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A Ranma ½ story
by D.B. Sommer

Disclaimer: Ranma ½ and its characters and settings belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Shogakukan, Kitty, and Viz Video.

All comments and criticisms appreciated. You can contact me at sommer@3rdm.net

I stumbled on this forgotten story recently. It was done about two or three years ago back when I first finished Shampoo ½. Touched it up a bit (a lot actually. Nice to know I've come some ways since then) but that was when the idea was formed, so it might be a bit rough.

"Ranma, you have to stop picking on Ryouga," Akane scolded.

Ranma held his hands up defensively as he casually strolled along the top of the fence on their way to school. "I did not pick on him. He's the one that was shooting his mouth off about having a new 'invincible' technique. I had to see how good it was."

"Wasn't blowing up a mountain and beating Saffron enough to prove how good you are?" Akane huffed.

Ranma shook his head at his fiancée's lack of understanding. "But Ryouga was acting like he thought he could really take me. I just had to know for sure."

"You could have gone easier on him."

"I did," Ranma assured her. "He was back up on his feet in five minutes. I still can't believe he thought that 'Soul of Ice' stuff could beat me." Ranma mumbled as they passed by a withered old man who in some vague way reminded Ranma of Happosai. It was probably with the shifty look he had. Worse, it seemed the old man's attention was focused on Ranma intently. He was about to ask what the stranger was looking at when Akane spoke again.

"You sound disappointed."

Ranma returned his attention to the conversation. "Well, it's not like anyone outside of the old lech has been able to give me a run for the money anymore. And even he's a little more cautious around me. Another year or so, and I might even be able to take him in a straight fight instead of having to resort to turning into a girl and wearing a bathing suit to distract him and stuff."

"You have no shame," Akane grumbled.

"If you know another way to beat the freak, let me in on it." Ranma said.

"You just don't get it." Akane held her tongue on how embarrassing it was to have a fiancé who would do anything to win as badly as Ranma did.

Akane was more right than she knew. Ranma was about to ask what she meant when a loud noise from the direction of the school caught both of their attentions. They glanced at one another, than ran quickly in the direction of the school.

In under a minute they passed through the gate and entered the school grounds and saw what the source of the commotion was. A man in his early twenties, unremarkable in appearance, save that he wore an elaborate-looking red gi that had a pair of golden lions embroidered on the front, held the splintered remains of a bokken in his hand. Kunou lay at his feet, obviously knocked senseless by the stranger.

"That'll teach you to threaten me with a giant toothpick, you jerk." The stranger's voice was as unremarkable as his appearance.

Some of the student body, whose eyes were not solely focused upon the beating Kunou had suffered, noticed Akane, and more importantly, Ranma's approach. One of the girls shouted out, "There's Ranma Saotome," and pointed directly at him.

The stranger, who had seemed mildly annoyed by the attention that Kunou had directed to him, now seemed delighted. "At last, I finally get to meet the infamous Ranma Saotome."

The stranger looked the object of his interest over once, and Ranma, sensing what was to come, did the same. "Okay, exactly what is it you think I did to you that set you off?"

The stranger looked quizzically at Ranma. "I beg your pardon?"

"Okay, what did Pop do to you that's made you come looking for me?"

The stranger's confusion doubled. "What does your father have to do with this?"

Ranma looked at him curiously. Maybe things were not what they initially appeared to be. "You mean you're looking around for me and don't have a grudge or something against me or Pop? Maybe you got something against someone I know and want to use me to get at them?"

The Stranger shrugged helplessly. "Unless you're related to or are friends with Kachinko Sukimada, who stood me up for my senior prom, no, I don't have anything against you, any members of family, or anyone you know."

"Never heard of her," Ranma said, feeling somewhat relieved. "So, why are you looking for me?"

Now the man's posture changed from confusion to confidence. "Rumor has it you defeated the self-proclaimed god of the Phoenix people, Saffron."

Ranma caught a worried glance from Akane as the memory of the fight intruded on both of their thoughts. Subconsciously, he moved closer to her. "Yeah, I did."

A cry of delight emerged from the man. "Excellent, I challenge you to a fight."

"Now wait a minute! I thought you said you didn't bear me any grudges?" Ranma shouted.

"I don't."

"Then why do you want to fight me over beating Saffron?"

It took a moment for the man to grasp what Ranma was saying. "Oh, no. You're misunderstanding me. I don't want to challenge in revenge or anything like that. I never met Saffron. I'm challenging you because you defeated him, which shows that you're a martial artist of the highest caliber. I want to test my skills against yours and see who the superior fighter is."

Ranma weighed fighting him versus when classes would start. There was no way he wanted to be late again. Carrying water buckets three times in the same week was a bit much, even for him. "You're probably not going to leave me alone unless I agree to a fight, will you?"

The stranger smiled. "Well, if you get down on your knees and acknowledge I'm your better, I'll accept that. I can understand if you don't want to fight me. I am very powerful, and I wouldn't want to see you hurt."

Akane rolled her eyes at that. She knew what was to come, and after she had decided that morning to try to talk Ranma into not blindly fighting people. It was just her luck. Still, that last bit from the stranger was over the edge. She could understand Ranma's need to accept the challenge after that insult to his pride.

Ranma faced off against the stranger and smirked. "I'm going to have to deal with you quick. I got class in," he looked at the watch Akane had bought for him on his birthday. "Fifteen minutes."

The stranger wasn't the least bit intimidated. "I'll make it quick, then. We fight until someone gives up or is obviously defeated, fair enough?"

Ranma nodded. "That works. What's your name?"

"Takeshi Kunakida. Unlimited Class Style of fighting. I've heard it said you practice the Anything Goes School of Martial Arts?"


"Interesting. I look forward to seeing it, if only briefly."

"You don't know how right you are." And with that, Ranma attacked. Uncertain of exactly how skilled his opponent was (despite obviously dealing with Kunou in a minimum of fuss) Ranma held something back as he used a series of high sweeping blows. All were deflected and avoided with only a minimum of effort on the part of Takeshi. Reevaluating his opponent, Ranma attacked again using faster and more powerful techniques, figuring he would slip three or four blows through and hoped they would be enough to slow down or possibly defeat his opponent. However, once again not a single blow came close to landing.

"And here I thought you wanted to end things fast." Takeshi gave a cocksure grin.

Grimacing briefly at the show of bravado, Ranma planned to unleash a five hit combination that he was sure would knock Takeshi on his rear end. But even before Ranma could throw the first blow, he saw a blur come in under his guard. The next sensation he was aware of was a sledgehammer-like fist that smashed into his jaw and sent him flying through the air. He was too dazed to land on his feet, and instead crashed facefirst into the hard turf.

'Ryouga,' Was all Ranma's scrambled brain could think of before enough of his senses returned to remember who he was fighting. The guy hit harder than Ryouga, though it didn't appear his somewhat slender form could possess that level of raw power. It must have been a lucky shot. Recovering quickly despite the force of the blow, Ranma returned to his feet and prepared for the next attack.

He did not have long to wait. Takeshi came in, a series of blinding quick punches and kicks. Ranma deflected only the first two before a fist struck his gut, doubling him over and setting him up for the follow-up kick to his chest which again sent him crashing several feet away.

"That was stupid. If you're trying to lull me into a false sense of confidence, it won't work," Takeshi said as he cautiously approached again.

Ranma could scarcely believe his ears. 'False sense of confidence?' It had to have been a show of bravado on Takeshi's part, though the comment was delivered with enough seriousness to sound genuine.

The two faced off again. Ranma tried to throw a punch, but Takeshi beat him by snapping a backfist to the face that, while not carrying the power the first one did, hurt enough to negate Ranma's attack. Takeshi was a blur as he ducked under Ranma's kick, then lashed out with a kick of his own while Ranma's was still in mid-air. It connected with the leg Ranma was using to stand on and knocked him off his feet. Even as he was falling Takeshi blurred again as he rose back up to his vertical base using only one leg while the other, the one he had used to strike Ranma, was still in motion. It swung high in a wide arc to build up momentum. The kick ended its downward arc on Ranma's stomach just as he met the ground, knocking every bit of wind out of his lungs. It was more instinct than conscious thought that allowed Ranma to roll away as he was left gasping for air.

"Ranma!" Akane cried out as the rest of the school gaped at what was happening. Not since the moxibustion point had Ranma been manhandled so easily.

"This is ridiculous," Takeshi said disdainfully. "I hate people that waste my time almost as much as I hate liars, punk."

Takeshi moved in again, attacking solely with his right hand. It was to Ranma's credit that he parried the first four blows. However, they merely proved a set up for Takeshi's left as it snaked in again past Ranma's guard and struck him above the heart, sending Ranma backpedaling, his arms flailing as he fought to stay on his feet. A bright pain flared in Ranma's chest as he swore his heart stopped for a moment before starting again.

The disdain in Takeshi's eyes grew. "Admit it, punk. You lied about beating Saffron. You just said it to make yourself sound like hot shit to the ladies."

"I beat him," Ranma snarled. His fist was batted away and Takeshi retaliated with a kick. Ranma could tell from the moment it was thrown that it would not connect. However, as the foot went past, missing Ranma by the centimeters he had predicted, the wind from its wake proved sharp enough to slice through his shirt and draw blood from underneath. A tiny trickle of blood began decorating his shirt, making it a deeper red than before.

"Liar! He'd have fried you with one to two blasts." Takeshi grabbed Ranma's snap punch out of mid-air with his left while simultaneously bringing his right hand up and into Ranma's elbow, nearly breaking the limb and numbing it to the point that his opponent couldn't move it. Ranma backed away, avoiding the follow up attack to that.

"Stop it!" The cry came from Akane, who knew how the fight would turn out long before Ranma did. It wasn't merely a question of Ranma being overpowered. He was being beaten in every aspect of the contest: speed, strength, and skill. It was unbelievable that her fiancé could be manhandled so casually, but it was happening before her eyes. He stood no chance of victory unless a bolt of lighting came down from the heavens and hit Takeshi, and even then she was uncertain if that would have been enough for Ranma to win.

"Stay out of this… Akane," Ranma gasped out, sensation slowly returning to his limb.

"Ranma did beat Saffron!" she shouted, ignoring Ranma's order.

Takeshi snorted in disgust. "Bullshit. This liar would have died in under a minute against Saffron. He'd have been overpowered and unprotected."

"He had the Gekkaja. It's a magical object that protected him from Saffron's fire blasts." Akane refrained from also telling him about the enchantment that had been placed upon her that had allowed her to protect Ranma later in the fight. That he might not believe. Sometimes even she couldn't believe the coincidence of the 'curse' that was intended to kill her also enabled her to be the only one that could protect her fiancé from harm.

That made Takeshi stop short. He closed his eyes, obviously trying to think of something. At last he opened his eyes and said, "I remember hearing about that when I was first told about the Phoenix people. Hell, I could have beaten Saffron with one hand tied behind my back if I had that to protect me. No wonder a wimp like you was able to take him."

Ranma trembled in rage at the accusation. Big talk from a lucky man. And to make matters worse, Ranma saw the look in Akane's eyes when she had pleaded with Takeshi to stop. She thought he was going to lose. She thought he stood no chance of winning. That bothered him almost as much as if he had actually lost. Maybe it was true he had lost some fights before, but that was before Mount Phoenix and his current level of skill. Since then no one had come close, and he certainly wasn't going to end that streak now at the hands of this arrogant jerk.

Again Ranma attacked, using every ounce of speed the kachuu tenshen amagurikan had imbued him with. Takeshi was surprised by the speed of the attack, and two punches sneaked past his guard to land on him. Neither were very effective, but Ranma could tell by the look of surprise on Takeshi's face that he had at last gotten one in over his opponent.

Rather than immediately countering, Takeshi backed a good ten feet away, openly impressed. "No one's touched me in almost three years. I almost forgot what getting hit felt like. Can't say I cared much for it, though."

"If you thought that was bad, wait until you can see what this 'wimp' can do now." Ranma smirked, his confidence restored. Takeshi's illusion of invincibility was shattered. The man wasn't perfect. He could be defeated. And all it would take was the right blow delivered in the right place at the right time. And Ranma knew just which attack to use.

There was still five minutes to make it to class. It was time to end it. A bright ball of blue energy coalesced in Ranma's hands as he shouted out, "Moko Takabisha!" and the bright blast of chi left his hands and headed for its target.

Rather than try to avoid the blast, Takeshi remained where he was, crossing his arms in front of him and shouting out, "Raging Abyssal Vortex!"

Ranma saw the place where Takeshi's arms crossed his chest turn coal-black a split-second before the Moko Takabisha impacted. Instead of the blue energy hitting the man, it seemed to be drawn into the cross the man's arms formed, sucking the chi down like whirlpool would a small dinghy. Ranma stared in surprise at the maneuver, impressed even as his frustration made him grind hit teeth in anger.

As the last of the energy was drawn into the cross Takeshi's arms formed, his arms went from black to orange. "Back at you! Bursting Dam Reflection!" Takeshi let loose a torrent of energy that had been stored up from the first attack and reflected back at the source with the second. The energy poured out orange, showing to all who the man was that controlled it.

The power of Ranma's own Moko Takabisha, as well as even more chi poured into the move from Takeshi, hit Ranma full in the face, hurting him worse than even Ryouga's Perfect Shi Shi Hokoudan did. There was nothing that could compare to the pain he felt, not even from Saffron's inferno, as he was leveled by the blast and fell to the ground, unable to move. Not even a scream escaped him. Only stubborn refusal prevented Ranma from falling into the darkness that was beckoning to him, and even then it was almost not enough.

"That settles that." Takeshi smacked his hands together, as though he had taken care of the matter as an afterthought.

"Not… over… yet!" Ranma gasped out as he tried to get to his feet. No way was he being beaten by this arrogant ass who was rubbing him wrong worse than Kunou ever did.

A hard kick met him in the stomach, sending him skidding across the ground until the base of a statue of the Principal arrested his velocity when he crashed hard into it, breaking off parts of the concrete. All Ranma could manage to do was groan in pain, his body refusing to return to his feet.

"How about now? Is it over now?" Takeshi nearly shouted, anger returning to his voice as he approached Ranma again.

"Stop it! He's beaten!" Akane shouted as she rushed over to Ranma's side.

"Not… yet." Ranma tried standing again. His legs were only starting to obey his commands. It would take a few seconds to recover this time, or so he told himself.

"Yes, you are." Akane pushed him back down. Ranma tried pushing back, but he was too weak to resist.

Other voices joined with Akane's, mostly from other girls. "Only a real loser would pick on someone that helpless. You should be better than that."

"You beat Ranma, and everyone knows it. He's just being stubborn. He's like that."

"I don't think I've seen anyone manhandle Ranma like that, you're tougher than him."

With the attention of the girls being directed his way, as well as everyone acknowledging he had won, Takeshi relaxed and began giving his 'victory speech'. "I am pretty good, not that I don't know how to be modest. I mean, I'm not perfect at everything, but I'm damn good at martial arts. It's just hard to get a good match going anymore. I'm too good for all but the most accomplished of masters, and even then they're only better because they've got thirty years or so on me. It's almost a curse as much as a blessing. I just kind of god mad because I was expecting a decent fight for a change and ended up… this." He said the last disdainfully as he waved a hand towards Ranma. "Still, you ladies are right. I'm better than that sort of thing. It's nice to know so many of you are so compassionate. Hard to find a gal like that these days." His attention became completely focused on the girls surrounding him.

Ranma finally managed to get to his feet, completely humiliated. Now everyone was gathering around the preening Takeshi, who was basking in the attention, especially the girls. He had been forgotten by all but Akane, who hovered over him worriedly. A bitter blade of jealousy stabbed through his gut at how casually he was being disregarded by nearly everyone. It wasn't that he had been rendered helpless, like with the moxibustion point, he was helpless before the fight even started, and it ate away at the core of him like nothing ever had.

"Ranma, just relax," Akane tried to soothe, but it had the opposite effect on Ranma, whose pride was suffering far worse than his body was.

She tried to push him back down, however some measure of strength had returned to him, and he pushed back harder than he had intended, knocking Akane onto her bottom. It wasn't a hard shove, but Akane misinterpreted it as being intentional and gave Ranma a hurt look at the perceived rejection of her assistance.

A part of Ranma realized this and felt he should apologize to her, but the damage to his ego and thoughts of getting even overrode those feelings. Instead his eyes were only for Takeshi and the crowd surrounding him.

Before Ranma could speak, Takeshi spotted him out of the corner of his eye and spoke first. "You know something, kid, you're not bad. You train hard and take your vitamins, and in five years or so you can challenge me again and we'll see if you can't make me break into sweat next time."

What Ranma wanted to do was run over and wipe the smile off Takeshi's face. Instead, accepting a truth he didn't want, for it would only embarrass him further, Ranma turned away and leaped over the wall, barely clearing it, and headed off before Akane or anyone else could follow him.

What had happened? He was on top of the world when he had come to school, and in the span of ten minutes, it had all come crashing down on top of him. He had not simply been beaten; he had been completely humiliated. Takeshi had hit him at will and there had not been a thing Ranma could have done to prevent it. It was as lopsided as when he fought Kunou, except for the first time in his life he was the underdog in the comparison. Even the two blows he had slipped past Takeshi's defenses were a fluke. He hadn't stood a chance from the moment the first punch had been thrown. Never had he been so badly overmatched. Not by anyone. Not Herb, not Ryu Kumon, not even Saffron.

It wasn't fair!

"It looks to me like you got your ass kicked."

Ranma turned to look at the speaker. It was the old man that he had seen on his way to school, standing in the same spot Ranma had seen him before.

"What do you know, old man?" Ranma snapped with far more anger than he had ever used when talking to a complete stranger.

"I know that Takeshi Kunakida is an arrogant, overstuffed, overconfident fool that needs to be taken down several dozen pegs."

The man knew? How? He hadn't been anywhere near where the fight took place. "How did you know I fought him?"

The man lowered his head slightly, his emerald eyes, vibrant for one so old, staring Ranma deep into his. The way the man looked at him, seeming to look past his exterior and right inside him to all the feelings and secrets that lay beneath, unsettled Ranma. "I know many things. I know a way you can beat Takeshi."

Ranma stared at him suspiciously. "You know some technique that can beat his style?"

"Even better. A technique would take time. I know how I can enable you to defeat him today. No need to wait. No need to allow your anger and rage to simmer and boil and make life miserable until you avenge yourself."

A part of Ranma wanted to jump at the opportunity and accept, but he wasn't that stupid. "What's the catch?"

"No catch." The man stated plainly.

"The heck there isn't. No one comes out of nowhere and offers to help me beat some guy without wanting something from me in return."

The old man made a snort Ranma had never heard come from another being before. It was an animalistic snarl that somehow held a mix of disgust and contempt at the same time. Ranma could almost feel dark emotions wash over him in a wave. "You. You think it's always about you. Well, I hate to break it to you, but not this time. It's about Takeshi. It's all about him. He's the one I want. I want to see him humiliated and broken, his pride shattered and his ego devastated. I want to see him run away like a child who's been beaten up by the local bully and knows he can never get revenge. I want to see him in the same shape you're in right now."

The last statement hit Ranma almost as badly as Takeshi's blows had. Almost. "So you're only helping me to get at Takeshi?"


"How do I know I should trust you?"

"You shouldn't. I'm not trustworthy."

The frankness surprised Ranma. "Then why would—"

"Because as I said, you're not my target. I have no interest in you beyond what you can do to Takeshi for me, things I cannot myself do, for reasons I choose not to explain. Suffice to say, Takeshi has managed to anger me in a way that no one has for more years than even your father has been alive. He has enraged me so much that I am willing to go to extraordinary lengths to get back at him in anyway possible. Therefore, I am willing to bestow upon you, free of my usual fee, the ability to avenge yourself upon him."

There was something about the way the man said 'fee' that set Ranma's nerves on edge. "Your usual fee?"

"Why get into specifics?" the man asked.

"Because I don't even know your name, and I seem to have bad luck with strange people that enter my life," Ranma countered.

The old man seemed to weigh upon what Ranma said. "Names have power, boy. Let us just say that I am the one that can see into your soul with a single glance. I can see all that you desire, all that would make your life complete and satisfy those urges which lurk in the heart of every man. I have the ability to grant unto you those things that would make you complete. I am all you ever need, the only one you can turn to, the only one that would answer your prayers, no matter how light or dark they are."

"I'm not calling you all that."

"Fine. You may refer to me as Sifler."

Ranma looked more closely at the old man. The stranger might have appeared Japanese, but the name certainly wasn't. More suspicious than ever, Ranma asked, "And how would you go about making me tough enough to take on Takeshi?"

The old man gave a dramatic sigh. "If you must know, I would boost your abilities far beyond what they are now. You would be faster, more resilient, and more powerful than ever before. It would be permanent too, so you would have no fear of them giving out on you at a critical juncture. And I as said, I would waive my usual fee for imbuing you with these abilities. What do you have to lose? All I ask of you is that you defeat Takeshi immediately with your newfound enhancement."

"And what do I have to do to get all these enhanced abilities? Drink a magic potion?"

Sifler scoffed. "Hardly anything so cliché. All you need to do is shake my hand and the pact will be made."

Ranma considered the offered hand. It sounded good on the surface. A free ticket, and hadn't he earned one after all the crap he had to put up with over the last few months? For a change, someone else was ticking people off instead of him. Shouldn't Takeshi reap the whirlwind the way Ranma always had to? It was easy to believe that egotistical jerk had done something to piss the old man off so, hadn't he just made Ranma more angry than perhaps he had ever been since getting his curse? It would just be a case of Takeshi getting his. All he had to do was shake on it.

But, it was all so strange. Too strange. Ranma knew nothing about this man, and hadn't he gotten into trouble before an assuming something would work out in his favor when it didn't? It was too much. Ranma turned away. "Nah. I'll get the old ghoul to teach me a new kick-butt technique. Thanks anyway." He began to walk off in the direction of the Nekohantan.

"It won't work."

Ranma almost continued walking, but Sifler's voice held a taunting edge to it rather than the frustration Ranma would have expected. Curious, he turned around. "What do you mean?"

"Khu Lon does not have any techniques that she could teach you that would enable you to give Takeshi more than a ten minute fight before you fell."

"How do you know that?"

Sifler laughed, a dead sounding thing that rose the hackles on the back of Ranma's neck. "I can see bits and pieces of the future, boy, possible outcomes, if you like. I know Takeshi, and I know you. He's like you, in many ways. In too many ways, for you to ever hope to defeat him."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Again the old man turned serious. "That he's like you: arrogant to the extreme, believing that the world revolves around him, desperate to prove himself the best in the world of martial arts. His—"

"I don't have to take this." Ranma turned to go again.

Sifler continued. "His school is as adaptive as yours. He's able to learn techniques with the an even more inhuman speed than you possess. He has a hunger for more knowledge that has led him into conflicts with many martial artists, and the ability to come out on top in the end due to his own unbreakable resolve. He possesses a basically good spirit and a somewhat egocentric form of honor. Unfortunately for you, he's also a few years older than you and already better in martial arts. Think of what you would be like eight years form now. The edge he possesses over you cannot be overcome. Not by any ancient Amazon techniques, nor those of your own school, including other more dangerous techniques that Happosai has developed that he would never give to you so long as he possessed free will. Barring Takeshi converting to pacifism, you will never be able to defeat him. My way is the only path that has a chance of success."

Ranma heard the words and considered what Sifler was saying. Could he really see into the future, or was it all a set up for him to let this strange, and terribly disturbing old man, do something to him?

Ranma shook his head. "No way. Find another sucker. I'm out of here." He turned to go again.

"Interesting. I didn't think you had the strength of character to accept being second best for the rest of your life. I applaud your resolve."

The words sounded sincere, but Ranma knew what meaning was really behind them. All he could focus on was those two words, 'second best.' His mind went back to the events that had unfolded this morning.

Takeshi, smirking at him in anticipation for a challenge, then anger that Ranma was so weak.

Everyone watching him, believing him to be helpless, no different from Kunou.

Akane begging his opponent to show him mercy.

Never again.

Spinning on his heel, Ranma turned around, held out his hand, and said, "Do it."

Sifler firmly grabbed the offered hand and pumped it once. The next moment seemed to stretch into eternity as Ranma found himself placed in a higher state of agony than was humanly possible to experience. It was as different from the pain he had suffered from a broken rib as that injury was from a mosquito's bite. It was enough to make him wish he was dead, and if the pain had not immobilized him, he might have considered ripping out his own throat with his hands.

"Oh, did I forget to mention the enhancement process would hurt?" And this time Sifler did not attempt to hide the contempt in his voice. "You're lucky I need you sane for this."

Ranma felt the pain slide away, the memory of it torn from his mind just as suddenly as it came. Within moments, he couldn't remember what exactly it was that he had felt. All that was left was a vague sense of relief.

"It's complete." Sifler told him.

Regaining his feet, Ranma took an assessment of his physical condition. "I feel the same."

"That will pass as you move and your body metabolizes the change. If you hurry to the school as fast as you can, you will be in peak condition when you get there."

"Everyone will be at class."

Sifler shook his head. "Someone pulled the fire alarm before classes actually started. Everyone is still outside, including Takeshi, who's hitting on that Sayuri girl your fiancée is friends with. He has a taste for younger Japanese girls."

"How do you know that's going on? You've been here the entire time?"

"Does it really matter?" Sifler countered.

Ranma supposed it didn't. He shrugged as his response.

"Fine. Now why don't you run along now and show that arrogant ass what you can do?"

As Sifler finished his suggestion, Ranma felt a sudden overwhelming compulsion to do exactly what the old man said. Not questioning it, and being a man of his word in any case, he followed the compulsion and raced towards the school at top speed.

As Ranma ran, he felt something happen to his body. With each leap he took, he felt more alive and powerful than ever. All that Sifler had said was true. With every leap and bound, more energy course through his system. He could have beaten Saffron without the Gekkaja if he had felt like this. The old man had certainly lived up to his end of the bargain. Ranma felt invincible.

His last effortless leap covered twenty meters and cleared the brown stone wall surrounding the school. He changed his landing point in mid-trajectory as he spotted his target standing away from the majority of students milling about, still chatting with Sayuri. It was just as Sifler had said. Ranma briefly took note of Akane worriedly looking in the direction he had originally departed. Seeing her brought a smile to his face. Just wait until she saw the new him in action. She would never have to plead for someone not
to beat him up again.

"Hey, Takeshi! Time for round two!" Ranma gave Takeshi credit. The man fell into a defensive posture the instant he heard the challenge, not that it would do him any good. Another side effect of the boost made itself known as the fight started. Time itself seemed to slow down, though Ranma instinctively understood it was only his perception of time that had changed.

Ranma was rewarded with Takeshi's startled look a split second before his feet impacted with his target's stomach. The startled look was replaced with that of pain as Takeshi found himself knocked flying backward across the schoolyard and into the wall surrounding it, smashing a man-sized hole in the process.

Satisfied the fight would now be far enough away from the spectators, Ranma allowed Takeshi to regain his wind and his bearings. There was no way he would have anyone accusing him of winning because of a cheap shot.

The surprised expression Takeshi wore amused Ranma almost as much as his next words. "Saotome? What happened to you?"

"I got better real fast." Satisfied his opponent was ready for the massacre to follow, Ranma truly went on the offensive since the first time they had met. The battle went much like before, only with the roles reversed as Takeshi found his attacks easily thwarted and his defenses completely insufficient to ward off Ranma's attacks.

Ranma, for his part, did not unleash everything he had at first. He was still learning the limits of his abilities, and Takeshi was as good a measuring stick as any. Also there was the fact Takeshi was using some technique to make himself appear twice as tall as before. But it would make no difference in the end. Ranma knew he would be victorious.

As the fight progressed, Ranma's advantage grew. At first there was some caution, but within the first couple of minutes, it became obvious Ranma was as far superior to Takeshi as he was to Kunou before the day started. To add insult to injury, he even employed some of the exact same attacks Takeshi had used against him earlier, Takeshi having as much success avoiding them as Ranma had. The ego and pride which had been so horribly damaged healed as quickly as Ranma's body did to the few blows he allowed Takeshi to land. Once satisfied he had picked on his foe enough, Ranma decided to end things. He leaped back to get some room to employ his final technique.

Sensing what Ranma was about to do, Takeshi summed what remaining strength he had and crossed his arms.

"Supreme Moko Takabisha!" Ranma roared as he unleashed a blast that was ten times the size of the original.

"Raging Abyssal Vortex!" Takeshi bore the full force of the attack once again. At first, his arms seemed to soak up the chi, even as impressive as the amount was. However, just as Ranma's confidence started to waver, the vortex that sucked down the energy seemed to slow. A moment later, some of the blue of the Supreme Moko Takabisha leaked out the back, highlighting Takeshi's form. An instant later the vortex collapsed, allowing the full force of the blast through to strike Takeshi's form. The excess energy flowed past him, leveling the lower part of one of the school walls. Both stone and flesh collapsed at the same time to the ground, the only difference being in the amount of dust each kicked up when landing.

"All right!" Ranma shouted as he leaped a full ten meters straight up in the air before gently floating to the ground as light as a feather through some ability even he wasn't aware of. Victory, and an easy one at that, was his. He would have felt guilty about it if Takeshi had not been such an arrogant jerk and deserved the humbling experience.

Trademark smirk in place, Ranma turned to the awestruck crowd, Akane at the front of them. There was only silence as everyone stared in mute astonishment at the tableau before them. Ranma said, "Now you see who the real martial artist is, don't ya?"

The solitary sound of clapping coming from behind Ranma caught his attention. He turned to see the old man, Sifler, present. He was standing close to Takeshi, who was slowly, painfully, regaining his feet. Ranma allowed himself to be impressed by the martial artist's fortitude. It took a lot to recover so quickly from a beating that thorough.

"You! Now it all makes sense!" Takeshi gasped.

A smile more cruel than any Ranma had ever seen spread across Sifler's mouth. "Yes, it does, doesn't it?"

Ranma watched Takeshi ball his fist up, as though he were about to attack the old man. Just as quickly it appeared, the fist vanished, though Takeshi remained as tense as a coiled spring. "What game are you playing at this time?"

"The same game I always play: the damnation game. And now I have the advantage, you arrogant, pompous fool. I told you you would pay for trying to make me look the part of the fool. Now our positions are reversed, and I am the only one that can give you want you want. The very meaning you gave to your meaningless life has been taken from you. You are no longer the best. If things remain as they are now, you can never be the best, as would have been your previous fate. Finally you have encountered one who is not merely better than you, but will always remain so since he is so much like you, driven by the same desire to be the best. Saotome has the edge, now and perhaps forever depending on what you are willing to sacrifice for your art."

"And what price did you extract from him to give him the advantage?" Takeshi asked.

"Why, nothing at all. I gave him his new abilities free of charge." And Sifler laughed, a cold, cruel thing that was thousand times more disturbing than Kodachi's own laugh. It was a sound that would haunt every person that heard it to the end of their days.

"Damn you!" Takeshi raged.

"No. You tried and failed. Now it's my turn."

Ranma sensed a surge of chi through the young man, a level that was close to Ranma's own power levels, as amazing as it seemed. But the surge faded as quickly as it came. Still, Takeshi appeared to be ready to lunge for Sifler's throat in a heartbeat, and Ranma didn't think he would try to stop him if it should happen.

There was a taunting edge to Sifler's voice as he said, "There is a way you can regain the mantle of the best there ever will be in your lifetime. It's easy. All you have to do is give me what I want."

Takeshi pointed an accusing at Ranma. "You mean you'll make me like him?"

"Not exactly. Since you would be giving me something in exchange, you would not suffer from the same side effects he did."

That caught Ranma's attention. Side effects? What side effects? He felt fine. He used his new abilities to sense the condition of his body: it was in perfect health. "What side effects?"

"Shut up, you irrelevant sack of flesh!" Sifler shot back.

"I am not irrelevant!"

But Sifler had already returned his attention to Takeshi. The old man's voice changed, somehow carrying both the sweetest of honey and most rancid of carrion. "Think about it. All your life, since as far back as you can remember, you have wanted to be the best. It is all your life has been about. You have forsaken family, friends, love, all for the quest to realize your potential and be the greatest of them all. Unlike so many others, your tremendous dreams do not exceed your grasp. Yours will be the name others cheer and hail as champion. You will be the hero that everyone will aspire to be and others will envy as they discover they can never be as great as you. But now it will only be that way if you accept my offer, otherwise you will never know greatness again. You will always be the one that trails behind Saotome until the end of days unless you give me what I want."

Ranma looked at Sifler in confusion. "Hey, wait a minute. You said you'd make it so I was tougher than him. Where do you get off making him the same offer?"

"This matter no longer concerns you!" The shout Ranma like a sledgehammer, and he fell to his knees for a moment.

Sifler returned his attention to Takeshi. He held out his hand. "What I ask for will do you no good in this life. It is a useless, overrated, ethereal thing that dreamers and fools place false emphasis upon. All that you should be concerned about are real things, like being the best again. All you should be concerned about is your greatness. Go ahead. Take my hand. You'll be happy. I can see what your heart desires, and this is it."

Slowly, inexorably, Takeshi's hand inched nearer to Sifler's. With every centimeter that disappeared, the old man's smile grew wider, impossibly so. Takeshi's fingers were about to brush against Sifler's palm when he looked deep into Ranma's eyes. For just an instant, Ranma's mind seemed to brush against Takeshi's, and he felt the decision that was made.

The young man's hand was withdrawn. "No."

"Don't be a fool," Sifler softly intoned, the sensation of a threat hanging in the air. "This is the culmination of your entire life. If you turn away from the path of being the best now, everything you've done up to this point will be rendered meaningless! You have no choice but to accept, or admit your life has been a lie, one that you created yourself."

Backing away, Takeshi said, "I think I can live with that."

The facial muscles of the old man began to twitch uncontrollably. To the onlookers, it almost appeared as though there were actually small objects running back and forth under the skin rather than the simple motion of tendons and ligaments involuntarily reacting to the man's emotional state. "Don't you turn away from me! I've bided my time, waiting for this moment for perfect revenge. And now that it's upon us, you have to accept. You can't reject my offer. It goes against everything you are. You can't!"

"Watch me."

Takeshi continued walking backwards, away from the old man. Sifler seemed unable to follow, as he remained where he was, trying to assert control over his temper. "Reconsider your actions. There will be no peace in your life ever again if you walk away from me. You'll never be happy being second best."

Takeshi made no motion to arrest his backward progress. He cast a deep, sorrowful look to Ranma. "I realize now I'd never be happy being the best either. The price is too high."

Sensing the comment directed at him as much as Takeshi, Ranma scoffed. "Ah, you're just wussing out."

To Ranma's ultimate surprise, Takeshi headed straight for him, then fell to his knees. "You're right. I'm not prepared to make the sacrifices for the art you are. I humbly beg your forgiveness for not understanding that. You are the greatest martial artist I have ever seen." Takeshi's bowed his head to the ground and left it there.

The show of humility made Ranma uneasy, especially from an opponent that had, minutes before, been so conceited towards him. "Yeah, okay. Sure, I accept already. Would you get up? This is kind of embarrassing."

Takeshi did so, backing away from Ranma in a show of respect. As he moved backward, Akane took his place, the only one of the students that dared to approach him. There was a look of horror on her face as she stared at her fiancé. "Ranma, what have you done?"

Her reaction irritated Ranma. What the heck was that supposed to mean? He looked upward and into her eyes, "I just accepted this offer from the old guy to help me out, no strings attached. Hey, wait a minute. Why are you taller too?"

It was only with Akane standing right next to him that he understood that it was not that Takeshi had somehow increased his height for the battle, but that Ranma had become impossibly smaller. It was only as he carefully examined the world around him that he understood that the rush of power that had filled him had blinded him to the fact that the world's dimensions had somehow changed. Not just all the people, but everything was now larger than him, save his clothes, which fit him just as snugly as before.

Ranma turned to Sifler -whose attention was still completely riveted upon Takeshi- and snarled out, "What did you do to me?"

Sifler gave a dismissive wave. "I gave you what you wanted: the ability to defeat Takeshi. I might not have charged you anything for it, but I never said there would be no drawbacks."

Ranma looked at his hands. They appeared old and wrinkly. "What's happened to me, Akane? Why am I so short?" Even his voice sounded different to him, now that he thought about it.

The questions struck Akane to the core of her being. She was barely able to find her voice. It was hard to believe it really was Ranma before her, save for those pleading eyes of his. They reminded her of how he looked when he first discovered what the Cat's Tongue pressure point did to him. She would never confuse that look of confusion, and pain with another. "You… you look older and smaller. Sort of like Happosai, but not that old."

"Old?" Ranma looked at himself on shock. It couldn't be, yet the truth was before his eyes. He had been tricked. He had wanted to beat Takeshi, but not like this. Not at that cost. It was all Sifler's fault. He was the one that had tricked Ranma. He knew what would happen, but had said nothing so that he could use him against Takeshi. Sifler was the one that had lied to him, and the old man, or whatever he really was, would pay.

Ranma ran forward and intended to use his newfound abilities to start beating on Sifler until he took them away. The instant his hand fell on Sifler's shoulder, a pain shot through Ranma and he found himself on his knees, his body jerking in agony.

"I have lived up to my end of the bargain! By the rights of the Way, you cannot bring harm to me in any way, shape, or form," Sifler hissed.

"Change him back!" Akane shouted as she lunged at Sifler. However, her fist went through the old man as though he did not exist. The lack of tangibility of her target threw her off-balance, and she fell clean through him. For just a moment, she thought her very soul had been turned to ice as despair became all that she knew and could feel. But just as quickly as it held her in its frigid grasp, its hold loosened and the sensation passed, taking with it most of her hope. Her body was wracked by uncontrollable shivering, and she wondered if she would ever be warm again.

Sifler gave her a disdainful glare. "I have had no dealings with you, Akane Tendou. I am beyond your ability to harm. But you are welcome to try again, if you so desire. I will not try to stop you."

Akane remained where she was, trembling. Nothing could make her willingly touch that infinite pit of despair again. Nothing.

"Akane!" Ranma crawled closer to her as his own pain began to fade away.

Sifler sneered at them. "You lowly worms snivel and whine over such trivial matters. You got what you wanted, boy. I compacted your form so that it could use its energy more efficiently, as well as increasing your physical attributes. It's similar to what your master Happosai and the Elder Cologne have done to themselves over the years so that they remain fit. Who cares if you lose half of your lifespan in the bargain? What's fifty years of life and a foot in height if it means being the best martial artist in the world, and that is exactly what you are? Oh, maybe not at the moment. You'll still have a few years to learn enough to beat anyone, but so long as you stay alive, you will eventually become the mightiest martial artist on the planet. So cease your whining and embrace what you have always dreamed of achieving."

For just a moment, there was an immense feeling of satisfaction in Ranma as he sensed the truth to Sifler's words. Then his eyes fell on Akane, and the sorrow that she held there. In an instant what satisfaction he felt was gone, and Ranma knew it would never return. And almost as if Sifler sensed the joy die, so did his amusement grow, though the pall of Takeshi's rejection still gave everything darkness to his mien.

Ranma gave Akane a pleading look. "I'll find a way to change back."

"There is no way to undo my magic, and in the name of the Ultimate Darkness, that is the whole truth. Oh, you can spend the rest of your limited existence in a fruitless search, I would find it amusing, but you won't find a cure, since there isn't one to be found." Sifler's mood seemed to lighten, which made the miasma of desolation surrounding everyone grow. Even Ranma, who had never truly given up before, could sense the truth behind his words, and despair began to consume him as well.

Akane looked at Ranma in indecision. Then the moment of doubt, passed as she knew what she had to do. She smiled at him, then moved confidently towards Sifler.

Ranma understood what she intended and lunged forward. "No!"

It was too late. Akane came within arm's reach and held out her hand. "I offer you what you wanted from Takeshi if you'll restore Ranma to his normal form."

Takeshi moved to intercept her as well. "Don't be stupid, girl! There are things worse than death!"

Neither would be able to stop her in time, both sensed Sifler's interference in that. But much to everyone's surprise, the old man merely stared at Akane's offered hand. He laughed, and it was the most vile thing he had issued forth yet, for it was devoid of the one thing that had been -though in infinitesimal quantities- in the others: it lacked hope.

"What fools you mortals make. You place false value on your own worth, Akane Tendou. A hell of your own making is worth ten in the pits of perdition in the eternal beyond. I reject your useless gesture, and laugh as you are forced to accept your inadequacy. I have given a gift freely, and will not take it back. I might not have accomplished my goals on this day, but none can say that I am the one who lost."

He bowed before all present, then turned and began to walk away in the direction from whence he came. None could follow him; everyone knew it would do no good. Nothing could prevent thing called Sifler from leaving when it wanted to.

It was just as he was almost out of sight that the words drifted back, floating on the air, sounding as though they were being spoken from a man that stood next to them rather than a being nearly a quarter mile away. All could hear the words, though all knew they were for the ears of one man alone.

"You willingly, if unknowingly, exchanged one passion for another, and so must live with the die you have cast. From now until the end of your days, you will never be second best ever again."


Author's notes: Probably should have gone over it one more time, but I was eager to post this since I'll be at Otakon this weekend and wanted to get this out before then. I know the idea and theme have been used before. That was where the 'Soul of Ice' reference comes from. It's a fic by Matthew Lewis (much better than this), but I can't blame him for this since I believe it came to me before I read it. There is something else I have in mind I CAN blame Matt for since he was the one that issued the challenge, but it might be for the best that that fic not ever come to light. But in the case of this piece, the blame rests entirely upon my shoulders. This one felt a little off, though it might be because the ending waxes a little too melodramatic, even for my tastes. Anyway, hope you enjoyed it, even if it was another downer fic. I seem to be doing quite a few of these lately.

D.B. Sommer

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