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The Unbroken Circle: Chapter Eight

Ousen

Part B

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

What has gone before:

In the aftermath of Ryouga's attack, Nabiki was captured, then sold to the yakuza. In the meantime, Genma came to grips with many factors that he had previously ignored, learning to face some aspects of himself that he realized were not as pleasant as he had hoped they would be. Akane comes to grips with the changes that she's endured, as well, realizing just how much she's changed.

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

 

Akane stood in the center of the temple courtyard where she would duel with Ryu. A knot of nervous tension built from low in her stomach, though she tried to ignore it. <Damnation. Ranma used to fight like this all the time. Was it like this for him?>

Relaxing her stance, she allowed her presence to slip from casual perception. The intense resonation of nothingness, as the chi of everything surrounding her washed completely through her, was calming. The aura of the temple made this place ideal to practice such a technique.

The chi in the surrounding area was exactly the way it should be. The ground was packed earth, a slow, firm chi. Occasional rocks in the packed soil gave a more intense aura, but only slightly. The chi of the air, charged slightly with the scent of incense was relaxing, combining with the steady chi of the earth to create something... more than simple relaxation. Behind the elemental chi, and perhaps more importantly, the chi of spirituality permeated the area.

Strong devotion, prayers and hope... sometimes people would come to make prayers for their futures, and martial artist or not, their ki became chi, charging the area.

Akane's own experience with chi and ki were limited, at best. Ranma had been able to throw bolts of it, and seemingly manipulate his ki at will. The 'soul of ice' was beyond Akane, but the Umisen-ken gave her a certain amount of insight as to how it worked. The simple manifestation of a hammer wasn't much of a skill in her eyes; not at this point. <Now if I could throw a bolt of chi...>

She focused on that, letting herself drift while concealed in the Umisen-ken. <Nothingness. Empty chi... the Umisen-ken allows me to exist as part of the chi or the world around me. To hide my presence in plain sight... then the Yamasen-ken should be the opposite. Kumon's aura should make him stand out even more, since he's brutally _rejecting_ the chi around him. He should be...>

A sensation at the edge of her perception, about as subtle as a sledgehammer in a china-shop, got her attention. <Yep. I could fight him with my eyes closed.>

Ryu kicked the ground in front of him, and looked around warily. "So... anyone here?"

Akane swept to a point some distance from Ryu, before dropping the cloak. "I'm here. Do you know the conditions of this fight?"

The boy shrugged. "Not really. I figure I'll go easy on you, and make it to knockout. First one to go unconscious loses. Unless you want to give up, at any point."

The girl nodded. "Works for me. You can forfeit any time you like. Here's the deal: if I beat you, you're going to teach me the Yamasen-ken, and you're going to tell Nodoka the truth."

Ryu frowned, then shrugged. "If I win, you teach me the Umisen-ken. Once I have that, I'll leave anyway."

Akane smiled slightly, a cruel expression that advertised her intent to win, and promised pain in the process. "Good. I'm ready when you are."

For a long moment, the two martial artists faced each other, in their ready stances. Ryu fought back any reservations he had, and closed with the girl. He reasoned that his superior strength would help him, and he wouldn't have to hurt her if he could grapple with her.

When Ryu reached for her, she shifted slightly, and disappeared. His attempt at a throw missed, since his target simply wasn't there.

Akane let her cloak fade back, just enough to draw an attack from Ryu. Her style was almost completely defensive, which suited this battle perfectly. She hoped. Ryu threw a quick punch towards her, and she slipped past him, latching onto his arm and throwing as much of her own force as she could into his own punch.

Predictably, the boy overbalanced, not expecting the maneuver. Twisting as he fell, he lashed out with one foot. Akane blocked the kick, and rolled away. The two fighters regained their feet, reassessing one another.

Ryu narrowed his eyes, mentally reconstructing his strategy. Deep in his mind, so familiar that it had become subconscious rote, he shifted gears. The girl was both stronger and faster than he had expected. Probably faster than he was, but not quite as strong. He would have to play on his greater strength to win.

Akane faded out, mulling over her own battle plan. Ryu was faster than she had expected, but not quite as strong as she had thought. Deciding that his strength was his primary advantage, she altered her plans to simply stay out of his reach as much as possible.

Both fighters readjusted their stances, and prepared for a much longer battle than initially expected.

***

The dream again. Always the same, never revealing the secrets it held before waking. He was in the dragon's mouth. No, _she_ was in the dragon's mouth again. There was surprise, but no fear, and a certain sense of calmness. The inevitable was coming, as the teeth drew together, shutting out the light. The end would come soon.

But it didn't, this time.

Time seemed to shift backwards, as though a crucial moment had been missed.

The great serpent's mouth began to open slowly, and Ranma felt herself flying backward to land in a crouch, calling back the words that she had shouted before, planning on... on... what?

There it was. The secret. The reason _why_ she had done everything. A simple explanation for-

***

"Wake up!"

Grunting, Ranma sat up, and scowled irritably. "What?"

Chame rolled her eyes. "Did you forget?"

Realization flooded Ranma's face, and he gave a guilty grin to the redhead. "Er... sorry about that. I guess so. What's the plan from here?"

The elder Machin shrugged. "I'm going to go back from here. I doubt that there's anything in Ryugenzawa that's dangerous for you... except the Orochi. I'm also worried about leaving Ukyou alone for too long."

Ranma nodded, and swiftly packed his things. "Right... tell Ukyou I love her. I'm going to take care of this. Hopefully we won't have any more irritating revelations, hmm?"

The redhead smiled, shuddering once Ranma's back was turned. "We can hope. Take care of yourself, Ranma."

Shrugging, Ranma made his way into the interior of the great forest. <Damn. What was that dream about?>

Chame shook her head, and slipped away on the Breath of the Earth.

***

Akane threw herself to the ground, and rolled away as a barrage of vacuum blades tore through the air above her. Disappearing from Ryu's sight again, she reconsidered. <There's no chi in those blasts. How does he do it?>

Frowning, she began to piece together a few ideas. Smiling slightly, she let her presence return, to provoke another attack. Ryu obliged, sending another veritable storm of energy towards her.

Leaping out of the way, Akane snapped a large square of cloth from her sleeve. Elements of Iron Cloth gave the sheet the qualities that Akane needed, as she swirled it about herself.

Ryu growled, and shot another blast. Hoping to catch the attack in the cloth, Akane was smashed to the ground, and sent rolling. The cloth folded around her, protecting her from the worst of the impact before losing its iron-like qualities.

Ryu took a few steps towards her, still breathing heavily from his exertion. "You give up yet?"

Akane unsteadily regained her feet, already redirecting ki flows to heal herself. "Not... hardly..."

The boy flinched back, as Akane swirled the cloth around herself and disappeared. He groaned, wheeling around and desperately trying to find where the girl had disappeared. Her voice called out, seemingly from every direction, "Your technique is good, but I think I see a flaw in it."

Ryu uneasily settled into a defensive stance, waiting for a sign to indicate where Akane was. He whirled, hearing crackling noises behind him, but saw nothing. After a terse moment, he heard more noise, and spun again. Once more, there was nothing to see.

Slightly unnerved, he complained, "Too scared to show yourself to me?

A slight chuckle emerged from the surroundings, as Akane dropped her invisibility. The cloth hung from one shoulder like an odd cloak, and Ryu tensed as she spoke, "I understand now. I gave the old man too much credit when I was thinking about how he created these arts. Go ahead, hit me with your strongest blast, Kumon."

Snarling, Ryu unleashed his most powerful attack. <She expects me to use a Kijin raishu-dan... I'll use a Kijin gun-dairanbu, instead.> The first attack was a simple shot, but the more advanced form would send out attacks in every direction simultaneously. He smiled grimly, thinking she would be unable to dodge.

Akane snapped the cloth into a solid sheet, and leapt away carefully. <There's still no chi in... of course! Perfect!>

Using the stiffened sheet as a makeshift shovel, the small girl executed an amazing feat of strength and speed. Ryu's blast met a pile of loosened earth, and the cloth unfolded to trap the vacuum of chi. Ryu raised his arms across his face to protect himself from the projectiles, but the other blasts struck the huge statue of Buddha behind him. Weakened from Akane's earlier strikes against it, Ryu realized too late just what she was doing.

Vacuum blades collapsed, causing suction against the earth and the statue, and began to pull dirt and loosened bits of statue towards one another.

The loose earth and rubble from the pile Akane was hiding behind met hundreds of fist-sized chunks of statue heading the opposite direction at dangerous velocities. Ryu had the misfortune of being in the center when they collided.

Once the energy had died down, Akane leapt towards the boy, worried to find him unconscious and bleeding. His front, which was to the pebbled earth, was horrendously scratched, but his back was left near ruin. The skin had been stripped away, and the flesh pounded to near-hamburger.

Akane swallowed nervously, and set about healing as much as she could. <This is what Genma was talking about. Shit. I should have paid more attention. Tofu? I could really use some help here...>

A minute later, Tofu responded, <What's going on?>

Biting her lip in agitation, Akane sent a brief image of Ryu's prone form.

The doctor's response was instantaneous. <I'll be right there.>

***

Nabiki rubbed at her ankle briefly, before turning her attention back to the computer screen.

The monochrome display showed a list of tasks she had to perform, while a small timer in the corner warned her how much time was left.

Frowning, she tried to focus on her work. <So this is what the dark side of the information trade is like...>

She wondered how long she had been in this place, this room with no furniture other than the futon, desk, and chair. And the chain, but she didn't count that. A small voice notified her that the chain was there simply for demoralization, not practical restraint. She took a small amount of comfort from that thought.

Still, her captors had entrusted her with the task of moving information from one channel to another, via computer. There was an excellent possibility that she could get a message to... someone. Probably not any of her family, since they didn't use computers, but possibly the school, or even one of her classmates...

From there, she wasn't certain what she would do, but it would have been an improvement.

***

Tofu lowered his cloak as he entered one edge of the temple yard. Akane was fretting over Ryu, attempting to stabilize the boy with her powers.

The doctor winced at the damage. "Gods, girl! What did you do to him?"

Akane flinched, stepping back while Dr. Tofu began to repair the physical damage. "Um... I turned his final attack against him... so he used it on himself."

Tofu shook his head. "Genma made this school, did he? He's more talented than I had thought. Still..." He trailed off to mumble a phrase under his breath, suffusing Ryu's body with pale light. "Ah... he's going to be okay. Just weak for a while."

The girl nodded gratefully, offering her own power to aid the healer in his task. After a moment of hesitation, she explained, "I..." She pointed at the sheet of cloth still standing stiffly in the ground, "Iron Cloth. It shouldn't have held this long, but the Umisen-ken... Genma's a lot more capable then any of us had thought."

Tofu sighed, leaning back from the still form in front of him. "He's going to be out for a short while. I should probably explain something to you... what I understand from Nodoka, at any rate. And a little from Chame... do you ever wonder why Genma is... was as overweight as he used to be, and was still a martial artist?"

Akane shook her head. "Uh... not really."

The doctor smirked ruefully. "I _think_ this is why he was always pushing for you and Ranma to get married, as well. Genma... and to a small degree, your own father, wanted to be responsible for the world's greatest martial artist."

Akane shrugged. "So? We're humans, not breeding stock. It's not like martial arts aptitude is a genetic trait."

Tofu shook his head. "No, Akane... sometimes, it _can_ be. Don't you ever wonder why the amazons were always trying to capture strong males and make them join their tribe? Certainly, aptitude is not hereditary. But the potential for greatness _is_." The doctor's tone changed suddenly, from lecturing to curious, "Tell me, Akane... what do you know of your ancestry?"

The girl frowned for a moment, "Ah... well, the Tendos were samurai of no great importance, maybe a little better than the lowest class... they had holdings mostly near Hokkaido. The only holding they had in this area is... well, our home, now. Why?"

Sighing, Tofu shook his head again. "I think I already know... though no one ever knew... are you familiar with Yagyu Jubei at all?"

Akane stared at the Machin for a moment, then nodded. "Yes... he was a legendary swordsman. I think everyone knows about him."

A long moment of silence followed, and Tofu sighed, "I knew him, actually." Akane blinked at this, wondering at the relevance. Tofu continued unabated, "The stories of course, say that he died when he was forty. A hunting accident, or some such. Then... there's that ten-year gap in the records." He shook his head once more. "That was the time I met him. During those unrecorded years. The reason there is no record is... Jubei could not control his strength. He would kill when he did not want to. He was simply... too powerful."

The youngest Tendo grimaced. "Tofu... where are you going with this?"

The doctor frowned. "Akane... Jubei had two daughters. The youngest was married to a samurai of the house of Tendo."

Akane blinked at that. "I'm a descendant of Yagyu Jubei?"

Tofu nodded. "That's one of the reasons I was in Nerima, actually. Those of us with the life span tend to watch over the families of our friends. The other branches of the Tendo family don't have Yagyu blood, and the rest of the Yagyu family is... being watched by others."

The girl nodded slowly. "Okay... so... my ancestor from, what, 1630? Only about three hundred and sixty years ago? And this has... oh." She made a face as realization set in, "Who's Ranma's ancestor, that they think can allow them to breed the perfect warrior?"

Tofu frowned. "Um... well, on Nodoka's side, that's... well. You should ask her."

Akane shrugged. "Fine... what about Genma, then? What about his ancestry?"

The doctor shrugged again. "I'm not certain, honestly. The Saotome clan... they're largely a mystery to me."

The girl nodded to herself. "So... what good does being an ancestor of Jubei do me?"

Tofu smirked. "Family friends like me."

Akane nodded again, then snapped her fingers. "Of course! Kasumi! You and Kasumi. A child with the blood of the Machin, and the Yagyu. If that doesn't make Daddy happy..."

The doctor rolled his eyes. "Somehow, I don't think I want our child to be trained by Genma."

Ryu, having remained quiet for most of the conversation, began to stir. "What... what happened?"

Akane turned to face him. "You lost. Big time. Remember the deal?"

Groaning, Ryu put a hand to his face. "Crap. I can't believe it..."

***

Fearfully apologetic, Ryu knocked on the door to Nodoka's home. She answered the door, eyeing him speculatively. "Yes?"

He shifted his feet nervously. "Ma'am... I have to apologize... I'm not... Ranma. I'm not your son."

Nodoka blinked, then nodded, smiling slightly. "I know."

Ryu stared at the closed door for a long moment before shaking his head and moving away.

***

Nodoka swept to the door, idly wondering who it would be. A young man with extremely close-cropped hair stood in the doorway nervously.

The woman frowned, taking in the boy's features. <He looks an awful lot... like... Genma.> She managed a smile. "Can I help you?"

The boy nodded nervously. "Ah... yes... Mrs. Saotome... I need to explain a few things to you. And I think I owe you an apology... I think I ruined your marriage."

Nodoka gritted her teeth together, and gestured the boy inside. He entered, pausing at the sight of Kuno. The kendoist set down his teacup, and offered a slight bow.

The boy returned the bow, glancing at Nodoka with worry apparent on his visage. Nodoka scowled darkly, hiding her expression when the boy turned to look at her. She thought, <If he tells me that he's Genma's illegitimate child, Genma's going to be in a _lot_ of trouble.>

Clearing his throat nervously, he stared at his feet and mumbled, "My name is Saotome Genma. Sorry about this."

Nodoka's hand trembled too much to pick up her own cup. Blinking, she recalled that Akane and Nabiki had told her something about Genma's curse being changed. She said the only words that came to mind, "Oh, my..."

***

Ranma vaulted effortlessly into a tree, allowing a giant platypus to charge beneath him.

He sighed, leaping back to the ground, and examining the forest closely. <Shinnosuke and his grandfather should still be around here somewhere.>

As if on cue, a dark form leapt from the shadows of the underbrush, wielding a deck broom menacingly. "It's not safe here... Ranma?"

Ranma frowned, surprised that the man had remembered him. He nodded, "Hello, Shinnosuke. How have you been? It's good to see that you're getting around again."

Shinnosuke nodded briefly. "Yes... after the moss... my memory started improving a little. What brings you here? Are you going to visit Grandfather?"

The pigtailed boy shook his head. "No... I need to speak with the Orochi."

The lanky man's eyes seemed unfocused, dimly glowing with an odd light. When he spoke, his words did not match with his lips, and the words seemed to be spoken by many voices at once. "Not... enough room... in one boy's mind. We're sorry."

Ranma stepped back, summoning the staff before he realized what he was doing. Tensing slightly, he asked, "Who are you?"

The voice from Shinnosuke answered hesitantly, the voices saying many things before they all agreed on one name, "We are the N'Dori."

Relaxing, the pigtailed martial artist banished the staff. "Ah... why... are you all trying to fit in Shinnosuke's mind?"

The N'Dori seemed woeful, as they responded, "Trapped. Your circle encloses us. We need a body to survive within this sphere. This vessel died. We used our... methods... to lure you here before."

Ranma nodded slightly. "You wanted me here before. Is that why Shinnosuke's got a bad memory? All of you inside his head at once?"

Shinnosuke's head moved in a spastic-seeming nod. "Yes. Trapped. Need host. Monks, crazy men, years days, always waiting. Founder is Breaker."

Ranma frowned, "Does Shinnosuke mind this at all?"

"Shinnosuke does not... Shinnosuke is N'Dori, now. Cessation of self. All are one. Founder is Breaker." The tone suddenly changed, one voice overriding the others. "You will face your kin?"

The young Machin shook his head. "Not kin, and I'd rather not fight. I wish to learn... whatever a child of Aker can teach me, at any rate. What do you mean about 'Founder is Breaker'?"

"We are trapped within your circle, Founder. You confine us here."

Ranma frowned. "Founder... circle... the 'Unbroken Circle'? You think I created it?"

Shinnosuke's head moved in another spastic nod. "Created. Accident. Many eons ago, in a reality that no longer exists. Only you can leave the circle, until it's broken."

The pigtailed boy smiled weakly. "Ah... right. Anyway, let's forget about the 'Founder' bit. Can you tell me how to break the circle?"

The voices seemed weary, as they continued, "You are not the Breaker. You are the Founder. Founder is Breaker. Only Breaker breaks the circle."

Shinnosuke turned around and spun smoothly, speaking in his own voice again, "Let us go to the Orochi, then."

***

Nodoka's knuckles had gone white as she involuntarily tightened her grip around the handle of the Kami no Ken. After a terse silence, she nodded. "I understand, then. I'm... disappointed you did not speak to me earlier, husband."

Genma stared at his feet, thankful that Kuno had excused himself before this began. "I'm... sorry, Nodoka. I..." He sighed wearily, and rubbed at his eyes. "I have no excuses. But I needed to tell you the truth, and that Kumon Ryu is not actually... Ranma." A frown crossed his face, and he sighed again, "Though... Ranma told me that you had actually already met with him..."

Calmly and deliberately, Nodoka removed her hand from the hilt of the katana, one finger at a time. "I see." Her tone was icy, and she sighed, "Genma... you've made some grave errors. I'm very displeased... however. Ranma has grown to be a man among men regardless of your interference."

Genma blanched, still seeing the katana out of the corner of his eyes, "I'm sorry... Nodoka."

Nodoka rubbed at her temples. "You... Ranma has told me much, but I suspect that there's a lot he did not tell me... out of respect for you, ironically enough. It amazes me, that after all you've done, he can still forgive you. In light of that information... I must mete out the appropriate punishment for your actions."

Slumping forward slightly, Genma nodded. His voice cracked, but he spoke anyway, "Understood. I will do whatever you ask."

The woman nodded. "Very good. You're sleeping on the couch for a week."

Genma blinked at this, not sure if he trusted his hearing. "Pardon?"

Nodoka failed to conceal her smile, "You're so... sorry. I know all about Ranma. I've met with him, and you've stopped doing most of the things that have offended him. Now, I think you've got a long way to go..." She trailed off, poking Genma's forehead pointedly. "But I think you've got a few extra years to learn better."

Relaxing slightly, Genma nodded. "I... thank you." He blinked then, frowning. "Nodoka, why do you look exactly the same as the day we were married?"

The matronly woman blanched. "Uh, I just aged really well. It's not polite to ask a woman about her age."

"Even when it's your wife?"

"Especially then."

***

Soun frowned, glancing at what was left of his family. Kasumi, and... that was it. Nabiki was gone, and he wasn't certain where. Akane had spent the last two weeks disappearing after dinner, and not coming back until much later.

To put it bluntly, the Tendo patriarch was worried. This was something tears wouldn't fix, so he abandoned that idea shortly. Kasumi was getting irritable, as she was already in the seventh month of her pregnancy, and Dr. Tofu always seemed to be busy.

Still, she found the time to take care of the family, and for that, Soun was grateful. Even if it was just him, now. While Soun was glad that his friend had made up with his wife, it only emphasized to him that he was alone.

He sighed, glancing at Kasumi across the table. "I think I've been idle too long. I should be out looking for your sister, shouldn't I?"

The woman shrugged. "I don't know. Akane's taking care of something else, first. What do you plan to do?"

Frowning thoughtfully, Soun considered. "I should at least be _trying_ to look for Nabiki. It's not like she's just going to get rescued without our help..."

Kasumi nodded approvingly. "Where will you begin?"

He sighed, shaking his head. "I'm not sure about that one, actually. Perhaps Dr. Tofu can help..."

"Are you going to discount Akane? She could help you a lot."

Soun opened his mouth, then thought better, and closed it again. <Should I? No... Akane should stay here and protect Kasumi...> Grimacing, he said, "No... she should stay here to protect you. I'm... expendable." Almost seeming an afterthought, he added, "And I need to do something for my family, for all they've done for me."

Kasumi stared at Soun for a long moment before smiling. Not her normal vacant smile, but a genuinely pleased smile. Soun had only seen it briefly before, and it was typically reserved for Dr. Tofu. Bolstered by his daughter's approval, he began to plan. "Right. So. First, I'll get some help from Tofu, then I'll get Genma, and the two of us will rescue Nabiki."

His eldest daughter nodded her approval once more.

***

Akane smiled to herself, eyeing the stone wall that she had just reduced to rubble. "Do you still not understand what the schools are for?"

Ryu shook his head. "No... not really."

The girl turned to face him, and smirked widely. "It's simple, Kumon. Uncle Saotome created the schools for thievery. I think they can have other uses beyond that, but that was what they were created for. Understand?"

The boy's eyes widened, as comprehension dawned. Then he slumped to the ground. "Well, crap. All those years devoted to finding out how to be a thief. What the hell?"

Akane recognized the beginnings of an aura of depression akin to the one that had followed Ryouga around, and frowned. <Better head this one off. Don't need another Ryouga running around...> Clearing her throat noisily, she suggested, "Why don't you take both halves of the school and go around fighting crime or something? You don't _have_ to use it for thievery... that's just what it was created for."

Ryu looked up, thinking. In a plaintive tone he asked, "You're serious?"

The girl shrugged. "Why not? You can disarm people before they can see you, you can beat the crap out of anyone who crosses your path, and then you can disappear in plain sight before the police show up."

The boy frowned, mulling it over. "I... suppose... some moves are designed just to tie an opponent up..." He glanced at Akane sharply. "What are you going to do with both halves of the school?"

The girl cracked her knuckles loudly. "I," she proclaimed, "am going to rescue my sister. Then I'm going to beat Ryouga to a pulp." Nodding, she turned towards Ryu again. "I'm done learning the Yamasen-ken, and you have the Umisen-ken... the only thing I demand is that you do _not_ teach either to anyone else. Unless you build a dojo... then you can pass it on to your family, but only them. Understood?"

Ryu nodded, already lost in thought. <Fight crime, eh? Maybe it won't make a lot of money, but... notoriety can be good. That girl's smarter than she looks. Hmm...> He pondered the potential of a costume before realizing that she had already left.

Akane, for her part, was lost in thoughts of her own. <Now I've got the ability, I just have to _find_ Nabiki. That might be tricky... Where can I begin? If only we had a clue...>

She snapped her fingers, ignoring the incongruity of maintaining invisibility while intentionally making noise. <Dr. Tofu... I can move faster now, so _that_ shouldn't be a problem. We'll just have to figure out a way to track her, and I can travel around after her... Daddy already said I could look for Ranma, so he shouldn't have a problem with me looking for Nabiki.>

***

Soun hefted his pack experimentally. It had been some time since he had actually gone on a training trip, though Nodoka had approved enough of the concept to allow Genma to travel with him... it reminded him of the training missions that he and Genma had taken years earlier, before he had met his wife.

Of course, at the time they were training under Happosai... which wasn't quite as pleasant. Still, after the relative chaos of Ranma's stay with them, things seemed... eerily calm. Then Nabiki was taken. It wasn't a kind of chaos that he enjoyed, but he longed for the days when Ranma was there. Ranma would always deal with the kidnappings before, but now...

He sighed, and set his pack near the table. Tofu would probably be getting home shortly. He was always running late, these days. Kasumi had gone to bed early, leaving the old man alone briefly. Frowning, he traced a line across the table with his thumb. <Was it like this for Genma? To wake up suddenly and realize how foolish he had been?>

A footstep from the door captured his attention, and he turned to see Akane. She nodded at him, and seated herself on the floor across the table. "Daddy... I've been thinking."

Soun frowned, suspecting he knew where this conversation was heading. "Yes, Akane?"

She looked confused for a moment. "Why didn't you ever mention that Yagyu Jubei was our ancestor?"

The man seemed startled at the question, then shook his head. "Actually, I thought I had... How did you find out?"

Akane shrugged. "Ah... a friend of Jubei's told me."

Soun shook his head again. "I think I believe you. I've just seen too many odd things to think otherwise."

The girl smirked briefly. "Then I have a few more questions for you. Who's Ranma related to on Genma's side of the family? I mean, that you wanted me to marry him... or any of us, so badly?"

The older man grimaced. "That... the Saotomes have ties in their past to Shidou Akito... We thought a union of the Yagyu and Shidou blood would give us... an heir that could surpass all teachers."

Akane blinked for a moment then shook her head. "Okay, I've heard of the Yagyu, I mean, who hasn't? But I've never heard of Shidou Akito."

"Well... Shidou Akito was a scholar... and his skill at teaching was legendary. His ancestors were from the Ashikaga clan, descended from..."

Swallowing nervously, Akane interrupted, "The Genji clan? Wait... that would be to the east, originally, which means..." She nodded to herself, "Of course. Horse riding had been mostly developed in that area, hadn't it? Would that be why they're named that? Genma and Ranma?"

With a slight sigh, Soun nodded. "Indeed. But it's not the Genji clan at this point, even though the lineage can be traced back that far, it means little. We were mostly interested in seeing if we could combine the bloodlines... to create the ultimate teacher."

Akane fought the urge to laugh out loud. Balling up her fist beneath the table, she managed to regain control. "If teaching ability were hereditary... do you _really_ think that Genma's a very good teacher? For that matter, what skill have _you_ been granted through the Yagyu? Genma was responsible for creating two schools of martial arts. The Yamasen-ken and the Umisen-ken. You've been a martial arts teacher for a large group of students, and shown more ability for that then I think Genma ever did!" She shook her head, and began laughing in earnest.

Soun waited until her laughter calmed down, then smiled slightly. "I'm not so certain, Akane... have you ever managed to teach Ranma anything? Genma did..."

She rolled her eyes. "Fine, fine. Genma can teach. But where's your Yagyu blood come into play?"

The man grimaced, and rose from his place at the table. "Wait here a moment, then."

Akane rolled her eyes again, helping herself to some tea that had gone cold long before. She made a face and set down the cup after the first sip. <Bad move. I wonder what he's going to show me...>

Soun returned a moment later, holding a heavy iron bar in one hand. Offering Akane a slight smile, he folded the bar, twisted, and tore it in half. That done, he set the pieces on the table in front of Akane.

The girl stared for a long moment, then picked up one of the chunks of metal. It was solid, and very sturdy. The metal was at least two inches thick, and he had pulled it apart... Frowning, Akane attempted to reproduce to feat, with some effort. After a moment, she managed, and two smaller pieces of iron joined the larger.

Soun cleared his throat. "Of course, I haven't done serious training in a very long time... that's why I trained under Happosai, you see." He shook his head, smirking slightly. "I had plenty of power, but no finesse. Genma was the opposite, all skill, no strength. We made a fine pair, I can tell you..." His smile faded. "I underestimated the master's perversion... and my strength was no match for him. Nor was Genma's skill. But I did learn some finesse. And Genma grew strong. Nabiki and Kasumi don't have as much of this problem as you do... but you see examples of it in your life every day."

Akane blinked, still staring at the iron chunks. "What do you mean?"

The man sighed again. "That's a problem... see, the Yagyu had a lot of power _and_ skill. We only have power, without intense training... I suppose that Jubei had to lose an eye to learn the temperance to obtain his skill. Still, look at your cooking. All strength, no finesse."

Akane bristled slightly. "You're going to tell me that my cooking is an hereditary problem because of the Yagyu?"

Soun stared at her for a moment, then laughed, "That's _one_ way to look at it, but no. Think, Akane. You have a hard time learning anything unless someone much more powerful than you teaches you."

Akane shook her head, calming quickly. "Kasumi's a much better cook than I am, and she hasn't been able to help me."

The man frowned. "Maybe. Personally, I think she simply wasn't forceful enough in her training. Look at how much you flourished under Genma's teaching."

That made Akane think for a moment. Then she shook her head again, not willing to give up. "What about school? I did just fine in school, without that kind of teaching."

Soun shrugged. "I think that was because you weren't that passionate about school. If you were to calm down, you could probably do anything decently. It's just when you want to learn intensely, the Yagyu heritage tries to help. Maybe too hard."

Akane sighed. "Okay, fine. Now about the Shidou ancestry that Ranma's supposed to have... I've never seen him teach anyone anything. If he was as great a teacher as you claimed, why didn't you set him up as my teacher instead of... my fiance?"

The older man blinked a few times, then smacked himself in the forehead. "Damn. Too late now. Anyway... Ranma taught you a lot. You gained massive coordination training under him. Sure, he only dodged, but you were strong enough before. He also taught you a lot about striking decisively. You learned how hard, and how often to hit, with all the... violence between the two. He was subtle, I'll grant you that... but did you ever notice that he was always knocked down, never terribly hurt? You learned more restraint than you thought... something Genma didn't teach you much of."

Akane furrowed her brow in thought, struggling to recall. After a moment, she sighed. "Damn. Damn damn damn. You're right. He did teach me." Sighing again, she shook her head. "Okay, I'll buy it. But there's more to this, isn't there?"

Soun shrugged. "Who can say for certain? I suppose I'd like to think that 'who you are' is a lot more important than your ancestry, but..."

Akane idly wondered what this would all mean if Genma were not actually Ranma's father, as she suspected.

***

Ukyou grimaced. "What are you up to, Chame?"

The elder Machin, with a tired look about her eyes, was shuffling though another in the seemingly endless procession of books that passed before her. Mumbling, she explained, "Trying to find out about your ancestry."

The okonomiyaki chef sighed, "Why?"

Chame, with her hair dark again, shrugged. "Curious, mostly. Might be nice to find a name from an ancestor for your child, hmm?"

Ukyou smiled slightly at that. "That's true... I can probably tell you some of it, though."

Blinking, the elder woman sighed. "Of course. Trust me to ignore the obvious. So. Tell me."

The brown-haired girl's eyes unfocused slightly, as she stared out a window. "Ah... the illustrious Kuonji clan. Okonomiyaki chefs, twelve generations back. And that's it. Were you expecting big name demon hunters?"

The dark-haired woman recovered her composure slightly. "Ah... right. Never mind, then. I'm going to take a nap."

Ukyou snorted. "Sure... I'm feeling tired myself."

Chame grumbled something about her being entirely too cheerful, and left the library.

Once she was gone, Ukyou took the seat at Chame's desk, and began leafing through the same book. <Still... I have to wonder... Maybe Ranchan's ancestors are in one of these books. I wonder about his father's family...>

***

Ranma walked through the eerily still forest, while Shinnosuke marched ahead of him.

After a few minutes, Ranma asked, "Shinnosuke, are the N'Dori still in there with you?"

The man nodded. "Yes... though they're... busy... right now."

Grimacing with distaste, Ranma bit back any further questions, as they reached the edge of a giant lake.

Ranma glanced at Shinnosuke, who simply looked away, speaking softly, "The Yamato no Orochi will be coming soon... can you handle it?"

The pigtailed martial artist swallowed, and shifted forms. In her smaller form, she nodded. "I think I'm ready. How long do you suppose this will take?"

The N'Dori spoke though Shinnosuke again, "It will be a long short interval. It will be briefly extended... go now. We must hold the weaves. Founder is Breaker, Child of Machin, Child of Shen Lung, Child of..." The voices trailed off, and Ranma shook her head again.

In front of Ranma, as Shinnosuke stood to one side, the surface of the lake began to roil, bubbling violently. A huge spray of water shot up, as the seven small heads of the Orochi emerged, one by one. Ranma stood her ground, setting the quarterstaff to one side.

The seven heads formed a semi-circle, looking down at Ranma from a great arch. Slowly, ponderously, the eighth head emerged, framed by the seven smaller ones.

***

The students held their wounds, stifling cries of pain. The master snorted contemptuously, and threw a large blade to the ground.

The smaller student stared at it, then shuddered, turning back to his wounds.

Shaking his head nervously, the second student asked, "What... what is that blade?"

The master eyed it briefly, then shook his head. "'Akuma no Ken.' 'The Fist of the Demon.' I was a fool to craft it... but the purity of the Kami no Ken required an anti-sword to be made. The Specter would have foiled our plans if I weren't here... the N'Dori and the Orochi..." He paused suddenly, then shook his head. "Too late, now. Ryugenzawa is sealed. None can enter..."

The second student quailed, "S... sealed?"

The first student shuddered again. "Away from this sphere?"

The master offered a grim smile. "Indeed. As far as they can get while the Founder and the circle constrain them."

"The Founder... Will he still serve our purpose?"

"Yes. We'll heal tonight, then move in the morning. The second appointment has been met. I no longer believe that any harm can come to the Founder until the third appointment..."

"What are the appointments about, anyway?"

"Student, they are important for the circle. Very important. The first, was 'Crown,' the second was 'Scale'... the third is 'Phoenix.' We have... some time before the third appointment. Your third brother will join us first... but rest now." The master spun abruptly, facing away from his students and towards the crater where the Specter had been dissipated for the next fifty years.

***

Ranma ignored the sensation of... oddness that swept across her, and focused her attention on the Orochi. The heads all stared at her guardedly, then a voice spoke into her mind. <Child of Machin, Child of Shen-Lung... why do you come here?>

Ranma blinked, and smiled slightly, remembering her dream. "I seek knowledge, Child of Aker. I seek to know my blood."

The dragon smiled broadly, its eyes rolling in mirth, then nodded, sending waves across the surface of the water. <Claim your birthright, Child of Machin, Child of Shen-Lung, Child of Machin.>

The redhead blinked at the repetition of 'Machin,' but nodded. On impulse, she glanced over to Shinnosuke, who was currently too wrapped up in being N'Dori to notice anything. Nodding to herself again, she shucked her clothing, shivered, and stepped forward.

Using ki to reinforce her body made her light enough, and more ki projected into the chi of the lake allowed her to walk forward towards the dragon's mouth, which opened widely.

***

Tofu entered the home he shared with Kasumi and the Tendos, then blanched. Akane and Soun were in the middle of a staring contest, neither willing to back down in the slightest. He cleared his throat nervously. "Hello... Did I miss anything?"

Soun looked away. "Not much, Tofu... I'd like your judgment on a question, though."

Akane scowled, and nodded. "Daddy thinks he should go rescue Nabiki."

Tofu blinked, then shrugged. "It would be better than leaving her wherever she is."

The girl's scowl deepened. "Whatever. I think _I_ should go look for her."

The doctor nodded slowly, and lowered himself to a position at one end of the table. "Ah... I think I see, then. Honestly, Mr. Tendo... I think Akane would be more capable than yourself, in this instance."

Soun snapped his mouth shut, collecting himself from that shocking statement. "I see. Do you think I'm not good enough?"

Akane sighed, "Daddy... you need to stay behind to protect the house."

The man flinched, and stared at the patchwork where a wall had been repaired recently. "I... don't know if I can do that..."

Tofu shrugged. "It's your choice, Mr. Tendo... suffice to say that I think you'd be a lot more help to your family here, and... I think Akane needs this, if for nothing other than to get away... I'd do it myself, but I don't want to risk abandoning Kasumi with Ryouga on the loose."

Groaning, Soun closed his eyes. "And Kasumi was proud that I was actually going to do something useful, too..."

Akane shifted uncomfortably. "Why don't you start teaching classes again? Now that Nabiki's gone, we're going to need more help with the house's finances. And you'd still be around to help Kasumi. I think Ryouga would think twice when he was risking attacking a house with a dojo full of students."

Soun nodded wearily. "Yes... it is as you say. Very well. Just... be careful, Akane... I worry about you, you know."

The girl just smirked. "Heh, Yagyu indeed... don't worry about it. I'm going to find Nabiki, and then they're going to regret ever messing with the Tendos!"

Brightening slightly, Soun worked his way to his room, taking his pack with him. <Akane said my family still needs me... Maybe Genma can help.>

Tofu watched the man depart, then heaved a sigh. "Well, where were you planning on beginning your search?"

Akane pursed her lips together thoughtfully. "I need a scrying mirror... then I'll just make it point to where Nabiki is. I have some hair from the brush I found in her room... that should help."

The doctor smiled. "Yes... but, like your father said, Akane... be careful."

***

Nabiki frowned, trying to read between the lines. Her attempt to contact an 'unauthorized factor' did not meet with success, and the punishment had done nothing but reaffirm her resolve to escape. Somehow. <Damn it, where's Kuno or Ranma when you really need them?>

The information she was shuffling was vague, at best. With a sigh, she distributed it as appropriate, then turned away from the monitor. <At least they included facilities...>

Grumbling, she climbed into the futon, trying to adjust the chain so it wouldn't aggravate her. A small chime from the computer informed her that it was not to be, and she sullenly returned to her assigned task.

***

Akane peered around intently, resisting the nearly addictive urge to cloak herself. Genma had warned her about that.

Large buildings rose around her, causing the noise from the slowly flowing traffic to reverberate noisily. <Osaka,> she decided, <is not a place I'd like to live. Hell, I'm not even enjoying the visit.>

Still, the mirror had led her here, and said she was close... within a few blocks, at any rate. The problem, of course, was that the mirror couldn't be any more specific then that. "So," she muttered to herself, "somewhere within a few blocks of... here."

She nodded to herself, deciding that wherever she was, it was the center of her search radius. She memorized the street names, then decided to search for clues. <The mirror won't help any, unless they start to move her... so...>

***

Smiling slightly, she approached a pair of scruffy-looking men. "Excuse me, gentlemen, could you tell me where I might be able to buy some information?"

The men eyed her for a moment, then one of them nodded. "Ya... follow us, girlie."

Akane obligingly followed the man into the alley. The other man followed her closely, a sinister smile on his face.

The girl shook her head sadly. <Do they really think I'm that stupid?>

The first man smiled, splitting his face in an ugly grin. "What kind of information ya wants?"

Wincing at the man's accent, she shrugged. "I'm looking for a girl. About my height, short brown hair..." She blathered on, letting her mouth go on auto-pilot while she probed their minds. <Nabiki... Nabiki... oh. Well.>

The men frowned, then slowly began edging away. "Sorry girlie, we don't know nothing."

Akane frowned, raising one hand to catch an iron rod as it descended towards her head. "You sure?"

The men's eyes widened, as she wrenched the rod from the second man's hand, and calmly folded it in half. The first man swallowed, and shook his head nervously. "We don't know nothing!"

The second man, with his back to the street, simply fled, leaving Akane alone with the first. "Fine, whatever." She turned away, and began sifting through her memory of the city for the building that Nabiki's description had prompted the man to recall.

An hour later, both tired and irritable, Akane found the building. Squat, and in a poorer section of the district than she had expected. The dingy walls looked to not have been cleaned for several years. Frowning, she studied it for a moment before slipping into the cloak of the Umisen-ken.

Once invisible, she crept inside, and began to search the nearer minds for Nabiki's, or any hint of her. The building was nearly empty, which made the search much easier. There were four people that Akane could sense, though she doubted anyone who could hide their presence would be nearby.

Nabiki was not one of them. Akane frowned grimly, then paused to investigate the others. <Two men, probably thugs, thinking of... No... oh... oh, my. And another, thinking of...>

Akane's field of vision turned red, and she fought briefly for control. <Temper, Akane. Martial artists control themselves. Calm down... calm...> Heaving one last sigh, she straightened, and marched towards the stairs. She didn't notice that she had slipped from the cloak of the Umisen-ken, to the field of presence that the Yamasen-ken generated.

Two burly thugs in fancy suits gawked as she kicked the door to their room open, sending it flying between them to shatter against the far wall.

They moved swiftly towards her, recovering quickly. Both of the men had been trained in the fine art of grappling for years by their respective employers, and had no small amount of skill. Which, Akane realized, was probably a good thing, since they might have died otherwise.

The girl moved low, under the first's punch, to chop at his knee with a knife-hand. There was a grating and snapping sound, followed by an animalistic cry of pain that informed her that _this_ thug wouldn't be a problem for a few minutes. She leap up, rising above the second's poorly aimed kick at her shins, and snapped her own kick into his jaw from mid-air. An alarming crack spun the man in a somersault, leaving him to land on the floor in a limp pile.

She paused momentarily to be certain that they both still lived, then moved on.

The third man was not an experienced fighter, and Akane's casual backhand sent him though a crumbling shogi screen, to knock over a large filing cabinet. Pleased to note that he was already unconscious, she turned to the large steel door that she sensed another mind behind.

<Doors,> she observed, <just aren't efficient enough.> She studied the door for a moment, before simply smashing through the wall to one side.

***

Hiretsukan Akutama, a minor member of the local yakuza, was not at all expecting to see a teenaged girl with a short temper smash through the wall to one side of the security door he had installed on his room.

He had time to blink, and reach towards his knife when he realized that he was already pinned to the floor, her fist inches away from his windpipe. Calming herself slightly, she asked, "Now, where is Tendo Nabiki."

Akutama swallowed nervously. "What... who are you talking about?"

Akane raised an eyebrow, then moved, pinning the man to the ground with one leg, and plucking his knife from the table. She folded it slowly. The steel was good quality, and it took a lot of force to break, but it snapped with a brittle 'twanging' noise.

The thug could see the slight red flashes as stray slivers of metal impacted into a barrier of force, then halted and dropped to the floor. He swallowed, wondering how an unregistered special had gotten this close without him being altered. He was aware, in a peripheral sense, of the existence of magic. It had a great deal of use to the yakuza, when they could actually obtain someone who was able to use that power, and when they did, they employed it to the best of their abilities.

The girl who was assaulting him right now would have been invaluable... if she were controlled. As things were standing, Akutama began to wonder if, maybe, just maybe, he was playing with things beyond his comprehension. He swallowed nervously. "The brown-haired..." he trailed off without actually saying 'slut' but saw by the girl's expression that verbalizing was unnecessary.

Akane calmly picked the man up, and threw him into the wall as hard as she could. She walked away, while he fell to the ground, mercifully without pain. It would be a few hours before he realized that the lack of pain was do to a severed spinal column.

She muttered darkly to herself as she stomped out of the building. "Bastard thinks he can do that to my sister and get away with it... Sapporo. How the hell are they moving her that fast, anyway?"

***

It took a long time, but Akane slowly mastered her temper on the trip to Hokkaido. Why they had moved Nabiki again, she wasn't certain, but they had, and she would follow. Why the mirror hadn't reflected the change wasn't certain, all she could imagine was that someone had become alerted to the scrying, and arranged to block it.

She frowned, noting a certain presence of... 'otherness'... near Ryugenzawa, but she had no reason to go there, and quickly dismissed it, choosing to catch up on her sleep.

Waking at the end of the line, Akane left the northern edge of Honshu, and boarded a ferry to Hokkaido. A plane would have been faster, but her funds were limited.

***

Walking the last few miles into Sapporo, Akane searched with her senses, stumbling across hastily erected wards. She pursed her lips thoughtfully, factoring the location of the wards against her mental map of the city. Finding her destination, she smiled slightly, and began walking.

The compound itself was a fairly isolated building, only two stories above ground. She paused when she reached it, then knelt behind a small bush to consider things. She could sense dozens of active minds in the building, the majority of them in a basement of some kind.

One of them was unmistakably Nabiki's. Growling slightly, Akane began to come up with a plan. One of those minds definitely belonged to someone who could use magic, though obviously not as well as her. Or Doctor Tofu, or Kasumi. Still, it was a magic user, and it was an opposing force. It merited investigation.

***

The esper, magic-user, 'witch,' or what-have-you in question, however, was more aware of Akane than the young Tendo had originally conceived. She just wanted to make sure that Akane's plans fell roughly into alignment with her own.

***

Chame paced back and forth anxiously, glancing occasionally at a calendar, "Damn it... where are you Ranma? It's been... three months already! If you don't hurry..."

A cry from Ukyou distracted her, and the Machin woman swore, dashing towards her room. "I'm on my way, Ucchan..."

Ukyou was bathed in sweat when Ukyou reached her, and managed a whimper, "Where's Ranma?"

Chame flinched, and looked away. "I... don't know... I can't find him, I can't scry for him..."

Ukyou's eyes clenched shut. "What's wrong?"

Brushing a braid of bluish-black hair behind her, Chame sighed, "He's alive, wherever he is... I just don't know where."

"I think it's time."

"It can't possibly... oh. Well, maybe it is."

***

Sana Tanaka bared her teeth, calling upon the brief training that Ranma had given her. She didn't fall down as much. Or make as many sloppy mistakes. Or feel a lack of confidence. But the devils she fought seemed to get irritated at this, and became much stronger.

Still, her teacher had drilled some things into her quite well, and Sakura enforced many of those beliefs. Giving up was not an option, but dying was even less of one.

The green-haired devil-hunter clapped a hand to her leg, trying to staunch the flow of blood momentarily. The devil groped around blindly for a minute before finding its head, and putting it back on. Once done, it blinked, and stared at Sana.

She glared at the monstrosity, and shakily raised one hand to invoke the words Ranma had taught her. Before the first syllable rang out, she heard someone else's battle cry, "Kijin raishu-dan!"

Stunned, she watched the devil's body get torn into small pieces, which rained down upon herself and the newcomer. The newcomer was dressed in fatigues, a tank top, and a short cape. He grinned at her cockily, then nodded. "You alright?"

All of the blood in Sana's body concentrated in her face, and she fainted promptly. Kumon Ryu frowned, and knelt to dress her wounds. "Well," he remarked, "it's a lot more fun than just looking for the Saotomes."

Unnoticed by him, the devil was slowly reassembling itself from the chunks that were littering the short road. He continued tending Sana's wounds, as Sakura bounded up behind him, blasted the remnants of the devil with a short burst of energy, and then bounded up to him.

Ryu leapt as Sakura tapped him on the shoulder. "Argh! What!?"

Sakura smiled slightly. "What are your intentions with my granddaughter?"

Sana stirred, and woke to see Ryu standing over her. Still flushing, she turned her dreamiest expression on him.

Ryu grinned sheepishly, shooting nervous glances between the two women.

***

Heavily sedated, Kuno Kodachi lay strapped to a table. An orderly smiled slightly and checked to make sure no one was watching, before dimming the lights.

***

And Akane planned.

***

The N'Dori speaking through Shinnosuke in the warped time that they maintained, muttered, "These things also often happen in threes. By body, by flesh, and by fire. Perhaps not the same, but there are similarities. Three, and three, and within those, another three and three. But only six, yet."

 

------

Author's notes:

This chapter was a real nightmare, and was rewritten/fleshed out multiple times before I was satisfied with it. Still not sure I like it.


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