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The Unbroken Circle: Chapter Eight

Ousen

Part A

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

What has gone before:

Across the sea, in China, the Amazon village experiences strife as Shampoo abandons the way of the warrior, and chooses instead to be a scholar, fighting against wronging Ranma. Cologne maintains that Ranma needs to be captured, and the other elders reluctantly agree to her decision. In the meantime, Akane has decided that it's time to search for Ranma, and leaves, oblivious to the fact that the fully possessed Ryouga was preparing to capture her, to find and destroy Ranma on his own. Tofu is now attempting to battle off the enraged being, with help from Ranma...

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

"" Speech

<> Thoughts

"{}" Mandarin

 

"The town may be changed,

But the well cannot be changed.

It neither decreases nor increases.

They come and go and draw from the well.

If one gets down almost to the water

And the rope does not go all the way,

Or the jug breaks, it brings misfortune.

Nine in the third place means:

The well is cleaned, but no one drinks from it.

This is my heart's sorrow,

For one might draw from it.

If the king were clear-minded,

Good fortune might be enjoyed in common."

I Ching - The Book of Change

 

The cup of tea was returned to its saucer carefully. Akane eyed it for a moment, before turning her attention to Nodoka. "Wish me luck... I'll take whatever I can get."

The matronly woman frowned slightly. "Akane... perhaps those at your own home might know more."

Akane sighed, and looked away from the tea set. "I thought about that. Genma knows, but he can't talk about it. Some spell, I think. Dr. Tofu doesn't approve, and won't help. Kasumi might, but she can't because she's pregnant. Nabiki..." She hesitated. "I could ask her, but I really think she doesn't know."

Nodoka shrugged. "I can't help you, dear. As much as I'd like to, I don't know what you want to know."

Shaking her head, Akane stood. "You're right. I want to get out there and look for Ranma, but it's not going to do much good if I don't even know where to look."

Nodoka smiled philosophically. "Follow your heart, and you'll find what you're looking for."

Akane nodded absently as she left. <Like anything interesting is going to be happening at home.>

***

Tofu fought back the blackness that began to encroach on the edges of his vision, still clinging to the Makaze with one hand, while the other clawed feebly at Rage's grip on his throat. <Is this how it's going to be?> he thought to himself, <To fade out, after years of battle? I survived the Rheesh, and the Tyren'xi, I've fought Outsiders and worse. And now, to be destroyed by this thing? It isn't fair. Kasumi... I'm sorry.>

His strength began to ebb, and even the ki he was using to reinforce his windpipe began to fail. <Concentrate, Tofu. Hold yourself in your center. You only have to survive long enough for help to arrive.>

Tofu relaxed what he could, devoting himself solely to maintaining his grip on the sword, and the reinforcement of his body. <Help? Who can help now? You're too far away, and no one else with power is near. There's no one...>

The darkness began to win its battle, and Dr. Tofu slipped into it. <Is this death?>

A battle cry and a lurching sensation broke him out of his stupor, and he collapsed, gratefully sucking in a deep breath of air. Once he groggily regained his feet, he lurched backwards. Blinking, he made out the blurred image of Genma leaping away from Rage, while the bandana-clad boy clutched a hand to his bloodied chest.

Rage sank to the ground, losing the power he needed to rise, and set to work regenerating the wounds. <What art is that? The young small one should be of no consequence, but he nearly tore my heart out!>

Tofu stood unsteadily, using the Makaze for support. Genma darted a glance at him for a moment, then returned to stare at Rage. "You okay, Dr. Tofu?"

The doctor nodded slowly. <I wish I knew some of the war spells that Chame did.>

A moment later, another pulse of energy flowed into him from the sword, granting him the power to stand without support again. <I do, Tofu. Just act as a conduit, and let your body heal itself. I'll cast for you.>

Tofu felt more than saw, as glowing sigils formed around him, in a pattern he didn't recognize. Rage glanced at them, and turned to dodge. Genma failed to notice the flaring runes, and readied a lasso, crying out, "Kinshi kinbakushou!"

Faster than Rage could react, the rope shot out towards him. Genma's unique attack used a variant of the Iron Cloth technique that Ryouga himself used, though Genma had developed it long before Ryouga was a martial artist. The doctor grinned, as Genma stood to one side, with the stunned Rage held in a lasso. <I'll never guess how he did that.>

Seemingly of its own volition, the Makaze rose to point towards Rage. <Ask him some other time.>

Power coalesced, channeled through the sword, and energies began to build in a complex spell that Tofu hadn't seen before. <Is this safe?>

***

Ranma's eyes seemed distant. <For you, yes. I'm trying to hurry, I hope Pops can keep him there for a few more seconds.>

Ukyou swallowed nervously, unable to use magic because of her pregnancy. Chame bit her lip, studying the complex whorls and eddies of power from Ranma. "I hope he knows what he's doing, it's not safe to cast that kind of spell-"

A word of power resounded, hanging in the air for a moment, then the full force of the spell was released, exploding outwards from Ranma.

Chame tackled Ukyou, bringing her to the ground outside the dojo. "-Indoors!"

***

The Makaze seemed to fairly thrum with energy, nearly numbing Tofu's hand. As the reverberations built, he could sense the imminent release of the power. <Ranma? Are you _sure_ you know what you're doing?>

Before he could sense an answer, power burst from the blade, a great, guttering gout of lambent energy, streaking towards Rage's captive form. Genma finally noticed the spell and leapt away, releasing the cord that bound Rage.

His crimson aura enveloped him again, taking the brunt of the energy, and leaving the rest to blast Rage's body through the stone wall behind him. Once he hit the street, he crawled to his feet. <I need more power! I cannot fight them yet... Damn you, sons of Machin... I will _destroy_ you!>

***

Dr. Tofu grinned, then collapsed, heaving for breath. <Ranma? What the hell did you do?>

The answer came after a moment, seeming slightly muted, <I cast the spell through the sword. I wasn't sure you could handle all of that power... he's escaping.>

Tofu's thoughts were tinged with apprehension. <I don't want to fight him. Ranma, that's Lydd. He is an incarnation of anger. It's things like him behind the Ryam Hesdel.>

Ranma's response was curious. <What's the 'Blood Rage?'>

Tofu's expression soured. <The hatred the Machin bear for the Joketsuzoku is a tangible thing, Ranma. It's sealed in the distaff. Anyone who bears one has the power to invoke it against them. That's why I use the Makaze, instead of a distaff.>

For a long moment, Tofu thought Ranma wouldn't respond, until his thoughts reached out to the doctor again. <That explains much... so Lydd is possessing Ryouga, and has that power inside him?>

Hesitantly, the doctor tried to assemble an explanation, <Some of it... he has a part of that power. It's dangerous enough even without him having access to all of it... but it will slowly eat away at his soul... as the blood rage would consume any of us after it had done its task.>

Ranma sent a sense of understanding. <I see. I'm going to leave, now. Take care of your family, Sir Ono.>

The doctor grunted, and sheathed the Makaze. Sirens began to sound in the distance, and he placed the sword... somewhere... before the police arrived.

Genma approached him hesitantly. "Ah... what was all that about?"

Tofu shrugged uncomfortably. "I can't really say... suffice to say that if you ever encounter him alone, you should run."

The martial artist nodded, running one hand nervously over the half-inch of hair covering his head. "I've never seen..." He shuddered nervously, then turned to face Tofu directly, and met his gaze. "I was trying to kill him. That first blow should have gone straight through his ribcage, and left me holding his heart in one hand."

The Machin frowned, shaking his head. "I... are you certain about that?"

The boy nodded vigorously, his voice hoarse. "I don't kill lightly, Tofu. I've only done it twice before, and once was an accident." The doctor's eyes widened upon hearing the admission. "I'm much faster and coordinated than I was before I... lost the panda curse. Even if I'm weaker, my ki gives me enough strength to break someone like Ryouga with one hand." His hands began shaking, and he looked down at them nervously. "I'm not sure what scares me more, Doctor. The fact that I tried to kill him, or the fact that I failed."

Tofu shrugged his shoulders uncomfortably. "Killing is never something that should be done lightly. I don't think..." He trailed off, considering his words carefully. <I'd best not tell him Ranma was helping me...> Speaking slowly, he managed, "The final blast from the sword should have killed him. A normal person who took that blast would have been reduced to ash. You... shouldn't feel bad about failing, but... you only tried to kill him to save me, right?"

Genma nodded, wiping away a nervous sweat. "Of course. I _don't_ kill lightly."

Smiling weakly, Tofu eyed the police that were beginning to poke around the shattered wall. "I've killed more men then I can remember, Genma. Some for little reason beyond... Killing can be necessary, but don't let this trouble you. With any luck, he's going to be too busy for us to have to deal with any time soon. We'll talk about this more, later."

The boy licked his lips nervously, and turned to the police as they approached.

***

Ranma groaned, letting a small rush of air escape his lips.

Ukyou smiled at him sympathetically. "Well, now you know why I told you that power could backlash... and you've had firsthand experience with it."

The pigtailed boy grunted, still unable to move.

Chame shook her head, prodding shiatsu points occasionally as she knelt over Ranma's still form. "You know," she said conversationally, "you _should_ be dead right now. I think you should be happy to be among the living more than anything else. That much power is dangerous to contain, and the Makaze and the Soyokaze weren't meant to handle it all in one go."

Ukyou shook her head. "You'd better be careful from now on. It's bad enough you turn prettier than me; I still want you alive."

Whimpering slightly, Ranma decided that unconsciousness was the best recourse.

Chame smiled slyly, still prodding at seemingly random points. <You're not going to get away that easily. You know, I think this is the perfect time to read one of my favorite books to you. Are you familiar with 'The Art of War?'>

<Is this a lecture?>

The redhead's grin widened. <Yes.>

Ranma's thoughts were leaden with disappointment. <Damn.>

***

Nabiki answered as many questions as she could, while the police nodded attentively. They raised eyebrows at the mention of Jusenkyou curses, which caused Nabiki to realize that she was short several Jusenkyou cursed individuals to use for evidence. <Crap. The amazons are gone, Ranma's gone, Genma's stuck, and Tarou's gone... who else? Ryouga? Hah, that's likely.>

Kasumi had been taken to the hospital, along with Soun. The Tendo patriarch was stable, but had not yet regained consciousness. Kasumi was coping well, seeming more concerned for Tofu then herself.

After a few minutes of shuffling papers, the two questioners exchanged a meaningful nod, and left Nabiki alone in the room. She frowned, glancing around.

The room was rather cell-like, with only the one door, the large mirror, and the single table. There were three chairs, though two of them were now empty, and the questioners had taken the few papers that they had filled out. A sudden thrill of fear rushed down her spine, as she unsteadily wobbled to the door.

Swallowing nervously, she tried the handle, only to find it locked from the other side. Biting back a scream, she told herself, <It's standard procedure, I'm sure.> A quiet voice in the back of her head informed Nabiki that it was standard procedure for _suspects_, but not _witnesses_.

Forcing herself to remain calm, she took her seat again. <Ice Queen, Nabiki. That's who you are. This is silly, don't get yourself worked up for nothing. In a second, that door's going to open, then they'll let us go, we'll go home, and that will be the end of that.>

Nabiki searched the room again, hoping she'd somehow missed a clock. She hadn't. Turning her attention to her wristwatch, she checked, and challenged herself to see how long she could go without looking at it again.

Ten seconds. <Calm. Ice. Think cool. In control. There's _no_ reason to be scared. Nothing is out of the ordinary.>

Five seconds. <Think, you stupid girl! You're acting like Ranma in a room full of cats! Think about this logically. It's just claustrophobia. Be calm and analytical about it. Calm. Ice. Think about numbers. One times two is two. Two times two is four. Four times two is eight. Eight times two is sixteen.>

She managed to get to eight thousand one hundred and ninety-two before she checked her watch again. Twenty six seconds. <Better. Start over now. One times two is two. At least it's not dark. Two times two is four. They'll be back in a second. Four times two is eight.>

Four minutes passed before, without warning, the lights shut out. Nabiki managed a strangled whimper, and fumbled her way across the floor to the slim line of light that came under the door from the next room. She hoarsely whispered words that she wasn't aware she was verbalizing, "Please... don't leave me alone in the dark again... please..."

After a seeming eternity of holding herself and trying to be strong against the darkness, the door opened. Nabiki looked up from the floor, and attempted to regain her sense of calmness, and her normal impassive exterior. It failed her when she recognized the dark-suited men.

***

Genma sat in front of the Go board across from Dr. Tofu. Both were silent, staring at the board without seeing anything. For Genma, the board had become a symbol, and a poignant one at that. Go, or Shogi, it mattered little, but the meaning was the same. To Genma it said: You are playing a game, while others are living their lives.

The boy shifted uncomfortably at the thought. He wasn't particularly taken with the idea of discovering himself, since he already _had_ a vague impression of what he was. The problem with discovering himself was that he was very much afraid of what he'd see. <Perhaps Soun has the same problem.> It was a chilling revelation.

Genma thought on that for a moment. <Soun cares about his children deeply. He has three, and tries to take care of all of them. I had one, and took him for granted.> He heaved a sigh, <What kind of father throws his child into a pit of cats? If I'd had the foresight to read the next page...> He scowled, ending that line of thought. <If if if. If I hadn't gone to Jusenkyou. If I hadn't engaged Ranma to all of those girls. If... I hadn't left Nodoka in the first place.>

Then, after those smaller 'ifs', the big one struck him. <If I hadn't lied to Nodoka when I had the chance. She needs to know the truth, now more than ever.> He looked up sharply, catching the doctor's attention.

Tofu sighed, "Yen for your thoughts, Genma?"

Genma smiled bitterly. "I raised my son to be the man I wasn't."

Cocking his head to one side, Dr. Tofu considered for a long moment. After contemplating, he met Genma's gaze, prompting the boy, "And?"

With another heavy sigh, Genma explained, "I've been... hiding from my problems for a long time. It's easy... it's easy to fight big with words, but when it comes to actions... I think the most heroic thing I've done since before Ranma was born, was earlier today." He shook his head. "I've fought demons in my day, nothing like the one that Tendo tells me Akane killed, but... It was never done because it _should_ be done. I always did it because I wanted the _glory_. To be respected..."

Tofu nodded, motioning for Genma to continue.

The boy cleared his throat thoughtfully. "I think I was a... what's that word? Where you say one thing, and do the other?"

"Hypocrite?" Tofu suggested.

Genma furrowed his brow in concentration, then shrugged. "I think that's the one. If I hadn't been so... hypocritical? I think that's the word. If I hadn't been that way, I would have practiced what I preached." He seemed pleased with his narration, and gave a brief nod before continuing. "I always taught Ranma, 'It's a martial artist's duty to protect the weak.' And then when there was a problem, I'd hide behind him under the pre... pre..."

"Pretense?"

The boy smiled gratefully. "Pretense of it being good training for him. But I could have beaten people that he had trouble with. I could have... I could have been what I was trying to make him... or maybe kept him from becoming the way he did. I did not want him to be so... callous."

Tofu nodded. "I think I understand what you're saying. They say hindsight is perfect. I've... well. Let's just say I'm much older than I look." At Genma's questioning glance, he explained, "I'm older than Happosai. Let's just leave it at that. In... well... before the Edo period, I was a soldier. I've had years to perfect my own killing skills, and fought in many armies. I've only been a doctor for a few hundred years, and this was before the Hippocratic oath." Genma blinked, and Tofu hastened to add, "It's different from being a hypocrite."

The doctor looked out the open doorway, staring at the koi pond for a long moment. After clearing his throat he said, "I still consider myself a warrior. And a martial artist. And a doctor. And other things beyond that. But when it comes to killing, those are the three most important things to consider. As a doctor, I do not wish to inflict harm upon _anyone_. As a martial artist, I know that fighting is necessary sometimes, and should be resolved with as little damage to both sides as possible." He smirked at that statement, "Ranma seemed to find property damage acceptable. But as a warrior, I know that fighting should be resolved as swiftly and permanently as possible."

Genma nodded slowly. "It... must be difficult to walk three paths at once."

With a smile, Tofu returned his attention to the boy. "It is. And it can be. I've gone eight hundred years without feeling the need to end any lives, and R... Ryouga was the first in that time. The last time I fought him, I left him with a warning. More martial artist than anything else. I fully expected him to die in this altercation, as you probably did." He shook his head, "I know how difficult some things can be to deal with. What... what are you planning on doing about your problem?"

The boy frowned, and stared at the board in front of him for a long moment. "Well... family honor is on the line... but I don't think I can hold Ranma to that in good conscience. He's... made his choice, and after everything else, I think he deserves that. But... I've made a mess of things. I have to fulfil as much of the obligation as I can... the houses won't be united, but... the schools will. Maybe someday I can even find Ranma and have Soun teach him the Tendo half of the school..." He smiled slightly. "Honor would be satisfied. But I've made enough choices for my son already. Who he's going to marry isn't one of them anymore."

Tofu prompted Genma, "And?"

Genma winced. "And I have to come clean with Nodoka. But I want to write out my feelings, first. I need to make sure that there's a record before... if she makes me commit seppuku."

With a considering gaze, Tofu nodded. "Then... maybe you've grown a little wiser, Genma."

The boy perked up at that thought. "You think so?"

Tofu just nodded back. "Yes... now I'm going to go get my wife back. I know she's okay, but I still worry... and we can pick up Soun, too."

***

Pursing her lips together, Akane walked down the street towards her home. <I'll just glean what information I can, and then be off to look for Ran...> The thought died as she froze, seeing the wall that had been reduced to rubble, and a long bloody streak on the road. "Well," she muttered, "me and my big mouth."

Dashing towards her house, she vaulted the wall, landing next to the back door. Genma glanced up at her, seemingly unconcerned about the damage to the property. "You're back? Lucky you were gone..."

Akane frowned, sinking instinctively to a position across from Genma at the go board. "What happened? Where's everyone else?"

Genma shrugged, and moved a piece across the board absently. "Ryouga attacked. He... was going to hurt your sister."

The girl narrowed her eyes, bristling with anger. "He tried to hurt Kasumi?" She was too busy watching Genma to notice as she moved a piece of her own onto the board.

The boy frowned at the move. "Yes... she's fine, now. Akane... there's something you need to know. About yourself, and about martial arts."

Akane shrugged, anger dissipating. She idly met Genma's next move with one of her own. "What, some shocking revelation about my ancestry?"

Snorting, he shook his head. "This is life, Akane, not a soap opera. Do you know how strong you are?" She nodded, meeting his gaze across the board again. "Do you know how skilled you are?" Rolling her eyes, she nodded again. "Then you know that if you're not careful, you have enough power to kill someone, don't you?"

Eyes widening, Akane dropped her next piece. With a scowl, she protested, "What? I haven't ever tried to kill anyone!"

Genma shook his head. "I... well. It's for you to decide whether or not you meant it; not me. However, you need to understand; you're very strong. You have enough skill and power to kill someone if you're not careful. You can't use that power without having some responsibility."

Akane sighed, "Okay, fine... but you're one to talk about responsibility."

The boy flinched at that. "Did you ever wonder why Ukyou beat me up when she came to Nerima?"

Cocking her head to one side, Akane fingered the piece she had dropped earlier. "Not really... I just thought you weren't that great."

One eyebrow twitched faintly, but Genma let the slight pass. "I could have defended myself easily. There's a lot to be said for holding back... I'm sure you remember the 'Cradle of Hell' nonsense. Ranma had surpassed me long before that, but I wanted him to feel it was a major accomplishment; something that happened in a way he could remember, rather than just waking up one day and realizing he was better, and had been for some time."

Akane nodded. "Okay... I don't see what that has to do with Ukyou, though."

Genma moved another piece on the board. "It means that I could tell how desperate Ukyou was to hurt me, and I didn't trust myself to be as restrained as Ranma. So I let her beat me, rather than using a level of skill that could have seriously hurt her. Ranma has _always_ been much better about pulling his punches. He knows, and always used exactly the amount of force necessary to win a battle... and no more."

The short-haired girl furrowed her brow in thought. "So you're saying if I don't practice restraint, I might kill someone?"

Genma nodded. "Exactly. That's what this is all about. I've had some insights of my own into the subject already today..." Shaking his head, he rose, and exited the house. Before stopping to meditate near the pond, he called out over his shoulder, "Meditation is part of martial arts as well. Maybe you should think on this for a while."

Akane mulled it over, staring at the board in surprise. <When did he beat me? When did I start _playing_ in the first place?>

***

Akane found herself on the peak of the roof, unable to meditate well in the dojo. The roof was her private place, now. Much as it had been Ranma's before... <Funny that once Ranma was gone, everyone came up here...>

She scowled at herself. <He's been gone for almost nine months. And twelve days.> Punching the roof lightly, she tried to relieve some anger. <Why can't I get over you, Ranma? Why not?>

For a hopeful minute she wondered if Ranma would respond to her thoughts. He did not, and Akane let her mind drift again. <I guess I'd better stay here... my family needs me around to protect them from Ryouga. Damn it... what happened to him, anyway?>

Dr. Tofu called out from the yard, "Akane? Are you up there?"

The short-haired girl sighed, and peered over the edge towards Tofu. "Yeah, I'm here. What's up?"

The doctor frowned upwards, looking worried. "Nabiki's missing. We can't find her anywhere."

Scowling, Akane rolled off the roof, and landed gently in front of Tofu. "Seriously? We'd better start looking for her, then."

Nodding, Tofu paced into the house. "I'll start searching tonight. I'm not certain what's going on, but I have a bad feeling about it."

Akane shrugged uncomfortably. "She'd better be okay. If someone hurt her, he's in for a lot of pain..."

Kasumi looked up at hearing this, rubbing her arm. The doctor's healing magic had put it back into the condition it should have been in the first place, but it still itched. "Akane... be careful, please."

Sighing, Akane sunk to her seat, still thinking about Genma's words. "Yeah, yeah... I'll be careful."

***

As feeling and control returned to his limbs, Ranma slowly found himself becoming interested, and arguing the points of 'The Art of War' with Chame. Slowly rising to his feet, and limping back to the house, he asked, "Did you know Sun-Tsu?"

Chame snorted, and shook her head. "Well, you should know that back then, as slowly as news traveled... By the time I heard of someone worth visiting, they were usually already dead. Sometimes by decades. I _did_ meet Musashi once..."

Ranma raised an eyebrow. "Oh? What did you do?"

The redhead quirked her lips in a grin, while Ukyou looked distinctly disinterested. "I ran like hell. The man had an aura of malice like you wouldn't believe. Maybe he was meant to be a legend, maybe it was just that fate was on his side... it was pure chance that led me to him, and something told me that if I fought him, I would die."

The pigtailed boy smirked. "Better safe then dead, eh?"

Chame grinned wickedly. "I've managed to outlive you by about three thousand four hundred years so far. I didn't get that far by being stupid all the time."

Ukyou giggled, "'All the time?'"

Wincing, the elder Machin managed a weak laugh. "Er... okay, I've made mistakes before... but why don't we not talk about that now."

Ranma snorted, then froze quickly. "Ugh..." A flicker of pain crossed his face before he straightened again.

Ukyou and Chame glanced at each other briefly. The brown-haired girl sighed, "Okay, Ranma. No being macho. What's going on?"

Grimacing again, Ranma shook his head. "I'm not macho. I found my center, remember? But I'm not sure what it is. I feel... it hurts briefly, then it fades."

Chame frowned worriedly. "What does it hurt like?"

Ranma shook his head. "Like there's... too much of me... like the first time I changed. Something extra is trying to share space with me, but there isn't enough room, so I'm being torn apart... it..." He fell to his knees as another wave of pain passed through him. "Ah... it... really hurts. My back..."

Ukyou bit her lip. "Ranchan... Chame, what can we do?"

Chame looked ill. "Ranma... I'm going to put you to sleep for a while. Otherwise you might kill yourself."

The boy nodded slowly, through a haze of pain. In the depths of the pain, he could feel a faint, untapped power, waiting to be unleashed. "Hurry then..."

Chame mouthed a word, and touched Ranma's forehead. A moment later, Ranma shifted form, becoming smaller, more rounded, and collapsing to the ground.

Ukyou swallowed. "What... was that?"

Chame gathered up the slightly larger girl. "I'm not entirely sure, but I have a suspicion. Ranma was in a lot of danger in the dojo, and he's slowly becoming awakened to his third heritage."

The okonomiyaki chef blinked. "Eh?"

Scowling, Chame strode towards the house again. "First off, Ranma's got demon hunter ancestry. I _think_ that's where he gets the power to fight demons, though it isn't usually hereditary. Beyond that, Ranma's got the ancestry of the Machin. Long life, doesn't age, slow learning... though he seems to have dropped all the bad aspects, oddly enough..."

The okonomiyaki chef wondered briefly how one could be long lived and not aging at the same time, but chose not to comment.

As Ukyou opened the door, and Chame marched inside, she continued, "And... the next part of his heritage is coming forward. He's a great-great-grandson of Shen-Lung, the lord of wind and rain."

Ukyou nodded slowly. "The dragon, right?"

Chame nodded back, setting Ranma down on a couch in the main room. "Correct. So he's a mage, demon-hunter, Machin, and dragon. He's managed to control his power as a Machin and a mage, and the powers of a demon-hunter aren't dangerous to humans." Remembering Tarou, she shot Ukyou a glance. "Normally."

Ukyou flushed slightly. "Er... right. So he's having trouble keeping his dragon heritage in check? What's it trying to do, turn him into a dragon?"

The Machin sighed, "I don't know. I don't understand dragons well enough, and I really only know _of_ a few of them. I think Ranma's going to have to go find one and learn from it before he gets too much power..."

The okonomiyaki chef scowled. "You're going to have him abandon me."

Chame gave Ukyou a reproachful look. "Do you know how powerful dragons are, Ukyou?" At Ukyou's headshake, Chame continued, "Dragons had power to rival gods, Ukyou. Not land spirits, but true gods, the ones that used to walk the earth. I've met some of them, and they were _powerful_. They are _dangerous_. I've seen three dragons, and four dragon-kin." After a pause, she added, "Not counting Ranma and Nodoka. Or Herb."

Ukyou sat down, holding Ranma's hand. "Ranchan... is... what are you saying?"

The Machin rubbed her forehead. "Ranma's got a lot of potential to be dangerous. Not... psychotic, explosively dangerous. It's more of a generic danger. If he's not careful, he could very well crack open the earth. Not the entire planet, of course, but easily enough to flood this place with magma."

Eyes slowly widening, Ukyou looked at Ranma with a confused expression. "But... are you... seriously?"

Chame shrugged. "Probably not. Nodoka has no power that _I_ could tell. It's quite possible that Ranma won't have enough draconian ancestry to be an issue, especially since he _seems_ to be a full-blooded Machin... but I'm still confused about that one." Ukyou put her hands over her eyes, feeling even more bewildered. Chame sighed sympathetically. "Let me continue, though. I've seen three dragons. The first was from a distance, simply passing by. I think it was either Shen-Lung himself, or another dragon as powerful as him. Simply looking at him was enough to inspire fear of his power.

"The second dragon, I actually fought... and lost to. He was a Salamander, a son of D'jan. D'jan was the lady of fire... The dragon's own name was C'fai... bloody monster, he was. I was in the Middle East, and he decided to play a game of cat and mouse with a trading caravan. _I_ escaped alive, but the pass I fled from was reduced to a heap of slag three miles across.

"After that... five hundred years after that, I had another chance encounter, and an even _less_ pleasant one. Tiamat's first child, Leviathan. It attacked a ship I was on... the ship was destroyed, and I had to swim to land. Luckily, I guess it wasn't hungry, just bored.

"I'm not sure if you know this, but the primary dragons are, Shen-Lung from the east, he represented spirituality, wind, and rain. D'jan, from the north, she represented physical presence, and fire. Quetzalcoatl, from the west... he represented base instincts, and earth. The fourth dragon was Aker, from the south, she represented growth and healing. The Orochi is one of her children. There were others, but those four were the most important of the primary dragons.

"Their children were the second generation, and they fell... lax in their duties. The third generation drove their parents away, since the primary dragons were already gone. Once that was done, they set about disappearing from the world... certainly, distant descendants still popped up now and again... the Fut's Lung in China, for example. They, and others were still around, but generally, they disappeared from the world."

Ukyou looked down at Ranma's sleeping form, while Chame recovered her breath. "Okay... but what does _that_ mean? Is it supposed to worry me? Is some giant dragon going to come and insist that Ranchan go away, or something?"

Chame smirked. "Hardly. What it means, Ukyou, is that Ranma _might_ have the potential to access power like theirs. Atlantis was destroyed by Leviathan's children when they attempted to bind it. Leviathan escaped, and was sent to sleep centuries later, but a whole _continent_ was sunk, and driven underneath what's now America."

The okonomiyaki chef blinked at that. "Atlantis was real?"

Chame shrugged. "Yes... I'd never seen it myself; it was gone before _I_ was born. I did scry back to it, though. It was about half the size of Australia... and the dragons destroyed it by accident. It just happened to be in the way. Ranma's grandfather was Shen-Lung's second grandson. A child of Ri-Riu... that means that Ranma _might_ be able to summon enough power to burn himself to ash, if he isn't careful. That kind of power was _never_ meant for humans, but he might be able to access it _anyway_. Herb was _lucky_ that he was as weak as he was... he was near the safe limit."

Ukyou gaped openly. "And... aside from accidentally destroying himself... he could..."

Chame shuddered. "Destroy the atmosphere above our house? Accidentally thrust the entire region beneath the continental plate? Level this forest and leave nothing behind but flaming wreckage? Yes. And I can almost guarantee that there is no way he will live through it if he does, either."

With an effort of will, Ukyou closed her mouth. "Oh. Well, shit. I guess he'd better go find a dragon to teach him some control, then... wait... you said you've met dragon-kin before?"

Chame nodded slowly. "Yes."

Ukyou swallowed nervously, suspecting she already knew what Chame would say. "And... what happened?"

Chame's eyes turned unreadable for a long minute. "They died. By my hand. One of them wanted to be empress... she... I don't want to talk about it. I did not _want_ to do it... but I had to, because none of them had the restraint that Ranma does."

Crouching over Ranma protectively, Ukyou glared at the Machin. "You'd better not hurt Ranchan."

Sighing, Chame turned away. "I wouldn't... but we need to find him a dragon to teach him before he _does_ do something... I'd _like_ to think that nothing will happen, and he only has access to limited power, but..." <Oh, Ranma... I wish this could be easier for you...>

***

Ranma woke suddenly, jerking into complete wakefulness. "Nuh." Blinking, she looked around. It looked to be late evening, and she was alone in the main room, lying on the couch. Someone had thoughtfully thrown a blanket over her. Yawning, she concentrated for a moment, and switched forms.

Male again, he rose, and folded the blanket. <Chame? What's going on?>

A moment later, he felt Chame's response. <We're in the library, Ranma. We have good news and bad news.>

His expression souring, Ranma put the blanket away. <Lovely. Somehow, I was expecting this.>

Cracking a few slightly stiff joints, Ranma trudged up the stairs. Once in the library, he found Ukyou and Chame pawing through a stack of books, arguing about something or another. Shaking his head, Ranma glanced around the room.

Chame claimed to have read all of the books in the library at some point, and written a fair number of them as well, but her memory proved spotty sometimes. Ranma hid a smirk. <I guess my memory would get bad after so long...>

He paced to one end of the large room, passing innumerable bookcases filled with information on various topics. <Though I do have to wonder... how did she _get_ all of these books here?> Shaking his head, he paced back towards Chame and her desk. "Okay. I'm here... so what's going on?"

Ukyou looked up from her book, then shot a sidelong glance to Chame. "Um... Ranchan... we've got some good news and some bad news."

Ranma sighed, and sat down in an empty chair. "Okay, okay... I'm listening."

***

Akane brooded darkly, glancing at Nodoka over the table. <What the hell is with this woman and tea?>

Nodoka seemed as serene as ever, calmly sipping her tea. "Well, Akane. I don't know where Nabiki is, either. I have a suspicion that Ranma wouldn't know anyway. What do you think we can do?"

The short-haired Tendo eyed her tea suspiciously before drinking. "Ugh. Yours is better. Well, I really don't know. The truth of the matter is, this is really Nabiki's thing. Tofu's been trying, but they keep moving her, and making it very difficult. He's a lot better at this sort of thing than I am. Ranma or maybe Chame might be better, but they haven't responded to our letter yet. It's really only been a week anyway."

Nodoka opened her mouth, but before she could say anything, a loud growl cut her off. A bear from the nearby 'bears of the world' exhibit charged into the area of the mall where Akane and Nodoka were sitting. Apparently, it had been lured by the scent of cooking food. Akane slipped into a defensive stance, while Nodoka's grip tightened on her katana.

The bear charged towards the pair, when a voice cried out, "DON'T MOVE!" Startled, everyone froze, as a gray blur bounded across the floor, and impacted loudly with the bear. A moment later, the blur resolved into a young man in gray fatigues, and a black tank top. The bear slumped to the ground, stunned by the blow.

Akane's eyes widened. <Now, _this_ I have to learn!>

Nodoka stood slowly and approached the boy. "Excuse me... what is your name?"

The boy glanced at her, then shrugged and began to walk away. "Not important."

Akane saw a scroll on the floor, apparently dropped by the boy, and picked it up. Her eyes widened further as she read the name on the scroll, along with a suspiciously familiar doodle. "Auntie Saotome? I think you should see this."

Nodoka took the scroll from Akane's hand, and read the name. "'Ranma'... Excuse me!"

The boy glanced back, seeing the scroll. "Oops. Sorry about that, I can't afford to lose that."

The Saotome matriarch smiled weakly. "Can you tell me where you got this scroll?"

Frowning slightly, the boy explained. "It's mine... from my father."

Nodoka slipped the scroll into one sleeve of her kimono, ignoring Ryu's waiting hand. "And what would your name be?"

Ryu smiled slightly. "Ah, I'm Ranma. Saotome Ranma."

Akane and Nodoka masked similar eye twitches. Nodoka found her voice first, "Ranma... my son was named Ranma..."

Ryu shrugged, "Well, I don't know... I ended up spending a lot of time traveling." He eyed the woman for a moment. <I need my scroll back, and she might have the other half...> "I guess you're my mom, then."

Akane resisted the urge to choke. <You have _got_ to be kidding me.> Nodoka already knew who her son was. After a silent moment, Akane gently probed Ryu's mind, wondering what he was trying to do. <Umisen-ken? What on earth...>

Nodoka nodded. "I see... then we should probably go home, shouldn't we?"

Ryu hesitated a moment, then nodded. "Sure... Mom..."

Smiling brightly, Nodoka gestured to Akane. "Surely you remember your fiancee, Akane. Don't you?"

Akane's eyes narrowed. <Okay... this had _better_ be good, Auntie Saotome.>

Ryu blinked, then glanced at Akane. "Yeah, Akane. Sure." He frowned, turning back to Nodoka, "Can I have my scroll back?"

Nodoka speculatively eyed Ryu, then nodded. "Certainly. Now why don't the three of us head home?" <I doubt you could handle the kind of life Ranma lived for very long. But I'm going to find out what you think you're doing.>

***

While Nodoka was walking ahead of the pair, Akane grabbed Ryu's shoulders roughly. "Okay, no more playing around. Who are you, and what the hell do you think you're doing?"

Ryu pried her hands away, with a slight effort. "Stay out of my way if you know what's best, girl. I'm gonna find the Umisen-ken no matter what, and you aren't going to stop me."

Akane narrowed her eyes, and stepped away. "You don't know how much trouble you're in if Ranma finds out what you're doing. He'll kill you. I'm just going to beat you up a bit."

Shooting a glance towards Nodoka's slowly retreating figure, Ryu sneered. "You can't handle me, girl. I already told you not to get in my way."

Akane growled, low in her throat. It was a feral noise, and it quickly recaptured Ryu's attention. "Meet me at that lot at sunset," she pointed at the vacant lot in question, "and we'll see." With that, Akane leapt away, bounding home across the rooftops.

Ryu stared after her for a long moment, then frowned, and caught up with Nodoka. "Were you having fun with your fiancee, Ranma?"

"Sure, Mom." <I need to get ready for tonight... that's no ordinary girl.>

***

Ranma scratched his head. "Man... I hope that this is the last of it. Getting sent away to learn to control yourself every time you find out more about your ancestors is getting old."

Ukyou sighed, "Ranchan... I don't want you to go..."

Chame glanced at Ukyou briefly, before returning her attention to Ranma. "All we need to do is find a dragon... and convince it to teach you. Do you have any ideas?"

The pigtailed boy shrugged. "Ryugenzawa is pretty close... I'll find the Orochi. It will teach me."

Ukyou raised an eyebrow, uncertain. "How can you be sure, Ranchan? It tried to kill you once, you know."

Ranma turned towards a window, remaining silent for a long moment. "No... it didn't. Might have looked that way to Akane, but..." He shook his head, "The Orochi will help. I should get ready to go. We don't know how much time we have."

Chame shook her head. "I agree with Ranma. You can probably get to Ryugenzawa in just a few days with the Breath of the Earth... I'd go with you, but... I don't want to leave Ukyou alone."

Ukyou waved a hand dismissively. "I'll be fine. Don't worry so much about me. You should go with Ranchan, and keep him safe."

Ranma nodded. "I... can't put myself to sleep if I lose it. I don't want Ucchan to be left alone, either, but... how about this. We'll travel to Ryugenzawa together, then you can come back while I'm staying with the dragon?"

Chame agreed reluctantly. "Right... Ukyou... can you survive a week alone?"

With a smirk, Ukyou explained, "I've lived almost ten years pretty much alone. I think I can handle a week."

Ranma stood, then stepped towards the girl. "I... think everything will be okay. I'm going to go get ready. I love you, Ucchan."

Ukyou smiled, ignoring the chill in her spine that warned her of the finality of those words. "I love you too, Ranchan. I'm sure you'll be able to come back real soon."

***

Step. Step. Shift. Exhale.

Ranma shot along the ground, paced by his teacher in the direction of Ryugenzawa. <If you don't mind waiting to sleep a bit, I think we can make it to the border of Ryugenzawa in one go.>

Chame's thoughts were tinged with mirth. <Right, right. You just want to get back to Ukyou as quickly as you can.>

For a moment, Ranma glanced at the blur running parallel to himself. <Well, that too. I don't like the idea of leaving her alone, but I guess I'm more dangerous now, aren't I?>

The elder Machin's tone sobered at that. <Don't see yourself that way, Ranma. With this much power, you have to retain your humanity.>

Ranma scoffed, <What humanity? I'm dragon-kin, and Machin, not human.>

Chame nearly stumbled, but caught herself. <That's not _quite_ what I mean, Ranma...>

Ranma's thought illustrated a sigh. <I know... I know... but don't worry about it. Maybe that's part of why Ucchan's so important to me. A link, as it were.>

For a long moment, Chame didn't respond. Then she sent, <I have faith in your self-control, Ranma.>

The pig-tailed boy couldn't actually sigh, while he was matching his breathing to the land, but he could roll his eyes. <Let's not get all melodramatic. Why don't you go ahead and tell me more about 'The Art of War'?>

***

Akane kicked at the ground idly, loosening a bit of dirt and crushing it back flat. A glance towards the horizon told her that the sun was setting. "Coward... probably won't even show."

As the last rays of sunlight shone down, Ryu did appear. "So. What do I have to do to convince you that you can't handle me?"

The girl sneered, "Lying to a good friend of our family is a bad start; I'll tell you that much." <I've got Ranma missing, Nabiki's been gone for a week, and then _this_ punk tries to take Ranma's place? And Nodoka _lets_ him?> Ryu seemed to be the perfect outlet for her emotions at the present. "You ready, or what?"

Ryu nodded. "I'll try not to hurt you too badly. Look! It's Mom!" He pointed behind Akane.

Akane blinked at him, for a moment, her face blank. Then it turned to an incredulous expression, as she complained, "You're kidding, right? You really expect me to fall for that?"

The boy growled, "Worth a shot."

Shaking her head, Akane slipped into a defensive stance. "So, are you going to fight, or talk? This isn't the debate tournament."

Ryu grimaced, and rushed towards Akane, throwing a leg-sweep towards her knees, while following up with a quick uppercut to her jaw. Akane ducked below the boy's fist, and lashed out at his leg with a knife-hand. The force of the blow spun the pair apart, Ryu landing slightly awkwardly.

He gritted his teeth, and rubbed at his leg momentarily, "You want to play for keeps, eh? Fine then. See if you can handle _this_." He cracked his knuckles loudly, and rushed towards Akane again, "Mouko kaimon-ha!" The attack was designed to break through her guard, and let Ryu deliver a punishing blow in the moment of defenselessness.

Akane flung herself back, still taking a powerful strike to her stomach. She rolled away, then climbed to her feet unsteadily. <Those damn techniques... what the hell is going on here?> "That all you got?"

Ryu sneered, and readied himself for another attack. "You want to give up now, girl? You can't handle me, you know."

The short-haired girl calmed herself, letting her ki and magic work on recovering her. "That's what you think... Kumon. Kumon Ryu."

Ryu stepped back. "Huh? How did you know..."

Akane bared her teeth at him. "How do you _think_?" <Your mind is vulnerable, moron. Argh... why can't I see your techniques, though?>

He narrowed his eyes. "I don't like you, girl. You know too much."

She spat, "Feh. What are you going to do about it, huh?" Taking advantage of his momentary distraction, and her newly healed state, Akane leapt towards Ryu, snapping a kick towards him before he could react.

He rolled with the blow, and came to his feet a few steps away. Grunting with the effort, he clutched one hand over the bruise on his torso. <What kind of strength does this girl _have_?> Swallowing, he was alarmed to taste blood. Dodging Akane's next attack, he countered swiftly, "Dokuja tanketsu-shou!"

For Akane, time seemed to slow down. Ryu's palm strike had an oddly shaped wedge of ki on the end. Almost as though it were going to... <Oh shit. I have to block him, somehow!> But she couldn't. Ryu's hand moved undaunted, in a path towards Akane's heart. She tried to twist to one side, and then there was a smashing sensation, and everything went black.

A cloud of smoke sprang up around the pair, as Ryu struck Akane, and when it cleared, she was gone. The boy frowned, slightly unsteady from the two good blows Akane had gotten in on him. "What the hell...? Is that part of the Umisen-ken?"

***

Akane woke to the sensation of pain. Intense, flaring pain. It hurt just like the time one of the other girls had elbowed her in the chest during a basketball game at school. Only much, much more intense. She moaned weakly, and opened her eyes. "What happened?"

Genma and Tofu were arguing in one corner of her room, but both broke off and turned to face her when she stirred. Tofu spoke first, "Akane... I hope you're okay. Genma saw the boy fighting with you, and took you to safety when you were struck."

Swabbing her suddenly dry mouth with her tongue, Akane nodded slowly. "He... he was using techniques that were too strong for me. Something about a Yamasen-ken and an Umisen-ken..."

Genma flinched. "He... should not have gotten that scroll... and he should _not_ be telling my wife that he's my son..." He clenched his fists together. "I'm going to fight him, and beat the truth out of him."

Tofu shook his head. "It's too dangerous, Genma. Let me fight him. I have more experience in this area."

"I designed the school that he's using, and know how to counter it." Retaliated Genma.

Akane coughed, "It's _my_ fight. He thinks he beat me, and he insulted me. _I'm_ going to beat him."

Genma and Tofu shared a glance, then spoke in unison, "Absolutely not."

The two men glared at each other for a moment, then Genma continued, "That attack was designed to rip your heart out of your chest, Akane. If you were a man, you probably would be _dead_ right now."

Akane blinked at that, and peered at herself underneath the sheets. Surely enough, nearly half of one breast was covered in a slowly receding bruise. "Oh. You're right. Well. Now I'm going to _kill_ him."

The two males sighed in unison, Dr. Tofu speaking this time. "Akane... I don't think you can handle him..."

The girl stared at him. Hard. "Shut up! I want this fight. It's _my_ challenge. Genma can teach me the tricks to counter it, and then I'll fight. This is _not_ open to discussion. I'm going to learn these techniques, then I'm going to find Nabiki, then I'm going to find Ryouga and beat the crap out of him for causing this mess. I'm in a _bad_ mood right now, and I don't need any lip from stupid, chauvinistic males telling me that 'girls aren't good enough.' Lets face it, if I were a _man_ that attack would have killed me, right? Well. Three guys have groped me, ever. Only one of them will be forgiven. Kumon Ryu is not him."

The two blinked, trying to absorb the flood of information. Tofu frowned. <Three? What? Wait a minute...>

Genma shook his head, as the color drained from his face. "K... Kumon, you say?"

Akane nodded. "Yeah. Kumon Ryu was his name. Weren't you there? Didn't you hear?"

For a moment, Genma said nothing. Then he relented, "I... No. I arrived just in time to see you take that hit. Very well, then. Since you're the successor to the Saotome and Tendo schools, I will teach you the Umisen-ken. But I don't like this. Not at all."

The Tendo girl nodded, and settled back into the bed to let her injury heal. "Good."

***

Nabiki stared dully at the computer screen in front of her. The terminal made a quiet 'beep' as a message arrived. Listlessly, she checked it, shifting her sore ankle slightly. The length of chain secured to the same ankle made a 'clink', until she settled back down.

As she followed the instructions, she remembered the first day that Chame arrived dimly. <Funny, it didn't seem nearly as scary when she described it.>

Shuddering slightly, she settled back to her chair. There were certain 'punishments' for failure, and she had already endured them once. Another session would simply be too much for her to bear, at this point. <Oh, gods. How am I going to get out of this one?>

***

Soun stood outside the dojo, scowling. <So Akane can be trusted, but I can't?> He sighed, settling to the ground. Genma would finish whatever training he was giving Akane shortly.

Genma glanced at the door, then nodded to himself. "Are you ready, Akane?"

She smirked. "Any time, old man."

Genma ignored the slight, since he wasn't old anymore. "Come at me from any angle."

Several hours later, a severely bruised but still clothed Akane limped from the dojo, followed by Genma. The boy sulked. "I'm not going to show it to you again."

Grimacing, the girl clutched her side, and evaded her dozing father. "Yeah, yeah... I think I got it that time."

Genma nodded. "Good luck, then. I'm going to think about things for a while. I don't like the idea of that boy being alone with Nodoka..."

The girl grunted, and limped her way to the bathroom and a nice soak. <I think I understand how to fight Ryu... though I'm going to need practice.> Frowning, she wrapped a towel around herself, and slipped past Kasumi as the eldest sister exited the furo. <Hmm... this is harder than it seems.>

***

As school became less and less interesting to her, Akane began to take advantage of the time to practice. Mrs. Hinako couldn't drain the aura of someone she couldn't see, though Akane ended up in the hall with buckets more often then not.

More than one student found their homework rearranged, but as Akane became more skilled, it was difficult for them to understand how. Lunches were switched around without any ascertainable cause... and then Akane found one of the more interesting aspects of the Umisen-ken.

The school gym had a crawlspace beneath it, easily providing enough room for someone with the proper skill to maneuver underneath it. Smiling to herself, Akane darted underneath the building.

***

Sayuri, one of Akane's few remaining friends, turned to Yuki. "You know... I know she never talks to us, now that Ranma's gone, but I'm worried about Akane. I don't understand what she's doing."

Yuki nodded, sitting on one side of the gym floor. "I guess she really liked Ranma, and just never got over him. Come to think of it, where is she? She was here earlier, and she doesn't miss physical education ever, especially these days."

Lurching slightly, the assorted students gasped as the floor suddenly dropped three feet. Sayuri grimaced, rubbing her sore bottom. "I have a suspicion. I think, as people who used to be able to call Akane friends, we have to find her and ask _her_ what's going on here."

The pair found Akane in miraculously short order, as she peered around idly, seeking something else to practice on. Yuki cleared her throat. Akane glanced over her shoulder, then smiled. "Hey! Yuki, it's been a while. What's going on?"

Sayuri sighed, "Akane... did you just steal the floor of the gym?"

For a moment, Akane stared blankly, then she shrugged, while looking slightly abashed. "Sorry, I was just practicing a new technique."

Yuki groaned, "Akane... we're worried about you. It's like you're trying to turn into Ranma, to replace his absence or something... this isn't healthy."

The short-haired girl's expression darkened. "I have to do this. Ranma's mother has a houseguest, claiming to be Ranma. I have to learn this technique to fight him. I suppose I've changed a lot, but I've learned a lot, too. I'm not the same, stupid, stuck-up egotistical bitch I was when Ranma first came here. I've grown up a little. I have a _damn_ good reason for what I'm doing, and I'm _not_ trying to turn into Ranma. I'm just trying to become a better martial artist." <You don't need to know about the magic, though.>

Sayuri fidgeted, looking uncomfortable. "What about the clothing? You're dressed just like Ranma did. You're _acting_ just like Ranma did. You were never this prideful."

Akane winced. "The clothes are easier to move around in. I might have to fight, or react at any moment. It's hard to be taken seriously if every time I jump I flash someone. As far as how I'm acting... you're wrong. I've always had much _more_ pride than this. I'm just showing it now."

Yuki frowned. "No, you were always much more modest, Akane... you have changed."

The female martial artist shrugged. "I have changed. And I was always very prideful. I couldn't handle simple things like Ranma telling me that his girl side was more attractive without going ballistic. I took the fact that hordes of boys fought over me for granted, and got angry when Ranma was chivalrous and tried to help. I don't think I'm very prideful... not now. Because I learned a lot... I'm a much better martial artist than I was before Ranma left, but I think Ranma understood things about fighting that set him high above me."

Sayuri hesitated, then shook her head. "Akane... I'm not sure... you don't act the way that you used to. I... don't think we should be seen in public together anymore. People are starting to talk, and it's not good."

Yuki stared at the ground, then shook her head. "Sorry, Akane. If you change back..." She let the words hang, as she turned and walked away with Sayuri.

For a long moment, Akane said nothing. Then she smiled slightly to herself. <Targets, eh?> Akane's personal belief was that both girls were too old to have their names embroidered on their clothing, but who was she to judge? She was so deft with the exchange, it wasn't even noticed until the pair reached the locker room.

As the girls tried to explain how their underwear had gotten switched, Akane walked away. <Okay, maybe that wasn't the nicest thing to do. Still...>

***

Ryu combed through the house, but was unable to find any trace of the Umisen-ken. Nodoka smiled obliviously when he asked, and mentioned that he was missing school. Days passed before he saw Akane again.

She arrived shortly after school, to speak with Nodoka. The matronly woman handed a note to Akane. "This is... for Ranko. You can read it to her."

Akane stared at the note, then shoved it into a pocket. "I see. Um... can I talk to... my fiance for a moment?"

Nodoka smiled brightly, and left the pair alone. Ryu raised an eyebrow. "You want to try fighting me again, eh?"

Akane smirked. "Three days from now." She tossed a note at him. "If you want the Umisen-ken, you're going to have to beat me. And you won't, this time."

Ryu frowned, watching her departing figure. <Three days, huh?>

Nodoka returned, seemingly oblivious. <Interesting. Good luck, Akane.> "Are you getting along with your fiancee?"

The boy jumped, not having noticed Nodoka's return. "Uh... yeah..."

***

Chame and Ranma dropped out of the Breath of the Earth on the border of Ryugenzawa. Ranma frowned, scanning the area. "I think we went faster than a train would have taken us here."

The elder Machin nodded. "Yes... Let's get some sleep, then I'll head back."

Ranma returned the nod, and the two set about making camp. After everything was in place, Ranma dropped to his bedroll, falling asleep quickly.

Chame watched him for a moment, concerned, then turned to her own bedroll. <We're here... what will tomorrow bring, I wonder...>

***

The master glanced behind him, watching his students. "Yes. This is going to be the second of two appointments."

The smaller student looked up, no longer shying from the man's dark presence. "The Founder?"

Shaking his head, the master turned his attention elsewhere. "The Orochi. It will be vulnerable soon..."

The taller student frowned. "We strike then?"

The master hesitated, then shook his head. "No. The N'Dori dwell too near. They would not allow it."

"Can't you just destroy them?"

The master turned back to his students. "I could. But what purpose would that serve? That one will serve us regardless. The Orochi is necessary to our plans at this point. I have no quarrel with a child of Aker... damnation. The Specter draws near again. We must hurry, to attend the second appointment."

----

Author's notes:

Ousen means 'accepting a challenge'. No other notes for this chapter, other than it was a real beginning of many things...


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