Author Forward: Here's the fourth part of my megafic. I hope you enjoy!
ETA of Part 5: 12/24/2014
Misery Loves Company
A Ranma ½ Fanfiction
by Ryan Erik
Part Four: The Mists of Jusenkyo
Thousands of points of light reached down from the dusk's sky down to a thick, humid jungle, deep in the forgotten wilds of a certain western Chinese mountain range far from the trappings of civilization. Despite existing in the heart of the People's Republic of China, the pollution that strangled its landscapes did not so much as even taint the night sky, populating the heavens with more heavenly bodies than the two boys enjoying the view had ever witnessed.
The last splashes of red-orange light on the horizon extinguished slowly as the younger of the two boys narrated the story humanity had given to the stars. A sheen of sweat glistened on his face as he lay with his back to the earth, staring up at the night sky. His short, black hair was damp from the humidity of the jungle, and his clothes were equally wet, but the temperature had been dropping for the last few hours with the setting of the sun, cooling him dramatically.
"Look at Andromeda again," the younger boy told his sempai. With only a sliver of the moon behind them in the eastern sky and the sun nearly completely set, he drank in the spectacular view. His back pressed to the rocks under him, and he shifted to his side to look over at the older boy that he shared the evening with.
"Okay," he heard, but his friend's lack of patience was becoming more obvious.
The younger boy slid over the foot of distance between himself and the other, so that they all but touched shoulders. "Just down and left from it, look right there." He pointed up so that his arm was over the other boy's head, and gazed up at the constellation.
"Oh, so she's supposed to be upside down?" the older boy half-heartedly asked.
"Yeah, see? Makes sense now, right?" The boy sat up and looked at his friend.
"No, but that's not really the point, is it?"
"I suppose not," the younger boy admitted, as he sat on the rock. "The stars that make up Andromeda are significant to a lot of cultures. In China, they're part of the Legs constellation. Some of them are a great general, and others represent parts the Chinese Imperial Palace."
"Legs?" was all the second said. "So, Andromeda's legs are some Chinese guy's legs, too? What are they, hairy?"
"Hur hur," the first intoned. "You said entertain me, but all you do is make fun."
"Just keep talking," the older boy said, followed by a sigh. "It's better than the creepy silence."
"Andromeda was the daughter of Cassiopeia, an Ethiopian queen. The queen bragged that her daughter was more beautiful than even the sea nymphs, who were so beautiful that sailors died trying to catch them. The nymphs were upset by this boast, and demanded that Poseidon punish the queen. So he commanded a sea monster to attack Ethiopia."
The younger boy paused, his eyes catching his sempai's gaze, his face barely visible in the the starlight. "Am I boring you yet?"
"Okay, so in order to stop the attack, the king of Ethiopia chained Andromeda to a rock on the shore where the beast would begin its attack. Before it could devour her in sacrifice, the son of Zeus, Perseus, defeated the monster using the head of Medusa, which turned it to stone."
"So, they named a constellation after some beautiful girl who was just a trophy wife for some Greek hero?" The other's usual pragmatic viewpoint cut through the myth.
The first rolled his eyes, and then closed them. He continued on as if his friend hadn't spoken. "She and Perseus had nine kids after that, who founded the country of Mycenae. After she died, Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love placed her in the sky to honor her."
"Wow, okay, surviving nine kids before modern medicine is a feat worth getting your name up there. They were probably like, 'Be like Andromeda, have so many kids that you die in childbirth, so I can get with my homies!'"
The younger boy couldn't help but gawk at the boy's words. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"You know, the whole Greek guy-love thing?"
"That was specifically ancient Athens, and not the rest of ancient Greece. Though, I have to admit I never thought of having kids as a feat like that before. Putting up with self-important Greek heroes like Perseus was probably part of her list of accomplishments as well."
"Alright, no more Andromeda," the older boy said, and then yawned as he shifted to his back to face the sky again.
"Look a bit to the right of her, right over the horizon. There are three bright stars in the shape of an isosceles triangle."
"You know what?"
"You're a nerd."
Completely unfazed by the insult, the younger boy let the night sky overwhelm him in its clarity. "Coming from you, it's a compliment."
"You can take it however you want, but you really spend too much time in books or painting random crap, and not enough enjoying life. You should follow your sister's example."
"And fall in love with you only to get burned?"
"Hey, live, love, get burned, love again."
"So says the guy who isolated himself by burning every bridge he could find?" the younger boy replied, unwilling to accept any bit of pseudo-wisdom that his sempai espoused. "Pardon me if I don't take your advice seriously."
"Hey, so maybe we're opposite ends of a spectrum," the boy's sempai admitted. "That doesn't make my opinion worthless." For all of his talk, he didn't move, even after all of his complaints. "For example, I think you're nuts for following crazy pants and her psycho brother to this blight of a country. What do you see in her anyway?"
"She's just confused," the younger boy protested, sitting up. "I wouldn't expect someone like you to understand true love."
"Hah!" The older boy laughed, pulling himself up to standing. "Wow. True love? Really? After what, like, a week? You barely know her."
"I feel like I've known her all my life," the younger boy said in response, unable to shake that feeling. "She is braver than anyone I know, and she never gives up to defending the people she cares about."
"So she saved your life," the older boy said dismissively. "Big deal. She seemed to be the reason the monster was there in the..."
The older boy stopped talked the moment they heard echoed yells cut across the valley below. It was faint, but in as a quiet night as that, even the slightest cricket would be startling.
"Did you hear that?" the younger boy asked, rising to his knees, looking out over the valley. The village was still a long way out, probably three miles or more, but it was the only light on the horizon in the dark night.
"Yes," the older boy replied, standing.
They both looked around the sloping path up the cliff, but neither saw a light nor heard any additional voices.
"Well, if it's that chick's brother, it's about time he came to check on us. He said he wouldn't let us out of his sight to your mom, like, twenty times before she let you come here."
A cry pierced through the night, closer this time, but still only a distant echo. The younger boy suppressed a shiver. His coat was thick, but the person crying out sounded frantic, and it rubbed off on him.
"I'm getting nervous about this," the younger boy told his friend.
"Yeah, I have this bad feeling, like someone is sneaking up on us," the older agreed, turning around. "But there hasn't been anything out here for the last day and night."
"Well, yeah, we're in a remote Chinese jungle," the younger said wryly, grinning at his friend. "Of course we're not going to hear anything."
"No, you don't get it," the boy's sempai whispered, his voice stark in its seriousness. "I noticed it earlier, but I don't hear anything. Not a bird, or a squirrel or a panda or whatever the hell lives in China. Absolutely nothing."
The boy furrowed his brow, looking at his friend for a moment. His eyes glinted in the pale starlight, but he was difficult to make out. "I heard all kinds of animals yesterday night and all day yesterday. It was so loud it was hard to sleep."
"Right, my point exactly."
The boy opened his ears, listening for anything, but his ears started to ring in the effort. He put a finger in his ear to rub it when a cry came out from the valley again, this time much louder. It startled the boy, who took a step back in surprise.
"Hey, check it out," the boy's sempai said, craning his neck over the cliff. "I can't see much, but look at that."
The boy dropped to his knees again and put his hands on the edge of the cliff and peered over. Down no more than ten feet was a thick fog that covered the forest canopy below them. It didn't reach far enough into the valley to obscure the village, but completely obscured anything below them.
"What the hell?" he cried out, falling back to his bottom. He looked up to see the village in the distance clearly, despite the fog that rose so high it covered nearly the entire length of the mountain. "Wow, crazy."
"You're telling me," the older boy remarked. "It totally snuck up on me."
"Maybe that's the thing you sensed," the younger said with a laugh.
"Yeah, scary fog," his sempai laughed in return. "Maybe it's like that Stephen King movie, the one where there's monsters in the fog."
When the fog rose to the base of the cliff, the younger boy rose to his feet. "You had to be that guy."
They both started stepping back as the fog kept rising, inch by inch.
"What do you mean?"
"The guy in the horror movie who laughs about getting killed by monsters right before he gets it in the face."
The boy's sempai chortled, his laugh more surprise than mirth. "That was funny, but right now, I'm really freaking out."
The fog was up to their waists when they heard the voice again, this time close enough to hear, though still a distance away.
"Was that your name?" the older boy asked, ducking under the fog. "Wow, I can't even see my feet in this."
"Yeah, it sounded like it." Unable to see the mountain path, the boys waited for the voice to catch up as the fog swallowed them completely.
"This is wild," the younger of the two boys said, mostly to hear his own voice. He raised his hand to his eyes and could only see it a foot away. He waited a moment, but didn't hear a response. "Are you there still?"
He didn't hear anything, until someone called his name again. This time, so close that he nearly fell over. He recognized the voice. It was the voice of the girl Kenichi had heard in his dreams ever since since he'd first met her.
The boy sat atop a mountain of ice, his limbs too cold to lift, his eyes frozen open. He sat on the mountain for years countless, the mark of time impossible to follow. Night and day meant nothing to him as he waited for the moment his time would come again. What exactly was he, you might ask? He was nothing, a spark of memories, displaced in time and space.
The boy that was nothing sat forever, and forever again, waiting for someone to come. He felt nothing, because he was nothing. He couldn't do anything but stare upward.
Had he sat on the mountain for a thousand years before he heard the words?
"There you are."
The boy who was nothing realized he could move when his head lowered and saw the girl. She had black hair and pale skin. This girl was not what he had been waiting for. He wasn't sure how he knew this, but he knew there wasn't anything she could do for him.
"When they told me someone new had come, I almost didn't believe them. It's been centuries since anyone arrived here."
The girl spoke words that the boy could understand, but he didn't care to listen.
"You're different, though," she said, closing the distance between them step by step. She travelled up the mountain easily, and the cold didn't affect her. She wore extravagant clothes that looked old. He didn't know how he could say they were old, but some part of him knew she was old, too, despite the lie of her youth.
"You look like a ghost," the girl said, and then dropped to her knees, and crawled another foot to sit beside him, despite her cumbersome clothing. Her hair was jet black, and long, sliding along the cold rock as she moved so close that her face was at most a foot from his. "Do you mind if I touch you?"
The boy was nothing, could not say anything, or respond, because none of this meant anything to him.
"I'll take silence as a yes," she said, and then placed a hand on his chest.
When she touched him, the boy who was nothing became something more than nothing. He was not quite a whole person, but something more than nothing as he felt the heat of the girl's hand on him.
"You're warm," he said, the first words he had ever spoken in his memory. The feeling coursed over his whole body until he could feel all of it. He moved his arms ever so slightly as he came to life.
"Hah, it worked," she uttered, a smile reaching her lips. The girl's warm hand slid up to his face, and his head exploded with knowledge and thoughts and love and everything else that came with being human.
"I knew it!" she shouted. "It's you!"
"Me?" the boy said, bringing his hand up to touch hers as she pressed it to his cheek. Her hand felt soft and bony, and alive. He felt her pulse as she stared into his eyes.
"I could never forget those beautiful blue eyes," she told him, drawing closer to him. "You saved me."
"I did?" he asked, not quite sure where he was now that he had regained his mind. "I don't remember you."
"That's because you never saw me," she said, sitting on his lap, her knees spread on either side of his legs. "You were younger than you are now, by maybe four or five years. You were only in my prison for a second, but it was enough. It brought me to life, like I just did for you now."
"Who are you?" he asked, his mind cutting through fog and years and pain of loss.
She told him her name and it sounded like the sun and leaves. It was beautiful, but he didn't understand it.
"You can't speak Chinese, I know. You can just call me Lily. The foreigners all do."
"I'm a foreigner?" he asked.
"You're all questions," she said, throwing her arms around him. "But that's okay. I'll teach you everything they've taught me, because together we'll be free."
He looked into her green eyes and saw something amazing and beautiful. He saw freedom and life. He saw future and love.
"We're the same person now. I'm too weak to do anything, but you're young and strong. There's still pieces of you in the world outside this place. You can escape if you try hard."
"The monster got free," she told him. "I watched him call out to the boy who came here with you. I watched him grab the boy and try to strangle him, but the boy wasn't hurt like you were. The boy got free and the monster held tightly."
She kissed his lips and completed his transformation.
"I remember who I am," the boy said, his memories rushing through his brain, and he knew that she was right. They had met before, once, five years ago. Returning to his family was more important to him than anything, and he would do whatever it took.
"Yes, Ranma," the girl said, her face changing, withering away like dust. "And you did it."
He tried to pull away from the girl, but she held him tightly.
"Yes, you did, but they no longer needed you."
That was when Ranma woke up.
A wash of sound and light drew the girl's consciousness out from the depths of the girl's mind. Warmth crept into exposed arms and face as the she slowly cracked open her eyes. A dull ache in her forehead upon the sight of the sunlight illuminating the ceiling was enough for her to snap her eyes shut again.
She raised her hand to her brow to shade her eyes, and then craned her neck to look down over her body. A thick patchwork quilt rested over her up to her neck, so she could only see her bare shoulders and her red hair pooled above them on a mattress. Closing her eyes, she tried to get the strange images out of her head. The girl and the mountain floated through her mind like sunspots burned into her eyes.
As the world of dreams faded from her conscious mind, she reopened her eyes, and then looked down over her body again. She flexed her muscles, and they all felt normal, though they were tight. She cautiously stretched her legs, knowing that moving too quickly could cause her to pull a hamstring.
She carefully slipped her arm up to her chest and curiously lifted the blanket. Underneath, her body was completely naked down to the toes. Dropping it just as quickly, she felt a rise of heat on her cheeks, and lowered herself back to the bed.
Dizzy from moving her neck, she used her fingers like blinds to peek out at the room through the bright light from the window nearby. A woman with long black hair sat on the windowsill. She looked vaguely familiar to the girl, who opened her mouth to speak, but shut it when the woman did first.
Only, the woman spoke in song, her voice as lovely as an instrument. The girl stared at her, unable to form words for the noise she heard. The sound was like her mother calling her name.
Nodoka Saotome may as well have been a thousand miles away, but somehow the girl's mother felt like she was right here. Only, the words were strange, and the cadence was wrong. She sang in a foreign language, one that Ranma couldn't understand.
Her head began to settle as her vision began to sharpen. Am I home? Ranma's eyes strained to look at the woman. She was short, no taller than Ranma herself, and looked so familiar from behind, that the girl felt she knew her better than anyone else on Earth.
That has to be Amanda, the girl thought, though her mind still felt foggy. Putting her hand to her forehead, she thought, Wait until I tell her about the stupid trip to Japan. That long and terrible nightmare.
She pulled herself up slightly, pulling the quilt with her to keep her chest covered. It wasn't cold, and she didn't feel modest around her American friend who had nursed her to health after her coma, but she had no idea where she was exactly.
"Amanda-san ?" the girl asked for her nurse idly. "That doesn't sound like English. What language are you singing in?"
The woman gasped, obviously startled by Ranma's question. The girl dropped the blanket from her eyes to see the woman's face. Although the sunlight made it hard to see it, the woman quite clearly was not Amanda. Her face was smaller, and her features softer, and she looked Asian, as opposed to caucasian like her caretaker.
The woman drew closer, speaking in the language she had been speaking before. It sounded like Chinese, and as she drew closer, Ranma realized why she looked familiar. Her face was pretty and she looked to be in her early thirties or late twenties, and she looked like a younger version of the woman who now ran Ucchan's in Nerima.
She looks like Shampoo.
"Sumimasen," the woman apologized in heavily accented Japanese. "You no speak Mandarin?" She continued speaking Japanese, saying each word clearly, but slowly. "I bring great-grandmother. She must see you. She will make you better."
Great-grandmother? the girl wondered, her eyes growing wider. Wait…where the hell am I?
The woman took a step forward awkwardly, her hand held out as if she wanted to touch Ranma, but she held it still for a moment instead of approaching. The redhead shrank back from the stranger, who seemed well-intentioned, but the girl was erring far on the side of caution.
The woman pulled her arm back, and looked tremendously deflated by Ranma's response.
"I come back soon," the woman told her. "Please, stay."
The woman quickly retreated, exiting the small room through an open doorway further into the building.
"What the hell is going on?" Ranma asked the empty room. "Why am I always waking up in weird places?"
She felt her body up and down to make sure everything felt normal, and realized nothing felt out of place. With that out of the way, she took the time to examine her surroundings. This appeared to be someone's bedroom, though it was modest in its décor. Two obviously homemade pieces of wooden furniture, a bookshelf, and a desk occupied the space opposite the bed on either side of the room. To her direct left, a slightly manufactured-looking dresser sat beside the window.
"If she was speaking Chinese, then maybe Kiyoshi took me to China?" Ranma said quietly, sitting up fully. Her mind struggled with the new information. "Why don't I remember it, though?"
Her mind only hurt as she tried to recall what had happened last. Kenichi. He stood out suddenly, her entire body vibrating as she pulled the memory out of her rusty head. Kenichi is Akane's son. Her heart skipped a beat and she gasped.
"Tarou," she whispered. "Oh my God. He tried to kill us."
The fight in the motel room came to her as she hit a brick wall. "Then nothing. Damn it."
Okay, clothes first, remember later.
She looked around the room for anything resembling clothing, but found nothing in plain sight. "Dresser it is," she whispered to herself, gathering up the quilt as best as she could to cover herself as she slid to the edge of the bed.
The familiar pang of weakness in her legs that jolted her when she tried to stand caused her to gasp in a panicked breath. After falling back to the bed, she opened up the blanket to look at her legs, but her muscles didn't look atrophied, as when she had woken from the coma.
It's just an ache from sleeping too long, she thought. How long was I out? She didn't see a calendar anywhere, let alone a clock or any other time recorder. She didn't see any light fixtures, wall outlets, wall switches or any other signs of electricity either.
She exhaled in overwhelming relief as she carefully stood up, balancing by holding up both of her arms. Her legs held out long enough for her to take a few gentle steps towards the dresser. Her calves burned a bit, but would probably recover after a good stretch.
Clothes first, recovery later, she reminded herself. Placing one hand on the top of the small dresser in the room, she opened the top drawer. Girl's underwear. She closed that drawer and opened the next to reveal Chinese Mao-styled clothing in a variety of colors, mostly yellow, green, pink and purple.
"Bingo," she whispered, and quickly grabbed a green blouse that, once in the light, appeared turquoise. She held it up to her chest. It looked approximately her size, though it might fit a bit snugger than the style was supposed to. She dropped the blanket and quickly slipped into the garment. It fit nicely. She shut the second drawer.
"Pants, pants, where are you, pants?" she sang, going to the next drawer. In it, she found two dresses, neatly folded along the waist. "No thanks. Next."
The next one contained three pairs of pants. "Gotcha." One pink, one yellow and the last was a forest green.
She lifted the dark green ones out and held them up to her waist. They were cut around the hamstring, but would ride up to her thighs and looked to be too tight to wear properly without modification. She then pulled out the next two to the same effect. "Damn it."
She closed the drawer and opened the last to reveal a coat, which she removed and placed on top of the dresser for later. After sighing, she retrieved one of the two dresses, a long yellow one that probably was long enough to go to the owner's ankles, but rode just above Ranma's knees. She then found and put on a pair of panties and pantyhose. She wore the turquoise skirt over the top.
Finally dressed, Ranma grabbed the coat from the dresser and reflexively breathed in the scent of the garment. Her spine tingled as it tickled some part of her brain. The clothes hadn't been washed recently, but they smelled of lilacs and wind. It reminded her of years on the road, cleaning her clothes in a spring and drying them over orchids.
"Huh?" she whispered, snapping her eyes open at the strange thought. When did I do that?
She bit the inside of her cheek as she slipped the coat over her shoulders. It fit snugly over her arms and shoulders, restricting her arm movements, and the sleeves were an inch too short, exposing the skin just past her wrists.
It'll do if it gets too cold, she thought, and then pulled the coat off. It was far too warm to wear that now. Despite the breeze coming through the window, there was a humidity to the air that made her too warm in the clothes she already had on.
A sudden yawn put her clothes to the test as she reached her arms upwards to stretch. She felt the garments stretch comfortably against her chest and arms, but not so tight that it cut off circulation.
Walking to the window, Ranma squinted her eyes and raised her hand to shield her eyes. The world outside was intensely bright to her senses, stinging her eyes. She waited for her eyes to adjust to the light against her closed eyelids before she peered out the window of the room she had woken up in.
Late afternoon sunlight, warm and bright, allowed her to soak in her surroundings. A cluster of Chinese homesteads placed her somewhere in in midland China, far into the countryside. Having traveled across the country in her youth, she remembered the look of the locale.
The scenery reminded her of one of the many places she'd had to flee when she and her father had had to escape in order to avoid Shampoo's reign of terror. The long swim from mainland China to Taiwan had been nothing compared to that woman scorned.
"Oh, the good ol' days," she whispered, closing the window. The room dimmed considerably, as she realized there wasn't a single lamp or other electrically-lit device in the room.
Exiting into a short hall, she walked past two more bedrooms and into a small living room. There weren't any semi-modern conventions such as a television, or even an electrical outlet.
"Where the hell am I now?" she admonished, pressing the fingers of her right hand to her forehead.
When she stepped out, everything became clear. It wasn't the fifty-year-old architecture, the lack of running water signified by villagers carrying water buckets, or even the lack of electricity. The clarity was the fifty or so Chinese women armed to the teeth walking casually through the village.
"Joketsuzoku," she whispered, a wisp of fear reaching into her chest.
Her heartbeat accelerated as she fell into a defensive stance just outside the door of her house, but there was no one challenging her. Then she remembered what defeating anyone in this place meant.
Oh no, that woman said "Great Grandmother" - that can only mean Cologne.
Stuffing her hands in the pockets of her trousers, she gritted her teeth as she looked around for the nearest path out of town. The village had grown since the last time she had visited. She was in a small neighborhood of at least three dozen houses divided in half by a stream.
Dined and dashed, her conscience reminded her.
She followed the water upstream until she found a small bridge crossing it, passing villagers of both genders. The men carried water, cleaned laundry and performed other tasks around the village, while the women roamed about armed. Not a single one batted an eyelid as she calmly walked through them all, barefoot and in ill-fitting clothing.
Despite the her ill-fortune of being revived from yet another long loss of consciousness in a hostile locale, she realized how close this placed her to Jusenkyo. Even this setback had a silver lining.
By the time she reached the edge of the neighborhood, she saw the village center in the distance, where she had fought Shampoo two decades prior. The ancient log suspended ten feet above the ground brought back a number of unpleasant memories.
I don't know if I could stop myself from eating the Shampoo's prize a second time, she thought as she removed her left hand from her pocket to clutch at her stomach.
Only this time, there wasn't a fight in the center of town or a feast for her to steal from. The giant log still looked the same as it had so long ago, just as the people and the village seemed stuck in time. She followed the path into the center of town, where a fountain bubbled, the water drawn bubbling up from a local well.
Although she didn't feel particularly thirsty, Ranma's lips were dry and chapped, and her eyes felt weary from dehydration. She approached the fountain, and dipped her hands in deep, pulling water up to drink deeply.
Flashes of her survival in the Chinese jungles with her father came back to her as she contemplated the long escape back to civilization. However, the fragments she saw were few and far between. She could barely recall a conversation or two outside of Jusenkyo and evading Shampoo.
Survival skills are like riding a bike, she told herself, though with a long enough coma, she was sure even bike riding could be lost. Stress had a way of weighing down memories.
It wasn't long before she saw the edge of the forest and the cliffs overlooking the city an hour's walk away. The thought that she might stumble was the only thing keeping her from bolting and never looking back. She could see it in the distance, but at the edge of the village, she saw the first obstacle in her path.
There was a stone wall around the perimeter of the village as far as she could see, about fifteen feet tall and likely thick, and there weren't any entrances or gates. The wall seemed to stretch around the entire village, or at least as far as Ranma could see.
After a few minutes, she drew close to it. One quick bend of her knees, and Ranma jumped to the height of the wall, and then landed atop it. The stones under her feet were rough, but they felt cold and smooth. The girl rubbed her feet along the edge, wiping the dirt from them. Despite her training, her feet were still soft and the gravel had scratched her soles.
She stared out at the jungle to the east from her high vantage point, and then sat down on the edge of the wall in response. A thick canopy of mist had rolled down off the mountain and had consumed the clearing as far as she could see. It reached up nearly twelve feet, giving her the appearance that she was standing on the edge of the world, and nothing but clouds and an abyss below awaited her if she jumped.
A small voice shouted from beside her in Chinese, startling Ranma by her sudden proximity. The redhead spun around and looked down at the base of the wall beneath her, where she saw a small girl in a hood and a face scarf over her head, and wearing a thick robe around her body. From this angle, Ranma couldn't estimate much about her, but her voice was high like a child's.
"What do you want?" Ranma asked warily, pushing up to her feet quickly. She was ready to jump down at a moment's notice and flee for the jungle rather than incur a Kiss of Death again.
The girl leaped up to land right next to Ranma. Although her body was hidden in her thick garments, by her height she couldn't have been any older than eleven or twelve, and by Ranma's assessment was likely not much of a threat. Despite that, she slid back to give her enough time to escape if it became necessary. Engaging the enemy here was worse than running.
If Ranma had been on edge, the girl clearly looked equally so, taking a full step back, only to slip and nearly slide off the edge of the wall. Ranma reached out quickly and grabbed the girl by the shoulder before she fell into the mist. The girl screeched in fear, but the redhead easily lifted her with her one arm, pulling her up into her arms.
"Hey, you alright?" Ranma asked, realizing that her heart had a skipped a beat when the girl nearly tumbled over.
The girl didn't seem to have a response, and merely looked up at Ranma in complete awe. Her hood had fallen back, revealing long, purple hair, the color of a pale orchid. It was fiercely knotted and looked to have been uncut for many years, rife with split-ends. A moment later, the girl pulled down the cloth mask, revealing that she was actually as slack-jawed as she had appeared before.
The girl responded in Chinese, and then suddenly grabbed Ranma tightly around her waist, squeezing her tight.
"That didn't count as defeating you!" Ranma protested, trying to pull out of the girl's embrace. However, the girl was slippery, evading the older girl's defenses, and managing to plant several kisses on her cheek, despite the child being nearly a head shorter than her.
Kisses of Death? Ranma wondered after a moment, clearly taken aback by the amount of affection this girl had for someone she now had to kill.
"Jei jei!" the girl said, her voice incredulous. What followed was perfect Japanese. "You're back! I can't believe it! You're back!" Somehow, the girl's grip had tightened, applying pressure on Ranma's ribs.
"Jei jei?" she asked, not knowing the word. "You know me?" Her mind scrambled to try to remember any preteen Chinese girls from Joketsuzoku who he might have met between California and Japan. Even considering it seemed silly with how long ago she had been here. This one wouldn't have been born when she first arrived.
"Jei jei," the girl said again, but her voice concerned. "It's me." The girl took a step back to give Ranma a complete view of her face. The girl looked up at Ranma's face, tears leaking down her eyes. "I can't believe you're alive after all this time."
Giving the girl the benefit of the doubt, Ranma stared at her face for a moment before answering. She was clearly pretty, likely eleven or twelve years old, and had a small, hairline scar along the right side of her jaw. Her eyes were bright blue, and she looked awfully familiar, despite Ranma's confidence that he'd never met the girl.
"I'm sorry," Ranma apologized, feeling terribly awkward about disappointing the girl who was clearly pleased to see her. "I really don't know who you are."
"It's me, Lan," her small, high voice said, as if it were obvious. "You can't have forgotten me already. Did you hit your head?"
Lan? the older girl took in the name, looking at the girl. She looked familiar in that nebulous sense that Ranma had a hard time describing, between some half-forgotten memory and a dream.
A word bubbled up to the top of her brain, and she said it aloud, "Orchid."
"Yes!" the girl squealed, her blue eyes shiny with enthusiasm. "See, you know just fine. I was worried your head was scrambled eggs."
Orchid, like her hair color, Ranma thought, not quite clear how she made the connection. The girl's familiarity with her suggested she knew her quite well, or the girl knew someone who looked like her.
Who would look like me here? Heck, who would I have even met here, besides Shampoo, and maybe those crazy cousins of hers?The thought percolated for a moment as she stared at the little girl. She did have a faint resemblance to Shampoo's children, but she was too young to be one of Shampoo's.
"Your face is all squished," Lan whispered, poking Ranma's cheek.
"Gah," she whispered, waving off the girl's hand. "Stop that. I'm being serious here."
"Okay, Jei jei," the little girl whispered with a giant smile on her face. "I'll do whatever you say, as long as you don't go anywhere again."
I really gotta find out who she thinks I am, Ranma thought. Rather than beat around the bush, the redhead went straight for the indelicate question. "Are you related to Shampoo, Lan?"
The girl looked taken aback, her mouth opening in surprise. "You can't say her name like that. Great-great-great grandmother would be mad!"
"What, why?" Ranma asked, mystified by the girl's response.
"You know it's forbidden," the girl said in a manner that suggested she was totally and completely serious. "She would be mad. She might still punish you for it, even if you did come back."
In that moment, Ranma felt a sudden sense of dread as she stared at the girl in front of her. She didn't hear so much as a whisper, but she knew they weren't alone.
"Ahem!" a grizzled throat cleared, nearly causing the Lan to fall again, but Ranma took a firm grasp of the little girl's robe to keep her from tottering over.
Turning to face her doom head on, she stared down at the diminutive elder of the Joketsuzoku clan of warrior women. An escort of three armed sentries protectively stood beside her. However, even in the old woman's tremendously advanced years, Ranma knew the old ghoul would still be her own strongest defense.
Cologne hobbled forward and looked up at the two children above her. She looked even more tiny than usual from fifteen feet above.
The little girl startled babbling in rapid Chinese, but the old woman held up her hand, causing the girl to quiet immediately.
"Speak in Japanese so this one can understand you."
"But, great-great-great grandmother..."
"Repeat what you said before, except in Japanese. It's not fair to hide anything from her."
The girl nodded obediently, and complied, "I said please don't punish her for saying the name, great-great-great grandmother. She didn't mean to say it out loud."
Who does this little girl think I am? Ranma wondered, furrowing her eyes at the thought. She insisted I knew her as well. Though, I should have guessed Shampoo would be a sore spot here. Cologne's heir was outcast because of me.
"I won't fault her for it, child," the old woman said with a wry smile, a wrinkle within a wrinkle on her face. "I don't think she knew any better."
"But of course she does…"
Cologne held up her hand again, shaking her head as she did. "Quiet, girl. Speak when spoken to."
"Sorry, great-great-great grandmother," the little one apologized.
The exchange bothered Ranma, not by the girl's mistaking of her identity, or the fact that Cologne was being polite, but that there felt like a piece of the mystery behind everything was sitting somewhere in Cologne's head. The old woman stared at Ranma as if transfixed for a moment, her face unreadable.
"Where do you think you are going?" the old woman asked of Ranma, her eyes sharp for a moment. "You only just woke, and you haven't eaten for at least a few days. The least you can do is eat before you run away."
It's a trap, Ranma's gut told her. She's stalling me.
The overwhelming urge to turn her back and flee welled up in the back of her mind as she looked down at the old woman. With every year she lived, she had become more dangerous.
The redhead took a step back, her bare foot sliding against the coarse stone of the wall, causing some pebble-sized debris to fly over its edge. She looked down at her feet, and realized she was all but springing away to safety in the depths of the mist. She looked back at the women below her and wondered if she could outpace them.
If I slip into the fog quick enough, I can lose them, she thought as she glanced over the misty valley before her. A few minutes to freedom.
She took in a deep breath in preparation, but something held her back another moment.
"Wait, child!" the diminutive and wrinkled old woman called out, her left arm held out. "Please, hear me out before you flee."
"Jei jei!" the little girl on the wall with her cried out in response, catching Ranma full in the chest, locking her arms around the redhead before she could respond.
Ranma coughed as the deep breath she had sucked in was forcibly expelled from her lungs. She tried to counter the suddenness of the seventy-pound girl slamming into her chest by planting her right leg back, but her foot slid against the loose rocks on top of the wall. Rather than fall back into the mist, Ranma tried to fall forward, but the width of the wall was too little, and the pair instead fell forward on the inner side of the wall.
Angling her arms under Lan, Ranma did a quick flip in the air, and landed on the ground below, the preteen safely in her arms. Despite the sudden change in altitude, the girl seemed completely unfazed as she threw her arms around the redhead's neck.
"You can let go now," Ranma whispered to the girl, who showed no signs of releasing her.
When Ranma lowered her arms, the girl slid down to her tiptoes, but kept her body firmly pressed against Ranma's.
"Lan, I'm not running away," she whispered.
The child's face appeared between light purple bangs, her eyes shiny with moisture. "You promise?"
Careful what you promise, a part of her warned, but something stronger in her spoke in direct dissention, "I promise."
"Pinky promise?" Lan wiped her hair and tears out of her face before holding her damp hand out, pinky extended.
"Pinky promise," Ranma replied, reaching her right hand up where the girl held hers, and then linked them. "I won't run away."
Lan nodded her head and let go of Ranma, her arms shaking slightly as she took a step back. Despite the promise, the girl watched her hesitantly, tugging at the belt around her robe.
"Forgive her," Cologne said. "She would sooner jump into the mist and die, than let you leave her side."
"Die? What are you talking about?" Ranma asked at Cologne.
"In time, child," the old woman said wearily, her eyes turning towards the horizon, where the sun would be falling in a matter of hours. "Why don't we head to the sanctuary and talk over some nice tea?"
The promise of tea seemed to be all it took to dislodge the girl, who seemed quite taken by the promise.
"Don't you have duties complete, Xian Lan?" the old woman said, as if reading the child's mind.
Shanlan. I was right. She is related.
The little girl deflated just as easily, but nodded. She looked up at Ranma with wide, teary eyes and smiled, touching her fingers to the older girl's bare arm.
"I'm so glad you came home," the girl whispered, before raising her hood and mask, and leaping up to the top of the wall. Ranma watched her run down the length of the wall in the opposite to the one she had come from.
Ranma could only oblige. At this point, running would be impossible without breaking her promise to the child. Even if she had run before, without her father to tag along, fleeing through the jungle and into China would have been perilous. At best, she was in a remote and dangerous location, but further towards the ocean, she would find revolutionaries.
Cologne snapped her fingers, and then two of the three warriors, a short one with a spear and a medium-sized one with a sword left the old woman's side. Both of those two were likely in their thirties, while the remaining sentry looked familiar. The woman was about Ranma's height, and of a similar build, but her hair was purple, and very long, only a few shades darker than the girl from the wall's. It was tied into two braids, and stretched down to her thighs.
That would be a pain to untie, a part of Ranma reflexively thought. She realized she was staring and was about to look away, when she realized that the woman before her was in fact the woman who had been in her room when she had woken up.
The woman that looks like Lan.
The purple-haired woman knelt down in front of the village elder and lifted Cologne onto her shoulders.
She seemed to preempt the question forming in Ranma's head after she settled on the woman's shoulders.
"I haven't been able to walk far for several years now," Cologne admitted, her eyes sharply observing Ranma.
"So you can't-?" Ranma began to ask, but was interrupted.
"Fight? No," the old woman said quickly. "Not well, at least. I still have tricks up my sleeves, if you're thinking of challenging me."
The thought of fighting Cologne surprised Ranma with how little she considered it, even now that she seemed obliged to follow. Despite their history and her initial feelings about it once realizing where she was, she knew that she would never fight Cologne again.
Her eyes felt misty in empathy for the ancient woman, who was sometimes her enemy and sometimes her teacher. Through Cologne, Ranma had become ten times the fighter she had been before, providing her with her fiercest rivals and her strongest techniques.
"Don't tear up for my sake, dear," the old woman said.
Obviously your eyes aren't hurting, old ghoul! she thought, but calling her the name felt bad, even though she had only thought it. It felt wrong somehow.
"My great-great granddaughter here is forced to carry me quite often, I'm afraid," Cologne continued, her voice as tired as her legs must have been.
Wait, that means she's Shampoo's sister or cousin. Ranma looked at the woman, and realized that the girl on the wall was most likely her daughter. She had the same hair, and facial structure, but the girl on the wall had blue eyes, unlike her mother who had dark eyes that were almost black.
"Elder, it is my duty," the woman's voice was earnest in her proclamation. Her Chinese accent was thick, but her words were practiced over many years. The woman looked at Ranma curiously as she said this, balancing the old woman's weight. "Besides, the rest of the light will be wasted if I do not carry you."
Cologne tugged the braid hanging over the woman's shoulder, perhaps as a warning. "I'm not that slow. Let's begin our journey back to your house, Xian Mei. We'll talk there."
"Yes, elder," the woman said dutifully.
Following the older women, Ranma actively watched her surroundings for any surprises. They were a good distance from the nearest structures in the village on the path Ranma had used to reach the wall. She still felt it strange that there wasn't a gate where the path met the wall, nor any openings in the distance. She also hadn't seen a wall anywhere else on the other side of the village.
"Child, come walk beside us," Cologne called out to Ranma, who was lagging behind them a ways. "I don't bite."
Ranma complied without really thinking about it, her thoughts turning to the wall more than she liked. She looked up at the old woman perched on the Mei's right shoulder, who was looking down at her already.
"Ask your questions, child," she said. "Your thoughts are safe in this company."
By what definition is any of this safe? she thought wryly, biting her lip in the process. However, she had more than a few questions bubbling up inside of her that needing asking.
"What's with the wall?" she asked. "It wasn't there before."
Cologne's face was unreadable as she stared down at Ranma. She ran her fingers along her chin as she considered her answer. "It keeps the mist out."
Squinting her eyes at the oddness of the answer, Ranma opened her mouth to ask a follow-up question, but Cologne held up her hand.
"Yes, child, I'll explain further," she told the girl. "It's just a touchy subject for us. The wall was built to keep the mist out."
"The mists on the other side of the wall were as thick as smoke and stretched all the way to the base of the cliffs," Ranma remarked.
"Indeed," Cologne agreed. "We built the wall more than a decade ago to keep the children from attempting to brave the mists, and to keep the mist from taking anyone out of the village."
"You say that like it's kidnapping them," the redhead said, a heavy feeling beginning to grow in her breast. "Please stop cutting around the corners."
"How much do you know about Jusenkyo, girl?"
She hasn't spoken my name at all, Ranma thought. And Cologne never once called me girl in her entire time in Japan. She frowned as they began approaching the challenge grounds where Ranma first met Shampoo.
"You're aware of how much I know," the girl said defiantly, seeing if she could get some sort of recognition out of the old woman. Say my name. You know it.
"Humor me," Cologne said with a coy smile. "My mind isn't what it used to be."
The redhead sighed with a roll of her eyes. "Fine. Cursed training grounds with over a thousand pools of water. Anyone who falls into a pool changes shape into something else. A boy changes to a girl, or a pig, or whatever else drowned there. Only hot water returns them to their original shape, but cold water changes them back to the cursed shape."
"Yes, that's how it used to function," Cologne whispered, just loud enough to hear. "What else do you know?"
"Well, after the fight on Phoenix Mountain, water was restored, and the valley was recovering last I heard about it."
"Well, that was two decades ago," Cologne told her. "I'm surprised that you know as much as you do. It's not a tale we discuss lightly."
"Lifetime of knowledge," Ranma replied nonchalantly.
"Perhaps, perhaps not," Cologne said mysteriously.
What the heck is she implying? Ranma wondered, glaring at the old woman.
"Let me fill you in on the last twenty years." Cologne cleared her throat. "But first, I must have your strict confidence in this. You cannot tell anyone outside the village without my permission."
"Huh?" Ranma uttered. "Why does it matter?"
"Jusenkyo is more dangerous than ever, and there have always been people seeking to exploit its nature for personal gain. Common knowledge is that it is defunct and this has kept people from wandering in for the most part. It is no longer useful as a training ground, or a source of magical curses. However, it's possibly more dangerous than before, and I would not have knowledge of its true potential reaching the ears of an outsider."
Like me? Ranma thought, but nodded.
"I would hear you promise aloud."
"Fine, I promise not to tell anyone without your permission."
"Thank you," Cologne whispered, casting her gaze outward. "Jusenkyo looked to be returning to normal, true. But the dam system that controls water flow to Jusenkyo was damaged during the conflict between the outsiders and the Lord of the Phoenix. It was not until two years later that we learned the truth of this.
"Two years of drought was followed by a long, cold winter, and then the valley was full again. The Phoenix people attempted to reduce the flow to Jusenkyo, but the controls did not respond. They attempted to fix it, but it was already too late. The valley flooded, causing the cursed training ground to become a small series of lakes. Jusenkyo's waters all mixed together, one by one, until there was no longer an individual pool."
Cologne cleared her throat again, her eyes sharp as she scanned the village. "Jusenkyo had lost its power entirely. We thought the matter solved, but then the mists began to appear."
A chill ran up Ranma's spine, and she shivered inadvertently. "So, how'd this affect the curse?"
"I'm getting to that," Cologne said as they passed the log arena in the center of the town. There weren't many people about, but her voice lowered regardless. "Before the mist, we experimented with the waters, throwing animals and other creatures into its waters to no effect. Nothing changed."
A sinking feeling settled over Ranma as she walked beside the two women. She watched the old woman finish her statement with wide-eyed horror.
"The water no longer causes its victims to shape-change."
The redhead stopped mid-step, her mouth agape from the revelation. That's impossible.
"Wait," Cologne instructed her great-great granddaughter. "Child, are you alright?"
"No," Ranma said, every fiber of her body vibrating under the knowledge. "You said no effect? It doesn't work anymore?"
"No, I said the curse of Jusenkyo no longer changes a person's shape," the old woman replied quickly, her eyes immeasurable in thought.
The words didn't register fully in the girl's mind as she stared at the woman. Sweat formed on her brow as she tried to comprehend this new information.
Her voice was quiet, but resolute, as she asked, "How long has it been like that?"
"Since the flood, nearly two decades ago," Cologne replied softly. "It has the habit of drowning people now. Only four people are known to have survived wandering into the valley after becoming lost in the mist."
The girl's legs felt wobbly as she tried to integrate the new information against her current knowledge. Largely, most of what she assumed or thought had been false, including most of what she knew about her mentor. Her stomach turned over as she bit her lip and focused on her breathing.
"What happened to them? Were they okay?"
Cologne shook her head. "One escaped. We followed him for days, and he didn't seem different, except for the curing of his curse."
Ryouga! Ranma thought, her eyes wide. It must be when he cured himself! I could save myself yet still.
"The rest were affected differently. The boy that was with the other one who escaped, was partially drowned. We saved him, but he lost his memory entirely. He was cured of his curse as well."
Someone with him? Who the heck could that be?
"Many years later, four people fell in, three foreigners and a warrior from the village."
Ranma was barely listening as she wracked her mind for whoever could be the victim cured with Ryouga.
"One foreigner drowned. The other has serious memory issues. I'm not sure how many of them are his, and how many are implanted in him by Jusenkyo."
"What?" Ranma interrupted, returning her attention to the woman. "Jusenkyo gave him false memories?"
"Yes," Cologne whispered. "He recently returned with you in his arms."
"One of them...was one of them...Kiyoshi?" Ranma asked, barely able to ask the question.
"So you do know him?" Cologne answered, turning the question back on the girl.
"Yeah," Ranma whispered, but her voice was choked.
"You are his relative?" the woman asked slowly. "His sister?"
All she could do was nod.
"I see," Cologne stated, tapping her cane against the side of Mei's breastplate.
Light-headed, Ranma lowered herself to her knees, causing her pants to ride up her calf. The cold air caused goosebumps to rise on her legs as she placed both palms on the ground and tried to catch her breath. She felt marginally better with her head bowed, and she tried to push past it, forcing the topsy-turvy feeling in her into the ground.
He said he fell in the water ten years ago, but that memory could be fake, she thought as she drove her knuckles into the loose dirt of the path. He said he was Happosai, but he's never once acted like the old man, not even on his worst day. Not even when I yelled and screamed and threw things at him.
"Are you alright, child?" Cologne asked, her concern poking through her usual stoic nature.
I can't imagine myself without him, she thought to herself, lifting her head to see the old woman still perched on the purple-haired warrior's shoulder. Cologne's eyes echoed the words, as she furrowed her brow in concern.
"I'm...dealing," she told the old woman. "This is a lot to consider."
"Indeed," the woman replied. "There's more, if you want me to continue."
After Ranma nodded, Cologne continued her story. "The warrior from our village was Mei's daughter, and Lan's sister. Those clothes that you are currently wearing are that child's."
Looking down at her body, Ranma felt the tightness of the clothing more acutely again. "She was like twelve or thirteen then, right?"
Lan stopped and turned to face Ranma. Her eyes were closed, but despite that, tears flowed freely from her eyes. "Xia had only just reached her twelfth year when Jusenkyo took her from us."
"But I thought you said she survived," Ranma interjected.
"That's for later. Let me finish, please." Cologne continued her explanation. "Rather than affecting the body, the waters of Jusenkyo have reverted to claiming lives. When the mists rose up nearly two decades ago, we constructed the wall to keep it out, and it worked for a time. However, travelers began to wander in search of fairy tales and legends of mystical training grounds."
Ranma's mind still grappled with the new information, trying not to interrupt, but couldn't not ask. "How long ago was this?"
"Two years," Mei replied, her eyes fast on Ranma.
"So, Kiyoshi came here two years ago?" Ranma asked, her heart skipping a beat, though she felt strange as she asked it. "And he fell in, and became... someone else?"
Shrugging in response, Cologne looked at the girl apologetically. "I never met the young man previous to last night, so I cannot say."
That means everything he told me isn't true, the redhead knew for certain. Everything he told me about me, and the curse wasn't true. The only thing I know for sure is waking up in California after a long sleep.
As Cologne talked, Mei walked over to Ranma, going behind the girl and lowering to her knees. "We sent warriors to scare away intruders who attempt to enter the valley, but both parties mere became lost and disappeared into the mist. Since then, we can only guard the outskirts of the mist, including the mountain passes and the forest paths. But there's too much area to cover to truly be effective."
Mei's warm fingers pressed into Ranma's shoulders as the girl focused on slowing her breathing. She had the coarse hands of a warrior, and they were as gentle as they were strong. The pleasure of the contact continue for nearly a minute, causing Ranma to relax.
The girl sighed out loud as Cologne spoke into her ears from Mei's shoulder.
"How long have you known him?"
"Almost two years," Ranma whispered back.
As the redhead pulled her head back to look at the woman, Mei slid an arm under her thighs and quickly used her leverage to pick Ranma off the ground. She hoisted the girl into her arms. A surprised gasp escaped the girl, and she was still too stunned to be able to react. The woman propped her up in her arms, her strong arms supporting Ranma at the back and behind her knees.
It wasn't until a moment later that she relaxed and wrapped her right arm around the woman's unoccupied right shoulder.
"So, directly after his exposure to Jusenkyo."
Ranma's eyes focused on the elder who was close enough to touch now. With her breath under control and her heart resuming a normal pace, she whispered, "I guess so."
I don't remember anything until after he fell into Jusenkyo, Ranma thought, contemplating the information verbally in her mind. Jusenkyo affected his mind. It made him think he was Happosai.
"So, he's just a boy then?" Ranma asked, a sick feeling in her chest.
"It would seem," Cologne answered. "That means, he told you who he thinks he is?"
Ranma nodded as puzzle pieces fell into place, clicking together loudly in her heart even if she had pieced together the information previously, though not fully confirmed until now.
"And you knew him before he told you who he was?"
She doesn't know I'm Ranma, the redhead suddenly realized, turning her head over to the old woman in surprise. Then what did she mean by returning me here?
Cologne was silent, watching her face carefully.
I need to talk to Kiyoshi, she thought, looking around the village. Mei had carried them halfway back across the village. The sun was already beginning to set in the sky, casting a chill over them as they travelled.
"You mean Happosai?" Ranma asked for clarification, unable to look back at the old woman. She felt trapped. Admitting that she knew Happosai could put her in danger if their fair treatment relied upon her anonymity. She thought they had accepted her as she was, returned after all this time, but Cologne hadn't figured it out.
"Shall I take that as a yes?" Cologne asked, but her tone implied she didn't even need an answer.
She knows I know him from before, Ranma realized, gritting her teeth behind her lips. She's just playing her cat and mouse games with me to slip me up.
"So a fourteen-year-old girl knew an old man dead before she was born," Cologne stated, hinting at so much more than her words expressed.
"Please let me down," Ranma whispered to Mei, who had carried her so far without showing any signs of tiring. "I am fine to walk."
The woman in purple braids looked down at her. "You sure?"
"Yes, Mei-san," Ranma replied awkwardly.
The woman nodded, lowering her right arm so that Ranma slid down her arms, causing her skirt to bunch around her waist. While the redhead readjusted her clothing, she was keenly aware of Cologne's stare.
"I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable, child," Cologne told her, her voice as sincere as Ranma had ever heard. "You are very closed-lipped for one so young, and it is my responsibility to evaluate you before we can let you go."
And there it is, Ranma thought as she straightened her back, and squirmed in the too-tight coat. "I'm used to being under a microscope." Like a rat in a cage.
"It wasn't my intention to put you on edge," the old woman said from above, still perched on Mei's shoulder. She waved for Mei to continue walking, and she did, with Ranma keeping pacing beside her.
"I need to speak to my brother," Ranma demanded, clutching her hands into fists. Cologne's eyes narrowing didn't catch Ranma by surprise, but Mei's step back did. The woman seemed clearly taken aback. Ignoring them, she asked, "Where is he?"
"He's safely locked up for the time being," Cologne told her, her eyelids relaxing again. "You can speak with him after we finish our conversation. Let's do so at the house."
"Why's he locked up?" she asked, her brows furrowing in concern. Her heart started beating quicker at the thought of having to rescue him. I'd fight the whole damn village if I have to, though.
"Perhaps locked up was a bit strong," the old woman responded. "He isn't under any lock and key, but it is to his advantage to wait where he is. He agreed, after I explained that it would be very disadvantageous for a martial artist of his caliber to be running around the village. He wouldn't last ten minutes before finding himself married."
Ranma nodded slowly, agreeing with the notion. But I don't have to like it.
"Luckily for him, the mist didn't seem to affect him, and he was able to traverse it without trouble. We weren't aware of his arrival until my scouts spotted the two of you. I kept everyone from knowing about his presence. However, now that a day has passed, everyone will have heard of the handsome Japanese warrior in the elder's cage."
The old woman grinned at the girl, who looked up at her with concern.
"Cage?" she asked, her voice rising. "What do you mean by cage?"
Cologne laughed. Her eyes glittered with mischievousness. "Forgive me, girl, it's just what the women here call my quarters. Anything is better to them than being called to my cage, as they say."
"It's really not pleasant," Mei offered, an uneven smile plastered on her face.
"But he's okay? I mean, you didn't hurt him, right?"
Cologne closed her eyes, and then shook her head solemnly. "He surrendered to us the moment he entered the village. Despite what I may have wanted to do, I did not hurt him."
She wanted to hurt him, Ranma realized, gritting her teeth again.
"So, he brought me here?" the girl asked of the old woman.
Cologne looked away from Ranma, her eyes as distant as her expression and her voice. "Yes, you were unconscious with a terrible fever. He brought you here for the recovery."
The fight at the motel in Japan flashed before Ranma's eyes as she remembered blocking the dart meant for Kenichi. She looked at her palm where she had caught the dart, but there wasn't a mark.
"Do you remember anything from before you fell ill?"
"You mean, when I was poisoned by Pantyhose Taro? It's blurry from the moment he struck me with a dart. I think I remember…" She trailed off, not ready to share more with Cologne.
"So, he was the one," Cologne stated, nodding to herself. She caught Ranma's look. The woman closed her eyes and explained. "A few years ago, he came around looking for Happosai. I told him what I always tell him, that the old fool is long dead, or that his former students trapped him in a cave again, and he should go somewhere else.
"Three days later, a large gap in the wall was found, letting the mist in. We repaired it soon enough, but I found some artifacts missing, including a dozen darts infused with a lethal poison found only in this area. Strange coincidence."
"What is?" Ranma interjected.
"That the same poison that was stolen brought you to us."
"How is that a coincidence?"the redhead asked, confused by the topic of conversation. She sucked in a deep breath for confidence, and then cut to the end. "Please just come out and say what you want to say. You've been dancing around it the whole time."
"I shall do so inside, if you don't mind," the old woman whispered.
Drawing to a stop, Ranma realized they had made it the rest of the way to Mei's house. A pain in the back of her head rose up behind her eyes as she observed the house from the outside. It looked like every other building in the neighborhood, but it stood out somehow. A flower patch at the base of the house grew orchids of all colors, mixed together.
I could never tell flowers apart, she thought, her eyes wandering across the flowers that reached around the house.
"Please come," the woman with the dark purple hair called to Ranma. Cologne had already hopped off the woman's shoulder and entered the house, but Mei stood at the threshold of her home, waiting.
"These are orchids, right?" the redhead asked, pointing at the flowers in the front, despite knowing full and well that they were.
"Yes," Mei told her, looking to the side. "They grow all around the house. I Orchid-garden all day when not training."
The girl I called Orchid. Maybe I heard it while I was sleeping? "So you really call her Orchid?"
The woman shook her head. "No, just her father does. Lan is Orchid in Chinese."
"What about her sister?"
"She did-does," Mei said, correcting herself, and then turned her head inward. "Go in now. I make tea."
Without any other reason to delay, Ranma entered, the conversation adding more questions, but making her feel better. Her head felt better having talked with the woman, though. For some reason, Mei reminded her of Kasumi.
If Kasumi carried a bo staff like a lethal weapon, she amended as she followed the woman into a small sitting room adjacent to the kitchen. Cologne was in the room, seated in a large pillow twice her size. When she saw Ranma, the old woman patted a pillow next to hers with her cane.
Biting her lip, the redhead walked towards the old woman and sat in the offered pillow. However, she didn't look the woman in the eyes, and wouldn't. Every wall and mental defense she had was on high alert as she tried to ignore the woman's eyes on her.
"Well?" Ranma asked, more eager than rude. It took most of her will to suppress the chattering of her teeth as her body felt the need to spike her heart rate in preparation for a fight that would hopefully never come.
"Let us wait for the tea," Cologne said calmly. "I think you will enjoy it."
Sneaking a peek at the old woman, Ranma realized that Cologne still stared at her openly with a kind expression. Almost looks like she's happy.
After a tense few minutes, Mei entered with a tea set. She sat in a third pillow and set down the tray in front of them. The woman's skills in the tea ceremony awed Ranma as he watched her steep fresh, loose-leafed tea. Her movements weren't quick, but they carried elegance with every motion. Before long, two cups of steaming hot tea sat in front of the elder and the guest.
Cologne bowed her head to her great-great-granddaughter and lifted her cup, savoring the scent for a moment before taking a sip. Ranma followed suit, taking in the earthy scent of green tea and something sweeter. She sipped it curiously, savoring the experience.
Jasmine green tea, she thought, taking another small sip.
Noticing that Cologne had set down her cup, Ranma followed her example, setting her cup on the tray in between them. She looked at the old woman expectantly, though still avoiding her direct gaze.
"You have guessed my ulterior motives for bringing you here before I reunite you with that man?" Cologne's words were carefully chosen, but she seemed to wish to speak plainly from her tone.
"Not really," Ranma admitted, frowning as she tried to contemplate any number of possibilities, but she really didn't know. "Maybe you're going to try to convince me to leave him with you?"
"Curious," Cologne stated, her hands reaching down for her cup. "Why do you think that?"
Ranma looked over at Mei, who was politely silent, and then looked down at her ceramic cup. A little font of steam billowed above the hot beverage.
"He's really strong, and that's what your people do."
"Perhaps that is a fair assessment," Cologne replied, nodding almost imperceptibly. "Why else?"
"I don't have another explanation," Ranma told her, quickly reaching down to take her cup. "It was just a bad guess."
"Guesses aren't bad unless there are stakes tied to their correctness," Cologne said as if reciting from a plaque hanging on some business owner's wall. "I only wanted to know why you would think I have any interest in the young man."
"So you don't?" Ranma dubiously asked as she took another sip of the naturally sweet tea, though she was hardly able to savor it.
"Only so far as Jusenkyo is concerned," the old woman replied. "Understanding his condition could help with a villager who has a similar problem."
"So, what is your motive for bringing me here, then?" Ranma asked, her eyes focused on the tea. She felt as if she were under a microscope, being examined by the elder.
Cologne tapped her cane on the floor in front of her. "To ask you not to return to Jusenkyo."
Ranma blinked. "What?"
"There's no reason to go," the old woman told her. "It cannot help your brother, or you in any way." The special emphasis she placed on the word brother made Ranma twinge inside. "There's nothing for you there."
The redhead looked up at Mei who still sat across from them, dutifully silent as she had been most of the time.
"Jusenkyo brings bad luck and death," the purple-haired warrior told her, placing her empty cup on the tray. "It took my daughter." The woman stared intensely at the girl.
If there was a chance to be free of this curse, like Ryouga had managed to do before her, she would go to reclaim herself, rid herself of the nightmares, and return home to her family, even if there wasn't a place for her any longer. She couldn't pretend to be her own daughter, or marry into the family, even if some part of herself yearned for it.
To be whole, Ranma had to return to Jusenkyo, whether she lifted the curse or not. She had no alternative.
"So you will go no matter what we say," the old woman said, taking another sip of her tea, and then replacing it beneath her.
"I didn't say anything," Ranma said neutrally, her heart beating more quickly.
"You didn't have to," the old woman said, her face strained. "I cannot stop you, but I will not help you either."
"No!" Mei cried out, slamming both of her hands on the ground, causing Ranma to fall back from her seated position. As the redhead extended her arms back to catch herself, the woman made her complaint. "Elder, you cannot allow her to go! She won't survive!" Her face was red as she glared at her great-great-grandmother.
"Quiet, child!" Cologne scolded rising to her feet quickly, and slapping her cane down. "I am not bested so easily."
Mei seethed with fury, but she relented, and then turned her face away. "I will wait in the other room, elder."
"Do so." Cologne tapped her cane once, before returning to her seat. "Forgive her manners, child."
A part of her cheered the woman's bravery to speak back, but Ranma was beginning to get a sense of Mei's priorities. While she was as dutiful and motherly as Kasumi, Mei had the stalwart heart of a warrior like her people, and Ranma respected that.
"Will you tell me about her daughter?" Ranma said immediately after Mei left the room. "You've mentioned her a few times already. The way you talk about her is like she's dead, not a survivor."
Cologne inhaled deeply before starting, but then nodded. "A plane crashed miles away in the jungle, and we sent out nearly everyone to look for survivors." The woman took a moment to finish her cup of tea. "Though she was a child yet, she was precious, well advanced her years in martial arts, but foolhardy. Nothing moved fast enough for her. She insisted on joining the search."
Ranma leaned in closer, taking in all of the details with wide eyes.
"The mist took the plane before we could get there, so we monitored the outskirts. Xia found a trio of survivors attempting to cross the pass above Jusenkyo. It's a long cliffside path that time has eroded, and had led to a number of our villagers becoming cursed in the past. Now, it's more dangerous, as the mist has made it damp, and the rocks give way."
Gasping, Ranma knew the exact location she spoke of, the location where she had unwittingly knocked Ryouga into the valley during her first week cursed.
"You recall the location?" Cologne asked, her eyes twinkling. "Xia ran after them, and reached them just as the path gave way completely. I watched as the girl fell to her death."
The old woman looked pointedly at Ranma at that moment, causing goosebumps to prickled up on her skin. She poured tea into her cup, and then lifted it to her lips and blew over the hot liquid.
"I'm so sorry," Ranma whispered, unable to shake the weird feeling Cologne evoked at the end of her story. "But she didn't die after all?"
"Yes, somehow," the old woman said with a solitary nod. Her eyes closed gently as she sipped the tea. "Beyond all hope, both she and a young man came back alive, though after so many years."
"What?" Ranma said reflexively, her mind scrambling after the meaning. "I get that you're implying Kiyoshi is one of the survivors, but Xia-san returned years later as well?"
The old woman set her cup down on the tray and stared directly into Ranma's eyes. The girl felt the urge to avert hers, but held fast as she waited for the conclusion of the story. Even as she did, her arms prickled with goosebumps.
"He brought her back in his arms yesterday night, fighting for her life, and she only just woke this evening. Now she sits before me."
The age old matriarch of the Joketsuzoku clan of warrior women stared at her fourteen-year old great-great-great-granddaughter, the daughter of Xian Mei, sister of Xian Lan and niece of her long-lost Xian Pu. The child stared back at her with the startled eyes of a cornered cat, and then rose to her feet.
The wizened woman waved for the girl to sit, but the girl shook her head, causing her red mane of hair to crash around shoulders. From head to toe she looked the part of a lost soul, the too-tight clothing she had outgrown years ago, her hair, long enough to reach down most of her back, loose to the breeze, wild locks swaying across her eyes.
"I hesitated whether tell you at all," Kho Lon told the girl solemnly, looking to her tea again. "Kiyoshi took the news hard as well, though I believe he knew somewhere he was not a cursed old man in the body of a young one. He seemed almost resigned to the news that his memories were a lie."
The girl didn't look confused as the boy had, but instead resolved against herself.
"That's not my name," the girl shot back, interrupting the elder.
"Kimiko Nishiyama, then?" Kho Lon asked, trying to bring the girl out of a defensive position. "The name of a deceased Japanese-American girl."
"Deceased?" the girl replied, her tone sharp. Anger resonated in her voice as she glared at the old woman. "I realize I wasn't born his sister, but that doesn't make me a dead person."
Kho Lon stopped, her eyes widening as she looked at the girl. Kiyoshi had told her that the girl went by Kimiko, the name she knew to be of his natural born sister, the child who drowned in Jusenkyo with her father years before. It had shocked her when he'd said it, as the girl couldn't have been drowned more than a second before her grandchild.
However, she rarely doubted the horribleness that Jusenkyo could perpetrate upon the living. Steeling herself, she knew she wasn't ready for the answer to the question she was about to ask. "If not his sister's memories, then whose?"
The redhaired girl glowered at the old woman with a surprising amount of animosity. She had been respectful up until Kho Lon had revealed the secret, but something had switched in the child.
"I am - not think I am - Ranma Saotome, and I'm tired of talking now. I want to see Kiyoshi now." Nothing could have prepared the old woman for that name. Despite the red hair, the resemblance and the knowledge of things long since past, she did not expect that name to come out of that child's lips.
"How is this possible?" she whispered, placing her cane to her side to support her. Turning her head to the side, she stared into the soul of a warrior. The girl's eyes shone with the certainty and confidence that no one could imitate. "Son-in-law?"
The girl rolled her eyes, breaking the intense stare that Kho Lon could hardly withstand. "I thought we got past that when I didn't marry your granddaughter."
Kho Lon nodded and tried to relax her facial muscles, which had begun to stiffen from grimacing for so long. With a heavy heart, she pushed herself to her feet as she did all she could to maintain control of her body. It felt weaker than usual, as even standing took much out of her.
This is worse than I feared, she thought as she waved the girl to her.
"What?" The girl didn't move, and looked defensive, her weight shifting evenly across her legs.
"If you want me to show you to my home to see the young man, I will need your shoulder."
After her suspicion passed, the girl acquiesced, walking in front the old woman and kneeling on the ground.
More than a hundred years before, the creator of the Anything Goes school of martial arts occupied this position, admittedly under entirely different circumstances than those for why Kiyoshi waited in the same room now, but both were because of a woman. The young man kneeling on the floor of the barren room remembered that moment as he expected one might remember the passage from a favorite book. He remembered bits and pieces of the time Happosai spent there, but there was no context or flavor. They were snippets from a play that he had observed a hundred years ago.
He recalled much of life as an old man, from the long solitude trapped in the cavern, to his escape and the few good years of his life at Soun Tendou's dojo training Ranma and leching on the female populace of Nerima. The twenty-something martial artist could tell you a particular moment in time if you asked him, but he no longer cared to recall any of it. Each memory felt more distant than the last, and none of them felt like him.
Tarou insisted I was the boy he remembered, and not the man whom he'd sought for decades.
Without memories for bias, it hadn't taken long to discover there had been a Kiyoshi Nishiyama long before he had taken the role, and he indeed was the grandson of Nobukazu Nishiyama. The pictures of him on social networking sites placed his age and appearance as a perfect match for his own.
Kiyoshi Nishiyama existed up until the last two years, the young man thought, and then opened his steel gray eyes. Until the one that sits here was born. It had surprised him, but some part of him had always known. The part that was Happosai fought, but it hadn't been a hard fight for the other to win.
Who wanted to be Happosai, when Kiyoshi was far more ideal?
Is it wishful thinking?
The true surprise had been the fact that he had not been an only child.
He rose in anticipation of his sister, standing calmly in the center of the room as she flung the doors open. Riding on her shoulder, Kho Lon crouched like a parrot on the shoulders of a child a fraction of her age.
The redhaired girl wore a hodgepodge of colorful Chinese clothing and didn't look at all out of place standing in between the two sentries standing guard outside the old woman's hut. The girl's choice of pants under her dress drew a smile to his lips. Her hair was tied in a loose ponytail as he had grown accustomed to since it had grown out over the years of his life.
Kimiko looked at him with wide eyes, full of relief. She took one step into the hut before Kho Lon leapt from her shoulders to the ground beside her.
"Kiyoshi!" she exclaimed loudly. Her eyes glistened as she launched herself at him.
He held firm as she leaped directly into his arms and he swept her up. Her arms reached over his shoulders as she pressed herself into him as hard as she could with her one good arm. He clasped an arm underneath her shoulders and one against the small of her back and lifted her, proceeding to swing her around.
His heart beat quickly in his chest as he held her.
"I'm so glad you're okay," she told him, releasing him to fall back at arm's length, and land on the ground.
"That's my line, shorty," he told her, messing her hair with the palm of his hand.
"What? A little poison is nothing to likes of me," she told him confidently.
"Well, that's not actually far from the truth," he whispered, allowing his arms to fall to his side. "Either way, you really scared me."
She pulled herself into him again, clutching him tightly and pressing her head to his chest. "When I woke up here, I thought I was alone in China. That was more scary that some stupid poison that Tarou cooked up."
Kiyoshi looked down at his sister and smiled. "I'd never abandon you, even if I had to wait a hundred years for you to wake up."
"So, a hundred years and a day from now, you're totally ditching me?" she demanded in a serious tone, but her little grin gave her away.
"Yeah, I totally would've had enough at that point," he replied back. "I'd go find some other amnesiac girl and teach her to kick ass instead."
The girl pulled back and hit his shoulder with enough power to sting. "Jerk."
"Yeah, I know, I'm a total cad," he whispered, giving her shoulders a squeeze. He then looked back to the old woman in the back of the room with the poker face.
"So we finally made it to China," she said. "I wasn't sure we'd make it."
"What, you mean with the trip to the emergency room, nearly dying to exotic Musk Dynasty poison, and fighting off at least five different people trying to murder you?" Kiyoshi said, counting each of the incidents on his fingers.
"You make it sound almost inviting," the girl wryly told him as she rolled her eyes. "Good to be back in Joketsuzoku, right?"
"I wasn't here with you the first time," he told her, grinning. "But I guess it beats Japan." Despite his humor, a grim part of him darkly whispered, You weren't even born when she went to Joketsuzoku, Kiyoshi.
The girl stood on her tiptoes, and put her hand on the side of his face. Nodding to her, Kiyoshi bent his knees to allow her to put her lips next to his ear.
"Well, we're here now, so what are we going to do?" she whispered in his ear, faint enough for him to hear. "Cologne isn't going to be all happy for us to leave."
"She told you her crazy stories?" Kiyoshi asked, but he would be surprised if the woman had played all of her cards at once. He knew she was holding something major from him.
"Yeah, she said you were you, and not Happosai," the girl told him so quietly, it tickled his ear.
"She's probably right," he replied.
Kimiko pulled back and stared at him with her beautiful sapphire eyes. He remembered the first time he saw her.
Which was when? When she was Ranma? When she woke from her sleep?
"She didn't believe I was Ranma at first," the girl told him, her cheek lightly touching his as she did. Her face was smooth against his scratchy, week-old beard.
"But she does now?" he asked, his eyes wide with surprise.
"I think so," she replied, breathing heavily as she pulled back, and then turned to face the old woman. "I think so."
Although the old woman watched them closely, she hadn't moved from the foyer of the hut.
"So, Kho Lon, what do you say?"
"I know not of what you speak, child," she replied, her expression unchanged.
"Do you believe that this girl here is the Ranma Saotome who fought you on the beach for the Phoenix pill? The same boy to whom you taught the Hiryuu Shouten Ha technique to defeat his greatest adversaries, and then conquered even the leader of the Musk, and the ruler of the Phoenix people?"
The old woman did not respond, but Kiyoshi knew she did not, not after her words to him before. With his arms still clasped around her, Kimiko stared at the Kho Lon. Although Kiyoshi could not see her expression, he felt her shift in response to the old woman's silence.
"Whatever," the girl said loudly, pressing her back into his chest. "I didn't plan on coming to China to prove myself to some else. I'm here for myself."
"I know who you are, girl," Kho Lon told the girl, taking several hobbled steps into her own home. "You have nothing to prove to anyone. That's besides the point. Your plan to go to Jusenkyo is the issue that we must speak on now."
Kiyoshi interjected, his voice directed at his sister. "I might have to agree with the elder on this point."
Kimiko took a step away from him, pulling his hands off her shoulders. She turned to face him with an expression of betrayal.
"What the hell, Kiyoshi?" she asked, her voice bitter. "All this way, we're finally here and you don't want to go now? You promised."
"I did, and I'll hold up my end of that promise," he told her just as seriously. "However, I was hoping to change your mind on this point. If what this one says is true, we won't gain anything from returning there."
"Listen to him," Kho Lon told the girl, her voice sharp. "Jusenkyo only twists minds and takes lives now."
Kiyoshi reached an arm out to Kimiko, but the girl pushed his hand away.
"Ryouga doesn't change anymore," the girl announced firmly, backing away from him. She looked at him with eyebrows angled and her lips pursed, clearly showing her determination. "He's the reason I went to Jusenkyo again in the first place."
The young man's jaw fell agape, his cheeks tightening into a grimace. He narrowed his eyes at her as he contemplated her words.
"When did you go to Jusenkyo a second time?" he asked skeptically. "This is the first time you've mentioned it."
"I..." she began, looking between him and Kho Lon, who had hobbled up to him in the meantime. "I don't know."
"Ranma returned to Jusenkyo with Ryouga," the old woman told him, her expression flat.
"When was this?" Kiyoshi demanded, taking a step towards the girl, who looked just as confused as he felt.
"Two years after the flood," Kho Lon replied calmly, hobbling over to a cushion, on which she carefully sat. "Ranma and the lost boy entered the mist before we could warn them. I thought them both lost until Ryouga reappeared unscathed."
Kiyoshi watched Ranma's face transform from confused to haunted, her face losing its color before his very eyes. Her breathing was shallow, causing her to pant slightly as her eyes slid closed. She put a hand to her head as she stood there, trembling.
"I followed him until I couldn't see anything but the fog," the girl almost whispered, a timidness in her voice he had never heard before. "I couldn't even see my hand, it was so thick. I stumbled around until I found a path and followed it. But it was unstable and gave way. I tried to catch myself, but Ryouga knocked into me."
Kiyoshi watched the girl, completely fascinated by her change in mannerisms as she looked up, her eyes wide, staring through him like a window into the past. "It was backwards. I fell instead of him."
Glancing at the old woman, Kiyoshi realized the girl's words affected her as much as it had him. She looked at him with eyes that must not have been shocked since Jusenkyo first claimed a victim after hundreds of years.
"Child, you said you fell. Hibiki-san pushed you?" the old woman asked softly, hobbling over to the girl.
Stepping to the girl's side, Kiyoshi put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed it reassuringly. However, she hardly seemed to notice as her eyes gave the impression she was in a trance.
"No, we walked right into each other. In surprise, we both lashed out, but he knocked me back and I slid right over the path. It was sloped just so that I managed to hang on, but he fell right over me. The fog cleared in time for me to realize that we were on the path above the valley. Ryouga didn't have anything to hold onto, so when I fell, he nearly fell with me."
An eerie quiet proceeded Kimiko's revelation. The old woman closed the distance slowly, putting her hand on the girl's knee as if to dispel the trance. However, Kimiko began shivering, instead, and then her eyes rolled back in her head, and she crumpled. Kiyoshi's heart leapt out as he dropped his knees and scooped her up.
"It's so cold," the girl whispered through chattering teeth. She held her arms to her chest as she did this so pathetically that Kiyoshi was completely shocked.
Wrapping his arms around the girl, he felt her skin, but it felt warm to him, no colder than it had when he'd embraced her earlier.
"Clearly, we don't understand nearly as much about Jusenkyo as I thought we did," the old woman told him, her hand lingering on the girl's shoulder, despite Kiyoshi supporting the girl from falling on her face.
"I'm tired of you witholding information, Kho Lon," Kiyoshi told her, his anger barely held in check by sheer necessity, as aggravating the woman would lead to less answers rather than more. "Maybe you don't think much about this girl, but she is the only thing I care about in this life."
The woman regarded him without scorn for the first time, her eyes scanning his face.
"Perhaps we should introduce ourselves again, and start over," the old woman offered.
"Fine," Kiyoshi spat. "I am Kiyoshi Nishiyama, the grandson of Nobukazu Nishiyama, inheritor and CEO of Nishiyama Inc, a global conglomerate."
"And I am Kho Lon, an elder of the Joketsuzoku, and guardian of Jusenkyo." The old woman stood straight despite her disabilities. "So, you recognize the memories of Happosai as false?"
"Yes, I've doubted it for a time," the young man replied, though he felt sick as he said it.
"That is good, because I buried the old lecher myself. His grave is not even a hundred feet from this position."
The words hurt despite his distance from the identity of Happosai. However, he had a head full of false memories as well as the true memories of the old man. He felt his displeasure reach his face as he gritted his teeth.
"You are one of five survivors of Jusenkyo in its current incarnation," Kho Lon told him, her voice flat again. "Feel lucky to have not been trapped there for all eternity, your body a cursed template for future victims. Also, you seem the least affected by the curse as well."
Narrowing his eyes, Kiyoshi returned the woman's neutral stare with a glare. "So, Ryouga's escape and subsequent freedom from his pig curse are not a complete recovery?"
"From what I've heard, a shadow followed him out," the old woman said, tapping her staff on the ground twice. "He went from the Lost Boy, to become the Dark Man."
With his jaw agape, Kiyoshi thought back to the first time he encountered him in the park, the night he almost lost Kimiko. The man had been nothing but rage. "Could this shadow have caused a rift in the park?"
"A rift?" the old woman asked, her eyes narrowing. "What do you mean by rift?"
"It was like a dream where everything was amplified. I wasn't sure if it was real, but the darkness that I felt there, it was more intense than anything I've experienced."
Kho Lon cupped her chin as she stared at the girl in his arms, her concern more apparent to him than she thought. "This rift you speak of is like the mist. It is surreal, like paintings and dreams, and it lures you forward or scares you to madness. Everyone it takes always meets the same end-drowned in Jusenkyo."
Everything comes back to that hellhole, Kiyoshi thought, knowing that it had been folly to bring his precious sister on this trip. If Ryouga had brought Jusenkyo with him, he pondered the implications for the girl in his arms. He knew she had been experiencing nightmares, and even waking terrors from time to time, but he'd thought it had to be a symptom of the coma.
However, now he doubted everything he knew. He had false memories in his head that told him he was Happosai. If Jusenkyo had power over that, then he couldn't trust anything but his own experiences for the last two years. He touched the girl's cheek. Her skin was soft and her face pale, despite her California tan.
Ranma's memories are more powerful than mine, he reasoned. She is certain beyond a doubt of her identity. Despite the thoughts, he already thought of her as someone other than the boy born almost forty years ago. She felt like a different person to him.
"So Ranma survived Jusenkyo," he began, watching the girl in his arms, but speaking to the old woman. He pulled the girl into his lap and supported her with his left shoulder, resting her back on his arm. As her head nestled into his neck, he could feel her soft breath tickle his skin.
"More or less," Kho Lon replied, her voice weaker than before.
He looked up at her then, hating every mysterious word out of her mouth. "She doesn't think herself an old man, or carry the shadow of Jusenkyo."
Her eyes level with his standing, she shook her head. "No, she thinks herself a man who would be in his late thirties."
His mind stopped when she said it. You've thought this before. He ignored his own thoughts as he shook his head. "Impossible. I remember fragments and pieces of Happosai's life. She lives Ranma's past."
"I was shocked myself when the girl called herself Ranma," the old woman told him, rocking slightly on her cane. "But her being Ranma is just as impossible as you being Happosai."
Kiyoshi's heart beat slow and steady almost always, but it skipped a beat when she realized what she was suggesting. A sadness welled up in his chest as he turned his eyes to the girl in his arms. "That's not possible. Not even Jusenkyo is powerful enough to slay Ranma Saotome. Even if she is not him, he'd find a way."
The old woman laughed suddenly, almost cheerfully as she stood so close. She smiled and nodded. "It is as you say."
"So, he survived the fall? He did not drown?"
"No, he drowned," the old woman said just as cryptically. "Everyone drowns or is cursed in Jusenkyo without fail."
"And you find that funny?" he asked, and then gritted his teeth. "He was a martial artist without peer."
"You misunderstand," Kho Lon told the young man. "There is nothing left but to show you now. I think it best if we cut to the hidden truth."
Is it dread? Kiyoshi wondered, his mind reeling from the truths already revealed today. Is it fear?
He looked down at the girl before him, but really looked this time. Her hair was so long, it touched the floor. She had forbade anyone from cutting it the moment she had awoken until she returned to normal. It had been a form of protest, but now he saw her, her gentle features, the warm color of her skin, the pink of her lips.
Or is it hope?
The old woman clapped her hands, and a young woman entered, no older than her mid-thirties, but possibly younger. Her hair was black indoors, but he had seen it outside in the light of day and it was purple.
"Mei, bring this young man to your home, and make sure that you introduce him to your family. The child here needs some time to recover, and he needs to understand the truth before she awakens."
"Yes, elder," the woman said and bowed, her two braids falling over her shoulders. "Come with me."
Kiyoshi left his sister behind with regret as he followed the woman to her home.
The clouds of dark fog completely overwhelmed the boy on the cliff. His eyes strained to see anything as the figure of the girl approached, a shock of crimson hair illuminated by a lantern in her hand. The short girl stood absolutely still not five steps away from him.
She has to be standing on the direct edge of the cliff, Kenichi thought to himself. He strained his eyes to see only opaque mist around her, but not even the ground was visible.
"Kimiko," he heard his mouth say, but even as he said the name, he knew it was wrong.
Thick red locks of hair obscured her face as she stared at him silently. He could not be completely sure, but she was a head shorter than his Kimiko, and thinner, too. Her skin was more pale than the tanned girl he helped carry across miles of Chinese jungles, and her hair was shorter as well, even if it still was long enough to reach her lower back.
The girl did not respond, but instead took a step toward him. In that moment, he realized her hair was thicker than it should have been, hanging over her head and shoulders like a cloak. Her clothes were only marginally lit by the lantern in her hand, but were colorless, like an old Kurosawa movie, shades of grey and black blending into the darkness of the awful night. He could barely see the rest of her, but he knew something was wrong.
She paused for a half-step, holding up the lantern, casting light upon his face. Even as close as they stood now, he couldn't make out her features. He rubbed his eyes at the possibility that the mist was messing with them.
"You're not her are you?" he asked, but she still did not respond and walked directly towards him.
He took a panicked step back, but his foot slipped against the hard rocks, and he fell on his bottom. He sucked in a frightened breath as she walked right at him. As if to defend himself, the boy put up his arms defensively, except the girl barely regarded him as she walked right by.
"Kimiko, is that you?" he asked again, his eyes trying to make out any detail at all about the girl.
"You're looking for that Japanese girl?" the voice of the girl echoed through the dense fog. She spoke Japanese well, but her accent sounded Chinese. Her voice sounded distant, despite their nearness. Even against all of that, he recognized the girl's voice.
He stared at the back of her head as she stopped, waiting for his answer.
"If you're looking for her, you're out of luck." She began to walk forward again, her short legs carrying her more quickly than he'd expect.
"Wait," he told her, stumbling over the rocks to catch up to her. Between the limited visibility, and the danger of falling straight over the cliff, Kenichi struggled to keep up. "What do you mean I'm out of luck?"
The girl continued walking away from him, but seemed to slow to allow him to catch up. Stopping a few feet from her, he considered reaching out to touch her, but dared not.
The lantern continued lighting the way ahead through the fog.
"She hasn't talked to anyone since she got here," the girl told him.
"What about Ranma?" Kenichi asked.
The girl stopped, her body suddenly stricken stiff as if she'd run into a wall. She turned to face him and he closed the distance between them.
"I recognize your voice," he told her. "I recognize you, even if you're shorter than before."
When he walked up and got over his nerves enough to lightly take her by the shoulders. He would have, at least, if the hadn't gone straight through her.
It was only then that he realized he wasn't having trouble seeing her because of the fog. Aside from her hair, her body was all but entirely transparent. As her hair parted and her face was revealed, her ghostly visage revealed her identity.
"No," he whispered, unable to comprehend what his eyes beheld. He stared at the girl he fell in love with over the course of the week they spent together in Japan.
The boy fell to his knees.
"You can't be dead."
End Part Four
To be continued in…
Misery Loves Company
Part Five: The Kiss