A glimpse into a larger world I cannot see in its entirety, and an empty bit of nothing spawned from a fever-dream.
The moonlight through the leaves of the nearby cherry trees spread a pool of illumination across the balcony, daring to peek through the star-concealing clouds. Resting one hand on the railing to steady herself, Ukyou drew the back of her kimono's sleeve across her face, wiping away the current crop of tears.
"Here's to you," she whispered, turning her attention to the tray balanced precariously on the railing. Atop the tray were a pair of sake bottles and a trio of cups. She poured the wine into all three, shivering at the cold when she finished, and then put the bottle down.
She did not drink, herself. Not normally.
"Ukyou-sama," her husband whispered urgently, lighting on the railing near the tray after he emerged from the darkness in his traditional ninja garb. "I found ... help."
Her eyes closed and she drew in a deep breath, fighting back another wave of tears. "I'm glad, Konatsu," she said in quiet response, biting her lower lip. "Who?"
"Joudai," a voice rumbled from the shadows. Ukyou and Konatsu whirled to face the new arrival. "The storm."
That corner of the balcony was somehow darker, as though the branches of the cherry trees had conspired to cast a single concurrent pit of darkness, leaving Ukyou and Konatsu to shrink back into a swiftly dwindling pool of moonlight.
Ukyou forced herself to calm, and stopped her backwards slide. "You're... You're really Joudai? The..."
"The 'legendary assassin king'?" the voice asked, a trace of amusement sounding in it. Ukyou frowned, concentrating on those words, and the tone. The voice was deep, feminine, but husky and low, very rough. Almost as though something had happened to damage it, and the speaker carefully worked around some hidden difficulty to communicate. "I'm called that, but I don't kill for money."
Konatsu nodded, adding, "I... The stories are that you are honorable and just."
"Save it," the voice advised. "I want to know about this job. The missing kid."
Ukyou's eyes filled with tears as Konatsu nodded a second time. "Our daughter is missing," Konatsu said after a moment.
"Truth," the voice said sternly. "I can taste your lie."
Ukyou and Konatsu both stared quietly at the darkness.
"I can also leave. Speak, or I will."
"Can... You at least show yourself to us?" Ukyou asked hesitantly. "I... I can tell you everything. And I probably should, because... Because Momiji is not ... safe right now."
A wry chuckle, one that caused Ukyou to recoil, and Konatsu to stand in front of her protectively. "Fine," the shadow said, as there was a visible distortion of light and darkness, revealing the balcony to be empty. "Happy now?" The voice had not changed, but the direction it was coming from had. Perched just above the gutter, a short figure crouched, still indistinct in the moonlight, swathed in black cloth from head-to-toe.
Eyes that glowed luminescent and blue peered at Ukyou with fierce intensity.
For a moment, Ukyou wondered ... was it ... him? Had he returned? But no... The voice wasn't right. "Okay," Ukyou said, gesturing to the tray. "To seal the bargain?"
"Oh, this is classy," the figure rumbled, dropping to the balcony with a fluid grace to stand easily in the corner which had once been shadowed. "Three cups, two bottles, one promise. Just like the Triads did it."
"Ah... Joudai-sama," Konatsu began quietly, "there are some secrets we must keep to protect Momiji... If they came to light--"
"A restaurant," Joudai said suddenly. "Two competent martial artists, one of whom continues to refine ninjutsu. No guards. No signs of valuables. It's quite obvious to me, Konatsu, that there is a secret here. And you will not keep secrets from me if you wish my ... services."
Konatsu's fists balled up, and he shook his head mutely.
Joudai hung his head and sighed, and Ukyou took a moment to study the figure. Short. Shorter than herself or Konatsu, at least. It was thickly wrapped in black cloth, so Ukyou wasn't certain if the speaker was male or female... Certainly, the voice sounded feminine, but as Ukyou knew from experience, tone of voice would not always convey gender.
Those blue eyes shot a glance at her. "I will drink," Joudai said after a moment. "Trust, yes? But you, first. And then I'll drink from your cup."
Ukyou nodded, taking one of the cups and drinking the sake in a single gulp. She shook her head at the taste of acrid fire, and poured a new cup, hesitantly holding it towards Joudai with a trembling hand. Joudai reached forward, and surprisingly slender fingers plucked the glass from Ukyou's trembling hand.
"You," Joudai said jerking its head at Konatsu. Flinching, Konatsu took one of the two remaining cups, and Ukyou took the third. "We start," Joudai said tersely. "It begins with you, who sought me."
Konatsu drank his cup, also making a face, and then set it down on the tray, upside-down. "I seek someone who can rescue Ukyou-sama's child," he murmured quietly.
"Then it goes to you," Joudai said, turning to look at Ukyou.
"My... Momiji is my daughter," she said quietly. "She's... The only piece of..." She shook her head. "Joudai-sama... Before we begin, I--"
"We've already begun," Joudai countered, lowering the untouched cup and setting it on the railing. "I'm looking for a story. You won't speak, but perhaps a trade can be arranged."
"I don't... You haven't even let me--"
Joudai raised a hand and offered a single headshake to negate Ukyou's speech. "This is Nerima. You're martial artists who look to have been here for a while. You may know. Tell me what you know of Saotome Ranma."
Ukyou's eyes closed. "W...where to begin," she murmured quietly. "I thought... I thought he might be you," she admitted.
A subdued snicker. "Ranma was a boy, Ukyou," Joudai murmured. "I'm not."
Joudai was female? Well, that answered that question. Ranma would never say such a thing.
Ukyou told her story, what she knew of Ranma ... his life, his journey, his relationships. How he'd come from China, and been engaged to one of the Tendo girls. How more admirers and pursuers had gathered to him, like moths to a flame. How, as time grew on, his situation worsened, and even after he'd journeyed to China again to slay a god, he couldn't find a way to settle things.
How Happosai had offered the boy a way out... And Ranma had accepted it.
The old master's ways were mysterious, and many thought them untrustworthy, but there was undeniably power within them. No one but Ranma and Happosai had known what the training was; Ranma refused to speak of it, and Happosai had vanished, never to be seen again once it was complete.
But it had changed Ranma, and where before he'd been compassionate and true to the ways of martial arts, a temper began to form. Some dark tension stood over him, building as time passed, and only lessening in the aftermath of his more destructive fights. The more tension he gained, the more easily he lashed out...
Cures were attempted. Cologne had been consulted, and might, at one point, have known more. But as Ranma had related it to Ukyou, there would be no cure. Eventually, the inevitable happened, and one of Ranma's explosions of violent temper had landed on one who couldn't handle it.
Akane hadn't been killed. After three months of recuperation, she hadn't even been crippled. But Ranma didn't wait to see her recover; he vanished into the night as soon as Akane had been hurt.
"I know all of that," Joudai said irritably. "How after he maimed his lover he ran away. My question is where he went."
"I don't know," Ukyou admitted, her eyes opening, twin trails of tears descending across her cheeks. "I..."
Joudai turned away, as though to leave, and Ukyou desperately cried out, "Wait! Please... Ranma... I ... was one of his pursuers."
The black-clad figure turned back, looking over her shoulder.
"When..." She swallowed nervously, hoping somehow she could confess what had only ever been admitted to Konatsu. "When he went to leave Nerima ... he came to my restaurant. Not here, I... I had a smaller one. But he came to say goodbye, and apologize."
Joudai crossed her arms over her chest, and looked at Ukyou blankly.
She closed her eyes again. "Ah," she gasped. "I... I begged him to stay with me -- to let me go with him. I... I loved him with all of my heart, even though I thought he would marry another woman. I just... I took what I could get. I ... pulled him into my bed." Her cheeks flushed with fear and shame, and she turned her face downward.
"I've heard he'd slept with a lot of women," Joudai said dryly.
Ukyou shook her head, ignoring the assassin's comment. "I woke in the middle of the night ... when he was going to leave me, and pulled him back again. That time, we..." Looking up, and meeting the assassin's gaze, she explained, "That was the only time in my life I've ever made love."
Joudai's gaze seemed to harden. "Momiji is the child of Saotome Ranma," she said flatly, not a question.
Managing a timid nod, Ukyou quaffed her cup of sake.
Joudai picked up her own discarded cup, and made a thoughtful rumbling noise. "Who holds this child now?"
"It's... It's Kuno Tatewaki," Konatsu explained. "He ... may have guessed, because Momiji looks a lot like ... her father. We think that's why he did it; he's got too much power for us to get through. Either of us could defeat him easily, but the reprisals would crush us."
"You want me to destroy the Kuno family and their power base to save the child of a young fool."
Ukyou bristled, and growled, "Ranchan was no fool! He..." She trailed off, realizing her outburst could cost her Joudai's aid.
"I accept your job," Joudai said, loosening her mask enough to drink her sake. And then she was gone, the cup spinning on its rim where she had been standing.
Ukyou sagged, sinking to her knees on the wooden deck. "Did I do the right thing?" she asked hollowly. "Did... Can we trust an assassin to rescue her?"
"We can't do it ourselves," Konatsu said, closing his eyes. "Nabiki may try through legal channels, but... The Kuno fortune is too vast for us to overcome so quickly."
Ukyou turned away and stared at the sky, praying for Momiji's return.
Konatsu had gone inside, leaving Ukyou alone on the balcony, just her and the moon ... half covered by clouds, like a great, sleepy eye. Time had passed in a blur for her, as she relieved the memories ... the frenzied scrabbling at his clothes, the desperate kiss hoping to keep what she could of her Ranchan...
Then she remembered when he had agreed to lie with her for one night. Beneath the covers, she tried to bind him to herself with her embrace, believing if she could hang on until the morning, he would stay with her. The cry of alarm and pain that had escaped her at finding her bed empty when she woke in the middle of the night. He'd come back for that, not physical force. Then he'd held her, kissed away her tears, and she begged him to give him whatever he could of himself, even if it was only for a night; she loved him too much to be satisfied with a single heartbeat of time, knowing he was out there and not hers.
And he'd agreed.
When she'd been exhausted by their lovemaking, he did leave her, though she was asleep when it happened. A letter promised that if it was possible ... he would see her again. And then he was gone.
Nerima exploded after that; everyone was curious to the whereabouts of Ranma. Everyone wanted to know. Ukyou said nothing; her lover wanted to escape, to find some better place. She wouldn't betray him after she'd gotten at least a small part of her heart's desire. She would have gone after him, but she knew that now, at least, if Ranma did not wish to be found ... he would not be.
And then... She'd found herself to be pregnant. Plans of chasing after Ranma had to be abandoned half-formed. Konatsu offered to pose as the father, perhaps even act the role for the child. Ukyou agreed, not wanting anyone to realize that the baby was Ranma's. So the two were married.
Her train of thought was broken off by the arrival of the shadow, again, filling the same corner of the balcony. Joudai emerged from it, and it vanished. Held in the figure's arms, sleeping angelically, was Momiji.
Her unruly black hair was tousled, curls cascading over Joudai's clothing and seeming to blend into it, almost as though the two were one. Not thinking of the consequences, Ukyou rushed for her four year old daughter. "Momiji!" she exclaimed.
But Joudai slid back out of her reach, and shook her head. "Not so swiftly," she whispered, though this time the voice was even harsher, rough and raw. It was deeper, and Joudai appeared somehow taller than Ukyou now.
Joudai chuckled, shaking her head. "I won't harm her. And I won't take her away. But this is my price, Kuonji Ukyou. I will hold your daughter, and tell you a story. I told you ... I collect information on Saotome Ranma."
She swallowed, nodding. Could ... could Ranma still be out there, somewhere? Maybe ... needing her help, not realizing he'd left a child behind?
"Happosai used the Fire-Calling shiatsu point ... a pressure point that filled him with boundless energy. But what burns brightest burns most briefly... So he used the Moxibustion of Restraint, to leash it. Surely this would grant both power and control, wouldn't it?"
Ukyou shook her head, not really knowing. Was that what had happened to Ranma?
"The old pervert made a mistake," Joudai sighed. "Those two things combine into what amounts to a seed of destructive evil placed in the heart of whoever has been struck."
Swallowing, Ukyou asked, "Is there ... any cure? I know Cologne tried to help Ranma, but she told him there wasn't one."
"There are several," Joudai said, looking down at Momiji. "Death is easiest. Then there's the Ultimate Weakness Moxibustion."
"Wouldn't work on Ranchan," Ukyou said confidently, accidentally slipping into her familiar title again. "He's been hit with it before!"
"I'm sure," Joudai murmured. "But aside from those, the destruction can't be stopped. Controlled, for a time. The rages through his heart would have destroyed all around him until he could find what he was searching for."
"What is it?" Ukyou asked, brightening. "If I can find it for him, maybe--"
"You already had it," Joudai said, shaking her head. "It's something that Akane lacked. Unconditional love."
Ukyou stared. "You..." She swallowed. "I never told you my name."
Joudai turned to look at the child in her arms.
"You are Ranma."
Joudai snorted, reaching a hand up to 'her' mask, and pulling on it. It unraveled, seeming to spill down around the shoulders like a wide, low halo of pooled dark silk. First she could see the dark hair, cut short. Then the blue eyes returned, beneath a pair of stern eyebrows, forehead marked with lines of worry and concentration. There were scars across his cheek, most of them very faint, almost invisible in the moonlight.
Ukyou's eyes widened. Ranma truly was Joudai. The legendary assassin king...
Then Ranma handed the slumbering Momiji to Ukyou, and she accepted her daughter, staring longingly at the child's father. "Will... Will you stay?" she asked hopefully.
He shook his head, offering a sad smile, and then reached up to the cloth about his shoulders again, snapping it whip-like through the darkness to the roof. Konatsu had enough time to emit a startled yelp before he was dragged through the air and into Ranma's arms. Ranma looked down at the frightened and effeminate kunoichi. "I see you missed me too," he said in that same too-harsh rumble. "Trying to hide in the shadows? From me?"
"R...Ranma-sama," Konatsu finally managed. "I'm... I've never touched Ukyou-sama. The marriage is only legal! To protect Momiji!"
Snorting, Ranma set Konatsu down, and wound the length of black silk into a small ball. "I know, Konatsu," he sighed. "You hold honor too high. You don't owe me that much for saving you from your sisters."
Konatsu looked away, and Ranma's eyes locked onto Ukyou's.
"Ukyou," he said quietly, his voice somewhat less harsh, but still very grating. "I can't come back to you. I'm sorry."
Ukyou's eyes filled with tears, and she shook her head, holding Momiji tight, as though her grip on the child would draw him back to her. "Ranchan," she said quietly, sniffling. "I've waited before. You were gone for ten years, the first time. Then you said I was cute. Two more years, and you... You and I..." She blushed, and shook her head. "This time it was less than five. I'll keep waiting."
"You can't do that," he said apologetically. "What Happosai put inside me ... I'm a murderer. Don't worry, Momiji won't wake up and hear this. She'll remember none of this in her dreams. But understand, the rage in my heart can't be contained ... not for long. Kuno Tatewaki is dead. He didn't know about Momiji, but he suspected. And any evidence he could have tried to gather was destroyed."
"No," he said flatly. "Understand. My hands are too bloody to come back."
He blinked slowly, while Ukyou sniffled again, rubbing tears from her eyes again.
"You said I had love for you, and that was the cure."
He snorted. "But even then, if I do quell the beast ... I can't live. Not here. My past haunts me. As Joudai? The 'Endless Storm' has worn down the foundations of too many criminal enterprises. Too many powerful corporations. There are those who hate me, Ukyou. You're wise to protect Momiji as you do.
"Even as merely Saotome Ranma, martial artist, I have enemies. The weaker ones, like Kuno -- and see what trouble he already caused. And then ... the dangerous ones ... Kumon Ryuu. Kotobuki Shinta. Pantyhose Tarou. I've gotten a lot stronger, but so have they."
Ukyou steeled her resolve, and handed Momiji to Konatsu, who retreated with the child into the house. Striding forward, she approached Ranma, who watched her, but did not otherwise react. When she was within striking distance, she stopped, slowly raising her hand to stroke his cheek. "It's..." She shook her head, smiling. "You're still Ranchan. I'll still always love you forever."
"Ukyou-sama," Konatsu murmured, returning to crouch in the doorway.
Ranma's eyes narrowed, and he shook his head. "How?" he finally asked. "How is it that when I've fought all emotion, tried to kill everything in my heart that the rage can cling to, you manage to put yourself back? I can't..." He sighed, rubbing at his temples and closing his eyes. "I got over Akane. That shouldn't have been possible! It was my love for her that brought her back from the brink when we fought Saffron! I didn't love you that much. So ... how?"
Ukyou's eyes closed again, and her smile deepened. "Maybe you can't stay," she sighed softly. "But we can still love one-another. And because ... I loved you back. And loved you first. You hurt Akane and left her... Her love for you faded ... but mine never has. I've always loved you."
"You hated me for ten years."
"No," she whispered. "I was going to live as a boy until I could defeat you, and make you recognize my claim. Remember how I told Tsubasa I was engaged when he asked me out? I was -- to you. But I couldn't beat you ... and you recognized it anyway."
"...you're not lying," Ranma murmured, and this time his voice was a ruin, Ukyou only barely able to make out his meaning.
"What's wrong with your voice?" Ukyou asked, opening her eyes again.
"The beast," he said, slightly choked. "Screamed ... loud enough to shatter stone, and almost destroyed my voice-box. I'm a danger to myself and others, Uccha... Ukyou. Why are you holding me here?"
"Love," she said again.
He heaved a shuddering sigh and bowed his head. "You'll cure me," he said quietly. "If I stay, the beast will be banished forever, and then..."
"Then we can be together?"
"Ukyou. I don't think I love you ... not like that. I know ... when I was leaving, I..." He grimaced. "I'm not sure I know what love is. Maybe that's the point of containing the beast, and I can't love. And until I can, the beast is going to be with me."
"Would that really stop us?" Ukyou asked, pleading, her hand falling from his cheek to his shoulder. "Can't we still try?"
He captured her in a deep, searching kiss. When he finally released her, she was giddy, both from him and the sake. "I can't make that kind of promise," he said, shaking his head. "But ... I can come to you at times. When the moon is full ... Ucchan. I don't know if you even know me, what I've become. I don't understand how you can still love me."
Sniffling, Ukyou managed a weak smile. "You've ruined me for other men, Ranchan," she whispered. "I'll wait as long as it takes."
He looked away, at Konatsu, and then beyond, perhaps to where Momiji lay. "Maybe," he said quietly, his voice sounding once more like it had when he was young ... save, slightly rougher, and deeper. "Maybe things will work out."
"If not for me, then at least for Momiji," Ukyou said, smiling hopefully.
Ranma nodded at that. "I can promise to try," he whispered.
She smiled brightly, then. "Thank you, Ranchan ... my love," she murmured.
Konatsu gasped, as Ranma gently lowered Ukyou's suddenly limp body to the balcony. "She's fine," he said roughly. "She'll wake up tomorrow. I can't stay. If I do, I'll never leave."
Breathing unsteadily, Konatsu nodded, watching the man he still
considered himself to owe a life-debt to. "You will come back, Ranma-
sama?" he asked, when Ranma spent a long moment, studying the woman who was legally Konatsu's wife.
He shook his head, and smiled at Konatsu. "You found me once. Ukyou won't stop until she gets what she wants. I'll have to... But I need to leave now. Kuno's dead, and I have to make sure that the trail leads away from this place."
Konatsu wanted to ask another question, but then ... Ranma was already gone.
"Maybe," he murmured, gathering Ukyou's form in his arms, smiling forlornly at the smile on her face. "Maybe everything really will work out..." He loved Ukyou, his mistress, but he knew and respected the fact that she loved Ranma. But he had nothing to complain about. He still got to work for Ukyou, and he still got to raise Momiji... And he loved Ukyou's happiness more than he wanted to be with her himself.
"Good luck, Ranma-sama," he whispered to the darkness.
As it starts, it ends.