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A Ranma ½ fan fiction story
by Beer-monster

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ characters property of Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video.


Book II: The Eight Phases

Chapter Six: The Flashes of the Fists


The room was filled with a muted blue gloom, bare halos of light glowing around the fins of the shutters. Black shadows clung to the rim of the high ceiling where the weak fingers of light could not reach. The powerful scent of liptus and menthol hung thick in the air of the small space, the sting of them threatening to make Cloud's eyes water.

He never so much as blinked, unwilling to take his eyes from the panting woman who lay swaddled in thick blankets despite the sweat forming a pale sheen over her skin. Head bowed as he sat at the bedside, he ran his thumb over the clammy hand he held clasped in his larger grip, feeling the contours of her bones far more prominently than he knew he should; and though he watched her breathe, trying to find comfort in the fall and swell of her breast, the sound of the air as it rattled through her lungs held all such relief at bay. A shiver ran through him that had nothing to do with the chill wind that clattered the shutters.

The woman convulsed, a low moan escaping through her lips, its sound clutching at Cloud's stomach like talons. He leant over her, folding back the layer of blanket she had thrown aside with her abrupt movement. The stale stench of her clawed at his nostrils, pangs lancing within him with the distant memories of the once-sweet floral scent of her perfume. Hair that had once been the colour of sunlight now clung to her face in limp, straggling strands that he brushed aside, his hands trembling with restraint as he drowned in the all-too-real fear that he would break her. His touch slid across the waxy skin of her brow and his fingers ached to run across the silky smoothness of her once again.

"Locke, is the medicine ready?" he asked, pulling a small cloth from the bedside and gently wiping a small patch of saliva that had congealed at the corner of her lip. "And what is making that infernal buzzing?" he groaned, rubbing at the bridge of his nose as a sound, like the droning of a thousand furious wasps, scraped at his skull.

He received no answer, the buzzing seeming to grow stronger in the silence. His hand clenched into a fist around the small handkerchief as he turned to face the hunched figure in the corner of the small room. "Locke, the medicine," he snapped.

Locke did not turn his way, the old man's face looking more ancient and gnarled as he frowned, his brow knitted into crinkled furrows with his long whiskery eyebrows falling against his wrinkled cheeks. His pale grey eyes were narrowed, deep lines creasing at the corners, as his gaze passed through the walls and seemed to be lost in some distant place. His hands hung frozen above the mortar and pestle that he had been diligently working at, the powdered herbs still clinging to his fingertips.

"Do you feel that?" he said softly, his voice like the wind rustling through old autumn leaves.

"I feel that Tyde needs her medicine," Cloud drawled through gritted teeth, "and I feel desperate for an end to that damned buzzing." He pinched the bridge of his nose as the sound grew deeper.

"Buzzing?" Locke muttered, turning on Cloud with wide, almost gawping eyes. "Open your senses, you fool. Feel."

Cloud grimaced, his hand twitching tight at the chastising tone the old master used, as if he were a child. 'Feel', he had said, sounding too much like the wise figure from so many bad movies. How was he expected to feel anything when his heart lay wrapped in blankets on the bed beneath him, wasting away? If he opened his senses all he would feel was the teetering flow of the illness that sapped at her life energy.

He saw Locke's brows lower, thin mouth pressing into a tight line. Those grey eyes were hard and severe as Cloud met the old man's stare, slowly realising that he did not hear the buzzing, he sensed it. Clenching his teeth, he cast a quick glance at Tyde; taking a second to absorb her pale features and feel the knots tying in his belly, as he let his walls slide down.

It was not sight, nor could he smell or hear anything, but he felt it. Not in the way that you feel icy winds chill your skin or the heat of a fire prickle at your palms, but something deeper. It was like music. Not the sound that trembles against your ears, but rather those sensations that stir as the melody sinks into your soul. However, this was instant, trained into his instincts by meditation and sweat, as natural to him as taste or touch.

He felt four songs crash and collide together, blending and struggling with each other to a wild tempo, for a place in a grander concerto. He could feel the familiar timbres of the eight phases like the instruments in an orchestra, the song of fire raging furiously as thunder lanced through like the streak of a violin, overlaying the softer measures of heaven and earth, wind and mountain. Through those were woven four melodies; two as familiar as his own heartbeat, one a sombre tune shot with blasts of angry chords, and the last a triumphant fanfare of wildly changing pace but still strumming onwards with a proud beat. The songs merged and jangled, superposing across each other into a powerful symphony, a hymn of battle.

"What the hell are…?"

The words slipped from his mind as he felt the music peak into a crescendo, the sensations stirring before spiking into a burst of energy like the crashing of cymbals.

Tyde jerked in her bed as if shocked, air rattling as it rushed into her lung and the blanket fell away as her body arched on her shoulders. Then a chorus of harsh, spluttering coughs burst forth as her form folded, head and legs jumping from the bed like a grounded fish as each breath erupted unnaturally from her mouth.

Cloud was aware of his jaw dropping, the music falling away as his heart seemed to twist in his chest. He watched his love writhe on the bed, the world seeming to slow as if each second was lingering to torture him with the gut-wrenching sight before him.

A loud, wooden thud seemed to echo like a cannon shot across his mind as he watched her head bounce off the headboard of the bed. His mind seemed to flare into the present and he was moving before his brain formed the thought, leaping on to the bed and straddling the tossing figure. He wrapped his arms around her, hand tangling in her hair that was coated in wet, sticky warmth. The muscles of his arms strained as he fought against the spasm of her muscles and held her to his chest, feeling the warm breath of her cough blast against his chest. He sat back on his ankles, pressing his weight to still her knees.

She needs air, but I can't let her go or she'll hurt herself. He gritted his teeth and stuffed away the tension that gnawed at his gut.

"Locke, do something!" he cried, twisting his head to glance at the old master whilst he struggled to keep Tyde safe in his grip. The small man was rattling at his table in his corners, hands flashing faster then the deep veins on his fingers would suggest, flinging powders and leaves into a pot and splashing steaming water into cups.

"LOCKE!" Cloud yelled, feeling the moistness of the woman's breath through his silk tunic. "WE HAVE NO TIME! DO SOMETHING!" He scowled at the crumbling bark in the other man's hand, recognising the ingredients of the sedative he often used.

Locke swore, throwing down the bark as his mouth bit at the curse. He moved to the bedside in a flash, gnarled fingers blurring as he jabbed them across Tyde's arm, then her spine, and ending by pushing his thumb to the base of her skull.

She sagged in Cloud's arms instantly, breath rushing out of her. He held her still, her weight pressed against him as her breathing slowed to a deep but regular rhythm, before he laid her back onto the pillow, the fabric soon becoming red with the blood from her head wound.

"I wish I didn't have to do that," Locke said in a tired voice, his slender form slumping against the walls as he frowned at the bed. "Her ki is unstable and turbulent; manipulating her meridians with shiatsu could be dangerous if done too much."

"What happened?" Cloud asked, almost wincing at the waver he heard in his own voice.

Locke's eyes closed as he shook his head, his features looking ancient. "She is still one of us, Cloud, open to the Tao and the flow of energy around us; but in her weakened state she is vulnerable. The battle on the mountain is influencing her already unstable energy flow."

The old man turned, eyes gazing through the shutter, watching the slats glow as they were lit by a blast of incandescent light. "The fools," he said softly.

Cloud barely heard him, his hands shuddering as he swabbed at the crimson stain that splattered his silk tunic. He saw similar spots of red shining wetly on his lover's lips and he gazed at the smear on his hand.

The pots exploded with a cloud of powdered herbs as he snapped his hand into a quivering fist.


Everything was white.

Ranma slowly let his muscles loosen and his fingers uncurl, bracing from an impact that had never come. The explosion and blast of pain that he had expected had never occurred; there was no wall of ki force or streaks of electricity. Nothing but whiteness and the sound of rushing air and a distant sea echoing in his ears

He frowned and blinked, the action bringing a small stinging pain, but the white still consumed his vision, as if the world had been swallowed by a maw of light. He rubbed at his eyes and turned his head slowly, but all around him was the same featureless blank. There were not even shades or motes of colour, simply nothing. If it were not for the sense of hard earth beneath his feet, he could have believed he was flying, for the wind seemed to sing around him like it did inside a seashell. The scent of ozone hung in the air, crisp and clean like after a storm

What the hell was that move? he wondered, remembering the crackling bolts of energy that coruscated around Blitz's arms. All that flash and no bang? He frowned. Maybe the blast knocked me out before I felt it?

He took a slow step forwards and the pain that lanced through his muscles and bones countered that theory. Ranma was very conscious, the lull bringing back the screaming protests of his body that had been lost beneath a surge of adrenaline and the heat of battle. His lungs blazed in his chest as he sucked in air, the laboured pants leaving his jaw hanging slack. He was surprised that he could move the joints of his arms as they felt carved from stone, pulling at his tired shoulders with a heavy aching. The knuckles of his right fist stung fiercely from the pounding they took during his use of the chestnut fist. Even gritting his teeth was an effort, but he forced himself to move forwards on legs that wobbled from the strain of holding him up.

He never saw the blow coming; the white void that surrounded him gave no sign or even flickered as something ploughed into his belly like a train wreck. He could feel his eyes widen as they bulged in their sockets, but there was no change to what he saw. His throat convulsed as he spluttered, spitting out a bitter mouthful of saliva and bile.

Ranma knew he was still conscious; he could feel every knuckle on the fist that slammed into his face.


Ryoga sucked in a lungful of air and held it tight, swallowing the lump that clung painfully in his throat, before he slowly let his head rise and took a glance at the battlefield. The hands that he had wrapped protectively over his head dropped to the grass as he started, mouth hanging open as he surveyed the lack of change. Despite the surging power unleashed, the clap of thunder that had scorched the air, and the wave of tingling heat that he had felt pass over him setting the hairs of his arms quivering on end, nothing seemed to have changed.

The slope of once-lush grass was still marked with charred streaks of black from the fury of Brand's summoned flames. The craters and furrows of their fight still scarred the earth where he had matched strength with the Lord of Fire. Blitz still stood in the pit he had carved into the ground when he had crashed from the forest, his blonde hair spiking at messy angles, blue eyes sparking with a dangerous light despite the dirt smeared across his angled face. Ranma still stood at the focus of the man's furious gaze, panting heavily and tottering on fatigued legs but otherwise unfazed by the blast that had been sent towards him.

A shuffling sound from behind him made Ryoga jump to his knees, ignoring the aches his battered and burnt muscles responded to the motion with. His body tensed as he recognised his opponent Brand, gathering himself into a squat, dark red curls hanging haggard over his brow. The man rubbed at his shoulder, brushing futilely at the clods of mud that marred the blue silk of his coat, his eyes fixed on the figures across the plain and his lips curved into a sly grin.

Whipping his head around, arms still raised towards his foe, he watched Blitz begin to approach Ranma. The blonde man's steps were unsteady at first, wobbling along a zigzag path as he stepped from his crater. His gait became more firm and picked up speed with every step, his lips peeling back over snarling teeth as he slipped his sleeveless robe, embroidered with glittering dragons, from his shoulders and slung it aside.

Some itchy sensation began to build in Ryoga's chest, his fists shifting against each other as he noticed that Ranma had not reacted to the encroaching thread. The other boy was not even looking at Blitz; his blue grey eyes seemed glassy and vacant as they stared at some distant point to his left. The pigtailed youth's hands hung at his sides, not even rising defensively as he turned his head, slowly passing his gaze across and over the seething Master of Thunder. He never even twitched before Blitz drove a fist into his stomach, forcing him to fold and retch onto the grass before another blow struck him across the face.

"Your friend has lost," the man behind him pronounced in a haughty tone.

Ryoga's jaw tightened, his fangs pressing into his bottom lip as he spun, a growl rumbling low in his throat. He pushed against the ground with a heave of his leg muscles, diving onto the red-haired man and knocking him to the dirt, seizing his lapels in his fists.

"What did he do," he hissed between grit teeth, heaving Brand's face closer to him

His only answer was a dark scowl from the Chinese fighter, and the sensation of massing heat. Shit, I forgot about his flames. Ryoga's eyes widened as he caught a flash of orange in his peripheral vision and he threw himself off of the other man, rolling clear as a fire-wrapped fist clove through space he had occupied. Pain screamed as the hand glanced against his thigh, the flames licking at him through his pants.

Coming up from his roll, Ryoga posted an arm against the ground with a slap, swinging his leg around so that he came to a rest facing Brand on one knee. He glared at his rising foe over his guarding fists, ignoring the thin trail of smoke that wafted from the scorched material that clung to his outstretched front leg.

Brand squatted on his haunches, his weight supported by the hand that dug into the dirt before him. Small sparks of red and yellow flames danced over the fingers of his other hand as he rubbed them together, orange light flickering across his smirking face.

"The martial arts of Emei began as health exercises, much as the kung fu of the Shaolin monks," he said in a voice that seemed to echo his mocking smile. "They were simply breathing techniques designed to allow a person to synchronise the flow of energy within their body with that of the world around them.

"However, what is now China was a land plagued by conflict that often threatened to spill onto the mountain and its people; thus the Order of the Tao used their techniques to defend themselves. Though the power of ki can be dangerous and can easily be used to maim or cripple, methods of defeating a large number of enemies without harming them became much sought after. Such soft-hearted nonsense led to the creation of techniques that aimed to disrupt the senses of one or whole armies of aggressors. After all, who can attack what they cannot see, or hurt who they cannot hear?"

Ryoga almost choked on his gasp, wide eyes flicking a glance to the two fighters on the other side of the battlefield. Ranma was on his feet, stumbling desperately to the side as he cast a panic-filled gaze to his left as Blitz's foot came crashing in from the right.

"You blinded him," Ryoga snarled at the redhaired man, his knuckles turning white as he clenched his fists tighter.

"I doubt he can hear much either, but the effect is temporary. I'm sure his senses will be fine once he wakes up." The man's eyes narrowed. "I thought that you were rivals. What do you care anyway? You should be more worried about yourself." The small flame flickering over Brand's finger tips grew and spread across his hand until it formed a gauntlet of writhing scarlet.

"Ranma may be a jerk, a pervert, and a womaniser who has put me through hell and does not deserve a fraction of what he has," Ryoga said softly, brows lowering beneath his bandana as flashes of many skirmishes and battles with the pigtailed menace shot through his mind like leaves caught in a storm. "But, as much as I hate to say it, he is a skilled martial artist. Even he deserves better."

His eyes picked up a flicker of crimson in the distance, as Blitz whipped the back of his fist across Ranma's face sending a trail of blood flying from the boy's mouth. Another memory stuck him, an image of weakened Ranma struggling against the chains that bound his arms as a bokken was brought crashing against his skull. "You've made him helpless," Ryoga growled, baring his fangs as he rose to his feet. "I can't stand those who pick on the helpless."

Brand snorted. "Noble sentiments from a pervert who tries to seduce naive local girls." The flame-haired man flung the words out harshly despite Ryoga's scowl. "However, I hope you are not thinking of interfering with my brother's duel, because you will find it impossible after I have finished with you."

Ryoga's eye narrowed as his hands clawed at the air, slowly forming trembling fists. "If you will not get out of my way," he said in a hushed whisper, his voice a low, feral rumble in his throat, "then I will go through you." Those last words roared from his mouth as he shot forwards, heels churning the grass beneath him like the hooves of a charging horse.

"Idiot," Brand hissed. He thrust out his hand and the fire leapt forth, forming a bar of orange flame that belched from his palm like dragon's breath.

Idiot, Ryoga swore, echoing his opponent's statement as he felt the heat wash across his skin. The orange flare filled his vision, seeming to swarm and expand until his instincts screamed at him and he snatched control of his momentum from his blind rush, throwing himself to the side. The fire tore past his shoulder as he dodged, his wavering balance forcing him to stagger.

Taking advantage of the stagger, Ryoga pushed hard against the dirt with his left leg, reversing his motion and allowing him to leap at his foe from the flank.

The surge of fire vanished as Brand closed his fist, gritting his teeth as he glared at Ryoga from the corners of his eyes. Crossing his forearms, he dropped to one knee as Ryoga's leg split the air above his head.

Growling as the red-haired man ducked beneath his kick, Ryoga let gravity bring him back to the ground. Raising his arm high, he swung it crashing down as he landed, a kiai ripping from his throat. His opponent circled to the left as the strike descended and the fall brought Ryoga's fist hammering into the ground, punching a crater into the dirt amidst a cloud of dust and rock.

His eyes snapping closed as his strength powdered the earth beneath his fist, Ryoga could not defend himself as Brand shoved a knee into his chin. His teeth jarred against each other and white sparks flashed through his head, but he tightened his jaw and let his body absorb the blow, the impact almost a caress compared to the sensation of a boulder slamming into you.

Allowing his eyes to open, a thin squint at first, Ryoga wrapped both arms around the attacking leg. He shoved himself forwards, barging his shoulder against Brand's supporting thigh as he heaved the captured leg upwards.

It was a testament to Brand's skill that he did not fall, staggering backwards with the throw to keep control of his balance. However the stumble was enough distraction to allow Ryoga to rise and torque his body into a short hook-punch, knuckles digging into Brand's left kidney and forcing the other man to cry out, his body bowing as he clutched his side with both arms.

Ryoga reached out and grabbed a handful of the older man's lapel in his right fist, yanking forwards as he twisted his body. He took a hold of Brand's sleeve with the other hand and stepped into a tight spin, thrusting out with his hip to heave his foe to the floor.

Brand shot out a stiffened arm, jamming the hip and halting his motion. Another hand pressed against Ryoga's shoulder, pushing hard to force some space between the panting bodies of the two combatants.

Ryoga snarled at his opponent, glowering through narrowed eyes as he fought against Brand's pressing arms, muscles bunching beneath his coarse yellow jerkin. The other man smirked, though his jaw bunched behind the smile. Then the image wavered in Ryoga's vision, the air seeming to warp and twist as it filled with an acrid smell. Eyes widening he glanced down to see tongues of fire creep from between Brand's callused fingers and begin to smoulder, black smoke forming thin trails as he felt the heat seep through his clothes.

With a panicked squawk, Ryoga hopped back, batting away the fiery hands. He patted his hands at his jerkin and pants, ash crumbling from the charred fabric. A flash of blue blurred on the fringe of his vision, and he shot his head up to see the fire master lunge at him with a fierce kick. Brand's booted heel slammed into his sternum and the force tore him off his feet, launching him backwards.

The wind was driven from his lungs as he landed hard on his shoulders, his momentum carrying his legs onwards and over his head and flipping him onto his stomach in a heap. His body felt like lead, his arms quivering with the effort it took to push himself onto his knees. The stifled air left in his chest spluttered from his mouth in a weak cough, the action making his battered ribs throb with pain. Other parts of his body seemed to pulse with heat with his every heart beat, the feeling tingling across his skin as if it were bubbling. Ryoga recognised the sensation as nasty, but still thankfully minor burns, burns that required treatment.

His eyes flickered from his opponent to the two figures in the distance, the blond crest of Blitz easily discernable against the background as he dealt a hard kick to Ranma's thigh, dropping the pigtailed boy to his knees where he was struck by a languidly idle backhand.

Ryoga's fingers dug furrows into the dirt as he clawed at the ground, lips curling over his clenched fangs.

The sight of Ranma lying on the dirt beaten, face screwed into a grimace as a kick was jabbed into his flank, was not unfamiliar to Ryoga. He had pictured it his own mind since was he was thirteen, longed for it, a dream that he wished to be made solid. Now that it was real, rendered in bruised flesh and spilt blood, Ryoga's mind fought against the image, rejecting it with an almost feral fury. His brain could not accept the floundering boy he saw on his knees as the skilled rival he had sworn he would defeat. The panic that was painted across his face as vacant eyes tried to find his enemy, arms covering his head like the paws of a beaten dog. That was not Ranma Saotome, he told himself; that was the weak, pitiful stranger he had once seen bearing the mark of a moxibustion burn. Seeing his nemesis reduced to that state had set his blood boiling once before, and now he could feel it stirring once again.

Locking his glare back on his redhaired opponent; Ryoga grit his teeth as he tried to ignore the pained complaints of his abused muscles and jarred bones. His only comfort was that Brand seemed to be in a similar state, hunched shoulders heaving as he panted through his open mouth. One arm was still wrapped across his body, clutching his kidney as the other hung heavily at his side and his stance was tilted, his weight favouring his right leg.

His body screamed at him as he rose to his feet; he could feel his knees wobble as they were forced to support more and more of his body weight. His own heartbeat thundered in his ears as he watched the Chinese fighter; both of them were hurting. It galled Ryoga to think it, but it could not be denied. Despite that, he knew that the other man could and would continue to fight, and Ryoga would oblige. After years of defeat at Ranma's hands, Ryoga simply could not accept loss by any other hand, nor could he stand his rival to be beaten by such a low tactic, especially after he had sworn not use such methods himself.

The battle would continue and Ryoga knew that even this short respite would not last much longer. The flashing blue fire he could see smouldering in Brand's eyes promised a furious assault.

He was at a disadvantage. He had seen and fought in enough duels to recognise this, though he felt his lips twist as the thought. The power of Brand's fire attack had him cornered. The blasts of flame the Bagua master threw at him made it near suicidal to remain at a distance, but the fiery gauntlets that the man summoned at will made it impossible to close the distance into hand-to-hand combat, despite Ryoga's yearning to face the man toe-to-toe.

Damn it, if only I had my umbrella.

Ryoga scowled, the back of his head tingling, almost feeling his weapon where it lay strapped to his pack beneath the sloping roof of the shrine. It was barely forty paces away, but it seemed like forty miles. He knew he had no chance of getting to the club before Brand struck, and that knowledge was like an iron wall separating him from the shrine.

It wouldn't work anyway, he told himself with a grimace. Though the umbrella would extend the reach of his attacks and allow him to defend Brand's flame-wrapped fists, the weight of the steel-ribbed parasol would slow his body. The delay would only be a fraction of a second, but in this fight that flicker of time was all that stood between survival and the fire.

"Kasen Dan!"

The cry was all the warning Ryoga had. Four arrows of raw flame streaked towards him and their creator charged in their wake, the bright fire wrapped around his arms burning lingering motes in the air.

Sliding to the right, Ryoga pulled himself from the path of the orange bolts and lashing out his leg with a low roundhouse. His kick glanced against his opponent's weakened left leg, faltering the attack and letting him reach for the only weapon he still carried.

A fire-clad fist streaked for Ryoga's face, forcing him to block. His forearm caught the attack at the elbow that was fortunately uncovered by the flames, and batted it aside, although Ryoga could feel the heat against his shoulder as the blow passed by, making his skin scream. However, his other arm had pulled the sash from his waist, a flick of his wrist tightening the hidden links of steel and forging a sword from the once-limp fabric.

Twisting his body, Ryoga swung his arm like an uppercut, the cloth blade stabbing upwards through the meagre space between the two fighters, forcing Brand to hop back as the point pierced the silk of his lapel and sheared the material away.

"What the…" the Chinese man began, but the words died as he clenched his teeth, pushing backwards to avoid the belt-sword as Ryoga brought it slashing across with a backhanded swing. The weapon emitted a high-pitched hum, the air screaming around the blade as it sliced through.

Brand had lifted his flaming hands defensively as the tip of the sword sang past him, shielding his chest with his forearms from fear of being disembowelled. However, as the buzzing fabric cut the air, the fires that wreathed his arms flickered and faltered before vanishing from his hands like snuffed candle wicks.

Brand gawped, staring at his now bare hands, and Ryoga felt his own eyes widen. His body was already moving by instinct bred from countless fights. Despite the confusion that was beginning to form a haze in his mind, his muscles would not let this advantage go to waste. He had swung the mighty hook before he had even thought of it, fist crashing into Brand's cheek and knocking him from his feet.

Brand hit the ground hard, but managed to cushion the impact, rolling over his shoulder and to his knees, one hand lifting his upper body whilst the other cradled his face. His blue eyes seemed to blaze through his fingers as he held his struck cheek, spitting a wad of blood-streaked saliva to the floor. "Bastard," he hissed.

Ryoga barely heard him, his eyes focussed on the stiffened fabric held in his hand, examining the weapon with astounded eyes as he tipped it back and forth in his grip.

"Teishou Kineji," he heard his opponent whisper, forcing his attention back to the man as he gathered himself of unsteady legs. "I had thought that technique extinct. Where did a wastrel like you learn such a thing?"

"My father taught me," Ryoga growled in response, meeting the man's glare, "and don't even think about insulting my family."

Teishou Kineji, the singing cloth. It made sense, Ryoga decided, the familiar hum of the blade as it stroked through the air echoing in his mind. His father had never told him the name, and he had never thought of asking. Yujiro had simply called it a 'Hibiki family survival trick' when he had given the belt to his son three years ago, when the two members of the lost clan had, through some miracle, found each other. Generations of experience with wandering unexpectedly through dangerous lands and encountering deadly people had taught the Hibikis the benefit of having a weapon to hand. Father and son were together long enough for Ryoga to learn the technique; how to bring together the interlocking pieces of steel hidden within the fabric to make the sash stiff enough to swing with such force that the pressure of the displaced air would cut through anything… even, it appeared, fire.

"Cretin," Brand growled. "Why should I show any respect for your family after your lecherous actions towards my sister? You are foolish to think that piece of cloth gives you the right to threaten me."

Ryoga's muscles tensed and he flinched as the man swept his arm upwards, fire seeming to sprout from the very earth like orange vines, with leaves of flame. The grass blackened and twisted as the inferno shot across the ground.

Ryoga leapt high, feeling the blistering heat beneath him as he vaulted over the wall of fire that rolled beneath him, crashing like waves against the rocks and leaving a blistered stain of charred earth where the lost boy had stood. He was running before he landed, charging forwards with a roar as he drew his belt-sword back.

His opponent stood his ground, sinking his weight onto his rear leg as he raised his hands. His palms were held open towards the lunging Japanese fighter; small sparks of scarlet flame danced between his splayed fingers that lit his smirk with flickering red light.


A bitter fluid filled his mouth as he worked his lips. The coppery tang of blood seemed more powerful with his hampered senses; the sour taste mingled with the earthy texture of dirt rang loudly through his mind, almost overwhelming the muted sound of rushing air and the white emptiness that had swallowed the world.

The sensation of grass tickling against his sore, bruised face confirmed he was on the ground. Sliding his arms under his shoulders he pushed himself to his knee, the muscles of his shoulders and sides screaming at him, the throbbing lances of pain making his elbows quivers as he fought to keep himself up. His efforts and the strength of his arms crumbled to dust as he felt a powerful blow swing into his gut.

Ranma spluttered as the air rushed out of him, his face screwing into a grimace as he fell onto his side. Both hands clapped over his belly and he curled up into a foetal ball, bowing his head to his knees as he bent his thighs to his chest. He felt his sides heave as he tried to inhale precious lungfuls of air but his closed posture made the attempt difficult. However he refused to open himself, instead drawing his knees in tighter as some instinct began to ring like a warning gong. His arms flew from his belly and wrapped over his head just in time to take the vicious impact that would have driven his skull into the dirt. His eyes were screwed closed as he covered his head, but still all see saw was the featureless white void.

Another blow rocked him, his head squashed between the muscles of his opposing arms. His lips curled into a snarl as he felt the distinct imprint of a shoe heel pound onto his shoulder. That bastard, he seethed silently, first blinding me, now stamping on me when I'm down. Damn him.

Letting his opponent fall into a pattern of raining strikes, Ranma seized upon the gap and hurled himself onto his back, catching the next on crossed wrists and redirecting the attack to his side. Shifting his body by pivoting on the small of his back Ranma tucked the attacking foot beneath his head, chin brushing against his opponent's ankle.

Grasping hold of the shin, he heaved his body up and scissored both legs around Blitz's thigh, crossing his ankles and locking himself in close. He wrenched his body harshly to the side, and pulled the other man down and bending the captured leg by pressing with his own. Everything set up, he felt for the vulnerable tendon at the back of his enemies foot, pushing against it with the blade of his forearm as he cupped the heel with his other hand, preparing to crank the joint against his neck.

The fist came out of nowhere, the pale nothingness that had consumed his sight never receding as he felt the punch slam into his jaw. He senses whirled and the earth seemed to roll and toss beneath him as the impact rocked his brain. Strength left his arms but he was barely aware of the leg slipping away until it smacked onto his sternum. Pain seemed to explode in his chest, making his body fold as he grit his teeth. The world waxed and waned, but Ranma forced his mind to focus, trying to stuff the pain into the back of his mind and force his body to move, rolling over on his side again and again to gain distance.

Damned moron, he cursed, driving a fist into the dirt and using it to push himself upwards. What kind of move was that?

It had been a foolish manoeuvre, and one that he should have known to avoid, a novice's mistake, that he had thought driven out of him by painful bruises from his father's hands. To use a heel-hook from that position could be a brutal surprise allowing the fighter to cripple both the ankle and knee, but the move tied up all limbs in execution, almost offering an invitation to be punched in the wide-open head. Foolish against a skilled opponent, suicidal without the sight to defend against such a counter; it was a testimony to the desperation Ranma could feel clawing away at his insides like a panicked animal.

How do I fight what I can't see? he screamed mentally, before he was reminded that he also could not hear; his ears still filled with the sound of a distant ocean.

The tingling in the back of his mind rose to a ringing clamour, and Ranma tensed. Unable to see the attack coming in the white nothing, he could not hope to parry. His face cringing, he ducked his head and shielding his face with his forearms, tightening his abdomen and trying to root his feet into the earth, bracing himself. His stance wavered as something slammed into his arms, but he grit his teeth, his mind lamenting that he had been reducing to such a defence.

He grunted as he felt a blow crash into his stomach, but pushing against the dirt with his legs he thrust his pelvis to soften the blow. Until the strike seemed to erupt against his body, a wave of force tearing him from his feet and launching him backwards like a cannonball.

He crashed into the ground with an impact that made his head swim and caused his body to yell out as every one of the bruises that riddled his beaten form flared with pain. As his consciousness floundered, threatening to drown in the pale emptiness, there was what many call a moment of clarity; a spark of mushin, like the eye of a storm, through which a memory flitted through like a stray leave in the breeze

Words echoed in his mind with the muted ring that only came with the sound of your own voice in your ears, a voice that seemed to warble with the blended high and low tones of youth.


"Come on Pops, how can I fight what I can't see?" Ranma asked, clawing the blindfold from his eyes and squinting as the world seemed to invade his sight all at once.

He blinked and shook his head, rubbing at the tender lump that was beginning to grow on the side of his head and scowling at his attacker; a large man who stood across from the young boy besides a babbling stream, adjusting the band of the bandana over a curl of thinning black hair.

"Stop whining like a girl, Ranma," his father barked gruffly, crossing his arms over his gi as he inhaled deeply and released a long drawn out sigh. "How unfairly cursed I must be to have a son who gives up so easily."

Ranma pouted and rose his fist, "I'm not giving up on anything. It's impossible. How do you expect anyone to fight with a blindfold?"

"Foolish boy, nothing is impossible to a master of the Saotome School of Anything-Goes martial arts," Genma spat, thrusting a finger towards his son. "What will happen if someone throws dust or mud in your eyes? Hm? How will you defend yourself?"

"What kind of honourless jerk would do something like that?"

His answer came swiftly as his father kicked his foot against the ground, hardened toes flicking a wave of soil at him. Ranma yelped as the dirt stung his eyes, forcing him to squeeze them shut as he rubbed his face with the sleeve of his white gi.

"Damn you, Pops, no fair." He opened his watering eyes just a crack, his vision fluid and watery through his tears, but enough for him to find his way to the stream. Sucking in a noisy breath of air he dropped to his knees and plunged his face into the flowing water. Forcing his eyes open his shook his head furiously and blinked rapidly, dipping a hand in to push more water into his face. With a gasp he pulled himself from the icy liquid and rubbing his burning eyes.

"That was a cheap trick, old man," he muttered, reaching a hand behind him to grab his now dripping black ponytail and wring it dry.

"It's called Anything-Goes for a reason, boy. Get used to it," Genma replied, walking beneath the boughs of a elm tree, its boughs lush with the green of spring. Reaching up on his tiptoes, he grabbed the lowest branch, the wood flexing supply as he pulled it down and plucked a single leaf from its twigs. "Come here a moment, Ranma."

"What now, Pop?" Ranma sighed, flicking the wet tail of hair back over his shoulder and moving over to where his father stood, leaping back as the man tried to cuff him around the head.

"Insolent boy," Genma griped with a frown. "I'm trying to teach you something. Show some respect. Now tell me boy, which of your senses do you think is the fastest?"

"Huh?"

"Which do you respond to quickest, you idiot?"

Ranma scowled at his father, folding his arms across his chest. "Well, my sight, obviously. What kind of dumb question is that?"

He knew he had made a mistake when a smirk crawled onto the large man's face, emphasised by a bar of sunlight that glared off his glasses, hiding his eyes.

"R-e-al-ly?" Genma said, drawing the word out slowly. "Well, let's see if you're right, boy. I have a challenge for you. Stretch out two fingers." He stepped closer to his son, the two Saotomes now standing toe-to-toe.

Ranma's brows furrowed and his mouth pursed. "Like this?" he asked, lifting his right arm into the small space between his chest and his father's ample belly, his thumb and forefinger extended like a pincers.

"That's it," Genma said with a nod, lifting his own, much larger hand over the child's. The elm leaf was gripped in his thick fingers, fluttering a fists width above Ranma's stubby digits. "Now, boy, try and catch the leaf when I let it go."

"Is that all?" Ranma said incredulously.

"Stop bragging and try it," Genma snapped. "Ready?"

Ranma nodded.

Genma's fingers opened and Ranma's snapped closed, but he was too late and the leaf fell through the air uninhibited, dancing to the ground in lazy spirals.

"Again," Ranma cried, snatching up the leaf and handing it back to his father. "It won't work the second time."

A crooked smile curved Genma's lips but he indulged the boy, taking the leaf in his fingers and letting it fall. Against the leaf slipped through Ranma's fingers and drifted to the ground.

"Let's do it again."

"I'm not going to lose."

"One more time."

"Enough, Ranma," Genma shouted, clubbing his son on the forehead with an open palm before the boy could demand another repeat of the exercise that had long since served its purpose. "If you calm down I'll tell you why you can't catch the leaf."

"You're cheating, that's why," Ranma snapped, earning another rap on the head from his father's knuckles.

"I said show some respect for your father, ingrate." Genma's frown disappeared as he stood straight, raising himself to his full height as he tugged at the bottom of his gi jacket, pulling out the creases before he tugged his belt tight with a sharp yank on the tassels. Ranma sighed, but said nothing, recognising what he had come to know as his father's 'wise sensei' act.

"The reason you cannot catch the leaf, Ranma, is because your brain is too slow," Genma pronounced, and lifted up his palm sharply before the words 'who are you calling slow?' could burst from his son's tongue.

"What I mean is the response takes too much time. First your eyes must see the leaf fall, and then they must send a message to the brain. The brain then has to decide on a response, in this case to make your fingers close, and then it must send the message along the nerves to the muscles in the forearms which clench and make the fingers close. All of that takes time. Bare milliseconds, but in a fight that can mean the difference between victory, defeat, or even death."

Ranma was aware of his jaw hanging open. He felt like he should react, say something, but he had no words. It had never occurred to him how his mind worked when he blocked, how he responded and how long it would take.

Genma's lips twisted into a half-smile, seeing that he had his son's rapt attention. "Now, think about what happens when you touch something hot. Your hand retracts instantly., You never think about it, you never consider it, sometimes you are not even aware you're being burned. You just pull away, an instantaneous reaction. This shows that it is actually touch, not sight, which is the fastest sense."

The larger man grinned and clapped his son on the shoulder, "When your training is complete, Ranma, you will be able to see your opponent's moves and react without thinking. You will also be able to respond so fast you'll be countering before he has even moved. However, your sense of touch will always be faster. The Musabetsu Kakuto Ryu Kage Ken form that I have taught you contains the techniques that will allow you to feel your opponent's movements through contact and counter immediately. However, to refine the technique you must practise blindfolded. That way you cannot use your vision and must rely on the sensitivity of your touch.

"Kage Ken?" Ranma asked with a frown.

"Because you must stick to your opponent like his shadow. This style requires constant contact with your opponent's body. Your hands must never be apart from his; that way you can read his attacks from even the smallest tensing of his body. In some styles this is also named the 'sticky hand'."

Ranma stepped back, eyes narrowing before they were hidden behind the strip of dark cloth that he tied over his face.

"Let's go, then, Pops."


The moment passed like a faded candle, ghosts of memories lingering weakly in Ranma's mind as he pushed himself to his feet. The scent of that distant spring, the cooling water on his face, the rough touch of the blindfold on his face. A world of memories imprinted on his soul vanished as he returned to the present, the grass beneath him, the protests of his battered body and the pale light that blinded him.

Once in a while, that old man actually makes sense, he remarked silently, feeling his lips curve, a smirk take its rightful place on his face as he gathered himself to his feet. His muscles pulsed angrily, but he swept the sensations aside, the act coming much easier as he felt a rush begin to swell in his chest, hope flooding his tired limbs with renewed vigour.

The rejuvenation faltered as something slammed into his belly, digging deep under his ribs and forcing him to fold over as his knees buckled. A weak groan guttered from his mouth, and his throat bunched at his attempt to hold in air. Digging his heels into the dirt, he tried to will the strength to his legs and keep himself upright. Clapping his arms in front of him, he grabbed at his attacker, feeling the unmistakable bulge of a bicep and the pointed bone of an elbow beneath thin, soft cloth. He tightened his grip, fingers clawing at the arm.

"Got you." He felt his lips move to form the words as his throat vibrated to produce the sound, but he could not be sure if he had truly spoken.

The world spun as another impact rocked his skull, striking upwards and crashing into his jaw. His brain whirled, his grip weakened, and he slumped to his knee as the energy seemed to leak from his legs. Another blow rained from above like a lightning bolt, a hard blow bashing into the muscle of between his shoulder and neck. The nerves screamed and he fell onto his hands, teeth grinding as the pain shot through him.

Where did that come from? a voice in his mind shouted, only to be answered by the harsh, driving tone of his father.

Idiot, you're gripping too tight.

A hand clutched at his shoulder, making his face screw into a tight wince as fingers clamped on to the recently struck flesh. Blitz's arm wrenched him up, lifting his torso upright, dazed head lolling on his shoulders.

Anticipating the face punch that he knew the other man would not be able to resist from this position, Ranma bowed his head and flicked up his hand. The fist met the fleshy pad of his palm with a fiery sting, and he grimaced as the back of his hand was driven into his own forehead. However as Blitz withdrew the arm for another blow, Ranma's hand followed it, palm clinging to the other man's knuckles as if glued. At the same time Ranma had placed his other hand lightly over the arm that gripped his shirt, finger tips barely brushing against the surface of the forearm.

The fist under his palm continued to pull back until Ranma was forced to twist forwards to keep the soft contact. At the same time the hand on his shoulder pushed forcefully, trying to drive open the space between them.

Kick!

His outstretched arm dropped without thought, plummeting at the elbow until he felt the bone sink deep into soft flesh between hardened thigh muscles, jamming the attempted kick. The tension fled from the gripping arm, the buckling of the limb telling Ranma that his opponent was hurt. That was all the information he needed to straighten his arm out with a fierce thrust, torquing his body behind the blow until his fist shot out like a piston. He felt ribs give beneath his knuckles and sensed his opponent's body writhe.

The hand on his shoulder receded. In the white void, the limb seemed to have gained wings and tried to fly away. Ranma stepped forward, first onto one knee, then onto two feet, fingers never leaving the wrist. He felt it twist, growing tight as the hand formed a fist.

Punch!

He swept his other arm up, his forearm batting aside Blitz's right fist before his could drive into his face, still clinging to the man's left hand. Twisting his wrist he wrapped the arm in his hand, holding it between his fingers and thumb in with such gentleness his touch was almost ghostly.

Blitz pushed forwards, streaking for Ranma's nose with his left hand, but with his palm stuck to the wrist, the young Saotome found it easy to increase the pressure and push the blow away. He stepped to the side with his back foot and twisted his torso, pulling his head from the fist's path even as he redirected the attack. His body now tightened like a catapult, brimming with stored power, and Ranma let himself unfurl like a winding dragon, driving a fist into what he knew to be Blitz's face.

The force of the punch shot the other man backwards, but Ranma refused to let that happen. He lunged forwards, reaching out with both hand to clamp his grip on the Chinese fighter's wrists, the muscles of his shoulders jerking as he halted Blitz's flight suddenly.

"You're not getting away," Ranma hoped he said, and he yanked his foe into himself like a rower's backstroke, lifting a knee into his path and feeling the other man's momentum drive him onto on the hard bone.

"I've got you now, you queer freak," he hissed, hoping the other man could hear him. "Now you're going to pay."


The hum of the cloth-blade rose to a shrill howl as it cut the air, as if the battle between the two warriors had aroused the rage of a banshee. His opponent ducked beneath the wild backhand slash, as Ryoga followed with another attack, swinging the large fist of his other hand like a club.

Brand stepped into the arc, fielding the blow by sweeping his arm in a tight circle, the fist glancing from his wrist as he thrust his other palm into the lost boy's chest.

Ryoga grimaced as an insubstantial sword seemed to burn into his heart, and he gritted his teeth and hissed, tasting blood in his mouth. Twisting away from the strike he brought his sword arm sweeping towards his shoulder and he turned, flicking the blade towards the other fighter's arm.

His opponent slipped away from the attempted slice, circling around to the side with arcing step, forcing Ryoga to shift his body to match, pivoting with a small step back.

A fist shot for his face, fire surging around the knuckles. Ryoga pressed his hand to the flat of his belt, supporting the stiffened fabric and forming a brace that he swept across his body, knocking the fiery attack aside. Pushing forward, he slid slowly and brought the blade to his hip as he jabbed his elbow into his foe's stomach, earning a sharp grunt. Unfolding his arm he slashed the belt-sword, the point scoring through blue silk and gold thread as the Chinese man hopped back in a panic.

"Damn you," Brand growled, sweeping his hand up as if casting a stone. "Honou Ha!"

The earth turned to fire around Ryoga's slippered feet, fingers of flame worming from the blackening grass, rising into waves of orange heat. Tongues of fire licked at his legs as he leapt high, kicking hard from the earth to propel himself out of the inferno. His muscles yelped as he landed, making him stumble, and he slipped onto his bottom as he leant to beat the flames from his pants.

Though smoke spiralled in the air around the black material, there were no flames, no burns. The only tears and singed holes were those he had already earned from previous encounters with the Chinese master's fire.

What the hell? Ryoga's brows furrowed as he frowned at his legs. That should have grilled me. His flashed his eyes towards his opponent, tensing to field off any attack.

Brand had not moved. He stood with his lips twisted into a sneer, and blue fire still smouldering in his eyes, but Ryoga could see his shoulders heave in a chaotic, irregular rhythm. His face was stained with blood, a thin trickle smeared beneath his nostril and red smudge covering cut over his eyebrow, the swelling forcing his eye half-closed. His body was lopsided as his left leg bent beneath him, visibly trembling on the verge of collapsing under him. One hand was pressed against his stomach, clamped over the thin laceration where the tip of Ryoga's belt had broken the skin. The other was clenched at his side, but could only form a misshapen half-fist.

He's weakening, Ryoga thought, eyes widening with realisation. He may have Saffron's attacks, but this guy is not made of fire. It must take a hefty amount of ki to make the air ignite, but now he's starting to run out of tinder. That's why he's moved on to burning the grass to attack. I can win this.

That thought galvanised him, and he sniffed at the air, almost smelling his opponent's sweat, his weakness. He bared his fangs and pulled himself to his feet, but the wailing protests of his body reminded him that he was in no better shape than the Chinese warrior.

Every muscle, every joint seemed to raise complaint to his motion, his legs ached and throbbed, and the charred fabric of his trousers clinging to the reddened, scabbed flesh. Heat seemed to boil under his skin as if his body was about to erupt, and he felt sticky as his burns wept beneath his clothes. He was still breathing in regular pants, but the action was a pained effort. Air seemed to cut into his chest like razor blades, the filling of his lungs blasting him was agony as they expanded against ribs he was sure were broken.

He clenched his jaw, trying to ignore the shocks of pain that ran through the beaten bone, and felt a dull pop letting him know that his mandible had been knocked out of line.

Eyes shooting a fast glance to the fringe of tree that skirted the grassy slope on which he stood, Ryoga saw Ranma match blows with Blitz. The pigtailed-boy clung to the blonde fighter like moss, matching his every step and movement whilst slipping around a storm of blows. Ranma was not even looking at his opponent when he slammed a palm into his chin, taking a hard knee to the ribs in payment. The sight brought a smirk to Ryoga's split lips, and he took slow, but steady step towards his own red-maned foe.

Ranma was not going to give up.

Brand was not going to give up.

Ryoga refused to give up. If that rat-bastard Ranma Saotome could fight blind, then he could fight with a few burns. If the master of fire refused to concede defeat and apologize for calling him a pervert, then Ryoga would just have to force him.

He stepped forwards, then again. That is what his life was about, in the end. Just one more step forwards, always moving, always walking, always wandering.

Another step, this time faster. That was the core of martial arts, moving onwards despite the weakness of body and spirit; always training, always learning, always striving to beat that opponent.

Another step, his stride lengthening, his pace growing until he was charging towards the redhaired man, and battlecry roaring from his throat, the belt-sword in his hand drew back and then shot forwards in a straight thrust that pierced nothing but air as Brand pivoted aside, twisting himself from the path of the blade.

A large hand clamped onto Ryoga's wrist and pulled, making him stumble to control his momentum. A palm rose up like a gliding bird in an updraft and pressed against his stretched triceps. Pain shot through him like electricity. Ryoga thought he could feel every fibre of the muscle break and snap like torn cloth as a pulse of energy stabbed through his arm. His hand snapped open and his belt tumbled from his hand, falling end over end like a toy dropped by a child.

His arm was released and it dropped to his side as Brand stomped his heel onto Ryoga's knee. The joint jerked in its setting, and he could feel the ligaments strain as they were bent from an unnatural angle, but they held and he stayed on his feet, refusing to be knelt.

He saw the fist as a blur on the edges of his vision, barely managing to lift his arm to take the blow before it could slam into his chest. Even so he was sent sliding back, heels scratching furrows dirt and he dug them in deeper. The stalks of grass flew around his feet like sparks around failed car brakes as he slowly came to a stop.

He grimaced with a hiss of pain as he forced his injured arm to move, the muscle spasmed as he slowly lifted the trembling hand in front of him, the other hanging poised by his brow.

Brand shifted his body, shoulders jerking as he moved his left leg back with a pronounced limp and stretched out his right hand. Ryoga could see the man's lips form a smile that did not touch the azure inferno in his eyes from between his finger and thumb, before the air once again began to twist and distort. Motes and rippling haze, like the taint of oil on the clear surface of puddle, formed before him as he poured heat into the air, face tightening with the effort.

Here it comes; Ryoga tensed and grit his teeth. I just hope this works, if I throw them hard enough…

Streams of fire burst into the air, spiralling around each other into a beam of writhing flame.

Ryoga uncoiled like a whip, hand seizing four bandanas and casting them out with a snap. His arm strained against its socket as he flung the strips of fabric with every scrap of force he could summon from his abused body.

The spinning bandanas blurred into humming disks of brown as they met the blast of fire. The flames seemed to part as if cut by the whirring fabric, but like a glowing fluid, they rejoined and swallowed the projectiles in their scarlet maw. The wall of fire kept on, and rolled over Ryoga like a tsunami of flame.

He screwed his eyes closed, but the light burned through his eyelids, filling his vision with red. He could feel the tips of his hair curling and his nostrils filled with the heated scent. Barely managing to cross his arms in front of his face, he felt the heat eat away at him and the fire scour across his skin, nerves seeming to burst in pain beneath the flames. He wanted to howl out, but knew that he would just inhale a mouthful of fire, and so braced himself, trusting in his foe's weakness, hoping to weather out the storm.

Milliseconds stretched into years, seconds into centuries. The conflagration ended. No word or warning; it simply ceased as if turned off by a tap. Body screaming as pain became a vapour that seemed to boil through him and skin peeling from his exposed hands and smoke wafting from his singed clothes, Ryoga heard a cry pierce the air and dared to risk opening his eyes.

Brand's face was contorted into a grimace, teeth grit and one eye barely open. One hand gripped his arm beneath his shoulder, blood smeared across the fingers and welling in the gaps, a red stain spreading across his sleeve. The hand of that same arm was stretched over his body to press at a wound on his opposite thigh. Two bandanas lay limp and twisted behind his feet as two more continued to skim through the air, eventually hitting the earth with a spray of dirt.

Now, you fool, Ryoga's mind screamed at him and before he could register the pain that assaulted him, he was already rushing towards the Chinese master as a bull to a red flag.

Brand tensed and released his wounds, a trail of scarlet drops falling in the wake of his fingers as he raised his hands to guard. The blood on his right fist seemed to ignite like pitch on a torch, and he launched a burning punch towards Ryoga's face, but the target was no longer there.

Ryoga dropped to his knee, the joint jarred painfully as his patella bounced off of the ground. His gasp his of pain rose in his throat into a growl of effort as he lunged beneath Brand's counter and seized the man's legs, hand clutching like pincers at the back of his knees. Bringing his trailing leg in for leverage, Ryoga barged into his foe's stomach with his shoulder and neck, forcing him to topple back. Then, as Brand began to fall like a cut tree, he wrenched his body back, lifting the other fighter's legs from the floor and sweeping them clear from the ground.

Brand fell and Ryoga sank, driving his torso down and slamming the larger man into the ground, his own weight drilling his shoulders into the gut. He heard the air rush out of Brand with a satisfying whoosh, and Ryoga pushed himself forwards, pinning the redhaired warrior beneath his chest as he lay across his body.

He reached out, hooking the man's nearest arm with in his palm and pulling it under him, squashing it between their bodies and trapping it. Now with both arms free he gripped Brand's other hand pushed it away, holding it straight as flames surged between the fingers and scorched the grass.

"Bastard!" Brand roared. "Get the fuck off of me."

"Shut up," Ryoga growled. "I'm taking you down this time."

It was like trying to hold the oceans still as Brand fought and scrabbled beneath him, rolling and twisting against his weight like the waves. He pulled his left arm back sharply, jabbing an elbow into the man's face, but it was only a glancing blow. Pulling his right leg in to the trapped warrior's hips, he pushed in against the ground, lifting his hips and rear leg as he continued to press his chest down. With gravity as his aid, he brought his knee raining down into Brand's head, feeling the blows strike the flame-master cleanly on the skull.

Desperate to escape the assault, Brand heaved with all his strength and rolled onto his side; exactly as Ryoga had wanted. Digging the balls of his feet into the ground he pushed himself forwards, pressing his forearm against Brand's shoulder blades and rolling him onto his front, both arms caught beneath his own belly.

Ryoga quickly scooted forwards and swung his leg over his prone foe, mounting the small of his back and sliding his legs in, hooking his feet on the red-haired man's thighs.

Brand jerked his head upwards, slamming the top of his cranium into Ryoga's nose.

Lights flashed like fireworks in his mind as his brain swam, but he shook it off with a grimace. He snorted sharply, splattering a shower of blood from his nostrils against his opponent, and he thanked the breaking point once again for saving him from a nasty fracture. His snarl relaxed into a smirk as he saw the silver lining.

Brand's desperate shot had let Ryoga slip his left arm beneath the fire master's chin, and he quickly slid it in deeper lifting it back to take a grip on his own right shoulder. When he pressed his hand onto the back of Brand's skull, fingers clawing at his head like talons, Ryoga knew he had won.

Flexing his muscles with every last ounce of strength in his body, he squeezed his arms together, the bulge of his bicep and the blade of his forearm clamping around Brand's neck like the jaws of a vice, squeezing at the arteries beneath the pale skin.

1… 2…

Brand twisted and turned, legs kicking at the ground and ki leaking into the air around him, lashing at the air and charring the earth. Ryoga grit his teeth and held on, fangs biting into his own bottom lips as he tried to will more strength into closing his arms, hair whipping around his head as Brand desperately summoned more unfocussed power.

…3… 4…

The struggles ceased, life draining from his pounding legs and bucking hips. The air stilled, not even a gentle breeze hung in the void left by the Bagua master's errant life-force. Smoke spun in thin, lazy spirals as it trailed from the ring of blackened grass that circled them.

…5…

Ryoga released his grip, sure that the other man's brain had sunk into unconsciousness, and mindful that to hold on for any longer was to risk inflicting irreparable neural damage.

Shoulders heaving as he panted raggedly, he more fell off of his opponent than dismounted, crashing onto his side in the dirt as if his bones had vanished. His muscles no longer ached, his legs no longer strained and the surging heat that raked his skin was gone. He was in no pain, in fact he felt rather good, warm and cosy as if he were a newborn in his mother's arms.

"I won," he said, barely hearing the whisper of his own voice. "Now to help Ranma."

It was curious that his body seemed to ignore his commands to move, content to just lie there in the warmth. Blackness came and he could not find the strength to fight it as it wrapped him up in its embrace and took everything away.


Piece by piece, the world began to take shape. The pristine whiteness of the void began to grow stained, patches of dark and light shifting against the pale background slowly becoming form and shade. Colour began to leak into the world the way a stain darkens into cloth. Blue, green and red, the three primes grew from nothing as if at the moment of creation, mixing into hazy blurs of and watery images.

Ranma head whipped around as a blow crashed into his cheek, his pigtail swinging to bounce of his own face. He staggered backwards, shaking his head to clear the cobwebs that were clinging to his thoughts and squinting at the blotches of blue, black and yellow that he believed was his opponents. The shape twisted and he slipped forwards, bringing his knee from inside to outside in a fast circle and knocking aside a kick with his shinbone.

There was a hollow sound within the rushing of the sea that he guessed was a hiss of pain, his senses still too addled for him to make sense of it.

Ranma threw with a hard punch, aiming for the centre of the blonde blur. A sweep of blue pressed his fist aside, the stinging slap of a palm beating against his wrist. He smiled and he let his arm go limp, pressing forwards with his body as he rolled his elbow over his opponent's block. Arm folded like a crane's wing, he gently guided Blitz's limb across their bodies, feeding it to his rear hand which seized the blonde's wrist and pulled sharply, yanking the man into a fierce knifehand blow which cut into nexus of nerves beneath the jaw.

Like a shadow, his father's voice told him. Never leave a gap: not one blow, but five.

Ranma swapped hands, his lead arm pinning Blitz's arm to his chest, removing any guard as he moved closer, his outer thigh brushing softly against his opponent's inner leg as he twisted his torso and smashed his rear elbow into the Chinese man's nose.

He felt rather than saw his foe tumble backwards, sensing the movement through the touch of his leg on his opponent's. Unfurling his arm, Ranma hooked his fingers into the crook of the blonde's neck and wrenched his head down, grinding the balls of his feet on the dirt, and shot his knee upwards.

The attack glanced harmlessly off of what he knew to be Blitz's forearm, and he was barged off balance as the Chinese master rammed his shoulders into Ranma's hips. Two hands gripped his arms, fingers digging into his biceps before pain erupted into him as lightning coursed along his veins.

Energy seemed to pour into him, lancing through his bones, battering against his flesh. His nerves sang and screamed, until his mind seemed to haze and grow cloudy. He was dimly aware of sucking in gulps of air, a crisp, burning scent invading his nostrils and a metallic tang like battery acid filled his mouth. He knew his mouth was open and his throat was tight, but it was only after a spike of pain and a popping sensation that he could hear a voice raised in a scream. His own voice.

He was driven to his knees and something snapped. He had been beaten, blinded and deafened by this man. He had had his manhood and his sexuality mocked. But Ranma Saotome did not lose, and he did not kneel.

With a scream of rage, he rose on one leg and pressed into against the ground, shoving aside the blistering agony as he heaved himself up and drove the curve of his forehead into his enemy's face. He heard a snap, and felt warm blood spray into his face. The pain vanished and the grip on his arm disappeared.

Ranma opened his eyes and squinted as the impact of the world hit him like a fist. The hazy blurs of colour and shade were gone, leaving ghostly phantoms of objects which snapped into perfect clarity. The battlefield around him had form and barrier, distinct shapes and lines that distinguished one body from the next. Everything now had depth in dimension as the last vestiges of the white nothing shattered and crumbled away. He saw his opponent, one eye blackened, yellow hair in disarray with locks crisped and matted to his brow with blood. His head was bowed as he cupped his face in his hands, fingers covering his nose, with streams of red leaking between them.

Ranma almost felt guilty that he had dealt such a blow, but pushed it aside ruthlessly as mocking words echoed his mind, amidst the haunting memory of the white nothing and the vile feeling of helpless desperation that had twisted at his guts as he was bombarded by blows.

He had endured, he had refused to yield. That thought brought pride swelling in his breast which he pushed into his abdomen; for with pride came power.

"Time to end this, pretty boy," Ranma growled, feeling the restless urging grow and expand in his belly, and he dashed towards his foe. "Mouko Takabisha Revised…"

Strength surging through his body with the silent, sure promise of victory, Ranma whipped out his arm with a violent snap, smashing his backfist into Blitz's uncovered temple. As his right arm swung in an arc, body following through the blow, his left came sweeping around in a mighty hook-punch to the same spot. The Chinese man reeled, arms falling from his body, smeared face allowing Ranma to twist his body into a tight spiral, fist shooting up into the point of Blitz's chin like a rocket. Stepping one leg behind the other, Ranma closed the gap whilst maintaining his spin, back now facing the blonde as he dug the point of his elbow back into his opponents' ribs. Power surged in him, pounding at his stomach in demand to be released. His hands were cupped in front of his hara and his fingers tingled as energy began to crackle in his palms. A mist that seemed to be formed of pure light twisted and swirled into a tiny sphere of plasma. Ranma twisted back towards the other man, thrusting out his hands and setting the seething ki free from his vessel, unloading it into the Thunder master's chest.

"MOUKO RENDAN!"

The small bolt grew into a wall of solid blue light that erupted between his hands and blasted the weakened man away like a paper boat in the path of a tsunami. Ranma was pressed back by the force of his own attack like a recoiling cannon, feet scratching trails in the earth. The air was ripped apart as shockwave carried Blitz across the battlefield, the other man appearing to Ranma as a mottled silhouette in the azure glow.

Finally the light faded, leaving spots of colours dancing and twirling in Ranma's still sensitive vision. Drained and discharged, he felt hollow, his entire body seeming somehow empty like a river run dry. Panting raggedly, his back hunched until he was supporting his torso with his hands on knees that trembled beneath his palms. He forced his gaze upwards, gazing across the battlefield through thick black bangs that clung to his face with sweat and blood.

Blitz lay face down in a crater, half of his body buried beneath dirt that seemed to have been crushed into fine powder. Ranma tensed, his body yelping with the effort, but the other man never moved. Time seemed to stretch until Ranma thought he could feel every second slip past, clinging to him before it fell into the abyss that was the past. The master of thunders never stirred.

Damn right, you bastard! Ranma wanted to yell, but his voice only made a low croak. His throat pinched at him, and his lips felt so dry and cracked he wondered how many centuries it had been since he had tasted water. He could hear a gentle gust of wind whistle through the trees, though it still seemed distant and weak to him as the effects of Blitz's attack lingered. Despite that, it seemed quiet… too quiet.

Better get out of here. Ryoga!

His back knotted painfully as he pushed himself back to his full height, struggling against the urge to hunch over, to lie down, and to sleep. He turned his head, neck protesting, and scanned the grassy plain, pockmarked and cratered, torn and charred by colliding powers.

A misshapen lump appeared in a blackened ring of earth, as if a star had fallen to earth, crushing and burning the ground. The lump slowly resolved into two figures, the smaller one, half-lying on the other, wearing smouldering yellow clothes and an unmistakable tiger-striped bandana.

Years without season seemed to stretch by as Ranma hobbled over to his rival. His right leg seemed to sink into the floor with every step, knee buckling from his weight. The air burned at his lungs as he sucked it in to power each laboured movement. Darkness came and went, all sensation fading in black flashes before returning with an intensity of pain that made him whimper.

The lost boy was a mess. Ranma felt a slight flicker of satisfaction as he told himself he looked better. Ryoga's clothes were rent in several places, the edges of the holes blackened and frayed, revealing patches of angry and scabrous red skin that were covered in a thin layer of water as the damaged cells wept. His pants were shredded and charred beneath his calves as if he were the victim of a shark attack, and the rubber soles of his slippers were deformed and melted. His cheeks were swollen and purple and his lips were split, blood dripping onto his chin, but a soft, almost gentle smile curved his mouth.

"Oi," Ranma said as loud as he could manage a cracked whisper. "Oi, Ryoga, get up." He prodded at the other youth's head with the point of his foot.

"Five more minutes, Akane."

Ranma scowled. What the hell does he think he's dreaming about, he fumed silently.

"Oi, P-chan, get up," he growled jabbing a kick into his rival.

Predictably Ryoga surged upwards with a snarl and angry cry, "Ranma, you bastard." He paused, blinked then clutched his skull in his hands. "Ow, my head."

"Know that feeling."

Ryoga opened on eyes and peered upwards, "Ranma? You look like hell."

Ranma snorted, "You're one to talk. I'm still better off than you, pork-butt."

"Ranma!" the boy yelled. He attempted to scrabble up, but slipped and fell onto his backside, rubbing at his temples with finger and thumb. "Remind me to kick your ass when the world stops spinning."

"The world will have ended before that would happen, pal." Ranma cleared his throat and stepped back. "Not to interrupt your nap, but I would suggest we move out before these jerks wake up. Unless you would rather cuddle with your new friend?"

"What new…?" He glanced down and noticed the redhaired man laid out cold at his side. With a start he jerked himself to his feet, face then screwing into a wince.

"Typical," Ranma drawled. "Here I am fighting for our lives and you're catching forty winks."

"Shut your face, Ranma." Ryoga snapped back instantly, before his eyes narrowed. "I take it you won."

"You sound as if you doubted me, Ryoga. I'm hurt."

"Well, you were taking quite a beating."

"Shut up, pig-boy. My opponent wasn't a pushover like yours."

"Pushover?" Ryoga snarled. "This guy would have torched you." The lost boy twisted the hand he used to point at the young Saotome to jerk a thumb towards his own chest. "I, however, was too much for him."

Ranma quirked his eyebrow before turning towards Ryoga's felled opponent. Brand lay as if sleeping, a pinkish tinge to the cheeks caught his interest and he quickly checked to confirm whitened fingers.

"Strangle?" he queried, lifting his eyes to see Ryoga's answering nod. "Not bad," he remarked with a tilt of his head, flicking his braid back over his shoulder. The tail of hair seemed unusually limp, as if even his hair was exhausted. "Not really your style, though."

Ryoga shrugged, "I picked up a couple of things when I wandered through Brazil a few months back. Besides," he scoffed, "what you don't know about me could fill a library."

"Oh yeah," Ranma said dryly. "You're as deep as the oceans, piggy. Now let's get out of here, I'll lead." He turned away, stepping forward slowly, hoping the other boy could not notice his limp or his gritted teeth as he summoned the energy to move despite the darkness that waited on the bounds of his wavering mind.

"Are you sure, Ranma?" Ryoga voice followed him. "Is your vision up to it?"

"It's going to have to be," Ranma answered, his foot brushed against the other youth's discarded belt, the weapon lying limp and coiled in the scorched remnants of grass. His spine cracked as he bent to grab the sash, and he barely swallowed his pained grunt. Tossing it to its owner, he watched over his shoulder as it slapped against Ryoga's face before he caught it with a scrabble of arms. "If you lead, we'll never find our packs amongst all the arctic snow and massing penguins."

"Aw… shit," the other boy groaned, "the packs."

"What wrong, P-chan? Don't think you can make it?"

"I was just worried about you, Ranma. You do look a little worse for wear. Can't expect a girl to carry a heavy bag when injured, can I?"

Ranma scowled at the low shot to his manhood. He'd had enough of that from the blond. "That almost sounds like a challenge, Piggy. Let's see how you do."

"You're on, and stop calling me Piggy."

Ranma heard the pace of Ryoga's steps increase and willed his body to move faster; the two teenagers hobbling like old men towards their belongings across a ruined patch of scarred earth beneath a seamless canopy of clouds.


A dog barked into the night, arousing the replies of his brethren until a chorus of canine voices rose amidst the other sounds of the slumbering urban beast that was Tokyo. The sounding of a distant truck horn was sliced by the shrill cry of a car speeding down a highway on the horizon, and the shuttling of the train winding along nearby tracks sent vibrations running through the steel roof beneath Konatsu's finely manicured hands.

Clinging to the steel roof of the warehouse, he slid his legs wider apart, skittering across the metal roof on his hands and the balls of his feet like a spider. He took care not to let his long, feminine fingers scratch or rap against the thin steel surface, determined to move silently, without ruining the delicate layer of varnish he had applied to his nails.

Good girls must be silent and beautiful, he told himself, peeling his mask away to renew the red, waxy sheen that coated his lips. Good girls are deadly and sexy and bad girls are punished. I must not fail Miss Ukyo. He slipped the tube of lipstick back into a slip pouch hidden within the dark, brown fabric of his shinobi shozoku, feeling the comforting impression of the steel weaponry hidden within.

It was his skill at concealing weaponry that had brought him to this rooftop, blending into pools of shadow as he waited for his victim. No…victim is a nasty word, not cute at all. His mark, as he preferred that term, would come before the first rays of sunlight broke over the black band of the horizon.

The man had seemed nice enough, as all the customers of the Ucchan were, returning Konatsu's practised smile as he was led to the counter. He had taken his time over the menu, greeting Miss Ukyo with a kind hello as she welcomed him from behind the grill, and complimenting the waitress's kimono as Konatsu brought him a soda with small steps, each precisely measured for speed without the unseemly appearance of rushing. He seemed to relax after he ordered, complimenting the scents of the chef's succulent foods, as he loosened the knot of his tie beneath his stiff-collared shirt.

It was as the man's hand rose to adjust his spectacles that Konatsu noticed it, a knife slipped away inside the silky lining of his suit jacket. Despite the layers of fabric he could tell that this was no penknife, but a balisong, a deadly length of bladed and possibly serrated steel hidden within metal wings that would fly apart with a flip of the owner's wrist, which was clearly well-practised in such a motion. Such a man now sat across a slim grill from his boss, the one ray of light that existed in his bleak, pitiful existence.

Konatsu had felt his eyes narrow, a surge of red haze fading behind into perfect clarity as his thoughts tapered into a blade of cold, steel. He had reached for one of the wooden pins that held his shining waves of back hair in its elegant tail, a pin soaked in his own concocted venom, its tip sharpened to a point that could pierce solid walls like a bullet. A simple snap of his arms, like the release of a coiled spring would have done it, erased the man who dared to bring a weapon into the restaurant of his mistress.

The image of blood splattering across the walls and sizzling on Miss Ukyo's hot griddle stayed his hand. For a bare second he had lost poise, and he felt ashamed. Good girls are discrete and elegant, a voice admonished him. Pretty girls never make a mess. He had replaced his smile instantly, telling himself that there were too many people near, and knowing that the stranger knew this also brought him comfort and returned his womanly patience.

Instead he had watched and listened, serving customers, cleaning tables but never letting his ears stray from the light conversation the man shared with his mistress, the comments of the other patrons and the sounds of chopsticks on plates becoming a muffled buzz. His eyes tracked every movement of the customer's lips as they spoke without sound, as if muted by some divine button, recording their orders and delivering their food without hearing a single word except from the mysterious man at the counter and Miss Ukyo.

His innocent and beautiful employer was always too trusting; too happy to speak to this stranger as she idly flipped her okonomiyaki, the conversation centring on her favourite subject, other than Mister Ranma: food.

The stranger had kept on smiling as he spun his lies, obviously experienced in the art of deceit. He claimed to have a friend who was also a chef with his own restaurant, conveniently in another ward of Tokyo. He reported that this friend often claimed about having trouble with various suppliers near his restaurant, and after many compliments about the food, probably the only element of truth in his tale, he began inquiring about her suppliers. Miss Ukyo had of course been all too willing to help, displaying both the kind-heartedness and the naivety that had found a place in Konatsu's heart, as well as her brilliant business acumen as she had pointed out the chance of a discount for sending the companies new customers.

The man's smile only grew as he pulled a wire-bound notepad from a jacket pocket and began scribbling as Miss Ukyo listed her suppliers and added a few tips about how to bargain with them, which Konatsu noticed the stranger did not note down. He had also caught how the man's eyes had lingered on one company in particular, the company whose storehouse Konatsu had sought out as soon as he had washed the final dish of the night and his mistress had ascended the stairs to her room, her cheery goodnight ringing in his ears.

The stranger had lingered over his food, though the conversation had faded after he had received the information he had obviously sought, trying not to appear rushed, but Konatsu could almost feel the tension in him. When the man removed his wallet to pay he had felt his suspicions rise higher like smog over his heart.

When he was still a child his father had played a game with him, using the tenchi ryaku no maki, the scrolls of heaven and earth that formed the foundation of ninjitsu. He would be shown a small section of the writings; filled with the tiny, precise script of past jonin, and their illustrations of weaponry, taijutsu and tactics, but only for an instant. The challenge was to memorise all he could of the scroll's contents in the heartbeat that it was revealed. A pang struck his chest as he remembered the proud smile of his father when he performed well, accompanied by a reward of a sweet cake or pretty new hair ribbon. However, the feeling turned into a bitter weight inside him as he recalled practising with his step-sisters, the rewards gone, with new, often severe, punishments for failure, the exercise no longer a game but a cruel trick.

A man's wallet speaks silently, telling tales of its owner's life and his habits. When the man had opened his, Konatsu had learnt all he needed to know and had pouted to cover an instinctive and improper grimace.

The man had carried no form of identification, not even a driver's license. No bank cards despite their essential role in modern life — at least a legal modern life — and only a single tatty membership card for a club named 'Exxxotic', which Konatsu guessed was the type of establishment no respectable person, such as the man appeared to be, would visit publicly. However, beneath the ringed imprint and distinct foil wrapping of a condom packet, the wallet was fat with bills of high denomination. This was added together in Konatsu's mind as if the stranger was an equation with a prominent unknown that required calculating. The answer was that the man had no bank account and was used to being paid in large wads of cash for various, and doubtfully ethical, services by people who had the money and lack of scruples to hire him.

People such as Kodachi Kuno.

The sound of a car pulling to a stop, gravel grinding beneath its tires, was accompanied by a harsh glare that lit along the edges of the roof, and forcing Konatsu to slink backward and press himself flat against the metal surface, shying his eyes from the brightness lest his night vision vanish. The light vanished and he crawled back to the lip of the rooftop, eyes narrowing over his mask as he watched his mark step from his small Toyota Landcruiser, the green paint appearing black in the gloom.

The man shut the door behind him with a flip of his hand, grinding out the light of his cigarette on a coin before carefully pocketing the stub, blowing a thick stream of smoke from his nostrils. He was dressed differently; the sharp blue suit, shining leather shoes and loose tie now gone. Instead, he wore tight black jeans over laced army boots, combined with a short dark coat, leather gloves, and a black woollen hat covering his brown hair. Konatsu assumed the jet-coloured garments had been chosen on the assumption that it would help him blend into the night, and almost snickered at the thought when weighed against the expert knowledge that black created a hard shadow against the softer darkness of twilight.

The man slipped over to the warehouse with light, tip-toed steps that Konatsu would have found comedic if not for the threat to his mistress. Instead, he moved stealthily across the roof, poising himself over the figure's head. He watched curiously as the man crouched, seeing a glint of steel before he heard a faint but definite snip.

He's cut the alarm system on the door, Konatsu guessed, almost admiring the skill and planning taken before he realised that this was his chance.

Bracing his hands on the edge of the rood and gripping the overhand, he pushed with the balls of his feet, lifting his body into a handstand before flipping feet first towards the ground, pirouetting in mid-air to land facing the hireling's back.

"Excuse me, sir?" he said, reminding himself to be polite.

The man started with a gasp and spun quickly. The balisong came out in a flash of metal, wings spreading with a twist of his hand to revealing four inches of razor-edged steel. He pivoted and thrust in a flurry of practised motion, stabbing for Konatsu's heart in the time it took for the vital organ to beat.

To Konatsu it was like slow-motion. He stepped to the side and twisted his torso from the path of the blade the way water parts around a rock, and seized the wrist in a lazy but secure grip. He pinched the man's arm with his other hand, fingers pressing into the uncovered nerves besides the bicep and making the limb buckle and turn limp as the man grimaced. With no strength in the arm to resist him, it was a simple matter for Konatsu to twist the knife-bearing hand back towards its owner and guide the blade gently into his thigh.

As the man cried out, Konatsu moved swiftly, one hand clamping over the crook's mouth to stifle his yell as the other seized his shoulder and spun him around so that the blood that spurted from the wound as the knife slid deep did not splatter over Konatsu's clothes. After all, blood was nearly impossible to get out of this type of wool.

The man's muffled shout died, and Konatsu removed his hand, watching as his mark stared with wide-eyed fascination at his own weapon protruding from the flesh of his leg.

"I am ever so sorry about that, sir." Konatsu said softly, meaning every word despite that cold feeling within that tried to slip a dry note into the words. "I'm just afraid that I cannot let you or Miss Kuno damage Miss Ukyo's business. Please accept my apologies."

His hand shot out in a blur, almost lost in the dark night, and he struck two knuckles into the base of the man's skull, watching him crumble like a castle of dry sand. He then lowered himself onto his haunches to pat his hands across the criminal's unconscious form, taking care to avoid the wound and the creeping puddle of blood.

His touch bumped against something solid and cylindrical over the man's chest and he reached within the dark jacket to extract the item. Konatsu held it up to the faint orange light that came from a distant streetlight long enough to confirm that it was a clear, plastic vial filled with a transparent, purplish liquid. Unscrewing the lid he wafted the tube beneath his nose, filling his nostrils with a faint, bitter scent. A moment later he felt bile rise to his throat, which he swallowed with a burning sensation and a silent admonishment that it was not ladylike to retch.

Quickly replacing the vial's lid, he sprung back to the rooftop and from there to another, Konatsu slipped the tube into the folds of his dark gi and looked down at the prone man sprawled across the ground. The knife still jutted from the flesh of his thigh and in the darkness the spreading blood looked like tar. Konatsu frowned before changing the expression to a pout, pursing his reddened lips as he regarded the curve of the man's neck and the bulge of his trachea. His thumb found the ring of his kunai; one moment, draw and slash in a single movement, and the saboteur would be dead and his mistress safe.

Miss Ukyo must be protected, a strangely deep voice growled from inside him, and he began to slide the blade free.

He stopped himself and pushed the kunai back into its hidden sheath, and counted to himself in French — such a pretty language — and forced his mind to thoughts of flower arrangements and cross-stitch patterns. An extra leaf or an unnecessary stitch could ruin the beauty of the whole work. Taking this man's life, no matter how much he deserved it, was just making a bigger mess. It would leave too many questions and could bring trouble to Miss Ukyo's door.

Better to call the police, he decided, leaping to the rooftop once again and bounding in search of a telephone box. The nice people at the police would be sure to lock up the man and that would keep Miss Ukyo safe; after all, he was trespassing, left plenty of evidence of tampering with the warehouse security system, and the only fingerprints Konatsu had left upon the balisong were the crook's own. Everything would be neatly wrapped up like a pretty bow on a cute present. There was only one loose end… Kodachi.

Konatsu landed hard on another roof, the tiles cracking beneath his feet. He barely noticed; his mind focussed on the evil gymnast, the woman who dared to threaten what was his. He calmed himself again, but the fury receded sullenly, like a child sent to her room. Kodachi would get what was coming to her, just like any loose end would be cut from a lovely bow.

After all, good girls take care of any messes.


The chill air of the morning cut through Shigurei's coat as he stepped from Mizuki's car. Closing the door behind him and shivering, he put his case on the floor and yanked his collar up until it scratched against his jaw, then tugged at the fabric, struggling to cover a finger's breadth more of his body. He smoothed out the ripple that had curved through the thick, white paint that spelt his name in block kanji upon his breast, directly beneath the larger print of the English word: FORENSICS.

He grimaced as he eased his hands into a fresh pair of gloves, the white latex like ice on his skin in the cold, and glanced around, making a first scan of his latest mystery and watching for those tiny, insignificant details that often seemed to scream at him, as if trying to convince him of their own importance.

It was a faceless warehouse, small and short, nestled amongst nondescript buildings, a scene with a thousand twins scattered all over Tokyo; a hybrid runt of red brick and brown steel panels, the front wall cut by a large cargo door, dented and scratched by the years. Shigurei tilted his head back as he sniffed the air, nostrils clogging with the pungent scent of fish from the many fish mongers crowding the nearby docks. He snorted and his eyes came to rest on a sign, the white plastic streaked with dark grime but still easily readable.

HIRAKAWA MEAT SUPPLIES.

"A slaughter at the slaughter house," a gruff voice said on an escaping coil of cigarette smoke. "Someone has a sense of humour."

"I'm not laughing," Shigurei muttered as he watched Detective Izumi stroll from a milling group of uniformed officers and gawping bystanders.

"You never laugh, Shigurei," Mizuki said with a red-lipped smirk, her chin propped in her hands, elbows resting on the metallic blue roof of her sedan.

"Good morning, Doctor Egawa," Izumi said, greeting her with a small nod, before he turned back to Shigurei

"The two of you got here fast," the cop remarked.

Shigurei scowled. "That's because the good doctor here," he indicated Mizuki with a jerk of his head, "seems to think that speed limits are something that only happens to other people."

"You sound like an old man, Shigurei," Mizuki huffed. "It was an emergency."

"The man's dead, Mizuki; he's quite stable."

The coroner poked out her pink tongue at him before tucking a twist of blonde hair over her ear and marching over to where two paramedics stood, their bright green overalls clearly visible against the drab surroundings.

Shigurei felt his mouth tighten at the small smile that had appeared amidst Izumi's dark and wiry stubble. He resisted the urge to lift his gloved fist to his lips as he cleared his throat loudly.

Izumi's smirk fell away. "Latest victim is Touji Sawada, night guard. The owner identified the body," Izumi flicked his thumb toward the ambulance where a plump man with small glasses and frizzy, thinning hair, sat on the lip of the van beneath a thick, yellow blanket. He clutched a crumbled paper bag in one hand, the skin crusted with a yellow-brown smudge that Shigurei instantly recognised as vomit.

"That bad?"

Izumi blinked, "The body?" The policeman's eyes followed Shigurei's to the fat man who was sweating despite the air's cold bite. "No, this one got off easy compared to the last two. A lot of blood, though. The owner just blacked out when he took a look. Some people are just like that."

Shigurei latched on to one of Izumi's words. "Easy?" he murmured, brows furrowing.

Izumi, hand stuffed in his pockets, gave a shrug of his shoulders, "Looks like it. But it's not my place to say," he said, stepping around Shigurei and taking a leisurely step towards the warehouse.

"Cigarette," Shigurei said firmly.

The cop's shoulders slumped as he sighed, twin streams of pale smoke flowing from his nostrils and wafting away into the salty air. "You're worse than my wife," he griped, but dutifully extinguished the red glow and, once sure the flame had died, he dropped the chewed butt into one of the large pockets of his overcoat.

Shigurei followed behind the other man, making his way up the slight incline to the scene, early morning frost crunching beneath his shoes. He frowned as he glared at the ground. The rough pavement and the ice would have sealed away any marks the killer had made. No hair, no fabric, no luck. He sighed. The interesting ones never were easy.

Two uniformed cops shuffled and fidgeted, sickly twists to their lips as they watched Mizuki squatting on her haunches at the side of the corpse. As Shigurei approached, he stepped around Izumi to get a clear view. Blood soaked the ground, spreading in a pool of dark crimson around the dead man. Fragments of ice had crusted at the puddle's rim, looking like ruby shards. The young coroner shifted back, pulling a thin metal spike out of the body's pallid abdomen. One of the officers made a small choking sound, and he heard Izumi's snort of laughter as he lowered himself next to the blonde woman.

"Ninety-one point two degrees," she declared, reading from a digital display at the probe's pommel.

"That would usually mean he's been dead for about six hours," Shigurei muttered as he pressed a gloved finger into the layer of blood and felt the cold sting of the pavement through the latex. "However, with the low temperature, I would put it closer to four."

He barely noticed Mizuki's concurring nod as he turned back to the corpse. Touji Sawada had been a slender man; the dark shirt and creased trousers of his uniform hung about his lifeless limbs except where his blood had plastered the fabric to his body. His short black hair was woven with streaks of grey, tufts bristling erratically from his head where blood and water had frozen around the strands. His jaw hung open revealing jagged yellow teeth, and his brown eyes gazed through the glassy film of death at the looming cops. The only visible wound was a wide, circular hole in his neck, which had pierced the flesh besides the bulge of the man's larynx.

"It probably took him forty-five minutes to an hour to bleed out, so my guess is that our killer was here around three a.m."

"Nope," Mizuki said, shaking her head. "Not this time, Shigurei, I'm afraid that Mr Sawada did not bleed to death."

Shigurei blinked, "He's got a large hole in his carotid artery, and look at all this blood."

"Don't miss anything do you, Shigurei?" she replied dryly. "Try again."

"Suffocation?" Izumi guess gruffly as he leant forward to glance at the corpse.

Mizuki shook her head. "Nope. It is actually possible to breath with a hole in your trachea. Emergency medical staffs use it when the airway is blocked." She ran a finger along the circumference of the wounds, the torn skin curved outward as if pulled

"Like you said, the killer stabbed through the carotid artery, the main supply of blood to the brain. If he had not already died instantly, he would have bled to death."

"Instantly?" Izumi muttered.

Mizuki tapped the blood-smeared hole and trailed her finger up the path of the blood vessel. "Like I said, the carotid supplies the brain with blood. Such a vital supply must be kept regulated, and the pressure kept within the optimal limits. This spot, the carotid sinus, contains nodes that act like internal barometers to keep the blood pressure at the right level by sending signals to the brain, which then responds by altering the pressure. If one of the nodes receives a violent shock, such as a hard blow, the signals is misinterpreted producing a violent reflex, which caused blood pressure to drop. The heart goes into cardiac arrest and the brain shuts down."

"And if it is stuck with enough force to puncture the tissue?" Shigurei could guess the answer, but let the question hang in the cold air.

Mizuki nodded with a tight frown. "Brain haemorrhaging leading to severe neural shock. This guy was dead before he hit the floor."

Izumi made a rough noise in his throat and rubbed a hand across his stubbled face. "So our killer managed to hit this node that hard?"

"More than managed," Mizuki growled, jaw tightening into a scowl. "The wound marks the carotid sinus within a couple of millimetres. Whoever did this has some knowledge of anatomy."

"Or some severe training," Shigurei surmised as he pushed himself to his feet, never taking his eyes from the empty. "Something's wrong," he whispered to himself, though his words drew the attention of the others.

"The other victims were badly beaten, with broken bones and misplaced joints and contusions. This guy seems to have no other wounds—" He paused, waiting for Mizuki's nod of confirmation before continuing. "—and seems to have enjoyed a relatively instant and pain-free death."

"Tell that to him," Izumi grunted forcefully. Shigurei blinked at the snappish reaction.

"The point is why this guy got so lucky." He rubbed at his chin as he frowned at his surroundings. He could almost feel the gears turn in his mind, working smoothly like an oiled, efficient machine. It was an addictive sensation. "There is no sign of a struggle, no other body, and the body was found by accident rather than from a phone call, all of which are signs of the killer being interrupted. However, judging by the time and the scene, I would say that was unlikely."

"I doubt our guy came all this way to just kill someone," Izumi said, jerking at thumb towards the warehouse. "Take a look inside."

Shigurei nodded and made his way beyond the corpse. He stepped to the side as the building's walls blocked his view where they met at a sharp corner. The drain pipe spluttered as he passed, sounding like a harsh death cough as a small spat of water dribbled into the gutter, gaining a twist of pink as it slid through a sticky splash of blood.

His hand loosened when he came to the door, and he tensed it back into a fist with a yank as he felt the handle of his case slide down his fingers. The contents shook as they came to a sudden halt.

"That's quite something, isn't it?" Izumi's gruff voice came from behind him.

"Indeed."

The door was made of thick steel, covered in a hasty coating of white paint that was cracked and flaking about the shallow dent in its centre. The deformed surface was embossed with a red mark, printed in a thick fluid at the origin of a powerful smash. The door gave a muted, metallic creak as it shuddered; its weight settling precariously on the single hinge that kept it bolted to the frame. The other two joints were twisted and curled into the doorway as if frail and frightened. The brickwork on the opposite edge bore a bite mark, fragments of brick clinging to the ruined half of the metal bolt that had once held this portal locked.

"What do you make of that red mark," Izumi asked. "It looks like a footprint."

"It is a footprint, and made in blood, probably our victim's."

Shigurei squatted and flipped open the latch on his kit box, spreading open the compartments with their neatly wrapped bottles and cotton swabs.

"That means our killer came here after he killed Mister Sawada. Though he was kind enough to give us his shoe size," he said, smoothing a sheet of paper over the mark, he pulled off the print.

"A size eight, to be exact," he remarked as he held a set square to his blood-rendered copy and frowned. "There is no defined pattern to the mark, so I would guess he was wearing something without treads, like slippers of some sort."

"Shigurei, have you been sniffing those chemicals of yours?" the cop asked slowly as he stared down at the investigator with hooded eyes. "It almost sounds like you are suggesting that someone kicked open a solid steel door."

"That's what the evidence tells me," Shigurei shrugged.

"Okay, I'm no scientist," Izumi said, folding his arms across his chest as rolled his eyes in a slow circle. "However, I am sure that no one can kick open a door that big without being an anime character. Also, that footprint," scepticism larded the word, "is horizontal. He would have had to have kicked the door sideways, which no normal person does."

"I agree," Shigurei said absently, tucking his print into an envelope, and retrieving a vial of fine black powder and a small brush capped with soft shaggy bristles that hung erratically from its end. "An ordinary person would not do that, but a martial artist…" he let the statement hang as he stepped through the wrecked doorway.

The interior of the warehouse had been the stage of some catastrophe, as if a typhoon had ripped through the abattoir, its fury bound and contained by the thin steel walls, which bore creases and dents from the numerous impacts of fleshy chunks of pig meat.

Ignoring Izumi's shrill, drawn-out whistle as the cop ran his eyes over the scene, Shigurei crouched and flipped the latches of his case, the sound echoing flatly in the cold room. Unfolding the black, wire-mounted shelves that held neatly-packed swabs and bottles, he pulled his camera from where it lay nestled at bottom of the metal box. The bulky black cylinder of the lens was next, clicking into its mounting snugly before he clipped on the lamp, and the machine came to life with a shrill whine.

The flash glinted off the rows of meat hooks that hung from the high ceiling. Only three carcasses still swayed from them, others seeming to have been flung across the abattoir, obviously torn forcefully from the hooks, leaving only ribbons of tangled flesh on the steel curves. The remains that lay strewn across the floor were mangled and broken as if set upon by a pack of wild dogs, the ribs cracked and snapped through pallid skin above gory rends where the fattened meat had been torn from the pigs.

The shutter clacked and whirred as Shigurei captured the image of a stack of crates where a butchered remnant of a large steer seemed to have been driven through the wooden boxes, leaving fragments of splintered kindling smeared with brown juices.

The wheel on the lens clicked as he adjusted the focus, zooming close to where one of the pigs was still suspended from the sharp spike of metal. Its flank had been pierced multiple times, rows of four circular wounds puncturing the flesh. Their suspect's signature.

"Circular wound impressions," Shigurei called to the detective, nodding his head towards the mangled mound of meat. "Definitely the same guy and his strange weapon." He walked around the suspended pig, snapping two more photographs of the sight that was making his brain tingle. Brows knit; he let the camera sway upon the strap he had wound across the back of his neck, narrowing his eyes at the confounding stab marks. "Though why would anybody want to mangle a load of pork dinners?"

"Perhaps he's one of those extreme vegetarian nuts," Izumi ventured with a shrug that set the tails of his long coat rippling about his calves.

"Is that your subtle way of saying 'animal-rights activists', detective?" Shigurei tossed back dryly, quirking one eyebrow towards the cop.

Izumi shrugged again," It's as good a guess as any. Nothing in this case makes sense so far." He shot Shigurei a wry look from the corner of his eye. "But you like it that way, don't you, Toshiyama?"

Shigurei did not reply, but allowed himself a small smile as he walked over to the large steel entrance to the freezer, the loud droning of the cooling coils deafening in the silent, flesh-covered room.

The door had been wrenched open, with four dark holes and one twisted screw to attest to where the lock had been fixed to the walls. The cold metal bit into his hands through the thin latex barriers as he leant closer. On the curved handle were three smudges imprinted in burgundy-brown grease, the chilled surface perfectly capturing the pattern of loops and arcs of their killer's fingers.

"Are you going to frown at that door all morning, Shigurei, or should we take a look inside?"

Shigurei felt his lips purse, and made them relax with a sigh. Izumi was right, he could pick apart the details later, and he needed a broader picture. It was like those jig-saw puzzles that he had had pored over as a child, so much easier to solve when you had seen the picture on the box.

Hooking his fingers over the rubber-sealed lips of the door, he pulled it towards him, widening the gap as the hinges creaked, the sound running through the metal until it rang like a metallic death-cry.

Stepping over the doorframe, Shigurei entered the freezer, the cold clawing at him through his coat. His footsteps rang against walls coated with a shine of frosted mist, and his breath became a thin vapour that wafted across his face with every exhalation. The cold chamber seemed to have been untouched despite the obvious signs of forced entry. Three rows of beaten metal racks with wooden shelving stretched ten paces to the far wall, loaded with hardened carcasses that were tightly wrapped in a frosted layer of white plastic sheeting, all still neatly packed, sealed and undisturbed.

However, Shigurei had built his life from finding the glitch in order, for finding the one element that should not be there. This time it was the pattern in the frost that covered two hanging sides of frozen beef. Deep misshapen notches and dents had been pounded into red meat that was hard like marble in the icy room.

Shigurei snapped open the locks on his case, the sound bouncing harshly of the walls of the small room. He withdrew a black cylinder. Shaped like a pen but two fingers wide, it tapered towards the rounded butt where a thick length of insulated wire ran to a dark box adorned with buttons and dials. Clipping the pack to his belt, he ground his thumb over a toothed wheel labelled 'frequency' before he clamped a thin disc of plastic, the colour of aged amber, at the tip. With the push of a button, violet light spouted from the torch's end, landing in a distorted ellipse of brightness that Shigurei slid across the tiles of metal grilling that lined the floor. Slowly he angled the light upward, illuminating the frozen slab of beef.

"What the hell is that?" Izumi said with a grimace.

"Post-mortem bruising," Shigurei replied absently, scowling at the familiar pattern of dark, purple ripples and splotches that appeared beneath the touch of the violet light. "Someone beat this beef with their bare hands," he pronounced, reading the markings. Images of morbid files and autopsy photographs flickered in his mind, burned into his conscience from the years of dealing with domestic abuse and the darker sides of society.

"Why the hell would someone do that?" he heard the policeman ask, but he was already in motion, dropping to one knee before his case. Seizing a handful of pink rods and a ruler, he dived back into the warehouse. Stepping up to one of the hanging carcasses, the cold flesh firm beneath his latex-covered palm as he lay his hand on its flank, holding it still as he slid a pink rod into a curve of four wounds, the plastic penetrating deep into the flesh.

"Shigurei, there were no guns in any of the killings? Why are you testing for trajectory?"

"Call it a hunch," Shigurei replied moving closer to the swaying slab of pork, tilting his head, almost pressing his cheek against the chilled meat as he gauged the angles of the wound paths; a shiver running down his spine that had nothing to do with the cold warehouse. "Tell me, Izumi. You look like an action fan. Have you ever seen the Rocky films?"

From the corner of his eye, Shigurei saw the cop start, probably alarmed by the seemingly irrelevant question.

"Rocky?" the older man spluttered before he frowned, brows drawn together. "Is that the one about the American boxer? I've seen a couple, but I wasn't a fan. Too much American flag-waving for me."

Shigurei nodded absently, laying his steel ruler against the carcass as he measured the wound trails. "I thought the same, but a friend from my dorm at University was a fan and we went to see the fourth film when it was released."

"The one with the Russian?"

"So you are familiar with the films. Good. Do you remember how Mr. Rocky trained for the bout with the big Russian?"

Izumi's face screwed in though, his eyes drifting upwards as he thought. "Well he ran in the snow whilst they played some cheesy rock song and he punched a…" the words faded as the detective's jaw dropped, his eyes widening.

"He punched a slab of beef is what I think you were going to say."

"Wait a minute, Toshiyama. You said something earlier about a martial artist. You think this is some sort of strange training regime?"

"Wounds from the previous victims were similar to injuries inflicted in various joint locking techniques documented as part of many martial arts. Both victims were known to be martial artists of some repute, one a former pancrase champion and bouncer. The other, I found out, held a high ranking belt in Kyokushinkai karate and was part of a yakuza family. All signs indicate that our killer is a martial artist of some ability, and very powerful."

"This guy takes his training seriously, after all. What better place to practise tearing up flesh than at a meat supplier?" He nodded towards the mutilated pig meat. "Angle of the wounds, their depth and distance apart… is consistent with the hand and finger span of an average adult male. Seems like we don't have a murder weapon to find after all."

"You're saying this guy can stab people with just his fingers?"

"To put it bluntly."

Izumi took a long breath, inhaling air in a loud but slow rush. The cop held it in, his lips narrowing to a twisted, narrow line as his hand wandered over his body, patting and squeezing at the fabric of his long coat. After a moment he sighed, the emptying his lungs through his nostrils with a rush.

"Screw it, I've got to have smoke," he muttered, pulling a small red and white box from his pocket, fingers already toying with the flap. "I'll leave you to it, Shigurei, but make it quick if you can. We have somewhere to go."

"Oh?" Shigurei said, lowering the camera from his face, pausing in the act of capturing the image of the wounds and their pink indicators. "Where's that?"

"The best place in Tokyo for crazy martial arts. Nerima."


Steam sputtered in faint wisps that trailed behind the spinning bowl, like the pulsing tail of vapour streaming behind an old locomotive. The floral pattern that ran around the bowl's rim was blurred to a wavering line as it rotated with a hissing sound, bobbing and swaying as it rode the air currents of the small restaurant like a swallow. It swooped gently into Shampoo's outstretched hand as if beckoned, and she pushed herself into a graceful spin, pirouetting like a dancer as she arrested the momentum of the dish's flight until it came to a halt in her palm. She fought to keep her cheerful smile on her lips as a dribble of scalding ramen broth sloshed over the side and onto her bare fingers, and she quickly deposited the bowl onto the table before the young customer who gawped at the noodles with his jaw hanging open.

"You enjoy meal, yes," she said in the bright voice that she had used more and more since meeting her husband. The boy nodded slowly, swallowing hard.

She walked from the table swiftly, but without rushing, adding a practised sway of her hips to her graceful gait for the benefit of the predominantly male customers and her tips jar. Sliding her fingers along the edge of the cloth she kept tucked into the laced strap of her apron, she wiped away the traces of spilt broth despite the protest of her reddened finger tips as well as the other patches of raw skin on her hands.

When her Great-Grandmother had agreed to her request to train her, Shampoo had expected be working in the restaurant less. Being a small café, the Nekohanten was a casual place. Most of custom came from the lunching businessmen through the week and the relaxing teenagers at the weekend. They took no bookings; their evenings were filled by the demands of their healthy delivery business. The afternoons were all but silent, the doors open to the few groups of walk-ins, students with the munchies, schoolkids returning from afternoon clubs, and single men who were comforted by being served by a beautiful foreign waitress, curves accentuated by form-fitting silk, before returning to their lonely apartments.

They were the customers Shampoo would be happy to lose. It had always seemed such a waste to be trapped within these walls, amid the booths and tables, serving a handful of people who ate very little, tipped badly, and told their orders to her breasts rather than her face. She should have been spending those precious hours training or learning, living the life of an Amazon warrior, constantly striving for strength and knowledge. She should be practising her forms and honing the skills that she could feel slipping away with every platter of wontons that she served these coddled outsiders. She could work on her Japanese, ridding herself of the sniggers she saw people try to hide behind their hands when she missed a pronoun or mangled verb tenses, not that she was actually concerned about those opinions. Only her airen's mattered.

However, when she suggested that to her great-grandmother, the old woman cackled at her, the same dry laugh that she knew made her beloved wince at the promise of mischief it held. "Why would we want to stop serving the customers when son-in-law proved it such an effective training method?"

So here she was in the middle of a winter's afternoon, catching flying bowls of steaming noodle soup as the old matriarch launched them across the restaurant with a precise flick of her cane. With only eight customers, the game was intensified as Cologne flung the ramen in swooping paths, the bowls' spin curling the dish away from Shampoo forcing her to spring off of vacant chairs and flip over empty tables. The scalding broth was a powerful deterrent to sloppy form, forcing her to try and perform with perfect coordination of vision and movement. The scattered applause and generous tips from the clientele watching the floorshow was also another unforeseen, and appreciated, spur to pushing herself to improve, although she had quickly learned to wear her silken trousers rather than a short skirt whilst performing such acrobatics. Wiping the puddles of blood from perverted noses was not the work of an Amazon.

However, her heart stung with memories of how her husband had done so much better, collecting steaming food whilst exchanging blurred fists with her great-grandmother; of how fast he progressed from carrying five bowls with his body to twirling twelve on long shoots of bamboo, even though the tiniest splash of the scalding soup had been as molten lava to him.

The boy, and even his female guise, seemed to Shampoo to be hidden at the end of the rainbow, and no matter how many mountains she struggled to climb, he was always over the next hill.

And not just in martial arts, she thought with a restrained sigh.

"Excuse me, miss?"

Shampoo turned towards the voice, her frown at the interruption to her musings and at the wavering tone of the speaker was quickly replaced by the practised smile.

"How Shampoo help?" she said before she pouted, brows lowering as she looked at the customer.

The teenager's skin had grown pale and pallid, a greenish tinge colouring the corners of his lips. A greasy coat of sweat covered his brow, the thick beads clinging to his forehead like dew. His breath sawed in and out of his body, wheezing as he inhaled in irregular pants amongst low croaks. Eyes that a few minutes earlier had possessed a starry glint as they traced the swell of her breasts were now glazed and erratic, their lids widening and squinting as he struggled to focus on her.

"You no look good," Shampoo said, tilting her head to appraise the boy's health. "Shampoo call ambulance, okay?"

The boy nodded weakly. "Thank you. May I have some...?" He words faltered as he emitted a wet belch. "Some wat…" His eyes crossed and his body convulsed as if a ripple surged from his feet to his head before his mouth burst open to release a stream of green-brown liquid onto the table, sloshing into the remains of his ramen and clouding the soup.

A woman in the restaurant screamed and Shampoo stepped back as the spreading vomit began to drip over the edge of the table, barely shifting her rose-coloured slippers before the were stained. She clamped a hand over her mouth, holding her cloth over her nostrils as the foul, acidic stink clogged her nostrils making her own stomach jerk and hot bile rise in her throat.

Steel yourself, girl, she snapped at herself. Are you an Amazon or a weak-willed outsider?

"Great-grandmother, call ambulance," she yelled towards the counter that led to the kitchen. She flicked another quick glance at the boy, who was attempting to wipe a dribble of vomit from his lips before a twitch sent another deluge of rank liquid flowing from his mouth. Her lips twisted as she watched a growing stain spread on the tiled floor.

"Mousse, get mop, we need clean up."

The woman screamed again, her voice leaping an octave and ringing hard against the walls of the small room. Shampoo winced and turned towards the sound, seeing the small woman bolt from her chair, knocking it to the floor with a clatter. One hand was pressed to her cheek and the other to her stomach as her wail ended with a sour twist of her lips, her eyes wide behind large spectacles that had slid down the hooked bridge of her nose.

The large man she had been dining with was hunched over their table, back and shoulders heaving as a wet gurgle sent the contents of his belly splashing onto the wooden surface. His podgy face was red and sweaty from the force of his convulsions, and his own glasses fell from his right ear to lie unheeded beside stomach fluids and half-chewed noodles.

The other five customers fled the building, chairs and tables scraping loudly against the tiles as they rushed to the door. Their faces were all pale, hands clamped over their lips or pressed to their belly as they rushed. One man had just made it to the doorway before he too fell to his knee and released a wave of vomit onto the street outside bringing a loud groan of disgust from several passers-by.

The other four did not get much further.

"Dear ancestors," Mousse muttered in Mandarin, voice muffled behind the sleeve he held to his face. A large steel bucket hung from a thin wire handle in his fist, the wooden shaft of a mop in his other hand.

"Suck up, stupid Mousse," Shampoo snapped. "No time for weak male constit… maleness."

With his robe over his lower face and his eyes obscured by the thick lenses of his spectacles, Shampoo could not tell if the look that the long-haired boy directed at her was one of anger, or hurt. She felt an unsettling sensation creep into her gut that she quashed immediately.

"Mousse, clean up," she said eyeing the brown stain that seemed to have finally ceased expanding across the floor. "I need to talk to Great-grandmother, find out what happen."

"That's what I will be finding out," a nasal voice pronounced, turning Shampoo's attention towards the door.

A short man stood grandiosely in the portal, his fists were planted on his hips and his stance was wide, chin held high despite the greasy spot that marred his blue shirt he wore beneath his brown, tweed jacket. Slim spectacles were balanced on a thin but squashed nose set within his rat-like face, small beady black eyes darting furtively beneath his lenses and crooked teeth protruding from his pinched frown.

"Who are you?" Mousse asked in a flat voice, leaning his hands on the staff of his broom as he glared at the newcomer.

"Are you the owner of this restaurant?"

"No."

"Then you don't concern me," the man said stiffly, turning his nose up at the robed boy, whose jaw hardened, and whose fists tightening on the mop handle.

"Excuse me, miss," somehow the sneer the man added to that word made it an insult. Shampoo wrung her cloth in her hand, twisting it in a white-knuckled grip as a substitute for this fool's neck. "Who is the proprietor of this restaurant?"

"That would be me, sonny-boy," Cologne said, her words followed by the tap of her cane against the tiles as she hopped to Shampoo's side. "The ambulance is on the way, check on the customers," she whispered from the corner of her lips before facing the small man. "And who are you?"

The man's eyes had narrowed behind his lenses, the action carving lines into his brow and crinkling his nose in a way that enhanced his rodent-like character, glaring at the matriarch's shrunken form like a mouse that had found something new in its cage, something that didn't belong. After a moment he started, as if just realising that the old woman had spoken. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out a folded slip of leather that he flipped out like a cop in all those American movies.

"Sudo," he proclaimed in a voice that seemed to expect a fanfare. "Genkuro Sudo of the Food Sanitation Division, Nerima branch, and I am closing this restaurant."

The cloth fell from Shampoo's hands as her fingers seemed to go numb. A gasp seemed like a cannonshot within the silence that had enveloped the room, and shame pinched at her heart as she realised that it was her that had made the sound.

"Closing," Mousse repeated, his body stiffening as if electrified.

Genkuro shot each of them a withering stare before clearing his throat with aplomb. "As an emergency precaution valid under the food sanitation act, I am empowered by the Ministry of Health and Welfare to close any restaurant suspected of spreading food-borne illnesses."

"And you suspect us, hm?" Cologne surmised. She had never even swayed on her cane at the man's pronouncement, simply watched him with flat eyes the colour of ancient stone.

"It's hard not to," he sneered, rolling his eyes towards the young man at the table.

Like the larger customer who had remained with his whining companion, he had finished vomiting and slouched bonelessly in his chair, head hunched until his chin leant on his chest that pumped with every one of his laboured pants. He stared at the puddle of brown slime spread across the table with a detached gawp that was further enhanced by his glazed eyes and unfocussed pupils.

"First time this happen," Shampoo protested, earning a sigh from her great-grandmother and a dark glower from the health inspector.

"My great-granddaughter is correct. We have been in business for nearly two years now, and we've never had even a single complaint about our food."

Genkuro snorted, "Well something is wrong now. Perhaps some new spices?"

Shampoo watched the man's lips twist as he said the last word, his voice seeping with contempt like foul pus. She could almost hear the hidden qualifier, never verbalised but spoken loudly in his oily tone: foreign, as if Japanese spices were somehow superior.

"Whatever it is," he continued. "We will find it. Until then you are forbidden from preparing, serving or selling food on these premises or anywhere that it may be consumed by the public." He reached into his jacket one again, withdrawing a bundle of pink and white papers folded across the middle which he handed to Cologne.

"You'll find all the relevant information there."

"Really," the matriarch said, a slight bite of dryness lining her voice. "How fortunate that you happened to be carrying such information as you passed by."

The man's eyes widened and he clamped his bottom lips beneath his protruding incisors, gnawing on the pad of flesh. The expression vanished in an instant, replaced with an even darker scowl and a red flush colouring his cheeks as he snarled.

"That's not important," he spat in Cologne's face, before clearing his throat as he adjusting his green striped tie. "The Nekohanten will be subject to a thorough inspection and samples of both your raw ingredients and cooked meals will be tested at a laboratory designated by the Ministry of Health and Welfare for harmful substances of both a chemical and biological nature. Your storage and sanitation procedures will be thoroughly assessed as will those of your principle suppliers. Though I doubt we'll find anything there."

The surety of his voice galled her, she felt herself start to smoulder. "This no fair."

"Life seldom is," the man replied with smirk.

"Shampoo, go and look out for the ambulance," Cologne said sharply.

"But, Great-grandmother, this wrong. I bet he crooked."

"That is a serious accusation, young lady," he said with a quirk of his thin eyebrows, his cadence again making the word 'lady' into a slight. "A person could get into serious trouble by making such an accusation without proof."

Shampoo felt her hand stiffen, her first and second fingers shaping themselves into a dirk of smooth skin and hardened bone. A metallic rasp echoed in the still room, the sound of steel sliding upon steel.

"Enough," Cologne snapped, her thin rasp somehow cracking like the lash of a whip or the sound of thunder tearing the air. "Shampoo, Mousse, both of you, outside. I will speak with Mister Sudo about our situation. I don't need you two making an even larger mess for me to clean up."

Shampoo swallowed a lump she had not known she had been holding in her throat. "Yes, Great-grandmother," she said quietly, stepping behind the Amazon elder as much to avoid the foul little man as the reeking vomit on the floor.

"Fine," Mousse said sullenly, releasing the mop from his right hand and letting it clatter to the floor. He had barely moved a step before Cologne spoke again, her eyes never straying from the sanitation official.

"Mousse, put them away."

Shampoo ran her eyes across the tall youth's form, her eyes fixing on the array of shining blades fanning out of his left sleeve like lethal feathers of sharpened metal. The weapons slid back into his robe as if they were an animal returning to its burrow, and Mousse folded his arms across his chest, both hands hidden within the folds.

Shampoo glanced over his shoulder to see Genkuro watching them with wide eyes, jaw trembling as he breathed. She felt a warm tingle as she heard his audible gulp. However, the feeling soon turned cold and sour as she realised that it was Mousse that the man was afraid of, not her.

Stupid Mousse, she thought, then corrected it to, Stupid rat-man. If we were home, I'd stripe his hide bloody, show him what Amazons think of ignorant, close-minded foreign men.

Her heart turned into lead in her chest and dropped through the pavement beneath her as she stepped into the street. She was not home.

Shampoo ran her eyes over the Nerima high street, the glass of the stores seeming to glare back at her vehemently. Mocking fake smiles grinned from the glossy faces on posters held by cabled frames in the store fronts, baked treats teased her with their delicious scent from doorways, and even mannequins seemed to snub her with their aloof postures. Crowds of awed bystanders had formed to both sides of the café, far enough to feel safe from the powers most knew that she and Mousse possessed, but not so far as to remove the dirty feeling that crept across her skin from their accusing gazes. Her eyes flickered to the horizon where the towering skyscrapers of Tokyo jutted viciously into the overcast sky, clawing at a floating swarm of grey clouds as if envious of their freedom, an envy that Shampoo shared at this moment.

How could a city as full as this seem so empty? To Shampoo it was as if the Nekohanten existed alone on a barren, featureless plain, stretching into infinity, as if there were nothing in the world but a room in a ramen restaurant, an elderly relative distanced by three generations of amassed wisdom towering above her in a position of Amazon pride, and a simpering male who was too close, clinging to her for what she could not give yet unwilling to accept what she could..

There were others within this city once; the Tendo family, for instance. Kasumi with her warm smile and calming aura, an angel on earth; Nabiki with her own smirk and cunning eyes searching for a profit, and Akane. Shampoo could not claim to be fond of the other girl, who seemed to know so little of what truly mattered, but at the same time could give so much, offering help to a girl who had threatened to kill her many times. Even Ukyo, though she could hate the chef for all that they fought over that which they had in common and he that lay between them, still Ukyo treated Shampoo as a person.

To the Tendos, to Ryoga, to Ukyo, she had a name, she had a life. That was more than she received from the other denizens of this town who saw a floozy, or transport for ramen and breasts, or just another foreigner in their precious little country.

When Ranma left, the connection was lost like a cord snapping on a life-preserver, sending her bobbing and drifting on a sea of emptiness. She had no reason to visit the Tendo dojo or ride into Furinkan High. There was nothing to fight Ukyo over, nothing to bring chaos into her life, leaving her with a restaurant far from the hills she had grown up on and a job that made her warrior soul pine for more.

'Home is where the heart is', she mused as she watched the word 'gaijin' form on the judging mouths of the crowding pedestrians. Where are you when your heart leaves?

 

To be continued.


Author's notes: Sorry if this seems a bit of a weird chapter. It was originally planned to be much longer, but since this was already pushing in length and for synchronicity of the plot threads it made more sense to split it into two chapters. On the bright side, it means you get this part faster.

I also know Mouko Rendan is pushing Naruto again, but c'mon, it's a combo with a short range Mouko Takabisha. What did you want me to call it? Suffice to say Ryoga will not be doing anything similar with a Shishi Hokodan.

Thanks go to Rob for all his help, Aondehafka to pre-reading, Larry F for hosting the fic, and all of you for reading and reviewing.

Glossary

Teishou Kineji: 'Singing cloth' An obscure Chinese martial arts technique long thought lost, but which has remerged through Yujiro Hibiki and his son Ryoga. Using strips of stiffened cloth, the user creates blades of air pressure through fast and precise strokes.

Mushin: 'No mind' A Zen term referring to a state of enhanced awareness and mental clarity that is produced in the absence of conscious thoughts, judgements and desires. Often compared with an alcoholic's 'moment of clarity'.

Kage Ken: 'Shadow fist' A kata and fighting style of the Anything-Goes School of martial arts, developed by Genma Saotome from a range of close combat techniques and sensitivity drills found in several martial arts. It emphasises instinctive reaction and defence by predicting an opponent's movements through enhanced tactile awareness.

Heel-hook: A dangerous joint locking technique found in many schools of grappling martial arts. A fighter isolates an opponent's leg using both of his own, and traps the heel in his armpit or crook of his neck, allowing him to crank the heel and cause extreme pain and damage to the ankle and knee joints. (Dedicated to Cap'n Crysallid)

Honou Ha: 'Flame wave' A technique of the flame form of Bagua Zhang, where a large flame is ignited from the fuel on the ground (usually grass) and sent sliding towards the opponent.

Mouko Rendan: 'Fierce tiger combo' A revision of the Mouko Takabisha created by Ranma Saotome by combining a short range but densely-charged ki bolt with a pattern of powerful close range attacks.

Shinobi Shozoku: 'Shinobi costume' The traditional dark gi, bindings and mask worn by practitioners of ninjitsu.

Tenchi Ryaku no Maki: 'The scrolls of heaven and earth' A collection of writings from past ninja masters detailing the essential principles, techniques and practises of ninjitsu and ninpo.

Balisong: 'Broken horn' The Filipino butterfly knife, a small blade concealed within a split cover which pivots back to form a handle when the weapon is used. The name is from one of the native languages of the Philippines, Tagalog.

Book 2, Chapter 7
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