Title: Together -- A Tale of Transformation and Tragedy
Author: Rowan Seven
Teaser: A magic fountain makes one of Nodoka's desires come true in a way she neither desired nor expected.
Disclaimer: Ranma ½ belongs to Viz Communications and Rumiko Takahashi. I am not making any profit off this story.
Author's Notes: - - indicates thoughts. # # indicates signs.
Story Notes: I've been working on and off on this story for the past four years, more off than on as the fact that it's been four years clearly testifies. Consequently, there's a variation in writing quality as the chapters progress (hopefully in a positive direction), so please bear with me. Barring a few possible revisions here and there, this tale is completed and I will be posting all the chapters over the next several days. I hope you'll read and enjoy them.
Chapter 1 – The Beginning of the End
It was a bright, sunny day. The wind was gently blowing, the birds were sweetly swinging, and the few clouds overhead were white and fluffy. The morning's promise of beautiful calm and relaxation had been extended into the afternoon, and it looked like the weather would actually remain true.
None of this prevented Hibiki Ryouga from being primed to grab and unfurl his red bamboo umbrella at a moment's notice as he continued on his directionless journey through Japan, his long sought after destination the Tendo Dojo. Hazel eyes looked out at the world suspiciously from under slightly shaggy black bangs held back by a black-on-yellow checkered bandanna. Clothed in a well-worn yellow shirt and brown pants with rope bindings around the forelegs and carrying a large backpack on his back, Ryouga looked every part the tired traveler.
Pausing for a moment, Ryouga gazed around him and shook his head in dismay. He seemed to be in a park of some sort, judging by the benches, trees, and well-maintained paths around him that were filled with a few dozen people trying to enjoy the afternoon. The giant skyscrapers he could see nearby meant that he was probably still in the Tokyo area, although he knew that with his sense of direction he'd be just as likely to find the Juuban District as the Nerima Ward.
Sighing sadly, he resumed his journey, not even bothering to stop and ask for directions because he knew doing so was futile. After all, he mused, one couldn't very well be the Eternally Lost Boy if all it took to find his way was a question.
"Stop thief!" a female voice cried out suddenly.
Turning immediately to see where the voice was coming from, Ryouga was treated to the incongruous sight of a panicked young boy, probably no older than twelve, running away with a purse in his hands from a middle-aged, somewhat attractive woman with dark maroon hair who was waving a katana around.
"Perhaps I'm closer to Nerima than I first thought," Ryouga commented in surprise as he crouched and prepared to leap, hoping that he wouldn't regret getting involved and that his next act would scare the boy away from crime.
As for the boy, he was running at a frantic pace and glancing over his left shoulder every few seconds to verify that yes, the crazy woman with the katana was still chasing him, much to his chagrin. -So much for the theory of older, unattended women being easy pickings, though thinking about it now the katana on her back should've been an obvious warning sign. Stupid!- he mentally berated himself. -This situation can't possibly get any worse!-
It was then that Ryouga descended from the sky with his umbrella drawn and lightly (for him) slammed it into the ground in front of the wayward child's path, carving a deep gouge in the earth before landing himself and roughly lifting the boy off the ground by the collar of his shirt in one smooth motion, bringing him to his eye level.
"Crime doesn't pay, kid, especially when there are more honorable ways to make a living. I'm going to let you go this time, but don't let me catch you doing this again. Understood?" Ryouga spoke, voice serious and grim, as he set the shocked youth back on the ground and internally winced at how corny his speech had sounded. Still, it wasn't as if he could turn the kid in to the police since he was just as likely to wander into a secret Yakuza hide-out as find the nearest police box.
Regardless, it seemed to have the desired effect on the kid who, upon realizing that he wasn't about to be pounded into the ground, dropped the purse and fearfully ran for his life. Ryouga shook his head admonishingly as he lowered himself to pick up the purse, hoping that the would-be purse-snatcher had learned his lesson.
"Um, here you go miss," he said politely and a little shyly to the woman whose eyes were noticeably wide as he returned her purse to her. "I ah hope you don't mind about me letting that boy go. It's just that I -cough- believe in second chances, and I think the fright I gave him was punishment enough. Heh," he finished nervously, silently praying that this wouldn't take too long since he really wasn't very good with people.
"Um…that's perfectly alright, young man," the woman answered, collecting herself and fixing her blue kimono which had gotten creased during the pursuit. Almost as an afterthought, she put the katana back in its sheath on her back.
"I probably would've done the same thing myself had I managed to catch him," she told Ryouga reassuringly, a kind smile on her face. "Thanks for your assistance, by the way. Here, let me give you a reward," she said as she opened her purse and began to pull out some yen.
"That won't be necessary, miss," Ryouga said hurriedly, hoping she wouldn't take this the wrong way. "It's a martial artist's duty to help others, particularly those in distress, not that uh you couldn't take care of yourself," he added hastily, trying desperately not to offend her.
Much to the Lost Boy's relief, the woman's smile got brighter as she put the coins back in the purse. "Ah, you're a martial artist. I should've guessed that since it's not everybody who can make such an impressive entrance. Well, young man, if you won't accept a reward will you at least tell me your name?"
"It's Hibiki Ryouga, miss," Ryouga answered pleasantly, pleased that things were going so well. -If only I could be this eloquent with Akane...-
"Well, Hibiki Ryouga, once again I thank you. I'm Nodoka. Sao-" Nodoka began to say before being interrupted by a nearby bolt of lightning heralding the approach of a group of dark rain clouds that had apparently decided it was time for Ryouga's stretch of luck to run out.
Ryouga tensed immediately, opened his umbrella, and began backtracking quickly, saying nervously in parting, "My, look at the time! I've really got to be going. It was nice meeting you, Nodoka. Take care!" He then walked behind a tree and disappeared from sight.
"What a nice young man," Saotome Nodoka spoke quietly after a moment as she continued on her way, searching the sky for more signs of rain and hoping that it wouldn't get too wet before she managed to get home, "A little shy perhaps, but still rather nice."
-It was also quite manly of him to help me like that,- she thought as she felt the first drops of rain and quickened her pace. -You don't see very many people willing to help strangers out like that anymore. I hope Ranma would do the same thing in this situation.-
The thought of her seventeen-year-old son sent a pang of longing through her heart, and she suddenly shivered for reasons that had nothing at all to do with the newly arrived chill in the air. Nodoka hadn't seen her son and husband for several years and missed them terribly. The one thing that made her loneliness bearable was the thought of how manly her son must be from all his training. Admittedly, it was a small comfort, but it did keep her going.
Almost as an afterthought, Nodoka's mind focused on Ranko and a small smile graced her tired features. Despite only having recently met the Tendo's cousin, there was something about her that stirred up feelings that were almost maternal in Nodoka. It was a pity that she was such a tomboy, though, but at least she seemed happy. Still, it wasn't appropriate. If only…
-If only she fell in love with a nice boy like that Hibiki fellow, then her behavior might change for the better,- Nodoka mused wistfully, mind filling with images of Ryouga and a jubilant and very feminine Ranko getting married, having children, and living the traditional Japanese lifestyle. A wry chuckle escaped her as reality set in and she wrote the brief fantasy off as an implausible daydream. Ranko hadn't seemed the least bit romantically interested in boys yet, and the odds of her ever meeting that Ryouga character let alone falling in love with him were so great as to be laughable. -But still…-
With these thoughts in mind, Nodoka rounded a corner and blinked at what lay before her. Much to her pleasant surprise, there was a wheeled kiosk with umbrellas for sale on the side of the path. The booth itself looked colorful but inexpensive, the type of stall one would expect to see at a festival. A giant, velvet-colored parasol was open above and sheltering the kiosk, and standing behind the booth was a weary-looking and homely teenage girl with short-cropped black hair. In sharp contrast to its mundane surroundings, a miniature fountain about a foot and a half in height and carved out of obsidian was sitting on top of the table. Nodoka's eyes were immediately drawn to this centerpiece as she took in the intricate serpent ornamentations inlaid on its surface in an almost sibilantly hypnotic pattern. The scales alternated between obsidian and mirrors. An endlessly cycling spout of water poured forth from a snake's mouth reaching for the sky jutting out of the fountain's center.
Seeing her, the girl behind the booth smiled in an amiable manner. "Hello, miss. I take it you would like to buy an umbrella?"
Nodoka nodded her head as she approached the saleslady and took shelter under the parasol. "Yes I would, though I am a bit curious to know why you're selling umbrellas in a place like this."
The girl laughed cheerfully. "What better place to sell umbrellas than a park on what was supposed to be a nice day? Admittedly, there were fewer people here than I'd hoped, but I got these umbrellas for free from my uncle so doing this isn't costing me anything other than time. I just got lucky with the weather."
Nodoka frowned slightly, somewhat uncomfortable seeing such an entrepreneurial spirit in a woman when it was her belief that the man should be the provider, but she let it slide. This was the modern age, and Nodoka knew that her beliefs were a bit outdated even though she felt that they were right.
"What about this fountain?" Nodoka asked suddenly, her interest in the object raised even more now that she was even closer and saw the great care that had gone into shaping it. She could see her own face reflected and distorted in the tiny mirrors facing her as well as a dozen or so coins at the bottom of the fountain's pool of water.
The girl grinned, as if pleased at being able to share her business sense with someone else. "It's an antique from ancient China called the Serpent's Desire that I use to lure in customers. They see this intricate work of craftsmanship, come to my booth to look at it, and hopefully buy whatever I'm selling at the time."
The young woman suddenly lowered her voice to a conspiratorial level and bent over so that she was closer to Nodoka. In a sly whisper she added, "It's supposed to grant desires if you drop a coin in it. The mirrors look into your heart and discern what you want, and the magic of the fountain chooses a desire and makes it come true."
She then straightened herself out and began to laugh in amusement. "Not that I believe such a fairytale, mind you. I haven't heard of any desires coming true yet, and I usually end up donating the coins people toss in to local charities to be nice. It's just that it's the sort of thing to catch a customer's fancy."
Nodoka smiled. "Indeed. Well, far be it from me to pass by a chance for one of my heart's desires to come true, even if it is unlikely." She opened up the purse Ryouga had recently returned to her, took out a coin, and dropped it into the mini-fountain, completely missing the malevolent expression that crossed the salesgirl's face as she did this.
"I'll take that purple umbrella over there, by the way," Nodoka added, looking up and pointing at the item she'd just requested. The girl promptly handed Nodoka the umbrella, and Nodoka took out the money needed to buy it from her purse and set it on the table.
"I believe this will be enough?" Mrs. Saotome inquired politely, testing her newly bought umbrella out by opening it up.
The girl nodded her head. "Yep. That looks about right. Pleasure doing business with you miss, and good luck getting home."
"Thank you, and good luck to you with your business," Nodoka replied, some distaste evident on the last word, "May you find what you're looking for in life."
"Oh, I doubt I'll have any trouble getting what I'm after," the young woman answered, a nearly undetectable ominous note in her voice. "No trouble at all."
The day, once so full of promise and sunshine, quickly transformed into a wet and downcast afternoon which, in turn, became a chill and damp night. This didn't bother the salesgirl who was still sitting at her booth in the park in the least, though the fact that she no longer looked completely human might have had something to do with this.
Her short-cropped black hair had grown down to her waist in numerous wraithlike, almost sickly locks that laconically waved back and forth seemingly of their own will. Her skin that had once seemed so ordinary was now frightening in its paleness, and a voluminous kimono of pure white with a crimson sash around the waist provided the sole relief for any unlucky enough to glimpse her ghostly figure. Lengthy, inhuman nails painted the color of blood grew from the tops of her fingers, and a set of fangs poked out from her mouth. Her blue eyes shimmered faintly with an unnatural light, and her entire form radiated an aura of sepulchral gloom. Oh, and she was also transparent.
Her name was Tomoko, and she was an evil spirit. Five centuries ago she'd been cheated on and betrayed by the man she'd loved dearly and put before all things, including herself. In her grief she'd taken her own life, but her anger kept her from passing on and she'd slowly become what she is today -- a vengeful ghost who mercilessly inflicts her eternal pain on the living. However, unlike most evil spirits, she'd decided to take things a step further. Realizing that haunting a house was a great way to get exorcised by some priest out to make a name for himself, she'd exerted the energy needed to become mobile and connected herself to a magical artifact in her hometown to sustain herself.
The magical object was a cursed fountain that granted wishes in a ghastly fashion and was known as the Serpent's Desire. It had lain dormant for centuries, its power long since expended and dispersed by a wise Shinto priest who had known what it was and how to suppress it. However, with Tomoko linked to it, she'd been able to recharge it with her own eldritch life-force and bind it to her will. The Serpent's Desire now peered into the hearts of those who made supplications to it and revealed their desires. Tomoko viewed those desires and selected one to be realized, also deciding the manner in which the desire would be granted. Such a venture always exhausted her, and she would rest for years before assuming a new mortal guise, going elsewhere, and repeating the pattern all over again.
"Bo-oring," Tomoko complained in a frightful voice, picking a coin out of the fountain and carelessly discarding it onto the ground. "Why are all these desires so humdrum lately? Happiness, love, and wealth -- been there and done that. I want to do some real damage this time, something that'll haunt the victims for the rest of their lives!" she ended with a cackle, turning her attention to the coin that Nodoka had dropped into the fountain earlier that day.
Images appeared in the mirrors, reflecting Nodoka's desires: a manly son, a reunion with her family, a longing for the 'good old days' and more traditional culture, the occasional dark and angry wish made in times of deepest loneliness that some calamity would befall Genma for staying away for so long, a more proper and lady-like Ranko fulfilling her role as a woman and wife to Ryouga, a-
"Hold it," Tomoko hissed, focusing on the image of the red-haired buxom girl that had appeared before her. "There's something about this Ranko that feels…false."
Tomoko narrowed her eyes and peered more intently into the mirror's image of Ranko and Ryouga, willing it to reveal the truth to her. Obeying, flashes of Ranko's life passed by: a young, raven-haired boy with blue eyes, a promise made between husband and wife, martial arts training, Jusenkyo, back to Japan, fiancées, rivalries, chaos-
Tomoko smiled cruelly, pleased by what she'd found it. "So, this 'Ranko' that Nodoka wishes would become a traditional girl and get married, preferably to Ryouga, is actually a teenage boy cursed to transform into a girl with multiple fiancées and currently engaged in a rivalry with Ryouga. Even better, he is also Nodoka's son who she wants to be very manly but, fooled by his deception, believes him to be Ranko who she wishes was more womanly. Heh. This looks promising."
The vengeful spirit mused quietly to herself for several long moments, considering whether or not she should make Nodoka's hasty whim a reality. Thinking about the glimpses she'd seen of Ranma's four 'girlfriends' and the pain they must experience because of his indecision, her mind returned to her own life briefly and a decision was made. She would do this.
"Saotome Ranma," Tomoko spoke with sinister quietness, "you consistently cause four young women pain. You deserve to be punished for this, and I can think of a fate no more appropriate and ironic than this one. The femininity and womanhood you have feared for so long will become your life. You will be the epitome of the Ranko that Nodoka wants you to be, and the love you will feel for Hibiki Ryouga will know no bounds. Ranma will die, and Ranko will take his place. So declares Tomoko!"
As Tomoko said this, the picture of Ranko and Ryouga took shape in every mirror on the fountain and materialized in brilliant detail within the fountain's pool of water. Tomoko's eyes began to glow an eerie blue as the wind picked up in speed and howled. The spirit then started to chant.
"Spirits of the deep and dark,
Hear me and lend me your spark!
Let false face and falsehood be true,
This vision submit to my view!
Ryouga and Ranko,
No more each other's foe!
Love that shouldn't will sprout,
Too late will any doubt!
Fate conspire and aid,
This desire be made!
Pain and sorrow will many feel,
As my power makes this all real!"
Ending her spell with a flourish, a long, pregnant moment passed. Nothing happened. Tomoko frowned and waited for another couple of minutes. Still nothing happened. Finally getting fed up, she decided to take drastic actions.
"STUPID PIECE OF JUNK!" Tomoko yelled, roughly grabbing the snake's head that jutted out of the fountain's center with both hands and furiously shaking the magic fountain. "START WORKING OR I'LL SELL YOU ON EBAY!"
Almost seeming to be in a panic, the water in the fountain hurriedly began to bubble and boil viciously, becoming steam and rising into the night sky. Within seconds the fountain was empty. Tomoko grinned.
"Not my best incantation," she admitted a bit ruefully as she surveyed the darkness overhead, "but it will get the job done. Enjoy what little time you have left, Ranma, for soon you will no longer exist as you know yourself."
A gust of wind blew, and Tomoko, fountain, and booth all disappeared in a misty swirl. The only thing left behind was her satisfied cackling that echoed throughout the night.
It was quiet when it arrived at the Tendo Dojo.
Well, relatively quiet compared to some of the more raucous nights that frequently accompanied Nerima life. There were no martial artists leaping from rooftop to rooftop in a frantic chase, no lechers fondling and stealing female undergarments, no flying islands overhead, and no yeti-riding-bull-carrying-eels-and-crane monster in sight.
Instead, there was Genma's obnoxious snoring.
Ignoring the disquieting sound, it drew closer to the Tendo Dojo, slipping into the Saotomes' room through a crack in the window that could not prevent its body of steam from gaining entrance. Sensing its quarry nearby, it floated over to the sleeping youth known as Ranma and waited for the right moment.
It was more a purpose than a creature, and what limited intelligence it had was given by the power of Tomoko's spell. It had no true mind to speak of and worked its magic by dispersing itself throughout the entirety of its target in minute amounts, making it all but impossible to detect. From there Tomoko's will would take control and the transformation take place. So as not to be obvious and get caught, the metamorphosis was often an intricate, subtle affair that lasted for some time, the end result feeling so natural and right that nobody would realize what had happened until it was too late.
Ranma opened his mouth to breathe, and it pounced, drawn into his body by his next inhalation and carried to the lungs and then everywhere by the bloodstream. Ranma shuddered once, his keen senses briefly warning of invasion, but the moment soon passed and the young martial artist returned to the land of slumber.
The death of Saotome Ranma had begun.