Title:  Ranma's Friends
Author: Alatri ^..^ alatri@att.net
Fandom: Ranma 1/2
Complete/Updated:  1/31/99
Feedback: Comments, critiques, suggestions, etc, all welcome. ;-)
Disclaimer: Only mine in my dreams. ;-)  This is a work of fiction based upon the manga/anime characters invented by Takahashi Rumiko – she and the publishers hold the copyrights to the Ranma ½ World. This story was written for free entertainment purposes only and may not be reproduced for profit or altered without permission.


Ranma's Friends

                “Ranma!  You’ll pay!!”

                “Geez, Ryoga.  What did I do this time?”  Ranma jumped back, avoiding Ryoga’s punch.  Ryoga barreled in with a determined look on his face.  Ranma lightly placed his hands on Ryoga’s fist and flipped himself up in the air, landing on a tree-branch overhead.  Ryoga hesitated only a second before slamming his fist into the tree and shaking Ranma loose.  Ranma turned over in the air and landed lightly on the ground.  “All right, if you insist,” Ranma ran towards Ryoga and they exchanged a quick set of blows before separating briefly to begin again.

                “Honestly!”  Akane fumed, clutching her school-case.  “We were suppose to do some shopping for Kasumi.  Those idiots!”

                “But not too bad, even if they’re not serious.”

                “Huh?”  Akane whipped her head around to stare at the person standing next to her.  She’d never seen him before, but he was watching the fight intently, an amused smile playing over his face.  Akane took the opportunity to look him over, curious about this person who could come up beside her without her noticing.  Only a few years older than herself, he carried himself with an easy confidence that not even Ranma could have matched.  But his training undoubtedly has a lot to do with it, Akane noted the firm muscles and toned body with sight used to evaluating Ranma and Ryoga.  She recognized the martial arts training not only in his physical condition, but the clothes he wore that were formal but allowed no constriction if one needed to fight.  A white sleeveless tunic was cut in a fashion much like Ranma’s red shirt except that it was cut low in front, baring the neck.  A black loose belt around his waist was tied on the left side in a traditional knot.  His black pants flowed around his thighs but were tightly constrained around his calves by soft leather boots laced up to the knee.  His wrists were bare of ornamentation, but four plain silver bands encircled his arms above the elbows and just below the shoulders.  Akane eyed them, noting the placement that would allow a knife-sheath to be attached, though none was in sight.  Coming to the conclusion that he could be a formidable opponent, Akane finally raised her gaze to his face.  And blinked.  He was still watching the fight, for which she was very grateful as heat flooded through her cheeks.  She wouldn’t ever think of brown as a dull eye-color again.  At least not when placed in a face like that.  His smooth regular features were relieved from being austere by crinkle lines around the corners of his mouth and wrinkles in his forehead that spoke more of laughter than frowns.  All of his solid black hair was pulled away from his face in a tight french braid except for his short bangs that fluttered in the breeze.

                “Hold!”  The stranger abruptly barked at the combatants.

                Akane reflectively took two steps back, the sharp directive taking her by surprise and not being aimed at her.  She looked towards Ranma and Ryoga, to find them standing perfectly still, stopped in mid-attack.  Ranma’s gaze was still focused on Ryoga, but Ryoga had turned his head in shock to face the stranger.  He started to lower his arms, but a firm grip stopped him.

                “When I say ‘hold’, I usually mean keep the position.”  The stranger looked to Ranma, “You two have obviously been sparring together way too often.  Ranma, your block deflected his punch, but only because you knew he would be coming in too low.  If you tried that on a different opponent, your block would have lost its effectiveness by the time you covered your head.  Adjust your attacks for the person, but leave your defenses universal.”  The stranger adjusted Ranma’s arm accordingly, then turned to Ryoga.  “Your problem is that you’re trying to meet him in his own element.  Ranma is air, and many of his moves are directed accordingly.  You need to be aware that you are earth and respond to his air by being solid instead of fluid.  Instead of moving in to meet him, direct your attack just before you come together.”  Ryoga blinked, and lowered his fist, forehead wrinkled in thought.  Ranma kept his pose.  The stranger stepped back, “Begin!”  Ranma instantly went on the attack, more seriously than before, and Ryoga was hard-pressed to defend for a few moments.  Then something seemed to click and Ryoga switched from defense to attack, his movements radiating new confidence.  Ranma was driven back, then he executed one of his flying somersaults that usually disconcerted Ryoga.  This time Ryoga met him with a punch that sent Ranma flying in the opposite direction, tearing up ground when he landed on his back.

                “Oh, come on, Ranma.  That was too easy to block.  You’re still not fighting yet.”  The stranger muttered, once again next to Akane, who looked at him in puzzled curiosity.

                Ranma got up, wiping his mouth.  “Fine.”  He dove towards Ryoga, shouting the kei for his ‘Chestnuts Roasting Over an Open Fire’ technique.

                The stranger rolled his eyes, “Hold!”

                Ranma stopped bare inches from Ryoga, who lowered his arms and turned his head, “What the hell…?”  Ranma maintained position, though a trickle of sweat down his face showed how hard it had been for him to halt.

                Not moving from his place beside Akane, the stranger addressed Ranma, “Baka.  You don’t need fancy techniques to fight.  You just have to correctly apply what you already know.  Stop thinking of him as your friend and think of him as your partner.  Begin.”

                Ryoga’s mouth dropped open at the last sentence and he absently blocked Ranma’s attack, while still staring at the stranger, who winked at him.  Ryoga redirected his attention to the fight, and this time the two youths traded punches, kicks, and blocks with focus.

                “Wow.”  Akane dropped her school-case at her feet, her eyes wide as she watched them.

                “I didn’t think they were applying themselves.  Now they can really train.”

                “But how did you know it wasn’t a real fight?”

                “Or as real as it gets?”  The elder youth laughed, “It was in Ranma’s moves.  He tends to waffle from ‘reluctant to fight friends’ to ‘extreme over-confidence’.  This time it was more the over-confidence bit.  And your other friend there is pulling his punches.  Although, for him, rightly so.  If he actually connected with his full strength, even Ranma’s remarkable healing may not be enough.”

                “You can tell all that just from watching them?”  Akane was sure this was the first time the stranger had ever seen Ranma and Ryoga together, though she couldn’t tell how she knew.

                He glanced side-long at her, treating her to a quick evaluation that Akane felt she passed.  She straightened her shoulders and raised an eyebrow, reminding him of her question.  He turned back to the fight.  “And their auras.  They’re fairly evenly matched in basic power, though Ranma has had a lot more training.  When he uses it.”

                Several minutes went by before Ranma and Ryoga broke off the match at the same time.  Breathing heavily, they walked towards Akane and the stranger.  Ranma stopped a few feet away and bowed from the waist.  Ryoga glanced at him, then did the same.  The stranger’s mouth quirked in a smile, but he returned the bow.  “Much better.”

                “Thank you, Sensei.”  Ranma looked serious for only a moment, then he grinned and the last few feet disappeared as he hurled himself at the youth.  They wrapped each other around in one giant hug, as Ryoga moved next to Akane.  Breaking apart, Ranma stepped back, “Jyrgei-chan.  It’s been a long time.”

                “Ranma-chan, you’ve grown up well.”

                Ranma tilted his head to one side, “And you’ve grown up, period.  What gives?”

                Ryoga and Akane traded looks of incomprehension as Jyrgei smiled, “I had to travel in Europe for awhile.  Regulations and all being rather tight, eighteen was the best age to get places without being noticed.”  He glanced towards Ryoga and Akane, and Ranma took the hint, “Oh, Jyrgei, these are my two best friends in the whole world, Ryoga Hibiki and Akane Tendo, who’s also my fiancee.  Ryoga and Akane, this is Jyrgei-sama –”  Ranma started to add more to that, but Jyrgei put a hand over Ranma’s mouth, “Don’t lay it on too thick.”  He raised his other hand up to his chest, palm out, “To Ranma’s friends, Ryoga and Akane, my bless—” he stopped abruptly.  Ranma gasped in horror, “Jyrgei!”

                “Relax, Ranma, I’m not withholding my blessing,” Jyrgei frowned, “I can’t give it in the presence of a curse.”

                Ranma visibly relaxed, as Akane gasped and Ryoga turned scarlet, carefully not looking towards Akane.

                Jyrgei turned to Ranma and narrowed his eyes, “Jusenkyo?”

                Ranma blushed and nodded.

                “This one, I have to hear.”  Jyrgei’s gaze went to Ryoga for a significant moment before settling on Akane, “Dear Lady, please forgive me, but it’s been many a year since I’ve had conversation with my friend.  Would you excuse me if I took Ranma away for a few hours?”

                Akane recovered her powers of speech, “Only if you come to our house for dinner tonight.”  She smiled at both of them.

                The reaction of both was unexpected as Jyrgei flinched and Ranma blushed.  Akane confusedly stuttered, “B-but, we’d love to have you.  Kasumi won’t mind, really.”

                Jyrgei directed his question at Ranma, “Your father?”

                “At the house,” Ranma admitted, “but he’s changed.”  Jyrgei raised an eyebrow.  Ranma shrugged, “Okay, so I’ve changed, but the end result ’s’ same.  Look, Jyrgei, it’s a crowded home with adults in it, but they are my family and I’d really like you to meet ‘em all.”  They looked at each other for a long moment before Jyrgei reluctantly nodded.  “I’ll come, but only if you both will be there,” he indicated Akane and Ryoga.

                Akane laughed, “Certainly.”

                Ryoga stammered without saying anything before Akane rescued him, “Of course you’ll be there, Ryoga, you’re part of the family too.”  Ryoga blushed, then muttered without looking at anybody, “If I can find it.”

                This time, it was Jyrgei who laughed.  He tossed something at Ryoga that he instinctively caught.  “This should help at least for today.”

                Three mouths dropped open in surprise, but Ranma gained his speech first, “Do you mean, Jyrgei, that Ryoga’s sense of direction is a curse?!”

                Frowning, Jyrgei narrowed his gaze at Ryoga, then shrugged, “I can’t tell.  It’s buried too deep.”

                “But, but…” Ryoga gathered up the courage for a plead, but was stopped before he began by an upraised hand from the elder youth.

                “Later.  We’ll talk about it later.  I really do need to talk with Ranma now.”

                Reluctantly, Ryoga nodded, and he and Akane watched in silence as Ranma walked off with Jyrgei.  Ranma was already talking a mile-a-minute before they got out of range, plying his friend with questions and telling about instances from his own life without waiting for answers.  When the two were out of sight, Ryoga glanced down at Akane who looked back at him.  In silent companionship, they turned and walked towards the dojo.  After a few minutes had gone by, Akane asked, “What was it he gave you?”  Ryoga opened his fist and looked at the small round medallion in his hand.  “Don’t know.”  It had a thin leather cord attached, and he slipped it over his head after studying it briefly.  He stopped mid-step and Akane looked back at him.

                “Akane-san!”

                “Ryoga-kun?”

                Ryoga turned to her with his eyes sparkling, “Akane!  Your house is that way!  He gestured down the street then indicated off to the left.”

                Akane’s own eyes grew wide, “It works.”

                Ryoga laughed, “This is great.”

                They walked together again, each lost in their own thoughts.  Ryoga for awhile was absorbed in noting his path as he walked along and being awed at the knowledge of what was behind and ahead of him.  When the novelty wore off, Ryoga’s thoughts turned serious, “Akane-san?”  She turned her beautiful brown eyes to him, and Ryoga flinched at his thoughts, “Akane – did you hear what Ranma called us?”

                Akane smiled, her whole face lighting up as she looked ahead again, replaying the words in her mind, “I heard.”  ‘These are my two best friends in the whole world…’  Ranma.  We’re too young for love, but you acknowledge me friend.  That was the best compliment you could have ever given me.  And it makes it doubly wonderful that you didn’t mean it as a compliment but just a fact.  She sighed happily.  Then her attention refocused on her companion, who was morose and silent.  “Ryoga-kun?”

                Hunched into himself, Ryoga didn’t answer for a moment, then he blurted out, “Akane, I was at Jusenkyo too.  I’m really P-chan.”

                “Umm.”  So he finally got around to it – wonder why?  “I know.”

                Ryoga stopped dead.  “You know?”

                Akane kept walking and Ryoga had to hurry to catch up with her.  “I know.  Not at the beginning, I didn’t, but it wasn’t too hard to figure out after awhile.”

                “Why didn’t you say anything?”  Ryoga’s question came out in an anguished howl.

                “Why didn’t you?”  Akane countered.

                The silence stretched out until they reached her house.  Ryoga looked at the ground, “I, um, I’ll be back for dinner.”  He fingered the medallion absently, then turned and walked off.  Akane watched him, “Honestly!  Well, he’s got to figure that one out himself.  I’m not going to go easy just because it’s him.”

 

                As they walked through the park, Jyrgei let Ranma rattle on until they walked by a nice tall oak tree.  With a grin on his face, Jyrgei jumped up into the tree and hopped up the branches until he was fairly close to the top.  Ranma followed with no difficulty, and they settled down, Jyrgei sitting on a branch, leaning against the truck while his legs stretched out along the branch.  Ranma was sitting perched on a branch just above and to a side of it, legs dangling in the air, kicking absently at nothing.

                “So, Jyrgei, why are you here?”

                Jyrgei sighed and stretched out his arms above his head.  “I got involved in an extended problem, and ended up taking a cure to a sick girl in Germany, and tracking down the paths of some tiger-hunters selling medicinals.  I think there’s a few more out there who will learn that it’s not the dead animal that carries the magic.  I just wish I could get them all.”

                Nodding, Ranma reflected on how very like his friend it was – where Jyrgei lived was a refuge for the rarer animals of the islands, but the only thing that could really drag him out was a threat to a child.

                “Since I was already out-and-about, I decided to check up on some of my former protégés – and here I am.  I heard most of what you were saying down below, but it was a bit… disorganized – How are you, for real?”

                Ranma smiled, “I’m good, Jyrgei.  I’m doing really good.  And I’ve got a lot of friends here.  There are a lot of nice people.”

                Jyrgei closed his eyes then opened them again and looked at Ranma, a corner of his mouth twitching, “Ranma-chan, you’ll say that about most anybody.”

                With a shrug, Ranma dismissed the comment, “It’s usually true.”

                Closing his eyes again, Jyrgei grinned fully, “I’m glad you think so.”

                “Tell me about Europe!” Ranma urged his friend.  Not losing the grin, Jyrgei complied, spinning tales of strange lands and strange dwellings with their people and children.

 

                Akane walked into the house and headed for the kitchen.  “Kasumi?  I wasn’t able to get your shopping done – Ranma and Ryoga got into a fight, and I met the most interesting person – an old friend of Ranma’s.  I invited him over for dinner, and Ryoga is also going to be here.”

                “Oh, that’s nice.  I’ll get something special together.”  Kasumi wiped her hands on her apron and smiled at the thought of more people in the house.

                Nabiki poked her head around the corner, “’He?’  Ranma’s bringing home a guy?  That’s a switch.  Or is Ranma in girl-form?”

                Akane scowled, then laughed, “No – it’s a friend of his from a long time ago.  Jyrgei seems like a really nice guy, and really talented too.”

                “That’s what it appeared when Ukyo first showed up, until we found out that he was a she who was also one of Ranma’s betrothed,” Nabiki pointed out, “How do you know the old man hasn’t done it again?”

                Akane laughed again, heading out of the kitchen and walking towards the dojo with Nabiki at her side, “Oh no.  For one thing – he’s not trying to kill Ranma!  But believe me, Jyrgei is definitely a guy.”

                “Unless he’s been to Jusenkyo.”

                “Come to think of it,” Akane halted near the patio where her father and the panda were playing their Go game, “he did know about it.  He recognized right away that both Ranma and Ryoga had the curse.  And he gave Ryoga an amulet that cured his sense of direction.”

                Nabiki snorted, “Now that one I’ll believe when I see it.”

                Akane tried hard to hide her own smile, “Well, we’ll find out at dinner.  And, Nabiki, I really think you’ll like Jyrgei – he’s unlike anybody I’ve met before.”

                Nabiki started to say something, but was interrupted as the panda suddenly was before them, making snorting sounds and waving its paws.  She scowled at it, “If you want to talk, be nice and maybe Kasumi will open up the hot water valve.”

                The panda growled, taking them both by surprise, and stalked past an astonished Mr. Tendo to grab the pot with boiled raman.  He tilted it up and poured it over his head.  Mr. Saotome walked back to them, hot water and noodles dripping down his shoulders but not seeming to notice.  “What was that name?”

                “What?”  Akane had totally forgotten what they were talking about, fascinated by seeing Mr. Saotome covered in raman.

                “The person coming to dinner.  Did you say, ‘Jyrgei’?”

                “Yes, he’s an old friend of Ranma’s…  Mr. Saotome?”

                Ranma’s father had walked out, into the grotto, standing by the pond, his head bowed.  Nabiki and Akane exchanged looks, and Akane headed after him, “Mr. Saotome, is there something wrong?”

                “Jyrgei-sama.  After all these years…”  Mr. Saotome whirled suddenly, “Did you actually see this person, talk with him?  Or did Ranma just tell you he was coming?”

                Akane turned her head to look again at Nabiki who shrugged.  Akane answered, “I talked with him.  I invited over for dinner, and he said he’d come.”  Though, come to think of it, there was some sort of reaction when he thought Ranma’s dad would be here…  “Is there something between you?  He seemed like a really nice person.”

                “’Between us’?  That’s an interesting phrasing.  Between us indeed.”  Mr. Saotome sighed, and sat down on a rock, suddenly looking weary.  “No.  I’m sure he’s a very good person.  I’ve never met him.”

                “You’ve never met him, Genma?” Akane’s dad entered into the fray.  “Then what was all that about?  And how can he be Ranma’s friend without you knowing him?”

                Mr. Saotome’s mouth quirked, not in a smile, “Because, when Ranma was eight years old, Jyrgei-sama saved his life.  Something I wasn’t able to do at the time.  Ranma came back to me the next day, not a scratch on him, and full of excitement about his new friend.  I never saw Jyrgei, but over the next four years, I heard about him.  When we moved back to the cities for Ranma’s schooling, Jyrgei stayed in the wilderness.  I never thought I’d hear his name again, and I really never thought I’d meet him.”  He dipped his hand in the pond and splashed some cold water on himself, turning into a panda and effectively closing the conversation.

 

                First Ranma, then Jyrgei jumped down from the tree.  They grinned at each other, then started walking to the store – Ranma had remembered about Kasumi’s vegetables.  They passed a section of street with a chain-link fence on the side.  Both of them jumped up at the same time to walk on top of it.  Jyrgei did a high back-flip that landed him behind Ranma, who turned questioningly.  Jyrgei waved a hand, “I don’t know where the store is.”  “Oh yeah.”  They laughed and walked on.

                A tinkle of a bell warned Ranma and he jumped down from the fence automatically.  He looked up to warn Jyrgei, and then grinned as he saw his friend already beside him.  Shampoo’s bike rolled to a stop on the fence beside them.  “Ranma!  You go on date with Shampoo now, yes?”

                Ranma rolled his eyes, “Not now, Shampoo.  Oh, hey, Shampoo – this is a friend of mine, Jyrgei-sama.  Jyrgei, this is Shampoo.”

                Jyrgei bowed from the waist, “Charmed.”  He looked to Ranma and asked in an undertone, “So how many people did go with you to Jusenkyo?”

                “It’s not my fault!”

                “Why do I get the feeling you’ve been saying that a lot?”

                Ranma glared at his friend.  Shampoo laughed, “Ranma, husband; I like you friend.”

                “???? -- Ranma, did you leave something out – not that you told me much of anything in order…”

                Ranma sighed, “Shampoo is an Amazon, and –”

                “-- you defeated her in battle.  I get it.”  Jyrgei grinned and looked at Shampoo, saying something in Chinese to Shampoo, who exclaimed happily and chattered back at him.  The two had a conversation for a couple of minutes while Ranma fumed, then Shampoo slapped her hand to her mouth, “Oh!  Shampoo have delivery to make!  Bye!”  She rode off, her bell tinkling as she disappeared in the distance.  Jyrgei and Ranma jumped back up on the fence.

                “I will say this, Ranma, you’ve made some interesting friends!”

                “So what were you and Shampoo talking about?”

                “The lack of outside blood in the tribe right now.”

                “Jyrgei!”

                Ranma’s friend laughed quietly, “Relax, Ranma-chan.  Just the basic polite stuff.  She invited me to her place for dinner in a week.”

                “And you accepted?”  Ranma was amazed.

                Jyrgei shrugged, “Politeness.  Formalities in the Amazon Tribe are rather stringent.  You can get yourself into all sorts of trouble if you don’t know the proper responses,” he arched an eyebrow deliberately at his friend.  Ranma stuck his tongue out at Jyrgei, who grinned, “Besides, she’s your friend.  Although at that,” he looked down the street, expression more serious, “she’s rather informal for an Amazon and it’s amazing she’s spent all this time in the City without getting into trouble.”

                Ranma sighed.  It was all his fault, he knew.  But he just couldn’t seem to get Shampoo to go back home where she belonged.

                “You have a wonderful effect on people.  When she does go back, that tribe is going to be a lot more adaptable than it’s ever been.”

                “Huh?”

                “Ranma, you either over-estimate yourself, or under-estimate.  Never mind, I’m not explaining that one.”

 

                “Did I make it back in time?”

                “Well, actually, Ryoga-kun, you’re early.  Ranma and Jyrgei-san haven’t even come back yet.”  Akane held the door open for her friend.

                Ryoga walked in, looking around, still appearing rather stunned.  “I went home.  I found it.  Mom was there.  It was amazing.  When I left, I gave myself plenty of time to get here.  But I came straight here.  I don’t know what happened.  I didn’t even think I knew how to get here.  I just thought of you and I got here.”

                Akane bit her lip not to laugh.  Nabiki leaned on the wall inside, “I guess I have to believe it now.  You know, Akane, speaking as a business person, you really should have taken the bet – you had the inside information that assured your win.”

                “Hi, Nabiki-san.”

                Nabiki waved a hand and started to wander off, then paused and whipped back around, “Wow!”

                Akane and Ryoga turned to see Ranma and Jyrgei walking up the steps, plastic bags of vegetables in hand.  Akane exclaimed happily, “Ranma, you remembered!”  He grinned and winked at her.  Akane started to walk towards them, but a grip on her arm yanked her back.  Nabiki hissed in her ear, “Akane!  You didn’t tell me he was such a hunk!”  Akane blinked and looked back at Ranma’s friend, a blush spreading across her face.  She whispered back, “Well, I told you he was definitely a guy!”  “Whoa!  What a guy.”  Then the two of them moved back out of the way as Kasumi walked past them, wiping her hands on her apron, “Ranma-kun!  How good of you to remember.  Thank you.”  Kasumi curtsied to Jyrgei, “Welcome to our home, Jyrgei-sama.  It’s always nice to meet Ranma’s friends.”

                “Is she serious?”  Nabiki’s satirical side showed up again as she thought of their life since Ranma had come to live with them.  Then her mouth dropped open as Jyrgei went down on his knees and touched his forehead to the dust in front of Kasumi.

                “Child of the Green.  I am honored.  It is rare to make the acquaintance of one such as yourself.”

                Kasumi raised her hand to her mouth, “Oh my!  Please, don’t do that.”

                Jyrgei stood up as all the others gaped at him.  “As you wish, Green-sama.  But if I had known you were the lovely Akane-san’s sister, I wouldn’t have hesitated to come.”

                “Good Lord.”  Nabiki and Ryoga looked between Jyrgei and Kasumi.

                “Lovely?”  Akane blushed, while Ranma blinked in surprise.  He opened his mouth to make a sarcastic statement, then closed it again as Akane absently cuffed him.

                Affecting to be oblivious of all the interaction around him, Jyrgei spoke to Kasumi, “Green-sama, do I have your permission to enter your home and put a Blessing upon it?”

                Kasumi tilted her head, looking consideringly at him, “I see.”  Nabiki glanced sharply at her sister, eyes narrowing in thought.  Kasumi continued, “Certainly, you do, Jyrgei-sama.  You don’t need my permission, but are always welcome here in the future.”

                Jyrgei held his hands out, one hand touching the side of the house, the other by his chest, facing out, “My Blessings upon this house and all who dwell with good intentions within it.”  He quirked his mouth in a smile, “May the dojo always be easily, cheaply, and well repaired.”

                “Oh, thank-you!”  Kasumi beamed at him, “We needed one of those.  Since Ranma-kun has come to live here, it has been a bit more of a chore than when it was just Akane-chan.”

                Akane and Ranma blushed as one, while Ryoga traced a circle with his foot – aware that he contributed to the damage.  Nabiki laughed long and hard.  Jyrgei grinned and winked at her.  Nabiki unexpectedly blushed herself.

                “And this must be another one of the fair sisters three.”

                “Geez, Jyrgei.  You don’t have to lay it on so thick.”

                Jyrgei merely quirked an eyebrow, but Ranma quailed back, raising his hands in symbolic surrender.  “Ranma-chan.  It never hurts to be polite – especially when there are those deserving of it.  I can see there are yet some things I have to teach you.”

                “Aw, Jyrgei…”

                “Later, Ranma.  I haven’t been introduced to this gentle-sama yet.”

                Ryoga burst into coughs, and Akane brought out her mallet and showed it to him.  He choked it down, not without a mutter, “Gentle?  He doesn’t know her yet.”  Ranma shot a warning glance at Ryoga, who finally subsided.

                Kasumi beamed at both Jyrgei and Nabiki, “Jyrgei-sama, this is my sister, Nabiki.  She’s a genius.”

                Nabiki had been starting to put her hand out to shake, but at the last statement, her head whipped around to stare at Kasumi.  For once, she had nothing to say.

                Jyrgei smiled, “Sometimes the truth has been unsaid, but is never-the-less truth for all that.”  He took Nabiki’s outstretched hand and bowed over it, “It also adds to my honor to meet thee.  Rarely have I met such a trio of Blessed children.”

                Blinking, then frowning, Ranma spoke, “Jyrgei—“

                “Ranma-chan.  Later.  Save ‘em all up, and I’ll answer all your questions at one time.”  Jyrgei released Nabiki’s hand with an apologetic look to her, “I’m sorry.  He hasn’t learned appropriate manners and obviously thinks of all of you as family.”

                Nabiki smiled more gently than she was want, “We are.  In all that matters.”

                Jyrgei also smiled, “Wise, in deed as well as speech and thought.”

                "Oh my," Kasumi raised a hand to her lips.  Everybody looked at her.  "The soup."  She practically ran past Nabiki back into the house.  Nabiki followed her, after a confused glance at Jyrgei, who smiled after her.

                Akane led the rest of the group in, "Ah, this way, please.  Dinner will be ready in a half-an-hour.  Jyrgei -- do you think you might have time to spar with me?"

                Jyrgei grinned, absently clouting Ranma who was rolling his eyes, "It'd be my honor, but 30 minutes doesn't give us enough time -- how about an hour after dinner so our bodies are fed and rested?"

                "You mean you'll do it?  Great!"  Akane beamed.

                Ranma frowned, "Ah, Jyrgei..."  He forgot what he was going to say as they walked onto the patio and his dad and Mr. Tendo looked at them.  Jyrgei stopped dead in his tracks, his gaze fixed on Ranma's dad.  Ranma swallowed.  Oh, yeah.  Forgot about that.  Glancing nervously at his friend, Ranma stepped to one side and pulled Ryoga and Akane with him.

                A go-piece in Mr. Saotome's hand became dust as his fist clenched tight.  Mr. Tendo looked at him and stayed silent.  Slowly, Mr. Saotome stood up, his figure framed against the red evening sky outside.  Jyrgei walked forward another step, a muscle in his jaw jumping, his eyes narrowed.

                Mr. Saotome cleared his throat, "Jyrgei-sama.  I'd like to... to..." he closed his eyes.  When he opened them again after a minute, they could all read the anguish within.  "I'd like to thank you for the life of my son."

                Turning his head to one side, Jyrgei ignored Mr. Saotome, "Evil...?"

                A figure in dark clothes with a mask over his head and a bundle on his back came into sight, giggling, "What a haul.  What a haul.  Am I back in time for dinner?  What's this?"

                "Oh, no."  Ranma shook his head.  "Just who I didn't  want to show up tonight."  Akane and Ryoga traded exasperated looks.

                A flash of blue light returned everybody's attention to Jyrgei.

                "Yow!!!!!"  The Master was flattened under a stream of the blue light.  "Who the hell...?"  He twisted his head around, "Oh.  It's you, Jyrgei.  You're bigger."

                The blue light stopped streaming from Jyrgei's hand, though it remained a glow around the Master.  "Happosi?  What are you doing still alive?  I thought sure some jealous husband was going to kill you years ago."

                "Ha, ha.  Very funny.  Will you let me up now?"

                Five mouths dropped open in shock as the onlookers stared.  "They know each other?" Akane whispered.  Ranma shook his head, "I'll be damned."  "He flattened the Master!"  Mr. Saotome and Mr. Tendo's eyes were wide with shock.

                "Right."  Jyrgei raised his hand again, and a stream of red light hit the blue, both lights disappearing when they hit.  "Do you mean to tell me, you live here too?"

                Happosi stood up, dusting himself off.  "Jyrgei, let me introduce you to my two best disciples, Genma and Soun.  They inherited the School of Anything Goes Martial Arts from me."

                "Oh, so you did go ahead and start it."  Jyrgei looked at the two men, then started laughing.  "Your thanks are accepted, Mr. Saotome.  I guess growing up under Happosi, there's some explanation.  Maybe not an excuse, but an explanation."

                "Uhhh..."

                Ranma stepped forward, "Jyrgei, how the heck do you know the Freak?"

                Jyrgei looked at Happi, his mouth twitching in suppressed laughter.  "Long story."

                “I’ll bet,” muttered Akane.

                "Well, excuse me!"  Happosi stalked off, "I'll just go put these pretties with my others."

                "Hold it there, Happi."

                Happosi turned his head apprehensively.

                "Are those what I think?"

                "Ah, Jyrgei-sama...  You wouldn't..."

                "Return 'em all, Happi."

                "But Jyrgei!  Come-on...  I did you a favor..."

                "I let you live."  Jyrgei stared at him for a moment, then laughed again.  "Never mind.  I doubt very much anyhow whether the ladies in question want them back after being handled by you."

                "Ewww.  That's definitely a point."  Akane shuddered.

                Jyrgei grinned, "I'll think of something else for recomsance."

 

                “So,” Kasumi served herself some more rice, “I hear you’ve been in Europe recently.”

                Finishing the broccoli-tempura he was holding, Jyrgei picked up his tea-cup.  “I was.”  He smiled at her, “You should visit Holland in the spring.  The tulip fields spread for miles.  Colors upon colors just covering the hills.  And each one even more beautiful close-up then they are at a distance.”

                “What ‘bout the windmills?”

                Jyrgei arched an eyebrow over his teacup, “Ranma – I talk about architecture and people when I’m talking to you.  When I’m talking to Kasumi, I’ll tell her about the flora and fauna.  You don’t want me to direct my conversation to Happi, do you?”

                Happi swallowed his rice cake, “Oh, please!”

                “No way, Freak!”  Ranma choked, just thinking about it.

                Kasumi giggled, raising her hand to her mouth, “Jyrgei-san, you are such a dear.”  Jyrgei grinned at her in a way that showed his delight, “And you are such a perfect child of the Green.”  He turned the conversation back to Europe and managed to get the whole table involved in different parts.  Though at one point he and Nabiki got into a discussion about stocks and bonds that left the rest of the group quietly eating their dinner.

 

                When they were done, Ranma excused himself and Jyrgei and they both left the group, jumping up to the rooftop.  Ryoga quietly followed them, while the dads settled down on the patio.  Nabiki and Akane went to their room for a private discussion, and Kasumi washed the dishes.

                Ranma and Jyrgei lay back on the roof, watching the evening stars.

                “The Swan.”  Ranma spoke and Jyrgei grinned, pointing it out.

                Then Jyrgei stated, “The Archer.”  Ranma picked it out easy.

                “Procyeon.”

                “Ursa Major.”

                “Caph.”

                “Capella.”

                “Deneb.”

                “Altair.”

                “Uh,” Ranma studied the sky for a moment, trying to pick it out, “Come-on, Jyrgei – I don’t remember half the names without you ‘round to point ‘em out.”

                Jyrgei didn’t say anything, just watching the stars.  Ranma turned on his elbow and looked at him.  “What’s wrong, Jyrg-chan?”

                “Just a bit melancholy.  I miss the stars.  Altair is a wonderful star.  But too many light-years away in time and space.  I’ve enjoyed wandering around Europe, but I don’t think I was ready to leave the canyon yet.”

                “Dad?”  Ranma rolled back over, studying the configuration of the Dragon.

                “Not really.  Just… everything.  There are too many problems in this world and I can’t solve them all.  But it hurts to see them.”

                The pain in Jyrgei’s voice made Ranma want to turn and look at him, but he left his friend his privacy in case in showed.  He knew Jyrgei’s power, and knew his limits, and thought about the situation.  “Is that why you always stayed in the canyon?  For focus?”

                “Right.  Take care of everything within my territory and try not to worry about the rest.”

                “What ‘bout your canyon now – izit okay while you’re here?”

                Jyrgei sat up and glanced over to where Ryoga was hovering, not wanting to interfere.  He beckoned him over while answering Ranma, “I’m still keeping an eye on it.  Keep that in mind if I have to leave suddenly.”

                Ranma didn’t notice.  “Does tha’ mean you’ll stay?”

                “For awhile,” Jyrgei grinned a bit sadly at Ryoga, “I decided to work on your problem – I could feel the drain on the amulet for hours.”

                “Huh?”  Ranma sat up and saw Ryoga, “Oh.”

                Ryoga blinked, “You could feel it?”

                Jyrgei nodded, “I didn’t give you anything specific since I don’t know what your sense of direction does – what I gave you takes off of my own energy to temporarily force things into balance.”

                Quickly grabbing for the chain around his neck, Ryoga took it off, “Oh, I’m sorry!!!  I didn’t know…  Here, I don’t want to hurt you.”

                Waving it back to him, Jyrgei shook his head, smiling, “Of course you didn’t know – I didn’t explain it.  If I couldn’t handle it, I wouldn’t have given it to you.  Keep it for now.  It’ll prove useful while I try and figure out what the impetus is.”

                Ryoga sat back on his heels and nearly overbalanced, “You can cure me?”

                “I’m not promising anything – for now, I’ll just find out what it is.  It ain’t natural, that’s for sure.”  Jyrgei looked at Ranma, “It could take quite awhile.  I give it a minimum of one month for the basic, and from there on depending on what it is.”  He looked back to Ryoga, “First thing:  Does anybody else in your family share this trait?”

                Ranma laughed, “Everybody except the dog!  Ow!”  He rubbed his head from where Jyrgei had clouted him.  “I was asking Ryoga.”

                Sighing, Ryoga settled down on the roof next to them, “He’s right, though.  Mom and Dad…  Mom’s probably worse than Dad, but I seem to have it more than either of them.”

                “How about your Aunts and Uncles?  Grandparents?”

                Ryoga shrugged, “My Mom was an only child.  Her parents died young.  Dad’s family we don’t see much of.  They learned long before I was born how futile invitations to events were.”

                “Humm.  How long—”

                “Wait a‘sec,” Ranma interrupted, “Jyrgei – is this all you’re gonna do?”

                Jyrgei raised an eyebrow, grinning, “What, you want magic?”

                “Well…”

                His friend laughed long and hard.  “Oh, Ranma, I’ve missed you.”  He wiped his eyes, then explained, “Magic is like most other fields of study – you need to know where you’re going before you can get there.”  Jyrgei blinked, then looked at Ryoga thoughtfully, “Usually.  I wonder…”  He shook his head, “Never mind.  Preliminary questions help route the eventual treatment.  But for Ranma’s sake,” he glanced at his friend mischievously, “I’ll do a quick diagnostic with your permission.”  Ranma stuck his tongue out.

                Ryoga was looking nervous, “Magic?”

                Nodding, Jyrgei lifted his hands and a blue light played around them, “I am Neutral, but I fight Evil.  To protect those innocent in my territory, I learned certain arts.  I can’t do everything, but I’m not half-bad in those areas of specialty that I chose.  One of those is curses.”  He frowned, “There are a few too many petty people out for revenge who learn how to cast a curse, and not enough balance people who can remove them.  But I only use my magic to help Good, or to fight Evil.  I would never intentionally hurt you – I give you my word on it.”  The light flashed into green as he spoke the vow, then it faded as he lowered his hands.

                “Ah,” Ryoga was still watching his hands, “Off the topic, but… can you remove the Jusenkyo curse?”  Ranma straightened up so quickly he almost fell off the roof, his eyes wide.  Jyrgei quirked an eyebrow at Ranma, “You hadn’t thought of it?”

                “No!”  Ranma sputtered.

                “And here I was thinking you were just expressing extreme tact.  Well, one can always dream.”

                “Jyrgei!  Can you?”

                The elder youth laid back down on the roof and stared at the stars.  Both the boys were tense with anticipation and hope.

                “I’ll do anything, Jyrgei…  Please…”

                “Don’t ever promise ‘anything’ – something might take you up on it someday.”  Jyrgei sighed, “Truth?”

                Ryoga nodded eagerly.  Ranma paused, knowing his friend too well to take that one word simply.  He swallowed, then spoke softly, “Truth.”

                Jyrgei closed his eyes.  “I can remove it – but it would anger a very powerful god to do so.  I can’t afford to do that right now.”

                Groaning, Ryoga sank his head in his hands, lost in despair.  Ranma sighed philosophically, “Oh well.  Just got to find that Nanitcheuan.”

                Sitting bolt upright in an instant, Jyrgei grabbed Ranma’s shoulders, “Find the what?”

                Ranma blinked confusedly, “The spring of drowned man.  That way we can cancel out the other curse.”

                “Baka!”  Jyrgei stood up, his body shaking with fear and anger.  “Do you ever think before you jump in?  Do you want to commit suicide?”

                “Huh?”  Ranma and Ryoga looked cautiously at each other.  “Jyrgei, what are you talkin’ ‘bought?” 

                Ryoga, used to thinking negatively, questioned their basic assumption, “You mean it won’t cancel the curse?”

                “It would kill you, you young fools!”

                “Kill…?”  Ranma raised a hand to his throat.  Ryoga went pale.

                Jyrgei sighed and sat back down, losing his anger to the sadness.  “Okay.  Time for another lesson on basic magic.  Think about the pools for a second.”  The second went by, and then another minute.  Jyrgei shook his head, “Never mind.  I’ll tell this story fashion.

                “Three thousand years ago, there was a god.  More of a demi-god, actually, but… nevermind.  This god was a very bored god.  One day, a petulant human angered this bored god.  Not being a person/god to take insults very well, the god said to him, ‘if you want water, here – have water evermore’, and caused the young man to slip into a pool where he drowned.  The god trapped the spirit of the man in the pool, saying ‘here you will stay until another takes your place.  Think on this and don’t anger gods in your next life.’  It was another hundred years before a different man fell into this particular pool of water.  The spirit that had been trapped there seized the chance and left gleefully, trapping the other man’s spirit in the pool instead.  Ten years went by, then a deer, coming to drink at the pool, slipped and fell in.  The spirit tried to use this animal to leave, but could only manage to transfer himself into the body of the deer, becoming his human self again on the surface.  The god, watching this, was irritated but also amused.  He allowed it.  The man lived for some time longer, but had to constantly fight against the spirit of the deer.  When the deer’s natural lifespan ran out, the man’s spirit was forced back to the pool.  In the meantime, the god had been watching the area around the ‘spring of drowned man,’ thinking about ways to amuse himself.  The area was a natural seepage point of geological… nevermind.  Normally, the area would have been flooded, but the god had promised the people who lived there long ago that they could have passage.  But he hadn’t said anything about keeping it totally dry…  He let other pools of water spring up in the area.  When a black piglet slipped into one of the pools, he trapped the spirit of the piglet in that pool.  When a rabbit drowned in another, he kept that spirit as well.  When next a human fell in the spring of drowned rabbit, the two spirits merged.  Being of a stronger spirit, the human’s thoughts dominated the animal’s, but the shape took that of the animal.  This went on for a couple of hundred years, when one of the people forced into the shape of a cat took her plea to another Power.  That Power tried to reason with the god, to release the curse on the woman, but the god did not wish to do this.  However, he allowed bargaining.  Eventually, the god and the Power agreed on an alteration of the curse – the hot water amendment.  In return, the Power had to… nevermind.  But the original curse remains:  If another of the same persuasion slips into the pool, the spirit in the pool will be released, and the next shall remain to take its place.”

                Jyrgei looked between the young men, “Do you understand now?”

                Ranma swallowed, pale at the thought.  He nodded vigorously.

                Ryoga was bent over, head resting on his knees, “Is there nothing we can do?”

                “I wouldn’t say ‘nothing’,” both looked up at him, “but I’m not going to give you the answers.  There are some things you have to find for your self.”

                “Aw, Jyrgei, --”

                “I meant that literally, Ranma.  Think about it.”

                The silence on the roof stretched out until Akane poked her nose over the edge, “There you are!”

                “The spar!”  Jyrgei slapped his head, “Forgive me, dear Akane – I forgot all about it.”  They jumped off the roof and headed into the dojo.

 

                “’Kay.  I’m ready.”  Akane took up a basic stance and waited, nervous but eager.

                Jyrgei quirked his eyebrow but didn’t say anything.  He glided in on smooth steps and directed a basic attack which Akane blocked easily.  She returned a low jab that he countered with a side-block as he transitioned to a chest kick from the side.  Akane ducked under it and came up with a rapid punch combo.  Jyrgei backed off as he blocked and tried a quick snap-kick to the knee.  Akane responded with a side-block.  The blows they exchanged came faster and more complicated as they got used to each other.  Ranma and Ryoga settled down near the door, watching in silence.

                “Matei.”  Jyrgei broke the silence while blocking another punch.  Akane finished her move, then came to a stop, breathing heavily.

                “What’s the matter?”  Akane’s face fell, “I’m horrible, aren’t I?”

                The frown that Jyrgei had been wearing disappeared as his eyebrows raised into his hairline, “Huh?  No!  Of course not.  You’re not fighting all out, and you’re being a bit hesitant on attacks, but that’s only natural sparring with someone you’ve never met before.  The first hundred exchanges in any fight are always a testing of each other’s skills.  That’s not why I asked you to stop for a moment -- I just wanted to think about something.”  Akane’s deflated expression perked up to happiness as she listened intently, nodding at each of Jyrgei’s teaching points.  Jyrgei grinned lightly as he recognized the eager student before him.  “You’re self-taught, aren’t you?”

                “That’s right!  How could you tell?”

                “Your attacks and blocks are mostly all book perfect.  Well-executed and formed exactly right.  When a person learns from another being, they tend to pick up their instructor’s quirks – things like height and power.”

                “You mean like earlier today when you said Ranma was doing his block based on where Ryoga would throw it?”

                Jyrgei nodded, “Exactly.  Done correctly, which you do, your method gives an advantage over all others of your level, but it also has a limitation in that you’ve gone beyond what any book will teach and you’re stagnating.  Now, that block you did earlier,” he took two steps forward, dropping into a crouch as he swept an arm up in an overhand block, “can be more effectively done.”  He beckoned toward the door, “Ranma, attack me with a single blow from above.”  Ranma jumped up quickly and did as instructed.  Jyrgei’s right fist braced against his left arm as his left arm swept upward for the block.  It deflected Ranma’s attack and he came down lightly on his feet, bouncing slightly in eagerness, but holding still as directed.  Jyrgei nodded him back to the corner.

                “I see!”  Akane nodded enthusiastically.  “The support of the other arm provides a more powerful block.”

                “Correct.  The single arm block is good for basic, but the opponents at your level of training will have more powerful attacks.”

                Ranma muttered, “She just needs more upper arm strength.”

                Akane stalked towards him, but stopped at an outheld hand from Jyrgei.  “That’s how you and Ryoga deal with it.  But different methods for different people.”

                “’Cause she’s a girl.”

                “Partly,” Jyrgei admitted matter-of-factly, “but mostly because she’s fire.  Fire’s strength is in flame that licks and burns where it can’t even be seen.  Akane will learn the fire’s strength and not the body’s.”

                Akane listened with her mouth open.  Ryoga and Ranma were mostly just looking confused.  Jyrgei shrugged at them, then turned back to Akane, “Shall we continue?”  She nodded, and they came at each other again.  After a few minutes, he tired the overhead, and she blocked with the new technique.  “Perfect!” Jyrgei grinned, even as he came in with a low sweep.  They traded more blows.  “Wonderful!” he yelled at one point, not slowing, “You’re adapting the basic principle into your moves exactly right!!”

                Another half-hour went by before Jyrgei called for another halt.  When they separated, both partners were grinning widely.

                “Akane-chan, would you mind if I taught you a few more techniques?”

                “Oh, would you?!” Akane clasped her hands together, eyes gleaming in pleasure.  Ryoga and Ranma traded puzzled glances again, never having seen her like this before.

                Jyrgei wiped his forehead, then beckoned to Ranma again.  Ranma bounced up and then waited as Jyrgei stood there, staring absently at him.  “Jyrgei?”

                He shook his head, “Just trying to figure out how to do this.  Akane,” he turned to her, “When Ranma does his ‘Chestnut Fists’, you can see each of the individual blows, can’t you?”

                Akane nodded.  Ranma and Ryoga’s mouths fell open, “You can?”  Akane blinked, “Of course.  It isn’t that hard since I’m only watching.”  The guys’ mouths worked speechless for a moment.  Jyrgei grinned, “I thought so.  ‘Three sisters true.’  This will be a lot easier then.  I won’t even try to slow down the maneuvers.  Ranma, come at me with a fairly powerful straight blow.  I’m going to block and then counter with a new move – it’s going to hurt a bit, Ranma.”  Ranma shrugged, “That’s life.”  He ran towards Jyrgei, who delivered as promised.  Ranma went flying across the room.  He sat up, rubbing his chest, “Ow.”  Jyrgei looked questioning to Akane, who executed the move in slow-motion against the air.

                “Perfect!!”  Jyrgei clapped his hands together, “Akane-chan, you are a delight!  Shall we try a few more?  I’ll spar with Ranma for a couple of minutes and use about ten blocks and attacks that I want you to practice.”  Akane nodded, and Jyrgei and Ranma squared off again.

                They had gone through a minute of spar when Jyrgei called a halt.  He immediately waved Ranma off alert status and addressed Akane, “Don’t learn that one.  Ranma took me by surprise and I used a block you can’t.”

                Akane blinked, “It didn’t look that difficult.”

                “It’s not, but…  Here, I’ll show you.”  He approached Akane with a slowed-down version of the attack Ranma had used.  Akane blocked, then wobbled and lost her balance.

                “What happened?”

                “Different center of gravity.  I’ve mostly been using universal moves, but that one is only good for a guy, with the center of gravity here,” he gestured on himself.  “A woman’s center of gravity is more here, and you can see how that affects that move.”

                Ranma made a choking noise in his throat, and they all looked at him.  “That’s why!”

                “Well, duh!” Akane glared at him.

                Jyrgei laughed, “Oh yeah; your curse.  Another day, we’ll see what you do with your other form.  For now, Akane-chan, the woman’s equivalent of that move is…” he paused and half gestured with his hand, then stilled, “I’ll have to think about that.”

                “Would it be something like this?”

                For the first time, Jyrgei seemed utterly taken aback, then he smiled, “Akane-san, you’re your best teacher.”  Akane beamed with pride and happiness.

                Ranma sat down on the floor where he was, chin in hand, staring at her.

                She noticed the focus and she started to tense up, then shrugged, “What now, Ranma?”

                “Akane, you really are cute!”

                Akane’s eyes went wide in shock and she retreated back to the wall.  Ranma’s lips twitched in a half-grin of regret.  Jyrgei intervened before it went any further, “I think that’s enough practice for now – Akane, do some stretches so you don’t freeze up.  Practice those moves tomorrow, and I’ll spar with you again in the evening.  Ranma – your turn.”

                Ranma bounced up immediately, eager.  He and Jyrgei didn’t start with any preliminaries as Akane moved back to where Ryoga was, but they immediately started off with blows that almost defied sight.  Ryoga’s mouth dropped open, “What the hell?”

                Noticing his shock, Akane paused in her stretches.  She smiled gently, “Ranma’s not holding back.  I think I’ve only seen him in a full-out attack twice before.  But he knows he can’t hurt Jyrgei, so doesn’t hesitate.”

                Ryoga nodded, still shocked.  “But he’s not like that when he fights with me.”

                Akane snorted, gently, “Ryoga, you hold back too.  Even Jyrgei noticed it this afternoon.”

                “I do not!”

                Akane simply smiled, and continued her stretches.

                The spar between Jyrgei and Ranma contained no verbiage, but the two who watched could tell the learning going on.  When Ranma’s blocks weren’t up to par, Jyrgei’s attacks got through.  And when Ranma did attacks well, Jyrgei let them connect, though not seriously.

                They worked out together for almost another hour before Jyrgei called a halt.  Ranma was breathing heavily and sweat ran down his forehead in almost a continuous sheet.  But he was grinning, obviously delighted and happy.  “That was great!  Thank you, Sensei!”  He bowed to Jyrgei, who returned the bow.  Then Ranma moved back to the corner where Ryoga and Akane sat, and started his own set of stretches.

                Jyrgei glanced out the door, “Getting a bit late, but I think we have time for one more – Ryoga?”

                Ryoga blinked, “Me?”

                “Do you see anyone else here by that name?”

                “But…”

                Akane pushed him out into the middle of the floor, “Oh, go on.”

                “Ah…”

                Jyrgei rolled his eyes, then moved forward in an attack.  Ryoga automatically countered, and the spar began.  After only a few minutes, Jyrgei called ‘matei’.

                Stopping immediately, Ryoga hung his head, “I’m awful, aren’t I.”

                “No!  Good Lord, what is it with you people?  I called a stop to think about something!!!”  Jyrgei shook his head in obvious disbelief, “I have never met a such group of talented people, with such horrid self-esteems!  For pity’s sake!”

                “Calm down, Jryg-chan.”  Ranma seemed taken aback at his friend’s outburst.

                Jyrgei pinched the bridge of his nose, eyes closed.  “Sorry.”  He glanced apologetically between the two, “I’ve been a bit on edge today.”

                “Not noticeably,” with a laugh in his voice, Ranma went back to stretching.

                “I hate large groups of people.  Sorry, Ryoga. Let me see what I was trying to think of.”

                Ryoga realized how far he’d deflected the train of thought and quailed inside.

                Jyrgei studied him, “You’re constrained in this dojo.  Your battlefield is Earth,” he waved a hand to indicate the outdoors, “and all that is in it.  We won’t move right now, but if you only remember one thing from tonight, try to never, never, place yourself in the position of having a real fight in a contained area.”

                “Huh.”  Ryoga looked around the dojo, suddenly placing the feeling of wrongness that he’d had.  He looked to Jyrgei with new respect, as for a sensei, ready to follow his lead.

                Instead of going on, Jyrgei continued to stand there, looking at him.  Ranma paused while rolling his head around, “Wasn’t that it, Jyrgei?”

                “That was the obvious.  There was something…”  Jyrgei crossed his arms, then suddenly uncrossed them, “That’s it!”

                “What?”  Ryoga wasn’t sure if he should feel nervous.

                “You’re used to fighting with tools, right?”

                “Tools?”  All Ryoga could think of was the Rhythmic Gymnastics that he’d tried to teach Akane, and that certainly didn’t fit.

                “Tools.”  Jyrgei unclipped his knife-sheath from his arm for demonstration, then put it back.  “Things that expand reach and strength, provide a focus, and can be a distance weapon as well as close-in.  Orthodox or not.”

                Akane blinked, he wasn’t wearing the knife earlier...

                Ranma looked around, then found Ryoga’s pack and tossed the umbrella to him.  Ryoga caught it absently, “How could you tell?”

                Jyrgei shrugged, “I’m not unused to using weapons, but Ranma regularly doesn’t and I noticed earlier that you tend more to adapt to his style than the other way around.  I don’t deny that there’s a lot that one can learn from Ranma, but you’re limiting yourself for no reason.  As I said earlier in the day, you’re earth, he’s air – that’s why you could learn the ‘Breaking Point’ and Ranma never can.”

                “He can’t?”  “I can’t?”  Ryoga and Ranma looked at each other, each surprised in their own way.  Jyrgei ignored both of them and looked around the dojo, “I think we can practice okay in here – just keep in mind where the bystanders are!  Don’t hesitate to use any of your attacks on me.  I promise you, I won’t get hurt.”

                Uncertain, Ryoga simply stood there, watching Jyrgei.  Jyrgei grinned sadly, “You’ve had that promise given to you before.  And the promises ended up false on those occasions.”  Jyrgei spread out his hands and a green glow surrounded him, “Ryoga, I’ll let blows get through, but I, the Guardian of Tskunioya, promise you that I won’t get hurt.”  The light flared, then disappeared in a rainbow ripple that flowed through the dojo.

                “Oh.”  Ryoga finally accepted the statement, and prepared for another spar.

 

                The next day, Jyrgei showed up at Ryoga’s house bright and early.  Ryoga came out, blinking in the morning sun, “What are you doing here?”

                “Working on your problem, of course.”  Jyrgei grinned, “Might as well not wait.  I thought I could just follow you around today, and you can answer more questions.”

                Ryoga shrugged, “It’s not like I had anything else planned for the day, I guess.”  He looked down the street, “I suppose Ranma and Akane-san are in school.”

                Jyrgei lifted one shoulder an inch and dropped it in a minimal shrug, “I suppose.  You don’t go to school?”

                Finally inviting Jyrgei inside the house, Ryoga went back to his breakfast.  “I gave up after Junior High.  It didn’t used to be so hard to show up every day, but in Junior High I was only making about three classes a week.  I’d spend half my time trying to find the stupid school.  If we had a test or reports due or something, I would have to stay the night in the school yard, and even then sometimes I’d get lost just walking to my classroom.  That’s when I started carrying around the backpack full time.”

                To all appearances completely absorbed in petting the dog, Jyrgei looked up when Ryoga finished talking.  “It came on gradually?”

                “Well…  Sortof.  I’ve never had a sense of direction, and can’t read maps, but I used to at least be able to show up where I needed to be – which was usually school.  When I was real young, mom arranged with several of the neighbors to alternate taking me to and from school.  It was humiliating.”  He finished his breakfast and went to the sink and cleaned the dish and put it away.  Ryoga looked around, “I guess we need more rice.  I think Mom went to go get some yesterday after I left, but she’s not back yet.  May not actually be for another week.  It won’t hurt anything if I get some too and she comes home.”  He opened the cupboard and noted other things to get.  Jyrgei waved a questioning hand at the refrigerator, and Ryoga grimaced, “Oh, we almost never use it except for ice cream.  Things spoil without someone here, and it’s just a lot easier to use the dehydrated stuff.”

                Ryoga patted the dog, “Bye girl.  Keep an eye on things and I’ll try and be back in a few days.”  Before leaving the house, he marked a large wall calendar with his name on the day he was in.  Jyrgei noted that his mom and dad also had their names on different days – the last time Ryoga’s dad had been home was two weeks ago, but his mom had been home for almost five days in a row before leaving the day before.

                They walked out the door and started down the street.  Jyrgei squinted at the sun and realized they were heading away from the main part of town, but said nothing.

                “So what else do you want to know?”  Ryoga absently caught a run-away chicken and handed it back to its furious owner as they walked by the houses.  Jyrgei grinned.  “Well,…”

 

                “Oh.  How’d we get here?”  Ryoga paused under a tree and looked at the school with an irritated expression on his face.

                “Where’s here?”  Jyrgei jumped up into the tree and rested on the branch.  They never had gotten to the grocery store that day.

                “Furinkan High.”  Ryoga sighed, then jumped up to sit down beside Jyrgei.  “It’s Akane-san’s High School.”  He looked up at the sun, adding, “And it looks like classes are almost out for the day.”

                “What an amazing talent.”  Jyrgei was privately amused at the coincidence, but he’d been careful all day not to say too much.  Ryoga had very little sense of humor about the places he ended up.  As it was, the mild remark earned him a scowl from Ryoga.  “We might as well wait for Ranma, Akane, and Nabiki, then.”

                “Oh, Nabiki doesn’t usually go home with Akane-san and Ranma.”

                Jyrgei blinked, “So what does she do?”

                Ryoga shrugged, never having been curious about it.

                Shouts and laughter echoed across the school-yard as the students ran out, free until the next day.  Jyrgei and Ryoga waited.  And waited.  The rush of students slowed to a trickle.  Eventually, Nabiki came out, looked around and headed straight to their tree.  Jyrgei managed a half-bow to her while staying steady on the branch.  Ryoga waved a hand at her.  She squinted up at them, “If you’re waiting for Ranma – you’ll find him and Akane over by the softball field.”

                Jyrgei and Ryoga jumped out of the tree, “Why?”

                Nabiki shrugged, “Baka Kuno challenged Ranma again.  He never learns.”

                Laughing, Ryoga asked, “Why this time?”

                “Who knows…”  Nabiki gave a half-glance towards Jyrgei and blushed slightly.  She turned and started walking, “This way.”

                The fight was already in progress by the time they got over there.  They moved over beside Akane to watch.  Jyrgei sat down cross-legged and propped his chin on his hand.

                As was typical between them, Kuno was lashing out violently at Ranma with his wooden bokkan, and Ranma was bouncing all around, avoiding the blows.  Periodically, Ranma would lash out with a kick or a punch and connect.  After staggering for a couple of steps, Kuno would lift his bokkan and charge again.

                Jyrgei looked up at Akane, “Does Ranma always fight like this?”

                Akane snorted, “You mean the avoidance thing?”

                “Yes.”

                “Yeah.”  She squinted at the two combatants.  “I used to be really worried for him – I knew how good Kuno was, and Ranma doesn’t exactly make a show of how good he is.  Now I mostly feel sorry for Kuno.”

                Ryoga put in, “Actually, he normally finishes the fight a lot sooner.”  His voice went thoughtful, “And he’s putting a lot less force in his blows – that’s how he normally finishes Kuno, with a single one of the same blows he’s connecting with now.”

                “Which Kuno is learning to block as he’s doing them again and again.”  Nabiki observed.

                Akane glanced down, “Isn’t that how you were teaching Ranma last night?”

                Jyrgei didn’t answer, but the corners of his mouth twitched

                They watched for awhile longer, then Jyrgei suddenly stood up, “That isn’t…  Can’t be.”  He strode off towards the combatants, leaving the other three in confusion.  “Now what?” muttered Ryoga, who was starting to get used to Jyrgei’s sudden switches and vague comments.

                Walking between the two combatants at a point where they were facing off, Jyrgei faced Kuno, “Pardon me for interrupting, Tatawaki Kuno – but would you mind horribly if I took a look at your bokken?”

                “Excuse me?”  Kuno moved into an automatic defense move.  Behind Jyrgei, Ranma recovered from his surprise and let his guard settle.

                “I’m sorry.  I didn’t introduce myself – I am Jyrgei,” and he bowed formally before Kuno, giving him the angle of an equal.  Ranma raised his eyebrows skeptically.  Jyrgei clouted him without looking back.  “And your bokken looks suspiciously like it’s made out of heartwood of the katherti.”

                Kuno stared at him for a moment, then abruptly reversed his hold on the wooden sword and handed it hilt-first to Jyrgei.  Among the three observers, Nabiki’s breath inhaled sharply.  Kuno looked up and around, noticing them.  He grinned sardonically at Nabiki, then returned his attention to the strange youth in front of him.

                Making appreciative noises, Jyrgei let his hands run over the bokkan, holding it to the sunlight and watching the reflection.  He tested the balance in multiple places, then brought it close to his face, scrutinizing the individual grains.  After a minute, Jyrgei settled down cross-legged where he was and continued looking at the bokkan without saying a word.

                Observing him carefully, but appearing to be more interested than hostile, Kuno also sat down.  Ranma watched them both, then glanced around to the other three, who walked down from the hill and joined him.  The other students who had been watching the fight grumbled, but eventually dispersed.  “Aw, we didn’t even get to see Kuno knocked out yet.”

                Eventually, Jyrgei looked up, “Amazing.  How long has this been in your family?”

                “Five hundred and seventy-three years.  But it has a much older history than that.”

                “It would have to.  It’s definitely made out of heartwood, and those who could work with it left this world some two thousand years ago.  Mostly.  I can pinpoint it more exactly if you’ll allow me to do a quick test.”

                Kuno looked at him steadily, then glanced over to Nabiki.  Nabiki frowned, then nodded as she shrugged.  Kuno made his reply to Jyrgei, “Very well, then.”

                Jyrgei had watched the interaction with a slight smile.  At Kuno’s permission, he set the bokkan down then raised his hands over it, murmuring in a low voice.  A soft network of golden sparks flickered over the wood.

                “Woah!  It’s magic?”  Ranma leaned close.  Kuno gave him an annoyed look, but said nothing.

                Shaking his head, Jyrgei moved his hands, drawing a set of symbols in the air, “No.  If it was magic itself, the glow would be steady.  But it was made with magic – there is nothing else that can touch the wood of the katherti.  And the katherti has its own unique properties which aren’t magic, exactly, but do impart of themselves to those who it accepts.”  The sparks over the bokkan wove themselves together in response to Jyrgei’s symbols.  They formed a different symbol that glowed purple before disappearing.

                “Katherti?  Say, Jyrg-chan – isn’t that the cute little tree with the pretty purple flowers and ferny-type leaves?”

                Jyrgei passed his hand over the bokkan and handed it back to Kuno, who accepted it without a qualm.

                Ranma didn’t let it go, “You know, Jyrgei – the one next to the waterfall in your canyon?”

                Finally, Jyrgei turned to Ranma, his expression completely unreadable.  “Ranma.  You may be my dearest friend and somebody whom I would not hesitate in trusting my life to – but that doesn’t mean that you should count yourself free to blurt out anything you think of to the world around you.  There are only three katherti left in the world today, and the one in my canyon is considered by me to be a sacred trust of guardianship.”  He grinned, though a bit tightly, “But I didn’t actually tell you that, and you have picked a gathering of friends that are not to be taken lightly.  So I’ll answer your question and not pass it off as a mistake or tell you it was a different tree.  Yes – the little one with the purple flowers is a katherti.”

                “Oh.”  Ranma looked very subdued, and thoughtful.

                “Now,” Jyrgei turned back to Kuno, who had been watching the interaction with the same interest the rest of the group had shown.  “The craft-symbol is that of Yulizan-uthra, who was a Maker of extraordinary ability.  He changed his symbol later in his career, so this is obviously an early work.  I would estimate it to be at least five-thousand years old.”

                Most of the group reacted with a combination of surprise and disbelief.  Kuno merely nodded, running an absent finger over the grains of the wood.

                “If I might inquire, I’m rather curious as to the history of this peace-maker.”

                Though already sitting, Kuno settled himself more comfortably.  The others looked between him and Jyrgei then resigned themselves to a long session.  They sat down and formed a general circle.  Nabiki automatically sat down between Tatawaki and Akane, only after thinking of Jyrgei.  But Ranma and Ryoga were already sitting on each side of him, putting Ryoga next to Kuno.  Surprisingly, neither guy seemed ready to initiate combat on the instant.

                Kuno began his tale:

 

                “The bokkan first entered into our family’s hands five-hundred and seventy-three years ago, but the history as we know it precedes that date by three hundred years.  In the reign of Katha-matiel, in the mountainous lands of inner Mongolia,” Kuno broke off to explain, “Various people have tried to track it down, but haven’t come any closer than that – the Wanderer got his title for a reason.”  The story went on, “In the reign of Katha-matiel, the noble Wanderer Humiwaka did an unspecified favor for the great Lizara of the tribe of Elbia.  As a gift of friendship, Lizara bestowed upon Humiwaka this bokkan as well as other gifts now lost to time.”

                “Wait a sec, Kuno-chan.  Jyrgei – that name earlier…”

                “Yulizan-uthra.  But time distortion could well have changed it.  The tribe of Elbia could also be a variation of the English corruption of ‘elves’.  It’s rare to find a direct record of a gift.”

                “Uh, Jyrgei…”

                “Did you say…”

                “Elves????”

                “Well, yes.”  Jyrgei blinked, conveying the idea of ‘what’s the big deal’ to them.

                “To return to my tale…”  Kuno glared at the group, browbeating them into silence.  “The noble Humiwaka carried the bokkan with him on his many journeys.  When he was old, he gave it into the hands of his eldest son.  The son, being of extreme age himself, died shortly thereafter, and the bokkan was given into the hands of one of the grand-daughter’s husband – a land-owner of no little consequence.”

                “In other words,” Ranma broke in, “The first estates fell apart with mismanagement, and the bokkan and grand-daughter were part of a payment for either help or a promise to stay out.”

                Kuno shrugged, not challenging the interpretation, “In the next thirty years, the house of Hiamita grew in prominence and wealth.  The bokkan became one of the lesser of the house’s treasures and was passed to a younger son.  The son, one Yuthiu, took up the bokkan and his lute and took to the road in search of his glory.  He found it in the slaying of the monster called ‘Ithimako’.”

                “Yo, Kuno-chan – what sort of monster?”

                “The tales do not tell.  As near as could be determined from the area and time of the slaying, it was probably a serpent threatening the shipping routes between the islands of --- and ---.  The commerce records show a decline followed by a sharp rise at that point.  After Yuthiu’s dramatic heroism, he gained followers and set out for more noble deeds.  His deeds numbered among the sky’s stars and the sound of his lute brought peace to the land.  However, he refused all offers of land or brides from those he aided, and when he died in noble combat, his lute shattered, he had no child to carry on.  The bokkan was claimed by the eldest of his followers, but the man had an unpure heart and was killed in single combat by a friend of Yuthiu, who took the bokkan in reserve for one who would be worthy of it.  Natichu was a samurai in service of a great house.  He lived his life in dedication and honor.  When he was old, he finally found a child worthy of the bokkan and gave it to his grand-niece.  Latini-oki was a strong warrior and she rode the tides of suspicion and ridicule with the same ease that she defeated a yoma of Tria.  When she found a man who was as worthy of her as she was of her honor, they joined in ridding the land of the restless yoma, loose in the wake of the dynasty fall.  Their household formed a powerful family when they finally settled.  Too powerful for the comfort of their neighbors.  The peace of the house lasted but a bare generation before the neighbors swept in to divide the riches of a noble house.  The bokkan and other of the household treasures were taken by a servant so those unworthy would not lay hands on them.  He found a samurai in service of the Emperor, who was a distant relative of Latini-oki and an honorable man.  After the servant explained what had happened, and turned the treasures over to the samurai, the servant asked the samurai to send him to follow his master in service.  Many more years passed.  One day, the samurai accompanied one of the younger princesses on a routine journey when it was attacked by brigands.  The elderly samurai was overwhelmed but managed to hold them off until Tatanu Kuno came with his warriors and rescued the princess.  The samurai, seeing he was worthy to do what he could not, gave the bokkan into his hands before reporting to his emperor and then committing supoku.  Tatanu Kuno, already of a noble family, was given the hand of the princess in reward for his bravery.”

                “You’re descended from the emperor???”

                Kuno shrugged, “The descent is lateral.  And it was the former emperor – we don’t talk of it nowadays.”  He started to go on, then apparently changed his mind and summarized the rest, “Since that time, the bokkan has seen much noble action and has passed through many hands within the Kuno Family.  But it was placed in the vaults sixty years ago and had not seen the daylight until I found it eight years previous.”

 

                Jyrgei uncrossed his arms, “A remarkable history, with a rich cast of heroes.  If you like, later, I can tell you more of the life of Latini-oki.  She was well known in her day.”

                Kuno stood up, “I thank you for the offer.  I will look forward to hearing it.  I also thank you for listening to my tale.”  He glanced at the setting sun, “If you would, I extend my House’s hospitality for dinner.”  Looking around the circle, he added, “For you and your companions.”

                The rest of the group stood up as well.  Akane exclaimed at the hour, “We really need to get back – Kasumi is expecting us.  But would you like to come with us instead?”

                “As long as the offer is still good for tomorrow night – right Kuno-chan?”

                The corners of his mouth twitched up, “For you, Nabiki Tendo?  I should charge admission.  100 yen.”

                “Sorry, Kuno-chan.  Don’t have that much on me.”  Nabiki pointedly turned out her pockets.

                Kuno raised an eyebrow, “You had 2000 yen yesterday.”

                “Are you still sore about that?”

                “Nabiki Tendo, normally you’d fleece me for four times the amount.  I feel relieved that it was so little.”

                Akane tapped her foot, “Are you coming or not?”

                Kuno hesitated, rolling his bokkan in his hands, “Not, tonight, I think.  But I thank you for the kind offer, Akane-san,” He bent over and kissed her hand, then turned to Ranma, “Send my greetings to the pig-tailed girl.”  Turning to the sunset, he left them.

                The five watched him for a moment, then went together to the Tendo house.



A few weeks later:

                “Eek!  You Pervert!!!”  Akane clutched her towel around her and glared as Happi happily pulled her panties out of the clothes bin.  He ran out chuckling and Akane ran after him, keeping one hand on her towel.  She chased him down the hall and out to the patio where Ryoga was sitting.  He sized up the situation in one startled glance and bashed Happosi while grabbing the panties.  When he realized what he was holding, he thrust them at Akane while blushing furiously and turning his head.

                “Thank you, Ryoga-kun.”  Akane went back into the bath area.

                Ryoga’s attention was caught by the sight of Ranma in girl-form sitting by the pond, his back to them.  It made a perfect outlet for turning his embarrassment into anger.  He picked up a big rock next to the patio, “You jerk!  You didn’t even notice that Akane-san was in trouble!”                 The rock went flying through the air.  Ryoga watched it with satisfaction up to the point where it was only a few inches from Ranma and he still hadn’t turned around.  At that, Ryoga actually got worried, “Ranma!”

                Ranma finally turned his head, and ducked, screaming.  After the rock buried itself in the ground beyond the pond, Ranma faced Ryoga, “You big dummy!  What was that all about?  We know you’re strong already – Stop showing off!!”

                “Huh?”  Ryoga just stared.  The reactions were all… wrong.

                Breathing heavily from the near-miss, one hand raised to her chest, the red-haired girl stared at Ryoga.  Then her mouth twitched up in a grin.  “You know, in some ways, I wish you were my boyfriend!”

                Ryoga sat down, hard.

                Ranma’s girl-form blushed scarlet, “Oh, I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have said that.”  She sat back down, dangling her feet in the pond.

                “Ranma?”  Kasumi’s voice floated over the small glade, shaking slightly in distress.

                Turning to Kasumi and Jyrgei, the girl suddenly jumped up and ran to them.  She fell on her knees in front of Jyrgei, “Oh!  I’ve been waiting.  Jyrgei-sama, please say you can help me?”

                Jyrgei bit his lip and raised her up, “My dear, I’m sorry – I cannot.”

                “Oh, but you said so!  He told me.”  Violet eyes watered, “I know, you said it would anger a god, but I thought if I could just ask you…  It’s been so long.”

                Kasumi burst into tears.

                “I’m sorry.  Ranma misunderstood me – It’s true that I could take the curse off him, but all that would do is disentangle your spirits.  That would send you straight back to Jusenkyo.  The only one that can free your spirit is the one who trapped it.”

                “Oh.”  The girl-Ranma turned away, tears falling down her cheeks.  “I’m sorry.  All this bother…  He was feeling sorry for me.  He’s such a nice person.  Usually – except when he’s teasing poor Ryoga,” the girl shot a look towards Ryoga that had hints of her earlier blush, “But he’s so kind to Shampoo and Ukyo, and even that nasty Kodachi…  I just wish he would get around to telling Akane—”

                Jyrgei put a hand over her mouth.  “My dear.  Ranma’s secrets aren’t yours to tell.”

                After he’d taken his hand away, she turned to face him again, “I know.  I’m sorry.  It’s just…”  She walked back to the edge of the pond and picked up the flower she’d been holding before Ryoga threw the stone.  “It’s purple.  It’s that nice, velvety-purple with the darker stripes.  And it smells like a fresh flower should…”  The tears started down her face again.  “I’ve been in that horrid spring for two hundred years.  Ranma’s nice, but he doesn’t want me here and I don’t blame him one bit – it’s weird seeing the world though a guy’s eyes.  But it’s so much better than the spring.  I don’t bother him much – I really try not to…”

                Jyrgei sighed and went and sat next to her.  Ryoga looked at the two of them for a bit, then walked over to Kasumi and put his arm around her.  She turned into him and cried on his shirt.  He stared over her head at the stranger in what he’d gotten used to thinking of as his friend’s body.

                “Why are you here now?”

                The girl sniffed, and wiped her eyes.  “He felt sorry for me.  He lets me out sometimes, usually at the beach or in the marketplace when his friends aren’t around, but he usually comes back immediately.  But he was thinking about Jusenkyo after your talk, and I think he realized for the first time that I was a real person.”

                Jyrgei sighed again, shaking his head, “Ranma-chan…”

                “His kindness is going to get him in trouble one of these days.  He’s too good for his own sake.”

                Laughing, Jyrgei agreed, “I’ve said that many a time, my dear!”  He turned serious again, “But what are we going to do about you?”

                She shrugged, “Oh, Ranma’s still here.  He just…”

                “You’re enjoying full life.”

                Nodding, the girl looked absolutely miserable in her guilt.

                “But you know you have to go back to just watching.  It’s his life, really.”

                “I know.  And really, it’s so much more interesting than that stupid spring.  I wouldn’t really know what to do if I was really here, anyway.  It’s been over two hundred years, after all.  I don’t know anything.  That’s not… Really, what I want…” Trailing off, the girl bowed her head.  She whispered in a voice so low that Ryoga barely heard her, “I just want to pass on.”

                The girl put down the flower on the pond water and watched it float until the koi bumped it and it floated into the murky depths.  Then she subtly changed, her mannerisms and the way he held himself.  Ranma turned to Jyrgei, “I’m sorry.  I just thought if she had a chance to talk to you…”

                “Oh, Ranma.  It was a kind thing, but I don’t think it did her any favors.”

                “I’m sorry.”  Ranma hung his head and looked into the depths of the pool.  “She’s right, you know.  I can feel her there.  Deep, deep within.  I never knew she was real before.  I thought she was a part of me.  That’s what used to scare me so much.  But she’s usually happy just to watch.”  Ranma tossed a pebble into the pool, then stood up, “I’m going to take a bath.”

                He walked into the house, and the three watchers let him go.  Kasumi gave a last sniffle, then dried her eyes.  She smiled tremulously up at Ryoga, “Thank you,” and she went back around to the other side.  Ryoga looked between her and the doorway where Ranma had gone in before he gave up and went to sit next to Jyrgei.  He was careful to sit away from where Ranma had been.  After a bit of a search, Ryoga found another of the purple flowers that she’d been holding.  He picked it and held it gently.

                “That’s not helping you either, you know.”

                Ryoga looked at Jyrgei, then blushed and looked back to the flower.

                A scream came from the house, “You pervert!  What are you doing, sneaking into my bath!!”  There was a small explosion, and the roof of the house over the bath burst out, sending Ranma spiraling into the sky.

                Jyrgei and Ryoga watched him as he went up, and up, and up…  And then back down, landing in the pool.

                “Oh, yeah, Ranma,” Ryoga blinked casually, “Forgot to tell you.  Akane’s taking a bath right now.”

                “Why, you…  Jerk!”  Ranma splashed a huge amount of water at Ryoga, who jumped back nimbly.  Ranma jumped out of the pool and started to chase him, “Come back here!”  Ryoga laughed, and turned, “You’re finally responding to my challenge?”

                “You idiot!”  They started fighting.

                Jyrgei leaned back against a tree, watching them.

 



                The group congregated in the Cat Café.  Unplanned, but boisterous, they seemed to fill the small dining area.  Jyrgei, Ranma, Shampoo and Kuno sat at one table, while Akane, Ryoga, Nabiki, and Mousse were at another.  Needless to say, the first table was a lot noisier than the second.

                “No!  That’s not what I said!”  Jyrgei put his head in his hands.

                “But Jyrg!  If the dragon had the power of speech, then it obviously--”

                “I think what Jyrgei-sama was trying to say is that the intelligence is different.”

                “Like monkey and human,” Shampoo put in helpfully.

                Kuno slapped his hand on the table, “No!  Equal.  Just different.”

                “More like elves and humans, actually,” Jyrgei was restored to his normal good humor.

                “Elves?”  Instantly diverted, Ranma pounced on it, “You mentioned them before…”

                Shampoo blinked, “Elder Race?  They existed?”

                “Certainly they existed, still do ac—”

                “Still do?  Jyrg!  Can we visit real elves?”

                “Don’t interrupt the sama, cretin.”  Kuno glared at Ranma, who stuck his tongue out at him.  Jyrgei rolled his eyes, but grinned.

                “The Elder Race guided us, helped us.  The reverend ones of legend.  You saying they real?”

                “Real as I am.”

                “Jyrgei, I’m not sure how we should take that answer.”

                The seeming youth laughed at his friend, “Nice point, Ranma.”  Shampoo and Kuno unsuccessfully tried not to look confused.  “They certainly are real, but I can’t take you to visit them, because they left a long time ago.”

                “You speak in the present tense of those you call elves, but then you say they are gone.  Do they exist as ghosts, than?  Haunting their dwindling forests as spectors in the night?”

                “You’d know about spectors, Kuno.”  This time, it was Kuno who lowered himself to stick his tongue out at Ranma.

                “First of all, they didn’t live in forests.  Mostly.  Second, I said they left, not that they’re dead.  Though, of course, a lot of those that used to exist on Earth aren’t now, but as a whole, they’re still around.  Just not here.”

                “Jyrgei…”

                He sighed, and pushed the sauce jar around, “Lecture?”

                Ranma nodded eagerly, the other two only a little less so.

                “Okay, then.  Elves aren’t human.  They come from a different area in the continuum entirely –”  He stopped at the looks of incomprehension, “They’re not from Earth.”  The three nodded.  Jyrgei muttered, “Sortof.”  He shrugged, “But when they materialized in this dimension, they formed themselves into the near shapes of humans.”

                “So they could interact more reasonably?” Kuno asked.

                “Interbreed, actually.”  Blushes rose on all three of the youths’ faces.  “Honestly.  Don’t you have sex education in your schools?”  They all got redder.  “Never mind.  I don’t want to know.  Anyhow…”  There was a long pause, “I lost my thought.”

                “Where did the elves go?  Why did they leave?”

                “They got bored and wanted to go on to other worlds.  As to how they left, it’s a bit complicated.  You see, elves don’t move through just one dimension.  While they were here on Earth, they would set up isolated communities so they didn’t have to encounter fuzz on the roads.”  Jyrgei quickly respoke, “dimension distortion from much traffic.”

                “That didn’t help.”

                “Ah, let’s see,-- ”

                “Nevermind, Jyrg.  What about where they went?”

                “I can’t say.”

                “Can’t, or won’t?”

                Jyrgei grinned easily, “A bit of both.  It doesn’t translate easily.  But all the full-blooded elves have gone there.”

                “Full-blooded…”

                “I said they interbred.  A lot of the ones with human blood stayed, being connected of flesh to this world.”

                “The Honored Ones.”  Shampoo nodded.  “None left, now.”

                “Very few,” Jyrgei agreed.  “Those with elf-blood tend to be heroes and heroes don’t always live long lives.”

                “What do half-elves look like?”

                “Hundredth-part, by now.  Human.  Very human.  It was more the shifting that gave elves their distinction, and few of the offspring carried that trait on.”

                “The dimension-shifting?”

                “No, the shape…  Dimension-shifting?”

                “The thing you said they did when traveling?”

                “That’s not exactly what I said…  But it’s not a bad description.”  Jyrgei sat up, “Wait a sec – Dimension shifting?”

                “What about—”

                Jyrgei waved him to silence.  “Well, that would be interesting…”  He started to scrawl figures on the table that glowed with a yellow light.  Kuno silently passed over an ink-pen and pad of paper.  Jyrgei accepted them absently, and started writing computations at a furious rate.  The table dwindled to silence as he concentrated and the other three watched him.

                Finally, Jyrgei leaned back, “It’s possible…  Hey, Ryoga!”

                The soft laughter from the other table died abruptly.  Ryoga got up and moved over, “What?”

                “Can I have a couple drops of your blood?”

                There was a stunned silence in the room and Ryoga’s eyes grew wide.

                “Magic?”  Ranma asked.

                Jyrgei rolled his eyes, “No.  I want to do a DNA testing…  Though, actually, the test will be done with magic – it’s quicker than finding an electron microscope around here.”

                “Uhh…”

                “All I need is one strand of DNA, actually, but it’s easier to ask for a drop of blood.”

                “How about a strand of his hair?”  Nabiki put in.

                A grin acknowledged the fact that somebody was actually thinking.  “I want a cell that is still alive and connected with the whole, in case something changes.”

                “Changes?”  Ryoga’s voice went up on a squeak.

                Ranma blinked, thinking hard about their conversation, “Ryoga, stop being a woose and give him the blood.”

                “Woose?”  Ryoga was instantly diverted, glaring at his friend.  He pulled off his headband, leaving another in its place.  He snapped out the cloth, and it stiffened sharply.  Pulling his left hand over the edge, a thin red line appeared on his palm.  “Will that do?” Ryoga held out his hand to Jyrgei.

                “Great.”  Jyrgei gestured and a glow appeared on the table.  He took Ryoga’s hand and carefully positioned it over the glow.  A drop of blood fell down.  The light grew in intensity, then a picture focused above it.  A picture of blobs and circles moving around in circles.  Jyrgei let go of Ryoga, absently doing a healing spell to close the gash.  Placing his hands in the glow on the table, he moved his right hand slightly.  The picture focused in on one of the blobby circles.

                “That’s my blood?”

                “A T-Cell, actually.  Not what I want.”  He moved his hand and the picture moved to another blob.  “Ah, that’s better.  A stem-cell.  What were the odds I’d find one so quick?”  The picture zoomed in and suddenly a large double-helix was swirling in the air above the table.

                Mousse moved to make room for Cologne who came out of the back room to find out what the silence was about.  “What an interesting magic.”

                “Saves on electricity.”  The picture of the helix zoomed in on one strand, and bars of light and dark stripes appeared.  Jyrgei glanced down at the notes he’d scrawled.  “No, that’s not it…  Maybe over here.”  The picture moved again.  And again.

                After several minutes, the group got tired of watching black and white lines that meant nothing to them.  They shifted back to the tables in one large group, talking quietly, with frequent glances to where Jyrgei and Cologne intently concentrated on the DNA.  Ryoga sat down with them, but turned his chair to watch the image.  “I’d feel better about this if I knew what he was doing.”

                “Umm…” Ranma glanced back at the image.

                “So,” Nabiki asked Kuno, “What’s your opinion of kestrels?”  Akane and Mousse broke up laughing, and even Ryoga was diverted.

                “I beg your pardon?”

                “Never mind, Kuno-chan.”  Nabiki shifted the conversation.

 

                “Jyrgei-sama, there!”

                The group gathered around them in a second at Cologne’s exclamation.

                “I see it.  That’s not it.”

                “But it proves—”

                “It confirms my original hypothesis.  I’m working on something else.”  The picture moved to another strand of the DNA.

                Cologne look hard at Jyrgei, “What could be more important than—”

                “There!”  The picture focused clearly on yet another band of black and white squiggly lines.  They didn’t look any different to the group than any of the ones before, but Jyrgei was sitting back, stretching out his hands, a look of immense satisfaction on his face.

                “What is it?” asked Ryoga warily.  He was tired of the drama, and still didn’t know what Jyrgei was up to.

                “That, Ryoga-chan, is the reason for your odd traveling patterns.”

                “My…”  Ryoga leaned closer, but the picture didn’t change from the squiggly lines.

                "You, my friend, are an elf."

                Ryoga fell on the floor in a stunned heap.

                Cologne rubbed her hands together, "An Honored One."  She turned to Shampoo, "Are you sure you won't change your mind about challenging him?"

                Shampoo's face twisted unhappily, "Shampoo love Ranma.  Want Ranma."

                "Well, I've said it before – if he wins it'll just expand your options.  Ranma still has first claim.  Think of the tribe!"

                "Honored One…"

                Ryoga sat up, "Oh, that's all I need!  Now I'm not even human anymore!!  First I have a curse that turns me into a pig, and now I'm not even human!!!"

                "Well, it's only a few strands of the DNA that are true to the elf-strain.  Most of you is human."  Jyrgei had a puzzled expression, "Why wouldn't you want to be part-elf?"

                "It's not natural!!"

                "Of course it is.  I assure you, your ancestors had sex just like every other couple on the planet…"  He looked at the group of youths, "Maybe I put that a bit too bluntly…"  Every guy there was grabbing napkins to halt their bloody noses and the girls, even Shampoo and Nabiki, had blushes across their faces. 

                Cologne laughed, "Now try telling them that as soon as the word is out, Ryoga will be more of a girl-magnet than Ranma!"

                "Huh?"  Ranma and Ryoga both lowered their hands and looked at them.

                Jyrgei bit his lip and looked at Cologne, "Do you think I should have explained first?"

                She shook her head, "Shock is good for the system."  She turned to the youths, "Elf-blood is very, very rare these days.  And highly valued.  Elves tend to have better stamina, higher intelligence, --"

                "No signs of that," Ranma exclaimed.  Ryoga hit him.

                "An incredible adaptation to magic, a rapport with most natural things," Cologne went on, ignoring the interruption, "Their children will be healthier, and more of them – an elf is nearly always immediately fertile with a human.  If an elf chooses a friend, they're highly loyal and brave.  If they are not killed, elves live much longer lives than humans.  And Honored Ones, or part-elves, have most of these qualities as well."  The elder Amazon grinned at her student, "Where tales of elves are still told, and magic still worked – the girls are going to be lining up to have your babies."

                "Marry me?" Ryoga exclaimed, astonished.  He'd never dreamed…  He loved Akane, but even she only treated him kindly – not giving much hope.

                Jyrgei laughed, "She didn't quite say that.  You can only marry one woman – the girls will take what they can get."

                The nosebleeds started around the room again.  Jyrgei looked around, "And I thought I was being circumspect that time."

                "They're teenagers.  It's been a long time since you were one of those."

                Jyrgei shrugged, "Well, I was sixteen a couple of years ago…"

                "And didn't stay that way long, I bet."

                "Eighteen's not that much different."

                Cologne snorted in amusement.  Then changed the subject, "If you weren't looking through his DNA for the elven gene – just what were you looking for?"

                "Um," Jyrgei glanced to Ryoga, "Ranma mentioned 'Dimension Shifting,' and while that's not how elves travel normally, it's actually a damn good description of how Ryoga gets around."

                Eight sets of eyes blinked at him.  "After following Ryoga for awhile, it's obvious that he never learned 'East' and 'West' or 'left' and 'right' because those terms simply don't apply to him.  He can be walking towards 10th Street Shopping District and end up at the Tokyo Tower."  He paused, "Maybe that wasn't the best of examples to use.  With those two areas, something like that could happen to anybody."  Shaking his head, he went on, "What happens is that Ryoga will walk through normal space for a bit, then he'll step through a dimension barrier and end up somewhere else.  A lot of time, it's close to where he started from – down the hall again, turning a different corner…  To an observer, it looks as though he was going the wrong way the whole time – but just try and track him!"

                Shampoo blinked, "I did.  Once.  Thought it was not being in China that messed up Shampoo's skill."

                Jyrgei laughed, "Not your skill, just his ability."

                "That's how I travel?" Ryoga questioned.  "But it always feels like I'm going in a straight line – and wouldn't I notice if the streets suddenly turned to trees?"

                "You'd think so."  Jyrgei turned to Ranma with a raised eyebrow.

                Ranma thought about it a moment, "Well, when I let Ryoga lead…  It does feel normal.  Until we suddenly come to a brick wall and then I realize he's been leading again.  That time we ended up in the forest…  I remember walking down the streets in the city, then getting to a rural area, then a dirt path, then we were in the trees.  It wasn't a sudden change.  Though there was no possible way we could have gotten from Nermia to Jujuuban in a half-hour."

                Jyrgei nodded, "Intermittent phasing.  I can only speculate that Ryoga's learned to adapt it that way because as a child it scared him to shift places abruptly.  A gradual transition is easier to ignore."

                "But why do these dimension barriers open up for Ryoga and no one else?  What exactly are they?" asked Mousse, who had been silent up to this point.

                Again, Jyrgei nodded, a grin showing his pleasure, "And there it is in a nutshell.  That's why I hadn't reported on what I'd found out about how Ryoga travels – it's not much use to give the 'what' without the 'how' or 'why'.  The dimension barriers are links in the world to other parts of the world.  The Earth is full of them.  Whatever can relate to another will.  They are a natural occurring web of interlinks that just can't be seen or used by most Earth creatures.  Like a rock has space, but no one can pass through it.  Except gnomes, of course, but that's their specialty."

                "Jyrgei – don't tell me I'm related to gnomes, too, now."

                "Of course not," Jyrgei grinned easily, "You break rocks, you don't go through them.  Anyhow, I couldn't figure out the relationship.  Until Ranma comes into my lecture on elves with that remark.  Elves could see the dimension barriers.  Their normal method of travel didn’t use them, but they found the dimension barriers to be helpful at times.  They actually would live between places and set up special 'bookmarks' to link them to the places they wanted to be.  An elf never had to walk anywhere he or she had already been. – Or even where they'd never been.  If an elf could see another's bookmark, they could use it.  Or if they were simply curious, which elves always were, they'd just step through any dimension barrier they'd find just to see what was on the other side.  Ryoga seems to fall through most barriers he runs across, but has enough will to manipulate where he's going to come out – but not enough knowledge to do it consciously or accurately."

                Cologne frowned, "I've never heard of an Honored One doing this."

                Jyrgei nodded, "That's why I never connected the two.  Of all the elven traits, that's one that I've only rarely seen passed down – and never for more than a couple of generations.  Only half-elves and quarter-elves.  Never before now, a human with elven background."

                "Isn't that a bit odd?"

                "Well…"  Jyrgei stared at Ryoga, "I was so excited to find the answer, I didn't think of that."

                "Oh, great."  Ryoga rolled his eyes, "Now I'm a freak too."

                Akane whapped him on the head.  He winced, "What was that for?"

                "Will you stop that!  Here, you're being told you're a great person with unique talents and all you can do is turn it into something negative!"

                Jyrgei was still thinking, "Actually, that could be part of the other question about your talent.  I've been puzzling over that one too."

                "Other part?" Ranma and Nabiki exclaimed.  Ryoga was still in shock from Akane's tribute.

                Jyrgei rubbed the bridge of his nose and glared at Cologne, "I wasn't planning on mentioning that."

                "You've been alone in your valley too long, Jyrgei-sama – thinking out loud."

                He agreed with a shamed smile.

                "Will it hurt anything to explain?"

                Shrugged, he tossed out a bubble of glowing silver.  He looked at it, "No more than when I told him about his Destiny."  Everybody except for Ranma, Ryoga, and Akane stared…  "Destiny…?"  The bubble popped.

                "Well," Jyrgei turned to Ryoga, then paused and pulled a chair over.  He sat down.

                Ranma laughed and sat down also, "Going to be a long one, huh?"  The others who had been standing also sat.  Nabiki and Mousse, who hadn't moved, laughed silently at them.

                "When Ryoga goes through the dimension barrier and ends up somewhere rather far from where he started from, usually one of the first things he does is help people."

                "Since when?"  Ryoga and Ranma were nearly in sync.

                "Most of the time, it's not too noticeable.  But for instance, the very first time I went out with Ryoga: We left his house, and within five steps were on the outskirts of Chiba."

                "Was not!  We didn't leave Tokyo!!"

                Jyrgei looked at him, amused, "Are you questioning me?"

                Ryoga blinked, "But we got to Furinkin High later that day…"

                "You jumped back.  Actually, at no point up until then were we in Tokyo."

                "Oh,"  Ryoga sounded, and was, very subdued.

                "Where was I?  I lost my place again."

                "Like Ryoga loses his self?" Ranma put in.  Shampoo, Nabiki, and Mousse laughed, and even Ryoga gave it a reluctant grin.

                "Chiba," Kuno answered Jyrgei, as he propped his chin on his fist, listening intently.

                "Oh yeah.  Well, we were in Chiba, and this chicken runs by with a farmer chasing it.  Ryoga picks it up and hands it to the farmer, and we walk on."

                The youths looked at each other, "That's a good deed?"

                Jyrgei grinned, "I said they were mostly unnoticed.  The farmer had such an expression of relief on his face when Ryoga-chan handed him the chicken that I got curious and did a quick scan of the area and the timelines.  It turned out that the farmer had been down on his luck for a few years, but had managed to breed up this chicken that was a really good egg-layer – and happened to breed true.  All her chicks so far had also been good layers, but didn't breed quite so true.  But he'd scrapped together enough money to enter the chicken in a few festival contests and she'd won most of them.  They only had one more to go before the chicken won the regional championship – which would pretty much instantly solve most of his money problems just from the recognition factor."

                "And this was the chicken he was chasing?"

                Jyrgei nodded.

                "Careless of him," Nabiki snorted.

                "Exactly."  The youths looked at him.  Jyrgei sighed, and continued, "If Ryoga hadn't been there, around the corner was this dog.  The chicken would have been—" he paused at the look on Akane's face and quickly changed pace, "not at the festival."  Mousse and Ranma snickered at the change.  "The utter despair over his carelessness would have shattered the farmer.  But getting the chicken back…  It wasn't certain that the chicken would win – actually," his gaze went unfocused, "never mind, she did.  But it wasn't certain that it would win, but even if it hadn't, the farmer would have kept going, with new hope and an eye to the future.  Without the chance though, without the hope…  Everything would have been lost."

                Ryoga was looking rather more stunned than the rest of the group.  "All because I…  But what if I hadn't?"

                "But you did.  That's the whole point."  Jyrgei sighed, "You people really need to work on your self-esteems."

                "Hey, don't lump us all in the same group as dull-drums there."  "Who are you putting in the same category as I?"  "No think so!"  Mousse, Kuno, and Shampoo all bristled in their own ways.

                "Geez…  Calm down, folks."  Jyrgei looked around, silently counting figures.  "If we're talking about the Group… aren't we missing a couple?"

                Cologne smiled grimly, "The Healer, a Metal Element, and another Balance."

                "Oh yeah.  Tofu and two yet to show – three if you count another Healer; and don't forget Kasumi."

                "Kasumi???" Nabiki and Akane looked at each other, while Ranma and Ryoga did the same.

                "The Wild Magic.  The part that represents the Whole.  A Child of the Green.  Do you know how rare one of those are?"

                Ranma was watching his friend with narrowed eyes, "What's this about, Jyrg-chan?"

                Jyrgei grinned, "I'm just pointing out that you're all in this together.  What happens to Ryoga, happens to all of you in different sorts of ways.  Put together, you ten, who will be twelve, seven fighters, five more – with at least four crossing between the lines; put together, you are the core group of something very special."

                "Every time we do something minor – it's actually major?"

                Jyrgei had to think about that one, "Sort-of…  It's not really something I was going to define that rigorously – I just wanted to point out that just because I'm focusing on Ryoga now, doesn't mean that you others don't have your own talents.  And you don't have to try so hard, Ryoga – it'll take care of itself on its own."

                "And that's suppose to reassure me??" Ryoga exclaimed, "I'll be worried every time I turn around now – What am I suppose to do?  Who am I suppose to help?  What life will be ruined if I don't do the right thing?"

                "Oh, for…"  Nabiki handed Akane a mallet.  Akane looked at it a moment, then sighed, "It won't work, Nabiki – that's Ryoga, not Ranma."

                "Try it, Akane.  Just try it."

                Akane protested again, and Shampoo rolled her eyes – she tossed one of her stick-balls at Ryoga, hitting him on the head with deadly accuracy.

                "Ow."  Ryoga stopped his rant and turned around, rubbing his head.  "Shampoo??"

                Shampoo glared at him, "Enough, already."

                Mousse grinned in sympathy.  She turned to him, "You, too."  He cleared his throat nervously before addressing Jyrgei, "And this is the second part of his talent.  Does it have a DNA marker too?"

                Jyrgei shook his head.  "No.  It's quite definitely inherited Magic.  A Seeking Spell.  His mom has it much stronger.  And his dad has some of it as well, but a bit different – it must be able to rub off on close association."  The group started looking nervously at each other, and the ones closest to Ryoga scooted their chairs away.  Ryoga glanced deliberately around, crossing his arms across his chest.  Shame-faced, Ranma moved his chair back.  After a moment, Kuno did the same.

                Waiting until the drama had played out, Nabiki asked, "So, one inherited DNA talent for Barrier Hopping, and one Magic inherited talent for Helping Others.  They do seem to go rather well together.  And the DNA isn't normally passed down."

                "Exactly," Jyrgei nodded.  "I'd have to do the DNA tests on his parents to find which has the elf genes – though now that I know where to look, any cell will do.  And I'd like to try a basic diagnostic to find out if there's any Magic attached to the DNA to keep it being passed down."

                Ryoga grimaced.  He wasn't nearly so fond of Magic as Ranma was.  He would much prefer it if it all avoided him.  He noticed Cologne watching him, "What now?"

                Cologne turned to Jyrgei, "For an elf with a talent for magic – he seems to avoid it very well.  None of the techniques I've even thought about teaching him involved even the least of the illusions I can shape."  She poked her cane at Ranma, "Unlike this one, who seems to be almost drawn to them."

                Jyrgei raised an eyebrow, "You have a point.  What better way to keep the talent hidden?"

                "Oh, all right," Ryoga stood up, "Go ahead and do your diagnostic already."

                Jyrgei grinned, and started to lift his hands.  He lowered them.  "No…" he stood up and walked to the other table where his DNA model was still floating in the air.  He gestured and the picture disappeared.  "There's still your drop of blood.  I can work with that."

                Ryoga sighed with relief, and went to stand next to Ranma, who was hovering by Jyrgei's side.  Jyrgei looked at them, and laughed.  "Fine."  He raised his hands, and a small spot of red floated up between them, a silver glow growing into a globe around it.  He whispered under his breath and the glow turned green.  Then a huge explosion rocked through the cafeteria, knocking Jyrgei though the air, slamming into the back wall with an impact that shook the building.  Though they had all felt the heat and the wind, nothing else in the place seemed to be affected and nobody else had been hurt.

                Ranma ran to Jyrgei and knelt down beside him, "Jyrg-chan!!!"  Ryoga was close behind him, but stopped after he got a good look at the figure collapsed on the floor.  The others ranged themselves behind them, and Cologne let out a small grunt of recognition.

                Beside Ranma, the young boy levered himself up, "Damn.  That hurt."  He sounded more surprised than anything else.  "I can't remember the last time…"  He looked up at Ranma, "What?"  Ranma tilted his head to one side, then grinned, "Well, you're more like I remember you, now."  "Huh?" the child looked at himself, "God Damn.  Knocked me clean out of form, did it?"

                "Ah, Jyrgei?"  Ryoga took a cautious step forward.

                The child nodded, "This is how I looked when I first met Ranma."

                "And me, and Happi, and Kuno's great-great-great-grandfather…"  Cologne muttered.

                The child glared at her, and Cologne, remarkably, shut-up.  Jyrgei didn't leave it at that, though, "They've got the point, already."  Cologne shrugged, grinning with amusement.

                The group just looked at him.  Jyrgei now appeared to be a young child about 10 years old, with delicate features and a slim body.  His wavy dark-green hair flowed loosely about his shoulders, though it was tied back around his head with a black band.  He was dressed in a green and yellow outfit that had long, flowing sleeves, and pants that were almost a divided skirt.  It was tied with a wide white sash, and he wore a ring that had a ruby and sapphire side by side.  The only way they really knew he was a boy was because, well, they knew he was.  If this had been the first time they'd met him, he could have passed for a young girl.  Or a young boy.  He was at that age where such things were ambiguous and irrelevant.

                "But I rather liked the older version," Nabiki managed to get out as almost a joke.  Kuno raised his eyebrows rather sardonically at her.

                "Ah, yeah," Jyrgei let go of the support of Ranma's arm, "So did I."  He closed his violet eyes and a yellow glow surrounded him.  His figure flickered, and then they all saw the Jyrgei they were familiar with, and then it flickered again and a tall Samurai stood there, and then a European Knight, and then a tall figure dressed in dark green clothes, holding a bow, pointed ears poking out from beneath the long white hair, and then their gazes lowered to the floor where a cat stood, and then up again as a unicorn started to lift its head…  The changes flickered until there was nothing but a yellow blur before it snapped out and the young Jyrgei collapsed into Ranma's arms.

                "Twice in one day…  I think I'll stay like this for a while."  Jyrgei didn't open his eyes as he muttered.

                "Jyrg-chan?  Jyrg-chan!"

                The violet eyes reluctantly opened and Jyrgei took some of his own weight back, "I'm okay, Ranma-chan.  Really.  Just a bit of a shock.  That hasn't happened to me in over six-thousand years."  He stood on his own and glanced to Ryoga, "Back-lash.  Good thing I was doing that with only a drop of blood and not Ryoga-chan."

                Ryoga raised a hand to his throat.  Jyrgei shook his head, and held out his hand, where a small red dot floated just above it, "Your blood's just fine.  The spell was designed, above all, to protect you."

                "But what happened?"

                "Back-lash," Jyrgei looked around the group and sighed.  He sat down cross-legged where he was and Akane and Kuno bit back their laughs – in some ways, this form of Jyrgei hadn't changed at all.  "The diagnostic triggered an automatic defense spell.  It hurled back the power of my probe tenfold.  That's one damn fine set-up.  And incredibly old.  But it didn't feel elvish, exactly…"  Jyrgei got a thoughtful look on his face, "If there was more of me here, and if I'd put more power into it, and done it directly on Ryoga…  I wonder if I could have been killed?  Now there's an interesting thought!"  The expression on his face, and the tone in his voice, were almost hopeful.

                "Jyrg-chan!  You can't!!  You can't leave me!"

                Jyrgei turned to his friend, the look leaving his face as he gazed at the youth, "Don't worry, Ranma-chan.  I won't leave while you still need me."

                Ranma was almost sobbing, on his knees as he clutched at Jyrgei, "You just said…"

                Putting his hand on Ranma's head, Jyrgei's expression was sad and distant, "It was an interesting thought.  But it wouldn't work now even if I tried.  I wasn't expecting it, before.  And I don't know for certain if it would have then.  But it was a nice thought for a moment."

                Kuno nodded slowly.  He'd had some experience with people who had lived beyond their lifetimes with the set of ghosts living in his house.  But this person was different.  Very different.  "Yatsune."

                Jyrgei looked around, his arms around Ranma's shoulders, "Humm?"

                Nabiki and Ryoga went instantly pale.  The rest of the group just looked puzzled.  Kuno nodded again, even more slowly.  Then he knelt down, bowing his head to the ground.  Ryoga followed suit immediately, and Nabiki was about to when she got a glimpse of Jyrgei's eyes.  Weary beyond belief, they also held a resigned annoyance as he gazed at the boys, and a sadness.  She stopped herself and managed to stand erect, even as the violet eyes moved to look directly at her.  Jyrgei grinned, "Bravely done, Na-chan.  Will you two get up, please?  I hate that sort of thing – especially from those I call friends."

                Ranma stood up, dashing his hand across his eyes, "You gave me a turn there, Jyrg.  Don't do that sort of thing to me."

                Jyrgei grinned, "Not if I can help it."  He looked up, "You have grown tall, haven't you?"

                Ranma laughed, "Now how am I suppose to spar with you?"  He looked around, "And what's with them, anyhow?"  Kuno had risen to his knees, but Ryoga was still plastered to the floor. 

                Jyrgei grimaced, "Oh, another round of 'I'm not worthy' – did I ever tell you those tales about the oni?"

                "The one that challenged you and you said, 'If you must,' and then you slaughtered him?" Ranma grinned, "Yeah, that was always one of my favorites."

                "They've heard it too," Jyrgei gestured back.

                "Oh," Ranma giggled, "Except as a legend, and now they realize that you're the legend.  I can see their point."

                Jyrgei grimaced, and Kuno finally stood up, a sardonic smile on his lips as he reflected that maybe, just maybe, there really was such as thing as too much adoration.

                Cologne laughed, "Ranma knows all about you?  And still treats you like a good friend.  Yes, he's a rare find indeed."  The rest of the China group and Akane had figured out by now that the person they'd sparred with and debated with was something even more than they had thought he was.  But then, they had always known that, within themselves.

                "That's why I like to work with the young."  Jyrgei took another look at Ryoga and sighed, "But I think I'm going to have to have a very long talk with this one…"  He walked over to Ryoga and knelt beside him, "Hey, Ry-chan…  Come on, it's just me."

                Ryoga didn't move.  Jyrgei reached out to touch his shoulder… and a bolt of electricity sent him flying back.  Jyrgei twisted in mid-air and landed on his feet, his expression astonished,  "What the…"

                Ranma moved over and knelt down.  Akane took a step towards him, "Don't, Ranma!", but Mousse caught her around the waist and pulled her back, "If anyone, he's the only one.  He'll be alright, Akane."  Ranma cautiously touched Ryoga, and when there weren't any fireworks, he gripped him firmly and rolled him over.  Ryoga was plainly unconscious, but there wasn't anything else obvious.  Ranma checked his pulse and his breathing.  "He seems to be okay…"

                "Odd," Jyrgei walked forward – and was knocked back again; this time before he'd even gotten close.  "I think I'll stay over here."

                "Ranma!"  Akane broke free from Mousse's grip and dashed over – only to halt short as the room flared up in yellow flames.

                "Akane!"  Ranma let go of Ryoga and stood up, and then looked around, puzzled.  The flames flickered through the building, but weren't burning anything.  He reached out and touched a flame – and his hand went through it, feeling nothing.  "Illusion?"

                "No…" Cologne was standing very, very still.  "It's not an illusion, but neither is it, here…"  She looked to Akane, where the only clear spot in the building was.  A circle of non-flame was surrounding her, none of the flames close.  Akane was trembling, but she looked at Ranma and took another step towards him…

                The flames blazed up, turning to a deep red, and this time heat started creeping into the building.  But the open circle still was around Akane.  She stepped back – and the flames died.  She swallowed, "Ryoga?"

                Ranma knelt again by his friend; there didn't seem to be any change.

                "Humm…"

                They all looked to Mousse, who was frowning in thought.

                "See something here?"  Jyrgei spoke from where he was across the room.

                Mousse nodded, "But it remains to be tested," he stepped forward.  Nothing happened and he frowned, then kept approaching.  When he was a foot away from Ranma and Ryoga, another bolt of lightening came out of the air and hit him straight on the chest.  He crashed back into the chairs.  "Yep," he said, standing up and rubbing his chest.  "Magic users.  The defense is still in place and active against magic users."

                They all looked around at each other.  "But I don't know any magic!" protested Akane.

                "No," Mousse agreed, "but you're a pure element – Fire."

                "Huh," Nabiki blinked, "but you need one more test…"  She walked to Ryoga.

                "Na-chan!" Kuno called out.

                Nabiki reached Ranma and Ryoga and knelt down beside them.  She reached out and touched Ryoga gently, brushing his hair away from his eyes.  They all waited in tense silence for a moment before letting out held breaths.  "Hypothesis confirmed."  Nabiki turned to Kuno, "You could put the final test on it, if you want."

                Kuno rolled his eyes, "No way!"  His mouth twisted in a sardonic grin, "I'm magic and element, and not a particular friend of Ryoga's…  do you want me to get fried?"

                Shampoo walked to Ryoga and also knelt, sitting beside Nabiki.

                The others in the group stayed exactly where they were.  "So, now what do we do?"

                "That really shouldn't have happened," Jyrgei was rubbing his chin, "I was working on the blood, not Ryoga.  How could it have carried over?"

                Nabiki shook her head, "You were using the blood as 'a part connected to the whole' – it just took some time to leak through."  She looked down at Ryoga, "But what is happening to him?  Why is he unconscious?"

                Jyrgei nodded at Nabiki's explanation – it fit.  He'd forgotten that he'd been keeping the blood deliberately connected in case the tracing only went one way.  And it probably did.  No self-respecting Magic User would leave a spell active on 'dead cells' – otherwise, every time the person had a haircut or trimmed their fingernails, they'd have to keep or burn the particles.  Not to mention skin cells that were always flaking off…  "The activation on the spell must be working its way through him.  And really, it's probably better that he's unconscious."

                Ryoga blinked.

                As one, the group let out a sigh of relief.  Ranma's grip on his friend's hand tightened.

                "Ow,"  Ryoga opened his eyes, "Ranma, that hurts."

                Ranma let go, "Sorry."

                Ryoga sat up, and looked around.  His eyes widened, "Jyrgei!"

                "Huh?" Jyrgei blinked, "Oh, Frack!"  He disappeared.  A small rush of wind whirled where he had been standing.

                "Damn, that looks bad," Ryoga pulled his legs under him, staring where Jyrgei had been.

                Ranma looked wildly around, "What happened?!  Where'd Jyrg go!?  What looks bad?!"

                "The Valley is under attack by somebody."  Ryoga corrected himself, "Somebodies."  He paused and then more thoughtfully spoke, "Somethings.  Damn.  The Window's closing." 

                The group looked around.  "Window?" Nabiki asked, still kneeling.

                Ryoga blinked to see her so close to him.  He absently stood up, looking around the room, "There was a Window to his Valley next to Jyrgei.  But now that he's gone, it's closed up."  His eyes focused on something and the group looked at one of the tables.  "Hey, Kyoto!" Ryoga took a step towards the table and disappeared.

                "Ryoga!" Ranma jumped up and ran after his friend – and tripped over the table.  He sat up, rubbing his head, "But…, but…"

                Kuno shook his head, "Off-hand, I'd have to speculate that Ryoga-san has learned to use his talent."

                Nabiki and Mousse nodded in agreement.  Shampoo also stood up, and held out her hand absently to help Nabiki up.

                Akane walked over to where Jyrgei had been, "But what's happening to the Valley?"

                "'Under attack,' he said," Cologne also hopped forward.  "Jyrgei-sama has accumulated a lot of enemies over the years.  Most know better than to attack him or his.  But when he was knocked out, the impact must have rocked through the otherworld.  And they took the opportunity."  Cologne shook her head, "But he'll win.  He always does.  And they'll be sorry they tried to take him on."

                Ranma turned a chair around and sat on it, "This is all my fault," his face drooped in unhappy lines, "the Valley…  Damn.  All my fault."

                The group turned to face him, all with identical exasperated expressions.

                "I'm starting to agree with Jyrgei-sama about this group – what is it with the negative attitudes?"  Cologne muttered.

                Akane whacked Ranma gently with her mallet, "Baka.  Jyrgei chose his own way."

                Ryoga walked back into the room, becoming visible nearly in the same spot where he'd disappeared.  He tossed a small package to Akane who looked at it, then exclaimed happily, "The fabric I wanted!  Ryoga, you remembered!"

                He grinned happily, eyes sparkling with delight.  He glanced around, "That looks interesting."  He walked towards the back wall and vanished a foot away from it.

                The group traded glances.

                "This could get interesting," Kuno remarked.

                "Look like fun!" Shampoo laughed.

                Ranma and Akane just looked at each other, wondering what would happen next.

 


Unfinished.  End for now