Disclaimer: I do not own Ranma ½ or any related characters in any way, shape or form. Nor do I own the concept of Wandering Shops, which are an old story convention finally codified and named by Terry Pratchett, author of the famous Discworld series.
Author's Notes: though I can't do anything for A Different Route Taken with my co-author off-line, I can still write, and finally managed to channel sufficient creativity to create this, which is hopefully the foundation for a new "series".
Prologue: Zygyg's Mirror
It was now three days since the disaster of the Reversal Jewel affair, and Ranma Saotome was finally being allowed to leave Nerima General Hospital under his own power. The doctors had been reluctant -well, more disbelieving that anyone could heal so fast- but when their tests had proved that Ranma's bones were all fused, bruises had faded and various other injuries had cured themselves, they had given up and let him go.
Ranma passed through the doors, paused to pop several joints, and took a look around. As he'd expected, there wasn't anyone here- neither fiancée nor rival. Even if the latter would have been there just to try and ambush him while he was still off-balance from the time he'd spent healing, it would have been nice to have someone there. He sighed softly.
'Geez, guess they're all still mad about that stupid Reversal Jewel. Why are they blaming me though? It was Shampoo's fault! And Nabiki's too.'
A casual observer to the whole mess would have pointed out that Ranma was the one who had deliberately tried to win Shampoo's love and affection back when he thought she had dumped him, courtesy of that stupid love-to-hate brooch she'd been wearing. Ranma would have retorted that he hadn't actually cared at all at first, that he'd only started trying after Nabiki had used it as a point to mock his masculinity. The Reversal Jewel affair had taken place barely a week after Ranma had finally met his mother- and found out she planned to have him commit seppuku if he wasn't suitably manly. And having a girl who used to literally throw herself at his feet suddenly switch to hating Ranma's guts was not a sign of manliness, as Nabiki had pointed out. His ego, which was delicate at the best of times, had been wounded by her barb, inciting it to join forces with the fear of having to commit seppuku and forcing him to try and win Shampoo back. And hadn't that turned into a disaster.
All of a sudden, Ranma didn't feel like heading straight back to the Tendos. They were probably still steamed at him anyway- nobody that Ranma knew could hold a grudge like Akane. Well, except maybe Mousse. Ryoga too, though the eternally lost boy seemed to be cooling down, albeit grudgingly. He supposed Kuno could count as well, but Ranma didn't consider Kuno worthy of anything. Shaking his head to clear the distractions from his mind, Ranma set off into town- he didn't have any real money on him, but at the very least he could take a look around and kill some time. Maybe even put on an impromptu show, like he and his dad used to, so he could score some money and head to the closest arcade.
Of course, things went sour. Ranma had been looking around for maybe ten minutes before the sky grew dark with ominous clouds, a crack of thunder echoing across the streets. Ranma looked sourly up at the clouds, the first few drops of rain already starting to fall, and repressed the urge to curse. He didn't particularly want to be a girl at this moment, so he slipped into the nearest shop to hopefully wait out the rain.
A bell tinkled musically as he passed through the door of "Honest Abe's Wandering Shop", and three thoughts struck Ranma's mind near simultaneously. Firstly, Abe wasn't a Japanese name. Second, why was this place called a wandering shop when it was quite obviously as fixed to the ground as its neighbors? And third, what did this guy actually sell? Even just inside the door, Ranma could see all sorts of junk and bric-a-brac. Here, an umbrella stand housed an upside-down electric guitar, several swords, and a couple of staves. There, videos and books -which themselves ranged from thick, arcane-looking tomes to manga volumes- were stacked atop each other. As he took in the disarray, the shopkeeper –for who else could he be- popped into view behind a counter.
"Welcome to Honest Abe's! Oh! As I live and breathe, if it isn't Ranma Saotome- this is an honor!"
"…You know me?" Ranma asked, confusion and a trace of suspicion coloring his words. Honest Abe, a gaijin -American, if Ranma had to guess- of maybe mid-20's with blonde hair and brown eyes, chuckled softly before answering.
"Anyone in the mystical world who's heard of Nerima knows you, Ranma Saotome. You're infamous. And before you ask, yes, I am a wizard– otherwise I wouldn't own a wandering shop. They call me Honest Abe because I got zapped with a rather nasty curse in my youth, and haven't been able to tell a lie since then."
Ranma didn't know how to respond to that, and simply stood there mutely, the sound of the rain gushing down outside covering what would have otherwise been an awkward silence. After a few minutes, Honest Abe spoke again.
"So, anything in particular you're looking for? Otherwise, I'm afraid I'll have to tell you to leave."
"What! Aw, come on, it's pouring outside!" Ranma protested.
Abe shook his head. "I'm sorry, I wouldn't do it if I had a choice, but my 'teacher' put a geas on me. I can't let you stay unless you're either going to buy something or have bought something."
Ranma dug into his pockets and shook his head. "All I got is 128 yen."
"Not enough. I'm sorry, but do I look like a hash'rid?"
"Hash'rid?" Ranma asked.
"A particular type of Wandering Shop owner- sells you stuff for the exact amount of cash you have on you, but it's usually cursed and almost always turns out to be more trouble than it's worth. They need to vanish quite a lot, as you'd expect." Seeing Ranma's downcast look, Abe looked thoughtful. "Well, there is one option…"
"I'll let you have a whirl at the magic item lottery for that amount. It means you're stuck with whatever artifact it comes up with, but it'll satisfy this damn geas and let me let you stay here until the rain blows over."
Ranma wasn't particularly eager to actually buy a magic item- every time he ran into something like that, it always ended up the worse for him. Even though he'd only bought something outright magical once, that being the powdered Jusenkyo Spring water, it was apparent to him that Ranma + Magic Item Trouble. Still, the only other option was going out in the pouring rain, and so Ranma walked over to the counter and dropped the coins onto it with a metallic clatter. Abe snatched them up in a show of speed that impressed even Ranma, and then turned over to the far right of the counter, where he flicked a hidden switch and made a part of the wall open, revealing a lever and a single roulette. At Abe's nod, Ranma pulled on the lever, sending the images swirling around and around before it finally came to a stop, displaying something that looked vaguely like a mirror as a chime rang.
"So what'd I win?" Ranma asked, curious despite himself. Abe ducked behind the counter and returned bearing a hand-mirror, which he held out for Ranma. Ranma picked it up, his thoughts drifting back to Cologne and her Nanban Mirror, which let the user travel anywhere in space and time by shedding a tear on its surface. This mirror was different; in shape it was stylized after a heart, and it was made of some strange, ink-black material, with rosy-pink pearls studded in it here and there. The glass itself was darkened and gave no reflection, unlike the Nanban Mirror that functioned perfectly well as a mundane item.
"That, my good sir, is nothing less than the Heartborne Eye of Zygyg." Abe declared proudly.
"The what?" Ranma asked in disbelief.
Abe shifted his shoulders, cleared his throat and adopted a general 'storyteller's' tone of voice as he began to explain.
"Long ago and far away, there lived a young wizard named Zygyg, a man gifted with natural prowess in the arts of arcana. He was devoted to mastering magic, a devotion near to obsession, and had little time for the outside world- but the outside world had time for him. Several maidens knew Zygyg, and all had sworn to make him their husband."
Ranma had a sudden weird feeling of déjà vu.
"This, naturally, confused Zygyg, whose study of magic had left him with little time or inclination to study the ways of relationships. Yet, at the same time, he couldn't bring himself to drive them away- his power and his reputation meant that those who didn't fear him were envious of his power, and thusly the girls were the closest things he had to human companionship."
Now this was starting to sound way too familiar to be comfortable.
"Thus, he forced himself to tolerate them, despite their belief that the best way to win him was to defeat all of the other girls in combat, which lead to much trouble for him. What made matters worse was that several of the girls had men who desired them for themselves, and thus they sought to defeat Zygyg in order to try and win the girls for themselves. Though they never succeeded, they refused to surrender, just as the maidens refused to relinquish their desires to obtain Zygyg's hand in marriage."
Ranma had never believed in past lives before, but this was just getting creepy.
"For an untold time, Zygyg tolerated this state of affairs, unable to choose any one maiden, but finally even his patience wore thin. He gathered all of the maidens and told them that, on the morrow, he would announce his choice. All went home happily, believing that the next day would see them declared the victor in their long-fought war. When they arrived the next day, however, they found an empty spot where Zygyg's tower had once stood, naught remaining but a single stone, upon which was inscribed a message. As Zygyg had been unable to make a choice, he had chosen to never make a choice, using his magic to remove himself to a world far beyond the one where the maidens dwelled, leaving them behind to get on with their lives."
"Yeah, yeah, but what does that have to do with this?" Ranma asked impatiently.
Abe ignored him and continued. "Though his powers waxed mightily in his isolation, his mind became tormented by dreams and ghost-visions of might have beens and what ifs, until finally he found himself compelled to delve into chronomancy, the magic of time, that he could salve these wounds upon his soul. He began using his newfound obsession to peer into his own past, to see the way things might have been had he chosen a girl rather than choosing eternal loneliness. But, he became obsessed with the infinite permutations and refinements of his art…"
Abe trailed off, seeing he was plainly losing Ranma. He sighed heavily and decided to summarize as best he could. "He started experimenting with time magic and enchanting items, and that mirror is one of his creations. Basically, by bringing into mind a relationship-orientated moment, that mirror can show you what could have happened had it gone a different way than it actually did."
"Well… you're engaged to Akane, right?" Abe asked.
Ranma grunted an affirmative, surprisingly still ticked off at Akane, despite his normal habit of not holding grudges- or at least getting over them in the span of one to three hours. Then again, it wasn't every day he ended up in the hospital courtesy of Akane.
Abe ignored Ranma's surliness and continued with his example. "Well, by concentrating on this event, you could see what might have happened had you chosen one of her sisters, or decided to tell them all where they could shove it and walked out."
Ranma either didn't know how to respond to that or simply chose not to. Abe took no offence and simply watched as Ranma eyed his new possession again. His first instinct was that this was useless to him, at least the Nanban Mirror could have let him travel back to Jusenkyo, but then his memory piped up, reminding him of the tangled web of romantic engagements he had and the myriad events that could be tied to them. Normally, Ranma wasn't one to dwell on the past (and a casual observer might have commented that that seemed to be why he always seemed to repeat the same mistakes), but for once he was in an introspective mood.
Abe, easily seeing Ranma's interest had been piqued, gestured towards a part of the shop. "There's a seat over there, and if you get bored with the mirror, there's some books there as well, so you can wait out the rain. The books are mostly harmless, but watch out for Carnivorous Tomes."
"What?" Ranma asked, nonplussed.
"You'll tell them easily enough; they have leather casings and a human face with teeth in the eyes, nostrils and mouth stretched over the front cover. Touch one and you'll be stuck inside it until I release you." Abe answered smoothly.
Ranma's eyes widened, but he said nothing, acting as though this news hadn't been startling and heading over towards the indicated seat. Taking a careful look to see that one of the aforementioned man-eating books wasn't in a position where he was likely to brush against it by accident, he sat down and began studying the mirror. As he looked into its darkened glass, his mind began to try and work out the possibilities he might try and explore.
The first option that came to mind was, not surprisingly, Shampoo. Of all his fiancées- check that, of all the girls chasing him, Shampoo had tried the most to worm her way into his heart, irregardless of his opinions on the matter. The most obvious possibility for her was, naturally, what if he had managed to say those three words at the Cat Café? What if he had told her "I love you" in an attempt to snap her out of the Reversal Jewel's effects (not that he had known it was a setup at the time)? There were a lot of others too, when he started thinking about them. One of the most obvious was the possibility that she had figured out he was lying to her about his curse, way back after he'd cured Akane of the Xi Fa Xiang Gao. There was also the possibility of having his curse revealed to her as being just that before he and his dad had fled her village back in China.
Ranma snorted at that trail of thought- like he really needed a magic mirror to know what would have happened then; he and Genma would never have left Joketsuzoku. Or… would they? Genma could be pretty sneaky, when he needed to be. The question was, could he possibly be sneakier than Shampoo or Cologne?
Cologne… there were times when Ranma couldn't help but shiver when he thought about the three-hundred-year-old Amazon. When he'd first won the Phoenix Pill from her on Snow Mountain, he'd been too ecstatic over regaining his manhood to think about it too much, but later, after seeing some more of Cologne in action, he'd come to realize that Cologne way outclassed him in terms of fighting ability- not that he would have admitted it, or allowed that to stop him from challenging her if he thought it was necessary. Still, he was grateful on a subconscious level at least that he'd never had cause to actually challenge her since that battle- he wasn't too sure he could beat her even now that he had the Hiryu Shoten Ha and the Moko Takabisha under his belt.
He couldn't help but wonder; why had she let him win on Snow Mountain? It was obvious that she could have beaten him, even with the nekoken, but she had declared him the victor and given him the Phoenix Pill that would restore him to his proper gender. Since then, she had never tried to ensnare him- oh, sure, she was undoubtedly involved in that business with the hypnotic mushroom, and Ranma was sure she had something to do with that weird red thread (the last thing he remembered was Shampoo tying it to his finger, and when he came to he'd been at the altar of a church in a tuxedo- with Shampoo standing beside him in a wedding dress), but she'd never actually gotten herself involved in any attempts to make him marry Shampoo. Even with the Ultimate Weakness Moxibustion, which would have been a perfect opportunity. He had no doubts that she could have beaten Ukyo and his dad (Akane wouldn't have even been a speed bump) with ease and then hauled him back to China, and the Ultimate Weakness Moxibustion would have rendered him the perfect breeding stud- all of his vitality, but too weak to try and escape. Or to keep Shampoo out of the wedding bed.
Still, he couldn't help but wonder; why the sudden change in plans? Why had she only fought with him until that particular point in their battle on Snow Mountain, and then stopped challenging him all together? He couldn't help but wonder- as well as wonder what might have happened had he lost that particular battle.
Then again, maybe it had been some kind of test… or maybe she was testing her great-granddaughter, trying to see if she could win Ranma on her own. Of all the girls, Shampoo had managed to get the most out of him. Why, she was the only girl Ranma had actually had a date with. If you could call the brief time they'd spent together before his conscience had forced him back to the Tendos to handle the Dojo Destroyer a date. Ranma sometimes wondered what might have happened if that date had gone a bit differently- maybe if he'd thought to ask her to reschedule it for after his fight…
Ranma shook his head; he was dwelling way too much on Shampoo, especially given that he ought to still be mad at her. What about the other girls? …What about the other girls, come to think of it. There were surprisingly fewer things he could think of for the other girls who either sought or had been bound closer to his heart. In the latter category, he could stack Nabiki- that scheming witch had always been a pain, but those tricks of hers during the brief period of time they'd been engaged… Ranma had never thought he'd be happy that Akane was his official Tendo fiancée before.
He couldn't help but wonder now, while his mind was on the topic, what might have happened had he managed to foil her machinations- if he'd kissed her like she asked on the rooftop, or if he'd managed to actually catch her in the maze. He still wondered from time to time that he hadn't stuck his foot in his mouth and blurted out to Akane that he'd actually been lying in wait for Nabiki when he'd grabbed her. Or that one of his other fiancées hadn't just happened to come along at just the right moment.
Speaking of moments, there were moments when he wished he'd known ahead of time that his options for a first kiss were either Kodachi or Mikado. The Kuno girl might have been the scariest thing he saw on a regular basis, and she had the bad point of being blood-related to the only two people in Nerima who were even crazier than she was, but at least she was a girl. Ranma would rather have kissed a cute, if completely screwy, girl than have been kissed by a disgusting, lecherous pretty-boy. And besides, one little kiss that early in his life wouldn't have really affected things that much, right? Not like getting pushed out of the ring by that stream of water during the Martial Arts Rhythmic Gymnastics match would have done.
Thinking of contest-related changes brought to mind his first battle with Mousse, and he couldn't help but laugh at the idea that came to mind. What if Mousse had, against all odds, managed to win somehow and Akane had made good with her pre-battle declaration to Ranma and beaten the Amazon boy up? Ranma didn't think that the whole Kiss of Marriage law applied to Mousse, but what if it had? He would have been stuck with the violent tomboy not just by his bargain with Ranma, but also by his own laws, which meant he would have had to actually marry Akane rather than simply prevent Ranma from being with her anymore.
With these and other ideas now swirling around his memory, Ranma plucked one at random and began staring at the mirror in his hands. As he watched, the smoked glass rippled and pulsed like a surface of water into which a drop had just fallen, and images began to form in its depths. Not just images either, for as Ranma watched he found himself immersed in absorbing the events that might have been…
Okay, and that's the introduction done. Oh, and before anyone asks, Zygyg isn't Ranma in a past life, or any relation to Ranma at all. The original concept had Honest Abe mentioning that Zygyg vanished mysteriously and he's believed to have become so obsessed with his chronomancy that he became a sort of time-wraith or temporal lich. This is basically the backstory to the various oneshots that will be posted under this story when I get around to writing them. In essence, each oneshot is a separate "vision" being examined in the magical mirror, so there is no continuity with each other apart from this 'backstory'. Though it's likely obvious, the mutual theme of these oneshots is "romantic what ifs"- how might the status quo have been altered had a canon event gone a different way?
The problem is, there are so many possibilities that I'm spoiled for choice for which one to tackle first. And that's where you readers come in: below is a list of 'moments' that I have managed to work out. When/if you review, please tell me which one of these moments you would prefer to see me write. The one that earns the most reviews will be the first one written and posted, after which I will ask you to repeat your "vote". Votes carry over, so a moment that gets five votes in this chapter, three in the next and one in the third will count as having a total of nine votes. If you have your own ideas for moments, then please suggest them by review or PM- I only ask you remain aware of these two facts.
Firstly, I work with the anime- so if the moment didn't happen there, I can't use it. I'd like to try my hand at something like "what if Ukyo was the one who gave Ranma her picture before he went to face the Phoenix Tribe" or "what if Ranma had put the Flower of Womanhood in Akane's hair and thus been stuck facing Pink & Link with only Shampoo at his side", but as I don't know the manga, I can't. Secondly, I'm only interested in Ranma/Non-Akane Girl or Akane/Non-Ranma Guy matchups. So no Ranma/Akane, Ranma/Ryoga, Ranma-chan/Mousse, or anything like that, okay?
Ranma told Shampoo he loved her during the Reversal Jewel
Ranma lost his first fight with Mousse and Akane made good on her promise to "beat him up herself"
Cologne chose to beat Ranma at Snow Mountain
Ukyo managed to actually get her "talk" with Ranma during the Great Girly-Girl Gambit episode
Kodachi managed to kiss Ranma before Akane butted in
Shampoo thought to get Ranma to sign her marriage license in secret during the Red Thread of Fate affair, so they were still legally married after Akane cut the thread at the last second
Akane's hose pushed Ranma out of the ring in his battle with Kodachi
Shampoo resisted the urge to go back and fight with Ukyo during the hotsprings race, so she and Ranma won the trip to Jusenkyo
Ranma kissed Nabiki when she challenged him to do so during her stint as his fiancée
Ranma thought to ask Shampoo to have their date after he beat the Dojo Destroyer
Shampoo figured out Ranma was lying about really being a girl instead of going back to China
Ranma blurted out to Akane that when he said "I love you", he thought she was Nabiki
When Ranma ate Akane's love-predicting sakura-mochi, an X appeared on his face
During the Ten-Year Sauce mess, Ukyo actually threw away the sauce like she said she was going to do
Ranma and Shampoo failed to kiss before Maomolin rang the bell for the 108th time