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A Ranma ½ fan fiction story
by Beer-monster

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ characters property of Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video.

Book II: The Eight Phases

Chapter One: The Wind Of The Willows

The Journey of a thousand miles,
Begins with the first step.
    —Lao Tsu.

The wind howled like a banshee. The sky was dark and grey, the sun swallowed by a sea of thick, black clouds. Rain and melting snow dripped and dribbled from the trees, small droplets clinging in dewy beads to the fine tips of the conifers finger-like leaves. The angry gusts rustled the evergreens, making them sway as if in blustering mockery of the other trees whose boughs had long since been stripped by winter's icy touch.

The irate redhead brushed another conifer branch aside as it jutted in her path like a curious feeler. Her shoes squelched as they trudged through the wet dirt, slush and snowmelt surging around her ankles and soaking her feet. One hand shivered and trembled as it held the ties of her thick coat in white, clammy fist, pulling it closer around her small form. The other hand returned to the meagre warmth offered by her pocket.

The back of the heavy quilted jacket was embroidered with two characters; the Japanese Kanji similar enough to the ancestor Chinese for any of the locals to determine their meaning. They stood for ‘Wild horse'.

Ranma was freezing.

In her time spent with the Tendos, she had forgotten the harshness of travel, and she had certainly forgotten the coldness. Then again, she never had gone wandering through northwestern China in the depths of winter. Her entire body was numb with the cold, her bones felt encased in ice, and she could not even feel her toes. Her breath clouded in misty vapour before her, and as she inhaled she seemed to suck in a lungful of ice, the bitter air burning in her chest. The wind was biting, snapping at her red face and chapping lips, freezing the sweat that formed on her head from the effort of carrying two heaving packs.

The one source of heat came from the small black piglet that shuddered beneath her coat, clamped beneath large breasts by her arm as it held the jacket closed. Ryoga snorted and squirmed, jabbing her with his small hooves. 

What a jerk! Ranma thought angrily. He gets to stay all warm and cosy inside my jacket, while I have to face the elements and carry his bloody luggage. But on the bright side, at least his nosebleed had stopped, meaning she no longer had to hold two fingers over his haemorrhaging nostrils.

Another vehicle passed along the dirtcaked road; a small, simple white van. Its spinning wheels kicked up a fine spray of filthy water, which splattered on her face. Grumbling she raised her hand from her pocket and wiped the brown liquid from her face, and then clawed away the damp, red bangs that clung wetly to her brow. She had entertained the thought of using the seductive appeal of her cursed form to attract a driver and convince him to give them a lift, but she doubted that wet, dirty and cold was a flattering look for her. Besides she had no way to ask such help. Ryoga had done all the talking, but that did not help right then as pigs made poor translators.

Ranma had been surprised by the lost boy's grasp of languages, and had watched awe-struck as he had spoke fluently with the shopkeepers and other locals they had met. Seeing her shock, Ryoga had of course rubbed her nose in it, claiming that he also spoke excellent English, Spanish and Arabic. Ranma did not doubt him; he probably knew how to say, "Where the hell am I?" and "Which way to the Tendo dojo?" in Swahili too.

Obviously being completely without a sense of direction had its fringe benefits as well as pitfalls. Their arrival here was an example of both. It had been a week since they had left Nerima together, and they had arrived in China three days ago.

At least she guessed three days ago. Travelling with Ryoga it was difficult to tell. She had let him lead once they left Tokyo, barely noticing the landscapes or the towns they passed. It was when the signs had become incomprehensible and the people had started speaking in another language that she realised they were in China. She could not recall passing the ocean; the only expanse of water was a small stream that was easily jumped over. Yet the thousands of bikes in the towns and skinned dogs in the butchers shops had only confirmed her suspicions.

A discreet inquiry, ruined by Ryoga screaming for directions at all who passed, had revealed that they were in China's Si Chuan province. In two days walking they had come cross-country from the Pacific Ocean and Japan, just as Ranma had hoped.

Not willing to rack her brains pondering the metaphysics of the Ryoga phenomenon, she shrugged.

Beats swimming, she thought.

A sudden sharp gust of wind chilled her spine, and she pulled her coat around herself tighter. P-Chan squirmed and snorted in protest at the sudden pressure, but Ranma ignored him. She squinted through the winds and focussed ahead, her eyes fixed upon the mountains that loomed ahead, with their gigantic presence and majesty dominating the horizon.

Amongst those rocky heights and sweeping plateaus lay their destination. Mount Emei, its snow-feathered peaks hidden behind a sea of grey clouds. The foothills of that natural spire were said to be the home of many great and beautiful temples, Buddhist and Taoist faiths living side-by-side in harmony with nature.

Or so had said the old man who had owned the grocery store in the last town. Recognising them as Japanese, he had assumed them to be tourists and advised that they visit the mountain and its temples for their great beauty and history.  Ranma had not been too interested, but Ryoga had insisted they go, declaring that they "might as well take a look since they had not anywhere else to go nor anything else planned." The pigtailed youth had suspected his companion was trying to get rid of him by avoiding the challenges and martial arts that he yearned for. But Ranma had to admit that Ryoga was right, that they had no other plans or any destination in mind.

Besides, it was strangely comforting to be heading somewhere definite instead of the Russian roulette that came from following the directionless fighter.

Glancing up at the sky, Ranma regarded the grey clouds carefully. The mountain and the town at its base were still miles away. She could continue walking, yet she was so tired. Her legs ached, and body was numb, her arms feeling like dead, frozen weights. It would be best for her to rest a while, and to heat up some water. This fragile body seemed to retain no heat, and she could also get that lazy pig to carry his own pack.

Moving from the road, she headed into the dense woods that surrounded her, feeling glad of the shelter from the biting winds provided by the trees. Finding a small clearing amongst the thick forest, she set her burdens down. She then sighed with relief, stretching and rotating shoulders that burned with the long-carried weight of the two packs.

Reaching under her coat, she pulled the pig from his hideaway, and flung him unceremoniously to the ground. P-Chan bounced twice on the damp, soil before landing upside down, his trotters waving frantically in the air. After righting himself the piglet snorted indignantly and launched itself at Ranma's ankle. The redhead squawked in pain as the angry black piglet attached itself to her foot with its fangs. After a series of frenzied hops, Ranma managed to extract P-Chan's grip, sending the piglet flying across the clearing with a kick.

"What was that for, you crazy hog?" she protested.

An irritated verse of oinks and bwees was his reply, as the pig bounced on its little legs in a fit of restless rage.

Ranma ignored his cursed companion's anger, although he was confused with how Ryoga had managed to give him the ‘bird' with his inflexible hooves, instead setting herself to gathering sticks and twigs for kindling. She pulled a packet of firelighters from Ryoga's bag, breaking the grey bricks and setting them into a tumbled pile, then knelt onto all fours, bending to let the flames from her small, cheap cigarette lighter dance over the firelighters. After several attempts, her thumb rubbed raw from grinding the lighter's wheel, a small fire blazed with merry orange light.

She grimaced while returning to Ryoga's pack, noticing the dampness of the ground had soaked through the knees of her black pants and stained them with its dirt. Ranma rummaged through the sack and pulled out a bottle of water, pouring the contents into a small pot and setting it on the fire to boil. She then turned to the piglet.

"You can use the water first, P-brain. I'm fed up with having to carry your pork butt."

P-Chan responded with a series of angry noises, but Ranma talked over them. "I'm gonna see if the trees kept any of the wood dry enough to use as kindling. Might as well try to save on firelighters." She then fixed the small pig with a firm glare.

"You'd better save me some of that water, though, or I'll sell you to the next butcher's shop!"

Spinning on her heel, she stomped off into in to the shadows.

The pot rattled as steam wafted from the top. P-Chan shuffled over to the flames, and with practised but cautious tugs, inched the pot little by little off the flames. Then after several attempts, and ingenuity beyond that of his porcine form, he managed to tip a steaming surge of the hot liquid over his head. He grimaced in pain as the hot water scalded his skin, but it was lost in the blurring metamorphosis of his growing form.

Now human again, Ryoga shivered as the icy winds blasted his slick and naked body. Teeth chattering, he rushed over to his pack, retaining a crouched posture with hands cupped over his groin in an empty but instinctual gesture of modesty. Rummaging through its contents, he withdrew a set of dry but rumpled clothes. He began pulling them on swiftly, throwing himself into his boxers and black pants in an urgent effort to shield himself from winter's caress. Not wanting to walk barefoot on the wet and muddy ground any longer, his shoes were next, followed by the binding around his calves. Yet' as he attempted to don a black T-shirt and his customary coarse, yellow jerkin, furious gusts snatched the garments from his grip and carried them across the clearing and into the darkness beneath the crowded trees. Biting back a series of curses and somehow knowing this was all Ranma's fault, he trudged after them.

He bent to seize his clothes in his left fist, his weight sinking forward onto his front foot, only for the ground to give way beneath the stress, sending him staggering forwards. He wind milled his arms in an attempt to keep his balance, yet his feet could find no purchase in the wet mud. Slipping forwards he grasped vainly and the surrounding trees, until the earth vanished beneath his feet.

A momentary feeling of weightlessness was accompanied by his own shocked cry and the cracking of breaking wood; then came a frightened scream. He dimly noticed that the second voice was not his own before lights flashed before his eyes and darkness rolled in.

He awoke with a start, his body jerking him into consciousness, motes of light swirling across his eyes. He shook his head to clear them from his vision, but it did not clear the numbness from his brain which felt stuffed with cotton. Through the haze he became aware of rapid hard impacts jarring his shoulders.

"<Get off me, you pervert!>" A panicked and extremely angry voice shrieked in a flurry of syllables he recognised to be Chinese. Digging his hands into the dirt beneath his shoulders, Ryoga pushed himself up and glanced downwards. His green eyes locked with a pair of rage-filled jade orbs.

And then from beneath him, a knee slammed hard into his crotch.

Eyes wide and mouth falling slack, he managed a small pained croak from the back of his throat. Muscles locked by pain, he barely managed to roll over to his side before he curled into to a huddled ball, body coiling defensively around his sore groin, lances of pain shooting from his balls through his entire frame.

His attacker did not stop there. Pulling itself up, it began planting outraged kicks and stamps to his ribs and flanks, but Ryoga barely noticed the blows, his body toughened beyond such hits and his mind distracted by other much larger pains.

Fortunately years of vengeance driven training came instinctively to his rescue. Moving his hands from their cupped grasp of his injured manhood, he seized one of the attacker's legs and thrust it pack towards its owner. Spinning on his back he swung his leg in a vicious arc that swept its legs from beneath it. Combined with the force of his push, the assailant flew through the air.

His opponent was no novice either, and quickly controlled its landing, breaking the fall with a loud slap, and rolling to its feet into a fighting stance. Ryoga rose to his own guard on bowed, wobbling legs, mixed anger at himself for being caught out by that attack and rage at the perpetrator for employing such a cowardly tactic arising in him. Seizing onto that anger, he quashed the remaining pain in his groin and balled his hands into fists.

Fangs bared, he shot a baleful glance at his opponent, and felt his anger shrink as it was swamped by a horde of new emotions: embarrassment, panic, puzzlement and the empty sensation of not knowing what to do next. But then he was never good with girls.

Soft golden bangs were feathered across a pair of bright emerald eyes still narrowed with hostility. Her lips were set in an angry frown, her face slightly flushed through rage. Her clothes were a miss-matched mix of modern and traditional, a pair of snug blue jeans and trainers contrasting with the thick Chinese shirt and thin sleeveless robe. The robe was the most striking of the ensemble; it was long, hanging down to her calves, and made of a fine blue material embroidered with an elaborate design in gilded threads, depicting what he thought was a phoenix. She glared at him vehemently, her expression twisting as he dropped his stance. 

"<What's wrong pervert, realise your mistake?>" she sneered.

"I'm not a pervert," he yelled in retort.

The girl blinked rapidly, her face screwing up and her brows furrowing in an expression of shock and puzzlement. Ryoga mentally kicked himself as he realised that he had voiced his protest in Japanese. Calming himself he repeated in Mandarin.

"I said I'm not a—"

"I understood you the first time," the girl broke in, "but I'm still not stupid enough to believe it."

This time Ryoga felt his shock, his mouth dropping and eyebrows crawling beneath his bandana.

"You speak Japanese?" he gasped. Her firm voice still carried a slight accent, yet her speech was fluid nonetheless.

"Yes, I speak Japanese. But this is hardly the time for a comparative languages debate. I am supposed to be dealing out your just punishment for indecently assaulting me. Now fight!" She spat the last part at him, stamping her foot angrily.

"But you're a girl," he spluttered helplessly. The one thing he was worse at than talking with girls was talking with angry girls.

"Of course I'm a girl. Unless you think you were groping a man, in which case you would be a real pervert," the woman mocked with a derisive smirk.

Ryoga's face lit to cherry-red as he began babbling embarrassed and enraged protests, his last sentence being the only intelligible one. "I'm not a pervert. It was an accident!"

"So you accidentally manhandled me while half naked?" she asked dryly.

Ryoga glanced down at himself, and upon talking in the sight of his shirtless, dirt-smeared torso, immediately yelped loudly in total mortification. He felt suffused with heat as his whole body succumbed to a bright blush. Immediately he started and tried to cover himself with crossed arms, until he realised how stupid a man would look doing that and gazed at the grassy earth, avoiding the girls probing glare. Finally he conquered his shame by relying on a more familiar emotion; rage.

"Damn it. It was an accident. Ranma's the pervert, not me. Damn him. This is all his fault." Cursing his rival calmed him a little as it always did. Supposition of guilt was a wonderful thing.

"Yeah, I'm sure this 'Ranma' forced you onto me against your will," his accuser snorted.

"It was an accident," Ryoga cried. "I fell down the bank." Gesturing with a finger he indicated the mounded wall of grass and root entwined earth. The girl gave a dry bark of a laugh that held no humour.

"Ha. You expect me to believe that?" She smiled mockingly as her gaze traced the line to the spot indicated by his finger. The smirk shrunk and then vanished from her lips and her eyes widened as she saw the trails of dishevelled earth and the path of broken tree branches.

"Oh!" she managed after a while.

Ryoga watched as she moved across the clearing to his landing spot. Bending down she gathered up his now mud-caked jerkin and reached upwards to retrieve his dark tee shirt from where it dangled from an exposed root. She did not turn to look at him until she was done, when she hastily threw the articles in his direction. He snatched them out of the air effortlessly but was too dumbfounded to thank her. He quickly pulled them over his head in a rush to cover himself from her gaze.

She broke the silence.

"Um… er… Sorry about that. A girl can't be too careful, you know…" she trailed off into a patch of nervous laughter. Not knowing what else to do, Ryoga joined her, shyly rubbing the back of his head.

"Oh, that's okay…. It did look kind of look bad."

The girl smiled slightly at his words. "And sorry about the low blow, too."

This time Ryoga just nodded not meeting her eyes. It was much harder for any man to forgive a whack to the wedding tackle. Instead he focussed his attention on furiously brushing some of the dirt from his clothes. But the mud was wet, and had burrowed itself deep into the fabric.

"Let me take you into the town and pay to get that washed," his former attacker said after observing his actions. "My family has some influence in this district. I should be able to get that taken care of, and find you a place to spend the night."

A girl was being remarkably nice to him, and talking about finding a place to spend the night. Ryoga acted as he usually did when faced with such a treat; panic. His face lit like a scarlet sunset, his breathing coming in short, quickened gasps mixed with splutters and confused babbling, "Well… that is… but… I couldn't… don't know you… and my friend… waiting… get back…."

The woman could not hold in the merry giggle at the lost boy's pathetic, but oh-so-adorable display. Controlling herself she managed to speak through lips that still threatened to curve into an amused grin or fit of guffaws.

"Relax. I'm sure your friend will find us."

Ryoga's tension did fade, yet his lips tightened as he thought of Ranma being called his friend. What on earth possessed him to say that? They may travel together, but the guy was still a git. He began to consider the girl's offer. It would serve the jerk right to have to come looking for him, especially after he had expected Ryoga to sit and wait by the kettle like some sort of trained circus pig.

"If it's not too much trouble?" he asked, hand again rubbing at his scalp.

"Of course not. I insist," the girl replied with a warm smile.

"In that case, it would be a big help." He extended a shuddering hand with a fanged grin. "I'm Ryoga."

She took the offered gesture in a firm grip and shook it once. "Willow," she replied, "They call me Willow."

Ranma spat a loud string of curses as she squatted in the dirt, pants pooled in the dirt about her ankles. Ryoga did not know what he was complaining about. He might have to stand on four feet when in his cursed form, yet at least he could still relieve himself standing up. The hands that held the tails of her coat about her waist tightened until the knuckles turned white. Everyone else would think her foolish: concerned over a pointless thing like the posture she urinated in. But to Ranma it was a slap in the face, a constant and necessary reminder of the manhood that she had lost.

Finished she pulled her trousers back up and headed back for the fire and the hot water, unwilling to stay in her female body another minute. Who cared if it rained again? The short time that she could stand at full height, with larger, masculine muscles that did not feel the ache of carrying a heavy pack and over-endowed breasts would still be a blessing.

Sighing she made a cursory glance for any dry twigs or branches. She had never truly intended to find any, the search just an excuse, not wanting Ryoga to see her crouching in the mud to perform a basic biological function. It was no sudden appearance of feminine modesty but a desire to hide, her shame at both the consequences and the inability to cope with those consequences brought by her curse. She knew it was not the way a martial artist was supposed to act, but that privacy was sacred to her and she was glad it was not that time of the month. Her small experience with that problem had made her glad to not have been born female, and grateful in such times hot water had never been too far away.

Abandoning her search, she returned to the clearing. Her eyes widened quickly, then slowly narrowed, her jaw tightening as her teeth clenched. The pig was gone. The fire still flickered and cracked, and his pack still lay by his own: yet it lay open, a few of the contents protruding in disarray from the top. For a moment the thought that he had been attacked by muggers or kidnapped flashed through her mind. Yet remembering that Ryoga was more than a match for any gang of thieves (not that there were likely to be any in the mountains,) and seeing the upturned and empty kettle, she opted for the more satisfying idea that the jerk had gotten lost again.

She would have to make him suffer for it.

One in front of the other; step by step. Ryoga watched one of his feet advance, land, and then bear his weight as the other leg swung forwards to replace it, his body displaced forward through such a simple, cyclic action. He had never before noticed how curious the process of walking was, until he had been forced to learn how to do it upon four hooves. Ranma doesn't realise how lucky he is, he thought bitterly.

Now the lost boy watched his feet closely, not wanting to be caught staring at the girl who walked next to him, but he could not help the quick glances with which he studied her. His fangs chewed his lip at he kept silent, wary of anything stupid slipping from his mouth.

"You don't say a lot, do you?" Willow said with a smile.

Ryoga blinked and started at her voice, then turned and saw her looking back at him with her emerald eyes. Quick, say something, you idiot, his mind mentally snapped at him.

"I… er… don't have much to say…." He trailed of into weak laughter, his hand straying to the back of his head. Good one, stupid, his inner voice muttered dryly.

"Say anything, like whereabouts in Japan are you from?" she asked.

"Um… I'm not sure… I think it's near Tokyo," he muttered, idly wondering when the last time he saw his home was, and who the hell was feeding his dog.

"You think it's near Tokyo?" Willow repeated, her eyebrow quirking.

"I kinda wander around a lot. I haven't been home for a while," he answered honestly, cursing his own stupidity for not even knowing his own address.

She nodded as if she had expected his reply. "Thought so. You don't really fit the bill of the typical tourist types we get around here. So I take it you're a travelling martial artist, then?"

"Yeah, I guess." He had never thought of it that way before. It sounded better than getting lost and trying to find his bathroom, which was much closer to the truth. Besides, now that he and Ranma were travelling together, it was sort of a training voyage. "How did you guess?" he asked.

"We get quite a few so-called martial artists mixed in with the tourists, all wanting to see the famous temples of Emei. But I could tell from your fighting stance that you had trained much harder and with more commitment than those part-timers."

Ryoga smiled, glad that his skills had been noticed. Far too many people used him only as a benchmark to assess Ranma, so it was nice to be appreciated for his own work.

"Besides, none of those schmucks had muscles like yours."

The bandana-clad boy stumbled, taking frantic steps and waving his arms wildly to avoid falling flat on his face, his face flushing to a scarlet sunset. After he regaining his balance he glanced at the bemused Willow, before becoming fascinated by his index fingers as he began twiddling them around each other.

"You're a unique one, aren't you?" the girl chortled. "It was a compliment. Relax. I was just saying that you must train hard. Not 'can I have your children?' Nor was it an invitation for hot and steamy sex. Calm down."

Ryoga nodded dumbly as his mind fumbled for a change in subject. Hot and steamy… Image of this and the many other girls he knew, naked and sweaty invaded his mind. His blood surged, as it did not whether to flood his nose or to go further down. Great, he snapped mentally, She had to say that!

"So you do martial arts too?" he spluttered quickly.

She blinked, once, twice. Then her eyes widened. "Oh yeah, right. Yes, I practise my family's own style of kung fu. How about you? What style?"

Ryoga paused. "I guess I don't really have a style. My dad taught me a bit when I was a kid, and I learnt what I could on my travels."

"Freestyle then?" She shrugged. "So long as it works."

"Yeah, that's what I thought," Ryoga agreed with a nod. "So what's your style called?"

"Bagua Zhang of Emei Mountain," she declared, chest swelling.

"Bagua?" He repeated slowly, his tongue and lips carefully shaping each syllable. Receiving no correction, the lost one assumed that he had spoken it correctly. Then a fragment of a memory flickered through his mind, long enough for him to seize the image of shining, circular ornament.

"Bagua? Aren't they those little mirrors that you buy as good luck charms, supposed to frighten off evil spirits or something like that?" He flicked his wrist as if to dismiss such superstition.

Willow frowned, brows lowering. Ryoga panicked, wondering what he had said to anger her. "Bagua means ‘eight trigrams'. It is the symbol on the charm, not the mirror itself. And it is more than some backwater superstition."

"I never said…" He trailed of as he took in the arch of the blonde eyebrow on his companions face. It seemed to say ‘who are you trying to kid?" Giving up any attempt for an excuse, he settled for a mumbled apology.

Willow sighed heavily. "Don't worry about it. A lot of people these days think such things ridiculous. The idea of charms and spirits must seem a bit farfetched to someone from a sensible, modern place like Japan."

Thinking about the weird things he had seen in his life — the tunnel of lost love, the Oni that possessed him and Kasumi, his own curse — Ryoga could not help but cast his eyes towards the ground. " No, I just wasn't thinking," he said quietly. "If you had seen some of the stuff I have, a charm would be very welcome."

Willow smiled. "The Bagua is a religious symbol more than a charm," she said. "So the mirrors are not the best example of their use. It comes from the I-Ching, the Book of Changes, a book of great significance to Taoist sects."

"Taoist? I thought that Emei was a Buddhist sanctuary."

Willow was grinning widely. "It is: one of the Four Holy Mountains of Chinese Buddhism. But as you'll see when you get there, and get to see it for yourself, Mount Emei is said to be the 'Most Beautiful Mountain Under heaven'. It is that beauty that made many religions feel that this would be the perfect place to attain enlightenment. The first Temples here were Taoist, and then came many Buddhist shrines. The peaceful harmony between both religions is what allowed Emei martial arts to thrive."

"So it's a Taoist martial art then. Similar to how Buddhist discipline developed at the Shaolin temple," Ryoga surmised.

Willow's blonde locks waved like sunlight as she shook her head. "Taoist arts are very different from the arts of Shaolin. They focus on the internal, not the external."

"Huh," Ryoga grunted, before wincing at how stupid he sounded. He glanced sideways at his companion, who just chuckled. Pulling on a fanged grin he forced out a weak laugh.

"What I mean is that Shaolin Kung Fu developed from physical exercises, like yoga. The idea was to keep the body strong and healthy, and to learn spiritual discipline through external hardship. The arts I practise are based upon exercise that tries to develop your internal spiritual energy, and thus harmonise it with the flow of energy in nature."

"You mean ki?" Ryoga asked, his grin spreading and twisting into a smirk.

"Yes, that is the Japanese word for it, isn't it?" She nodded as if to confirm that with herself. "Bagua Zhang was originally intended to develop one own ki, and harmonise it with the Eight Phases of Nature, by performing movements and breathing exercises that imitate and synchronise with those phases."

"So that must mean that you know a lot of ki techniques," the fanged youth cried, whipping round to face her in her excitement.

The girl started at his sudden movement, regarding him with wide eyes. " Er… yes, I know one or two. Why do you ask?"

Ryoga put a hand behind his head and chuckled. Damn, too keen! he silently berated himself. Calm down, Hibiki! "Just that's remarkable. I know a couple myself, so I'm impressed. They're not easy." That' s it, play it cool. Keep it casual; make her want to tell you. "So, is the town nearby?" He glanced around ostentatiously. "Maybe we could get something to eat when we get there." Keep her talking, Ryoga. Get her to tell you all about her techniques, maybe even show you. That jerk Ranma won't know what hit him.

"Yeah, I am a little hungry. That'd be nice," he heard her reply.

"Great," he replied absently, and then his mental image of a crying, defeated Ranma popped as her words, and his own, sunk into his brain. I just asked her on a date. His jaw dropped. And she said yes. His eyes bugged open.

"Um… uh… uh." What about Akane, and Akari? his mind screamed. "You see… I… we…" He looked at his hands as he wrung them together, the knuckles popping quietly.

"So, should we go?" she asked, "It's not far now."

The sound of her voice snapped him out of his near comatose state. "What? Go? Yes, let's." He hurriedly strode off, laughing weakly.

"Um… that's the wrong way."

The steel of the gate bent and folded under the force of Brand's foot, the metal ringing in protest at the impact. Smiling widely, he spun to parry the palm strike that was shooting towards his face. Pressed back, he lashed out low with a leg sweep, caching his opponent's foot at the ankle and toppling him. But the other man would not fall, and in an act of near inhuman agility, used the swept limb to rebound off of the dented gate and propel him into a backward somersault.

Brand felt a small sting as his foe flipped away to land in a casual stance at several paces distance. The young man smirked cockily, blue eyes flashing beneath a single sharp, low-hanging bang as he ran a manicured hand through his wild, irrational crest of blonde, spiked hair.

Brand rubbed dramatically at the tingling sensation in his shoulder, not from the pain but rather to acknowledge the strike that had hit it.

"Impressive," he conceded.

The blonde just shrugged, pushing back the folds of his long, sleeveless robe and his burying his hands in the pockets of his pale khakis. Then he glanced at Brand through the corners of his eyes.

"We're really going to have to work on your people skills, Brand." He shook his head, with a series of elaborate tutting noises. "A flying kick is really no way to greet anyone, let alone family. And look what you did to the gate."

"Spare me the theatrics, Blitz. I thought you'd appreciate the test," Brand replied with a glare.

His brother again shrugged, not removing his hands. "If you want to spar with me, Chuckles, you could just ask." Blitz's lips curled upwards soon after Brand felt his own twist. "But then, I already did once already today, and three times yesterday, and the day before that. What's the matter? Can't get Cloud or Stone to fight with you?"

"Both spend most of their time meditating: Stone in the caves, and Cloud is up on the summit as usual. Also, Cloud spends the rest of his time with Tyde." Brand brushed a layer of imaginary dirt from the shoulder of his robe.

"Well, she has been ill of late," Blitz muttered sombrely. "It's only right that he should."

Blitz paused respectfully, then asked, "What of Crag or Willow?"

"Crag's a simpleton, and Willow's not quite up to our intensity yet and I don't want to hurt her."

"Ever the protective older brother," the other man remarked. "You don't seem to mind hurting me. In any case, I assume that the old man is still in the library?"

Brand nodded, then glanced up at his companion. "Besides all that," he grunted with a dismissive wave of his ringed hand, "You are usually glad of the challenge."

The other man grinned widely. "That's true. Our matches are a worthy diversion, at least when there are no women about." The larger man grimaced, but that just made the blonde smirk even more. "However, do you not wish for a different challenge now and again?" The gleam in his brother's eyes was impossible to miss. Brand could not help but smile himself.

"That's exactly what I wished to talk to you about."

"Oh," Blitz responded in a curious tone. "Then I take it you've seen our talented tourist? I'm surprised you didn't act already."

"I can have patience when I want. But then, I could ask why you have not made a move yet? She was very cute; a redhead," he remarked, absently running a hand through his own fiery curls.

"She?" Blitz's brow furrowed.

"Yes, she," Brand repeated, his own eyes narrowing in confusion. "I saw her in the woods outside of town. She was leaping through the trees, bouncing from branch to branch with the grace and precision that only comes from training in the arts. She managed it with two rather large packs, so that means she must have some skills."

"The one I saw was not a girl," Blitz said with a sidelong glance. "It was a large, muscular lad, with muddy clothes and a bandana. He did not do anything out of the ordinary, but with his build and clothing I assumed he must be a martial artist. And he must be a good one, to catch Willow's attention."

"WHAT!" Brand roared, surging to his feet.

Blitz just looked back from the corner of his eyes, brows still curled. "Yeah. He was in town with her, eating at the Purple Onion; seemed quite cosy."

"COSY," Brand spat, hands balling into fists. "She's on a date with some boy we don't know?! A tourist?"

"Calm down, Brand. Don't you think you're over-reacting? She can take care of herself. I pity the guy if he tries to force anything on her," Blitz said, wincing at the mental image of someone who got on the wrong side of the girl's temper.

"So what? What if he tries to persuade her? Charm her? You know what the tourists are like, always looking to put the moves on some naïve Chinese girl. What if he gets smooth on her?" He could not let that happen. His baby sister was far too good for any man, let alone some sweet-talking foreign lout with only one thought in his head.

"C'mon, how bad could he be?"

The large warrior glared at his spiky haired sibling, and spat his reply back like a spear. "He could be like you."

Blitz's eyes widened and he leapt to his feet. "We'd better hurry before she does something that I'd do!"

Brand felt his lips slowly twist into a smile as he cracked his knuckles.

The mouth-watering scent of cooking meat filled the room, mingling within the steam that billowed throughout the open kitchen. Two chefs yelled at each other loud, rushed Chinese as they bustled around the cookers, shaking woks and chopping vegetables. The older matronly waitress and her younger and clumsier counterpart wandered the café restlessly, pausing to wipe at tables and chat to each other and the few other customers.

Ryoga eyed the pig carcasses visible on their hooks through the open wall of the kitchen, and chewed on his lips, not noticing the pain inflicted by his sharp fangs.

"Ryoga, you got some weird fetish about pigs?" Willow asked with a raised eyebrow.

On hearing the word "pig", the chopsticks in Ryoga's hand snapped into splinters. Looking at the ruined pieces of wood, he laughed weakly and tossed them onto the growing pile of eating implements he had already broken.

"Pigs?" He felt beads of sweat blossom on his brow. "W-what makes you say that?"

Willow chuckled. "I'm just kidding. Relax." She gestured with her head towards the butchered pork. "It's just you've been looking over there a lot, and looking kind of nervous. And I know it's not some animal rights thing." She pointed at the remains of the beef bowl that the lost boy had devoured.

"Um… well…" Ryoga's mind whirled through a wild flurry of thoughts, flickering through possible excuses and weighing them for plausibility. While this was going on his mouth moved and he babbled senselessly. He always was pathetic at making up spontaneous excuses.

"I guess I shouldn't be surprised," Willow said finally. "I doubt they hang their meat out so openly in Japan. Must look a bit weird."

Ryoga barely managed to swallow his sigh of relief, squashing it to a small, gulping noise. "Yeah, that's it," he said in a small voice.

The elderly waitress came across and began clearing the plates from in front of them. She shot a smile of crooked teeth at Ryoga, who shuddered in reply. Turning away hastily, he reached into the pocket of his pants for his wallet.

"I'll get this," he said. Ranma would be pissed off about him spending what little money they had, but he had to be nice to the girl if he wanted her to share her techniques. Besides it was the gentlemanly thing to do, and he was always happy to irritate the pigtailed git.

"<How much?>" he asked the old woman in Mandarin.

She smiled widely at him, and then beamed wider at Willow, her grin approaching adulation. He noticed her dark eyes glancing over the glided embroidery of the phoenix upon his new friend's robe. "<No charge,>" she replied.

" <Really?>" Ryoga spluttered.

" <Of course.>" She grabbed the remaining bowls and then trotted off. Ryoga glanced over at his companion with wide eyes.

"That happens often?" he asked.

The blonde girl shrugged. "As I said, my family has a lot of respect in this town. It is a little embarrassing, but what can I do? They would be offended if I declined. Besides, you're not exactly rolling in the yuan." She arched her eyebrow at the few crumpled bills in the dark-haired boy's wallet.

Ryoga blushed, and rubbed at his scalp. "Well… It has been a long trip," he muttered weakly.

Willow smiled warmly. "I understand, don't worry." She pushed off of the table as she rose to her feet, smoothing out the dark material of her thin robe. "C'mon, let's see if we can get your clothes cleaned for free too."

Ryoga nodded and followed her to the door. Once there, he watched Willow incline her head in a small, almost benevolent bow towards the waitress. The old woman in turn bowed low, almost bending double at the waist. Thinking it to be customary, he repeated the gesture with a smile, only to receive a grimace in response.

Shaking his head dumbly, he joined Willow outside on the street. The Purple Onion sat on a small lane, the road paved with round, cobbled stones that set two cyclists shuddering as they rode across the uneven stones. Tsing Ku was a small town, barely more than a stop for the tourists who made there way along the main road from Cheng Du to see the sights that Mount Emei had to offer, filled with a few small houses, and the bare essentials needed to supply the stream of foreign visitors and the monks that inhabited the temples that the area was famous for. A polite place, where the few locals that he saw greeted each other warmly on sight. The lost youth had seen hundreds of humble places like this on his inadvertent travels, yet one bizarre feature of this town struck a cord in his mind.

Every citizen, man, woman and child, no matter what they were doing and or where they were going; immediately bowed deeply to the golden haired girl that walked beside him.

"So… er… what exactly does your family do?" he asked, his eyes trailing after the small child that skipped happily away after receiving a smile from his companion.

Willow jumped, and he saw her gaze flicker to look at him from the corners of her eyes, and then to the floor. " Um… I guess you could call them scholars."


"Yes, we live on the mountain and research and records old religious texts and stuff; very sacred work."    

"Right. So, are you monks or something?"

Willow chuckled at the suggestion. "If we were monks, how could we be a family?"

Ryoga blushed, and scratched his head. "I guess," he murmured.

Stars coruscated before his eyes as a screaming pain blossomed in the back of his skull. Ryoga sagged to his knees, face pushed into the pavement before him by the weight of the object that had just flown in to his cranium. Growling, he pushed himself up with his hands, shrugging the bulky projectile off from his torso. Glancing around the street, and blinking rapidly to clear the coloured spots before his eyes, he made out a scarlet blur standing before him.

"Ranma!" he spat.

The pigtailed girl frowned at him, arms crossed beneath her breasts and foot tapping in a posture of such perfect womanly anger as to belie her true gender. Her pack hung from her shoulders, whereas his own lay in a disarrayed heap by his side, leading to the conclusion that it had been the object that had struck him.

Gathering himself on his feet, he returned Ranma's glare with equal vehemence.

"Why the hell did you do that, you jerk?" he roared.

"Why the hell did you sod off without a word?" came the reply.

Ryoga rubbed at the small lump that was blooming on his head, and reached for his pack, preparing to relaunch it at his nemesis. Yet the path was blocked as Willow stepped to his side, the gold thread of the phoenix shimmering on her robe. She laid a hand gently on his shoulder, and pried his hand away from the bruise, regarding it her self. She smiled at him reassuringly after recognising it to be a trivial matter.

"Ryoga, do you know this woman?" she asked, a hard glare levelled at the redhead facing her.

"Unfortunately," he grunted.

Ranma's lips had curled into a smirk, one eyebrow raising as he looked over the blonde in obvious appraisal, her eyes running from the head of golden hair down the mismatched clothing and robe to the out-of-place sneakers and back up. Willow just fidgeted, her mouth working silently as the shorter girl judged her. Finally Ranma nodded and her grin widened.

"Well, well, Ryoga," she chimed. "You ditched out on me to pull a cute girl." Her red locks swayed as she tutted and shook her head, but her smile never wavered. "Not very friendly, but I understand; you wanted to play the lady's man. Wouldn't have thought you had it in you; I must be rubbing off on you." She ran a hand through her hair in a cocky gesture

"Shut your mouth, Ranma." Ryoga grimaced.

Willow placed her hand on his shoulder and used it to turn him slightly so that emerald irises could meet hazel. She wore a small frown, her lips slightly parted and her gaze heavy through wide eyes.

"Ryoga, is she your girlfriend?" she asked softly.

His jaw dropped, moving soundlessly. His body jerked and stiffened, and for several, long seconds he seemed locked in place. Then he exploded into a torrent of rage-filled denials.

"WHAT?!" he roared, his voice raising an octave through sheer indignation. "Him! Are you insane! I hate his guts!" The furious rebuttal ended as the dark-haired lad's face paled to a sickly, green and retching noises were coughed from his mouth. "I'm going to throw up," he wailed dramatically.

The frenzy of laughter that had accompanied his reaction, fell silent. "Hey, you don't push my buttons either, Bacon-boy," Ranma said testily, but the shaking of her shoulders and occasional titters showed her fight against amusement. With a small chortle she glanced at the other girl.

"To come up with a dumb idea like that, I guess you must be a natural blonde." She laughed again at her own wisecrack.

Ryoga's jaw tightened, his disgust vanishing as his fangs ground against each other. He balled his hands into a fist and readied a battle cry ready for when he launched at the young Saotome for insulting a friend; but stopped as he noted the slight twitching of Willow's right eye.

"Was-that-a-blonde-joke?" she grated out word-by-word through gritted teeth.

Ranma went stiff, face reddening as her jaw dropped. Her eyes widened and she tugged at the collar of her scarlet shirt, throat moving as she swallowed audibly.

"Um… well. Yeah," her eyes flickered across her surroundings feverishly. "But it was only a joke. Y'know, kidding and all that."

Ryoga could not help but smile, fangs biting into his lips as he fought to suppress the fit of giggles that threatened to surge from his throat. He failed however, and burst into laughter as he watched his rival squirm. The lost boy imagined that Ranma found the taste of his own foot as bitter as ever.

"I should have known," Willow sneered towards the Saotome girl. "A dog like you would scare away more men than you could find. Especially a guy like Ryoga."

The fanged boy felt his cheeks heat up. He focussed upon his hands as he twirled his thumbs together. I wonder what she meant by that? He glanced sidelong at the young blonde, but her eyes were still glaring lightening bolts at Ranma. The pig-tailed one returned the glower earnestly, her small frame quivering as she raised a white-knuckled fist.

"Dog? You mean like a golden retriever, Blondie?" Ranma spat.

Willow's eye twitched again. "Was that another blonde joke?" she asked in a deadly whisper.

The corner of Ranma's lip curled higher. "Sure was. Why? Do I need to speak slower and use smaller words?"

Ryoga frowned his brow furrowing as he observed the exchange without any clue. His gaze flickered back and forth, regarding each woman in turn. They continued glaring at each other, Willow's jaw tightening visibly as Ranma continued to smirk cockily. Ryoga knew and hated that smile; he had seen it many times. Yet he did not understand why the Anything-goes heir would be wearing it now, as this was no challenge. Nor could he understand the sudden change in his new friend's demeanour, as Willow seethed from a few low jibes, the type of petty shots one expected from Ranma. 

A series of percussive pops shook the lost boy from his wonderings, and he turned to see Willow begin to crack the knuckles on her other hand, emitting the same jarring sounds.

"So, is this girl a friend of yours, Ryoga?" she asked.

"That jerk? On a cold day in hell," Ryoga snapped immediately and without thought. Instinctually incensed by the suggestion, his fangs bared themselves as he glared at Ranma from the corners of his eyes. He then regarded Willow, who was now walking towards the smaller girl. She seemed pleased with his answer, a smirk appearing on her face similar to the one that had dropped from the redhead's which had been replaced by a bemused frown.

"And she can fight?" was the next question, but it needed no answer, and so Ranma replied with another question.

"And what if I can?" she said with a scowl.

Willow ignored her, twisting to look over her shoulder at the fanged boy.

"So you don't mind if I have a little match with her? Teach her some manners?"

Ryoga blinked, and then his lips curled into a grin to match hers. This was a very interesting development. He knew it was not really fair, as Ranma would never fight full-out against a woman. But then, the git did deserve it; perhaps getting beaten by a girl would improve his manner towards Akane. Also, it would give Ryoga a great chance to see this Bagua Zhang style, and if it possessed any techniques that would aid his quest to defeat the pigtailed martial artist.

"Go right ahead," he said with a shrug.

Ranma fumed. "Ryoga, you traitorous jackass," she yelled, cursing her life. A thought rose in her mind, one that she had surfaced countless times before and that now bubbled up like miasma. How do I get myself into these messes? Said the wrong thing at the wrong time, the usual way. She had only wanted to embarrass Ryoga on what seemed to be — but was doubtfully — a date. Obviously his new friend did not appreciate Ranma's sense of humour. But then, she had not responded well to the insults either.

Way to make a first impression, retard! he swore at himself. Question now was what to do about the situation. 

Her hands came up in a calming, warding gesture, knees bending in readiness as Willow took her fighting stance. The blonde's leg was held in front, toe just touching on the ground. Her back leg bowed towards him, lowering height, and her hand came up to guard, open palm tracing wide, flowing circles in the air before her.

"Look, can't we talk about this like civil people?" the pigtailed girl said weakly, hoping to talk her way out of this. Like that ever works?

"Sounds like you're scared," taunted Willow.

Ranma rose to the bait without thought. "Scared? Of a ditzy blonde?"

The words sprung from her tongue and into the air. As soon as she heard the retort, she clamped her hands over her mouth, as if attempting to reseal the sentence back, behind her lips. Crap.

Her face twisting into a furious grimace, Willow stuck out, lunging forwards with a high palm strike. Ranma twisted out of the blows path and stepped to the other girl's flank.

"Look, we don't have to do this," she yelped, as she raised both hands to block the incoming backhand. Willow snorted, and then slid forwards in a swinging step. Ranma inched back, head snapping out of the path of a short hook.

She did not see the other palm, which shot into her gut. Grunting, she brought both hands up defensively, but the blonde swung another circling step, sweeping the petit redhead's feet from beneath.

Ranma landed hard with a gasp. She grimaced as she pulled herself up. "Ow," she muttered. Willow was smirking at her, yet the gesture seemed cold and absent. Ryoga however, was laughing loudly.

"Ranma getting beat by a girl," the fanged boy taunted. "That's entertainment."

The pigtailed youth growled, glaring daggers at the chortling fool. Resuming a neutral posture, she considered trying to reason with the woman again. Yet, watching as the girl charged at her, Ranma decided it was pointless. Never worked with Akane or any of the others anyway, she remarked silently as she readied herself.

Swerving to the side, Ranma blocked the assault, knocking aside a jab and rising palm strike combo with her forearms before jamming the blonde's attempting kick by lashing out his knee. Willow winced but pushed the attack, releasing another shifting series of open-handed blows.

Ranma effortlessly blocked, and slid forwards to counter, holding himself back at the last moment. Willow jumped on the opening, seizing the Japanese girl's still outstretched hand to yank her forwards and onto her fist. Ranma gurgled as the wind was expelled from her lungs, but her opponent was sliding to the side jabbing an elbow into her ribs. She arched herself from the blow, which made her perfectly open for the two palms that slammed into her back; iron fingers splayed forming a dragon's mouth. 

Already off balance, Ranma was knocked from her feet by the blow, and sent tumbling to the dirt. Barely catching herself on her hands before her nose was smashed on the floor. Teeth gritting with effort, Ranma just managed to handspring to her feet.

"Crap!" she spat, rubbing at her spine.

"Your own fault for trying to hold back, sweetheart," Willow said,

"I don't fight girls," Ranma protested, earning her a confused glare from her opponent.

"Strange thing to say. Don't suppose you've looked in the mirror lately… o r at your chest." Willow's eyebrow quirked as she stared pointedly at Ranma's female form and its ample endowments.

The pigtailed girl's face coloured to match her fiery hair. "Appearances can be deceptive," she muttered.

"That is true," Willow agreed with a shrug. "And that's why blonde jokes really piss me off!" she roared the last words as she launched herself, foot lashing out at Ranma's head.

Ducking, the young Saotome slid beneath the slashing limb and out of the range of any follow-up attack. I don't want to hurt her; it's not right. But I've got to do something, her mind was working furiously as her hands blurred. She instinctively knocked aside another open-handed combo, jumping off the ground to avoid a low sweep.

Landing in a crouch, she spun striking out with her own foot, forcing Willow to back off. Coming back up, she adopted an open stance, presenting her side to her opponent on slightly bowed legs, her arms bent at the elbows to form an open guard. She drew her rear forearm level with her brow, finger splayed and pointing towards heaven, her other arm covered her ribs hands clawing for the earth.

"Fancy," Willow remarked. "And what do you call that?"

"Tenchi no Kamae," Ranma answered.

With a wary, narrow-eyed stare, the blonde girl advanced slowly, shuffling carefully forwards on the balls of her feet. Her hands swayed fluidly, outstretched before her, probing like the flickering tongue of a snake.

"Too bad it leaves you open," she cried, and on the last word attacked.

Ranma's hand came up to intercept the blow, deflecting the incoming palm with her wrist as she flowed to the Chinese girl's flank. As she moved her touch stuck softly to Willow's arm, clinging like cotton as she redirected the strike, bringing to her centre. Pulled off balance, the taller girl took a hasty step to avoid falling, killing her attempt at a follow-up attack.

Stepping back as her assailant righted herself, Ranma resumed the Heaven and Earth stance, awaiting the other girl's next move.

With a disdainful snort, Willow spun, black robes billowing open as she whipped her foot into a high roundhouse. Ranma shot in, receiving the hit on her forearm as she took a step, moving with the kicks motion and neutralising its power. Her arms then rose in a sweeping circle, hooking the leg and capturing it against her hip.

Willow struggled to recover her limb, but Ranma's grip held fast. With an angry snarl she jumped off of her standing leg and swung her hips round, bringing the same foot smacking against the redhead's cheek.

Recoiling from the unexpected blow, Ranma stumbled to the side, her hand rising to cover her smarting jaw. Pressing her advantage, Willow moved, unleashing a flurry of blows.

Taking three palm strikes to the chest and one across her other cheek, Ranma grunted with the impacts as she managed to raise her defences. Sensing the incoming open handed uppercut, she sliced her hand down like a sword, her knife hand cutting into Willow's bicep. Watching a wince flash across the girl's features, the pigtailed youth used the distraction to slide out of range of her opponent's hands. She gritted her teeth as her struck muscles protested, and she damned the weakness of this cursed body.

Willow resumed her attack, as Ranma braced herself to defend, returning to her stance. The Chinese girl lashed out with a wild backhand, which Ranma easily avoided and captured, dodging forwards and to the outside as her hand first parried and then clamped onto Willow's wrist. Her other arm wrapped itself over her enemies shoulder, cradling the side of her slim neck.

Ranma swept a step backwards, moving with and absorbing the arcing momentum of the attack, then with a sudden twist, reversed her direction, dropping to one knee as she returned the stolen force. Pulling against the shoulder as she released the wrist and tipped back the other fighter's jaw.

Whirled off of her feet Willow was sent spinning to the pavement, a small cloud of dust kicking up as she slid across the cobbles.

"Can we please talk this through now?" Ranma asked, despising the weary quality that had appeared in her voice.

Her response was a spitting, searing noise, like the shrill whine of a firecracker as it shot into the sky. Eyes wide the pigtailed girl looked on in horror as the pavement parted before a wedge of dust filled air which sped across the ground, ploughing up fragments of stone as it moved. The wedge slammed into her legs and swept them from under her, sending her tumbling forwards.

She landed hard on crossed forearms, grimacing as the impact jarred her bones. Glaring through her red bangs, eyes narrowing; she watched her opponent rise to feet arms cradling her side. Ranma followed suit, rubbing at her elbows as stood.

"I've got some tricks of my own," the golden-haired girl said with a smirk.

"So I see," Ranma grunted.

"Can you?" Willow lifted her palm and swept it forward. "Kyoufu Shou!"

The air between them warped and twisted, small vertical ripples trailing behind the speeding charge of compressed air like shockwaves. Raising her arms to form a cross, Ranma braced herself. The projectile struck against her arms like a large barely visible fist, jolting her frame as she stepped back to absorb the blow. The impact stung her already bruised arms, but no more. Ranma frowned, It's like the Kijin Raishu Dan, he thought, remembering the vacuum blade attack used by Ryu Kumon and invented by his father. She's using it bluntly, though. That's nice of her. That thought was a bitter one.

Glancing for a second out of the corner of her eyes, she noticed Ryoga's green eyes watching intently. Probably looking for a technique to beat me with, bastard. Wonder if he caught it? Momentarily a frown creased her face. Doubtful, but even if he did, it wouldn't matter.

"It's not enough," she bragged.

Her opponents just smiled. "Maybe not. We'll see." Her hands came up again, and the air once again began to shift. "Kyoufu Shou!" She threw another bolt of air with her left hand, before she shooting her right out to launch another.

Instead of blocking Ranma charged, hoping to close the distance and close into hand to hand. Unwilling as she was to unleash her Moko Takabisha, her best hope was to encourage the blonde to resume hand-to-hand combat.

The two air-shots tore threw the air as they approached. Pushing hard on her left foot Ranma dodged to the right, before leaping hard to the left, weaving between the two bolts as they swept past. Yet behind the distorted air came Willow, lunging forwards in the wake of her air bullets. Eyes widening, Ranma's forearm flashed up, barely managing to block the incoming fist.

The two girls crashed into each other, the smaller redhead mown down by the larger frame of the blonde girl. Yet she moved with the fall, dropping to her side as she took curled her fists into the lapels of the China girl's robes. Slipping her foot between her opponent's legs she dropped sideways, using her shin to push against the inner thigh as she pulled sharply with her hands. Lifted from her feet Willow was tossed over Ranma's head.

Rising to her feet Ranma watched as the blonde projected herself into a breakfall, rolling to her feet with no harm. The young Saotome felt her lips twitch as she fought to withhold a smirk in the face of the cold glare Willow aimed at him.

"This is getting old, and fast," she said in a flat monotone.

"Does that mean we can stop this and talk?" Ranma asked hopefully.

"No," was the icy reply.

Ranma sighed as the fight resumed, sinking back into Tenchi no Kamae. Willow flashed forwards, both hands striking out in a fast combination of attacks. Ranma easily evaded them, strafing to the side as she knocked the hits away. The blonde shifted quickly, spinning to the redhead's left and planting an elbow into her kidney. Ranma winced, and tucked her elbows close in defence, but the other girl was already in motion, coming from behind to land a swift trio of blows; a knife hand to both the base of the head and the floating ribs, and a stomping kick to the back of the knee.

Ranma dropped as her support was weakened. Landing on her knee she kicked out with her another foot, making a sharp stinging blow to her opponent's shin, before lunging into a roll, forcing some distance between them.

Coming up standing she spun quickly, growling in frustration as the girl continued her relentless offensive. She snapped her forearm down to parry the open-handed uppercut that shovelled at her gut, moving diagonally forwards to avoid any follow up blows. But her opponent came at her flank again. Ranma twisted pushing her arm to trap Willow's before they could strike, but her knee caught him directly on the nerve cluster of the thigh. Squawking as her leg numbed, she slid back on her other foot, sweeping around as the blonde tried to get at her back. Hampered by her struck limb, she was forced to twist sinuously slipping and batting aside the incoming palm strikes.

Conscious of the other girl's tactics, Ranma was forced to move whenever Willow did, matching the circling steps to avoid being struck from behind. Yet with pins and needles shooting through her legs, such evasion was difficult. She was unable to match as the blonde shifted, switching direction and slamming the heels of each palm into Ranma belly and side. Grunting with the blows, she moved back hoping to gain some space, as she was unwilling to strike back. Her lips twisted as she moved, the perceived injustice penetrating through the haze of battle. I won't hit her back, she swore, her eyes silently probing Willow's icy facade for any hint of her movements, any opportunity for a joint lock or harmless throw, a peaceful technique. But there was nothing.

Her arm snapped around sharply to ward off a blow to the sweeping in towards his faced from the right. But with this numbed leg I can't keep up this defence if she keeps spiralling around me.

Something in her mind snapped in to place with a mentally audible click that resounded in her head. The pieces of some puzzle she had not known about began to come together. Final technique! Cold expression! Spiral movement!  Her eyes widened as more clues presented them selves. As if the curtain had been lifted by her suspicions she noticed the shifting of the air, sensing it growing denser and thicker. Oh shit.

Time slowed as Willow tightened the circle, Ranma watched her hand draw back and then rise into the uppercut, the hand screwing through the air as it struck at the sky. She could feel the Ki charging the air in the fist's wake. OH SHIT!


The winds rose, and an image blazed in Ranma's mind. She saw a flash of white hair and cold, golden eyes. Instinct did the rest.


The sleeping dragon arose to battle with the phoenix. The winds howled to life as the hurricane roared in to life. Buffeted by wild, circular gusts she was lifted from her feet and sucked into the rising vortex. Through the sounds that rushed in her ears, she heard an intense scream and something slammed into her body.

Ranma grunted as she was swept away into the current. Squinting through the dust and air that slammed into her face, she saw Willow being tossed and blasted like a rag doll by the harsh winds. The blonde was wailing as the wild tides carried her higher.

This was not the first time Ranma had been caught in the ki vortex. Drawing on that experience, she let the winds take her higher, gusts whipping her hair about her head and blasting her face. She did not fight it, instead flowing with the violent air and kicking with her feet to propel her upwards on the heels of her tumbling opponent. Stretching out her hand she tried to get a handhold upon the spinning blonde, but it was too late. With a loud scream, Willow was ejected from the cyclone and shot through the sky.

Grabbing hold of a nearby rooftop, the young Saotome rode out the storm.

The air slowly calmed, easing to a gentle breeze. She dropped from the house and straight into Ryoga's fist.

"Ranma, you bastard, how could you use a technique like that on a girl?"

Gasping around the lost boy's hand, she pushed him away wearily.

"Put a sock in it, Bacon-breath," she grunted. "And help me look for her."

"Why should I help you?" the fanged boy spat.

"Well, depends if you care for your date."

"SHE'S NOT MY DATE!" The snapped reply was instantaneous.

Ranma sighed. "Whatever, P-Chan. But I wouldn't hang around. The natives look pissed." She gestured with a nod of her head towards a few numb villagers. They stood still as if shell-shocked by the events they witnessed; yet the rising anger was evident in their flushing faced and silent growls.

Limping on her still-stunned leg, she traipsed over to her pack. Her muscles ached and protested the motion; she forced the sensations down with gritted teeth. She turned towards the horizon that Willow was last seen sailing over. Her hands clenched, knuckles whitening. Ryoga was right; using such a technique had been too excessive. But she had gotten herself into this mess, and she would clean it up herself.

Akane gasped as she shot awake. Bolting upright, she coughed and spluttered up a small deluge of icy water. She shivered from the cold that was seeping into her and from the white-hot rage that built inside. She growled low in her throat, the sound building as she forced it out through her jaw as it shuddered from the cold. Hands balling into her bedclothes, she shot her eyes towards the door, before her brows lowered as she saw the figure standing there.

Genma Saotome's large frame filled the doorway imposingly, the now-empty bucket clanging as he let it fall from his fingers. Akane drew breath to yell, only to have the words die in her throat as the heavyset man threw something at her.

Her vision was veiled behind white cloth. Jaw tightening she clawed the fabric from her face and glared at hit, her jaw dropping as she recognised the item as her training gi.

"I'll be waiting in the dojo. You've got ten minutes," Genma said gruffly before stomping out of the room.

She sat there for several moments, a haze of confusion clouding her thoughts. Then a steak of curiosity lanced through her mind. She threw back the covers and leapt out of bed, beginning to change as fast as her hands would work on her buttons, lips twisting at the feeling of the wet fabric sliding across her skin. Then her eyes caught on the curtains, and she flung them open. Her jaw dropped.

Twilight blue was still washed across the sky, the colours slowly paling on the horizon. Amongst the spires of the distant skyscrapers a growing halo of golden light crept upwards slowly. A glance at her alarm clock confirmed her suspicions.

Dawn had come.


To be continued.

Author's notes: I'll keep it short. It's just a start, so not much to say. Just that I'd like to address those who commented on my portrayal of Nodoka: You're absolutely right; I forgot how ditzy she was. But the die is cast now, and I guess I got to run with it. Hope nobody minds. And thanks to those who reviewed the Mantis Saga, your words make me want to write and happy that what I do is appreciated. So review this one too!  Thanks to Rob and Bernie for pre-reading.


I'll start including a list for all the martial arts terms and special techniques here, mainly coz I don't want to index them all the time, so in the future you can find the translations here. I'll also stick them in the End of Saga notes too. Hope it helps. And tell me if I start using to many, I don't like using pointless Japanese (such as –sans and such) since I write in English, but I think it's important for martial arts terms, but I don't want to go overboard. Also, I'm not an expert in Japanese, so some of the words (especially those for made up techniques) may not translate exactly as given.

Tenchi no Kamae: Posture of Heaven and Earth, a defensive stance common in traditional Japanese martial arts (budo) particularly in Jiu-jitsu and Kenjitsu. Video game buffs may recognise the stance from Virtual Fighter 4, as used by Aoi.

Bagua Zhang: Eight Trigram Palms. A real life Chinese internal martial art, and the inspiration for this saga. Called Hakkeshou in Japanese. I'll include more details in the story and in the notes. I'll be using a mix if the actual fact and poetic licence as I did for Mantis style, so hope I don't offend too many practitioners of this style.

Kyoufu Shou: Raging Wind palm, a blunt blast of compressed air similar to a vacuum blade.

Hou'ou Hane Shippu: Phoenix wing gale, a summoned hurricane attack similar to the Hiryu Shoten Ha.


PS- Can my estranged beta, Wandering Oni, give us an email, as I lost his address?

PPS- Um… This may be an odd question. But do I have many female readers? Let me know. And would any of you ladies like to be a pre-reader for me? You don't need expert grammar talents; I've got that covered. However, I will soon be writing more scenes from the Ranma ½ girls' viewpoints (particularly Akane and Shampoo, so big fans of them would help), and being a dozy bloke, I would appreciate some help with womanly attitudes and thoughts and such. Y'know, help me get into their heads.

Warning, though: you must be open-minded when it comes to pairing and a lot of stuff. Thanks.

Book 2, Chapter 2
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