Disclaimer: All characters and other thingies within belong to their respective creators. Ranma 1/2 to Takahashi Rumiko, Sandman to Neil Gaiman.
At the End of the Tunnel
Chapter 4 - Desire
Ranma stepped out into a brightly lit Western-style apartment. The room she was in was sparsely yet tastefully decorated with various pieces of furniture. A small table, chipped and worn with age, held a fishbowl containing a pair of goldfish. A square-shaped mirror hung on the wall, set at head level. Next to it was what appeared to be a picture of a family gathering. A long, overstuffed sofa took up one side of the room. On the opposite wall was mounted a wide black screen that looked somewhat like a TV, but Ranma had never seen a television that thin. Between them was a coffee table that had obviously seen better days. Death was nowhere to be seen. Having nothing better to do, the currently female martial artist flopped down on one end of the couch.
Death's voice came from a side room, sounding slightly muffled. "Want anything to drink, Ranma?" The redhead got up and peered in. Her eyes were met by a small, cozy kitchen, complete with oven, fridge, and stove. Death had the refrigerator open and was rummaging through it. She came up with a bottle of Coca-Cola in one hand and lemon tea in the other. "Sorry, this is all I've got right now."
"I'm fine, thanks," Ranma said, with a wave of her hand. She looked around, her eye catching the kettle sitting on the kitchen's small stove. "D'you got any hot water?"
"Sure," Death replied, filling the kettle with water and setting it back on the stove. She poured herself a tall glass of tea, added a few ice cubes from the fridge, and left, shooing Ranma out in front of her. She tipped the martial artist a wink. "It'll be hot soon enough."
Ranma took one corner of the couch, then flinched nervously as Death casually seated herself right next to her. She still wasn't quite used to having women in close proximity to herself in situations which didn't involve imminent heavy beatings. However, the pale girl sipping lemon tea next to her didn't seem to mind, and Ranma calmed down in short order.
A short silence fell, broken only by the slight clink-clink of the ice-cubes in Death's glass as she took another drink. At length, she said, "So."
Ranma blinked. "So?"
Death shook her head. "I'm thinking of what to say."
Another short silence.
"Alright," Death said abruptly. "I'm going to be honest, Ranma. It's the least I can do after keeping you in the dark so far. Although..." She paused, and smiled at Ranma over the brim of her glass. "To tell the truth, you never asked."
Ranma spluttered. "Hey! You kept things moving so fast-" She would have expounded more on the unfairness of the situation, but was interrupted by a high, piercing whistle.
Death looked up, setting her glass down on the coffee table. "That'll be your hot water," she said. She walked into the kitchen and returned a moment later, gingerly handling the steaming kettle. It disappeared from her hand as Ranma snatched it eagerly. "Wait! It's-"
Before she could say aught else, Ranma upended the kettle above her head, letting the steaming liquid splash all over her. "Hot," Death finished lamely.
Five minutes later, after Ranma had finished his impromptu solo rendition of the Waltz of Scalding Water, Death scooted over so he wouldn't have to sit on the wet spot on the sofa. The martial artist ran his hands carefully over his tender face, doing his best not to wince at the throbbing pain. He ignored the stifled snickers coming from his side, happy just to be male again. "Okay," he started, biting back a low hiss as the movement of his lips stretched his enflamed skin. "Tell me what this is all about."
"We - my siblings and I - are the Endless," Death explained readily, spreading her hands apart. "We embody the seven aspects of sentient consciousness and the universe as a whole: destiny, death, dream, destruction, desire, despair and delirium."
Frowning, Ranma asked, "Delirium's an aspect of the universe?"
"Delirium used to be Delight, but that was a long time ago and another story altogether," the pale girl said. "Anyway, we've existed since the first living being came to be, and we'll continue to exist until the universe itself comes to an end."
The pigtailed boy blinked, struggling to fully comprehend the fact that he was sitting across from a girl who was older than the planet he'd been born on. "And I thought the crone was old..." he said quietly.
Death sniffed and turned away from him, saying, "I like to think of myself as young at heart, thank you very much." Her voice was the picture of offended indignation, but the grin on her face gave her away. "But anyway.
"We represent, reflect - and, to a certain extent, control - the concept that's our namesake. If one of us dies, another aspect manifests to insure that things go on as they should."
Ranma nodded hesitantly, thinking back to his conversation with Dream. "Yeah, Dream told me some of that stuff. Said he was the second Dream or something. But what's all that got to do with Destruction? He ain't dead, right?"
"That's exactly the problem," Death replied. "He's not dead, he just abandoned his duties and left, a few centuries ago. Another aspect can't fill in his place because there's no place to fill. I met him a while after the wake for Morpheus - the first Dream. Del had almost lost herself and he'd shown up to take her with him for a while, and I took the opportunity to ask him what he thought was going to happen now that he'd given up his role."
Death took another drink before continuing. "He told me that destruction would continue to happen as before, just not as controlled as it had been before he left. It looked like he was right, until a few years ago."
"Well, normally," Death started, "destruction is a kind of controlled cycle. Things are destroyed and elsewhere, other things come into being. Following me?" Ranma nodded, and she continued. "But without anything to keep it in check, it's all becoming more chaotic, the whole process is quickly spiraling out of control. The reactions that cause destruction are becoming more volatile; they last longer and cause more damage than they should. It's a kind of vicious circle: creation can't keep up to replace the things that've been destroyed, and as the difference becomes more pronounced, more destruction takes place, and less creation. If things continue as they're looking to, the end of the universe will come about a few trillion years ahead of schedule. Still following me?"
Ranma's brow furrowed in concentration and he paused for a moment before nodding slowly. "If this Destruction guy don't get his act together, everything blows up."
Death laughed lightly, unable to stay serious at the martial artist's succinct summary. "In a nutshell, yes."
"So..." Ranma frowned. "Where do I come into this?"
"Long answer or short?"
"Short," Ranma said, making a face. "I think I did more thinking in the past six hours or so than I did my entire life."
"Well... for reasons known only to himself, Destruction wants you to replace him," Death said, not bothering to hide her smile at his gobsmacked expression. "Yeah, shocking, isn't it?"
"But... but why?" Ranma blurted. His brain's higher thought processes had temporarily shut down, keeping him from coming up with a better question.
"Beats me," Death said, "but he asked for you by name. And from what I've seen of you, he could have chosen worse." She gave him a bright smile.
Ranma, being Ranma, simply grinned in response. The words came without any conscious thought on his part.
"I'm the best."
Death wisely chose not to reply, merely taking a sip from her glass.
At length Ranma spoke again, pointing out a flaw in Death's explanation. "But you told me that if an Endless dies, then another comes to take their place."
"Something like that," the girl acknowledged.
"Then if Destruction is really making the universe go down the drain because he won't get his ass in gear, then couldn't you just... umm..." He shifted uncomfortably. "Kill him?"
"No!" Death exclaimed, looking horrified at the prospect. "He's my brother, Ranma. And besides, I don't kill people. Death and killing are two completely different concepts."
"Oh," said Ranma, mentally hitting himself. It wasn't every day one suggested to a girl that she kill her own little brother. He looked for something to change the subject. "So... say I bite. What's gonna happen?"
Death frowned, saying, "I'm not clear on the specifics either; nothing like this has ever been done before. All I know is that it won't be safe or easy by a long shot, and even if you succeed there's no guarantee that you'll remain you, Ranma Saotome. I want you to understand the risks involved in this, and that I'm not forcing you to do anything. You can back out of it at any time, and nobody will hold it against you. It's entirely your choice."
Ranma's eyes narrowed. "If it's my choice, then why keep me in the dark about it up till now?"
"I thought you'd need some time to get used to your death," Death said honestly, having the grace to look embarrassed. "I couldn't figure out a good way to break it to you, and then Del went and forced the issue."
For a moment Ranma was silent, staring at nothing as he turned it over in his head. "So if I say no to this, then I go on to wherever I was normally supposed to go?"
"Yes," Death said, "and it's not Hell, if that's what you're wondering."
"And the whole universe bites the big one a long time from now, but earlier than it was supposed to?"
Death paused before answering the blunt question. "Mhmm."
Frowning, Ranma stared at the pale girl sitting across from him. She met his gaze firmly - a part of him absently noted that what he was doing now would have earned him a swift beating had one of his fiancees been around to see it - and Ranma saw the truth in her eyes. At length, the martial artist said, "Aww, hell." He forced a lopsided grin. "You know I can't refuse something like this. After all, Ranma Saotome never backs down from a challenge."
Death didn't know whether to laugh or to be exasperated at his simple optimism. "But, Ranma-"
"So what do I got to do?" Ranma interrupted, cutting her off. "Let's get this over with before I change my mind or something."
"I ain't got all day, Death," the martial artist said impatiently, obviously trying to keep his companion from voicing her concern. "Come on, tell me."
"I don't know!" Death nearly shouted, her voice tinged with exasperation and annoyance. Fixing Ranma with a mock glare, she said, "All I can tell you is what Destiny told me: you have to meet each of the Endless to receive a part of what makes us..." She shrugged. "Us."
Ranma blinked. "But I didn't get anything."
"It's bestowed when one of us deems the recipient ready and worthy," Death explained. "Dream and Delirium approved of you, and so did I. Destiny probably will as well, but as for Desire and Despair..." She shrugged, looking vaguely worried. "I honestly don't know."
"So this... essence you're talking about is part of me now?" Ranma asked, looking confused.
Death nodded. "You might experience a few strange feelings and emotions that you wouldn't have normally, but eventually everything will be naturally absorbed by your soul to..." She trailed off, frowning.
Ranma wasn't listening. In fact, he wasn't even looking at Death. His blank gaze was fixed on his solar plexus, and before Death could do anything, he started to glow.
I don't know how I didn't notice it before.
It's meshed all through myself, woven in my soul like I was born with it.
It ain't ki, and it ain't magic, I've seen both enough to know that much. It's something different, so bright and powerful it makes my own ki look dull. Know how it's like when you look at the sun? Take the sun and tie it into my ki, and that's what I'm looking at. Or at least, trying to look at.
There ain't no words to describe how complex, how strange this stuff is compared to anything I've ever seen or felt before. It ain't some kinda energy, like ki is. I touch a part of it, a gold light moving just below my solar plexus-
The Dreaming is dark and desolate, even more so than it normally is. I find myself staring openly at my brother, his untidy black hair plastered to his bone-white skin by the driving rain. My umbrella's been swept away; I let it go because it's suddenly not important anymore, not important at all compared to the three women - no, beings standing before us. He talks to them, and suddenly their petty taunting is more than I can stand. I speak sharply, and as the Furies leave he turns to look away from me, the faint light in his dark eyes dimming. We exchange meaningless banter, trying futilely to stave off an inevitability that comes much too soon for my liking. I reach out to him.
"Dream?" I say, feeling strangely detached, emotionless. "Give me your hand."
A single pale finger touches my own and-
Someone grabs my shoulder and shakes me hard, and reality slams back into me like a bucket of ice-cold water.
The light hit his open eyes like a physical blow, making him squint. He reeled back, but the light seemed to follow him and he staggered, disoriented. "Wha-" he started to say, then stopped, confused. The voice wasn't her own. His own.
Death looked into his eyes, both hands firmly gripping his shoulders. "Ranma," she repeated, a hint of worry seeping into her voice. "What happened?"
"Death?" Ranma asked, looking decidedly out of it. "I- You-" He shook his head hard and the mist over his eyes cleared somewhat. "I... I was talking to Dream, except he had black hair, not white. He was talking to three women who weren't really women. Something worse than that. I got mad at them and made them leave, and then told Dream to take my hand..." He trailed off as Death flinched and drew back, shock written across her features. "Death?"
"That was Morpheus," she said softly. "The first Dream."
"But... But I never met him. I thought he was-"
"Dead," Death finished, nodding. "What you saw - what you experienced - was one of my memories. I hadn't expected you to actually be able to access them at all, but you managed to use your ki to connect to them."
"Oh." Ranma scratched his head, feeling like an ass. "I'm sorry for making you remember." The words sounded lame and insincere to his ears, and he winced.
Death waved it off. "I've had time to deal with it. You just surprised me." Seeing that Ranma had gotten his bearings, she touched his arm lightly. "Now you know the danger. You have the potential to lose what makes you who you are, by taking so much of us into yourself. Are you sure you want to do this?"
Ranma looked at her as if she'd gone mad. "I promised, didn't I?" he said, as if that explained everything.
"But-" Death stopped, realizing that he'd had already made up his mind and wasn't likely to change it. She sighed and gave him a little smile. "More and more, I'm seeing what made Destruction pick you."
"I'm the best," Ranma said again, with absolutely no trace of arrogance. "When it counts."
He looked around and the family picture caught his eye. "So which one's Desire?"
"Fourth from the left," Death said automatically, then stopped. "Wait-"
It was too late. Before she could do more than get to her feet, Ranma had impulsively walked over to the photograph hanging on the wall.
"Hey, Desire. I'm Ranma Saotome. Lemme in," he said, and vanished. Death stood up to follow, but frowned as Desire's likeness in the photo started to darken, fading to black.
"I'm sorry, sister," a silky smooth voice said from nowhere, "but I'd like to have a heart-to-heart talk with Ranma alone, if you don't mind. Don't worry, I'm not going to torture him." The voice paused, amusement obvious in the momentary silence before it continued.
"Welcome to my parlor," a voice said, as Ranma got used to his surroundings. He looked around, taking in his surroundings for a moment. The walls were tinted a deep scarlet, lit dimly by candles placed around the room. The owner of the voice lay on a plush silk futon, a pale androgynous figure who stared back at him with tawny yellow eyes.
"Sit," it said, gesturing to a red loveseat. Ranma did, and opened his mouth to speak.
"So," the being interrupted, plucking a lit cigarette from midair. "You're Ranma." It shot him a grin that resembled Nabiki's so much that he found himself reaching for a non-existent wallet.
"I'm sure Death has told you all about me," Desire said, and Ranma blanched. Death had certainly not told him all about Desire, and he had absolutely no idea of what to expect. "But I'll introduce myself anyway.
"I am a being who is the absolute, pure and undistilled manifestation of everything and everyone you desire, have desired in the past, and ever will desire in the future." Its smirk widened as Ranma failed to make sense of the words.
It got up and extended a hand to shake. "In other words, Desire of the Endless."
"Ranma Saotome," the martial artist replied, shaking himself out of his daze and gingerly taking the pale being's hand in his own like he supposed he should.
"Lovely," said Desire, with a smile that stopped far short of its eyes. "Now that we've got those formalities out of the way, I'm going to be perfectly honest with you, and admit that I despised you."
The words were said with no visible change of expression or tone, and Ranma almost missed them. Almost being the key word, unfortunately, and the young martial artist frowned as he caught the meaning. He opened his mouth wide, preparing to stick his foot deep inside, but Desire spoke first.
"Can you imagine how audacious it sounds?" Desire asked, sounding more exasperated than anything. "We're Endless. Immortal by definition, powerful beyond imagining. Even the gods sit beneath us. As I sit here talking to you, I'm everywhere. Existing in every aspect of every concept of desire that's taking place." It gestured vaguely with its cigarette. "Even now, sitting with me in my realm, all you can really perceive of me is one facet of what I really am. Your field of perception, the scope of your being is so limited compared to me that it galled me."
"Oh, come now," Desire said, snorting. "Surely you didn't expect all of us to like you instantly? You're finite. Mortal." It said the last like an epithet, not bothering to hide its disdain.
"Hey!" Ranma said, trying to get a word in edgewise. "You don't know nothing about me when you're saying all of that!"
Desire laughed, its mirth cold and razor-sharp. "Don't know anything about you? You're simple, obtuse, an idiot when it comes to anything but fighting. Focused to the point of obsession on martial arts and a cure to your so-called curse, and so trapped by an arbitrary code of honor that I'm willing to bet you were actually relieved when you died, and all those engagements and promises became null.
"I was the driving force of your life. Your desire to become the best, to practice the art - did you catch that, Ranma? Desire. I know you better than you know yourself."
Ranma deflated visibly at the brutally honest description. It was true - that was what made it hurt. Desire's words blew straight past the barrier of his ego and embedded themselves in his chest, staying there and burning painfully like embers. He'd never had much in the way of words, and he knew enough to realize that any defense he tried to mount would be ruthlessly cut down.
Desire let him stew in his own juices for a moment before speaking again. "So, taking all of that into consideration, imagine my surprise when I discovered that I could actually tolerate you." The androgyne's voice was full of mock-disgust, but Ranma thought he could detect a hint of grudging respect in its tone.
"But I thought you said-"
"I despised you, yes. Take note of the past tense, my potential sibling," the Endless said carelessly, banishing its cigarette and summoning another. "Like I said before, you have an awful lot of shortcomings, on top of the whole mortality business." It paused a moment, as if pondering what it had said, before shaking its head. "Positively galling."
"Still, my older sister seemed very optimistic about you - not that she's not optimistic about most things, but she was insistent that I give you a second chance." Desire shivered suddenly, its eyes briefly losing focus and a frown twisting its perfect features. "Very insistent."
Ranma grinned, his confidence coming back to him in a rush. "So you found I wasn't such a bad guy after all, huh?" The grin turned into a frown as Desire promptly snorted, its expression telling him in no uncertain terms that such was not the case.
"Give me a break, Saotome. I can hear the sound of your ego inflating from here," it said, smirking. "I don't like you, per se - there are a handful of beings in all of existence that I'll admit to liking and you aren't one of them - but I'll tolerate your continued existence, and that's more than I can say for most mortals. Most immortals as well, come to think of it."
Desire fixed him with a flat stare. "The decision to put up with you didn't come easily. It's not in my nature to accept you, and the only reason I actually made an effort at all was because my siblings asked me to. Even then I had to think about it for quite a while; there're only two reasons why I'm suffering this damn-fool plan that Destruction's come up with. The first, more minor reason is because after taking a long, hard look at your life, it seems that perhaps you weren't as stupid, self-centered, close-minded and incredibly egotistic as you first seemed. And the emphasis is on perhaps."
It held up a hand before Ranma could say anything. "Let me finish before you go and open your big mouth. The second, more important reason, is because Destruction picked you for the job." It gave Ranma a moment to digest that piece of information and then continued. "Family bonds between myself and the rest of the Endless have never been quite what I'd call loving - at least, not since that whole business with Morpheus and that blue-skinned girl back then. Still, I liked the big red oaf enough to trust him, and respect his wishes when he said he wanted to be left alone, unlike some other siblings I could name." It let off a short bark of laughter at Ranma's utterly lost look. "I can see I'm confusing you, so I'll sum it up.
"My choices involving you have far less to do with who or what you are, and far more to do with the fact that my estranged sibling, misguided and sometimes delusional though he may be, sees in you something that says you may just have what it takes to become something more than the sum of your parts. That you might possibly be able to transcend the limits of your mold and become..." It stopped, gesturing again with its cigarette. "Endless.
"Frankly, I doubt any of this will work. What you're attempting to do has never been done before. Ever. What Morpheus did with the Hall kid was a gamble that was so meticulously planned, so stupidly improbable, so incredibly lucky that it actually worked. What you're going to do is sort of like that, minus the meticulously planned part. It's more like you're mixing a bunch of volatile chemicals together and hoping against hope you get something drinkable."
Ranma gulped hard, the implications of what he was going to try to do hitting him full force for the first time. It humbled him for a moment, before his spirit flared up and he rose to the challenge. A crooked grin found its way onto his face and he looked into Desire's eyes, not flinching against the other's tawny gaze. "Don't have to worry about that. I'm about as lucky as they come."
Desire smirked at him. "Lucky enough to learn a martial art that drove you clinically insane when in prolonged exposure to cats, saddled with multiple binding engagements and cursed to become a girl when you're splashed with cold water?" It watched his grin falter before adding lightly, "Then again, seeing as you managed to come out of all that relatively unscathed and not a quivering mess of nerves, I suppose you might possess a substantial amount of luck, yes."
There was a short silence as Ranma recovered from just over half an hour of having circles verbally danced around him, and Desire took a final drag of its cigarette before carelessly tossing it over its shoulder. It disappeared before it hit the ground.
"You've spent enough time here, Saotome," Desire said, getting up and motioning for Ranma to do the same. "Any more and I'm afraid your overwhelming ego may end up irreversibly tainting my abode."
Ranma blinked. "Hey!"
Desire ignored his protest and disappeared into an adjoining room which Ranma was sure hadn't been there moments before. Ranma glared after it for a moment before throwing his hands up in defeat and following the Endless. Inside the room was a gallery similar to the one he'd seen in Dream's castle. Desire strode past the book bound in chains, past the intricately carved square emerald, past the empty frame where nothing hung, to the hooked ring which took its place second from the right. The androgyne held it in its hand.
"Despair?" it said smoothly, "I stand in my gallery and I hold your sigil. Will you talk to me?"
A flat, quiet voice replied, "You know what my answer would be, my twin. What do you want to discuss?"
"Ranma Saotome is standing beside me. I wish for you to allow him passage into your realm."
There was silence for a moment before the voice spoke again. "Ranma. Very well. Will you be coming through as well?"
"I think I'll stay here."
"I see," the voice said, devoid of any real emotion that Ranma could perceive. He shivered, feeling suddenly cold. "Enter, Ranma."
Desire held out the hooked ring, its expression unreadable. Ranma reached for it, hesitated, and drew back his hand to scratch the back of his head.
"Umm," he started, scowled, and made a visible effort to bring his hand down. "I just wanted to thank you for..." He paused, searching for the words. "Giving me the benefit of the doubt."
Desire rolled its eyes before grabbing his hand, forcing it palm up and dropping the ring onto it. "It might have something to do with the fact that if you fail, I'll end up ceasing to exist a few eons earlier than I had intended to. And I do so enjoy living, if you catch my drift."
Before Ranma could say anything in reply, he vanished.
Standing alone, Desire was silent for a moment before shaking its head slightly.
"Still can't understand what he sees in him," it muttered to itself, but it grinned nonetheless. Then Desire walked out, leaving only the heady scent of spring peaches to linger in its gallery.
Next chapter: Despair