C&A Productions Presents A Work of GRIT Fanfiction Decisions By Chris McNeil and DamienRoc He stopped walking a few tens of miles north of Jusenkyou. Oddly not tired from his trek during the day, and unable to lie down and sleep for the next, he stripped to his waist and began practising. As he flowed through the warmups, he noted a distinct increase in his speed and strength from normal. Moves that were difficult before he pulled off with relative ease, and, as he pushed himself, the formerly impossible seemed within reach. It scared him, but his curiosity pressed him onward. He -had- to know of what he was capable. He looked slightly different, now. His skin and hair had a slight metallic undertone, making him seem somewhat alien in a certain light, but he doubted he would be mistaken for anything other than human when viewed by a stranger. Far more disturbing than his physical changes was the nagging feeling that he was missing something; that there were other changes of which he was not aware. It almost felt like he was being watched at all times. His endurance was well beyond what it had been at before the change, which was well beyond what most people could even dream of. Now, he wondered if he could ever tire. What sort of damage could he take, now? As the workout drew on, curiosity gave way to self-examination of another kind. Invariably, as when he had hiked, his thoughts came around to the same subject. Uki. What was it that he had felt? He hadn't known Ukyou Kuonji long in his first visit to Nerima, and he had hardly seen her at all this time. Was he interpreting his feelings of friendship all wrong? And what about U-chan? He'd been around her more, since he had returned, so maybe he knew her better. Four years was a long time, and he'd changed. Hell, Ukyou had obviously changed, with Blade around. Then there was Ukkyo. He'd barely even talked to her...bitch, but she was kind of, he didn't know, intriguing? He shook his head. He was getting sappy in my old age. All twenty- three years of it. Three of Ukyou, that he knew of, and he was pining for all of them. And all of them seemed to be attached anyway... "Hail to thee, good traveller. May I ask what brings thee to these mountains?" Jolted out of his thoughts, Stackpole swung around violently, half rising into a defensive stance. Barely two metres away stood a man. Or what seemed like a man...a human being by appearance, though that was always an uncertain prospect these days. The man stood tall, six feet or possibly more. He was dressed in samurai robes, similar to those of Tatewaki Kunou, save that these were pure white. His long, pale blue hair fell down his back in a loose ponytail, pulled away from his hard blue eyes and finely chiselled features. His expression was...not precisely arrogant, but held a certain haughtiness in it, as if this man were constantly weighing the world against his own merits and finding it lacking. At his side was a katana in a finely worked scabbard; his hand rested on the hilt of the sword, but seemed not so much threatening as a casual method of calling attention to the blade. Stackpole was not a fine judge of chi power; in fact, he was no judge at all. Although he didn't really understand why, the ability to sense chi seemed lost to him; even the sight of Blade those months back, in the height of his immense power, had produced not a glimmer. But in this man, Stackpole sensed a...resonance, an almost palpable aura of power. Yet this power was not chi...although he had never sensed it, he somehow intuitively knew that the barely-hidden might in this man was not chi, but something else. "I say again, man, what brings you to these mountains? Know that if thy intentions be ill, thou shouldst leave and straightaway return from whence thou came, for it shall go hard upon thee if I am forced to lift my hand to compel thee to depart." He didn't really think much of all this archaic dialect, but the meaning was clear enough. "My name is Stackpole," he said with a shrug. "I'm not here to cause any trouble; I was just...journeying, and this happened to be where my journey took me." The man nodded, seeming to commit an ounce more respect to his expression. "To clear the thoughts and mind...a worthy aim. My name is Rarion, traveller, and as thine journeys have taken thee through this domain, it is mine duty and honour to offer thee rest and sustenance this night." "Well...yeah, sure," said Stackpole after a moment's hesitation. He wasn't in any hurry. Besides, he had to admit the thought of a home-cooked meal was tempting...assuming this guy was a halfways decent cook. Suddenly, a thought occurred to him. "Wait a minute, Rarion. This is the backwoods of China's interior, and you don't know me. How is it that you came out and spoke Japanese? It couldn't be my looks..." Rarion's eyes glittered with amusement. "Nay, not thy looks, which are indeed no clue at all as to thine origin, save perhaps to indicate thou hast had reason to visit yon accursed pools, but rather thine own speech made the language in which to converse obvious." "My speech...?" repeated Stackpole, confused. "But I wasn't saying anything..." "Tis true, no words did emanate from thy lips, but in thy mind, thy conversation was most clearly shouted indeed." "My mind...you're a psychic?" The samurai smiled faintly. "Thou art correct, but fear not for thine privacy. Whilst I could sense some semblance of thine thoughts due to proximity and their intensity - some agonizing over a woman, I wouldst surmise, though her name I know not - my mental talents in truth lie elsewhere, and all but thine most obvious and passionate turns of mind are proof against even my most determined scry." "Oh... " he replied, not sure whether he liked even this limited ability. "Alright, I guess...so, where to?" Rarion turned, and pointed towards a nearby mountain. "Some way to the northwest...it is not an overlong journey, but if we are to arrive before nightfall we shall require more efficious means of transport than walking." As he spoke, his feet left the earth, and he rose smoothly until he was hovered nearly a metre off the ground. Stackpole felt a strange note resound through the resonance around Rarion as he did so; as the samurai looked back, however, there was no sign of strain upon his face. "I, as you can see, have access to such a means. Hast thou? If not, it is of no moment, for I can lift thee as easily as this and carry thee across all of Asia, if needs be." Stackpole glanced almost ruefully down, to where he could feel the surging of barely contained force within his...boots? Feet? No matter. Not for right now, anyway. "That won't be necessary, Rarion. I think I can convey myself." ******** Apparently, Rarion WAS a good cook. The meal was excellent; some sort of savoury stew, with fresh-baked bread and goat's milk. Somehow, he'd been expecting something more...unusual, at least traditional Japanese or Chinese, but it seemed that in this area, at least, Rarion's tastes turned to the practical. "So," he queried idly after draining the third bowl, "does anyone else live here? This seems kind of a big place for just you..." That was an understatement. Although the cottage, snugly nestled in a valley between two hills, seemed fairly small, a quick glance inside revealed that something odd was definitely going on. Although Rarion had not offered a tour, Stackpole had eyes, and he d seen more rooms on the way to this dining hall - which was in and of itself much too large - than was strictly necessary or even possible to fit into the structure he had seen from the outside. He'd even caught a whiff of chlorine once... did that mean a pool, of all things? Since Rarion didn't seem to know magic - which was Stackpole's best guess for an explanation - that meant there had to be someone else about. "Nay, I live alone here, though I do but tend this place in preparation for the return of my master." "Your master?" repeated Stackpole carefully. It'd have to be some master to make this guy serve under him. Probably an immensely powerful wizard/martial artist... "Who is your master?" Rarion spoke with quiet pride. "Mine master, whom I do love and respect as no other upon this earth, is none other than the great sage Ginseng, whom you have no doubt heard of." Stackpole certainly had. When he finished choking, he looked up at the seemingly-puzzled Rarion and gasped, "You mean...the same Ginseng that Blade's a student of? THAT Ginseng!?" Rarion's expression darkened. Ignoring the question, he asked, in slow, even tones, "And what dost THOU knowest of Blade?" There was a bang as the door swung open, and a highly annoyed voice rang out, "He knowest nothing important about me, you twit. And if you are thinking of soliciting some other poor bastard in your crusade to wipe me from the face of the earth, forget it, because it's not worth the bother." ******** Blade was mightily annoyed with the whole situation. Sure, traipsing over half of Asia to exterminate a vempyre was all well and good in the old days, but he had settled down now, and rather wished that useless Sheila creature had just had the decency to die back in Japan along with those nuns. But hey, sometimes you had to live with petty inconveniences in pursuit of greater goals. Blade could understand that. However, that fiasco of a party was REALLY uncalled for. Tom Tarou was a completely great guy, aside from that little incident where he had gone mildly psychotic trying to kill Ranma - and that was excusable, all things considered - but that obnoxious little sister of his was in definite need of a good ass-kicking. Of course, Blade could almost pity any idiot who suggested it, given how obviously protective Tarou was of her. And then, he was finally getting back to Nerima, after dropping off the gang of clods that accompanied them, looking forward to some nice peace and quiet...and Ukyou, of all people, said they had to turn around and look for Stackpole. Blade wasn't particularly fond of Stackpole to begin with...he and Ukyou were supposedly just old friends, but having seen the two of them during the whole matter at the nunnery, he more than suspected the other man's feelings of running a little deeper than that. He wasn't paranoid or jealous about Ukyou's affections, but there was a point at which old flames got annoying, and that point was crossed when Blade had to go flying around the backwoods of China looking for some twerp who ought to have been easily capable of taking care of himself. Especially when he found said twerp schmoozing up to Rarion. Oh yes, Rarion. The same Rarion who was now standing up, snarling something hostile in that tiresomely incoherent vocabulary Blade remembered all too well. "Don't get your pantaloons in a knot, mental-boy, I'm not here to usurp your distinguished position as seifu's housekeeper. We re just going to grab this guy you're stuffing here, then you can go back to meditating on the significance of dust bunnies or whatever it is you do." As expected, this caused Rarion to shut up, as his eyes bulged out and his brain went into overload trying to think of something sufficiently insulting to say in return. Striding past him, Blade prepared to give Stackpole a helping hand up, by way of gentle reminder that it was time to leave...and if that proved too subtle, well, he had always had good results with throwing people through windows. At that point, however, he felt a presence behind him, and a half- amused, half-disgusted voice commented, "Why don't you take it easy for awhile? We re not in any big hurry, you know." Blade grimaced, checking a sigh. Ukyou was quite possibly the most wonderful person in all existence, but her priorities left a lot to be desired at times. "I suppose we can wait until he finishes his dinner," he muttered ungraciously, tossing himself down in a nearby chair. Glancing over, he saw that Rarion had finally decided on a response; as he opened his mouth to speak, Blade cut in, "Yo, Rarion. Speaking of dinner, that slop smells edible. Grab a bowl of it for me, would you? How about you, Ukyou?" Looking bemused, she shook her head. "Alright. Well, just one for me then. C mon, hurry it up!" Rarion made a strangled sound, but without a word he turned, and a bowl flew out of the cupboard, was filled with stew, and joined a spoon, plate of mentally-buttered bread and glass of milk, before all of them hurtled towards Blade at a velocity that was just tad too fast to be quite considered courteous. He caught them all without so much as blinking, set them on the table, and immediately began spooning stew into his mouth. "S'not too bad," he commented between mouthfuls. "Could use a bit more simmering time, though." "I shall take thine comments under due advisement," Rarion replied stiffly, still facing away. "You do that," Blade smirked, taking a bite of bread. "Nice to see you're still showing due respect to Ginseng's foremost student, by the way." He twitched, but it was not as big a twitch as last time Blade had seen him. Guess time did heal all wounds, or at least make them sting a bit less. The samurai turned around, a decidedly artifical-looking smile on his face, which told Blade what was coming next more clearly than if he had had his own telepathic abilities. "Speaking of which, as you seem to be in no great rush to leave..." Another blatant lie, and Rarion's idea of a clever riposte, no doubt. "...then mayhaps we couldst take a go at each other upon the morrow to prove once and for all, yeah, yeah, yeah, I know," Blade finished with a grimace. "Should've figured there was no way I could have gotten out of this without you challenging me again. Fine. On the morrow it is. Ucchan, you should eat something after all." She was looking between them. "What's this?" Stackpole, too, was watching intently, though he had not commented. As Rarion hesitated, Blade snorted, shoving the empty bowl aside. "What samurai-boy there is trying to think of a way to avoid telling you is that I'm Ginseng's first disciple, by right of decisive defeat of my fellow students. Not that it was Ginseng s idea, of course, but he didn't mind, so that's the pecking order." "Of course," broke in Rarion cooly, "your preeminence is but a temporary aberration." "Yeah, maybe Kei could take me with those funky new powers of his. But unless you ve picked up something more useful than bending spoons for fun and profit, you don't have a prayer." "We shall see." Turning, Rarion gazed upon the two others. "I shall offer thee lodgings until this matter between Blade and I is settled. Of a misfortune, however, there is only two empty rooms, so thou shalt have to decide which of ye shall share." Blade exchanged a glance with Stackpole. "She goes with me," he instantly said, in a tone that left no room for argument. Not that this dissuaded Stackpole. "Don't you think it would make more sense for us to stay together, and she can have her own room?" Blade sighed. Dealing with this cretin had only gotten more annoying once they had actually found him. "I have to fight tomorrow, and while he's not much of a threat, I do like to be in top shape for such things. I don't actually despise you, but I'm fairly sure that if we spend too much time in each other's company, we'll end up trying to beat each other's brains out, which aside from the obvious annoyances, would probably also wake up everybody else. Besides, my bedroom has quite a bit of space, so there shouldn't be any problems." "If you two don't mind me asking a question here myself," Ukyou interrupted sarcastically, "why are there only two extra bedrooms? I mean, obviously Ginseng designed this place, so if it's anything like his apartment..." It was actually Rarion who replied, seeming to be in a much better mood now that he was assured of fighting Blade. "Indeed, thou art correct in that mine master didst provide much space within this outwardly unimposing ediface. However, inasmuch as the question of bedrooms..." he shrugged, looking faintly sheepish, "Whilst we did petition him for extra rooms when the amount of students exceeded that of the current room space - to say nothing of our occasional guests - the great seifu's attention is perhaps not the easiest of things to hold, particularly when one wishes him to accomplish a magical matter. On the other hand, I hath always found the aquarium thus produced to be an enjoyable sight." "I can imagine," she sighed. "Well, isn't there any empty storerooms...no, wait, if Ginseng's been storing things there, I probably don't want to spend a night there. Oh well." She smiled apologetically at Stackpole. "Let's not have any more fights than necessary, alright? Blade's a lot of things, I ll grant, but he's always been a perfect gentleman." After a slight pause, she amended, "Well...at least in this sort of thing." "Milady," said Rarion, inclining his head slightly, "I shall abide by thine decision...puzzling as it might be. As Blade, of course, knows the route to be followed, I shall bid thee goodnight and convey young Stackpole to his room." Stackpole blinked. "A little early to be going to bed, isn't it?" "Mayhaps, and ye three can do what thou wilst. I myself shall be seeking my evening meditation, and thence retiring early so as to be properly refreshed for tomorrow's battle. Yet, as thou art mine invited guest, it is mine duty to show thee to thine own accomodations." "Umm...Rarion? asked Ukyou. He glanced at her. "Is there something more that thou dost require?" She shook her head. "Not really...but do you need the dishes done or anything? We sort of barged in here, and I don't want to be too much trouble..." He actually smiled slightly, but shook his head. "Nay, milady, though it speaks well of you to ask. All in this kitchen was enchanted by the great seifu; it doth keep itself clean, and return itself to proper placement as well." "Of course," Blade drawled, "the 'great seifu' was actually working on some sphere of ultimate disintegration when they got enchanted, but one got used to such things around here." Rarion sniffed. "The scraps upon the plates disintegrate with the utmost efficiacy...even if the spell is used in perhaps a different manner than the master first intended, it is nonetheless effective and impressive." Blade smirked. Same old Rarion. Ukyou was now eyeing the silverware with decided wariness, and abruptly Stackpole stood up. "Right then. Rarion, you said you'd show me where my room is?" He inclined his head. "Assuredly. Forgive the delay. If thou wouldst accompany me?" He swept out of the room, Stackpole following. As he watched them go Blade smirked slightly. Alike as two peas in a pod, if they only knew it. No wonder they get along so well. Draining the last of his milk, he stood up and offered a hand to Ukyou. "Coming?" ******** It took a few moments for Ukyou to recognize the picture. When she first saw it some force drew her in its direction. Or maybe it was just that she felt the need to be away from Blade who was fuming and grumbling as he entered (their) his room. The picture was actually a painting, not done by a master artist's hand but with the simple strokes and flourishes of someone who was very familiar with the subject. The woman in the portrait was beautiful, achingly so. Beautiful in a way that made a cold sliver appear in Ukyou's heart. She was blonde and dressed in a simple white shirt and there was something...profound about the way she was smiling. Tonya. Ukyou wondered if she would ever escape that old ghost. But then, there were so many ghosts in her life, what was one more really? And standing here, before that picture and the unlit candles which flanked it, Ukyou felt very much like she was in the presence of a ghost. No, ghost was the wrong word. She allowed her eyes to roll across the black velvet curtains and the simple chinese wall scrolls that adorned the entire wall. Standing here before this portrait and its flanking decorations, she felt a deep connection to the woman smiling down from there. Ukyou remembered once standing in in the nave of a chapel near her hometown. Standing there in that quiet place, looking up at the stricken bronze statue of the western saviour, Ukyou had felt very much like she did now. Small, lost, alone... "I used to kneel here at night," a voice came from beside her. Ukyou started. For a moment she had felt as if she was by herself in the room. But of course, Blade was here. Blade was going to be here all night... Blade reached out and took hold of the black velvet drapery. His fingers caressed the soft material with a gentleness Ukyou seldom saw. Then they curled into a fist around the curtains and he pulled them sharply. With a rustling sound some hidden device (or maybe some hidden magic, Ukyou thought) caused the entire wall to be closed off behind the black material. "I promised I wouldn't come back to this room until..." He drifted off, but smiled as he did so, reaching down to drape his arm over Ukyou's shoulder. His flesh was warm and his touch tender, but Ukyou didn't feel like falling into it. There was something grasping about the way he gently rolled his fingers around her bicep that made Ukyou feel butterflies of unease in her stomach. "But that's the past. I think...I think it's important we put the past behind us. Don't you, Ukyou?" There was more than a question in his voice. Ukyou looked up at his face, but he wasn't looking back at her. His eyes were fixed on the wall, still locked on the now hidden portrait of the girl who had gone on. But his face was not filled with longing or sorrow. There was a sharp set to his jaw, a thinness to his lips that said he wasn't thinking wistfully. "The past is what makes us who we are," Ukyou said softly, not even really aware she was speaking until the words returned to her own ears. "The past is full of ghosts," Blade replied easily enough. Ukyou almost started as he echoed her thoughts. "Some of which are a bit too real for their own good." Ahh, Ukyou thought. So that was where this was leading. He turned, his short hair tickling across her cheek, eyes unreadable as they met gazes. "What do you think, Ukyou? Do you prefer the ghosts, or the present?" She hesitated. Not because of the question, and the unspoken question beyond it, which she could have answered instantly. Memory flooded back to her. How she had met Stackpole, how he had betrayed her, how he had, in his clumsy away, tried to make it right again and regained her trust. How he had left her. Blade was still staring at her, expectantly, a hint of darkness crossing his face. His grip tightened on her arm, slightly, not enough to hurt but enough to feel his impatience. "I prefer the present, of course," she reassured him, forcing herself to relax into him with a deep sigh. "Even pleasant ghosts are still just ghosts." His face brightened somewhat. "Good." At first he drew away, then apparently changed his mind and spun her into him. Unresisting, she let her head rest on his chest, feeling as much as hearing the fast beat of his heart. Even as she realised that, the heart slowed, returning to a normal rate. She hadn't realised how tense he'd been. Unseen, she smiled a bit. As if she would suddenly throw him over for...well...a ghost from the past. As if she would turn to Stackpole anyway. She liked him, and she didn't hold a grudge, but he had already betrayed her twice over. It was as unlikely as her suddenly turning back to Ranma after all this time. Of course, Blade had been jealous of Ranma, too. But then, she had still loved him when she met Blade...before he had betrayed her as well. And Blade had... Blade pulled back somewhat, studying her. "What's wrong with you? You stiffened up all of a sudden." She sighed, willing herself to relax. "Nothing important." And it wasn't. Stackpole was all right, and tomorrow she and Blade would be home again and able to put this behind them. Just then she felt herself being jerked upward. Before she was even aware of it, Blade has lowered his face to hers. Ukyou could only stare in doe- like shock as he kissed her. Her body stiffened, her hands twisted in claws...but it was short-lived. Ukyou found herself slowly overwhelmed by the sensations. The pressure on her lips. The tingle through her body. The tensing and relaxing of the muscles in her face. The feeling of Blade against her. It was intoxicating. It was enthralling. Oh god, why did it feel so wrong? What was the matter with her? After an endless instant she felt Blade's kiss break away. Her mind was whirling in confusion, her heart racing. Icy chills and warm flashes warred in her body. "Ukyou, what's wrong?" Blade asked slowly. His voice was soft, but thick with emotion. She was too breathless to even think of answering. But the question kept reverberating in her head. It began to double and treble and echo in her skull. Suddenly Ukyou became aware that Blade had backed away from her. His hands rested gently on the flesh of her upper arms. When had he moved away? Why did his grip feel so...so tenuous? "Ukyou, could you look at me?" She responded slowly and found herself caught by his eyes. His eyes burned. It was like she could see all his power, his awesome...his terrifying energy pouring out of him through those eyes. She had seen that energy vaporise metal and blast entire buildings to debris. The intensity of it was overwhelming. "I need you to be honest with me," Blade said in a voice that hovered on the verge of cracking. "I've never asked you for anything before. I've never pushed for anything before, Ukyou. I've let you set the pace..." He paused and Ukyou saw his eyes drift over to the hidden shrine. She winced, but only slightly and not enough for Blade to notice. "But... I feel something..." She was drawn into him again and this time his grip was tight, pressing, almost suffocating. His muscles moved against her skin. His breath was hot and acrid on her cheek. "We have to let go sometime, Ukyou. Don't you see? All I'm asking is for you to let go." "No." Ukyou was startled by her own voice. Had she said that? Blade's eyes remained focused on her. His voice remained soft, insistant. "No? No what? What do you mean, Ukyou? Were you telling the truth? Or does the past have more of a hold on you than you thought?" "No, that's not it..." What was it, then? He echoed her again. "What is it, then?" "I..." she searched for the words, still feeling his breath upon her, his body pressed against her, "I...don't think we should. Not now. Not for this reason." He was perfectly still. "And what reason is that?" "Well...you know, because of Sta...because of things happening..." He stared at for a moment more and she stumbled over her words and into silence. Then he straightened. His hands fell away from her, and he turned away. It was the most passive, the most submissive gesture she had ever seen him perform. It tore her heart from her body and left a great gaping void in its place. "Blade..." she cast about for what to say, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it that way. I didn't mean that you..." "No," he cut her off. His tone was even, a little sad. "You did, but that doesn't matter. You're right. It is that, but there's more. It's more than that." Again he was staring. Staring at that velvet. Staring at that damn picture. Ukyou felt a pain grip her throat, welling up from within. "It's more," he repeated. "I told you. Things need to be left behind us. If they're not, we can't move forward." She understood now, she understood the feeling but she was still afraid, and she didn't know why. "Blade, I see what you're saying, and you're right...but I don't know if now is right for me." That caused him to turn back. Now his expression was...not exactly cold, but distant, as if he were detaching himself from the situation. She felt the ache in her throat again. "It's right for me." She felt the fear, but the lump, the pain in her throat arose, swallowing all else. She couldn't face it anymore. "Al...alright. You're right, we should move on. Move forward." He smiled, and the pain disappeared with the beating of her heart. She stepped forward and fell into his arms. His hands drifted downwards, his head resting atop hers. "You're right. We should." And so she gave herself to him. ******** Stackpole allowed his hand to fall to his side. His fist slowly uncurled. A vague sense of guilt welled up in him, guilt and anger. Damn, why did he have to hear that? Stackpole turned away from the door. His feet seemed especially heavy as they clunked metallically down the hall back to his assigned room. He knew he wasn't going to get much sleep tonight. ******** The sun was just creating over the near-by mountains when Stackpole found Blade. The tall martial artist was stripped to the waist, and the morning light glinted off his body and the metal of his bracers and combat spatula. Blade was tearing through his kata, his lips pulled back in a snarl. Stackpole frowned as he saw Blade not so much practicing the martial forms of Ukyou's style as attacking them. As if the force of his will and rage could somehow subdue the elements of the art and bend it to his needs. Stackpole looked around and found a tree to rest his back against while he allowed Blade his warm-up workout. The young man was about to engage in a duel that Stackpole himself found slightly silly, but he appeared to be taking it seriously. Still, Stackpole couldn't help but find himself wishing that this "Rarion" character would smash Blade's face in a little bit. Frankly, Stackpole felt a bit like doing that himself. But he hadn't come here to fight, he had come here to talk. So Stackpole watched and waited. "What do you want?" Blade said levelly as he drew to a close. "You knew I was here?" "Obviously." Blade turned around, and Stackpole saw that the fevered intensity of his workout had not left the man's eyes. But there was another thing on his face, a grim and dark smile of satisfaction. The smile blew away the last faint lingering doubts about what Stackpole had heard last night. Stackpole pushed himself away from the tree and tossed Blade a towel. In the morning chill, the sweat on the martial artist's skin was not drying quickly. "Come on, let's go for a walk before your fight." He turned and started striding away. "Don't respect other people's privacy, huh?" "About that..." Blade stopped in mid-stride and fell behind his companion. Stackpole could feel the chi master's eyes burning on the back of his skull. But still it was easier to say this without looking at Blade's face, at least for now. "You know, there's two activities I don't like observing other people doing." "You... you were..." Blade sounded surprised, indignant and amused all at the same time. "I didn't -watch- anything. I just heard a bit..." Stackpole paused a moment to let Blade catch up, a half-grin spread on his face. "One of those things I don't like observing is eating. Unless the person is really good at it, it's not appealing. Much rather do it myself. What about you?" "I don't really see how that matters right now." "Know what the other thing is, Blade? It's not far off. I guess both are only appealing if done by a, well, appealing individual." Blade scowled. "And I'm not appealing to you, is that it?" Stackpole shrugged. "It's a bit different when it gets personal." "Personal? How is it -personal- for you?" Blade whirled around, to find Stackpole standing a few paces back, a slightly blank expression in his eyes. After a moment, he sighed. "I don't remember everything. Swiss cheese memory; I know it happened for a good reason, but I don't know why." He blinked a few times and walked past Blade, who frowned at the change of behavior. "I realized recently how much I don't remember, and over the past day or so, I've been trying to pattern out what's missing from my memory, chronologically, anyway. Strangely, up until about four years ago, I've got a pretty consistent streak going, only a few holes missing. More recently than that, however, and there's rather big gaps. Until I can't remember anything for almost six months before I showed up in Nerima. You know what happened four years ago, right? Did Uki say anything?" "She has mentioned you on occasion," Blade replied, only to notice that Stackpole had continued on without waiting for an answer. "Question for me: what I'm missing there. Is it important? I think so, there's something nagging there that worries me, something that might be dangerous. You ever feel like that, Blade?" For a moment, Blade stayed silent, expecting Stackpole to continue on again, then he realized the historian had fallen silent, waiting. "Not particularly. I can deal with dangers as they come up." Stackpole snapped his fingers. "Overt threats you can do that. In this situation, I don't see how I could: if there is any danger, I don't have any logical basis for understanding what it is or where it might come from. Essentially, I've been robbed of my most powerful weapon: knowing the history behind what happened. I think that subconsciously, that's why I was feeling that dread; not because there was a threat - there may be - but because I had no way of dealing with it. So, also subconsciously, I latched onto something I could work with. Coincidentally, it happened to be my last rather intact memory: those few weeks four years ago when I first came to Nerima." "And met Ukyou." "I should have been, should be, happy for her. She's happy, in a good situation, apparently loves somebody who loves her, but I wasn't happy. Back in the nunnery, I realized how much -she- had changed, and I didn't like it. More recently, I questioned whether she had her own will in this." Blade narrowed his eyes and placed a hand on Stackpole's shoulder, pulling him around. "Are you implying something?" Stackpole glanced down at Blade's hand and smiled, shrugging it off while backing away a step. "Doesn't sound very logical, does it? Perhaps not, but it's -still- a worry for me. Not really the point, however. I was feeling jealous. Jealous that my most intact memory had been changed beyond my control. Simply put, the person I knew...know, even, better than anyone else, at least as my memory would allow, isn't the person I knew, and I...I don't like that." "That's all very interesting, I suppose, but I don't care. What's it have to do with you invading our privacy?" "I thought...I thought that I loved her. I wonder if I do, but I don't know myself enough to say for sure. So I wonder what I should do, now." "Is that a threat?" "No. She's chosen you, I lost that battle when I left four years ago. If I'd been around, maybe things would have been different. I hope she's got the best man for her." "I am the..." "Don't be melodramatic about it, Blade. I'm not insulting you, I'm trusting -her- judgement in this; as far as I'm concerned, you don't matter, unless of course you hurt her." Blade's hands tightened into fists. "Now you ARE threatening me." Stackpole barked a short laugh. "I'm promising you. Consider me your conscience in this matter. Uki's my friend, and I care about her deeply. There's very little I wouldn't do for her, or at least won't attempt to do. And unlike four years ago, I'm not really worried about getting the snot beaten out of me, by you, or Saotome, or anyone." "You're that faithful in your abilities? Not very smart of you." Stackpole shrugged. "Could be. I'm not going to worry about it. I don't know if I could beat you, Blade, I'm not eager to find out. What matters is that she," he pointed behind them, ...is happy, understand?" Blade shrugged. "Stay away from her." "You can't stop me. If you mean for me to not be a rival, I'm not actively seeking her affections. There's no reason to, she's had enough romantic stress over the past six years to last many lifetimes. But if she, ah, changes her mind, as unlikely as it is, I'm not going to fight it. And I'm not going to insulate her from my presence just because it worries you." "You don't like me," Blade said. "Not much, no," Stackpole nodded. "I don't like you." "I figured as much. Be thankful I've got my priorities on right." "Wrong. Be thankful I don't consider you a threat. Be thankful Ukyou likes you. Above all, be thankful that you're really beneath my notice, especially now when I have other things on my mind." He smiled. "Whatever you say, Blade." ******** Rarion floated above the field. Far to the east, the sun had crested the horizon, light becoming stronger and more golden as it raced across China. Below him, the grasses strained upwards, searching to catch the first rays of life-giving radiance. This was was his favourite position for meditation...between heaven and earth, touched by neither. However, at the moment, Ginseng's disciple was not meditating, merely reflecting. This moment had been several years in the waiting, and yet had nearly been missed. Had the wanderer, Stackpole, not strayed close enough to this area to draw his attentions, Blade and his paramour would also never have come. Chance or fate? It mattered little. Once, when he had been but a child, a magical mishap had destroyed much of the contents of one of Ginseng's stockrooms, and by coincidence it had been his duty that day to clean up the selfsame storeroom. As he cleared away the remains of a book charred beyond recognizability, the a single page had fallen out. Miraculously, one portion of the page had been untouched by the fires, the words upon it clear and readable. "Fortune favours the prepared." Chance or fate? Accident or design? It hadn't mattered which. He had found the credo to set his life to. At the time, he felt certain this was a deliberate act by the old wizard to cause him to rethink his circumstances and life path, which had caused the young boy to look at his caretaker in an entirely new light. Whether his suspicion had been correct or not, he would know further enlightenment by carefully studying the words and actions of his chosen master. Though seemingly random, they would, like koans, reveal a deeper meaning to the diligent student. Blade didn't agree, of course, and had frequently poked fun at him for so carefully examining the possible meaning behind the master's words. Blade enjoyed the home and food given to him, and mined the master's stores and tomes of knowledge when it suited him, but felt little if anything could be learned from the "clouded" mind of the sage himself. Which was why Rarion knew he would, he must, win the fight upcoming. Not for honour or pride or prestige, though all of those were important to him. Not for revenge, though the sting of losing to his hated rival had burned within him for these past several years. But his desire, to become Ginseng's favoured disciple, was motivated truly by the fact that he was, of the two, the -only- disciple. For one such as Blade to call himself such was improper, an offence to the master, and would not be tolerated any longer. "Hey, Sir Mindbender, you going to hover up there all day or are we going to fight?" Rarion snapped his eyes open and looked down into the field below. Blade had arrived and was striding towards him. The last vestiges of the sweat from his morning workout were being wiped from his brow by a rough towel. Near the forest, that Stackpole fellow and Blade's paramour were both watching. Blade had that strange enormous spatula in his hands now and was carrying it as if he knew how to use it. Rarion forced himself to admit that Blade had probably picked up a few new tricks. Still, since his style now seemed to be drawing elements from that young woman's, it only gave Rarion even more motive to defeat him. Blade had abandoned Ginseng's teaching entirely, it seemed. "Thou always wert an impatient one, Blade," Rarion said in his most magnanimous tone. There was no need for overt hostility; Blade deserved a bit of a reprieve before Rarion showed him who the true disciple here was. Uncurling from his yoga position, he allowed his psionic grip to loosen just enough for him to settle softly to the earth. The grass here was wet with morning dew. "Listen, I've already spent the night here waiting for this stupid duel, I want to get home." Blade smirked and turned aside partially so he could wave his hand flippantly in Rarion's direction. "The sooner we start this the sooner I can prove I'm just all around better than you, and then Ukyou and I can get back to Japan where we belong." "As always, your flippancy and irreverance is an insult to the sobriety and respect which an occasion such as this demands," Rarion couldn't keep a growl out of his voice entirely. Damnnation, Blade had a way of getting under his skin, disturbing his concentration. Not this time...no, this time the battle would take place on Rarion's terms. "I fear thou shalt have to wait a tad longer, for we must fight anon. This field we stand in is perhaps too close to our master's dwelling and I fear the battle shall become quite energetic. I should not wish to reduce my home to splinters in the same manner I shall soon do to your bones." "Geez, don't you ever stop talking?" Blade mock-moaned. "Fine, let's go somewhere and make sure we don't break the dishes." He smirked, making a little bow. "Lead the way, oh ye of the overinflated brain." Rarion repressed the urge to growl and instead led Blade to the battleground he had selected. In truth, the place was not far away, but stepping into it was like stepping into a whole new world. Grass and trees ended abruptly and the ground turned into black ash. It was here that Ginseng had performed his most dangerous experiments and the ground still showed the signs of his harsh treatment. In time, his students had come to claim this half-kilometer wide wasteland as a personal training ground. Huge rents had been ripped into the landscape by the awesome forces the various students here had deployed when they felt no need to hold back. Rarion led the two of them to the center of the wasteland before turning to face Blade. He noted that the two others had followed them to this blighted black crater. Good. They would make fine witnesses for his ultimate triumph. "I thought this was where we'd end up," Blade noted as he limbered himself up a little. Rarion didn't bother to stretch his body, but already was working his mind across the landscape. It was intoxicating, the feeling of sensing the locations of everything around him. He could touch the patterns made by the energy in every shape within the battlezone. But, of course, this was once again interrupted by Blade "Hey look, there's the crater I made the last time I beat your scrawny hide into the ground. Do I get bonus points if I plant you there again?" "Thou wilt find me a far more worthy adversary today, Blade," Rarion replied, casually laying his hand to rest on the sheathed sword at his side. Slowly Rarion relaxed into the ancient sword-drawing stance he had incorporated into his style for these many years. Blade assumed a stance to which Rarion was unfamiliar, presumably one from his new combat style. It would matter little. Before Blade could reply, Rarion sent his mind out to the wasteland around him and PUSHED. It started small, just a puff of dust here and there. Then it grew, expanded. Small clouds merged into long banks. Banks grew into a swirling fog. Soon the air around them was filled with a dark mist, a mist of ash and dust drawn from the very earth around them. For the first time today, Rarion smiled. Blade did not. His eyes narrowed and then he looked at Rarion more closely, clearly wondering what he was up to. Surely the fool would guess wrong. Ah, indeed he did. A small spark of light drifted from Blade's left hand to the ground. This was followed by more from his shoulders and waist and legs. Soon sparks of blue-lightning were leaping from Blade to the ground and back again. Rarion had seen this before. Blade was building up his energy. Let him. Rarion was prepared. ******** Ukyou watched the battle from the sidelines with a worried frown. The swirling dust around Rarion made it hard to see details, but the increasingly bright aura around Blade allowed her to make out the two combatants. Rarion was looking down through his twin bangs of hair to Blade's own eyes, a smirk playing across his features, while the shorter man matched his taller adversary smug for smug. She glanced at Stackpole. "Well?" He just shrugged. "They've been staring like that now for about ten minutes. I guess they're waiting for someone to say 'go'." Ukyou shrugged in return. "Fair enough. GO!" ******** Blade blinked. Rarion screamed and let him have it. Suddenly the black-clad man was hurtling across the ground. His aura shot off wildly in all directions as he flew. With a crash he came to a rest against an upturned rock. Rarion would later give Blade credit, he recovered admirably. Blade kicked back to his feet and thurst his hand forward. "BUKIDOKEN!" Blue lightning converged in Blade's palm and leapt forward in a ball. Rarion had seen that attack hundreds of times. With a sneer he easily blocked it with one of his rocks. Naturally, it shattered into pieces from the impact, but that was of no import... It was intuition that saved him. He leaned back seconds before Blade descended with his polearm-like weapon. The wide - and VERY sharp looking from up close - edge passed within a hair's-breadth of Rarion's nose. Rarion seized himself with his power and flung himself backward away from his rival. Blade was taking a moment to recover his weapon from the small crevice his strike had created. That gave Rarion time to recover. It appeared Blade had indeed adapted his fighting style. No matter. With a flick of his wrist Rarion sent another stone hurtling into Blade from behind. The martial artist yelled in pain and spun. The air behind him was, of course, empty. Sneering, Rarion began to unload in rapid succession. Blade's body jerked and flailed as he found himself assaulted from all angles. A stream of blood flew from his lips after one deliciously satisfying strike. Still, Blade was not one to be kept off-balance for long. With a roar he leapt into the air. "I don't know where you got all the rocks... but you won't have them for long! KON TATSU HIKARI HA ADVANCED!" Rarion quickly raised his arms before him and drew the dust into a shield. He could barely see Blade through the cloak of his protection, but he could make out the blue flashes of his technique. The blades bit into the surrounding crater with reckless abandon, blasting more and more of it to dust. The fool! Eventually Blade had to land and now he was breathing deeply. Rarion yelled again and thrust his palm towards Blade, but his opponent wasn't there as the rock flew through the air behind him. A glowing disk of light had formed before the advancing martial artist and he created a spinning contrail in the dust as he approached. Rarion reacted instinctively, hurtling himself upward with the force of his mind. Soon he was shooting out of the top of his self-created dust cloud, streamers of black ash trailing in his wake. Something flashed by his side. His hand snapped to his hakama and he felt the new hole burned there. If that had been a centimeter closer... Hovering, Rarion looked down into the black cloud. Blade was down there. Rarion couldn't see him, but he could sense the man's presence with eyes that were not eyes. Rarion pointed his palm straight down and again seized control of the dust and ash. He smirked as he pictured Blade's bewildered face as yet more rocks appeared from seemingly nowhere to pummel his body. It had always been how Blade could defeat him in the past. No matter how large an object Rarion had thrown in his direction, Blade could always see it coming quickly enough to react and use his superior energy attacks to shatter it. No more. Now Rarion had merely to compress the swirling dust into bludgeons moments before the strike, too close to Blade for him to do anything but take the hit. Except it wasn't working. Rarion frowned. The air around Blade was completely devoid of dust and ash. How could that be... unless... With a cry, Rarion hurled himself to the side just in time. The surface of his self-made cloud first bubbled, then burst in all directions as a tremendous light was birthed from it. A pillar of blue-silver light erupted from the earth into the heavens. The telekinetic instinctively threw his arms before his eyes, but still the heat from the blast barely a meter away seared his flesh and the light left him temporarily blinded. Rarion didn't even realize he was falling until he hit the ground. The earth refused to yield and he let out a sharp gasp as he struck. Where was Blade? Damn. Moving quickly Rarion propelled himself to his feet and settled into his iaido stance. He could feel Blade approaching. And then he could see the man. It was like he was standing in a pocket of air amid the ash. No...Rarion could see the dust striking some unseen barrier. "I see thou hast figured out my strategy," Rarion hissed. "Yeah," Blade knuckled away a stream of blood from the edge of his lips. He looked down at the smear on his hand almost reproachfully before turning his attention back to Rarion. "Neat trick. Of course, I've now figured out how to stop it." "Indeed, but canst thou keep that up?" Rarion allowed a smile to form on his face. "Surely such a large barrier must be draining for you." "A little," Blade smirked back. "But its just DUST, Rarion. The amount of energy it takes me to do this is less than it takes to light a candle. And I can light a LOT of candles." "Perhaps..." Rarion struck in mid-word. A stone formed at the very edge of Blade's shield and shot toward him. But Blade was prepared, as he instantly spun and unleashed a blast behind him that vaporised the offendng mineral. "It appears a change of strategy is in order." "Do your worst!" Blade growled as he charged forward. Rarion smirked again. Well, he had asked for it. Rarion shot back from the man as the Thunder Fist blasted the ground in front of him to fine powder. Superb, simply more fuel for his attack. It was time for one of Rarion's trump cards. Rarion didn't bother to yell as he raised his arms skyward. The earth groaned, but held. With a small snarl on his lips Rarion sent his mind deeper, drawing on his reserves. This time the earth shook. Blade lost his footing for a moment as he tried to close on his rival and was sent skidding in the wrong direction. Good, that would give Rarion more than enough time. The earth's groan became a shriek, and then the ground split in a dozen places. Huge stone slabs, like giant fingers slowly pushed their way to the surface. The ground around them crumbled and shattered and yet more dust was drawn into the maelstrom that surrounded the two fighters. Blade climbed to his feet and looked with suspicion at the stone monoliths that Rarion had dredged from the bowels of the earth. Now they floated above the ground, a wall between him and his foe. "I can cut through this with ease, Rarion!" Blade barked as he began to charge up for another titanic ki blast. Rarion wasn't about to give him time. With a dramatic spread of his arms, he let his mind spread and gather all of it, all the dust in the air at once. The strain was incredible. So many things, all at once. But discipline like this was something else he had learned from Ginseng. Piecing together order from chaos. That was the key. Order from chaos! It took only a second for the maelstorm to disappear. Great eddies swept huge volumes of dust into spiralling vortexes of black ash and debris. Then those vortexes solidified into boulders, huge stones nearly the size of a house. Dozens and dozens of stones. Stones that surrounded Blade from all angles. "Surely you can destroy one stone, Blade! But can you destroy them all?" Rarion found himself laughing as he brought his arms together with a resounding clap. And so the stones too converged on Blade, far too many for him to possibly attack all at once, especially since all his energy was focused into a single shot. With a cry Blade let the energy slip from his finger and that was the last Rarion saw of him before the boulders blocked him from sight. ******** Blade leaped from the cloud of debris, powerful legs carrying him up, and up...a momentary foothold on one of the boulders and then away again at a different angle, always moving, faster than the untrained eye could follow. Success - and survival - rested with this movement, in not giving Rarion a chance to reorient on his position. And so he moved upwards, relying on instinct and luck, until suddenly he was above the boulders, hundreds of feet from the ground, looking down at his opponent. He had taken Rarion off-guard by not attacking directly, but even as he watched, Rarion raised his head, eyes searching for him. In a moment, he would again fix upon his opponent's position, again be able to send his deadly missiles hurtling up to crush him. That was fine with Blade...a moment was all he needed. His arms stretched out, his face rising to the sky, his voice echoing from the mountains below. "CHOU RAI JITSU!" He felt the ki ripple through his blood like fire, more potent than the strongest spirits, sweeter than the purest nectar. Emotionally-based blasts were all very well, in their way, but they were just tools. Nothing compared to this surge, this feeling of power welling from within, reaching out to touch the world and bend it to your will. Blade commanded, and the heavens responded, forked tongues of lightning lancing down at the hovering Rarion. Unable to fully escape, the telekinetic darted back and forth, nimbly avoiding the bolts. Exactly as Blade had predicted. With a cry of triumph, he ripped his battle spatula from its holster, hurling it downward like a lance. As it flew towards Rarion, a final bolt of lightning struck, crackling down the hilt of the weapon and towards the telekinetic. Rarion had dodged the lightning and had an arm up to deflect the impromptu missile, but even his formidable reflexes were unable to shift defences quickly enough to cope with this, and the electrical discharge sent him hurtling backwards, robes smouldering. Below, the boulders started to fall as their master's control was disrupted. Instantly Blade was upon him, diving like a bird of prey. He swung his fists over his head, doubling them even as they began to glow blue and the effusive rush of the ki flowed through him once more. "KON TATSU RAIKEN!" he cried, and the surge shuddered into his hands, causing them to glow with power as he brought all his energy to bear in a single massive strike. Rarion hurtled downward like a comet, striking the ground far below with enough force to shatter it, sending chunks of earth and rock spraying upwards like a geyser. High above, Blade was hurtled backwards by the strike, dazed by the aftereffects of the massive expenditure of ki, of his life's energy. Dimly he realised he was falling, from such a height that even fully conscious he wouldn't escape from injury...but there was nothing he could do. He could not fly, in this form. With a small sigh, he began to close his eyes, willing to slip into oblivion, to not feel the force of the impact. He had already won, after all, and there was no real need to struggle any longer. (...knowing the world will be reshaped at my command...) Blade's eyes snapped open. He twisted upright in the air, ennui fading from his mind, feeling the ki ripple forth once more, scarcely realizing what he was doing...and then he heard it. Above, around, beneath...a thousand whispering voices, a thousand tiny zephyrs. Reaching out with his ki, he seized them, overwhelming their resistance, binding them with his power and his will. And, as he forged the thousand quarrelling spirits into one, his fall slowed...and stopped. He hung in the air, supported by the air, feeling as light as air, and the remnants of his fatigue of a moment before vanished completely in a surge of exultation. Always before, in experiments with the elements, he had attempted to use them as he used lightning; by scientific principles, thinking in terms of electrons and atomic bonds, of potential energy and momentum. But with matter, even air, this took millions of tiny tasks and calculations in coordination, and thus even the smallest task took incredible concentration and disproportionate amounts of energy. But that was not only a nearly useless method of doing things, it was also unnecessary. Blade barely resisted an urge to laugh as he let the winds carry him higher. He should have paid closer attention to U-chan. It was not merely living things which had spirits...all things, from pebbles to breezes to sparks to water droplets, all were a part of Gaea's essence, yet had a voice and a distinct, if dim, awareness of their own. And with a comparatively minuscule expenditure of concentration and energy, he could force thousands of those squabbling spirits into one unified whole. And that whole would serve him, responding instinctively to the dictates of his will. He could call, and the very elements would obey. Blade smiled. ******** Ukyou stumbled to a halt, her eyes wide. As she had seen the climax of the fight, she had started forward, knowing she would be far too late to save Blade from the impact. Running anyway, straining to reach the torn battlefield in order to do what she could to help him...both of them, actually. But now... Stackpole pulled to a halt beside her, looking to see what had startled her. He raised an eyebrow at the spectacle of Blade rising slowly through the air, arms outstretched as if to help keep his balance. "Since when does Blade fly?" "He...he can't," she replied after a moment, slightly shaken. "At least, not in that form..." Despite himself, Stackpole was studying the floating figure, eyes narrowed as he attempted to plumb the secret of his unexpected power. "It's strange..." he said, after a moment. She looked over at him. "What is? Besides the obvious, that is?" "I don't think he's using his ki to fly." "How can you tell?" "I can't exactly..." Stackpole pointed towards Blade "But look at the ground beneath him...small eddies of dust, and they're sticking around his body: that's showing off air resistance. I don't think if he was doing a ki effect, say, by countering gravity, there'd be those reactions." Ukyou shrugged, and then grinned with a trace of her usual cheerfulness. "I expect he'll brag about it later, so we'll find out then." Turning, she started walking forward again. "Anyway, one of them still needs help, so we'd better..." "I wouldn't be so sure about that," Stackpole interrupted, voice terse. She glanced back at him, startled, for a second, before following his gaze back to the valley far below, to the large crater where Rarion had fallen. The earth around it was buckling. "No way," she breathed in disbelief. "No WAY he's still conscious." Stackpole continued to stare at the shuddering crater, from which large cracks were spiderwebbing across the surrounding earth. "It appears," he said finally, "that Ginseng's disciples are just full of surprises today." Blade, too, had noticed the activities of his as-yet-unseen rival and risen further in the air, watching the crater carefully. Ukyou took a step back, and opened her mouth, but whatever she had been about to say was cut off as the ground heaved once more, and then exploded, huge chunks of earth and rock flying into the air. And rising from the shattered earth was a dragon. But this was no ordinary dragon, if such a thing could be said to exist. Its long, sinuous form was black...but as it moved, cracks and fissures formed in the 'skin', and from those cracks a red, sooty glow could be discerned. As Stackpole and Ukyou stared in shock, a wave of intense heat rolled over them, forcing them back several steps. With the heat had come a rank scent, like rotten eggs. As he realised what it was he looked upon, Stackpole's eyes widened. "Holy shit." Ukyou shook her head. Surprises indeed... ******** The dragon erupted from the earth, the sheer immensity of it taking Blade by surprise. But only for a moment. As one huge, burning talon slashed towards him, he pushed his hands out, forming his ki into a shield which the monstrous claw crashed into harmlessly. Before it had time to adjust its strike, Blade let the winds carry him backwards, out of reach. The monster opened its mouth as if to roar, but the only sound that emerged from the glowing red maw was a low, hissing rumble. Then the great simulacrum, spreading its wings, flew in surprisingly swift pursuit. A grin tugged at the corners of Blade's lips. Rarion had no doubt planned this gambit just in case this trump card became necessary, ripped from a magma pocket miles below the earth. A pretty little creation, to be sure, and certainly grandiose enough. He'd obviously been practising, to control the movements of such a huge construction so fluidly. Very impressive...and very pointless. As it lashed at him again, Blade almost negligently lifted a finger, focusing on the lava and rock that made up the claw...and it exploded, bits flying in every direction, too erratically for Rarion to easily regain control of. Throwing back his head, Blade began to laugh, but it came out as a hacking cough. Doubling over, he frantically flew backwards, still coughing. As he gained some distance, the air cooled somewhat, and he breathed deep gulps of it in gratefully, cleansing his lungs of the burning, sulphur-tainted air. Slowly straightening, he grimaced at the still-huge magma dragon. This was perhaps not going to be so easy after all...even if Rarion could not directly hit him with the monstrosity, too much close exposure would defeat him just as surely. The telekinetic, no doubt secreted somewhere within his creation, could hold a "hard" bubble of air to allow him comfortable breathing, but such a feat was beyond the power of the wind spirits Blade could control. Nearly half a kilometre away, the dragon began flying towards him again. Rarion had apparently been startled about Blade's new abilities, but his puzzlement was obviously past. With a growl, he fired a ki bolt at the chest of the thing, but it passed through harmlessly. Wherever Rarion was, he had plenty of room to manouvre, and Blade didn't have enough ki left to blitz the area just on the off chance of hitting his enemy. The dragon opened its mouth in that nearly silent roar once more, only this time Blade had the distinct impression it was laughing at him. He nearly hurled another bolt into the gaping maw in frustration...but then a memory struck him, a memory of another fierce rival and of the many fights they'd had. And of a certain technique... Twisting, he dove for the nearest mountaintop, conscious of the magma dragon in hot pursuit. Closer he drew to the rocky peak, closer, closer...and then as he sailed past, inches from the ground, a huge arc of rock erupted from the top, forming into a natural barrier. Rarion, expecting his opponent to try to swoop away at the last moment in an attempt to make him crash against the mountaintop, had slowed the dragon and simultaneously had it lash out with a descending hammer blow. Precisely as Blade had hoped. As the dragon's great claw dashed itself harmlessly against the rocky shield, Blade reversed directions, pouring every ounce of speed he could from the winds as he knifed upwards and past the dragon before it could react. Almost instantly Rarion recovered and sent the simulacrum in pursuit but Blade had a significant head start, and before it had fully reoriented itself, he was nearly two thousand feet above the monster. Noting that the air was beginning to thin, he swooped to a halt, turning to face his foe, arms up. Who was rapidly approaching, jaws gaping, straight up after him. "SHOHOHA STORM!" His arms lashed out...and pulled back and lashed out again...and again...and again...until they were so fast as to be a blur, and literally hundreds of ki blasts were flying out from him on a collision course with the dragon, twisting to come in at innumerable angles. Rarion had seen the weak ki blasts before - Blade had known them before he had even met Rarion - and knew they shouldn't be able to hurt him, but the surprises given him in the fight had made him cautious, and the dragon slowed to the point that Rarion could dodge any hidden powerful attacks. When none so much as penetrated the magma dragon's rocky hide, it gave another hissing shriek and climbed upward again at full speed. Blade had not been idle. With an almost physical effort, he had sent his mind out, wrenching the thin, scattered air spirits around and drawing them to him, packing them tightly, more tightly, until between his outstretched hands there was a seething mass of them, shrieking in anger and trying to wriggle free. As the dragon once again began its climb, he focused his will upon the zephyrs, moulding them into a cohesive whole, then causing them to rotate, faster, faster... The simulacrum drew near, and its massive jaws spread wide; Rarion hoping to catch his suddenly motionless opponent. Once inside that inferno of heat and foul vapours, Blade could destroy the dragon, but not before fallingvictim to it, or at the least being too dazed and groggy to resist Rarion's counterstrike. The jaws gaped around him, flicking tongue and blackened teeth of magma completing the illusion. Blade took one last look at the monstrosity. Yes, it really was very good. He d have to compliment Rarion on his ingenuity...after the psychic recovered, of course. Then, just as the jaws began to close upon him, he almost negligently flicked the handball-sized vortex of compressed air in his hands forward. As it entered the monstrous gullet, he hesitated for one final moment, then suddenly grinned viciously and removed all constraints from it. A deafening boom, a roar like a thousand train engines, and Blade gratefully inhaled a gulp of fresh air, stabilizing his ascent. He looked down, down, to the cloud of vaporised ash that was all that remained of the simulacrum. The air ball, compressed to almost an almost solid state, forced into a rotational speed sufficient for a tornado, and then released all at once, had done its work well. Blade surveyed his handiwork with smug pride. Hiryuu shoten ha, indeed... And then he dove, pushing the air out of his way so ash and friction would not impede his descent, heading as straight and true as an arrow towards his true target. Rarion was still groggy from the thunderous detonation of his creation, and as he looked up he seemed half-expecting to see the ground there. But as his eyes focused on the black-clad shape hurtling towards him like a comet, his hand dropped immediately to his side...and the hilt of his katana. A flash of silver and Blade felt a hot line drawn across his chest, but gritted his teeth against the agony and lashed out. Rarion's instinctive reflex may have given him the first strike, but it had also left him open. Blade's fist smashed straight into his face, propelled by all the momentum and force he could put behind it. Rarion reeled back, eyes glazing, and Blade knew a moment of triumph before he noticed that the ground seemed to be rushing up very quickly to meet them, and then all he knew was darkness... ******** Ukyou stared at the scene in consternation. After everything that had happened up until now, she had been almost expecting Blade and Rarion to pull yet another shock out of their respective sleeves and resume pounding the crud out of each other, but it seemed this time they had finally reached their limits. "Great," she groused, glancing at Stackpole. "A draw. Tune in next week for the rematch, assuming the planet even survives it..." He shook his head, looking half amused, half bewildered. "You're assuming it will survive -this- one." She looked back, shaking her head as well as she saw the solitary figure arising upon the edge of the crater. "I don't get it. What makes them keep going?" "Ego," he replied with a shrug. "Both of them will go through hell and back before they'll admit defeat to the other." "Yeah, I guess..." "Still, we'd better head down. Something tells me this can't go on much longer." ******** All things considered, Blade could really have gotten used to NOT having these types of fights anymore. In fact, he mused while working up the energy to open his eyes, he was beginning to see the advantages in pacifism. The first thing which met his bleary gaze was rock. More blasted rock, which meant another crater, which was not really a surprise considering how painful it had been when he had hit the ground. Blade estimated that he and Rarion must have reduced the property values of this stretch of China by about 90%, and that was taking into account that land wasn't terribly expensive in this part of the world to begin with. Turning his head with some difficulty, he espied a flash of silver. Rarion's sword? No...it was, by some trick of fortune, his battle spatula! Scuffed and marked pretty badly by the fall, but still useable, and more importantly, only a few metres away. He started to lever himself up, wincing as the edges of the slash on his chest split slightly. Well, at least the cut was clean. Just a little bit more... A flash of movement out of the corner of his eye, and Blade twisted, claws popping out of his bracers and arcing up automatically...to rest against Rarion's stomach, just as he felt the point of a sword brush against his own throat. He froze. Rarion had more than a few bruises decorating his face, and it didn't look like he'd be able to open his left eye for a week, but the smile on his face showed no hint of discomfort. "Thine claws wouldst do most grevious injury to mine abdomen, mayhaps requiring bed rest of weeks or even a month before I couldst again rise in tolerable fighting condition. However, a continuation of thine stroke would most surely cause mine blade - if thou wouldst excuse the pun - to strike home, and the injury it wouldst do to thee would prove far more permanent and difficult to recover from." He had to pause here to draw a somewhat laboured breath, but his grip on the sword remained steady. "In other words, as thine astute mind hath no doubt grasped already..." and here his good eye flashed with unconcealed pleasure, "I win." ******** It was not quite noon when the four gathered before the cottage to make their goodbyes. Rarion, Ukyou noted, was in good spirits despite the fresh bandages that covered a sizeable chunk of his form, even going so far as to laugh at some small comment passed between him and Stackpole. Blade had declined to be bandaged despite his many wounds, including the large, oozing slash in his chest; as he pointed out, he would need to fly them back to Japan, and thus bandages would quickly become a moot point. She had, however, extracted a promise from him to allow her to tend to him upon their return. Aside from that, Blade too surprisingly seemed to be in a good mood. Indeed, this seemed to be the only thing spoiling Rarion's joviality; he had made several jibes in an effort to provoke Blade, but they had been laughed off. Though it was surprising, Ukyou hoped it was a good sign. Perhaps Blade really was planning to leave things behind here. Turning her attention from Blade, she watched as Stackpole said some final good-bye to Rarion and then approached. He moved slowly, and seemed to skirt around Blade to approach her. Ukyou felt like frowning, but forced herself to smile. It didn't really matter if those two didn't like each other. "Ukyou, can I talk to you a moment?" Stackpole said once he was closer. For the first time Ukyou noticed how serious and concerned his expression seemed to be. Her heart fluttered nervously. But still she made herself smile. Nothing was wrong, nothing she had to worry about here. "Sure." Stackpole turned his head and gave Blade a long look. Blade only looked back with one of his most arrogant smirks on his lips. "Privately," Stackpole amended. Ukyou looked at Blade for a moment. Then back at Stackpole. "Why not just talk here, Stackpole?" she asked softly. "We have no secrets." Stackpole looked at her for a moment and then sighed to himself. "Are you sure you're okay, Ukyou?" he asked in a solicitous tone. "I didn't mean to, but when I went to go talk to you last night-" "Stackpole!" Ukyou stopped him almost in mid-word. "Did you listen in on a private conversation?" "I, Ukyou..." "No," Ukyou pushed her palm in front of his face. "I don't want to hear it." "Ukyou, I don't mean to..." "Will you just DROP IT!" Ukyou snarled. Damn it, she didn't want to get angry here. There was no need to be angry. There was no need to get angry with Stackpole. Ukyou forced herself to smile again. "I'm sorry, Stackpole. But some things are just...private." "I thought you said we have no secrets?" Ukyou found her smile increasingly hard to maintain. Then she felt a comforting arm wrap itself around her. She was not at all surprised when she looked up and saw Blade (claiming) hugging her with one arm. He flashed her a quick smile and then turned his attention to Stackpole. "I believe the lady said she doesn't want to talk about it," Blade informed him in a tone that brooked no argument. Stackpole looked at both of them with an unreadable expression and then stepped back. "Okay, I'll drop it... for now." Blade glowered and looked about to say something else, but then Rarion stepped forward. "It seems you and Blade do not mesh with each other. Well, I can certainly understand that." Blade's glare was instantly turned back to Rarion, which seemed to please him, though he continued looking at Stackpole. "If thou desire it, I could take a small amount of time from my duties here to transport thee back to thine place of residence." Stackpole continued staring at Ukyou, and she met his gaze with a hard one of her own. He had pushed this. Finally he looked away. "Thanks for the offer, Rarion...but I don't think I want to go home just yet. I think...for the time being, I'll stay out here. Get my head back in order." "Indeed," Rarion noted, "the vastness of nature is oftimes good for such a situation. Nonetheless, should you find yourself in need of shelter...or, mayhaps, a good meal...you are e'er invited to return." "Awww, how sweet," Blade drawled, "Rarion's caught little Stack while he's on the rebound." Both of them ignored him, but he turned to Ukyou with a smirk. "Well, dearest, I can't see much reason to stick around here now. Let's get the heck out of here and leave these two lovebirds to their solitude." She stared at Stackpole, but he wouldn't meet her gaze. Well, so be it. He was the one who had been poking in where he didn't belong. She turned away, facing Blade. "Alright. Let's go home. I'll go get some water..." "No need," Blade smirked. He narrowed his eyes for a moment, as in concentration, and then suddenly a jet of water sprayed from the ground nearby, covering him, and then vanishing almost as quickly as it appeared. His hulking cursed form loomed over her as she walked forward, but the huge metallic hand that picked her up was gentle. The two of them lifted away swiftly, heading in the direction of Japan. If something was said to them for a goodbye, Ukyou could not hear it over the engines. For a moment, she considered yelling something herself, but then decided against it. What else was to be said? She didn't look back. Finis. Author's notes: Actually, calling them that is a misnomer. First off, this was not my work alone, but one in which I had help from Damien (obviously), Talen, and a Mysterious Stranger Who Shall Not Be Named. Thanks, Damien, Talen, and Mysterious Stranger! Take a bow! Second, it might occur to some to wonder why the setting of this fic is so long ago. Answer is, 75% of it was WRITTEN long ago. About five years ago, in fact, right after the Weekend at Tarou's thread, right at the beginning of the HHQ thread. Why wasn't it finished and released then? In a nutshell, I ran into some difficulty with some scenes (mostly the Ukyou/Blade bedroom scene), got stalled, and then afterwards steadily lost interest in and eventually quit GRIT. Afterwards, I just wasn't that interested in returning to and finishing the fic. Third, with all of that, why go back and do it now? Well, I hate leaving things unfinished. But aside from that, it's now relevent to things in two ways. First, Blade and Ukyou's relationship had a major development (actually, two major developments, one less obvious than the other) here. Given the current threads going on concern them, it thus made the events here more relevent to current GRIT. The other reason is Rarion. Though he was introduced before I left GRIT, it was very shortly before, and I didn't get to do very much with him. Coupled with the fact his "origin" was never released, we are left in a situation where few even know who he is, and fewer still care. I plan to rectify that by using him in more future storylines as opportunity arises, and thus I felt a good start to properly introducing people to the long-winded telekinetic would be finishing and releasing the fic. Kudos and thanks to anyone who gets this far, I know the readership of GRITfics is, how shall we say, significantly less than the number of GRITers. I've been guilty of that sin myself on occasion. But hey, it's not like reading the actual GRIT -posts- has been taking up ungodly amounts of times in the last few years, huh? ;p As a final word: if anything in this fic offended you...GOOD! Get good and pissed off and get your characters involved in current threads! Post, damn your eyes, post! Only you can save GRIT! Knowing is half the battle! Watch out where 'dem huskies go, don't you eat that yellow snow! And, you know, stuff.