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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 I: The Mantis Saga

Chapter Eight: Warrior Path


Meagre light filled the grey sky. It strayed in through the window, only to be blocked by the heavy curtains. The light tried to stream around the thick fabric, but the dark clouds weakened the sun's rays, so that the light could only form a formless halo around the sill. The room was shrouded in a dark, hazy gloom. The two shapes spread across the floor were barely distinguishable as human in the dampened brightness… Well, one could be recognised as human. The other was a huge round blob. Its bulk pulsated with the rhythmic sound of guttural snoring. The pattern of black and white fur was barely visible, revealing the figure to be a panda.

Ranma Saotome's eyes' twitched as his mind fought its way into wakefulness. His breathing sped up as his body prepared to rise with the new day. His fingers moved with life as his muscles flexed. His eyes finally slid open, the dark pupils widened, then narrowed before widening again as his mind adjusted his vision to the surroundings. His lungs filled with air as he rose upright, only to exhale as he yawned loudly. He circled and stretched his arms, flexing the muscles to remove the kinks and knots incurred during sleep. Working his mouth to moisten dry lips, he awoke fully.

Whipping of the bed sheets he looked at the bandages wound his lower leg. Experimentally, he tensed the muscles around the wound. Small twinges of pain answered his tests, but not the searing agony he had before. Ranma had done this for the last two mornings, ever since Kasumi had informed him that Cologne felt that her salve had healed the wound enough for him to walk. And walk he did, and run, and jump, revelling in his reset bones. The limb was still tender, and there was a certain lumbering stiffness in his walk instead of the usual fluid grace, but he could walk, and he could fight.

Stretching his arms out once again, Ranma gathered himself to his feet, the twinges intensifying but bearable. He then turned to the still slumbering Panda, and kicked it in the ribs. The panda did not even grunt. Ranma repeated the procedure another five times. Finally the bear rolled over, throwing a sign at Ranma's head like a bullet.

[Go away, boy!]

Ranma caught the sign effortlessly and brought it crashing down on his father's thick panda skull. "Get up, old man. It's time to spar."

[We can't, boy,] The new sign said. [You're supposed to be resting your leg.]

"My leg's fine," Ranma snorted with a dismissive gesture. "Besides, I could kick your ass with no legs," he boasted, and then paused after noticing the lack of logic in that statement.

[Your mother would kill me,] Genma protested.

"And I'll kill you if you don't get your lazy, furry butt out of bed and meet me downstairs in ten minutes. I'm even generous enough to let you change back into a fat bald git." Ranma punctuated his speech with another kick to his father's furry hide.

[Fine, but you're explaining it to your mother,] Genma signed as he began to lumber up onto his paws, using one claw to scratch at his large stomach as he waddled off to find a kettle.

Ranma smirked, and proceeded into the bathroom to quickly wash his face and brush his teeth, before shrugging on one of his standard long-sleeved Chinese shirts and black pants. Rolling his sleeves midway up his forearm, he descended the stairs.

"Good morning, Ranma," Kasumi greeted warmly, as he entered the kitchen.

He only grunted in response, noticing the kettle poised over a hot stove. So the old man isn't going to chicken out on this one. Good.  His father was nowhere near the level of competition he craved, but he would do. And he would not go easy on him, either. The old man won't know what hit him. Which, of course, would be Ranma's fist. He remembered the times on the road with his dad. The training, the constant sparring. How Genma would taunt young Ranma when he lost. How he always said that Ranma was not a true man. How he fought for and stole his own son's food. Ranma growled as he marched into the backyard. His father was another one who loved to see Ranma fail, was jealous of his talent. The hell's cradle proved that. He cracked his knuckles, repeating his vow not to concede defeat to anyone. Not even to his own flesh and blood.

Ranma began a small warm-up, jogging on the spot and stretching, pulling his arms across his body to loosen the muscles as he saw his father approach. Genma was adjusting the white bandana he used to cover his bald head with one hand as he pushed his spectacles further up his broad, broken nose with the other. He was dressed in the usual grime-covered white gi that never seemed to get washed. Ranma watched him impassively, maintaining a slightly aggressive poker face to confuse his opponent. Genma did not seem to buy it, as he took up a position across from his son with barely two paces between them.

"We don't have time for this, boy," he grunted. "Your mother and Kasumi will have breakfast ready shortly."

"Don't worry, pop," Ranma replied, eyes locking with his father's. "It never takes me long to beat you down."

"Show some respect, brat! I am still your sensei," Genma snapped, taking up a sturdy fighting stance.

Ranma smiled, but it held no humour or even arrogance, just ice. "Oh, don't think I've forgotten that," he said in acidic tones. He answered the elder Saotome's posture with a neutral stance, arms hanging low and legs casually spaced as if walking.

"Shinzentai Kamai?" the older man murmured. "Let's see what else you remember, boy!" Genma attacked.

Ranma casually sidestepped the flying kick, letting his father's foot pass over his shoulder. "Too obvious," he commented dryly, before slamming his open palm into the airborne man's chest. Genma spun with the blow, landing easily on his feet, just in time to block Ranma's roundhouse kick. The boy's left hand came chopping down onto his father's neck before his other leg caught the jaw with his knee.

Genma reeled with the impact, and with agility that defied his bulk, moved into a backwards, rolling breakfall. Once on his feet, he charged at his son with a series of jabs to test Ranma's defence. He found it impeccable, as his son batted his fists aside with one hand. In a bold move, Genma rolled his hand as Ranma parried, stealing the energy to whip a backhanded slap across the punk's expressionless face. Caught by surprise, Ranma staggered, more from shock than from the impact. Genma pressed his momentary advantage to lunge a cross at Ranma's chest.

He was more than surprised when Ranma caught the fist with his lead hand, and thrust his rear hand into the large man's ribs. Genma gasped as air fled his lungs. Without the added blubber of his panda form, Ranma's knuckles were sorely felt in his side.

But the youth held on to Saotome's hand, yanking the larger man forwards and pivoting on his heel. Genma was pulled roughly onto the point of Ranma's elbow, expelling more air from him. Then his son wrapped his free arm over Genma's captured limb, seizing his gi to provide leverage he flipped the heavyset, martial artist over his shoulder.

With the years of trained reflex that lay beneath his belt, Genma controlled his decent so that he landed on his feet in a crouch. Acting quickly he aimed a fast donkey-style back-kick at Ranma. The boy barely had enough time to brace himself and raise crossed arms to take the kick. Ranma stumbled back a little, parting from his father as the older man spun to face him.   

Genma Saotome watched his son warily, looking for any hint of emotion in those azure eyes. The cocky bravado the youth usually presented when he fought was gone, replaced with a steel-cold impassive glare and rock-like frown, and that worried Genma greatly. His side blazed where Ranma had punched him in the ribs, now severely bruised and nearly broken. That shoulder throw had also been performed with no restraint, aimed at viciously slamming his opponent into the ground. If he did not know better, he would have thought his son was really trying to hurt him.

Ranma tensed suddenly, then leapt forward, thrusting his foot at the large man in the gi as if to punch his foot through the expansive stomach. Genma desperately tried to deflect the kick, and managed to knock the leg from its path. But the force behind Ranma's charge was too great; it smothered Genma as an elbow crashed into his cheek. Stars flashed across the bald man's vision as Ranma again grasped two handfuls of the dirty gi. Falling to the ground the boy landed on his back and pulled his father with him, planting the heel of his left shoe into Genma's belly and using it like a catapult to launch the bulky martial artist into the Koi pond.

The panda sat up in the water, spitting out a small puddle and shaking a fine spray from his fur. Genma berated himself for failing to avoid such an obvious technique, all the while afraid for his son's change in demeanour and sudden aggression.

"Ranma! Mr Saotome! Breakfast is ready," Kasumi called from the house.

Genma's fears fled at the thought of food.

"Saved by the food, Old Man," he heard Ranma sneer in a voice that had raised an octave. The panda noticed his son had now become his daughter. Her skin glistened damply as she wrung her red pigtail free of water. The boy had apparently been caught by the small tsunami that had occurred on Genma's entry to the pond.

"Make sure you shake that fur of yours dry before coming in. We don't want to leave any extra messes for Kasumi, now do we," Ranma said with a lofty smirk, as she walked back to the house, flapping her pants and shirt to remove any excess water. She shivered slightly, the chill air and cold water freezing her skin. She noticed herself limping slightly, the cold aggravating her wound.

"That was an energetic spar, Ranma," Kasumi said as she laid the dishes on the table. Ranma slid the shogi door behind her and shrugged.

"Old man deserved what he got," she said simply as she sat at the table, between her mother and Akane, who shuffled over sullenly, sparing him a sharp glare. She ignored it and began inhaling her food with relish.

"Would you like me to get you a kettle?" Kasumi asked.

"Yeah, could you?" she replied without looking, ignoring her mother's terse frown at her lack of manners.

"You should be resting your leg, Ranma. It hasn't healed fully yet," Nodoka said. "Don't you think so, Akane?"

"Humph," The shorthaired girl snorted, the angrily expelled air ruffling her raven bangs. "It's the jerk's own stupid fault if he injures himself again."

Ranma could not help but feel an amused satisfaction as she watched her mother grimace, obviously disappointed at not getting the sweet, concerned answer she had expected from the youngest Tendo girl. Shows how little she knows the tomboy, he thought as she turned to her fiancé.

"Such tender concern, Akane. I'm touched," she said dryly, putting a mocking hand over her heart to emphasise her sarcasm. Then in acid tones she spat, "Should have known you wouldn't give a damn."

A hurt look passed across her face and shone in the watery blue of her eyes. Ranma saw it, and for a moment a small pang of guilt twanged in her chest. But it disappeared as Akane covered her emotions by poking her tongue out.

"Who would care about a jerk like you? And if you're so perfectly healed, why don't you come to school?"

"Akane does have a point, Ranma," Nodoka agreed. "If you are well enough, you should return to school. There is no reason for you to neglect your studies."

"No reason except to waste my time," Ranma said shortly, avoiding her mother's disapproving glare by focussing on Akane's. That one she could deal with. "What I should be doing is what I am doing. Training. My injury left me idle for too long, and I need to keep my skills sharp, like a blade. Isn't that right, Pop?"

Ranma did not look at her father, but had heard the heavy, lumbering steps and the soft sliding of the shogi door. The panda growled in response as he made his way to the table, managing to squeeze his bulk between his wife and Soun. Ranma fought down the smirk that tried to crawl across her lips as he saw the bear cradling its side, nursing the bruised ribs.

"It's good that you are showing such resolve, son," Soun said mildly. "But don't you think you're overdoing it?"

Ranma's eyebrow rose as she turned to the moustached man, eyes glinting with dry amusement. "And I suppose I should be sitting on my arse and playing Go?" she said with scathing acerbity.

"Ranma!" Nodoka screamed in incensed outrage. "That is going too far. Apologise to Soun, right this…"

The pig-tailed youth threw up a hand to forestall her protests. She cocked his head, so that she appeared to be listening to something distant. What he was truly doing was sensing. The hairs on the backs of her neck stood on end, and her instinct rang bells in her ears. The corner of her lips curled in a sly, fiendish smile of anticipation.

"Someone's coming," she said simply. She did not know who, but she could guess what they wanted. Good. The old man wasn't much of a warmup.

"Who is it?" Akane asked, her tone a mixture of incredulous disbelief and envy at his abilities.

"SAOTOME, YOU CUR! THY DAY HATH COME."

The eloquent and melodramatic cry was all the answer the dark-haired girl — or anyone at the table — required. Only one person was deluded enough to use such archaic speech… Well, actually there were two, but only one spoke with a male voice.

"Kuno," Akane sighed, characteristically stating the obvious.

Ranma sighed also, but in disappointment. Kuno was not whom she had hoped for. Her sights were still set upon making a yellow-and-black bandana drip red. But beggars could not be choosers, and she would have to deal with the sword-happy nutcase eventually. Might as well get it over with sooner.

"Kuno?" she heard her mother murmur thoughtfully. "That name seems familiar."

"He's one of Ranma's rivals," Akane said, staring daggers at the pigtailed boy.

"That's not very specific, Akane dear. Ranma has so many," Nodoka responded, adding her own glare at her son. "Is he the one with the glasses?"

[No, dear, that's Mousse,] Genma signed.

"Kuno carries a sword, Auntie," Kasumi supplied helpfully.

"A sword… Wasn't he one of the ones who barged in so rudely on Akane and Ranma's wedding? If I'm not mistaken, he seemed quite enamoured with you, Akane."

Akane nodded, her eyes downcast as she refused to meet Nodoka's inquiring eyes. Ranma could not blame the girl; she too stared intently at her food, suddenly fascinated at the way her chopsticks made tracks in the rice. The wedding was something she would rather not remember. However, fate was ironic, and instead made the event something that she would never forget.

"Is that why he wishes to fight with you, Ranma?" his mother asked.

"That, and the fact that he's a deluded jerk, yes."

Speak of the deluded jerk and he shall appear. A tall, gaunt youth barged into the room holding a curved wooden blade aloft as he charged. His brows were drawn together into a raging frown beneath his dark curls. His teeth were bared in an angry growl.

"The time for divine justice is at hand, Foul Sorcerer," he yelled as he charged forward, and then came to a screeching halt, legs flailing as he tried to recover his balance. He failed and collapsed face-first into the hardwood floor.

"Deluded, you say?" Nodoka said, regarding the sprawled kendoka.

Kuno's head popped up, his wide eyes scanning the room. Then he bolted into action. Nodoka gasped and ducked, prepared for the deadly sword strike that she knew would be streaking towards her son's heart. Instead she was surprised and sickened as the tall youth attached himself to Ranma, glomping strongly.

"My pigtailed goddess, no doubt you have yearned for me," Kuno gushed.

"Get offa me, you moron." Ranma elbowed Kuno's head with enough force to send him barrelling backwards.

"I thought he had come to challenge you, Ranma," Nodoka said softly, one hand fingering the bound hilt of her katana. "Care to explain why a man is hugging you?"

"Because he's a perverted jerk, and he won't accept I'm a man," Ranma spat.

"He doesn't know about the curse, Auntie," Akane explained. "We've tried telling him, but he's so stupid that…" Akane was cut off as the revived Kuno threw his arms around her.

"Akane Tendo, my beautiful tigress," he said, embracing her tightly. The Tendo heir punched him back across the room so that he slammed into the opposite wall.

"Ranma Saotome, why did you not defend your fiancée?" Soun roared.

Once again Kuno's head rose at the sound of his adversary's name. Jumping to his feet, he struck a ridiculous pose, bokken pointing skyward, as he stood proud with his hand on his hip, looking determinately at the ceiling.

"Yes, Ranma Saotome. I hath come to free my two beloveds from the grasp of his black magic. Now that he has healed from his injuries, I shalt smite him."

"His injuries?" Akane asked, wondering how Kuno had heard of Ranma's loss.

"Yes. I hath learned of the sorcerer's defeat. However, the man was obviously of an ignorant lower caste, as he did not complete the deed. However, I, the Blue Thunder of the noble house of Kuno, shall not fail in my divine mission to rid the world of Ranma and his machinations."

The occupants of the Tendo house had long since tuned out the rambling twit's speech. All except Nodoka, who did not know Kuno well enough to be so prepared, and so listened to the idiotic babble.

"So you are here to challenge the Saotome School?" she summarised eventually.

"Yes, that is correct. Although I did wait until now, as it would be dishonourable to attack an enemy when he is wounded, even one as low as Saotome. But it appears as if the cur has fled rather than face my wrath," Kuno answered.

"And it is honourable to lust after two girls, and blame your defeats on sorcerer's magic?" Ranma muttered bitterly.

Kuno, however, had not heard Ranma's jibe, as his attention was focussed upon the kimono-clad woman kneeling at the Tendo family table.

"Hello, madam. I am Tatewaki Kuno, The Blue Thunder of Furinkan high. I do not recognise your visage. Are you perhaps related to my fiery love, Akane? Or hath the vile Saotome bewitched you into joining his sorcerer's harem?"

Ranma barely withheld the urge to throw up, but the thought of her mother in a harem, particularly her own, still sent shivering convulsions through her spine. The level of stupidity and perverseness that Kuno exhibited had shot up in Ranma's opinion. Her own mother… Brrr.

"Let's get this challenge rolling," she said, and raised a hand to slap back Kuno's attempted glomp.

"So you shall cheer for me as I smite the wicked one, my pigtailed beauty!" he said.

Ranma heaved out an exasperated sigh. "Kasumi, is the tea ready?" she asked. The older girl nodded, and rose from her seat. "No, I'll get it," Ranma said as she stood up.

"Ah, my Goddess, you wish to prove your love for me with a romantic tea ceremony. I accept," The swordsman said softly, hand clasped over his heart.

"No, I'm just going to get Ranma, sempai," she said with all the fake, girly sweetness she could muster. "And then he's going to beat your head into a pulp," she added beneath her breath as she entered the kitchen. Grabbing the kettle that had been prepared earlier, she upended the contents over herself. Her body seemed to melt as the hot liquid washed over her. The curves of her form flattened out and hardened into firm muscle. The hair darkened to jet-black, water dripped from the pigtail, and steam billowed around his now-male figure.

He brushed the water from his shirt, fine droplets skimming from his fingers and they ran across the wet silk. Satisfied, he strode purposefully back into the dining room. In predictable Kuno fashion, the tall boy jumped to his feet from where he was kneeling trying to hug Akane.

"So, Saotome, you show your foul visage."

Ranma grimaced. The nutball might get away with calling him a sorcerer, an enemy of women, but no one called him ugly. Especially someone who looked like Kuno did. Hell, even Ryoga was good-looking compared to that clod. He brought his hands together and cracked his knuckles. The sound resounded through the room like roar of thunder. He could not stop his lip curling up in dark anticipation. He was going to enjoy this.

"And you are dressed in the same clothes as my pig-tailed beauty, you foul pervert." Kuno charged, his battlecry covering Ranma's furious snarl.

Pervert! He hated that word. He had heard it so often since he had been cursed, and it never failed to set fires of rage flaring. Dodging Kuno's obvious downward slash, his hand flashed out, gripping the Kendoka's stiff neck. Ranma applied just enough pressure to make breathing difficult, yet feeling a giddy power knowing he could shut the pompous windbag up permanently with just a squeeze. He could almost hear the snap.

"Stop it, Kuno, this is not the place to fight," Ranma said sternly.

"So… you refuse to face the… the Blue Th… Thunder," Kuno wheezed around the fingers on his windpipe. "You… coward!"

Ranma's smirk grew. There was no humour in the smile, but a deadly coldness, a frozen steel blade, blue glints along its surface shining in his eyes. It was the kind of smile that Charon greets the dead with, as he stretches out a pale hand to demand his fare to ferry the lost souls into hell. The promise of pain held in Ranma's grin permeated even Kuno's deluded mind.

"I never said I wouldn't fight you," Ranma chuckled, a bitter sound full of sinister amusement. "I just said this isn't the place. You wouldn't want to wreck you beloved Akane's house, now would you?"

Kuno twisted and writhed in the pigtailed boy's grip, raging at Ranma's obvious amusement, furious at how the demon dared to laugh, as if he did not know that Tatewaki Kuno would smite him down with divine power. But Ranma' grip was iron as he turned to the eldest Tendo sister.

"Kasumi, if you would, please?" he said, his voice polite but still ice.

The brown-haired girl nodded, her eyes wide, her body stiff with fright as she rose from where she sat. Moving slowly, so slowly, yet as fast as her shocked body would permit, she moved over to the shogi doors, and slid them open wide.

"Thank you, Kasumi," Ranma said, and then with a sudden twist of his body, he pitched the Samurai wannabe through the opening like a baseball. Kuno sailed across the room and into the garden. Ranma followed, sauntering casually with his hands in his pockets along Kuno's trajectory. The swordsman landed in an undignified heap on the ground, and slowly pulled himself up to his feet, pushing on his bokken for support.  Ranma moved across to face him, once again standing in the neutral posture he had used when fighting his father. He smiled cockily in the face of Kuno's red, rage-flustered face.

"You shall pay for your insolence!" Kuno screamed, as he stormed forward, sword drawn back at the ready. Ranma sighed and wondered why everyone had to yell something at the tops of their lungs when they attacked.

The wooden blade whistled shrilly as it cut the air again and again. A storm of sword strikes was unleashed from Kuno, who brought them to bear on his nemesis. Ranma kept on smiling as he slipped between the strikes at if they were nothing. Fierce gusts were summoned by Kuno's sword as it churned the air, causing leaves and grass to spin in the foul winds. Ranma acted as if it was a pleasant breeze.

Then clapping his hands together before him, he caught the bokken's edge between his palms, mid-swing. He took the time to shake his head at the taller youth, and "tut" mockingly with a click of his tongue. He pushed the blade from out of his path as he sent his fist crashing into Kuno's jaw.

Kuno staggered back, blinking as lights flashed in his vision. Ranma stood there, grinning inanely. The samurai's hand gripped the wooden handle of his weapon in white-knuckled hands, feeling the hardness of the oak bite into his palm as he fought down the urge to rub at his stinging chin, refusing to show pain. There was no poetic threat or invocation of godly favour as he charged Ranma once again, just a wordless snarl as he bolted forward, sword raised high.

Thrusting his hands out, Ranma grasped Kuno's arms as they descended. Spinning around, he drew the kendoka around him, and over an outstretched leg. He was flipped over as Ranma's thigh barred his legs, swept up and tossed like a leaf in a mountain storm.

The collision of the swordsman's body against him sent a hot shot of pain down his leg as his newly-healed bone was jarred in the impact. Ranma grunted and released his annoyance by putting a fierce foot to Kuno's ribs after the older boy slammed into the grass. Kuno grunted, rolling slightly onto his side as his free arm hugged the offended flank.

Ranma stood by his foe's head and dropped to his knees, bending forwards and bringing his face closer to Kuno. He stared intensely into the other youth's hazel eyes, his nose now a fingers width from his opponent's mildly-perspiring forehead.  He felt a happy quirk as he saw glimmer of fear permeate the fog of delusion.

"Aww, poor Kuno-baby," he said in a deep baby voice as he borrowed Nabiki's patronising nickname for the idiot. "Did you fall over? How clumsy."

His smiled widened as he heard Kuno growl with almost insane rage, spittle frothing around his clenched teeth. Ranma hopped back as a bokken cut the air where he had stood.

"Missed me, missed me," he chanted.

Roaring, Kuno pushed himself to his feet and leapt at the mocking martial artist. Then his primal scream was reduced to a weak gasp as he found Ranma's foot thrust into his path. He bent almost double as the impact of the side-kick hit his gut like a cannonball. His feet rose from the floor and his torso crumpled around the slipper-clad piston. Saliva flew from his mouth as the air was driven from his lungs. Kuno slumped to his knees. His mind swam as he gasped, lungs pumping to regain his lost breath.

"C'mon, Upperclassman. Where is that aristocratic pride of yours? It really doesn't seem like you're even trying," Ranma jeered, and, with a sneer, backhanded Kuno across the face brutally, knocking the swordsman face first into the dirt.

"Not giving up are you, bokken-boy?" Ranma said with a smile as he stepped back to allow Kuno to stand.

"How dare you mock me, cur," Tatewaki spat.

"You make it so easy to do, I can't resist."

The wooden blade sang as Kuno brought it swinging upwards in a rising slash at Ranma's groin. The pigtailed boy kicked it aside with the side of his foot, before whipping his heel across the upperclassman's face. Staggering back from the blow, Kuno shook his head to clear his sight of stars before lunging at the man in the scarlet shirt. He braced his bokken in both hands, point first, aiming to skewer Ranma through the belly. But with a fluid grace, Ranma seemed to writhe around the blade's point, sliding to the Kendoka's flank, where he unleashed a crushing knee to the kidneys.

The boy stumbled forward as the impact slammed into him, pain exploding around the attacked organ. His torso was knocked away faster than he legs could scrabble to keep up, and he began to topple over. Yet he stopped, his descent halting with a jarring abruptness.

Ranma yanked on the handhold he had acquired on the back of Kuno's gi. Twisting the material in his grip as he pulled the taller boy forcefully back to him. The braided fighter thrust his fist into the already near pulverised kidneys. Kuno roared in agony, spinning in Ranma's grip to remove the injured side from his range. But that move brought him even further off balance, and the Saotome heir found it easy to pull him down, forcing him to bend over at his waist.

Ranma brought his knee slamming into Kuno's face, feeling a swell of satisfaction as he heard the nasal bones break with a wet snap. Blood spurted from the impact like the innards of a burst tomato. The swordsman fell backwards, tipping stiffly over like a felled tree. Hands flashing out, he snatched the bokken from his opponent's weak grip as he fell.  He waved it about and flipped it his hands, as Tatewaki rolled on the floor, hands covering his face in an attempt to stop the blood flow. Eventually the pain and fluid loss was overwhelming, and the older boy stilled as he sank into unconsciousness.

"Whose visage is foul now, pretty boy?" Ranma could not help but say in a voice loaded with spite. After a nonchalant shrug, he flung the captured bokken off into the distance… but turned to find another sword levelled at his throat, and this one was made of sharpened, glimmering steel.

"RANMA SAOTOME," His mother shrieked, her face glowing a bright red as rage suffused her being. "THAT WAS THE MOST WRETCHED THING I HAVE EVER WITNESSED."

Faced with such scorn and disgust in the cerulean eyes that had been absent from his life for so long, the adrenalin and battle high that Ranma's had been exalting in fled his body as if drained from him. He blanched in the face of her rage.

"Wh-what!?"

"SHUT YOUR FILTHY MOUTH," Nodoka screamed, trembling with anger and giving of a blood red battle aura.

Ranma did as asked.

"THE DOJO. NOW!" Was all she said before pulling the blade of her katana from his neck. Whirling around she strode away, her retreating back telling him just how despicable she found him.

Ranma's heart sank, deep into an endless pit of despair. He swallowed loudly. Beneath the red silk of his shirt his shoulders slumped. His face crumbled like a rockslide. His heart felt suddenly empty, desolate and wasted. Vaguely aware of himself trembling as his insides turned to ice, he became walking to cover the weakness. His steps were slow, the souls of his feet dragging as he trudged towards the training hall.

"Ranma?" a gentle voice said.

"Huh?"

He turned to face Akane. Her blue eyes were open wide, and they seemed to shimmer even in the pitiful light of the season. She put a hand on his shoulder tentatively, as if she feared to touch him. Her lips were parted slightly, words wanting to burst out of her, so many thoughts to verbalise, so much to be said yet nothing to say. Finally she calmed.

"Ranma, what are you going to do?" she asked.

He stared at her with wide eyes that were so vacant she wondered if he actually saw her.

"Why, I'm going to the dojo," he said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

The nervousness in Akane's touch vanished as she moved closer and squeezed at his shoulder.

"But your mother was so angry," she said, hanging her head for a moment before fixing him again with those big, cerulean orbs. "What of she holds you to your promise? You'd… I'd…" There was more. But the words would not come. Her voice had abandoned her, caught in her throat.

Ranma smiled sadly. Gently he took her hand in his and took it from his shoulder. His touch lingering much longer than it had to. The contact electrified her; her body tingled and skin felt warm. Then it was over, he let go.

"So what if she does?" He asked. "I don't what I've done that was so terrible; I just fought a duel. Just like always. But she is ashamed of me, repulsed by me. I can't let her think of me like that." He sighed, and then tensed. Some of his strength and resolve returned as he steeled himself. "Whatever wrong I've done, she will be more greatly mortified if I run or beg like a coward. If I do not fail now, and hold my head high, then at least she will know I faced death as a man amongst men should."

"But… Ranma…?" That was all Akane could say.

"Death doesn't frighten me, Akane," he declared in a tone of steel. "We all die. It is how I die that I am afraid of. And if the reaper comes for me today, I will look him in the eye and laugh in his face."

Then with head held high, he carried on towards the dojo. But this time his feet were not heavy as he strode proudly onwards, the walk of a lion.  He moved resolutely across the garden, the last cherry blossom petals swirling around him. He slid open the shogi door of the Tendo Training Hall of Anything-Goes Martial Arts and entered, disappearing from her sight.

His mother knelt on the polished wooden floor, unmoving. Her posture was solid and stern as if she were built from stone. The room was filled with gloom and shadows from the weak winter sun. Paper lanterns had been lit and sat in the four corners, radiating pale, orange light that cast a long, stretched shadow of the kneeling woman across the waxed floorboards. A few loose auburn curls hung across her meditatively closed eyes, hanging over the pure, white headband that she wore wrapped around her brow. The katana lay across her lap, clenched tightly in her fingers.

Ranma swallowed, knots of ice twisting and writhing in his stomach. He had lied to Akane. He was afraid to die. He did not believe in heaven or reincarnation. The idea of a life beyond this one seemed an idealistic fantasy. But the thought of oblivion, a full stop to his book of life, nothingness, a void, an end. It was a truly terrifying and bitter pill.

Now he stood before he mother, the pace's worth of space that separated them seemed like the final step from the brink of the abyss. Steeling himself, he lowered himself onto his right knee and then knelt on both, folding his hands in his lap.

Nodoka said nothing, she merely stared at him with intense, hawk-like eyes. Ranma met his mother's eyes with his own, and hoped that she could not see his fear in their depths. He wished them to look iron, to look resolute and honourable. If he was to die, he did not want her to think him a coward by knowing just how scared he was.

She reached into the folds of her kimono and pulled out a slender object. It was a ceremonial tanto. The boy expected this. It was the match of the katana she bore, with a plain black scabbard and hilt.  Altogether, it was unremarkable but for the air of quality owing to the superior workmanship from which it was crafted. Slowly she lifted the dagger before her, and withdrew the blade, the steel glimmering in the lantern light. With the same care she wrapped the handle twice over in a piece of crisp, white cloth. Placing it down, she slid it across the intervening distance between mother and son. Then sitting back she waited.

Ranma reached for it, stretching his hand out tentatively. His fingers trembled; he could see them shake in the orange light. He tried to make them stop, tensing his muscles for all he was worth, but still the hand shivered. Moving further, his fingers grazed the white cloth around the handle. His tongue snaked out to lick at lips that were suddenly very dry.

"Sh-shouldn't we wait for Pops?" he asked quietly.

"I shall deal with your father when the time comes. But it is your own actions that you should concern yourself with for now," his mother replied in an emotionless voice.

With a deep breath he forced his hand to close around the handle. Then he slowly inch by inch began to raise the tanto from the waxed wood floor. The light from the lanterns slid in waves along the curved length of the blade, a star of orange light blossoming at the point. Then his fear managed to barge past the walls imposed by his sense of honour, and in a tiny, broken voice he asked the question that spun in his heart.

"Why?" The woman before him made no reply; so he tried again, he had to know. "Why, mother? You said you did not care about the curse. So why?"

"Stop hiding behind your curse," she spat. "It is irrelevant."

"If it is not the curse, then what makes you doubt my manhood?" he cried.

Flames of rage burned in his mother's eyes, her hands clawed at the fabric of kimono as she fought down the fury.

"Yet another thing he failed to teach you, I see," she murmured. "Ranma, being a man goes beyond simply being male."

"Huh?" was all he could say.

"Ranma, the oath was never about your form, or about the macho attitude that you seem to deem manly." She paused, eyes rolling back slightly as she seemed to consider something. "Well, not much," she amended.

"The oath was about something more, something greater. It was about honour. When I made your father sign that contract, it was to ensure that you would grow to be a just and honourable person. You were born as the heir to a martial arts school; it was your heritage to learn the art, to master it. But I have seen how such talent and training can corrupt a person. The power granted them by their discipline twists their minds and makes them slaves to their own selfish and greedy appetites. As happened to Happosai, and to your father." The last was spoken in a bitter whisper.

"I could not let that happen to you," she continued. "I wanted you to different. To be a true master of the art, one who used his skills wisely, his fists bound by the code of bushido. A warrior."

"But, mother. I am a warrior. I have honour."

He never saw her move. Just the deep sting that remained after her full-armed slap whipped across his face. Lights flickered across his sight at his jaw was nearly knocked off hinge. Ryoga's fists did not hurt that much, although the pain was mostly in his heart and not his cheek.

"How dare you say that?" she spat, "After what you have just done to that boy. Honour? Bah! You do not know the meaning of the word."

"But that was a duel," he protested.

"That was a slaughter," Nodoka screamed. "You picked him apart, piece by piece. He was no challenge to you, and from what stories I have heard, he never has been. Yet you went at him mercilessly, where you should have instead shown restraint. You used potentially fatal strikes to vital organs, broke his nose, and even kicked him when he was down. That is the behaviour of a dog, not a warrior."

"But he was trying to kill me. They all do," he said, a flash of anger returning.

"You know he stood no chance of that. And even so, you could have disarmed him easily enough, or rendered him unconscious at the start. But instead you dragged the fight out so that you could inflict greater damage on him. The word used to describe such behaviour is torture."

Ranma dropped his head at his mother's scathing accusations. It was true. He saw that now. Shame flooded his being; he despised himself. He felt lower than the worms in the soil. Guilt welled up in him, rising and building as Nodoka drove home her prosecution.

"It was not just today. There are other such examples of your disgrace. Your arrogance, the way you treat your fiancée. Granted, Akane is not easy to live with, but she does not deserve the disrespect you give her. You are also leading on no less than four women." Ranma opened his mouth to protest, but was forestalled. "I know that you do not encourage them, but you do not actively discourage them either. And your reported behaviour with Ms. Shampoo over the reversal jewel incident shows that you find some sort of egotistical pleasure in having these women follow you. I also hear that you attributed that to your 'sense of honour'.

"However, the most damning evidence has come recently, with how you dealt with your defeat at the hands of Loaf. A true man would learn from his loss and accept it. It is said defeat makes us stronger. But it made you weak at first, as you hid in your room moping, lashing out at the world around and burying your head in the sand. You gave up, instead of fighting back. And then that damned Hibiki boy came. He got you out of bed at least. But then you became worse, bitter and twisted by your own pride, you turned rude and insulting, snapping at everyone like a cornered lion. And it is this behaviour that led you to the despicable events of this morning. You are no warrior, but a mad dog, and should be dealt with the same way."

Tears rolled uninhibited from down Ranma's cheek, he could not hold them in. The salty droplets of shame welled up and streamed, falling from his chin and his head hung low, bangs like a raven-black curtain over the weeping eyes. Men do not cry, one part of his mind said. But he did not care, nor did he try and stop the tears. He had already proven that he was no man, so it was perfectly fine for him to cry.

He clenched his fist around the tanto, lifted it from the floor again. Seizing the handle with to hands he turned the blade so that it pointed towards his belly ready to make the z shaped incision that would spill out his shame and dishonour as well as he guts and blood. His knuckles were white, and his hands still trembled. He stared at his mother determinately, his vision blurry with tears, as she stood and pulled her swords free of its sheath, the ring of sliding metal hung in the air. She raised it above her left shoulder preparing for the mercy stroke that would cleave his head from his shoulders.

"Ranma," she asked softly, almost tenderly. "Are you afraid to die?"

"Yes," he whispered. Now was not a time to lie.

"  Then why are you doing this?" she asked.

"There is no other way," he replied, his mind spun with confusion. Was this some sort of test?

"Yes, there is. You could run. It is your choice."

He could… but what would be the point? Why run and live the life of a coward? All his life he had bragged and postured, so proud of his manliness, his skill in the art, his sleek and handsome looks. Now he realised it was false. But at least now he had a chance. An opportunity to be a real man for one brief, shining moment.

"I choose death," he declared, and pulled the knife toward his stomach.

"STOP!".

The sword clattered to the floor, cast aside suddenly. Nodoka braced herself against her son, her hands seizing the blade tightly to halt its path. Her muscles bunched as she fought her son to bring the tanto to a stop. Blood glistened wetly, a thin layer of red smeared across the steel. Nodoka winced slightly at the stinging pain as the dagger bit into her flesh. Grabbing the blade harder she pulled the weapon from Ranma's now numb fingers.

"Why?" he asked, eyes wide and welling with tears.

"My son," she gasped, her voice breaking. "You do not know how glad I am to hear your words." She could not take it any longer as her will snapped like strained metal. She collapsed in to Ranma's arms hugging the boy to her furiously as she unleashed a storm of weeping.

"There is still hope," she declared, forcing the words out between her sobs.

Ranma opened his mouth but no sound came out. His mind was blank and empty, frozen with astonishment. He was shell-shocked, kneeling dumbly as his mother wept in his arms. He could not move, his body stiffening as if made of stone.

"Hope?" he muttered when enough of his brain returned for him to review hat she had said.

Nodoka pulled away from him and smiled, the warmth and pride in her eyes lit her face making her glow radiantly despite the tears that rolled down her face.

"Yes, son, hope," she said, and then looking at his face, numb with shock and confusion, she laughed. "I must explain," she said.

Once again reaching into her kimono, she pulled out a thin and somewhat flimsy paperback. Placing it on the floor in front of him she presented it for his inspection. It was small and slender, too little for it to be a novel. It was in good condition but the creased spine and yellow tinged page showed that it had been well read. The yellow cover, illustrated with a colour print of a man standing in a wind swept hakama gazing reverently at pink cherry blossom tree, was now stained with red thumbprints from Nodoka bloody hands. Written in a column of beautiful Kanji was the book's title:

THE HAGAKURE
By Tsunetomo Yamamoto

"What's this?" Ranma asked, pointing at the book.

Nodoka smiled a warm, motherly grin. She ran her fingers over the book tenderly, as if it were an old friend or lover. A trail of blood followed in the path of her touch.

"Soon after your father took you away, I realised what a burden the oath had placed upon you. As the wife of a martial artist, I knew that matters of honour were gravely important, but something of this magnitude… A pact of seppuku signed by a child. It made me question the meaning of honour. I had many lonely hours, after you and Genma had left, in which to contemplate. What is honour? And so I read books like this one in an attempt to understand.

"It was written during the eighteenth century during the Tokugawa reign. The shogunate ruled Japan with an iron hand, which ensured a lengthy period of peace. Without battles to wage, samurai turned to the other gentlemanly arts that were reserved for men of their class: painting, poetry and literature. It gave many warriors a time to reflect on the code of Bushido and to express their own personal views. This book details the ideals of a samurai grieving for the death of his lord. In these pages are his philosophy and his creed."

She nudged the book closer to him indicating that he should take it. "Open it, my son." Ranma did so, handling the book with slow, gentle hands, as if he feared it would break.

"Turn to the first chapter and read the first paragraph, then you will understand," his mother promised, still smiling yet watching him with anxious and fascinated eyes. Slowly and cautiously he turned the pages, one by one. Finding the opening chapter he scanned his eyes along the neatly printed text.

Chapter One: The Essence of Bushido.

I have found the essence of bushido: to die. In other words, when you have a choice of life and death, then always choose death. This is not all you must remember. It is neither troublesome nor difficult. You only have to go on with a clenched stomach. Any other ideas are unnecessary and futile.

Ranma read the words. And then he read them again, and again, eyes absorbing the letters hungrily. Finally he stared up at his mother with wide, glimmering eyes. His mouth hung open in shock. The book dropped from his nerveless fingers, pages fluttering as it hit the floor.

"Now you see, son. By choosing death, by being willing to die for your honour, you show that all is not lost. You can take responsibility for your actions and your mistakes instead of hiding behind cowardly excuses, like your curse. You can be reset on the path of the warrior and earn true honour."

"True honour?" he asked. His mother nodded.

"I cannot force you into suicide when there is still hope. Nor can I punish you for a failing that is mine as well as yours."

"You have not failed in anything, mother."

Nodoka shook her head, fresh tears beginning to gather in her cerulean eyes, eyes that matched his own and tears that were twins to those on his own cheeks.

"It is my fault. Cologne showed me that. She was also the one who convinced me not to give up hope. She taught me that a child cannot grow to be complete with only one parent. When I let your father take you, I robbed you of your honour myself. Your father taught you martial arts, and he did a fine job. I am proud of him." She ignored Ranma's derisive snort. "But he could not teach you tolerance or respect or manners. That should have been my task, my duty as your mother."

Her hands balled into fists, and she turned her head as she snarled in anger at her own mistake. Ranma reached out and cupped her chin, gently tilting her face so that she could look into her eyes. He smiled down at her warmly, hand dropping to squeeze her shoulder in reassurance.

"You did not fail, mother. You could never fail me," he said softly. Nodoka took his hand and softly lifted it from her. The gesture painfully reminded him of the same rejection he had used to push aside Akane's help.

"Your concern touches me, Ranma, but you are blinded by it," she said sadly. "I did fail you; but as I said, there is hope, and I can make up for my mistake."

"You will teach me honour?" he asked, unable to keep the childlike excitement from his voice. Teaching meant that she would spend time with him, show him things. A gesture of true mother-son bonding, tying them together by something stronger than mere blood. It was something that he had so desperately, and so painfully yearned for since she had re-entered his life.

Nodoka laughed, a rich musical sound like the soft ringing of silver bells. "If only it were that simple," she sighed. "I cannot teach you honour, Ranma, only show you the path. You must walk it. I can tell you where you and your father have gone wrong, like so many others."

"Where?" he asked impulsively, curious and still wrapped in childish glee.

"Both you and Genma have misunderstood the true meaning of honour, the core of the code, its soul. You think that it is about you, about yourself. But you are wrong; that is arrogance, not honour. Honour lies not in you, but in what you can do for others. It lies in duty. Duty is the path of true honour."

"That makes no sense," Ranma declared, his brow furrowing. "Why then was I taught by father, Cologne, and even you, to be proud of myself and my abilities?"

"There is a vast difference between pride and arrogance, Ranma. A proud warrior believes in himself and in his duties no matter what others may say. You, Ranma, are conceited. You flaunt your skills before people to make them acknowledge you are the best. You are cocky about your fiancées, your abilities and your looks. You believed this to be honour, when all it truly was, was vanity. Even the fights you claimed were for your honour were merely about your ego. You scoured the depths of despair to use the Shi Shi Hokodan, because you feared it made someone stronger than you. You chased down Herb because he locked you in your cursed form; while this was admirable in that you sought to avenge a grievous insult and regain your true form, your primary motive was that your ego would not except being a girl. You challenged that sweet, misguided boy Ryu Kumon because he stole your name; and although a man's name is important, once again it was vanity, in that the idea that he was stronger than you and had usurped your place was your reason for the duel. Yet once again, you proved there was hope in the way you fought Saffron for your friends and fiancées lives."

"So? Then why should I fight, mother?" Ranma asked, her speech turning his whole world and his pride in his past achievements and their heads and sent them spinning.

"You are a warrior, Ranma. You fight because it is the right thing to do, and because it is your duty. Remember Saffron? You battled him to protect the ones you care about. That is your duty. You fought against Loaf for the school. That is your greatest duty. Remember you are the heir to the Anything-Goes School of Martial Arts; your duty to the art is first and foremost, Ranma."

"My duty to the art is first and foremost," Ranma repeated, the words revolving in his mind, chanting in a silent mantra. My duty to the art is first and foremost. My duty to the art is first and foremost.

Smiling proudly, Nodoka leaned over and gathered her son's face in her hands. Tilting her head she pressed her lips to hid forehead in a warm gesture of motherly affection. Then she allowed her fingers to smooth his hair as she had done when he was a child, before she pushed herself to her feet.

"The others will be worried," she said, untying the white headband from her brow and letting it fall to the ground. "Keep the book, Ranma," she said, gesturing to the bloodstained copy of the Hagakure. "I have given you a lot to think about. You now see the true path of the warrior; now you must take the first step."

Ranma heard her walk across the dojo, her steps making regular and proper percussions against the polished floor. Then he heard the shogi door open and then shut. He did not move, remaining where he was, kneeling arms folded in his lap. His blue-grey eyes shone in the lantern light, the colour of a dawn sky as he stared unblinkingly ahead. He had a lot on his mind.

My duty to the art is first and foremost.

 

To be continued.


Author's notes: And so now the truth behind the title is revealed. In this chapter, I sketched out my ideal vision of a martial artist hero, everything a legendary master of the art like Ranma should be. This will be Ranma's aim in the future of the story. You see, as much as I like Ranma, it is undeniable that he can be a total jerk… and so I set him on the path of improvement. However, it won't happen overnight. That would be too easy and less funny. His life will still be complicated and chaotic, so don't worry about that. Some people claim that such an idea of honour is useless and archaic in this modern world; one person referred to it as bullshit. Perhaps that's true (although it is not my personal opinion), but it is a major theme in the martial arts, and as this fic is primarily focussed on the martial arts, something that I could not ignore. Besides it is an interesting concept in any scenario, and one that I would like to explore through my writing and see where it takes me. After all, what is honour?

Also as a cultural note, the Hagakure is a real book written by a samurai who was forbidden to commit suicide and follow his master into the afterlife. He became a hermit and spurned the world, writing down his beliefs in a book he never wanted published (Hagakure means hidden beneath the leaves). However, it was, and influences many people even today.

Also, the stance I had Ranma use… the Shizentai Kamae. It is a neutral fighting posture of relaxed readiness popular in martial arts such as judo, aikido, and wado-ryu karate. I am fond of the stance in my own martial arts practice, so expect to see it in the future.

Cheers,
Beer-monster.

Chapter 9
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