A Ranma ½ story
by Brian Randall
Disclaimer: Ranma ½ is property of Rumiko Takahashi and Viz video.
Notes: 'Historical' altaverse. You'll know it when you see it. Do not expect this fic to be accurate of the era it (kind of) portrays. It's written to be fun, not edutainment.
Ranma held himself very still; his father was nearby — felt, but not seen. It was dark in the confined space under the small platform. The soil beneath him was loamy and soft, unlike the packed earth beyond.
Sunlight also flooded across that space, allowing his eyes to pick out fine details: small weeds poking up between the cracks in the dirt, pebbles, and a scattering of footprints. "This isn't seemly," he breathed, intentionally slurring the harsher syllables to keep his communication quiet.
"I know," his father responded in the same manner. "I think she's gone."
Ranma grunted, rolling out from beneath the platform. Perhaps it had supported a house once, or served some obscure purpose involving the fields of rice that lay about the area, he wasn't sure. He sat up, and dusted himself off, looking around warily. "I think it's clear," he ventured, moments before a small dart flew towards his face from a nearby clump of weeds that shouldn't have been large enough to hide a person.
Just barely dodging the projectile, he threw himself backward, colliding with the aged wooden platform, rolling onto his back and flipping over to land in a crouch while his father burst from concealment, a ready hand on his sword, and standing to one side. Waiting for Ranma to call the next move, of course.
From his new vantage, Ranma could clearly see the girl, dressed in gray and brown fatigues. She stared at him, climbing to her feet with deliberate slowness, one hand full of throwing knives, the other carrying a thick length of chain. Narrowing his eyes, Ranma backpedaled to the far edge of the stage, which was a good five meters across, and just as wide. "I need a jo," he told his father, not tearing his eyes from the girl, as she tucked her knives away, and vaulted from a standing position to the opposite edge of the platform, a leap of easily ten meters.
Genma grunted, throwing Ranma a staff, which Ranma caught effortlessly. "Make this fast," the older man warned.
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Ranma retorted, spinning his staff in his hands, as the girl grasped one end of the chain, and dropped the rest to swing slowly. "I don't suppose you'll give up?" he asked hopefully, as the girl strode purposefully towards him.
She shook her head, lashing out with the chain in a blindingly fast overhand arc, cracking it like a whip with what would have been enough force to shatter lesser men. Ranma stepped just to one side, spinning his staff counter to the chain, and tangling it. The girl wasted no time, releasing the chain, and leaping at him, one hand already moving towards a survival knife sheathed at her waist.
Ranma growled, snapping the edge of the jo against the girl's shin, but she tucked her legs up higher, slamming into him before she could draw her blade. The impact sent Ranma crashing to the edge of the platform, both of the girl's knees planted firmly on his chest. She cried triumphantly, freeing the weapon and raising it over her head.
Unable to use the jo effectively, Ranma desperately yanked the chain free, the links striking the knife as it descended, and smashing the weapon from her grasp. While the girl was surprised, he rolled over, knocking her flat and pinning her. She yelped in surprise, and writhed beneath him until he tangled her arms in the chain, and leapt away, mere centimeters ahead of a vicious knee to the groin. She growled at him, and finally snapped, "Damn you, Ran-Ma! I get you!"
"Until you do, I really have to go," he said apologetically. "I know you got your rules, but I got mine, too."
"Dammit! Dammit! Dammit! Not fair!" she screamed, tugging at the tangled chain, slowly loosening it. "I get you and drag you back!" she promised.
Ranma grinned, shaking his head. "Don't think so, but it's been fun, Shan-Pu. See you around!"
And with that, he collected his father and ran east.
Rolling over to watch the boy leave, Shan Pu sighed. At least the chains weren't too tight, and she knew he was a good man by the fact that he didn't do worse while she was unable to fight back. If nothing else, it meant she'd have an excuse to travel.
Wriggling for a bit, taking her time to avoid unnecessary chaffing, she freed her hands, and dropped the chain into one of the large pockets in the legs of her pseudo-fatigues before looking for her knives. "One way or another," she promised, "we'll meet again."
Still, for all of the Japanese she'd seen, she'd never seen any with such fine clothing, and they were usually content to carry only a lone sword, rather than the pair that both Ranma and his father bore. It probably didn't mean any more than he was more skilled than most, or at least, more devoted to becoming skilled.
She toyed with her survival knife thoughtfully for a moment, biting her lip before placing it in her hip-sheath. She'd almost had him, that time. Maybe next time she would catch him, and keep him for a day or two before letting him go. Smiling slightly, she patted herself down to make sure all her gear was stored correctly, hair still tucked into her cap, and chased after him again… but not too quickly.
Catching him would be such fun….
Diving to one side, the young ninja narrowly evaded a small flurry of thrown blades, all of which impacted heavily with the wooden planks she was laying flat against.
She resisted the urge to scream, holding herself completely still, instead. She felt the soft, careful footsteps of her assailant, barely audible in the silence, the boards beneath warning of his slow approach. Holding her breath, she tightened one hand about her ninjato, still sheathed at her side.
Her eyes opened the merest fraction, narrow enough that she wouldn't blink, and make any movements to warn her attacker before it was too late, or reflect back any light from the stars or moon. She could see the larger form of her attacker dimly, but waited, still holding her breath.
A toe nudged her, and she allowed her body to be pushed, carefully stealing a breath where she slid against the deck loudly enough to mask the sound. And still she waited.
Finally, the rasp of drawn steel sounded.
Then the waiting was over. Drawing her blade and rolling, she swiped her ninjato towards her attacker's leg, not scoring a hit, but eliciting a yelp of surprise as he stepped back. Still off balance, he stumbled, sword only half-drawn, and she thrust herself away from the deck with one hand, throwing herself upward and landing in a crouching position. Her blade was ready before her attacker could distance himself appropriately.
A loud clap interrupted the pair, and they bowed to one another after sheathing their weapons.
"Better," a voice announced. "Ukyou, you're done for the day. Good job. Hiromasu, you're obviously still an amateur. But good enough for tonight. I expect you to try twice as hard tomorrow."
"Hai, Kenzan-san," they said together, bowing again towards their teacher as the man switched on a hand-held lamp. "Now come inside, Ukyou, I've some news concerning your family."
Hiromasu sighed, grumbling, "Sneaky little…. I'll get you yet, Ukyou."
"You wish," she retorted, striding across the wooden deck towards the older man, and away from her young training partner.
Konatsu snorted at the pair, shaking his head and leading Ukyou into the largish house set on the side of the hill. Finding that much land away from the bright lights of the city was difficult, but the Emperor provided well enough for them.
But then, Ukyou also knew she was trying to distract herself from the issue. The last three times news had come for her, it had been for Konatsu to inform her that another brother was dying. For the good of the Empire, of course. Now, she expected that either Kenshiro or Hajime were also dead. Or worse, her father.
She heaved an unsteady sigh. Some day, some day she would complete her training, and then vengeance would be hers. Until then….
"I know what you're thinking," Konatsu said, leading her into his private den, immaculately clean and perfectly orderly. Unlike the samurai, or the wealthy merchants, Konatsu had no reason to hide his technology. In his words, "What wins the battle, wins the battle. We are prevailed upon for results, not tradition." A small computer monitor sat on one corner of the desk, along with a stack of paperwork of some kind.
"Yes, Kenzan-sensei?" she asked, not sitting.
He snorted again, settling himself into the Western-style chair that he favored, and gesturing her to sit in another. "You're thinking that your honor has been wounded again, and that you must seek out revenge," he supplied. "But that's not what I am here to tell you."
"What?" she asked, confused, and lowering herself to the seat he had indicated.
"Your father and his sons saved the crown prince's life during a battle in Hokkaido," he said conversationally. He rubbed his hands together, not meeting her eyes, instead gazing into some unknowable distance. "The long and short of it is that your family's honor has been restored."
Ukyou felt her world lurch alarmingly. She had been so prepared to deal with another of the foundations of her reality slipping from her fingers, not some unexpected boon. "Oh?" she asked, quietly. "Um, forgive me for being really stupid about this, but… uh… what next?"
Konatsu sighed, drumming his fingers atop the desk. "I don't think we've done a very good job of raising you to be a traditional daughter," he said quietly. "The Kuonji clan will simply have to acknowledge you as a female samurai." He eyed her carefully, and shrugged. "It will not be the first time that a ninja has hidden among samurai."
His words fell on deaf ears. Ukyou had stopped listening once she realized that her family once more had a title. More, they were elevated from the wealthy merchants they had once been, now to be given lands, a title, and honor. Revenge was still called for, but now it would need to go through proper channels. Shaking herself out of her reverie, she tried to pay attention to her teacher, who was simply staring at her in silence. "Sorry," she apologized. "This is…. This is so sudden."
"I imagine it is. Ukyou, return to Daimonji. Your father will look for you there."
She felt as though something had slipped from her grasp. "I… I don't know how to be a samurai," she mumbled, still confused.
"You know well enough," Konatsu assured her. "You know enough to make do, and learn more. Your family is young, and new to the title. Mistakes may be made. The other families will know you still stand high in the Emperor's grace, and for that, overlook your errors for a while. Long enough for you to learn, at least."
"I…. I need to hurry."
"Yes, you do. Leave your equipment here. If you still want it, give me a call when you reach Daimonji-san's house, and I'll have it delivered to you, young samurai."
"Yes," she said quietly. "Samurai."
Ranma flicked his head to one side, stepping inside the girl's guard, and allowing her to slam the point her knife home into the sash that bore his swords. The knife struck something solid, and he grunted, planting one foot by her instep, and throwing a power blow to her shoulder.
Stunned by the deflection, Shan Pu was thrown to the dirt, spinning and sliding for a meter before coming to a rest, dazed, her arm at her side awkwardly. Ranma dropped his hands to the strip of cloth that suspended both his swords, and groaned, pulling out a worn piece of iron. "My tessen," he grumped, unfolding the iron fan slowly. "Damn it. How do you expect to take me back alive if you're trying to kill me?"
She snorted, pulling herself up to sit cross-legged on the parched dirt of the road, one hand on the shoulder he had struck. "You not get killed so easy. I know."
He smirked, folding his fan back up after inspecting it. "You pack a lot of power," he allowed, touching his stomach where the tessen had been concealed. "That's gonna leave a bruise."
She smiled victoriously before wincing, and asking in a quiet voice, "Can you fix my shoulder?"
Rolling his eyes, he tucked the fan away, kneeling at her side, and examining the shoulder. He probed at it cautiously, before clicking his tongue. "You ever have this done before?"
"Yes. Be fast."
He nodded, bracing himself carefully against her, then quickly yanking the arm just hard enough to set it back into its joint. The girl gasped in pain, eyes watering slightly, then rubbed at the shoulder, slowly testing out its flexibility. "Thank you," she said in the same quiet voice.
Ranma shook his head, crouching by her side. "My father would flip if he knew I was hanging out with you, but it's been fun."
"You say it like it going stop now," she said, narrowing her eyes.
"Hey, I'm going back to Japan, Shan-Pu. My father is paying for passage on a ship at this very moment. And probably I'm going to end up getting married to some girl out there, and that, as they say, will be the end of that."
She made a face, pouting at him, and began sharpening her knife. "Should stay with me," she insisted. "More fun."
He rolled his eyes, glancing up the deserted road for a moment before turning to face her. "It might be, but before anything else, there's honor."
"Honor is important," she agreed. "But not before everything else."
"What's more important than honor?" he asked, frowning.
Sheathing her knife, and placing one hand on his shoulder, she looked him firmly in the eye, and said, "Family, yes?"
"Yes, and the family is honor."
Shan-Pu snorted, leaning close enough to place a gentle kiss on his cheek. "Stupid is cute, almost." She frowned, a flicker of surprise registering on her face as he shrugged, and stood. "Little boy no blush?" she asked.
He smirked, shaking his head. "No, I've been kissed, and kissed enough myself."
Rising, Shan-Pu challenged, "Is that all?"
Ranma eyed her for a moment, before answering, "Yes. But that's really not important at the moment. Shan-Pu, we're going back to Japan, and you probably should head back to your own people."
She sulked, crossing her arms over her chest. "Is never fun to say goodbye to friends, Ran-Ma."
"Sorry," he said, shrugging. "Maybe we can write letters, or something."
She sighed, looking away.
"Is this where I tie you up so you can't chase us anymore?" he asked worriedly.
"No," she whispered, not meeting his eyes. "You no tie me up."
He sighed in relief, and sketched a short bow to her. "It's been nice knowing you, Shan-Pu. Maybe we'll meet again."
She nodded silently, still not meeting his eyes.
Once back under the care of Daimonji, Ukyou was given a room, and what funds remained from the selling of her father's small commercial empire. Ukyou was surprised to see how much was there; nearly three million yen. Daimonji explained it as careful investments.
Unsure of what to do with the money, she had bought herself some clothing to meet with her father and brothers again, and decided to save the rest for her family. If anything, it would probably help them, so new to their title, maintain whatever position they had stumbled onto.
She eyed herself in the mirror, frowning. She hadn't remembered how the makeup that had been put onto her when she was younger was done. True, under Kenzan's care she had learned much about makeup, for those occasions when she might have to pose as some harmless geisha, but that wasn't the face she wanted to show her father. Instead, she wore no colors, no paints on her lips, and her hair was bound only by a single ribbon. Still obviously female, she wore the standard hakama and uwagi of her new theoretical class.
Her father would probably expect her to wear kimono and makeup, as was appropriate for a woman, but she was too much a warrior to pretend to be something else.
Daimonji said nothing of the affair, merely waiting quietly outside of the room that she had been given for the few days it would take her father and brothers to finish up whatever matters they were attending with the Emperor. She opened the door to face him, and he said nothing, merely scrutinizing her.
"Do I look bad?" she asked anxiously, smoothing out her coat in an effort to calm herself.
"You don't wear your name on your clothing," he noted.
"Ah, I…. I thought that might be presumptuous," she defended herself, staring at her feet.
"True enough," Daimonji allowed. "Come, Ukyou, we should talk, I think."
"Yes, Daimonji-san." She followed obediently to his study.
In the time since she had last seen him, he'd had large padded chairs added to the room, and more books to the already burgeoning shelves. "I find these more comfortable as I grow old," the man said, lowering himself to one of the seats. "Sit down, please."
Ukyou did so, being familiar with the concept — Kenzan had preferred them as well.
Daimonji said nothing, reclining in his seat, and staring upwards. "It's been nearly eleven years," he mused. "Eleven years since I've last seen you, and longer since I've seen your father. Eleven years he and your brother fought for the Emperor." He sighed, rubbing at his temples. "I'm nothing more than a tea merchant, and not for much longer, I suspect." Smiling wryly, he dropped his hands to his lap. "My sons seldom speak to me, only ever telling me that with modern medicines I could live longer."
"Daimonji-san?" she asked quietly.
He didn't react, continuing his musing. "They don't quite understand that I don't want to do that. My wife, my lovely Satsuki…." He shook his head. "Lost among their toys, my children don't know what love is."
Ukyou blinked, not understanding.
"Ukyou, you've tempered and refined yourself among the…. You've made something of yourself, but watch that you don't make yourself an empty tool." He met her eyes, frowning sternly. "Do not forge yourself into someone that does not in some way still serve herself. Without love, you will be nothing. Vengeance…. You must do what you must do, but never forget love."
The girl nodded, taken aback at his warning. "I will do as you say," she said quietly. "But…. But I'm not a traditional girl — I'm a warrior, no matter what."
"Bah," Daimonji asserted, shaking his head. "That doesn't mean you can never find love. Even a tea merchant in an arranged marriage can do that."
"I suppose so," she mumbled, bowing her head. "Daimonji-san, do you have a telephone I can use? I…. I need to call someone."
He smiled slightly, relaxing back into his chair. "There is one near the kitchen, Ukyou." He smirked, shaking his head. "Perhaps my advice is unneeded."
Ukyou bit her tongue, her face reddening slightly. Still, it pleased the old man to think that she was calling some boy; there was no need to shatter his illusions. "Thank you, Daimonji-san," she said quietly, rising from her seat and bowing.
Padding from the study towards the kitchen on silent feet, she pondered the best way to word her request. And at the same time, Daimonji's words gave her something to consider — since she had a family again, and their honor was restored, there was something to the thought of what she would do after they were avenged.
She picked up the phone when she found it, grimacing at the dial for a moment before entering Kenzan's number.
Ranma took a deep breath, savoring the last bit of the atmosphere of China as he and his father stood at the dock, waiting for the ship that they had bought passage on to finish its preparations. Ranma knew he would likely never see China again, even if he ever took his own children on a training trip, and that thought was oddly depressing. He had spent the better part of three years training across China, studying tactics underneath Lao-Shen, swords beneath his father, and at the dimly remembered request of his mother, calligraphy.
Genma shifted his stance, eyeing the freighter dubiously. "We could have afforded passage on better," he mused.
"Think of it as training," Ranma answered by rote. "Better wouldn't necessarily be much faster. From here to Sasebo is only two days. That should be just fine." The truth of the matter was that they could easily afford even to fly back on a plane, but the journey was about training, so for that part, some small amount of discomfort was easily warranted.
Genma snorted, one hand resting on the handle of his sword, thumb running across the handguard.
Turning his gaze away, Ranma studied the port. The city around them was substantially larger than most of the towns and villages that they had passed through on their way into China, and was bustling with life and activity. Still, Ranma found his gaze drawn to a fisherman on a nearby wharf. The man wore only trousers, his bare chest and arms covered with a scattering of small but visible scars, though he sang softly — and off key — as he lined up his nets, and loaded them onto his small ship.
What would it be like, he wondered, to have no worries beyond catching fish? The man seemed content enough, singing to himself as he worked. Ranma shook his head, dismissing the thought. He was no fisherman. Genma frowned, looking at Ranma closely. "Ranma," he said softly. "Is something wrong?"
"Just thinking, Father."
"The sea," Ranma offered, gesturing back to the harbor. "How long will it take us to get home after we get back to Japan?"
Genma blinked, relaxing, and dropped his hand from the hilt of his sword to hang at his side, before he raised it to rub at his chin thoughtfully. "Probably a week," he finally said. "Perhaps less."
"And then we'll be home," Ranma said quietly. "Does this mean that I'm done with my training?"
The older man snorted, rolling his eyes. "Your training is finished when you're dead, boy. You should never stop learning."
Ranma grunted in a noncommittal manner, pondering his father's words, and too distracted by his thoughts to observe his surroundings.
Ukyou cleared her mind, and reflected on her image for a moment. Her hakama and uwagi held none of her tools; her ninjato and knives were safely hidden away for the moment. It wouldn't do to allow her father to see those. Daimonji had set aside the tearoom for the occasion, and she shifted nervously in her kneeling position on the floor.
Of course, Daimonji had offered to serve as a witness and anything else that the meeting might require for the occasion, but Ukyou knew how difficult it was for the elderly man to move about, so had settled for asking him to perform the tea ceremony. Ukyou knew it as well, though not in as much detail as he — Daimonji Sentaro was a master of the tea ceremony, and had devoted his life to the art. Ukyou was a ninja, perhaps even a samurai… but not an expert of the tea ceremony.
Today, one way or another, for the first time in eleven years, she would see her father and her brothers. Daimonji noticed her discomfort, and advised, "Calm yourself, child. Your father, as I knew him, was a loving and responsible man. I cannot believe that he wouldn't accept you."
Steeling herself for the meeting, Ukyou nodded, as Daimonji's maid scurried about the corner, bowing low. "Daimonji-san," she said quietly. "Your guest has arrived."
Ukyou ignored the servant — she was only present a few days of the week, generally to help the elderly man keep his house clean, and the woman knew nothing of Daimonji's familiarity with the Kenzan. The man nodded gruffly, and said, "Show them in, and then you may leave."
Bowing again, the woman disappeared, and shortly after that, Ukyou was finally faced with her father and brothers again.
Hajime looked much more worn, a patch over one of his eyes granting him a more roguish look, while much of his boyish innocence was gone, replaced by a stern confidence. Kenshiro, Hajime's elder by a year, looked just as worn, though strangely relaxed and with an easy confidence, a gleam in his own eyes warning of his own strengths. But between them, refusing Hajime's assistance, and standing tall, was her father, his beard grayer, his face weathered and scarred, but still strong.
"F-father!" Ukyou exclaimed, faltering, and bowing low from her kneeling position. She waited until she heard him speak before raising her head.
"Ukyou-chan," he greeted, kneeling opposite her, his sons behind him to either side, while Daimonji waited quietly near her.
She realized her mistake, though Daimonji said nothing, merely smiling very slightly. "Um, I meant, ah, Father, Daimonji-san was going to, that is, I, the tea ceremony—" she cut herself off, hanging her head and swallowing. The ritual involved silence in the beginning, so she had already failed on that count. "I'm sorry," she mumbled.
Akira found it within himself to laugh, not a cruel mocking laugh, but the warm, hearty laugh that Ukyou had always associated with him. "Don't worry, Ukyou-chan," he said, eyes twinkling with mirth. His expression sobered slightly, though his smile didn't entirely fade. "Only, Ukyou-chan, tell me why you are dressed in such a manner."
Ukyou flinched, unable to meet her father's eyes at that moment. "I didn't know if you would survive," she mumbled. "I…. I thought that I would need to avenge the family's honor myself."
For a long moment, all was silent, Ukyou keenly aware of her heartbeat pounding in her ears. Finally, her father's voice sounded again, low and rumbling, "Well then, if we're samurai, I can boast two warrior sons, and a warrior daughter. I will not object to this change — it merely serves as proof that the Kuonji emerge from the fires tempered."
Relieved, Ukyou raised her head again, her vision faintly distorted by nearly formed tears. "Thank you, Father," she managed, while her brothers smirked at her quietly.
Shan-Pu groaned uneasily, her stomach churning from the motion of the boat. "It'll be worth it," she mumbled, pulling her survival blanket about herself more snugly.
The ballast area of the ship was deserted by the crew; likely they never wandered down that far. Not that she could fault them. It was dark, more than a little smelly, and she had killed a rat not terribly long ago.
Ranma would be sleeping in one of the rooms above her, snug and comfortable. Or maybe even under the stars on the deck — she wasn't certain, and she couldn't afford to look for him yet. Still, she would get to see Japan, and that would be worth something. And maybe she would get Ranma, too, though the rules he played by were decidedly different from her own.
She felt her stomach churn once more, as the ship lurched violently. "Oooh," she groaned, her eyes becoming unfocused. "Not nice."
The ship again lurched, before she had completely settled herself, and she dismally wondered what would happen if the ship were to sink. On the bright side, she assured herself, with no food in a good long while, she wouldn't have to worry about retching.
Much more relaxed, and finally instated in their new home, Ukyou eyed her brothers from across the back yard. Her father had mentioned something about adding a dojo at a later date, once they had the time, though he was currently attending some minor formality with the daimyo.
Still, that left them to their own devices, and for that, Ukyou was curious to see how well her brothers preformed at the arts that were important to samurai. She knew she was lacking in some areas, but had no idea what her brothers had learned in their years of training.
"Okay," she said in her most matter-of-fact voice. "Kenshiro, why don't you show me what you can do?"
He nodded brusquely, one hand on the katana at his side. He walked as though he wasn't quite used to its weight, and made to draw it. Ukyou shook her head quickly, waving her hands at him, "No, wait, Kenshiro. Let's not jump ahead, here. We can do just fine with practice blades."
Snorting, he nodded agreeably, and slipped his sheath from his sash, handing it to Hajime, and taking a shinai up. Ukyou nodded, taking another shinai, and assuming a defensive stance a few paces away. He mirrored the stance awkwardly, and Ukyou groaned. "You don't know the first thing about fighting, do you?" she accused.
Kenshiro bristled, while Hajime winced away. "Hey!" he protested. "I was in the army for more than a decade! We don't use swords in the army, but I learned how to fight just fine."
Ukyou bit her tongue, realizing that she had been disrespectful to the time that they had all lost. "You're right. I'm sorry. Okay, Kenshiro, what did you learn how to use?"
He lowered his sword, allowing the tip to rest against the ground. "We learned how to use knives, bare hands, and rifles," he grumbled. "We're soldiers, Ukyou, not samurai, like you."
"Well, not yet, anyway," Hajime allowed, grinning.
Ukyou smiled at that, rolling her eyes in a good-natured manner. "Just because you're missing an eye doesn't mean you're going to become as good as Yagyu Jubei, Hajime," she warned.
His grin widened, and he nodded his head ruefully. "True enough," he allowed. Sobering, his grin faded, and he frowned, asking, "Do you think we're good enough to hunt down the Saotome clan?"
Her own good humor vanishing, Ukyou shook her head solemnly. "I don't think you have what it takes," she admitted. "You need to train a lot more — I've never fought either of them, but they've been training for longer than you have, from what I hear."
Kenshiro raised an eyebrow. "So what would you suggest, then? If we can't hunt them down, there's not much we can do, is there?"
"Not entirely," Ukyou mumbled, finally relaxing from her defensive posture. "But if nothing else, we can round up a few ronin, and I can hire them as bodyguards to take care of it myself."
Both of Ukyou's brothers fell silent at that, frowning darkly. Kenshiro spoke first, saying, "You'd just dismiss us, who spent eleven years in the army against our wishes, and take care of it yourself when you spent that time in luxury?" He growled, and flung his shinai to the dirt before him. "The audacity! Father may see fit to let you act and dress as a man, but you are not — you're just a girl, and your presumption will not help our cause at all."
Ukyou returned Kenshiro's glower, raising her shinai again. "I did not spend those years in the lap of luxury, brother of mine, I spent those years training my damnedest to be able to avenge our honor, and do it alone! It was not easy, and it was hardly 'fun'. Don't dare mock my training—" she cut herself off, biting her tongue until she could control herself, finally pulling the sleeve of her uwagi up enough to bare her shoulder. "I know that you dealt with hardships, brothers, I know that you faced death, and just as much as I know that, I know you aren't ready for this."
Kenshiro stared, wordlessly, eyes fixed on the series of scars that crisscrossed her shoulder. A byproduct of her own pride when she was younger, and thought she was ready to leave, to seek her vengeance on her own. It had taken months to heal, and only the swift reaction of her teachers and their medical resources allowed her to retain full use of the arm afterwards.
Hajime nodded, bowing his head and looking away. He spoke before Kenshiro could find his own voice, offering, "Perhaps it is as you say. You certainly seem to know more of suffering than we had thought, Ukyou. But remember this…" Inhaling, he closed his eye, and tilted his head upwards, facing the sky. After a pause, he began, "I remember far too well holding Makoto after he took too much shrapnel from a Russian explosive. I remember holding my brother's body in my arms — you remember how big, how strong, how burly Makoto was. Surely something as small and insignificant as a bit of shrapnel couldn't hurt him!" He laughed bitterly, his eye still closed. "And yet, for all of his strength, and all of his brawn, he clung to me like a weak little child, crying and begging not to die." Lowering his head, he opened his eye, and fixed it firmly on Ukyou. "I remember too the warmth of his blood as it flowed, too much for me to stop, until he became suddenly cold, and left me alone on the battlefield."
Clearing his throat, Kenshiro nodded, glancing sidelong at his younger brother. "And I remember Touji and Daisaku, too." He glanced at Hajime again momentarily, before turning his attention back to Ukyou. "I'll spare you the details, but…." He trailed off, sighing. "If you think you're the best for this, as little as I like it, fine. Just… just be sure you remember your brothers, and that this is their vengeance, too."
Ukyou nodded, eyes bright with unshed tears. "I will never forget," she promised.
The ship reached port some hours after nightfall. Genma paced impatiently across the bow of the vessel as it came in, muttering curses beneath his breath. Ranma sat against the railing a short distance away, unable to fault his father. Something was amiss, and he felt it in his bones, though he couldn't for the life of him tell what was amiss.
He schooled himself, refusing to give in to the desire to peer around the darkened harbor as the ship glided to the pier, instead trusting his father. "Is anyone expecting us?" he asked, allowing himself to gaze upward, and study the night sky. A thin wisp of cloud drifted across the moon, threatening rain later in the evening.
"No," Genma answered in an oddly subdued voice. "Ranma, if something goes wrong, there's a safehouse a few kilometers from here in a rice field. It should be abandoned, but in good condition. My father before me saw to it that there was always a safe place within a day or two of his travels, and I've asked Nodoka to make sure that they remained intact, should we ever need to use them."
Ranma blinked, distant memories of the kind of house Genma spoke of surfacing into the back of his mind. "Okay," he said at length. "Where is it?"
"The rice field will have a large sign that says, 'Daitokuji'," Genma said quietly. "Now speak of it no more. I have a feeling something is wrong."
Ranma grunted sourly, climbing to his feet and shouldering his pack. "You don't have to tell me twice," he grumbled, hopping to the railing, and leaping across the gap between the ship and the pier.
Genma followed a heartbeat later, paying the six-meter distance little heed. "Patience, boy!" he chastised. "What if it's a trap?"
"A good tactician would wait until the ship was moored, to make our escape more difficult," Ranma countered. "We have an advantage, and we'd best press it. If there is an ambush."
"And a sloppy tactician?"
"Won't be a match for us," Ranma said, grinning, one hand dropping to the swords tucked into his sash. "Be prepared."
"I trust your judgment, but I am your father. If something is amiss, we will flee. Understood?"
"Yes, Father," Ranma deferred, scowling.
Ukyou leant against the side of one of the buildings immediately next to the pier. "Saotome and his son will be getting off their ship soon," she whispered. "When they do, they will come through here, and we will surround them, and challenge them to a fight. Do you understand?"
The eight men near her nodded silently in the darkness. There was no dishonor in being yojimbo, her father had told her. The men were capable with swords, and functioned as hired hands. Ukyou herself wasn't certain, but no ninja hired ruffians, so she would never know without asking Konatsu for more details. For that, at least, she wasn't worried. The men would lend her whatever strength she would need, and if they failed, she was more than adequately equipped to extract vengeance in another manner.
"Ready," she hissed quietly, as a pair of footsteps sounded through the darkness.
Having leapt just behind Ranma, then staggering to the side of the first warehouse, Shan-Pu felt much better. "Hate boats," she groaned weakly, stumbling away from the warehouse. She shook her head to clear it, and vaulted upwards, her hands just grasping the slick metal edge of the roof, and allowing her to haul herself upwards before Ranma or Genma glanced at her.
"Leave," she grumbled. "Let the fun end. I think not, Ran-Ma."
Creeping across the top of the building, careful to keep the two males in sight, she paused at the far edge, frowning at something she saw below her.
Ranma's first warning beyond the low tingling buzz of ever-present danger was a shrill cry of, "Look out!"
The cry was immediately followed by a hail of glittering streaks that slammed into the street a few meters away, though Genma had his blades drawn before they struck. "Run!" the man snapped out.
Ranma grunted, wheeling away from Genma, then backing towards the man as figures emerged from the shadows. "I challenge—" the rest of the cry was cut off as Ranma absently slapped a drawn blade away with his tessen, his other hand on one of his own still-sheathed blades. The iron fan knocked the sword from the grip of Ranma's assailant, and he spared a kick for the man's chest, knocking whatever breath was there out of him, and rebounding hard enough to soar over the heads of another pair.
They broke apart and wheeled, each facing him with a certain grim determination. Ranma felt himself relaxing instantly. He was prepared for a dangerous battle by skilled assailants, not a half-hearted attempt by unskilled and poorly-trained thugs. They were of almost no account.
His father was a distance away, toying with another, and leading more of them down another street. "Just as well," he said aloud. "I'd rather not have to draw a sword against you."
Both men paused. The din of Genma's battle drawing further away, as the first assailant staggered to his feet and scrambled to recollect his sword. "Who are you?" one of the men asked, worry thick in his voice.
"You would attack a samurai without knowing his name?" Ranma protested indignantly. "I'll tell you who I am! I'm—"
He cut off, ducking, as a blade passed through the space his neck had been a moment prior. He rolled, aware of the sounds of the other three men charging towards him. Of course, his father had led four of them off, effectively dividing their forces in half. Well, no matter. Ranma had faced worse odds, and was no stranger to the blade.
He rose to his feet, spinning his tessen across his hands almost negligently, deflecting a clumsy strike towards his heart, and knocking one blade into the other. Both men stepped back quickly, dropping their swords. Ranma lowered his tessen, frowning, and turned around to face the one who had attacked from behind.
The assailant was another samurai, though his face was invisible, as deep in the shadows of the warehouses as they were. He could dimly make out the all-too-familiar fatigues of Shan-Pu, as one arm wrapped around the samurai's neck, the blade of her survival knife holding steady a few centimeters from his jugular. Or was it a woman? Ranma couldn't quite tell in the darkness. He snorted, shaking his head. "Shan-Pu, you followed me," he noted, frowning.
"Not that easy to get away," Shan-Pu said, an obviously strained tone in her voice.
A volatile situation, if ever there was one. "Shan-Pu, let the samurai go. If you kill that one, my honor will be sullied. Two warriors should face one another on even terms," he warned. "Let that one go, and come here." Ranma carefully avoided any gender specific titles; he didn't even know why he was being attacked, let alone by whom.
Shan-Pu released the samurai, who collapsed, gasping for breath, and dashed to his side, her knife still drawn. "What do now?" she asked quietly, fear and worry, and just a little excitement in her voice.
"My father has a house not far from here," Ranma directed her as quietly as he could. "Look for a sign that says, 'Daitokuji'. I'll meet you there."
Nodding, the girl whispered, "Sorry, Ran-Ma. I trust you."
Ranma said nothing, turning his attention back to the warriors, who hadn't budged. Shan-Pu leapt to the rooftop of a nearby warehouse, and swiftly vanished from sight. "I, however, have a duty to my father, and no great desire to see you dead. Add that you have attempted to attack me from behind, and I think that I will take my leave." He grinned, one hand resting on the hilt of one sword. "We will meet again," he promised. "And perhaps then, we will fight." With that, he leapt upward, kicking against the warehouse wall, and bounding up to the peak of the roof.
The warriors squawked indignantly below him, but he ignored them. None of them had felt like they'd have a fraction of the strength that Ranma and his father had learned in his journeying. He dashed towards the edge of the city via rooftop, shaking his head. "What a strange welcoming home," he mused, his good humor crashing to the earth with the suddenness of the raindrops that surrounded him.
Being the first to reach the small farmhouse that Genma had indicated, the girl paused, listening. She had taken a circuitous route, to ensure that she wasn't trailed, but given that they would likely not know of her curse, the effort was probably moot.
She entered the house cautiously, peering around. Footprints led to the doorstep, but there were no lights, no smoke from the chimney within. "This is safe," she muttered, pushing the door open, curious that it was unlocked. "Hello?" she called out cautiously.
"Who's there?" a quiet, effeminate voice asked from within. "Is this your house? I'm sorry, I needed to step in from the rain, and—"
"Don't worry about it," Ranma said, sighing. That would explain why she was there, at least. Some wanderer who needed shelter. Well, her own lot at the present wasn't much better. "Why don't you have the fire started, or anything?" she asked, creeping towards the fire pit.
"It's not my house," the girl said defensively.
Ranma grunted, fumbling with the stacked wood in the darkness. "It's my father's house," Ranma explained. "Let's go ahead and get some warmth and light, huh?"
"Okay," the other voice answered, subdued.
Ranma produced flint and steel, and struck one against the other ineffectually for a moment. "Stupid… cheap steel," she grumbled.
"Mind if I try it?"
She looked up, just seeing the glint of light from the other girl's eyes in the darkness. "Go for it," she offered, nearly jumping as delicate fingers plucked the fire-starting equipment from her hands, and expertly ignited the kindling. Within a minute, the fire was warming up nicely, happily consuming the wood stacked atop it, and crackling merrily. It also shed enough light across the small room to allow Ranma a clearer view of her guest.
The young woman was a samurai, with long chestnut hair. It was unbound at the moment, a ribbon wrapped around the girl's hand as she allowed it to dry. Her haori and uwagi were opened, allowing Ranma to see a hint of the cleavage below, as she attempted to banish the rainwater that saturated her clothing. The redhead blinked, unable to tear her eyes away from the face, without a single touch of makeup, as the other girl stared fixedly into the fire. "Beautiful," she said in admiration. "You're a samurai?"
The other girl blinked suddenly, snapping her attention away from the fire and allowing her eyes to meet with Ranma's. "Um, thanks," she said, offering a shy smile. "You're a samurai too, right? I know some samurai women like other women, but, uh, I'm not like that, though."
Ranma couldn't help but laugh at that. "It's a lot more complicated than that," she said dryly, pulling off her haori and chest bindings, to hang them near the fire while her uwagi was opened and let fall back. She tucked her tessen into her pack while the other girl was absorbed in studying her clothing. "I'm not a girl."
"You bind your chest?"
"More for the curse," Ranma answered, setting a kettle of water on the fire to heat.
The other girl laughed quietly, shaking her head. "Er… it's nice to meet you. Um, I'm… Yamada Sachiko," she said, bowing slightly.
"Oh!" Ranma responded, grinning. "It's been a while since I've heard that pseudonym. Traveling incognito for a while, eh?"
Blushing, 'Sachiko' nodded. "Sorry," she managed, apologetically. "I'm not really able to talk about what I'm doing."
Ranma waved a hand dismissively. "Call me Tanaka Kintaro. That's what my father calls me while we're traveling."
"That's a boy's name," Sachiko noted, smirking. "What are you and your father doing?"
"Not able to tell, but curious still, hmm?" Ranma mused, unable to hide a smile. Sachiko blushed, having trouble meeting Ranma's eyes while Ranma remained without any shirt. "I'm just going home, really. I haven't seen my mother in a few years, so I'm headed back there."
"Ah," Sachiko said, relaxing instantly. "I'm hunting a dishonorable bastard who sullied my family name."
"Well, there are usually dozens of personal feuds going on at any moment," Ranma murmured. "I imagine such things must happen. Have you challenged him, yet?"
"I've tried," Sachiko said, shaking her head. "But he refused to even draw a blade even, when challenged."
That got Ranma's attention instantly, and she scowled. "You challenged him, and he refused to draw a blade? Or any weapon at all?"
"Well," Sachiko faltered, thinking, then shook her head. "No, he refused to draw his sword against us."
"I can think of a number of reasons why that would happen, Sachiko," Ranma warned. "One of them is that he is a kensei, much like myself, and cannot easily draw without killing."
Sachiko was silent for a moment, eyes going wide. "Kensei?" she breathed. "I hadn't thought he was old enough…."
"It can be done," Ranma countered, shaking her head. "I've done it, and I'm only seventeen." She tested the water, and smiled. "No matter," she said, taking the kettle in one hand. "Try not to be alarmed."
The girl stared, eyes widening in fascinated horror as Ranma splashed himself with the hot water. "Much better!" he said cheerfully, setting the half-full kettle back on the fire.
Sachiko was on her feet before the transformation had finished, one step further back, and her hand on the hilt of her sword. "What are you?" she whispered, horrified.
"It's a curse," Ranma offered. "I told you I wasn't a girl."
For a moment, Ranma thought that Sachiko would draw her weapon, but the girl relaxed, standing down, and retook her place by the fire. "That's… amazing," she whispered. "A cursed kensei, wandering the world in search of his mother. Almost romantic, actually."
Ranma shrugged indifferently, loosely wrapping his chest with the dried bindings, then pulling his uwagi and haori on over that. "Perhaps. I'm probably going to be married off to someone as soon as I get home."
"Someone you love?" Sachiko asked quietly.
Ranma grimaced. "Someone I don't even know. Probably another silent pretty-girl who doesn't know what real strength is. I wish my father would respect what I wanted, but honor is honor."
"You would marry someone you didn't love for honor?" Sachiko asked, surprised.
"Of course," Ranma answered blandly. "Wouldn't anyone?"
"I'd only marry someone I loved," Sachiko countered.
"You might have that choice, being a samurai woman," Ranma answered tonelessly. "'Love' is something that was invented for the ignoble masses, something they could have, and we could not. I do not know that 'love' does anything more than dishonor a family."
"What do you mean?" Sachiko asked quietly, apparently uncomfortable.
"'Love' is what causes faithful wives to betray their husbands. 'Love' is what causes good sons and daughters to betray their family honor. Samurai like us have no time for 'love', Sachiko. Maybe you are different. Maybe. But I am not," Ranma announced, a hint of bitter anger lacing his words.
She said nothing, her eyes downcast and curiously vulnerable. She almost seemed about to cry, but Ranma knew that had to be an illusion; no samurai would be that weak. "I see," she said quietly. "But you seem to me to know what love is. You just ignore it, because it's not important as honor?"
"Yes," Ranma said quietly. "If there is ever to be love in my life, it must be found and ended before I am put into an arranged marriage. Because once I do, the time that there is for that… is over."
"So you have to meet a woman before you get home, and hope that you fall in love with her?" Sachiko asked, frowning. "That's the only chance you'll ever get for it?"
"Correct," he responded.
"Kintaro, I don't think that it will ever happen. Do you even know what you want to look for?" she asked, shaking her head.
A smile quirked his lips. "I have a very good idea. I don't like pretty-girls who sit around their houses trying to look good for whatever friend's son their father wants to marry them off to."
Sachiko shuddered with some memory, and managed a sickly smile. "Understood, completely," she interjected. "What else?"
"Someone who is strong, and cares about learning as much as I do," he answered, shrugging. "I don't ask much."
"Well, you've got your work cut out for you if that's what you want," Sachiko said, shaking her head. "Thank you, Kintaro, for allowing me to stay in your house. I have to go, I'm afraid…."
Ranma rose, offering the girl a bow. "I hope to meet you again," he said quietly. "My father owns many houses, and they should all be similar to this one, bearing the same name."
Sachiko smiled, nodding slowly. "I see," she returned in the same quiet voice. "There isn't much time, is there? Well, Kintaro, I hope we can meet again, too." With that, she returned his bow, and marched out the door.
"That was most certainly interesting," Ranma mused, as he crouched before the fire, tossing a few more chunks of wood on it, and then began rummaging through his pack.
Away from the house, Ukyou trotted off towards the meeting point she had told the men to wait at, already expecting that they would have lost the Saotome men. Still, she had met Kintaro, and that was something. He had reminded her a lot of the Saotome boy that she had tried to fight — before some dishonorable vixen had restrained her from her second attack. His voice was similar, but much calmer.
But if what Kintaro said was true, Ukyou doubted she could stand against him directly. Perhaps, Ukyou thought, she could ask Kintaro for help. Or to train her. Kintaro had a much better idea of honor than she did, and she hadn't missed his subtle hints that he'd like to know her better before his journey met its eventual end.
Still, before pleasantries with Kintaro, she had her revenge against the Saotome clan to deal with.
Shan-Pu crept into the house warily, peeking through the partially opened doorway to make sure that Ranma was inside. He was, and not in his cursed form from the rain, either. The unfamiliar territory had ensured that she had gotten well lost before finding her way, and she wasn't about to risk upsetting still more of the Japanese nearby by barging into an unfamiliar home.
She slid the door open, calling out, "Ran-Ma?"
He glanced up at her, tending something over the fire. "Hey," he greeted. "I think we've got something we need to talk about, Shan-Pu."
She nodded guiltily, recognizing the grave tone in Ranma's voice. "I should not have followed," she admitted.
"But you did, and now you're embroiled in our honor affair."
Shan-Pu didn't understand the nuances of the Japanese honor system, but she knew what honor was, and nodded, creeping next to the fire to kneel before it attentively. "What next?" she asked softly.
"For one, you shouldn't fight my fights for me," he chastised.
"Not fair! More of them than you."
"True, but I could have handled them easily. None of them had any appreciable skill."
"Not true," Shan-Pu countered. "Sword girl very fast — sneaky feet. Dangerous."
That caused Ranma to pause his lecture, and he frowned, considering. "Perhaps that one is better than I might have thought. 'Sword girl'…. I wonder how many female samurai are in the area. It's an odd coincidence, I think." He shook his head, dismissing the distraction. "Shan-Pu, what do you think I should do with you? Now that you've followed me to Japan, you're essentially my responsibility."
"Take care of friends?" she suggested, offering a hopeful smile.
Ranma chuckled, shaking his head, as his father entered the house, his uwagi and hakama bearing numerous small cuts from narrow dodges. "It is an unexpected thing, to be sure," Genma mused, scowling at Shan-Pu. "But I'm not as blind as you take me, Ranma."
"Fair enough," the boy countered, frowning, and crossing his arms over his chest. "What would you suggest?"
"Since you've brought things this far, take the girl as a concubine. It should offset the damage your curse will do to your mother."
Ranma stared at Genma, unblinking. "What?" he asked with careful deliberation. "Is that an order, Father?"
"It would be best for the family honor, I think," he mused. "A slight against her would be as much a slight against you, so her interference in the fight would be excusable. No order, Ranma. Your responsibility, and your choice."
Ranma blinked, confused, then turned to regard Shan-Pu, expression curious. "What do you think?" he asked.
"Dinner is burning," she said, pointing at the fire. "What is 'concubine'? Shan-Pu be Ran-Ma friend, spar, spend time with, yes?"
Ranma swore, and fumbled the cook pot off of the stove, while Genma chuckled at his son. "It would mean you would sleep with him, and be at his side almost always," the older man offered.
"Oh, Shan-Pu like that idea!" she said excitedly. "I want Ran-Ma as 'concubine' in China!"
The boy groaned, shaking his head, and nursing his burnt hand. "Father…."
"I can see we've got a little work to do before we introduce her to your mother," Genma allowed, sinking to a sitting position. "But I think this will be for the best."
"Fine," Ranma grumped. "I want to go to sleep and get an early start tomorrow.
"I sleep with you, Ran-Ma!" Shan-Pu declared, a mischievous smile escaping her control. Ranma noted the smile, and returned it while Genma was not looking.
Yes, things were going to be interesting.
To be continued.
Thanks go out to Ginrai for pre-reading.
— Brian Randall
|Layout, design, & site revisions © 2005||
Webmaster: Larry F