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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 Five: The Flames of Fate

The rubber seals smacked wetly as Shigurei pushed the door open, one hand pressed flat against the cold steel panel. A gust of icy air blasted into his face, heavy with the bitter, sterile scent of antibiotic cleansers as he stepped into the morgue. The room was dark, the fluorescent lights dimmed to a low glow, one tube flickering with high frequency amidst the ceiling panels. It was as dull and lifeless as its guests demanded; white walls and floor, the only colour coming from the crisp clean cloths that lay over the corpses on the cold slabs. The furniture was all shining stainless steel, the observation tables, the cabinets and shelves, the gleaming blades of the autopsy tools all dead and artificial, and motor of the cooling system whined like a low dirge.

Hearing the clicking of heels echoing through the room, Shigurei moved towards them, buttoning his green lab coat closed over his dark pullover. The room branched into an L-shape, a door left ajar by the corner revealing part of a comfortable office. A plush leather office chair sat empty, facing at a haphazard angle away from the computer screen where a digital cat pranced and mewed across a field of pixels. It was a stark change from the inhuman room around him, but then that was people did, left pieces of their souls in their room.

It was what made them human.

He passed the office, rubbing at his eyes as a wave of early morning fatigue washed over him. Ahead he watched Mizuki move around the far observation table, bent over a prone corpse as she poked at its still form with latex covered fingers, speaking softly into a small Dictaphone held by her lips. She glanced up at him as he drew closer and turned the recorder off with a loud click.

"Good morning, Shigurei," she said.

"Morning," he tried to reply, his voice muffled by the yawn that fought it way up from his lungs.

Mizuki quirked an eyebrow behind her spectacles. "Not a morning person, are we?"

Shigurei blinked and lowered his hand from where it covered his mouth. "Why do you think I work the graveyard shift?" he muttered dryly. "So what made you drag me from my warm bed?"

"I've got some more info on your serial killing."

Shigurei frowned. "What serial killing? There's only been one killing." As soon as he asked the question, he wanted to snatch it back from the air, knowing what her response would be.

Mizuki's full red lips curved into a knowing smirk, as she adjusted her glasses.

"Not anymore," she sing-songed. She patted the body that lay limp on the table between them, the rubber of her gloves making a slapping noise as they met the pallid skin over the corpse's once firm abdominal muscles. Around the man's navel the dead flesh was stained with red and black inks, the image of a growling oni dressed in a ragged and torn kimono and hefting a blood-red katana. "This unlucky fellow is — was — Shinji Kitagawa."

"Kitagawa," Shigurei repeated softly, brow furrowing. He glanced back at the tattoo, noticing that the oni's face was deformed by a long slash that scored the corpse's flank. The details snapped together in his head and he felt his eyes widen. "Of the Kitagawa family?"

"Ding-ding, we have a winner," she said with a wide grin. "Apparently Shinji here was the nephew of Mutsumi Kitagawa, the benevolent — if the yakuza can be called that — head of the Kitagawa family."

"Whoever did this must be either very brave or suicidal, unless it was a rival gang."

Mizuki shrugged, "That would make sense. However, judging by the extent and manner of the victim's wounds, I would guess that whoever roughed up Shinji were also the ones who derailed your 'Mr Tank', which is why I called you."

"Well, Detective Izumi did say that Tetsuo Matsuhara had a bad reputation with the yakuza, and so it is possible that they are connected," Shigurei said, wiggling his hands into his own pair of white gloves.

"Well, the actual cause of death is different, but like the earlier victim this guy has suffered a rather severe beating." She gestured at the man's face. It was pale-skinned and gaunt, with angular cheekbones; however, several angry purple bruises lined the right half of the face. The once-thin nose was now a mangled mess, the flesh seeming plastered across the centre of face and the bone flattened. "On the face, he has some harsh bruising and lacerations, a nose broken upwards from the philtrum, and a dislocated mandible." Now that Shigurei looked closer, he could see the asymmetry of the face; the jaw protruded to the left, the chin lopsided and the lips distorted by the injury. Mizuki's hand passed across his field of view as she pried back the dead man's eyelid with a latex-covered thumb, a glassy and pale grey eye stared vacantly upwards, the iris swimming in a pink film. "The bloodshot eyes suggest internal haemorrhaging caused by a powerful blow to the head."

She leaned across the corpse and gingerly lifted the arm closest to Shigurei, holding the limb as if handling delicate porcelain. Shigurei could see why, the entire joint of the elbow had been wretched apart, the bones swaying limply, part of one protruding from a hole in the flesh along with several broken tendons. "Like Tetsuo, this guy's arm has been snapped, as has his ankle. However, there are a few defensive wounds on his right hand which means that unlike 'the Tank', he was able to get a few digs in himself."

Shigurei glanced at Shinji's hand and noted the cuts that covered the three lower knuckles. However, he also saw that the line of the fist had been warped, the middle and third knuckles pushed from alignment. "It's broken," he said.

Mizuki nodded. "Whatever he hit it was hard. I pulled some fragments from there, but I'm waiting for them to get done at the scene so I can compare. However, my guess would be that he missed and hit a wall."

"What about these calluses?" Shigurei asked, tracing his finger over several ridges of hardened skin present beneath the cuts across his knuckles. Mizuki blinked and leant closer, pushing her spectacles further on her nose as she frowned,

"Didn't notice those," she admitted. "They look old, though. Probably a sports injury." She leant back and flicked a bang of bright yellow hair from where it dangled over her eyes, loose from the queue where she had bound the rest of her long blonde locks. "It's probably nothing," she said with a sniff.

"Or it could be everything," Shigurei replied with a frown.

"You watch far too many of those Sherlock Holmes specials, Shigurei," Mizuki said with a sigh.

"I don't have a TV," he replied absently, as he ran his eyes over the other bruises and cuts that covered the corpse, running his eyes along the gash that ran from the red and black oni and across the bruised and, he guessed ,broken ribs.

"Okay, so you're just plain weird," she muttered and followed his gaze to the wound. "It looked like a wound from a sword or machete. However, the blade must have been much thicker. Judging by the angle of the cut and the damage to the ribs underneath, I would say it was used at close range, not so much a slice as a smash with something sharp which then cut on withdrawal. Whatever the weapon, its wielder is also our murderer." She pointed a finger at the man's neck.

A large rend had torn Shinji's collarbone midway across the shoulder. The flesh had been parted in a thin wedge, a flap of skin hanging from one side. The splintered end of the bone was visible through the wound above the cut muscular tissue. Mizuki ran a gloved finger along the deep mark. "This is what killed him," she pronounced. "A very strong downward strike, like an axe chop, severed several arteries, but more importantly snapped the clavicle quite violently. The blow drove one end of the bone down at a sharp angle where it punctured the victim's left lung. He then drowned on his own blood."

"Nasty," Shigurei said as his brows knit. "I take it then, it wasn't an axe?"

"I can find no traces of any metal in this or any other wound. I would expect as least a few flakes, especially from where the weapon smashed through the clavicle." Mizuki shrugged as she adjusted the buttons of her lab coat. "If it was an axe, it was a very good one," she added.

"Any strange stab wounds like the other victim?" he asked scanning his eyes over the corpse.

"No, but on the subject, I finished Tetsuo's autopsy late last night." Mizuki wove her way around the table and marched across the morgue, heels clicking loudly against the hard floor. Shigurei followed, pulling his gloves off as he watched the coroner do the same, lips twisting as the clammy rubber slid across his skin. "As I thought, it was the blow to the back of the head that killed him. However, he would have died anyway, as the strange stab wound intersected his abdominal aorta. Combined with his other wounds, he would have probably bled to death in about eight more minutes. No sign of metal or any other fragments found in any of his injuries, just like Shinji." She sighed loudly, and her eyes were hidden behind her bangs as her head bowed.

She jerked upright a second later, and moved to where a large screen was poised on the wall, a sheet of murky plastic set in a steel frame. "I did take some X-rays of his damaged joints, though," she said as she slapped her hand against a button on the screen's flank. The was a small pop, and the screen flared to life, bright white light pouring from within and illuminating the hazy images of bones printed on glossy black film.

Mizuki pointed at the photo on the far left, the long translucent shapes forming what Shigurei recognised as a knee joint, yet instead of standing straight the join between the femur and the tibia was jarred inwards at an obtuse angle. The knee cap protruded two fingers apart from the bones, the smaller of which was snapped into sharp ended splinters while a dark crack wound across the larger like a termite trail.

"As you can see, the patella has been displaced by a powerful blow at a sharp downwards angle from the outside to the inside of the leg." She ran her finger along the ghostly prints of the misplaced bones. "My guess would be that someone either stamped on or struck his leg after he was forced to the ground."

Shigurei's lips pursed and he shook his head, running the memories of the crime scene back in his head like a hazy silent movie, the prone corpse and dark alley flashing through his mind in fast forward. "His leg was broken when he was slammed into the dumpster and stabbed," the image of folded metal, blood welling in the crease blazed past his mind's eye. "If they already had him pinned, why drag him up just to stab him?"

Mizuki snorted. "This is why you're the investigator and I just pick up the dead bits, Shigurei," she said with a glare that was belied by the curving smirk of her lips. She turned back to the screen gesturing towards the second photo with a wave of her hand. "This is of Tetsuo's right shoulder. Notice the… Shigurei?"

Shigurei's gloves fell from his hand, hitting the floor with a soft slap that barely registered. He stepped forwards and leant closer to the screen, squinting his eyes against the harsh glow from the light box. His nose was now a finger's length from the glossy surface of the film, his brow furrowing as he focussed on the fuzzy picture of arm pushed forwards from the socket of the shoulder. "Curious," he said on a soft breath.

"Jinkies, Velma, have we found a clue?" Mizuki said dryly, leaning with her elbow propped against the wall.

"One of these days, you'll do that and I won't tell you anything," Shigurei grunted.

Mizuki grinned widely and one of her shadowed eyes flashed in a wink. "One day, but not today, right?"

Shigurei sighed and rolled his eyes. "I've seen this kind of injury before," he said, tapping the photo with his index finger, the thunk of the plastic screen punctuating his words. "Back at university," he added with a moment's thought.

"Strict on students turning their papers in on time, were they?"

"Well, yes, but I'm referring to something that happened while I was part of the Aikido club."

Mizuki blinked. "Aikido? I never had you down as the martial arts type, Shigurei."

"I only took it for the first three years, until the demands of my classes became too much," he remarked with a shrug, pulling away from the screen and rubbing at his eyes to remove the multicoloured blots that danced through his vision.

"It was in my third year, about halfway through the first semester. We were practising the Shiho Nage, a manoeuvre that uses the limited axis of motion of the shoulder to subdue the enemy and send him to the ground. I remember practising with a higher grade. As he was helping me with some of the finer points of the move, a sudden cry rang through the dojo. The tatami had slipped beneath the feet of another student as he applied the technique and caused him to lose his balance and stumble. The sudden motion made him pop his partner's shoulder out of place." Shigurei paused, lost in the recalled smells and sounds of the dojo, remember how the young lad had kicked and screamed at the pain, bare heels thudding against the mats. "Since I was the only student whose course was in any way related to medicine, Sensei Ohta asked me to accompany the boy to the hospital, where I managed to get a look at his X-rays."

He tapped the screen once again, this time running his finger across the blurred ball of the ulna. "This is the same kind of injury, but much more severe, much more violent, and yet…" he felt his eyes narrow beneath his furrowed brows, "…much more precise. The angle of the wound, the position to which he displaced the joint. Whoever did this wanted to do this sort of damage, and knew exactly how to do it."

"So what are you saying, Shigurei? One of our killers is a martial artist?"

The crime scene unfolded in his head once again, sliding through his memory as he recalled his own movements, spraying a stream of luminol in his path. Then in a flash of mental light he was at the end of the alley, reaching an inquisitive hand to lightly touch the brick wall, only to have it crumble and fall at the slightest pressure. The sound of his own voice echoed like a bad recording. "If it wasn't impossible, I would say that this man was thrown clean across this alley."

Shiho Nage. Four-corner throw.

"No, Mizuki, I'm saying that the killer was a martial artist." And a very dangerous one, he added silently.

A shrill beeping pierced the film of silence that had condensed over the morgue in the wake of his words. He grabbed at his phone and flipped the cover, pressing the button and not looking at the tiny screen until he had brought it to his eyes. He saw the name Izumi and instantly jabbed his thumb at the OK button.

Got another for you. Some people like to keep us busy.

"Ranma's not here anymore, Akane," Ukyo said in that quaint, but slightly condescending tone of friendly advice that Akane found so hard to swallow, even forgoing the pain of her throat.

"Who cares?" she growled, pain rippling through her neck as the muscles tensed beneath rare skin. "This is probably his fault."

"Yeah, Akane," Ukyo said dryly. "Ranma arranged for Kodachi to go nuts and try to kill you. Sounds like his style. I bet he even saved your life all those times just to lull you into a false sense of security." As the sarcasm slipped from her tone, the chef's voice began to sound hollow.

It made sense, a small part of Akane acknowledged briefly before the greater parts of her mind crushed it, choosing to cling to her indignant rage. She needed the anger around her like a suit of armour; making sense would get in the way.

They walked in silence, moving from the street that wound past the canal into the maze of narrow paths and alleys while Akane seethed quietly with her fist quivering at her sides. Ukyo had fallen into the same rut that had consumed her in the recent weeks; the grace had vanished from her, making her steps stiff and wooden as she walked at Akane's side. The chef's arms were folded tightly across her chest as if she were hugging herself and she gazed at her feet as she walked, eyes hidden behind a veil of chestnut locks. The only sound from the other girl was the metallic beating of her battle spatula against her back, the giant pole-arm swaying in its holster.

A mottled ginger tabby cat skittered across their path as they walked in the shadows of the Tendo family compound's wall. A metallic rattling made Akane's gaze dart up to glance ahead where her oldest sister was throwing a Hefty garbage bag into a metal trash can, splinters of broken wood poking through the thin plastic. Covering the trash with a thin lid, Kasumi glanced up, the kindly smile forming on her lips lighting up her face.

"Hello, Akane; and Ukyo, so nice to see you again. It's been some time," the older girl greeted them.

"Hi, Kasumi," Ukyo said slowly, her smile thin and crooked.

Kasumi began speaking cordially to the chef, but Akane could not understand her sister's words. The sounds around her were slurred and distorted, as if the noise had slowed to a smeared blur of sounds. Then she watched as Kasumi twisted and rippled. The world became liquid, a spiralling stream of deformed images and fluid shapes, like bubbles of colour caught in a whirlpool. She was moving yet staying still, spinning vertically but horizontally about every axis. Gravity seemed to pull at her from all sides, then her vision was filled with grey as her sister and the dojo dropped away like pictures from the bottom of a frame. The clouds danced rapidly overhead.

Suddenly the world snapped back into focus, as if a pane of tinted glass had fallen away and allowed her to see without the ripples and bending of the light. She was staring at the sky, awash with dark clouds. The sloped top of the Tendo wall was a pale line at the bottom of her vision. Faces appeared, Kasumi looking down at her as if she were a giant, her eyes wide with her fingers touching her mouth. Ukyo was there too, looming over her, a worried frown knotting her brow.

"Akane," Kasumi said, the warmth of her voice replaced by a harsh gasp. "Akane, are you all right?"

"Hey, sugar, say something."

Akane noticed that the chef's face seemed very close, too close. She registered something warm pressing into her side, and two strong arms wrapped beneath her; one around her shoulders and one hugging her waist cradling her form on her unsteady legs.

"I'm fine," she snapped, nudging the taller girl back with her elbow and shrugging out of Ukyo's grip, stumbling to the side as she caught her balance. Ukyo scowled, lips compressing to a tight line.

"Are you sure, Akane?" Kasumi asked, laying her hand on Akane's forehead softly. "I'll give Doctor Saeba a call," she turned back to the house, but Akane lunged, almost falling on her face, and grabbed her sister's shoulder.

"No, I'm okay," she yelled.

"Akane," Ukyo cried, "that psycho almost killed you."

Kasumi's shoulder quivered under her hand as the older woman inhaled a loud gasp of air, her eyes flying wide open. Akane shot the chef a dark look as if willing fire to blast from her eyes, her free hand clenching as her teeth ground. Ukyo stared back calmly, arms folded beneath her breasts and saying nothing.

"Who tried to hurt you, Akane? Are you sure you're okay?" Kasumi asked, her eyes darting across Akane's form, she inhaled sharply as her gaze passed over her sister's neck.

"I'm fine," Akane growled. Then she closed her eyes, and took a deep breath, her throat stung as air rushed in through the sore pipe and as she released it with a shudder. She forced herself to let go of her anger; it was like extracting a sweet from the fist of a greedy child, but slowly it dissipated.

"Really, Kasumi, I'm okay," she said in a calmer tone. "I'm a bit dizzy, but I just need to sit down."

"Oh, of course, how silly of me," Kasumi said. Taking Akane's hand, she pulled her towards the house. "Let's get you inside and I'll make some hot tea." With a gentle yet insistent pull, the elder Tendo led her sister into her home. Akane wiggled her fingers in Kasumi's hand, noticing how tightly the older woman held her. The muscles on Kasumi's forearm bunched with a strong tension that was hardly felt in the gentle grip. She scowled as she realised that the extra effort was for the same reason that Ukyo ghosted behind her closely, her arms hovering in front of her like a fielder waiting for the ball to be knocked his way. Waiting to catch her when she fell.

She felt her nails break the skin of her palms as she clenched her fist tighter.

The sound of voices, one of them clearly Akane's, told Nabiki that her youngest sister had returned. She kept her eyes down, running her gaze across the neat line of text in the speech bubble, stuffing down a small flutter as Kensuke declared his love for Yuki as a shadowed pool of cross-hatched ink simulated the effect of moonlight playing across his ridiculously exaggerated 'pretty boy' profile.

She blew her brown hair from her eyes with an upward sigh and shuffled herself on the floor. Sometimes she wondered why she read these girly manga. The plots and the characters were always the same, the sweet words always contained the same promises. All that ever changed was the hair and the location, sometimes the girl had long waves or short tousles; sometimes the site a bridge at sunset, sometimes a park at moonlight — anywhere, so long as there was shadows to shimmer across the characters.

Profit, she told herself with a small shrug. Furinkan high school was a boiling soup of hormones, where the loving and loathing of the students churned the entire campus into a frenzy. Love was always in the air at school, and was often being fought over. The girls of Furinkan swooned over the many battles that were fought for the attentions and affections of a few 'lucky' individuals. They too, longed to be made to feel special and yearned for grandiose, manga-style gestures of romance. And if you knew how to set up such gestures, you could earn a pretty penny.

Of course, that gold mine had been drying up since Ranma had departed, the boys and girls returning to the more traditional methods of conversation and secret smiles. And yet you are still reading, a voice said from within. Nabiki scowled and turned her attention to the voices drifting through the room.

"What took you so long, girl?" Genma's gruff voice burst in sternly. "I had hoped to do some training before dinner, but apparently my student would rather shirk her lesson."

Nabiki rolled her eyes. Uncle Saotome seemed to be taking the training stuff pretty seriously. Something that would normally have surprised Nabiki as she had doubted Genma's ability to be concerned about anything that did not relate directly to his stomach. However, with his wife around, virtually everything could be part of saving his belly.

"Cram it up your furry butt, Mr. Saotome."

That's Ukyo's voice. Nabiki realised, forcing her eyes to stay upon the pages of her manga, frowning as she listened closer.

"Oh, Ukyo, I didn't notice you there." Soun said, his flat voice clashing with the politeness of his words. "What brings you here?"

"That is a good question, Soun," Nodoka Saotome said as she came down the hallway. Her steps were small and precise from the restrictive binding of her pale green kimono, yet somehow they seemed to resound with the pride of a marching army. Nabiki saw a bowl of corn chips appear beside her from her peripheral vision, but did not take her eyes from her comic, instead letting her legs kick the air to emphasise her disinterested role.

"Miss Kuonji, as I'm sure you are aware, my son is not here right now and we don't expect him back soon." Her voice dropped for a brief moment, as if suddenly burdened by a great weight, but she cleared her throat and continued swiftly but still as poised as before. "Therefore I am at a loss to see why you are here."

"If that's so, then why, Mrs. Saotome, are you still carrying that sword? Your son is not around for you to decapitate," Ukyo hissed.

Nabiki winced internally at the venom in Ukyo's tone, and she risked a darting glance from the corner of her eyes. Nobody noticed as all their attention was fixed on the two women who glared at each other, Nodoka's back jerking straight as if struck by lightning and her hands balling into fists against her lap.

Nabiki flicked her eyes back to the printed pages that lay open on the floor, the words and pictures blurring as her brows knit, her gaze passing straight through the comic and into the beyond.

Ukyo and Nodoka seemed ready to kill each other, a development not in her predictions. Her complex simulations and predictions of life in Nerima, all those possible events and outcomes like the numbers on a roulette wheel had not accounted for this. She had expected this of Shampoo — the Amazon culture and attitudes were too contrary to the prim matriarch of the Saotome family — but not of Ukyo. She chewed on her lip and cursed the butterfly effect.

She was aware of the argument the two had whilst Ranma had been recovering, yet harsh words and glares were exchanged every hour in Nerima and then forgotten. After all, Nodoka was the mother of the chef's beloved Ranchan and — to her, at least — a future in-law. Nodoka had also been ecstatic to spend time with one of her 'manly son's' cadre of admirers. Now the two glared at each other like hungry, female cats locked in the same cage.

Her fingers rapping a tuneless staccato against the tatami as her jaw tightened, Nabiki resigned her self to another night of frustrated musings. She thought of the bills and repairs of the Tendo home, and how that walkman had seemed to sing to her from the store window. This building was held together by bricks and mortar, but also by a tangled web of love and hate, emotional threads of the complex weave of relationships in this town. This news would leave ripples in the pattern, and much depended on her being able to stay two steps ahead of the fates' weavings.

"Akane," Nodoka cried. "What happened to your neck?"

Those words were like gunshot, the heads of the two fathers shooting up from their game board like startled birds. There was a rustle of papers as Nabiki tossed her comic aside and scrabbled to her knees, casting her pretence aside as her ears locked on the fearful quiver hidden beneath Nodoka's outburst. The older woman had stood up in a flash.

Now, she was in front of Akane and appraising the wounds so fast that it seemed like she had not even moved but had simply appeared in another place. Gentle fingers touched Akane's chin and tilted her face up as Nodoka peered at the sore flesh covering her throat, her bottom lip clamped between her front teeth.

Nabiki moved so that she could peer over the auburn haired woman's shoulder, clamping her mouth tightly to prevent her jaw shuddering as she saw the bands of swollen flesh that coiled around her sister's neck.

Nodoka trailed a gentle touch across the reddened skin before poking at it probingly. Akane winced in response.

The older woman staggered to the side with a small squeak as her father shouldered her out of the way seizing on his daughter's shoulders with a scream of "Oh, Akane!"

Tears ran in clear streams down his tanned cheeks like a waterfall over the cracked stone of a mountain. His bent his legs slightly, lowering his height until he could peer upward at the red stripes under her chin. "Oh, my little girl," he whispered brokenly.

He scooped Akane up and crushed her to his slender frame until Nabiki could hear the air whoosh out of her sister's chest, and still her father clutched her tighter, lifting her from the ground and spinning her around in a flurry before he rounded upon the young chef.

"Did you do this to my daughter?" he roared at the girl, who started in shock.

Nabiki winced at Soun's outcry. Not now, you idiot, she cursed silently.

"Wha… wha…" Ukyo stammered.

"Did you try to harm my baby?" he spat again.

"Knock it off, Daddy," she let her cool voice sweep through the room and her father's rage like the rush of a winter wind. She stood stiffly, arms folded beneath her breasts imperiously as she frowned with almost maternal disapproval at her father, the same pose she remembered her mother using when she had admonished her family. A pang struck through her gut, but she forced it aside and turned towards Ukyo.

"I know that Ukyo is as stupid and thickheaded as anyone else obsessed with Ranma Saotome," she said, ignoring the glare the other girl shot her, "but even she is not so stupid as to come to your home if she had attempted to kill your daughter."

Soun blinked and he stood up straight, his posture relaxing. He studied the treaded surface of the tatami mats as he scratched at the corner of his moustache with one finger. "You have a point," he said after a while.

"Damn right she has a point," Ukyo snapped. "I'm the one who saved your precious Akane's butt."

Nabiki recognised the truth of that statement as Akane's face twisted under its lash. Her sister hid behind her twilight blue bangs as her head drooped and shoulder slumped, as if she were trying to shrink into herself.

Her father lifted clasped hands towards the okonomiyaki chef as tears streamed down his cheeks. "Thank you, thank you," he wept

"Is this true, Akane?" Nodoka asked; her tone larded with scepticism.

She saw her sister's white-knuckled fists twitch at her sides and knew that this latest event was making Akane's attitude curdle like sour milk.

"Kind of," the girl finally murmured.

A sour grimace flickered across Ukyo's face at Akane's sullen response, but she said nothing as Soun rushed across and grasped her hands, frenzied words of gratitude pouring from him like the tears on his face.

Kasumi cleared her throat quietly, but it was like a clap of thunder that stopped the Tendo patriarch's weeping instantly.

"I think we're forgetting what's important," she said sweetly, but with steel hidden beneath the sugar of her tone.

"I agree," Genma said with a stiff nod. "If it was not Ukyo, then who did attack you, Akane? I had not expected the Amazon to wait this long before acting."

Nabiki's lips tightened, but she was not surprised. The plump man was being as insensitive as ever, but she could not begrudge him that; at least he was thinking.

Ukyo snorted, "I would not put anything past that hussy and her great-grandmother." She inhaled deeply through her nose and her lips twisted, as if some foul taste had risen in her throat. "However, as much as I can't believe I'm saying this, Shampoo did not attack Akane."

"Obviously not," Nabiki sniffed, knocking the ridiculous accusation aside with a dismissive flick of her wrist. "Shampoo rarely acts without Cologne's approval, and this just isn't the old gal's style." Ukyo sniffed sharply, but Nabiki just shrugged. "Besides," she continued, "we all know that if Shampoo had wanted Akane dead we would already be planning the funeral."

Kasumi and Nodoka gasped in stereo, and Soun barked her name though his chin trembled as his eyes continued to fill with wet tears.

"Glad to know my own sister has such confidence in me," Akane hissed. Her nails bit into her palms, but she did not wince. "Is this a spontaneous guess, or have you been running this poll for a while?"

Nabiki fought the urge to sigh and kept her mask tight as she returned her sister's glare coolly. The truth hurts. Deal with it, little sister. Her eyes widened as Akane took a furious step closer, heel thudding upon the floor. She relaxed when the advance wavered, Akane pausing mid-step, but the fires in her eyes burning all the brighter.

"Don't hold back, Nabiki. Would you also like to insult my cooking and call me a macho chick too?" she growled. "I noticed how you never batted an eyelash when you mentioned my funeral. Why not? Didn't you realise you would have to pay for it?"

"Akane," she heard Nodoka say sharply.

Nabiki inhaled deeply, her teeth grinding together at her sister's barbed words, but she forced herself calm. That was harsh. She must be mad. Anger suits you better, Akane. If you're angry you can't be scared, and you need that strength. The words were true, but she knew also knew that though fury might give her sister strength, it would keep also her from it. I'll deal with that later, she told herself again with a small frown, there's no time now.

"Akane, remember yourself," Genma snapped, breaking the tense silence that clung to the air around the two sisters. His eyes were hidden behind the glare on his spectacles but the sudden tension in her posture showed Akane could feel the heat of his gaze.

"The true martial artist accepts her limits so that she might surpass them someday," he said in that hushed voice she had heard him use when he and Akane were training in the dojo.

"Saotome!" her father said firmly.

"Pfft!" Ukyo spat. "Quit trying to sound sagacious, old man. You're not fooling anyone."

Normally Nabiki would be inclined to agree, but the martial artist's words were too close to her own thoughts. She would have to keep a closer eye on Genma. Something strange seemed to be happening within that lethargic exterior, and she did not need any more ripples in her pond.

Genma frowned and muttered something about respect whilst his wife glared at the chef with renewed animosity

"Excuse me," Kasumi said softly, the tiniest of frowns barely curved the oldest Tendo sister's lips however combined with her polite, but firm tone it commanded attention like the words of a god. "I had thought that perhaps letting Akane sit down, recover and have a cup of tea might be more important than this heated discussion."

There was no outwards sign of the kind woman's disappointment, her words were polite and deferring and a smile soon found it way back to her lips. However, Nabiki could feel it in the air, in her sister's aura, in the bricks and wood of the room, as if the house itself resonated its mistress' sentiments.

The conversation ended, her father stood and ushered Akane to her customary place at the table. Ukyo was invited to sit next to her, where Ranma had always been, the other girl seemed to know this as her expression crumpled and rebuilt itself in a flicker as she sat down. The smaller table and the shogi board were packed away; the pieces scattered and then gathered again in Genma's rush. Tea was brewed and served in small, white cups, filling the room with sweet-smelling steam. Akane seemed to have locked herself in silence, but was drawn to speak as soon as Ukyo said: "It was Kodachi."

Akane sighed and threw out the story in a simple statement like a press address. Who, what, where and how; she kept to the basics, rushing through the tale like it was a race that she was determined to win… or a battle she was determined to flee.

She did not get her wish, as Genma Saotome was a merciless inquisitor. He prodded, poked and probed her with questions, bent on extracting all details and forcing her to relive the event. What angle had Kodachi attacked from? Did she announce herself first or just attack? Did she think the razor-rimmed gymnastic hoop had been intended to kill her? Where has she concealed the tear gas? On and on, he kept asking questions in that same flat tone whilst her father wept, Nodoka and Kasumi gasped and Ukyo listened silently, fist clenched and her jaw tight. Nabiki said nothing, sculpting a mask of ice with familiar ease to cover the churning of her belly as her stomach tied itself in knots at Akane's telling. It was a small relief when Ukyo took over the narrative.

"I'd just changed into my work clothes and come down to open the restaurant," Ukyo said, pausing to raise her cup to her lips. "When I got to the kitchen I saw Konatsu, and knew something was wrong."

"Why? What was wrong with him?" Akane asked.

Ukyo blinked. "Nothing was wrong with him. It's just rare that I see him; he usually skulks about in his hush-hush ninja way. It helps against the competition, with Shampoo's chopstick balancing act and Mousse pulling tables from his sleeves. Having the plates vanish with no signs of the waitress is quite a trick."

"Who is this Konatsu gentleman, Miss Kuonji?" Nodoka asked with her brow knitted. "The only other worker I've seen at your restaurant is that polite, well-mannered waitress."

"That is Konatsu, Auntie," Kasumi said as she reached over to gather the teapot and refill her father's cup to the brim. He smiled his thanks absently.

"He's the first male kunoichi," Nabiki clarified in a dry voice. It was a typically stupid concept.

"He's a little confused, you might say," Ukyo said with a small smile.

"You mean he… he…." Nodoka trailed off as she scowled, her face creasing as if she had eaten something rotten. She gave herself a sudden shake. "How awful," she said after a moment, disgust dripped from her tone. "There is something just so unseemly about cross-dressing," she added almost absently never lifting her eyes from the green depths in her cup. Ukyo flinched.

"Are he and Ranma friends?" Nodoka inquired.

"Not really," Nabiki replied and, after a moments thought, shrugged. "They exchange pleasantries when they see each other, but never more than that. However, since most of Ranma's male friends also want to kill him, and considering Konatsu's skill at ninjitsu, that's probably a good thing."

"He's that good?" the auburn haired woman asked.

Genma nodded. "Very good." He jerked as if he heard his own words. "For a ninja," he added gruffly.

"That's why he sniffed out that psycho's little dwarf, Sasuke," Ukyo said. She folded her arms across her breasts as her shoulders squared.

Akane grunted her agreement. "I used to think the guy was pretty sneaky. An irritating pervert, but sneaky. Then I met Konatsu."

Ukyo lips curled into a smirk. "Yeah. Little miss rich bitch didn't take that into account. I guess she expected we plebeians couldn't have ninjas of our own. But Konatsu sniffed the rat out, and made him tell all." The chef trailed off staring at the table as she tucked a stray lock of chestnut hair behind her ear, and for a moment Nabiki thought she saw the other girls' shoulders shudder.

"What aren't you telling us, Ukyo?" Nabiki asked levelly.

Ukyo squirmed where she sat under the older girl's sudden and unwavering attention. Finally, she sighed and shrugged. "It's nothing, really. It's just I've never seen Konatsu like that before. It was unsettling. When I came down I saw Konatsu looming — that's all I can call it — over the little freak, asking him what he was doing there."

"So what did he do, threaten Sasuke or something?" Akane said with a bemused frown.

"No, that's what's weird. Konatsu was asking the questions using the same polite words. He even said please. But it wasn't what he said, but how he said it. Something about the words was… off."

"Off?" Nabiki repeated in a deadpan tone. That could mean a million different things, you idiot, she berated silently.

"I don't know what else to say," Ukyo snapped back, before exhaling into a slump. "I know Konatsu. He's worked with me week after week for nearly a year. There is something about the way he talks, something that makes me both annoyed and sorry for him. His words, his pronunciation, voice, they're all like some sort of verbal doormat. Something that cheerfully says, "Welcome," while at the same time inviting to you walk all over him.

"When he spoke to Sasuke, something was different. It was the same words and friendly phrases, but there was an edge to them. Something guarded and dangerous. Like the welcome mat was still there, but the door was bolted shut and the doormat had been replaced by barbed wire. It got worse as he asked Sasuke the same question over and over. Each repetition, his voice slipped a little and he would flick at the point of his kunai."

"Kunai?" Akane gasped.

"Yeah, I thought that was odd too," Ukyo agreed with a nod. "I had thought that he had gotten rid of all his ninja weapons."

"Such interesting people you associate with, Miss Kuonji," Nodoka said in a frosted voice. "That boy must come in useful. After all, ninja are known to be quite proficient at torture. It must have been easy for him to 'extract' Miss Kuno's plans from her servant."

Ukyo slammed the cup down with enough force to make the table judder. "It's not like that," she growled. "First of all, ninja were never involved with torture. That's just another myth for samurai families who liked to act as if they were too honourable to hire an assassin's service, or steal a girl's dowry." The last words came out in an acidic hiss.

"How dare you?" Nodoka spat, the whitened knuckles on her fists standing bright against the dark, blue material covering her sword.

Ukyo carried on regardless.

"Secondly, Sasuke practically fell over himself to tell us. He said he hated what Kodachi had planned, but could not do anything about it. The psycho has him terrified; he was already bruised like a rotten peach before without us even touching him."

"You think she beats her own servant?" Kasumi gasped.

Ukyo nodded grimly, "Sasuke said she's been in a rage ever since he told her that Ranchan was gone, and that he had been the first person she took it out on.Ē

She fixed Akane with a stern gaze from the corners of her eyes. "She blames us, Akane. Me, you, Shampoo, all three of us. Claims that we banded together to banish Ranchan with dark magic, because we realised that he would never betray her love."

"That's ridiculous," Akane spluttered.

"She's a Kuno, remember," Nabiki reminded her with a tired sigh.

"And to think, I thought she was slightly less deluded than her brother," Ukyo griped. "She thinks the two of us would pair up with that Chinese bimbo? Apparently Shampoo is currently out delivering several steaming bowls of ramen to nobody all over town."

"She prank-called the Nekohanten, placing some fake orders?" Nabiki said flatly, her eyes hooded as she raised one eyebrow. "Not exactly the diabolical act of vengeance I would expect from a crazed martial artist. Don't you guys usually go for less subtlety and more property damage?"

A scowl broke across the faces of the assembled martial artists and Nodoka rolled her eyes. Nabiki ignored them, sipping at her cup to cover a small smile.

"It was a diversion to get at Akane," Ukyo said gravely. "Shampoo was sent on a wild noodle chase, while Sasuke was sent to spy on me and distract me if necessary. Of course, the pompous lunatic did not expect us commoners to have better ninja than the 'nobility', so that didn't work. However, from what her little minion told Konatsu, it's you she hates most, Akane. She might have waited for us two, but you she wanted dead as quickly and unpleasantly as possible."

"So what else is new?" Akane growled, but Nabiki could see her hand trembling around her cup, sending green ripples running across the steaming tea.

"This cannot be allowed," Soun roared. "Not to my baby girl. We must inform the police at once."

"Daddy," Akane snapped. She scowled as she saw Kasumi and Nodoka nod in agreement to his statement.

"Sure, daddy, let's call the police," Nabiki drawled, stifling the urge to slap her forehead and settled for rolling her eyes in a slow circle. "It wouldn't do us any good, but it would be nice to give them an opportunity to fill their pockets."

"What are you implying, Nabiki?" Nodoka asked with an arched brow.

"Surely you don't mean that the police would take bribes to ignore this?" Kasumi asked with a small frown. "Kodachi is obviously dangerous and in need of help."

Nabiki shrugged. "So are most people in this town," she glanced sidelong at Ukyo who snorted indignantly, eyes narrowing. "However, Kodachi has somewhat of an advantage as she is very, very rich."

"But surely they are honourable men," Nodoka protested. From the corner of her eyes she watched Genma shuffle on his futon, tugging at the collar of his gi with one crooked finger.

"Auntie, have you never wondered how with all of the damage to buildings, lampposts and everything else in this place, we don't have an armoured car trying to barge down the door?" she spoke to the auburn-haired woman, but fixed each person around the table in turn, asking them all the same question without speaking. The blank looks she received almost made her scowl. Am I the only person in this town who uses their brain for something other than romantic fantasy or plotting a rival's demise? she asked herself, and not for the first time.

"You bribe the police, Nabiki?" Kasumi gasped, hand fluttering to her lips

The bitter snort erupted from her before she could control it. Calm down, it's Kasumi. She has to think the best of people, she admonished herself.

"Like I've got the money for that," Nabiki shook her head, and forced her tone flat once again. "That's not how it works. The Kunos bribe the police; I have evidence of that bribery, so they leave us alone. They're probably just too damned scared of what Cologne could do to bother the Nekohanten."

"How unseemly," Nodoka muttered. "It's hard to believe that the police would go along with this."

Nabiki gnawed at the inside of her lip to stop herself scowling at the older woman. And promising to kill your son is the height of cultured behaviour, is it, you damned nut? She would have to check her father's story that Nodoka was once her mother's best friend; it seemed more unlikely every time the woman spoke.

"Of course they do," she sighed and raked a hand through her hair, the feel of her silky locks running over her fingers calming her. "They have no interest in getting rid of the martial artists in this town, as it makes their jobs beyond cushy. People like Ranma do their job for them. There's nothing for them to do but sit around and look attentive whilst eating fast food, and they get paid to do it.

"Even though Nerima has the highest insurance rates and property damage reports in Tokyo, it also has the lowest figures for nearly every other major crime. Murder, arson, sexual abuse. They don't exist here, and the only thefts are of women's underwear. Even the yakuza have left town. The only reason the police would interfere is if someone complained, and a few yen or a sensitive photo usually dissuades them from following up on that."

"This is because of Ranma?" Genma asked, eyes blinking behind his spectacles. Nabiki could guess at the cause of his surprise. I bet it never occurred to him to use martial arts to stop crime. However, she saw his eyes dart to glance at his wife, and upon seeing the small smile of pride that curved her lips he puffed out his chest. "Well, of course. He is my son after all."

The air seemed to snap as Ukyo, Akane and Nabiki all snorted in perfect, synchronised gestures of womanly disapproval. She felt a spark of satisfaction as he flinched.

"It's not just Ranma," Ukyo said, crossing her arms beneath her breasts and lifting her chin. "Some gang was trying to run a protection racket among the other shops on our street. Konatsu caught them and we pounded them flat and delivered them to the cops." A grin spread across her face as she tossed a wave of chestnut hair back over her shoulder like a preening bird.

Nabiki smiled. "That same gang apparently tried the same trick with the Nekohanten. They were found bloodied and bruised, and dangling by steel chains from a lamp post with a copy of the takeout menu stuffed in their mouths." She remembered charging them quite a hefty sum for getting them down, right before she called the cops, and she felt her smile widen slightly.

"It's the same all over Nerima," she continued after banishing the grin away. "Just ask around, and you'll hear a tale like how a group of thieves who had been stealing wallets and jewellery from the lockers at the swimming pool were flung into the deep end by a girl with a red pigtail, or how the road works on Mikawa street last month were caused by some guy with a bandana, who had stopped a bunch of car thieves by making the road explode in front of them as they tried to make their getaway."

"Unfortunately, the Kunos, stupid and insane as they are, have been known to help out from time to time, and often compensate the victims out of their own pockets and out of 'the duty of a noble house to aid the lower castes for the betterment of society'. Noblesse oblige, I think Kuno-baby calls it."

"Is that a bad thing?" Kasumi asked in her soft voice. "It sounds awfully nice of them."

"Oh, it isn't," Nabiki grunted. "However it has made them so damned popular that the police aren't going to do anything to them except collect their bribes."

"We don't need them anyway," Akane said with a huff. "I can take care of this myself."

"Akane, did that blow to the head addle your wits?" Ukyo cried waving her hand in front of Akane's eyes as if she had passed out. "This isn't a challenge match. Kodachi is seriously trying to kill us."

Akane's neck seemed to inflate as she ground her teeth together. "Then why aren't you running to the police, Ukyo, if you're that worried?"

"I can take care of myself, Akane. You…."

"And I can't? Is that it?" Akane burst in. "Why is everyone against me? Why won't you give me a chance to take care of my own problems?" Her fingers whitened as they dug into the surface of the table.

"Well, there's only one thing for it," Genma said suddenly, and in a tone that pulled Akane's downcast eyes towards him. "We will have to pull Akane out of school."

"Saotome," Soun snapped, his moustache pinching as he frowned, "that is utterly out of the question. Her education might suffer."

A short grunt from his throat was all Genma needed to portray his feelings about that matter. However, he flinched when his wife cleared her throat curtly. He slipped a finger under his head-wrap to rub across his forehead. "That is a shame, Tendo, but surely her life is more important? At school she is open and vulnerable to Kodachi's attacks. Today's attack occurred when she was on her way back from school, and proves that she is a prime target then. Without the police, we are the only ones who can protect her, and we can do that best here, on our own turf."

"Oh, how nice of you, sensei," Akane spat the title out like venom. "So nice that even with your great training, you still think I should be kept safe. Perhaps you would also like to wrap me up in cotton so that I don't get hurt. You're such a hypocrite. I can't believe I trusted you." Her voice began to break towards the end of her speech, and Nabiki knew that her sister was on the verge of breaking down or throwing a tantrum. She hoped it was the latter.

"Akane!" Nodoka snapped. The harsh reproof in her voice was echoed in Kasumi's stern frown.

"Oh, I never said you'd be safe." Genma's voice floated on a soft, almost absent lilt that sent a shiver down Nabiki's spine. A crooked smirk ran across his dark face, the white teeth visible between his curved lips. His eyes had narrowed, a predatory gleam shining beneath the hooded lids as she regarded his pupil.

"Kodachi won't get to you," he continued, still seeming to smile even though his lips shifted and moved to form his words, "but you won't be safe and you will be hurt. I know this because every day that you are not at school, you will train. You will train with me and you will train alone. You will train in pain and you will train through that pain. You will train until you cannot stand, and then you will train lying down. You will train until your knuckles are bruised, and then you will train until your bruises are bruised. You will train while you eat and you will train while you bathe, and when you sleep you will dream of training.

"The little I have taught you so far was enough to keep you alive today. After six more months of my training, you will be good enough to beat Kodachi and Shampoo together, if you are not lazy, and even then your training will not be finished. It will never be finished."

His smile dropped from his face as he crossed his arms across his broad chest, his posture seemed to swell until his gut sagged over the knot of his belt. His aura, though invisible, filled the room with an intangible pressure. The girls gathered around the table stared at Saotome Genma as if seeing him for the first time. In many ways they were.

Ukyo's bottom lip was clamped beneath her front teeth as she watched him from the corners of her eyes as a leopard might watch a lion. Kasumi covered her mouth with her hand, hiding her thoughts. Nodoka's eyes seemed to shine with a rediscovered spark and Nabiki thought she saw her shiver as she gazed at him.

Nabiki's eyes narrowed at this change in the large man, her brain tingling as she wondered how long such a personality shift would last, and how it would affect things. Realising that other might look her way to see her reaction, she attempted to simulate their numb shock, covering the workings of her mind by opening her eyes wide and letting her jaw drop in vacant shock.

"When you are good enough, when you beat Kodachi," Genma continued softly. "I will give you your life back." His eyebrow rose and his smirk crawled higher. "If you still want it."

Nabiki saw Akane's hands shake against the tabletop.

"Saotome, how dare you?" Soun barked. "Not only do you threaten to hurt my daughter and push her to dangerous limits, you want her to fight that monster again. No, I say, not my little girl."

Tears streamed down his face, flexing and unflexing his fists at his sides as he stood over his long time friend, his chest pumping like bellows beneath the black folds of his gi.

Nabiki leant forward to watch the scene closer, seeing the birth of her predictions start to unfold before her. She had known that friction would start to create emotional sparks between her father and his old friend. Genma Saotome had done many stupid things where his son was concerned, yet when these past event returned like sprouting weeds, Soun's anger was always directed towards the boy rather than on the panda upon whose shoulders the real responsibility always fell. With Ranma gone, it was easy, for Nabiki, to see that the elder Saotome would soon have to face up to the past. The odds had risen to a dead certainty when Genma had taken over the training of Soun's too beloved youngest child.

"Tendo, old friend," Genma said softly rising to his feet and standing square with the taller man. His large hand rose and clapped down upon his old companion's shoulder, the coarse fabric under his thick fingers creasing as he gave a quick but firm squeeze. A small, wistful smile played across his lips "She's not your little girl anymore." Genma's voice hardened, small but emphatic fraction. "She is my student, and a martial artist."

Genma released her father's shoulder and turned, locking Akane with a raptor gaze enhanced by the eerie light that flickered across the lenses of his spectacles. "If she wants to be."

Voiced like a thrown gauntlet, the Saotome master's words were more like a horse's reins, tugging Akane in a direction she already wanted to go. He even added the claim of defeating her rivals, a holy grail to Akane, and in just six months it was just as unobtainable. Nabiki had been using such verbal puppet-strings for years, and swallowed as she heard the message hidden in his voice.

Genma Saotome would definitely need to be watched closely.

Akane grunted as she hit the floor with a thump, her hand failing to find purchase as the mattress slipped from the bed. Her brain struggled and floundered from the ocean of sleep and she felt the rough texture of the carpet pressing against her cheek. With a small groan, she rolled onto her back, tangling her legs in her bedsheets and flipping the pillow from atop her head. She squinted into the light and blinked rapidly, hoping the white and brown blur in front of her would resolve into a clear image.

When she refocused her eyes, she found herself staring at Genma Saotome as he glared down at her through his spectacles, one hand still lifting the corner of her bed that he had used to tip her unceremoniously to the floor.

"Time to train," he said in a gruff voice.

Akane rubbed at her eyes with her thumb and index finger before craning her neck to glance behind her. The last two glowing digits of the bedside clock were obscured behind a class of water, filling the remaining liquid with fluorescent red light; but she could still see the first number, an angular six proclaiming the time as the early morning. Her eyes turned to the sky through the gap in her curtains, the sky still washed a dark blue.

"Why so early? We've got all day," she said before adding, "thanks to you," beneath her breath.

"This is not a vacation, girl," he barked. "You need to train harder then ever now. Ranma's not here anymore."

"But why so early?" she grumbled. "You never woke Ranma up this early." Because you always wanted to sleep in too, lazy panda.

Genma did not reply, but let go of the bed. It fell back to the floor with a bang that Akane felt beneath her. He stepped to the side and grabbed her mirror from the wall by her desk. He paused to examine it, frowning at his own reflection before turning his glare on her, his eyes narrowed, and tossing the frame into her lap.

"That's why," her sensei said, gesturing at the mirror with a flick of his hand. He readjusted his glasses before pivoting on his heel.

"Dojo. Ten minutes," he barked before pulling the door closed behind him

Akane frowned as she pushed herself up into a sitting position and grabbed the mirror before it slid off her lap. She knew what Genma had meant when he had given it to her, but as she raised it to her eyes, she could not stop the gasp that came on her harshly drawn breath.

Bands of reddened, angry flesh were wrapped around her neck, and dark purple blotches were woven amongst the livid red lines. Thin lines of flaky scabs were etched on the raw skin from shallow cuts inflicted by the sharpened fabric of Kodachi's ribbon. Akane tentatively touched herself in the nape of her throat and softly trailed her fingers across her neck, shivering as fire blazed in the wake of the light contact.

The old panda was right. She could not afford to lie in bed. Kodachi was out for blood. The gymnast had taken a step into somewhere dark, and it frightened Akane. Nabiki had guessed that the girl hated all of her former rivals for Ranma's affection, but somehow Akane knew that it was her blood that Kodachi wanted most of all.

Ranma's not here anymore. Her hands balled into fists around her bedclothes as she recalled Genma's words, his gruff voice melding with a more concerned feminine tone as she remembered Ukyo saying the exact same thing.

I'm getting tired of hearing that, she thought with a scowl as she threw aside the covers and rose to her feet in an angry rush, diving into her gi and pulling it closed with stiff yanks.

Akane yanked her belt tight as she descended the last steps, the black fabric snapping as it closed about her slim waist. She continued on into the living room, her neck muscles seeming to bunch at her conscious efforts to keep her chin raised, fingers deftly moving with practised ease to tie a firm knot. When she saw the paper laying at her father's table, still crisply folded, the muscles in her body relaxed from their unknown tension and she sighed out a breath she had not realised she had been holding. She had not wanted to confront her father this morning.

Akane had gone to her room after Genma's announcement, her father's wails chasing her up the stairs. She had known that a storm of weeping, tears and furious demon-headed battle auras would have rocked the Tendo living room, and she had seen that show far too many times. She had made up her mind, and leaving with her head held high had seemed the best way to declare her decision. Ukyo had left soon afterwards. Akane had watched her stroll along the road from her bedroom window, giant spatula swaying with each of the chef's steps. It had been a welcome sight. Despite part of her mind chastising her and reminding her to be grateful that Ukyo had shown up when she did, Akane could not help glaring at the taller girl's retreating form, glad to see the back of her that night.

The shogi door jerked in its fittings as it hit an old snag in its tracks, but continued on smoothly, and Akane slid through into the dojo, feeling the coarse, chilling kiss of the tatami on the soles of her feet. A soft rasping noise drew her attention to the far end of the hall where her sensei was entering from the other door.

"You're late," he muttered with a scowl.

"You've just got here yourself," she responded quickly.

Genma bristled. "I'm the teacher."

"Then should you not be setting a good example?" Akane let a smirk curl her lips as a sour look twisted Genma's face. He snorted and a thud rumbled through the wooden panels of the dojo floor. Eyes darting to the source of the sound, she saw a large duffel bag on the floor, the sides deformed by several protrusions that strained the thick fabric. A small clatter rose from within as the contents settled.

"What's in the bag?" Akane asked immediately.

"Training aids," Genma grunted, nudging the large sack aside with the edge of his foot as he stood in front of her, blocking her curious gaze with his broad chest.

"Later," he said gruffly. His large hand rose until it hovered before her eyes, and he pointed with a thick finger to a spot behind her.

"Kata," he barked.

Her breath trailed out of her in a long sigh, but she moved back to the indicated space, and began to bow at the waist as she let the thoughts fade from her mind, growing smaller and fainter as they fell further into the void, until they vanished into the darkness completely. Rising, she brought her hands together, left laying gently over her right. She inhaled, filling her lung with the cold air until it burned her throat as she inscribed a wide circle with her hands and lowered them again. Then she exploded into motion, blowing out her breath in a strong blast as she struck out her knifehand with all of her intensity. The yellow cloth of her gi cracked like thunder, and she flowed like crashing waves through Naihanchi, the kata she had practised arduously since Genma Saotome had taken hold of her training.

It ended swiftly, a short but deadly dance. Her sensei said nothing as he stood like granite statue, arms folded above his bulging paunch, but Akane saw his eyes narrow behind the lenses of his spectacles, and so with another deep breath she began again, and again.

Genma paced around her in wide oval, the callused heels of his feet thudding against the dojo floor, the creak of the wood sounding the halls protest at his powerful steps. He traced a spiralling path around her, keeping out of range of her intense strikes but drawing closer with each orbit.

"Again," he snapped, the voice seemed to come from right behind her, but she forced herself not to flinch, pushing her body through the movements, each one a brutal act of defence. She saw him, a white bulky shape at her flank, moving towards her. She tensed as she slid into the next movement, twisting her hips as she brought her arms around, one arm across her body and poised at the point of her crooked elbow.

"Watch your stance."

The snapped command was the only warning she had, but it was enough. Genma's foot swept up in a fast arc, hacking at Akane's heel as she settled into the low, knockkneed posture.

She flashed her foot up, flicking her heel towards her groin and allowing her sensei's attack to skim furiously across the floor, his toes whispering across the tatami. As fast as she had lifted it, she stamped her foot down, heel pounding against the floor as she dropped back into her stance. Fists still raised, she smirked at her teacher, who stood on one leg, the limb he had tried to trip her with bent at the knee with his heel flat on his trunk-like thigh.

His lip twitched in what might have been a ghost of a smile. "Good," he said shortly. "BUT WHERE'S YOUR COUNTER?" he yelled as he thrust out with his cocked foot. The sole of his foot shot like a piston into her shoulder and sent her reeling from her feet.

She landed hard on her side, her hipbone jarring against the floor as she slapped the ground to lessen her impact.

"Ouch," she hissed, and glared through her dark bangs at the large man.

"Your own fault," he said gruffly. "A dodge or evasion is worthless without a counterattack." He lifted his hand with his finger pointing skyward. "Defence is worthless without offence."

"And offence is wasted effort without defence," Akane finished on a long sigh as she picked herself up, busying her hands with adjusting the knot of her belt so that it would not rub at the sore spot blossoming on her hip.

Genma rubbed at his stubble with his hands, emitting a low and thoughtful hum from his pressed lips. "It's not perfect," he grunted. "Some of your movements are still jerky and robotic, rather than flowing through the full combination. You are over-tensing your muscles, which is slowing you down, wearing you out, and weakening your techniques; yet you still lack conviction in your movements."

Akane continued to fiddle with her belt, suddenly unwilling to look at her the man lecturing her with such a harsh tone.

"But you have come a long way, and I'm sure that you will master it soon. However, with Kodachi's attack, we must increase the pace and build up your arsenal."

"Really?" she gasped as her head snapped up, a grin spread across her face. Her hands stopped their fiddling, but now it felt as if something was squirming beneath her skin. She snapped her fists down in front of her, ready and waiting, feeling as if something was going to burst from inside.

"Let's start, I'm ready for anything," she said, trying to keep the excitement from her voice and knowing she had failed. Finally she would learn the techniques that would make her strong, the moves that would let her wipe that arrogant smirk from Kodachi's face as she drove it into the dirt. It was time to step up onto the stage with her secret weapon, and be noted.

"Are you sure?" Genma asked with a sly, half-smile.

"Definitely," she replied immediately. She wondered what the technique would be called. I hope it's a dragon-something… Wait, that's really more Ranma's animal. That soured her a little. She wanted to strike out on her own, not bond herself tighter to Ranma's trail. Maybe it will be a tiger; Mr Saotome does seem to be fond of that.

Again he pointed to the centre of the dojo. "Naihanchi Nidan," he ordered.

Akane felt something drop into her stomach, and her body jerked, eyes widening as if she had been pulled short by a leash as she had tried to break away. Realising that her mouth was hanging open she closed it with a faint click and swallowed. It took her a moment to find her voice.

"Excuse me," was all she could manage.

"Naihanchi Nidan," he repeated, and then his eyes narrowed. "Is there a problem?" he asked in an iron tone.

"Problem?" she whispered, then yelled, "PROBLEM? I thought you were going to teach me to defeat Kodachi!"

He started, recoiling slightly before he blinked twice and stared at her with his thin eyebrows furrowed deeply. He then drew himself up to his full height, spreading his shoulders as he thrust out his chest. "That's what I am doing," he pronounced loftily.

"You're making me walk like a crab," she spat. "How will that help me against Kodachi and her weapons?"

Genma's face reddened and his jaw swelled as he ground his teeth. "Then tell me, oh wise master," he hissed, voice loaded with poison, "What would you suggest we do?"

Akane felt the muscles in her body go tense at his tone, her fists quivered at her sides so she clamped them against her hips to still them. "Well," she forced the word out through clenched teeth, "I would expect the head of the great Saotome School would know of a technique suited to beating a psychotic gymnast."

"A technique?" He spread his eyes wide as he swept a short bow, made all the more mocking by the crooked smirk that countered the fire in his eyes. "Oh, I am sorry, Akane. I thought you wanted to learn martial arts, when all you want is a quick fix."

"What does that mean?" she growled.

Genma smirked, "You say you're a martial artist. You work it out."

"I am a martial artist." She stepped forwards and lifted herself onto the tips of her toes, flinging the words in his face like a gauntlet.

"Then prove it, girl," he snapped, poking a finger into sternum to indicate the same spot in the dojo. "Naihanchi Nidan," he ordered.

Another protest began to rise inside her, but she smothered it and forced the words back down her throat with an effort that made the ribbon marks on her neck burn. Her feet pounded against the floor as she stomped to the space he had marked.

Akane inhaled to start the kata, trying to let the tension flow out of her, but her anger clung on. She lifted her fists to her chest, fists held straight across her breasts with knuckles facing each other. Slowly she rotated them until her elbow came together, shielding her face with her forearms and her fists pointed skyward. Crossing her left leg in front of her right, she strafed to the side and swung a hammerstrike in a smooth but mighty arc.

"Atrocious," Genma said when she had finished the form. A crocodile tear slid down his cheek as he pressed his palm to his chest and gazed with beseeching eyes towards the heavens. "Oh, what will become of the Anything Goes School?" he cried.

Akane seethed, but caught herself as she lifted her foot to take a furious step towards the old man and halt his false lamentation with her fist. He would just take it as proof of what he said, she told herself as she fought to maintain her stance. He's just goading you into following his plans. It made sense, but still brought her no comfort.

She would show him that she was as much martial artist as any Saotome. She threw herself through the kata.

"No," her sensei said bluntly, folding his arms as he shook his head with a sigh. "You've lost everything you gained in the first form. Naihanchi Nidan is but the second part in a greater whole."

"My dad never really used it much," Akane murmured. "He mostly just taught the first Naihanchi kata before he moved on to something more complicated and faster, like Yansu or Noopan."

Genma made a choking sound. "Noopan. I'm surprised he taught that pattern. More so that he kept the name."

A giggle slipped from between her lips before she knew it had formed. "I had always thought some of the kata names were odd. Now that I've met the founder, I can understand."

A sour grimace tightened Genma's lips, "The original training was much more terrifying," he muttered. "The master made us join him in stealing panties off of girls while they were still wearing them."

"Ew," Akane muttered with a shiver, as she realised that the 'us' that Genma spoke of was probably him and her own father. She thought of the kata name, 'no panties', and decided that it made sense in a twisted way. That thought made her shudder harder. She resolved to whack the old pervert good, the next time she saw his wrinkled face.

"However that kata will not help you against Kodachi," the elder Saotome said in a hard voice, pushing his glasses further up his nose.

With the nausea Akane was feeling at that moment, she thought it unlikely that she would ever practise that form again. Knowing the origins of such training made the movements seem tainted. Part of her felt a twinge of loss, as it had been one of her favourite exercises, full of fast palm strikes and deceptive hand motions. Now she knew why, and berated herself as a pervert for ever liking that kata. Her curiosity was undiminished, however, and forced her to inquire about Genma's comment.

"You're too slow," he answered flatly, and for a moment Akane could hear his son's sneer echo his words.

"What is that supposed to mean?" Akane shot back.

"It means exactly what I said: you are too slow," Genma replied in a cold voice. "At least, you are too slow to utilise that technique effectively. It would be like you performing the Kachu Tenshin Amaguriken."

"I could do that. Get me some chestnuts."

The tassels of his bandana swayed as her teacher shook his head. "Not yet, and we don't have time."

"Ranma learnt it in a week. So can I," she protested, but it sounded weak to her own ears. Ranma had been far better than her when he had learnt the chestnut fist.

"No, you could not," her teacher said firmly. "Kodachi is out for blood, and we do not have the time to watch you burn your hands because of your foolish pride." He fixed her with a hawk-like glare. "Now, do you want to defeat your enemy or do you wish to play with hot nuts?" he asked, each word formed in tones of iron.

"Fine," she sighed. "Let's just get on with it."

The head of the Saotome School nodded stiffly, "Good. Now you will perform both of the Naihanchi kata in succession, and repeat until I am satisfied. This way all the intensity and subtle motion you have gained in the first kata will be included in the second. Begin."

Biting back a thousand protests, retorts and expletives, Akane obeyed. She moved to an instinctual rhythm through the first set, yet the second form was jerky and stiff. So she repeated it, and repeated it, her knees ached and her thigh muscles bunched from maintaining the low stance as she moved. She was like a sliding hourglass, knee turned in and her energy trickling away like the sands of time. Her skin began to flush as beads of sweat blossomed on her brow and dripped from her nose to the tatami, but she continued.

She could feel herself improve, her body moving with liquid ease through the kata with such fluidity that the two forms blended and formed one single pattern. Same techniques, same strategy, but new directions and applications were being introduced as her body mastered the art of holding its ground. Energy was beginning to flee her strikes and her breath rang in hollowed pants in her ears—

Until all of the air was forced from her lungs as something ploughed into her gut. Her hands wrapped across her stomach as she felt her legs waver, the strength suddenly leaving her body. Her mouth moved, but she could not breathe, the convulsing of her throat sending waves of burning pain through her. Unable to stand she sagged onto her knee, the tatami blurring as her eyes filled with water.

The large medicine ball gave a hollow ring as it bounced on the floor and into Genma Saotome's waiting hands.

"Why didn't you dodge?" he asked in a casual tone, more suited to asking why there was no milk in the fridge or some other mundane inquiry.

HOW THE HELL WAS I SUPPOSED TO DODGE, YOU MORON? The words formed in her mouth and she tried to push them out in a roar of rage, but all she could manage was a small, breathless croak. She forced her lungs to take in air despite the muscles in her abdomen screaming at her. Finally, she had inhaled enough to force out words with a pained effort.

"What the…?" she trailed off as her body gulped in another strained rush of oxygen.

Genma leant forwards, craning his head and cocking his ear, face twisted with concentration. "What was that, Akane? I couldn't quite make it out."

"Bas—" she gasped. "—tard."

He shrugged. "So many have said. But I did warn you, I'm not going to go easy on you, Akane. You will improve, or you will break."

Akane pushed herself back to her feet, knees wobbling with the strain. She felt weak and beaten, but she was not broken yet.

"Why… the… ball?" she managed to ask between haggard breaths.

"Just a little training aid." He took a step back and seized the large, bulging duffel bag. "Presenting Genma Saotome's bag of tricks," he announced with great ceremony as he upended the sack and dumped its contents on the floor into a heap, the objects clattering loudly on the wooden floor.

Akane's eye widened, first in surprise, and then further as her mind recognised the jumble of instruments in their tangled pile. The brightly coloured fabric of three ribbons were wrapped in chaotic coils around two pairs of gymnastics clubs. Four hoops of shining steel bound with tassels of red and white lay with bundled ropes of smooth, white cord. Balls daubed in bright washes of pinks and green swayed amongst the cluttered equipment, one escaping to roll across the floor until it bumped against Genma's large, callused foot.

"Bag of tricks?" she grunted, her voice still weak and raspy. "This is just the rhythmic gymnastics equipment left over from when I trained with Ryoga."

Genma nodded. "Yes, it is."

He glanced down, and nudged the errant ball back towards the pile with a flick of his toe. "Quite a range, isn't there? Lots of ways for Kodachi to attack you. And if she has started to use spikes and razor blades like you say, you had better learn to avoid them."

The picture of Kodachi hefting a barbed club flashed through her mind, reddened lips curled back to reveal snarling white teeth, and a pair of dead, soulless black eyes. Suppressing a shudder, Akane swallowed and nodded.

Genma held a fine plastic rod between his large fingers and rolled it back and forth, setting the ribbon at its end into a dance of spiralling blue satin.

"Then let's begin. Start the kata again."

The ribbon writhed against the floor with a thunderous snap.

The sun drowned in a sea of pale clouds, hidden from view but filling the sky with a watery wash of meagre light rippled with swirls of dark grey. The wispy shapes slid overhead in a steady flow, forming a fluid canopy of transient cumulus laced with nebulous trails like the crests of ghostly waves that caressed rather than crashed against the misted rocks at Emei's peak.

"Stop staring at the sky, Ranma. It's not going to rain," Ryoga growled amongst the sound of his shuffling.

"I'm telling you, it's going to rain," Ranma insisted, head still craned as he gazed at the massing swarm of clouds. "I can feel it."

Ryoga snorted. "I must have forgotten that you fell into the spring of drowned groundhog."

"You're the only hog around here, P-Chan," Ranma threw back without taking his eyes from the bleak sky.

"Ranma," the other boy snarled. Ranma tensed, ready to move as soon as the sensation of an angry charge tickled his brain, but it never came. Easing back against the wide pillar, he settled the pressure between his shoulder blades, finding his comfort with a small sigh. He flicked at his pigtail idly, making the dark braid sway before it came to rest along the slope of his neck and chest.

A thump came from above, and Ranma glanced up as a shadow flitted across his eyes. A large crow gave a wild cry that trailed into a croon as it leapt from the curving roof and soared into the air. Ranma's eyes traced its path back to the ledge where the cyan tiles of the small shrine met with the thick wooden beams, painted with bright, lucky red. He slid his foot closer until he could prop his hand on his knee, scarlet satin whispering against the rough cotton of his black pants.

"What are we doing here, Ranma?" Ryoga asked.

Ranma sighed again, watching his breath trail out in coils of vapour that caught a flicker of wind and rose above to join the mountain's mists. He turned a hooded gaze on the lost boy who sat upon the worn boards of ancient oak, leaning back against their two bulging packs. He scowled from beneath his tousled black bangs, arms folded across the rough canvas of his yellow jerkin.

"I told you, it's going to rain."

"You said that two hours ago," Ryoga said, glancing around the ruined shrine. "We've yet to see a drop."

"It'll come," Ranma said tightly and turned away, letting his eyes trail down the sloping land that rolled from the steps of the shrine into the dense forest wrapped around the mountain like a cloak of wood and green. The trees swayed in the wind: the twigs groping like gnarled skeletal fingers as the springy fronds of the conifers danced to the rhythm of winter.

"Sure it will," Ryoga drawled with a sneer. "Just like that bridge was going to collapse after it had stood over the stream for a hundred years."

"The wood was rotten," Ranma murmured weakly.

"It's your head that's rotten." The corner of his lips curled upwards into a smirk that bared his left fang. "Or is little Miss Ranma scared of the water?"

Ranma's knuckles whitened as he gripped his pants, his hands tightened reflexively around a fistful of fabric. Experience through many fights should have prepared him for such a remark, as occasionally Ryoga did hit hard to the right target. Since the previous afternoon, the sight of cold, rushing water and its frothing wave crests, or the dark rain-laden clouds that painted the sky black, brought the memory of smug blue eyes. His stomach turned in his belly.

"Maybe I'm just tired of walking around with a perverted pork chop snuggling against me," Ranma growled. Like any martial artist who had suffered a close blow, he struck back swiftly.

"Who are you calling a pervert?" Ryoga yelled, bolting to his feet.

"Well, I don't know, Ryoga. Perhaps it was one of the other direction-blind jerks on this overcrowded part of the mountain."

Ranma stood, facing the larger youth with one foot still propped on the steps; ready to launch into a back-flip as soon as the charge came.

"I knew that I could feel a fight calling me, brother," a voice whispered, carried on the wind.

"More like a lover's tiff," sneered another.

Ranma's eyes flicked up towards Ryoga as the other boy tensed, glaring over the young Saotome's shoulder with narrowing eyes. Ranma stepped back and spun on the ball of his feet, his pigtail whipping over his shoulder as he turned. His brows lowered as he watched two men emerge from the fridge of clustered trees, and he felt his jaw tighten as he saw a now familiar crest of wild yellow hair. He rolled his hands into fists, the cracking of knuckles echoing in the air like the first volley on a silent battlefield.

Blitz strolled from the forest on his heels, hands buried in the pockets of his dark slacks, each step rolling languidly after the other. The hem of his sleeveless black mantle swirled about his legs as he moved, the twin dragons of sliver and gold rippling across the silken fabric. A wry smirk curved his lips, but did not touch the pale blue eyes behind the single, swaying blade of blond hair that hung to the fine contours of his jaw, which bunched above the folded turtleneck of his woollen sweater.

Ranma's fist twitched at his sides from the urge to slam his knuckles into that smug mouth. He folded his arms, clamping his hands under his armpits as he tore his eyes away to regard Blitz's companion.

This man was taller and more powerfully built than the lithe blond at his side, with broad shoulders that filled the folds of his coat, the flock of embroidered golden hawks soaring across the garment through a cloudless sky of royal blue. Where Blitz strutted, this man prowled, sliding forwards on the balls of his feet with a steady grace, yet his steps seemed to resonate in the grass. His face was stern and forbidding, his jaw squared, lips set in a scowl that looked as if it never left his face. His eyes were orbs of frozen blue steel that contrasted vividly with the waves of fiery red hair, kept short and parted like hot moulded iron.

"What do you creeps want?" Ranma asked, ignoring the feeling of Ryoga's indignant glare boring into his back at his words. The pair stopped before the shrine. He quickly gauged the distance as about five paces, close enough for each party to see the other and spot any attempt to attack from the flanks. These guys are no amateurs.

"You are Ranma Saotome?" the larger one said, his eyes running over Ranma in obvious appraisal.

"That's me. Were you expecting something else?" Ranma felt a spike of satisfaction as he noticed Blitz twitch, but he fought the smile down.

The man's eyes passed to Ryoga. Ranma was sure that he could see flames igniting in those blue irises. "That would make you Ryoga Hibiki?" he said, visibly biting at each word.

"If we're playing twenty questions, perhaps you could answer mine," Ranma said in a dry tone before he hardened his voice. "What do you want?"

"Not what you're offering, queer," Blitz snapped.

"Excuse me?" Ranma's voice sounded like drawn steel to his own ears. He tensed the muscles in his arms to keep his fists still, fingers digging into his flesh like a vice.

Blitz opened his mouth, but his comrade spoke first.

"Since you have apparently met," he hissed. "I will introduce myself. I am Brand of the Divine Order, and I have business with the two of you."

Ranma snorted. "The business most people tend to have with me either involve kisses or fists. I know what your pervert friend here wants. What about you?"

The man turned his blue gaze on Ranma. "So, you are the one rumours say defeated Saffron of the Phoenix." His eyes roved over his form again with an almost clinical glare. "A pity," he said after a while, his shoulders slumping for an instant. "However, I would be willing to match fists with you, if you give me reason."

"Men like us don't need reasons."

Brand nodded, his lips forming the tiniest half-smile that was belied by the heat of his voice. "That is very true, but it is your friend whom I wish to address, unless of course you have an issue with that?"

Ranma blinked. "Ryoga?"

"Me?" Ryoga said vacantly, his eyebrows lifting towards his bandana.

"Yes, you," Brand barked suddenly, advancing a single, enraged step. His hand rose and he thrust his finger at Ryoga as if to drive it through the lost boy's chest despite the distance between them. "Ryoga Hibiki, you are a lecher, and, as a Master of Emei Bagua Zhang, I challenge you to combat."

"Lecher?" Ryoga repeated, his jaw dropping. "What? Why…?" His mouth snapped closed and he bared his fangs. "How dare you?"

The bark of laughter that nearly exploded from Ranma's throat hurt as he swiftly swallowed it, but he could not stop a crooked smirk from curving his lips.

"Ryoga, a lecher? Boy, have you got your facts muddled. He hasn't got the guts or the blood supply to try and seduce anyone."

"Well, he's lucky that you are man-slut enough for both of them," Blitz sneered.

Ranma felt the smile evaporate from his face as if boiled away by the roaring fire that ignited within his chest and suffused his skin with a furious heat.

"I would advise you to take that back before things get rough."

Blitz chuckled, lips forming the wry grin that chilled Ranma's blood with loathing. "Sorry, I'm not gay. You can't seduce me with the weird sex games you and fanged boy play."

"If recall correctly, you hit on me. If any of us is queer, it's you, Blondie"

"You fooled me with that damn curse of yours," Blitz snarled. "I bet it's a dream come true for you; a jiggle of your tits, a few strategic bends, and bang all the naÔve straight guys a queer like you could want."

Ranma inhaled deeply through his nose, trying to seek his centre, but found only a maelstrom churning in his stomach and charging his muscles. He forced himself to remain still, concentrating on the sting of his fingers digging into his palm, knuckles turned white. He narrowed his eyes at the man before him,

"I am not a fag," he hissed between gritted teeth.

"Look, I did not hit on your sister." The sound of Ryoga's angry denial broke the deadlock between Ranma and the smirking blond. "Ranma's the lecher, not me."

Ranma barely restrained the urge to slap his head in frustration, "Damn it, P-Chan. Sense the mood. Now is not the time for this."

"See? Your boyfriend agrees with me," Blitz said, one slender eyebrow arching beneath his sharp bang. .

"You really seem to have an urge to be put in traction," Ranma said softly, hiding bladed steel beneath the veil of sound. Ranma tensed as he saw a blue blur flick through his peripheral vision, and his senses screamed the threat. The flame-haired man had taken another step towards Ryoga, who had lifted his hands warily, shifting slightly on the ball of his feet.

"Don't try to pin this on your friend. He may have fought with her, but it was you who tried the shy, innocent foreigner act on Willow. Men in China do not take kindly to Japanese pigs who try to seduce their sisters, and they do not forgive."

Almost wincing when he heard the words spring from Brand's mouth, Ranma turned towards the bandana-wearing youth. Ryoga's lips were curled back to reveal his fangs, green sparks flashing in his narrowed eyes. Then his lids became hooded, as he straightened, spreading his shoulders as he lifted a fist towards the larger Chinaman. "And I don't take kindly to being accused of things I did not do. And I don't forgive people who call me a pig."

"Then you accept our challenge?"

Ranma noticed the change in pronoun; he glanced at Blitz and frowned. Despite the smirk and easy posture, he could now see the flickering of a white-blue battle aura around the slender man.

No matter what I do, it always comes down to this, he thought as he finally released his muscles from restraint. Suddenly they no longer pulled at him, but rather moved with perfect grace like a willing machine as he flexed the fingers of his hand. I doubt I would want it any other way, he conceded with a smirk.

"As heir of the Musabetsu Kakuto Ryu, I say you're damned right we accept."

He stumbled to the side as Ryoga shouldered him aside. "I don't need you to speak for me, Ranma," the other youth muttered. "I can accept my own challenges on behalf of…." he trailed off, his mouth still open but with no words to finish his sentence. Ranma saw the passion is his eyes waver like a candle in a sharp gust.

"…of the 'prepare to die school of martial arts'," Ranma finished the other boy's sentence.

"Yes, the Prepare to… Ranma, now is not the time for jokes."

Ranma winced as Ryoga yelled into his ears. "Who's joking? It suits you. But you're right. Now is not the time for jokes. Now is the time to hand out ass-whoopings and lollypops. And I think we ran out of lollypops."

The grin that grew on his rival's face mirrored his own as the other boy lifted a large hand to give a comradely pat on his shoulder. Ranma's mind was suddenly invaded by a vision of standing before a winged minotaur, Ryoga at his side, heated words fading before the threat ahead. His smile widened a little.

"You've got a point, Ranma," Ryoga said. "It's very rare that I find someone who pisses me off more than you."

Blitz cleared his throats with embellished aplomb. "If you lovebirds have finished with the heroic-rival anime crap, can we please get started so that I can kick your asses?"

The two men backed away, Brand make a grandiose sweeping gesture, like a lord entreating a lady to dance, beckoning the two Japanese youths to join them on the sloping field of swaying grass.

Ranma followed as the group parted, his path parallel to Blitz's as they moved away from Ryoga, who stood facing the large red-haired man, arms folded across his chest. His heart was already beginning to quicken, the hairs rising on his body as if his skin had become charged. A swell of power blossomed in his stomach as he felt his face slip into the proud smirk he always wore. It was his banner, bringing him pride and grace as he rode into battle. He felt the world grow smaller, shrinking around him and his opponent, yet become deeper, more real. Reality shrunk away like a deflated bubble as he felt his soul and senses expand. The wind ran through his hair, trailing his braid across his shoulders, as it hissed through the branches and rattled the screens of the shrine

"Ah, screw this."

The words were his only warning. He flung his hands up, catching the fist with a flash slap against his right palm as his left hooked upwards to knock the attacking arm away from his face. However, a low attack slid past his senses, hacking at his legs as he tried to pivot away, and launching them up from beneath him. He spiralled in the air, feet rising as he torso fell. A yelp began to form in his mouth as he felt himself hang horizontally in the air for a split second, but the sound was sealed away as two palms slammed in to his chest, one hit following the other so rapidly that he felt it as a single blow, an explosive blast that stung with a sharp burning.

The sound of the air screeching in his ears told him that his was flying through the air at high speed. He gritted his teeth and scrunched his eyes closed as something crashed into his back with the snap of breaking wood.

Ryoga watched with wide eyes as the man with the irrational locks of jagged yellow hair seemed to transform into a blur of black and blond. He watched the powerful sweep that lobbed Ranma into the air like a soccer ball, but then was forced to wince, turning his head from the white flash that erupted without sound and flung Ranma into the trees.

A quiet rumbling rolled amongst the wind as if the sky was growling.

With a start, Ryoga remembered his own opponent, and his muscles tensed and locked into a fighting stance as he whipped his head around to regard the fiery-maned man who had challenged him.

Brand had not moved. He still stood slightly hunched with his hands held in shaking fists at his sides, the wind ruffling through his red hair, making his scowl seem darker. Ryoga could almost feel the ground trembling beneath his feet. He felt his hackles rising.

"That was low," he growled through his fangs. "Even a jerk Ranma like deserves better. Is this what you call honour?" He turned his head to cast a large wad of saliva to the grass with a noisy spit.

The heat in Brand's glower intensified as if mixed with gasoline. He returned the spit, flinging his onto the ground between them. "A bastard who would try to take advantage of a man's sister has no right lecturing me on honour."

"I did not seduce your sister," Ryoga yelled, but his voice was drowned by the force of Brand's denial.

"LIES," the large man roared. "Your excuses will help neither you nor your friend. Even that pitiful rumour of him defeating Saffron will not help him against Blitz."

Ryoga's eyes narrowed. The events of Jusendo were the last thing he wanted to think of. That hour, when Akane had almost died, and Ranma had fought the phoenix king; had been like slowly bleeding to death. Watching his life drain away, slowly like blood soaking into the earth.

"What would you know about it?" he snarled. "I was there."

Brand's snort seemed to resound over the entire mountain. "If the rumours are true, that would make you the weak one, wouldn't it? The sidekick, always overshadowed and overlooked for the hero, yes?"

The air hissed as Ryoga drew breath through his clenched teeth, his fangs pressing into his bottom lips with enough force to break the skin. His entire body seemed to shake and shudder, his skin crawling as he felt his aura boil off of him like the sun's corona. Overshadowed. Overlooked. A vision, a memory flashed through his mind: Ranma surrounded by his fiancées as they cooed and fought over him, Akane scowling but her eyes never leaving the pigtailed boy for an instant; Ryoga standing on the sidelines, the souvenirs he bought her hanging forgotten in his hands. His heart dropped in his chest as if suddenly burdened by an immense weight. The pressure suffused his muscles and hung in his belly like a ball of solid lead, bringing him power.

"DON'T UNDERESTIMATE ME!" he screamed as he bolted forwards, feet crushing the earth as he advanced two paces and leapt into the air with all the strength in his legs.

His flight carried up high, and at the apex of his mighty jump he raised his foot high like an executioner's sword. Gravity seized him quickly and brought him crashing down upon his foe. He brought his foot down in a deadly arc, but watched as Brand smirked as swerved aside, leaving Ryoga's heel to plough into the ground, dirt erupting from around his crashing heel.

Shit, he cursed himself. Locating his opponent through the corners of his eyes, he pivoted sharply, grinding his foot further into the crater he had created, and cleaving the air with a swiping knifehand strike. He hit nothing as he watched Brand duck and weave beneath his swing. A palm thrust hard into his chin, mashing his teeth together. He was forced to stumble back, but managed to bring his foot up and slam the sole of his slipper square into Brand's chest.

Brand staggered back a few unsteady steps, and pressed his hand against his breast with a grimace.

The two warriors glared at each other, each rubbing the spot where the other had struck. The air warped and boiled between them as their fighting spirits clashed. Then, like hungry wolves, they tore into each other.

A groan escaped through Ranmas' teeth as he slid himself up the trunk of the tree he had brought him to a stop, one arm wrapped across his chest as if to hold in the burning pain that sang across his ribs. In front of him lay the furrow that his body had cut into the soft earth and the fallen remnants of a once-mighty oak, its trunk reduced to a splintered stump by the force of his flight.

Back on his feet, he forced himself forward, strength returning with each step, until after four paces he was able to slide into his fighting stance, lowering his weight onto the balls of his feet. He tucked his rear fist to his chin defensively and stretched out one open hand. He watched his smirking opponent approach over the web between his thumb and forefinger as if it were a gunsight. Looking through the dragon's mouth, his father had called it.

"That was a cheap shot," he said in a low voice.

Blitz's smirk grew. "A cheap shot for a cheap man."

"Laugh it up, chuckles," Ranma warned. "It might not seem so funny in traction."

"Big words from a guy I just knocked on his ass."

Ranma let out a bitter laugh. "You're talking to the student of Genma Saotome. Training with Pops put me through every dirty trick in the book. It'll take more than a cheap shot to take out Ranma Saotome." He smiled grimly. "In fact, it'll take more than you've got."

"Sounds like a dare." The words seemed to come from nothing, as Blitz had already moved like a flash.

Ranma answered motion with motion, stepping to the side and he twisted his shoulders from the path of a streaking palm strike, letting to blow slip past. He knocked aside a follow-up strike with the back of his hand, stepping back at an angle. There was no relief as Blitz matched the move with a swinging step, pressing his assault into a flurry of blows. Ranma's hands flashed in defence, slapping aside a fierce thrust as he rolled his head from the path of another, sweeping his arm down to jam a rising palm. His eyes narrowed as he saw his opportunity, lifting his knee with foot cocked beneath his rapidly blocking arms.

Blitz's attack faltered, the blows weakening as he shied his gut from the expected kick, and Ranma smiled, knowing the bait had been taken. He flicked his fist through the opening his feint had won him, poking a sharp jab to Blitz's face, sharp enough to make his foe's head snap back.

He twisted his hips forcefully, unleashing a powerful piston as he twisted on his heel and thrust his chambered leg into a powerful side kick, the edge of his foot pounding into the Chinaman's gut.

Blitz flew back into a tree with a crash, but did not fall, though, slumping onto his feet. His eyes burned into Ranma as he gathered himself up and lowered himself into his stance, open hands flowing in graceful circles before him.

"Like I said," Ranma jeered, "More than you've got."

Blitz frowned darkly but said nothing, advancing forward in slow, measured steps. But Ranma remembered what the other man had called him and was in no mood to wait.

He lunged forwards with a fierce front punch, then turned slightly and put his entire body behind a powerful cross as his opponent circled around his first attack. He felt ribs give under his knuckles but took a hard blow to the side of his face in payment, lights exploding across his vision. His legs wobbled and he stumbled to the side, shaking his head clear just in time to dodge an open-hand blow that would have split his nose. He flung out both hands, wrapping his opponent's arm with the crook of his elbow and jabbing a single knuckle into the cavity at the end of the collarbone.

Blitz's face screwed in a grimace as the nerve was struck, and Ranma seized the opportunity. He pushed the opposite shoulder and seized a fistful of silk, twisting his body behind the effort as he pulled Blitz around. He swung his leg behind him, increasing the torsion as he dropped to one knee, driving Blitz's face towards the dirt with his grip on the man's shirt.

His eyes widened as his foe lunged into the throw, taking control of his fall and reaching across to post a hand on the ground. With control that some part of Ranma noted and admired, Blitz swung into a handstand and then, spinning into a circle with a step of his hands, whipped one foot across Ranma face before knocking him back with a hard kick.

Ranma fell back to the dirt, tasting blood in his mouth. He groaned as bells seemed to ring in his head, then realised that they were the peals of his instincts screaming at him. His eyes snapped open in time to see the shining leather shoe descend towards his face. Throwing his hands up, he caught the stomp on crossed palms and pushed it down towards his chest. With a growl, he threw the foot aside as he rolled onto his side and then onto his hands, modifying Blitz's own attack to push himself up and scissor his legs around his enemy's waist, forcing him down onto his face. He quickly scooted from beneath the other man, rolling to drop his heel hard across Blitz's shoulders.

The yellow haired man gave a squawk of pain, but it did not stop him from moving quickly, flipping over and knocking away Ranma's leg before rolling away.

Ranma did the same, tucking into a backwards roll and coming to his feet in his fighting posture, now five paces from the other fighter. They watched each other as they paced sideways, each parallel to the other, eyes locked despite the tree trunks that passed between them.

Until Ranma used the cover of a stout, wide tree to reverse his direction, charging Blitz from his flank. He feinted high but struck low, catching the outside of Blitz's knee with a stomp kick while the other man lifted his guard. Blitz stumbled, allowing Ranma to launch into a fluid, practised combination. Snapping a backfist into his opponent's temple, he followed with a short but powerful uppercut to the chin that left the Emei master open, letting Ranma to plough his knuckles into his gut. Blitz folded over the attack, the air rushing out of him with a gasp.

The word 'fag' revolving his mind, Ranma lifted his arm and brought his elbow down towards the prone man's shoulder blades. The blow never landed as Blitz lurched to the side with a shoulder barge that staggered Ranma, before rising with a twist that brought his elbow slamming into Ranma's jaw.

Ignoring the pain that spun his brain inside his skull, Ranma stepped back from the radius of Blitz's palms strikes and swung his foot into a high roundhouse kick.

Blitz took a circular step into the kick's arc, robbing it of power as he blocked at the knee with a fluid sweep of his arm. Winding his arm round in a crescent, he bound Ranma's leg to his hip, trapping the Saotome heir tightly. Like pounding a mighty drum, he slammed his palm, heel first into Ranma's thigh.

Ranma hollered as pain erupted in the abused muscle, as if a laser has sliced into the nerve. He tried to counterattack, but could hardly summon the strength to clench his fist as the agony sang through his nerves. He fell forwards as Blitz released his leg, straight into the two palm strikes that slammed into his chest, and exploded.

"Niryu Happa Shou," Ranma heard Blitz call as he was sent rocketing backwards. He cried out as a tree thudded into his shoulder, sending him into a spin that sent him tumbling to the floor in an awkward roll.

Coughing dirt and grass from his mouth with a loud spit, he pushed himself on to his hand before reaching out a shuddering hand to a nearby tree. Bracing his weight on the trunk, rough bark biting into his palm, he pushed himself onto his feet. His muscles protested each movement, only slowly obeying his commands as they tensed and untensed with what seemed to be eternal sluggishness, pain springing from his knotted joints.

With a shove, he stumbled from the tree and forced him self to face forward, only to see a hand streaking towards him. He tried to move, flinging a hand up to parry, but seemed to be trapped in slow motion until the palm slammed into his cheek.

He fell back onto the tree, head bouncing off of the wood with a hollow thunk and a spark of light. The point of a heel jabbed his injured thigh, dropping him to his knees as he hissed through his teeth. More blows fell, knuckles crashing under his ribs and knocking the air from him before two rapid strikes lashed his face.

Desperate for cover, Ranma fell sideway onto his hands, kicking out like a mule. He felt his strike his home as his foot punched into yielding flesh, accompanied by a small groan. Retracting his leg, he posted it into the dirt as he pushed himself up and spun, lunging forwards to press his advantage with a hard left jab.

Blitz weaved around his fist, slipping to the side with a swinging step. Reaching up, the blond circled and grabbed Ranma's hand at the wrist with a twist, other arm wrapping over the top and pressing down hard on the elbow. Ranma grimaced as the joint was bent beneath the pressure, and winced as Blitz swung a low kick into his shin, pain streaking along the bone and forcing him off balance.

Blitz dropped his stance and pivoted, applying more strain to Ranma's elbow and forcing him down.

Ranma struggled, trying to fight his way loose, but the lock robbed his arm of strength. He splayed his feet and bent his legs, lowering himself as the pain forced him down, but refusing to be taken to his knees. If he was knelt it would be over; a fighter of Blitz's calibre would find it all too easy to snap the arm like a dry, rotten twig.

A growl tore from his throat as he summoned his strength desperately, raising himself just enough to lift his leg and bring his heel pounding onto Blitz's instep. Blitz yelped, and Ranma struck harder, grinding his foot against the shining leather loafer and forcing the bones beneath to slide on each other.

The force drained from the arms that held him, and Ranma tore himself free, bolting upright as he swung his arm around in an arc, capturing one of Blitz's own limbs and clamping it tight. His right hand seemed to bulge with all the ki he could muster as he balled it into a fist with the staccato pop of his knuckles.

"Eat this," he snarled as he tore his enemy's guard wide open. "KACHU TENSHIN AMAGURIKEN!!!"

He unleashed the chestnut fist in an explosive spray of punches. His hands turned into scarlet blurs and he rained blow after blow onto his opponent like a hailstorm. The sounds of fist meeting flesh overlapped and blended into one droning hum. .He pounded into Blitz's face, ribs and gut with as much speed and force as he could muster, but mostly he pummelled that smug mouth.

Finally his punches began to weaken, each attack slower the last until he threw one final blow with a wet slap. Blitz's face was streaked with blood, red rivulets dripping like a scarlet river over his chin. Ranma let the man's hand go and watched him slump forward, falling boneless onto his face with a whisper of crushed grass.

Ranma stumbled backwards, hunched over as his breath sawed in and out of his burning lungs. His fists felt like lead weights, and it was a force of willpower to keep them up, maintaining his guard as he watched his opponent lie motionless on the forest floor.

A thick bead of sweat slid down his brow, tracing a slow, snaking path over the contours of his skin. It felt like an insect crawling over him, a trail of moisture tingling along his flesh like a million scuttling feelers. He lifted a heavy, aching arm to wipe away the irritating glob with the back of his hand when Blitz stuck, uncoiling like a viper and casting a cloud of grass and dirt from his fists.

Reflex seized Ranma; he scrunched his eyes closed, turning his head away from the attack and shielding himself behind his crossed forearms. He felt the wave of soil graze over his face, and his mind screamed out his mistake. It was too late and a grip of iron clamped down on his wrists.

His eyes snapped open wide and met Blitz's gaze of cold blue steel. The sharp bang of yellow hair that hung over his brow seemed to flicker and undulate and bolts of blue-white light popped and crackled in the air around them. Ranma saw the other's mans blood strewn lips move slowly, the words chilling into the air like frost.

"Niryu Maku Satsu," he pronounced.

Pain became Ranma's world. It seemed to shoot into him through his arms and exploded within his chest. The sound of his own screams rose into the air but sounded distant and small as his mind was assaulted with shocks of pure torture. His nerves sang with agony, pain searing every cell of his body.

Then it stopped, and he fell, tottering backwards with stumbling steps that weaved from side to side. His nostrils were clogged with an acrid, burnt smell mixed with the crisp scent of ozone. He tried to open his eyes and his hand twitched. On the second attempt his eyelids snapped apart; and he saw not Blitz, but two blond-crested ghosts. Transparent phantoms that weaved and flickered, their insubstantial bodies passing through each other.

The ghosts each thrust forward a right hand that suddenly seemed to grow huge, like that of a giant. Something slammed into his face and he reeled backward. A hand grabbed the lapel of his shirt and yanked him forwards into a palm that drove under his breastbone and seemed to crush his lungs from within. The air rushed out of him and he hacked up a wet mouthful of saliva that dribbled from his mouth. Then he was pulled again and again and more strikes crashed into his abdomen.

When he was released his knees could no longer support him and he fell forward, eyes finally focussing in time to see the foot that swung upwards and caught him full on the chin, punting him upwards like a football.

The ground slammed into him hard, and the knee that dropped across his chest was brutal. He swung a fist in an attempt to bat away the weight that was pressing onto his ribs, but the weak attack was stopped as a chuckle echoed in his ears. He saw Blitz's face mere inches from his own, a wide smirk making his face seem almost manic. Two hands clamped onto his shoulders like the talons of a great eagle, and he saw pale sparks dance in the air once again, before the pain returned with a shock and a distant rumble.

His body was seized by painful convulsions, his limbs flopping and jerking on the ground like a fish on land, desperately trying to survive by flailing for water. His back arched upwards, lifting him onto his shoulders as his hip thrust high; then his snapped straight and his body jarred against the earth. He tasted blood as he bit his tongue.

Do something, his spirit screamed at him, and a hard spasm bashed his head against the ground. It's your body, damn it. Do something.

He opened his mouth and bit onto his lips, gnawing them between his teeth. Pain sprang along the small cushion of flesh, and he locked onto it focussing only on that little sensation and shutting all else out. He concentrated on the feel of the bite; only the pain that he himself had inflicted mattered. He was in control.

And with that thought, he took command of his body again.

Ranma rolled onto his shoulders and struggled to move his legs, heaving them up between his chest and Blitz's. He tucked his knees in close and pressed the soles of his feet into Blitz, whose eyes widened, making his icy irises seem small suddenly. Ranma felt more power being poured into him, and his senses wavered, but it was too late. With a mighty heave, he kicked his legs straight, launching Blitz off of him and sending the man soaring high like a rocket.

Despite the protests of his body, Ranma rolled onto his hands and pushed himself onto his hands and knees. His stomach lurched and bile surged up into his mouth, but he swallowed it with a grimace and a gulp, the acid burning his throat.

He had to move now. The distant snapping of branches and crash of broken wood told him that he had flung Blitz far, but not far enough. Whatever that Coiling Dragon Death that the Bagua master had used was, it was powerful. Ranma knew he could not take many more of those, if any. The move seemed to require both of his foe's hands to be touching him, but with Blitz's speedy offence it would be easy for him to achieve such a position. He knew the blond man would not give up. But neither would he. He just needed to keep his distance and wait for the right opportunity.

Body racked with pain, Ranma leapt to the trees above. His jump faltered midway, but he kicked out with his legs against the trunk of a sturdy pine and scrabbled his way onto a branch before swinging his way to another higher up. Soon he was bounding from tree to tree, with jerky but swift motions, gaining the distance and time he needed before he met his enemy's lightning once again.

Ryoga blessed his breaking point training once again as he felt Brand's punches pound against his chest and abdomen. The red-haired man's fists were like hammers, and the blows were delivered with blurring speed, but, gritting his teeth, Ryoga knew that he could take it.

His balance was not as invulnerable, as the force of Brand's strikes knocked him back, forcing him to stumble as he fought to stay on his feet. A tight punch slipped beneath his guard and jabbed hard into his flank and making him wince, but he shrugged it aside as he swung his leg into a low roundhouse, whipping his shin into his opponents' upper thigh. Brand grunted and Ryoga took the opportunity to twist his hips behind a fierce uppercut. His knuckles crashed into Brand's chin with enough force to lift him from his feet and send him reeling backwards.

Brand hit the floor with a muffled slap of his hand against the grass, tucking himself into a roll that lifted him to his knee.

Ryoga smirked as he watched the larger man rubs at his chin with the back of his hand, lips pulled back in a furious snarl. He felt his smile dissolve into a grimace as he tensed. His enemy bolted towards him.

With a growl, Ryoga swung his arm outwards, bashing aside a kick that would have cleaved his head from his shoulders. His opponent stepped forward onto the recovered leg, pressing the offence by thrusting a stiff punch which Ryoga just managed to block by dropping his elbow into the path of the fist. Brand grimaced as he knuckles smashed against the bone, and Ryoga swung his arm out in a wild arc, slamming a backfist into Brand's cheek.

Brand's face snapped around with the blow, red hair flickering around his head like a flame, but he soon came swinging back with shoulder high. A tight but mighty hook crashed into Ryoga's face, knuckles pounding into his cheek. Stars flickered across his sight, but he blinked them clear, poking his hand low in a short jab to his foe's stomach.

Brand slumped forward with a groan, but his hands swung up and smashed around the sides of Ryoga's face like clashing cymbals. The lost boy's eyes crossed and his vision went blurry, his brain whirling in his skull, but he forced himself through into clear thought. Brand had seized two fists full of his jerkin as yanked him forward, driving a knee into his belly again and again.

Ryoga balled his hands into fists and clenched his teeth, tensing his abdomen into a wall of iron and letting the blows rain against him. He grimaced as each shot thudded against his hard muscles.

The onslaught stopped suddenly, and Ryoga felt his lips widen into a wide grin as he heard his opponent gasp a curse in Chinese. Bolting upright, his smirk bared his fangs as he saw Brand's jaw drop, eyes widening. Grabbing the scarlet-maned man's shoulder, he wrenched Brand around. "Weak!" he roared as he thrust his fist into the man's face.

Brand shot backward, hitting the ground in a heap that slid back across the grass, digging furrows into the dirt. He sat up with a muffled groan, his eyes walls of blue fire as he glared across the battlefield. A thin trickle of blood slipped from his nostril as he crinkled his nose with a sniff.

"I thought you challenged me to a fight, not a tickling contest," Ryoga taunted, despite the dull throbbing that seemed to cover his torso.

Brand glared in response. He wiped the blood from his face, and with a flick of his fingers flung it to the ground in a scarlet spray in a scarlet spray, red droplets clinging to the grass.

"You're tough, I give you that," Brand said in acid tones as he gathered himself to his feet. "But you are a fool if you think that being able to take a punch makes you a warrior."

Ryoga snorted, "I'm not the one bleeding."

"You will be."

"Try it," Ryoga beckoned his foe with a crook of his fingers.

Brand thundered forwards like a cannonball, charging head on. Ryoga's muscles tensed, but he forced his fists to his sides and thrust out his chest, determined to take his enemy's best shot.

Brand swung his arm back, winding his fist like a catapult and releasing his in a mighty haymaker that sang as it blitzed through the air. Then suddenly, just as the strike was about to land his fingers unfurled into an open palm.

Ryoga was sent sliding back on his heels from the force of the strike, his jaw aching where the flat of Brand's hand had slammed into him. Then he cried out and clamped both hands to the sides of his head, tears springing at the corner of his eyes as a bolt of intense pain blossomed in the centre of his mind and radiated outwards. It felt as if his skull had suddenly become too small for his brain, which expanded and pressed against the bones like a heated gas canister on verge of explosion. He shook his head from side to side wildly, hands clawing into his hair.

Another blow struck the centre of his chest and for a second his heart stopped, the absence of its percussive beat devastating. The power of the strike seemed to pass straight through him like a laser beam, burning him away from the insides. He did not fall back or recoil but simply dropped to his knees with a thud, his legs no longer holding the strength to keep him upright. His stomach convulsed and he coughed into his hand with a wet, bubbling noise. Tasting copper in his mouth his looked down to see tendrils of crimson fluid clinging to his fingers.

"I told you that you would bleed," Brand's soft words caressed his ears.

Ryoga felt a spasm run through him and he spat another thick wad of blood to the ground.

"Your head must be as hard and musclebound as the rest of you," he enemy said, walking around him in a languid circle. "What kind of idiot falls for a trap like that? What kind of moron actually stands there and takes a hit?"

Ryoga wrapped his arms around himself, pressing firmly on his stomach as if trying to hold his organs inside. "What the…?" was all he could manage in a weak voice.

Brand came full circle, standing in front of him with one hand held before him. He seemed intensely fascinated by the marks and lines that wove across his own palm.

"Bagua Zhang," he pronounced in a deep, almost awed voice. "Eight Trigram palm. The greatest martial art ever devised. However, many fools wonder why it is palm and not fist. Surely the fist is stronger, with its hard knuckles and compact, ridged surface." Brand's fingers curled in one by one, balling his hand until and he flicked his arm out, point towards Ryoga with his knuckles.

"Though strong in body, the fist is weak in spirit, for it is closed. Ki can flow into the hand, providing more energy, more force to your punch; but it can go no further."

Ryoga remained on his knees, cradling his belly with both arms and breathing through gritted teeth, watching with a strange curiosity as his opponent unrolled his fingers into an open hand, fingers held loosely together but splayed apart from the thumb in such a way as to deepen the hollow of his palm. He heard a small hiss, like a cobra spitting venom, and felt a vibration of something pulse into the air between them.

"The palm is not so limited," Brand said, continuing his mocking lecture. "For unlike the fist it is open to the world around it, and the world is open to it. The centre of the palm possesses a hole, a portal through which the true martial artist can release his energy into his foe. No matter how tough you are, my friend," that word a derisive slur, "you cannot withstand a blow that hits you from inside.

"This is a skill taught at the rudimentary levels of Bagua Zhang, the foundation of the martial art taught to mere novices. And today you face a master. You cannot win."

Cannot win, the words rumbled like thunder through Ryoga's pain-clouded mind. Many had said the same to him: Shampoo, Akane, himself. Fighting, training for revenge to beat the pigtailed phantom that haunted him, but he always lost. In the end, he always had to quit the field. He felt his heart sink in his chest.

Not like this, he thought, tightening his jaw as his forced his body upwards, knees shuddering as he stood with agonising slowness. Not on my knees. He crossed his arms across his chest, letting his heavy soul fall into his belly, where he wrapped it into a tight ball.

"Shishi Hoko...." the words were expelled before they formed as Brand lunged forward, striking his palm towards Ryoga's heart. He barely managed to lift his crossed arm into the path of the attack, pain ribbing along his forearms as he was send sliding backwards, feet slicing into the grass.

"You Japanese idiot," Brand said softly. "Do you think I could not sense you gather power into your hara? I told you, I am a master of Bagua Zhang."

A master, Ryoga repeated silently. He had known of only one person to claim to be a master of the martial arts before, and Ryoga had never been able to touch that old dwarf. However, Ranma had defeated him once, with the Hiryu Shoten Ha, and had never given up since. That thought sobered Ryoga like a wave of cold ice; Ranma had never given up. And I'll be damned if I can't do what Ranma does ten times better.

Those palm strikes were powerful; Ryoga could still feel his arms throbbing from the last blow. He could not risk being struck in the chest or gut by such attacks again. The damage to his internal organs could be devastating, perhaps crippling. He would have to block. His arms would take a beating, but it would not be fatal and he had suffered bruised and torn muscles before, his arms always stronger after they had healed. At least this way he would still have a chance, toe to toe with his opponent.

A roar ripped from his throat as he charged, swinging his right hand across in a slicing ridgehand strike, eyes locked on his opponent, watching for the counter.

It came swiftly as Brand swerved to Ryoga's inside, cutting Ryoga's attack aside with the edge of his hand as he thrust a palm towards Ryoga's face.

Ryoga brought his guard up in a flash, tucking his chin into his shoulder as he covered his face with his forearm, wincing as the energy of his enemy's strike lanced along his bone. He recovered quickly by jumping forwards and brought his knee up in a tight arc that pounded on the red-haired man's side.

Brand stumbled to side, arms dropping as he wavered, allowing Ryoga to bring his hand down in a hard chop, hacking into the sensitive muscle where the shoulder met the neck.

His enemy growled, face contorting into a grimace, but countered with explosive speed, lashing out with an uppercut that smacked into Ryoga's jaw before he could see more that a blue blur. His teeth clacked together as Brand's fist drove them into each other. He staggered back, falling victim to a swift palm to the ribs that made his side blaze.

He's faster than I thought, Ryoga thought bitterly as he was forced back by a flurry of blows, his legs working to backpedal out of the range of Brand's flashing palms. He slipped sideways as the larger man shifted, stepping along a circular path to come at Ryoga from the flank.

Ryoga pivoted, keeping his opponent to the front so that he could continue to guard. He brought his lead arm up in a sharp crescent, bashing aside an attacking arm with a powerful twist of his forearm before he flicked the limb down, using his elbow to snap his arm straight and knock away a palm strike that was rising low towards his belly.

He shot his rear hand into stiff cross, but his fist slapped wetly against the flesh of Brand's palm as he caught the blow cleanly and countered, a palm floating upwards like a rising clouds, but with much more force. Ryoga swept his hand down and grabbed the hand at the wrist before it could connect with the soft flesh beneath his chin.

Their eyes locked and narrowed, hazel green to blazes of blue. The air hazed and boiled in the mere handís-breadth of space between their faces. Each peeled back their lips to bare their teeth, Ryoga's fanged snarl almost feral as he returned Brand's tight-lipped growl. He twisted his fist within Brand's palm, trying to free his hand whilst he tightened his grip on the other man's hand with vice-like fingers.

Both warriors struggled in each other's grasp, but were held fast by their monstrous strength. However, like a shark that thrashed and bit beneath the calm surface of the water, the legs of each fighter kicked at battered at each other. Ryoga swung out with a quick sweep that flicked his enemy's foot from the grass but did not topple him. Brand responded by hacking at the lost boy's shinbone with the point of his boot.

With a shout Ryoga bunched his muscles and shoved with all his strength, driving his captured arm back with enough force to strike Brand with his own hand. The grip on his fist weakened, and he tore himself free, seizing hold of Brand's coat and twisting around until his hip bumped across his opponents. Pulling on Brand's wrist, he twisted his handful of embroidered silk until his forearm was under Brand's armpit, allowing Ryoga to hoist the other man up and fling him over his shoulder like he was casting a javelin.

Brand rolled head over heels in the air, landed with a thud on his back. Ryoga bolted down on his enemy, determined to seize on the advantage, raising his arm for a hammering blow. His charge halted as his face was whipped around by Brand's foot as the Chinese rolled into a flailing kick.

Ryoga stepped back as he blinked rapidly, trying to clear the swarming motes that danced over his vision. A stiff kick snapped into his gut, but he gave no ground, bringing his hands up into a solid guard; tucking his fists at the sides of his chin, arm forming a wall over his torso.

Brand launched a volley of furious attacks. Blow after blow splashed against Ryoga's forearms like waves in a storm, crashing upon the cliff face. It was as if the fiery-maned man had hidden extra limbs that he now used to barrage Ryoga with fierce palm strikes. Clenching his jaw and stifling the wince that threatened to seep through his fangs, he weathered the assault, shifting his waist to bring his shield in the path off every blow, covering himself from all angles. His arms felt like heated lead, a heavy weight that seemed to burn his nerves from the inside. He swore he could almost feel the bone melting.

Knowing he could not hold out much longer, he threw a blind punch through the first, tiny gap that he saw in the bombarding attacks. He joy at feel his knuckles slap hard against flesh and bone turned to sour, gut-wrenching pain as Brand slammed a palm into his floating ribs.

The air in his lungs burst from his mouth with a deluge of blood, his body folding like wet paper. Two hands clapped down on both shoulders with a jet of energy that drilled through his body and drove him to his knees. White lights flashed like fireworks as a knee drove into his face.

Damn it, Ryoga thought, pushing the pain aside and trusting his body to handle the blow. He reached up and grabbed Brand's leg as it was still grinding into his nose. With a growl his threw the leg back and fell forwards, stabbing a finger into the grass.


The ground erupted in a geyser of dirt and grass. Ignoring the hammering chunks of earth that showered him, Ryoga closed his eyes and held his breath as a cloud of black soil rose in an explosive gout. He rolled out of the path of the blast, pressing one arm into the dirt as a pivot to swing his legs and body around in a sweeping half circle.

Rising behind Brand, he wrapped his arms around the larger man's waist and pressed himself close, moulding himself to his opponents' wide back as if embracing him. Tightening his grip like a closing noose, he clasped his hands around both wrists and, rooting his feet into the earth, hoisted his foe up and fell back wards like a felled tree. At the last moment his pressed down with his legs and bent his body into a crab-like arch, driving Brand's head into the ground.

Wasting no time after the suplex, Ryoga threw his hips to the side and scooted from beneath the other man. Taking hold of Brand's wrist he slid beneath the arm and brought both of his legs crashing down, one across the chest and the other across the throat, the captured limb held tight between his thighs. Pulling back and lifting his hips, Brand's arm was yanked straight, elbow bending backwards over Ryoga's pelvis.

Brand snarled and writhed like a wolf caught in a bear trap. Ryoga could feel the man's biceps bunching against his thigh and the tendons corded beneath his fingers as the Chinese fighter struggled to escape. He free arms clawed and pounded at Ryoga's legs, trying to shift their weight from pinning him to the ground.

Ryoga leaned back, applying more pressure into the arm bar, paralysing Brand with pain. The man's movement halted as the joint was displaced, the elbow forced along an unnatural direction.

"Give up, or I'll break it," Ryoga said, biting out each words.

Brand just glowered, the blue fires so intense they were like twin cerulean suns. "Let me go," he hissed.

"Apologise for calling me a pervert and I'll think about it." Ryoga arched his back, forcing his hips against Brand's vulnerable joint.

"You'll let me go now."

A foul, brunt stench filled Ryoga's nostrils, making his nose twitch. Then searing pan blazed through his legs as if a branding iron had been clamped onto the flesh of his calf. Eyes wide, he saw smoke rising from where Brand's free hand gripped his leg, thin wispy tendrils wafting from between his fingers.

With a screech Ryoga dropped the arm he had trapped and pushed himself into a backwards roll, gaining distance by tumbling back over his shoulders until he was sitting, legs outstretched, four paces from his foe.

He gawped, his mouth hanging open, at the calf that was sending searing screams of pain through his muscles. A twisted, deformed hole had torn the fabric of his pants and the bindings he had wound around hems of his trousers hanging in tatters, the threads blackened and curled at the charred tips. Through the scorched hole he could see his flesh glowing red and smeared with blood, the skin peeling away like wood shavings.

"The breaking point?" his opponent said, rising to his feet. "I admit that I have underestimated you." Glaring at Ryoga, he gripped the gilded cuff of his coat and rolled his sleeve up past his elbow. "I was just going to beat you up for seducing my sister, however, since you don't look like a civil engineer to me…" He repeated the action with the other sleeve. "…I can no longer go easy on you."

The air resonated with a sudden pulse and Brand's right arm was suddenly wreathed in scarlet fire. Flicking orange fingers writhed and pulsated around his arm yet the man's face was impassive, ominously cast in dark shadows and wavering light. He outstretched the fire-clad hand slowly and the air before him began to shimmer and warp as if stirred.

Ryoga pushed himself into a crouch, face screwing into a grimace as heat seemed to be reborn in his leg. He tensed, pulse racing in his ears,

Fire belched from Brand's palm, wild streams of crimson flames that shot from his fist. The threads of flame wound about each other, twisting themselves into a tight spiral and forming a thick bar of fire that streaked towards Ryoga.

Ryoga threw himself onto his shoulder and rolled to the side as the stream of hot plasma scorched the ground he had knelt upon. The earth turned to a crater of blackened dirt and twisted husk of charred grass, small flames still burning.

"Kasen Dan." Brand swept his hand in a fast arc and five thin bolts of flame, like flickering red missiles, fanned out from his hands.

Ryoga flung himself aside into a one handed handspring that launched him back at an angle as the fire arrows hit the ground with a string to tiny explosions. He landed with his hand up defensively, but his stance wavered as his burnt leg roared blossomed with pain, echoed by his left arm. With a panicked cry he slapped his hand repeatedly against his shoulder, beating out the fire eating through his jerkin.

His gnawed at his bottom lip with his fangs, shudders running through his body until his muscles seemed to resonate. His knees rattled, cold streaks shot up his back and his jaw shivered as he breathed. His throat stung as he swallowed reflexively, his mouth having gone dry and sticky.

That fire, he thought, as he pictured the twisting beams of flames that Brand had used against him. Saffron used that attack! His body quivered again, a more violent tremor running down his spine.

They launched themselves at each other, rising from their perches and flying into the air and clashing in a flurry of fists and feet. Ranma slammed a hard right into Blitz's face, feeling the cheek give beneath his knuckles. It kept on giving, however, as his opponent spun with the attack, turning his body faster than the punch and weakening the impact. Ranma gasped as Blitz used his turn to bring his knee swinging into his kidneys. He clapped both hands to his side as the impact rolled him in the air.

Still spinning, Blitz brought other leg over in an arc, smashing the heel down into Ranma's spine and sending him plummeting to the ground below like a bomb, the forest shaking with the impact.

The breath seemed to explode in his chest as the ground slammed into his back like a freight train. The earth seemed to turn to powder as he hit the ground, a cloud of fine dirt rising like smoke, then falling back onto his face, forcing him to scrunch his eyes closed against the showering soil.

Gritting his teeth, he rolled out of the crater his landing had dug into the earth and pushed himself onto his hands and knees, spitting out a mouthful of foul tasting dirt. He lifted his head, wiping his chin on the back of his sleeve as he glared at his smirking foe, who stood perched on the swaying tip of a branch as if it were a pedestal just for him. His arms were folded across his chest, his lips curled in that same, crooked smile.

Arrogant jerk, Ranma thought as he leapt onto the bough of an opposing tree. His muscles raged in protest, and he slipped as he landed, forcing him to bend down and grab the branch to secure his grip. I can't take much more, he thought in a rush, his mind feeling an echo from the pain of Blitz's electrocution attack.

He could feel the air grow denser, heat shifting around the warriors. However, he knew it was useless to him. There was no way he could form the spiral dance amongst the densely crowded trees, not with Blitz hunting him. I bet that's why the bastard knocked me in here, damn him.

A wild roar snapped him back to his situation and he leapt high as Blitz crashed down from above, leg slicing through the branch he had crouched on as Ranma gripped the one above their heads. Flipping around, fingers burning on the rough bark, he spun on the branch like a trapeze before launching himself straight down, both knees slamming down on Blitz's head. Blitz fell, and Ranma streaked after him, straightening himself into a descending arrow.

His eyes widened as he watched his foe take control of his fall, tucking himself into a ball and spinning end over end. The blond man landed on his feet with barely a whisper on the ground and shot himself back up like a bullet.

Ranma tried to snap his arms up to block, but Blitz just powered through, his arm slipping beneath Ranma's crossed arms to slam into the pigtailed boy's face with a rising uppercut, sending him floating upwards, blood streaming from his mouth.

"Niryu Happa Shou."

Two palm strikes slammed rapidly into his chest and seemed to detonate, hurtling Ranma back through the air. He crashed and snapped through twigs, wooden fingers clawing through at his face and hands.

Got you now, you bastard, Ranma thought as he threw his head back and spun backwards. Now flying feet first, he pulled his torso into his knee, compressing his body like a spring. The souls of his feet met a branch and he squeezed himself smaller as the bough flexed beneath him. The wooden limb swayed back, yielding to Ranma's momentum but not breaking, absorbing the energy into its bend. Then it lashed forwards like a whip with a snapping noise that cracked the air, and flung its cargo like a trebuchet stone.

Ranma could hear the air tear as he was catapulted forward. His braid trailed behind him like a streamer and the torn fabric of his clothes flapped and swayed around his body, the fierce blast of the wind ripping his shirt open as he sliced through the air. He watched Blitz's eyes widen and the blood drain from his face and smirked.

Damn right, jerk, he thought as he pushed himself into a spin as he closed in on his foe, adding spiralling power to his body as he channelled all of the immense energy from his air splitting motion into one mighty blow.


His foot lashed into Blitz's chest with force that could shatter the mountain, and Ranma felt the wet splatter of his enemy's saliva as it was forced from his belly. Then with a scream Blitz was sent flying backwards, felling trees as he was sent smashing through the trunks, the repeated impacts barely hindering his momentum before he disappeared into the dark forest.

"Got you," Ranma whispered as he landed in a crouch on a tree. Then his vision wavered and blurred as a wave of nausea hit his body. Reeling he tumbled to the floor.

Shit, he thought as blackness seeped in.

Lifting a hand, he brought it whipping into his face with all the strength he could muster. C'mon, Saotome, he cried harshly to himself, Get up, damn it. He slapped himself again trying to drive back the blanket of unconsciousness that threatened to engulf him.

Get up!

"Kasen Dan"

Ryoga flexed the muscles of his legs to power himself into the air, leaping up as the long darts of blazing fire streaked beneath his feet. With a snarl he twisted his body round in a hard roundhouse kick as he descended towards his foe, forcing the fire master to raise both hands in defence. The kick bounced harmlessly off the wall Brand formed with forearm and hand, the ball of his foot smacking against his palm. Ryoga landed in a crouch, but rose quickly with an uppercut that dug from the outside into his opponent's ribs like a shovel.

Brand grunted, but struck back and Ryoga leapt back to dodge the hooking, flame-clad hand that swung across his body. Then he was forced to dive to the floor and roll rapidly to extinguish the fire that hand fallen onto his clothes.

"Bastard," Ryoga growled as he rose to a tense crouch and regarded his enemy with narrowed eyes. If I stay close, he fries me with flaming fists, but if I keep at a distance he grills me with those fire blasts. Either way, I'm cooked. He shuddered, the situation brushing against a fear he had carried since the day he had walked from Jusenkyou a cursed man. Inhaling a deep breath, he steeled himself, one hand reaching towards the knot of his bandanas.

A sudden crash whipped his head around as a body came hurtling from the forest, breaking through trees before it hit the ground like a fallen star, digging a deep furrow into the earth and raising a tidal wave of dirt before it as it slid to a stop.

"Blitz?" Brand cried, taking a sudden step forward before halting his eyes turned with a glare towards Ryoga, who gawped heedlessly at the scene.

It was Blitz.

The blond man lay in a crater, his clothes smeared with mud, his hair a tangled mess, spikes sticking out from his head at all angles. With a loud groan that emphasised the grimace on his dirt-caked face, eyes squinting and teeth clenched, he dug two hands into the ground and pushed them straight. He hefted his torso upright and was seized by a fit of coughs, mud streaming in drips of saliva from his lips as his shoulders racked with each dry heave.

A faint snap made all eyes flash back to the dense blanket of trees as Ranma tottered out, his steps slow and unsteady as he staggered a few paces right before stumbling left, weaving an unsteady path. His arms hung at his sides as if they were cast from lead, shoulders rising and falling with the ragged breath he pulled through his slack, panting mouth. His shirt hung open, blackened scorch marks marring the red silk, and a myriad of other nicks and tears were bitten from his sleeves and pants. One eye was heavy-lidded, drooping half shut as he inched forward on his wobbling feet, but he still wore the same smirk of pride that Ryoga had seen many times before, and it still made the other boy glow in a way that galled him.

It dropped from his lips as Blitz pushed himself onto his knee, his body trembling and his suave demeanour lost as he roared, spittle flying from his mouth.

The soil exploded around him in a ring of flying dust, like a blast of silent thunder. His aura blazed into sight, writhing around him like a white haze and stricken with forks of pale blue lightening.

"<Blitz you fool,>" Brand yelled to his brother in Chinese. "<It'll hit us all>."

Blitz made no response, but spread his arms wide like wings, crackling bolts snapping around his fingers and giving him feathers of lightning.

"<Shit,>" Brand cursed and turned to fling himself to the ground, burying his head beneath his arms.

This must be bad, Ryoga thought. "RUN, RANMA!" he yelled to the pigtailed boy before imitating his opponent and throwing his himself for cover.

Ranma had begun backpedalling for the forest as he watched the energy around Blitz crack and burn the air, unwilling to take his eyes off of his enemy but knowing he could not stay where he was. Yet his muscles were worn and exhausted. They protested each movement, until he knew he was too late and he braced himself, throwing his crossed arms in front of his face.


There was a great roar as if he was enveloped by thunder, the screaming of the air coming from all around him. Then there was the sound of rushing air filling his ears.

White light consumed everything.


To be continued.

Author's notes: Okay, so here's where I cover my arse from all sides.

Firstly, I am not a homophobe. I do not have anything against homosexuals or homosexuality, or endorse the use of derogatory phrases about it. The angry build up between Blitz and Ranma was just following from simple logic: the main influence on Ranma's life and opinions was Genma "raise my son to be a man-amongst-men" Saotome, and the panda does not seem the most tolerant type concerning such things. I doubt he would raise he son to be, either, and Ranma would have picked that opinion up at an early age. In fact, based on the series, no one in the manga/show seems to have a particularly fair opinion of homosexuality anyway.

Also, I've portrayed Blitz as a bit of a player (in his own mind at least) and he bases much of his identity and pride on that. How do you expect him to feel after he finds out he hit on a guy? And in true Takahashi style, it must be someone elseís fault — and as usual, Ranma's.

Secondly, I am not plagiarising Naruto by having Brand use palm strikes to strike from within. That is an essential part of Bagua Zhang, the martial art Kishimoto Masashi also used for his inspiration for the Hyuuga Jyuuken style (e.g. Neji's Hakkeshou Kaiten — Hakkeshou is the Japanese word for Bagua Zhang.)

That done, I hope you all enjoyed the chapter, please let me know what you thought of the fight scene, since it's the biggest one yet and took a lot of work.

Thanks for reading.



Naihanchi Nidan: 'To stand upon uneven ground: second level'. The second kata in the Naihanchi series, which expands and emphasises the combat principles of the Naihanchi style. Incorporated into the Anything Goes school, but less practised in the Tendo style as Soun Tendo would often move on to more advanced kata after teaching Naihanchi Shodan.

Noopan: 'No panties'. An original kata of Anything Goes School of martial arts as created by Grandmaster Happosai, and emphasising swift, speedy strikes. It is named for the original training method: stealing panties from girls who were wearing them without being caught.

Niryu Happa Shou: 'Two-dragon exploding palm'. An advanced technique of Bagua Zhang, taught in the Thunder forms of the Eight Masters. Two palm strikes delivered in rapid succession produce an explosive blast that launches the opponent away.

Niryu Maku Satsu: 'Two-dragon coiling death'. Another technique of the Thunder form, where the master uses both hands to channel electric current into an opponent.

Kasen Dan: 'Fire arrow bullets'. A technique of the Fire form of Bagua Masters. Several small bolts of flame are formed and launched at the opponent.

Ryusei Kyaku: 'Shooting star kick'. A technique of the Anything Goes School of martial arts where great momentum is gathered by elastic collisions and focussed into a powerful kick attack.

Jinrai Senkou: 'Thunderclap flare'. A desperation technique of the Thunder form.

Book 2, Chapter 6
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