusenkyo curses didn't really happen by accident. He wasn't sure if he believed that but it seemed to have a ring of truth to it. Ryoga's curse had brought him to Akari, for instance. Had he been cursed just so he could pass it on to Hibiki? It seemed like a stupid idea and yet . . . nothing was interfering. Normally by now Kuno would have seen his girl form with Hibiki and attacked, or Ryouga would have heard about the possibility of a cure or something would have happened to mess things up . . . but nothing had. Ranma didn't consider himself the smartest guy around, but he'd figured out a few things about the curse and he was pretty sure it did more than just switch his gender and attract water. Ranma sighed with confusion. To himself he could admit that he'd more or less come to terms with the curse, that little run in with Herb notwithstanding, but it would be impossible to ever admit that to anyone he knew. His pop would freak and his mother would probably try to make her son into her daughter. The guys at school would think . . . ugggghhh, he didn't even want to contemplate that. And as for Akane . . .
No. Keeping the curse for the rest of his life wasn't an option, not if he really could get rid of it. Curse or blessing, he just couldn't afford the complications it brought into his life anymore. It was time to move on.
Hibiki sat on a park bench and thought. Was he trying to be two separate people? Schizophrenia wouldn't solve his problem. Was he two separate people? He didn't think so. He'd taught his students just as he would have had he been allowed to teach as a man, only . . . only he'd started to like being a woman.
It wasn't that he preferred one sex over the other, just that each allowed possibilities the other denied. He . . . maybe there were more aspects to his personality than just one sex allowed. After all, everyone showed different sides of themselves in different situations. Perhaps he had sides that he couldn't show as a man - no, that didn't seem right. After all he had shown them in his time as a teacher and he hadn't truly been a woman then. Had he? If that was all it was then he'd just be using the curse as a more sophisticated kind of cross dressing, something that allowed him to play at being the opposite gender for the sake of convenience. The people he cared about - his students - deserved better than that.
But he'd come to like being a woman. It enabled him to be more, somehow.
Shaken by the thought Hibiki came out of his reverie and looked about himself. Lost in his own thoughts he'd apparently gotten up wandered for a considerable time without paying the slightest attention to his whereabouts. He was standing outside some kind of curiosity shop, judging by the diverse assortment of items displayed in its window. One of them in particular happened to catch his eye. Hibiki stared at the prism in the shop window, sensing that he was on the verge of some kind of revelation. The light shone through the prism . . . people expressed themselves through their bodies . . . was the body a matrix for the personality, allowing it to be expressed? Could it be that the curse would not be a convenience but a necessity, something that allowed him to express a part of himself that he could not as a man. Not truly anyway, though he had tried without intending to. Had that been his problem before? When Kuzuha had asked if it had all been a lie he'd known that the answer to her question was no. Nonetheless, his career as a teacher had still been a lie on the surface. A truth expressed through a lie, so to speak. But with the curse he would actually be a woman. There would be no lie. Would there be, if he told everyone about it at the beginning? The effort that had gone into his pretence had drained him, putting up a barrier between him and his students that had kept them apart even though much passed between them that was true. But you couldn't strain the truth through a lie and expect it to come out unstained. And yet . . . being a woman had made more things possible than just the original deception that had gotten her the job. Perhaps he'd been wrong to dismiss the notion that a single gender couldn't encompass everything he was. Men and women interacted with people in different ways, dealt with relationships in different ways . . . living as a woman part of the time hadn't warped his personality but his students had reacted to him differently than they would have a man and that had given him opportunities he mightn't have had otherwise. He snorted to himself. Certainly some of the girls wouldn't have taken his advice as readily as they had. What teenage girl would listen to a man lecturing her on the relative unimportance of breast size? He'd have said the same thing regardless, but would they have listened? If he'd been able to teach as a man would he have had the opportunity to do something like that? The answer, of course, was no. It was almost as though he was one person who needed two bodies in order to express the whole of who he was now.
For a moment Hibiki stood stock still as that thought filtered through him. That actually . . . that actually seemed right. That was what he wanted, what he needed. He'd been unsure, because in some ways the curse had seemed almost like the easy option, but he sensed now that this was the right thing to do. It might look as though he traded between male and female at will but he realised that inside the curse would enable him to live as man and woman all the time, simultaneously, instead of chopping and changing.
Yes. This was what he'd been looking for.
Ranma and Hibiki came face to face outside the Nekohanten. Each looked the other in the eye and something unknowable passed between them. They nodded to each other simultaneously and then went inside together. Cologne knew what they'd decided as soon as she saw them, not that she'd expected anything else.
"Well then," said the matriarch, "let's get this done. I've already made the preparations. I was expecting your decision," the matriarch added as she saw their quizzical expressions. "Follow me." Cologne turned and led them up the stairs to an empty room on the first floor of the building. Judging from the outlines on the floor of the room Hibiki suspected it had been cleared out hastily specifically for them. All that remained in the room was an elegant design laid out on the floor in different coloured powders and a couple of small containers in one corner.
"I sent Shampoo and Mousse on some errands that should keep them occupied for a while yet," Cologne remarked conversationally to Ranma. "I don't need them distracting me in the middle of this. Now, you see the two circles in the middle of the symbol?"
"Good. If one of you could stand in each circle? It doesn't matter which." Cautiously Ranma and Hibiki each stepped into one of the two circles, each one about a metre across, that seemed to form the centre of the design. Side by side, they formed an infinity loop laid out in ash from an elder wood tree that had been burnt on the winter solstice.
"I would suggest you both sit down - it will be easier." Ranma and Hibiki followed her advice, both of them assuming cross legged positions.
"Easier?" Hibiki asked.
"There will be some pain," Cologne admitted, "but it will be brief." Hibiki gulped.
"Are you sure this is safe?" he asked nervously. Next to him Ranma ground his nails into his palms but remained silent.
"Oh it is safe enough," Cologne replied. "If it makes you feel better young man, I can tell you that I've done this once before and nothing went wrong." Hibiki nodded, slightly mollified.
"Now all you have to do is sit still and be silent," the matriarch told them.
Hibiki watched uncomfortably as the old woman hopped over to the containers in the corner of the room - incredibly she was still hopping around on her walking stick - and unscrewed to top of one of them. Then she hopped back over to where Ranma was and upended the contents all over him - or her, since the container had evidently contained cold water judging by the shift in Ranma's form. Then she went back to the corner and picked up two other containers. From one of them she removed a handful of pale blue powder which she shook over both of them. From the other came a handful of what seemed to be red sand, which she tossed over Hibiki. After returning the containers to their corner she removed a scroll from her robes and began to read some kind of chant from it in a language Hibiki did not recognise.
The room began to swirl around him.
Then his world changed.
Fire on his skin and ice in his veins.
Something crawling up his nerve endings. Something with claws and teeth.
Impossible sensations. Shifting, stretching, his body contorting, growing, shrinking - all at once.
When Hibiki awoke he did not immediately realise what had happened. It wasn't because of shock, he would decide later, but simply because the change was so fundamental that it seemed natural. In a way it was natural, just not natural to his experience. Slowly, very slowly, he became aware that something was different. His chest was . . . coherent thought came to a standstill as the truth became apparent.
Dear kami. It worked.
"It worked," Hibiki breathed aloud, sitting up in bed, too amazed to notice that he'd been moved sometime after he'd passed out. His mind was so overwhelmed that he couldn't even begin to think about the ramifications of what had happened. The change was just too big to think about yet, beyond awareness that it had happened.
My voice too. That's a woman's voice I'm speaking with. The same one as before! Hibiki-onna realised with some surprise.
"Indeed it did," Cologne observed. "How do you feel?" she asked wryly. Judging by her expression, Cologne suspected the woman - and she most definitely was a woman now - had no idea how to answer the question.
"I, well . . . I feel like a woman," Hibiki-onna replied with an almost chuckle. A stress reaction, Cologne supposed. That was hardly surprising, all things considered. In some ways receiving a Jusenkyo curse might be even more stressful for Hibiki than it had been for Ranma - adapting to the reality of something long desired when you'd never expected it to happen was not an easy thing.
"Hardly surprising," Cologne replied in the same wry tone of voice, "given that you are one, at the moment. Ranma wishes to thank you, by the way," she added. As Cologne gestured behind her Hibiki-onna realised that Ranma was leaning against the far wall of the small room. She'd been too distracted to notice before. Ranma walked over to the side of the futon she was sitting on and knelt down in front of Hibiki-onna, who frowned in confusion at his serious expression.
"Hibiki-sama," he said, bowing until his forehead rested on his knees, "please accept my most sincere and total gratitude for the service you have done myself and my family."
"I . . ." Hibiki-onna trailed off in shock. She had not expected anything like this. As far as she'd been concerned it had been a mutually beneficial arrangement - so far as she could tell Ranma had wanted to get rid of his curse - but she hadn't expected this from him.
"It's alright, Ranma," she said at last. "I had my own reasons for doing this." Ranma raised himself slowly and nodded.
"Well," said Cologne, "that's that, I suppose. Come with me for a moment Ranma. You should probably stay where you are for the time being," she told Hibiki-onna, "it will take you a little while to get your strength back." Ranma followed Cologne out of the room, but halted at the doorway.
"Goodbye, Hibiki-sama," he said, turning towards here and giving another formal bow.
"I expect you'll be going home now, Ranma?" Cologne asked as he followed her into the Nekohanten's front room, empty now of customers.
"Well, yeah." Cologne nodded.
"Do not forget your promise," she said sternly, "nor forget that the cure for your curse was a gift from your allies the Amazons whom you are now bound to aid."
"I'm not gonna forget," Ranma muttered, slightly petulantly. "I keep my promises."
When you can, boy, Cologne thought, when you can. But I think you will keep this one and I will send that father of yours a little note to make sure he realises how lucky he is that things have turned out this way.
While Hibiki had been unconscious she had taken Ranma aside and made him take the oath of alliance.
"Are you sure there's not some kinda ceremony or something?" he asked now, his thoughts apparently running on similar lines to hers.
"No," Cologne replied. "You have given your sworn word. That is sufficient, although you will have to travel to the Joketsuzoku village at some time in the future to swear an oath before the council, but I will contact you when it is time for that. For now, it is necessary that I return home as soon as possible. There are matters there that need my attention. And," Cologne added a moment later, her tone weary, "it would be best if you left before Shampoo and Mousse return. I doubt they will be gone much longer."
"I . . . um . . . well," Ranma began uncomfortably, "I'm sorry, you know. It's just-" Cologne held up a hand to forestall him.
"I have learnt to deal with life as it is, not as it might be or as we wish it were," she told him. "What is, is. Now, please go."
Hibiki-onna looked up as Cologne entered the room she'd been left in. Her pack had been placed at the foot of the futon and while Cologne had been gone she'd taken the opportunity to change into another pair of clothes. She'd woken up in what she'd been wearing when she blacked out, but between the powder on them and being slept in they weren't really fit for wearing at the moment. Now she was sitting on the futon with her legs drawn up under her, letting her thoughts wander as she tried to imagine what her life would be like now.
"So what will you do now?" Cologne asked her.
"I have a promise to keep," she replied softly. "After that, who knows?"
Ranma steadied himself as he stepped onto the grounds of the Tendo Dojo. All the times he'd thought about this moment, dreamed about it, and now it had finally arrived he had no idea how he should feel about it. Part of him still couldn't believe it had actually happened, even though he'd been hit by the old woman with the ladle on the way home and nothing had happened - except that he'd gotten wet.
But I know what I'm gonna do now, Ranma thought as he headed inside, ignoring Nabiki's idle query regarding where he'd been, returning Kasumi's greeting instinctively and walking past his father and Mr Tendo. He made his way up the stairs and headed for his destination.
"Mother," he said as he slid the door to his parents room open, "there's something I need to show you."
At the same time Ranma was walking onto the grounds of the Tendo dojo Hibiki-onna was standing in front of a store window.
She eyed the garment with a mixture of longing and trepidation. It was a simple white sundress, strapless but with a long skirt that fell to just below the knees. Not too expensive and an ideal garment for the warm summer Japan was currently enjoying, but unlike anything he'd ever worn before. It would look good on her too. Hibiki-onna had no idea why it should be the case, but the 'curse' had given her a female form that was the spitting image of the woman she'd once pretended to be.
You used to stroll around in a miniskirt all the time, remember, a slightly mocking voice reminded her. How is this any different?
It was different, Hibiki-onna knew, because this was the first time he was - she was - contemplating buying something like this for herself. In the past all her feminine clothing had been loaned from Auntie. Actually buying feminine clothes for personal use would be an acknowledgement of his - her, Hibiki reminded herself - dual nature.
You know what you are now. You chose this. Why so shy about admitting to it now?
It was just . . . difficult, Hibiki told herself. Change, even welcome change, took time to get used to. But buying the dress would be a good start.
And some undergarments.
An attractive young woman clad in a white sundress stepped off the train and onto the platform, looking around her with a nostalgic smile. It hadn't really been that long since she'd departed from this same platform, but somehow everything was at once familiar and oddly different. Of course, it might just have been the changes in her that made everything seem different, she reflected as she passed through the station. Stepping out onto the street she got her bearings and set out for a very familiar part of town.
Amawa Hibiki was walking steadily up the hill towards her former lodgings, wondering if Auntie was expecting her, when a brunette wearing a uniform she recognized immediately came tearing out of an alley and ran straight into her.
"Ah! I'm sorry, I'm so sorry!" the girl exclaimed as stumbled backwards, before a firm pair of hands caught her shoulders and steadied her. Kuzuha Fuuko looked up - and stopped dead. She stared in disbelief. It couldn't be . . . could it?
"Hello, Kuzuha," the smiling woman replied quietly and her heart leapt at the familiar sound even as her head told her that what she was seeing couldn't be possible.
"Sensei? Is that really you?"
The woman nodded again and as Fuuko fought the urge to simply collapse, the way stressful situations had caused her to in the past, she was suddenly struck by the woman's green eyes.
Fuuko remembered Sensei's deep green eyes, always so warm and kind, perfectly matched by her friendly, reassuring smile.
She was looking into those eyes now.
A million conflicting thoughts bubbled up inside her but none of them seemed important at the moment. With a cry of joy and recognition Fuuko flung herself forward into Hibiki-onna's arms and for a second she saw that familiar warm smile before she wrapped her arms around Hibiki-onna and buried her head in her former Sensei's shoulder.
For a moment Hibiki-onna froze, but then instinct took over and she put her arms around Fuuko and began to pat her on the back. They stayed like for several minutes before Fuuko stirred herself to speak.
"Sensei what . . . what happened?" Fuuko asked in a tone of such confusion that Hibiki-onna couldn't help but laugh a little. The warmth of it infused Fuuko with a feeling of joy that had been missing from her life ever since Sensei had left. She'd told herself that everything would be alright and now it was.
"It's a long story, Kuzuha," she said with feeling.
This is just an idea I had about one solution for Hibiki's problems. As with one of my other stories kudos goes to Durandall for writing a story that indirectly gave me the idea. Hibiki's meeting with Ranma happens as a catalyst for events in his life, which is the focus of the story, so there won't be any Ranma ½ elements in the story after this chapter.
On stuff Cologne says
All things considered, it's not impossible that there was the odd Chinese Amazon male who wanted to become female or had a problem similar to Ranma's. Hence some of Cologne's thoughts and comments in this chapter.