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The Unbroken Circle: Chapter four

Ikken'ya

Part A

Disclaimer: Takahashi provided the paints, I'm just working on my own easel.

What has gone before:

Chame showed Ranma and Ukyou what she wanted to teach them to do; fight demons. After banishing a smaller demon in the woods, the group stumbled across Tarou, who Ukyou then banished, thinking he was another demon. The boy returned to his proper reality later, near Happosai, but refused to help the old man because of whatever he had endured. Meanwhile, the amazons are plotting to capture Ranma. Dr. Tofu and Nodoka are both spending more time near the Tendos. Ryouga got dipped in warm water, revealing himself to his benefactor: Akari. The girl bandaged Ryouga's wounds, and waited for him to wake to answer some important questions. Nodoka told Akane what she thought of the Ranma situation, and that Ranma was no longer being held to any formal engagements. Akane slowly comes to grips with what she's lost.

Previous chapters are archived at: http://ranma.stassen.com/uc/

Brief key, trying to stay simple.

<> frame thoughts.

"" frame speech

"{}" frame speech in Mandarin

 

"...Six at the top means:

His house is in a state of abundance.

He screens off his family.

He peers through the gate

And no longer perceives anyone.

For three years he sees nothing.

Misfortune..."

I Ching - The Book of Change

 

"A proper house exhibits harmony, and that harmony reflects upon the tribe as a whole."

Unknown

 

Happosai paced unhappily, occasionally glancing at the quivering Tarou. Sighing, he rounded on the boy, stating, "Okay, Tarou. I want my student back, and if the Ancient One has him, then I want to know what you can tell me about her."

Repressing a shudder, Tarou glanced at the old man. His eyes darted around the room, as though he expected some vile creature to rear up from behind a pile of lingerie. Licking his lips nervously, the boy asked, "Which one is she? There were two women. One of them used... sent me... banished... the other..." He shuddered and shook his head, unwilling to speak further.

Happosai nodded slowly, furrowing his brows in thought. "I see... a clever trick... two women... Very well. Sleep for now, Tarou... I suspect your memories will have lessened when you wake." He looked over his shoulder and smiled softly. "I'll leave the light on for you."

Tarou only mumbled, not seeing the smile. "No name. Not worth it. No name..." He stared around the room from his corner fearfully after speaking, but said nothing else.

The old man shook his head, and leapt out the window. Rebounding off of a tree, he landed on the roof. He sighed, glancing about it. He muttered under his breath, "The boy used to come up here to muse... I will not lose him to you..."

Pacing, and lost in his thoughts, he almost tripped over the form of the youngest Tendo girl. She was sitting in the spot Ranma had always preferred, the one right over her room. <Somehow, I suspect she never understood the significance of that.> She glanced at him, then away, saying nothing.

Happosai took a moment to admire her. Her knees were drawn up to her chest, and she had her arms wrapped around her legs, slowly rocking back and forth. The tears had stopped coming for the time, but the red puffiness under her eyes remained.

Shaking his head, Happosai paced away. <Taking my best student away was bad enough... I don't know what she used against Tarou, but it must have been bad. Hopefully he'll be calm enough to talk about it in a few days...> He slammed a fist into his palm angrily. <I don't have a few days! She could take him to one of those places that I cannot reach him. Adding insult to injury, the once beautiful face of Akane is marred by tears...>

He withdrew his pipe from his gi, lighting it and taking a few puffs. <Very well then. I must pursue them... but where is she taking him? How can I catch him in time? Tarou could carry me, but in his condition, he won't. How fast can they travel? I can't expect that the boy went willingly... or could he? What might they have persuaded them with?> He frowned, considering. <Who knows the boy best? His father? No... that accursed woman is still keeping him from being able to talk to me. It will have to be Akane, then.>

Smiling, he launched himself in a short, easy-to-catch glomp. Akane deflected it, staring at the old man with irritation overshadowed by sorrow. "Leave me alone." Her voice was thick, with some heavy emotion, but Happosai wasn't sure what it was.

Sniffling as though he was wounded, the old man whimpered, "Darling Akane! Without darling Ranma around, I can't have any fun!" Akane stiffened suddenly, and stared away. <Bingo, girlie! Right where I want you.> "...This poor old man is so lonely without him." He sniffled for added effect, turning his best puppy-dog eyes towards her.

Heaving a sigh, Akane stood and walked towards the end of the roof, not looking.

Hiding a grin, Happosai moaned, "If only I had a clue about why he left, what could possibly have made him go..."

Akane froze, then spun to face him. The old man quickly shifted his visage to a woeful expression. Her eyes were haunted, filled with shadows of depression and guilt. Happosai almost jumped in fright; her capacity for anger was almost... gone. As though she had hated herself out, and had no more anger to spare. Smiling bitterly, she spoke, "He left to escape senseless violence, and to be with someone who can give him affection without restraint."

Happosai blinked, and spoke to her before she could leap back down to the yard, "He knew that you loved him, you know."

For a moment, it seemed as though that vital spark that had fueled Akane for so long would flare up, but then it died out, and she shook her head. "No. He didn't. How could he see it through the insults and pain?" Turning to stare out at the stars, she sighed again. "And I honestly think he may have made the right choice."

The old man could only stare, as the girl disappeared over the edge. <I have to get that boy back. Well, if he went willingly, then he would be with one of the girls who cared about him. But which one? If it's Shampoo... she would care for him. And her fighting spirit mirrors his own... if he left with her, then he'd have a rival around to challenge, which he would like.> He paused, mulling the concept over. <But the Joketsuzoku would never be foolish enough to advertise with the Ancient One so near. And he hates fighting women.>

He froze suddenly, feeling something foreign and familiar at the same time, then shook his head. <A ghost of a presence... another power so near? I should know this one...> The feeling faded, and he grumbled to himself. <Must not be important to me. Not yet. Now... would the Ancient One take Shampoo with her? Ranma might follow her then. But I don't think that Shampoo would go against Cologne's wishes. Two choices. That crazy Kuno girl, or the okonomiyaki chef.>

Tapping out his pipe out on the roof, he nodded to himself. <I'll simply need more information from Tarou. Whatever spell they used on him was too powerful to be anyone other than the Ancient One. The boy simply doesn't have that kind of strength in him, last I checked. So. It would have to be the okonomiyaki chef... But what purpose does the Ancient One have with them?>

Sighing, he thought, <I'll puzzle this out later. I think I need to work on Tarou now.>

***

As the old man slipped off of the roof, Tofu lowered his cloak. A gift from his mother, those many years ago. Not the woman he had hired to play the part earlier in this century, but the real mother, who died over three thousand years ago. He sighed, examining the material. It had not aged, deteriorated, or even gotten dirty as long as he had lived.

Reversing the cloak made it invisible, but not him. Put on the other way, he could hide himself again. <The old man could be a danger to Ranma... but I can't leave Tarou suffering like that. I don't believe Chame would do something like that on purpose... and if I'm there when he recovers I'll be able to monitor the situation more closely.>

He reversed the cloak, making it invisible, and himself visible, then leapt from the roof, to land at the door. <I wonder if Chame knew how this would hurt everyone before she acted.> As he knocked on the door, he thought, <I cannot believe that she would do this on purpose... I sense a higher purpose in this. I will write a letter to her later. Nabiki can see that it reaches her.> The door opened to reveal Kasumi, smiling brightly. He grinned bashfully, calling out, "Hello, Kasumi!"

Her smile widened. "Hello, Dr. Tofu!" She glanced behind her, then winked at him, saying, "Come on in, dinner will be ready shortly."

***

Akane grunted slightly at the landing, but rebounded back up to her window. <Not nearly as good as Ranma is... was?> She sighed, hopping down to the floor, and latching the window. <What am I doing? What should I be doing?> For a brief irrational moment, the answer was 'find Ranma.' Heaving another great sigh, she let the thought fade. <Ranma is finding his own happiness right now... Ranma... still wants to be my friend some day.>

She pondered that point for a moment, <Ranma's friends are all martial artists... does this mean that Ranma thinks that I'm a good martial artist? Ryouga, Ukyou... Mousse.> Frowning, she turned to her desk, and flipped through her diary. <I think that's it... Ranma never knew what to make of me because I wasn't nearly as good as him, but I was much better than the average person.> Blinking, as though the answer had been clear all along and she could only now see it, she decided, <Then I'll become a better martial artist.>

Nodding to herself, she began to plan. <Of course, being a good martial artist means control... and he'd still only see me as a friend, but if I beat him, he'd take me seriously. Right. Next time we meet, we'll spar, and I'll win.> Allowing herself to smile, Akane lay down on her bed, and let sleep overtake her.

***

Nodoka frowned thoughtfully, and rubbed her chin. "So you say he's still on that training trip?"

Soun nodded. The last few days had been harder and harder on him, as his wits slowly frayed. <Ranma! How could you! Abandoning us like that!> "Well... you know how it is..." Laughing weakly, he added, "Perhaps he's learning a new technique."

Nodoka sighed, staring at the cloth-wrapped bundle that held her sword. "That's too bad... I so miss my son... Why would little Ranko leave without Mr. Panda?" Knowing full well what was going on, she wondered how long it would take them to admit it. "Oh well. How is Akane? She seems to be awfully broken up about Ranma, for him just being on a training trip."

Soun stiffened, then mumbled, "Well, I suppose they're really, very close..." He trailed off, uncertain of what else to say.

Grimacing, Nodoka pushed the plates away from her. Tofu and Kasumi were out for a walk, Akane and Nabiki were upstairs, and the panda was asleep in the yard. Shaking her head, she said, "Well then, I suppose there's nothing to do but wait for them to return... I'm sorry. I'll be going home now. Perhaps I'll see you again later."

Nodding silently, Soun watched her leave. <Ranma! Where are you?!>

***

Smiling at Kasumi, Dr. Tofu walked back into the house. Genma and Soun were staring at each other across the shogi board intently, and neither of them looked pleased.

Tears were streaming down Soun's face as he stared at Genma. Waving a hand at her father absently, Kasumi stopped his tears. Tofu smirked, and walked towards Happosai's room while Kasumi spoke with the men.

The old man, answered the doctor's knock. Happosai eyed Tofu suspiciously for a moment, then muttered, "What do you want?"

The doctor shrugged, explaining, "Kasumi asked me if I could look at Tarou, and find out what was going on. She seemed worried about him... has he been unwell?"

Grudgingly, the old man let the doctor into the room. "He's got problems with the dark. I'm not sure what happened to him, but anything you could find out would be useful."

Tofu approached the shivering boy cautiously. Tarou's eyes darted around madly, and he whimpered when Tofu drew close. Frowning, he placed a hand on the boy's head. After a moment, the boy slumped forward, seemingly unconscious.

The old man glared at Tofu. "What was that?"

Kneeling near Tarou, Dr. Tofu began searching for shiatsu points. "He needs sleep. I don't know why, but I don't think he's slept for almost two days..." He mumbled something softly to himself. <This is going to take more than shiatsu to cure. Hmm... this room has a strong Airt presence. I can't tap it without the old man noticing... nothing for it. I'll just have to be careful.>

Taking a deep breath, the doctor gently probed the boy's mind with his own. He grimaced again at the signs of previous tampering. Someone had tried, clumsily, before him. The damage was reversible, but dealt carelessly. <Young one. Come out, your body has need of you. It is safe now.>

Tarou's head jerked up, and his eyes snapped open. In a calm monotone, he asked, "What do you wish to know?"

Blinking, Happosai peered into Tarou's eyes. "Interesting... what happened to you after I sent you away?"

Tofu maintained his touch on the boy's head. <You do not have to speak if you do not wish it. Some memories are best buried.> Tarou's eyes locked with Tofu's for a brief second, then he shook his head, and pushed himself free of the doctor's grip.

Clearing his throat, he glanced at Happosai. "Old man, I don't know if..." He shuddered, glancing around the room again. "One of the women."

The doctor sat down and listened patiently, while Happosai pretended to forget he was there. The old man rubbed his hands together. "I see, I see... and what did they look like?"

Tarou blinked for a moment, remembering. "There were two. One was short, looked kind of like fem-boy and carried a stick. She was fast... she hit me a couple of times, but broke my flask, so I changed. She fell down after I screamed at her... The other one was about the same size as he was, and chanted something at me, drawing symbols in the air."

Happosai puffed on his pipe, brows furrowing in thought. "I see... and do you remember anything else about her?"

Tofu watched the two talking with carefully concealed interest. <Which spell did she use? I had not guessed that she would be able to learn something that complicated so soon.>

For a long moment the boy said nothing, then he nodded. "She said that she was..." He shuddered, mumbling, "Banishing me. In Ranma's name."

Struggling to conceal his shock, the doctor turned to look at Happosai. The old man simply looked confused. "Where did they send you?"

Shuddering uncontrollably for a minute, Tarou shook his head. "Can't talk about it. Not worth it. Not going to talk about it." Tarou's expression briefly flashed to one of anger, but it was quickly wiped away by fear.

The doctor nodded to himself. "Well... I suppose I'll go ahead and leave now."

Happosai grunted in a dismissive manner, and began to pace.

Once in the hall, Tofu closed the door and took a deep breath. <Ranma is Machin, and has the power to banish demons? No wonder it's not safe for him here. Every energy sucking demon-thing in the country is going to want a taste of his blood... I can only imagine how many people would want him for their own.>

He turned, to find Nabiki staring at him. She smirked at him, commenting wryly, "What's up, Doc?"

Smiling weakly, he shook his head. "Well, Nabiki, it looks like you can relax a little. The problems you added are nothing compared to what Ranma has to face now."

Her face fell slightly, and she asked, "Doc... can I have a word with you?"

After she led him to her room and closed the door, she sat on her bed, looking hurt and confused. Twiddling her thumbs nervously, she confessed, "I hate this."

Blinking, the doctor sat in the chair at her desk. "What do you hate?"

Nabiki spread her arms expansively. "All of it. Akane's finally figuring out that she cares for Ranma... and I don't think he's going to spend all that time with--"

The doctor raised a hand suddenly, frowning. "Hold." She blinked as he created a small sphere of light in his hands. A moment later, it expanded, coating the walls in a faint bluish glow. Then he nodded, staying, "No one can hear us, now."

Stifling a momentary giggle, Nabiki shook her head. "That must be useful." Sobering, she resumed, "I don't think Ranma's going to be spending all that time with Ukyou, and not have something happen between them... Akane... Akane's lost him. I think she knows, but she thinks it's Shampoo who got him, not... Ukyou." She stared at her hands for a minute. "I know... I may seem cold-hearted, and I may have taken advantage of Ranma all of the time, but..."

Shaking her head, she rose, and stared out of her window. "I used to think that he didn't like Akane. So I'd interfere, and make sure he was too busy dealing with other problems... selling pictures of him to Kuno and so forth. But... in the end, I think all I managed to do was make him angry. I tried to do little things to make her angry with him. After... after I saw how much it hurt both of them when I pretended I wanted to be his fiancee..." She sighed, and sank to the bed. "I began to wonder if I was doing the right thing. So... I decided one last test would be in order."

Dr. Tofu raised an eyebrow, a vague suspicion snapping into the puzzle his mind was assembling. "What was the test?"

Nabiki's face fell again. "I... I wanted to see how far he'd be willing to go for Akane. I'll admit, I also wanted to get some money... well, a lot of money." She paused, collecting her thoughts, and turned to face the doctor again. "I arranged to get some American criminals some help. They wanted someone who could break into a house somewhere, and make off with something. I thought Ranma could do it; it was pretty simple... but... I shouldn't have... it was stupid..."

The doctor shrugged, saying, "Well... you couldn't have known. Aside from which, those criminals are nothing compared to the tasks that Ranma will be facing shortly. I know it hasn't been very long, but... time heals all wounds. Ranma will be far too busy dealing with Outsiders to worry about petty thugs."

She heard the capital 'o' in the word Outsiders. Shaking her head, she looked at him questioningly. "What's an Outsider?"

***

Chame frowned thoughtfully, and glanced at Ukyou's sleeping form across the fire from her. Sighing, she turned to Ranma. "Well... I suppose the best way to explain what an Outsider is... would be to show you. Here..." The redheaded Machin cupped her hands around a point in space, and breathed on it softly.

Her cupped hands filled with a ball of light, then flared brightly for an instant. When the flash faded, she held a small globe, filled with twinkling points of light. Gesturing, she released it, and it floated between them. Ranma stared into its depths, fascinated. The lights spun and wheeled about in the globe, like tiny stars. Ranma had learned the trick earlier that day but still wasn't sure what it was useful for.

Nodding, he pointed at the globe. "Is this our world?"

She shrugged, looking slightly uneasy at the suggestion. "An analogy. We're part of this world. Mm... perhaps 'world' isn't the best word... we're part of this reality. Each reality lies scattered about." She gestured, and another globe drifted near the first, then more, until there were dozens of them drifting in lazy revolutions through one another. "Of course, the universe is boundless. These have borders, but not... not how they appear. The realities lie on top of, and within one another."

Ranma frowned, pondering, and gently pushed at one of the globes with his mind. He drew in a breath as he watched it fold into the central globe, seemingly inside of and behind the first, but separate. "I see... so all these realities..."

Chame nodded, and the rest of the globes folded themselves into a single sphere. Ranma shook his head, becoming dizzy at the spectacle. When Chame spoke again, her voice was very soft, "Of course, we are not alone... there are several planed within each reality... on other realities, there are near-mirrors of our own. There are too many to track... they stretch on into infinity. Sometimes, beings can cross over from one reality to another. Luckily, nature binds us to our homes, and if we stray..." She gestured again, and a single sparkling mote of light fell out of the cluster of spheres. Twinkling brightly, the point of light was drawn back in.

Ranma nodded, the spark of understanding having been struck. "But sometimes, instead of stumbling between the realities, someone or something can cross over?"

Smiling sadly, Chame stared into the globe. "Yes. The Outsiders are... a single being. The Outsider, I suppose. It fell, or crawled from its own home, and decided to make its home here... the other demons that we fight can only come through by using it as an anchor, following the line that stretches from it's home to this world."

Gesturing, she burst the sphere with a quiet 'pop.' The motes of light exploded outward, then drifted down slowly. Ranma shook his head, puzzling the scenario over. "So, if we find the main demon thing, it's like cutting off the dragon's head, right? The other demons will have no way to get back here?"

The motes of light drifted around, swirling back into a ball in Chame's cupped hands. She frowned, peering into it. "Yes. But that's the thing of it that worries me. The Outsider was summoned here, over three thousand years ago. However, he is not here, on this plane. I don't understand how demons can follow it, if it isn't here."

Sighing, Ranma shook his head. "Got me. Maybe he's just hiding very carefully."

Shaking her own head in response, Chame let the points of light fade. "No... there's more to it than that... if we can't find it in our own plane, there's no way a demon could find it from another."

Ranma creased his brow in thought. "Maybe he's on another plane within this reality? How was he summoned three thousand years ago?"

Chame glanced up slightly. "I'm not clear on the details; it happened before I was born. However, there are rituals to summon demons, and if you aren't careful, you can end up summoning something from the wrong reality, instead of a specific plane. And if the Outsider was on another plane, the locals would be dealing with it, not us."

The fire threw up a few sparks, as Ranma stirred it again. "Wait... if there are an infinite number of Realities, then how can someone summon something from one specific other reality?"

Chame shrugged. "In theory, the summoning would be focused on that one reality, since the Outsider would act as a beacon for the denizens of the Outsider's plane." She sighed, rubbing at her temples thoughtfully. "But if he's not here to _act_ as a beacon..."

Staring into the coals, Ranma pondered. "So. If he's not being hidden, he can't be followed. Huh." He shivered suddenly then looked at Chame, sharply. "I have a feeling that I've done this before. This conversation..."

Chame stared into the fire vacantly for a moment before responding, "Perhaps we have. I don't know anymore. If you've been something like this in a past life... Well. No sense in worrying about this now. We should rest."

Nodding, Ranma climbed into his bedroll.

***

The next day, the scent of okonomiyaki wafting across the clearing woke them again.

Sighing, Ranma sat up and rubbed his eyes, declaring, "Some day, I will wake up before you."

A grumbling noise and muted mumbling indicated that Chame was awake.

Ukyou giggled, and tossed an okonomiyaki at Ranma. He caught it, and gulped it down quickly. After stretching, he stood. "I'm going to go down to the stream to wash before we go any further." He gathered a towel and a fresh change of clothes, eyeing Ukyou speculatively. "Now don't you peek on me."

Chame burst out laughing, while Ukyou smirked.

Frowning, he glanced between them, demanding, "What? What's so funny?"

Rolling her eyes, Ukyou explained, "There's no hot water, silly. What are we going to peek at?"

Flushing, Ranma turned to the stream. As he left hearing range, he muttered, "You're just jealous 'cause I've got a better figure."

The two girls in the clearing started laughing even harder. Exasperated, he turned around. "What? What's so funny now?"

Ukyou straightened up long enough to say, "If you've got the better body, why did I sleep with her instead of you?"

Chame rolled on the ground laughing, and after a moment Ukyou collapsed near her. Flushing even more deeply, Ranma couldn't help but smile. <I like this. Not a violent outburst in response... Of course, I could pay more attention to what I say...>

After finding the stream and washing, Ranma returned to the clearing. Chame walked past her, stating, "I'll be just be a minute."

Ukyou packed away her things, then glanced at Ranma expectantly. "Go ahead and pack up. I'm going to go wash with Chame."

She nodded, and turned to her pack. Once her things were stowed, she began to practice a complex kata. It was frustrating to go so long without a sparring match. Sighing, she finished after a dozen repetitions, and sat next to her pack, waiting for the girls to return.

Only a few minutes after, Chame and Ukyou came back from the stream, shivering slightly from the cold. Ukyou smiled at Ranma. "Hey, Ranchan!"

She grinned at the brown-haired girl cockily. "Hey, Ucchan! We ready to go?"

Chame glanced at the sun, then nodded. "I think we should. One or two more days and we should reach my house."

Ukyou stretched her arms in front of her for a second. "Okay. That should be a nice change."

***

Ryouga slept fitfully, and woke with a start. Akari had been surprised, but agreed to give him something else when he had refused to eat pork. His stomach gave him a happy and contented feeling from the tuna sandwiches he had eaten.

Sighing, Akari eyed him again. "So. Is there anything you feel like doing, or do you enjoy moping around?"

He shrugged, and climbed out of the bed slowly. He had recovered much faster in his human form, and tottered around unsteadily for a moment. "Yeah... I... I think I should help you out around here. I owe you for helping nurse me back to health."

She smiled at him cheerfully. "Great. You can start tomorrow. For now, go watch some TV or something while I'm working. Don't strain yourself." Winking as she departed, she turned down the hall and out of his sight.

Smiling wistfully, he began to dress himself. <She's so wonderful... I think I love her. Do I?> He paused, then shook his head. <I can't love both her and Akane, can I? Of course not. But... Akari is strong and independent. Akane... Akane needs to be protected from Ranma. Ranma...> The familiar pain began to seep into his skull, and he forcefully turned his mind to Akari. Nothing about her could make him angry.

A small voice in the back of his mind mocked him, "Yet."

***

Akane studied the gates of the school for a long time, not sure she was willing to go through them. By now, everything had gone back to 'normal.' The hentai brigade would be waiting for her, and Kuno had begun to recover from whatever Chame had done to him.

Shaking her head, she considered her options. <I can fight them. I can try and jump past them. I can try and reason with them.> She nearly laughed at that one. <Fight it is.>

She entered the school grounds, and they swarmed her. Clearing her mind of the anger that used to push her through the morning battles before Ranma had come, she battled them, careful and controlled. Each boy that was struck down succumbed to calculated and precise blows.

After it was done, she wiped a thin sheen of sweat from the exertion. <I need practice badly. But who can I get to teach me? Genma? My own father couldn't, but he's a lot tougher, and won't let his feelings get in the way... Unless someone else proves better.>

A voice interrupted her thoughts. "To see such a fair maiden in a state of distress... if breaks a noble heart like mine to see." It was Kuno. He stood there, and threw a rose to her. She ignored it as it flew by her ear.

Shrugging, she stood ready for him. <Can I handle him? Sometimes he gave even Ranma trouble.> Blinking, she realized he was not carrying a weapon. He was leaning on a crutch, and appeared to have bandages wrapped around his chest. An involuntary grimace told her that he was being caused pain just by breathing. Shaking her head, she charged him, and poked him just hard enough to make him topple.

After she turned back, and watched him collapse, she smirked. "Well," she proclaimed, "that was interesting. You're going to need to study a lot longer before you're as good as me."

He coughed weakly, "Damn that Saotome... his vile sorcery... the fair fiery-haired sisters and the noble Akane!"

Akane blinked, confused. "What sisters?"

He stood slowly, unsteady on his feet, and tried to strike a pose. Wincing at the pain from her slight touch, he leaned heavily on the crutch. "The sorcerer Saotome is staying with the two fiery-haired sisters. I will confront him again today, and free them from his grasp."

Tapping a finger against her lips thoughtfully, Akane nodded. "Where is this?"

Kuno shrugged, readying a spare rose. As he raised it to his face, he sniffed it lightly, then sighed. "'Ucchan's.' Do you wish to accompany me to see his defeat later today?"

Shaking her head, Akane walked away, fighting down the surge of anger she felt building. <Calm down Akane, be logical about this for a minute. It's not like you've got a right to hit him any more anyway... Well, maybe a little- no, no... calm down. I'll talk to him first. Right.> The anger subsided after a moment, and she released a deep breath. <There's more to this than it seems. Everyone else says that Shampoo was running around saying he was with her. Who can I ask for details about this?>

***

Sulking in his room, Happosai glanced around for an artifact or spell to aid his pursuits.

Growling when he found none, he sank to his futon and sulked some more. <I must find a way to get the boy back.>

After a moment, he rubbed his head. <Cologne doesn't have him... but she will want him. Can I trust her with him?> Shaking his head, he sighed. <Of course not. I can't go to anyone for help about this, except possibly Tarou... I don't think he'd be willing to do it at this point. Whatever the Ancient One did to him...>

Puffing on his pipe he sighed. <There's not much I can do at this point... but I will get him back if it's the last thing I do.>

***

Tarou stared out across the city from the rooftop, lost in thought. He turned when he heard footsteps behind him. Eyeing Akane for a moment, he turned away. "What do you want?"

She said nothing for a while. Tarou guessed that she wasn't here to talk to him. She spent a lot of time on the roof. After staring at a point on the roof for a few minutes, she turned to Tarou. "Tarou?"

He shook his head, clearing a thought from it. "What?"

Folding her hands in front of her, she phrased her question carefully, asking, "Can you teach me to fight?"

Surprised, he turned to face her. "Eh?"

Shrugging, she looked out to the city. "I... I want to relearn how to fight again. I want to be as good as Ranma some day."

Tarou threw back his head and laughed, "That's a tall request, girl."

She stared at him, then questioned, "Why do you say that?"

He shook his head, turning away. "Last time I fought him, he beat me. As much as it galls me to admit, he can be a better fighter than I am. He even hurt me when I was in my monster form. Girl, that man isn't just a fighter, he's the most powerful opponent I've ever faced next to the old man." After a moment of hesitation, he added, "And the short girl."

Nodding, she placed a hand on his shoulder. "I know. I'm not going to ask Happosai for help, and I don't know about Ryouga... I don't think he'd take me seriously. Aside from which, I haven't seen him in a while. There are two people I'm willing to ask for help, and you're one of them."

He spun around again, unsure, and dislodged her hand. "Why do want to do this?"

She folded her hands in front of her again, then shrugged. "If I can beat him, if I can even put up a good fight, then he might take me seriously."

Tarou stared at her for a moment. "This is about him running off with that redhead and the witch, right?"

She blinked at that, thinking, <Has Tarou seen Ranma recently? He's with Chame?> "Maybe. How much do you know?" she asked cautiously.

He shuddered, closing his eyes for a moment. "The redhead is dangerous. She beat me more handily than Ranma ever did, and didn't break a sweat doing it. The witch..." he trailed off. "She cast a spell on me."

Akane raised an eyebrow. "What kind of spell?"

Tarou snarled at her, turning his back again, "I don't want to talk... no... it was... oh. It was ugly."

Staring at her feet, Akane shook her head. "Sorry. What did she do to you?"

He sighed, staring off into space. "She... she cast a spell... some... symbol. It sucked me in, and I fell... I kept falling, and falling, and my wings couldn't carry me, and... then I landed in Hell." Repressing another shudder, he wrapped his arms around his torso. "I don't know... I landed in a garden or something... there were spikes covered with blood and entrails... I could hear screaming in the distance, and..." His face twisted into a grimace momentarily before he could continue. "There was... a demon, I guess. She was on fire, but it didn't seem to bother her. She had three faces."

Rubbing his hands against his forearms, he found himself unable to repress the next shudder. "She... she had so much hate, but when she looked at me..." Swallowing, he stared into space over Akane's shoulder, where the first stars were beginning to appear. "She smiled, with all three of those faces, and reached towards me..." He shuddered again. For a moment, Akane wondered if he would talk about it further, then he looked up, and met her eyes, "She asked me where I had been, and what had been going on. Then she pulled me into a house... the fire didn't hurt me then, and she told me to sit down... there was a chair that could seat my monster form... then she..."

He dropped his arms to his sides and clenched his fists. "She told me that she loved me, and never wanted me to leave again." Sinking to his knees, another shudder passed through him. "I couldn't handle it. Who the hell was she, what was going on... I ran... I ran until I couldn't run any more, and always this demon was behind me, laughing, killing the humans I ran past, and screaming that she loved me."

Straightening up, he stared at the moon. The light of the sun was a faint glow at one edge of the sky, fading quickly. "Then, she caught me, and started to touch me... and... it burned, there was fire, and she screamed... she said I was an impostor, and it... it burned, and there was..." He covered his face with his hands for a moment, and they muffled his voice when he spoke. "And then it was over. I fell onto a street in Nerima. But that image... the image... the pain of the burning... I don't know what that doctor did, but the memory gets weaker every time I face it. Eventually, it won't be anything but a bad dream." He laughed hollowly.

Shaking her head from the gruesome images, Akane asked, "But... what did she look like? Who did that to you?"

He wiped his eyes, and stared for a minute. He sighed, then mumbled, "I don't know... white hair ribbon. Brown hair, pretty long... carried some kind of weapon on her back."

Akane sank down to the roof, and sighed heavily. <Ukyou. Ukyou. She won. She got Ranma. Of course. He was staying with her... but what does Chame have to do with this?>

Shaking his head, he turned away. "If you want to be able to go toe-to-toe against Ranma... you have to go through both of those women. The redhead seemed pretty damn protective of him, and... she's more than human."

Nodding, Akane glanced at him. "I'm willing. I don't care what it takes, I'll do it." She shook her head, frowning. "But what do you mean about her being 'more than human'?"

Sinking to a point on the roof near her, Tarou sighed. "If you're really willing... Okay. How fast have you ever seen Ranma move? How many punches can he throw in a second?"

Akane shrugged, "I don't know... in a second? I guess about fifty... maybe more. When he was learning the tenshin amaguri-ken, he got pretty fast. I think he managed to throw about one hundred and fifty in a second."

Tarou nodded. "Right... well, there's a limit to how fast you can move a human body. If you go too fast, you'll tear yourself apart. Even if you don't, you start getting burns from contact with the air."

Pondering this for a minute, Akane nodded. "I guess that makes a certain degree of sense... But Ranma is able to go really fast with the tenshin amaguri-ken... was she able to go faster?"

Nodding again, Tarou cracked his knuckles, "Now... with the... thing that Ranma does, the air is pushed out of the way, and the punches are all thrown without air resistance... But the redhead was able to throw over a thousand punches in only three seconds or so, in a wide pattern that hit me pretty much everywhere at once."

Akane stared at him for a long moment, mouth suddenly dry. "How?"

Snorting, Tarou rolled his eyes. "I'd like to know. I guess there's obviously a way to do it, maybe you can reinforce yourself with ki or something, but... I don't know how, and I'm nowhere near the speed that it's a problem anyway."

Shrugging, Akane shivered against the night breeze. "Well... I'll worry about that when I get there. Will you help me relearn to fight?"

He stared at her for a while, eyes unreadable, then shook his head. "Aw, hell. Why not? But I'm not going to be a kind teacher..."

***

Nabiki blinked at the sound from her window. Shaking her head, she opened the curtain. Akane hung from the gutters, upside-down and waiting for the window to be opened.

Eyes wide in surprise, Nabiki suppressed a laugh, and opened the window. "Come on in, Akane."

Akane flipped in through the window, and landed neatly on the floor. "Hey, Nabiki... are you busy?"

Nabiki shook her head. "No... but I have to tell you something."

Looking startled, Akane asked, "Okay, what do you have to tell me?"

Pursing her lips and examining her sister closely, Nabiki chastised, "Polka-dot panties really don't suit you."

For a few moments, Akane just stared at Nabiki. Then she closed her eyes and grumbled, "Right. I need to get pants." Then she shook her head, clearing the errant thought from it. "But that's not important. Nabiki, how much do you know about what Ranma's doing right now? About where he is?"

Licking her lips nervously, Nabiki glanced around. "Akane... how much do you know?"

Akane shrugged. "He ran off with Ukyou and Chame, right?"

Dumbfounded, Nabiki nodded. "Okay. That's true. Who did you hear that from?"

Waving a hand to dismiss the question, Akane sighed, "Kuno. And Tarou. But that's not what I want to know. I want to know why. I... I think I know. I think I understand..."

Putting on her best 'cool' expression, Nabiki took charge of the situation. <She's nervous, and I know more. This gives me the upper hand.> "You want to know what made Ranma leave?"

Akane nodded silently.

Smirking, Nabiki asked, "What do you think?"

Staring at the ceiling for a minute, Akane whispered, "Because he thinks I don't love him."

Nabiki frowned. <Which truth should I tell her? There are so many...> Sighing, she shook her head. "Akane... That's not it."

Akane turned her gaze to Nabiki/ "Then what is it?"

The middle sister sighed. "Akane... I didn't... I can tell you, but... hold on a moment."

Nabiki stood in the center of the room, and closed her eyes, trying to remember the words that Dr. Tofu had told her. Mouthing them silently once, she nodded, and spoke them softly. Akane's sudden gasp of breath notified her that she had gotten it right. Sighing, she slumped back to the bed. "Ugh. He said it would wear me out, but... heh... Okay. I don't know how long this lasts..." She gestured to the faintly glowing blue walls, "But while it's working, I'll answer your questions."

Akane stared at the glow for a minute. "You can use magic?"

Snorting, Nabiki shook her head. "No... The doc said that I'd need serious training to be any good. I'm just activating a spell he left here for me."

Nodding, Akane turned to Nabiki. "Okay, then... Why did Ranma leave?" <And Dr. Tofu knows magic? Maybe he can teach me something to give me an edge...>

Nabiki shrugged. "Chame said he was in danger, and he had to be taken somewhere safe... Dr. Tofu mentioned about teaching him the ways of some distant ancestors, as well."

Chewing her bottom lip thoughtfully, Akane nodded, "Right... okay... why didn't he tell me? Why didn't he take me instead of Ukyou?"

Nabiki's gaze darkened slightly. "You may not remember, Shampoo slipped you a bit of love potion the day he left. But..." She trailed off, not wanting to say more.

Akane raised an eyebrow, and prompted her sister, "But?"

Sighing, Nabiki looked away from Akane, unable to meet her gaze. "Akane... Chame said... that you were too violent. That if you came, there was a good possibility you... would hurt Ranma. Chame said that Ukyou should go, since Ranma would need a friend."

Staring at her older sister in shock, Akane said nothing for a long moment. "I... but... why? Am..." Closing her eyes, she felt a hot tear trickling down one cheek. "Who is Chame to make these decisions? What makes her so special?"

Nabiki sighed again, still unable to look at her sister. "She's a sorceress, or something. Dr. Tofu says she prefers to be called a mage... She's three thousand years old. Dr. Tofu says that she needs Ranma's help to fight demons from another world."

"How... how would he know?"

Nabiki smirked again, not meeting Akane's gaze. "Kasumi says that Chame and Dr. Tofu have been good friends since they were only a few decades old."

Akane wheeled away from her older sister, and stared at the glowing walls. Shaking her head sadly, she said, "If... If I hadn't seen some of the things I have... I... believe it... but then... I really lost Ranma, didn't I?"

Frowning, Nabiki studied the floor, and said nothing.

Turning slowly back to her sister, Akane groaned, "You know more, don't you?"

For a long moment, she remained silent, then she sighed, "Yes. But I'm not going to tell you that right now... I'll tell you... when you think you're ready to find out what went wrong from the first day." Raising a hand to keep Akane from interrupting, Nabiki kept speaking, "But you aren't ready now. One last thing... Don't speak about this to anyone else. People are trying to kill Ranma right now... that's a big part of why she took him away. Tell anyone who wants to know that he's with Shampoo." Nabiki gestured faintly, and the blue glow faded from the walls.

Sighing, Akane nodded her head weakly. "I understand."

***

Ranma grumbled; she hadn't spent this much time as a girl in a long while and was noticing some distinctively uncomfortable chafing. <I am NOT going to wear a bra... maybe the other alternative...> Wincing unconsciously and rubbing her chest earned a giggle from one of the girls. Ranma turned to give them her best withering gaze, but both were studiously looking away.

Sighing, Ranma set her pack down, declaring. "Okay... enough of this."

The other two turned to look at her, and Ukyou gave an almost imperceptible smile. "What's the problem, Ranchan?"

Rolling her eyes, the pigtailed girl rummaged through her pack briefly, and found what she was looking for. The other girls looked at her blankly as she held it aloft. Grumbling, Ranma turned her back to the others, and pulled off her shirt.

Ukyou smirked. "My, she's becoming more modest every day."

Ranma felt stung, and snapped, "No... just didn't want to put your bodies to shame while you were watching." After tugging on the stretchy fabric, she turned to face Ukyou.

The brown haired girl's face bore a look of barely concealed mirth. "Right. That looks cute on you."

Ranma winced, and jerked her shirt down over herself. "Don't say that."

Chame muttered something, and stared at a point overhead. "Children..."

The young couple looked abashed for a moment, then Ranma turned to Ukyou. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have reacted that way..."

Ukyou bit her lip, then apologized, "I shouldn't have teased you... Where did you get a sports bra, anyway?"

Ranma looked confused for a moment. "What?"

Forcing down another smile, Ukyou cleared her throat. "The, ah... thing you're wearing. Where did you get it?"

Pulling her shirt open to examine the article of clothing, Ranma shrugged again, "Nabiki said I should wear it when... the full-body cat-tongue thing... you weren't here yet. I was stuck as a girl for almost a month... Anyway... She gave it to me when I complained that the, uh... bouncing hurt a little. She said it was an 'athletic support' or something."

Chame irritably grumbled an epithet and rubbed her temples, still not looking at the couple.

Ukyou blinked in silence for a few minutes, unsure if she should laugh or stare. "Uh. Er... My mistake, I thought it was... something else. I didn't mean... to mock you..." Staring at her feet, she concentrated. <Is Ranchan that insecure?>

Ranma scratched the back of her head nervously. "Uh... I... sorry. Being a girl for a long time kind of gets to me sometimes."

Ukyou gave the smaller girl a hug. "Okay. I... I forgive you if you forgive me."

Ranma hugged her back. "I forgive you, then... and thanks."

After a long moment, the couple separated, blushing slightly. Chame cleared her throat noisily, and spoke in a slow drawl, "Right..." Shaking her head, she glanced at the two. "Can either of you see that?" She gestured at the trail in front of them.

Ranma glanced up, and squinted, staring at the point Chame was referring to. After a moment, she narrowed her eyes, using the skills she and Ukyou had learned over the last few days. Sighing, she shook her head. "I... I can't see anything... I can kind of feel..."

Ukyou nodded slowly. "Right... I can't see anything either, but it's like there's... something there..."

Frowning for a minute, Chame shrugged. "Good enough. You'll be able to see it better later... that's an Airt flow. When you use a lot of magic... the non-subtle kind, then it leaves trails through the world. This is one of them. What does it feel like to you?"

Ranma and Ukyou shared a glance, and turned to face the point again. Closing her eyes completely, Ranma sighed. "Like... a wall."

Ukyou nodded to herself. "Right. It's like a barrier."

Smiling, Chame walked forward. "Good. See if you can make it through."

The couple watched, as Chame seemed to suddenly become diffuse, and then faded from sight. Hand in hand, they walked forward, not sure what to expect. As though the barrier was some kind of elastic soap bubble, the resistance seemed to push back at them, thickening more and more, until suddenly, it was gone.

Ranma glanced behind her, then turned in a slow circle. It had seemed like they had only moved ten feet or so. Ukyou was glancing around with equal confusion. "What... what was that?"

Chame shrugged, having reappeared suddenly once they pierced the veil. "I don't like intruders being able to find my home too easily... Think of it as a deterrent."

Ukyou scanned the area around them; it seemed as though the forest continued unbroken for miles in every direction. She turned towards Chame, complaining, "I don't see it..."

The short redhead smirked, and waved a hand dismissively. "We're not quite there yet. Come on." Wheeling abruptly, she led the young couple deeper into the forest.

***

Kodachi leapt from rooftop to rooftop, intent on finding the object of her affections. <Ranma, my love!> She smiled to herself as she realized that she had accidentally let one of her notorious laughs slip out.

The rumors she had been hearing the last few days did not please her, not in the slightest. The rumors stated that the vile Tendo Akane had let Ranma slip away, and the red-haired harridan had actually been the one that had stolen him away. Along with that purple-haired Chinese hussy.

Alighting on the roof of the Tendo home, she considered her options. She was already wearing the combat leotard that she favored over anything else, so claiming a social call would probably not work. <Not that Akane would deserve a social call from someone as lofty as I.>

Shrugging to herself, she climbed to the youngest Tendo girl's window, but to her surprise, the room was empty. Kodachi took only a moment to scan the room to make sure that there was no one hidden in a distant corner.

After a moment of thought, she leapt to the ceiling, and clung there, waiting for Akane to return. <Then, I can find out where the red-haired harlot has spirited my darling Ranma away.>

***

Grimacing, Akane ducked underneath a flurry of blows from Tarou. It was an effort to evade the slightest of his attacks, and the strain was beginning to wear on her. <Ranma never fought me like this.> In a flash, before Akane could react, one of the boy's legs snapped into her midsection, throwing her across the dojo.

He sneered at her. "Can't handle even the weakest attacks. You're nothing. Do you have any idea how far you are from Ranma's level right now?"

Saying nothing, Akane crouched in a corner, trying to regain her composure. <He didn't use anywhere near his full strength on me...> Touching her abdomen left her wincing from the bruise she could feel forming.

After she climbed unsteadily to her feet, she shot a glare at Tarou. He didn't look at her, seeming distant. Akane assumed a defensive stance, indicating her willingness to continue. Not responding immediately, Tarou sighed, and shook his head. "Enough. Rest. We'll continue tomorrow. And stop fighting the morons at school, they're just wearing down your skill."

Stunned, Akane collapsed to a sitting position. "Of course, Teacher."

Lost in his own thoughts, Tarou didn't notice when Akane limped back into the house. He muttered, "Damn it. Ranma... what the hell is going on here?"

***

Soun stared at the shogi board listlessly, dark circles under his eyes. Genma sat across from him, not looking much better. They both gazed without seeing, neither of them having moved a piece for over an hour.

Finally, Genma sighed, "I don't know what's going on, Soun... I... I guess I need to go to China."

Perking up slightly, the Tendo patriarch looked up to Genma. "You think he's there?"

Nodding, Genma explained, "I've heard rumors... A few others have disappeared, but... I think that he did go there. I'm going to China to bring him back."

Soun stared into Genma's eyes for a moment. "What if he doesn't want to come back?"

Wincing from the words, Genma suppressed a shudder. "I'll have to make him. The houses will be united."

Further conversation was halted, as the screen to the back yard slid open. With a heavy sigh, Akane entered the house from the back yard.

A trained martial artist can tell when someone is injured by the way that they move. A slight shift in the way an arm is held, to keep a bruise from being exposed, a minute adjustment in how far a step you take to avoid stretching a strained muscle. Even other things, like slight shrugging of the shoulders to keep a gi from chafing against sensitive skin.

Both Genma and Soun were martial artists, each with a very _high_ level of training, and would have been able to tell if Akane had walked in with so much as a nasty paper cut. However, all of their training proved moot, since anyone with eyes at all could see how badly bruised she was.

Drawing in his breath sharply, Soun unleashed the dreaded Tendo-wail, "Waaaaaahhhh! My poor daughter has been beaten! If Ranma were here-"

Akane cut him off in an ungentle manner. "Shut up! I can take care of myself! I don't need Ranma! I'm a martial artist, too!" Sparing each of the men a glare, she shuffled in a limping, halting gait until she reached the bathroom. Once she was alone in the furo with her thoughts, she let herself cry a little. "I don't need Ranma... right?" A part of her mind told her <Of course not!> She took comfort in that thought.

Sighing as the heat from the warm water suffused her, and soothed her bruises and scrapes, she fell asleep in the furo.

***

Blinking wearily, Ranma sat up. She hadn't had another nightmare since they had passed through the barrier, and was pleased with that, but other things had been confusing her lately. Groaning weakly, she climbed out of her sleeping bag. It was early, but she sensed that she wouldn't be getting any more sleep today.

After stirring up the fire a little, she huddled next to it, losing herself in her thoughts. <What am I doing?> She turned the question over a few times, wondering about it. <Where am I planning on going with my life?>

Sighing, she poked the fire briefly, then tossed another stick in. <What does one do with martial arts training and mystic lore? I can see it now. Saotome Ranma! Transsexual demon slayer!> Grimacing, she tried to think about more pleasant things. <Maybe... Chame said that something about the Machin. Something about them and Jusenkyou. Maybe she knows a cure.> She brightened at that thought. <That would be a marked improvement.> After pausing for a moment, she sighed. <When did I start using words like 'marked improvement,' anyway?>

One of the burning embers in the fire popped loudly, causing Ranma to look up and glance around. Chame and Ukyou both seemed to be sleeping soundly. Ranma mused over the other girls. <What's with Chame, anyway? She's so tiny; even smaller than I am... And then there's that bit about her father...> Turning to Ukyou, her thoughts shifted with her. <She's really cute. Especially in her sleep. I guess I didn't like her chasing after me like she used to, but she seems... nicer now, somehow. Huh.>

She rubbed her chin, reflecting, and watched the sleeping girl. <She's got control over her temper, I get along with her... Ucchan doesn't even seem to mind my curse.> Frowning, she considered the implications. <She probably wouldn't care if I couldn't get cured. Or even if I got stuck.> The pigtailed redhead smiled a little at the thought. <I wonder how that works.>

In her sleep, Ukyou giggled at something in a dream, and rolled over to her side, turning her face towards Ranma. She watched rapt, as Ukyou smiled blissfully and mumbled something to herself.

<This is the right choice, isn't it?> Ranma considered. <How do I feel about her, really? Ucchan... I... She's... caring, she's sweet, hell, half of the time I don't think I deserve her after the crap that Pop put her through. I think I do... but do I really... love her?> Unbidden, thoughts of Akane came to Ranma. Sighing, she finally admitted to herself, <I loved Akane. But that's gone now. Anything that might have been... we... we destroyed.>

Gazing up at the slowly fading stars in the sky, she sighed softly. <It wasn't me, it wasn't her... it was both of us. I don't want to screw things up with Ucchan like that. Right. From now on, I gotta remember to not get offended and call names so easily.> Smiling, the redhead thought back to the events of the previous few days. <Apologies come so easily between the two of us. Unlike... Akane.> Growling, Ranma tried to wipe the image from her mind. <Why? Why do I keep thinking of her? Because I loved her?>

The answer came to him in an unsettling flash. <I still do love her. But if that's love... I love Ucchan too.> She grumbled, and walked to one end of the clearing. <I'll greet the sun shortly.> The predawn glow across the eastern sky began to strengthen in hue, rich colors saturating the sky. Ranma sucked in a short breath. <It's really beautiful. More than in the cities.> Memories of sunrises and sunsets that she had seen while traveling through China with her father flowed through her mind, and she smiled slightly.

After the sun finished rising, she lay against a tree trunk, and tried to meditate on what she had learned. <I do. I do love Ucchan... I still love Akane a little, but I think that's different.> Satisfied with her thoughts, she sprang to her feet and dashed back to the camp. Chame was stirring weakly in her bag, and Ukyou was still asleep.

Grinning, Ranma knelt down and kissed Ukyou awake. Her eyes fluttered open and she blinked a few times, never losing her smile. "Ranchan?"

Nodding, the redhead gave her an awkward hug. "Morning, Ucchan!"

After disentangling herself from her sleeping bag, Chame stared at the couple blearily. Then she shook her head. "Okay... Ukyou, since you understand so much about magic... explain to me how you two can be so happy in the mornings. Please."

Smirking, Ranma hugged Ukyou tighter, while the okonomiyaki chef explained, "It's love." Ranma began laughing, and Ukyou joined in with her after a moment.

Rolling her eyes at the laughing couple, Chame began gathering her things. "Okay... let's get packed, then. We should be home by noon if he hurry."

***

Akane woke early in the morning. The furo had cooled a little, and she felt thoroughly soggy after the experience. After she climbed out, and toweled herself off, she grumbled, "Great. Now I'm going to be all wrinkly." After drying she checked her bruises, and was pleased to note that they were mostly faded. <I'm getting tougher than I was before. Now I just need to be better, stronger, and faster! Hmm...>

Shaking her head, she dressed in her new clothing. She smirked at her reflection in the mirror. Nodoka hadn't asked her why, but she had helped Akane acquire her new wardrobe. Similar to Ranma's shirts, hers were pullovers, with no wooden ties. The one she wore was a blue silk battle tunic, with gold and silver embroidered dragons coiled around the sleeves and chest.

Unable to remove her smirk, she nodded at herself in the mirror. At first she had felt foolish, but after a very short while she began to regret wearing anything else. After experiencing firsthand the flexibility and range of unrestricted movement that it allowed she understood why Ranma dressed the way he had.

She frowned a little at the thought of Ranma, then shook her head, and smoothed her new black pants subconsciously. Admiring her reflection one last moment, she wheeled abruptly, and headed for her room. The house was silent at this point, since everyone else had long since fallen asleep, and Kasumi probably wouldn't wake for another hour.

She carefully opened her bedroom door, not wanting to wake anyone, and was a little taken aback at the next event.

***

It was a testament to her strength and her conditioning, which allowed her to maintain her precarious position for hours on end. Even more impressively, it was a testament to her willpower that she did so silently. Still further impressive than that, was the fact that she was able to fall asleep while holding the position. However, the most impressive thing of all, was the lack of common sense involved with the endeavor.

This occurred to her about the same time the door opened, and startled, she stared as the floor rushed up to meet her. Dazedly, she heard someone shouting at her, and swore vengeance against the red-haired harridan that had taken her Ranma away.

***

After the initial surprise, Akane leapt into a ready stance, shouting, "What the hell is going on here?!"

Kodachi had landed awkwardly, but slowly regained her feet, and whirled to face Akane. "You! What have you done with Ranma?"

Not moving from her defensive stance, Akane glowered. "He left. He ran away. Haven't you been listening to the rumors?"

Narrowing her eyes, the gymnast charged, crying out, "You lie!"

Barely dodging to one side, Akane tripped the other girl, who slammed into the wall. "Stupid bitch! What the hell do you think you're doing?"

In a daze, Kodachi leapt to the window, calling out, "I'll be back, you... you... vile _transvestite_!"

Akane recoiled from the words, stung. <What the hell did she say that for?>

Her family rushed to her door at that moment, noisily chattering at her to ask what was wrong. Shaking her head, Akane gestured to the window, "Kodachi." After they calmed down, Akane sent them away and looked at her reflection in her mirror.

<Transvestite?> She shook her head, thinking. <No... I'm just wearing something that's easier to move in. Stupid insensitive bitch! What the hell does she think she's doing being judgmental for? Leaping to conclusions without...> Her resentment faded, as she remembered a similar situation. Her voice was on the verge of breaking as she whispered, "Oh... I'm sorry Ranma... I wish I had seen it before..."

***

Happosai observed the brief exchange with a trace of amusement. The Kodachi girl was of no consequence to him, and Akane's training would come to naught. If there was one thing he did know, it was that women were not good at martial arts. Sure, they could reach _some_ level of competence, but they were nothing compared to men. <Certainly, the Ancient One is powerful, but she's had many times the length of my lifetime to learn. Akane won't ever get that chance; she's only human after all.>

Resuming his pacing, he muttered to himself quietly. Tarou was no longer an ally he considered worthwhile.

The old man froze for a moment, thinking, <But... Ranma... what power does he have that attracts her so much? It must be something fearsome... Perhaps she thinks he's a danger to her blood?>

Dr. Tofu, watching from his normal place shook his head slowly. <What a fool.> Idly, he wondered if the old man truly was a threat. Biting his lip, he considered. <Hmm... I can't discount that he may be a threat in some ways, but at the same time... none of the trinkets in his room _felt_ particularly dangerous. Then again, he might know more than he lets on.>

Suppressing a sigh, he leapt from the roof. He gracefully landed in front of the door to the Tendo home, and reversed his cloak.

Smiling brightly, he knocked on the door. Kasumi answered, having expected him after the commotion. Concentrating for a moment, she made a gesture and whispered, then the pair were enveloped in a softly glowing pink sphere.

Rolling his eyes, the doctor closed the door, "You seem to learn spells with pretty colors faster."

She blushed, and smiled guiltily. "Er... a little. The pink silence spell is so much cuter than the blue one!"

The doctor nodded, and tapped the side of the glowing sphere around him, "It also protects against more than just sound. Frankly, it's a lot more complex than a simple silence spell. This spell is correctly termed 'Ban.' If you direct it against sound, it will stop it... but you can direct it against almost anything. You can cause it to stop metal, animals, the possibilities are limitless. I've used this spell once in a war to stop machine gun fire." He winced at the memory, then continued, "Well. It drains a lot from you to block something that intense, but... it can."

Kasumi's eyes widened. "Intriguing. I should have studied more closely. Tofu nodded absently, then glanced over her shoulder.

He flinched. "Oops... looks like we were caught."

The eldest Tendo sister turned slowly, letting the pink glow fade. "Caught red-handed."

The doctor managed a smile. "Or pink-auraed."

Nonplussed, Akane raised an eyebrow. "That looks interesting. How long have you two been..." She trailed off, uncertain of just what they actually _were_ doing.

Kasumi flushed guiltily, and stared at her feet. "Oh, well... Not long, actually. I suppose we should explain, shouldn't we?"

Akane nodded, letting the eyebrow resume its normal position. "That would be good, wouldn't it? Maybe I should make some tea?"

The older sister blanched. "Er... Why don't you talk about it with Tofu? I'll make some tea." She hurried into the kitchen to prepare. She didn't want to make the doctor explain things on his own, but she didn't want Akane to try and make tea alone, either. She repressed a shudder as she remembered the aftermath of the martial arts tea ceremony. Akane had _not_ been pleased at her failure to learn.

Dr. Tofu sat at the table, across from Akane. Taking a deep breath, he asked, "Well... where should I start? What would you like to know?"

Akane shrugged. "Nabiki told me some..." She broke off suddenly, then considered, and asked,
"Are you really three thousand years old?"

The doctor cringed. "No. Not at all. Where did you hear that?" With a gesture and a word, the room was suffused with a blue glow. "Sorry. There are ears in this house... I trust Happosai very little. Anyway... I apologize for the deception. I'm about three thousand five hundred, actually... I stopped keeping track a long while ago."

Shaking her head, Akane sighed. "Wow. Okay then, I saw some in Nabiki's room, so... why are you teaching Kasumi?"

He blinked, then shrugged. "Well... Ranma's gone and some of his enemies might be trying to find him here. People like Ryouga or Kuno. Chame asked me to keep an eye on your house to make sure everyone's okay. I'd like Kasumi to be able to at least summon me if something goes wrong. Nabiki has a knack for not being there when something goes wrong, and everyone else in the house is at least a capable martial artist..."

Sighing, Akane waited for Kasumi to enter the room with the tea service. After everyone was holding a cup of tea, Akane frowned, then glanced at the doctor. "So... why aren't you going crazy over Kasumi?"

Kasumi smiled, as she set down her teacup. "Well... It was a defense mechanism to keep girls from getting too close to him. Sometimes when he wakes up, he forgets and starts the act all over again."

Akane gaped, then sputtered for a moment, "But - you... you.... you and the doctor... eh?!"

The doctor had turned a deep crimson color, and hastened to explain, "No... I sleep on the floor. I assure you. Nothing like that is going on here."

A subtle, almost invisible smirk appeared on Kasumi's face, to be swept away in an instant. Akane swallowed a gulp of tea nervously. It was the kind of smirk that said, 'for now.' Shaking her head to clear that thought from it, she returned her attention to the doctor. "Er... so... Can you teach me magic as well?"

For a long moment the doctor said nothing, then shook his head. "I'm not certain... it's rare for the affinity... but it does follow blood lines strongly. It seems to be in your family... however, before I teach you, I need to know why you want to learn."

She licked her lips, then stated, "I... I want to be able to learn something that can give me an edge. I'm not as good as Ranma, but..."

He cut her off, "That won't work. Chame is intent on making Ranma an accomplished mage. Because of the strength of his blood, he may be a mage in skill superior to his martial arts. Powerful enough... he has powers in addition to that. The magics he can work if he balances his yin and yan..." He shook his head. "I... if you want to beat him, learning magic isn't enough."

Akane shook her head, undeterred. "I... I just want to get his attention. I want to be good enough that he will respect me, and at least let me be his friend."

The doctor glanced at Kasumi questioningly. Frowning slightly, Kasumi nodded, and the doctor said, "Very well then. But first you have to master yourself. I won't teach you anything yet, since you will need oaths to bind you."

Akane shrugged, accepting it. "Good enough. I'm willing."

-----

Author's notes:

This was the first chapter I wrote entirely in two sittings. As such, it needed a lot of retooling before I was pleased with it... The title of this chapter, 'Ikken'ya', means 'Isolated house,' but it has two meanings, in this story. I'll leave it to you to figure them out.

As always, thanks to Druid and Chris Stassen for their excellent C&C.


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