I truly could not believe my eyes. All this time, this past year on the road, our trials and conquests and arguments and friendships had led to this? It had been Yua all along? Impossible! It could not be true…and yet there she was, her blue eyes, so similar to mine own, shining brightly at me through the bars, completing our connection once again that had been broken all those years before in Gate.
I was unable to stand from the pure emotion that swept through me, and I went down haltingly on one knee clenching my stomach. Katt and Nina rushed to my side, and Sten squeezed in there too; it was kind of them to offer their help, of course, but none of them knew yet who she was to me, and their words of comfort and questions just bounced off me.
I finally shook my head and stood up, still slightly trembly. Yua! Ladon…was she feeling the same shock? She didn't seem to register it, but it was really hard to tell with everyone crowded around her. I had to get in there to her. I turned swiftly to my right and leaned into the king's earhole to whisper.
"King Renier, I do request, please order your cooks and all other personnel away from the cage. And if you kindly will too, please leave."
"But, but Ryu…" he spluttered. "This girl was caught red-handed trying to steal our fly soup! We cannot just let her go. She must be questioned, not to mention punished"
"No, your highness, I agree completely. But I know she is a thief; she's been one before, too. She's a girl that I…that my team has been tracking for a long time now. From Hometown through Coursair to Windia and now Simafort. She is not dangerous, though. I can assure you that. I just need to ask her some questions before your guards scare her into silence. Please, allow me and my companions to be alone with her here."
He considered this for a second, his smooth blue forehead creasing downward, before nodding his assent. "Of course, Ryu. I fear for your safety, but if she is as harmless as you say, and as important to you too, then I will not stand in your way. Just don't kill her if you can avoid it; makes a mess my cooks would hate to clean up." He gave me a heavy wink here. Oh, those Simafortians. He turned to leave, but stopped and added slowly, "and before I forget. There will a special ceremony for you and your friends tonight; you will all be the guests of honor at our banquet. Ask Jean for more info on it later; I must return to my queen. I am glad I could help in pointing out this woman to you." He shuffled away, and then actually began to hop. I shook my head with a smile, and turned to Katt. "Will you get the cooks out of here, please? We need to be alone with the thief."
"Ooo, definitely, Ryu," she said with more than a hint of mischievousness. "Send 'em out so they don't see the carnage I am able to inflict on THIS LITTLE BITCH THIEF!" She screamed that part directly in Yua's direction, and to my surprise, it barely made her blink.
"Katt," I warned her, just before grabbing her face close to mine. She gasped and writhed in my grasp, trying to sound out my name, but not getting anywhere. I could see Nina and Sten crouching, ready to help whichever of us might need it, but I waved them off. I leaned into to whisper to her as I had the king. "Don't talk to her that way; that's my sister."
As I let go of her, she fell back from me, dazed, no doubt from my sudden violent action and from my startling revelation. "Ry-ry-Ryu. That's…that's Yua? Your sister from Gate, the one who disappeared and all that jazz? That you've been missing for 10 years? Her? WOW! This is too much to handle; holy Ladon's tail, this day has been insane."
"Katt, KATT!" I shouted at her. "Calm yourself down; yes, it's my sister. The same one from my stories. I'm as surprised as you are, I promise. But please calm down; I don't want to scare her away from either me or you all. That'd be quite the inauspicious way to rekindle a long-dead relationship."
"Yeah, well, not like that could have been helped. I mean, you didn't ask to have everyone in Gate's memory wiped or your sister or dad stolen from you. Don't say dead like you two had a fight!" Her eyes were blazing in a way I hadn't seen since we had fought in the arena: with anger, but also sadness. Boy, she was passionate about this sister thing; I should ask her about her family. Or maybe it's a sore subject?
"Shhh, shhh. It's okay, Katt. I didn't mean it in any kind of negative way." I tried to resist hugging her, but considering she was so close I figured I might as well. Strange though it might sound now, I had never actually touched her beyond whenever we fought. It might have my austere ranger upbringing (which taught me to avoid female contact in order to focus on our duties), or it might have just been my own trepidation regarding girls, even if they were Woren and not human (hey, she still had lady parts!). But our lack of tactile connection had never been a point between us, something which we both seemed all right with. I hope this didn't change anything between us.
My hug surprised her as much as it did me, and looking over her shoulder as we did, I saw Sten grinning to himself (guess he thought it finally showed which of the girls I favored; ha! I'd show him. I'd find a way to get Nina into my affections next) and Nina looking a little hurt. Ladon. I hoped my life wouldn't turn into one of those wacky soap opera romances, but with my luck, it probably would. I still had no answer for Sten, or myself for that matter, which of the girls I preferred, or if I had a preference, or even any kind of romantic feelings for them. We'd been traveling together for a while up to that point, but everything had been so hectic with our search to find the thief (my sister, I added to myself. It's going to take a while to get used to that), that there hadn't been too much time to really establish relationships. Certainly there was no wining and dining going on. Add that to the fact that I had always been a fairly reticent guy, and there was a recipe for non-romance if I ever heard one. I wished my Dragon's Tear could have been more useful in romantic feelings.
The hug was brief, though. I did not want to give her any mixed signals about my feelings for her, or upset Nina, but most importantly, I wanted to get back to my sister. The room was now empty, and all was eerily silent. They had all heard my outburst that the girl in the cage was indeed Yua, and now everyone was just waiting for me to make the next move. It always had to be me; curse my leadership!
I arose unsteadily to my feet and slowly walked to where the cage stood in the center of the room. Directly underneath it was an open pit, full of squirming creatures; cockroaches! I suppressed a minor shudder. Was she so desperate for food that she had taken to eaten those filthy parasites? Noticing her own frail self, it wouldn't have surprised me, but the look of disgust on her face told me my answer.
There was a minute of awkward silence, in which I furiously tried to formulate my thoughts. How should I talk to her? What do you say about 10 years of separation? Thank Ladon, she beat me to the punch. "Well, well," she drawled as I came to her. "If it isn't my dear brother. Here to save me from my precarious situation, I hope? And not just to laugh at me getting myself into yet another mess?" I opened my mouth to protest and to assure her I would never laugh at this, especially not now, but once more she beat me to it and laughed herself. "I'm just kidding with you, Ryu! Don't take it so seriously. Anyway, can you get me out of this damn cage? I'm starving, and those little cockroaches are looking mighty tasty. Or that fly soup I was trying to knick earlier! Think you can grab me a bowlful?" She grinned mischievously at me.
Finally I found my voice. "Yua…it's so good to see you! How did you escape Gate? Where did you go all these years? Why'd you steal from Trout?" Shit. I didn't mean to ask that yet. Damn my big mouth!
She gave a small sigh. "I know, dear brother. It's really good to see you too. And I never meant us to be reunited in this fashion, under these conditions, but there's a lot I have to tell you about. A lot that I would prefer to do outside of this little cage those damn cooks shoved me into. And the stealing from that assmunch Trout, well…I'll get into all that later on. It's really a funny story when I think about it. Haha!"
Damn. She hadn't changed a bit. Still so carefree about everything while I was always the serious one. It brought a rueful smile to my face remembering the last time I had seen her, how she had almost gotten killed by that Beak creature before our dad saved our butts. That day, when everything disappeared…she had been the thing I missed most, after Ganer. Even though I did always have to go 'rescue' her from her mountainside shenanigans, or when she was climbing up the roof of the church, or trying to bamboozle the entrance guard, she was still my little sister, my only friend growing up, and I loved her. All the years in Hometown I had spent honing my ranger skills, I had spent many a sleepless night (and restless day) wondering where my family had gone, where Barubary had come from, and why no one in Gate remembered me after I came back from the mountain. It was still the oddest thing I had ever come across; 10 years later and I hadn't found a single clue as to what had happened. Maybe Yua knew something; after all, she was part of the whole mystery too. But I'd come to questioning her in due time; for then, it was a moment of happy rejoicing. And also, I still had to get mad at her for endangering the life of my best friend.
"Not so funny actually, little Miss Bateson," I started. "Your thieving back in Hometown really cost my best friend Bow; he had to end up as a refuge from the law thanks to your boneheadedness!"
She gave a small chuckle. "Whooo, Ryu getting angry. That's a new one on me. Haha." Damn, I could tell she was going to try my nerves already. "And I remember him. The dog boy. Listen, big brother, just kindly let your dear sweet thieving sister out of this cage, let me get dusted off, and all of it will get explained. My thieving, my Gate disappearance, and even about our father." She fixed me with a hard stare as she said the last words, and she knew she had me; I was dying to know anything more about our family.
"Fine, fine." I waved my hands. "Sten, pick the lock on that cage, will you?"
Sten, who'd been watching this exchange with quite the bulging-eyed expression, nodded hurriedly. "Sure thing, man! Whatever you say." He leapt forward on his long arms, chains swinging around his furry neck, and deftly picked the lock. It was really handy having him in my party, I had to say.
"There you go, Ryu." He looked uncharacteristically nervous. What was his problem? Hmm. I'd have to ask later. For now, I had my sister to embrace.
"Maaaaan, Ryu," I said as we were encamped around the fire that night. "Your sister is something else."
He nodded grimly. We were all back on dry land, thankfully. Yua was fast asleep in the lone tent; she hadn't been able to really provide Ryu with any info yet, but none of us could blame her. The morning would bring our answers. Our royal amphibious friend had opted to stay in his castle for the night, and we couldn't blame him a bit either. He had a lot of catching up to do with his wife. Or was she his girlfriend? Eh, Nina'd know. I did not particularly care enough myself to find out. I wondered if he was going to come with us. It'd be kinda cool having a giant frog in our team, but of course, the breathing was always going to be an issue. I had been mulling over that issue for the past hour. How were we going to bring him along?
But Yua! Hoo boy. I hoped she didn't come along, though that might make me seem like a bitch. And I'll be honest – my reasoning was selfish, and simplistic. She was just as dominant a personality as me. With me, Nina, Yua, AND Ryu all traveling together, especially considering that those last two were long-separated siblings, I foresaw a lot of problems in our future endeavors.
Of course, our future was in limbo now anyway. What the hell was going to happen to us? I shivered involuntarily. Ryu had finally found his thief; Bow's name could be cleared, Rand and him were probably done fixing up the old creep's house, and everyone could and likely would go their separate ways…Ladon, I hoped not. I had only left Cot Land a few months before; I was not even close to being ready to returning. I did have the arena to return to if I wanted, I suppose, even if I had been dethroned. But considering Augus' death, and the fact that I had been being controlled by such a demonic entity unwittingly, and so easily, I had little desire to return to that gladiatorial lifestyle.
I belonged out in the open plain, truly. Ryu's shock at my hunting skills just reinforced that. I could survive and thrive out here, battling any creature that dared stand in my way. Nothing could bring me down! And Ladon, I couldn't return to Cot Land yet! Hell to the no. Tiga could just keep his happy hairy butt waiting for me. Above all, there was magic. Magic and, as much as it pained me to admit, Ryu were those things keeping me wishing our band would never break up. I had been interested in magic since before I could roar, but I never had had any training of any kind, a fact I bemoaned constantly. Now I was traveling with two full-fledged magicians (okay, Sten wasn't much of one, but still, he had more training than I); I knew I could wheedle some form of teaching from either of them if I tried. And I wanted to; I felt it burning inside me. I knew I had the gift – I just had to learn how to tap into it. Swinging my cat's claw staff my whole life had built up my arms and my physical strength, but I wanted the elements at my disposal too. Seeing how easily Nina had shifted the tide at the Joker's hideout, or even in the bottom of the well, made me yearn for that power. No matter how big or strong I got in my warrior training, I couldn't do what she did, not in a million years. And I would never find that power if this band broke up yet. Never. We had to stick together! I didn't give a good damn if it was for selfish reasons; I had nowhere else to turn to in order that I could find happiness. And all I ever wanted was happiness. How to manage to actually find it was the key. But I knew it could only be found traveling the world, and letting the winds and waves guide me where they may.
"Listen up, everybody." Ryu's commanding voice immediately snapped me out of my reverie. "A lot of important things – hell, even life-changing things happened today. But I have some more important things to discuss with everyone here before this night is over. Namely, what in Ladon's name we will do with both Jean and Yua? I have my own opinions on both, but I'll leave it open to discussion before putting my own input. Katt, would you like to begin?"
How could I resist when he asked me to do anything? Dammit, Ryu. I hate voicing this kind of stuff out loud, but I guess I had to. "I think we should keep them both!" What the hell was I saying? "Jean can definitely be a handy person in a fight, plus he's royalty! And your sister's thieving skills could definitely come in handy." I could tell from Ryu's annoyed look I had said the wrong thing, so I finished lamely, "well, I'm sure she'd be good in a fight too?"
"Oh for Asgard's sake!" Nina snapped. "I'm royalty, Katt. We don't need another person like me around to do any party tricks or get us out of any hot mess we encounter. He's an oaf, and I hate him!"
We all turned to stare at her for the outburst. She flushed red. "Ummm…sorry." She took a deep breath. "I just knew him growing up, and I never was much fond of him. Always lusting after me when he had Petape to go to! He could never have gotten me if he had tried, but Ladon knows he did, every time we visited Simafort. Even my magic threats didn't phase him a bit. He just kept trying to win me over with his ridiculous accent and promises of wealth and power. 'The conjoined kingdoms of the wind and the waves,' I believe were his old words. But, being the proper lady I am, not to mention one of taste, I refused his every advance."
I had to roll my eyes; thankfully the shadows kept me hidden. She was so full of herself. Did she really think she'd turn Ryu onto her by being an arrogant little ass? Huh. She had a lot to learn about people outside her stupid city.
"So no, Ryu. I personally will not stand having Jean de Florette in our party. I love Petape, and yes, I slutted myself out to get her husband his pardon, but that was just so she could be happy again, and so that he could be out of our hair! I *definitely* do not want him joining us in any further missions we might have. So there!" She folded her arms across her chest, looking every bit the spoiled princess archetype I had loathed reading about in books growing up. This was going to be trouble.
Ryu, for the first time in a long time, actually looked flustered. "Um…that was unexpected, I must say, Nina. I had no idea Jean was that way to you. He seemed a little too regal to be a womanizer. But people (and frogs) can surprise you, I suppose." He gave a deep sigh. "Well, let the record show that our princess does not want a prince joining us. Sten, what say you on the matter?"
Sten looked up from absentmindedly poking the dirt. "Huh? Oh. About Jean. Man, Ryu, I don't even give a damn, to be honest. Let him come, I say. He seems like a cool guy, though his cooking is not quite up to my tastes."
"WHAT?" Nina interjected loudly. "After all I just said about how I will not stand to have him? Sten, are you even paying attention to what's going on? Do you care about my feelings or the well-being of this group?
He gave her a bemused look. "No, Nina. Not really. I was really fascinated by these ants. Were you saying something important?" Oh, I love you, Sten. You're a creep, but I love you anyway.
As Nina started seething out of control, Ryu stepped in once again. "Nina, calm down! Sten was just voicing his opinion; heshould have been paying attention," and here he directed a glare at Sten, who just gave a cheesy grin and shrugged. "But he wasn't. No sense in getting angry at him yet. It was not my intention for this conversation to cause any kind of divide in our group. Obviously, not everyone will feel the same way; we have four people's opinions on two separate individuals, so we just gotta make this work as best as we can, people. For Ladon's sake, we've been traveling together all this time with no problems, and NOW we start arguing? Come on. Let's pull it together."
There was a muttered sign of agreement from Nina, and Sten nodded blithely (he must have had his mind far away that whole night - he was normally so much more joking). Our azure-haired leader gave another sigh and stared off into the blackness. Or so I thought at first; a closer glance revealed he was gazing lovingly at the tent where Yua lay, hopefully still sleeping. I had to smile at that; I never would have suspected he would have that soft side.
"Now all of you have had your say in this matter. Nina, you're the only one opposed to Jean. I noticed that only Katt had any input on the matter of my sister. So we'll need to come back to that. Personally, my vote is to let Jean stay as well; he can even breathe on land somehow, so that's not an issue to figure out, thankfully. So, sorry, Nina. But unless Jean does not want to accompany us, he is going to come along." I saw her little mouth turn downward and her start to pout, and it made me smile to myself. Ah, I was bad for liking her pain; but it was funny!
"But going on, everyone, my sister is next. She has so much left to tell me, and I think, tell all of us, about what has happened in my past, the 10 years I missed out on, my father, Gate, everything that is a mystery to me might finally be solved with her help! So…"
I couldn't help my silence anymore. I was burning to know. "RYU!" I yelped out. He turned to me, as did Sten and Nina, completely shocked. I was immediately nervous; I hadn't been thinking about what else I was going to say. "Ahem, well, Ryu. Sorry about interrupting, but I have to know. Before you go on, and we make more votes and what not, I gotta ask. What is going to happen to us? Where are we going from here? You are talking and asking about them 'coming with us,' but where are we going? Just back to Niro's and then leaving? You found your thief, who also just so incredibly coincidentally happened to be your long lost sister. Which, by the way, I am SO happy for. Anyway, we got Jean back to his rightful position in Simafort. Sten, you beat the witch, you revenged yourself. Nina, well…Nina, I imagine you only came on this trip in order to help Ryu find the thief. So what's left for you now? Where are we all headed?"
I heard Ryu muttering something that sounded like "Ladon help us." I felt guilty for my outburst, but it sounded like we were all doing it.
I boldly continued on, taking a deep breath. I had a lot coming. "I mean, I don't want our trip to end! I am having way too much fun. Well, don't get me wrong; it hasn't all been fun and games. The death and murder and treason is never a fun part of anything. But I love being with you guys. I've really learned to care about you, in ways I never had before. Nina, Sten, Ryu, and even Jean. There's an incomparable feeling being out with you all. Don't think I am just some ditzy bitch, though! I know the gravity of the trip. I know the hell that Ryu has gone through, and that too which poor Bow has been put through, that awful situation thanks to Yua, and everything else. Hell, I helped kill my old boss when he transformed into a demon dog in front of my eyes! I know the trip has not been anything resembling pure unadulterated happy times. But I just don't know what to do. We've fulfilled everything we have needed to. Just…what's going to happen to us? I don't want us to just leave here, go back to Windia or Hometown or wherever, and just never see each other again." What. Tears? Where on earth did those spring from? Damn, maybe I was more passionate about that group than I thought.
My words seemed to have had at least some effect on the group. Nina looked quite sad herself, on the verge of tears, and Sten was glancing around and down at the ground uncomfortably. Ryu, of course, seemed mostly nonplussed, and was the first to offer any kind of response.
"I know, Katt. I know just how you feel. Truth is, I don't know what else there is to do either. We have located the thief, I found my sister whom I never thought I would see again, and everything seems peachy. But as with you, I do not want this story in our lives to be done yet. I spent a decade in Hometown, wasting my life in trivial pursuits. I enjoyed my time there to a degree, but I always knew the world had a lot more to possibly offer me. Even the circus that sometimes camped outside of Hometown fascinated me; it offered this tiny glimpse into a world I was unable to see while inside the walls of the city. I needed out; and by Ladon's grace, I got out! Yes, it took an unlikely and unfortunate situation for it to happen, but just because that situation can now finally be corrected, and Bow's name restored, I cannot fathom just going back to our old lives. Perhaps, you, Nina, need to return home to Windia. Or you, Sten, back to Highland? Or even performing on the road again. You're a talented guy, I'm sure you can make it work whatever you do. I can't speak for you all; but Katt, I am all behind you. I am not ready to return to Hometown. Matter of fact, I don't think I ever will be. Bow, who knows about him. We'll find out soon.
"I have this in mind as a little plan of action we might be able to follow. I want to head back to Niro's, obviously with Yua in tow, show her to Bow, clear the air, and then…shit. That's where it gets hard. I can't take her to Hometown and turn her in; no way! I love Bow, but this is family. Family I just met with again." And here he looked so unbelievably sad I felt a wave of emotion sweep through my own body. "Of course, I still want to clear his name. So I have no idea what to do. If this was anybody at all but Yua, I wouldn't think twice. But it is my kid sister, so…ideas, anyone? What should we do when we get to Niro's?"
Damn. He had asked a good question. Whatcould be done in this case? I hated that Bow had been banished for something he had not even done, but to save his citizenship at the cost of Yua's long-term prison-free future was something I could not do. Hmm…
"I got it, Ryu!" Sten shouted excitedly. "Just swap 'em!"
Ryu's handsome face registered confusion. "Swap them? Sten, I just said that I did not want to do that!"
"No, no, Ryu man. Sorry, didn't mean swap. I meant, let's get back to the old coot's, meet up with your friends there, have drinks all around, get back to Hometown, with your sister AND Bow coming along, and in the middle of the night have her sneak back into the house she robbed, replace the treasure, and skedaddle back to the camp. Then in the morning, old Trout will wake up and see the treasure right back where it belongs! He'll make a public announcement, and your boy will be cleared, and your sister not arrested!"
Comprehension and glee spread over Ryu's face all at once. "I think you're onto something, Sten! And Herb, the gate guard, knows that Bow has been out of the city for a while now, and so if the treasure was restored, he'd know, and let all the other guards know, Bow couldn't have done it, and that it was someone else in Hometown. They'll never in a million years suspect or know of Yua, and so everything will be okay!"
"Yeahhhhh, Ryu. That might be true, you know, if I still had the treasure." A black shape with Yua's sarcastic tones seemingly materialized out of nowhere, launching itself quite cozily in between myself and Sten.
I really thought Ryu was about to have a heart attack. I had never seen his eyes bug out so wide. Apparently neither had Yua, who actually looked very concerned for a moment before breaking into laughter.
"I'm just messing with you, bro! Had to see how you'd react. I know how important this treasure is to you; well, now I do. It is damn lucky for us all I didn't sell it like I wanted to before. Easily would have fetched a few hundred gold pieces for it." She shook her head, and for a moment, I really believed she was sorry she hadn't done it. What a little bitch. I was so glad Ryu wasn't like her; I never could have liked him then. But as it stood, I liked him far more than I cared to admit.
"I heard the monkey man's plan, though," she continued. "It sounded solid to me. I already got in Trout's house once before, I can do it again no problem. That little toad will never be expecting me again. Hah! Even if he did, he'd never be able to catch me. It sucks to have to part with this little crown of mine, but for your sake, big brother, and for your friend's too, it'll be my pleasure. Besides, all the money I need I can just bum off of you guys!" She gave us a heavy wink here before casting her eyes to look intently at the ground. Ladon, I wasn't sure if I was beginning to like her or if she would drive me nuts.
I shook my head. Those little ants had nothing in life guiding them except their own instincts. Why couldn't life, our lives, start and stay as simple as theirs? To just lend ourselves to abandon. I had, after all, for so long. When I found myself separated from my dear brother and my beloved father, and even more, from the dragon, I could hardly bear to live. I was a child, I was five years old! It's hazy in my memory, what happened exactly after that last day. Ryu was there, and suddenly he was gone, everything was. Ganer, the dragon, Gate itself all seemed to have vanished! Some kindly priest found me, escorted me to his church, somewhere completely unfamiliar. What was his name? Ah, yes. Habaruka. And of course, Ray, his son. Despite his calm demeanor, Ray frightened the piss out of me; he could be intense and very menacing when he wanted to be. He was very interested in knowing about Ryu, but I never had much to tell him. Well, I did, actually; but he never wanted to know my information, about what Ryu liked for breakfast or how many times Ryu got in trouble every day. Hah. No, he wanted to know mysterious things, words I didn't comprehend at seven, about power and destiny and dragons and a God. Words I still have trouble recognizing the significance of.
Ryu was just gifted, though. Far more than I ever could be; though to be fair to myself, I never heard or saw him interacting with the dragon like I did. For me, that was my consolation, my comfort, my one advantage over him; my mother had been killed shortly after I was born, and going to the back mountains and meditating near the dragon provided me the only way to hear her voice again. That was what I had missed most about my life in Gate…Mother. Dearest mother. She probably would not have been very proud of me then, with my thieving ways and the ridiculous outfit and my tiny wings. Her wings had been so regal! I never could get enough of nuzzling into them. But me, I was almost a full grown woman and the wings barely extended a foot! They were of a hard, jagged beauty, I thought; nothing at all like the princess's soft feathery wings. Those were beautiful and luminous; mine were veiny and demonic, certainly none that an artist would want to capture. At least not a sane artist.
I digress, though. My wings are not truly important. The church life had never truly appealed to me, and certainly not the St. Eva church. One day, after a few years, I just left. Walked right out; no one there gave any kind of attempt to convince me to stay, not Habaruka, Ray, or anyone. They knew what I had to do, and even blessed me with their holy powers before I left! I couldn't believe their generosity. For that, I will never forget them.
Beyond the blessing, the best advice they had given me was to keep to myself, trust no one, and learn every survival skill I possibly could. I had to learn quickly; I had had no idea where I was going, or even where in the world I was (I didn't even know the name of the town I stayed in, just that its church was massive). Never once did that deter me, though. I fed in the forests when I needed to, spent many a night high in trees, but I didn't settle for anything. I didn't let myself get wrapped up in mediocrity, as it appeared Ryu had in Hometown. The moon, the stars, the lamps in a room, the slice of a blade whistling through the air, the gleaming jewels in a house, the fat purses on people's hips, everything about thievery and the dark and what I could gain from embracing both appealed to me so greatly. I had always known I had the skills necessary for such a life; after all, I had always been able to steal away from the watchful eyes of my father or Ryu, anytime I wanted at all. They always found me out, but only because I let them. It got boring never being caught time after time. Besides, being put in timeout gave me more of a chance to go see the dragon.
Which is why I was so scared of my skills possibly eroding. I had been so stupid to get caught in that simplistic trap in the Simafort kitchen; any rookie thief would have evaded it. But for some reason, I was not able to; was it my exhaustion from hunger? Or perhaps my subconscious knew Ryu was close and wanted to get near him again? Come to think of it, I had recently had a dream with my mother's voice resounding in it, but I couldn't remember its message when I awoke. Only that it was there, urging me on in some manner. To find Ryu? With him coming back into my life so suddenly after 10 years, and so close in proximity to my dream, I had to admit it was very plausible.
It just scared me to have to tell him everything I knew of our father…
"Going back to what we had been talking about before my dear sweeeet little sister here interrupted us." I gave her a huge smile, but I made sure everyone there did not mistake my sarcasm for sincerity. "Ahem…I am staying on this trek. I cannot go back to Hometown. Not just because it offers me nothing, though of course that's a big thing. But because of my power. This great and awesome, but all of all, mysterious power that somehow resides in me. Ever since that day at the shaman's little house, the one I completely destroyed, to be frank, I have been burning with curiosity to know just what in the hell I have! I cannot explain it, other than that it is a dragon inside me. But that's the obvious. I mean, where did it come from? Why is it in me? When will this voice, this eye quit talking to me? I have to know." I shook my head violently to clear it. "And I know I will never find out why if I remain at home, or even with the Rangers still. I would love for Bow to come with me, though that's something we'll have to ask him when we get back to that side of the world. For now, though, I offer the choice up to all of you: would you like to continue to accompany me in my journey for my own identity? That sounds mighty selfish, now that I say it. Hah. But of course, I would hope for all of you to come on the journey for your own self-interest too. Just doing it for my sake, for the blue-haired weirdo, seems stupid. No offense intended to any of you if you actually were coming along just for me." I gave them one of my patented winks. "If anyone here, EXCEPT for you, Yua, wants to leave the party to go back to their homes and lives before this crazy adventure started, by all means, go ahead. I will not stand in your way." Here my sister made a face at me, but I had to stand firm; she had too many answers still locked away in her, and I needed to know them all.
Barely had the words escaped my lips when Katt lept to her feet, her staff clenched tightly in her hand (or was it paw? Dammit, animal-human hybrids could be anatomically confusing). "I'm staying with you, Ryu!" she nearly shouted. "The arena is dead to me, I have no true home to go back to, and I have so much to learn from you, from Sten, Nina, Jean, even Yua, and the world in general! It's not quite time yet; I'll have my chance to grow old and grey-furred in Cot Land, but when I do, I want to have the memories of this time to look back on. And I want to keep building on those memories, and not just abandon them quite yet. So, you aren't getting rid of me just yet. I'm with you to the end."
I was not expecting to be so touched by her answer. But, as I should have expected, before I could respond, Nina was close on her heels, determined not to be shown up (or so I imagined). "Yeah, Ryu! I can't stand Windia anymore. All those arrogant asses walking wildly all about. Ugh! It drives me up the wall." She tossed her middle finger in the general direction of Windia. I saw Katt smirk at her gesture; I almost had to hide my smile myself. Nina wasn't a bad girl at all, which made her finger all the funnier. But, her arrogance could certainly border on overbearing at times. She had to learn about casting the blame on others and taking responsibility for her own self. Well, maybe this trip would help her. I could only hope. If she was going to stay after all, she'd need to start changing a few things about herself.
A grumble was muttered from somewhere about a yard up off the ground; Sten had come up beside me, taking in all the semi-dramatics of the evening with his usual aplomb. He caught my eye and his own glistened slightly. "Women, eh, Ryu?" He gave a sarcastic chuckle. "They just always have to one-up the other when they're fighting for the alpha male of a group."
I decided to play dumb for a second. "The alpha male? And who's that between us?"
A glare was directed my way for a half-second. "Sometimes you're a dick, Ryu. Much as I love to fantasize about it, though, I know I'll never have a chance with Nina and Katt. Hell, if super-skank Nimufu still wouldn't give me the time of day, I know I got a ways to go before I can get anywhere with anyone, especially these two.
"So yeah. If that's what you wanted to hear, there it is. You're the alpha male of our little duo here. Whooo. But I promise, Sten _ will get some soon!...I just don't know how."
I shook my head sadly at him, but I forced my voice to sound hopeful. "Sten, I know you've had some hard luck with the ladies before, but the past doesn't necessarily dictate the future! You can't just give up. We gotta work on your image and your attitude, and when you change a bit, you'll be golden!"
He looked off into the distance pensively. "See, Ryu,I never bought into that whole 'pretend to be who you're not' crap. I think I need to be my plain old monkey magician self, and if that doesn't get me anywhere with these two, so be it! There's plenty of other females around. Especially…" He cut himself off quickly here, but my sharp eyes caught the glint of a smile beginning to form around his hard mouth.
"Steeeeeennnnn," I drawled out teasingly. "Whooo is sheeee? Why haven't you talked about her?" I started poking him in his stomach, drawing a growl and a quick knife flash from his nimble fingers. I instantly stopped, but still hopped all around him. I had been put in such a good mood by so many things lately, and his saying he actually had a lady friend of sorts only added to my ennui. But that little bastardo hadn't even shared any details of her with me before! I had to pry it out of him somehow.
But before my mind had to go racing to any strange places, Sten saved me the trouble of forcing it out of him. "Look, Ryu, she's just this girl back in Highland. The princess, if you absolutely have to know. I realize I've never talked about her before, but I just like keeping my private life hidden. So, sorry about that. I've known her since we were kids; before I even really knew she was a princess she was my best friend. Always running around, terrorizing the guards, playing tricks on Trubo, and teaching each other the best magic tricks we could come up. It was the best time a young Highlander could have ever enjoyed." He gave a happy laugh here, one that surprised me to come from his mouth. Though I enjoyed his company, Sten was the least of us to be prone to any kind of joyous outbursts. I guess he really does care for this princess of his. Who would have ever imagined this old perv had such a soft side?
"I haven't talked with her in so long, though." All the happiness had instantly vanished from Sten's voice, and I could practically hear a morose bell clanging in his head. "After that day when I left…no, when I was cast out. That conniving ass Trubo set me up! Curses, why did we have to tease and torture him so? The little fun and games I had at his expense in our youth ruined me, it RUINED me, RYU! I lost Emilia, my honorific of knight, my home, everything. All for a stupid grudge that little bastard Trubo held from so many years ago. And now he is with her. Or at least I think so…no matter if he is or not, I am not with her, and that is pain enough considering how close we once had been. Marriage was always out of the question, with her royal birthing and all, but we always talked of running away together. She did have a sister, so it's not like the kingdom would have fallen into total ruin. Heh. But we never had a chance to get that far, and now, here I am, traveling with you and the gals. Don't get me wrong, I love being out here with you all! But when it comes down to it, I know my heart will forever belong there in Highland." His eyes turned to the southeast, and even without knowing where his mountainous home was exactly, I knew it was out there in that direction. If only it wasn't so far from Homeland and Niro's place! Decisions, decisions…what to do, what to do?
And then I knew what to do.
With a jaunty salute, I turned back from my companions towards the direction of the vast fortress of Highland. I was in a mix of emotions regarding my suddenly solo trip back home. Relief was chief among them. I had enjoyed being on the road with all of them, Ryu especially (I had finally found a guy I could pal around with, instead of running around aimlessly chasing lasses, something Mom had always hoped for!). Even before that, just doing the whole traveling starving magician gig was a lot of fun, but it wasn't quite as successful as I was hoping. I had been away from Highland for 10 years, and every night when I slept, I still imagined how imposing the towers had looked. Never a beautiful castle, but one designed to invoke fear and respect. And to my young mind, nothing did that quite so well. It was time to come back.
I was so glad Ryu had offered me the chance to take a leave. I had not realized just how much I missed home, and especially Emilia, until I had been talking with him that night. Ladon, as strong as I tried to be with everything, as hard as I tried to be this badass who didn't care and only wanted to chase random gals, I still missed her so incredibly much. She was the one I really wanted, had cared for all those years. I had slipped once, with that Cot Landian whore, the girl who had so achingly looked like Kat (and probably explained my huge attraction to her). The whorish Woren, heh. Oh, she hated that name.
But I could never get the idea of my beloved princess with my enemy. Were they even together? Grrr…I didn't know. I'm sure she would never be with such a scumbag, at least willingly. But Trubo had a great deal of influence now in the castle, last I had heard. Court vizier, if memory served. He got to be around her all frigging day, a fact which caused me no end of remorse. And yet another reason why I had to get back!
I slowly rotated back around to face the direction my friends had set off, back to Mt. Fubi and Niro's shack. Well, I'm sure they would have fun without the crazy wild monkey slowing them down and making stupid jokes and what not. Ryu deserved some alone time with his sister, anyway. Anddd with Katt and Nina. I laughed to myself. Sexy as the both of them were, I had my own fish to fry, and I had just wished him luck with them before I departed, giving a sly wink as I did.
My only hope was that they would want me back in time. I'd be damned if I didn't say I already felt a longing to be back with the group. Ryu had been right, we had pretty much completed what we'd set out to do, but there was that mystery hanging over his head, and in effect, all our heads. He was a bad ass, no doubt, and a great leader for our gang. But we all wondered just what in Ladon's name was he, anyway. And how did that shamaness bring out his power? Hmm…there were so many questions that needed answering, none of which I could answer myself by going back home. But they didn't matter then, though; my own questions of life and love could only be answered by returning home, finding out what happened in the decade I had been gone. I'd stay for a little while, then head back on the road. We agreed to meet in Capitan in precisely one month; I'd have to book it if I wanted to make it to Highland, get my girl back, and travel to them in that time frame. I silently thanked Ladon for granting me long arms as I started making my way through the grassy fields. As I was running along, I looked down to make sure I still had my trusty banana knife strapped securely inside my vest. It was there as always, covered up by its worn out scabbard. They had both been presents from Emilia just before I left. I remembered it well: just past one A.M. on a cloudy night, a normal night by any stretch except for my decision, on the highest rampart, both of us staring at each other in silence, our eyes wet but no tears falling, she giving me the knife, covered in the plain brown scabbard, our fingertips brushing for the last time, and then a swift kiss and a leap over the edge for me. I loved her for getting me that ordinary covering when she had the wealth of the kingdom at her disposal. I loved her for everything, actually…With that sudden re-realization, I began hurrying even more. A few more hours' difference would not surely be substantial, but I had to see her right then. Ten years had passed far too quickly without me even realizing it'd been that long, and now it was time to try to correct every mistake I had made in leaving her behind. I only hoped I could still win her back. Trubo, my old enemy, I thought grimly. I will see you soon. And for your sake, I hope you have not tried anything with our dearly beloved princess. Or else I might have to put this knife to use once again.
"Ohhhhhh, Ryuuuuu!" my sister's annoying singsong voice came floating from the back ranks, grating hard on my already worn-down nerves. "How much further til we get there? I mean, damn! We've been walking steady for three days. Can't expect a poor wee little girl like me to just be able to walk like your oafish self. Hehe."
As calm as I could normally be, I was seething by now, and I wasn't the only one. I could practically feel the collective hate in Nina and Katt rising to near boiling levels. I quickly flashed the Dragon's Tear out and checked both their emotional levels; both were dark green and heading toward black fast. Shit. I had to correct that before everything I had been working for got destroyed right when we were on the precipice of clearing Bow's name.
Unfortunately, it was just me handling them alone. I had allowed Sten to return to his homeland to reclaim his lady's hand, and Jean had stayed in his watery kingdom to reestablish his foothold in the royal courts. After all, he had been away for a good long time. I had been sad to say bye to him a second time, and this time seemed far more permanent. He had had tears on his slippery face as he hugged me. "Ryu, you are a most brave soul," he assured me. "Peace and happiness shall be with you, of this I am sure." When I had told him we'd found my sister, he clapped his hands together and sighed happily. "Such happy times this is for you! And now you will find your father. Or at least, I hope you shall. And bring those pretty lady friends of yours back alive and well, eh, Ryu?" He gave me a little jab in the ribs accompanied by a wink. "Hate to lose out on them..or you, of course! Heheh. But please, give them my and Petape's warmest regards. And come back soon! We want to hear how you found your father, discovered your powers, and hell, maybe even saved the world. Something tells me that you have a veryyyy special aura about you, my friend." I nodded thankfully, and bowed low to him, a gesture he returned. "You have my eternal gratitude, Ryu Bateson. You saved me from a most terrible fate, a most horrendous curse. Worse than being stuck as the giant frog, I was separated from my father, my Petape, and my people. I'd have gone mad before long. You saved me..." He bowed to me here, all the way down to his knobbly knees, and knelt there for a good minute. Rising back up, he tapped me on both shoulders with his rapier. "I hereby proclaim you Sir Ryu Bateson, and give you the honorary title of Simafort Knight. Wear it well, and see us soon. Good luck, Master Ryu." I clasped hands with him, said my own words of thanks, and departed his presence.
All these thoughts tumbled quickly through my head, but sadly, they couldn't stay for long. A continued squabbling from behind me was driving me slowly insane. I turned back swiftly, my cloak flashing up over me. Ladon, I hated it when the group got rowdy. As the only guy now, this trip was being made doubly hard. Three against one odds are hard in any battle, but when it's my sister, Nina, and Katt all teaming up, the results could be very bad indeed. It was time to bring down the thunder, though. They had pushed me too far.
"KATT! NINA! YUA!" At the sound of my voice, magnified as loud as I could make it, all three stopped dead in their tracks, and finally, for once, mercifully shut up. Yua had a look of respect in her eyes I'd never seen, not even growing up. I fought the urge to wipe my brow. Half the battle was done; now I had to finish it.
"Guys, girls cats. Whatever. You're all mixing in the same way to me anyway. Ugh. Sorry." What the hell was I saying? Come on, Ryu, just spit it out already! Their quizzical looks made me stutter once more, and then I began confidently.
"People, we're half a day's trek from Niro's. I have had to deal with your stupid shenanigans for the last several days on the road. And let me assure you, despite my stoic attitude, it has NOT been easy. There have been times these last several days when I have wanted to slap each and every one of you all in the mouth, and hard at that." A slight gasp arose from Nina, whilst Katt and Yua both looked fairly bemused. Well, they weren't used to hard ass Ryu, but he had to make an appearance from time to time.
I continued glaring at them for a moment before continuing, just as angrily as before. "I know this trek has been hard on everyone, especially since we've had to hurry so much, but just keep in mind, once it's over and we're over the mountain, we can take a break! Physically and mentally. Yua especially, you won't have to worry about being caught anymore. We'll rest at Niro's, I might help Bow and Rand fix the place up if they still haven't finished, and we'll hold a group meeting to decide who wants to go and where we might be headed next. But that won't be til the last night. We can relax for a bit, I promise. Just please, let us get there in one piece. And in that meantime, your smart mouth, Yua, and you two's constant bitching and fighting, Katherine and Nina, needs to stop. I mean that. Not to mention all three of you need to get along better or this entire thing is going to go kaput. I've seen your emotions on my Dragon's Tear. And let me tell you all." I paused here and slowly looked each of them in the eyes. "They aren't looking good. So I expect you to shape up or just get out. Nina, I'm sure you'd be welcome back at Windia. I know how much Mina misses you. And Katt, that Tiga guy you've mentioned before must be dying to know what happened to his little feline princess." I was pulling a little dirty trick, getting them to remember the lives they left behind, and it was working. They were visibly shifting uncomfortably, and finally not even Katt had a comeback for me. I turned back to face the front, closing my eyes as I did so. Okay, you did good, Ryu. You let them have it without being too harsh. Just like a good leader needs to do sometimes. Now, we just gotta pass through Fubi and we're there! You can take it easy, hang with Bow, drink a beer with Rand, not worry about finding your sister or your thief anymore. And also too, that reminds me…
I motioned my sister to come join me in the front. She had been lagging behind the whole trip, taking in her surroundings with a wary eye, her small wings twitching constantly. But now she came up beside me instantly.
"What's up, big brother? What'd you need? More of my trademark smartassery?"
"Not at all, Yua." I gave a long sigh. "You know it's wearing on me. No, I needed to talk to you about something. When am I going to know more about Dad?"
She smiled for just a moment, and there I knew he was alive, and she knew of it! But her smile quickly faded, and while she didn't look unhappy, it made me somewhat uneasy regardless. What did she know that I didn't? If he was alive and well, why didn't she say so? Shit. Now this was going to bother me all until we got back to that old crazy's house. I broke out in a run, and I could hear my gals behind me do the same, after a brief hesitation. It was time to find out what happened to my father, clear Bow's name, and go back home! Yes! Things were looking up!
"Ladon help us, Rand! Are you done up there yet?"
My enormous horse-like friend looked down slowly from his perch atop the roof of our new cabin. His ear twitched once before he yawned widely.
"Yeah, I am, Bow," he drawled out. "Don't worry. She's just about done. Just a couple more nails, a few shingles, and a bit more tar, and this old thang will be done up good! I am pumped!"
I smiled broadly at my friend's happy attitude and strange sayings. He had come a long way in our time together here; he'd been too damn serious for his own good. Just like my boy Ryu.
As usual, my thoughts turned to him and how he might be making out on his quest. I never knew where he might be, so a letter would have been nigh useless to send to him. So I just had to wait. Stuck here with that crazy old Niro and stoic Rand. Well, neither was so crazy or stoic anymore. Niro had just seemed a little off kilter when we first met him because the poor blighter was starving. Hell, I'd have been the same way. Luckily, I was always able to keep the three of us well fed, thanks to my trusty crossbow.
The five of us, I reminded myself a trifle testily. I always forgot about Sana and her grandmother. Now THAT was a crazy old lady right there. She was forever walking about slowly in her red cloak, hunched over where we couldn't even see her damn face, muttering about spells this and Ryu that and dragons and all kinds of crazy batshit ideas.
I was able to find out through her something very interesting about Ryu, though. He apparently had the powers of a dragon. Who could have guessed that scared little kid I helped rescue would be this super badass warrior? I gave a small chuckle as I watched Rand slowly descend. He was something else, Ryu was. Dammit, when was he coming?
"Yoo hoo, little dog boy!" Sana's lovely, albeit annoying, voice drifted from inside her room. How I hated that nickname! And she knew it too. Gritting my teeth, I poked my head around the corner and gave her an inquisitive look. She smiled brightly at me, and then asked when dinner might be. For someone with a figure like hers, and that was one to die for, she sure did pack away a healthy amount of food every day.
But good Ladon help me, she could be the most condescending, bitchiest girl on earth when she wanted to be. Ugh! One more reason I really hoped Ryu would return with some good news soon. I needed a break from her. I needed to get back on the road, hopefully with those two honeys he was with, and maybe Rand too. He didn't want to go back to Coursair ever again, and I couldn't blame him. Finding out you're a stooge for a demon could be rough on someone.
I saw Rand stop while he was on the ladder, and I saw him gazing into the near distance. And then I heard a shout of joy, some squealing, and a few yells all mixed together. Finah-freaking-lee! He was back! And sounded like he hadn't ditched any of the gals, and in fact, sounded like he had added more. Hmm. I wonder who the extra could be.
And a few minutes later, to my incredible surprise, I found out.
As I sipped on a glass of water (the freshest around, Niro assured me. Straight from the mountain spring!), I thought to myself how well Bow had handled seeing Yua face-to-face. After all, she had directly been a cause of his getting arrested (well, it was his own dumb fault for accepting the mission, but still). I was hoping he wouldn't want to beat her to a pulp, especially before he found out she was my sister. But he did it with aplomb, and I made sure to tell him so later as we all were milling about.
He grinned his famous sheepish grin. "Ahh, thanks, man. It means a lot coming from you. I mean, don't get me wrong. I am still plenty mad about the whole situation, sister of yours or not. Caused me a LOT of grief. And when I first got here, if I had had my chance, I would have slapped the hell out of her before dragging her ass to Hometown and turning her in. But I am different now. More calm. I tell you, working to help people like this makes me feel so alive. Like, I enjoyed working with the Rangers, and with you, but I never felt as if we did anything worthwhile, you know?"
I nodded sagely. I knew exactly what he meant; sure, it was nice helping out people like Mina finding their little lost piggies, but overall, what the hell did it do for anyone in the long run? Nothing. Which was just another reason I never wanted to return to Hometown and work for the Elder again, much as I admired his character. I was certainly glad to know that Bow felt the same way.
"I'm glad you said that, Bow, and I agree wholeheartedly. We had a great job for ten years, getting to work with our best friends, but it was all just empty in the end. Hell, rescuing Niro from that cockroach was the best thing we did, and that was on accident!
"But that brings me to something I was going to share with everyone later. I want you to know up front, though." He looked incredibly eager, and I silently prayed that he'd be as willing when I told him.
"Here's the thing, my good old buddy. I ain't stopping now. Even though I found our thief, my sister even (and who saw that coming?), I won't allow myself to come back to Hometown and just spend the rest of my days fighting John in sparring matches or evading my landlady or spying on Trout. Those days are long past me now. One quest was solved, but there is another, something bigger. I have a mystery to solve, my powers. I haven't told you about them, haven't had the chance really. I told you I burned down Sana's and her granny's house, but I never said how…"
He cut me off here. "I know you haven't, Ryu,and it's okay. I would have been scared to say it too. But the granny actually told me what you have in you. A dragon! I think that is the most badass thing ever! Dude, you are going to be able to beat Barubary one day. He was big back when we were kids, but you're a damn dragon now! He's going to be scared of you, all right." He punched the air several times. "Huh! He won't stand a chance against our might now!"
I had to smile. It was good to see Bow acting like his old self. I clapped him on the back. "You're right, man! He won't. But I am not ready to fight him yet. I have only dragon whelp powers. I need to develop it. And when that day comes…shit. You are so right. Barubary will have his ass kicked back to hell and he'll tell everyone there what a bad bunch of mofos did it to him! Huzzah!"
We started whooping and doing a little war dance around the center of the room. I was sure we were making a fool of ourselves, and in the kitchen no less, but I didn't care. Hah! Not at all. The only people here were my closest friends now. Well, I did miss Sten. But I felt I had made the right decision in letting him return to Highland alone. He needed to reunite with his own family there, or at least, that princess. Who knows, maybe he'd end up staying there with her. I hoped not, but I had to admit the possibility of that was there.
Bow made one last yell before halting and turning to me. "As you can probably imagine, Ryu, I want to go with you. Us, the best of friends, on the open road again! It'll be awesome! And now we can finally get revenge on that beast together. We'll hunt him down, and kill him. And hopefully find out what happened to Gate along the way." I must have looked disheartened for a second, for his furry hand was on my shoulder an instant later. "Don't worry, man. We'll find out. I promise. Now we have your sister to turn to, and you said she's got some info about your old man! It'll be great. We'll go rescue him too, and then go from there. It'll be like old times, only better!"
I nodded, solemn for a moment, before smiling again. "You're right, Bow! Things are looking up a lot. We can clear your name, my sister is no longer m.i.a., she has news about Dad, and hopefully Gate too. Not to mention we'll be able to explore the world together, not just the plains around Hometown!"
He nodded eagerly, nearly bounding around the room in excitement. "Yeah! Let's do it, Ryu. Come on! Let's tell the others!" He turned and raced out the room, leaving me to start speeding behind his wake. I was happy as could be I had convinced my best friend to come with me; now there was only Rand to talk to, as well as Sten when we met back up with him. But this was a group who would have my back in anything; I felt confident in their abilities completely. Now it was just a matter of matter of talking to my sister to find out where my father was.