The Butterfly Effect
by dirge [ firstname.lastname@example.org ]
TIMELINE: Takes place in vol. 38 of the manga, post-Jusendo, but before the attempted wedding. Assuming the series runs roughly 18 months (as opposed to just a year), Akane, Ranma & everyone their age range would be placed roughly at 17 & change, Nabiki 18 and Kasumi 20. Most of the background items will be based on (rather poorly) translated Chinese versions of the manga, since I've only seen a handful of episodes.
DISCLAIMER: The characters within Ranma 1/2 are the property of Rumiko Takahashi. No infringement is intended and no money is being made off this work. Parts of this fic pay homage to the novels of Jin Yong, specifically Xiao Ao Jianghu and Xiake Xing, as well as Plato's Symposium (the speech of Aristophanes), and are recurring themes.
RATING: PG now, R in later chapters.
NOTES: First fic. C&C appreciated.
SUMMARY: It started off with a game . . .
It never ceased to amaze Ryoga Hibiki after the sun set, how quickly night would creep in and blot out China's countryside like a giant overturned inkwell.
The lost boy leaned back against the thatched roof of the inn idly watching the stars crawl across the weary and somnolent sky. It had been four days since his companions left Jusenkyo, and he had elected to stay behind just in case the floods receded.
At least that was what he told the group of wayward martial artists - two girls, a panda, a cat and a duck, the day they rolled out of the valley, their belongings packed on a bicycle and cart. Mousse and Shampoo, at least, seemed to have understood.
Two days passed and the rains hadn't ceased. On the third day, Ryoga departed. Actually, he'd been looking for the bathroom in the Jusenkyo guide's house, took a long left somewhere and ended up . . . he reckoned he was at least still somewhere within the Tarim Basin.
Though he didn't think he'd be able to find his way back to Jusenkyo any time soon, he wasn't exactly in a hurry to return to Nerima either. He didn't want to face *them*, seeing them together. He'd lost Akane just as surely as he lost her picture to the well in Jusendo and-- aw, who was he kidding? In order to lose somebody you had to have *had* them in the first place.
What would she need him for, when she had the hero?
Ranma. Always Ranma.
And as always, through an immense amount of luck and a little skill, the great Ranma Saotome had stumbled through another crisis and come out on top once again.
The hero always got the girl.
Wasn't that was how it always went?
Glumly, Ryoga realized, he would never be the hero of any story. After all, what kind of hero couldn't find his way out of a room with one door? Or turned into a helpless little (if rather cute) pig every time it rained?
In the end, no one would remember that he was the one who pulled Ranma out of Saffron's threads.
Because he just wasn't hero material.
"It's not fair!" he shouted to the unresponsive sky.
"What's not fair?"
Ryoga sat up, whipping his head towards the source of the query. He hadn't even noticed the arrival of the stranger on the roof. Sitting down about ten feet away was an older man, perhaps mid-to-late twenties, dressed in an array of clothing that appeared to be a hodgepodge of red, blue and gray-dyed swathes of batik. An intricate, gold braided belt circled his waist, and from it hung a rigid fan that bore the symbol of a crescent and a circle side by side, and a small decorative gourd. "Mind if I join you?" The accent was strange, even for this region. The lost boy shrugged and the stranger pried the lid off the jug, then offered it to him.
The strong whiff of alcohol assailed Ryoga's nose and he shook his head.
"Isn't it a little early to be drinking?"
"Probably. It's never stopped me before." He took a long drink, then lay back against the thatching and sighed. "So, what sort of misfortune were you cursing the heavens for?"
Ryoga pulled his knees in under his chin. "It's nothing."
"Does it have to do with a girl?"
"Is it that obvious?"
"No." The stranger tapped a rhythm with his fingers on the husk of the gourd. "It just usually is the case."
====----====----[ t.he elephant game ]----====----====
It was, upon closer inspection, just a letter.
Delivered with all the necessary pomp and circumstance as only a two-foot arrow could, its still-quivering shaft decorated the wall of the Tendo household a scant two and a half inches away from Saotome Ranma's twitching right eye. That being said, despite its somewhat obtrusive (and nearly fatal) nature, it was still a remarkably well mannered missive.
A civilized one even, insofar as challenges went, considering that as most would attest, the more common method usually consisted of little more than some variation on the shouted epithet of "Ranma! Prepare to die!" accompanied by a shattered wall or floor or a multitude of sharp projectiles. No, this time the destruction was minimal, negligible even (though that slight crack in the wall where the arrow shaft was still vibrating would have to be spackled over later).
Nevertheless, by the sheer weight of comparison, the letter of intent to cause grevious bodily harm to its intended recipient, with its bold-yet-intriguingly-artistic brush strokes on the envelope, could almost be considered . . . 'polite,' even if it did disrupt dinner time at the Tendos.
"Who is it now?" sighed the much put-upon heir to the aforementioned dojo, as she lowered her chopsticks to the table. Akane Tendo supposed it would have been too much of a good thing to expect the inactivity following their return from Jusendo to last much longer. After all, a whopping two days of relative normality passing without serious repercussions was . . . well, abnormal, and this particular spot in Nerima couldn't possibly attract more activity if someone painted a giant bullseye on the roof and plugged in a sign that spelled out 'Chaos park here, leave your keys with Kasumi' in giant pink neon letters below.
Without missing a beat, the eldest Tendo daughter pried the arrow from the wall and cheerfully carried it over to the hall closet. There, she opened the door and placed the weapon on a shelf where it accompanied nine more of its kind, a pile of chains, sixteen throwing knives, a pair of steel claws, thirty-two spotted bandannas, four umbrellas, a length of ribbon, a bonbori with a missing head and a giant spatula with a face-shaped dent in it.
With the letter firmly in hand, she glided back to the dinner table where, prepared to hand it over to the pigtailed boy, she paused in reading and, rather predictably uttered:
"Oh! It's a challenge letter."
Ranma, in a rather impressive display of multitasking, negligently raised one hand to accept the envelope while the other holding chopsticks battled with Genma over the contents of his bowl. After all, a fight was a fight, but sukiyaki was special.
"Just the salient information: time, place and opponent," drawled Nabiki, her recently-acquired handheld ever at ready, stylus poised to strike. The perfect merger of opportunism and high-technology, her newest toy might as well have been permanently fused to her hand. If she could have married her Palm Pilot, she would have. "Betting pools don't materialize by themselves you know."
"It's just . . . " Kasumi hedged.
"What is it this time? Princes from some piddly island? Dragons? Demigods? Pissed off fiances? That's going to up the odds a bit," the girl muttered, tapping the screen of the PDA.
She handed Nabiki the envelope. "It's for you."
That certainly was different. Though she would never admit it, Nabiki felt a slight twinge of concern about the contents of a letter that came yea close to leaving a particularly nasty paper cut had it been aimed just a quarter-foot closer to the left.
On the other hand, she hadn't been the one nearly perforated, so wasn't TOO worried.
Left eyebrow raised, she tore into the letter and came up with a fourteen page novella.
Akane peered over her shoulder. "Is it Kinnosuke again?"
"Can't be. It's not postage-due."
Ranma, in belated surprise over not being the main focus of hostilities this time, made a major tactical blunder and blinked. In that moment, his father seized several pieces of beef from his bowl.
A splash later, a tearful panda was attempting to manipulate chopsticks much too small for its chunky paws.
"It's all in Kanji," Nabiki frowned. "No, wait. I don't recognize some of these characters."
She flipped through the first few sheets as the rest of the family crowded around behind her in various stages of rubberneck, offering their typically insightful commentary.
"Looks Chinese to me."
['Whoa, big print'], came a raised sign.
"Those letters must be at least an inch high."
"It does explain why the thing's so long."
"Who would bother to write in such large . . . "
Everyone snapped their fingers, simultaneously arriving at the same conclusion.
In the kitchen of the Nekohanten, an Amazon paused in the middle of scrubbing a particularly nasty spot out of a wok and cocked his head to the side.
"What is it?" Cologne queried, more out of habit than any real concern.
Mousse shook his head. "I thought I heard something."
"So whadja do this time?" Figuring he'd displayed the obligatory amount of concern, Ranma returned to higher priorities and shoveled down a mouthful of rice. "Cheat him outta somefin'?"
A crease arched between the middle Tendo daughter's eyebrows as she mentally reviewed books, ledgers and the contents of her desk calender over the past three months . . . and still came up short.
"Maybe he's holdin' a grudge."
She processed back further, then shook her head.
"You must have done something to get his dander up," Akane pressed.
"I swear, I didn't do anything." Nabiki rubbed her temples in frustration.
"Sure ya didn't."
"So where were you earlier this evening, Mr. Part-Time?"
"I had to make a delivery, dried up old--OW!" Mousse rubbed his head as the end of Cologne's staff bounced off his cranium.
"Did your 'delivery' just-so happen to pass by a certain dojo?"
He shrugged, wiping down a table. "It might have."
"I don't understand why you're so insistent on a confrontation with the Tendo girl," the Matriarch of the Joketsuzoku sighed.
"I simply can't let this pass. You of all people should understand that."
"I said, I ain't going," Ranma declared loudly, as he bit down on a senbei for effect, emphatically ignoring the pleas coming from around the room.
Well, actually, Kasumi frowned, Mr. Tendo's tongue started forking in precursor to a rapid head inflation, Nabiki began to vocally tally up his debts and the panda was playing with a beach ball, wisely staying out of any family disputes.
Finally, Akane stood. "Come on, oneechan." She shot Ranma a dirty look. "I'll go with you," before walking her older sister out the door.
He snorted and another three rice crackers flew down his throat.
Stupid tomboy. Always sticking her nose in other people's business even when it didn't concern her. He *supposed* Akane might be somewhat perturbed if any physical harm came to her older sister over whatever grudge Mousse had against Nabiki. And then the macho chick would get it into that idiot head of hers that she could take him on, and there'd be Shampoo there, and maybe even the old ghoul, and then she'd trip or miss or do something stupid and get hurt and . . .
"Hey, wait up." He bounced to his feet and trotted after the two girls.
Not that he cared or anything.
"He was always cruel to her," Ryoga muttered, looking down at his palms as if he were trying to divine the elemental within the well-worn pattern of creases. "Calling her names. Deriding her. Stringing along all those other girls."
"Sounds like a real jerk."
"Class-A. He didn't deserve her, she deserved better, someone who would treat her nice, who would treasure her . . . " The lost boy trailed off.
"Someone like you?"
He looked down. "Maybe."
"Did you love her?"
"She was beautiful, sweet, innocent, gentle and pure . . . "
"Sounds like a real bore." The stranger gave him a sideways glance. "You didn't answer my question."
"Yes. Yes I did love her. But it doesn't matter. She never saw me that way. It was always about _him_."
"Then perhaps she wasn't your other half." Off the lost boy's puzzled look, the stranger swished the contents thoughtfully around. "Would you like to hear a story?"
Ryoga rubbed at his face absently, shrugged, then nodded.
The older man took another long drink from his wine gourd, then began.
"'Once there were three sexes of humankind. Each four hands, four legs, and two faces on one head. One was male on both sides, one female, and one both male and female.
They were smart and strong, and the gods were desperately afraid they would storm heaven and wrest control from them. They could destroy these insolent creatures, but then who would worship and fear them?
One of the gods finally decided to cripple these insolent creatures by splitting them right down the middle. Four hands became two, as did four legs, and four eyes. What was originally two became one. These halves wandered the earth, looking for the other half of their selves, so they could be one again.'
Tell me . . . "
"Ryoga. Do you think that if there were no 'Saotome' around, this girl, would she would have loved you back?"
"Yes! Maybe." He sighed. "I don't know. But at least I would have tried to make her happy."
A shadow of something ugly crossed the stranger's face before settling back into a neutral expression. "Love isn't about happiness. It was created to keep us in line and make us miserable."
Th lost boy sat there, staring into the pitch, before attempting to swallow with a very dry throat.
"I . . . I think maybe I will have that drink."
The other man smirked slighly and tossed him the gourd.
Ordinarily, Ryoga would have caught such an object without a problem. However, distraction played a large part in his fumbling with the object as it arced in the air towards him. The lost boy grabbed it by the edge of the lid, accidently snapping it off, and looked up in horror as the contents of the overturned jug splashed onto him.
Backlit against the street lamps outside, the pigtailed figure swung the door open into the dark and empty recesses of the Nekohanten. One foot softly stepped into the doorway, then another. His head pivoted slowly about, scanning the room with the wary eyes of a predator, until it locked on a familiar figure.
In the shadows stood the Amazon, hands hidden in his sleeves, face encased in shadows, save for the glint of light that sparkled dimly against his spectacles. He lifted his eyes, and they locked onto Ranma's with the same rapacious gaze.
Ranma gripped both of his hands into loose fists at his sides, the crackle of tendons popping over knuckles echoing through the cavernous room. Several fluid joints popped as he twitched his neck from one shoulder to the other, then lifted his head, arrogantly flicking his pigtail back, the trademark sneer curled onto his lip.
A pair of hands shoved into his back, sending him sprawling forward into the room, and completely ruined his entrance.
"Will you hurry up and get on with it?" The two girls stepped in after him.
Ranma turned to glare at Nabiki, then back to face Mousse.
"Hey man, whatever beef ya got with her--" he jerked a thumb back at the middle Tendo girl.
"This matter is none of your concern Saotome!" roared the bespectacled boy.
"Look, she ain't even a martial artist."
"Ha! There are no innocents in the art of war!" Mousse turned to the object of his battle lust, who had casually positioned herself behind a Ranma shield, and pointed, surprisingly enough, in the right direction. "Take heed, Tendo-san, I will give no quarter."
Before any response could be formulated, in an impossibly fast blur of movement, a barrage of objects shot out from the depths of his silk sleeves.
Ranma launched himself in forward, guarding the two girls from the impending attack of whatever deadly apparati the master of hidden weapons launched, pausing only when he noticed that the flying projectiles weren't actually being aimed at them, but rather, towards the countertop. Not only that, they were arranging themselves into a pattern.
As the flurry of activity subsided, Mousse's hands disappeared back into the sleeves of his robes and he leaned back smugly. Nabiki peered over the pig-tailed boy's shoulder, blinked, then narrowed her eyes, glaring in half-lidded contempt at the contents of the table.
"You have got to be kidding."
"Ah . . . a . . . " stammered Ranma.
" . . . a chessboard?" Akane finished dumbly.
Nabiki turned crossly to Ranma and Akane who were still attempting to pick themselves up from the ground.
"This is your fault isn't it?" She glared at the pigtailed boy.
"Actually," Akane coughed. "It's mine."
====----====----[ o.pening moves ]----====----====
Ranma Saotome was never one to disguise his thoughts or emotions. Which was the main reason his mouth got him into so much trouble in the first place, especially when it came to things he deemed unimportant - like basic social skills. Oh, he could have learned it all at Martial Arts School Of Thinking Before You Open Your Trap Dumbass, had one such school existed (A certain erstwhile fiance had looked long and hard for such a possibility, alas there was none to be had), but like most other non-autonomic functions, it fell by the wayside.
Akane personally preferred to travel by legitimate means. Skulking about shipyards, surreptitiously hopping on freighters and sneaking onto cargo holds, while common fare to the other martial artists, were not a part of her normal travel pattern. Unfortunately, when she'd been taken on an impromptu flight to Jusendo she hadn't exactly had time to pick up her passport, so there they were, taking a ride on a slow boat from China.
Genma turned in his sleep, blowing little panda bubbles out of his nose. A sign propped up next to him read ['ZzZzZzZzZzZz']. Shampoo stood at the porthole staring moodily out at the waves. Mousse kept an eye on her from across the room, watching her with some concern and trepidation - after all, she'd glomped onto Ranma only once so far, and even then it seemed a half-hearted effort.
As for Ranma, he was, well. . .
"Bored," he repeated, just in case. Sure, primates might have had better manners, and occasionally, higher intelligence, but HE could pour the hell out of a cup of tea.
"We heard you the first time!"
Fearing another repetition of the obvious, the master of hidden weapons stood and shook out a sleeve. Toys, boxes and various paraphenalia of amusement dropped out onto the middle of the floor.
"Monopoly . . . Risk . . . Dungeons and Dragons . . . " mused Akane, browsing through the pile.
Ranma tugged open the Chinese boy's other sleeve and shoved his head inside its depths. "Hey, you got a Playstation in--GLURK!" Mousse glared at the pigtailed boy and peeled the spring-loaded mace back from Ranma's face, retracting it into his sleeve.
Undoing the first frog-tie from his robe, he fiddled around inside a hidden breast pocket and held out a color Gameboy. "Will this do?"
"Hey, Zelda!" Ranma eagerly snatched it out of his hands and retreated to the far end of the room happily accompanied by noisy electronic blips.
" . . . Magic, the Gathering . . . Chinese checkers . . ." Akane continued, then paused, unfolding what appeared to be a chessboard. "This sort of looks like Shogi except the board is funny."
Mousse's eyes lit up at the last of her comments and he began to talk animatedly, arranging pieces around the board.
"It's called Xiangqi. A Chinese variant on chess, much like Shogi. Do you play at all?"
From the porthole, Shampoo groaned.
"Er, no. I have played a little western chess though."
"I can teach you Xiangqi if you like."
"I take it you're good?"
"I beat Cologne twice," he shrugged.
"One win, one stalemate," the Amazon girl qualified.
"You know very well a stalemale counts as a win."
"Mousse also no mention lose one hundred twenty seven times to Hibachan." Oh, she loved being smug about that. "But is Joketsuzoku youth champion," the lavender-locked girl grudgingly conceded.
Akane had a sudden vision of her father and Genma huddled in serious concentration over chessboards, moving wooden pieces. Then she imagined her father in Mousse's robes and glasses and a panda with purple odangos, its hairy figure squeezed into an Amazon outfit twelve sizes too small bent over the shogi board.
"What's so funny?" queried Ranma, as her lips began to twitch.
"Why look like that?" Shampoo frowned. "Is good battle training - skills needed for strategy, planning, logic in war. Good player maybe make good battle commander. Or in case of stupid Duck Boy, married to good battle commander and sweeping house."
"Yeah, yeah. Duck Boy. Good housekeeping. I still don't get what any of this has to do with me."
"Well," Akane hedged. "I might have . . . mentioned . . . that you were . . . good."
"It was all explained in the letter," the Amazon noted.
Nabiki waved the booklet in the air. "You wrote it in Chinese."
He sniffed. "I provided a translation in the back."
She flipped through the pamphlet to the last few pages, then blinked.
"Well I'll be."
"Why didn't you just write it in Japanese then!" shouted Ranma, punching the bespectacled boy's in the back of his head.
Mousse blinked. "It's just that--I--uh---well--" his jaw worked in a few more soundless contortions before finally grumping, "SHUT UP."
"This is so stupid. I didn't come all the way here to play a game."
"Afraid then, are we?" The Chinese boy laconically leaned back against the edge of the booth, features drawn up in an arrogant smirk not unlike Ranma's when he was taunting an opponent.
An odd-colored aura flared up around Nabiki, not unlike Akane's. "Of course not. It's just that I don't like to waste my time with games that are . . . unprofitable. Unless you'd care to make a small wager?" Casually sliding into the booth, she smiled in a particularly sharklike manner at the possibility of carnage in the air.
The two not unlike people in question nervously glanced at each other, almost hearing the strains of 'Da DUM. Da DUM' humming ominously in the background.
Mousse, surprisingly enough, returned an equally predatorial grin as his battle aura flared as well. "I do not enjoy taking money from women." He slid into the other side of the booth.
Da Dum Da Dum
Okay, he was DEFINITELY hearing John Williams now. Ranma slinked a couple of steps towards the door anticipating an oversized mechanical Great White to come bursting through the floorboards.
"Oh, are you? Or are you just afraid of losing the shirt off your back to a l'il ol girl like me, Silky?"
"Silky?" Akane (who also edged a few steps closer to the exit) and Ranma paused at that.
"This is your name, isn't it?" She held up the envelope up to the Chinese boy. "Granted the kanji's not Japanese, but I believe it does translate to 'Washed Silk?'"
Da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM Da--
Cologne lifted the needle off the JAWS soundtrack spinning on the record player with the tip of her cane. Leveling a withering gaze at Mousse, she grumbled something about inconsiderate youngsters, the time of night and beauty rest, before hopping back upstairs and slamming the door shut.
"Three hundred years too late for any kind of beauty rest, I'd say," muttered the Amazon, sotto.
The door opened and a spinning ashtray careened off the side of Mousse's head before shutting again.
"Now," the Chinese boy motioned to Nabiki, ignoring the growing lump on his temple. "Where were we?"
Ranma and Akane unconsciously sidled closer together in front of the door as the two on opposite sides of the booth eyed the other with matching feral toothiness. The crackle of ozone sizzled in the air caused all manner of hairs Ranma never knew he had on his body to rise in static salute.
A gilded smile.
A queen's pawn edged forward two spaces.
The tinkling of the doorbell and the human-shaped dustclouds provided the only evidence of two former figures that had stood there only moments before.
The stranger watched the tiny pig with the bandanna collar next to kettle on the Dragonfly stove with certain sick fascination. After a few more minutes, a 'bwee' shook him out of his stupor and he picked up the kettle. The piglet formerly known as Ryoga stood up and walked under the spout and looked up expectantly. He hesitated, then poured the water over the tiny mass, eyes bulging when it sprang back into the full form of the lost boy.
"That . . . " he stammered. "That's . . . "
"It's Jusenkyo, that's what it is," Ryoga sighed as he crawled back into his clothes.
The stranger's eyes grew even wider.
"The cursed springs? I've always thought it was a myth."
The lost boy grimaced, pulling his shirt on.
"I wish it were." A head popped out of the sleeve, looked around, then ducked back in.
"Is this Jusenkyo . . . easy to find?"
"A bit of unsolicited advice," warned Ryoga, wringing out his bandanna. "I wouldn't go anywhere near it. There's a reason why it's 'cursed'. It's been nothing but that for anyone who's been there."
"You mean you're not the only one who's 'cursed'?"
"Nuh, uh," he flicked off the switch to his stove, and snapped the spider legs shut, before stowing it away into his backpack along with the kettle. "Lots of different springs - panda, cat, duck, yeti-riding-a-bull-while-carrying-a-crane-and-an-eel, girl, you name it, someone I know's probably fallen into it." Busy with repacking his items, he didn't notice the stranger stiffen.
"Couldn't you just cure yourself by jumping into a man-pool?"
"Believe me, I've been trying since the beginning. So many times, I've come close, yet . . . " Ryoga snorted, shaking his head. "Maybe it's like my 'other half.' Maybe I just wasn't destined to ever find either. But thanks for the story."
The stranger smiled thinly. "Actually, it was my niece who told it to me." He shook his head. "She was in love with a boy who, unfortunately, had other obligations. Sometimes I think she clings to that silly ideology because it's all she has."
"The arranged kind."
Ryoga's eyes narrowed. "His name wasn't Ranma was it?"
A silence overtook as both men settled into their respective thoughts.
Leaning back against the thatching, Ryoga watched the crescent moon sweep along its nightly course in the sky above.
Was it true? Had Akane never been fated to be his other half in the first place? And if not, who was? Was it even a she? He really, REALLY hoped it was, in fact, a she. The idea of being part of a four-legged male was rather unappealing. And if it was a she, how would she recognize him? And more importantly, how would he find her?
An image of Akari came to him, unbidden, and he unconsciously smiled at the thought.
Tomorrow . . . tomorrow he would return to Nerima.
He'd return and then he'd ask her.
The stranger drew an old battered scroll out staring at the first two letters that spelled out "Sunflower" in old Chinese characters.
For weeks he'd agonized over the decision, of the sacrifice he would have had to made to dip into the true power of what he held in his hands. He'd come to the roof to make that decision, forsake what he was for the art, and to get as much liquid courage as he could into is body. Because he'd have to get truly, madly drunk to even contemplate what he'd been about to do.
But if what the boy said were true, it could . . . would . . . make all the difference.
"Jusenkyo," he whispered, clutching the scroll closer to his chest.