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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 Seven: The Ladies of the Lakes

The droplet shimmered and rippled as it slid down the expanse of pale skin, leaving a shining trail in its wake. Light danced across the trembling skin of its watery form, the orange glow from the setting sun flooding in through the shogi doors and playing across the drop like fiery sparks captured in rippling glass. It came to a precipice, having slid down a sharp slope of contoured bone and now hung, clinging to the edge until it was flicked away into the air as Akane jerked her head back and launched the bead of sweat from the tip of her nose. It hovered for the barest of instants, achieving the perfection of a flawless sphere until it was shattered into a myriad of tiny droplets as a gymnastic club flew through it.

Akane tried to swallow through her laboured panting. A hard lump had formed in her throat as she felt the tips of her blue-black tresses tossed by the air cleaved in the path of the spinning club. She heard the weapon thud against the dojo wall and clatter against the ground. Barely restraining a small sigh, she stepped back into the naihanchi stance, twisting her heels out and turning her knees towards each other despite the protests of her inner thigh muscles. Her mind suddenly felt empty, numb as if her thoughts had been frozen in her head. She shot a quick glance at her sensei, noting the large man's eyes narrow fractionally behind the lenses of his glasses, and scrabbled through her brain for her place in the kata.

She thrust her right arm out straight and bent her left across her body, fist beneath her right elbow as it locked, the sleeve of her gi snapping. She then yanked the arm back to her side, clawing the air and twisting it savagely until her fist lay on her belt fingers towards the sky. Her left forearm swiped up and outwards, pivoting at the elbow as if to bat away an offending hand. She shot her right fist in a straight uppercut towards her invisible opponent.

Your opponent must be with you at all times, Genma Saotome had told her, his step loud on the dojo floor as he circled around her, watching her move through the form. Not just in the dojo when he moves and breathes, but every waking moment, even if he is only a phantom carved in your mind by your own imagination. He should be there at school and on the street as a tingling in your mind, like the mouse that can feel the gaze of the falcon from the trees. When you perform the kata, don't just move, you must see the attack and respond, feel the enemy crumble beneath your knuckles. Strike with intent, strike to win; above all, never let the desire for victory leave your heart. Never.

Akane squinted her eyes, brows knitting together and she frowned, willing her opponent to appear before her. It was like trying to create a person out of the air, trying to grasp at the insubstantial and glue the pieces together with fickle concentration before it slipped away. A spectre of thin lines and fuzzy form appeared and disappeared as if being transmitted across a crackling connection, fragments of its body flickering in and out of white noise. Sometimes it was male, towering above her with muscles that bulged with power she could never hope for. Other times it was a woman, its hazy half-formed body possessing sultry, feminine curves that filled her with envy. The figure's hair morphed and phased as Akane's thoughts wandered from the imaginings of her foe to the realities of her tiring body; one moment it had dark hair bound in a single tail of flickering shadow, then it would have odango that swayed with the soft chime of bells; most often it bore a pigtail that shifted black and scarlet as the image wavered.

The phantom winked out of existence with a high ring that pierced her ears…

…and she was forced to block the medicine ball that was launched at her chest, gritting her teeth as it crashed against her crossed forearms, the hard leather biting into her skin. The impact rocked her, and she bent her knee and drove her hips down, sinking her weight lower as if sticking her bare feet to the tatami below.

"Keep going," Genma barked.

Ignoring the stinging flesh beneath her gi, she ploughed on through the kata. She turned her body and pulled her hands to her right hip, her left palm pressing on her right fist. Uncoiling her body she twisted forward, her hands swinging up until all her force was unfurled behind an elbow strike that cut into her imaginary foes chest. The fierce blow was coupled with a hard stomp of her heel, the floor creaking beneath her.

She was ready this time, seeing a glint of light playing across metal on the fringe of her vision. She turned her head to see a blur of white resolve into her sensei, his arm unfurling like a sling to cast the steel hoop in an arcing path towards her neck. Abandoning her stance she let herself fall forward, the hoop sweeping over the curve of her spine as she stretched one arm towards the floor and rolled across her shoulders. A hiss escaped her clenched teeth, as the hard floor seemed to beat at her body, making the rough fabric of her gi rub across the still ribbon-raw skin of her neck.

Slapping her hand against the tatami, Akane came onto her feet and pivoted on her heels towards Genma. The large man flicked his wrist and sent a pink length of ribbon rippling towards her. Knowing that blocking would get her wrapped like a present, Akane instead leapt to the side. Genma twisted the rod in his fingers and a pulse shot through the silk making the weapon change its direction like a snake dancing to the sound of a flute.

The ribbon traced through a quick loop and then shot low, streaking towards her left ankle. Akane leapt again, this time throwing her legs up higher than her body so that her torso felt to the ground first. Bracing one hand against the ground she pushed her body up and over to her other arm, cartwheeling out of the path of the striking ribbon.

Lifting her head as she spun over her hands, Akane tried to keep her gaze fixed on her opponent. All she could see was his thick, gi-clad legs; one reached out to the side and hooked the medicine ball with his toes. Her eyes widened as he rolled the leather-skinned orb to him and, with the control of a Brazilian soccer player, booted the ball towards her. Akane squeezed her eyes closed and tried to brace for the fall she knew was coming.

Unable to do anything but tighten her muscles, she felt her right hand get ploughed from beneath her, and she fell hard. Her shoulders slammed against the mats and her head bounced off the floor, lights flashing trough her head in coruscating sparks. Her legs and trunk came down, dropping like a chopped tree. A grunt slipped from her mouth as bruised hips jarred on the floor.

She lay there for a moment, her body flat against the dojo floor and her arms spread limply. It did not seem right to move while the back of her skull still throbbed and her heart seemed to sink through her body and deep into the earth. She let out a long sigh amidst her heavy panting, and the movement of her chest made her bruised ribs burn.

"Ow," she muttered.

She heard her sensei release a long, long breath of air, making a gruff sound that was half sigh and half moan. "Again?" he asked, as if not believing his eyes and needing confirmation of what he had seen. Akane heard a muted smack, which she was sure was the sound of him slapping a palm to his forehead.

"Jerk," she growled weakly. Her fingertips turned white as she pressed them hard against the mats and forced herself up to her elbows. Akane's face screwed into a tight grimace as her muscles and bruises roared their protest.

"That's the fifth time in half an hour, Akane," Genma pronounced with a slow shake of his head, the knot of his head kerchief bobbing on his thick neck. "That would also make it the twelfth time since we began this exercise today."

That explains why I ache so much, she concluded absently. Most of her attention and energies were being channelled into gathering her sore body from the floor and trying to reduce her sensei to ash with a fiery glare.

"Instead of sulking, girl, you might want to correct the mistake you seem determined to make over and over again," Genma said, brows furrowing over his spectacles as he frowned down his nose at her, somehow seeming taller than he was.

"I am not sulking," she growled, staring daggers into the elder Saotome. "Are you going to tell me what my mistake is, since I'm obviously in the dark?" She let her words trail into a sneer, indicating exactly whose fault her ignorance was.

"I believe I mentioned something about spoonfeeding when we began," Genma drawled, hooking his thumbs in the tight space between his belt and his rounded gut, one thin eyebrow quirking as he launched his next barb. "I have given you everything you need to complete this exercise. However, if you're too stupid to work it out…" he let the words trail off, finishing his thoughts with an exaggerated shrug.

Akane could feel herself begin to seethe, her skin prickling with sudden heat until she thought her sweat would turn to hot steam venting from the collar of her gi.

"Everything?" she hissed, like a kettle reaching the boil. She fought to keep from yelling or screaming, and her body quivered from the effort. "No matter how important you feel the naihanchi kata is, sensei," acid dripped from the title, "I can't see how stamping sideways will help a barrage of gymnastic equipment."

Genma snorted, "Perhaps you would find out if you tried it."

It was impossible to hold back this time. "What's that supposed to mean?" she cried. "I'VE BEEN TRYING ALL DAMNED MORNING!" She took a furious step forward, the movement matched by Genma, his face red like a thunder god's.

"DON'T FLATTER YOUSELF, GIRL!" he roared at her, before his shoulders seemed to deflate as the sound of his yell bounced of the dojo walls. Pushing his spectacles further up the bridge of his nose, he cleared his throat loudly. "There were no cartwheels in any of the three Naihanchi kata when I checked last, so I can't help wonder why you did one."

"What?" Akane muttered, blinking twice. He could not possibly be asking what it seemed he was.

"There are no cartwheels, forward rolls, flips or handstands in the kata, so why do them?" he rubbed at his chin as he frowned at her, the way a carpenter inspects a rickety join.

Akane gripped the hem of her gi, knuckles turning white as she squeezed the fabric. "Well," she said slowly, trailing the words through gritted teeth. "It may have something to do with the idiot throwing steel hoops at my head."

"Show some respect, girl, and you still haven't answered my question."

"What more do you want?" Akane growled. "You threw things, I got out the way. I thought that was the point of all this? What do you want me to tell you?"

"How about the truth?" Genma said in a tone so casual she almost missed the way his lips twisted on the last word, as if something sour had found its way into his mouth.

"Truth?" Akane spat. "You," she said with as much contempt as she could pump into the word, "are the last person to lecture about truth."

The barb did not faze Genma in the least, who tucked his thumbs behind his belt and thrust out his chest. "I am wise enough to know when to use the truth and when to… um… bend it." His brows lowered as Akane's snort hit the air like a whip crack. "However I am not so stupid as to hide the truth from myself."

"Who's hiding?" she hissed, she felt the fire rise inside her and gripped it, like holding the hilt of a sword waiting for the draw. "I'm not hiding anything from anyone."

"The answer to my question is that you are trying to match Kodachi."

"Isn't that what you claimed you would teach me? Or were all those words about hard training just smoke to stop your wife from skinning you," Akane spat, folding her arms beneath her breasts, her body quivering with fury.

"I said I would help you defeat Kodachi, not match her, and that is what you are trying to do. Or perhaps it is Ranma who you wish to match?"

Akane sniffed sharply, "Why should I want to match anything that pervert or that psycho does?"

As her words hung in the air they seemed to become splintered by the sound of breaking wood that echoed within the vault of her memories, blending with an image of her fist smashing through the dojo wall. Her eyes had widened and the sound of a gasp, she distantly recognised as her own, floated in the air as she realised her target had disappeared. Her eyes rolled to the top of her head and saw what had once seemed a red and black blur but now, through the perfect lens of hindsight, she saw a beautiful girl seemingly float through the air like a swallow in flight, scarlet braid trailing behind her as she pushed her body into a elegant spin and somersaulted behind Akane's stunned form.

Like a mocking slap another memory came to haunt her, starting with loose threads of thought, the scent of rose petals, the sensation of rough wooden rungs beneath her hands as she climbed the ladder to her roof, and weaving together into a rooftop at night.

The moon had been full, riding high in the sky like a bright pearl. Its light lit the woman's pale skin until she glowed in the night as she leant over the young man, her bound hair like a tail of darkness and the perfect contours of her high cheekbones framed with luscious black curls. The boy beneath shivered with a breathy gasp; a rational part of her mind told her that it was a reaction of fear as the boy found himself rendered immobile by the dust clinging to his lungs. However another part saw trembling lust as the pale girl licked her red lips in a way that seemed so sultry and so sexual, Akane could feel her stomach grow bleak with envy as she recalled it. She gripped tighter to her anger, purging the cold with its heat until it vanished like vapour, wafted away on the wind.

"Grace, talent, ability," Genma said in the present, driving the words at her with an insufferable smirk that suggested that he had read her thoughts. "The same as so many others these days. They see the films with their high kicks and fancy effects, and they decide they want to do martial arts." he snorted. "As if that can be called martial arts."

"I'm nothing like that, I'm a serious martial artist," Akane protested, jerking hard on the ties of her belt.

"Is it really that different?" Genma asked slyly. "You watch Ranma and Kodachi flip and jump throughout their match and you want to do it too."

Akane glowered "Is that so wrong? That's how Ranma won that match, after all."

"Is it really?" The large man said softly. "I'd suggest you rethink that, and also remember that Ranma fought Kodachi in a rhythmic gymnastics ring. That fight would've lasted less than two seconds if Ranma hadn't played by the rules, and since Kodachi seems unlikely to do so when she comes for you, it won't take her that long to cripple you if you decide to give her the empty show you've given me so far."

Akane swallowed hard as a lump like a chunk of bitter ice seemed to swell in her throat. The ribbon marks around her neck blazed, reminding her of what lay on the line, and she felt a small tremor slide down the curve of her spine. Seizing the hot fury once again, she beat at the black dread gnawing her guts and stuffed it deep within her, flinging the excess lava at the man in front of her.

"Well, Mister Saotome," she growled, pounding out each word like a blacksmith's hammer. "If you know so much, stop telling me what I can't do and teach me something that I can."

"Such as?" Genma asked, the words drawn out on a tired sigh that made Akane's teeth grind.

"ANYTHING!" Akane cried, the word exploding from her as she threw her hands up, slashing the air with a fierce arc.

Her sensei bowed his head until his eyes became fixed on the floor and shook his head slowly, the knot of his bandana sweeping along the collar of his gi. His wide shoulders heaved and then deflated as a long sigh slid from his nostrils.

"Oh, that it has come to this," he said softly. Then his posture snapped upright, his head thrown back as he wailed at the heavens. "Oh, what woe has befallen the Anything Goes School of Martial Arts," he cried, a river of tears falling from his thin eyes. "The foolish young heir runs to distant lands and leaves the Tendo dojo without a true martial artist to defend it. How it breaks my poor heart."

Akane jerked as if slapped. Since Genma had taken the reins of her training she had felt herself grow closer and closer to an invisible barricade, a barrier drawn in the sands between teacher and student, daughter and houseguest, spouse and father-in-law. Each insult that fell from the lips of the Saotome master battered against that wall like a besieging army pressing at the gates. As Genma's words now hung in the air, the wall fell with crash that Akane could hear ring within her mind.

"I… am… a… true… martial artist," she bit out through clenched teeth, each word making a quiver run through her body and her nails bite into the flesh of her palms. "You JERK!" she roared and threw herself at the fat martial artist.

Genma tensed, his eyes narrowing as the flow of false tears ended. The blade of Akane's foot thrust towards his solar plexus, and he barely moved. He pivoted on the ball of his right foot, bringing the left towards himself until the heels met at a wide angle. He had not advanced, retreated or sidestepped, yet Akane's kick missed him completely as his broad body slipped from its path the way the matador escapes the horns of the bull.

His hands simultaneously drew two opposing circles in the narrowing gap between them as Akane's momentum brought her crashing towards him, launching a fist from her hip. His left hand swept her leg further aside whilst his right knocked her fist the opposite way, opening her body like swinging doors. The hands completed their arc, closing tight to his breast before shooting out, one atop the other with the heels of his palms touching and fingers splayed, like the jaws of a pouncing tiger.

The strike slammed into Akane's chest, shocking her sternum and mashing her cleavage painfully. Her gasp rasped in her own ears as air was expelled forcefully from her lungs and her leg seemed to leap from under her, letting her fly backward until her back bounced off the dojo wall, rocking the sign in its mountings. She grimaced as she arched her spine and pushed her shoulders back already feeling the ache settle upon her shoulder blades.

Genma yanked the hem of his gi jacket stiffly, pulling the material taut beneath his belt and closing the fold that revealed the swollen curve of his gut. He cleared his throat gruffly before speaking, not even meeting Akane's blazing glare.

"I think that has determined which of us knows more of the Art and its nature."

Akane scowled, eyes narrowing at the bald man whilst she pressed herself against the wooden slats of the wall and began sliding herself to her feet. Just as she raised her bottom from the tatami, she grimaced and pushed forward, unwilling to give Genma the satisfaction of watching her use a support to pick herself up. Here eyes widened when she found it far easier than she expected, the muscles of her back and chest throbbed with the promise of dark bruises, but did not truly hurt. The relief then turned sour, like cream curdling in her mouth and her jaw tightened as she realised that Genma had pulled his punch.

"How can you say you know about the Art?" she muttered in a low voice. "Your greatest technique is running away."

Genma's mouth compressed to a thin line and the muscles of his jaw bunched in a way that made the cords of his thick neck stand out. "Stupid girl, you have just proven me right," he said, eyes thinning to baleful slits behind his glasses. "Martial arts are not about techniques."

"Garbage!" Akane yelled. "Of course it's about the techniques. The fighter with the stronger techniques wins, that's how Ranma beat Ryoga and Ryu Kumon and even Picollet. The technique is what makes the victory. "

The large man's head swivelled towards her slowly. His eyes were wide behind his lenses until the irises were surrounded by a ring of white and his eyebrows tried to crawl beneath the band of his headwrap. "What?" he gasped, the sound dying as his mouth worked silently. Then he frowned, staring at her as if he had never seen her before, as if he could not believe she was standing there in the flesh.

"You don't get it," he said finally, his voice gruff but quiet, anger and pity melding in the deep rumble of his tone. "Everything you've seen since my son and I first came in here, all the battles that idiot has gotten himself into, all those fights that he has won, many of them fought for you, and you still don't get it."

"Get what!" she growled.

"I can't tell you."

"YOU NEVER CAN TELL ME," she roared. "All this wisdom you claim to have, oh master, but you never share it. How am I supposed to trust it?"

"You don't need to trust me," Genma snapped. "Just do as I say." His face softened and he sighed. "Akane, I cannot tell you, this most of all. It's not a mere hint, or a rule of thumb. What you are missing is the very foundation of the Anything Goes School of Martial Arts. It is like a religion. You cannot simply know it; you must live it, every minute of every day that you are alive. You cannot be told, you have to find it and feel it down inside, knowing it is the truth."

Akane snorted but said nothing, her mind unable to find the hole that would allow her to launch a proper retort.

Scowling, Genma pivoted on his heels and slowly began marching towards the doorway, heels thudding on the tatami floor with each step.

"We can't go on until you take the truth into your heart and accept it. No student of Anything Goes is complete without it. Until you come to know this principle, you will never be a true martial artist."

"What is that…?" she began, taking an angry step forwards but Genma overrode her with his more powerful voice.

"Stop whining and yelling, girl," he barked. "Kodachi wants you dead. You have no time to complain. I would suggest you start thinking. Hard!"

"Think about what?" Akane spat. "How the hell am I supposed to discover this magical answer when you haven't even told me the problem?"

That made Genma pause midstep, his right foot hovered above the floor for a moment before he pulled it back and placed it softly beside his left. Akane could not see his face, only the grimy white wall of his gi pulled taut across his back.

"Start where you went wrong," he said finally. "You've watched Ranma fight, but you don't understand, so think back to how he fought and how he won. Picture him in your mind, every movement. That shouldn't be too difficult for his fiancée."

"Who wants to think about jerk?" Akane griped immediately. However, as the words faded from the air an image had already accreted in her mind. It was Ranma, lips curved into a grin that made her heart beat against her ribs from the recollection. In her mind she watched him smirk as he ducked beneath the swipe of Kuno's bokken, but where the Kendoka was a slightly blurred, watery figure, like a portrait rendered in runny ink, Ranma was resolved in perfect detail. The light shimmered across his silken shirt whilst shadows played across the angles of his face. Even his morning-sky eyes glistened with more life than any photograph.

Akane shook her head, casting away the memory before it could draw her in too deeply. The image shimmered and fragmented like the reflection in a pond when a stone was cast into the still water. The sound of wood rattling drew her eyes to the door that Genma had slid open, pausing as he stepped through.

"Remember the Hibiki boy in particular, Akane. Ranma has fought him many times and won." He paused and cleared his throat with aplomb before stepping the rest of his body through the shogi door. "When you can tell me which technique is more powerful, the Chestnut Fist or the Breaking Point, then I will continue to teach you," he declared and then he was gone.

"I DON'T NEED YOUR STUPID TEACHING!" she yelled after him as the door clacked shut, she echoed the sound with a stamp of her foot. What kind of stupid question is that? she thought, balling her hand into a fist and marching towards the pile of cinder blocks stacked in the corner of the dojo. Ranma beat Ryoga with the Chestnut Fist, so obviously it was stronger. Wasn't it?

Nabiki's long fingernails clacked softly as she drummed them against the table, beating out a slow march with idle ripples of her fingers. She blew at the strands of dark, brown hair that fell across her brow eyes rolled to the top of her head, watching the locks waft in her expelled breath. She tried to ignore it, but that itchy feeling, like the point of a needle slowly stroking across the back of her neck, persisted. Something seemed to prickle at her from inside her skull, calling her, drawing her eyes to the pencil on the table.

She turned back to the TV, her eyes staring towards the animated figures face-faulting on the screen. The tingling persisted. Her fingers drummed faster against the wood surface, the beat becoming jumbled and erratic.

Swallowing a growl she relented and leant over, gripping the pencil between her thumb and forefinger and pivoted it, the butt whispering against the table until it was aligned parallel to the edge. Sighing as the scratching ended, she sat back and returned her gaze to the television before a loud thud filtered from the direction of the dojo. Her eyebrow quirked and she darted a sideways glance at her father.

As she expected, his hands were balling around his newspaper, the edges crumpling in his convulsive grip. A stream of smoke spiralled above him as the cherry-red tip of his cigarette devoured the white stick and transformed it into a long strand of ash; then he exhaled, sending twin blasts streaming from his nostrils. His right eye twitched, dropping the ash from his cigarette, but he remained still. Nodoka glanced up from her embroidery and shot him a warm smile, but he did not register it and it twisted into a sour frown as she went back to her sewing.

Her father had never reacted well to change, especially when it involved his family, and particularly not when it touched his youngest daughter. Now, Ranma's departure had been rapidly followed by more dramatic shifts in the balance of their lives; Genma had taken over Akane's training, and Kodachi had actually tried to kill her.

Nabiki knew just how much Soun depended on the younger Saotome; his hopes, his family and his daughter were like casino chips all placed over Ranma's number, and now he was waiting for the roulette wheel to stop spinning. She also knew that he would be waiting for a long time as the hand of fate kept giving the wheel another spin and the ball kept on bouncing.

Life was always a gamble, but to rest all your hopes on one number was a foolish way to play. You had to risk something to gain anything in this world. Sacrifice brought reward, even Akane knew that; but no reward was worth risking everything for. For every dice roll that brought fortune, there would be snake-eyes staring back at you to take everything away, or there was that person who was dealt a hard hand, like her mother.

However, with life, as with gambling, there were many ways to play. In Nerima, many seemed to enjoy the races. Her father, her sister, the Saotomes, Shampoo, Cologne, Ukyo; all of them had put everything on the aptly named 'wild horse', an animal who chewed at the bit and railed against any jockey that tried to ride him. It was unlikely that he would even finish the race.

So much risk for such a vague and insubstantial reward. That game was not for her. Better to spread her bets; smaller rewards, but more tangible, and losing would not cost her everything.

Best of all was to invest. Life was like the exchange, and people, secrets, hearts were all stocks like the carefully managed shares that had kept the Tendo household in moderate comfort for so many years. The key to it all was information. When people were your stocks, you had to know everything about them. Did they have any secrets, any lovers, what did they like to eat and what were they allergic to, how did they sleep, did they argue with their parents or their wives?

Somewhere amidst all those details, titbits and trivialities, was an answer: buy or sell, stay or fold, lie or tell the truth. Informed choices and carefully calculated risks. Control. That was how Nabiki Tendo played the game.

Still, sudden changes altered the market, and even as skilled a player as she was, she could not feel comfortable with the threat of a crash lurking within the shifting field.

Her eyes caught the movement of a white shape in her peripheral vision, and she slid her gaze to the corner of her eyes just in time to see Genma's dark frown switch into an easy smile.

"Hey, Tendo, why don't we see if we can fit a couple of games of shogi in before dinner?"

Her father lowered the paper and looked up at his old friend with a small frown. However, Nabiki could see the hard steel that lay behind his narrowed eyes and almost smiled nostalgically. After all, it was not something she had seen in many years.

"Where's Akane, dear?" Nodoka asked, without looking up from her embroidery. Nabiki glanced at the older woman, thinking that the question was timed far too inconveniently for coincidence.

"Yes, Saotome," Soun said. "I heard some loud noises earlier. I hope she is doing well in her training?"

Nabiki smirked. It was amusing to hear her father attempt the use of subtle subtext. The man wore his heart emblazoned on his sleeve, so that the real question "Have you hurt my little girl?" was plainer than if he had borrowed one of Genma's panda signs.

"Just a little bit of light roughhousing, Tendo. We were working on her dodging, pushing her body a bit further than she usually does. She tripped a few times but nothing serious, a bruise or two at worse."

No trace of falseness in the larger man's voice, Nabiki noted. So either he is much better at lying than I thought, or he believes his own words. Of course, judging by what she had learnt and seen of the training he had put his own son through, Genma's view of 'light roughhousing' was probably very different from any sane person's.

"Bruises, Saotome?" her father repeated in a flat voice.

Genma's hands began to tug at the knot of his head covering as he let out a small chuckle. "Small bruises, Tendo, they'll be gone by the morning." He continued laughing, but his eyes refused to focus on anything in the room, drifting upwards to the top left corner of their sockets.

"Still, Saotome, I hope you are not being too hard on her."

"Of course not, Tendo. That's why I left her with a little something to think on, while her body rests up."

"Oh, well that doesn't sound too bad," Soun said, shoulders dropping slightly as the tension seemed to leak from his body. He let the paper slip from his hands as he began to move closer to the shogi table that sat in its customary place by the doors, the bag of tiles ruffled by the incoming breeze.

A high-pitched kiai split the air followed by the faint, muffled but familiar sound of concrete blocks being reduced to rubble by her sister's wrath-filled fist. Nodoka's and Soun's eyes turned withering stares on the other man, who tried to make himself small, twiddling his thumbs in his lap and whistling a random tune as though waiting for a bus.

"Akane always did have an odd way of thinking things through," Nabiki remarked conversationally, her dry words aimed at the whole room but she targeted her smirk at Genma whose face formed a sour grimace.

"What exactly did you say to my little girl, Saotome?"

"Nothing really, Tendo. You've got a spunky girl there."

"Saotome…." Soun said slowly, voice dropping to a low rasp as his eyes narrowed.

"Father," Kasumi's gentle voice broke in like the chime of the most delicate bells, and their father's anger snapped and fell into pieces as he lifted his gaze to regard his smiling daughter.

Nabiki suppressed a small sigh as she watched her entertainment vanish like a television shut off.

"Yes, Kasumi?"

"Two policemen are here to see you," her sister answered, "They said they'd like to ask you some questions about… Oh, are you going, Mister Saotome?"

The warmth of Kasumi's smile never faltered but Nabiki thought she could see a small snicker in her sister's eyes. She dispensed with trying to hide her amusement herself, allowing her lips to curve into a smirk as she watched the large man start up from where he had tried to slink quietly from the room.

"Um… I'm…." Genma fumbled for words, pausing to swallow hard enough to make his throat bob. "I'm feeling a little unwell, thought I'd lie down for a moment."

"Oh dear," Kasumi said, pressing one palm to her cheek.

"Well you do look strangely flustered, Mister Saotome," Nabiki said, arching an eyebrow as she drew out her words with a carefully measured dose of false sympathy. "Is that sweat on your brow?"

She watched the large man's lips twist and writhe as he growled beneath his breath, the words were muffled by his gruff voice, but Nabiki could read the message in his dark glower. She felt the corner of her lips crawl higher. Genma was not as much fun to mess with as his son, but he was far more deserving of it.

"Let me see, dear," Nodoka said, shuffling over to her scowling husband on her knee and laying the back of her hand against his flushed forehead.

"Dear… please… I…." Genma spluttered, squirming under his wife's touch like a fish on the chopping block, a thick bead of sweat slipping from beneath the band of his headkerchief.

"Well, you do seem a little warm," Nodoka surmised, frowning at the fidgeting man. "But I'm sure you'll be able and eager to help these policemen with their investigation, as I know you wish to. After all, you always said that a martial artist must support the cause of justice."

"But…." Genma's shoulders fell as a long sigh slid from his lungs. "Of course, dear. That is what I always say." The sweet tone of the last sentence was marred as he forced the words through gritted teeth.

"I'll show them in and prepare some tea," Kasumi said sweetly, before gliding out of the room with angelic grace.

In the sudden silence, she realised that the violent crash of smashed bricks no longer drifted from the dojo. She must be sulking, Nabiki surmised, plotting the phase in the usual pattern of Akane's rage.

Genma had sullenly returned to his place by the table before Kasumi returned leading two men into the room. The lack of uniforms immediately caught Nabiki's interest and she felt herself sit straighter on her futon, craning her neck to observe the men over Kasumi's smiling face.

The taller man wore a dirty brown tie that clashed with his wrinkled pinstripe shirt, the knot hanging loosely from his unbuttoned collar. Creased leather straps stretched over his left shoulder. Nabiki's eyes narrowed. He had a gun in a holster over his heart, its black steel barely visible. This was definitely more than the usual half-assed property damage complaint.

Turning back to the policeman's face she saw that he wore a small, polite smile that seemed out of place on his grim, stubble-lined face. Wrinkles pulled at the corners of his eyes as he surreptitiously peered at every figure in the room

The other man dispensed with any such niceties, staring openly at everything, the steady sweep of his gaze reminding Nabiki of a camera. His brows furrowed beneath his grey-streaked parting of brown hair, and the twinkles of light in his eyes gave the illusion of a lens twisting as it focused on her father, her sister and the Saotomes and recording every detail. She felt pins and needles tingle around her head as she met those grey irises, watching him as closely as he watched her, something intangible lighting the air between them like two camera flashes igniting simultaneously.

"Father, these two policemen would like to ask you a few questions."

"Of course," Soun said with a small, but wobbly smile. "However, I'm afraid we know nothing about any panty thefts."

The older cop's eyes narrowed as the other man blinked rapidly.

"I'm afraid I'm not sure what you are referring to, Shihan Tendo," he said in a gruff voice suffering a terrible attempt at smoothing, like an uneven path.

Her father blinked and then chuckled richly, "Shihan? That is something I've not been called in a long time."

"Really? You are the Master of this school? An old partner of mine studied under you some years ago, Masataka Nakayama?"

Soun's lips pursed as he folded his arms across his chest. Nabiki wondered if the guests could hear the rusty cogs of her father's mind grind as he thought.

"Ah yes, Nakayama. Studied with us for a while before he was transferred to another koban across town." He cleared his throat and suddenly became fascinated with plucking a loose thread from the worn black fabric of his gi. "I'm afraid that was a long time ago. I no longer teach classes anymore."

"Sorry to hear that. I had heard rumours of the dojo's involvement in some recent events." The policeman's voice seemed to pause on that word as he watched Soun Tendo's face pale at the mention.

"Well, I wouldn't put too much stock in those rumours if I were you," Soun said weakly, his cheek twitching as he fought to retain his smile.

"Why not? They're all true," Nabiki drawled with a small smirk, ignoring Nodoka's frosty glare and watching her father's body jerk.

"I'm sure they are all embellished, as gossip tends to be," the detective said, as the gravel seeped back into his voice. "However, we have heard that you are familiar with many strange and obscure styles of martial arts, and it would help our investigation if we could ask you a few questions."

"I'm sure we will be happy to help in anyway we can," Nodoka said with a bright smile before Soun could reply. "My husband here is a martial artist too, and I'm sure he can be of assistance, can't you, dear?" The auburn haired woman placed a hand onto Genma's broad shoulder and the large man seemed to shrink into his gi.

"Yes, dear," he said, his voice tiny.

"There you go, Mr…?" Nodoka trailed of expectantly.

The detective started and his mouth twisted for a brief moment before he spoke. "I'm sorry."

He cleared his throat, pursed lips indicating how uncomfortable his manners were making him. "I should have introduced myself earlier. My name is Inspector Izumi of the Metropolitan Police Homicide Division, and…."

His words were cut off as Nodoka's and Kasumi's simultaneous gasp sliced the air in the room, their hands covering their mouths as their eyes widened on their white faces. Her father had stiffened, his body freezing like a statue. Only his lips moved, slowly shaping the word 'homicide' though no sound came from his mouth. Nabiki had felt her smile drop from her face as if weighted, but her brain seemed to buzz as she leant forward on the table, propping herself on her elbows as she watched the policeman shuffle impatiently.

Strangely enough, only Genma remained unfazed. The man who squirmed under the eyes of his wife and the police officers seeming to melt away like ice on a summer's day. He crossed his legs as he sat straight on his futon, arms crossed across his wide chest. His lips were tightened into a frown but the light that played on the lenses of his glasses made it impossible to tell where it was directed.

"What do you need from us?" he asked flatly.

Inspector Izumi's shoulders seemed to slump as he sighed silently, lips moving as he muttered beneath his breath. "As I said, we only wish to ask a few questions to aid our investigation."

"So you said, Inspector Izumi," her father said, before pausing to swallow and straighten his back. "However I'm afraid I can't see how we could help. None of us know anything about any sort of… homicide." Soun's voice seemed to stumble over that word.

The other man spoke for the first time, gesturing to a slim folder held in his hands by rapping his fingers against its plastic covering. "We have reason to believe the murderer is an exceptionally skilled martial artist. We were hoping that your expertise might help us gain insight into the killer's methods. Once we have that, we have him or her." His head tilted like an owl's as he caught Genma with an appraising stare.

"This is Shigurei Toshiyama, the crime scene investigator assisting with this case," Izumi said, indicating his companion with a stiff nod of his head. Toshiyama's lips curled slightly as he bowed.

Nabiki was still processing this information, eyeing the man from the new angle provided by the introduction when Nodoka spoke.

"I'm sure you're very good at your job, Mister Toshiyama, but you must be mistaken. Martial artists uphold justice and protect the weak. Surely one would not commit murder…" She paused; lips pursing for a moment before adding, "…unless it was deserved."

The temperature in the room seemed to drop several degrees as Nabiki watched the Saotome matriarch from the corners of her eyes and tried to ignore the tremor that slid down her back like a drop of icy water. The older woman sat comfortably with a vacant smile, her hands folded in her lap as she blinked at the stares that had turned on her in the moment that her words had hung in the air.

Izumi sniffed, making a sound that seemed half laugh and half scoff and looked ready to speak. However, he said nothing as Nodoka's wide-eyed gaze sharpened into a knife-like glare. Her husband flinched at her side.

"My experience of this job has taught me to assume that everyone is capable of such acts. That way I'm less likely to be surprised," Toshiyama said before frowning and tugging at the unbuttoned collar of his blue shirt. "Though it is good to hear that some people still believe in what's right, ma'am."

Nodoka blinked once again. "Sorry. My name is Nodoka Saotome. I'm a friend of the Tendo family, as is my husband."

She gestured to Genma who sat up straight, large chest puffing outwards.

"Shihan Genma Saotome," he said, voice heaving with pride and self-importance. Soun's eyes narrowed as he turned to his old friend and even Kasumi's smile wavered at Genma's words. Nabiki sighed and rolled her eyes.

"Saotome," Izumi murmured with a frown. "That name sounds familiar."

Genma winced. "Really?" he said in a weak voice. The man's spine was like black ice; it could harden until diamond could not break it but would soon melt away to water and slush.

"Any relation to Ranma Saotome?" Toshiyama asked.

Nodoka's face lit up like exploding fireworks and for a moment Nabiki thought she saw stars twinkle in the other woman's blue-grey eyes. "Ranma is our son. Have you heard of him?" she gushed. "Have you seen him?"

Toshiyama pulled harder at his collar. "I've heard of him. He was quite prevalent in the rumours that brought Inspector Izumi and I to Nerima."

Ranma's mother smiled wider until her proud grin threatened to split her face, "No doubt you have heard of my son's manly adventures."

"Or his womanly curves," Nabiki added snidely, hoping to derail Nodoka's rant of motherly pride before it made her too nauseous. The older woman had moods like the seasons, swapping from sunny and slightly vacuous cheer to cold fury like an arctic winter. However, Nabiki preferred the darker moods of Mrs. Saotome than to see her playing her 'good mother' whilst she still bore that sword. Her lips twisted sourly. Nabiki had known a good mother, and Nodoka was a pale comparison.

"Well…." Nodoka said, words falling away as the smile melted from her lips.

"Right," Izumi said after a moment, eyebrows crawling towards his hair as he drew out the word.

Toshiyama looked to be frozen solid, but for the bunching of his throat that made his Adam's apple bob as he swallowed. He was mumbling under his breath, a disjointed string of words that Nabiki could barely catch. "You mean… I thought… just an urban… how… scientifically…?"

Nabiki smirked. For all his talk about crime scenes and the darker nature of man, the forensics specialist seemed rather troubled. Another piece of evidence for the simple truth that no one is unflappable, a fact she knew well and had studied how to exploit. Everyone had a flaw; that was where the darker side came from. Give a scientist something that was impossible, that could not be explained, and they cracked like an imperfect diamond.

Izumi laid a hand on his colleague's shoulder and gave a tiny shake of his head. Toshiyama nodded, though for a second a pout flashed over his features like a child deprived of a toy.

"Anyway," he said, clearing his throat and hefting the folder in his hand. "I have some photos here, pictures of the crime scene and victims." He glanced furtively at Nodoka, Kasumi and Nabiki before turning to her father. "Mister Tendo, some of these images are quite graphic. Perhaps it would be better if we spoke to you alone, and Shihan Saotome if he wishes to help."

"Oh dear, is it really so bad?" Kasumi asked in a small voice.

Izumi nodded, a grim frown darkening his face. "It's pretty gruesome."

Nodoka was already gathering herself from her futon, one hand braced on her husband's thick shoulder for support. "Of course, Genma will be happy to help." The fabric of the elder Saotome's gi creased as Nodoka's sharp-nailed grip tensed on his flesh through the thick cloth. "Why don't we go to that nice little tea shop we found the other week by the market? We can have a nice chat and leave the men to talk about this ghastly business."

Nabiki rolled her eyes. "Sure thing, Auntie," she said, loading her tone all with the bile that the woman made churn in her gut. "Then we can bake cookies and knit whilst the menfolk go hunting."

"Nabiki," her father snapped with a frown. "We have guests."

She almost laughed outright at that statement. After two years as the trigger point for wild chaos and rampant property damage, to even think about preserving the family's reputation was too ridiculous for words. She rapped her fingers on the table top, trying to ignore the sensation of Nodoka's glare scoring across her skin like the scraping edge of a blade.

"I'm staying," she said after a while.

"I'm not sure that would be a good idea," Soun said, Kasumi nodded in agreement.

"Nabiki, if these pictures are as bad as Mister Toshiyama claims, I don't think it would be proper for you to see them. What if you get nightmares?" her sister said in matronly tone.

"Nightmares," Nabiki snorted. "I'm nineteen, Kasumi. I'm old enough to know nightmares are just the ramblings of an unsettled subconscious and too many chillies. I've also seen enough horror movies and crime dramas not to be freaked out by a few snapshots." She caught Toshiyama's searching gaze with a determined glare of her own.

"Besides, I know this part of town well. Maybe I could help." She offered the man a small smile, putting a little shy sexiness into it. Her only response was a raised eyebrow that said too many things at once.

Smarts that aren't overridden by his lower brain, Nabiki surmised, confident in the appeal of her own beauty. Interesting.

"Nabiki, right?" Izumi asked, regarding the young woman from the corner of his eye a crooked frown twisting his lips. "I've heard of a Nabiki Tendo from the local koban officers, and her reputation for having her finger on the pulse."

"Oh stop, you'll make me blush," she drawled without a glimmer of modesty.

"Of course you realise that this is sensitive information." The cops gravely voice hardened on the words until they were hammer blows. "If any person were to sell this information, they would be jeopardising our investigation and be subject to severe penalties."

Tucking a wisp of brown hair behind her ear, Nabiki felt the policeman's threats wash over her. "Never would I dream of it," she said with her trained 'angelic' smile. "After all, as a martial artist's daughter, it's my duty to help defend the innocent and all that stuff." She threw aside 'that stuff' with a rolling gesture of her hand. Her father and sister beamed at her whilst Genma gave a choked snort, which dissolved into a chorus of coughs.

"Frog in my throat," he mumbled under her glare, batting his upper chest with his fist.

"Well, I still do not think a young lady such as yourself should be involved in such business, Nabiki," Nodoka said, standing up and smoothing the folds of her kimono with aplomb. "Are you sure you'll not join Kasumi and me? One of the young men at the tea shop is quite handsome, and about your age."

Nabiki scowled, her tapping fingernails now gouging at the table. "I'm positive," she hissed through gritted teeth.

The older woman sighed as if the world's burdens were crushing down on her shoulders. "Very well." Her usual smile was back on her face the instant she turned to Kasumi. "Should we go then, dear?"

The oldest Tendo sister nodded gently as she rose to her feet. "Let me just grab my purse from the kitchen."

"Nonsense, Kasumi," Nodoka said, flicking her wrist in a soft shooing motion. "It'll be my treat. I'm sure Genma doesn't mind." The smile she gave her husband could have flattened a rhino.

"Of course not," Genma said, his voice strained as if the words were being ripped from him. Nabiki thought she saw his left eye twitch sharply.

"That's settled then," Nodoka ushered Kasumi towards the shoji door with a soft hand on the small of the younger woman's back. "It was nice to meet you, Inspector Izumi, Mister Toshiyama. I hope Soun and my husband will be able to help you put an end to this foul business."

Kasumi also offered warm pleasantries that from anyone else would be empty and fake, but from the smiling lips of her gentle sister they could not be doubted. The two women slipped through the door, a biting gust of chill winter wind sweeping through the room as the portal slid closed after them.

"So, Inspector, should we…?" Soun trailed off as he blinked upwards at the two policemen, and frowned. "Oh, I'm sorry. Please sit down, both of you. Forgive me for not asking you before." He rubbed at his moustache as he chuckled, the sound vacant and flat.

"Thank you, Mister Tendo," Toshiyama said as he slipped into the spot Nodoka had vacated and then shuffling a respectful, and probably more comfortable distance from Genma's heavy form until he was at the table's corner.

"No problem at all," Izumi said, his hands rummaging in his pockets and withdrew a pack of cigarettes. He was slipping one of the white sticks from the foil before he froze, his movements halting instantly as he flicked his eyes towards Soun. "Do you mind if I…?"

Her father continued to chuckle, "Not if you don't," he said pulling out his own packet and clamping a cigarette between his teeth.

The policemen jerked his head towards his companion, who held the open folder in his palm as he thumbed through the contents, his hand flashing back and forth as he licked his thumb before turning each page.

"Why don't you start, Shigurei? You're the educated one," Izumi grunted around his cigarette, his face illuminated by an orange glow as he sparked the silver lighter in front of him. His cheeks sunk as he sucked the cigarette into ignition and then released a grey stream of smoke through the corner of his lips, the acrid scent mingling distastefully with the fumes wafting from her father's smoking.

"Thank you, detective," Toshiyama replied dryly, arching an eyebrow towards the man beside him, before turning towards Soun. "The first murder, or should I say the one that opened the case for Izumi and I, took place a week ago in Dogenzaka." He shuffled through the contents of the folder, eyes flicking from the pages to his audience and back. "As Detective Izumi said, this evidence is sensitive, and the information we were hoping to gain from your consultation is quite specialised, and so I'll only be showing you the images and documents I think are most relevant to the killer's methods and martial arts style."

He placed a photograph on the table. Light shimmered across the glossy surface as he nudged the image towards the centre where her father and Genma leaned forwards to study it. She simply tilted her head and frowned. The image was of an alley complete with the dark shadows, oily stains and discarded litter that marked it the same as any other. However, the next photo that the scientist tossed forth focused on a single patch of that untidy passageway, a crude humanoid shape scrawled on the tarmac in thick lines of white chalk. Another photo followed: a commercial dumpster, dented and torn with wet patches of blood that made it seem as if the steel body was bleeding.

"That alley leads behind a nightclub, Parusu, which has apparently had some trouble with yakuza and other unsavories in the past, so no one was surprised when the bouncer went down the alley. He was apparently spoiling for a fight, though no one saw his opponent."

The fourth photo was a headshot of a figure lying on a cold mortuary slab. The face shown was broken and distended, the dead flesh so livid with swollen purple bruises as to be barely recognisable as a man.

It bore no resemblance to the patchy portrait on the copied driving license stapled to the photograph.

"Tetsuo Matsuhara, known as 'The Tank' for his reputation as a tough bouncer and unbeatable brawler."

"He looks fairly beaten to me," Nabiki muttered, the words springing from her mouth before she knew she had thought them. Her father frowned at her but she ignored it, reordering her mind after the shock of the comment that had slipped through what she hoped was not a crack in her walls. She glanced back at the photo of the deceased bouncer and swallowed a lump that had formed in her throat. Dropping her eyes to her interlaced fingers she noticed a loose thread on her sleeve, the stray fleck of white cotton seeming to mock her like a protruding tongue until she ripped it out with a swift pluck.

Toshiyama cleared his throat and continued. "The cause of death was found to be a hard blow to the back of the skull." A new page showed the ghostly x-ray image of the victim's cranium, a series of black cracks and thick fissures through the bones like chips in dry plaster. "We believe this to have been caused when the victim was slammed into the wall." He flipped through his folder, the pages rustling as a few stray leaves of paper tried to escape through the bottom. His eyes narrowed for a moment before he placed the topmost sheet before her father and Mister Saotome. "This is what first suggested the involvement of a skilled martial artist."

"Dislocated shoulder," Soun declared as he poured over the x-ray. He scratched at his bristled moustache with his left index finger whilst his right hovered above the image, tracing the line of the ulna where it was visibly displaced from the socket of the shoulder bone. "Twisting the forearm and the elbow like a crank about the upper arm, or vice versa, would force the bone out of joint like that." He leaned back on his futon and shrugged. "It's a common technique with several variations."

"Look a bit closer, Tendo," Genma suggested, rubbing at his chin as he peered closely at the x-ray. "The angle of joint, the way the bone seems pushed forward suggest the arm was twisted up and back. Shiho nage," he pronounced with a nod and a small smile.

Nabiki grimaced slightly. Her father and his longtime friend seemed far too comfortable with the subject at hand. Hell, they could be commenting on a past shogi game over cups of sake, she thought as she regarded each man in turn, the furrow of her brow deepening. She controlled the uneasy feeling that was rising in the pit of her stomach, beating it down with clubs of will until it was a mere tremor in her gut.

Toshiyama glanced at Izumi; a satisfied grin flashed over the grizzled cop's face for an instant and then was gone, lost in the thickening wreath of cigarette smoke about his head.

"That was what we had deduced as well," the forensic investigator admitted before turning back to his portfolio, gripping another sheet between his thumb and forefinger. A shimmer of light reflected from the page suggesting it was another photograph. "This victim also had his forearm snapped but his left knee was dislocated too."

He put forth the image in his hand and two others, the first revealing another x-ray. It showed what Nabiki guessed to be Tetsuo Matsuhara's injured knee, the thigh and shin bones poised at an acute but unnatural angle and the kneecap separated from the cracked edges of the bone, floating in the black, fuzzy blur that represented the dead man's flesh.

"Oh well, that's clear enough," her father claimed, tapping his finger on the picture with emphatic surety. "A hard thrust-kick to the knee joint. What do you think, a rear leg cross-stomp, eh, Saotome?"

Genma shook his head. "Angle's too sharp, Tendo. Also, this sort of wound would take more power than a stomp kick would have if it came across the body. A hard, side-thrust kick would fit the pattern better."

Soun grimaced, his brow knitting as he stared across at his old friend. "You really think so, Saotome?"

"Um… am I missing something?" Toshiyama said quietly as if unsure whether he could intrude on the two men's deliberations.

Probably we all are, Nabiki groused silently. Stupid, martial-artists-only old boys club.

Soun shook his head, negating away the younger man's concerns with a placating wave of his hand and a reassuring smile. "Nothing important. Probably has no bearing on your investigation." He paused and took another drag of his cigarette before heaving out the smoke with a sigh. "It's just using that technique in that manner is a bit tricky, you have to lift your knee high before stomping on your opponent, which telegraphs your intentions whilst leaving you off balance and giving your opponent ample chance to counter. If Saotome is right, your victim would have to have been rather off balance and vulnerable."

"And…?" Izumi grunted expectantly.

"Nothing really," Soun said with a shrug and a grin. "Just call it 'professional curiosity'."

"Riiight," the policeman said, drawing the word out with a puzzled frown.

Toshiyama shook his head, and reached back into the all-important folder he held nestled upon his palm "The strangest part of the case, is the rather unique wounds all victims share." He lifted out another photo yet paused with it held before his face. The scientist's eyes fixed on the images and then gazed intently at Nabiki above the rim of the film. His blue eyes were like a microscope and she could feel their touch, appraising her, studying her. Finally he relented, some conclusion made within his mind, noted but never uttered, and placed the photograph onto the table.

"We believe this wound was made with the murderer's bare hands."

Nabiki looked down at the photo, the image of a misshapen slot punctured into the pale, waxy flesh of the corpse made her stomach lurch but she controlled it and let out a long, shuddering but silent breath. She forced her eyes back to the photo, trying not to stare at the torn muscle that had been washed clean of blood by the coroner and was now clearly visible through the wide wound, and ran her gaze around the rim of the photograph, her eyes catching as she saw thick, callused fingers tremble like a schoolgirl's.

The ghost of Genma Saotome sat frozen at the table, the colour having fled his face entirely. His eyes were wide and glassy as he stared into the distance above the heads of the other men, who bent over the latest image in close study. The expression that twisted his face, unmoving like a fly perceiving its own destruction as it drowned in hardening amber, suggested what he saw did not exist in this world but in the deepest circles of hell. His lower lip shuddered until he clamped it beneath his teeth and he folded his arms across his chest, clamping his hands hard under his armpits in what Nabiki guessed was an attempt to hide and control the wild shivering.

"Well, that is odd, isn't it, Saotome?" her father remarked. Again his voice was strangely mild despite the gruesome picture his eyes rested on.

"Yes, Tendo," Genma agreed, his voice weak and breathless. "Very odd."

"Are you okay, Saotome?" Soun glanced up from the photo, arching an eyebrow towards his longtime companion.

"Fine, Tendo" the larger man said quickly, too quickly. "I'm just feeling a bit of a sudden chill." Seeing his friend glance towards the shogi door, as if to confirm they were fully closed, Genma hastily added, "I'm sure it'll pass Tendo, we have more important… business." Nabiki watched with suspicion as the man's Adam's apple bob as he swallowed hard.

"I can see why you think the wound was made by a hand. The knobbled edges could be the marks of the fingers if someone used a spearhand strike," Soun said, lifting his right hand over the picture. His fingers were pressed together tightly with a slight curve caused by a small bend in his middle finger, the thumb was folded at a right angle across his palm completing the weapon. "However, it would take some rigorous and specific conditioning of the hands to do such a thing with a nukite."

"Daddy, Ryoga can poke holes into stone with a finger," Before they explode, she silently added. She spared a sideway glance at Toshiyama's dropped jaw before continuing. "Not to mention Ryu Kumon almost put a hole into Ranma with that Yamasenken of his," she left a slight pause which let that last word hang in the air as she shot Genma a withering glance. The plump man never noticed, his eyes darting at the image of the wound and then at the doors and back with a crazed focus.

Soun slowly shook his head, "It's not quite the same, Nabiki. They were using brute strength," he told her, his arm sliding out to grab his discarded newspaper and pull it to him.

He turned back towards the two guests, separating a single page from the bulky newspaper. "If you were to try and stab someone with just brute strength…" he lifted the sheet of printed paper over the table at arm's length in his left hand, then, with speed she had not seen him use in years, his right hand thrust forwards like a spear, fingers tearing through the page. "…you would just create a large hole," he finished, looking at the two scientists through the large, oval-shaped hole he had punctured.

"If, however," he said putting the torn sheet aside and pulling a new one from the tabloid, "you used something more suited to the task, something stiff and sharp…" He leant over to grab the pencil she had carefully aligned with the table edge earlier and jabbed a small hole, almost perfectly round, into the paper. "…you get a much more exact shape."

"I hadn't realised it was school science lab," Izumi said, slowly expelling a long trail of smoke from his nose.

Her father smiled as he set aside his paper and reclaimed his own cigarette from where he had balanced it at the edge of the table. "Some things are better shown than said," he said with a shrug.

"Sure, Daddy," Nabiki deadpanned before she heaved a sigh and snatched the pencil from in front of him and placed it where it belonged, its length parallel to the edge of the table.

"So you're saying our man has undergone some training to make his hands tougher and hardened enough to act like a spearhead?" Toshiyama concluded, flipping through his notes.

"I take it this training probably involved a lot more than those one finger pushups and sand hitting you see in all the kung fu movies?" Izumi asked; making a waving gesture with his hand and scoring a fading trail of smoke with his cigarette.

Soun frowned. Her father had never been fond of the stereotypes shown in movies and anime. "Undoubtedly," he grunted. "However, such exercises are often the first step of many in such training methods."

Izumi scowled, "So, are there a lot of the 'make your body into a brutal weapon in your own home' styles about?" The cop cursed under his breath after her father nodded. "I don't like that sound of that, especially if it makes our guy harder to nail down."

Nabiki snorted. "If the other examples of 'rigorous training' I've seen over the last couple of years are anything to go by, I don't think you have anything to worry about."

"My daughter is right," Soun admitted, though with a distinct grudging and reproving glance. "Not many would undertake such training lightly and it would definitely leave a trail for you to follow, especially if you could pinpoint the killer's style. I have my suspicions, but I should probably hear what else Mister Toshiyama has to say before I make wild guesses."

The haunting images of more crime scenes, more corpses and more broken lives followed. The image of the brutal rent in the join between the second victim's collar and neck, splintered bone visible through the ripped skin and tissue, made her blood run cold in her veins but Nabiki detached herself like any photographer from their subject. Reality often seemed distant when a moment in time was frozen in a photograph and thus taken from the moving flow of life, and she had long since learned to take comfort in that separation.

It was a skill it appeared Genma Saotome had never acquired, as each new image seemed to flog him with an invisible lash. He shrank into himself as her father and the two policeman tossed theories and information back and forth across the table, answering his friend's guesses with noncommittal grunts or half-hearted words of agreement, his eyes downcast and staring fixedly at his hands as they twisted at the fabric of his gi pants.

Some detectives, Nabiki thought dryly as she watched the other three men pour over the photo of the poor security guard, dead by a single finger, and completely oblivious to the panic that wafted from Genma in waves so thick she thought she could see the haze surround him.

"Well, your killer is very familiar with the body's vital points, it seems," Soun concluded, shaking his head as he considered the man's death.

"Aren't all these hyper-powered martial arts types?" Nabiki asked with a sigh, remembering how Akane had immediately recognised the importance of Shampoo's arrangement of Instant Nannichuan sachets during the battle with the dojo destroyer, and, recognising her sister's less than prestigious place in Nerima's martial rankings, she was not inspired with much confidence.

"Great, another dead end," Izumi grumbled, apparently thinking along the same lines as she was.

"Not necessarily," her father proclaimed. "Knowledge of the accessible vital points, of which the carotid artery is one, is common. Many schools, including the Tendo Ryu, would teach their location to advanced students, despite reservations about their use in combat. However, precision knowledge of the position and depth of the vital points and the stomach meridian as demonstrated here," he leant across and tapped a finger on the photo that showed the gory hole jabbed into the security guards neck, "require study of much more detailed kyusho diagrams, such as those contained within the Bubishi."

"The Bubishi?" Genma cried, snapping from his grim reverie with a start. His brow furrowed beneath his headscarf as he turned to his old friend. "You're thinking karate?"

"Why not, Saotome," her father asked, nodding towards the pile of photographs scattered across the surface of the table "It would fit what Mister Toshiyama has shown us. The shoulder lock technique is within the kushanku form and the low thrust-kick in bassai."

Genma opened his mouth, leaping to the verge of speaking, before he closed it with a faint click and slumped back into his futon. The panic has lifted from his posture but a troubled frown creased his dark face and made Nabiki all the more curious as to what he had been about to say, and what had frightened him so.

She glanced at Toshiyama and Izumi's knotted brows and sighed. "Daddy, it's nice that you're on to something, but could you perhaps translate for us mere mortals."

"Oh, right," a sheepish look flickered across Soun's face as he fussed with his gi sleeves. "The Bubishi is a book, a collection of strategic and technical articles on the martial arts that made its way to Okinawa from China centuries ago and had a large effect on the Okinawa schools of fighting, what are now known as karate. It also seems to have influenced your killer as well."

"It's been a while since the Master has shown Saotome or myself a copy of the scrolls he had 'acquired', but they did contain a series of diagrams showing the location of kyusho, which with the right instruction would explain some of the wounds on your victims. However, the real crux of it is that the Bubishi also describes the training for the rokkisho, the 'six wind hands', which would give a person the type of hand strength and conditioning to cause the kind of damage we've seen."

"So you're saying our killer uses karate?" Toshiyama asked frowning at the photographs in front of him.

"Great," Izumi snorted. "There must be hundreds of karate black belts in Tokyo alone. Hell, that probably only accounts for the Shotokan schools."

"Not so, Inspector," her father answered testily. "These techniques would not be taught in any Japanese ryu. The killer is a student of a much older Okinawan style, one that managed to resist the modernisation of karate, which reduced the teaching of dangerous techniques to the public."

Genma gave a derisive snort, earning him a sidelong glare from her father.

"So I take it those styles aren't so common?" Izumi asked, taking another long drag from his cigarette.

"Not at all. In fact, I would not be surprised if this man was taught behind closed doors in Okinawa, since preserving the original state of his school must have been important."

"We could probably get in touch with the airlines, request a list of anyone who has flown into Tokyo from Okinawa." Toshiyama suggested, one hand rubbing at the stubble on his jaw. "Though we should probably check records for any more murders to eliminate other regions from the sweep."

"You could also check the security cameras at the airports. They might have caught your guy at the gate," Nabiki said, considering the increase in surveillance that had swept Japan's airport in the wake of fear from terrorists.

"We could," Izumi conceded, "but since we don't know who we're looking for it seems rather a longshot."

Nabiki sighed and then let her lips form a smirk. "Take it from someone who's seen plenty of martial arts nuts in her time. You'll know the guy when you see him."

Soun and Genma scowled, and Ranma's father mumbled curses beneath his breath, but eventually her father nodded. "Nabiki might be right," he grumbled. "I'm not sure how good your cameras are, but if you can see his hands clearly you would immediately be able to identify your killer."

"His hands?" Izumi asked around the butt of his cigarette.

"The rokkisho training, and methods like it, disfigures the hands after long periods of practise. The knuckles swell and become thickly callused, the fingers are usually broken several times and become crooked, the fingernails are lost and the skin becomes thick, cracked and…."

His explanation was cut as a shrill whining cut the air, growing louder in volume like a wailing infant until it seemed to fall into a vapid tune. Izumi pulled out the crying device, flipping open the phone and holding it to his ear. Nabiki almost snickered; what sort of cop had the Fruits Basket theme song as a ringtone?

"Izumi," he grunted into the receiver. "Doctor Egawa, how are you? No, I don't, I was trying to be polite." The conversation swiftly fell into muted grunts, barely discernable as affirmations. "We'll be there." The phone was snapped shut and stuffed back into the pocket of his trousers.

"I'm afraid Shigurei and I must be going, Shihan Tendo, Shihan Saotome," he said as Nabiki had expected, unclamping his cigarette from his yellowed teeth and grinding out its flame into the ashtray.

"Oh," Soun said, still puffing away at his own cigarette and sounding just the right amount of disappointed. Nabiki almost suspected it was genuine, after all it was not often that someone came by to see him, much less someone who actually respected the excitable old sensei. "I guess it's just as well. I'm not sure what else I could do to help at this point, I'm afraid." He offered them a small smile, rising to his feet as the Inspector did, Toshiyama joining them after he had gathered all of his evidence and filed them away in his folder.

"I'm sure the information you've given us will be useful," the scientist said, raking a hand through his greying, brown hair. "Based on what little info we have to go on, you've given us more than we had."

"Although," Izumi said, fumbling in the pocket of his overcoat as he folded it over his arm. "If there is anything else that occurs to you, any thoughts of what this guy's motives are, or if he's just as your daughter says, 'another nut', which would seem to be the case, please let us know." He proffered a business card which her father accepted with a quick glance and that Nabiki resolved to take care of later.

"Of course," Soun agreed immediately before giving his counter-offer, "and if you have anything else you'd like to discuss with me or Saotome, we'd be happy to oblige." He kept on smiling, ignoring Genma's dark mutterings. "Nasty business this is, and the Tendo dojo is of course determined to aid your investigation in anyway until the killer is brought to justice!"

Nabiki groaned quietly, letting her head fall against her palm and rubbing at the bridge of her nose with thumb and forefinger as her father punctuated his speech by striking a finger towards the sky. So close, she lamented. They were almost out the door, nearly an entire visit without an outburst. We were so close. Her hand fell away and her shoulder slumped with a resigned sigh. Be fair, Nabiki, this still had to be some sort of record for him.

"Um… thanks." Toshiyama stuttered, "That's… nice… to hear."

As they led the two policemen to the door, her father began tapping his chin with a thoughtful hmm.

"Inspector," he said whilst Izumi stepped onto the porch waiting as Toshiyama reclaimed his shoes. "I've just had another thought."

My, he is on a roll today, Nabiki thought drolly. The grizzled cop said nothing, but his eyebrows quirked with interest whilst his companion stepped to his side.

"The training for the 'six wind hand' forms, the 'iron bone hand' in particular, often requires the trainee to use liniments and hand baths made from herbs, many of which are hard to come by." Soun paused, his words being trapped as his mouth compressed into a tight line. "I don't use such herbs myself, but I know someone, an acquaintance, who knows a great deal about herblore and its uses." His lips twisted into a sneer as he formed the last word. "She's known as Cologne, you'll find her at the Nekohanten, a ramen restaurant in town."

Nabiki bit back a wince, hoping that she could have kept this to herself for longer. "Daddy, the Amazons are no longer at the Nekohanten."


Nabiki nodded, ignoring Toshiyama mouthing the word 'Amazons' to Izumi's answering shrug. "They had a problem with the health department, apparently a load of people got sick there. The place is closed whilst they do an inspection."

"Oh," her father blinked before a large grin broke his face. "That's good news."

"Um… Daddy," Nabiki sighed. "Guests." She nodded her head towards the two cops who looked back with wide eyes.

"Um… right," Soun pulled at the collar of his gi with a small blush. "Good news that no one was seriously hurt."

"Sure, Dad, they'll buy that," she muttered, before addressing Izumi "Anyway, I'm sure I can find out where they went for you, Inspector." She took the card that her father still clutched in his fingers.

"Thanks," the cop said with a nod. "Well, Shihan Tendo, Miss Tendo, thanks again for your help."

"Don't mention it," Nabiki said quickly before her father could say something stupid.

With a last nod Izumi began to stalk up the path, Toshiyama following at his heels with the folder of gruesome images tucked beneath his armpit. Nabiki watched them go, fading shadows in the dying light of the sun, and felt her father at her side, also watching. The icy worm of fear that she had buried in the pit of her stomach began to wriggle against her guts. Suppressing a shudder she looked up at her father, an aging shell of a man she had once thought to be the strongest in the world.

"Daddy," she said, not quite knowing why her voice sounded so soft. "When you said that the killer was a high level martial artist, do you mean on the level of the people who usually come looking for Ranma?"

Her father started down at her for what seemed like a long time, an expression on his face that she could not remember seeing since her mother died. "Yes, or even better," he replied.

"Don't those kind of people usually come here, looking for Ranma?"

This time her father did not answer, his posture stiffened as he spun on his heel and walked back into the house. A cold wind ripped through the road, stroking her cheek with an icy caress as Nabiki followed him, her eyes lingering on the road that led to her home.

"So, what do you think, Shigurei?" Izumi asked as they approached his blue Nissan, already setting a new cigarette to his lip and sparking a flickering flame on his lighter.

"The fat one, Saotome, he's hiding something," Shigurei replied, adjusting the folder under his arm before clamping it to his body tighter.

"Well done, Shigurei, it's nice to know all those years at university weren't wasted and you can still state the obvious."

Shigurei's eyebrow rose as he glanced at the detective. "Well, I'm sure your years and years and years of experience allowed you to see through him right away," he deadpanned. "However, why didn't you ask him about it?"

"Watch the age jokes, Toshiyama," Izumi grumbled around his cigarette butt. "Asking him would have done nothing. He would have just clammed up. The others too, if I had pushed it." He jabbed his hand into his pocket before pulling it out and flicking his keys back and forth irritably. "The other one, Tendo, seemed sincere enough. Definitely a few bricks short of a house, but sincere. His daughter is a sharp one, too. I think it might be worth a look at the passenger lists, and I definitely want to look into those herb stores."

"Think it'll be enough?"

"It's your job to make it enough, Shigurei," he said, and then sighed, smoke trailing away on the breeze. "No, I don't think it'll be enough. I've asked for more patrolmen, many from other areas, to spend a shift or two here, ask some questions, get a bit more information on the martial artists who are supposed to run this place. I'll have someone keep an eye on this bunch too," he added, casting a dark glare back towards the Tendo household.

"You don't trust them?" Shigurei asked, though he already knew the answer. There was little that could be mistaken about the older man's scowl.

"I trust few people, Shigurei," Izumi said, unlocking the door of his car and pulling it open. "It's not about that." The detective swept the tail of his overcoat back, making as if to clamber into the driver's seat but pausing. Izumi stood straight and caught the scientist's eyes with a sharp stare. Shigurei could feel those eyes bore into him through the hazy veil of cigarette smoke wreathing Izumi's form.

"I've heard the rumours about this place. So have you. Water that can change people's forms? A boy who can make stone explode with a touch and a guy who shattered a statue with a gesture?"

"If those rumours are true, they would have to repeal nearly every fundamental law of physics, Izumi. They have to be exaggerating." Shigurei said with a scowl, his mind swarming with mass-energy conservation laws and mechanical formulae. If those rules were false, how could all the cars, TVs and computers for which they are the foundation work? Though many beautiful theories had been slain by an ugly fact, and if these martial artists were neither con artists nor fools, the possibilities were… Shigurei could barely begin to fathom them.

"You can say that if you want, Shigurei, but they seem to believe it," the detective answered, jerking his head towards the dojo. "If only half of those rumours are true, that's still enough to make my blood freeze. We already have a nutcase who can shred frozen flesh with his fingers. What if even more of them went off the deep end? What do you think would be the result?"

Shigurei remained silent, his stomach tightening like hardened pine sap. It was a bleak line of thought that Izumi had offered.

"You're talking about something that is beyond unlikely, Izumi," Shigurei muttered. "But what do you plan to do about it?"

"The only thing I can do," Izumi grunted, slinging himself into the car. "Watch and wait."

The cold teeth of the night bit through Ukyo's tunic as she stepped outside, and she hunched her shoulders against the chill air. Gusts of wind ripped up the empty street, throwing candy wrappers against the walls of the shops and sending empty paper bags rolling along the pavement like tumbleweeds. The red cloth of her store's banner slapped against her arms as if in protest at her touch when she seized the pole, the cold metal stinging her palms. Her chestnut locks writhed in the wind, plastering themselves to her cheeks and filling her vision with a waving brown haze.

Pushing herself back through the door, she set the banner against the wall and felt fatigue sink over her, as if she had plunged to the bottom of the ocean. Her feet dragged along the floor, each one seemingly made of lead, and she doubted she could summon the effort to lift them, so she continued to slide towards the grill. She gave up halfway and fell into one of the booths with a sigh. Leaning back until her head rested on the wall, she propped her elbow on the table with the other hand folded across her belly, her legs stuck out over the edge of the cushion and hovering above the floor, pulsing with the relief of not bearing her weight.

Ukyo slowly let her eyes drift shut with another sigh. She rubbed at her right shoulder, the muscles cramped and taut after hours of incessant okonomiyaki flipping, for the never-ending mass of hungry customers that had stormed through her door in one of the biggest rushes she'd ever had. The knowledge that she still had to clean the grill and store the ingredients loomed like a storm cloud on the horizon, but she told herself it could wait for two minutes, whilst she rested her aching body and enjoyed the peace and quiet of the night.

One eye slid open. It was too quiet.

"Konatsu?" she called.

"Yes, Miss Ukyo?"

"Eep… Ow… Damn it!"

Ukyo grimaced and clutched at her knee. The sound of the ninja's reply, so close to her, had startled the girl, making trained reflexes leap into action and her body jerk upright, resulting in her knee banging hard against the corner of the table in the sudden motion.

"Konatsu," she growled. "What did I tell you about freaking me out like that?" She released her leg with one last rub and pulled herself up to a sitting position, glancing upwards at her assistant. "And what the hell are you doing up there?"

The male waitress looked down at her. His long tail of inky black hair had come free from its coif and hung against his cheek. He clung like a spider to the ceiling of the restaurant, arms and legs reaching behind him, spread out against two thick support beams. Even through the voluminous folds of his kimono, Ukyo could see Konatsu's muscles bunching from the force they exerted to keep him aloft, the tips of his fingers white against the wood of the beams.

"Nothing, Miss Ukyo," he replied with a sheepish look.

"Tell me, does 'nothing' always involve skulking on the ceiling like a moth?"

"I'm sorry, Miss Ukyo," the ninja said with a small voice, like a child chastised by a teacher for their reckless play. A flush of red coloured his powdered cheeks.

Ukyo looked at the unbearably cute pout on her employee's face, and felt pangs pluck at her heartstrings. "Don't worry about it, sugar," she said, summoning a smile. "I sometimes forget that's just your way."

She pushed herself back onto her aching feet, which throbbed with reluctance as soon as their burden was returned. Clawing her hair from her face, she paused a moment to examine its mussed state before flicking the long strands over her shoulder and adjusting her white bow, another sigh finding its way out of her mouth.

Cloth rustled through the air and then she felt two gentle, but firm and surprisingly large hands slowly settle on her shoulders. Deft fingers probed the definitions of the muscles, finding with frightening precision the tapered heads and ridges where the tendons and nerves connected with the bones. The fingers began to knead her aching flesh, and the throbbing slipped away under their pressure as if the pain were a scuff that could be rubbed away. Her head lolled forwards and she heard a moan in the distance.

The realisation that it was her own voice made her body stiffen and jerk straight, her relaxing muscles becoming steel armour to defend against that gentle touch.

"Konatsu," she said, and perhaps much more harshly than she had intended, for in an instant the kunoichi boy was off her, five paces of space between them like the room had expanded. He also seemed shorter, a waif shrinking into his kimono, as he fidgeted with his sleeves. She could not see his face, his head was lowered with his eyes stared at shuffling feet, shining black hair veiling his features, but she could imagine the hurt expression he surely wore.

"Sorry, sugar," she said. "I'm a dumb jackass, and I shouldn't have snapped like that."

"You could never be a…" He paused. "...what you said, Miss Ukyo," he continued delicately. His voice seemed weak, like cracked glass.

"The word is 'jackass', sugar," she said with a smile, "and trust me, I can be as big a jackass as ever there was." She crossed the distance between them, one hand outstretched; it hovered in the air a moment, hesitating before she laid it on her friend's shoulder. She was surprised with what she could feel beneath the smooth cotton of the kimono, sleek muscles that seemed sculpted from living stone, such a contrast to the fragile image of femininity that he painted over himself.

In many ways she could sympathise, having shrouded her own gender under baggy clothes and a coarse tone, and bound her blossoming womanhood under tight bandages and a fixated quest for vindication. However, Konatsu's cover was much heavier, much tighter; with as many layers over his mind and soul as there were over a body that had been forged to the peak of male conditioning. The perfection of a man's form hidden beneath girly giggles and sighs and pretty clothes.

She pitied him so.

"Anyway," she gripped his chin gently and lifted his face to look at her. Part of her was not all that shocked by the tears she could see welling in his grey eyes. "I didn't mean to snap at you. I'm sorry. I know you were just trying to help, like you always do. It's just that…."

Her words ran out. It's just what? she asked herself. What could she tell him? That she didn't want him get used to touching her? That she knew how he felt about her but could never give him what he wanted? That she was engaged, and only her fiancé could touch her so? That she only wanted Ranma to hold her like that, that it was part of her plan, her dream.

It was one of her favourite scenes in the playhouse of her mind, where her hopes for the future were acted out with bright lights, beautiful colours and a happy smile on every character. She and Ranma would live together in a restaurant full of luxurious leather booths, equipped with a grill that never seemed to need cleaning, where the scent of pine and flowers always filled the air. They would close the place together after a tiring but satisfying day of serving hungry customers who all gushed about how good a couple they were, to which Ukyo would modestly blush and Ranma would put his arm around her and say that he was a lucky man. Then after, as she put away the ingredients, Ranma would set aside his broom and lay his hands on her, strong fingers massaging away her aches and making her heart beat faster in her chest.

In some strange way, having Konatsu touch her the same way, even if she told herself it was just a friendly shoulder rub, was like betraying that dream. It was the same as telling someone what you wished for after you had blown out the candles, ensuring that your wish never came true.

Ukyo let her hands fall from his face, and chewed at her bottom lip, fumbling for the right words in the depths of her brains. "Konatsu… I…."

The door chimed as it was slid open and Ukyo tried to silence her sigh of relief. Tossing the long strands of her hair over her shoulder, she barely registered that Konatsu's face had hardened into a snarl as she turned to face the newcomer.

"I'm sorry, sugar, we are closed for…." the words died as she completed her turn and found herself looking into the wild, inhuman eyes of Kodachi Kuno.

"Don't fret, witch, I have no desire to sample your common fare or submit myself to your foul potions," the gymnast said, her lips curved into a blood-red smile that dripped pure venom.

Ukyo's body had tensed, lowering into a defensive crouch as she watched the other girl through narrowed eyes, waiting for any hint of an attack.

"You're the only one who dabbles in potions, so speak for yourself, witch," she smirked. "Wait, that's not the word I want. What is it…? Oh, yeah. Bitch!"

Ukyo slowly slipped her hand across the smooth material of her tunic, trying not to make any sudden moves. However all she felt the cotton of her lapels over the shallow curve of her bound breasts. The bandolier was gone, still lying with its spatula-shaped shuriken in the back of the pantry. Her combat spatula lay there too, leaving her unarmed against the psychotic aristocrat who wanted her blood.

Fingers of ice seemed to clench around her guts, and she took a slow step back, her wide eyes locked on the ribbon that dangled from Kodachi's hand like a sleeping cobra. She bounced against an unyielding wall, twisting around to see all trace of Konatsu's sweet, feminine features gone, buried under a grimace of cold steel.

"You seem attached to that wench, Kuonji," Kodachi sneered. "Though I am not surprised. Your wicked spells and vile rituals must involve many acts of wanton depravity. You and your wicked sisters must have corrupted this young flower into joining you in your rites and into congress with beasts and demons." Her reddened lips suddenly peeled back, revealing her white teeth that seemed unnaturally bright in the shadow on her face. "I'm sure that's why you and your coven wished to have my Ranma for your own. So you could offer his soul to your masters whilst you defiled his…" Her pink tongue slide over those pearly teeth. "…manly form for you own base pleasures."

Ukyo's cheeks reddened, but whether it was embarrassment or anger that had made the blood rush to her face, she was unsure. "Watch the accusations, you psycho. You're the one that'd paralyse and grope him."

Kodachi continued with her ramblings as if Ukyo had never spoken, flicking her tail of jet black hair over her shoulder, the motion making the locks appear like dancing darkness. "Perhaps that is how you took him away from me, sapped away his noble soul as a feast for the devils you serve. Or did you merely entrap and murder him because he would not submit to your evil seductions?"

A tear slid down Kodachi's white cheek, the crystalline droplet at odds with the bleak, emptiness that consumed her onyx eyes.

The sight made bile rise in Ukyo's throat even as she blinked back her own tears. "Listen, you deluded nutcase, Ranma left us all. No one took him. He walked away, from Akane, from Shampoo, and even me. The only difference is that he didn't care enough to say goodbye to a psycho like you."

"Lies!" Kodachi screeched, and the ribbon besides her writhed and gnashed before lashing forwards.

Ukyo tensed but found herself spun around as a strong arm wrapped about her waist and pulled her from the ribbon's path and shoved roughly behind Konatsu's slender body. Ukyo swayed to retain her balance, watching over Konatsu's shoulder as sparks of light danced in the air between the gymnast and the ninja. The slip of razor sharp silk dropped to the ground before it could touch the waitress, sinking as if the light fabric had become heavy stone. The glint of metal caught Ukyo's eyes and she saw the ribbon pinned against the floor by two bladed stars.

"Infidel," Kodachi snarled, drawing another ribbon from behind her and raising the wand to whip the bright fabric forwards. Konatsu had already vanished, leaving blurred motes swarming in the space he had occupied.

The ninja reappeared behind the rich girl as if stepping out of nothing, and time slowed to a crawl, each instant clinging doggedly to existence before allowing the next into the present.

Konatsu took the gymnast's thin wrist in his own dainty hand, his touch so gentle that Kodachi did not seem to notice it or his presence until her arm was twisted behind her back and forced painfully high, the ribbon falling from her numb fingers. A ray of wan light swept across the walls, bouncing of the face of the kunai that had appeared in the waitress' free fist. Every motion seemed painfully slow, and Ukyo barely felt herself scream as Konatsu brought the dagger to the far side of Kodachi's neck, his forearm carefully nudging her chin up so that it would not impede the fatal stroke. The reflected glimmer from the blade passed over his face, and illuminated a grim expression, devoid of emotion and eyes as dark and empty as those behind the widened lids of his captive.

"Konatsu! No!" Mere pieces of a second after her lips had formed the words; did her voice ring through the air, but each fraction of that moment seemed like an hour to Ukyo.

The blade stopped instantly, and time returned to its steady flow.

"Miss Ukyo?" Kodachi asked, with a blink so cute Ukyo almost forgot that he held a knife to someone's throat.

"Unhand me," Kodachi tried to demand, but her voice came out in a fragile whisper. Her body was still, as if Konatsu's grip had somehow frozen her limbs, but her eyes clawed into Ukyo as though there was a rabid beast caged behind those onyx orbs, waiting to break free. Ukyo's stomach turned as she saw a red bead of blood blossom beneath the blade of the kunai where the steel broke the skin.

"I'm sorry, Miss Kuno," the waitress said, looking genuinely apologetic. "I'm afraid I can't let you go until you have explained why you have come here to bother Miss Ukyo."

"I do not answer to witches or their familiars, you painted strumpet," Kodachi hissed. The sneer dropped from her face as Konatsu pressed the blade tighter against her pale, swanlike neck.

"I'm afraid, Miss Kuno, that I must insist you answer. Otherwise I might be forced to do things that are, well, not nice." A curve that was almost a smirk found its way onto the ninja's brightly painted lips. "I would also like to avoid leaving any more mess for Miss Ukyo or myself to clean."

"Konatsu," Ukyo tried to say firmly, but her voice croaked feebly, forcing her to swallow, a hard lump jarring her throat as she forced it down. "Konatsu, let her go."

The pretty ninja pouted but obeyed, suddenly appearing several paces behind Kodachi without Ukyo seeing him move. The gymnast's discarded second ribbon skittered across the floor with a nudge from Konatsu's foot, placing it well out of Kodachi's grip, but Ukyo had not relaxed and neither had Konatsu. He stood with his hands clasped demurely over the knot of his obi, looking every inch the prim Japanese woman despite the small stain of bright crimson that marred the sleeve of his kimono, but the kunai still hung by its steel ring from his slender finger.

Kodachi stumbled forwards when released, her hand cradling the arch of her neck. She rounded on Konatsu with a snarl, before holding out her fingers for inspection; her smeared blood glistened wetly on the pale skin.

"You'll pay dearly for that," she hissed, before lifting her digits to her lips and removing the red stain with a sweep of her pink tongue.

Ukyo had to swallow another hard chunk of ice before she found her voice again. "Why are you here, Kodachi?"

"To remind you that retribution is coming, of course," the other girl replied with a grim smile. "Though I did find it intriguing to see your customers leave whilst your foreign sister's enterprise is ruined."

"You mean Shampoo?" Ukyo's eyes narrowed. She had heard from her customers that a bout of food poisoning had taken the Nekohanten suddenly and that the food board had closed it down for investigation. Damn bimbo probably got one of those crazy, Amazon mind herbs of hers. "What do you know of it?"

"Why, nothing," Kodachi responded with a titter that made chills run down Ukyo's spine. She noticed Konatsu's mouth open for a moment over the pale girl's shoulder, but it closed again as Kodachi continued her spouting. "I just find it curious that you let your fellow witch be ruined by the food inspectors whilst you continue with business as usual. Perhaps there is truly no honour among villains, though I'm sure I'll not be the only one suspicious."

Again that laugh rang out despite the blood trailing down her slim neck, the sound clinging to the walls like thick frost.

"I told you, you nutcase, that Chinese airhead has nothing to do with me," Ukyo spat through gritted teeth. "So long as she leaves me and my engagement alone, I don't care what happens to her.

"Liar! The three of you are a coven, a trio of malicious demons determined to drive the light and nobility out of mankind."

"You've really gone past the point of no return this time, haven't you? I would almost pity you if you weren't such a bitch," Ukyo growled heatedly. "Now, you can either leave on your feet or on your ass, but get out."

"You dare to threaten Kodachi Kuno?" the aristocrat said with a dark scowl.

"I'll be daring to knock seven bells of crap out of Kodachi Kuno next if she doesn't get out of my home in three seconds."

"I would take her advice, Miss Kuno," Konatsu said softly. "It has been a long night and it might be best if you left before someone does something unpleasant." His hands countered the gentle warmth of his tone as his thumb teased the edge of his kunai.

"The two of you seem to have me outnumbered, a not untypical tactic for dishonourable wretches such as yourselves," the gymnast sneered, before drawing herself up with haughty aplomb. "I shall take my leave, but mark my words; I shall have the hearts of you and your sisters, as you have taken mine."

Kodachi spun her heel, baring her teeth towards Konatsu, who smiled warmly in return. She tossed her shadowy tail of hair over her shoulder with a primly pointed sniff, and strode from the restaurant with her chin tilted high, a one-woman procession.

Watching Kodachi disappear from view as she bounded behind the top of the doorframe, Ukyo sighed, releasing a breath she had not known she had been holding. With the expelled air she let the ready tension leave her body, but without the adrenaline and focus of combat, fear and fatigue crashed down on her a thousandfold, and the strength seeped from her body. She realised her heart was pounding a furious beat in her ears and that her fingers were trembling. Feeling her knees about to buckle, she moved to brace herself against the counter top, her steps as awkward as if she walked on ice. She had been about to slip onto one of the stools, when her eyes caught on the sparkle of steel.

Two metal stars twinkled in the restaurant light, pinning a tongue of rose-coloured silk to her floor. A streaking razor sharp ribbon speared as easily as one might stab an errant piece of okonomiyaki from a plate. Glancing towards where her gender-confused assistant was closing the door in Kodachi's wake, Ukyo felt the room grow cold. She pushed herself onto her tottering feet, balling her hands into her fists and using the bite of her nails on her palms to steel herself.

"Konatsu," she ground out. "What the hell was that?"

The kimono-clad ninja threw himself to the floor at the sound of her voice, dropping to his knee and pressing his brow to the cold floor.

"I'm sorry, Miss Ukyo," he said immediately, trying to pushing himself further into the tiles

"Now what are you doing, jackass?" Ukyo deadpanned. "Get up."

"But, Miss Ukyo, I've displeased you," the effeminate boy said, looking up at her with large, shimmering eyes and a red-lipped pout.

"Listen to yourself, Konatsu. Do you even know what you did?"

"No, Miss Ukyo. I'm so sorry," the ninja cried, tears welling in his eyes. "Please tell me how I've failed you. I'll never do it again."

"How you failed me?" Ukyo spluttered, words falling out of her mouth. "Konatsu, YOU TRIED TO SLIT SOMEONE'S THROAT!" she screamed.

Konatsu's perfectly plucked and trimmed eyebrows drew into a tight furrow, and his thick eyelashes batted as he blinked. "But, Miss Ukyo, she attacked you. I tried to stop her once, but she tried again…." His voice trembled and then cracked.

See, he did it for you, fool, now what are you going to say? Ukyo asked herself, guilt welling up inside her like a dark liquid as she looked down upon the prostrate shinobi, who suddenly looked frail and child-like.

"I get that, sug… Konatsu, but there were other ways. You didn't have to try and kill her." I can handle myself, a small voice wanted to protest, but it sounded too much like Akane Tendo for her liking, and despite her fondness for the girl Ukyo had no desire to take on her bad habits. Besides, the truth was Kodachi had caught her without her weapons

A little of her defiance must have hardened her tone, as the girly ninja's head dropped. "I only did what I thought was right, Miss Ukyo," he said in a tiny voice.

What he thought was right? Butchering someone who could have easily been controlled and disabled? Ukyo coldly realised, however, that it would not have been butchery, but a precise execution. She doubted Kodachi would have felt a thing, simply fallen to the floor already dead, her life gushing away in an arterial spray of red fluid. Quick and painless, the way a vet would put down a mad dog before its frothing fangs could harm anyone, and Kodachi had most certainly gone mad, and was certainly dangerous. But she was still a person. How could killing her be right?

Ukyo's eyes caught once again on the shining steel stars that shone in the floor of her restaurant, and it all made sense. Konatsu was a ninja.

It seemed like such an obvious thing to realise, and in many ways it was. Konatsu was always skulking about the restaurant, clearing tables and taking orders whilst flicking in and out of sight like a phantom. It was more of a spark of understanding, not just that Konatsu was a ninja but what a ninja was.

Her father had once told her that the fighting techniques her family had used to defend themselves and their livelihood had their origin in ninjitsu. The tale went that a Genin of Iga fled his village before the wrath of Oda Nobunaga, and tried to set up a ninja ring within a family of travelling chefs. The need for such espionage faded as Tokugawa became shogun and so the Genin married into the Kuonji clan, using his skills to protect his new family.

Ukyo was no stranger to ninja ways, but in comparison to Konatsu Kenzan, the legendary 'super-kunoichi' of his generation, born as a man due to fate's sick sense of humour, the skills of her entire clan were like a sandcastle before Himeji fortress. Though ninja were not the heartless assassins myth cast them as, death was still part of their lives, and it was with ice crawling across her flesh that she remembered when her father introduced her to his uncle, the scion of the deepest secrets of the Kuonji fighting technique.

Sota Kuonji had been a grim man, with thin eyes lined with crow's feet and a scar slicing into his top lip that set his mouth into a perpetual sneer. Ukyo remembered childishly thinking that it looked as if the man had been eating bees. He had always worn the same okonomiyaki-seller's tunic each day, the cloth threadbare and worn and the blue faded to the colour of wet cement, which hung from his thin, ropish physique.

After abandoning her true gender and years of intense practise, learning combat from her father and cooking her grill by the raging sea, beating away the ocean spray to harden her body and keep her tiny flame alight, it was decided the Ukyo should advance to the next level of training. So she and her father knelt on the floor of Uncle Sota's rundown, ramshackle restaurant, the worn floorboards splintering her knees through her pants, and asked for his teaching.

His words still haunted her, now more than ever, as she looked down on her friend and employee, a ninja on the verge of weeping.

"You wish retribution on Genma Saotome and his son, hm? Tell me Ukyo, what would you have — vindication or vengeance?"

"I'm afraid I don't understand, Uncle."

"Then you have not given your quest enough thought or enough heart."

"It is all I have thought of for six years."

"Then tell me, do you wish to look your enemy in the eye and have him beg, acknowledging his defeat? Or do you wish him to fall without ever knowing who or what felled him? I can teach both."

Her father had jumped in then, whilst Ukyo had sat in dumb silence, rising to his feet with red-faced fury as he told his uncle that his 'son' would get justice on the battlefield. 'Honour can only be regained through honourable means', he had said. Sota had only smirked and nodded, and then began training Ukyo for the destined challenge bout with Ranma Saotome.

It was not until much later that Ukyo had realised what her relative had offered to teach. Assassination, murder, the path to get payment in blood for her abandonment by her fiancé and his father. The use of death, for that was what it was in the world of the ninja. Another tool, to be used as necessary and as casually as she might use her spatula.

The word shinobi had originally meant 'one who persevered'; the name given to these warriors because they survived and flourished no matter what the fates threw at them. This was because they did whatever was necessary to complete their mission, to keep their clan alive, to protect the ones they loved.

Konatsu loved her, or thought he did, and it seemed to Ukyo at that moment, it was the sickest joke in the world that she didn't love him back.


To be continued

Author's notes: I hope that chapter was still a good read despite having a lot of theory and talking but less action. I also hope I wasn't playing 'sensei' again too much. I'm not trying to lecture on martial arts, but felt it was important to show that just because Genma and Soun don't do too much they still probably know a great deal, and not just on the direct martial arts stuff. I also felt it would be good to drop in a bit of background into Ukyo (another character who we know far too little about in the manga) and ninjitsu in general which will become more important as the story progresses.


Bubishi: A collection of articles on the various aspects of the martial arts, including fist techniques, history, vital points and herb lore. The manuscript is believed to have originated in Southern China, but was highly valued on Okinawa where it has had a critical influence on the development of karate and other Okinawan combat arts.

Rokkisho: 'Six wind hands', also 'six energy hands'. Six hand forms or shapes described in the Bubishi. Used in specialised attack methods such as stabbing, clawing and tearing and striking vital points. Most of the hand forms require intense conditioning to use correctly.

Genin: 'Lower ninja'. One of the ranks within a ninja family representing a field agent. Above Genin rank is chunin (middle ninja), the team leaders, and jonin (higher ninja), the heads of ninja ryu.

Nukite: 'Spear hand'. A technique where the tips of stiffened fingers are used to strike at soft parts of the body with a stabbing motion. Also the name of the hand form used for such strikes. Nukite usually refers to a blow using all four fingers, and strikes using one or two fingers are called ippon nukite and nihon nukite respectively.

Kushanku: A karate kata found in styles descended from the martial arts of Shuri village in Okinawa, also known as kosankun and kanku-dai (Viewing the Sky, Greater). Named after a Chinese emissary and kung fu master, and passed to his student Sokon 'Bushi' Matsumura.

Bassai: 'Besieging the fortress, removing the obstacle'. Another karate and Anything Goes kata originating from Matsumura. Also known as passai, several variations of this form are known to exist.

Shihan: A high rank in martial arts. In traditional Japanese martial arts (pre-Tokugawa era), shihan usually referred to a person who had mastered the style and was given license (menkyo) to teach, but had not been designated the head or heir to the school.

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