C&A Productions Presents A Work of Ranma 1/2 Fanfiction The Ties That Bind Chapter 5: Ace in the Bokken Written By Chris McNeil Original Concept Provided by Robert Morrison The morning sun fell through the window, bathing Ranma Saotome's face in its dappled light. With a groan, he turned away from the glare and blinked his eyes open. As he strained to focus through the spots blurring his vision, he noticed the empty futon next to him. Panma was gone. Sitting up, he rubbed the back of his head and looked around blearily, but his brother was nowhere to be seen. "That's weird," he mumbled. Panma wasn't much of an early riser. After pulling on his shirt and pants, Ranma stumbled out of the bedroom. On a hunch, he headed down the stairs and towards the practice hall, inhaling with great appreciation as the smell of Kasumi's cooking wafted by him. "Oh man, she's one heck of a cook," he thought, and then wondered if his supposed fiancee Akane was as good. After a moment, he decided against it. A tomboy like that probably thought cooking was too womanly or something. As Ranma stepped into the dojo, his suspicions were confirmed as he spotted Panma near the opposite wall, smashing away at a training dummy with an intense look on his face. Immediately Ranma knew something was wrong, since Panma almost never did training with dummies. "Yo bro," he said cautiously. "Up awfully early, aren't you?" Panma grunted and delivered one last strike to his target before turning to face him. "What about it?" he growled. "SOME of us martial artists think there's more to training than lounging in bed and stuffing our faces." Suspicion confirmed. Panma wasn't the most cheerful of guys, but he didn't normally say "hello" with a tongue-lashing, either. "What's wrong, bro?" Ranma asked. "When you came home from meetin' Kunou last night, you looked like you wanted to kill someone." At the mention of the name 'Kunou', Panma's fists clenched and he turned an interesting shade of purple. Ranma backed away, holding his hands up defensively. "Whoa now, I'm not the enemy here. Something happened at that meeting, right?" Suddenly, Ranma's eyes widened. "He didn't - beat- you, did he?" With an obvious effort, Panma got himself at least partially under control and barked out a short, sharp laugh. "I don't -think- so, dear brother. That clown couldn't beat an egg. No, he's just a..." Panma looked away, and his fists clenched again. "Never mind. It's not important." Ranma opened his mouth to ask another question, but then he heard Kasumi's's pleasant voice call "Breakfast is ready!" and all interest in the subject of whatever had happened vanished. "Well, if you say so bro. Have fun!" And with that, he ran out of the room and towards the kitchen, fast enough that Panma was mildly surprised he didn't leave a dust cloud in his wake. "You're Dad's son, all right," he muttered, shaking his head. Ranma and Genma had had impromptu matches over who would get the most food for as long as Panma could remember. He'd almost expect them to fight to the death over dessert one day, if it weren't for the fact Genma was far too big a coward for that. Panma shrugged, turning back to the dummy. At least Ranma's gluttony had spared him from having to explain what had happened the night before. Even as his thoughts returned to it, Panma gritted his teeth and hit the training target again. If he never saw Kunou again, it would be too soon. That lousy, stupid, sickening, ego-bloated...suddenly he blinked as his hand met no resistance, and looked down to see he'd punched a hole right through the dummy. He shook his head, chastising himself. What kind of self-control was that? No matter what had happened - still the memory made him steam - he needed more discipline. "Well, better go grab some breakfast before Ranma and Dad take everything," he muttered. Kicking the damaged dummy back in the corner, he walked out towards the kitchen. ******** Akane ran through the gate to Furinkan High School, fists coming up to meet the first attackers...and stopped, gaping. After a moment, Ranma casually strolled in behind her, and also blinked in surprise at the scene of carnage before them. What seemed like most of the male population of the school was strewn across the grounds, some in positions that defied conventional wisdom about how joints were supposed to bend, and all of whom appeared to be in extraordinary pain. "What happened here?" Akane gasped. "Panma," Ranma shrugged, and then continued walking forward. Akane stared after him. It was true Panma had left early that morning, saying he had to let off a little steam, but she hadn't exactly expected THIS. Taking a closer look, she recognized most of the boys as her usual attackers, and nearly smiled. It seemed Nabiki's plan had some positive side effects. As she hurried to enter the school, a boy with dark hair scurried out from behind a nearby tree and approached her. At first she thought it was some idiot who had escaped, but then recognized him as a boy who shared some of her classes. "Daisuke, isn't it? What happened?" "Uhh...hi," the boy said in return, looking nervously at her reflexively raised fists, which she quickly lowered. Noticeably relieved, he continued, "Umm...it was that new guy...his brother, isn't it?" he said, indicating Ranma, who was examining some of the fallen forms ahead. Akane suppressed another smile. It HAD been Panma. Things were working out perfectly. "Anyway," Daisuke continued, "we were coming in for class, and those guys were gathering here like they...uhh...usually do, and suddenly that guy..umm..." "Panma," Akane supplied. "Right...that guy, Panma, walked in the front gate and just looked at all of them. And then he said something like 'Haven't you idiots figured out that when a woman says no, she means it?' and then, well..." He spread his hands. Akane felt an uneasy queasiness in her gut at Daisuke's words. She crushed it down, but found she suddenly didn't feel nearly as proud of the success of her sister's plan. "Why are you still here?" she asked quickly. "Well, I was with my friend Hiroshi. We both made a run for it when Panma started pounding those guys, but he didn't quite make it." He indicated another fallen form - which was moaning softly - on the ground nearby. "I'd been trying to help him up, but when you guys showed up I wasn't sure what you'd do, so I hid." He suddenly started as he realised who he was saying this to. "Uhh...that is...what I meant..." "Hey, that Kunou guy's not here!" Ranma exclaimed. Akane turned and walked over to him, glad for an excuse to break off the conversation with Daisuke. "What do you mean he's not here?" Ranma waved his hand vaguely at the front grounds. "He ain't here. At least, I don't see him." Akane looked around. Indeed, if Kunou had been here to fight with Panma, he was nowhere to be seen now. "Weird. He's usually one of the first to arrive." "Ahh, maybe Panma beat him up too bad last night." "Maybe." ******** The day passed fairly quickly, with there only being one oddity, that of the simultaneous absence of the majority of the school's boys. Not, Akane thought, that that was something to be complained about. This tally included Kunou, who Yuka and Sayuri confirmed as having not arrived. They had also witnessed Panma's little demonstration, must to Akane's discomfiture. "Oh Akane, you should have seen it...it was GREAT!" Sayuri gushed at lunch. "He just walks in the gate, folds his arms, says 'When a girl says no, she means it' and..." "I heard," Akane muttered. "What a gentleman!" echoed Yuka enthusiastically. "None of that posturing like Kunou-sempai. And he's good-looking! A little pretty, but I like them that way." She giggled. "Oh, I don't know," Sayuri said thoughtfully. "That other one - you know, I heard they're brothers, is that true Akane? - he's pretty good-looking too. Red is DEFINITELY my colour, and those muscles..." "You couldn't afford to feed him," growled Akane, and stalked off...only to find herself heading straight towards the table where the brothers sat. Unwilling to change her direction suddenly, she continued forward with a mental "baka!", and flushed as she heard giggles from behind. The two seemed about to have a fight...again. Panma, holding Ranma by the collar, was snarling something about his lunch, when suddenly, the two noticed her. "Hi Akane!" Ranma offered cheerfully, apparently unfazed by his brother's displeasure. With a snort, Panma dropped him back in the chair and bent back to his food, growling something vaguely resembling a greeting. Akane's flush deepened, but then she squared her shoulders. No matter who or what Panma was, she realised what she had to do. "Thank you." Panma looked up sharply, and she swallowed and continued, "For what you did this morning. I heard." She gave a stiff, shallow bow. Panma stared for a moment, then sighed, some of the tension easing from him. "Don't mention it. I needed to work off some irritation anyway." One side of his mouth quirked up. "Actually, I doubt they'll bother you again, since I made it rather clear that..." "Hold, foul villain!" Everyone in the cafeteria turned and stared at the door, where Kunou stood. At least, Akane -thought- it was Kunou, as the figure was covered from head to toe in heavy bandages. The bandages raised a bokken, confirming its identity, and continued, "I shall not allow you to continue hounding the fair Akane so!" Akane started to sigh, but then heard a low snarl beside her and looked over in surprise. Panma, all traces of his momentary good humour evaporated, was glaring at Kunou with an expression so dark Akane was surprised it didn't peel the paint from the walls. His lips moved soundlessly for a moment, then with a single motion, he rose to his feet, grabbed his chair and hurled it at the kendoist. Students threw themselves out of the way, but Kunou merely brought up his bokken and, with surprising speed given his condition, smashed the projectile away. The two stared at each other for a moment. "So," said Kunou finally. "I should have known. It is YOU who retains the hold over my true love." "Huh?" blinked Ranma. "His love? Nabiki?" Panma's expression, if anything grew even darker, and his cheeks flushed red. "You...you...you...FREAK!" he growled. "Didn't yesterday teach you -anything-?" "Indeed it did, foul sorcerer." Kunou raised his bokken and pointed it at Panma. "It taught me that, as I suspected, it is you who holds my love's soul hostage. Well know this...until the soul of my blonde-haired one is free, I, Tatewaki Kunou, shall fight you to my last breath!" "Blonde...haired.." repeated Ranma. Suddenly, his eyes widened. "Bro, he doesn't mean..." With a roar of incoherent rage, Panma leaped forward, bouncing off the table and towards Kunou. But before he could land, Ranma was also up and after him, grabbing his brother's arm and jerking him to a halt. "Not here, bro!" he hissed. Panma shifted his burning gaze to Ranma, and for a moment Akane thought he'd attack his sibling, but abruptly he closed his eyes, shuddered and seemed to pull himself at least nominally under control. The eyes opened, colder and harder than steel, and focused on Ranma. "Let me go," he said in a tone that brooked no argument, and Ranma obediently released him and stepped back. Panma turned to Kunou. "So you want your 'blonde-haired girl', do you?" he snarled, his voice clearly audible over the suddenly-quiet room. "Well forget it, samurai-boy. She doesn't want to see you. Get lost and find some other girl to bug." "Fool!" retorted Kunou. "Did you truly think that I, the great Tatewaki Kunou, would be frightened off by so feeble a threat? I challenge you to prove who is more worthy of the blonde-haired one in glorious combat!" "I gave him a chance," muttered Panma to Ranma, who reluctantly nodded. Turning back, he raised his voice once more. "Fine, then! I'll fight you...on Friday, in the baseball field. You'll be healed by then, so you'll have no excuses when you lose!" "Very well," responded the kendoist. "And when I emerge triumphant, you shall release your hold upon the blonde one?" Panma nodded, once, his face hard. Kunou chuckled. "Until Friday then, foul sorcerer." Kunou turned and strode...well, more like waddled...out of the room. Panma turned and leaped back over the table. Noting the absence of his chair, he yanked one out from under a nearby student and threw himself down. Ranma sidled down next to him, looking concerned, but decided prudently not to speak. After a few minutes of brooding, Panma suddenly looked up at Akane, serious, but with his earlier rage having diminished somewhat. "Don't worry, Akane. When I'm through with Kunou, he'll be too scared to come near -any- of us again." Akane nearly flinched. Clearing her throat, she searched for something to say. "Umm...well, just don't underestimate him. Kunou can be really tough when he's fighting for real." Panma snorted and turned away. "Not tough enough. Nothing could make him tough enough right now." ******** Kunou lowered his bokken and stepped back, smiling in satisfaction as the dummy - garbed in a distinctive vest - toppled backwards, punctured in dozens of places. He permitted himself a small laugh. Save for a slight stiffness in his muscles, all trace of his injuries had vanished. His peerless skills were once more in top form, which ascertained his victory upon the morrow. Resting his bokken on his shoulder, he pictured himself standing over the accursed Panma's fallen body. From the crowd leaped the mysterious blonde- haired girl who had captured his heart. "Oh thank you, sempai!" she cried, running towards him, tears of joys spilling down her cheeks. Kunou wanted to run to her as well, but he knew he still had a duty, so he looked sternly to the side. Ranma Saotome cringed back from Kunou's glare, terror evidence on his face. "No!" he begged, falling to his knees. "Spare my life, great swordmaster!" Kunou glanced at him with a haughty sneer. "Release your treacherous hold over the fair Akane Tendo, vile sorcerer." "No!" cried Ranma, this time in rage. "She is mine!" Kunou took a step forward, and Ranma fell back in terror, groveling before him. "Very well, curse you!" Now Akane also broke from the crowd, her smile wide and beautiful. "Oh Kunou-sempai, you saved my soul! You're so strong!" The blonde-haired girl stopped, and her and Akane stared at each other for a long moment. Finally, she spoke, "But now, which of us will you choose?" "Yes," echoed Akane, "which of us is worthy of your magnificence?" Kunou looked between both of them for a moment, but he couldn't choose. The fiery and proud blonde-haired girl...the delicate and graceful Akane...both were so dear to him that he could not bear to pick, knowing the torments he consigned the unlucky loser to. Suddenly, the solution came to him, as if by divine inspiration. Favouring them both with a radiant smile, he spoke without hesitation: "Fair ones, let there be no rancor between us. I would have you both!" "YES!" the squealed as one, and resumed their running, each straining to pull ahead and be the first to reach him. Kunou laughed uproariously and stepped forward, arms outstretched to catch both of his true loves... "OHOHOHOHOHOHOHOHOHOHO!!! Does your training always consist of such amusing antics? Perhaps I should watch more often!" His fantasy - no, prophecy - so rudely interrupted, Kunou turned and scowled at the irritating newcomer. "So, my sister, what brings you here to so uncouthly disturb my meditation?" Kodachi was leaning against the wall, casually twirling one of her gymnastics ribbons. Holding a hand to her mouth, she laughed again in that irritating manner she had. "Is that what you call it, dear brother? Amusing. And whom would this 'blonde-haired girl' you speak of in such rapt tones of adoration be?" "It is none of your concern." "Finally given up on the Tendo girl? Ah, but I think not, as I'm certain I heard her name mumbled as well." Kunou was growing irritated at her chatter. "I said it was none of your concern, woman. Must I repeat myself?" "OHOHOHOHO! If I am not gravely mistaken, my dear brother, you just did that." She smiled, but Kunou refused to rise to his sister's bait. Abruptly, her expression shifted from amusement to curiousity. "And so, who is the young man you intend to duel?" "Spying again? Such a lowly occupation ill-befits a heir to the noble house of Kunou, my sister." She laughed again, setting Kunou's teeth on edge. "Now brother dear, if I took it into my mind to spy, why -ever- would it be on such an uninteresting target as yourself? No, before you ask, it is no sorcery either. Simply the fact that you have been in here practicing for most of this week, added to those injuries you took earlier and your sudden 'new love', the conclusion was fairly simple." Kunou nodded in reluctant acknowledgment. "It is as you say, my sister. Tomorrow I meet with the forces of evil on the field of valour." "And would the forces of evil have a name?" Kunou sighed. Better to answer her questions, though, as then she might depart and leave him to his training. "The cur's name is Panma Saotome, a vile sorcerer who holds my beloved blonde one's heart in thrall. His brother Ranma I also suspect of some evil hold on the fair Akane, but I shall settle with him in due course." Kodachi's lips pursed. "Saotome...I haven't heard of these ones before." "Nay, they are but recent transfers to Furinkan...a condition which will, of course, be rectified once I deal with them." "Of course," purred Kodachi, smiling. "So, a mysterious sorcerer who has you in such apprehension that you train every day, eh?" "I have no apprehension of such a pitiful opponent. I was simply making sure to work out all lingering effects of my regrettable injuries." "And -who- gave you those injuries, I wonder...the pitiful opponent of whom you fear nothing, or the girl who so obviously returns your love?" Kodachi laughed again, but Kunou loftily ignored her. "In either case, I think this match may be interesting. I believe I shall attend." Kunou blinked. "Nay, my sister, I would advise against such a foolhardy course. For with the presence of such vile and dishonourable sorcerers around, you may not be safe. Who knows to what lengths they may sink to gain an advantage over me?" Kodachi smiled wickedly. "I can take care of myself, my dear brother. Besides," she added with yet another laugh, "with you around what need I fear?" "Nothing of course, yet still..." "As I thought. Then I shall be there tomorrow to lend my support to your glorious victory. OHOHOHOHOHOHO!" With that last, nerve-jangling laugh, Kodachi strode out of his training area. Kunou sighed. The life of a samurai was indeed fraught with many trials and hardships. ******** Panma finished the combination with a slashing snapkick. The dummy, now headless and sporting holes in about two dozen vital areas, fell over with about as much sound as he expected the real Kunou to make, which was to say no discernible breathing, much less cries of pain. After staring down at the battered training object for a moment, Panma smiled grimly and shot a savage kick between its legs, sending the hapless dummy flipping into the wall. "Don't you think you're going a bit overboard, bro?" came a voice. Without hesitation, Panma turned and hurled a convenient barbell at his brother. Ranma smoothly flipped out of the way and landed in a defensive position. "Oh, wanna go for three-two-eight-six, huh?" "Forget it," Panma snorted. "You fight me now and I won't be holding back. I don't want to hurt you." "Sure," replied Ranma, starting forward and rolling his eyes. "I've heard it all before..." Panma held up a hand to cut off his brother; when he spoke again, his voice was quiet. "I mean it. It's pathetic, but I lost control a couple of times earlier and a fight is NOT what I need now. Just need to calm myself with katas and practice." As he stepped to the wall and retrieved another dummy - the Tendo's were going to need to buy some more after this week - Ranma sighed and sat down crosslegged. "Aren't you even a bit over that yet? I mean, yeah, sure it sucks that Kunou's such an idiot, but I mean, if you think about it, it's kinda funny..." "Funny? FUNNY!?" Panma whirled, eyes blazing. "You wouldn't think it was so damn 'funny' if it was happening to you, brother! You can't possibly imagine, possibly understand, how...how SICKENING it is to have that...-freak- looking at me, giving me roses, saying..." "Roses, yet?" said Ranma, grinning. "He really has it bad." Growling, Panma hurled another barbell, which Ranma deftly dodged. "Hey, maybe you can get a honeymoon in China and give him a BIG surprise." Panma stared at him for a second, than started laughing despite himself. Ranma laughed too, and silently breathed a sigh of relief...for a moment, he thought Panma was going to go for his throat. His brother just took things too seriously at times, always wanting to have things so, and so, just like he planned. Throw him for a loop, and he tried to beat everything back into shape, and usually got more and more irritated if it didn't work. Ranma preferred a more easy, laid-back approach...if things didn't go as planned, he just tried to see what was good about the current situation and go with the flow. Except for the fiancee thing. Ranma winced. NOTHING could possibly be good about getting engaged to some psycho tomboy. Panma shook his head with a final chuckle. "I don't know why I let you get away with it. If anybody else said that to me, I'd rip their tongue out." "Maybe 'cause I'm your brother?" "Why should that entitle you to special treatment?" "Hey, you've always treated me better than Pop!" "I treat vermin better than father." "That's probably because they smell nicer and eat less." "Huh." Panma grunted and turned back to his dummy. Ranma hid a smile. That was more like the old Panma. Now, maybe that Kunou guy would live through the fight. Not that he'd likely ever thank Ranma for it, but hey, somebody had to keep his little brother from crippling his schoolmates. ******** Nabiki casually walked towards the gymnasium. Although she looked to all the world as if she was merely taking a casual stroll, in reality her sharp eyes flicked back and forth, scanning the area. She smiled. Neither Ranma nor Panma were to be seen. From under a nearby tree, a red-haired girl quickly stood up and made her way over., carrying a long, paper-wrapped bundle. "It arrived," she said in a low voice. "So I see. Nobody noticed it?" The girl shook her head. "No, they were late for school today." Nabiki nodded, smiling again. Probably the sudden rainshower this morning. Even the weather was helping her out. "He's in there?" "Yeah, training against the club. By the sounds of things, tho, he'll probably be done soon." Nabiki took the package from the girl. "Good work. I'll see you later." The girl nodded her head and quickly ran off. Nabiki held the bundle and waited patiently...as her classmate had predicted, it was not long before Kunou walked out of the gymnasium, bokken over his shoulder and a sneer of triumph on his face. From behind him, various groans of pain indicated that the Kendo club had obviously gotten the worst of their training session. "Phase four," she whispered softly, and then moved towards him, holding the package. "Kunou- sempai!" He looked over as he sensed her presence. "Eh? Nabiki Tendo? What wouldst thou wish of me?" "Well, sempai, I heard about the fight this afternoon. Of course you'll win..." Kunou nodded. "Naturally. Ah, so you have come to lend your support. Most commendable. Let no fear intrude itself upon your maiden's heart, for know that the fair Akane shall soon be freed from the vile clutches of Ranma, who shall no doubt cower in fear once Panma has fallen before my might." Nabiki stifled a snicker, barely holding the 'frightened supplicant' facade up. Akane'd soon be free of Ranma's 'vile clutches' all right, but for a very different reason than Kunou suspected. Looking up at him, she forced a small, brave smile onto her face, then immediately looked serious. Time to go to work. "Ah, but I heard of your horrible accident the other day..." ******** "Where IS he!?" growled Panma for approximately the fortieth time. Ranma, sitting down cross-legged nearby, sighed. "Bro, you never gave a - time- to meet. Why would he show up right when you did?" Panma stopped his pacing back and forth for only as long as it took to glare at his brother. "Bah! You'd think he'd be -anxious- to save his precious 'blonde-haired girl'!" Ranma shrugged. "Maybe he chickened out?" Panma snorted, flicking a glance at the stands of the field, which were already beginning to fill with interested students. "After accepting a public challenge like that? I can't imagine his ego would allow it, even if he had enough brains to..." "Yo bro, look sharp. Look like he's here." Panma swung around and stared across the field as Kunou majestically strode through the gate, bokken in hand. Their eyes met, and Panma's features relaxed into a tight, dangerous grin. "At last..." he hissed, cracking his knuckles. "Now, you overstuffed excuse for a martial artist, I'm going to make you regret you ever laid eyes on your 'blond-haired girl'..." ******** Akane sat uncomfortably in the stands, watching Panma pace back and forth with obvious impatience. Suddenly, she started as someone sat next to her without so much as a word of greeting. Turning, she prepared to deliver a blistering diatribe to whatever scumball male had tried to take advantage of her sitting by herself... "So here's where you were. I expected you to be with your friends." Akane blinked in surprise. "Oneesan?" Nabiki glanced at her, amusement evident in her eyes. "Of course. A little edgy, aren't we?" Akane flushed slightly. It was true that now that the fight was very near, she was nervous, but... "Did you do what you were going to do? What WERE you going to do, anyway? I mean, Kunou-sempai may be good, but compared to those two, I don't think..." Nabiki cut her off with a wave of the hand. "Don't worry about it, Akane- chan...I took care of everything." "If you say so..." "I do." Nabiki glanced over at the field. "Ah, and speaking of Kunou- chan, here he comes now." Following her gaze, Akane saw Kunou enter the field. As he walked toward the centre, Ranma flipped a "v"-sign to Panma - which his brother apparently ignored - and walked off. Jumping over the fence, he looked around, spotted the two sisters, and headed over. Akane nearly growled in frustration. "That baka is coming over here!" Without quite looking at her, Nabiki spoke softly. "Just act normal." Akane sighed, swallowing her nervousness, as Ranma reached them and threw himself down in the seat next to Nabiki. "Come to watch, huh?" he said cheerfully. "Don't know why everybody bothered...it's not like this'll take long." "I'm sure your brother is grateful for your confidence in him," Nabiki stated dryly. "Ahh, it don't take confidence. I mean, Kunou's about as much of a match for my bro as...hmm...well, you, Akane! No offence, but you know what I mean, right?" Ranma laughed good-naturedly as Akane seethed. That settled it. As soon as she got home, she was going to ask Dad to do some serious training with her, and then she was going to show this loud-mouthed BOY a thing or... "Excuse me, sir..." Her thoughts of revenge interrupted, Akane looked up to see Ranma staring at a girl she did not recognize. This girl wore a strange uniform and was carrying a small backpack, apparently having just come here from her own school...wherever that was. Her black hair was styled and curled, and a long ponytail fell slightly off to one side. Her dark brown eyes gazed out from beneath long lashes, and she wore a smile that seemed strangely unsettling. "Who are you?" asked Ranma, unknowingly echoing Akane's thoughts. "Would you be, by any chance, Ranma Saotome?" she asked, apparently ignoring the question. Ranma blinked. "Uhh...yeah, I guess..." "Excellent." And without further explanation, the girl sat down next to Ranma. Akane blinked and looked at her sister, but Nabiki was already scrutinizing the girl with hard eyes. She gave a single, small shake of her head. Whomever this girl was, she was not part of Nabiki's plan. Yet she somehow knew Ranma... "My, I believe the match is starting already," exclaimed the girl. "I'm -so- glad I arrived in time." With a sweet, disturbingly false smile at the two girls, the girl turned forward and watched with apparent interest. Confused, Akane turned forward as well, then mentally shrugged and dismissed the girl, at least for the moment. Whoever she was, Nabiki seemed speculative, not angry, so she could not disrupt whatever Nabiki had planned. ******** Panma flexed his fingers in anticipation, the satisfying cracks and pops a miniaturized preview of what was to come. With a smirk, his eyes locked with those of his opponent, but the unsettling power of his gaze failed to achieve any obvious effect on Kunou. No doubt the kendoist's skull was too thick for him to notice. "I have come as requested, Panma Saotome. If you wish to surrender now, I generously grant you the opportunity." "Thanks, but I don't think so," Panma responded, smile widening even farther. He did not bother extending a similar offer to Kunou. After all, there was always the remote chance some brain cells might wake up and he'd accept, and Panma most certainly didn't want to lose this opportunity. Kunou smirked to match his rival, raising his bokken. "Very well. Then have at thee!" He rushed forward, thrusting his weapon. Panma waited until the bokken had all but touched him, than smoothly sidestepped, letting Kunou fly past him. Then he extended a single foot, allowing the overextended kendoist to crash into it and fly face-first into first base. "Why Kunou," he sneered, "it seems you've missed. Care to try again?" Clearly angry, Kunou leaped to his feet and aimed a downward slash at Panma, who calmly moved aside. Kunou reversed the swing into a sweep, but Panma has already backed out of range, and it missed as well. Furious, he launched a blistering series of attacks, all of which his opponent calmly sidestepped and dodged, all the while wearing a mocking smirk. The bokken didn't disturb a single hair. As a last thrust missed, Panma chuckled. "I thought we were here to fight, not dance." Kunou's eyes narrowed, and he feinted another thrust, then slashed downwards. This time, Panma did not even bother to dodge. Instead, he merely shifted his weight and slashed his foot up to strike the descending bokken. Now, the fun would really start... ******** Nabiki watched Panma prepare to snap the bokken with a small smile. Her suspicions had been proved correct...he had not been able to resist the chance to match his brother. And for that foolish competitiveness, he had fallen right into Nabiki's trap. "Phase five," she whispered softly, feeling a surge of exultation. Soon, very soon, she would never have to worry about fiancees again. ******** There was loud crack as Panma's ankle connected with the bokken and a sharp, stabbing bolt of pain shot up his leg. His eyes widened in disbelief, and then he staggered back, almost crying out as a bit of weight fell on the injured leg. It was impossible. Ranma had snapped the weapon with ease. There was no way he could have failed to... Panma's thoughts dissolved into a blur of pain as the bokken caught him in the pit of the stomach, the force of the blow lifting him up and tossing him backward. He rolled as he hit the floor, wary of his ankle, and slid up to stand on one leg, flamingo-style. Almost instantly Kunou was there with a high slash, which he ducked and countered with a punch of his own, but although the strike hit cleanly, his one legged posture didn't allow him enough power to do much damage. The kendoist, with a grunt, reversed and thrust downward with the backswing. However, Panma was already gone, a piston-like pump of his remaining leg driving him up and back. Landing several metres away, he swung up into a tiger stance, balancing on his good leg. Kunou smirked, the pleasure in his grin evoking anger in every fibre of Panma's being. "So, thought to destroy my blade, cur? Fool. You shall find no flaws in -this- weapon." Bringing his bokken into an attack position, his smile widened still further. "Now, I shall put an end to your evil, and rescue my fair blonde-haired one!" Panma scowled, acutely aware of the throbbing pain running up and down his leg. Definitely sprained badly, maybe fractured. Well perhaps this wasn't going to be as much of a cakewalk as he'd expected. He shifted up to look his opponent in the eye, flexing his fingers in anticipation. "Alright, samurai- boy," he growled, "let's settle this." ******** In the stands, Ranma watched his brother with shock. "No way!" he exclaimed. "Panma shoulda broke that, easy! Don't you remember at the school, Akane, when I...hey Akane, you okay?" Akane, pale, swallowed hard before answering. "Uh...sure," she lied. "Just a little...surprised." She flicked a nervous glance over at Nabiki, but her sister ignored her, to all appearances watching the fight with interest. Ranma apparently didn't notice. "No kidding! That sneaky little Kunou jerk musta put something in the bokken...a metal core, or something. I can't believe he'd be that smart." "OHOHOHOHOHOHOHOHOHO!" Everybody - including Nabiki and a fair portion of the audience - looked over at the strange girl sitting beside Ranma. The girl finished cackling and smirked at the martial artist. "Smart? My dear boy, you terribly overestimate my brother. He would no sooner think to strengthen his 'invincible' weaponry than to consider the possibility he might be beaten." "BROTHER!?" "Why yes. Allow me to introduce myself." Looking demure, the girl arose from her seat. "I am the beautiful flower of St. Bacchus's school for girls, rising star of the high school martial arts rhythmic gymnastics world. The one known as Kodachi Kunou, the Black Rose. I have to come to observe my dear brother in his much-anticipated match." She sat down again and resumed watching the battle, a small smile on her lips. Akane stared at her. "Kunou's sister...?" "With a speech like that," Nabiki said in a low, amused tone, "I can believe it." ******** Panma hurled himself backward, sensing more than feeling the bokken whistle by his good leg. Flipping, he landed in ready position, swearing under his breath. Much as he hated to admit it, he was having serious problems in this fight. His useless leg reduced his speed drastically, and without it he was forced to spend so much effort dodging Kunou's deadly swings that he had no chance to launch his own counterattack. The samurai wannabe himself obviously sensed this as well, as instead of pressing the attack he held back a moment, an annoyingly smug grin plastered on his features. "So, Panma Saotome," he sneered, "I see you do not fare well in this battle. Why do you not attack? Surely even such an unworthy opponent as yourself knows that offence is necessary for victory." Panma saw red. Bad enough for him to be humiliated here - and after Ranma's easy victory, yet! - but he would rot in hell before he let this lecherous, posturing little no-talent -slime- taunt him. As Kunou charged forward once more, Panma sprang into action. Instead of awaiting the attack, he lunged into it, and as the startled kendoist hastily swiped to keep him back, Panma saw his chance. Grabbing the descending bokken, he used the leverage to flip himself over it, and allowed his dangling feet to slam into the side of Kunou's head with his momentum. Pain, white-hot and furious, exploded through him, but with a herculean effort he shoved it down and continued the movement, landing in a crouch on his good leg and spinning, cutting out Kunou's feet from under him. As his injured ankle connected once more, the pain nearly made him gag. He cursed his fortune. It was definitely a fracture, and putting any more strain on it in this battle ran the rusk of splintering it completely. He arose, teeth gritted against the lingering agony, and noted Kunou also standing a few feet away. Not even a moment's respite, it seemed. Well, he would have to deal with it, somehow. He steeled himself for the attack to come...there was no question of following up himself at the moment. Kunou, the beginnings of a bruise on his temple clearly showing, scowled. "So, Saotome, it appears there is yet fight left within you." He again raised his bokken; Panma squinted at it, trying to gauge the attack to come. A high stance, as if posed to thrust...but that was ridiculous. The distance was too great; if Panma dodged Kunou would leave himself wide open. To telegraph a suicide strike so was insane even for him... "If you shall not acknowledge your betters," the kendoist shouted, "then you shall fall, by the will of the gods!" And with that he lunged forward, his bokken thrusting...and then it was back, and thrusting again...and again...and again... Panma, mystified, prepared to sidestep the coming attack, but then something unseen slammed into his shoulder, throwing off his movement. He gazed at it in blank disbelief for a moment, before realizing what had struck him. Air. Kunou's attack was furious and fast enough that the very air pressure caused by his strikes was a weapon. He had only a moment to contemplate how deadly the strikes themselves must be if they could produce such powerful pressure before they reached him, and then all was pain and dust and flashing blades... ******** "PANMA!" cried Ranma in horror, leaping to his feet. On the field, the beleaguered Saotome twin had all but disappeared in a blurring mass of Kunou's attacks, the kendoist's battle cry of "DADADADADADADA..." clearly audible. He began to run forward, obviously intent on saving his brother from serious harm. Akane noticed this, just as she noticed she too had leaped to her feet, a cry of horror erupting almost involuntarily from her own lips. With only a momentarily, half-ashamed glance at her sister, she followed her reluctant fiancee down. No matter how much she didn't want him, this wasn't worth it. Panma, out there, could be seriously hurt by Kunou at any second, even...she didn't even what to think of it. And what was worse was the certainty, burning through her mind, that if anything permanent happened, it would be HER fault. If only she hadn't followed Nabiki blindly, if she had found out what she planned...she put the thoughts out of her mind. Right now, she had to try and make up for some of the damage she had helped cause. Behind the two, still sitting on the bench, Kodachi calmly continued to watch. This match had truly been worth attending. The boy - Panma - was a...remarkable warrior. Despite his injury, he had resisted her doltish brother's attacks with an almost astonishing tenacity. She smiled ferally as she saw her brother forced to resort to his most powerful technique. It would be a true shame if the other Saotome and the girl interrupted this little battle before it had run its course... ******** Pain. Panma breathed pain, sensed it, felt it, WAS it. It seemed his body had become overloaded, lost its ability to distinguish any other sensation. All that was still clear was the pain, a thousand burning lines across his body where even the slightest touch of Kunou's bokken had landed. So far he had avoided being struck directly by the attack, but that couldn't last long. Even now, his dodges were more conditioned reflex than conscious thought, and the temptation was great to leave the pain behind, slip silently into the cool darkness... "PANMA!" A...voice? Calling him here? It sounded familiar...his brother. Yes, his brother. He was watching this, wasn't he? He felt a small surge of dark amusement. Ranma was probably horrified to see his defeat. He'd no doubt be rushing down towards him, right this moment, rushing to save him... And as he realised this, Panma suddenly felt rage. Somewhere in the depths of his soul, in the parts hidden even to himself, something awoke at the thought, and Panma felt the surge of anger, of humiliation, snapping him back to awareness. And as he did so, one thought burned in his brain above all others...he would not lay back and let Ranma save him. Not now, not ever. Panma ducked, feeling the thrust whistle over his head that he didn't even see coming, the thrust that should have caught him full in the chest. Without hesitation he took advantage of the opening, his good leg propelling him up, back...before he even realised what he had done, he felt his heel lodge firmly in the chain link fence behind the batter's plate. With a flash of insight, he saw the subconscious reason he had leaped here. And in that realisation, he also saw victory. Panma leaped again, this time forward, but he continued to rise even so, so that the figures below shrank into insignificance, little insects scuttling in all directions. He paid them no mind, his eyes focusing on the one, the only one, that mattered right now... "KUNOU!" he roared, as his momentum stalled and he began to hurtle towards his target, "THIS IS THE END!" As he plummeted, picking up speed, he became acutely aware of his injuries. His ankle was on fire, a particularly deep slice in his side made breathing difficult, a thousand welts and cuts stung in the hissing air, attempting to distract his concentration. He dismissed them from his mind, pouring all his remaining reserves of energy into concentrating on his opponent. He would not allow his body to quit now. In a moment, only a moment, when it wouldn't matter anymore... He could see Kunou clearly now, see the beads of sweat on his brow from the exertion of the attack, see him shade his eyes against the blazing afternoon sky, see those same eyes widen as he saw the figure plummeting towards him, see him whip his bokken up, intending to skewer him upon it like a shish kabob...and as he did so, Panma launched his own punch. And hit the ground, pain exploding through him once more as his battered body protested this treatment. He lay still for what seemed a long moment, energy drained, feeling as though all his skin was throbbing, pulsing in time with his heartbeat. But it wasn't over yet; he couldn't have the luxury of rest yet. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, he pulled his arms underneath him, pushing himself up. He slid the knee of his good leg underneath his body to brace himself, and then paused a moment. Despite the seeming length of his immobility, he realised it had only been a few seconds as he heard the heavy thud of something striking the ground. He didn't look to see if it was Kunou. He didn't have to. As Panma finally rose to his full height, Ranma was there, supporting him, his plain, open face clearly excited. "You did it, bro!" he enthused. "You beat him!" Panma's lips twisted into a smirk. Of course he had beaten Kunou. He opened his mouth to chastise his brother for having doubts, and then noticed with a start that his pain was gone. Only a dull ache seemed to be left to remind him of the many wounds he had felt a moment ago. He looked down to ensure that they were indeed still there, but his gaze oddly seemed to continue, falling down, down, and dragging him with it, until he had fallen completely into the cool, peaceful darkness... ******** "Hmmm," said the doctor, examining Panma's wounds. "He's certainly taken a beating, but he should be alright if he stays off that leg for a little while." Ranma watched him carefully. Dr. Ono Tofu was a young man in about his mid-twenties with an open, friendly face. He dressed simply in a dark gi and had glasses, which only added to the air of boyishness about him. Honestly, he didn't look like much, but Akane swore he was the best doctor around, and the way he looked over Panma seemed professional enough. Tofu glanced over Panma again, and then poked a few spots on his injured leg and abdomen. "That should help reduce the swelling and pain, so he can rest easier." Bustling off to a cabinet, he removed a few bottles and rolls of bandages. "You...what was your name again?" "Ranma." "Well, Ranma, you should help him around for a week or so. He shouldn't put too much strain on that leg, and definitely not doing any martial arts. Can you keep an eye on him?" "Yes, sir." Ranma almost winced at the thought of trying to tell his brother that he couldn't train. Panma was not going to be terribly pleasant to live with for the next little while... ******** Akane nearly jumped out of her seat as Ranma came out of Dr. Tofu's office, but felt a pang of fear as she realised he was alone. "Is he..." Ranma grinned wryly. "Ah, he'll be fine, but the doc wants him to get some rest, so he'll be staying here tonight. No school tomorrow anyway, so he should be fine." Akane sighed in relief. "How's his leg?" This time, Ranma grimaced. "Not great. He'll have to stay off it for about a week, so no martial arts practice." "He won't like that." Both Akane and Ranma looked over in surprise as Nabiki rose from her chair, her expression carefully blank. She shouldered her schoolbag. "But there's nothing to do right now. We'd better go, or we'll miss dinner." "I suppose you're right," Akane replied. Ranma nodded as well, although not perking up nearly as much at the mention of dinner as usual. In fact, he was looking at Nabiki, his expression was nearly as unreadable as hers. "Yeah," he said after a moment, "let's go." ******** Nabiki sat in her room, gazing pensively out the window. She was not sure things could have turned out worse. Panma had won the fight. She -had- planned for that circumstance, but the plans were based on the off chance that he didn't fall for her trap. Of course, he hadn't evaded it; the fool would never let his brother one-up him without some effort to get even. But it had never occurred to her that he might win despite his injury. And that the injuries would be bad enough to prevent him from training for a week, leaving him inside the house...and angry. Both conditions that she would have avoided, given a choice. She mentally deconstructed the plan. The failure was, admittedly, not Kunou's fault...he had given a command performance out there. He was winning for most of the fight, right until Panma's last attack. Kunou's only real problem was with endurance. And a bit of stupidity in taunting Panma rather than finishing him off, but she had been expecting that. Speaking of stupid...she saw Ranma leap into the tree outside, standing on a branch only a foot or two from the window. "You're blocking the view," she said cooly. Ranma shook his head, ignoring her statement "I don't get it. He's not any happier about this than you are, you know. Why'd ya do it?" "I have no idea what you're talking about." "Oh, right." Ranma's snort wasn't exactly scornful, nor was it condescending. Simple disbelief. "You better hope that Panma doesn't ask where Kunou managed to get that bokken. Not that I think he will; he'll just assume that Kunou knew he was screwed without it. But he might." Nabiki's eyes narrowed. He might be more observant than she'd given him credit for. "What's your point?" "Nothin'. Just telling ya, if he found out, he'd be pissed. Really pissed. A lot more pissed than he was at Kunou...well, maybe not. But he'd still break your arms." Nabiki opened her mouth to speak, worked her jaw a couple of times, and managed to croak out, "...my arms?" "Well, your legs, probably. I'm not picky like he is. Just thought you'd want to know." Ranma fell backwards off the branch, turning a complete flip before touching down. Oh, joy. Ranma was obviously a lousy liar...and that meant he wasn't lying; he really thought that Panma would break her legs if he found out. Or her arms. Nabiki felt herself reassessing the risks and rewards of her current plan of action. She had all of three seconds to start this before a knock sounded at her door, and Akane walked in without waiting for a response. "I can't believe you, Nabiki! What were you..." Nabiki motioned for Akane to close the door. "Not so loud, sis." Akane's face was a mixture of surprise and shock, with a good dash of angry thrown in as well. "I don't mind trying to get rid of them, but that doesn't mean I wanted to...to..." "To 'get rid' of them?" "No! I mean yes! He could have been killed out there!" "Now, you're exaggerating things. Kunou-chan couldn't kill anybody." Nabiki hadn't really thought about that aspect of things. Kunou could quite easily kill a student with his bokken, if some yet-intact portion of his sanity gave way, but she couldn't see it happening. It would be as likely as...it would be very unlikely. "Did he know that? Are you going to go back there and finish him off, now? How about Ranma, does he have to die too?" Nabiki's face hardened. "That's not fair. I didn't do anything to Panma." "You mean besides setting him up? Didn't want to get your hands dirty, huh? Well, you can go find another set of tools. I'm out!" Akane huffed, spun, and left the room, slamming the door behind her hard enough to knock a picture off of the wall. Okay, NOW she was sure that things couldn't have turned out worse. It had failed so miserably that even Akane and Ranma managed to agree on something. She'd have to take an entirely new approach to things, it seemed. Nothing overt; they'd be looking for that, and Nabiki didn't relish the thought of spending a few months in traction. A new approach indeed... ******** In another part of Japan, far, far, away, a boy stood on a beach. He was not there to contemplate existence, nor to simply enjoy the beauty of the ocean. He was not even there for training, and he most certainly wasn't there for anything romantic. No, there was only one, glaring, overriding reason this boy was standing upon the beach. He was completely, utterly, and totally lost. With a muttered curse, the boy looked around suspiciously, as if the beach and ocean were just a big trick, an elaborate movie set that would any moment be whisked away to reveal his destination. "This is NOT Tokyo," he said, his rather obvious statement carrying over the crashing waves. He looked down at the map clutched in his hands. "I was sure it'd be here..." he muttered, "I just must've made a wrong turn somewhere. I'll retrace my steps." The boy looked up with steely determination. And then his eyes widened as he saw the gigantic wave falling towards him like a toppling wall. There was no time to run, no chance to dodge. The boy's face drew back in horror...and then anger. "DAMN YOU, RANMA SAOTOME!" he cried, and then the wave crashed down... To Be Continued... Author's notes: Well, that's it. Part five is finally done, and now my baby's diverged enough from the manga that I feel safe to release it. As always, all comments and criticisms are welcome! Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org, SVP. Special thanks to Andy Kent (Avatar) for help with the last Nabiki scene.