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The Unbroken Circle: Chapter Seven

Hatsuiku

Part A

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

What has gone before:

After the battle with Herb, Ranma and Herb were both trapped in their cursed forms, while Chame researched a potential cure. Ranma learned that the only way to unlock his curse is to balance her yin and yang. Herb had his curse removed, and decided that he needs to move on, for fear of offending Ranma. In the meantime, Kasumi has announced that she's pregnant, while Akane is finally coming to grips with her feelings, and Genma has found where Ranma is, intending to gain his help with the aid of the water from the spring of drowned man.

 

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

"" Speech

<> Thoughts

"{}" Mandarin

"Six in the third place means:

If one clings to the strong man,

One loses the little boy.

Through following one finds what one seeks.

It furthers one to remain persevering.

Nine in the fourth place means:

Following creates success.

Perseverance brings misfortune.

To go one's way with sincerity brings clarity.

How could there be blame in this?"

I Ching - The Book of Change

 

"It is the nature of the military that swiftness rules.

Ride others' inadequacies.

Go by unexpected ways.

Attack where he has not taken precautions."

Sun Tzu - The Art of War - Chapter 11

 

Special note: Standard mythos has been altered to explain things in this fic. If you're familiar with the mythology being referred to, you'll see that it's inaccurate. If you aren't, assume that it's confined to this fic. You'll know what it is when you get there.

 

The day was quiet, with a certain sense of stillness hanging in the air. The slight breeze carried a hint of the chill of the coming winter, but the sun was warm. Ukyou sighed, and tried to calm herself. <Of course, we already suspected, so it's not like I should be surprised.>

But she was surprised. She had thought that, somehow, something would happen to make things go wrong, and they hadn't. Ukyou grinned widely, and trotted across the yard to the dojo. Ranma spent more of her time meditating on her balance and her center than anything else, but she would be sparring with Chame at that hour.

Ukyou paused at the entrance to the training hall to watch the pair fight. Ranma was training with a quarterstaff, while Chame wielded the same. Ranma's speed and strength had improved vastly in the weeks of sparring, and the ki-training she had preformed was helping boost her prowess beyond even that.

She couldn't help but smile at the sight of Ranma slamming bodily into Chame's staff, bouncing off a wall, ricocheting off of the ceiling, then striking Chame with what should have been enough force to shatter every bone in her body. Of course, Chame was maintaining her own ki reserves, so was merely bruised, but after that, Ranma flipped away and jumped for joy. "I got you! I got you again! YEAH!"

Chame heaved a sigh, but was not able to hide a slight smile. "Ouch. You've gotten a lot better, Ranma."

Ranma tossed down her quarterstaff, and swept Ukyou up in a hug. "I'm getting better every day, Ucchan!"

The elder Machin nodded, as she rubbed at her bruised shoulder. "When you fight a more powerful opponent, you learn faster. Especially with your style of martial arts."

Ranma pursed her lips thoughtfully. "I got lots better after the first couple of times I fought with the old ghoul. So that makes sense." She shook her head, turning her attention to Ukyou, and asked, "What did you come here for today? I notice you haven't been practicing much lately."

Ukyou grinned widely, and exchanged a glance with Chame. "Well, Ranchan... I haven't been using any magic for a long while, either. But... I have some very good news for you."

The taller redhead blinked, then nodded. "Okay, Ucchan. What's the news?"

A giggle escaped before Ukyou could reclaim control. "It doesn't matter if you're stuck forever. I'm already pregnant, so we will still have our child."

Ranma scratched her head. "Uh." She blinked a few times, then smiled wryly, "I'm going to be a..." Her smiled faded as she trailed off, "What am I going to be?"

Ukyou rolled her eyes, and hugged Ranma close. "You're still going to be the father, Ranchan."

She stiffened slightly. "Even if I'm a girl?"

Ukyou shrugged, still holding Ranma. "Even then." Ranma said nothing, merely returning the hug. Chame gave a defeated sigh, and left the couple alone as she jogged out of the dojo. Ukyou continued once the Machin was gone, "It happened the first night we were married, I think. The aura was..." She sighed, "I was worried at first, but now that you're stuck, I'm glad I'm already pregnant. Now, no matter what happens, we've got a child."

For a long moment, Ranma said nothing. Then she sighed into Ukyou's ear, "I'm glad, too, then. I should write a letter to Mom and tell her about it, then."

Ukyou nodded, and pulled away. "You're right. We should write it together. I wonder how she'll react..."

***

Chame scribbled out a list of supplies, and handed Ranma a small stack of envelopes. "Can you take these to the village?"

Ranma nodded absently, and slipped the papers into a pack. "Right. Anything else?"

The elder Machin shook her head. "No... I think I've pushed you hard enough. No weights, and you can use the Breath of the Earth." <How is he doing on picking up stray thoughts?>

"Uh. Well. Better, I suppose. Unless someone's thinking about me, I don't pick anything up accidentally, but I can still tell where people are." Ranma paused, thinking. "You know... I couldn't read Herb's mind, even when I tried, but he didn't seem to know any magic, either."

Chame shrugged, and glanced over to Ukyou briefly. The brown-haired girl was humming to herself and flipping through one of the tomes Chame had suggested to her. "Herb has the blood of dragons in him. They are innately magical, even though their magic differs from the kind we practice. He blocked you without realizing it, more likely than not."

Ranma nodded to herself. "Huh. That explains a bit." She turned her attention back to Chame. "I have another question before I go, then." Chame watched Ranma expectantly. "Herb called me 'Cousin,' and said that we shared blood. Do I have to worry about any kind of draconian magic affecting me?"

Chame's eyes widened, and she turned away. The Machin summoned her staff unconsciously, and paced while trying to think of an appropriate answer. After a moment, Ranma began scowling, and Chame sighed. "No. You do not have to worry about any kind of dragon magic affecting you from Herb's blood."

Ranma rolled her eyes, knowing that Chame was holding something back. "Okay. When you want to tell me the whole story, I'll be ready. I'm going to go fetch the supplies now." Then the pigtailed redhead gave Ukyou a quick kiss, and dashed out of the door.

Chame stared at her feet, frowning. <How much is safe to tell him? It's not safe yet, I know that much...> She sighed, and turned her attention to Ukyou and her studies.

***

Genma, as was obvious, was not a light man. He weighed quite a bit. But, through careful ki manipulation, he was able to reduce his weight, if not his girth. Wrapped fully in the secrets of the Umisen-ken, he was able to safely perch on a frail wooden flagpole, and scout for Ranma.

The man had taken extreme care not to reveal his presence to any of the villagers, and had spent the last few days monitoring the post office where they retrieved their letters. A quick nighttime trip to their mailbox, and a few hours with steam and glue had revealed some new information. Most of the information in the letters was old to Genma, having read the letters, or copies, while in the Joketsuzoku village.

However, one of the new pieces of information disturbed him greatly. Ranma was not only living with these strange women, he was _training_ with them. Genma was not as oblivious to the real world as Happosai had appeared to be, but he _did_ share many similar convictions. Genma did not approve of this at all. <Still,> he reflected. <He will have learned a lot of bad habits in his time with them. I can take advantage of the poor skills he's probably learned.>

At that moment, Ranma entered the village, stopping in her trademark slide to a halt. Genma blinked at the sight, barely managing to maintain his invisibility. He repressed the urge to growl. <He's a girl again.>

Ranma was chatting amiably with some of the village children, who were surrounding her. Her cloak had settled about her, and the children tugged at it curiously. After a moment, Ranma shoed the children away, and strode into the general store.

Genma frowned, and leapt to the ground, closely clutching the cask of water that was to cure Ranma. <What is the boy _doing_?> Ranma left the store, then froze, and spun to face Genma.

Startled, he released his invisibility, his presence returning like a booming crash. Ranma blinked at him, then made a disgusted face, and approached. "What the hell are you doing here?"

Genma cleared his throat noisily, "Boy! I've come to take you back to your rightful fiancee!"

Ranma stared at him for a long moment, only a few paces away. "Who? Ucchan?" Then Ranma shook her head. "Forget about it, Pop. Just leave, and forget you saw me. And never come back."

Irritated, Genma held the cask in front of him. "This here's water from the spring of drowned boy, Ranma. The cure. If you come with me, and forget about those crazy girls, we can both be cured. We can go home, we can talk to your mother, we-" Genma stopped speaking suddenly, seeing a large golden aura spring up around Ranma.

The redhead spoke through clenched teeth, "I've already spoken with Mother, Pop. I already told her-" She cut off, and turned her back to Genma, trying to calm herself. At the edges of her vision, the golden aura was slowly being laced with tendrils of blackness. "Mom knows. She approves of my decision. I am _not_ in a good mood right now. Unless you want to have your ass severely beaten, I suggest you leave _now_."

The few villagers remaining in the street quickly found some other place else to be, remembering when Ranma had fought the demon with Herb more recently.

Genma blinked, stunned. The aura registered in his mind, and he began to edge away, not recognizing it, or the black tendrils' significance. "Boy... you... you want to talk about this? I mean, I've got the cure right here, you would never have to deal with..." Genma smiled slowly, and took the top off of the cask, yelling, "Boy!"

Ranma spun, turning just in time to catch a half-cask of cursed water in the face. Genma smirked, watching his son... remain female. After a moment, Genma tore his attention from Ranma, and stared at the water stupidly. It didn't occur to him that he didn't have the skills to tell what the water should do, or how it should be used, merely that it didn't work, and the next logical step was to look at the water.

His lack of attention to Ranma, however, sent the already angry redhead into a seething rage, as her aura slowly faded to a murky blackness that clung to her, swirling about her ominously. Then she spoke, in a low and angry tone. Each word was punctuated with another step towards Genma. "Pop. You. Threw. Blood. On. Me."

Genma met Ranma's gaze briefly, then began edging away more quickly, trying to pacify the girl, "Boy... calm down... it's just water, not blood, see?"

But Genma was wrong, in Ranma's eyes. Since she was slowly becoming awakened to the nature of her ancestry, the world's youngest living Machin could see that it _was_ blood. And an angry curse. Certainly, the blood was mixed with enchanted water of some kind, which was benevolent in nature. However, the curse, and the blood that only Ranma or any other Machin could see, shone vibrantly in the water. Crimson strands that flowed through the healthy glow of the other magic in the water. The two co-existed, but did not mingle.

Then, as Genma watched, the blood of the Machin tribe _did_ become blood, and he saw with revulsion that Ranma was soaked in bloody water. The cask was filled with the same, red streamers swirling idly about in still water. He dropped the cask, horrified, only to have Ranma snatch it out of the air, and hurl its contents over him.

Genma shifted then, not becoming his familiar panda form, but instead, a much younger version of himself. He stared down at his now ill-fitting gi in shock. "But... but... I don't understand..."

Ranma growled, low in her throat, "I do. Now _leave_!"

Genma looked up sharply, then, a slow smile forming on his lips. <With this young body, and my old knowledge, the boy is no match for me. He's coming with me, even if I have to use the forbidden techniques.> "Let's fight. Whoever wins, decides what the other does, agreed?"

Ranma smiled slowly. "So be it." Then the violence began.

In Genma's experience, he was very skilled. Another point for him was that his younger body was much more fit, and had less fat than his older body. Genma also knew a great number of truly powerful techniques. And, if that failed, Genma had intentionally trained holes in Ranma's defense.

He leapt forward in a quick feint, intending to land a disabling hit on Ranma's head. But the girl was not there. She was standing to the left of her original position, and Genma was forced to block a strike in mid-air. Of course, the Saotome School of Anything-Goes Martial Arts specialized in aerial combat, so he was able to do this, and launch a swiftly intercepted counter-strike before he flipped to his feet and bounded away to avoid Ranma's own attacks.

Genma was a true master of the art. He had several advantages in this battle, and he knew it. He was a master of his own school, he had developed two additional schools so powerful that even _he_ had decided to seal them away, and he knew more about Ranma's fighting style than anyone else except Ranma herself.

But it wasn't enough. While Genma moved with a grace not matched by anyone his physical age, Ranma was faster. And the holes Genma had drilled into his technique, the subtle, nearly imperceptible openings that only Genma would know to look for, weren't there.

Genma realized, with shock, that the boy, despite training under _girls_, now surpassed him. This realization stuck him simultaneously with a palm strike to his solar plexus that sent him flying backwards. The duality of the epiphany and his blow against a concrete pole left him dazed.

Ranma snorted, "Do you yield?"

He shook his head slowly, stuttering, "How... how... you were never that good..."

Ranma narrowed her eyes, growling, "Obviously, I am now. So leave."

Genma hesitated, considering, then bowed his head and crawled away. The shame, to him, was unbearable. Beaten by his son, who was a _girl_ at the time, even with all of the odds Genma had in his favor. He had never even gotten a chance to work on his forbidden techniques; Ranma was simply too fast.

When Genma reached the edge of the village, he rose to his feet, and staggered towards his camp. <How did he do it? It simply shouldn't be possible!> And then, more importantly, he asked himself, <What the hell am I going to tell Nodoka?>

***

Ranma was still seething, though most of the blackness had bled off of her aura by the time she returned with the supplies.

Chame grimaced at the sight, and asked pointedly, "Why are you covered in blood?"

Ukyou simply stared, eyes wide. "Ranchan? Are you okay?"

Jerking her attention away from her anger, Ranma's aura cleared. She sighed, and began releasing the emotion. "Ran into Pop. Beat him up. He threw water from the spring of drowned boy on me." Her voice became plaintive, as she begged, "Can I wash this off?"

Chame nodded, and Ukyou followed Ranma to help her get scrubbed clean.

Once the pair was soaking comfortably, Ukyou asked, "Do you want to talk about it, Ranchan?"

Ranma blew out a deep breath. "Uh. I don't know. I'm mad for a lot of reasons. 'Cause I got splashed with water and it didn't change me back. Because it turned to blood. Because Pop thought he could still get me to marry Akane..." Ukyou flinched, as Ranma trailed off. Smiling slightly, Ranma embraced the other girl, reassuring her, "Don't worry, Ucchan. I'm here for you, I already made my choice."

Ukyou nodded, and returned the embrace. "Sorry." She stared into the water for a moment, then added, "I trust you."

Ranma slowly settled back into the furo. "I think I'm going to go on a trip. Work out some aggressions." She nodded to herself slightly. "Yeah. Maybe find my center." Turning her attention back to Ukyou, she swore, "I promise you, Ucchan. Someday I'll be a man for you again."

Ukyou nodded, though she wore an apprehensive expression. "I... I understand. I wish I could go with you, but I need to take care of the baby, and... well... I can't cast any spells until it's born anyway."

Ranma smiled brightly. "Always something to look forward to. You can still study, right, Ucchan?"

The brown-haired girl's expression became indignant. "Of course I can, Ranchan!"

Grinning, and slowly lowering one of her hands towards Ukyou's ribcage, Ranma said, "Okay. We'll work together once you can use magic again."

Ukyou sighed contentedly, until Ranma darted her hand forward and began tickling. Ukyou's indignant voice rang out throughout the house, "Eeep! Ranchan! I'll get you for that!"

***

Ranma scratched her head, and sighed, "Well... It's like this. I need... to get out. I like training, don't get me wrong, and I'm learning a lot, but..." She trailed off, unsure of how to voice her feelings.

Chame scowled irritably, and shook her head. "You feel trapped, right?" Ranma nodded. "I don't like this at all, but it's probably just as well. I need to stay here to help Ukyou out anyway." She paused, and leafed through some of the letters addressed to her. After a moment she pulled one out of the stack, and read through it quickly. With a nod, she replaced it in the envelope, and handed it to Ranma.

Ranma eyed the letter dubiously, and glanced up at Chame. "What's this?"

The Machin shrugged, seemingly indifferent. "I've been too busy training you to take care of certain responsibilities. It would be good for your training if you can go out and fight demons. You would be getting practice, and it would get you out of the house." She hesitated a moment, then shook her head. "I'll admit, I'd rather go with you to keep an eye on you, but... I trust you to take care of yourself."

The pigtailed martial artist grinned slightly. "Great. So you're going to have me practice against the weak demons that you're supposed to take care of to keep busy?"

Chame winced slightly, then admitted, "Well... yes."

Ranma smirked. "If it were people, I might be offended. But it's about destroying, not just challenging... so I guess I won't be too offended. I'll get around to the bigger guys later. So. Where's my first demon?"

Chame gestured to the letter, and began, "First, you're going to have to go to Nagasaki..."

***

Ranma trudged down the road, using nothing more than her own feet and enjoying the journey more for the aspect of being _on_ a journey than out of any real need to reach her destination. She did not consider that she was abandoning Ukyou, though others might have seen it that way. In Ranma's mind, it was a journey because Ranma needed chaos in her life. Things were just too... sedate... compared to Nerima. And Ranma felt that she required that strife. <Well. Maybe not _that_ much, but a little bit of action would be better than just training.>

With her cloak trailing behind her, and her borrowed quarterstaff in her hands, she began to whistle a happy tune. The trees around her made her feel calm, and the lack of any motor vehicles on the road she traveled helped preserve the sensation. After pausing for a moment, Ranma felt something that began to cheer her up even more.

Down the road, a small group of men were waiting to spring a trap on any hapless travelers. Certainly, the men weren't murderers, though they weren't opposed to having a bit of fun with any pretty female passers-by that might be coming through this mostly deserted road.

Ranma wasn't opposed to a bit of fun either, though she doubted her idea of fun was very similar to theirs. It didn't occur to her to ask _why_ bandits would be around in the twentieth century, and she didn't particularly care. She was going to be meeting with them shortly, and then they would have an extended physical confrontation, from which the winning party would draw immense satisfaction.

Ranma did not intend to lose.

***

Iratanmo Shiro was not entirely certain what _had_ happened, but a few words from their... well. Victim didn't quite fit. A proper victim screams, wrings her hands and begs to be let go. The way the redhead had just grinned, and eyed the seven men with a certain... hungry gaze didn't fit with the standard 'victim' image.

No, she was not a proper victim at all. 'Attacker' might have worked, but then, Shiro and his band were the aggressors. After a moment, he decided to simply label her 'mistake,' and be done with it.

Feeling began returning to his limbs, and he found himself wishing it hadn't. She had explained that no permanent damage would be incurred, and expressed that she would be returning on this very road later in her journey in the hopes of encountering them again. Shiro was already making plans to move away. Perhaps relocating to the far side of Okinawa would be good.

The other six men near him made noises that seemed to communicate similar beliefs. <At least,> he reflected bitterly. <She didn't take _all_ of our money.>

***

Genma wandered around Nerima in a daze. No one recognized him, as he appeared to be no more than Ranma's age, and had lost the bulk of his girth. A thin layer of stubble covered his head, since he had found that hot water did not change him back. His stance was different, with more finely toned muscles. The only people Genma was aware of that _could_ recognize him were possibly his wife, Soun, and Happosai. But he still wasn't certain how to deal with the situation.

He had expected to simply be cured, not turned young again. The blood, and his son-turned-daughter's rage were unexpected. <Well,> he decided. <Moping around won't solve anything. I have to explain what's going on.>

With a sigh, he re-adjusted his gi, and walked towards the Tendo dojo. Kasumi answered his knock and stared at him with something akin to beleaguered recognition. After a moment, she sighed, "Are you looking for Ranma, too?"

Genma blinked. "Er... no... I was looking for Soun."

Kasumi raised an eyebrow at such a familiar form of address from a young man, but nodded. "Come in, then. I'll fetch him for you."

Genma smiled gratefully, and made his way to the living room. Kasumi motioned him towards a seat, then walked towards the dojo. While she was gone, Genma stared out at the koi pond, replaying the battles he used to wage against his son.

Moments later, a shout broke the stillness, and Genma watched with wide eyes as Akane bounded over the wall of the house, pursued by a wrathful Kodachi. Akane wove between the other girl's attacks, landing the occasional blow of her own. "Damn it, I _told_ you! Last I heard, Ranma was in _China_! Now, leave me alone!"

Kodachi staggered back form a particularly fierce kick, and scowled, declaring, "I'll beat the truth of what you've done with my darling Ranma out of you yet, you uncultured _wench_!" With that, Kodachi began her trademark laugh, only to have her departure hastened by a blow from Akane.

As the gymnast fled, Akane shook her head, deriding, "Feh. She doesn't have anything on me."

Genma swallowed nervously, noting Akane's familiar stance and cocky demeanor. The germ of an idea began to form in the back of his mind. <Perhaps there is a way to resolve this situation... At least, to resolve it to Nodoka's satisfaction...>

His reverie was interrupted by Akane, as she glared at him. "And just what are you looking at? You want to challenge Ranma, don't you?"

Genma started, and shook his head vigorously. "Nuh... no. I don't."

Akane eyed Genma for a moment, appraising his combat skills. "What are you here for, then?"

The man-turned-boy grinned slowly. "Ah... actually, I'm here to speak to your father..."

Akane shrugged. "Sure. As long as it isn't about an engagement..." She trailed off, leaving Genma alone as she departed. A certain feeling of... malice remained, hanging thick in the air.

Genma shuddered, and turned his attention to Soun as the older man walked in. Soun stared at Genma for a moment, then managed to make a sputtered choking noise, "Saotome?"

Wincing, Genma nodded. "The water didn't work like I expected it to..."

Kasumi raised an eyebrow, and fingered something in her apron before turning towards the kitchen. The Tendo patriarch watched her depart thoughtfully, then shook his head. "No luck, Genma?"

Genma hung his head. "I..." He glanced behind him worriedly, then dropped his voice to a whisper, "I found the boy, but..."

***

Turning the tape recorder off, Nabiki shook her head. She had stopped trusting anyone outside of her family after a few 'incidents' nearly led her into one of the numerous black cars that the men in black suits seemed to watch her from. This, however, was wilder than Nabiki had expected.

Rising to her feet, she debated what to reveal to Akane. After a moment, she decided. <Everything. Akane deserves to know, and I'm not about to start making walls between the few people I _can_ still trust.>

Akane answered the door when she knocked, and Nabiki let herself inside with a telltale smirk. "Hey, sis, what's up?"

The youngest Tendo daughter scowled briefly, then shrugged. "Not much. Another Kodachi attack." She frowned pensively. "I wish I had more rivals. Ranma was good at making rivals."

Nabiki stared at Akane blankly for a long moment. "You're kidding, right?"

Akane snorted, a small playful smile tugging at her lips. "Of course I am. You think I need that many people chasing after me? I'm getting tired of Kodachi as it is."

Nabiki nodded slowly, gesturing towards the walls of Akane's room.

Smirking in response, Akane activated a silence spell. "Okay. What's going on?"

With a grin, Nabiki relayed her information.

Akane stared blankly for a moment, then shrugged. "Okay. What does this mean? I doubt Ranma's going to be coming back here for a long time... though I guess... wait..." She frowned thoughtfully, "If Uncle Saotome splashed Ranma with the spring of drowned man water... then why didn't he change..." Her eyes widened in comprehension, "He's stuck, isn't he?"

Nabiki shrugged. "I couldn't say for certain. It's been a while since I've gotten a letter from Chame, and I expect she respects him too much to just go shouting that out... I just thought I'd tell you. You think Auntie Saotome will recognize Uncle Saotome?"

Biting her lip, Akane shook her head. "It's probably been too long. But I hope that she finds out soon anyway..."

***

Ranma perched on a low stone wall, preparing herself for the upcoming encounter. It would be dark soon, and this one wasn't asleep, like the one that Chame had fought in the forest. According to what Ranma was able to figure out, this was a full-blown, awakened, angry... imp. <Well,> she mused. <It's a start.>

The imp, as far as she could tell, wasn't much smarter than a raccoon. It appeared to be about the same size, too. But then, most raccoons don't have venomous blood, and six rows of razor-sharp teeth. Nor are they able to leap over thirty feet. Of course, Ranma was able to do leap just as far, and do much more. Smiling to herself, she took a moment to revel in her strength, and the... rightness... of preparing to destroy the abomination.

Ranma wasn't able to pinpoint the exact moment, though she did recall the conversation she had with Chame the first day out from the train station. But, at some point, Chame and Chame's father's purpose had become hers, as well. She wasn't certain about Ukyou's feelings on the subject, but she suspected that she would agree.

The sun drifted behind the horizon, and Ranma stood, summoning her power to her. She leapt from the wall, above the city, and lighted gently on the top of a temple archway near the center of the town. <Somewhere around here...>

The imp she was hunting wasn't dangerous, compared to the abomination that had attacked them when she and Herb arrived in the village. But it was dangerous to anyone who didn't have the training Ranma did. Or the power that Herb did. Or Ranma's innate ability to actually _fight_ demons.

She let her eyes drift shut, casting about for some sign of the demon's presence. Nothing... not yet. The letter he had read over had said that it had begun innocently enough, with a few trashcans being spilled over, and something had rooted through and eaten various bits of garbage. After a month or two, the trashcans had largely been sealed, and then pets had started to disappear, leaving only bloody scraps of flesh behind.

None of the villagers had been attacked, yet. In Ranma's mind, it was a big 'yet,' since the villagers were slowly removing the imp's food supply. Easily accessed trash was no longer an option, and few pets were left out after dark. <Eventually,> she suspected, <the damn thing will get hungry enough to attack anyone foolish enough to be out at night. Or it will become desperate enough to force its way into someone's home.>

She shuddered slightly at the thought, then turned her attention to a slight presence at the edge of her senses. Smiling grimly, she hopped to the ground, and began to warily track down her prey.

The demon, when she found it, was little more than a lump of congealed darkness, rooting around one of the few unprotected trashcans. Ranma held in a sigh, <Making an offering isn't the best idea, but it saves pets and families. Oh well.> The imp turned its attention to Ranma, the moonlight reflecting off of an odd assortment of eyes scattered about its form.

It made a high pitched squealing noise, and threw itself towards Ranma. She raised the quarterstaff to intercept, and deflected it to one side. Then it did something Ranma was not prepared for. It fled. <Well what do you know? It's smarter than it looks.>

Ranma began chanting under her breath as she charged after it, "Contract made, and contract signed. By the pledge of my blood to your bane, I, Saotome Ranma, _unmake_ thee!"

The demon made one last desperate lunge towards the trees outside of the forest before Ranma projected the force of her spell against it. After a few seconds, it melted, then began to dissipate. Satisfied with the success of the operation, but disappointed at the lack of challenge, Ranma walked towards the center of the village.

Her voice had been quiet enough, until the last pair of words, but no one dared to leave their homes. "That was easy."

A deep, grating voice called out from behind her. "Yes, it was."

Ranma smiled slowly, and turned around. "Clever."

The hulking form behind her grinned, revealing too many rows of teeth. "But now you're in my trap."

Ranma eyed the new enemy for a moment, trying to classify it. It walked on all fours, like a great wolf, at least four feet high at the shoulder. A trio of glowing green eyes glared at her balefully, and ichor dripped from its teeth. Ranma spoke in a conversational tone, "What is it with demons and ichor, anyway?"

The demon said nothing, merely throwing itself at Ranma.

The demon-slayer tumbled backwards, and lashed out with her staff as the demon passed over her. A muffled 'yelp' let her know that one attack had struck home. As she rolled to her feet, she assessed what she was able to glean from it. "Bane. A lesser one. You can summon your little friends, but you're bound by convention and can't enter a home uninvited. That's why no one's been hurt."

The bane growled, sounding indignant and angry, "I'm no lesser demon!"

Ranma smirked, and mouthed something silently before speaking again. "I'd think you are. A real demon isn't afraid of the light."

Snarling wordlessly, the bane threw itself at Ranma again. Ranma held her staff in front of her in a defensive posture, and a glow began to suffuse it. The bane's eyes widened, as Ranma's golden aura seemed to flow from her and along the staff.

Unfortunately for Ranma, she had miscalculated the demon's mass, and the two landed sprawled in an unceremonious heap. The bane immediately began trying to dig its claws into Ranma, and snapped its teeth at her face. Ranma raised her hands, and cried out, "White light, surround and protect!"

A flaring white plane of force sprung in between the two combatants, completely shearing through one of the bane's limbs. Ranma rolled away when the demon burst into flame from contact with the ward. As she regained her feet, the demon limped away, and howled for its reinforcements.

Ranma bared her teeth, thinking angrily, <Banishing is too good for this one. It's time to destroy.> The staff, once bidden, returned to her hands, and Ranma grinned, "Conclave and Convention, Word and Seal. By the will of the light, I unmake thee!"

The demon began trying to flee, as its smaller companions arrived, only to be bathed in the lethal glow that began to spring forth from Ranma. A more powerful demon, one not troubled by sunlight, wouldn't have minded the attack. But these were all too weak, and began to dissolve under the radiance.

The stronger ones melted, while the weaker ones simply disappeared. The bane howled loudly in agony, and Ranma rushed forward to strike a final blow with the staff, shattering what passed for a skull in the demon's physical shell.

As its true form was released from its body, it too, dissolved in the radiance. Ranma smiled grimly. With the bane gone, the imps would dissipate as well. Still, the commotion had attracted attention. Dispelling the light, Ranma hopped onto the roofs, and made for her camp outside the village. <All-in-all, that was kind of fun.>

***

Young devil hunter Tanaka Sana watched her quarry approach. It wasn't aware of her yet, but it would be soon; they always noticed her before the battle. <It's not my fault,> Sana thought to herself, <but I never wanted to be a devil hunter anyway.>

She raised a hand to brush a stray strand of green hair out of her face, and tried to remember what her grandmother had said about this demon. <What was it... something about not having a history?> She sighed, shifting her grip on her weapon of choice.

The naganita had various runes carved along the wooden handle, deep enough to provide a good grip against the otherwise smooth wood. They began to flare to life as the demon approached. She narrowed her eyes as she studied the creature, a twelve-foot high, humanoid, hulking monstrosity.

Sniffing absently, it turned towards her. Blinking a few times, the yellow glow of its eyes disappeared and reappeared. Its eyes found her, and it tensed, preparing to fight.

The young devil hunter took a defensive stance, and readied her pole-arm to receive the demon's charge. It growled, then a red blur streaked between then.

The blur came to a stop, revealing another devil hunter, dressed in loose black pants and a red Chinese shirt. Tossing her red pigtail over her shoulder, the newcomer smirked at Sana, then bounded over to her side. She nodded at Sana, jerking a thumb over her shoulder towards the dumbfounded demon. "Need any help?"

Sana gaped, confused and surprised to find another demon hunter in the region. After a moment, she nodded, managing to get out, "Um... if you don't mind... I'm not very good at this."

The redhead laughed, "Don't worry, this lug's nothing compared to some of the things I've fought recently." Turning her attention back to the demon, she asked, "What's your name, anyway?"

"Ah, I'm Tanaka Sana, devil hunter." She nodded politely, still watching the confused demon.

Grinning, the newcomer said, "I'm Saotome Ranma, heir of the Machin tribe. Nice to meet you. Now let's kick this thing's butt!"

Sana charged forward with Ranma, but stumbled to a halt when Ranma simply breezed past her. Ranma's aura glowed bright gold, and the demon braced for an attack. The redheaded demon hunter summoned a quarterstaff and slammed her weapon against the demon's kneecap, then spun it around in a combination to strike the back of its ankle.

Stunned, Sana watched as Ranma danced through the demon's blows, only taking a single hit in the battle. The kick knocked into her, slamming her through a wall. The demon limped towards her, to finish the job, but she simply bounded back to her feet and began chanting. An explosion of light later, the demon was reduced to smoking rubble, and Ranma was dusting her hands off.

Sana collapsed to her knees, jaw agape. Ranma shook her head, complaining, "Weird. That was the first time I've dealt with a demon that wasn't called here by an Outsider." She glanced at Sana, and helped the girl to her feet. "I guess it seems kind of weak compared to them."

"Um..." was all that Sana could manage. Shaking her head, she asked, "How... who taught you to fight? I... could use someone like you to help me out."

Ranma blinked, taken aback. "Uh... well. My mentor is Chame. She's Machin as well... I guess I could tell you a few tricks... who taught you to fight them, anyway?"

Sana put on her proudest expression. "My grandmother and my father! We've been fighting demons for thirteen generations."

The redhead tugged at her pigtail for a moment, thinking that over. "Um... thirteen generations... that's... about four, maybe five hundred years, right?"

Scrunching her nose up in concentration, Sana nodded. "I... think so... how long has your family been hunting demons?"

Ranma grimaced, leaning against the section of the nearby wall that hadn't been reduced to rubble. "Not sure, really. I never asked Mom, but... um, have you heard of Dakahoshi Nouma? She was my grandmother."

Sana shook her head. "Not really, but if you want to talk to my grandmother, she might know."

Shrugging, Ranma stepped away from the wall. "Sure. I've got a while before I need to go back to my wife."

The green-haired devil hunter blinked a few times, then shook her head. "Uh... right. Our home is over here."

Ranma fell into step beside the other girl. "Okay. So, how long have you been hunting demons?"

Sana winced, then admitted, "About two months, actually. Like I've said, I'm not very good at it..."

The pigtailed girl shrugged. "That's about the same for me, then. I've had a lot more training, though. And I was a martial artist for a long while before that." She shook her head. "Actually, I still am. I just fight demons mostly, now."

"Martial arts? Is that how you were able to do all that?" she asked, curious.

"Um... which part?"

Sana deadpanned. "The lights and the explosions and the surviving being smashed through a stone wall part."

Ranma smirked. "Er... some of it. Chame's teaching me magic, too."

Sana stumbled, and turned to face the other devil hunter. "You know, you really know how to make a devil hunter feel inferior..."

Ranma blinked a few times before realization set in. Then she winced, apologizing, "Ah... sorry about that. Don't feel bad, most humans aren't as powerful as we are."

The devil hunter wouldn't have been able to believe it was possible to be shocked more, but she was. "Uh?"

Ranma smacked herself in the forehead. "Right! The Machin tribe is closely related, but we aren't completely human. Anyway, where is your house?"

Sana coughed weakly. "Um... what... how are you different?"

With a nervous glance around, Ranma shrugged. "Er... we... change. I don't like to talk about that part much, though. We also have better magical aptitude, and can control how we age." She looked wistful for a moment. "There aren't many of us left... I've only met two others, and Chame's one of them."

The concept of a basically immortal race of magical lesbians was quite foreign to Sana. Her mind failed to completely wrap around the concept, so she just nodded and said, "Ah. I see," in a tone of voice that clearly demonstrated that she didn't. "This is our house... Grandmother would probably love to talk to you."

Ranma nodded absently, "Well, this area seems like a hot-spot for smaller demons, maybe I'll stick around for a while, and teach you some tricks..."

***

Tanaka Sakura watched her granddaughter's new friend teach her some basic kempo, and shook her head. <I should be happy for Sana, but I have an odd feeling about that Ranma... according to what I remember, Nouma's grandchild was a boy.> Sakura glanced out the window, watching as Ranma landed from a high leap. She eyed the way the redhead jiggled, obviously only barely restrained, and sighed. <That is _not_ a boy.>

Turning her attention away momentarily, she flipped through a thin leather bound volume. The title was worn, and each page was written in a cramped, neat hand. Page after page of devil hunters and their ancestry were recorded here. Occasionally the odd family would have someone especially powerful in their history, though the Dakahoshi clan was more exceptional than most.

Sakura found the page she was looking for, and blinked in surprise. The name at the top of the page was written long before she was born, and next to it were symbols she couldn't recognize. <I wonder what they say...> Shaking her head, she glanced at the ideogram, then scowled. <Who is Chame, anyway... A proper devil hunter has a last name.>

"Not always." Sakura nearly jumped out of her seat, but settled for merely yelping and spinning to face Ranma. The redhead blanched for a moment. "Sorry. Need to work on not picking up stray thoughts. Did you want to ask me any questions?"

The old woman calmed herself, then nodded. "Do you recognize these symbols?"

Ranma leaned down and peered at them, then smiled, "Yeah, it's in Machin. But that name is 'Ileyka, of house... Ono.'" Ranma frowned for a moment, then shook her head. "Hmm... I wonder if Chame knew her, since she was engaged to Ono Tofu..." Sighing, she read on, "'Daughter of Ileya and Mahki, of house...'" Ranma blinked, "Sorry, that last one's too smudged to make out. Still, Chame might know whoever Ileyka is... I'll have to remember to ask her."

Sakura furrowed her brow in thought for a moment. "Ono Tofu? He must have been dead for four hundred years by now."

Ranma pulled a chair over and sat near Sakura. Sana entered the room, humming to herself and fresh from the bath. Ranma glanced at her and smiled briefly before turning her attention to the book again. "No. Doctor Tofu was pretty healthy the last time I saw him. He's Machin. I know he was around when Chame was young, so he's probably close to about three thousand five hundred years old now."

With a sigh, the old woman flipped the book to the section on the Dakahoshi clan, setting aside her questions on 'Machin' for later. "I'll admit," she warned. "This hasn't been updated in a while... But if this is true, then your grandfather is... Dakahoshi Akira. He married... Kuritsu Nouma... and they had a daughter named Nodoka. Is that right?"

Ranma shrugged. "It might be. Nodoka is my mother's name, but I never learned my grandfather's. What's so special about him?"

Sakura shuddered, trying to avoid fidgeting nervously. "Dakahoshi Akira wasn't human."

Ranma snorted. "Well, I had to get Machin ancestry somewhere. So he's Machin, right?"

The old woman swallowed nervously. "He's... he was the second eldest grandson of Shen-Lung."

The redhead blinked a few times, then shrugged. "Uh... Who's Shen-Lung?"

Sakura shared a glance with the even more stunned Sana. The green-haired devil hunter worked her jaw for a moment, unable to explain, and shocked that Ranma wouldn't know.

***

Shampoo idly flipped through a book, until something caught her eye. She frowned, and began reading the entry in further detail. The passage described one of the four dragons that corresponded to the compass points.

Shen-Lung was the Spiritual Dragon; his appointed task was to control the wind and rain. He and his children were the fathers of mages and scholars. Though he himself had hid away beneath the earth to slumber until a time when he was needed again, his children roamed free. Without their father's guidance and temperament, they began to stray from their tasks, and soon, forgot them.

The grandchildren of Shen-Lung were never aware of their parent's tasks, until their failure brought the gods' wrath upon them. The third generation battled their parents, and eventually drove them to ground, to sleep with their grandfather while they recovered the fallen pride of the Shen-Lung dynasty.

In time, as magic began to fade, and technology and science advanced, the dragons went to ground, one-by-one, either taking human guise, or joining their brethren in their long slumber.

Shaking her head, Shampoo put the book away, and delved deeper into the library. <What brought that to my attention, I wonder?>

***

Ranma scratched her chin thoughtfully. "So... then you're saying that my great-great grandfather is a dragon? The Lord of Wind and Rain?"

Sana nodded solemnly. "Ah... yeah. I'm not a great devil hunter, and even I know that."

Sakura winced, shooting a dark glance at her granddaughter. "Don't worry about it too much, Ranma... it's not something most people would know about, but Akira and Nouma were quite famous in devil hunter circles."

Ranma rolled her eyes. "Okay, but I don't think this means much, because I've met Herb, the Prince of the Musk. He's got dragon blood, and it shows. He had pointed ears, and a dragon's eyes. I don't have anything like that."

Sakura bit her lip thoughtfully. "I'm not familiar with the Musk... can you explain them to me? Or the Machin for that matter?"

Hesitantly, Ranma considered. <I really don't want to explain Jusenkyou again... and I couldn't prove it anyway, now...> "Ah... the Musk managed to catch a dragon, and bred it into their tribe... kind of. The princes of the tribe have it as their legacy."

Nodding, Sakura asked. "How many generations removed?"

Ranma shrugged indifferently. "Well, Herb said they didn't, um... let me think... the oldest would be, ah... one thousand five hundred years, the most recent probably closer to two or three hundred... I'm _not_ really sure, though."

Sakura scowled. "That might not mean much. The blood might not reduce in the power it passes on, or it might fluctuate between generations."

Ranma raised an eyebrow, asking, "How does that work?"

The old woman steepled her hands in thought. "Well, if someone is half dragon, then their children can be born with more than half of the traits from their respective parents... the strength of the blood can rise or dwindle over generations."

The redhead shrugged again. "Okay, I understand that, but Herb said that the blood was weak in him. And the signs were obvious. Even Mom looks completely human to me. As far as I can tell, she's perfectly normal." She frowned, then added, "I still don't understand how I can be Machin, if neither of my parents are."

Sakura hemmed thoughtfully. "It's possible that whoever you think is your father... isn't."

Ranma nodded, hiding a smile, "It's occurred to me, but that's not exactly the kind of thing you go and ask your mother about, is it?"

Sana giggled, having recovered slightly. "She's got a point there, Grandmother."

Sakura scowled briefly at Sana again, then turned to Ranma. "Well, there's a perfectly reasonable explanation for that, too. Dragons can shape shift, so you might have a more draconian form, and simply not have slipped into it before."

Ranma flinched at that. <Shape shift? If that's true... then the reason I change... but that's not right. The Musk managed to lock a dragon in with Jusenkyou, so it _would_ have worked on me, and the scrying mirror showed that it didn't. At least, not in a way that they expected...> "Uh. Shape-shift, huh? Can you tell me more about that?"

The old woman pulled another worn book out from a multitude, laying in a neat stack near her. "Well... dragons have a lot of powers, and I'm hardly an expert on what they can and cannot do. I simply know more than you do at the moment." She thumbed through it for a moment, then nodded to herself. "But... things like super-human strength and speed, or advanced healing rates. An affinity for magic, or maybe shape-shifting and flight... Ah. Here we go... they could take on human guise, to spend time among humans, if they desired. Some could change into almost anything they wanted."

Ranma frowned, puzzling the idea over. <Hmm... strength and speed? I'm fast, and I guess I'm strong, too, but Ryouga's stronger, and I doubt _he's_ got draconian ancestry. I heal fast, but Herb healed faster, and he said he had hardly any dragon's blood. The affinity to magic is Machin, and I can't fly... but Herb could... kind of.> Finally, Ranma shook her head. "I don't think so, Chame said I was completely Machin. Full-blooded. Nothing else."

Sakura closed the book, a thoughtful expression on her face. "I don't know... what can you tell me about the Machin, then?"

Snorting, Ranma rolled her eyes. "Not much. Let's see... the tribe was destroyed by the Joketsuzoku about... three thousand and um... four-hundred years ago. Since then, the survivors scattered."

Sana frowned. "You said there was more..."

Ranma frowned, then sighed, "Right... I don't... well. Okay, fine. I'll tell you. The people of the Machin tribe change. We can also control... well, I can't. Chame says I just froze myself at this age when I started waking to my heritage, so I'm stuck until I figure the trick out." She shrugged nonchalantly. "I'm not exactly worried about it, though. Chame stopped herself early, too. I guess she'd be about sixteen, maybe a tad younger... been that way for the last three thousand years. Other than that, the Machin have an affinity for magic, and, um... are typically slow learners."

Sakura cocked her head to one side, considering. "How old are you, then?"

Blinking, Ranma calculated aloud, "Uh... I turned eighteen a few weeks ago." She smacked herself in the forehead, exclaiming, "Ucchan's birthday is coming up!"

Sana giggled, teasing, "Who's Ucchan, your boyfriend?"

Ranma winced at the implication, retorting, "Ukyou is my wife."

The Tanakas stared at Ranma for a moment. Then Sana nodded. "You mentioned something about that... I just forgot."

Sakura frowned, eyeing Ranma with some confusion. "Is that what you mean... about the Machin... changing?"

Ranma eyed the two for a moment, then nodded. "I was born a guy, but something happened at Jusenkyou... I'd rather not get into that part right now. Regardless, after that, I started changing between being a guy and a girl... I'm stuck, now. But Ucchan's waiting for me..." She smiled, thinking out loud. "We're going to have a baby, soon."

Sana found her voice after a moment, "The Machin... all changed like that?"

The young Machin shook her head. "No... Chame said she didn't think so. She was around when they all pretty much lived in one village, so she'd know. Her hair changes color, and I used to swap genders. Heh. She says some of the others changed, but doesn't remember much about how. I think that's enough weird heritage to be worried about without adding dragons."

***

Genma sighed. "Tendo... about Ranma..."

Soun looked slightly displeased. "What about your wayward son?"

The black-haired boy sighed, and adjusted his glasses. "I've only been back for a few days, but... it seems to me that Akane has improved quite a lot."

Soun nodded slowly, not sure where this conversation was going. "Yes..."

Genma stared at the table. "I don't really think that I can force him to do anything he doesn't want to. As much as I hate to admit it, he's much better than I am. I can't force him."

One eye twitching, the Tendo patriarch sipped from his tea. "I see. And?"

Genma flicked his eyes nervously to Soun, then away again. "We can still unite the schools, if I train Akane in the Saotome half... it... well. If she masters both halves of the school, _she_ might be able to make Ranma see reason where we have failed."

Soun frowned, unsure. "I... suppose... there's not much of a choice in the matter, is there? Fine. We can only hope that she can catch him."

The man-turned-boy smiled weakly. "Well, I'd better discuss it with her, then."

***

Akane and Nabiki shared a glance from Nabiki's room, and sighed. Nabiki put down her tape recorder. "Every time you think they would learn..."

The short-haired girl waved a hand dismissively. "It doesn't matter. I don't have a problem learning Uncle Saotome's half of the school. I'm not going to try and make Ranma change his mind, and it wouldn't do much since I haven't got the vaguest idea of where he is _anyway_."

Nabiki raised an eyebrow. "Uncle Saotome might know where he is."

Akane frowned thoughtfully. "That's true, but I'm hardly going to do what they want me to about Ranma."

With a shrug, Nabiki flopped down onto her bed. "That's probably for the best, then. Have you written Ranma a letter? I haven't heard from Chame in a while, so I don't know what he's up to."

Wincing at the reminder, Akane shook her head. "I... I want to talk to him in person... someday. I kind of wonder why he never said goodbye."

Nabiki frowned. "He, uh... he couldn't. You were a little out of it because of the love potion, but Ranma asked me to tell you that he said goodbye, and he was sorry." She paused, considering. "I'm not sure, but I get the idea he was planning on coming back, then. Now, I don't think he is."

Akane climbed out Nabiki's window. "Well, we'll see."

***

For Ranma, the battles had become a form of release. She was not bloodthirsty by nature, but the utter _rightness_ of destroying demons thrilled her too much to be denied. When she wasn't fighting, she was thinking about it, only stopping to think of Ukyou, or her past.

Other demon hunters, (or devil hunters, as they might call themselves) shared Ranma's zeal for the hunt, and she found herself with many brief, but intense partners.

She wasn't afraid of losing her sanity, or her humanity at this point; she simply lost herself in the thrill of the battle.

Losing herself to the battle, the constant struggle, and always emerging victorious, Ranma fought through the days, stopping occasionally to swap tricks and tactics with fellow hunters.

***

Ukyou paced pensively, feeling contained and irate at her inability to practice magic.

Chame wisely chose that moment to not be there, and gave Ukyou a wide berth. Eventually, loneliness would beat back the anger, and the brown-haired woman would hunt down her mentor for a brief chat about... well, anything, at this point.

And so the days went.

***

Ranma sighed wistfully, and tucked the last of the letters into her pouch. <No more demons to hunt.> She shook her head, irate. <Bah. I've been neglecting Ukyou for...> She stared at the moon and cast her mind back. <Gods! Months! She's going to be _pissed_ when I get home!>

Frowning, the redhead stirred up the coals in the campfire. <I'd better get her a nice present to make up for it. I don't want _her_ getting mallet happy.> She resisted the urge to smack herself. <What brought that up? Grr... bad Ranma. Don't think about Akane. Think about Ukyou.>

She turned her face towards the sea of the sky, but the twinkling points in the darkness were unable to help her.

***

Ukyou stared blankly, while Chame chatted on about Ukyou taking care of herself. She turned her attention to Chame, who was wringing out a washcloth. "So... you need to stay warm. It's been... about six months now, and you have to take care of yourself."

The brown-haired girl nodded unhappily. "I understand... but I miss Ranma."

Chame frowned. "He should be back soon, don't worry about it." Shaking her head, she set a tray in front of Ukyou, commanding, "Now eat."

Ukyou grimaced, and did as she was told. Once done, Ukyou put a hand in the basin of warm water, and let the drops fall back in, one by one. Frowning, she lifted one hand, and let the water dribble down onto Chame's head.

The Machin woman made a wry expression, and checked Ukyou's temperature. "You're going to be fine, and Ranma will be home soon." <Where is he, anyway?>

Ranma's response was almost instantaneous, <Chame, we need to talk. I'm about four hours away right now. Don't tell Ucchan, I want to surprise her.>

The redhead blinked, then frowned as she noticed Ukyou still dribbling water on her head. "If you keep that up, you're going to make my hair look funny."

The okonomiyaki chef shook her head. "It's still all red."

Chame raised an eyebrow, and pulled a braid around to examine it. Ukyou obligingly splashed it, and it remained red. "Huh. I wonder..." She trailed off as it suddenly shifted, becoming bluish-black. Chame blinked, and pulled around the other braid, which had also darkened. "Now... how in the hells did that happen?"

Ukyou sighed, and settled back into her bed. "I don't know. Ranma changed like that; all or nothing. Maybe you're just catching up... You know, I've never seen you with your hair splotchy, like you said; I've only ever seen it be one color."

Frowning, the Machin mulled it over. <Ranma? You're right, we need to talk. Something quite odd is going on here...>

Her only response was a vague sense of urgency from Ranma.

***

Tarou stared into the sea moodily, brooding over his month with the Tendos. He heard footsteps approaching him, but chose to ignore them for now. Shortly after he landed in China, he had gotten some hot water from some unwilling natives. After that, he had retreated to a rocky outcropping to think.

That was several weeks ago, but Tarou had a lot of thinking to do.

A voice shattered his tranquility. "Tarou."

The sometimes-monster wheeled angrily, then his eyes-widened as his jaw fell slack. After blinking a few times he managed to say, "Uh?"

The figure he was facing smiled grimly, "I give you a choice, then... and a way out. Would you like to have your name changed?"

Tarou gathered himself enough to rise to his feet, and nodded slowly. "I suppose you can do that?"

The figure's smile widened. "Perhaps... If you agree to join the Band of the Dead, then perhaps."

Tarou swallowed nervously, then nodded. "I agree, then..."

"Refer to me as Master, Student."

Tarou fought off a feeling of deja vu, and shifted his feet uncomfortably. "Of course... Master."

"Excellent. Come join your brother."

***

Ranma burst into the room, startling both his wife and his teacher. "Ucchan!"

Ukyou stared for a moment, then growled, "Get over here and kiss me, you jackass!"

Ranma gingerly hugged Ukyou, "Ucchan... I'm really sorry... I'm never going to do that again."

Chame retreated while the couple was reuniting, trying to make herself inconspicuous.

The okonomiyaki chef clung to Ranma, fighting back tears that had been held in for weeks, exclaiming, "You'd better not!"

The redhead pushed herself away to examine Ukyou, asking, "How... um... six months, right?"

Ukyou smiled, and Ranma set one hand on her stomach. "Yep. I'm certainly showing, aren't I?"

Ranma grinned. "Yeah... Hey, Um... I got you something for your birthday." Ranma dashed to the door, and returned a moment later with a small package. "It's... I was thinking of you and had these made specially..."

Ukyou slowly unwrapped the package, revealing a small pair of silver earrings, shaped like tiny spatulas. She repressed the urge to giggle. "That... that was what you got me after all your time on the road?"

The redhead looked slightly abashed. "Well... there was one other thing I thought of. You miss being able to practice magic, right?"

The pregnant woman nodded. "Almost as much as I missed you, Ranchan." She frowned, thinking to herself, <I love you, you big idiot, but I don't think we were ready for this... still, it's a little late for second thoughts _now_.>

Ranma grinned cockily. "Wouldn't you have liked to have been there, fighting demons and casting spells?"

Ukyou grimaced. "Get to your point, Ranchan. You're teasing me."

The redhead's smile widened. "Then I have a special treat for you. Close your eyes..."

With a slight frown still marring her expression, Ukyou allowed her eyes to drift shut. "Okay, Ranchan..." Then she felt a subtle push against her mind, and began to get glimpses and fleeting images of battles that Ranma had fought, and people that she had met during her months away. The images began to come faster, and become more intense, until they were nearly blinding in their intensity.

Then it was over, and a gentle kiss from Ranma broke the spell. But the memories remained. Ukyou's eyes refused to focus for a long moment, but she could remember the battles, the fighting, and the _magic_. She could _feel_ the power going through her as she lashed out at demons, and she remembered the long hours walking down deserted roads.

The memory of brushing a damped strand of red hair out of her face returned briefly, leaving Ukyou giddy. "Thank you, Ranchan... that was..." She giggled, "Interesting."

Ranma smirked. "I hoped so. I have to have a little talk with Chame... now why don't you take a little nap, okay, Ucchan?"

Still reeling from the rush of foreign memories, Ukyou nodded, and let herself drift away.

Ranma watched her sleep for a long moment, then traced a hand across the swell of her stomach, whispering, "I love you, Ucchan..."

***

"You knew, but you didn't tell me."

The elder Machin winced at Ranma's tone. "Uh, well, you see..." <Ranma... try and understand. I don't know _anything_ about teaching someone to use that kind of power. I've only dealt with a few people who were partially dragon, and then most of them were attacking me.>

Ranma flopped into a chair, across from Chame at her desk. <I won't ask about that right now. You've probably had a lot of people attack you. Now... what _can_ you tell me about it? What kind of things am I going to have to worry about?>

Chame rubbed her temple with one hand, concentrating. <You've gotten much better while you were busy, Ranma...>

Unflinching, Ranma stared into her mentor's eyes. <Chame... I want to know what kind of things that being half-dragon or something is going to cause. I need to know, and to control myself. Remember that stone wall when we left my mom's? Am I going to do things like that uncontrollably?>

<No...> Chame thought, <I think you have enough control, but that's not what its real power is _anyway_. Herb could tell you more; I wish we could ask him... did he mention anything to you?>

Ranma looked uncomfortable for a moment, and spoke, "He said something about 'Ascension.' Do you know what he was talking about?"

Chame cleared her throat, "Ah... no, actually... I'm afraid I don't know about that."

The young Machin snapped her fingers in irritation, complaining, "So many damn questions, and so few answers. Can you tell me anything at all, Chame?"

Nervously, Chame looked away. "I... don't know anything, Ranma... I'm sorry. I wish I could help you more..."

Ranma left rose from her chair, not speaking. <Fine, fine. I'll sleep on it. Maybe we can send Herb a letter. He said his village was near the Joketsuzoku's, so we can ask them to get it to him.>

 

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Author's notes:

Uh... yeah. Basically, this chapter does what I want it to, though I think Ukyou might be able to use a little more angst about the entire not being able to use magic thing. Bah. It accomplishes what I want, answering one question while asking several more. Of course, being the sneaky bastard that I am, I've already hidden many of the answers. You just need to know where to look.


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