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The Unbroken Circle: Chapter five

Sokeizaisangyou

Part B

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

What has gone before:

Ranma proposed to Ukyou, and then they returned to Nerima with Chame to announce it to Ranma's mother. Meanwhile, Nodoka has challenged Kuno to a duel based on family honor. Happosai is playing with a dangerous artifact, and Tarou continues training Akane. Ryouga wakes up and realizes what he's done in the grip of Rage, and is left unsure of how to proceed.

 

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

Brief key, trying to stay simple.

<> frame thoughts.

"" frame speech

"{}" frame speech in Mandarin

 

"Knowing my troops can strike, yet not knowing the enemy cannot be struck.

This is half of victory.

Knowing the enemy can be struck, yet not knowing my soldiers cannot strike.

This is half of victory.

Knowing the enemy can be struck, knowing my soldiers can strike, yet not knowing that the form of the earth cannot be used to do that battle.

This is half of victory."

Sun Tzu - The Art of War - Chapter Ten

 

"...Then, the first of three steps shall be taken. The three of many, and many, and many..."

From the N'Dori 'Book of the Founder'

 

Chame set down the teacup carefully. "Thank you." She glanced around the cafe briefly, to make sure no one dangerous was nearby.

The waitress smiled slightly, calling out, "Think nothing of it," as she ambled to the next table.

Dr. Tofu shook his head, sparing a single glance towards the departing waitress. "We sent you a letter a few days ago. I suppose you wouldn't have gotten it yet, so... allow me to explain. Something in the area's becoming more dangerous." He frowned briefly, adding, "I'm not sure what, and that just makes it worse."

Chame snorted, "Lovely. Could it be the old man? And what about the others?"

The doctor's frown deepened. "Well... there was an incident with Ryouga... but that actually got dealt with fairly swiftly." He paused, then admitted, "I did draw the Makaze, though."

The redhead shrugged. "Things like that happen. Is he still alive?"

Tofu nodded, a pained expression on his face. "Yes, but... I'm not certain what kind of danger he is right now. No one else seems to be dangerous, though Kodachi and Kuno are attacking Akane occasionally."

Chame frowned, tapping her chin thoughtfully. "I'm not certain why, but that troubles me. Is she able to fend for herself?"

He nodded quickly, his frown fading. "Quite. Why do you suppose that it troubles you?"

She sighed, shaking her head. "I truly don't understand. Let's just say it has to do with my father's battle and leave it at that."

Tofu mused for a moment, then took a sip from his tea. "So. I will see to it that she's watched over more closely. I hadn't suspected..." He trailed off, then scanned the other patrons in the cafe. "I will make sure that she is capable when the time comes. And..." He grimaced, asking, "The Joketsuzoku?"

Chame shrugged, seemingly unconcerned. "I don't know. It doesn't appear as though they're a threat right now, and I can't imagine they would side with the Outsider."

With a sigh, Tofu stared deep into his teacup. "So. What exactly _is_ Ranma?"

Blinking, Chame shook her head, saying, "I don't know. I wish I did. I have suspicions..." She trailed off, uncertain. At Tofu's inquisitive gaze, she sighed, "I think he may be the foundation for the circle."

Tofu snorted, "I can't see that happening. Ranma's many things, and he might even be capable, but I can't see him doing that."

Chame glanced at Tofu irritably, then snapped, "I don't think he would do it on purpose, either. But... Father said that I needed to find someone to aid him. Someone as powerful as he is. Ranma has that potential, and between Ranma and my father, one of them might be able to break the circle."

Shaking his head, Tofu attempted to change the subject, "I wish I had a clearer indication of what exactly the circle _is_. Does your father know?"

Chame grumbled, "No. Or maybe he does, but won't tell me yet. Either way, we have this and a bit of prophecy to guide us."

The doctor rolled his eyes. "If only we had some clue about this. It's more and more difficult... Do you know how long we have until your father's battle?"

Chame looked pensive, then sighed, "I'm not certain. He seems to think it's going to be just a few years from now. I hope I get to meet him before... well. Either the circle will break, or we will die. I suppose that it doesn't really matter then, does it?"

Dr. Tofu stiffened suddenly, then relaxed a moment later. Chame raised an eyebrow, and Tofu shook his head. "Just a premonition. I have a feeling we've had this conversation before."

Chame nodded, and climbed to her feet, saying, "I've been seeing a lot of that lately. I have to go. I don't want to leave Ranma alone too long in Nerima."

The doctor nodded as he rose to his feet. "Agreed. I'll return to the clinic, then. If you need me, I'll be listening."

***

Kuno fingered his blade nervously. While he had dueled before, and labeled the fights 'affairs of honor,' something about the woman's tone and carriage warned him that this was going to be more than he had bargained for. He shook his head, and squared his shoulders.

This was a battle, a real battle. Added to that, none other than Ranko's mother was letting Ranko ride on the outcome. Of course, once this was done, he would have Ranko. He frowned, mulling the idea over. While she was attractive, he wasn't certain that it would be wise to win. Or even if he could do so.

He pursued Ranko and Akane for one simple reason; of all of the girls at school, they were the most capable of defending themselves. Kuno had never considered that he might actually win.

Sighing, he took his bokken, leaving his sword at his sash, and began to trace the circle that they would fight within. A few bystanders were slowly trickling in to observe. He smiled slightly. That many more witnesses. With a wider smile, he took a position on one edge of the circle, and discarded the bokken. His katana was ready.

Throwing the fight would not be honorable, but if it looked like he was going to win, he would. Winning was not something he could afford at this point.

Seconds trickled past, flowing into minutes, until the appointed hour arrived, and with it, Nodoka.

***

Nodoka stepped into the circle, still wearing her kimono. Ranma had suggested something that allowed her to move more easily, but she declined, stating that it wouldn't be necessary.

After some deliberation, Ranma had elected to attend as a girl, hoping that her presence would distract Kuno. Ukyou smiled at the redhead, and patted her on the shoulder. In a low whisper, she said, "I'm sure Mom will kick Kuno's butt."

Ranma sighed, nervous, and mumbled, "I suppose... I'm going to be really mad if he hurts her, though..."

Ukyou nodded, remembering how upset Ranma had been when Nodoka was... possessed... briefly. "Here it goes," she warned.

Nabiki stood at the edge of the circle, between the combatants, and raised a flag. Holding it for a moment, she smiled at the crowds, then dropped it, declaring, "Begin!"

Kuno edged towards Nodoka warily, sword drawn. Nodoka simply held her katana in one hand, still sheathed. Stepping near her, the kendoist hesitated, then edged away again. "I cannot attack if you do not draw your weapon."

She smiled broadly, and flicked her wrist, sending the scabbard flying behind her. "Very well then. Shall we begin?" She held the blade awkwardly in one hand, as though unfamiliar with its use.

Kuno frowned, and flicked a quick strike out towards the bared blade. <Perhaps if I disarm her, she will yield... but I do not wish to win...> Nodoka clumsily staggered forward, slipping her own blade beneath Kuno's, and inflicting a short cut on his shoulder. She smiled whimsically, calling out, "Oops."

Wincing, Kuno edged away. <I thought she was more skilled... ah. She's pretending incompetence to throw me off guard.> Smiling grimly, he set in with a flurry of strikes, shouting, "Strike! Strike! Strike!" <Perhaps I _will_ draw some satisfaction from this battle, then.>

Nodoka deflected each of the attacks, slipping into a defensive posture momentarily. After Kuno backed off to catch his breath, she smiled again, murmuring, "Imagine that."

Growling, Kuno swung the sword in a series of low arcs. "I had wished to use this on Ranma, but you leave me no choice!" A wave of pressure shot out towards the kimono-clad woman, sending an obscuring cloud of dust towards her, as he shouted wordlessly, "Yaaaaaaah!" Kuno danced away warily, peering into the dust that had billowed up.

A moment later, Nodoka descended from the apex of a high leap. "Intriguing. I haven't faced someone able to pull something like that off in some time." She smiled as she landed, saying, "Perhaps you might be worthy of a fight after all."

Ranma hung limply, suspended by Ukyou's grip on the back of her shirt. She blinked a few times, eyes bulging, and then managed to say, "Eh?"

Ukyou looked equally stunned, then smiled slightly, saying, "Guess it runs in the family."

Nabiki giggled, feeling giddy as yen signs flashed before her. For once, her conscience didn't even bother her, since she had permission to take bets.

Nodoka turned, holding the katana in one hand, and exchanged blows with Kuno. Their blades melted together into quicksilver blurs of motion, sending sparks flying. The Kendoist grinned, then, slowly pushing the woman towards one edge of the circle, and taunting, "Hah! You begin to fail."

Smiling brightly, Nodoka nodded. "Indeed. I do."

Kuno spared a moment to ask, "If you are losing, why are you still smiling?"

Nodoka managed a shrug between exchanges, and explained, "I know something you do not."

He frowned, perplexed, then pressed the attack again. "And what is that?"

She grinned widely, stating very clearly, "I am not left-handed."

Kuno stepped back then, to gape. Incredibly enough, she was using only her left hand for her sword. The right was holding a paper fan, which she waved towards herself with idly. Kuno stared down at his own blade, held in two hands, in shock. "Uh?" The entire thing reminded him far too much of a foreign book he had read once. He struggled to remember how it ended, but gave up after a moment.

Nodoka tossed the fan into the air, and switched the sword to her right hand. "Now, I think, it's time to teach you a lesson."

The kendoist swallowed nervously, and considered, very seriously, yielding. Nodoka didn't give him the chance, and he found his defenses being slammed into with her blade, as she caught the fan in her left hand. Staggering back, he tried to guide her in an arc, to delay being forced from the ring.

With a sad sigh, she stepped back, and made a few quick motions with the sword. "Dakahoshi School of Kendo attack! Kiatsu ittou!" Kuno's eyes bulged as waves of pressure slammed into him, leaving him teetering on one foot at the edge of the ring. Nodoka smiled serenely. "Do you yield?"

Kuno considered, again, yielding, but then, fought himself for control and wrenched his body back into the ring. <Win or lose, I cannot flee a battle with a true warrior.> He then realized, with a grim sort of satisfaction, that he _would_ lose. "Kuno Tatewaki fights on!" he cried out as he charged her. He aimed a thrust towards her chest, wondering how she would respond.

Nodoka sighed, and sidestepped the blow, striking his knee with the flat of her blade. He stumbled, and she caught his blade with her own, sending it flying. Kuno blinked, then stared at his empty hands. He looked up into Nodoka's eyes. "I... I have lost?"

She nodded solemnly. "Quite so. Now, never trouble my family again, or you shall lose your head, and not just your honor." Then she lashed out, and struck Kuno's head with the flat of her blade. Kuno blinked, then fell backwards. Seconds later, his sword fell from the sky, and landed between his knees. It quivered where it had imbedded itself in the packed dirt, blade first.

Nodoka examined her sword momentarily, then collected the scabbard, and sheathed it.

One of the spectators began it, and then another picked it up, and another, until the entire audience was applauding. Hiding her face behind her fan, Nodoka bowed.

Ranma and Ukyou remained where they stood, Ranma still hanging in Ukyou's grip. The redhead blinked, then managed to say, again, "Eh?"

"Ranma, Ukyou, come. We have an appointment to attend. Nabiki, I would like you to accompany us once you collect your bets." With that, Nodoka strode away from the circle, and the fallen warrior.

***

Ranma nodded, eyeing Nabiki suspiciously. "Why are you being so nice to me now?" The restaurant was largely deserted at this point, only a few scattered patrons and tired waitresses still present.

She bit her lip, and frowned. "Ranma... I... I know I may seem cold-hearted, but..." She sighed, setting down her chopsticks, admitting, "Part of this is my fault. I feel terribly guilty about this." She made a face, then sighed. "I'm not exactly happy that you left my sister..." She glanced at Ukyou, deep in conversation with Nodoka, then amended, "But... well." She frowned, collecting her thoughts, while Ranma waited.

Heaving a deep breath, Nabiki sighed, "Okay. Let me try and start over. I feel guilty about adding to the problems you already had. I mean... you know that I sold pictures of you, right?"

Ranma shrugged uncomfortably. "Yeah... And Akane..."

Nabiki winced at the reminder, and studied her hands closely. "Well... there was a reason for it. Maybe not a good reason, but a reason."

The pigtailed martial artist raised an eyebrow expectantly.

Nabiki bit her lip again, explaining, "Look... when you came to the dojo, I saw an opportunity to make money. And... I did."

Ranma rolled his eyes. "Okay. And? You feel bad about this now?"

Scowling, Nabiki explained, "Yes. But there's more to it. Do you know _why_ I was always trying to make money?"

With a shrug, Ranma shook his head. "Now that you mention it, no... you never seemed to buy things with your money. What did you collect it for?"

Nabiki took a deep breath, and recited from memory, "Extra rice, 1,500 yen per month. Assorted additional grocery money, 5,000 per month. Dojo repairs, 10,000 yen per month..." She trailed off, then. "Look. I'm not trying to say that what I did was right, because... it wasn't. But..." She rubbed at her eyes for a moment, then began again, "I thought it was _a_ reason to do what I did."

Ranma blanched, considering what she had said. "I... uh... well. I feel kind of..." He sighed, "I should have figured that, actually. I guess I was a bit judgmental then. I mean... I guess we both owe apologies here... I'm sorry Pop and me were freeloading off of you for so long..."

Nabiki shrugged, finally looking up from her hands. "I... I made a lot of money off of you. Pictures, bets..." She winced slightly at the memories. "Other things... and... I'm sorry I took advantage of you." She frowned, thoughtfully. "I bet you're the kind of guy who would have gotten a job to help us out if I had just asked."

Ranma nodded, saying, "You... yeah. I would have. My father should have, too... but his job at Dr. Tofu's clinic barely lasted a week..."

Rubbing her forehead, Nabiki smiled softly. "It's... I can forgive you. Things got a lot more interesting after you came here."

Smirking, Ranma shook his head. "I guess. I can forgive you, too... I mean, this was about protecting your family, right?" Nabiki nodded, and Ranma turned to stare at his mother and his... wife, now. "I can't be angry with you for that. Family is... the most important thing in the world." He smiled craftily. "Though... you could probably make a good bit of money selling Pop to the zoo..."

Nabiki laughed at the thought, then straightened up suddenly. "Oh, right... your father went to China to look for you."

Ranma scowled, loosing his smile for a moment. "Huh... Mom mentioned that he left. What do you think that would accomplish?"

Nabiki shrugged. "That, I haven't figured out yet. Though..." She bit her lip, then grumbled, "This is the part that kind of worries me... what if he comes back with a cure?"

Ranma shrugged, appearing unconcerned. "Uh... that's... not a huge problem."

Nabiki raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Aren't you interested in being cured?"

Grimacing, Ranma shook his head. "Of course I am, but I'm not going to let things like that be used as leverage against me anymore. Shampoo did that to me, and Akane hated me for it. I'm not going to let that happen to me and Ucchan."

Nabiki nodded slowly. "That does make sense..."

Ranma sighed. "I suppose. I... I _would_ choose Ucchan over a cure..." <Since she seems to enjoy it a little, anyway...> He tried to hide a small smile.

***

Kuno woke in a nurse's station. Staggering to his feet, he mulled over the battle with Nodoka.

With a sigh, he noted that someone had sent both his bokken and his katana with him. "Perhaps... Perhaps..."

Lowering his head to his hands, he contemplated, "Perhaps it's time to consider a change..." He nodded slowly, his decision made. "Yes. It's time for a change."

Taking a deep breath, he glanced out of the window, and admired the cherry trees in the distance. Savoring the sight, he whispered, "It's time to end this foolishness. For the first time... I must break from my traditional role. The truth of the matter is..." His eyes unfocused, and he adopted a far-away expression as he pondered.

"I can't pretend to be something I'm not." Dejectedly, he shook his head. "It's time to be a real man, now."

He mused for a moment. "A formal apology is in order, I believe."

***

Akane glanced up as Nabiki entered the dojo, and wiped some sweat off of her forehead. "Ah... that felt good."

Nabiki raised an eyebrow, and glanced at the prone form of Tarou. "Interesting. Looks like you got him."

Grinning maniacally, Akane nodded, exclaiming, "Yep!" In a cheerful tone, she described the wounds Tarou had taken. "...and then I knocked him down."

Tarou sat up, still woozy from the blows. "{Who, what? Where am I?}" He blinked a few times, then shook his head. "Sorry. Very nice, Akane. I'll have to stop holding back against you."

Akane visibly deflated, moaning, "You were holding back?"

Tarou considered, then admitted, "A little. But you did really well." Something about the youngest Tendo daughter confused him, affecting his judgment. Unsure of exactly what was going on, he tried to ignore it, but it had been troubling him more and more lately. He sighed, "I'm going up to the roof to think about this."

Akane nodded slowly, offering, "Do you want me or Kasumi to heal you?"

Shaking his head, Tarou walked out of the dojo. "Nah. My other form heals much faster. I'll just sleep in the river."

Nabiki sat down on the floor, and eyed Akane. "So. You've been training all day?"

Akane sat near her sister, giving a slight shrug as she sat down. "Yeah."

Smirking, Nabiki asked, "Did you hear? Kuno challenged Auntie Saotome to a duel today..." <And Ranma married Ukyou, but you don't need to know that yet.>

Akane blinked in surprise. "Oh... is she okay?"

Nabiki laughed maliciously, and pulled out the envelope of her winnings. "Let me tell you how the fight went..."

***

Ranma scratched the back of his head nervously, explaining, "Ah... Actually, we were going to have to leave again pretty soon..."

Nodoka sighed knowingly. "Very well then. I won't pressure you. But stay here tonight... I get to spend so little time with you, and Chame hasn't returned yet, anyway."

Ukyou nodded, placing a hand against Ranma's elbow. "I think that's a good idea. Ranchan?"

He smiled, relaxing at her touch. "Okay, Ucchan."

Nodoka next words were interrupted by a knock at the door. She answered it, and let Chame in. "Ah. So you've returned?" she asked.

Chame nodded, glancing at the newlyweds. "Yes. I had some things to take care of. So... what's the plan?"

Ranma explained it, and Chame agreed, "Very well. I'd like to get home soon, though. This city makes me nervous."

Nodoka frowned. "Why is that?"

Chame closed her eyes, and shook her head. "Honestly, I'm not entirely certain. But I haven't lived this long by ignoring feelings like this."

Nodoka nodded, turning her attention to Ranma. "I understand that. Still... please keep in touch, Ranma."

Ranma tore his attention away from Ukyou, and replied obediently. "Yes, Mother."

Nodoka smiled softly. "It's a pity I don't have time to teach you the sword..." She shook her head abruptly. "No matter. The Dakahoshi clan will carry the school on."

Ranma sighed, "I wonder why Pop never mentioned them."

She shrugged uncomfortably. "I'm not certain. It strikes me that there are a great many things that your father _should_ have done, but chose not to."

Blinking, Ranma shook his head, asking, "Wait a minute... this is something I never thought about. Are there other Saotomes?"

Nodoka shook her head. "I'm afraid not... none that are related closely enough to be known to us, at least. Genma's father perished in the war, and his mother was... Hmm... not entirely there, shall we say?" She paused for a moment to think about it. "Perhaps that's why... well. No matter thinking about that now. Regardless, I can't claim that the family on either side is particularly... close." She frowned, adding, "Perhaps that's why I've always had such a strong desire to see a family form around me."

Ranma said nothing for a minute. Fights, he was used to. Battles and kidnappings and secret techniques, he was used to. But this... the last few months had been anything but normal for him. He sighed, reflecting on the changes, and his mother's words. "Yeah... you know... when... when we finish what we have to do... we'll settle down... near here, so we can be a family again."

Ukyou nodded, resting one hand atop Ranma's. "I... my... you and Ranchan are really my only family. My mother died when I was young, and my father..." She frowned at the memory. "He passed away a few years ago..." She smiled then, suddenly. "But I don't want to think about that. I don't want to remember Kuonji Ukyou, I want to be happy as Saotome Ukyou."

Nodoka smiled slowly. "Yes... you are right, daughter-in-law, there's no sense reliving the sorrows of the past." She pursed her lips for a moment, then nodded to herself, and turned to face the redhead. "Chame?"

The elder Machin blinked, not expecting to be addressed. "Ah... yes?"

With an unsubtle glance at the newlyweds, Nodoka rose to her feet. "I would like to go for a walk. Would you care to accompany me?"

Chame nodded slowly. "Right... I expect you have some questions."

Nodoka retrieved an umbrella from the collection near the door. "Indeed."

Ranma watched the pair leave, then sighed. "So... this... this is married life?"

Ukyou's lips quirked in a grin. "Not quite what I had in mind."

He shook his head slowly, staring out at the koi pond in the backyard. "What a day. Everything was so calm and... dull once we were away from Nerima. We're here for one day, and my mom beats up Kuno." He smirked, amending, "Not that it wasn't fun to watch..."

Laughing, Ukyou hugged Ranma. "Well, I think your mother left us alone for a reason..."

Ranma blinked, then flushed slightly. "Er... should I get some cold water?"

Ukyou's grin widened, as she latched onto Ranma's shirt and pulled him towards her. "We're married now, Ranchan..."

Between kisses, he observed, "Oh yeah."

***

Nodoka walked next to Chame, and led the other girl to a small cafe. With a trace of amusement, Chame noted that it was the same cafe she had visited Dr. Tofu in earlier.

Sitting carefully, Nodoka ordered tea for two. That done, she turned her attention to Chame, "Now, then... I don't actually have questions for you, but I do need to tell you something about Ranma... there are... things that you might not have suspected before, but are important anyway."

Chame nodded slowly, a suspicion forming in the back of her mind. "I see... is this about, ah... his parentage?"

Nodoka eyed Chame guardedly, then nodded. "Indeed." She frowned then, thinking. "And mine... this has a lot to do with the contract I had Genma sign."

Frowning, Chame shook her head, and asked, "What contract? The 'man-among-men' thing?"

Nodding slowly, Nodoka sipped at her tea. "Correct. But... the contract was not meant in the way that Genma thought. I had... different ideas."

Chame listened as Nodoka explained, the color slowly draining from the Machin's face. <So that's why he could be the foundation for the circle.> Once the explanation was over, Chame shook her head slowly, mumbling, "I've... dealt with... that type before. I had never seen one... well. I suppose I'll have to keep a closer eye on him than I had thought."

Nodoka nodded again. "I hope so. I doubted my own abilities to, ah..." She paused then, as a wave of brightly sparkling energy swept through the sky. "Hmm... contain any dangerous side effects."

Chame stared at the visible wave of energy, and observed several that were somewhat beneath the visible spectrum. Narrowing her eyes, she stated, "There's more to this, though. That's too much, according to what you've told me..."

Nodoka sighed, "That's the bad news."

Chame's expression whitened further before Nodoka finished the explanation. Shooting a nervous glance towards the house that Ukyou and Ranma were left alone in, she swallowed nervously. "Too late..."

Nodoka raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Then you might have your hands full for a while..."

***

Ranma blinked dizzily. A heavy, gold-colored aura enveloped the both of them, illuminating the room. He shook his head, and reached a hand through it, curiously. "Huh... what's... what's that?"

Ukyou grinned and snuggled against Ranma contentedly. "It feels nice, whatever it is."

Smiling, Ranma nodded. "Yeah... we should... ah, clean up before Mom and Chame get back."

Resting her head on Ranma's shoulder, Ukyou pouted, "I want to lie here for a while..."

Ranma sighed, "I suppose... But then, I don't want to be caught like this..." He sat up, and the gold-colored aura suddenly contracted to a small orb, which shot beneath the covers. He frowned, and tossed the sheets aside, but it was gone. "Huh. I wonder..."

Ukyou's eyes unfocused for a moment, and she suppressed a giggle. "I don't know, but I feel... oddly... complete now."

Grinning, Ranma kissed her affectionately. "You do the same for me, Ucchan. Let's go get cleaned up."

She sighed, "Okay... at least you're bathing with me, now."

Ranma flushed. "Uh, well... heh... let's go get cleaned."

***

Akane frowned, trying to place the odd surge of energy that was sweeping across the ward. She unfocused her eyes, and attempted to probe it carefully.

Dr. Tofu and Kasumi paled, observing the same. Tofu cleared his throat, saying, "Well... let's see... it bears two signs I know of. Instrument of Prophecy, and the Light of Creation are both prominent..."

Kasumi narrowed her eyes, looking deep into the wave. "There's a lot of emotional energy in that wave..."

Sighing, Akane shrugged, and turned away. "It doesn't seem harmful, though. Do you know what it is?"

Tofu scratched his head thoughtfully. "Maybe. I'm not entirely certain... Akane, I need a moment alone with Kasumi..."

Shaking her head, Akane left the room, and walked down the stairs. Her father was watching the television with thinly veiled disinterest. Akane turned the volume up, as the reporter droned on, "... some kind of weather disturbance, and not something to worry about. We repeat, this sight is totally harmless."

Akane rolled her eyes in disgust, and left the house. Leaping carefully, she was able to reach the lower edge of the roof. Tarou stood at one end, staring at the disappearing edge of the energy wave. Happosai stood at the other, looking towards the point of origin thoughtfully.

Grumbling, Akane reflected that the roof was just too crowded. Shaking her head, she sat in her spot, and stared at nothing in particular.

***

Further away, the signs were felt, if not seen. Cologne shuddered, not knowing quite what to make of the display. <From Japan, certainly. Things like this usually involve Son-in-law... but what is it?>

***

Aboard a small ship, crossing the sea, the lord of the Musk frowned, and shook her head. "Hmm... this is... unexpected."

***

Chame charged into the house, Nodoka a step behind. Ranma jumped up from the table, a guilty expression on his face. Ukyou sat near him, face flushed.

Ranma frowned at the two women after he realized that neither him nor his wife was in a compromising situation. His mother and Chame both seemed inordinately pleased that the house was still intact. Shaking his head, he asked, "What's going on? Why are you two so worried?"

Nodoka froze then, and exchanged a glance with Chame. Nodoka grinned, affecting a casual air. "Nothing! Nothing at all! I just couldn't imagine, uh... I wanted to see how manly you were, yes."

A look of confusion crossed his face. "Uh... okay..." He turned to Chame and backed away a half step.

Flushing, Chame shook her head, sputtering, "No... I was just following her, really."

Ukyou shook her head. "Anyway... I would like to go to sleep now. Ranchan?"

Nodding, he followed her out of the living room, while Nodoka and Chame exchanged a worried glance.

***

Chame did not sleep. Pacing worriedly in Nodoka's backyard, she sighed, then tried to clear her mind. <Father? Father? I need you right now. I _really_ need your help.>

For a long while, nothing reached back to her until, as she was about to give up, another mind carefully touched against hers. <Daughter? What troubles you?>

Sagging in relief, Chame leaned against a cherry tree. <Father, the one I have found... he is dangerous. To himself. I do not know what to do! Please help me!> She sent a jumbled series of images, hoping her father could make sense of them.

After a pause, he returned, <I can not help you with that... I am in dream right now. Perhaps if you were to contact me while waking... but there won't be time for that. What I can tell you in dream, however, is that he is not nearly as dangerous as he is vulnerable. But by the same token... perhaps it is time to let the chick fly from the nest.>

Chame nodded slowly, forgetting that no one was around to see the gesture. <I see... will... will I see you again before the battle?>

Her father replied shortly, <I doubt it. The circle must be broken. If we live, I promise to never abandon you again, but until then, I'm afraid that certain other matters must be dealt with.>

Bowing her head, Chame sighed. <Of course, Father. You know best... who's there?>

<Chame? What's going on?>

Chame blinked, then shuddered violently. Trying to keep the fear out of her thoughts, she sent back, <Go to sleep, Ranma, it isn't polite to eavesdrop on private conversations. And it's especially impolite to mimic someone else.>

<Sorry. I'll go to sleep then. Try and keep it down, okay?> Ranma's presence faded from her mind, leaving her to shiver again.

Chame's father paused for a long moment, then sent again. <It's a tragedy that I will not remember this upon waking.>

The redhead sunk to her knees. <This is important, isn't it?>

Disappointment tinged the thoughts she felt from her father. <It was. I wish I could tell you more... Ranma needs to express himself in the arts further. I can't tell you anymore, someone is about to wake me. I'm sorry. We won't be able to speak again until the battle.>

Chame railed at the sky silently. <No! FATHER!> Weeping, she sank to her knees, whispering under her breath, "Damn it! Damn it! _WHY_?"

After an eternity of sobbing into the cherry tree, Chame found herself being led back into Nodoka's house. Sighing wearily, Nodoka served her some tea. "Care to speak of your troubles?"

Chame wiped her eyes dry, and managed a weak laugh. "After... three thousand years... I thought..." She fell silent, thinking. "My father just told me that he won't be able to speak to me until the final battle."

Nodoka raised an eyebrow at the thought. "Armageddon?"

Snorting, Chame shook her head, "No... _our_ final battle... against... a demon, of sorts. I... Oh dear. This isn't going the way I'd wanted it to. Not at all. I'm worried about Ranma."

Smiling, Nodoka sipped at her tea. "I am, too, but... what can I truly do? I'm formidable with a blade, but I have to trust your ability to care for Ranma over my own." She paused for a moment, then shook her head. "I do not... like this... it hurts me greatly, but I can recognize that it is at least, for the best."

Chame nodded slowly. "I... think I understand. I've... never had a family, excepting my childhood... I suppose I was afraid of the closeness. It... hurts when you lose your family. Mother... left. I don't remember the details, but Father... he trained me for a few years after that, named me something I didn't understand, and gave me into the care of another family."

She shook her head, continuing, "They raised me as their own, and gave me a new name, but... they... died. I was left alone again. And... my father... I never saw him, but he would contact me..." Chame raised a hand to the side of her head, then sighed, dropping her hand to the seat beside her. "And now he says that he can't even do that until our final battle. I'm... alone."

Nodoka paused for a moment, then shook her head, "I had thought that ten years of knowing you had a family alive somewhere would be hurtful. Genma... used to send letters to me... infrequent contact, though... I think I can understand how you feel. Perhaps... perhaps it's time for you to start a new family. I'm certain that Ranma and Ukyou have room in their hearts for you."

Chame considered, then nodded slowly. "You... You may be right... I..." She sighed, "You are right. But what would I be?"

Shrugging, Nodoka set her empty teacup on the table. "I don't know... perhaps an older sister. I'm sure they care."

A smile spread slowly across Chame's face. "Yeah... I... I would enjoy that..." <If he doesn't scare me to death first.>

Nodoka nodded, and collected the tea service. "Good! Now get some sleep. You have a long way to go, tomorrow."

***

Ukyou sat up slowly, relishing waking in the same futon as Ranma. He was sprawled around her, one arm protectively curled around her back. She kissed him gently to wake him, and his eyes opened slowly. "Uh... morning, Ucchan."

He smiled as she kissed him again. "Good morning, Ranchan."

Sitting up slowly, he stretched. Shaking his head, he sighed, "That was... that was... wow."

Ukyou giggled, flushing slightly. "Let's talk about that later, hmm?"

He nodded, as his stomach grumbled. He made a face at the noise. "Uh... we forgot to have dinner last night."

As her own stomach began to growl, Ukyou grinned. "Let's make breakfast for your mother, then."

The two crept into the kitchen, and began to prepare a meal. Ranma glanced at a clock, and his eyes widened. "It's already ten, and they're still asleep."

Ukyou shrugged, focusing on her cooking. "I'll stay here, why don't you wake them?"

Ranma nodded, and walked down the hall to his mother's room. After he knocked he heard her stir. "I'll be out in a moment, Ranma..."

Smiling, he walked to the den, and knocked again. When Chame didn't answer, he opened the door. She was sprawled across the futon in a manner that seemed vaguely familiar to Ranma. He shook his head, and tapped her on the shoulder.

Her eyes opened slowly. "Uh... Ranma?" She sat up, rubbing at her neck, groaning, "I slept in..." She waved him away, mumbling, "I'll be up in a moment."

Nodding again, he left the room, and rejoined Ukyou in the kitchen. She was just taking care of the final touches. Sighing, Ranma left the kitchen, to set the table. "I can cook too, you know."

Ukyou grinned, as she carried the completed meal into the living room. "I know, but it's always been my dream to cook something for my husband..." She trailed off.

Ranma cocked his head to one side. <Huh... normally when she talks like that she gets this dreamy look on her face...> He flushed, realization setting in. <Of course. Her dreams have been realized, now.> He shook his head trying to clear the thought. "Thanks, Ucchan, that really makes me feel great."

She blushed, and stared at her feet, only to look up as Nodoka and Chame entered. Chame looked troubled, but smiled at the pair, calling out a cheerful, "Good morning."

Nodoka seemed as serene as always, and glided to her seat. "It smells wonderful, Ukyou. Shall we begin?"

The others shuffled to their places, and sat down. Ranma looked thoughtful for a moment. <'Her dreams have been realized?' When did I start thinking like that?> Shaking his head, he took a bite. "It's really good, Ucchan, thanks."

Ukyou smiled brightly, glancing at the two rings that adorned her finger. Ranma had crafted her another. The second ring was a solid band that lay beneath the smaller threaded ring. Small gems adorned the large band, twinkling through the gaps in the smaller braided strands.

Ranma's ring was a simple gold band, which he toyed with absently. Ukyou released a contented sigh, "I'm glad." And she was happy to leave it at that, because it was the simple truth.

***

Shampoo paced anxiously, whining, "{Honored Elder, this is... this is boring. I wish we were through with this.}" She grimaced, pouting, "{I want Ranma.}"

Cologne growled irritably, "{Calm yourself. Do you think I'm enjoying the wait? It's not been long enough. We have to be patient, and gather more information on them... perhaps we can send someone as a spy to watch things in Nerima...}"

With a frown, Shampoo stopped her pacing, and sat at the table. "{I know, I know... but I'm so young, and I hate the idea of the spatula girl getting him...}"

The old woman shrugged. "{I doubt that's a problem. And if it is, it should be easy enough to deal with. I have the techniques to simply remove his memories of her.}"

Shaking her head, Shampoo complained, "{That might not actually work... Akane recovered her memories after I used it on her.}"

Cologne scowled, not wanting to be reminded of the incident. After a moment, she relented. "{That's true. But our other instruments should bind him to us... And he'll have his hands full dealing with the Musk. Herb will tell us what he's been up to when they meet.}"

Shampoo made a face at the mention of Herb. "{I suppose... they are certainly... difficult to deal with.}"

Cologne shrugged, turning back to her collection of herbs. "{Use some instant spring of drowned boy next time.}"

Shuddering, Shampoo shook her head again. "{No, thank you... but I thought of something. If I had to get my curse because Ranma beat me as a girl, but Ranma's not actually a girl, shouldn't I be able to get a cure?}"

The elder paced the front room of her home, considering. Sighing, she said, "{I think you should keep your punishment, since you haven't succeeded in marrying Ranma after the time we spent in Nerima... However, it will help you with Ranma, and... the fear of cats would be a real obstacle. Come to think of it, promising to cure his curse might help bind him to us...}"

Shampoo cocked her head to one side, considering. "{Ranma never fell for that kind of thing before...}"

Cologne grinned. "{He almost did. But we'll have enough... other... leverage to use over him by the time we get him.}"

With a sigh, Shampoo lowered her head to her arms. "{How long am I going to have to wait before we get him?}"

"{Patience, Great-granddaughter. I've already told you, it may take years.}" Cologne considered for a moment, then walked to a small trapdoor. "{Why don't you go ahead and study something in the library? You can learn something to impress your husband once we have him.}"

Shampoo sullenly descended to the library before realization struck her. The vast majority of the wealth of the Joketsuzoku's knowledge was stored here. Secret techniques, magic spells, ancient history texts... A slow grin spread across Shampoo's face as Cologne closed the entrance. <Maybe this won't be so bad...> She idly took a book from the shelf and began leafing through it.

Helping herself to a seat, she spared a glance around the cavernous library. It extended deeper, to even older texts, but it would take easily half of Shampoo's lifetime to read just the books on this one floor. She frowned, tapping her chin thoughtfully. <Perhaps there's a way to learn to read faster...>

She rose, returning the book to its shelf, and began to search.

***

Ranma waved farewell to his mother, Ukyou and Chame at his side, and walked towards the train station. He was lost in thought about all he had learned recently, too much so to notice Chame's behavior towards him.

Ukyou, however did notice, and pulled the elder Machin aside. In a low voice, she asked, "Chame, what's wrong? Your aura is radiating fear whenever you look at Ranchan!"

Chame shuddered slightly, closing her eyes to collect herself. "Ah, Ukyou... Sorry. I'll take care of it. It's not something I can explain right now... I'm not certain how important it is. Suffice to say that... I have just cause."

Troubled, Ukyou shook her head. "Okay... just... can you at least tell him?"

Chame shuddered violently, and shook her head quickly. "No! I can't... we can't afford that yet. He'll find out a few things... when he finds them out. It..." She paused, thinking. "It will be a true test of how strong your love for him is. I... I can't tell you more than that, yet."

Ukyou frowned, uneasy at this. "I... suppose... I don't like secrecy..."

<Nor do I. But we keep what secrets we must.>

Ukyou and Chame both jumped, then glanced at Ranma. Shivering slightly, the redhead reinforced her mental barriers. Ukyou just smiled, concentrating, <Ranchan, can you hear me?>

<I... yeah. I can. It's kind of weird. I knew how to probe before, and give impressions, but this is entirely new.> Ranma smiled from his position, several steps ahead of the girls. <It's kind of interesting. I wonder what kind of range I have on this...>

Gathering herself, Chame froze for a moment, then breathed out slowly. Once she was in control again, she stepped forward, pacing Ukyou. <I hadn't thought you were ready yet. But stop shouting. >

Embarrassment tinged Ranma's next thought, <Sorry, I didn't mean... you need to teach me more about this.>

Swallowing nervously, Chame nodded. "You are correct. When we get home." Fighting back despair, she wondered, <What, dear Father, have I gotten myself into?>

***

Herb gingerly stepped off of her ship, and onto the worn wooden planks of the dock. Once she was off the vessel, Lime jumped, causing the deck to rock alarmingly, and nearly pitching Mint from the deck and into the sea. Catching himself, Mint grabbed the mooring line and leapt next to Lime.

Lime secured the craft after taking the rope from Mint, while Herb glanced around. Some men in uniform approached her, looking upset. Their leader grimly informed Herb, "I'm sorry, I'm afraid we can't let you dock here without papers, permits and..."

He trailed off as Herb pressed a lump of gold into his hands, stating, "I trust that this will satisfy any legal needs you have. I have business to attend to. I expect my craft to be here when I return."

The officials shared a collective gulp, while Mint scratched his head. The leader backed away slowly, a wide grin on his face. "Certainly. Certainly. How long will you be away?"

Herb shrugged as she strode forward, her companions trailing her. "I do not know. I will cover any... accrued interest when I return. Otherwise..." She let the words trail off, while Lime grinned menacingly.

The men backed away, alternating glances between the hulking form of Lime, and the lump of gold. A moment was needed to decide which was the preferable option, and they disbanded to perform the arduous task of forging papers.

Herb did not spare them attention, simply marching forward, attended closely by her servants.

***

Ukyou smiled as Ranma dozed off, and a faintly glowing aura sprung up around him again.

Chame tried not to notice. "How does he fall asleep so easily, anyway?"

The okonomiyaki chef considered for a moment. "I don't know." She brushed a hand across Ranma's face, a tingling sensation passing through her where she came into contact with the aura. "I still haven't figured out what that is, though." She frowned slightly. "It might be difficult sleeping with a man who glows..." She trailed off, grinning. "But I think he's worth it."

Pursing her lips, Chame shook her head. "Try reading the aura."

Ukyou nodded slowly, and used her powers to look at Ranma's aura. Aside from the normal collection of colors she had grown used to seeing, sparkling motes of light flowed through. The outer edge of the aura was solid gold, as though the aura had an aura of its own. Frowning, she tried to feel the golden shell.

A moment later, a feeling she couldn't define flooded through her, and then faded. She shook her head, turning to Chame. "I can't feel the gold part..."

The redhead sighed, "That's part of the problem. I can't tell you much, but... think of it like this. It's a sign that... Ranma's coming into his heritage."

Ukyou raised an eyebrow. "What... kind of heritage?"

Chame shook her head vigorously. "I can't say. It's bad enough that I know. He'll discover it on his own... I hope."

Ukyou frowned, but the tingling sensation from Ranma's aura was too reassuring to resist. And with that, she nestled against him and allowed herself to fall asleep.

As soon as she closed her eyes, she found herself falling into a dream, where Ranma was waiting for her.

Chame ran a hand through her hair, and tried to think optimistically about the future. <If this doesn't kill him, he will _certainly_ have the power to break the circle. Possibly even as powerful as my father...>

***

Genma swore silently. <No choice. I need to hurry, no telling what the boy is up to, now.> Readying himself, he let his presence disappear, and crept onto the ship. <A week in the hold, then I should be close enough to walk... or maybe a train. I'll have to consider visiting Soun, first. But then, Nabiki might warn Ranma...>

Patting a cask at his side as he nestled into a small area between some crates, he nodded. <And perhaps I can find a way to explain things to Nodoka... now that I have this, she should be much more willing to accept the boy.>

Shaking his head, he sighed, and adjusted the pack into a makeshift pillow. <Ranma must marry Akane... and if I have his mother's help, we should be able to coerce him into it.> Smiling to himself, he shifted a crate to block his presence from any casual observers, and allowed himself an uneasy sleep.

***

Rage smiled politely at a passer-by, taking pleasure in the benefits of his new state of mind. Now, not only could he think clearly about what must be done to kill Ranma, he had a better sense of direction. He frowned briefly, wondering what he would do once he had Ranma.

A quick death in honorable combat no longer held the same appeal that it once had. But then, hours of torture would get old fairly quickly, as well. He mused, <I could kidnap Akane, and torture her to bring him back...> A voice in the back of his mind growled at the thought, and he shook his head. <Of course. I wish to despoil her myself... no sense damaging her beauty.>

With a frown, he opened the door to Akari's home. She was in the front room, and spilled her tea when she saw him. She smiled brightly, and rushed over to embrace him. Rage smiled to himself as he returned the embrace. <Akari is so wonderful. So... obedient.> A nagging voice in the back of his mind railed at him, 'That's not what this is about!' He pushed the voice away. <Time enough to deal with you later. For now... I have a job to do. And she will be such a pleasure to break...>

Akari took a few minutes to bind Ryouga's wounds, asking him how he got them. Rage smiled, explaining he was chasing off some ruffians.

Then he led Akari to her room, which she nervously submitted to. A crimson aura enveloped the pair as they fell to the sheets, and Akari sighed happily, oblivious to the display. <This is so much better than the first time. It hardly hurts at all now.>

***

In the Tendo home, Dr. Tofu paced nervously. He glanced at Kasumi, who smiled encouragingly.

Sighing, he nodded. "I... I think it's too soon, but..." He trailed off, uncertain.

Kasumi looked at him sternly, her tone commanding, "Tofu, I do not have the benefit of a life-span as long as yours. You must respect that."

Smiling, he gave a slight shake of his head. "You're right, you know... do... do you think he'll say yes?"

Shifting back to her typical placid expression, Kasumi shrugged. "Do you think he can say no?"

Snorting, the doctor nodded. "True enough. I'll... We'll go and ask him, then. Shall we, my love?"

Kasumi accepted the doctor's hand, and followed him to the family room. Soun was sitting on the couch, watching the television without any real interest. Dr. Tofu cleared his throat, "Mr. Tendo?"

Soun glanced up at the honorific, then responded. "Dr. Tofu? Is there a problem?"

The doctor managed a smile. "Mr. Tendo, I've come to ask for your daughter's hand in marriage."

Blinking, Soun considered. He may have failed to pay attention continuously, but he did care about his daughters, and he _did_ want them to be happy. He frowned, thinking, <I've been keeping Kasumi here for so long, forced to fill her mother's role... But at the same time, we need her now more than ever.> He sighed, as he failed to reach a decision. "I... I don't know..."

Dr. Tofu winced, and glanced at Kasumi, then shied away from her at the sight. Anger was an emotion that seldom got to spend time on Kasumi's face, and this was not lost on Soun. The last time she was this upset, was the time she had discovered about Genma's treatment of Ranma on his first day at the Tendo household, but then, Tofu hadn't seen that.

Soun was many things, but brave was not one of them, and Kasumi's anger inspired a fear within him to rival that of Happosai's. She quickly washed the angry expression from her face, then adopted a stern look, one best used to lecture small children. Soun swallowed, a foreign expression echoing in his mind, <Out of the frying pan...>

Kasumi chastised her father, "Now, now, Father. Ranma's far too busy fighting demons to marry Akane right now."

Dr. Tofu rolled his eyes. <Among other things.>

Blanching, Soun shook his head, protesting feebly, "But... but... but... What?"

Tofu interrupted with a sigh, "Can you tell me why I can't marry your daughter?"

Soun nodded, grateful for a distraction from Kasumi, and momentarily forgetting about Ranma. "Ah, it's about the tax break, since the tax on the dojo..." He trailed off.

Nodding, Tofu offered, "I can pay for it. I have... some money saved somewhere. It should be enough to cover the taxes."

Soun blinked, as he reconsidered. <Kasumi really does seem to want this...> He sighed. <I cannot deny her happiness any further.> "Ah... I... suppose, then... if you can cover the expenses... I'll allow it."

Kasumi glowed brightly with pleasure. "Excellent!"

Tofu shook Soun's hand. "It's agreed, then."

Somewhat dazedly, Soun nodded. "It's agreed."

Of course, these things often happen in threes. The gods like it that way. Kasumi certainly wouldn't complain.

***

The day had started quietly enough, but the announcement that Dr. Tofu and Kasumi were getting married failed to put Akane in high spirits. <It's not that I'm jealous of Kasumi...> she reflected, <it's that I just don't know how to feel about this.>

With a sigh, she pushed away from her desk. Tarou would be ready to spar with her. Then again, he was always ready to spar. She idly wondered why he had hung around so long, but no one seemed to mind his presence, and the training had helped Akane greatly. Akane paused for a moment, to consider. <How do I feel about Tarou?>

She sat back down at her desk, and considered. <He is kind of cute... but...> Akane lowered her head. <What am I thinking? He's no Ranma. He... I can't do something like that...> She remembered Nodoka's words on the subject. <He... I wonder if Tarou likes me?> Frowning, she sighed. <No, I can't do anything with Tarou. Daddy would never let me hear the end of it, since they still think that they can bring Ranma back, and... I can't just fall for him because he shows me affection.>

Weighing the possibilities in her mind, she sighed. <Of course, Tarou doesn't hold back when we spar. Well...> She amended, <Not much, anyway. But then... his curse... I could deal with Ranma's, but Tarou's...> Shaking her head, she decided, <I can't think about this now. I'm still not honestly over Ranma... I need to make peace with Ranma before anything else.>

A final thought interrupted her musing. <But how does he feel about me?> She frowned, <I don't want to hurt him, though... I think of him as a friend. But then, he never got along with Ranma, and I _do_ want to be Ranma's friend...> She sank back into her seat, considering again. <What do I do now?>

***

Tarou stood on the roof of the Tendo home and brooded. <What's with that girl?>

He paced back and forth, after making sure Happosai wasn't anywhere in sight. The lecher was surprisingly accurate at guessing his moods, and Tarou did not enjoy having things like his own feelings pointed out to him. <Why do I hold back so much against her? Why do I watch out for her?>

Unbidden, a memory came back to Tarou. Akane had failed to get the boys to stop attacking her, so Tarou had taken it upon himself to deal with the situation. The Furinkan crowd wanted to fight him at first, but his monster form had taught them the error of their ways. Except for Kuno. But then, he was too busy complaining that Tarou didn't exist, and in Tarou's estimation, he was a much better match to spar with Akane than the other boys were anyway.

Luckily, Akane hadn't found out that he was behind the end to the attacks. Tarou had noticed that Akane had a bit of a temper concerning her prowess as a martial artist.

He shook his head. <I'm watching out for my student. That's all.> He cocked his head to one side, thinking. <Do I like her? She's awfully polite to me, considering I've kidnapped her before... maybe she just sees me as a way to train.> He sighed, and lowered himself to a sitting position. <Think about this, Tarou. She seems happy to see me, and always wants to spend time with me. She doesn't make fun of me for my name... but is it because she likes me? Or is it just because she wants to get better at martial arts?>

Grumbling, he rose, and leapt to the yard. <Perhaps I should ask.> He considered for a moment, then shook his head. <No... If I'm wrong, then... what? Then it won't matter, will it?> He sighed, then walked into the house. As he slid the door open, he came face to face with a startled Akane. He blinked a few times, then stepped to one side, asking, "Do you want to train?"

Akane shook her head slowly, explaining, "No... Tarou, I have to ask you a question."

Tarou shrugged, affecting an indifferent expression. "Sure, ask away."

Biting her lip, Akane asked, "Tarou... do you like me?"

The sometimes-monster's eyes widened. "What? Uh... why... why do you ask?" <And why do I care so damn much?!>

Akane sighed, "Because I don't want... Look. Tarou, I can't see you as anything more than a friend, and I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings."

Tarou blinked twice, then turned away. "I see. Then, no. I don't like you."

Frowning, Akane took a step towards him. Tarou shied away, walking towards the koi pond. "I... need to go and think about things for a while."

Akane stayed in the doorway, watching him. "What do you need to think about?"

Tarou shrugged, keeping his back to her. "I need to find a way to get my name changed, that's all."

She remained silent as he leapt into the pond, then winged his way westward. <I hope I didn't hurt his feelings.> Then, a moment later, she though, <Oh great. Now who am I going to train with?>

***

As Happosai watched Tarou leave, a feeling of glee tinged with dread filled him. <He's not too dangerous, but he might have been able to stop me.> The old man opened his book, and began leafing through the instructions for one of the spells. He muttered to himself as he read a passage, "Control and binding... to give orders... Hmm..."

After a few minutes, he nodded to himself, and closed the book. <Once it's dark. It will be easier then, and Ranma will _have_ to come back to save Akane.> He paused for a minute, thinking. <Is this wise?> For a moment, he was filled with doubt. <This could seriously cause us harm... I might hurt someone permanently. Is the boy worth this?>

He stared at the setting sun, weighing the pros and cons. Finally, he sighed. <It is. If the boy is strong enough that the Ancient One wants him, he's worth it. I just hope nothing goes wrong.>

Opening the book again, he consulted the page he was going to be using again, just to be sure. <That's right. I'll give myself an hour, just to be certain it's dark enough. I don't want it to be _too_ powerful.>

The intervening hour passed without event. Happosai gave a nervous sigh, and retreated to the backyard to begin to prepare. Checking briefly, he saw that the Tendos were gathered around the table. He narrowed his eyes at the sight of Nodoka and Tofu at the table. <They seem to spend an awful lot of time here... I wonder why, ever since Ranma left...> He shook his head, pushing the thought away. <This is foolish. I'm trying to delay myself. Enough.>

He wheeled away from the house, and marched to a shadowed area on the side of the dojo. The implements he had gathered before were already stashed under a bush. After retrieving them, he began to perform the ritual. First, a symbol, to contain the summoned.

He hesitated, looking though the choices of symbol to use. After a moment, he shook his head, and settled on the one he had chosen earlier that day. A double circle with a triangle in the center. Nodding, he traced a circle of salt lined with Shinto wards to one side. He may have been dabbling in things he did not fully understand, but he was not stupid.

After that, he set the candles up, and lit them with brief surges of ki. Done with that task, he swallowed nervously, and planted himself in the center of the small circle of salt, facing the larger circle.

Practicing the words of the incantation over the previous two days had proven to be a good idea, since Happosai was certain he would have failed otherwise. He traced a symbol in the air with a rowan wand, and began the chanting the thick, alien words.

After a moment, he suppressed a nervous shiver, realizing his last chance to back out of this had just passed, and turned the page. And then, in the center of the symbol, a greenish glow began to form, slowly coalescing into a small figure, shorter than Happosai himself.

Happosai ended the chant, and peered at it nervously. <Is this going to be powerful enough to do the task I need done?>

The imp grinned widely, showing a mouth full of too-many teeth, and spoke in a tiny voice. "What is thy bidding, master?"

Blinking, Happosai brought himself back into the ritual. "I demand that you give me your name."

The imp nodded, stating, "I am Beez'le."

Happosai traced another symbol in front of him with the rowan wand, intoning, "I demand that you give me your rank."

The imp cocked its head to one side. "I do not think you know what you have done, Old Man. I am not that kind of demon."

Happosai resisted the impulse to step back, remembering the circle of protection he had around him. "What... what kind of demon are you?"

The imp's grin widened hugely. "I..." It enunciated, "Am an Outsider." It was at that point that Happosai noticed the careless footprint that had broken the circle around the imp.

***

Dr. Tofu leapt to his feet, instantly calling the Makaze to him. Its scabbard struck the far wall as he launched himself out of the door. Kasumi chased after him, as the rest of the household scrambled for cover.

Soun's face paled, and he stuttered, "What... what's this all about?"

Akane and Nodoka exchanged a glance, then ran out of the house to chase after the couple.

Akane skidded to a halt, and stumbled at what she saw. Nodoka swiftly grabbed onto the back of Akane's shirt, hauling her away from the glowing symbol on the ground. Dr. Tofu held his blade parallel to his body, chanting quickly as glowing symbols formed in the air around him.

Happosai knelt in his small circle, cowering as the imp, now easily ten feet tall, struck at him. A barrier of light that rose from the salt halted the blows, but the intensity of the white barrier was fading with each blow. Beez'le turned to Dr. Tofu, and screamed a challenge as the doctor finished his spell.

"In the name of M'hal Zheck, I still thee!" The doctor dearly hoped that M'hal was still alive. If he wasn't, then Tofu was about to get a really unpleasant surprise. The kind that was ten feet tall and had all sorts of bulging muscles and nasty teeth.

To Tofu's extreme chagrin, M'hal was apparently dead. The symbols flashed briefly, then faded away. "Oh, boy..."

***

Ranma woke with a start, his golden aura flaring brightly, and flooding the room he and Ukyou shared with its light.

Ukyou mumbled in her sleep and rolled on her side.

Staring into the lit recesses of the room, he shuddered. Something _bad_ was going to happen soon.

--------

Author's notes:

Yes, another of those nasty cliffhangers. 'Kiatsu ittou' should mean, roughly, pressure blade.


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