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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 Two: The Fires of the Forge

Perseverance is more prevailing than violence;
and many things which cannot be overcome when they are together,
yield themselves up when taken little by little.

The rain fell in relentless sheets, a wet mist that was invisible against the gloom of the night sky but for the flickering orange halos around the glowing streetlights. The air was heavy with the crisp scent of moist grass and filled by the endless hiss of the falling showers.

Genma Saotome took another sip of sake as he sat beneath the sloping roof of the Tendo dojo, watching the rain as it made ripple and after ripple upon the once tranquil surface of the koi pond. He loved to watch the rain, even after Jusenkyo. It brought him peace for some reason he could not comprehend. Maybe he thought that falling downpour could wash away the taint of the things he had done in his life. Maybe it was the memories evoked, visions of a less complicated time when he would train in the storm, matching his stance against the winds and punching with the crack of the thunder; when the Master had actually taught him, watching with an auspicious eye as his best pupil mastered the art; times when he had travelled Japan, slamming his knuckles into the tree under a fine drizzle; times when he squatted in the rain by the roaring of the sea and presented two open palms as small targets for his young son to punch and kick.

He sighed wistfully and poured another measure of wine into his cup. Those days were gone; he could no longer enjoy the rain without the detestable feeling of wet fur. And his son was gone. Thinking that his father had nothing left to teach, he had left the nest. He had become a man.

Genma snorted into his wine. Question is, can he stay that way?

His lips twisted as he remembered the last time he had seen his son. Ranma had thought everything he had said was a joke; but then he had always been an ungrateful brat. He sometimes thought that he had taught the boy too well. Everything Genma had done, he had done for Ranma, but now everything Ranma did was for Ranma. He had left without a thought for the all the work his poor father had done for him, or for his mother.

The large man's mouth curled into a smile even as his hand absently stroked his lower belly. The woman was quicksilver, warmth and smiles one second, cold eyes and a viper tongue the next. But then, that was why Genma loved her. And it was why he was sure that Ranma cared for Akane, no matter what the boy said. Such women were a weakness bred to all Saotome men.

Nodoka had been cold since Ranma left. The loss of her only child for the second time had wounded her deeply. But Genma knew there was more to it than that. He had lied and cheated enough people to know how to read a person who was hiding something, and his wife was too proud and honourable to do it well. Ranma had probably said something to her. That was how he usually pissed people off, his big mouth. Don't know where he picked it up, I certainly didn't teach the boy!

However, his wife's attitude had turned around throughout the day. Her smile had returned, but without its usual warmth. He ran a finger over the clean and crisp white fabric of his gi. She had wrestled it from him while he had played with his tyre, and thrown it into the wash.

Nodoka's smile had returned, lacking its usual warmth, as if it were a mask worn to cover an obviously troubled mind. All day she had bustled about the house, armed with duster, mop and vacuum cleaner, sending poor Kasumi into a spin. She had hummed as she worked, as she often did, but the sound was strained and melody wandering. Her flurry had finally stopped a short time ago as she retired to her bed.

A smile found its way onto Genma's lips, his cheek tingling as he recalled the kiss she had placed there, leaning over him as she whispered, "Don't be long, dear."

His grin grew wider, his wife's coy invitation returning vigour to his bones as he sipped up the last of his sake. Many times as he had travelled with Ranma, Genma had thought of Nodoka's chaste yet forceful touch, and since his reunion with his love he had thought of it more. Basking in the afterglow and savouring the feel of the sweat on her skin, he often wondered how he had ever lived without it.

Setting his cup aside, he stood, knowing that his wife would still be waiting for him. He inhaled deeply, taking in the crisp scent of the rain through his nostrils and letting it revive him, unfortunately accustomed to the fact that at his age some things required time to "get going".

Feeling his blood begin to stir, he began padding silently up the staircase, taking care not to make any sound that might wake Soun or his daughters. He would hate to face them at breakfast should they be forced to eavesdrop on Nodoka and him.

He paused outside of the room he had once shared with his son, and saw the orange glow of the bedside lamp leaking beneath the door, confirming that Nodoka was still awake.

His smile slipped into a smirk as he performed a short warm up, like an athlete preparing for an Olympic event. He massaged the muscles of his back and hip and rotated the joints of his wrist and neck, stretching out his fingers. He quickly brought a hand up and breathed into it to check his breath. With a satisfied nod, he pushed his glasses further on the bridge of his nose, and pulled at the opening of his gi so that more of his hairy, bloated chest was revealed. Head held high, he slid open the door to the room and swept in.

The smile dropped from his lips as his eyes locked upon the steely glare of his still-clothed wife. His gaze ran across the prim, blue fabric of her kimono as if to confirm its presence with his mind, but then he saw the katana, imposing even in its black scabbard propped against the wall, well within reach of her small hands. He swallowed loudly as he could feel the blood drain from his face.

"We need to talk, husband," she said simply, in that womanly tone which killed all possibility of argument.

Heart falling to his stomach, he nodded. "Yes, dear."

He trudged to where she waited, feet sliding woefully, stretching out the seconds. However the tightening of her frown sped his pace and he slumped cross-legged across from where she knelt in seiza upon the tatami. Licking dry lips, he waited for her to break the silence.

"Genma, why has our son fled his manly duties?" she asked firmly.

Genma bit his lip and tugged at the collar of his gi. He cursed her for starting this with a question, and a vague one at that. The range of answers he could give was too vast, and her face a mask of steel. How was he supposed to know what she wanted to hear, and what would keep his head on his shoulders?

"Um…I would think that he feels that perfecting his studies of the Art is very manly," he ventured quietly.

Nodoka's eyebrow arched at his statement. Not a good sign, he thought with a frown.

"Do you agree with him?" she asked.

"Of course not," he cried, filling his voice with anger and outrage to amplify his rebuttal, not hard task as he had plenty to spare for his son.

"And did you tell him about your disapproval?"

"Yes, and I tried to talk him out of it." Genma was glad of the opportunity to use the truth to his advantage; it made the lies sound more convincing.

"I did so as well," she admitted. "But he still went. In direct disobedience of both of his parents." Her eyes flashed as she glared daggers at Genma who shrank into his gi. "Respect for his mother and father is an important quality and should be evident in a 'man-amongst-men'."

The phrase he had written upon that yellowed and accursed contract, combined with the piercing gaze of his fuming wife caused Genma Saotome's minimal courage to flee in terror. His head hung low as he avoided her eyes, his body reduced to a quivering shell.

"I tried to teach the boy respect Nodoka, really I did," he whined. "The boy would not listen. It's not my fault." He could feel the sweating begin to soak though the material of his bandana, and tears stung at his eyes.

"I know," he heard her sigh. Sensing a change in her mood, he dared a darting glance up at her. The steel of her posture still remained, but the cold edge of her anger seemed to have quietened. Genma allowed himself to relax a little, settling back into a more composed position. He kept his guard up though, watching the woman carefully. Her fury was like the glowing embers of a fire: calm but still hot and ready to explode into flame at the slightest provocation. It reminded him of the simmering rage of his son, and the deadliness of those eruptions at Jusendo.

"I have come to realise his lack of respect and manners is my fault, as those are among the things a mother should teach her son." For a second hurt flickered across her beautiful features and made Genma's own heart ache in tandem. But it was gone in an instant, swallowed beneath the calm surface.

"I have tried to remedy this, because in his heart Ranma tries hard to be an honourable man, despite certain influences." Genma winced at her tone, guilt beginning to gnaw in his chest, but he quashed it, ruthlessly telling himself that good men fall the hardest.

Nodoka gave no sign that she had seen his reaction and continued heedlessly. "I tried to show him where his duty lies, but the boy's arrogance set him on this fool quest of his. I told him that his duty was to the Art, and he twisted that into an excuse to land himself into more trouble." Her voice was scathing.

Genma considered his wife's words, finally understanding what had prompted Ranma to acknowledge his status as the Anything-Goes heir and the responsibilities that came with it. He felt a swell of pride for his son; that the boy had chosen where his duty lay for himself, and not let himself be dictated to by his mother and her traditions. Unfortunately such independence could get them both killed.

"What should he have done?" he asked in a small voice, knowing that the question invited condemnation.

She shot him a sharp glare, "He should marry Akane, of course," she spat.

"Of course," he agreed with a small smile, happy that her support for him on this matter was so strong. He had been worried that she would grow fond of their son's other suitors and knew that she considered that Ranma should have many mistresses; despite the hatred Akane would obviously have for such an idea. He had not minded the idea himself, at first. More lovers meant greater chance of an heir. But he knew Akane would be repulsed, thinking the concept perverted, and Ranma had to marry a Tendo. Genma's agreement with Soun was vital, and with Kasumi's affection for Dr Tofu and Nabiki's career aspirations and disrespect of martial arts, Akane was the only horse they could back.

"I could not stop him from leaving on his journey, especially not after Master Happosai intervened." Her lips twisted into a disgusted sneer, her opinion of the Anything-Goes founder had never been high and there was bad blood between them. "But I did try to make him face up to his duty to yours and Soun's agreement. But he refused plainly and directly."

Genma suppressed a shudder as he watched his wife's frame quiver with stifled anger.

"I tried to make him reconsider." Her body went limp as she sighed. "But he had obviously thought his excuse through in detail, and I could not fault his reasoning." Nodoka shook her head, obviously feeling that she somehow should have found a flaw.

Genma blinked. His son had never been one to exercise logic outside of his fights. That the boy had won over his thoughtful mother disturbed and intrigued Genma all at once. "What did he say?" he asked tentatively.

"That he only wants to marry for love," she snorted. "He would let his own feelings interfere with his duty to the Art and his family, not caring for the folly of such an act."

The bitterness in her voice was like a whip. He bit at his lip to stop himself jerking like a man flogged, painful memories of his own courtship with Nodoka spinning in his mind.

Her family had disapproved of his affections. The last scion of a fallen shogun clan who lived the life of a vagabond martial artist under the tutelage of a perverted dwarf was not considered acceptable for the daughter of a very traditional and ancient clan whose ancestors had played a part in the building of a nation after the Bakumatsu. He did not resent them for holding such an opinion; they had been right and were still. But he had been young, filled with naïve thoughts about the honour of the martial arts, and completely blinded by love. He had pursued her regardless of her father's will or his swords, and was delirious when she had returned his feelings. Back then it had seemed like an epic tale come to life, the hero who won the fair maiden despite all odds.

Truth was, he was more villain than hero, but he still loved the woman, and her shame of him wounded deep. But he knew he could bear it, as he had borne many things, because he had gifted the Art with his son. He would bear a great deal more until he was sure that Ranma would do the same.

"He loves Akane. I know he does," Genma lied. The truth was that Ranma cared for all three of his fiancées, but he need not say that.

Her gaze remained doubtful. "I told him that his duty lay in continuing the school, and that regardless of the agreement, Akane's suit was the most favourable for such a task," she said. "If his future is to be secured and the school to build any sort of reputation, he would need a dojo in which to teach the Art and provide a sense of permanent presence."

Genma nodded sagely, that was the reason he and Soun had made the engagement pact, to ensure the future of their School. It also provided a cosy place for him and his old friend to retire and live comfortably as their two children and their heirs carried on their legacy and did all the work, but he told himself that that was just a fortuitous consequence.

"Ranma argued this point, saying that another dojo could be built. He also said that Akane's contribution to the growth of the style would be minimal as her techniques are already part of the school, and that his other two suitors offer new talents and that their skills in combat exceed Akane's."

Genma cursed his son and wondered when the brat had become so crafty. He had always considered the skill difference between Akane and her rivals a minor point, as Ranma was more than talented enough to teach the art without assistance once he knew how, and that he would continue to protect her if the chef or Amazon became dangerous. That his son had weighed such an ability difference and used it to justify his actions spoke volumes of his commitment to his new path.

"I take it from your expression that this is true?" Nodoka asked with a raised her eyebrow. He nodded wordlessly.

"I thought so. Not that I'm surprised, especially when it comes to Shampoo. Her culture and laws respect strength above all, and then there is her grandmother. That old woman is wise, cunning, and from what I've heard, a living archive of mysterious techniques and powers. It is said that she is equal to the Master." Again her lips tightened. Genma continued nodding, it was all true.

"Be that as it may," Nodoka said firmly. "We can not let this stand in the way of that which honour demands. One does not make excuses to duty. One only does what is required. If we can not change Ranma's mind, then we must change the situation."

Genma's eyes narrowed. "What do you mean?" he asked tentatively. The resolution in Nodoka's face worried him; she was planning something, and that to him was reason to be wary.

"You, husband, must train Akane."

"WHAT?" he yelled suddenly, earning a tight frown of disapproval from his wife.

"I'm sure you heard me perfectly well, dear."

" B-but she's a girl," he spluttered.

Her brow furrowed as her grimace deepened. "I'm aware of that, Genma," she said. "But despite your chauvinistic opinions, the role of a martial artist's wife has always been that of a warrior. Tradition dictates that as the wife of a martial artist, the maintenance and defence of the home is Akane's responsibility. Judging from the powerful adversaries that our son is said to attract, her current level of training would be insufficient for such a task. The escort of a Samurai must be expected to fight for her husband's honour in his absence, and must also care for the family blades."

Genma swallowed the lump that had grown in his throat as he glanced at the katana that leaned upon the wall. He felt a thick bead of sweat slide slowly down his cheek.

"Also, Akane is the only official student of the Tendo dojo and the Anything-Goes school," she continued. "With Ranma gone, the task of answering challenges and defending the school is hers, as is only right as his fiancée, and so she must be prepared for such combat. If we should be challenged tomorrow by some wandering fighter — or worse, by one of Ranma's other suitors — we would lose much more than our sign. We would lose our future."

Genma's shoulders sagged as he stared at the floor, a nervous scowl forming lines upon his face and at his eyes. Nodoka smirked.

"Unless, of course, you would rather answer the challenges yourself."

Genma jerked upright with a start as if hit by lightning, staring at her with wild, frightened eyes. The woman's smirk widened as he squirmed. He fidgeted for a moment, mouth twisted and brow furrowed. His eyes dropped from Nodoka's cool gaze, and his hands wrung at his gi.

"I can't teach her," he said in a weak voice. "She is Soun's student. I would need his permission."

Nodoka shrugged. "I'm sure he'll give it when we explain that it is to secure the union of our families and his dojo."

Knowing he was trapped, Genma slumped with a drawn out sigh and nodded his head in a small, almost imperceptible gesture. "I'll teach her," he grunted.

The smirk grew into a warm, loving smile and the steel of her posture faded into a serene calm. Her shoulders relaxed and she knelt, proudly yet with tenderness, her hands folded upon her lap as she looked at him almost meekly.

"Thank you, husband," she said softly, inclining her head into a gracious bow.

Genma blinked rapidly as his jaw dropped. He continued to gawp, pole-axed as Nodoka moved forwards upon her knees, so that she could wrap him in her gentle arms. She sagged against his large frame, her body pressing upon his as she laid her head upon his broad shoulder. He could not stop his mouth curving into a small smile as he brought his large, callused hands to wind around the hollow of her waist. He heard her sigh contently into his ear and press her lips to his neck, sending a shiver through him.

But his eyes remained open as his wife enveloped him in her embrace, and stared intently as the bound sword that lay in the corner, as she pushed him onto his back.

The nights were hot in Thailand, even in winter. The clammy grip of the humid air clung to everything, the warm moisture hanging stagnant in the darkness. The white walls of the buildings glowed ethereal silver in the moonlight, the pale disc inciting the wailing song of the cicada and the subtle hiss of the snakes. The thick leaves of the trees, rustled gently in the windless night, moving with the teaming, nocturnal wild.

The trees began to move with greater ardour as the creatures of the night began to panic at the percussive cracks and thuds that rang in the air. The people of the village continued to sleep with the blissful ignorance and false security of humanity, while the animals fled, their higher array of senses more sensitive to the building power crackling in the atmosphere.

Ryu Kumon continued to train long into the night, pounding into the wooden man with his fists and knees. His knuckles were swollen and red, the coarse skin broken, but he did not feel it. The souls of his feet were abraded by the coarse white stone floor of the Kai Muay, but he paid them no mind. All that mattered was the dummy that shook and creaked with every impact of his hardened shins.

The Thai fighters had laughed when he had built the bulky apparatus, thinking that the idea of striking a piece of dead wood as if it were a real opponent ludicrous. They were satisfied with their heavy bags and hard sparring. However, there were techniques that could not be trained upon the bag or used upon a partner, not if you or anyone else ever wished to spar with them again.

They had seen little of merit outside the brutal art of Muay Thai that every man in Thailand longed to master. It had only taken one demonstration of the dummy's uses to change their minds. Soon they were all asking to use it, and Ryu had let them, smirking in satisfaction as all but the fiercest limped away after the first few blows, and some had even seen rubbing salves into their amassed bruises.

Muay Thai was a simple yet violent martial art, its exponents known worldwide as being some of the greatest and toughest fighters in the world. However, the training mostly stressed the conditioning of the shins, fists, knees and elbows as weapons. The palms of the hands, as well as the forearms, were not built to the same durability; and after simulating powerful blocks and parries upon the three sturdy poles protruding from the dummies chest that served as its arms, deep bruises and shallow cuts were the result. Ryu did not have the heart to tell them that he was not using his full strength, not yet.

They had accepted the mokujin as part of a balanced regime now, and often asked many question about its uses, manufacture and history as well as proposed modifications. One question had presented itself in the beginning, but had faded when the only reply was grit teeth and furious eyes. Why did the Mokujin have a pigtail?

He stared at the accessory now, a simple affair made of twisted and bundled straw, died black to resemble the one that had inspired it. It was there to remind him of his mission.

He slammed his fist into the dummies face hard enough to split the wood and make the structure quiver.

He had rushed recklessly into his fight with Ranma Saotome, and though the battle had been magnificent, the price had been high. Ryu did not carry any spite against the Anything-Goes heir for his defeat, but the true weight of the oath he had made as a consequence was crushing.

Ryu Kumon was a martial artist to the core, never truly alive unless the rush of battle was singing in his veins. He had promised to restore his family name, yet without the fire of the warrior he would have long since given up the hardship. Those flames, as much as his fathers last words, had driven him to mastery of the forbidden art of the Yamasenken.

Such mastery came at a price. Ryu had been so focussed in his study of the Yamasenken that it had become all he knew. His entire fighting style had revolved around those techniques; his whole life had. The way he moved, the way he stood and spoke, even his dreams; all stemmed from the Yamasenken. Even his memories of the first martial arts lessons given to him by his father had become melded and inseparable from his solitary training under the guidance of Genma Saotome's scrolls. Yet, he was bound by his honour and his word to never practise that dangerous form of Anything-Goes martial arts.

It was impossible. Those techniques had been all he had for so long. His only memory, his only solace afters the destruction of his dojo, his only friend. To give up the Yamasenken was asking him to give up breathing, to abandon everything he knew his life to be and to forsake who he was.

The blow had hit Ryu hard, yanking the ground from under him and letting him fall into a chasm of rage, despair and regret. He hated the Saotomes for forcing that promise upon him. He despised himself more for agreeing to it without a thought like the arrogant fool he was. The realisation that he had nothing other than the Yamasenken, that there was nothing to his life other than skill in a combat art that was originally intended to rob homes and mug people, had left a gnawing pain in the pit of his stomach.

As many had before him, he sought comfort at the bottom of a bottle, the fiery taste of liquor being the only thing that distracted him from the bitter tang of defeat and allowed him to forget his woes. In the morning, however, his pain would return with reinforcements as he woke to sunlight that scorched his reddened eyes and in alley that he had never before seen, yet with the familiar scent of vomit burning his nostrils. When his thoughts finally came to Nodoka Saotome, the kind woman whose care he had stolen from her true son, and imagined her frowning at wreck he had become, it became too much. He would seek out another drink, and the cycle would repeat itself.

His youth denied him his supply of alcohol at all but the seediest parts of Tokyo. Driven by his sorrow, he had become a regular customer in the dim-lighted, blood- and filth-stained dens of the city, calmly knocking back his medicine while junkies shot up in the dark corners and the bartender mopped up the broken glass and teeth.

In such places a man can not remain a spectator for long.

Ryu could not remember what he had done to piss this guy off; perhaps he had done nothing and the man wanted attention, perhaps he was drinking the wrong brand of whisky or had slammed his glass down too loudly. It could have been anything or nothing, all he knew was a large, meaty hand had hauled him from his stool and he was staring upwards at the shaven head of a huge, angry man with a thick moustache framing a wide mouth full of gapped, yellowed teeth and vile tobacco breath. Ryu had said nothing, but did not need to as his body bloated and unleashed a loud belch straight into the face of the towering stranger. The man's beady eyes narrowed and Ryu watched him wind up a haymaker with his ham-sized fist.

Instinct moved him though the alcoholic haze. He staggered to the left, slipping clumsily out of the punch's path, his arms rising and sweeping apart in a scissor motion, one knocking the incoming fist upwards, whilst the other had slapped down the assailants other hand, destroying any attempt of a guard. He pivoted woodenly on his left foot so that he could spin the other leg into a powerful, ki-charged roundhouse kick. It ploughed into the large man's belly and sent him flying backwards to slam into the wall of the bar, plasterboard cracking in the impact.

As the rush of adrenaline purged the alcohol from his system, the events replaying in his rapidly clearing mind, he made an ecstatic realisation. The technique he had used was a revision of the Mouko Kaimon Ha of the Yamasenken. It used the same concept, knocking aside the opponents arms with your hand to leave him unprotected for your crushing kick, but it had not been the same move as described in the scrolls. In fact, it did not resemble the original attack at all.

The revelation had stuck him like a bolt of lightning that electrified his mind. He had been given a true epiphany. The oath he had made to Ranma Saotome forbade him from using the techniques of the Yamasenken, but the founding philosophy of the method, its strategy and principles, were still functional. He would use them to found a new martial art, one superior to the Yamasenken, the Umisenken, or any other art that would ever be created. It would be the supreme fighting method, one that would live up to the memory of his father and restore his family honour. He had even given it a name; Kumon Ryu Kyokuken, the art of the ultimate fist.

However, to remain true to his word, his new style would have to be completely independent from the Anything-Goes school, with different movements, different stances and different attacks. To truly be rid of the Yamasenken, he would have to unlearn the Saotome Ryu.

Ryu blasted a barrage of roundhouse kicks into the dummy, aiming them low at the base and striking hard with his shins. A smile found its way onto his face through the pants and grunts of his effort. He had come a long way in the last year.

He had begun in central Tokyo, he had enrolled at a Kyokushinkai dojo, hoping to learn what he had heard was the "strongest form of Karate". He had adapted to the style quickly, but it was not enough. The techniques were too reminiscent of the Anything-Goes movements; the kicks were delivered the same way and the punches thrown in a similar manner as to those he already employed. The Musabetsu Kakuto Ryu was still a Japanese style at its core, and its foundations were shared by the many forms of unarmed combat to have flowered upon the Land of the Rising Sun.

If Ryu was to succeed in leaving the Anything-Goes mark behind him, he would have to leave Japan. Deciding that China was unsuitable, as the arts of Japan had descended from the old Tang styles, he had set his sights south and journeyed on.

He studied where he could, challenging the fighters he found, absorbing their techniques and strategies from painful firsthand experience. The understanding and knowledge of many attacks seeped into him as he lay panting, bruised from their power. He had found Masters and had learnt all he could as fast as he could take it, training the movements through endless and agonising repetition, until they came without thought, burning his previous methods from memory.

He had learnt many things as he travelled, relentlessly focussed upon his mission. In the Philippines he had learnt the deadly unarmed techniques of Kali. In Malaysia he had fought against experts of Pentjak Silat, making their art his. Several months ago he had completed his tutelage in Burma, under the guidance of three renowned Masters of Bando, before hiking into Siam to try his hand at the brutal sport of Muay Thai.

Like a master smith he had created his weapon. With his own will as the fire, his body as the ore, and his heart as the forge, he had begun. Each of these styles he had moulded and shaped until they were one with his own method and his own designs. Tempered and made strong but flexible through the house analogy of the Yamasenken strategy, he had crafted the iron core of what would become the greatest fighting art in existence. Now what remained was to polish and sharpen the blade until it shone with lethal promise.

He would do that through combat. Each victory would serve as a whetstone on which his skills would be sharpened. At then, for the final test of the edge, he would defeat Ranma Saotome and claim the sign and the honour of the Anything-Goes School of Martial Arts.

Akane shivered as she entered the dojo. Winters' grip had crept into the training hall, its touch cooling the polished wood of the floor until lances of ice shot through her feet despite the thin tatami covering. The hall was illuminated by lanterns that emitted a soft orange glow, the golden halo of dawn just beginning to slide above the horizon.

Genma sat with his legs crossed upon the floor despite the cold, arms folded across his wide chest. He glowered at the doorway as Akane entered, a grimace twisting the tightened line of his mouth.

"I said ten minutes," he grunted sourly.

Akane ignored the remark, returning his glare in equal measure.

"What is this all about, Uncle Saotome?" she demanded.

The large man's frowned deepened and his brow furrowed, eyes narrowing as he stared intently through his spectacles, somehow managing to look down upon her even as he sat upon the mats.

"I'm here to train you," he said simply, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

Obvious or not, Akane was stunned, her mouth working soundlessly but no words would form in her numbed mind. Her eyes then narrowed to slits, tilting her head to glare sidelong at the bald man.

"Why?" she asked softly, drawing the word out.

"Why not!"

Her teeth ground against each other at the reply. She stomped forwards, hands balled into tight fists upon her hips as she frowned at Genma. As she approached he stood quickly, as if unwilling to concede an advantage in height. He met her glare with calm eyes that seemed to look beyond her face. She broke the silence with a snort.

"I thought girls lacked the strength and dedication to learn the art," she recited acerbically. She knew exactly were Ranma had learnt his chauvinist attitudes. Her words had no effect on Genma. His folded arms and condescending gaze grated at her nerves.

"You're not a girl," he grunted.

"Not a girl," she spat through her clenched teeth; images of Ranma mocking her danced through her brain. Now his father seemed to be picking of where the son had left off. "WHAT AM I THEN? SOME KIND OF TOMBOY? A FLAT-CHESTED KLUTZ?" she snarled.

For once Genma refused to be cowed, grimacing in the wake of her rage. "You're a martial artist." He arched an eyebrow as he looked down at her. "Aren't you?" he added.

"Of course I am," she huffed.

"The art does not know genders, as my son's curse has proved." His lips twisted for an instant, but then the sneer was gone without a trace and he continued with no pause. "If you truly are a martial artist, then you must act as one, and martial artists train." Genma fixed her with a hawk-like glare through his spectacles. "Ranma has gone; you can't hide behind him anymore."

"I have never hidden behind anyone," she hissed, her body quivered as her hands clutched at her belt as if ready to strangle the stocky man with it.

"Maybe not," he conceded, "But it was Ranma who fought the battles, not you. The matches you did accept, you lost, and it was Ranma who regained victory. Not you. This is your dojo, it is time you defended it." Genma drove the words in like nails.

"I can defend it just fine," she protested, but her voice was small and weak, doubts nagging at her mind and robbing her of her convictions.

"Maybe you can," Genma shrugged. "But that's not what anyone else thinks, and that's what really matters, isn't it?" His lips curled into a smirk. "Without Ranma, there is very little to stop Shampoo or Ukyo challenging you for the engagement. Or another dojo destroyer who wants your sign. They think you weak and unskilled. They won't even consider you a threat. But I can change that; with my training they'll know that you're no pushover. They will respect your skills and so will Ranma."

It was the offer she had been wanting for two years, a chance for someone to acknowledge her as a martial artist, and not as an observer surrounded and outclassed by her peers. She longed to be the fighter, not the prize, to fight side by side with a man and to keep him from harm, rather than being constantly protected or kidnapped. To finally be known as a warrior, not just a fiancée, to have people come to her for help rather than only being asked where Ranma was.

However, the offer had come from Genma Saotome, and though she was fond of her father's friend, the man could not be trusted. "I can handle any challenger," she declared proudly. "I don't need your help."

Genma's glare never wavered. "If that's true, you have nothing to lose, yet much to gain and much to prove."

"Nothing to lose, except my sanity or any liking for cats," she snapped.

Genma stiffened at her words, back jerking rigid as his frown deepened. His eyes seemed hollow for a brief moment, before fires sprang in his irises and his face became harsh like jagged stone. His jaw tightened but all he asked was a simple, pointed, question. "Does the Art mean so little to you?"

The question echoed in her mind like the clang of a thrown gauntlet. Akane forced as much iron as she could into her brown eyes, willing her gaze into a blade and her expression into hard granite. "When do we start?"

Genma smiled, but the expression did not touch his eyes. His stare ran her up and down, appraising every inch of her. With a smirk he bowed at the waist, a small but profound gesture. "Right now," he replied.

Then the grin dropped from his lips, and his face became harsh and expressionless. He seemed to radiate an invisible aura of power, but not the strength or ability that was present Cologne or Happosai's spirit, or the raw energy of Ranma's ki. This was subtle, yet intimidating, full of force and command that she never would have expected to feel in the presence of a coward like Genma. It was the aura of a sensei.

He pointed to the empty space at the centre of the training hall, "Show me Naihanchi," he commanded.

Akane bristled. "What? Naihanchi?"

"Is there a problem?" he asked firmly, his tone forbidding any answer.

Akane swallowed her protests, muffling a growl low in her throat, and stalked to the spot he had indicated taking up the ready position.

Naihanchi was the first kata that was taught to a student of the Anything-Goes after the first month of training. An ancient form taught in Okinawa, it was part of many styles in some form. Akane hated it.

It was short and basic, a mere thirty-six movements, containing no kicks and the only simplest blocks and punches. All of the techniques were performed in the same stance, a low, knock-kneed posture, with the toes pointing in and pelvis raised, which always forced Akane's buttocks to clench uncomfortably (adding suspicions about why Happosai had included the kata in his school). The footwork was tedious and outdated; all robotic sidesteps that was intended to prevent the practitioner from tripping over his clog-sandals.

She tugged at her black belt and frowned. This kata was beneath her. "Wouldn't you rather I did something more challenging?" she asked. "Like Gojushiho or Buraja-Strappu" Those were two of her favourite patterns, despite the unfortunate name of the second one. At least it proves it's an Anything-Goes original.

Genma shook his head. "One should begin at the beginning," he said flatly. "Naihanchi will be fine."

Akane sighed; she had agreed to his training, she could not turn back without losing her pride as a martial artist. She brought her feet together, hands held in front of her waist, left over right. Breathing in slow and deep, she lifted her hands to inscribe a circle in the air. When her palms met again she lifted them level with her lips, turning them over so that they were palms down as she pushed them back to her belt knot. Her head turned, sweeping her gaze; first left, and then as it arced to the right, she sidestepped quickly, crossing one foot in front of the other, and stuck out hard with a right knife hand blow. Thus the kata began.

She moved through the pattern swiftly, her body instinctively going through the motions. Her attacks were light and fast, flicking out her blocks and punches, the fabric of her gi snapping faintly. She ended upon the spot from which she started, assuming the ready position, waiting to begin the next kata.

Her teacher had not moved, his face expressionless.

"Again," he snapped.

Gulping back a sour grunt, Akane began again. This time she put greater speed and force into the kata, she lashed each blow into the air around her, her sleeves cracking like thunder. She expelled her breath forcefully from her gritted teeth, and yelled her kiai loud as the force of her elbow strike bore into her palm upon execution.

Genma remained unimpressed, and ordered her to repeat the kata twice more. She could understand why, with each attempt she could feel her movements become more fluid and easy, the repetition drilling the sequence into her muscles. It was his flat tone and cold stare that grated upon her nerves; his gaze piercing through every inch of her, as observant yet as expressionless as a camera. There was something missing, and only he knew what. "Why don't you tell me where I'm going wrong, rather than continue to waste time? " she snapped as he opened her mouth to form the command 'again'.

He grimaced, eyes narrowing behind his glasses at her outburst. "I was hoping that you'd work that out for yourself." The elder Saotome grunted. "True martial arts can not be spoon-fed, and I don't intend to tell you everything. Some things you have to learn on your own."

Akane's teeth ground, the sound scraping loudly in her own ears, but remained silent.

Genma shifted slight to the right, and cleared his throat with a pointed, guttural sound. "Your stance was too high, and your balance and rooting suffered. Your breathing was harsh and unnatural, and your movements were tense and robotic. You tightened your muscles to add force, yet lost your grace." Each complaint was fuel to Akane's fire. Her fists were white, quivering as Genma tore her performance apart. "There was some improvement as you repeated the kata, so I believe that those faults can be phased out by more practise," he said with a sigh, before fixing her with as intense glower. "However, there was something lacking in your efforts, something that was missing from the kata every time.

"Kime: focus!

"There was no urgency to your technique, no feeling. You performed the kata like a dance not as a martial art. You acted like a programmed machine, simply going through the motions, completely devoid of any meaning or intent. Each of your moves were the motions of a cobra without its venom; you hissed and bit, but there was no danger, no desire to defeat your opponent, no threat."

"What opponent? It's just a kata." Akane snorted, unable to keep silent. "And a basic one at that."

Genma recoiled as if struck, head jerking and eyes wide. Then his jaw tightened and his eyes became sharp steel behind the lenses of his glasses. "Just a kata?" he hissed, sounding scandalised as if someone had suggested he get a job. "Just a kata?" he repeated, voice rising as his face reddened.

Akane said nothing but met his anger with her a defiant glare.

"Kata are the basis of martial arts." Genma declared. "Each individual pattern describes an entire method of combat, displaying the use of the most effective techniques honed after centuries of training."

"Yeah, centuries," Akane spat dryly. "Kata are outdated. I don't wear stupid clogs, so why do I need to learn to fight in them?"

"That just demonstrates how little you know, girl" he said in acid tones, his lips curling into a smirk.

Akane could not stop her lips peeling back as she growled.

"Since I doubt you trust my years of experience enough to believe what I say," Genma proclaimed loftily. "I suppose I will have to teach you by example."

The stocky man sank into the Naihanchi stance, legs twisted inwards so that his knees faced each other and his feet formed a triangle with his toes pointing at the apex. His ample weight pressed through his legs making a solid foundation like the base of a pyramid. His fists rested against his waist, spreading out his broad shoulders as his swollen paunch heaved over his belt knot.

To Akane that stomach was a bright red bull's-eye.

"Well," he grunted. "Show me I'm wrong." The challenge in his voice was unmistakable.

With a wordless kiai Akane shot forwards over the small space that separated her from the Saotome master. Her foot snapped out with a kick, the ball of her foot shooting towards Genma's bulging gut. The attack found only air as he stepped forwards, twisting sideways and blading his body towards her as the kick flew past. Still pushing forward, she used her momentum by following up with a hard right punch. He deflected and caught her thrusting fist easily with his rear hand before countering. She grunted as a harsh blow jarred her collarbone. Hissing through gritted teeth as pain shot along the marrow, she could not hope to defend as he grabbed her roughly by the scruff of her gi, other hand fastening on to her lapel, and flung her unceremoniously to the mat.

Akane landed upon her side with a groan, the fall stealing her wind. Glaring up at her opponent, she saw him mimic the defence he had just used. She was shocked yet not surprised to recognise the movements as from the Naihanchi kata. It was not exactly the same — he had used the protruding bone of his wrist to strike her collarbone and not his knife hand, and had neglected the elbow smash; however the technique had still used the same motions, and in a way she had never seen before. That can be used as a throw? she thought as she recalled his use for what to her had seemed a punch.

Pulling herself to a sitting position, and rubbing furtively at her shoulder joint, she scowled at Genma. "That was a one-shot trick," she snorted.

The older man arched a questioning eyebrow. "You really think so?" he asked in a dry tone.

Akane had no reply, and so continued to stare daggers at the man from the floor, almost daring him to mock her further. He did not, instead joining her on the tatami, crossing his legs as he sat and watching her with an intense, hawk-like glare. The soft, long shadows of the dawn light began to dance upon the dojo walls as the sun climbed into the sky.

"Do you know why Naihanchi is the first kata taught in the Anything-Goes school?" he asked after awhile.

Surprised by the sudden question Akane frowned. Genma waited silently, face firm and without expression. There was no sign of it being a trick question, and the silence was beginning to hang in the air, so she answered as she had been taught. "It is a simple pattern which provides a good introduction to kata and its concepts, and builds a solid foundation in the basic blocks and punches while developing a strong, balanced stance." Her chin rose proudly as she waited for Genma's reply and rebuttal.

The large man tilted his head, eyes rolling upwards behind his glasses as if trying to see his own brain. He made a small, thoughtful sound, a low mumble before shaking his head as his eyes locked upon her through hooded lids. "No, those are benefits of the training certainly, but not its true purpose."

Akane grimaced. She had expected a sour reply, and received far better than she had expected from Ranma's stern father, but the logic and plain tone of the response still rankled. "Then enlighten me," she snorted.

"As I have already said, each kata represents a complete method of fighting. Naihanchi is the perfect introduction to the Art, as it contains very simple techniques which present the novice with the fundamental principles behind combat. The movements of the kata are basic, yet effective enough to teach the new student how to defend themselves against untrained attackers. They contain the key strategies that form the foundation of future skills employed against skilled Artists. The kata even contains advanced manoeuvres and tactics, such as carefully aimed strikes to vital parts of the body and joint manipulation… as I have shown you." He stared pointedly at her hand as it clasped her collarbone. It blazed with the reminder and she rubbed at it gently, sure that it would bruise nastily.

"But the kata is so short," she said weakly, confusion and doubt leeching at her tone. "How can it include so much?"

Genma smirked knowingly. "The written word can be small, and books short, but they can still inspire great things. The discs that Nabiki carries for her computer appear small, but I'm told that they hold a great deal of data. Kata is just another form of storing information — a great deal of it — and compressing it so that it may be easily learned. It is not the movement or the techniques that hold the knowledge, but the theories behind them. All you see are the movements, a punch there, a kick here. You must look beyond that and ask yourself, would that work in a real fight? Would it be effective? If the answer is yes, then ask yourself, why is it effective? Was it the stance you use, the part of the hand you hit with, where you would aim the strike, how you moved before the strike?"

"And if the answer is no?"

He shrugged, "Then the movement is not what you thought it was? If it it's not a punch, perhaps it's a grab for a throw. Sometimes the creators of a kata hid the true intent of their movements, so that idle observers would not know the techniques."

"Then how did they expect their students to understand?" Akane asked with an angry grunt.

"Kata are made by warriors for warriors. A martial artist should understand the true meaning of the kata instinctively."

His expression was still black and stony, but Akane could feel the challenge in his words, knew it from the probe of his gaze. A martial artist should…he had said, questioning her abilities again. Everyone forever doubted her training, mocking it. Her fists quivered in her laps as she clenched them tighter. She would show him, she would master the kata.

"The movements of Naihanchi is a whole fighting system," he continued, "and like all systems, it has a strategy, a plan of attack with which to gain victory. Master that strategy and you can apply it to any technique and make it your own. That is the heart of the Anything-Goes school."

Akane felt her own chin rise at the pride that gilded the man's tone. The School was everything to him. She felt the stirring of her own ardour, yet stuffed it down and continued to probe Genma's knowledge. "So why is Naihanchi so important?" she asked. "What is its great strategy?"

Genma scowled in what seemed to be irritation at her question. "Think about it, girl," he grunted harshly. "It is obvious by its very name. Naihanchi does exactly what it says on the tin."

Her jaw tightened as she bristled, but she fought to maintain her fragile composure, lips compressing to a firm line as she swallowed an enraged yell. Her mind set to unravelling his clue. Its name? Naihanchi meant "to stand upon uneven ground". She felt her bows furrow as she frowned. It told her nothing. Running through the kata in her head, she summoned a mental picture of her father demonstrating the form to three little girls in crisp white gi. Akane remembered watching her father move, while her older sisters looked on beside her, Kasumi with a patient smile, and Nabiki with undisguised disinterest. Her own eyes must have been wide as she recalled studying his every, graceful motion in enthralled detail, her heart panged by wonder. Her youthful awe served her well, as her father's movements replayed in her mind, like the screening of an old silent movie. Then the answer blossomed for her, a muted buzz that was soon ringing loud and the within her brain.

To stand…! The stance!!!

The penny dropped with a clunk as if she were a vending machine, the solution tumbling out of her as fast as her mouth could give the words form. "Naihanchi uses a low, stable stance and small movements so that the martial artist would not lose his balance and fall when attacked upon a rough or jagged battlefield. That's the Art," she cried.

If she had given such a confident response to her father, his thin face would have split from ear-to-ear as a proud grin beamed through his moustache. Genma merely nodded. "That is right," he said flatly. "It is believed that Naihanchi was developed from techniques and tactics adapted when fighting on the raised ground between the flooded paddies that were common in southern China and Okinawa."

Akane drew breath to contest the use of such methods, but Genma overrode her before she could speak.

"Before you start whining about the lack of rice fields in Nerima, the story merely explains the inspiration for the kata, not its uses."

Akane scowled at the use of the word "whining" and at being cut off, while Genma adjusted his glasses before resuming.

"The fighting method described by Naihanchi is a form of defensive combat that is fought in close quarters with an attacker. It uses simple blocks and body positioning to deflect an attack without needing large leaps and dodges. The small side-steps bring the user within the enemy's guard, while slipping around or parrying any attack with little effort. Then the opponent is dispatched with simple but effective close-range strikes such as hook punches and uppercuts to vital areas, as you no doubt recognise in the movements of the kata. You experienced the effectiveness of this technique when you tried to hit me."

That was some understatement, and only now could she see the genius of his defence. He had knocked her kick aside without even shifting his stance and then evaded her punch by turning his body sideways and removing her target area. By stepping across, he had then slipped too close for her to cover his return attack. It was brilliant, and almost too hard to believe that such an art was contained within the simple kata she had dismissed as the stuff of novices.

"However," Genma continued, his voice growing louder for a moment to bring her from her thoughts. "At such close quarters, it is very easy and probable for you foe to seize hold of you or your clothes and try to wrestle you to the floor. Which is why the stance is very stable and rooted, and the kata include escapes from such grabs, and takedowns of its own that can be used in such situations.

"This method of fighting is perfect for beginners who have not yet acquired the skill to block and dodge attacks effectively, as well as experienced warriors who specialise in such tactics. In fact, this kata contains so much information for such fighters, both in the many interpretations of its movements and variations of its principle, that it has been said that it would take a lifetime to truly master. But I think I've managed it." A small ghost of a small curved the elder Saotome's lips.

Akane stubbornly refused to be drawn in. "If that's true, then why do you not use it?" she asked, arching her eyebrow in lofty curiosity. "If you have mastered the way of fighting with little movements, then why do you and Ranma leap around on the roof like rabid bullfrogs?" She was surprised to hear her voice harden; it was not as if she wanted to copy them.

"That is more the boy's fault than mine," he said with a sour grimace. "I taught the boy the kata; in fact, I taught him nothing else for the first two years that I trained him." He kept on talking despite the dropping of Akane's jaw. "The boy learnt the kata and its secrets well enough, but he lacked my hearty constitution—"

"You mean your fat," she broke in, earning a sharp glare from the large man. Her lips twitched as she fought to keep a straight face.

"As I was saying," he said firmly, scowling at her. "Ranma lacked my constitution—" he repeated, biting out the word for emphasis "—and could not bring out the full potential of the method. So I wisely began stressing jumps and sweeping dodges and other evasive tactics to enable him to weave between attacks and out-manoeuvre much stronger opponents with subtle body movements. I had to use such methods when I sparred with him, at first to make him aware of the techniques so that he could adopt them himself, and then to keep up with him. The Naihanchi style of fighting is defensive, and if I tried it the cocky brat would just walk off and wait it out." The clenching of Genma's teeth and the balling of his fists told Akane what the father thought of his son's counter-strategy.

"Nonetheless," he said after a moment. "I still made Ranma perform the Naihanchi, again and again, night and day, until I was satisfied that he truly understood it. When he was fourteen, he proved he did by creating his own variant of the kata, changing the techniques and adapting the principles to suit his own, more mobile form of martial arts. He called it Maihanchi."

"Ranma created his own kata?" Akane cried, impressed and incensed both at once.

"Not created, but modified it to his needs, as the heir of the Anything-Goes school should. However, he was only fourteen, and it takes a high level of mastery to do such a thing."

"I thought you said Naihanchi would take a lifetime to master?" Akane muttered dryly.

Genma glowered at her. "I did not say that, someone else did. Hironori Otsuka, a renowned karate master. But he was not on the Anything-Goes School level, and he did not know Ranma." The last part was added in a quiet murmur; whether in pride, sorrow, or jealously; Akane could not tell.

"I thought that it was a taboo to change the old kata. At least that's what Dad always said." Akane frowned; much of what her father had taught her was being called into doubt by what her new teacher had said. "He said that kata served as a link to the traditions and spirits of the past masters."

Genma chuckled, "That sounds like something that Soun would say." A smile began to creep upon his lips. "Tell me, did he also say that kata was a form of meditation that taught spiritual focus, not combat, or something like that?"

Akane's eyes widened and her mouth hung open. She nodded wordlessly; her father had indeed told her that, using the same words.

The chuckles turned into full-blown guffaws, Genma pressing his hands to his belly. "Same old Soun," he managed between laughs. His shoulders shook as he chortled, and Akane growled.

"What are you laughing at?" she challenged. "My father is a great martial artist."

The laughter stopped dead and Genma's nostalgic smile dropped grumbled from his face. "Indeed he is," the man said gravely. "But not as good as he could have been," he added in a soft voice. By his downcast eyes and quiet tone, he seemed to be mourning something. Something lost to the past.

His gaze then rose to meet Akane's eyes, watching her for a long, silent moment as his expression of sorrow hardened to granite, but his eyes remained hollow. "I was not mocking your father, Akane. I trained with the man for years, suffered the Master's trials with him, and I know him better than anyone. He used to say the same thing, back then when we practised the kata together."

Genma drew a deep breath and his eyes became unfocussed, as if looking at something distant; looking through the doors of time. "Your father has always been a skilled martial artist, passionate about the Art and his training. That is why, like myself, he was chosen by the legendary Happosai to be his pupil." The old fighter's brow furrowed, as if remembering an unsolved puzzle from the past, returned to haunt him.

"Though the two of us trained intensively, both determined to become masters of the Arts, in many ways we were as different as night and day. Orphaned as a child, I chose the warrior path for myself, to honour my ancestors. You father was pushed into it by family obligation as the heir of the Tendo line. It was in fact his own father who had sent him to learn from the Master."

"Are you saying that Dad never wanted to be a martial artist?" Akane scoffed.

"I'm saying he never chose the path himself," Genma replied with a grimace. "It worked out for the best, since, as I said, your father loved the Art, but in a way so very different for my own fervour. A way that, to the Master, was lacking."

"What way?" Akane inquired tightly.

"For your father, the martial arts were never about fighting, but rather about the perfection and health of the body, mind and spirit. He lacked the spark of a warrior, the desire to test one's strength and skill in battle, the spark that so defines people such as my son. It was the art, not the combat, that he found most satisfying. For Soun, exercises such as sparring were a way to strengthen his body, and kata was merely a way to focus the mind and synchronise breathing. Where I sought the deeper meanings of the forms, the principles and techniques of combat, to him the perfect performance of a kata was an end to itself."

Akane glared through the corners of her eyes. "Are you saying that my father could not fight, that he was a coward?" she asked with menacing softness.

"Of course not," he protested loudly. "When it was time to fight, your father was deadly. A good man to have with you in a scrape." By his tone of voice and from what she knew of the man before her, Akane could tell that such scrapes were frequent. "However, he would only fight as a last resort, if there was no other way. Often he broke up the brawls before they started by scaring his foes away with his aura, which is how he developed the Demon Head attack that he used so much on my son."

Akane wanted to contest the explanation behind her father's technique, but it was far too logical. Instead she challenged another part of the story. "If he was such a good fighter, why do you think that he could be better?"

Genma sighed. "The same reason he never teaches or practises the art any more, and why he can be so emotional; the same reason for a hundred other regrets for both of us. The Master."

"What does the old fart have to do with it?"

"Soun's beliefs worked counter to the Master and his training, and so his skills never blossomed under Happosai's tutelage." He pushed his spectacles further up on the bridge of his nose, pausing to rub at his eyes. "I know very little about the Master's unnaturally long life, but I do know that it was hard and painful. For that is the core of the old man's convictions, and the driving concept behind the training in the Anything-Goes School of Martial Arts: to become stronger through adversity.

"However, your father's ambitions did not involve becoming stronger or more skilled than others, and so what to the master was training may have been torture to Soun. It did make him a skilled and powerful martial artist, but it weakened him in other ways. I think that it was harder on him than me."

That was a shockingly out-of-character confession for the old panda. After a lingering sigh, and a slow shake of his head Genma added, "If it were not for your mother, I'm not sure how he would have survived."

"My mother?" Akane gasped.

Genma stiffened at the question, seemingly regretting having spoken, and then he grimaced. "When we were young men, your father and I, not much older than you are now, I began to notice the strain the training was putting on Soun. He was becoming withdrawn and melancholy — not the weeping that he does now, but a more private brooding. His skills began to suffer; his heart was a never in our spars and he did little else but his kata, seeking peace in the movements. Hoping to cheer my friend up, I asked Nodoka, who had recently come into our lives like a bolt of lightning, to introduce Soun to her friend Kimiko." He sighed and shook his head, a small smile curving his mouth. "It was one of the best things I ever did."

Well, there can't be much competition in the good deed department, Akane thought bitterly, but remained silent.

"Soun fell head over heels for her, and was soon back to his old self, full of vigour. Love has those sorts of strange effects," his tone became reflective and he gave Akane a sidelong glance; that made her suspicious of his the meaning behind that look.

"Your mother was a very modern-minded person, educated in tradition but not obsessed with it like my own paramour. She was always looking forwards to the future; and that suited Soun just fine. Your mother was also trained in the martial arts, having studied Kyudo, the way of the bow. To her, as to your father, the martial arts were a spiritual path, the combative side a ghost of the past. Your mother believed that the time of challenges and duels between martial artists was gone, and that the future place of the art was in teaching respect and humility to a new generation. Which is why when your father and I 'ended' our apprenticeship with the Master, he settle down with Kimiko to raise a family and to teach the Anything-Goes School as an art form. Thus the Tendo Ryu was formed. I did not have the patience for such things. I wanted to perfect and hone my fighting prowess and test it against the best, so after finally marrying Nodoka and securing the future of our clans by a betrothal oath, I set off on my own training voyage.

"It was over three years later that Soun and I were reunited. Nodoka had recently told me that she was expecting our first child, and bowled over by this announcement, I decided to seek out your father and his advice. I was not surprised to find my old friend so settled and so happy; with Nabiki a newborn baby, Kasumi a toddler, a dojo full of students and the respect of the town, Soun had done very well for himself.

"Despite his happiness, Soun's skills had grown stagnant. He had long ago defeated those who would question his right to teach and had formed a modified syllabus of the Anything-Goes style, which was aimed at fitness and self-defence. He had turned the drilling of techniques into an exercise of focus and strength. Sparring was regulated by rules adopted from kick-boxing and full-contact karate. The kata were meditation instead of manuals of deadly techniques. I did not question his methods; it was his dojo. But when I did once ask him about it all he did was chuckle. 'That's the way of things now, Saotome,' he said." Genma swallowed and then shook his head slowly, his eyes downcast as he stared at the floor mats. "He missed his potential. Such a waste. And when Kimiko died…" he left the statement unfinished, hanging in the air.

"You sound like you're sad for him?" Akane said softly, unused to sorrow from the man: only fake panda tears.

"Perhaps," he said quietly. His eyes were hidden behind the glare from the now risen sun, meagre light filling the sky beneath a veil of grey clouds. She saw his lips moved barely as he mumbled something beneath his breath. Akane strained to hear it.

"Perhaps I'm sad for myself." Suddenly he lunged forwards, leaning close to her with his hand pressed against the floor and his eyes drilling into hers from mere inches away. Akane recoiled at his abrupt motion, one arm rising in a defensive gesture as she arched back away from his cold stare. "But you're different Akane," he said softly.

"I am?" she spluttered weakly.

Genma nodded and moved back, sliding back into his stiff seated position. "You have the spark that your father never did. I can feel it."

"I do?"

"Yes. That is why you smash bricks instead of easing your stress through the kata as your father taught you. Why you charged into the horde of perverted boys at your school gates instead of letting them come to you and defending, or just reporting them.

"You have a fire inside you that makes you want to lash out at things, to show yourself you are better than them." He grimaced as he sat back on his haunches. "At present that fire is wild and untamed. Wasted."

Akane opened her mouth, but Genma raised a hand, which seemed to steal he protest before she could word it. Biting her lip, she waited for him to continue.

"Practising the martial arts is like the forging of a fine sword. First good, hard metal is needed. Your father had that, but he did not have the fire needed for the forging. You possess that fire, but the flames must be focussed and controlled to form the blade. And then the skills must be honed and sharpened, a process that will last your entire life, during each battle, after each…."

"Enough with the metaphor, Uncle Saotome. You're not sounding any wiser," Akane broke in, tired of his drawn-out rant.

Genma's lips tightened to a frown, but his cheeks did redden slightly and his eyes focussed upon his fingers at the picked at an imaginary thread in his gi.

"What you're saying is that you want to make me a better martial artist."

The large man snorted. "Not just better, girl. One of the best. Remember the battle suit that showed your true potential, your power? I can bring that out. Bring it under your control, not that of magic. With your fire and my excellent and flawless tutelage, you could become a warrior with a reputation to shake all of Japan. You would be better than Kodachi, better than the Amazon…better than…."

"Better than Ranma?" Akane burst in. She did not know where that had come from; the words had just ripped themselves from her chest. She could feel her heart pound as she waited for his response, balling her hands into her gi to stop them shaking. Her mouth had gone dry. What's wrong with me? she asked herself. Confusion began to cloud her brain, yet she her body was still tensed in readiness for his answer.

A wide grin almost split Genma's face in two. "That depends on you," he said with a shrug. "Are you willing to give your heart and body? Everything you have? To treat me as your sensei? To do what I ask no matter how hard or what sacrifices you make?"

Akane's own pulse seemed to beat in her skull like a drum. She knew what Genma was like: the catfist, the fiancées and the thefts. Could she trust herself to his training? Would it change her? He offered the respect she knew she craved; a chance to stand up out of Ranma's shadow and be counted as a warrior in her own right. A chance to be the hero and no longer the damsel in distress. However the price would be high. Maybe too high.

The image of her and Ranma side-by-side flashed in her mind, fighting together, each watching the other's back; the dangers they faced binding them together.

To fight along side Ranma, as his equal. Is that what I want?

Then came the memory of kneeling upon Ranma's beaten form, posing victoriously in her battle-suit, having mopped the floor with her previously untouchable fiancé. This time it would be her, not the suit's knowledge using her body. Her own talent harnessed through her own efforts, would defeat him.

To be better than Ranma, is that what I want?

Whatever her heart desired, it had cast the dice and the path was chosen. Her life changed as the lines of destiny morphed to form her fate. "When do we start, Sensei?" she asked, chest swelling.

Genma smirked. "We already have, girl. We already have."

An ocean of grey clouds formed a low canopy above the leafy evergreens and bare branches of the trees that grew stubbornly down the face of Mount Emei. Thick forests spread to the horizon, forming hazy shadows as they descended into the mists that swarmed around the peaks. Ancient paths wound amongst the crags and, linking the ledges with steps of smooth white stone, worn and bowed after century upon century of humble monks and holy pilgrims.

The wooden boards of the small bridge rattled beneath Brand's heels as he strode across the small brook. Water fell along the jagged rocks in a series of minor falls, rushing and burbling as it slid down the mountain in white, foamy streams.

The sweet scent of burning incense wafted into his nostrils, telling him that he was close. He followed the path as it followed the earth, twisting sharply around the mountainside, the rock wall seeming to slide away as he advanced.

Across the blanket of fog stood a stone ledge, appearing to float in the mist like a spire of dark rock. Shrouded behind a curtain of fog and the leaves of mighty evergreens that jutted from the mountains the platform seemed magical, as if formed from the solidifying haze as it grew and expanded from the air. The sun was weak in the sky, yet the light still seemed to glimmer gently across the tiles of the small shrine standing upon the ledge. Carved and gilded pillars held the curved roof aloft above an ornate wooden altar, with paper charms and bright petals arranged on the many levels amongst the fragrant sticks of burning incense. Above the altar loomed an idol carved in the image of a man with a painted face like a thunderhead and a broad, forked beard. Brand could just make out the twisted scowl of the scarlet lips, and glowering eyes of polished jade.

His hand lashed out like a blur, snatching the golden leaf from flight — a last remnant of the recent fall, lashed at his face by a wild gust of wind that had risen abruptly from the once still air. His fingers tightened, capturing the leaf in a tight fist as his lips twitched in a momentary frown. That had been no natural wind. With a sigh he opened his hand and let a small stream of black dust trail from his fingertips on another sudden breeze.

He brushed away the remaining ash against the long tail of his red coat, careful not to mar any of the intricate embroidery of gilded thread that was woven in exquisite patterns across the garment. The working of gold thorns wound over his sleeves and shoulders, the scene culminating in the vivid portrait of a swooping hawk with wings of silver fire and eyes of scarlet flame.

The wind whipped into another frenzy, the squall tossing his hair into disarray. With a grimace he raked a hand through the dark, red curls sweeping them into a rough order as he glowered across at the ledge at what he knew to be the source of the angry blasts of air.

The girl danced in wide circles upon the eight wooden posts that formed a large ring under the lightning gaze of the furious idol. A tail of long blonde hair trailed behind her, swinging and thrashing with her movements as she stepped from pole to pole effortlessly. Her eyes stared keenly a head as she moved with fluid grace, seeming to glide flawlessly. Her hands were in constant motion, open palms swaying and shifting before striking out at the centre of her circle. Always at the centre. The circle was her world and her life, and the centre its heart, its core, where all the energy of the universe was gathered, and could be seized.

Walking to the edge of the mountain, he gazed downwards along its steep banks. In the mist the forests and rivers below were blurry, like scenes in a watercolour painting. He squatted onto his haunches, plucking idly at a tenacious tuft of grass that grew doggedly at a crack it the rocks.

Blasting against the mountainside with his leg, he heaved himself into the air. For the beating of a heart he was soaring through the hazy sky, the air rushing with his pulse in his ears. Then he came roughly upon firm earth once again, dropping into a crouch and absorbing the sudden force of his landing.

He could feel the satisfied smirk crawl onto his lips as he stood, hands brushing imaginary dust and smoothing non-existent wrinkles from his clothes.

"You do know there is a bridge?" a voice asked dryly.

Brand turned to the blonde girl who had ceased in her frantic, spiral waltz and now stood frowning with arms folded beneath hers breasts. Her stance was arrow straight, heels together and maintaining perfect posture while balanced effortlessly upon the narrow cap of one of the poles. Despite the odd scenario she managed to present a prime picture of female disapproval.

He shrugged. "It's good exercise."

Willow snorted.

"Everything should be taken as training, dear little sister." He smiled as the title made her grimace. "Every opportunity to improve should be taken and not just the times when you are feeling grumpy." He gestured at the ring of wooden posts.

"What makes you think I'm grumpy?" she sneered.

"The mini-typhoon that appeared out of thin and formerly quiet air," he answered with a quirk of his eyebrow.

"Don't exaggerate. That was nothing like a typhoon."

Brand cocked his head to one side as he glanced at her with a raised eyebrow. "There should have been no wind at all. You should have more control than that."

Willow frowned at him. "You can hardly lecture anyone on a lack of control, Brand." She lifted an admonishing finger skyward. "People in glass houses shouldn't play with fire."

Brand's lips twisted into a harsh scowl at the comment. He had walked into that one.

"We are not talking about me, Willow," he huffed.

"That tapestry you torched was very valuable. Priceless, you might say. A gift from the Emperor, in days the mountain would strain to recall." Her smirk was venomous.

His jaw tightened. "You're never going to let that one go, are you?" he said through gritted teeth. "No matter how much time passes?"

"There has been much more than one incident, dear brother," she replied in a voice full of sickly saccharine. "That was just the first to cross my mind." She placed her index finger to her chin in an exaggerated gesture of contemplation. "There was also the time when you shattered Blitz's favourite mirror after he split coffee on your shirt. And the…"

"I did not come here to talk about me," he interjected with a roar.

Her smile vanished. "That's the point Brand. You were so busy offering hypocritical crap, you haven't told me what you have come for."

His mouth worked, ready to yell back a reply, but with clenched fists and deep breaths he brought himself under control. There were more important matters. "Cloud wants to talk to you. He feels that yesterday's incident should be discussed in greater detail."

Willow's eyes narrowed. With a muted growl she spun on her heel, stomping towards the misty silhouette of a bridge enshrouded by fog.

Frowning Brand followed her. "Acting a little melodramatic aren't we?" he called after her.

He received no verbal reply, yet he saw her muscles tense slightly, as she continued to stride away with her back to him. Sighing, he increased his pace so that he could fall in beside her as she reached the bridge. She glared at him from the corner of her eyes as he came up beside her, but said nothing. Her heels thundered upon the rickety wooden planks with each step, making the slender path sway precariously on its worn, wooden suspension.

"You never used to take losing so badly," he muttered.

He caught the incoming back fist at the wrist without breaking his stride. Raising an eyebrow, he glanced sidelong at his assailant, who glared daggers at back at him. He released her arm and she resumed stalking away.

"You just don't understand, Brand."

Brand stared after her, watching her tail of golden hair sway between her shoulder blades as she marched. After a moment, he followed after her with brows lowered, lengthening his strides to fall in beside her. "Does this have something to do with that boy?" he felt his lips twist on the last word.

Willow frowned. "You mean Ryoga?"

"I don't care about his name," Brand snapped.

"Well, I do."

"That's what I'm afraid of," he grumbled. Brand continued walking for another three paces before he realised that the girl had stopped. Turning around he saw his sister glowering, her arms folded and foot tapping with rapid percussion.

"Please tell me we're not going to do the over-protective brother act?" she said dryly.

"You know what these foreigners are like. Especially the men," he griped. "They have no values, especially when here. They just want to get lucky with some naïve girl and brag about it to their friends over beer and burgers."

"That's a rather paranoid view. Besides, Ryoga's not like that. He's too shy. He looked about to have an embolism when I said he had nice muscles." Her lips twitched as she clearly fought a reminiscent grin.

Brand could hear his teeth grinding upon each other. And just how did she get to see his MUSCLES! he mentally screamed. That guy's dead, he swore, balling his hands into fist.

"I can take care of myself, Brand," she said as she resumed her angry pace along the worn stone paths. "And I am not a naïve girl," she added venomously.

"You forget yourself, Willow," he called after her, "and your duty!"

The girl whirled to face him in a flurry of back silk and golden tresses. Her face was red and her eyes emerald eyes flared beneath her bangs, her lips warped as she snarled, "My duty has nothing to do with whom I choose as friends, Lord Brand," she spat. Spinning on her heel she stalked around a bend in the mountain and took the ancient stairs two at a time. The canopy of elm branches that hung overhead shook and waved in sudden sharp gusts.

Grimacing Brand followed, choosing to remain two paces behind his sister, watching her fume from a safe distance.

As he climbed the age-smoothed steps his home became slowly revealed at the crest of the widening stairway. The temple clung to face of the mountain, the furthest buildings vanishing into the thickening mist. The wild trees that ascended with him stopped; as platform gardens rose in layers alongside the steps, nature became tamed into small tress and shrubs that grew amidst white rocks in a tranquil miniature forest.

The green tiles of the great hall's many curved roofs, moistened by the recent rains to the colour of dew-laden grass, rose before him. The gilded carvings along the arching spires protruding from the roofs and the mighty pillars were just visible.

Brand crested the stairs and passed beneath the gateway, the scarlet doors swung wide in welcome. He followed Willow across the bridge of milky stone that spanned a wide moat of silent, still water; its surface perfectly tranquil with the faintest layers of winter's frost. The bridge's rails were held up by a legion of stone fists punching from the stone path, and stretched between posts of flickering lanterns.

A young student, a plump boy with thinning hair and cold reddened cheeks, swept at the polished tiles before the central shrine, back hunching from the cold as he laboured beneath a wooden arch supported by red pillars traced with running spirals. On their approach, immediately his broom halted, and he bowed low towards them. Willow stormed past as if he were made of air. With a splutter, he glanced towards Brand, who inclined his head slowly. With a muffled squeak, the boy returned the bow from the waist.

His sister took the path that cornered around the shrine, passing beneath its bowed roof, her heels clicking upon the red tiles. Brand followed, now hearing the rush of the mountain falls where frothy whitewater streamed from and down the harsh rock face, to join the harmonious moat with only the barest of ripples sliding along the calm surface.

Behind the shrine the paths diverged leading to more winding stairways, more ornate buildings or through more gardens and bridges across gentle green waters as they climbed higher up Mount Emei, becoming ever more shrouded in veils of grey mist and white clouds.

Straight ahead was a flat courtyard of many stones, the irregular shapes and varied of colours pounded in to a smooth floor of blurry, golden yellow. In the centre a small group of people, young and old, moved slowly across the dusty stone, small clouds of worn rock kicked up by their swinging, sliding steps. They only wore thin vests and pants with feet bare. Their hands moved gently through the form, copying the young adept as he demonstrated before the steps of the Grand Chamber. His flowing movement were ruined by a jarring start, his head flashed around to fix upon Willow's incoming form. "Halt," he yelled.

The students in the courtyard froze, their movements ceasing in an instant as if time had suddenly stopped. Each student hung poised and motionless in the same one legged crane stance they had slid into at the moment of their instructor's barked order.

"Hail, Lord Brand and Lady Willow," he called, bowing towards the named two as they moved towards him.

The stamping of lowered feet echoed in the mountain like a thunderclap, the students dropping from their stances with military precision. Feet together and with iron-stiff postures, the assembled trainees brought their hands over their heart, the knuckles of the right fist pressed into the left palm and bowed, the lowering of heads passing like waves on the sea.

With a start and what seemed to be a barely-suppressed "humph", his sister raised her own hands to return the salutation, barely forming the gesture before continuing her speedy path towards the Grand Hall.

Brand watched her behaviour with a tight-lipped frown, before acknowledging the students salute with his own, perhaps a little more ostentatiously than usual. He nodded towards the instructor, and the lesson immediately resumed, the young man leading his charges through the first movements of the form.

He weaved in between the people and across the courtyard, the students almost leaping from his path, making the effort to avoid them minimal.

The young instructor halted in his lesson to allow his sister's passage as she alighted the three stone steps before the Hall, stepping to the side before turning to seize of hold of the large bars that were fixed across the mighty steel doors.

At twice his height they towered above Brand, the red panels of the doors embossed with magnificent animal motifs, formed from precious metals and gems, the yellow light from the hanging lanterns glimmering across the dragon's jade scales and sparkled upon the lion's red-gold mane. The flickering shadows made the creatures seem to move with the life implied by their exquisite carving.

With a great metallic rasp the doors swung open, the instructor's muscles bunching beneath his thin vest as he heaved the upon the metal bars and pried open the Grand Hall. Brand sped up to follow Willow into the tower, once inside he gestured to the youth with a wave of his hand and the doors were pushed shut behind him.

A giant stood before the plain, wooden panels of the next doorway, the lantern light reduced to nothing by his imposing shadow. Brand was considered a tall man, both by his fellow Chinese and visiting foreigners, but Cragg loomed half again as tall, his head and shoulders rising clear above Brand's waves of red hair. A black cape barely spanned his massive shoulders, hanging open and without a ripple as the material stretched over his huge frame to halt at the folds of his leather boots. Upon the breast, a bear paced on its four paws, depicted in glittering thread. Beneath the cloak, wooden pegs strained to hold closed the vest of bronze silk that threatened to burst over his barrel chest and the iron hard muscles that bulged at his abdomen.

"You're here," he said in his deep, cavernous voice, lifting a huge hand to rub at the dark bristles on his chin.

"Full marks for observation," Willow grunted.

"We can begin," the giant rumbled. "The others are waiting."

Cragg turned and pushed open the doors behind him, holding them open long enough for Willow to put hand against it and take its weight, before passing through into the next room, ducking his head so that he could pass beneath the frame.

The hall was a vast oval, the ceiling spanned by scarlet rafters decorated with paper charms, and from which lamps hung, bathing the walls in yellow light despite the grey sky visible through the thin windows. Pillars of marbled stone, wound with spiralling leaves of polished green clay stood in splendour along the hall's circumference. The pale stone of the walls were covered with colourful paintings that reached from the cracked tiles of the floor to the rafters. Some were faded into obscurity while others were still beautiful in their vivid clarity. History, myth and fable depicted in pictures. Remnants from the past rendered in colour liquids stained the walls and thus eternity.

In the centre of the hall was a dais, a wide, raised disc no higher than the span of a hand. Wound around the rim like spokes on a wheel were inscribed the eight trigrams, stark black upon the white stone. Upon the disc's hub sat a stunted round table, the black lacquer catching the light from above on its shining surface, marked with a symbol that depicted two fish, one black and one white, unified in the perfect circle of the grand ultimate, the yin and the yang.

Four men awaited them. Seated upon silk cushions around the table, they gave Brand and Cragg a cursory glance and nod of acknowledgement before focussing their attentions on Willow's approach, who scowled darkly.

"Let's get this over with," she grumbled, stepping onto the dais and dropping her self gracelessly onto an unoccupied cushion.

Brand and Cragg joined them, the blue silk of a cushion disappearing beneath the giant's hunched form. Brand crossed his legs and folded them beneath him, rocking slightly from side to side in order to find some semblance of comfort.

"Once again I have to ask…" Blitz began toying with the sharp bang that hung across his face, protruding from his unruly crest of yellow hair. "What the hell are we here for?" Releasing the blade-like lock, he added, "Some of us have more important things to attend to."

Brand seriously doubted that. Unless those things are breasts, he conceded bitterly.

"Trust me, we all have places we would rather be," Cloud said grimly, glancing wistfully at the cushion lying vacant across from Brand. The silk surface of his indigo tunic shimmered as he scrubbed a large hand over his face and through his thick black hair before folding his arms. "We are here, Blitz, because we need to clarify certain details about Willow's fight yesterday," he said after a moment.

"What's to clarify?" Blitz said with a shrug. "She fought and lost."

Willow glared at him but raised no protest.

"That in itself raises a few questions," Cloud replied, arching his brow. "The biggest of them being 'Why?'" he swivelled his head to lock gazes with the blonde girl who glowered in return.

"As a Master of Emei Baqua Zhang, I have the right to challenge whomever I choose, for my own reasons." The fire in her narrowed eyes was a barrier to Cloud's line of inquiry, striking down any further question to her motives.

"That is true, but has always been a rare thing for any of our order to exercise such a right," Stone remarked. The resemblance between him and Cloud was apparent to all who saw. The same imposingly handsome face, with its square jaw and blue eyes that flashed beneath dark brows, that seemed furrowed in a permanent frown. However Stone's shoulders were broader, with large slabs of muscle that contrasted against the sleeker build of his twin brother. His clothes too bore no likeness to Clouds' finery, garbed in a simple habit of dark grey, the sleeves torn at his shoulders, the pants tied roughly on his calves, and the sash around his waist worn and frayed. His feet were bare and covered with dust and dirt, staining the silk cushion on which he knelt, and that he cared little for. His head and chin were clean-shaven in the style of their Buddhist neighbours, and where his sibling glared at everything with a scowl as dark as a storm, Stone looked as expressionless as a cliff face.

"Rare until recently, that is," he continued, his eyes passing carefully over both Brand and Blitz.

The spiky-haired blonde smiled wryly and shrugged, but Brand felt his jaw tighten, his eyes smouldered at Stone but he found himself unable to hold that emotionless gaze and turned his glare to the table.

"Even more rare is for a master of our order to lose such a duel," Stone stated flatly, his eyes moving towards Willow.

The girl's head shot up, eyes flashing. The fury dissolved swiftly as she watched Stone's granite-like face, her shoulders slumped as she sagged defeated onto her forearms. Brand's teeth ground against each other as his sister sighed, and he glared daggers at the other man; but that flat stare never left Willow, his eyes neither disapproving nor angry — just looking.

"Calm down. No one is blaming you, child," Locke said. His already gnarled face was creased further as he smiled warmly at the young woman, thin almost skeletal fingers stroking his wiry white beard. "It is clear that the person you fought possesses tremendous skill, and there is no shame in defeat by such a person." He paused to pick at some miniscule speck on his voluminous silk robe, which seemed to swallow his small and withered frame. When he looked up again, it was with a frown that furrowed his thin and very long brows, making the thin white hairs dip to his cheeks.

"However, someone with the skills to defeat one of us is someone who should be kept an eye on. Especially so, given the suspicious circumstances of your loss."

"What do you mean suspicious?" Willow snapped. All eyes were on Locke, Cloud's and Stone's gaze intense through narrowed eyes.

Locke pulled a long wooden pipe from the folds of his robes, slowly thumbing it full of sweet herbs as he spoke. "I saw a tornado yesterday while making some fresh tea. Several of us must have."

Brand nodded in agreement, as he and Blitz had seen the cyclone as well as they ran towards the town. He saw Cloud and Cragg make the same gesture also.

"Since the weather had been calm all day, and as hurricanes are rare in China, it is clear that Willow used the Phoenix Wing Gale. We all know the power of that technique, but it is she whom young Brand found bruised and unconscious." The old man shrugged as he lit his pipe. "It just seems a little odd."

Cloud leant forwards, propping his elbow against the varnished table and peering across at the young girl over laced fingers. "What happened, Willow?" he asked gruffly.

Brand could not see his sister's face, her head was bowed and her shoulder's slumped, her bangs fell like a golden veil and obscured her face. Her hands lay limp the well of her lap, the only sign of life the movement of her right index fingers as it ran to and fro over the embroidery on her right sleeve.

"She went easy on me," she said softly, a whisper that she wanted others to hear but not herself. "The bitch was pulling her punches." This time her voice was hard and bitter. "Hell, she didn't throw any 'punches'. All were defensive strikes to my arms or legs to parry or gain distance. She was holding back, trying not to hurt me, and yet it was all I could do to keep up with her."

Locke gasped around his pipe, Blitz's jaw dropped and for a moment Brand thought he saw Stone's eyes widen, by a fraction, but the gesture was gone in an instant. He felt himself lean forwards eyes and ears intent upon his sister's words, butterflies flogging at his stomach. Hot butterflies as he felt an almost burning rush in his veins. His knuckles turned white on his fists as he fought to suppress the movement of his lips. Whether he was battling against a growl or a smile he could not tell.

"I knew I could not match her skills in hand to hand combat, and she had already avoided my Wind Palm technique, yet I had managed to strike a nerve point, which tipped the balance in my favour enough to make her frustrated. When her aura began to heat up, I walked the circle, drawing in the winds of rage."

Willow's blue eyes fixed onto Locke's through her blonde tresses. "She performed the final step, barely the beating of a heart after I had struck. The wave of ice she released drew me into the vortex." she paused, licking at her lips and swallowing. "It shot me into the air and then all went black."

Brand though he saw his sister's shoulders tremble, he did not blame her. Once during training, she had caught him with the Phoenix Gale, having just learned its secrets. She surprised him with it, sucking him into the air. The summoned winds blasted his face, stinging his eyes and stealing his breath, while furious gusts battered him from all sides, hard enough to leave bruises. Then the tornado spat him out forcefully, shooting him like a bullet to crash through the branches and trunks of trees. It was an experience he never wished to repeat, and he knew it must have been much harder on her, as it was her own technique that had betrayed her.

"Willow?" Locke's ancient voice quavered slightly, and Brand saw him share a glance with Cloud from the wrinkled corners of his eyes. "This girl, with whom you fought. Are you sure she was Japanese?"

The girl nodded. "Yes. She wore Chinese clothes, but she was a Jap."

Locke frowned, "Are you certain? What did she look like?"

"Did she have a nice rack?" Blitz piped in with a leer, earning glares from the other men gathered around the table.

Willow sighed loudly and rolled her eyes. "To answer both of your questions, yes. She was a big-titted Japanese bitch."

"Damn it, Willow!" Cloud roared. "This is not a joke!" He leaned forwards from his cushion, supporting himself with hands flat on the table as he peered at Willow beneath his lowered brows. "Was there nothing unusual about this girl?"

Willow gawped at him, her eyes wide and jaw hanging open as she shook her head.

"Think carefully," he said in a frosted soft voice. "Anything at all? Her hair? Her height? Her eyes?"

"Red hair," she muttered. "She had red hair."

Cloud's expression became darker as he slowly settled back onto his cushion, as if a shadow had passed across his face from an unseen source. The blue in his eyes flashed like streaks of pale lightning.

"Nichieju," he pronounced grimly.

"The Amazons?" Brand asked with a start. "What have they got to do with this?"

"The Amazons are fierce warriors, who train for combat every day of their existence. It is not unthinkable that one of their number could become strong enough to defeat a Baqua master," Stone mused.

"Also, they are known to have diverse hair and eye colourings, purples, reds, blues and others," Locke added.

"You think she was an Amazon?" Willow said incredulously. "That's absurd. She was Japanese."

"Perhaps she has Amazon blood. The Nichieju marry any man they deem to be strong to strengthen the tribe. Perhaps her father was deemed as such." Locke rubbed at his beard and frowned. "She has definitely received Amazon training; it is the only way for her to know the secret of the Phoenix Wing Gale. The technique was one of The Gifts."

Silence fell over the seven like a tense, clinging shroud as each processed this new information. Willow glared at the tabletop, her gaze burning a hole in the polished black surface. Blitz gazed at the ceiling, his fingers toying and spinning the end of the blade-like bang hanging over his brow. Cragg was motionless, towering above the others with his arms folded across his huge chest, seemingly oblivious to everything. Stone passed his cold gaze over all of them as he sat there, hands resting in his palm and his face bleak and emotionless like a marble statue. Locke peered at the other with a raised brow, glancing at each of them with squinted eyes as he puffed at his pipe. Brand felt himself seething, a starved flame ready to burst but kept small, boiling his blood. His hands worked at each other in a frenzy, systematically cracking every knuckle in his hand, each sinuous pop a melody to his internal fire.

"You see our problem," Cloud muttered, his eyes like blue ice. "The laws of our Order have been violated."

Locke sighed and shook his head, smoke billowing in a fine stream as he exhaled, swirling around him in sweet scented haze. "The Accords were written over three thousand years ago. It is possible the Amazons have forgotten the terms of the agreement."

"Ignorance is no excuse," Stone stated plainly.

"Then they must be punished," Brand cried, slamming his fist on the table. "I will do it personally." He felt a grin grow on his face that he could not hide, nor tried to.

"This is not a time to satiate your pride, Brand," Willow griped.

Blitz nodded and added his own opinion. "Besides, this should be left to someone who knows how to treat a lady." A smirk crawled across his lips.

"We want her gotten rid off, not knocked up," Brand shot back. Her, and the bastard who tried to seduce my sister, he silently swore.

"It's best we don't rush into things," Locke chided, chewing upon the end of his pipe.

"You have a better suggestion, Old Man?" Brand asked dryly.

Locke frowned with thought, the wrinkles of his face making his features seem to screw and shrivel like dried fruit. His mouth emitted a stream of wet, percussive sound as his lips puffed and smacked around his pipe stem, small bursts of smoke wafting from the pommel.

"Elder Locke?" Stone said. The old man snatched his pipe from his mouth and turned to face the bald figure, a small pout on his lips at the interruption. Stone met his eyes without expression, his face and voice hard.

"Is not one of your students Japanese?"

Locke nodded. "Yes, a splendid young fellow. Very bright and inquisitive." He added another sharp nod.

"His personality is irrelevant," Stone grunted, "but perhaps he could speak with this girl to determine whether she is Japanese as Willow claims, and if so, from where and how she received Amazon training."

"Most importantly," Cloud interjected harshly. "Who taught her. We must know who has broken the Accord, and if there are others."

Locke smiled. "That is an excellent suggestion." He waved the stem of his pipe at Stone who merely arched an eyebrow. "My student came to us for help with a certain ailment. However, his condition also makes it extremely hard for him to be away from his homeland. It may do him some good to speak with a countryman."

Brand snorted. "Who cares? This isn't a comfort visit. I still say that I should deal with them."

He was ignored by Cloud, who kept his dark gaze upon the aged scholar. "Are you sure he can be trusted?" He asked in tones of ice. "If he sides with or helps his countrymen, he will share their punishment. Which will be severe."

"And if they have broken the laws?" Brand asked his voice dripping with acid. "Do we invite them for tea? Ask them to leave quietly?"

The temperature of the room seemed to drop and the lights dimmed as if a black haze had passed across the sun. "Then you may have your chance at them, dear Brother," Cloud pledged, a thunderstorm blazing in his eyes.


To be continued…

Author's notes: Five months! It's been five months since the last chapter. I am so very sorry. I've had so many problems, including a computer bugger up that forced me to re-write this chapter from scratch. That combined with many other issues personal and professional and the writer's block from hell put of the writing of this fic. I'm also sorry that it's not up to the standard I would like, but I really feel that if I don't get it out now, I never will. I'll try not to let it happen again but I can't read the future so make no promises. Once again sorry!

Thanks to Rob for proof-reading, Larry for hosting in the Lost Library, and to Aondehafka, whose frank and helpful review woke me from my slumber and helped me fight through my writer's block. I would advise anyone to get reading his fics White Rose and Nocturne. And, of course, thanks to you for reading and your continued patience.


Kai Muay: A training camp for professional Muay Thai fighters.

Bakumatsu: The revolution that brought an end to the Tokugawa Shogunate (like any Rurouni Kenshin fan doesn't know that)

Mokujin: Wooden man (known as a Mook Yan Jong in Chinese), a martial arts training tool consisting of a dummy in a crude man-shape that is struck and blocked. Most common model consists of a post with three poles jutting forward at chest height to represent arms so blocks can be practised, and a leg to train sweeps and stomping kicks.

Kumon Ryu Kyokuken: "Kumon Style Ultimate Fist". A martial arts style developed by Ryu Kumon using the strategies and principles of the Saotome Ryu Yamasenken.

Naihanchi: "Standing on Unstable Ground" (also known as Tekki or Iron Horse). The first kata taught in the Anything-Goes School of martial arts. Part of many Okinawan karate styles, though believed to have originated in China. Note: the opinions and analysis of this kata given by Genma is based on my own personal practise of the kata and research and how I was taught. It is not a certainty but rather a personal expression.

Maihanchi: "Dancing on Uneven Ground". A variant of the Naihanchi kata created by Ranma Saotome to suit a softer and more mobile fighter with more avoidance skills and body movements in the application of techniques.

Gojushiho: "Fifty-Four Steps" (also called Useishi). A kata found in many karate styles. Believed to have been created by the famous Karate master Sokon (Bushi) Matsumura as the apex of the karate practised in the Tode Village of Okinawa.

Buraja-Strappu: "Bra Strap". An original kata of the Anything-Goes Style created by Grandmaster Happosai. Its name comes from the kata's techniques, which emphasis supple movements, yielding absorption of force, and explosive release of power, like the snap of a bra strap that has been pulled then released.

Book 2, Chapter 3
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Last revision: January 7, 2006

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