"Master, Shampoo bring food."
Ukyo turned and glanced at the Amazon as she unloaded a mountainous pile of fish, their bodies still moist from the nearby river's water. Ranma, for her part, smiled gratefully and gestured for Shampoo to sit alongside her. The pair began a muted conversation, their words unclear to Ukyo, and before long, Shampoo was leaning into Ranma's side, letting her head rest upon her master's shoulder.
Ukyo turned away, leaving the pair to themselves, and surveyed the horizon. Ranma had picked a good spot to rest. They were sitting atop a cliff that overlooked a nearby valley which gave them both a panoramic view of the land ahead and one less front to defend during the long stretch of night.
The land before them appeared friendlier than the land behind; the steep mountains and inhospitable forests gave way to gentle, rolling hills that seemed to stretch on for an eternity, the swaying grass that lined them seeming to beckon her onwards.
She could not deny that this was a beautiful place; the small island she had spent almost all of her life upon was pleasant in its own way, but the seemingly-endless stretches of land, decorated with haunting, empty mountains, and achingly beautiful valleys, was like nothing she had seen before. It was simply stunning - she wished she had time to admire the wondrous scenery, but she could not afford herself that luxury. There was a job to be done, and she would not stop until it was complete.
She had, during her time with the two others, come to respect Ranma, both for Ranma's keen survival senses and the kindness she had been shown during their shared journey. Rescuing her from those soldiers was more selfless a deed than many would have undertaken; to escort her afterwards, to share food and company was extremely generous. She had nothing with which to repay the kindness of her companions, so she vowed to herself that one day she would return their favour.
Each night they settled down and gathered a fire, usually made from wood dutifully gathered by Shampoo. They would stay like this for a time - although very few words passed between them - then extinguish the fire and go to sleep.
It was an odd arrangement. Ukyo herself did not rest; she had seen others sleep, but could not remember ever doing so herself. She had always thought that a little odd, but in Ranma she had found someone else who shared her habit. Ranma did not sleep at all either, which meant for strangely haunting evenings as the pair of them would lie awake with the sleeping Shampoo between them, curled up against her master.
She stared at the stars overhead, cast like pale embers amongst the wispy clouds. The moon hid behind a large group of clouds, its light peeking out through holes in the cloud every few moments to cast a brief luminescence upon the landscape. They had to be near Edo now. They had to be.
She drew her legs to her chest and encircled them with her arms, resting her chin upon her knees. As much as she longed to see the village, to complete the task she had set out upon so many years ago, she could not help but feel a sense of dread. She wanted to finish her task; the very thought of it clawed at her mind in every moment of every day, but even with the fires of determination burning so hotly inside her she could not help but feel a paralysing anxiety at the thought of being so close to him.
She sighed, and closed her eyes, trying to banish such thoughts from her mind. It was not the time to second-guess herself.
Ukyo winced as she tied a small knot in the bindings she had wrapped around herself, twisting her arms at an awkward angle to give her hands access to the middle of her back. The material was wrapped tightly around her torso, compressing her breasts against her ribcage. It was a tight fit, and uncomfortable in the extreme, but she did not care. She had been travelling far too long to ruin her plans by making a last-minute mistake. There was much to be said for taking the proper precautions.
She heard Ranma calling to Shampoo but could not make out the words. When the Amazon girl had spotted a trail of smoke rising from beyond a ridge, Ranma had quickly climbed a nearby tree to get a better vantage point. Ukyo had taken the opportunity to excuse herself. Now, with thick brush on one side and a stream on the other providing cover, she continued preparing her disguise.
When the bindings were tied to her satisfaction, she reached higher and tied her hair into a tight ponytail, tying it in several places along its length. She carefully dangled it down her back and pulled her tunic back over her bare shoulders, concealing both her hair and her bindings within its fabric.
It was a crude disguise, but she reasoned that she would only need it to stop him from recognising her from a distance and making his escape. Crude would suffice. She leaned over the gently flowing waters of the river and inspected her reflection.
She looked just like a boy. Perfect.
The Amazon was still waiting obediently at the trunk of the old oak tree that held her master, looking upwards with a hopeful look upon her face as Ukyo emerged from the foliage. Ukyo shook her head. Shampoo was obviously strong, capable, and intelligent in her own right, and yet she continued to serve as Ranma's lackey, seemingly gratefully.
She wondered, for a moment, what Shampoo would do without a master to serve. Perhaps the Amazon simply needed to be told what to do. From what little she had learned of the girl, it seemed that Shampoo had been instructed from a very young age by her great-grandmother. She seemed to lack any sort of independence whatsoever.
"Any word?" Ukyo asked as she neared the tree's trunk.
"No," Shampoo replied. She glanced down for a moment, a quizzical look passing over her face as she noted Ukyo's change in appearance. "Why girl want to dress like boy?"
"There are people in Edo I'd rather avoid," Ukyo replied, with a nonchalant shrug of her shoulders. There was no reason to tell this girl any part of her plans. They were none of Shampoo's concern.
Shampoo seemed almost ready with another question when the leaves overhead rustled loudly, distracting her - much to Ukyo's relief.
Ranma dropped from the branches, twisting her body gracefully as she fell, landing with a soft thump upon the grass. She quickly straightened, the fairly sizable fall leaving her seemingly no worse for wear. Ukyo glanced upwards, wondering just how far Ranma had fallen. This girl had obviously spent a lot of time training in order to recover from such a long fall so easily.
"That's definitely Edo," Ranma said, answering the obvious question before it could be asked. "It's changed a lot in the last few years, but that's definitely it."
"Excellent," Ukyo said, her reaction far less enthusiastic than Shampoo's excited clapping. "How far away is it?"
"Not far. A few hours' hike. We should make it today if we leave now," Ranma replied. She raised an eyebrow as she looked Ukyo up and down. "What's with the outfit?"
"Like I said before," Ukyo replied with a sigh, "there are people in Edo I'd rather avoid."
"I ... see," Ranma replied, obviously curious, but willing to let the matter drop. She paused, a thoughtful look crossing her face. "I guess nobody would recognise you as a boy."
She shrugged her shoulders. "Come on, let's get going. If we go now we might make it there before the sun sets."
"Sounds good to me," Ukyo agreed. She turned to leave, pausing as she noticed Ranma was not following. The girl stood still, staring up at the sky overhead. "Are you coming, or not?"
"Sorry," Ranma replied. "It's just ... I used to watch the sun set between these hills on the horizon. I remember sitting for hours with Kayoko just watching the sun go down and the stars come out. It's been so long, I never thought I'd see those hills again. I'm ... home."
Ukyo looked back and forth at the sprawling collection of huts that made up the village of Edo. They could see the whole village from their vantage point. While not the largest village they had come across, it was not small at all. She could see people moving back and forth between the buildings, conducting whatever business remained at the end of the day. The sun was setting slowly behind her, casting its rays over her shoulders to give buildings and villagers alike long, slanted shadows.
Wispy trails of smoke rose from almost every hut, lending the village a warm, peaceful appearance that set her on edge. How could he live in such a peaceful place? How could she kill him amid all these innocent people?
"Is so quiet," Shampoo said, breaking the silence as well as Ukyo's concentration.
"Wonderful, isn't it?" Ranma said, a happy sigh trailing her words. "I'd forgotten how beautiful this place is. It's much larger than I remember."
"Let's go," Ukyo said, her voice grim. If she was going to do this, she was going to do it tonight. There was no turning back now.
"Where is everyone?" Ukyo asked, glancing back and forth.
The village was quiet, save for the endless chirping of insects. Other than the occasional villager, the streets were empty. Invariably, the people who caught sight of them eyed them with apprehension and quickly shuffled off in another direction from the strange new visitors.
A variety of ramshackle houses surrounded them, loosely arranged into a circular pattern, its epicentre located where they were standing. The dwellings were, by and large, all roughly the same size, in roughly the same state of disrepair. There was a hint of sickness that hung in the air, an intangible sense that something was out of place within the village.
"This isn't right," Ranma observed. "This isn't how I remember home. I don't recognise anyone."
"Ten years will do that," Ukyo suggested. "In this world the only constant is change."
"Nowhere changes this much in ten years," Ranma said, shaking her head. "There's something wrong."
"Shampoo think this is nice place, Master," Shampoo offered, trying to lift her master's spirits. "Is nice home."
A young boy rounded a nearby hut and stopped in his tracks as he caught sight of the trio of girls. He stared for but a moment before darting off in the opposite direction.
"Wait!" Ranma called, but the boy was long gone. "Come back!"
"They don't seem to like outsiders very much, do they?" Ukyo asked, glancing to Ranma.
"I don't understand," Ranma replied, turning in place to look around the empty village. "This is a fishing village. Traders come and go all the time. These people ought to be used to visitors."
"We hardly look like traders," Ukyo pointed out. "Maybe they just don't like strangers."
"I guess not," Ranma said, with a sigh. "This isn't how I remember it at all."
The trio stood for a time, Ranma growing increasingly morose and Shampoo increasingly worried about her master. Ukyo sighed; she did not have time for this. At least Ranma had a home, that was better than nothing. Ukyo had never known what it was like to have a comfortable home - for as long as she could remember she had been on the road.
Shampoo gave Ukyo a plaintive glance; it was obvious the Amazon wanted to lift her master's spirits, but did not know how. With a roll of her eyes, Ukyo set about changing the subject. She did not empathise with Ranma in any real sense, but the sooner the girl stopped sulking the sooner they could continue their journey.
"So where does this ... Kayoko, is it? Where does she live?" she asked, attempting a distraction.
"Near the south edge of the village," Ranma replied, lifting one arm to point. "At least, she did the last time I was here."
A window of opportunity presented itself to Ukyo, and she eagerly leaped through. Ranma did not need Ukyo to lift her spirits; she had her little slave-girl for that purpose. No, Ukyo's task was far more important, and she did not want Ranma to see what she had to do.
"Then this is where our paths separate," Ukyo said. "My business lies to the north."
"What? You're leaving?" Ranma asked, obviously taken aback by the suddenness of Ukyo's declaration.
"I'll probably be in town for a couple of days at most," Ukyo replied with a nod. "Then I'm going back to Okinawa. I have no reason to stay here."
"Just like that, huh?" Ranma asked. "I thought you'd stick with us longer than this."
"I'm tied to no one," Ukyo replied, casting a brief glance in Shampoo's direction. "But I'm sure we'll meet again some day."
"I hope so. It's kinda nice to have friends for a change," Ranma said, a smile coming to her face as her worries were momentarily forgotten.
Ukyo smiled at Ranma's shift in mood. Perhaps she had helped out a little after all. "Thanks again for rescuing me from those soldiers."
"Heh. You're welcome," Ranma replied, a smirk lighting her features. She extended her hand toward Ukyo. "You're really a free spirit, Ukyo. It was ... nice knowing ya."
"You too, Ranma. You're a good person, and that's a rare thing these days," Ukyo said, holding her hand toward Ranma. "Good luck with your journey."
"Goodbye," Ranma replied, shaking the offered hand. "Until we meet again."
The house stood before her, illuminated by the light of the rising moon, a dusty ruin that had fallen prey to the ravages of time. It looked to be falling apart, rickety wood holding together only by the narrowest of margins. The roof had partially caved in, allowing years of rain to enter through the gaping hole. The building was covered in filth, years of neglect having taken an obvious toll.
Ukyo sighed; it seemed the residence had long since been abandoned. If he did not live here, where did he live? How could she track him down with no idea of where to begin?
Deciding that a clue might be contained inside, she stepped toward the house. It was little more than a hut, a hovel. The front door was, she imagined, once made of sturdy wood, but all that remained were a few splintered planks that rattled back and forth against a rickety frame. Pushing the door aside, she stepped inside.
The room was dank and dusty, the fetid air heavy with moisture. A large puddle lurked in one corner, the continuous dripping of water from the thatched roof helping it to grow. One day, it would expand and consume the entire house, sinking it into the bog. Much like a starving prisoner destined for execution, the house was sallow and sunken, its will to live abandoned as it sat silently, awaiting the inevitable.
There was very little to speak of inside the house; a small table at its centre rocked back and forth in the wind on a split leg, the wood quietly complaining with each gust. A rotten pile of fabric lay near one wall, half-submerged in the greenish puddle. Perhaps it was once used to sleep on; now its only purpose was to feed the mould that grew upon it.
On the far wall, however, was something that immediately grabbed her attention. A sword hung against the wall, lit by the thin beams of moonlight that pushed their way through the ever-thinning roof. It was a simple, slightly-curved sword contained within an unusual scabbard. The top half of the scabbard, near the hilt, was covered in an ornate, curved design engraved into the metal; the lower half, however, was left completely bare.
Ukyo felt a strange feeling of familiarity; she knew this sword. She remembered it from ... somewhere. The details fluttered inside her mind, dancing out of her reach no matter how insistently she tried to grasp them. Her curiosity was overwhelming; she stepped to the sword and pulled it down from its resting place.
She expected the sword to be stuck inside its scabbard, judging by the moisture in the house - but much to her surprise it slid easily free. It was a simple sword, forged from strong metal, unremarkable in every way; if not for the scabbard she may well have overlooked it entirely. Even so, there was something about the sword that called to her, that spoke to her most distant memories.
I know this sword's name, she thought. I've seen this sword before ... I've touched it before.
Lofting the weapon, she examined the tempered blade with wide eyes; it was in immaculate condition, the sharpened edge glimmering dangerously beneath the waxing light of the moon.
I remember you, she thought as she examined the sword. She gently guided it around her in a gentle swing, loosening and tightening her grip upon it.
It was light, swift and beautiful to behold, her sword-hand feeling utterly at ease wielding the weapon. Her fingers curved around the handle instinctively, remembering of their own accord the best grip to use.
I've held you before, she decided, nodding her head as she brought the tip to the scabbard and slowly slid the weapon home. It fell into place easily and she held up the scabbard, resting it across both hands. A flash of recollection illuminated her mind; she did not come here merely to kill him. She had come for the sword, as well.
I know you. Your name is Seriatim, isn't it?
"What do we do when we find this Kayoko, Master?" Shampoo asked, falling back to her native Chinese.
"I don't know," Ranma replied, chewing her lip thoughtfully. "Pops told me to find her, he didn't say what I was s'posed to do after that."
"I remember," Shampoo said with a nod, remembering the conversations they had had regarding the Kayoko girl at the outset of their journey. "It wasn't a very specific wish, was it?"
"To be honest, I'm kinda hoping she'll know what he wanted," Ranma said. "Pops used to talk to her mother quite a bit after her father died. I never really found out what they used to talk about, but I'm guessing it has something to do with why I'm here right now."
"Your father was an unusual man," Shampoo observed. She immediately snapped her hand over her mouth and glanced, wide-eyed, at Ranma. "I'm sorry, Master, I didn't mean to offend you."
"Heh. Don't worry about it," Ranma replied with a smirk. "He always used to go off on training journeys, even before I was born. I'm sure he's seen all sorts of things that he didn't tell me about. You're right - he was pretty unusual."
"I think all men are unusual," Shampoo said, shaking her head.
"You're an Amazon, you're supposed to think that," Ranma replied, chuckling. She gestured to her chest. "Don't forget, though, I'm a man under all this."
"Please don't remind me," Shampoo replied with a grimace. She glanced around, obviously eager to change the subject. "Does Kayoko live nearby, Master?"
"I think so," Ranma said, glancing back and forth. The area looked familiar; while new huts had sprung up since the last time she was around, she was fairly sure they were heading in the right direction. "I think she lives just a little further along this street."
She paused, and glanced at the houses that were nearby. They were in various states of dereliction - some seemed ready to fall over with the slightest gust of wind, others were home to circling swarms of insects; most were caked in layers of mud. No matter how quiet the village seemed at that moment, it was obvious that a lot of people came and went on a daily basis, in order to make such a mess. Her memories were of a small, peaceful village, not this sprawling, inflamed township.
"This place was pretty small when I left. Sure, we had traders coming and going every now and then, but it wasn't as large as it is now. I guess Ukyo was right - ten years really does make a difference. I hope Kayoko still lives in the same place."
"What about your house? Is it near here too, Master?"
"My house?" Ranma asked, resuming her walk down the lane. She smiled, and let out a short laugh. "I'd almost forgotten about it. No; it's on the other side of the village. I suppose I should go and see how it's holding up."
"Aren't you curious?" Shampoo asked, a surprised tone to her voice.
"Not really," Ranma admitted with a shrug. "Even when I lived in this place I didn't spend much time at home. I was always busy training, or running errands for Pops - when he was around, that is. I spent more time at Kayoko's house than at mine. I barely remember what my own house looks like."
Shampoo sank into a thoughtful silence as the pair continued their journey along the muddy way. Ranma walked alongside her, content with the lack of conversation. She thought back to the last time she had seen Kayoko; a little over ten years to the day. They had both been so young then. Ranma herself had changed a great deal - more than she ever would have imagined - and she couldn't help but wonder if Kayoko had gone through similar changes.
She glanced down at herself, and let out a sigh. She doubted Kayoko would understand some of the changes she had been through. Still, she reasoned, she had made a promise to her father, and she wasn't about to let something as small as utter humiliation before her oldest friend get in the way of her promise.
She thought back to her youth, to the days before her journey began, when she was but an innocent child. Kayoko was the only friend she had - they spent all their time together, and when they were apart they passed the time by plotting what their next adventure would bring. In those carefree days, there was no indication of the changes her life would bring. Her life was simple, normal - until the day Genma decided to take her away from it all.
The long grass of Kayoko's garden gave way to the unending mud, grit and stone of endless roads, mountains and forests; the warm oak of her home's floor was replaced by the cold stone of hundreds of dojos and training grounds. The warmth of Kayoko's hand was forced aside by the stinging blows of her father's fists. It had all changed.
It was all so long ago, buried beneath an age of hardship and sacrifice; she felt as though she should barely remember it but each memory remained in her mind as clear as the day she had experienced it. The Tendo's home was little more than a large hut, but to her youthful eyes it was a palace, a captivating mansion full of secrets to be explored, its occupants the closest thing she had to a real family.
Life was simple then; a warm sunset and a smile on Kayoko's face made Ranma, the little boy, happy. There was no reason for him to worry - there was nothing in that boy's world but the sunset and her smile. The two of them would sit and watch for hours, each silently wondering what lay beyond the endless red horizon, their only company each other and an all-encompassing sense of wonder.
Now, a decade later, Ranma gazed upon that same house before that same horizon. Her eyes were jaded by years of suffering and loneliness, the mysteries she had pondered as a child long ago answered. But, despite it all, despite the harsh reality of the world she had imagined, that house still shone with an intangible joy.
Ranma swallowed, and came to a halt. She stared for a moment at the building, a brief time of silent appreciation. Her heart skipped a beat as for a mere second she dared to hope that this house might still be the home she remembered. Or had it fallen into disrepair and disarray along with the rest of Edo?
"This is it," she said, turning to Shampoo. "We're here."
Ukyo sat silently upon a small stone near the street, absentmindedly stroking a fingertip along the handle of her newly-acquired sword. She glanced back and forth along the street, but the moonlight showed little but shadows. She sighed, and glanced up to the sky. How would she find him now? Edo was the only link she had.
But not any more, she realised, lowering her gaze to the sword in her hands. This sword was his; perhaps it could lead her to him. She could feel that somehow, this sword and her target were related. She frowned, her efforts to recall exactly where she had seen the sword before producing no results.
A slight rustling noise jolted her out of her thoughts; she leaped to her feet, drawing her new weapon as she tried to make out the source of the noise.
An old man emerged from the darkness, the rustling noise revealing itself to be the sound of his feet shuffling through the long grass that protruded from the muddy street. He jumped in fright as he caught sight of Ukyo, and more importantly the sword that was pointed directly at him.
"Who ... who are you?" he asked shakily, wide eyes focused directly upon the sword.
Ukyo looked him up and down, relaxing her grip upon her sword as she realised he posed no threat. He was a short, stooped old man, his stumbling walk only made possible by the crooked tree branch he used to support himself. A long grey beard stretched down from his wrinkled face, almost to his knees. He peered at her from beneath a ragged straw hat, his eyes sharp despite their age.
"Nobody important, old man," Ukyo said with a sigh as she sheathed the sword. She noticed a look of surprise upon the man's face; scolding her mistake, she made a conscious effort to lower the tone of her voice. "It's dangerous for someone like you to be out wandering at night."
"Is that so, boy?" the man asked, watching the sword disappear into its scabbard. He visibly calmed a little, and peered inquisitively at Ukyo. "I walk home from Jiro's house every night, nobody has ever told me it's dangerous before; especially not a stranger standing outside an abandoned house."
"You know about this house?" Ukyo asked, her curiosity immediately piqued.
"Of course," the man replied. He raised a hand and pointed at a nearby house. "I've lived nearby for years."
"Then perhaps you can help me," Ukyo said, eyeing the man carefully. "I'm looking for Genma Saotome."
A simple curtain of woven fabric hung across the open doorway of the Tendo family home. It was certainly the largest home in the village, and in a far better condition than any other home Ranma had seen. The walls were clean of mud and grime; it was obvious that this house was looked after and carefully maintained.
"Hello? Is anybody home?" Ranma called out, rapping loudly on the outer wall of the house. She leaned into the open doorway, straining to hear through the curtain any sign that her call had been heard. "Hello?"
There was no response; the interior of the house remained absolutely silent. Ranma frowned, and glanced at Shampoo, who simply shrugged. Reaching out, Ranma pressed her palm against the curtain, but halted herself before she could pull it aside. It would be rude to enter uninvited, she reasoned, but then she wasn't about to give up and go home just because nobody answered her call.
"Perhaps nobody is here," Shampoo suggested at length. "What should we do?"
"She wouldn't be anywhere else at this time of night," Ranma replied grimly. "Hello? Can anyone hear me?"
Again, there was no response. Ranma straightened, scratching her chin thoughtfully. If Kayoko was not in the Tendo family home, where would she be? Assuming that the house was still her home, she should have been inside.
"Should we look inside, Master?" Shampoo asked, leaning forward alongside Ranma to peer into the darkened interior of the house through a small gap between the curtain and doorway.
"I will. I want you to wait near the road," Ranma replied. This was a moment she had been anticipating for years, and as well-natured as Shampoo's intentions were, she wanted to be alone. Gesturing with her hand to silence Shampoo's inevitable request to follow her, she stepped forward into the doorway. "I'll be back soon. Keep your eyes open. I don't want to be disturbed."
"Genma Saotome, you say? Yes, that used to be his house, a long time ago."
"What happened?" Ukyo asked, turning to look at the house in question.
"He left, years ago. Said he was going on some sort of training journey. Never did say when he was coming back."
"Obviously, he hasn't made it yet," Ukyo observed, a frown darkening her face. "You said he left years ago?"
"That's right," the old man replied with a nod. He slowly pulled off his hat and smoothed down the matted grey hair beneath. "They left ... well, it would be at least ten years ago now, if I remember rightly."
"Genma and his son," the man replied with a nod, returning his hat to its perch atop his head. "Poor boy was just a child. I don't know what got into Genma, to convince him it was a good idea to drag a little boy off to who knows where."
"What?" Ukyo asked, startled. "Genma had a son?"
The room was completely obscured by darkness, the pale light of the moon held at bay by the thick material covering the doorway. Ranma stood still for some time, letting the details resolve as her eyes adjusted. Tatami mats lined the floor, but the room was otherwise bare. It was strange - Ranma distinctly remembered a table set upon the centre of the room, a small chest in one corner, a roughly-hewn bed roll in another.
Now the room was empty, holding nothing more than a strangely claustrophobic atmosphere and a frosty moisture upon the air. Ranma licked her lips, curious; the moisture in the air was palpable, almost as if the room were underwater. It was a distinctly unsettling sensation, one that sent a cascade of goosebumps tumbling down her back, carrying with them a shiver that ran down her body to the floor.
There's something wrong, she thought, not daring to look away. She could feel something with her, a chill presence that danced around the edges of the room, weaving through the depths of the shadows yet remaining unseen. Instinctively, her hand found its way to the warmth of her sword.
The ambiguous chill resolved the instant she touched her sword; the omnipresent frost resolved itself to a sharp line across the back of her neck, paralysing her body with its icy touch.
"Don't move," a female voice commanded. Ranma swallowed and managed not to nod, keenly aware of just how sharp the item pressing against her skin truly was. How on earth had her attacker appeared out of nowhere? She gave no sign of her presence, no forewarning of her attack. Despite the stillness of her body, her mind worked at a frantic pace to try and understand just what had happened.
Her instincts compelled her to reach for her sword and strike back at her assailant, to do something, but somehow she could not force herself to do so. So, powerless, she did as she was told and shuffled forward.
"On your knees," the voice commanded, pausing as Ranma complied. Once she was in place, a question filled the room. "Who are you, and what are you doing in my home?"
"That's right, he had a little boy," the old man confirmed with a nod. "He was a nice child. Always seemed to be hurrying around the place helping people out. He didn't spend much time at home, but he always said hello when he was here."
"That's not possible," Ukyo insisted, shaking her head. How on earth could that be? Genma? A son? It wasn't possible ... was it? "Who was the mother?"
"Now, that, I don't know," the man replied. "I wanted to ask, but I didn't want to be rude. I honestly have no idea."
Ukyo frowned, digesting the new information. Discounting the whys and hows, she focused on what this really meant to her. If Genma had a son, that presented her with another opportunity to find him. It was easier to find one of two people than one person alone. Not much, but any help was better than none.
"What was his son's name?"
"Hmm?" the man replied, a curious look on his face. "The boy was called Ranma; why do you ask?"
"This is the Tendo home," Ranma said, staring straight ahead. She could feel the eyes of her captor burning into the back of her head, and as much as she wanted to turn around, she knew she would regret it. "Or at least it was. I came here to find Kayoko."
"How do you know that name?!" the voice demanded, filling the room twice over, its force reverberating within the walls of the small room.
"I've known her for years," Ranma explained. "My father sent me to find her."
"You're lying!" the voice boomed, seeming to make the walls shake. "I do not know you!"
"Kayoko?" Ranma asked, turning her head to look behind her, despite herself. She felt the sharp edge cut into her neck, and the warm trickle of blood down her back. "Is that you, Kayoko?"
A short gust of wind caught the curtain hanging at the entrance, strong enough to send the fabric tumbling from its restraints to the floor; just as quickly as it had come, the wind vanished. Ranma squinted as a shaft of moonlight burst into the room, covering the floor between them. The silhouette of her attacker stepped forward into the light.
"Who are you?" she asked, pointing her sword directly at Ranma's neck.
Ranma's eyes widened as the girl stepped into the light; before her stood the girl of her memories, her childhood best friend and closest companion, Kayoko Tendo. Her childish frame had been replaced by the body of a young woman, the innocent face of a little girl replaced by the wild-eyed stare of a troubled adult.
Ranma stared, slack-jawed, for what seemed like an instant but must have been far longer; she jumped as she felt the sharp prick of Kayoko's sword tip pressing against her skin. She blinked a couple of times, trying to shake off the intense feeling of amazement that had taken her and regain her composure.
"I'm Ranma Saotome."
"Ranma? Ranma Saotome?"
"That's right," the old man replied with a nod. "He disappeared along with his father and I haven't seen him since."
Ranma? Ukyo clasped her hand to her mouth, the sudden realisation that she had been travelling with the child of her target all the way across Japan hitting her like a punch to the face. She had felt a sense of familiarity the moment she met Ranma; now, as she realised the cause, it all seemed so obvious to her. How could she have allowed a simple gender change to fool her so completely? Such a trick was easily within Genma's ability.
"Thank you," Ukyo said, her mind numbed. She turned from the man and began slowly walking back the way she had come. Ranma had even told her of a ten-year training journey she had undertaken with her father. A more blatant clue was hard to imagine.
How could she not have seen it? How could she have been so blind?
"You are not Ranma!" Kayoko insisted, stepping closer. She leaned down and peered carefully at Ranma. Her hair, once brown but now bright, vibrant blue, streamed down over her shoulders and tumbled to the floor below.
"What happened to you, 'yoko?" Ranma asked, peering intently at the girl's face. The face of her childhood friend lurked behind the wild-eyed stare and panicked voice of this girl. "Where is Satoko?"
"Mother is ... dead," Kayoko replied, the resonant boom of her voice crumbling into a tiny, timid whisper. She glanced away into the darkness, but her sword did not waver. "She returned to the waters a long time ago."
"Dead?" Ranma asked, the news catching her off guard. She clasped her hand over her mouth as Kayoko solemnly nodded.
She had never known her own mother; as far as she could recall, her family had always simply been Genma and Ranma, father and son. In many ways Kayoko's mother was a surrogate parent. Satoko, as she had insisted Ranma call her, was a kind woman who took the young Saotome boy under her wing and instilled within him her own sense of responsibility and respect. A far cry from the reckless abandon of Genma, it was, ironically, Satoko's teachings that now guided Ranma down the path laid before her by her father.
The possibility that Satoko might not have survived ten years had never even crossed Ranma's mind; as a child she had imagined the woman to be everlasting and eternal, just as she had her father. Now, she realised, both of them were gone.
"How do you know of my mother?" Kayoko challenged, the ferocity returning to her voice.
"You and I used to sit outside in the garden and watch the sun set over the mountains. We used to play in the forest, and one time we went walking for hours to find a cave that Pops told me about. We wandered out for nearly a whole day, and once we found it we spent the whole night exploring it. Satoko was furious with us when we finally came home, because she had spent the whole time looking for us."
"How do you ...." Kayoko stammered, her eyes widening.
"We went back to that cave every day for nearly two weeks," Ranma continued, gazing through the open door at the shadowed mountain line beyond the village. "We'd spend every afternoon looking around inside."
"I remember," Kayoko said softly, slowly lowering her sword, a beautifully crafted blade that seemed to shimmer, translucent in the moonlight, to the floor. "I remember that cave."
"It was full of pools, remember? You dared me to see how long I could hold my breath, and so I dived into one, but when I came up for air you were gone. I spent hours searching for you, and finally I had to give up and come home. I was terrified, because I thought your mother would kill me for losing you."
"But I came straight home," Kayoko interrupted, the light of recognition burning in her eyes. "I told mother and Kurumi all about it, and they agreed to help me play a joke on you."
"That's right," Ranma continued, a smile coming to her face as she remembered Kayoko's younger sister. "I was scared to death, and she was so angry at me, but then you and Kurumi jumped out behind me, and both of you started laughing."
"You were so angry!" Kayoko said, lowering herself to one knee. "You didn't even want to talk to me."
"And then a couple of days later Pops dragged me off on our trip," Ranma said, clutching her hands together as the strength left her voice. "I didn't even say goodbye."
"You're right, you didn't. I thought you'd gone forever," Kayoko replied, tilting her head, peering at Ranma's face. "Is it really you, Ranma?"
"It's me, 'yoko," Ranma replied, as calmly as she could manage. "Please ... believe me. Inside this stupid body, it's me."
Kayoko slowly, hesitantly raised one hand to Ranma's cheek, a puzzled look crossing her face as she curled her fingers around Ranma's face. Ranma stayed still, letting Kayoko's cool fingers drift across her skin.
"It really is you," Kayoko whispered, her eyes glistening with moisture as she launched herself forward, throwing her arms around Ranma. "You came back!"
Ukyo knelt and pressed her fingertips to the small set of footprints that marked the muddy path before her. Unlike the others that marked the ground, these footprints were surrounded by soft, fresh mud.
"Got you," she said to herself as she quickly stood and started jogging alongside them.
"You've been gone so long," Kayoko said, her head buried in Ranma's shoulder. "I thought you were never coming back. Where is your father?"
"He's ... dead," Ranma said, her body stiffening at his mention.
"What?!" Kayoko exclaimed, jolting backwards. She held Ranma at arm's length and looked directly at her. "That can't be!"
"It's the truth," Ranma replied, glancing down at the floor. "He was killed in China."
"Oh, gods, that must mean ... let me see your hair," Kayoko said, grabbing the sides of Ranma's head and, before she could protest, yanking it downwards.
"Hey!" Ranma yelped, struggling a little against Kayoko's firm grip. She winced as Kayoko yanked at her hair, running her fingers through its roots in a rough examination.
"So it is red," Kayoko said quietly, releasing Ranma's head. She slumped, deflated, and gathered her face into her hands. "Why did it have to be you, Ranma?"
"It started turning red a while ago," Ranma said, puzzled. She looked up at Kayoko, curious. "How did you know about it?"
"Why didn't you tell me, Ryukyu?" Kayoko asked, her voice muffled. "Why didn't you tell me you'd taken my friend? Why couldn't you have taken someone else?"
"What on Earth are you talking about?" Ranma asked, growing increasingly confused. "Who is Ryukyu?"
"You don't know?" Kayoko asked, wide eyes emerging from her hands, carrying a look of genuine surprise. She gasped, and threw her hands to Ranma's shoulders. "Do you still have the tooth?"
"Tooth?" Ranma asked, struggling to think as Kayoko shook her by the shoulders. A sharp chill ran through her whole body, making her shiver involuntarily.
"The sword -- your father's sword, Garyoutensei!"
"Of course," Ranma replied as realisation struck. She shook off Kayoko's hands and looked the girl directly in the eye. "I wouldn't lose my father's sword. He told me to guard it. How do you know about it?"
"Did you tell anyone about it? Did anyone follow you here?" Kayoko asked, brushing aside Ranma's question. "Is it still a secret?"
"What's going on?" Ranma asked, putting her hands on her hips. "Why all the questions?"
"Tell me!" Kayoko demanded. "Were you followed?"
"Well, I travelled here with Shampoo ...."
"Who is she? Where is she?"
"She's a ... friend of mine. She's waiting outside, where I told her to."
"Do you trust her?"
"Of course I trust her."
Shampoo leaned back against an old tree, idly shifting back and forth to let the rough bark scratch across her back. She yawned, watching with interest the appearance of her breath upon the chill air, a small puff of condensation that drifted away on the night's breeze. She pondered, for a moment, just how cold this night was; she did not recall any other night being quite as chilly as this one.
Sighing, she shrugged off her idle ponderance and wondered how much longer Ranma was going to be. She felt an almost instinctive worry whenever she was out of sight of her master. It was her sole remaining duty to protect and accompany Ranma; the thought of losing her was intensely troubling. Still, her master's wishes were to be obeyed, no matter what her feelings were about them.
A glimmer of movement caught the edge of her vision, and she turned her head to look at it. It was a small, blurry object, its features obscured by the depths of night, only the vaguest details visible under the weak light of the moon. Peering intently at it, Shampoo wondered just what it was.
"Anyone else?" Kayoko asked, her stare losing none of its intensity as it bored into Ranma's eyes.
"Not really," Ranma replied with a shrug. She narrowed her eyes and glanced thoughtfully at Kayoko, still unsure why so many questions were being asked. "Well, we helped out a girl on the way, and she came with us to Edo--"
"What was her name?" Kayoko snapped, interrupting.
"Ukyo ... what?"
The object was larger now, much larger, its repetitive motion slowly resolving into a form that bore a worrying similarity to that of a person running. Shampoo slowly raised her hand toward one of the arrows in the quiver slung across her back, but quickly changed her mind and lowered her hand to her sword.
If it was indeed a person their intentions might be entirely benign, but in the dim light she would not be sure until they were far too close for an arrow to be effective.
The word took Shampoo by surprise - she recognised that voice. That voice belonged to Ukyo. Releasing her sword, she turned and took a step toward the voice.
"Ukyo? Is you?" she called in Japanese. Why was Ukyo in such a hurry? Was she after someone? Or running away from someone?
"It's me," Ukyo called out, her heavy panting becoming apparent as she drew closer. Her running slowed, until she finally came to a stop in front of Shampoo. "Where is Ranma?"
"Master is in house," Shampoo explained warily. "Why boy-girl in big rush?"
"Kuonji?" Kayoko exclaimed, snatching her sword from the ground as she jumped to her feet with startling suddenness. "Are you sure?"
"I think so," Ranma replied, her own nervousness growing as she saw Kayoko's agitation.
"It's important! Are you sure?"
"Yes!" Ranma insisted, climbing to her feet. She folded her arms, and stared Kayoko down. "What is this all about?"
"We have to get out of here," Kayoko said, eyeing Ranma intensely. Her eyes shone with that same wildness Ranma had seen before; the fierce intensity boomed anew within her voice. She grabbed Ranma's wrist and pulled. "Right now."
"Out of your house?" Ranma asked, utterly confused as Kayoko yanked her forwards. What the hell was going on here?
"Out of Edo. Out of Musashi," Kayoko replied, shaking her head. "Out of Japan."
"I have to talk to Ranma right now," Ukyo said, moving to step past Shampoo.
Shampoo, however, stepped into Ukyo's path, holding out one hand. "Master tell Shampoo to let nobody past. Master no want visitor."
"I don't care what she said, I have to talk to her," Ukyo said, her voice growing agitated.
"No can do," Shampoo insisted, folding her arms and shaking her head. "Boy-girl must wait."
"I can't wait," Ukyo said, growing angrier. "Get out of my way."
Shampoo noticed Ukyo's arm move; she glanced downwards and blinked in surprise as she saw a sword in a scabbard tied to Ukyo's hip. The girl had no sword when they arrived in Edo; where did she get it?
"She is dangerous. Very dangerous. If she hasn't attacked you yet, she mustn't realise who you are. That means we still have a chance to get away," Kayoko explained, tugging insistently on Ranma's arm. "At least, if we hurry."
"Why is she dangerous?" Ranma asked, resisting Kayoko's pull. "We saved her life!"
"She has no life to save!" Kayoko boomed, grabbing Ranma's shoulders firmly. "Why don't you understand, Ryukyu? You're supposed to know this!"
"Know what? And why the hell do you keep calling me Ryukyu?" Ranma asked, growing angry. Why was Kayoko acting like this? What was going on?
"You are host to the dragon Ryukyu! Didn't Genma tell you about the sword? About the dragons? About the thief?"
"No!" Ranma yelled, her anger getting the better of her. "He didn't tell me anything!"
"Why on Earth not?"
"I don't know," Ranma replied angrily. "I'd ask him, but he's dead, remember?"
The loud clash of steel on steel filled the room, causing both Ranma and Kayoko to jump. Kayoko was a blur - one moment she was standing before Ranma; the next, she was at the doorway with her sword in hand. A moment of silence hung in the air, both Kayoko and Ranma waiting, straining to hear what sound might follow.
When the silence was broken a moment later, it was a scream that filled the air; a high-pitched, panic-filled scream that propelled Ranma instantly to the doorway.
"That was Shampoo!"
Ranma dashed through the doorway, along the short path to the muddy street where Ukyo stood, breathing heavily as she leaned over Shampoo's body. She looked up at Ranma's approach and quickly readied her sword, its blade dripping bright red blood.
"Saotome! Ranma Saotome! That is your name?"
Ranma slid to a halt a short distance from the tip of Ukyo's blade, staring in outright amazement at the girl. Her eyes darted to Shampoo, who lay limply, face-down in the mud.
"What the hell did you do to her?!" Ranma cried, the words exploding from within her in an outburst of fury. "I saved your life!"
"She got in my way," Ukyo said, her eyes narrowing to thin slits as she leveled her sword at Ranma's throat, pressing its sharpened edge firmly against the skin. She spoke again, quietly, icily demanding an answer. "Are you Genma Saotome's son? Yes, or no?"
"Yes," Ranma replied, jolting to attention as she felt the sharp edge of Ukyo's weapon press against her. She clenched her fists, a red-hot anger surging through her body as she stared at Shampoo's murderer. She seethed with rage; the only thing preventing her from lunging at Ukyo was the threat of a slit throat.
"I have no argument with you, Ranma. I don't want to hurt you. Your slave will survive, but if you don't tell me where Genma is, you won't be so lucky."
"He's dead," Ranma spat, her words filled with venom. "You're too late."
"Dead, you say?" Ukyo replied, her voice losing none of its dangerous tone. "So, you inherited the tooth?"
"Yes," Ranma replied, recalling Kayoko's earlier words. She felt Ukyo's weapon shift forward slightly; the warm sensation of blood running down her neck made her swallow nervously. She let out a long, slow breath, and tried to remain still.
"Then you have also inherited his fate," Ukyo said, her voice low. She stared directly into Ranma's eyes, and for but a moment her own eyes softened. "I'm sorry, Ranma. I didn't want to kill you, but I can't allow you to live. Not now."
A pair of hands sprang into existence, two arms wrapping themselves around Ukyo's body, their motion so fast as to appear little more than a blur. There was barely time for Ukyo to gasp in surprise before she was flung bodily through the air, to land roughly in the mud of the street. Ranma jumped as she felt the motion of Ukyo's blade away from her neck, her surprise just as great as Ukyo's.
Kayoko gave Ranma a quick nod before turning to Ukyo, who lay sprawled across the street. Stepping toward the girl, she raised one hand and a soft white light burst into existence, a small pool of light centred upon her opponent.
Ranma stared, rooted to the spot in sheer wonder at what was transpiring before her, her wide eyes taking in the sights even as her mind struggled to comprehend them. Ukyo sat up, her eyes wide as she stared at Kayoko, her mouth falling open. She gasped, raising one hand to point at the blue-haired girl standing before her.
"You ... I remember--"
Her words were silenced as Kayoko waved her hand sharply upwards, causing a sudden rumble in the very ground below Ukyo. A burst of water sprung from the earth itself, a cascade of cold liquid that leapt forth from the mud itself, leaving dried-out dust in its wake as it splashed onto Ukyo's body. Before she could even blink, Kayoko snapped her fingers, and with a blinding flash of light, the water hardened into ice, trapping Ukyo within.
Just as quickly as it had come the light disappeared, leaving Ukyo frozen in place, sitting and pointing directly forwards, her eyes locked in a vacant stare. Dust hung in the air around her, rapidly settling down on to the dried-out dirt below.
"What the hell did you just do?" Ranma asked, utterly at a loss.
"There's no time for that," Kayoko replied, hurriedly picking up Shampoo and slinging her over one shoulder. "Come on, we have to go!"
"What did you do?" Ranma insisted, unable to take her eyes off the frozen form of Ukyo. "How did you do that?"
"Ranma!" Kayoko yelled, her voice demanding Ranma's attention. "I took her by surprise this time; next time we won't be so lucky. Come on, we have to get out of here, now!"
"O-okay," Ranma said, shaking her head back and forth as she tried to digest what had just happened. She glanced over at Kayoko. "What about Shampoo? Is she okay?"
"She'll be fine. I can take care of her injuries. We have to hurry - that ice won't hold Kuonji forever. Come on!"