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The Unbroken Circle: Chapter Six

Fuseiseki

Part B

What has gone before:

Nodoka defeated Kuno in a duel of honor, prompting the kendoist to reconsider his options. Ryouga agreed to marry Akari, but proposed to Akane first. After Akane told Ryouga that she never wanted to see him again, he gave in to Rage, who now controls him completely. Tofu battled with him briefly, then sent him away, leaving Akane to think things over. After confronting Tarou about his feelings, the sometimes-monster left for China, while Happosai was then able to use the magic book that he had stumbled across, and attempted to raise a demon. He failed, and the demon was freed, while Tofu was unable to stop it.

 

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

Brief key, trying to stay simple.

<> frame thoughts.

"" frame speech

"{}" frame speech in Mandarin

 

"...Nine in the third place means:

He who does not give duration to his character

Meets with disgrace.

Persistent humiliation.

Six in the fifth place means:

Giving duration to one's character through perseverance.

This is good fortune for a woman, misfortune for a man..."

I Ching - The Book of Change

 

"There are many details involved in preemption, but they cannot be fully written down because it is a matter of putting priority on the pattern of the particular time, perceiving the intention of opponents, and using your knowledge of martial arts to win."

The Fire Scroll - Miyamoto Musashi's 'The Book of Five Rings"

 

Light. Dark. Light again. The world seemed to cycle between these two extremes. It was either stygian, cold darkness, or brilliantly intense light and heat.

Ranma tried to focus. There was more to the world than this, this world of extremes. This was just a small part of it. He knew, in the grand scope of things, that this light-dark cycle was only a cog in a great machine.

But which part was it? It was important. He knew that much. But what was light? Or darkness? For that matter, where was this?

"Master Herb! Look out!"

"Fools! Do you know what you have done?"

If Ranma had eyes at the moment, he would have blinked. The thought occurred to him. <Where am I? What's going on here?> He tried to study his surroundings, but only observed the stifling darkness, and blinding light. <There's more to this. But what?>

"It was a mistake! Mint, _run_!"

There. There was something beyond the endless cycle. There was... pain. Vast pain. Ranma drew the pain into whatever form he had, desperate to find his way back to himself. <What did I do? I tried to open the staff. Did it work?>

Ranma's eyes snapped open, and she saw where she was.

***

"Master?"

The master glanced at his charge. "I was wrong. He managed it on his own. He might be more dangerous than we thought."

The smaller form scratched its head thoughtfully. "Will we still be able to use him to found the circle?"

After a pause, the master nodded. "I believe so. A perfect circle, this time."

***

Sensation flooded into Ranma, pain pouring in from every fiber of her being. It felt as though someone had beaten her into a pulp and poured her into a Ranma-shaped mold. "What..." She winced at the pain that speaking caused, and examined her surroundings again.

Herb was there, lying in a crumbled and blood-sodden mass, a few steps away from Ranma. Rasping sounds indicated that she was breathing, but probably not for long.

Mint and Lime appeared to be gone, and Herb was... dying. Ranma groaned, and tried to move.

Blood had soaked her clothing, clotting through some unknown agent, and chafed painfully against her skin when she moved. She grunted, and took another step forward. The staff was stuck to her hand with more blood. She shuddered, and dropped the staff. A slight moan escaped her lips as the charred flesh of her palm went with it.

Ranma ignored the pain and dropped to her knees. <Herb's not dead yet. I'm not going to be a murderer. Not dead yet.> Repeating her mantra, Ranma managed to crawl over to Herb.

Her face, once pretty, was a mass of small lesions. Ranma whimpered at the sight. Large, bloody gashes crossed the length of Herb's torso, with smaller cuts and nicks peppered liberally about her limbs.

Ranma placed both of her hands atop Herb's chest, and began focusing. The flesh was surprisingly easy to mend, seeming to regenerate and soak in the healing spell eagerly. <Maybe his dragon parts heal faster.> After a few minutes, Ranma's vision began to blur, but she continued her work, until the blur became more pronounced, and she collapsed across Herb's body.

***

Mint was cradled in Lime's arms, when the hulking warrior returned to the site of the battle. <Herb told him to run when Ranma began...> Lime quickly thought of other things, murmuring, "Mint, you're going to be okay, right?"

When the battle had become more intense, Mint had tried to make a break for the Kaisui-fuu, but a stray attack from one of the combatants had reduced the boy into a mass of lacerations. Lime knew a lot of things about fighting, and first aid, but he knew that this was beyond any of his knowledge to heal.

Herb remained in the center of the clearing, still covered in blood spatters. Ranma had passed out on top of her, but both seemed to live. Lime began setting up camp, and carefully cleaned their wounds as best as he could.

Lime himself had no serious wounds, but Mint's left arm was broken, and the large warrior suspected that his small friend had a pierced lung in addition to that. Herb actually appeared to be well off, all of her minor wounds healed through her draconian regeneration. Curiously, even her larger wounds appeared to be healing well.

Ranma was suffering from three gashes. The one across her stomach, Lime had seen lay the girl open. Any unnecessary movement, by all rights, should have sent her intestines spilling out. But now, when he looked, it was no more than a nasty cut, perhaps half-an-inch deep. The other two gashes were identical cuts along her shoulder blades, flaying her flesh open to reveal the bones of her shoulders. Those wounds, he had seen inflicted, and shuddered to think of how they had come into being.

He wasn't certain how, but there was a lot more blood around the area than the two fighters should have been able to account for, and still have both of them live. Lime's instincts were beaten back, and he cleaned the girls carefully without peeking or groping. Time enough for that when they were healthy.

***

Ranma woke again, and instantly regretted the decision to do so. The pain was intense. No, that was an understatement. Every fiber of her being ached. Especially the parts men aren't supposed to know about. "Oh... gods... that hurts..."

Her eyes opened slowly, and to her relief, the light filtering through the makeshift canopy above her did not hurt. Her first sight was a concerned Herb peering down at her. Ranma managed a coherent, "Huh?"

Herb nodded slowly, saying, "If that hurts for you as badly as it did for me... I... uh... We've got a problem. I..." She licked her lips, and stared away for a moment, admitting, "We destroyed the Kaisui-fuu in our fight."

Ranma blinked a few times, trying to understand. Then she understood. "Oh. So you're stuck."

The Prince of the Musk winced, then corrected Ranma, "Um... _we_ are stuck, Ranma."

Ranma laughed. She got as far as the 'drawing-breath-in' part, before the pain left her shivering. "Ouch... You're kidding, right?"

Herb shook her head solemnly. "I... we need to get out of here. I don't know how long Mint's going to live, he got caught on the edge of the battle while we were fighting..."

Ranma sank back into the bedroll underneath her. "No... not... stuck..."

Herb sighed, staring at her feet. "I'm sorry. I... I shouldn't have attacked you. I apologize, cousin."

Ranma blinked at this, even through the haze of panic at the idea of being trapped as a girl for life. "Huh? Cousin?"

Herb gave her solemn nod once more. "Yes. We share blood."

With a sigh, Ranma said, "Ah." <Guess I chose a good place to bleed.> She considered for a moment. "If I could move right now, I'd kick your ass, you know."

"I can't deny that I'd deserve that... but now, you need your rest." It was the last thing Ranma heard before true sleep overtook her. Herb winced as she looked down at the other boy-turned-girl. "I... I tried to kill him, and he healed me anyway. Even after..." She hung her head, calling out softly, "Lime, how is Mint doing?"

Lime jerked upright at hearing his name, and turned to Mint. The small boy was not doing well, having gotten progressively worse through the night. "He... I'm worried, Master Herb."

Herb rubbed her head and sighed, "There's nothing we can do, then. See that he's made comfortable, and tell me if he wakes. I'm going to rest, now."

***

The student turned to his master, asking, "They're in danger. Aren't you worried about them?"

The master paused for a moment, considering, then shook his head. "No. Not truly. Either they will survive, or they won't."

"But if he doesn't survive, then the circle will never be founded!"

"If he dies, then there won't be a need for a circle."

The smaller form nodded at the larger one slowly, nervously. "I... I think I understand, then..."

The master smiled grimly again. "Good. Now, it is time to leave. The second will be joining us soon."

***

Ukyou paced through the library, hoping that Chame would look up from her book and pay attention to her. She didn't. Ukyou sighed, "Chame?"

The redheaded Machin made a noise as she flipped through the pages of her tome. One of a succession of the numerous thick, hardbound volumes that she always seemed to be reading. After a moment she looked up, and met Ukyou's gaze. "Yes, Ukyou?"

Ukyou repressed the urge to stomp. "I'm worried about Ranma."

Chame frowned, a thoughtful expression on her face. "Well... I don't _think_ he's in danger... why are you worried?"

The girl shrugged her shoulders uncomfortably. "Well... you know... What if something happened to him? Isn't it natural for me to worry?"

The elder Machin nodded, uneasy. "Yes... but I think he would open the staff before he was seriously hurt, and I would know as soon as he managed to do that." Ukyou stared at her blankly. "He has not yet opened the staff. I believe this means he's safe. Better?"

Ukyou frowned, sulking. "I... guess. It's just that I really miss him. It's been, what, four weeks now?"

Chame nodded, glancing to her book then back to Ukyou. "Yes... he should be back soon. Do you want to try scrying on him again?"

Repressing a shudder, Ukyou shook her head. "After the last time we did that, no. I still don't understand..." She trailed off, remembering the image that had risen in the mirror when they had tried. The mirror was instructed to reveal Ranma, but instead showed a picture of a pair of fierce beasts fighting in the dark, lobbing bolts of force at one another that had decimated their surroundings. Chame had opined that the image was just an error, but Ukyou was loath to try again.

<chame... ucchan... need help...>

The two women stared at each other for a moment. Neither could disregard that warning, and despite her show of bravado, Chame was worried as well. <Ranma? Where are you?>

<village... hurry...>

As one, they fled down the stairs. Chame hesitated a moment, and retrieved the Soyokaze. "Ukyou, stay here. It may be dangerous. Let's assume that I'm going to be bringing back guests." She frowned briefly, then snatched a talisman from behind the Soyokaze's case, commanding, "Lock the door behind me. We'll be entering through the tower."

Ukyou nodded, then the redhead was gone. <Tower? How the hell is she going to manage that?>

***

Scant minutes later, Chame emerged from the forest surrounding her home, and slid to a halt in the village square, leaving a sharp plume of dust rising behind her. Ranma and Herb were slumped against the fountain, breathing heavily. Lime was carrying Mint, and sported a colorful bruise across half of his face.

Chame frowned, and spun around. Behind her, one of the village's small buildings had been reduced to rubble. The remnants of some creature were twitching in front of it, and the Airt in the area pinpointed Ranma as the source of its death. Chame scowled, grumbling, "How the hell did this thing get this close to my house without us noticing?"

Ranma climbed to her feet unsteadily, using the staff for support. "I don't know, Chame. But it did, and I was right in the middle of trying to heal Mint. We've got a _lot_ of trouble right now, and need to get him healed."

Herb nodded, and muttered something about 'abominations.'

Frowning, Chame extended her senses to sweep the area. "Nothing dangerous left. Okay... I didn't want to use this, but expected I'd have to." She withdrew the small talisman from a pocket. "Everyone stand as close together as possible. Once the Machin and the Musk were crowded into a rough circle, Chame invoked the talisman, and the group fell--

"...isn't long enough... you're searching for something that doesn't... remains unbroken..."

--into a circular room.

Ranma blinked, too dazed to study his surroundings, and with a strange voice and half-remembered words echoing through his head. "What..."

Chame shushed him, "Don't ask. I can't explain it, because it's different for everyone. Okay, all of you, follow me."

Herb blinked, and followed confusedly, while Lime trailed behind her.

Chame led the group out of the tower, and into one of the empty rooms. She indicated a mat for Mint to be set down on, and placed the Soyokaze at her side. She frowned slightly, peering at the small boy. "Ranma, go ahead and take him," she gestured at Lime, "to the empty room next to yours." Chame glanced at Herb briefly, then back to Mint. "She can stay with me while I'm working on this one."

Herb stiffened, but nodded.

Lime hesitantly followed Ranma to the indicated room, then turned back to face Ranma. "Will Mint be okay?"

Ranma shrugged uneasily. "I... don't know. We've kept him going this far... I hope so."

Lime bowed his head, and entered the room, calling out, "Thank you, Ranma..."

Ranma shook her head, and turned away. "Ucchan..." She smiled slightly, mumbling, "I can get some hot water, and see Ucchan." She walked to the bathroom, carefully creeping down the hallway when she heard Ukyou at work in the kitchen.

The furo was already full of warm water. Ranma eyed the tub warily, and settled for a scrub first. <Please don't let the Chiisui-ton work on me, please, please, please...>

Ranma bit her lip, and lowered herself into the hot water. She stared, mute, yet not truly surprised, at the lack of change.

After a moment, she leaned back, and closed her eyes, running one hand along the scar on her stomach. <Now what?> She felt her eyes begin to tear, then let the tears flow, not needing to fight back anymore. "I'm still a guy... I'm still a guy..."

She lowered her head to her hands and began to weep openly. "Why? Why did you have to do it, Herb?"

***

Chame eyed the two girls warily. Herb had removed the armor she normally wore, and borrowed one of Ranma's standard outfits. Herb's shirt was blue, while Ranma's was white. Chame glanced between the two of them, then sighed.

She steepled her fingers together, and sunk her chin down so that she was peering at the pair over her hands. "So... You went to help Herb find the Kaisui-fuu, but you both ended up getting locked in your female forms."

Herb stared at her feet in shame. Ranma blinked, trying to deny the reality of the situation. After a moment, Ranma whispered, "Ucchan..."

Chame winced. <This is my fault... I shouldn't have made him go alone...> "You're going to have to talk to her about this. In the meantime, the Kaisui-fuu has been destroyed." Herb's aura took on a darker tinge of depression. "Okay. Herb, I'll see what I can do for the two of you, but I can't make any promises. In the meantime, I will destroy the Chiisui-ton in exchange for helping you."

Ranma looked up sharply at the possibility of a cure. "So... you think there's a way that we can be cured?"

Chame hesitated a moment, then sighed, "I'm not certain. I have been studying for a while, trying to understand how this works... The magic articles of the Musk are quite powerful, but I might be able to undo the damage that they've done."

Herb's face lifted, and he smiled gratefully. "Thank you, Venerated One."

Ignoring the honorific, Chame smiled faintly. "Now, Ranma, go talk to Ukyou. I have to have a few words with Herb." Ranma left quickly, hope bright in her eyes. Once she was gone, Chame turned her attention back to Herb, and demanded, "Why?"

Herb cowered, staring at the floor beneath her feet. "I... I have no excuse... dragons are prideful... and he said I had a short temper."

It was all Chame could do not to scream at him. Or Ranma, for that matter, though Ranma was probably actually right, this time. She took a deep breath, stating, "Herb... I'll see what I can do. To be honest, Jusenkyou might be more willing to let you go if you were humble."

The Prince of the Musk shook her head slowly. "What? I don't think I understand..."

Chame sighed, sitting up straight, and crossing her arms in front of her. "They're called curses for a reason, Herb. The spirits of the Machin aren't going to help me until they feel you've atoned." At Herb's wince, Chame shrugged, adding, "The Musk have never harmed the Machin, since we were mostly gone before you came into being... but their spirits do not approve of your use of the curses."

Herb nodded slowly. "I... think I see... so if I can become humble, then my curse will be lifted?"

The Machin frowned. "No... but it won't hold you as tightly. I doubt I can overcome the magic of the Chiisui-ton without the curse's aid."

The Prince of the Musk knelt on the floor before Chame. "I declare myself your unworthy servant until such time as I have learned humility, then."

Chame stifled a laugh. "I don't think I'm the one you owe that to. In the meantime, don't mention any potential cure to Ranma. I don't know if _he_ can be cured."

Herb looked up, confused, "Why not?"

Chame was silent for a long moment, then relented, "I'll explain that later. In the meantime, while I'm researching, you can help Ranma. Spend time with him, since you have experience in the area of being trapped as a girl. Train him in your methods, if you can... you know why, don't you?"

The Prince of the Musk shuddered. "Indeed."

Staring hard at the girl, Chame said, "Things are only going to get harder for him, because he's much closer to a... 'pure' ancestor than you are." Herb blinked at this, surprised, and Chame added, "his grandfather is Dakahoshi Akira... you might have known him as Tsuyoi-Ichiro."

Blanching, Herb mumbled, "Then he's going to need a lot of help..."

***

Ranma tiptoed into the kitchen, where Ukyou was still puttering with various pots and pans. Delicious smells wafted from something on the stove. Ranma inhaled deeply, then stepped into the kitchen, trying to guess how to phrase this. "Ucchan?"

Ukyou jumped in the air and spun around, startled. "Ranchan!?"

The redheaded girl grinned. "Hi, Ucchan! You miss me?" <Why didn't she sense me?>

Ukyou nodded slowly, and hugged Ranma tightly. "I was so worried about you!"

Ranma blinked, startled at the red puffiness under Ukyou's eyes. He had only gotten a brief glance at her, but it was enough to tell him that she _was_ worried. That and the fact that, as far as Ranma could tell, she had been working on this dinner for four hours. "Ucchan... I missed you too. I hurt my back, don't squeeze too hard..."

As her wife backed away, Ranma could help but smile. Ukyou smiled back, and Ranma brushed the tears away. "Ranchan, do you want some hot water?"

Ranma winced, and shook her head slowly, letting the words spill out, "I... Ucchan... I'm stuck. I can't change back anymore."

Ukyou blinked a few times, then shook her head. "Are... are you sure?"

Ranma nodded, not trusting herself to speak.

After a long moment of silence, Ukyou turned around, and turned the stove off. Her back to Ranma, she stared across the kitchen. "It's... funny. I... I was kind of afraid that something like this would happen..."

Ranma lowered her head, not knowing how to deal with the situation. "Ucchan... I..."

Ukyou spoke again, ignoring Ranma. "But... somehow..." She sighed, and turned back to Ranma, still smiling. "It's going to be okay. I'm sure you'll find a way past this, and... I still love you."

Waves of relief washed through the smaller girl. Ukyou tenderly reached forward and wiped away Ranma hadn't realized that she'd shed. <Just like I did for you, Ucchan...> "I love you too."

Ukyou sighed, and gently embraced Ranma, wary of touching his back. <It's so rare that he's forward with his feelings. I think everything will be okay.> "Don't ever doubt that I'll let a little thing like what your shape is come between us again." Ranma sagged into Ukyou's embrace, finally letting herself relax. Moments later found Ukyou hauling her unconscious form up the stairs. <Poor Ranchan, I guess the stress was all that was holding him together...>

***

Ranma woke to an odd sensation. She kept her eyes closed, trying to identify it. <Uh... Ah. It's... Eh?> Ranma cautiously opened one eye, trying to find the source of the odd sensation.

<Damn. Maybe I should actually consider wearing something... I don't want to chafe myself again.> Grimacing, the redhead pushed the sheets off of her. Bandages had been wrapped around her back while she slept, and someone had cleaned her wounds. The scar on her stomach was reduced to an angry pink line.

Ranma smiled slightly. <Ucchan must have healed me up while I was asleep.> Sitting up, she reached over to Ukyou's side of the bed, only to find it empty. Ranma's smile faded as she glanced around the room.

The wall clock read eleven. Ranma rolled her eyes, and climbed out of the bed. After a moment of stretching, she decided on having a nice soak in the furo.

After remembering to check for an occupied sign, Ranma slid the door open, and sat down to begin scrubbing herself. She frowned, recalling the bandages.

A voice called to her from the other side of the washroom. "Would you like some help, Ranma?"

Ranma spun, surprised to find Herb in the process of removing her own bandages. Ranma blinked a few times, startled. "Uh? What... you... occupied sign?"

Herb looked slightly guilty, staring at the tile before her. "I must have missed that. Well... do you need help washing your back?"

Ranma shook her head quickly. "No! I mean, uh, if Ucchan finds me in here with a girl, she'll..." Ranma trailed off, lowering her own head to stare at the tile. "Right. Sorry. Yeah... I'll help you out first."

The Musk Prince nodded, and turned her back to Ranma. The thick bandages came away easily under Ranma's fingers. <I wonder how long she... _he_ was working on these before I came in. I guess the positioning is kind of odd for him to reach. Well. No sense just being quiet, might as well talk.> "So... how are you feeling?" <Brilliant, Ranma. Brilliant.>

Herb shrugged, as Ranma removed the last of her wrappings. "Fine, I suppose. Actually..." She bowed her head. "I feel very guilty. I'm... sorry I did this to you."

Ranma said nothing for a long moment, carefully scrubbing around a pair of healing gouges across Herb's back. She frowned briefly, commenting, "You have the same wounds I do."

Herb nodded, starting fixedly forward. "From the Ascension."

Shaking her head, Ranma warned Herb, "I'm about to splash you, it's cold."

Herb tensed, and Ranma rinsed the soap from her back. "Thank you for the warning. Shall I scrub your back?"

Ranma nodded, and turned her back to Herb. It was obvious to Ranma that Herb had never taken care to scrub someone else's back, but Ranma could feel that Herb meant well, so said nothing, even when one of the still healing cuts was scrubbed rather harshly. Herb splashed cold water across Ranma's back, rinsing off the soapsuds, and the pair climbed into the furo.

Herb stared pointedly at the water in front of her. Ranma sighed, and leaned back against the furo, arms folded behind her head. The redhead noticed Herb flush slightly, and look away. Ranma pondered for a moment, then asked, "Herb? Does something about our cursed forms bother you?"

The Prince of the Musk nodded slowly, still not looking at Ranma. "Actually... yes."

Ranma shrugged, settling lower into the warm water. "Would you like to talk about it?"

Herb hesitated for a moment. <Chame said I needed to help Ranma deal with his curse, so I shouldn't burden him with my story... but...> She sighed, brushing away the blue lock of hair in the center of her forehead. "It's... It has to do with how I got locked in my cursed form."

Ranma nodded, and shifted her position, sending ripples through the bath.

Herb watched the water, and spoke once it had settled. "I'm not sure how much you know about the Musk..." She paused, and looked at Ranma questioningly.

After a moment of hesitation, Ranma asked, "Um... you used to breed by throwing strong animals into the spring of drowned girl, and locking them in cursed form, right?"

Herb nodded uneasily. "Er... yes. We don't do that anymore, though. We only seek skilled martial artists, and interview them, then we invite them to join our tribe."

Ranma smiled slightly. "Yeah, Mint mentioned something about that. Sounds a lot nicer than what you used to do." She considered for a moment. "What kind of relationship do you have with the Joketsuzoku?"

The Prince of the Musk grimaced. "Not always an easy relationship... generations ago, our tribe would abduct amazons and use them as breeding stock." At Ranma's expression, he hastily added, "We have not done so in many years. We've avoided them so well, that most of the Joketsuzoku think we've become extinct." Ranma nodded, and Herb sighed, "At any rate, I was preparing for my first interview, and thought the best way to familiarize myself with a woman would be to visit the spring of drown girl."

Ranma sat in stunned silence, then shook her head, asking, "So you jumped into the spring?"

Herb's expression became grim. "No... I took a monkey with me, and threw it into the spring. I was going to fix it into its cursed form, so I would be able to speak with women without being... distracted." Herb's look became angry, and she looked away, not seeing the walls. "Of course, I became entranced at my first sight of the monkey-girl's breasts..." He trailed off, looking disturbed. Ranma blinked a few times, remembering the first time she had seen her own.

Ranma sighed, sympathizing. "I... guess I can see that. And she knocked you in after that, right?"

With a wry grin, Herb nodded. "Yes. And then I became distracted by my _own_ breasts, and the change..." She shuddered, sending a low ripple across the furo. "Do you remember how much it hurts to change?"

Ranma shrugged, sending a low ripple to counter the one Herb had created. "It actually only hurt the first time each way. Then it kind of tingles. Sometimes it's even hard to notice." She frowned, thinking. "Pop said turning into a panda never hurt, so I guess it's the gender change that hurts more than anything else..."

Herb considered this for a moment, then shook her head. "I was locked with the Chiisui-ton by the monkey-girl right after that." She hesitated, then sighed, "Some things about being locked bother me... it's been about six months now." She heaved a sigh, and frowned. "And... the monkey-girl looked a lot like you. I thought it was just because you were a Venerated One, but..."

Shifting uncomfortably, Ranma sat up, allowing her breasts to rise higher than the water level. "I don't know. Maybe, maybe not. It might be the spring, it might just be a coincidence." Seeing Herb's gaze darken, she commented, "But you still haven't explained what your problem with our cursed forms is."

Herb looked away from Ranma, haltingly explaining, "It's... whenever I see breasts, I get angry."

Ranma blinked for a long moment, trying to sort this out. "Oh, because they made you fall into the spring, and... I see." <Uh... how can I get him to be calm about them?> Ranma nodded to herself thoughtfully, and a slow smile formed.

Herb glanced at Ranma, and raised an eyebrow. "You... know something of what it's like?"

With a shrug, Ranma settled back down, keeping her breasts displayed prominently. "Well... I know what it's like, but it was an accident that I fell in. Pop knocked me in..." She grimaced, momentarily matching Herb's previous expression. "I know what it's like to have your gender, your identity, and... I know what it's like to lose that." She turned away, staring at the nothing that Herb had observed earlier. "And my greatest nightmare was that I'd get stuck this way."

Herb winced, but Ranma continued, not having seen the reaction, "I did get stuck before. Twice, actually. Once because of the cat-tongue shiatsu, and once because of a steel... well. That's not important right now." She shook her head. "I've been stuck for a few weeks. Twice. You've been stuck for six months..."

The Prince of the Musk managed a slight smile. "I suppose... we're quite the pair, aren't we?" At Ranma's glance, the white-and-blue-haired girl snorted, "Heirs to incredible power, both afflicted with the same curse. And... there are other similarities as well."

Ranma nodded slowly. "True. We're both great martial artists, we're both locked... we're about the same age, I bet." Herb nodded, and Ranma smirked. "I bet we both have real problems with pride, too."

Herb winced, admitting, "I... that's very true." She sighed softly. "Now... how do you deal with the anger of seeing something in women, or in yourself, that you resent?"

The redhead considered for a long moment, "Well... I don't actually get upset like that." Herb stared blankly, and Ranma flushed a little. "Er... you see, the truth of the matter, and this is kind of embarrassing, is that... we're both a lot prettier than most women are."

Herb blinked a few times, mulling this over. "So... you reject your fear by being proud of the fact that you make a better woman that a real one?"

Ranma winced. "Well... I've never looked at it that way... and I think Ucchan's prettier than me, but I guess that's kind of accurate."

Herb nodded slowly, then compared her bust to Ranma's. A moment later the pair burst out laughing.

Chame stepped away from the changing-room door quietly, wearing a hopeful smile on her face.

***

Ranma and Herb spent the next few days training together in the dojo, while Chame and Lime tended to Mint. Ukyou watched the two practicing.

Herb grinned, "It's a good start, Ranma, but you need to build your ki better to maintain it."

Ukyou shook her head, smiling slightly. Ranma was standing in the center of the dojo, beads of sweat pouring off of her as she concentrated on the ki exercise. She was hovering unsteadily about a half-an-inch above the wooden floor.

Herb's position was a good foot above the floor, but the strain was slowly wearing on her, too. Ranma managed to spit out through clenched teeth, "Women... have smaller... ki reserves..."

Chame snorted, hearing the words as she entered the dojo. "Who told you that lie?"

Surprised, Ranma stumbled to the floor, followed by Herb a moment later. "Chame? What do you mean it's a lie? Me and Herb both have less ki as girls."

The shorter redhead sighed. "_You_ have smaller ki reserves as girls. That's not because women are weak, though."

Ranma and Herb exchanged a glance, then folded themselves into meditative positions facing Chame. Herb spoke first. "How is it that we have smaller ki reserves, then?"

Ukyou giggled, "Even _I_ know that, Ranchan."

Ranma glanced at her wife, stunned. "Ucchan? How? Tell me!"

Chame watched, a bemused smiled playing across her face, while Ukyou explained, "Ki is basically the energy of yourself, and your spirit. It's..." She paused for a moment to consider, "An expression of yourself against yourself. Chi is the same thing, but look at it as an impression against the outside world." Ranma nodded, having heard this part many times before. "That's how your mouko takabisha works. You draw in 'chi,' turn it into 'ki' based on confidence, and then throw it out in a blast, converting it into chi to will your confidence against the outside world."

Herb blinked at this, then shook her head. "I understand that much, though it would be a very weak chi attack..." Ranma winced at that. "But that still doesn't explain the difference."

Chame sighed, "Ukyou, keep going."

Ukyou nodded. "Well. I'll get to that part, but let me keep explaining." She lowered herself to a comfortable position on the floor. "That's why some attacks can be much more powerful. When you use the hiryuu shouten ha, you manipulate the entire 'chi' from your enemy's battle aura, and focus your 'ki,' your internal force, against it. Then you use yourself as the point of transition, so it's a ki attack, not a chi attack."

"Even though 'ki' and 'chi' are the same thing, what were referring to as 'ki' is a part of yourself, and easier to control. Anything that's _not_ a part of you can simply be analyzed as 'chi.'"

Ranma nodded, slowly. "Right. Like the tenshin amaguri-ken. You use ki to boost your speed and endurance, but it's your body that does the damage, not chi."

Herb looked confused. "I... odd. I devoted myself entirely to external expression. I never realized that internalizing could be so versatile."

Chame snorted, "You'd be a better fighter if you learned to utilize your whole self." She shook her head, motioning the girl to continue. "Anyway. Go on, Ukyou."

Ukyou grinned, flashing a glance to Chame before settling her gaze on Ranma again. "But all of those attacks, chi or ki, both begin with you at the center, and the source. This is why you need to build your ki, so you have more energy to manipulate the chi around you with. Right?" Ranma and Herb nodded. "Now, you have less ki available to you when you're girls, because you have less harmony with your bodies."

Ranma blinked at this. "Uh... Yin and yang, right?"

Ukyou nodded happily. "That's right! And both of you are unbalanced. You both have too much yin, and not enough yang."

Herb's jaw dropped, and Ranma just looked confused. Ranma managed to speak first, "Okay... then how do I balance the two?"

Ukyou's smile faded. "You need to accept your girl half. It's a part of you that you hate. Even though you've used it for your own benefit on occasion, your yang is too weak to provide as much ki as you want, and you can't use yin while you're a girl. Not until you've balanced the two."

Ranma looked shocked, while Herb looked thoughtful. "It's... something to consider. Ranma has already taught me a lot about not hating... er... hmm."

The red-haired boy-turned girl shook her head, mumbling, "So... If I'm stuck as a girl, and I want to be as strong as myself as a guy, I have to learn to _be_ a girl?"

Ukyou glanced at Chame. Ranma turned towards her, an unreadable expression on her face. Chame sighed uncomfortably. "I'm afraid so. It would also help with your curse." This got the attention of both Herb and Ranma. Chame tapped her chin thoughtfully as she explained, "The curse is just that, a _curse_. If you hate it, it will fight you. If you enjoy it, it will twist against you. If you simply _accept_ it, then it will lose power over you."

Ranma mulled this over. "So... if I learned to accept it, it would go away?"

Herb shook her head. "And we'd be cured?"

Chame bit her lip, then sighed. "No. But you'd have control over it."

Ranma sighed, shaking his head. "Chame, if I had perfectly balanced yin and yang, I wouldn't _care_ about the curse, would I?"

The elder Machin nodded, slowly. "I'm afraid that's how it works. However, I'm still going to have to investigate further, there may be another way." She shook her head, changing the topic abruptly, "Mint is conscious, and should heal on his own, now."

Herb smiled brightly. "Excellent! We should visit him, Ranma."

Ranma nodded, still mulling over what she had learned.

***

Genma crept into the village under the cover of darkness. Peering around gave him an impression of the size of the place. It was small, and there was only the one main road coming in. The same road that Genma had come down to enter the town. It wasn't even paved.

His face twisted in distaste. There weren't even any hotels in the town. He sighed, and trudged off into the woods to make camp. Ranma would come into the village eventually, and when he did, Genma would confront him, along with the cask of water from the spring of drowned man.

Once camp was struck, he carefully concealed the cask, and lay down for a bit of rest. The village had shown signs of some kind of recent struggle, and one of the small shops on the main street was reduced to a pile of rubble. Trace amounts of chi energy in the air had indicated a lot of focused martial artists battling, though Genma wasn't certain who they were.

Yawning, he let himself drift to sleep. <Soon, boy... then we'll get you back to Akane.>

***

Kasumi stared at the device in her hand in mute shock. After a moment, she shook her head, and checked again. A smile began creeping across her face, and she ran to the dojo, where Akane and Tofu were sparring. The pair halted when they saw her enter.

Akane was in better shape than she'd ever been before, even though Tofu had to hold himself back to match her well. She stretched, and glanced out into the yard. "I'll leave you two alone, I guess. Nice working with you, Tofu."

The doctor nodded absently, and turned his attention to Kasumi, asking, "Love, is something the matter?" Kasumi shook her head, still smiling widely, and handed the pregnancy test kit to him wordlessly. His eyes widened in shock. "You're, you're, you're... oh my."

Kasumi giggled, and the two embraced.

As Akane watched from the yard, she wondered why she wasn't jealous. She sighed, and tore her attention from the pair, leaping up to the roof in a single bound.

She paced back and forth, wondering at the solace that the roof now provided. Tarou was gone, now. <Probably won't come back, no matter what he says.> She sighed. <Even if he did, Happosai's gone, so it won't matter...> She grimaced at the remembrance of the old man's demon summoning. <Damned fool. And of course, Ranma's gone.>

She sighed, and sat down on her favorite spot. <The one Ranma always used... right above my room.> Shaking her head, she stared up at the stars. "I'm going to be an aunt soon." She smirked at the thought. <Auntie Akane. And Nabiki.> An image of the two in future years came to her briefly, Nabiki an old biddy cackling over an abacus, while Akane was... playing with Kasumi's grandchildren.

Her smile faded suddenly. <What about me? Where am _I_ going to go now? What am I doing, anyway? I'm training as hard as I can, and maybe someday, I'll be as good as Ranma, but what good will it do? It's not like I can have Ranma, now.> She bowed her head, sighing. <Why do I want him so badly, only now, when it's so late I can't have him?>

She lay back against the roof, and let herself drift into a daydream. <What if I had a better control over my temper... and Ranma had better control over his mouth? What would that be like?> She smiled dreamily for a minute, then snapped herself out of the daydream. <Stupid Akane! Stop beating yourself up for something you can't have! Friends. Friends. Friends. I just need to train more. Then when we meet again, we'll spar, and... I can apologize.>

A breath of relief passed from her lips. <That's it. That's what I need. But I can't write him, I need to talk to him and work this out. I need to tell him I'm sorry, and then I can move on with my life.> She smiled, staring up at the stars, until a shuffling noise from the side-yard distracted her.

She jumped to her feet and peered off of the roof, looking down at the source of the sounds. <Damn. More of those stupid gangsters. Oh well, it's decent practice.>

***

Ukyou held Ranma's sleeping form, and stared into the darkness thoughtfully. Ranma liked to be held sometimes, but so did Ukyou. The curse had made that a lot easier.

She gave a rueful smile, and hugged the sleeping redhead more tightly. While the curse had initially amused Ukyou, she had never given it serious thought until that morning at 'Ucchan's.' <I'm glad I kissed Ranma while he was a girl.>

The initial revulsion she had felt had died quickly, once she realized that she truly _did_ care about the person inside more than the shape of the container. Ukyou wondered briefly what it would have been like for Ranma if she hadn't been married to someone when she had gotten trapped. <Probably a lot harder than this.>

Still, she didn't mind holding her gender-changing husband, even though Ranma tried to put up a strong front. When they were alone, Ranma shed the tears that she refused to show anyone else. Ukyou accepted that as a sign that Ranma cared about her enough to admit to her what she wouldn't in public.

Ranma shifted slightly in her sleep, and pulled Ukyou closer to her. Ukyou gave a contented sigh and let herself drift off. <I do love you, Ranma... and it's fine even if you stay trapped forever. We'll always have...> Sleep cut the rest of the thought.

Ukyou dreamed of living in a house filled with children, all of them Ranma's.

***

Ranma sat in the center of the dojo, searching for her spiritual center. She was familiar, of course, with the concept, and her father _had_ taught her a bit about meditation before. Of course, in the senior Saotome's estimation, it wasn't useful for very much.

Chame's opinions were different, saying that meditation, just like straining her limits, would aid the growth of her ki. Again added to that, Chame had mentioned that meditation would help Ranma balance her ying and yang. She was pleased to learn that wearing feminine undergarments were not necessary spiritual aids. Happosai might have thought differently, but that was hardly Ranma's concern at the moment.

She stared into space, meditating deeply. "Ying. Yang. Two sides to the same coin." <What does female _mean_, though?> She mulled it over, drawing together a picture of what she had learned before Jusenkyou. <It means being weak, and not intelligent, and not having as much skill at martial arts.>

Ranma frowned, pondering more deeply. <But that's not true. Chame is not weak, she's smarter than I am, and she's a good martial artist. Akane is strong. Ukyou is smart. Shampoo is a good martial artist. Nabiki is smart, too. Kodachi is crazy, but she's not a bad fighter...> After mulling over what she had learned, Ranma began to develop a feeling of revulsion towards her previous way of thinking.

Certainly, she'd had the points drilled into her repeatedly by her father, who said that girls were weak and so on. But Genma was wrong at this point, wasn't he? The more Ranma thought about it, the more troubled she became. Memories of how she had acted pointed out the glaring imbalance of ying and yang long _before_ Jusenkyou.

<But why? Why?> Ranma grimaced, trying to pinpoint when everything had changed. <Oh. The contract. 'Man among men.' So that's it. But I can't just give that up, I'm still a man!> Ranma shuddered at the wave of disappointment that the thought brought up in her, and broke off her meditation for the day.

Falling back upon the ki building exercises, she was pleased to note that she had slightly improved her strength. <But if I can find my spiritual center, then I can be balanced, and... then what? I won't be cured. I won't be a man _or_ a woman. I'll be... an abomination. I'll be nothing.> She sighed, and raised herself another quarter-inch off of the ground. <But does it matter? Ukyou doesn't care. She says that even if I can never change back, she loves me just as much.>

A smile rose at the thought, and Ranma didn't notice the gold-colored aura flare into being around her.

Herb, from her position opposite Ranma, broke her own concentration to watch warily. She hadn't seen the aura since they had fought. She idly wondered what it meant, since it didn't feel as imposing as a true battle-aura, but still carried some sense of presence with it.

Herb backed away slowly as Ranma rose another half-foot in the air, apparently without effort. Herb swallowed nervously. <Is he planning on using Ascension here?> The thought filled Herb with a certain mix of fear and awe. <He might actually have the strength to control it, though.> Herb wasn't certain if the idea should cheer him, or frighten him senseless.

Ranma seemed content to just hang there, practicing building her ki, and bobbing slightly as she adjusted the flow of energy through herself. It was difficult to raise oneself from the ground using purely ki, but possible, and a good exercise. The fact that Ranma didn't appear to be straining worried Herb. "Um, Ranma?"

Ranma's eyes opened, and she drifted down the foot she had risen. "Yes, Herb?"

Herb shook her head. "What's the gold aura?"

The redhead considered the aura for a moment, then shook her head, admitting, "I still haven't figured it out. It only shows up when..." She trailed off, thinking. A moment later, the aura disappeared. "Er. It seems to show up mostly when I'm very focused on a single emotion." <Love. When I think about Ucchan and how much I love her, it comes up... when I thought about dying to Herb, and that I had to return to her, it came up again... and every time after Ucchan and I...> Ranma flushed at the thought, and tried to think of something else.

The Prince of the Musk nodded slowly. "I think I see... Shall we speak with Chame about what she's found out about a possible cure, then?"

Ranma hesitated a moment, then shrugged. "Why not. It's worth a shot, isn't it?"

The pair trudged into the house, no longer distracted by its majesty. Or the enchantment that had been placed on it. Ranma led the way, while Herb followed. Lime and Mint were outside, sparring in the distance, though Lime was holding back until Mint recovered completely.

Once inside, Ranma cracked open the door the library. Chame was sitting at the great desk, looking harried as she shuffled through a stack of small books. Repressing her fear, Ranma gestured Herb in, and they both stood on either side of the desk while they waited for Chame to look up.

After a long moment, Chame slammed a book shut and sighed in frustration. "Ugh. Yes, Ranma? Herb?"

Herb shuffled her feet nervously. "Uh... we wanted to ask how the search for a cure was going."

Chame heaved another sigh. Closing her eyes and raising her hands to massage her temples, she explained, "I have good news and bad news. Both of you had better sit down."

The pair looked at each other, then sat uneasily.

Chame cleared her throat, leaning against her high-backed chair and staring at the ceiling. "The good news is... I can unlock one curse." The pair glanced at each other not sure how to proceed.

Then, Ranma shook her head. "Why is that good news?"

Chame flinched away. "Ranma, the bad news is, you aren't cursed."

Ranma's jaw dropped, and she stared at Chame in confusion. "What... what... what do you mean?"

Chame bit her lip nervously, then explained, "Ranma, Machin don't imprint, so they can't curse pools, and they don't take curses _from_ pools."

Ranma shook her head, refuting Chame's words. "But... but... I fell into the spring of drown girl!"

The elder Machin shifted in her seat, and produced a scrying mirror from a drawer. "Actually, Ranma, you didn't."

Herb and Ranma stared, aghast, as the scene from Ranma's fateful day at Jusenkyou replayed itself on the enchanted mirror. Threads of Airt stretched between Chame and the mirror showed Ranma that the picture was true. She flinched at the image of herself as a man again, and watched the pool.

Herb blinked, saying, "That's... that's the spring of drowned boy."

Ranma shook her head, unsure of what to say, and not certain she could believe it.

The image in the mirror shifted, to Herb carrying a monkey. Herb flinched this time, as the monkey-girl splashed him. It was a totally different spring. Chame set the mirror down, and turned to Ranma. "I don't understand how you can be locked, if you aren't cursed." She shook her head. "I scryed all the way back to your birth, and you were born male. Jusenkyou had an effect on you, but I don't understand how, or why."

Ranma finally found her voice, "But the guide _said_ that it was the spring of drowned girl!"

Chame shrugged uncomfortably. "The guide is cursed, Ranma. He's... the voice of Jusenkyou. Whatever Jusenkyou tells him to say, he says."

Herb nodded slowly. "But... how can we restore Ranma to being a man again?"

Chame sighed, drumming her fingers against the desktop. "I'm not sure. But I'm going to keep looking for something. Unless something else turns up, we only have the internal balance... I'm sorry Ranma."

The Prince of the Musk stood, then walked to Ranma's side, and prostrated herself on the floor. "I'm sorry, Ranma. I blame myself for this."

Ranma stared for a moment, then shook her head. She managed to mumble, "It's okay. Been stuck before... go ahead and go home, Herb. Chame can unlock your curse before you go."

Herb and Chame both winced, as Ranma walked out of the room, and carefully closed the door behind her.

Chame heaved a sigh, and turned to Herb. "I can still unlock your curse, Herb."

Herb nodded slowly. "I... guess you should. But... Ranma..."

Chame stood abruptly, and began straightening papers out. "Normally, I wouldn't help your kind, especially after what you've done to one of my blood."

Herb lowered his head, saying nothing.

The redhead sighed, "However, Ranma thinks of you as a friend, despite everything. Because of that, and the chance to destroy the thrice damned Chiisui-ton, I will go ahead and help this once."

Herb continued staring at her feet. "It... was always a suspicion than the Venerated Ones did not appreciate our use of Jusenkyou. It's another thing entirely to find out that it's true." She sighed, "I'm not certain I deserve your aid, now. My foolishness, and my pride caused this to happen."

Chame shrugged. "You've just passed my final test, then. Don't lose your humility, it will make you a better person."

Herb nodded solemnly. "Better than I was."

For a long moment, the Machin said nothing, then she nodded. "I certainly hope so."

***

Ukyou found Ranma curled up under the covers of the bed they shared. Ukyou hesitated a second, then shut out the lights and crawled under the sheets. After squirming around a bit, she could hear Ranma's unsteady breathing, and feel her breath against her neck.

The brown-haired girl held in a sigh. <I bet I know what this is about.> "Hey, sugar. How are you feeling?"

The breath against Ukyou's neck caught for a moment, then resumed slightly more raggedly. Ukyou winced, glad for the darkness. "Ranchan..."

Ukyou gently embraced Ranma, who clung to her tightly. "I'm sorry, Ucchan... I'm so sorry. Now we can never have a family, and I can never... never..." Her speech dissolved into wordless sobs.

The okonomiyaki-chef-turned-mage smiled slightly, holding Ranma to her closely. It had always been Ukyou's dream to be the strong one for her husband, and now she was able to be just that. "It's going to be okay, Ranchan. You'll find your balance eventually, and until then, we have each other."

Ranma, calmed by her words, let herself be comforted.

***

Herb knelt in the center of the dojo, while Chame consulted a book briefly. After a moment, she gave a sharp nod, and snapped the book shut. Herb glanced up, seeing Ranma behind Chame, but not able to bring herself to make eye contact.

Ranma shifted uneasily from foot to foot, while Chame gathered her will. <Ranma, calm down.>

After Ranma settled herself into a meditative position, she apologized. <Sorry, Chame. What do we do now?>

Chame cleared her throat. "You focus yourself, and try and filter out any wayward energies from polluting the spell." A frown crossed her face briefly, and she added, "Nothing should be able to get this close without setting off our wards, but just in case..." She sighed. "There was the problem with the demon in the village, and I should have sensed that... regardless. You'll basically be keeping watch while I ask the heritage to release him."

Ranma nodded, and closed her eyes while she cast her senses out. After a moment, she gave an imperceptible nod, and a feeling of safety settled across the room.

Herb shivered, slightly unnerved by the sensation, and the fact that the Machin could communicate without speaking. After a moment, the feeling of 'safety' overpowered her reservations, and she relaxed.

Chame's eyes took on a slightly ethereal glow before she closed them. <Ranma, does something seem odd to you?>

Ranma tensed, scrutinizing the area she was monitoring, then sent back, <Nothing. It should be safe.>

The elder Machin exhaled slowly, drawing in her senses, and narrowing her world down to merely Herb, and her curse. <Curse of the Machin tribe, Jusenkyou. Release this one from your bonds.>

For a long moment, nothing happened. Chame sighed, and tried again, <Jusenkyou, the blood of your founders calls you. Release this one from your bonds.>

Ranma shook her head. <It's not working. They aren't going to listen.>

Chame sighed, "I know. That's what I was afraid of. We're going to have to force the issue... be especially on the lookout."

Ranma sent back a vague sense of confirmation as she focused her attention elsewhere.

Reaching deep into herself, the elder Machin prepared to force her will upon Jusenkyou. <Oh, please... let this work.> She blanched, hoping Ranma hadn't caught the thought, then shook her head and focused again. <Jusenkyou! The blood of your founders compels you to our will. You will release this one from his bonds.>

And then it was there, a swirling, malevolent, broken presence. It was ancient, and angry. It had power, and thirsted for revenge. It was pure malevolence, hammering away at Ranma's mind as it attempted to subvert her to its will. Ranma clutched her head, and reeled away, still shielding herself, and Chame. Herb backed away, feeling unsafe despite the fact that he couldn't see anything, and the spirit ignored him.

Chame tried to calm herself, and waited for it to speak. <who... summons the spirit of jusenkyou. who calls us, and pleads to bind us. who thinks to bend us to their will.>

Ranma knelt on the floor, trying to keep the overwhelming presence from breaking the confines of the dojo, or crawling into her mind. One hand reached down to the floor, steadying herself, and drawing the chi from the dojo to add to her ki, and mental control. Magic was different, but this helped her steady her mind.

Chame studied the whorls of energy that she could see in the air above her before responding. <I, Chame, of the Machin, blood of the founders of Jusenkyou, demand that this one be released from his curse.> Her eyes flickered to Herb, who swallowed nervously.

For a moment, the morass of malevolence paused, seeming to eddy around in circles before focusing back to it's angry whorls, <Price demanded.>

The elder Machin swallowed, and produced a pair of worn copper coins from a pocket. <I come prepared, and will pay my own passage. Release him, and I will pay your price.>

The presence seemed to almost laugh, <not price. Price.>

Ranma shuddered, not comprehending. Chame took a deep breath. <I will pay the Price.>

The malevolent energies focused on Chame, shredding Ranma's protective magics like rice paper. Ranma goggled for a moment, realizing that the spirit had only been toying with her before. Herb slowly began to shift, reverting to his original form. He stared, aghast, as the air around Chame seemed to darken, and she collapsed.

The spirit gave a sense that spoke of pride and success, but communicated no words, and left.

Ranma crawled forward, and placed a hand on Chame's neck. <No pulse. Oh, gods.> She focused herself, trying to gather the energy to heal, but had spent herself too thoroughly on the earlier shielding. Frantically, Ranma tilted back the smaller girl's head, and began giving her own air to her mentor.

Herb stared in shock for a moment, then ran out the door, yelling, "I will fetch your wife!"

Ranma ignored him, focusing instead on Chame. "Breathe! Damn you! You haven't finished teaching me! Breathe!"

***

Chame stood on the brink of a great, black, river. The copper coins were still clutched tightly in her hand. "Damn." She looked around her, and said it again. "Damn."

After a moment, she sat on the shore, wearing a morose expression, "After all I've been through, a silly little thing like that gets me." She shook her head, mumbling, "I wonder what I did wrong..."

A boat was approaching her from the distance. She turned around, and began walking away from it, and the river. "Damned if I'm going to stay here. There's got to be _some_ way back..."

She stopped suddenly, seeing the path in front of her. Chame blinked, and picked up a folded scrap of paper. She cleared her throat and read it aloud, "'Daughter, your path is short, for you cannot stay here long. You must take care of Ranma. I've been here, and further many times. Treasure what memories you regain, for they fade when you are brought back through the veil.'"

Chame pursed her lips thoughtfully, muttering, "So. Father's been here. Wonder what I do next..." She tossed the scrap of paper to the side of the path and began walking forward.

***

Ranma was beginning to run out of breath. "Chame, damn you! Come back!" She lowered her face to Chame's, and breathed into her again, while gently transferring as much ki as she thought Chame could use through her hands.

It was difficult to gauge how much time had passed, but Ranma knew that not much time had gone by, since Ukyou and Herb had not yet returned. She breathed into Chame again, and was preparing to move away, when she felt Chame respond to her.

Ranma sat up, but the elder Machin was struggling, and couldn't breathe on her own yet. Ranma swore briefly, and brought her mouth to Chame's, breathing for her again.

After a few moments, Chame coughed weakly, and Ranma held her up. Chame glanced around dazedly, then smiled, and relaxed slightly. "Thanks... Ranma..."

Ranma heaved a sigh of relief, and slumped forward. "Chame... I was worried about you. What happened? What..."

Herb and Ukyou dashed into the dojo, both soaking from the rain. Ukyou blinked a few times, seeing the pair of tired redheads glancing at her. "Um... everything okay?"

Chame nodded slowly. "Yes..."

Ranma glanced at Herb, then smiled weakly. "You got cured, Herb."

Herb glanced down at himself, surprised to see that he was drenched with cold water, and unchanged. "Oh! How did that happen?"

Chame grimaced. "Jusenkyou lied to me." She sighed, leaning against Ranma, while she recovered. "There's a price to be paid for these things, and it gave me more than I asked for. It cured you, instead of just unlocking your curse, and the price was much greater than I expected..." She groaned, "I kind of ache right now."

Ukyou eyed the pair for a moment, then sighed, "I was worried about you, Chame. And you too, Ranchan..."

Ranma snorted, "I was worried, too. Chame stopped breathing, and I had to give her mouth-to-mouth."

Chame smiled, and sat up slowly. "Thank you for that. Heh... my first kiss, and it's my own... my own..." She frowned, as she trailed off. "Damn. Something I can't remember." She sighed, "Must not have been important."

Ranma shrugged, trying to hide a slight blush. "Student, right? Don't worry about it. Let's get you into the house, and rest up a bit."

Herb coughed uncomfortably, "Ah... Ranma... I should go now. I don't want... well. Thank you for your hospitality and your help." He bowed deeply. "Thank you, Ranma. If you ever need our aid, simply ask for it. I owe you a blood debt." He paused as he straightened up. "One I fear I may never be able to pay back..." Sighing, he turned his back to Ranma and strode out of the dojo.

Ranma called out as he left, remembering when she had woken up on the mountain, and Herb was watching over her, "Farewell, Cousin."

Herb smiled, and nodded to Ranma from the door to the dojo. "Farewell, Cousin."

-----

Author's note:

All I can really say is that I hope the symbolism isn't too heavy. And... this more or less marks the beginning of the tone shift for the story.


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