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A Ranma ½ fan fiction story
by Beer-monster

Disclaimer: Ranma 1/2 characters property of Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video.


Book I: The Mantis Saga

Chapter One: Fighter's Heart


The blast ripped through the air like a thunder clap. An invisible shockwave carried the immense sound across the vacant parking lot, the sonic tide making car windows and headlights burst in their weldings. A giant sphere of fire erupted from the centre of the chaos, throwing flaming chunks of tarmac high into the air, the high velocity of the shrapnel giving off a keening wail. As suddenly as it had come, the explosion disappeared, and the light and smoke cleared to reveal a figure standing amongst the cracked and fiery pavement.

The figure was dressed in a thick black shirt and pants, which cut a harsh silhouette against the dull red of the street-lit night sky of Tokyo. His jet-black hair was pulled back in a long tail, which hung down his back, stirring slightly with the wind. His thin lips were drawn into tight frown of what seemed irritation. His brows were furrowed and shaven, making his forehead seem slightly protruding. The eyes beneath those angry brows seemed to shine with an unnaturally pure green, such as that which shimmers in the facets of a rare emerald.

"Come on out, old one," the man called to the empty lot. "You challenged me, remember. This is a duel, and you choose to hide in the shadows like a rat." Only the wind answered him, his frown deepened.

"Is this the tactic of your worthless school, to cower like a worm when you run out of tricks?"

Suddenly the air shifted to his left, a diminutive shadow dove at him from the darkness.

His lips slowly drew into a cruel smirk as he sidestepped the lunging attack. The tiny figure recovered swiftly by twisting into a somersault and bouncing off the charred bonnet of a car as if it were a springboard. The midget arrowed his body into a flying sidekick which the larger man once again dodged before throwing his fist out like cannonball. The small creature twisted around the punch, blocking with a gnarled palm. Almost as soon as the two limbs made contact, the black-clad man flew high into the sky, his body spinning and flailing uncontrollably. Soon however, gravity took over and he began to drop to the ground at high speed.

There was a brilliant flash of green light, and mere inches from the ground the falling body suddenly reversed in his direction, rising up briefly enough to allow him to land on his feet in a crouch.

"I can't believe I fell for that," he cried more to himself than his opponent, who was now breathing heavily and huddled in shock.

"Oh well," the man said. "This is getting boring."

The gnarled creature began to shake and quiver as the air began to glow with an ethereal green light. There was shorts sparks and flashes of electricity as the atmosphere became charged with power. The puny little midget's eyes widened and for the first time in centuries it felt fear.


The Next Morning:

The sun glittered over the water as it flowed rapidly between its concrete banks. The air was filled with the horns of the cars and trains, which carried Tokyo's busy commuters to the heart of the city. The streets were filled with schoolchildren in their smart and ironed uniforms heading towards another long, boring day of education.

"Is something wrong, Ranma?" asked one of those schoolgirls. Short, tousled blue-black hair lightly feathered her brow, and hung over her blue eyes. Her pale-skinned and pretty face wore an expression of concern as she looked up at her fiancé, who had not yet responded.

"Ranma?"

"What?!" her companion snapped, irritated to be pulled from his thoughts.

"Don't snap as me," the girl huffed. "I was just trying to shown some concern, you jerk."

"Why? I'm fine," he answered absently.

"It's just you were rather quiet at breakfast this morning, and didn't put up much of a fight when your father tried to steal your food," she said, looking down at the bookbag clasped in her hands.

"It's nothing, Akane."

Akane watched Ranma saunter along the top of the chain link fence, stepping along its two-inch thick surface as if he was walking on pavement. His blue-grey eyes seemed rather distant, his focus far away on some worry. The shade of his irises changed as the light took them, the colour now like a cloudy morning sky. His jet-black hair was bound in its usual pigtail, grown longer in recent months so that it now hung down his back, bouncing between his shoulder blades as he walked. The sunlight shimmered across the surface of the red satin shirt he wore, of simple Chinese style with yellow lace ties. The outfit was completed with a pair of plain black trousers, loose-fitting, yet tied tightly at the ankles so it did not impede his graceful movements. His youth was betrayed in the sparseness of the course hairs that grew on his chin. The lips were set in the tight lines of a distracted frown. This expression worried Akane as it would anyone who knew the boy. Frowns and worry were just so "un-Ranma".

He hasn't been the same since Jusendo, she mused. It was true now that she looked back, although it had taken her a while to notice his change of mood. Actually, she had realised when one day she had noticed that she had not punted her fiancé into Tokyo skyline recently. Ranma just seemed so despondent; he just seemed to coast through the day, never putting any effort or focus into anything (unless it annoyed him). He ate slower, talked quietly and usually in one-sentence responses. He barely fought in his spars with his father, just stood there, shifting his stance to dodge Genma's attacks until the old man exhausted himself. They still argued, but it was different; she would yell and throw things and he just sat there. He never said anything, never shouted, never argued back. He just sat there taking it, plucking flying mallets from the air as they came near him. Then when she ran out of insults and missile weapons, he would ask something like "Are you done yellin'?" then walk off. At first she had though he was up to something, but now she wasn't sure. He really seemed down.

They came to the gates of Furinkan High School and joined the stream of disgruntled teenagers making their way into the building. Akane smiled and waved to her friends Yuka and Sayuri as she saw them across the yard.

"Hiya, Ranchan!" she heard said from her left. Turning, she watched the figure in a grey version of the boy's uniform approach them. At first the teen with the long, chestnut-brown hair held in a long ponytail could be mistaken for a boy, but as they came closer, the wide, hazel eyes beneath long lashes, and the feminine curves almost unnoticeable under the grey suit showed that this was no boy.

Ranma's frown curled upwards into a friendly grin as she approached. "Hey, Ucchan," he greeted affectionately.

Akane ground her teeth together as Ukyo immediately latched on Ranma's right arm, hugging it to her. It was a friendly gesture and certainly tamer than Shampoo's glomps; but it was more contact than she was getting. And the fact that he did it right in front of her, and was doing nothing to remove the fawning chef from his arm just made Akane madder. I talk to him all morning, and I get the silent treatment. That hussy turns up for five seconds and he's all smiles, Akane thought furiously, failing to notice that his smile did not reach his eyes, which remained dull and sorrowful. In fact, she was just about to pound him into an unattractive mass of bruises when her wrath was interrupted by an over-dramatic shout.

"YOUR HOUR IS NIGH, VILE SORCERER SAOTOME!"

The shout rang out over the chatting voices of the students as a young man with dark curls hanging over his eyes came running out of the crowd. He was dressed in a ludicrous costume like a wannabe-samurai, a dark blue hakama with a gi of a lighter shade. He waved a bokken over his head like the sword of Damocles as he continued spouting utter babble.

"TODAY I, TATEWAKI KUNO, SHALL BRING DIVINE JUSTICE UPON YOU!"

Ranma let out a sigh. "Like bloody Sailor Moon," he muttered under his breath. Pushing Ukyo away, he did not bother assuming any sort of stance as he waited for Kuno to begin his assault. Ukyo pouted angrily at being shoved aside, but obligingly moved out of Ranma's way.

Kuno, noticing that the "despicable wretch" did not move, began having more delusions of grandeur.

"Ah, I see you do not attempt to flee. You must realise that it is futile to try and escape the Blue Thunder's might," he said, and struck out on the last words, slicing at Ranma's head.

The pigtailed youth ducked the obvious slash, then sidestepped the upperclassman's follow-up strike. Kuno drew back his blade and stabbed at Ranma, who twisted on the spot, letting the wooden point slide past his chest. Overextended and off-balance, Kuno stumbled, his stance dropping as he tried to avoid falling on his face. He recovered quickly and tried to use his low position as an advantage by slashing at Ranma's left leg. The young martial artist simply lifted his leg, then stomped down. He stood on Kuno's bokken, pinning the wooden blade beneath the sole of his soft slipper. The older boy's eyes widened in a moment of fear and anticipation of great pain as he saw Ranma's other foot draw back.

PUNT.

The pompous kendoka want sailing up into the stratosphere and over the horizon.

Someone in the gathered crowd asked his friend, "I wonder if Akane or Ranma would win the gold medal if 'long-distance moron kicking' was an Olympic event?"

Ranma sighed again, loudly, before trudging into school without even waiting for Akane. Both Akane and Ukyo watched him go, brows furrowed with joint concern and curiosity. They knew something was wrong with Ranma, but as he had watched Kuno rocket into the distance, a great void had passed through his eyes. He had seemed empty, lost. Whatever was wrong, both knew it was serious, and as they made their way to class both made their own plans on how to help him.


LUNCH:

The first two lessons of the day passed swiftly for Ranma. Of course, this was because he had slept through both of them. Head down on his desk, and a small puddle of drool forming as he snored over the teachers' droning voices. When the bell finally rang for lunch, he was jolted awake. Seeing the other students grabbing their things and heading for the cafeteria, he grabbed his own bento, checked Akane was not watching, and vaulted out of the open window. Settling under the shade of a large tree, he sat on the grass and unwrapped his meal. He inhaled the wonderful sushi that had been made with Kasumi's loving hands with relish. Then he lay back against the tree and looked upwards. He watched the sunlight fall through the leaves and sighed.

It all seemed fake and detached, as if he was seeing the world through someone else's eyes. Everything was flat, without form or dimensions, like an old black-and-white photo. The vibrant pulse of life that he had once exulted in was gone. Now he felt as if he was not living any more; he was simply alive.

He sensed someone's approach. He hurriedly sat up, expecting to have to excuse and defend himself and his absence to Akane. Then he saw it was just Ukyo and relaxed.

"Hey, Ucchan," he said not finding the energy to put even false joy into his voice.

The chef smiled slightly and knelt down in front of him, reaching back, to free her hair from her ribbon so that it blew gently in the wind. A silence hung in the air about them, Ranma sat there watching Ukyo intently, making her blush under his gaze and drop her eyes to the grass.

"So watcha doing out here, Ranma-honey?" she asked finally.

"Jus' thinkin'" he replied.

"What about?"

"Nothin'."

Ukyo grimaced cutely. This was getting her nowhere, and fast. She would have to try a more direct method.

"C'mon, Ranma. I know that something's bothering you. Tell me. Maybe I can help."

Ranma snorted stubbornly. "What make you think there's somethin' wrong wi' me?" he asked dryly.

"Because it's obvious," she answered simply. "Because I know you too well. Because I'm your fiancée, and I need to know these things if we're to be married."

Ranma's eyes widened at the word 'married' and he began breathing heavily and spluttering excuses. His eyes darted about warily as if to expect Akane to come from nowhere and mallet him into oblivion. Ukyo's shoulders slumped, she should have expected as much. Talking to Ranma was like trying to ride a wild and frightened horse; it took a lot of patience and soft words. She would have to try a different angle.

"I'll tell you what, Ranchan. I make you your favourite okonomiyaki and you can tell me all about it. Just like the old days."

Ranma brightened at this idea and nodded slowly. He was still hungry, after all.

Smiling Ukyo reached into a little rift in the fabric of space and time, and pulled a portable grill from a small, splinter dimension. Interestingly enough this dimension was also home to a vast assortment of objects, including Akane's hammers, Shampoo's bonbori and several Boeing 747's that had mysteriously gone missing near Bermuda.

Soon the air was filled with the scent of grilling batter, pork, and sauce. And a strange ringing noise that seemed to be getting closer. Suddenly the sound seemed to come from right above him, and his eyes widened in realisation. He attempted to roll to the side but was too late as a tyre impacted hard against the back of his head.

"NIHAO, AIRE-- huh!?"

The tyre had been attached to a slender bicycle, upon which, dressed in blue, Chinese silks, rode a girl who could only be described as beautiful. Her lavender hair swayed as her head pivoted frantically, the bright gleam in her blue eyes and a cute pout told that she was searching for something, but seeing nothing but Ukyo, whose had paused in her cooking to stare daggers at the purple-haired newcomer. The girl's eyes narrowed.

"What sneaky spatula girl do with Airen?" she asked venomously.

"You crushed him, dimwit."

"Who you call dimwit?" the girl shot back. Then she became aware of a dull moaning and cocked her head, listening. She could have sworn that she heard something mumbling.

"Shmpou, git yr rddi byke uf my hid!" (Translation: Shampoo, get your bloody bike of my head!)

The girl looked down and saw Ranma sprawled under her bike, twitching occasionally with limbs stuck out at unnatural angles. Throwing her bike aside, the lavender beauty picked Ranma up and dusted him off.

"Silly Ranma, what you do under Shampoo's bike?"

"You landed on me, remember?" he yelled indignantly.

Ignoring his anger, Shampoo instead pounced on Ranma and pressed herself (and her considerable assets) onto him tightly in that time-honoured Amazon tradition known as the 'glomp'.

"Airen take Shampoo on date, yes," it wasn't really a request as much as it was an order.

"Urk… Shampoo 'Airen' can't breath," said Ranma who was already turning an interesting shade of blue.

Luckily for Ranma, a huge spatula pried the two apart before he could suffer too much asphyxiation. Ukyo's face was livid as she stood between Shampoo and Ranma defensively, holding her Spatula out vertically like some sort of shield.

"Get your slutty Tang hands of my Ranchan," she spat at the other woman.

"Why spatula girl try to take Ranma from his wife? She know that Shampoo will just beat her as always," Shampoo taunted.

Blood suffused Ukyo's face as she bared her teeth.

"You think you can take me down, you little tramp?!" she snarled.

"No think, Shampoo know she can." Shampoo now wore a cocky smirk, which Ranma thought must be similar to the one he often wore.

"Let's see," Ukyo challenged, pulling a razor-sharp minispatula from nowhere and casting it at Shampoo. The cooking-implement-turned-dart streaked towards Shampoo's heart, who braced herself ready to dodge.

*KA-CHING*

A dull, metallic sound rang through the air as something struck the spatula in mid-flight. The weapon's trajectory was diverted and it tumbled harmlessly to the grass. The other flying object struck the earth and buried itself in the thick soil, revealing itself to be a short throwing knife.

The sound of wind-ruffled cloth filled the air with a rapid flapping as a white blur came somersaulting out of nowhere, streams of white fabric trailing behind it. The newcomer landed between Shampoo and Ukyo, standing to his full height as his long, black hair and snow-white robes fluttering gently in the noon breeze. The young man's face twisted into an angry grimace as he spun and shouted at the purple-haired Amazon.

"How dare you attack my beloved Shampoo, you bastard? I'll kill you!" He lunged at the girl on the last word, ready to carry out his threat. But a well-placed and violent foot to the face intercepted his attack.

"Stupid Mousse," his target spat. "I is Shampoo."

"Huh?" the boy replied and swiftly retrieved a pair of bifocals from the expanse of his sleeve. The lenses were gigantic and thick, the glass catching and warping the light of the sun like the bottom of a bottle, so that his eyes were invisible beneath the refracted glare. His mouth dropped open and he once again leapt at Shampoo, this time his arms flung open ready to embrace.

"Shampoo, my darling," he gushed.

Once again Shampoo's foot found his face, stopping him in his tracks. He recovered swiftly, this time focusing his attentions on Ukyo.

"It was a spatula that had been shooting towards my Shampoo's heart," he said softly, his lip curling in to a snarl. "You will pay for attacking my love, Kuonji."

"Well, the whore shouldn't have had her filthy feline paws on my Ranchan."

"Are you calling my beautiful flower a whore, you… Huh? Ranma?" His attention turned to the pigtailed boy who was currently brushing the tire marks from his clothes, and trying not to be involved in the trio's feud. Mousse grit his teeth together.

"SAOTOME, HOW DARE YOU GROPE SHAMPOO?!"  he yelled as he withdrew a mace from the folds of his robe and swung it at Ranma. The other youth evaded the blow easily, jumping back out of the weapon's reach. Unfortunately, this brought him next to Shampoo who immediately latched on to him, squeezing him tightly.

"Go away, Mousse," she said, hugging Ranma harder. "Ranma is Shampoo's airen. He can do whatever want with Shampoo."

Mousse growled and his face flushed with rage, his hands clasped the sleeves of his robes in a white-knuckled grip. Ranma smirked, and wrapped one arm around the girl's waist, pulling her closer.

"Yeah, Mousse. Buzz off. Me and Shampoo are gonna have some fun." His smirk deepened as his other arm ran its way down the bouncy Amazon's curves. Shampoo's eyes widened and she gasped, then her eyes snapped shut and she held Ranma tighter.

"Ooh, Ranma," she cooed.

Mousse steamed. He trembled with mounting fury. His glasses fogged and his brows furrowed, eyes narrowing. He bared his teeth in a vicious snarl, spittle flying from his lips as he seethed.

Ranma then blew in Shampoo's ear as his arm slipped down and he cupped her buttock in his left palm, rubbing slightly. His eyes were still fixed on the Chinese boy, still smirking.

"Mmm… Nice," he said in a husky whisper loud enough for Mousse to hear as he squeezed the flesh gently.

"YOU WILL DIE!" Mousse screamed in primal rage as he lost control and charged forwards, brandishing a large battle-axe.

Gripping Shampoo firmly about the waist, Ranma spun out of Mousse's path, swinging the young woman out of range as well. Pouting angrily, Shampoo broke out of Ranma's hold, and began stomping towards the robed fighter, rolling up her sleeves and clenching her fists.

"Shampoo beat Mousse to pulp for ruining time with Ranma," she growled.

She stopped in her rage as Ranma stepped in front of her and flung out a hand, blocking her path.

"No, Shampoo," he said firmly. "If he wants to fight me, I'm up for it."

This statement made Mousse pause, his anger dimming slightly as his suspicion rose. What is Ranma up to? He asked silently. Usually Ranma did everything possible to avoid trouble, especially where his fiancées were concerned. Mostly when things did get out of hand, he would try and get his enemy's fighting amongst themselves as he ran off with Akane to safety. But now he actually wanted to fight him. His brain, however, shut down all thought as he realised that Ranma was touching his beloved again.

"You fight for me, Ranma?" Shampoo said, eyes growing wide. "I so happy." She lunged for Ranma ready to glomp. Ranma thrust his stiffened fingers into her chest gently, and she halted mid-hug.

"Not now, Shampoo," he said flatly.

Then he noticed that his hand was nestled between two of Shampoo's more prominent assets and jerked his arm back as if it was on fire. Shampoo frowned, but obligingly moved out of Ranma's way. Mousse was still stood there, watching Ranma keenly through his spectacles, still suspicious.

"C'mon, Mousse. I ain't got all day," Ranma coaxed. "I got places to go, Amazons to do."

It took several moments for the true meaning behind his comment to sink into Mousse's brain. But when it did, the nearsighted boy was furious. He shrieked as he sped towards Ranma, his mind so blinded by the red mist of anger that he completely forgot about his arsenal of hidden weapons, attacking instead with a barrage of punches. His hands became a blur as he struck out at his rival.

Ranma slipped between the blows as if they were nothing, passing around and under the range of Mousse's fists. The Chinese warrior's robes billowed open as he swung his foot in a roundhouse kick to the head. Ranma lashed out with his own foot, intercepting and jamming the kick before it could hit, then snapping out to strike Mousse in the gut. The other boy grunted and doubled over in pain. The pigtailed martial artist used this distraction to leap back, increasing the distance between them.

The kick to the belly was a superficial blow, the minor pain only serving to snap Mousse's mind from its blind fury and forcing it to think again. Flinging out his arm, he launched a deadly volley of chains, harpoons, claws and yo-yos at his opponent.

Ranma's lips twisted to form a cocky grin, as his arms came to form a cross in front of him. The flailing weapons struck his arm and wrapped themselves about his wrists. In a single, swift movement he grasped the chains in his fists and yanked sharply. The speed of the manoeuvre and Ranma's strength pulled Mousse from his feet and brought him flying forwards.

The myopic boy hastily released the arsenal, but his momentum continued to carry him towards his opponent, who seized his opportunity and slammed his foot into Mousse's midriff.

The blow sent him reeling back, as Ranma untangled his arms from the remaining chains.

"Ugh," Mousse groaned as he pulled himself up. "Damn you, Saotome."

"I'LL KILL YOU," he screamed as he stood and send several small hatchets flying at the pigtailed fighter. Ranma dodged them easily, not noticing Mousse's smirk or the eggs that had been shot at him.

*BOOM*

The area where Ranma had stood exploded. Dirt and rock was spat in to the air as a modest geyser of fire shot up and scorched the grass. Smoke billowed everywhere, covering everything. Ukyo and Shampoo coughed as they peeked through the mist for any sign of the young martial artist.

Mousse, too, was searching through the haze, seeking his fallen foe so that he could know that he had won, and gloat over his victory. But where he expected to see Ranma's charred corpse, all he could see was white.

"<Shit!>" he snapped in Cantonese as he realised that the smoke had fogged up his glasses. He continued squinting through the smoke as he wiped the lenses on his robes. He replaced his spectacles and blinked to clear his vision.

Mousse's eyes widened in horror, as his sight was filled with the crystal-clear image of a foot flying towards his face. Then it all went black, and he had the curious sensation that he was flying.

"Aiyah, Ranma whoop Mousse good," Shampoo proclaimed as she saw Ranma land with perfect form, body still twisting from the force of his kick. She then promptly latched on to him.

"Ranma worry Shampoo. Think Stupid Mousse almost kill Ranma."

"Nah, he couldn't even touch me," Ranma exclaimed proudly. Then he repeated it, pausing. "He couldn't… couldn't even touch me," his voice had trailed to a frail whisper.

Shampoo noticed this. Ranma never sounded so low, so weak. Especially not after a victory. However, she thought it best to carry on as normal.

"Ranma now take Shampoo on date; have fun Ranma talk about," she cried, squeezing him tighter.

He just then he became aware of the silence of the school grounds and guessed at the time.

" Sorry, Shampoo. I gotta go; I'm late for class," he yelped, breaking himself away from the Amazon's grip and running towards the school building, barely stopping to wave farewell.

Once he was sure he was out of Shampoo's sight, he slowed, pondering his fight, the resultant feeling of loss after his victory, and the events preceding the conflict. Hey, I wonder where Ucchan went? he thought. I never did get that okonomiyaki.

Just then, a small flying disc (that was secretly being monitored by NASA as a possible UFO) slapped against Ranma's face, knocking him from his feet and onto his back. With typical Nerima irony, it revealed itself to be an okonomiyaki. The sauce was smudged, but could still be made out to spell the word "JACKASS!".


Later:

Ranma sat with his legs crossed on the polished wood floor of the dojo. His hands were laid in his lap, fingers interlaced with thumbs stretched upwards. His brow trembled over his closed eyes as he sought the calm centre within. However, with the chaos that he swept towards him like chips in a whirlpool, inner peace was hard to find.

Akane had been told about the incident with Shampoo and Mousse. His guess was that Ukyo had come in fuming at him and told her the gist while Nabiki filled in the details, at a profit.

Once again he had gone soaring through the Tokyo skyline thanks to Mallet Airways, and had put quite a scare into the poor family whose window he crashed through. Although this time he had felt he deserved it for once. Akane was right; he had been flirting with Shampoo. However, as was vintage Akane, she had ignored his futile attempt to explain, not that he had any explanation.

Even he was not quite sure why he had been fooling around with Shampoo. His instincts had told him to do it, told him to search for something in Mousse. Something that he had lost since Jusendo.

"Ugh!" he grunted to himself disgustedly, before returning to his meditation.

He delved, deep inside his soul. Feeling his own energy burning, shining like the sun. It swelled in his abdomen, pulsating calmly, radiating energy like light hidden behind his eyes. Heat filled his body, singing through his veins like liquid warmth.

Settling himself and his energy, he extended his senses outwards. Slowly, gradually, the world opened up to him, like the petal of a blooming rose. It was sight beyond sight. He could feel the world around him, the bark on the trees in the garden as if he were running his hand along the branches, the cold of the pond water as if he were bathing in it. The sound of the breeze against the house was deafening, and the scent of sweat and wood in the dojo threatened to clog his nostrils. Ranma could sense the ebb and flow of ki around him, feel it swarm through the air like waves of colour, feel it in the people in the house and street like balls of light.

The air around him grew denser, heavier, as it sank under waves of despair. Pain, anger, and regret clouded his senses; he opened his eyes, half expecting to see a mist of sorrow filling the room. The dark feelings of hopelessness collected beneath him, growing stronger and darker. Ranma unfolded his legs and rose to a crouch, poised on the balls of his feet like a leopard. He probed carefully, his senses screaming as the grief and woe came closer and became more intense.

Instinct hit him like a lightning bolt and he leapt aside, as a hand thrust up through the floorboards. The fingers clawed at the air for a moment, flexing and twisting as if searching, before retracting back into the hole, being swiftly replaced by a head possessing thick, black curls held from a pair of angry green eyes by a tiger-skin bandanna. The head swivelled, eyes blinking, then fixed on Ranma; the brows then lowered and the youth growled, revealing a pair of fangs. The arm then resurfaced to take a grip of the floor and pull the rest of the boy's body up through the hole. He wore a heavy jerkin of coarse, yellow canvas, and black pants bound around the calves by leather straps. His bulging pack shook the ground and splintered the floor as he slung it from his shoulders. He then cast aside a large umbrella of wood and red cloth, which fell to the floor with a loud crash. All the time his gaze had not moved from Ranma, and his snarl had only deepened.

"Ranma!" he barked with malice.

"Hey, Ryoga, how you been?" Ranma responded cheerily, ignoring the other boy's obvious animosity.

"Shut up!" Ryoga yelled as he crawled out of his hole.

"You seem angry, P-Chan. Does that sweet and sour pork sauce itch?"

"Damn you, Ranma, don't mock me!"

"Aw, but it's so much fun," Ranma mock-whined with a large grin.

"Stuff it, you jerk," he growled. "I just came from the Nekohanten."

"And you managed to make it here without coming via Taiwan? I'm impressed," Ranma joked.

"Damn it, Ranma, Mousse told me how you groped Shampoo and attacked him. HOW COULD YOU DO THAT TO AKANE?"

Ranma sighed. It was strange how events were different in someone else's perspective. And how those changes usually made him the villain. Then he smiled, as he felt that sensation he had lost and now craved again like an addict. He stood facing Ryoga, still grinning cockily.

"So I take it you want a fight." It was not really a question, as he already knew the answer.

"No, Ranma, I want you to suffer," he replied coldly.

"Well that's what everyone seems to want. But that's what the dojo's for. So gimme your best shot."

Ryoga made a sound that was half-snort, half-laugh then rushed forwards revealing his fangs as he snarled his trademark phrase, "RANMA, PREPARE TO DIE!!"

He lunged forwards into a punch, which Ranma easily dodged. He then struck out with his left hand, trying to grab Ranma's throat. The pigtailed one batted aside the hand and responded with a fist to Ryoga face.

It was like punching steel.

Barely feeling Ranma's strike, Ryoga grasped two handfuls of his enemy's shirt and simply lifted Ranma from his feet effortlessly. He bared his teeth as he watched Ranma's eyes widen, then lifted the other boy over his head and slammed him into the floor with all of his brute strength.

Ranma gasped as the impact drove the air from his lungs. Spots clouded his sight as he watched a black-and-yellow blur grow larger above him. The hairs on the back of his neck stiffened, and he rolled to the side as Ryoga's fist made a crater where his head had been. Still on his back he lashed out with his foot in an arching kick that caught the lost boy on the top of his head.

Ryoga staggered back, rubbing his crown as Ranma flipped onto his feet and twisted sharply, putting his fist into Ryoga's gut.

*RRRRT!*

The bandanna-clad youth grunted and his legs trembled as a hundred hands seemed to slam into his ribs at once. He had felt this technique before, after he had trained with Cologne. Only this time Ranma was not having any trouble breathing as he pulled back, still smiling.

Ranma could barely contain his shock as Ryoga dropped to his knees. It couldn't be over yet! I only hit him one hundred and twenty-six times, he thought, knowing that with Ryoga's endurance that was not enough.

Then like a bullet Ryoga dove forwards thrusting his finger into the floor.

"BAKUSAI TENKETSU!"

The ground exploded with an ear-shattering bang. Splinters of wood and stone spouted upwards, hammering both combatants. Ranma covered his eyes from the flying shrapnel while Ryoga did not even register the impacts as the rocks bounced off of him harmlessly.

Dashing around the blast, Ranma swung his hips into a roundhouse kick, catching the still-crouched Ryoga in his already bruised ribs. The larger boy yelped and pulled back, cradling his side with one arm.

Ranma smirked, and Ryoga snarled as both fighters rose to their feet.

"Stop smiling! Damn you, this is a fight," Ryoga shouted.

"Just find it kind of funny, how much of a wimp you've become."

"WIMP?!" Ryoga screamed as a dark, depressed, green aura began swarming around him. "I'LL SHOW YOU WHO'S A WIMP!"

Ranma kept on smiling as he ran forward to meet his rival's furious charge.


48 MINUTES LATER:

The sound of dogs barking into the night entered the empty restaurant as the door swung closed behind Ukyo's last customer.

"Thanks, come again," she heard Konatsu say reflexively as he wiped tables, and began re-laying them for tomorrow's lunch.

Ukyo barely looked up as she scrubbed hard at the surface of her grill, her wire scourer sending repeated metallic rasps into the air as it wore aware at the charred batter-stains.

Neither chef nor waiter/waitress spoke as they performed the same tasks that had every night until it became almost ritual. Sighing and rubbing a faint sheen of sweat from her brow, Ukyo decided to turn on the radio; after all she would be here for a while. She still had to finish cleaning, and then do the accounts, ready to hand to Nabiki to check over.

Ah, the glamorous life of the okonomiyaki chef, she thought dryly.

A small bell chimed as the door opened.

"I'm sorry, were closed for the… Ranma?" Konatsu said politely. "It is good to see you."

Ranchan?

"Yeah… Hi, Konatsu." To her, Ranma's voice sounded dull. He was upset.

Ukyo began to lift her head and comfort him, but she forced herself to face the grill and continue scrubbing. You're angry with him, remember? she told herself. Remembering the events of earlier today, specifically how he held and touched that hussy, Shampoo.

She heard the chair scrape as he pulled it out so that he could sit before her at the counter like always.

"Hiya, Ucchan," he greeted, his voice still melancholy.

"Hey, Ranchan," she bit out, still scouring the grill.

"How was business tonight?"

"Fine."

She then realised that she could not avoid looking at him all night, and glanced up at him.

All traces of anger and any hope she had of seeming upset melted away as she caught sight of his cut and swollen lip.

"Crap, Ranma, what happened to your face?" she asked, her voice rising an octave.

He just shrugged and turned his head in an effort to hide the wound.

"Was it Akane again?"

"No." he replied.

He shrugged again and sighed. Ukyo paused taking in Ranma's posture. His shoulders were drooped, his eyes downcast and grey. He rubbed at the back of his hand slowly with his fingers. His head was bowed so that his black bangs hung in despair over his eyes. Even his pigtail seemed to hang limp over his shoulder. It was as if the life had been sucked from him; all the macho pride and cockiness was lost from him. True, he had seemed much more humble and quiet the last month or so, but now he seemed downright depressed… Like he had nothing to live for.

"What's wrong, Ranchan?" she asked softly, like she would a child.

"Nothing," he responded, as she knew he would.

Silence passed for a minute, before a memory came rushing back to her.

"Hey, Ranchan. I just remembered I promised you an "okonomiyaki for your thoughts" earlier today. How 'bout I cook you it now, while you tell me what's bothering you?"

He smiled weakly. "Sure thing, Ucchan," he said.

She quickly gathered the ingredients and set a perfect circle of batter sizzling on the skillet, not minding that she was about to mess up the grill she had just cleaned.

She had learnt a while ago through such experiences such as the Love Tunnel incident and the ten-year sauce affair that she could not force Ranma to love her or pressure him into marriage. A small part of her even guessed that if their fathers' did not harass them about their engagement so often, then Ranma and Akane would be much closer. Of course, that was a part of her she did not like to listen to. But she could be his friend; that was something she could give him. And it was something she knew he needed, particularly since Akane never listened and Ryoga wanted to kill him. She would listen, however, and forgive him, as she knew that he was just a magnet for chaos and sometimes it simply could not be avoided. That reminds me…

Pausing as she flipped the grilled base, she brought her spatula round and slapped Ranma across the face with all her strength.

"OW!" he yelped. "What was that for?"

"For what you did with Shampoo earlier. You can explain that later, and it had better be good, Ranchan."

"I suppose I couldn't avoid it all night," he muttered still rubbing the red spatula print.

"Well?" she said expectantly.

"Well what?" he said, eyes wide.

"Tell me what's wrong with you already."

Ranma seemed to crumble into misery again, he gaze dropped to the counter as he said in a hollow tone.

"I fought Ryoga today."

"And?" Ukyo said tightly, with a snort.

"I won."

"You fight him all the time, and win." Ukyo wished Ranma would get to the point.

"No, not really," he replied slowly, as if forcing the words out. Seeing Ukyo's bemused, blinking face he continued. "Well, you know how bad his sense of direction is. Usually all I have to do is give him dodge, insult him, and give him the run-around. Then he would turn the corner and end up in Zimbabwe; problem solved."

"Really."

Ranma sighed and nodded, obviously unmanned by his own confession.

"Well, with Shampoo chasing me, Kuno spouting poetry, and Akane malleting me everyday, I don't really have the time to get involved in a duel; particularly with Ryoga. It's just easier this way."

"I suppose you've got a point, but why has beating Ryoga got to do with anything?"

"Everything, coz this time I stood my ground and fought him man to man. And I still won." As he finished, he clenched his fists and jaw.

Ukyo watched his plight and her heart went out to him. She wanted more than anything to help him, but she still had no idea what the idiot was blathering about.

"Uh, Ranchan, isn't beating Ryoga a good thing?"

"It's not just Ryoga; you were there earlier. Mousse couldn't even touch me. It was like fighting a child." Ranma sounded as if he were having something precious ripped from him. "I provoked him until he was ready to kill me, making sure he gave his all… That he fought at his best. And nothing. It was still too easy."

"Provoked… So that's why you were flirting with Shampoo." It was hard for Ukyo to keep the relief from her voice.

"Yeah."

"But why, Ranchan? Why did you want to fight Mousse?"

"Because I'm a martial artist; it's who I am."

That answer came like a slap to Ukyo's face, there was nothing to say to that. She was a martial artist too, and she could not dispute him.

"Um…" she muttered weakly.

"Ucchan, I'm Ranma Saotome, the heir to the Anything-Goes School of Martial Arts. I have lived and breathed fighting since the day I was born. My whole life is given meaning through the art. But now it's all gone, ever since Jusendo."

Ukyo repressed a shudder. Ranma had told her about the events at Phoenix Mountain, how he had fought the prince who called forth flames. How close he had came to dieing in the battle. How Akane had almost died, and how he had killed for her. That was the part Ukyo hated most; how he had sacrificed it all for Akane.

"But Ranchan," she said pulling herself together. "You haven't lost it all. You still have your martial arts."

"The art is pointless without the thrill, without the fight," he spat.

"Is that what's bothering you? You feel you're not fighting enough."

"It's not just the fighting, it's the competition. The test."

"What?"

"The thrill in martial arts comes from the fight. A true warrior seeks nothing but to perfect his skills in battle, and to face a worthy opponent is a hallowed thing. It's the challenge that drives me, even if my opponent is a thousand times stronger than me; to strive through the adversity and find a way to win is the greatest feeling in the world."

Ukyo stood there with her eyes wide and trembling. She had never seen Ranma bare himself so completely before. It seemed like everything that he was, was open and on display. The mask of arrogance and confidence that he wore was gone, and here was the real Ranma Saotome, honest and true. She could feel her heart melting as she looked in to his misty, morning-blue eyes.

"Does fighting really mean that much to you?" she asked.

"Ucchan, you're a chef," he said. "You know what it is like to dedicate your life to something. What if you no longer found any joy in making okonomiyaki? What if no one wanted any okonomiyaki, and no matter how much you slaved to create a perfect meal, everyone turned away in disgust?"

Ukyo let the idea sink in. Hordes of people coming to her restaurant, trying her wares only to turn their noses up. To be bombarded by criticism as people told her that her food was the worst thing they had ever tasted, that it made them sick and they would rather eat at Akane's. The very though made her shiver.

"I didn't think it was that bad." she whispered. "Whoa!"

"That's how I feel."

"But why do you feel that way, Ranchan?" she inquired.

"Because the challenge has gone," he cried. "No matter who I fight, how good they are, or how hard they fight, I just don't feel it anymore. They just don't mean anything. They just aren't good enough to matter anymore. Mousse couldn't touch me, and Kuno… Well, not much has changed there. But even Ryoga could hardly keep up," he lamented.

"I still don't get what's so special about Ryoga," said Ukyo.

Ranma looked around warily, as if looking out for someone eavesdropping. Konatsu was at the far end of the restaurant now, cleaning the windows at the entrance.

"Hsgud." he mumbled.

"What?"

"He's good."

"What?" she repeated this time from shock.

"I said he's good, and I respect him, all right?!" he yelled.

"I heard you, but I was just reeling from the trauma of hearing the great Ranma Saotome compliment someone other than himself."

"Very funny, Ucchan," he said dryly, but he was now wearing a small smile. "But it's the truth. When you have trained as much as I have, and had as many duels, you learn to recognise skill when you see it. You, Shampoo, and Mousse are all great martial artists, and masters of your styles.

"But Ryoga has almost limitless talent. Out of all my rivals, he is the only one who could keep up with me. He could always match me skill for skill. His brute strength against my speed, his endurance against my technique. Mousse, Kuno, and the others… They were easy to beat once I had adapted to their styles, but Ryoga always kept me guessing. Fighting each other made us both stronger, his determination to 'make me pay for his suffering' allowed him to push his limits and become a greater martial artist, as did my resolve not to lose. Our fights taught us new techniques. When I learned the Amaguriken, he mastered the Bakusai Tenketsu to defeat me. When he discovered the Shi Shi Houkodan, I founded the Mokou Takabisha for the same reason. And using those techniques, he was as tough and as deadly as anyone I ever faced. But that's over now. Ryoga is still a master of the Art, but he's just no challenge anymore," Ranma finished in low tones, like a man who had nothing left.

"I never imagined you felt that way, Ranchan," Ukyo said in a straggled whisper, shocked at Ranma's honesty.

"Yeah… Well…" he said, his eyes low and his face flushed slightly.

"So what changed? Why is there no competition in your life anymore?"

"I have been racking my brains trying to work that out," he said tightly.

"Any luck?"

"I think it has to do with the core of martial arts training."

"Huh?" she said wittily, her face full of confusion. Ranma looked at her and sighed.

"A martial artist's strength flows from the people he faces, from the fights he has. By fighting Mousse, Herb, Ryu Kumon… my skills have grown just as I said they had from facing Ryoga. But none of those fought Saffron." Ranma's hands balled into fists and his teeth clenched from the memory. "The man was a god, Ukyo, or as close to one as anybody can get. He even survived being sliced into ribbons. But I beat him, and it changed me. He was going to kill us; Akane, Mousse, Ryoga, me… all of us. And he could of, with a mere gesture. But I beat him, I fought and strived and won. And somehow, finding the will to survive that fight gave me new strength, pushed me beyond my limits so that except for maybe the old freak and the ghoul, nobody in Nerima can beat me."

"I don't know what to say, Ranchan. You've told me your problem but I just can't see what I can do to help you," Ukyo said.

"You listened, Ucchan," he said with a heart-melting smile that turned made Ukyo grin dreamily. "That was enough."

 

To be continued.


Author's notes: Well, what do you think? I'm not quite happy… The story isn't quite as I would like, but I would still love your opinions. Oh… and no, this is not a Ranma-Ukyou fic. Romance is not really on the agenda for the story, although I will include some in later chapters… but that could be with anyone or any of the fiancées. I have nothing against any of them, and no preferred matchup, although I do think there are too many Akane fics. I'm trying to tell a story about martial arts and honour, so it will mostly be action. But anyway, I'd love to hear your comments, criticism, and ideas.

Cheers!
Beer-monster

Chapter 2
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