I claim no ownership rights to any of the works of Rumiko Takahashi or Kosuke Fujishima, and certainly not anything owned by Warner Bros.
Four years later:
Pre-dawn, and the light coming through Raven's wide window slowly brightened. The raven-haired, gray-skinned girl winced, twisted in her sleep, then lifted one arm to block the light. She groaned, forced open sleep-encrusted eyes and froze in shock, gasping at the sight of glowing red glyphs running along her arm.
Instantly wide awake, she bolted out of bed and flew to her mirror, and found what she had feared just before her power lashed out and the mirror exploded. The same red glyphs ran down both arms and legs and circled her torso, glowing right through the skin-tight black leotard she used as both costume and bedwear, and down her bare legs. And her father's sigil glowed red on her forehead, centered underneath the red diamond-shaped bindi her Aunt Skuld had given her the day her guilt had led her to abandon Asgard and her mothers for Earth.
The day of the world's ending had arrived.
Her shoulders slumped as she closed her eyes, fighting to keep the piece of her shattered psyche that was Despair from taking over. For a moment she considered yet again trying to kill herself, but rejected the thought — she had broken her promise to her adopted grandfather and tried time and again the day after her last birthday, her eighteenth and only weeks past, when Slade had returned from the dead to first awaken the glyphs. But the powers she had inherited from her father had turned against her, bound her, shielded her, moved her to safety, moved and even destroyed threats, whatever was needed to keep her alive and well. No, self-destruction simply wasn't an option, and she didn't have the time to waste.
Turning from the mirror as her hooded cape floated over to draped itself across her shoulders, she walked over to one of her shelves and reached out to touch a crystal knickknack shaped like a racing motorcycle, sending a tiny pulse of power into it. The knickknack lit up with a pure, white light for a long minute before pulsing twice.
That done, she stepped to the center of her room and waved a hand, and the dark energy she commanded for all purposes but one washed out across her room, lifting the piles of books that she had read again and again as she'd futilely sought to find a way out, shifting them against the shelves lining her bedroom walls to leave the floor empty. With the space cleared, she floated over into the center of the room and shifted legs and arms into the lotus position. She closed her eyes as a circle of pure white light sprang up around her, and a split-second later was falling — and then flying — through the same fractal tube that had first delivered her to Earth.
Within seconds, much faster than her first return trip two days after her last birthday, she was approaching the white fractal barricade that protected the Divine Realm from intrusion, then flashed through. She ignored the sensation of hostile, overpowering force awakening as it recognized her inheritance and straining to be unleashed, to obliterate her — thanks to the exception that Kami-sama had ordered be made for her that she'd learned of on that first return trip, she wouldn't be that lucky.
Then she spurted out of the same gate that she had used to leave four years earlier, spinning in the air and bringing herself to a halt, hanging in the air in front of the Gate's circular plane of multi-shaded white fractals.
"In a hurry, much?"
Raven turned in place to face the voice to find a young woman waiting, hair as raven-dark as Raven's own framing the blue hollow teardrops on forehead and cheeks, in a face as cute now as it had been when she had been a child. The coverall and T-shirt that the goddess had worn when she had seen Raven off four years before, and the much more feminine shimmering silk-like folds of a dress she'd worn the last time Raven had seen her several weeks before were absent, replaced by a tight bodysuit that radiated power to Raven's Sight. Still, there was a smudge of oil along one side of her nose.
"I need to get back to my friends," Raven replied, and tried to force a smile as she dropped down onto the tiled circle in front her aunt-in-heart. As the last time she'd met Skuld several weeks earlier, she again squelched a spark of incongruous Pride at how close the two were in height, now — Raven had done some growing, over the past four years, and could almost look the goddess in the eye. It doesn't matter, now. "Hello, Aunt Skuld, as cute as ever."
Skuld mock-scowled. "Don't remind me," she growled, "I'm getting tired of the 'little sister' routine. One god I was hoping would ask me out actually patted me on the head!" She grinned at the laughter forced out of Raven, before sobering. Reluctantly, she asked, "Is today the day?"
Raven's laughter cut off. "Yes," she whispered, gaze dropping, distantly surprised when she realized that the sigils on arms and legs had vanished. Not that Aunt Skuld needed to ask, not dressed like Mama Lind, she thought. She didn't know how the Norn of the Future had known, maybe her job title was all the answer she needed?
She shrugged the concern aside — she was short on time. She asked, "Did you find anything useful?" Maybe ... but Skuld shook her head.
"No," she said regretfully, "nothing that can stop the Devourer. You aren't surprised, are you?"
Raven shook her head. "No, I'm not," she murmured. And she wasn't. She had found any number of tomes and mystical items hidden away in various bolt holes when she had returned to search the temple to Trigon that Slade had lured them to the second time he had sprung up, deep underneath where Jump City's first library had been built (which might have had something to do with the library's abandonment, now that she thought of it, swift enough that books were still on the shelves). As Skuld said, when she'd gathered up everything she could find and broken her self-imposed exile from Asgard a second time to deliver what she'd found to Skuld and asked her to check out the heaped-up pile of random loot, Raven hadn't really expected a cult dedicated to bringing her father to the Earth to have a way to keep him out. Still ... "Did you find anything, anything at all?"
"Yes, I did," Skuld replied, "but I don't see how it can help you." Reaching into her still-favorite storage place when in battle dress (if for a somewhat different reason, now) — between her now obvious if not bounteous breasts — Skuld pulled out a small clothe pouch embroidered front and back with sigils. She opened it and dumped four black crystal rings into her palm. "Rings of protection, against the Devourer's arrival," she said, "whoever has one of these on her person when he arrives won't be locked in stone and turned into a life force battery."
"And that is supposed to be an improvement?" Raven asked, peering at the rings — the circles of crystal seemed to sing to her, her sisters in power. "When my father comes, Earth will become a barren wasteland. Anyone with these rings might be able to get water from rainfall, but that just means they'd die of starvation."
Skuld suppressed her wince at Raven's acknowledgment of her relationship with Trigon. Instead, she shrugged nonchalantly. "Who knows? The Devourer is a very nasty piece of work. Perhaps he views a lingering death on a dead world to be a suitable reward for helping him kill it."
"Yes, that sounds like him," Raven agreed absently as she gazed at the rings, feeling Hope and Love rising, fighting with Shame. Hope was the weakest of her emotion fragments, Love much stronger, but the two combined weren't strong enough to force Shame down. Abruptly turning away from her aunt, she stepped over to the edge of the gate's tiled circle, gazing into the grove of trees that surrounded it. She couldn't stop the world's end, but thanks to the rings she could save a few. But she'd need help to do it, and not just from Skuld.
Behind her, Skuld waited as the seconds ticked by, then finally sighed and stepped over to join the (much) younger girl. "When you visited me a few weeks ago, you didn't tell me that it was your second return visit," she said conversationally. "Father's not talking, as usual, but you wouldn't believe some of the wild rumors going around about it."
Raven chuckled mirthlessly. "If those rumors say that I actually attacked him and managed to tear up his office, they're right."
"What?!" Skuld shouted, turning to stare at her adopted niece. "In Father's name, why?"
Raven shrugged. "I tried to force him to kill me," she replied. "Wasted effort, of course, I never had a chance. He just let me throw him around, use him to break up every piece of furniture and decoration he had until I tired." And then sat down in the middle of the debris and held me until I cried myself out — just like five years ago. The memory of that night rose in her mind: Kami-sama sitting on air, holding her as she'd sobbed out her fear of her own dreams, and the memories they would bring. And as well, she remembered what her grandfather had said about her mothers and their love — and Hope and Love triumphed as Determination joined them, forcing Shame back into the recesses of her mind that all her fragmented, personified emotions shared.
Straightening, Raven turned to a Skuld still stunned by what she'd just heard. "I'll need the rings. And ..." She hesitated, but could feel Love and Determination pushing her, demanding. " ... and I need to see my mothers," she finished.
A few minutes earlier:
In the early predawn (the daily cycle of their piece of Asgard long since adjusted to match that of Jump City, since Raven had made that city her own), Mara lay in the bed she shared with Urd, her arms around her lover. She stared into the dark, counting Urd's breaths, as she had all night as seconds ticked away into minutes and minutes into hours. As she had every night since Raven's birthday — the day that Skuld had called to tell them that the time they'd all feared had come, that the runes needed to channel Raven's life into the portal for the Devourer had manifested, and for the monster to make the link his daughter shared with all that lived on Earth — to Gaea in all her glory — his own.
Since then there had been only one other report from the Norn of the Future, when Raven had returned to give Skuld her findings from the temple of the Devourer's now-dead cult. Urd had demanded that they all receive links to the bindi Skuld had given Raven when she left so that they could monitor Raven as well, but Mara and Lind had talked her out of it — they had originally decided to give up their own links because of how much of a distraction they'd proven, what with the Teen Titans' many fights, and would prove even more of a distraction now. And with the Devourer's coming at hand Lind and Urd, at least couldn't afford any distractions, not when they were preparing Hild's Furies and Kami-sama's Valkyrie for the battle to come. If Raven failed and the Devourer came, maybe — maybe — they could defeat him while he was still weak, if they hit hard and fast enough. But only if the wings of the Valkyries and Furies worked together, and over the past few weeks Lind and Urd had been hammering that need into their subordinates (occasionally literally) as they worked out joint plans and areas of responsibility.
Which was why Lind and Urd were the ones sleeping under a mild compulsion placed on them by their co-mother, while Mara lay sleepless hour after hour, night after night. True, as a goddess and a god/demon hybrid, at need they could have gone without any sleep at all since Skuld's first report and still been functional on the day of reckoning, at least so long as they kept any exercises of their power to a minimum. But they needed to be more than just functional, they needed to be at their best, while Mara — no fighter, not at the level of Lind and now Urd — didn't. So they slept, and she waited.
Then even as the predawn light slowly brightened a soft alarm chimed, the tune it played out letting her know that Skuld was finally calling again — finally, and much too soon.
Heart in her throat, Mara cancelled the sleep compulsion as she rolled over her lover and dashed to the bedroom's vidphone to hit the acceptance stud. The phone's hologram sprang to life to reveal Skuld in her battle-dress bodysuit rather than the typical grease- and oil-stained blouse. The youngest Norn promptly blushed beet-red and slapped a hand over her eyes, anddemanded, "Could you two put something on before answering your phone? Or at least use the audio-only?"
Mara glanced down at her nude body, then back over her shoulder to where an also-nude Urd was sitting up in bed, sheet pooled about her waist. Since Skuld's call on Raven's birthday, sex for the pair had gone from an occasional (though pleasant) pastime to a nightly comfort — both divine and demonic lacked the biological imperative behind mortal sex drives mandated by the need to replace each generation, but it still played a role in building and affirming the closest of relationships. And Mara and Urd had needed that affirmation and the comfort and temporary forgetfulness it brought very badly. Also, the full-body skin-to-skin contact had helped Mara immeasurably, both during her nighttime vigils and carrying over into the days between. Personally, Mara didn't know how Lind was dealing with their daughter's situation without it.
Urd paled, but that was the only sign of her recognition of who was calling and what the reason for the call had to be. She rolled out of bed and snatched their discarded robes from the floor, handing Mara's to her before shrugging into her own. Mara quickly followed suit. "It's safe to look, sorry," she apologized.
Skuld peeked through her fingers, then dropped her hand with a sigh of relief, frowning quellingly at Urd's soft chuckle. Her big sister seemed to have decided that Skuld was too much of a prude (somehow completely missing her little sister's attempt to make herself more attractive without appearing to 'come on' to anyone) and was determined to 'loosen her up' a bit, and Skuld was getting tired of it. But she had more important concerns than her sister's teasing, so she ignored Urd's delight in her embarrassment. "It's time," she announced simply.
Urd's chuckling instantly cut off. Now all business, she asked, "The runes have activated?" Skuld nodded, and Urd sighed as Mara's hand latched onto her own. "Has she contacted you yet?"
"No, but —" Skuld broke off as she glanced to the side. "Yes," she continued, "there's her signal."
"Good, we'll leave you to the meeting, then, while we get our own plans activated." Urd reached for the 'off' stud, then hesitated. Just as Skuld was reaching for her own stud, she hurriedly asked, "Skuld, could you ask her to visit us, before she goes back?"
Skuld paused, then nodded sympathetically. "Of course," she agreed, before the screen vanished.
"Today's the day?"
The lovers turned to find their purple-haired co-mother standing in the doorway, already wearing her own white blue-trimmed battle suit. "Yes," Urd answered.
Lind nodded. "Get cleaned up and dressed, I'll send the alert to Kami-sama and Hild, and the Valkyries and Furies' current watch officers," she said, and turned to race down the hall even as Urd and Mara agreed.
The two had finished their rushed ablutions and Urd was helping Mara with the last fastenings of her red and gold battle suit with its ubiquitous twin streamers (instantaneous cleaning and dressing one more unnecessary use of power perhaps needed later), when they heard the visitor's chime sound, from the main entrance. The goddess and hybrid rushed for the foyer, slip-sliding and bouncing off walls in their haste, arriving just as Lind slid open the door to reveal Skuld ... and in front of her, their daughter.
The gray-hued girl had her hood draped down her back and her cape slung back over her shoulders to reveal the usual leotard ... no ankle-boots, no gold chain-and-flame-red jewel-belt, no wrist-guards. Raven's face was invisible as she stared at the step into the house, but Mara could see the tremors running through their daughter's body, and ribbons of dark energy were undulating around her.
Raven jolted slightly as Skuld gently pushed one shoulder. "Go on," the Norn encouraged, and Raven took a stumbling step across the threshold before looking up, violet shoulder-length hair framing wet violet eyes. She opened her mouth only to struggle silently with herself for a long moment, before abruptly wailing, "Momma, I'm sorry!"
They never learned which mother she meant or just what she was sorry for — leaving (running away, to call it by its right name) when they needed her as much as she needed them, the four years of silence that followed when she could have returned at any time, the world's destruction she was about to help bring about, any or all of them. Before she could continue Lind pulled her close, Mara and Urd hugging them both. Raven melted into the embrace, sobbing as her Momma Lind pulled her face down to her shoulder and Mommas Urd and Mara gently rubbed her back and murmured encouragement and comfort.
Finally, Raven's tears eased off and she sighed and straightened, shrugging off the three-way embrace with a watery, apologetic smile. Behind them Mara heard a sigh of relief, and the four turned to find Skuld slumping and her arm dropping to her sides, face beaded with sweat, as the last signs of the bubble of energy she'd encased them in faded away — and the last hints of Raven's dark energy with it. There were some scorch marks on the walls, a window was missing most of its glass and a side table and chair were so much kindling, but their home still stood.
'Nice going, little sis, thanks for making sure we still have a house," Urd said wryly, and her co-mothers laughed softly at Raven's furious blush.
Raven hastily turned away from Skuld and looked over her mothers and froze, eyes widening. Almost against her will, she reached up to trace one of the red triangles on Urd's cheek, looked over at the blue triangles and slash marks on Mara's face — the evidence of her two mothers' change of allegiance. "What ... when ... how ... ?" she stammered, new ribbons of dark energy beginning to flicker around her.
Lind commanded, "Easy, control!" and watched sternly as Raven closed her eyes took a deep breath, and the fresh energy ribbons faded away. "Better," Lind said when Raven again opened her eyes, and Mara reached up to trace her own blue cheek 'tattoos', smiling.
"Just after you left," Mara said, "say hello to the new Norn of the Past."
"Norn of —" Raven broke off and looked over at her Mamma Urd.
"The newest commander of Niffleheim's Furies," Urd said, grinning at Raven's shock.
"Because ... because of me?" Raven managed to ask, voice barely audible.
"Yes," Urd said, face turning grim, "because of you ... because of what Genma and Rothgan did to you. Because I needed to help make them — make others like them — pay for their sins." She paused and took a deep breath, forcing a gentle smile, before continuing, "But as wonderful as it is to have you here again, we're running short of time. What do you need from us? You do need something from us, don't you?" Raven stiffened for a moment before her shoulders slumped and she nodded sharply, her eyes falling. Urd reached out to cup her chin and tilt her head back up. "It's not your fault," she said softly. "Blame the powers you inherited from the Devourer, blame the need for control we taught you — emotionally charged confrontations aren't exactly conducive to keeping iron control of your emotional state. Your memories of your life as Ranma, what Genma did to you, can't have helped. It's not your fault. Now, what can we do for you?"
Raven looked desperately at her other mothers, and took heart at Mamma Mara's encouraging smile and Mamma Lind's calm nod of acceptance. The Valkyrie seemed her normal stoic self, now that the hugfest was over, but to anyone that knew her — and Raven did, even after four years — she practically glowed with happiness at their daughter's return. "It's good to have you home, whatever the reason for your return, however short it might be," she said quietly. "How can we help?"
Raven turned to Skuld. "The rings?"
Skuld again pulled the bag out from between her breasts (scowling at her big sister's lifted eyebrow), and quickly explained the rings' purpose as she handed it to Raven. When she finished, Raven took over.
"I'm going to give these to the other Titans, so they'll be protected from Father's arrival," she said. "When ... when I'm gone, and Father has come, I want you to rescue them, to give them a home here in Asgard as long as they need it. Can you do that?"
Her mothers exchanged glances. What their daughter was requesting broke all kinds of rules — the only reason Belldandy was going to be able to save her husband and children was because they were bound to her by marriage and blood. But then Urd nodded. "Yes, we can. If need be I can find a place for them in Niffleheim, Mother won't mind."
Raven's eyebrow rose at Urd's reference to Hild — it was the first time she could remember her mother using that label for her mother — but let it pass, one more thing she would never learn the story behind. She was running out of time, and had one last thing to do before she returned to Titan's Tower. "Thank you," she said quietly. "Is my mirror still in my meditation room?"
Urd shook her head. "No, we moved it to your bedroom," she replied as she and her co-mothers stepped to the side.
Raven sat crosslegged on her bed and stared at the mirror her grandfather had given her so many years before, watching as her sister — well, sort of her sister, there wasn't any genetic relationship anymore but would have been if she'd still been Ranma — tinkered on a motorcycle, half the engine spread on the concrete around her. In the five years since Raven has last used the mirror her little sister had done a lot of growing up, and now she filled out her blouse and leather pants nicely. Raven still found it hard to believe that Nodoka had approved — though considering how short her sister's platinum blond hair was cut, not even shoulder-length, and the leather jacket she was wearing, apparently this time Ranma's mother had no problem with her daughter being less than womanly.
"Well, maybe Mom learned something," Raven murmured. Not that it was going to matter once her father came, whatever her grandfather said about the souls sleeping until life rose again to provide bodies for them to be born into, and taking their current life experiences with them — no matter how hard she tried she just couldn't take that long a view, not in her heart where it mattered.
Still, she was putting off who she really wanted to check on, and she didn't have time. She opened her mouth, then froze as a new girl walked into view, stopping next to Ranma's sister and saying something (at least, so the way her lips moved indicated — the mirror didn't come with sound).
Even though she was dressed in a school uniform, the only word to describe the girl was 'elegant' — she exuded grace with every move she made, and her light green hair gave her an exotic beauty that took Raven's breath away, as much or more than Aqualad ever had. Raven was suddenly acutely aware that she wanted to live. Yes, the baby that Raven had left with Nabiki and Kasumi to raise had turned out very well, indeed. It's not fair! she wailed to herself, and seemed to hear a familiar snort.
What gave ya the idea that life's fair? Ranma's voice seemed to echo mockingly from her past life, and she had to smile wryly.
Nothing, I suppose, she thought back. She didn't have time for an angstfest, and since she had already briefly looked in on Ku Lon (she could still remember her shock when she remembered Ranma's first encounter with the 'old ghoul', and realized who had been living with Nodoka and the Tendos all those years), as well as Kasumi, Nabiki and Nodoka, she had one last person to check in on. "Show me Akane!" she commanded. The view in the mirror vanished into the familiar glowing mists, then cleared to reveal her former fiancée, seventeen years old, the raven-haired girl dressed in T-shirt and shorts. She was lying on her stomach on a bed, propped up on her arms with a school textbook open in front of her.
Raven lifted up from her bed and drifted over to the mirror, and reached out to touch its glass over the oblivious girl. The reincarnation of the angry, sweet, distrusting, supportive, spiteful, friendly girl whose strike at Ranma's back had set up the redhead for her murder — and who had then, when her attempt to kill herself failed, had trained for a kamikaze run on Niffleheim to rescue the spirit of the girl she'd helped kill and, when Raven came to her, tried to guarantee her friend's freedom at the price of her own life. As always since she had remembered Ranma's time with that damaged girl-child she couldn't watch her without a storm of conflicting emotions and when one of a pair of crystal flower vases on the dresser beside the mirror exploded she hastily cleared the image. It had been so easy in the heat of the moment to tell Akane she loved her, to promise to reawaken her memories — to finally work things out between them, friends or lovers. Now, it was one more broken promise. "I'm getting as bad as Genma. I'm sorry, Tomboy," she whispered.
"Forget it, Raven, you couldn't be as bad as that waste of a life if you tried. It isn't in your nature."
As the second flower vase exploded, Raven continued to stare at her reflection for a long moment, fighting the urge to tell her Aunt Skuld exactly what her nature was. But however true it might be, it wasn't what the goddess needed to hear — and it wasn't as if it would matter in the end. When she again had herself under control, she turned to the door and forced a smile for the youngest Norn. "Let me say goodbye to my mothers, and you can send me back."
Yes, I know this chapter is pretty angsty. Kinda hard to avoid it, it's laying the foundations and Raven's a mess.
The chapter title comes from (in my opinion) possibly the finest short-short ever told in human history, the Parable of the Prodigal Son.