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The Unbroken Circle: Chapter Seven

Hatsuiku

Part B

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

What has gone before:

Ranma confronted Genma, in a battle that the elder Saotome lost even if it changed him. In the brawl, the part-time-panda was splashed with the water from the spring of drowned boy, not the spring of drowned man. Instead of turning into a boy, he's locked at a much younger version of himself. Mulling over his options and licking his wounds, he set about finding a way to restore honor without involving Ranma, while Ranma set out on a four-month long demon-hunting expedition, returning to speak with Chame after discovering something potentially dangerous about his ancestry.

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

 

The Joketsuzoku were a proud people, and the lot of them were warriors. In their past, they were nothing more than warriors, one of a trinity of peoples surrounding the Machin.

The people of Phoenix mountain, to the south of what is now Jusenkyou, had little use for the Machin, since their own magics served them better. They met rarely, and ignored each other for the most part. At the time, the winged people were more interested in their pursuit of celestial knowledge than anything physical.

The second camp near the Machin tribe was the N'Dori, and their holdings lay to the west of the Machin. They were a mystical clan that sought the cessation of the self, to become something greater together. Their blood was mingled with the blood of the Machin, thought it was thought that the Machin were older than the N'Dori.

The Joketsuzoku envied the Machin, for their longer life spans, magical knowledge, and the fact that the Font lay in their village.

The Font was a wellspring to the Water of Life, with the main spring in Jusendo. The phoenix people would have declared war on the Machin, if they hadn't had their own Font. The Joketsuzoku wished to be wise and have lives as long as the Machin. So they attacked, seeking to gain immortality and their own magical knowledge.

Being a camp of artisans and scholars, but few warriors, the Machin were wiped out by the Amazon invasion, all but a few falling before their wrath. The survivors fled and scattered, while the dead cursed the Font, and their blood tainted the waters. Like a creeping infection, the taint began to work its way towards Jusendo, only halted at the last minutes by the phoenix people, who crafted two keys to seal back the waters, and confine it by temperatures.

The cold water from Jusendo still carried the power of the Water of Life, but now mingled with the blood of the Machin. The hot water was still pure, and was then used to power Saffron's transformation.

The curse of the Machin was constrained by the keys, the Gekkaja and the Kinjakan, and kept from their mountain, though they had to sacrifice their king to maintain their way of life. The Joketsuzoku then turned their attention to the N'Dori, but the N'Dori had already departed, moving 'beyond the spheres,' in their words. The only thing that the Joketsuzoku found there was a cryptic message saying the Machin had made the wrong choice.

Feeling cheated, the Joketsuzoku returned to their village. The Font they sought was tainted, and the phoenix people who had always ignored them before now began to look upon them with animosity.

***

Shampoo closed the book thoughtfully. If what the book had said was true, then indeed, her entire culture was based on the destruction of one, and irreparable damage to another two. The phoenix people described in the book were much different than the ones her great-grandmother had discussed them fighting in the past. The fact that the Musk had come to replace the N'Dori was of little consolation to anyone.

The purple-haired amazon frowned, and steepled her fingers in thought, <Ranma is Machin. Ranma will hate me because I am an amazon, and my people had slaughtered his. I don't understand how Great... Cologne can expect me to marry him after what our people have done to his.>

Shaking her head, Shampoo returned up the stairs, finding her limbs strangely heavy as she lifted the trapdoor.

Cologne peered at Shampoo from around the corner. "{Great-granddaughter, it's been three days since you've last come up. I want you to learn, but a warrior must train, and eat. How can you expect to preserve yourself for Ranma, if you take such poor care of yourself?}

Shampoo bit her lip, and sighed, "{Great-grandmother... I have been studying, and have learned much... We have no claim on Ranma.}"

The old woman nearly fell off of her staff, and stared at her great-grandchild with an expression akin to shock. "{What are you _saying_, Shan Pu?! I will _not_ give up on capturing Ranma for our tribe.}"

Thinking for a moment, Shampoo took a seat. It was a breach of protocol, and disrespectful to do so without Cologne's permission, but Shampoo didn't particularly care about that at the moment. "{According to our laws, we have no claims on him. Herb told us that he was already married. Aside from which, he evaded us for a year and a day, which releases him from our ways. Against that, our own laws do not hold in his country. Only within our own territory do they apply.}"

Cologne narrowed her eyes. "{Why are you giving up on him, then? I thought you wanted to have him as a husband.}"

A silent minute passed, while Shampoo studied the grain of the low wooden table in front of her. Finding her voice after a moment, she said, "{I do. But that choice is _his_ to make as much as mine, and after all I've learned, I doubt he can enjoy being with me.}" She shook her head sadly. "{It would have been easy to catch him, if I had been clever. None of this resorting to magical items and devices. I could have... no. It's no use worrying about what can't be undone, but I do not think he will accept me, regardless.}"

The Joketsuzoku matriarch hopped over to a chair, and stared at Shampoo sternly. "{Great-granddaughter... I would have been willing to let Ranma go, and simply asked him to be an ally to the village... but that... that... _Machin_ woman superceded me. I cannot forgive that. Rest assured, Shampoo,}" she said, smiling grimly, "{he will be married to you. You have no choice in the matter, because I am an elder, and you are nothing more than an insubordinate slip of a girl, and a failure, at that.}"

Stung, Shampoo recoiled from Cologne's words. "Great-grandmother... you seek to unite me with a man who will not love me, simply to extract your revenge against a woman whose people you have wronged?"

Cologne blinked at Shampoo's improved Japanese, but shrugged. "You don't see the entire picture, Shampoo. Ranma is young, and it will be easy to bind him to us. He will live among us and provide us with breeding stock for thousands of years. Think of how strong our people will become! It's inhumane, but he is Machin. He will become one of us, or we will destroy him. There is no further discussion on this, Shampoo. Now go to bed."

Sullenly, the girl did as she was told; though her mind raced with a desperate need to find a solution to this problem.

***

Mousse crept away from the window, a thoughtful expression on his face. <If Shampoo does not want to marry Ranma, then perhaps she will marry me!> A more reasonable thread of thought informed Mousse that she might not want to marry him, either. He faced the thought for a moment, then sighed.

Shampoo had grown increasingly distant, ever since they had returned to China. While Mousse had always had the suspicion that she wasn't just playing hard to get, he had done his best to avoid seeing it.

Frowning slightly, he decided, <I don't know if she will ever return my feelings, but... I will ask her if she wants to fight me and lose, if for no other reason than to spite Cologne.> He sighed, returning to his house, <It would be better than nothing, I suppose.>

***

The Tendo dojo reverberated slightly, as though someone had just thrown someone else into the floor with all of their might. Which they had. Akane limped away from the fallen Genma, wincing at the pain in her side. <Well,> she remarked to herself mentally, <_he_ certainly doesn't hold back any.>

After a moment, she sank to the ground, and eyed Genma warily. "You okay?"

The boy managed to pull himself to a sitting position, "Uh... I'm okay. You've improved a lot with my training."

Akane grunted, looking out over the pond. <Trust him to take any of my accomplishments and claim credit for it himself. I think I've learned enough from him for a while, though...> "Auntie Saotome is coming over tonight. Are you going to try and talk to her?"

Genma sat up slowly, and stared at Akane for a long moment. Finally, he sighed, "I... must. I've done enough training for you to satisfy the honor of having the _schools_ united, if not the families... I only hope that she can forgive me after all I've done."

The youngest Tendo sister raised an eyebrow. "That's quite responsible."

Genma nodded, staring at the floor in front of him. "I... yes. I've made a lot of mistakes." He sighed deeply again, "I need to think about this for a while."

Akane stared at him, thinking. <Maybe he's finally grown up a little. No wonder Ranma was so rough, with this guy for a father.> Shaking her head, she turned away and leapt up to her window.

To her surprise, Nodoka was waiting in her room. "Dear, that isn't the way a young lady should act."

Akane flushed slightly, staring at her feet. "Uh... well, you know..."

Nodoka smirked. "I understand, though. If you must follow your dreams, you must follow them. But take care of yourself. Now... what can you tell me of my wayward husband?"

Gathering herself, Akane cast her silence spell. "Um... good news, actually. I won't tell you, because he's going to explain himself to you tonight."

Nodoka blinked, taken by surprise. "Truly?"

Akane nodded, dispelling the blue glow from the walls. "Yes. Um... Well, he said so anyway. Oh, Kasumi also wanted to ask you some questions about her pregnancy."

***

In a cellar beneath the house of the Joketsuzoku matriarch, Shampoo paced. After a moment, she paused, and fingered her hair ornaments. The ornaments themselves were a trinity of brass spheres, though her hair was arranged in such a way that only two would be visible at a time.

All Joketsuzoku warriors who had not yet killed wore them. Shampoo's mother had removed them before Shampoo was born, and then passed them on to her daughter. The amazon frowned, and removed them carefully. A warrior would look forward to the day she was ready, and remove them, to never wear them again.

After a moment of indecision, she twisted them, revealing the small balls to be connected by a sharp screw. Swallowing nervously, Shampoo removed a long, pointed needle from one sleeve. <I don't want to be a slave to Cologne's will, existing only to let her extract revenge. I _do_ love Ranma, and I know that I love him enough to let him go.>

Whimpering slightly, she raised the needle to the side of her head, and squeezed her eyes shut. <Mother, forgive me.>

With a quick stabbing motion, she thrust the needle through one earlobe. <Japanese girls have to go to shops for this. Hah!> She removed the needle, resisting the urge to cry. <Almost, just one more...> Switching hands, she brought the needle to her other ear, and pierced it as well. Panting slightly from the pain, she carefully screwed the hair ornaments in place, then snapped off the extra balls on the ends.

<It's over. I'm no longer a warrior.> Signifying their acceptance of the change, a faint wisp of magic trickled from the earrings, and healed the wounds. Shampoo raised one hand to them, in wonder. They would not come off until she died, or chose to renounce her new path.

A wash of pride flooded through her briefly. <I did it. There haven't been any amazon scholars since before Cologne's time, but I did it.>

After collecting the Machin's treasures and knowledge, the Joketsuzoku had split into three factions. The healers, who tried to make use of the tainted Font, were the smallest faction. The next group was the warriors, who decided that their path was the best, since the N'Dori had fled, and the Machin been felled by their might.

The final faction was the scholars, who tried to make sense of the Machin books, and collected their own. But the Joketsuzoku pride dictated that warriors were the best, since they were the largest faction. Healers were sought after, since their strength was needed to maintain the health of the village, and keep the warriors alive.

The scholars were not sought after, since the warriors and healers could use their own magic. But the scholars did have some prized skills. The power to make new magical items, and the understanding of how to protect the village beyond the simple physical means that the warriors practiced... but few men were willing to take a scholar as a bride, and the path was forbidden to men, though the healers were more lenient.

Shampoo smiled to herself. As the only scholar in the amazon village, she would now be given a house and a seat on the council. Since the library was underneath Cologne's house, she would be given the matriarch's home. <This will be an important step towards fighting Cologne's will. She might still win, but at least I can fight her, in the way I have available to me.>

The purple-haired scholar turned her attention to her final task. <One last book, before I can truly be called a scholar by the tribe...> Marching forward confidently, the girl began to descend to the lowest level of the library.

The final floor contained books that Shampoo still had difficulty reading, since the Machin language was so unfamiliar to her. One of the books, she understood quite well. A small locked tome, no more than a foot high and eight inches wide. The lock was brass, with an odd indentation in the center.

The scholar knew that the book contained more knowledge than any other book she had read, but was willing to make this final sacrifice to open the book.

Collecting herself, she placed the two broken spheres from what had once been her hair-ornament into circular depressions on either side of the lock. The book emitted a faint hum, as she pressed her thumb into the center of the lock.

A glowing, coppery colored field of magical energy sprang up from the book, swirling around her violently.

Her vision faded, as the scene in front of her was replaced with her trial.

***

The redheaded outsider was eating from a table. Her prize was being eaten? Impossible! Enraged, the young warrior leapt from the challenge log, landing in front of the outsider, next to her panda. "What are you doing!?"

The redhead blinked surprised, and explained, "Uh, well, we were hungry, and uh..." She trailed off lamely, realizing that no one would be pleased with her explanation.

Shampoo opened her mouth to issue a challenge, then snapped it shut, thinking. <She was hungry. It was rude, but can be forgiven...> "You ate my prize."

The girl looked abashed. "Uh... do you want to fight for it? If I win, it's mine, right?"

Shampoo shook her head, ignoring the blow to her pride. "You didn't know. I'll share it with you this time, but next time, ask before you eat."

***

Blinking, Shampoo came back to her senses. A quiet voice resounded through her head, <What is the significance of this?>

Mulling it over, Shampoo answered, "The role of a scholar isn't just to learn, it's to teach."

One of the spheres disappeared, absorbed into the book's lock, and the next trial began.

***

Mousse stood slowly, wiping the long, bloodied blade across Ranma's cooling body. "It's over, Shampoo. I've won. Now you will be mine."

Shampoo stared at Ranma for a second, then turned away. "You will not have me. You have destroyed the blood of ancient enemies. His kin will seek you out and slay us. Our only hope is to make some reparation for your crime against them." She shook her head sadly. "Though I'm not sure which was worse, killing their only hope, or destroying their pride in the first place."

A malignant force coalesced above Ranma's body. It was invisible, but its presence could not be ignored. It began to strain towards the two Joketsuzoku. Mousse hid behind Shampoo, while the force asked, <Where is the slayer of the blood of the Machin?>

Shampoo answered, "I am of the Joketsuzoku. It was our people that committed that crime."

<Are you guilty?>

***

Shuddering, Shampoo sunk to her knees, still keeping her hand on the book. Another, deeper voice came into her head, <What is the purpose of wisdom, if not to judge others?>

The purple-haired scholar raised her head, "To know that you are wrong or right, but not to force your views upon another."

Unsatisfied, the voice asked, <Are you guilty?>

Shampoo concentrated on the question, then answered slowly, "I am guilty of many things. I can see the error of many of my actions, and the unpardonable crimes of my ancestors. I do not think I am guilty, but neither am I innocent."

After a indeterminable moment, the voice prompted, <How shall you make amends for your guilt?>

The scholar licked her lips nervously. "I shall ask Ranma what punishment he deems appropriate."

The voice seemed to laugh, <He was not wronged, but his ancestors were, and you are not guilty, but your ancestors are. Acceptable, then.>

The second brass sphere sank into the lock, being absorbed, and the final trial began.

***

Shampoo looked around dazedly, and raised a hand to her earlobe, which was tingling. Her earrings were gone. Frowning, she sat up, accidentally bumping into someone still sleeping in her bed.

With the frown creasing her face deepening, Shampoo pulled the covers down to reveal Ranma, still snoring away.

Stepping out of the bed, Shampoo began to feel sensations that no _maiden_ should be aware of. She grimaced, and dressed quickly. Once downstairs, she poked around the house, looking for clues. <What's going on here?>

A hollow, dry voice responded in her mind, as though summoned by the question, <What do you think? This is what you want. A perfect dream from which you never have to wake. You have your great-grandmother's respect, Ranma's love, and anything you could ever ask for. Think of this as... a gift for passing the trial.>

Shampoo shook her head. <Do you think I'm a child, to be fooled so easily? I cannot run away. Release me from this dream, and return me to myself. I don't care if everyone's happy here, it's only a _dream_, and the reality I would leave behind needs me.>

Ranma blundered down the stairs, dressed in a robe similar to the one Mousse habitually wore. He smiled groggily at Shampoo. "{Morning, love.}"

Shampoo returned the smile weakly. <Stop this! This isn't funny!> "Good morning, Ranma."

The pig-tailed amazon swept forward and pecked Shampoo on the cheek. "Your Japanese has improved, dear. I'll make you breakfast now."

Watching him leave, Shampoo raised on hand to her cheek, and felt a tear work its way down her face. <Damn you! STOP this! I don't want this, this isn't Ranma! Ranma has too much pride to be a househusband!>

The hollow voice answered her, <Only you can stop it. You have to truly want to stop it, though, and you don't. But look, it's so perfect, and Ranma's the loving husband he's always been, in your fantasies.>

Shampoo ground her teeth together, trying not to scream, <I never had a fantasy about crushing Ranma's pride and reducing him to this!> After a moment of no response, she peeked into the kitchen, to see Ranma busily cooking.

Spying her out of the corner of his eye, Ranma flashed her a smile. "Make yourself comfortable, it's going to take a minute or two."

Shampoo shook her head again. "No more. Stop this, Ranma. You aren't like this."

Ranma frowned thoughtfully, while continuing to cook. "Maybe. Maybe not. But ever since Cologne gave me that potion that cleared my mind, I saw who I really loved, Shampoo. You."

The scholar shook her head. <No more, please. I can't handle this.>

The hollow voice sounded surprised. <You really _don't_ want to see this, do you?>

Shampoo whimpered, "Of course not."

After a moment of silence, the voice said, <Oh, dear. I'm going to have to summon help, then.>

***

Ranma twitched fitfully in her sleep, while Ukyou clung to her with the desperation of a woman whose husband had returned after a four-month-long demon-hunting expedition. Ukyou was asleep, in her dream house filled with Ranma's children.

The redhead was also dreaming, but in her dreams, she was a man again.

A long silver river wound before him, while he floated above it. Ryouga was chasing her from upstream, running from a demon. But he was smiling, and waving his hand. "Hi, Ranma! Wait up! Don't leave me behind!"

Ranma tried to slow down, but the river he wasn't touching swept him away. Ryouga's face fell, as Ranma changed into a woman, and Ryouga turned into a pig.

Then they were standing side by side, surrounded by a crowd of people. Ryouga was taunted, in his pig form, while everyone cheered Ranma, and clung to her. Ranma struggled, trying to reach her friend, and yelling for the crowd to stop, but the gulf that separated them grew, while the piglet wept.

Suddenly, the crowds were swept away, to be replaced with three women.

Ranma frowned, regaining her equilibrium in the nature of the dream realm. "Now you three are the one I would least expect to see here."

The Maiden blinked. "You remember?"

The redhead shrugged, shifting slowly to a male. "I'm in dream. It's when I awake that I forget. Now what's the meaning of this?"

The Mother cleared her throat, "One seeks to tap the power of the Machin Book of Knowledge. She has passed the trials, but... I fear the Taint of the Outsiders has trapped her, somehow."

Ranma scowled. "Who tries to obtain the book?"

The crone sighed, "A daughter of Joketsuzoku-"

Turning his back on the trio, Ranma shook his head. "No more. She dies. Their kind are an affront to me."

The Maiden continued, "She is a friend of yours."

Ranma turned slowly, frowning deeply. "A friend?"

The Mother nodded, and summoned Shampoo's image. "She seeks to gain the power to counter her great-grandmother, to spare you from a dark fate."

The Crone spoke up before Ranma could open his mouth, "I would like to think that with old age comes wisdom, but this is not always true."

Sighing deeply, Ranma spread his palms. "I will release her, then. What will you give me in exchange?"

The three exchanged a glance, then turned to Ranma, speaking as one, "Memories have no value, in dream. A touch of your center, in exchange for her freedom. Though having her as an ally should be enough-"

"Don't try that with me," Ranma interrupted, "A price has to be paid. It's agreed. I will release her, then."

***

Shampoo staggered back to the floor of the library, barely managing to maintain her touch on the book. <You have passed the final trial. The heir to the Machin tribe has released you.>

Nodding numbly, Shampoo passed her hand across the lock, and removed it from the book. The copper aura condensed, forming a link between her left hand and the book, which gradually coalesced into a thick chain, connected to a bracelet.

Shampoo blinked a few times, staring at the book. <It's official, now,> she thought, <I'm a true scholar of the Joketsuzoku.> Relief flooded through her, and then she thought, <How am I supposed to bathe without getting this thing wet?>

As if in response to the question, the book faded, taking the chain with it. Shampoo was left with only a copper bracelet, which she suspected she couldn't remove even had she wanted to.

***

Ukyou woke, stumbling from her dream to the threshold of consciousness. Lurking on the murky edge of true wakefulness, she luxuriated in resting in her husband's arms.

His strong... She blinked, sitting up sharply. Ranma mumbled softly in his sleep, "Crone... be done with it..." Then he turned his head away, still asleep.

Blinking a few more times, Ukyou settled back into the bed and allowed herself to dream again. <After all,> she thought before she drifted off, <if it's a dream, I should enjoy it. If it isn't...>

***

Wakefulness was something that had come easily to Ranma, though he had always known better than to reveal it. Pretending sleep gave him time to ascertain information about his surroundings before actually 'waking.' This had caused him to be 'woken' via buckets of cold water more than once.

However, when he awoke this morning, he did not spring into full wakefulness, as he was used to. Grumbling, he sat up in the bed, tugging at his uncomfortably tight clothing. It took him a moment to realize that he was male again, though a confused part of his mind noted he wasn't particularly surprised.

Staring down at his body, now that he was male again, he shrugged, and got out of the bed. Ukyou murmured something along the lines of "...Death for stealing the covers," and promptly dozed off again.

Ranma smiled, and walked towards the furo, slowly readjusting to his male form. Once he was soaking in the furo, he reflected on the change. <I wonder when they stopped being 'cursed' and 'uncursed' forms?>

After bathing, he marched in to the kitchen, to meet a bleary-eyed Chame staring at an empty crate with a vaguely accusing expression. Ranma smirked, teasing, "Are we out of something, Chame?"

She turned slowly, and addressed Ranma's chest. "We're out of coffee." Frowning, Chame lifted her gaze to meet Ranma's face. "When did you change back?"

Ranma knuckled back a yawn, seeing Chame's apparent tiredness. "Don't know, really... I just woke up this way. Do we need to do any shopping?" The elder Machin nodded, and pointed the pigtailed boy towards a list. Ranma pocketed the list, and nodded back. "I'll be right back, then. You're going to have to make breakfast instead of having me do it, though."

Chame nodded again. "Too tired. Something's draining all the energy from around the house. I guess it was whatever you did to change back."

A frown crossed Ranma's face as he considered. "I'm not sure. It feels like it's lessening. It should be gone by the time I'm back." Then he readjusted his gaze. "Interesting. That hair color seems familiar to me..."

Fingering one thick braid of dark hair for a moment, Chame shrugged. "It's a nice change. I've been meaning to talk to you about that, too... but it can wait until you come back."

Ranma nodded, and dashed away.

***

The Breath of the Earth carried Ranma to the small village swiftly, leaving him to slide to a halt with his now standard flair. The children who hadn't seen him in a few months swarmed over him, asking him about the evil man that his sister had fought a few months ago.

Ranma smirked at that. The spell Chame had set up around her property made it so that, to the villagers, anyone who was associated with her was considered 'normal.' Of course, how they coped with it differed. Some accepted it as Ranma having a sister. Some of them accepted it as Ranma changing genders with water. Some of them accepted it as Ranma being a perfectly normal cross-dresser. Ukyou had unintentionally helped the last one, on her last trip before she had become pregnant.

After explaining that the evil man was an agent of empress Shion, Ranma left the children, and entered Jiro's shop.

Jiro made small talk while gathering the supplies, and Ranma just nodded absently, until Jiro handed him a large, wrapped bundle. Ranma stared at it for a moment, "What's this?"

The old man shrugged. "Chame said that it was a surprise for you. Wouldn't want to spoil it."

Ranma frowned, but nodded. "Right... well, here's the money, Jiro. Until next week, I suppose."

Jiro nodded, and waved farewell. Ranma began the run back home, running the image of the bundle through his mind over and over again. <I wonder what it is...>

***

The air of exhaustion had cleared from the area by the time Ranma returned to Chame's house. He paused at the top of the last rise to take an admiring glance around. <I guess this is home, huh?>

He frowned thoughtfully. <Well, crap. I never even asked Chame if she was okay with me and Ucchan having a child here...>

Chame's mind reached his briefly, <I'll deal with it. You're pretty much the only family I have right now, so I won't push you away. I guess I just assumed that it was okay.>

Ranma blushed slightly, and walked towards the door, <It's nice to know that we're close, then...> Ranma frowned, turning his thoughts inward so no one could pick up on them. <I guess this gets Chame off the hook a little, but I still need some of my questions answered.>

Ukyou greeted Ranma with a flying tackle. "Ranchan!"

After tumbling to the ground in an awkward heap, Ranma sorted out a hand and a head from the pile, and patted one with the other. "Hey, Ucchan! Miss me?"

Nodding exuberantly, Ukyou said, "You changed back! I'm glad!"

Ranma shifted Ukyou to one side, and stared into Ukyou's eyes. "Yeah... I missed you." Then he smirked. "I can control the change, now."

Ukyou clung to Ranma tightly, and raised an eyebrow. "Can you? Well then I want you to stay being male for a while."

The pigtailed boy blinked a few times. "Eh?"

A sly grin crossed Ukyou's face. "I don't want my husband to be prettier than I am while I'm pregnant."

"Well, I'll try. It's really hard to control, and water still sets it off."

Chame entered the hallway, surveying the damage. The goods had been scattered from Ukyou's tackle, leaving them lying around the heap of the married couple in total disarray. "Well," she remarked, "as much as I'd hate to shatter this scene of domestic tranquility, breakfast is ready."

Ranma disentangled himself from Ukyou, then helped her to her feet. "Right." Gathering the package, he said, "Jiro mentioned that you got this for me."

Chame took the wrapped bundle, and shook her head. "Actually, I think Ukyou got it."

Ukyou nodded. "Er... I think that's the birthday present I got for you, Ranchan."

Grinning widely, Ranma gathered the remaining packages. "I'm surprised you remembered! Well, let's go eat, then."

The meal was fairly quiet, since Ukyou already remembered Ranma's adventures, and Chame was able to ask questions without speaking. Ranma idly wondered if his life had even been anything approaching normal, then decided that it hadn't. "Well, thanks, Chame. That was good."

The elder Machin nodded, and rose to her feet. "Well then, since Ukyou remembered, I have a gift for you as well." Ranma and Ukyou exchanged a startled glance, as Chame padded out of the room, to return a moment later with a black lacquered box.

After setting it on the table, she sank to a kneeling position, and opened it with a small show of reverence. She cleared her throat, and removed a pair of silver bracelets from the case. "These belonged to my parents." Running a thumb across the edge of one bracelet, she sighed. "They were used to declare family, in a sense. Machin marriage rites were confusing, at best. But I consider you two as my family, and would be honored if you would accept these."

Ranma accepted one of the bracelets, and studied the intricate scrollwork. Various spirals and looping sigils were engraved on the inside, though the outer edge was smooth. "What... does it signify?"

Chame handed the remaining bracelet to Ukyou and sighed wistfully. "Well... various things. Mostly to declare family, like I said. They signified that my parents were also the founders of their own house."

Ukyou raised an eyebrow. "Founders of their own house?"

The elder Machin nodded. "Yes. There were four proper houses in the Machin tribe... not buildings, but groups of families. House Ono were artisans. House Magdine were scholars. House Arton were crafters... and house Semdan were the mages and mystics. My parents, however, founded the fifth house. The warriors."

Ranma raised an eyebrow. "So... in the middle of a tranquil culture, your parents decided to become warriors?"

Chame nodded. "Yes... though I'm embarrassed to admit it, I don't remember the name of our house... I bonded into House Ono... my father was greatly displeased." She frowned thoughtfully, "I just wish I could remember." Shaking her head, she gestured at the bracelets, "Regardless, I believe it's ill luck to allow a child to be born to the Machin who's not a member of a proper house, so with those symbols, if you wish, you can declare a proper house."

Ukyou cocked her head to one side, and stared at the bracelet. "So... Ranma can create a house, just like house Ono, or Magdine?"

Chame shook her head. "Nope. It takes both of you, since a house has to have two holders. After my mother left..." Chame scowled. "Bah. My father gave the bracelets to me before he left, and said that I might find a use for them some day. It was basically a statement that he did not intend to remarry... Since you two are already married..."

Ranma nodded, and slipped on a bracelet. "Okay, then." His eyes unfocused for a second. "Y'tha bara nour Saotome."

Ukyou blinked, finding that her own bracelet was already being worn. "Uh? You mind explaining that, Ranchan?"

Chame smiled. "'House Saotome, the house of warriors.' My father would be proud... I think."

Ranma rolled his eyes. "Thanks. I think."

Taking advantage of a brief pause, Ukyou handed her parcel to Ranma. "Anyway... before we forget, I wanted to get this for you."

After tearing his mind away from the distraction of the bracelets, Ranma frowned, and pointed at Chame. "Something's missing."

The Machin raised an eyebrow. "What is it, then?" A look of confusion crossed her face briefly. "Do you want me to bond into your House?"

Ranma nodded. "I think... we're supposed to be a family, right?"

Ukyou smiled at Chame encouragingly. "You're already almost family to us."

Chame frowned. "I... very well. I'll allow myself to be sworn in as a retainer, but I can't bond by blood... I've already strayed too far from my father's House. I have to preserve what of his lineage and blood I still carry."

The pigtailed Saotome shrugged. "Good enough, I guess. I accept you as a retainer of House Saotome."

The elder Machin smiled brightly. "I'm pleased to be a member of your House." Her smile faded briefly. "I'm not certain how long I can be a member of your house, though. When I find my father again..."

Ranma shook his head. "Good enough, Chame. Don't stress out, just enjoy the good parts of this, okay?" At Chame's nod, he looked down, and unwrapped the parcel from Ukyou.

Chame winced, seeing what Ranma had revealed. "Oh dear..."

Ukyou grinned, and handed a small package to Chame. "I remembered you."

Eyeing the package dubiously, Chame removed a pair of earplugs. "I should have expected as much."

Ranma remained stunned, staring at the violin in the case in front of him. <She remembered me watching from the first night at the symphony? Wow... Wow... Wow... I guess I'd better start learning.> He grinned widely. "So, this is about expressing myself artistically, right?"

Ukyou nodded, pleased with Ranma's reaction. "Yep! 'Poetry in motion' doesn't count. Though you might want to practice somewhere away from Chame."

The elder Machin nodded quickly. "Please."

Ranma shook his head. "Wow. Guess I'd better get some books... or maybe someone in town can teach me a bit..."

***

Cologne stood before the council, as they discussed her plan. After what seemed like an eternity, the five other women came to an agreement. "{Very well then, Cologne. We'll go along with your plan... though we don't all share your zeal for harming the Machin, adding one to our ranks _would_ be too much of an opportunity to pass up.}" That was Lotion, the head of the trio of healers.

"{Thank you, Lo Shan. I think that this is for the best.}"

Cologne's subordinates had agreed willingly, and the other two Healers had fewer qualms. Cologne raised her staff, to knock it against the meeting stone and conclude the meeting, but was interrupted by another voice. "{I oppose your decision, Honored Elder.}"

The six elders stared, stunned, as Shampoo entered the clearing. Cologne found her voice first, "{Who decided that you could speak, and who let you into this place, child?}"

Shampoo raised her left hand, and the Book of Machin Knowledge appeared as she summoned it. The old women shared a confused glance, as Shampoo explained, "{The meeting table has three sides, with three people to a side. Are you not, then, three members short?}"

Cologne narrowed her eyes. "{Shan Pu... you didn't...}"

Shampoo brushed loose hair back behind her ears, nodding. "{I have. I am a scholar, and as such, I have a place on the council.}" Before the elders could interrupt her she added, "{Unless you already have three older and more respected scholars on the council?}"

Lotion nodded to herself thoughtfully. "{We've been without a scholar since before Cologne's time, and she's the oldest of us. Very well, then. I, for one, accept her entrance to the council.}"

Nodding to the other women graciously, Shampoo took a seat at the empty side of the triangular table. "{Now then. I understand Cologne's plan, but I'm afraid I have to contest her decision. We have no reason to risk the ire of a people we have already wronged. If we should seek them out, it should be to make reparations, not to enslave one of them.}"

Cologne shook her head. "{And I say that the value of having Ranma in the tribe easily offsets any risks. He is powerful enough to be of aid to us, and young enough to be captured.}"

Shampoo's eyes flashed with anger, but she held her tongue, and turned to Lotion. The chief healer glanced between the two women, considering, then shook her head. "{This is between you two. Discuss, and then we will recast our votes.}"

Smiling, the purple-haired scholar turned to face Cologne again. "{There are still things beyond your understanding, Honored Elder. The one you seek has escaped our laws already, but beyond that, his wife carries his child.}" The women around the table shared a startled glance, as Shampoo continued, "{Those of you who remember the energy from Japan those months ago? That is merely a side effect of his power from the moment of his child's conception. From Japan, I could feel it, and was weak in those arts. Those of you who remember it... would you face the wrath of one who can wield such power?}"

Cologne snorted indignantly. "{And would you risk letting one such as him run free? That power will be harnessed. If he bears ill will towards us, he bears it already. I, for one, would rather have him kept here on a leash. At least that way, he couldn't hurt any of us.}"

Shampoo shook her head. "{And what of the people of phoenix mountain, then? What if they find out what we are doing, and decide to aid the Machin? Certainly, they were not friends before, but after we destroyed the Machin, they began to look on us less favorably. And what of the Musk? Herb spoke of Ranma with no small amount of _reverence_. The Prince of the Musk calls him _cousin_. Would you have those who follow the N'Dori, and those who crafted the Kinjakan and the Gekkaja turn against us to free him?}"

Lotion blinked. "{The N'Dori? Herb calls this man 'cousin?' Is this true?}"

Scowling, Cologne nodded. "{Yes. But we have nothing to fear from the people of phoenix mountain. They dwindle in strength and number with each passing year, as do the Musk. And Herb would not fight us for his sake, aside from which, the Musk cannot fight against women and win very often.}"

Shampoo sighed sadly. "{Their people dwindle in strength and number? Don't ours as well? We should cease the folly of trying to capture Ranma; there simply aren't enough of us to win, now. How many of us are there? Seven, maybe eight hundred in five villages? Can we risk losing half of our numbers just for _one_ male? Can we take his power, and cast it aside, simple to reduce him to _breeding stock_?}" The scholar balled her fists together, and held them at her sides, trying not to get swept away in the emotion of her speech.

The warriors paused to consider, while Cologne glared at Shampoo angrily. <Willful child. I'll have my way yet, now more than ever. That he subverts you to aid him somehow... that power _must_ be harnessed.> Clearing her throat, Cologne turned to her fellow elders, "{And I ask again. Can we ignore this power? There is a risk, to be sure, but we are dying anyway. This one man may give us the hope and the strength we need to survive. It's a risk, but I think it's an acceptable one.}"

Lotion shook her head. "{We... will consider, then. I cast my vote with Shampoo. No healing arts that we can learn are worth this risk.}"

Cologne held her ground, supported by her two subordinates. Lotion's underlings exchanged an uneasy glance, realizing that the weight of the decision lay on their shoulders. Cleanser hesitantly sided with Lotion and Shampoo, leaving the deciding vote to So Pu.

Soap glanced between the six women apprehensively. Fighting indecision, she shook her head. <Cologne will give me more grief than either Lo Shan or Shan Pu.> Sighing, she said, "{I... I side with Cologne. The rewards will be worth the risk.}"

Cologne nodded, and tapped her staff against the meeting stone three times. "{Very well then. The decision is made. We'll start on crafting the wards next week.}"

Shampoo lowered her head. <Ranma... I'm so sorry. It wasn't enough.> Then she shook her head, <I was a warrior before I was a scholar. I will fight for a way to spare you _somehow_.>

The council dispersed, leaving Shampoo alone with Lotion. The healer sighed. "{Well, this has been the most interesting night on the council in many years. You're lucky that you were accepted. I would hate to have seen them argue against you... child, what brought this on?}"

Shampoo heaved a sigh of her own, and sent the book away. "{I believe in my heart that my great-grandmother's choice is wrong. But I don't know how to oppose her at this point.}"

Lotion shook her head sadly. "{I think this kind of thing is best discussed over hot tea. Come, Chi... mm... Come, Scholar, join me, and we can speak of this.}"

Nodding, and allowing a faint smile to touch her face, Shampoo followed. "{Honored Elder, you may refer to me as Shampoo.}"

Lotion smirked, "{Then you may call me Lo Shan. Come now, our tea awaits.}"

***

Akane dodged a kick from Genma, and bounded away. "Is that the best you have, old man?"

Genma smirked, sending a flurry of punches towards Akane. "I'm hardly old anymore."

The short-haired girl just snickered, blocking his attacks. "I thought you were going to talk to your wife."

Scowling, Genma managed a foot sweep, which Akane leapt over and away from. "I will. I'm just not ready yet."

Akane growled, "You know, you're getting really irritating. You said you were going to do it _twice_ this week. And you backed out both times. If you don't have enough spine- Ugh!" Akane failed to dodge a palm strike, and the blow sent her smashing into the wall behind her.

Genma shook his head. "You talk too much, and get distracted in battle."

Grinning widely, Akane rolled towards Genma, lashing out with a kick to his midsection. He twisted, catching the blow on his hip and rolling away. As they regained their feet, the eyed each other. "It doesn't make my point any less valid, old man."

With a scowl, Genma turned away. "Enough. You're almost as good as Ranma was before he left... I know I'm training you right, at least."

Akane rolled her eyes, and began some cool-down exercises. "So? When are you going to talk to her?"

Genma stared at the floor in front of him for a long moment. "When I'm ready."

The youngest Tendo sister heaved a sigh, and left the dojo for her thinking spot. Ranma's old thinking spot, actually. <I suppose I should just be happy that he isn't trying to pass himself off as Ranma.>

She shuddered slightly at the image. <I need to get out and talk to Ranma. This waiting and not talking to him is driving me over the edge. I'm not desperate enough to write him a letter, but...> Sighing, she lay against the roof, <Then again, I could just go and look for him.> She smiled slightly at the idea. <It would get me away from the annoyance of school for a while, at least.>

Nodding to herself, she vaulted off the roof, and bounced inside, coming to rest next to a startled Soun. The Tendo patriarch eyed her warily for a moment, then asked, "Akane? Is something bothering you?"

Akane nodded. "Yeah... I was thinking, Daddy. And I think I need to go on a training trip for a while, to think about things." Soun's face began to darken, but Akane continued, "I could look for Ranma, too. I'm planning on leaving tomorrow morning."

Soun swallowed. "Akane... off by yourself... are you sure that's wise?"

Akane shrugged. "I managed Ryugenzawa just fine, didn't I?"

The old man paused at that, then shook his head. "Not according to Ranma..." He trailed off then, muttering something about Shinnosuke under his breath.

Wincing at the reminder, Akane glanced at the table. "Well... I'm not going to the Higo woods, so it doesn't matter. Aside from which, I'm probably better now then Ranma was when he left."

Soun shook his head. "Do you really think so?"

Genma entered from outside. "I... I believe that she has surpassed Ranma's skill since he left... though Ranma is certainly better than her _now_..."

Akane glared at Genma briefly then turned away. "Whatever. I need to take a training trip, and I want to try to find Ranma." She eyed Genma speculatively. "Do you know where he is?"

Genma nodded. "Of course, near a small village. It's called..."

***

Ranma jerked his head up from his book. "Trying to give out where I am, eh, old man? I think not." Ukyou raised an eyebrow, and Ranma sketched a symbol in the air before him. "I set the geas on him earlier. Now he shouldn't be able to tell anyone where we are."

Ukyou smiled encouragingly, and Ranma turned his attention back to his book.

***

Akane and Soun shared a glance, then turned to stare at Genma. The boy's jaw had frozen open, and he couldn't manage to speak a coherent word. After a moment, he closed his mouth. "That's funny. My jaw stuck when I tried to tell you that Ranma's..."

The young martial artist covered her face with her hands. "Of course. He probably put a binding spell on you."

The two men stared at Akane for a long moment, before she lowered her hands. "Damn. It's a tough one, too. I think Kasumi _might_ have been able to remove it if she weren't pregnant, but I _doubt_ she or Dr. Tofu _would_."

Soun blinked. "What? Spells? Your older sister is practicing magic?"

Akane waved a hand dismissively. "You've been playing shogi for the last ten minutes, and gave me permission to go search for Ranma."

Soun and Genma's eyes glazed over for a moment, then they blinked. Genma plopped himself down in front of the go board. "Another game, Tendo?"

After shaking his head, Soun sat opposite Genma. "Of course, Saotome."

Akane smirked to herself. <Damn, that was easy...>

Dr. Tofu's warning reached her, even as she was headed to her room. <Don't do that irresponsibly.>

She winced at the reprimand. <Right. Sorry, Dr. Tofu.>

***

Rage paced across the yard angrily. The signs and portents that he had received were not pleasing to him. According to them, his host's enemy still lived, and thus he could not exercise full control over it.

Growling in frustration, he stopped to strike at a wooden post. It shattered from the weak blow, sending shards flying. He frowned thoughtfully. <What now, must I do to keep my grip from slipping?>

He turned to the house, where Akari stood watching him. One arm was curled protectively around her stomach, though her gaze was eerily blank. Rage cocked his head to one side, studying her even as she stared at him. <She was easy to break... perhaps I should seek another from my host's past, and enslave _them_ to my will?>

Rage smiled grimly, as an idea came to him, <Of course. I'll capture Akane, as was my initial plan. Once I've caught her, then Ranma will come to challenge me. Then I can defeat him, and my control will be complete.> Ryouga's voice quieted from a dull buzz to a muted hum, as Rage reasserted his command.

***

After checking her pack one last time, Akane nodded to herself, and slipped out the window. She had already warned her father she was leaving, but had decided it would be best to avoid him until she returned. <Now,> she thought, <where can I find Ranma?>

The only lead she had at the moment was Nodoka. While Genma had gone to China, Akane suspected she wouldn't be very welcome near Shampoo, and the prospect of gaining a Jusenkyou curse was not appealing to her.

Realizing that it was a tad early, Akane found a seat in a cafe near Nodoka's house. <Now how exactly am I supposed to ask her for information about Ranma? And does she know anything useful? Genma can't tell me, and Dr. Tofu won't remove his geas...>

After ordering a cup of hot chocolate, she lost herself in thought, not noticing Rage's presence only a few blocks away.

***

Rage strained with his senses. <She's around here... somewhere. I'll wait for her at her home. Perhaps I'll have a chance to take care of the doctor, this time.>

Nodding to himself, he began walking towards the Tendo dojo.

Only a few minutes had passed before he reached the gates. Grinning widely, he knocked on the door.

Kasumi answered the door, looking somewhat more sallow than normal. When she saw Rage, her eyes flew wide open, and she slammed the door shut. Rage caught the door as it was closing, and forced his way in. "Don't struggle, small one."

Smirking to himself, he stalked up the stairs towards Akane's room. The memories to piece together of what was where were fragmented, but Rage remembered this location from before he had gained control of his host.

When he smashed the door to Akane's room, he was somewhat stunned to see it was empty. <What? It's too early for her to be awake. Where could she be?> Rage grimaced, growling low in his throat, <The best laid plans... very well then.>

Wheeling abruptly, he dashed down the stairs, and seized Kasumi's arm. The eldest Tendo sister yelped, as Rage twisted her arm behind her back and pinned her to a wall. "Your vassal is not here to defend you, small one. Where is your sister?"

Kasumi gritted her teeth and shook her head.

Rage growled, tightening his grip and twisting her arm further. In a conversational tone, he explained, "I'll give you one more chance. Then your arm breaks. After that, I'll find out who else is staying here, and make you watch while I break their bones, one by one. Now tell me, where is your sister."

Eyes clenched shut, Kasumi whimpered, but shook her head again.

Growling with anger, Rage twisted her arm further, delighting in the slow creaking sound of a bone being broken slowly. "There now. See what you've made me do?" The bone had broken, just above her elbow, to leave her arm hanging at an unnatural angle.

The eldest Tendo sister maintained consciousness, as Rage dropped her to the floor. He eyed her for a moment, then poked her bad arm with one foot. "Why, what's this? Are you with child? I think you are." He adopted a feral grin. "Wouldn't it be a pity to lose that child? Still, as long as you carry it, your magic is unavailable to you..."

***

Soun wandered down the stairs cautiously. While he had grown used to the sounds of casual destruction over the months of Ranma's stay, Ranma had been gone for some time.

Spying Ryouga attacking his eldest daughter sent Soun into a berserker rage. "What do you think you're _doing_?"

***

Rage slipped under the first wild punch that Soun threw, and returned with a twisting kick to his stomach. Soun doubled over in pain, while Rage shot one hand out to throttle the older man. "How convenient, small one. Your father brings himself here. Now, will you speak, or will I have to kill him?"

Soun struggled, clawing desperately at the hand that was cutting off his air supply. Kasumi hesitated, then shook her head. "Don't... don't hurt him! I'll tell you." Shifting caused a flare of pain from her broken arm, but she bit back a shout, and spoke as evenly, as she could, "She left to look for Ranma."

The bandana-clad boy cocked his head, still holding the weakly struggling Tendo patriarch in one hand. "Is that so?" His eyes narrowed slightly, "Where? I need a better answer than that." He shook Soun roughly. "Look, your father is slowly dying; soon he's going to run out of oxygen and pass out. He's already becoming faint. Think of it, your hesitation is costing him his life."

Kasumi shook her head, whimpering again. "I don't know any more than that! Please!"

Rage tightened his grip on Soun's neck, even as his struggling lessened. "Not good enough!"

Kasumi bowed her head, unable to help, and less able to face the situation before her. "Tofu!"

Snapping his head up too look around, Rage had enough time to fling his comatose victim at the angered Machin. Rage's crimson aura flared out. "The small one's vassal. You will find I'm more dangerous this time, son of Machin."

Dr. Tofu said nothing, merely narrowing his eyes and readying the Makaze. He shifted his feet to a more defensive stance, waiting for Rage's charge.

Rage bellowed, and a blade of dark crimson sprang into his hand, knocking the Makaze aside as Tofu rolled away. A passing strike nicked Rage's leg, but the boy paid it no heed, simply turning to face Tofu again.

While the two combatants were engaged, Nabiki darted from around the corner, and helped Kasumi limp away. "Come on, sis, we're getting the hell out of here."

Kasumi stumbled against Nabiki's support, and mumbled. "What about father?"

Nabiki shook her head. "Forget about him for now, he's going to be just fine. Now let's get _out_, then call the police."

Meanwhile, Tofu somersaulted over Rage's head, drawing him through the back door and towards the koi pond. After a moment of hesitation, Rage hurled a blast of energy at Dr. Tofu, knocking him across the pond and into the wall.

Rage rushed forward, ready to finish the job. Tofu groaned weakly, and invoked one of his techniques.

The bandana-clad assailant only had time to blink, as Tofu disappeared, then reappeared behind him. "Die, fiend!"

Rage twisted to one side, taking a long gash across his shoulder as he dodged. After spinning around, Rage slashed a shallow cut across Tofu's stomach. The Machin winced, and dodged back. Rage growled again, "You begin to irritate me, son of Machin."

Tofu grinned slightly. "Maybe now you know how you make me feel." The Machin raised one hand, lobbing a small blast of magical energy towards Rage. Rage leapt over it, as Tofu focused his will through the Makaze.

Laughing as he landed, Rage observed, "You cannot hope to win against me. You know that, don't you?"

The doctor shrugged. "Maybe, maybe not. It doesn't mean I won't fight you, though."

***

Oblivious to the scene of violence only a few miles away, Akane knocked on the door to Nodoka's house.

The matronly woman answered the door after a moment, seeming surprised to see the young girl. "Akane? What brings you here?"

Akane smiled slightly. "Actually, Auntie Saotome, I wanted to talk to you about Ranma."

Nodoka opened the door completely, and motioned Akane in. After they were both seated, Nodoka asked, "Very well then, what did you wish to talk about?"

Akane shifted in her seat uncomfortably. "Well... I want to find Ranma, and talk with him. I'm not going to try and make him change his mind... I just want to talk to him."

After a moment, Nodoka nodded, her expression shifting from pleased vacancy to guarded caution. "I see. I have taken care to make sure that I do _not_ know where Ranma is, so I can't tell you... but I believe that you don't intent any harm. Therefore..." She paused, to sip from the seemingly ever present teacup. "I hope that you can find him, but understand... I do not have anything to help you."

The short-haired girl grimaced, pausing to sip from her own cup. "You know, this _is_ good tea." She shook her head. "I guess it was too much to hope for. It's just... there's so much unfinished between us. I mean... Ranma left, one day, and I never saw him again. That was..." She trailed off, frowning. "About nine or so months ago... I still can't get over him without talking him one last time."

Nodoka nodded knowingly. "I do understand, but I can't tell you were he is..."

Akane sighed, setting her teacup down. "I suppose. But... I haven't heard from him, so I haven't got the slightest clue of where to start looking."

Frowning slightly, Nodoka shook her head. "I wish I could help you... but all I can do is wish you luck."

***

Ranma sat in the dojo, meditating, while Ukyou worked out. He broke his concentration, glancing at her out of the corners of his eyes. "You're looking great, Ucchan."

Ukyou came to a halt, then sighed. "Whew... Ranchan, I love you dearly, but next time, _you're_ going to be the one who gets pregnant, okay?"

The pigtailed martial artist blurred slightly, becoming smaller and red-haired. "Um... maybe not."

Unable to contain her laugher, Ukyou asked, "Did you even notice when you changed?"

Ranma looked down at herself. "Well. First off, I don't know how we'd go about getting it done, and I know neither of us are ready for that yet." She stood and poked Ukyou gently in the stomach. "Aside from which, we've already got the one to worry about."

Ukyou sighed, as Ranma blurred and shifted back into his male form. "Is that what you've been practicing?"

Nodding, Ranma replied, "Mostly."

Chame burst into the dojo, holding the sheathed Soyokaze in one hand. "Ranma!"

He spun to face her instantly. "Yes, Chame?"

She threw the sword to him, and he snatched it out of the air. "Tofu's in danger, and I can't help him!"

Ranma drew the blade, casting the sheath aside. "Stand clear, Ucchan."

The okonomiyaki chef blinked, and stood near Chame in the doorway, as Ranma seemed to enter a trance. His aura flooded the room, leaving swirling eddies that slowly resolved into vague shapes.

The form immediately in front of Ranma seemed frighteningly similar to both of the women, but Ranma was already too deep in the battle to notice.

***

<Do not fight, simply be, Tofu.> The doctor shook his head, sending a few droplets of blood away from his eye. He grimaced, eyeing the swiftly healing Rage.

Rage released another feral growl, and rushed in to attack.

Tofu's hand lashed out, seemingly of its own accord, and deflected Rage's crimson blade. The two met in a furious exchange of blows, turning the space between them black and crimson with unleashed energy. Rage bounced back, shaking his head. "You are not this strong, son of Machin."

The doctor managed a grin, feeling strength flow into him from the sword, "I'm not. But Ranma's holding the Soyokaze, and he _is_ ."

Rage narrowed his eyes. "And what does that mean, son of Machin?"

Tofu laughed, buying enough time for Ranma's advanced healing to work on him. "It means, Lydd, that you're fucked." With those words, Tofu charged forward, managing a slash through Rage's guard, laying his stomach open and spilling his organs out.

Rage flew backwards, spinning in the air, then halted himself before he landed, and clutched one hand to his wounded gut. Moments later, his intestines began worming their way back inside of him, as the wound sealed itself. "You, of all people should have known better than to invoke my true name, son of Machin." Tofu blanched, realizing his error. The bandana-clad figure laughed hollowly, and rushed forward before Tofu could react, seizing his throat in one hand. "And now, you'll pay the price."

***

In the dojo behind Chame's home, Ukyou and Chame watched in horror as bruises formed about Ranma's neck, even as some unseen force held him aloft.

 

-------------

Author's notes:

This chapter needed less of a rewrite than some of the others, so I feel pretty confident about it.


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